Historic Lessons


rabbi-pinchos-lipschutz-By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

A cursory glance at newspaper headlines is enough to fill the perceptive person with a sense of fear and helplessness. Despite the most advanced and sophisticated security systems and procedures, we’ve watched in amazement as an airplane simply vanished. Years from now, people will be studying the loss of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 and opining what happened, how it transpired, and what lessons are to be learned from the tragedy.

In an era when handheld devices are equipped with sensors and our every movement is traceable, it is astounding that an airplane of that size, with over 239 people aboard, can disappear off the face of the earth without a trace for several weeks. The only rational reaction to such news is to raise one’s eyes heavenward to He who ultimately controls everything, who presses the buttons and creates the flight-paths for all of humanity. MeiHashem mitzadei gover. He prepares the paths each of us will travel each day with precision and exactitude.

In a world where society has advanced so far technologically and the general attitude is that any problem can be identified and solved in moments, the disappearance of the plane is a chilling reminder of the futility of the kochi v’otzem yodi perspective. Humility is a prerequisite of faith.

Historians will long analyze Vladimir Putin’s takeover of Crimea and the failure of the Obama administration to prevent it. They will look at the president’s promise and the talk of Secretaries of State Clinton and Kerry about resetting relations with Russia. Their policy of appeasement has led us to this point. Putin, judging America as weak and feckless, ignored and mocked Obama’s threats and ineffectual sanctions and retook a state he believed to be Russian. Actually, the correct term is not retook, but stole. Putin seized it in plain view of a world that stands by helplessly, like a witness to a sidewalk mugging with no inclination or ability to help.

Ukraine is a shattered country with many problems. Democracy has not been entirely kind to it and Communist leaders have reverted to old tactics, correctly gauging world apathy and taking advantage of it. Countries that have taken yeoman steps towards their self-determination now crouch in fear and trepidation over Putin’s next move.

Syria smolders and Iraq has fallen apart. Afghanistan is descending into turmoil, while Iran is arming itself with nuclear weapons. These historic transformations are all taking place in our time, as we read these words, whether or not we are paying attention. The believing Jew knows that all that transpires is for his sake. It is meant to inspire and awaken dormant souls. The posuk says in Tehillim, “Lifnei Hashem ki va, ki va lishpot ha’aretz,” describing Hashem’s slow and steady process of judging the world. Hashem comes increasingly closer, sending messages to His nation, through world events.

On Motzoei Shabbos, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman delivered a shiur to a small group of close talmidim. In conversation with them, the rosh yeshiva referred to current events, remarking that he receives a steady stream of visitors who come to share their problems. “Some of them are facing personal difficulty and some come with communal problems, but all of these tzaros are in the category of chevlei Moshiach. We’re already seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. It is an opportune time,” he continued, “for each individual to strengthen himself in a small area, because in Shomayim it will be considered a great undertaking.”

Rav Shteinman, who carries burdens of the generation on his shoulders, was sending a message to hold on tight, not to despair, and to see the string of suffering and pain as a reality. There is a meaning to the misery, he explained. The troubles piling up on his doorstep and in his humble room are the building blocks of redemption. He is telling us to believe.

Indeed, he has taken to singing a song each evening at the conclusion of his shiur. The words are Yigdal Elokim Chai, printed in siddurim before Shacharis. The words of the tefillah are an abridged version of the 13 Ikkorim, a synopsis of the foundations of our emunah. The rosh yeshiva, a man who has toiled in Torah for the better part of nine decades, bli ayin hara, is completely divested of the pleasures of this world, and who inhabits an exalted world of ameilus baTorah and achrayus for Klal Yisroel, is discerning what’s going on all around us, and his response is to express his emunah. It’s a time to grab on to the emunah and not let go.

On Purim, the day when secrets are revealed, Rav Moshe Shternbuch, Raavad of Yerushalayim and author of classic works, who is well-known to our readers by virtue of his weekly column in our newspaper, allowed some sod to slip out. He peeled back the curtain and offered a peek into a tradition handed down from his grandfather, the Vilna Gaon.

“Even though I am careful not to share the mysteries, I feel that this is something I am permitted to reveal, since Rav Eizek Chover, the talmid of Rav Chaim Volozhiner, already revealed it. This was something Rav Eizek had received directly from those who heard it from the mouth of the Vilna Gaon, who said, shortly before his passing, ‘When you hear that the Russians have invaded Crimea, you will know that the bells of geulah have begun to ring. When you hear that the Russians have reached Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey, as it is called today), you can already don Shabbos clothes and await Moshiach’s appearance.

“Last week, Rav Shternbuch continued, “the Russians invaded Crimea and the world slept… According to our tradition from the Gr”a, this is a sign of impending geulah… Perhaps what the Gaon meant by pa’amei geulah is like a pa’amon, a bell that signals the arrival of someone or something.

The bell has sounded. Now, we have to react.

It’s humbling to think how little we know. Even while we bemoan our president’s inaction and the world’s apathy, we have to realize that the factors at play here are much bigger than us. We stumble about blindly, and our only hope for calm is to accept that there is a Plan and a Planner who has mapped out the way for us.

Rabi Akiva laughed as his colleagues wept when seeing a fox crawl out of the Holy of Holies. We have to accept that what appears to be calamitous – the unraveling of the world as we know it – might well be a harbinger of hope.

Rav Yaakov Neiman zt”l, rosh yeshivas Petach Tikva, would relate a parable in the name of the Alter of Kelm.

If someone is traveling to a wedding, even if it is a long flight and he is cramped in a middle seat on the back of a packed airplane without food, he is still happy, for he knows that at the wedding there will be plenty of food and drink, and he will have a good time with his friends. There will be joyous music and spirited dancing.

So too, said the Alter, a traveler with a vision for the future endures much during his journey through this world, content and serene with the knowledge that he is headed to a place where all will be good and pleasant.

This is the sense of calm that must fill the soul of a Jew, even in times of turbulence and unrest. We aren’t the pilots and we aren’t privy to the flight map, but we are good passengers and we trust in our Captain.

This past Shabbos chasidim commemorated the yahrzeit of the great rebbe Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk.

Once, when the rebbe and his sainted brother, Reb Zishe, were traveling together incognito, going in golus to atone for their sins, they were incarcerated on trumped up charges and thrown into a prison cell filled with petty thieves and other criminals.

Though they were in jail, the two brothers were determined to maintain their holy exalted levels and tried valiantly to daven and learn as usual.

However, to torment the prisoners the guards placed a bowl of rotten, foul smelling waste in the middle of the cell, making it impossible for the tzaddikim to perform their avodah, as it is halachacily forbidden to engage in holy actions in the presence of fetid material.

Reb Elimelech was heart-broken that they could not daven and learn. But his brother, Reb Zishe, comforted him.

“Meilech,” he said, “why do you want to learn and daven? Because you wish to serve your Maker and create for him a nachas ruach. But the same Ribbono shel Olam who you seek to serve through Torah and avodah forbids us from engaging in those actions in this place. Not davening and refraining from even thinking in learning is currently the form of avodah Hashem desires from us.”

Reb Elimelech was deeply affected by his brother’s words, and rose to his feet and began dancing. As the two tzaddikim broke out in a joyous rikkud around the basin of filth, the incredulous guards hurried over to see what the commotion was all about.

“If this bucket gives you such joy, then we will remove it right away,” they said, quickly removing the pail from the cell. As soon as the pail was removed, the brothers sat down and became engrossed in Torah thoughts, thrilled with the opportunity to learn and daven once again.

The tranquil, believing person accepts the will of Hashem and merits serving Him in serenity in every situation he encounters. We can’t always control our situation, where we are and who surrounds us. When we are confronted with unpleasant circumstances that are beyond our control, we should not lose ourselves or our faith, but endeavor to persevere until we are able return to an optimal status. With firmly grounded emunah and bitachon, we can endure any predicament life throws at us.

A Jew is not commanded to understand everything, but we are commanded to follow Hashem’s word.

When Rav Yechezkel Abramsky lived in London, he developed a close relationship with a local intellectual, a Jew who wasn’t observant. Rav Abramsky spoke with his friend about the importance of wearing tefillin each day. The fellow agreed to put on tefillin daily, with one condition. He insisted that Rav Abramsky teach him the inner meaning of the mitzvah and explain the logic behind it. The wise rov agreed, but suggested that the gentleman first put on tefillin daily for one month. They would then begin their study of the mitzvah.

This man reluctantly agreed, and the next day he started to put on tefillin. For a few days, he fulfilled the mitzvah, while telling the rov that he was anxious to begin learning the rationale for it in order to properly connect with its performance. Then, one morning, two weeks after he started wrapping the holy straps around his arm, this Jew hurried into the rov‘s home. “Rebbe, ich farshtey shoin altz. It all makes sense,” he cried, tears coursing down his cheeks.

He never followed up on his original demand, because the actual mitzvah gave him the answers he sought. Even if his mind was no wiser, his soul was nourished. This is the experience of the Yid in golus. Even without hearing reasons, we have a sense of “ich farshtey altz,” as our neshamos are comfortable traveling along and waiting for that great day.

The Medrash at the beginning of this week’s parsha introduces the posuk in Tehillim (139:5) which states, “Achor vakedem tzartoniYou created me first and last and laid Your hands upon me.” Rav Yochanan explains that if a person merits it, he can inherit two worlds, this world and the World to Come. The achor and kedem refer to olam hazeh and Olam Haba. We are suspended between two worlds. Our mission is to walk the tightrope without slipping, holding on to our trust in the future.

Yishuv hadaas comes not from what we see, but from what we believe.

As we now find ourselves in the elevated season following Purim, it is a particularly auspicious time to repeat what Rav Yitzchok Hutner would say about Purim. He said on that day we have the ability to destroy the tumah caused by atzvus, the tipshus of marah shechorah, and the rifyon of chalishus hadaas. A loose translation of the rosh yeshiva’s pithy remark tells us that we received a gift of Purim, and with it we were given the ability to erase depression and melancholy from inside of us. We were given an injection of energy meant to raise us above despair.

The believer possesses a calm assurance which engenders the joy of faith. Those attributes enable us to successfully transverse the rocky path of life.

Aharon Hakohein famously reacted to the terrible pain of losing two beloved, exalted sons with silence. The Torah recounts, “Vayidom Aharon.” He didn’t try to understand or comprehend, but simply made himself like a domem, a stone.

Aharon’s reward for his unquestioning acceptance of Hashem’s will was that the Ribbono Shel Olam taught Klal Yisroel a new parsha, a halacha transmitted through Aharon alone (Vayikra Rabbah 12:2). The din that a kohein may not perform the avodah while intoxicated was said by Hashem directly to Aharon. The rare opening of “Vayomer Hashem el Aharon” (Vayikra 10:8-9) is testimony to the elevated level he reached with his sacred silence.

The Maharsha explains that the middah kineged middah was that since Aharon sanctified his koach hadibbur through not speaking, Hashem honored him with dibbur. The Sheim MiShmuel offers a deep insight into why this particular halacha was a reward for Aharon’s faith.

People who are intoxicated might be happier or more spiritually aware than usual, but they are not calm. A drunken person is not serene or in a state of menuchas hanefesh. Thus the Ribbono Shel Olam was telling Aharon, “You sanctified me by reacting to a crippling blow with total menuchah, serenity. Your reward is that you will merit being the vehicle for a new halacha, one that mandates that avodah, Divine service, can only be performed when one is completely calm and composed.”

There is no lesson more relevant than this. The Mishnah Berurah states that one who recites perek 23 of Tehillim at mealtimes will not lack for sustenance. As Shabbos fades away, during the hallowed final moments of the special day, we sing that same kappitel. What is its message?

Al mei menuchos yenahaleini. We are being led by a Shepherd. Even begei tzalmovess, in the valley of terror, we do not fear, ki Atah imodi, because we have faith in our Captain.

May the rest of the path to the geulah be short and, very swiftly, may we see the full realization of that which we’ve been promised for so long and merit sitting beveis Hashem l’orech yomim.

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  1. Um, not to quibble, but the Russians captured Crimea in 1783, during the Gaon’s lifetime. It wasn’t until 1991 that Russia effectively ceded the territory to an independent Ukraine.

  2. For a person going through serious depression and not seeing any hope ahead, this article gives no hope, care, concern, or compassion. This is enough to push a person over. Knowing the tzaros people are going through this is not a smart article to have been published for the masses.

  3. What an uplifting message. I appreciate your words very very much. We know that we are at the Ketz hayomim and this is huge.
    We must strengthen resolve and hold on to emuna- increase it along with bitachon….
    Shabbat Shalom.