Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Pinchos Focused

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Parshas Pinchos weaves together themes and ideas that seem unconnected. The parsha opens with the enduring act of zealotry by Pinchos, born from an inability to stand by while evil was being perpetrated. The same act that caused others to become so traumatized that they didn’t know what to do caused Pinchos to be bold and courageous.
Pinchos grabbed a spear and literally eradicated evil. His act lives on for all time as one of passion and commitment, epitomizing the instincts and reactions of a servant of Hashem.
The parsha continues with a count taken of each individual Jew in Klal Yisroel. It then discusses the bnos Tzelafchad and their petition for a portion in Eretz Yisroel, and concludes with halachos of the Yomim Tovim. These topics, though seemingly unrelated, combine to teach a lesson.
Mekubolim explain that the entirety of creation is divided into three dimensions: olam, shanah, and nefesh, space, time and man. Each realm has its climax. Yom Kippur is such a time, for all three meet at the height of their abilities when the kohein gadol, the highest level of man, enters the Kodesh Hakodoshim, the holiest place on earth, on the most sacred day.
Kedushah means investing each of the three dimensions with meaning. Each person has a mission, every place has its use, and every day has its avodah.
Pinchos created a new reality, rising to new heights, transforming himself through his selfless, altruistic act. He took a stand when others did not, and in doing so, he formed a covenant with Hashem.
The parsha reinforces this message with the counting of the Bnei Yisroel. Every Jew counts. Everyone can do what Pinchos did, acting as a lone soldier, demonstrating the strength of character and devotion to bring glory to Heaven. Each individual has intrinsic value. The counting reminds every person that he has the ability to make a difference. You matter. Every person matters.
You can affect more people than you ever thought possible. You can be living at a time when people are confused and confounded, not knowing which way to move. They are frozen by fear and insecurity. Stay focused on your goal. Don’t be deterred. Don’t be distracted. It may be difficult and it might earn you temporary ridicule, but when all are lost, leaders rise from among the crowd and show the way.
That is the power of each nefesh.
Eretz Yisroel, the apex in the realm of olam, has unique spiritual properties, power and potency. The daughters of Tzelafchad, appreciating the significance of the land, pined for a share.
Yomim Tovim are the greatest days of the year. People who appreciate their abilities, seize the moment and seek a role and portion in holiness, appreciate Yomim Tovim as a time for sublime joy.
The avodah zarah of Baal Peor diminished man and caused him to believe that humankind is a small being with limited abilities that he is unable to face or overcome (see Chasam Sofer in this week’s parsha). Thus, the yeitzer hora reduces people to the level where they think they are inconsequential, their actions are inconsequential, and whatever they think or do has no meaning or importance.
The Soton couples that with his ability to create diversions and cause people to lose focus of the important matters in life. He confuses people and causes them to be stressed and defeatist, unable to contend with the vagaries of life. They become lost and dizzy, unable to remain grounded and stable enough to deal with situations, and remember that all that befalls them is ordained by Hashem. Those who have faith remain calm, composed and properly balanced. Their confidence gives them the strength to do what must be done in order to perform the actions necessary to right the situation.  
Pinchos maximized his abilities and withstood the entreaties of the yeitzer hora to stand by the side and let someone else do what had to be done. Because he perceived the value and opportunity inherent in life, he did not become flummoxed when he witnessed tragedy unfolding.
It is because of Pinchos, and people like him in every generation, that our nation has endured to this day and is able to appreciate and celebrate Yomim Tovim. Others have cowered, compromised and capitulated, diluting the abilities of olam, shanah and nefesh.
When people arrived on the shores of America, many said that it’s too hard to build Torah here. They claimed that it’s unrealistic to expect American children to be Torah Jews and they gave up. They compromised on Shabbos, kashrus and everything else. They lost their children and didn’t really have much themselves. But in communities where there was a Pinchos, who said, “We can do it. We can lead Torah lives here. We don’t have what to fear,” Torah Judaism took hold, yeshivos were built, kosher standards were adhered to, and Shabbos became a day of halachic rest and an opportunity for kedushah of olam, shanah and nefesh.
There is a common misconception that taking a stand means being negative. Kannaus is often misunderstood as pessimism. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Those who are fired up with Torah and seek to live lives of kedushah are optimistic about their abilities. They are optimistic about Am Yisroel and the future. They refuse to be reined in by the pessimists who say it can’t be done; not here, not now.
They serve as a beacon of light and strength for all to look up to and emulate.
Pinchos took a stand, which created a bris of sholom that continues and endures. Parshas Pinchos is the parsha of Yomim Tovim, because taking a stand guarantees better and happier times. People who rise up to the occasion are those who make a difference.
My uncle, Rav Berel Wein, born and raised in Chicago, sadly witnessed Orthodox Jewry in decline, as the older generation of European immigrants looked on hopelessly while their children chose a different path.
He wrote about a speech that changed his life and impacted his life’s ambitions and thoughts. It was at a banquet for Beis Medrash LeTorah in Chicago in the early 1950s. The guest speaker was Rav Pinchos Teitz of Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Rabbi Wein recounts, “Most European rabbis used speaking engagements to bemoan the state of American Jewry, especially in comparison to the glory days of Eastern European Jewish life. Not Rabbi Teitz. He spoke of a coming revolution in American Jewish life; of a growing and vital Orthodoxy; of the triumph of the day school and yeshiva movements; and he predicted that Orthodoxy would diminish the influence of Conservative and Reform movements, not vice versa. His optimism made him a heroic figure in my eyes, and he remained such over many decades.”
That, too, is a story of Pinchos, of taking a stand. Rav Pinchos Teitz spoke of hope, optimism and opportunity. He cried out that Yom Tov was coming, and to merit those days the people had to remain loyal to Torah. He set up a school in Elizabeth and educated the next generation in the Torah path, and many were saved.
There were others, like Rav Shmuel Kaufman zt”l, who was niftar last week. Not seeking fame, glory or financial reward, they spread across this country, opening schools and staffing them, showing the correct way to educate fine people to live lives of Torah and Judaism. Their efforts spawned a rebirth here, and because of heroes like him, cities like Detroit, Chicago Cleveland and so many others are flourishing islands of Torah, beacons of kedushah, goodness and happiness for the rest of the country. 
Rabbi Wein once visited a philanthropist in what New Yorkers would call a mid-sized out-of-town city on behalf of the yeshiva he headed almost twenty years ago. The wealthy man complained that while he used to support his shul and the local school, now there was a new thing coming to town called a “kollel,” whose leaders also came knocking on his door for a donation. “Who needs them?” the man questioned. “We have such nice shuls here. What do we need this kollel thing for?”
Rabbi Wein answered with the wisdom of someone who had seen what happened to dozens of shuls in his native Chicago. “My dear friend,” he said as he put his arm on the man’s shoulder. “Kollel is the way of the future. It is that kollel that will maintain the neighborhood and bring young families here. It is the kollel where people will visit to study Torah. It is the kollel that will be a magnet for everything good in this town and many others. You’d do yourself well if you would support it.”
It seemed so far-fetched that he couldn’t bring himself to support it. He lacked the vision and optimism to believe that Torah would bring them back and hold them. He was pessimistic and didn’t get it. But today, that man’s children and grandchildren enter the kollel to study Torah and increase their levels of kedushah.
Pinchos didn’t talk about not tolerating injustice. He acted upon the problem. He didn’t conduct a poll or focus group before deciding. He didn’t run around asking his friends how it would look. He just did it. And because of that, the plague stopped and we are here today.
Pinchos was not a leader of his nation, but his actions obligate all of us. There are moments, places and times for us to stand up and make a difference.
Perhaps there is no time of year for this avodah like the Three Weeks. Kol hamisabel al Yerushalayim, anyone who mourns the destruction of the holy city and Bais Hamikdosh, zocheh veroeh b’simchasah, will merit seeing its joy. We have to use these days to contemplate what we are lacking and make these weeks significant and meaningful. Too often, people are content to let the season pass so that they can get back to regular life. Chazal, however, admonish us to make these days important by being misabel, so that we will enjoy Yomim Tovim to the fullest when Tisha B’Av joins the chagim.
A person who is involved in an accident, or suffers serious illness and temporarily loses mobility, must remain optimistic about his latent strength and abilities in order to endure therapy and recuperate. They cannot allow themselves to be deterred or to give up hope because of the difficulties of maintaining a tough discipline.
Life is tough and full of challenges. Those who remain optimistic and see the Hand of Hashem in all that befalls them are able to muster the courage to persevere and succeed. Those who mourn Yerushalayim and use these days to help rebuild it through the arrival of Moshiach will merit to witness and partake in that joyous day when the redemption arrives.
Let us all remain focused on the goal.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Living With Terror

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Do you remember when terror attacks only happened in Israel? Do you remember when nobody thought it was possible for Arab terror to strike in America? Do you remember when the French, British and American governments blamed every terror attack in Israel on Israeli intransigence? Do you remember when cars were ramming people to death alongside Israeli roads, while the rest of the world sat by silently?
It wasn’t that long ago.
The West refused to believe what their eyes were witnessing in Israel. They blamed it on the Jews and continued to deal with Arab states as if they were comprised of normal, peace-loving citizens, worshipping a religion of peace.
Since the administration of the current American president came to power, the ball was dropped in Iraq and Syria. Deals were made with Iran. The administration pulled troops out of Iraq and wound down efforts in Afghanistan, which gave birth to ISIS. By refusing to wipe them out, the Obama administration enabled them to grow to the point where they are able to strike anywhere they want, seemingly at will, causing mayhem, death and destruction in proud Western countries.
Western leaders were warned. Western people were warned. They saw what happened to the peace -loving, industrious, fine people of Israel who sacrificed for peace. Yet, their anti-Semitism blocked them from objectively comprehending the rationale for what was taking place in Israel and extrapolating that lesson for their own countries.
Instead of understanding the enemy and taking the fight to them, America and others created conditions in Libya, Iraq and Syria where terror groups could grow. Instead of killing them when they were small and nascent, the West permitted them to gain strength and grow.
Now, there seems to be an attack taking place almost every week. The current American administration is still in denial and in a defensive state, rather than an offensive one. There are virtually no ground troops anywhere fighting ISIS. The world is a powder keg, just waiting for a spark to set it afire in war. Europe is flooded with Muslim refugees, among them ISIS fighters and other Islamic terrorists. Civil war brews beneath the surface, as EU rules leave many countries buckling under the weight of their new citizens.
Photos of the murder truck in France pockmarked with dozens of bullet holes are symbolic of our world; big and strong and full of holes.
With maddening attacks taking place on a regular basis, there is an ever-present feeling of concern here, in Israel and around the world.
Balanced and clear vision is necessary to navigate life’s paths. However, we live in a world of fantasy, where leaders ignore facts and remain stuck to their agendas and narratives, as fallacious as they are proven to be. Terror chases terror, each attack more dreadful than the one that preceded it, striking fear in people who previously feared nothing. They look to their leaders for direction and find a vacuum.
The president of the United States ran for office on a promise to bring people together, cure partisan gridlock in Washington, open government to the people, be transparent and fair, and restore America’s glory. What he turned out to be is a demagogue who seeks to divide people. Race relations in this country are now in their worst state since the riots in the sixties.
The president has, in his own words, led from behind. He dithered while Syria disintegrated, he slept while the country’s Benghazi consulate was under attack, and then he lied about it and sought to cover up what transpired. He forced Mubarak out of Egypt and then handed the country to the Islamists, whom he coddled and supported as they attempted to destroy the country.
The man whose career’s trajectory was aided by his oratory skills failed to bring the people together. He continues to fail to explain the problems the country is facing from radical Islamists, while blaming American terror attacks on guns. He seems to dwell in an alternative universe.
The media was able to portray former President George W. Bush as incompetent and convince an overwhelming majority of Americans to vehemently oppose him. They destroyed the candidacy of Mitt Romney, a decent man, and are now trying to eviscerate Donald Trump, with half-truths and lies. Meanwhile the president and his former secretary of state are constantly portrayed in a good light and are actively promoted. Despite everything President Obama has done to change the culture of this country, while engaging in divisive rhetoric, empowering both domestic and foreign terrorists, saddling the country with unprecedented debt, caused a great racial divide, opened the borders and overseen a weak economy, to name a few, he is supported by a majority of people in this country. The Democrat standard-bearer to replace him, still leads in national polls despite all her missteps, trails of untruths, carelessness and corrupt baggage.
An uninformed and misinformed public can be misled. In times like these we must stay informed and be intelligent about what is transpiring around us. We cannot rely on tweets, headlines and simplistic, superficial information. Decisions must be based on real facts.
In Parshas Bolok, we read how thousands of years ago, Bolok was worried about the size of Am Yisroel, who he feared would conspire to destroy him and his nation. Having heard from his enemy, Midyon, with whom he formed a coalition in order to overcome the hated Bnei Yisroel, that the strength of the Jewish people lies in their mouths, he procured the services of Bilam to curse them (Bamidbar 22:4, Rashi ibid.). Bilam appeared to be reticent about performing the job for Bolok, acting as if he would not defy Hashem. It was a charade. When he was promised sufficient money and fame, he saddled his donkey and set out to plot the destruction of the Jewish people.
His posturing is reflective of today’s time, when leaders pronounce reassuringly that they are driven by pure intentions, motivated to serve the people. Then they simultaneously engage in behavior detrimental to the safety of the countries they lead.
Bilam was confronted by his donkey that berated him for his disloyalty to the one on whose back he rode so often. Chazal teach that the peh of the ason, the mouth of the donkey, was created on the first Erev Shabbos following creation. The Ramban and the Seforno teach that there was a message in the beast’s expressiveness, teaching Bilam that the gift of speech he was blessed with was from Hashem. The same One Who enabled him to speak enabled the donkey to do the same. He was thus warned not to attempt to deviate from the wishes of Hashem and not to curse Am Yisroel. He continued along his way, but instead of curses, his mouth uttered blessings.
People are confused and wonder how they can tell the Bilams of the world apart from those who not only preach fidelity to Hashem’s will, but actually follow it. How do we know who speaks with a glib, cynically forked tongue, and who is honest, holy and deserving of respect and support?
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (5:19) tells us how to differentiate between the talmidim of Avrohom Avinu and those of Bilam.
It is interesting that instead of the Mishnah teaching how to differentiate between Avrohom Avinu and Bilam Harosha, Chazal delineate the differences between their students.
Rav Yechezkel of Kuzmir explained that while it may have been possible to be fooled by Bilam and his demeanor, analyzing his students and followers reveals the truth about the man and his goals.
Often, purveyors of fiction cloak their lies with half-truths to fool people and gain credibility for their messages. Doing so creates difficulty differentiating between the genuine and the phony. With patience, the intentions of the leader become obvious. Avrohom became “Avinu,” spawning a nation of rachmonim, bayshonim and gomlei chassodim, paragons of decency, virtue and humility. Bilam became the role model of their antagonists, the hero of those governed by ayin ra’ah, ruach govoah, nefesh rechovah, selfishness, pettiness, greediness and arrogance.
The Mishnah is teaching us not to focus on what the leaders say and how they present themselves, but rather to look at the effects of their words and actions. They may proclaim that they are all about peace and love, but beware if their actions lead to strife and hate. They may proclaim that they seek to rid the world of evil, but their actions betray their words.
As an eternal people, we are blessed with an eternal memory. Nothing is forgotten. Nothing is overlooked. The Mogein Avrohom (Orach Chaim 580:9) cites the custom of fasting on the Friday preceding the Shabbos when Parshas Chukas is lained, because that is when twenty-four cartloads of Gemaros were burned on the streets of France in 1244.
Several leading rabbonim dreamt that the fast should be observed on that Friday and not on the date upon which the terrible chillul Hashem transpired. “Zos chukas haTorah,” the chok of Torah is that the nations of the world torment us because of the Torah. As Chazal say, the mountain upon which the Torah was delivered is named Har Sinai because it is from where sinah, hatred, of Jews came down to the world.
With emumah and bitachon, we accept that the pain we endure is caused by the Av Harachamon for reasons most of us cannot fathom. It is part of the chok of Torah. It is part of the chok that is the life of the Jew.
Since the days of Bolok and Bilam, we have been singled out for destruction, yet we have persevered. There are periods of din and periods of rachamim. At all times, we seek to engage in conduct that arouses the middah of rachamim in our Av Harachamim. We engage in acts of kindness and charity and look at each other with kindness.
The parsha ends with the plague that was unleashed by Bilam, who flooded the Jewish nation with the daughters of Midyan. Pinchos was a man of action, not words. The pesukim recount that the Jews stood around Moshe at the entrance to the Ohel Moed, and cried. Pinchos saw the same thing, but he rose from the group, took a spear and did what had to be done. Action. Not words.
Bilam feared what the people of Moav would say about him and went along with the plan to have the Jews cursed, though he knew it was wrong. Pinchos did what the Torah demanded. He did what had to be done, though people would say that he was negative and cynical. He didn’t care that people would say he was a divider, not a uniter, and that he was a murderer. “Who does he think he is?” he knew they would remark. But he didn’t care what people would say about him. He cared about following the word of Hashem.
The Torah decides which actions cause unity and what causes division. Ridding the world of evil strengthens life and ends strife. Standing by, weeping and offering platitudes causes plagues of destruction.
During these times of ikvesa diMeshicha, we need men and women of action, not fear; togetherness, not division; healing, not hurt; rejuvenation, not stagnation; and passion, not apathy.
When he was four years old, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Yosef Yitzchok Shneerson, asked his father, the Rashab, Rav Shalom Ber of Lubavitch, why a person was created with two eyes.
The Rashab asked the lad if he knew the difference between the letters shin and sin. “Sure,” he answered. “The shin has a dot on the right side. The sin has a dot on the left side.”
“My son, that is why you have two eyes,” the Rashab said. “There are some things that you have to view with your right eye and others that you must view with the left eye. You always look at a Jew with the right eye. Candies and toys you look at with your left eye.”
A Jew is important. A Jew is to be treasured. Always look at a Jew with the right eye. Always view him kindly. Candies and toys are of lesser importance; for them, the left eye suffices. Be from the talmidim of Avrohom, viewing others with an ayin tovah.
As we approach the sad period of the year we refer to as The Three Weeks, it is incumbent upon us to view things with the right eye, recognizing what is going on around us, being kind and forgiving, and seeking to foster achdus and love.
We need to mourn the destruction of Yerushalayim and really pine for the arrival of Moshiach. As Chazal say (Taanis 30b), “Kol hamisabeil al Yerushalayim zocheh veroeh besimchasah - Whoever mourns Yerushalayim will merit to see the joy of its redemption.” In order to merit being part of the redemption, we need to engage in activities that demonstrate that we feel the loss.
We can adopt the custom of reciting Tikkun Chatzos, at least during The Three Weeks, demonstrating our sense of loss and begging Hashem to bring us home. For those who find it difficult to recite the chapters of the Tikkun without comprehending the holy words, Dr. Daniel Steinberg, a dentist from Queens, took the obligation of mourning the churban seriously and prepared an English translation, which can be accessed by going to
We know what caused the destruction of the Botei Mikdosh. Part of being misabeil on Yerushalayim is to rectify those actions. We must cut out sinas chinom, baseless hatred, which afflicts our people. We need to bring people together and work to foster achdus, erasing division and the pettiness that causes it. We have to treat all people like brothers and sisters, doing what we can so that no one goes to bed sad and spends their days in gloom.
Bilam sought to curse us, but when he looked out at the masses of Jews camped in the midbar, he was overcome and said, “Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov.” How great are the tents of Yaakov, filled with Torah and chesed, maasim tovim and shalom, brotherhood and ayin tovah. As the world spins out of control, we need to reinforce those tents. We need to reach out to our brethren, befriend the lonely, and strengthen the weak. We never really know who is lonely and who is weak, so we need to be friendly and supportive to everyone. We need to feel good about ourselves. We need to get excited about Yiddishkeit and be happy. We need to have a bounce in our step and a smile on our faces. Life is fragile. Life is short. Let’s make the most of it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Get Fired Up

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
This week’s parsha opens with the high ideal we are to live with: “Zos chukas haTorah, adam ki yomus ba’ohel.” The people whose souls are fused to Torah throw off physical mantles. They concentrate their lives on Torah and seek to shun activities that do not contribute to spiritual growth.
The first Rashi of the parsha quotes the Medrash Tanchuma, which states that the Soton and nations of the world mock us and ask for the rationale of this mitzvah. Therefore, says Rashi, the Torah spells out that Parah Adumah is a chok, a gezeirah min haShomayim, and we are not permitted to question it.
The nations of the world, and those who mock us and attempt to steer us from the path of our forefathers, question us and our practices. They say that the mitzvos are backward and without reason. We don’t answer them. We don’t try to explain it to them. We reinforce to ourselves that we are following the word of Hashem, which is a chok. This way, we are able to succeed and flourish in a world of sheker.
A lion once encountered a chicken and began to choke it. “Why are you trying to kill me?” the chicken called out to the lion. “I never hurt you. You don’t know me. Why are you doing this to me?”
The lion looked at the poor little chicken it held in its grasp and responded, “Do you know why I am doing this? Because I can!”
Thankfully, today the attitudes of many of our neighbors have changed and the Jewish people are afforded freedom around the world. But for centuries on end, the nations of the world  treated us the way that lion treated the chicken. They tortured and tormented us. They doubted our loyalty and intelligence. They asked us many questions. The Torah tells us not to bother answering, and not to engage in debates. Their intent is only to mock us; we gain nothing by engaging them.
Additionally, Torah, as the ultimate wisdom, doesn’t operate with the conventional rules. The logic of the Torah defies explanation. We accept chukim as well as mishpotim, recognizing that we are bound to the chok, the bond of Torah living, which goes beyond reason and logic.
Torah greatness and fidelity aren’t born of brilliance, but of toil, purity and diligence. Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l would often quote from the sefer Sheim Hagedolim, which says that before Rashi set out to write his landmark peirush, he traveled extensively to ascertain whether a better peirush than he envisioned existed. It was only after he was unable to find any extant exposition explaining the Torah that he set out to write the classic peirush that has endured until this day.
As Rashi wrote his work, he fasted hundreds of taaneisim to ensure that his words would help propel people to the truth.
Rav Shach would weep as he would recount this, because to him, this anecdote represented all that is right and true about our mesorah. It underscores the fact that chochmas haTorah isn’t about reason alone, but also about humility coupled with commitment to the truth and mesorah.
Rav Aharon Kotler, in Mishnas Rav Aharon Ahl HaTorah (Parshas Korach), discusses the important role of shevet Levi in Klal Yisroel, separated for greatness from the rest of the klal, performing the avodah of the Mishkon and ruling on halachic matters, as the posuk says, “Yoru mishpotecha leYaakov veSorascha l’Yisroel” (Devorim 32:10). In order to perform their duties and maintain their lofty spiritual levels, they were not given land portions in Eretz Yisroel along with everyone else. This way, they were not encumbered with taking care of their property. For their livelihood, Hashem had the rest of the people give maaser rishon to the Leviim and 24 matnos kehunah to the Kohanim.
Rav Aharon asks that since this is the case, why were the Bnei Yisroel easily able to circumvent their terumah and maaser obligations? In effect, shevet Levi was at the constant mercy of their brethren. This could not have led to a calm situation, especially considering the fact that the reason for the terumos and maaseros - and that they didn’t own property - was so that they would not be worried about earning a livelihood.
Rav Aharon answers that since their role was to provide leadership in many areas, there was a danger that they would become haughty and view themselves as being on a different plane than everyone else. If they would be financially secure and not dependent on others, they would look down at others, which would cause them to be baalei ga’avah, detached from the people.
Since humility is a prerequisite for Torah growth, were they to become haughty they wouldn’t be able to achieve greatness. Additionally, in order to pasken properly, siyata diShmaya is required. Since Hashem detests those who are conceited, as the posuk states, “Toavas Hashem kol gevah lev,” they would lose their ability to properly understand Torah and rule on matters of halacha.
Therefore, they are provided for by the masses, but in such a way that forces them to maintain their humility. A person requires 48 levels of ethical perfection in order to succeed in Torah. Greatness in Torah is a gift from Hashem, conferred upon men of faith and humility. Torah is attained differently than any other knowledge.
Not only is greatness in Torah thought achieved differently than in other subjects, but communal leadership decisions are arrived at in a different way than they are in the outside world.
In the days of the czar, a dictate closing all chadorim and forcing all Jewish children to be educated in government schools was handed down. Many meetings were held to find solutions. At one such meeting, it was proposed for a delegation to travel to a minister who was born Jewish but had totally strayed from the path. He was involved in the passing of the edict, and it was suspected that he was actually the author of the new law.
One of the attendees at the meeting identified him as Minister Schapiro and noted that he hailed from a respected rabbinic family. “In fact,” said the man, “Rav Yaakov sitting here with us today is related to him. Perhaps he should travel to the capital and meet with the minister. He can remind the minister of his yichus and appeal to him to rescind the law.”
All eyes turned to Rav Yaakov, who wasn’t sure that it was the right course of action. “If I introduce myself to him as a relative, he might be receptive,” Rav Yaakov said, “but bringing up my grandparents might be a source of embarrassment to them, tying them with their offspring, this rasha.”
Everyone was silent until the Kuzmirer Rebbe responded, citing a posuk: “Moshe Rabbeinu sought to travel across the land of Edom on the way to the Promised Land. He reached out the Edomite king, a grandson of Eisov. He said to him, ‘Ko omar achicha Yisroel, so speaks your brother Yisroel.’ Rashi explains that Moshe told the king of Edom, ‘Achim anachnu, bnei Avrohom. We, as children of Avrohom, are your brothers.’ So we see that to prevent a crisis, it is permissible to cite a common relationship to a tzaddik.”
Rav Yaakov was convinced. He undertook the mission to his assimilated relative and succeeded.
The Ozherover Rebbe zt”l would cite this story as an example of the principle of daas Torah, always looking back and finding sources for a course of action, never relying upon one’s own logic.
A group of askonim had an idea to solve a crisis that their community was facing. They met with a communal leader, who told them that the idea sounded fine to him, but that he would consult with Rav Shach before providing a final answer.
When presented with the plan, Rav Shach immediately shot it down. He said, “I saw from the Chofetz Chaim that their solution is improper.”
The group was convinced that they had thoroughly analyzed the issue and arrived at a perfect solution. They were sure that it wasn’t explained properly to Rav Shach, so they arranged to meet with the Rosh Yeshiva and discuss their solution to the pressing communal crisis.
Rav Shach told them, “I will not debate your arguments, and for all I know, your thoughts might be correct. But Klal Yisroel is not led by conclusions and thoughts of smart people. Klal Yisroel is led by mesorah, tradition. If the mesorah from the Chofetz Chaim is that we don’t engage in something like that, then we don’t do it, no matter how smart it seems, for following our mesorah is the smartest course of action.”
Too often, we see people who think they are smarter than the Torah. We see people who are consumed by a problem and believe that they have the perfect solution. They fail to properly consider it, as they are convinced of their intelligence and leadership abilities, but they are wrong. They are conceited and therefore lack the siyata diShmaya required to arrive at proper decisions. They ignore the mesorah and how gedolim who came before them acted. They think that the times have changed and the methods of realizing goals are different. They disregard the way that the greats of the previous generations conducted themselves and how they dealt with similar situations in their respective eras. 
None of us is qualified to think that he has the solutions to problems that face us. No one, as smart as he thinks he is and as pressing as the problem he faces is, has a right to present plans that differ with our mesorah. Doing so causes mayhem and fails to solve problems. The logic may be compelling, but it is still wrong.
People in our day are led astray by those who claim to understand the reasoning for different halachos and temper them to mesh with the times. Such thinking is what gave birth to the Conservative and Reform movements, which caused many to deviate from halacha and mesorah, leading millions of Jews astray. It sounds funny to us that they maintain institutions that they refer to as “yeshivos” and have halachic decisors who write so-called teshuvos in halacha, as if they are following the Torah.
Once you begin to rationalize the commandments and inject human understanding of them and their concepts, you begin compromising them and sullying the holy with a simple thought process.
There are those who assume that they have mastered Torah, and are therefore qualified to rule as they understand, ignoring precedent, and the impact of their ruling. Such people have failed in their leadership roles.
Critical thinking and analysis lacking yiras Shomayim, a sense of mesorah and humility result in individuals who destroy instead of build, obscure instead of reveal, and cause others to repel the Torah instead of drawing closer to it.
Our fellow Jews in the Open Orthodoxy movement, who follow in the path of the founders of the Conservatives, have fallen into this trap. Insistent as they are on being termed Orthodox, we must never stop denying their claim, because, in fact, they are not Orthodox in thought, practice, attitude or approach.
They inflict damage in the shuls and schools that naively hire their members, thinking that they are loyal to Torah and mesorah. We must persist in calling them out as the impostors they are. Their teshuvos and drashos mock tradition and halacha, and are fanciful attempts to have the Torah conform with current progressive thought, bearing little relation to the reality of Torah thought and interpretation.
Rav Elchonon Wasserman explained the posuk of “Tzidkoscha tzedek le’olam” (Tehillim 119:142) to mean that man cannot fathom the depths of Hashem’s justice, for society and its concepts are ever changing. What is considered just in one generation is viewed as unjust in the next. But “veSorascha emes,” the truth of Torah is everlasting. It neither changes for the times nor conforms to them.
Zos chukas haTorah. Torah is a chok. Torah is neither about impressive dissertations nor social welfare and contracting with a good PR firm. It is about following the will of the Creator as expressed in Torah Skebiksav and Torah Shebaal Peh. That’s just the way it is.
Chazal say (Taanis 30, et al), “Kol hamisabel al Yerushalayim zocheh veroeh besimchosah.” In order to merit enjoying the rebuilding of Yerushalayim, one must mourn its destruction.
Eis tzorah hee leYaakov. It is a dangerous time for our people. We witness the repeated wanton murder of our brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisroel and watch as the world blames us. We see women’s groups ply their fiction at the Kosel, wearing tefillin and reading from Sifrei Torah. These people, who publicly defile the Shabbos, enjoy non-kosher food, and ignore all the Torah’s commandments, promote a new agenda and threaten the spiritual holiness of Israel.
Last week brought new displays of the failings of the justice system in the United States, beacon of freedom to the entire world. The heads of the FBI and the Justice Department, the highest enforcers of the rule of law in the land, contorted to exonerate a former secretary of state who is the leading contender for the presidency, from serious charges concerning her handling of the nation’s security. With twisted logic that recognized her reckless carelessness, lies and potentially criminal actions, they failed to indict her. People concluded that apparently justice is not blind and not everyone receives equal treatment in this land.
Breakdown of law-and-order reached a new low, as police killed two black men and five policemen were murdered in retaliation in Dallas, Texas. The nation searches for leadership, as the current White House occupant and the two who aspire to succeed him are not trusted and loathed by large numbers of Americans.
When justice is man-made, there is always going to be inequality, mistakes, and feelings of division, for the system is inherently only as good as the mortals who formulate the laws, and enforce and adjudicate them.
Rav Binyomin Zev Yaakovson of Copenhagen wrote that when his travels took him to Lithuania, he found himself at an asifah headed by the Chofetz Chaim and Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky. The Chofetz Chaim addressed the gathering and said the following. In this world, Jews are divided into groups. There are Litvaks and there are Chassidim, and within each group, there are sub-groups. There is this rebbe and that rebbe, this yeshiva and that yeshiva, this derech and that derech. These divisions are outgrowths of the olam hasheker, he said, but in Shomayim, they aren’t interested in these divisions.
In Shomayim, he explained, there are five types of Jews: There are kochadike Yidden, boiling hot Jews; vareme Yidden, warm Jews; lebleche Yidden, room-temperature Jews; kalte Yidden, cold Jews; and derfroirene Yidden, frozen Jews.
No community or grouping has a monopoly on anything. In each one, you can find these five types of Jews. The task of every Jew is to be a kochadike Yid, a Jew who boils with enthusiasm for Torah and mitzvos, and not one of the cold ones.
Zos chukas haTorah. Get fired up for Hashem. Be excited about Torah and filled with joy when you perform a mitzvah. Live life happily, seeking perfection and acting properly. Be warm towards others and towards yourself. Be warm with appreciation for the gifts Hashem has blessed you with. Accept the Torah and its laws with enthusiasm and joy. Don’t look to compromise on anything. Don’t seek explanations and understandings for those things that defy comprehension. Know that they are products of the infinite wisdom and kindness of the Creator. It is up to us to implement them and make the world a better, warmer and more hospitable place for ourselves, our brethren, and humanity at large, enabling us to welcome Moshiach, may he come in our day.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Staying Grounded

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Parshas Korach presents us with one of the most examined and talked about parshiyos in the Torah. Jews over the centuries have tried to come to grips with the motivations of this once-great man born into one of the princely families of Klal Yisroel who seemed to have everything going for him, until he went up against Moshe Rabbeinu.
Rashi notes (16:1), “Parsha zu yafeh nidreshes,” this parsha lends itself to fine homiletic interpretations. It is also relevant to each subsequent generation, for its lessons impact us and our lives.
What possessed Korach? “Korach shepikeiach hayah, mah ra’ah leshtus zu?” This question still troubles us; why did he do it? What was he thinking?
Oftentimes, we look at decisions made by others and wonder what they were thinking and how they could have chosen a particular course of action. How could they have failed to see what was plainly obvious to any objective observer?
Life is complicated. People are complicated. Situations change and people change along with them. People who succeed start believing that they are responsible for their own success and as a result, their self-image changes.
Anyone who seeks self-improvement and studies mussar, knows that the first rule of ethics is not to become haughty. The Rosh, in his sefer Orchos Chaim, composed of 155 rules of proper conduct, lists the following as number one: “Lehisracheik min hagaavah betachlis harichuk. Stay as far away as you can from haughtiness.”
The opening chapters of mussar sefer Orchos Tzadikim pertain to the pitfalls of haughtiness and importance of humility.
We have often seen it happen. Someone we know receives a new position, achieves success and becomes influential. As he grows in the job and gets more comfortable, he becoms consumed with self-importance. He begins taking himself seriously. And with that, comes a certain sense of him being holier than thou, better than everyone else. He begins looking down at people and looking at himself with exaggerated self-importance.
His arrogance leads him to lose touch with everyone around him, whom he views as small people. He becomes aloof and absorbed with his image, feeding his own sense of superiority. As time goes on, he distances himself from people he knew in his previous life, for they don’t appreciate his greatness.
That man is Korach. And that was his downfall. 
He was a child of a princely family. He had his work as an eved Hashem cut out for him, he achieved success and became consumed with self-importance. As he saw his cousins rising higher, he began to lose sight of his goal. He held public rallies, addressing his relatives and saying to them, “I also want to serve Hashem the way you do. I am just as qualified as you are.”
He insisted that his campaign wasn’t about him, although of course it was. He wasn’t content to be a “normal guy” anymore. Once he sniffed out nesius, kehunah, and positions of influence and prestige, he felt that they should be his.
He drifted further from reality, and as time passed, he grew increasingly distant from the people around him, becoming consumed by his aspirations.
Oh, we know this phenomenon so well. We see it so often. Thus, parsha zu is yafeh nidreshes. It can be repeatedly explored and examined for its lessons of enduring significance.
Korach carried the aron and possessed ruach hakodesh. He was a holy person, highly qualified for many positions, but he began to believe in himself and failed to take heed of Hillel’s teaching in Pirkei Avos (2:4). The humble Hillel taught, “Al ta’amin b’atzmecha ad yom moscha - Don’t believe in yourself until your last day on this world.” Don’t think that you have conquered all. Don’t think that you are better than everyone. Remember that the yeitzer hora is ever-present, seeking to take advantage of your weaknesses to cause you to stumble, fail and sin.
The appetite for leadership positions is an outgrowth of insufficient humility coupled with a lack of belief in Hashem. One who is immersed in Torah and maasim tovim, and reinforces himself with mussar study, doesn’t crave attention and praise from the masses, for at the end of the day, he knows that mortal praise and adulation are fleeting and usually self-serving. The eternal accolades are those that he aims for. Hashem has the ability to reward him for his actions and to properly respect him and his actions.
He is happy learning in his corner until Hashgochah declares that it is time for him to venture out of his daled amos and into communal leadership and responsibility. So many of our recent rabbinic leaders were people who shunned recognition and publicity.
The Chazon Ish studied alone in the Vilna shul, his greatness known only to few individuals and people who had to know, such as Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky. When he moved to Eretz Yisroel, where there was a dearth of talmidei chachomim and manhigim at the time, Rav Chaim Ozer declared that it was time to reveal the secret, and the Chazon Ish took a leading role in establishing the Israeli Torah community as we now know it.
Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach was known as a batlan whose life revolved around Torah, his shiurim and his talmidim. When the passing of numerous Torah leaders left a tremendous void, the man who knew only Torah stepped out of his zone of comfort and, in his older years, led the generation to unprecedented heights.
When Rav Shach felt his strength ebbing after he passed the century mark, he turned to Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, another batlan whose life revolved strictly around his learning and literally forced upon him the mantle of leadership.
Torah leaders belong to the people. They don’t look over their shoulders to ensure that they have the crowds. They love Hashem, His Torah, and His children. They are approachable and sensitive, because they really do care. They operate on a higher plane and answer to a higher authority.
In 1973, there were contentious elections for the positions of Israeli chief rabbi. After Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren made it clear that political calculations would take precedence over halacha, the Torah leadership decided to act. Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Rav Betzalel Zolty and others tapped Rav Ovadia Yosef to run for the position of Sephardic chief rabbi and thus save the rabbanut from a hostile takeover. At an emergency meeting in Rav Elyashiv’s sukkah, the relatively young Chacham Ovadiah was informed that he had been selected as a candidate. He was hesitant. With the government and authorities lined up behind the other candidate, there was virtually no chance that he could win. Only two weeks remained before the election, yet, in deference to Rav Elyashiv, Chacham Ovadiah agreed and announced his candidacy.
Chacham Ovadiah continued his schedule of shiurim and writing teshuvos, refusing to hit the campaign trail. When askonim informed him that he didn’t seem to have many votes from the members of the voting committee, he replied, “I only need one vote, that of Hakadosh Boruch Hu.”
Our leaders are not people who seek the top positions and feel comfortable there. Rather, they are giants who shun the limelight and closet themselves with Hashem and the Gemara for decades of almost reclusive growth.
For all outward appearances, our past leaders, like our present ones, were like everyone else. They didn’t carry themselves differently. They stood among the people in the bais medrash without airs, never demanding any special recognition.
Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest prophet we ever had, the greatest leader our people has known, was “onov mikol adam, the most humble of men” (Bamidbor 12:3). He knew of his greatness and connection with the Creator, but he never lost sight of the fact that he was a yelud adam, a mortal person.
We all have to learn to remain grounded, connected to our family and friends, never losing sight of our common frailty. We are all just people. We should be careful not to get carried away with ourselves.
A prominent gaon, one of the most brilliant Litvishe mechabrei seforim, suffered a life of hardship and oppression. In his later years, he revealed the reason for his troubles. He said that he was cursed by Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor.
He related that as a young man, he found himself in Vilna at a large rabbinic levayah and was asked to speak. During his hesped, he involved himself in a local dispute. Later, he traveled to Kovno and went to see the gadol hador, Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor. The senior rov of Lita told him that a young person such as himself should not have gotten involved in a local dispute.
Being young and somewhat brash, the brilliant talmid chochom answered the Kovno Rov, “I know Bavli as well as you do. I know Yerushalmi better than you. I am entitled to express my opinion.”
Rav Yitzchok Elchonon looked at him and said, “If that is the case, going on this path will mean that you will have no peace your entire life.”
Although the rov interpreted it as a curse, it may be that Rav Yitzchok Elchonon was simply giving him advice for life. If you want peace in life, if you want to be happy, then you must be able to grow without becoming haughty. Peace of mind comes about from being cognizant of your proper place and role in this world. Proficiency in Shas is not a license to act rashly and brashly. The risks presented by haughtiness are as dangerous for you as for a person not as blessed as you.
To ignore that, is to risk losing touch with what makes life rich: friends, family and the peace of mind that comes to a person who isn’t occupied with self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. Haughty people run the risk of missing out on the contentment of those who act properly, rise in their spheres, and, when successful, remain aware of where they came from and where they are headed.
Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel was speaking to his talmidim and wanted to teach them a lesson in humility. He said that he was planning to stop accepting kibbudim at weddings. The rosh yeshiva smilingly described what went through his mind at wedding celebrations. “First, I spend a whole evening nervous about which brochah they’ll give me. Then, when they finally call my name, I am nervous about them getting my name and title correctly. Then, when all that is done and I am under the chupah about to recite the brochah, I notice two people outside schmoozing. They don’t even see that I’m getting a brochah, so the whole thing isn’t worth it.”
Tongue-in-cheek as it was, it was a powerful lesson from a rebbi to his talmidim, teaching them to maintain perspective.
You can’t live your life for fleeting honor or you will always be let down in the end. You can’t live your life based on how other people will react. You have to act properly and responsibly, bringing contentment to yourself and those around you.
Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky was seated at an elegant wedding. The waiter circulated, asking the assembled honored guests whether they preferred a fish or meat main course. Some chose fish to demonstrate a higher fidelity to the laws of kashrus, but when the waiter came to Rav Yaakov, he smiled and asked for the meat plate. He joked that the choice was between ta’ava and kavod. Ta’ava won.
Greatness isn’t the absence of normalcy, but the ability to admit to being human.
Rav Yaakov’s son, Rav Shmuel, embodies this ability. The rosh yeshiva exudes a sense of being able to relate to everyone, understanding all sorts of problems and situations, and using humor and gentle self-awareness to lead.
Our ultimate leader, Moshe Rabbeinu, was also the greatest onov, because there is no better way to understand and direct people than through true humility.
Recently, Rav Shmuel arrived early at an office for a meeting. The rosh yeshiva noticed that a Daf Yomi shiur was being given by Professor R’ Michel Schiffenbauer, who was his talmid years ago in the Yeshiva of Philadelphia. He pulled up a chair and joined the staffers, along with various professionals who work in the neighborhood. In doing so, he gave a shiur of his own about what it means to stay normal, relatable and humble.
Korach utilized propaganda and demagoguery to further a personal vendetta. He threw the entire nation into turmoil merely to realize a personal ambition. A great and blessed man, he wasn’t satisfied with his position in life. He was consumed by visions of his own self-importance. He was blinded by his jealousy of the two brothers who redeemed the people from Mitzrayim and led them through the midbar on their way to Eretz Yisroel.
This week’s parsha is as relevant today as ever before. Each generation has those who lead, as did Moshe Rabbeinu, with Torah leadership.
There have always been those who saw it as their mission to rise up against gedolei Torah, seeking to minimize their greatness in the eyes of the masses in order to promote a personal agenda. Leadership is a tenuous position, requiring the leader to be respected and revered by the community he leads so that they may follow him.
Modern politics is all about portraying an image of being relevant. Remaining in power means being able to reach the people and maintain their confidence. People are fed up with the status quo, having those in power dictating their futures and ruling without care of repercussions on the lives of their constituents.
People want leaders who will help them, listen to them, and really care about them. They want a positive, bright future for themselves and their children. They want opportunity, jobs, good schools, fairness and justice. They want bullies punished, molesters put away, victims healed, and every child, smart or not, given a chance to make something of themselves.
Korach may have been a pikeach, but he didn’t have the temperament or inclination to heed those who said, “You’re acting like a fool.”
Perhaps this is why the parsha contrasts the fate of Korach with that of On ben Peles, whose wife saved him. By correctly diagnosing Korach’s motivation, she told her husband that he would be a back-bencher even were Korach to beat Moshe and Aharon. The wise woman told her husband, “You’re going to remain a nothing regardless, so why get involved?”
It probably hurt him to hear what she said, but he knew that she was the classic good wife. In fact, Chazal were referring to her when they taught, “Chochmas noshim bonsah beisah.” That chochmah is predicated upon being honest and straightforward.
If you have a spouse, sibling or good friend who tells it to you the way it is, cherish him or her. Listen, because they will keep you sane.
Reb Meir Simcha Chein, a wealthy chossid, built a nice house. At its center sat a massive, ornate dining room table, suitable for royalty.
Shortly after he moved in, fellow chassidim and friends went to the house for a fabrengen. One chossid took a knife and made a scratch on the new table.
“Why did you do that?” Reb Meir Simcha inquired.
“Because, this way,” the chossid said, “the chassidim won’t be afraid to celebrate around it.”
Reb Meir Simcha, appreciating the depth of the answer, and the loyalty and friendship beneath the words, embraced his dear friend.
Let’s never forget who we are or where we come from. Never become distant and aloof.
Being “one of the boys” takes work, and no one is so important to be better than anyone else. Make sure your friends aren’t afraid to dance on your table.
Parsha zu yafeh nidreshes. Let’s probe it repeatedly, keeping ourselves far away from haughtiness and conceit.
Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman was asked to give a mussar talk to a gathering of moros, Bais Yaakov teachers.
“Me?” he reacted with surprise, “I should speak to them? I should give them mussar? These are women who are up late at night preparing their classes, then tending to their children early in the morning. When they finally dress and give their children breakfast and get them off to school, they hurry off to teach. Six hours later, after a long morning of teaching, answering, speaking and inspiring Yiddishe techter to Torah and yiras Shomayim, they rush home, where ‘di pitzkalech varten,’ the children wait for them eagerly. If they want to rest, the children don’t let. Yes, they deserve chizuk, but I certainly can’t give them mussar.”
Parsha zu yafeh nidreshes. Know your place and remain humble.
Every person has his own unique contribution to make. As Korach rightly said, “Kol ha’eidah kulam kedoshim.” Every individual is holy. Yet, he attempted to go where he didn’t belong.
Each plant requires a certain amount of sunlight and water. Similarly, every Jew has an area in which he can flower, prosper and contribute to the betterment of mankind.
Klal Yisroel is like a luscious landscape, loaded with various plants and flowers. There are tall and mighty trees alongside willowy shrubbery. There are tall grasses and short ones, flowering bushes and evergreens, side by side. Each one is different, but together they form a remarkable garden.
Today, as we mourn the murder of a precious little girl who was sleeping in her bed in Kiryat Arba and the menahel of the yeshiva in Otniel, a father of ten gunned down by bloodthirsty butchers, we ponder our precarious state. There is nothing more humbling than recognizing the fleeting nature of life and our lack of control of the future.
As we begin the sorrow-filled month of Tammuz, let us all remember our places and tasks to do what we can so that next year, Tammuz will be a month of joy.