By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
On the Yomim Noraim, as the baal Mussaf solemnly intones the words, “Ve’al hamedinos bo yei’omer,” we contemplate the fate of those countries that are being judged. “Eizo loro’ov ve’eizo lasova.” Each one faces its unique challenges and opportunities. As we hear those words, we imagine hunger being meted out for underdeveloped African nations with no infrastructure, floods and typhoons for distant islands in the path of treacherous weather patterns, pestilence for war-ravaged republics where despots rule, and hurricanes for backward Caribbean fiefdoms.
Very few of us imagined the possibility that the strongest nation that ever existed could be crippled by a calamitous natural disaster, and that just as the rebuilding would begin, the country would again be confronted by a new enemy, which we are seeing with increasing frequency: horrific, inexplicable violence, the product of a monster which seems to reside within the hearts of too many of the country’s young people raised on a diet of moral and spiritual deprivation.
A tragedy beyond comprehension took place in a picture perfect New England town. The carnage occurred in a school, a place that should be off limits to the ills of the world. It affected young children eagerly settling down for a day in a first grade class, enthusiastic minds awaiting a day of knowledge and play with some recess, lunch and snack. The smallest, youngest, most innocent members of society were cut down by a totally senseless act of terror that this country had rarely known before.
The closest parallel to what the good people of Connecticut and the United States experienced would be the acts of terror which take place in Eretz Yisroel, perpetrated by Palestinians on children in a school bus, innocents of all ages on Egged busses, families in their homes such as the Fogels in the pastoral village of Itamar, or people driving on roads. This country, which had largely been spared from such acts of horror, has now once again experienced the dread that such irrational acts cause.
And now, many worry about what will be with this country, the golus home of so many Jews. As the blood of young, tiny innocents, victims of a vicious, senseless rampage, runs freely through tree-lined, idyllic streets, painting landscaped lawns crimson, we all need to look in the mirror to ask ourselves if we aren’t affected by increased evil evidencing itself around us. We have to question whether our teivos are as safe as we thought they were or if they are springing leaks as well.
Obviously, the perpetrator was mentally unstable and, obviously, his act does not represent anyone or anything, but there is a message in it nonetheless. We know and believe that there are Divine messages for us in all that transpires in this world.
Chanukah’s brilliant lights, which brought joy and hope into our homes, providing us with energy to face our daily struggles, are now extinguished, giving way to the leilei Teves ha’aruchim, the longest nights of winter. As the glow of the menorah fades, we struggle to recapture the illumination, and so, as Yidden always have, we tread a path through the cold and dark to our Gemaros and to the bais medrash, the only real escapes from the lurking outside elements.
Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach zt”l would often recount that in pre-war Vilna, every seat in the shul was taken on the winter Friday nights. No ehrliche Yid was willing to forfeit the opportunity to engage in many hours of uninterrupted Torah amidst the blanket of peace provided by Shabbos.
Rav Shach would often paint a picture of that scene in shmuessen delivered at the Ponovezher Yeshiva. He would add emphasis by retelling what befell Rav Dovid Karliner one Friday evening as he sat learning in his shul.
“Rav Dovid Karliner would sit late into the night on leil Shabbos engrossed in his learning. One Friday night, he sat immersed in the sweet world of the Rashba, lost in the intricacies of the sugya, with a flickering candle illuminating the page before him.”
“As he sat there,” Rav Shach related, “he encountered a question put forth by the Rashba that challenged his entire understanding of the sugya. Of course, Rav Dovid Karliner didn’t just look at the Rashba’s answer. He first considered the question from every angle, slowly analyzing each idea. He pondered possible answers, probing each solution carefully, one by one. When he had thoroughly examined the entire topic and fit the question into the bigger picture, he allowed himself to look at the Rashba’s teirutz. With the entire sugya clear as day in his mind, he looked back down at the page. And then, suddenly, the candle burnt out.
“As Rav Dovid’l sat there in shock, an anguished cry left his mouth. ‘Gehennom iz noch erger!’ The pain of gehennom is worse than this.’”
To Rav Dovid Karliner, one of the greatest Torah giants of his time, the only way to assuage the pain of not being able to read the p’shat he had arrived at after so much hureving and toil on a cold, dark, Friday evening was by remembering that the pain of gehennom was yet worse. Torah wasn’t just something that he did. Learning wasn’t just studying. It was life itself. His life was Torah. His life was the Rashba. The frustration and regret he felt upon losing his connection to the Rashba and to Torah on a Friday night was comparable to the torture of gehennom.
Do any of us feel that way?
The story embodies the powerful bond that the Yidden a few generations back had with the seforim before them, the way they lived and breathed the questions of the Rishonim, and how a peaceful resolution to a Rashba meant a peaceful resolution to their day.
As you read the story, you can picture the bais medrash Yid hunched over his yellowed sefer. You can close your eyes and visualize the poetry of a timeless Jew by the shtender, a candle illuminating the tome in front of him. You can visualize the shuckeling figure, humming a tune without words, turning one page and then another.
This picture of the eternal Yid hunched over his seforim, Gemaros and Rashbas is the image of chodesh Teves, the month in which we currently find ourselves.
Rav Shmuel Berenbaum zt”l, the Mirrer rosh yeshiva, explained that the final day of Chanukah is referred to as Zos Chanukah. He would say that this is because the final day of Chanukah, when there is no menorah to be lit, is the only day of Chanukah when the regular seder of learning is not interrupted. The name Zos Chanukah indicates that this day beholds within it the message of Chanukah: uninterrupted Torah study in a world of darkness and superficiality.
Here we are, with Zos Chanukah, the final day in a chain stretching back to Elul and the Yomim Noraim, behind us. Now we need it to help us light up our path towards realizing our dreams and becoming the person we want to be.
Rav Kasriel Kaplan was a talmid chochom in Radin. Following the travails of the Second World War, he made his way to Yerushalayim, where he lived the rest of his life. He would often regale the bnei yeshiva of the Chevroner Yeshiva with stories about the Chofetz Chaim, his revered neighbor back home.
Rav Kasriel related that one year, his wife planted a few flowers in an attempt to dress up the dirt path in front of their humble dwelling, adding color to the landscape. The Chofetz Chaim noticed the added décor and asked Mrs. Kaplan if she could perhaps do without the flowers. He explained that while he had nothing against the beautiful plants, and he in fact appreciated them, he anticipated that his own rebbetzin would likely be equally impressed and would plant flowers along the dirt path to their home.
The Chofetz Chaim told his neighbor that he worried that the enhanced appearance of his front yard would cause visitors to be more careful when walking along the path. He feared that the bnei yeshiva, the talmidim of Radin, would be vigilant when coming to the home of their rosh yeshiva, the Chofetz Chaim, and perhaps one or two might feel afraid to approach the house, hesitant to visit lest they damage the flowers.
The Chofetz Chaim told Rav Kaplan that the home of the rosh yeshiva must be part of the yeshiva, accessible and welcoming to each and every talmid, “and we must never discourage a ben Torah from coming to his rebbi’s home.”
Our path to the places where our shiurim are held, to the local botei medrash, and to the homes of our rabbeim must not be unfamiliar to us. They should be well tread upon, utterly familiar to us and comfortable to walk on, because they embody who we are and what we are all about.
In addition to being a haven from the depravity of the surrounding world, learning Torah provides us with the perspective to see past the here and now, enabling us to view events that transpire in the world and in our daily life with the clarity and depth of the Torah.
One of the many lessons that emerge from analyzing the maasei avos in the parshiyos of Sefer Bereishis we currently read every Shabbos is that our forefathers viewed their experiences not as isolated incidents - negative or positive - but as part of something much bigger. Avrohom Avinu was on his way to the Akeidah when he saw Har Hamoriah looming in front of him (Bereishis 22:4.) He visualized the future, the nitzchiyus, the smoke of the korbanos being olah lereiach nichoach, and all the glory that would yet come forth from that exalted spot.
He turned to his companions and inquired if they saw this as well. When they told him that they didn’t see anything up ahead, he told them, “Shevu lochem po im hachamor - Stay behind with the chamor, while I go up with Yitzchok on the mountain you don’t see or appreciate.” Chazal explain that Avrohom was comparing his co-travelers to an “am hadomeh lachamor,” a donkey. Those who failed to see the mountain are similar to the animal that symbolizes base instinct, with neither depth nor vision. They are people who cannot see past the chomer, the material. Their only concern is for their next meal.
Avrohom Avinu saw things differently.
In the very dramatic reunion between a father broken by longing for his son and the son torn from his father’s side while still a teenager, we read in this week’s parsha (46:29) not of the father’s jubilation or tears upon their reunion. Rashi (ibid.) tells us that Yaakov Avinu’s reaction upon encountering his son, Yosef, was to recite Krias Shema.
Yaakov Avinu had feared that he would never again see his beloved son. He was undoubtedly full of joy to see and hold him once again. But when he saw Yosef together with his brothers, Yaakov was witnessing a much larger picture than a reunion of individuals. He saw the chibbur, the connection and achdus, between the shivtei Kah and the Divine Oneness it reflected. He was overwhelmed by the achdus of Hashem, and the words of Krias Shema, ending with Echod, sprang forth from his lips.
When Yosef and Binyomin meet in this week’s parsha (45:14), they fall on each other’s shoulders and cry. Chazal teach that they were not crying over the pain of separation and the joy of reunion. They weren’t mourning their mother, whose tears would define a nation. They were crying over the churban of Mishkan Shiloh in the cheilek of Yosef. They were weeping over the two Botei Mikdosh that would be destroyed. They thought of the eternal home of Hashem, which would be built in the portion of Binyomin, and lamented its subsequent destruction.
They cried over events from a time well ahead of where they stood, but which were clearly visible to both tzaddikim, who, like their zaide, Avrohom Avinu, saw the bigger picture.
Only by seizing the perspective of our avos can we rise above the seemingly endless stream of negativity, pessimism, grim prognoses and dire warnings. Eretz Yisroel is in danger, right here we are surrounded by devastation, our mosdos are struggling, and there are too many crises in our camp. Shootings and murder are quickly becoming commonplace, and there is decreased respect for human life accompanied by an epidemic of lawlessness.
People fear the fiscal cliff and, moreover, what is behind it. They worry that America may be changing for the worse. The proposed new defense secretary is someone with a history of antagonism toward Israel. With increased regularity, religious Jews are appearing in the media, accused of reprehensible behavior. They are negatively portrayed as representing all of us. People who should know better say the silliest things, either unconcerned or not knowing how they will be depicted in the media. We see bris milah under attack and fear what will be
We need to horeveh in learning until our vision shifts and until we learn to look with depth to see not just what is happening on a superficial level, but with a higher gaze, one focused on nitzchiyus.
Rabi Akiva was able to smile when he saw impure foxes making their way out of the holiest spot in the world, for he understood that, in the bigger picture, this was a positive development, a step closer to a world of tikkun.
Rav Shlomo Heiman zt”l, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, would deliver his shiur with tremendous passion, exerting himself to explain and analyze each fine point. He would tremble and sweat, at times even fainting from the effect. One day, there was a severe snowstorm and only four talmidim were able to make it to yeshiva to hear the shiur. To their amazement, Rav Shlomo delivered the shiur with his characteristic fire and energy.
After shiur, upon witnessing the toll that the exertion his rebbi expended for such a small audience had taken, one of the talmidim asked Rav Shlomo why he knocked himself out for only four boys. Rav Shlomo responded, “Do you think that I am delivering a shiur to four bochurim? My words are being passed through four talmidim, but they are being given to hundreds of talmidim. The talmidim that you four will yet have and their talmidim as well!”
This story is often repeated to illustrate the lengths to which a rebbi must go for each individual talmid, but in it we hear something else as well. We understand what it means to see a bigger picture, to see a reality unrelated to the “facts on the ground.”
Chanukah was an opportunity to refine our vision. We were to use the days of hallel vehoda’ah to view the people around us as the blessings they are and our families as gifts to be cherished. Do we view our jobs with gratitude, thanking the Ribbono Shel Olam for allowing us a means to serve him through feeding our families? Do we appreciate our shuls and the mosdos that serve our children? Do we take the time to contemplate the myriad chasdei Hashem that surround us all day, every day?
May the precious days of Chanukah serve as a reminder of our good fortune, inspiring us to take advantage of the many talented, dedicated maggidei shiur and kollelim eager to help us establish a permanent foothold in the bais medrash, regardless of schedule or personal situation.
It should not take national tragedies and manifestations of venomous behavior for us to appreciate our good fortune and cherish our family and friends. We have to learn how to better feel people’s pain and how to appreciate what we have while we have it. We must be thankful for what we are blessed with, not complaining about the minor bumps of life but taking advantage of what Hashem has granted us.
We have to remain focused on what is real and permanent. We have to stop acting selfishly and foolishly. We must recognize that our words and actions are on public display. There are no longer any secrets. Our inner dirty laundry is hanging publicly for all to examine and mock. We do not have the luxury of thinking that no one is watching or noticing our malfeasance. Sensitivity and intelligence would be prudent in times like these.
Our task in this world is to mekadeish sheim Shomayim and to make the world a better and safer place for children and everyone else. When we engage in any activity, or speech, we must ensure that it accomplishes one or both of those goals, if it doesn’t we should not be engaging in that action.
May Hashem open our eyes. May we see His revealed kindness and how the events unfolding around us are the final chapters in the story of the Jewish people, the last steps in our journey back to home.