Wednesday, August 27, 2014

An Elevating Elul Experience

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Sometimes, as you stand in the elevator and wait out the ride, your gaze rests on the sign stating the weight limit for the car. If the load exceeds a certain amount, the elevator is unable to rise and reach its destination. No amount of cajoling, kicking, screaming or pressing buttons will cause the elevator to ascend. The only hope of rising is to remove some of the excess weight and lighten the load.

Elul is here. The month of change and preparation for the holiest days of the year is upon us.

Elul is the elevator that enables us to rise to great heights. In order to take advantage of the month of Ani LeDodi VeDodi Li, when Hashem prepares His embrace for us, we have to drop the extra baggage we carry with us.

During the shivah period for the Mirrer rosh yeshiva, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l, talmidim reminisced. From their conversations it emerged that despite the enormity of the student body and the rosh yeshiva’s own physical limitations, most talmidim had merited some sort of meaningful encounter with him. For some, it had been words offered in passing. For others, it was a line in a shmuess, a brief brochah or a suggestion. He had the ability to change a life with a single phrase or comment.

Rav Yosef Elefant, a maggid shiur at Yeshivas Mir, explained the phenomenon using the example of a construction site. There are huge blocks of stone or granite that need to be moved. A group of muscled workers don’t have the strength to move them more than a few inches. Yet, there they are, lifted high, to the thirtieth floor, by a single man operating a machine. The machine is a crane, and it can accomplish in moments what man could never do. It can lift immense loads with speed and efficiency.

Rav Nosson Tzvi, said Rav Elefant, was like a crane. Other rabbeim had to work for years to effect change and to lift a bochur so high. The rosh yeshiva, whose mesirus nefesh for Torah had given him supernatural abilities and gifts, was granted the ability from Heaven to be able to lift a bochur in a single moment.

Elul is a crane, giving us a rush of hope, a desire to grow, and a push to climb higher and live more elevated lives.

Shoftim, the parsha that ushers in the chodesh of Elul is filled with messages that direct us to move forward, to rid ourselves of the excess weight that holds us down and enable us to grab hold of the crane. The chatoim accumulated over the course of the year form an albatross, preventing us from reaching our potential.

When the nations of the world were offering their children as sacrifices to pagan gods, the Torah commanded us to institute a system of justice and jurisprudence. Tzedek tzedek tirdof, pursue justice, lema’an tichyeh veyorashta es haaretz. Life, according to the Torah, depends on the precision and exactitude of our laws.

The parsha enjoins us to appoint judges, establish a functional police force, and anoint a king, who, in turn, is told how to conduct himself. All these halachos demand a perfect communal structure, where law and order is followed and people respect authority. These ideas, the ancient laws of a Torah society, govern the human being as well, each one an instruction on how to fight the yeitzer hora too.

Man carries a city within himself, with competing kings and armies fighting for dominion. We have to police ourselves, developing discipline and restraint so that our behavior mirrors the harmony of the Torah. Our interpersonal conduct must be perfect and pure.

The posuk tells us, “Bo sidbok - Connect yourself to Hashem.” How do we accomplish that?

We are commanded by the Torah, “Veholachta bidrochov.” How do we walk in the path of Hashem?

Chazal explain that we accomplish our mandate by emulating Hashem’s ways. By being compassionate, like Him. By being merciful, like Him. By visiting the sick and caring about others. By feeding the hungry and clothing the poor. By acting responsibly in times of need and at all times. By being honest and forthright, decent and upstanding.

Tomim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha. The guiding principles of our lives must be temimus, simplicity and humility. The excess weight that prevents us from flying high is rooted in cheshbonos, an inflated sense of worth and petty calculations.

Following Hashem’s rules without rancor will allow us to grow and flourish. Realizing that the Torah speaks to every one of us, on our level, and that each of us has a yeitzer hora and our own uphill battle to fight, is a segulah to succeed. We all have the ability to succeed and grow and flourish. We must not allow other people to hold us down. It doesn’t help to blame others for our failings. We have to work on a serious diet, changing our bad habits and getting rid of our dangerous addictions. We can be energetic and fulfilled, accomplishing all we desire, if we would only lighten up on the actions that cause us to be apathetic. Elul is the time to get to work on those things.

The Sefas Emes quotes his grandfather who said that the word Elul is comprised of two words, lo spelled with a vov and lo spelled with an alef. He explained that this comes to tell us that to the degree that lo (with an alef) anachnu, that we negate ourselves and our nefesh habahamis, lo (with a vov) anachnu, we can be His, closer to Hashem.

The Ponovezher Rov was sitting with the Brisker Rov when the conversation turned to the greatness of the Ponovezher Rov’s rebbi, the Chofetz Chaim. The question was posed as to why the Chofetz Chaim, whose brilliance and proficiency in learning is evident in every paragraph of his Mishnah Berurah and his other classic seforim, was celebrated as a tzaddik and not as a gaon.

The Brisker Rov explained that the Chofetz Chaim davened for his gaonus to be concealed and remain unnoticed. His request was granted and he became renowned worldwide only for his piety.

The Ponovezher Rov wanted to follow up with another question: If that is so, why didn’t the Chofetz Chaim daven that his tzidkus remain hidden as well? His awe of the Brisker Rov prevented him from posing the query.

Sometime later, the Ponovezher Rov met the Bais Yisroel of Ger. The rebbe was learning from a Mishnah Berurah and the Rov decided to ask him the question. He told the rebbe what the Brisker Rov had said and asked why the Chofetz Chaim hadn’t davened for his piety to be kept hidden.

The Bais Yisroel answered that the Chofetz Chaim knew that he was a talmid chochom. He realized that many people were unfamiliar with the sources he had at his disposal, which is why he wrote the Mishnah Berurah in the first place. Thus, he davened that his excessive learning and knowledge remain hidden. But, continued the rebbe, the Chofetz Chaim did not know that he was a tzaddik. He reasoned that he merely followed each and every halachah in the Torah, as every ehrliche Yid is obligated to do. He had no idea that he was on a different level than everyone else.

His temimus personified perfection and wholesomeness in avodah.

Rav Mordechai Druk, a noted maggid in Yerushalayim, would portray the Chofetz Chaim’s humility and temimus with a story. A simple Radin coachman had come to the Chofetz Chaim to bemoan his loss. Someone had stolen one of his horses. The tzaddik explained to this Jew that as a traveling coachman, his horses inevitably trample on the property of others and eat grass out of fields that line the road. “You accumulated the benefits of gezel, so Hashem took that from you through an act of gezel.”

“If so,” asked the simple villager, not realizing the impudence of his question, “how come the rebbe’s coat was stolen last week? Is he also being paid back for stealing?”

The Chofetz Chaim didn’t hesitate. “Of course,” he responded. “I sell my seforim and sometimes pages are stuck together or there are printing errors. Hakadosh Boruch Hu keeps a running cheshbon and my stolen coat reflects that.”

Great men realize that events aren’t mere news or conversation pieces. They are personal missives. Temimus allows a person to walk humbly and honestly, and thus be “with” Hashem Himself at all times.

The posuk in next week’s parsha (20:1) says, “Ki seitzei lamilchomah,” laying out the laws of doing battle with evil forces. Many meforshim explain that while the Torah discusses battle against enemies, “lo dibrah Torah elah keneged yeitzer hora,” there are hints as to how we must battle the yeitzer hora. “Lo sira meihem,” do not fear him, “ki Hashem Elokecha imoch hama’alcha mei’eretz Mitzrayim,” for Hashem who raised you from Mitzrayim will be with you and assist you in your battle. 

He will help us as we seek to rise. If we demonstrate the inclination to improve ourselves, Hashem promises that He will assist us.

In our day and age as well, we are promised that we can succeed if we engage in proper shmirah and do teshuvah for the way we have conducted ourselves and treated other people.

The parsha ends with the mitzvah of eglah arufah, the procedure followed when a body of an unknown person is found on the outskirts of a town. The gedolim of the city must wash their hands over the eglah arufah and state that they neither killed the person nor witnessed the act: “Yodeinu lo shofchu es hadom hazeh ve’eineinu lo ra’u.”

To understand how a community can be gripped by worry and pain, we don’t have to think back more than two months to when our entire world was consumed with concern for the fate of three bochurim. We still feel the anguish and won’t forget it anytime soon.

The story of the corpse found in middle of a field no doubt made waves. People united in grief. The elders were forced to confess. Why? Surely no one would suspect the elders of murdering a person.

The lesson of the eglah arufah is that the leaders must declare that they set everything in place to prevent the travesty of murder. They proclaim that they established a proper system of justice and compassionate treatment of strangers. They state for all to hear that the murder victim did not die due to negligence on their part. With the kohanim at their sides, the zikeinim profess that they did all in their ability to ensure that no person suffers abuse of any kind, especially of the kind or degree that would lead to such a tragic demise.

The elders announce that they did their part to create a fair, just, harmonious society. They gave a voice to the abused and oppressed, and to the poor and those who cannot fight for themselves. They gave a voice to the mute and strength to the weak, food to the hungry and succor to the vanquished.

We must all be able to proclaim that we have done what we can to set up institutions of jurisprudence, kindness and charity. We have to be able to act courageously and without fear to ensure that we can all say with complete honesty, “Yodeinu lo shofchu es hadom hazeh,” our hands did not spill the blood - both literally and figuratively - of the unfortunate victims in our community. Victims are not only the lonely and the weak. We see in our day too many cases of well-known people with fine reputations who are set upon. We must all do what we can to help them restore their lives and beat back unjust charges, no matter the odds or public perception.

We recently witnessed the fruits of very lonely efforts, initially led by one heroic man who has made it his mission to defeat the allegations that metzitzah b’peh is an inherently dangerous custom perpetrated by barbaric people. He demonstrated that when we are dedicated to a good cause and work valiantly lesheim Shomayim, we earn Divine assistance and are able to proudly say, “Yodeinu lo shofchu es hadom hazeh.”

We can, and must, remove the impediments to justice, be it kavod, middos raos, pursuit of wealth and power, or simple fear, and allow truth to emerge, in our communities and in ourselves.

There is no better time than the present. There is no season more opportune for shedding the baggage of agendas and petty calculations. We can travel light, by entering this time of year focused only on what is important and unloading the rest.

In order to be serious about rising, we have to improve our middos so that we can seriously inspect ourselves and our actions over the past year. We can then engage in the teshuvah process and rid ourselves of that which loads us down and prevents us from reaching our physical and spiritual potentials.

We can step into the elevator, grab onto the crane, and rise high. In order to do so, we must be able to announce, surely and securely, “Yodeinu lo shofchu es hadom hazeh,” that we have done all we can to protect others and ourselves, from the yeitzer hora and his evil designs.

We will be able to say that we have strengthened our middos, mitzvah observance and Torah study to the level that would enable the great men of our town to testify that we are worthy of being granted another year of life.

And so may it be, for us and all of Klal Yisroel, that these days of Elul are fully utilized to elevate us into the book of life and brochah.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Half Full

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

With Parshas Eikev we continue our journey of solace, our ascension up the rungs of the shiva denechemta. In Moshe Rabbeniu’s final lesson to his people, he incorporates all they had learned during the previous forty years into Mishneh Torah.

Last week in parshas Va’eschanon, we encountered chapters about s’char ve’onesh – reward and punishment. We absorbed the severity of “pen tisa einecha… vehishtachavisa lohem” (Devorim 4:19), mistaking the celestial bodies for masters in their own right. “Hishomru,” we are warned. Take heed lest you forget the covenant formed with Hashem, “Ki Hashem Elokecha aish ochlah hu - Hashem is a fire that consumes.”

The timeless and enduring relevance of the Aseres Hadibros resound through the ages. They are the basis of all that is right and wrong, the defining line of truth and falsehood.

Though it is the haftoros of these weeks that give the appellation of nechomah to the current seven week period, the parshiyos carry founts of comfort as well. By studying the parsha and Moshe Rabbeinu’s directives therein, we are menucham. There is nothing more empowering than the reminder that if we follow Hashem’s word, we will be blessed.

The vast personal motivation industry revolves around psychologists’ discovery that the greatest catalyst for personal joy and meaning is the realization that one makes a difference. The colorful titles straining the shelves of the self-help section at the bookstore scream empowerment: You make a difference. You are important. Your actions are relevant.

As we read the pesukim we feel that sense of empowerment; that our every action yields results. Rav Chaim Volozhiner authored his classic Nefesh Hachaim to invest man with the realization of how significant his every move is. The cosmos literally hinge on our behavior.

The Torah and its precepts provide us with that sense of worth. The Imrei Emes of Ger says that the roshei teivos of the words Torah tzivah lonu Moshe form the word “tzelem.” The Torah gives man dimensions of greatness, transforming a mere human into a tzelem Elokim capable of influencing his own destiny and world events.

We continue with Parshas Eikev, which earns its name from the word in the first posuk. “Vehayah eikev tishme’un - And it will be in exchange for your listening that you will be rewarded.” The word eikev, in this context, essentially is used in the place of the word “if.”

We shall explore why the Torah did not explicitly use the simpler and more literally correct term and write that if, or when, you observe the mitzvos, Hashem will honor his promises to the avos and bless you. Instead, the Torah states, “Vehayah eikev tishme’un eis hamishpotim ha’eileh,” speaking in multi-layered hints.

Every meforash, it seems, has a different interpretation of the word eikev. Perceiving the depths of the Torah and its messages should provide chizuk and nechomah to us as we are buffeted about in a turbulent world, where apparently senseless acts take place on a regular basis. We take comfort in the knowledge that there is a deeper meaning behind the surface of everything that transpires and nothing happens by itself or without purpose. Just as there is nothing random in the Torah, nothing in the world is without a p’shat. There are layers of explanation and understanding in every word and every occurrence. That itself serves as a major source of comfort.

Rashi explains that the Torah uses the word eikev to teach us that Hashem desires that we observe not only the “heavy” mitzvos, but also the “small” ones – the ones that we think are minor. If we observe the mitzvos that are commonly squashed under people’s heels, we will be richly rewarded.

The Ramban finds Rashi’s edification deficient and offers differing explanations from the Ibn Ezra and Targum Onkeles. Eikev means at the end. When will the promised reward be dispensed? Eikev, at the end of time.

The Baal Haturim states that the gematriah of the word eikev is 172, which is the number of letters that appear in the first version of the Aseres Hadibros. Incidentally, Rav Tzadok Hakohein of Lublin adds that the second version of the Aseres Hadibros, which we lained last week, contains 17 more words than the first. 17 is the value of the word tov, which means good.

The Baal Haturim also writes that the word eikev hints to our obligation to make Torah keva, a permanent part of our lives, not something haphazard and temporary. He also derives another hint from the word: the obligation to be humble, as the heel represents humility.

An especially fascinating insight and a lesson which can resonate with us in our time is offered by the Chofetz Chaim’s son, Rav Aharon Hakohein, in his biur al haTorah. He writes that the yeitzer hora knows that his work will be completed at the time of the geulah.

The novi Yechezkel (31:26-27) tells us that Hashem promised when that time comes, “venosati lochem lev chodosh veruach chadoshah etein bekirbechem…” The novi Yoel (2:20) delivered a similar message: “Ve’es hatzfoni archik mei’aleichem.” Both of these prophecies foretell that at the time of Moshiach, the forces of tumah will be destroyed and removed from the world.

Therefore, in the times leading up to arrival of Moshiach, the yeitzer hora and the forces of tumah will ramp up their efforts to entrap the Jewish people in sin. They will do everything in their power to call us to sin, so that we will not merit redemption. At the same time, the yeitzer hatov and the forces of good will do everything in their power to cause the Bnei Yisroel to act properly and be meritorious of geulah. There will be an awful battle between the two yetzorim and we have to ensure that we do what we can to empower the forces of good and ensure their victory.

This is hinted to in the first posuk of the parsha. “Vehayah eikev tishme’un” is to be understood as follows:

It will be in the period of “ikvesa deMeshicha.” If you follow the chukim and mishpotim that Hashem commanded, Hashem will adhere to the covenant He forged with your forefathers and He will love and bless you and cause you to flourish. If, during the period prior to Moshiach’s arrival, you are able to resist the temptations offered by the yeitzer hora, you will be doubly blessed, as Klal Yisroel will be able to finally realize its full potential.

Chassidim relate that the Rizhiner Rebbe once went into a trance, visualizing something beyond the confines of his room. When he returned to himself, he told his chassidim that there will come a time just before Moshiach arrives when the bilbul, the confusion and turmoil, will be so strong that it will take extraordinary strength to remain an ehrliche Yid. People at that time will have to climb the bare walls and hold on with their fingernails to remain true to the Torah, said the rebbe.

Here we are, living in the period about which tzaddikim foretold, the era that our posuk is speaking of. We see the yeitzer hora’s attempts to sink the world to unprecedented levels of tumah. We experience the temptations he throws our way, desiring to entrap us in sin. We see the powers of tumah on the march around the world. We see them fighting Torah and doing what they can to challenge the lives of shomrei Torah umitzvos. We see our way of life mocked and seemingly constantly under attack.  We see people speaking in our names, proclaiming themselves as our spokesmen, causing much damage for us and our values.

But with the unprecedented resistance comes unprecedented growth, boruch Hashem. We also see flourishing Torah institutions. We see people giving tzedokah with amazing generosity. We see ehrliche people assuming leadership roles and devoting their energies to benefit the klal. We see people in various cities and towns expanding and strengthening the boundaries of kedushah. We see Torah being studied with intensity, diligence and focus. And we see that as Israeli government support for lomdei and mekomos Torah is denied, donors from around the world have been galvanized to attempt to fill the vacuum.

The glass is half empty, and we are constantly reminded of that sad fact, but it is also half full. We must begin to concentrate on the good among us and seek to bolster and support those who are filling the cup until it runneth over.

We must not become depressed as we are deluged with negative messages and vibes. We should not concentrate on all that is wrong. We must recognize that we are living in a period of war. Sirens are constantly ringing, warning us to take shelter. In order to win that war, we must build the shelters, man and expand them, and work to ensure their success. We must effectively increase the power of good in our world, looking for and availing ourselves of the many prevalent opportunities for chizuk.

That is achieved by being confident in ourselves and our abilities to shape our own destiny and that of the world. We accomplish this by learning parshas Eikev and reinforcing in our hearts and beings, from the rosh to the eikev, our obligations in this world. We study them and teach them to our children, instilling in their souls the beauty of Torah through messages of support and encouragement. We love every person and treat them with care, as the Torah commands.

It is an era of ikvesa deMeshicha. Rav Chaim Volozhiner quotes a Medrash which states that the eikev, heel, is the most callous and unfeeling part of the body, capable of absorbing pain. Our hearts are like that heel, the eikev of the generations, coarse and less sensitive to kedushah than our fathers and their fathers. And yet we persevere, fighting to achieve, struggling for each small gain.

Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l would learn every Friday afternoon with one of his grandchildren. One Erev Shabbos, the young man was late. He explained to his grandfather that he had recently become bar mitzvah and had gone to the seforim store to exchange the seforim he had received double and triples of in order to get other seforim.

Rav Shach asked him which seforim he had returned.

“I had three Rav Akiva Eigers and two copies of Ketzos Hachoshen, so I traded the extras,” he responded.

The elderly rosh yeshiva sighed deeply. “Ah Ketzos toisht mehn nisht. A Rebbi Akiva Eiger gibt men nisht avek. One doesn’t part with these seforim,” he said.

“But zaide,” the boy said, confused, “I have them already. I just gave away the extras.”

Oy, mein kint,” Rav Shach said, “let me explain. Those people who suffered through the hunger and privation of the concentration camps cannot bear to see someone leaving over a crust of bread. They react with horror if a piece of apple gets thrown in the garbage. It doesn’t make a difference how much food is still on the table.

“Why? Because they saw a world where there was nothing to eat. They don’t take anything for granted. They view each morsel of food as life itself. When you’ll get older, you’ll appreciate what a Ketzos is, what a Rebbi Akiva Eiger is, and you’ll realize that if you have one, you guard and treasure it. You don’t give it back to a store…”

Each mitzvah we fight for in our times becomes that much more valuable. The opportunities afforded us by ikvesa deMeshicha are tremendous. They are chances to grab mitzvos in a world of apathy and disinterest. The few, the proud, the she’airis Yisroel who still cling to mitzvos, are worth so much in Heaven.

And so, we have a parsha that offers us so many chances to earn eternal good.  We learn that we have the ability, through performing mitzvos, to elevate the world around us and to ultimately triumph over koach hora.

It’s a comforting thought that charges us with hard work and a mandate to keep moving.

Perhaps we can now understand the parsha’s first posuk. Vehoyah is always a lashon of simcha. There is nothing more hopeful - “Vehoyah eikev” - than the moments of ikvesa deMeshicha, when we live in a state of expectation, doing all we can to repair the world and purify it, preparing it for the arrival of Moshiach. Our people have endured centuries of suffering and deprivation, yet they persevered as they waited for the epoch of Moshiach. We are there now.

Just days before Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l was killed by the Nazis, efforts were still ongoing to secure visas to save the Baranovitcher rosh yeshiva and his talmidim. 

A talmid who survived was present when an askan arrived to report to Rav Elchonon, “Rosh yeshiva, we hope that the visas will work out.”

Rav Elchonon looked at him and said, “If you’re already hoping,” he remarked, “why not hope for Moshiach?”

All our hopes and anticipation are really just for that great moment. If we’re already hoping - and who isn’t - why not hope for the greatest day of all?

The day is so close that we can feel it. There are so many situations here, in Eretz Yisroel and around the globe to which only Moshiach can provide the solution. There are so many battles being fought on so many fronts, where we see the powers of evil fighting mightily, and we wonder why this is so. To understand that these wars portend the arrival of the great day we have been longing for is a source of tremendous nechomah. However it is nothing close, of course, to how we will feel when the ikvesa gives way to the as’chalta and Moshiach ben Yosef  arrives to notify us that “Ohr chodosh al Tzion mei’ir.”

Some things that transpire in life and in our world are so bizarre, they defy explanation. A man is elected president of the United States based on a promise of a new bipartisan era in which politics would take a back seat to the needs of the people. His administration would be transparently open and honest. A new world will dawn with his election, the economy will improve, world respect for the country will increase, and everyone will just get along. We’d restore hope and change the way things are headed.

Leadership isn’t earned through ambition or careful preparation. Leadership requires the readiness to face real issues and confront them, head-on, intelligently, forthrightly and honestly. That is true in the general world and in our world as well. There are groups that seek to undermine us, our institutions, customs and way of life. We must not permit them to continue; to succeed in their missions. We cannot afford to ignore our enemies.

Barack Obama came out of nowhere and quickly leapfrogged to the top of the heap, because people thought that he was different. They projected upon his blank slate their dreams and those of their fathers. People are desperate for leadership, thirsting for a savior and looking for a way out of their sadness. They are prepared to hitch their wagons onto any charming salesman who comes by. They don’t ask too many questions, for fear that their bubble of salvation will burst. They get taken in by sweet talk, pleasant accents, and charisma. They don’t examine beneath the thin veneer. They satisfy themselves with superficial gloss.

They end up with people like Obama leading them. He lied repeatedly about his signature health insurance plan. Through political tricks, the plan was forced onto an unwilling populace by the president and his party. The liberal’s dream plan became law. When he campaigned, he promised the people that if they liked their health insurance, they’d be able to keep it, even after his plan went into effect. An examination of the law would have made obvious its failings.

When millions lost their coverage, he sort of said he was sorry, but not really. Then, a week later, he said that they could keep their old plans for a year. But it’s not that simple, and they probably have no plan to go back to. 

He told Israel that he would defend them against Iran and then negotiated a deal with the country dedicated to the destruction of America and Israel, enabling it to continue its march to nuclear power.

Israel was forced into yet another war a little over a month ago to protect its southern flank, as well as the entire homeland, from barbarous terrorists bent on the destruction of the nascent Jewish state. The world couldn’t care less about the Jews and their problems. Thousands demonstrate around the world against Israel. The media complains about the proportionality of the destruction caused by Israel in its war of good against evil. President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry do their best to snatch victory from the grip of Israel and permit Hamas to live to regroup and fight another day.

Obama ran for election on a platform of ending American involvement in Iraq and actually fulfilled that promise. By doing so, he created a vacuum that is now being filled by ISIS, the embodiment of evil, who are gaining large swaths of land and establishing a radical Islamic terror state they will use as a base to wage war against America, Israel and others they view as infidels.  

We live in troubled times. Problems abound and there is no shortage of threats. Every week brings new, seemingly insurmountable issues. What are we to do? How are we to maintain our optimism and drive? Only by recognizing that we can ensure that the sitra achra is fighting his last battles. If we follow the precepts laid out in this week’s parsha, we will be blessed that we ourselves - with the good we generate - will help overthrow evil and lead the world to the state of perfection we all pray and wait for. As the novi Yeshayahu (49) foretells in this week’s haftorah, Ki nicham Hashem Tzion, nicham kol chorvoseha, vayosem midbarah ke’eiden ve’arvosah kegan Hashem, sason vesimcha yimotzei bah todah vekol zimrah."

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.