Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Strength, Character and Resolve

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Reb Fishel, a well-known chossid who was considered an oveid Hashem, was niftar and someone who was present was quite impressed with his behavior during his final moments. He shared what transpired with their rebbe.

He told the Kotzker Rebbe that Reb Fishel was on his deathbed surrounded by talmidim, teaching and transmitting deep lessons.

“What did he teach?” asked the rebbe with interest.

The wide-eyed chossid related, “The talmidim asked him if the yeitzer hora was attempting to ensnare him as he lay dying, or perhaps he let go during man’s final moments. Reb Fishel’s answer shook us to the core. He said, ‘Yes, even now, as my soul prepares to depart, the yeitzer hora is attempting to persuade me to recite a loud, passionate Shema Yisroel so that you might all be impressed with my piety. Ubber ich veiz em a feig. I won’t accommodate him.’”

“With that, rebbe,” the chossid concluded the story, “Reb Fishel passed away.”

The rebbe thought for a moment and said, “Yotzah nishmaso befeig,” he said. The yeitzer hora had succeeded as the chossid breathed his last.

The Kotzker understood that the yeitzer hora had schemed for the pious Reb Fishel to pass on seeking approval and admiration from others. It wasn’t the fervent Shema Yisroel, but the story of his exchange with the yeitzer hora that trapped him at that final moment.

The yeitzer hora is the craftiest enemy we face. Because he understands our motivations, he is able to outsmart us time after time. For us to perceive the plainly evident truth is an epic struggle, for he shades and colors the way we understand what is transpiring around us and goads us to react in ways that harm us.

He uses words and ideas that paint negative actions as positive and convinces us that public approval is a good litmus test of truth, while it is quite often the opposite. He tells us that not all who wander are lost and endeavors to remove our focus from the goal.

The Alter of Slabodka would incorporate this message in a single phrase: “Maskilim say that one must know the world. Chassidim say that one must know one’s Creator. And we say that one must know himself.”

The skewered reality, representing the value system of the alma deshikra in which we live, is on prominent display during the election season.

The most powerful tool in the arsenal of any candidate is public opinion. To exploit this device to its fullest, politicians take polls. Pollsters taint the results in favor of the candidate they prefer or are paid to promote.

While it is common knowledge that many of the polls are slanted, people still quote them and use them to determine the direction of a political race. Based on the faux presentations of public opinion, politicians make fateful decisions that profoundly impact their country and the rest of the world.

The media drums the propaganda into people’s psyches until the public is swayed into embracing a platform it would not have supported otherwise. Everyone wants to be with the winner, so the polls suggesting that a particular candidate will triumph ends up having a demonstrative impact on public opinion.

Witness the spectacular rise of Donald Trump. The surging candidate relates to people on their level and does not play to the conventional themes or seek to endear himself to the media or political bosses. He doesn’t respond to polls. He says what he believes, going over the heads of those thought to be in charge of public opinion. He has thus upended the rules of the entrenched ruling class, as he gains adherents to his campaign to return sanity to government.

Mainstream politicians and media talking heads and foot troops continue to predict his downfall, because they don’t understand his power and cannot figure out how to beat him. They know that should he get elected, they and their operating system are doomed.

They don’t understand that a leader can win by selling his true beliefs, though those views have not been blessed with the imprimatur of the politically correct wizards.

Trump thinks on his feet, doesn’t use a teleprompter, and connects with the masses by giving voice to their thoughts. The old-style politicians memorize slogans and speeches that are found by polls to be appealing, and they repeat the same tired narratives day after day.

Mrs. Clinton is a prime example of that type of candidate. The media would have you think that she maintains an insurmountable lead and is the inevitable Democrat nominee. In fact she is neck and neck with socialist Bernie Sanders in the upcoming states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

The media would have you think that she is unbeatable, though she has never excelled at much. Everything she touched during her four years in the State Department blew up, from the reset with Russia, to the war in Libya, embassy in Benghazi, tongue lashings of Netanyahu etc. She leaves behind her a trail of lies and incompetence wherever she goes.

She is eminently beatable by Trump or anyone else who dares to take her on and peel away the fictitious veneers of brilliance. That should not come as surprise to anyone who follows her and notes her reticence to answer questions, appear in public, speak extemporaneously or connect with voters to any degree.

Mainstream politicians are so scared of saying something that one group or another will find offensive that they fear to say the truth. There is rarely any intellectual honesty displayed. Everything has to fit in to a convenient politically correct box.

Whether they present themselves as conservative or progressive, everyone knows that they don’t really mean what they are saying. Ask them a question and you get a canned, cagey response. Press them on an issue and watch them squirm their way out of answering. It’s all about spin, lobbyists and spokesmen. Even if they do have a personal opinion, they never share it with anyone, certainly not with the voters they are seeking to represent.

Last week a Philadelphia policeman was shot by a Muslim who said he was acting in the name of Islam. “He stated that he pledges his allegiance to Islamic State, he follows Allah and that is the reason he was called upon to do this,” Police Capt. James Clark said at a news conference. “He kept on echoing those sentiments and he wouldn’t give us anything more than that.” But the city’s new mayor would have none of it. He announced at a press conference that, “This… has nothing to do with being a Muslim or following the Islamic faith.”

The US is under attack, there is a war between radical Islam and the West, yet the country’s leaders refuse to recognize that simple fact. If they are blind to the facts how can they ever win? We have to deal with the world the way it is, not the way we would like it to be. As the posuk states, “Besachbulos taaseh lecha milchomah,” when doing battle, you must have a correct appraisal of your enemy and a candid and intelligent plan for victory. You will not win if you fool yourself.

We have to learn how to address our own issues using real solutions and honest ideas, not noise or sound-bites. What we need is practical direction, not grandstanding for the glory of the moment or fanciful thinking that has no application to reality. It is far easier to deliver big speeches and to propose sweeping changes than to sit far from the limelight and develop a workable solution. Clearly thought-out approaches will have a lasting salutary effect on the community long after the speech has been forgotten.

Applause is not an indicator of anything lasting.

In Parshas Bo, we are commanded to rid ourselves of all leavened products before the onset of Pesach. In Gemara Pesochim (12b), Rava discusses the reason Rabi Yehudah maintains that on Erev Pesach it is permitted to eat chometz only until the end of the fourth hour, even though the chometz must be burnt at the onset of the sixth hour. He explains that since Rabi Yehudah holds that chometz must be destroyed by burning, Chazal gave us an hour during which to gather branches to build the fire.

Why do Chazal measure the amount of time to prepare the fire with branches and not with a fast-moving accelerant? If we were to fuel the fire with oil instead of wood, the fire could be lit much quicker.

If you have ever burned your own chometz, you know that a fire fueled with gasoline burns spectacularly, but quickly fizzes out. A fire that is lit with carefully layered twigs will last far longer and will burn all the chometz as halachically required.

If you take the easy way out and pour gasoline around the chometz, the fire will dissipate before the chometz has been destroyed. Yes, the flames will erupt in a heated rush, but your mission will not be accomplished.

If you only set fire to the bread itself, the fire will not catch on. It is only if you expend the effort of setting a bed of twigs and lighting it methodically that the fire will sustain a heat level sufficient to fulfill the mitzvah of tashbisu, destroying any chometz in your possession.

The yeitzer hora is symbolized by chometz, and this lesson applies in doing battle with him as well. Slowly, methodically, one can chip away at him. Spectacular ceremonial shows of might achieve nothing.

When we light fires, and as we seek to put them out, we need to use foresight and intelligence. If we act with clear-headed decisiveness, then we will not be led to acts of desperation when our plans fail.

We should not be swayed by what others say, by what seems popular, or by what pollsters decide is the winning track. Our actions must be grounded in Torah, our thoughts by halachah. Our conduct with others must be based on mussar. The way we deal with talmidim and children must also be grounded in halachah and mesorah.

We cannot afford to act strictly in the moment guided by what only appears to be right. A parent or educator might feel that a situation calls for harsh measures or severe discipline, but emotions should play no role. Halachah, not what our feelings are at the time of the infraction or what seems to be popular among so-called experts, should dictate how we act.

Additionally, when we want to expunge se’or from our hearts and lives, when something undesirable needs to be uprooted from our world, the temptation is to go for the fireworks. Yet, that approach often boomerangs. At the very least, the success it supposedly generates is short-lived.

Our egos prevent us from seeing things as they really are. If we don’t understand what is really happening, we err. We fail when we think we are smarter than our leaders. We fail when we think that time-hallowed customs and modes of conduct are old-fashioned. We fail when we think that we are smarter than those who have come before us.

Vayechazeik Hashem es lev Paroh” can be explained to mean that Hashem caused Paroh’s inflated opinion of himself to prevent him from acting prudently. He let his emotions blind him from acknowledging what was plainly obvious to any objective observer. “Haterem teida ki ovdah Mitzrayim?” his servants challenged him. “How can you not see that Mitzrayim is on a collision course with disaster?”

Paroh was robbed of understanding his own abilities, strengths and weaknesses because he was unaware of himself and therefore crippled by petty calculations and rotten middos. Deluded of clear vision and lacking humility and clear perception, Paroh led his people to the brink of disaster. Then, when he could have saved them, he led them over the brink to drown in the Yam Suf.

Great leaders see past themselves. They are able to see several steps ahead and provide counsel that will benefit the listener in the long run. Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l once said, “Before I make a suggestion to someone and provide guidance in a trying time, I imagine meeting this neshomah in the Olam Ha’emes. As I visualize that, I consider whether I would be satisfied with what I told him. If I am, I proceed with my guidance. If I think that I will be embarrassed in the World of Truth by what I advised him, I resist sharing my thoughts.”

To succeed, we have to be honest with ourselves and conduct a frank cheshbon hanefesh about where we are, where we ought to be, and how to get there. We have to set priorities, seriously examining what is real and what is fiction, what needs to be addressed and what is trivial.

We have to ensure that we are acting responsibly, with foresight, and resist the urge to grandstand or act compulsively in a manner that will momentarily warm us, but which will prove futile in the long run.

We cannot be guided by polls or short-term solutions. We cannot permit our egos to derail us as we face epic challenges. The temptation is to walk on the popular path towards the spotlight, but all too often, that path ends in a dead end and the spotlights burn out before we can reach our goal.

The Torah, in speaking of makkas bechoros, commands us (Shemos 12:24-25) to observe this as a chok for us and our children and to bring the Korban Pesach when we merit entering Eretz Yisroel. The posuk continues (ibid., 26-27) that when your children ask you to explain the avodah, tell them that the Korban Pesach commemorates the miracles Hashem performed for us when we left Mitzrayim.

When our children want to understand our way of life, we explain to them that we come from a long chain of bnei Avrohom Yitzchok v’Yaakov. We are proud of our heritage and commemorate what Hashem did for us in years past until this very day. We don’t fudge issues. We don’t provide contemporary responses because we think they are better than stating the truth as it has been related for thousands of years. We don’t seek to blend our religion with others or paper over differences.

With pride and love, we give the same answers to our children that our parents gave to us and their parents gave to them. That ensures a “leil… shimurim lechol Bnei Yisroel ledorosam.” If you follow the precepts, laws and explanations of the Torah, you will be protected throughout all your generations. As long as the eternal truths guide us, we are safe. When we act contrary to our mesorah, we are at our own mercy and incapable of enduring.  

The Korban Pesach must be eaten slowly, symbolic of the deeper avodah.

On Sukkos, we recite the prayer of “Hoshana nefesh mibehalah - Save the soul from turbulence.” Rav Shmuel Halevi Wosner zt”l would recite this tefillah on Purim as well. He would recite the words repeatedly, asking Hashem to spare us from the unrest, behalah, and allow us to consider our actions slowly and carefully, focused on a bigger picture.

Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l once recounted that there were many things about Rav Wosner that impressed him, such as his learning, his yiras Shomayim and his precision in halachah, but most prominent was his menuchas hanefesh and the way he carefully considered every word and gesture. This was the manifestation of his tefillah of “Hoshana nefesh mibehalah.”

As the yahrtzeit of my grandfather, Rav Eliezer Levin zt”l, approaches, I recall that what was most impressive of his many admirable attributes was his ability to always be calm, no matter the situation. When I asked him his secret, he reminded me that for the seven years he spent in the Kelmer yeshiva, he worked on the middah of savlanus. A savlan cannot be buffeted about. He remains calm and serene, while being strong and determined, despite the tests of life.

Rav Levin was blessed with a long life and much success and aliyah, but he knew tragedy as well. In all situations, he remained steadfast and calm, buttressed by emunah and bitachon. He was a paragon of gadlus, epitomizing the grandeur of Torah.

We operate with a long-term plan. Our decisions are also about tomorrow, not just today.

This awareness resides within the neshomah of every Jew, explaining the deepest mysteries of life and representing the strength of emunah. Many questions arise because people look only at temporary results instead of past them.

In this alma deshikra, we can’t always see the emes. We can’t see tomorrow, but we believe it will arrive.

Ba’alei bitachon, bnei Torah, baalei mussar, chassidim and gutteh Yidden of all stripes believe in tomorrow.

We fail to be impressed by who appears to be rising and who “the olam” says is falling, because we see past the moment. We ignore what my zaide would refer to as the “hoo-haa” of this world. We remain focused on what we know to be the truth and believe that “sof ha’emes lenatzeiach,” in the end, the truth will be victorious. Everything else is temporal and meaningless.

Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt”l would often relate that he was present when the Chofetz Chaim zt”l said, “I see black clouds over the skies of Europe. There is grave danger facing Am Yisroel.” He would state that upon hearing those words, Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l began to tremble. Rav Elchonon asked his rebbi what the end would be. The Chofetz Chaim replied by quoting a posuk: “Uvehar Tzion tihiyeh pleitah vehayah kodesh (Ovadiah 1:17). In Eretz Yisroel, a remnant of Jewry would survive.

“But rebbe,” Rav Elchonon asked, “in Eretz Yisroel the leaders are secular. Is that the destiny of Klal Yisroel? To join forces with those who work against the Torah?”

The Chofetz Chaim answered, “It says vehayah kodesh. The novi chooses to add a vov hahipuch, denoting that he speaks of the future. It will be holy. He is teaching us that in Eretz Yisroel, too, there will be an upheaval and, in the end, forces of kedushah will reign.”

The Chofetz Chaim was assuring salvation to us, the she’airis am echod, the last generation of golus. He foresaw the process, the clouds and the darkness, and the happy ending.

May we merit the strength of character and resilience of the eternal people to be present on the great day of which the novi foretold.


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