Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Bring Them Home

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Sadly, it is a familiar script.

We face the tragedies of three sweet bochurim, and at the same time, we cannot help but feel the isolation. Even as our people are consumed by concern, interrupting weddings, graduations and gatherings to join in reciting Tehillim, embracing the Shabbos earlier and with more focus than usual, and continually davening, the apathy of the wider public and the mainstream media is a reminder of the eternal truth of the posuk which states, “Hein am levodod yishkon.” We are alone.

Any student of history or intelligent observer of the world scene does not expect better and is not surprised when the nations of the world join to once again condemn us for having the temerity to be victims. Those experienced with global affairs don’t even react anymore when they read how the United Nations terms the kidnapping “alleged” and when Israel is condemned for showing single-minded dedication to bringing its boys home. 

When such things occur, we should not be depressed. Instead, we should be heartened by the lessons found in this week’s parsha.

This world and its transitory values and flesh-and-blood leaders are temporary and will soon vanish from the scene, to be replaced with yet other transitory people.

We live with a higher ideal: “Zos chukas haTorah, adam ki yomus ba’ohel.” The people whose souls are fused to the Torah throw off every physical mantle. They succeed by ignoring realities that do not contribute to spiritual existence, and concentrate their lives on Torah.

To succeed in our goal of cleaving to Torah, we must disregard the current thinking of those around us and stubbornly persist with our Torah way of life, despite the many detractors.

We are bound to the chok, the bond of Torah living, which goes beyond reason and logic. To be attached to Hashem means to be detached from the world and to recognize that it neither accepts nor values us.

This is the explanation of the first Rashi in this week’s parsha. Rashi quotes a Medrash Tanchumah which says that the Soton and the nations of the world mock us and ask us for the rationale of this mitzvah. Therefore, says Rashi, the Torah spells out that Parah Adumah is a chok, a gezeirah min haShomayim, and we are not permitted to question it.

The nations of the world, and those who mock us and attempt to wrestle us from the path of our forefathers, question us and our practices. They say that the mitzvos are backward and without reason. We don’t answer them. We don’t try to explain it to them. We reinforce to ourselves that we are following the word of Hashem, which is a chok. This is the only way we are able to succeed and flourish in this world of sheker.

Torah, the ultimate wisdom, doesn’t operate with the conventional rules, the wisdom of university classrooms and laboratories, but quite the opposite.

Crafting logical sales pitches for the Torah will only do half a job. In the end, we must accept the chukim as well as the mishpotim, recognizing that we work for a Master and that alone is reason enough to follow each and every dictate and command.

Torah greatness and fidelity aren’t born of brilliance, but of toil, purity and diligence. Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l would often quote from the sefer Sheim Hagedolim, which says that before Rashi set out to write his landmark peirush, he traveled extensively to ascertain whether a better peirush than he envisioned existed. It was only after he was unable to find an extant exposition explaining the Torah that he set out to write the classic peirush that has endured until this day.

As Rashi wrote his work, he fasted hundreds of taaneisim to ensure that his words would help propel people to the truth.

Rav Shach would weep when he would mention this about Rashi, because to him, this anecdote represented all that is right and true about our mesorah. It underscores the fact that chochmas haTorah isn’t about reason alone, but also about humility coupled with commitment to the truth and mesorah.

People in our day are led astray by those who claim to understand the reasoning for different halachos and temper them to mesh with the times. Such thinking lies at the root of the fallacy of the Conservative and Reform movements, which ultimately caused so many to deviate from halacha and mesorah, leading millions of Jews astray. It sounds funny to us that they maintain institutions they refer to as yeshivos and have halachic decisors who write so-called teshuvos in halacha. In their fanciful world, they believe that they are legitimately following the Torah.

Once you begin to rationalize the commandments and inject human understanding of them and their concepts, you begin compromising them and sullying the holy with pedestrian thought processes.

Their assumption that they have mastered the Torah is their undoing. Critical thinking and analysis lacking yiras Shomayim, a sense of mesorah and humility results in individuals who destroy instead of build, obscure instead of reveal, and cause others to repel Torah instead of drawing closer to it.

Our fellow Jews in the Open Orthodoxy movement, who follow in the path of the founders of the Conservatives, have fallen into this trap. Insistent as they are on being termed Orthodox, we must never stop denying their claim, because, in fact, they are not Orthodox in thought, practice, attitude or approach.

A story is told about a poor couple about to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary. The wife decided to treat her beloved husband by preparing a dish he always craved. Throughout their marriage, they never had enough money to afford lamb stew. Now that they had reached this great milestone, she was determined to find a way to prepare this delicacy for her husband.

The resourceful woman went to a library, found a good recipe, and wrote it down. She then set out to gather the ingredients. When she arrived at the butcher shop, she decided that lamb was too costly. She reasoned that it would be okay if she replaced the lamb with much less expensive chicken necks. The recipe called for barley, potatoes and carrots. Those were also too expensive, so she replaced them with kasha. When she got home, she saw that she was missing many of the spices necessary. She figured that if she uses plentiful amounts of salt, the stew would taste just as good.

After expending much effort in preparing the celebratory stew, she proudly placed the steaming dish before her husband. He could barely contain himself in his desire to finally fulfill his dream of eating lamb stew. He took one bite, and then another, and finally offered his assessment. “I don’t know why rich people make such a big deal about lamb stew,” he mused. “Now that I have finally tasted it, I see that it’s nothing special.”

Friends, if it doesn’t have lamb and it doesn’t have barley, chives, thyme, garlic and seasoning, then no matter what you call it, it is not lamb stew.

These people lack the meat and potatoes, and they lack the spice, yet they carry the name Orthodox and refuse to let it go. They have the potential to inflict damage on the shuls and schools that naively hire their members thinking that they are loyal to Torah and mesorah. We must persist in calling them out as the impostors that they are.

Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l would explain the posuk in Tehillim (119:142) of “Tzidkoscha tzedek le’olam” to mean that man cannot fathom the depths of Hashem’s justice, for society and its concepts are ever changing. What is considered just in one generation is viewed as unjust in the next. But “veSorascha emes,” the truth of Torah is everlasting. It neither changes for the times nor conforms to them.

Zos chukas haTorah. Torah is a chok. Torah is neither about impressive dissertations nor social welfare and maintaining a good PR firm. It is about following the will of the Creator as expressed in Torah Skebiksav and Torah Shebaal Peh. That’s just the way it is.

When Rav Shach would deliver a shiur in Ponovezh Yeshiva, he would pose a question and a storm of responses would follow from the Ponovezher talmidim. He would address them and then proceed with his shiur, sometimes incorporating what the bochurim said into his shiur and other times shooting them down.

One day, he presented a question that had caused him great angst in understanding a particular sugya. The boys tried to answer the question in many different ways, but nothing that any of them said pleased him. Consumed by the difficulty, he traveled to Yerushalayim to pose his question to the Brisker Rov. The next day, Rav Shach excitedly shared the Rov’s answer in his shiur.

After the shiur, a talmid went over to him and protested that he had given the very same answer the day before, only to have it rejected. He wanted to know what had changed and why the sevara was better today than yesterday.

“It is true that you said the same p’shat as the Rov,” Rav Shach explained, “but you took it out of your keshene, your pocket. The Rov’s answer came from his vast knowledge accumulated by years of toiling in Torah. His response was arrived at with authority, responsibility and clarity.”

Another time, Rav Shach entered shiur armed with a penetrating question on a Baal Hamaor. Suffering from vision problems at the time, he held up the Gemara in an attempt to quote the words of the Rishon. As hard as he tried, and as close as he brought the text to his eyes and struggled, he was unable to read the small print of the Baal Hamaor. Sadly, he closed the Gemara, explaining that he hoped his eyesight would improve sufficiently by the next day to be able to read aloud the piece that he wished to comment on.

The next day, he entered the bais medrash, happily holding the large Gemara, prepared to read aloud the words of the Baal Hamaor that had failed him the previous day. But first he asked a question: “How many of you looked up the Baal Hamaor after yesterday’s shiur?” Nobody answered. “How many of you tried to figure out the p’shat in what he says?” No answer. “How many of you thought about the Baal Hamaor since yesterday?” No hands went up.

“Then forget it,” said the rosh yeshiva. “Farges vegen dem. Ihr zeit dos nisht vert. If none of you cared enough to look up the Baal Hamaor to figure out the question or to attempt an answer, then you aren’t worthy of me standing here, straining to read it to you and enrich you with the proper understanding of the Rishon and the sugya.”

Rav Shach was an exceedingly humble person, one of the most modest people of his generation. He didn’t make that comment because his ego was hurt. He said it because he wanted to remind the young talmidim that there is no success in Torah without struggle. There is no growth without hard work, tilling and plowing in order for crops to grow. Simply transcribing the teachings of a great man will not engender greatness. If it comes easy, from a silver spoon, then it will not last. Effort and travail strengthen and fortify us.

Perhaps this was part of the klalah meted out to Adam and Chava after they ate from the Eitz Hadaas. “You tried to obtain knowledge that is removed from you,” said Hashem, “so from now on, bezeias apecha tochal lechem, everything good you attain will be lost if it is not attained through the sweat of your brow. Nothing will come easy. Be’itzavon teildi bonim. New life will be preceded by terrible pain.”

Chazal say (Taanis 30, et al), “Kol hamisabel al Yerushalayim zocheh veroeh besimchosah.” In order to merit enjoying the rebuilding of Yerushalayim, you must first mourn its destruction.

The fact that unity is brought on by division was part of that curse. Yosef was sold into slavery by his brothers. It was a terribly divisive act, but one that led to their salvation in Mitzrayim. The Mitzriyim mistreated the Jews, plunging them to the worst degrees of tumah. Hashem then freed them, fashioning them as His people and gifting them the Torah.

Eis tzorah hee leYaakov. It is a dangerous time for our people. Terrorist havens have been established in Iraq, Syria and Iran. Radical Islamists who seek our destruction are on the march, gaining territory, adherents, military material and much capital. The world’s greatest power is led by a man who doesn’t seem to have our security and wellbeing high on his list of priorities. He created a huge vacuum, pulling all American army personnel out of Iraq and drawing down the army’s presence in Afghanistan, while providing no help for freedom-seekers who want to topple Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

While he continued the previous administration’s search for Osama bin Laden and signed off on the order to execute him, the president viewed killing him as decimating the terror threat the al Qaida head represented. Obviously, while that may have worked as an election campaign slogan, in the real world the bad guys are gaining strength and spreading like wildfire. The specter of terrorism is as real as ever, yet there is no overall strategy as to how to battle it or how to proceed in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Egypt.

Israel takes great pride in its vaunted army, yet, for over a week, its members wandered through the West Bank, trying desperately to find the three kidnapped boys and encountering dead ends everywhere they turn. It’s clear that they need siyata diShmaya, and we need to keep beseeching Heaven for their success.

An elderly chossid once shared a precious vort which was passed down to him from previous generations. When Jews suffer, he related, they say, “Oy, tzaros, things are rough.” But that comment, “Oy, tzaros,” forms the word otzaros, meaning treasure chests. The travails and suffering of our people contain a repository of growth and blessing. From suffering comes joy, and out of destruction emerges rebirth.

Since those bochurim were captured, we have seen the depth of our achdus. We see that we are indeed a people that dwells alone. But we are okay to be alone, because we are united and have each other.

Let us open these otzaros, these store-houses of riches, the newfound connection to each other, the new intensity in tefillah, and the new sense of the ability of each individual to effect change through prayer. The kidnapping of the bochurim has served as a catalyst to bring disparate people together as brothers and appreciate being part of an am bodud. Let it not go to waste.

Hopefully, we will rejoice united, a nation giving thanks as one for the safe return of our sons and brothers. May the unity of these days be as enduring as the Torah we live and learn.


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