Wednesday, May 24, 2017

It Is Who We Are and What We Are About

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Back when the sun first rose and creation was unsullied by man and his struggles, the world was waiting. Even after man settled in the garden, le’ovdah uleshomrah, the world was in a state of anticipation.
Throughout the generations that followed, despite Noach’s lone piety in a world of darkness, Avrohom Avinu’s perception of a Creator, and Yitzchok’s readiness to be offered as the ultimate sacrifice, something was missing.

Even as Yaakov studied through the long nights and his sons marched forth- an army of soldiers of the Ribbono Shel Olam- the world was not yet perfect.
It was a journey, a process leading to the Yom Hashishi, the glorious sixth day of Sivan when the world received its heart and soul. Bishvil haTorah shenikreis reishis.

“Ve’am nivra yehalel Kah” (Tehillim 102:19). A nation, newly identified, newly charged with a mission, called out two words that echo through the ages, that have come to define us: “Naaseh venishma.”
It was the moment when Klal Yisroel announced for the entire world to hear that although they were mortals fashioned of flesh and blood, they would live on a higher and loftier plane, using the greatest of all gifts, the holy Torah, to guide them.

And now, once again, we are at the time of year when the power and potency of that day reigns supreme, and we are able to tap into its energy.
Yom Tov comes and Yom Tov goes, and we search for the appropriate mindset and idea to help us connect, so that, as Rav Yitzchok Hutner would say, “the Yom Tov doesn’t pass us by, but, rather, we pass through it, experiencing its blessing.”

As we celebrate Zeman Mattan Toraseinu, the best and most appropriate preparation is to focus on how blessed we are, with the gift we received, and what those moments at Sinai and their reverberations mean to us.

We all know it’s true. It’s 2017 and neshamos are dimmer than ever. It’s hard to feel ruchniyus, to acutely sense kedushah in a crass, immoral world, but it is there.
If we take a moment and contemplate, and conduct an honest self-assessment, we will realize that whatever might give us a degree of happiness - a new car or home, a delicious meal or a great vacation - isn’t the real deal. The feeling it gives us does not compare to the elation we feel when we gently stand up after a good shiur or seder, having learned with a child or chavrusa.

Those fortunate enough to walk into a shul and see their son or grandson hunched over a Gemara have experienced a joy unlike any other.
No amount is too small. A good vort, a kushya shared on the way out of shul, or a short shiur has the ability to thrill unlike anything this world has to offer.

Friday morning, my friend called to share a vort that he had heard at a sheva brachos. It was a great thought. Exhilarating, in fact. It brought both of us more joy than any juicy piece of meat or lashon hora.
Because even today, we can still feel the joy of kabbolas haTorah. Every time we hear a good sevorah, vort, or shiur; every time we work hard to understand a Gemara, Rashi, or Tosafos, the joy that was felt at Har Sinai is felt again.

Everything else is fleeting. The world was created for Torah. The joy that was felt on that day in Sivan so many years back and all those feelings that were apparent on that day are eternal. We can feel them anytime we delve into the holy words of amar Abaye and Rebbi Yehuda omeir.
Hashem gave us the ultimate gift, and when we express our thanks, we allow ourselves to become vessels that contain it and open our hearts to its light. Hanosein matana lachaveiro tzorich lehodio. This means that when a person gives someone a gift, he must inform the recipient. But lehodio also has in it’s root the word hoda’ah, thanks, indicating that when a person gives a gift, he expects it to be acknowledged. Therefore, we say thank you every day. Asher bochar banu. You chose us. And on Shavuos, we celebrate it.

On Shavuos, when we reaffirm that we only exist for the Torah and our nation has a unifying goal, we allow the Torah to shine its light into our hearts. We remain awake at night, demonstrating our appreciation of the Torah’s role in our lives. We read through the entire Torah in Tikkun Leil Shavuos to show that we treasure every sefer of the Torah and the knowledge contained therein.

We pledge to take it all very seriously and endeavor to understand whatever we can.
Rav Archik Bakst, rov of Shavel, once met a friend, a fellow talmid of Kelm, who shared a vort from their rebbi, the Alter of Kelm. The friend said the vort with obvious excitement, explaining that he had just heard the idea that week and it had changed his life.

Rav Archik listened and said, “My dear friend, we were together at the shmuess when the Alter shared this idea. I was moved by it then, but you mached it avek. You waved the thought away. And because you made it unimportant, it became unimportant to you. It was as if you heard nothing, so this week, when you heard it again it and accepted it, it was as if you were hearing it for the first time.”
What, asks the Meshech Chochmah at the end of Parshas Yisro, did Moshe Rabbeinu personally gain from kabbolas haTorah? He had already been worthy and was able to rise Heavenward even before the giving of the Torah. This was an indication that Moshe Rabbeinu had personally achieved perfection before Sinai.

The Meshech Chochmah’s answer is instructive and relevant. Until Mattan Torah, he says, Moshe Rabbeinu and man were able to serve Hashem with ruchniyus. The novelty of kabbolas haTorah was that, suddenly, acts of pure gashmiyus were invested with kedushah. Man was directed to sanctify himself, his corporeal needs, and his animal instincts.
This, says the Meshech Chochmah, is the idea of Hashem telling Moshe Rabbeinu at the sneh, the burning bush, “Shal na’alecha mei’al raglecha - Remove your shoes from on your feet. Remove the vehicles for your gashmiyusdike living. Remove your chomer as you approach Me. Here you must be an angel.” That was before Matan Torah. Afterward, the shoes became part of the package - the package called a mentch, to whom the Torah was given.

After Matan Torah, Hashem tells Klal Yisroel, “Ve’anshei kodesh tihiyun li - And holy people  be unto me, ” (Shemos 22:30). The Kotzker Rebbe would translate this command to mean, “Be mentchlich heilig. Be holy within the context of being human.” Figure out how to exist within society, to be a father and a husband and a friend who is holy. We are meant to be people who live elevated lives, not malochim.
On Shavuos, we celebrate this concept. Hakadosh Boruch Hu desires our service. He gave us the Torah to guide us and address our physical existence. We celebrate the potential of man, who can use the Torah as the ladder to climb to ever loftier heights.

The Creator didn’t ask us to become angels, but rather, to remain mortals, to incorporate the Torah and its laws into the realities of our humble little lives.
The Gemara states that while regarding other Yomim Tovim the rabbis disagree how much of the day should be dedicated to the purely spiritual, on Shavuos, “hakol modim debe’inan nami lochem.” They all agree that we need to please the more physical side as well.
We can understand this to mean that on Shavuos, we need “lochem, to proclaim that the physical is part of the Shavuos celebration. We demonstrate through our actions that Torah has affected and touched our base desires as well.
Chazal (Pesikta Zutrasa, Va’eschanon) state, “Chayov odom liros ess atzmo ke’ilu mekabel Torah miSinai, shene’emar, ‘Hayom hazeh nihiyeisa le’am. Every day a person is obligated to conduct himself as if he accepted the Torah that day at Har Sinai.’” We are all familiar with this directive regarding Yetzias Mitzrayim. In fact, it is the central theme of the leil haSeder, but we don’t think about it on Shavuos.
Imagine if today were the day you received the Torah. Imagine standing at Har Sinai and hearing the words of the Aseres Hadibros being called out. Imagine the sounds. Imagine the site. Imagine being led out of Mitzrayim with very little knowledge or holiness, and trekking through the desert, becoming a better person every day.
Imagine how empty and meaningless your life would be without Torah. No Torah, no learning, no Shabbos, no tefillin, no Yom Tov, nothing that your life is centered around, nothing that gives your life the meaning it now has. You wouldn’t even have potato kugel or cholent, or a nice suit, hat or shaitel. You wouldn’t have a shul to go to and no reason to go to one altogether. Think of everything you do in your day, week and year. Now imagine that there was no Torah.
Imagine that today is the day you discovered the secret of the world. Imagine that today you were invited to study G-d’s word, to bask in His glow, to find meaning, satisfaction and joy in your life. How excited you would be! How grateful and how dedicated!
Today is that day. “Ke’ilu mekabel Torah miSinai.
Appreciate it. Show it. Feel it.
Hayom hazeh! Today and every day. Despite the degeneration of the world; despite the struggles we experience with every tefillah and the challenge of concentrating fully when we learn; despite the many forces competing for our attention, we have a new kabolas haTorah.
Our human shortcomings are not a hindrance; we weren’t given a Torah despite the fact that we are people, but specifically because we are mere humans.
Rav Yecheskel Abramsky lived in London on an upper story of a building that had a bank on its ground floor. During the German blitzkrieg, when the city endured crushing air attacks, residents of the building took cover in the bank’s vault.
The vault was a large, underground room, lined with safety deposit boxes. Rav Abramsky kept a small Shas in the shelter, and as sirens wailed and people shuddered in fear, he would take out a volume of Gemara and learn from it. 
Rav Abramsky’s family noticed that every time he entered the vault, his lips were moving. They thought that he was murmuring words of Tehillim, but then they realized that he was repeating the words of the posuk, “Tov li toras picha mei’alfei zahav vachesef - Your Torah is more precious to me than thousands in gold and silver.”
When asked to explain his habit, he said that he had no need for great wealth and no desire for riches. But when surrounded by boxes that contained jewels, precious antiques and large sums of cash, he felt that it had an effect of him. To calm that feeling, he would repeat the posuk, reminding him that the Torah is worth more than what was in the safety deposit boxes. The real value that we crave is in Torah, he reminded them.
In Lita of old, this concept was widely understood. There was a natural reverence for Torah and its scholars even among the unlearned. In Volozhin, local homeowners would line up at the train station before each zeman to vie for the honor of pulling the wagons carrying arriving talmidim and their luggage. The yeshiva learned through Shas, and when the yeshiva celebrated a siyum, the local people would arrive at the yeshiva and proudly serve as waiters.
Imagine that! Imagine if in your town, the bochurim and yungeleit would dine, and the fine residents, who everyone knows and respects, would go from table to table giving out the food.
Nobody forced them to come. Nobody even asked them to come. It was their special honor, because they appreciated Torah and lomdei Torah. It was an honor for them to carry the lomdei Torah and their belongings to the yeshiva, and it was their pleasure to partake in the simcha of the completion of yet another masechta.
It was special to them. It was valuable to them, as if it was given today. They treated it with respect. They treasured the Torah and the people who studied it the whole day. It was their pride and joy.
We hear these things and smile. They are charming reminders of a world that was. Of a world that we need to recreate.
Shavuos is a time to refocus on what Torah means to us, and on how blessed we are to be able to spend time by a Gemara or Chumash or Shulchan Aruch, and be surrounded by talmidei chachomim and yeshiva bochurim.
The Klausenberger Rebbe arrived in America after the Second World War having lost his wife and eleven children. He married a daughter of the Nitra Rov. Rav Leizer Silver, the legendary rov of Cincinnati and one of the most prominent rabbonim in America of those years, was a special guest at the second sheva brachos, held in Mount Kisco. As he rose to speak, he announced that he came bearing a gift for the chosson and kallah, a check for two hundred and fifty-eight dollars.
“If you wonder how come I am giving that amount, I’ll tell you,” he said. “It’s because that check represents everything I had in my bank account. Every last penny. The rebbe is a talmid chochom, and he will produce talmidei chachomim. I would give everything to be part of that. I wish I had more to give!”
The speech of the quintessential Litvishe rov resonated with the crowd. They got his message about what would yet be, and the glorious future that America might have as a makom Torah. He was telling them not to despair, not to give up, not to say, “It can’t happen here.”
Moreover, he was saying, “We are still here, holding on to Sinai, and as long as we cherish and revere and support those who learn and teach Torah, we have a future.”
The Kadmonim call the moments spent in Torah study “lev hayom, the heart of the day,” its most crucial and life-giving period.
We open our arms wide and accept the Torah, just as our fathers and their fathers have done for thousands of years. We cherish its words, raising our children and helping guide them to see the honey under each letter.
It is who we are and what we are about. Our lives revolve around it. It is Torah.
We, with our feet dragging through the dust of real life, of parnossah and health challenges, and all sorts of temptations, persist in walking with our eyes on Him and on His Torah, knowing that it is meant for us, to give us the tools to climb higher.
Modim anachnu loch shesamta chelkeinu m’yoshvei bais hamedrash. Thank You, Master of the universe, for allowing us to have a connection with Torah, to have tasted the truest joy of all.
Gut Yom Tov.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

It’s About Concentration

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
 In today’s fast-moving and changing world, attention spans are shrinking more rapidly than the polar cap under global warming. We are adopting the failures of society and failing to concentrate on what is important for more than a few seconds. We skim instead of read, and we surmise without bothering to educate ourselves. With little thought, we forward news, hock and jokes at supersonic speeds.
We act irresponsibly, either because we don’t realize the impact of our actions, or we think we won’t get caught. Our illiteracy and lack of knowledge lead us to desecrate our own names, as well as those of our people and, most importantly, Hashem. Everything, including our learning, our words, our honesty, our diligence and our interpersonal relationships, becomes superficial.
As we prepare for Shavuos, it would behoove us to slow down and think about what we are doing and whether it helps or hinders us. We are meant to act with determination and be disciplined in seeking and pursuing excellence.
Parshas Behar begins by stating that Hashem spoke to Moshe on Har Sinai. The parsha then immediately turns to the laws of Shmittah. Rashi asks the classic question invoked when two matters seemingly unconnected are linked together: “Mah inyan Shmittah eitzel Har Sinai? loosely translated as, “What does Shmittah have to do with Har Sinai?”
Rashi answers that the Torah juxtaposes the two pesukim to teach that just as all the minutia of the laws of Shmittah were expounded at Har Sinai, the myriad details of all the mitzvos were likewise taught at that time.
The Torah discusses the laws of Shmittah and then guarantees the blessings reserved for those who honor these laws, allowing their land to lie fallow every seventh year as a testament to their belief in Hashem.
Perhaps another reason for the linkage of Shmittah and Har Sinai might be to teach us that a person who seeks the brachos promised to shomrei Shevi’is should not delude himself into thinking that those blessings come for observing only one component of the mitzvos of Har Sinai.
“Mah inyan Shmittah eitzel Har Sinai” teaches us that in order to merit the rewards of keeping Shmittah, a Jew must do far more than observe the laws of Shmittah. He must follow all the halachos and dinim that were handed down at Sinai.
This approach might explain an inconsistency at the end of the parsha. The last posuk of Parshas Behar states, “Es shabbsosai tishmoru umikdoshi tira’u, ani Hashem.” The Baal Haturim points out that in this posuk, the word “tishmoru” comes after the word “Shabbos,” whereas in Devorim, the command of shamor precedes the word “Shabbos” in the posuk of “Shamor es yom haShabbos.”
The Baal Haturim quotes the Mechilta to explain that this is to teach that Shabbos requires shemirah both before and after the exact time of the holy day. That is, one must extend the day at the beginning and at the end, transforming chol to kodesh.
Perhaps we can explain that the posuk is implying that for one to be a shomer Torah umitzvos, it is not sufficient to only observe the 24-hour period that comprises Shabbos. One must also observe the many commandments governing life during the rest of the week. The kedusha of Shabbos demands shemirah lefonov ule’acharov.
It is common to describe a frum Jew as a shomer Shabbos. This is because in order to be considered a shomer Shabbos, you must also observe the other commandments. A shomer Shabbos Jew dresses differently, speaks differently, and eats differently, not only on Shabbos, but during the entire week. A shomer Shabbos Jew conducts himself with aidelkeit and ehrlichkeit, not only on Shabbos, but throughout the week as well. A shomer Shabbos Jew adds to the holiness of Shabbos by sanctifying the days before Shabbos and the days after it.
A shomer Shabbos Jew spreads kedushas Shabbos to everything he does from Shabbos to Shabbos. He anticipates and plans for Shabbos from Sunday onwards, as he specifies each day in relation to Shabbos, saying, “Hayom yom rishon b’Shabbos, Hayom yom sheini b’Shabbos, etc.”
And so it is with a shomer Shmittah. It is very difficult for a person who lives off of the land to wake up one day and decide that although he has been lax in his observance of the other mitzvos, he will observe Shmittah. It is only the person who, after faithfully observing all the halachos during the other six years, can meet the great test of faith and leave his ground untouched during the seventh year.
The person who is fastidious about his observance of maaser and terumah, and leket, shikchah and pe’ah, observes Shmittah with complete faith. The one who ensures that his animals do not run wild and damage other people’s property, and the one who makes sure that there are no michsholim on the paths that cut through his property, will be scrupulous with the dinim given on Har Sinai.
The person who conducts his business with emunah and bitachon and does not resort to chicanery and thievery to make his living is one who has the strength to let go when Shmittah arrives and depend upon Hakadosh Boruch Hu to sustain him.
A shomer Shabbos knows that life is not all fun and games. There are halachos and traditions to follow. He knows that his actions are viewed by others and he cannot engage in conduct that causes chillul Hashem. He knows that what the world considers cool and chic is not always all it’s cracked up to be.
A shomer Shabbos knows that he cannot act hypocritically and cannot be in places where he doesn’t belong. He comports himself with intelligence and dignity, like a gentleman.
Vetzivisi es birchasi lochem.” Hashem promises His blessings to those who observe Shmittah, because those people are the ones who observe the laws handed down on Har Sinai daily and not only on isolated occasions.
At the beginning of Parshas Bechukosai, Rashi quotes the Toras Kohanim to explain the posuk of “Im bechukosai teileichu.” Rashi says that it means “shetihiyu ameilim baTorah.” The way to achieve holiness and perfection is by expending much energy to study and understand the Torah. The way to show that we are serious about following the path of Hashem and observing His mitzvos is by delving deeply and persistently into the difficult passages of the Torah.
The Rambam in Hilchos Talmud Torah writes that the Torah does not make a permanent impact on one who takes a lackadaisical approach to its study, nor on one who learns while indulging in earthly excess, or while satiated by food and drink.
The Torah belongs to the one who knocks himself out, so to speak, working to understand it and refraining from sleep in order to learn and understand the word of Hashem.
That is why a rebbi is obligated to teach the same passage to his student several times until the student understands it. The rebbi is not permitted to become angered, but has to patiently explain it until its meaning is grasped. Torah is for all, and a lack of comprehension necessitates added effort and deeper concentration, for that is the way Torah is acquired. The task of the rebbi is to make the Gemara come alive, to convey gravitas and importance to the give and take, so the student not only repeats by rote, but becomes enraptured with understanding Torah and enveloped in its glory.
Therefore, as well, a student should not be uncomfortable when he doesn’t understand the Torah that is being taught. There is no embarrassment in asking to have it explained repeatedly until he understands it. Greatness in Torah requires total dedication and much effort. One who is consumed by ambition for spiritual greatness forgoes much to grow in Torah.
Greatness is not inbred. It doesn’t come from learning once a week. It isn’t accomplished overnight. It takes years of persistence and perseverance. Sometimes it takes a lifetime of growth to reach the pinnacle.
The world around us is in turmoil. We must do all we can to produce a new generation of leaders and giants to deal with the complex issues facing us. They must be respectful, responsible and decent. They have to engage in activities that bring achdus and love between Jews, not those that cause us to be divided. Everything they do should bring others to respect our people, as Chazal say, “sheyihei sheim Shomayim misaheiv al yodcha.”
Our ambition and drive must be to excel in Torah and avodah. We have to value excellence and appreciate it in others. We should demand the best of ourselves when it comes to spiritual matters and not easily compromise when it comes to what is really important in life. We must become ameilim baTorah in a literal sense.
Our chinuch system must teach our children to appreciate the gift of Torah they have been given. They need to realize that they are the Chosen People, selected to live a life of kedusha and tahara, of simcha and sasson, and that these are not mutually exclusive concepts. Torah breathes life into those who follow its ways. A Torah life is a blessing. One who understands that, will happily dedicate his life to ameilus baTorah.
Children who appreciate the full picture of Yiddishkeit and know that ehrlichkeit and middos tovos are an integral part of their being, understand that fidelity to a value system is their birthright.
Jews who are reminded from a young age onward that shemiras Shabbos involves more than observing the lamed tes melachos live on a higher level the whole week and recognize that by doing so they are among the luckiest people alive.
Despite all the temptations thrown at them by society, and no matter what pressures and inducements they face, they will remain steadfast, focused, honest and upstanding. They will bring us all much nachas.
The Torah promises that if we are ameilim baTorah, if we work according to the Torah and concentrate our main efforts on Torah study and observance, we will be blessed and successful in all we do.
The Torah is what gives us our identity and what defines us. As we stand in the Sefirah period, we commemorate that we were freed from Mitzrayim so that we could accept the Torah on Har Sinai.
We count towards Shavuos, the day that marks our receiving of the Torah, to demonstrate that we are striving and reaching upward. Each day of the count, we seek to improve ourselves so that we better appreciate the gift that is the Torah.
We don’t count the way one would normally count down to an anticipated date. We count upward. We are each saying, “I am not the same person I was yesterday. I am better. I have progressed yet another day and have taken another step towards my goal. I am on the way to realizing that the most important thing I can do is accept the Torah, study it, and follow it with devotion.”
If we want to excel in our lives as Torah Jews, we have to realize what those successful people described above realize. The key to success, both spiritual and material, is to be devoted to the task with all our strength and talent.
Rav Shmuel Yaakov Borenstein zt”l was just such a person. His life was Torah and his talmidim. There was nothing else. He labored in the study of Torah since his youth and emerged as a brilliant talmid chochom who was viewed as a gadol b’Yisroel and a leader of our people.
His soul departed this world this past Motzoei Shabbos, leaving a huge vacuum. Rav Shmuel Yaakov represented the purity and majesty of Torah. He personified the gentility and stateliness of one who has climbed the ladder of Torah greatness. His shiurim were enlightening and his seforim contain brilliant insights. Those who met him saw the kindliness and character fostered by spending days and nights, for decades, immersed in the Yam Hatalmud.
Rav Shmuel Yaakov was relatively young, passing away at the age of 70. The Torah world viewed Rav Shmuel Yaakov as a leading rosh yeshiva who would continue to guide bnei Torah for years to come. We are left bereft, though inspired to follow in his ways and emulate his total devotion to limud haTorah and avodas Hashem.
We have to take ourselves and our responsibilities seriously. We have to take pride in our mission, so that we can succeed in being good Jews and good people. It won’t happen with a haphazard, lackadaisical approach, or by going through the motions perfunctorily. It demands a lifetime of ameilus coupled with discipline and determination.
Let us devote ourselves to our task and merit the brachos that the parsha reserves for those who are ameil in Torah.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Royals

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
 Today, it is very much in vogue to blame others for failure. Those who don’t make it blame the system, the school, the teacher, the government, the president, or some other convenient scapegoat. People don’t assume personal responsibly for their failures. In the “blame culture,” nothing is ever the fault of the poor victim. It’s always someone else who messed up and caused them to fail.
People don’t realize that everyone is endowed with the capacity to achieve greatness. Nobody is doomed from birth to a life of mediocrity and disappointment. Wake up early and go to bed late, study hard, and use your time constructively, and the sky is the limit. Sleep late, party, goof off, and blame your rebbi, morah, chavrusah, shadchan or parents for your lack of drive and motivation to succeed and you are guaranteed to fail.
The blamer has no accountability. He sees the consequences of his actions as no fault of his own. Because he has no accountability and feels no responsibility, he invests little effort into what he does.
Last week, failed and flawed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton emerged from her post-election reflective time to gratuitously accept responsibility for the electoral loss. With that squared away, she quickly launched into a rant, blaming the loss on FBI head James Comey and on the Russians, who publicized her campaign secrets and information about her illegal server.
Many laughed at her and her obvious arrogance and silliness, but, on some level, many of us do exactly what she did. When things don’t go our way, we comfort ourselves and reassure others that we did no wrong. We create straw men and blame them, as preposterous as it may sound. Anything is easier than accepting responsibility for our mistakes.
We are charged to rise above that and to be honest with ourselves and others. To excel in life and Yiddishkeit, we must act properly, concentrate on our learning and davening, be diligent about kiyum hamitzvos, and be careful about how we treat each other. When we err, we admit our error and agonize over repenting.
A Kelmer talmid is said to have commented, “In yeshivos, they say, ‘Men darf kennen Torah,’ it is important to study and know Torah. Chassidim say, ‘Men darf kennen dem Borei,’ it is important to know the Creator. But among us in Kelm, we say, ‘Men darf kennen zich,’ the path to growth starts with being able to know yourself.”
If you look at others, it is easy to find their faults, but you accomplish nothing by doing that, for it doesn’t help you find and repair your own faults. If you look around you, you might find convenient scapegoats. Find the strength to look inward and you will find the truth.
The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 17) discusses the story of Elazar ben Durdaya the sinner. He was shamed by a fellow sinner and apprised of his situation, with little chance for teshuvah.
Overcome with shame, he fled, finding a quiet place to engage in some desperate self-examination. He beseeched the mountains and hills to plead his case with Hashem, but they refused, for they needed to plead on their own behalf. He asked heaven and earth to intercede, but they also turned him down. He looked to the sun and moon for help, but was similarly rejected. The stars were not much help either.
Finally, he collapsed, his head in his hands, crying from the depths of his being. He stood up and proclaimed, “Ein hadovor talui ela bi. It all depends on me. It’s all my responsibility.” At that moment, he died, and a bas kol announced that Rav Elazar ben Durdaya’s teshuvah was accepted and he was destined for Olam Haba.
Meforshim explain his unsuccessful attempts to find messengers to plead for him. He reached out to the horim to make his case. While the definition of horim is mountains, it can also mean parents. He was trying to blame his parents. Perhaps they had spoiled him or deprived him or hadn’t given him enough love, in contemporary parlance. He tried that, but was turned down.
Heaven and earth represent the environment, the schools, teachers and friends who may have influenced him. Everyone else was also doing it. They picked on me. The teachers were lousy. It’s their fault. Don’t punish me. That also didn’t work.
The sun and the moon represent one’s financial situation. He was blaming his indiscretions on being too rich or too poor; there were too many challenges. He was rebuffed.
Finally, he blamed his guilt on the mazalos, alleging that since stars influence man’s behavior, it wasn’t his fault, but the fault of the star he was born under. This defense was rejected.
He got it. The realization that there were no more options other than “ela bi” overwhelmed, weakened and took the life out of him. He accepted the blame and did teshuvah as he lay dying.
The Nesivos Sholom of Slonim says that Elazar was a sinner, not a rabbi, yet Chazal referred to him as rebbi, because he taught the world the secret of teshuvah, which is to stop blaming others.
In truth, every person has the capacity to achieve tremendous greatness. Every person also has the ability to waste his potential and sink to the lowest levels.
The Shela Hakadosh says that this is the reason the Torah uses the word “odom” when referring to man. The appellation “odom” is intertwined with the word “adameh,” which means, “I shall emulate,” a reference to man’s mandate of adameh le’Elyon, emulating the Divine. Odom is also related to the word “adomoh,” the dirt of the ground, the lowliest substance.
In that one word and name, Hashem invested us with our mission. Every day presents opportunities to soar to lofty heights and tumble to extreme lows. By ascribing blame, a person essentially denies his own power, his own reach. He’s hiding behind other factors, essentially claiming that he isn’t strong enough to rise above injustices visited upon him. Check out the biography of great people and you will inevitably find that they had setbacks - just like you, if not worse - and they overcame them.
Being an “odom” means that we can rise above anything. We must use the awareness of what one person can do to fuel our growth.
The Yalkut Shimoni (Shmuel I, 1:78) relates that prior to the birth of Shmuel Hanovi, a bas kol rang out, proclaiming that a tzaddik named Shmuel would soon be born. Every Jewish mother who gave birth to a boy immediately following the bas kol named her son Shmuel in the hope that he would be the tzaddik foretold by the Heavenly voice. Parents raised their Shmuel to be the Shmuel the bas kol spoke of, because each boy had the ability to achieve that level of greatness. 
When people witnessed the acts and conduct of the Shmuel who would go on to become the novi, they knew that he was the tzaddik referred to by the bas kol.
Every person possesses greatness. Every child has the potential to be a savior like Moshe Rabbeinu and Shmuel Hanovi.
We never give up on another Jew. No one is insignificant, for we are all blessed with a neshomah and the ability to rise above all. If we don’t achieve our potential, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
This understanding gives meaning to the celebration of the yahrtzeit of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai on Lag Ba’omer.
Rabi Shimon bar Yochai revealed that every Jew is royalty, with the potential and capacity for greatness. It is not for us to judge other shomrei Torah umitzvos and disrespect them.
Treat others with love and respect and help them realize their potential. Everyone has a spark of greatness within their soul. Help people light their spark and give it the ruach it needs to flare into a great flame. Care about other people and reach to them with friendship, even if they appear to be on a lower level than you. 
Rabi Shimon (Shabbos 67, et al) said, “Kol Yisroel bnei melochim heim, and ruled as halacha lemaaseh that every Jewish person can wear royal clothing on Shabbos without transgressing the prohibition of hotza’ah, because every Jew is a ben melech.
Beholding the glory and splendor of every neshomah, he appreciated limitless potential of odom, every human being. He learned this from his rebbi, Rabi Akiva, who, for the first four decades of his life, was a simple shepherd who no one thought would ever amount to much. But he, too, was a ben melech, and through him the Jewish people were blessed to be bequeathed the entire Torah Shebaal Peh.
On Lag Ba’omer, Jews light bonfires and sing songs praising Rabi Shimon and his rebbi, Rabi Akiva. They dance, chanting the words of Rabi Shimon’s rebbi, “Omar Rabi Akiva ashreichem Yisroel. Praised be the Bnei Yisroel.”
Thousands stream to the kever of Rabi Shimon in Meron, where the words of the posuk he famously quoted are painted atop the entrance - “Ki lo sishochach mipi zaro” - reflecting the greatness of Hashem, His Torah and His people.
We are familiar with the Gemara that states that Rabi Akiva merited teaching 24,000 disciples. But, because they didn’t display proper respect towards each other, they died during the period of Sefirah.
Describing the episode that transpired after the brothers sold Yosef Hatzaddik into slavery, the posuk (Bereishis 38:1) says, “Vayeired Yehudah. And Yehudah departed.” Rashi quotes Chazal, who say that the brothers removed him from his high ranking. Meforshim explain that they no longer treated him as a king.
My rebbi, Rav Elya Svei explained that the brothers saw in Yehuda the leadership traits and potential for royalty. They therefore accorded him the respect of a king. When the shevotim saw the pain that their act caused Yaakov, they no longer viewed Yehuda as worthy of being a melech.
The talmidim of Rabi Akiva perished for the sin of not treating each other appropriately. It is hard to imagine that the students of Rabi Akiva wouldn’t treat each other well. Perhaps, said Rav Elya, they treated each other with the respect that they deserved according to their status at that time, but they didn’t treat them with the respect they were worthy of, considering their potential for greatness.
The failure to respect them for what they could be in the future was considered sinful and caused the plague that killed them.
This Shabbos, we will read Parshas Emor and hear the song of the mo’adim, the various Yomim Tovim. For a moment, we will feel the freedom of Pesach, the glory of Shavuos, the awe of Rosh Hashanah, and the purity of Yom Kippur, followed by the joy of Sukkos. It’s a reminder of how each of us can lift ourselves above the mundane and enter the realm of melochim once again. The Jewish year is framed by such opportunities - the moadim, the meeting places between man and his Creator - which catapult us into a different dimension.
And since we all have the potential to enter the realm of melochim, we have to treat each other as royalty, as bnei melochim.
Perhaps the reason that the talmidim of Rabi Akiva passed away during the period following Pesach is because on Pesach we celebrate the day that the glory of the Jew was revealed. On Pesach, we saw that Hashem loved us even though we did not have or observe the mitzvos of the Torah. Even before we possessed the refinement that the Torah engenders in us, He lifted us. He saw our potential, He knew whereof we are made and He treated us as such even though at that time we were ovdei avodah zara.
Talmidei Rabi Akiva didn’t learn the lesson of Pesach of how to respect each individual Jew despite their level at the moment. They didn’t appreciate that every one of them was a ben Melech, selected and marked for greatness.
At this time of the year, we walk along the shore between two lighthouses, two towering reminders of the greatness of Klal Yisroel, Pesach and Shavuos, marking the period when we became a nation and when we received the ultimate gift. During this period, as we count Sefirah and engage in our personal climb to perfection and greatness, how can we not view every Jew admiringly, each individual a chosen one by the Creator and granted the abilities to rise to soaring heights?
On Lag Ba’omer, as we dance with the flickering orange of the fire reflected in joyous eyes and strains of Meron’s clarinets crossing oceans to enliven us as well, we can appreciate the words of the piyut in which we pay tribute to Rabi Shimon bar Yochai: “Na’aseh odom ne’emar baavurecha.”
Hashem’s decision of “Naaseh odom - Let us make man” was realized in Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, the absolute example of the tzuras ha’odom, of an odom hashaleim, the complete man. But maybe the words have another meaning as well. Na’aseh odom could mean that each of us can become a man, realize our greatness, view ourselves the right way, and perceive those around us the right way, because of the lesson of Rabi Shimon.
He taught us that we are all bnei melochim. Baavurecha, because of you, Rabi Shimon, we know the truth of how high we can go.
Ashreichem Yisroel.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

A Holy People

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
This week, we read the parshiyos of Acharei Mos and Kedoshim. Rashi quotes the Toras Kohanim, which states that Parshas Kedoshim was delivered by Moshe Rabbeinu personally to the entirety of Klal Yisroel because most of the body of Torah is included there. The parsha begins with the command that we be holy, “Kedoshim tihiyu.” And it ends with a similar directive, “Vehiyisem li kedoshim.”
Many commentators wonder how the entirety of Am Yisroel could be commanded to be kedoshim, when it is one of the highest levels a person can attain. Is it fair to demand of simple folk that they rise to the highest rung on the ladder of devotion?
It appears that the word kedusha is commonly misunderstood. We loosely translate the word to mean holy, as connected to severe asceticism and austerity. Kedusha certainly means that, but it means much more than that.
A life of kedusha means to live with Hashem and to be enveloped by an awareness of His reality and presence. To be a kadosh means to live with a vision and a dream. It means seeing far, but living within the present. It means never losing sight of the ultimate goal.
A person who lives with kedusha is able to rise above our one-dimensional world and see a bigger and deeper universe. He is thus able to accomplish so much more than others. Other people don’t have time to spend with a boy who wants to learn, lovingly reviewing the Gemara with him repeatedly until he understands it and then moving along with him and helping him develop into a great talmid chochom, but a kadosh does, because his focus is on the larger goal of spreading Torah.
A kadosh doesn’t tire after sitting with people and helping them through their problems. He doesn’t complain when he speaks to a young person for several hours, providing a comforting shoulder and calm direction, because he is focused on the goal of having another healthy person in Hashem’s army.
A kadosh has time and infinite patience for davening, learning and bentching, because he knows that he is studying Hashem’s words and he knows that he is connecting with the Creator.
A kadosh sees himself as part of a greater group, connected with all, and seeking to bring the world and all he is connected with to a better place.
Rabbi Isaac Schmidman was a Slabodka talmid who came to America on behalf of the glorious yeshiva. While here raising money for the bastion of Torah, he noticed the situation of chinuch in this country. It was almost non-existent. But because he was focused on the larger goal, he also noticed the potential for change.
He stayed in New York and opened Yeshiva Toras Chaim, an elementary school, in Brownsville, then a major Jewish metropolis.
The novi Yirmiyohu (2:2) praises the willingness of Klal Yisroel to follow Hakadosh Boruch Hu into the desert. He proclaims, “Lechteich acharai bamidbar be'eretz lo zirua.” Hashem says, “I remember the chesed of your youth as you followed Me into the desert, to a land that is not planted.”
Rabbi Schmidman would explain this in an alternative fashion, noting that there are times when a person encounters a land where “lo zirua,” the “no” is firmly planted. It is a place where negativity and pessimism are all the rage. He would say that there is a special reward for people who don’t succumb to the negative mindset, but forge ahead.
The good rabbi was describing the America he encountered many decades ago. Religious immigrant parents, even those with beards and peyos, had given up on having children who would follow in their footsteps. It was widely accepted that Torah Judaism was but a European memory that would never take root in this country. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy and millions of Jews were lost forever.
Rabbi Schmidman went against the rage, opened a yeshiva and convinced parents to enroll their children in a religious school. Because he didn’t give in to the negative atmosphere, he was able to educate hundreds of children to follow in the path of their parents and grandparents.
Rabbi Binyomin Kamenetzky, a rebbi in that school, appreciated the lesson and went off on his own to a different land of “lo zirua,” establishing a similar school in the Five Towns of Long Island. The area was home to many Jews, but there were not even ten shomrei Shabbos with whom to form a minyan. He would often tell me of his reception in Woodmere, where a Jew like him was unwanted.
With emunah, bitachon, Torah and wisdom, he plowed ahead. With his goal firmly implanted, nothing could deter him. He wasn’t in it for himself. He didn’t do it for glory. There was no one around, but he wasn’t lonely. There was no support, but he wasn’t poor. He was bringing Torah to a place that had never welcomed it before. He was bringing it to a midbar, and he knew that it was only a matter of time before it would sprout and give fruit. The name of the school, Toras Chaim, meaning the Living Torah, defined him, as the Torah gave him life. His goal to spread that life and spirit empowered him and made a desert bloom.
Rabbi Kamenetzky passed away this past Erev Shabbos. When you think of what the Five Towns is today, think of him and his wife, two pioneers, young in age and spirit but old in their approach and worldview, who won over family after family, student after student, one soul and then another and another.
It can be done. We can do it. Kedoshim tihiyu. Stay focused on Hashem, not yourself. Stay focused on making the world a better place, on spreading Torah and kedusha, and you shall succeed.
I remember how Rabbi Kamenetzky helped me when I was starting out. He extended himself for me, introduced me to people, and did whatever he could to encourage me along the path of helping causes of Torah. He never asked for anything in return. There was nothing in it for him, besides helping add another young man to the cadre of people who could help realize the goal of “umolah ha’aretz dei’a es Hashem.” Every time I met him, he would smile at his “investment,” and I would let him know that I had not forgotten those early days when he would spend time with me.
Last week also saw the passing of Mrs. Devorah Sherer, wife of Rabbi Moshe Sherer, who assumed the leadership of Agudas Yisroel of America at a rough time. The organization had a rich history, but, it appeared, not much of a future. He tried to get it going, but it seemed like the task was too daunting and he almost gave up. The gedolim of the time urged him to keep at it, to see beyond the cynicism and doubt. Believe in the goal, they told him, and you will succeed and the Agudah will come alive here.
With his graciousness and inspired leadership, he would, but that's only half the story. The other half was virtually unseen, the essence of a bas melech penima.
Mrs. Sherer gave the ultimate gift to her people. Her husband would be surrounded by people and she was hanging slightly back, content to let him be the center of attention. She looked on with a half-smile, her donation to the cause.
These were people, the Kamenetzkys, the Sherers, and others like them, whose kedusha - a Divine ability to see bigger, to ignore what appears to be reality, and to touch a distant dream - gave us the vibrant frum life we now take for granted. They kept their eyes on the goal, enabling them to withstand the many obstacles and thus rise above the challenges.
Someone who cares about Hashem and His people is a kadosh, because the decisions he makes aren’t guided by personal negius or petty calculations, but by the one essential truth. That is kedusha.
A kadosh is made of chomer and tzurah, just like everyone else, but his tzurah – spirituality – rules over his chomer – physicality. His chomer and chumrius is subservient to his nefesh and neshoma. His life is spiritual and consumed with big and important things. He is not a slave to pettiness and silliness, therefore, he is a kadosh. Small things don’t get in his way. He remains focused on the goals set for him in Parshas Kedoshim.
That is why this parsha of Kedoshim Tihiyu was said by Moshe himself behakheil, to everyone. Every person can be a kadosh. Every person can study Parshas Kedoshim and follow its dictates. “Rov gufei Torah teluyim bah,” most of the Torah is here, because if you live a life of tzurah, with your nefesh and neshoma in the driver’s seat, you won’t be held down by chumrius, the insignificant things that prevent you from becoming a kadosh.
Rav Shmuel Rozovsky would tell about a group of bochurim he knew in Grodno who worried that since the whole of creation is dependent upon Torah being learned, it stands to reason that the world is endangered when Torah learning decreases. These boys felt a responsibility to help save the world during those times and formed a group to learn on Friday afternoons.
While many others were busy preparing for Shabbos, they learned, stopping close to Shabbos and hurriedly getting ready to greet Shabbos.
Rav Shmuel concluded his account saying, “And even if they didn’t take as long to make hachanos for Shabbos as some of the others... oif zei hubben mir geshmekt kedushas Shabbos, you could sense the holiness of Shabbos upon them.”
This is the kedusha he sensed, the focus, the diligence and the vision that allowed them to see beyond their little town, viewing a wider world and their role within it.
Kedusha is attained by taking the steps to grow and seeing far. Those young yeshiva bochurim saw so far and deep that they merited the stamp of kadosh. They sought to change the world by changing themselves in a most literal way.
Kedoshim Tihiyu. Seize opportunities to accomplish goodness and become a better person. If you live that way, you will always be beholden to the gufei Torah. Before you engage in any type of action you will always stop to consider whether what you are about to do brings you closer to Hashem, or further from Him.
Kedoshim Tihiyu. The Torah wants us to live our lives focused on achieving that goal. Nothing we encounter is insignificant, for each step we take either brings us closer to our goal or further from it. To reach the goal of being a kadosh, our steps must all be suffused with kedusha.
Every interaction with another person is an opportunity to show whether you are a kadosh. If you present yourself properly, carry yourself with dignity, dress in clean proper clothing, and speak like a mentch, then you are mekadeish sheim Hashem and demonstrate that you are not caught up in the vagaries of the moment.
If you have time for other people, if you hold the door for an older person, then you show that you are on a higher plane. If you exhibit common courtesy when you drive, if you stop to let someone park, pull out of a parking space or cross, or you give a different car the right of way, you show virtues of kadosh. You demonstrate that you believe Hashem is with you and watching you, and you behave the way Parshas Kedoshim indicates you should.
If you’re dealing with your chavrusah, or a delivery boy, or a salesman in a store, talk to him the way the Mesilas Yeshorim tells you to, because you know that kedusha is the highest level you can attain, and you know that you get there by being a person of tzurah, of Torah, and that means acting in a way that brings you closer to Hashem.
Every day of Sefirah, we take a step forward towards Torah and tzurah and a step back from chomer and chumrius. We do that by following the parsha of Kedoshim Tihiyu, following its mitzvos and remembering what our goal is.
Money is very important. We need it to pay bills and to live. But there is more to life than making money. It is a tool, not a goal. We live to set goals, reach them, and seek success in things that are really important. Help a person and you’ve created a world. Smile at someone and you’re one step closer to your goal. Rid your heart of hatred, don’t be involved in machlokes, pursue peace and constructive enterprises, and your life will be enriched.
Kedoshim Tihiyu and v’ohavta lereiacha kamocha are both in the same parsha. They are interdependent. If you are a kadosh, then you love every Jew, you appreciate each person for what they are, and you embrace them even if they aren’t on your level, because they are children of Hashem, just as you are.
If you understand “mah chovaso ba’olamo,” what the world is really about and why we are here, then you can love others, and you aren’t jealous, intolerant and judgmental.
And you can be a kadosh.