Thursday, September 29, 2016

A Good Year Together

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
With Rosh Hashanah in the air and so many speeches heard and articles read, a person says to himself, “I think I’m basically a good person and want to be judged favorably for the coming year, but where do I start? I’ve heard all about Elul and teshuvah, but now what? What do I do? Where do I begin and how do I go about it?”
My grandfather, Rav Eliezer Levin zt”l, learned in the famed yeshiva of Kelm for seven years. He once told me that during Elul, a sign stating, “Ein Melech belo am - There is no King without a people,” was affixed to the wall. It came up in conversation and I never asked him what the sign meant or signified.
I took it for granted that the message referred to the need of the Jewish people to affirm Hashem’s Kingship on Rosh Hashanah. As Chazal say (Rosh Hashanah 34b), we recite the pesukim of Malchiyos in Shemoneh Esrei “kedei shetamlichuni aleichem,” in order to accept Hashem’s dominion over us.
On Rosh Hashanah, we blow the shofar and declare, “Hayom haras olam. Today is the birthday of the world. Today is the anniversary of Hashem’s meluchah.” The avodah of Rosh Hashanah is to declare Hashem our Melech on the day His Kingship is celebrated and reaffirmed.
Later, I found that the Alter of Kelm writes (Chochmah Umussar 2:152) that the avodah of shetamlichuni aleichem necessitates that the king’s subjects be united and work together, for the king’s rule is weakened if they are divided.
The premise of Elul and Tishrei is that we must be united, not divided. We must be respectful of others and accepting of people who are different than us, with different minhagim and a different mesorah that can also be traced back to Har Sinai.
This is signified by the sign that hung for the month of Elul in that cauldron of mussar and growth known as Kelm.
However, we still need to understand something. We often talk about achdus. What does it mean? What does it entail? And why is it a prerequisite for the moths of Elul and Tishrei?
Achdus means that we respect and care for each other despite our differences. It means that we are all heirs to a glorious tradition, and each one of us contributes an important part of a brilliant and multi-faceted mosaic. Achdus means that we recognize that there were twelve shevotim, each distinct, with its own mission and shlichus. Together, the twelve different shevotim formed Am Yisroel.
Soldiers focused on victory, on the ultimate glory of the kingdom, aren’t challenged by different roles and different ranks. They are members of a united team, an agudah achas.
Great men see beyond their own honor. They are perceptive enough to remain focused on kevod Shomayim. They don’t see themselves as central, but are happy to fade into the background and allow His glory to shine.
Rav Nochum Zev of Kelm, the Alter of Kelm’s son and sagacious leader of the Kelmer yeshiva, was invited to address a large gathering. The previous speakers were introduced and stepped to the podium to address the crowd. When his turn came, he ascended the podium, apologized that he was unable to speak, and returned to his seat. He later explained to his daughter that although he had prepared a droshah, he noted that the rov who addressed the gathering before him spoke poorly. The Kelmer gadol feared that his own speech would reflect negatively on the previous speaker. Rather than cause embarrassment to another Jew, he sat down.
No doubt, the message he prepared was laden with depth and inspiration. He certainly spent much time and effort in its preparation and believed that it held important lessons for the people in the crowd, or he wouldn’t have arrived to deliver it. Yet, the giant of Kelmer mussar sacrificed his droshah for the kavod of another Jew, because he was part of an agudah achas, sensitive to the feelings of that other rov. If it would involve causing someone embarrassment, then it wasn’t worth delivering.
It wasn’t about him, but about Him.
So where do we start our task of doing teshuvah? There is so much to cover, but what is it that underlies our failures? What is the one thing that we can do to improve our lives, make us better people, make us feel better about ourselves, and hopefully allow us to find favor in the eyes of Hashem?
The Vilna Gaon writes in Even Sheleimah (1:1,3) that at the root of all sin is bad middos, and the task of a person is to break those middos and seek to improve his character. Someone who wants to repent and do teshuvah for sins he committed should begin by rectifying his middos. The key to change involves examining middos and perfecting character traits.
At the root of the teshuvah process is becoming a better person. At the root of becoming a better person is perfecting your character. It’s not just so that you will get along better with other people. It is so that you will be able to join b’achdus and be part of something great.
One of the most integral elements of teshuvah is seeing ourselves as part of the group; as a member of Am Yisroel, and appreciating what that means. Teshuvah involves us not seeing ourselves as superior to others, or more important or better than they are, but appreciating the goodness in everyone.
Humility is the underlying ingredient of self-improvement, getting along with people, influencing people and living b’achdus. Someone who is conceited cannot lower himself in order to blend in with the rest of the pack. He is always looking to stand out or go it alone.
People who are consumed with themselves don’t give to others, don’t bend for others, and don’t compromise for others. It’s all about them. People driven by superficiality are selfish and consumed by self-gratification. They don’t bring Hashem into their lives. Life becomes a long expedition of pleasure-seeking and power-grabbing, without thought of communal responsibility or a serious examination of life.
Achdus is imperative for malchus to happen.
The cleansing process of Elul and the yemei hadin, the honesty and self-awareness brought about by the awesomeness of these days, coupled with proper reflection, brings us to a level where we can do our part in being mamlich Hashem.
Rav Yisroel Salanter advised that to be zocheh in the din of Rosh Hashanah, it is vital for a person to be part of the klal. His advice is usually understood to mean that if we wish to be granted life, health and happiness, we have to make ourselves needed. If we live for others, then the more that people need us, and the more goodness and happiness we bring into the world, the more reason Hashem has to keep us here. The merit of performing important functions for Am Yisroel helps us when we are judged for the coming year.
But there is another way to understand his admonition. In order to be a person who is involved with the klal, you have to have sterling middos, appreciate other people get along and working with others b’achdus. Someone who is caught up with himself, lacking depth and humility, cannot be involved with the klal. A klal mentch, a person who assumes responsibility to help others because he is interested in helping people, is a person who refines his middos and character.
These days, referred to as the Yomim Noraim, Days of Awe, demand seriousness. Somehow, everything in our world is becoming cloaked with casualness. Serious times are preceded by a kumzitz, because we can’t seem to handle the weighty nature of Selichos. Dancing and singing are easier than honest self-reflection.
To lessen the severity of the judgment, we would do better to recognize that some times demand contemplative thought. We need to take a break once in a while and think about our position in life. We must ponder what we have achieved so far and what our ambition is. Life is perplexing and demands thought and depth. Seriousness brings us to accept the rule of Hashem. Recognizing our place in the world leads us to care about other people and seek to improve their lives by utilizing our talents. Introspection leads to achdus and to becoming an integral part of a klal. That is what Rav Yisroel Salanter was referring to.
When we are alone, we are vulnerable and isolated. Uniting with others allows us to benefit from their support. We then have people with whom to celebrate and lighten sadness. If you live only for yourself and by yourself, then your life is as small as you are. You never allow the strengths you have been blessed with to develop and flourish as they would have had you been involved with others. You wallow and decline because Hashem endowed us with strengths in order to use them for communal benefit and for causes of Torah.
Just like the shevotim, we each have our own distinct missions to carry out. We are interconnected with others, and to the degree that we touch others’ lives and become indispensable, we become more a vital integral part of Klal Yisroel.
One of the most central nuscha’os for the tefillos of these days is the special nusach of Yeshivas Chevron. The hauntingly beautiful nusach has spread across the world and heavily influences the tunes and sounds of Rosh Hashanah.
The nusach is largely the innovation of Rav Shalom Schwadron, the legendary baal tefillah and maggid. The master communicator cobbled together different nuances from many others and formed a nusach that touched the soul, stirring and inspiring people who davened with him to seek great heights and perfection. One of the Chevron classics is the niggun that Rav Shalom adapted for the pizmon of Omnom Kein…Solachti.
Chevroner talmidim asked the beloved baal tefillah the source of the tune. He explained that this song was unlike all the others that originated from baalei mussar and Chassidic greats. He related that as an orphaned child, he stayed at the Diskin Orphan Home for a period of time.
“There,” he recalled, “a young boy, orphaned of both parents, sat next to me. He was so sad, a broken young boy. He would sit and hum a pitiful tune comprised of notes of longing and pain. That tune emanated from the boy’s wounded soul and always touched me. Every year I use the niggun, and every year I remember that boy.”
Rav Shalom, a man with a vast heart, who was easily touched and touched many, didn’t just find a tune to beautify his tefillos. When he davened, he was b’achdus with everyone in the crowd. He thought about them and their needs, and he did his best to help corral the prayers on high. He thought of that little boy, the broken orphan, from way back when, singing to himself a haunting tune, seeking to somehow overcome his loneliness and depression.
A humble man full of love for everyone, Rav Shalom connected with that boy and his soul, channeling that emotion into the tefillos as a master representative, a “shliach tzibbur,” attaching himself to his brethren, bringing them all together as one. Their voices rose along in unison, marshaling their strengths and bringing them to the level of holiness the days call for.
The more we realize that we are part of a group ruled by Hashem, the closer we will be to realizing our goal. When we grasp that kol Yisroel areivim zeh bazeh and comprehend that we are small when we stand alone; but can achieve much when we are united, we will find favor in Hashem’s eyes and in the hearts of our fellow Jews.
“Useshuvah, usefillah, utzedokah maavirin es ro’a hagezeirah.”
One who seeks to improve himself and chart a better course for the new year cleanses himself of his prior wrongs and silliness. He turns to Hashem in tefillah and asks to be returned to His good graces along with the rest of Klal Yisroel. He rises above his selfishness and apathy, accepting others, caring about his fellows, contributing to their welfare and the betterment of mankind. Tzedokah tatzil mimovess, for the more we give, the more we share with others, the more unselfish and humble we are, the more we live b’achdus with everyone, and the greater our chances of a favorable outcome.
Chazal say, “Eizehu chochom? Halomeid mikol odom. Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.” The isolationist is myopic, deprived of the understanding and scope he could have achieved had he been humble enough to learn from others.
Now is the time for cheshbon hanefesh, perceiving what we did right, what we did wrong and what we can do to correct those errors. The process of teshuvah involves charotah al he’ovar and kabbolah al he’osid, regret for the past and positive resolutions for the future. The two must be linked. Engaging in charotah over past failings must bring us to undertake specific kabbalos to better ourselves in the coming year and conscientiously carry them out.
The Rambam states in Hilchos Matnos Aniyim (10:1) that Am Yisroel will merit to be redeemed in the zechus of the mitzvah of tzedokah. Perhaps we can say that the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed because we lacked achdus and were consumed by sinas chinom. For us to overcome that deficiency and merit the redemption, we have to not judge people cynically and belittle those who are superficially different. We have to make room for them in our hearts, homes and schools. There is no better way to “put your money where your mouth is,” to show real achdus, than to invest tzedokah money in the dreams and hopes of another.
One who has perfected his ethical conduct to the degree that he can be a productive and harmonious member of the klal is one who can appreciate the oneness and unity of Klal Yisroel and thus fulfills his obligation of shetamlichuni aleichem.
What did that sign hanging in Kelm mean? It meant “Be a mentch, a klal mentch, and refine your middos so that you are b’achdus with everyone else.” It meant to accept Hashem’s rule over you and recognize that shetamlichuni aleichem is serious business for serious people in a serious time.
We are entering a month when achdus is the central avodah.
On Rosh Hashanah, we plead for the chance to be an agudah achas. Before Yom Kippur, we ask mechilah from each other. On Sukkos, we grasp four minim, symbolizing all sorts of Jews. Then, finally, on Simchas Torah, we dance as one, with no more barriers between us.
That’s the avodah of Malchiyos.
Achdus brings to malchus. Recognizing that our roles, distinct as they may be, are part of a single unit, focused on the same goal. Making yourself part of a community doesn’t mean that you have to surrender your personality and individuality. You can be who you are without letting that compromise your loyalty to the community. The challenge of achdus is subordinating your selfish inclinations and conquering your gaavah so that you can work with others for the common good.
Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel once rose in front of the Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim bais medrash packed with talmidim and issued a plea: “There are many different types of talmidim here, following many different mesoros. There are Sephardim, chassidim and immigrants from Russia, along with typical Israeli, American and European bnei Torah. I urge you all to form minyonim so that you can honor your mesorah and maintain your minhagim.”
The rosh yeshiva paused. “But when seder starts, when it comes time to learning, I want all those groups to merge into one. The oilam should all learn together!”
When we see the realization of the tefillah, “Veyei’asu kulam agudah achas,” from all corners of the world, Jews uniting together, “la’asos retzoncha beleivav shaleim,” we will know that we are on the path toward a shenas geulah veyeshuah.
Kesivah vachasimah tovah.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Seven Minutes of Appreciation

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Mincha on Erev Rosh Hashanah had ended and the crowd in the Gerrer bais medrash was waiting for the Maariv that would usher in the new year.
The Gerrer Rebbe, the Bais Yisroel, whispered something to the gabbai, Reb Shea Noach. The gabbai walked to the bimah and made an announcement: “There are still seven minutes until shkiah.”
Sometimes, we are so focused on the future that we lose sight of the present. The rebbe was reminding his followers that there were still seven precious minutes with which to be mesakein the fading year.
What can be accomplished in seven minutes?
The Chofetz Chaim would often say that over the Yomim Noraim, we appeal to Hashem as a “Melech chofetz bachayim,” a King who desires life. As we ask Hashem to grant us the gift that He Himself appreciates, it stands to reason that to be granted the gift, we also have to be chofetz bachayim. If someone has a valuable watch that he wishes to entrust to a friend for safe-keeping, which friend would he ask, one who has no understanding of valuable items or one who possesses an appreciation for fine watches? Of course, he would turn to the one who knows how to treat an expensive timepiece.
The Chofetz Chaim would conclude that the King who desires life is more likely to bestow life upon one who values life; cherishes and realizes the gift being given every moment.
Rav Avigdor Miller would make the same point with the example of a storeowner forced to lay off one worker. He has a choice of who to keep. One employee is hard-working and effective, but always in a bad mood and giving off negative vibes. The other is less efficient, but always in a good mood, making customers happy and lifting the spirits of those around him.
Rabbi Miller would say that a sharp proprietor would keep the second worker, perceiving the benefit of having a positive person around. So too, Hakadosh Boruch Hu wants happy workers, those who are pleased to be doing what they do.
In the final “seven minutes” of the year, we can focus on 5776 and consider how things have progressed, how much we have received, and how fortunate we have been during the past year, and express our appreciation for the blessings we have been granted.
We should take a moment to contemplate how many times we panicked or worried over the past year and how many moments of fear we faced. Then, from the perspective of the final moments of the year, think about how many of those problems cleared up and how many of those situations were resolved.
Think of all the brachos we received since the past Rosh Hashanah, the children brought into the world, as well as our new accomplishments, opportunities, friends, vistas,
and welcomed maturity in Torah.
As we stand at the cusp of a new year and begin praying for life, goodness and blessings, we first must appreciate what we have been granted and offer thanks and gratitude.
This week’s parsha tells us how, as it discusses the mitzvah of bikkurim. The Jew brings his first fruits to the Mikdosh and offers thanks in a loud voice. As the posuk states, “Ve’anisa ve’omarta” (Devorim 26:5).
The mitzvah of bikkurim, which began with our entrance to Eretz Yisroel, forces us to contemplate our blessings. Following the winter, we see an orchard of bare branches. We care for the trees nonetheless. We engage in months of hard work and davening for the climate necessary for a good crop, as well as the proper measurements of wind and rain, and no plagues or pestilence. We continually check the status of our orchard.
Then, one day, after all the waiting, toil and prayer, we find a ripening fruit and tie a string to it to indicate that this fruit will accompany us to Yerushalayim, so that we can thank Hashem for the bounty we are confident He will bless us with. We express appreciation for the miracle of growth and our faith in the future guarantee that we will be blessed with a bountiful year.
The lesson of bikkurim is not only a perfect message for this time of the year, but a perfect metaphor for the blessings in our life. Barren fruit trees, looking like they will never grow again, surrounded by dirt and snow, offer much rationale for despair, until suddenly, one day, a tiny new fruit restores hope for the future.
Hakoras hatov, being appreciative, is a vital middah. The word lehakir, at the root of hakoras, has a double meaning. It means to appreciate and it also means to recognize. For in order to appreciate the good, you first have to recognize its existence. 
Hakoras hatov necessitates hisbonenus, focus and concentration, for we must feel the gratitude. Hakoras hatov does not mean offering lip-service and empty thanks, which is demeaning to the recipient, but really appreciating what we received and the one who did us the favor.
The opening pesukim of the parsha refer to Eretz Yisroel’s qualities and its flow of milk and honey. We don’t always see the blessings. Sometimes all we see are hostile neighbors, stabbings, bombings, and too many people who know nothing about their heritage and religion.
We examine our own lives and find things wanting. We can concentrate on the good or we can focus on those areas of life where the good is not always apparent. We see the barren branches and fret and worry that they will never give fruit again. We plant seeds and they disappear, causing us to wonder if they will ever grow into anything.
We need to concentrate on the good. We need to believe that the good that is not yet apparent will soon be, when the barren branches will show a sign of life. We don’t despair. We maintain our faith that everything that happens is for the best; it’s just that some good is evident, while some is not. And still we are makir tov.
We see a world overcome by fear, with bombs exploding at every corner of the globe, civil wars ripping nations apart, diplomacy failing, and refugees spreading hate and anxiety. We see bombs go off in New York and New Jersey, and miraculously nobody is killed. We see politicians react by begging people not to think that Islamic terror is involved, though obviously it is. We see stabbings in Mid-America along with chants about Allah.
We see our brethren in Eretz Yisroel so removed from Torah that they fight to work on Shabbos. We see generations growing up in the Holy Land without any Jewish knowledge whatsoever. We pity them and wish that there was a way to reach them. They assume that all we do is burn garbage pails and throw stones. We daven at the Kosel and put out of our minds that secular groups are waging a strong battle to bring their movement to the holiest place accessible in Jewish life.
We recognize that the reality is that the seeds are underground, germinating, and concentrate on recognizing the good everywhere.
I thank Hashem that I was able to be in Eretz Yisroel for a few days last week and for Shabbos, basking in holiness, positivity and growth.
I was surrounded by a sense of awe and joy over the too-short duration of my visit, confident that what I viewed and experienced is a harbinger of what’s to come. I am grateful for the opportunity to have visited, and even more grateful for what I saw over the course of those few days.
I stood in the field and saw how seeds have become luscious fruits. I saw barren branches and I saw trees laden with fruit.
I was given a grand tour of Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim, and as much as I knew and heard about the Mir, there were too many amazing sites to count. The Mir represents a chain stretching back many generations. We know that the yeshiva was carried on the wings of angels, beyond the reach of the Nazis, serving as an island of Torah for so many. We know how the more recent roshei yeshiva led the Mir to new heights, how people like Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, Rav Nochum Partzovitz and others emerged as the leaders of so many of the generation’s rabbeim and rabbonim, setting many on paths of Torah greatness and understanding
More recently, we watched in awe as a physically handicapped but not debilitated Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel built and built and built, constructing the largest yeshiva on earth with love and superhuman energy. Then, suddenly, he was taken from us.
Now, almost five years later, we experience the atmosphere in the many halls of the yeshiva, the sound of Torah in its many botei medrash, the enthusiasm on the faces of those who learn there, the sheer hasmodah that engulfs you as you walk by people of every age on bench after bench, and the joy and serenity on the faces of yungeleit who likely have no idea how they will buy chicken for Shabbos. You think you know what the Mir is, but you don’t until you feel it, see it, hear it, and are overwhelmed by the thousands of lomdei Torah between its many walls and on the streets everywhere around it going to shiurim.
You walk through the Mir and you can feel the prophecies of Yeshayahu Hanovi that we read in the seven haftoros of nechomah. You walk through its halls and see how seeds planted over the decades are flourishing.
The image of Rav Asher Arieli, in his short jacket, with his humble posture and bright eyes, and his worn Gemara under his arm, as he speaks in learning with talmidim, typifies that miracle. Quietly, majestically, Torah is exploding.
The Chevron Yeshiva has its roots back in Lithuania. The Alter of Slabodka opened a branch of the yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel, in the ancient city of Chevron, where the clean-shaven, sharply dressed Litvaks added to the mosaic of the Holy Land, blessed with yiras Shomayim and exceptional depth in learning. Their dedication to Torah was seriously tested.
The horrific massacre that took place in that city and the yeshiva would have broken others, but the yeshiva relocated to Yerushalayim and forged on. Not many foreigners study there, and their campus is located off the beaten track, so many of us are not familiar with what goes on there. We know about the glory years, when virtually every future rosh yeshiva in the country learned there, but are unaware of the great edifice of Torah that it is today. I had never seen the Chevron bais medrash until last week. What an amazing site! Fourteen hundred bochurim fill the cavernous room, exploding with Torah.
Many seeds were planted to blossom into this burgeoning bais medrash that draws some of the best bochurim from all over Eretz Yisroel who wish to toil in Torah. In the middle sits the rosh yeshiva, Rav Dovid Cohen, speaking in learning with bochurim.
It was humbling to stand there, being shown around by the rosh yeshiva, Rav Yosef Chevroni, but it was also very thrilling to see how Hashgochah orchestrated for this magnificent orchard to grow. Rav Chevroni showed me the yeshiva dormitory, which is being expanded to accommodate the growth, and a new dining room, which is being constructed to feed the ever-increasing number of bochurim. Walking around the bais medrash and expanding campus, observing the many fruits nobody ever thought possible, I was heartened, confident about our future and grateful.
I traveled to Rechovot to see the completed Halichot Chaim Kollel and community center that its leader, Rav Zvi Schvartz, has been dreaming about for the past 18 years. Few gave him any chance of succeeding in his dream to construct a building to house his 70-member kollel and center for kiruv in the cosmopolitan Israeli city. It was fascinating and invigorating to see what one dreamer has been able to accomplish, and to think about the Torah that will be studied and spread in the building that he labored to build for the past two decades, overcoming opposition, bureaucratic red tape and financial challenges. 
Sometimes, we fail to see the larger picture. We get locked into the moment, seeing only that which is immediately in front of us. Now, at year’s end, we have to take a step back and look beyond our immediate field of vision.
A chossid endured the painful loss of a child and was unable to cope with the anguish. He traveled to the Kotzker Rebbe for comfort and solace.
As the man was a talmid chochom, the rebbe began the conversation by speaking to the grieving man in learning. The rebbe cited a Rambam and discussed difficulties he had with it. The visitor was able to explain the seeming contradictions and show the rebbe how the words of the Rambam were laden with meaning.
Seeing that the man was able to answer his questions on the Rambam, the rebbe brought up difficulties he encountered with a Tosafos. Again, the fellow had a nice p’shat.
“Yes, but what about the Rashba,” asked the rebbe.
“It’s not shver,” the man answered. “I’ll show you why.”
The rebbe looked at him and said, “So the Rambam has an answer, Tosafos has a p’shat, and there is no difficulty in understanding the Rashba…
“Don’t you think that there is an explanation, as well, for the decisions of the Ribbono Shel Olam?”
The chossid was comforted.
It often takes time, but we are given glimpses to bolster our emunah. There is always an answer.
In Chevron Yeshiva, I noticed the name “Zev Wolfson” over the main entrance. Mr. Wolfson was emphatic about not having his name on buildings, so I knew that there was a story here. I asked Rav Chevroni about it.
“Let me tell you a story,” he said. “When my father built this campus, there was a crisis. Overnight, the price of cement and other building materials rose sharply, putting the task of constructing the buildings beyond reach. There was so much money already sunk into the buildings, and he was unable to raise more. He was unable to go on. All his contacts had been tapped and nobody was interested in contributing more.
“Everything was in jeopardy. The yeshiva could have closed.
“He reached out to Mr. Wolfson, who responded that he would pay to put up the buildings. He saved the yeshiva. He literally saved the yeshiva.
“As the chanukas habayis approached, my father invited Mr. Wolfson to participate in the celebration. After all, without him, there would be no buildings. My father really wanted him there to publicly express his appreciation. Besides, Mr. Wolfson deserved to see the fruits of his dedication. But he refused to come. My father asked him a few times, and each time the answer was the same: ‘No. No. No.’
“Finally, it was the day before the chanukas habayis. My father was very emotional about meriting to complete the buildings and move into them. He felt that Mr. Wolfson should be there to share the same feelings of satisfaction. He called Mr. Wolfson’s office to speak to him. ‘He’s not here,’ the secretary said.
“‘Where is he?’ my father asked.
“‘I don’t know,’ said the secretary. ‘He left and said he’d be back in two days. He said that he can take no calls.’
“That was that. My father gave up. He called after the two days to report to Zev on how the chanukas habayis went. He said, ‘Zev, you really should have been there. You would have had such nachas.’
“The philanthropist responded, ‘Who says I wasn’t there? I was there. You convinced me that I had to be there. I came. I stood in the back. I watched. I enjoyed every minute. And then I flew home.’”
Zev Wolfson appreciated what he had and why Hashem gave it to him. He sought neither power nor glory, but rather worked to take inventory and build. He lived his life to its fullest by always challenging people to do more and to do better to increase Torah and G-dliness in the world. He always challenged himself to do better and seek out people and institutions to help.
That’s what we need to do in the final “seven minutes” and seven days. We need to step back, and without ego or other negios consider what we have been blessed with over the past. Think about what we have been given. Think about what we can do with what we were given. Think about what we have accomplished. Smile and say thanks to Hashem for the year that is ending.
Hashem, bless us during the coming year, for we are chafeitzei chaim, appreciative, believing and confident that we will use the blessings for their intended purpose.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Tune In & Tune Up

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
As we begin the study of this week’s parsha and encounter the narrative of “aishes yefas toar,” we wonder if there is more here than meets the eye. And there is. While the course of action for a man who went to war, emerged victorious, and then chanced upon a yefas toar is applicable and contains many directions and actions to follow, there is also a message for all of us, especially during the month of Elul.
Kadmonim and mekubolim raise the curtain and provide an understanding of the pesukim that describe the parsha of yefas toar and how she goes about adapting to a new life.
The parsha begins, “Ki seitzei lamilchomah al oyvecha - When you will go out and wage war with your enemy” (21:10). The Ohr Hachaim (ibid.) explains that the posuk refers to the battle for which man was placed in this world. The soul is dispatched to withstand tests.
And she shall remove the garment of captivity from upon herself: This will be through ridding oneself of sin, teshuvah and submission to Hashem. Then be misvadeh and cry for the betrayal from your father and mother and detachment from them.
She will weep for her father. This is Hakadosh Boruch Hu.
She will weep for her mother. This is Knesses Yisroel.
For one month. This is the month of Elul, the period of teshuvah.
The Ohr Hachaim’s source is the Zohar Chodosh (Ki Seitzei 72:1), which is also quoted in Yesod Veshoresh Ha’avodah (Shaar Hamayim).
The Arizal (Likkutei Torah, in this week’s parsha) offers a similar explanation. He says that “Ki seitzei lamilchomah” refers to a person who has decided to do teshuvah. He is setting out to do battle with his enemies, namely his yeitzer hora and the limbs that betrayed him and caused him to sin.
Unesano Hashem Elokecha b’yodecha. Hashem will cause you to beat the yeitzer hora.
Vera’isa bashivyah aishes yefas toar. This refers to the neshomah.
Vegilcha es roshah. He should remove bad beliefs from within himself.
Ve’asisah es tziporneha. He should cut out luxuries.
Vehaisirah simlas shivyah. The covering that is fashioned by sin should be removed.
Uvochsa es aviha. This refers to Hakadosh Boruch Hu.
V’es imah. This is Knesses Yisroel.
Yerach yomim. This is Elul.
Rav Tzadok Hakohein of Lublin (Pri Tzaddik, Ki Seitzei 2) quotes Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, who commented that understanding that this parsha refers to man’s eternal battle with the yeitzer hora is not homiletic drush and remez, but actual p’shat poshut, the simple explanation of the pesukim.
So, as we study Parshas Ki Seitzei and read it aloud this week, it should be clear that these pesukim are meant to help usher us into the sacred portals of avodas yemei Elul. We read about a man doing battle for Am Yisroel and a woman mourning her old home, but, essentially, on a different level, we are reading about teshuvah and Elul.
Elul is everywhere. You just have to know how to find it.
What should be our frame of mind during these days?
We are familiar with the teaching of Chazal that “bemakom sheba’alei teshuvah omdim ein tzaddikim gemurim yecholim la’amod.” Those who return to Hashem stand at a higher level than great tzaddikim who never sinned. On the face of it, this is a difficult concept to behold. Why should someone who sinned be on a higher plane than someone who never deviated from the word of G-d? We tend to understand the concept in terms of the fact that the baal teshuvah traveled a long journey, and despite having fallen, he had the strength to raise himself from the depths, allowing him to return a cleansed and holy person, while a tzaddik who never sinned did not have to overcome such obstacles.
Perhaps we can suggest a different understanding.
The Eitz Yosef on the Medrash at the beginning of Parshas Eikev discusses the process of teshuvah and redemption. He says that we don’t have to complete the act of teshuvah in order to merit the redemption. It is sufficient for us to show that we have become inspired to repent and begin to undertake teshuvah, and Hashem will begin the geulah.
Teshuvah is a motion, a small shift back to the right direction. When we display a genuine desire to do teshuvah, Hakadosh Boruch Hu sees this and comes to assist us on the way back.
The posuk in Tehillim (103) says, “Kirechok mizrach mimaarav,” as far as the east is from the west, “hirchik mimenu es peshoeinu,” that is the distance Hashem has removed us from our sins. Rav Nosson Dovid of Shidlovtza explained that the distance of east from west is essentially not much. You stand facing east and then you turn around and are facing west. So too, with teshuvah, you turn to go in a new direction and you are considered as having a new destiny.
Rav Chaim Volozhiner explains in Nefesh Hachaim (1:12) that when a person performs a mitzvah, he begins the action and Hashem helps him complete it.
We can posit that the person who is seeking to repent merits special assistance from the Ribbono Shel Olam. When he turns away from sin and shows interest in repenting, he begins the arduous process and Hashem helps. This is why teshuvah is the only mitzvah regarding which Chazal tell us that Hashem says, “Pischu li pesach kepischo shel machat, open a hole the size of the eye of a needle, and I will do the rest.” He becomes involved in a Jew’s attempt at returning, helping him navigate the difficult path.
Thus, we can understand the meaning of the teaching that “bemakom sheba’alei teshuvah omdim,” the level of the person who has performed teshuvah, is higher than that of the tzaddik who never sinned. That is because the baal teshuvah merited Hashem’s assistance. Hashem has, so to speak, stood beside him and grasped his hand. He has felt the Divine Presence. Hashem has been part of his journey, so his “makom,” his place, is elevated.
It follows, therefore, that Elul should be a happy month, for it is the month when we begin walking down that holy path. As we study the sifrei mussar, think about how we are doing, turn inward, engage in introspection, and contemplate our future, Hakadosh Boruch Hu comes to help us. He is here, at our side, waiting to help us back.
We have to show the will.
Perhaps the Torah chose to reveal the secrets of teshuvah, depicting the desperate cries of the neshomah as she pines for her father and mother, her return to purity and holiness, in the parsha of yefas toar to demonstrate to us a lesson through the central character, the soldier who finds a foreign woman in the spoils of war. He is so weak that he is not embarrassed to bring this strange woman back home with him. The Torah is telling us that even a person like him can do teshuvah. Even someone who has sunk that low can turn from a life of lust to a life of holiness. Even he can merit Hashem walking beside him, leading him to the light of teshuvah and a blessed life.
This is the secret of Elul. The Baal Hatanya taught that during this month, the king is in the field. During the rest of the year, subjects must work to obtain an appointment. They must wait, fill out forms and use all the connections they have in order to get a moment of time with the leader. During Elul, the king circulates among his subjects, hearing their voices and concerns.
During Elul, Hashem is nearby, ready to extend a hand, a yad lashovim, drawing us close and inviting us to come back home. But we have to be there, ready to hear the invitation and accept it.
When Hashem sees you want to do teshuvah and haven’t forgotten your neshomah, He becomes overjoyed and grabs your hand with great excitement to bring you where you belong.
Rav Shlomo Reichenberg recounted how he ended up in yeshiva after being sent to Kibbutz Chofetz Chaim when he was brought to Israel as a young Holocaust survivor in 1945.
“I went to the office and asked to be transferred to a yeshiva. They readily agreed and suggested two yeshivos for me, Ponovezh in Bnei Brak and Kol Torah in Yerushalayim. I made my way to Bnei Brak and found the one story building that was the Ponovezh Yeshiva at the time.
“When I walked through the door a man stopped me. ‘Who are you looking for,’ he asked.
“‘Rav Kahaneman,’ I answered.
“‘That is me. What can I do for you?’
“I told him that I wanted to come study in the yeshiva. He asked me where I had come from, and I told him I had arrived from Bergen Belsen. He asked me where I had been before the camp and I told him that I was in the Veitzin Yeshiva, near Budapest.
“‘Do you remember anything from what you learned there,’ he asked.
“I became afraid for I sensed that he was going to test me in order to determine whether he should accept me into the yeshiva. I told him that he should ask me a question to see if I remember anything. He asked me which was the last mesechata, and I said Chulin.
“‘Can you tell me a machlokes between Rashi and Tosefos in this mesechta?’
“I told him one. When I finished, he kissed me on my forehead. He then took my hand in his and proceeded to drag me through the streets of Bnei Brak until he stopped at a small building. He knocked on the door and walked in. It was the house of the Chazon Ish.
“The rov was overcome with emotion. The words spilled out of his mouth. ‘Rebbe, I met this boy who is a concentration camp survivor. I asked him if he could tell me a machlokes between Rashi and Tosefos and he did.
“He then began to say, ‘gadlus hatorah, gadlus hatorah,’ and couldn’t catch his breath. Then he turned to the Chazon Ish and said, ‘If a concentration camp couldn’t make a Jew forget Torah, then definitely Torah will never be forgotten.’
“After the rov calmed down, he told me to stay there and talk to the Chazon Ish. The Chazon Ish was very interested in hearing about life in the concentration camp. I sat there talking to him for two hours. When we finished talking, he said to me, ‘This is your new home. The door is always open for you…”
Everyone has moments that can get him going. There are many times in life when there is a call to you, a message with your name written on it, coming out of nowhere. You can either pick up on it and experience something life-altering or you can ignore it, let it slip by, and lose a chance for eternity.
Read any book of stories about baalei teshuvah and you will find the moment when someone touched a college kid and a light went on. They were invited in and they accepted the invitation. “Do you have a place to eat tonight?” “Did you put on tefillin today?” One thing led to another, and it was as if there was something there guiding the person in the direction of a religious life. They backpacked through Asia, then went to Israel for some reason, and ended up at the wall. They were all alone when they came, but when the Lev L’Achim guy asked if they want to find out what Torah is, they said yes and gave him their name and phone number.
They came alone with their backpack, but left surrounded by the ohr hamakif, the spirit of G-d hovering over them.
Rav Todros Miller of Gateshead Seminary recounted the tale of an English girl who brought her car to a London mechanic. Testing the vehicle, he turned on the engine. Emerging from the speakers was an audio recording of a shiur delivered by Rav Mordechai Miller, of Gateshead Seminary, on sefer Shaarei Teshuvah.
The mechanic was transfixed by what he heard, and when the girl returned to retrieve the car, he asked her to bring him some tapes from that rabbi. Influenced by those tapes, the man became a complete baal teshuvah. Random words emanating from a car as he poked under the hood touched him and caused him to ponder his existence. He could just as easily have tuned out and pressed on with his work, engaging in the usual shop talk.
Instead, he listened for just a moment. A chord was struck deep inside of him. At that moment, as his heart opened, he was flooded with the ohr hamakif of which Rav Chaim Volozhiner speaks. He was on the road to teshuvah, a Divine force propelling him forward.
When we hear those voices, when teshuvah is calling, we have to make sure not to hit ignore, but to tune in and tune up.
After all, as the pesukim this week remind us, the neshomah comes down to this physical world from its encampment at the feet of the Kisei Hakavod, the holiest place in all of creation. It struggles to acclimate to a hostile world, longing for the kedushah it once knew and felt. It cannot adapt, as it is tested and tormented daily. It becomes tainted, it forgets, and it loses its outward shine.
And then there is a jolt. A spark. And it remembers. It reaches for the heavens once again and discovers that in this world, it really is possible to attain the kedushah it remembers. It is possible to be enveloped in holiness, to live a life of G-dliness and remain untainted by idle pursuits, a drive for more money, or a lust for power and dominance. At that moment, he begins to be a baal teshuvah and the original shine returns, building up to a sparkling luster.
We go through life, one day following another. Let us appreciate our gifts. Let us appreciate the neshomah we have. Let us look to help improve the world. Let’s not be satisfied with a little Torah here and there. Let us daven like we really mean it. As we breathe, let us appreciate each breath, and when we experience a breathtaking moment, let it be a jolt to remind us who we are, what our task is, and where we are headed.
Let’s live lives that make it worth the struggle. Let’s act so that the ohr hamakif hovers over us, protecting us from all comers, creating a cocoon of holiness for us to thrive in.
It’s Elul. Take advantage!

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

The Gardeners

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
This week’s parsha opens with demands for justice and truth. The parsha is filled with messages of conviction, justice, clarity and honesty, including establishing a functional court system, with empowered judges and submissive litigants.
We learn about the mandate to appoint a king, who follows the rules and is held to high standards. The kohanim, who occupy leadership positions, also must follow a precise code of conduct.
The prophet also must live up to high standards. Charisma, eloquence and passion are of no importance if his words don’t radiate fear of heaven.
We see in the parsha how our system of justice embraces the accidental murderer, providing a haven for him as well.
There are halachos that protect business owners and ensure that every Jew lives within a framework of perfect justice. When we are forced to engage in battle, the military seeks fighters who embody the ideals of honesty, refined character and courage.
The parsha closes with a resounding lesson about the inclusiveness of our system. The lonely traveler who traverses the town becomes a communal responsibility. We are obligated to look out and care for him. Should tragedy befall him, the elders of town gather to atone for his death, proclaiming that they are not culpable for his death. We must all atone for his blood.
A single thread is woven throughout the parsha, welcoming us to this month of Elul, with its avodah of self-improvement and cheshbon.
Being part of creation obligates man. Hashem created the world with a certain harmony, as different aspects of creation complement and feed off each other. The Torah and the way of life it prescribes reflect the perfection that comes about when every Jew does his part in caring for others and acting responsibly and honestly when dealing with their fellow man.
Someone who visited the Chazon Ish left behind his walking stick. The Chazon Ish wrote a letter to the man, asking him to come retrieve it, because he could not be calm in the room as long as someone else’s possession was there. The Chazon Ish’s sensitivity to the laws of Torah was so real that he couldn’t bear the thought of having someone else’s property in his room. He reacted as we would to an ugly sight or unpleasant smell.
For some, this may be a difficult concept to imagine. The frontrunner for the most powerful position in the world is a woman who seems to live with a single credo: that rules don’t apply to her. Truth has long been cast aside in the desperate Clinton rush for money and power.
The fact that she has the greatest chance of getting elected speaks volumes about the state of the country and the value system of its citizens. She is supported by every mainstream politician, media outlet and business leader, who are petrified that Donald Trump’s election would change the way things are done in this country. Anyone who interacts with Washington fears that electing the crusading outsider will even the playing field, costing them power, influence and income.
The greater question is how all this affects us. How does it impact the way we view the world and lead our lives and communities?
The Apter Rov was once called to serve as a dayan in a din Torah. Very quickly, it became apparent which litigant was in the right and which was lying. The liar realized that his plan was exposed and that if he didn’t do something fast, he would be found guilty and forced to pay up. The only way he could win, he figured, would be to bribe the judge.
Knowing that the Apter Rov would never accept a bribe, he placed a large amount of cash in the Rov’s coat pocket, figuring that the Rov would know who put it there. The man assumed that the Rov would quietly keep it and adjudicate the case to his benefit.
A short while later, the Rov said that he must take a break. What had seemed to be such a simple case, was not anymore. He was bothered by the sudden twist in his understanding of the case and needed fresh air to rethink the arguments. He went to his chambers and put on his coat to go outside for a stroll. It was a cold day, so he stuck his hands into the coat pockets for warmth. He was astonished to find money in one of the pockets and immediately returned to the room of the bais din, declaring that he could no longer rule on the case. He had become tainted.
The Rov wasn’t only righteous and G-d fearing. His soul was so trained against dishonesty that even though he did not know that a bribe was given to him, the fact that money was placed in his coat pocket without his knowledge affected him. He knew intuitively that something was wrong. Honesty and ehrlichkeit are so much a part of him that he could not function once the money was in his pocket.
The Torah insists that we live honestly by ensuring that those selected to lead us are paragons of virtue. There are no shortcuts, loopholes or backroom deals.
Just a few months ago, a prominent rov was speaking to Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, when another gentleman, the coordinator of a large gemach, entered the small room. The rov, wishing to encourage the askan, introduced him to Rav Shteinman. “The rosh yeshiva should know that this Yid is a tzaddik. He issues halva’os (loans) to so many talmidei chachomim.”
Rav Shteinman reacted immediately. “I hope you don’t have any money from him on loan,” he said, “because, in that case, the compliment you just gave him is a form of ribbis devorim.”
The rov marveled at Rav Shteinman’s response, repeating it again and again. “I am an active dayan,” he said, “experienced in financial dinei Torah, but I wasn’t sharp enough to sense that my comment could be a violation of halacha. Yet, the aged tzaddik, who is attuned to perfect din, feels it right away.”
Rules do apply. And you must follow them to become a leader in our world.
When people follow the instructions of someone like Rav Shteinman, they are not merely agreeing with his ideas. They are expressing something much deeper. They are saying that the instincts, thought process and reaction of a gadol are rooted in Torah. They affirm that his mind is attuned to the Torah’s will, and therefore his vision is refined enough to see further.
Having leaders like that is the reason our nation is still here after so many challenge-filled years of exile.
Our mesorah has carried us through the ages. Like yesterday morning and this morning, tomorrow morning and the morning after we will affix to our heads tefillin in the color, shape and structure taught to Klal Yisroel via a halacha l’Moshe m’Sinai. Every day, we affirm the veracity of tradition when we place those boxes on our arms and heads. And when we bind them to the minds and hearts of our bar mitzvah boys, we say to them, “Dear son, know that with this, you, too, are connected to Har Sinai. This is our secret. It is the secret of our survival.”
Hillary Clinton leads in the polls because people are fickle and weak. The religion of the day is open-mindedness and tolerance, tinged with an unhealthy dose of apathy.
We know the story all too well.
The Torah in this week’s parsha (17:18-20) commands us, “Shoftim v’shotrim titein lecha bechol she’arecha.” We are to appoint judges who will properly and correctly administer fair justice, never accepting bribes of any kind or showing favoritism.
Throughout our history, we have been blessed to be led by “shoftim v’shotrim,” gedolim who stood tall and strong in demonstrating honesty and safeguarding the halacha and mesorah.
There has been always been pressure from some to make changes and conform to a modern zeitgeist. There are the usual claims that the rabbis aren’t open-minded and refuse to fall into line with whatever fad or idea is popular.
The rabbonim continue to lead, as they have since the time of Moshe. The foreign ideas pile up and clutter the dustbin of history. Just like Korach, they seek to appeal to the emotion and present specious arguments cloaked in demagoguery, seeking to cause populist revolts. They all meet the fate of their progenitor, Korach. 
When the Reform and Haskalah movements began, the Chasam Sofer was fearless in his opposition to them. He was undaunted by the populist push emanating from the rabbis who campaigned to loosen the rules, with the promise that doing so would make Judaism more welcoming and accepted. When prominent rabbis of the day thought that organ music would be a welcome addition to the shul, the Chasam Sofer responded with the passion of a lion whose cubs are being attacked.
We tend to imagine the original Reform Jews as bare-headed amei ha’aretz, unlearned and uncouth. In fact, it wasn’t so. To the masses, they appeared to be pious and scholarly. It was only the leaders blessed with keen insight and sensitivity who saw through the charade.
The paradigm false messiah, Shabsai Tzvi, appeared to be a great sage, well-versed in all matters of Torah and Kabbolah. He spawned a movement of many followers, including the vast majority of the Jewish people, who were taken by his charm, knowledge, welcoming promises, and seeming love for the common man. A wave of teshuvah followed, as people sought to prepare for his final revelation. He was lauded wherever he went and praised for his scholarship and for bringing people to elevated spirituality.
Rav Yaakov Sasportas warned that Shabsai Tzvi was a false messiah who would cause much damage to the Jewish people. It was his stubborn insistence and leadership that prevented many from going astray when Shabsai Tzvi became an apostate.
Aharon Choriner was a talmid of great men, and appeared to be a religious talmid chochom. However, when the gedolim of his day read his seforim, they set out to delegitimize him. They saw that despite his outward religiosity, he had, in fact, broken with the mesorah.
Alluding to the infamous Mishnaic apostate named Acher, the Chasam Sofer referred to this man as “Ach’er” (an acronym of his name, Aharon Choriner, and the title Rabbiner), and waged war against the man and his writings.
In his will, the Chasam Sofer urged his children not to study the writings of Ramad, a.k.a. Moses Mendelsohn. Like Acher, Mendelsohn appeared to the masses to be a sincere, learned individual, who wrote a wonderful beiur on the Torah. Yet, included in his final wishes, the Chasam Sofer warned that he and his works were dangerous and found the need to admonish his offspring one final time not to look at his works.
“Shoftim v’shotrim titein lecha bechol she’arecha.” You should place good judges at every gate. And also at every opening, every breach, and every place where those who wish to change Judaism seek to enter. Install a shofeit there, install a shoter there, and allow them to stand tall and proud as they defend the Torah from all comers.
Generations later, the Chasam Sofer’s light shines brightly. His name and teachings are quoted hundreds of times each day in study halls and religious courts around the world. His approach and attitude, and those of many other leaders like him, shape many of our positions.
The people he fought are long gone. Their chain has been broken, their offspring swallowed by the society to which they sought to endear themselves.
In Vilna, there lived a Maskil, Avrohom Dov Lebensohn, who was known as Adam Hakohein. A poet and writer, he tried influencing a bright young orphan, seeing him as a potential force for the Haskalah movement.
The young man rejected his efforts. By spurning the lure, he charted for himself a saintly path. You know him, and Jews for all time will, for he went on to author a sefer called Chofetz Chaim and led the yeshiva in Radin. He would become the gadol hador, for his generation and succeeding generations as well.
Like his grandfather, Aharon Hakohein, he loved Jews. He was oheiv es habrios umekarvan laTorah. He found positive attributes in others, as he viewed them with an ayin tovah. The sage was a loving father to his people.
Actually, there was a Jew for whom he had no sympathy. When referring to Adam Hakohein, he would add the words “yemach shemo” - a curse, from a man who was a fountain of blessing and overly cautious with his words.
The Chofetz Chaim had seen how the dangerous Maskil had moved into the open “sha’ar” of a lonely orphan’s heart and tried to claim and sway it.
Today, our shotrim stand tall.
Efforts to tamper with and change Judaism to fit current trends are alive and well. Our Open Orthodox friends at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah are getting increasingly confident, as they continue to chip away at the foundations of Torah living. They see that the world remains silent in face of their revisionism.
Their Talmud expert, Ysoscher Katz, chair of Chovevei Torah’s department of Talmud and director of its Center for Halakhic Studies, is a darling of the liberal Jewish world. After all, look at him. He hails from a Satmar home. Despite that cloistered past, they say, he is progressive, he engages with modern Jewry, and he is “open-minded.”
It would do Katz well to study what happened to all those who came, as he does, to save us from ourselves, to usher us into a new era.
Last week, in honor of the Satmar Rov’s yahrtzeit, he mocked him, writing that “If Emerson was right that inconsistency is the sign of a great mind, then he was a genius. He was a bundle of contradictions.”
Never mind the Rov’s brilliance and holiness. Forget about how much time he spent studying and how much he knew. Ignore his deep understanding of all facets of Torah. Mock him because his views don’t mesh with your revisionist view of Judaism.
Katz concludes his missive by saying that the Rov was “great and greatly flawed. Unless we think that [his] competing traits cancel each other out…a flawed tzadik ceases to be a tzadik.”
With that, the towering giant is cut down to size by the uber-intelligent freethinker.
Such talk is nothing new for the person who feels a “deep sense of betrayal by Maimonides” and writes of his “rejection of the Maimonidean ethos.” The Rambam, who wrote with ruach hakodesh, and who is at the root of mesorah and halacha for every generation since the publication of his Divine work, is “disliked” by an arrogant, wayward son who preaches talmud and halacha in a school founded to steer Jews away from the strict rulings of the Rambam and all those who followed him.
He bemoans “the terror of religiosity,” apparently caused by parts of the Torah for which we must “suspend our moral compass.”
The champion of theological wisdom and sensitivity writes, “The Charedi stridency is…wrong and unjustified. When people are teetering on the edge, contemplating suicide, and wondering how they will make sense of who they are, we need to welcome and embrace them. Rejecting them is harsh and hurtful.
“Halakha has specific guidelines for how to adjudicate such cases. The charedi poskim repeatedly make a mockery of those rules. Denouncements and threats of excommunication have lately become de rigueur. Every time they disagree with the way a sensitive Modern Orthodoxy attempts to grapple with the complexities of observance in the 21st century, they denounce, condemn, and expel on a whim. In the process, they disregard halakha, completely ignoring the procedural laws governing such processes.”
When a deranged religious man by the name of Yishai Schlissel stabbed marchers in a pride parade, Katz wrote, “I know Schlissel. Not personally, but I know the personality. I grew up in the Haredi community and am familiar with that type of mentality. When I was still part of that community, I was not that different. While I left that community long ago, I remember what drives its members.”
And what is it with chareidim that so unnerves him and – according to him - leads deranged people to kill?
“Haredi society is based on an elaborate hierarchy of values that organizes and frames members’ lives. First and foremost in that lineup of ideals is kedusha (sanctity). Religious sanctity and spiritual purity are the Haredi communities’ most important values, carrying both religious and material importance. They believe it makes their communities spiritually healthy and physically safe.”
Lest you think that this is being taken out of context, read his justification for operating outside of halacha. It’s all the fault of the Litvaks. He writes, “The tragedy of MO (at least the American version) is that at its inception, its leadership adopted a litvish/rationalist ethos. Consequently, law, logic and reason became the sole arbiters for what’s acceptable or not acceptable, endorsed or not endorsed. In the halakhic context, it means that values and practices have meaning only if they originated within the narrow confines of halakha.”
So, it is halacha and the Lithuanian influences on Yiddishkeit that ruin it. Even Modern Orthodoxy can’t save Judaism from drifting off to extremism and irrelevance, because it was influenced by Litvishe rabbonim and roshei yeshiva. What’s needed are broadminded, caring, people such as him, who recognize that in order for Judaism to be passionate and inspiring, “the parameters… must be broader and much more comprehensive. There’s room for customs, practices and ritual observances even if they originated outside of conventional halacha.”
Halacha gets in the way of everything good, according to Katz. It is time, he feels, that we shunted it aside for practices that we determine are loving, inspirational, accepting and more in keeping with the times.
According to Katz, it is people such as the Rambam who get in the way of progress and cause religious Jews to drop out. “The skyrocketing attrition rate in Modern Orthodoxy has absolutely nothing to do with Open Orthodoxy,” he avers. “The reason so many of our youth are leaving MO is because of the rabid Maimonideism of its standard bearers, not because of Partnership Minyanim,” which trample on the boundaries of halacha and Orthodoxy.
And just to provide another opening into the view of this man’s soul, he writes that “Chazal were the R’ Riskins of their time. They too were committed to creating a Yiddishkeit which is in constant dialogue with their ethical sensibilities. They read Torah with a critical lens, and whenever they encountered a perceived injustice, they did whatever they could (within legitimate boundaries) to undo the challenging misread.”
Our good friends in Satmar have a mesorah from their great rebbe, Rav Yoel, who taught them to speak up, to point out hypocrisy, and to be confident, courageous and honest even when confronting powerful people.
Where, I wonder, are they? How are they allowing a product of their system, armed with a chassidic semicha, to continue making a mockery of our mesorah? The time has long passed to revoke the semicha that gives him his title and admit that, as happened over the years, a talmid she’eino hagun slipped through their system?
Bechol she’arecha, in every opening. We must stand guard, vigilant and proud. Why? Because the Torah tells us to. Why? For the same reason the Chasam Sofer fought the Reform. Why? For the same reason the Chofetz Chaim fought the Haskalah. Why? Because if we don’t, their innovations will take hold and we will have to fight vigorously to uproot them.
The Brisker Rov, it seemed, was always pointing out dangers, pointing out the flaws in various streams of Jewish thought. Even Torah Jews wondered why he couldn’t just sometimes agree with the mainstream.
Someone asked the Rov why he chose to resist. He responded with a story about a group of people who were walking through a splendid public garden, admiring the beautiful landscaping and magnificent colors. One man walked alongside the path, and as the others marveled, he found what to criticize. Where they saw a gorgeous flowering bush, he saw a broken branch. As the people were lost in the beauty of Hashem’s creations, this man was pointing out wilting flowers, a dead tree, and weeds here and there.
Finally, the people had enough of his negativity. One of them shouted at him, “Stop complaining and focus on the beauty.”
“You don’t understand,” the fellow replied. “You are all visitors. You can and should enjoy. I, on the other hand, am the gardener. My job is to keep this place perfect. My job is to inspect and maintain, to see what needs to be corrected and keep the garden beautiful.”
We are that garden, still here, still flourishing after all these years. There are dead trees all around, yet we thrive. There are flowers that are wilting and need tender care. There are weeds that must be plucked before they spread and rob nutrition from the plants.
Because we are vigilant, because we have gardeners charged with protecting us, we endure and proliferate.
Bechol she’arecha, at every gate. Let’s rise, as one, with our leaders at the head, and face this threat as we have faced all the others, confident in our past, present and future.
Let us all do what we can so that we may be able to proclaim, “Yodeinu lo shofchu es hadom hazeh.” Let us be able to say that we did all we could to root out the weeds and repair the sickly branches. We were loyal to our responsibilities, skillfully laboring to grow and cultivate the precious plants, flowers and trees that together form the great people we are so proudly a part of.