Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Prophecy Fulfilled

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The fate of the Jews of Russia was first placed on the public consciousness decades ago. It has held our fascination ever since. Russia has a storied past. Its current president is in the news every day, drawing our attention to the part of the world where many of our ancestors lived prior to their arrival here. We were brought up hearing stories of Cossacks and their massacres, noblemen and their viciousness, czars and their edicts. We learned about terrible Jewish suffering and deprivation.

I had the opportunity to spend a few days there this past week. It would be clichéd to say that the trip was eye-opening and the Shabbos amazing, but, indeed, that would be the best way to describe it. 

I traveled with a group of very special people, headed by Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky and his rebbetzin, to witness the work of Operation Open Curtain in bringing Torah to the Jews of Moscow. We toured their yeshiva and school and spent Shabbos at Camp Eitz Chaim, which they operate every year to introduce children to a Torah way of life.

It was a Shabbos of great joy, yet there were also tears. Let me explain.

At the Friday night meal, a young Russian baal teshuvah was introduced to make a siyum. He has been learning for a few years and this was the second mesechta he completed.

In his Russian accent, this resilient, happy, proud and handsome young man read the final lines of Maseches Makkos. It was a moment of sheer poetry, a microcosm of the Jewish experience in golus.

A neshomah that has endured all sorts of makkos - the scorn of a society that mocks religion, the uphill climb faced by someone intent on mastering Lashon Kodesh and Torah as an adult, and the bitterness and privation of daily life in Russia - completed a mesechta.

The mesechta ends with the story of the chachomim who witnessed foxes exiting from the Kodesh Hakodoshim. They wept as they contemplated the defilement of the holiest place on earth. Rabi Akiva, upon seeing the desolation, laughed. “Hischilu heim bochim,” the Gemara says, “veRabi Akiva metzacheik.”

The distressed chachomim were astounded. How could Rabi Akiva laugh at a time like this? He explained to them why he reacted so joyously to the very scene that caused them to cry.

Uriah Hakohein lived during the period of the first Bais Hamikdosh. Zechariah Hanovi lived at the time of the second Bais Hamikdosh. Uriah foretold the very desecration they were witnessing, saying, “Tzion sodeh seichoreish - Tzion will be plowed as a field (Michah 3:12).

Zechariah spoke of a time when “od yeishvu zekeinim uzekeinos birechovos Yerushalayim - the streets of the Holy City will be bursting with young and old people” (Zechariah 8:4).

Rabi Akiva concluded, “Now that I see that the prophecy foretold by Uriah came true, I can eagerly anticipate Zechariah’s happy ending.”  

“Akiva,” they replied, “nichamtonu. You have consoled us.”

The young Russian man making the siyum couldn’t have appreciated the poignancy of his words as he painstakingly read them. The words he recited expressed the power and potency of what we were witnessing.

As he said the words, “Hischil Rabi Akiva metzacheik,” in my heart, I laughed. We sat there, in the epicenter of destruction, where generations of despotic regimes worked with single-minded dedication to eradicate Yahadus and enable the Tochachah to be realized, and now we were witnessing Jewish people, young and old, happily living lives of Torah in this cursed place.

Indeed, despite all the problems that have plagued our community, people and land, we can look forward to a hopeful future.

You see, Camp Etz Chaim occupies a Stalin-era indoctrination facility. Back in the Soviet heyday, under Comrade Stalin, every Russian young man was forced to attend a summer camp, where they were fed propaganda about the power and might of the state, the ‘truth’ of its values, and the dominance of its army. It was a place where Judaism was mocked and where daily activities included in-depth sessions railing against freedom and religion.

If there were any Jews in the camp who were aware or proud of their heritage, you can be sure that they were abused of the notion by the time they left. A bitter state campaign was waged against Judaism. For seventy years, it was forbidden to practice Yiddishkeit. The entire enterprise was invested in making Judaism a vestige of the past.

Many of those campers went on to engage in careers of serving Mother Russia, participating in the state campaign against religion and committing murder and torture to help achieve their goal. Some of them no doubt paid for the dream with their lives along with at least fifty million other Russians who died under Stalin.

For many years, it appeared that the communists had won and that Jewish worship would die out altogether across the great expanses of that county. There were rivers filled with tears of broken mothers and fathers, and fresh widows and orphans, all products of the regime.

Hischilu heim bochim. They cried and cried and there was no one to be menacheim them.

Yet, there we sat, in the country formerly shut by an Iron Curtain, in that very same building where children were brainwashed and condemned to a life of darkness, witnessing a vision of hope, marveling at the depth of Rabi Akiva’s perception.

There we were, sitting in that same camp with people who had connected with their roots on their own free will. One of them was reciting that famous Gemara as he finished acquainting himself - in the land of makkos - with Maseches Makkos, relating the joy of Rabi Akiva at the fulfillment of a prophecy of doom. That visualization reinforced his own belief in the prophecy of redemption, as being there did for us.

We, who visited Russia this past Shabbos, saw what Rabi Akiva had foreseen. Is that not a reassuring thought as Av is ushered in? We who live in a world of churban were able to perceive the beginning of the dawn of the age the prophets foretold.

I am sure that there was a rumble of laughter somewhere of the precious neshamos who were stamped out, as a grandson of those unfortunates so proudly read, “Hadran alach. I will never leave you.” He was saying that he sacrificed so much to make it to this point and was invoking the merit of Tannaim and Amoraim as he asked that his own progeny never leave the path of Torah.

I was reminded of what Rav Avrohom Pam zt”l once said many years ago. Quoting Yirmiyohu Hanovi (31:5), who foretold of the day when watchmen on Har Ephraim will call out, “Arise and let us ascend to Tzion, to Hashem Elokeinu, Rav Pam remarked that the strength of this prophecy lies beneath its surface, in the words “Har Ephraim.” He explained that hundreds of years prior to this nevuah, Yerovam ben Nevat, king of the ten shevotim, was determined to prevent the Bnei Yisroel from ascending to the Bais Hamikdosh to be oleh regel. The wicked king perceived that the celebration of the union between Knesses Yisroel and the Ribbono Shel Olam took place on the Yomim Tovim in Yerushalayim. In his bid to upset that relationship, he posted watchmen to block Jews from being oleh regel.

The guards were positioned on Har Ephraim, from where they had a view of the expanse below and were able to monitor the roads leading to Yerushalayim. They stood there prepared to execute anyone trying to make the journey.

Rav Pam concluded that Yirmiyohu prophesized on those very mountaintops upon which wicked watchmen were stationed that, at the time when Hashem would display His mercy and eternal love, people will stand there and proclaim, “Come all and march up to Yerushalayim.”

As the Soviet Union was beginning to shake off seven decades of oppression and hate, Rav Pam said he was looking forward to the day when “in the very schools where today Jewish children are being taught heresy, there will come a time that rabbeim faithful to Hashem will teach Torah as it was transmitted at Sinai. In these same buildings will be produced not anti-religious students, but students who love Torah…of whom Hashem will be proud.”

Rosh yeshiva, at the time you spoke those words, they sounded fanciful, but last Shabbos, we saw the students in whom you were so confident. We saw your vision being realized in that camp.

It was Shabbos Parshas Masei, which is replete with references to the stations and points along the perpetual Jewish journey. It was Shabbos chazak, a weekend of strength, realizing a masa coming full circle.

“So,” someone asked me upon my return, “what did you go for? Was it a Shabbos of chizuk?” Yes, chizuk too, but it was also a paean for the future. It was a Shabbos of hope, of strength, of endurance and of witnessing the fulfillment of prophecy.

Every person there was a part of the nevuah. Every person who stood up to tell their story was speaking words of the novi, whether they knew it or not. Dovid in his way, Michal in hers, Anya in hers. They all spoke movingly about where they come from, where they are now, and how they got there. Their neshamos shone through and punctured the language barrier that separated us. Just looking at their faces and noting their smiles and happiness helped us understand what they were saying.

While there, we bentched Rosh Chodesh Av, the saddest month in the Jewish calendar. Av Harachamim is usually not recited prior to Mussaf on Shabbosos when we bentch Rosh Chodesh. The siddur instructs that some communities have the custom of reciting the sad prayer on the Shabbos when we bentch Rosh Chodesh Av, while others don’t.

When it came time to say Av Harachamim, Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky was asked if it should be recited, as we were in a place without a known custom. He said not to say it. I didn’t ask him why, but am convinced that it was partly because he was having a Rabi Akiva moment.

Can there be a more reassuring backdrop to the words of “Rosh Chodesh Av yihiyeh beyom sheini,” a more appropriate setting in which to usher in the month of churban, than to be davening publicly in a country of churban and makkos and singing the words of Yechadsheihu?

A rabbi in Moscow told me that years ago, local Jews would ask each other, “How will we know when Moshiach has arrived?” And they would answer, “When we will be able to recite Krias Shema aloud in Red Square and not get killed, we will know Moshiach is here.”

On Erev Shabbos, I stood in Red Square and proclaimed, “Shema Yisroel!”

Are we not living in Moshiach’s times?

A seed is planted and then rots. But suddenly, it sprouts forth and blossoms. Its destruction is the very catalyst for its growth.

We have had so much destruction. It is time we witnessed growth. We have experienced so much sadness ad so much bechiyah. It is time we were able to be metzacheik.

The Ribbono Shel Olam is matzmiach yeshuos. He sends salvation like a seed that is planted deep underground, unseen, where it must decompose before it can flourish.

There was a time when davening in the Choral Synagogue meant being surrounded by KGB agents. Every word was overheard and reported upon. They would take attendance, and Jews who were seen in shul risked losing their jobs and careers. Only the very hardy ones publicly displayed their Judaism. Yet, we were there on a non-descript Thursday, davening Minchah along with free Jews of all ages, risking little to publicly appear at the storied shul.

There was a time when those who steadfastly insisted on maintaining their Yiddishkeit were branded Refuseniks, enemies of state. Now there is an array of shiurim, minyanim and all the signs of a vibrant kehillah.

You meet the men and women who are associated with the kehillah supported by Open Curtain and find them and the Ohalei Yaakov Kollel yungeleit and their families to be admirable in so many ways. Your heart sings as you ponder the potential for a positive future for the kinderlach of Moscow.

The Choral Synagogue was once filled with KGB agents. Now you can walk in there on a Thursday afternoon in the summer and the only bugs in the shul are of the type that can be swatted away with little effort. That is a reason to be metzacheik.

To see Jewish institutions flourishing in a city in which no one dreamed that it would ever be possible to wear tefillin publicly is a reason to be metzacheik. To see so many people davening and learning Torah is another.

To see grand shuls and schools and dedicated people who run them with mesirus nefesh is a reason to be metzacheik.

The recently opened, massive, beautiful Jewish museum, which is easily on par with the best museums in the world, is visited by thousands, Jews and non-Jews, who are introduced to concepts that Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and their comrades thought they had buried and eternally eradicated. That is a reason to be metzacheik.

This week, we will lain Parshas Devorim. The posuk states, “Ho’il Moshe be’er es haTorah hazos.” Moshe Rabbeinu translated the Torah into seventy languages. Meforshim wonder why the Torah was related to Am Yisroel in seventy different languages, the majority of which they did not comprehend.

The answer is that in order for the Torah, the blueprint and outline of creation itself, to be able to impact and influence all people at all times, its relevance must cross into each of the shivim lashonos and be applicable in all seventy languages. The Torah was not just given for the Bnei Yisroel in the midbar. It is relevant for every one of us, in all places, in all times.

The climax of the Shabbos was a message of hope for the week ahead. As the light of the Havdollah candle flickered overhead, we heard the timeless nevuah of “Hinei Keil yeshuosi evtach velo efchod - Hashem is with me and I shall not fear.”

As the neshomah yeseirah departed and the fire was extinguished in the plate of wine, wishes of “shovua tov” were exchanged. A totally different sound began filling the large dining room. It was an awful and haunting sound, one that was totally incongruous with anything we had heard since we arrived Thursday morning. 

Sounds of wailing and sobbing punctured the night.

Apprehensive of bad news, Rachmana litzlon, I inquired as to why all the campers had begun to cry. What had happened? Was there a tragedy? Did someone die? Was there bad news from the Israeli war front?

The answer was no. That’s not what it was. The campers were wailing because the last Shabbos in camp had ended. They had three days remaining in a bubble of growth and joy. Then it would be back to their mundane lives, devoid of meaning. Their neshamos were begging for more.

The campers were crying bitterly and loudly because on Tuesday they would be returning home. 80% of them would be going back to homes of tarfus and chillul Shabbos. They had just experienced weeks of kedushah for the first time in their lives and they didn’t want to let go.

Their neshamos and their gufos were begging for more.

A fire was lit in their souls and they feared that it would be extinguished. They couldn’t bear the thought of that happening. They were begging for more. They were gasping for air and attempting to grasp something to hold onto so that they won’t sink in the raging ocean they were about to fall into. They were on a plane, flying high, and they knew they were about to crash land.

The fire that had been kindled over the previous weeks wouldn’t simply go out like the flame of Havdollah. The wailing was heart-wrenching, awful to hear and see.

Hischilu heim bochim.

But then I thought of Rabi Akiva and began to smile. Look at those tears. Hear that wailing. Listen to how neshamos kedoshos are begging for more, vehischil hu metzacheik. I was witnessing the realization of so many prophecies.

How could I not be joyous, recognizing that I was witnessing a historic miracle? Perhaps even greater than frum Jews being able to recite Shema in Red Square is the sight of young people who knew nothing about Yiddishkeit weeks ago begging to say Krias Shema in their homes and to bring and keep Hashem in their lives?

VeRabi Akiva metzacheik.

Once again, Rabi Akiva’s rejoinder rang through the long golus. Listen to the sound of holy neshamos pleading for more, desperate to remain connected and smile. It was a realization of so many nevuos. It is a harbinger of hope, a reminder that we are on the cusp of “veheishiv lev avos al bonim,” at the threshold of “uvau ha’ovdim mei’eretz ashur, witness to the “lo ra’av lalachem…ki im lishmoa es divrei Hashem.” We are in the dawn of a new era when every Jew will feel close, when no Jew will feel distant or forlorn.

I looked at these souls, children embodying the struggle we all face, neshamos yearning to grow, and I silently wished them a gut voch, hoping for the light of Shabbos to shine into the darkness of the yemei hama’aseh and the light of Moshiach’s times to illuminate the gloom of golus.

May it be revealed this year, and may laughter fill the air as we celebrate Tisha B’Av as a moed, uleshoneinu rinah, amidst sounds of happiness and thanks.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Light in the Darkness

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This week’s parsha of Masei, which begins with the words “Eileh masei Bnei Yisroel,” listing the many stops the Jews made as they traversed the desert on their way to the Promised Land, reflects the eternal ethos of our people. They traveled, set up camp, got comfortable and then packed up and moved on.

We would think that the names of the places, where Bnei Yisroel stopped, are of little consequence. Yet, the Torah lists every stop, to teach us that the masaos are essentially a definition of who we are. They collectively form our experience as a people as far back as anyone can remember. Each station and outpost in Klal Yisroel’s journey is mentioned, for each is significant. Every peak and valley we encounter plays a role in leading us to the ultimate geulah.

We have good days and not such good days. We had good stops and places that were totally inhospitable to us. They are all stations along the track that forms, molds and creates the eternal people, preparing us for our destiny.

The posuk in Shir Hashirim states, Tashuri meirosh amanah” (4:8). Rashi explains the posuk to mean that a mountaintop known as Amanah is a summit we will encounter at the time of redemption as we are about to enter Eretz Yisroel. As the final act of golus, we will assemble at Amanah, gaze at Eretz Yisroel, and begin to sing a song of thanksgiving and praise.

One of the previous Belzer Rebbes explained that upon finally earning the redemption for which our people has waited so long, the euphoric nation will realize as they enter Eretz Yisroel that they have lost the ability of emunoscha baleilos, finding faith in times of darkness. Thus, they will gather at the peak of golus and offer one last expression of thanks from the darkness. A final song will rise from the bunkers of the exile. It will be an ode of thanks for all that transpired throughout the journey and a realization that the darkness led to light.

In essence, “Tashuri meirosh amanah” marks the culmination of “Eileh masei Bnei Yisroel and the commencement of a new reality.

Faith calls for an ability to see when it is dark and to hear when there is silence. We exist in the darkness of golus, surrounded by ever-present issues and tragedies that test our belief. Throughout our history, we have endured so much, yet remained loyal. We have gone from masa to masa, each place of refuge ending more tragically than the one preceding it. But in darkness, we have seen light, and in tragedy, we have sensed glimmers of hope. We have always known that what we see and feel is only surface deep. We have known that there is incomprehensible depth to our experiences.

People of emunah peshutah understood throughout the ages that nothing happens in our world by happenstance. We don’t just happen to be here. We aren’t simply highly intelligent monkeys that have evolved into speaking actors. The world was Divinely created by the Mechadeish bechol yom tomid ma’aseh bereishis, and since every day is a new manifestation of the original creation, whatever transpires is for a higher purpose.

Any honest, casual observer of the world would conclude that it could not have come into existence by itself. Since it is wholly obvious that the world - and everything that comprises it - was formed by a Higher Being, it is apparent that it was created for a higher purpose.

This knowledge is what enabled us to survive all that we encountered in our masaos and to endure the golus.

As we study Parshas Masei this week, we are once again being tested. The nation that simply seeks to live in peace is portrayed as a people who derive special joy from murder. The entire world knows and can prove with pictures and facts that Jews see it as a religious duty to kill babies. Hundreds of millions of people who follow the news are told that Jews undertake massacres and engage in disproportionate military action. 

All we want is to look to the sky and see fluttering birds instead of rockets, and to hear chirping sounds instead of sirens. We await the day when children can play safely in a park, without fear, in Israel and around the world. We pray for the sound of the shofar to emanate from the holy city, proclaiming a festival and not doom. Yet we are mocked, despised, and driven from place to place. Jews have been living in France since at least the fourth century, yet thousands feel threatened and are running for their lives.

The governments in Syria and Iraq have collapsed. A radical group has taken hold of much of the former. Yet, none of the world’s policemen seem to be concerned. Tens of thousands of men, women and children, including babies, have been killed. Not a serious word of complaint emerges from any direction. Millions have become refugees, overwhelming neighboring countries. Has anyone in a position of power in the West done anything to help the plight of so many people? ISIS just gave Christian residents of an Iraqi city it captured an ultimatum: convert or die. Have any of the Christian nations and groups that counsel restraint to the Jewish state done anything to stem the drive of ISIS? We have serious differences with Israel’s prime minister, but, without a doubt, he is the most eloquent statesman on the world stage, yet his message fails to resonate.

A citizen army comprised of sons, brothers, fathers and neighbors goes to battle to protect fellow citizens. They are well-trained and focused on the common goal of acting as morally as possible in a war aimed at eradicating immoral enemies bent on their destruction. The world’s players admonish them for defending their right to live in peace.

The recent ground invasion was brought on by an attempt of 13 Hamas terrorists to infiltrate Israel through a tunnel dug under the Gaza-Israel border. Thankfully, they were stopped before they were able to realize their goal of killing innocent Jews. Yet, the world paints the war as one being waged between an evil Jewish Goliath and a poor Arab David. There is little or no reporting on the humanitarian cease-fire by Israel imposed the day the ground invasion began. There is no mention that it was ignored by Hamas and that their very actions led to the necessity of Israel ramping up their action against those dedicated to their destruction.

War is awful, but in the world in which we live, war is sometimes necessary. If evil is permitted to fester and become strengthened and emboldened, good people will suffer and be killed. Liberty and democracy are threatened by the growth of radical terror groups.

Around the world, anti-Israel demonstrations are held. The United Nations’ diplomatic mouthpiece hurried to the microphone to decry Israel’s advancement and to call upon Israel to exercise more caution so as not to cause civilian deaths. He didn’t issue the same call to Hamas. The ISIS operates with impunity. Dozens are ripped to shreds by bombs in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, yet no one knows or cares about it. Hundreds of girls are kidnapped in Africa. Initially, the world responds with a hash tag and press conferences. Just as quickly, the tragedy is forgotten and removed from the public’s conscience. After all, Israel is at war, fighting once again for its life. Who has time to examine what is transpiring anywhere else in the world?

Thousands of targets were hit by Israel. These include tunnels, rocket factories and storehouses, infrastructure built by wicked people who live to kill. When presented with a plan to end the hostilities, Hamas spurned it. In their eyes, every rocket sent to Israel is a victory and every attempt at infiltration proves their virility. It makes no sense to us, but it does to them.

When Israel finally began its ground invasion, it was with the stated goal of simply destroying the many fortified tunnels Hamas built in order to infiltrate Israel. Israel’s spokesmen specifically said that they would not destroy Hamas.

The terror group that rules Gaza, thanks to former President George W. Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, in the wake of Arik Sharon’s misguided unilateral abandonment of Gaza for peace, will be permitted to inculcate hatred and jihadism, and rearm, to torment Israel in the future. 

The entire goal of Hamas, like Yassir Arafat and his followers, is to bring about the destruction of Israel. Their essence is dedicated to reach that result. Unlike so-called “moderate” groups, they make no secret of it. Yet, it is this group that won the election in Gaza and would win on the West Bank if free elections were held there. This band of murderers was delivered a state on a silver platter nine years ago and set about destroying its infrastructure. They returned the favor of the gift they were handed for the sake of peace, by turning the Judenrein land into a base for terror.

While the Jews made the desert bloom, they destroyed a flourishing oasis. While the Jews sacrificed to defend their citizens, they spent whatever they had on offense and not a dime on defense. They utilized any building material they smuggled to build rockets, acquire weapons and construct tunnels from which to attack Israeli villages and nothing to create a viable state.

The Arabs who refer to themselves as Palestinians and live in the area the world has decided should become a state named Palestine have demonstrated repeatedly that their desire is not to live in peace with the Jews, but to eradicate their existence. 

How can anyone fail to recognize the obvious?

We think we will remember the period we are currently experiencing, but, in truth, we will quickly forget. Who remembers the Sbarro bombing or the Café Hillel bombing, when Dr. David Applebaum and his daughter, a kallah, were killed the day before her wedding?

Who cries for Ron Arad, Zachary Baumel, Tzvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz?

Who recalls the war two years ago and the one before that?

Who mourns the bombing of the number-two bus and the intifada when there were bombs blowing up Jews on busses, in restaurants and simply walking the street almost every day?

Who remembers the many rockets that were shot at Israel during the ceasefire that was in effect prior to Mivtza Tzuk Eitan? How many of us ever bothered to travel to Sderot during our visits to Eretz Yisroel to see for ourselves what it is like to live in a border town?

We are permitting Palestinian lies to gain credence. Yes, it’s true that the world hates us, but why should their media be permitted to present themselves as being balanced as they report on the murder by Israel of “innocent Arab children,” as if they were targeted?

Why are we silent when the secretary of state’s reaction to Israel’s ground invasion to battle terrorists was to admonish Prime Minister Netanyahu to do more to prevent civilian casualties? When he is caught expressing his true feelings in between parroting talking points designed to lull us into thinking the administration has changed its approach toward Israel, the matter is barely pursued. He takes off once again to the Mideast to pressure Israel into taking action that is contrary to its interests. 

When you recognize the task facing Israel in battling terrorists who surround themselves, in a crowded urban setting, with women and children for protection, storing their weaponry in schools and holding their meetings in hospitals, the fact that more people have not been killed is a testament to Israel’s commitment to the protection of human life - even of their enemies.

When we hear of Hamas fighters in Gaza, we think of primitive Arabs on donkeys. We think of Gaza as a refugee camp, teeming with families living in temporary shelter. When they speak of subterranean passageways under the border, we think of the tunnels we tried to dig as children. In fact, Gaza is a built-up urban center, much more akin to a city than a Bedouin encampment. The dozens of tunnels present a serious threat to Israel. They are deep, high, wide and long, with electricity, light and air. As Hamas realized that Israel’s air superiority would doom them in a war and the Iron Dome basically neutralizes the rockets they use to terrorize the Israeli civilian population, they began to seriously expand their tunnel operations.

Financed by Qatar, the American ally, and home of the rabid propaganda media group Al-Jazeera, Hamas evolved into a serious military threat and is no longer simply a suicidal guerilla gang. After investing tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars, they now have the ability to hold the vaunted Israeli army at bay, while popping out of the ground in Israeli villages to cause serious loss of life. Hashem yishmor.

Israel feels that it is winning the war, but even if that is true, they are losing the battle. The world focuses on photographs and, regrettably, Hamas has proved its proficiency in supplying them and crafting the story. Most people, and the media, do not focus on what is really transpiring; they simply glance at the optics and form quick opinions. While Netanyahu articulates Israel’s position quite well, he is basically the country’s entire PR operation. In a shallow, unfriendly world we cannot be faulted for expecting that Israel would be presenting its case more comprehensively.

While it is obvious that the war was caused by Hamas rockets falling on cities across Israel, world leaders unanimously call upon Israel to exercise restraint.

Restraint in what? In rooting out the terror force which threatens its very existence? Restraint in battling its Al Qaeida?

Hamas is quite adept at playing victim. Hashem has protected us, ensuring relatively few casualties, but that is not for a lack of attempt by Hamas, which has steadily increased its firepower and fighting ability. Under heavy fire, Hamas has managed to send rockets all across the country. The reports of Arab casualties are distributed by Hamas and gleefully accepted by all. They warn their fighters to dress as civilians and to refer to all casualties as “civilian.” Israel gets no credit for its yeoman’s efforts to prevent innocent deaths. After all, if they wanted to end the problem without regard to human life, they could easily bomb at will, as America recently did in Iraq and Afghanistan and has done in countries that had the temerity to bomb American targets. Japan learned that lesson after it bombed American ships in Pearl Harbor.

We ponder these facts and wonder why we are judged differently. Why does the world look at us with a jaundiced eye? How can everyone ignore the obvious? Why?

And then we remember that we are in golus in chodesh Tammuz, heading to Av. We think about all that has befallen our people during these months and we are shocked back to the reality of our existence.

Shivah Assar B’Tammuz is the dark day on which the Luchos were shattered, smashing our hopes and dreams. It is the fast day declared by Chazal to mark five serious blows our nation experienced. The five include the end of the korban tomid era, the posting of a tzeilem in the Heichal, and the burning of our Torah by Apostomos Harosha. However, the days of Tammuz and Av are dotted with many other tragedies as well.

During these months, the attacks on the Jews of Seville transpired, as did the pogrom against the Jews of Yashi, Romania. The pogrom in Kielce, Poland, where the last few surviving Jews returning home from the concentration camps were brutally attacked and murdered, also took place during this period.

Throughout the generations, wars began in these days. Our hearts and souls were attacked. The Gemara was burnt by haters and the whisper of sinas Yisroel heard throughout the year always seemed to get louder during these months.

So, really, this latest war and the accompanying chorus of condemnation and downright discrimination is nothing new for us.

In botei knesses around the world, when the reading of this week’s parsha ­is concluded, a resounding cry will rise, proclaiming, “Chazak, chazak, venischazeik - Be strong and may we all be strengthened.”

We read of the travels from one place to the next, we think about all that transpires in exile on the way to Eretz Yisroel, and our reaction is not one of dejection and gloom. Rather, we accept it with the understanding that these are all necessary passages on the path to redemption. We proclaim that our belief is strong, our resolution is unwavering, and we are tough, stubborn and persistent.

We encourage each other to be chazak. And as we tell each other to be strong, a unified roar of strength emanates from the congregation.

Some ten years ago, an Israeli soldier, Nachshon Wachsman Hy”d, was kidnapped by Hamas terrorists. A country and nation united in faith and prayer, hoping for a miracle. Nachshon’s parents, Yehuda and Esther, were fountains of emunah. Jews everywhere hoped along with them. After six anxious days, he was murdered. There were inevitable questions.

Yehuda Wachsman addressed the media and famously commented, “If people wonder why our prayers didn’t merit a response, the answer is that we did get an answer. Sometimes a Father can answer, ‘No.’”

Months later, when Rav Avrohom Pam zt”l was asked to write a letter of support for Beit Nachshon, a center founded in memory of the soldier, he described his great appreciation for the Wachsmans.

“In the depth of their pain, these parents made a public pronouncement that Hakadosh Boruch Hu does indeed hear and heed the tefillos of the Bnei Yisroel, but a Father is also allowed to sometimes say, ‘No.’ This was a great, great Kiddush Hashem…”

It’s a decade later. The storyline hasn’t changed.

Our memories are fresh. We’ve seen a nation pray together as one. We’ve heard our Father’s “No” and we lowered our heads in submissive acceptance.

Last week, as Friday was turning into Shabbos and the neshomah yeseirah was joining millions of Israelis across the country, the sirens went off again, signaling that cities from Sderot to Bnei Brak were under attack. The yom menuchah would begin with a rush into the shelter instead of shul.

We know so little. We are in golus and the mitzvah of emunah envelops us, with opportunities to grasp faith everywhere.

In a shmuess to talmidim, Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel commented on the recent eighteen days of prayer on behalf of the three boys kidnapped by Hamas. While it may appear that the prayers were rebuffed, the rosh yeshiva noted that the eighteen days of unity and prayer were followed by a war in which open miracles are being witnessed regularly across the Land.

Deadly missiles fall harmlessly. Stories abound of families vacating premises in the nick of time. A relatively new invention, the Iron Dome, acts as Hashem’s messenger, picking rockets out of the sky. Rav Elya Ber said that the eighteen days of intense prayer and growth created an account of zechuyos, creating Divine favor in advance of the sudden war.

During this tekufah of Tammuz and Av, we focus on - and long for - Yerushalayim. We wait to stand on the peak of Amanah and sing our song one last time.

Until then, we say together and aloud, “Chazak! Chazak! Be strong!”

Venischazeik. Indeed, we will be.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Mirage

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

With hundreds of rockets falling on Eretz Yisroel, we are witness to daily miracles as there have been very few Israeli casualties. While others credit the Iron Dome with protecting the Israeli population, we note that the very formulation of the system was a miracle. Experts and politicians were stubbornly opposed to funding its creation. The singular dedication of a few diehards forced its completion, and that in itself is a miracle. It is miraculous that those people were given the intelligence and perseverance to produce this lifesaving device.

We know that even the Iron Dome cannot guarantee success. Rockets land in gas stations and in between houses, yet they don’t kill anyone. We know that it is because we have the Divine Dome, which shields us. May we prove ourselves worthy of Hashem’s continued protection.

That being said, the world’s current equation of casualty is maddening. Terrorists shoot rockets indiscriminately at a neighboring country, aiming to kill innocent civilians. Yet, when that country fights back defensively to protect itself and the millions of people - in eighty percent of its territory - who are within range of the rockets, the world equates the country’s bombs with those of the terrorists.

If you search through photo albums of wire services that supply pictures for the world media, you could be forgiven for thinking that all foreign photographers have been expelled from Israel and sent to Gaza.

For every few dozen photographs of poor suffering Gazan babies and adults killed by Israeli bombs, and for every few dozen photos of buildings bombed by Israel, there is one picture of an Israeli tank or soldier. Viewing the pictures, you realize that the intention of those who supply the media with their material is to convey the impression that Israel, the aggressor, is targeting and killing innocent civilians in order to firm up their conquest of stolen lands.

Rarely in the reporting that accompanies those pictures does it say that Israel drops leaflets warning civilians to leave and first drops a warning bomb onto the roof of a house to notify its residents to quickly leave. The few news outlets that bother to inform their readers of this tidbit quickly note that it is insufficient to warn civilians to leave and may even constitute a war crime.

Then they go on to speak of how many Palestinians were killed versus how many Israeli casualties there have been, as if that is the proper method of calculating who is in the right.

Hamas established a terror state on the ruins of a Jewish enterprise sacrificed for the sake of peace. If only they would have a land of their own, the world said, they would cease terrorizing the Jews. If they were granted the independence they covet and deserve, they would prove their intelligence and value to society as they realize their right to self-determination. 

Instead of building factories to employ and nourish their citizens they built rockets and rocket launchers to rain down on their neighbors and cause misery for their own people. Their drive to destroy the Jewish state consumed them and precluded them from being welcomed into the league of civilized nations. Instead of teaching their children to excel in school and meaningful trades, they inculcated within them a culture worshiping death.

Hamas has been engaging in firing rockets into Israeli population centers for years, yet the only time we hear about it is when Israel decides to fight back. The world neither cares, nor is concerned by the growing terror threat posed by the Islamic militants, until Israel begrudgingly temporarily stops the barrage, never really finishing the job. 

Headlines and newscasts have spoken of Israel’s bombing of a mosque, a center for the disabled, and the house of a police commander. People interested in figuring out what is going on are treated to quotes such as these, from nice, ordinary Gaza Arabs:

Mahmoud al-Batsh said, “The Jews don’t differentiate between the police commander and ordinary citizens.”

Munzer al-Batsh, the police commander’s brother, said, “The Jews eliminated an entire family: grandfather, father, mother, even the children, who were sleeping in the homes. They were civilians.” 

The Jews are awful people, targeting and killing generations of peaceful people.

The same goes for Israel’s bombing of the center for the disabled. Jamila Elaiwa, founder of the center, said that she had no idea why Israel bombed it. “No one lived there except us,” she said.

She didn’t say, nor did the reporting on the incident point out, that Hamas stores its weapons in hospitals and other civilian centers, cynically using civilians as human shields.

Israel drops leaflets warning Gazans to leave “for their own safety” in advance of a “short and temporary” operation and Hamas terms these notices “Israeli propaganda” and “psychological warfare,” which, of course, should be ignored.

Israel’s spokesman says, “We phone up our enemies and tell them that we are going to blow up the building. We throw non-explosive munitions, and that is a sign that they are supposed to vacate the building. Only once we have seen them vacate the building - and we are talking about hitting command and control places and not the terrorists themselves - then we hit.”

Did Israel warn Jamila Elaiwa that an attack was imminent? Well, um, yes, she says, admitting that, in fact, there was “a knock on the roof” before the place was hit. She was quick to add incredulously, “But no one understood what it meant. No one could imagine the center would be a target for anyone.”

All this is said and reported with a straight face.

The same goes for the mosque targeted and bombed that same day. There was ample warning - the “knock on the roof” – and everyone in Gaza knows what that means. While the imam of the place of prayer described it as a holy place, Israel said that it was also the home of “a Hamas rocket cache and a gathering point for terrorists.” 

But just know, said the imam, that he fears not Israel, for in the rubble of the building, he found a Koran open to the words, “Victory is imminent for those who remain steadfast.” 

And so, they continue lobbing rockets into virtually the entire country of Israel, reaching unprecedented distances, thus scaring millions, disrupting lives, and causing mental and financial damage to a small country that seeks peace.

A cease fire is declared and then Hamas unleashes volleys of rockets across the country that had backed down from destroying an enemy sworn to its destruction.

My children and grandchildren in Yerushalayim, and over one million other people in Israel, are awakened three times a night to go to a shelter in their night clothes, their sleep and lives disrupted. What do you tell your children? What do you tell yourself? What is going on? Why do we suffer like this? What do they want from us? What did we do to deserve this?

My four-year-old granddaughter says Shema at bedtime and asks her mommy if she thinks she will be able to sleep through the night. She wonders about her cousins: “Mommy, does this also happen in Lakewood?”

Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky zt”l remarked that if a child is sent to their room for some infraction and happily goes off to read a book there, the parents must increase the punishment in order to discipline their child. 

Similarly, said Rav Yaakov, we have been sent into exile, but if we fail to recognize that we are in golus and that we are here as a punishment, there is serious danger that the burden and suffering will be increased, chas veshalom.

As we wonder about what is currently transpiring in the skies and on the ground of Eretz Yisroel, we feel the strain of golus wherever we are.

As we daven for our Israeli brethren, we should also contemplate our own sorry state and recognize that we are in golus.

Our very first redeemer, Moshe Rabbeinu, arrived in the depths of our first golus. The posuk in Shemos recounts, “Vayeitzei el echov vayar besivlosam.” Moshe left Paroh’s palace. He went to take account of his brothers and observe what they were enduring.

The Kotzker Rebbe wondered what inspired Moshe to leave the palace to view what his brethren were being subjected to. The Rebbe explained that the answer lies in the word “besivlosam.” While the simple translation is suffering, the word has another meaning. Soveil means to tolerate.

Moshe perceived that the Bnei Yisroel were no longer repulsed by the Mitzri culture and behavior. They had developed a tolerance for their surroundings. Hence, “Vayar besivlosam.” He went to see what he could do to help bring about the geulah.

Golus succeeds when it claims the hearts and souls of its captives. 

A friend of mine recently visited Reb Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin. During the course of conversation, Sholom Mordechai said something powerful that sheds light on our condition.

He related that as the weather warmed, he took the opportunity availed to him of stepping outside of the building to enjoy the fresh air. Though inmates may only walk around a track enclosed on all sides by gleaming electric wire, high fences and lookout points, they enjoy the opportunity to feel the sunshine or a gentle breeze.

Sholom Mordechai recounted that in previous years, when he would go outside for a walk, he was confronted by a flood of memories. As he strolled outside, he was reminded of walking to shul with his children, of spending time in his Iowa backyard, of Chol Hamoed trips with his wife and family, and of all the normal things we take for granted as we walk outside.

“This year,” Sholom Mordechai matter-of-factly told my friend, “when I went out, I no longer felt those memories. As I walked, the only thing I remembered was walking outside last year in prison and the year before that.

“It bothered me for a while,” he recounted, “until I realized that this must be another effect of my years in prison. Being locked away so long causes a person to be unable to relate to the reality of an outside world that seems to have been lost over time.”

He said that “the repetitive, monotonous routine of prison time, together with the separation from family and friends and not being able to do what a human being is created to do as a productive member of society, lulls a person into feeling that prison is the only place in the world. It is like a mirage, but meanwhile, the reality of the outside world fades and blurs, becoming more and more vague with the passage of time.”

Sholom Mordechai concluded his thought: “And then I realized that this must be the way it feels for the neshomah, which comes down to this dark world and is imprisoned in a guf. At first, it recalls the splendor and glory of the Heavenly realm and it is warmed by the memories, but in time, this world becomes its home and it forgets where it comes from. The thought led me to appreciate the need for a surge of energy for my neshomah, and to do mitzvos, learn Torah and daven to sustain my neshomah.”

The insight from our imprisoned friend sheds light on the despair of golus. We are in exile so long that we run the risk of forgetting where we belong and that we are refugee figures in transit, far from home. We tend to forget that what we see is a mirage. Our senses become dulled as we suppress our longing for home.

With the onset of the Bein Hametzorim period this week, we should be in despair for what we are lacking. The sadness we are meant to experience is not for the lack of music and abstaining from eating meat and swimming during the nine days. During these weeks, we are supposed to be suffering from a heightened awareness of our exile status.

The pain during this period should be that of our soul, knowing that we are seriously lacking and can be doing much better. At our core, we should know that we are destined to be in a holier place, living a more sublime existence. These days remind us that we don’t realize what we lack. They cry out in anguish for our callousness to our own plight.

The Three Weeks urge us to remember that we don’t lack music, but life itself. Without the Bais Hamikdosh, we are weak, vulnerable and incomplete. These weeks remind us that we are in danger of becoming so deeply entrenched in golus that we don’t perceive the reality called geulah anymore.

Rav Yisroel Meir Lau frequently relates the story of his liberation from the Buchenwald concentration camp. An American chaplain, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, who accompanied the liberating American soldiers, was gazing at a pile of dead bodies in the death camp when he thought he saw something move. Gingerly, he approached the pile and detected a young boy, barely alive, among the dead.

Like a malach shel rachamim, he tearfully stuck out his hand to the emaciated child. He told him that he is an American and that the Nazis were gone. Speaking to the boy in Yiddish, he tried to gauge if his mental abilities were intact after having suffered so many harrowing experiences and being near death.

“What is your name?” asked the kind rabbi dressed in an American army uniform, as tears streamed down his face at the pitiful sight.

“Lulek,” was the reply.

Vi alt bist du mein kind? How old are you?” he asked little Lulek.

Elter far dir. Older than you,” responded the child.

Fearing that the boy had lost his senses, the rabbi began weeping. Again he asked the skin and bones that resembled a young boy how old he was, and again he answered that he was older than the weeping rabbi.

The rabbi looked at the boy with great pity and tried one last time to get a sane response from the child who had been so badly affected by the horrific suffering he endured.

“Tell me, mein kind, why do you say that you are older than me? Isn’t it obvious that you are a young child and I am a grown man? Why do you insist on thinking that you are older than me?”

Lulek explained quite simply: “Git a kook. Du veinst. Ich ken shoin nit veinen. Nu, zogt mir, ver is elter? You are crying. I have already lost my ability to cry. Am I not older than you?”Despite his youth and having experienced four tortuous years in a dark place where death and hunger were his constant companions, the youth spoke with wisdom beyond his physical age.

Hailing from 32 generations of rabbonim imbued him with Jewish resoluteness in the face of the worst cruelty and anguish known to man.

A baby cries when he is hungry. A child cries when he is hurt. A mature person suppresses hurt, anger, hunger and much else. A child cries because his entire world is shattered when his toy breaks. A baby cries when he is hungry so that he will be fed. A person who thinks that what transpires is happenstance cries when he believes that something tragic in his life has occurred.

A person of belief remains stoic and strong. He doesn’t cry in the face of adversity. He doesn’t weep when he is hurt, for he knows that what has transpired is for the good and has been Divinely ordained by a Father who created the world in which he lives to benefit Him.

He grows from his scrapes and bruises, resisting the temptation to strike back when hurt by friends. Though he may be weak in body, he is strong in spirit.

Lulek understood that lesson. He had been through so much and survived. He had triumphed over his tormentors and would go on to lead a long and productive life. Why cry? Why wallow in the past? Why engage in self-pity? Ich ken shoin nit veinin because I know what is important and what isn’t. I know what is transitory and what is permanent.

Yet, that same Lulek, who wouldn’t cry over the evils of man, sits on the floor every Tisha B’Av and cries. He weeps during the Three Weeks as he marks our centuries of exile.

We have been through so much in golus that many of us have lost the ability to cry over it. We must use this period to remember what is important and what is secondary, what is worth crying over and what isn’t. We recognize that we have been punished and evicted from our homes. Like vagabonds, we have roamed from place to place. We understand that we are essentially homeless, wandering about with our possessions in a shopping cart, seeking a comfortable bench on which to spend the dark night.

We dare not grow comfortable on that bench. We dare not become comforted with the possessions we have gathered. It is folly, we are folly, and we should want to get home.

The Gemara in Maseches Taanis (30a-b) relates that Rabi Yehuda Berebi Ilai would sit in an uncomfortable position on the floor during the afternoon of Erev Tisha B’Av and eat dry bread, salt and water. The Gemara says that viewing him, it appeared as if his dead relative was lying in front of him.

The Gemara states this to demonstrate to us that it is not enough to engage in the mournful traditions of Tisha B’Av. We must be somber over the loss of the Bais Hamikdosh as if it transpired now, not centuries ago. We must feel the pain and the hurt as if it is fresh and current.

In fact, the Rambam (Taanis 5:9) says that this is the proper way for chachomim to behave. We should all be chachomim and follow the Rambam. It is definitely the wise way to act, not only because that is the way a wise person should mourn the Bais Hamikdosh, but also because Chazal say that one who properly mourns the churban of Yerushalayim will merit seeing its rebuilding. A component of meriting redemption from golus is recognizing it for what it is and not being pacified.

On Purim, a golus holiday, as we joyously lain Megillas Esther, the tone turns mournful when we read about an Ish Yehudi, a lone Jew from Shushan Habirah, whose name, the megillah says, was “Mordechai ben Yair ben Shimi ben Kish ish Yemini.” The posuk tells us that this man was in Shushan because he was exiled: “asher hoglah miYerushalayim.”

The Tiferes Shlomo of Radomsk explains that the words “asher hoglah,” meaning “who went into exile,” are more than a description. They were part of his name. The posuk called Mordechai by his name: “son of Yair, son of Shimi, son of Kish, the fellow who is in golus.” Everyone in Shushan identified Mordechai as the golus Jew, a refugee who was driven from his homeland into exile.

Perhaps it was Mordechai’s cognizance that he was away from home, mourning his past and longing for the return of the Bais Hamikdosh, which caused him to be upset when the Jews took part in Achashveirosh’s dinner, served on utensils from the place he so missed. It was because he never forgot his home and roots that he was able to guide the Jews who had evoked Hashem’s wrath by forgetting.

The identity of the Jew in golus is bound up with the knowledge that he is a person without a proper home, lacking spirit and deficient in his very essence. We are a people haunted by sad memories and invigorated by hopeful visions of a bright future.

Walk into any Jewish home and stare at the blank space opposite the front door. We are empty, we are lacking, and whatever we have will never replace the home we loved, the holiness we embodied, and the spirit that resided within us.

At every chupah, at the apex of the great joy, poignancy, optimism and elation, the baalei simchah stand surrounded by family and friends, the chosson and kallah enveloped by a cloud of euphoria and good wishes, and then there is a pause. It is quiet and the sound of the chosson breaking a glass is heard. For no matter how good things seem, no matter how happy and safe we appear to be, we must never forget that we are not home. We must remember that what we have is but a faux existence in a fictitious world, far from the real world of our destiny.

These months of Tammuz and Av traditionally remind us of our status as exiles. We are like millions of our brothers and sisters who huddle daily in shelters. We can compare ourselves to the sweet innocent children who are currently cowering amidst the din of alarms and sirens. We aren’t home. We want to know if when we say Shema, we can find light in the darkness. We await the geulah and the bright light to shine on us and Eretz Yisroel.

Let us not sink so deeply into the shelter that is golus that we forget that we once had a home where we belonged. We want to be there again so that we can climb out of the darkness, away from the mirage in which we exist and the death and evil that surround us, so that, once again, we can feel alive, rejuvenated, complete and happy.

May that day come soon.