Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Every Day a Gift

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

If there is one thing that most people learned from Covid, it is the necessity to adapt to changing situations. People had thought that they were set and had everything figured out. Then the world careened and many plans, careers and businesses were toppled. Firmly established wasn’t firm enough, as people and their businesses quickly ran out of money and collapsed.

Families were devastated by premature deaths. Millions were sickened and millions died. There was no escaping the pandemic and the ravages it left in its wake.

Through it all, people had to learn to adapt to the new reality. Those who did were able to keep themselves afloat. Those who didn’t suffered much hardship and pain.

By the same token, people who can’t apply their values to a changing reality are also in trouble. The trick is to hang on to your inner truth as you confront new surroundings and realities.

Adapting means to strengthen what makes you strong, enhancing the attributes that distinguish you from others, and reinforcing them so that you can excel in new surroundings. You must size up the new situation and recognize that things will change and may never be the same again.

Figure out where your strengths lie and do what you must to survive and succeed in the new reality.

Jews who immigrated to America during the first half of the past century believed that the religious life they led in the old country could not be replicated here. Many had no hope that their children would be able to be religious in the new country and quickly surrendered to what they thought was inevitable assimilation. They were led to believe that in order to adapt to the new country, they had to jettison their essence, identity, and what made them great. Jewish children from religious homes were sent to public school and quickly became lost to the Jewish people. 

A minority understood that although America was totally different than what they were used to, they could still hold on to their children. They struggled to make a living and expended extra effort raising their children to retain their heritage while adapting to the new environment. It was an uphill battle, but they sacrificed to establish yeshivos and/or sent their children to already existing ones.

Both types recognized that the world had changed, but they differed radically in their methods of dealing with the new reality.

Those who held fast to their values survived with their essence and their values intact. They transplanted those values to a new country, translated them into the new language, and they flourished.

Every era presents new temptations and challenges. A society that is strong and realistic studies the new situation until it can navigate it competently. But one that is weak and fatalistic either continues on as if nothing has changed or compromises everything that gave it its identity in the first place.

We have to deal with the challenges that face us in our time and confront them wisely. We mustn’t bury our heads or engage in illegitimate compromises. Neither of those options holds any chance for long-term success.

The Bnei Yisroel were able to survive as a people in Mitzrayim because they held fast to certain attributes. As Chazal say, “Lo shinu es shemom, lo shinu es malbusham, lo shinu es leshonam.” They adapted to a life of servitude and endured because they made sure not to change their identifying characteristics. This is reinforced by the Haggadah Shel Pesach, which says, “Vayehi shom legoy, melameid shehoyu metzuyonim shom.” They made sure to maintain their identity and not to compromise on anything that would have diluted their people.

In our time, as well, we are confronted by a constantly changing society, one that is plagued by ebbing morals and a host of temptations that threaten us. New problems arise daily. We have to remember why we were created and what our mission is. We mustn’t fall prey to the fads of the moment.

As we enter Nissan, the month during which the Jewish nation came into existence, we should remember that we have endured longer than any other people because we remained loyal to our belief in the Torah’s unchanging character and the timelessness and sanctity of its every word.

And because we, the Jewish people, have a mission in this world.

We mustn’t compromise on that which ennobles us and sets us apart. We must remain metzuyonim, excelling in all we do. If we cling to the Torah and seek to excel in its study and the observance of its precepts, we not only enhance our lives, but hasten the end of the exile.

So many bowed, capitulated and fell, while the Torah community continues to grow and flourish in this county and across the globe. In every language, in every society, we have the means to persevere, as long as we are committed to remaining metzuyonim, distinguished by the lofty attributes that define the Jewish people.

There is currently a battle being waged to turn back the force of halacha and the purity and holiness of the Jewish people. As we wrote last week, Israel’s Supreme Court ordered that the country accept fictitious conversions performed by Conservative and Reform clergy and mark people converted by them as Jews on all official documents.

They are fictitious conversions because Judaism is guided by a system of rules and laws borne out of the Talmud, the Shuchan Aruch, codifiers of halacha, and millennia of practice. It is adherence to these laws that identifies us as religious Jews and guides our lives. To ignore these laws and certify people as Jews without committing them to living according to the laws as represented by halacha is to falsify conversions and religious life.

We live at a time when society allows people to identify themselves as being something they are not and can never be. As we are forced to adapt to new legal realities in one way or another, Torah and halacha remain immutable and are not subject to passing whims.

Those who mock us and seek to dilute Jewish laws in the name of adapting to a new world and new situations are usurpers who debase themselves and the people they preach to.

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate is guided by halacha, as all religious rabbis have been since there have been rabbis. To claim that they are guided by interests of power is subterfuge and wrong. It may earn the practitioners of faux Orthodoxy some favorable press, but it is meaningless and won’t endure.

Two of our old friends, Avi Weiss and Marc D. Angel, leaders of the so-called Open Orthodoxy movement, wrote an article in the Jerusalem Post to let the world know that not all Orthodox Jews are as backward and closed-minded as we are. Some are intelligent enough to adapt to new realities.

This is how they began their article: “We are Orthodox rabbis who have served in Orthodox synagogues and taught in Orthodox schools for five decades. It is precisely because we love Orthodoxy that we speak in support of the Israeli Supreme Court’s decision validating Conservative and Reform conversions done in Israel for Israeli citizenship. 

“This move, we believe, will help foster in Israel a less coercive Orthodoxy and worldwide will embrace all of our people as part of Am Yisrael, with a shared past and shared future.

“No doubt, the Chief Rabbinate will disagree with the position we’ve taken, as they fiercely want to hold on to power, determined to be the sole arbiters on conversions, leaving no room for Conservative and Reform.”

They go on to bash the Chief Rabbinate’s form of Orthodoxy.

You see, it is too oppressive and is not inviting. If they would relax the rules and recognize outsiders as insiders, we would all be so much better off, they claim.

Sounds like Joe Biden’s rhetoric to welcome foreigners to the United States. They don’t have to become citizens. It is enough just to cross the border and declare an intention to live in the country. That entitles them to all – or most – benefits of citizenship. There are no obligations, no tests, no background checks. You want to be an American? You are one. That is not going to work for the country, and that philosophy does not work for us either.

They rationalize, “If Israeli citizens have a choice of where to go for a conversion, it may catalyze the rabbinate to be more open in their conversion policies, taking into account the whole corpus of Jewish Law, which is more flexible than the current extreme Chief Rabbinate’s standards.  Competition is always good, as it encourages everyone to do better.  This bill could create a dynamic which would prod the Chief Rabbinate to become less insular and adopt a broader view of Klal Yisrael.”

According to Weiss and Angel, we should be broad and welcoming, diluting our nation by allowing people to enter simply by identifying as Jews, taking some courses and going through a meaningless ceremony.

Halacha does not recognize such people as Jews, and neither can those of us who are halacha observers.

The parsha this week begins with the words, “Vayakhel Moshe es kol adas Bnei Yisroel.” Moshe returned from receiving the Torah on the day after Yom Kippur and all of Klal Yisroel flocked to him to hear what he brought them.

There is a lesson here for us that is relevant throughout the year. The Jewish year, just like Jewish life, is composed of peaks and valleys, times of joy and times of pain. Every period has its specific avodah, whether it is a day that is spent in shul or one that is spent eating and drinking. Even on a routine day, our life is loaded with opportunity and meaning.

The time that passes will never return, and every moment that arrives is unique.

Mimochoras Yom Kippur is the day following the most exalted twenty-four hours of the year. How can you top that? Any day that follows must be a downer, maybe even a day off, without its own specific recipe for growth.

Our parsha opens on that day, mimochoras Yom Kippur, when Moshe Rabbeinu gathered the nation. As they stood listening to him, they were once again together, b’achdus, and they merited the Mishkon.

Following his return from Har Sinai after the chet ha’Eigel, Moshe called out, “Mi laHashem eilay - Everyone who remains with Hashem come to me.” Only the bnei Levi answered the call. But following that, the Jewish people repented for their involvement with the Eigel and understood that when Moshe speaks, everyone should listen and obey.

The parshiyos of Vayakhel and Pekudei conclude the five parshiyos that discuss the construction of the Mishkon and its design. The building of the Mishkon began after Yom Kippur and continued until Rosh Chodesh Nissan.

The work required hundreds of workers and large amounts of material. To facilitate its construction, there was a fundraising campaign in which everyone participated. When the Mishkon was completed, the festivity lasted twelve days.

Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky points out the incongruity between the effort exerted into building the Mishkon and the original intended duration of its existence. The Bnei Yisroel left Mitzrayim on Pesach and were to travel in the desert until reaching the Promised Land. Had the sin of the meraglim not taken place, they would have entered Eretz Yisroel in a matter of months and would not have wandered in the desert for thirty-nine extra years. Why, then, was so much effort and expense invested in constructing a temporary edifice? Why all the specifics, precise measurements, and exhaustive work?

The Mishkon, epicenter of holiness, repository of Hashem’s presence on this world, defied time. Although the Mishkon would be temporary, its effect would be eternal. While it was only meant to last for several months, it represented the ideal that every day could be spent in the presence of Hashem. No day, or even part of it, should be taken for granted or wasted. Every minute is precious and can generate greatness. We know nothing about which day or which moment is most important.

Every action is eternal, every teaching of Moshe is eternal, every halacha is eternal.

Klal Yisroel, newly-cleansed from the chet ha’Eigel and desirous of the return of a proper relationship with Hashem, appreciated the opportunity to construct a dirah batachtonim. And they knew that in a relationship, there are no off moments. For however long it would stand, they would ensure that the Mishkon would be a place where Hashem would, kevayachol, be comfortable.

They understood that building the Mishkon was an act of teshuvah for their sin and they immediately responded to the appeal. It did not matter that the Mishkon was to stand for only a short period of time, for they would take advantage of the opportunity to become closer to Hashem, and in that merit they would enter Eretz Yisroel and build the permanent Bais Hamikdosh.

Their efforts were a labor of love.

As the Mishkon was completed, Moshe Rabbeinu blessed the Jewish people, stating, “Vihi noam Hashem Elokeinu aleinu.” Rav Simcha Sheps explained that they were blessed upon the completion of the work and not when they began it, because Moshe knew that there would be an initial burst of enthusiasm for the project. He didn’t have to bless them at the outset. He feared that the initial euphoria would wear off and they wouldn’t be able to maintain the proper spiritual levels to merit the Shechinah remaining among them. When the job was done and the Mishkon was set up, Moshe was able to look on with pride at the lesson his people had learned.

In the great mussar yeshivos, every talmid was infused with an awareness of the greatness inherent in man, referred to as gadlus ha’adam.

Every day is a gift from Hashem and worthy of expending the effort to construct a Mishkon - a place for Hashem - in our hearts. Every day presents new opportunities to grow, learn and achieve greatness. Every day deserves cleanliness and preparation for Godliness.

The posuk states, “Vayavo’u kol ish asher nesa’o libo” (35:21). Every man “whose heart lifted him” came to work on the construction of the Mishkon.

The Ramban states that none of the people who were engaged in building the Mishkon had learned that trade, nor did they have any previous experience. They were the people who responded to the call of Hashem. Niso’om libom, their hearts lifted them. They were consumed with the desire to fulfill the wish of Hashem. They didn’t say that they weren’t trained for anything that the Mishkon required. They didn’t say that the work was too difficult. They didn’t say, “Leave it for someone else to do.” The Mishkon was built by men of greatness who ignored their shortcomings and pushed themselves to do what they didn’t know they could to serve Hashem.

Perhaps, in light of our understanding, we can appreciate the lesson. Our year doesn’t consist of “on-days” and “off-days,” and our nation doesn’t boast capable people and those who are absolved of work. Every day has its special light, and on any day we can accomplish something.

They achieved greatness. They brought the Shechinah to this world. They received the brocha of Vihi Noam and the Mishkon lasted much longer than anyone thought it would. In fact, the Mishkon was never destroyed. It lies in hiding, waiting for the day when we can appreciate our blessings, the potential that lies in each moment, and all join together and summon the inner strength we all possess to put aside differences and work together to reestablish a dirah laHashem batachtonim.

They sinned with the Eigel and were punished. They learned from their mistake and adapted their behavior to be able to return to Hashem’s embrace. They dedicated their efforts to the construction of the Mishkon reinforced with the knowledge that every day, every person and every halacha is important and is transformative. 

They wouldn’t return to the Eigel ever again. They wouldn’t allow people who seek to dilute the greatness of Am Yisroel to convince them ever again to compromise on Moshe’s teachings.

May we merit the construction of the Bais Hamikdosh speedily in our day.


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