Wednesday, August 29, 2018

As One

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Ever since I became involved with Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin some ten years ago, I have not ceased to be amazed by the many unbelievable twists in his case. Everything that could never happen, happened. Things that never happened to anyone else, happened to him. As his legal travails began a decade ago, his passport was taken from him and he was jailed, lest he fly off to Israel, the refuge of Jews facing charges the world over.

His passport was returned to him this past August 15th. That same day, he left for Eretz Yisroel to offer prayers of gratitude for being freed from his long ordeal. He also wanted to thank the roshei yeshiva, rabbonim, rabbeim and other good people who prayed for his release for many years.

His visit to Eretz Yisroel is another indication of how strong emunah and bitachon are rewarded.

We hear amazing stories of faith from hundreds of years ago, from the Holocaust period, and about great people throughout Jewish history. We think that such stories could not happen in our time, because we are not on a high enough spiritual level to possess the belief of giants of years past. If nothing else, the saga of Sholom Mordechai teaches us that a regular person in our day can be in an awful situation and not let go of his steadfast faith. The result was that he was rescued from a devastating situation.

I had the distinct pleasure of spending almost a week together with Sholom Mordechai in Eretz Yisroel, visiting gedolei Yisroel, meeting people who had davened for his release, and saying Hallel at the Kosel.

The welcome we received at each stop was overwhelming and served as an inspiration in the power of achdus, emunah and bitachon. The rabbonim congratulated Sholom Mordechai on his miraculous freedom and the zechus he experienced that a neis was performed through him.

They impressed upon him the obligation to continue his marathon of speeches, telling his story and strengthening emunah and bitachon among his listeners. Many discussed the zechus of bringing about achdus in Klal Yisroel, as Jews of all types davened for him and celebrated his release together.

It was a welcome reminder of the pact Sholom Mordechai and I made some ten years ago after we got to know each other and became friendly. Way back before the trial even began, we agreed that as a zechus for his victory, we would travel together and demonstrate how people of different backgrounds, hailing from different ways of avodas Hashem, could bond despite the differences. We decided that the first place we would go would be Eretz Yisroel.

We had no way of knowing that it would be ten years until we would be able to realize that agreement, but when we finally were able to, the result was nothing short of amazing. Everyone had heard of him and was familiar with his story. People stopped him in the street, smiled, and said “Boruch matir assurim,” before walking away. They didn’t engage in conversation. They didn’t intrude on his privacy. They were just so overwhelmed to see with their own eyes the person Hashem freed that they walked over and said those three words.

The word “historic” is bandied about with abandon. Every parlor meeting is termed “historic,” not to mention dinners and public functions. Every speech and occurrence is quickly branded a “kiddush Hashem.” These terms have been cheapened and have lost their value. But when something truly historic takes place and when a real kiddush Hashem occurs, it is incumbent upon us to stand up and take notice.

When a frum Jew is targeted by the Fake News and corrupt prosecutors force a business into bankruptcy, collapse its assets, and then collude with a witness and a judge to send a fine person to jail for bank fraud, everyone takes notice. When Sholom Mordechai was found guilty and sentenced to 27 years in prison, there was almost no one who did not see a vendetta and excessive punishment.

When every leading legal expert and ethics expert, men who spend their lives prosecuting criminals, judging, teaching, and living justice, signed petitions, wrote letters, and participated in the campaign to free Sholom Mordechai, that was historic.

When even after finding incriminating documentation, appeal after appeal is denied, people feel that there is some kind of agenda at work.

When Jews around the world daven for the release of a prisoner and follow his case religiously, that is historic.

When the prisoner is never broken and publicly maintains his faith in Hashem through all the curious twists, turns and negative decisions in his case, it is historic.

When Jews of all types come together at public gatherings to hear from his lawyers, daven for him, and donate to help cover his enormous legal fees, that is historic.

When he was freed in dramatic, miraculous fashion on Zos Chanukah, Jews around the world burst out in emotional song, dancing in the streets, in shuls, in botei medrash and in stores across the Jewish world, because it was historic.

We saw history. We experienced history. We saw Hashem save a person who had emunah and bitachon. We saw achdus. The night he was freed, we got a small taste of what it will be like when sinas chinom is banished once and for all.

The emotions were experienced again by our Israeli brethren. Like a selfie magnet, everyone wanted a picture with him. They saw that not only hundreds of years ago, and not only in decades past, but even today, it is possible for a regular person to merit a neis through emunah and bitachon.

When told about the person who had come to visit him, Rav Chaim Kanievsky broke out in a wide smile. Rav Chaim shed a couple tears when Sholom Mordechai told him that the few lines Rav Chaim wrote him when he was incarcerated were an immense source of chizuk and that the letter was always with him in his cell.

One night, we went to daven Maariv in Yerushalayim’s Zichron Moshe shul. Although Sholom Mordechai had never been there before, I guaranteed him that he would leave there charged with energy.

Real Jews connect to him and Zichron Moshe is the hub of real Jews. It is filled with people who have nothing, but who are happier than people who think they have everything. These are people who live simply, in small old dirahs where three rooms are enough space for families of ten or more. They are much more in touch with the spiritual and reflect what Jewish life was like generations ago, when everything was simpler.

When the Zichron Moshe mispallelim realized who was there, the small shtiebel, which usually accommodates twenty people, became increasingly packed, until the temperature rose and there was barely enough oxygen to go around. When Maariv ended, more people came into the room to see Sholom Mordechai and shake his hand. When he came out, the Yiddelach broke out in spontaneous dancing and people began flocking to the bais medrash to see the famous prisoner and say, “Boruch matir assurim.” It was midnight when we left, energized and mechuzak.

Friday morning was a reminder of the Brisker Rov’s statement that the chein, or charm, of Yerushalayim is evidenced in its children. We went to Toldos Aharon, where a meeting with the rebbe was followed by a visit to the cheder. In each class, Sholom Mordechai told a bit of his story, as the children sat glued in rapt attention. One group sang and danced for him.

From there, it was off to the Kosel, the place from where the Shechinah has not departed, for an emotional reunion of sorts. As people recognized Sholom Mordechai, they came over to see the man for themselves and exchange brief words of chizuk.

Pictures were being snapped right and left, as people wanted to remember the moment that the person who has become a living example of a yeshuas Hashem came to the Kosel to sing Hallel. It was a reminder that we all have much to be thankful for. Hashem is the merciful G-d and answers the prayers of all those who reach out to Him with emunah and bitachon.

We spent a day visiting the gedolim of Bnei Brak. Each one was warmer than the next. Everyone had heard his story and was effusive with brachos. We visited the homes of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, Rav Gershon Edelstein, Rav Berel Povarsky, Rav Dov Landau, Rav Shimon Galei and the Alexander Rebbe. We met the Sadigura Rebbe, whom we had also visited during a trip to New York. There were lechaims and lekach, and uplifting conversation. We got to meet Rav Elimelech Biderman, who has earned renown for the weekly booklets of his uplifting talks.

We had an appointment by Rav Shimon Baadani, the leading Yemenite talmid chochom and a senior Sephardic leader. We assumed that we were visiting him in his home and were embarrassed when we were led to the kollel he heads and brought over to him as he was bent over his shtender, struggling with a Tosafos.

I apologized. “Slicha kevod harav. We are so sorry to disturb your learning. We thought we were going to be visiting you in your home.”

He responded, “Zeh habayit sheli. This is my home. This is where I am day and night, and this is where I meet people.”

His simplicity and sweetness were overwhelming.

After some conversation, he turned to us and said, “The achdus you have achieved is remarkable. Perhaps you can bring some achdus to this country.”

He actually summed up our mission as we approach the Yom Hadin. There is no greater zechus than bringing Jews together. When we are divided, the Soton is empowered and is able to prevent Moshiach’s arrival.

When we are divided, we are lacking and are creating black holes in Shomayim. We daven and say, “Bayom hahu yihiyeh Hashem echod ushemo echod,” pining for the day when Hashem’s oneness is revealed to all. Our unity and achdus are vital to the achdus Havaya. [See Rashi Devorim 33:5; Maharal Gur Aryeh Ibid; Ramchal Maamar Hachochmah on Tefillos Rosh Hashanah]

When we daven, we use the plural, e.g., choneinu, hashiveinu, refo’einu, etc., including ourselves with every other Jew. We don’t just ask for a refuah for ourselves, but for everyone. We ask that everyone be written in the book of life, blessing, peace and prosperity. To be zoche on the Yom Hadin, we have to be part of a larger group. Communal merits cannot accrue to the person who breaks away and goes off on his own. That person is judged critically.

We have to seek to bring people together, not drive them apart. We have to work to bring people to Hashem, not drive them away. We have to use our abilities to bring about peace and achdus. Klal Yisroel is about the greatness of the individual, but it is also about the greatness of the group. Regardless of how great we think we are, if we are not part of the larger body of Am Yisroel, we are lacking as Jews. We beg forgiveness from each other so that we can be unified. We help the needy and show that our ego doesn’t preclude us from being concerned about other people. We don’t live for ourselves. We live to help others and to enhance the greater good.

We all have needs and wants. We all daven for a good year. We want to have simcha, nachas, brocha and good health. We want to grow without much aggravation. We want so much. We look for sources of merit, engaging in teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah. Let us seek to help others achieve the same, help bridge divides, and increase emunah and bitachon in our own hearts and those of others, meriting to be written in the sefer of tzaddikim.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018


Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

As we begin the study of this week’s parsha and encounter the narrative of “aishes yefas toar,” we wonder what message there is for us. While the course of action for a man who went to war, emerged victorious, and then chanced upon a yefas toar is applicable and contains many directions and actions to follow, there is also a message for all of us, especially during the month of Elul.

Kadmonim and mekubolim raise the curtain and provide an understanding of the pesukim that describe the parsha of yefas toar and how she goes about adapting to a new life.

The parsha begins, “Ki seitzei lamilchomah al oyvecha - When you will go out and wage war with your enemy” (21:10). The Ohr Hachaim (ibid.) explains that the posuk refers to the battle for which man was placed in this world. The soul is dispatched to withstand tests.

And she shall remove the garment of captivity from upon herself: This will be through ridding oneself of sin, teshuvah and submission to Hashem. Then be misvadeh and cry for the betrayal from your father and mother and detachment from them.

She will weep for her father. This is Hakadosh Boruch Hu.

She will weep for her mother. This is Knesses Yisroel.

For one month. This is the month of Elul, the period of teshuvah.

The Ohr Hachaim’s source is the Zohar Chodosh (Ki Seitzei 72:1), which is also quoted in Yesod Veshoresh Ha’avodah (Shaar Hamayim).

The Arizal (Likutei Torah, in this week’s parsha) offers a similar explanation. He says that “Ki seitzei lamilchomah refers to a person who has decided to do teshuvah. He is setting out to do battle with his enemies, namely his yeitzer hora and the limbs that betrayed him and caused him to sin.

Unesano Hashem Elokecha b’yodecha. Hashem will cause you to beat the yeitzer hora.

Vero’isa bashivyah aishes yefas toar. This refers to the neshomah.

Vegilcha es roshah. He should remove bad beliefs from within himself.

Ve’asisah es tziporneha. He should cut out luxuries.

Vehaisirah simlas shivyah. The covering that is fashioned by sin should be removed.

Uvochsa es aviha. This refers to Hakadosh Boruch Hu.

V’es imah. This is Knesses Yisroel.

Yerach yomim. This is Elul.

Rav Tzadok Hakohein of Lublin (Pri Tzaddik, Ki Seitzei 2) quotes Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, that understanding that this parsha refers to man’s eternal battle with the yeitzer hora is not homiletic drush and remez, but is the actual p’shat poshut, the simple explanation of the pesukim.

So, as we study Parshas Ki Seitzei this week, it should be clear that these pesukim are meant to help usher us into the avodah of Elul. We read about a man doing battle for Am Yisroel and a woman mourning her old home, but, essentially, on a different level, we are reading about teshuvah and Elul.

Elul is everywhere. You just have to know how to find it.

We are familiar with the teaching of Chazal that “bemakom sheba’alei teshuvah omdim ein tzaddikim gemurim yecholim la’amod.” Those who return to Hashem stand at a higher level than great tzaddikim who never sinned. On the face of it, this is a difficult concept to behold. Why should someone who sinned be on a higher plane than someone who never deviated from the word of Hashem? We tend to understand the concept in terms of the fact that the baal teshuvah traveled a long journey, and despite having fallen, he had the strength to raise himself from the depths, allowing him to return a cleansed and holy person, while a tzaddik who never sinned did not have to overcome such obstacles.

Perhaps we can suggest a different understanding.

The Eitz Yosef on the Medrash at the beginning of Parshas Eikev discusses the process of teshuvah and redemption. He says that we don’t have to complete the act of teshuvah in order to merit the redemption. It is sufficient for us to show that we have become inspired to repent and begin to undertake teshuvah, and Hashem will begin the geulah.

Teshuvah is a motion, a small shift back to the right direction. When we display a genuine desire to do teshuvah, Hakadosh Boruch Hu notices and comes to assist us on the way back.

The posuk in Tehillim (103) says, “Kirechok mizrach mimaarav,” as far as the east is from the west, “hirchik mimenu es peshoeinu,” that is the distance Hashem has removed us from our sins. Rav Nosson Dovid of Shidlovtza explained that the distance of east from west is essentially not much. You stand facing east and then you turn around and are facing west. So too, with teshuvah, you turn to go in a new direction and you are considered as having a new destiny.

Rav Chaim Volozhiner explains in Nefesh Hachaim (1:12) that when a person performs a mitzvah, he begins the action and Hashem helps him complete it.

We can say that the person who is seeking to repent merits special assistance from the Ribbono Shel Olam. When he turns away from sin and shows interest in repenting, he begins the arduous process and Hashem helps. This is why teshuvah is the only mitzvah regarding which Chazal tell us that Hashem says, “Pischu li pesach kepischo shel machat, open a hole the size of the eye of a needle, and I will do the rest.” He becomes involved in a Jew’s attempt at returning, helping him navigate the difficult path.

Thus, we can understand the meaning of the teaching that “bemakom sheba’alei teshuvah omdim,” the level of the person who has performed teshuvah, is higher than that of the tzaddik who never sinned. That is because the baal teshuvah merited Hashem’s assistance. Hashem has, so to speak, stood beside him and grasped his hand. He has felt the Divine Presence. Hashem has been part of his journey, so his “makom,” his place, is elevated.

It follows, therefore, that Elul should be a happy month, for it is the month when we begin walking down that holy path. As we study the sifrei mussar, think about how we are doing, turn inward, engage in introspection, and contemplate our future, Hakadosh Boruch Hu comes to help us. He is here, at our side, waiting to help us back.

We have to show the will.

Perhaps the Torah chose to reveal the secrets of teshuvah, depicting the desperate cries of the neshomah as she pines for her father and mother, her return to purity and holiness, in the parsha of yefas toar to demonstrate to us a lesson through the central character, the soldier who finds a foreign woman in the spoils of war. He is so weak that he is not embarrassed to bring this strange woman back home with him. The Torah is telling us that even a person like him can do teshuvah. Even someone who has sunk that low can turn from a life of lust to a life of holiness. Even he can merit Hashem walking beside him, leading him to the light of teshuvah and a blessed life.

This is the secret of Elul. The Baal Hatanya taught that during this month, the king is in the field. During the rest of the year, subjects must work to obtain an appointment. They must wait, fill out forms and use all the connections they have in order to get a moment of time with the leader. During Elul, the king circulates among his subjects, hearing their voices and concerns.

During Elul, Hashem is nearby, ready to extend a hand, a yad lashovim, drawing us close and inviting us to come back home. But we have to be there, ready to hear the invitation and accept it.

When Hashem sees you want to do teshuvah and haven’t forgotten your neshomah, He becomes overjoyed and grabs your hand with great excitement to bring you where you belong.

Rav Shlomo Reichenberg recounted how he ended up in yeshiva after being sent to Kibbutz Chofetz Chaim when he was brought to Israel as a young Holocaust survivor in 1945.

“I went to the office and asked to be transferred to a yeshiva. They readily agreed and suggested two yeshivos for me, Ponovezh in Bnei Brak and Kol Torah in Yerushalayim. I made my way to Bnei Brak and found the one story building that was the Ponovezh Yeshiva at the time.

“When I walked through the door a man stopped me. ‘Who are you looking for?’ he asked.

“‘Rav Kahaneman,’ I answered.

“‘That is me. What can I do for you?’

“I told him that I wanted to come study in the yeshiva. He asked me where I had come from, and I told him I had arrived from Bergen Belsen. He asked me where I had been before the camp and I told him that I was in the Veitzin Yeshiva, near Budapest.

“‘Do you remember anything from what you learned there,’ he asked.

“I was afraid, for I sensed that he was going to test me in order to determine whether he should accept me into the yeshiva. I told him that he should ask me a question to see if I remember anything. He asked me which was the last mesechta, and I said Chulin.

“‘Can you tell me a machlokes between Rashi and Tosefos in this mesechta?’

“I told him one. When I finished, he kissed me on my forehead. He then took my hand in his and proceeded to drag me through the streets of Bnei Brak until he stopped at a small building. He knocked on the door and walked in. It was the house of the Chazon Ish.

“The rov was overcome with emotion. The words spilled out of his mouth. ‘Rebbe, I met this boy who is a concentration camp survivor. I asked him if he could tell me a machlokes between Rashi and Tosefos and he did.

“He then began to say, ‘Gadlus hatorah, gadlus hatorah,’ and couldn’t catch his breath. Then he turned to the Chazon Ish and said, ‘If a concentration camp couldn’t make a Jew forget Torah, then definitely Torah will never be forgotten.’

“After the rov calmed down, he told me to stay there and talk to the Chazon Ish. The Chazon Ish was very interested in hearing about life in the concentration camp. I sat there talking to him for two hours. When we finished talking, he said to me, ‘This is your new home. The door is always open for you…’”

Everyone has moments that can get him going. There are many times in life when there is a call to you, a message with your name written on it, coming out of nowhere. You can either pick up on it and experience something life-altering or you can ignore it, let it slip by, and lose a chance for eternity.

Read any book of stories about baalei teshuvah and you will find the moment when someone touched a college kid and a light went on. They were invited in and they accepted the invitation. “Do you have a place to eat tonight?” “Did you put on tefillin today?” One thing led to another, and it was as if there was something there guiding the person in the direction of a religious life. They backpacked through Asia, then went to Israel for some reason, and ended up at the wall. They were all alone when they came, but when someone asked if they want to find out what Torah is, they said yes and gave him their name and phone number.

They came alone with their backpack, but left surrounded by the ohr hamakif, the spirit of Hashem hovering over them.

Rav Todros Miller of Gateshead Seminary recounted the tale of an English girl who brought her car to a London mechanic. Testing the vehicle, he turned on the engine. Emerging from the speakers was an audio recording of a shiur delivered by Rav Mordechai Miller, of Gateshead Seminary, on sefer Shaarei Teshuvah.

The mechanic was transfixed by what he heard, and when the girl returned to retrieve the car, he asked her to bring him some tapes from that rabbi. Influenced by those tapes, the man became a complete baal teshuvah. Random words emanating from a car as he poked under the hood touched him and caused him to ponder his existence. He could just as easily have tuned out and pressed on with his work, engaging in the usual shop talk.

Instead, he listened for just a moment. A chord was struck deep inside of him. At that moment, as his heart opened, he was flooded with the ohr hamakif of which Rav Chaim Volozhiner speaks. He was on the road to teshuvah, a Divine force propelling him forward.

When we hear those voices, when teshuvah is calling, we have to make sure not to hit ignore, but to tune in and tune up.

After all, as the pesukim this week remind us, the neshomah comes down to this physical world from its encampment at the feet of the Kisei Hakavod, the holiest place in all of creation. It struggles to acclimate to a hostile world, longing for the kedushah it once knew and felt. It cannot adapt, as it is tested and tormented daily. It becomes tainted, it forgets, and loses its outward shine.

And then there is a jolt. A spark. And it remembers. It reaches for the heavens once again and discovers that in this world, it really is possible to attain the kedushah it remembers. It is possible to be enveloped in holiness, to live a life of G-dliness and remain untainted by idle pursuits, a drive for more money, or a lust for power and dominance. At that moment, he begins to be a baal teshuvah and the original shine returns, building up to a sparkling luster.

We go through life, one day following another. Let us appreciate our gifts. Let us appreciate the neshomah we have. Let us look to help improve the world. Let’s not be satisfied with a little Torah here and there. Let us daven like we really mean it. As we breathe, let us appreciate each breath, and when we experience a breathtaking moment, let it be a jolt to remind us who we are, what our task is, and where we are headed.

Let’s live lives that make it worth the struggle. Let’s act so that the ohr hamakif hovers over us, protecting us and creating a cocoon of holiness for us to thrive in.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018


By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

For the past month, we have satiated the body. Now the time has come to do the same for the soul.

The calm, warmth and light of summer replaced the tension, cold and darkness of winter.

We stand now at the juncture of the past and the future, energized by a new vitality to venture into the month of seriousness and introspection, the month that plays a vital role in leading us to life and joy, the month of Elul.

Since the Jews repented for the sin of the Eigel, Elul has been endowed with extra heft as a month of self-improvement and the ability to become closer to Hashem. When Hashem responded positively to the pleas of Moshe Rabbeinu, Elul became for all time a period during which our attempts to return are more readily accepted.

Aveiros create a distance between us and the Creator. Teshuvah removes the stain of sin and enables us to return to Hashem’s embrace.

The carefree days end with the approach of Elul, as we embark upon a period of increased foresight and thought.

The Gemara in Maseches Bava Basra (78b) asks about the definition of the posuk (Bamidbor 21:27) which states, “Al kein yomru hamoshlim bo’u cheshbon,” explaining that it means that those who rule over themselves say, “Let us make the proper calculation,” before undertaking any action.

Those who rule over their yeitzer don’t allow themselves to be guided by impulse and fleeting temptation. Rather, they consider the reward of doing a mitzvah, as opposed to the loss incurred by sinning. A person who lives his life in that way will not fall prey to contemptuous actions, and will lead a life of value and success.

This explains the statement by the Alter of Kelm in his sefer (vol. 1:121) that at the root of mussar is cheshbon. It is also the basis for the teaching of the Maharal (Droshas Shabbos Shuvah) that a person who is considerate about his actions will not sin.

How do we approach Elul, and from where do we learn how to make the required calculations?

As with all halachos, to gain an understanding of the halacha, the best and first place to go is the Rambam’s sefer Mishneh Torah.

One Elul, Rav Nota Freund of Yerushalayim went with a kvittel to the Husiatiner Rebbe, asking to merit true and complete teshuvah. After the rebbe read the note, Rav Freund asked how he could attain that teshuvah.

The rebbe told him that to achieve a true and complete teshuvah, it is incumbent to study Hilchos Teshuvah of the Rambam. He explained that the Torah, which discusses every mitzvah, is the root of each mitzvah’s existence in this world. The power of teshuvah is thus accessed by studying its halachos and basis in Torah.

By studying the halachos of teshuvah as clearly laid out and explained by the Rambam, it is possible to arrive at a deep understanding of the process, thus making it is easier to repent.

Through studying the succinct, direct and information-laden words of the Rambam, we gain an appreciation of the weight of a mitzvah and the destruction caused by an aveirah, as well as the cheshbonos involved with each. It is impossible to undertake even a cursory study of his words and not be emotionally affected and spiritually uplifted.

The Rambam’s captivating words touch your soul and leave you ready to quietly undertake heroic acts to mend your ways and live a holier life. Aspirations for professional success, as well as for fame and fortune, fall to wayside as you become swept along by the beauty of his words and clarity of his arguments of living a richer, fuller and better life.

The spirit of the mitzvah envelopes the student, and as he learns one halacha after the next, a holy spirit overtakes him and he finds himself going from being petty, uncharitable and rigid to selfless, patient and honest.

It is no wonder that a custom developed in Lithuania to study one perek of the Rambam’s Hilchos Teshuvah at every Shabbos meal between the week of Shabbos mevorchim chodesh Elul and Yom Kippur.

This is something that each of us can do. If before we act, we would think about what we are doing, whether good or bad will come of it, and for what purpose we are doing it, we would become better. If we’d consider that by saying something, we will be entering into a machlokes needlessly, then why utter the statement? Our brilliance may amaze others for one minute, but they will quickly forget how smart we are and be left with a sour feeling about our uncaring personality and we will have gotten ourselves involved in a fight. That could have been prevented had we given thought before our utterance.

We can do something that may bring momentary happiness, but when we look back at the time, energy and money we wasted pursuing a fleeting passion, we realize that had we thought whether we were accomplishing anything, we would have spent our time in a beneficial way.

A person can be on a diet, seeking to lose weight to improve his blood pressure and cholesterol and gain better health. He goes every day to the gym and works out. He also abstains from certain foods. But then, one day, he is invited to a barbecue, and in a bid to be cool, he wallops a steak and a few dogs and chips. He just set back his agenda, and by the time he needs to pop another pill to get his pressure down, the tempting flavors and smells of the barbecue are long gone.

Life is a test of wills, and to the degree that we follow the urge to do good, we are good. But if we let go and fall prey to the urges that ignore the good in favor of the temporal, then we lose out every time.

The Gemara in Brachos (61b) quotes Rav Yosi Haglili, who says that the righteous are guided by their yeitzer tov, the wicked are ruled by their yeitzer hora, and beinonim are ruled by both. The terminology Rav Yosi Haglili uses to make his point is “shoftom,” from the word shfot, which is generally translated as to judge, as in “tzaddikim yeitzer tov shoftom.”

This translation follows the Vilna Gaon (Chiddushei Aggados), who explains that the word “shoftom” is used to signify that the yeitzer is like a shofet, a judge, who decides how people should conduct themselves.

What is interesting is that we see from here that nothing that a person does happens by itself, just because. Everybody is led by a yeitzer. If he is a good person, then he follows his yeitzer tov, and if he is an evil person, then he is led by the yeitzer hora. Beinonim vary; sometimes they follow the yeitzer tov and other times the yeitzer hora. Nothing that we do is just pareve. Our actions are either good or they are not good. Our task is to ensure that we don’t permit faulty considerations to mislead us into following the yeitzer hora and doing actions that are silly, wasteful and wrong.

This week’s parsha of Shoftim begins with the commandment to appoint shoftim, judges, and shotrim, enforcers. For centuries, darshonim have been thundering during the second week of Elul that the posuk refers to us.

To follow the terminology of the Gaon, we can say that the posuk is telling us that we have to be able to judge each act and properly determine whether it should be done or not. Even when it is difficult for us to act on the judgment, we must be able to force ourselves to do what is proper. We shouldn’t be doing anything that a proper judgment would determine to have no beneficial value.

The pesukim continue with the injunction to judge properly, not to twist a judgment and not to accept bribes even when reaching the right decision, for doing so will lead to corruption and improper understanding. The Torah refers to judges who are ruling on cases, but the inference to our own actions is there as well. We must not let ourselves be led astray and be affected by accoutrements that subvert our equilibrium. “Tzedek tzedek tirdof.” We must always pursue what is right and just, as a people, as a community, and as individuals.

Take a look around and see what happens when justice is perverted, when prosecutors are corrupt, when policemen are afraid to police, and when judges twist the law. See a country torn apart, with a president under investigation since the day he was elected. See what happens when politics determines who goes free and who faces dreadful sentences. Look at a city like Chicago, where there is no order in certain areas and dozens are shot as a regular occurrence, yet murderers don’t face justice.

People who fail to judge and police themselves face the same outcome. That’s why Elul is here. It is here for us to grab a hold of ourselves and pronounce, “Tzedek tzedek tirdof.” We must straighten ourselves out, act properly, be good and do good.

The parsha concludes with the halachos of the eglah arufah. If a person is found dead outside of a town, the elders and judges of the town, along with the kohanim and levi’im, must proclaim that they had no hand in the death of the person. They didn’t see the dead man walking in their town and not offer him food and seek to care for him. They vow that they had no remote role in his death.

Perhaps this week, as we read and study the parsha, let us contemplate people who have been wronged, misjudged, don’t get a break and are abused and mistreated, and let us vow to do what is right and proper. Let us stand up for the ones who have no one to stand up for them. Let us fight for what is right.

Let us do what we can so that every child has a place in a school where they belong and that every child, rich or poor, smart or not-so-smart, healthy or not, receives a proper environment in which they can grow and excel.

Let no person feel that nobody cares about them, that they aren’t worth caring about. Let no one feel that they are just strangers passing through. Let us be among those who work to ensure that no one goes to bed hungry and sad.

May we merit the brachos the Torah reserves for those who do what is right and just: Tzedek tzedek tirdof, lema’an tichyeh veyorashta es ha’aretz.”

Wednesday, August 08, 2018


Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Here we are enjoying the warmth and calm of summer. Though the solar calendar says August, for us it’s Elul, the month of spiritual revival and connection.

Moshe Rabbeinu speaks to us through the pesukim of the Torah. This week he calls out to us, wherever we are, no matter where we want to be, and says to us: Take a look at the world. See everything that is there and know there is a choice before you at all times.

You are free to choose between brocha and klolah, a good life or chas veshalom one that is cursed.

Which way to go is up to you. It’s always up to you. Nobody can force you in going or choosing. If you made the wrong choice yesterday, today you can change course and get back on the blessed path. Even if you were off the track for an extended period of time, you can catch yourself, straighten out, and hop back on the proper path.

It works the other way, as well. Just because you have been living the good life for many years doesn’t guarantee that you will continue. It takes effort. Every day you need to strive to stay on course and beat back the yeitzer hora, ever present in seeking to entice us.

Life was not intended to be easy, simple or superficial. Life is a constant challenge. As the posuk (Devorim 11:26) says, “Re’ei anochi nosein lifneichem hayom.” Every day presents new struggles and challenges to overcome, and new opportunities to capitalize on and succeed.

The pesukim detail how we are to deal with the weak, what our obligations are to the poor, and how we are to lead our lives on a higher, more thoughtful plane.

Re’ei” is a call for depth. Look, observe and contemplate, and you will see that blessing is arrived at by learning Torah and observing its mitzvos. Through acting honestly and faithfully, you can achieve happiness. For those who choose the opposite; a life of deceit and superficiality, caught up with chasing fleeting sensations, the day will arrive when they will look back at their years with feelings of emptiness and dejection.

A life of joy is arrived at not by taking, but by giving. That is why, in the parsha of Re’ei, we find the commandment of helping the less fortunate. A life of brocha is arrived at by helping those who seem to be lacking.

The posuk in this week’s parsha (14:22) says, “Aser ti’aser,” and the Gemara (Taanis 9a) promises that if you tithe and give ten percent of your income to the poor, you will become wealthy.

The posuk in Malachi (3:10) states, “Uvechonuni na bazos omar Hashem - Test me with ma’aser, says Hashem. Im lo eftach lochem eis arubos hashomayim vaharikosi lochem brocha ad bli dai. If you donate ma’aser, I will open the floodgates of heaven and provide you with endless blessing.”

Citing this posuk in Malachi, the Tur (Hilchos Tzedakah 247) writes that “it is tried and proven that a person will not lose by giving charity. Rather, it will cause him to be blessed with riches and honor.”

The rewards noted for the observance of the mitzvah of tzedakah are an indication of what we are earning for ourselves every time we perform a mitzvah. Even when it appears as if the mitzvah depletes our finances, it actually increases our worth. Not only do we gain psychologically with the feelings that accompany being a giver, but we also gain financially.

Many are the people who were able to rise to riches by observing this mitzvah. People seek segulos for everything, and who doesn’t want to be rich? This week’s parsha provides the best segulah for a life of happiness and brocha: Follow the mitzvos of Hashem and you will be blessed.

The Chofetz Chaim explained this with a moshol. A farmer would bring his produce to a wholesaler. They would weigh the sacks of wheat and the wholesaler would make a mark on the wall for each fifty pounds. They would add up the lines the wholesaler had made, and that was how they determined how much the farmer would be paid for his wheat.

One day, the farmer was suspicious that the wholesaler was erasing some of the marks on the wall, scamming him out of his hard-earned income. He decided that for every fifty pounds of wheat, the wholesaler would put a coin in a plate. When they were done, they would add up the coins and, based upon that number, the wholesaler would pay the farmer.

The farmer’s greed matched his foolishness and he began sneaking coins into his pocket when the wholesaler wasn’t looking. He was thus cheating himself by taking the coins which were of lesser value than what the wholesaler would have paid.

People who keep their coins in their pockets instead of helping the poor, said the Chofetz Chaim, are like that silly farmer. Hashem promises to bless those who properly observe mitzvos. The person who keeps his pennies in his pocket rather than sharing them with a poor person cheats himself of golden coins, for he misses out on the opportunity for Divine blessing.

Hashem promises that the remaining six days of the week will be productive if Shabbos is observed. A person who works on Shabbos because he is worried that he won’t have enough income if he doesn’t, loses out on the guarantee for the rest of the week.

Rav Shimon Shkop explained it a bit differently. If a guard starts out watching a small sum of money and proves that he is reliable, he will be entrusted with increasingly larger amounts of money to watch over. People who show that they are capable of properly utilizing the financial gifts Hashem gives them by dispensing appropriate amounts of charity will be given more money.

If a person demonstrates that he properly uses the spiritual gifts and strengths Hashem has bestowed upon him, he will be blessed with spiritual growth. If someone uses his talents in Torah to teach and guide others, he will be blessed just the same as a person who uses his money to help others.

Rav Shkop cited the example of a rosh yeshiva who requires a certain amount of time to study and prepare his shiur. If he were to give ma’aser of his time to his talmidim, he will, in reward for that, be able to prepare his shiur in less time.

So even when we give from our own to others, we are essentially gifting ourselves as well.

Thus, Parshas Re’ei provides a window for us to examine the depth of our actions and see past the surface. In our world since man sinned, there is some bad mixed in with everything that is good. For example, when Hashem provides us daily with blessing, as the posuk states, “hineni nosein lifneichem hayom brocha - I am giving you today – or daily – blessings,” there is also some bad mixed in, “uklolah.” It is for us to choose the brocha and separate the klolah.

We are challenged daily by the choice of tov and ra, good and evil. The yeitzer hora rationalizes to us the ra and presents it as tov. Nobody sets out to conduct a Ponzi scheme. Rather, they attempt to get rich quickly and thus engage in risky and increasingly fraudulent behavior to satisfy their unrealistic expectations of wealth. They begin skimming the money entrusted to them and wasting it on themselves. Before they know it, they are taking money from new investors to pay the older ones. They reason that they will be able to repay all their investors and continue the folly and luxurious lifestyle they have become accustomed to. Of course, it catches up with them and they end up losing all the money people entrusted to them.

The yeitzer hora is the original Ponzi, enticing man almost since the beginning of time to sin, to cheat, to look the other way, to choose the path of evil over that of goodness and kindness. Sometimes we are fooled and don’t recognize that we have chosen the wrong road. There are warning signs along the way, but we ignore them and rationalize them away, because the going is good, we are enjoying the trip, we are feeling great, and we are sure that it will never end.

Elul is the time of year when we are charged to examine our actions so that we may reconnect with Hashem and be worthy of a positive judgment on Rosh Hashanah. One of the most terrifying things a person can experience is a court case. Facing one, forces people to honestly examine their actions so they can attempt a defense.

Elul affords us that ability as we scrutinize what we have done throughout the year and examine the choices we have made. We do what we can to ensure that we are on the correct path and have not been misled along the way. As we get closer to the Yomim Noraim, we are more careful when making our daily choices. We try to make sure we are not being misled by latent urges for pleasure, money or honor.

Re’ei admonishes us to see past the surface, to be intelligent and objective in our choices. Re’ei means to choose well. If we find ourselves to be lacking or incorrect, or we see indications that we have chosen incorrectly, we must be courageous enough to admit that we are mistaken and hop off the car that is headed in the wrong direction.

Doing the right thing is not always easy.

But it’s right.

Let’s do what’s right.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018


Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The Washington Post recently reported on breaking news: “Taking on positions as clergy in a tradition where women have never been clergy before, they have adopted a variety of titles. Some call themselves rosh kehilah, meaning ‘head of the community.’ Some go by maharat. Rabbanit. Rabba. And even rabbi.”

In case you didn’t get it, they explained, “That’s right. There are female rabbis now in Orthodox Judaism. Not many, to be sure. Since Rabbi Avi Weiss privately ordained Rabba Sara Hurwitz in 2009 and declared her the first female Orthodox clergywoman - then founded a school, Yeshivat Maharat, to train more - his school has ordained 21 women, and others have been ordained privately. That’s tiny compared with the 1,000 Orthodox rabbis in the global Rabbinical Council of America, which refuses admission to women. But this small group of women is becoming far more significant in Orthodox Jewish life. Women lead synagogues now in New York and in Massachusetts.”

Many of you who are reading this article view this as a joke and wonder why in this newspaper we spend so much space and ink reporting on the advances that Open Orthodoxy is making across the country.

One of the reasons is because this disaster is coming to a town near you, before you know it. Many sit comfortably in their cocoons, viewing themselves and their communities as impervious to the perversions of Open Orthodoxy and other deviant groups.

Many see themselves as so firmly entrenched that nothing can influence them and negatively impact the strength of their community. But then, when Open Orthodoxy comes to town, people gather in despair, wondering how to prevent their community from falling prey to the so-called progressives who sell a watered-down version of halacha to good people who don’t know better. Being aware of the threat and properly educating those who are searching can prevent much pain and loss.

Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter, an assistant clergy member at Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, Maryland, just announced that she is moving to Philadelphia to open a new shul there. Of course, it will be Orthodox. She got a grant from a new fund that was established to support female-friendly Orthodox synagogues. So, while we are sitting around ignoring the growing problem, the other side is ramping up their efforts at promoting their feel-good agenda.

She is not the only one. The Post cites the examples of Rabbi Lila Kagedan, who leads the Walnut Street Synagogue in Chelsea, Massachusetts, and Rabbanit Adena Berkowitz, who started Kol HaNeshamah in New York.

The Post says that Fruchter “chose Philadelphia because the local Orthodox community is growing.” In other words, people in Philadelphia are returning to Orthodoxy after having recognized that Conservative and Reform Jewry are vapid and fail to provide serious religious fulfillment.

So, this woman and others like her come along and take advantage of these serious people who seek to observe Torah and mitzvos, selling a story that by following them, they can have the best of all worlds. They sell themselves as halachically Orthodox. No, I am not making that up. Fruchter herself says it.

“I assure them it’s going to be traditional, halachic: fully in line with Jewish law in terms of Modern Orthodox understanding,” Fruchter said.

Who, you wonder, pays for this? The article answers your question. “Her synagogue is funded by Start-Up Shul, a new organization aiming to create gender-inclusive Orthodox synagogues. In the model of Christian church-planting efforts, said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld (the leader of Washington’s Ohev Sholom and a co-founder of Start-Up Shul), the organization will fund two synagogues this year and hopes to increase to four or five new synagogues per year in the future.

“We want to support entrepreneurial rabbis - maharats, rabbanits, whatever they call themselves - who are going to create a synagogue supportive of women in leadership positions in the clergy,” said Herzfeld. “Without question, most Orthodox Jews are absolutely ready. Her synagogue is going to be bursting through the roof within five years,” he predicted. “She’s such a talent. People are going to be coming from all over Philadelphia just to be taught by her.”

Who is Herzfeld? Why, he is the Orthodox rabbinic leader of a shul where females are employed as clergy. He formed the Beltway Vaad, an Open Orthodox group of male and female clergy who are involved in conversions and kosher supervision, among other things. Along with Maharat Friedman, he runs DC Kosher, which endorses local gentile vegan and vegetarian restaurants through random checks by volunteer mashgichim.

His shul is Orthodox, of course. In fact, it is a member of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, a.k.a. the Orthodox Union or the OU. Though in 2013 it was the first shul to hire a maharat, the synagogue organization has not yet revoked the shul’s membership. The article says that “Herzfeld believes most Orthodox Jews don’t care” about having women rabbis in Orthodox shuls.

If you do care, he doesn’t care about you and people like you. He funds start-up Orthodox shuls such as Fruchter’s and will continue to push the envelope until Open Orthodox innovations become acceptable.

The article reports: “Rosh Kehilah Dina Najman said that when she became the spiritual leader of New York’s Kehilat Orach Eliezer - which chose to hire her after considering male rabbis for the position - people asked members of her synagogue if they were willing to attend a shul with a female leader. But once these skeptics attended a service themselves, they were often persuaded.

“‘When I initially did some weddings, people said, ‘What is going on here?’ When people saw, ‘Hey, this is halachic,’ they had to see it for themselves. . . . They saw this is a halachic service. ‘So she speaks. So she gives advice. So she gives the leadership. Now I understand. This is something that doesn’t hurt my sensibilities,’ said Najman. Now the leader of the Kehilah in Riverdale, Najman says the number of male Orthodox rabbis who accept her as a peer has gone from a ‘handful’ to ‘hundreds.’”

The article quotes Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, a “leading Orthodox feminist.”

“‘Time is a big deal. I think change takes time,’ said Weiss-Greenberg. ‘The more that you meet these women, you hear their Torah, you see them responding to crisis and simply being there, you realize what we could be losing out on.’”

Weiss-Greenberg “described female Orthodox clergy who ministered to victims’ families in Las Vegas after the mass shooting there and who joined in Black Lives Matter marches. Young children, she said, will grow up knowing only this model of Orthodox Judaism. ‘That’s exciting. In general, the notion of all this being normalized is extremely heartening,’ she said. ‘I did not think the landscape would be what it is today 20 years ago.’”

Orthodoxy has always been lacking because it did not have clergy who marched in BLM rallies, these people would have you believe. Now, thanks to these courageous new rabbis, that void is being filled.

Orthodox is no longer not normal, they’ll tell you, because they are with it and progressive. Why, they are even in sync with the most aggressive (anti-Semitic) anti-establishment anarchists.

We can either laugh or cry, though perhaps we should be doing the latter.

We learn the parshiyos of Devorim in which Moshe Rabbeinu admonishes the Jewish people prior to his death, as they stand at the doorstep of Eretz Yisroel. In this week’s parsha of Eikev, we read how Moshe Rabbeinu told the nation that they would be blessed if they would follow Hashem’s mitzvos. He warned them not to fear the nations around them and not to succumb to their fallacious ways and observances.

“Destroy their idols and don’t be desirous of their gold and silver, for then you will take them for yourself and Hashem despises them. Do not bring their iniquity into your home, for you will then be detested. Despise it, for it is abominable” (Devorim 7:25-26).

Moshe was saying not to adopt their idols, physical, spiritual and mental. Don’t adopt their practices and culture for yourselves, for if you do, Hashem will despise you.

Don’t attempt to follow the zeitgeist of your neighbors if it is not in keeping with Jewish custom, for it will lead you down the wrong path. And don’t compromise on time-honored values to conform with what you believe are the mores of the day, for doing so will lead you away from the practices Hashem, your G-d, has commanded you to follow.

Moshe further warns not to forget Hashem and cut observance of His mitzvos, mishpotim and chukim (Devorim 8:13).

The pesukim in chapter 8 further admonish the people, stating that should they become wealthy, they dare not become haughty and forget everything Hashem has done for them, for man does not live on bread alone; he exists by following the word of Hashem. If you think that you have earned your many possessions by yourself, through your own intelligence and hard work, you will be smitten by Hashem for not following His commandments.

We must not imagine that the Torah is open to modern day interpretations that emanate from secular theologians and common practice, for by doing so we are introducing abomination into our homes and synagogues. The same philosophy that actively pursues compromises on gender inclusion in the synagogue will also come to welcome and accommodate compromises and actions that the Torah specifically terms abominations.

For just as the Torah foretold, what began as small cracks and minor adjustments in observance has snowballed into what can only be viewed as a new form of religion, unrelated to the Torah and Orthodoxy.

The message of the parsha is direct to us as individuals as well, not only to leaders, groups and communities. Though we are in a relaxed period of the year, the words of this week’s parsha are directed to all and deserve to be studied seriously, lest we ourselves fall off the proper track.

It is easy to become enamored with our own abilities and project our successes as personal victories we earned. One who fails to work on self-improvement can easily become enamored with himself, leading not only to social problems, but deeply religious ones as well. Humility coupled with emunah and bitachon goes a long way toward making us better, healthier, and happier.

There is no better time to start than now.