Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Reacting to Tragedy

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Any Jew with a soul and a heartbeat felt something significant transpire over the past few weeks. Upon hearing that three boys were kidnapped in Eretz Yisroel, Jews everywhere joined in prayer, asking the Baal Hayeshuos for mercy. When the tragic result of the frantic searches reached us, we turned to the Baal Hanechamos, beseeching Him to shower the families - and all of us, a nation in mourning - with comfort.

We were horrified by the news that Jews killed an Arab boy in retaliation. The world quickly equated the two acts: Jews kill, Arabs kill, and it is all the same. Once again, the Jew was faulted for not exercising restraint and calm. Misdirected young boys acted contrary to their upbringing and Torah. Their actions were quickly condemned, yet their dastardly act permitted the world to shift its focus from the terror Israelis live with to a fictitious story of victimhood peddled by the Palestinians.

Hamas mocked Israel, lobbing a steady stream of rockets on Sderot, Ashdod, Ashkelon and Be’er Sheva. Rechovot was also targeted. Sirens went off in Yerushalayim as authorities warned Israelis everywhere to be prepared for the worst. Southern citizens were told not to ever be more than 15 seconds from a bomb shelter.

At the time of this writing, Israeli troops are massing on the Gaza border and the Air Force has begun bombing runs in Gaza. Hamas has targeted cities as far north as Chaifa. Sirens are wailing across the country as millions of people cower in shelters, fearing for their lives. Once again, we were experiencing an eis tzorah leYaakov. The tinder box that is the tiny Jewish country was apparently on the verge of yet another existential battle as Operation Protective Edge got underway.

Tzaros ha’achronos meshakchos es harishonos. The past few weeks, we worried about the fate of three boys and their families. Now virtually the entire country is in mortal danger. Explosions were heard across Yerushalayim and as far north as Chadeira. Millions of lives were interrupted. People ran wildly while a chupah was getting underway in Ashdod as sirens wailed. Children in Bnei Brak took shelter under benches, while in Tel Aviv, busses emptied their passengers who dashed off into shelters.

As the war began, Israel discovered, to its dismay, that the Gazan terrorists had four times more long-range weapons than they had previously estimated. Our brethren were whipsawed, having just experienced eighteen harrowing days, followed by more tragedy, and then they were thrown into what appeared to be a full-scale war with madmen attempting to annihilate them. Our thoughts and tefillos go out to them. We hope that they will all emerge unscathed from the battles after having forced Hamas and its allies to retreat. We join Jews and people of goodwill the world over davening for peace and security for all Israelis during this terrible time.

Fortunately, during the eighteen fateful days the kidnapping saga played out, we saw who we are and what Klal Yisroel is composed of. It became evident that at our core, we are essentially a nation joined by Torah and the long, lonely struggle we have faced together. We infuse each other with hope, we gain strength from coming together, and we reach out to Hashem in prayer, aware that there is no other dominant power or force.

Even the sad aftermath, when the ending was radically different than what we had hoped for, brought to the fore reservoirs of chizuk, tziduk hadin and bitachon.

We were, and are, very sad, but at the same time there was a sense of satisfaction. We were united as one, feeling the pain of golus, but because we were b’achdus, we saw the light of redemption. We were saying, “Shechorah ani venava.” We are black, enveloped in clothes of mourning, but at the same time, the enduring, untarnished beauty of a nation shone through as Jews everywhere shed tears for three boys they didn’t know.

Let us internalize what we learned from the process and what it means for us moving forward. Together, we can achieve and affect change. Separately, we are irrelevant and weak. We have previously experienced tragic episodes that brought everyone together. We prayed that the love would endure, yet, with time, it dissipated. Why? What can we do to make it last this time?

The achdus that we all tangibly sensed over this period can be explained with a simple truth: No one focused on each other or what the other one was or was not doing. Rather, we were all single-minded in our focus on Heaven. We worked side by side. We prayed side by side. The nature of the situation was that it didn’t allow for division to separate us. We were too intent on achieving salvation and earning Divine grace.

When we focus on a common goal and not on each other, we can achieve achdus.

Many mistakenly think that achdus is achieved when we swallow our differences and blur the lines until we become a homogeneous mass. That’s not the achdus Hashem seeks and not what we should be aiming for.

This week’s parshah provides direction on how achdus is achieved and sustained among people of goodwill who share a goal.

At the conclusion of Parshas Balak last week, we learned that following Bilam’s attempt to curse the Jewish people, they began to sin with the daughters of Moav. A nesi bais av committed a sinful act with a daughter of the leader of Midyan in full view of Moshe and all of the Bnei Yisroel.

The Torah relates that as that transpired, the entire nation stood around weeping, not knowing how to react. They knew that Zimri had committed an awful crime, but they were plagued by terrible anomia. They were upset, reduced to tears, but were unable to act upon their feelings of dread.

Their personal feelings may have also contributed to their inaction. They may have been paralyzed by the fear of what would happen to them if they were to take a stand. How would it affect their children’s’ shidduchim prospects? Would their ainiklach be accepted into good schools? They were frozen in place, unable to act.

The result of their fear wasn’t just that the horrific act went unpunished. It was a tacit endorsement as well, empowering the baal aveirah to grow more confident and arrogant. Hashem sent a plague as punishment to His people when Pinchos selflessly rose from amongst the crowd and did what needed to be done.

Pinchos was not over-zealous blinded by rage. In fact, he was the only one calm enough to remember the halacha, the lone member of Klal Yisroel with the presence of mind to react according to the Torah. Ignoring his own interests, he remained focused on the issue at hand.

He disregarded the scoffers and sprang forward to plunge a spear into the bodies of Zimri and his partner.

By acting as the shliach of an inert, if well-intentioned, people, he stopped the plague and brought a swift end to yet another inglorious chapter in our people’s history. While others contented themselves with tearful sighs, he acted and thus staved off suffering for all of them.

We are shown the reward for his courageous, bold act in the opening of this week’s parshah. Hashem tells Moshe, “Pinchos the son of Elozor the son of Aharon the kohein turned back G-d’s wrath from the people of Yisroel with his act of kana’us, and Hashem did not destroy the Bnei Yisroel in His anger. Therefore, say [the following]: Hashem is bestowing upon Pinchos His covenant of peace. He and his children who follow him shall be privileged with the covenant of kehunah forever.”

By following the dictates he had been taught by Moshe and properly utilizing the thought process as trained by his rebbi, Pinchos merited the blessing of eternal peace.

Peace, in the pedestrian way of thinking, means standing on the sidelines and refusing to get involved. The Torah says that the opposite is true. To be aware of what is transpiring and then powerlessly weep as evil is strengthened is not to be acting peacefully, but rather is quite destructive. Quietly watching is not the greatness to which we aspire, but an act of apathy that encourages evil and enables it to develop and grow.

The Torah traces the yichus of Pinchos to Aharon to remind us that he is the progeny of the quintessential man of peace, the oheiv shalom verodef shalom, who is deemed worthy of carrying the torch of kehunah forward. It was he who maintained the calm necessary to act properly. Pinchos was given the eternal blessing of peace because he made peace possible amongst Klal Yisroel by exterminating evil.

Pinchos halted the plague that had already killed 24,000 Jews because he had the moral courage and clarity to act when others were confounded and immobilized.

Sometimes, we get dissuaded by popular opinion and we confuse doing nothing with peace, when the very opposite is true. Pinchos understood that shalom and sheleimus are connected. He understood that the oheiv shalom verodef shalom achieves his goal by acting courageously, even if his response invites misunderstanding and recrimination. This, in turn, creates true harmony, with each individual empowered to act as he should.

When we say, “Talmidei chachomim marbim shalom ba’olam,” it doesn’t mean that talmidei chachomim don’t argue and battle in learning. In fact, the opposite is true. Interactions between lomdei Torah are characterized by raised voices and vehement disagreement. But their disputes lead to deep friendship.

Following the Divine blueprint leads to sheleimus, authentic shalom. Only when everything is proper, complete and whole is it possible to also have shalom. If you are lacking in sheleimus, you cannot have shalom. Torah is the absolute truth. The world was created with Torah and it serves as the guide in defining our behavior. If we follow its rules, we will be blessed with peace. If we compromise or seek neutrality when ikkrim are at stake, we empower the Soton and engender peirud.

A wealthy American philanthropist met the Mirrer rosh yeshiva, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l, who asked him for a significant sum of money. The gvir agreed to the rosh yeshiva’s request and offered even more money, albeit with a condition. He wanted the yeshiva to institute a short daily seder, for just a few minutes, in a particular sefer that the rosh yeshiva cherished. Rav Nosson Tzvi immediately rejected the offer.

“There is an expression that he who is the baal hameah is also the baal hadeiah, meaning that the one with the money has the right to an opinion,” said Rav Nosson Tzvi. “But not in our yeshiva. In our yeshiva, the roshei yeshiva are the only baalei deiah. Do you know why? Because we believe that every person should be a baal deiah in their area of expertise. Thanks for your generous offer, but we won’t be accepting it, because your role is not to advise us on how to run the yeshiva.”

Rav Nosson Tzvi turned to go, and as the gvir later testified, he was overcome with love and respect for the Mirrer rosh yeshiva. Rav Nosson Tzvi had done him the ultimate service of putting him in his place and allowing him to experience true peace, the inner shalom that comes with knowing one’s role in the sheleimus of creation.

Pinchos’s ancestry is traced by the posuk back to Aharon Hakohein to underscore this point. The task of the kohein gadol was to remove the barrier between man and his Creator, whether through bringing korbanos or offering ketores, depending on the situation.

With all of the countless misfortunes besieging our people as yechidim and as a klal, at times it seems as though we are living through a period of mageifah. The news is foreboding and we wonder how to get past such tragedy.

Perhaps this parshah is a reminder to us that we need more Pinchos-type individuals to come forward and stop the plague. We need people whose loyalty to Torah compels them to arise from the mourners and act courageously on behalf of the community.

There are no prophets among us and no one can say why specific tragedies befall us, but we are all aware of evils being perpetrated that nobody is battling. We all know that most things are not b’shleimus in our world. We are all aware of people who suffer and urgently need someone to rush to their aid. Apathy and even fear prevent us from carrying out these missions of mercy and justice.

The Chovos Halevavos, in Shaar Habitachon (perek 3), offers several explanations of why the righteous suffer. One is because “einenu mekanei l’Elokim lokachas dino mei’anshei doro.” He is punished because he fails to act to avenge justice from the wicked on behalf of Hashem. Who among us can say with a full conscience that when he sees evil being committed, he steps in to right the wrong and be mekanei l’Elokim?

These days, when we see that the middas hadin is rampant, especially in the months of Tammuz and Av, we should follow the lesson of Pinchos, remember the halachos, discuss them with our teachers and leaders, and not be afraid to fight the good battle lesheim Shomayim.

We need to learn the parshah and realize that standing silent isn’t just useless, it actually empowers despots like Zimri, who count on the passivity and fear of the masses to be perceived as baalei machlokes. They expertly play the game of brinkmanship and take advantage of people’s reluctance to rise up against injustice. They take advantage of this to promote their agendas and gain power. There are examples right here, in our safe country, where the left propagates this idea, and in the more dangerous climates, such as in Iraq and Syria, where those promoting radical and evil agendas around the globe flourish.

We have to seek to achieve perfection in our personal lives so that we may have the courage to selflessly slay the demons that lurk inside our camp and in each one of us.

How does one derive strength to act as Pinchos did; ignoring the displeasure of a world that confuses peace with inaction?

Reb Mendel Futerfass, who endured decades of imprisonment and torture for his beliefs, emigrated from Russia towards the end of his life and shared lessons he had learned under Communist rule.

He recalled witnessing a tightrope walker, who charged money from onlookers to watch as he made the dangerous walk across a wire suspended between two mountains. Each step caused new worries amongst the crowd, who feared it would be his last. Somehow, the skilled showman made it across in one piece.

Once, upon completing his walk, the tightrope artist asked for a child volunteer from the audience. He said that he would push the child in a wheelbarrow across the wire to the other side. Needless to say, there were absolutely no takers. It was true that somehow he made it across the rope suspended between the two ridges, but there was no way that anyone would endanger their life or the life of their child and be part of his experiment.

The showman made the request a second time, and from the back of the crowd a small boy slowly came forward. The people looked on shockingly as the child climbed into a wheelbarrow. The tightrope walker proceeded to gingerly push him across the wire.

The crowd gasped as the wire trembled, but the tightrope walker moved forward, step after painstaking step, until he finally reached the other end.

After the successful conclusion, the child came down from the mountain and Reb Mendel overheard as someone asked the boy why he was crazy enough to trust the showman.

“Simple,” the boy replied. “He’s my father.”

Reb Mendel would retell the story with a message: When you trust the one who sends you, you aren’t worried, even when everyone else is gasping in fright and trying to dissuade you.

Pinchos was attuned to the will of his Father, and the potential criticism of onlookers was not of any concern to him.

We must remember who we are, what our goals are, and who we work for.

We’ve sustained a serious blow, but an eis tzarah is meant as a clarion call to us to do teshuvah and help return the world to a condition of sheleimus. Tragedy calls out to people of inner greatness to conquer the urge to remain passive and to take action to return our world and our people to sheleimus through Torah. The only way to merit peace and tranquility is by following the path of shalom and sheleimus as defined in the Torah.

We just experienced a period of incredible achdus. We must all endeavor, each in our own distinct way, to maintain that level of achdus and seek to increase it in our world. But in order to achieve achdus, we must be cognizant of what it means. If the goal is clear, then we can attempt to reach it and achieve it. If the goal is fuzzy, we can’t possibly work toward achieving it.

Achdus means that we care about each other on a deep level. We realize that bnei av echod kulonu, we are all children of a loving father, and thus seek the best for each other. We recognize that there are differences, that no two people are totally alike, and that even brothers have different ideas and goals, yet we still remain attached. We recognize that others have faltered along the way. We acknowledge that some have erred and are off the proper path, but we love them anyway and reach out our hand in friendship to help them climb back to where they belong. The definition of achdus is not shallow back-slapping, smiling and grandstanding.

When we are a splintered nation comprised of individuals and factions acting independently without concern for the greater good, we delay the arrival of Moshiach. If we seek to make our world a better place, through displaying love and compassion at all times and expressing admonition when necessary, we will be able to achieve an enduring brotherhood of true achdus.

Chazal remind us that hateful and spiteful behavior between Jews holds back the geulah. In times of struggle, Jews appreciate and value one another. We have miraculously risen so high from the ashes of the Holocaust that sometimes we fail to appreciate our revival. The love and appreciation for fellow Jews that survivors demonstrated seem to dissipate as we grow and prosper. We permit differences to cloud relationships and cause us to look at others with a jaundiced eye and speak intemperately of - and to - others.

The Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum zt”l, was once asked why he speaks harshly of other Jews. He explained that he saw his role as that of a mochiach, pointing out the fallacies of what he saw as wrongful movements and ideas. But, he said, engaging in that mode of behavior was not the opposite of ahavas Yisroel.

“You only hear how I speak with my back to the aron kodesh and face to the people,” the Rebbe said, “but not how I speak when my back is to the people and I face the aron kodesh. You have no idea how much I love every Jew and how I speak to the Ribbono Shel Olam on their behalf.”

Achdus means being able to appreciate the differences and that when chastising is in order, we do so with love. Every soul has its tune, pitch and melody. One is happy, one is sad, one contemporary, another ancient. One is loud, one is soft, and another is plaintive. One says mussar, another learns Torah, and a third is involved in avodah. Those blessed people whose souls follow the word of Hashem are chords in the Divine symphony, combining to harmonize the melody that is achdus.

While writing this article, a friend sent me a moving video that he said has brought hisorerus to people. It’s a clip of a young Israeli boy, a sweet Sefardi child, who was blind. He went through his childhood years in complete darkness, and just days before his bar mitzvah, he received the best gift ever. His eyesight was restored, a present from the Pokeiach Ivrim Himself.

The young man rose at his bar mitzvah celebration and sang shirah, an ode of gratitude and praise to the Ribbono Shel Olam. He sang of challenges, obstacles and pain - and the fact that he always felt Hashem at his side.

“Even when I was in darkness, You were a light before me…thank You for happiness, for both tears and laughter; even when it is sometimes difficult, it is also You, because You are never far away….

We live in a dark world of pain, and at times it is difficult to see past the darkness. This week’s parshah illuminates a path for us. With courage and trust in the Father who gives us life and hope, we can create a new reality. By letting each person sing the song and lyrics written for him in the great symphony of life, we can create true harmony.

Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman zt”l, rov of pre-Holocaust Ponovezh and founder of the Bnei Brak yeshiva he built to commemorate what the Nazis destroyed, traveled the world seeking donations to sustain his dream.

Like any successful fundraiser, the Rov was accustomed to not always receiving the proper respect and he was adept at dealing with setbacks and embarrassment. He once found himself in a shul whose rabbi didn’t take too kindly to his mission and refused to permit him to deliver the Shabbos morning sermon. He told the rabbi that while he could accept being rejected for the sermon, perhaps the rabbi would permit him to simply say shalom aleichem to the people in the shul. Not realizing who he was dealing with, the rabbi agreed to the simple request.

The brilliant orator ascended the amud after laining and said to the assembled mispallelim, “Shalom aleichem, shalom aleichem, shalom aleichem.” He continued: “Why did I say shalom aleichem three times? Because that’s what we do during Kiddush Levonah. We say shalom aleichem three times.

“But please don’t ask me why we say it three times when we are mekadeish the levonah. I promised the rabbi that I wouldn’t be engaging in any homiletics and I must keep my word. Have a good Shabbos.

With that, Rav Kahaneman stepped away from the amud and began to slowly return to his seat. A slight smile appeared on his saintly face as the people approached him and begged him to answer his question. He looked at the rabbi and the rabbi looked at him. With his eyes, the rabbi told the rov that he could return to the amud and provide the answer.

“I’ll answer the question with a story,” he said when he was safely back at the lectern and all eyes were trained upon him. “Two countries were at war. Their border was a river. Each side had its soldiers lined up on its end of the river, ready for the slightest provocation that would set off a war. As the skies darkened, one of the generals sent some soldiers to slip across to the other side to gauge the opposition.

“The soldiers swam across the river and snuck around, trying to find the best point of attack. All of a sudden, in the still of night, they heard the most awful sound from behind them: the click of three guns. Fearing for their lives, they grabbed their guns and swung around to face their opponents and shoot them before they themselves were shot.

“At that very moment, the sky cleared and the field of battle was lit up by the moon. The soldiers were amazed and shocked. They saw that the men they were about to shoot were actually their own countrymen, from a different brigade, who had also been sent to spy out the enemy fortifications.

“Instantly, they said to each other, ‘Oy, shalom aleichem, shalom aleichem, shalom Aleichem. Oy my brother! We aren’t enemies. We are brothers.’”

And so, the Ponovezher Rov cried out to the people in the shul with the unfriendly rabbi, “Shalom aleichem, meineh tayereh breeder.”

Too often, we are split and splintered because of disputes that transpired decades ago, the details of which no one even remembers. Some are from centuries ago, others from a generation back, and some are only a couple of years old. But when the battles are long forgotten and all that remains is the rift, perhaps it is time to heal the fissure. We have new battles to fight today, and winning them requires for people of goodwill to band together, with a unified stance in true achdus.

Back in the days when chassidim were real chassidim and misnagdim were equally as passionate, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk worked with the Rebbe Rashab of Lubavitch for the good of the people. They were equally proud of, and committed to, their individual paths. They understood that shalom doesn’t mean that everyone has to see everything the same way. It means recognizing that Yiddishkeit includes many paths. They didn’t send out press releases talking about their plans and successes. They didn’t grandstand. They sat together, communicated with each other, and, when necessary, traveled for the benefit of Am Yisroel. With respect and dignity, they did what had to be done. Their achdus was deep and enduring, not shallow and fleeting.

It is interesting to note that a kohein who has killed someone is forbidden from duchening, even if the murder was committed accidentally, and even if he has since repented from his act (Orach Chaim 128:35). If that is so, we may wonder why Pinchos was rewarded for killing Zimri with the gift of kehunah. The very act that he committed and for which he was rewarded is one that precludes him from performing the avodah of the kehunah.

Perhaps the words of the Mishnah Berurah (ibid.) shed light on this question. He explains that even if the kohein repented for causing a death, he is still ineligible because of the rule of ein kateigor naaseh saneigor, which literally means that a prosecutor cannot later act for the defense.

Based upon that we can understand that Pinchos stepped forward, selflessly carrying out his halachically permitted act in order to bring about sheleimus and to reconnect the Jewish people with Hashem. His act was life-giving. He was not a kateigor, but rather a saneigor. He rose up on behalf of the Jewish people to connect them which their Maker and thus earned the right to perform the avodah of kehunah which unites the Bnei Yisroel with Hashem.

Pinchos lives on as Eliyohu Mevaser Tov, who will announce to us the arrival of Moshiach when enough of us follow in his path. That path was forged for him by his rebbi, Moshe Rabbeinu. In every generation, there are individuals who carry a nitzutz, a spark, of the neshomah of Moshe Rabbeinu, and continue to light up that path. Let us seek them out - not only the ones who say what we wish to hear, but also those who say what we need to hear. Let’s respond to their call and bring sheleimus to the world so that we merit hearing the call that the geulah sheleimah has arrived.


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