Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Rope of Hope

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This week’s parsha of Yisro recounts the deliverance of the Torah to our forefathers. Since receiving the Torah, it has been our guide through the centuries, providing life and light for those who follow its laws and precepts. The Torah is what makes us a nation and sets us apart from all other people in the world.

We studied the parshiyos leading up to this defining moment. We studied the Jews’ servitude in Mitzrayim, Divine makkos, deliverance from slavery, traversing the Yam Suf, war with Amaleik, and, finally, arriving at Sinai.

The experience of the makkos, the hasty escape, the panic at the Yam Suf and the intense prayer were all meant to force the Bnei Yisroel into a situation of awareness. They needed to believe the reality of Hashem’s Presence in order to receive the Torah and become the Am Hashem.

The second to last makkah was that of choshech, darkness. All of Mitzrayim was frozen in a thick, blinding darkness. The Jews were unaffected by the makkah, and wherever they went, they had light.

Chazal taught that only one-fifth of the Jewish people merited leaving Mitzrayim. The others were not deemed worthy of redemption and died while the shroud of black engulfed Mitzrayim. Those who lacked the strength of faith to maintain their belief in Hashem and remain loyal to their customs and traditions perished and never made it out.

Rishonim and Acharonim remind us that what transpired to our forefathers is a precursor of what will happen to us. “Maaseh avos siman labonim.” The trajectory of the Jews in Mitzrayim foretells what will happen to us as we approach our redemption. The Jewish people will be faced with all types of nisyonos and will be exiled to foreign countries, dispersed far and wide. We will suffer greatly until the appointed time arrives. When it does, the nations who persecuted us will be dealt with. They will be punished with various makkos and then we will be set free and redeemed.

Today, we live in the period of ikvisa deMeshicha, leading up to Moshiach’s arrival. Just as during the period leading up to the redemption from Mitzrayim, today there is also darkness all around us. One doesn’t have to be too bright or perceptive to look around at the nations of the world and see to what levels of darkness they have sunk. It is like during the time of makkas choshech. They are locked into darkness and cannot see their way around.

The problem is that during this period, we are losing a tremendous number of Jews. Those who don’t have proper faith seek to blend in with the others and have forsaken the mitzvos and customs that keep us connected to the light-emitting Torah. Sadly, they are leaving our nation, rapidly blending into the surrounding darkness, and if we don’t reach out and bring them light and life, they will be lost forever to the Jewish people.

The Ruzhiner Rebbe would say that before Moshiach comes, the Jews will be holding on tightly to a large rope. The rope will shake several times back and forth. With each swing, more people will lose their grip and fall off.

Only those who have maintained their strength, tenaciousness and steadfastness will be able to clench the rope with enough strength to hold on. It is they who will be there at the time of the redemption.

Here we are, the rope is shaking, and we are holding on for dear life.

The challenges are tough. The tests to our emunah and bitachon are great. Tzaros abound. The good suffer, the weak squabble, and that rope swings like a pendulum.

Our European brothers debate wearing yarmulkas in public, just as they did in the early 1930s. Worldwide anti-Semitism spikes to pre-World War II levels and the Jewish situation around the world is precarious. Iran is enabled to threaten the world, Europe is overrun, and Israel is surrounded by vicious enemies dedicated to its destruction. But that’s not it.

Alongside the physical threats, there are many of a spiritual nature, and not all of our brethren are up to the test.

Last week, I received a press release joyfully announcing a merger in the world of Jewish day school education. I care deeply about the cause, so I read the release with great interest. By the time I was done, I was heartbroken.

This is how it began: “We are delighted to announce that Day Schools of Reform Judaism (PARDES), The Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), RAVSAK (The Jewish Community Day School Network), the Schechter Day School Network (Schechter), and the Yeshiva University School Partnership (YUSP) have all agreed to move forward towards the formation of a new, integrated North American Jewish day school organization.”

All the usual buzzwords appear: “The decision by our respective leadership to move in this direction is an affirmation of the centrality of day schools in Jewish life and reflects our dedication to seeing Jewish learning, literacy, culture and commitment flourish in a rapidly changing world. At the same time, it reflects the conviction of many in the day school community that we can all benefit from the knowledge, expertise and ideas of others, even if we express our Jewishness differently. As one organization, we can unify to strengthen day schools, the core of the Jewish educational enterprise.

And they continue: “This new organization, which we are calling NewOrg until we finalize its name, is committed to supporting and enabling financial vitality and educational excellence in Jewish day schools, and to building and strengthening a vibrant, visible and connected Jewish day school field. By pooling the talent, expertise and resources that have been dispersed among our organizations, NewOrg will be able to offer an expanded set of programs, services and networking opportunities to benefit the more than 375 schools and close to 100,000 students one or more of us already serve, and any other schools interested in participating. In short, we are confident that NewOrg will be greater than the sum of its parts. We hope you share our enthusiasm.”

Let us review what is happening. Everyone agrees that a Jewish day school education is vital to Jewish continuity. So what is Yeshiva University, the bastion of Modern Orthodoxy, doing about strengthening Jewish continuity and day school education? Is it teaming up with Torah Umesorah, the organization that literally invented day schools, founded them, staffed them and serviced them all across this country as it committed generations to Torah? Or is it teaming up with groups who have been proven a terrible failure, leading Jews away from Judaism, causing millions to disappear from our people?

The makkas choshech surrounds and engulfs us. Torah provides life and light for those who study it and cleave to it. They are Orthodox. Don’t they know that? Do they not believe it? Does anyone who cares a whit about Jews remaining Jews think that by teaming up with Reform and Conservative schools they will accomplish anything?

What has this world come to? Is there no shame anymore?

Study any poll that measures Jewish continuity and you will see how miserably the non-Orthodox are failing at keeping their children Jewish and preventing them from marrying outside the faith.

Speaking of polls, the Conservative movement itself is conducting polls. The movement’s leaders decided that they need a makeover. After all, they admit to losing a third of their members over the past twenty-five years and have doubtlessly lost many more. So as their members continue to drop out and marry out of the faith, they are looking to “rebrand.” It is the same emptiness, but with a new veneer and cuter slogans.

Take a look at what is happening to Conservative and Reform schools. They are losing kids, their schools are withering. Team up with them? Why? For what purpose?

And who is going to pay for this? The ones who will pay the ultimate price will be the children and families who are enticed into this farce, thinking that they will be getting a Jewish education that will enable them to have some light amidst the darkness and hold on to the swinging rope. They plead for a chance to bulk up and are thwarted. They ask for light and are given darkness. They seek a chance at eternity and are condemned to weakness and timidity.

The release says, “We are grateful for Avi Chai’s pledge of support to our new organization and look forward to partnering with other generous philanthropists – institutions and individuals – who are dedicated to building strength, excellence and vitality in Jewish day schools.” 

Avi Chai is a private foundation financed by the late frum billionaire Zalman Chaim Bernstein, dedicated “to the perpetuation of the Jewish people and Judaism.” I wonder how much this organization has contributed to Torah Umesorah, the real day school umbrella organization, and how much it contributes to schools under the Torah Umesorah umbrella, which work towards perpetuating the Jewish people and Judaism. If this organization were loyal to its goals, why wouldn’t it study its own survey of day schools to determine who is succeeding in perpetuating Jewry and Torah and who is failing miserably? Why are they supporting this new bureaucratic group, which will likely fail to commit generations to Torah?

Why are they pouring their money into those institutions instead of the schools bursting at the seams with thousands of children, forced to study in inadequate facilities and without being able to afford the educational tools available to others?

If they care about Jewish continuity and education, why do they not support the Orthodox Day Schools across the country so they can engage in broader recruitment and kiruv?

The Forward recently wrote of an Open Orthodox rabbi who went to serve as a principal in a Conservative school. Aron Frank is referred to as a “charismatic, yet down-to-earth rabbi,” who says, “I love yiddishkeyt to death,” and is “tremendously excited about this opportunity” to be the new principal of a school that “combines academic excellence with a warm, nurturing Jewish environment.”

He spoke of his experience as a principal in a similar school in Baltimore, saying, “I enjoy this engagement because it allows me to see Judaism through different lenses.”

“Honestly,” he adds, “I don’t believe in this concept of ‘Oh no, he stopped observing shabbos, what a failure! He stopped wearing a kippah, what a failure! Married a non-Jew, what a failure!’ Of course, we’re all naturally wired to feel validation when other people do what we do, but part of our challenge is to get over that inclination.”

This is the face of Open Orthodox chinuch and Conservative chinuch imparted to Jewish children and families across the country. It is a chinuch of darkness.

There are so many proud, committed, faithful, excellent schools around the country to invest in. Why pour money into this entity, which uses the popular banner of day school education to promote a losing agenda?

The rope is shaking. Hold on tight. Don’t be impressed by claims of pluralism and open-mindedness. Know who you are and be proud of your identity. Don’t do things just because they will look good in a press release and will be funded by a do-gooder foundation.

The rope shakes. Darkness continues to fall and claims more and more of our brethren. What are we doing about it?

We can only imagine what transpired during the awful period of slavery, as tens of thousands of grandchildren of Yaakov Avinu gave up hope. They simply could not hold on to the rope any longer. Mitzrayim, with its dark and corrupt values and attitudes, had become attractive to them. They viewed Judaism as backward and constricting. And then the plague of darkness descended on the country and those poor souls slipped away into oblivion.

They died during the makkah because Hashem wanted to spare them the additional ignominy of humiliation should their tormentors witness their deaths, funerals and burials. Perhaps there was some symbolism at work here as well. During makkas choshech, those who were unable to see the light and perceive a brilliant tomorrow because they were taken in - and fooled by - the darkness were punished as well.

How tragic.

Reb Peretz Chein was hosting an illegal gathering of chassidim in a dark basement somewhere in Russia. They needed to be invisible to the ever-present KGB and a dark cellar was their best bet. A new member of the group arrived late. He gingerly opened the door and began climbing the long dark staircase to the basement. There was absolutely no light and the new arrival stumbled on the steps.

He called down to the others, “I’m sorry. I can’t continue. It’s too dark.” He was going to turn around and climb back to safety, when one of the chassidim called up to him softly, “Don’t worry. In a moment, you’ll get used to the darkness and you’ll be fine.”

Reb Peretz sighed. “Oy,” he said. “That is the problem of golus. Our eyes get used to the darkness and we feel as if we can see.”

That’s the makkas choshech we are living through.

The challenge isn’t just to hold on, but to realize that what appears to be light, what seems to be an illuminated approach or idea, might well be exposed as darkness when Moshiach comes and the world is flooded with true light.

We - the few, the faithful - have another task. We cannot stand idly by while our brothers stumble in the darkness. We have to somehow find a way to maintain our grasp while still pulling others close. With condemnations, we won’t win them over. We need to keep every door open, loving each and every Jew like family.

Like most other Israelis, a young secular Israeli woman had been raised to be wary and distrustful of chareidim, but to respect rabbis. Somewhat confused, the girl was unsure what to think. She decided that she had to go see the chareidim for herself. She would go to Bnei Brak and pray with the largest congregation of chareidim she could find. She traveled from Tel Aviv and the towering building of the Ponevezher Yeshiva throwing off light in the darkness, beckoned.

She was quite impressed and decided she would return. She asked the women in the ezras noshim when it would be an appropriate time to come back. They told her about the upcoming Simchas Bais Hashoeivah on Chol Hamoed Sukkos. They said that she would love it, and they were right. She made her way through the jubilant crowds and found a spot in the ezras noshim, from where she could watch the singing and dancing below in the bais medrash. She was exultantly soaking in the scene when a woman approached and spoke a single sentence.

“Here, we don’t come without socks,” the woman said before stomping off.

The girl was devastated. She felt like something precious had been torn away from her and concluded that her place was not in the chareidi world. She sadly left the building, with the singing growing quieter in the distance.

When she returned home, she decided that before she completely turned her back on the chareidim forever, she would speak to the “rabbi” of Ponevezh. After all, she had been raised to respect rabbonim. Following Yom Tov, she made inquiries and soon found herself at the apartment of Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach.

She entered to find a long line of people waiting. The attendant looked at her and, somehow, understood, admitting her ahead of the others.

She entered the room and blurted out the story before the aged gadol, telling him what had transpired in his yeshiva.

He listened to her account of the humiliation she encountered and said very little.

Finally, he spoke. “You can’t take to heart what people say. You should push that woman’s words out of your mind, forgive her, and move on. But,” the rosh yeshiva continued, “let’s talk about you. That’s what is important.”

The young secular Israeli girl and the gadol hador spoke for a while and then she left.

Today, she is a mother and wife of a strong Torah family, holding that rope so proudly.

Rav Shach, the same person who once referred to himself as a “scarecrow,” a remnant from previous generations meant to frighten off those vultures who would tamper with the authenticity of Torah, was the very same person who could successfully welcome a distant sister.

He understood the dual responsibilities imposed by darkness: With one hand, we must hold tightly. With the other, we must save those who might fall away.

We must learn from him. Those who care about Torah and the way Torah is taught and transmitted must also care about those whose grip is loosening. We must throw them a lifeline, strengthen them, and show them a path of light to follow, so that they may live.

In Eretz Yisroel, thousands of volunteers working for Lev L’Achim reach out to our brethren and seek to bring them the light of Torah in makkas choshech so that they may survive and thrive amidst the darkness and live to await the arrival of Moshiach.What about in our country? Why don’t we have that feeling of responsibility here? Why is it only yechidim who reach out to bring Jews tachas kanfei haShechinah? Where is our achrayus? What are we doing to help even strengthen frum fellow Yidden who are struggling to cling to the rope of hope and life?

At the moment of Mattan Torah, the world was still. Birds didn’t chirp and sheep didn’t bleat. It was completely silent. The Chiddushei Horim explains that this is to teach us that to absorb Torah, we must listen to its message with full attention. There are many distractions vying for our attention. We have to concentrate on hearing the sound of the bas kol that comes forth each day.

We have to ignore the chatter, the nice-sounding sound-bites and the cute sayings, and hew to the truth.

As mentioned, the period in which we live is referred to as ikvisa deMeshicha, the time preceding Moshiach’s arrival. Rav Moshe Shapiro explains the term, quoting the Gemara (Shabbos 31a) which states that the word emunah, faith, is a reference to Seder Zeraim, which includes the halachos pertaining to planting, the proper conduct vis-à-vis terumos, ma’aseros and other obligations. The farmer is “ma’amin b’chayei olam v’zoreia,” he has faith in the One who sustains creation and he plants. Why does a farmer need more faith than any other worker? Doesn’t the tailor need faith to mend clothing? Doesn’t a doctor need faith to heal people?

The seed is unique in that it decomposes in order to cause growth. Parenthetically, this sheds light on the Yom Tov of Tu B’Shevat, the day when that rebirth begins, deep beneath the earth. We see nothing, but there are stirrings of new life, the perfect example of true faith.

The farmer needs extra conviction, because there will be no yield for him without the necessary breakdown of the seed. Darkness leads to light. As Chazal say, “Leka nehora delo nofik migoy chashucha - There is no light that doesn’t first come through darkness.”

The emunah of the farmer is the emunah of our nation as we wait for the final salvation to sprout like a seed.

Like a seed that appears to have withered and died, the heel is far from the center of the body, callous and insensitive to feeling. This period, is called “ikvisa,” the heel of time. We will have to exist on faith alone, seeing and feeling nothing.

It’s the moment of utter darkness, the blackest part of night before dawn breaks. The seed appears completely destroyed, because it’s on the verge of taking root and creating new life.

Along with the hope this brings, comes great challenge.

They are much more daunting. They are ideological, threatening not just our bodies, but the very faith we need to get out of golus. Our bond to the Torah is in jeopardy.

One of the 13 ikkarim, the bedrocks of our faith, is that zos haTorah lo sehei muchlefes, our Torah is unchanging and each word is eternally relevant.

Grab hold of it and don’t let go.

A new light will soon shine forth over the world. Those who are holding onto the rope of Torah will see it. Those who didn’t fall for false promises are still clinging to it. Those who weren’t fazed by clever catchwords of the times and remained loyal and committed to the truth will be redeemed. They will survive the makkas choshech.

Let us endeavor to be among that group.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Remaining Faithful

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Parshas Beshalach is an ode to a nation being formed through trial and tribulation. The Jews faithfully followed Hashem’s direction out of Mitzrayim and into the desert, “lechteich acharai bamidbar,” marching from the depths of slavery to the heights of Kabbolas HaTorah.  

Yet, there are some issues that require explanation. Following the makkos and the exit of the Jews from Mitzrayim, Paroh and his nation chased after their former slaves, catching up with them on the banks of the Red Sea.

Had Paroh and his people not learned their lesson? Had they not experienced enough bitterness and pain at the hands of the G-d of the Jewish people? Had they not recognized that they are no match for the G-d of the Jews, having lost every showdown with His nation? Why did they chase after them? What made them think that they would be able to subjugate them once again?

As for Paroh, Hashem had told Moshe (Shemos 14:4) that he would harden his heart and cause him to chase after the Jews in order to bring about a kiddush Hashem. But what about the people? Why were they engaging in yet another doomed attempt to vanquish the Jews? Anyone with minimal intelligence could have concluded that the Jews would triumph once again, as they had repeatedly in the past. Why engage in a suicidal mission?

While perhaps we can understand that the Mitzriyim were somehow charmed by Paroh and under his influence, what about the Jews? As Paroh approached them, they let out a hue and a cry. They assaulted Moshe (Shemos 14:11-12), saying, “Are there not enough graves in Mitzrayim that you brought us here to die in the desert? We already told you in Mitzrayim that we would prefer working for Mitzrayim rather than dying in the desert.”

Is it not mind boggling? These were the very same people who just a few days prior had been delivered from the clutches of Mitzrayim. They shechted and partook in the Korban Pesach, they heard Hashem’s promises about their future in the Promised Land, and they answered their children’s questions, as prescribed by the posuk. These were the same people being led by the protective Anan Hashem during the day and the Amud Aish at night. Why were they fearful? How could they have sunk so quickly to express no confidence in Hashem’s ability to save them from Paroh?

We commonly understand avodah zorah as the inane worship of an inanimate statue or human being. Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l (Ikvisa D’Meshicha) explains that avodah zorah is actually embracing any concept or attitude that causes one to believe in a power or force other than Hashem. Any belief that distracts a person from Hashem’s mastery over creation is avodah zorah.

The Mitzriyim who followed Paroh to encircle the Jews and capture them and the Jews who complained that they were about to die in the desert had something in common, as Chazal teach us. “Hallalu ovdei avodah zorah, vehallalu ovdei avodah zorah.” Both were worshippers of avodah zorah.  

While it seems silly to fashion a god out of marble and worship it as if it has any powers, worshiping a false deity has many advantages, for it frees people from obligations. To have recognized the power of Hashem would have obligated the Mitzriyim to follow His principles. Acknowledging that Hashem is indeed the Creator of the world and Omnipresent means that His Torah is the blueprint for the world and for man. 

The Egyptian legends and myths were much easier to accept than a truth that came with a code of proper conduct.

The Jews were at the 49th level of tumah and under the influences of the Mitzriyim. As obvious as it may be to us in hindsight, as objective observers, it was very difficult for the Jews to shake loose the preposterous suppositions that they had become accustomed to. Prior to Krias Yam Suf, they still found it difficult to accept upon themselves the Divine code of conduct and fashioned imprudent postulations to explain their predicaments.

At the splitting of the sea, the Jewish people rose to a very high level, recognizing Hashem’s strength and singing shirah. Chazal say at that time, a “maidservant witnessed greater visions at the sea than the prophet Yechezkel ben Buzi ever saw.” It would appear that when they attained those heights, they overcame their weaknesses and would remain in awe of Hashem’s mastery of the world.

Yet, the same people lifted from the depths of impurity, who witnessed the open revelation of Hashem’s Presence and cried out, “Zeh Keili ve’anveihu,” seemed to fall ever so quickly.

Their plunge was as dramatic as their rise. Three days after the climax, they were again complaining (Shemos 15:22), crying out, “Mah nishteh? What will we drink?” as if Hashem had brought them there for them to die of thirst (Shemos 15:24).

Hashem’s answer is revealing. The posuk (ibid. 26) states that they were told, “If you listen to Hashem and do what is proper in His eyes, and follow His mitzvos and chukim, I will not place upon you the illnesses I placed upon Mitzrayim, for I am Hashem, your healer.”

Their complaint about the lack of water emanated from a lack of belief. Hashem’s response was to remind them of their obligations as people of belief. If they would totally forsake their mythical beliefs, Hashem would be their protector. Although they knew the truth of Hashem, they had begun to slip back into the clutches of avodah zorah because of its convenience.

Avodah zorah is akin to drug addiction. Although it is obvious that the drugs do not help the person’s situation and merely create fictitious realities that cause the addict to be drawn into a downward spiral, the freedom from obligation and reality is too enticing a panacea to overcome.

With that incident behind them, they began moving, only to once again fall from their lofty plateau and complain that Moshe and Aharon were leading them to a painful death of starvation. They claimed that their life in Mitzrayim was idyllic, with prime beef and luscious bread.

What happened? Where had the tangible emunah disappeared to?

Once again, they were experiencing the ebb and flow of addicts. It was proving difficult for them to accept upon themselves the discipline that comes from recognizing Hashem. Their emunah and bitachon suffered, because they lacked the courage and fortitude to completely accept the restraint and regulation that accompany the acceptance of the fact that Hashem is the Creator.

The story is often retold of the time a former student of Rav Chaim Soloveitchik in Yeshivas Volozhin who had veered from the path of Torah visited his rebbi. The maskil told Rav Chaim that he left the path of Torah because of certain questions he had. He said that if Rav Chaim could provide satisfactory answers to his questions, he would resume living the way he did while in Volozhin.

Rav Chaim told him that he would answer his questions, with a caveat. He would engage him in conversation regarding the questions he had before he became unobservant. As for the questions that began bothering him after he had left Volozhin, Rav Chaim said, those aren’t questions. “They are answers,” he said. “Those questions are rationalizations to validate the choices you made. They are excuses and a convenient defense for you as you submit to your urges and ta’avos.”

The nisyonos faced by the Dor Dei’ah are just as daunting to our generation today. We don’t worship little idols and other vacuous trivialities, but we are tempted by other avodah zorahs. People worship money and fame, power and influence. They delude themselves with fictitious beliefs so that they can engage in physical pleasures. Anything that negates the fact that Hashem controls the world is a form of idol-worship and avodah zorah. Every Jew recoils in horror from the thought of avodah zorah, yet we tread dangerously close when we attribute actions to forces other than Hashem.

Society has adopted the theory put forward by Charles Darwin that the world created itself and animals evolved from shapeless matter into living, breathing beings. Everything you see in our beautiful world, they say, arrived there by itself. The millions of atoms required to form one being somehow managed to arrange themselves in that way to become trees, flowers, birds and all of humanity. The very idea is preposterous.

To think that a human, or any part of him, could have come into existence by itself defies logic. Flowers created their multiple shapes, sizes and colors all by themselves? How can it be? Who can really believe that? The truth is that no one can, but people do anyway, for doing so frees them from being subservient to a divine code of conduct.

Dr. Henry Marsh, a British neurosurgeon, is one of the pioneers of a procedure called “awake craniotomy,” allowing the removal of certain brain tumors while a patient is awake.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, a Norwegian author, was allowed to witness one such operation. His account was translated for The New York Times.

He writes that one of the operating doctors “looked up from a microscope that was suspended over the brain and turned to me… ‘Do you want to have a look?’ he asked.

“I nodded.

“The doctor stepped aside, and I bent down over the microscope.

“Oh G-d.

“A landscape opened up before me. I felt as if I were standing on top of a mountain, gazing out over a plain covered by long, meandering rivers. On the horizon, more mountains rose up. Between them, there were valleys, and one of the valleys was covered by an enormous white glacier. Everything is gleaming and glittered. It was as if I had been transported to another world, another part of the universe. One river was purple, the others were dark red, and the landscape they coursed through was full of strange, unfamiliar colors. But it was the glacier that held my gaze the longest. It lay like a plateau above the valley, sharply white, like mountain snow on a sunny day. I had never seen anything quite as beautiful, and when I straightened up and moved aside to make room for the doctor, for a moment my eyes were glazed with tears.”

Yet, scientists, intellectuals, common people and lawmakers have the audacity to say that the brain created itself. There is nothing as beautiful as this organ, rarely seen by human eyes. The brain is merely one organ of millions and its beauty and intricacy is mind-boggling. Imagine if you factor in the awesomeness of the Grand Canyon, the beauty and grandeur of every component of the world, the intricacy of a leaf and a blade of grass and insects and the cosmos. 

How can anyone who knows anything about anything in this world mock creationists?

It is hedonistic urges that drive people to Darwinism.

The Chazon Ish taught that a necessary component of greatness is to always be objective. It might seem obvious, but to be free of negius means to be firmly committed to the ramifications of emunah. Great people are entrenched in their faith and aren’t dissuaded by temptations of money or power, since they know that everything comes from Hashem. If they are deserving of something, they do not have to obtain it through subterfuge.

When they investigate an issue, when they are consulted for advice and direction, their judgment can be relied upon.

A group of assimilated students once approached the Alter of Novardok, wishing to discuss finer points of religious ideology. He agreed to have the conversation, but said he would talk to them only after they had spent a month studying in his yeshiva.

He explained his decision with the following parable: A simple person was walking along the street on a Shabbos afternoon when he saw a golden coin. He needed the money badly and began to find ways, according to halachah, to permit moving the coin on Shabbos. His reasoning was quite creative, and he was satisfied with his conclusions and kicked the coin step by step as he walked down the street towards his home.

The town banker was taking his Shabbos afternoon stroll and noticed the gentleman kicking a coin as he walked. He bent down to examine the coin. When he straightened up, there was a frown on his face. “I hate to break it to you, mister,” he said. “That coin is copper, not gold. It’s worth pachos mishoveh pruta.”

Suddenly, all the heteirim vanished and the man sulked away, shuffling his tired feet home. His excitement upon winning the lottery was dashed and he was done with his creative halachic reasoning.

The Alter of Novardok turned to the group. “That’s the truth for everything that captures us. If it holds value, then our reasoning is impacted and we are unable to think clearly. Only when we get rid of our misconceptions can we appreciate our errors and honestly examine the issues.

“As much as I would like to help you in your thinking, it would be a waste of time for me to speak with you while you are still held captive by the allure of your culture and philosophy. After you have spent some time in yeshiva and your minds are cleared, I will be happy to talk.”

It is only at the very end of the parsha that a change seems to overcome Am Yisroel, and for many parshiyos they do not rebel against Hashem.

The pesukim relate that as Amaleik descended upon the Jewish people, something changed. Moshe, Aharon, Yehoshua and Chur led the charge against Amaleik. When Moshe raised his hands, the Jews advanced in their battle. The Mishnah teaches that when the Jews put their faith in the One Above and davened for victory, they won. That emunah and bitachon remained with them until Seder Bamidbar.

The parsha ends as Hashem instructs to write down the story of Amaleik’s attack and to know that Hashem will erase the memory of Amaleik. However, that realization will wait until Moshiach’s arrival, for until then, we will face attacks from Amaleik in every generation.

Perhaps Amaleik sensed a lack of emunah and pounced. They saw a void and sought to expose it and take advantage of it. The nation of asher korcha baderech worked assiduously to tamp down the fires of faith.

When the members of Klal Yisroel asserted themselves, they emerged stronger than ever. They believed with a new certainty and focus not just that Hashem runs the world, but also that everything else is just a distraction from that reality.

The encounter with Amaleik served to tighten their embrace with Hashem and bring them closer to Har Sinai. Similarly, in every generation, when Amaleik attacks us, he causes us to reaffirm our beliefs and turn to Hashem. This is why Hashem promises that our arch-enemy will be ever-present until the redemption. We need him in order to remain loyal to Hashem.

As we adapt to our host country in the exile, people grow comfortable with their neighbors and surroundings and begin assimilating and adopting the prevalent avodah zorahs. When that happens, the nations rise up against us, anti-Semitism rears its ugly head, and we are reminded who we are and where we come from.

Check our history and you will see that it is true. The Jews are forced from their homes to a new exile. There is much pain and anguish. Jews are mercilessly killed and robbed of their possessions. Beaten and barely holding on, they establish roots in a new country. Slowly, they spread out of their ghettos and gradually become accepted and comfortable in the new host country. Good times are had by all, but then, just as it seems as if Moshiach has come and brought us home, the cycle begins again. The goyim get fed up with us, the noose tightens, and, before we know it, Amaleik has us on the run again.

This time it is different, for we have been told that America will be the final stop in this exile. When we leave here, it will be to go to Eretz Yisroel. We must ensure that our faith remains firm, that our objectivity holds us in place, and that we don’t veer off the path.

Amaleik is ever-present, bombarding us daily with all types of challenges, moral, legal and ethical. He seeks to temp us with various avodah zorahs. In the spirit of “asher korcha,” he seeks to cool us from extreme devotion and dikduk b’mitzvos with different guises and nomenclatures. Sometimes, they sound intelligent and sophisticated, while at other times, they are directed at man’s baser temptations.

We must always keep our guard up. Whenever something comes along and causes a chillul Hashem, we should know to stay very far away. When people begin doubting rabbis, or halachah, or mesorah; when people throw up roadblocks to shemiras hamitzvos; when they mock our values and talmidei chachomim, seeking to adapt Torah to other cultures and religions; when they say that we must be more open-minded or accepting, we should recognize the voice of Amaleik.

To survive, we must remain faithful to our mesorah, unyielding in our devotion to Torah, untempted by anything that introduces foreign beliefs, and support the hands of the Moshe Rabbeinus of our generation with emunah, bitachon, tefillah and humility. By doing so, we will merit the final geulah, bemeheirah beyomeinu. Amein.  

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Strength, Character and Resolve

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Reb Fishel, a well-known chossid who was considered an oveid Hashem, was niftar and someone who was present was quite impressed with his behavior during his final moments. He shared what transpired with their rebbe.

He told the Kotzker Rebbe that Reb Fishel was on his deathbed surrounded by talmidim, teaching and transmitting deep lessons.

“What did he teach?” asked the rebbe with interest.

The wide-eyed chossid related, “The talmidim asked him if the yeitzer hora was attempting to ensnare him as he lay dying, or perhaps he let go during man’s final moments. Reb Fishel’s answer shook us to the core. He said, ‘Yes, even now, as my soul prepares to depart, the yeitzer hora is attempting to persuade me to recite a loud, passionate Shema Yisroel so that you might all be impressed with my piety. Ubber ich veiz em a feig. I won’t accommodate him.’”

“With that, rebbe,” the chossid concluded the story, “Reb Fishel passed away.”

The rebbe thought for a moment and said, “Yotzah nishmaso befeig,” he said. The yeitzer hora had succeeded as the chossid breathed his last.

The Kotzker understood that the yeitzer hora had schemed for the pious Reb Fishel to pass on seeking approval and admiration from others. It wasn’t the fervent Shema Yisroel, but the story of his exchange with the yeitzer hora that trapped him at that final moment.

The yeitzer hora is the craftiest enemy we face. Because he understands our motivations, he is able to outsmart us time after time. For us to perceive the plainly evident truth is an epic struggle, for he shades and colors the way we understand what is transpiring around us and goads us to react in ways that harm us.

He uses words and ideas that paint negative actions as positive and convinces us that public approval is a good litmus test of truth, while it is quite often the opposite. He tells us that not all who wander are lost and endeavors to remove our focus from the goal.

The Alter of Slabodka would incorporate this message in a single phrase: “Maskilim say that one must know the world. Chassidim say that one must know one’s Creator. And we say that one must know himself.”

The skewered reality, representing the value system of the alma deshikra in which we live, is on prominent display during the election season.

The most powerful tool in the arsenal of any candidate is public opinion. To exploit this device to its fullest, politicians take polls. Pollsters taint the results in favor of the candidate they prefer or are paid to promote.

While it is common knowledge that many of the polls are slanted, people still quote them and use them to determine the direction of a political race. Based on the faux presentations of public opinion, politicians make fateful decisions that profoundly impact their country and the rest of the world.

The media drums the propaganda into people’s psyches until the public is swayed into embracing a platform it would not have supported otherwise. Everyone wants to be with the winner, so the polls suggesting that a particular candidate will triumph ends up having a demonstrative impact on public opinion.

Witness the spectacular rise of Donald Trump. The surging candidate relates to people on their level and does not play to the conventional themes or seek to endear himself to the media or political bosses. He doesn’t respond to polls. He says what he believes, going over the heads of those thought to be in charge of public opinion. He has thus upended the rules of the entrenched ruling class, as he gains adherents to his campaign to return sanity to government.

Mainstream politicians and media talking heads and foot troops continue to predict his downfall, because they don’t understand his power and cannot figure out how to beat him. They know that should he get elected, they and their operating system are doomed.

They don’t understand that a leader can win by selling his true beliefs, though those views have not been blessed with the imprimatur of the politically correct wizards.

Trump thinks on his feet, doesn’t use a teleprompter, and connects with the masses by giving voice to their thoughts. The old-style politicians memorize slogans and speeches that are found by polls to be appealing, and they repeat the same tired narratives day after day.

Mrs. Clinton is a prime example of that type of candidate. The media would have you think that she maintains an insurmountable lead and is the inevitable Democrat nominee. In fact she is neck and neck with socialist Bernie Sanders in the upcoming states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

The media would have you think that she is unbeatable, though she has never excelled at much. Everything she touched during her four years in the State Department blew up, from the reset with Russia, to the war in Libya, embassy in Benghazi, tongue lashings of Netanyahu etc. She leaves behind her a trail of lies and incompetence wherever she goes.

She is eminently beatable by Trump or anyone else who dares to take her on and peel away the fictitious veneers of brilliance. That should not come as surprise to anyone who follows her and notes her reticence to answer questions, appear in public, speak extemporaneously or connect with voters to any degree.

Mainstream politicians are so scared of saying something that one group or another will find offensive that they fear to say the truth. There is rarely any intellectual honesty displayed. Everything has to fit in to a convenient politically correct box.

Whether they present themselves as conservative or progressive, everyone knows that they don’t really mean what they are saying. Ask them a question and you get a canned, cagey response. Press them on an issue and watch them squirm their way out of answering. It’s all about spin, lobbyists and spokesmen. Even if they do have a personal opinion, they never share it with anyone, certainly not with the voters they are seeking to represent.

Last week a Philadelphia policeman was shot by a Muslim who said he was acting in the name of Islam. “He stated that he pledges his allegiance to Islamic State, he follows Allah and that is the reason he was called upon to do this,” Police Capt. James Clark said at a news conference. “He kept on echoing those sentiments and he wouldn’t give us anything more than that.” But the city’s new mayor would have none of it. He announced at a press conference that, “This… has nothing to do with being a Muslim or following the Islamic faith.”

The US is under attack, there is a war between radical Islam and the West, yet the country’s leaders refuse to recognize that simple fact. If they are blind to the facts how can they ever win? We have to deal with the world the way it is, not the way we would like it to be. As the posuk states, “Besachbulos taaseh lecha milchomah,” when doing battle, you must have a correct appraisal of your enemy and a candid and intelligent plan for victory. You will not win if you fool yourself.

We have to learn how to address our own issues using real solutions and honest ideas, not noise or sound-bites. What we need is practical direction, not grandstanding for the glory of the moment or fanciful thinking that has no application to reality. It is far easier to deliver big speeches and to propose sweeping changes than to sit far from the limelight and develop a workable solution. Clearly thought-out approaches will have a lasting salutary effect on the community long after the speech has been forgotten.

Applause is not an indicator of anything lasting.

In Parshas Bo, we are commanded to rid ourselves of all leavened products before the onset of Pesach. In Gemara Pesochim (12b), Rava discusses the reason Rabi Yehudah maintains that on Erev Pesach it is permitted to eat chometz only until the end of the fourth hour, even though the chometz must be burnt at the onset of the sixth hour. He explains that since Rabi Yehudah holds that chometz must be destroyed by burning, Chazal gave us an hour during which to gather branches to build the fire.

Why do Chazal measure the amount of time to prepare the fire with branches and not with a fast-moving accelerant? If we were to fuel the fire with oil instead of wood, the fire could be lit much quicker.

If you have ever burned your own chometz, you know that a fire fueled with gasoline burns spectacularly, but quickly fizzes out. A fire that is lit with carefully layered twigs will last far longer and will burn all the chometz as halachically required.

If you take the easy way out and pour gasoline around the chometz, the fire will dissipate before the chometz has been destroyed. Yes, the flames will erupt in a heated rush, but your mission will not be accomplished.

If you only set fire to the bread itself, the fire will not catch on. It is only if you expend the effort of setting a bed of twigs and lighting it methodically that the fire will sustain a heat level sufficient to fulfill the mitzvah of tashbisu, destroying any chometz in your possession.

The yeitzer hora is symbolized by chometz, and this lesson applies in doing battle with him as well. Slowly, methodically, one can chip away at him. Spectacular ceremonial shows of might achieve nothing.

When we light fires, and as we seek to put them out, we need to use foresight and intelligence. If we act with clear-headed decisiveness, then we will not be led to acts of desperation when our plans fail.

We should not be swayed by what others say, by what seems popular, or by what pollsters decide is the winning track. Our actions must be grounded in Torah, our thoughts by halachah. Our conduct with others must be based on mussar. The way we deal with talmidim and children must also be grounded in halachah and mesorah.

We cannot afford to act strictly in the moment guided by what only appears to be right. A parent or educator might feel that a situation calls for harsh measures or severe discipline, but emotions should play no role. Halachah, not what our feelings are at the time of the infraction or what seems to be popular among so-called experts, should dictate how we act.

Additionally, when we want to expunge se’or from our hearts and lives, when something undesirable needs to be uprooted from our world, the temptation is to go for the fireworks. Yet, that approach often boomerangs. At the very least, the success it supposedly generates is short-lived.

Our egos prevent us from seeing things as they really are. If we don’t understand what is really happening, we err. We fail when we think we are smarter than our leaders. We fail when we think that time-hallowed customs and modes of conduct are old-fashioned. We fail when we think that we are smarter than those who have come before us.

Vayechazeik Hashem es lev Paroh” can be explained to mean that Hashem caused Paroh’s inflated opinion of himself to prevent him from acting prudently. He let his emotions blind him from acknowledging what was plainly obvious to any objective observer. “Haterem teida ki ovdah Mitzrayim?” his servants challenged him. “How can you not see that Mitzrayim is on a collision course with disaster?”

Paroh was robbed of understanding his own abilities, strengths and weaknesses because he was unaware of himself and therefore crippled by petty calculations and rotten middos. Deluded of clear vision and lacking humility and clear perception, Paroh led his people to the brink of disaster. Then, when he could have saved them, he led them over the brink to drown in the Yam Suf.

Great leaders see past themselves. They are able to see several steps ahead and provide counsel that will benefit the listener in the long run. Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l once said, “Before I make a suggestion to someone and provide guidance in a trying time, I imagine meeting this neshomah in the Olam Ha’emes. As I visualize that, I consider whether I would be satisfied with what I told him. If I am, I proceed with my guidance. If I think that I will be embarrassed in the World of Truth by what I advised him, I resist sharing my thoughts.”

To succeed, we have to be honest with ourselves and conduct a frank cheshbon hanefesh about where we are, where we ought to be, and how to get there. We have to set priorities, seriously examining what is real and what is fiction, what needs to be addressed and what is trivial.

We have to ensure that we are acting responsibly, with foresight, and resist the urge to grandstand or act compulsively in a manner that will momentarily warm us, but which will prove futile in the long run.

We cannot be guided by polls or short-term solutions. We cannot permit our egos to derail us as we face epic challenges. The temptation is to walk on the popular path towards the spotlight, but all too often, that path ends in a dead end and the spotlights burn out before we can reach our goal.

The Torah, in speaking of makkas bechoros, commands us (Shemos 12:24-25) to observe this as a chok for us and our children and to bring the Korban Pesach when we merit entering Eretz Yisroel. The posuk continues (ibid., 26-27) that when your children ask you to explain the avodah, tell them that the Korban Pesach commemorates the miracles Hashem performed for us when we left Mitzrayim.

When our children want to understand our way of life, we explain to them that we come from a long chain of bnei Avrohom Yitzchok v’Yaakov. We are proud of our heritage and commemorate what Hashem did for us in years past until this very day. We don’t fudge issues. We don’t provide contemporary responses because we think they are better than stating the truth as it has been related for thousands of years. We don’t seek to blend our religion with others or paper over differences.

With pride and love, we give the same answers to our children that our parents gave to us and their parents gave to them. That ensures a “leil… shimurim lechol Bnei Yisroel ledorosam.” If you follow the precepts, laws and explanations of the Torah, you will be protected throughout all your generations. As long as the eternal truths guide us, we are safe. When we act contrary to our mesorah, we are at our own mercy and incapable of enduring.  

The Korban Pesach must be eaten slowly, symbolic of the deeper avodah.

On Sukkos, we recite the prayer of “Hoshana nefesh mibehalah - Save the soul from turbulence.” Rav Shmuel Halevi Wosner zt”l would recite this tefillah on Purim as well. He would recite the words repeatedly, asking Hashem to spare us from the unrest, behalah, and allow us to consider our actions slowly and carefully, focused on a bigger picture.

Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l once recounted that there were many things about Rav Wosner that impressed him, such as his learning, his yiras Shomayim and his precision in halachah, but most prominent was his menuchas hanefesh and the way he carefully considered every word and gesture. This was the manifestation of his tefillah of “Hoshana nefesh mibehalah.”

As the yahrtzeit of my grandfather, Rav Eliezer Levin zt”l, approaches, I recall that what was most impressive of his many admirable attributes was his ability to always be calm, no matter the situation. When I asked him his secret, he reminded me that for the seven years he spent in the Kelmer yeshiva, he worked on the middah of savlanus. A savlan cannot be buffeted about. He remains calm and serene, while being strong and determined, despite the tests of life.

Rav Levin was blessed with a long life and much success and aliyah, but he knew tragedy as well. In all situations, he remained steadfast and calm, buttressed by emunah and bitachon. He was a paragon of gadlus, epitomizing the grandeur of Torah.

We operate with a long-term plan. Our decisions are also about tomorrow, not just today.

This awareness resides within the neshomah of every Jew, explaining the deepest mysteries of life and representing the strength of emunah. Many questions arise because people look only at temporary results instead of past them.

In this alma deshikra, we can’t always see the emes. We can’t see tomorrow, but we believe it will arrive.

Ba’alei bitachon, bnei Torah, baalei mussar, chassidim and gutteh Yidden of all stripes believe in tomorrow.

We fail to be impressed by who appears to be rising and who “the olam” says is falling, because we see past the moment. We ignore what my zaide would refer to as the “hoo-haa” of this world. We remain focused on what we know to be the truth and believe that “sof ha’emes lenatzeiach,” in the end, the truth will be victorious. Everything else is temporal and meaningless.

Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt”l would often relate that he was present when the Chofetz Chaim zt”l said, “I see black clouds over the skies of Europe. There is grave danger facing Am Yisroel.” He would state that upon hearing those words, Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l began to tremble. Rav Elchonon asked his rebbi what the end would be. The Chofetz Chaim replied by quoting a posuk: “Uvehar Tzion tihiyeh pleitah vehayah kodesh (Ovadiah 1:17). In Eretz Yisroel, a remnant of Jewry would survive.

“But rebbe,” Rav Elchonon asked, “in Eretz Yisroel the leaders are secular. Is that the destiny of Klal Yisroel? To join forces with those who work against the Torah?”

The Chofetz Chaim answered, “It says vehayah kodesh. The novi chooses to add a vov hahipuch, denoting that he speaks of the future. It will be holy. He is teaching us that in Eretz Yisroel, too, there will be an upheaval and, in the end, forces of kedushah will reign.”

The Chofetz Chaim was assuring salvation to us, the she’airis am echod, the last generation of golus. He foresaw the process, the clouds and the darkness, and the happy ending.

May we merit the strength of character and resilience of the eternal people to be present on the great day of which the novi foretold.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

The Fruit Peel Syndrome

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

We learn in this week’s parsha that Moshe Rabbeinu could not turn the Yam Suf into blood during makkas dam, for, as Rashi explains, “The Yam Suf protected Moshe when he was cast into it [as a baby]. For this reason, he did not bring about the makkos of dam or tzefardei’a, instead, they were done by Aharon” (Rashi, Shemos 7:19).

Moshe was saved by those waters as an infant, when he was placed there in a basket. Out of gratitude to the water, he would not hit the water to set off the makkos of dam and tzefardei’a. The Gemara derives from this that a person should not cast stones into a well from which he drank.

Likewise, Moshe Rabbeinu did not strike the ground to bring forth lice during the plague of kinnim, because, as Rashi explains, the dirt “protected him when he killed the Egyptian and buried him in the sand” (Rashi, Shemos 8:12).

Although dirt and water have no feelings or bechirah, Moshe showed appreciation for the benefits he received from them. Because hakoras hatov is not about the benefactor, it’s about you, the recipient. Do you appreciate the daily goodness out there? Do you appreciate everyone who has helped you get where you are, or do you ignore the little people and the things from which you benefit?

Our heart rates quicken as we learn with excitement of the punishments Hashem rained upon the evil Mitzrim, but, at the same time, there are lessons there right under the surface for us to study and lead our lives by.

Our world is plagued by people who treat others like peels. As long as they need them, they keep them well-protected and refrigerated. Once done with them, they throw them into the nearest garbage pail and seek out another fruit to peel and benefit from.

We must recognize that people are not objects that you use to the maximum and then, when you think you have gotten everything you can, you trash them, forget about them, ignore their calls, don’t say good Shabbos to them, and move on to the next person you can squeeze dry before eventually dumping him. It doesn’t matter if you are a rabbi or a baal habayis, a fundraiser or a person who just got engaged. Never think you’re done with someone or don’t need them anymore. Always remember what they did for you when you needed them.

If we are cognizant and notice everything that goes on around us, we are better people. Moshe Rabbeinu didn’t refrain from hitting the water and sand out of concern that he would, in some way, be hurting the water, an innate, inanimate object, but, rather, because he would be hurting himself. Though water has no feelings, Moshe knew that he does, so how could he possibly act disrespectfully to something that helped him?

Bilam had no problem doing so when he hit his loyal donkey. At the time of creation, the animal was given the gift of speech so that it could berate Bilam for smiting the beast of burden. And what did the animal say? It gave Bilam mussar: “After all I’ve done for you, how dare you hit me!”

An animal is a creature whose entire being was created to serve man, yet it has a right to complain when a person beats it. A person who presents himself as intelligent and close to G-d must behave with kindness and compassion to others, and to do so, he must be the type of person whose refined character is fashioned through appreciation of what others do for him. Not doing so earned Bilam the ire of his donkey and eternal derision.

Last week, an all-too-rare instance occurred when a good man was exonerated. After much Justice Department and media hype, the jail sentence of Uri Lupoliansky, former mayor of Yerushalayim, was commuted. The founder of Yad Sarah, Israel’s largest medical equipment gemach, Lupoliansky is a hero to many. His selfless acts on behalf of all the residents of Israel had been called into question thanks to an alleged association with a corrupt land deal begun by his predecessor, Ehud Olmert. With the successful appeal, friends shared tales of the former mayor in his good old days.

A friend of mine, Shlomo Kook, shared an article he wrote recalling the time Lupoliansky went to invite Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv to his son’s bar mitzvah. It was more out of a sense of courtesy and respect, for the senior posek was recuperating from serious surgery and was extremely weak. He had not left his home for some time and missed many family simchos. 

When Lupoliansky departed, Rav Elyashiv informed his family and attendants that he would be going to the bar mitzvah celebration. “But how can you?” they argued. “The rebbe doesn’t go anywhere, and besides, Uri is not even expecting the rebbe to come.”

Rav Elyashiv pointed to various devices in the room. “The bed is from Yad Sarah. The walker is from Yad Sarah. That monitor is from Yad Sarah. I have benefitted so much from them. I’m mechuyov in hakoras hatov to Reb Uri. How can I not go?”

“But he benefited from you much more than you benefitted from him,” Rav Elyashiv’s relatives responded. “After all, because of your support, he became the mayor of Yerushalayim.”

Rav Elyashiv taught them a lesson. He said, “You’ll argue that he doesn’t need me to come. I agree that he’s mevater. But hakoras hatov isn’t remuneration, tashlumin, that you pay someone for a favor they did for you. Hakoras hatov is a never-ending obligation, because the Ribbono Shel Olam wants us to be people who always remember that everything is a gift. Hakoras hatov is an opportunity and a means of keeping our value system intact. It is not about him. It is about me.”

Developing the middah of hakoras hatov is essential to our growth. It is so easy to take others for granted. Great people remember the little things. We are placed in this world to achieve greatness. It starts with the little things. Appreciate even what simple people do for you. Always be courteous and you will grow. It is not for nothing that if you look up the word appreciate in a thesaurus, you will see that included in its synonyms are gain, grow and rise.

The posuk in Mishlei (27:21) speaks of the gauges used for precious metals. A refining pot is for silver and a furnace is for gold. And what of man? The posuk concludes, “And a man according to his praise.”

Rav Elya Lopian explained that when a silversmith appraises the value of silver, he uses a refiner to see how pure it is. The measure of a man’s purity is seen in “mehalelo,” which literally means praise. The best indicator of a refined nature is a person’s ability to give thanks and praise.

Rav Chaim Shmaryohu Dardak, a Bnei Brak resident, was close with the Steipler Gaon. His son, Rav Yaakov lived in America and was also helpful to the Steipler.

One day, the son wrote a letter with a question pertaining to a chapter in the Steipler’s sefer, Kehillos Yaakov. Although the Steipler was old and no longer responding to letters, he toiled over his response to the young man, reviewing the questions and answering each one, adding another chiddush. When he was done, he gave the letter to the senior Rav Dardak to send to his son in America.

A few days later, there was a knock at Rav Dardak’s door. It was the Steipler himself.

“Did you already send the letter?” the Steipler asked breathlessly.

“No, not yet,” the father answered.

Boruch Hashem. I rewrote it. Please use this one,” said the Steipler.

The father accepted the paper and went to replace it in the envelope he had prepared to send to his son when he would find someone traveling to America. He compared the two letters and noted that they were the same length and appeared similar.

Bewildered, he hurried to the Steipler’s home. “Yelamdeinu rabbeinu. Why was a new letter necessary if there were no changes?”

The Steipler explained, “I don’t write letters anymore, as you know. I no longer have the strength or energy to respond to people in writing, but when your son wrote, I knew that I would make an exception. After all, I reasoned, how can I ignore someone who helped me so much? Where’s the yosher in that? So I sat down and wrote a letter, which I gave to you.

“Then,” the Steipler continued, “a few days passed and I reconsidered. Should I have written out of a sense of duty? Out of obligation? No! The correct attitude should have been hakoras hatov, appreciation towards a person who helped me. So I felt like I had to rewrite the letter, allowing feelings of hakoras hatov to guide me. The content of the two letters is the same, but the second one is totally different from the first!”

The recipient would likely not have discerned the difference between the two letters, but the Steipler was teaching that hakoras hatov is about us, our internal avodas hamiddos and spiritual balance.

Perhaps we can understand why this lesson is taught in Parshas Va’eira, at the formative stage in which the family of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov becomes the Am Hashem. Rav Chaim Vital in Shaarei Kedushah (perek 1) famously writes that there is no Biblical mandate to have good middos, but proper middos are a prerequisite to receiving the Torah. It’s the hakdomah to the Torah. These parshiyos at the beginning of Sefer Shemos lead up to the parshiyos of kabbolas haTorah. A nation destined to receive the gift of Torah had to first develop proper middos.

Throughout the story of the servitude in Mitzrayim, we see chapters that indicate this, including the nobility of spirit of the wives who endured oppressive days, but would lift the spirits of their husbands at night. We note the selflessness and sacrifice of the shotrim, who accepted beatings on behalf of other Jews. We study the chesed performed by the mother and sister of Moshe Rabbeinu, spiting Paroh to help newborns and their mothers. And as the makkos come, Moshe teaches another lesson.

There was no one better to teach that lesson than he, the onov mikol odom, the most humble of all men, who understood that everything is a gift. It’s the ba’al ga’avah who refuses to recognize how beholden he is to those around him, for his arrogance precludes him from seeing the truth.

A rosh yeshiva once noticed a married talmid waiting on a street-corner outside his yeshiva, clearly agitated. “Let me guess,” the rosh yeshiva said. “You’re waiting here for your wife to pick you up and she’s late.”

The fellow nodded. “Exactly.”

“You’re cold and hungry and just learned a full first seder and you don’t want to wait. You’re wondering why she can’t just be on time, right?”

The yungerman blushed and admitted that, yes, those were his thoughts.

“Now, here is what I want you to do,” the rosh yeshiva said. “Until your wife comes, contemplate how much you owe her, how much hakoras hatov she deserves, how she married you and takes care of you, and how she raises your children and encourages you and respects you. Don’t think about anything else and you’ll see that when she comes, you will feel it - and she will feel that you feel it!”

Rav Avigdor Miller said many years ago that along with everything else, thankfulness is a segulah for good health and long life. Life is too short to be spent angry, insulted or resentful about perceived wrongs. Training yourself to see the chassodim all around opens one up to new avenues of happiness.

Science is catching up to Rabbi Miller. This week, The New York Times reported: “Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, who studies the ‘science of gratitude,’ argues that it leads to a stronger immune system and lower blood pressure, as well as ‘more joy and pleasure.’”

But don’t depend on scientists to arrive at proper hakoras hatov.

The article continues: “Consider this, from a yoga instructor on ‘Cultivate your sense of gratitude by incorporating giving thanks into a personal morning ritual such as writing in a gratitude journal, repeating an affirmation or practicing a meditation. It could even be as simple as writing what you give thanks for on a sticky note and posting it on your mirror or computer. To help you establish a daily routine, create a ‘thankfulness’ reminder on your phone or computer to pop up every morning and prompt you.

“The Harvard Mental Health Letter begins its list of gratitude interventions with the advice that you should send a thank-you letter as often as once a month, but all the other suggested exercises can be undertaken without human contact: ‘thank someone mentally,’ ‘keep a gratitude journal,’ ‘count your blessings,’ ‘meditate,’ and, for those who are so inclined, ‘pray.’”

The columnist makes the point that it is “possible to achieve the recommended levels of gratitude without spending a penny or uttering a word. All you have to do is to generate, within yourself, the good feelings associated with gratitude, and then bask in its warm, comforting glow. If there is any loving involved in this, it is self-love.”

Perhaps chochmah bagoyim taamin, but not middos. Even when they preach and teach about basic human values, it is not to enhance others, or the world at large, but rather to make yourself feel better. Hey, you want to feel good? You want to live long? The solution is simple: Have gratitude. Keep a journal. Write an entry and, voila, you become a grateful person and bask in the glow of gratitude. You can be a kofui tov and be grateful. Gratitude is merely something cuddly that selfish people can use to feel good about themselves. 

Gratefulness has nothing at all to do with hakoras hatov.

Moshe Rabbeinu was engaged in a battle with Paroh, the ultimate kofui tov. The savior of Mitzrayim and its economy was Yosef, but the king claimed that he didn’t know who Yosef was, lest the memory obligate him to something (Shemos 1:8).

The awareness that we give ourselves through being makir tov is to enable us to learn to see, recognize and perceive the truth. It is the secret to having emunah. Paroh was a kofer and Moshe was a ma’amin.

We are still living in difficult times. There are painful reports from all over, so many suffering families and individuals, so many victims of all sorts.

It’s easy to fall into the rut of negativity, to complain and whine.

Life is rough. Parnassah doesn’t come easy. Chinuch has never been harder.

Moshe Rabbeinu teaches us how to achieve geulah and how to develop emunah.

Look deeper. See the people around you. See how everyone is trying their best. See how much chessed the Ribbono Shel Olam fills His world with wherever you are.

There is a new awareness of the need to show hakoras hatov to rabbeim, which began with a duet of speeches delivered by Rabbi David Ozeri. This past Motzoei Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Mandelbaum announced at the dinner of his school, Yeshiva Orchos Chaim in Lakewood, NJ, that the rabbeim of his mosad would be receiving a $10,000 raise.

This is commendable. Rabbeim and moros are the foundation of our chinuch system. For too long, they have been taken for granted. The time arrived a long time ago for mechanchim to be paid a living wage. Their work needs to be appreciated. Besides, if we want our children to be educated well, we have to ensure that their teachers are motivated and not barely floating along on the poverty level. Why should anyone capable go into a field in which they cannot properly feed and clothe their children?

When we finish establishing a system to help the rabbeim, we must work to ensure that parents, who are already overtaxed with all the expenses of living in today’s age, including paying tuition, should not be driven further to despair. Our society is beset by many problems, and the root of them is very often financial. People who work for a living simply cannot make ends meet. Between tuition, taxes, food, insurance, clothing and mortgage or rent, many are forced to resort to a never-ending cycle of loans in order to live with a drop of dignity.

We can’t solve all the world’s problems, and certainly not in one shot, but we need to acknowledge them and seek realistic solutions while being aware of the laws of unintended consequences. For ourselves and for our society, remember that people aren’t fruit peels.