Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Afilu Behatzlachah

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

I was recently sitting with some people and, as has happened so often in recent months, someone started singing the very popular niggun, Ve’afilu Behastarah. The moving words and tune never fail to soften the heart, providing a jolt of chizuk and emunah, a reminder that Hashem is always in control.

A learned Yerushalmi Yid, the sort who seems to be equipped with a perpetual supply of joyful comments and uplifting remarks, was among those sitting there. He took issue with the words. “Farvoss nisht ve’afilu sheloi behastarah?” he asked. “Why are people singing that Hashem is found even in the hidden? Sing that He is ever-present! Even when things are going good, remember that it is a gift from Hashem!”

The Chassidic song seeks to reinforce the reality that even in times of darkness and concealment, Hashem is with us. It seeks to remind us that each nisayon is ordained for us and that nothing occurs by happenstance. Even when our situation is critical, we are not to forsake hope and faith, because what we are seeing is not the whole story.

As people of faith, we believe that the times of darkness are an illusion. Struggles present a false image. There is a story behind the story. Everything transpires for a greater purpose. Things are rarely as they appear to be. At times, Hashem is in a position of hester, hidden from our view, but we need to know that even when He is hidden, He is present.

The hester is itself a hester, a mask covering a mask.

As Purim is upon us, I remembered the man’s comment, because, essentially, the song of Ve’afilu Behastarah and its message are the song and message of Purim.

On the first Purim after emerging from the abyss of suffering that consumed most of his family, community and Chassidus, the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum zt”l, called out, “It was worth enduring the pain of the war in order to be able to experience one more Purim, one more krias megillah.”

The Rebbe’s inspiring comment begs explanation. Why was Purim and Megillas Esther singled out? What about the other mitzvos? Did meriting to perform every daily, weekly, Shabbos and Yom Tov-related mitzvah one more time not make life worth living?

Perhaps we can understand that the Rebbe selected this mitzvah in order to make a point.

We live in a world of hester, to be sure. But hester isn’t the reality. Imagine when a blackout strikes. Your home is plunged into darkness, electronic appliances sit useless, and light is provided by a few small candles and fading flashlights. During the summer, there is no relief from the heat, and during the winter, there is no relief from the cold.

However, while experiencing a blackout, no one panics or worries about the future, because they know that the power company is aware of the problem and, sooner or later, power will be restored. In fact, some might even enjoy the power outage. With the flashlights and candles for light, the extra blankets and sweatshirts for warmth, and crackers and cheese for supper, it can become an adventure.

There is a Kabbalistic term, “hamtokas hadinim beshorosham,” which relates to the ability to contemplate the source from where punishment comes and, through that, to behold its inherent sweetness. The ability to reach this level enables a person to negotiate the harshness of the punishment he is experiencing.

On Purim, we see events stripped down to their core and we contemplate that under the challenge lies the posuk of “Ahavti eschem omar Hashem,” which fuels the whole creation. Through the avodah and limudim of Purim, we are mamtik the dinim, so that by the end of Purim - as we manage one more lechayim with the strains of music quieting down in the background, and as the table is covered with the remnants of a festive seudah and the tablecloth is stained with purple wine - in our minds there are no more dinim.

It can be the struggle of a lifetime. Small people see only “hastarah” and are unable to get past that. Great people see the “ohr.” The rest of us fall somewhere in between, feeling pain and wondering where the blessing is hidden.

The megillah states that following the miraculous turn of events, “LaYehudim hoysah orah vesimcha vesasson vikor - The Jews had light, joy and splendor.” Chazal teach that the posuk is hinting at something deeper that the Jews won in the battle: “orah zu Torah, simcha zu Yom Tov, sasson zu milah, yikor zeh tefillin.”

If the posuk is hinting to Torah, Yom Tov, milah and tefillin, why doesn’t it state that directly and say, “LaYehudim hoysah Torah, Yom Tov, milah utefillin”?

Perhaps we can answer that after experiencing the miracles of Purim, the Jews appreciated the depth of the mitzvos and saw the light in Torah, the joy in Yom Tov and milah, and the splendor of tefillin. Those were no longer esoteric concepts, but were deeply felt by all. [See Sefas Emes year 648]

Rav Mordechai Pogramansky zt”l was a tremendous source of chizuk to talmidim of the olam haTorah during the Second World War. He once posed a question. Dovid Hamelech asks in Tehillim (139:7), “Ana eileich meiruchecha ve’ana miponecha evrach - Where shall I go from Your spirit and where shall I flee from Your presence?

Rav Pogramansky wondered, “Hut Dovid Hamelech gezucht antloiffen fun Basheffer? Was Dovid Hamelech seeking to escape from Hakadosh Boruch Hu, as the posuk seems to indicate?”

He explained that people who live in times of difficulty and travail merit experiencing a different type of emunah, one that is deeper than yediah. Dovid Hamelech’s belief was such that he greeted good news and disturbing news with the same reaction: “Kos yeshuos esa uvesheim Hashem ekra.” He praised the pains and travails he experienced just as he praised the salvations Hashem granted him, as the posuk says, “Tzorah veyagon emtza uvesheim Hashem ekra.” Amazingly, both thanksgiving and mourning led him to the same place.

And so, Dovid Hamelech longed to experience this dimension of faith, but it was simply too bright in front of him, and he couldn’t locate the darkness from which he would live with emunah. So he wondered, “Ana eileich, where can I flee from His presence? Where is the realm where my yediah will be replaced by emunah?”

Rav Pogramansky turned to his talmidim and urged them to take advantage of the historic darkness they were experiencing and to grasp onto emunah and never let go.

The Vilna Gaon famously says that every posuk in Megillas Esther contributes to the greatness of the neis. The first part of the megillah details the increasing wealth, power and prestige of Achashveirosh, which all contributed to the creation of more hester. The further they seemed to be from geulah and the more the escape from golus seemed to be distant from the Jews in that period, the more the opportunity for emunah increased. The success of Achashveirosh in effect produced the neis, because it created the climate in which emunah could bring about a yeshuah.

In Mordechai’s confident cry to Esther, “Revach vehatzolah ya’amod laYehudim mimakom achier” was evident the conviction that everything they were experiencing was a mask, from which those who are baalei emunah hear the eternal cry of Knesses Yisroel.

Mordechai had the conviction to tell Esther with definite clarity that they were going to be saved. The only question was whether Esther would play a role in that salvation. He was the epitome of a baal bitachon and despite the evident hester, Mordechai knew that Hashem was there, afilu b’hastarah.

Generations of Yidden left this world with the posuk of yichud Hashem and perfect faith on their lips. Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad. That is our national mantra. We cover our eyes when we say it to hint at the fact that we can’t yet see this reality, but we already feel it.

Rav Mordechai Schwab zt”l arrived in America after years on the run, escaping dangerous Europe, enduring the perilous trip to Shanghai, and rising above the obstacles of establishing a young family in that inhospitable climate. Finally, as “the tzaddik sought to settle in peace,” his three-year-old son, Boruch Ber, named for Rav Schwab’s rebbi, was tragically killed in a car accident. The levayah was held on Erev Shabbos. A few war survivors gathered to provide comfort.

Just before the aron was lowered into the ground, Rav Schwab leaned over and addressed the niftar, his beloved son. “Boruch Ber’l,” he said, “go before the Kisei Hakavod and tell them what I taught you. Show them what you learned while you were here: Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad.”

Rav Schwab was proclaiming yichud Hashem in the darkest time. He was proclaiming that the Oneness that defines happy and joyful times is the same Oneness of difficult times. He seized a moment of total darkness, with his eyes covered as never before, to proclaim emunah. In a time of hester, he tore away the mask.

Our forefathers toiled in hardship and privation, working under conditions and in situations we couldn’t even fathom, yet they remained besimcha. They focused on the truth. In our comfortable world, we take so much for granted, and that itself creates a wall that makes it difficult to feel joy. They expected nothing and took pleasure in each small bit of Divine favor.

They knew that whatever Hashem gives us is a gift. They rejoiced with what they had - good health, family, friends and life itself - and thus merited appreciating what they received.

We can also reach that level of seeing, perceiving and feeling His blessings. We can be besimcha. It’s a deeper avodah than simply cranking up loud music, but it’s much more meaningful and long-lasting. 

This might be what the Satmar Rebbe meant. All the hardships and pain he had suffered, hester behind hester, had been worth it for Purim, meaning that in the face of the revelation of the ultimate light, it became clear that it was never dark.

On Purim, we don’t say, “Es vet zein gut. It will be good.” We say, “It was always good.”

LaYehudim hoysah orah. They were flooded with a light, a powerful beacon revealing that all along it had been nothing but good.

At a Purim seudah one year, Rav Avigdor Miller zt”l commented on the words of the song being sung, “Ah gantz yohr freilach zol men zein.” He wondered what would be left after Purim. How would they be able to bottle up the emotion they were feeling at that moment and keep a supply handy for use in time of need?

He explained that on Purim, through contemplation, simcha, yayin and the story of the neis, one develops recognition for a fundamental truth: Hashem is the oheiv amo Yisroel. He loves us.

“That’s the second yesod in the Torah,” Rav Miller stated. “The first is that Hashem made the world and the second is that He loves His people. The happiness comes when you realize that Hashem is thinking about you. He doesn’t only care for the nation as whole, but for each individual.”

Rav Miller looked around the table and pointed to a man on his right and another on his left. “You see these men here? Think about them for a moment. Each one is a tzelem Elokim. Hashem is saying, ‘Those are my sons!’ He loves us more than any mother loves her child. That’s the happiness in life. There is no greater joy. It’s true all year round, but today we see it clearly. Now we internalize this truth and then we can be freilach ah gantz yohr.”

It’s the song that follows Ve’afilu Behastarah, which is for before Purim. After spending the day experiencing the Yom Tov and its mitzvos and re-immersing ourselves in the story of Megillas Esther and its lessons, and after a day spent singing Shoshanas Yaakov and LaYehudim hoysah orah, we appreciate that “Afilu behatzlachah bevadai gam shom nimtza Hashem Yisborach.”

By the time the sun sets this Purim, we will, with Hashem’s help, be singing a new song, that of Ah Gantz Yohr Freilach, for we will see Hashem even where there is hastarah.

A freilichen Purim.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

We Can Help

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The Gemara in Maseches Megillah (4b) discusses the possibility of observing Purim and reading the megillah on Shabbos. Rabbah and Rav Yosef agree that Megillas Esther cannot be read on Shabbos, but they dispute why.

Rav Yosef says that Purim does not fall out on Shabbos because “eineihem shel aniyim nesuos lemikra megillah.” The impoverished of Klal Yisroel look at the calendar during the cold months of winter, waiting eagerly for Purim. Purim and megillah offer a promise of hope for the poor among us. Were Purim to fall out on a Shabbos, the poor would lose the opportunity to raise much-needed sums for their families. Thus, Chazal arranged for Purim and megillah reading to always take place on a weekday.

The poor are hungry and have just endured the bitter cold of the winter season. They anticipate the day when Jews open their hearts and wallets more than on any other day of the year. On Purim, the spirit of generosity reigns supreme. The poor rejoice.

The month of Adar reminds us of the obligation to be charitable, as the Torah teaches us not just to give, but also how to give.

Parshas Shekolim ushered in the season last week, with its message of he’oshir lo yarbeh vehadal lo yamit. The wealthy who contribute large donations are able to enjoy tangible benefits of their munificence, seeing buildings rise, families changed and the world improved. They derive no pleasure from donating the tiny sum of a half-shekel, an unbefitting contribution for an oshir.

Conversely, the dal, the pauper, has difficulty parting even with the minute sum of a machatzis hashekel. Yet, when it comes to the Mishkon, the poor are expected to contribute, regardless of the difficulty in doing so.

The mitzvah of machatzis hashekel appears to satisfy no one. For the rich, it is a pittance; it doesn’t arouse any feelings of satisfaction normally associated with giving. For the poor, it is an imposition on those already stretched to the limit.

Yet, this mitzvah symbolizes the essence of communal giving, because tzedakah isn’t about the giver. Tzedakah is about the recipient. What the Torah seeks to accomplish with the donation is that the giver negates any self-interest or benefit associated with giving. The ultimate motivation in philanthropy must be to bring joy to the needy recipient of the donation. The benefit of the cause is what should motivate us, not the joy of giving or the pride associated with the granting of large gifts.

A story concerning the founding of the yeshiva in Volozhin is transmitted from generation to generation. Rav Chaim Volozhiner conceived of the concept of establishing a formal bais medrash where bochurim from different cities would join in common purpose and learn from seasoned talmidei chachomim. Until his day, there was no such a place. With foresight, Rav Chaim recognized that a yeshiva was necessary to preserve Torah for future generations. With great excitement, he traveled to his rebbi, the Vilna Gaon, to request his blessing for the new undertaking.

Rav Chaim shared his plans and vision for the yeshiva. Treasuring every moment and blessed with a brilliant mind, the Gaon generally responded to issues placed before him with lightning speed, often before a question was completed. This time, however, he didn’t respond.

Rav Chaim understood that his rebbi’s silence was not a sign of acquiescence and accepted his rejection of the transformative idea.

Time passed - some say as long as three years - and Rav Chaim returned to broach the subject with his rebbi a second time. The Gaon agreed to the plan and gave it his approbation. Rav Chaim was perplexed and asked him why the idea was favored now when it wasn’t the first time he brought it up. What had changed?

“When you first approached me,” the Vilna Gaon explained, “you were so captivated by the idea and so taken by the concept that I worried that perhaps a tiny strain of machshovah zorah (self-interest) had entered your mind. As great as any idea is, if the motivation is impure, it will not succeed.

“When it comes to building a place for Torah, if the aspect of lishmah is lacking, the endeavor will fail. Torah can only be built with complete purity. Total truth comes from total truth. A yeshiva cannot be established based on anything other than pure truth. When you initially came, you were so excited about the idea that I feared that perhaps there was a latent negiah in your heart and you were not acting wholly lesheim Shomayim. Therefore, I could not approve your proposal.

“But this time, you presented your idea calmly, as though you are a bystander, and I ascertained that your motivation is fully lesheim Shomayim. Now, not only is your idea proper, but your  motive is as well. You will succeed.”

Hashem told Moshe, “Veyikchu li terumah - And they should take for Me a donation.” Rashi explains that the word li refers to lishmi. The donations should be lesheim Shomayim and not for any personal reason. The essence of tzedakah is when it is given lishmah, much like limud haTorah, of which the prime mitzvah is when the person performing it receives no benefit.

Last week we lained Parshas Shekolim and this week we read Parshas Terumah, for they are both prerequisites for Purim, the day identified with the mitzvah of kol haposeiach yad nosnim lo, when we negate our personal feelings to gladden the hearts of the unfortunate.

In the parshiyos we lain during chodesh Adar, we transition from the creation and salvation of Am Yisroel and the development and evolution of the nation to the practical details of erecting a Mishkon and bringing korbanos.

In Hashem’s instructions to Moshe Rabbeinu regarding how and from whom to solicit material necessary for the construction of the home of the Shechinah in this world, He directs him to look for a character trait: “Veyikchu li terumah mei’eis kol ish asher yidvenu libo tikchu es terumosi.

Moshe Rabbeinu was commanded to accept contributions only from people who possessed “nedivus halev.”

The Vilna Gaon explains that although the Shechinah rests in the heart of every Jew, there is a need for a place where all hearts can join together. The Mishkon would be that place and the nedivus lev would be the prerequisite to take part. What is it about this attribute that made it so vital?

In Parshas Shemos (4:13-14), when Hashem asked Moshe to be His representative and return to Mitzrayim to redeem the Jewish people, Moshe demurred and suggested his brother, Aharon, for the position. The posuk states that Hashem was upset with Moshe and told him that his brother Aharon would happily welcome his return to Miztrayim, joyful that Moshe was selected for the exalted position.

The posuk states, “Vero’acha vesomach belibo - And when he sees you, he will rejoice in his heart.”Rashi states that in reward for his heartfelt joy over the promotion of his younger brother, Aharon merited donning the Choshen - which was worn over the heart - and serving as the kohein gadol in the Mishkon.

The fact that he experienced selfless joy over his brother’s promotion was what proved his worthiness to serve in the inner sanctum, lifnai velifnim. Aharon Hakohein, the same person who was happy for his brother Moshe, was the one who was the quintessential “oheiv shalom verodeif shalom.”

Because he was blessed with a good heart that could rejoice for his brother, he was able to bring peace between his fellow Jews. He was able to relate to other people and their problems, drawing people together, and minimizing the rifts between them. He was able to accomplish this because it wasn’t about him. It was about them.

Baalei mussar say that to feel the pain of another is to be a mentch, but to share in the joy of a friend’s success requires one to be a malach, an angel.

Aharon, possessing the middah of “vero’acha vesomach belibo,” was angelic, unencumbered by the jealousy that hamstrings lower people.

Nedivei lev, characterized by selflessness, are able to appreciate, rejoice with and work towards the good fortune of others, as they possess a divine middah. The converse is true as well: Where there is envy, jealousy and divisiveness, there cannot be Elokus.

The Mishkon, that ultimate place of hashro’as haShechinah, had to be created through nedivus lev, because the middah is found amongst those who are connected at their roots to Hashem. The nediv lev is able to be generous with what he has and feel other people’s joy, because his life is guided by the belief that no one gets what is not meant for him and that Hashem has a distinct plan for each individual.

It starts by understanding that we are all brothers and sisters, serving one Father, and that each person has his singular role and situation. The heart of the nediv lev is pure and holy, his life a chain of goodness, happiness and greatness. Nedivei lev exist to help and support others. People such as they are integral to the mission of the Mishkon Hashem.

They are a source of inspiration to others, and their life is a string of positive reinforcement directed at their fellow man. They can share and give, because they know that they lose nothing by doing so.

There is no better time than now to start educating ourselves to be forces for good.

Adar is the month of happiness. Mishenichnas Adar marbim besimchah.

This obligation of increasing joy as the month begins is present only in Adar. Even the month of Nissan, when we celebrate our greatest Yom Tov, there is no mitzvah to be marbeh besimchah.

Pesach freed us from slavery and domination by Paroh. Following the neis of Purim, we were still “avdi d’Achashveirosh” in exile. The happiness of the month of Adar requires an explanation.

Chazal derive that on Purim we accepted anew, and willingly, Torah Shebaal Peh. Though delivered to Moshe Rabbeinu at Har Sinai, it came to us through much toil and is mastered to this day only through arduous ameilus.

On Purim, the day that commemorates a miraculous salvation brought about through working hard to do teshuva, we merited accepting the Torah anew and gladly received the word of Hashem that is arrived at through drashos and ameilus.

We labor with our minds and hearts to acquire Torah and thus merit serving as vessels for the Shechinah. Only those who are ameilim in Torah can achieve perfect traits and reach the level of nedivus lev. The devotion to Torah and mussar coupled with the abandonment of selfish thoughts enable man to rise to the level of being able to construct a home for the Shechinah in this world.

People who are selfish are unable to overcome their jealousy and distrust of others. They can’t participate in an endeavor that benefits all equally. Donations that are forced cannot construct a collective home for the Shechinah. The Mishkon can only be erected through unity and shared purpose. The neis of Purim was achieved through perfect achdus.

When the Jews engaged in discord, the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed, and because we continue to squabble and succumb to sinas chinom, it has not yet been rebuilt.

There is so much good in our world, yet, at the same time, there is way too much animosity. There are too many arguments and too many people working against each other. There is an absence of nedivus lev. We must work to overcome the divisions that exist, break down the walls that are being erected, and work together to bring about harmony and nedivus lev, without enmity, without agendas, and without acrimony.

We are on the cusp of elections in Eretz Yisroel. We all saw the churban that the last election caused. There is a chance now to turn around that awful result. But if we are fragmented, we cannot overcome those who seek our demise. If we can’t come together responsibly and agree on the basics, then we are doomed to experience disaster again.

In this country, as well, we must ensure that peace reigns and that we do what we can to create conditions in which nedivei lev can grow.

Now we have a chance to show what we are made of and to display the nedivus lev that defined our ancestors. The Yomim Tovim of Purim and Pesach are times associated with helping the less fortunate. Across our communities and kehillos, there are families struggling to maintain and uphold their dignity. They are our neighbors and friends. They sit next to us in shul and stand next to us in line at the grocery store. We fail to see the load they are carrying and the burden that is breaking them.

Some are single parents who struggle alone, day by day, month by month, emotionally and financially. When Yom Tov comes, the pain is doubled, as they await a yeshuah that will save them from this enormous responsibility and embarrassment.

Others may be people you’ve helped in the past, perhaps following a tragedy or a mishap, and while they appear to be managing, often times they are not. Their pain is raw and real, and with a little bit of financial help, some of their many worries can be alleviated.

They are trying their hardest, but they are cracking under the strain. This time of year, their eyes are raised to us. And so we turn to you, a nation of nedivei lev with a rich history of nedivus lev.

Open your hearts to feel the pain of these families and donate generously. Let us all help these needy families and try to ease their pain at a time that should be filled with happiness. Help them experience simchas Yom Tov, joy and serenity.

No one asked to become an almanah or a yasom, or for their marriage to fall apart, or to lose their job or suffer a financial downturn. It is their lot and it is our responsibility to be there for them.

Join me and my dear friend, the noted and respected Lakewood rov, Rav Simcha Bunim Cohen, in supporting our fund that seeks to preserve the self-respect of these suffering families and distributes the money directly to them.

While there are so many worthy causes that you contribute to, we ask you to help this one as well to bring the light of Yom Tov and Yiddishkeit into needy homes. Help us help these good people hold their heads up high. Help us help them bring smiles to their and their children’s faces. Help us show them that they are not alone and that Klal Yisroel is a nation of rachmonim and nedivei lev.

After all, Rachmona liba bo’i. We must show that we care.

Part of our own mandate in a season of simcha - the joy of Purim, the simchas Yom Tov of Pesach - is to see to it that our simcha is complete by creating simcha in others. As Jews would bring their maaser sheini to Yerushalayim, they would recite viduy. As the posuk states, they would say, “Asisi kechol asher tzivisoni - I have done as You commanded.

Rashi explains that this refers to the obligation to be happy and to cause others to experience joy: “somachti vesimachti.”

In the middle of Yerushalayim, there is a hidden neighborhood called Botei Broide, a bastion of tzaddikim and tzidkaniyos, pure Yerushalmi souls. One of the most beloved of those saints was Rav Yitzchok Nosson Kuperstock, a mechaber seforim and rosh yeshiva in Tchebin. The holy Yid and his rebbetzin were a magnet for visitors, who came for chizuk, a brochah or advice.

The Brisker Rov advised people to seek out Rav Yitzchok Nosson for his brachos when he was still a young man in his thirties. Ever since then, he has been revered in Brisker circles.

An American bochur learning in Brisk heard about this and thought that it would be an experience to eat a Shabbos meal at the Kuperstock home. He found their number and called to see if he could eat there on Shabbos morning. The rebbetzin told him that he is welcome to come, adding that they eat their meal when the rov comes home following davening in Botei Broide. When the boy inquired what time they usually finished, the rebbetzin informed him that Rav Kuperstock davened vosikin.

The bochur expressed his appreciation, but explained that he couldn’t be there that early. He thanked her for the offer.

When the rov came home and heard about the phone call, he was upset. “A bochur is hungry, a bochur wants a meal, a bochur might not have where to eat,” he remarked again and again, unable to leave the matter alone.

He approached a neighbor who had contact with American bochurim and asked him to identify the bochur from Brisk who had called seeking a Shabbos meal. The neighbor saw how upset the tzaddik was and tracked down the bochur who had placed the call.

When the boy called back, Rav Kuperstock insisted that he join them for the meal and of course he did. To the tzaddik, it was unthinkable that he could enjoy his Shabbos meal when there was a bochur who appealed to him for a meal and he wasn’t sure if he would be fed.

We are entering a season when, with Hashem’s help, we will be spending money on mishloach manos, costumes for the children, and wine and delicacies for the seudah. Pesach will bring bills for new clothing, matzos and meat. How can we enjoy our Yom Tov if we forget about helping others?

To paraphrase the tzaddik of Botei Broide, “A bochur is hungry, a bochur wants a meal, a bochur might not have where to go.”

We can help. We can make sure that there will be a little less hunger and a little more happiness in the world. We can take our simcha to the next level by increasing simcha around us.

Contributions to the Family Support Fund can be made out to Congregation Ateres Yeshaya and mailed to Rabbi Simcha Bunim Cohen, 37 Fifth Street, Lakewood, NJ, 08701, or Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, 53 Olympia Lane, Monsey, NY, 10952.

Eineihem nesuos. Let us not disappoint them. Our eyes are also nesuos as Dovid Hamelech pleads in Tehillim, “Essa einai el hehorim mei’ayin yavo ezri.” In the zechus of what we do for others may that for which we await be delivered to us.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A People of Truth

By: Rabbi Pinchus Lipschutz

In the alma deshikra in which we live, truth is a rare commodity. Fiction, deviation, misinformation and half-truths are pervasive in our world. The only way to have a connection to the truth is by following the Torah. Mishpotim, the laws that govern finances, which we study this week, must have a basis in the Torah in order for them to be truthful and just.

In focusing on last week’s parshas Yisro, which teaches us about mattan Torah, and Mishpotim, the parsha that follows, a theme emerges. The drama and glory of Maamad Har Sinai were an introduction to the laws governing how we deal with each other.

The depth of the connection between the two parshiyos is revealed by the Sefas Emes, who explains that “Ve’eileh hamishpotim asher tosim lifneihem” is the natural consequence of “Anochi Hashem Elokecha.”

The posuk states, “…asher tosim lifneihem,” teaching us that even though these laws appear to be rational, Jews are forbidden to adjudicate their disputes in secular courts. Even if the secular laws seem to be the same as those that appear in the Torah, we must know that they are not. There are truths and then there is the Torah’s truth, composed and transmitted by the One whose seal is truth. We don’t live our lives in accordance with social mores and customs of the world around us. We live with His truth only.

A rov was delivering a Gemara shiur to a group of intelligent and accomplished professionals who had no Torah background. Among them were judges, lawyers and professors. They were studying Maseches Bava Kama, when a judge interrupted the shiur. “Look,” he said, “this is very nice and clear, but I don’t know what makes this stuff more special or unique than anything I’ve studied. I guarantee you that if you present to me a dilemma, I can come up with the same answer as your rabbis. Pardon me, but this is logical thought. I can’t detect anything Divine about it.”

“Tell me please,” responded the rov, “what you would do if you came home from work and heard that your eleven-year old son had been playing baseball and mistakenly threw the ball through the neighbor’s window, shattering it? Your neighbor welcomes you by shouting that your dog kicked over a lantern and made a small fire, burning his rose-bush. Everyone is angry at you. How would you resolve it and make things right?”

The judge pondered the question for several minutes. The listeners were eager to hear his well-reasoned response. Finally, he spoke up. “I would apologize to the neighbor about his rose-bush, but an animal is just an animal and I am not culpable. My son, however, is my problem and I would offer to pay for the broken window.”

The rov smiled. “Excellent. But the Torah says exactly the opposite. Your child is a minor, a kotton hamazik, and thus you are exempt from financial responsibility for his actions. But you are responsible for your animal. You are liable for its actions because you are obligated to watch it well. You thus have to pay nezek, depending on the situation.”

The attendees at the shiur burst into spontaneous applause, thrilled by this demonstration that the truth that governs creations is not governed by logic. They sensed that there is a Divine chochmah that guides us. At times, it may be logical. At other times it isn’t. But it certainly is never defined by logic.

This is true outside of the bais medrash, where chochmas haTorah is ignored. The world runs on a form of fiction, a lie that is compelling and enticing and bears all the similarities to the truth. But it is still a lie. The system of justice presents itself as honorific and precise, but all too often we find that the people who administer justice are lacking in fidelity to a just code.

From outside appearances, it seems that the laws are similar, but they are not. There are some things that you think you can accept at face value, but even those are often fiction. The yeitzer hora tempts us with different guises. Some are transparent and obvious enticements, while others are more cleverly devised to fool and entrap us. Societal mores are presented as truths, and those who don’t accept them are made to feel that they are out-of-fashion and irrelevant vestiges from a different time.

America is reeling now. The very face of network news - and nothing is more hallowed than that - has been proven to be a liar who fabricated personal experiences in order to promote himself. One of America’s most trusted journalists simply made up stories and has been telling them for years. Paid $10 million annually to read the news, because of his abilities to present it in a way Americans trust, he was caught in a lie he has been telling since 2003.

Everything about this icon of reliability and truth was perfect. His stories were interesting, his passion real, his expression appropriate - except, well, that what he was saying wasn’t true.

Everyone on his team knew he was lying, as did people involved in the incident, but nobody cared, because he fit the part he was promoted as: Mr. Truth. His network celebrated his first decade of service by posting a grandiloquent retrospect stating, “You build it slowly over time. And what you build, if you work hard enough, if you respect, is a powerful thing called trust.”

He was finally called out for lying about his Iraq experience. The pressure became too much to bear and the man of truth was forced to issue an apology. Last Wednesday night, the proud peacock strutted into the chair from which he addresses millions nightly and tried to fine tune an apology, blaming his lies on “the fog of war.” He explained that he had “conflated” two stories to praise the heroism and valor of enlisted men.

He might have survived in the old days, but in the internet age, by week’s end, he had to “temporarily” go off the air. Still trying to keep his façade going, he wrote, “Upon my return, I will continue my career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us.” His bosses had no comment.

It’s all a game. Some people play baseball, some play football, and some play the truth.

In our world, everything is sheker. There is no truth outside of the Torah. Leadership is about acting, about feigning sincerity and compassion, intelligence and presence. Facts and numbers are stubborn things, but they are either ignored or spun by those in power to create and foster the narrative necessary to promote their agenda.

The president trumpeted in his State of the Union message that “Our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis.”

What he didn’t say was that the percent of full time jobs as a percent of the adult population is at a 30 year low. The official government numbers don’t count anyone as unemployed if they haven’t looked for a job over the past four weeks. Thirty million Americans are out of work, even more are suffering in low paying or part time jobs, but the big lie persists that the economy is picking up and unemployment is dropping.

The woman running for president, though she still lies about her intentions, was caught in a similar falsity to that of the trusted news anchor when she spoke about her braveness under fire in Bosnia. When video appeared showing that there was no attack, the vaunted secretary of state said that she “misspoke.” She “misspoke” about the attack in Benghazi as well, but, in her words, “what difference does it make?”

It’s a game and everyone plays along. Her husband was impeached and is a known liar, yet he is the most popular politician in this country.

The current president misspeaks all the time, yet it has become acceptable, because that’s the way the game is played. It’s all a game. When he speaks the truth, as he did last week in a most undiplomatic and impolitic way about the murderous Christian Crusades and Inquisition, he was widely condemned for speaking the truth about Edom.

He says that he can’t meet Israeli Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu when he comes to Washington next month, because the administration cannot appear to take sides in the upcoming Israeli election. Yet, that didn’t prevent Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry from meeting with his strongest challenger, Buzi Herzog, over the weekend in Europe. This is the same vice president who says that he won’t be able to attend the Israeli prime minister’s address to Congress about the dangers of capitulating to Iran, because he will be traveling abroad. He doesn’t yet know where he will be traveling, however. But, remember, he is Israel’s best friend, ever.

The same Buzi Herzog who seeks to become Israel’s next prime minister condemned Netanyahu at the international conference he was attending. Whether Netanyahu’s decision to snub the American president was unwise or not, it is an entirely different story to minimize the Iranian threat in order to gain media and Democrat favor. Herzog said in his speech, “As leaders, we must put the interests of our country and our citizens far ahead of our own political survival.” He then proceeded to do exactly the opposite.

The New York Times, in a religion article over the weekend, warned Israel that “Mr. Netanyahu’s apparent alignment with Republicans will erode the support of [the] majority of American Jews who reliably vote Democratic, because they lean liberal on most social and economic issues.”

The media cares deeply about Israel and thus feels an obligation to warn its leaders how to behave and which causes to adopt. The Times article informs that there is a new advocacy group, recently formed to pressure the Israeli chief rabbinate to approve non-halachic religious ceremonies.

So what does one thing have to do with the other? The Jewish Religious Equality Coalition, a new group comprised of Reform and Conservative clergy, as well as Rabbis Asher Lopatin and other neo-Orthodox renegades, is chaired by Dov S. Zakheim, a former Defense Department official. Somehow, that qualifies him to tell Jews how to be Jewish.

“There are two fundamentally linked issues,” says Zakheim. “When you have American Jews who move to Israel and feel they are treated as second-class citizens by an ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, they all have friends and family back at home who hear about it and that discontent and disconnect spreads.

“And the second linked part, which is what got me involved, is national security. While Israel and America do not see eye to eye on every issue, on national security they are two democracies that do see things essentially the same way. If you alienate one pillar of American support, you’ve lost them,” warns Zakheim from the pages of the Times.

Even though the fact remains that Israelis don’t care about this and accept that halachah and Torah are the ultimate guide of the Jewish people, the experts who warn Israel to accept their deviations from tradition lest they suffer dire financial consequences don’t seem to care.

“We know the election is going to be fought on other grounds - foreign policy, economics, the relationship with the U.S.,” Steven Bayme, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Koppelman Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations, tells the Times. “But the voices of American Jews need to be heard, even on what appears to be an Israeli issue that hasn’t caught fire with Israelis. We’ve got to be a consciousness-raising effort with a lobbying arm.”

So, the Israelis don’t care, and thus the issue is bogus, but no matter, they will still insist that people follow their liberal agenda and berate the prime minster and rabbis until their agenda is adopted.

Someone should explain to them that the Torah is eternally true and relevant. We are not affected by today’s trends and fads, for we know that they will not stand the test of time. To compromise on truths is to engage in a fictitious momentary pursuit. To water down what we are and what we stand for to appeal to the likes of the Times and NBC is a foolish endeavor.

The transparent attempts to betray the life-giving vision and mission of the Torah are to untether our vital links in exchange for temporal and fleeting societal standards which are in constant flux.

Alma deshikra means that everything around us is a lie. It’s all sheker. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we can have a connection to the truth of Torah. When we recognize that the world is basically fabricated of lies covered by a veneer of honesty, we learn a valuable lesson in how to navigate its roads and avoid its pitfalls.

Anyone whose neshomah was at Har Sinai must learn this parsha and realize that if we study Parshas Yisro and accept the Torah and its truth, but we fail to study and properly observe the laws contained in Parshas Mishpotim, our acceptance of Torah is lacking. Yisro is contingent on Mishpotim. One who doesn’t properly carry out the laws of Choshen Mishpot can neither be a ben Torah nor a mokir Torah. Someone who lacks respect for the property of others is practicing fake religiosity. A deceptive person and those who lack integrity and are generally untrustworthy have essentially not accepted the word of Hashem into their hearts. Those who engage in fraud and disrespect are not only dishonest and uncaring; they have failed in their commitment of naaseh v’nishma.

Sometimes, people neglect or bend the laws of Choshen Mishpot because they place the pursuit of finances above all other values. In so doing, they demonstrate their human frailty as well as a lack of faith in the Divine order. At times, man’s vision becomes clouded. We must endeavor to always be honest and upstanding in our dealings, not permitting our own interests to subconsciously cause us to err.

Rav Chaim of Volozhin once ruled in a din Torah between two talmidei chachomim. The loser was upset with the decision and told Rav Chaim how he felt.

Years later, the rov who lost that din Torah was approached by two litigants who asked him to preside over their dispute. He listened to the two sides and ruled. Later, while reviewing the case, he realized that the dilemma he faced was similar to the one that he and his fellow disputant had brought to Rav Chaim many years earlier. In fact, after studying the sources, he issued the same ruling as Rav Chaim. He realized that years before, he had been wrong when he castigated Rav Chaim.

When he later met one of the litigants, he thanked him. “The din Torah you brought me helped me clarify something and led me to do teshuvah.”

The fellow shrugged. “I don’t remember the case, because it wasn’t real. Rav Chaim Volozhiner paid us and told us what to argue in the din Torah, which he asked us to arbitrate in your court.”

The humbled dayan hurried to Rav Chaim and apologized. Rav Chaim told him, “I knew that you are a talmid chochom but that negius would prevent you from seeing the truth in your own din Torah, so I created this case for you to allow your Torah to speak, rather than your personal interests. Now you see what negius does.”

Yisro has to converge with Mishpotim.

We live in an era when much is made about diplomacy and bridge-building. Certainly, we need to strive for peace and do what we can to work harmoniously with others. But in paying homage to the ideals of shalom, we cannot forget the value of emes.

The Torah that we follow is comprised of emes and its paths lead to true peace. In order to achieve proper lasting relationships and friendships, they must be based on honesty and fidelity to the truth. If we are evasive or deceptive, as charming as we try to be and as hard as we try to mask our differences, we will ultimately fail.

Armed with strength and truth, and guided by Torah, we can build bridges to make the world a better place and prepare it for the coming of Moshiach. By being honest, facing up to our differences and surmounting them, we can reach accommodations that last over time.

Parents of a particularly stubborn child brought him to the rebbe of Piaseczna, Rav Klonymous Kalman Shapiro zt”l, one of the greatest mechanchim in pre-war Poland. The parents described to the rebbe how their son refuses to listen to their instructions.

“Did you try making him see things your way?” the rebbe asked.

“Yes,” they replied.

“Have you tried cajoling or bribing him?” he continued.

“Yes, but to no avail.”

“Well, then,” the rebbe smiled, “you have a young man of truth and tenacity on your hands, and you have the potential to raise the next Chasam Sofer. See to it that you use his firmness well. Fill his world and mind with truth, so that when he wages battles, they will be for the truth.”

We need shalom, but we have to equally value emes. We need great men to embrace others and draw them close, but we also need great leaders who will chart a course of truth and tradition, telling us when battles cannot be settled through compromise.

Without Mishpotim - honesty and uprightness in all areas - there is no Yisro. This means being honest in business, careful with the money of others, and aware of our mandate of how to behave with other people.

The wife of the Chazon Ish ran a small textile business. She once had a disagreement with a customer, who suggested that they ask her husband to adjudicate the matter. They approached the Chazon Ish, who ruled that the customer was right.

Later on, the Chazon Ish sensed that his wife was hurt that he ruled against her. He spoke to her softly and gently. “Tell me please,” he said, “of what value is life if one possesses even a penny that is not his own?”

She was placated by her husband’s gentle words. They should be our mandate.

Just as life has no meaning without Torah, so is the order of creation interrupted by a lack of mishpot. Last week, when the baal kriah read the Aseres Hadibros, our heartbeat quickened, as we sensed that we were hearing the song of life itself.

This week is no different. Mishpotim is the second half. It is the flip side of last week’s coin and just as critical. Hashem Elokeichem emes. His seal is emes. May we, the People of Truth, act in a way that will allow us to stand proud when the time of truth arrives.