By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
It is hard for us to imagine the way our people were feeling at the middle of the last century. The Holocaust had thankfully ended and survivors were desperately trying to put their lives back together. Mourning, beaten, bloodied and broken, they didn’t know if it would ever be possible to find strength and succor to cope with the challenges facing them, strangers in new lands.
People looked for rays of hope. One of them was to find a newly published sefer. Every time a sefer was published – an infrequent occurrence – it was seen as a shot in the arm, offering an injection of chizuk to beleaguered bnei Torah in Eretz Yisroel, Europe and America.
One sefer that stood out at the time was titled Avi Ezri. In 1948, it was seen as a statement that the excellence brought on by extreme devotion to Torah of the pre-war yeshivos was still alive. It demonstrated that survivors could create chiddushei Torah that would give meaning to this strange new world. Copies of the new sefer were eagerly passed around the halls of yeshivos, each page serving as resounding testimony to the eternity of the nation and Torah.
Eventually, a copy reached America, where it was greeted with similar excitement. In the newly re-established Mirrer Yeshiva, some European immigrants recognized the name of the author, Rav Leizer Shach, familiar to them from before the war. The yeshiva’s mashgiach, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein, noticed the buzz in the yeshiva and referred to it in a shmuess.
“You are all amazed by the ge’onus of the sefer,” the mashgiach said, “but I remember that the mechaber was known as the baal chessed of Kletzk. He was the most compassionate, caring, hartzige Yid in the yeshiva.”
A talmid recalled his impression of that shmuess. “The mashgiach wanted us to understand the koach of Torah. He saw how enthralled we were by the sefer – one of the first of its kind to be released after the destruction – and he used the opportunity to hammer home to us the effects of Torah, how that kind of d’veykus in Torah creates a different sort of person.”
That, in essence, is the message of these days, connecting the avodas hamiddos of Sefirah and preparation for Kabbolas HaTorah. Someone who derives chiyus from Torah becomes elevated and refined, and his behavior reflects that, as the Rambam makes clear in his description of how a talmid chochom conducts himself (Hilchos Dei’os, perek 5).
We are approaching what is commonly viewed as the mid-point of the Sefirah period, Lag Ba’omer, a day whose meaning is layered with mystical secrets. The Arizal says that Lag Ba’omer is a manifestation of the posuk in Bereishis (31) wherein Lovon said to Yaakov Avinu, “Eid hagal hazeh – This ‘gal‘ is witness” to the accord fashioned between us. The Arizal says that the plague that was killing talmidim of Rabi Akiva during Sefirah ceased because Lag Ba’omer is a realization of the pile that separated Lovon and Yaakov.
At first look, it appears that the inference is that the words “Lag” and “gal” are formed from the same Hebrew letters, gimmel and lamid, and it is merely a clever play on the word. However, upon deeper examination, there is a hidden secret in the words of the Arizal as there are in all his teachings.
The Medrash Tanchumah at the end of Parshas Vayeitzei says that the “gal” referred to is also the “kir” that prevented Bilam’s donkey from approaching the Bnei Yisroel in a bid to curse them on behalf of Balak, the king of Moav. The “gal” that separated Yaakov and Lovon would also create the division between the Jewish people and the depraved nations who sought their destruction.
It is interesting that meforshim use various approaches to connect the 24,000 talmidim of Rabi Akiva who perished and the 24,000 people who died after they sinned with the daughters of Moav when Bilam wasn’t able to curse the Jewish people.
Apparently, there is more to the “gal” than meets the eye.
We read at the end of Parshas Acharei Mos about the admonitions against immoral acts and lifestyles that were prevalent in the land of Canaan. The pesukim (18:28-30) warn that if the Jewish people adopt the ways of tumah, the land will expel them, because whoever engages in immorality will be struck down.
Those pesukim are immediately followed by the opening pesukim of Parshas Kedoshim (19:1-2): “Tell the Bnei Yisroel that they must be holy, because I, Hashem, your G-d, am holy.” Rashi (ibid.) states that the way to be holy is by being isolated from acts of immorality and sin. The Toras Kohanim (ibid.) states that Parshas Kedoshim contains “rov gufei Torah,” the majority of the body of the Torah. If you look through the parsha, you conclude that most of the laws that are included there relate to decency, to acting properly with each other, to not hating other people, and to love thy brother like thyself.
The Torah is giving us a manual for how to create that “gal,” the holy pile that can serve as a barrier. We must firmly establish a “gal” to separate ourselves from the tumah of the nations around us. The “gal” is what protects us and ensures our salvation in times of danger and disease.
“Gal” represents the separation between kedushah and tumah. To the degree to which the Bnei Yisroel are kedoshim, cleaving to the mitzvos contained in this week’s parshiyos and separating themselves from arayos and tumah, they benefit from the “gal” to separate them from mageifos.
That same “gal” that separated our forefather Yaakov and the shevotim from Lovon, keeping them safe; the same “gal” that turned back Bilam and allowed Pinchos to rise from among his people and stem the plague; the same “gal” that caused the talmidim of Rabi Akiva to stop dying, that “gal” is available for us on Lag Ba’omer and all year round.
If we separate ourselves from the Lovons of our day, and the Bilams, and the daughters of Moav, and we respect each other and act charitably and with fine character, we strengthen that eternal “gal” and ensure our security.
As the golus continues and our situation becomes more precarious, and as enemies surround us from within and without, we must not weaken in our devotion to the gufei Torah of Parshas Kedoshim. Neo-Orthodox and secularists seek to bring tumah into our camp. The prevalent culture war that would have been unthinkable just years ago assaults our senses of modesty and morality. Once again, there is a flood of impurity challenging our “gal.”
If we stamp out abuse, if we stamp out hatred, if we stamp out immorality from our camp, we help ourselves and others. Every company and every organization needs a mission statement to which it must adhere or it loses relevance and vibrancy. Our people, too, need a mission statement. Ours is Kedoshim Tihiyu.
In Parshas Kedoshim, the Torah commands, “Ve’ohavta lerei’acha kamocha.” We are to love our fellow as much as we love ourselves. This is definitely connected to the Chazal that gufei Torah are included in this parsha. Displaying love for each other is a cardinal obligation and an indication of where we are holding as Jews. If we are full of love for each other, then our guf is Torahdik. If we are hateful and spiteful to each other, then we are not Torahdik.
This is not simply allegory. It is the essence of the parsha. Chazal teach that Parshas Kedoshim was said behakheil, at a gathering of all the Jewish people. The Sefas Emes explains that in order for Klal Yisroel to effectively observe the Torah and mitzvos, it has to be done as part of the “klal,” the community. In order to achieve the appellation “kadosh,” we have to be part of the larger group, and not merely individuals, set apart from everyone else.
When we are suffused with love for each other, we can be part of the klal and become kedoshim. If we are kedoshim, then we are able to battle the kochos of tumah that confront us and the eternal “gal” is there to separate us from them. But if we do not achieve kedushah and are lacking in the components that bring us to that level of observance, then there is not enough of a difference between us and the ever-present threatening tumah.
Thus, perhaps we can say when Rabi Akiva saw that his talmidim were falling, he realized that although they zealously observed the Torah and mitzvos, they were deficient in the way they treated each other. There wasn’t enough respect in their relationships. Rabi Akiva saw the plague as an indication they were lacking in kedushah. Thus, he formulated his historic missive of “Ve’ohavata lerei’acha kamocha, zeh klal gadol baTorah.” The mitzvah of loving each other is a major tenet of the Torah.
In order for the “gal” to separate his talmidim from the kochos of tumah, they had to be kedoshim. Although they were strict shomrei Torah umitzvos, since they were lacking in respect for each other, they were apparently lacking in the mitzvah of “Ve’ohavata lerei’acha kamocha” and weren’t sufficiently part of a klal, which is a necessary component of being a kadosh. He admonished them, and they rectified their conduct and became kedoshim once again. On Lag Ba’omer, the “gal” separated them from the kochos of tumah and the plague came to a halt.
Torah uplifts, and those who learn Torah together become uplifted together. Limud haTorah should create an atmosphere and environment of refinement and aidelkeit. If there was disrespect, their Torah wasn’t affecting them the way it should have. If there was no “gal” protecting them from the kochos hatumah, something about them was lacking. If it wasn’t the mitzvos bein adam laMakom, then it was those that deal with their fellow man.
A few short years after the Alter of Slabodka succeeded in realizing his dream of transplanting his yeshiva to the Holy Land, it faced its greatest challenge. In 1929, local Arabs embarked on a horrific killing spree, descending in bloodthirsty hordes on the Chevron Jewish community where the yeshiva was located. Many bnei Torah lost their lives that day.
A story emerged from amidst the massacre, a spark of glory from an ocean of blood. In the final moments of his life, one of the bnei Torah showed just how deeply the teachings of Slabodka had affected him, how profound was the mark of mussar on his pure soul, and how the Torah itself had imprinted its light on him. He lay there after being beaten, blood flowing from his many wounds. With his final breaths, he reached for a friend who lay nearby, shaken for sure, but not bleeding.
The footsteps of the ferocious murderers pounded around them as the wolves sought more sheep.
“Quick!” the first bochur, faltering and weakening with each moment, gasped, “come close.” He reached for the second bochur and pulled him near. The bochur directed the rushing flow of blood onto his friend, covering him in blood.
“Now, when they come back, they will think that you are dead as well and they won’t finish the job. Maybe you will be spared.”
His job complete, the first talmid died, his holy soul ascending to Heaven. Hashem yikom domov. The second talmid, covered in blood, lay there, ignored by the Arabs. He eventually survived to tell the tale.
It is a story not just about selflessness, not just about yishuv hada’as, but about what Torah does, about what a yeshiva does, about how it creates an island where the inhabitants are bound, heart and soul, until their final breath.
You don’t have to be a prophet or as great as Rabi Akiva to sense that there is a lack of respect between Jews today. Instead of loving each other, we despise those with whom we disagree. We ignore them, we make believe they don’t exist, and we treat them with disrespect. If we would love each other, we would care about each other, and if we do disagree, we can do so with love. If we need to admonish each other, we can do so with love, not hate, with sweetness, not bitterness.
As we engage in the self-improvement process of the yemei sefirah, we must study these parshiyos carefully and turn up the love.
You don’t have to be a prophet or as great as Rabi Akiva to sense that the kochos hatumah are strengthening and the world is sinking to terribly low levels.
You don’t have to be a prophet to see that the nations of the world are mobilizing against us. Iran is closer than ever to obtaining nuclear power, which they swear to use against Israel. They are getting there with the approbation of the Western world. Hezbollah has more rockets than ever positioned against Israel, and at any given moment they can fire thousands of rockets at the heart of Israel. Anti-Semites are gaining power across Europe and Jews there are in a more fragile condition than at any time since the Holocaust.
We have to resurrect that “gal” to separate us from the strengthening kochos hatumah. We can only accomplish that by doing everything in our power to become kedoshim once again.
Each of us can celebrate Lag Ba’omer by doing our part to remain distinct, pure and elevated. We can strengthen ourselves, as well as our yeshivos and shuls, which are bulwarks against the flow of impurity.
One Friday night, Vizhnitzer chassidim in Bnei Brak were dancing with their rebbe, Rav Moshe Hager, singing the words “Ranenu tzaddikim baHashem.” Rav Shimshon Pincus passed by and joined the spirited dancing.
Later, one of Rav Shimshon’s talmidim wondered why he, a card-carrying Litvak, had joined the chassidishe dance. Rav Shimshon explained, “It’s true that it’s not my chassidus and it’s not my rebbe, but at the core, even if it is not our minhag, it’s a slice of kedushah. They are rejoicing in Shabbos, in a tzaddik, in being together. The only way to survive is through connecting to kedushah, in all its forms.”
We can survive and grow stronger if we find ways to join the dance around us. It might not be our shul, our chassidus, our yeshiva or our friend, but we have to find ways to connect with different sources of kedushah to strengthen ourselves and that “gal.”
We can then feel the joy of being kedoshim together, apart from the tumah, protected by the “gal,” filling our souls as we join hands to follow Rabi Akiva’s timeless precepts and sing his wonderful words.