Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Gorgeous Mosaic

Who didn’t feel their breath catch last Friday when hearing about the kidnapping of three boys in Gush Etzion?

Whose heart didn’t skip a beat when they learned that three teenagers trying to get to Yerushalayim for Shabbos were taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists?

Ever since news of that awful tragedy spread, Jews around the world put aside their differences and prayed for the safe return of the victims. Tens of thousands gathered at the Kosel on Motzoei Shabbos and Sunday night to daven for their welfare. Shuls and yeshivos of all stripes around the world recited special tefillos for them.

Everyone was hoping for a safe resolution to the kidnapping. Everyone wants to believe that we are living in an era when our neighbors want to live in peace and have had enough of war and never-ending gut-wrenching tragedy. Alas, this incident has been a sad reminder that until the arrival of Moshiach, we will not know peace and stability.

This tragedy reminds us of the plight of former Israeli chief rabbi Rav Yisroel Meir Lau, who, in 1945, at the age of eight, became the youngest survivor of Buchenwald to be liberated by the Americans. Young Lulek, all of fifty pounds, was brought to the town square by an American soldier, who held the youngster aloft in one hand and said to the German people who had supported the Nazi effort, “Is this whom you fought against? Is this what you are all about?”

The Palestinians arouse for themselves world sympathy as if they are a wronged people, desirous of peace and their legitimate rights. Yet, they wage war against innocent children, wantonly kidnapping, killing, bombing and maiming people.

We pray that the boys’ parents, siblings, friends and all of Klal Yisroel be spared from further tragedy. As we carry their anguish and the pain of their families, we are struck by the fact that it takes a tragedy to remind us that we are brothers. Our internal squabbles raise fences and enable the Soton to harm us. This lesson is always relevant, but this week, with the parsha centered around the most famous machlokes in our history, we are expected to draw the appropriate conclusion now more than ever.

It is a common mistake to assume that all machlokes is bad. In fact, the truth is that people have different opinions and viewpoints. Chazal state, “Kesheim she’ein partzufeihem shoveh, kach ein deioseihem shovos.

If disagreement is a natural course of human behavior, how are we to determine when machlokes is warranted and when it is wrong?

Chazal tell us that machlokes lesheim Shomayim is praiseworthy. When a person, free of any agenda and personal interest, approaches a topic with honesty and a desire to learn and improve his status and that of the world, with subservience to the ratzon Hashem, he is acting in a constructive manner.

When he has made up his mind, refuses to reason, and seeks to do battle with the Torah and its authority, he engages in destructive action and is to be condemned.

Thinking and intelligent people can differ, as long as they maintain their focus on the same shared goal. If we welcome legitimate questions and edifications, we can grow. If we share the same objective, then we can agree to disagree and remain brothers and friends. Thus, machlokes lesheim Shomayim sofah lehiskayeim. Disagreeing for the sake of Heaven and doing battle for the improvement of Torah is laudatory and welcomed. The machlokes of Hillel and Shamai is sofah lehiskayeim and is in fact a mitzvah, because neither side sought to promote their own agenda. They argued to ascertain and arrive at the truth of Torah.

Korach, however, utilized propaganda and demagoguery to further a personal vendetta. He threw the entire nation into turmoil merely to realize a personal ambition. A great and blessed man, he wasn’t satisfied with his position in life. His goal was to embarrass and dethrone Moshe and Aharon. He didn’t argue with them as a means of establishing the truth. His debate was merely a means to his own selfish end. He was blinded by his jealousy of the two brothers who redeemed the people from Mitzrayim and led them through the midbar on their way to Eretz Yisroel.

The two most noble men of all time, selected by Hashem to lead the people, were ridiculed and mocked for no reason other than the fact that they stood in the way of Korach’s drive for power.

The parsha is as relevant today as ever before. Each generation has those who lead, as did Moshe Rabbeinu, with a spark of genuine Torah leadership. Sadly, as sure as there are leaders such as Moshe, there is always resistance from people like Korach.

There have always been those who saw it as their mission to rise up against gedolei Torah, seeking to minimize their greatness in the eyes of the masses in order to promote a personal agenda. Leadership is a tenuous position, requiring the leader to be respected and revered by the community he leads so that they may follow him. He who is selfless and humble is vulnerable to attacks by irresponsible, arrogant, aggressive wannabes.

The Torah tells us the story along with its ending. Moshe and Aharon, without PR teams and advertising campaigns, won the battle with authenticity, truth and the help of Hashem. They were neither removed from the people nor out of touch and irrelevant.

Modern politics is all about portraying an image of being relevant. Remaining in power means being able to reach the people and maintain their confidence. Just last week, the second highest-ranking member of Congress went down to shocking defeat in a local Virginia primary. He lost because he was increasingly viewed by the people he served as being inauthentic and more interested in his own personal advancement than the needs of those who put him in power.

People are fed up with the status quo, having the same people in power seemingly forever, dictating their futures and ruling without care for the government’s impact on the lives of their constituents.

People want financial security and a chance to advance. They want to be left alone and permitted to lawfully lead their lives in peace without being dictated by individuals safely ensconced in positions of power.

They want people who will help them, who will listen to them, and who really care about them. They want a positive, bright future for themselves and their children. They want opportunity, good schools, solid education, fairness and justice. They want bullies to be punished, molesters to be put away, victims healed, and every child, smart and not, given a chance to make something of themselves.

They want good and decent leaders whom they can respect and emulate. Instead, all too often, their deep desire for potent leadership is cynically manipulated by ambitious sycophants who substitute spurious hyperbole for authentic, sincere principle. They cause division and wreak havoc as they sow discord among the unsuspecting, causing them to doubt and lose faith and trust in their leaders and themselves.

Gedolim belong to the people. They don’t look over their shoulders to ensure that they have the crowds. They love Hashem, His Torah, and His children. They are approachable and sensitive, because they really do care. They operate on a higher plane and answer to a higher authority.

In 1973, there were contentious elections for the positions of Israeli chief rabbi. After Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren made it clear that political calculations would take precedence over halacha, the Torah leadership decided to act. Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Rav Betzalel Zolty and others tapped Rav Ovadia Yosef to run for the position of Sephardic chief rabbi and thus save the rabbanut from a hostile take-over. At an emergency meeting in Rav Elyashiv’s sukkah, the relatively young Chacham Ovadiah was informed that he had been selected as a candidate. He was hesitant. With the government and authorities lined up behind the other candidate, there was virtually no chance that he could emerge victorious. Only two weeks remained before the election, yet, in deference to Rav Elyashiv, Chacham Ovadiah agreed and announced his candidacy.

Chacham Ovadiah continued his schedule of shiurim and writing teshuvos, refusing to hit the campaign trail. When askonim informed him that he didn’t seem to have many votes from the members of the voting committee, he famously replied, “I only need one vote, that of Hakadosh Boruch Hu.”

His surprise victory proved the truth of his pithy rejoinder. The million people who mourned at his levayah served as a reminder that it really is that one vote that renders a man a leader of the masses.

Torah leadership doesn’t put itself first. When it is each man for himself, no one wins. When everyone wants to lead, no one can.

The Gemara says that upon witnessing six hundred thousand Jews gathered in one place, there is a brochah, Boruch Chacham Harozim, to be recited. The very same brochah is said upon seeing a gadol b’Yisroel, because he possesses respect and appreciation for the differing viewpoints of all those many Jews (Brachos 58). A gadol’s heart is vast enough to encompass it all.

The Moshe Rabbeinu of the generation can lead a productive society when every person recognizes that they play a distinct role in Yahadus and is happy with what they can contribute. Thus, people lead satisfied lives and the community can develop and flourish under a genuine leader.

A dynamic rebbi, Rabbi Binyomin Aisenstark of Montreal (son of the respected Chinuch Roundtable panelist and veteran principal) received a phone call this year just before Shavuos. On the line was a Brooklyn mother. She introduced herself and shared her story.

She told him that she had a son who is a wonderful young boy, but, as sometimes happens, his charms were lost on the school he attended. He seemed to be in constant trouble and struggled with his schoolwork. His parents were at a loss as to how to bring out the best in him.

Last year, a young boy wrote a suggestion to the Yated Readers Write column. He thought it would be nice if, over Shavuos, children everywhere would commit to learning in memory of the kedoshim killed during the Second World War. He had a goal of generating six million seconds of limud haTorah and was looking for partners. He provided his phone number and asked for people interested in joining him to call.

Rabbi Aisenstark read the letter and thought that it would be a nice project for his second-graders to undertake. He called the number printed in the Yated and told the young originator of the plan that he and his class would join, specifying how much time they would commit to. The young innovator wrote down their commitment and thanked the rebbi.

Shavuos came and went. Rabbi Aisenstark and his class fulfilled their allotted time. The school-year ended and a new one began.

The mother continued her tale. It was her son who had written that letter to the editor. The sweet boy did not finish the school last year on a good note and the administration suggested that it was time to move on. Perhaps he would do better in a different school, they said. With heavy hearts, this woman and her husband set out to find the right school for their son.

“Now,” the mother said as she concluded her story, “Shavuos is imminent again and my son is approaching the end of the best year of his life. He thrived in the new school, becoming the boy we knew he really was all along. And,” she said to Rabbi Aisenstark, “he owes it all to you and your phone call.”

The boy had sent his letter to the Yated at a difficult time in his young life and the fact that it was printed thrilled him. When someone actually called him and took it seriously, he was exhilarated. Rabbi Aisenstark provided him with a sense of self-worth by reacting to his idea with excitement. The phone call he placed invested the boy with confidence, serving as a springboard to propel him onward into the new school year. With Hashem’s help, he succeeded.

Every person has his own unique contribution to make. As Korach rightly said, “Kol ha’eidah kulam kedoshim.” Every individual is holy. Where Korach erred was his attempt to reach where he didn’t belong.

Each plant has its own diet, with the proper amount of sunlight and water it requires. Similarly, every Jew has an area in which they can flower, prosper and contribute to the betterment of mankind.

Klal Yisroel is like a luscious landscape, loaded with various plants and flowers. There are tall and mighty trees alongside willowy shrubbery. There are tall grasses and short, flowering bushes and evergreens, side by side. Each one is different, but together they form a remarkable tapestry.

The best antidote to machlokes is appreciating the fact that every person is different and has his or her own unique role to play. Jealousy has no place in a society where everyone appreciates their position and accomplishments. Unity is achieved when we all work together, cohesively, for each other’s betterment.

We all seek to welcome peace into our homes, our neighborhoods and the wider community. We recognize that shalom is the secret to brochah. If we remain united, seeking to cure superficial division and to battle those who seek to undermine us and our values, we will merit rejoicing as all are released from the captivity of golus. We will then sing the song of all those released from imprisonment, “Hamakom yeracheim aleihem, veyotzieim mitzarah lirvochah umei’afeilah le’orah umishibud legeulah, as we are all led back, beshuv Hashem es shivas Tziyon, hashtah ba’agalah uvizman koriv.


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