Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Embracing Comfort

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

When you walk into a room where people are sitting close to the floor with ripped, dirty clothing, the atmosphere is heavy and sad. Not a word is exchanged. Then a menachem, a comforter, walks into the room. Initially, the people look at him with sad, knowing eyes. Then they slowly come alive, sharing stories of their departed loved one, exchanging reminiscences. “What do you remember?” they ask. “What can you share?” They then accept words of chizuk as expressed in the eternal words of nechomah: HaMakom yenacheim es’chem.

During the first nine days of Av, we are all mourners, sitting in despair and pain. We speak of the days when the Bais Hamikdosh sat in the center of Yerushalayim. We reflect on how different and blessed life was at that time.

Then Hashem Himself arrives to be menachem us. He offers words of comfort, reassuring us and promising a brighter future. The novi loudly proclaims in words lovingly repeated ever since they were first uttered following the churban, “Nachamu, nachamu ami. Be comforted, My people, be comforted.”

On the fast day of Tisha B’Av, many of the components of other fast days are missing. We do not recite Avinu Malkeinu or Tachanun, prayers that lead to introspection and teshuvah. This is because Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning. We all know that the second Bais Hamidkosh was destroyed because sinas chinom was prevalent amongst Jews at that time (Yoma 9b). However, the Gemara in Maseches Sanhedrin (104b) points to the chet hameraglim as the cause of the destruction. It was on this day that the Jews in the desert cried for naught. Their “bechiyah shel chinom echoes all these years, giving generation after generation many reasons to cry.

The meraglim lacked the ability to see themselves for who they were. They were reduced to the size of insects in their own eyes, because they accepted the attitudes of others as fact. They let themselves feel small and insignificant, because they viewed themselves the way they believed others did. The Jews heard their report of their mission to the land Hashem promised them and broke down in tears. “Woe is to us,” they cried. “We are being led to a country that will wipe us off the map.” They were insecure about their ability to merit Hashem’s blessing and protection. They feared that they wouldn’t be worthy of the promises that they would inherit the Land.

They didn’t perceive their own greatness.

The historical accounts of the churban Bais Hamikdosh appear in Maseches Gittin because the break between Klal Yisroel and Hakadosh Boruch Hu was a tragedy not unlike a get. The novi Yeshayahu states (50:1), “Eizeh sefer krisus imchem asher shelachtiha - Which get has Hashem sent you.”

Hashem, however, never ceased loving His people. He never divorced Himself from them. There was no get. There was a people singled out and set apart with privileges unavailable to others, yet they believed that they had been cast aside. Because they lacked self-confidence, they were easily misled and taken in by apocalyptic predictions.

Years later, during the period of Bayis Sheini, although the Jewish people were religiously committed, the rot at the root of the chet hameraglim was still present. Because the people were cynical, negative and pessimistic, they didn’t feel Hashem’s love, nor did they appreciate His proximity. They didn’t see the Jewish people as being worthy of Divine love, so they hated each other. They wrote sifrei krisus to each other because they didn’t appreciate the greatness inherent in every Yid. Insecure, they were blind to their own worth, and like the Jews at the time of the chet hameraglim, because they felt undeserving, they didn’t appreciate the gifts they had and what they were given.

On Tisha B’Av, mourning is how we repent. We sit on the floor, reciting Kinnos, recalling how good we had it, how much love there was, how close we were to Hashem, and the holiness and unity that were apparent in our lives. We bemoan the losses we suffered. We recognize through our tears how much Hashem loved us, and we proclaim that we know that He still loves us and that we are worthy of that love. That is how we repent for the sins of the meraglim and sinas chinom. 

Many of our problems are rooted in the sin of low self-esteem, of not realizing who we are. People give up before starting. They are easily knocked off course and lose motivation to succeed and excel, because they don’t believe in themselves.

Last week, thousands traveled to Lakewood, NJ, and sat in the presence of Torah royalty, the Lakewood rosh yeshiva and his distinguished siblings, as they mourned the passing of their mother, Rebbetzin Rischel Kotler a”h.

While I was there, they shared many stories. Inspiring and deeply moving, they had a similar theme. The rebbetzin was heir to the gadlus of Kelm and Slabodka and sought to raise the level of all who came in contact with her.

One son recalled that the rebbetzin met a young girl, whose mother had recently passed away.

“What is your name?” the rebbetzin asked.

 “Yehudis,” the girl replied.

“No, I mean what did your mother call you?” the rebbetzin asked.

“My mother used to call me Yehudis’l.”

The rebbetzin would make it her business to see that girl, and when she would, she’d say to her, “How are you, Yehudis’l?” She would refer to her as her loving mother did when she was alive.

In the absence of a loving mother, the rebbetzin subliminally reminded her that she was still loved. Her mother was no longer alive, but there was someone else who had expectations and hopes for her.

She was worthy of love.

One day, the rebbetzin saw a yungerman shuffling down the street, his face pointed downward. She offered him pithy advice. “If you look down, you’ll see pennies,” she told him, “so why not look up and find dollar bills?”

She was an effective counselor for young couples, realizing early on that a community filled with young marrieds needs someone with a listening ear, who can provide the guidance and support of a wise friend. She became that friend, helping many families through difficult moments.

A husband came to her complaining of the shalom bayis situation in his home. She quickly diagnosed the problem. “Have you been to your rebbi to discuss your problem?”


“Have you been to your rosh yeshiva?”


“Have you told your chavrusah?”


“And everyone has rachmonus on you, right?”


“And you have rachmonus on yourself?”


“And your wife also has rachmonus on you?”


“Stop being a nebachel, looking for people to have rachmonus on you,” said the rebbetzin. “Pull yourself together. Carry yourself like a choshuve person. Buy your wife a gift. Behave with greatness and everything will work out.”

And it did.

Chazal famously teach us that a generation that doesn’t merit the return of the Bais Hamikdosh is viewed as having had the Bais Hamikdosh destroyed in its time. The Sefas Emes explains that anyone who doesn’t believe that their actions can contribute to the building of the Bais Hamikdosh is accountable for its destruction. Those who don’t perceive that they possess the power to bring about the return of the Bais Hamikdosh have a part in its destruction.

To believe that we make no difference is part of the churban.

Our response to churban is to know what we are, who are, and what we can achieve.

This, says the Sefas Emes, is what’s meant by the brochah we recite in Birkas Hamazon referring to Hashem as the “bonei (presently building) berachamov Yerushalayim.” Rebuilding the Holy City is a steady, ongoing process. At any given moment, Hashem is rebuilding Yerushalayim. It is destructive to think that we can’t play a role in that process.

When Rebbetzin Kotler’s father, Rav Aryeh Malkiel Friedman, parted from his young daughter, he knew it was a final farewell. He left her with a short piece of advice: Don’t dress like the others, don’t appear like others, and be careful to keep cholov Yisroel.

The father’s parting message was deep enough to sear itself into her young soul. What he was really telling her was, “Know who you are!”

And she knew.

We stand up from the floor, dusting ourselves off from Tisha B’Av’s grief, and we are comforted. No, we do not yet see the Bais Hamikdosh standing, but now we know who we are. We know what we’re capable of. We know that each of us has a role to play.

We lost the Bais Hamikdosh because of two related sins: bechiyah shel chinom, a futile cry, and sinas chinom, baseless hatred.

Rav Yechiel Yaakovson, an Israeli mechanech, recalled the time he was walking down a Bayit Vegan street as part of a group of bochurim speaking in learning with Rav Chatzkel Abramsky. Suddenly, something caught Rav Abramsky’s attention. He walked to a small courtyard and approached a weeping young girl.

“Why are you crying?” he asked.

“Because my friend said that my dress is ugly,” the girl replied.

Rav Abramsky smiled and said, “Well, you go tell your friend that a big rov is also your friend, and he said that the dress is beautiful.”

As the beaming girl headed off, Rav Abramsky shared an insight with the talmidim.

He quoted the posuk which states, “Umachah Hashem dimah mei’al kol ponim.” He explained that the posuk is stating that Hakadosh Boruch Hu will wipe the tears off of every Jewish face. “Now, if every Jew is precious enough to Hashem that He takes the time to wipe the tears off of every face,” he said, “then we also have to do our part to erase Yiddishe trerren.”

Our every act, word and tear has a purpose, they are not for naught, chinom. Realizing what a Yid represents is the greatest and most effective antidote to sinas chinom. Each of us carries so much power. We have to appreciate the mitzvos and ma’asim tovim of our friends and see their efforts with an ayin tovah.

In a Tisha B’Av shmuess given this year, Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi succinctly commented, “One who looks at his friend with sinas chinom and mocks the efforts of his fellow Jew isn’t just a hater, but an idol-worshipper. Why? Because he wants every person around him to act as he does, think as he does, and agree with him about everything. He worships no one but himself.”

On Tisha B’Av, we see that no one is chinom and nothing they do is chinom. We re-learn how to love. We recognize that just because we look differently and act differently doesn’t mean that we are inherently different.

On Tisha B’Av, we said in unison, “Hashiveinu, Hashem eilechaHashem, bring us back to You…”

People all over say and sing these words with love and inspiration. Hashem, we know that Your arms are opened wide, waiting to receive us. We know that we are worthy of Your embrace.

Bring us back. Take us back. We’re ready.

Be comforted for knowing that.

Nachamu, nachamu ami.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Where We Belong

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The onset of Tammuz and Av bring with them a creeping sense of uneasiness and worry, a result of so many tragedies throughout the generations during the three-week period between Shivah Assar B’Tammuz and Tisha B’Av.

Every year, as the Three Weeks and the Nine Days approach, we fear what the news will bring. Ever since our people cried for naught in the desert, they have been marked for tragedy. Ever since the meraglim maligned Eretz Yisroel, our people have looked at this period with somber trepidation. Every year, we pray that this year will be different. Unfailingly, the noose of the golus tightens during this mournful period.

The very first mistake made during these days was the catastrophic miscalculation by the meraglim, who slandered Eretz Yisroel and challenged Moshe Rabbeinu. In doing so, they lost the land that would have embraced and protected them, and they undermined the koach of the tzaddik who could have pleaded on their behalf.

The echo of their mistake reverberates throughout the generations. The feelings of insecurity and vulnerability mount each year.

The passing of anoshim gedolim is a tragedy equal to, or more severe than, the burning of the Bais Hamikdosh. A tzaddik allows us to expand our dimensions, providing a shining example of how to live. The tzaddik protects us. His very presence serves as a shelter and fortress. When a tzaddik falls, apprehension increases.

Last week, we mourned the passing of Rav Moshe Feigelstock zt”l, a marbitz Torah for decades who personified the grandeur and humility of one who learns Torah lishmah. A talmid chochom, he was a mechaneich committed to the growth and development of each talmid. The yeshiva he built stands as testimony to the wisdom he used and the siyata diShmaya he merited.

This week, we mourn the passing of Rebbetzin Rishel Kotler a”h, who was as close to royalty as we get in our world. The wife of Rav Shneur Kotler zt”l, she shared the task of building his yeshiva, Bais Medrash Govoah and the town of Lakewood, NJ, into what they are today. She was a queen, the wife of a king, and the mother of royals who have enhanced Klal Yisroel in many ways. Her impact was not always seen publicly, but it drove the heart of the Olam HaTorah. With the arrival of this month, she was taken from our midst and the Olam HaTorah is mourning.

While we mourn the passing of elevated people close to home, we see the backdrop, a world stage upon which we are being weakened. We look on in horrified silence as the world embraces the arch enemy of Israel, the Jews, and the West. America and other major powers signed a deal with the largest state supporter of terror, enabling it to continue its nuclear efforts and giving it the wherewithal to retool, restock, rearm and strengthen its malicious behavior, emboldening it to continue causing trouble around the world.

The Obama administration downplays the threat of radical Islam and terrorism. They naïvely think that if they remove the Iranian sanctions, the radical haters of the West and Israel will return to the family of nations. The fanatics who rule Iran with a clenched fist insist that they have no intention of developing a nuclear weapon and that their intentions are peaceful. The country most responsible for international terror, itself an oil exporter, claims that it needs nuclear energy to power its electricity, and the nations charged with protecting the world validate that lie. As sanctions that have choked the Iranian economy are prepared to be repealed, and as blocks on importation of missiles and arms are put on a trajectory that will allow Iran to rearm, its Supreme Leader addresses his nation and the world.

His words do not seem peaceful at all. During a speech over the weekend that was periodically interrupted by chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, “Whether the deal is approved or disapproved, we will never stop supporting our friends in the region and the people of Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon. Even after this deal, our policy toward the arrogant U.S. will not change. We don’t have any negotiations or deal with the U.S. on different issues in the world or the region.”

We thought America was different. We assumed that we were safe and that the world had learned from the mistakes of the Holocaust era. We thought that democratic nations would stand behind their promises. We thought that they would keep their word. We thought that there would never again be a Neville Chamberlain. We thought that someone actually cared about us.

And we found out that we were wrong.

Once again, we were reminded that ein lonu al mi lehisho’ein ela al Avinu Shebashomayim.

So, along with the cascade of tears for the churban of the Botei Mikdosh, the harugei Beitar, the chet hameraglim, the Eigel, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and everything in between, new tears of fear mingle.

Chazal (Taanis 30b) teach, “Kol hamisabeil al Yerushalayim zocheh vero’ah besimchasah - Whoever mourns Yerushalayim merits to see its joy.” The Chasam Sofer (Drashos 3, page 84) asks why Chazal use the present tense, “merits to see,” and not the future tense, “will merit to see.”

Perhaps we can explain that in order to mourn a loss, you must appreciate what you had. Only if you appreciate what you had can you comprehend what you have lost and truly mourn it.

Thus, one who mourns Yerushalayim appreciates what it was and what it represented. One who mourns Yerushalayim feels the joys that were present there during yomim tovim. He feels the joy of a sinner who has repented. He feels the joy of the oleh regel who offers bikkurim. He enjoys the sights and sounds of the Korban Pesach roasting. He feels the kedushah. He sees the Sanhedrin in their diyunim, the kohein gadol doing his avodah, and the Leviim singing shirah.

He experiences the joy - zocheh veroeh besimchasah - and then he looks around and sees what we have now. He values the loss. He is truly misabeil al Yerushalayim. He is living in a state of “ro’eh,” looking at what we have and feeling what he lacks.

Rav Moshe Mordechai Shulsinger wrote that the Brisker Rov was not prone to overt displays of emotion or passion. He davened quietly, with intense kavonah, but rarely cried in prayer.

There was one time a year when he would become emotional during tefillah. This transpired during the recital of the avodah during Mussaf of Yom Kippur. The Rov would wail audibly, unable to control himself while reciting the piyut of “Ashrei ayin ro’asoh kol eileh - Praised is the eye that witnessed the avodas kohanim, the korbanos, the zerikos, the kapporah and simcha.”

The Brisker Rov, who studied the masechtos of Kodshim and the sugyos of kabbolah, holachah, zerikah, kemitzah, terumas hadeshen and all the other holy avodos, and lived each diyuk in the Rambam while dissecting each discrepancy in the Rishonim, was always ro’eh the avodah and uniquely attuned to what was missing in our world.

In light of our understanding of this Chazal, these words, “ashrei ayin ro’asoh,” likely highlighted the loss for the Brisker Rov. Each day, he envisioned the Bais Hamikdosh, but he understood that with all the imagination he possessed, he was seeing nothing at all. He longed to really see the Bais Hamikdosh and to be exposed to the full glory and splendor of that reality.

On Tisha B’Av, we read the posuk which states, “Alah movess bechaloneinu - Death has risen in our window.” At the levayah of Rebbetzin Kotler, her son-in-law, Rav Uren Reich, explained the posuk by describing a man who sits in a small house, unaware of the grandeur and beauty of the world outside. He’s surrounded by mountains, rivers and a blue sky, but he doesn’t know it. Were he to construct a window, he would be exposed to all the majesty of creation.

Our world is like that small house. We are unable to connect to what was. A few neshamos from the past are gifted to us as examples of the type of life that was wiped out. They are our windows to what was.

When those precious few people pass on, our windows become obscured and we can no longer see. “Alah movess bechaloneinu.”

We can only imagine what was. We can only review what we heard from them and saw through the window.

Now is the time of year when we work at piecing together memories, feelings and teachings; creating an image of what was in order to properly mourn Yerushalayim.

The Nine Days are not some rote camp activity. They mean more than wearing the same shirt for a week. They are about appreciating what we are and what we could be. They are about recognizing our potential, seeing how far we are from reaching it, and mourning that gap.

It’s interesting that the root of our mourning at this time of year comes from the meraglim, who had an ayin ra’ah, a poor perspective of their abilities. They were intimidated by the backward inhabitants of Eretz Yisroel. They felt small and insignificant in front of them and feared for their safety.

Their sin was the inability to perceive their true greatness. Ever since then, we mourn the loss they caused and seek to repair the breach by appreciating who we are, what we stand for, what our reality is, what we can become, what we once had and what we lost. To be mesakein their failing, we work on the re’iyah, trying to find our way back to that exalted plane.

The wedge was first driven between Hashem and His chosen people during these months at the time of the chet ha’eigel.

The Bais Haleivi explains the severity of that sin and the horrible downward spiral it caused. He cites the Medrash Tanchumah which states that at the time of Kabbolas HaTorah, when the Bnei Yisroel proclaimed, “Naaseh venishma,” they were declaring that they would each observe the mitzvos and accept responsibility to ensure that others do so as well. At the chet ha’eigel, they broke that promise.

To restore Klal Yisroel to our previous position, the first thing we have to do is undo that aveirah. We have to act as a single group, responsible for each other.

Perhaps this is the avodah of these frightful times. When we are connected to each other, as brothers and sisters, we earn for ourselves an extra measure of Divine mercy.

The Arizal, whose yahrtzeit was marked this week, revealed that one of the ways to open the Heavenly gates is to begin tefillas Shacharis with a statement: “Hareini mekabel alai mitzvas asei shel ve’ohavta lerei’acha kamocha.”

In order to bring about the geulah, we have to be united. We have to return to the moment of “Naaseh venishma.” We must rid ourselves of rancor and hatred. We must view each other with warmth, care, concern and love.

On a simple level, people who appreciate the value of being connected as part of Klal Yisroel benefit from the zechuyos of the masses and their tefillah is more endearing. We don’t rush to misjudge good people; we empathize with them. People who love each other are forgiving. People who take responsibility for each other prevent mistakes and tragedies from occurring.

The seforim teach us that the name of this month, Av, is derived from the posuk which states, “Ki ka’asher yeyaser ish es bno Hashem Elokecha meyasreka - Just as a father will discipline his son, so does Hashem, your G-d, discipline the Jewish people” (Devorim 8:5).

If a stranger slaps a child, it is seen as an act of anger and injustice. If the man who does the punishing is the child’s father, we judge it as an act of love. Even though the act is the same and involves the same amount of pain, we assume that when a father is the one punishing, there is a reason and cheshbon for his act. We know that it is an act of love.

During the month of Av, we have been slapped around repeatedly, but those smacks emanate from an “Av,” a loving Father.

The posuk in Tehillim (133) states, “Hinei mah tov umah no’im sheves achim gam yochad.” Parents are happy when they see their children living together peacefully.

Chazal teach that the second Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed because of sinas chinom, baseless hatred between Jews. They were steeped in Torah and punctilious in their observance of mitzvos, but their middos were lacking. They were argumentative and spiteful. They didn’t love each other. Sinas chinom was symptomatic of the fact that the people weren’t feeling brotherly connections, as  they had stopped deriving their chiyus from the house of Hashem. They therefore lost it.

We can bring it back. By strengthening our bonds with each other, living with chessed and achrayus, and working on and developing our love for everyone, we can return Hashem’s presence.

Life is not a straight projection. In order to make it, you have to work hard and give it all you have. Sometimes, you make mistakes and fall backwards, but you come back. You work at it and eventually you triumph. Never become too depressed to bounce back from failure. Never feel that you are a failure. Always hold out hope for the future. Pick yourself up and begin again from where you left off. Believe in yourself and you will achieve your goals. 

At Yetzias Mitzrayim, the Jews reached a historic apex. At the height of prophecy, they recited shirah al hayom. They then sinned and fell back, but they expressed remorse and returned to their unprecedented levels, meriting to recite “Naaseh venishma” and receive the Torah. They then sinned and were punished, repented and sinned and repented, eventually meriting to enter the Promised Land.

Their sins of sinas chinom caused the Bais Hamikdosh to be destroyed. If we would properly repent for that sin, we would merit returning to the lofty level we previously occupied and the return of the Bais Hamikdosh.

Venizkeh venichyeh venireh. May we merit seeing and living it, bekarov.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Don’t Settle

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

As we are currently in the midst of the Three Weeks, when we mourn the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh, we must also concentrate on what we are to do to merit its return. With small gestures, we seek to impress upon ourselves the great loss as we aspire to reach the levels of our forefathers with a home for the Shechinah in our world.

This week, we will read Parshas Mattos, recounting the voyage of the Jewish people throughout the desert and the stops they made along the way to the Promised Land.

Sifrei Kabbolah and drush are replete with deeper meanings and the significance of each station along Klal Yisroel’s journey through the midbar. They teach that the 42 masa’os correspond to the 42-letter name of Hashem, the holy “Sheim Mem Bais.”

The journey, with all its forks, turns, hills and valleys, was a necessary process to prepare the nation for acquiring Hashem’s land, Eretz Yisroel. As we study the parshah and follow the journey, we hop along for the ride, with our eyes and ears attuned to the mussar and chizuk encoded here. As we recount the difficult times and the exalted moments, we find direction for the masa’os of our own lives as well.

We know that whatever transpires to us is but a sentence in an unfolding autobiography. Chapters have been completed and many more remain to be written. We must forge ahead to our destiny, neither tiring nor being satisfied with past accomplishments, nor becoming bogged down by failure.

None of us knows which of our deeds will be the one that earns us eternal life. Something we say to someone today can have an impact in later years and bring the person around to a life of Torah. We can’t expect instant success and we must not be deterred by temporary failure.

I spent this past Shabbos in Oorah’s camp, The Zone. The stay there was invigorating and inspiring, offering much hope for the future. Under the Oorah umbrella, hundreds of children who would otherwise be spending their summers in surroundings foreign to Torah values are exposed to the beauty of the Torah way of life. Coming from public school, many experience Shabbos for the first time. An all-volunteer staff of bnei and bnos Torah runs separate camps for boys and girls. They touch their neshamos and light a tiny spark within them. Sometimes the spark touches off an immediate fire, while other times it takes a dozen years for the flame to glow. The organization stays in touch with the campers throughout the year in a bid to cause the flickering embers to stay lit.

The staff told me about twin sisters who had been in the camp in 2004, eleven years ago. The girls returned home, went to public school, and did not become Shabbos observant. The message finally hit home this summer, and they will be going to a seminary in Yerushalayim to get connected to Yiddishkeit.

The person who recruited them and the people who worked with them had no way of knowing that eventually they would come around. These devoted staff members work as hard as they can, with love and patience, and await each neshamah’s transformation and redemption. They earned their Olam Haba for things they said eleven years ago and had long forgotten. The seeds they planted lay dormant all this time. They have finally produced fruit.

In our daily lives, we have many opportunities to act positively and put things in motion. We never know how they will turn out, but if we work lesheim Shomayim and give it all we have, we will have written yet another chapter in our book, made the world a better place, and brought us all one step closer to Moshiach and the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh.

Adam le’ameil yulad. Man was created with the purpose of working hard towards a goal. Each of us has masa’os, trips, toward a destination. Some are smooth rides, while others are bumpier. There are many that are filled with “construction sites” and detours. Whichever masoh we are on, we must do what we can to ensure that we never stop moving forward.

During a visit to the United States, Rav Elya Lopian traveled to Rav Aharon Kotler’s yeshiva, Bais Medrash Govoah, in Lakewood, NJ. Asked to deliver a shmuess, he stood up and spoke for forty-five minutes. He then paused and said, “Un doss iz geven di hakdomah. That was the introduction.”

Worried that the elderly mashgiach was over-exerting himself, Rav Aharon interrupted to ask if he wished to rest before continuing. “No, no,” he responded. “Adam le’ameil yulad.”

Rav Aharon placed his head on his shtender and began to sob. He was a person who drove himself beyond what was considered human endurance, laboring in learning, providing leadership for the Torah community, and going from place to place raising money for Torah and causes. Yet, even he was inspired by the weak, elderly Rav Elya’s implicit mussar that man must never rest.

We have to dream large, for we each have great potential that can be realized if we keep sowing.  We must all keep planting, building and hoping.

Following the tragic experience of the Eigel, Hakadosh Boruch Hu told Moshe of His displeasure with Klal Yisroel and His plan to wipe them out, as they are an am keshei oref, a stiff-necked people (Shemos 32:9). Moshe begged and pleaded on behalf of the people and attained forgiveness. He asked Hashem (34:9), “Please go in our midst, as they are an am keshei oref.” The same characteristic that was cited as the reason for their punishment was used as the reason for mercy.

The explanation is given that Moshe was arguing that the very middah that led them to sin would be a catalyst for their success. Stubbornness will be necessary, he was saying, for the nation that pledged to follow the Torah and mitzvos to carry faith in their hearts through a long and bitter golus, serving as ambassadors of kavod Shomayim in a dark world.

They were forgiven and have been stubbornly seeking perfection ever since.

When Rav Shlomo Elyashiv, famed author of the classic Kabbalistic work Leshem Shevo Ve’achlama, left Lithuania to move to Eretz Yisroel, he stopped in Radin, seeking a brochah from the Chofetz Chaim. The Leshem was accompanied by his young grandson, and he asked for a brochah for the boy as well.

“May he be a talmid chochom,” the Chofetz Chaim said.

The Leshem stood there without leaving, so the Chofetz Chaim continued. “May he know Shas.”

Bavli and Yerushalmi?” asked the Leshem.

The Chofetz Chaim blessed the boy that he would know both.

The Leshem wasn’t yet satisfied. He persisted. “Safra? Sifri? Medrash?”

“Yes,” the elderly sage responded.

We know that boy as Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, whose third yahrtzeit is marked this week. Surely, his mastery of Torah was a product of his diligence and determination, but that drive had its roots in the brochah he received in Radin. His grandfather and the Chofetz Chaim planted into his young psyche seeds of greatness. His entire life, he nurtured those seeds, never tiring in his pursuit of Torah proficiency.

Many people derived practical lessons from the recent jail-break and search, a story that captured the public’s attention for weeks. The two prisoners expended much effort to escape, working nightly on their scheme. Nothing deterred them. For every problem, they found a solution. They realized that their lives were on the line, so there was no room for pessimism. Doubtlessly, there were more than enough reasons for them to lose hope in breaking out, but they kept going.

Most writers and historians play up the image of the Jew in the ghettos and concentration camps as feeble and pathetic, submitting to their Nazi oppressors like sheep. Books by religious writers depicting the Holocaust era leave the reader astonished by the indomitable spirit of these Yidden. You are amazed, knowing that the Jews were stronger than any Nazi beast. Part of that strength was an acceptance of Hashem’s will, plan and design.

A jarring personal diary of a frum man on the run from the Nazis was recently published. Reb Chaim Yitzchok Wolgerlenter wrote for posterity so that the generations to come would know what befell him, his family and millions more. As I read his book I felt his pain, appreciated his faith and gained a fresh perspective on why we refer to victims of the Nazi Holocaust as kedoshim. The book is so heartrendingly sad that you want to stop reading it, but is so gripping that you can’t put it down.

The book overwhelms with dual feelings of sadness and of the majesty of the Jewish people. Reading the diary – and others like it - provides a perception of the tragedy of the entire Jewish exile since the churban, particularly during the Holocaust period. But the greatness of the eternal people is evident as well.

The words of the people fighting for their lives are infused with spirit, blood and tears in an elegy of death and of life. They died with the name of the L-rd on their lips as they paid the ultimate price for their loyalty to the Creator.

Jews who died alone and together; lined up at forest pits and in ghettos; saying Shema Yisroel and singing Hallel.

The chevlei moshiach swallowed them up; in their merit we live and prosper in freedom.

Just weeks after the liberation of the concentration camps, the Klausenberger Rebbe led a large community of survivors in the Feldafing Displaced Persons camp. The rebbe had lost a wife and eleven children in the horrors. If ever anyone had a reason for despair, it was he. Yet, he was filled with chiyus and words of hope. He spent his time restoring the will to live and faith in the One who gives life, never allowing despondency to show.

On the first Shavuos after the liberation, the rebbe wept.

Ribbono Shel Olam,” he cried, “we endured the suffering and oppression with the hope of being redeemed, but not by soldiers. We dreamt of liberation, not by military personnel or armored trucks. We expected to see Your malochim. We thought that You would take us by the hand and lead us to our home in Yerushalayim. We were holding out for everything. We wanted to go all the way...”

On Tisha B’Av, we mourn the tragedy of the loss of the Bais Hamikdosh. We also mourn the loss of Beitar. While we commonly understand that the tragedy of Beitar was that tens of thousands of Jews were killed in that city by the Romans after the churban, the Rambam (Hilchos Taanis 5) describes it a little differently:

A great city by the name of Beitar was captured. Inside it were many tens of thousands of Jewish people. They had a great king whom all of Yisroel and the rabbis believed was the king Moshiach. He fell into the hands of the gentiles and they were all killed. It was a great tragedy, as great as the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh.

Rav Moshe Schapiro explains that the tragedy was that their king, Bar Kochva, who could have indeed been Moshiach, was killed. What could have been a period of redemption instead became one of destruction. Through their sins, an era that could have returned the Jews to the state they have awaited for since the chet hameraglim turned into tragedy. That is what we mourn on Tisha B’Av.

We have come so close to the redemption that we can hear the footsteps of Moshiach, and suffer from the chevlei Moshiach. Before Moshiach’s arrival, the tumah of the world increases, as the Soton fights to prevent his arrival. When the world will assume the state that Hashem intended, the koach hatumah will wilt. Amaleik will cease to exist after the geulah. So, in the period leading up to Moshiach, tumah rises and becomes strengthened, as the forces of evil endeavor to prevent the Jewish nation from reaching the levels that Hashem intended.

We must work hard. We must strengthen ourselves and seek to raise the levels of kedushah in this world so that it can overcome the kochos hatumah and permit Moshiach to reveal himself. It is plainly evident to anyone that tumah is spreading rapidly. It has a foothold everywhere. Many are entrapped in its clutches. The only way to fight back is through ameilus in Torah and maasim tovim. As the posuk states, “Tzion bemishpot tipodeh veshoveha betzedakah.” If we engage in righteousness and charity, we strengthen kedushah in the world and weaken the koach hatumah. When tumah is in its death throes, Moshiach can reveal himself and bring about the geulah.

Nisyonos abound. The test of greatness is how you handle a moment you didn’t expect. If you have fortified and energized yourself, you will be able to withstand difficult situations. The yeitzer hora won’t be able to destroy you. Even if you temporarily fail, you will be able to rebound.

The Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum, would say that following the awful tragedies of the Holocaust Hashem was about to bring Moshiach. As a taste of the redemption to come, He gave the Jewish people possession of the Land of Israel. It wasn’t complete ownership; it was in the hands of scoffers. The Bais Hamikdosh wasn’t returned; halachah did not rule. It was a taste of things to come. But the Jewish people were happy with the bone that had been thrown to them, so Hashem said, “If so, you aren’t deserving of the redemption,” and we were left with this small semblance of what could be.

Like two thousand years ago in Beitar, we were so close to redemption, but we transgressed. The blood that could have been the fuel of geulah was spilled in yet another churban.

When we abstain from swimming, music, and wearing new clothing, we should be cognizant of what is going wrong. In order to rectify our ways, we have to know where we erred. We must increase kedushah, battle tumah, and know that it is in our hands to bring about the geulah.

Let’s not settle for anything less.

We Can Change the World

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Often, people engage in discussions regarding issues of the day, and when convinced that a crisis is at hand, they conclude that someone ought to do something about it. That conclusion most often guarantees that they will do nothing to tackle the problem.

It is easy to be a critic. It takes very little effort to analyze a problem, criticize a public person, and then cower instead of accepting responsibility for one’s statements and actions. There is no attitude less helpful than that of “the gedolim/rabbonim/askonim should really take care of this.”

Commendable people rise above the chaos, find out the facts, and arm themselves with the truth and the self-confidence to tread where others have feared to go. Others rely on those officially charged with communal responsibilities to get the job done. They depend on formal askonim to make necessary changes. When people are experiencing financial difficulty, some look away, because it is the job of baalei tzedakah to support mosdos and help people who have fallen on hard times. It is the duty of the known baalei chessed to get involved and ensure that individual needs are being met. Sometimes those people are appreciated and sometimes not, but in times of need, people look to them to solve the crisis.

As Torah Yidden, we know that “Kol Yisroel areivim zeh bozeh.” We bear responsibility for each other. Every Jew possesses components of an askan, baal chessed and baal tzedakah. Torah Jews don’t look for the “they.” We know that every single one of us is the “they.” We see it as our personal responsibility to step forward when a situation calls for it. When we can be the guy, we don’t shirk the responsibility and wait for someone else to do the heavy lifting.

Where do we learn that from? How do we know that this is the way we are meant to conduct ourselves and feel for each other?

This week’s parshah highlights the role model who epitomizes what it means to act, rather than waiting for someone else to do something.

The posuk in last week’s parshah states, “Vayokom mitoch ha’eidah - And Pinchos emerged from within the community (Bamidbar 25:7).

The Sefas Emes explains that the Torah relates that Pinchos emerged from within the community in order to teach this lesson. Often, people rely on a particular kanna’i to be the designated shouter. They depend on him to protest injustice and wrongdoing. The Sefas Emes writes that proper vigilance and yiras Shomayim are displayed when an “ordinary citizen” steps forward and acts for the glory of Heaven.

Pinchos stepped forward from amongst the people to save his generation and inspire all those who followed. Due to the courage and passion of a person who had no official title, the plague that was engulfing his people ended. The act that evoked Hashem’s wrath was performed in public, but nobody responded.

Pinchos approached Moshe to discuss the halachah of how to respond and earned the right to carry out the heroic act. All through life, when action is called for, good reasons abound to take a back seat and blend in with the crowd. It takes a great person to look beyond the justifications for inaction and alter the face of history. In our private lives, we should resist the temptation to seek excuses for lethargy and indecisiveness.

Succeeding in life is a real challenge, because there are always many reasons not to take action.

Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Mir-Yerushalayim, was ill and infirm, but the yeshiva he headed was in particularly daunting financial straits, and the only solution involved him traveling to America on a fundraising mission. The trip would involve tremendous physical and mental anguish for the rosh yeshiva, for whom every move was excruciatingly difficult.

Taking leave of the yeshiva in middle of the zeman also meant that he would be unable to engage in what he loved more than anything else: learning with his chavrusos and delivering shiurim to his talmidim. He turned to his rebbi, Rav Chaim Kamiel zt”l, for advice on how to proceed. Rav Chaim asked for time to consider the question.

Rav Nosson Tzvi’s family was concerned for his health, so one of the family members called Rav Kamiel the day after the question was posed. “Before you render your decision regarding the trip at this time,” he said, “I just want the rosh yeshiva to know how weak Rav Finkel is and how poor his physical condition is.”

Rav Kamiel responded that he was sure the trip would be a difficult undertaking, “but what can I do if I already have an answer?” He related that the previous night, his rebbi, Rav Leizer Yudel Finkel zt”l, who re-established Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim, appeared to him in a dream.

“Don’t get involved in my ainikel’s running of the yeshiva,” Rav Leizer Yudel told him. “Don’t prevent him from doing what has to be done.”

And so, Rav Nosson Tzvi, ignoring the peril to his own well-being, got on a plane and traveled from place to place to raise the funds necessary to maintain the yeshiva. It was that dedication to his shlichus that repeatedly manifested itself, enabling him to achieve historic accomplishments, which stand as testimony to what happens when a person presses forward despite obstacles and council to the contrary.

Take a trip to your local yeshivos and see the results of the efforts of people who didn’t take no for an answer. When you look at the huge edifices of Torah currently being constructed in Lakewood, NJ, for example, seemingly wherever you go, you know instinctively that they are the result of much hard work and many sleepless nights. You know that people dreamed big, planned and believed. And you know that they didn’t let naysayers, cynics and negativity convince them that because it was never done, it can’t be done now.

Think of what these builders of Torah have accomplished, appreciate what they have done, and see what lesson lies there for you. Think of the people who supported them in their efforts and the generous patrons of Torah who donated large sums to make possible the growth of Torah. Thank them for what they have done and for the example they show us.

Look at the many yeshiva buildings in Yerushalayim and around Eretz Yisroel and think of how many doors were knocked on in order for those edifices to be built. Consider how many telephone calls were made, how many appointments were arranged, and how many pledges were obtained. Many of those people come to our doors and we laugh at them, wondering how they can think of putting up a building. Yet, the joke is on us if we don’t assist them, because we have lost an opportunity for eternal merit.

The Medrash states that when someone rids the world of evil, as Pinchos did, it is as if he has brought a korban. Perhaps we can understand it as follows. When one sins, one brings a korban to arrange forgiveness for the aveirah. Aveiros cause a separation to be formed between the sinner and Hashem. The korban removes that barrier and re-establishes the relationship. Aharon is the paragon of shalom, not only because he made peace between men, but because his avodah in the Mishkon brought about shalom between man and his Creator.

Pinchos was rewarded with the covenant of peace, as the posuk says, “Hineni nosein lo es brisi shalom,” for his act erased the separation, caused by chet, between Hashem and Klal Yisroel. Hashem is the Source of life and the Torah is an eitz chaim. When sins separate Am Yisroel from the Source of life, mageifos are enabled.

When Pinchos removed the sin that was rampant, he reunited the Jews with Hashem, bringing about shalom and shleimus. Thus, the mageifah ended and he was blessed with eternal shalom. Although he wasn’t born with kehunah, he had now earned it, for he performed the task of the kohein, bringing shalom and shleimus between man and Hashem.

When one rids the world of evil, it is as if he brought a korban, because he removed the separation between the sinner and Hashem, just as a korban does.

Today, as we mourn the loss of the Bais Hamikdosh, we are not able to bring korbanos. But there is no shortage of things around us that need to be rectified. While we shouldn’t walk around like gladiators, there is much we can do to improve our condition if we set our minds to it.

The parshah begins with the act of Pinchos and ends with a discussion of the various Yomim Tovim. People who display loyalty and fidelity to the Torah on the level of Pinchos enable the nation to enjoy Yomim Tovim.

Parshas Pinchos ushers in the period of Bein Hametzorim, the Three Weeks. The lesson of Pinchos is most significant at this time of year, as it reminds us that every person can make a difference and be a catalyst for the geulah.

The Rambam in Hilchos Teshuvah (3:4) famously enjoins us to view the world as perfectly split between impurity and holiness. One single deed can tilt the balance and bring the universe to a state of kedushah and geulah.

Rav Yaakov Emden writes that the length of our golus might be a result of not sufficiently mourning the churban. He decries the lack of passion, sincere tears and true mourning. We engage in the minhagim of aveilus, but we fail to allow the acts to penetrate our senses and recognize what it is that we are mourning. We don’t appreciate what golus means.

Especially in our time, when we have had it so good, there is a danger of viewing the lack of haircuts, music and celebrations as a ritual not tied to anything that really affects us. We have grown comfortable with our status and don’t perceive our lives as lacking in any way. 

Current events serve as reminders. In America, the anti-religious crusade has scored repeated victories and our way of life is under attack and repeatedly vilified. Hedonism and immorality rule the day, as truth-seekers become increasingly lonely.

The new deal with Iran spells danger for the tiny country that sits in the crosshairs of that despotic regime.

Wearing a yarmulka in Europe has become more dangerous than at any other time since the Holocaust.

And there is no place to run.

We live in a time when it’s not facts that count, but perceptions. As people increasingly rely on bits of second-hand information to form opinions, a fake reality exists in many minds. Assumptions are made and conclusions are arrived at. These bear little relationship to what is really going on and are thus doomed to failure.

To rectify a problem, an honest assessment must be undertaken based on facts and a proper analysis. When we allow biased suppositions to govern our judgment, we fail in our missions and lose to our enemies.

Pinchos arose from amongst his countrymen to avenge sinful crimes. But before acting, he discussed the issue with Moshe Rabbeinu, who responded to him, “Kreina de’igrasa ihu parvaknei. Because you are the one who objectively studied the issue and arrived at the proper conclusion, you have earned the right to respond.”

For Pinchos to merit being the one to act on behalf of Moshe and stem the awful tide, it was not sufficient for him to be courageous. He also had to be objectively correct in his assessment. Because he acted without internal biases and with total selflessness, he was able to succeed in vanquishing the temptations that ripped at Am Yisroel.

As we view the challenges that our day presents us, we must act like Pinchos, with sound reasoning, with objective analysis of the facts, and with the approval of Moshe Rabbeinu, while remaining impervious to the vanity of shifting public opinion. If we act as he did, we will be able to overcome the serious nisyonos which abound and merit the brochah of shalom b’shleimus.    

Our custom at weddings is that the groom breaks a glass while he stands under the chupah next to his bride. Through their act, as their mothers demonstrated by breaking a plate just prior to the chupah, they proclaim that Jewish joy is not complete as long as we are not home.

They stand under the canopy, signifying their new home, and look out at the crowd and see how much joy they have brought to so many people. Hundreds have gathered to share in their joy. Many thousands of dollars and many hours of effort are expended to bring about this moment. When it comes down to it, it is all for two individuals, who are often young and have not yet made their mark on the world.

They see the power they possess and the faith the community has in them. The intense joy serves as a catalyst for them to realize that they have the ability to return the Jewish people to their home, to their chupah with Hashem at the Bais Hamikdosh. At the apex of joy, the chosson smashes the glass to signify that he is aware of his abilities and will do what he can to bring about the long-awaited reunion.

Thus, Chazal say, “Kol hamesameiach chosson vekallah ke’ilu bonoh achas meichurvos Yerushalayim. Bringing joy to a chosson and kallah is akin to rebuilding a destroyed home in Yerushalayim.”

It is due to the people who gathered for the simchah that the chosson and kallah appreciate their abilities and resolve to work for the rebuilding of Yerushalayim. Whoever contributes to that joy shares in the merits it brings about. 

We can empower people through joy and celebration, and we can remind them of their abilities through our other actions. We each possess the ability to not only rebuild parts of Yerushalayim, but to cause the Bais Hamikdosh to be returned. May we each recognize our abilities and use them to their fullest potential, so that these weeks of mourning become weeks of joy and celebration, kimsos chosson al kallah.