Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Listen, Learn & Lead

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This week’s parsha, Ki Sisa, contains apexes of glory and splendor, depths of catastrophe, and a cataclysmic blow, followed by the greatest message of forgiveness in the Torah.

The tragic error and climb back to teshuvah resound through the ages.

The Bnei Yisroel were counted and they learned of the ketores and its powers. Hashem told Moshe that he had selected Betzalel to construct the Mishkon and its keilim and the bigdei Kohanim. The gift of Shabbos was granted to us and Moshe was given the luchos.

But then the people sinned and constructed the Eigel, changing the trajectory of history until this very day. Moshe descended from his greatness and shattered the luchos as he witnessed the depravity to which his people had sunk. He summoned the Leviim and waged war against the sinners.

Hashem wanted to destroy the Jews, but He relented after Moshe’s pleas and quick action. Moshe was allowed to ascend the mountain once again and transcribe the luchos. Hashem revealed the 13 Middos to Moshe and promised to allow the nation to enter The Promised Land.

It is apparent that as those who gave birth to the Eigel strengthened and accomplished their goal, Moshe weakened. The instigators of the Eigel, which they said would lead the Jews as they believed Moshe’s return from the mountain had been delayed, were the Eirev Rav, who had joined the Jewish people as they exited Mitzrayim. When they succeeded in persuading Aharon to tentatively accede to their plan, Moshe was told, “Lech reid.” He was instructed to go down and return to his people.

Chazal say (Brachos 32a) that in commanding, “Lech reid,” Hashem was saying, “Go down from your greatness, for I have only made you great because of Yisroel, and now that Yisroel has sinned, of what use are you?”

Very strong words.

The Peirush HaGra on Chumash (Shemos 32:7), quoting the Tikkunei Zohar, says, “Ispashuta d’Moshe bechol dor vador. In every generation, there is a nitzutz, a part of the neshomah, of Moshe Rabbeinu present in one great man.” Through him, the light of Torah is transmitted to all the talmidei chachomim of the generation. All the chiddushei Torah that is nischadeish in the world is through the “hashpo’as ohr,” or influence, of Moshe Rabbeinu.

Several times a week, we say, “Vezos haTorah asher som Moshe lifnei bnei Yisroel… beyad Moshe.” We extend our fingers and try to see the holy letters on the parchment, proclaiming not just that the words form our Torah, but that the Torah was given specifically through Moshe.

The repeated testimony to this fact - not just that the Torah is ours, but that Moshe is the one who gives it to us - underscores the fact that we are recipients. “Tov ayin hu yevorach - One who has a bountiful eye will be blessed” (Mishlei 22:9). This, Chazal teach us, refers to Moshe, who had the ultimate ayin tova: He gave us the Torah and the ability to plumb its depths. He gave us the koach to “own” Torah.

The chet ha’Eigel put that whole gift in jeopardy.

At the time of the Eigel, Moshe became weakened to such a degree that the luchos were broken, causing a diminution of Torah knowledge and leading to all the exiles our people have since endured.

The Vilna Gaon writes (Even Sheleimah 13:8) that in our time, the Eirev Rav is basically composed of five groups of people: baalei machlokes and lashon hora, baalei ta’avah, hypocrites, people who seek honor to make a name for themselves, and people who crave money. He continues: “The worst are those who cause machlokes, and they are Amaleikim. Moshiach will not arrive until the world is rid of them.”

Our actions have consequences. What we permit other people to do has consequences. We all know that machlokes plagues our people, but we need to declare that we have had enough of it and rise up against those who cause machlokes. We need to work to spread peace and harmony in our community. We need to put aside petty differences. We need to work together and support good people doing good things instead of playing along with hypocrites and greedy people. There are many good people out there. Let’s get behind them and enable them to change the playing field. Let’s give people a chance.

Everything we have and want depends on that.

There are ramifications when we do a mitzvah. It strengthens us and strengthens the world. It adds kedushah to our lives and also allows us to tap into the ohr of the nitzutz of Moshe Rabbeinu.

Perhaps most relevant to us is the power of people to create change. The Eirev Rav weakened Moshe’s abilities by sowing dissent and confusion, taking away the koach that had fueled Klal Yisroel’s leader.

Once again, current events provide an excellent moshol.

It may very well be that Donald Trump has not yet formulated policies or serious ideas about governing, but nobody cares, because he gives voice to the attitude that empowers the people. He talks about the real fear in American homes, the desire to triumph, the hope of being winners again. He continues to fill large arenas, peddling that message, and by doing so, he makes the professional politicians look silly. His bluster and banter echo the conversations in coffee shops and gas stations across the country, and the people are throwing their support behind him. Tens of millions of frustrated Americans see him as a person who will really do something about what is troubling them. He is thus on the path to the White House, unless someone else can assume that mantle.

The old ways of experts, polls, position papers, don’t cut it anymore. People want action. They want someone who talks like them and gives voice to what they want. They want him to be truthful and straightforward. They don’t want nuances and they don’t care for long political records and pedigree.

Leadership starts from the ground up.

When Shlomo Hamelech was given the ability to choose any gift, the wise king didn’t select power, might or influence. He asked for a lev shomeia, a heart that would perceive and discern the needs of others. He wanted the ability to really hear.

A wonderful gift, to be sure, but what does it have to do with his mission to lead?

Baalei mussar explain that Shlomo Hamelech understood that the surest way to lead is to listen to the people and to develop an authentic and genuine interest in what ails them and what they care about. A leader who can accomplish that will earn the affinity of the people and they will follow him.

That is exactly what we see transpiring today in the political arena.

We must learn the lesson in our world as well.

In order to battle the Eirev Rav of our day, in order to curb machlokes which weakens the Moshe Rabbeinus of the dor, in order to get us closer to the coming of Moshiach, we have to be more intelligent about the way we address people. It is way too easy to preach and lecture others, admonishing them for what we think they are doing wrong, but that may not be what works anymore.

To be an effective leader and communicator, you have to listen to the people and understand how they think and why they act the way they do. We have to live in the moment and perceive the current mindset in order to bring about change. We have to have a lev shomeia if we want to influence people to lead better lives and to give up their petty battles and other behaviors that are in line with the conduct of the Eirev Rav.

I always tell people to read the Yated, if only to stay current and know what is going on in the big world out there. If you don’t know what is going on, you don’t know the news, and you don’t know what people are thinking, how do you think you can be relevant?

Build people up. Have faith in them to be better and do better. Let them know that you think higher of them and their abilities. Don’t always knock them down. Try building them up. Talk positively. Don’t only preach doom and gloom.

Nobody wants to hear the same old tired narratives they’ve been hearing for years. They want something fresh that relates to them. Don’t harp on things. Show them the beauty of Torah. Don’t offer curses. Offer blessings. With a warm, loving demeanor, you can influence many more people than with a scowl. As the age-old proverb goes, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

We need to win people over. We have to win the battle. Let’s be plugged in to the hearts and minds of the masses and work intelligently to convince them to improve and to grow.

A story is told about a fellow who comes to shul and sits in his seat straight through until Shemonah Esrei. After davening, the rov bangs on his shtender and points out that it is improper to sit while reciting Vayevorech Dovid.

The man speaks up and says, “A halbe yohr, half a year, zitz ich ohn parnossah, I ‘sit’ with no source of income, and no one says a word. One day zitz ich beim davenen and I hear all about it.”

The way to create change is to build up the people through warmth, concern and a lev shomeia, not by talking down to them or castigating them.

It was the people who gave Moshe Rabbeinu the koach and the people who removed his koach when they rebelled with the sin of the Eigel.

Lehavdil, it’s the people propelling Trump forward, something considered illogical and impossible by pollsters and pundits not savvy enough to appreciate Shlomo Hamelech’s wise request.

Listen to the people and you will lead.

Rav Yeshayale of Kerestir zt”l was one of the most beloved and revered tzaddikim in prewar Hungary. Jews from all across the country were drawn to his tiny town, eager for the rebbe’s brochah and advice.

Once, before tekias shofar on Rosh Hashanah, Rav Shayele closeted himself in his room to prepare for the exalted moments. A chossid peered in, certain that he would see the rebbe engaged in Kabbalistic ritual, saying Tehillim or toiling in Torah.

The chossid saw the rebbe patiently slicing pieces of cake and preparing platters. The rebbe noticed the curious chossid and explained. Since the minhag of chassidim is not to eat before tekios, the rebbe understood that the mispallelim would no doubt be famished by the end of davening. He wanted to make sure that none of them, especially the elderly chassidim, would have to wait following davening and that they would be able to enjoy Kiddush and a bite of food immediately.

The rebbe used the moments before tekios as Shlomo Hamelech taught. Rav Shayele connected with the hearts of his people and prepared food for them. Only after doing that, was he ready to go to tekias shofar and plead on their behalf, for he was a good leader.

A yeshiva bochur was found being mechalel Shabbos a few times in his yeshiva dormitory. The heads of the yeshiva went to Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l for pro-forma permission to expel the boy.

Rav Shach was in his twilight years, extremely weak and feeble, and rarely saw people. Because of the severity of this situation, the roshei yeshiva were permitted to enter his room to discuss the matter with him. He listened to them and was engrossed in thought for several minutes. Finally, with a weak voice, he said to them, “What is the financial situation in the boy’s home? Do his parents have shalom bayis?”

The rabbis were bewildered by the questions. “How should we know what goes on in his home?” they asked.

Rav Shach strengthened himself, grasped the table, and pulled himself up in his chair. Tears were flowing down his cheeks and his voice was stronger than it was before. He turned to the people who had come to his home convinced that he would rubber stamp their decision. “Rodfim, leave my home! I don’t want to talk to you. You don’t know what is going on with the boy. You don’t know what is going on in his home. The only thing you know is that you want to put him out in the street. Leave.”

Like all parshiyos and lessons in the Torah, these lessons are eternally relevant.

We have a fractured dor. We need to connect to our brethren and understand what lies in the hearts of the members of our nation and what keeps them awake at night. What worries them? What bothers them? What are their wants and desires? Do they have ambition? Do they want to excel at anything? If not, why not? Are they making ends meet? Do they have a decent place to live? Can they afford their rent or mortgage? Are they happy with the way their children are turning out? How is their health? What is the path to affecting their thoughts and behavior?

When we can answer those questions, we can lead. We can bring people together, work together, and fix what ails us, as one people with one heart.

We need our leaders to be strong and our people to be good. In order to accomplish that, we must wipe out the vestiges of the Eirev Rav from our midst and benefit from the unblocked light of Moshe. We have to work to cure what ails us in a way that will succeed.

The Torah was given with an ayin tovah. With an ayin tovah, we can spread the ways, lessons and messages of the Torah and create the greatest change of all, allowing the arrival of Moshiach.

• • •

In honor of the 25th anniversary of my dear friend Rav Shimshon Zelig Sherer’s leadership of K’hal Zichron Mordechai in Flatbush.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Hineini You Can Count On Me

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The seeds of all future construction campaigns throughout the Jewish millennia were planted in the final parshiyos of Seder Shemos. The roots of the thousands of shuls, yeshivos and mekomos haTorah from Israel to Spain, Egypt, Morocco, Poland, Lithuania, Russia, the United States, Australia, Hungary, Poland, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and everywhere in between are in the parshiyos of these weeks.

The first campaign was for the Mishkon, as we learned last week in Parshas Terumah. Philanthropic Jews contributed more than enough of the supplies required to construct the home for the Shechinah in this world. 

This week, the opening appeal was for shemen zayis zoch; the first drop of oil squeezed from olives, collections of which were used to fuel the menorah. Moshe Rabbeinu is told (27:20) “Ve’atah tetzaveh, you shall command the people to bring donations of virgin olive oil.”

Hashem told Moshe to forcefully command them to bring this donation, using the word “tzav,” because Moshe had pled and cajoled them to offer this donation, since preparing oil as required for the menorah is a cumbersome and time-consuming task. A simple appeal wouldn’t suffice.

A few pesukim later (28:3), Moshe is told, “Ve’atah tedaber el kol chachmei lev asher mileisiv ruach chochmah - You shall speak to the wise of heart whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom,” and discuss with them the obligation to fashion the special clothing the kohanim wore as they performed the avodah in the Mishkon.

In this instance, Hashem didn’t tell Moshe to command the wizened people to tailor the necessary clothing. Rather, He simply directed Moshe to tell them what was needed. This is because when addressing perceptive, insightful people, implicit speech is sufficient. They get it. They immediately perceive the opportunity to contribute and appreciate the role they can play in the house of Hashem. They don’t have to be cajoled and persuaded.

Throughout our long history, any time a need arose, there were two reactions. There were people who had to be forced to participate, prodded and embarrassed into contributing. Then there were those who were smart enough to be generous, kind and giving. When the Moshe Rabbeinu of the generation asked for something, they came forward.

It is thanks to the goodhearted, smart people that we have been able to survive through the ages and thrive in times such as today, when, thankfully, we are blessed with people who understand their role in sustaining others and creating the proper infrastructure for the mikdashos me’at that we merit to have among us.

The theme of recognizing our obligations resonates throughout the parsha.

The reason that Moshe Rabbeinu’s name does not appear in this week’s parsha, though he took a very active role in everything described there, is connected with this theme.

Hashem charged Moshe with leadership when he stopped to gaze at the phenomenon of the burning bush (Shemos 4:14). Instead of seizing the mandate to lead the Jewish people out of Mitzrayim, Moshe hesitated and Hashem became angry with him. The posuk states, “Vayichar af Hashem,” Hashem’s anger burned against Moshe, but the posuk doesn’t expound on the effect of the anger.

Rabi Shimon bar Yochai (Zevochim 102a) suggests that Moshe was in line to receive kehunah as well as malchus. He forfeited the opportunity for kehunah when he objected to Hashem’s request that he lead his enslaved brethren into freedom.

As a result of that “charon af,” divine anger, Moshe lost the kehunah that was to be entrusted to him. His family was replaced by Aharon and his sons to serve as kohanim, whose task was to serve in the Mishkon and create harmony between Hashem and his nation.

The Baal Haturim explains that the Torah was sensitive to Moshe’s feelings and therefore omitted his name from the parsha that details the particulars and measurements of the bigdei kehunah. He was hurt by the loss of the position that required the special clothing prescribed in the parsha. In a show of sympathy and not to cause him more aggravation, his name is not mentioned as these halachos are transmitted.

Tetzaveh reinforces the timeless truth that we are all expected to fulfill a mission. When the orders come our way, we must seize them. Otherwise, we risk losing everything. Moshe was a melech meant to serve as kohein gadol as well. When he demurred, although well-intentioned, he caused charon af to enter the world and his malchus was weakened. The opportunity for serving Hashem via kehunah was taken from him.

There is a well-known medical askan who spends most of his time shuttling between doctors and hospitals, trying to help people. A friend of mine asked him what keeps him going and how he is able to find energy for each new case. “It’s simple,” this tzaddik replied. “I think to myself that if I don’t do it, Hakadosh Boruch Hu will find someone else to do what I do. He has no shortage of soldiers and I don’t want him to find someone else. I want Him to use me.”

That is the lesson taught by Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, who espouses the opinion that kol Yisroel bnei melochim heim. Inside every one of us, there is a measure of royalty, malchus. We all have within us the ability to make a difference, to take responsibility and master a mission. We all know what we should be doing. We all know that there are people who desperately need help. Some need a shoulder to cry on and some need a listening ear, a friendly message and brotherly warmth. We can do it. We can be the soldier who performs that task. Or we can shirk the responsibility, make believe we didn’t notice, and be too busy and too involved with ourselves to bother with others. We can either rise to the occasion or slither away. It’s up to us whether we claim the mantle and rise or sink into selfish oblivion.

It can be difficult and time-consuming, but most of the time we can be lifesavers just by showing up. It can be trying and we might get condemned and mocked for doing the right thing, but we must do it anyway. Those who show strength and determination in the face of bullies and bloggers earn eternal blessings and gratitude. Those who are scared away by lesser people are themselves minimized. Those who stand up to scoffers and leitzim are rewarded with the bris of shalom. The ones who seek peace for themselves by apathetically ignoring the evil doers and those who spread vindictiveness, hatred and machlokes in our world are just as guilty as the perpetrators. Rise up and take a stand and you will awaken the malchus within you. Sit on the side and chuckle as you catch up on the latest blogged meshugaas and your internal ben melech shrinks.

Pay attention during krias haTorah this week and you can hear a harbinger of the upcoming season and the defining question of the Megillah: Umi yodeia, who knows, im lo’eis kazos higa’at lamalchus. Esther Hamalkah feared approaching the king to ask him to save her people. Mordechai admonished her, saying, “Who knows if the reason you were put in the position of queen was to save the Jews at this very moment?” (Esther 4:14).

Every one of us has moments when we hear this posuk, when we know that we can really make a difference. Yet, we find excuses and shrug off the responsibility.

If we want to maintain our stature of malchus and don’t want the Ribbono Shel Olam to find another candidate to carry out the job, we have to say, “Hineini, I am ready. Hineini, I know I can do it. Hineini, you can count on me.”

The Baal Shem Tov taught a deep lesson about how every word a Jew hears and every scene he witnesses has relevance to him. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be exposed to it.

Rav Yaakov Yosef Polnoye disagreed that actions and words that swirl around a Jew have any connection to him and his avodah, and he told his rebbi as much. “I can’t accept what you are saying,” he said.

The Baal Shem Tov looked at him and said, “Yes, you can, but you don’t want to.”

As Rav Yaakov Yosef was walking home following the discussion, a peasant laborer stopped him. His cart was weighed down with bushels of wheat and was too heavy for the man to move by himself. “Can you help me push this?” he asked.

Rav Yaakov Yosef, who wished to quickly reach his destination, shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I can’t,” he said.

“Yes, you can,” the laborer retorted, “but you don’t want to.”

Rav Yaakov Yosef stopped in shock. The peasant had echoed the rebbi’s words, reinforcing their truth. Hashgochah protis means that everything we hear has personal significance and meaning. And in his case, the message was about not making excuses.

You can, but you don’t want to.

How often do those words apply to us, if we’re being honest? How many times each day are we faced with situations when we know what’s right, but we sit back, waiting for others to step forward and do the heavy lifting?

Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l would recall the hanochas even hapinah of the yeshiva in Kletzk, where he served as a maggid shiur. The rosh yeshiva, Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l, delivered an impassioned droshah about the centrality of Torah and the great merit of hosting a yeshiva. When he finished speaking, gabbaim brought out two huge barrels and placed them on the site where the future yeshiva would be constructed. The townspeople, who a moment ago stood enraptured as Rav Aharon spoke about the yeshiva that would be erected at this site, hurried home. The men came rushing back holding money in their outstretched hands. The women came bearing jewelry and silver. Like their ancestors in the midbar, after the call of Moshe, with tears of joy running down their faces, they threw their valuables into the barrels, ecstatic about the merit to build Torah in their town.

When the barrels were overflowing, the people returned home. But almost as soon as they had left, they returned with shovels. They began to dig, eager to create the hole where the yeshiva would establish its home.

Might that outpouring of love, achrayus and enthusiasm be the secret of Kletzk - and the yeshivos it spawned - and the reason that legacy flourishes so gloriously?

Binyan haMishkon called for a leadership that was different than what substitutes for it today. Too often, leaders are people who deliver rousing speeches from behind a microphone, but never get off the platform and take a shovel in hand to get the job done. A leader must possess the ability to size up the situation and find solutions to problems, rising up to the challenges, confronting them, and surmounting them.

The Jews of Kletzk who emptied their cookie jars and ran with their jewelry and shovels were leaders. They were royalty. They may not have been brilliant speakers or seasoned activists, but they were chachmei lev. They built Torah for eternity.

The media is enjoying the current election cycle, as readers and viewers are sending ratings spiking, closely following an epic struggle for the nominations.

Many see the frontrunner as a buffoon, an outspoken megalomaniac and a money-loving self-promoter. They wonder how it can be that people fall for him and his rants. They don’t get why people are besotted by him. They look on in amazement, as the entire election centers on his ideas. He drives the discussion, he leads the polls, and people are in awe of him. How can it be?

The people are hungry. And angry.

Americans placed their hopes upon a man who promised hope and change. They bought into the media’s narrative that the Democrat candidate was a master communicator who delivered soaring rhetoric and would bring a fresh approach to governing. They have since been let down by his lack of courage and conviction and failing at every juncture in his presidency. He led them to a budget and security precipice and the tough-talking Republicans who promised to keep the country safe and curb Obama’s enthusiasm for big government and deep deficits did nothing to block him as he marched to his own drummer, steadily losing domestic support and international respect. Jobs are evaporating, health care is spiraling out of control, the country’s enemies have been strengthened, and friends have been spurned. The country is weak and in constant danger. Everything costs more than when he became president, and we are worse off as a nation. The Republican leadership allowed it to happen, opting to make backroom deals and contenting themselves with tough talk.

Donald Trump feeds into the rage over being ignored. His success is an indication of just how unrepresented the rank and file feel. They see his flaws. They see his political inexperience, but they consider it an asset. They see him as a man who has accomplished much in his business life and think he will bring fewer excuses, less double-talk, and more action.

The lessons of this election, which sometimes appears to be more satire than reality, are very relevant to us in our world as well. People are fed up with speeches that appear to be serious and meaningful, but are essentially soliloquies of fiction. People seeking direction and help are fed ambiguities. They turn to people they thought were paradigms of responsibility, only to be rebuffed and ignored. Mainstream is outstream, while establishments are viewed as redundant vestiges of bygone eras searching for relevancy. People are fed up, they want real leadership, real leaders, real people who relate to them and are honest and forthright.

This week’s parsha teaches us that everyone can be a chacham lev. Everyone can rise to the occasion. We don’t need to be forced. We don’t need to be challenged. We don’t need to be embarrassed to do what is right. We hear the voice of Hashem call out to us as we learn Torah and mussar. We are reminded by our parents and rabbeim of what is important and what is folly. Those lessons are there, waiting for us to accept them and act upon them.

Every time we are presented with an issue, we must say to ourselves, “Umi yodeia im lo’eis kazos higata.” Maybe the reason Hashem blessed you with what you have is so that you can help out this rosh yeshiva or rov who is in need of assistance, or the hardworking professional who can’t make ends meet, or the lonely person you encounter.

Maybe He gave you strength so that you will rip off the veil from a sheker that ensnares people and causes rifts. Maybe you should use your charm and ability to make sales to raise money for good causes. Maybe your thick skin was given to you so that you can fight destructive people and their agendas without letting their attacks affect you.

Most of us know that we could be doing so much more, but good thoughts are not enough. Remember the Mishkon, remember the bigdei kehunah, remember the peasant at the side of the road. Know that you can, and that you must want to.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Great Reunion

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Imagine a land where people have no appreciation for music, where the sounds of song are never heard. In a country like that, instruments are viewed with suspicion and voices raised in harmony are quickly stilled.

Unbeknownst to each other, there are lone individuals who dot the country and love music, but they keep it a secret. In the solitude and seclusion of their homes, they might play a few bars and hum a melody, but only quietly.

One day, word spreads of a gathering, where all of them will come together, the musicians and the singers, those who love to sing and those who love to hear. They will ignore the disdain and disapproval of the masses and congregate, their instruments and voices joining together.

It will be the most glorious song ever heard, the secret longing and hopes of so many, more than a thousand sounds fusing as one.

It’s the “metzius,” the very fact that this gathering will take place, that gives vent to the song within the participants.

This analogy helps explain the way the Vilna Gaon (Shir Hashirim 1:17) describes the power and potency of the Mishkon. Every individual Jew was walking around with a flame in his heart, but until they had a place where they could unite; a physical location where they could connect; those passions lay dormant.

The Mishkon allowed the collective fires to unite and light up the world. There, the secret could emerge. Like musicians meeting up and creating song, a nation of dveikim baHashem found each other in this sacred structure, elevating the landscape.

The Shechinah resides inside the heart of every good Yid. The Mishkon is the place where all those Yidden gather, as the Shechinah that dwells inside of them comes alive and expands, kevayachol. Hashem therefore commanded to take a “terumah” from every “ish asher yidvenu libo,” allowing every person to contribute from his heart towards the construction of the Mishkon, enabling all the hearts to join together in this special place.

In the Mishkon, every feature reflected Divine mysteries and each element was filled with cosmic significance. Just as the calendar ushers in the month of Adar, we begin reading the parshiyos that detail the particulars of the construction of this special place.

The month of Adar has taught us that, as a nation, we can achieve salvation. The shekolim that were collected symbolize that the Mishkon was meant to achieve the sense of shared purpose and desire that defines every Jew.

Achdus is a current buzzword, often misused as a catchphrase manipulated to paint those of us who have standards and traditions as haters. If we dare call out the falsifiers of the Torah for what they are, we are condemned for lacking achdus.

The Mishkon, which was the epicenter of unity in the universe, came with severe restrictions. While everyone could contribute to its construction, there were many halachos delineating who could approach the Mishkon and who couldn’t, who could perform the avodah there and who couldn’t. Achdus comes with rules. It is not a free-for-all, as some would have you think.

The pesukim at the beginning of Sefer Bamidbor (1:50) charge shevet Levi with assembling and dismantling the Mishkon and its keilim when the Bnei Yisroel traveled. Any outsider who dared approach and attempt to do the coveted work specified for shevet Levi would be killed. There were also precise rules for each one of the keilim.

Achdus doesn’t mean an absence of rules. It doesn’t mean that anything goes. It means that everyone who beholds holiness has a unique role to play in the mosaic of Yiddishkeit.

While detailing the laws of the Mishkon, the posuk says, “Vehayah haMishkon echad – And the Mishkon will be one.” What does the Torah mean with this addition? The Ibn Ezra explains that the oneness of the structure reflects the oneness of Hashem’s creation. It reflects harmony and unity.

The Bnei Yisroel became one, coming together at Har Sinai and then at the Mishkon, individual sparks of fire within each joining together in a torch. The Shechinah in each person joined together at this special place, bringing back the Sinai experience, forming a home for the Shechinah in this world and a place where the voice of the Shechinah could converse with Moshe.

The Me’or V’shemesh writes that chassidim would make it a priority to travel to their rebbe for Shabbos to be inspired. But the prime growth was not necessarily derived from the rebbe’s Torah or tefillah. He writes that chassidim achieved more than anything else from simply being together. Each chossid who went to the rebbe for Shabbos automatically had tens of new teachers, the other Jews with whom he was gathered, each one of them able to teach him something. From this one, he learned about kavanah in davening. In that one, he saw the definition of oneg Shabbos, and in a third, he observed extraordinary middos.

The achdus created multiple rebbes.

The Ari Hakadosh told his talmidim to recite the words “Hareini mekabel alai mitzvas asei shel ve’ahavta lerei’acha kamocha” before starting Shacharis. These words are printed in some siddurim. What is the significance of the particular mitzvah of ve’ahavta lerei’acha kamocha before starting a new day’s tefillah?

The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (12:2) explains: “Unity and connection in the lower realms create a bond in the higher spheres, and the tefillos join together and are beloved by Hashem.”

The feeling of connection that a Jew experiences as he walks into shul - Yankel’s cheerful good morning, Moishe’s careful Birchos Hashachar, the way Chaim respectfully holds the door for an older man - opens gates in Shomayim. The shared fire they have created is more powerful than their individual points of light.

I have a neighbor, a delightful Sephardic gentleman, who enjoys teasing me on Friday night as we leave shul, asking me, week after week, what the carrot on the gefilte fish symbolizes. While I’m not privy to the mysteries concealed in ma’acholei Shabbos, of which there are many, I enjoy the exchange, because it hammers home a beautiful truth. He will go home and eat his traditional Shabbos foods and I will eat mine, yet we agree about why we are eating them, whom we are honoring, and what we hope to achieve. He revels in his points of light and I revel in mine, and together we thrive on our individual mesorah handed down generation after generation through the millennia of the exile.

Rav Avigdor Miller would say that Shabbos is our Mishkon. He explained that this is hinted to by the fact that the 39 melachos are derived from the building of the Mishkon. Note the similarities in the ways Jews prepared to enter the holy structure and the way we prepare for Shabbos. Look at how each has strict rules that must be observed, the danger of ignoring them, and, most of all, the way each one is meant to create an earthy sanctuary for Hashem, carving out a physical resting place for the Shechinah.

On Shabbos, there is a sense of achdus, because we don’t see our neighbors as carpenters or lawyers, mechanchim or electricians. We are all Jews who have come together in our bigdei Shabbos - much like the bigdei avodah - for Hashem’s glory, a reflection of what life was like around the Mishkon.

Rav Avrohom and Rebbetzin Chava Pincus lived for Klal Yisroel. She was a talmidah of Sarah Schneirer and Rav Avrohom was one of the few American boys who went overseas to learn in the prewar Mirrer Yeshiva. As a couple, they spent their life together in motion, teaching, guiding and inspiring kehillos. Finally, when they were in their seventies, they retired to Yerushalayim to enjoy the relaxed pace of their golden years in the holy city.

Their son, Rav Shimshon, had other ideas. He became acquainted with the kehillah in Santiago, Chile, and thought that his father would be the ideal choice to head a new kollel there. The dedicated couple agreed, and in 1983, they settled there, lifting the community with their ahavas Yisroel and harbotzas Torah over the next few years.

In 1990, the exceptional couple celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. They had just returned to live in Yerushalayim, and the Pincus children tried to find the perfect gift for their parents. They came up with an idea: All nine children surprised them, coming from across Eretz Yisroel, New York and Los Angeles, to be with their parents.

They walked in on their parents as they were sitting at the Shabbos table Friday evening. After being separated for so long, the children sat around the table looking at their parents with reverence and love. It was the greatest gift possible.

Rav Shimshon spoke at the celebration, giving expression to the emotion in the room when he turned to his parents and said, “And this, the way you feel now, is how I imagine the final kibbutz goluyos: Yidden from all over greeting the Shechinah the way we greet you...

“Mammeh, we are home. We are together.”

With the words of the Vilna Gaon as our guide, we can understand the oft-repeated lesson that achdus will lead to geulah. It’s not merely the zechus of unity, it’s the synergistic effect of unity, when we camp around a place and allow the song within each of us to emerge, fusing with the melodies of others that will lay the opening for the geulah.

Like Rav Pincus said, when that moment comes, our shared hopes, dreams and ambitions will combine to create a place of hashra’as haShechinah.

I can do it and you can do it. If we do it together, we can all do it.

Forged in a crucible of holiness, we keep the embers alive, awaiting the day when we all rid ourselves of the ashes that prevent us from joining all the holy embers and bringing about the great reunion.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Rav Yisroel Belsky zt”l

By Rabbi Pinchus Lipschutz

The most joyous occurrence in our world is a wedding. People whose children have gotten married know that following the emotional highs and joy experienced at the wedding, there is an entirely different delight as they watch the new couple go about life together when sheva brachos is over.

After the music, noise and laughter have faded, the supreme nachas takes over as they watch the couple adopt the blessings, happiness, hope and optimism that have been expressed over the prior week and transform them into their new lives together. The excitement of potential is replaced by the exhilaration of realization. They descend from flying in the clouds to living in the real world. 

In last week’s parsha, Yisro, we experienced the drama, thunder and roar of Kabbolas HaTorah, as Hashem’s nation was presented with a gift that would change them and their identities for all time. Hashem and Klal Yisroel entered into an eternal bond.

This week, in Parshas Mishpotim, the glory and splendor of Har Sinai is distilled into concepts as perfect and precise as creation.

The magnitude, scope and depth of Torah are filtered down to reflect the realities of this world.

How can it be? How can a celestial Torah be constricted to human limitations?

Had you ever spoken to or just observed Rav Yisroel Belsky zt”l, you would have the answer.

In an age when talmidei chachomim and gedolei Torah are regularly vilified, Rav Belsky was an example of a person with expansive understanding of the entire Torah, with no personal agenda or bias, who could not be bought or cowed into a position. Blessed with a brilliant mind and sterling character, he ignored other opportunities and chose to spend his life in the beis medrash, where his brilliant mind and hasmodah gained him comprehensive yedios and havonah.

Though he was smarter than most others, his greatness wasn’t arrived at through superficial study. Rather, he immersed himself in Torah and spent every free minute horeving in learning. Hashem blessed him with a superior mind, but that is not enough. There are many smart people whose intelligence is squandered on trivialities and never develops, eventually withering due to passivity. He worked hard to utilize his gift to grow and advance in Torah study and dissemination.

He accomplished much and was involved in many different organizations and causes, but Torah was his calling.

From his youth, he was seen as a prodigy destined for greatness. Despite that, he always remained a simple, humble person, with time for everyone who sought him out. The same giant who could rule on the most intricate issues would spend much time explaining sugyos to talmidim, elucidating complicated concepts for young people seeking to grow and excel in Torah.  

He was so kind and sweet, and nothing was beneath him. No person or situation was irrelevant. No matter what it was, he was prepared to discuss it and explain it to anyone. The man who knew all of Torah and could point out every star, figure out complicated mathematical calculations, play every musical instrument, write and appreciate piyutim, would also daven for the amud and lain.

It was said that the only things he didn’t know was how to braid challah and repair cars. Everything else was revealed to him and understood by him to the degree that he could patiently explain anything to anyone. His mind was always engaged. He never stopped thinking until his final sickness.

He didn’t just learn halachah. He didn’t only pasken shailos. He knew and understood the issues better than most. He understood the practical implications of every halachah. When he would learn something, he would immediately figure out how to adapt and apply what he had learned, along with the limitless flow of information in his mind.

Once, although he was ill, he arrived at a scheduled halachah shiur. Apologizing, he explained that his illness left him too drained to prepare a shiur for that day. He told the talmidim that he regretted that he could not say the shiur, but he didn’t want to leave them without imparting Torah knowledge. Instead of saying shiur, he asked if they minded asking him questions on sugyos that troubled them.

What could they ask? Anything. Any shaylah or halachah or p’shat in Shas or the daled chelkei Shulchan Aruch. In his weakened state, he sat there, answering questions from across the landscape of Jewish law. He addressed so many issues that day. Though his body was weakened, nobody could detect any weakness in his knowledge and ability to incisively analyze all types of situations through the prism of Torah.

It wasn’t the shiur they were expecting. It was a lesson in gadlus ha’odam. They got to see how high a man can reach if he lives a Torah life.

My son once attended a shiur delivered by a leading contemporary posek, who discussed whether turning on a fluorescent light on Shabbos is a melochah d’Oraysah or derabbonon. The posek concluded that it was a sofeik.

My son told Rav Belsky about the shiur and the conclusion. The rosh yeshiva smiled and shrugged. “You should know that there are things that are sefeikos, situations where you cannot achieve clarity, but this isn’t one of them.

“When there is a machlokes haposkim and there is no accepted way to rule, that constitutes a sofeik, because the matter is really in doubt. But if one can take apart the light bulb and study it and see how it works, then the halachah is not in doubt and it is not a sofeik.”

With total humility, Rav Belsky nonchalantly said that he had done that, and proceeded to explain to the young man how a bulb works and at what conclusion he arrived after studying fluorescent electricity.

When he looked at a chicken, he saw Hashem’s creature. He saw dapim of Gemara, Rambam and Shulchan Aruch. He saw halachah and Shas in full display. And when he would teach Shulchan Aruch, it was with the fascination of a genius who had thoroughly examined every aspect of the chicken. His knowledge was overwhelming. He seemingly knew everything there was to know and so easily conveyed it.

When he looked at a potato chip, he didn’t see a snack. He saw hilchos brachos, and bishul Yisroel, and everything else involved in producing the crunchy delight.

There is Elokus everywhere, and everything can be understood from the Torah.

Rav Belsky knew that every component of the briah is an expression of Hashem’s will and that there are halachos that govern every particle of the world. Thus, halachah tells us which brochah to recite on thunder, which to say when blossoms sprout, how to be mekadeish the levonah and the chamah, and how to approach so many aspects of the world, because everything in creation is, in reality, a sugya cloaked with holiness by the ratzon Hashem. The Torah we received on Har Sinai is the oxygen of the universe. To understand Torah is to understand the world as well.

Someone who studies all of Torah comprehends that stars, flowers, apples, fields and oceans are all part of a bais medrash.

Rav Belsky studied the stars and heard them sing about Hashem’s magnificence. He couldn’t help but share his knowledge with all who fell under his wing. During the summers, he would sit across the grassy expanse of lawn at Camp Agudah surrounded by wide-eyed campers, teaching all types of lessons about the constellations. It was an eye-opening experience for the campers. Here was a man they knew as a rov, the camp’s posek and spiritual guide, yet he was also the source of so much knowledge and wisdom about Hashem’s creation. Early on, they learned that it was all one.

Mah eilu miSinai, af eilu miSinai.

One night, during a star-gazing walk, Rav Belsky noticed a cluster of stars forming a pattern in the sky that he had never previously witnessed. The next morning, he called NASA to report what he had seen and ask them if they could explain it. Scientists there told him that they had also noticed the formation and were as perplexed as he.

The Camp Agudah administration noticed - how could they not? - that he rarely got to eat his meals without numerous interruptions. They arranged for him to take his meals in a private dining room. He rejected the offer, explaining that he wanted to eat together with the campers. He understood that his presence in the dining room would encourage young people to approach and ask their questions. They asked the usual “What brochah do you make on corn flakes?” questions, as well as, “How many pretzels do I have to eat for a shiur?” and, “Should I wash on pizza?” By seeing him sitting there in such an approachable fashion, they were empowered to ask questions that had been lying dormant and find answers for things that bothered them.

Rav Belsky, like the most accomplished rabbeim, understood that the avodah Moshe Rabbeinu faced following Ma’amad Har Sinai was “Vayeired Moshe el ha’am - Moshe descended to the people.” The master of halachah sat among the people hungry for counsel in all matters of Torah, allaying their concerns and providing guidance and direction.

Rabbi Menachem Genack of the OU described at the levayah how Rav Belsky would calculate shiurim for bittul without use of pen, paper or calculator. He would figure out the area and circumference of a large barrel in a moment and issue his ruling.

He would also just as quickly size up the nuances of a person.

Rabbi Duvie Frischman recalled entering Rav Belsky’s office in Camp Agudah. As he approached the room, he noticed a young bochur running out and Rav Belsky was sitting at his desk with tears in his eyes. He asked why the rov was so pained. Rav Belsky told him that the bochur had a severe stutter. The camp’s rov had overheard him speaking and approached him, saying, “I can help you. Come to my office.”

Rav Belsky explained that if the boy would come to his office every day, he could cure him from the speech handicap. Camp being camp, as much as the boy wanted to speak properly, he couldn’t pull himself away from the activities to sit in the rov’s office. He found his way there two or three times and that was it. The boy had come to the office to say goodbye, and Rav Belsky was overcome with grief when he heard the boy speak and realized he had failed in rectifying his stutter.

The next summer, the boy returned to camp and Rabbi Frischman noticed that he had been cured of his stutter. Remembering how upset he had been at the end of the camp season, he went to Rav Belsky and shared the good news with him. “Remember that stuttering boy you were feeling so bad about? He’s back and he is cured. I thought the rov would want to know that.”

Rav Belsky smiled broadly. It later turned out that the boy had gone to Rav Belsky throughout the school year for speech therapy.

The rosh yeshiva who delivered shiurim, sat on botei din, was a rov, served as a posek for the largest international kashrus agency, and was a mohel, shochet, baal tefillah, baal kriah and father and grandfather to many talmidim and a large family, carved out time to administer speech therapy as well.

He comprehended greatness where it was, and had compassion and understanding for all of Hashem’s beings. He cared for all, loved all, and was treasured by all who knew him, despite his self-effacement.

Gadlus ha’odam.

The Satmar Rebbe once commented, “Oib nisht fahr di alte Vilhelm,” if not for Rav Binyomin Wilhelm, who established Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, “volten aleh farvisht gevoren,” Yiddishkeit in America would have been wiped out.

Rav Binyomin Wilhelm’s eldest grandson was Rav Belsky, who inherited his achrayus and strength. No challenge was too intimidating, no charge too daunting. He trained young mashgichim in the complexities of machinery and equipment, taught young shochtim and mohalim how to excel in their meleches hakodesh, answered the most complicated and thorny medical shailos, and helped doctors understand the interface between medicine and halachah.

He and his wife had the courage to travel to the Soviet Union when such a journey was fraught with danger, sharing Toras Hashem with desperate neshamos locked behind the Iron Curtain. In time, when the walls would fall and a stream of Russian Jews would arrive in New York, the connection would be revealed as Divinely ordained. Many new immigrants settled in Kensington, near the rosh yeshiva’s home, and he and his wife would emerge as their surrogate parents. For several years, the rosh yeshiva led his Pesach Seder in three languages - English, Yiddish and the Russian he’d taught himself - in order to accommodate the many guests at his table.

His rebbi, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l, the consummate ish emes, showered upon this talmid the ultimate praise, referring to him as an ish emes. His devotion to the truth empowered him to be able to withstand pressure and personal attacks. He was rooted in the words of the Shulchan Aruch, his actions defined only by what he saw there.

As strong as he was outside of the classroom, he was soft, gentle and caring when dealing with his talmidim. For despite all he did and accomplished, teaching talmidim was the crown of his many achievements and what he viewed as his main obligation in this world.

He tolerated their questions, welcomed their difficulties, and was metzamtzeim his brilliance to joyfully help a mediocre bochur understand p’shat, just as he brought his brilliance and encyclopedic knowledge to bear when he would discuss complicated rulings with distinguished colleagues.

His comprehension was so clear that he was able to transmit the knowledge precisely and clearly in a way anyone could understand. He loved people and he loved to learn, so what could be better in life than learning with people and teaching them and explaining the beauty and depth of Torah, halachah and maasei bereishis?

Following the Second World War, a Holocaust refugee arrived in Bnei Brak with the gold bars he had hidden throughout the war. He related that he was wondering what to do with the gold bars and where to keep them.

“I was walking one night down the street that would come to be named Rechov Chazon Ish, and I met an elderly man who I recognized to be the Chazon Ish. I had never met him before, but I had heard that he was a person people went to for brachos and eitzos, so I decided to ask him what to do with my gold bars.

“He picked up his cane and pointed in the direction of an empty mountain. He said to me, ‘Reb Yaakov Halpern is going to be selling lots on that mountain. Take as much gold as you have and buy property from him.’

“I had come from a different world and didn’t really know who he was. I was furious about his advice. What? Take the gold I risked my life for and invest it in an empty, dusty hill?

“I didn’t argue with him. I said, ‘Thank you,’ and walked away.

“Halpern was selling property there for next to nothing, but I didn’t buy even one acre from him. Instead, I tried all types of investments, none of which panned out. Had I listened to that old man, oh how wealthy I would be today! I’d be worth millions upon millions.”

The Torah advises us what to invest in, how to live our lives and how to spend our time. Those who follow the Torah and its gedolim lead productive lives and merit happiness and nachas. The Torah stands as a light post, as a guide in the dark. Those who excel in Torah, the Chazon Ishes of every generation, calmly convey its lessons to those fortunate enough to listen.

This Shabbos, we read about a people fresh from the inspiration of Sinai learning to incorporate the lofty ideals into the practicalities of monetary dealings, of boundaries and damages. They were given the tools to elevate themselves so that they would approach widows and orphans with halachah as their guide, the dinei haTorah teaching compassion and heart.

To encompass the fullness of Torah and the grandiosity of Ma’amad Har Sinai is to recognize that what we have is a gift from Hashem. It is our duty to use those gifts to perfect the world by studying Torah, living Torah lives, and being affected by it, treating all of humanity as we want to be treated, loving all and being loved by all. 

Rav Belsky’s ability to grasp the massive picture never precluded him from seeing the small parts of the intricate puzzle that is Torah. The greater a person is in Torah, the more humble he is. Rav Belsky was as humble and simple as can be. As great as he was in learning, as brilliant as his mind was, that is how diffident he was.

How appropriate for Rav Belsky’s soul to return to its Maker during the week of Parshas Yisro and for his kevurah to take place during the week of Parshas Mishpotim. The parshiyos that deal with the receipt of the Torah and its practical application to man so typify Rav Belsky.

He was deathly ill four years ago on exactly the same date on which he passed away. But he was spared and given exactly another four years to live, teach, guide, learn and rise. Four years later, 208 Shabbosos from when he was clinically dead, he left this earth as we learned the parsha of Kabbolas HaTorah and naaseh venishma.

Life is a matter of perspective. Ours is formed by Torah and gedolei Torah. People such as Rav Belsky, who forsook all other careers, had no use for any of life’s pleasures and dedicated themselves to farming in the vineyard of Hashem, propagating his Torah, teaching and guiding others with humility, simplicity, kindness and grandeur. It is people such as he who make our people great and ensure that we remain a mamleches kohanim vegoy kadosh.

Rav Belsky wasn’t a throwback to a past generation. He lived here with us until last week. He demonstrated that human greatness can be attained here and now. He showed that we can be humble and walk with Hashem and with all types of people. He raised a generation of children and talmidim like he, great and distinguished, dignified and noble.

The story of our nation, the story of our greatness, is the story epitomized by the rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaas, Rav Chaim Yisroel Belsky. May his memory be a source of brochah.