Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Listen, Learn & Lead

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This week’s parsha, Ki Sisa, contains apexes of glory and splendor, depths of catastrophe, and a cataclysmic blow, followed by the greatest message of forgiveness in the Torah.

The tragic error and climb back to teshuvah resound through the ages.

The Bnei Yisroel were counted and they learned of the ketores and its powers. Hashem told Moshe that he had selected Betzalel to construct the Mishkon and its keilim and the bigdei Kohanim. The gift of Shabbos was granted to us and Moshe was given the luchos.

But then the people sinned and constructed the Eigel, changing the trajectory of history until this very day. Moshe descended from his greatness and shattered the luchos as he witnessed the depravity to which his people had sunk. He summoned the Leviim and waged war against the sinners.

Hashem wanted to destroy the Jews, but He relented after Moshe’s pleas and quick action. Moshe was allowed to ascend the mountain once again and transcribe the luchos. Hashem revealed the 13 Middos to Moshe and promised to allow the nation to enter The Promised Land.

It is apparent that as those who gave birth to the Eigel strengthened and accomplished their goal, Moshe weakened. The instigators of the Eigel, which they said would lead the Jews as they believed Moshe’s return from the mountain had been delayed, were the Eirev Rav, who had joined the Jewish people as they exited Mitzrayim. When they succeeded in persuading Aharon to tentatively accede to their plan, Moshe was told, “Lech reid.” He was instructed to go down and return to his people.

Chazal say (Brachos 32a) that in commanding, “Lech reid,” Hashem was saying, “Go down from your greatness, for I have only made you great because of Yisroel, and now that Yisroel has sinned, of what use are you?”

Very strong words.

The Peirush HaGra on Chumash (Shemos 32:7), quoting the Tikkunei Zohar, says, “Ispashuta d’Moshe bechol dor vador. In every generation, there is a nitzutz, a part of the neshomah, of Moshe Rabbeinu present in one great man.” Through him, the light of Torah is transmitted to all the talmidei chachomim of the generation. All the chiddushei Torah that is nischadeish in the world is through the “hashpo’as ohr,” or influence, of Moshe Rabbeinu.

Several times a week, we say, “Vezos haTorah asher som Moshe lifnei bnei Yisroel… beyad Moshe.” We extend our fingers and try to see the holy letters on the parchment, proclaiming not just that the words form our Torah, but that the Torah was given specifically through Moshe.

The repeated testimony to this fact - not just that the Torah is ours, but that Moshe is the one who gives it to us - underscores the fact that we are recipients. “Tov ayin hu yevorach - One who has a bountiful eye will be blessed” (Mishlei 22:9). This, Chazal teach us, refers to Moshe, who had the ultimate ayin tova: He gave us the Torah and the ability to plumb its depths. He gave us the koach to “own” Torah.

The chet ha’Eigel put that whole gift in jeopardy.

At the time of the Eigel, Moshe became weakened to such a degree that the luchos were broken, causing a diminution of Torah knowledge and leading to all the exiles our people have since endured.

The Vilna Gaon writes (Even Sheleimah 13:8) that in our time, the Eirev Rav is basically composed of five groups of people: baalei machlokes and lashon hora, baalei ta’avah, hypocrites, people who seek honor to make a name for themselves, and people who crave money. He continues: “The worst are those who cause machlokes, and they are Amaleikim. Moshiach will not arrive until the world is rid of them.”

Our actions have consequences. What we permit other people to do has consequences. We all know that machlokes plagues our people, but we need to declare that we have had enough of it and rise up against those who cause machlokes. We need to work to spread peace and harmony in our community. We need to put aside petty differences. We need to work together and support good people doing good things instead of playing along with hypocrites and greedy people. There are many good people out there. Let’s get behind them and enable them to change the playing field. Let’s give people a chance.

Everything we have and want depends on that.

There are ramifications when we do a mitzvah. It strengthens us and strengthens the world. It adds kedushah to our lives and also allows us to tap into the ohr of the nitzutz of Moshe Rabbeinu.

Perhaps most relevant to us is the power of people to create change. The Eirev Rav weakened Moshe’s abilities by sowing dissent and confusion, taking away the koach that had fueled Klal Yisroel’s leader.

Once again, current events provide an excellent moshol.

It may very well be that Donald Trump has not yet formulated policies or serious ideas about governing, but nobody cares, because he gives voice to the attitude that empowers the people. He talks about the real fear in American homes, the desire to triumph, the hope of being winners again. He continues to fill large arenas, peddling that message, and by doing so, he makes the professional politicians look silly. His bluster and banter echo the conversations in coffee shops and gas stations across the country, and the people are throwing their support behind him. Tens of millions of frustrated Americans see him as a person who will really do something about what is troubling them. He is thus on the path to the White House, unless someone else can assume that mantle.

The old ways of experts, polls, position papers, don’t cut it anymore. People want action. They want someone who talks like them and gives voice to what they want. They want him to be truthful and straightforward. They don’t want nuances and they don’t care for long political records and pedigree.

Leadership starts from the ground up.

When Shlomo Hamelech was given the ability to choose any gift, the wise king didn’t select power, might or influence. He asked for a lev shomeia, a heart that would perceive and discern the needs of others. He wanted the ability to really hear.

A wonderful gift, to be sure, but what does it have to do with his mission to lead?

Baalei mussar explain that Shlomo Hamelech understood that the surest way to lead is to listen to the people and to develop an authentic and genuine interest in what ails them and what they care about. A leader who can accomplish that will earn the affinity of the people and they will follow him.

That is exactly what we see transpiring today in the political arena.

We must learn the lesson in our world as well.

In order to battle the Eirev Rav of our day, in order to curb machlokes which weakens the Moshe Rabbeinus of the dor, in order to get us closer to the coming of Moshiach, we have to be more intelligent about the way we address people. It is way too easy to preach and lecture others, admonishing them for what we think they are doing wrong, but that may not be what works anymore.

To be an effective leader and communicator, you have to listen to the people and understand how they think and why they act the way they do. We have to live in the moment and perceive the current mindset in order to bring about change. We have to have a lev shomeia if we want to influence people to lead better lives and to give up their petty battles and other behaviors that are in line with the conduct of the Eirev Rav.

I always tell people to read the Yated, if only to stay current and know what is going on in the big world out there. If you don’t know what is going on, you don’t know the news, and you don’t know what people are thinking, how do you think you can be relevant?

Build people up. Have faith in them to be better and do better. Let them know that you think higher of them and their abilities. Don’t always knock them down. Try building them up. Talk positively. Don’t only preach doom and gloom.

Nobody wants to hear the same old tired narratives they’ve been hearing for years. They want something fresh that relates to them. Don’t harp on things. Show them the beauty of Torah. Don’t offer curses. Offer blessings. With a warm, loving demeanor, you can influence many more people than with a scowl. As the age-old proverb goes, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

We need to win people over. We have to win the battle. Let’s be plugged in to the hearts and minds of the masses and work intelligently to convince them to improve and to grow.

A story is told about a fellow who comes to shul and sits in his seat straight through until Shemonah Esrei. After davening, the rov bangs on his shtender and points out that it is improper to sit while reciting Vayevorech Dovid.

The man speaks up and says, “A halbe yohr, half a year, zitz ich ohn parnossah, I ‘sit’ with no source of income, and no one says a word. One day zitz ich beim davenen and I hear all about it.”

The way to create change is to build up the people through warmth, concern and a lev shomeia, not by talking down to them or castigating them.

It was the people who gave Moshe Rabbeinu the koach and the people who removed his koach when they rebelled with the sin of the Eigel.

Lehavdil, it’s the people propelling Trump forward, something considered illogical and impossible by pollsters and pundits not savvy enough to appreciate Shlomo Hamelech’s wise request.

Listen to the people and you will lead.

Rav Yeshayale of Kerestir zt”l was one of the most beloved and revered tzaddikim in prewar Hungary. Jews from all across the country were drawn to his tiny town, eager for the rebbe’s brochah and advice.

Once, before tekias shofar on Rosh Hashanah, Rav Shayele closeted himself in his room to prepare for the exalted moments. A chossid peered in, certain that he would see the rebbe engaged in Kabbalistic ritual, saying Tehillim or toiling in Torah.

The chossid saw the rebbe patiently slicing pieces of cake and preparing platters. The rebbe noticed the curious chossid and explained. Since the minhag of chassidim is not to eat before tekios, the rebbe understood that the mispallelim would no doubt be famished by the end of davening. He wanted to make sure that none of them, especially the elderly chassidim, would have to wait following davening and that they would be able to enjoy Kiddush and a bite of food immediately.

The rebbe used the moments before tekios as Shlomo Hamelech taught. Rav Shayele connected with the hearts of his people and prepared food for them. Only after doing that, was he ready to go to tekias shofar and plead on their behalf, for he was a good leader.

A yeshiva bochur was found being mechalel Shabbos a few times in his yeshiva dormitory. The heads of the yeshiva went to Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l for pro-forma permission to expel the boy.

Rav Shach was in his twilight years, extremely weak and feeble, and rarely saw people. Because of the severity of this situation, the roshei yeshiva were permitted to enter his room to discuss the matter with him. He listened to them and was engrossed in thought for several minutes. Finally, with a weak voice, he said to them, “What is the financial situation in the boy’s home? Do his parents have shalom bayis?”

The rabbis were bewildered by the questions. “How should we know what goes on in his home?” they asked.

Rav Shach strengthened himself, grasped the table, and pulled himself up in his chair. Tears were flowing down his cheeks and his voice was stronger than it was before. He turned to the people who had come to his home convinced that he would rubber stamp their decision. “Rodfim, leave my home! I don’t want to talk to you. You don’t know what is going on with the boy. You don’t know what is going on in his home. The only thing you know is that you want to put him out in the street. Leave.”

Like all parshiyos and lessons in the Torah, these lessons are eternally relevant.

We have a fractured dor. We need to connect to our brethren and understand what lies in the hearts of the members of our nation and what keeps them awake at night. What worries them? What bothers them? What are their wants and desires? Do they have ambition? Do they want to excel at anything? If not, why not? Are they making ends meet? Do they have a decent place to live? Can they afford their rent or mortgage? Are they happy with the way their children are turning out? How is their health? What is the path to affecting their thoughts and behavior?

When we can answer those questions, we can lead. We can bring people together, work together, and fix what ails us, as one people with one heart.

We need our leaders to be strong and our people to be good. In order to accomplish that, we must wipe out the vestiges of the Eirev Rav from our midst and benefit from the unblocked light of Moshe. We have to work to cure what ails us in a way that will succeed.

The Torah was given with an ayin tovah. With an ayin tovah, we can spread the ways, lessons and messages of the Torah and create the greatest change of all, allowing the arrival of Moshiach.

• • •

In honor of the 25th anniversary of my dear friend Rav Shimshon Zelig Sherer’s leadership of K’hal Zichron Mordechai in Flatbush.


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