Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Deposits and Withdrawals

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

For years, every time we lain Parshas Vayeira, the same question bothers me. Why did Avrohom Avinu not rush to tell his wife Sarah that Hashem promised that they would have a son? The elderly couple had unsuccessfully sought a child for many years. Hashem appeared to Avrohom and foretold him that he and his wife would be giving birth to a son who would inherit them and carry their mission forward. How can it be that Avrohom didn’t share the great news with his wife?

Together, Avrohom and Sarah had labored side by side, decade after decade, in an uninterrupted chain of dveykus, to bring the message of G-dliness to the masses. Theirs was a lifelong campaign of filling the world with Hashem’s glory. The two of them set out on their path alone, displaying dedicated leadership. They drew many adherents and followers, until they had a wave of maaminim following them.

They were blessed with much wealth and fame, and had everything a couple could desire - everything, that is, except a child. They didn’t have someone of their own flesh and blood to carry on the campaign for further generations. They didn’t have anyone to nurture and inculcate with their values.

They no doubt tried everything they could, including davening and segulos, all apparently for naught. Then, one day, Hashem gave Avrohom Avinu the ultimate besorah tovah: He and Sarah would merit a child. Yet Avrohom kept it a secret. Why?

The Ramban addresses this question (Bereishis 18:15), explaining that Avrohom did not immediately hurry and share the happy tidings with Sarah either because he wished to wait until Hashem would let Sarah know the good news at a later time, as He indeed did later the same day through the malochim, or because he was preoccupied with performing the mitzvah of milah on himself and his household as he had been commanded and thus didn’t have the time to tell Sarah. When he completed fulfilling Hashem’s commandments regarding milah, he was weak and sat at the entrance of his tent to recuperate. Before he had a chance to get back to himself and tell Sarah, the malochim came and told her themselves.

Even after studying the words of the Ramban, the question still bothered me. How can it be that Avrohom didn’t run and tell his wife that the one thing they were lacking in their lives would be granted to them? How long would it take? Wouldn’t doing so bring much happiness to his wife? How could he postpone bringing her that joy?

Perhaps the question is based on a mistaken premise. One who is a true maamin knows that all that happens to him is for the good. One who lives with true bitachon understands that Hashem created the world to be meitiv to man. Hashem’s purpose in creation was to bring about goodness and kindness. At times, it may appear to us as if what is transpiring is bad. We don’t always comprehend what is going on, but we have to know that there is a greater purpose and understanding of all that is transpiring. Nothing is haphazard and nothing happens by itself.

People want children because they have been conditioned to expect to give birth to a child. Children bring joy into your life and into the world. Children provide hope that our traditions, beliefs and successes will be transmitted to future generations. What is a family without children?

But, in fact, we are all here because Hashem willed it so. Everything we have is because Hashem willed it to be that way. We all have a mission in life. We are given what we need in order to be able to succeed in our mission. Some people need a big house in order to fulfill their shlichus, while some don’t. Some need a big car, while for others a small jalopy suffices. Some people need a lot of money in order to carry out the mission for which they were placed in this world, while some can be most successful in their shlichus without a dime in their pockets.

A maamin and baal bitachon doesn’t look at what other people have and complain about why he is lacking in those blessings. He knows that Hashem chose poverty for him and wealth for the other person. He is not jealous of others and does not view himself as lacking in anything. He is happy with what he has because he knows that he has a Father above who provides for him.

Avrohom and Sarah were the consummate maaminim. They understood that Hashem does what is best for them. When they weren’t blessed with a child, they didn’t go around feeling bad for themselves. They didn’t view their lives as lacking. They viewed their lives as full and blessed, even though there were no children in their home and no one to inherit them. They perceived their mission to be bringing the knowledge of Hashem to the world. If they didn’t have a child, then they could apparently fulfill their mission without one. Their good acts would live on some other way.

Since they didn’t view the lack of a child as a major tragedy, when Avrohom heard from Hashem that he and his wife would be giving birth to a son who would inherit them and carry on their mission, he didn’t rush to tell his wife. In last week’s parshah (15:4-5), Hashem told Avrohom, “Asher yeitzei mimei’echa hu yiroshecha - The one you give birth to will inherit you.” The posuk says that Hashem took Avrohom outside and told him to “look up to the sky and count the stars. If you are able to count them, so will you be able to count your children,” for they will be so plentiful that it will be impossible to count them.

The posuk then recounts (ibid. 6), “Vehe’emin baHashem vayachsheveha lo tzedakah,” Avrohom trusted Hashem and Hashem looked upon Avrohom’s faith favorably. 

Many question what the big deal is that Avrohom trusted the promise of Hashem and why Hashem considered it a major act. If Hashem appeared to anyone, wouldn’t he trust Him to keep His word?

If we continue with our line of reasoning, we can answer that the big deal was that Avrohom was the paradigm believer in Hashem. He believed when he didn’t have a son as much as he believed after he was promised the son and multitudes of offspring. His belief didn’t change. He was the consummate believer.

As such, when Hashem promised that he and Sarah would give birth to a child who would inherit them and continue their mission, it was not such a big deal that Avrohom had to interrupt the mitzvoh he was doing in order to rush and tell Sarah.

This is what the Ramban means when he says that Avrohom was busy carrying out Hashem’s commandment regarding milah. Avrohom was fulfilling his mission of following Hashem’s word. That is what his life was all about. He was the consummate servant of Hashem, whether he had a child or not, so his first obligation was to finish doing what Hashem asked him to do. Sarah wouldn’t expect anything different.

We tend to plug our emotions, perspectives and reactions into stories of the avos and thus we have questions. We understand the burning urge for a child, the ache of loneliness, and the frustration of unanswered tefillos. But there is a level beyond ours, the level of tzaddikim. Yes, a child is a hemshech, a continuation of all man’s accomplishments and a means of ensuring that the chain goes on. A child affords one the mitzvah of chinuch, the joy and fulfillment of seeing a new generation growing in Torah and avodah, and the nachas of transmitting eternal values, but there is a backdrop to all this: the only reality that counts and exists is that which Hashem desires.

To us, a husband and wife longing and yearning for something for so many years and then receiving it is a happy story. To tzaddikim, before they are answered, it is viewed as the ratzon Hashem, after they are answered, it remains the same ratzon Hashem.

To Avrohom Avinu and Sarah Imeinu, the desire for a child was in the context of that reality. Hashem hadn’t wanted it, so it was good and perfect. They existed serenely within that reality. The news that they would have a child meant, in their terms, that the ratzon Hashem now was different than it had been before. Their will had been in concert with Hashem’s all along and so would it continue.

Similarly, the nisayon of the Akeidah was a test of Avrohom’s bitachon. Now that he had been blessed with a son, were he to learn that it was the will of Hashem for him to return that gift, would he happily comply with Hashem’s wish or would he question the command? The posuk (Bereishis 22:3) recounts that Avrohom passed the test. “Vayashkeim Avrohom baboker.” Without delay, he hurried to fulfill Hashem’s wish. He had wanted a son in order to perform his shlichus in this world. If Hashem wanted him to have a son, he was thrilled, and if He did not wish for him to have a son any longer, then Avrohom would rush to fulfill the will of Hashem, fully accepting the decision.

The Chazon Ish wrote poetically, “Ein kol etzev ba’olam lemi shemakir ohr ha’oros shel ha’emes. There is no despair in the world for one who perceives the light of lights of the truth.” Rav Yitzchok Hutner pointed out that the Chazon Ish, who experienced the same struggle as the avos, was expressing that there exists an “ohr,” a light, of ratzon Hashem that is more obvious. There is also an “ohr ha’oros,” a less obvious but deeper light, that of amitas retzono Yisborach. For those who perceive the deep light of Hashem, there is no depression, for they recognize the truth that all that transpires is for the greater good.

On Shabbos, we do not wish a sick person a refuah sheleimah. Instead, Chazal say, we say, “Shabbos hi milizok.” On Shabbos, we don’t cry out in pain.

Perhaps we can understand that  pain and pity are appropriate when one is somewhat removed from the ohr ha’oros. On Shabbos Kodesh, our proximity to the Borei Olam makes such reactions inappropriate. Shabbos is the day when the ohr of sheishes yemei bereishes shines through and we appreciate that if things are a certain way, it is because that is what Hashem wants. During the yemei hama’aseh, things are less clear, and we cry, but on Shabbos, when the light is evident, we refrain from sadness.

On Shabbos, as well, we do not engage in obvious acts of mourning. On the six days of the week, we cry over the passing of loved ones. When Shabbos arrives, there is no sadness. On Shabbos, we proclaim that the world was created by the Creator. We receive a neshomah yeseirah, which allows us to comprehend concepts that we can’t understand during the week. On this day, we do not mourn or engage in sadness, for we recognize that Hashem created the world to do good and all that transpires is for the good.

Rav God’l Eisner was a mashgiach in the Gerrer Yeshiva prior to the Holocaust. He survived the war and was appointed mashgiach of Yeshiva Sefas Emes in Tel Aviv.

A student retold that he was an inmate in several concentration camps. Under the Nazis, there were no good days, only continuous sorrow and pain. One day, the boy saw his rebbi, Rav God’l, and hope rose in his heart as he remembered the good old days in yeshiva and the chizuk and hope that the mashgiach had offered back then.

The talmid approached Reb God’l, raising his sad, shallow eyes. “Rebbe, mit voss? How do we carry on in the shadow of the crematoria, with the smell of death hovering like a cloud?”

The mashgiach reached into the folds of his thin uniform, pulling out a treasure. In a place where everything was seized upon arrival, he carried with him from the day he arrived a scrap of paper in his shirt pocket, close to his heart.

There, in the pit of death, the mashgiach read aloud to the talmid the words of the Chovos Halevavos in Shaar Ahavas Hashem, at the end of perek alef:

“Like the chossid who arose in the night and said, ‘My Master, you have starved me, and I lack clothing, and I sit here in the depths of the night, but your greatness and wonder I see. If you burn me in fire, I will only add more love and joy in You...”

The mashgiach’s demeanor was serene as he folded his precious slip of paper and hid it again. “The Ribbono Shel Olam wants us here, so we’re here. Whatever he metes out, day or night, happiness or pain, comfort or distress, I accept it the same way.”

It’s all ratzon Hashem.

Such is the way of the avos, tzaddikim and maaminim, and that is the way we should try to live our lives.

This lesson, like all maasei avos, is most relevant these days, when every day seems to serve up an endless diet of bad news. Every time we check on the latest from Eretz Yisroel, there is another attack and more bloodshed. Should we become despondent?  Should we be afraid to leave our homes and travel to Eretz Yisroel? Should we fear what is happening to the world? Or should we be strong, comfort the grieving, and recognize that this is all part of an unfolding Divine plan?

We see increasing strain on Jewish communities worldwide. We see politicians ignoring us, openly siding with our enemies. We see people we thought we could trust, smile and assure us that all is well, as they shake the blood-soaked hands of those intent on destroying us.

We look around at the world and see treachery everywhere. We see evil rising. We see immorality and depravity enshrined into law. We see countries across the world evaporating, as hundreds of thousands are killed. We see the American culture under attack from within and without. We see the candidates running for the presidency and we shudder what will happen if some of them reach the White House.

Our personal lives contain much turmoil. We all have things in our lives that don’t go as planned. We all have our share of heartache and problems. Why do we have to work so hard and why can’t we attain our goals with less aggravation? It takes so much money to make ends meet; we can’t take the constant pressure to stay above water. There are so many things we wish were different. Should we be overcome with sadness? Should we give up? Should we feel alone and forlorn?

We have to do our best to go on besimchah. We have to recognize that what happens is His will and ratzon hatov leheitiv. We should have no doubt that what happens is good and is the right thing for us, whether or not we easily perceive it. We must know that those who see the ohr ha’oros recognize the good nature of everything that transpires. We have to do our best to rise to that level.

The connection to the Ribbono Shel Olam means that we know that He who created us and gives us life at every moment also knows exactly what we need. At times, we wish for things to be different, for a lack to be filled, or for a situation to be changed.

So we daven and hope, but always with the confidence that He knows how things ought to be. Avrohom Avinu prayed for the people of Sedom, begging, beseeching and pleading for Heavenly mercy on their behalf. He was turned down. How did he respond? He returned the next morning “el hamakom asher omad shom es pnei Hashem” (Bereishis 19:27). He went back to the same “place,” with the very same submission, humility and faith with which he had offered his tefillos and been turned down the day before.

“Yes” and “no” are but two expressions of the same ratzon. They are thus not different. As Hashem’s children, we have that same ability and unique attitude to recognize that everything is from Hashem. So ein kol etzev. We don’t grow dejected. We continue to hope, certain that one day, may it be very soon, we will rejoice when it all becomes clear just how good it has been all along.

Rav Pinchos Menachem Alter of Ger recounted that as a child, he visited a bank. He saw a man handing over piles of cash to a teller and felt so bad for the man. “Oy, the poor man has to give so much money to the bank. He probably has nothing left for himself,” he thought in his childish head.

As he stood there, he saw another man receiving bundles of money from a manager. “Look at that rich man,” he thought to himself. “He is walking out of here with a fortune.”

The rebbe related that it was only later that it was explained to him that the person he saw handing over money to the teller was, in fact, the wealthy man. He had come to deposit his money in the bank for safekeeping. The second man, who walked out with a big wad of cash, was quite poor. He had no money of his own and had come to the bank to negotiate a loan. He had to put up his house as collateral and had no idea how he would ever pay the loan back.

What seems to us as reality is only a façade. One who seems blessed may in fact be cursed. One who seems poor may indeed be blessed.

Let us learn from Avrohom and Sarah to look at the world properly, envisioning things as maaminim and baalei bitachon. Recognize that we have a higher calling and mission in life. We are the children of a very wealthy and powerful Father who wants the best for us.

When we trust and believe that there is enough money in His bank to provide for us all, we will recognize that, in fact, we do have what we need.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Final Blows

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The tales of our forefathers pave the way for us. We learn the parshah of the week and we see the here and now in pesukim written many thousands of years ago.

We read the news from Eretz Yisroel and we fear. It is the same story over and over again.

Jews under attack. Jews killed for being Jews. And when they defend themselves, they are called murderers. The free world, the western world, the president of the United States, and the secretary of state of the country that proclaims liberty throughout the land, and the world condemn the Jews for being victims.

The modern state of Israel was founded to be a place of refuge for the Jewish people. Here they will be safe. Here the Jews will fight for and defend themselves. After thousands of years in exile, the Jews will return to their ancestral home. They will build a country, the desert will bloom, and the nations will respect us. We will be democratic, progressive, intelligent, advanced, and recognized as a leading force for good.

Yet, something happened to that dream and it didn’t turn out as planned.

Arabs kill innocent men, women and children, and the world blames the victims.

An eltereh Yid stands at a bus stop. This person, who never harmed anyone in his life, is a target. When his murderer is neutralized, the American government and the compliant media term it an over-aggressive response.

A teenage murderer stabs a 13-year-old boy on a bicycle and is cared for in an Israeli hospital, yet the Palestinian president, who speaks of moderation but foments murder and doesn’t work towards peace, spreads a lethal blood libel that quickly gains traction.

The murderous Jews, he would have you believe, killed the teenage tzaddik. And he is supported by the United States, propped up by the European Union, and lauded by a billion Muslims.

And we wonder when it will end and how it will end.

We wonder why it happens. How can people be so cruel? How can people be so depraved, insane and irrational?

What can we do about it?

No nuclear bomb can stop teenagers from taking a kitchen knife and stabbing a man walking down the street. No army can go door to door identifying and neutralizing every individual ready to kill and be killed for a lie. No army and no police force can stop senseless individual acts of wanton terror.

Palestinians have heard the lie so many times they may even believe it. Jews have no history in this land, they don’t belong here. Jews are imperialist conquerors who attempt to usurp Arabs from their ancestral land. Jews want to steal the Haram al-Sharif from Muslims with the fallacious claim that two Botei Mikdosh stood on that hallowed spot. No amount of rationalization or historic fact will convince them of the truth, or stop them from killing and being killed to maintain that fictitious narrative.

I was in Eretz Yisroel for a couple days this past weekend; it broke my heart to walk down streets usually teeming with people and find them deserted. People don’t go out at night and many don’t venture out even during the day. Kids stay home from school and moms make do with less milk, fewer eggs, and stale bread. Going shopping becomes a life-threatening activity.

The heart aches to be at the Kosel and find less than a minyan of Jews there.

How sad it was to walk to the Kosel on Shabbos and find goyishe tourists making their way there and snapping pictures of the empty Kosel plaza. I went to the gan of Hashem, the place from where His Presence never left, and I found Hashem lonely. Valuing their lives, His children didn’t come to visit this past Shabbos. And who can blame them?

On Thursday, I was there, and it was so empty that birds were parading around as if they own the plaza. I felt like the Tanna’im who wept when they saw foxes on the Har Habayis. But then I mused that they were pigeons, birds of peace. Fluttering around the holy site, they foretell that one day soon, peace will reign there and the home of the Shechinah will be rebuilt.

Last Thursday as well, I visited two Shuvu schools on Rechov Rashi in the heart of Yerushalayim. 40% of the students stayed home. Their parents feared putting them on a bus. They feared having their children sit in a classroom. During recess, nobody dared play in the yard. After all, Rabbi Yeshayahu Akiva Krishevsky Hy”d was killed on Rechov Malchei Yisroel, just a couple blocks from the Shuvu schools, at a bus stop across from a Bais Yaakov school, and the Shuvu students heard the gunfire.

How much can people take? How strong can they be? Enough to withstand wave after wave? People may be strong and their spirit may be heroic, but sadness and depression are in the air. There’s no avoiding it.

Israel has known war since its beginning. It has been attacked by armies and terror groups, with rockets and bombs. Suicide bombing began in Israel and was exported around the world. Plane hijacking was invented by Israel’s enemies, and it was Israel that perfected the battle against the phenomenon. More recently, the country has been confounded by the latest tactic to undermine the state, attacks by so-called random lone wolves spurred to action by hateful rhetoric and religious promises.

How do you fight against a man apparently assimilated into your culture, working for a national company, driving a company car to bring him to service calls in Jewish residences and businesses? How do you identify someone like that and isolate him from the rest of society before he can do harm?

Can you lock up every teenager? Can you ban all knives?

Imagine a wedding to which no guests show up, a chosson standing forlornly in middle of a dance floor with no circles around him, a kallah in her gown, sitting on a chair, waiting for well-wishers who do not appear.

That’s what went through my mind as I stood at the center of the universe, mesos kol ha’aretz, Yerushalayim. Her streets are empty, her inhabitants fearful, her stores and sidewalks, usually bursting with energy and vitality, stilled.

As I went down the stairs to the Kosel, it seemed as if someone had pressed pause on the usual soundtrack, the hum of banter in varying accents that fills the air. It was eerily quiet at the Kosel. There was none of the buzz of minyonim being formed, Borchus and Amein Yehei Shmei Rabbahs blending with Rav Chananya ben Akashyas.

My footsteps echoed across the vacant plaza. When I approached the sacred wall, I was heartened by the sight of a lone man, his gravelly voice intoning words of Tehillim.

Keep davening, Reb Yid. Speak for all of us.

Last week, we read the story of Noach and the great flood brought about by the sins of man.

This week, we learn the story of Avrohom Avinu and his travels to and from the Promised Land.

We learn of his charity, character, honesty, and, above all, chessed.

The first words spoken by the Ribbono Shel Olam to a Jew was Hashem’s commandment to Avrohom Avinu: “Lech lecha mei’artzecha...el ha’aretz asher areka.” The root of the eternal Jewish yearning for the land is in this posuk, at which time Avrohom Avinu was invested with a drive and determination to reach its boundaries.

Why did Hashem not tell Avrohom which land He was leading him towards? Why did Hashem send him forth on a journey without revealing the destination? Rashi (Bereishis 12:2) asks this question and answers, “Lo gila lo hamakom miyad kedei lechaveva be’einov.” The actual destination was withheld from Avrohom Avinu to add to its appeal.

Wouldn’t the opposite seem to be a more effective way of making Avrohom desire the land? If a travel agent is trying to sell a traveler on the benefits of a particular getaway, he wouldn’t say, “Look, trust me, I can’t tell you where it is, but when you’ll get there, you’ll love it.” Rather, he will inundate his customer with brochures and pictures that depict the scenery, the tranquility and the local attractions.

How are we to understand Rashi’s explanation? How does not revealing the destination increase the anticipation for it?

The Steipler Gaon shared a powerful psychological insight. We love that which we work for, that which doesn’t come easy. A good relationship doesn’t just happen. It’s the product of work, struggle, effort, and ultimate triumph.

Hakadosh Boruch Hu was teaching Avrohom Avinu how the unbreakable bond between Klal Yisroel and Eretz Yisroel would be formed. He would lead Avrohom Avinu on a journey that would be punctuated with adversity and challenge. At the end of the road, however, he would enter the land and he would love it.

Eretz Yisroel is nikneis b’yissurim, acquired through hardships.

It is obvious that we live in historic times. Each day is momentous. We have a sense that things are coming together and the stage is being set for a great moment. Eretz Yisroel is at the center of that stage, the place where it will happen. These yissurim will lead to all of us returning home once again.

Avrohom Avinu tasted the land, then lost it. Hashem promised him many brachos (Bereishis 12:2-3), yet they weren’t immediately realized. Then, after famine, war and oppression, Hashem reassured him, “Al tira” (15:1), your children will be driven from the land, but they will return. The blessing and suffering it entails have been interwoven ever since, because, as the Steipler says, it’s the obstacles that create the indestructible bond, the bris domim, between us and the Holy Land.

After enduring hardship and danger, a family member of the Rogatchover Gaon escaped from Europe and made his way to Eretz Yisroel. The Turkish rulers of Palestine refused to allow him to immigrate. However, were he to become a Turkish citizen by signing a paper that he was born in the country they controlled, he would be able to remain in Eretz Yisroel. He wrote a letter to the Rogatchover asking if he could sign falsely that he was born in Eretz Yisroel in light of the danger he faced. He was surprised when the Gaon, known for his complete adherence to emes, ruled that it is permitted. The Rogatchover shared a brilliant source.

The Gemara (Kesubos 75) quotes the posuk which states, “UleTzion yei’omar ish ve’ish yulad bah - To Tzion, it will be said, man after man is born in her” (Tehillim 87:5). Not just one who is born in Eretz Yisroel, but also one born in chutz la’aretz and anticipates Tzion’s rebuilding is considered to have been born there. The Rogatchover reasoned that his relative was desperate for binyan Tzion and was thus considered to have been born there.

Someone who lives with that hope - pleading, begging and crying to the Bonei berachamov Yerushalayim - is considered its child, spawned and nourished by the chiyus that emanates from it.

Now, as we stand in our shuls following davening, earnestly reciting Tehillim for our brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisroel, we show more than solidarity. We proclaim our right to be included in the list of Yerushalayim’s children.

These are the final hammer blows before the shofar gadol is sounded.

Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop was very ill at the end of his life and endured terrible headaches. His Shaarei Chessed apartment was in the center of an area experiencing a building boom, and the loud and incessant drone from machinery was ruining whatever rest he might have enjoyed. The family decided to ask the contractor to suspend building for a few months in deference to the great rabbi who lay there, suffering. Rav Yaakov Moshe got wind of their plans and directed them to leave things as they were.

“The machines are loud,” he said, “but it doesn’t seem that I will merit seeing the true rebuilding of Yerushalayim in my lifetime. At least let me hear the sounds of building.”

We hear sounds. They sound awful and they keep us awake at night, but they are sounds of construction, sounds of a bright future.

On Motzoei Shabbos, I visited Rav Dovid Cohen, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Chevron. He related to me the shmuess he delivered at his yeshiva earlier during seudah shlishis. He cited the words of the Ramban in Bereishis (6:3) in explanation of the cryptic posuk, “Vayomer Hashem lo yadon ruchi va’adam l’olam beshagom hu vosor.”

He explained that Hashem created man to be “yoshor,” like malochim with a nefesh placed in them to make them spiritual beings. Instead, through the pursuit of physical desires, man became like animal, whereupon Hashem removed his spirit from man and he became a physical being without spiritual attributes, unlike the malochim. Once he became a physical being, Hashem said that he is not any more worthy than animals of having Hashem’s life-giving spirit in him. However, Hashem did give man a period to repent. If man does teshuvah and reclaims his spiritual being, Hashem would welcome his return.

Our initial mission was to be like malochim. We have the capacity to be like malochim. If we would only control our pursuits of taavah, we can reclaim our mission and then earn life. 

The Chofetz Chaim in Sefer Sheim Olam (Chapter 18) cites a similar concept from the Semag in the introduction to his sefer. He writes that Hashem created man with nishmas adam, which equates him to a malach through his knowledge and intelligence, but he was also given a nefesh bahamis, which is controlled by physical desires and contains bad traits, such as anger and illicit desire. If the nefesh habahami is subjugated, man becomes like a malach and is regarded as a tzaddik. If the nefesh habahami rules, then man becomes like an animal and is regarded as a rasha.

The posuk testifies that Noach was a tzaddik. He was thus saved as the rest of the world was destroyed. He was the singular person fulfilling his role and was granted life.

Avrohom Avinu was the paragon of virtue. He observed the entire Torah and performed chesed with all of mankind. He welcomed nomads into his home, and fed and cared for them. They turned out to be angels disguised as men. They came to him to deliver brachos, for he was fulfilling his role and living as a malach betzuras adam. Hashem promised Avrohom at the outset of this week’s parshah that a great nation would emanate from him. He will be blessed and all the families of the earth will be blessed through him. For Avrohom was a tzaddik, as described by the Semag. He was a malach, as described by the Ramban. Thus, he merited much blessing and was an example for others to follow and earn blessing as they fulfilled the role Hashem intended for man.

In our day, as we are beset by resho’im who seek our demise, in order to earn life and safety in our troubled universe, we must hew to the example of Avrohom Avinu, dedicating our lives to Torah, ki hi chayeinu v’orech yomeinu, and chesed, for tzedakah tatzil mimovess. We perform chesed for that is the way of Hashem, and we are commanded to follow his example, as the posuk states, “Veholachta bidrochov.” Following in the path of Hashem sustains life, thus “Al sheloshah devorim ha’olam omeid,” the world exists on three things, Torah, avodah and gemilus chasodim. Much the same Rabi Elozor (Sanhedrin 98b) told his talmidim that Torah and gemilus chasodim spare from chevlei Moshiach.

In times such as these, we can only gain by following the examples of Avrohom and Noach, agitating for what is proper, seeking to help and encourage others, and engaging in charitable and honorific acts, accompanied by Torah study and observance.

We ask Hashem, “Samcheinu kiymos inisonu.” May our good acts spare us. May the blood flowing in the streets be replaced by blood flowing from korbanos in the Beis Hamikdosh. May the lives lost, the families destroyed, and the voices stilled be revealed as steps towards the redemption, speedily in our times.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Scaling the Heights

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Sir Edmund Hillary is widely known as the first man to climb to the top of Mount Everest. Mixing courage, determination and skill, in 1953 he succeeded in climbing the towering peak. Before him, many had attempted the feat and failed. His accomplishment drew interest and excitement around the globe and conferred upon him hero status.

However, historians later discovered that he was the second person to reach the top of the world’s tallest mountain.

Decades before Hillary conquered the mountain, a climber named George Mallory had attempted the climb. He tried twice in 1921, and then again in 1924 after saying that he was making another attempt “because it’s there… Ever­est is the high­est moun­tain in the world, and no man has reached its sum­mit. Its exis­tence is a chal­lenge.”

The last time he was seen was on his way to make that climb. It was widely assumed that he had died on the way up and never accomplished his goal. His body wasn’t able to acclimate to the thin air or the frigid temperatures or deal with the others many hazards that had previously led man to believe that the mountain could not be climbed. 

When Mallory’s frozen body was found by climbers in 1999, scientists stated that the evidence suggested that he had been to the top and was making his way down when he lost his life.

As a result of the discovery, according to them, Hillary was unfairly crowned as “the first”. However, something Hillary said after his historic climb came to have even more meaning than when it was originally stated. When discussing the feat no one had thought possible until he accomplished it, Hillary said that reaching the top of the mountain was not really enough. “I was very much aware that we still had to get safely back down the mountain again, and that was quite an important factor,” he said. “I really felt the most excitement when we finally got to the bottom of the mountain again and it was all behind us.”

On the first two nights of this new year, the baal tefillah dramatically intoned the posuk from Tehillim which states, “Mi ya’aleh behar Hashem umi yokum bimkom kadsho.” Dovid Hamelech appears to be asking, “Who is capable of ascending the mountain of Hashem and capable of remaining at that exalted level?”

Perhaps we can understand the question differently.

Dovid Hamelech is asking not only who can climb the mountain of Hashem, but “umi yokum,” who can maintain that high level even after the inevitable descent. Who can be “mekayeim,” or sustain, those levels once he has come down to earth? Who can maintain the high levels reached during the Yomim Noraim throughout the coming days of the year?

Our challenge now is to incorporate and adapt what we have learned and experienced over Elul and Tishrei into our lives. Perhaps this is why the month of Cheshvan contains no holidays. It is a period set aside for spending time internalizing the lessons and levels of the past two months. It therefore has no outstanding days of its own to interrupt the acclimation process.

On Simchas Torah afternoon, I went to shul for Minchah. A “reshima d’kedushah,” an imprint of holiness, was felt in the room - the echo of raised voices and stamping feet, lingering smells of sweat and dust, crumpled flags and empty candy wrappers. There was a lone figure present, a gentleman slumped over in utter exhaustion, obviously recuperating from what must have been a very long day.

In my own post-Hakafos reverie, I mused that the image of my slumbering friend was that of Klal Yisroel in golus, slumped over, worn out from endless travels, bewildered and unsure. We rest our weary heads and wonder what is expected of us.

As I approached my dozing pal, he stirred, coming alive at my “gut yom tov” greeting. He lifted his head and smiled through the haze, and I thought to myself that this is the image of the Yid in golus. As the posuk states, “Ani yesheina velibi eir.” The Jew picks himself up and starts again.

Never is this lesson more relevant than now, at this time of the year, in the current climate. Less than two weeks after Simchas Torah, with the memories fading, slumber threatens to overtake us. It’s all too easy to slump over and lose ourselves in sleep.

In truth, no nightmare is as harsh as reality, the news in the golah and in Eretz Yisroel. It takes strength, courage and drive just to go on.

Most of all, it takes the middah personified by Noach, the steady, unwavering diligence with which he forged on. Simple temimus.

Imagine what it must have been like for him. Consider the thoughts that must have been going through his mind as he tried, for 120 years, to convince the world to repent. He was mocked and vilified. He couldn’t even persuade one person to lead a moral life. How dejected he must have been!

Yet, we are told otherwise. Even as the rains began to fall, he pleaded for a little more time, holding out against the hope that perhaps he could convince someone to repent. He had been charged with a mission and he never quit. Therefore, the posuk tells us, he found favor in the eyes of Hashem.

If ever someone had reason to put head in hands and forget about the world, it was Noach. His golus was worse than ours. He was completely surrounded by immoral people. There was not one other family with whom he could converse on an equal level. The world was so evil that it had to be destroyed. Yet, Noach persisted in being a tzaddik and fulfilling the ratzon Hashem, guided by temimus and simple faith. He lived atop a lonely mountain, but he came down in an attempt to care for others and try to influence them.

It’s all too easy to grow lonely and despondent. We can look around and lose hope, seeing a world gone mad and wring our hands. Noach teaches us not to grow dejected, to keep hammering away and building.

We look to Eretz Yisroel and think of the heartrending funerals and shivah homes, the fresh yesomim and almanos. We think of the continuing wave of terror and tragedies and weep. Our hearts break as we think of the panic and dread that fill the hearts of our brothers and sisters. We see our enemies emboldened, their youth taking up knives and searching for Jews to kill. We see their imams, their friends and the international media cheering them on. We bemoan the double standard and wonder when and how it will end.

We ponder the general security situation there and shudder. We think of the lack of achdus and we shake. We worry about the future of our Israeli brethren. How will they hold out? How will they manage? How will they pay their bills?

We see the void created by America’s abdication of leadership and wonder where it will lead. We see groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda gaining. Countries such as Russia and Iran are solidifying gains and wonder if and when the West will challenge them.

We look at what is taking place in this country and aren’t much more optimistic. We see a president who threatens Israel, an administration that governs irresponsibly, and a party that supports them, enabling them to carry forward their misguided agenda. We see immorality throughout the land and watch helplessly as the laws of the country are changed by fiat, throwing us into the same boat as Sedom. We fear the unknown and don’t know what will come next. We watch a presidential campaign taking shape and wonder if a courageous, honest and forthright leader, who can set the country on a proper path once again, will emerge.

The golus tightens, and we fear that the luxurious, comfortable ride we have thankfully become accustomed to may encounter turbulence. We fret and worry. And then we learn Parshas Noach and are reminded to remain optimistic and never give up on our ability to fulfill our mission and Hashem’s commands.

The posuk tells us that Hashem told Noach to build a “tzohar” in the teivah. Some interpret this as a command to place a window in the teivah to provide light. Others say that it was a light-emitting diamond. Everything in the teivah was supernatural, for there is no way that it could have contained so many passengers and supplies, much less survive the flood. It was a Divine ship cloaked in nature. Rashi tells us that the teivah accepted only species that remained faithful to their partners. It was a vessel of purity and holiness, presented as a boat.

In this miraculous teivah, Hashem told Noach to construct a “tzohar” for light. Perhaps there was an additional message there for him and us: No matter how bleak everything appears, no matter how much rain pounds on your teivah, no matter how dark it is outside, always look for the glimmer of hope and light, for it always exists. Despite all the destruction, life existed and would regenerate and repopulate the world. Despite overwhelming darkness, there is always light.

Rav Avrohom Dov Auerbach, brother of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, once asked the Chazon Ish why it is that in his generation, even young talmidei chachomim were able to rise to great heights in a relatively short time and were capable of being mechadeish chiddushei Torah, while in previous generations, it took scholars much more time to achieve the same levels. The Chazon Ish turned to him and said quite cryptically that it was “because of the ashes of the furnaces.”

Rav Auerbach explained that the ability of young people in our generation to rise and excel is due to the power of the Torah of Jews, young and old, who toiled and excelled in Torah, but were exterminated by the Nazis during the war. As Chazal say, “Gevillim nisrofim, osiyos porchos b’avir.” The parchments burnt, but the letters flew into the air, where they hover, waiting for people to come and grab them. 

The darkness and fires of the Holocaust gave birth to the rejuvenation. The destruction was awful, inconceivable to us seven decades later. So many millions of people lost their lives, so many millions were forever affected. There is no facet of Jewish life that was not altered, but with the penetrating darkness came a ray of light. “Mitoch tzarah hamtzi’eim pedus urevachah,” we asked in Selichos. From the depths of the pain itself, find us a glimmer of salvation. In the most severe din, there is still rachamim.

The Chofetz Chaim would often quote the Gemara that describes the posuk in Eichah (3:6) which states, “Bemachashakim hoshivani kemeisei olam - He thrust me into the darkness as the dead,” as a reference to Talmud Bavli. The Talmud we all study, the Talmud that is the foundation of our lives, is a mammoth achievement that emerged specifically from the gloom of the exile.

It is easy to get pulled down, to stand on the sidelines and shrug our shoulders, agreeing that nothing can be done. We can excuse our inaction by convincing ourselves that even if we were to act, nothing would be accomplished. Noach stands by his teivah and proclaims that this is not true. He reminds us that we must do what we can. Standing up for what is correct, proper and moral is itself an accomplishment. Defending the righteous is the correct course of action, whether or not you prevail.

Thus, the Torah testifies, “Noach ish tzaddik tomim hayah bedorosav.” Although his generation was depraved, Noach stood out as a tzaddik because he wasn’t deterred from his mission, despite the obvious fact that everyone else in the world was opposed to him and what he was doing.

He went b’temimus, knowing that man’s mission is not necessarily to win every battle, but to do his best to succeed. We do what we can. We work as hard as we can, expending our energy to the best of our abilities in the pursuit of justice and propriety and fulfilling Hashem’s will. Whether we accomplish anything is in the Hands of Hashem. There is a partnership. We labor and Hashem combines our efforts and completes the job when He so desires.  

Each year, at the close of Hakafos at Yeshiva Be’er Yaakov, Rav Shlomo Wolbe would ask the talmidim to sing “Vaharikosi lochem brachah ad beli dai.” He would explain, “We sang such beautiful songs today, reminding ourselves of such elevating and powerful realities, but we are all at risk of forgetting and letting it slip away. We close the Hakafos with a request for brachah. May Hashem allow the blessings we accrued today to remain with us and become part of our lives.”

Rav Shimshon Pincus once remarked that everyone appears a bit dejected after yom tov is over, as they go back to the daily grind. Everyone, that is, except for a few people: the esrog merchant, the fellow who sold s’chach, the hat-store owner, and anyone else whose busiest season was the period leading up to the yom tov. “Now,” explained Rav Pincus, “with pockets full, they can finally rest and enjoy their hard-earned profits.”

We are all merchants, emerging from the lofty days with pockets full. How we spend our profits depends on us, the choices we make, the altitudes we reached, and the attitudes we have. It’s time to wake up, smile, and face life focused on our own teivos, building, traveling, and climbing ever higher using the gifts we have been given.

May the brachos accompany us and brighten our way, ad beli dai.