Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Living with Introspection

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The theme of war is everywhere at this time of year.

Twice each day, we recite the chapter of Tehillim referred to as “L’Dovid,” in which we proclaim that we feel no fear from enemies and traps that abound. Im tokum olay milchomah, even if there is a war threatening to engulf me, bezos ani votei’ach, our faith in Hashem remains rock solid.

This week’s parshah, Ki Seitzei, describes going to war against our enemies. Battle has been part and parcel of life since the days of Kayin and Hevel, and it will remain that way until we arrive at the tikkun hasholeim with Moshiach’s redemption. However, when it comes to actually fighting, we are squeamish. Nobody wants to raise hackles being the one to confront evil.

It is uncomfortable to face the concept of war, to see ourselves as warriors. Everyone wants to be able to get along, even if that means not being honest with themselves and playing along with social convention. Under the guise of peace, lies are permitted to fester and gain credibility, abusers aren’t confronted, ruptures aren’t repaired, and huge vacuums are created and filled by unworthy people.

A few months ago, I had the privilege of visiting Rav Chaim Kanievsky. Among other things, I asked for a brochah for shalom. I was feeling overwhelmed after a campaign waged by this newspaper, which had been a lone voice for truth, and the prospect of harmony seemed attractive.

Rav Chaim raised his eyes and looked at me. “Who says that’s a brochah? Ah mohl, sometimes, one has to wage wars. Milchomah lesheim Shomayim is a mitzvah.”

The Sar HaTorah perceives and appreciates that every tool a Jew has in his arsenal has a use and a function. Eis milchomah ve’eis shalom.

The theme of milchomah in this week’s parshah continues from the end of last week’s parshah. After the pesukim detailing Klal Yisroel’s foray into battle, there is a brief interlude to discuss the halachos of eglah arufah, when a body is found outside a town and the assailant is unknown. The last posuk of Parshas Shoftim (21:9) states, “Ve’atoh teva’eir dom noki mikirbecha ki saaseh hayoshor be’einei Hashem - And you shall remove innocent blood from your midst, for you shall do what is upright in Hashem’s eyes.”

Rashi quotes the Gemara in Maseches Kesubos (37b) which states that the posuk teaches us that if the murderer is found following the eglah arufah ceremony, he is put to death.

This, explains the Baal Haturim, is essentially an introduction to Parshas Ki Seitzei, because before we go to war to make the world a better and safer place, we have to ensure that the murderers in our midst are removed. If our own evil-doers are dealt with, our nation will emerge victorious in battle.

In order to win battles, we must be firm, honest and righteous. If there is a murderer among us, we do not cover for him and we don’t say that we have mercy on his family. We don’t claim that since the eglah arufah was already offered, the statute of limitations has run out.

We are charged with eradicating evil. It is a mission, and we turn inward before setting our sights outward.

Sometimes, waging war is the greatest sign of love. The posuk says, “Ohavei Hashem sinu ra - One who loves Hashem abhors evil” (Tehillim 97).

Rav Binyomin Mendelsohn was the rov of the Israeli city of Kfar Ata before assuming the rabbonus of Komemius, where he became the father of modern-day Shmittah observance. Kfar Ata was populated by a mixed group of bnei yeshiva, Chassidim, Mizrachi Jews and irreligious residents. All of them respected the rov, who was blessed with the ability to effectively relate to all types.

A leading political activist once visited the town for Shabbos and asked to address the kehillah from the shul pulpit. Rav Binyomin noticed that the man had shaved and taken a haircut lekavod Shabbos despite the fact that it was during the period of Sefiras Ha’omer. The rov explained to his visitor that he could not allow someone who transgressed an explicit halachah in Shulchan Aruch to speak in his shul.

The community erupted. Many members were upset that the rov embarrassed a respected figure. They said that what he did was much worse than shaving during Sefirah. Rav Binyomin held firm and refused to back down.

At the next opportunity, the rov shared this incident with his mentor, the Chazon Ish, who assured him that by standing up for principle even in the face of pressure, he had acted properly.

The Chazon Ish related that the Kovna Rov, Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector, was asked to serve as the mesader kiddushin at a local wedding. The rov agreed, but when he arrived at the wedding, he saw that the chupah was being held indoors, rather than outside, which is the view of the Rama and was the prevalent custom.

The rov informed the young couple that he would be unable to officiate. A furor ensued, with many people feeling that the rov was being too rigid. The people claimed that the rov’s action embarrassed the chosson and kallah publicly and ruined their big day.

A spokesman for the aggrieved approached the rov and asked how he was permitted to cause the baalei simchah shame and aggravation,

“The Krukeh Rov (the rov of Krakow, the Rama) is a good friend of mine,” said Rav Yitzchok Elchonon, “and I think it’s wrong to get into a fight with him.”

The Chazon Ish indicated that the proper approach is not to submit to public pressure under the guise of peace. Rather, peace means existing in harmony with the ratzon haTorah.

Now that we are in the month of Elul, the call of these days is to be honest with ourselves, looking inward, seeing our imperfections, and addressing them on communal and individual levels.

Following the Second World War, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein made his way to Yerushalayim. He did not occupy a position, and although his reputation preceded him, he was basically unknown to the local Yerushalmis.

One Friday, Avrohom Ravitz, a talmid in Yeshivas Chevron, was walking down a street when he came upon a strange sight. On one side of the street, a man was standing next to his car, which had broken down. He was checking under the hood, pulling and prodding in different directions. When that didn’t help, he got under the car and tried tinkering from there.

A group of children gathered to watch the man pull and test every plug, connection and wire in an attempt to get his car going. Avrohom saw that across the street, a very dignified man stood watching, engrossed in the scene. As he got closer, he recognized the man as the newly-arrived Rav Yechezkel Levenstein.

The yeshiva bochur was surprised to see the man he had heard described as a great tzaddik standing and watching the person trying to fix his stalled car. It seemed like such a childish thing to do and a waste of time. Could it be that this man was indeed so great? He asked around and found out the Rav Levenstein delivered a mussar shmuess every Friday night. He decided to attend that week’s shmuess and see for himself what the man was all about.

That evening, Rav Levenstein spoke about tikkun hamiddos. To demonstrate his point, he compared a person to a car. When a vehicle stalls, its owner expends much effort to locate the problem and fix it. So too, he said, when man “breaks down,” he needs to be repaired. Just as repairing a car requires close scrutiny of every part that makes the car work, when a person’s neshomah is ailing, we must dig inside it to find what is broken and repair it.

Avrohom then understood that while the others were looking on with childish curiosity, the mashgiach was learning lessons to apply to matters of cardinal importance.

Elul is a time when we should examine what’s going on inside our neshamos, inspecting and taking inventory of our actions throughout the year.

The Vilna Gaon, at the beginning of his sefer Even Sheleimah, states, “All avodas Hashem depends on tikkun hamiddos… Bad middos are at the root of all sin… The main task of man is to always strengthen himself to break his bad middos, and if he doesn’t, for what purpose does he live?”

The Gaon continues by stating that a person who wishes to do teshuvah must begin by pondering his negative middos and recognizing his situation. Then he must begin the process of rectifying himself, slowly, step by step, until he trains himself to act properly.

It is a difficult, time-consuming task that requires honest, painful probing, but it is the first step in improving our lives. If we cannot be honest about our failings, then we cannot correct them. If we remain mired in our gaavah and selfishness, there is no way we can rise to do teshuvah and act the way we are expected to. If our middos are faulty, then our mitzvos are as well.

Living with introspection and honesty means living with harmony - not war, not peace; just the Torah’s will.

One can be humble, yet firm and unyielding, self-aware enough to laugh, yet responsible enough to speak up.

Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld once arrived to officiate at a wedding and noticed that another rov had been honored with siddur kiddushin. Many of the wedding guests were upset at the slight to the senior rov of Yerushalayim, but Rav Yosef Chaim waved away their concerns with a wink.

He sensed that people were becoming agitated about the perceived lack of respect, saying that the baalei simchah should reconsider their decision about who should serve as the mesader kiddushin. The wise old Yerushalayimer rov removed a paper from his pocket, wrote a few words on it, and then presented it to one of the young agitators.

Rav Yosef Chaim had written a letter of resignation. “This should end the problem,” he told the young man. “You can no longer stir up trouble, saying that you are doing so because of the respect of my position.”

Another story is told regarding Rav Yosef Chaim and his rabbinic position.

A speaker was holding forth in a secular kibbutz, delivering a familiar speech targeting the religious community. As he railed on, he began referring to his antagonists, mocking them by calling them “Sonnenfeldim.” A man stood up and protested. “Listen,” he said, “I have no more love for those religious people than anyone else in this room, but I nevertheless resent the term you just coined.”

He told the group why he was opposed to the term.

“Let me tell you about my relative, a well-known, prominent Zionist leader, who became sick,” the man said. “Believing that the religious Dr. Wallach at Shaarei Tzedek Hospital would refuse to treat him, he sought treatment at the Missionary Hospital. The doctors there were not able to help him and his condition rapidly deteriorated, until, in desperation, his family brought him to Dr. Wallach.

“They knocked on the door. The doctor looked at them suspiciously. They explained the nature of his illness. ‘Where was he until now?’ he asked.

“‘In the mission hospital,’ the said.

“Dr. Wallach slammed the door in their faces.

“The family had only one option left. It was definitely a last resort. They hurried to the home of Rav Sonnenfeld and pleaded that he write a letter to the doctor. They said that in a situation of pikuach nefesh, differences should be set aside.

“Rav Sonnenfeld responded to them, ‘I can write the letter, but Dr. Wallach won’t believe you that I actually wrote it.’ The rov put on his hat and said to them, ‘Follow me.’

“They went to Shaarei Tzedek, where Dr. Wallach welcomed the rov with respect. Rav Sonnenfeld asked him to treat the patient. ‘I cannot do that,’ said Dr. Wallach. ‘He is a rosha.’

“Rav Sonnenfeld stood up straight. ‘I command you, with my authority as the rov of this city, to admit this patient and do your best to heal him.’

“Indeed, Dr. Wallach did, and under his care my relative recuperated and his life was saved.”

A person who lives his life with responsibility and introspection is not impressed by outward challenges of war and peace, but rather seeks to live in perfect harmony with creation and the will of the Creator. Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld knew when to forfeit his title for the sake of peace and when to use it as a means of enforcing what he believed to be Hashem’s will.

He knew himself and understood what was expected of him.

These are the days when we can look inward and chart a course of action - firm enough to lead, strong enough to fight evil, and soft enough to ensure that our own honor is not what motivates us.

Then we will triumph, winning both the battle and the war.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Path to Victory

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Regardless of the popularity of a product line and the deftness of its salespeople, a business cannot succeed if its inventory control is lacking or if its accounting department is inefficient and sloppy. Proper records must be kept and analyzed so that managers can efficiently gauge and monitor progress.   

To use a timely parable, it is not enough for a political candidate to have a good platform and résumé. He must also have a good staff and ground organization. He must display good common sense, besides being familiar with the issues of the day. He must be viewed as honest and dependable, someone who can be counted on to keep his word.

During Elul, we are all candidates. We are all running for something. We are running for our lives. Elul is when we review our résumé and contemplate and reflect on the successes and failures of the past year. We seek to make the achievements permanent and rise above our challenges as we craft a plan to make the case that we are deserving of a year of life, good health, and success in all areas.

Introspection and reflection are catalysts to action. Our ability to think clearly is the first step on the path to accomplishing our goals.

A beleaguered rosh kollel once approached Rav Yitzchok Lorincz and threw his hands up in despair. “I can’t do it anymore. I simply can’t,” he said.

To bolster his claim, the rosh kollel recounted that he’d gone to a mental health professional, who’d agreed that he wasn’t suited for the responsibilities of running a kollel and also shared his opinion that the rosh kollel would ultimately collapse from the pressure.

Rav Lorincz suggested that the careworn rosh kollel join him on a visit to Rav Lorincz’s grandfather, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach.

Rav Shlomo Zalman welcomed the visitors and asked the dejected man how long he had been serving as a rosh kollel.

“25 years,” the man said.

“Did you ever have worse times than you are experiencing now?” asked Rav Shlomo Zalman.

“Yes,” the man responded.

“Did Hashem help you in your difficult times?”

“Yes,” said the rosh kollel. “Every time, in fact. But every month, the situation repeats itself, until I finally come up with the money for the kollel.”

“So,” Rav Shlomo Zalman remarked, “each month you are privileged to see anew how Hashem controls everything. Why do you worry?”

Rav Shlomo Zalman continued: “You are not the only person who experiences financial pressures. Every rosh yeshiva has these pressures, as does every business owner trying to make payroll and every parent on the verge of marrying off a child.

“Rather than worrying about what will be, you can react to the situation by developing a real and complete faith in Hashem. How do you arrive at that? Get yourself a small notebook and keep it with you. Every time you experience a yeshuah, however small it might appear, write it down in this little book. When you daven Shemonah Esrei, take out the notebook before you say Modim and glance through it.”

Rav Shlomo Zalman concluded, “I guarantee that if you follow my advice, your worries will disappear.”

Now is the time when we also must buy a notebook and pen, so that we can begin to live with the cheshbon that will inspire us as we face the holiest days of the year. If we contemplate the realities of life - both the daunting challenges and the glorious successes - we will feel how He guides us, and we will understand how beholden we are to His kindness.

Life is worrisome. There are so many things to be anxious about. There is no end to the list of matters for one who is looking to be concerned. We can drive ourselves crazy with anxiety. We can give up what we have spent our lives building. We can lose our present and our future because of excessive worrying.

Once, when the master mechanech, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz zt”l, hired a fundraiser, the fellow wanted to know how much he would be paid. Rav Shraga Feivel replied with a joke about an impoverished shtetel Yid whose wife always reminded him that he was a failure. She would wail that he was doubly cursed: Not only couldn’t he feed his family, he also didn’t seem to care about it. His happy-go-lucky attitude bothered her as much as his lack of success. “At least you can show signs of worry,” she would berate him.

One day, the poor Yid arrived home accompanied by another man. He explained to his wife that he hired the gentleman as his official worrier. “I’m paying him ten rubles a week, and he will be worrying about our finances.”

“What has come over you?” his wife cried. “We have no money and can’t afford the basics. From where will you get the money to pay him ten rubles?”

The fellow shrugged and grinned. “That’s what he’s here for - to worry. So let him worry about it. That’s his problem.”

We must not be like that simpleton. We must own up to our failings and overcome our fears. In order to have the ability to soar, we have to let go of the worries that weigh us down. We can do that by strengthening our bitachon. We must examine our situation and recognize and be thankful for everything that goes right. We must notice the chesed that is ever-present, even in times of din. We must realize that we are not alone. We have bitachon that we were placed in this world with a unique mission and that every person was given the ability to succeed in his mission. We must have bitachon that Hashem doesn’t allow us to be confronted with challenges that we cannot overcome.

The month of Elul is a time predestined for this type of introspection. We begin the month announcing our faith, stating, “Hashem ori veyeshi,” and proclaiming that when we have proper faith in Hashem, mimi ira,” we have no reason to fear.

In this week’s parshah, the posuk tells about the rallying cry of the generals to Klal Yisroel before heading off for war: “Mi ha’ish hayarei verach haleivav - Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house” (Devorim 20:8).

The Gemara (Sotah 44) explains that the posuk refers to a person who has sinned and therefore worries that he is lacking in merit. The Gemara states that even if a person had transgressed an aveirah derabbonon, he should return home rather than fight. The example Chazal give is “afilu soch bein tefillah l’tefillah,” even if he spoke out and interrupted between putting on his tefillin shel yad and his tefillin shel rosh. That is reason enough to return home.

The Vilna Gaon explains why the Gemara uses the example of tefillin to portray a man who is unworthy of being a fighter.

Rashi in Parshas Vezos Habrochah teaches that when the shevet of Gad went to battle, their victims could be recognized. Shevet Gad had a unique way of attacking, and they were able to assail their enemies with a single motion, cutting off both the head and the arm. This is referred to in the posuk which states, “Toraf zeroa af kadkod - Tearing off arm and even head” (Devorim 33:20).

The Gaon posits that this power represents the piety of warriors who knew how to connect head and arm in kedushah, elevating their own “zeroa vekadkod.” This is because the head represents machshovah, thought, and the arm represents ma’aseh, action. The battle successes of shevet Gad represented their accomplishment in this area. Their machshovah and ma’aseh combined to complement their performance of Hashem’s will.

The mitzvah that most symbolizes this is that of
tefillin, with which we bind our mind to our arm; reflection and action.

The members of shevet Gad were the “bnei gevurah” known for their military power. However, their strength was attained through connecting mind and might.

Thus, the Gaon explains why the Gemara uses the example of the person who speaks between putting on the shel yad and the shel rosh, for doing so indicates a separation between machshovah and ma’aseh. A warrior who does not combine the two is unable to succeed in battle.

Elul is the month when we reflect with our machshovos and recommit to heightened asiyah, accomplishment. It is the most serious month on our calendar and provides us with the strength and ability to withstand the inevitable rigors of life.

After describing the proper preparations for war, the parshah concludes with the mitzvah of eglah arufah and the words “Ve’atah tevaeir hadom hanoki mikirbecha ki saaseh hayoshor be’einei Hashem - But you shall remove innocent blood from your midst when you do what is upright in the eyes of Hashem” (Devorim 21:9). The method to overcome fears is by doing what is proper in the eyes of Hashem.

If we wish to be protected, if we wish to be successful, if we wish to be calm, if we wish to be zocheh in din, then we have to properly do the avodah of Elul. We have to live with a cheshbon, but never may our teshuvah come at the expense of Jewish blood or hurting others.

An emotional chossid visited the Chiddushei Horim during Elul. He confessed that he had sinned and fallen into the abyss of impurity. The man said that he was heartbroken and that he was seeking an avenue towards repenting.

The rebbe responded that “hamo’ar sheba machzirom lemutav,” the toil of Torah learning is the surest path to repentance. The man bid the rebbe farewell and turned to leave. The rebbe stopped him.

“Go out through this door,” the rebbe said, indicating a door behind his seat, leading to the back courtyard. “Why do all the chassidim waiting outside have to see your red eyes and add to your humiliation?”

That is the fusion of machshovah and ma’aseh, the heights of aliyah, but without losing sight of the feelings of a Yid.

On the eve of the Second World War, the Klausenberger Rebbe spent Sukkos with his wife’s grandfather, Rav Shulem Leizer’l of Ratzferdt. They were speaking aloud, trying to find a limud zechus for Klal Yisroel to evoke Divine mercy.

Rav Shulem Leizer’l declared, “Every Jew is worthy of Hashem’s salvation, even if all he does is recite Shema.

The Klausenberger answered, “Yes, it is so. Rav Shimon bar Yochai agrees.”

He was referring to the Gemara in Maseches Sotah (42a) which Rashi cites in this week’s parshah. The posuk (20:3) states that prior to going to war, the kohein approached the people going out to do battle and said to them, “Shema Yisroel, atem kreivim hayom lamilchomah al oyveichem, al yeirach levavchem ve’al ta’artzu mipneihemListen, Am Yisroel, you are now about to go to war against your enemies. Let your hearts not be troubled; do not fear them, because Hashem, your G-d, will accompany you to fight your enemies with you and help you.”

From the fact that the Torah uses the words “Shema Yisroel” to convey this message of faith, Rav Shimon bar Yochai deduces that “even if your only source of merit is Krias Shema, that is sufficient for Hashem to save you.”

Each morning, as we tie tefillin to our arm and head, we commit to connect machshovah and ma’aseh, and we then recite Krias Shema.

That combination makes us unbeatable. It is often said that the parshah, while appearing to speak of battles against our nation’s physical enemies, also refers to the battles we must wage against the yeitzer hora, which seeks to overwhelm us daily. Perhaps we can say that this reference is present in this posuk as well. As you do battle against your yeitzer hora, do not fear him. Do not think that you cannot overcome him. Do not think that you have sinned and are weak and unworthy. For if you have even the merit of Krias Shema and sincere faith in Hashem, He will help you defeat your enemy and realize the mission He placed you in this world to accomplish.

That being said, as we prepare our Elul campaigns, we bear in mind that people today are fed up with prepared, canned, clichéd answers. They want the truth. They want to feel that the person they are voting for is interested in them and respects them enough to be truthful. They want a person with a plan, but they want that person to be authentic in how he presents it. They want him to be moral, truthful, and committed to the people. They want him to know enough about himself and his inner feelings to be able to communicate and present himself by himself, without the need of a teleprompter and multiple aides who tell him what to say and the proper tone in which to express himself.

Lehavdil, Hashem wants no less from us. We have to work on our machshavos and maasim, with humility and authenticity, so that we recognize our core and are faithful to it.

We all know the path to victory. Let’s follow it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Seeing Eyes

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

One day, Rav Shlomo Kluger zt”l was looking out the window and noticed an unfamiliar person passing by. The rov went outside and invited the stranger into his house. He welcomed him in and asked him where he lived. The man told him that he lived in the town of Podheitz.

“That is perfect,” the rov exclaimed. “I have a letter that must go to the rov of Podheitz. Can I ask you to bring it home with you and deliver it to him?”

The visitor agreed. Rav Shlomo went to the next room and returned with a sealed envelope containing a letter.

A few months later, the Podheitzer merchant returned to Brod on business and met one of the talmidim of Rav Shlomo Kluger. The merchant told the talmid of his introduction to his rebbi. The talmid expressed amazement at the moifes.” Just when his rebbi needed a messenger to deliver a letter to Podheitz, he looked out the window, saw a stranger, invited him inside, and, miraculously, he was from that very town.

“Well, not exactly,” the Podheitzer said. “Let me tell you the whole story, even though it’s quite embarrassing. What happened was that when your rov looked out the window, he saw me eating in the street. He quickly called me in and found out where I was from. He dashed into his study and wrote a letter to the rov of my town to warn him that I should not be relied upon as a witness, since one who is ochel beshuk is posul l’eidus, disqualified from serving as a witness (Kiddushin 40b; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 31:18).

“Your rebbi wasn’t looking for the rov of Podheitz. He was looking for the rov of the city where I lived, so that he could make him aware of my failing and prevent a michshol.”

This story highlights Rav Shlomo Kluger’s astuteness and halachic responsibility. But the anecdote also draws attention to the seriousness with which Chazal view a lack of refinement. Eating is a significant act and one deserving of respect. Someone who eats in public is considered crude and lacking the depth to attentively witness what is transpiring around him. His vision is one-dimensional and thus his testimony is lacking.

He can’t really see, so he is disqualified from serving as a witness for halachic matters.

In Rav Shlomo Kluger’s time, eating in the street was apparently rare. Today, we live in an era when no one thinks twice about it. Vendors and trucks sell all types of foodstuffs on the street. Prestigious businessmen walk through Manhattan carrying coffee-cups as if they are some sort of standard accessory.

Were someone to focus on the greatest failing of our culture, superficiality would be high on the list, along with a general apathy about weighty matters and a fixation on matters of little importance.

The shofar’s blast ushers in Elul, prodding us each day to wake up, focus, and see things deeper.

Elul is a call for awareness, jolting us back to reality.

The Kotzker Rebbe once asked what is meant by the obligation to be “mispallel with koved rosh, deep concentration.”

His chassidim looked at each other, not understanding the point of the question.

The rebbe responded, elucidating his question: “Is there anything that should not be done with koved rosh?”

That is really the message of Elul. Koved rosh. Life is serious business. It is meant to be taken seriously and not wasted with banalities.

Last week, the first Republican presidential debate was held. The country is veering to the left under the current administration, causing angst to Republicans. The country is sinking in insurmountable debt, with taxes consuming a greater percentage of income. Social Security and Medicare are not sustainable. More Americans are jobless than ever before and illegal immigrants are sucking jobs and money out of the system.

The country has gone down a dangerous path in its foreign policy. The Arab world is in shambles, Iraq is a disaster, Syria is wracked by civil war, Afghanistan is descending into chaos, and Iran has been given the path to a nuclear weapon. ISIS is gobbling up more territory with each passing day, and al-Qaeda is more feared than ever. The West is sending billions of dollars into the pockets of the largest supporter of terror, and Hamas, Hezbollah and all the other bad actors out there will thus be redoubling their efforts.   

The Iran deal got scant coverage in the Republican debate. Neither did the Russian hacking of the State Department or the “coincidence” that the Iranian terror head, who is under international sanctions not to leave his country, was in Russia the day of the hacking.

President Obama delivered a major speech castigating Israel and its prime minister, portraying them as rejectionist war-mongers. With a mixture of half-truths and bluster, he castigated in ugly terms anyone who opposes his flawed deal. The Jewish senator in line to become Democrat Senate leader was warned by the administration that he will not realize his ambition because he came out against the deal.

With the vindictive administration as a backdrop, 17 accomplished people are vying for the Republican nomination to run for president. You would think that the debate would be a serious moment. You would think that the candidates would be given a chance to clearly explain their positions and offer solutions for the problems the country faces. 

Millions of people tuned in to hear the candidates discuss serious issues. Instead, the debate began with silliness, and coverage of it was basically limited to game show aspects. The “gotcha” moments were carefully analyzed along with other trivialities. Media consumers searched in vain to find solutions to real problems.

With so much at stake, America focused on superficiality. We run the danger of the surrounding culture affecting us and causing us to become shallow individuals - irresponsible, uncaring and unthinking.

As always, we search for truth and depth in the parshah. This week’s parshah of Re’eh, like so many of the parshiyos of the Torah, demonstrates what is expected of us as Jews and as people. The pesukim detail how we are to deal with the weak among us, what our obligations are to the poor, and how we are to lead our lives on a higher, more thoughtful plane.

The Torah’s injunction to see, “Re’eh,” is actually a call for depth, just like that of the shofar. Look, observe, and contemplate, and you will see that blessing comes with learning Torah and observing its mitzvos, while those who choose the opposite, end up dejected and empty.

We are reminded that the blessed life is arrived at by following the mitzvos, not through vanity and hedonism.

Go beyond the superficial, look a bit deeper, and you will see it.

Rav Yechiel Mordechai Gordon zt”l, the Lomza rosh yeshiva, had an interesting habit. He would stop at a particular corner of the bais medrash each day and spend a few moments in silent contemplation, as if in prayer.

One day, a talmid mustered the courage to ask the rosh yeshiva about the intriguing minhag. If he was, in fact, davening, why at the rear corner, facing the wall?

Rav Yechiel Mordechai explained that in that corner, there was a small plaque marking the gift of a certain donor. “I realized that it’s all too easy to forget and overlook his contribution to our yeshiva, so I wait until seder is in full swing and, with the happy noise and commotion of lomdei Torah filling the room, I pause by the plaque and remember his kindness.”

The Lomza rosh yeshiva was teaching his talmidim that mindless observation isn’t enough. One has to look and think.

The parshah begins with a commandment to look, to see deeper, and to consider the ramifications of mitzvos and aveiros. Towards the end of the parshah, we are commanded to give tzedakah generously. The posuk provides a reason to be charitable, telling us that we should give “ki lo yechdal evyon mikerev ha’aretz - destitute people will not cease to exist within the land” (Devorim 15:11).

We need to understand why the fact that there will always be needy people is a reason to give. If there will always be poor people, why bother waging a war on poverty? We give charity because we have compassion on the less fortunate and don’t want others to go to bed hungry. We give because we don’t want people to suffer due to no fault of their own. However, there are people who are not that altruistic and actually only care about themselves.

Some Rishonim explain that the Torah is speaking to those people and offering an incentive for them to give. The Torah says to them, “Even though things are going good for you and you don’t really care about the poor, give anyway, because no one is assured that one day they won’t need to ask for tzedakah.

When Rav Pinchos Hirschprung zt”l was a member of Montreal’s vaad harabbonim prior to his ascension as rav harashi, one of the dayonim passed away. The local rabbonim and lay leaders gathered to discuss creating a pension fund for the widowed rebbetzin so that she could live in basic dignity.

One of the rabbonim resisted, arguing that the widow could go to work or find some other means of support and the campaign was unnecessary. “It is not our responsibility to worry about someone’s wife,” he callously remarked.

Rav Hirschprung was normally a mild-manned, soft-spoken individual. However, upon hearing that response, he became irate. Instead of lecturing the selfish individual, he looked at him and said, “We don’t only mean his wife. We also mean your wife!”

The message hit home.

When we analyze with depth and responsibility, and ponder the future, the correct course of action becomes obvious.

The posuk tells us to give generously, because when we see deeper, we realize that no one is assured that they won’t ever be forced to accept tzedakah. By doing our part and making the world a better and more charitable place, we ensure that there is enough tzedakah money to go around should we ever need it, G-d forbid. The Torah trains us to think responsibly and act selflessly at all times.

Elul is here and it’s time to live seriously.

One year, on the Motzoei Shabbos of the first Selichos, a simple Sephardic Jew set up a small table in Bnei Brak near the Vizhnitzer bais medrash in order to sell Selichos booklets. “Selichot. Selichot,” he called out, but no one even stopped to look. Everyone was arriving with their Selichos in hand, and the poor man stood there hearing empty echoes of his lonely calls. “Selichot. Selichot,” he continued to shout, thinking that maybe people would stop by and purchase a booklet or two. 

Finally, his faith was rewarded. The Vizhnitzer Rebbe, the Imrei Chaim zt”l, passed with his entourage. The rebbe saw the humble Jew with a pile of unsold Selichos booklets and grasped the situation.

The rebbe walked over and took his place behind the table.

“Selichos,” the rebbe called out. “Ver vil koifen? Who wants to buy?”

Immediately, a crowd formed. Which chossid would turn down an opportunity to use a Selichos received from the rebbe’s own hand? In no time, the booklets were sold out.

“Do you have more?” the rebbe asked the vendor.

“Yes, I have another case in my machsan,” he said.

“Then hurry and go get it,” the rebbe said, maintaining his post.

The rebbe sold out the second batch as well, handing the dumbfounded seller piles of money he no doubt put to good use. 

With that done, the rebbe continued to the bais medrash to recite Selichos.

The rebbe had taught his chassidim a valuable lesson. He demonstrated the glory of helping another Jew. He showed them that the opportunities are everywhere, and those blessed with good vision take advantage of them. There was no introduction more fitting to Selichos for those looking for Heavenly mercy.

Do you want “Selichot”? Do you want Hashem to forgive your sins? Help another Jew. Look beyond your comfort zone and take note of what is going on around you. “Re’eh.” Look. Really look and you will find the “Anochi nosein lifneichem hayom brochah.”

Re’eh. See opportunities. See the needs of other Jews. See your own potential.

Open your eyes to the reality of life. Open your eyes to the opportunities for greatness, growth, forgiveness and blessing.

The Days of Light

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

We are witnessing the rise of people who have had enough of fraudsters in leadership positions. Politicians who bend to the wind are being swept aside by Donald Trump, the brash billionaire who speaks what he thinks is the truth and promotes a return to the good old days of American greatness.

The sixteen other Republican candidates are too beholden to their donors, pollsters, consultants and advisors to break out of his shadow. The entire mainstream political apparatus is fearing for its future, for if a man of the people can rise from the business world and, ignoring what have become the rules of the game, rocket to serious consideration for the presidency, their industry is in peril.

The stale, predictable politicians are seen as passé. People want leaders who are enthusiastic and intelligent. They want people who will lead them to greatness and prosperity. They’ve had their fill of being lectured to. They’ve had enough of predictable sound-bites that have little to do with the reality they face in their daily lives.

John Kerry, who failed miserably as a presidential candidate because his phoniness was exposed, negotiated a deal with Iran that went against every one of the talking points he and the president mouthed as they went into the negotiations. The US caved in to every one of the Iranian demands and effectively gave them a ten-year clear path to the bomb. Anyone can see how they are lying about what was agreed to and what the outcome of the deal would be. Iran has been welcomed into the family of nations as Israel is being marginalized.

Yet, every Democrat congressional politician, including those who made a career of advocating for Israel, is lining up behind the deal. How can anyone ever trust them again? How can people be expected to have faith in their elected representatives when they see them openly lie time and again on matters as vital to the nation’s future as empowering the world’s greatest supporter of terror?

As ISIS gains, anti-Semitism spreads across Europe, and worrying trends sweep across this country, people’s attention is manipulated to concentrate on trite, silly matters. The attention span shrinks, and the more nonsensical a story is, the more bounce it gets in the media and culture. Crime is rising in New York City, but the big story is that both of the city’s baseball teams are in first place. The world is consumed with the news of a dead lion, then a dead giraffe, and stories of other animals that are being killed by hunters. Low information people are consumed by mercy for the poor animals. They either don’t know or ignore the fact that the leaders of the country in which these tragedies took place rule with an iron fist and treat their citizens worse than animals. Mozambique is one of the poorest, most corrupt countries in the world, yet the world’s conscience doesn’t care about its people. They are too consumed with the plight of majestic animals.

The news from Eretz Yisroel causes us to smart from pain. A mentally ill person commits murderous acts and is portrayed as a representative of all religious people. Extremism is on the rise, with radical Jews attacking Arabs and committing other silly, irresponsible acts that endanger the rest of the population. The government has changed, and even Yair Lapid is attempting to convey a public conversion from the rabid anti-religious positions he promoted. Yet, so many problems remain, and we wonder if solutions will ever be found for them.

In this week’s parshah, we read that if we follow the mitzvos of Hashem (Devorim 7:12), we will be blessed. Lest we think in our hearts that the nations around us and the problems that confound us are too great to overcome, the posuk (ibid. 17:7) tells us that if we observe the Torah, “lo sira meihem,” we should not fear them. Slowly, but surely, our enemies will be overcome (ibid. 7:22).

Hashem promises that He will bring us to Eretz Yisroel, where we “will lack nothing” (ibid. 8:9), as we inherit the land “asher Hashem Elokecha doreish osah tomid,” that Hashem always watches over.

• • • • •

For the group of Boyaner chassidim, the rebbe’s impending arrival appeared on the horizon like an oasis in the desert.

For the many generations since the Ruzhiner Rebbe sent chassidim to live in Eretz Yisroel, there was a tight-knit chaburah of chassidim on the holy soil, connected to a rebbe whom many of them would never even see. The rebbe’s teachings trickled to Eretz Yisroel from Poland, keeping the chassidim connected to their leader.

After World War II, Rav Mordechai Shlomo Friedman, heir to the mantle of Boyan, settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, far away from the Boyaner kloiz located in Botei Hornstein, near Kikar Shabbos, in Yerushalayim. His followers there lived with his words, though few could afford to travel to America to hear them spoken.

Thus, when the news spread that the rebbe was planning a visit to Eretz Yisroel, the devoted nucleus of chassidim became charged with spiritual energy, as they anticipated the opportunity to see, observe and connect to their revered rebbe.

The rebbe was to travel by boat and arrive at the port of Haifa. The chassidim gathered in the kloiz and agreed to draw lots to see who would be fortunate enough to welcome the rebbe and accompany him from Haifa to the Holy City. The lucky winner would get to sit with the rebbe as he rode to Yerushalayim.

Reb Berel won the raffle, and all the chassidim were so happy for him, for they saw him as a distinguished chossid, uniquely worthy of the honor.

Finally, the great day arrived. Reb Berel joined the leading chassidim in welcoming their rebbe as he debarked from the ship. Reb Berel took his place in the back seat of the automobile hired for the occasion. He wouldn’t miss a word. Every utterance of the rebbe would live on in his heart.

But the rebbe didn’t speak. He didn’t say a word. He looked out the window intently, studying the scenery.

As Reb Berel waited with much anticipation, his beloved and revered rebbe, strangely, did not share a single vort or insight. He just looked out the window, riveted by the passing trees, hills, valleys and gulleys.

Finally, the rebbe spoke. Reb Berel became excited. The rebbe was going to talk to him and share insights and lessons for life he would treasure.

The rebbe raised his finger, pointed out the window, at the sky, at the mountains, and at the sand, and emotionally quoted to Reb Berel the posuk from this week’s parshah: “Eretz asher… tomid einei Hashem Elokecha bah - The Land that the eyes of Hashem are upon it” (ibid. 11:12).

Oib di Ribbono Shel Olam kukt, if Hashem is looking at this land,” said the rebbe, “then certainly I must look.”

Reb Berel had heard a lesson for the ages.

The rebbe was teaching his chossid about the different situations in life. There are different seasons and different settings, each with its own avodah.

There is a time for speech and a time for silent contemplation.

In the formal environment of the rest of the year, it’s all about speech and communication. Now, however, amidst the serenity and tranquility of summer, it is time for silence. Summer is the time to look and appreciate. The weather and atmosphere of summer provide us the opportunity to listen to the song of creation and internalize it, seeing and contemplating the splendor all around us, and becoming inspired to mirror it with our own conduct.

After experiencing the Three Weeks of mourning, we are currently in the Shiva Denechemta, the seven weeks of consolation. School is out, bein hazemanim is at its height, and camp is in full swing.

The various periods in the Jewish calendar aren’t exclusive. They feed each other, working in tandem to allow a person to reach shleimus.

A prominent rebbetzin launching a kiruv organization sought the blessing from the leading gadol, posek and tzaddik, Rav Yosef Eliyohu Henkin zt”l. She was welcomed into his small apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Rav Henkin listened to her plans and blessed her warmly. He then added a poignant personal observation. He told her, “I am an elderly man and have lost my ability to see. Now, the only way I can learn - which is the purpose of my life - is by reviewing what I learned during the many years when I was able to see. Boruch Hashem, I used those days wisely. Tell the people you meet about me, and tell them that if they don’t take advantage of the days of light, they will have nothing to fall back on when it grows dark.”

The days of summer are days of light. They provide an opportunity for rest and relaxation, a much-needed break for every Yid in their unique mission. Everyone needs to recharge. This is our chance. We can’t operate at full capacity without taking a break from time to time. This is the time for that.

The Gemara discusses “bei kayta,” the botei medrash used by the chachomim during the summer months, so that they could enjoy the pleasant air as they learned. Pictures of gedolim of pre-war Europe show rabbonim, roshei yeshiva and admorim strolling side by side with their talmidim in summer dachas in places such as Marienbad, Krenitz and Druskenik. These were people who understood the meaning of toil. In fact, they lived their lives only to work hard. Yet, they, too, took advantage of the month of Av to create yemei beinayim, days filled with meaning and substance of a different sort. The sort that enables people to work hard the rest of the year.

Rav Yitzchok Dov Koppelman zt”l, rosh yeshiva of Lucerne, would point out an interesting connection between the pesukim in last week’s parshah and the haftorah of that week, Shabbos Nachamu. The posuk warns of a person who lifts his eyes to observe the heavens, “Ufen tisa einecha hashomaymah’avadetam (Devorim 4:19). A person can behold the splendor of the sun and the moon and become overwhelmed by their power, seeing them as worthy of worship. The Torah warns against that.

In the haftorah, however, the novi enjoins Klal Yisroel to raise their eyes heavenward and contemplate the glory of creation: “Seu marom eineichem ure’u mi vara eileh” (Yeshayah 40:26)

Rav Koppelman said that, clearly, the very same image - the magnificence, precision and harmony of the cosmos - can lead a person to avodah zarah or to the heights of avodah. It depends on the purity of heart of the observer and the sincerity of his attitude. Where one person sees kefirah, another sees kabbolas ol Malchus Shomayim.

Chassidishe seforim point out that the roshei teivos of the posuk in Yeshayah, “Seu marom eineichem ure’u mi vara eileh - Raise your eyes to the heavens and see Who has created them,” form the word Shema. There are various paths to reach kabbolas ol Malchus Shomayim. When a person looks up and around, taking a moment to behold the magnificence and splendor all around him, he should be inspired to praise and serve the Creator of that beauty.

The resources we amass during these quiet summer days will come in handy during the long winter that will follow. That is the avodah of this season.

Wherever you may be, and whatever it involves - whether it is a pleasant evening walk, an early morning drive, or simply watching the sun rise or set - try to soak in summer’s light. That way, when winter’s inevitable darkness comes, you’ll be bulked up and ready.

Summer is a time we can use to be mechazeik people in a way we can’t during the year. For example, on Monday, Rav Yeruchim Olshin, rosh yeshiva of Bais Medrash Govoah in Lakewood, used the opportunity presented by bein hazemanim to visit Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin in prison. 

But it wasn’t that simple. Reb Yossi Ostreicher, who accompanied the rosh yeshiva and drove him to the jail, worked hard to arrange this visit. Shalom Mordechai was so excited that the rosh yeshiva would be coming to visit him. Imagine this Yid sitting alone in jail, cut off from the outside world. Imagine when he hears that the Lakewood rosh yeshiva is coming to visit him. He couldn’t contain himself. The rosh yeshiva was equally happy that he would be able to be mesameiach the locked-away, humble Yid. I spoke to each of them on Sunday and was happy that the visit was going to come about.

Then, Sunday evening, Rav Yisroel Meir Yagen zt”l, a Lakewood kollel yungerman and son-in-law of Rav Gershon Ribner shlit”a, was tragically niftar. Rav Olshin would have to forgo the visit to Shalom Mordechai. He would be devastated, but how could the rosh yeshiva not be at the levayah?

How surprised I was when Shalom Mordechai called me Monday afternoon. I learned a serious lesson in middos and in mesirus nefesh for another Yid. I learned a lesson in gadlus ha’adam more potent than a mussar shmuess.

Rav Yeruchim woke up pre-dawn, davened vosikin, got into the car for the 2-½ drive to Otisville, NY, stayed with Shalom Mordechai for twenty minutes and then headed back to Lakewood to attend the levayah.

He had the best excuse not to go. Who would not understand that he couldn’t make the visit? He had to be at the levayah. Anyone could accept that. Shalom Mordechai, the Lubavitcher Yid he had never met before, would surely understand. But instead of forgoing the five-hour trip on a difficult day, the rosh yeshiva chose to be moser nefesh to raise the spirits of a Yid. They only spent a few minutes together, but every time Shalom Mordechai ponders his fate, he will be emboldened because of the gadlus of a person who used the opportunity presented by summer to lift up a fellow Jew.

A shopper was watching a scene unfold in front of him in a supermarket. A small boy was sitting in a shopping cart, feet dangling, hands swinging, screaming at the top of his lungs for candy. His father was slowly pushing the wagon, repeating softly, “Chaim, you can stay calm. Chaim, you don’t have to scream. Chaim, don’t be upset.”

After watching the father behave so calmly as the child’s tantrum continued, the shopper went over to the man and complimented him on his self-control and how impressed he was with the way he was talking to little Chaim.

The father turned to the man and said, “You’ve got it all wrong. My son’s name is Yanky. My name is Chaim. I was talking to myself, not to Yanky!”

The way we deal with life and overcome its many obstacles depends on our attitude. If we proceed with calmness and faith, we can surmount that which gets in our way and know that we can beat back our enemies and overcome those things that test our patience. Summer is the time to reattach to our calmer side, to harken back to the faith of our youth, when everything seemed so much simpler.

If we want grass to grow on barren soil, it is not enough to buy seeds. We need to place them into the earth and provide them with water and nourishment. Torah is the tree of life to which we dedicate our lives. Our limud haTorah and kiyum hamitzvos are the seeds of growth. Summer is like the dirt that provides a place for the seeds to take hold and develop. We need some down time as well in order to develop into complete human beings striving for the sky. Let’s take advantage of the opportunity. After all, Elul is around the corner.