Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The One Percent

Self-help books are a major industry. Thousands of volumes offering direction and guidance for people to improve, change and enhance every aspect of their lives generate much income for authors, publishers and bookstores.

Millions search for an easy way to improve their condition. They forget that a person is not wired like a cellular phone, which can be upgraded with the push of a button. Real change requires much hard work. Quick-fix solutions and “three easy steps” rarely lead to lasting transformation.

While contemporary bookstore shelves groan under piles of such works, we are fortunate that the process for change is mapped out for us. Our directives come from the eternal wellsprings of Torah, from the insight of Chazal, who created a system of growth that has worked for centuries.

The weeks of the Sefirah period are marked as an auspicious time for growth, with an opportunity to refocus on our priorities as we march towards Har Sinai, contemplating what defines us as the Am Hashem.

Each evening, we exult anew in the brocha of al Sefiras Ha’omer,” thanking Hashem for granting us the mitzvah of counting the Omer. Rishonim were puzzled by the text of the brocha, for, in fact, we are not counting the Omer at all. We are actually counting the passage of days since the date upon which the Korban Omer was brought during the times of the Bais Hamikdosh.

Though yet as children we were taught that we are counting down from Pesach to Kabbolas Hatorah (see Sefer Hachinuch, mitzvah 306), the fact is that we don’t refer to this period as the countdown to Shavuos. Why not?

It is puzzling, as well, that we refer to the Yom Tov that follows Pesach as Shavuos to mark the fact that we have counted towards it for the past seven weeks. It’s the zenith of a period of weeks, yet the actual period gets its name from the Omer barley offering, why?

The Omer offering exemplifies a lesson in achievement. The korban was brought from barley, which is viewed as a lowly grain, suitable for animal food rather than human consumption. Through proper development, though, barley can merit being offered to Hashem on Pesach. Thus begins the lesson of Sefiras Ha’omer.

Even barley can be elevated through refinement and focus.

The effectiveness of our leaders has always been found in their ability to inspire others and the realistic role models they served to their people. Gedolim were never looked at as museum pieces, marvels to behold, but, rather, as real-life examples of the heights every man can reach through hard work.

We were selected by Hashem to be His “one percent.” He has provided us with the ability to rise above our surroundings and attain greatness despite all that conspires to depress us. Even when we get bogged down, encumbered by physicality and sin, even when we weaken and become disillusioned, we should never view ourselves as terminal failures, for we can climb out of the morass of negativity.

It is a challenge to remain positive and focused when we are surrounded by disappointment, and it is easy to lose sight of our lofty role as a chosen people. It starts to sound like a cliché, chas veshalom.

There are too many prevalent voices eager to make us believe the worst about ourselves and our brothers and sisters who cling to the path of Torah and mitzvos. Without even realizing it, we are affected by the subliminal messages found in much of the media deriding our way of life.

We begin to perceive ourselves as barley instead of wheat, as chaff instead of enriched flour, and we begin acting in a manner unbefitting who we really are. Pesach marks the day we became a people, and we immediately begin counting the Omer to internalize the lessons of the Omer offering and the steps necessary to maintain our lofty status and achieve the ability to receive and accept the Torah.

The message of Kabbolas HaTorah and the Omer is really one: Man can climb to great heights.

One of the striking figures in the mussar world was my grandfather’s rebbi, the sainted Rav Doniel Movoshovitz of Kelm. An imposing man, the tzaddik was a walking example of the heights man can attain. His very being filled his students with a love for Torah, as he inspired them with a deep desire to grow.

After the passing of the Chofetz Chaim, his bereft talmid, Rav Elchonon Wasserman, began his custom of traveling to Kelm for the month of Elul to spend the spiritual period in the proximity of Rav Doniel. In reference to Rav Doniel, Rav Elchonon quoted the posuk in Yeshayah (66:1) which states, “Hashomayim kisi vehaaretz hadom raglai - The entire universe is Hashem’s footstoolve’el zeh abit el oni unechai ruach…, but to this Hashem looks, to a poor and humble person who is zealous regarding His word.

Rav Elchonon applied this to the master of humility, Reb Doniel. He would say that all the grandeur of creation, Hashem’s world, derives its purpose from the actions of a lone humble man.

And Rav Doniel himself, crown of creation, had a similar perspective on all people. A talmid once noticed that the rosh yeshiva looked ill, and he inquired if Rav Doniel was feeling unwell. Rav Doniel admitted that he had not eaten all day and was suffering from a severe headache. The student wondered why his rebbi didn’t take a break from his activities to partake of some food.

Rav Doniel explained that there were people coming to see him all day, “and how does one leave people simply to go and eat?”

The tzaddik of Kelm, stronghold of human development, saw people not as barley, but as the most refined, superior beings. The attitude that saw the splendor of man resulted in them being enabled to reach supreme heights.

The time period dedicated to seeing ourselves as capable to soar, which will lead us to the ultimate goal of each individual member and of our nation as a whole - Kabbolas Hatorah - is also the time when we mourn the 24,000 talmidim of Rabi Akiva who were taken from this world because they didn’t display proper respect for each other.

At the time of year when the splendor of each Jew is being revealed and we work to rise above the pettiness and negativity of the masses, we must go out of our way to show respect for each other.

This is hinted at in the way the posuk instructs us to count on the second day of Pesach, substituting the word Shabbos for Yom Tov, as it states, “Usefartem lochem mimochoras haShabbos. This is because Shabbos is the day that most resembles the world in its perfect form, mei’ein Olam Haba. The Torah is telling us that if we properly take advantage of the opportunity presented by Sefirah, we can rise to that lofty status as we complete the count on Shavuos and appropriately appreciate the Torah. Thus, the posuk completes the commandment of counting for seven weeks by stating, “Ad mimochoras haShabbos hashviis tisperu, count until after the seventh Shabbos,” again to reinforce the concept that properly utilizing the Omer count can lead one to a world of Shabbos, mei’ein Olam Haba.

Just as the poor and unemployed might be jealous of the hardworking and wealthy, blaming them for their failures, so do we, gifted with a rich inheritance, endure the bitterness and blame of the spiritual have-nots. The great sinas am ha’aretz to a talmid chachom that we experience so bitterly in our day is really nothing new. As Torah study increases during the period of ikvesa deMeshicha, so does the antagonism it engenders, as the Gemara foretells at the end of Maseches Kesuvos.

Rav Shmuel Shapira was a legendary Yerushalmi tzaddik who would spend much of the night in the bais medrash, reciting Tikkun Chatzos, being misboded and learning.

In time, neighbors began to convince his wife, Rebbetzin Faiga, that she needed to put her foot down and convince her husband to adopt a more conventional schedule. She went to discuss the matter with her father, Rav Yosef Kadish Krishevsky.

Rav Yosef Kadish was a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim who had ascended to Yerushalayim and became a leading member of the chaburah at Yeshiva Toras Chaim. Aiding his acclimation among the veteran Yerushalmim was a letter written by Rav Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk, urging a warm welcome for the newcomer.

Rav Yosef Kadish sat in his humble apartment and listened to his daughter describe the difficulties she was experiencing. He discerned that the rebbetzin was, in fact, capable of sharing a life with such a holy individual and her concerns stemmed from what people were telling her. He understood that his daughter had allowed others to temper her enthusiasm of having the zechus to be married to a tzaddik.

Tochterel,” he said, “so many generations have been raised on the same story of Chazal used to imbue doros of Yiddishe kinderlach with the ideals of ahavas haTorah. Every Jewish child has grown up with the account of how Hillel Hazokein nearly froze to death on the roof of the bais medrash, so determined was he to hear the shiur of Shmaya and Avtalyon inside. This picture is baked into so many Yiddishe hearts, and legions of talmidei chachomim got their first sense of what Torah means when they heard it.

“Now,” he continued, “it is very likely that if the story were to happen today, in our neighborhood, the neighbors would scoff and criticize. They would shake their heads at Hillel’s lack of concern for his own health and censure him for his complete lack of connection to this world. They would say that he isn’t realistic or practical. But tochterel, they would be wrong. With his action, he showed himself to be connected to reality on a far deeper level than talkative neighbors.”

The father’s wise words found their mark and Rebbetzin Faiga returned home dedicated to helping her husband attain the heights he eventually reached. Rav Shmuel Shapira became a leader of the Breslover kehillah, a rebbi of Rav Yaakov Meir Schechter, and a close neighbor of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who held him in high esteem.

Rav Krishevsky’s response should assist us as well as we look at the scoffers among us. We must not be deterred by the kulturkampf being waged on so many different fronts, in so many different countries. The levels that this has reached in our own land, pitting brother against brother, are doubly painful. Now, as the Holy Land is beset by so many domestic and security problems, a vicious war is being waged against Torah and halacha, with one wall crumbling after the next.

We mustn’t lose the image of Hillel on the rooftop. We have to ensure that we don’t develop an altered sense of reality about what is really practical, necessary and important.

Each day of Sefirah we have the opportunity to rectify a different middah, searching our own souls for areas that need tikkun just as we searched for chometz before Pesach. The journey that began with barley keeps growing ever more refined, culminating in the korban consisting of wheat which was offered in the beis hamikdosh on Shavuos, at the climax of our path to spiritual sophistication.

We count the Omer and then ask Hashem, “Harachamon,” that the “avodas Bais Hamikdosh” be returned. Upon completing the fulfillment of most other mitzvos, we don’t make this request. Tosafos in Maseches Megillah (20b, d”h kol) asks why Sefirah is different. Perhaps we can explain that this is tied to the fact that we pray for our efforts during the Sefirah period to realize their potential and lead us to the final redemption.

We then recite the special tefillahRibono Shel Olam,” asking that by engaging in Sefirah, we should be cleansed from tumah and blemishes caused by the particular middah of the day. Reciting the tefillah forces us to contemplate our actions and seek improvement.

The parshiyos we currently read are filled with mitzvos bein odom lachaveiro, commandants that direct us on how to deal with others - not cheating them, not speaking ill of them, not underpaying them, and not oppressing them. So often, the pesukim conclude with a reminder that “ani Hashem” or “veyoreisa mei’Elokecha.”

The message is that every Jew around us reflects Hashem’s light and essence, and we need to develop the ability to see them as such. Rav Doniel Movoshovitz saw people as being so much more magnificent and important than food. Each of us has the ability to live as Rav Doniel viewed us and to see others that way too.

The current period called Omer, a reference to the barley offering, is the quintessential preparation for Kabbolas Hatorah, for they both embody the same ideal: grasping the gift of Sefirah, counting and climbing until we merit the great day of receiving the gift.

We are the smallest of nations, the “one percent” in many ways, but if we appreciate that fact and embrace it and each other ke’ish echod beleiv echod, as one man, with one heart, united, we will merit preparing the entire world for the coming of Moshiach bekarov.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Cleaning the Home, Cleansing the Soul

Leading up to Pesach, Jews everywhere scramble, utilizing all their energy to thoroughly clean  their possessions, whether chometz could have entered there or not. The drive to wash and vacuum every part of the house and clean every closet is widespread, even in instances where it is not halachically mandated. Where did this minhag originate from? The customs of a nation that instinctively follows the truth is worth studying.

A story is told about the first Bobover Rebbe, who visited the home of a wealthy follower to solicit a donation for his bais medrash. It was prior to Pesach and the rebbe sensed too much calm in the home. Although there were servants and maids everywhere, the home was lacking the feeling that is felt in every Jewish home before Yom Tov.

The wealthy philanthropist explained to the rebbe that he owned a special Pesach house, where he and his family lived only during the eight days of Pesach. “That way, we don’t have to go crazy cleaning the mansion. We sell the chometz in this house and move into a separate mansion and experience Yom Tov there with a minimum of aggravation.”

The rebbe disapproved. “My grandfather, the holy Divrei Chaim of Sanz, would say that the mitzvah is not to have a clean, chometz-free home. The mitzvah is to rid the chometz from your home, as the posuk states, ‘Tashbisu se’or miboteichem.’”

Great tzaddikim cherished the effort engendered by this mitzvah. They saw the sweat, brought on by the toil to destroy chometz, as purifying waters.

The connection between the labor and exertion of bedikas chometz and the enduring struggle against evil is referenced in Chazal, who compare the yeitzer hora to se’or shebe’isah, the layer of chometz in the dough. Chometz represents immorality, and by eradicating it, we undergo a profound spiritual cleansing.

On a night that was a turning point for a nation, a young man faced the turning point of his own life. The well-known story of that leil bedikas chometz in a bochurim’s dirah in Geulah, and how the decisions made that evening gave Klal Yisroel a supremely effective mashpia, is recounted in the introduction to Haggadah Tiferes Shimshon. The Haggadah, which shares the Torah of Rav Shimshon Pincus zt”l and shines a bright light in many homes, opens with Rav Shimshon’s memories of leil bedikas chometz in his Brisker dirah.

Unlike his dirah-mates, who had returned home to America for Yom Tov, Shimshon was in the empty dirah alone for Yom Tov. He painstakingly set out to perform the bedikah in the apartment on his own, working to the point of exhaustion to fulfill the mitzvah.

Then, as Rav Shimshon later related, he finally sat down, well past midnight, drained but content. “Suddenly, I jumped up when I remembered the attic!” he recalled. “There is no one to check the attic!”

The building had a common roof space that was used by various neighbors. The bochur knew that none of the other neighbors would see to the task, and he wondered if perhaps he was potur, since he wasn’t the sole resident.

“But I recalled the explicit words of the Shulchan Aruch that one must check an attic, and I understood that this was the work of the yeitzer hora, who was trying to dissuade me.”

He climbed the rickety ladder to the roof, the question growing stronger with each step: “Why am I obligated if there are many renters here?” He ignored his exhaustion and pushed through, but when he turned on the light, he was shocked.

It appeared that the attic hadn’t been cleaned in years. The walls were covered in dust and grime, making a bedikah impossible. Shimshon headed back down, returning with a pail of water. He got to work, removing the collected grime of several years.

The doubts continued throughout the long night. The yeitzer hora tried to convince the bochur that he was working beyond his capabilities when he wasn’t even obligated. What kind of Seder would he have if he is sick with fatigue? Shimshon persevered. Dawn was painting the sky pink while he still clutched a candle.

Erev Pesach was a busy day, and Shimshon barely had time to catch his breath before the Seder. He fought to keep his eyes open during Kiddush, but, suddenly, he felt a spark within.

“I suddenly experienced a new sweetness in the mitzvos, as if a bright light was shining within me,” he remembered. “I tasted a new flavor in each word of Maggid, and in the matzoh. I felt a closeness to Hashem that I’d never before experienced.”

The intensely elevating feeling remained with him throughout the night and into Chol Hamoed. He kept waiting for it to leave, as suddenly as it had come, but it remained with him through the second part of Yom Tov and never left.

“If I have accomplished anything,” he concluded, “it is in the merit of that mitzvah derabonon that I performed with such sacrifice that night.”

The toil and sweat of bedikas chometz gave us the likes of Rav Shimshon Pincus, but if that great rosh yeshiva and mashpia felt that the story was worth repeating, it wasn’t to celebrate his own accomplishments, but because he felt it is relevant. He wanted his listeners to appreciate the profound spiritual significance of the act and, more importantly, the connection between cleaning a home and cleansing the soul.

Rav Pincus wanted his audience to appreciate the potential of the mitzvah - not an inconvenience, but a tremendous opportunity.

Sadly, Rav Pincus tragically returned that Divine gift he received as a bochur on the same night many years later. He lost his life on the eve of bedikas chometz in a horrific car accident. The message - and point - endure.

We need to approach this season with a profound awareness of the chances we have to become more elevated and more spiritually sensitive individuals.

There is a deeper dimension to the mitzvah of bedikas chometz, according to the Rokeiach, who reveals that every bit of exertion for this mitzvah creates a malach in shomayim. What is so unique about biur chometz that every single component of the cleansing creates a malach?

Perhaps a story related by Rav Shlomo Wolbe can shed light on this.

After arriving in America from the Shanghai refuge during the Holocaust, Rav Leib Bakst, later to become the famed rosh yeshiva in Detroit, encountered a prominent rebbe, who asked Rav Leib about his great rebbi, Rav Yeruchom Levovitz. Rav Leib discussed the mashgiach’s sainted ways and messages, and the rebbe nodded appreciatively. Rav Bakst then shared a shmuess from his rebbi about the depth and potency of evil, which lurks within man, ready to entrap him.

After hearing the shmuess, the rebbe said, “The mashgiach was certainly a tzaddik, but our way is so different than that of the mussar personalities. Why spend so much time engaged with sin, the darker side of man’s behavior, the yeitzer hora? Here there is jealousy, desire and pettiness. Mussar is obsessed with the bad. We prefer to focus on the grandeur and greatness of man, his abilities and potential, rather than studying and probing his negative character traits. Through raising the level of my followers by speaking of Elokus and lofty spiritual matters, automatically the small frailties that afflict humans are overcome and fall away. Why not speak about the royal and divine, rather than stains and blemishes?”

Rav Leib took the rebbe’s words to heart, and when he had the opportunity, he shared them with the revered mashgiach, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein, asking him what he should answer the rebbe.

“Tell him about Sassoon’s house,” the mashgiach curtly replied.

Sassoon was a wealthy Sephardic merchant who had settled in Shanghai, China, where he purchased a beautiful, flat, vacant plot of land upon which to build a house. He erected a magnificent mansion there and moved in, enjoying the spacious layout and impressive décor.

Within a short time, he sensed that something wasn’t right. The structure seemed to be sinking. He called the construction crew, who worked to set the building right, firming up the foundation. Everything seemed okay for a while. Then the house started to sink again and Sassoon called in a team of engineers to investigate.

Their exploration turned up some history. Years earlier, the municipality of Shanghai had transferred all its waste to a central location, which became a dumping ground for the garbage of the locals. In time, the city found another location and decided to sell the large piece of empty land, which was prime real estate. They covered the tract with piles of sand and the attractive parcel was soon snapped up. Sassoon was the buyer.

The unfortunate industrialist was stuck with a beautiful home on inferior ground, and his palatial residence was virtually useless.

Rav Chatzkel was explaining Rav Yeruchom’s mussar with the pithy story. A palace of emunah cannot be erected on a garbage dump. Only when a person successfully purges his heart is he ready to build.

Bedikas chometz and the inherent cleansing is the mussar before we move on to the Seder, when we will set out to build with a newfound clarity in emunah.

Like a newborn infant, who emerges and suddenly begins a dizzying process of development, each week bringing new skills and abilities, our nation was reborn at the time of yetzias Mitzrayim. They came out and were directed on to a path. The geulim would become avdei Hashem, which was the entire purpose of their redemption, and merit “taavdun es ha’Elokim al hahar hazeh,” accepting the Torah on Har Sinai. Their liberation began on Pesach, but it wasn’t complete until Shavuos, when they were given the Torah and became truly free.

A people drowning in the quicksand of tumah were suddenly released, living the fulfillment of a promise that Hashem made to Avrohom Avinu at the bris bein habesorim. Even if they themselves weren’t completely worthy of liberation, their grandfather Avrohom had earned it for them.

The seforim teach us that the koach of the original miracle that led to the establishment of a Yom Tov reappears each year anew at that time. Pesach is celebrated as a zeicher l’Yetzias Mitzrayim, commemorating the nissim of geulah leading up to and including the end of the Mitzri experience. But inherent as well in these days is the ability to experience geulah once again in our time. B’Nissan nigalu ub’Nissan asidin lehigoel.

Chazal formulated the Haggadah to begin with the Jewish people at a low point and progress to the high point of geulah. Maschil b’genus, we begin with the shame of our lowly beginnings, umesayeim b’shvach, and conclude with the triumphant ending of our elevation to the status of princes. This message reinforces our commitment to toil and work to raise ourselves from our present station and catapult ourselves into a new era, one that would make us deserving of redemption from golus through the coming of Moshiach.

In this season, we are given blocks, and it is up to us to assemble them in a formation that will allow us to grow. We begin prior to Pesach ridding our homes of chometz, which is a lesson to us to remove the chometz from our hearts. We look in nooks and crannies, making sure that there is nothing that resembles chometz anywhere, a prompt to rid our hearts and souls of any remembrance of bad middos and chatoim. After all, one cannot build on inferior soil.

Our valiant womenfolk, in whose merit we were redeemed in the first place, work to wash the walls and clean out cabinets, laboring beyond the parameters of halachah to ensure that we will arrive at one of the greatest nights of the year as meritorious as malochim.

On that glorious night, we sit as bnei melochim surrounded by our families, retelling the story of our forefathers and doing all we can to merit the hashpaah, which saved them, to allow us to achieve our own personal geulah. We are so confident that we have reached that level that we are commanded to view ourselves as geulim, as the Haggadah mandates us to view ourselves as if we ourselves just left Mitzrayim.

The lofty levels we achieved through our search for chometz are hinted to in our choice of dress, the sacred kittel, which some compare to the garment of the kohanim in the Bais Hamikdosh. This indicates our belief that we have become as worthy as those servants of Hashem with our own golus avodah of remembering His name that night.

The sparkling white of the garment also hints at the posuk in Koheles which states, “Bechol eis yihiyu vegodecha levonim - Your clothing should be white at all times” (9:8). This is a reminder that having completed the process of searching for impurity in our homes and hearts, we must not become complacent, but rather constantly examine ourselves to be sure that we are indeed clean.

The process continues with the shirah of the second half of Yom Tov and the steady spiritual ascent of Sefiras Ha’omer, culminating in Shavuos.

Rav Yehuda Tzadka, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Porat Yosef, used this concept to explain a Gemara in Maseches Nedorim (49) which tells how Rabi Yehuda bar Ilai suffered headaches as a result of the obligation to drink four kosos on leil Pesach. The Tanna endured painful headaches from Pesach until Shavuos, says the Gemara.

The rosh yeshiva explained the inner dimension of this Gemara as an indication of the inherent connection between the avodah which begins on Pesach and peaks at Shavuos. He pointed out that the first of the four kosos corresponds to the guarantee of Vehotzeisi, Hashem’s assurance that He would remove the Bnei Yisroel from servitude, which took place on Rosh Hashonah, six months before the actual redemption.

The next two kosos, which correspond to Vehitzalti and Vegoalti, took place on the actual night of Yetzias Mitzrayim, when Hashem saved His people from Paroh and redeemed them. Everything had been realized - everything except the fourth kos, the cup that corresponds to the lashon of Velokachti eschem li le’om. Hashem would only take the nation as His own at the time of Mattan Torah, seven weeks after the redemption.

“Do you understand?” Rav Tzadka would say, banging on the table. “The Jew received a check, a promise to receive the Torah, but the check doesn’t come due until seven weeks after Pesach, when he actually receives it.”

Thus, the Tanna felt the effects of the Seder until he saw the realization of the process it had spawned with the giving of the holy Torah. He then experienced a wellspring of healing and light in which to immerse himself.

The Seder doesn’t just begin a process. It itself creates the process. The Sefas Emes says that the ceremony is called “Seder” because it establishes the order for the entire year. It is then that the Jew shines brightly, at his best, and it is that identity that will bring about the hashpa’ah of geulah that comes his way during the year ahead.

Perhaps therein lies the exceptional power of the Seder. Speak to people of any background and you will see that, more often than not, their most cherished childhood memories involve this night. The Seder, which commemorates events seared into the collective soul of our nation, is also the event seared into the individual souls of our people.

Some associate the memories with food, others with songs or décor, but what they are really saying is, “It is when we felt alive, connected, and part of something bigger than ourselves.” The Seder, when properly conducted, is a thrilling experience. Ordinary people sense that there is something flowing through them. They identify the timeless mandate to transmit, from generation to generation, the truth we behold. A long line of fathers stretching back to Mitzrayim looks down at our Sedorim, as another generation is being welcomed and attached to the chain that stretches through the ages.

One year before Pesach, a young man asked Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach if it was permissible to perform bedikas chometz using a flashlight. Responding, Rav Shach asked him how his father conducts the search for chometz. The man answered that his father used the light of a candle.

The aged rosh yeshiva said to him, “If your father does bedikas chometz with a candle, why would you think to do it with a flashlight?”

The young man replied that people say that with a flashlight, one is able to better examine cracks and crevices, as it provides a clearer light.

With a wave of his hand, Rav Shach peered at him quizzically and said, “Do you really think you can see better than your father?”

On this night, we look deep within ourselves and inspect how we compare to the past. Would the fathers to whom we asked the Mah Nishtanah, and the fathers to whom they turned, have nachas from us? Do our Sedorim stand up to the test of so many generations to whom we owe our existence? This, too, is a part of the process; the engagement of generations that is a crucial part of the Seder.

Rav Michel Feinstein, son-in-law of the Brisker Rov, suffered greatly during his life. Someone once asked him from where he derived the strength to withstand so many tribulations. He responded that he knows that his father-in-law is watching from heaven to see how he will react and respond. “I know that my sainted shver is looking at me, watching to see if I will succumb and become dejected or manage to maintain my usual demeanor. The fact that I knew that I was being tested gave me the ability to persevere.”

The Brisker Rov, who endured so much hardship and pain, expected his own children to follow his path. The expectation and faith that fathers have in their children are the cornerstone of our success as a people of mesorah.

Grasp the candle tightly. It represents the search for impurity and illuminates the path to spiritual fulfillment, representing the fusion of Torah and mitzvos. The light of Torah endures. It has remained lit through so many generations, so many lands, and so many travails.

It reveals the path going back to those who came before us, but it also sheds light on the future, reminding us of the great day when Hashem will “search Yerushalayim with candles” (Tzefania 1:12), locating every last Jew from wherever he is, finding every soul who maintains some connection to the realm of kedushah, and marching us home once again, a nation of geulim returning, this time forever. 

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Hearts Opened Wide

One of the most resonant proclamations made at the Seder is the one recited right at the beginning of Maggid, when we say, “Kol dichfin yeisei veyeichol kol ditzrich yeisei veyifsach.” The sweeping declaration made in homes everywhere invites all those who are hungry to join in the Pesach Seder.

By the time we issue this invitation, we are seated comfortably at our tables. Everyone has their seat and the door is firmly shut. Of what use is it to sit in the privacy of our homes and issue a public invitation that we know will go unheard by anyone outside of our immediate vicinity?

It may be that the statement is an oblique reference to the activities of the previous few weeks. The baal haseder lets everyone know that even though he sits at the head of a splendid table, feeling every bit the king, he has not forgotten to share the wealth. As he sets out to relive Geulas Mitzrayim, he affirms that he has participated in the call for ma’os chittim and kimcha depischa, and has done what he can so that those less fortunate than him can also sit comfortably with their families at their Sedorim.

He begins his Seder by reassuring his family that their rejoicing and celebration are complete because they have shared their bounty with others. They have been selfless and caring and can thus begin to tell the tale of redemption.

Around now, our anticipation mounts for the yom tov, when we will celebrate cheirus. On that night, we will not only remember Yetzias Mitzrayim as we do throughout the year, but will celebrate it with song, wine and food, feeling as if we ourselves were redeemed.

We joyously look forward to the Seder’s drama, the family resplendent in their yom tov finery, gathered around the festive table, graced by the ke’arah, the Arba Kosos, and the matzos.

A part of our preparation for the evening is the need to ensure that our kol dichfin declaration will be truthful, with meaning and significance. We wish to make certain that it isn’t lip service, but actual service.

The opening statement of Maggid, the central part of the Seder, does not pertain to Yetzias Mitzrayim, slavery or redemption per se. Rather, it addresses what makes us Jews and our very fiber as a nation, for how can we experience the Seder properly if we did not meet our obligations to others? How can we celebrate nationhood if we cut ourselves off from the needs of other people? 

Therefore, as we set out on the grandest trip of the year, we invite anyone who can benefit from our assistance to join. Only after we are content that we have done what we can for our brothers and sisters can we enjoy the Seder: every man a king, every woman a queen, and every child a shining angel.

Sometimes, we envision needy people as in a children’s storybook illustration, with tattered clothing and gaunt faces. In truth, all too often, the people who need help making yom tov might well have decent suits and respectable jobs. They are people like you, who work hard all week to make ends meet. They just need a bit more at this time of year.

On Shabbos Chol Hamoed, we will read a haftorah that tells how Yechezkel Hanovi brought life to dry bones. By extending ourselves for our friends, neighbors and the community around us, we might well be re-enacting the novi’s miracle, allowing good people to hold their heads high, carrying on with the self-respect and pride denied to them when their cupboards are bare.

We all know that the economic reality in 2014 is that it is a challenge to make ends meet even when both parents work. Daily living expenses are so high that families are increasingly crushed and unable to crawl out from under the mounting piles of unpaid bills. The costs of a mortgage, rent, cars, insurance, tuitions, and electricity, not to mention food, clothing and everything else, are just too much for too many people.

Yom tov should be a time that people happily look forward to, awaiting the brachos associated with the chag hageulah. Alas, too many people lay awake at night worrying about how they will be able to afford everything their family needs. We, who are able to, must do what we can to help restore the faith and self-respect of people who suffer silently and daven for a yeshuah so that they can hold their heads above water.

Yidden are blessed with heightened instincts. One of them is to give generously and intelligently. One year, on Erev Pesach in the town of Slonim, Reb Yosef Charif received a distressed looking woman in his study. The wife of one of the town’s successful businessmen, Reb Nota Hirsch, was seriously distraught. She confided that her husband had suffered severe financial setbacks and lost all his money. She had waited for things to work out, but here they were, on Erev Pesach, with not a coin in the house. She had nothing to cook. They were going to starve this yom tov. She begged the rov for assistance.

The insightful rov was stunned by the revelation of what happened to this proud family. He had nothing to give her. He had already distributed all the moas chittim he had raised and had no money of his own to help the proud family out of their predicament.

He sat there deep in thought and then opened his eyes and spoke, assuring the broken woman that he could help her, provided that she would follow his instructions. “Tell your husband that when he wishes me gut Yom Tov after davening tonight in shul, he should whisper in my ear. Something. Anything. But he should bend over and whisper it to me.”

The woman returned home and tearfully recounted the conversation to her husband. After davening on leil Pesach, a line of Slonimer Jews, enveloped by the joy and spirit of yom tov, surrounded the rov, wishing him a gut yom tov. Then the prominent Reb Nota Hirsch walked up to the rov, leaned over and whispered into his ear. Reb Yosef jumped, as if bitten by a snake. “Oy!” he loudly lamented, shaking his head to and fro. “That’s terrible. It is chometz. Everything is chometz. You can’t use any of it. I’m sorry, Reb Nota, but that is the halacha.”  

The crowd heard the rov’s words and everyone drew the same conclusion. Reb Nota had asked about some accident in his kitchen, and the rov had ruled that everything in the house was forbidden. The people in shul were quick to react. Reb Yankel assured Reb Nota that he had extra matzos and Reb Moshe offered wine. Reb Hershel had plenty of soup and boiled chicken, and Reb Boruch’s wife had made too much kugel. Reb Berel had extra tzimiss. This one had maror to spare, while that one had charoses.

That night, from all directions, the good people of Slonim descended on Reb Nota Hirsch’s home bearing boxes, dishes and trays, eager to help a family deprived of yom tov necessities. People came throughout the evening, as word of the mishap spread. Thanks to the rov’s wisdom, Reb Nota and his family would not go hungry that yom tov.

This is not only a story about the rov’s wisdom. There is a deeper message. The rov was fully confident that his plan would work. He knew that the people of the town would swiftly and generously react and rush to the aid of the stricken family. 

Now is a difficult time of year to ask people for money. Purim, when people opened their hearts and wallets to a stream of mosdos and individuals, is not far behind. Pesach is expensive as well.

The claim that “We just gave” is easy to make. However, the response to that argument was given by the Ribbono Shel Olam Himself many years ago in the midbar.

In Parshas Ki Sisa, Moshe Rabbeinu was instructed to collect a half-shekel from every man for the bedek habayis of the Mishkon. The Medrash states that Moshe had difficulty comprehending the commandment, so Hashem showed him a coin of fire to explain what was needed. Many ask what lesson the Medrash is imparting.

Why did Moshe have to see the coin? Why was it shown in fire? What was so hard to understand about the mandate to solicit a half-shekel from everyone?

Rav Shlomo Heiman explains that the Jews had just generously donated their possessions towards the construction of the Mishkon. Moshe was hesitant to approach them again for a donation. “They just gave,” he protested. “How can I go back to them now and ask for more?”

Hashem showed him a coin of fire to signify that just as fire spreads and lights other materials without losing any of its power, so too, when a Jew donates money for a good cause, he never loses by doing so. “Go back and ask them for the money for the Mishkon,” Hashem said, “and let them know that they will only gain by giving.”

A candle can ignite other candles, yet the original flame will lack nothing. So too, the Ribbono Shel Olam was teaching, a Yid can give and not worry about it affecting him negatively. He can give and then give again.

Giving only enhances our situation.

My dear friend, Mr. Gary Torgow, spoke at a Torah Umesorah conference and shared a moving story about a young man from a low-income family. He went to the local yeshiva, but since his parents were unable to pay tuition, the menahel raised the money necessary to keep the boy in school. When the young man graduated, he moved on, eventually marrying and settling elsewhere.

He went to work and prospered. He gave tzedokah generously, but there was an old debt he wished to repay. He called his former menahel and asked him to identify a boy who, like him decades prior, came from a family unable to pay tuition. This gentleman would cover the boy’s tuition, returning the favor done for him years earlier.

The menahel was thrilled by the gracious offer and informed the donor that he had just the boy, a wonderful child from a respectable chinuch family. The donor said he didn’t want to know the recipient, but wanted his Hebrew name and the name of his mother. He explained that if he would be funding the boy’s education, he wanted to daven for him as well, as he did for his own children. The menahel was moved by the request, and the generous benefactor included the boy in his daily tefillos.

The arrangement continued for years. The beneficiary progressed nicely in school, moving from grade to grade, while his anonymous sponsor davened for his continued success.

Mr. Torgow shared the astonishing conclusion to the story, which he heard from the benefactor. “After so many years of davening for that boy along with my prayers for my children’s success, I felt like he was part of my family,” the man related. And guess what? He now is! A few months ago he married my daughter. Someone redd the shidduch. We had no idea that he was the boy whose tuition I had paid and davened for all these years. Hashem paid us back.”

Like a flame; sharing its fire without losing anything.

We must share our blessings, secure in the knowledge that we will never lose by doing so.

In Ha Lachma Anya, after we invite the poor to join the Seder, we express the hope that next year, we will celebrate as bnei chorin in Eretz Yisroel. What is the connection between these two ideas?

The posuk in Eichah (1:3) states, “Golsah Yehudah mei’oni - The Jewish people were exiled because of poverty.” The Medrash (Eichah 1:28), in one of its explanations, states that the Jews were exiled from Eretz Yisroel because they didn’t help the poor. Therefore, as we begin the Seder, celebrating our original redemption, we proclaim that we will feed the poor and hope that, in that merit, we will be redeemed from the present golus.

Is there a better way to expend the effort to make that a reality than by contributing to assist people in celebrating yom tov? We lain Parshas Shekolim as we head into Purim and Pesach to drive home the message. We engage in kimcha depischa campaigns, to help provide food for those who need assistance feeding their families, because Pesach is the holiday of geulah. At this time of year, when geulah is in the air and the potential for redemption is stronger than ever, we put ourselves out by donating charity for the poor, thus accruing added merits to be in ara d’Yisroel next year.

Chazal say, “B’Nissan nigalu b’Nissan asidin lehigo’eil” (Rosh Hashanah 11a). Nissan is the month of geulah.

This is the month in which Yitzchok was born and the Akeidah took place, almost ending his life. The merit of the Akeidah stands by us until this very day, as we say in the tefillos of Rosh Hashanah, ve’akeidas Yitzchok hayom berachamim tizkor.”

That sanctification of our forefather transpired during the month of Nissan, presaging it as a period of redemption. During Nissan, Yaakov received from Yitzchok the brachos that sustain us until this day.

If we sanctify ourselves and work to make ourselves worthy, we can also earn redemption from that which binds us. A primary mode of preparing ourselves to be worthy of those blessings is through tzedokah, and a prime means of attaining that ultimate geulah is through tzedokah, as the posuk famously says, “Tziyon bemishpot tipodeh veshoveha b’tzedokah.”

Rabi Elozor is quoted in the Gemara in Maseches Sukkah (49b) as stating that one who engages in acts of tzedokah is greater than all the karbonos - “gadol ha’oseh tzedokah mikol hakorbanos.”

We don’t have the Bais Hamikdosh. We don’t have the mekor of kedushah. It is so difficult to draw ourselves closer to Hashem and make ourselves worthy of geulah. Tzedokah remains a way for us to achieve that goal. Tzedokah presents an opportunity to tap into the power of geulah. Rich or poor, we can realize it if our hearts are opened wide enough.

The final door to redemption will be opened through generosity, charity, concern and dedication to helping others.

Perhaps this is the connection between the season of giving that precedes Pesach and the yom tov itself. Before the hashpa’ah of geulah descends from Heaven, we are granted an opportunity to actualize the geulah through increased tzedokah.

On Pesach, we celebrate becoming a nation. Being a nation means that we feel responsible for one another. There are so many worthy organizations that will help ensure that your tzedokah dollars reach the right address. We are doing our best to help and would be grateful if you allowed us to be your partners. You can send your generous checks to our Family Aid Fund at 53 Olympia Lane, Monsey, NY, 10952.

We have also been joining forces with Keren Hachessed for many years, helping provide food and necessities for roshei yeshiva, rabbeim and lomdei Torah, as well as providing extra support and a bit of dignity for so many who work long, hard hours. It’s our zechus, and we invite you to share in it.

Rav Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev was once told about a situation in which the local matzah bakery was employing local orphan girls, working them throughout the long day and into the night under difficult, slave-like conditions. To add insult to injury, the destitute girls were being paid the bare minimum for their impossibly hard work.

The rebbe got up in shul and called out, “Throughout the generations, the gentiles have falsely accused us of using the blood of their children in the matzos. We all know that this is a lie! But something even worse is happening here in our town. The blood in the matzos this year will be that of our own Yiddishe techter!” Needless to say, the situation was quickly rectified.

We must all do what we can to alleviate the suffering of the good people among us who need some extra help at this time of year.

Chazal say that a metzora is choshuv kemeis; although he is alive, he is considered dead. Rav Chaim Shmulevitz famously explains that life means being able to give and benefit others. Since the metzora sits in solitude, he is deprived of the most crucial part of the human experience. He cannot give and is therefore considered dead.

Nissan is the month when we were reborn. The signs of life begin with the ability and willingness to give. Let’s join together by extending our hands, helping to usher in an enjoyable yom tov for all, and bring about the geulah sheleimah bekarov.