By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
We are all no doubt familiar with the Chazal that among the catalysts of the Bnei Yisroel‘s redemption from Mitzrayim was that “lo shinu es shemom, lo shinu es leshonam, and lo shinu es malbushom,” they didn’t change their names, language or mode of dress.
Throughout tens of centuries of golus, Medroshim such as this one have served to remind us of who we are, where we come from as children of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, and our mandate to stand taller and prouder than those who surround us.
This Chazal can be understood on its most basic level as conveying that man’s name, style of dress and language form his personality. Every nation prides itself on these outward displays of their national identity. Though beaten down in servitude, the Bnei Yisroel realized that they had their own destiny to fulfill. They didn’t permit their inhuman travails and hardships to cause them to lose sight of their own destiny.
But there is also a deeper understanding of this Chazal.
British historian Arthur Toynbee was one of the most influential opinion-shapers of the twentieth century. Allowing himself to be influenced by Adolf Hitler and the Arab viewpoint, he became an outspoken and vitriolic opponent of the Jewish right to Eretz Yisroel. As one who wrote extensively of comparative history of civilizations, his position on Zionism was explained in practical terms. He asked what would happen if every nation would decide to return to its ancient homeland. What would happen, he queried, if Italians around the world would unite and decide to reclaim ancient Rome as their homeland? What if people of Greek extraction would uproot their families and stake out a plot of land in Athens? Or, wondered Toynbee, what would happen if the British would converge on Canada in a bid to retake it? And just imagine, he said, what would go on in this country if Native Americans were to get serious about taking back the land that was theirs. Why, he wondered, should the Jewish people be any different?
A Jewish activist heard him discussing his oft-repeated thesis and responded. Imagine, the fellow told Toynbee, if two Italians were walking down the street and they encountered Julius Caesar. They would behold the legendary figure with fascination, but they certainly would be unable to connect with him. He would be speaking in Latin and about the ideas and values of his time and era. They would neither understand him nor have any concept in what he is talking about. They would lead him to the nearest museum.
Imagine, continued the respondent, if the Greeks would meet Aristotle, the philosopher whose ideas defined their empire. They, too, would be unable to carry on the simplest conversation.
Yet, lehavdil, if Moshe Rabbeinu were to appear in any bais medrash, shul or shtiebel in the world, everyone would immediately understand him. His language, Lashon Hakodesh, is still alive and vibrant. His life’s ideals, teachings and thoughts are as current today as they were in the time he lived. Were he to ask for a pair of tefillin, every bar mitzvah boy could accommodate him and give him a pair with straps painted black in accordance with ahalacha leMoshe miSinai.
The gentleman turned to Toynbee and concluded, “You have nothing to worry about. No other nation has a connection with its past in a way that influences its present and guides its future.”
The Jewish people don’t go through life as “kamotz asher tidfenu ruach,” chaff easily blown by the wind. The dream of returning to Eretz Yisroel isn’t merely a passing whim. We are a people with a legacy and a destiny that we never lose sight of. Our lives are focused on achieving the goal of Acharis Hayomim.
The very first posuk in Sefer Shemos, which details the descent intogolus, states, “Ve’eileh shemos Bnei Yisroel habo’im Mitzraymah – These are the names of the Bnei Yisroel who are coming to Mitzrayim.”
Commentators point out that the Hebrew word depicting their arrival in the strange land should have been in the past tense, “sheba’oo,” which would translate as “who came.” Instead, theposuk uses the present conjugation, “habo’im,“ which means “who are coming.”
The explanation is that the Yidden never “came” to Mitzrayim and settled there. Instead, they were in a constant state of “habo’im,” refusing to make themselves at home and never forgetting the dream of returning to Eretz Yisroel. They were steadily coming there. They thought that every day would be the day they would leave Mitzrayim. When they didn’t, they were “bo’im” once again. But each time, with sadness and resignation, they accepted their arrival and then they once again began dreaming of leaving. They were thus in a constant state of coming.
The result was “lo shinu.” They refused to change and adapt. They were unwilling to acclimate and forget their own identifying factors, because they were only there temporarily. They knew what was true and what was lasting. They knew what was false, fleeting and temporary, and they knew to which category they belonged.
Rashi (Shemos 3:12) states that the Jewish people were redeemed from Mitzrayim in the merit that they would accept the Torah onHar Sinai. The lo shinus were an indication of their fidelity to what is real, and Hakadosh Boruch Hu thus knew that they were ripe forKabbolas HaTorah, for the Torah is the complete and total truth. It is the very essence of truth, and truth means to be real, not superficial.
People who live a life that they don’t really believe in are easily dissuaded. They are easy prey for charlatans and false ideas. There is no loyalty to ideas or values, and the only concern is which lifestyle is in fashion and which viewpoint is current. They flow with the stream, veering this way and that as the fashionistas dictate. What they thought yesterday to be ugly and unthinkable can easily become today’s beauty and must-have. Because their view of style is not grounded in any reality, it is easily fungible. It is all superficial and easily transformed.
What is true lasts forever. As the posuk states, “Sefas emes tikon lo’ad.”
The posuk in the first perek of Tehillim describes us as being like trees planted on the banks of rivers, with deep roots – entrenchedshoroshim – linking us to Har Sinai and the greatest mortals the world has known. We are guided by their legacy and teachings. We have a rich mesorah. We drink from the palgei mayim of our timeless Torah.
Despite their challenges and obstacles, the Bnei Yisroel in Mitzrayim lived with the ideal of “lo shinu,” remembering where they came from and where they were headed.
In the land of Paroh, this was so important. His leadership was based on the make-believe and false perceptions, as Rashi states on the words “Hinei hu yotzei hamoymah” (7:15). Paroh created a fiction about himself which anyone could have seen through had they cared enough to follow him around one day.No one did, because they were content to play along. They didn’t care. It made them feel good about themselves to have a king who passed himself off as being superhuman.
They were like the chaff, blown about, representing nothing and standing for nothing. They were a nation of sheker. They were happy and comfortable with the lie they lived.
It was difficult for the people of Mitzrayim when the makkos rained down upon them. People whose lives are predicated upon truth are able to recognize that they have erred and change their lives accordingly. The Mitzriyim were unable to accept the truth. They turned away from it. They grew accustomed to the fiction of Paroh and the comforts it afforded them. When it was proven to them that they had erred, they were unable to change course and adapt to the truth.
The posuk states repeatedly that Paroh was unable to redirect his life because Hashem hardened his heart. However, the posukdoesn’t say that the hearts of citizenry were hardened. Why did they not do teshuvah? It is because their inertia was a given. They lived superficial lives, parroting old stories about the greatness of their king and his mission even as the forces all around them showed otherwise. They couldn’t be confronted with the truth, for it would have ruined their blissful lives.
It was in the climate of Mitzrayim, ruled by fiction and dominated with lies, that the People of Truth distinguished themselves, a goy mikerev goy standing tall, a people of destiny.
Today, as well, we see a generation that chases every fad, so unsure of its own identity and so insecure with its own destiny that it identifies itself by the toys it owns, the gadgets it carries, and the cars being driven. A rootless generation looks to superficial signposts to mark its way. We see a gullible generation, easily lied to and eager to buy into anything that promises enjoyment. We see vacuous people without values, living selfishly and hedonistically, covering their impulses with a fig leaf of religiosity.
True leadership grounded in truth is unafraid to confront its own failings. A good leader knows that to truly service the people, honesty is requisite. There are no cover-ups and no media blackouts. Great men aren’t afraid of scrutiny. They welcome it.
A true leader such as Moshe Rabbeinu and those who follow in his footsteps in every generation, including ours, are always honest with themselves and with their flock. They are able to confront their imperfections and overcome them. They provide a goal for themselves and their followers to live up to. They are never satisfied, never resting from mightily laboring in the pursuit of excellence and G-dliness. They are courageous enough to stand out and stand apart, and provide the inspiration necessary for others to follow that lead. The truth is their guide and concern; nothing can divert them from its pursuit. They are ambitious for themselves and for theirtalmidim, always seeking improvement and growth. They always build up their people and at every opportunity remind them of what they are capable.
Rav Michel Shurkin of Yerushalayim is a talmid chochom andmarbitz Torah of note. He related that when his daughter became engaged to a grandson of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, the family went with the chosson and kallah to Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach to receive his blessings.
Rav Shach welcomed the baalei simcha and began to ask Rav Michel about his maternal grandfather, a gaon named Rav Yaakov Kantrowitz. In the old country, Rav Yaakov was rov in Timkovitch, Russia. After arriving in America (with his nephew, Rav Moshe Feinstein), he was rov of Trenton, NJ, and authored a classic sefer,Tzilusa D’Shmaatsa on the Shev Shmaatsa.
Rav Shach asked Rav Michel many questions about his zaide’s yichus, his history, and his accomplishments, seeming to be inordinately interested in the answers. Rav Michel found it interesting that the gadol hador was so enthralled by his zaide’s particulars. It wasn’t until he left that he understood the elderly rosh yeshiva’sintense curiosity about his maternal grandfather.
The chosson, as a grandson of Rav Shlomo Zalman, was no doubt deeply aware and appreciative of his yichus. As attuned as he was to people’s sensitivities, Rav Shach wanted the newcomer to the Shurkin family to know that his new shver, Rav Michel, also had a prestigious history.
That is our story too. It is the story of every single Yid. We have a past and a future, and each step we take, we are aware of this bridge. We are all meyuchosim. We all have a glorious past to be immensely proud of and loyal to.
An American talmid chochom once introduced himself to Rav Berel Soloveitchik, telling him about a common cousin they shared and saying that they were thus related. The Brisker rosh yeshivawasn’t overly impressed. “Ah. Veiter krovim (We are but distant relatives),” he remarked.
The American shared a chassidishe story of a Yid who approached a great rebbe and asked him to help him financially, since they were related. The rebbe asked the petitioner how they were related. Upon hearing the convoluted family history, the rebbe responded to the man with those same words: “Ah. Veiter krovim.”
The distant relative waited for Minchah, whereupon he made his way to stand near the rebbe as the chazzan repeated Shemoneh Esrei for chazoras hashatz. When the chazzan said the words “vezocher chasdei avos,” beseeching Hashem to have mercy on us in the merit of our great forefathers, the Yid leaned over and whispered in the rebbe‘s ear, “Ah. Veiter krovim.”
The rebbe understood the man’s message. Thrice daily, we ask Hashem to help us in the merit of ancestors who lived thousands of years ago. The rebbe relented and helped the Yid with what he needed.
The American concluded the story, thinking he had bested the Brisker rosh yeshiva. Rav Berel was unmoved, though. “Ess iz nit doh azah zach vi a veiter tatte (There is no such thing as a distant father),” he said.
Our avos are not some faraway relatives from the forgotten past. They are real and present.
It is our task, as we study these parshiyos of geulah, to rededicate ourselves to living lives of truth and being true to ourselves and our destiny. We have to be ever cognizant of who our forefathers are – those we know, those of recent memory, and those from the distant past.
We must not be impressed by the allure and glamour of fleeting beauty and popularity based upon superficiality and fallacy. We have to remain a people of depth and intelligence, of loyalty and determination. If things are too good to be true, they are. Just because everyone we know does something doesn’t mean that we should follow. We should learn more and with greater depth so that we can better appreciate our way of life. We shouldn’t take anything for granted. We should always seek to promote knowledge and truth.
Popularity and fanciful accolades are fleeting. What counts is what our avos would say about us and our actions. If what we are doing brings us closer to the geulah, then we should continue pursuing that path. If it doesn’t, we should be honest enough with ourselves to recognize the error of our ways and make our relatives – the close ones and those who aren’t so close – proud.