By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Do you remember when terror attacks only happened in Israel? Do you remember when nobody thought it was possible for Arab terror to strike in America? Do you remember when the French, British and American governments blamed every terror attack in Israel on Israeli intransigence? Do you remember when cars were ramming people to death alongside Israeli roads, while the rest of the world sat by silently?
It wasn’t that long ago.
The West refused to believe what their eyes were witnessing in Israel. They blamed it on the Jews and continued to deal with Arab states as if they were comprised of normal, peace-loving citizens, worshipping a religion of peace.
Since the administration of the current American president came to power, the ball was dropped in Iraq and Syria. Deals were made with Iran. The administration pulled troops out of Iraq and wound down efforts in Afghanistan, which gave birth to ISIS. By refusing to wipe them out, the Obama administration enabled them to grow to the point where they are able to strike anywhere they want, seemingly at will, causing mayhem, death and destruction in proud Western countries.
Western leaders were warned. Western people were warned. They saw what happened to the peace -loving, industrious, fine people of Israel who sacrificed for peace. Yet, their anti-Semitism blocked them from objectively comprehending the rationale for what was taking place in Israel and extrapolating that lesson for their own countries.
Instead of understanding the enemy and taking the fight to them, America and others created conditions in Libya, Iraq and Syria where terror groups could grow. Instead of killing them when they were small and nascent, the West permitted them to gain strength and grow.
Now, there seems to be an attack taking place almost every week. The current American administration is still in denial and in a defensive state, rather than an offensive one. There are virtually no ground troops anywhere fighting ISIS. The world is a powder keg, just waiting for a spark to set it afire in war. Europe is flooded with Muslim refugees, among them ISIS fighters and other Islamic terrorists. Civil war brews beneath the surface, as EU rules leave many countries buckling under the weight of their new citizens.
Photos of the murder truck in France pockmarked with dozens of bullet holes are symbolic of our world; big and strong and full of holes.
With maddening attacks taking place on a regular basis, there is an ever-present feeling of concern here, in Israel and around the world.
Balanced and clear vision is necessary to navigate life’s paths. However, we live in a world of fantasy, where leaders ignore facts and remain stuck to their agendas and narratives, as fallacious as they are proven to be. Terror chases terror, each attack more dreadful than the one that preceded it, striking fear in people who previously feared nothing. They look to their leaders for direction and find a vacuum.
The president of the United States ran for office on a promise to bring people together, cure partisan gridlock in Washington, open government to the people, be transparent and fair, and restore America’s glory. What he turned out to be is a demagogue who seeks to divide people. Race relations in this country are now in their worst state since the riots in the sixties.
The president has, in his own words, led from behind. He dithered while Syria disintegrated, he slept while the country’s Benghazi consulate was under attack, and then he lied about it and sought to cover up what transpired. He forced Mubarak out of Egypt and then handed the country to the Islamists, whom he coddled and supported as they attempted to destroy the country.
The man whose career’s trajectory was aided by his oratory skills failed to bring the people together. He continues to fail to explain the problems the country is facing from radical Islamists, while blaming American terror attacks on guns. He seems to dwell in an alternative universe.
The media was able to portray former President George W. Bush as incompetent and convince an overwhelming majority of Americans to vehemently oppose him. They destroyed the candidacy of Mitt Romney, a decent man, and are now trying to eviscerate Donald Trump, with half-truths and lies. Meanwhile the president and his former secretary of state are constantly portrayed in a good light and are actively promoted. Despite everything President Obama has done to change the culture of this country, while engaging in divisive rhetoric, empowering both domestic and foreign terrorists, saddling the country with unprecedented debt, caused a great racial divide, opened the borders and overseen a weak economy, to name a few, he is supported by a majority of people in this country. The Democrat standard-bearer to replace him, still leads in national polls despite all her missteps, trails of untruths, carelessness and corrupt baggage.
An uninformed and misinformed public can be misled. In times like these we must stay informed and be intelligent about what is transpiring around us. We cannot rely on tweets, headlines and simplistic, superficial information. Decisions must be based on real facts.
In Parshas Bolok, we read how thousands of years ago, Bolok was worried about the size of Am Yisroel, who he feared would conspire to destroy him and his nation. Having heard from his enemy, Midyon, with whom he formed a coalition in order to overcome the hated Bnei Yisroel, that the strength of the Jewish people lies in their mouths, he procured the services of Bilam to curse them (Bamidbar 22:4, Rashi ibid.). Bilam appeared to be reticent about performing the job for Bolok, acting as if he would not defy Hashem. It was a charade. When he was promised sufficient money and fame, he saddled his donkey and set out to plot the destruction of the Jewish people.
His posturing is reflective of today’s time, when leaders pronounce reassuringly that they are driven by pure intentions, motivated to serve the people. Then they simultaneously engage in behavior detrimental to the safety of the countries they lead.
Bilam was confronted by his donkey that berated him for his disloyalty to the one on whose back he rode so often. Chazal teach that the peh of the ason, the mouth of the donkey, was created on the first Erev Shabbos following creation. The Ramban and the Seforno teach that there was a message in the beast’s expressiveness, teaching Bilam that the gift of speech he was blessed with was from Hashem. The same One Who enabled him to speak enabled the donkey to do the same. He was thus warned not to attempt to deviate from the wishes of Hashem and not to curse Am Yisroel. He continued along his way, but instead of curses, his mouth uttered blessings.
People are confused and wonder how they can tell the Bilams of the world apart from those who not only preach fidelity to Hashem’s will, but actually follow it. How do we know who speaks with a glib, cynically forked tongue, and who is honest, holy and deserving of respect and support?
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (5:19) tells us how to differentiate between the talmidim of Avrohom Avinu and those of Bilam.
It is interesting that instead of the Mishnah teaching how to differentiate between Avrohom Avinu and Bilam Harosha, Chazal delineate the differences between their students.
Rav Yechezkel of Kuzmir explained that while it may have been possible to be fooled by Bilam and his demeanor, analyzing his students and followers reveals the truth about the man and his goals.
Often, purveyors of fiction cloak their lies with half-truths to fool people and gain credibility for their messages. Doing so creates difficulty differentiating between the genuine and the phony. With patience, the intentions of the leader become obvious. Avrohom became “Avinu,” spawning a nation of rachmonim, bayshonim and gomlei chassodim, paragons of decency, virtue and humility. Bilam became the role model of their antagonists, the hero of those governed by ayin ra’ah, ruach govoah, nefesh rechovah, selfishness, pettiness, greediness and arrogance.
The Mishnah is teaching us not to focus on what the leaders say and how they present themselves, but rather to look at the effects of their words and actions. They may proclaim that they are all about peace and love, but beware if their actions lead to strife and hate. They may proclaim that they seek to rid the world of evil, but their actions betray their words.
As an eternal people, we are blessed with an eternal memory. Nothing is forgotten. Nothing is overlooked. The Mogein Avrohom (Orach Chaim 580:9) cites the custom of fasting on the Friday preceding the Shabbos when Parshas Chukas is lained, because that is when twenty-four cartloads of Gemaros were burned on the streets of France in 1244.
Several leading rabbonim dreamt that the fast should be observed on that Friday and not on the date upon which the terrible chillul Hashem transpired. “Zos chukas haTorah,” the chok of Torah is that the nations of the world torment us because of the Torah. As Chazal say, the mountain upon which the Torah was delivered is named Har Sinai because it is from where sinah, hatred, of Jews came down to the world.
With emumah and bitachon, we accept that the pain we endure is caused by the Av Harachamon for reasons most of us cannot fathom. It is part of the chok of Torah. It is part of the chok that is the life of the Jew.
Since the days of Bolok and Bilam, we have been singled out for destruction, yet we have persevered. There are periods of din and periods of rachamim. At all times, we seek to engage in conduct that arouses the middah of rachamim in our Av Harachamim. We engage in acts of kindness and charity and look at each other with kindness.
The parsha ends with the plague that was unleashed by Bilam, who flooded the Jewish nation with the daughters of Midyan. Pinchos was a man of action, not words. The pesukim recount that the Jews stood around Moshe at the entrance to the Ohel Moed, and cried. Pinchos saw the same thing, but he rose from the group, took a spear and did what had to be done. Action. Not words.
Bilam feared what the people of Moav would say about him and went along with the plan to have the Jews cursed, though he knew it was wrong. Pinchos did what the Torah demanded. He did what had to be done, though people would say that he was negative and cynical. He didn’t care that people would say he was a divider, not a uniter, and that he was a murderer. “Who does he think he is?” he knew they would remark. But he didn’t care what people would say about him. He cared about following the word of Hashem.
The Torah decides which actions cause unity and what causes division. Ridding the world of evil strengthens life and ends strife. Standing by, weeping and offering platitudes causes plagues of destruction.
During these times of ikvesa diMeshicha, we need men and women of action, not fear; togetherness, not division; healing, not hurt; rejuvenation, not stagnation; and passion, not apathy.
When he was four years old, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Yosef Yitzchok Shneerson, asked his father, the Rashab, Rav Shalom Ber of Lubavitch, why a person was created with two eyes.
The Rashab asked the lad if he knew the difference between the letters shin and sin. “Sure,” he answered. “The shin has a dot on the right side. The sin has a dot on the left side.”
“My son, that is why you have two eyes,” the Rashab said. “There are some things that you have to view with your right eye and others that you must view with the left eye. You always look at a Jew with the right eye. Candies and toys you look at with your left eye.”
A Jew is important. A Jew is to be treasured. Always look at a Jew with the right eye. Always view him kindly. Candies and toys are of lesser importance; for them, the left eye suffices. Be from the talmidim of Avrohom, viewing others with an ayin tovah.
As we approach the sad period of the year we refer to as The Three Weeks, it is incumbent upon us to view things with the right eye, recognizing what is going on around us, being kind and forgiving, and seeking to foster achdus and love.
We need to mourn the destruction of Yerushalayim and really pine for the arrival of Moshiach. As Chazal say (Taanis 30b), “Kol hamisabeil al Yerushalayim zocheh veroeh besimchasah – Whoever mourns Yerushalayim will merit to see the joy of its redemption.” In order to merit being part of the redemption, we need to engage in activities that demonstrate that we feel the loss.
We can adopt the custom of reciting Tikkun Chatzos, at least during The Three Weeks, demonstrating our sense of loss and begging Hashem to bring us home. For those who find it difficult to recite the chapters of the Tikkun without comprehending the holy words, Dr. Daniel Steinberg, a dentist from Queens, took the obligation of mourning the churban seriously and prepared an English translation, which can be accessed by going to http://bit.ly/1CV1n9U.
We know what caused the destruction of the Botei Mikdosh. Part of being misabeil on Yerushalayim is to rectify those actions. We must cut out sinas chinom, baseless hatred, which afflicts our people. We need to bring people together and work to foster achdus, erasing division and the pettiness that causes it. We have to treat all people like brothers and sisters, doing what we can so that no one goes to bed sad and spends their days in gloom.
Bilam sought to curse us, but when he looked out at the masses of Jews camped in the midbar, he was overcome and said, “Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov.” How great are the tents of Yaakov, filled with Torah and chesed, maasim tovim and shalom, brotherhood and ayin tovah. As the world spins out of control, we need to reinforce those tents. We need to reach out to our brethren, befriend the lonely, and strengthen the weak. We never really know who is lonely and who is weak, so we need to be friendly and supportive to everyone. We need to feel good about ourselves. We need to get excited about Yiddishkeit and be happy. We need to have a bounce in our step and a smile on our faces. Life is fragile. Life is short. Let’s make the most of it.