Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Respect & Self- Respect

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This week, in Parshas Mishpotim, we see the grandeur and glory of Matan Torah from Parshas Yisro segue into the practical details of the actual laws of the Torah. The two parshiyos are dependent upon each other. The incredible revelation at the mountain lives on through the Torah and these halachos, which are comprised of the rules and boundaries that govern everyday life.

There is an additional layer to the connection. It lies in the precise and perfect way these parshiyos discuss Matan Torah by informing us not only of the deliverance of the Ten Commandments, but also what preceded that world-changing occurrence.

The discussion of Matan Torah is preceded by the story of Yisro, father-in-law of Moshe. He came to join the Jewish people, and while he was with them, he dispensed advice to Moshe. The leader of the Jewish people treated Moshe’s heathen relative as a prince, imparting the lesson to all that “derech eretz kodmah laTorah.”

Prior to ascending to heaven to accept the Luchos, Moshe Rabbeinu served as a waiter at a meal that was held to honor his father-in-law. Part of his preparation for speaking to Hashem and delivering the Torah was to engage in acts portraying humility and respect for others to impart to Klal Yisroel that without them, we are not worthy of Torah.

Common decency and proper manners are prerequisites to Torah. A person who is not a mentch cannot be a student of Torah and lacks in his observance of the Torah’s teachings.

It’s interesting that in Lashon Kodesh, the language of reality, the trait of courteousness, or dignity, is referred to as derech eretz.

What does derech eretz really mean and why is it used in this context?

The Alter of Kelm states that it refers to the need for people to conform to what is socially acceptable and forego their wants for the benefit of the communal good of the land. This is the intention of Chazal who say (Kiddushin 40b), “Kol she’ein bo derech eretz eino min hayishuv - Whoever is lacking in the attribute of derech eretz is not a proper citizen.” The world is bigger and broader than any one of us. We have to adapt and develop ourselves to live in harmony with its demands.

Before we can receive the Torah as a nation and individually, we have to perfect our middos and conform with decency, respect and proper regard for the feelings of others. In our superficial world where people crave attention, feelings of others are sacrificed on the altar of instant gratification. We put people down with arrogance and spite, and give little thought to the effect of our spoken words, as long as they elicit laughs and provide a momentary jolt.

The Torah is replete with lessons of derech eretz, from early in Bereishis until the end of Devorim. We are all familiar, as well, with Pirkei Avos and Maseches Derech Eretz. And following the period of Chazal, all through the ages of the Gaonim, Rishonim and Acharonim, down to our day, the great people of Am Yisroel have always excelled in middos tovos, and written and spoken extensively about the way we should behave with each other and with members of the other nations of the world.

The Igeres HaRamban is a letter for the ages, in which the famed teacher of our nation writes to always speak gently and to be humble. He says to treat every person as if they are better than you and always conduct yourself as if you are before Hashem.

This is the way of a Torah Jew, in our day as well. Every time we address a person, it should be as if we care about that person and are mindful of their needs and feelings. Every casual comment reflects on us and our people. Someone who doesn’t treat people properly is engaging in chillul Hashem, the worst sin of all.

The Mesillas Yeshorim states that a person should always speak respectfully and not in an embarrassing fashion. He quotes the Gemara (Yoma 86a) which says that people should always address others in a calm tone.

Being a good Jew means not talking to people in a tactless, offensive manner.

It begins by training children at a young age to behave nicely, not to scream in the presence of older people, and to address others softly and with respect. If not properly educated, cute children grow to be overly aggressive loudmouths. It is only through care, devotion and love that children can be successfully guided not to be egocentric.

A parent who slackens in the responsibility to be mechaneich his children properly is guilty when the child misbehaves. Though we view the child as the one with aberrant behavior, we cannot expect any better from a young person who was never taught how to walk, talk and conduct himself in public.

Parshas Yisro introduces the receiving of the Aseres Hadibros with the account of Yisro’s arrival to teach us to treat people respectfully.

In Parshas Mishpotim, we learn that when asked by Moshe if they would accept the Torah, the Jewish people answered unanimously, “Na’aseh venishma. We will do and we will hear.”

There is extensive discussion regarding the enormity of the response, as the Jews agreed to observe the mitzvos before knowing what they were, stating first, “Na’aseh, we will do the will of Hashem,” and then, “Nishma, we will hear the laws.”

Perhaps we can explain the statement a little differently than it is commonly understood.

Maybe we can understand that what the Jews were really saying back then was “na’aseh,” we will do what it takes to prove ourselves worthy of the Torah, and na’aseh, we will become those people and prepare properly. Not only will we purify our bodies and our souls so that we can become higher, holier people, but we will improve our middos. We know that without proper derech eretz, we cannot merit the Torah.

Perhaps we can explain that the word “na’aseh hints to the first time that the word is used in the Torah. When He created man, Hashem said, “Na’aseh odom - Let us make man.” Although expressing Himself that way could hint to scoffers that Hashem required the help of others, it is written that way in the Torah as a lesson in derech eretz and how to speak to people. Be inclusive and kind. Make them feel part of what is happening without talking down to them.

Prior to accepting the Torah at Har Sinai, the people joined together with humility and proclaimed, “Na’aseh.” We will hearken back to the lesson learned from the first biblical use of the word. “Na’aseh.” We will be humble, kind and thoughtful. We will be a people of derech eretz. “Na’aseh.” We are committed to be the fine and holy “odom” Hashem intended for us to be when He proclaimed, “Na’aseh odom.” We will be human beings ready to be receptacles for the Torah’s light.

Masters of halacha and great talmidei chachomim embody that derech eretz, the innate respect needed to be a vessel for Torah. And we all can, as well.

Rav Chaim Vital famously asks why the Torah does not make any mention of the obligation to possess proper middos, fundamental as they are to serving Hashem. In his Sefer Sha’arei Kedusha, Rav Chaim explains that the Torah is only given to people with refined character. It is kodmah laTorah, a precondition to the Torah being received.

After Rav Reuven Grozovsky suffered a debilitating stroke, his talmidim took turns assisting him throughout the day. The bochurim would help him wash negel vasser, wrap tefillin on his arm and head, and hold his siddur.

The rosh yeshiva’s hands would occasionally shake, making the task difficult. One day, a bochur who had not previously been in the rotation had the zechus of being meshamesh the rosh yeshiva. The boy was quite nervous, and as Rav Reuven’s hand shook, the anxious boy poured out the contents of the negel vasser cup, completely missing the hands of the rosh yeshiva. Humiliated, the boy tried again. He was already so frantic that the water ended up on Rav Reuven’s bed and clothing.

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

Calmed and relieved, the bochur left. 

Later, he learned that the rosh yeshiva had never before spoken of mundane matters while wearing tefillin. Rav Reuven saw the bochur’s embarrassment and forfeited his own kabbolah to put the young man at ease.

Kavod for a talmid.

His meticulously observed custom was put aside in favor of derech eretz, which precedes Torah and is the backdrop for all of the Torah.

Not just gedolei Torah, but Torah personalities - machzikei Torah, lomdei Torah, those who revere the Torah - have always conducted themselves with the utmost derech eretz.

Reb Moshe Reichmann was a master of dignity and respect. When he entered a boardroom, associates would instinctively rise in deference and, as a construction worker commented after Reb Moshe’s passing, no one would use inappropriate language in his presence. It was unthinkable.

His role as a mechubad came because he was a mechabeid. He respected everyone and therefore everyone respected him.

A close friend and chavrusah remembered how one Shabbos afternoon, after completing their learning seder, they walked to shul for Mincha. As they entered the large bais medrash, they realized that the rov was in the middle of speaking and the regular Mincha minyan was taking place in a side room. The chavrusah slipped out. He soon noticed that Reb Moshe didn’t follow him to daven Mincha in the other room.

Later, Reb Moshe explained his reasoning. “I figured that I would be able to find a later minyan, and if not, I could daven by myself, because once my entrance was noticed, if I were to turn around and step out, that would have been disrespectful to the rov. So I stayed until he finished.”

Those who give respect get respect in return.

The Beirach Moshe of Satmar recounted that when he was a young man in Sighet, there was a fabulously wealthy shoemaker in town. A fine though simple person, no one in his family had any wealth. He didn’t inherit the money, and as a practicing shoemaker, there was no way that he was earning it from making and repairing shoes.

The future Satmar Rebbe waited for the appropriate time to ask the man his secret. It was a festive occasion when he asked him about the source of his wealth.

The shoemaker began his tale: “It was your grandfather, the Atzei Chaim, the rov of this city, who blessed me. I’ll tell you the story.

“The rebbe needed a pair of shoes and his gabbai came to my shop, providing me with the measurements of the rebbe’s feet and ordering a pair of shoes. A few days later, the gabbai returned and demanded the shoes. I told him that I was working on them, but they were not yet finished. I asked him to return in a few days.

“For some reason, he was very insistent. He said that he needs the shoes right then and that I must give them to him. I did as he asked and gave him the shoes. He paid me and left.

“The gabbai ran to the rebbe and presented them to him. The footwear looked complete, so neither the rebbe nor the gabbai examined them carefully enough to note that a nail had not yet been removed from one of the shoes.

“When the rebbe put on the shoe, that nail cut into his foot. He began to experience pain and bled profusely.

“When I came to shul, the rebbe called me over to a private corner and rebuked me for not finishing the job and for giving him a shoe with a nail in it. He asked me to be more careful in the future because poor workmanship can cause pain and wounds.

“He was the rov and I was a simple shoemaker, so I knew my place and would never argue with him. I held my head low and accepted his words in silence.

“When the rebbe left to return home, the gabbai came clean and told the rebbe what really happened. He accepted the blame upon himself. The rebbe was crestfallen.

“I was sitting in my humble shop in my work clothes fixing a shoe. I looked up, and there, in front of me, was the rebbe. The holy rebbe was at my table. He was weeping. He couldn’t stop crying. He begged me for forgiveness. I also began crying.

“I didn’t answer him when he spoke me that morning in shul, but believe me, I was hurt. I was so hurt. I began to cry uncontrollably when reminded of what happened.

“So there was the rebbe, begging me to forgive him, saying, ‘Zeitz moichel,’ again and again, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring myself to get over the thought that I had been careless.

“Finally, the rebbe said, ‘The Hungarian state lottery is taking place this week. Go buy a ticket. That will be payment for my having thought ill of you.’

“With that, I was able to forgive him. I told him that I was moichel him b’lev sholeim and he left. I ran across the street and bought a ticket. Now you know how I became wealthy.”

The derech eretz of a poor, simple shoemaker earned him riches he could never dream of. His manners, his decency and his humility made him worthy of blessing.

We don’t behave the way we do in order to earn the respect of others or to win lotteries. We act that way because we are bnei and bnos Torah. We don’t just look at the here and now. We don’t put ourselves in positions we don’t belong. And we don’t speak rashly or impetuously for fleeting enjoyment or attention.

We recognize our place. We are humble, refined, honest and generous. We endeavor to act in a way that brings honor to us and our people. We seek to always be mekadshei Hashem and to never cause a chillul Hashem.

The Jewish people recognizable by their mercy, self-effacement and the help they render to others, as Chazal (Yevamos 79a – see also Bamidbor Rabba 8) state, “Shlosha simonim yesh b’umah zu, harachmanim, v’habaishonin vgomlei chasodim.”

Reb Yossi Cohen, a talmid of Bais Medrash Elyon, became a successful businessman. He and his wife were once leaving a wedding when they noticed Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky getting his coat. They offered him a ride.

The rosh yeshiva considered it and then asked to see their car. It was a large, luxurious vehicle, and Rav Yaakov peered inside, as if inspecting it, before accepting the offer.

It seemed strange.

Reb Yossi, a talmid chochom and yorei Shomayim, asked the rosh yeshiva for an explanation.

“I realized,” Rav Yaakov said, “that your wife would be sitting in the back if I came along. I wanted to make sure that it is spacious back there and that she won’t be uncomfortable or cramped because of me.”

Respect for a talmid chochom, who returned that very respect.

Proper respect - kavod - is the underpinning of the nation of the Torah. The central theme of the world is “kulo omer kavod,” to reflect the dignity and majesty of the creation. By emulating the middos of Hashem, giving kavod, living with self-respect, and speaking with respect, we raise all of creation.

The smallest Jewish child, regardless of how little he has learned, instinctively feels discomfort when a sefer falls and hurries to give it a kiss. A Torah Jew notices shaimos on the floor and feels a stab of pain.

It is the innate respect that precedes the Torah, the knowledge that more than information, these letters are the means of bringing honor and goodness to ourselves and the world, so we cherish and honor those tiny slips of paper from precious seforim.

We all know the story of the man who told Hillel that he wanted to convert but wishes to hear all of Torah while standing on one leg (Shabbos 31a). Hillel responded with a few, precise words. He said, “D’alach sani lechavroch lo sa’avidve’idach peirusha. Zil gemor. Don’t do to your friend that which is despised by you. The rest is commentary. Go and learn.”

Can it be that Hillel summed up the entirety of Torah in a few pithy words? Perhaps what he was telling the man was that if he was seriously interested in studying and observing Torah, he needed to act as the Jews at Har Sinai did and prepare himself to be ready for the Torah. Na’aseh. He should accept upon himself the obligations of derech eretz. When you have done that, the Torah becomes relevant to you, nishma.

Rid yourself of hate and acrimony. Speak nicely and softly, and put down the stick. Feel for others. Think about the consequences of your words and actions. “V’idach peirusha,” the rest is commentary. Internalize becoming a mentch, a person worthy of Torah, so that we can study its holy words.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Remembering My Grandfather, Rav Eliezer Levin zt”l

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The Imrei Emes of Ger and the Chofetz Chaim were traveling on the same train. At one of the stops, a resourceful Gerrer chossid found his way on to the train and pushed his young son towards the rebbe, hoping he would give the child a brocha.

The rebbe told the chossid that the Chofetz Chaim was on the same train and it would be advisable to seek his brocha. The chossid followed the advice of his rebbe and approached the Chofetz Chaim for a brocha. He, in turn, suggested that they try to get a brocha from the Gerrer Rebbe.

“The rebbe told us to come here,” the chossid said, so the Choftez Chaim agreed.

“Tell me yingele, what are you learning?” the Chofetz Chaim asked the child.

“We are learning the Gemara in Bava Basra 31a, which discusses the topic of ‘zeh omer shel avoisai v’zeh omer shel avoisai,’” the boy replied. The Gemara discusses how to adjudicate a case where each litigant claims that he inherited a particular field from his father.

The Chofetz Chaim smiled and said, “Young man, if you will stick with that sugya (topic) your whole life, you will be blessed.

In fact, that is the sugya of every Jew at all times. “Zeh omer shel avoisai.” We seek to follow the ways of our forefathers. Last week, we chanted the words found in Oz Yoshir, “We declare our loyalty to Hashem, the G-d of our fathers, Elokei ovi va’aromemenhu.” Rashi explains, “Lo ani techilas hakedusha - This belief didn’t begin with us.” We are links in a chain; holding on to what was transferred to us and endeavoring to transmit it to those who follow us.

A person is blessed and fortunate when a father or grandfather shapes him and connects him to the golden chain that stretches back through the ages.

Last Friday was the 25th yahrtzeit of my zaide, Rav Eliezer Levin. A quarter century has passed since I spoke with that great man.

He was known as the beloved rov of Detroit, an elder statesman of the rabbinic world and a revered talmid chochom. He was appreciated for his dignity and perfect conduct, as a mechunach of the great Talmud Torah of Kelm and a ben bayis in the home of the Chofetz Chaim.

But to me, he was zaidy. My warm, loving, gentle, wise grandfather. Our encounters, going back to when I was a small child, shaped me. All the moments and conversations throughout the many blessed years reverberate in my head and are on constant replay in my heart.

By watching him, I could see the paragon of the many lessons we were taught, such as those concerning emunah, tefillah, simcha, dikduk b’halacha and princely middos. I had many great rabbeim over the years, and for me he seemed to be the role model for every message they preached.

Truth endures.

Twenty-five years later, the exactness and precision of his actions and words live on because they were perfect and true.

Rav Elchonon Wasserman would leave his yeshiva and talmidim in Baranovitch each year for the duration of the month of Elul to spend that time with his own rebbi, the Chofetz Chaim, in Radin.

After the Chofetz Chaim’s passing, Rav Elchonon began to travel to the yeshiva in Kelm for the Yomim Noraim. The Sefer Zikaron Bais Kelm recounts that when asked why he left the yeshiva and headed to Kelm, he would respond that he had a kabbolah from the Chofetz Chaim that the gates of tefillah were in Kelm.

Why was that?

One year in Kelm on Rosh Hashanah, the baal tefilla was chanting the words of “Vetaheir libeinu l’ovdecha be’emes - Purify our hearts to serve you with truth.” The chazzan began to cry as he said “lovdecha be’emes,” unable to complete the word “l’ovdecha.” There was great emotion as the chazzan sobbed, hoping that the kehillah might merit serving Hashem.

After davening, the Alter, in a succinct reminder about the value system in Kelm, told the chazzan, “You would do better to cry by ‘b’emes.’”

Kelm lived on in my zaide. He lived b’emes. His Torah, avodah, bitachon and middos were all layered with, and guided by truth.

When the great baal mussar Rav Leib Chasman was a still bochur in Kelm, the local esrog merchant showed him a magnificent esrog. The next day, the seller tracked him down to tell him that he had found a nicer esrog than the one he showed him the day before.

The merchant was shocked when the bochur said that he would buy the one he had seen first.

He explained that the day before, he had decided to purchase the first esrog, “so while there is a hiddur mitzvah to buy the nicer esrog, I decided to fulfill the hiddur mitzvah of ‘vedover emes bilvavo.’”

He treasured not only spoken words, but those unspoken as well.

My grandfather’s history is unique. There were those who came to America and embodied the glory of what was. Others had never seen the authenticity of the European yeshiva world, but were effective as American rabbonim. Not too many could do both, serving as relics of one world and then managing to become relevant and impactful rabbonim in a new one.

That was my zaide. He saw the world he knew b’churbano and then presided over the binyan in a new world.

He faced personal tragedy and loss, yet found strength to persevere. He lost so many people, yet found new ones, connecting to all sorts of Jews, influencing those who came from backgrounds so different than his own.

How did he do it?

The answer can be summed up in a single word.


The Alter of Kelm taught his talmidim that for a person to succeed in life without getting hurt, it is necessary to possess the attributes of menuchas hanefesh, a sense of serenity and calm, as well as gevurah, inner strength and fortitude.

Rav Levin embodied that lesson. He possessed incredible calm and incredible might.

Born in a tiny shtetel named Hanisheeshuk, in Lita, where his father served as rov, as a young boy he left home to learn in yeshiva. He learned for seven years in the Chofetz Chaim’s yeshiva in Radin and for seven years in the yeshiva of Kelm. He received semicha from the heads of the Kelmer Talmud Torah, Rav Doniel Movoshovitz and Rav Gershon Miadnik, as well as from the rov of Kelm, Rav Kalman Beinishevitz. He was a rebbi in the high-school-level yeshiva that Rav Elya Lopian founded in Kelm, and upon the passing of his father-in-law, Rav Avrohom Hoffenberg, he left to assume a rabbinic position as rov of Vashki.

Rav Levin very rarely spoke about himself. He would never discuss the “alter heim,” like many other people did. Either it was in keeping with the posuk in Koheles that it is not wise to say that the days that passed were better ones or because remembering the past was simply too painful.

I once asked him why he never spoke about Lita. At the time, I thought that perhaps it was too painful to recall all his friends and family members who perished, or that perhaps he found it difficult to think of the life that might have been. He simply explained that he didn’t think it was wise to speak about it, since I would never be able to relate to what he had to say.

That was strange. He never put people down. I never heard him speak ill of anyone. I realized that he didn’t mean it as an insult, but a statement. One who exists on a diet of chips and soda cannot appreciate a fine cut of meat, and one who is color-blind won’t be moved by sophisticated art. “You, an American young man,” he was telling me, “can never really understand, so what is the point of speaking?” Speech, to him, was serious. It was a tool used to make an impact, not merely to pass time or get attention. He didn’t see the point.

But I was brazen that day, so I asked him two questions about his primary rabbeim. I said, “Zaidy, tell me, what was Rav Doniel like?”

I was referring to Rav Doniel Movoshovitz, his rosh yeshiva while in Kelm.

He answered me in six words: “Reb Doniel iz geven ah malach. He didn’t relate any stories. No tales, no Torahs, no shmuessen. He didn’t look me in the eye as was generally his habit when addressing someone. We were sitting in his study. He looked down at his well-worn desk. I still remember it like today. “Ehr iz geven ah malach, he repeated.

Potent words. Perhaps he wasn’t sure I could handle them.

Years later, I understood why he looked down while divulging this, why a look of awe crossed his face.

Many years later, I read a story about Rav Doniel and understood what my grandfather meant and why he considered his rebbi a malach. The book, which recounts heroic tales of the Holocaust, described the scene when the Nazis came to Kelm and the Yidden knew their end was near. They were being rounded up and marched out to their certain deaths. Rav Doniel asked for permission to return home one last time to take care of something. Permission was granted. He went home, brushed his teeth, and then returned to the lineup.

Calmly and softly, Rav Doniel explained that the community was now going to be offered as korbanos tzibbur. A korban tzibbur is described as bearing a rei’ach nicho’ach, a pleasant smell. “I want to be sure that as a korban, I will have that rei’ach nicho’ach, so I went home to brush my teeth,” said Rav Doniel.

No tears. No extraneous emotion. Just what was required of him to be the perfect korban tzibbur. Is that man not a malach? Is there a way to explain this to an American twenty-something who never knew real deprivation? How can one even fathom the gevurah and kedushah, the perfect self-control and focus that this act required?

Rav Doniel Movoshovitz, Rav Gershon Miadnik and Rav Kalman Beinishevitz led the talmidei hayeshiva and residents of Kelm in the singing of Adon Olam and ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu as they returned their holy souls to their Maker.

That was my grandfather’s rebbi. That was the world in which he lived. He was on a different plane than the rest of us, though he made sure that wasn’t obvious.

This brings us to the second half of that conversation, which lasted about five minutes but remains seared in my memory.

I asked him what the Chofetz Chaim looked like. I meant to ask if he looked like the famous picture of him or not. Rav Levin didn’t understand what I was asking. Again, he looked down at his desk and said, in Yiddish, that the Chofetz Chaim looked like a poshuter Yid. “If you didn’t know who he was, you thought he was a simple person. Az men hut nit gevust, hut men gornit gezen. If you didn’t know, you didn’t see anything. Uber az men hut gevust, hut men altz gezen. But if you knew who he was, then you saw everything,” my zaide reflected.

If you knew you were looking at the Chofetz Chaim, and you watched him carefully, you could see in his every move that he was a very holy person.

The sacredness and splendor of perfect pashtus.

I never did get the answer to my question about the picture that day, but I got a much clearer appreciation for the Chofetz Chaim and for his talmid, my zaide. Like his rebbi, my zaide never made a big deal out of himself, but when you watched him, you saw that every move, every action and every word was calculated and al pi Shulchan Aruch and the teachings of mussar. He followed the paths paved by his rabbeim, never deviating. He lived a life of Radin and Kelm, without talking about it, without making an issue of it. When you watched him, you got a glimpse of the greatness that was.

I never saw him grow angry. I never heard him raise his voice at people who acted improperly or at us children, running around his house and study. He radiated an unnatural tranquility and calm, never flustered, never rushed, always on time, and always in perfect control of himself.

It was incredible to observe. How could a person be so in control of himself? How could a person never be nervous, never be angry, never be pressured? Things happen. People upset you. How could one possess such perfection of character?

Rav Levin didn’t drive. He depended on people to pick him up and take him to where he had to go. He never knew if people would be on time, and if they were late, he never got fidgety as he waited for them to show up. His patience and calmness were extraordinary.

So I asked him, “Zaidy, please tell me the secret of how you always stay so calm. How do you do it?”

He looked at me and smiled.

“Pinchos’l,” he said, “vos ken ich eich zogen. Every boy who came to Kelm was examined by the Alter and the people who came after him and given a middah, a trait, that he was to work on during his period in the Kelm Yeshiva. Mein middah iz geven savlonus. To me, they gave the trait of savlonus, remaining calm. Ziben yohr hob ich ge’arbet oif der middah. Du meinst ich ken dos ibergeben tzu eich azoi? I worked on this middah for seven years, during my entire time in Kelm.”

Working seven years on a middah. Imagine how improved our lives would be if we had that type of discipline.

If you looked at Rav Levin, he appeared like a sweet old man who wasn’t in a rush, but if you knew that for seven years in Kelm he worked on the middah of savlonus, then every time you watched him, every time you went somewhere with him, and every time you observed him interact with other people, you saw his greatness, as well as the greatness of Kelm and the middah of savlonus.

Breslover chassidus teaches that while the word “savlonus” means patience, Chazal also use that word when referring to gifts, such as when they discuss “sivlonos” given by a chosson to his kallah. A person who is a savlan can accept people, situations and ideas that are different from his own. He thus has the greatest gift of all and can fully enjoy life.

As a bochur in Radin, Rav Levin learned with the Chofetz Chaim’s son, Aharon. As payment, he was provided room and board in the home of the Chofetz Chaim. That must have been something. But what I find even greater is that he never spoke about it. He never said, “Do you know who I am? Do you know how great I am? Who are you to tell me anything? When I was a bochur, I stayed in the Chofetz Chaim’s house for a year and a half.”

Az men hut nit gevust, hut men gornit gezen. Uber az men hut gevust, hut men altz gezen.

That was him. That was how he lived his life. And that was why he was so successful and respected and able to accomplish so much.

It was also what saved his life. His history is the greatest testimony to the fact that savlonus, middos and calmness are gifts, the greatest segulah of all.

His American relatives literally forced him to leave Lithuania and come to America. He told them that he would come for one year on a trial basis. His kind relatives, who feared for his life and the lives of his family, arranged a rabbinic position for him in Erie, PA. Needless to say, Erie was no match for his hometown of Vashki. Despite the winds of war that were blowing, he let the relatives know that he was going back home. Erie wasn’t for him and he surely wasn’t about to bring his family there and watch them die a spiritual death.

Rav Levin allowed a colleague to hold his position in Vashki while he was away so that he could gain experience and have something to show on his résumé that would help him obtain a rabbinic position in a different town. However, when Rav Levin wrote to his friend that he was returning to Vashki and would be reassuming the position, the man was devastated. He said that he would never get another job and pleaded with Rav Levin to let him remain in the position of rov of Vashki. “You are more experienced and better qualified, and you will be able to obtain a position in a different town. I won’t. Please permit me to stay here,” the man wrote.

Although it had been his father-in-law’s position and he had occupied it for a number of years, Rav Levin didn’t have the heart to unseat the man from the job. He tried to obtain a position by writing friends and contacts, but as can be imagined, that proved unfruitful. Meanwhile, his American relatives secured for him a rabbinic position in Detroit, which was a definite step up from Erie. With his choices drying up, he moved to Detroit and sent for his family.

With their meager possessions and several of Rav Levin’s seforim along with kisvei yad of his father-in-law, the family set sail on one of the last boats leaving Europe before the war broke out. They arrived in the United States just ahead of the destruction of Lithuania. That rov and the entire Jewish population of Vashki were wiped out. No one survived. Hashem yikom domom. 

It wasn’t easy in Detroit. There were 32 rabbonim in the city at that time and they weren’t happy with Rav Levin. He was what they called “ah greener. They said, “Vos darf men huben noch a rov? Nisht nor dem, ehr iz a greener, noch tzu der tzu. They were unwelcoming of the recent immigrant.

Though he never bragged, he would say, “Fun zei alleh iz gornit gebliben. Es iz nit gebliben kein zeicher. All those rabbis who fought against me were not able to hold on to their children. I was the only one, because I sent my son away to learn in Telz.”

He lost everything and everyone he held dear in the war. He had three daughters and one son. His pride and joy. Yet, he sent his son away to learn in Cleveland. Can you imagine how much strength that required? A lot more than most people had at that time. Yet, he knew that the only way he could hold on to that son was by sending him away, seeing him just a couple of times a year.

Years later, when that one son, my uncle, Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin, was a respected rosh yeshiva, my zaide was vacationing at Camp Agudah Midwest. My uncle was asked to deliver a Daf Yomi shiur to Chicagoans who were vacationing there. Before the shiur, the camp director noticed the elderly rov approaching. “Where is the Daf Yomi shiur to take place?” Rav Leizer asked the director.

Assuming that the rov, with his refined nature and noble spirit, felt obligated to attend so as to not embarrass his co-vacationers, the director assured Rav Levin that he should not feel obligated to join and that it was a simple, basic shiur.

Rav Levin looked at him. “Do you think I would miss an opportunity to hear my son teach a blatt Gemara?” he asked in surprise.

His son was and is a prominent rosh yeshiva, mechaneich and leader, but to Rav Levin there was nothing simple, basic or taken for granted. He would not forgo the simple Jewish joy of a father hearing his son teach a blatt Gemara.

He was quiet and determined, and he possessed an iron will and super-human spiritual strength, typical of Litvaks. But he wasn’t the stereotypical Litvak, thought to be cold, unemotional and most comfortable with his own kind. Whenever someone repeats that stereotype to me, I tell them that they didn’t know my zaide. He was warm and tolerant, and he wasn’t a Litvak because he learned in a yeshiva named after a Lithuanian town. He was a real Litvak. He was born there. He was raised there. He went to yeshiva there. He was a rov there. And he embodied the greatness of Lithuanian Jewry.

He was full of love for all types of Jews. He was warm and caring.

I wear an atorah on my tallis. It was inherited from my grandfather. His second wife was the daughter of a chassidishe rebbe, and when they married, she gave him a tallis with an atorah as a gift. She probably didn’t know that Litvkas don’t wear a silver atorah. So as to not hurt her feelings, for the rest of his life he wore the atorah.

Every Shabbos, when I put on my tallis, I am reminded of that lesson.

Peace. Generosity. Refinement. Savlonus.

Savlonus not just for ideas and situations, but the hardest type of all: he was able to be sovel other people. He wasn’t negative. He wasn’t cynical. He didn’t ostracize people who had different beliefs than he did. He didn’t look down with disdain upon people who weren’t brought up the way he was. He could sit with simple Jews and talk to them and make them feel that he had all the time in the world and the only thing he wanted to do was sit and farbreng with them. He could maintain friendly relations with people who had entirely different theologies than he did. He treated everyone with respect.

A local kosher butcher was found to be engaging in actions that required the Vaad Harabbonim to remove their hechsher from his establishment. The butcher was summoned to a meeting of the rabbonim. While there, he began to scream at the rabbis, cursing and threatening them. The rabbis looked to the yoshev rosh, Rav Levin, waiting for him to respond. Yet, he just sat there, quietly absorbing the man’s abuse.

He turned to Rav Shmuel Irons, rosh kollel of the Detroit Kollel, who was sitting next to him, and said very softly in Yiddish, “Ich hub a klal. I have a rule: The vulture should be satiated, uber der shepsel zol leben, but the sheep should live.”

Der vultur iz gevorin zat. The vulture was finally satiated and ended his tirade. The Vaad Harabbonim removed their hechsher. A few weeks later, the store closed down. Der shepsel hut gelebt.

It’s not that he didn’t know how to be tough when necessary. It was that his eyes always remained focused on the goal, without the involvement of personal ego and other considerations.  A different time, a butcher was caught lying to his mashgiach and Rav Levin felt that this was egregious enough for the rabbinic group to remove their hechsher from his shop.

A meeting was called at the Vaad Harabbonim of Detroit to discuss the misbehavior. Some of the attendees expressed pity for the butcher and wondered how he would support his family if the hechsher were removed.

Rav Levin banged on the table and said, “We are here to discuss his transgression. Someone who did what he did cannot have a hechsher. Today, we are here to talk about kashrus. If he needs help with parnossah, we can discuss that tomorrow. But first we must ensure that people will not eat non-kosher meat because of him.”

That same strength of purpose found him facing a gun one day. While administering a get, the husband jumped up and pulled out a gun, aiming to shoot his wife. Everyone froze, except for Rav Levin, who stood up and got between husband and wife. “The bullet will have to go through me,” he said to the husband. Calmly, he talked the man out of it and took the gun and buried it in his backyard.

He had such a love for mitzvos. Shabbos was so special to him. He was never late for Shabbos. He would sit in his study, all ready, hunched over a sefer, ready to welcome Shabbos. He would spend Friday afternoon preparing for the “groiseh gast” who was about to arrive. He would grate the liver, slice the meat, and make sure everything was just so. Lekavod Shabbos, he would water the plants. Several times, I saw him pouring tea into the planters. I asked him, “Zaidy, what are doing?” He looked at me, with all seriousness - with a look on his face like, “What don’t you understand? - and he said, “Ich geb zei tei lekavod Shabbos.”

The poetry! A Litvishe Yid welcoming Shabbos, bringing all of creation along with him to face the great day.

And Yom Tov was even more special. He would love to decorate the sukkah. He would pick out the decorations to hang. As he handed them to the grandchild who was there that year, he would say, “Lesheim mitzvas sukkah. And when Sukkos arrived, there was nothing that could stop him from running into the sukkah to make Kiddush and eat the meal lekavod Yom Tov.

After the meal, he would sing songs about the Ushpizin and dance. There was so much kedushah in his little blue and gold canvas sukkah. In fact, one of the grandchildren who spent Sukkos with him one year told me that he thought he sensed the Ushpizin in the sukkah. The ainikel said that there was so much kedushah, he couldn’t handle it and he ran out of the sukkah.

As much as he loved being in his sukkah, the next morning, after davening, at a Kiddush in the shul sukkah, he would sit and talk with the Yiddelach who didn’t have their own sukkah. He lingered with them to try to give them a geshmak in the mitzvah, so that they could be mekayeim mitzvas sukkah.

To be a leader, you have to be loved and respected. He was. You have to love and respect people. He did. You have to care about people. He did. They have to care about you. They did. You have to be able to not only speak to people, but to connect with them. He did. At age 85, as he aged, the shul’s membership was changing. The older people were moving on and younger people were moving in, so he stopped speaking in Yiddish and spoke in English. He wanted to impact people. He wanted to uplift them. He wanted to improve them. He wanted to be sure that they could follow him. And they did.

The Chofetz Chaim gave my grandfather a four-word mandate: gei redd mit Yidden. Go speak to Jews.

It was a mission statement that would encompass his avodah, using his learning, warmth and aristocratic personality to influence, uplift and inspire others.

I don’t remember what prompted him to repeat the story, but one evening, Rabbi Shea Fishman and I sat in his Detroit kitchen and he shared the Chofetz Chaim’s directive to him: “Gei redd mit Yidden.” It was the first time I’d ever heard it. It was clearly something that he’d kept private. The moment he shared it, Rabbi Fishman and I looked at each other and said, “It was worth coming to Detroit just to hear that.” Rabbi Fishman repeated the story in one of his speeches at a Torah Umesorah convention. The story was written up and it became a classic. It so defined Rav Levin and his mission in life.

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Yisro, the posuk states, “Vayikach Yisro…es Tziporah…ve’eis shnei voneha, asher sheim ho’echod Gershom, ki omar ger hayisi b’eretz nochriyah. Vesheim ho’echod Eliezer, ki Elokei ovi be’ezri vayatzileini meicherev Paroh.” 

The Torah tells us that Yisro took his daughter, Moshe Rabbeinu’s wife Tziporah, and their two children, Gershom and Eliezer, and left Midyan for Mitzrayim. Why does the Torah repeat the reasons that they were given their names? When the Torah tells us of their birth, it relates to us why Moshe gave them those names. What is the significance of repeating that now?

Perhaps we can answer as follows. We are all familiar with the Medrash in Parshas Emor (32:5) that states that one of the reasons the Jews were redeemed from Mitzrayim is because lo shinu es shemom.” One of the primary merits in which the Jews were redeemed from Mitzrayim was the fact that they didn’t change their names.

The idea that not changing their names was such a meritorious practice that it merited their redemption bears explanation. My understanding is that a person’s name hints to their abilities and shlichus in this world. When the Medrash teaches that the Jews in Mitzrayim didn’t change their names, it means that they didn’t betray their shlichus and missions.

They could have said that being enslaved in a foreign land precluded them from being expected to realize their potential. They could have blamed their situation for failing to accomplish much. We are so different, we don’t speak the language, we stand out, and we are mocked and vilified by many. Who can expect anything from us? Thus, the Medrash teaches that they kept to their missions and did what was expected of them despite the many challenges they had to overcome.

When the Torah states that Yisro and Tziporah were going from Midyan to Mitzrayim, it relates that Moshe Rabbeinu’s sons were also not negligent in their shlichus. Although they were brought up in Midyan, without the presence of their father, they remained loyal to the missions he charged them with when he named them. There the Torah repeats not only their names, but also the reasoning for those names.

Vesheim ho’echod Eliezer, ki Elokei ovi be’ezri vayatzileini meicherev Paroh. We can say the same of Rav Eliezer Levin. He never forgot where he came from. He never forgot his mission in life and never betrayed it. He always carried within his soul the message of “ki Elokei ovi be’ezri vayatzileini meicherev Paroh.”

Hashem helped him and saved him from the sword that devastated everyone and everything he had known. And although he arrived in a strange country with a different language and different customs, he stayed the same “Eliezer” in Hanisheeshuk, in Radin, in Kelm, in Vashki and in Detroit until his last day on this earth.

Rav Levin’s rebbi, Rav Doniel, once asked, “Is man jealous of the wings of an eagle?” As the question sunk in, he responded, “No. Man is not jealous of wings. In fact, if a person would grow wings, he would be a baal mum; there would be something aberrant about him.” Wings belong on birds, not on people. “The same,” Reb Doniel explained, “would be the case if a person receives anything that which he is jealous of. He would also become a baal mum. If he really needed that which he covets, Hashem would provide it for him. Since he doesn’t have it, that is a sign that he doesn’t need it. Everything extra is a mum.”

Imagine if we lived like that. Imagine if we had the strength and belief to live that way. We would be so much happier and calmer. That is the life of a Kelmer, of a baal mussar, of a ben Torah. We learn Torah. We devote our lives to Torah. We have to work to see that it makes a stronger impression on us.

Rav Yecheskel Levenstein would say that the Alter of Kelm was very critical of people who were stubborn and he would seek to cause talmidim who possessed that attribute to leave the yeshiva, even if they excelled in learning. He would say that in order for a person to be helped and guided to achieve greatness, he must be able to accept what others tell him.

Let us seek to be accepting and acquire the ability to learn from other people so that we may grow and excel, in Torah, in mentchlichkeit and in all that we do.

My uncle, Rabbi Berel Wein, often reflects on the fact that when my grandfather, his father-in-law, was niftar, along with the hespeidim in yeshivos and shuls, there was an obituary in the Detroit Free Press. There, they mourned the leading light of the rabbinate. Somehow, this product of Kelm and Radin had come to an inhospitable climate, unwanted by local rabbonim, and emerged as their leader.

Because he listened to his rebbi and spent his life speaking to Yidden.

Talking to Yidden requires you to be someone they want to hear from. It means that you have to live in a way that reflects your message. It means loving Yidden. It means taking the time to know the language of each heart.

It was the wisest advice of all and my zaide fulfilled it until his last day. I miss him.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Vision for Greatness

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
This week’s parsha of Beshalach is associated with the parting of the sea at Kriyas Yam Suf, where the Jewish people completed their departure from Mitzrayim. It was there that they beheld the splendor of Hashem, as never seen before. It was there that they realized the words of Hashem, “lokachas lo goy mikerev goy,” not only achieving independence from Mitzrayim, but becoming a nation in the process.
Coupled with this theme is that of “re’iyah,” the ability to see, and through their vision perceive the truth and appreciate reality.
The posuk (Shemos 14:30-31) states that at the shores of the Yam Suf, “Vayar Yisroel,” the people saw and thought that they beheld the ultimate judgment and precision of Hashem’s rule. First, “vayar Yisroel es Mitzrayim meis al sefas hayom,” they saw the Mitzrim lying dead on the banks of the sea, and then “vayar Yisroel es hayod hagedolah asher asah Hashem b’Mitzrayim,” they appreciated the might of the hand of Hashem. And then “vayiru ha’am es Hashem vaya’aminu baHashem uveMoshe avdo, they feared Hashem and believed in Him and His servant Moshe.”
As they became a nation, they saw the truth and appreciated it, and it caused them to fear and believe.
However, shortly thereafter, the people veered from Hashem, as they complained that they didn’t have enough food to sustain them in the desert. Hashem sent them slov birds in the evening so they would have meat, and in the morning, He sent them a type of food coated with protective dew.
The posuk (ibid. 16:15) states that in the morning, when this food was spread out for them to eat, “Vayiru Bnei Yisroel,” the Jewish people saw the food and asked each other what it was. They called it monn. Again, we encounter the word “re’iyah,” seeing. This time, they saw something they didn’t understand, so they turned to Moshe, who explained to them what they had seen. They followed his instructions and were blessed. They were satiated with monn for the rest of their sojourn in the desert.
Moshe told them that it was the food that Hashem promised to send them so that they would have what to eat. He told them how to gather it. “Vayaasu kein Bnei Yisroel,” they followed Moshe’s instructions, and “lo hechsir ish,” nobody was lacking, for each person received what they needed.
Further in the parsha (ibid. 16:29), we encounter “re’iyah” again, when Moshe admonishes the Jewish people about Shabbos. He says, “Re’u ki Hashem nosan lochem es haShabbos - See that Hashem has given you the day of Shabbos.”
Re’u. See. See the Shabbos. See that Hashem gave you Shabbos. Use your eyes, use your gift of vision, and you can understand and appreciate the gift of Shabbos. See that you are getting a double portion of monn on Friday (Rashi), and see that no monn falls on Shabbos. Observe and you will be observant.
The truth of Shabbos is plainly evident. Our people were conceived in a parsha of “re’iyah.” We are blessed with vision, on a basic level as others do, but beyond that we have the ability to perceive what is beneath the surface, comprehending what is really transpiring and how it relates to us.
When we don’t comprehend what we see, we turn to the Torah for guidance.
In times when there are smokescreens that blind the eye from seeing what is going on and, more importantly, block us from understanding events, we don’t have to feel lost. We can turn to the Moshes of the generation. 
Witness what is currently going on in this country, the strange, unprecedented situation in which we find ourselves. Take a step back and contemplate what has happened here. A populist who was given no chance of winning, beat out seventeen professional, experienced politicians and ascended to the highest office in the land.
He promised to drain the Washington swamp of entrenched career politicians and return the government to the people. He was elected on promises to strengthen the country’s borders, keep out dangerous people, nominate constitutionalist justices for vacant court positions, reform the punishing tax code, do away with restrictive regulations, replace the disastrous health care system instituted by his predecessor, and act in other ways in concert with the will of the majority of hardworking, taxpaying Americans.
The people who voted for him are proud of the way he talks, what he says, and what he does. They are thrilled that he is keeping his promises and doing his best to make America great again. They look on as he works, works, and works, delivering on his promises one after another. They realize that he doesn’t always talk or act the way more seasoned or polished politicians do, but they accept it as part of the package.
The party that went down to failure in losing to a man they viewed as a clown is incensed. They are sickened that they were defeated by the man they outspent and worked so hard to defeat. They were so sure that they would beat him in the election that they failed to plan for the possibility of his victory.
He had no pollsters, no advisors, no political consultants, and no political fundraising machine. Not only that, but he spoke rashly, undiplomatically, and without regard to political correctness. Even mainstream Republicans didn’t want to see him elected. He had the entire media aligned against him, coupled with the culture gurus and Republican never-Trumpers.
With everything stacked against him, Trump won. Not only was he elected, but upon entering office, he did what he said he was going to do. He worked from early in the morning until late at night, not only dismantling the previous administration’s agenda, but redoing the very way government works and presidents act. He didn’t play by the usual clubby rules. He spoke strongly and waved a stick and tweeting-phone. The media slammed him and Democrats were reduced to tears, for as hard as they tried to stymie him, they failed. He ignored them and mocked them, and found strong, capable people to run the government and its offices.
He tapped into something others didn’t see. He sensed that the people across America hungered for change and had enough of being mistreated by so-called judges, as well as their local senators, congressmen, legislators and everyone else associated with any type of power. Just as he detested it, he realized that everyone else who doesn’t benefit directly from the system would be prepared to topple it, if only there were a way.
People are loath to be the lonely guy fighting city hall, but if a person stands up to the big-shots and the little guy figures he has nothing to lose by supporting the insurgent, he will. And multitudes of little guys across the country supported him. They were proud of him. They flocked to his rallies. They ignored everything they were being told and supported the man who said he was going to break the oppressive might of big brother.
Everywhere, except in the big liberal cities and the extreme edges of the country, home to doctrinaire liberals, he won and his party carried the day, sweeping out mayors and dogcatchers who didn’t hew to his campaign.
The minority party and its followers are prisoners of their own self-imposed bubble. They believe what they write, say and read in their echo chambers, and as they do so, they remain out of touch to the thinking of the majority. When they lost, they descended into a state of shock from which they have not been able to recover.
Instead of a rational introspection of what went wrong and how to rectify it, they remain in denial that anything so right could overtake their leftist truths. They believe that the new president is inept, that he won by illegitimate means, and that he cannot be viewed or treated as the leader of the country.
Instead of recognizing the truth, they descend into lunacy and employ tactics doomed to prolong the tailspin of the defeated. They act irrationally as they scream, cry, burn and boycott normal government action. Charles Schumer, the great tactician and political leader, leads chants of “Dump Trump” at political rallies, as if that is the responsible and constitutional way of dealing with a new president from the opposition party. People who speak of tolerance, openness and working together show themselves to be consumed by hate and totally intolerant of anyone who disagrees with them.
They will do anything, except focus inward and draw the conclusions that would force them to change their ways and engage in actions that would lead them to become a majority party once again.
It is fascinating and troubling, and like everything in this world, it is a parable for our own reality and journey through the world, where the yeitzer hora attempts to block us from seeing.
The one who seeks to lead us to sin knows that if he can paint things a certain way, delusion and negius will take over. Like what is occurring to the liberal left in this country, a person can descend into an abyss of anger, accusations and deception, leaving him no way out.
Seeing involves more than good eyesight. It takes focus, clarity and a passion for truth.
The left drowns in its own rhetoric while we work hard to keep our focus. The types of moral lives we lead, coupled with Torah study and mitzvah observance, perfect our vision so that we are better able to see things clearly.
“Re’u.” We are encouraged to see and think, to have opinions and insights, to exist not in an echo chamber but on an island where we clarify for ourselves “mah chovaso be’olamo,” what life is all about. We remain honest to our purpose and are not overwhelmed by what others say and see.
These parshiyos of Yetzias Mitzrayim and Krias Yam Suf introduce us to our destiny, to who we are. But in order to realize it, as we study the parshiyos, we have to keep our eyes wide open and appreciate the significance and relevance of each posuk.
“Re’u ki Hashem nosan lochem…” Our task is to learn to see what we are being given and what is going on all around us.
So many times, we go wrong because we take certain things for granted and mess up our thought process. Having the right information alone is not enough, for if we do not think we make mistakes.
Rav Aharon Yehuda Leib ben Gittel Faiga Shteinman would recount that Rav Chaim Soloveitchik asked children riddles to sharpen their minds. He would tell them of a blind man who would raise one finger to signal that he wanted to eat. When he wanted to drink, he would raise two fingers. The great Rav Chaim would then ask the children what the blind man did when he wanted to eat and drink.
The children – and most adults – wouldn’t realize that he said the man was blind. He didn’t say that he was dumb and unable to speak, so when he wanted to eat and drink, he would simply say so.
They had all the information they required, but their minds were conditioned to process it incorrectly.
Our egos, our patterns of thought, and the way things have always been done impede us and hamper our thought process.
We think we know everything. We think we understand everything. We may have perfect vision, but if we impair our comprehension with preconceived notions, then we will not be able to come up with the proper response to the questions of the day.
People look at the same sets of facts and figures yet understand them differently. Everyone sees the same information, but they process them according to their own biases. Where some see bravery, others see cowardice. Where some see love and concern, others see hate and cynicism. Some see freedom fighters, others see terrorists. The facts don’t change. The perception does. Numbers don’t lie, but people from different backgrounds explain them differently. If you doubt this, just look at polls that concern Donald Trump.
People become trapped by the way they perceive the world and are unable to see things differently than they have been conditioned to, so their thinking is skewed and their reactions are off target. They are encumbered by what they have always done and by what they have been taught, so their predictions are expected and often wrong.
We were infused with the drive to be great, to study Torah day and night, to seek the truth, to constantly engage in introspection and self-improvement. We never rest in our pursuit of knowledge and excellence. We set high goals for ourselves. We are not locked into anything. As we learn Torah, our minds are trained not to take anything for granted. We learn a Gemara and think we understand it, and then the Gemara brings a proof disputing what we had thought was the halacha. One Amora concurs and another disagrees. Rashi explains the dispute so carefully and succinctly, and we think we understand the concepts. But then we look in Tosafos and everything is turned upside down. We realize that we understand nothing. And so it goes. In this fashion, we plumb the depths of sugya after sugya, daf after daf, masechta after masechta.
We realize that it is only with honesty, consistency and hard work that we can even hope to understand anything.
We deal with the world the way it is, not the way we want it to be. We do not create alternative universes in which to operate, but rather deal forthrightly with the facts. We do not become entombed in our bubbles of fantasy, blinded and unable to confront reality. In an upside-down world, we retain our ability to sense right from wrong, generosity from avarice, and justice from cruelty. No one can take that away from us, as long as we remember our mantra: “Re’u.”
The parsha ends with our first encounter with our arch-enemy, Amaleik. He and his progeny will always be there, until the coming of Moshiach, seeking to ensnare and destroy us. We stay ahead of him by keeping our eyes and hearts focused heavenward, until that great day we all wait for, which shall come speedily in our day.