Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Dual Legacy

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz


In Parshas Yisro, we learn of Kabbolas HaTorah. Following the makkos heaved upon the Mitzriyim, Krias Yam Suf freeing the Jewish people, and the accompanying revelations of Hashem’s might, Klal Yisroel was finally ready to become the Am Hashem and receive the Torah.

It is interesting to note that the parsha that depicts Matan Torah is named for a foreigner, Yisro, and not for the gift we received on Har Sinai. Another intriguing anomaly is that the Torah interrupts the account of the Jews’ escape from Mitzrayim and the apex of their journey at Midbar Sinai to tell the seemingly tangential story of Yisro’s arrival.

The part of the parsha that discusses Matan Torah should have continued from the conclusion of Parshas Beshalach, having described the miraculous crossing of the Yam Suf, the deliverance of the life-sustaining monn and Hashem’s intervention saving the newly freed people when challenged in battle by Amaleik. Why is the flow of the narrative depicting the journey to Midbar Sinai to receive the Torah interrupted by the story of Yisro’s arrival?

What lessons are implicit in the narrative of Yisro that justifies its insertion after the description of Krias Yam Suf, prior to Matan Torah? Apparently, there are lessons involved in his tale that are necessary for a proper acceptance of the Torah at Har Sinai.

The parsha begins with the words “Vayishma Yisro - And Yisro heard.” Rashi quotes the Gemara in Maseches Zevochim, which asks what Yisro heard that prompted him to leave Midyon and join the traveling Jews. The Gemara answers that he heard about Krias Yam Suf and Milchemes Amaleik. Upon hearing of those events, he left his Midyon home and traveled to the desert to join the wandering Jews.

It is easy to understand why Krias Yam Suf could impact a thinking person to leave the comfort of his home and revered position to investigate what was special about a people for whom the laws of nature were abrogated. The open and evident display of Hakadosh Boruch Hu’s care for His people and the awe and power He displayed to bring about their independence could convince an observer that this group of freed slaves was a chosen nation.

However, the second stimulus for Yisro’s trip is more difficult to comprehend. Why would Amaleik’s vicious attack draw someone close to Klal Yisroel?

We can understand this by recognizing that Yisro was a spiritually sophisticated person of depth. From the vehement opposition to the nascent nation by the wicked people of Amaleik, he reasoned that there must be something truthful about them in order to arouse such strong antagonism. Truth is never universally lauded. In fact, it is often condemned and bitterly opposed. The fierce opposition alerted him to the fact that Judaism is worth examining from up close. A meaningful connection to the Creator comes with resistance from those who deny the truth.

The truth carries responsibilities and forces people who follow it to act a certain way. Amaleik, the classic scoffer, disdains truth and attacks it with a vengeance. Admiring and recognizing the existence of a Creator and superiority of the way of life He prescribed carries the risk that the observer may have to reject an immoral, hedonistic lifestyle. Thus, the truth is commonly ignored and battled. Yisro, a person who throughout his life sought to find the truth, understood that a nation with a purpose will, by its very nature, elicit terrible enmity.

Throughout the ages, Klal Yisroel has always felt the uniqueness of its role as Hashem’s people. Being the chosen ones has engendered much kinah and sinah. As Chazal say, the mountain upon which the Torah was given to man is called Har Sinai, because along with the Torah, sinah yordah le’olam, a supernatural hatred for the Jews descended upon the world.

Obviously, Yisro was not the only one who heard about Krias Yam Suf and Milchemes Amaleik. One would imagine that there were few people who hadn’t heard about these two earth-shattering events. Why did the miracles galvanize only Yisro?

Everyone knew about them. Everyone had to have been impressed, even awed. Some might have even been inspired. The entire world might have been nispo’el, but it was for a mere moment, not long enough for the miracle to impact the heart. A fleeting impression was all they experienced, before quickly returning to their old habits of thought. They reverted to being exactly the way they were before they were amazed by the power of Hashem. They refused to let their momentary inspiration have any lasting impact on their lives.

The only person who heard about Krias Yam Suf and Milchemes Amaleik and was affected long-term by the events was Yisro. He was the only one who permitted the experience to transform his life.

The pesukim recount: “Vayichad Yisro… - And Yisro rejoiced over all the goodness that Hakadosh Boruch Hu did for the Jews and rescued them from Mitzrayim… And he said, ‘Now I know that Hashem is greater than all the gods… And he brought korbanos to Hashem…”

No one else came to the Bnei Yisroel in the midbar, saying, “Atah yodati kee gadol Hashem.” Everyone else remained with their pagan beliefs. They couldn’t be bothered to explore anything that might require them to abandon an easy life.

This is why the Torah interrupts the chapter of the Bnei Yisroel’s excursion in the midbar to tell the tale of Yisro’s arrival. A prerequisite for Kabbolas HaTorah is to let the experience of Hashem’s majesty envelop the mind and the senses so that one draws closer to Torah and G-dliness.

My grandfather, Rav Eliezer Levin zt”l, would often refer to a concept he absorbed in Kelm of “kelbeneh hispaalus,” referring to cows that would feed on the grass that grew on train tracks. When they heard the train approaching, they’d frighteningly scamper off, only to find their way back after the noise had abated.

Divine acts are intended to teach us the power of Hashem. Torah demands that “hisorerus” have a lasting impact leading to improvement and growth.

That was the lesson of Yisro and that is why his parsha was placed before Kabbolas HaTorah. That is why the parsha of Kabbolas HaTorah is named for Yisro, the convert.

Vayishma Yisro. We have to be open to hearing and examining what is going on and learn from what transpires to dedicate our lives to the truth and living honest and upstanding lives.

The Torah further recounts that Yisro noticed that Moshe Rabbeinu was teaching halachos and judging the Jewish people from morning until night. Yisro advised Moshe that the system was improper. He urged Moshe to set up a well-functioning court system in which other people would adjudicate the simpler cases and the more difficult ones would be brought to him.

Yisro told Moshe that the present system, with him paskening all the shailos, was too difficult to sustain and would end up destroying him. Yisro advised him to choose competent dayonim whom he could teach the halachos so that they would be knowledgeable enough to educate the people.

Yisro urged Moshe to get Divine approval for the new system and thus be able to function optimally.

Yisro was a newcomer to the Bnei Yisroel’s camp. He wasn’t the first person to see what was happening to Moshe Rabbeinu. Everyone saw that Moshe was consumed all day long with dinei Torah. Anyone could have observed that it wasn’t sustainable. Anyone could have devised a more effective system to allow Moshe Rabbeinu to spend his time more productively. Anyone could have realized, as Yisro did, that Moshe would become exhausted from the grueling regimen and unceasing pressure.

Everyone saw it. Anyone could have realized where it would lead, but no one did anything about it. It took Yisro to internalize what he saw and to do something constructive to address it.

Yisro saw, Yisro cared, and Yisro spoke up. Hakadosh Boruch Hu and Moshe Rabbeinu accepted his proposal.

Yisro spoke up and saved Moshe from becoming physically exhausted. The Torah honored him for this worthy deed by naming the parsha for him. This is why the lessons imparted by Yisro’s deeds are inserted into the narrative describing the supernatural events leading up to Matan Torah.

Yisro taught us that everyone has the potential for greatness to the point of being worthy of having a parsha in the Torah named for him. One must care enough to notice what is going on around him, draw the right conclusions, and try to remedy the situation.

Every one of us has the ability to improve the world. Each of us can reach out and help others. We can all bring meaning and warmth to the lives of our neighbors, friends and fellow Jews. If only we cared, if only we tried. If only we took Yisro’s example to heart.

Yisro taught us that we can all make a difference. In our day, though, we have become apathetic about many causes. Things have been going so well for us for so long that when a problem develops, we imagine that it will be dealt with and made to go away with minimal effort. Thus, many issues go unaddressed.

Think back to the Rubashkin saga. An article by a writer who devoted much time and ink to covering the Agriprocessors kosher meat company provides insight into the thinking of those who targeted the plant and the people who owned and ran it.

Nathaniel Popper related what caused him to go on a tear against the Postville slaughterhouse: “What was it that so riveted our attention? It was never articulated and it took me a while to see it, but this one story had managed to distill some of the most essential questions and issues that are dividing and defining the Jewish community and indeed religious communities of all stripes today.

“These divisions are, at their most basic, about the proper way to interpret religious law and values: Should we read our ancient texts literally or adapt them to a changing world?

“The Agriprocessors plant slaughtered chickens and cows according to a group of laws - known as kashrut - that have been refined and codified over centuries in books like the Shulchan Aruch. Bearded, Orthodox rabbis had buzzed around the Agriprocessors plant making sure these laws were being followed.

“When allegations about the working conditions at the company first came to public attention through my 2006 reporting, these Orthodox rabbis vouched for the company. But a group of progressive, socially engaged, and mostly clean-shaven rabbis decided to visit the plant themselves. After a tour of the plant and town, these rabbis said that while the company seemed to be in compliance with narrow kosher laws, there was less attention being paid to another, less codified set of Jewish rules about the proper way to treat workers.

“These rules do not loom large in everyday Jewish life - there is little contemporary rabbinic legislation on the proper minimum wage - but they are strikingly consonant with modern concerns about human dignity and equality. The rabbis pushing this agenda might be compared, in secular terms, with Supreme Court justices like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer who seek to interpret old legal doctrines through a modern lens. As part of this push, these rabbis, who were representing the Conservative movement, created a new program, known as the Hekhsher Tzedek or Justice Certification, which aims to evaluate the business ethics of kosher producers.

“The Hekhsher Tzedek generated intense pushback in large segments of the Orthodox community, where there is a belief in strict adherence to the laws set down in the Jewish holy texts - these are the Antonin Scalias of the Jewish world, to continue the Supreme Court analogy. One influential Orthodox rabbi told me, ‘I don’t keep kosher because of some sense that it is the right thing to do socially - I do it because G-d said so.’”

We, who observe Torah and the laws of kashrus, are viewed and depicted as members of a backward group that doesn’t care about the welfare of animals and how people are treated. We are money-grubbing shylocks, looking to squeeze profit from pounds of flesh.

We let hair grow on our faces. We aren’t clean-shaven and professional-looking. We aren’t progressive in action or thought, and we refuse to adapt to the modern era. We prefer to remain cultists frozen in a time warp.

That is the perception that the media sold with a straight face.

Popper also decried the campaign to help pay for Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin’s defense: “This campaign for Sholom Rubashkin,” he wrote, “has faced skepticism from progressive Jews - many of whom had spent months trying to help the immigrants put in jail after the raid. In standing up for the immigrants, the non-Orthodox rabbis have fought for a more explicitly universal vision of mankind, in which a Guatemalan Catholic has the same weight as a Brooklyn Jew.”

The people who battled Rubashkin, shechitah and the Shulchan Aruch deny that we are an Am Hanivchor. They are bothered by our success. They seek to undermine our way of life and target the things dearest to us.

Popper took one last jab at observant Jews in his article: “It is the very vitriol and divisive nature of the Agriprocessors debates that is one of the most characteristic elements of the increasingly polarized Jewish community of today. Progressive Jews passionate about social justice and Orthodox Jews unswerving in Talmudic law have interacted less and less in recent years, and disagreed more and more...”

To be clear, the battle wasn’t only against Agri. It was against Jews who hew to the Shulchan Aruch and Talmudic law. It was just another shot at us from those who see themselves as inheritors of the mantle of the Maskilim of the past centuries who also did not rest as they used the media and government to agitate against ehrliche Yidden.

When charges were brought against the company for hiring underage workers and taking advantage of illegal immigrants, we asked our readers not to rush to judgment, but to wait until the accused had a chance to defend themselves in a court of law. All the other charges bandied about in the media were allegations based on hearsay and did not deserve to be treated as fact, though regrettably they were.

In fact, when the government did go to court on the charges relating to worker abuse, the defendants were found not guilty. It made no difference, though. The narrative had been repeated so many times and the stereotype of religious Jews had already set in. Thus, the not-guilty finding following a fair hearing was a mere asterisk.

The leading media in this country formed a figurative lynch mob and went after Agriprocessors with the obvious intent of destroying the company. They slammed it with all kinds of false allegations, as if it were a cattle-and-man-killing jungle of the early 1900s.

When Amaleik perceives that he can’t destroy us, he slanders us and tells the world that we don’t know how to treat animals or people. He says that we are mean, vicious and heartless. The compliant media promotes the canards.

In September of 2008, the nation’s “newspaper of record” ran a story headlined “Kosher Plant Accused of Inhumane Slaughter.” PETA, the radical animal rights group, was behind the accusation.

In the fifth paragraph, the article stated that the Department of Agriculture (USDA) found the plant to be “in full compliance with humane slaughter regulations.”

The sensational headline was intended not to inform, but to aid and abet the smear campaign against kosher slaughter.

Examples abound of the attempts to minimize our accomplishments and cause our neighbors and those less observant to scorn us and to deride our accomplishments in this country.

The New York Times, in its lead editorial on August 1, 2008, described the Agri plant as follows:

“A slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, develops an ugly reputation for abusing animals and workers. Reports of dirty, dangerous conditions at the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant accumulate for years… The plant has been called a kosher ‘Jungle.’ …The conditions at the Agriprocessors plant cry out for the cautious and deliberate application of justice…”

It wasn’t that long ago that pogroms were perpetrated against the Jewish population by illiterate peasants egged on by the Church and government authorities.

Today, thankfully, they don’t come after us with sticks, knives and guns; blood libels are a thing of the past. Today, instead of knives and spears, the warmongers’ implements of battle are words put forth by compliant media outlets.

Just this past week, we experienced much of the same following the passing of a Williamsburg Yid apparently at the hand of hired killers. All previously held journalistic standards were thrown out the window to blame the victim. He owned buildings in poor neighborhoods, so he was libelously labeled a “slumlord,” with all the evil connotations the word symbolizes. He owed people money, so he was a crook. He was Hasidic, so he was guilty until proven innocent.

People were revolted by a particular headline, and much invective was hurled in the direction of that New York paper, but the underlying assault on the character of a Yid who died a tragic death was permitted to fester. Nobody who spoke about him knew him. No one examined his books and no one spoke to his tenants, friends, family and those who knew him and did business with him. Yet, it became an urban legend, accepted as fact that this guy wasn’t exactly straight.

What does it say about us that in our day and age, after all we have been through, and all the awareness of the severity of lashon hara, we permitted the stories of Amaleik to take hold?

I had never met Reb Menachem Stark, or any member of his family, but I was drawn to be menachem avel last week. His parents, in-laws, wife, children and siblings, as well as the people who filled the house, seemed to be eminently fine, heimishe people, proud of their family built on the ashes of the Holocaust through many years of hard work and much siyata diShmaya.

The Torah relates how Yisro went to Moshe, “to the desert.” Obviously, if he went to Moshe, he went to the desert, for that was where Moshe and the Jews were to be found. Rashi explains that the Torah is actually saying this in praise of Yisro.

Yisro was sitting “bekvodo shel olam.” He was coming from an environment where he enjoyed prestige and notoriety as a leading light among the cognoscenti of that age. Despite this, he was prepared to venture out into the barren desert in order to seek out the truth of the Torah.

In order to appreciate the beauty and timeless truth of the Torah, we must be prepared to abandon what might appear to be enlightenment based on the prevailing values of society. Journalists and self-styled intellectuals whose self-respect is dependent on viewing themselves as progressive, socially-engaged, clean-shaven examples of enlightened Jews unshackled by ancient traditions cannot perceive the derocheha darchei noam inherent in Torah and mitzvos. They make a career out of painting ehrliche Yidden as backward, insensitive, unsophisticated barbarians incapable of their own refined sensibilities. If we learn, we are parasites, if we work, we cheat. If we own a business we take advantage of our employees. We are all depicted as being dishonest, careless and heartless.

We must have the courage to stand up to those who seek to undermine us and our distinct way of life. If there are things that require improvement, they should be rectified, but there is no excuse for tarring an entire community of believers with the same broad brush.

We have to take Yisro’s message to heart and not be afraid to withstand the ridicule of the Midyonites who surround us.

The posuk (19, 5-6) states, “Im shomoa tishmeu bekoli - If you will follow My word and heed the Torah, you will be treasured to Me from all the nations of the world. Ve’atem tihiyu li mamleches kohanim vegoy kadosh - And you will be unto Me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”

No matter what we encounter, we must follow the precepts of the Torah. We must honor the interests of the poor and the downtrodden, be honest in all our dealings, seek to be mekadeish Sheim Shomayim in all we do, and remain loyal to each other and to the laws of the Torah and the land.

We must know and remember that America is a gift from G-d. Never in our history has there been as charitable and welcome a host as this country. We came here as poor refugees, streaming in to escape the Russian pogroms and the Nazi Holocaust. Barely surviving, we limped in. With the help and backing of this magnificent country, we have become a thriving community. We must always remember to be thankful for the opportunities and freedoms offered us by the greatest country ever known to man.

The Vilna Gaon speaks of the process of the Jew in golus. Basing himself on sources in Kabbolah, the Gaon describes how the neshomah of Klal Yisroel, the Torah itself, left the collective guf of our nation at the time of the churban Bais Hamikdosh. The structure of the guf alone remained, and through years of golus, it has been slowly rotting, the bones decaying. The longer we are in golus, the more we lack. During the period leading up to the geulah, the Torah slowly returns to us and we get our breath back. When Moshiach comes, the neshomah of Am Yisroel will once again be invested in us and we will flourish as before.

Until that day, we must bear in mind that inherent in the golus experience is Milchemes Amaleik, a natural sinah engendered by the lonely sheep that dwells among seventy ravenous wolves.

We are proud and loyal citizens, grateful to the country that is our home, especially because our golus memories are loaded with dark images of oppressive and sadistic regimes. We recognize and appreciate the greatness and benevolence of this fine land, with the cognizance that we are detoured on the road to Yerushalayim. We honor its laws and customs and afford proper respect to its elected and appointed officials. We participate in the country’s democratic intuitions and pray for the protectors of liberty.

Rav Chaim of Volozhin famously foretold that America would be the final outpost on a golus map filled with dots. This country, he said, would be the Torah’s final station before Moshiach’s arrival.

We, keepers of the sacred covenant, look forward to returning the Torah to its home, when the neshomah of our people will return to its guf and the weary body of Am Yisroel will be resurrected.

As we deal with the twin destinies of Am Yisroel, greatness engendering enmity, exile begetting deliverance, and the ongoing milchamos of Amaleik, we await our own Krias Yam Suf, and the universal recognition of truth, may it take place speedily in our day.


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