Wednesday, May 25, 2016

We Can All Use More Holiness

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Parshas Behar begins by stating that Hashem spoke to Moshe, stressing that this occurred on Har Sinai, and then immediately turns to the laws of Shmittah. Rashi asks the famous question rhetorically invoked when two matters as seemingly unconnected as Shmittah and Har Sinai are linked together as they are this week.
The question is, “Mah inyan Shmittah eitzel Har Sinai,” loosely translated as, “What does Shmittah have to do with Sinai?”
Rashi answers that the Torah juxtaposes the two topics to teach that just as the minutia of the laws of Shmittah were delivered at Sinai, the myriad details of all mitzvos were likewise taught at that time.
The Torah discusses the laws of Shmittah and then guarantees the blessings reserved for those who honor these laws, allowing their land to lie fallow every seventh year as a testament to their belief in the word of G-d.
“Mah inyan Shmittah eitzel Har Sinai” teaches us that in order to merit the rewards of keeping Shmittah, a Jew must do more than observe the laws of Shmittah. In order to properly observe Shmittah a person must follow the halachos and dinim that were handed down at Sinai throughout the seven year cycle.
This approach might explain an obvious inconsistency at the end of the parsha. The last posuk of Parshas Behar reads, “Es Shabbsosai tishmoru umikdoshi tira’u, ani Hashem.” The Baal Haturim points out that in this posuk, the word “tishmoru” comes after the word “Shabbos,” whereas in Devorim, the command of shamor precedes the word “Shabbos” in the posuk of “Shamor es yom haShabbos.”
The Baal Haturim quotes the Mechilta, which states that the reason the word shamor is before Shabbos in one instance and follows it in another is to teach that we must be shomer the Shabbos before and after its official times.
In fact, the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 9) derives from the word “shevos,” which the posuk uses in relating the issur melocha of Yom Kippur, as well as Shabbos and Yom Tov, that there is a mitzvah to add kedusha to the holy day and begin observing its halachos prior to the period of bein hashemashos and shkiah.
We extend the holy Shabbos day at its beginning and end, adding kodesh to the chol.
Perhaps we can find a deeper dimension in this explanation, using the lessons we derived from the posuk linking Shmittah to Har Sinai.
The posuk implies that for one to be a shomer Torah umitzvos, it is not sufficient to only observe the 24-hour period of Shabbos. An observant person must also adhere to the many commandments governing day-to-day life during the rest of the week. The kedusha of Shabbos demands shemirah lefonov ule’acharov.
How do we resist temptation? How do we strengthen our ability to deal with all that is out there threatening our ability to be good Jews? It is by increasing kedusha in our lives. It is by being an am kadosh seven days a week, not only on Shabbos. We empower our children by being mechaneich them with inyonei kedusha. The antidote to tumah is kedusha. We keep them holy and protected by adding kedusha to chol. If we fortify them with the beauty of Yiddishkeit, we strengthen their ability to withstand trials and temptations.
Rav Yosi (Shabbos 118b) expressed the wish to enjoy the rewards of the people of Tzipori, who would end Shabbos after the designated time. Based on that statement, the Shulchan Aruch writes (293:1) that we delay the tefillah of Maariv on Motzoei Shabbos to add holiness to the mundane. It is for this reason that there are various customs related to postponing the beginning of the tefillah (Mishnah Berurah, ibid.), even by mere seconds. We endeavor to increase holiness in the world and every little bit makes a huge difference.
Great gedolim counseled people in dire straits to accept upon themselves the kedusha of Shabbos even a few minutes earlier than mandated. Now we can understand some of the reason why.
A story is told of a couple who were blessed with a child after many barren years. Their dear son became deathly ill and, after doctors could not cure him, they traveled to the Chofetz Chaim, who told them that if they would accept Shabbos early for the rest of their lives, their son would be healed and would live. Indeed, he was miraculously cured.
A man cried to the Pnei Menachem that his son had veered from the proper path, moved away and adopted a foreign lifestyle. The rebbe related that his father, the Imrei Emes, would say that “tosefes Shabbos” is a tremendous segulah. “Therefore, I advise you and your wife to add to the time of Shabbos, and you will be helped,” said the rebbe.
I once visited a large Jewish cemetery in a town that was previously home to many thousands of Jews. The property was divided in two. The guide explained that one side is the “Shabbosdike bais olam” and the other side is the “Vochodike bais olam.”
It was explained that the Shabbosdike cemetery held Jews who were Sabbath-observant, even in the face of hardship. On the other side, the vochodike cemetery contained the remains of the city’s residents who were unable to resist the temptation to be mechallel Shabbos.
These Jews had arrived in America at the beginning of the past century penniless, and the temptation to escape poverty by working on Shabbos was too great. They would go to shul Shabbos morning and then head off to their jobs. They would daven, participate in a shiur, enjoy Kiddush, and do everything that frum Jews do in shul, but when they left the building, instead of heading for home and a Shabbos meal, they went to work.
No doubt, they were driven by a fear of the heavy price they would have to pay for keeping Shabbos. It is not for us to judge them, but those who gave up on Shabbos became vochodike Yidden. Their Yiddishkeit was vochodik, lacking in holiness, even though they did their best to keep all the other mitzvos. Ultimately, most of them and their descendants were lost to the Jewish people. When those people passed away, they were laid to rest in the vochodike bais olam.
The Jews who held on strongly to Shabbos observance were the Shabbosdike Yidden. Seven days a week, their lives were blessed and their homes were blessed. And when they were laid to rest, they were placed in the Shabbosdike bais olam. There they remain, waiting for Moshiach to arrive and bring them back to life as Shabbos Yidden.
Thankfully, our nisyonos are not as great as those faced by the people of the forsaken New England city I visited, but we can all use improvement to better qualify as Shabbosdike Yidden throughout the week. Shabbos has to affect the way we conduct ourselves the entire week, and the way we behave during the other six days influences our observance of the seventh.
A Shabbos Jew dresses differently, speaks differently and eats differently, not only on Shabbos, but also during the week. A Shabbos Jew conducts himself with aidelkeit and ehrlichkeit, not only on Shabbos but throughout the week. A Shabbos Jew adds to his holiness by sanctifying the days before Shabbos and the days after it.
A Shabbos Jew spreads the kedushas Shabbos to everything he does from Shabbos to Shabbos. He anticipates and plans for Shabbos from Sunday onwards, as he specifies each day in relation to Shabbos, saying, “Hayom yom rishon b’Shabbos. Hayom yom shaini b’Shabbos, etc.”
And so it is with the Shmittah hero the Torah speaks about in this parsha. It is difficult for a person who lives off the land, and who has been lax in mitzvah observance, to undertake Shmittah observance.
The farmer who faithfully observes the halachos hateluyos ba’aretz the other six years can meet the test of faith and leave his farm untouched during the seventh year.
The man who is fastidious about his observance of maaser, terumah, leket, shikcha and pe’ah has little difficulty with Shmittah. The one who ensures that his animals do not run wild and damage other people’s property, and who makes sure that there are no michsholim on the paths that cut through his property, will be scrupulous with the dinim as given on Har Sinai.
The person who conducts his business with emunah and bitachon and does not resort to chicanery and thievery to make his living, will have the strength to let go when Shmittah arrives and depend upon Hakadosh Boruch Hu to feed him.
“Vetzivisi es birchasi lochem.” Hashem promises His blessings to those who observe the laws of Shmittah, because those people are the ones who observe the laws of Sinai day in and day out, not only on isolated occasions.
This theme runs through the subsequent pesukim (25:17-19) in Parshas Behar: “Do not harass one another…and you shall perform My chukim and observe My mishpotim and then you shall dwell securely in Eretz Yisroel, and the land will then give its fruit and you will be satisfied when you eat, and you will live securely…”
Those who seek to live with security need look no further than Parshas Behar. Those who seek peace should learn the lesson of “Mah inyan Shmittah eitzel Har Sinai.”
Those who look for nachas from their children, for stable lives, for a healthy livelihood, should heed the lesson of the Shabbosdike Yidden and of the Shmittah Yidden throughout the ages.
Despite all the societal temptations and the pressures and inducements they faced to bend the rules a little bit here and there, they remained staunchly devoted to the laws of Sinai. They did not compromise or welt in the heat of the times. They remained steadfast, focused, honest and upstanding, seven days a week, seven years of Shmittah, and fifty years of Yovel.
Our parents and grandparents led the way for us and lit up the path. Let’s follow their example and do the same for our children and grandchildren. We will thus merit the brachos of this week’s parsha and the other parshiyos of the Torah reserved for those who follow the well-trodden path stretching back to Har Sinai.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Reaching Their Hearts

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

I recently read an article that discussed which pursuit helped a person acquire longer term happiness, the purchase of something longed for or a vacation. The writer theorized that if you crave some object, then once you buy it, the longing ends and you become accustomed to it. You then cease deriving happiness when using that item.
Someone dreams of buying a BMW and saves up money for the German car. After craving for years, he finally buys the vehicle. From that day on, his urge now satisfied, he ceases to derive enjoyment from having that car and begins desiring something else. The accumulation of things doesn’t bring happiness.
A vacation, however, leaves a person with great memories. Even after returning to the daily grind, he derives pleasure from reminiscing about places visited and enjoyed.
Even months after returning from the vacation, when suffering the stresses of life, reviewing pictures of deserted beaches and beautiful sunsets transports one to those magical days when one felt relaxed and free.
The Torah provides us with a similar gift. The last of the Pesach dishes have long been put away, children are back in school, and the routine of life takes over once again. In this week’s parsha of Emor, we are given snapshots of the most glorious days of the year.
As we learn the parsha, we hear echoes of the call of the shofar, sense the awe of Yom Kippur, and smell the soft fragrance of the esrog. We are reminded of the escape Pesach provides us, the chance to rise above the ordinary, and how the process of bringing the Omer allows us to refine ourselves in preparation for kabbolas haTorah.
We experience the joys, relive the holiness with which the special days infuse us, and are reminded once again of our exalted status and potential for greatness. Yomim tovim grant us joy, infuse us with energy, and enable us to go about the mundane period until the next yom tov.
My friend, Mr. Julius Klugman z”l, would go to Eretz Yisroel every year for Sukkos. He would always bring with him a question for the gedolim of Eretz Yisroel.
One year, the American visitor wondered how the Torah can command a person to be b’simcha on Sukkos. Is there a button we can push to experience joy?
He posed the question to Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach. “I don’t understand the question,” the rosh yeshiva replied. “How can a person say the words ‘Atah vechartanu mikol ho’amim’ and not feel joyous?”
Rav Shach was expressing an essential truth. We have the best system possible - a calendar, lifestyle and value system designed to produce happy, fulfilled people. Yomim tovim are highlights of a year filled with special moments, experiences that bring out the wonder of creation and the uniqueness of our role in the world.
Examine the world. Appreciate the infinite genius in the workings of even one small organ of the human body. Look at the animal kingdom and all the different animals and how each was formed and lives. Look at the world of insects, millions of tiny species, and their distinct lives. Look at the sea and the fishes of all sizes and ponder how they got there. Examine the growth pattern of grass, trees and flowers and you will quickly conclude that there is no way that all this happened by itself.
Someone created them and placed them where they are. Someone fashioned them in a way that each living thing can complete its life span productively on its level. Above them are man and Am Yisroel. We were given a Torah by the Creator. The Torah is the guide to the best form of life, one that is fulfilling, meaningful and happy.
Why, then, do we see people in our own camp who seemingly lack that joy? Why do we see listless, lethargic people in shul and other places? Why is it that there is a phenomenon of young men and women who seem completely overwhelmed by what’s expected of them and veer off the path?
It’s a painful question that begs a communal cheshbon hanefesh.
Last week, I purchased the newly-released Shnos Dor Vador Volume Two about Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. The book quotes him relating the Medrash (Bamidbar 18:22) which tells a story about a traveler headed from Bavel to Eretz Yisroel who witnessed two birds fighting. After one bird killed the other, it headed to the woods and returned with a blade of grass, which it placed upon the beak of the dead bird. The dead bird immediately came to life. The spectator was amazed. Here, before him, was the coveted key of techias hameisim, the means to return the dead back to life.
He bent down and picked up the blade of grass that had fallen off the newly living bird and set out to resurrect the dead. On the way, he saw a dead lion at the side of the road and gleefully touched the grass to its face. The lion rose to life and then seized the blade of grass and swallowed it.
A moment earlier, the weed had potential to change the world. Now it was gone.
Rav Elyashiv suggested that the man should have hurried to the kevorim of the gedolei Yisroel, the giants who had breathed life into our people in previous generations, and returned chiyus to the world. He should have used the blade of grass to change the course of history. Instead, this fool used the most precious and potent tool to awaken a dead predator.
Rav Elyashiv would apply the lesson of this Medrash. Every one of us carries the potion of life and the ability to transcend time and space. By using each moment to create eternity, we elevate every minute. Instead, unfortunately, some people ignore the power they hold, wasting time and creating destruction rather than new life.
The lesson requires every one of us to engage in soul-searching. We have the best system in the world, a framework for living with meaning and depth, but apparently we aren’t always using it correctly.
Torah is the elixir of life, a good life, a happy life, and we should be producing happy, radiant, fulfilled generations. Of course, in most cases we are, but there seem to be too many exceptions.
The Torah calls for a specific and precise way of living, to be sure, and it’s not ours to pick and choose. Yet, should we not be doing more to transmit its message with mercy and genuine understanding of the people we’re trying to reach? The Torah is referred to by Chazal as Rachmana, The Merciful, and its agents must exude that rachmanus; that total empathy and compassion, to others.
Last week, Klal Yisroel and the world of chinuch lost a giant, Rav Moshe Rabinowitz zt”l, who served as a rov, menahel and mashgiach for many years. What was so special about him can be gleaned from something that an Oorah Kiruv Rechokim head shared with me.
He spoke of the time Rav Rabinowitz participated in a weekend for parents of Oorah’s camp, The Zone. At a panel discussion, in response to a question, Rav Rabinowitz said that only once in his decades in chinuch did he expel a student from school. As he was relating this, he began to cry softly to himself. One of the parents in the crowd whose children were enrolled in public school was greatly moved. Witnessing how remembering the expelled student overwhelmed Rav Rabinowitz, the parent went over to the Oorah head and said, “If that is the care and concern of a rabbi in a yeshiva, I’m going to enroll my kids in yeshiva.”
Rav Yisroel Belsky was the rov of Camp Agudah. Friday was an especially busy day. In addition to the shailos that followed him wherever he went, people who went up to the Catskills for Shabbos and wanted to speak to him would seek him out on Fridays for all types of personal discussions. Of course, there were the regular shiurim he delivered and everything else he did. Thus, by the time Shabbos arrived, he was exhausted. After Maariv, he would join his family for the first part of the meal. Then he would join his beloved Masmidim in the dining room, singing meaningful songs and sharing divrei Torah until late into the night.
Every week, on his way to the Masmidim in the campers’ dining room, he would make a detour and first go to the table on the side where the waiters sat. He understood that their job required them to work hard during the meal and their seudos Shabbos were often sacrificed. Without much time to eat, let alone enjoy a spirited seudah, they grabbed a few bites here and there in between serving the campers.
Rav Belsky got it. That’s why he made it a point to join them for a few minutes. Not too long, for they had jobs, but not too short, because it was Shabbos for them as well. A quick question, an interesting discussion, a lively niggun or two, and then the giant moved on.
Rav Belsky dealt with brilliant and complex shailos in hilchos Shabbos. He knew the masechta and all its commentaries. But he also felt the heart of the waiters and their Shabbos.
We want children and adults to appreciate Shabbos and view it as a state of mind and an opportunity for climbing and resting, growing and happiness, and shirah and Torah, as well as a day with many halachos that empower you to be a better and more complete person.
The BMW won’t do that for you, even if you’re wearing a cool shirt and pants when you drive it. Shabbos will. Yom Tov will. Every day lived properly will.
In Pirkei Avos, Shammai tells us, “Asei Torascha keva, emor me’at va’asei harbei, vehevei mekabel ess kol ho’odom b’seiver ponim yafos” (Avos 1:15). Rav Chaim Friedlander shared a question from his rebbi, Rav Eliyohu Eliezer Dessler. Shammai and his approach are always associated with middas hadin. The first two ideas quoted in the Mishnah - to set a fixed time for Torah learning and to speak little and do much - seem to reflect that attitude. However, the last teaching quoted seems to be out of place with the positions of Shammai. How does greeting everyone we meet fit with an outlook of middas hadin?
Rav Dessler explained that Shammai is teaching that greeting people with warmth, enthusiasm and respect is not only a matter of common courtesy. It is, in fact, a din, an obligation, because just as a suit or watch has an actual value, and paying a shopkeeper less than their value can be considered stealing, a person also has value and deserves to be greeted as someone special.
Because everyone is special and to miss that is to steal.
We cannot realistically expect our precious and significant mesorah to have an effect on our children and students if we don’t realize who they are and what their needs are. If the message isn’t penetrating, it is not necessarily the fault of the recipient, nor can it be blamed every time on ADHD, defiance, poor work ethic or focus issues. We have to face the truth that sometimes it may be a problem in approach. We have to own up to the truth and quit sweeping the problems under the rug.
Our Torah is a Toras Chaim. It is life-giving, personality-enhancing and happiness-inducing. We teach with happiness. We reach out to our youth and touch their sweet neshamos with love and joy. We teach them positively, allowing them to express themselves and helping them appreciate the brachos and kedushah that every day of yom tov, Shabbos and chol bring.
We bring the next generation under the kanfei haShechinah, reaching them on their individual level, as the posuk of “Chanoch lenaar al pi darko” (Mishlei 22:6) teaches. Children are not cut out from cookie-cutters. Each one is different and special and can best be reached by appreciating that fact. Every child wants to be loved and find favor in the eyes of others. Every child wants to fit in and gain acceptance among his peers. Every child wants his rebbi to like him and have a rebbi he can like. Every child has a way to be reached.
Shammai’s teaching is an echo of that posuk.
Rav Yitzchok Yeruchom Diskin, son of the fiery angel Rav Yehoshua Leib, assumed his father’s role as head of Yerushalayim’s orphanage.
At the time, the Holy City had its share, Rachamana litzlon, of orphans whose parents had perished in famine or war. Rav Yitzchok Yeruchom would frequently visit the facility, learning and chatting with the children.
One day, as he walked in, he suddenly started to cry. He explained that since a tailor sits among bolts of cloth, it is likely that he will step on expensive fabrics when he walks around the shop. A carpenter will casually walk over expensive wood.
A bookbinder who works painstakingly on seforim might step on holy pages if he is not careful.
“But I,” concluded the rov, “work with these kinderlach. I am surrounded by these pure yesomim. How can I be sure that I am not stepping on them as I do my work?” 
Our society is blessed with large families and burgeoning mosdos. Children are everywhere. We have to ensure that we don’t become too casual in our encounters. If you take the time to shmooze with any teen at risk, you’d be struck by the unmistakable chein and sincerity in their eyes, the desperate longing to be good, and the inner call that they are forced to silence through all sorts of horrible addictions.
They aren’t bad, that’s for sure. So what went wrong? How has the nation gifted with yomim tovim and simcha, with Torah and mitzvos, with tefillin and lulav, allowed its children to wander? How has a nation who says “Atah vechartanu” forgotten its uniqueness?
I don’t have the answers, but the way out starts with acknowledging the question. Hear the message of the parsha. Hear who we are and what we can become, and use the reminder to do our jobs better, with more heart and more compassion.
Rabbeim and moros are the heroes of our nation. We need to provide them with the tools they need to be adept enough to perform their holy tasks with maximum strength and love as they would like to. We need to support them morally and financially so that they have the stamina they need to help fix errors brought on by others and keep everyone on track.
Let us all try to be positive and upbeat and remember who we are, where we come from and where we are headed, so that we realize the posuk of “vechol bonayich limudei Hashem” with nachas and simcha.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

How to Live

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The secular Jewish world is obsessed with the notion of tikkun olam, making the world a better place. In theory, it is grandiose, glorious and part of our mission, but in their hands, it generally has little practical application.

Torah Jews pledge allegiance to our mission statement and national raison d’etre. Three times a day, we proclaim our intention “lesakein olam b’malchus Shakai,” to rectify and purify the world with Hashem’s dominion. We endeavor to bring His light and presence into this olam, a place of “he’alam,” concealment and darkness.

The words of a wise man are often repeated: When I was a young man, I was determined to change the world. As I grew older and more realistic, I thought that I could change my town. Now, as an old man with a white beard, I am desperately attempting to change myself.

That’s our approach to tikkun olam.

Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach once told Reb Shlomo Lorencz that he’d never known a genuine talmid chochom who wasn’t in control of his middos. In fact, Rav Shach said, the greater a talmid chochom a person is, the more he has worked on his middos.

Now, during the days of Sefirah, as we stake out a path to kabbolas haTorah, we must work to refine our character. Rav Chaim Vital teaches in Shaarei Kedushah that the reason the mandate to work on middos doesn’t appear in the Torah is because the Torah was given to a nation of refined character. Hence the assumption that one who is approaching the Torah is already a baal middos.

Rav Chaim Volozhiner, in Ruach Chaim, his peirush on Pirkei Avos, explains the Mishnah (2:10) that quotes Rabi Eliezer, who said, “Yehi kevod chavercha choviv alecha kesheloch.” Simply translated, this means that your friend’s honor should be as precious to you as your own.

Rav Chaim explains the Mishnah with a twist: When you respect your friend with even a drop of honor, to you it feels as if you heaped upon him much more honor than he deserves, while when your friend honors you, it never seems that he did enough.

Rabi Eliezer thus speaks to us and teaches us that the honorific fashion in which we treat others should be as important to us as the way we want to be treated.

Chazal admonish us not only to focus inward, but also to study the attributes of others and respect them. The talmidim of Rabi Akiva were punished al shelo nohagu kavod zeh bozeh. We rectify this by showing respect for our friends, neighbors and acquaintances.

Keep your eyes open and look around you. Sometimes, witnessing a simple act of mentchlichkeit can restore your faith in humanity. An unexpected kindness, a genuine mazel tov wish or a heartfelt apology has the potential to move us, perhaps because they are too rare.

All too often, we are disappointed. We don’t see the nobility, integrity and strength of character we long to behold in others, as well as in ourselves. Sometimes, we look in shock as people engage in self-destructive behavior and commit actions that are hurtful to others. We wish we could stop them but are unable to.

When people foment machlokes over petty imagined insults, when people fight publicly, we stand by and watch and wish there was something we could do to break it up and end it. All too often, we end up frustrated, as egos and intransigence combine to force people to be myopic and trivial.

There is much imperfection, inside of us and all around. Where, then, is the path to tikkun? Where do we start? If Chazal want us to arrive at Shavuos ready, why don’t they map out the way?

The answer is that they do.

They gave us a potent tool, a little book comprised of but six chapters that illuminates the path, exposes the pitfalls, and offers the path to self-perfection.

It’s filled with good, old-fashioned advice on serving Hashem, confronting ourselves and dealing with other people. If you read this book, you learn how to value yourself, how to respect others and how to interact with them.

It defines true honor, wisdom, wealth, and much more. In addition, it teaches how to acquire these gifts that people spend a lifetime chasing after.

No, it’s not one of those little self-help books written by a wannabe celebrity with a good press agent. It’s not written by a self-anointed paragon of virtue who tomorrow will be splashed all over the paper for gambling away the fortune he made dispensing advice.

When a person isn’t sure how to conduct himself in a given situation, he turns to his parents. A child looks to his father for direction and wisdom to steer him around stumbling blocks and through dangerous minefields. But it’s more than that.

A father knows his child from day one, so he understands him. He knows what motivates each child, what to say and how to say it to each child.

This book contains fatherly wisdom, perception and insight. Hence its name, Pirkei Avos.

Written by the spiritual fathers of our people, it contains the most vital lessons a father could pass on to his children. Its ideas jump off the page right into your heart. You know you are reading the quintessential truth. You know that if you would just take a few extra minutes to digest the astute insights in this book, you’d be so much better off.

Pirkei Avos is not some foreign book that is off limits to our understanding until it is translated. For generations, Jews studied it all through the spring and summer months. They knew that it contains the answers to the most frequently asked questions, as well as the keys to personal happiness.

Unfortunately, for some reason, we, as a community, have relegated the learning of Pirkei Avos to children. In some shuls, it has become something to be davened-up after Minchah on Shabbos afternoon. Others don’t even bother doing that.

That certainly wasn’t the attitude of Rav Yehuda Hanosi, the mesader of the Mishnah. It is a far cry from the perspective he offers in the chain of mesorah that he cites from Moshe Rabbeinu to Yehoshua, then to the Zekeinim, the Nevi’im, and the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah, right down to the giants of his own era.

Rabi Yehuda, Rabi Yosi, Rabi Meir, Rabi Shimon - all our sages from Bava Metzia, Kiddushin and Arachin - are here. The greatest fathers and teachers of the generations are guiding us on how to be productive and content, how to live life with a smile on our faces and a sense of serenity in our hearts.

And, printed right alongside those Mishnayos is the Rambam, bringing the words of the Mishnah home in a way that is so real and immediate, you’d think his explanations were written today. Rabbeinu Yonah is here, too, with insights that are remarkably contemporary, joined of course by Rashi and many others, as well.

There are hundreds of other commentaries, and each one has a new angle, adding flavor and subtlety to the endless stream of wisdom of how to live life to its fullest.

They tell us so much, if we would only listen.

They teach us how to respond when a fellow Jew falls on bad times, why communities suffer, why sword comes to the land, why there is exile, and why there is economic depression. These issues are as relevant and pressing today as they were 2,000 years ago. Look for the answers here and they will send a shiver up your spine.

The Avos speak directly to their children. Take their answers to heart.

We must learn to translate their message in the context of our own reality. Our instinct must always be to turn to this masechta, for it is the legacy of our Avos.

Some make the mistake of relating to Pirkei Avos as light and easy material. It isn’t. It is as profound as the human psyche. But despite our depth and complexity, we, too, often get tripped up in the most shallow and simple areas. Without being aware of it, we become upset about trivialities, trample on others’ sensitivities, and are heedless of their vulnerabilities.

My rebbi, Rav Mendel Kaplan zt”l, would say that he knew a lot of children “with long white beards.” These were people who went through life never shedding their immaturities. People who remained children all their lives, never developing seichel, insight or a sense of responsibility.

The effort we must invest in learning these Mishnayos is to go farther than studying their practical meaning. Our task is to inculcate the middos to the point where they become second nature.

When we are no longer afraid to admit a mistake, when we learn how to see into a fellow Jew’s heart, when our own hearts have stretched in size so that they can accommodate more than our own egos, we will know that Pirkei Avos is doing its job on us.

When we begin to rid ourselves of our anger and jealousy, when we have developed a real relationship with Hashem, when we are no longer bothered by nonsense, by havlei havalim, we will know that the lessons of our fathers are penetrating the hearts of the sons.

When we see the refinement and spiritual nobility of talmidei chachomim, we realize from where those middos come. Pirkei Avos and other such works raise men like us to such lofty plateaus.

Rav Reuven Grozovsky suffered a debilitating stroke and his talmidim set up a rotation to assist him throughout the day. The bochur charged with attending to the rosh yeshiva each morning would help him wash negel vasser, then wrap tefillin on his arm and head and hold the siddur.

The rosh yeshiva’s hands would occasionally shake, making the task difficult.

One day, a nervous bochur had the zechus of being meshameish the rosh yeshiva. As Rav Reuven’s hand shook, the anxious boy reacted and poured out the contents of the negel vasser cup, missing the rosh yeshiva’s hand completely. Humiliated, the boy tried again. He was already so frantic, and this time the water ended up on Rav Reuven’s bed and clothing.

He stopped and calmed himself before trying a third time. This time he properly washed Rav Reuven’s hands. He helped Rav Reuven say brachos and then put the rosh yeshiva’s tefillin on for him. He was ready to leave, when Rav Reuven called him over and thanked him, chatting with him for several moments.

Feeling calm and happy, the bochur left.

He later learned that the rosh yeshiva was known to never speak, even one word, while wearing tefillin. This was a first. It was obvious that Rav Reuven had noticed the bochur’s embarrassment and instinctively forfeited his own kabbolah to put the young man at ease.

Rav Reuven was sick. He couldn’t say shiur like he once had, he couldn’t write the penetrating chiddushim of his younger years, but the middos tovos were baked into his essence. They were part of who he was.

A talmid once went to learn with Rav Avrohom Genechovsky, the Tchebiner rosh yeshiva, on a Shabbos afternoon. Engrossed in his thoughts, the young man absentmindedly rang the doorbell. Horrified, he stood there for a long while, wishing he could disappear, before he was able to knock again. Rav Avrohom didn’t answer, which was surprising, since he didn’t sleep on Shabbos afternoon and was usually waiting for his chavrusah.

Eventually, a sleepy-looking Rav Avrohom came to the door - in his pajamas. He apologized for the delay and explained that he had been unusually tired, so he took a rest and did not heard the knocking.

When the the young man figured out what really happened he was overwhelmed. Of course his rosh yeshiva had heard the ringing doorbell and had immediately reacted. Rather than open the door and humiliate the talmid, he quickly put on his pajamas and waited several minutes, pretending that he had not heard anything out of the ordinary.

To a talmid chochom, it is instinctive to act in a way that preserves another person’s dignity.

The personality molded by Torah is soft, flexible and kind. He is also strong and unbending. And it is not a stirah.

In another example that nothing is arbitrary, the parshah that we study during the days of Sefirah, Kedoshim, teaches us how to attain holiness. It’s a parshah laden with mitzvos bein odom lachaveiro. We are taught how to treat workers and borrowers, the blind, the deaf and the poor.

Through absorbing these mitzvos and their lessons, we become worthy of the Torah itself. The maxims that fill Maseches Avos become truisms. They are the only way to live. The baal middos sees the middos in those around him as well, changing the atmosphere.

We have been given the tools, and now is the time to put them to use lesakein olam.

The Sefas Emes was once given a large sum of money for safekeeping by a visiting chossid. The rebbe placed the money in a secure place, but the next morning, it was gone. The rebbe entered the bais medrash and announced that davening would not begin until the money was returned to its rightful owner.

No one came forward. Time passed, but the mystery wasn’t solved. Finally, the rebbe went into his house, called over one of the attendants, and said, “Give back the money you took.”

The attendant broke down and admitted his misdeed.

“If the rebbe knew who had taken the money,” the gabbai asked, “why did we have to wait so long to confront him?”

An elder chossid explained that the rebbe knew who the culprit was; that wasn’t the hard part. The challenge for the rebbe was being able to look another Jew in the face and accuse him of being a thief. It took the rebbe hours to get to that point, after he had exhausted all opportunities for the man to save face.

The rebbe heard the chossid’s explanation and confirmed what he had said.

Hurting another person should be very difficult for us, while being thoughtful, kind and generous should be intuitive.

There are six perokim in Pirkei Avos, one for each week of Sefirah. As we read them and become better rachmonim, bayshonim and gomlei chassodim, we will be prepared to receive His Torah.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

On Losing A Friend

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
It was after Havdolah following the first days of yom tov. The grape juice formed a small purple pool in its dish, the atmosphere light and joyous as we discussed chol hamoed plans.
Should we go to the park or the zoo?
My heart pulled me to Manhattan, because I had a different sort of trip in mind. In Manhattan, I could visit my friend, Reb Aron Stefansky, who lay in the hospital.
Our deliberations were interrupted by a text message from his family: He was niftar on the first day of Pesach.
Suddenly, it was eerily quiet. Everyone sat around the table with sad eyes. No words were exchanged. We were all lost in thought.
Then the memories came rushing in, along with recollections of our dear family friend. I keep on hearing his voice.
Reb Aron! We knew he was sick, but he was doing well before a sudden setback sent him to the hospital again after Purim for a procedure. He was back home for Shabbos Hagadol, and when we visited him then, he seemed to be doing well. Then another setback, another procedure. He was in the hospital one final time before passing away on the first day of yom tov.
And now he’s gone.
Were you to ask me, as I mourn his loss, to sum up what made him so special, I can think of one thing that encompasses all others: He was a dear friend, a yedid ne’eman.
Not just to me, but to so many others. He was a reliable and steady friend to the people he cared about, including friends, rabbeim, talmidei chachomim, yeshivos, kollelim, chesed organizations, and local schools. He was always giving and raising needed funds.
He understood struggle and financial hardship, because he grew up without much money. When Hashem blessed him with success, he channeled that brochah toward worthy causes. And never did hachzokas haTorah replace limud haTorah, as he started each day with his cherished chavrusashaft with Rav Yeruchim Olshin.
Like so many others, he learned at Yeshivas Brisk, under Rav Avrohom Yehoshua Soloveitchik, but for him, it wasn’t just a passing experience. Even after returning home, he never really left the yeshiva. His mind was always there. He never stopped helping his rebbi and the yeshiva. Only a person who worked lesheim Shomayim, without thought of personal honor or prestige, could have merited such a major part in building a yeshiva that is a bastion of emes and authenticity, with no chanifah or social climbing.
It wasn’t only Brisk and it wasn’t only Rav Soloveitchik to whom he was dedicated. He was close to and supportive of many yeshivos and roshei yeshiva, giving what they needed to survive and flourish. For him, supporting them was part of his life. His entire being was thrust into the causes he was involved in. He thought about them, cared about them, and was never meisiach daas from them.
There was a time when people spoke about the meaning and necessity of friendship, yedidus. In the mussar yeshivos of Lita, they understood that a good friend was a spiritual acquisition. It called for real selflessness and generosity. Friendship, they understood, is far more than a social convenience.
When marauding Arabs tore through the holy yeshiva in Chevron in 1929, they killed many budding talmidei chachomim and injured others. One talmid lay there after being attacked, bloody and battered, and with his final breaths he pulled his injured friend close.
“The resho’im are checking who’s dead and they’re looking for signs of life so that they can finish the job. Lie still, and before I die, I will bleed on you,” the first bochur suggested. “Then they will assume that you are dead, too. This way, they will pass you by and you will live.”
The Chevroner talmid pressed himself to his friend, pouring blood on him. Then his soul left him. The second bochur survived.
This provides us with a new p’shat in the hallowed words, ‘Bedomayich chayi – By your blood you shall live.”
The Chevroner talmidim would retell this story, evidence that yedidus and dibbuk chaveirim are intrinsic to the baal mussar, how a talmid of the Slabodka approach, even in what he knew was his final moment, used the time not to recite vidui or Krias Shema, but to cause his yedid to live.
We are all connected. A friend is someone who understands that and sees himself as belonging to his fellow man.
We all need friends who understand us, who bleed for us when we need help, and who celebrate our simchos with us. We need friends who appreciate us, who support us when we are down and advise us how to get up. We need friends we grew up with, who we can be open with and count on. Loneliness is very difficult and very sad.
Rav Moshe Shapiro examined the root of the word “yedid,” which the Torah utilizes for friendship. He says that the word is composed of the repetition of the word “yad,” which means hand.
Rav Shapiro explained that the word “yad” is repeated twice to form the word that denotes friendship, because man’s two hands signify conflicting actions. The right hand draws close, yemin mekareves, while the left hand pushes away, semol docheh. A person requires intelligence to be able to judge a situation and know when it is time for closeness and when to stand apart.
For a yedid, however, there is no downtime. A friend is never pushed away. There is no richuk; there is only kiruv. With yad and yad again, both hands join together to maintain the friendship.
The martyred Chevroner talmid lived that reality until his demise. He was neither overwhelmed nor confused or panicked as he lay dying, because he was a friend, and part of being a friend is being aware of your role and what friendship entails.
Rav Yitzchok Hutner, one of the great transmitters of the glory of Slabodka and Chevron, would speak to his talmidim about the responsibility that comes with friendship. He once asked a talmid to get involved with a friend who was in spiritual crisis. The talmid told him that he had tried to help the fellow, but his efforts were in vain. Rav Hutner wrote him a letter.
“You say that you are powerless to help... Are there no more tears left in your eyes? Thankfully, we still believe in the power of a perek of Tehillim when it is recited with a broken heart...”
Friendship is constant. There is no such thing as powerless.
Reb Aron Stefansky was such a yedid. He never stopped giving, with both hands outstretched, both hands extended, both hands giving money, time and heart.
Aron started out selling antique seforim and manuscripts, a passion he developed as an outgrowth of his yedidus with his rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Perman shlit”a. Though I had little money, he would beg me to buy classic letters he had come across. He didn’t do it for the money. He did it for the love.
The first letter I bought following his many pleas was a classic, he said. It was heilig. “How can you not want to have it?” he asked. He was right, of course. It was the letter that Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz wrote to his talmid, Rav Shlomo Heiman, expressing his love for him in a most beautiful manner. Rav Shlomo so treasured the letter that he kept it in his talis bag.
Aron was my friend and wanted me to have it. I paid for it over time, $25 a month.
The second letter he sold me was also a classic, touching one. Initially, I didn’t appreciate it. He could have easily sold it to someone else, but he wanted me to have it. It was a beautiful letter that Rav Elchonon Wasserman wrote about the Chofetz Chaim. “You must have it,” he said. Again, I paid him $25 a month for that letter.
I went on to buy more letters, each one was precious to him. He was devoted to his rabbeim, to Torah, to the past generations, to history, to authenticity, to what is really beautiful, to aristocracy in Torah and to chesed. Seforim and letters weren’t just a way to make a living. They were his life-long passion.
A couple years ago, he called me about a certain sefer.
“I’m not a seforim collector,” I protested.
“You don’t have to be a collector to have this sefer,” he said. “It’s gorgeous. It’s historic. It’s something you will learn from and treasure.”
I was stubborn.
“Listen,” he insisted. “You’re my friend and I want you to have it. At no cost to you, I am going to have it expertly rebound with a gorgeous cover. You’ll take it and you will thank me later.”
I bought it and I thanked him.
Aron was a real friend. He was caring. He rejoiced when others celebrated simchos and achieved success. When there was a gap that needed to be filled, he was there. When gedolei Yisroel were attacked, he was impacted and did all he could to restore their honor. He didn’t just talk about such occurrences. He deeply cared and got involved.
The last time I visited him in the hospital, Rav Yisroel Aharon Schapira, rosh kollel of Bais Medrash Taharos in Yerushalayim, was there as well. Before he left, Aron told him that he wanted to give him money for the yungeleit for yom tov. He emphasized that this was an extra donation, besides what he was already giving. “I want you to promise me that they will get this money for yom tov,” he repeated. “I am a choleh. I need zechusim.”
He was optimistic about the future, but he knew that he needed zechusim, and the biggest zechus is to support talmidei chachomim.
His son drove in from Lakewood to see his father, but Aron didn’t have time for small talk. He needed zechusim. From his hospital bed, he was raising money for Yeshivas Brisk for yom tov. As soon as his son walked into the room, he sent him to pick up a check and bring it to someone who would get it to Rav Avrohom Yehoshua Soloveitchik in time to distribute the money to yungeleit for yom tov.
His wants and desires were based on Torah. His ambitions and hashkofos were from the Torah, and as he lay in bed with medicines and food trickling intravenously into his body, his active mind raced, thinking of what he could do to help yungeleit.
Rav Chaim Volozhiner writes in Ruach Chaim, his peirush on Pirkei Avos (1:1), that when a person intends to do a mitzvah, a mark is made in Heaven and a light of holiness, ohr makif meihakedushah, hovers over him and enables him to complete his desire and fulfill that mitzvah, and he sits as if in Gan Eden, enveloped in holiness. When the mitzvah has been completed, the person is strengthened, but the light returns to Gan Eden, where it awaits the arrival of that neshomah.
As one who constantly thought about how he can help talmidei chachomim and mosdos haTorah, Aron earned tremendous zechusim, whose benefits he now enjoys until techias hameisim.
At the time of one of my visits, he had not eaten in a couple weeks and had no appetite, but he insisted that I eat something. I protested that I wasn’t hungry, but he would hear none of it. There was an orange on the window sill, courtesy of Bikur Cholim, so I picked it up and began eating it. As he watched me eat it, he derived such pleasure and a smile broke out on his face. He told his wife that he so enjoyed watching me eat the orange that for the first time in two weeks, he had an appetite to eat.
That is a real friend. Too weak to eat, with no appetite, he derived so much pleasure just from watching his friend eat that it was contagious and he wished to eat as well.
Perhaps this offers an understanding of Moshe Rabbeinu’s parting brochah to shevet Binyomin: “Yedid Hashem yishkon lavetach.” Since you are a “yedid” of Hashem, you will live peacefully. One who possesses that middah of yedid, lives serenely, because he always has someone to turn to. He is never alone. Binyomin, as a yedid Hashem, epitomized that middah and its benefits.
In this week’s parshah, we read about the avodah of Aharon Hakohein. The Torah speaks extensively about Aharon’s heart and the Choshen Mishpot that rested upon it. The heart of Aharon was pure, devoid of jealousy, and filled with joy for others.
The Gerrer Rebbe once remarked that the kohanim performed their avodah barefoot, because it was necessary for them to feel every small pebble and stone on the Bais Hamikdosh floor, figuratively experiencing the problems of the people and feeling their pain as they sought atonement for them and offered their korbanos.
Aharon Hakohein, the oheiv es habriyos, understood the suffering of the people. This made him an efficient shliach, able to stem mageifos and trouble.
As Rav Simcha Zissel walked down the main road into Kelm, his face was lined with pain. He explained that the road was constructed by political prisoners, who were forced to lay the pavement in blistering heat and freezing cold weather. He wondered how people could calmly walk down the street going about their business and not feel the pain of those who suffered tremendously in constructing that very road.
Those who learn and live Torah develop sensitivity and compassion. Raised in a home of Torah royalty, Reb Aron Stefansky toiled in Torah and supported Torah. He thus carried the pain of others in his heart.
Bezos yavo Aharon el hakodesh. With this, he returns to the holiness of Heaven, with his acts of tzedakah, chesed, his Torah and tefillah, his goodness and caring.
His family has lost a devoted husband, father, son and brother.
And many have lost a good friend.
We are entering the period of the year devoted to the avodah of friendship. Chazal (Yevamos 62b) teach that Rabi Akiva’s 24,000 talmidim died during the period of Sefirah because they did not display proper respect towards each other. They failed to appreciate the positive attributes of others and thus didn’t view other talmidim as yedidim deserving of care and dedication. They viewed them as mere acquaintances.
We are meant to emerge from Pesach more humble, having absorbed the taste and lessons of the matzah, devoid of ego, subsisting on the baked mixture of water and flour for eight days. The period between Pesach and Shavuos is a time designed for working on humility and respect for others.
It’s a time to make true friends, to work on the friendships we have, and to use them to do good things. People who harness the power of friendship and work together can achieve great things.
We need to join together with our friends and build. We need to look at the people around us and see their maalos. We need to be noheig kavod zeh bazeh and thus empower them and ourselves to look ahead and strive for positive achievements.
Hevei mitalmidov shel Aharon. Let us emulate Aron by caring about other people and fighting for truth, justice and Torah.
Every one of us can make a genuine difference if we care to. When enough compassionate people team up, they can change the world and bring geulah l’olam.