By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
We live in an era that celebrates celebrity status. People sacrifice a great deal to achieve stardom and garner attention. If we were to look closely into our own hearts, we would have to admit that each of us, too, in various ways, seeks out public approval to reassure ourselves that we count and that we are significant.
The need for approval is so basic to human nature that it tends to shape people’s actions and perceptions more profoundly than we realize.
Have you ever noticed how the wisest, most dignified people keep their opinions and knowledge to themselves and don’t seek to impress others with their abilities? It is those who are lacking self-esteem and deeper intelligence who make the most noise and are constantly trying to impress everyone.
A person who is secure in his beliefs and confident in who he is doesn’t crave public acceptance. Such a person can accomplish much more, because he will always do what is right, no matter what people around him say.
If you don’t need the support and adulation of the people around you, you don’t have to cater to other people’s whims and you don’t have to move with the styles. You have the strength to persevere and seek true accomplishment in this world.
This is why Chazal constantly admonish us not to seek honor, because the drive for honor and public respect forces one to compromise on ideals and the truth. One who distances himself from the limelight and shuns popularity has a better chance of staying true to his faith in Hashem and withstanding the temptation to compromise on his principles.
The Alter of Kelm explains that this is the meaning of the posuk in Mishlei (3:35) which states, “Kavod chachomim yinchalu.” For a true chochom, chochmah is a nachalah, an inheritance. It is an integral part of him that no one can take away. One who needs others to validate his chochmah doesn’t really possess it in the first place. In his dependence on others, he forfeits his claim to chochmah, along with a part of his self-respect.
The Alter states that the objective of Amaleik in every generation is to demoralize the Jewish people and cause them to seek the recognition of others. He says that this is the meaning of the posuk we recently lained in Parshas Beshalach (17:11), which states, “Vehaya kaasher yorim Moshe es yado vegovar Yisroel.” When Moshe was able to keep his hands and heart upraised, not permitting them to fall as a result of Amaleik’s disdain and mockery, Klal Yisroel triumphed. If they were to look to Amaleik for acceptance and honor, they would suffer defeat.
Chazal explain that “Kol zeman sheYisroel nosim libom la’Avihem shabaShomayim, vegovar Yisroel.” For victory to be complete and lasting, Am Yisroel must follow Moshe’s example, turning to Hashem, and only Him, for approval.
This is what is meant by the posuk in Megillas Esther which states, “UMordechai lo yichrah velo yishtachaveh.” Mordechai would not lower himself to Haman. Despite Haman’s preeminence in the kingdom, Mordechai ignored him. He was totally unconcerned with Haman’s opinion of him. He remained devoted to Hashem and His Torah and therefore was able to overcome Haman and his henchmen.
A story is told of a Sefardi chacham, Rav Chaim Sinvanni, who was extolling the virtues of two fellow chachamim. To the surprise of those around him, Rav Chaim expressed his opinion that one of the chachamim was greater than the other.
The story behind his assessment was as follows. The Rav Chaim was hosting the two other chachamim, in addition to a third guest. The host set down a meal before the guest and urged him to partake. The fellow explained that he was embarrassed to eat by himself and would rather not eat alone. The host then urged the chacham who was nearby to join the guest in eating. The tzaddik explained that he fasted on Mondays and Thursdays of Shovavim, the weeks of Shemos through Mishpatim, which are said, al pi Kabbolah, to be especially appropriate for teshuvah. Since it was one of those fast days, he couldn’t join him in the meal.
They called in the other chacham and asked him if he was interested in eating lunch with the guest and he readily agreed. He sat down and ate with the other fellow, keeping him company.
That person who partook of the food was the bigger tzaddik, the chacham explained. He, too, observed the custom to fast during the weeks of Shovavim. However, he hid his tzidkus from people. He didn’t want anyone to know that he was fasting. Thus, when the Rav Chaim called him in to eat lunch, he didn’t explain that he couldn’t do so. As painful as it was for him to break his custom, he washed and sat down and ate.
The one who hides his nobility from others, the one who shares his secrets only with Hashem, has reached a higher level of lesheim Shomayim than most. His actions are purer and his reward is greater. This is not to suggest that there is anything wrong with people knowing when you do something good. The yardstick by which your good deed is measured is the motive behind it. Is your aim to give nachas to the Borei Olam or are you driven by the need for respect from other people?
When you do the right thing for the right reason, free of the desire for recognition from others, your actions come from a loftier plane. They reflect a person secure in his beliefs and not likely to be swayed by personal agendas.
A chossid once came to his rebbe and asked for a bracha for his new business partnership. The rebbe asked him if he wrote up a contract with his partner. When the man said that he hadn’t, the rebbe asked for a pen and paper. “You must have a contract,” he told the man. “Without a contract, you are heading for trouble.”
With that, the rebbe said, “I will write a contract for you.” He wrote two letters, an alef and a bais. The man looked at the rebbe as if the rebbe was mocking him.
“Rebbe, this is a multi-million dollar deal. Why is the rebbe poking fun at me?” the man asked.
The rebbe explained the contract. “Alef – if you will deal with emunah and if you will have emunah, then you will have bais, bracha. Remember that.”
People who are unshakable in their emunah can withstand the worst trials. Those who are not strong in their belief in the Borei Olam fall apart at the first real challenge.
I have a new friend, Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin. He is sitting in jail in Iowa for crimes he didn’t commit, awaiting sentencing. We hope and pray that the sentence will be overturned on appeal when the truth is finally brought to light. A terrible miscarriage of justice will then be righted.
The jail is freezing cold. He has no warm kosher food. Without a clock to tell time by, days and nights merge in dreary confusion. Despite his immense suffering, he is besimcha. He says that he is an eved Hashem, and if Hashem wants him to serve Him from a dungeon, then that is what he will do.
Sholom Mordechai is a simple, straightforward, good person. Not long ago, he ran a $135 million business and now he is locked into an unheated cinderblock room. How does he maintain his sanity? With emunah, with bitachon, and with Torah. He learns Shaar Habitachon of Chovos Halevavos every day. He literally knows it by heart. As he has been doing every day for decades, he awakens before dawn to learn and recite the entire Tehillim before davening.
Locked up far from civilization, with every reason to lie in bed depressed, Sholom Mordechai learns Chumash, Gemara, Mishnayos and inyonei chassidus every day. He doesn’t daven like a man in solitary confinement with only a cement slab to call a bed and no amenities except for his seforim and bitachon in Hashem. He davens out loud, with kavanah, as if he were a chazzan in the shul in his old town of Postville, Iowa. He sings as he davens as if he’s been transported to another place.
He never dreamt that he would be where he is now. He stays sane only bekoach haTorah. He won’t turn on the TV in his cell. Ever. Not even to know the weather, not even to know the time. So if you’re feeling bad for yourself for whatever reason, think about Reb Sholom Mordechai and count your blessings.
If his life had been built around sports, cars, fun and games, then, stripped of these diversions, he’d be finished. But his life was always built around Torah and avodas Hashem. So now, robbed of his freedom, he can still be strong. He doesn’t let Amaleik define him. He defines himself, even in his bitter matzav.
What happened to him is extreme. Where he finds himself is the extreme of what can happen to a person, but it provides a lesson to us in our daily lives. What happened to him is so hard to fathom that it beggars the imagination. But to speak to him, to witness his endurance and his trusting faith is to come away with a profound sense of connecting with someone for whom Torah and emunah are not just words, but powerful, tangible realities – the only anchors in a world gone mad.
We need Torah to maintain our equilibrium. We need chochmah to be our nachalah.
This is the meaning of the posuk we discussed previously: “Vehaya kaasher yorim Moshe es yado vegovar Yisroel.” When the Jewish people uphold Toras Moshe, they have the power to overcome Amaleik in all his guises, and despite his machinations aimed at undermining our faith and destroying us.
May we merit the ultimate simcha of Adar with a nitzachon over Amaleik and a complete and lasting yeshuas Hashem that comes keheref ayin.