Lessons from Rav Michel Yehudah Lefkowitz


rav-michel-yehudah-lefkowitzBy Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

We often hear people remark that “we live in an Olam Hasheker” or that “Olam Hazeh is all fiction.” What does this truly mean?

We all live in Olam Hazeh, yet we don’t perceive our lives to be full of lies. We don’t believe that our very existence is based upon a falsity. We work hard, we learn Torah, and we do mitzvos, endeavoring to be truthful and to spread goodness.

Perhaps what is meant by olam hasheker is that we live in a world built on illusion. This is certainly true of society’s stubborn belief in man’s power to control his destiny. This illusion tends to die hard. Time and again humanity must be shocked anew into the awareness of how helpless man really is.

For example, we need only ponder some recent “natural” disasters that drove home this message: the fire in Israel’s northern Carmel region and last week’s snowstorm in the Northeast. The entire world watched as citizens of the most technologically advanced countries admitted their powerlessness in the face of fire and snow – “natural” forces sent to carry out the Divine plan.

A country that likes to see itself as almost invincible was brought to its knees by a fire it could not extinguish. The inferno was started by two irresponsible teens, who hadn’t even intended to do any damage. They were simply careless and lazy. Before they knew what was happening, however, many people had been killed. Homes, businesses and properties were being incinerated and thousands of acres of forest went up in smoke.

A proud country accustomed to offering aid to suffering nations around the globe was reduced to begging for fire-fighting equipment. It was revealed that the country didn’t even possess one airplane equipped to fight forest fires. Its fire-fighters proved wholly unequipped and inadequate in the face of the rapidly expanding fire.

It became apparent that the only reason Israel hasn’t suffered serious fire damage over the years was because fires of this magnitude had never before broken out. Complacency thus became the nation’s undoing in this “natural” disaster.

Last week, we had the same type of learning experience in the New York area. Tiny flakes of frozen water fell upon this region. Millions of them. We call them snow. We think we are equipped to handle snow; after all, it’s nothing new and has been around for thousands of years.

Cities have salt to melt snow and ice. They have large, heavy trucks with large plows attached in front of them which push the snow to the sides of the street so that cars can pass. People have snow tires on their cars to enable them to gain traction on snowy roads and move from place to place. Other people have heavy four-wheel-drive vehicles that can drive in all types of weather conditions.

All of the above failed to impose order over the chaos in New York City caused by last week’s blizzard. The City That Never Sleeps was put to bed for three days. For reasons unknown and not yet understood, the plows didn’t plow; the trucks didn’t move; four-wheel-drives didn’t drive; cars stood frozen in the middle of the road and buses were immobilized in the middle of thoroughfares.

The mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg who, thanks to his money and proven administrative skills, overturned term limits to get himself reelected to a third term, was left flat-footed. Every time he opened his mouth to speak about the progress of the snow-plowing effort, he was caught with another lie and lost even more respect among his constituents.

Not only was he shown to be out of touch with the public’s needs, he was seen as reacting with petulance and resentment when confronted with the public’s demand for competent handling of the emergency. People refused to be resigned to being locked into their homes for days on end, unable to exit their own streets.

In both the inferno in Israel and the blizzard in New York City, people perceived as strong leaders capable of handling emergencies and exercising damage control were shown to be sorely lacking in those skills.

There is nothing novel about snowstorms and fires; in technologically advanced societies they are quickly brought under control. Not this time. The fires refused to be extinguished and the snow foiled all clearing attempts.

Other strange occurrences have recently captured our attention. A lone anarchist using the name WikiLeaks unleashed an avalanche of state secrets, exposing for the world the machinations of presidents, prime ministers, potentates, dictators, ministers and others. The most powerful men and women in the world stood by, unable to stop the outrageous leaking of their secret schemes that left them exposed and mortified.

The United States has stretched its army thin in wars to decimate al-Qaeda. Yet the band of nomadic terrorists is as elusive as ever. The world’s strongest nation has been proved impotent in its efforts to capture the most wanted man in the world since Hitler, as he sits in a primitive cave and plans acts of mass murder.

rav-michel-yehudah-lefkowitzThe leaders of the Western and Arab worlds watch as a lunatic with messianic pretensions presides over Iran, manufacturing nuclear weapons to use in his crusade against Israel and other enemies. Despite strong talk, saber rattling, boycotts, sanctions, and the biggest farce of all – UN resolutions – the civilized world appears utterly powerless to halt what no one denies is a disaster in the making.

What is this all about? What is going on? Why are all the powerful people of the world being exposed as powerless?

We all know people who talk as if the world is about to blow up at any time. Listening to them, you wonder if you should sell everything and run to a faraway desert, stocking up on water and provisions. In all seriousness, their observations are not that far from the truth. An objective observation of the situation in the Mideast can leave one shaking. Iran is on the cusp of becoming a nuclear power. Hezbollah has tens of thousands of rockets aimed at Eretz Yisroel. Hamas gets stronger by the day. Israel’s economic problems are endemic.

The world today is a very dangerous place and there is no human being or country that can protect us from those who seek our destruction. It’s about time we internalized that stark reality.

We sing Vehi She’amdah once a year on the Seder night, but the rest of the year we tend to forget that “Im Hashem lo yishmor ihr, shov shokad shomer.” It is Hashem Who protects us, today and every day. We lull ourselves into a false sense of security by putting our faith in presidents, prime ministers, seasoned diplomats and other professionals.

Recent world events are meant to impress upon us how little control we have over the events of our lives. The headlines of recent weeks ought to demonstrate to us that none of the leaders strutting about on the world stage has any independent power. All are pawns in the hands of Hashem. Their pretensions to leadership are part of the olam hasheker.

Who is the true leader? The man who cares. The man who feels a responsibility for others. The one who sits huddled in a humble apartment away from the shackles of power, out of the spotlight. The person who is suffused with Torah. The person who has dedicated his life to being an eved Hashem and bows to no one but those who follow the true path.

A person like the 97-year-old Rav Michel Yehudah Lefkowitz, who sits in a small dirah in Bnei Brak. As he approaches the age of 100, he is weak and finds it difficult to move about. A grandson who stays with him and his elderly wife, tends to their needs.

My friend, Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin, related to me that three weeks ago Rav Michel Yehudah awoke in middle of the night and saw that his wife was not in her bed. He got out of bed and walked out of the bedroom into the hallway. There he saw his wife sprawled on the floor.

The grandson who stays with them was roused by his grandfather’s footsteps and came to the hallway. Groggy and disoriented, he watched as Rav Michel Yehudah ran to his room to get a pillow to put under his wife’s head.

The grandson rushed over to him and said, “Sabbah, mah atah oseh? What are you doing?” Rav Michel Yehudah responded that the floor is hard and cold, that he went to get a pillow so his wife would be more comfortable…”Kar lah. Ratziti lehakeil aleha.”

He didn’t scream for his grandson, he didn’t shout to call Hatzollah, he didn’t bend down to ask his wife what happened. His first thought was to ease her pain. And to accomplish that, he ignored his frailty and mustered all his strength to be of assistance to her.

At almost 100 years old, Rav Michel Yehudah is teaching us about shalom bayis, and about caring for others. This is a true leader. He feels the pain of others and does everything he can to lessen it. A leader of this caliber labors far from the seat of power; he dwells instead amongst his brethren, caring for them as a shepherd tends to his flock.

Baalei Mussar expound in great length on the fact that the Avos were shepherds, consumed with the task of tending to their flocks. Moshe Rabbeinu, too, spent his time in Midyan caring for sheep and providing for their needs. Dovid Hamelech was, likewise, a shepherd prior to becoming the king of Israel.

These heroes exemplified devotion to Hashem’s creations and despite the hardship it entailed, made the wellbeing of their charges their foremost concern. This is the crucible in which a true leader attains greatness. Greatness is won through selflessness. It is not magically conferred on people by virtue of their success in seizing the limelight or grabbing the reins of power.

Leadership is reserved for those who display compassion and altruism when no one is there to observe them. Leadership belongs to those who spend their lives as servants of Hashem and grow in His shadow by following the teachings of Torah and mussar.

It is to people who distinguish themselves in this way that we should turn for guidance and direction. It is in their merit and the merit of all the truly good people of Am Yisroel that fires don’t break out all over, that snow gets plowed, that Iran doesn’t fire nuclear weapons, that Hezbollah is restrained, and that al-Qaeda doesn’t strike. It is the merit of the selfless, dedicated, servants of the One Above, that the world doesn’t blow up.

Sometimes we need a wake up call to remind us that we don’t control our destinies; that Hashem is the Master Scriptwriter and He alone runs the world. Instead of allowing the illusions of the olam hasheker to hold us hostage, let us shake off our slavish dependency on impotent leaders. Let us follow the blueprint for salvation by performing more tzedakah and chessed, doing the mitzvos properly with more purity of heart, and bringing more kedusha into our lives.

I wish to reiterate that my only involvement with this site is the posting of my column, all rumors to the contrary notwithstanding.

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  1. Yasher koach.

    I don’t know why it is necessary to write an age here though.

    By the way, R. Michel Yehudah’s last name is not ‘Lefkowitz’. Take a look at how it is written in loshon kodesh – ????????. That would make it either Lipkowitz (or Lipkovitz) or Lifkowitz/Lifkovitz, which are Litvishe names, as is R. Michel Yehudah shlit”a (I seem to recall that he comes from the shtetl of Volzhin). Lefkowitz is spelled differently and is a Hungarian surname.

  2. “A country [Israel]…. was brought to its knees by a fire it could not extinguish”

    “A proud country [Israel again] … reduced to begging for fire-fighting equipment.”

    I discern in lines of the above write up a sense of triumphalism which we have associated in the past with our worst enemies. Even Turkey felt rahmanus for Israel and sent us fire extinguishing equipment.