Wednesday, August 06, 2014

An Enduring Message

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Quite often, to be consoled requires stepping back to properly analyze the situation. By shifting perspective, we can find comfort.

This Shabbos, known as Shabbos Nachamu for the two words at the beginning of the haftorah, ushers in weeks of tanchumin, consolation. Many commentators discuss the double incantation of the word nachamu, as prophesized by the novi Yeshayahu in his immortal statements that gladdens the Jewish heart: “Nachamu nachamu ami yomar Elokeichem.”

Perhaps we can explain why the word nachamu is repeated by noting that nechomah, the Hebrew word for comfort, also means to reconsider, as seen in the posuk of Vayinochem Hashem (Bereishis 6:6), which describes Hashem reconsidering creating the world.

This year, we enter the season of nechomah intent on attaining both definitions of nechomah, comfort, brought on through proper perspective and the ability to reconsider. We accomplish this dual, unifying mission through the prism of the parshas hashovua. We achieve consolation, nechomah, by perfecting our perspective, nechomah. Hashem promises to assist us in achieving both definitions: nachamu, nachamu.

Once again, the Jewish people approach Shabbos Nachamu in an all-too-familiar place. The nations of the world are aligned against us as we attempt to live decent, honorable, peaceful lives. As we are forced to fight against evil, they chant in their capitals for our deaths. We are the aggressors, they say in Amsterdam, Washington, New York, London, Rome, Paris, Brussels, and Berlin. It’s painful. It hurts to be victimized by blood libels, time after time, year after year, generation after generation.

Make no mistake about it. Those who hate us and demonstrate against us don’t differentiate between Jews with velvet yarmulkas and Jews with knitted yarmulkes. They don’t distinguish between black and white, Zionist and non. They hate us all equally.

While most Arab powers quietly support Israel in its current effort, a recent Gallup poll shows that the future does not bode well for Israel. Although the Arab League, with the exception of Syria and Qatar, wants to see Hamas punished and weakened, only 25% of Americans ages 18 to 29 believe that Israel’s actions in Gaza are justified. Among those 30-49, support for Israel is 36%. Older people and Republicans (65%) support Israel on higher levels, while among Democrats, only 31% believe Israel is justified. Independents are a little better, at 36%. And that is in America, Israel’s closest ally and best friend. Support in other countries is much worse than that.

The Tolna Rebbe of Yerushalayim recounted a lesson he learned from a simple Poilisher Yid who worked in a factory in Eretz Yisroel. The fellow toiled under a mean manager and worked alongside difficult people, yet he never complained. The Rebbe asked him how he succeeded in maintaining his equanimity and peace of mind, actually getting along with his co-workers, despite their behavior.

“Hitler taught me how to look at a Jew,” replied the survivor. “When I saw how much he hated every Jew, without differentiating between external differences, I learned how much I must love a Jew, without making cheshbonos.”

They hate us all. We can learn a lesson of ahavas Yisroel from observing the broad paintbrush they use to paint us all one color. 

Throughout our history, we have encountered this animosity. Although there have been times when the hatred was delicately covered, currently it is becoming more in vogue and acceptable to bash Jews. It has become acceptable for celebrities and icons to express their open hatred. While they couch their rhetoric in words of sympathy for the poor Palestinians, the truth emanates. They hate Jews. Once again, Jews in Europe cower and seek escape routes, a chilling reminder of seventy years ago.

Some anti-Semitism is depicted as anti-Zionism, though the folly is obvious. Jews fight for their safety and are condemned. Millions of Jews were driven to their deaths from those very countries in which anti-Semites currently flex their muscles.

We read between the lines and it becomes clear that the vaunted Israeli army was not aware of the extent of the tunnels and the danger they represented. When the war began, the defense minister spoke of finishing the mission in “two to three days.” However, Hamas presented a much stronger and better prepared enemy than Israel imagined.

Hamas is not some foreign group that took over Gaza. It is the representative of the people and their thinking. It is fully supported by the people who elected it and who use their homes as storage facilities for bombs and their basements as entrances to tunnels from which to attack civilians living on the other side of the fence.

More soldiers died and were hurt in this war than in the previous ones that were fought after Israel vacated the territory in a blissful gambit for peace. No one remembers or cares that Israel left Gaza in response to the world’s entreaties that doing so would bring peace to the beleaguered Jewish state. International opinion has turned against Israel, accusing it of wantonly killing innocent civilians, refusing to be confused with the facts of the terror state that Israel is fighting against. Israel’s prime minister is blessed with the gift of communication, but he has not been able to convince the world of Israel’s moral compass.

Thankfully as of this writing it appears that another war that was forced on Israel has come to an end. We mourn the loss of life and pray for a peaceful future. We grieve along the widows and orphans of men who died al kiddush Hashem. We daven for those who were wounded and wish them a speedy recovery.

The war united a divided nation. Every rocket that fell pierced the heart of every Jew around the world. Every soldier who gave up his life for his people is recognized as a kadosh, whose blood will be avenged by Hashem. Our hearts bleed for every wounded chayal. We are comforted when soldiers and commanders speak of open miracles on the battlefield. We read and hear how people were miraculously saved and  see rachamim in the din. We are reminded that we are not alone; that nothing happens by chance; and that comforts us.

Sirens went off across the country around the clock, sending millions literally running for their lives, seeking shelter. The enterprise that believed that anti-Semitism would become extinct with the founding of a moral Jewish country was reminded how wrong that hope was. While it withholds fire in a bid to save civilian life, it is condemned as an imperialistic murderer of women and children. The world calls for a cease-fire every time it appears that the Jews are gaining ground in their battle against pure, unadulterated evil.

Arabs kill Arabs in Syria, yet there is no call for a cease-fire. In Afghanistan and Iraq, hundreds of thousands are killed, yet the world looks the other way. Every day, people are murdered in Africa by militant Muslims, yet no one has heard a call for a cease-fire. But if Jews are making headway against a terror state that seeks their destruction, the world’s conscience is awakened to the plight of innocent civilians being murdered by a thoughtless, cruel army.

Anti-Semitism morphs to fit with the times. The age-old hatred for the Jewish nation adopts different slogans and chants, but at the heart of it all is the same old hatred for Yitzchok by Yishmoel, and Yaakov by Eisov and Lavan.

Whether it’s under the guise of blaming the Jews for poisoning the drinking water, spreading the plague, or drinking human blood, as in the days of old, or cloaked in humanitarian vestments as today, hate is hate. Today in Europe, a continent soaked with Jewish blood, it is once again in vogue to bash Jews, demonstrate against them, accuse them of the vilest of crimes, and create an atmosphere reminiscent of the darkest days of Jewry many believed we would never return to.

The eis tzorah is palpable in England, where Jews were burned alive; in Paris, where the Talmud was lit up and destroyed; in Germany, home of Kristallnacht and the Holocaust; Poland, home of the crematoria; Austria, birthplace of Hitler; and Washington, where FDR turned a blind eye to pleas to save Jews.

How incongruous that Romans gathered to spew anti-Semitism in the shadow of the Coliseum, the ancient building in which Jews were fed to lions.

We wonder how it will end. When will justice triumph? When will care and concern about the good and the kind be paramount?

We recognize that we suffer persecution and discrimination because we are Jews. The world’s hatred of the Jew is not derived from their concern over human rights violations or political decisions.

We are reminded day after day that sinah yordah l’olam, hatred for the Jewish people descended to the world as we gathered at Har Sinai to accept the Torah. Since that time, we have been cast apart from other nations, despised, reviled, stomped and murdered. Miraculously, we endure.

Nonetheless, we witness what is transpiring in Eretz Yisroel and around the world and we fret. We worry about our future here, in Europe and in Israel. Our complacency has been shaken, our comfort zone breached. There is a current of unease rippling through our communities, tremors of fear in our hearts.

Yet, this Shabbos, we will go to shul and listen as the haftorah proclaims that Hashem calls out to us and says, “Nachamu nachamu Ami. Be comforted, My nation.”

We hear those words and wonder if, as next week’s haftorah states, “Vatomer Tzion azovani Hashem vaHashem shecheichoni - Hashem has forgotten about me.”

How do we find answers to our questions? By learning this week’s parsha. We read the pesukim of Parshas Va’eschanon and see the answers spelled out for us repeatedly.

The pesukim of this week’s parsha form a retrospective reminding us of the very beginnings of our nation and our first footsteps as the Chosen People.

We feel along with Moshe Rabbeinu as he pleads for mercy. “Asher mi Keil - Who else is like You, Hashem?” he wonders (Devorim 3:24). Rashi explains that a king of flesh and blood is surrounded by advisors who question his merciful decisions, whereas Hashem can extend mercy without listening to others.

There is a spark of nechomah.

We read about the essence of life, “V’atem hadveikim baHashem Elokeichem chaim kulchem hayom,” and we feel a surge of hope. Life means connecting to Hashem, a little more intensity in tefillah, and more concentration when we sit by a Gemara (Devorim 4:3).

We continue by listening closely to Moshe Rabbeinu’s reminder: “Mi goy gadol asher lo Elokim krovim eilov - Who else has this gift and ability that Hashem listens every time we cry out to Him?” (Devorim 4:7).

A friend told me that his grandfather was seated in a crowded waiting room at Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital, awaiting his weekly chemotherapy session, Rachmona litzlan. An unfamiliar chassidishe fellow walked by and indicated the overflowing room, filled with patients fighting for their lives. “Zei hubben nisht vus mir hubben, said the chossid, who walked on.

We have a weapon that no one else has.

And the elderly patient was comforted, for the truth of the comment gave him hope.

Has Hashem performed such miracles for any other nation? Has He gone to war for them and inspired awe and terror like He has done for us? (Devorim 4:34).

We learn those pesukim and think of the fanciful tales of miracles and salvation we have heard and recognize that we are not fighting this battle alone, but rather with Divine assistance. Hashem enabled the creation and implementation of a missile protection system to neutralize lethal rockets, which nobody believed possible. He brought about the discovery of Hamas’ advanced tunnel infrastructure before they were able to carry out their evil plans.

The stories emanating from Eretz Yisroel during the war - of missiles blown to sea by sudden winds, of a field freshly cut of its wheat for use as shmurah matzah suddenly exposed as host to a terrorist tunnel, and of schoolyards suddenly vacated by children just as fragments land there - tell us that this truth is eternal and provide comfort for us in this trying time.

We return to the parsha and study the Aseres Hadibros, which form the building blocks of our lives as Torah Jews. We recognize that they set us apart from the rest of the world, and by following their precepts, we are placed on a higher, blessed plane.

We study the words of “Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echod,” which comprise the bedrock of our faith. We wake up to those words and go to sleep to them in Shacharis, Arvis and Krias Shema Al Hamitah. They form the last physical action by souls ascending to heaven and are the enduring final message of martyrs through the generations.

In 6:18, we are taught how to live as ehrliche Yidden: “You should act honorably and be truthful; then Hashem will be good to you and will bring us into the land He swore to our forefathers and will drive away our enemies from confronting us.”

If we seek Hashem’s protection and aid in battle, we must affirm our commitment to honesty and to battling corruption - not just listening, but acting. If we tolerate men of ill-will and sometimes even promote them, how can we expect Hashem to fight for us?

We read about how He will lead us into the Promised Land, where we will find homes filled with good. It is an attainable goal, assured to us by He who is “ne’eman leshaleim s’char.” If we follow the word of Hashem, as laid out in the pesukim of this week’s parsha, we know that we will merit salvation, prosperity and peace. 

The founding of Israel and the Six Day War were undeniably turning points in our history, but people became enamored with the power of man and seemed to overlook the Hand of Hashem. We are sent regular reminders that if we forget the Divine role and Hand in our existence, we are doomed to experience tragedy.

We merit nechomah when we recognize that we are kechomer beyad hayotzeir, wholly dependent upon Hashem’s mercy for our very existence.

Parshas Va’eschanon and the Aseres Hadibros are always lained on Shabbos Nachamu. This is to remind us that our nechomah arrives when we follow the Aseres Hadibros and the Torah. It is only through fidelity to Torah and Hashem’s word that we merit living peacefully, in Israel and everywhere else.

May we prove ourselves worthy of Hashem’s protection in a turbulent, unfriendly world.

After studying this week’s pesukim and the promises they contain, how can we feel anything else but “Nachamu, nachamu Ami”? How can we not experience consolation?

We are armed with the Torah’s enduring message of where we are going and how to get there.

Rav Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev once stood in his bais medrash, quietly observing men preparing for Shacharis. Finally, he opened his mouth in prayer.

Ribbono Shel Olam,” he said, “If, chas veshalom, a pair of tefillin falls, the Jew reacts with alarm. His heart pounds as he throws himself to the ground to lift and kiss them before gently placing them in their holy sack. What does it say in your tefillin? ‘Hashem, umi ke’amcha Yisroel goy echod ba’aretz’ (Brachos 6).

“And here we lie, fallen, covered in dust. The very nation celebrated in your tefillin lies on the ground. Please lift us, embrace us, and comfort us.”

Nachamu, nachamu. Then and now. For the past and into the future. Forever and ever. Amein.


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