Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Rav Chaim Leib Epstein zt”l

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This week’s parsha is replete with references to mesorah, the value and import of remaining connected.

The posuk states that as the Jewish people left Mitzrayim, they were armed: “vachamushim alu Bnei Yisroel.” The following posuk states that prior to leaving, Moshe Rabbeinu took pains to bring along the remains of Yosef Hatzaddik.

Perhaps we can explain the connection of the pesukim as signifying for us that the Bnei Yisroel were armed when they left Mitzrayim because they carried the remains of Yosef. They were strengthened by the knowledge that in the zechus of his remains accompanying them on their journey, they would merit to reach Eretz Yisroel. They were armed with the zechus of the atzamos of Yosef in their midst and constantly reminded of the example he set for them as to how to live properly.

Until last week, we merited having a tzaddik living among us, courageously bearing the mesorah he had received from his rebbi, Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l. As we continued along the path of our golus in this country, he was a shining beacon for those who cared enough to follow the hallowed traditions of the past generations. He was a talmid chochom who dedicated his life to learning and teaching Torah. He was famed in the olam haTorah, where he was widely revered as one of the gedolim of our time, while remaining little known to the general world.

In his precious olam haTorah, Rav Chaim Leib Epstein zt”l was strong as a lion, vigilant and forceful.

At times, I would discuss with Rav Chaim about maintaining the mission of this newspaper. He would talk about nuances that he felt were improper for a newspaper serving a clientele of Bnei Torah. In enlightening conversations, the rosh yeshiva would share his perspectives on matters of hashkofah. I did not speak to him all that often, but when I did, I was grateful for his guidance, taken by his genuine unpretentiousness and amazed by his clarity.

Most of all, what I experienced was a sense of awe of being exposed to authenticity, to absolute sincerity, and to the precision of a real mesorah.

Because along with the lomdus, the mussar and the harbotzas Torah came the fact that Rav Chaim was among the last few who still existed in that rarefied realm of Rav Aharon Kotler’s Lakewood. Until last week, in Rav Chaim’s presence, one could still sense the fire, the clarity of vision, the yashrus and the pashtus.

With his passing, the devastation to the yeshiva world is double. We have suffered the loss of an odom gadol, a gaon and a marbitz Torah, and also a loss of that connection.

A nascent nation sings a timeless ode of praise and thanks to their King, one that we repeat each morning. Zeh Keili ve’anveihu, Elokei avi va’aromemenhu. The Baal Shem Tov explains that as the Jew connects with his Master, he has two paths before him, each one necessary. First is zeh Keili, a personal, vibrant relationship, a meeting point between the Ribbono Shel Olam and him. But there is also the fact that Elokei avi, a Jew draws on the fact that this is the very same Ribbono Shel Olam for whom our fathers and grandfathers were prepared to sacrifice their lives.

Rav Chaim Epstein lived a life of dveykus in zeh Keili, but also in Elokei avi, the Ribbono Shel Olam of Rav Aharon Kotler, as well as the kedushah of the Mir, as embodied by his father, Rav Yosef Dovid Epstein, and by his shver, Rav Dovid Bender.

We bemoan the dual loss: what he was and what he carried with him.

Chazal teach, “Gedolah misas tzaddikim k’sereifas bais Elokeinu” (Rosh Hashanah 18b). Perhaps we can understand this comparison by studying the account of Eliyohu Hanovi’s ascent to Heaven (Melochim Bais, 2). The posuk describes how a large group of neviim came to warn Elisha that his master, Eliyohu, would soon be departing (posuk 5).

As Eliyohu leaves for heaven, his devoted talmid requests a double measure of prophecy. Eliyohu replies that it is a difficult wish to fulfill, but if Elisha would see him as he ascended to shomayim, he would receive the bounty (posuk 10).

Elisha saw his master leave and famously cried out, “Avi, avi, rechev Yisroel uforoshov.

When Elisha returned, the neviim approached him, wondering where Eliyohu had disappeared to. Thinking that perhaps he had gone to another village, they set out on a futile search to find him (posuk 16).

Rashi, quoting a Tosefta in Maseches Sotah (12:5), wonders why, on the previous day, these same bnei hanevi’im had warned Elisha that Eliyohu was about to leave this world, yet once Eliyohu indeed left, they went looking for him.

Rashi explains that “miyom shenignaz Eliyohu, halcha venistalka ruach hakodesh min hanevi’im.” Eliyohu Hanovi was a conduit for nevuah, and in his absence, the other prophets were deprived of the flow of prophecy.

Perhaps we can understand the term used by Elisha as his master took leave, “rechev Yisroel,” in this vein as well: Eliyohu Hanovi wasn’t just an individual, but a chariot, a vehicle carrying the hashpa’ah of nevuah to Klal Yisroel. Thus, Elisha bemoaned his loss and the loss of the connection to nevuah that flowed through him.

This, as well, may be why we compare the loss of a tzaddik to the loss of the Bais Hamikdosh, for the Bais Hamikdosh, too, was the place that carried the hashpa’ah of Torah, kedushah and gilui Shechinah.

The Vilna Gaon explains the tefillah that we say at the conclusion of Shemoneh Esrei, “Yehi ratzon....sheyiboneh Bais Hamikdosh...vesein chelkeinu beSorasecha,” means that our measure in Torah is restricted without a Bais Hamikdosh. Our hasagos in Torah are limited in its absence. Thus, we pray that the Bais Hamikdosh, and our proper understanding of Torah, be restored.

Rav Chaim Epstein’s girsa deyankusa was that of Shanghai and later of the Mirrer minyan, where the Torah of Rav Yeruchom Levovitz and Rav Chatzkel Levenstein was still vibrant. He grew into a prime talmid of Rav Aharon Kotler, one of those earmarked by the architect of the Torah rebirth as a future marbitz Torah. Rav Aharon loved him, trusted him, and looked to him to transmit that which he saw.

He was a conduit. And his passing reflects sereifas bais Elokeinu.

The Mishnah in Avos (6:4) describes the ideal lifestyle of one wishing to attain Torah. Pas bamelach tocheil, one should survive by eating dry bread with salt, drinking plain water, and sleeping on the floor. Im atah oseh kein, if you will do so, the Mishnah continues, ashrecha vetov loch, you will be satisfied and will feel fulfilled.

The meforshim wonder about the phrase “im atah oseh kein.” All advice helps only if you accept and act upon it. Why would this be different?

The story is told about an extremely dejected man walking down the street, looking for an emotional lift to extricate him from his gloom. He sees a young boy delightedly sucking a lollypop, his face a picture of bliss. The man decides that if the sweet confection can bring the child such joy, it will do the same for him. He heads to a candy store and buys a huge sack of lollypops.

He sits down on a bench and unwraps a lolly. He sucks it, but nothing happens. The weight of his problems doesn’t go away. He remains just as depressed as he was before and wonders why the child appeared so happy while he feels nothing.

He posed his question to a wise man, who explained to him that candy can make people happy only if they are “living” the experience. A child’s world becomes preoccupied with sucking a lollypop. There is nothing else going on. He has no other concerns. Thus, the sweet taste brings him much joy. For an adult, who sees a world way beyond the lollypop, enjoying the simple confection brings little solace.

Im atah oseh kein conveys that it is not enough to go through the motions of being a ben Torah, eating dry bread and sleeping on the floor. You have to be oseh kein. You have to really live it. You have to be in the experience completely. Only then will the assurance of the Mishnah, ashrecha vetov loch, ring true.

Rav Chaim did it. He truly lived it.

Kudsha Brich Hu veYisroel ve’Oraisah chad hu - Hashem and the Torah and Am Yisroel are one.” The tzaddik who dedicates his life to Torah and to serving Hashem becomes one with Kudsha Brich Hu and the Torah. Rav Chaim was such an individual. Speaking to him was like speaking to the Torah. He was a living Sefer Torah, and everyone who came in contact with him could feel that.

He was a living embodiment of the Rashi at the beginning of Parshas Bechukosai which states, “Shetihiyu ameilim baTorah.” His whole being was about Torah, about hureving in learning. Rav Chaim was a lomeid Torah lishmah, about whom Rav Meir said in Pirkei Avos,zocheh ledvorim harbeh.” And indeed he was. “Velo od ela shekol ha’olam kulo kedai hu lo.” The whole world was worth being created just for him. And indeed it was. “Nikra reia, ahuv.” He loved everyone and was beloved by all. “Nehenin mimenu eitzah vetushia.” All who sought out proper hadrochah and advice benefited from him.

Rav Chaim’s commitment was to follow the teachings of his rebbi. He answered to a higher authority, always wondering what the rosh yeshiva would have said, before he would speak and act. He didn’t act on impulse or allow himself to be swayed by contemporary temptations. He represented for us a tangible, living link to his illustrious rebbi and his greatness. People who wanted to know how gedolim from a previous time would react to or deal with a situation knew that Rav Chaim Leib was the one to speak to.

Just a few pesukim after one of the most glorious moments since creation, when we sang Oz Yoshir, we were confronted by our eternal enemy, Amaleik.

Amaleik changes their language and dress in every generation, but their goal remains the same. They present issues that were never previously imagined and we wonder how to respond.

Amaleik counsels compromise and advises us to be softer about our beliefs. The modern-day adaptation of Amaleik’s credo of “asher korcha baderech” is ever-present. We need gedolim to stand in that derech and help us clear away that which has been placed in our way by Amaleik.

At the conclusion of the parsha (17:11), as the Torah recounts the battle with Amaleik, it tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu raised his hands. When his hands were raised, the Bnei Yisroel were victorious, but when they were lowered, the Bnei Yisroel began to lose.

The only way to effectively battle Amaleik is by the Moshe of the generation raising his hands so that all can follow him. It is by following the Moshe that we are able to withstand the temptations, guile, demagoguery and sweet words with which Amaleik entices us.

Rav Chaim was a manhig during a period when the impurity spawned by Amaleik was everywhere, all around us. Tzaddikim standing with their hands held high, waving the degel haTorah, show us how to navigate the golus.

He exhorted us to be truthful, ehrlich, modest and humble, and not to succumb to the pressures of our time. In an era when the financial motivation reigns supreme, Rav Chaim was untouched by the temptation to follow the money. Kavod and glory meant nothing to him. Kavod haTorah and the will of the Ribono Shel Olam were what dictated his every deed.

Rav Chaim taught us the mesorah and the path of Torah. He was unafraid and undaunted to be a singular voice sometimes drowned out, but never silenced, on major issues of the day, providing a source of chizuk for what is right and good.

And now we have lost that beacon.

Rav Aharon of Belz emerged from the inferno of Eastern Europe after a long and arduous escape, physically broken, bereft of his family and the bulk of his chassidus. He eventually arrived in Eretz Yisroel, and on his first Shabbos there, a crowd joined him, eager to hear Torah once again, as they had in better times.

The rebbe quoted Rashi’s words on the first posuk of Oz Yoshir: “Mikan lesechiyas hameisim min haTorah, this posuk is a source in the Torah for the ultimate techiyas hameisim.” Literally, Rashi is basing this on the Torah’s use of the future tense in portraying the shirah, “Oz yoshir,” which translates as, “Then he will sing.”

The rebbe, who had just survived unimaginable suffering, looked at the small group around him and asked, “How could Moshe Rabbeinu and the Yidden have sung shirah at a time when only one-fifth of the nation survived, as we are taught that ‘vachamushim alu’? Four-fifths of the nation did not merit redemption and died in Mitzrayim. It would seem that every survivor of the exodus was in aveilus for a loved one. How were they able to set aside their own personal mourning and rejoice with shirah?

The rebbe answered, “It must be that their emunah in techiyas hameisim was so strong that they were able to rejoice in what would yet be, to derive hope from the eventual rebirth of our people. Thus, he allegorically explained the words of Rashi: “Oz yoshir, the Jews sang shirah. How did they do that? Through emunah in techiyas hameisim.

And so we also take heart from this parsha. The Belzer Rebbe merited to see his chassidus rise again. The Torah world saw techiyas hameisim. We’ve seen so much Hashgochah and siyata diShmaya.

Misas tzaddikim mechaperes.” The passing of a tzaddik is equated to the offering of a korban by our people and forgives our chato’im. We have lost a solid link in our holy, golden chain stretching back to Har Sinai, going through Lakewood, Kletzk and Slabodka. We mourn the loss. At the same time, we take note of how much the world of Torah has grown since the days when Rav Chaim sat at Rav Aharon’s feet and we take a measure of solace as we await the great day of techiyas hameisim and the geulah sheleimah.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Miracle of Mesorah

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz


Rav Archik Bakst of Shavel was a dominant rabbinic figure in prewar Lita, as a rov, mechanech, posek and baal mussar. He took the mandate of kibbud av va’eim seriously and would frequently travel to visit his aged mother.

Once, he was laid over in the city of Lida, where he waited for the next train. Word quickly spread throughout the town that the Shaveleh Rov had arrived and was sitting in the train station. Lunch invitations flowed to him from the town’s leading citizens. Rav Bakst had to decide which invitation to accept, that of the rov, Rav Yitzchok Yaakov Reines, or the one from the rosh yeshiva, Rav Shlomo Polachek, affectionately known as the Meitchiter Illuy.

Rav Archik accepted the Meitchiter’s invitation, explaining afterwards, “I do not know who is the greater talmid chochom or tzaddik, but I know that Rav Shlomo was exposed to the Torah of my rebbi, Rav Simcha Zissel, the Alter of Kelm. I therefore went to his home for lunch.”

What Rav Archik was describing is the value and power of the intangible relationship between a rebbi and talmid. A rebbi isn’t just someone whose shiur you attend. A rebbi isn’t just a person who teaches you p’shat in a Rashi. He does that, of course, but he is more. A rebbi is a vibrant, real connection to life itself. Rav Bakst went to the person who had benefitted from his rebbi, because he believed that he carried spiritual nutrients that could enhance his growth.

It is a kindness from Hashem that even though times have drastically changed, and worlds have been destroyed and rebuilt, Torah remains a constant reality, guiding us from generation to generation. In our day, in 2015, and in our place, in the heartland of America, we still acknowledge the benefit and power of a rebbi, just as our forbearers did throughout the centuries.

This past Shabbos, I was heartened when I saw the dedication of rabbeim and the thirst of talmidim. I attended a Shabbaton for mesivta talmidim of Yeshiva Gedola of Waterbury, and as I listened to talmidim and rabbeim discuss burning issues, clarifying, arguing and analyzing, I couldn’t help but think of how fortunate these boys are.

The Chazon Ish famously said of chinuch that today’s battles must be waged using today’s armor. We have a mandate, as part of an am netzach, to move forward without forfeiting our identity.

This is the job of our rabbeim, transmitters of mesorah. Like skilled drivers navigating bumpy, curving roads, handling twists and turns with ease, the leaders selected by Heaven guide us and drive us along the paths of history. 

The visit of Rav Moshe Hillel Hirsch to Yeshiva Toras Emes in Flatbush, Brooklyn, last week was unique in that it brought the Slabodka rosh yeshiva back to his roots. Some seventy years ago, in 1944, when the idea of attending a yeshiva school was not yet popular, young Moshe Hillel Hirsch attended Yeshiva Toras Emes Elementary School.

Rabbi Nosson Muller, menahel of Toras Emes, introduced Rav Hirsch to the talmidim and told them that there were two reasons the rosh yeshiva was invited to visit the school. The first was so that the youngsters would get a glimpse of an adam gadol and a leader of thousands of talmidim. The second was so that they could see the greatness that every student can attain. After all, Rav Moshe Hillel started out just like them, as a student in Toras Emes.

“One of the greatest roshei yeshiva began learning Torah in our very yeshiva. You can too!” Rabbi Muller told the over 350 talmidim who packed the room in a display of kavod for the rosh yeshiva.

After the visit, Rav Hirsch expressed interest in visiting the centenarian former menahel, noted mechanech Rabbi Elias Schwartz, who was the principal of Toras Emes when Rav Moshe Hillel was a young student of the school. Rav Hirsch thanked Rabbi Schwartz for the values he instilled in him.

Rav Hirsch recalled a morning many decades ago when Rabbi Schwartz entered his classroom and asked each of the children what they wanted to do when they grow up. The answers were as could be expected: One wanted to be a fireman, another a policeman, a third a doctor, and so on.

After listening to each child’s ambitions, Rabbi Schwartz told the boys that regardless of the career path they would eventually choose, they should remember that there is nothing more important than being a talmid chochom and no pursuit more worthy than Torah.

“I thank you for all that you did for me and my classmates,” the rosh yeshiva told Rabbi Schwartz. “You told us that day that whatever we do, we must first be a talmid chochom. That message inspired me then and inspires me until today.”

Visibly emotional, Rabbi Schwartz told the rosh yeshiva how proud he is to have such a talmid and that he “should keep on growing.”

With tears in his eyes, Rabbi Schwartz reached out to take the rosh yeshiva’s hand and kissed it with great emotion.

Seventy years had passed, yet the rebbi-talmid relationship was as strong and personal as ever.

We are a people of mesorah, transmitting our heritage from one generation to the next. The relationship developed between the generations is integral to the success of the endurance of our tradition. Rabbeim are the heroes of transmission and talmidim are the heroes of acceptance.

The Sefas Emes points out that the posuk references that Hashem hardened the heart of Paroh as the saga of the makkos played out. Paroh’s stubbornness, however, seems to be rooted in the ability of his mind to hear the logic, accept the threats of impending destruction, and then ignore them. His deficiency seems to be located in his brain, not in his heart. 

The head is where a person processes intellectual information, but how we react to that information, and how we adapt and modify our behavior as a result of that analysis, depends on the purity of our hearts. Thus, while Paroh may have accepted the truth of Moshe’s words on an intellectual level, he proved incapable of applying those facts to his life. Thus, his failure was one of the heart.

Over Shabbos, the achdus I witnessed was impressive. The ruach and singing were invigorating, and the talents and love of the rabbeim were heartening, yet what moved me most was the purity of heart of the talmidim. I sensed their essential conviction that there is a mesorah and that there is wisdom to be found amongst those of the older generation.

The bochurim I met demonstrated a gnawing desire to find the truth. In pursuit of that goal, they ask real questions that get real answers that they are willing to accept.

Those bochurim are fortunate to have rabbeim qualified to answer their questions and help guide them lovingly along a path that leads to the potential to become a talmid chochom and a gavra rabbah.

Just as the Shavele Rov who sought out the unique characteristic possessed by the Meitchiter Illuy because he had been exposed to the influence of his rebbi, talmidim who base their worldview on that which they receive behold the essential solidity that will accompany them throughout their lives wherever they go.

There is siyata diShmaya that accompanies the talmid. A follower merits a special connection with his leader.

The following story appears in the sefer Yissochor Zevulun, written by Rav Aharon Tawil and printed 100 years ago in Yerushalayim. The sefer was recently republished by Rav Yaakov Hillel.

The Arizal was once learning with his talmidim, when a young talmid, Rav Shmuel Ozidah, entered to join the shiur. When the Arizal saw him come in, he immediately rose and said, “Boruch haba.” He took the young man by his hand, sat him down next to him, and spoke to him.

Rav Chaim Vital was intrigued. “Rebbi,” he said to the Arizal, “why did you rise for that young man and why did you extend to him the greeting of ‘Boruch haba,’ something you have never previously done?”

The Arizal responded that he did not rise in respect for the young talmid, nor did he say, “Boruch haba,” to him. “I was being mechabed Rav Pinchos ben Yair, who arrived with him. His neshomah was nislabeish in this bochur, because he performed a mitzvah that Rav Pinchos ben Yair was accustomed to performing. Therefore, his neshomah came to him today to be mechazek and to help him.”

Later, the talmidim urged the bochur to tell them which special mitzvah he had performed that would have the holy Tanna accompany him.

He told them that on his way to the shiur, he heard cries coming from a home. He entered and saw a family that had just been robbed of everything. Thieves had literally taken the clothing off their backs. The bochur hurried home and brought his clothing for the family to cover themselves and stay warm until they would be able to put themselves back together.

Thus, by following the path of Rav Pinchos ben Yair, known for his generosity, compassion and charity, Rav Shmuel merited his company. Though he was not even aware of the assistance, it was there and he benefited from it.

This is the intangible zechus of following a mesorah, the Divine protection and guidance with which a true talmid is stamped.

The Arizal explained the phenomenon to his talmidim. “That is the sod, the explanation, of Chazal’s statement that ‘Haba letaheir mesayin oso - Heaven helps those who seek to purify themselves” (Yoma 38b), for as soon as a person thinks about doing a great mitzvah, the neshomah of a tzaddik from the other world who excelled in that mitzvah comes to help him, and through that he is able to properly perform the mitzvah. Otherwise, the yeitzer hora would overpower the person and scare him out of doing the great mitzvah.”

Children who cling to the paths of their fathers and talmidim who cherish the lessons of their rabbeim merit a special zechus. When we sacrifice and give even more than we think we can, and we work to plumb the depths of the Torah that we think might be too difficult an undertaking for us, we merit special assistance. We are never alone and are never given challenges that we cannot overcome.

Rav Tzvi Shvartz of Rechovot, a one-man kiruv lighthouse, is a talmid of Rav Hillel Zaks zt”l, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Knesses Hagedolah who passed away last week. Reb Tzvi told me something that he heard from Rav Hillel, who was a son of Rebbetzin Faiga, a daughter of the Chofetz Chaim.

One evening, someone came Rav Zaks with a manuscript of a sefer he had written. The author left it and asked him to review it. He put the book aside to read when he would have an opportunity. He then went to sleep.

The next morning, his mother asked him what he was doing with a treife book. She explained that her father had come to her in a dream the previous night and told her that her son had a treife book in his possession.

Rav Hillel immediately took the manuscript and disposed of it outside his home.

The Chofetz Chaim was looking out for his grandson and protecting him from Shomayim, because he knew that he was doing his best to follow in the ways of his sainted grandfather. He thus reached out to assist him.

When we work hard lesheim Shomayim, our forebears protect us and look out for us. They help us succeed and excel.

If we show interest and do the best we can, we are zocheh to siyata diShmaya. We must not permit our errors and missteps to discourage us from remaining on the proper path and continuing to endeavor to improve.

We must study the lessons of those who came before us, for their zechuyos and lessons are eternal.

We are sometimes afraid to undertake great commitments. We look at the work that remains to be done to prepare the world for Moshiach and we shudder. We look at the number of people who need help and can become discouraged before we even begin. We see how many Jewish people are removed from Torah and wonder if it is even possible for us to reach them.

We look at the size of Shas and are frightened from even attempting to study it in its entirety. We want to be better Jews and we know that to do that, we must study Shulchan Aruch and halachah seforim, but the complexity of it is daunting. We must ensure that we don’t capitulate to the urge to despairingly concede.

Heaven helps those who seek to purify themselves. We have to begin. We have to show the willingness to undertake improvements. We will then be granted the strength and ability to fill the vacuum in our world. We have to do what we can to repair the breaches and to replace tears with smiles, sadness with happiness, and tumah with taharah. Hakadosh Boruch Hu and his agents, the tzaddikim of ages past will assist us.

In this week’s parsha, Am Yisroel essentially begins its formation. It is interesting to note that the first mitzvos they received before leaving Mitzrayim were those of Kiddush Hachodesh and Korban Pesach.

Kiddush Hachodesh reminds us on a monthly basis that we should never despair. Although the moon shrinks and disappears, it always returns to its former glory, size and strength. The Jewish people, as a nation and as individuals, must likewise, never perceive loss and hardship as eternal setbacks. Hashem watches over us and provides us the ability of resurgence and growth.

The mitzvah of Korban Pesach welcomed Am Yisroel to a life of avodas Hashem with a mitzvah unique in its demand for zeal and care.

The sheep must be chosen days prior to Erev Pesach to ensure the health and worthiness of the korban. As it remained in the Jewish home, tied to its owner’s bed, the family’s anticipation for Pesach continued to build. Once offered in the Bais Hamikdosh, the korban was eaten bechaburah, in groups. Families joined together - fathers and sons, grandfathers and their grandchildren - symbolizing the role of mesorah in mitzvos. Every aspect of the korban required special care, including its final consumption, when it was forbidden to break any bones while eating it.

The Korban Pesach was eaten with matzos, which also require intricate care to produce. There must be no chometz available for the duration of the yom tov, another difficult mitzvah to observe.

Armed with these mitzvos and the lessons they convey, the Jewish people were able to advance towards Yetzias Mitzrayim and Har Sinai. The first mitzvos that the soon-to-be-redeemed people were commanded were difficult, but they would provide much joy and succor when properly observed and fostered a unique relationship between the Creator and His people.

A teenaged talmid had questions on emunah and his bais medrash rebbi feared that he was headed on a path that would lead him out of yeshiva. On Purim, he brought the boy to Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l and asked the rosh yeshiva if he could answer the boy’s questions. Rav Shach told the boy that there were many people coming and going that day and it wasn’t a good time to engage in serious discussion.

“Why don’t we speak during the Pesach bein hazemanim?” Rav Shach said to the boy. “Then we’ll have time and peace of mind to discuss your questions.”

When the boy returned to yeshiva after bein hazemanim, his rebbi asked him if he had gone back to Rav Shach. “No, I didn’t,” he answered. “When we were there on Purim, through his conversation with me, he surreptitiously found out where I live. He came to my house twice. I couldn’t believe it. He said that we made up to meet, so he came to me because I hadn’t come to him.”

“Did he answer your questions?” the rebbi asked.

“He didn’t have to,” said the boy. “I never asked them. The fact that Rav Shach troubled himself to travel to me in Tel Aviv changed everything in my life.”

This boy’s life was turned around when he saw that Rav Shach believed in him and cared about him and the direction in which he was headed.

This is the dedication and concern I saw this past Shabbos. I observed a flow of love between rabbeim and talmidim. The feelings appeared to be mutual; not only do the rabbeim believe in their talmidim, but the talmidim believe in their rabbeim.

A boy related that he was in many different yeshivos and was never able to sit still, but when he came to Waterbury in the eleventh grade, he developed such a kesher with his rebbi that he did whatever his rebbi said, because he felt the love. He became a tremendous masmid, as he was shown his potential, it was demonstrated to him that he really does have the ability to make something of himself and his life.

In 2015, we still see the miracle of the mesorah. We see the ayin tovah, the confidence and the belief that rabbeim have in each talmid, and, in turn, we see the belief that the talmidim have in their rabbeim, which is such a vital component in continuing the golden chain.

For me, this past Shabbos was restorative, bolstering my faith in the process and the precious olam hayeshivos. It gave me a new depth of understanding of the pesukim of a parsha filled with references to mesorah: “Lemaan tesapeir b’oznei bincha uven bincha… Vehigadeta levincha bayom hahu...”

As fathers, our job is to give. As children, our job is to receive. As teachers, our duty is to transmit, and as students it is to acquire. As good Jews, our task is to do both in order to perform the sacred mission that comes with being part of a mesorah.

Like the staff of the Waterbury mesivta, rabbeim and moros in yeshivos and schools around the globe remain dedicated to their sacred tasks as the world spins out of control.

At a time when people fear what news the next day will bring, it is comforting to know that what is true and eternal is safe.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Nation of Spirit

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Last Friday, our brothers and sisters were trapped in a Paris supermarket. Engaged in the lofty activity of preparing for Shabbos Kodesh, they found themselves under fire by a crazed Islamic terrorist. Hearts across the Jewish world skipped a beat in unison as Yishmoel sharpened his sword once again.

To be sure, the terror war is not only being waged against Jews, France, or cartoonists, but against the entire civilized world. Western governments and societies fail to perceive the obvious. The Jews of France have been emigrating in droves for several years already, but not everyone is able to leave. There are always familial and financial considerations. Jews across Europe are edgy and have one eye on the exit door.

On the same streets where Nazis rounded up Jews for deportation to death camps, today radical Muslims plot to take over France, arrondissement by arrondissement. One neighborhood at a time, striking fear and terror in country after country, jihadists are on the march across Europe. 

The Grand Synagogue of Paris, built in 1874, has been witness to many events, happy and tragic. Alfred Dreyfus, victim of a forgotten century’s anti-Semitism, was married in that shul. Nazi deportations took place in front of it. Last Shabbos, its doors were shut as authorities forced Jewish public institutions to close. On Sunday, it hosted a dramatic gathering of world leaders protesting the attacks and issuing promises that need to be monitored.

Terrorists have now realized that with a small scale attack, they can cause as profound an effect on society as a complex one that is carefully planned. French hospitality has been turned on its head and its weakness exposed. Jihadists cheer their savagery as victory.

With a relatively small attack on two locations by a few people, they grabbed the world’s attention and struck fear in the hearts of men and women everywhere. They no longer need to hijack airplanes, blow up buildings, shoot rockets, or enlist legions to carry out operations.

Terror attacks carried out by one, two or three people are easy to engineer and have been shown to achieve the same bombastic result as larger incidents.

A few individuals brought the world to paralysis and focused its attention. On Thursday, they killed twelve journalists and a police officer. On Friday, dozens of hostages were held in a kosher supermarket. Four Jews died in that attack, having gone to a kosher store for Shabbos preparations.

Jews around the world heard the news as they awoke Friday morning. As people prepared for the day that is mei’ein Olam Haba, they were confronted by the worst of olam hazeh. The dichotomy of good and evil, temporal and eternal, olam hazeh and Olam Haba, was brought clearly into focus.

There is grave anxiety in France and around the world, as people realize that there are those among them, born and raised on their soil, who despise them and their culture and are prepared to kill and die to advance their goals. Gloom and apprehension set in as millions realized the fragility of the freedoms we all take for granted. Millions turned out in the streets to express their sadness over the tragedy and concerns for the future. There is strength in numbers and a measure of comfort in the knowledge that, if nothing else, at last, the French people and the world recognize the precarious situation in which the world finds itself. 

Yet, entire neighborhoods in France are carved out as harbors for sharia compliance. Jews don’t feel safe and the government’s actions to date have not brought confidence to a beleaguered community.

France has the largest Jewish population of any European country and is home to the third largest concentration of Jews in the world. It took until 2014 for the French-government-owned railway to come to a compensation agreement with Holocaust victims in America and Israel.

It was only in 1995 that France acknowledged its role in assisting the Nazis in deporting tens of thousands of Jews. When French President Jacques Chirac declared that his country had contributed to the genocide, he finally gave validation to decades of Jewish complaints and feelings.

The French Jewish community is comprised of children of Holocaust survivors and émigrés who arrived in the country seeking protection from persecution in Arab lands. They are well aware of the precariousness of the Jewish people in golus.

Those thoughts were once again reinforced as French authorities closed Jewish stores on Friday and asked that shuls be closed on Shabbos because they could not guarantee the safety of their Jewish citizens.

It is not necessarily a French problem. It is a global problem. The Jewish experience in Europe has been one of triumph and tragedy. During the good times, people tend to forget the amount of Jewish blood that has been spilled on that continent over the past millennia of golus.

There are always different excuses and guises, and slayers carrying different colored flags and flying different slogans, but the result has always been similar. Jews have been driven from their homes, fleeing death and destruction as they escaped to yet another foreign land. Displacement is never easy and always takes a great toll.

The leaders of the West had hoped that the war against radical Islam could be ended with the use of kind words and gestures. They thought that they would succeed with their liberal ideology in engaging in compromise with jihadists on many different battlefronts. They negotiate with Iran, cut deals with the Taliban, and believe that if radicals are coddled and offered Western blessings, peace would ensue. They have not taken the rise of radical Islamists seriously enough and continue to deal with the issue as a police matter, instead of an existential concern.

They force Israel to compromise with the terrorists who seek its destruction, naively believing that accommodations can be reached with people who kill and die for the sake of hatred. The terrorists take note and are heartened by their growing power.

Jewish blood has been spilled millions of times, each occurrence spelling out the message that we are in golus. Each time, we pick ourselves up and march on. We gather the inner strength to persevere and continue our trek towards the finish line, heads held high and spirits intact.

Three simple words captivated France and the world following the attack on the cartoonist publication Charlie Hebdo: “Je suis Charlie,” “I am Charlie.” Millions of people the world over marched with signs with those simple words emblazoned upon them. At times like these, we must realize that “Je suis Juif,” or “We are all Jews.” We have to feel the pain of Jews everywhere. We must try to imagine their dread and their fear.

When we walk freely to shul on Shabbos, we should think of those who must disguise themselves so as not to attract attention to them and their religion. When we shop, we should think of those who take their lives into their hands when they purchase their Shabbos needs. No Jew is alone. No Jew should feel alone.

Je suis Juif. We are Jews, united around the world. In times of happiness and tragedy, we are together. We should resolve to never let anyone or anything divide us. Feeling solidarity with others should be paramount. We should seek to draw others close and console them. We should embrace them as they seek comfort. No one should feel forsaken, adrift or alone.

Many Jews don’t feel safe. Many are extremely worried and agitated. Many have had their breath knocked out of them. Where do we go for safety? Where do we go to get our breath back?

Let us examine this week’s parsha and hearken back to the first Jewish exile. A family consisting of seventy people came to a foreign country due to a hunger in their native land of Eretz Yisroel. They were led at the time by their grandfather, Yaakov, and his twelve sons. Things took a turn for the worse, and as the family grew, they became the subject of increasing hatred. Eventually, they were subjugated as slaves to the king and his people.

The slaves knew who they were, where they had come from, and how they had arrived in that country. They were well aware of the promises Hashem made to their forefathers, Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov.

They were certainly encouraged by the fact that Hashem had promised their forebears that their grandchildren would be tormented by a foreign power and they would then be released. They knew who Moshe Rabbeinu was. They knew his yichus. They knew that he grew up in Paroh’s palace.

Incarcerated people are desperate for any glimmer of hope. They trade rumors and stories that bring succor to them and help them think that their freedom is around the corner. So, as we study this week’s parsha, we wonder why it was that when Moshe appeared and told them that the long-awaited redemption was at hand, and he expressed the four leshonos of geulah, the posuk (Shemos 6:9) states, “…velo shomu el Moshe.” They didn’t listen to Moshe.

How could these poor, suppressed people not have taken heed and comfort? 

Not only that, but in last week’s parsha of Shemos, the posuk (5:29-31) relates that Moshe and Aharon gathered the ziknei Bnei Yisroel, told them what Hashem had related to Moshe, and performed miracles to prove the authenticity of his mission. The posuk says that the “people believed and heard that Hashem had remembered them and their situation, and they bowed” in appreciation.

What had happened between then and now?

The posuk in this week’s parsha (6:9) explains that the reason they didn’t listen to Moshe’s prophecy was “mikotzer ruach umei’avodah koshah.” Rashi explains that the posuk is saying that the enslaved people were like a distressed person who suffers from shortness of breath. In other words, they didn’t listen to Moshe because of their terrible situation and hard work.

The Ramban explains that their failure to accept Moshe’s words was not because they didn’t believe in Hashem and his prophet, but rather because they were in terrible pain - kotzer ruach - and feared that Paroh would kill them. Umei’avodah koshah refers to the fact that their supervisors tormented them and didn’t let them pay attention to what was being said. They simply weren’t given the luxury of a moment’s peace to be able to listen.

Clear and direct as these explanations are, we still wonder what the people thought about as they dragged their exhausted bodies to their tents each night. Peace of mind or not, didn’t something sink in? Didn’t they wonder about Moshe and what he foretold? When they lay on their straw mattresses, didn’t they think that perhaps there was something to his prophecy?

Rav Gamliel Rabinowitz compares kotzer ruach and avodah koshah to the components that make up man. There are three madreigos commonly referred to as nefesh, ruach and neshomah. The lowest level is nefesh, which refers to man’s physical attributes and the ability to perform physical labor. Ruach is the ability to speak, which, Targum Onkelos teaches, is what sets man apart from animal. The highest form of ruach is to be engaged in words of Torah and tefillah. Neshomah is the highest level of man, as it refers to things spiritual.

Perhaps we can thus understand the posuk that explains why the Bnei Yisroel were not heartened by Moshe’s prophesy. Their avodah koshah, hard physical labor, caused an inability to listen, as it caused them to be lacking in the attribute of ruach.

Their spirit was dead. With no spirit, there is no room for life.

When the spirit dies, the body becomes numb. With no spirit, there is neither stirring nor hope.

A person who has become enveloped in apathy, depression and despair cannot be reached without having his spirit restored.

In order to hear words of tanchumim, in order to understand what the novi is telling you, and in order to serve as a kli for cheirus, one has to have a ruach.

As Rashi says, one who is short of breath cannot accept words of comfort. That shortness is brought about by a deficiency in Torah and avodah (tefillah).

This is the p’shat in the statement of Chazal, “Ein lecha ben chorin ela mi she’oseik baTorah.” The free man is the one who is engrossed in Torah study. One who spends his time learning Torah becomes receptive to true freedom, growth and happiness. One who studies Torah is blessed in all his bechinos. To the degree that a person subjugates his nefesh to his neshomah, he is able to gain happiness, pleasure and ruach rechovah.

The Mishnah teaches, “Kol halomeid Torah lishmah zocheh ledevorim harbeh - One who learns Torah merits many blessings” (Avos 6). One of the rewards of a lomeid lishmah is “kol ha’olam kulo kedai hu lo.” The literal understanding of the Mishnah is that the entire world was worth being created just for him.

Darshonim expound on the reward. What type of reward is it for him that the whole world was created for him? To answer that question, they explain the Mishnah to mean that the entire world is “kedai,” worthwhile, to such a person. He enjoys every experience. He lives every moment to its fullest and derives maximum satisfaction from each encounter, because Torah uplifts and expands a person to the point where every moment of life is worth celebrating and taking seriously.

Rabbi Nosson Muller, one of the bright lights of the chinuch world, is a beloved menahel at Yeshiva Toras Emes in Brooklyn. As a bochur at Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim, he had a cherished chavrusashaft with his rosh yeshiva, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l, each Erev Shabbos.

One Erev Shabbos Parshas Va’eira, he showed his rebbi the explanation of the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh on the aforementioned idea. The Ohr Hachaim writes that the Bnei Yisroel lacked the tools to rise above their distress, “ulai letzad shelo hayu bnei Torah, because they had not yet received the Torah.” The Ohr Hachaim continues: “Torah marcheves libo shel adam, Torah expands a person,” allowing him to have room in his heart for something besides the intense suffering and strain.

The rosh yeshiva, who knew what it means for Torah to elevate man above pain, was stirred by the idea and thanked his talmid.

Years passed. Rabbi Muller married and moved to Lakewood, where he became a successful rebbi. Nine years after that Erev Shabbos, Rav Nosson Tzvi was visiting Lakewood and Rabbi Muller was eager to introduce his talmidim to his rebbi. He received an appointment for a Friday afternoon. It was Erev Shabbos Parshas Va’eira. Rav Nosson Tzvi addressed the teenage bochurim and then spent a moment in private conversation with his talmid, Rabbi Muller.

Rabbi Muller was nostalgic as he recalled their learning session of nine years earlier. “Rosh yeshiva, nine years ago, today —”

Rav Nosson Tzvi interrupted him, his eyes shining. “Are you going to remind me of the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh? Do you think I forgot it?”

Kotzer ruach is brought about by not learning Torah. Elevating ruach to its highest form by learning Torah doesn’t only add to the power of speech, but enhances every aspect of life. AsDovid Hamelech says, “Toras Hashem temimah meshivas nofesh.” Torah restores the nefesh of the person, as well as his energy and joy.

Last year, Rav Chaim Kanievsky sat shivah following the passing of a beloved daughter. At the conclusion of the shivah, he joined the family at her kever, as is customary. Prominent Israeli photographer Shuki Lehrer showed resourcefulness and imagination. He stood near the gravesite, determined to capture a picture of Rav Chaim walking away from the kever.

The photographer explained: “I knew that Rav Chaim had been prevented from learning his regular regimen of Torah during the shivah period. I understood that he would be thirsty for his Gemara. I knew that at the moment the shivah would end, he would re-immerse himself in learning. I anticipated that one of his grandchildren would bring a Gemara to the bais hakevaros and hand it to Rav Chaim as he exited. I wanted a picture of that special moment.

“It happened exactly that way. Rav Chaim accepted the open Gemara and his face lit up. He immediately slipped back into the world where he’s happiest.”

This is a story about the inventiveness and skill of a photographer, but what emerges is the most beautiful testimony to Torah’s ability to be meishiv nefesh, to be marchiv da’as, to reignite the ruach and allow man to transcend suffering.

Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l would talk about Dovid Hamelech’s choice of term for his delight in Torah: sha’ashuai. A child engaged in playing with his favorite toy earns smiles and radiates chein and favor, because, at that moment, he is real. He isn’t engaged in a pursuit leading him somewhere else. He isn’t trying to earn money, points or power. He is simply expressing an essential desire. There is nothing cynical or calculating about his action, so passersby smile. The sight of a young boy zooming his fire truck along the floor or a little girl putting her baby doll to sleep touches us. We recognize the purity of their actions.

Torah is our sha’ashua. It is where we turn to find ourselves. It is where we go to get in touch with existence and where we encounter our spirit.

The bullets are always intended for us. The hatred and anger have always been directed at us, as they are now. All through the ages we have been victimized by angry, desperate people. Yet, we have endured. How have we battled back? What is the secret that enables us to remain strong and confident and successful despite having so many enemies and Kalashnikovs aimed at us?  This week’s parsha provides the answer to our endurance. Only through learning Torah do we lift our spirits. As they try to snuff out our ruach, we respond with more chiyus, more energy, and more toil.

We are living in times of insanity in a world where demented extremists roam freely. They have been empowered and emboldened by diplomats and governments afraid and incapable of confronting them. We wonder how leaders of the free world can be so blind and inadequate. People wonder how it can be that the United States was not among the prominent attendees at the anti-terror march in Paris on Monday.

When Hashem asked Moshe to tell Paroh the message of deliverance of the Jewish people, Moshe demurred. “The Jewish people didn’t listen to me. How will Paroh?” he asked, (Shemos 6, 12). Rashi states that this is one of the ten instances in the Torah where a kal vachomer argument is used.

The question is obvious. The posuk explains that the Bnei Yisroel didn’t listen to Moshe because of kotzer ruach and avodah kosheh. However Paroh, who was safely ensconced in his comfortable place, didn’t have those limitations, why was Moshe convinced that he wouldn’t listen to his arguments?

If we understand kotzer ruach as referring to a lack of Torah and madreigah of ruach, then the argument is quite understandable. The Bnei Yisroel, heirs to a golden tradition, were weakened in their study of Torah and were thus unreceptive to messages of freedom and spirit. Paroh, who never benefitted from this tradition and never studied Torah, would surely be unable to be sympathetic to a tender humanitarian message of opportunity.

We cry out in Selichos, “Veruach kodshecha al tikach mimeni - Hashem, please don’t remove Your holy spirit from me.” We can explain that the prayer is also a request that our ruach, spirit, remain holy and blessed, infused with Torah.

We seek to merit the brachos of the novi Yeshayahu (59:21), who prophesied,  “Ruchi asher alecha udvori asher samti beficha lo yomushu mipicha umipi zaracha umipi zera zaracha mei’atah ve’ad olam - May that spirit of Hashem that rests upon the lomeid Torah never fade from our mouths, from those of our children, and their children.”

We are currently in the teshuvah and growth period known as Shovavim, given its name by the acronym of the parshiyos we lain during this period, from Shemos through Mishpotim. As we read these parshiyos about Klal Yisroel’s descent into Mitzrayim and redemption, we are enabled to escape our personal prisons and enslavement.

Repentance is brought about through acts of charity, fasting and affliction. Ameilus baTorah, intense Torah study, also has the power to cleanse and purify. Shovavim is as good a time as any to add fervor and zeal to our learning.

An old Dvinsker once described what it was like when the Rogatchover Gaon walked down the street. Coachmen would stop their horses, waiting for him to pass. Peddlers would stand at attention. Vendors would stop their hollering. He was so engaged in learning and so oblivious to his surroundings, that he moved people of all walks of life into respectful silence. He embodied the ruach of Torah.

We have to breathe in deeply and fight for each breath, because we are living in an era when ruach is in short supply. We exist in a state of mikotzer ruach.

We have tragically held our breaths more often over the past few months. Mikotzer ruach.

We have seen tzaddikim murdered because they are Jews, and young boys kidnapped and killed because they are Jews. Mikotzer ruach.

Last week, we held our collective breaths as our brothers and sisters were held hostage in a Parisian store. Mikotzer ruach.  

Our breath was taken as the news reached us that four innocent hostages were brutally killed. Mikotzer ruach.

And then there is mei’avodah koshah. As the noose of the golus tightens, it becomes more difficult to concentrate on doing what we must to restore our breath and happiness.

We have to endeavor to work harder to lift our nefesh, ruach and neshomah to higher and broader levels so that we can breathe easier, safer and longer, meriting the geulas hanefesh and geulas haguf bekarov through Torah.

Last week, Jews came under attack as they prepared for Shabbos, symbolic of a generation preparing for the ultimate Shabbos, the yom shekulo Shabbos, a frenzy of final tasks amidst the sirens. We are in the final moments before the arrival of Moshiach.

News reports indicated that police crashed through the doors of Hyper Casher on Rue Jean de la Fontaine at sundown, shkiah.

As Shabbos began, the siege ended. The chevlei Moshiach are difficult and painful. We await the day when they give birth to the end of the siege of this exile.