Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Blessed with All

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Every Yom Tov has its sights, sounds and smells. Sukkos has the pleasing aroma of the Dalet Minim and the warmth and contentment of the sukkah. Pesach has the taste of wine and crisp matzos, the scent of chrein being chopped, and the fumes of chometz being burnt. Shavuos carries strains of Akdamus’ moving tones, milchigs, flowers and the poignant pesukim of Megillas Rus. The kriah has us pause to reflect on Rus and her journey from the heights of royalty to the depths of despair, back to the pinnacle as the mother of malchus.

In the diaspora, Shavuos is a two-day Yom Tov and Rus is read on the second day, when most are well-rested. In Eretz Yisroel, however, Shavuos is only one day, and the reading of Megillas Rus takes place during the traditional vosikin minyan at the end of a long night of learning Torah. Most people are exhausted by then. At Yeshivas Mir, the legendary Yerushalayimer baal kriah, Reb Yechiel, reads Megillas Rus slowly and carefully. At times, his voice is choked with tears, as the pesukim speak of the lows. There is anticipation in his voice as Rus manages to maintain her dignity and refinement even amidst her misery. In his voice, you hear the joy at her ultimate triumph.

Some people at the Mir used to complain about the length of the kriah. At the end of such a long, wearying night, they were eager for some rest. The rosh yeshiva, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, cherished the baal kriah and, in particular, his reading of Rus. The rosh yeshiva felt that this tale is a most fitting close to the avodah of Shavuos night. Therefore, the extra few minutes it took to lain Megillas Rus with heart were not to be perceived as an inconvenience, for they enhanced the tale central to the theme of Shavuos.

Perhaps we might add an insight to the many reasons offered for why we lain this story on Shavuos.

We contemplate the situation of Elimelech, Na’ami and their children. They were wealthy and prestigious, leaders of their people. When economic circumstances in Eretz Yisroel worsened and they were faced with many requests for help, they opted to leave.

They had it all, but they were lacking one thing: rachmonus.

Because they didn’t emulate their Creator - mah Hu rachum, af atoh rachum - and their hearts and fists were shut tight, they lost everything. They closed their ears to the Torah’s mandate of vehechezakta bo. They thus turned their backs on the flow of blessing and became destitute.

Theirs was a tale of riches to rags, prominence to anonymity and anguish.

Contrast that with the account of Rus. A giyores, driven by her pure heart to join Klal Yisroel, she was widowed and poor. She was forced to beg for food.

She lost it all, but she retained her middos, refinement and modesty.

And she ended up with everything.

The grains that she gathered in the fields of Boaz were the seeds of her own success, as she ultimately married him and gave birth to the lineage of Dovid Hamelech and Moshiach.

A nation of slaves was rushed out of Mitzrayim, yet they were blessed b’rechush gadol. They stood at Har Sinai much like Rus stood before Boaz, dedicated and committed to live with Hashem and His Torah. Like her, they had it all.

They, too, in the depths of their affliction, when it appeared that they had nothing, had everything. They held fast to their middos, as Chazal say, “Lo shinu es shemom, lo shinu es leshonam, lo shinu es malbushom,.” They adapted to a life of servitude and endured, because they put much effort into maintaining their identifying characteristics. This is reinforced by the Haggadah Shel Pesach, which states, “Vayehi shom legoy - melameid shehoyu metzuyonim shom.” Their middos sustained them.

During the hot summer of 1959, a woman crossing a street in Bnei Brak was struck by a car and killed. A large crowd immediately gathered. On her Teudat Zahut, the identifying papers that every Israeli carries at all times, were her name and address in the city of Cholon. Someone was dispatched to notify the woman’s family of her tragic fate.

In the meantime, activists moved the body to a cool room to maintain and protect kavod hameis. The police arrived as well, eager to take the body for an autopsy.

It was a time of great friction between the Torah camp and the chilonim in Eretz Yisroel. It seemed like every hospital had a pathology department anxious to study the bodies of the deceased. One of the most prominent physicians in the country had made headlines by announcing, “To bury a complete body is a waste: cheating medical science.”

When the messengers returned from Cholon with the news that the woman had lived alone, a poor immigrant with neither family nor friends, rabbonim ruled that she was a meis mitzvah. A huge crowd of talmidei chachomim formed, reciting Tehillim around the body.

The police called for reinforcements, making clear their intention to seize the body. The locals responded in kind, drawing a huge crowd of bochurim, who encircled the meis and said Tehillim. Once the woman had a status of meis mitzvah, they insisted, she belonged to all of them. They were the next of kin and they would not let her go.

For a few hours, it seemed like a war was imminent, but, eventually, the policemen realized that it was a losing battle and they left. The unknown woman was prepared for burial and thousands of mourners accompanied her through Bnei Brak, stopping near each shul to recite Kaddish.

A resourceful young man decided to follow up on the story and find out the woman’s background. There had to be something in the history of this anonymous individual that could explain why she had merited such an impressive kavod acharon. The man discovered that she came from the town of Kossova, birthplace of the Chazon Ish, and his sister, who married Rav Yisroel Yaakov Kanievsky – the Steipler Gaon. Rav Chaim Kanievsky asked his mother if she remembered the woman. Rebbetzin Kanievsky recalled that she came from a family that had no connection with Yiddishkeit and didn’t even fast on Yom Kippur. They had been completely irreligious.

The curious talmid chochom continued his investigation and found an old woman who had arrived in Israel from Poland following the Holocaust. She told him that she remembered the woman from the war-time ghetto, where they had lived together in a tiny apartment. She recalled that the woman spent the dark days searching out bodies of Yidden who had died, either of starvation or by the Nazi bullet, and brought them to kever Yisroel.

The meis mitzvah who merited the levayah and kevurah of a tzadeikes earned it through her acts of greatness.

Imagine a Polish war survivor living in poverty in Cholon with no acquaintances or friends. She has nothing. She is struck down by a car and killed. What a tragedy!

And then, thousands come out and say Tehillim, recite Kaddish, and accompany her body. She has everything.

She performed chessed shel emes, kindness that endures, and it endured for her.

She lived with nothing, yet died with everything.

In our times, along with the assault on decency and values; middos, refinement, tznius, modesty and gentleness are seen as archaic. The media and the surrounding culture condition people to respect those who are “hip” and “out there.” Arrogance and intemperance are hailed as virtues.

We have to remember why we were created and what our mission is. We are on the brink of welcoming Moshiach, but the only way we can merit his arrival is if we conduct ourselves as our forefathers in Mitzrayim did, holding steadfast to our core values and character traits that make us great.

We must not fall prey to the vagaries of the moment. Even as we build and improve our yeshivos, mosdos and organizations, we must remain cognizant of our goals. With caring and love, we must ensure that we do not dilute that which makes us great or take refuge in the land of easy excuses for inaction. We must treat each child as if he were our own and treat our own as we wish to be treated ourselves. In good times and in those of difficulty, we should never give up hope and never turn to hatred and rancor.

Human excellence should be our goal and motivator in all we do. The way we conduct ourselves, with middos tovos, is the prerequisite for the Torah. Those values ought to govern the language we speak and the way we act, as well as what lies unspoken but is felt in our hearts and minds.

Rav Chaim Vital famously asks why, if good middos are so important, there is no specific commandant in the Torah to behave properly. He answers that the Torah was only given to baalei middos, those who display a tzelem Elokim. Middos are the hakdamah, the prerequisite, making one worthy of the Torah.

This, explains the Maharal, is what is meant by “Atem kruyin adam.” Adam Harishon embodied the properties of tzelem Elokim, as the Mishnah says, “Choviv adam shenivra betzelem.” However, when he sinned, Adam fell from the lofty plateau. Tzuras ha’adam had been defiled.

Then, at Mattan Torah, man returned to those original heights of tzelem Elokim. Thus, Chazal state that only you, Yisroel, are referred to as adam, because only you, Yisroel, protect and project the tzelem Elokim, once you have received the Torah.

The refinement of Rus led her to return to the peak. Thus, we read her story on the day we commemorate the reintroduction of Heavenly dimensions to human beings. On this day, as a people, we rose to our original heights. On this day, every individual has the potential to raise themselves in Hashem’s image.

Perhaps, with this understanding, we can glean insight into another of the mitzvos hayom. Shavuos is the day upon which Jews would bring the korban of Bikkurim. After months of toiling in his orchard, a Jew reaps the first fruits of his harvest and sets off for Yerushalayim. When he arrives there, he meets up with a kohein and approaches the mizbei’ach in the Bais Hamikdosh to liturgically recall the trials Yaakov Avinu endured, followed by the account of our forefathers’ suffering in Mitzrayim.

He then relates how Hashem rescued us with scores of miracles and led us to the Promised Land, which flows with milk and honey.

Following that climactic event, the Jew presents the first fruits of his labors and returns home. He is then ready for the next part of the mitzvah, “Vesomachta bechol hatov,” the obligation to rejoice “with all the goodness Hashem, your G-d, has given you and your household.”

The obligation to be thankful for the blessings Hashem has bestowed upon us - and to contrast that goodness with the difficult time that preceded it - appears to be the key to true happiness.

Once again, we see this interface: The Jew brings a single fruit, seemingly nothing, yet it’s symbolic of Hashem’s goodness, which is everything. Bechol hatov.

We have to constantly scrutinize our actions, always aiming to improve. We begin by stating, “Arami oveid avi,” and recalling the slavery in Mitzrayim and times when it appeared that we had nothing. Then we recall Hakadosh Boruch Hu’s mercy and kindness in accepting our prayers and rescuing us from those awful situations.

A man looks out at his orchard through the Winter, viewing his barren trees with trepidation. He doesn’t know if they will ever bear fruit again. And then Spring arrives and his fears turn to joy as he views the blossoms emerging. He sees Hashem’s blessing on the way as his tree fills with blooms.

This is the message of Shavuos, the day when the people who a few months ago had nothing, now have everything.

Shavuos is referred to as Atzeres. One of the reasons given is that Torah provides a person with the ability to desist, to withstand temptations, to rise above negative middos and stop - la’atzor - his natural inclination. Torah is the tool we use to remain sublime, elevated and refined. Humility is our calling card. Ostentation and the pursuit of honor and glory are anathema to our goals. If we view ourselves as lacking, we can grow and have it all, but if we become conceited and view ourselves as accomplished, we risk squandering everything.

Remaining connected to Har Sinai also means remembering why that mountain was chosen as the location to deliver the Torah to the Jewish people. Hakadosh Boruch Hu overlooked towering peaks and soaring crests, instead selecting a humble mountain on which to transmit his treasure to the Chosen People. He chose as his messenger Moshe Rabbeinu, the humblest of men.

The late rosh yeshiva of Tchebin, Rav Avrohom Genechovsky, once reflected on the famed success of Rav Shmuel Rozovsky as Ponovezher rosh yeshiva.

“Do you know why Rav Shmuel has become the maggid shiur to a generation of maggidei shiur? Do you know why he is zocheh to be quoted by them and their talmidim, and why his Torah is blessed with such chein?”

Rav Avrohom shared a memory. He’d been a bochur in Ponovezh just after its founding. Alongside the yeshiva, the Ponovezher Rov had established a bais yesomim, a home for the many war orphans.

The children had classes and activities during the day, designed to educate them and rehabilitate them emotionally.

“What they were missing was a tatte, a father to review with them at night what they had learned that day,” recalled Rav Avrohom.

He recounted that every evening, Rav Shmuel Rozovsky would arrive at the orphanage and sit with the children, reviewing in a sing-song voice, ‘Kometz alef, oh. Kometz bais, boh.”

This would continue until the Ponovezher Rov would arrive to bid the children good night, telling Rav Shmuel, “Ihr kent tzurik gein in bais medrash. I’ll take over.”

“Can you imagine how pleasing Rav Shmuel’s Torah was when he went back to the bais medrash?” exclaimed Rav Genechovsky. “The special chein of his learning with the Aibishter’s kinderlach stamped his learning through the night and made it so beloved to his own eventual talmidim.”

With humility, kindness and love, Rav Shmuel ended up with everything.

Not only was he blessed, but those poor children who arrived in Eretz Yisroel with nothing - no possessions, no family, and, it seemed, no future - were blessed with everything thanks to the Torah giant who took them under his wing.

That has always been the mark of Torah.

On Shavuos, we reaffirm our commitment to Torah and its ways, accepting it with gratitude and joy and reminding ourselves of what Torah living really entails.

During the period in which Rav Yisroel Salanter lived in Paris to spread Torah there, he once fell down a long flight of stairs, lost consciousness, and suffered serious wounds. He miraculously recovered after a few days. He later related that even as he was falling, he was not scared. “I was living in Paris only to do Hashem’s work, with no ulterior motives or benefits. I knew that I wouldn’t be harmed.”

All of us, in our lives, wherever we are and whatever we do, can be shluchei mitzvah like Rav Yisroel. We can act altruistically, not looking at what’s in it for us, but for what we can do to help others. We can act with the Torah as our guide, and not our egos or wallets. We can remember our roots, our destiny, and why we are here, and ensure that every action we take causes a kiddush Hashem.

If we are as fortunate to live as Rus did, as good Jews have lived throughout the years, and as the humble farmer riding his donkey to Yerushalayim with his basket of fruits did, cleaving to the Torah and its lessons, we will be blessed as well.

Kol halomeid Torah lishmah zocheh l’devorim harbei.

With everything.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Relationship with the Borei

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Most are familiar with the comment of Rashi on the opening posuk of Parshas Bechukosai. His words are so oft-repeated in shmuessen and drashos that they have become a cliché, marching orders to generations of bnei Torah of all ages. Let’s review them.

The posuk states, “Im bechukosai teileichu ve’es mitzvosai tishmeru va’asisem osam - If you will follow My decrees and observe My commandment and perform them,” you will be extremely blessed.

Regarding the words “Im bechukosai teileichu,” the Toras Kohanim states, “Melameid sheHakadosh Boruch Hu misaveh sheyihiyu Yisroel ameilim baTorah - We see from here that Hashem desires for the Jewish people to be omeil in Torah.”

How does the Toras Kohanim derive this lesson from the words “Im bechukosai teileichu,” which appear to indicate that Hashem wants us to follow His chukim? The posuk says nothing about studying Torah.

Apparently, this question was troubling Rashi, and it led him to quote a different message from the Toras Kohanim. “I would think that the words ‘Im bechukosai teileichu’ refer to their literal meaning, namely observing the commandments known as chukim. But if that is the case, why does the Torah then repeat itself and state ‘ve’es mitzvosai tishmeru,’ referring once again to mitzvah observance?”

Rashi therefore writes those immortal words, explaining that “Im bechukosai teileichu” doesn’t mean that we will be blessed if we follow the chukim, but, rather, “shetihiyu ameilim baTorah,” that you shall toil in Torah. Those who toil in Torah will be blessed.

Perhaps we can understand that the meaning of “melameid sheHakadosh Boruch Hu misaveh sheyihiyu Yisroel ameilim baTorah” is that Hashem desires for us to study Torah lishmah, for its sake, purely for the sake of study and not to fulfill any mitzvos.

While there is a mitzvah to learn Torah as expressed in the posuk of “Vehogisa bo yomam volaylah,” which directs us to study Torah day and night whenever we are able to, one who learns Torah lishmah definitely fulfills a mitzvah, but he learns not because it is a mitzvah to learn and not because he is desirous of any reward. He studies Torah for the sake of studying Torah and to understand Hashem’s words and teachings, not for any other purpose. He connects with the Creator, forming an unbreakable bond with his Master. He is the reason Hashem created the world, and thus He is “misaveh,” as Hashem waits for people such as this man to engage in Torah study. They are therefore promised just rewards.

The Rambam, in his introduction to the Yad Hachazakah, writes that the mitzvos were given to Moshe Rabbeinu at Har Sinai accompanied by their laws and explanations. He derives this from the posuk (Shemos 24:12) which states, “V’etnah lochem es luchos ho’even, vehaTorah vehamitzvah - And I gave you the luchos, the Torah and the mitzvah.”

The Rambam explains that “Torah” refers to Torah Shebiksav, the Written Torah, and “mitzvah” refers to the explanations, Torah Shebaal Peh, the Oral Torah. He gave us Torah Shebiksav and commanded us to practice it according to Torah Shebaal Peh.

Thus, we see that when the Torah uses the word “mitzvah,” it can refer to the commandments, but it can also refer to Torah Shebaal Peh, which explains to us how to perform those commandments.

With this, we can understand the posuk in a new way. Im bechukosai teileichu,” if you toil in learning for the sake of limud haTorah itself, “ve’es mitzvosai tishmeru,” and you pursue the knowledge of Torah Shebaal Peh which is necessary to correctly perform the mitzvos, “va’asisem osam,” and you actually follow through and do the mitzvos, then the brachos will flow.

All who study Torah are great and all who observe Hashem’s commandments are great, as are those who support them, but the epitome of human existence is the one who sits in a corner bound with Hashem’s Torah. Nobody knows about him, nobody sees him, and nobody is aware of him. He studies G-d’s word and it touches his soul.

Those who teach and guide and are an example for others to follow make our people special and glorified. They reached that level by engaging in sublime Torah study.

Klal Yisroel has special appreciation for ameilei Torah, who have always been viewed with special reverence. They are privileged to learn Torah not only in order to perform mitzvos and to teach, but for its own sake.

Shetihiyu ameilim baTorah is the hymn of our yeshivos and kollelim, which are islands of intense limud haTorah that produce exalted people, talmidei chachomim who the Chazon Ish referred to as “malochim b’demus bosor vodom,” angels in the guise of men.

The omeil baTorah inhabits a realm more exalted than any other.

The beloved Yerushalayimer maggid, Rav Mordechai Druk, once related that his uncle, Rav Amram Blau, was vigilant in his campaign against people he thought had veered from the proper path. Rav Amram would say, “If I see a breach in the sacred chain of our rabbeim, I go to battle, regardless of who it is that I am opposing. There is only one person I don’t challenge,” Rav Amram continued.

He recounted how his neighbor, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, had accepted an official state rabbinate position, a decision that Rav Amram felt was wrong. “I should really shout and protest, but I can’t,” he said.

Rav Amram explained that his wife and Rebbetzin Frank were friendly. Rav Tzvi Pesach’s rebbetzin shared that the financial situation in the home had gotten so bad that it affected her husband’s learning. “He suggested that I sell his bed linens, so that we could have a bit of money and he could learn,” remarked Rebbetzin Frank. “My husband won’t miss not having a bed, as he learns all night anyway.”

The Franks were so poor that it reached a point where Rav Tzvi Pesach had no money with which to purchase candles. How was he to learn at night?

“I saw him outside, with his Gemara, learning by the light of the moon throughout the night,” said Rav Amram. “Mit mentchen ken ich tcheppen. I can challenge mortals. Ubber mit malochim tcheppe ich nisht. I won’t do battle with angels.”

He was expressing that which the Chazon Ish would write about talmidei chachomim. They are malochim b’demus bosor vodom.

The Erev Shabbos shmuess at the home of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel was a special time. The Mirrer rosh yeshiva would speak in English, unlike the rest of the week, and the audience included not only Mirrer talmidim, but also American and European bochurim from other yeshivos in Yerushalayim. Rather than offer prepared remarks, the rosh yeshiva would actually “shmooze,” reflecting on his week as if in conversation, sharing his impressions and insights.

One time, he told the bochurim about an opportunity he had that week. He needed direction regarding a halachic matter and went to speak to Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.

“I came to Rav Elyashiv’s home and they let me into his room. He did not notice that I had entered, so he continued learning. I listened to him, and this is what he was saying. ‘Amar Abaye… Abaye says... Amar Rava. Voss zogst du Rava? Ah, ich her. Ubber vos enfert ihr Abaye. Nu, vos zogt ihr tzurik Rava? Abaye, how would you answer Rava’s argument? Nu, Rava, what would you say back to that? Ah, I hear. Abaye?”

The rosh yeshiva continued describing what he had seen and heard. Rav Elyashiv wasn’t outside looking in. He was inside the world of Torah.

All around us, there are heroes. Maybe it’s a seventeen-year-old bochur who didn’t understand his rebbi’s shiur and chazers it one more time, even though he’s tired and wants to know if the Yankees won. Maybe it’s his father who spends his free time struggling over a Rashba. Maybe it’s the kollel yungerman in Bnei Brak who puts everything else out of his mind and immerses himself in the life-giving waters of a Ketzos.

They are the ones bringing the posuk’s promised bounty to our midst.

Rav Moshe Mordechai Shulsinger once addressed an evening of chizuk for lomdei Torah in Bnei Brak. What do you say to such people?

“I was with the Steipler Gaon when he was already eighty-two years old,” Rav Moshe Mordechai began, “and he told us, ‘Boruch Hashem, I’m learning Maseches Rosh Hashanah and I’m holding on daf chof zayin. Today is the first time I understood simple p’shat in a Gemara.”

“But the rebbi learned it so many times,” Rav Moshe Mordechai asked him.

“Yes,” the Steipler said simply, “I learned it tens of times, but I never understood it. Today, I did.”

“How,” Rav Moshe Mordechai asked his audience, “did the Steipler go on after the first time he didn’t understand it? Why did he continue?

“Because,” Rav Moshe Mordechai continued, “the Steipler knew that life is for sitting and learning. He had to learn and learn and learn. He had confidence and faith that if he would keep on learning, everything would become clear. At the age of 82, it did.”

The Steipler’s findings on that sugya live on in Kehillas Yaakov, Rosh Hashanah siman 21. And the lesson lives on in the hearts of hundreds of avreichim.

Rav Moshe Mordechai related that someone once approached the Chazon Ish and asked him how to become a lamdan. “To become a lamdan, you need two things,” the Chazon Ish replied. “You have to learn, and learn, and learn. And you need the Mamme’s Tehillim.”

The fellow persisted. “What about kishronos?”

“Men darft nisht. One doesn’t need to be particularly bright. With hard work, with toil and determination, people have become gedolim.”

A bochur once complained to the Chofetz Chaim that he worked very hard to learn, yet he didn’t feel that he would become a gadol baTorah. The Chofetz Chaim responded, “Where does it say that a person has an obligation to become a gadol baTorah? We are only obligated to learn Torah, to toil in Torah, to be ameilim in Torah.”

Of course it goes together. A person who is omeil in Torah receives the blessings of the Torah and continues to grow.

A mechanech in Bnei Brak related the story of a talmid, who faced terrible difficulty understanding learning. The bochur toiled, but was never able to reach the same levels of comprehension as his friends. Eventually, he fell into a deep depression.

The rebbi, pained by his talmid’s feelings of worthlessness and unable to convince the boy that his life had value, took the young man to speak to the Steipler Gaon. The boy shared his frustrations and grief. He described the difficulty he encountered in comprehending even the most basic ideas of the Gemara. The Steipler asked the bochur if there was any blatt Gemara that he felt he knew.

“Yes,” said the boy. “The first blatt in Nedorim.”

“I promise you,” said the aged giant, whose every word was measured and who exuded truth, “that when you learn that daf in Nedorim, it is as important to Hashem as the chiddushim of the illui in Ponovezh or the lamdan in Slabodka. He is listening to you.”

The young man was comforted as the Steipler repeated the assurance. The mechanech attested that, armed with the knowledge that his efforts had value, the bochur went back with his head held high and resumed his studies, not giving up until he succeeded in tasting the sweetness of Torah.

The Gemara in Maseches Chagigah (9) states that Bar Hei Hei asked Hillel what is meant by the posuk (Malachi 3:18) that says that le’asid lavo, the difference between the “oveid Elokim,” the one who served Hashem, and “asher lo avado,” the one who did not, will be noted. Is it not obvious to us the difference between the two? The posuk must be referring to something else.

Hillel responded that it refers to the difference between the person who reviews what he studied 100 times and the one who reviews the Torah he has learned 101 times.

“Is the fact that he didn’t review one more time a reason to call someone eino avado?” wondered Bar Hei Hei.

“Yes,” Hillel answered, bringing the example of the donkey-drivers in the market, where a journey of ten parsa’os costs one zuz, while a trip of eleven parsa’os costs two zuzim.

The Baal Hatanya explains the answer. A standard trip for a wagon driver is ten parsa’os. That is normal. Asking him to go eleven parsa’os is requesting that he go out of his comfort zone, stretching himself and extending himself beyond what he’s used to. Hence the higher price, because it isn’t just one more parsah. It is an entirely different trip.

Therein lies the secret of ameilus baTorah. The ultimate mitzvah is performed through serving Hashem that one extra time. When one pushes himself way beyond his comfort level and reaches inside and finds the strength for another blatt of Gemara, or another few minutes in the bais medrash, or one more chazarah, one enters that exalted realm.

Each and every one of us has that gift. It’s there for the taking. With a bit of spirit and determination, we can, even if only for a moment, enter that dimension the Chazon Ish describes, leaving the world of humans and touching the world of angels.

Shetihiyu ameilim baTorah. It is a way that a mortal can brush the heavens and merit the brachos found there.

Yisroel ve’Oraisa veKudsha Brich Hu chad hu. Hashem and the Torah and Am Yisroel are one. When you plug into Torah, you are plugging into Hashem. When you connect to Torah, you are connecting to Hashem and having a relationship with the Borei. What could be better?

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Measuring Up

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The roots of the Sefirah period can be found in this week’s parsha of Emor, where we learn of the korban ha’omer and the mitzvah to count seven complete weeks from Pesach until Shavuos.

The posuk (23:10) states the obligation to bring “omer reishis ketzirchem el hakohein,” an omer amount of the first barley of the season, to the kohein. The posuk (23:15) states the mitzvah of counting seven weeks from the day of the omer offering and then commands us to bring a minchas bikkurim of wheat at the culmination of the count. After discussing the other korbanos that are brought along with the shtei halechem, the Torah (23:22) says that the day that korban is brought is mikra kodesh, a holiday, when it is prohibited to do labor.

The Maharal in Tiferes Yisroel (25) discusses why the initial offering is of barley and on Shavuos it is of wheat.

The Torah does not give a name to the korban that is brought on the second day of Pesach. It also does not refer to the counting period as Sefiras Ha’omer. Finally, there is no name given for the Yom Tov at the culmination of the count.

It’s remarkable that the Torah, whose every word is precise and direct, seems to shroud these korbanos in mystery.

The Tur (Orach Chaim 493) compares the seven weeks of counting we refer to as Sefiras Ha’omer to the seven years of counting of Shmittah and Yovel. He cites an ancient custom to refrain from work in the evenings between Pesach and Shavuos based on this comparison. Just as it is forbidden to work the land during Shmittah, so too did they refrain from work at the time the counting is supposed to take place.

He cites, as well, a second reason for the custom: The talmidim of Rabi Akiva perished at shkiah time and were buried following shkiah. Since people did not work during that time, we desist as well.

The comparison to the counting of Shmittah and Yovel bears a deeper understanding.

Based on the Maharal (ibid.), we can explain that at the time of Yetzias Mitzrayim, we had just been freed. Krias Yam Suf was an essential component of the founding of our nation; at which the revelation of Hashem’s glory elevated and sanctified us. Thus, we bring a korban of barley, which is animal feed, because as we began the journey one day after leaving Mitzrayim, when we were still at a very low level.

Gilui Shechinah and Mattan Torah created people, human beings in their most elevated form.

We count 49 days, and on each day we raise ourselves one more rung from the low level we were at during Yetzias Mitzrayim. By the time we reach the culmination of the count, we are expected to have attained the level necessary for receiving the Torah, which was given to our people on the day the seven-week count concluded.

Hence the name of that day. We refer to it as “Shavuos,” meaning weeks, because we counted for seven weeks and each day we perfected another of the middos necessary for acquiring Torah. Thus, at the end of the seven weeks, we offer the kohein a korban of wheat, because we have fulfilled the destiny for which man was created and earned the Torah.

Step into a kitchen on Erev Shabbos as preparations for Shabbos are in full swing. You’ll see bowls and pots half-filled, bags of flour and sugar, and an open carton of eggs. You understand that you are witnessing the process, not a finished result. A recipe calls for precision, effort and toil. The finished product will justify the work.

The korban we bring at the outset of the count has no biblical name. Rather, it is referred to by the measurement of barley it consists of, namely an omer. The period of counting is not given a name, nor is the festival that celebrates the end of the count, because the entire period is about counting and about measurements, omer and shavuos.

It’s about measuring up. It’s a progression. Raw materials that have yet to be defined are mixed and purified to perfection. Ingredients take shape and become a product.

In order to acquire the Torah and reach the level of perfection which Hashem intended for us, we have to be exacting in the counting and measuring. There are no shortcuts. There must be an omer and there must be seven complete weeks of daily steps. Anything less invalidates the process.

We call the seven-week period following Pesach, Sefiras Ha’omer and we call the Yom Tov at the end of the count Shavuos, literally weeks, to signify that we used every day of that time to perfect our middos and measurements and make ourselves worthy of the Torah.

An aged Russian woman created a commotion upon her arrival in Israel, saying that she was a granddaughter of the Chofetz Chaim. Grandchildren of the Chofetz Chaim traveled to speak to her and hear what she remembered about the illustrious gaon and tzaddik.

The woman, who led a secular life, recalled that as a young girl, she had read the works of the Maskilim and, like many others of her time, was drawn by them and fascinated by the ideas they presented. Slowly, she gave up religion and made her way to a university. During that period, she went to visit her grandfather, the Chofetz Chaim.

Zaide,” she told him, brimming with youthful enthusiasm, “you have to step out of your insular shtetel and discover the new world. You’ll see that it’s a new era. Technology and science are creating a new reality. Zaide, you have to let go of your old-fashioned ideas and get with the times. Soak in the excitement and learn of the many possibilities that exist in today’s world.”

She recounted that the Chofetz Chaim told her, “Tochterel, I want you to know this: With their innovations and inventions, they will one day reach a point where they make a bomb that will kill thousands of people. Ubber mir machen mentchen. Mir machen mentchen. Do you hear? We are making people. They will destroy people.”

Torah makes people, refining and raising humanity.

As part of a series of well-intentioned efforts to familiarize secular Israelis with their chareidi counterparts, a group of military personnel, generals and officers went to see the Ponovezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak to observe yeshiva bochurim in their natural habitat. The officers were given a tour of the yeshiva and then taken to greet the rosh yeshiva, Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach.

The rosh yeshiva asked the visitors if they had been impressed by the young men they saw.

“Absolutely,” said one. “They are polite, studious and refined. They dress neatly and seem engaged in their studies. They are clearly invested in their friends’ academic success as well, studying as they do in groups. They are certainly impressive.”

The elderly rosh yeshiva, responding, cited the posuk which states, Ki yeitzer leiv ho’odom ra mene’urav - Man’s heart is evil from the time of his creation” (Bereishis 8:21).

“Man is created with a yeitzer hora, a pull to do bad,” said Rav Shach. “The young men you saw today are like other young men you know, with the same inclinations and desires. So how come you know so many teenagers who are wild, lazy, angry or apathetic? Do you think that our students are made any differently? The difference is that the Torah they learn changes them. Torah is a force. It builds and rebuilds a person.”

When Shavuos arrives, we achieve our freedom. Ein lecha ben chorin ela mi she’oseik baTorah. The ultimate freedom belongs to those who live according to the Torah. At Mattan Torah, we attained the pinnacle of our existence, having reached the plateau Hashem intended when he created the world, bishvil Yisroel shenikre’u reishis and bishvil haTorah shenikra reishis, for the sake of the Torah and the sake of Yisroel, who, upon creation, were both referred to as “beginning.”

A beginning is a spark that contains potential and hope for the future. The creation of the world and the establishment of Klal Yisroel were just the start of a process. At Har Sinai, the potential was finally realized, when the children of the avos became the Bnei Yisroel. When we reenact the climb every year during this period, we achieve the level Hashem intended for us.

We can now understand the Tur’s comparison of the counting of the seven weeks to the counting of Shmittah and Yovel. That count leads to Yovel, the celebration of freedom, just as this one does.

When we think of Sefirah, we think of the simonei aveilus we follow in memory of Rabi Akiva’s 24,000 students who perished during this period.

There is no better example of the process that demonstrates that through toil, ameilus and work, man can remake himself. Rabi Akiva was the personification of man’s potential and ability to grow through Torah. He can begin from nothing and reach the highest level. Rabi Akiva began his climb as a lowly shepherd. At his apex, he was the shoresh of Torah Shebaal Peh. Rabi Akiva demonstrated that man can begin from the level the Bnei Yisroel were on at Yetzias Mitzrayim. By working on himself, Rabi Akiva was able to rise, level by level, until he reached the level of Kabbolas HaTorah.

If we understand the depth of the connection between Shmittah and these seven weeks, perhaps we can clarify our avodah during this period. We are taught that the punishment for failing to count the years of Shmittah and abstaining from working the fields during the years of Shmittah and Yovel is to be cut off from the land. 

The Sefer Hachinuch (mitzvah 84) writes that the purpose of Shmittah is to remember that Hashem created the land and causes it to grow and give forth fruit.

Similarly, if we wish to grow, develop and thrive, we need to “work the land” during this time to remember that Hashem created us, and the world, for a reason.

When Rav Yitzchok Hutner arrived in Eretz Yisroel towards the end of his life, he came with a dream of building a new yeshiva like the one he headed in Brooklyn.

“Is it true that the rosh yeshiva wants to build Torah here as well?” he was asked.

“No,” he retorted. “It is not true. I don’t want to build Torah. I want to plant Torah.”

Building, Rav Hutner felt, connotes a static process, brick after brick. Planting is to be a partner with creation. Seeds become plants and develop buds, which bloom and flourish, producing fruit. Spreading Torah is an effort akin to planting.

Growth in Torah is hard work, but success is guaranteed for those who dedicate themselves to its pursuit.

Upon the passing of Rav Chaim Greineman, Rav Yaakov Edelstein reminisced of the time way back in 1944 when he, Rav Greineman and four others comprised the fledgling Ponovezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. Rav Chaim was then 18 years old. One of the other bochurim asked him as he was walking in the bais medrash if he would submit to a test on Shas. He said that they can ask him on everything except Maseches Eiruvin, because he had not reviewed it enough times.

Rav Edelstein conducted the test. He held up the bottoms of pages of different masechtos throughout Shas and Rav Chaim passed the test. The other bochurim were amazed. One remarked, “Wow! He has such a great memory!” Rav Greineman responded, “If you would learn and review each Gemara sixty times, you could also do that.”

As a young boy, Rav Greineman learned Mishnayos Shviis with his uncle, the Chazon Ish. This is how they learned: The Chazon Ish taught the boy the Mishnah very clearly and thoroughly in a way that he was able to understand. Then Chaim reviewed the Mishnah 100 times. When he finished, the Chazon Ish taught him a second Mishnah.

This is a story about a man who passed away just a few weeks ago. We can do it, too, if we would only apply ourselves and really want to accomplish this feat.

There are no secrets and no shortcuts. You have to measure up, Mishnah by Mishnah, daf by daf.

Rabi Akiva (Pesochim 49b) said about himself that when he was still an ignorant am haaretz, his hatred of a talmid chochom was such that, “If I saw a talmid chochom, I wished to bite him like a donkey (which hurts more than a dog bite).”

Yet, just as water bores a hole in a rock through persistence and consistency, Torah permeates the soul. Rabi Akiva became the paradigm of Torah study and was the  link in transmitting Torah to 24,000 talmidim. Sadly, they were not able to maintain the 48 levels necessary for the acquisition of Torah, and since they failed in their mission, they were taken from this world.

We mourn them until today as a reminder to ourselves of the levels man can reach. We celebrate Rabi Akiva and his talmid, Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai, and focus on the need to constantly measure up or, chas veshalom, lose the ability to be sustained in this world, which was created for Klal Yisroel and the Torah.

Just as a skilled farmer uses the dirt, the chaff, the sun and the shade to produce delicious fruit and nutritious grains, the Torah takes all of man’s various qualities and elevates them.

Man is complex. But life is a process. These weeks, we are given directions to refine ourselves and we are provided with an example: If an unlearned shepherd was able to master the levels of middos, reaching the zenith of creation and experiencing the cheirus of Yovel, then each and every one of us can do so as well.

We mourn the tragedy of those who grew in his shadow but could not be lights on their own and fell before the challenge of rising to the next level. In the fires of Lag Ba’omer, we see lives consumed and potential cut short, but we also see the fuel of rebirth, a bright light showing us the way.

With the strains of music playing in the background, we offer our tefillos that we merit counting each day, making each day count, and using them as they were intended, to climb the ladder, rung by rung, to eternity.