Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Warmed on the Inside

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
This week’s parsha opens with the commandment of counting the Jewish people following the sin of the Eigel (Rashi). They were not to be individually counted, but rather each person donated a half-shekel coin to the Mishkon and the coins were counted.

The posuk states that by conducting the census in this way, the act of counting would not bring on a plague, and each person’s donated coin would help forgive him for his sins.

Many commentators discuss what it is about the census of Jews that causes a plague. Why does each person give a half-shekel and how does that bring about forgiveness?

A simple explanation is that when all Jews are counted equally, it demonstrates that one Jew is as important as the next, and no one should ever feel that they have sunk too far for redemption. A rough upbringing, a tough divorce, or so many of the difficulties we deal with in life can drive a distraught person from Yiddishkeit. The census shows that although they hit a rough patch and veered off, they are still Jews who are loved by Hashem, and their return is eagerly awaited.

Rav Tzadok of Lublin writes (Tzidkas Hatzadik 154) that just as a person is obligated to believe in Hashem, a person is obligated to believe in himself. No one should ever give up on themselves and feel that all hope is lost and they are too far gone. In whatever position a person finds themselves they posses the abilities to clamber back up and excel once again. Everyone counts.

The Alshich quotes Rav Shlomo Alkabetz, author of Lecha Dodi and the classic sefer Manos Levi on Megillas Esther, who says that each person contributes a half-shekel to demonstrate that every individual on their own is not whole. We only become complete and worthy of being counted as a member of Klal Yisroel when we live b’achdus with our brethren. If we are aloof, apathetic and alone, we don’t count, so to speak.

Rav Yitzchok Eizik Chover explains that the counting was not to determine how many separate people there were and to add the number, but rather to bring the people together and count them all as one unit.

Additionally, the posuk states, “He’oshir lo yarbeh, vehadal lo yamit,” the rich man should not give more than a half-shekel and the poor man should not give less. The census is conducted to remind the Jewish people to rectify the sin that causes the Shechinah to be removed from among them, namely machlokes and peirud.

At the root of every machlokes is ga’avah, when one person feels that he is better than the other. For example, the rich man looks down at the poor one and says that his success is proof that he is more righteous and a better person. The poor man says that he is the bigger tzaddik and it is because of his righteousness that Hashem punishes him severely for his few minor sins. Each one feels himself superior to the other. Such feelings lead to squabbles among Jews and the departure of the Shechinah.

Therefore, the Torah calls for everyone to contribute the same small amount to signify that nobody knows their value in the eyes of Hashem and they view each other as equals. This leads to forgiveness of sins through the census, for the feelings of equality remove sinas chinom and machlokes and lead to achdus. When there is achdus among the Jewish people, the Shechinah returns.

Rav Chover adds that when there is achdus among Jews, they are able to help each other improve. When people despise each other, they cannot offer reproach or help. When two people are squabbling and one of them sees the other doing something wrong, he smiles, fantasizing about how he can spread virally what he saw and cause the person much pain and anguish. Even were he to reprimand the person who did wrong, the person wouldn’t accept the tochacha and suggestions for improvement, because he would feel that the other person is mocking him and seeking his downfall.

If we cannot be mochiach each other, then people won’t improve, and we will stray further and continue to act foolishly.

Mordechai HaYehudi was a champion of achdus and searched for ways to bring the Jewish people together to counter Haman. As a grandson of Amaleik, his ability to destroy the Jews would only be effective if the Jews remained divided. He enacted decrees and sought to scare and divide them further, but because Mordechai rose up to bring the Jews together, Haman failed.

The posuk at the end of Megillas Esther recounts that upon the conclusion of the Jewish victory over Haman, many people converted to Judaism: “Verabim mei’amei ha’aretz misyahadim, ki nofal pachad haYehudim aleihem.” They converted, the posuk tells us, because they feared the Jews.

The sefer Manos Levi remarks that despite the severity of Haman’s evil decree, there is no record that any Jews converted to spare themselves. Perhaps we can answer that this was because Mordechai brought the Jews together. He was thus able to be mochiach them and strengthen their faith in an ultimate triumph. Through the achdus he engendered, they were able to accept his mussar and repented for what they had done wrong. With their spiritual rise and restored faith, they fasted and prayed and Hashem heard their tefillos.

We are reminded of the crucial need for achdus as we lain the Megillah and engage in the mitzvos hayom, all of which seem intended to remind us to increase our brotherhood and love for each other. Every yom tov, the influences of the time of the original miracle for which the yom tov was proclaimed are present once again. On Purim, our ability to set aside differences to be able to merit geulah is real. Let us take advantage of the opportunity.

A story is told about Rav Shmuel Munkez, who sought to travel to visit his rebbe, Rav Shnuer Zalman of Liadi. He was poor and unable to afford the trip, so he made his way to the local market and searched for a merchant who would be traveling to Liadi and willing to let him hop along. He found a whiskey merchant who was headed to Liadi and agreed to give him a ride, with a hitch. He told the chossid that he wouldn’t be able to sit in the heated front carriage because of lack of space. He would gladly take him, but he would have to ride with the whiskey barrels in the unheated baggage section. Happy to have found a ride to his rebbe, Rabbi Munkez agreed.

The longer they traveled, the colder he became. It was a stiff Russian winter night, and after a few hours, the passenger felt as if he was going to freeze to death. He got out from between the barrels and went to the merchant in the warm carriage and shared his predicament. The generous merchant shared his cup with him and told the freezing man that he could open the spigot of one of the barrels and drink some of the whiskey. That would surely warm him. The chossid drank enough to warm himself and felt as if his life had returned to him.

When they arrived in Liadi, the chossid headed straight to the Alter Rebbe. They shook hands, he said shalom aleichem, and the rebbe answered aleichem shalom. And with that, the man told the rebbe that he was heading back home.

The rebbe understood that it was with difficulty that the man had traveled so far, and wondered why upon arriving all he wanted to do was turn around and go home.

The chossid responded that he had come to hear messages of Torah that would enable him to conduct himself properly. He told the rebbe that as he traveled to see him, he learned a lesson applicable to him and worth the trip. He told of how he suffered from bitter cold as he quivered among the whiskey barrels. It was only after he opened one of the barrels and drank from it that its liquid went through his body and totally warmed him.

He said that from this he learned that it is not sufficient to be among great men – tzaddikim and kedoshim - as you can still freeze to death. To be warmed by them, a person has to work to get the light of tzidkus and Torah into himself.

“I am returning home to work on that,” the chossid said, “and I shall return when I feel that I have accomplished in that regard.”

Purim is here, with its great lessons and hashpa’os. It is not enough to sit among the whiskey bottles. It is not enough to drink from the bottles. We must work on ourselves to ensure that the influences of the mitzvos of the day work their way through our innards and warm our souls on this special day, ensuring that the warmth lingers within us as we go forward.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Be My Friend

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Megillas Esther annually reinforces the closeness Jews feel with the Creator and with each other.

Unlike many of the famed miraculous redemptions that occurred in Eretz Yisroel, or at a time when the Jewish people were pious, the Purim story took place when the Jews were exiled, divided and, through attending the seudah of Achashveirosh and bowing to his “tzelem,” [see Megillah 12a], demonstrably lacking in spirituality.

The Rambam, in Sefer Hamitzvos, writes that the lesson of the Megillah is that it is true, emes he, that there is no one as close to us as Hashem Elokeinu, who responds to us whenever we turn to Him, just as a loving father, who even when separated from his children, never loses touch with them. Even when they are apart, the father is present somewhere in the background, watching and waiting for progress. Similarly, Hashem showed His enduring love for us in Shushan, even when the mechitzah of golus separated us.

And so, this year again, the sounds of Megillas Esther will fill our shuls and homes with happiness and optimism. They will tell us to remain together and hopeful, for nothing really is what it appears to be. There is always a story behind the story and things taking place that no one would fathom. There are plots and sub-plots happening beneath the surface, while we have no clue about any of it.

Despite all the headlines and sub-heads, quick glances and deep analysis of current events, nothing even scratches the surface in explaining what is really going on. Even those who rely on skimming social media for news would have to admit that there are things going on that they cannot understand or explain. There is so much fake news that unless you really devote yourself to digging through the silliness to get to the truth, you are clueless.

Purim is a time that tells us to recognize that nothing is what it appears to be, and if we have faith in Hashem, we will see salvation.

Achashveirosh, says the Medrash, was a superficial chonef, who sought to ingratiate himself with those around him. He killed his wife because his friend told him to, and then he killed his friend to satisfy his wife, the Medrash remarks, referring to the king’s easy acquiescence to Haman’s suggestion that he kill Vashti and his equal willingness to kill that same Haman for Esther’s sake. There was no loyalty, only convenience and political expediency. He had no core beliefs. There was nothing he really believed in or cared about besides his burning desire to remain in power surrounded by sycophants.

Initially, he favored his Jewish citizens. Then he rejected them, because he craved money and power, and his advisor convinced him that he would have more of both if he would rid himself of the Jews. Then he had a change of heart and began favoring the Jews and helping them in every way possible. He was fickle and capricious. Today’s leaders are no different.

Take, for example, Israel’s prime minister, Binyomin Netanyahu, who faces increasing domestic and international pressures. Originally empowered as prime minster thanks to the support of the chareidi political parties, he was widely viewed as a friend who shared our concerns. Chairing the party of Menachem Begin, he followed his heritage to electoral victory and then to forming a governing coalition. But when peirud caused Shas to lose three seats to splinter parties and Naftoli Bennett pushed the National Religious leader into the arms of the anti-religious demagogue Yair Lapid, Netanyahu changed his spots. He spurned his former allies and friends who enabled his career and signed on to the Lapid agenda.

A few years later, there were new elections and the cards lined up differently. Netanyahu put together a coalition with the religious parties and is once again everyone’s best friend.

The posuk (Esther 2:5) describes Mordechai as “Ish Yehudi.” The Medrash (Esther Rabbah 6:2) expounds on the choice of the word Yehudi, which would signify that he was from shevet Yehudah, when, in fact, he hailed from the tribe of Binyomin. The Medrash concludes that the choice of words is to indicate that he was a “yechidi, because he was meyacheid shemo shel Hakadosh Boruch Hu.”

The Sefas Emes explains that when Chazal say, “Ve’ohavta lerei’acha kamocha zeh klal gadol baTorah,” it is because at the root of life, all Jews are connected as one. A person who is connected to the “nekudah chiyus hapenimis” loves all Jews, for that is the point of achdus.

The pure state of the Jewish people is achieved when they are all together, joined with achdus. It is then that we are strong enough to combat Amaleik and his descendants. When we are together, we rise to the greatest heights and are able to achieve the spectacular. When we are divided, we get in trouble. When we battle each other, when we permit people to drive wedges between us, we are all losers.

The United States is accusing Russia of meddling in the 2016 elections and stirring up trouble. Apparently, the Russians didn’t advocate for any specific candidate. In one day they held a rally in New York City for Donald Trump and against Donald Trump. They sought to weaken the American democracy by “sowing disorder,” and turning citizens against each other.

When people try to stir up trouble in our camp and divide brother from brother, we ought to let them know that they are not welcome. We aren’t interested in fighting anymore. We don’t want silly splits and fracases. We’ve had enough. It’s time we really got back to where we were the night Rubashkin was freed, when Jews of all stripes danced together, talking to each other without regard to any differences. It was just a few weeks ago. Why can’t we go back there? Why can’t we all work to unite instead of divide? Would it really be that hard?

When we are united, there is no force that can stop us. We can defeat Amaleik and Haman. We can overturn evil decrees and get our lives back.

That is what Mordechai told his people. He gathered them all together. “Leich kenos es kol haYehudim,” he said. He dressed himself in sackcloth and delivered mussar to the Jewish people and Esther. He enforced three days and nights of tefillah, teshuvah and fasting. He committed everyone to achdus, as the posuk states (Esther 9:16), using the singular verb “nikhalu v’amod al nafshom,” signifying that they gathered as one to beseech Hashem. Through his prodding, they did teshuvah, and as a result of their improvement, they were reconnected to the “nekudah chiyus hapenimis” and once again loved each other as Jews are meant to.

Thus, they were able to earn Hashem’s intervention, and the decree that had hung over them for ten years was swept away. They got new life. Their achdus brought them back to where we were as we gathered at Har Sinai to accept the Torah, “k’ish echod belev echod.” The togetherness enabled them to once again accept the Torah and they had much to celebrate. “LaYehudim hoysah orah vesimcha vesasson vikor.”

Rav Yeshayahu Pinto, a talmid and mechutan of Rav Chaim Vital, explains that the enormity of the sin of attending the seudah of Achashveirosh’s was because the feast was held to celebrate that according to the king’s calculations the Jews would never be redeemed and the Beis Hamikdosh would never be rebuilt. Since the Beis Hamkidosh was where the Jewish people connected with Hashem, by joining in the celebration the Jews demonstrated that as far as they were concerned that special connection was broken. Without that special relationship, they no longer had a reason to exist.

Parshas Vayikra deals with the laws of korbanos. The parsha details the process of one who is makriv himself, his very essence, through a korban. In fact, the word kiruv, meaning to come closer, lies at the root of the word korban, sacrifice, for it brings people closer to Hashem.

The Ohr Hachaim (Vayikra 1:2) expounds on the posuk at the beginning of Parshas Vayikra which states, “Adam ki yakriv mikem (korban).” He explains that the desire to become close to Hashem has to come from within the Bnei Yisroel. Sinning creates distance between Hashem and us, as a sinner becomes separated from the Shechinah. Since Hashem wants us to remain close to Him, he commands, “Hochei’ach tochiach es amisecha.” He wishes for us to seek to draw closer to those who have drifted away. This is the reason that Chazal say, “Kol hamezakeh es horabim ein cheit ba al yado” (Avos 5:18). Because Hashem wishes to be reunited with His lost children, he heaps reward upon people who enable that relationship to crystallize.

The Bais Hamikdosh was a place of kirva, representing the ultimate closeness attainable in our world between man and his Creator. Referred to as a place of yedidus, the highest level of interpersonal friendship, it was built in the biblical portion of Binyomin, who is referred to in the Torah as “yedid Hashem, the friend of Hashem,” to underscore the closeness of the relationship.

Rav Moshe Shapiro explained that the word yedid means friendship because in every relationship there are ups and downs, times of closeness and times of distance. In every relationship, there is a time to stand apart. There are times defined as yemin mekarev, when the right hand draws close, and periods of s’mol docheh, when the left hand pushes away.

Even bein odom laMakom, between man and Hashem, there is a precedent for this type of distance. When Yaakov bowed to Eisov, he was expressing an admission of the fact that in this world, there is an order. The will of Hashem at that time was for Yaakov to subjugate himself to Eisov.

Since Binyomin was not present at that encounter between Yaakov and Eisov, he didn’t accept that there are times when right and justice must submit to might. As such, Binyomin was defined as a yedid, which in Hebrew is written as a compound of the word yad twice, yud dalet, yud dalet. Rav Shapiro explains that a yedid possesses only a yemin mekarev, perpetual closeness.

Generations later, Mordechai maintained this yedidus. When others insisted that it was necessary, even pikuach nefesh, to conform to the dictates of Haman, Mordechai refused to bow. The Megillah states that Mordechai was “lo kom velo za (Esther 5:9). Not only did Mordechai refuse to rise before Haman, but he seemed to be unaware of Haman’s existence. He didn’t flinch when Haman passed him. Mordechai was showing his people, and instilling in those who would follow until this very day, that they possess the strength to confront evil without shuddering. He taught not to succumb to the urge to surrender to the prevailing temporal power.

Mordechai was a yedid of Hashem, possessing a closeness that didn’t leave room for disloyalty. He was an unfailing yedid of the Jewish people, admonishing them not to compromise, because he loved each of them and wanted to ensure that they would remain yedidim of Hashem.

Due to his efforts, they merited being saved from the plots against them and returning once again to be close to Hashem, so much so that they embraced Torah Shebal Peh as their forefathers had accepted Torah Shebiksav at Har Sinai. Their acts of return and devotion were so great that they led to the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh.

The Jews had been “mefuzar umeforad,” spread apart from each other. Each was in his own sphere, unconcerned about the other. Now they were together once again, the way we should be.

Mordechai, a descendant of Binyomin, was a yedid of Hashem and a cherished friend of every Jew. He fulfilled the mitzvah of hochei’ach tochiach in its most ideal form. When people ignored his halachic ruling forbidding attendance at Achashveirosh’s feast, he bore the burden of their collective suffering after the gezeirah was passed. Like a loving father, he reassured, comforted and led, establishing the mass fast and gathering in Shushan.

Though they had sinned, Mordechai loved them and Hashem enabled a salvation to be brought about. Through his mesirus nefesh and yedidus, the Jews merited the Purim miracle.

Our enemies have tried, ever since the days of the Shushan miracle, to entrap and ensnare us. But if we care for each other and seek to bring about achdus and yedidus, we can overcome that which is put in our path and merit a return of the Bais Hamikdosh in our day.

Throughout the generations, our great leaders have been men such as Mordechai, who cared about each Jew. Genuine giants are unfailingly humble and gentle, accessible and available to every person who needs help, guidance or a warm smile.

The closeness of good people with the Ribbono Shel Olam allows them to see the Divine light in every Jew as they are mekarev them with love and devotion, as true yedidim. Their friendship echoes the overriding friendship that gave us the neis of Purim; the yedidus of Binyomin, and the deveikus of Mordechai to Hashem and every Jew.

We all have our problems and are upset about various issues that plague our community. We have tuitions to pay, mortgages to worry about, and a pile of bills, but there also has to be room in our hearts to feel the pain of others who are suffering. We need to befriend and help them. Often, people suffer in silence. A person can appear to be very successful, but in his heart, there might be a gaping hole that we can help fill. People who appear to have everything going for them might have issues tormenting them. There is no way to know. If we smile to everyone, we are bound to help cheer up those lonely souls as well.

The Megillah (4:6) relates that Mordechai told Esther’s messenger, “Kol asher korahu ve’es parashas hakesef.” Mordechai shared everything that happened to him. While he was in prison, Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin once asked me why the posuk states that Mordechai told him of his own personal experiences. The Jewish nation was in serious peril, as Haman plotted to kill every Jew. It seems to be a very selfish act for Mordechai to tell Esther’s messenger what had happened to him personally.

The answer is that he only told of other peoples’ pain but every Jew’s pain was Mordechai’s very own personal pain. He told the messenger to report to Esther what was going on outside of the palace and how so many people were suffering. He felt their pain as if it was his own.

Every Jew’s pain should be our pain. If someone is in trouble, we should rush to help him. If we see people fighting, we should bring them together. We shouldn’t tolerate anything divisive. We have had enough of golus. If we could only stop the squabbling, we’d be able to end it.

Everyone is thinking about what the next big thing will be. Let’s try achdus.

Let’s make it happen. Let’s silence the dividers and empower the uniters. Let’s all get together and say that we’ve had enough, once and for all. When we exchange mishloach manos let us show that we can all get along and be friends. Let us reconnect with the nekudas hachiyus and each other.

We will then merit rejoicing in the great nahafoch hu with the imminent arrival of Moshiach Tzidkeinu.

Ah freilichen Purim.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Sparks of Holiness

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This week’s parsha deals with the construction of the Mishkon, the dwelling place of the Shechinah in this world. Introducing the description of this holy place and its construction, the posuk (Shemos 25:2) states, “Veyikchu li terumah – And they should take donations for Me” to build the Mishkon.

The Vilna Gaon explains that the Shechinah was in the hearts of the Bnei Yisroel, but the people needed a place where they could gather together. This was accomplished by “all the hearts” - all the people who had the Shechinah beating in their hearts - donating as per their heart’s desire, “asher yidvenu libo.”

When people demonstrate that they appreciate what Hashem has given them, they show that there is holiness in their soul. Kedusha seeks to expand and strengthen. When they give of themselves and their possessions, they are able to build a place where kedusha can take hold, gather other sparks of holiness, and fashion a place of holiness in the world.

To understand this, we can imagine a single person striking a match on a dark winter night. The match lights for a few seconds and then withers away. Suppose two people are together and each one lights a match. The flame is larger, brighter and warmer than when a single match is struck, though it is still quite feeble. The more matches struck together, the more warmth and light there will be.

Every Jew has an individual spark of kedusha, but by itself and when it is cold and dark, the spark can’t accomplish much. When Jews join together, each one with his spark, a torch of kedusha erupts and the Shechinah has a place to visit.

This is the explanation of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos which states that when two Jews join to study Torah, the Shechinah is among them. This is because they have combined their sparks to light the world for Torah. In such a place, the Shechinah feels comfortable and joins.

When the entirety of Klal Yisroel joins in contributing “bechol levovom,” for a place of kedusha, the Shechinah has found a dwelling place among us in this world.

With this, we can understand a statement of Rabi Akiva: “Ish v’isha zachu Shechinah beineihem - If a man and woman merit, the Shechinah is with them” (Sotah 17a). When a man and a woman marry, if each one is filled with hopes of building a proper Jewish home and has strengthened themselves with good middos and fidelity to Torah and kedusha, that is a couple who have fostered a place where the Shechinah can feel comfortable.

We no longer have the Mikdosh among us, but we do have within us sparks of holiness, and if we properly observe halacha, study Torah, and help other people, we can fashion within our hearts and homes a place for the Shechinah.

Hashem told Moshe to accept donations from people “asher yidvenu libo,” who want to give. Nobody should be forced to contribute to the construction of the Mishkon.

The Alter of Kelm asks that considering that the call for the construction of the Mishkon came in the desert after the redemption from Mitzrayim and receiving the Torah, who of the Jewish people wouldn’t want to contribute to a building where the Shechinah would dwell among them?

How are we to understand that people in their situation would not want to part with a few shekels to help construct a Bais Hashem?

The question is strengthened by the fact that nobody among them had earned any of the riches with which they had been blessed. Thus, any money they had was obtained through chesed Hashem, fulfilling the promise made to Avrohom of “V’acharei chein yeitz’u b’rechush gadol” (Bereishis 15:14).

Since none of the Jews of the Dor Hamidbor worked hard for what they had and none of them could convince themselves that their money was a product of “kochi ve’otzem yodi,” why would they not willingly give some of it back to the Benefactor who enriched them?

It would appear that once man gains a possession, he convinces himself that it is his, that he earned it, and that nobody can take it away from him. In an effort to remind us of this message, back when we were in yeshiva, we would write in our seforim before our name, “LaHashem ha’aretz umeloah, b’reshus,” loosely translated as, “Hashem is the owner of the world and all that is in it, and has placed this object in my possession.”

Hubris and selfishness are ingrained in our mentality to such a degree that it is with great difficulty that we part with our possessions to benefit others. We forget that Hashem has given us what we have and that it is incumbent upon us to recognize His beneficence. We look back at the people who were enriched by looting the Mitzriyim and wonder how they could not appreciate the source of their wealth. Yet, others from different generations can view us similarly. They can easily say, “Look at the wealth Hashem gave the Jewish people at this time of history. Look at how Hashem removed so many of the impediments to Jewish people being accepted among the general populace and accumulating great wealth.” They may wonder about us, “How can it be that they didn’t realize that Hashem had blessed them? Why didn’t they share more of it? Why did they think that they were entitled to ignore the cries of the poor and needy?”

Sure, there are many generous people among us, and it is thanks to them that Torah is built and maintained. It is to their credit that there are so many charitable organizations that help people deal with every conceivable need. Who knows if charity was ever distributed on the level it is now? But we also know that there is so much more that can be done.

If you want to merit a share in the Bais Hashem in your area, if you want to merit a Mishkon and a Mikdosh, you have to be a person of nedivus halev, thoughtful generosity. That comes by recognizing that all that we have is a gift and acknowledging that the Torah is made of halachos pertaining to bein adam lechaveiro, not only bein adam laMakom. We have to care about others. We have to seek to benefit fellow Yidden.

The Baal Shem Tov is quoted as saying, “It is worth living seventy-eighty years if only to do chesed with another Jew one time.”

As we study Parshas Terumah, we learn of the keruvim (Shemos 25:20), angels with cherubic faces of young children that were fashioned on top of the Aron. The keruvim were generally facing each other, but when the Jewish people didn’t act properly and sinned, the keruvim turned around and faced the wall of the Mishkon.

Rav Gamliel Rabinowitz explains that the optimal situation is when Jews face each other and care about one another. When a person turns away from others and doesn’t care about them, even if he is facing the holy wall of the Mishkon and working on his own avodah, Hashem sees him as a sinner.

A person who cares only about himself is unable to grow in Torah and have a proper relationship with Hashem. [See also Avodah Zorah 17b.]

The Chofetz Chaim turned to the Chazon Ish and said, “You should know that I am aware that were I to lock myself away and only study Torah, I would grow to much greater heights in Torah and avodas Hashem, but our task in this world is not to think only about ourselves. Man wasn’t created for himself, but rather to bring satisfaction to Hashem, who desires that we                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              help others. This is compounded when dealing with matters that affect the community.”

This is the way tzaddikim and good people conduct themselves.

Many years later, the Chazon Ish, already living in Bnei Brak, was raising money for an important cause. He asked a certain rov to visit a wealthy man in Tel Aviv to solicit a donation from him. The rov didn’t want to go and said, “An adam gadol is needed to explain the importance of this cause to him.”

The Chazon Ish wasn’t impressed with the excuse. He said to the rov, “How does a person become an adam gadol? When he succeeds in a mission such as this one.”

When we care about others and give of ourselves to help people, we grow, for by doing so, we are following the ways of Hashem, as the Rambam states in Hilchos Dei’os (Perek 1), “Mah hu nikra chanun af atah heyei chanun.” The most important thing we can do is help each other.

An adam gadol is one who understands priorities and acts upon them. MK Shlomo Lorencz was leaving on one of his many fundraising trips abroad and went to the Chazon Ish to bid farewell and ask if there was anything he needed done before he left. The Chazon Ish told him that there was a small yeshiva that was experiencing a specific problem. He asked Rabbi Lorencz to ensure that the issue was resolved before leaving.

Rabbi Lorencz asked what was so important about helping this small yeshiva. He wanted to know if there was something really important that had to be taken care of before he was to leave. Helping some tiny yeshiva he never even heard of didn’t seem to fit the bill.

The Chazon Ish told him, “Yeshivos are of utmost importance. What happens outside of yeshivos is of secondary consideration. Our main focus is on yeshivos, and not only large, famous yeshivos, but every yeshiva, even the smallest ones, even those that are taking their first baby steps, such as this one, which you never heard of. They are paramount, and it is worth devoting time and working to ensure that the issues are cleared up and the talmidim can enter their building and begin learning.”

Yeshivos, botei medrash and shuls are what we have today in place of the Mishkon and Mikdosh. We have to appreciate them and seek to spend time there engaged in Torah, tefillah and seeking to become closer to Hashem. We enter them with our small sparks of kedusha and the Shechinah, and we team up with the other people there and their sparks, together lighting a torch of kedusha that brings light to our lives and to the world.

And just as the Mikdosh, in its time, served as a location from where holiness spread out to Klal Yisroel, so too, great tzaddikim are able to accept Hashem’s influence, and from them it spreads to those who have properly prepared themselves to accept it.

[The Drashos HaRan (Drush 8) enhances this point and adds that the same applies to kevorim of tzaddikim, and it is for that reason that Chazal (Sotah 34b) advise to daven there. See also Oros HaGra page 226.]

As we study Parshas Terumah this week, let us delve beneath the surface and learn its lessons. As we learn the halachos pertaining to the construction of the Mishkon, let us feel its absence and strive to improve the way we conduct ourselves with each other. Let us seek to keep our sparks alive and work to be proper hosts for the Shechinah. Let us contribute to mikdoshei me’at we have been blessed with and appreciate that they are hosts for the Shechinah.

Let us appreciate the tzaddikim who live among us and the benefits they bring to the generation. Let us be close to them and support them, so that we may enjoy the kedusha that emanates from them.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Keep Your Hands Off Halacha

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

“Ve’eileh hamishpotim asher tosim lifneihem.” Rashi explains that just as the laws that appeared in Parshas Yisro were delivered to the Jewish people at Har Sinai, so were the laws relating to financial matters, included in this week’s parsha, also presented to the Jewish people at Har Sinai.

Just as the laws that are spiritual in nature and pertain to the relationship between man and G-d are Divine, and just as the laws that defy human comprehension are Divine, those that can be considered common sense, such as the laws governing financial interactions, are also of Divine origin and were delivered to man at Sinai. 
The laws demanding scrupulous honesty were given by the Creator to form the fabric of our daily life. Reduced to its core, the philosophy behind why we must lead honest, upright lives is because Hashem commanded us to do so, not because a healthy society depends on honest interpersonal dealings. This conviction must guide our observance of the laws pertaining to financial integrity.
If laws governing our behavior with our fellow man fluctuated according to an individual’s or society’s preferences, the entire moral and legal tapestry would unravel. As we have seen many times, unscrupulous leaders justify their lawless behavior with corrupt rationales, dragging down society along with their regimes. Dishonest people ensnare others in their traps and cause financial loss, ruin and pain. Good people become tainted as they begin using elements of subterfuge to advance ambitions and goals.
People can rationalize any behavior and convince themselves and others that they are acting properly when they clearly are not.
If the law is not Divine and immutable, it is open to manipulation. As the posuk warns in Parshas Shoftim, Ki hashochad ye’aveir eini chachomim.” Bribery blinds. There is no greater temptation to cut corners with the law than the allure of quick financial gain. Jealousy of another’s financial success is one of the most powerful - and destructive - motivators for dishonesty. Were it left to man to act ethically according to his own perceptions of what is proper, there would be plenty of room for him to inject his own corrupt assumptions into his dealings.
When ethics and morality are viewed as holy as kashrus, kedushah and taharah, the urge to wheel and deal and to legitimize that behavior is somewhat curbed.
Torah is not open to human manipulation. As the repository of the Creator’s wisdom, it is a closed book. It is timeless and unchanging. Stealing is stealing, in every age, in every corner of the world. Lying and engaging in subterfuge to gain an advantage, even over a dishonest person, is an aveirah and inexcusable, no matter how strong the rationale to engage in the activity is.
Just as an ehrliche Yid understands that there is no way to kosherize an animal that has not been properly shechted, he knows that he should not benefit from money that was not earned honestly. An ehrliche Yid is repulsed by improper gains. They have no appeal to him.
Man-made laws are subject to human limitations and to the spirits of the times of the people who formulated the laws. Laws reflect the period in which they are written. Systems of jurisprudence subject to human intervention are constantly evolving with the times and are manipulated by changing perspectives. Only the laws of the Torah are eternal, for they were fashioned by an omniscient, omnipotent Creator. The laws were created for the betterment of man and with all his needs in mind. They represent the blueprint for a utopian society, necessary for the functioning of a perfect social order and unaffected by whatever perspectives hold sway at any particular time.
Witness the current brouhaha over the release of the Republican memo pertaining to actions of certain FBI leaders and agents who were attempting to derail President Trump. Bureaucrats who hate Trump knowingly used a concocted pack of lies, known as a dossier, to initiate secret government surveillance and cause a special prosecutor to investigate the president’s ties with Russia.
There never were any ties with Russia and there never was any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. It was all a lie, compiled for the Clinton campaign and sold to the country by desperate Democrats and a compliant media.
America is a great country, but many are unsure today whether the Justice Department and the FBI are motivated by justice or by other considerations.
That is what happens when people with inherent prejudices are put in charge of pursuing justice. They revert to basing their actions upon their own common sense and end up far from the truth.
In fact, anything devised by man is subject to human bias and thus cannot achieve absolute truth or immortality. Empires rise and fall in a matter of centuries, as the corruption that creeps into the core eventually collapses the entire structure. 
Perhaps this is the reason why the parsha opens with the laws of eved ivri. At the time the Torah was given until modern times, a feudal system dominated most societies. People would enslave the weaker and less privileged among them, treating them brutally and inhumanely. 
Long before compassion and humanity became universal values, the Torah revolutionized the world with its mandates of charity, kindness and justice. The laws forcing slave-owners to treat their slaves better than themselves were not bound by the temperament of the times and were much more progressive than anything man could have conceived when they were delivered on Har Sinai. They remain so today.
One of the ways a Jew demonstrates his belief in the Divine source of the Torah’s laws of jurisprudence is by refusing to turn to secular courts for adjudication of legal issues.
From the parsha’s opening pesukim, Chazal derive important guidelines for how Jews are supposed to resolve their disputes. One who uses secular courts instead of botei din commits a chillul Hashem, for through his actions, he demonstrates that he doesn’t believe that the Torah’s financial laws come from the Creator.
By patronizing secular courts, he puts on display his belief in society’s ideas of what is fair -ideas dictated by human reasoning that are flawed, arbitrary and tragically limited.
The posuk states (23:7), “Midvar sheker tirchok - Distance yourselves from falsehood.” The truth must be our benchmark. Fidelity to the truth is what defines us. We are not to compromise the truth in order to protect our positions or prop up our public image. We must do what is correct al pi Torah, without making cheshbonos
Each generation draws its strength from its forbears who were moser nefesh to transmit the Torah in its entirety to their descendants. While each generation faces its own individual trials and tribulations, the admonition of midvar sheker tirchok, along with every single law in the Torah, is eternally applicable.
There is no justification for lying or dishonesty in any facet of our lives. If we want to be good Jews, we will make no distinction between any of the laws of the Torah in terms of the time, effort and diligence we expend in fulfilling them.
The test of our emunah and bitachon is whether we follow the laws of Mishpotim and Choshen Mishpat with the same care that we demonstrate with respect to the other mitzvos handed down at Sinai.
One of the questions a Jew is asked by the Bais Din Shel Maalah is whether his financial dealings were honest. Ehrlichkeit in finances is the defining trait of a yorei Shomayim. We all know stories about people who forsook fame and fortune because of a breath of impropriety that might have tainted some of the activities required of them.
For people of this towering spiritual caliber, the sole authority and guide in any money-related endeavor is hilchos Choshen Mishpat. No other considerations enter the picture.
Fear of failure, competition, and the vast amounts of money necessary to get by in our world lead people to abandon the laws of Sinai. It starts with small lies, with minor acts of deception, and it snowballs from there. Self-deception rules the day, as half-truths and white lies launch the downward spiral. Before long, the individual caught in this vicious cycle becomes an unscrupulous scoundrel. Yet, due to the power of rationalization, he still views himself as a pious person, worthy of honor and emulation.
By contrast, a person who knows that Choshen Mishpat is equally a component of shemiras hamitzvos as Orach Chaim and Yoreh Deah is someiach bechelko, because he knows that whatever he owns is rightfully his, and he can therefore enjoy it. Envy and greed have no power over him, because his driving force is to give his Creator nachas by obeying the Torah’s mandates. He knows Hashem treasures him and values his sacrifices for truth.
One who utilizes chicanery and thievery to advance himself and his interests is denying the rules the Creator built into the universe by which man can progress in life. He is denying that one who leads his life according to the halachos of the Torah will lead a blessed and successful life. By choosing to go down an unscrupulous path, he is broadcasting his denial that one who abides by the Torah will enjoy prosperity and blessing.
Such a person portrays a major deficiency in his spiritual outlook. His actions carry a denial of the fundamental belief that Hashem guides the world and mankind, and allots to each and every individual his respective needs, as we say on Yom Kippur, “Kevakoras ro’eh edro, maavir tzono tachas shivto, kein ta’avir vesispor vesimneh vesifkod nefesh kol choy vesachtoch kitzvah lechol briosecha…”
Honesty is not only the path to a guilt-free, successful and fulfilled life. It is a testament to our devotion to Torah and mitzvos and our emunah and bitachon. Being honest and forthright not only makes us better people and more capable of getting along with others socially and functioning in a civil society. It makes us better Jews.
The memoirs of Knesset member Shlomo Lorencz are replete with anecdotes and encounters that underscore the acuity and foresight of gedolei Yisroel.
In his book, Bemechitzosom, he discusses the time an Israeli army chaplain posed a question to the Chazon Ish concerning a soldier who was engaged to be married. The army schedule precluded him from arranging any time off for a wedding, the chaplain said.
The chosson was finally approaching a furlough, which would allow him to celebrate his long-awaited matrimony. However, his break fell during Sefirah, the period in the Jewish calendar when weddings are not held.
The chaplain asked if an exception could be made to hold the wedding during the days of Sefirah. He argued that if the wedding couldn’t be held during Sefirah, it would have to be delayed for a very long time. Perhaps an exception to the general rule could be made.
The Chazon Ish responded that he could approve having the wedding during Sefirah, but with a caveat: It could be held on any date except the fifth of Iyar. Rabbi Lorencz, who witnessed the exchange, was surprised by the p’sak. He made a face, but the Chazon Ish simply smiled back at him.
The great gaon explained that the chaplain’s question wasn’t really about Sefirah. It was about Zionist legitimacy. The Chazon Ish perceived that the question was a sly attempt by the Zionist leadership to help achieve acceptance of Israel’s national Independence Day as a Yom Tov. They hit upon this question as a way to produce a “heter” from the revered rabbinic figure for weddings to be held on that day, despite the injunction of Sefirah, a de facto admission that the 5 Iyar Independence Day had halachic status of a Yom Tov.
Lorencz recounted in his diary that the chaplain was very upset with the Chazon Ish’s ruling that the wedding may be held on any day of Sefirah except the fifth of Iyar. His sad face revealed his true intentions and the penetrating wisdom of the Chazon Ish.
In a hesped on the Steipler Gaon, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik explained that Noach believed in Hashem’s word and didn’t doubt it. However, Noach made cheshbonos and reasoned that, ultimately, Hashem would have mercy on his creations and not bring the flood. Therefore, he didn’t enter the teivah when he was told to. For this reason, he is called a “kotton b’emunah,” because we are required to follow the word of Hashem and not make cheshbonos.
We are to follow halacha and the precepts of Chazal and the rabbinic leaders of each generation. If the halacha is to engage in a certain action, then that is the way we should conduct ourselves. We should not engage in calculations and justifications for deviating from our mesorah, even with the rationale that such actions will help achieve a greater good.
It was upsetting to read the statement of the Orthodox Union allowing shuls with female clergy to remain within its umbrella and contribute to the fiction that despite their deviation from halacha and mesorah, Open Orthodoxy is Orthodox, when it clearly is not. It is distressing to note that the statement utilizes language intended to mollify those who seek to follow the example of the Open Orthodox movement pertaining to the involvement of women in synagogue life. By leaving the women clergy in place and not demanding their immediate ouster and other improvements in some of the shuls, the statement can be seen as a victory for those who engage in calculations and justifications for deviating from our mesorah and continuously agitate to push the envelope.
We were let down by the statement, as well as by the silence with which it was greeted by the broader Orthodox community.
We expected better.