Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Ashreichem Yisroel

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

It is hard for us to imagine the way our people were feeling at the middle of the last century. The Holocaust had thankfully ended and survivors were desperately trying to put their lives back together. Mourning, beaten, bloodied and broken, they didn’t know if it would ever be possible to find strength and succor to cope with the challenges facing them, strangers in new lands.

People looked for rays of hope. One of them was to find a newly published sefer. Every time a sefer was published - an infrequent occurrence - it was seen as a shot in the arm, offering an injection of chizuk to beleaguered bnei Torah in Eretz Yisroel, Europe and America.

One sefer that stood out at the time was titled Avi Ezri. In 1948, it was seen as a statement that the excellence brought on by extreme devotion to Torah of the pre-war yeshivos was still alive. It demonstrated that survivors could create chiddushei Torah that would give meaning to this strange new world. Copies of the new sefer were eagerly passed around the halls of yeshivos, each page serving as resounding testimony to the eternity of the nation and Torah.

Eventually, a copy reached America, where it was greeted with similar excitement. In the newly re-established Mirrer Yeshiva, some European immigrants recognized the name of the author, Rav Leizer Shach, familiar to them from before the war. The yeshiva’s mashgiach, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein, noticed the buzz in the yeshiva and referred to it in a shmuess.

“You are all amazed by the ge’onus of the sefer,” the mashgiach said, “but I remember that the mechaber was known as the baal chessed of Kletzk. He was the most compassionate, caring, hartzige Yid in the yeshiva.”

A talmid recalled his impression of that shmuess. “The mashgiach wanted us to understand the koach of Torah. He saw how enthralled we were by the sefer - one of the first of its kind to be released after the destruction - and he used the opportunity to hammer home to us the effects of Torah, how that kind of d’veykus in Torah creates a different sort of person.”

That, in essence, is the message of these days, connecting the avodas hamiddos of Sefirah and preparation for Kabbolas HaTorah. Someone who derives chiyus from Torah becomes elevated and refined, and his behavior reflects that, as the Rambam makes clear in his description of how a talmid chochom conducts himself (Hilchos Dei’os, perek 5).

We are approaching what is commonly viewed as the mid-point of the Sefirah period, Lag Ba’omer, a day whose meaning is layered with mystical secrets. The Arizal says that Lag Ba’omer is a manifestation of the posuk in Bereishis (31) wherein Lovon said to Yaakov Avinu, “Eid hagal hazeh - This ‘gal’ is witness” to the accord fashioned between us. The Arizal says that the plague that was killing talmidim of Rabi Akiva during Sefirah ceased because Lag Ba’omer is a realization of the pile that separated Lovon and Yaakov.

At first look, it appears that the inference is that the words “Lag” and “gal” are formed from the same Hebrew letters, gimmel and lamid, and it is merely a clever play on the word. However, upon deeper examination, there is a hidden secret in the words of the Arizal as there are in all his teachings.

The Medrash Tanchumah at the end of Parshas Vayeitzei says that the “gal” referred to is also the “kir” that prevented Bilam’s donkey from approaching the Bnei Yisroel in a bid to curse them on behalf of Balak, the king of Moav. The “gal” that separated Yaakov and Lovon would also create the division between the Jewish people and the depraved nations who sought their destruction.

It is interesting that meforshim use various approaches to connect the 24,000 talmidim of Rabi Akiva who perished and the 24,000 people who died after they sinned with the daughters of Moav when Bilam wasn’t able to curse the Jewish people.

Apparently, there is more to the “gal” than meets the eye.

We read at the end of Parshas Acharei Mos about the admonitions against immoral acts and lifestyles that were prevalent in the land of Canaan. The pesukim (18:28-30) warn that if the Jewish people adopt the ways of tumah, the land will expel them, because whoever engages in immorality will be struck down.

Those pesukim are immediately followed by the opening pesukim of Parshas Kedoshim (19:1-2): “Tell the Bnei Yisroel that they must be holy, because I, Hashem, your G-d, am holy.” Rashi (ibid.) states that the way to be holy is by being isolated from acts of immorality and sin. The Toras Kohanim (ibid.) states that Parshas Kedoshim contains “rov gufei Torah,” the majority of the body of the Torah. If you look through the parsha, you conclude that most of the laws that are included there relate to decency, to acting properly with each other, to not hating other people, and to love thy brother like thyself.

The Torah is giving us a manual for how to create that “gal,” the holy pile that can serve as a barrier. We must firmly establish a “gal” to separate ourselves from the tumah of the nations around us. The “gal” is what protects us and ensures our salvation in times of danger and disease.

Gal” represents the separation between kedushah and tumah. To the degree to which the Bnei Yisroel are kedoshim, cleaving to the mitzvos contained in this week’s parshiyos and separating themselves from arayos and tumah, they benefit from the “gal” to separate them from mageifos.

That same “gal” that separated our forefather Yaakov and the shevotim from Lovon, keeping them safe; the same “gal” that turned back Bilam and allowed Pinchos to rise from among his people and stem the plague; the same “gal” that caused the talmidim of Rabi Akiva to stop dying, that “gal” is available for us on Lag Ba’omer and all year round.

If we separate ourselves from the Lovons of our day, and the Bilams, and the daughters of Moav, and we respect each other and act charitably and with fine character, we strengthen that eternal “gal” and ensure our security.

As the golus continues and our situation becomes more precarious, and as enemies surround us from within and without, we must not weaken in our devotion to the gufei Torah of Parshas Kedoshim. Neo-Orthodox and secularists seek to bring tumah into our camp. The prevalent culture war that would have been unthinkable just years ago assaults our senses of modesty and morality. Once again, there is a flood of impurity challenging our “gal.”

If we stamp out abuse, if we stamp out hatred, if we stamp out immorality from our camp, we help ourselves and others. Every company and every organization needs a mission statement to which it must adhere or it loses relevance and vibrancy. Our people, too, need a mission statement. Ours is Kedoshim Tihiyu.

In Parshas Kedoshim, the Torah commands, “Ve’ohavta lerei’acha kamocha.” We are to love our fellow as much as we love ourselves. This is definitely connected to the Chazal that gufei Torah are included in this parsha. Displaying love for each other is a cardinal obligation and an indication of where we are holding as Jews. If we are full of love for each other, then our guf is Torahdik. If we are hateful and spiteful to each other, then we are not Torahdik.

This is not simply allegory. It is the essence of the parsha. Chazal teach that Parshas Kedoshim was said behakheil, at a gathering of all the Jewish people. The Sefas Emes explains that in order for Klal Yisroel to effectively observe the Torah and mitzvos, it has to be done as part of the “klal,” the community. In order to achieve the appellation “kadosh,” we have to be part of the larger group, and not merely individuals, set apart from everyone else.

When we are suffused with love for each other, we can be part of the klal and become kedoshim. If we are kedoshim, then we are able to battle the kochos of tumah that confront us and the eternal “gal” is there to separate us from them. But if we do not achieve kedushah and are lacking in the components that bring us to that level of observance, then there is not enough of a difference between us and the ever-present threatening tumah.

Thus, perhaps we can say when Rabi Akiva saw that his talmidim were falling, he realized that although they zealously observed the Torah and mitzvos, they were deficient in the way they treated each other. There wasn’t enough respect in their relationships. Rabi Akiva saw the plague as an indication they were lacking in kedushah. Thus, he formulated his historic missive of “Ve’ohavata lerei’acha kamocha, zeh klal gadol baTorah.” The mitzvah of loving each other is a major tenet of the Torah.

In order for the “gal” to separate his talmidim from the kochos of tumah, they had to be kedoshim. Although they were strict shomrei Torah umitzvos, since they were lacking in respect for each other, they were apparently lacking in the mitzvah of “Ve’ohavata lerei’acha kamocha” and weren’t sufficiently part of a klal, which is a necessary component of being a kadosh. He admonished them, and they rectified their conduct and became kedoshim once again. On Lag Ba’omer, the “gal” separated them from the kochos of tumah and the plague came to a halt.

Torah uplifts, and those who learn Torah together become uplifted together. Limud haTorah should create an atmosphere and environment of refinement and aidelkeit. If there was disrespect, their Torah wasn’t affecting them the way it should have. If there was no “gal” protecting them from the kochos hatumah, something about them was lacking. If it wasn’t the mitzvos bein adam laMakom, then it was those that deal with their fellow man.

A few short years after the Alter of Slabodka succeeded in realizing his dream of transplanting his yeshiva to the Holy Land, it faced its greatest challenge. In 1929, local Arabs embarked on a horrific killing spree, descending in bloodthirsty hordes on the Chevron Jewish community where the yeshiva was located. Many bnei Torah lost their lives that day.

A story emerged from amidst the massacre, a spark of glory from an ocean of blood. In the final moments of his life, one of the bnei Torah showed just how deeply the teachings of Slabodka had affected him, how profound was the mark of mussar on his pure soul, and how the Torah itself had imprinted its light on him. He lay there after being beaten, blood flowing from his many wounds. With his final breaths, he reached for a friend who lay nearby, shaken for sure, but not bleeding.

The footsteps of the ferocious murderers pounded around them as the wolves sought more sheep.

“Quick!” the first bochur, faltering and weakening with each moment, gasped, “come close.” He reached for the second bochur and pulled him near. The bochur directed the rushing flow of blood onto his friend, covering him in blood.

“Now, when they come back, they will think that you are dead as well and they won’t finish the job. Maybe you will be spared.”

His job complete, the first talmid died, his holy soul ascending to Heaven. Hashem yikom domov. The second talmid, covered in blood, lay there, ignored by the Arabs. He eventually survived to tell the tale.

It is a story not just about selflessness, not just about yishuv hada’as, but about what Torah does, about what a yeshiva does, about how it creates an island where the inhabitants are bound, heart and soul, until their final breath.

You don’t have to be a prophet or as great as Rabi Akiva to sense that there is a lack of respect between Jews today. Instead of loving each other, we despise those with whom we disagree. We ignore them, we make believe they don’t exist, and we treat them with disrespect. If we would love each other, we would care about each other, and if we do disagree, we can do so with love. If we need to admonish each other, we can do so with love, not hate, with sweetness, not bitterness.

As we engage in the self-improvement process of the yemei sefirah, we must study these parshiyos carefully and turn up the love.

You don’t have to be a prophet or as great as Rabi Akiva to sense that the kochos hatumah are strengthening and the world is sinking to terribly low levels.

You don’t have to be a prophet to see that the nations of the world are mobilizing against us. Iran is closer than ever to obtaining nuclear power, which they swear to use against Israel. They are getting there with the approbation of the Western world. Hezbollah has more rockets than ever positioned against Israel, and at any given moment they can fire thousands of rockets at the heart of Israel. Anti-Semites are gaining power across Europe and Jews there are in a more fragile condition than at any time since the Holocaust.  

We have to resurrect that “gal” to separate us from the strengthening kochos hatumah. We can only accomplish that by doing everything in our power to become kedoshim once again.

Each of us can celebrate Lag Ba’omer by doing our part to remain distinct, pure and elevated. We can strengthen ourselves, as well as our yeshivos and shuls, which are bulwarks against the flow of impurity.

One Friday night, Vizhnitzer chassidim in Bnei Brak were dancing with their rebbe, Rav Moshe Hager, singing the words “Ranenu tzaddikim baHashem.” Rav Shimshon Pincus passed by and joined the spirited dancing.

Later, one of Rav Shimshon’s talmidim wondered why he, a card-carrying Litvak, had joined the chassidishe dance. Rav Shimshon explained, “It’s true that it’s not my chassidus and it’s not my rebbe, but at the core, even if it is not our minhag, it’s a slice of kedushah. They are rejoicing in Shabbos, in a tzaddik, in being together. The only way to survive is through connecting to kedushah, in all its forms.”

We can survive and grow stronger if we find ways to join the dance around us. It might not be our shul, our chassidus, our yeshiva or our friend, but we have to find ways to connect with different sources of kedushah to strengthen ourselves and that “gal.”

We can then feel the joy of being kedoshim together, apart from the tumah, protected by the “gal,” filling our souls as we join hands to follow Rabi Akiva’s timeless precepts and sing his wonderful words.

Ashreichem Yisroel.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Tools of Healing

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Parshas Tazria, as Metzora which follows it, deals with the halachos of a person struck by tzoraas. Though its laws are quite complex, scaring off the less learned from studying them, we are all familiar with the basic concept. A patch of skin, or clothing, or a home becomes infected with pigment changes. A kohein is called to inspect and render a decision regarding the status of the stain. If he deems it tzoraas, the offender is secluded.

While tzoraas is usually described as leprosy or some other disease, in fact it is not a disease at all, but a signal from Hashem to repent and do teshuvah for various sins.

On Shevi’i Shel Pesach, we read Parshas Beshalach and the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim. The posuk (Shemos 15:26) states, “Kol hamachalah asher samti beMitzrayim lo asim alecha ki ani Hashem rofecha.” Hashem promises that if we follow His mitzvos, He will not bring upon us any of the diseases He brought upon the Mitzriyim.

The ailments and diseases that befell the Mitzriyim were purely Divine punishment for their treatment of the Jews. There was no cure for them.

When a person is infected by illness, it is similar to a vaccine. The vaccine works by planting a strain of the illness in the body, weak enough for the body to fight off. The process strengthens and inoculates the person from the disease. The sickness itself is what causes good health. We believe that disease and yissurim are for a higher purpose, sometimes perceived, sometimes obvious, and often times not. We trust that our Doctor has our best interests in mind. We therefore say, “Ki Ani Hashem rofecha.” If He wishes it so, then we will be healed.

The name of the new month, Chodesh Iyar, is comprised of the roshei teivos of that very posuk: Ani Hashem rofecha. Iyar is said to be a month with a heightened power of healing and refuah.

It is interesting that in this month of healing, the students of Rabi Akiva died and much tragedy was heaped upon the Jewish people. Healing is not magic. We have to earn it. When we sin, catastrophe ensues. When we repent, recovery is enabled. Talmidei Rabi Akiva were felled during Iyar, but the plague was also stopped during Iyar on Lag Ba’omer. There was much sadness during this month, but also much redemption. We don’t always merit appreciating the cause and effect. Many of the ways of the L-rd are mysterious, and it often takes years of hindsight to be able to perceive what transpired, but we must know that we are overseen by Ani Hashem rofecha, during Iyar and all year around.

Herbs, which are at the root of medicine, begin growing, along with the rest of nature, this month. It is often said that physical aspects of creation reflect spiritual realities. Thus, we can say that since Iyar is a time of personal growth and healing for us, the rest of the natural world also experiences growth and regeneration. This serves as a reminder to us of our opportunities and ability to regenerate.

The Chazon Ish would say that each generation experiences a new class of diseases for which there is no cure. In generations prior, people would die from typhus, smallpox and measles, and desperate people hoped valiantly for the day that medication would be found to cure them. Once the world was rid of those feared maladies, new diseases were diagnosed and spread, without the ability to cure them.

This is to remind us that Hashem is the Rofei cholim. Doctors are His messengers. They do not hold the key to cures unless the Creator wills it so.

In truth, this is explicit in the words of the Rambam (Hilchos Mikvaos 11:12) in his closing remarks on the topic of purification:

“Impurity is not filth that can be washed away with water, but, rather, a scriptural decree that calls for intent of focus of the heart. Chazal therefore teach that one who immersed but did not intend to purify himself is considered as not having been toiveled.

“Although it is a gezeiras hakasuv, there is an allusion inherent in the act of tevilah. One who focuses his heart on purity is indeed cleansed through immersion, even though there was no noticeable change in his body. Similarly, one who focuses his heart on removing the contamination of the soul - namely, evil thoughts and negative character traits - becomes purified when he resolves within his heart to distance himself from such counsel and immerse his soul in the waters of knowledge.”

Thus, it is the sacred role of the kohein to determine whether a person is a metzora or not. The task of the kohein is to bring people closer to Hashem through removing sin, which causes separation between man and his Maker. He helps people purify themselves. Tzora’as is not a medical condition. It arises from cheit, and thus the kohein intercedes to help the victim repent from his chatto’im, which brought about his condition. He then achieves the desired healing.

We are familiar with the posuk (Tehillim 34:13) which states, Mi ha’ish hechofeitz chaim oheiv yomim liros tov. Netzor leshoncha meira usefosecha midabeir mirma.” One who desires life should be careful not to use his mouth for bad purposes and not to speak improperly.

We know that tzora’as is a punishment for people who do not follow the admonitions of that posuk and speak ill of others. Those who do not appreciate other people, who are not concerned about the feelings of others, or who cavalierly destroy reputations of fellow Jews, are punished and banished from the camp. For seeking to create separation between the people they gossiped about and their communities, they are placed in isolation.

In the town of Radin, there was a group of progressive Jewish freethinkers called the Poalei Tzion who used mockery and cynicism as a means of undermining the traditions of the yeshiva world, utilizing their writing abilities to pen works demonizing yeshivos. They prepared a booklet filled with barbs and slurs to vilify the yerei’im ushleimim. Some Radiner bochurim learned of the plan and descended on the Poalei Tzion headquarters. They scooped up the hateful materials and carried the bundles of booklets back to their yeshiva, where they tossed them into the furnace.

The next day, Poalei Tzion activists came to work and saw what had happened. They quickly found clues revealing the identity of the perpetrators and headed to the yeshiva. There, in the furnace, they found burnt remnants of their hard work.

They announced a war on the bochurim, threatening physical attacks and more. They began their retaliation campaign at the home of the Chofetz Chaim zt”l, where they stormed in to announce their plans.

The leader spoke with particular chutzpah, and almost as soon as the brazen words left his mouth, he fell to the ground. His eyes bulged and a random stream of words came out of his mouth. He had lost his mind.

His frightened friends led him away and the news soon spread. The young man had gone insane.

The story, in today’s parlance, went viral.

A few days later, the story reached the preeminent Haskalah newspaper, Heint, based in Warsaw. In a fiery editorial, they took issue with the rabbon shel Yisroel. “Is this the Chofetz Chaim, known for the work he authored on the laws of lashon hora?” they asked. “How can someone who preaches love of Jews curse another Jew?”

Rav Shalom Schwadron would often retell this story and point out the hypocrisy and duplicity of agenda-driven people. While acknowledging the spiritual greatness and powers of the Chofetz Chaim, they refused to admit that the way of life they so disdained invested him with his abilities.

The Chofetz Chaim took the unusual step of responding to the newspaper.

“In response to your report that I cursed the young man, chas veshalom, I have never cursed another Jew. In response to your report that he has been stricken with madness, that is indeed true, and that is because mit yeshiva bochurim fangt men nisht uhn, one doesn’t start up with yeshiva bochurim.”

The mistake made by the editors of Heint is an error we all risk making. Man creates his own tzora’as. It is not curses or bad luck that cause tzora’as.

We no longer merit this precise Divine message. We speak lashon hora at will and think that we won’t suffer any consequence, but a discerning eye sees a different truth.

The loving Rofei sends us hints of disapproval. We are beset by aches and pains, and at times ailments. We go to the doctor, fill prescriptions, and seek to be healed. We are lulled into thinking that the sickness or pain is caused and cured by something physical.

How wrong we are.

Sometimes, we tackle life’s serious issues like children, who try to copy what they have seen others do. They grab their tools and attempt to repair their broken toys. As well-intentioned as they are, and as many tools as there are in their box, they cannot fix what is broken.

Since they haven’t been through the vicissitudes of life, there is no way they can succeed on their own.

Life is a long learning process. As we grow and learn, we are enabled to overcome the many challenges we face. If we act maturely and intelligently, we are better able to remain healthy, strong and vivacious. If we seek complete recovery and a pain-free existence, we have to know that every limb and part of the body receives its sustenance from a specific mitzvah. Every ailment is caused by a specific aveirah.

Children see everything in a superficial way. They lack the experience, the trial and error that give older people the tools to properly analyze situations.

Maturity dictates that we face up to our challenges and concede that they are messages. The Gemara in Maseches Avoda Zara (55a) quotes the words of a posuk that we recite in the tefillah of Nishmas each Shabbos: chola’im ra’im vene’emonim - harsh and faithful diseases.” How can illness be referred to as faithful?

The Gemara explains that they are faithful to keep the promise they make. They have a mission, dispatched from Heaven for a reason, for a specific amount of time. Once that time elapses, they are directed to leave a person’s body. They are faithful to that oath.

The truest path to complete recovery and pain-free existence isn’t calling a toll-free number for a free sample of some questionable product with enthusiastic endorsements from people claiming to have been healed. It is from the awareness that every limb and part of the body receives its sustenance from a specific mitzvah and every ailment is caused by a specific aveirah.

In our days, we don’t suffer from tzora’as. That is not a blessing. It is a curse. Were tzora’as still prevalent, we would no doubt minimize our speaking of lashon hora. It would disappear from our midst. The cause and effect would be plainly evident.

And it’s not only tzora’as. It’s all diseases. It’s not only lashon hora. It’s all the aveiros. The Medrash teaches that there are ten parshiyos of negoim, just as there are ten cardinal mitzvos. If Am Yisroel observes the Aseres Hadibros, then Hashem protects them from negoim. However, if they disobey the Aseres Hadibros, they are plagued.

We have to recognize that our tumah, taharah and welfare depend on our actions. The Gemara in Maseches Sotah (20a) teaches, “Torah magna umatzla,” Torah fortifies and protects. We know that “tzedakah tatzil mimovess,” charity saves one from death (Mishlei 10:2).

Just as tzedakah has the power to save us from death, tefillah has the power to bring about salvation. Torah surrounds us with armor in the face of punishment. Every act we perform, including the way we think and speak, has the ability to determine the quality of our lives.

The posuk (Vayikra 18:5) states, “Ushemartem es chukosai v’es mishpotai asher yaaseh osam ha’adam vochai bohem.” If you will observe My mitzvos, they will give you life. From this posuk we derive that pikuach nefesh is docheh Shabbos. That means that the posuk is not speaking only in an allegorical sense - that mitzvah observance enhances life - but in a very literal sense as well. Observance of the Torah’s chukim and mishpotim is life-inducing.

Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt”l went to visit a very sick person, Mr. Hutzin. The patient’s life was one of sickness and suffering, with nary a ray of anything good. Rav Isser Zalman sat at the man’s bedside silently, wondering what words of consolation he could offer him. He was thinking that if he couldn’t relieve the man of any of his many illnesses, the least he could do was offer words of encouragement.

He began speaking words of chizuk and telling Mr. Hutzin to never give up on receiving Hashem’s salvation.

The man responded to the rosh yeshiva, “Are you attempting to give me strength? Are you explaining to me why I shouldn’t give up and just sink into a depression because of my many ailments?

“If that is your intention, you are wasting your time. I don’t need that type of chizuk. Do you want to hear something? Despite all that I have been through, I have never stopped being happy with my yissurim,” Mr. Hutzin said.

“How can that be?” asked Rav Meltzer. “How can you tell me that you are besimchah despite all your yissurim? You have had no break from pain and suffering.”

“Let me explain,” said the man as he lay on his sickbed in agony. “Recently, a man was sentenced to jail for two years. You would expect that man to be sad; you’d think he’d have tears pouring down his cheeks after hearing the judge read the sentence. Yet, he was full of joy. Instead of crying, he was smiling. Instead of sadness, there was joy. He even thanked the judge!

“As they left the courtroom, a crowd surged to follow the condemned man. ‘Why are you so happy?’ they called out to him as he was led away. ‘Why the smiles?’

“‘Let me explain it to you,’ he said. ‘The crime I was convicted of carries a 25-year sentence. I could have been put away for up to 25 years of hard time. Instead, I got two years in minimum security. Of course I’m happy. In two years, I’ll be back home with my family and friends.’

“So too with me,” Mr. Hutzin finished. “The Gemara (Shabbos 55a) says, ‘Ein yissurim belo avon, there is no suffering without sin.’ I have sinned and Hashem is punishing me for what I have done. He could have treated me much worse. He could have saved the punishments for Olam Haba. Instead, He is cleaning me now of my sins, and in Olam Haba I will be free to enjoy. Should I not be happy? I am getting off easy. I don’t need you to console me. I don’t need to hear words of chizuk. I am quite happy, for I know that I deserve a lot worse and am getting off easy.”

This story resonates with us intellectually and emotionally. We all recognize the truth and wisdom in the man’s words. And though it may be difficult to live that way, we aim to reach that level.

Dovid Hamelech sang, “Shivtecha umishantecha heima yenachamuni - Your rod and staff comfort me.” Baalei mussar teach that the comfort Dovid Hamelech derived from Hashem’s “rod and staff” was similar to the comfort a stray sheep receives from the prodding tap of its master. The wayward sheep had veered from the path and group. It was lost, alone and afraid. Finally, it was found by the shepherd, who hit it with his staff. Along with the blow came a sense of belonging, of being watched over once again, and of being cared for. The stick striking its back stung, but it was comforting nonetheless.

At the shivah for Rav Shmuel Halevi Wosner zt”l, his children recounted that their father never raised his voice to rebuke them and never slapped them. One of the children asked him how he understood a posuk that seems to indicate that smacking children is a sign of love: “Choseich shivto sonei beno - One who withholds the stick hates his son (Mishlei 13:24).

Rav Wosner told his son, “The posuk does not mean that a father should hit his son. Rather, the explanation is that a wise father learns to keep a stick nearby to remind his son of its existence. The stick is a tool, but the loving father finds a way not to have to use it.”

He uses it by not using it. The threat is ever-present and the child toes the line because of it.

We have seen and experienced the Divine staff all too often. Like frightened sheep, we have been prodded back to the flock, influenced to stay on the correct path. We see through the darkness and appreciate the message that after making many mistakes, Hashem still hopes for our return. He hasn’t forgotten us, even for a moment.

Ki anu tzonecha, ve’Atah Roeinu.

May we all experience true refuah in this new month of Ani Hashem Rofecha. May all individuals suffering from disease be cured, and may all that plagues our community be rectified so that we can speedily merit the ultimate healing.

Dovid Hamelech says in the 15th chapter of Tehillim, “Hashem, who merits to inhabit your tent, to live on Your holy mountain? He who walks purely, does justice and speaks truth from his heart. Slander doesn’t appear on his tongue; he doesn’t wrong his friend and doesn’t slur those close to him. He despises contemptible people and honors those who fear Hashem. He keeps his word and oath even when it hurts him. He doesn’t take interest for lending people money and never accepts bribes. Whoever possesses these characteristics will never falter.”  

In these days of Iyar and Sefirah, as we study the parshiyos of tzora’as, let us begin our march back to good health by reforming how we deal with each other, giving attention to our middos and observance of the mitzvos, chukim and mishpotim.

May all those who suffer find relief; may all the ill be healed; all the lonely comforted, and may we all merit the geulah sheleimah bemeheirah.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Wisdom of When

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Pesach is over, but it shouldn’t be a distant memory. Our lives are formed by the actions we perform on a daily basis and the experiences they offer us. The mitzvos we performed over a week of Yom Tov changed and elevated us.

Pesach is an intrinsic part of our fiber. Its mitzvos, rituals, liturgy and special foods enrich and enhance our souls year after year.

While the Yom Tov has a special effect on children, as we grow older we perceive new depths; chag hacheirus becomes more meaningful as we appreciate its valuable messages in a different, richer way. We increasingly realize how Pesach is meant to equip us with new resolve to rid ourselves of chometz and cheit, villains and tormentors. It drives us to pine ever more for the geulah, so that we might merit visiting the home of Hashem, offering korbanos to Him.

We recognize that we can only arrive there by doing what is incumbent upon us and fulfilling our missions as best as we can. We reach our potential by studying the Torah and seeking messages from the weekly parsha and from the other portions of the Torah we study.

Rather than feeling dejection as a Yom Tov draws to a close, we should be tempered by the new attitudes we developed over the duration of the holy days. Rishonim point to an optimistic lesson gleaned from the recital of the Haggadah Shel Pesach. We note that Hashem redeemed the Jews, even though they were submerged in the impurity of Mitzrayim. Although they may have been unworthy, He lifted them, raising their levels and cleansing them, so that they would be worthy of redemption. He did it for them, and we know He will do it for us.

Now, newly invigorated and charged, we return to the hard work of daily life. We may not always appreciate what we must experience on a regular basis and wish, as we should, that every day could be a Yom Tov, when we divide our time between physical and spiritual enjoyment.

A follower of the Baal Shem Tov worked very hard to earn enough money to be able to purchase and prepare Shabbos foods. The strain of finding money with which to honor Shabbos took a toll on the man and he traveled to the rebbe for help.

“Please bless me to be able to celebrate Shabbos without agmas nefesh,” he asked.

The rebbe turned to the man and what he said changed his life. “How do you know the rewards for your actions?” he asked. “It may very well be that in Heaven they desire the efforts you expend for Shabbos as much as the results. If you forsake the agmas nefesh, you may be giving up more than you think you are.”

As we patiently await that great day of which Shabbos is but a hint, we must bear in mind that the agmas nefesh we experience is part of our task. Hard work, while uncomfortable and unnerving, is often an essential component of our mission. How we react to aggravation and tribulation is a testament to our belief and integral to any success we may have.

We do not have nevi’im to provide us with personal direction, but we can turn to the Torah and the weekly parsha, knowing that its relevance is eternal.

This week’s parsha of Shemini is particularly emblematic of the type of uplifting lessons with which we are gifted, the lights therein illuminating our path.

At the time of Krias Yam Suf, a fearful nation was told, “Hashem yilocheim lochem ve’atem tacharishun - Your duty at this time is to remain silent, as Hashem defeats the Mitzriyim.”

Chazal state that this advice is eternal; it is as pertinent today as it was then. There are times when we must speak up and times when we must remain silent, times to do battle and times to be passive.

How we are to act is dictated by the Torah, as so beautifully expressed by Shlomo Hamelech in Koheles: Eis livkos, ve’eis lischok... Eis le’ehov, ve’eis lisno, eis milchomah, ve’eis sholom.” How we are to act in each “eis,” or time, is determined by Torah.

Many times, you hear people describe a person as a good man. For example, they say, “He does a lot of chesed, he is a good husband, and he is kovei’a ittim.” Homiletically, the phrase may have come about as a depiction of people who determine what type of eis it is and how to react to various ittim through the prism of Koheles and Torah. When we say that a person is “kovei’a ittim,” we are saying that the Torah is his foundation and solidifies his responses to the vagaries of life.

In this week’s parsha, we learn that when Aharon Hakohein was selected to perform the avodah in the Mishkon, he demurred, feeling unworthy of the position. The posuk states that he was commanded to approach the mizbei’ach: “Krav el hamizbei’ach.” Rashi quotes Chazal, who explain the strange language as teaching that Aharon was told, “Set aside your humility, because you were Divinely chosen for this task.”

Although Aharon preferred to remain in the background, when told that it was an eis for him to step into a leadership position, he was spurred to action.

His sons, Nodov and Avihu, however, sought to go where they didn’t belong. They reasoned that they were worthy of making decisions regarding the Mishkon of Hashem. They made a cardinal error, offering up a fire “asher lo tzivah,” and were smitten on the day that the consecration of the Mishkon was celebrated.

They missed their chance at the opportunity to patiently and humbly learn from their elders.

Humility doesn’t mean that it is not important to be confident in our abilities. Rav Yeruchom Levovitz zt”l would say that a person who doesn’t recognize his weaknesses can study mussar and thus repair those middos in which he is lacking. However, one who doesn’t appreciate his positive attributes will never get far enough to even open the door of the study hall, much less study the seforim that can help him realize his potential. Humility means that while we appreciate our attributes, we accept upon ourselves the “kevias ittim” of Torah. Those who don’t, jeopardize their ability to perform in the house of Hashem and lead active, successful lives.

After his arrival in Eretz Yisroel, Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach zt”l lived in a small apartment in the Kerem Avrohom neighborhood of Yerushalayim. The diminutive, humble man kept to himself, engaging in Torah learning all the time and rarely opening his mouth to express an opinion on issues of the day. His acquaintances in the Kerem shul saw him as a talmid chochom, but few foresaw a position of leadership for the scholar.

Eventually, the poverty-stricken Rav Shach accepted a position as a maggid shiur in Tel Aviv, grateful for the chance to teach Torah and earn an income. Within weeks of starting the new job, however, he detected that the leader of the mosad possessed an outlook that was contrary to that of gedolei Yisroel.

Rav Shach didn’t hesitate. Without stopping to consider his own financial situation, he immediately resigned his position and returned home, settling back into his corner of the small shul where he learned.

He had thought that his time to speak had arrived, but, as it turned out, it was still time for him to remain silent.

His rebbi, the Brisker Rov, encouraged him. “Someone who forfeits parnossah because of principle will only see brachos,” he told him.

In time, the Ponovezher Rov discovered Rav Shach, and after living in virtual anonymity for so long, the rosh yeshiva’s rise to leadership began, ushering in the glory era for the olam haTorah.

He retreated from offering a fire when he felt it wasn’t the ratzon Hashem.

Many years later, a group of kanno’im went to Bnei Brak, wishing to take issue with a position of Rav Shach. They attacked his viewpoint, making it abundantly clear that they thought he was misguided.

The rosh yeshiva rose and removed his sefer Avi Ezri on the Rambam’s Hilchos Nezikin. He showed them the haskomah of the Brisker Rov.

Doh shteit as ich darf eich nisht freggen. Here it says that I don’t need to ask your opinion,” Rav Shach told his visitors.

He was an exceedingly humble man, but when he felt that the Torah demanded strength from him, he stood up to the world based on the precepts of the Torah.

The Netziv, in his introduction to his peirush on Shir Hashirim, writes that the seventh day of Pesach was intended for us to ponder the lesson of the flat, unleavened matzah. He says that on the first day of Pesach, we eat matzah because we left Mitzrayim in haste, before the bread had a chance to rise.

On the other days of Pesach, we eat matzah for the same reason the shiyorei menachos the kohanim ate did not contain chometz. He says that is to teach those who seek holiness and closeness to Hashem to endeavor to limit their involvement in the ways of the world. Those who want to be closer to Hashem should pursue an unleavened lifestyle.

Similarly, says the Netziv, on Pesach we work to bring ourselves closer to Hashem and therefore do not partake of leavened products. With respect to the final day of the chag, the posuk says, “Uvayom hashvi’i atzeres laHashem Elokecha.” It is a day of atzeres, of halting, stopping and desisting.

On the final day of Yom Tov, we are commanded to internalize its messages. This includes not only the messages of the holiness and closeness to Hashem that we have merited, but also the matzah’s lesson of humility.

Aharon Hakohein merited a life of closeness to Hashem, working in His shadow in the Mishkon because of his deep humility. He sought to distance himself from leadership, for he felt himself unworthy, but once he was commanded to rise, he embraced his position fully. As he served Hashem on the holiest levels, mentoring his people wasn’t beneath him. The oheiv es habrios umekarvan laTorah lived on the golden path, traveling the road of harmony. He loved people and sought to bring them to Torah, but to accomplish that, he never compromised on halachah. Aharon did not act on his own. He always followed the direction of Hashem delivered by his brother, Moshe.

Nodov and Avihu were well-intentioned, but their hubris misled them and caused them to be lost to the Jewish people.

Upon their demise, the Torah tells us, “Vayidom Aharon,” their great father, the kohein gadol, who had just initiated his role of officiating in the Heichal Hashem, was silent. Aharon was undoubtedly able to express himself very well; he was surely a competent and experienced communicator. After all, he was Moshe Rabbeinu’s spokesman. He was a man who pursued peace, settled disputes, and drew people closer to Torah. Why is it that when his two great sons were taken from him, he remained silent?

Because this is what was demanded by the Torah during this “eis.”

He had no mesorah of how to respond. Nobody had ever experienced a tragedy like this. He had no tradition of how a father reacts when losing children who were moreh halacha lifnei rabbon, being makriv an eish zora at the chanukas haMikdosh. They were great men, with righteous intentions, but Aharon remembered the lesson of “Ve’atem tacharishun.” Silence is also a response, and sometimes the only correct one.

In our world, in our time, and in our lives, there are many trials and tribulations. Life throws curveballs. Sometimes, the best reaction is silence.

When there is no mesorah on how to respond, we remain silent and wait for those more qualified than us to speak up and provide direction. We don’t rush headstrong into new storms. We don’t view ourselves in grandiose terms. We remember the lessons of the matzah and of the kohanim who are mekadeish themselves and seek to become closer to Hashem.

Through perfecting the art of silence, we merit the gift of speech. Chazal tell us that the reward for Aharon’s silence was that in the following parsha, the rule that kohanim may not become intoxicated at the time of avodah was told by Hashem to Aharon alone. Because he remained silent, Aharon was given a special mitzvah to transmit. He was called upon to speak.

There is no mandate to be quiet, nor one to speak. The only mandate is to follow the ratzon Hashem. Our only task is to be a “kovei’a ittim.”

One who is humble enough to submit is humble enough to lead.

The message of this week’s parsha and the lessons of our gedolei Yisroel - who, as different as they may have been in outlook or temperament, shared the dual characteristics of humility to follow and the courage to lead - usher in the period of Sefirah. During these days, we work to perfect our character traits. It doesn’t come easy, but it is the type of work that allows us to keep growing and merit other opportunities to serve Hashem.

Through our study of Pirkei Avos during these months following Pesach and our fidelity to Torah and its mesorah, we can attempt to be “kovei’a ittim,” knowing when to speak and when to remain silent, when to do battle and when to seek peace. We can be certain that as we endeavor to rise and improve ourselves through this Sefirah period, our hard work is cherished in Heaven.