Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Hearts Connected

The wondrous account of Megillas Esther annually reinforces the closeness Jews feel with the world’s Creator.

Unlike many of the famed miraculous redemptions that occurred in the Holy Land, or at a time when the Bnei Yisroel conducted themselves with piety, the Purim story transpired when the Jews were exiled and forlorn, uncertain about their role, despondent about their condition, and fearing for their future.

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

And so, even in the increasingly frightening world of 2014, the sounds of Megillas Esther will once again fill our shuls and homes with happiness and optimism. They will tell us to remain together and hopeful, for nothing really is what it appears to be. There is always a story behind the story and things taking place that no one would fathom. There are plots and sub-plots. Despite all the headlines and sub-heads, quick glances and deep analysis of current events, nothing even scratches the surface in explaining what is really going on.

Like in Shushan, where a foolish, selfish king ruled by whim and political convenience, we are faced with a similar situation now in Eretz Yisroel. Achashveirosh, says the Medrash, was a superficial chonef, who sought to ingratiate himself with those around him. He killed his wife because his friend told him to and then killed his friend to satisfy his wife, the Medrash remarks, referring to the king’s easy acquiescence to Haman’s suggestion that he kill Vashti and his equal willingness to kill that same Haman for Esther’s sake. There was no loyalty, only convenience and political expediency. He had no core beliefs. There was nothing he really believed in or cared about besides his burning desire to remain in power, surrounded by “yes men.”

Initially, he favored his Jewish subjects. Then he rejected them, because he craved money and power and his advisor convinced him that he would have more of both if he would rid himself of the Jews. Then he began favoring the Jews and helping them in every way possible, because his calculations changed. He was fickle and capricious, much as the people currently in charge of leading countries.

Russia is an increasing obstacle to American interests and acts as an enemy would. The US warned Vladimir Putin that there would be a price to pay for his intervention in Ukraine, but he calculated that the rewards of retaking Crimea outweighed President Barack Obama’s threats. At a time when tyrants feel free to undermine other countries and spurn the wishes of the civilized world, nobody knows where such designs can lead. They certainly portend poorly for future stability.

It is obvious that America will not engage in a show of force over Russia’s latest moves and that it possesses little leverage over Russia. The West is left impotent as Putin carries out his ambitious land grabs with impunity.

This follows a pattern in which the leaders of countries such as Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria thumb their noses at America and forces of liberty and justice, with little risk. And once again, the world doesn’t take Obama seriously. He warned Putin not to make the move, and the next day Putin simply ignored him and acted in direct contravention to the warnings.

Putin wins every time he has a showdown with Obama, because he is clear in his goals and what he wants to accomplish. He is ruthless and shrewd and up against a weak, misguided leader, who acts as a child coloring in school, drawing lines and erasing them, as he tries desperately to ingratiate himself with his teacher.

President Obama threatens Iran that all options are on the table, meaning that he will bomb them if they don’t behave, yet he even backed down from attacking Syria, a country much weaker than the one led by Ayatollah Khamenei, when they crossed his strongly pronounced red lines.

There are violations of human rights and abrogation of freedoms in countries around the globe, yet this White House focuses its efforts on pressuring the smallest of its allies, the only democracy in a wild neighborhood, to capitulate to a terroristic group of a people with a fictitious past.

Israel’s leader faces increasing domestic and international pressures. Originally empowered as prime minster thanks to the support of the chareidi political parties, he was always viewed as a friend who shared our concerns. Chairing the party of Menachem Begin, he followed his heritage to electoral victory and then to forming a governing coalition. But when peirud caused Shas to lose three seats to splinter parties and initial fumbling in dealing with his wife’s nemesis, Naftoli Bennett, pushed the National Religious leader into the arms of the rabidly anti-religious demagogue Yair Lapid, Netanyahu changed his spots. “Vayokom melech chodosh asher lo yoda es Yosef.” He spurned his former allies and friends who enabled his entire career and signed on to the Lapid agenda.

Netanyahu empowered the bitterest enemies of the Torah camp to battle us in every conceivable manner, from “simple” things like enabling Kosel prayer for tallis-and-tefillin-clad anti-Torah women, to changes in laws relating to religion and rabbis, to engaging in actions blatantly targeting young chareidi children and their families, culminating in support for the law that calls for jailing yeshiva bochurim who choose Torah study over army service.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Generations later, Mordechai Hatzaddik maintained this yedidus, refusing to bow. Others insisted that it was necessary, even pikuach nefesh, to conform to the dictates of Haman. Mordechai refused to bow. In so doing, Mordechai became the champion of every indomitable neshomah that would ever face any of the multiple Hamans our people have encountered throughout the generations.

The Megillah states that Mordechai was “lo kom velo za (Esther 5:9). Not only did Mordechai refuse to rise before Haman, but he seemed to be unaware of his existence. He didn’t even twitch when Haman passed him. Mordechai was demonstrating for his people, and imbuing those who would follow until this very day, that they possess the strength necessary to confront evil without shuddering. He taught not to succumb to the urge to subjugate to the prevailing temporal power.

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

Therefore, Mordechai wore “sak v’eifer.” “Vayitzak ze’akah gedolah umarah.” Mordechai reproached the Jewish people and Esther Hamalkah, gathering together all the Jews of Shushan for three days and nights of tefillah, teshuvah and fasting.

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

Mordechai Hatzaddik, a descendant of Binyomin, was a yedid of Hashem and a cherished friend of every single Jew. He fulfilled the mitzvah of hochei’ach tochiach in its most ideal form. When the people ignored him regarding his p’sak not to attend the seudah of Achashveirosh, he bore the burden of their collective suffering after the gezeirah was passed. Like a loving father, he reassured, comforted and led, establishing the mass fast and gathering in Shushan.

Though they had sinned, Mordechai’s love of them and Hashem enabled a salvation to be brought about. Through his mesirus nefesh and yedidus, the Jews merited the neis of Purim.

Despite the sad fact that, as Chazal say, “Akati avdei Achashveirosh anan,” we are still exiled among foreign leaders, we nevertheless have within us the potential for yedidus and mesirus nefesh embodied by Mordechai.

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

Throughout all the generations, our great leaders have not been those who dwelled in ivory towers peering down at the masses below. Rather, our leaders were men such as Mordechai, who befriended each Jew. We see until our very day how the genuine giants are the humblest and gentlest of men, accessible and available to every person who needs help, guidance or a warm smile.

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

We all have our problems and tribulations, and are all sick of the snow, the economic malaise, and the various problems that plague our communities. We have tuitions to pay, mortgages to worry about, and a pile of bills, but there has to be room in our hearts and checkbooks to feel the pain of others who are suffering and we should seek to befriend and help them.

One would have to be numb not to be moved by the fact that we experienced this week one the greatest modern-day examples of “leich kenos ess kol haYehudim.” Hundreds of thousands of Jews of all types from across Israel gathered as yedidim to cry out, as in days of old, “Keili, Keili, lomah azavtoni.

Once again, Jews find themselves at the mercy of a ruler who is a chonef, pulled this way and that way by whims and a need for power. Apparently, he doesn’t realize that the more his government targets the olam hayeshivos, the stronger the difficulties that come at him from elsewhere will be. As the Yehudim were gathering in Yerushalayim on Sunday, the prime minister was flying to Washington for a tongue lashing by President Obama over the stalled talks to establish yet another neighboring Arab state. He has so far failed to realize that the more he aggravates Mir and Ponovezh, Belz and Toldos Aharon, the more pressure he faces from the likes of John Kerry.

The self-proclaimed student of Tanach fails to see the message, the proverbial writing on the wall. “Ka’asher ya’anu oso,” the more pain he causes to the Torah community, “kein yirbeh vechein yifrotz,” the more his problems swell.

Some question the purpose of a mass gathering for tefillah such as the one that took place at the entrance to Yerushalayim on Sunday. What does it accomplish? It won’t change the minds of Bennett and Lapid. It won’t wash away the impact of their brilliantly evil “shivyon banetel” campaign.

Firstly, there is the inestimable power of tefillah, which alone has the ability to overturn terrible gezeiros. The Nesivos in his sefer Megillas Storim (Esther 4:1-4) explains why Mordechai tore his clothes and wore sackcloth as he went to the streets to cry out against Haman’s decree, spurning Esther’s offer of clean clothing.

She sent him the clothing, because she believed it was incumbent upon Mordechai to perform hishtadlus among the government leaders and ministers to cancel their decree. One dressed the way he was could not approach people in power. Besides, it was forbidden to approach the king’s palace dressed in rags - “ein lavo el hamelech belevush sok.” She wanted him to engage through teva to try to break the decree.

But Mordechai refused. “UMordechai yoda es kol asher na’asah… Velo kibeil.” Mordechai was blessed with ruach hakodesh and knew that Hakadosh Boruch Hu approved the gezeirah against the Jewish people. He knew that his hishtadlus al pi teva with the political leaders would bear no fruit. Therefore, he rejected the clothing offered to him. However, as Chazal say (Brachos 10a), man should never give up. Even if a sharp knife is at his throat, a person should still hold out hope that Hashem will have mercy and save him.

Even though Mordechai knew that Hashem had sanctioned the destruction of the Jewish people and that his intervention with powerful people would not be able to accomplish anything, he believed that through the power of prayer, the edict could be overturned. Thus, although he tore kriah for the gezeirah, he went to the public and was zo’eik ze’akah gedolah. He engaged Klal Yisroel in mass tefillah and tachanunim. Even when the gates to Hashem are sealed shut and the die has been cast, tefillah has the power the break through all mechitzos and avert tragedy.

In our day, as populist demagoguery has clouded the complex issues and political negotiations seeking to forestall the criminalization of Torah study have failed, we gather in unity and pour out our hearts in tefillah and tachanunim for rachamim.

Secondly, when hundreds of thousands of Jews gather to pray for themselves and for each other, they demonstrate that they are yedidim who care for their spiritual future and for their fellow’s wellbeing. They show that they care, that they aren’t apathetic, that they haven’t given up. They demonstrate that they refuse to be intimidated by might and power.

What can we do from afar? We can help ease their suffering. We can let them know in substantial ways that we care about them. We can get involved with Adopt-A-Kollel and with assisting yeshivos that are suffering. We can help families who lack basic sustenance. We can support organizations such as Lev L’Achim and Shuvu, which are scrambling to make ends meet in crushing times.

And we can feel their pain, as yedidim ne’emonim.

My son was at a hafgonah held a few years ago to protest a government blood libel against the residents of Emmanuel. It was a hot summer day and the sun was beating down on the people gathering on a sloping street that faces Rechov Yirmiyohu.

People were fainting from the heat when he noticed, standing next to him, the elderly Yerushalmi tzaddik and talmid chochom, Rav Zundel Kroizer. Water was offered to people standing on the melting asphalt. Rav Zundel refused the drink. He was offered to sit in an air-conditioned car parked alongside the group, but he refused.

Ober rebbe, es iz azoi heis,” people said to him. “The heat is unbearable. Why not drink some water or sit in comfort? You can participate in the protest from the car as well. And what would be so bad if you took a sip of water to replenish yourself?”

With simple humility and greatness, Rav Zundel responded, “Der ikker iz tzu fillin mit. The main reason for standing here is to show the people who were wronged that we feel their pain. How can I say that if I take a drink or sit in a comfortable, cool, car? Ich shtei doh. I am standing right here.”

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

Every Jew’s pain was Mordechai’s very own personal pain. He told the messenger to report to Esther what was going on outside of the palace and how so many people were suffering. He felt their pain as if it was his own.

We must feel the pain of the people who are bearing the brunt of governmental decrees intended to weaken them into submission. We have to feel “asher korahu,” that we are experiencing the same pain they are. We have to imagine that our children our going to bed hungry, that we don’t have enough money for basic foodstuffs and clothing, and that the entire government is seemingly aligned to steer us away from our way of life.

We have to think as yedidim do, with love and care, so that we merit to be spared from evil decrees and become worthy of redemption and the binyan Bais Hamikdosh.

In the Selichos of Taanis Esther, we say, “Be’asoscha noraos ke’osan hayomim - As You do wonders as in those days, itanu haflei l’teshuas olamim - perform miracles with us, Your devoted nation, for eternal deliverance.”

May we rejoice in the nahafoch hu, the great reversal, together, in serenity and yedidus.


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