Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Adarific Joy

With the laining of Parshas Shekolim and Birkas Hachodesh of Adar Bais this Shabbos, we know that Purim is fast approaching. In order to benefit from the special day, we have to get ourselves in shape and prepare for it. Parshas Shekolim was instituted by Chazal to assist in that endeavor. “B’echod b’Adar, on the first day of Adar,” we are told, “mashmi’in al hashekolim, we discuss the obligation to donate a half-shekel to the Mishkon.

The machatzis hashekel is a call for achdus; everyone participates and contributes the same amount. In fact, Chazal say that the mitzvah of shekolim served as a pre-emptive strike to the shekolim Haman offered Achashveirosh for the right to destroy our nation.

Parshas Shekolim is a bright sign that proclaims to us that Purim is approaching. “Get ready,” it declares. “Be one with your brothers. Reach into your pockets and show a willingness to do your part.”

The mitzvah itself has several different angles. Rav Dovid Cohen, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Chevron, discusses in the recently released second volume of his monumental sefer Mizmor LeDovid, different aspects of the counting of the Bnei Yisroel, which we read this Shabbos from Parshas Ki Sisa (30:12). Hashem commanded Moshe to take a half-shekel from each person and to count the coins, instead of the people, so that the counting would not cause a plague.

Rabbeinu Bechayeh (ibid.) explains that if each person were counted by themselves, they would be in jeopardy, because they would be judged as individuals. If they are counted as being part of a group, however, they are each judged as members of the klal and thus the zechuyos of the klal assist each person to be judged favorably, with the communal merits accruing to everyone.

Rav Yitzchok Eizik Chover explains further that the reason there is no plague when Jews are counted in this manner is because there is achdus among them, and the Shechinah is thus able to rest among the Jewish people. When the Shechinah is among them, there can be no negef, no plague. The Jewish people are compared to a body comprised of many parts, each one vital. There are bones and sinews, tendons and organs, and the body functions only when they are all working in perfect tandem. As long as they are, the neshomah is present in the body. When different parts of the body break down and cease to work, the neshomah leaves the body and it dies.

Similarly, among the Bnei Yisroel, when there is achdus among them and they are unified, the Shechinah hovers over them and there is no negef. When there is peirud and the Jews separate from one another, the Shechinah departs, leaving room for a negef. Counting the Jewish people via the contribution of a half-shekel serves to unite them and avert all sorts of unpleasantness.

The Alter of Kelm would famously position himself in the middle of the bais medrash on Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur, refusing to stand at the bimah, even for an aliyah. He would say that the strongest source of merit in judgment on the Yom Hadin is the communal strength of a klal. Thus, he ensured that he was part of the klal and would not stand out in any way that would cause him to be viewed independently. He would quote the Isha Hashunamis. When asked by Elisha if there was any area in which she required a special favor that he could perform for her, she told him, “Besoch ami anochi yosheves - Amongst my people I dwell” (Melochim II, 4:13). She was one amongst many, and never alone, for there is no station loftier or more glorious than being a Jew amongst Jews.

When Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk became very ill, he was asked for his mother’s name so that Jewish communities could pray for his recovery. The great gaon replied with the words of the Isha Hashunamis. He said that rather than specific prayers, he would appreciate tefillos on behalf of all the cholei Yisroel, which would include him and help him as well. He explained that if the tefillos were offered just for him, the Bais Din Shel Maalah would examine the record of his deeds. “And who knows if I will be found worthy?” wondered Rav Meir Simcha. “As a Jew amongst Jews, however, everyone is worthy.”

The Alshich, quoting Rav Shlomo Alkabetz in Menos Halevi, says that each person gave a half-shekel for the census so that no one would feel separated from the others. Rather, everyone realized that without the others, he is not whole. Every Jew understands that his soul is intertwined with everyone else’s. Thus, everyone gives a half and, together, the entire group forms a whole being, which nourishes each one if its members.

This is why, say the Chofetz Chaim and  Rav Yitzchok Eizik Chover, the silver half-shekel coins each person contributed for the counting were melted down to form the adonim upon which the Mishkon stood. The silver for the foundation was not taken from the silver that was contributed by the people, on their own, following Moshe Rabbeinu’s public appeal. Rather, it came from the coins that everyone gave equally to symbolize the importance of achdus in establishing the dwelling place of the Shechinah among us.

This use of the machatzis hashekel underscores its special properties. The purpose of the Mishkon was to show the Bnei Yisroel that even after the terrible cheit of the Eigel, Hashem forgave them and still loved them. Why? Because they are His people. The common denominator that unites every Yid is that, after all the actions and words, we are all the same. We are all members of the Bnei Yisroel. The yesod of the Mishkon had to come from donations that reflected this, an expression of our shared essence and destiny.

He’oshir lo yarbeh, vehadal lo yamit. Every person viewed himself as an equal member. This generated achdus, which could support the Mishkon, allowing the Shechinah to rest among us.

Last week, I tasted the sweet joy of being a Jew amongst Jews, part of a mass of individuals joining to celebrate and pay tribute to the age-old ideals of hachzokas Torah.

Reb Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz of Los Angeles has redefined the art of giving. With extraordinary generosity, compassion and commitment, he has lifted so many mosdos and individuals out of sadness and sorrow.

There is an entire industry devoted to sharing photos and moments from great weddings, and an eager populace, anxious to celebrate with their leaders, pores over the pictures and the details. At the wedding last week of Reb Shlomo Yehuda’s daughter, the rabbonim and roshei yeshiva weren’t the mechutanim, but the celebrants.

Rav Yechiel Mordechai Gordon, the Lomza rosh yeshiva, would sometimes pause in the corner of the yeshiva’s bustling bais medrash, seemingly lost in thought. Talmidim noticed that their rosh yeshiva stopped in the exact same spot each time he was seemingly engaged in contemplation. One day, someone summoned the courage to ask him why he stood in that spot when he wanted to think.

Rav Yechiel Mordechai indicated a small plaque with the name of one of the yeshiva’s donors.

“This Jew gave us money at a difficult time and really helped us carry on in our mission,” he said. “I want to make sure I don’t forget the favor he did for us. When the bais medrash is humming with a kol Torah and I feel joyous, I go there and look at the plaque to make sure I am properly being makir tov.”

Last week, great roshei yeshiva expressed their hakoras hatov to a preeminent machzik Torah. In an age when hyperbole is thrown around like errant fastballs, the wedding was indeed historic, with a remarkable number of roshei yeshiva, rabbonim, askonim and anoshim tovim in attendance. Everyone there felt an equal part of the simcha, happy to be mesameiach a family that doesn’t view themselves as better or different because they have been showered with certain brachos. Rather, they use their gifts to help the unfortunate and assist in the construction of mishkanos where the Shechinah can rest, benefiting the entire klal in myriad ways. 

None of the attendees - not the roshei yeshiva carrying the burden of delivering shiurim and guiding hundreds of talmidim, not the klal activists worried about communal concerns, and not the administrators and executive directors weighted down by payrolls and overdue debts - looked pressured or stressed. None of them seemed to be there out of a sense of obligation. Rather, they made the trip to Los Angeles out of eagerness and joy to be able to share in the personal simcha of a man who has brought them so much pleasure.

Imagine a surgeon who has successfully brought an ailing patient back to life. Every time the patient sees him, he will smile. So too, the menahalim and mosdos-operators who filled the hall couldn’t stop smiling as they watched the benefactor who breathed new life into their institutions and programs at his simcha.

Responding not to lavish donor gifts or high-profile delegations, Reb Shlomo Yehuda has given the humble and under-equipped as well. He bailed out a major institution after reading an advertisement in the newspaper calling for help, and he was moved to respond. On his own, he develops new concepts in chesed and tzedakah. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed. Last week presented a chance for people to pay back, even in a small way. And they did so, expressing their thanks and love.

It was also an opportunity for successful people to witness respect and gratitude on the part of those who carry responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the Jewish people. We live in an era when people selfishly crave for recognition and honor and wonder why it doesn’t come their way. Anyone at the wedding learned that the way to receive honor is to earn it by honoring and helping others.

We live in an era when we do not have a Mishkon or a Bais Hamikdosh to unite us. At functions that honor the ideal of nedivus lev, we are provided an opportunity to recognize and appreciate those who contribute for the communal benefit.

Reb Shlomo Yehuda and his family are givers who create, build and maintain vital institutions. They know that the biggest joy is attained by giving.

There is an age-old question about how to define wealth. Chazal say, “Eizehu oshir? Hasomeaiach bechelko.” The wealthy person is one who is satisfied with what he has. While at the wedding, I heard a new explanation. An oshir is defined by how much one can give away. Obviously, a person can’t give away what he doesn’t have. But on a deeper level, a person who gives demonstrates that he appreciates what Hashem has given him and realizes that it doesn’t diminish from his wealth if he shares his largesse with others. Because he appreciates what Hashem has blessed him with, he is not jealous of others and is able to give away from what he has to help others. If he isn’t satisfied with his gifts because he is envious of others, he is unable to give anything away and cravenly and selfishly holds on to what he has.

The kallah’s grandfather, Rav Yisroel Belsky, has given Klal Yisroel so much for so many years. Chazal teach that the ultimate “tov ayin” was Moshe Rabbeinu, who shared the Torah with Klal Yisroel. Rav Belsky has taught, guided and led for decades. The Rechnitz grandparents are well known in LA for their many magnanimous acts of chesed, using their home to help others; hosting parlor meetings for worthy causes and their work on behalf of Hatzolah and the Chevra Kadisha, and Reb Yaakov’s harbotzas Torah.

Reb Shlomo Yehuda merited a mechutan like him, a giver from a family of givers. Reb Yitzchok Kornfeld, a man with a smile, warmth, and a ready good word, is gabbai of Mesivta Reishis Chochma, one of Montreal’s central shuls. He is the one who approaches every newcomer and extends his hand in “shalom aleichem.” He’s the one who makes sure that there’s enough coffee and that the elderly mispallelim have rides home on a freezing winter day.

His father was surely rejoicing from the Olam Ha’emes. Reb Avrum Kornfled was a founding gabbai at that same shul, a sweet, sincere, old-world Jew. When there is a yahrtzeit or simcha, the minhag in that shul is to give tikkun, some Danishes or cake and a lechayim. Reb Avrum would circulate with the baked goods, making sure that those who davened a bit longer or were too shy to approach could also partake. He loved to give.

The simcha was a celebration of givers, who for one night got to take as well, feeling the love and appreciation of masses of people.

This week, we usher in Adar Bais, the month that embodies simcha and achdus. While we are all familiar with the generally accepted Purim-related reasons for the increase of joy during this month, the Sefas Emes offers an interesting illumination. He says that since the Jewish people annually donated their half-shekolim to the Mishkon during Adar, it became a month of joy because their acts of donating caused them to be besimcha.

We recreate that simcha by reading the parsha of shekolim as Adar commences. We strengthen our commitments to each other and experience the satisfaction felt by a baal tzedakah. The parshiyos of nedivus lev lead into a season of joy.

During these months of Adar, we also add to our feelings of elation by expressing appreciation to those who have given to others, communally and individually.

Following the reading of Megillas Esther, we recite the piyut of Asher Heini, which describes the wickedness of Haman and the reasons we celebrate his downfall. The first line of the piyut begins with an alef, and each subsequent line starts with the next letter of the Alef-Bais, concluding with the letter tof.

The verse that begins with the letter vov states, “Velo zochar rachamei Shaul…” Haman lacked the middah of hakoras hatov and conveniently forgot that the Jewish king Shaul had mercy on his grandfather over 400 hundred years prior.

Rav Dovid Soloveitchik shlit”a and Rav Michel Feinstein zt”l explain that we can learn from this the importance of possessing proper middos and appreciating benefits we have accrued from others. Though Haman was extremely wicked and desired to kill all the Jews in one day, his lack of appreciation of a favor that was done to his ancestor is recorded to his everlasting demerit.

As we approach Purim and the days of joy of giving and sharing, let us remember to appreciate those who have improved our world and made it a better place. Let us do what we can to emulate them and follow their example. Besides bringing joy to others, it will contribute to our own sense of simcha.

Let us seek to dissipate the tension that stains our community by squabbles and increased dissention. We have enough enemies; we shouldn’t be our own worst. Unity, camaraderie and generosity are vital in times like these to enable us to overcome our difficulties. Let us try to be uniters, not dividers; problem solvers, not creators; givers, not takers; joyful, not depressed; positive, not negative; and seek to enlarge the tent, instead of shrinking it.

Let us do it with dignity and grace, so that we may find favor in the eyes of Hashem and our fellow man.


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