Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Feeling the Pebbles

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This week, we are introduced to Seder Shemos, the book of golus and geulah, in which the Bnei Yisroel sink to the lowest level of impurity and rise to the greatest heights man can achieve.

In every generation, it is incumbent upon each Jew to view himself as if he was a slave in Mitzrayim and was freed.

There is a golus hakloli, a communal exile, in which the entire nation is subjugated, and there is also a golus haproti, an individual exile, in which a person is part of a thriving community but imprisoned in his own personal golus. 

People who appear to be wholesome and leading fine lives are often broken inside. Many times, this feeling is brought on by loneliness. So many people in our world are lonely. In fact, there appears to be an epidemic of lonely people. Nobody wears a sign that says, “I am lonely. Be nice to me,” but if you look in the eyes of lonely people, you perceive sadness, emptiness and loneliness. These people are in a personal golus, and by assisting them, we can help lead everyone to the communal geulah.

I once accompanied the Toldos Aharon Rebbe to the home of an individual who was going through a difficult period. He asked the rebbe for something to do as a segulah to be spared from further pain. The rebbe responded that there are gemachs today for everything and organizations to help with seemingly every communal tzarah, but there is one group of people who appear to be totally neglected - people who are tzubrochen. “There are so many tzubrochene neshamos,” the rebbe said. “When you have free time, call up a tzubrochene person.”

We can all do that. Call someone you know who can use a little chizuk. Say hello, ask how they are, show interest, wish them a good Shabbos, or wish them a good Yom Tov. Show that someone in the world cares about them. Show that they aren’t all alone. By doing that, you will have earned a zechus for yourself and brought the world closer to geulah.  

Rav Pinchos Menachem Alter of Ger related that he would occasionally see deceased tzaddikim in his dreams. As he slept one night, the rebbe saw his uncle, Rav Menachem Mendel Alter of Pavianitz, a son of the Sefas Emes, who was killed by the Nazis.

“Dear uncle,” Rav Pinchos Menachem asked in the dream, “please tell me why there are so many personal tzaros today. There appears to be more illness, suffering and hardship than ever before.”

In the dream, the Pavianitzer Rov answered that previously, when a fellow Jew was suffering, the whole shtetl felt the pain. People were much closer to each other and one person’s agony was shared by all. In those days, a gezeirah on a yochid was a gezeirah on the tzibbur, because the tzibbur suffered along with the yochid.

When Hakadosh Boruch Hu causes people to suffer, everyone’s pain is considered in the equation. Even if the person who was supposed to be afflicted is determined to be worthy of the punishment, nevertheless, if the rest of the community who will be affected by the person’s pain is not deserving of that suffering, the person will not be afflicted.

Today, when people don’t care deeply for others, the zechus that had protected so many people has been removed.

Moshe Rabbeinu, brought up in the king’s palace, left the royal residence to witness the suffering of his Jewish brethren. Growing up in a bubble, he had never really met any of the Jews and had no relationship with any of them. As he matured, he wanted to exit the royally imposed isolation and assess their situation. When he saw a Mitzri beating a Jew, he was overcome with grief and his first reaction was to kill the evil man who was hurting his brother. His whole life, he had been restricted from meeting any Jews, yet as soon as he saw their affliction, he felt the pain and sought to remedy it.

While he thought that no one had seen what he did, two wicked Jews had watched as he committed the selfless act. They mocked him and he responded to no one is particular, “Ochein, noda hadovor.”

Rashi (Shemos 2:14) explains that Moshe was saying that he had wondered why Klal Yisroel was singled out from all the nations of the world for such suffering, but when he heard the comments of those two men, he understood and saw that Am Yisroel was deserving of the subjugation.

Hearing their negativity and apathy regarding fellow Jews, he perceived the discord and understood everything.

If a person has a healthy, strong heart, he can endure strong infections and serious illness. However, lo aleinu, if the heart is weak, even a seemingly minor virus or infection can be deadly, because the body is unable to fight back.

In order for Klal Yisroel to be able to withstand those who set upon it to destroy it, the nation needs a strong heart. The heart of Am Yisroel is strong when its people are united and connected and feel responsible for each other.

Achdus is what keeps our people alive through the vagaries of golus. 

Every day, we hear of people who have become sick. We hear about another victim of Arab terror. We hear of more Jewish blood spilled. We say the requisite words, but our hearts aren’t affected.

Last week, a rebbi from Aish Hatorah lost his life walking along the ancient walls of Yerushalayim. I was heartbroken when I saw that his family resorted to advertising for people to come to help out with the minyan as they sat shivah. We are always dan lechaf zechus that they live in some faraway, inconvenient or dangerous place, but we would imagine that people would be flowing to comfort a family who lost their father and husband in such a gruesome fashion.

When we hear of a tzarah in the community, we must feel the pain as if it was ours. Feeling sad is not enough. We have to daven for the people who are suffering. We have to seek ways to help them, even if it is difficult and even if it is time-consuming. That is the secret of our strength. That is what keeps us going.

There shouldn’t be such a thing as a personal tzarah. The distress of every yochid should be felt by the tzibbur. 

When everything appears bleak to an acquaintance, your smile can make the difference. You don’t have to say anything. Just show that you care and that you want to help. Show that you share the grief. Words are tough during sensitive times and there isn’t always something to say, but showing a suffering person that he isn’t alone is a consolation.

As the Pavianitzer Rov taught in the dream, the very act of feeling for each other can itself bring about a resolution to the problem.

The length of the golus is one of the prices we pay for the fragmentation of society. By drawing closer to each other, by feeling the pain and puncturing the bubbles of companionless, solitary suffering, we can help bring about the geulah.

Our forefathers were shepherds, because to excel in that profession, you have to feel the pain of an animal and understand how to motivate it. Moshe, our greatest leader, taught an enduring lesson when he passed the burning bush. He paused to marvel at the phenomenon of a bush on fire, with the blaze roaring through it but not consuming it. He wondered why the bush wasn’t swallowed up by the flames.

As he stood at the site trying to comprehend what was going on, Hashem told him to remove his shoes.

Baalei mussar would say that his shoes were removed to teach Moshe to experience the pain caused by the small stones underfoot. A leader must empathize with people even when their problems appear to be insignificant.

Sifrei Chassidus explain that, in removing his shoes, Moshe was being told to show respect for the holiness of the place, for the burning bush homiletically represented a person in pain, flames licking at him and singeing him, but unable to consume him.

A leader must appreciate the pain of another and know how to “remove his shoes” and stand back, silently and respectfully. Don’t judge someone who is suffering. As far as you are concerned, he is a holy person. Love him, daven for him, and encourage him with sensitivity. Remove your shoes and feel the pain and pebbles, the sticks and stones. Judging is for Hashem; our job is to empathize.

With that perspective, Moshe was able to lead a broken people out of golus and into geulah.

There are so many lonely people in personal golus. We can help them with our thoughtful words and actions. They are imprisoned. Their world may seem bright, but it is black. We can shine light upon them. We can befriend them, smile at them, take an interest in them, and thus set them free. A wealthy man who seems to have many admirers, a rov with many devotees, and a macher with a large rolodex (or Rolex) can all be lonely.

They’re crying out for friendship. Show them that you appreciate them for the people they are, not for what they have achieved. Try saying hello to them without asking them for something. Exhibit a normal human connection. You’ll be helping them and helping the world, bringing Moshiach a step closer.

Rav Mordechai Schwab would say that even people with poor memories can tell you who came to their simcha and how long they stayed. This indicates that the moments of the whispered mazel tov, the warm embrace, and statements such as, “I came just for you,” are extremely vital to the human condition.

People crave those moments. It is not so hard to make a person feel good.

And even when it is hard, we still must feel for each other.

Rav Boruch Shimon Schneerson, son-in-law of the Tchebiner Rov and rosh yeshiva of the Tchebiner Yeshiva, would speak with reverence about a group of Litvishe yeshiva bochurim he met while in Russian captivity. A student of Chassidishe yeshivos, when he met them for the first time, he was wary. However, with time, he became an admirer of their learning, hasmodah, lomdus and yiras Shomayim.

Rav Schneerson would say that what was more impressive than the way they lived was how they died. Soviet beasts asked the yeshiva bochurim for information regarding the names of some escaped talmidim. As one, each bochur refused to divulge any information. Although they endured terrible horrors at the hands of the evil Russians, they made it clear that they would sooner die than cause harm to their friends.

The Tchebiner rosh yeshiva would say that the effect of their Torah was evident not just in how they learned, but in the way they were connected to each other. They understood what it meant to be one.

We can emulate their heroism, even as we, bechasdei Hashem, do not to face their nisayon. We can create a sense of oneness in our communities, shuls and neighborhoods by warming up lonely souls, one by one. There is no one immune to a smile, no one deaf to a compliment.

It’s a revolution that takes just one person to start. Moshe Rabbeinu was one person, yet he led a nation out of golus. It all began when he felt the jabs of the pebbles.

It is time for us to get out and touch people. Let’s free people from their individual golus.

We can begin by emulating Moshe’s path, feeling the despondency of others, and extending our hands and hearts so that we might all go home soon, together.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Nachas: One on One

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

One cold winter day, one hundred and fifty years ago, in the Polish city of Gura Kalvarya, the Chiddushei Horim was attending the bris milah of his great-grandson. The great Gerrer Rebbe lost most of his children and took nothing for granted. He loved his grandson, the baal simchah, who would later become known as the Sefas Emes. He had adopted his grandson who lost both his parents before he was eight years old.

With obvious joy, the Chiddushei Horim looked at the newborn baby, who was named Avrohom Mordechai and eventually became known as the Imrei Emes. He gazed at the child and commented, “What more can a person hope for? We see that when the Torah wants to tell the extent of Yosef’s blessings, it says that he merited to help raise his great-grandchildren, the sons of Mochir ben Menashe, as Targum Yonasan  Ben Uziel explains (Bereishis 50:23).”

An astute chossid understood the rebbe’s cryptic message. The Torah writes of the birth of Yosef’s grandchildren in Mitzrayim as “yuldu al birkei Yosef,” which would seem to mean that they were born on his lap. Targum Yonasan Ben Uziel translates the word “yuldu” as “gazrinun,” indicating that the posuk is referring to the fact that Yosef was sandek at their brisos.

Rebbe,” the chossid called out, “Targum Onkelos says that ‘yuldu Yosef’ means ‘rabi Yosef,’ that Yosef merited to help raising the grandchildren. Why suffice with being sandek?”

The rebbe sighed heavily and did not respond. The answer to why he quoted the translation of Targum Yonasan Ben Uziel and not Targum Onkelos became clear when he passed away two months later.  He had merited serving as his grandson’s sandek, but he did not get to watch him grow up.

Since the time of the Avos, the prime Jewish wish and pride has been to merit being part of raising and enjoying nachas from future generations. The essence of Yiddishkeit is succeeding in transmitting it to the next generation.

Parents throughout history, in all parts of the world, parted from their children during wartime - while on the run from the Cossacks, pogroms, marauding Christians, Muslims, Greeks and Romans, and after being separated by Nazi beasts as they entered concentration camps - with the same final request: Remain an ehrliche Yid. Nothing marks a life as well-lived as much as the joy of seeing generations carrying forth the mesorah started at Har Sinai.

Last week, a distinguished Klausenberger chossid¸ Rav Moshe Weiss zt”l, passed away in Yerushalayim. A talmid chochom, he worked as a builder. He left behind great children, including a rosh yeshiva, Rav Asher Weiss; a dayan, Rav Yonasan Binyomin Weiss, av bais din of Montreal; and a rov, Rav Berel Weiss, rov of Kiryat Sanz in Yerushalayim and son-in-law of the Klausenberger Rebbe zt”l. Each of these sons leads a kehillah, yeshiva or kollel.

What did he do to merit such great offspring?

Reb Moshe would remember the darkest days of the last century. Following World War II, survivors numb with grief and mourning, sick and frail, worked to find energy to begin anew. Reb Moshe was immediately pressed into service by the Klausenberger Rebbe, who had obtained a truck from the Allied Forces to bring to kever Yisroel thousands of Jewish bodies strewn across the camps and forests.

One drove the truck and the other dug fresh graves, day after day. One evening, Reb Moshe, exhausted, emotionally spent, and still dealing with the loss of his parents and siblings, turned to the rebbe and said, “I can’t do this anymore.”

The rebbe looked at him and responded, “Moshe, you have to help me get this mitzvah done. What can I give you so that you will continue our partnership?”

Moshe Weiss saw an opportunity and jumped on it. He asked the rebbe to bless him that he would recuperate and “one day have sons who will know every Tosafos in Shas.”

Last week, Reb Moshe was niftar, seven distinguished gaonim around his bedside, products of a brochah, hope and sincere desire.

Ehrliche mothers shed tears weekly as they light Shabbos candles, begging Hashem for the ultimate gift. Parents invest money and energy to find the proper yeshivos, chavrusos and rabbeim for their sons, ready to do anything in exchange for nachas.

And in this week’s parshah, we see how Yaakov Avinu, the av of golus, expresses that hope, implanting it within each of us. Study the brachos he gives his children and you’ll see astounding things.

You’ll see his familiarity with the essence and destiny of each child, his appreciation of their challenges and triumphs. You’ll see the attention he pays to each and his acceptance of their differences. And in his farewell to his children, you’ll feel his love for them.

Yaakov carefully examined the strengths and personalities of each son and, before his passing, addressed them. He didn’t bless them all with one general brochah, Hashem should watch over each of you and you should all be gezunt and shtark and be matzliach.”

Yaakov Avinu blessed them each with an individual brochah befitting them and their progeny. The way he acted that day was a prime example of proper chinuch. In order for parents to transmit the beauty and customs of Torah to their kinderlach, they have to love their children and their children have to love them. If they treat their child as a separate living, thinking entity, their child will love and respect them. That’s not modern psychology. It’s an approach as old as Yaakov and the shevotim.

Your children are not the same as you are. They are also different from each other. They are not formed by a cookie-cutter.

If you want to teach and reach your children and ensure that they will carry the torch that hails back to Yaakov Avinu, learn the lesson he conveyed through his brachos. Respect them and see them as the people they are, perceiving the world through their eyes.

One of the most impactful rabbeim of the last century was Rav Elchonon Wasserman. Although he was urged to deliver high-level shiurim at the most prestigious yeshivos, he cherished the role of “melamed,” teaching young bochurim and helping them develop a mehalech in learning. He would never give that up.

The depth of the mutual love that existed between the bochurim and their rebbi can be understood through the following incident. Each day, when the shiur ended, the bochurim would gather around Rav Elchonon and ask kushyos. The rebbi would stand at the top of the steps, an army of bochurim around him, a circle of holy fire surrounding them. It was the high point of the day.

The bochurim were disappointed when, one day, Rav Elchonon held up his hands and said, “No questions today.” With his cherished talmidim following, the great rosh yeshiva headed to the yeshiva dining room and entered the kitchen.

“Can you please prepare a portion of lunch for me?” he asked the cook. “Please give me the exact lunch you give the bochurim. I want to know what they eat.”

The startled cook prepared a meager portion of kasha for Rav Elchonon. He ate the simple food in silence, then went off to find the yeshiva’s administration. “This is not al pi Shulchan Aruch,” he announced. “If you accept bochurim to a yeshiva, you are responsible to feed them. Tomorrow I will not say shiur.”

The bochurim were dismayed at the thought of Rav Elchonon forfeiting saying shiur. Their dismay turned to panic when word spread the next day that Rav Elchonon would be traveling to raise money for the yeshiva so that the bochurim could eat better meals.

A talmid who was present shared the story and painted a magnificent picture of the unfolding drama. As Rav Elchonon put on his coat and hat and prepared to set off on his journey, lines of talmidim formed before him. “Rebbe,” they cried, “we don’t need food and we don’t need drink. We just need you, rebbe!”

He faced them and responded, “Nein. Bochurimlach darffen essen. No. Bochurim need to eat.”

Sad as it was, it was a moment that encapsulated proper chinuch, a flow of mutual respect: talmidim yearning to hear their rebbi’s voice and a rebbi dedicated to their wellbeing above all.

Here, in postwar America, few yeshivos made the difference that the Telshe Yeshiva in Wickliffe, Ohio, did during its early years. Hundreds of American talmidim went through its doors, with European roshei yeshiva, Rav Elya Meir Bloch and Rav Mottel Katz, shaping them.

A story retold by Rav Mottel himself sheds light on why they were successful. Telshe was and is a place of punctiliousness and seder, but one evening, the scheduled time for Maariv was changed, moved back a few minutes. There was a major heavyweight boxing match on the radio and the bochurim wanted to listen to it. Rav Mottel admitted that to him, it was the height of bittul Torah to spend time listening to sports. Aside from that, boxing embodied barbarism and crudeness, he said.

He told them that he understood that they were American boys raised in a culture quite different than Lithuania, where he was raised and where he lived until his miraculous departure for America.

He told them that he noticed that in this country, respectable people attended boxing matches, so the boys had yet to perceive the inherent offensiveness of the activity. Rav Mottel was confident in his product - Torah - and that, in time, his talmidim would become elevated and refined enough to reject both the activity and the bittul Torah on their own, but he approached the topic with respect. He didn’t laugh or disparage them, for he knew that wouldn’t work. Instead, he changed the time of Maariv to accommodate them. He was bringing an elixir to a new land, and he wouldn’t reach his students and accomplish his goal of building here what was there by mocking and disparaging his new charges, who were unfamiliar with the ways of the great yeshivos of Lita.

Generations later, his victory is apparent.

Sometimes, parents forget that their children are people too, albeit small people. The Manchester rosh yeshiva, Rav Yehudah Zev Segal, was at a hotel one bein hazemanim. When he prepared to recite Kiddush on Shabbos morning, a gentleman asked the rosh yeshiva to be motzie his young son, who had come late and missed hearing his father make Kiddush. The child looked dismayed. “Daddy, I want to hear your Kiddush,” the boy said, his eyes filling with tears. The father nudged him forward, ignoring his cries, but Rav Segal put down the becher. He was not going to be making Kiddush yet, as he had a chinuch lesson to impart. It was a teaching moment.

“A child is also a person, and you have to do chessed with your children, just as you do with other people. If it means something to him to hear your Kiddush, there is no reason for you not to say Kiddush again.”

The core of Yiddishkeit is transmitting the fire of Torah living to our children, passing on to them the torch held aloft by those who came before us and entrusted us with that eternal flame.

Vayevorech es Yosef,” the posuk says (Bereishis 48:15), but it doesn’t tell us how Yaakov blessed Yosef. Rather, the brochah of “Hamalach hagoel osi mikol ra” is addressed to Menashe and Efraim. The Rashbam explains that “birkas habonim hi birkas ha’av,” there is no brochah more precious to a father than a brochah to his children.

We will conclude the parshah this week with “Chazak,” as we finish Sefer Bereishis. The entire seder is the story of fathers relating to their children. Let us review the parshiyos before moving on to study the parshiyos of the Jews’ experiences in foreign lands.

We must recognize the need to love our children and not view them as burdens to be contended with. We must deal with them the way they are if we want them to have a chance of becoming what we want them to be. When we bring them home after birth, they are so soft and snuggly. We can’t put them down. But then, as we change diapers and wait for them to walk so that we don’t have to carry them around, we start becoming frustrated. The more children grow, the more some parents begin running out of patience. A young child feels it. His life and dreams are altered if he is not enveloped in a cocoon of warmth and love.

As children grow, not everything is the way we want it to be. Sometimes, we have to look aside. Sometimes, we have to punish. But we must always ensure that the punishment is being administered out of love, not anger. We should look for the good in each child’s soul and seek to help him reach his individual potential. When love is replaced by apathy and respect with dissonance, dangerous behavior is soon to follow.

Look around you and you’ll notice so many unhappy, lonely young people. Generally, it is not their fault. Somewhere along the line, they didn’t realize expectations others had for them and sort of fell out of the system. When you meet one of those young people, you immediately recognize the emptiness in his eyes, his soul and his life. Reach out to these youth. Show some friendship, share a nice word, and find something to compliment. Give a smile. It’s worth more to them than anything else. By doing that, you can make a difference in their lives and return them to happiness and fulfillment. What greater satisfaction could there be?

Let us carefully study the brachos of Yaakov so that we merit the words we all call out as the parshah is completed in shul this Shabbos: Chazak chazak venischazeik.

Much nachas, brochah and hatzlochah to all.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Shema Yisroel

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

In this week’s parshah, we read the emotional return of a beloved son to his father’s embrace. After being gone for so many years, Yosef and his father, Yaakov Avinu, met up again when Yaakov was forced into exile because of the punishing hunger in Eretz Yisroel. The son who was sold into slavery and thought to be dead by everyone except Yaakov, had revealed himself to the brothers as the Egyptian viceroy. He sent aggalos, wagons, to his father, telling him to come down to Egypt. Chazal say that the wagons were a hint to Yaakov that all is well with Yosef, for the last sugya they had studied together was eglah arufah. He was hinting to his father that it was possible to learn Torah in golus, even if surrounded by a depraved nation.

When they met, they embraced, Yosef cried, and Yaakov recited Krias Shema. Why did Yaakov recite it? What was the significance of reciting Shema at that moment?

Students of Daf Yomi will recall a Gemara in Maseches Sotah (42a-b). The Mishnah states that the moshuach milchamah, the kohein who leads the nation into war, proclaims to those going to battle, “Shema Yisroel!” and offers words of motivation and inspiration.

The Gemara states that Rabi Yochanan quoted Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai, who said that Hashem told Klal Yisroel that even if their only source of merit is that they recite Krias Shema in the morning and evening, they will not lose to their enemies.

The Gemara also quotes a posuk: “Vayigash haPelishti hashkeim veh’aareiv – [Golyas] the Pelishti approached the Jewish encampment morning and evening.” It then offers the explanation of Rabi Yochanan that Golyas did that to frighten the Jews and cause them to skip Shema in the morning and evening, thereby losing the source of merit that would cause them to be victorious.

Reciting Shema is a tremendous recourse for Am Yisroel. In fact, the very name of Chanukah hints to the power of Shema. The sefer Tzror Hamor (Va’eschanon, page 134) states that Chanukah is an amalgamation of the words chanu chof hey. As a result of the Greeks’ anti-religion edicts, the Chashmonaim were unable to properly study Torah and engage in prayer. However, they were able to defeat their tormenters in the merit of Shema. There are 25 Hebrew letters in the posuk of “Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echod.” This concept is represented in the word Chanukah; chanu chof hey. They rested after emerging victorious in the merit of their recitation of Shema Yisroel.

The neis of Chanukah is tied to Yaakov. The sefer Tzeidah Laderech relates in the name of the Maharshal that the pach shemen burned miraculously for eight days in the merit of Yaakov returning for the pachim ketanim prior to his battle with the angel of Eisov.

By returning for the small pachim, Yaakov demonstrated his belief in Hashem. He didn’t return for small jugs because he was a miser, but rather because he believed that he had the ability to utilize everything Hashem gave him to bring more kedushah into the world. Therefore, he went back across the river to fetch these vessels with which he could sanctify the name of Hashem. It was an indication of his emunah that he could serve Hashem in any predicament and with whatever he had.

The Chashmonaim followed his example. Although they were in a difficult situation, battling a mighty army of wicked men, their emunah remained rock-solid that they could utilize the strengths Hashem granted them to overcome tough odds. Because their faith was so strong, Hashem caused them to win the battle in the merit of Yaakov Avinu’s emunah, displayed when he returned for the pachim ketanim and was confronted by the malach of Eisov.

Not only was the Chashmonaim’s victory against Yovon rooted in Yaakov Avinu, the pach shemen tahor, which was found and subsequently remained lit for eight days and nights, was also tied to Yaakov’s pachim ketanim.

The Sifsei Kohen written by a talmid of the Arizal writes in his peirush al haTorah that the pach that was found by the Chashmonaim is the same one from which Yaakov Avinu poured oil on to the stone upon which he slept after leaving Yeshivas Sheim V’Eiver.

Yaakov was the av of golus. When he descended to golus, he wanted to show his children how they would last in the exile. He wanted them to watch him as he demonstrated the secret of Jewish power. He recited Shema Yisroel as he lovingly embraced his son. He feared what would happen to his family in this strange land and wanted to provide a source of merit for them. He told them that no matter what befalls them, no matter how difficult their situation is, they should have faith in Hashem and not give up. If they recite Shema and place their faith in Hashem, they will ultimately survive. Hashem won’t let them down.  

Shema Yisroel hints to Yaakov, also known as Yisroel. Yosef had been in golus for many years and remained loyal to his father’s teachings. He was able to survive as the only Jew in the country and had clinged to Torah as he married and brought up wonderful children. But Yaakov feared what would become of his family as he prayed that they overcome the temptations. Thus, he recited Shema, as he prepared himself to do battle on behalf of their souls. He implemented the zechus guaranteed to aid him as he fought against the evil influences of Mitzrayim.

Yaakov laid the path for us to succeed in our daily battles against all the temptations golus offers. He taught us how to defeat our enemies and how to survive: with emunah and bitachon, faith and belief in Hashem and His power to control everything that transpires in this world. If we truly have that belief, then we will be spared and will see the good in everything that happens to us.

A paragon of that belief was Yosef. Despite what befell him, being sold by his brothers into slavery and jailed on trumped-up charges, he maintained his faith through it all and thus merited redemption and a rise to power.

In our day, golus has its tentacles in us. Innocent Jews are regularly killed in the Holy Land. The administration in Washington seeks to reduce the Jewish state. Anti-Semitism is on the rise around the world.

Prosecutorial misconduct is unleashed on our brothers, sending people like Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin to jail, while powerful people and the justice system at large care not a whit that an innocent good man has been jailed for the past five years. Yet, this man is happy, positive and upbeat, because he clings to Krias Shema, Torah and tefillah. His emunah remains rock-solid, and while he and those who assist him engage in hishtadlus, he knows that Hashem is with him wherever he is. He isn’t broken, he isn’t depressed, and, like Yosef many years ago, he will be freed when Hashem determines that his shlichus ministering to people in that awful place is done.

In our lives, as well, we all face daily trials. Those who recite Shema twice daily have a leg up on those who seek their demise.

As Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz sings on his latest album, “Yomai ovrim yomai kolimlo ira ra atoh imodi… motzoacha motzu chaim, zorcha chama zorcha nafshi, baTorah hakedoshah ani ameil, zorcha chama zorcha nafshi chayeini Keili ad biyas hagoel... lo lishkoach, tomid lismoach, zechor lodaas es matnosecha.”  Though there is enough cause for a person to become disillusioned in this tough world of ours, the one with faith and appreciation of Hashem’s gifts forges ahead happily, for he knows that in the merit of his belief and Torah, he will be blessed.

A 17-year-old bochur at Yeshiva Kol Torah in Yerushalayim was depressed. His mother had died and he wasn’t able to get back to himself. During the day, he spoke of his mother. At night, he would go visit his mother’s grave on Har Hamenuchos. He would ask people if they knew what was happening to his mother in Olam Haba.

The rosh yeshiva, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, asked that the boy be brought to his home. He sat the boy next to him and held his hand as he told him, “It is true that we cannot understand the ways of Hashem. This is the reason we say, ‘Boruch Dayan Ha’emes,’ when a person passes away. We accept the judgment as correct. We need to bear in mind that the foundation of the world is mercy. Therefore, as we bury the dead, we say, ‘Keil molei rachamim,’ acknowledging the mercy of Hashem.

“Hashem is the Father of all rachamim. He is at the root of all rachamim in the world. Sometimes, it takes time until we perceive the mercy of His actions, but we must know that there is nothing that Hashem does that is bad. Everything that He does is for our benefit.”

Rav Shlomo Zalman concluded, “What are you worried about? Your mother is in a better place than you and me. Her neshomah is very close to Hashem, the Av Harachamim.”

The boy shed copious tears. He then calmed down and said, “Now I understand. I have no reason to be depressed.”

The Baal Shem Tov had a segulah that redeemed people from their tzaros. He would say that when the middas hadin attaches itself to a person, he should find a measure of chesed in the din. Since Hashem is the Av Harachamim, there can be no din without some chesed mixed in. When a person demonstrates his emunah and bitachon and seeks to find the chesed, the din is sweetened and the middah of chesed is allowed a more prominent role.

A son-in-law of the Chofetz Chaim was asked what impressed him most about his holy father-in-law. He responded that the Chofetz Chaim suffered much during his life, yet he was always calm. No one ever saw him agitated or excited or nervous. This was due to his absolute emunah. He knew that everything that happens in this world is ordered from Above. Therefore he had no fear, for he knew he was being carried as an infant in his mother’s arms. Hashem as the Av Harachaman would not permit anything bad to befall him. 

Emunah and bitachon are critical for us to succeed in anything we do. Not only does faith help us deal with life and its many challenges, but it also provides solutions.

Shema Yisroel, the proclamation of faith in Hashem, empowers us, providing us with chizuk and zechuyos.

Yaakov arrived in Mitzrayim armed with faith in Torah  and a fierce belief that Hashem would protect him and his offspring, as expressed by his proclamation of Shema Yisroel before exchanging niceties and loving words of welcome.

His recitation of Shema was also an expression of appreciation to Hashem, the Echod, who allowed him to reunite with his beloved son, whom he longed to meet while everyone had proclaimed him dead.

In life, we face all types of situations, those in which the good is evident and times when the good is not so evident. In every situation, our response should be to say Shema Yisroel and proclaim our belief in Hashem. When good things happen to us, we don’t say, “Kochi ve’otzem yodi asah li es hachayil hazeh,” but rather acknowledge that Hashem Echod is the Av Harachaman who looks out for us. When other types of things transpire, we don’t bemoan our fate, but rather say Shema Yisroel, proclaiming that we know that everything is from Hashem, the Av Harachaman.

The same people who know that all the good they have is from Hashem also know that the “bad” is from Him as well. They are happy and at ease, just as Yaakov was. Jews gave up their lives al kiddush Hashem while shouting Shema Yisroel. Why is their death a kiddush Hashem? Because at the moment of their death, they proclaimed that all is from Hashem, and if He willed this for them, they accepted it as such. The kedoshei Kelm marched to their deaths singing “Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu.” They were calm and proud, for they knew that Hashem had decided that they would die. As the shots rang out, they shouted Shema Yisroel, creating a true kiddush Hashem.

May we be blessed to never become depressed by people and events that challenge us. May our faith set us free and keep us happy. May we be blessed to always appreciate Hashem’s gifts. Doing so will help us maintain our equilibrium and earn us zechuyos as we demonstrate that we have learned the lesson taught by our forefather Yaakov Avinu many centuries ago.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

The Light of Chanukah

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

One year, on Chanukah, I was walking through a bustling hallway in a local mall. The various stores competed for attention, luring shoppers with visual displays and brightly-colored promises of savings. I hadn’t paid any attention to the young man standing in middle of the corridor, clad in tight jeans and a trendy tee-shirt, sunglasses pushed up on his head. But when he made it obvious that he wanted to talk to me, I paused.


“I need your help,” he said, his accent making it abundantly clear that he was a brother, an Israeli far from home.

I waited for the hard luck story and sincere request for a small loan. It never came.

Instead, with much disappointment, he told me that in previous years, a rabbi dressed like me came to the mall and lit the menorah with the young Israelis who worked at various booths there.

“This year he didn’t come!” the young man said. “Maybe you know who he is. Can you call him and tell him that we’re waiting?”

I spent a few minutes chatting with my new friend before his work - selling holiday ornaments - summoned him back. I didn’t get to say what I really wanted him to know.

In Maseches Sofrim (20:1), we learn that it is forbidden to light neiros Chanukah using an old ner. The Bnei Yissoschor wonders why. After all, if the reason is that an old ner constitutes bizui mitzvah, meaning that it is unfit for the mitzvah, why is it acceptable for lighting neiros Shabbos and Yom Tov?

Perhaps we can answer as follows.

Rav Tzadok Hakohein (Pri Tzaddik, Chodesh Kislev) explains why the months of the Jewish calendar aren’t referred to in the Torah by their names. Why does the Torah refer to months by their number, Nissan as Chodesh Harishon, Iyar as Chodesh Hasheini, and so on? Also, if the months do not have biblical names, why did Chazal find a need to name them?

He explains that every month brought a new understanding of Torah. The patterns in the sky reflected a cosmic shift, and new Divine hashpa’os. Month after month, year after year, things kept changing, presenting new opportunities, new energy and new kochos. Every month there was a different hashpo’ah and understanding in Torah, but it wasn’t germane to that specific month. To have named a month would have meant identifying its unique characteristic, which was impossible during an era when each month was a springboard for freshness and innovation. It was only once Chazal perceived that the era of evolvement was over; the months had assumed a pattern, that they finally selected names, each one reflecting the essential nature of the month.

Iyov said (Iyov 31:24), “Im samti zahav kisli - If I put in gold my faith.” Kisli, my faith, is the root of Kislev, an expression of faith and expectation. This month is a time of bitachon.

Kislev is a month when we are to fortify ourselves with faith. Just as a single light can illuminate winter’s darkness, so can a spark of faith during the month of Kislev brighten what appears to be a bleak situation.

How does one acquire faith?

To really believe, one has to have the patience to look, see and perceive.

Kislev, seforim say, is composed of the words Keis and lamid vov.The explanation is that keis, the cover, the layer of concealment, on the lamid vov neiros, the 36 candles we light cumulatively over the eight days of Chanukah, is removed. By contemplating the 36 dancing flames over the eight days of Chanukah, we see the brightness of the ohr haganuz, the ever-present hidden light, because the cover has been removed

When we say Shema Yisroel, we cover our eyes, hinting at the fact that we believe in Hashem’s Oneness, though we don’t actually see it in olam hazeh. On Chanukah, we uncover our eyes and see more.

Perhaps this concept is fortified by the sefer Tzror Hamor (Va’eschanon, page 134), which states that Chanukah is an amalgamation of the words chanu chof hey, explaining that as a result of all the tzaros and gezeiros, the Chashmonaim were unable to properly study Torah and engage in prayer. They beat back the Yevonim in the merit of their belief in the Oneness of Hashem as expressed in the 25 letters of “Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echod.” This concept is represented in the word Chanukah, chanu chof hey. They rested after emerging victorious because of their belief in the 25 letters of Shema Yisroel.

We light the menorah and recite “Haneiros hallolu kodesh heim, these flames are holy, ve’ein lonu reshus lehishtameish bohem ela lirosam bilvod - and we may not use them for anything; we may only look at them.”

What can we see in these lights? What message do they bear for us?

Perhaps the lights show us who we are and what we are capable of becoming. The biggest impediment to emunah and bitachon and to improving ourselves is the belief that we have been off track for so long that we can’t change. We become stuck in a rut, thinking that we are too far gone. We fail to see the possibilities and powers that each new day presents. We don’t realize that just as Hashem is “mechadeish betuvo bechol yom tomid ma’asei bereishis,” we can also recreate ourselves and improve every day.

On Chanukah, the Chashmonaim demonstrated that a person can be a mischadeish and start again anytime. When the Chashmonaim decided that they had enough of the persecution by the Yevonim and, relying on their faith, went to war to restore the ability to study Torah and perform mitzvos, there was nothing to mark the period as unique and an auspicious time to start anew.

When there is promise in the air, it is easier to motivate people to join the cause, because novelty inspires passion.

The Chanukah miracle transpired in the middle of the era of Bayis Sheini. There was no new building and no new seder ha’avodah to rally around. Though the people had acclimated to the Greek persecution and accepted it as a fact of life, the Chashmonaim were able to convince them that they were capable of improving themselves and their situation. They motivated a depressed people to realize that although they were in a sad state, they could recreate reality and regain control of their own destiny.

The word Chanukah is rooted in the Hebrew word chinuch, which means inauguration. Chanukah is a time of chinuch, not only because of the chanukas haMikdosh, but also because the Chashmonaim taught us about re-inauguration. They imparted the message that we can start again, re-consecrate, and be mechaneich. Even if we are not at a beginning, we can fashion a new beginning at any time.

To be able to accomplish that, a person has to be able to look past the mediocrity he has become accustomed to, forget old habits and attitudes, and rethink his position.

All around us, we see examples of what happens when people are too set in their ways to see things honestly and too protective of their agendas to acknowledge the truth.

There is an old Yiddish joke about a young child who disliked potato latkes. His siblings loved the scrumptious treat, but he despised them. His wise mother, knowing that it was unnatural, since he loved each of the ingredients on their own, had an idea. She invited him into the kitchen and allowed him to assist her in peeling the potatoes. Then she heated oil and fried the onions, watching his appetite grow. He enjoyed helping her pour the salt and form the latkes, excited to eat the mysterious dish with the delicious aroma.

Finally, they were ready to eat and she laid them out on an attractive platter. Her little helper opened his eyes wide. “Latkes?!” he shouted. “No way!” With that, he ran out of the kitchen. He was too beholden to his anti-latkes habit to admit that as he participated in fashioning them, he had gained a new appreciation for the delicacy.

The joke and its lesson are reminiscent of the stubborn refusal of the Obama administration to recognize the truth when they see it. Like a child who doesn’t see the ingredients, just the latkes, they insist on screaming, “Gun control!” at every opportunity. When two terrorists murder 14 people in San Bernardino, California, liberals refuse to acknowledge the obvious. Instead, they search for ways to use the crisis to further their agenda. While evidence and common sense point to Islamic terrorism, they beat the drums of gun control. Not only do they ignore the fact that California has the toughest gun laws in the country, they refuse to utter the words “radical Islam” or “Islamic terror,” lest acknowledging the obvious would force them to admit that their agenda is built on fallacies.

The administration has shown this tendency to repeatedly act against common sense and the truth. It forced its health plan on an unwilling country, claiming against all evidence to the contrary that the plan would lower insurance rates and become extremely popular. Instead, it has sent rates through the sky and ruined what had been the best health care system in the world. Yet, they still claim that their plan is successful.

The administration forced a deal with Iran, which, in effect, enables it to become the dominant power in the region and acquire nuclear weapons. Acting irrationally, administration members still say that they have achieved an historic accord. Meanwhile, they turn over $150 billion to the world’s greatest supporter of terror, allowing them to continue to disrupt the combustible Middle East. Iran has not yet complied with the International Atomic Energy Group, yet the biggest sponsor of terror is enabled to become stronger and more influential. 

Since he was elected, President Barack Obama has been at Israel’s throat, attempting to force a peace deal with the Palestinians. Not only did he not achieve anything, but he made things worse. He ruined a rock-solid relationship between two allies. He tormented Israel’s prime minister, a man with a strong following around the world, renowned for his ability to understand and battle terror and to communicate the danger that Islamists present to the world. Obama inserted the bogus issue of a settlement construction freeze into the negotiations, giving support to the Palestinians in their battle of wits against Israel, causing the talks to implode.

The president has been told how much ISIS has grown, yet he tells the American people that the group has been contained. There is no presidential leadership to indicate that the country will name the enemy and fight it, ridding the world of the threat. He called the Paris attacks a setback as he launched into his war against global warming, blaming it for the terror. Distanced and tone-deaf, he was forced to deliver an address to the nation, defending his strategy, which has been proven to be ineffective.

The administration and like-minded liberals refuse to acknowledge Islamic terror because they claim that acts of terror are not inspired by Islam. Terror is performed by radical groups, who are not Islam, who hijack Islam. Thus the administration never refers to Islamic terror, for it is not Islamic and Islam is a religion of peace. They claim there is nothing in Islam that would prompt believers to engage in terror. They ignore the fact that jihad is an Islamic concept.

For seven years, he has not taken the terror issue seriously. When an American was beheaded this past summer, he addressed the nation for a few moments and then returned to the golf course. With the anxiety in the country growing, he stood on Sunday night in front of his teleprompter and read the speech his aides forced on him. The president introduced nothing new to combat the rising terror around the world. He preached against looking at Muslims differently. He reverted to his agenda that Islam is a religion of peace and that gun laws are responsible for the carnage. He then went out to a Hollywood-style party.

Agendas based on fiction enslave a person, making him incapable of seeing things as they are, impairing him like a form of blindness. They hold back any hope of success in tackling the problem and instead, allow it to fester and grow.

The re-consecration celebrated on Chanukah is brought about by rethinking what we had thought was reality, remembering old ambitious dreams and letting go of darkness brought on by wrongful agendas. This enables us to lift ourselves out of whatever is pulling us down.

We are all familiar with the tradition that there are 36 hidden tzaddikim who sustain the world. Yet, we mistakenly assume that those individuals have a lifelong lock on the position. Rav Aryeh Levin taught that although there are 36 secret tzaddikim whose merit supports the world’s existence, anyone can be that tzaddik on any given day. Just because someone was ordinary yesterday doesn’t mean that he can’t be a tzaddik who upholds the world today.

Every person has the ability to rise to that exalted level. You just have to believe in yourself.

Perhaps the 36 Chanukah candles hint to that concept as well. The keis lamid vov, the concept of a cover being removed from the 36 candles that are kindled on Chanukah, is a reminder that we can be a lamid vov tzaddik if we remove the cover and see the ability we possess.

Perhaps we can say this is the reason why people present gifts to family and friends on Chanukah. The concept celebrates the notion that we can all have new beginnings. It reminds us that Chanukah is a celebration of the chinuch of the Chashmonaim.

When we think of new, we should know that there is nothing as new as fresh resolve, and nothing as promising and exciting as a new attitude.

Rav Nachman of Breslov reveals another meaning of the name of this month. Kislev, he says, is roshei teivos of “Vayar Ki Sor Liros” (Shemos 3:4). Hashem saw that Moshe Rabbeinu stopped to ponder the bush that was burning in the desert and not being consumed by the fire. The Seforno says that he paused and tried to understand the phenomenon he was witnessing, “lehisbonen badovor.”

Lesser people observe phenomenal occurrences and walk by, seemingly oblivious to what they have seen. They don’t want to have their comfort zone punctured by seeing something new that might cause them to look at the world differently. It is much easier and less taxing to look, say, “Wow!” and keep walking, without being challenged or getting involved.

Moshe Rabbeinu was different. Stopping, approaching and trying to understand what he was seeing marked him as a leader.

That is the avodah of Kislev.

Rav Zalman Sender Kahana Schapiro was famous throughout Lita and Poland as a talmid chochom and tzaddik. There were legends about his brachos, as everyone believed that they had a special power.

In his town, there lived a water carrier. One day, the am ha’aretz heard a speech about the importance of Torah and the respect that talmidei chachomim deserve for their accomplishments. He was convinced and decided that he would become a Torah scholar.

The unlearned, simple man went to the famed rov and asked for a brochah. “Rebbe, I want to become a talmid chochom,” he said. “Please bless me.”

The rov looked at the water-carrier for a long moment and said, “Reb Feivel, tell me that you want to become a talmid chochom.”

The water-carrier nodded eagerly. “Yes, rebbe, I do.”

“No, Reb Feivel. Shout it like you really mean it!” said the rov.

The water-carrier was a tall, burly man with a loud voice. “Rebbe, ich vil zein ah talmid chochom!” he shouted with all his might.

The rov’s household heard. Neighbors down the street heard the water-carrier’s voice.

The rov blessed him, and the uneducated laborer soon found his place in the bais medrash. He eventually became a choshuve talmid chochom.

In retelling this story, Rav Yeruchim Olshin wondered why Rav Zalman Sender made the water-carrier express his wish in that manner. Surely, the rov’s brochah would have worked regardless of whether the man shouted it at the top of his lungs or not.

Rav Olshin explained that Rav Zalman Sender wanted the fellow to perceive his own ability, contemplate the possibility of growth, and make a conscious decision. Then, the brochah is just an added benefit. No one can give us a brochah if we don’t first bless ourselves.

So perhaps that is the chinuch we celebrate on Chanukah - the opportunity to find a way out, to discover latent gifts within ourselves. Through contemplating them - seeing them for the first time - we allow them to shine.

That is why we don’t use an old ner. Find a new ner, we are being told. Tap into the message of these days and their power. We can find chiddush. We can bring newness into our lives.

Had I had the time, this is the message that I would have loved to share with the sweet Israeli teenager in the mall: Don’t wait for rabbi to come with the menorah. Don’t look outside of yourself for light. Don’t wait for others to be your shamash.

There is a fire within you. You just need to find the flame.

Ah lichtigen Chanukah.