By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Parshas Pinchos weaves together themes and ideas that seem unconnected. The parsha opens with the enduring act of zealotry by Pinchos, born from an inability to stand by while evil was being perpetrated. The same act that caused others to become so traumatized that they didn’t know what to do caused Pinchos to be bold and courageous.
Pinchos grabbed a spear and literally eradicated evil. His act lives on for all time as one of passion and commitment, epitomizing the instincts and reactions of a servant of Hashem.
The parsha continues with a count taken of each individual Jew in Klal Yisroel. It then discusses the bnos Tzelafchad and their petition for a portion in Eretz Yisroel, and concludes with halachos of the Yomim Tovim. These topics, though seemingly unrelated, combine to teach a lesson.
Mekubolim explain that the entirety of creation is divided into three dimensions: olam, shanah, and nefesh, space, time and man. Each realm has its climax. Yom Kippur is such a time, for all three meet at the height of their abilities when the kohein gadol, the highest level of man, enters the Kodesh Hakodoshim, the holiest place on earth, on the most sacred day.
Kedushah means investing each of the three dimensions with meaning. Each person has a mission, every place has its use, and every day has its avodah.
Pinchos created a new reality, rising to new heights, transforming himself through his selfless, altruistic act. He took a stand when others did not, and in doing so, he formed a covenant with Hashem.
The parsha reinforces this message with the counting of the Bnei Yisroel. Every Jew counts. Everyone can do what Pinchos did, acting as a lone soldier, demonstrating the strength of character and devotion to bring glory to Heaven. Each individual has intrinsic value. The counting reminds every person that he has the ability to make a difference. You matter. Every person matters.
You can affect more people than you ever thought possible. You can be living at a time when people are confused and confounded, not knowing which way to move. They are frozen by fear and insecurity. Stay focused on your goal. Don’t be deterred. Don’t be distracted. It may be difficult and it might earn you temporary ridicule, but when all are lost, leaders rise from among the crowd and show the way.
That is the power of each nefesh.
Eretz Yisroel, the apex in the realm of olam, has unique spiritual properties, power and potency. The daughters of Tzelafchad, appreciating the significance of the land, pined for a share.
Yomim Tovim are the greatest days of the year. People who appreciate their abilities, seize the moment and seek a role and portion in holiness, appreciate Yomim Tovim as a time for sublime joy.
The avodah zarah of Baal Peor diminished man and caused him to believe that humankind is a small being with limited abilities that he is unable to face or overcome (see Chasam Sofer in this week’s parsha). Thus, the yeitzer hora reduces people to the level where they think they are inconsequential, their actions are inconsequential, and whatever they think or do has no meaning or importance.
The Soton couples that with his ability to create diversions and cause people to lose focus of the important matters in life. He confuses people and causes them to be stressed and defeatist, unable to contend with the vagaries of life. They become lost and dizzy, unable to remain grounded and stable enough to deal with situations, and remember that all that befalls them is ordained by Hashem. Those who have faith remain calm, composed and properly balanced. Their confidence gives them the strength to do what must be done in order to perform the actions necessary to right the situation.
Pinchos maximized his abilities and withstood the entreaties of the yeitzer hora to stand by the side and let someone else do what had to be done. Because he perceived the value and opportunity inherent in life, he did not become flummoxed when he witnessed tragedy unfolding.
It is because of Pinchos, and people like him in every generation, that our nation has endured to this day and is able to appreciate and celebrate Yomim Tovim. Others have cowered, compromised and capitulated, diluting the abilities of olam, shanah and nefesh.
When people arrived on the shores of America, many said that it’s too hard to build Torah here. They claimed that it’s unrealistic to expect American children to be Torah Jews and they gave up. They compromised on Shabbos, kashrus and everything else. They lost their children and didn’t really have much themselves. But in communities where there was a Pinchos, who said, “We can do it. We can lead Torah lives here. We don’t have what to fear,” Torah Judaism took hold, yeshivos were built, kosher standards were adhered to, and Shabbos became a day of halachic rest and an opportunity for kedushah of olam, shanah and nefesh.
There is a common misconception that taking a stand means being negative. Kannaus is often misunderstood as pessimism. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Those who are fired up with Torah and seek to live lives of kedushah are optimistic about their abilities. They are optimistic about Am Yisroel and the future. They refuse to be reined in by the pessimists who say it can’t be done; not here, not now.
They serve as a beacon of light and strength for all to look up to and emulate.
Pinchos took a stand, which created a bris of sholom that continues and endures. Parshas Pinchos is the parsha of Yomim Tovim, because taking a stand guarantees better and happier times. People who rise up to the occasion are those who make a difference.
My uncle, Rav Berel Wein, born and raised in Chicago, sadly witnessed Orthodox Jewry in decline, as the older generation of European immigrants looked on hopelessly while their children chose a different path.
He wrote about a speech that changed his life and impacted his life’s ambitions and thoughts. It was at a banquet for Beis Medrash LeTorah in Chicago in the early 1950s. The guest speaker was Rav Pinchos Teitz of Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Rabbi Wein recounts, “Most European rabbis used speaking engagements to bemoan the state of American Jewry, especially in comparison to the glory days of Eastern European Jewish life. Not Rabbi Teitz. He spoke of a coming revolution in American Jewish life; of a growing and vital Orthodoxy; of the triumph of the day school and yeshiva movements; and he predicted that Orthodoxy would diminish the influence of Conservative and Reform movements, not vice versa. His optimism made him a heroic figure in my eyes, and he remained such over many decades.”
That, too, is a story of Pinchos, of taking a stand. Rav Pinchos Teitz spoke of hope, optimism and opportunity. He cried out that Yom Tov was coming, and to merit those days the people had to remain loyal to Torah. He set up a school in Elizabeth and educated the next generation in the Torah path, and many were saved.
There were others, like Rav Shmuel Kaufman zt”l, who was niftar last week. Not seeking fame, glory or financial reward, they spread across this country, opening schools and staffing them, showing the correct way to educate fine people to live lives of Torah and Judaism. Their efforts spawned a rebirth here, and because of heroes like him, cities like Detroit, Chicago Cleveland and so many others are flourishing islands of Torah, beacons of kedushah, goodness and happiness for the rest of the country.
Rabbi Wein once visited a philanthropist in what New Yorkers would call a mid-sized out-of-town city on behalf of the yeshiva he headed almost twenty years ago. The wealthy man complained that while he used to support his shul and the local school, now there was a new thing coming to town called a “kollel,” whose leaders also came knocking on his door for a donation. “Who needs them?” the man questioned. “We have such nice shuls here. What do we need this kollel thing for?”
Rabbi Wein answered with the wisdom of someone who had seen what happened to dozens of shuls in his native Chicago. “My dear friend,” he said as he put his arm on the man’s shoulder. “Kollel is the way of the future. It is that kollel that will maintain the neighborhood and bring young families here. It is the kollel where people will visit to study Torah. It is the kollel that will be a magnet for everything good in this town and many others. You’d do yourself well if you would support it.”
It seemed so far-fetched that he couldn’t bring himself to support it. He lacked the vision and optimism to believe that Torah would bring them back and hold them. He was pessimistic and didn’t get it. But today, that man’s children and grandchildren enter the kollel to study Torah and increase their levels of kedushah.
Pinchos didn’t talk about not tolerating injustice. He acted upon the problem. He didn’t conduct a poll or focus group before deciding. He didn’t run around asking his friends how it would look. He just did it. And because of that, the plague stopped and we are here today.
Pinchos was not a leader of his nation, but his actions obligate all of us. There are moments, places and times for us to stand up and make a difference.
Perhaps there is no time of year for this avodah like the Three Weeks. Kol hamisabel al Yerushalayim, anyone who mourns the destruction of the holy city and Bais Hamikdosh, zocheh veroeh b’simchasah, will merit seeing its joy. We have to use these days to contemplate what we are lacking and make these weeks significant and meaningful. Too often, people are content to let the season pass so that they can get back to regular life. Chazal, however, admonish us to make these days important by being misabel, so that we will enjoy Yomim Tovim to the fullest when Tisha B’Av joins the chagim.
A person who is involved in an accident, or suffers serious illness and temporarily loses mobility, must remain optimistic about his latent strength and abilities in order to endure therapy and recuperate. They cannot allow themselves to be deterred or to give up hope because of the difficulties of maintaining a tough discipline.
Life is tough and full of challenges. Those who remain optimistic and see the Hand of Hashem in all that befalls them are able to muster the courage to persevere and succeed. Those who mourn Yerushalayim and use these days to help rebuild it through the arrival of Moshiach will merit to witness and partake in that joyous day when the redemption arrives.
Let us all remain focused on the goal.