Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Bring Them Home

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Sadly, it is a familiar script.

We face the tragedies of three sweet bochurim, and at the same time, we cannot help but feel the isolation. Even as our people are consumed by concern, interrupting weddings, graduations and gatherings to join in reciting Tehillim, embracing the Shabbos earlier and with more focus than usual, and continually davening, the apathy of the wider public and the mainstream media is a reminder of the eternal truth of the posuk which states, “Hein am levodod yishkon.” We are alone.

Any student of history or intelligent observer of the world scene does not expect better and is not surprised when the nations of the world join to once again condemn us for having the temerity to be victims. Those experienced with global affairs don’t even react anymore when they read how the United Nations terms the kidnapping “alleged” and when Israel is condemned for showing single-minded dedication to bringing its boys home. 

When such things occur, we should not be depressed. Instead, we should be heartened by the lessons found in this week’s parsha.

This world and its transitory values and flesh-and-blood leaders are temporary and will soon vanish from the scene, to be replaced with yet other transitory people.

We live with a higher ideal: “Zos chukas haTorah, adam ki yomus ba’ohel.” The people whose souls are fused to the Torah throw off every physical mantle. They succeed by ignoring realities that do not contribute to spiritual existence, and concentrate their lives on Torah.

To succeed in our goal of cleaving to Torah, we must disregard the current thinking of those around us and stubbornly persist with our Torah way of life, despite the many detractors.

We are bound to the chok, the bond of Torah living, which goes beyond reason and logic. To be attached to Hashem means to be detached from the world and to recognize that it neither accepts nor values us.

This is the explanation of the first Rashi in this week’s parsha. Rashi quotes a Medrash Tanchumah which says that the Soton and the nations of the world mock us and ask us for the rationale of this mitzvah. Therefore, says Rashi, the Torah spells out that Parah Adumah is a chok, a gezeirah min haShomayim, and we are not permitted to question it.

The nations of the world, and those who mock us and attempt to wrestle us from the path of our forefathers, question us and our practices. They say that the mitzvos are backward and without reason. We don’t answer them. We don’t try to explain it to them. We reinforce to ourselves that we are following the word of Hashem, which is a chok. This is the only way we are able to succeed and flourish in this world of sheker.

Torah, the ultimate wisdom, doesn’t operate with the conventional rules, the wisdom of university classrooms and laboratories, but quite the opposite.

Crafting logical sales pitches for the Torah will only do half a job. In the end, we must accept the chukim as well as the mishpotim, recognizing that we work for a Master and that alone is reason enough to follow each and every dictate and command.

Torah greatness and fidelity aren’t born of brilliance, but of toil, purity and diligence. Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l would often quote from the sefer Sheim Hagedolim, which says that before Rashi set out to write his landmark peirush, he traveled extensively to ascertain whether a better peirush than he envisioned existed. It was only after he was unable to find an extant exposition explaining the Torah that he set out to write the classic peirush that has endured until this day.

As Rashi wrote his work, he fasted hundreds of taaneisim to ensure that his words would help propel people to the truth.

Rav Shach would weep when he would mention this about Rashi, because to him, this anecdote represented all that is right and true about our mesorah. It underscores the fact that chochmas haTorah isn’t about reason alone, but also about humility coupled with commitment to the truth and mesorah.

People in our day are led astray by those who claim to understand the reasoning for different halachos and temper them to mesh with the times. Such thinking lies at the root of the fallacy of the Conservative and Reform movements, which ultimately caused so many to deviate from halacha and mesorah, leading millions of Jews astray. It sounds funny to us that they maintain institutions they refer to as yeshivos and have halachic decisors who write so-called teshuvos in halacha. In their fanciful world, they believe that they are legitimately following the Torah.

Once you begin to rationalize the commandments and inject human understanding of them and their concepts, you begin compromising them and sullying the holy with pedestrian thought processes.

Their assumption that they have mastered the Torah is their undoing. Critical thinking and analysis lacking yiras Shomayim, a sense of mesorah and humility results in individuals who destroy instead of build, obscure instead of reveal, and cause others to repel Torah instead of drawing closer to it.

Our fellow Jews in the Open Orthodoxy movement, who follow in the path of the founders of the Conservatives, have fallen into this trap. Insistent as they are on being termed Orthodox, we must never stop denying their claim, because, in fact, they are not Orthodox in thought, practice, attitude or approach.

A story is told about a poor couple about to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary. The wife decided to treat her beloved husband by preparing a dish he always craved. Throughout their marriage, they never had enough money to afford lamb stew. Now that they had reached this great milestone, she was determined to find a way to prepare this delicacy for her husband.

The resourceful woman went to a library, found a good recipe, and wrote it down. She then set out to gather the ingredients. When she arrived at the butcher shop, she decided that lamb was too costly. She reasoned that it would be okay if she replaced the lamb with much less expensive chicken necks. The recipe called for barley, potatoes and carrots. Those were also too expensive, so she replaced them with kasha. When she got home, she saw that she was missing many of the spices necessary. She figured that if she uses plentiful amounts of salt, the stew would taste just as good.

After expending much effort in preparing the celebratory stew, she proudly placed the steaming dish before her husband. He could barely contain himself in his desire to finally fulfill his dream of eating lamb stew. He took one bite, and then another, and finally offered his assessment. “I don’t know why rich people make such a big deal about lamb stew,” he mused. “Now that I have finally tasted it, I see that it’s nothing special.”

Friends, if it doesn’t have lamb and it doesn’t have barley, chives, thyme, garlic and seasoning, then no matter what you call it, it is not lamb stew.

These people lack the meat and potatoes, and they lack the spice, yet they carry the name Orthodox and refuse to let it go. They have the potential to inflict damage on the shuls and schools that naively hire their members thinking that they are loyal to Torah and mesorah. We must persist in calling them out as the impostors that they are.

Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l would explain the posuk in Tehillim (119:142) of “Tzidkoscha tzedek le’olam” to mean that man cannot fathom the depths of Hashem’s justice, for society and its concepts are ever changing. What is considered just in one generation is viewed as unjust in the next. But “veSorascha emes,” the truth of Torah is everlasting. It neither changes for the times nor conforms to them.

Zos chukas haTorah. Torah is a chok. Torah is neither about impressive dissertations nor social welfare and maintaining a good PR firm. It is about following the will of the Creator as expressed in Torah Skebiksav and Torah Shebaal Peh. That’s just the way it is.

When Rav Shach would deliver a shiur in Ponovezh Yeshiva, he would pose a question and a storm of responses would follow from the Ponovezher talmidim. He would address them and then proceed with his shiur, sometimes incorporating what the bochurim said into his shiur and other times shooting them down.

One day, he presented a question that had caused him great angst in understanding a particular sugya. The boys tried to answer the question in many different ways, but nothing that any of them said pleased him. Consumed by the difficulty, he traveled to Yerushalayim to pose his question to the Brisker Rov. The next day, Rav Shach excitedly shared the Rov’s answer in his shiur.

After the shiur, a talmid went over to him and protested that he had given the very same answer the day before, only to have it rejected. He wanted to know what had changed and why the sevara was better today than yesterday.

“It is true that you said the same p’shat as the Rov,” Rav Shach explained, “but you took it out of your keshene, your pocket. The Rov’s answer came from his vast knowledge accumulated by years of toiling in Torah. His response was arrived at with authority, responsibility and clarity.”

Another time, Rav Shach entered shiur armed with a penetrating question on a Baal Hamaor. Suffering from vision problems at the time, he held up the Gemara in an attempt to quote the words of the Rishon. As hard as he tried, and as close as he brought the text to his eyes and struggled, he was unable to read the small print of the Baal Hamaor. Sadly, he closed the Gemara, explaining that he hoped his eyesight would improve sufficiently by the next day to be able to read aloud the piece that he wished to comment on.

The next day, he entered the bais medrash, happily holding the large Gemara, prepared to read aloud the words of the Baal Hamaor that had failed him the previous day. But first he asked a question: “How many of you looked up the Baal Hamaor after yesterday’s shiur?” Nobody answered. “How many of you tried to figure out the p’shat in what he says?” No answer. “How many of you thought about the Baal Hamaor since yesterday?” No hands went up.

“Then forget it,” said the rosh yeshiva. “Farges vegen dem. Ihr zeit dos nisht vert. If none of you cared enough to look up the Baal Hamaor to figure out the question or to attempt an answer, then you aren’t worthy of me standing here, straining to read it to you and enrich you with the proper understanding of the Rishon and the sugya.”

Rav Shach was an exceedingly humble person, one of the most modest people of his generation. He didn’t make that comment because his ego was hurt. He said it because he wanted to remind the young talmidim that there is no success in Torah without struggle. There is no growth without hard work, tilling and plowing in order for crops to grow. Simply transcribing the teachings of a great man will not engender greatness. If it comes easy, from a silver spoon, then it will not last. Effort and travail strengthen and fortify us.

Perhaps this was part of the klalah meted out to Adam and Chava after they ate from the Eitz Hadaas. “You tried to obtain knowledge that is removed from you,” said Hashem, “so from now on, bezeias apecha tochal lechem, everything good you attain will be lost if it is not attained through the sweat of your brow. Nothing will come easy. Be’itzavon teildi bonim. New life will be preceded by terrible pain.”

Chazal say (Taanis 30, et al), “Kol hamisabel al Yerushalayim zocheh veroeh besimchosah.” In order to merit enjoying the rebuilding of Yerushalayim, you must first mourn its destruction.

The fact that unity is brought on by division was part of that curse. Yosef was sold into slavery by his brothers. It was a terribly divisive act, but one that led to their salvation in Mitzrayim. The Mitzriyim mistreated the Jews, plunging them to the worst degrees of tumah. Hashem then freed them, fashioning them as His people and gifting them the Torah.

Eis tzorah hee leYaakov. It is a dangerous time for our people. Terrorist havens have been established in Iraq, Syria and Iran. Radical Islamists who seek our destruction are on the march, gaining territory, adherents, military material and much capital. The world’s greatest power is led by a man who doesn’t seem to have our security and wellbeing high on his list of priorities. He created a huge vacuum, pulling all American army personnel out of Iraq and drawing down the army’s presence in Afghanistan, while providing no help for freedom-seekers who want to topple Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

While he continued the previous administration’s search for Osama bin Laden and signed off on the order to execute him, the president viewed killing him as decimating the terror threat the al Qaida head represented. Obviously, while that may have worked as an election campaign slogan, in the real world the bad guys are gaining strength and spreading like wildfire. The specter of terrorism is as real as ever, yet there is no overall strategy as to how to battle it or how to proceed in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Egypt.

Israel takes great pride in its vaunted army, yet, for over a week, its members wandered through the West Bank, trying desperately to find the three kidnapped boys and encountering dead ends everywhere they turn. It’s clear that they need siyata diShmaya, and we need to keep beseeching Heaven for their success.

An elderly chossid once shared a precious vort which was passed down to him from previous generations. When Jews suffer, he related, they say, “Oy, tzaros, things are rough.” But that comment, “Oy, tzaros,” forms the word otzaros, meaning treasure chests. The travails and suffering of our people contain a repository of growth and blessing. From suffering comes joy, and out of destruction emerges rebirth.

Since those bochurim were captured, we have seen the depth of our achdus. We see that we are indeed a people that dwells alone. But we are okay to be alone, because we are united and have each other.

Let us open these otzaros, these store-houses of riches, the newfound connection to each other, the new intensity in tefillah, and the new sense of the ability of each individual to effect change through prayer. The kidnapping of the bochurim has served as a catalyst to bring disparate people together as brothers and appreciate being part of an am bodud. Let it not go to waste.

Hopefully, we will rejoice united, a nation giving thanks as one for the safe return of our sons and brothers. May the unity of these days be as enduring as the Torah we live and learn.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Gorgeous Mosaic

Who didn’t feel their breath catch last Friday when hearing about the kidnapping of three boys in Gush Etzion?

Whose heart didn’t skip a beat when they learned that three teenagers trying to get to Yerushalayim for Shabbos were taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists?

Ever since news of that awful tragedy spread, Jews around the world put aside their differences and prayed for the safe return of the victims. Tens of thousands gathered at the Kosel on Motzoei Shabbos and Sunday night to daven for their welfare. Shuls and yeshivos of all stripes around the world recited special tefillos for them.

Everyone was hoping for a safe resolution to the kidnapping. Everyone wants to believe that we are living in an era when our neighbors want to live in peace and have had enough of war and never-ending gut-wrenching tragedy. Alas, this incident has been a sad reminder that until the arrival of Moshiach, we will not know peace and stability.

This tragedy reminds us of the plight of former Israeli chief rabbi Rav Yisroel Meir Lau, who, in 1945, at the age of eight, became the youngest survivor of Buchenwald to be liberated by the Americans. Young Lulek, all of fifty pounds, was brought to the town square by an American soldier, who held the youngster aloft in one hand and said to the German people who had supported the Nazi effort, “Is this whom you fought against? Is this what you are all about?”

The Palestinians arouse for themselves world sympathy as if they are a wronged people, desirous of peace and their legitimate rights. Yet, they wage war against innocent children, wantonly kidnapping, killing, bombing and maiming people.

We pray that the boys’ parents, siblings, friends and all of Klal Yisroel be spared from further tragedy. As we carry their anguish and the pain of their families, we are struck by the fact that it takes a tragedy to remind us that we are brothers. Our internal squabbles raise fences and enable the Soton to harm us. This lesson is always relevant, but this week, with the parsha centered around the most famous machlokes in our history, we are expected to draw the appropriate conclusion now more than ever.

It is a common mistake to assume that all machlokes is bad. In fact, the truth is that people have different opinions and viewpoints. Chazal state, “Kesheim she’ein partzufeihem shoveh, kach ein deioseihem shovos.

If disagreement is a natural course of human behavior, how are we to determine when machlokes is warranted and when it is wrong?

Chazal tell us that machlokes lesheim Shomayim is praiseworthy. When a person, free of any agenda and personal interest, approaches a topic with honesty and a desire to learn and improve his status and that of the world, with subservience to the ratzon Hashem, he is acting in a constructive manner.

When he has made up his mind, refuses to reason, and seeks to do battle with the Torah and its authority, he engages in destructive action and is to be condemned.

Thinking and intelligent people can differ, as long as they maintain their focus on the same shared goal. If we welcome legitimate questions and edifications, we can grow. If we share the same objective, then we can agree to disagree and remain brothers and friends. Thus, machlokes lesheim Shomayim sofah lehiskayeim. Disagreeing for the sake of Heaven and doing battle for the improvement of Torah is laudatory and welcomed. The machlokes of Hillel and Shamai is sofah lehiskayeim and is in fact a mitzvah, because neither side sought to promote their own agenda. They argued to ascertain and arrive at the truth of Torah.

Korach, however, utilized propaganda and demagoguery to further a personal vendetta. He threw the entire nation into turmoil merely to realize a personal ambition. A great and blessed man, he wasn’t satisfied with his position in life. His goal was to embarrass and dethrone Moshe and Aharon. He didn’t argue with them as a means of establishing the truth. His debate was merely a means to his own selfish end. He was blinded by his jealousy of the two brothers who redeemed the people from Mitzrayim and led them through the midbar on their way to Eretz Yisroel.

The two most noble men of all time, selected by Hashem to lead the people, were ridiculed and mocked for no reason other than the fact that they stood in the way of Korach’s drive for power.

The parsha is as relevant today as ever before. Each generation has those who lead, as did Moshe Rabbeinu, with a spark of genuine Torah leadership. Sadly, as sure as there are leaders such as Moshe, there is always resistance from people like Korach.

There have always been those who saw it as their mission to rise up against gedolei Torah, seeking to minimize their greatness in the eyes of the masses in order to promote a personal agenda. Leadership is a tenuous position, requiring the leader to be respected and revered by the community he leads so that they may follow him. He who is selfless and humble is vulnerable to attacks by irresponsible, arrogant, aggressive wannabes.

The Torah tells us the story along with its ending. Moshe and Aharon, without PR teams and advertising campaigns, won the battle with authenticity, truth and the help of Hashem. They were neither removed from the people nor out of touch and irrelevant.

Modern politics is all about portraying an image of being relevant. Remaining in power means being able to reach the people and maintain their confidence. Just last week, the second highest-ranking member of Congress went down to shocking defeat in a local Virginia primary. He lost because he was increasingly viewed by the people he served as being inauthentic and more interested in his own personal advancement than the needs of those who put him in power.

People are fed up with the status quo, having the same people in power seemingly forever, dictating their futures and ruling without care for the government’s impact on the lives of their constituents.

People want financial security and a chance to advance. They want to be left alone and permitted to lawfully lead their lives in peace without being dictated by individuals safely ensconced in positions of power.

They want people who will help them, who will listen to them, and who really care about them. They want a positive, bright future for themselves and their children. They want opportunity, good schools, solid education, fairness and justice. They want bullies to be punished, molesters to be put away, victims healed, and every child, smart and not, given a chance to make something of themselves.

They want good and decent leaders whom they can respect and emulate. Instead, all too often, their deep desire for potent leadership is cynically manipulated by ambitious sycophants who substitute spurious hyperbole for authentic, sincere principle. They cause division and wreak havoc as they sow discord among the unsuspecting, causing them to doubt and lose faith and trust in their leaders and themselves.

Gedolim belong to the people. They don’t look over their shoulders to ensure that they have the crowds. They love Hashem, His Torah, and His children. They are approachable and sensitive, because they really do care. They operate on a higher plane and answer to a higher authority.

In 1973, there were contentious elections for the positions of Israeli chief rabbi. After Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren made it clear that political calculations would take precedence over halacha, the Torah leadership decided to act. Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Rav Betzalel Zolty and others tapped Rav Ovadia Yosef to run for the position of Sephardic chief rabbi and thus save the rabbanut from a hostile take-over. At an emergency meeting in Rav Elyashiv’s sukkah, the relatively young Chacham Ovadiah was informed that he had been selected as a candidate. He was hesitant. With the government and authorities lined up behind the other candidate, there was virtually no chance that he could emerge victorious. Only two weeks remained before the election, yet, in deference to Rav Elyashiv, Chacham Ovadiah agreed and announced his candidacy.

Chacham Ovadiah continued his schedule of shiurim and writing teshuvos, refusing to hit the campaign trail. When askonim informed him that he didn’t seem to have many votes from the members of the voting committee, he famously replied, “I only need one vote, that of Hakadosh Boruch Hu.”

His surprise victory proved the truth of his pithy rejoinder. The million people who mourned at his levayah served as a reminder that it really is that one vote that renders a man a leader of the masses.

Torah leadership doesn’t put itself first. When it is each man for himself, no one wins. When everyone wants to lead, no one can.

The Gemara says that upon witnessing six hundred thousand Jews gathered in one place, there is a brochah, Boruch Chacham Harozim, to be recited. The very same brochah is said upon seeing a gadol b’Yisroel, because he possesses respect and appreciation for the differing viewpoints of all those many Jews (Brachos 58). A gadol’s heart is vast enough to encompass it all.

The Moshe Rabbeinu of the generation can lead a productive society when every person recognizes that they play a distinct role in Yahadus and is happy with what they can contribute. Thus, people lead satisfied lives and the community can develop and flourish under a genuine leader.

A dynamic rebbi, Rabbi Binyomin Aisenstark of Montreal (son of the respected Chinuch Roundtable panelist and veteran principal) received a phone call this year just before Shavuos. On the line was a Brooklyn mother. She introduced herself and shared her story.

She told him that she had a son who is a wonderful young boy, but, as sometimes happens, his charms were lost on the school he attended. He seemed to be in constant trouble and struggled with his schoolwork. His parents were at a loss as to how to bring out the best in him.

Last year, a young boy wrote a suggestion to the Yated Readers Write column. He thought it would be nice if, over Shavuos, children everywhere would commit to learning in memory of the kedoshim killed during the Second World War. He had a goal of generating six million seconds of limud haTorah and was looking for partners. He provided his phone number and asked for people interested in joining him to call.

Rabbi Aisenstark read the letter and thought that it would be a nice project for his second-graders to undertake. He called the number printed in the Yated and told the young originator of the plan that he and his class would join, specifying how much time they would commit to. The young innovator wrote down their commitment and thanked the rebbi.

Shavuos came and went. Rabbi Aisenstark and his class fulfilled their allotted time. The school-year ended and a new one began.

The mother continued her tale. It was her son who had written that letter to the editor. The sweet boy did not finish the school last year on a good note and the administration suggested that it was time to move on. Perhaps he would do better in a different school, they said. With heavy hearts, this woman and her husband set out to find the right school for their son.

“Now,” the mother said as she concluded her story, “Shavuos is imminent again and my son is approaching the end of the best year of his life. He thrived in the new school, becoming the boy we knew he really was all along. And,” she said to Rabbi Aisenstark, “he owes it all to you and your phone call.”

The boy had sent his letter to the Yated at a difficult time in his young life and the fact that it was printed thrilled him. When someone actually called him and took it seriously, he was exhilarated. Rabbi Aisenstark provided him with a sense of self-worth by reacting to his idea with excitement. The phone call he placed invested the boy with confidence, serving as a springboard to propel him onward into the new school year. With Hashem’s help, he succeeded.

Every person has his own unique contribution to make. As Korach rightly said, “Kol ha’eidah kulam kedoshim.” Every individual is holy. Where Korach erred was his attempt to reach where he didn’t belong.

Each plant has its own diet, with the proper amount of sunlight and water it requires. Similarly, every Jew has an area in which they can flower, prosper and contribute to the betterment of mankind.

Klal Yisroel is like a luscious landscape, loaded with various plants and flowers. There are tall and mighty trees alongside willowy shrubbery. There are tall grasses and short, flowering bushes and evergreens, side by side. Each one is different, but together they form a remarkable tapestry.

The best antidote to machlokes is appreciating the fact that every person is different and has his or her own unique role to play. Jealousy has no place in a society where everyone appreciates their position and accomplishments. Unity is achieved when we all work together, cohesively, for each other’s betterment.

We all seek to welcome peace into our homes, our neighborhoods and the wider community. We recognize that shalom is the secret to brochah. If we remain united, seeking to cure superficial division and to battle those who seek to undermine us and our values, we will merit rejoicing as all are released from the captivity of golus. We will then sing the song of all those released from imprisonment, “Hamakom yeracheim aleihem, veyotzieim mitzarah lirvochah umei’afeilah le’orah umishibud legeulah, as we are all led back, beshuv Hashem es shivas Tziyon, hashtah ba’agalah uvizman koriv.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Stanza in a Poem

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Shavuos is a day that celebrates the receipt of the Torah and its centrality in our lives. But it also celebrates the eternity of our people. Despite all the present adversity and everything our people have suffered throughout the millennia, we are still around and will be forever. Despite the current battles with the same old, tired arguments, some clad in modern garb and expressed with current slang, the fact that the people of the Torah are eternal is proven daily.

I had the special zechus of spending the Yom Tov in Yerushalayim, where I attended a family simcha. Being there rejuvenated me. How?

Walk with me down a quiet side-street atop the Geulah neighborhood, through a small courtyard, and, suddenly, as in so many spots around the holiest city on earth, time seems to stand still.

It is this place that is referred to in Kabbalistic literature as “Pischa Dekarta,” literally translated as “the door to the city.” The site is referred to in Gemara Sanhedrin (98), the Zohar in Parshas Shelach, and the sefer Yahel Ohr (Parshas Shelach) from the Vilna Gaon as being the spiritual home of Moshiach ben Yosef.

In another era, the elevated grassy knoll was the first location Jews being oleh regel to Yerushalayim would be able to see the makom haMikdosh from.

Talmidim of the Vilna Gaon would conduct tefillos there, particularly on leil Shabbos. The community would rent space from the Arab owner and engage in limud hanistar at the mystical location. In 1812, the group joined with Sefardic mekubolim and erected a large tent, referred to as “Ohel Moshiach ben Yosef.” Then, about 120 years ago, they managed to purchase the area. They erected a more permanent tent, where they would gather and daven for Moshiach ben Yosef to overcome those who stop him from his mission and that he be speedily dispatched to fulfill it.

That structure stood for seventy years and then, mysteriously, fell out of use. Over time, tzaddikim would sometimes stand there in secluded prayer, especially in times of danger, Rachmana litzlan.

When I had the merit of being in Yerushalayim last week, I decided to daven at this hallowed spot. It was an otherworldly feeling to be standing in prayer at a holy site integrally tied to the ultimate geulah, where great tzaddikim prayed for so many years, yet to be there alone, in complete solitude. 

It was, in a sense, a microcosm of the golus itself: holy spots, holy stones, holy pathways waiting for their redemption, a city pining for her people to merit the great awakening. All over, there are yechidim, lone souls, struggling to usher in a better, happier time.

The geulah is so close, so attainable, even though it sometimes seems so far.

On the flight returning to America, while contemplating the greatness of a city and its inhabitants, I recalled the words of the Chiddushei Harim, who explains the posuk we recited in Hallel on Shavuos: “Hashomayim shomayim laHashem veha’aretz nosan livnei odom.” The Ribbono Shel Olam has the entirety of the celestial spheres, which are His holy realm. He gave us the earth, so that we might invest it with holiness. Our job is to take the aretz and make it shomayimdik.

In the city selected by Hashem, one sees how a kehillah, in our day and age, has taken a few miles and invested them with the sanctity of the Divine.

Despite all the adversity, despite the resistance and tension, despite the fact that their choices subject them to ridicule and scorn, the people of Yerushalayim, in their role as the am haTorah, stand tall and proud.

Tova ha’aretz me’od me’od.

To me, Yerushalayim is more than a geographical location, a dot on a map representing a city where people live and work. It’s a dimension beyond time and space, the embodiment of thousands of years of yearning and hope. To me, Yerushalayim is poetry. To walk its streets is to be a stanza in that poem.

Observing its citizens, young and old, as they go about their daily chores, you find yourself wishing for a camera capable of capturing the special aura on their faces. Their emunah and bitachon are plainly evident. People who live in tiny cramped apartments, with bare refrigerators and few physical comforts smile and radiate a contented glow.

The temperature on Shavuos day was an oppressive 97 degrees. One of our relatives who came to visit on Yom Tov Sheini Shel Goluyos, mentioned matter-of-factly that there was no air conditioning in her apartment and not even a fan. She said it with a broad smile and without any air of martyrdom or self-pity. When I mentioned that I would be happy to buy her a few fans, she responded that they don’t have room in the apartment.

She, and her family, exude serenity and contentment, without fans or creature comforts. The source of their joy has little to do with the pleasures of this world.

Rather than an exception, this is the rule in that splendid city.

Reb Bentzion Oiring, whose name might be familiar to you from some of our appeals on his behalf over the years, came by to visit along with his wife and children. These destitute people seem perfectly satisfied. You see their wide smiles, their amiable natures, their easy camaraderie with others and with each other, and you marvel at their normalness. Then you notice that the wife is missing her front teeth because a visit to the dentist is a luxury that simply doesn’t fit into their budget.

A visit to that city and an honest look at the people remind you that the reality facing the Yerushalayimer Yidden is far different than ours. It makes you realize that when a Yerushalmi Yid comes knocking on your door, you shouldn’t view him as just another person in a long line of people who disturb your peace, but as an ambassador from a world where heaven touches earth. It is a city of overwhelmed fathers, carrying the burdens of wives without teeth, good women charged with feeding families after they’ve exhausted the makolet bills and the proprietor’s patience. They live in cramped apartments with no room for electric fans, and yet they smile, offering spirited thanks and praise as they daven in Zichron Moshe and the many other shtiblach and shuls that dot the holy streets.

The davening… Oh the davening! Every Shacharis, Minchah and Maariv is different. It isn’t the length of time that makes their tefillos different. Sometimes they daven quite quickly. It’s the intensity and genuine passion. There is nothing official, stilted and staged. You hear tefillos that emanate from deep within the Jewish soul and the people’s complete faith in the power of the words - and the Master to whom they are directed - is evident. Formality is admirable, but the vitality one feels there is so uplifting.

There are few experiences as spiritually elevating as joining the massive crowd of Jews, joined by nothing other than the commonality of their neshamos, descending on the Kosel in time for vosikin on Shavuos morning. Just as on any other day, they come like hungry children surrounding their mother’s table for breakfast; desperate, focused and entirely certain that their tefillos will be welcomed. You watch the first rays of the rising sun penetrate the sky and paint the ancient stones a soft orange and you feel enwrapped by the presence of the Shechinah, which has never departed. 

To stroll along the streets that have been tread by so many giants, knowing that you are fulfilling a mitzvah with each daled amos you traverse, is to allow your feet to be pulled by your soul and to feel at home. The reward received for the performance of the mitzvah is immediate, as you become uplifted breathing the avira d’ara.

On Shabbos and Yom Tov, children play in the street without a care in the world, and you can’t help but be swept along with their youthful optimism, blissful joy, charm and delight. 

Even the shopkeepers are different. I happened to meet a friend in a small Geulah shop. During the course of conversation, I mentioned that I had been to visit Rav Yaakov Edelstein in Ramat Hasharon.

The shopkeeper interjected. “Hu Yehudi kadosh. Ani agid lachem sippur.”

The young Sefardi man shared his tale. One evening, Rav Edelstein left a wedding and mistakenly entered a car he thought was that of his driver. After sitting down in the passenger seat and turning his head to say hello to his nahag, he realized, to his dismay, that the driver was not the person he expected it to be, but was, rather, a young woman. He quickly said, “Selichah,” and exited the vehicle.

The girl’s friend who witnessed the episode told her that she had the zechus of having a big tzaddik in her car, albeit for a moment and by mistake. “His name is Rav Yaakov Edelstein and you should ask him for a brochah.”

The next day, the girl called the rov and introduced herself as the accidental driver. “I am the girl whose car you mistakenly entered last night. I would like a brochah for a shidduch.” The rov responded with an assurance that she would be engaged within a month.

The shopkeeper concluded his story. “A month later she was engaged. To me.”

The good people of Yerushalayim hearten us and embolden us to face our own challenges. We so often hear tales of woe and prophecies of doom. There is way too much sadness in our community. Too many poor people. Too many sick people. Too many lonely people. People who were abused. Children who aren’t given a chance. Awful winds of dissension, extremism, injustice, negativity and cynicism are blowing, and there are people working to destroy our religion and way of life.

Bnei Tzion yogilu bemalkom. The people of Yerushalayim are a reminder that we must forge on with spirit and verve. We must not become meyuash. We must remain positive and battle that which confronts us, working to remedy that which ails us.

Let us not attach undue import to the spiteful words that appear in the New York Times and secular Jewish organs chastising an individual like the Novominsker Rebbe. We need to be confident and strong, proud that we have leaders courageous enough to speak the truth. It is surprising that people still expect respect and fair treatment from our secular brethren and are upset when our faith in them is proven misplaced. They are the ones with an agenda to undermine and weaken our authentic faith, while the Rebbe has no agenda, other than to share and spread the Torah’s truth.

We cannot hide our heads in the sand and ignore the danger they represent. They have veered far from the course charted at Sinai. Some are affected by their saccharine words and express self-doubt and a lack of confidence in our ability to battle and overcome them.

We, however, are heartened that we are no longer alone in our crusade against the Open Orthodox, their small school, and their growing influence and acceptance as legitimate Orthodox Jews. We welcome the prominent voices being added to our call that they not be recognized as Orthodox, and that their beliefs, teachings, writings and practices have regrettably removed them from the ranks of observant Jewry and placed them in the same category as the Conservative and Reform deviationist groups.

We don’t need anyone to preach to us or the Novominsker Rebbe: a man who lives not for honor, power or wealth, but to learn Torah, serve his Maker and guide his people.

And in this we take heart.

You look at the landmarks of Yerushalayim - the Kosel, site of the ultimate churban, yet with stirrings of so much binyan just under the surface; and the newly re-erected Churvah shul, with its history of rising and falling - and you realize that setbacks force greater resilience and stamina; but are not permanent. Those who tormented us are gone and forgotten. Torah and the life it provides remain as vibrant as ever.

You visit the great men of that country, giants such as the recently departed Rav Zundel Kroizer zt”l and, ybl”c, Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlit”a, who gives the clarity of the Urim Vetumim to our generation. The New York Times and the Forward can write as they please. Ours is a community producing people capable of transcending human limitations, climbing the heights of spiritual greatness. We have among us living portrayals of mivchar ha’anushi and nothing that anyone says about us can dispute that fact. We all have the ability to be holy and great. 

Perhaps we derive this lesson from the posuk (Tehillim 125:1) which states, “Habotchim baHashem, people of faith, kehar Tzion lo yimot, as the mountains surrounding Yerushalayim stand,” reminding us that those chosen by Him endure. Bitachon, conviction and courage in these trying times, comes from that city and the mountains surrounding it.

I had the opportunity to speak to a son of Rav Zundel Kroizer, who shared with me a letter written by his father. Rav Zundel had lived in Lugano, Switzerland, for a short time, and he wrote a loving note to his granddaughter on the occasion of her bas mitzvah.

He described his surroundings to the young girl, the majestic snow-capped mountains glistening pure white. “May your life,” the loving zaide wrote, “be pure and clean as the snow.” When a car ventures out in this pristine snow without proper chains on the tires, he continued, the vehicle will spin and spin, but make no progress. “In order for you to successfully traverse the channel that is life, you must remember to remain chained to the traditions of your parents and grandparents,” the tzaddik concluded.

We carry a rich mesorah, and it fuels us to reach higher and battle on.

We are so close to the end, yet still so far. There is a chasm we must bridge.

While in Yerushalayim, I noticed signs advertising organized buses to the kever of Rav Ovadiah M’Bartenurah in honor of his yahrtzeit. The site was described as being four minutes from the Kosel.

As I was leaving the Kosel, I asked a taxi driver to take me there. The Rav, as he is known, is the rebbi of any Yid who ever learned Mishnayos properly, so I wanted to take advantage of the time to daven at his kever, something I had never done before.

Following the paper signs that were posted for the occasion, we made our way down a steep mountain. At the end of the road, down in a deep valley, was the cave said to be the final resting place of the Rav M’Bartenurah.

We recited some Tehillim and tefillos together with the few people who were there. Just as we were ready to leave, others came running back, fear in their eyes. “Zorkim avanim. Zorkim! You can’t leave. The Arabs are throwing stones.” A hail of stones of all sizes poured down from high above us. We quickly returned to the safety of the kever area and police were called. After a long wait, they finally arrived once the stones had stopped falling. We left.

It was a bittersweet taste, so close yet so far. We were at the kever of our rebbi, yet under threat of harm. The Bartenurah’s storied letters to his father tell the tale of his arduous journey to Yerushalayim and of the hardships he endured so that he can live between the mountains of Tzion. He merited writing a peirush that illuminates each and every Mishnah, the result of his travails and efforts.

Let his lesson inspire us as well.

I was traveling in a car with Radio Kol Chai playing in the background when I heard the voice of my dear friend, Rabbi Eliezer Sorotzkin. It was the evening before Shavuos and the station was reporting that a group of totally secular teenage boys with whom Lev L’Achim volunteers began learning Gemara was brought to Yeshivas Mir Brachfeld to see a yeshiva for the first time in their lives.

Rabbi Sorotzkin was asked how his organization was withstanding the constant propaganda and governmental battles against religion. How, he was asked, are they impacting the work of Lev L’Achim? He answered that the only difference is that there is a sharp increase in the number of questions secular people ask Lev L’Achim volunteers who seek to educate them in Torah. Once the answers are provided and the truth is laid out, the people are as receptive as ever to the eternal message from Sinai.

Yes, there are problems, many problems, some of them unprecedented, but we must know that aloh na’aleh, we are on the ascendancy, and we will emerge victorious in the end if we stand together with strength, pride and unity.

This week, we read the parsha of the meraglim, who sinned by speaking ill of Eretz Yisroel. They, much like many today, saw Am Yisroel’s enemies as being too large and too powerful to overcome. Intimidated, they displayed a lack of faith.

Kalev sought to reassure our forefathers and mothers, telling them, “Aloh na’aleh…ki yachol nuchal lah” (13:30). Do not become dejected, he said. Do not fall for the messages of the naysayers and don’t pay attention to those who mock the word of Hashem. We will triumph. We will beat back our enemies, and those whose belief in Hashem is unchallenged will enter the Promised Land.

His words resound through the ages, rallying us today as well. There were those who doubted their own abilities to merit Eretz Yisroel. Today, we look at that country as a source of inspiration, its cobblestone alleyways, dusty paths and glorious buildings encouraging us to stand tall and proud.

Like it, the land bound up with our collective soul since before time, we will triumph. Aloh na’aleh, speedily in our days.