Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Fire of Torah

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Yomim Tovim commemorate events that transpired in the past and contributed to the formation of our destiny as a people. On these special days, the Divine energy that generated the original supernatural occurrence flows once again and we are able to attain historic levels if we properly prepare ourselves.

On Shavuos, enter almost any bais medrash anywhere and all through the night you will hear a happy din comprised of voices raised in argument combined with others singing and humming softly to themselves. You will witness people rising above fatigue, and nature itself, standing and shuckeling by a shtender.

The hubbub proclaims a resounding call of “Boruch shenosan Torah le’amo Yisroel.” We are thankful that Hashem chose to give us the Torah. It defines us and our lives, providing life with meaning and joy.

Those sounds sing out the eternal song of the Jewish people, demonstrating for all that we seek to relive the moment at Sinai on this night, and every day of the year. We feel the energy present on this day and attempt to tap into it so that we may be reinforced in the way we live our lives.

Today, surrounded by all sorts of challenges, personally and communally, our dedication to our goal remains as strong as ever. There are problems with chinuch, parnossah, shidduchim, kids-at-risk and abuse, to name a few, but we resolve to deal with them in the spirit of Torah. Yeshivos and the religious community of Eretz Yisroel are beleaguered by an onslaught of hate, but we are not defeated. Instead, we seek to recreate that moment at Sinai, as all generations have done since that day in Sivan thousands of years ago.

My dear friend, the very eloquent Rav Moshe Tuvia Lieff, was instrumental in transforming the community of Minneapolis, Minnesota, into a Torah stronghold, with a first-rate kollel, yeshiva and flourishing kehillah. During his years as rov there, he suggested a new direction for the school and some of the baalei batim balked, feeling his approach was too radical. The rov suggested that they travel together to discuss the innovation with his rosh yeshiva, Rav Shmuel Berenbaum.

Rav Shmuel greeted the group and listened to the question. He removed a Gemara Shabbos from the shelf and read the account (daf 88) describing Maamad Har Sinai and the manner in which Hakadosh Boruch Hu was “kofa aleihem har kegigis.” Hashem held the mountain over the Jewish nation and told them that if they wouldn’t accept the Torah, it would crash down upon them.

Why, Tosafos famously asks, was this necessary? Hadn’t they just said, “Na’aseh venishma”? Tosafos answers that there was a possibility that they would be frightened and regret their quick acceptance when they would see the fire with which the Torah would be given. Therefore, they needed the additional impetus of the threatening mountain.

Why, asked Rav Shmuel, was the fire itself necessary? Why couldn’t Hashem deliver the Torah to the Jewish people without the fire, obviating the need to hold the mountain over the heads of the Jews?

“It’s because Torah un aish, Torah without fire, iz kein Torah nit, is not Torah!” the rosh yeshiva explained. “The fire isn’t merely an added ingredient, but the actual essence of Torah, even in Minneapolis, Minnesota.”

The delegation got the message, returning home even more committed to properly teaching Torah. Anyone who visits that beautiful kehillah knows that they were successful.

The music to your ears that is heard in the bais medrash is the hiss and crackle of that aish, the fire that is Torah. To those who possess refined hearing, it can be perceived throughout the year, but on the night of Shavuos everyone can hear it.

Torah is life itself. That is why we recite a brochah each morning asking Hashem, “Veha’arev na,” to make the Torah sweet for us. We don’t recite that brochah upon observing any other mitzvah. Torah is not a pursuit. We don’t study and follow it because it’s a mitzvah, but rather because it is life itself. As we say each evening, “Ki heim chayeinu ve’orech yomeinu.

A bochur at Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim was involved in a shidduch when some issues cropped up. Generally a diligent and focused masmid, the boy was having trouble concentrating on his learning, as he was preoccupied with the challenges he was facing.

He decided to leave the bais medrash and take a walk outside. As he was making his way through the bustling hallway of the great yeshiva, he passed Rav Elya Boruch Finkel. The perceptive maggid shiur noticed the bochur’s demeanor and pulled him aside. “Moishe,” he said, “is everything okay? You look anxious.”

The young man told Rav Elya Boruch about his quandaries, explaining that the situation was weighing him down and he was unable to concentrate on his learning.

Bist nisht in di sugya?” Rav Elya Boruch asked in alarm. “How terrible! Let’s fix that right now.”

Rav Elya Boruch took the young man by the arm and led him into his office. The maggid shiur locked the door, putting his schedule of shiurim, chaburos, vaadim and chavrusos on hold. He spent the next three hours with the bochur, thoroughly learning the sugya. They didn’t discuss the shidduch or its impact on the talmid. They focused only on Rashi’s p’shat, the questions of Tosafos, the diyuk in the Rashba and a nuance of the Rambam.

Three hours after walking into the room, the bochur felt like a new person. He was newly energized, happy, clear-minded and ready to face the world with a smile. Why? Because the wise rebbi discerned that there is no anguish quite like that of “not being in the sugya.” When in the sugya, one has the vigor to face any challenge, because Torah is life. Without it, man is weak and listless. With it, he is vibrant and recharged.

Ki heim chayeinu.

The Chofetz Chaim once explained this concept with a moshol. The posuk says regarding the Torah, Ki lo dovor reik hu mikem - It is not something empty from you” (Devorim 34:27). The Chofetz Chaim would say that when a bottle of milk is emptied, it still remains a milk bottle. Although the drink that defines it is no longer inside, the vessel is still a milk bottle, albeit an empty one. But a person without Torah, said the Chofetz Chaim, is not only an empty person; he is actually lacking in life itself. Man’s identity is tied to his connection to Torah. Without it, he isn’t merely empty. It is as if he doesn’t exist.

We can thus explain the statement of Chazal, “Resha’im bechayeihem kruyim meisim - The wicked, even when they are physically alive, are referred to as dead.”

We recently celebrated the special day of Lag Ba’omer, commemorating the life and lessons of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai. One of his enduring teachings was his refusal to accept the opinion that “Torah will be forgotten from Yisroel” (Shabbos 138b). Rabi Shimon argued with his colleagues and proclaimed, “Chas veshalom. Torah will never be forgotten.”

To prove his contention, he quoted the posuk which states, “Ki lo sishachach mipi zaro.” Chassidic masters point out that the last letters of those words spell the name Yochai, hinting to his name.

People ask why there is a custom to celebrate the hilulah of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai through lighting fires. Perhaps it is to remind us of this message. On this day of Lag Ba’omer, the plague affecting the talmidim of Rabi Akiva - the shoresh of Torah Shebaal Peh - ceased wreaking havoc, and the transmission of Torah from Har Sinai was able to continue, as it does until this very day. On the day of Lag Ba’omer, the Toras Hasod of Rabi Shimon, talmid of Rabi Akiva, was sealed and delivered. Jews the world over celebrate the events so important to Torah study by remembering that Torah is given and studied through fire, with burning enthusiasm.

We danced and sang, secure in the knowledge that the Torah is as real and vibrant today as when given at Sinai, in fire, with thunder and flashes of light. The miracle is that we still feel it. Even as the flame under the collective Jewish soul gets turned lower and lower and darkness sweeps across the earth, we still sense the fire of Torah.

The Gemara in Maseches Shabbos relates that Moshe Rabbeinu told the malochim that the Torah was more suited to the lower worlds than to the heavens, arguing that they had no parents, no yeitzer hora, and no work-week. The commandments of the Torah clearly don’t apply to them, he said.

In giving us the Torah, Hashem was proclaiming His desire for His holy, precious Torah to rest among the lowest form of life, namely man. Hashem passed over the serofim, the ofanim and the chayos hakodesh, gifting the Torah instead to adam, whom he had created min ha’adomah.

This is the meaning of the shirah that the malochim sang, conceding to Moshe at the time, “Hashem Elokeinu, mah adir Shimcha bechol ha’aretz.” Through giving the Torah to us, Hashem’s Name will be glorious in all the worlds, in the lowest regions and spheres as well. Our Torah speaks to us in all situations, in all places, and at all times.

Rav Yerachmiel Bauer, a prominent Bnei Brak mechanech, noticed Maran Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach toiling to prepare a shiur. He wondered why the rosh yeshiva, who had been delivering shiurim for decades and learned each sugya numerous times, needed to spend so much time preparing. Rav Shach explained that the actual substance of the shiur was not what took so much time. He knew what he wanted to say.

“Most of my time and energy goes into one thing: If I say a shiur that will satisfy the brightest students, then the mediocre and weaker talmidim are being deprived. If I lower it to suit their level, then I am cheating the metzuyonim out of the challenge they deserve. So I work hard, going through the shiur again and again, to make sure that the points are understandable to every talmid and the shiur will still stimulate the bright talmidim as well. The responsibility of the maggid shiur,” concluded the aged rosh yeshiva, “is to everyone, because the Torah belongs to everyone.”

This is what we celebrate on Shavuos. The Torah belongs to everyone. Even if someone has learned less than he would have liked to, even if he feels distant, he should be heartened by the fact that Hakadosh Boruch Hu didn’t choose to give his most precious treasure to angels. He chose lowly man. As we say in the piyut of Asher Eimasecha on Yom Kippur, “Yet You desire praise, from clods of earth, who dwell in a valley, of meager accomplishment, whose works are poor.”

He chose us. Asher bochar bonu. He gave us the Torah, despite our limitations and struggles. For more than 3,300 years, it has been our oxygen, our sustenance and our nourishment. Let us draw it close to our hearts and rejoice, confident in its ability to lift us, stimulate us and make us whole. The Torah speaks to everyone on their level. We should never become disenchanted or depressed, feeling that we have sunk so low that we are not worthy of redemption any longer.

Although we are human, we are special. All of us, not only those who are bright and accomplished, are gifted. We all stood at Har Sinai. We all heard the word of Hashem and received the Torah. There is something there for each one of us. It has the power to enhance our lives and give it meaning, no matter where and who we are. On Shavuos, we celebrate that fact.

Every Yom Tov has its own mitzvos. Pesach has matzah. Sukkos has sukkah and Arba Minim. Why doesn’t Shavuos have any identifying mitzvah? Because we commemorate the day we received the Torah at Har Sinai by living as Jews and fulfilling the mitzvos. We celebrate Shavuos by living a life of Torah and following all its precepts.

The Gemara in Maseches Pesochim (68b) states that half of the Shavuos day is dedicated to the service of Hashem and the other half is for our own physical benefit. Because we are people and not angels. We have physical needs and limitations. We note that the Torah is spiritual and that it governs the physical.

The famous words of Rav Yosef related in Maseches Pesochim (ibid) are often quoted to convey the extraordinary spiritual power of the day. On Shavuos, Rav Yosef would partake of a meal consisting of the finest meat. He explained: “Ih lav hai yoma dekogorim kama Yosef ika beshuka - If not for this day, there would be no difference between me and all the other Joes in the street.”

The greatness of this day is that it celebrates this transformative force of the Torah on all aspects of our lives. If we remain with the same personality we possessed prior to our study, then we are just another Joe. Limud haTorah must transform us, channeling our lives toward a steady upward journey of elevated performance and accomplishments.

It is often repeated that the 600,000 letters which comprise the Torah correspond to the collective tally of the Jews in the midbar. This is to symbolize that there is a letter in the Torah for each Jew and that each Jew has a letter in the Torah. The Torah is the collective embodiment of every individual Jew who adheres to its precepts and commandments. Every Jew can find their place there.

Life is full of nisyonos, tests. There are always confrontational people and ideas seeking for us to deviate from the words we heard at Sinai. There are countless temptations lurking wherever we turn, attempting to cause us to veer from our Divine mission.

Our generation is blessed in many ways. The Olam HaTorah is growing by leaps and bounds. More people than ever have dedicated their lives to Torah study. Mitzvos that once required mesirus nefesh are easily observable, and difficulties in matters of kashrus and shemiras Shabbos are things of the past.

As an am kadosh, we are commanded to behave differently than the “Yosef beshuka.” As recipients and bearers of the Toras Emes and the Toras Chesed, we have to cleave to the values that have helped us endure the dark exile surrounded by the “Yosefs beshuka.”

During the Sefirah period, we climbed the ladder of the 48 ways with which Torah is acquired. We have refined our character and prepared to recreate the acceptance of Torah on the date it was originally given.

Let us strive to strain our ears to hear that song, and for our mouths to sing it and our faculties to play it, so that we can be zocheh to kabbolas haTorah on these great days of 6 and 7 Sivan.

Chag someiach. Ah gutten Yom Tov.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Long Days of Iyar

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

If you have ever driven a far distance in your car with your family, you know the drill. Drive for a few hours and then take a welcome break. You find a nice spot, get out of the car, stretch, eat, and then pile back into the car reinvigorated.

Lag Ba’omer is that roadside stop along the seven-week journey stretching from Pesach to Shavuos. Though it is not the final destination, the special day fortifies us and energizes us, so that we may continue along to our final destination of kabbolas haTorah.

When the Torah was offered to the Jewish people in the desert, they responded, “Na’aseh venishma, we will do and we will hear.”

Upon listening to their response, Hashem wondered who revealed to them the secret that malochim employ. Following their answer, angels placed two crowns upon the head of every Jew, one corresponding to the proclamation of “na’aseh” and the other for their resounding cry of “nishma” (Shabbos 88a).

We might understand why we merited a crown for proclaiming that we would follow Hashem’s commandments when we said “na’aseh,” but what is so great about the response that we would listen, expressed by “nishma,” which doesn’t convey any obligation to accept what we hear?

We often find the words “vayishma” and “tishme’u” in the Torah. For instance, in Parshas Re’eh, Hashem says, “Behold I am setting before you today blessings and curses. Es habrochah asher tishme’u… Vehaklalah im lo sishme’u…” Those who listen will be blessed and those who don’t will be cursed. Obviously, we are required to do more than hear in order to earn the Divine blessing.

In Parshas Yisro, the Torah tells us, “Vayishma Yisro,” that Yisro heard what transpired to the Jewish people at the exodus from Mitzrayim and in the battle with Amaleik. What was so great about the fact that Yisro heard the news? He wasn’t the only one who heard what happened. In fact, the entire world heard about it.

There is another place where the Torah uses the word “vayishma” to connote that a person heard something that should have also been heard by others. Describing the chet ha’Eigel, the posuk (Shemos 32:17) states, “Vayomer Moshe kol anos anochi shomeia.” Moshe Rabbeinu told Yehoshua that he heard terrible sounds when he descended from Har Sinai with the Luchos in his hands. The Meshech Chochmah (ibid.) cites the Gemara (Taanis 21a) which relates that Rabi Yochanon and Ilfa were together, and “Rabi Yochanon shoma, Ilfa lo shoma.” Rabi Yochanon heard something that Ilfa didn’t hear. Rabi Yochanon told him that it was incumbent upon him to act, since he was the one who heard it.

The Meshech Chochmah explains that Moshe Rabbeinu was telling Yehoshua that since we are here together and only I hear the awful sounds, apparently it is incumbent upon me to take action.

In this context, vayishma doesn’t just mean to hear. The word shoma indicates something deeper. To be shomei’a is not only to hear, but to act upon what one has heard.

Many people heard about Krias Yam Suf and milchemes Amaleik, yet only one person took the news to heart and decided to do something about what he had heard. Yisro picked himself up and went to visit the Jewish people in their desert encampment. He thus earned the eternal reward of having a parsha in the Torah named for him.

In Parshas Re’eh, Hashem promises the Jews that those among them who take His words to heart and act upon them will earn brochah. The people who ignore the words of Hashem will be cursed. Everyone heard what Hashem said. Some observe the mitzvos and others choose to ignore them.

Na’aseh venishma omru k’echod. As one, each one of the Bnei Yisroel responded in unison, “Na’aseh venishma,” that they would make every effort to hear what Hashem tells them with the intention of acting upon those words according to Hashem’s wishes. It wouldn’t be a cursory listening. They wouldn’t make believe they didn’t hear what He said. They would listen with an ear to follow and act. Hence the greatness of na’aseh venishma.

We can reinforce this interpretation with the Zohar quoted by the Bais Halevi in Parshas Mishpotim that with the statement of “nishma,” they were accepting upon themselves to study the Torah. We can explain that they were promising to hear and study Hashem’s words so that they may properly follow them.

Rabi Shimon ben Elozor teaches (Megillah 31b) that Ezra Hasofer instituted for the klalos of Parshas Bechukosai to always be read before Shavuos and those of Parshas Ki Savo to be lained before Rosh Hashanah.  The Gemara explains that Shavuos is considered a Rosh Hashanah, because on that day we are judged on “peiros ha’illan,” the fruits of the trees.

The Gemara in Rosh Hashanah (16a) takes this concept a step further, stating that the korban of the shtei halechem is brought on Shavuos so that the peiros ha’illan will merit being blessed.

Many seforim, based upon the Shelah Hakadosh (Shavuos 30b), discuss the idea that just as the world is judged on Rosh Hashanah because it marks the completion of creation, so are the Jewish people judged on Shavuos, because on that day the Torah was delivered to them. Shavuos is when Hashem reviews whether we have properly studied and followed the Torah He gave us.

Chazal use the expression peiros ha’illan, fruits of the trees, to refer to the success of our spiritual efforts. Our lives are based upon Torah and our observance of it, and thus the judgment on Shavuos is quite important to us.

How, then, did Lag Ba’omer prepare us for the final leg of our journey to the exalted day of Shavuos?

The Ramchal points out that the number of Sefirah days leading up to Lag Ba’omer is the gematria equivalent of lev, and the days following it add up to tov. Together, they form the words lev tov. In order to emerge meritorious on the judgment that day, we must seek to arrive at Shavuos pure of heart. First we purify our hearts and souls. Then we can fill them with goodness.

These are the days when we mourn the passing of the talmidim of Rabi Akiva, who were taken for the sin of not showing proper respect to each other.

The Maharal (Nesiv HaTorah 12) sheds light on the concept of there being two segments of Sefirah interrupted by Lag Ba’omer. He explains that the gematria of the first 32 days is equivalent to the numerical value of the word kavod. On chai Iyar, the 18th day of Iyar, which is Lag Ba’omer, they stopped dying. The gematria of Iyar is the same as the value of the word erech, which means long. Once they completed the period of kavod, they entered the period of erech chai, which corresponds to the notion that Torah observance leads to arichus yomim, the lengthening of one’s life. The month of Iyar is “erech, because it contains the ability to lengthen life. That potential was realized on the 18th day, chai Iyar, the day of Lag Ba’omer.

These are fascinating words, but what do they mean? Why is it about Iyar that makes it a month with the ability to extend life?

We must also analyze the significance of the fact that the talmidei chachomim who died during the period leading up to Lag Ba’omer were talmidim of Rabi Akiva.

The Gemara in Maseches Pesochim (22b) says that Shimon Ha’amsuni extrapolated lessons from every time the word “ess” appears in the Torah. When he reached the posuk of “Ess Hashem Elokecha tira (Devorim 6:13), he was stymied. That was until Rabi Akiva came and darshened that the extra word in that posuk is written to include a command to fear talmidei chachomim in the injunction to fear Hashem.

This droshah was “waiting” for Rabi Akiva - ad sheba Rabi Akiva - to reveal it. It was his chiddush. The great Tanna Rabi Akiva recounted that during his years as a simple shepherd, he had such antipathy toward talmidei chachomim that had he seen one, he would have bitten him like a donkey (Pesochim 49b).

It is explained that the Sitra Achra, who causes the evil found in this world, detected that Rabi Akiva’s purpose in life was to reveal the grandeur and glory of Torah and the talmidei chachomim who study it. Therefore, the Soton concentrated on making him be especially lacking in that area.

Appreciation for talmidei chachomim was the middah in which he was most wanting in his early life, as the Soton sought to prevent him from realizing his true tikkun and path to greatness, which lied in overcoming that deficiency.

It is understandable that once he began to learn Torah and climb the rungs of greatness, Rabi Akiva taught the lessons of ve’ahavta lereiacha kamocha and had as his defining lesson “lerabos talmidei chachomim.” This was the droshah that only he, as the shoresh, master and transmitter of Torah Shebaal Peh, could reveal.

Those to whom he transmitted Torah were expected to conduct themselves on a higher level in the area of kavod talmidei chachomim. By not following their rebbi’s teaching and showing disrespect for each other, they were in effect saying that they are not connected with their source of life. They were talmidim disconnected from the wellspring of their rebbi’s Torah and were thus punished with death.

This is the depth of the gematrios for the first part of Sefirah, kavod and lev. The first part of Sefirah equips us with the middos that refine and elevate us. We develop our appreciation for each other and then work to implement that sensitivity and use it in its most pristine form, demonstrating love, respect and appreciation for each other and for talmidei chachomim and Torah. We implement the kavod of the first part of Sefirah as we approach the second part, which corresponds to tov of kabbolas haTorah.

In effect, we are all talmidim of Rabi Akiva, because he was the shoresh of Torah Shebaal Peh. It is incumbent upon us to take his lessons to heart so that we will merit the tov, goodness, of Torah and its way of life. 

After settling in Eretz Yisroel, Rav Yecheskel Abramsky once reminisced to his Slabodka talmidim about life back home in Slutsk. With evident wistfulness, Rav Abramsky recounted the minhag of the simplest Jews in the Russian town.

“When they would enter the rov’s home to ask a shailah, even on a weekday, even with a simple question, they would change from their work clothes into bigdei Shabbos. That’s how great their respect was for Torah and talmidei chachomim!”

We need to recommit ourselves to the ideals of old-time kavod haTorah, the simple reverence for talmidei chachomim, rabbonim and even yeshiva bochurim that once prevailed.

With our sense of kavod restored, we can properly move to the final seventeen days, which correspond to tov. Activating the middah of tov, the innate goodness of our people, is another vital preparation for kabbolas haTorah.

In order to camp at the mountain as “one man with one heart,” it is imperative that we be good, decent, compassionate, generous people who join together for good causes. It is time we did away with the small-minded selfishness, pettiness, jealousy and cynicism that taint our world.

Hundreds of thousands of all types of Jews celebrated Lag Ba’omer together in Meron. They came from all over Israel and the world to partake in the commemoration of the hilulah of the Tanna who carried on the work and teachings of his rebbi, Rabi Akiva. It was Rabi Shimon bar Yochai who, ultimately, was melamed zechus on the Jewish people. It was he who transmitted the Toras hanigleh and Toras hanistar that he received from their master and shoresh, Rabi Akiva. And it is to his eternal merit that the closer we get to bias Moshiach, the more widespread the celebration becomes.

The total value of kavod, 32, and tov, 17, equal 49. We arrive at our Shavuos destination with respect for Torah and a sense of goodness. It would be most fitting to utilize those two middos for the quintessence of good - ein tov elah Torah. To be able to invest the respect we developed into the most valuable commodity of all, the epitome of good, means we have arrived at kabbolas haTorah.

There are so many needy Torah scholars who can use our help. There are so many roshei kollel and roshei yeshiva who carry crushing budgets and are struggling under the heavy load. There is so much that needs to be done. If we harness our middos of kavod and tov, we can help increase the amount of Torah learned in this world and the respect people have for it.

Adopt-A-Kollel is an exceptional organization, proving the difference people can make. By enabling individuals to give whatever they can afford - be it ten, eighteen, or fifty dollars a month; perhaps more, perhaps less - they are creating a magnificent partnership between mechabdei Torah in America and talmidei chachomim in Eretz Yisroel.

One of the most empowering features of this organization is the first word in its name: “Adopt.” They remind us the meaning of achrayus, responsibility. Just as adoptive parents open their hearts, homes and lives to welcome a child, we all have the capacity to adopt good causes. Perhaps we don’t have what it takes to fully adopt a person into our homes, but we all can certainly make room in our hearts for a good cause. Adopt something holy, make it yours, worry about it, care for it, and help it thrive.

There is nothing more precious than the Torah.

Rav Yaakov Neiman, rosh yeshiva of the Lomza Yeshiva in Petach Tikva, once shared the lessons imparted by his own parents. When he was a child in Lita, the local yeshiva did not have a kitchen or dining room. In those days, yeshiva bochurim would eat “teg,” rotating meals, each day at the home of a different local family. On Sundays, yeshiva bochurim ate at the Neiman home.

Rav Yaakov recalled that his mother would set the table with a festive tablecloth and the entire family would wait with eager anticipation for the bochurim.

Rav Neiman concluded that he felt that his mother’s dedication was repaid, in some measure, when he himself went off to learn in yeshiva. He also ate teg at local homes, and while some days he was fed well and treated with kindness, other days he ended up hungry. However, on Sundays, he said, he always ate at good, generous homes, which he attributed to the weekly graciousness of his mother.

The Ribono Shel Olam created a world for His kavod. He created a world for the sake of the Torah. By showing honor to this ultimate good, we affirm our role in creation and in Torah. Just as on Rosh Hashanah we all seek zechuyos to be granted life and engage in a period of introspection throughout the month of Elul so that we will be prepared for the hallowed day, the same is true for the time leading up to Shavuos and we must examine our actions as well.

On Shavuos, we will be judged on what we have achieved in Torah. During the month of Iyar leading up to it, we must seek to adopt better study and respect habits. If we do, we will merit being judged for another good year. Thus, this may be the explanation for the Maharal, who posits that the gematria of Iyar is equal to erech because the Torah grants arichus yomim. One who takes advantage of the month of Iyar to improve in aspects of Torah study, observance and appreciation will merit a blessed year of Torah, arichus yomim lahagos beSorasecha.

Perhaps we can understand the deeper connection between the brochah of orech yomim and Torah as it pertains to Sefiras Ha’omer with a story. At the levayah of the Sefas Emes, his son, the Imrei Emes, turned to his brothers and said, “Our father merited arichus yomim.”

The brothers were surprised. Arichus yomim? Their holy father, the Sefas Emes, was a young man. He was just 57 years old at the time of his passing.

The new rebbe explained, “I didn’t say arichus shonim; he didn’t merit length of years. He merited arichus yomim. He extended the potential of each day and maximized it.”

During this period of Sefiras Ha’omer, we count each day and make each day count. Each day is a step to something greater. We refine and develop our middos. Each day represents a unique avodah, and thus Iyar becomes a month of erech - long, maximized days.

Anyone privileged to have received a loving slap from Rav Ovadia Yosef recalls how he would say, “Orech yomim b’yemino,” as he slapped his petitioner’s right cheek, and then, as he said, “Ubesmolah osher vechavod,” he’d lovingly smack the left.

Kavod and erech, as that posuk indicates, are twin properties of Torah.

May these brachos of orech yomim and the osher vechavod, the twin assurances promised to those who cherish the Torah, always accompany us in Iyar, in Sivan and all year long.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

An Appreciation of Rav Zundel Kroizer zt”l

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Have you ever noticed how the sun sets over Yerushalayim?

The ball of fire that illuminates the world doesn’t just descend and disappear, causing the sky to slowly darken, as it does here in America. Instead, the sun seems to hover for a moment up in the sky, painting a city of red roofs and white stones with its brilliant, burning hue. And then, very quickly, the sun is gone. Night suddenly falls and darkness replaces the light.

Last week, a sun set in Yerushalayim. There was a final moment of fire, a few days of intense prayer and longing, as Rav Zundel Kroizer zt”l slipped away. It was a final chance to contemplate the fact that he lived in the world as a special heir to the mesorah of Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, Rav Shmuel Salant and Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin. And then he was gone.

Rav Zundel, with his humble, unassuming simplicity, was illuminating. And now that light, the ohr hachamah, has gone.

Inhabiting a different plane, he walked among us, davened with us, and was as accessible as a regular person. He blended in with the shopkeepers, scribes, scholars and other regulars in the high-ceilinged central shul at Zichron Moshe, yet if you looked closely, you saw that his face glowed. There was an aura of illumination and elevation resting on him, similar to the way people describe tzaddikim from years past.

If you observed him, you saw that he was punctilious in every action. If you spoke to him, you learned that he was conversant in the entire Torah.

If you never met people like Rav Zundel, you could be forgiven for thinking that Yerushalayim Shel Maalah, the place and dimension of storybooks, had ceased to exist. You could be forgiven for not believing that such sublime souls, with piercing intelligence and inner beauty bedecked in simplicity, walked the same streets as you.

We weep for Rav Zundel, but we also cry for his city, a shrinking realm of ancient Yerushalayim that he epitomized.

Bnei Tzion yagilu bemalkom. There is a simple joy that suffuses the countenance of the Yerushalmi Jew. Identified as bnei Tzion, they are literal sons of the Holy City. Like a son absorbs and carries his father’s chiyus within him, these exceptional people radiate the chein and charm of their city.

And just as the city captured nine measures of the splendor of creation, its inhabitants are equally blessed.

There is a special feeling you get when you speak to them. They are unfazed by much of what is considered important in our world. Their hearts and minds are amazingly free of the clutter that complicates our own. Their core is Torah. Their lives are Torah and revolve around Torah. The emptiness of their pockets is matched by the fullness of their vast hearts. They know that this world is transitory and they are only here temporarily to prepare for the real world. Their day to day lives attest that this vision is constantly before them.

It may sound clichéd, but there is a magic to Jewish life as it’s been lived in Yerushalayim for generations. The settlement established by the students of the Vilna Gaon and the Baal Shem Tov - noble souls who abandoned their worldly possessions and comforts and moved to Eretz Yisroel to increase Torah and holiness in their lives and to hasten the redemption - still thrives. Their descendants, the Yerushalayimer Yidden, reflect their passion for Torah and kedushah. Rav Zundel was the paradigm of such people.

Their chein is hard to define and quantify. The old Yerushalmi Jews are “the real thing.” They are pure. Their lives are not tainted by all the nonsense that contaminates and corrupts us. They are welcoming to everyone and so full of love, not because anyone told them to act that way, but because being good and kind is their essence. Dedicated to Torah, they are naturally good.

These precious Yidden are authentic. Unfailingly humble, they seek neither honor nor glory, concerned only with fulfilling the wishes of Hashem and finding favor in His eyes.

When we mourn Rav Zundel, we mourn an archetype of a community of happy, humble, sweet Yidden. They are a lesson for us. The values that define them are attainable for all of us.

We have all read stories about Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin, Rav Shmuel Salant, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, and the others who established the Yishuv Hayoshon in Yerushalayim. The stories of the poverty and deprivation with which they and their followers contended as they pursued a life of Torah are the stuff of legend.

Kollel members in those days survived on the generosity of former townspeople back in the alter heim in Europe, who would send a portion of their meager incomes so that their brethren wouldn’t freeze or starve to death, real and ever-present dangers at the time. Life was difficult.

The Holy City had its tradesmen, craftsmen and laborers who earned a few pounds here and there fixing shoes, tailoring, and delivering water or milk. When they weren’t working, they were plumbing the depths of Torah Shebiksav and Torah Shebaal Peh, niglah and nistar.

These were the people who established the community inside the ancient walls of Yerushalayim and then, as the community grew, built the new neighborhoods of Meah Shearim and Shaarei Chesed. Their descendants are the people we know today as Yerushalayimers, who dress with a distinctive levush and demonstrate old-time ingenuity and practical wisdom built on Torah and years of deprivation, independence and fortitude. They have a different value system that sets them apart from everyone else and enables them to maintain their equilibrium in a turbulent, ever-changing world.

This was the community whose milkman, Reb Betzalel of Shaarei Chesed, was sometimes late delivering the milk. The people of Yerushalayim shrugged and smiled, because they knew that it meant that someone had stopped the milkman mid-route to ask a question in Torah, and the Milchiger, proficient in all of Shas, had been delayed. Milk was important, but to Reb Betzalel, his learning was life itself.

The value system of the kehillah was perfectly aligned with the value system of the Ribbono Shel Olam.

Rav Gershon Sirota of the Perushim community once told me the story of his grandfather, who eked out a living as a carpenter. Building bookcases in a community where most of the people barely had enough income to feed their hungry children wasn’t the best business plan, and when a newly arrived American entered the small shop, it looked like good times were imminent.

The immigrant expressed interest in having a beautiful bookcase designed and built. After taking down the order, the carpenter asked the man who the fancy furniture was for. The man explained that he had just retired to Yerushalayim and desired the type of furniture he was accustomed to back home.

The carpenter refused the order. Although he was desperate for the business, he couldn’t bring himself to complete the task. He explained to the would-be customer, “If a young couple comes to me and asks for a strong, sturdy, beautiful piece of furniture, I look at them and think that this young, happy couple is just starting out, with many years ahead of them. I am happy to build them the stuff of their dreams. But you are already older. You ought to know by now how temporary life is. How can you build yourself the type of furniture you’re describing to me?”

The carpenter was so in touch with what is real and true that he was unable to fulfill the request. Nobody told him how to react. He didn’t run to his rov to ask a shailah. His own spiritual sensitivity led this simple son of Yerushalayimer Perushim, desperate as he was for income, to turn down the opportunity.

No doubt, that Yid appeared as a simple craftsman, with the thick blue work-shirt, coarse fingers flecked with wood stain, and a pencil over his ear, but his inner refinement and sensitivity revealed his true spiritual status.

Those Yidden were steeped in Torah and it permeated every aspect of their lives.

Another such person was Rav Hirsh Kroizer, a descendant of Bais Harav, Rav Chaim of Volozhin, and a talmid of Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld. Rav Hirsh was a great gaon whose wife supported the family while he learned in Etz Chaim.

A glimpse of the level attained by the chaburah of Rav Hirsh can be gleaned from what Rav Kroizer told a dear friend of mine. He said that talmidim of Rav Yosef Chaim who had no money at all would leave their homes not knowing where they would find the means to buy food. While walking to the makolet, they would invariably find coins on the ground, and they used that money to make their purchases.

This friend remembers Rav Hirsh walking to the neighboring Machaneh Yehuda shuk in the mornings and giving drinking water to chickens that were scheduled to be shechted. He would explain that since they were soon going to be slaughtered, nobody bothered feeding them and they were doubtlessly thirsty. To relieve their suffering, the great and humble gaon would bend down to provide them with water to quench their thirst.

The stories told and retold about the secret tzaddikim and gaonim of Yerushalayim are neither fiction nor hyperbole. They are factual accounts of a time and place where people lived the truth.

Rav Zundel, who was Rav Hirsh Kroizer’s son, was such a person. He wrote and published seforim on all of Shas, Chumash, Nach and Tehillim. He even published a siddur and Haggadah with his own peirush. Yet most people never heard of him.

Rav Chaim Brim, a Yerushalayimer giant who was steeped in Torah and all its secrets, is quoted as saying that if there are two people in whose merit the world currently stands, they are Rav Chaim Kanievsky and Rav Zundel Kroizer.

If so, you will ask, how can it be that a man of such caliber remained unknown in a generation in which giants are so needed and so venerated?

Rav Chaim Kanievsky observed that it was actually a gift from Hashem. Many years ago, he remarked that it must be that Hashem loved Rav Zundel more than he loves Rav Chaim, because He kept Rav Zundel hidden and people didn’t bother him with shailos and tzorchei tzibbur the way they do with Rav Chaim. Rav Zundel’s relative anonymity allowed him to spend his waking hours learning Torah.

He awoke around chatzos every night to learn until daybreak, at which time he davened Shacharis kevosikin. He thus named his seforimOhr Hachamah.” Every Shabbos morning, after davening, the bochurim in his presence were treated to the special zechus of being able to ask him any question on any sugyah in Shas and receive his answers.

The learning didn’t always come easy. There was a manuscript of his chiddushim on Maseches Kesubos that he uncharacteristically wouldn’t lend out. Finally, a young talmid chochom who was learned in that masechta pestered him to the point that Rav Zundel loaned it to him. The fellow took it with him to Meah Shearim and lost it. He was shattered and couldn’t conceive of returning to Rav Zundel without the manuscript. Finally, he mustered the courage and told Rav Zundel the truth: The manuscript was gone.

Rav Zundel consoled him over the loss of the “hefteleh.” The fellow walked away remorsefully, assuming that was the end of the story and those chiddushim.

Several months later, a man came to Rav Zundel with his writings and asked if they were his. The man was a collector of antique seforim. As he was sifting through piles of shaimos, a handwritten pamphlet grabbed his eye. He took it home, miraculously saving it from burial. He later showed it to someone, who recognized the handwriting to be Rav Zundel’s. Thus, the precious manuscript was returned to its owner.

Rav Zundel thanked the man and told him that those chiddushim were written with tremendous mesirus nefesh as Yerushalayim was being bombed in 1948. With all the neighbors cramped into the dark bomb shelter, he found it impossible to learn, so he returned home.

“Bombs were exploding. The windows were shattering,” related Rav Zundel, “but I didn’t move from that room. It was under those harrowing conditions that I learned Kesubos and was mechadeish the Torah that is written in that notebook. I knew the fruits of that toil wouldn’t be permanently lost. I knew it would come back.”

Rav Zundel rarely talked about himself, but sometimes the truth escaped and people got a glimpse of his spiritual stature. A story went around Yerushalayim about an incident that took place when Rav Zundel was already older and learned by himself at home. People would come by to check up on him and make sure that all was in order. One day, Rav Yaakov Trietsky arrived at Rav Zundel’s apartment and found him lying in his bed, badly bruised and unable to move. Alarmed, Rav Trietsky asked Rav Zundel what happened. Rav Zundel told him that he had collapsed and fallen on the floor.

“But how did you get up on to the bed?” asked Rav Trietsky.

The response floored him. “Der chavrusah hut mir oifgeheiben un geleikt oif der bet (My chavrusah picked me up and put me on my bed).”

 “But you don’t have a chavrusah,” wondered Rav Trietsky.

“That’s all I’m telling you,” said Rav Zundel, ending the conversation abruptly and shifting topics.

Everyone who knew Rav Zundel was certain that Eliyohu Hanovi had picked him up off the floor and put him on his bed. That’s the type of Yid he was.

Until a few years ago, Rav Zundel had been reticent to give brachos and engage in activities that would take him away from his learning. Then he became very ill. His talmidim approached him and told him that when Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach was approximately 75 years old, he became very ill. When he recovered, he reasoned that Hashem kept him alive so that he could help people. Until that time, though well-known to talmidei chachomim, he was not involved in public matters. After he recuperated, he overcame his previous reluctance and became the leader of the Torah community. Rav Shach lived for another 30 years.

People close to Rav Zundel suggested to him that if he would undertake to give brachos to people in need of yeshuos, in that zechus he would recover from his grave illness. When convinced that people would derive chizuk from his brachos and that through them Jews would strengthen their emunah and bitachon, he agreed. In his humility, he said that if it was true that people would really be satisfied with a bracha from someone as unworthy as he, then he would do it. “Oib ich ken mesameiach machen a Yid… There is no greater source of merit than to make a Jew happy.”

A friend described visiting Rav Gamliel Rabinowitz close to twenty years ago, desperate for a bracha for a choleh. Rav Gamliel encouraged the visitor and promised to daven, but the petitioner wasn’t content. He wanted to do more for the patient.

Rav Gamliel, who learned bechavrusah with Rav Zundel, whispered in his ear, “Go to Rav Zundel Kroizer.”

The visitor was unfamiliar with the name. “He doesn’t like doing this, but you care so much about the choleh,” said the respected mekubal, “so I am giving you good advice. Gei tzu Reb Zundel.”

In time, Rav Gamliel’s advice and that of so many other gedolim, such as Rav Dovid Soloveitchik and Rav Meir Soloveitchik, spread. Rav Zundel’s reputation reached beyond the parameters of Yerushalayim. Many people sought his brachos and received great chizuk from them.

Rav Gedaliah Sheinen recounted that he was a talmid of Rav Zundel when Rav Zundel delivered shiurim at Yeshiva Shaar Hatalmud. During that time, as a young energetic bochur, he assisted Rav Zundel in publishing his peirush on the Haggadah. Some thirty years later, the elderly Rav Zundel arrived at the bar mitzvah celebration of Rav Sheinin’s son. The astounded baal simcha asked him, “Rebbe, why were you matriach yourself to come?”

The humble tzaddik replied that he came for “hakoras hatov.”

“For what?” asked Rav Sheinin.

Rav Zundel reminded him that he had helped him decades earlier with the publication of his Haggadah and he wanted to express his appreciation.

Rav Sheinin told of the time he brought a wealthy American to Rav Zundel for a bracha. The man wished to express his gratitude with a gift of money. Rav Zundel refused to accept it. “Ich tor nisht nemen gelt far mir. Ich bin ah gevir. Ich hob ah dirah. Ich hob vos tzu esen. Ich bin ah gevir.” He told the man that he couldn’t accept anything for himself because he was a wealthy person. “I have a house. I have what to eat. I am wealthy,” he said. He wasn’t saying it to be cute. He meant it. And hearing him say it, you knew it was true.

Several years ago, one of my sons joined a hafgonah called to protest a government blood libel against the residents of Emmanuel. It was a hot summer day and the sun was beating down on the people gathered on a sloping street that faces Rechov Yirmiyohu.

People were fainting from the heat when my son noticed Rav Zundel standing next to him. Water was offered to people standing on the melting asphalt. Rav Zundel refused the drink. He was offered to sit in an air-conditioned car parked alongside the group, but he refused.

Ober rebbe, es iz azoi heis,” people said to him. “The heat is unbearable. Why not drink some water or sit in comfort? You can participate in the protest from the car as well. And what would be so bad if you took a sip of water to replenish yourself?”

With simple humility and greatness, Rav Zundel responded, “Der ikker iz tzu fillin mit. The main reason for standing here is to show the people who were wronged that we feel their pain. How can I say that if I take a drink or sit in a comfortable, cool car? Ich shtei doh. I am standing right here.”

Simple Yerushalmi goodness. Talmudic greatness and humility personified on a hot street, in a world spinning out of control.

I merited being welcomed into his home, receiving his brachos and purchasing his seforim several times. He beautifully and painstakingly inscribed a siddur for me, and it is a volume I treasure. As he finished writing, he looked up and, with a twinkle in his eye, signed with his initials in English, Z. K., as he often did. As great and holy as he was, he enjoyed the humorous flourish.

There was a beauty to his ways, a perfect harmony in the fusion of steady, intense avodah and complete ordinariness that marks Yerushalmi Jewry. It’s a beauty that calls to mind the words uttered by Rav Elazar regarding Rav Yochanan: “Al hai shufra, for this beauty…I cry” (Brachos 5b).

The Maharsha explains that Rav Elazar wept at the thought of Rav Yochanan’s passing because he was essentially mourning the Bais Hamikdosh. Rav Yochanan was the last of the beautiful people in Yerushalayim, and with his passing, the last vestige of that beauty and splendor would be gone forever…

We mourn the passing of Rav Zundel, a person who embodied the magnificence of the city so beloved to the Creator.

True beauty is based on proportions. Rav Naftoli Tropp once illustrated the greatness of the Chofetz Chaim by explaining the halacha that a kohein who has one arm longer than the other is a baal mum, even though that blemish does not affect his ability to serve.

He explained that in order to achieve perfection, everything must be completely aligned. If something is lopsided, then it is not perfect. Thus, one limb extending further than the other renders a kohein a baal mum.

Rav Naftoli concluded that the Chofetz Chaim was perfectly aligned. His Torah corresponded to his tzidkus, which corresponded to his middos, which corresponded to his humility.

Last week, we lost a man who was perfect in that way. He used the language of brilliance and breadth in his voluminous Ohr Hachamah on all sections of Shas. He wrote with clear, easy language in his Ohr Hachamah on Tehillim and siddur. An intimate of gedolim - Rav Elyashiv considered him a chover, while the children of the Brisker Rov cherished him - he was a friend to everyone who crossed his threshold.

His peirush on Tehillim concludes: “This last posuk, ‘Kol haneshamah tehalel Koh,’ concludes the sefer that began with an ode of approval for one who avoids wrongdoing. Praised is he who started his journey being careful not to sit with scoffers and wicked ones… He is the one who can conclude with this posuk, ‘Kol haneshamah,’ for the entirety of his soul is one unbroken song…

The sun of the Ohr Hachamah has set. The song that he sang in this world is now being heard in the World to Come. May his memory and lessons be a blessing to all.