Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Existing in Exile

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Parshas Vayechi marks the end of Sefer Bereishis and the profound lessons of maaseh avos siman labonim that fill its narratives. The parsha also marks the passing of Yaakov Avinu and contains his words of parting to Yosef, Menashe, Efraim and the rest of the shevatim.

The posuk tells us that when Yosef heard that his father was ill, he took his two sons, Menashe and Efraim, and went to visit him. Yaakov tells Yosef that his two sons will be “like Reuvein and Shimon to me” (48:5). He then reminds Yosef that when his beloved mother, Rochel, passed away, Yaakov buried her at the side of the road to Efras.

Returning to the subject of Yosef’s sons, he blesses them that his name and the name of his fathers, Avrohom and Yitzchok, should be attached to theirs.

Yaakov places his right hand on Efraim, the younger son, and his left hand on Menashe, the older one. Yosef is upset by this reversal. Shouldn’t Menashe’s seniority as the bechor be acknowledged by Yaakov’s right hand instead of the left? Yaakov tells him that both sons will attain greatness, but the younger one will be greater and his children’s fame will spread among the nations.

Rashi explains that this refers to Yehoshua, a descendant of Efraim, who would lead the Jewish people into Eretz Yisroel. His fame would spread amongst the nations of the world when he causes the sun to stop in Givon - “shemesh b’Givon dam.”

Finally, Yaakov blesses them with the immortal words, “Becha yevoreich Yisroel leimor, yesimcha Elokim k’Efraim u’ch’Menashe.”

There are some things that require understanding. Why did Yaakov elevate the status of Efraim and Menashe to that of the shevatim? Why is the mention of Rochel Imeinu’s burial place interjected here, in the midst of the narrative about the blessings that Yaakov gave to Yosef’s sons? What is the connection of the burial place of Rochel to the status of Efraim and Menashe?

Why, in fact, do we bless our children that they should be like Efraim and Menashe and not, for example, like Yehudah?

And why is the fact that Yehoshua led Bnei Yisroel into Eretz Yisroel reason enough to give precedence to Efraim over Menashe?

Lastly, why does the Torah only record Yosef’s bringing of his children to the ailing Yaakov? Can it be that the other brothers knew of Yaakov’s condition and didn’t come to be mevaker choleh?

A hint to the answer to these questions may be found in the first Rashi of the parsha. Parshas Vayechi is unique in that it is setumah, meaning that there is no extra space between it and the preceding parsha, unlike the general rule that a parsha begins on a new line or that it is separated from the previous one by a space of nine letters. In explaining why the parsha is a setumah, Rashi notes that with the passing of Yaakov Avinu, the shibud intensified. In other words, the golus of Mitzrayim - particularly the pain and the challenge of being a lonely minority in a hostile environment - first began to manifest at this point.

When Yaakov realized that his end was near, he decided that it was time to prepare his children and their children and descendants for life in exile

It may very well be that not only Yosef, but all the shevatim, came to visit him and to receive his blessings. The Torah only recounts the encounter with Yosef and his sons who had been born in Mitzrayim, because that was the only visit that carried a vital lesson for posterity.

Yosef was the son who had arrived first in golus and had paved the way for the Bnei Yisroel there. Though Yosef lived in golus all alone, he clung to the faith of his father and lived an exemplary life, raising worthy, upright children. Yaakov singled them out for praise and showcased them as an example of how Jews all through the generations can survive in golus.

Though they had no community of fellow observant Jews, they did not succumb to the ever-present temptations surrounding them in decadent Mitzrayim. Yaakov was showing the brothers and Jews for all time that even in exile, they can still be good Jews who are loyal to their heritage, while also conducting themselves as successful citizens of their host country.

Yaakov turned to Menashe and Efraim and said, “Becha yevoreich Yisroel,” because though they were born in the exile and lived in Egypt prior to the arrival of Yaakov and his sons, they still were as holy and pure as their cousins who had grown up under the direct influence of Yaakov.

Yaakov said that for all time, wherever they find themselves, Jews should study the example of these two scions of greatness and point to them as examples of how they want their own children to develop, despite the tumah and moral bankruptcy around them.

Yosef Hatzaddik, indeed, showed the way for Bnei Yisroel to live in golus, but he also helped prepare them for the geulah, as did his father, Yaakov. Perhaps this is hinted to by Yosef’s words in Parshas Vayigash (45:5), when he revealed himself to his brothers. He told them not to be upset or angry that they sold him into bondage, “ki lemichyah shelochani Elokim lifneichem - for Hashem sent me before you so that you may live.”

Obviously, it was preordained that there be a hunger and that the Jews would go down to exile in Mitzrayim, as Hashem told Avrohom Avinu at the Bris Bein Habesorim (Bereishis 15:13).

Yosef was telling his brothers that since they had to be in golus, it was providential that he was the first to be exiled from Eretz Yisroel, because he was able to demonstrate for those who would follow him that it was possible to live an upright life even in a pagan, immoral environment. Thus, the term “lemichyah” can be understood allegorically to mean “to show you the way to live here in the exile.”

Yosef had a history of knowing how to live in golus and how to battle the forces of evil even before he went down to Mitzrayim. The posuk (Bereishis 30:25) states that as soon as Yosef was born, Yaakov told Lavan that it was time for him go back home. Rashi explains that this was because Yosef had the power to devour Eisav. With his birth, Yaakov knew that he could leave the golus of Lavan, vanquish Eisav, and return to the Promised Land.

Yosef not only shows the way in golus, he also paves the way for geulah. Once Yosef is on the scene, Yaakov is confident that he can leave golus behind him and make it to Eretz Yisroel. That ability of Yosef to give strength and succor in golus and also to help bring about geulah was inherited from his mother, Rochel.

In connection with the posuk in which Yaakov describes the passing of Rochel and her burial at the side of the road to Efras, Rashi quotes the immortal words of Yirmiyahu Hanovi which tell us that when the Jews went into golus at the time of the churban, Rochel stood on her grave on the road they were traveling and cried out to Hashem to have mercy on the Bnei Yisroel. Rochel was the one who pleaded with G-d to be merciful with the Jews in golus and make sure they don’t lose their way.

This trait of being mindful of the pitfalls of golus and seeking to help strengthen the Jews who live there was passed on to her son, Yosef.

It is interesting to note that the second half of Yirmiyahu’s prophecy points to the other key characteristic of Yosef, and that is to help bring about the geulah. For Hashem answers Rochel, “Mini koleich mibechi…ki yeish sochor lifuloseich veshovu vonim ligvulom.” As a reward for your efforts, your children will return home.

With this, we can understand why Yaakov interjects with the tale of Rochel’s kevurah while he is blessing Yosef and his children. For Yaakov was preparing Klal Yisroel for golus and geulah and telling Yosef that his mother’s kochos hanefesh were passed on to his children. And this is the reason that he placed Efraim before Menashe, because Yehoshua, who led the Jews into Eretz Yisroel, was a descendant of Efraim. He was therefore the one who showed the Bnei Yisroel the path to geulah.

Yosef and his children not only demonstrate the way to live and survive in golus, they also lead us to the redemption. To emphasize this point, Yaakov promoted Efraim, grandfather of Yehoshua.

Yosef not only enabled Yaakov to triumph over Eisav, and not only showed how to have a kiyum in golus Mitzrayim and every golus. He also helps lead the Jewish people to geulah, not only in Yaakov’s day by enabling him to return to Eretz Yisroel, but also at the time of Yetzias Mitzrayim.

There is an allusion to this spiritual force of Yosef in Moshe Rabbeinu’s quest to find the atzmos Yosef, as the posuk (Shemos 13:19) recounts, “Ki hashbeiah hishbiah es bnei Yisroel leimor, pakod yifkod Elokim es’chem, veha’alisem es atzmosai mizeh itchem.”

Yosef foretold that eventually Hashem would redeem the Jewish people, and when that time comes, they should remove his remains from Mitzrayim. Yosef has a pivotal role to play in both golus and geulah. That is why he was the first to go into golus and why his remains were removed only after all the Jews were ready to depart.

As we go through our lives in the wonderful, benign golus of America, we would do ourselves a great service to bear in mind that as benevolent as this golus is, it is still golus. We should also remember that Hashem hears our tefillos and, in His great mercy, will send us the redeemer who will liberate us from exile.

That long-awaited arrival will be heralded by the appearance of Moshiach ben Yosef, because, as we have learned from a deeper look into this week’s parsha, Yosef shows the way to geulah. The messianic age and the ultimate geulah will also be ushered in by Yosef and his progeny.

May we merit the Heavenly response to Rochel’s tears and the arrival of Moshiach ben Yosef speedily, in our day. Amein.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Corrupting the Lines of Demarcation

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

In Parshas Vayigash, we read of the emotional climax of Yosef’s revelation to his brothers. Yehudah’s desperate plea prompted Yosef to drop his disguise and finally divulge his true identity. Before their shocked eyes, the powerful viceroy of Egypt was revealed as their long lost brother.

With tears in his eyes, Yosef told them not to fear retribution for selling him, for his odyssey as a slave turned out to be part of a Divine plan. He asked them to hurry back to Yaakov Avinu and inform him that Yosef is alive and reigning as a viceroy in Egypt.

Yosef admonished them, “Al tirgezu baderech - Do not tarry along the way.” Further on, the posuk relates that when Yaakov saw the agalos, wagons, that Yosef sent to transport him to Mitzrayim, his spirit was revived.

Why was he revived? The wagons were sent to take him away from Eretz Yisroel and into golus. Yaakov should have been upset that he was about to be leaving the Promised Land. Indeed, he was. It was only the assurance from Hakodosh Boruch Hu, Who appeared to Yaakov and told him not to fear going down to Mitzrayim - “for I will be going down with you and will bring you back” - that allayed his distress.

The Medrash quoted by Rashi explains that the agalos bore Yosef’s hidden message to his father that he still remembered the sugyah of eglah arufah that they had studied together. But why send that message via wagons? Why not send it directly through a brother?
Perhaps his action also contains an eternal hidden message. Yosef knew that the prospect of going into golus would be difficult for Yaakov and the shevatim. The word tirgezu has at its root the word rogez, which means anger. Thus, when he said, “Al tirgezu baderech,” his message was, “Don’t become angry on the journey back home,” referring also to the future golus. He was saying that although the path through golus will be long and painful, do not get angry. Remember that Hashem has sent you there as part of a Divine plan. Despite the hardships and sorrows, cling to the path of Torah until your redemption.

The agalos communicated an important guarantee: that the trip through exile would be bearable if the Jewish people bear aloft the Torah’s pristine message as transmitted by our leaders. If we carry the sugyos of Shas with us; if the images of our teachers and their lessons remain etched in our hearts; if we never lose sight of our ultimate goal and destination, we will succeed. The precepts of the Torah must remain uppermost in our minds and in everything that we do.

Yaakov was upset that he was forced once again to leave the home of his fathers. He knew that he was going down the path of exile, which would only end with the arrival of Moshiach. Yet, when he saw that despite all Yosef had endured in his own private golus, he had kept alive in his heart the sugyos they had studied together, “Vatechi ruach Yaakov avihem,” Yaakov’s spirit was revitalized. From this he drew comfort and reassurance that the Jews would persevere in the long and bitter exile.

Even after the Chanukah menorahs are put away, their flames ought to flicker in our psyches. The battle that Chanukah commemorates resurges in every age, including our own. The battle will never be totally won until Moshiach ben Dovid reveals himself.

We became comfortable in golus and forgot the message of the agalos; we lost sight of our mission and our goal. We forget that the path we walk on in exile is dangerous and treacherous, requiring constant vigilance.

We lose track of the course laid for us in the exile by our rabbeim and we let ourselves be compromised by evil people in many different guises. Our senses become dulled by the lure of money, kavod and power. Those who should know better become ensnared with impropriety once they set foot on the compromise’s slippery slope.

Our rabbeim taught us not to cross the lines of demarcation, and never to blur those lines. Yet we fall prey at times to the spirit of pragmatic thinking which defines our society, and before we know it, we’re up to our necks in muddy waters. We let ourselves be bribed by petty considerations, which blind us to the truth. We like to believe we’re guided by noble motives such as ahavas Yisroel and concern for struggling mosdos haTorah, but in fact we have allowed our judgment to be contaminated by self-serving rationales, forfeiting us of a clear vision.

Believing that we will escape any repercussions and that the truth will never emerge, we cavort with the corrupt and permit them to enjoy misbegotten power. Before we know it, we’ve allowed ourselves to become dependent on them. One step follows the other as we become compromised and complicit, patronizing and enabling perfidious behavior.

The Gemara in Maseches Sotah (22b) warns us to be wary of charlatans who portray themselves as righteous people. In secret they behave as Zimri while they seek to be honored and revered as Pinchos.

Zimri, dominated by a raging drive to sin, surrendered to his base desires and to the egging on of the masses. Openly and brazenly, he committed a cardinal sin. Upon witnessing his debased behavior, Pinchos rose heroically to the call of the hour. Shunning all personal considerations, ignoring the insults heaped upon him, he earned himself eternal gratitude by avenging Hashem’s anger, and elicited forgiveness for the Bnei Yisroel’s sins.

Due to the darkness of the exile, we confuse the ideal of Pinchos with the entreaties of Midyan’s descendants. We pollute the light of Torah by not ensuring the purity of the oil that nurtures our spiritual endeavors.

As our vision becomes distorted, we lose the message of Chanukah and its lights; we neglect to consider that the Chashmonaim merited Divine assistance precisely because they didn’t succumb to the whims of the day. They defied the rampant capitulation to the dominant Hellenist culture.

Though they could have used any oil to light the menorah, they chose to wait until they could light the menorah and consecrate the Bais Hamikdosh with oil which was unquestionably pure. Hashem in turn caused them to find a crucible of pure oil, which Medrashim say Yaakov Avinu had prepared for use in the Bais Hamikdosh.

The Chashmonaim thus sanctified Hashem’s name bechadrei chadorim, when no one would have known if they had compromised on the holiness of the Temple. Thus, they earned the eternal and much publicized reverence of the Jewish people for their heroic actions.

Those who had succumbed to fashionable trends and blurred the lines of demarcation no doubt suggested that the menorah should be kindled with defiled oil, which was technically permissible according to the rule of tumah hutrah betzibbur. Though they may have been well-intentioned, they and their memories are long forgotten.

Following the path charted for us by our rabbeim is often quite lonely and even depressing. The temptation to throw in the towel and join those who make compromises is often overwhelming. We don’t have anyone sending us agalos to lift our spirits for the journey through the exile.

In order to ensure the transmission of the pach shemen tahor, required for the flame of Torah to remain kindled in golus, we must absorb the lesson Yosef taught with the wagons. This means ensuring that the image of the flames of the Chanukah menorah continue to burn brightly within us. We will remember that victory belongs not to those who boast of wealth, status or power, but to those who battle for what is right and true.

The Mishkan was built with wood from cedar trees that Yaakov Avinu brought with him into exile on the agalos that Yosef sent him. The Bais Hamikdosh was reconsecrated with the pure oil Yaakov had prepared.

Much the same as Yosef revealed himself to his brothers in this week's parsha, Moshiach ben Yosef will reveal himself to the Jewish people as the End of Days approaches, heralding the messianic age.

Chazal teach that in every generation there lives a man who is eligible to be Moshiach who will redeem us from exile, if we are worthy. That holds true in our day as well.

If we follow the path of Yosef Hatzaddik in resisting temptation; if we keep alive the image of Yaakov Avinu who prepared the wood for the Mishkan and the pach shemen tahor for the Chashmonaim, we will hasten Moshiach ben Yosef’s long-awaited announcement that the end of pain and suffering has arrived.

As a young bochur in the Philadelphia Yeshiva, I heard a shmuess from Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l. He told of a bochur who related that he had once seen Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz zt”l. The bochur would often say that “whenever he wanted to do any monkey business,” he would think of the image of Rav Boruch Ber and that would prevent him from engaging in the dubious behavior.

Those reading this article most likely never merited seeing Rav Boruch Ber. But we all have rabbeim who nurtured us and set us out on a strong path in life. We all have - or should have - people who counsel and direct us. As one who received guidance from Maranan Rav Elazar Shach zt”l and Rav Elya Svei zt”l, I often find myself contemplating their illustrious images in my mind. No doubt many people share this experience. We wonder what they would say and what advice they would have given us.

Indeed, as the news of the day unfolds, we wonder what they would say if they were with us today. And we shudder.

They would certainly tell us that just as in the days of the Yevanim, those who battled for the inviolate purity of Torah were rewarded with witnessing the consecration of the Bais Hamikdosh, so too will it be in our day. They would beg us to resist temptation and remind us that those who remain uncorrupted will earn the sechar of Yosef, Pinchos and the Chashmonaim.

We wait for that to transpire, speedily and in our day.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bayomim Haheim Bazeman Hazeh

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Yavan sought the destruction of the Jewish people during the period of the Chashmonaim, because Judaism represented the antithesis of all that Greek philosophy stood for. The two belief systems clashed so diametrically that they could not co-exist. The Greeks were determined for their philosophy to hold dominion over the civilized world. Judaism had to therefore be uprooted.

The philosophy of Yavan deified man. The Greeks extolled the human body and worshipped rational thought and intellectual ability. Greek philosophers believed that man could control his own destiny by virtue of his superior intelligence. They idolized brilliant philosophers such as Aristotle, seeing their intellectual accomplishments as the epitome of human achievement. Greek culture glorified Olympic sport champions for their physical prowess, believing the perfection of the body to be a supreme end in itself.

Judaism’s doctrine that man is subservient to a supreme Divine power that controls human destiny was intolerable to Yavan. The very concept that the purpose of human existence is to serve the Creator, and that each of man’s 248 limbs and 365 tendons were fashioned for this one overriding aim, was anathema to the Greeks. Judaism was so threatening to their outlook on life that they went to extreme measures to eradicate it.

For years, the Jews resisted the lures of Greek philosophy. As time went on, however, Yavan’s Hellenization began chipping away at the spiritual foundations of the Jewish people. So much ground had been lost by time the Maccabis began their revolt that the majority of the nation had fallen under the influence of the Hellenists.

The Maccabis, so few in number, went to war against an overpowering Greek military force and, against all odds, emerged victorious. They took back possession of the Bais Hamkidosh, which had been thoroughly defiled by the Greeks. The purified and reconsecrated Bais Hamikdosh lasted another two hundred years, until its ultimate destruction at the hands of the Romans.

We celebrate the victory of the Chashmonaim for eight days of Chanukah. We recite Hallel, light the menorah and insert Al Hanissim in our tefillos. Yet, not everyone understands the full scope of the Chashmonaim’s hard-won victory.

Far from being a lasting military or political triumph, its true significance lay in the spiritual realm. Its most profound achievement was its reversal of the tide of assimilation brought about by Hellenism, and the vindication of Jewish belief and the Torah way of life.

The prayer of Al Hanissim which we recite on Chanukah highlights this spiritual impact of the military victory. The text of this tefillah is much longer and more detailed than the similar tefillah we say on Purim. On Purim, we thank Hashem for saving us from the evil plans of Haman by reversing his plot against him. On Chanukah, however, we go into much greater detail and thank Hashem for every facet of the victory. We declare that Hashem was merciful in a time of great need. He fought His people’s battles, presided over their judgments and exacted their revenge. We thank Him for causing the mighty to fall into the hands of the weak, and the many to be trounced by the few. We celebrate that those who were defiled were defeated by the holy, the wicked subdued by the righteous, the scoffers by the Torah scholars.

We conclude Al Hanissim by mentioning how after their deliverance, the Jews cleaned and purified the Bais Hamikdosh and kindled the lights there, later on establishing this eight-day holiday to give thanks and praise to Hashem.

It would appear that the relative brevity of the prayer thanking Hashem for the Purim miracle is because it was clear to the Jews of Mordechai’s and Esther’s day that they were saved only by Divine intervention. The struggle with the Yevanim that led to Chanukah, on the other hand, was protracted and took place over a longer period of time, during which the Jewish people suffered many defeats and losses before finally emerging victorious. It was possible to offer opposing theories to explain the Maccabi victory and not discern Hashem’s Hand in the victories, as striking as they were.

Though the Jews were vastly outnumbered and outclassed by the powerful Greeks, skeptics were able to rationalize the victories, much as they do in our day. The tiny country of Israel has been vastly outnumbered in its many wars and still managed to repeatedly triumph over its enemies. Nevertheless, non-believers credit Jewish ingenuity and strategy for the miraculous victories. In the days of the Maccabis, there no doubt were skeptics who similarly denied the Divine assistance, attributing the battles’ outcome to natural occurrences.

The miracle of the menorah could not be rationalized away in this manner. When the contents of one small crucible of oil that was sufficient for only one day burned for eight, even the most die-hard skeptics had to admit the truth: only Hashem could alter nature to make this happen. They were forced to acknowledge that the Jews had returned to the Bais Hamikdosh by Divine right.

But even more important, they realized in hindsight that the victories on the battlefield were also supernatural. The underlying Yavan philosophy that man creates his own destiny through a combination of human strength, intelligence, determination and willpower to determine the course of history was thoroughly discredited.

When we discuss the miraculous period in Al Hanissim, we underscore this idea. We go to great lengths to stress that it was Hashem Who suspended the natural order to orchestrate all the events, even those which could have been explained rationally.

Additionally, in commemorating the miracles, we light the menorah for eight days and proclaim our belief that the military victories were as miraculous as the oil burning for eight days.

It is interesting that the Hebrew word for oil, shemen, lies at the root of the word for eight, shemonah. Perhaps this is a hint to the fact that Hashem created oil with the properties that cause it to provide light, so that it would burn brightly and clearly in the Bais Hamikdosh for the eight days which we celebrate. Eight is the number that signifies a supernatural essence. Seven is tevah, nature, while eight is lemaalah min hatevah. The neis of Chanukah was lemaalah min hatevah couched in tevah. The victories of the Macabbis were miracles cloaked in tevah. It required the perception of the men of belief to recognize that all that transpired during that period was directed from Above.

This is what we commemorate as we recite Al Hanissim and light the menorah. We proclaim that we recognize that all of tevah is really lemaalah min hatevah. We declare that all that transpires is Divinely ordained. Shemen and shemonah are intertwined. Jewish survival itself is possible only through constant, ongoing miracles. Nothing that affects us as a people occurs by natural cause and effect; everything is part of a plan.

Bayomim haheim bazeman hazeh. So too, in our day, it may appear to scoffers that the laws of nature determine winners and losers, but as believers in Hashem and students of Torah and history, we recognize that we are as putty in the Hand of the Master Craftsman and nothing happens by chance.

And though at times evil and bad people triumph, their prestige and clout is temporary and fleeting. Their manipulation of the media and those in power never lasts. Eventually they are outed when the truth emerges and they are relegated to the ash heap of history, to be remembered forever with the scorn and derision they so richly deserve.

In good times and in bad, whether we succeed at parnassah or struggle, in times of recession and prosperity, in good health and illness, and in happiness and sorrow, let us remember that nothing happens at random.

By clinging to the Torah and our belief in Hashem’s love for us, by remaining loyal to the mitzvos despite hardship, we determine our destiny. May we all merit redemption from the evils and dangers that surround us in exile. May the lights of our menorah dispel the darkness of the golus. And may we witness the dedication of the Third Bais Hamikdosh and the luminous glow of the menorah ablaze with holiness, speedily in our day.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Where the Maccabis Are

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Recently, I was standing on the side of a large wedding hall speaking to someone, when a man came charging out of the kitchen bellowing at us to move, stating that we were in the way of the waiters carrying their trays to and from the kitchen.

Like most people, I don’t appreciate being yelled at. I asked the screamer to please speak politely. He became angrier and shouted roughly, “Move! Get out of here!”

“Why do you have to scream?” I asked him. “Couldn’t you just let us know that we’re in someone’s way? We’d be happy to move!”

The man raised his voice even louder, flinging insulting words at us. I tried again, asking him why he was screaming. Why couldn’t he speak like a mentch? Instead of getting a grip on himself, the fellow lost it, hollering so loud that I was afraid he would get violent. We moved away before he totally lost control.

I feel very bad for a guy who apparently reacts to annoyance or inconvenience by shouting at people. I would venture to say that we have all met individuals who fit this description, who think nothing of embarrassing people in public by exploding at them. Imagine going through life making a spectacle of yourself by constantly dumping on others that way.

If these individuals would possess the self-discipline to remain calm in the face of frustration, they could accomplish their goals and at the same time preserve their dignity. They would be healthier physically and emotionally. Even more important, learning to control their anger and treat people with respect would make them better Jews.

The story of Yehudah and Tamar in Parshas Vayeishev has an important message for us on this subject. Tamar was prepared to be burnt alive, rather than embarrass Yehudah. In her eyes, sparing Yehudah from humiliation took priority over preserving her own life.

Rashi points out that this story is the source for the Gemara in Sotah (10b) and Bava Metziah (59a), which teach that it is better for a person to throw himself into a fire than to cause public embarrassment to another person.

Tosafos in Sotah asks that if one is required to jump into fire rather than humiliate another person, then it follows that publicly humiliating another person is equal to the three aveiros a Jew must avoid even at the cost of his life. It is yeihoreig ve’al yaavor. Why, then, is the sin of humiliating a fellow Jew publicly not listed with the three most severe aveiros?
Tosafos answers that halbonas ponim, shaming someone publicly, is not included in the cardinal sins of avodah zarah, gilui arayos and shefichas domim, because those three are commandments that are explicitly stated in the Torah and halbonas ponim is not.
Tosafos takes the Gemara very literally and rules that publicly humiliating a person is as severe as killing the person.

Rabbeinu Yonah holds like Tosafos, while other Rishonim, such as the Me’iri in Brachos (43a), Sotah (10a) and Kesubos (77b) argue. Their position is that the Gemara’s intention is to underscore the seriousness of halbonas ponim, while not attaching the same severity to it as to the three cardinal sins.

Whichever view we follow, it’s clear that publicly disgracing a person is regarded by Chazal in the most grave and severe terms.

Yet, this lapse of middos is not uncommon in our interactions. We often find ourselves speaking to people hurtfully in public, sometimes without even realizing what we are doing. We are caught up in the urgency of the moment, and we trample on other people’s feelings without being aware of it.

Being sensitive to other people’s feelings is not merely good manners; it actually defines who we are at our core. One who loses himself and insults others publicly reveals his neshama’s lack of refinement. This is far more serious than a temporary lapse of mentchlichkeit. Without intending it, one may be guilty of committing an act that is equivalent to one of the cardinal sins.

What lies behind the impulse to become incensed with and lash out at others? Often, it’s nothing more complex than feelings of outrage that someone actually has the nerve to oppose me, to show me less than total compliance or submission. In a manner characteristic of little children, we are sometimes blinded by our immediate needs and forget that we are not the center of the universe. Such feelings arise from the egocentric notion that everyone was created to service us.

Chazal therefore say, “Kol hako’eis ke’ilu oveid avodah zarah - One who becomes angry is like one engaged in avodah zarah.” For he has demonstrated that the Torah does not command his devotion. He worships instead his own importance, his own impulses and desires.

Chanukah is a time when we are all on our best behavior. The joy of the day brings those good spirits and good feelings to the surface. As we light the menorah, we usher in eight days of simcha. When we stand before the menorah and perform the same act Jews have been performing for two thousand years, it does something to our soul and touches us in a spontaneous way.

When we utter brachos thanking Hashem for performing miracles for our grandparents, it causes us to revisit our priorities in life and to consider the things in life that are of lasting importance. We suddenly become less petty. Our preoccupation with nonsense shrinks. When a Jew realizes that everything he has comes from Hashem, and all that transpires is ordained by Him, he resists the urge to fume and rant when all is not exactly as he wishes it to be.

The lights of the menorah signify the eternal essence of the Jew and the indomitable power of the Torah. Engaging in the mitzvah of ner Chanukah opens the door to a higher dimension, where one can draw the spiritual strength necessary to rise above frustration and disappointment, and to bend one’s nature to do Hashem’s will.

Our challenge is to maintain that simchah and peace of mind all year round and to always be conscious of the fact that Hashem cares for us and for all of Am Yisroel at all times. Were we to be mindful of that reality and of the fact that mitzvos elevate and brighten our lives, we would more often be besimchah, far less vulnerable to outbursts of anger and irritation.

On Erev Pesach, we use a candle to search for hidden chometz, for Chazal teach that a ner lights up the crevices where chometz may have fallen and remained hidden throughout the year. In the same manner, the ner we light every night of Chanukah in the darkness of golus possesses the ability to penetrate the cracks in our neshamos where melancholy, sadness and anger reside. The tiny flames purge us of the undesirable middos caused by these negative emotions.

Every Jewish heart has the ability to be compassionate, humble and unselfish. One who accomplishes his obligations and fulfills the role for which he was created finds the pachei shemen which light up his life with mitzvos and maasim tovim.

They are the people whose lives make a difference in their own immediate circle and in the broader community. They are the ones who are kind and considerate to their family members and employees, who spend their days and nights raising money for the needy, visiting the sick, supporting Torah, comforting the abused, supporting the ones at risk, and making the world a better place.

They are the Maccabis of every generation, the role models and true heroes worthy of our reverence. They keep the light of Torah and chessed alive. And they prepare the world for Moshiach. May we merit his arrival in our day.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Lonely Perfection

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Vayivaseir Yaakov levado vayei’oveik ish imo ad alos hashachar - And Yaakov stood alone and a man wrestled with him until morning.” The posuk in this week’s parsha recounts that while Yaakov Avinu was left alone, the angel of Eisav approached to tussle with him. Rashi quotes the Medrash which derives from this verse that Yaakov had returned to this site of his camp to fetch pachim ketanim which he had left behind. It was when he was alone that Eisav’s angel caught up with him.

The sefer Imrei Shefer (Shabbos 21, b) quotes a Medrash which states that in the merit of Yaakov returning for pachim ketanim, the Chashmonaim found a pach shemen with the seal of the Kohein Gadol.

The question is obvious. What does the miracle of Chanukah have to do with the fact that Yaakov left his camp and returned for pachim? Obviously, there is more to this lesson than the use of the words pachim and pach.

Yaakov returned for the small pachim alone, and the inference is that only Yaakov had the presence of mind to return for these small possessions. Lesser people wouldn’t go back for such small, seemingly inconsequential items. But to Yaakov, and to tzaddikim like him, everything in this world is here for a purpose. Nothing here is extra and nothing is inconsequential. They utilize every minute of their lives for noble purposes and to them no period of time is insignificant.

The actual language of the Medrash is that Hashem said to Yaakov that because you were moser nefesh for pachim ketanim for me, I will reward your children with a pach koton in the days of the Chashmonaim.

At first glance, the language stating that Yaakov did this act for Hashem is difficult to understand. After further reflection, however, we can understand it by comprehending that Yaakov returned for the pachim because he recognized that every one of man’s possessions is a gift from Hashem and is given to us to utilize and not waste. To people who value what they have, din perutah kedin me’ah, they treat a penny with the same respect as they treat a hundred dollars. Additionally, they treat all people the same, no matter how simple the people appear to be, because they know that all human beings were created in the image of Hashem.

There is nothing trivial and unimportant. Nothing is overlooked. They seek perfection in all their actions and never cut corners.

Tzaddikim do not fear being alone, if that is the price they must pay for their fidelity to honesty, faithfulness and morality.

Chazal state that because Yaakov was levado, alone, he merited to be saved from Eisav’s angel.

It is interesting to note that it is from this word, levado, in the posuk, that Chazal derive that Yaakov returned for the small items. Perhaps this is the source of the lesson that in the merit of the pachim ketanim, the pach shemen was found. Because the Chashmonaim did not fear being alone in their day, they merited a miraculous deliverance. Most of the Jewish people back then were convinced that they had to compromise with the Hellenists in order to survive. Thus, the Chashmonaim were outnumbered in the smaller and larger pictures of their own community and in the world in general. But they weren’t impressed and remained loyal to their ideals and the truth.

They were like their forefather Yaakov and in that merit they found the untainted small jug with which to light the menorah and thus re-consecrate the Bais Hamikdosh.

The Bnei Chashmonai were not born fighters. In fact, they were descendants of Aharon Hakohein, the quintessential man of peace. They were holy people in whose hearts burned an uncompromising, insatiable desire to rid the world of evil. As we recite in the immortal words of Al Hanisim, they were few and they were weak. But they were righteous. And they had the courage of their convictions. They refused to subjugate themselves to the profane practices and worldview of the Hellenists no matter how unpopular their position was. Under the leadership of Matisyahu ben Yochanan Kohein Gadol, this handful of die-hard tzaddikim and oskei Torah rose up to provide leadership for a dejected, suppressed people. Hashem took note of their courage and self-sacrifice and empowered them with the ability to rally the Bnei Yisroel and to emerge victorious over a powerful and deeply entrenched enemy.
Every night of Chanukah, as we light the menorah, we remember this lesson. With its roots branching out from the time Yaakov Avinu had to fend off the angel of Eisav because he was concerned about pachim ketanim, to the avodah of Aharon Hakohein in the Mishkan, the lighting of the menorah is to remind us of Yaakov’s lessons and how Aharon and his family ascended to the kehunah.
At the time of the sin of the eigel, Moshe Rabbeinu proclaimed, “Mi laHashem eilay - Let all the men of G-d appear before me.” The tribe of Levi rallied to the side of Moshe.
Aharon and his tribe did not take a poll to see which side would win. They didn’t take a head count to try to determine which side would emerge victorious from the battle. Moshe needed them and they rose to the occasion. Hashem caused them to win and beat back the idolaters and thus the plague that threatened the Jewish people was squelched.That same fire for Hashem and His Torah burned in the hearts of his grandchildren, the Chashmonaim, and thanks to them, the forces of evil were defeated. They, too, didn’t check to see which way the wind was blowing before taking action. They were not manipulated by public opinion. They did not seek compromise in the face of the campaign to separate the Jewish people from the Torah.

The Sefer Chashmonaim, Medrash Chanukah, 2, recounts that when Mattisyahu ben Yochanon Kohein Gadol saw that the Jews weren’t able to observe the Torah, he commanded his son Yehudah to go forth to the cities of Yehuda and call out “Mi laHashem eilay,” When they heard the call of “Mi laHashem eilay,” the Maccabim answered without hesitation just as Aharon Hakohein and his tribe. They found the strength within their souls to battle evil and thus caused the spirit of G-d to return to the Bais Hamikdosh.

Therefore, we celebrate the miraculous military victory of Chanukah by lighting the menorah - the same menorah that Aharon Hakohein lit, the same menorah that Matisyahu ben Yochanan Kohein Gadol lit, and the same menorah that our forefathers lit throughout the ages of the exile under Eisav’s progeny. In our day, too, there is a kolah delo posik, a silent call emanating from Sinai and from the Har Habayis and from every bais medrash around the world. “Mi laHashem eilay,” it proclaims. Those of us who light the menorah hear it and answer, “Hininee shalcheini - You can count on me; I will make myself worthy of this mission.” We light the menorah and remind ourselves that we are up to the sacred task.

Too many people seek to advance their own careers and agendas without regard for what is right. People try to gauge which side will win and then line up on that side. As soon as they sense a shift in public opinion, their allegiance does a turnabout. People trade their ideals and commitments in order to not be left standing alone.

People minimize the accomplishments of others and mock them. They aren’t careful with other people’s possessions and don’t appreciate all the blessings that Hashem has granted them. There are those who compromise with evil and rationalize their actions by saying that they must do this to stay a step ahead of the competition and the nations of the world who seek our destruction.

The Ponzi scheme operators who made headlines over the past year seemed to have it all. They possessed fame, wealth, homes, cars, and everything else a ben Olam Hazeh covets. But it didn’t last long. Not for them and not for those whose greed supplanted their good judgment.

So it is with all who seek accommodation with Eisav and his ways. They seem to be enjoying the blessings this world has to offer, but it is all fleeting. Only those who treasure pachim ketanim and their lessons can merit the Divine assistance necessary for true success.

We need to have the strength to be prepared to go it alone and not with the flow. We have to maintain the courage to remain in the dalet amos shel halacha and not necessarily where the crowds and cameras are. We have to know that fame and fortune are not reserved for the pragmatic ones who eschew eternal truths for temporary gain.
We must recognize the lessons Yaakov taught us by returning to retrieve Hashem’s blessings, minute as they were. We must not fear being alone, for when we walk in the valley of loneliness of the principled, upstanding and uncompromising, Hashem will walk alongside us and spare us from the Eisavs of the generation who seek to trip us on our trek through life.