Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A New Start

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Chassidim recount that the Komarna Rebbe related that he heard from Rav Mordechai of Chernobyl that it is known that the Baal Shem Tov was told by Eliyohu Hanovi that every time one Jew wishes another a kesivah vachasimah tovah, malochim suggest that he is meritorious.

Perhaps we can understand this by quoting the Rama (at the end of siman 582), who says that on Rosh Hashanah, people should wish each other, “Leshanah tovah tikoseiv. May you be inscribed for a good year.”

The Mogein Avrohom (ibid.) states that the wish should be “Leshanah tovah tikoseiv veseichoseim,” adding the wish that they not only be written for a good year, but also that their good fate should be sealed. He explains that this is on account of the obligation to view others as tzaddikim, who are immediately sealed on Rosh Hashanah for a good year.

The Taz (ibid., 4) says that while we should view others as tzaddikim, we should view ourselves as beinonim, referring to the Gemara in Rosh Hashanah (16b) famously quoted by the Rambam in Hilchos Teshuvah.

A person who views others as tzaddikim indicates that he has undergone teshuvah and can view others favorably. Someone who wishes others, “Leshanah tovah tikoseiv veseichoseim,” is no longer encumbered by middos ra’os, and the malochim sing the praises of such a person.

Humility is an indication that the process of teshuvah has been completed. How do we get there?

The Gemara in Maseches Taanis (30b) discusses the concept that the most joyous days for Klal Yisroel are the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur. The Gemara explains that it is simple to understand the greatness of Yom Kippur, because on that day, Jews can be forgiven for their sins and the second set of Luchos was delivered to man.  

It would seem that the two attributes of the day are intertwined. Not only was the re-giving of the Luchos on Yom Kippur a sign that Klal Yisroel had been forgiven for the sin of the Eigel, but the power of the Luchos is the power of the Torah. It is the Torah that raises man and brings him closer to Hashem, allowing his sins to be forgiven.

A person who dedicates his life to Torah becomes sanctified, as his life takes on added significance. Just as teshuvah allowed the dor hamidbor to recover after sinning with the Eigel, it allows the sinner in our day to return to Hashem’s embrace.

We seek to become closer to Hashem. Torah is the prime method of accomplishing that.

As we approach the Yom Hadin and ponder the awesomeness of the day of judgment, we also engage in teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah to remove the barrier that separates us from Hashem.

Following the shofar blasts of Malchuyos, Zichronos and Shofaros, we ask Hashem to look at us “im kevonim im ka’avodim.” Either view us as children and pity us as a father pities his offspring, or look at us as slaves and recognize that our gaze is fixed upon You until we find favor in Your eyes and are judged favorably. 

Thus, we recite twice daily the kappitel of L’Dovid, for it refers to our bitachon in Hashem, “ori veyishi,” our light and hope. Even as others abandon us, seek to entrap us, and declare war on us, “bezos ani voteiach,” we maintain our faith that Hashem will assist us. During the Yomim Noraim period, as the Soton seeks to prevent us from getting closer to Hashem and disparages us before Him, we believe that he will look upon us with kindness and love.

Rosh Hashanah is the day when our fates are decided. The day is awesome and frightening. Everything that will happen in the coming year is decided on this day.

With gratitude for the good bestowed upon us in the past year, we stand at the onset of the new year like poor people, begging for sustenance. We seek sources of merit that will shield us from the din, from anguish and agony, and from destruction and despair.

We can follow a healthy diet and do regular exercise, but there is no guarantee for good health. Expenses are so high that many people are unable to make ends meet. People seek to find happiness in their lives and aren’t able to. People look for menuchas hanefesh, shidduchim, nachas, good health, and more, knowing that on Rosh Hashanah our fates for the upcoming year are decided.

We promise to mend our ways. We say that we have examined our actions of the previous year and will do what we must to merit the gift of another year. 

How do we clean our slate and earn a better year?

How does a person arrive at teshuvah? Doing so requires conducting a serious cheshbon hanefesh. We have to subject our deepest selves to scrutiny, and review every aspect of our conduct through the year. Then we set about correcting our character flaws, and rectifying the mistakes and errors of judgments we made.

We think about the times we were lackadaisical about performing a mitzvah, and if there was an aveirah, we must remove those stains and resolve to be more serious about the mitzvos and the Torah.

We emerge from the process changed. Teshuvah is humbling, as it reminds us of our place in creation and prompts a greater appreciation of Hashem’s role in one’s life.

Teshuvah brings us back to where we were before we sinned. It sets us on the path we should have been on and provides us the energy we require to be properly and thoroughly engaged.

Teshuvah triggers an outpouring of sincere tefillah. With a fresh awareness of how small and helpless we are in the face of life’s frightening precariousness comes a spontaneous outpouring of tefillah. We proclaim Hashem’s supremacy over all of existence, we thank Him for His daily kindnesses, and we beg that we merit His continued generosity.

Rav Aryeh Finkel, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Mir in Kiryat Sefer, was chazzan at the Mir in Yerushalayim for Mussaf on the Yomim Noraim. One year, as everyone waited for him to begin, he stood in a corner speaking with a young bochur in learning. It was a strange site, for not only was everyone waiting, but annually, prior to stepping up to the amud, Rav Finkel would sit emotionally engrossed in preparing himself for the tefillah and nobody would dare approach him.

Some began motioning to the rosh yeshiva that it was time to begin Mussaf, but he ignored them. Finally, he told the boy that someone was waiting for him and they would continue their conversation after davening.

He later explained that the boy was new to the yeshiva and had no idea that Rav Finkel was the baal tefillah for Mussaf. He had approached Rav Aryeh with a question after laining and Rav Aryeh didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so he answered the question and a conversation ensued. The rosh yeshiva feared that if he would interrupt the bochur and tell him that the entire yeshiva was waiting for him, the boy would be very embarrassed. Therefore, he continued speaking to him until he decided that he could tell him that someone was waiting, without causing embarrassment.

Such is the thought process of a person who has perfected his middos, performed teshuvah, and is respectful of everyone and their feelings. An onov considers others in a way that a baal gaavah cannot.

Middos tovos and proper ethics are prerequisites for teshuvah, for ga’avah prevents a person from recognizing his shortcomings as well as his dependence on Hashem. A conceited person is not able to reach the level of understanding required to draw himself closer to his Master. He wallows in sin and self-indulgence even as he goes through the motions of religiosity.

Ga’avah derails an individual from properly preparing for Rosh Hashanah and from becoming a special person.

Ga’avah prevents a person from helping others. An arrogant individual looks down upon others and views them askance, with a measure of scorn and hate. His negative middah keeps him from using his gifts to help others. He views others as somehow deficient and inferior to himself.

This is what the Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 7:8) refers to when he writes “baalei teshuvah darkan lihiyois shifeilim va’anavim b’yoser.”

In the face of the yeitzer hora’s maneuvers, we have to offset the many challenges that prevent us from becoming better people. One of the most effective strategies, the Gemara tells us, is chochmah.

The posuk in Mishlei states, “Emor lechochmah achosi at.” The Gemara in Maseches Brachos (17a) explains that the ultimate purpose of chochmah is teshuvah and maasim tovim.

In order to overcome the yeitzer hora, we have to strengthen our ability to use chochmah. Only with chochmah can we subdue the yeitzer, as the posuk (Mishlei 24) states, “Betachbulos ta’aseh lecha milchamah,” in fighting your enemy - the yeitzer hora - you have to use chochmah to outwit him.

Chochmah is acquired by learning Torah, which touches our inner core, raises us and puts us back on course, following the literal translation of the word teshuvah, to return.

The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 11a) states that Rosh Hashanah is the day when Yosef was freed from the Egyptian jail, as well as the day that marked the end of crushing slavery for the Jews in Mitzrayim. Thus, in addition to being a day of judgment, Rosh Hashanah is also a day of redemption. On this day, we can all be released from enslavement to the yeitzer hora and to the web of desires that ensnares us. The avodas hayom and the day’s built-in redemptive power can return us to an earlier, more ennobled state.

Once a person reaches that higher level of spiritual awareness brought on by teshuvah, he realizes that he is not superior to other people, who were created just as he was, b’tzelem Elokim. His eyes open to the plight of the many people in this world who are in need of assistance, evoking his sympathy and compassion. As part of the spiritual growth triggered by teshuvah and tefillah, he has a growing awareness that it is not enough to care for himself and satisfy his own indulgences. He must share his blessings with others.

The baal teshuvah has attained a new level of contentment reserved for those who are humble and walk in the path of Hashem.

When teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah flow naturally, a person indicates that he has reached the level of observance required to prevail in the din of Rosh Hashanah. Thus, with our hearts focused on implementing the lessons embedded in these words, we proclaim, “Useshuvah usefillah utzedakah maavirin es ro’a hagezeirah.”

We endeavor to reach that lofty level and find favor in Hashem’s eyes, so that He will bless us all with a kesivah vachasimah tovah.

But then there are those who, as hard as they try, feel that they have not been able to return to the desired pure and exalted state. What are they to do? Should they give up? Is it possible that teshuvah wasn’t meant for them?

The novi Yirmiyahu speaks to such people in the haftorah we read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

The novi proclaims (Yirmiyahu 31:17), “Shamoa shomati Efraim misnodeid. I have heard Efraim moaning. He is saying, ‘Yisartani va’ivaseir k’eigel lo lumod. You have rebuked me and I have accepted Your punishment like an untrained calf. Hashiveini ve’ashuvah ki Atah Hashem Elokoy. Bring me back and I shall return.’”

The Bais Haleivi, in his peirush al haTorah in Parshas Vayishlach, as an addendum printed on the bottom of the page, offers a fascinating explanation of the posuk. He says that Klal Yisroel asks Hashem to help us return to Him with teshuvah. We say that we are k’eigel lo lomud, like an uneducated calf.

The Bais Haleivi explains that we say to Hashem, “Please don’t whip us. Don’t punish us, for we know not of what we do. We have received so many punishments and reminders to adhere to the proper path, but we are untrained and lost. Hashiveini. Please, Hashem, bring me back. Return me to the proper path, without the whip. Show me the way. Show me where I should be going and how I should behave, ve’ashuvah, and I will return and remain on the path You have charted for me.”

Teshuvah is for everyone. We all want to return to Torah and behave as Hashem intended for us. At times, it is difficult for us to right ourselves and we require painful reminders.

There is a concept in halacha of kofin oso ad sheyomar rotzeh ani (Rambam, Hilchos Geirushin 2:20). Even if a Jew proclaims that he does not want to follow halacha, if he is beaten and submits and declares that he will do what is incumbent upon him, we accept his declaration. The Rambam (ibid.) explains that “rotzeh hu la’asos kol hamitzvos ulehisracheik min ha’aveiros, veyitzro hu shetakfo, vekivon shehukah ad shetoshash yitzro veomer rotzeh ani…” Every Jew wants to observe the mitzvos, but his yeitzer hora overcomes him. Therefore, when the evil inclination is beaten down and the person says that he wants to do the mitzvah, we accept his declaration as if he willingly observed the halacha.

Everyone essentially wants to do teshuvah and return to Hashem’s embrace, but some find it difficult to overcome their habits and the yeitzer hora, which leads them astray. They feel removed from kedusha and Torah and fear that they can never rid themselves of their addictions and sins. If they would only call out, “Hashiveini! Hashem, help me. Bring me back,” then ve’ashuvah, they would be able to return. No one should ever give up on themselves, and we should never give up on anyone.

Zeh hayom techilas ma’asecha. Rosh Hashanah is not just the commemoration of the first day of creation, but an opportunity to experience creation anew, and in the process renew our own personal circumstances.

Rav Yisroel Salanter questioned why Rosh Hashanah precedes Yom Kippur. Would it not be better, he asked, for us to first cleanse ourselves through teshuvah and then celebrate Hashem’s dominion over the universe? Would it not be more glorious for our King if His subjects, who join in His coronation, are pure of sin and able to indicate that they are fully devoted to His will?

Perhaps the answer lies in the essence of Rosh Hashanah. This day proclaims that nothing can be counted on to remain in the coming year as it was in the previous year. Just because it was that way in the past does not mean that it will continue that way in the future.

On Rosh Hashanah, we daven for a good new year, with new beginnings that will improve our standing over the past year. We seek to merit a year of positive developments for ourselves and our families, keeping sadness and failure in the past.

We examine ourselves and, instead of being upset that we are not as good as we would like to be and were not able to realize all of our goals, we recognize that just because last year didn’t turn out as perfect as we would have wanted, that doesn’t mean that we are doomed to remain in a lesser state.

Hayom haras olam. Today is the day of creation. Not just back when the world was created 5,778 years ago, but also today and now. Hayom yaamid bamishpot kol yetzurei olamim. Today, the forces of creation are strongly present, as Hashem judges all His creatures and decides what type of year they will have. The day of Rosh Hashanah marks a new start for everyone.

Thus, the teshuvah process begins with the days of Rosh Hashanah, reminding us that we can walk a new path. Rosh Hashanah precedes Yom Kippur because it is the day when we begin anew. The realization of the new beginning provides us with the confidence that we can undertake teshuvah and make ourselves whole once again.

Rosh Hashanah is the gift that launches us onto the path culminating with Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur. It is this awareness that allows us to believe that we can change. Everything can change. We can do it over.

In the shofar’s plaintive wail, we hear echoes of the blasts that were sounded at Har Sinai, when Klal Yisroel was formed into the nation of Hakadosh Boruch Hu. The shofar then proclaimed a new beginning. The world had reached its destiny. Ahead was much hope and promise.

The shofar was also blown at Yovel. When we blow it on Rosh Hashanah, it hints at the independence of the Yovel year, the collective song of freedom chanted by so many released slaves going home to begin life anew. The earth, as well, joins in the process, as land returns to its original owners in Yovel. We are reminded that we can all start again. We can get a fresh start, a new lease on life.

Teshuvah is how we climb back to where we belong.

We slip. We make mistakes. We commit sins. We don’t do mitzvos properly.

Hakadosh Boruch Hu gives us Rosh Hashanah, when everything starts over. We are given the ability to make a new beginning and to start from scratch.

To be happy, even if we were sad.

To be upbeat, even if we were depressed.

To learn well, even if we didn’t last year.

To scrub ourselves clean from sin and muck, from the dirt and silliness we got involved in.

To press reset on our lives, so that we can begin anew.

May we merit new beginnings and hearing the blasts of the great shofar announcing the arrival of Moshiach.

Leshanah tovah tikoseivu veseichoseimu.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Exploring Roots in a Bygone World

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Here I am, last Wednesday afternoon, at Newark Airport, waiting at the gate for a plane. What, you ask, is the big deal?

I am waiting for a Lufthansa flight. I have never flown on the German airline and I am generally averse to all things German. But I’m flying to Lithuania, and that’s the way the arrangements were made. 
I have never been to Lita. Until now, it has been a mythical place, something from the past, often referred to with reverence and varying degrees of holiness.
I’ve been hearing about Lita for as long as I can remember. I am a first-generation American. My mother was born there. Although my father was born in Massachusetts, he always viewed himself as hailing from Kovno. 
And here I am, finally about to connect to my roots and breathe Lithuanian air. I am not foolish enough to ignore the reality of the number of Jews slaughtered by Lithuanians during the war and during the 700 years that Jews lived in that country. Although there were far fewer pogroms and anti-Semitic crimes and atrocities there compared to elsewhere, I have no illusions about the country and its people. Despite that, Lita has a calling for me. 
Think about how much the lives of today’s yeshiva people are influenced by Lita. We are all about tradition and mesorah. Much of our mesorah can be traced to there. 
The Vilna Gaon, hailed by the Chazon Ish as a Rishon, has influenced our views on many things, especially the way we learn, pasken, and conduct ourselves. Rav Chaim Volozhiner, his prime talmid, founded the first yeshiva as we know it and authored Nefesh Hachaim, a blueprint of Jewish thought. 
Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector, the towering giant who was the rov of Kovno, was viewed in his time as the leader of all Torah Jews. His Talmudic brilliance earned him universal respect and his kindness won him everyone’s love. 
Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky was the king of Litvishe bnei Torah and the Jewish people. Nothing happened without his involvement. His home was the central address for difficult halachic queries, Talmudic discussions, charitable endeavors, and everything else on the Jewish agenda.
The rabbonim in the shtetlach were giants, one a bigger gaon than the next. They lived in financial poverty, but amidst spiritual richness. 
Infused with a love for Torah from a young age, the townspeople spent much time in the local shul, davening and studying to whatever degree they were able.
My mother’s father was a rov in a small shtetel named Vashki, a position he inherited from his father-in-law, a talmid of Volozhin. 
The people and rabbonim were known to be unfailingly humble, oftentimes serious, and basically good. Many went on to earn much fame, as word of their brilliance spread, by word of mouth and by virtue of the seforim and divrei Torah that they published.
So much of the Torah that was replanted after the war can be traced to the yeshivos of Lita, such as Slabodka, Kletzk, Ponovezh, Mir and Telz. So much of the Torah we study is from Brisk and its great talmidim. So many of the stories we grew up with were about gedolei Lita. Brisk, Kletzk, Ponovezh, Radin, Vilna, and Kovno are names known to every school child. 
The Chofetz Chaim and Rav Elchonon, the Bais Halevi and Rav Chaim, Rav Meir Simcha, Rav Shimon, the Alter of Slabodka, the Alter of Kelm, Rav Doniel and Rav Yeruchom, Rav Boruch Ber and Rav Naftoli… So many giants of that world guided our nation and raised talmidim who led our way in uncharted waters. 
Lita… Where would we be without you?
• • • • •
I find my seat and take out the seforim and books I brought along for the trip. First one I read is Rav Elchonon Wasserman’s Ikvisa D’Moshicha. Rabbi Ephraim Oshry’s Annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry is too sad to read. I usually take it out on Tisha B’Av. I brought it along for the trip and begin to read about the cities and towns of Lita and how thousands met their end across the country. And I wonder: Why am I going? Why in the world would I go to the place where so many were butchered to death for no reason other than being Jewish?
But I read on. 
I read of what was and how it ended. I want to grasp on to what was. I want to walk on those streets our ancestors walked on. I want to be where Jews once scurried about, buying food for Shabbos. I want to stand in front of the shuls and imagine little Yiddelach running to daven and to learn Ein Yaakov. 
I want to stand at the corner where Torah went forth to all of Klal Yisroel. I want to paint in my mind’s eye the majestic Slabodka Yeshiva that stood on that spot until its students were ripped out and killed 76 years ago last month. 
I want to be in Kovno and feel the golden and sometimes acidic pen of my great-grandfather, Rav Yaakov Lipschutz, and be inspired never to quit or compromise. I want to find the secret of his genius. I want to tap into the gadlus of Rav Yitzchok Elchonon and the greats of the ages. I want to feel it. I want it to impact me. 
I will be staying in Kovno and I hope it will. 
I have another book with me. My friend gave it to me when he drove me to the airport. It’s for tourists. The book is enlightening, but also depressing. It contains a brief history of each town. They all end the same way. A kever achim. Every town has a kever achim, where the townspeople were buried when the Nazis marched in. 
Lithuania was overrun by Germany in the early stages of the war, before the death machines were put in place in the concentration camps. The Jews were taken to the outskirts of the town, shot, and thrown into a pit. They were the lucky ones. At least they were buried. 
People come every once in a while and take pictures of the monument, shake their heads, shed some tears, and move on to the next town, where they do the same. 
How tragic. 
I put away the books, learn the Daf Yomi, read something on the parsha, and try to sleep.
Who can sleep on a trip like this?
• • • • •
After an uneventful flight, we land in Frankfurt and wait for the connecting flight to Vilna. 
The anticipation increases.
Flying to Vilna? Do planes actually land there? Is it a real place with an airport and not just the mythical subject of much lore?
We walk through the hot airport, which is teeming with people. I look in their eyes, trying to determine which ones are Germans and which ones are just passing through. Many don’t seem bad at all, and I’m sure that the vast majority are fine people.
People say much time has passed and things have changed. They buy and enjoy luxury German vehicles. After having been there, I can safely say I’d never purchase one. 
Call me a golus Jew if you will, but after a few minutes, I begin identifying the Aryans - blond, serious, no smiles, with a certain smugness and self confidence. Yes, they are the perfect race and they know it. They stare at me. What are you doing alive and in my country? How dare you? 
I stare back just to make them feel uncomfortable. They stare back at me with a menacing look and I thank Hashem that our encounter is taking place in a public place and not on an empty street of some picturesque small town. They give me that look again and again. It haunts me. 
No, they are not all that way. Most are not. But I look at those who are and want to ask them if they would join the SS, and if their father and grandfather did. I think the better of it and move on to my gate, where I wait for my flight to mythical Vilna and a taxi ride to Kovno, where my grandparents lived and fought many battles for Torah.
• • • • •
Our flight is announced. We get on a bus for a ride to the plane. I take a window seat opposite the door to the rear of the empty bus. I watch the bus fill up. The seat next to me remains vacant. People get on the bus, look at the seat, look at me and say to themselves, “No way.” The seat remains empty. Elderly people get on. They look longingly at the seat and shake their heads. They’d rather stand than sit next to me. And so it goes. Right before the bus leaves the gate, an elderly couple hobbles on. The husband motions with his steely blue eyes to the wife to sit down. She shakes her head. Nein. But she can barely stand. He tells her to sit and she does. I smile and say hi. And that was the end of the conversation. 
(When I took the bus on my return route after the flight from Vilna landed in Frankfurt, I tried the little test once more. This time, as packed as the bus was from the plane to the terminal, every person who got on looked at me, with hate and spite, and decided that they’d rather stand than sit next to the Jew.)
I look around and try to pick out the Lithuanians from the Germans. The Lithuanians have a Jewish appearance. Just put a yarmulka on them and they would be counted for a minyan wherever they go.
The bus arrives at the plane taking us to Vilna. I climb up the steps and I am greeted by a smiling stewardess. “So, you must be Mr. Lipschutz,” she says with a smirk. I smile and say, “How did you guess?”
I make my way to my seat and sit down. It is near the front. People walk by as they search for their seats. They look at me, some stare, and move on. I want to ask them what they are staring at. I know the answer, so I don’t. I stare back. 
I know how it feels to be black.
• • • • •
I had come with my brother-in-law, Rav Meir Gelley, to participate in the chanukas habayis of the first mikvah in Kovno since the horrible events of the war. 
Mr. Zev Stern from London does business in Kovno and noticed that many Israeli students come to the city to attend its medical school. He established a moadon community center, where the students would be able to fraternize with Jews. There would be outreach, kosher food, Shabbos and Yom Tov celebrations, and hopefully, one day, Torah classes.
His dream was realized. The center is run by Rav Moshe Schonfeld, a talmid of Rav Moshe Shapiro, and his wife. The mikvah is an indication of the success of their efforts. 
At a location just one block away from the house of Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector, a property was purchased and renovated, with a gorgeous mikvah inside. It was dedicated partly in memory of my mother a”h, who personified the holiness and purity of Litvishe women. She was born in a Lithuanian shtetel where her father served as rov and carried its memory with dignity. 
It is an emotional occasion as I quietly think about her and the renaissance the mikvah represents on a road my great-grandfather had definitely spent much time.
Later, there is a festive dinner, with what seems like 150 Israeli guests, plus a few locals and some tables of people who have come to mark the historic occasion. The Stern family is there to celebrate with their parents, as are Mr. and Mrs. Leiby Levinson, who dedicated the mikvah in memory of Mrs. Levinson’s father. 
Dayan Broide from Bnei Brak delivers a fiery drosha and the students hang on to his every word. 
A concert follows. I leave. Tomorrow is another day.
• • • • •
On Friday, we visited sights of Kovno and Slabodka. It was a moving, emotional, heartrending experience. It was also spiritually fulfilling in a strange sense. We started at the kever of Rav Yitzchok Elchonon, whose remains were moved to the cemetery of the city of Alexot from Kovno, when the large historic cemetery there was threatened.
Due to my family’s connection to Rav Yitzchok Elchonon, being at his kever was, in a certain sense, coming full circle for me. Here I was, “meeting him” for the first time, asking On High that we be blessed in the merit of his Torah and many activities on behalf of the Jewish people, which were aided by my great-grandfather.
The setting is serene. You glance around and see the memorial erected on a seemingly empty site. It is only upon getting closer that you see the words on the memorial and learn that untold numbers of victims of the cruelty that transpired in the Kovno Ghetto, who, as the monument says, “zeinen gepainikt un gebrent, who were tortured and burned,” are buried in that area.
We have all heard stories of the Holocaust and of the millions who were killed. This burial place of Kovno’s finest citizens was the first “kever achim” I was at. It is hard to describe the experience. That awful period was always real, but now it is more real than ever. 
Kol demei achicha tzo’akim min ho’adama.” The cries of the innocent victims still ring out, reaching Heaven. All I hear is a still silence. All I feel is a still silence. The stillness is overwhelming and deafening. 
We move on to the kever of Rav Boruch Horowitz, whose son was ripped out of the Slabodka Yeshiva and murdered. More sadness. The enormity of the tragedy is overwhelming.
Nearby is the kever of the D’var Avrohom, Rav Avrohom Duber Kahane Shapiro, last rov of Kovno before the war. He led his people through the period of the ghetto until he succumbed to illness there at the age of 73. He is buried in the Alexot cemetery.
Every cemetery is a sad place. This one seems to carry more grief than is possible to grasp. And then you come upon another opening, another kever achim. This one contains the remains of the Jews of another locale. A marker memorializes them and indicates that on one side lie those who were killed, and on the other are those who died of natural causes and had been laid to rest in the town’s cemetery. They were all brought here. May they be awakened soon at techiyas hameisim. 
We then visit the Greeneh Barg Bais Olam, where Rav Yitzchok Elchonon was originally buried. The cemetery is huge and the communists were going to destroy it. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, he aborted that plan and Kovno’s dead Jews were spared. 
A large, sprawling site, it is not well-maintained. Matzeivos are knocked over and even those still standing are hard or impossible to read.
We located the remains of the ohel that had stood atop Rav Yitzchok Elchonon’s kever. Around it are members of his family, including his wife, his son Binyomin, and his daughter-in-law. The son who succeeded him as rov was moved with him to Alexot. 
I know that my great-grandfather was also buried near him, but I cannot locate his grave. 
We say some kappitlach of Tehillim and leave for our next stop. 
We approach the Ninth Fort, where thousands of our brethren were shot to death in front of open graves, most famous among them Rav Elchonon Wasserman, the towering student of the Chofetz Chaim. 
At the grassy knoll of that infamous fort, I heard the voice of Rav Elchonon as he spoke to the Jews who were about to be killed. He told them that they were being offered as korbanos on behalf of the Jews of America. “In the merit of your sacrifice, they will be spared and will flourish.” 
So many years later, if you listen carefully in the awful, bitter, stillness, you can hear him. Then you hear the voices of the korbanos calling out from the ground. They beg the American Jews for their korbanos not to have been in vain. “Don’t let go. Don’t fall prey to temptation. Don’t forget who you are and where you are from. We died for you. Please don’t ever forget that.”
Thousands met their end right where I now stand. 
Rabbonim, roshei yeshiva, shopkeepers, shoemakers, yeshiva bochurim, older women, young girls, mothers and fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers. They were brought here and shot. 
If you listen carefully, you can hear echoes of gunshots and cries of Shema Yisroel.
Only a heart of stone is not moved here.
You begin to wrap your mind around the fact that this country is literally saturated with Jewish blood.
The Jewish presence is marked throughout the country. All in the past. This town’s Jews were wiped out here. A cemetery stood here. There was once a shul here, a house, a yeshiva. Now? It’s all in the past, gone for all time. 
From there, we go to a large house. It occupies a corner and has two addressees, Karnevas 12 and Panera 9. The basement served as the office of the Slabodka Yeshiva. On the main floor resided Rav Avrohom Grodzensky, who was later killed by the Nazis. Rav Elchonon Wasserman sought refuge here when Baranovitch was overrun. Someone sneers at me from an upper floor window. For all I know, it was in that very room that Rav Elchonon stayed. I snap his picture and ignore him.
I head for the back of the house. It was from here that the martyred giant was taken by Lithuanian devils. He was learning with several bochurim when he was snatched and brought to the Ninth Fort.
I look at the flowers growing there now as if to cover up the awful crime that was committed. Once again, I am overwhelmed by the silence. I gaze again at the flowers and find them dark and ugly, nourished by the sitra acher.
I stand by that house and feel attached to it. I don’t want to leave. It calls out to me and says, “Stay! Stand here and give witness to the sins of humanity perpetrated at this site.” It says, “This is a place of holiness. Don’t be fooled.”
We cross the street and continue walking down Karnevas or, as it was known until the war, Yeshiva Gass. From nowhere, a dog begins to bark. I look up and see a large, ferocious canine on the steps of the house going wild as it watches us march down the street. Other hounds echo the first, and before we know it, from all sides, dogs are barking. It was the first and last time I heard dogs bark in that country. 
We approach the end of the block and the spot where the famed Slabodka Yeshiva stood before it was burnt to the ground by its evil neighbors. 
I was frozen at that corner. I felt a magnetic pull as I never felt before. I belonged there. My neshomah has roots at that corner, not only because my grandfather learned there and my dear father-in-law grew up in its shadow. It was a gravitational pull, a sense that I had been there before, that we had all been there before.
It is from that location that Torah and mussar went out to the world.
I sensed hundreds of bochurim rushing to and fro, and imagined them coming to the bais medrash from their nearby stanzias. Was I hallucinating or are their spirits still there, kidshom leshaatom vekidshom le’osid lavo? The Torah studied there and the mesirus nefesh exhibited on this spot will be there forever, benefitting us and providing for us sources of merit as we go about our daily battles. 
“Let’s go,” they tell me. “The time is late. Shabbos is coming. We must go.”
I think to myself, “The time is late. The golus is long. Too long. The world is dark. Too dark. We must go. The time for Moshiach to arrive will soon be here. We must ready ourselves. Let’s go and prepare.”
We walk back down that street and the many dogs that have been barking the entire time are finally satisfied. They tell each other that we are leaving and the street is silent once again. 
We drive to the formerly Jewish town of Zezmer to see an old wooden shul. It is now undergoing renovation. We step inside and are awed by its former majesty.
We get back into the car and make a sharp turn into a forest. We drive on a pockmarked earthen path through the trees and come to a clearing. Neat grass covers the site of a massacre. We read the monument erected there: “The Nazis and their helpers tortured and then buried half alive 2,200 Jewish men from the neighboring towns at this location.” Women and children were liquidated at a similar spot nearby. 
We learn that the monument has been defaced and destroyed several times, and the one that stands there now is not the original. Kind local authorities look after the hallowed spot and ensure that it remains a respectful area. 
We return to perfectly clean, neat, quiet Kovno and rush to get ready for Shabbos
More people have joined us now. Mr. Aron Wolfson, a leading supporter of the endeavor, has come to share in the nachas, as has Rav Yosef Chevroni of the Chevron Yeshiva in Yerushalayim, and others.
The Friday night Shabbos seudah was attended by many dozens of students. We were all one happy family, celebrating the gifts of Shabbos and Torah in a way that the city has not seen since the churban. What a beautiful site.
Shabbos morning, the crowd is sadly much smaller, as there are university classes to attend. Several students have become Shabbos observant and, at great risk to their grades, come to daven rather than going to school. Their mesirus nefesh is duly noted and appreciated.
I am called to the Torah for Levi. We are back. The first aliyah for a member of my family in this city since the liquidation of the Kovno Ghetto. 
Bittersweet, yes, but sweet nevertheless.
Shabbos was amazing, no doubt the largest, most festive meals and tefillos held here since the war.
On Sunday, we leave Kovno and head to Vilna. There is no time to stop at every significant place, but as we move through the bustling metropolis of Vilna, we are told that here Jews were killed, here was a shul, and here was something else of Jewish significance.
Here was a Jewish neighborhood. Here is the apartment where Rav Chaim Ozer lived. 
You just sit there alone in your thoughts, imagining the people on line out the door for an audience with the rabbon shel kol bnei hagolah. Chassanim and kallos seeking brachos, a broken almanah looking for moral and financial support, a rov from out-of-town with a serious dilemma, local askonim and some from far away seeking direction, yeshiva bochurim waiting to talk in learning with the father of all bnei Torah, and refugees looking for a place to rest their weary bodies. A bird’s-eye view of Klal Yisroel lined up on this Vilna street. 
How can you not be moved?
You stand at the kever of the Vilna Gaon and contemplate how this special neshamah learned all of Torah. Everything. And it sinks in that it is something that is possible for a human to accomplish.
Frightened by the holiness of the place, you say some kappitlach of Tehillim and pray for yourself and your loved ones, feeling sure that your pleas will be answered.
Right nearby is the kever containing the ashes of the Ger Tzedek, whose story comes alive in your head. Mesirus nefesh for Yiddishkeit. Again, the heights that man can reach overwhelms you and the niggun he sang on the way to his death plays in your head.
Vilna, the Yerushalayim of Lita, is now a bais hakevaros, comprised of a few empty buildings and markers, and a disturbing bust of the great Gaon where his house stood until it was demolished by the communists.
The kever of Rav Chaim Ozer is nearby, as is the gravesite of Rav Itzele Ponovezher. They were moved here ahead of the destruction of the old bais olam by the Russians. 
We said kappitlach of Tehillim, asking to be aided in the merit of the great men who lie there. I merited to publish some of Reb Itzel’s Torah and asked that it be a zechus for me and my family.
We drive to the old cemetery, where so many are buried. The vast area was bulldozed by the communists to erase any memory of the Jews who were laid to rest there. The kever of the rebbi of bnei Torah everywhere, Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz, was located a few years ago and a matzeivah was erected. We daven there. It is the only grave in the cemetery that is marked. 
Oy, meh haya lonu. 
I wonder again why I am here. Why did I come to visit such an awful place?
• • • • •
Vilna is quite unlike Kovno. While Kovno is quiet and muted, a large city that feels as if it has had its air taken out of it and lost its spirit, Vilna is full of energy and people. There was a large marathon when we visited, and people were out cheering and strolling. While the people in Kovno seemed reserved and respectful, those in Vilna looked bigger and stronger, many with a menacing look as they gazed at us. They were louder and more boisterous. The city has life and spirit.
Kovno-ites look down on them and say that they are like Russians. Far be it from me to weigh in on this, but there does seem to be a stronger Russian influence in the capital city.
There is a large church at the entrance of the old city of Vilna that seems to have major religious significance to the locals. As we passed it, the tour guide became quite apprehensive and asked me to please remove my hat. I refused. She said that it was quite dangerous to go with a hat there as a Jew. I told her that enough Jewish blood was spilled in that small area, and if they are offended that I walk as a proud Jew in a place they had thought was Judenrein, then tough luck on them. Let them spit at me, I said. I can handle it.
She said that it was right here that the Ger Tzedek was stoned while he was yet a Christian, for he committed the crime of helping a Jewish girl. I am not one of those people who insist on parading through places of obvious danger to make a point, but I felt different about it here. 
They tried wiping us out. Let them see that netzach Yisroel lo yeshaker.
Besides, I felt that her fear was something that was inbred but was misplaced. No doubt, if a movement would rise there against Jews for some reason, some people would join, but at no time did I feel any real sense of danger. Golus is not meant to be comfortable. Vilna reminded me of that.
We continued our walk through the old city, passing by where the entrance to the Jewish ghetto was in medieval times and in the modern period.
We found a small kosher coffee shop in the Old City, where we had coffee and some “lekach,” honey cake, and “imberlach,” a sweet Litvishe treat I had never heard of. You’re not missing much, by the way.
It was from there that we came upon the location of the Vilna Gaon’s house. Chills go down your spine as you imagine the holiness that was there. The Gaon! Like a Rishon, a spiritual father for all generations. He lived here. He learned Torah here. He had ruach hakodesh right here. He wrote his notes on Gemara and Shulchan Aruch at the spot on which I stand. How small I feel. I walk the same street he walked, tracing his footsteps to the small kloiz where he davened. Rather than davening in the big shul, he chose this small place, because there was much less of a chance of hearing lashon hora here. I am lost in my thoughts.
The Gaon! The Vilna Gaon walked on these same stones to escape lashon hora. 
How small I am.
• • • • •
The walk ends and it’s time to head to the airport. We walk to an area where taxis wait for passengers. The guide advises us to stand back while she finds one. “You stay here,” she says. “When I find one, I’ll motion to you.” 
We are reminded yet again, as if we needed another reminder. 
We fetch our belongings and continue to the airport, gratified that we had come, but happy to soon be gone.
We head back across the Atlantic on a Lufthansa plane. The service is impeccable. The staff goes out of their way to make us feel at home. I admit that I feel some comfort in that. 
It felt good to take leave of the European continent and head back to the United States. This was my second time staying more than a few hours in Europe. When I am able to get away, I’d much rather go to Eretz Yisroel than anywhere else. That is our home and base. That land holds our connection to the essence of life and Torah. 
Kovno and Slabodka are a distant second, but I hope to return to Lita, visit those places once again, see the town where my mother was born, and perhaps even find out why I want to go there. 
May we all merit a safe and healthy year as we await the call of Moshiach.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Do it With a Smile

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This week’s parsha contains many brachos, and also numerous klalos. If we follow the path of Hashem, we will be blessed, and if we don’t, we will come to regret having strayed. The enormity of the Tochacha will befall us. Regrettably, as we read the pesukim, we recognize much of our history in golus.

The posuk (Devorim 28:47) states that the cause of the punishment is “tachas asher lo ovadeta es Hashem Elokecha besimcha uvetuv leivov meirov kol - because you didn’t serve Hashem with happiness, for you had too much.”
It would appear that the Tochacha is brought about because people don’t do the mitzvos joyfully. In fact, however, our avodas Hashem includes more than the observance of mitzvos. Serving Hashem must be on our minds as we go about our daily actions. Lacking joy is indicative of a latent sadness brought on by an absence of satisfaction with what we are doing. Someone who is unhappy while performing mitzvos and everyday avodas Hashem doesn’t appreciate what he is doing and is unaware of what he accomplishes when he performs a mitzvah. For that, he is punished.

At the beginning of the parsha, after discussing the concept of bikkurim, and the offering of first fruits, the posuk (Devorim 26:11) says, “And you should be happy with all the good Hashem has given you and your family…” When a person appreciates the goodness that has been bestowed upon him, it is natural that he will be happy.
Those who are blessed “bechol hatov,” and don’t appreciate the source of the blessing, are unhappy souls, as the posuk of “tachas asher lo avodeta” indicates. They have everything they need and more, yet they are morose, for they don’t appreciate that the source of their blessing is Hashem.

People who go through life thinking that they have earned everything they possess due to their own brilliance or actions can never be happy. They always want more. They are never satisfied. If their money, their house, and everything else they own came to them because of their own intelligence and hard work, then they are disappointed when they can’t get more than they already have. These people are upset when they look at others who have more money, a larger house, and fancier car. They are overcome by jealousy that they were not able to achieve what the other person did, because they think it is in their control. 
But if you realize that everything that you have is from Hashem, and the amount of money you will earn this year was decided on Rosh Hashanah, then you are satisfied with whatever Hashem gives you. A believing person does not look at what others have, nor does he become jealous if they have more than him. A person who recognizes that he should be thankful for what he has is content and is oveid Hashem b’simcha
Happiness is a central part of a productive life and a sign of a person who has perfected his middos of emunah and bitachon. Those who know that nothing that happens in their lives is happenstance are not destroyed when confronted by tragedy and sad occurrences. 
The Litvisher gaon, Rav Mordechai Pogromansky, represented the greatness of bnei Torah. Even when locked in the Kovno Ghetto, surrounded by death, destruction and deprivation, he never lost his calmness brought about by emunah and bitachon. He remained devoted to Torah and was a source of chizuk to those around him. With the Jews walled into a small, constantly patrolled area, he would tell those who would gather around him that he didn’t see the ever-present German beasts. “I don’t see Germans all around us. I see pesukim of the Torah [from the Tochacha] surrounding the ghetto.”
This Torah giant saw what was transpiring as the realization of the pesukim in this week’s parsha that we read quickly and quietly. He saw those words coming to life. He was able to remain calm, because he knew that all that was happening was, in essence, the realization of the verses. He didn’t see Germans. He didn’t fear Germans. He saw and feared Hashem. He knew that whatever was going to happen was preordained by the Ribono Shel Olam
Bombs were falling, and devastation and hunger were his daily companions, yet, with depth, sensitivity and brilliance, he sensed the stark clarity of the pesukim of the Tochacha and the reality as expressed by the Torah. Everything around him was merely a reflection of that reality, a cause-and-effect built into creation by the Creator.
A Jew is meant to be joyful. The Arizal told his close talmid that all the revelations that he merited through ruach hakodesh were a reward for performing mitzvos with tremendous joy. 
Simcha is attained when there is shleimus, when something is complete. When doing a mitzvah excites a person and brings him to a state of ecstasy, that indicates that he has performed the mitzvah perfectly. Hence the joy. 
A sense of calm and satisfaction permeated the Kelmer Yeshiva all year round. Rav Moshe Rosenstein of the Lomza Yeshiva would describe his first visit to Kelm, when he was still a bochur.
“As soon as I entered, a bochur came over to me. He greeted me with a smile and a handshake. He asked me how I was and when I had arrived. He asked me if I had a place to eat and sleep and about my general welfare. 
“He was so friendly to me and I was trying to place him. He had to be an old friend I didn’t recognize. A minute after our conversation concluded, another young man came over to me. He was another long lost friend I didn’t recognize. He smiled at me and was so happy to see me. He asked how I was doing, when I came, and if I had what I need. I assured him that all was well and moved along, embarrassed that I didn’t remember him. 
“Then another boy came over, and then another one. By the time I was done, it seemed to me as if the whole yeshiva had welcomed me graciously, with smiles on their faces, as if they knew me. It took a while, but then I came to understand.”
Kelm meant treating every person with kindness, whether they knew him or not. Everyone created b’tzelem Elokim is worthy of respect and a smile. 
In fact, there was a consensus in Kelm to greet people the same way even during the month of Elul and the period of the Yomim Noraim. The talmidim of the renowned mussar yeshiva were overwhelmed with preparing themselves for the Yom Hadin and did not engage in idle chatter during this somber time. Yet, even then, everyone was greeted joyously and with love, with a beaming face and a smile. 
The chinuch we provide our children should involve the joy of doing mitzvos. Too often, mitzvos come across to children as burdens and things they resent because of the harshness with which they are presented. If children are made to feel that the Torah and its commandments are grueling and stress-inducing, they will view them as a burden and not accept them. When they mature, they may be tempted, chalilah, to rid themselves of the shackles placed upon them in their youth. 
Yiddishkeit is invigorating and joyous. Learning is exhilarating. And there is nothing as euphoric as Shabbos.
School should be cheerful and inviting. People don’t generally thrive or do well under punishing circumstances, with constant pressure and fatigue or in places where the restrictions are overwhelming. Students who are unable to succeed in a strict environment should be encouraged to switch schools to a more inviting place, where they can flourish and grow into fine bnei and bnos Torah
Perhaps there was a time when negativity and crushing harshness were effective with children and adults, but those days have passed, as is evident by the many dropouts and at-risk youth. We have to bring back the everyday pride everyone felt about being a frum Jew and the merriment with which people were infused.
We all face challenges. The tendency to become saddened by life’s burdens is understandable. But why lead a life of sorrow when, no matter how bad a person’s condition is, there is reason to smile and hope? There is always something to be happy about. Hashem created you and watches over you. It is He who has given you challenges, and it is He who will help you overcome them and succeed. 
The courage to understand that is the theme of Elul.
In this week’s parsha, we read (28:1) that if we adhere to all the mitzvos we were commanded by Hashem and follow His word, we will merit to be ascendant over all the other nations.
It is interesting to note that this posuk is preceded by the one which states, “Arur asher lo yokim es divrei haTorah hazos - Cursed shall be the one who does not uphold [raise] the Torah.”
The Ramban cites the Yerushalmi in Sotah (7:4), which states that this curse is referring to people who are in a position to influence others to come closer to and support Torah, but fail to do so. People who shirk that responsibility are included in this arur. Even if a person is a complete tzaddik, nevertheless, if he could draw others closer to the holiness and truth of Torah but doesn’t, he is included in the arur.
The Chofetz Chaim would repeat this Ramban and strengthen its message by quoting the Gemara in Shabbos (54), which says that one who has the ability to protest against wrongful actions of the people of his town and fails to do so is punished as well. One who reproaches his fellows and causes them to return to proper behavior, thereby enhancing kevod Shomayim, is showered with the brachos in this week’s parsha that were delivered on Har Gerizim.
The Chofetz Chaim would conclude that to receive those brachos, each person should use his abilities for the causes of Torah. If Hashem blessed someone with money, he should use it to build yeshivos for the study of Torah. If he is blessed with oratory skills, he should use them to raise money for yeshivos and other Torah causes. He should speak out against practices that cause a weakening of our religion.
As the Yom Hadin approaches, we all seek zechuyos so that we will merit being inscribed in the book of tsaddikim.
As the world spins out of control and rogue nations gird themselves with weapons capable of causing colossal damage, we realize that there is no one we can depend on to protect us other than Hashem. We seek to be included with those the posuk refers to as “boruch, the blessed ones.”
We must all use our strengths and abilities for worthwhile purposes. Hashem made each of us differently because it takes the varied capabilities of a group of individuals to build a community and strengthen a nation.
Let us all follow the admonition of the Chofetz Chaim and help increase the study and support of Torah. Let us find more time to learn and worthy causes to support. Let us inspire others to do the same.
Look at the kindness extended to victims of Hurricane Harvey and the overflowing boxes of donated goods at every Seasons store, waiting to be trucked to Houston. We are a great people, but it shouldn’t take a hurricane to bring out our goodness, and there are plenty of people around us who can use support.
Let us always be kind and thoughtful, always thinking about other people, and treating everyone as a tzelem Elokim.
Let us be ever vigilant in our behavior, remaining loyal to the Shulchan Aruch, our mesorah, and what we know is true and proper. Let us maintain the strength of character and purpose necessary to remain upstanding in a tipsy world.
May we earn the brachos for a year of success, good health, parnossah, happiness and shleimus.