By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
While a superficial view of our own world and society reveals much strength and growth, just beneath the surface lurk destructive forces. Some people think things never looked worse. Just as in every age there are people who believe that the crisis of the hour is insurmountable and are therefore ready to despair, so too, in our day, we hear the prophets of doom counseling hopelessness and fatalism. We attempt to arrive at solutions to the dilemmas which beset us, and too often we come up empty. The more intrepid souls with a broader vision and a tenacious dedication to their missions as Jews never lose their determination to persevere and flourish.
We preach against corruption. We speak and educate endlessly about the need for honesty in all facets of life. Yet, when people in leadership positions are caught behaving perfidiously, we hypocritically cover for them by engaging in a conspiracy of silence. The absence of clear repudiation of these individuals and their deplorable actions is deeply troubling. It gives rise to allegations that we really don’t care and it reinforces stereotypes about religious Jewry’s motivations.
As we look around, we see that so many people are out of jobs or under-employed that the safety nets are cracking under the pressure. Our wonderful institutions fight to continue to be able to educate our children and provide leadership and services for the broad community of Jews. We became used to plenty and now are being tutored to learn to live with fewer things and with less money.
We are terrorized upon witnessing the spread of radical Islam and the world’s failure to make a serious attempt to stem the rise of murderous extremism. We see Iran rapidly approaching the point of nuclear no-return and watch helplessly as the leading world powers prattle but do little to curtail that country’s deadly ambitions.
As we ponder our own internal problems, along with terrorist attempts to strike at civilization’s core, with tragedies hitting us from all sides and the global economic crunch eating away at our security, it’s safe to say that we are experiencing very difficult times.
This country has been hijacked by attitudes that differ profoundly from those we grew accustomed to since the Ronald Reagan era. America’s political leadership today seems seduced by a fatal attraction to raising taxes and further shrinking our wallets. We fear the coming makeover of health care and worry about the fraying relationship between our elected leaders and Israel.
Fears that dog the general society affect the Torah community as well. As leading American writer Peggy Noonan says, “Maybe the most worrying trend the past 10 years can be found in this phrase: ‘They forgot the mission.’ So many great American institutions – institutions that every day help hold us together – acted as if they had forgotten their mission, forgotten what they were about, what their role and purpose was, what they existed to do. You, as you read, can probably think of an institution that has forgotten its reason for being. Maybe it’s the one you’re part of.”
These words apply not only to grassroots America, but to our own circles as well. Too many people in positions of power and influence in our community seem to have forgotten their mission. Too many of the people we depend on and look up to, appear to have forgotten what it was that made them great and how they reached their positions of prominence.
Public servants seem not to recall that their mission is to serve us, the common people. It seems as if they have lost their communication skills, as they have been proven inept at projecting a respectable image of our community to the outside world. There are people in trouble who aren’t being helped, and scores seeking direction who are left to fend for themselves, lost in the maze of darkness which has become our world.
Having forgotten our mission in this world and forgetting that we are being watched, we engage in pragmatic rationalization, deluding ourselves into thinking that we can ride out the storm without incurring much damage. We elevate the trivial and ignore the essentials, hoping to divert the public’s focus with myopic, shallow rhetoric.
We have forgotten our responsibility to the community and our obligation to look at the big picture and take a long-term view. We begin believing the stories we have created as a feeble replacement for a clear and honest vision. Having lost the will and strength required to remain conscientiously upstanding, we seek to mold perceptions instead of reality.
Chazal teach us that one of the special attributes of the Jews in Mitzrayim was that they never changed their names. Many question what the significance of that is in the face of all they endured and the various levels of depravity to which they sank.
Perhaps, an explanation can be derived based on the understanding that a person’s name is indicative of his shlichus and mission in life. Perhaps, what Chazal are teaching us is that despite everything that beset them in the golus of Mitzrayim, the Jews remained loyal to their individual missions which their names indicated their neshamos had been charged with. It was in this merit that they were granted geulah.
In times like these, in order to remain loyal to our shlichus, we desperately search for the leadership necessary to guide us. So often, we are forced to settle for mediocrity and we lose our sense of what constitutes true, inspired leadership.
We find the embodiment of such leadership in Parshas Shemos. The Torah describes Moshe Rabbeinu‘s first encounter with the Shechinah. Moshe was shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep and came across a burning bush. He noticed something strange about the bush. The fire continued burning, yet the bush was not devoured by the fire.
Though he was but a shepherd at that time, Moshe utilized the experience of witnessing the miraculous occurrence to glean lessons that would guide him on his mission in life. When he saw the bush continue to burn, he contemplated the vision until he understood it on a deeper level. He saw the fire as the Shechinah in exile with the Jews who were enslaved, symbolized by the thorn bush. He noted that although the Jews can be tormented, they cannot be destroyed, because Hashem is with them.
Every Jew has a mission in life and Moshe never lost sight of his. Wherever he was and whatever he did, he sought to enhance his understanding of life and his role in the world. Moshe Rabbeinu saw an event that transcended nature and turned to analyze it. He understood the lesson from the burning bush that the existence of the Bnei Yisroel is also lemaalah miderech hatevah. They would survive the cruelest conditions of exile, refusing to succumb to the Parohs’ relentless efforts to destroy them.
Moshe was thus selected as the leader of the Jewish people and given the task of freeing them from the subjugation in Mitzrayim.
Yosef Hatzaddik also excelled at penetrating the surface to discover the deeper wisdom orchestrating events. When his brothers came down to Mitzrayim, they didn’t recognize him, but he immediately recognized them. They weren’t looking for him. He was erased from their memory; he was a thing of the past. They had sold him and tried to forget about his very existence. They had long forgotten his dreams.
But Yosef never forgot his parents, Yaakov and Rochel. He never stopped wanting to meet his brother Binyomin and get back together with the shevatim. He never gave up on seeing his mission, as foretold in his dream, fulfilled. He would gaze at the faces of the people who came down to Mitzrayim seeking to buy food and try to identify his brothers. Because he was actively on the lookout for his brothers, he recognized them when they finally crossed his path. They, on the other hand, were not on the lookout for him. The furthest thing from their minds was the fantastic possibility that he might have become viceroy of Egypt and they were fulfilling his dream by bowing down to him.
Rabi Akiva was a lowly, ignorant shepherd, but he noticed water dripping onto a stone and the hole created by that persistent drip-drip over many years. Observing that water, one of the softest substances in the world, had been able to erode solid rock, he applied the lesson to his own life. Just as drops of water can break through impenetrable rock, so too, if he would begin to learn diligently, words of Torah would gradually penetrate his mind and heart. He, too, could eventually become a talmid chochom.
Because he probed deeper and applied the truth he found to his own life, he was able to change his entire destiny and become the great Rabi Akiva, rebbi of Klal Yisroel. Identifying life’s priorities, he was able to plumb the depths of his soul and the essence of this world, and realize his mission of becoming one of the Jewish nation’s greatest teachers.
Our world is besieged by danger on both the physical and spiritual levels. Instead of despairing or growing cynical and insensitive, we must work toward acquiring a deeper vision and recognize that we are charged with a mission; we are called upon to respond to a Higher Authority. We must seek out and promote leaders who exemplify, and demand fidelity to, the lofty standards that have set the Jewish people apart throughout the ages. We need to demonstrate intolerance for all forms of corruption, depravity and dishonesty so that we merit the revelation of the light of Moshiach for which Hakadosh Boruch Hu is preparing the world.