By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Some years ago, I was in a small, idyllic, mountain town often favorably compared to the famous Swiss towns. While visiting there, I met a young man from Switzerland. I asked him for his opinion as to how the area compared to his native land.
“It’s very hard for me to answer the question,” he responded, “but I would have to say that it is nicer here. You see, in Switzerland, you are in the Alps, so you don’t really appreciate the splendor. Here, you are in a valley surrounded by the mountain ranges. As you look up and around, you are surrounded by the mountains and are better able to appreciate their beauty.”
This, in fact, is a metaphor for so much in our lives. Too often, we don’t appreciate what we have, because we are so close to it. Because we are involved in it, we don’t value the experience. It takes stepping back and viewing something from the outside to have the proper respect for it.
In most of our lives, despite the setbacks, there is more happiness than sadness, more gain than pain, and more to be thankful for than to be upset about. But too often, we don’t step back to take a look at the entire scene. We are thus unable to properly recognize our own situations.
Along the mountains, streams flow with the crystal clear run-off of the melting snow of the ranges. The splendor of Hashem’s majesty is reflected in those calm waters. In fact, it is only in calm waters that you can see reflections. Waters that move rapidly and churn about bear no reflections. In order to appreciate the goodness we are blessed with, we need to reflect with quiet patience upon the world and our gifts.
The Yom Tov of Pesach presented us with just such an opportunity. We experienced a break in the rush and flow of our harried lives. Instead of the plethora of mundane activities that occupy a regular day, we were busy with mitzvos and simcha. On Yom Tov, there are no carpools, no bills to pay, no silly obligations to fulfill. We daven, thanking Hashem for His goodness and kindness towards us, and then we return home to be surrounded by family and friends in effusive joy.
We spent eight days subsisting on matzoh, surrounded and affected by kedushah. We refrained from unnecessary work and pressure.
And then we turned around and it was over. After all the preparation and all the efforts we devoted toward making those days yemei cheirus, we suddenly found ourselves back in the world of avdus.
But perhaps, while we were engrossed in the yemei kedushah, we failed to appreciate their beauty. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we can look back at those rejuvenating days and their restorative qualities. Remembering them and their experiences will help inspire and strengthen us to be able to surmount the challenges we face.
On Pesach, we had ample opportunity to appreciate the glory and splendor of a Yid – what it means to be part of the am hanivchar, a nation taken from the depths of impurity only because of Hashem’s love. The message is one that should inspire us to new heights in ahavas Yisroel, the perfect introduction to the weeks of Sefiras Ha’omer, a time when we work to cleanse and purify our middos. The parshiyos that we lain this Shabbos teach us about the dangers of lashon hara, the negative effects of uncharitable speech.
There is a well-known story about the Ponovezher Rov that transpired while he was in an American hospital undergoing medical treatment. While there, he met an irreligious doctor who had studied in the yeshivos of Lita in his youth.
The Rov engaged the doctor in conversation and learned that the man had no connection to Yiddishkeit. “The only reason that I don’t convert and go to church,” the doctor told him, “is because the kapote (long coat) of the Chofetz Chaim doesn’t allow me to.”
The Rov, himself a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim, looked at the man with curiosity, wondering what he meant. The old doctor explained that when he was a child, his parents had sent him to learn in the yeshiva of Radin.
When he arrived, he joined the line of new bochurim at the humble home of the Chofetz Chaim, waiting to introduce himself and receive instructions as to where he would be lodging. His journey had been lengthy and exhausting. As he sat waiting for his turn to meet the sage, he was overcome by fatigue and fell asleep.
He barely felt hands lifting him and carrying him to a bed, but when he awoke late that night, he realized that the host himself, the great tzaddik, had carried him to a bed and covered him with his kapote. The Chofetz Chaim was sitting and learning nearby in his shirtsleeves.
The compassion and simplicity of the Chofetz Chaim affected him profoundly. After the many decades, tribulations and a change of continents, a warm glow remained from that evening, preventing him from leaving Judaism completely.
Rav Mordechai Weinberg, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Gedolah of Montreal, suggested a possible understanding of the story. He said that from the fact that there are three different types of nega’im that come for speaking lashon hara – namely, blemishes on homes, clothing and people – we see the seriousness of the sin of lashon hara. The sin has the power to affect not only the person who speaks ill of others, but also his home and possessions. The rosh yeshiva pointed out that the rule is that “middah tovah merubah mimiddas puraniyos,” a positive force is always stronger than a negative one. Thus, it stands to reason that since speaking lashon hara negatively impacts clothing, exercising care when speaking should have a positive effect on the speaker’s clothing. It is no wonder, concluded the rosh yeshiva, that the Chofetz Chaim‘s jacket had the ability to affect others. It was worn by a person who epitomized proper speech.
Sometimes, we hear words and we cry from emotion or we laugh from joy. Words can uplift and inform us, expanding our horizons. And sometimes, words can be poorly chosen, and even false, painting an inaccurate picture and leading to mistaken conclusions. We must always endeavor to be careful about what we say, for our words have ramifications and influence others.
We feel the impact of words in our world, as demagogues churn out one lie after another to insulate themselves, to shift responsibility for their ill-conceived actions, and to promote their agendas. For four years, former President George W. Bush was blamed for the lingering economic recession. Now, the chronic unemployment is being blamed by media types and the administration in the White House on the sequester brought on by the Republicans.
Facts seem to matter very little. Never mind that the sequester was Obama’s idea to begin with or that it is impossible to assume that jobs were not created during the month of March because of the budgetary act that had just gone into effect. Besides, all it did was cut a miniscule amount of government spending out of the budget – nowhere near enough to have such an exaggerated impact. But all this is ignored by the administration and the opinion-shapers in the media. All people are told is that Republicans are evil, the sequester is evil, and the economy is in shambles because of the Republicans and the sequester.
This pattern is repeated with regularity on a variety of issues. The politically correct are able to successfully advance their agenda by repeating the same canard until it becomes accepted by a majority of the country.
The recent elections in Israel provided a vivid demonstration of how this works; as parties led by demagogic public relations geniuses successfully demonized the chareidi community. They built their campaigns on clever, though false, slogans, and achieved unprecedented success. Today, our Israeli brethren are paying the price.
The power of unchallenged lies is that they not only thrive, but multiply. Sharp, malicious words spoken well enough, and repeated often enough, creep into our souls and thinking process and create a coldness and intrinsic disrespect for halacha, minhag and mesorah.
The same concept applies to the way metzitzah b’peh has become a rallying cry in this country. Since the New York departments of health decided several years ago to campaign to have the procedure banned, they have been engaging in an all-out propaganda war to paint the constitutionally protected religious practice as being something deadly and archaic, practiced by a backward fringe group more intent on preserving ancient rites than caring for human life.
It began with a lie that a certain Monsey mohel was killing children and morphed into a full-blown attack. Neither Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has led the fight, nor any of the health professionals who have carried his water have been able to scientifically cite conclusively that even one child has died as a result of metzitzah b’peh, but that has not stopped them from aggressively promoting the agenda through the court of public opinion and the court of law, while seeking to enact legislation, as if metzitzah b’peh is a proven deadly practice.
Cleverly employing a mixture of pseudo-science, a feigned concern for human life, and denigration of time-honored religious practices and those who follow them, they remain undeterred by the truth. Though disputed by infectious diseases experts, epidemiologists and statistics, as time goes on, regrettably, more and more people buy into the lie and it gains traction even among those in our community who ought to know better.
Recently, a noted Orthodox leader spoke out regarding the supposed danger of metzitzah b’peh:
“In Columbia Presbyterian [hospital in New York City]… approximately three babies every year suffer from herpes. And it’s clear… that these children are from chassidishe families. And its klor vi di tog they come in a week after the bris. It’s clear that [they are suffering of herpes] because of metzitzah b’peh…
“There are five major hospitals in New York, and each hospital has the same report. There are frumme doctors in all the hospitals. All the hospitals, they’re afraid to say anything out loud or the frumme, chassidish clients won’t come to them, but, lemaaseh, fifteen Jewish babies are dying each year in New York because of this metzitzah b’peh…
“… it’s a sakanah. Fifteen babies a year in the New York area clearly die from this, from this chumrah they have. I think it’s a terrible thing.”
This person bought into it, too, after hearing the lies for so long. The questions are obvious. Are we to believe that the five major hospitals independently decided to “keep quiet” about this danger since it could be bad for business if it became publicized? Are we to accept that internationally recognized medical professionals and advocates knowingly stand by and do nothing as frum babies die because they are afraid of angering the chassidishe community even at the cost of human life? In the era of Obamacare and malpractice suits which are driving hospitals into bankruptcy, are we to believe that five major hospitals are aware of fifteen annual deaths attributed to a certain practice, yet they conspire to remain silent lest they lose a few customers?
And if it is true, why doesn’t this rabbi and his students and colleagues bang down the doors of the hospitals, the mayor, the medical authorities, and the rabbinic leaders who promote this procedure and do all they can to put a stop to it?
The whole thing is bizarre.
But it all doesn’t make a difference, because the tale of the dangers of metzitzah b’peh has been publicized so well and so often that the speaker accepts it and nobody goes on the record disputing what he says, allowing the wound to fester and spread even more.
The liberal agenda of allowing millions of people who are in this country illegally to be granted amnesty and be permitted to vote in elections, because polls show that they overwhelmingly favor the Democrat party, is another case in point. The Associated Press has now decided that it will no longer use the term “illegal immigrant,” as a bi-partisan group of senators negotiates an immigration bill, because the Republicans accept the narrative that they will never win another national election if they aren’t more compassionate to the illegal entrants to the country.
Raising taxes on successful people is another such agenda that gains credibility with every passing day, although previously it was known that you don’t raise taxes in a recession and certainly not on those who provide the engine for economic growth through their spending. Until recently, it was believed that the more money the private sector retains, the more its members are able to spend, keeping the economy alive and factories humming. But now, thanks to the words of an affective communicator and a brilliant campaign against a rich entrepreneur, those orthodox theories are no longer in vogue, as Republicans are blasted for not allowing the president to continue to raise taxes on the rich to pay for handouts to the not-so-rich.
The Chofetz Chaim was the master of pure speech, teaching generations to remain silent even when the urge to speak is powerful. Yet, the same Chofetz Chaim was the quintessential ish devorim, speaking and writing prolifically, meeting with individuals and groups, and being involved in so many communal issues. His aversion to lashon hara wasn’t because he didn’t appreciate the role of dibbur, but davka because he did appreciate it, perceiving the power and potency of every word and phrase. Speech is a tool that must be cherished, a force that should be unleashed only in a positive fashion.
The Ramban in Parshas Tazria (13:47), which the annotator of the popular Mosad Harav Kook edition compares to the beautiful words of the Kuzari, explains that nega’im come about when a person separates himself from Hashem. As long as there is a connection to the Divine, his clothes are clean, his house is in good shape, and his skin shines brightly, keYad Hashem hatovah olov. But when a person sins and loses that perfect connection to Hashem, he begins showing blemishes. He must repent and reestablish the relationship, leading to a recovery in his appearance and in that of his clothes and home.
In order to achieve the connection with Hashem, the metzorah must bring korbanos comprised of birds, cedar wood, a red thread and grass. Rashi (ibid. 14:4) explains that the metzorah‘s affliction was brought on by his haughtiness, so “the way for him to redeem himself and be cured [is by] lowering himself from his haughtiness and [stoop as low as] a string and a blade of grass.”
The Sefas Emes explains that if the path to redemption is achieved by the sinner simply lowering himself from his conceited thoughts, every person will sin and then find humility and be forgiven for his sin. This is impossible, he says, because a sinner is so arrogant and conceited that he is unable to be humble. Thus, it is only after repenting and doing a complete teshuvah that a metzorah is able to learn the lesson and compare himself to a blade of grass. Someone who does so has undergone the proper teshuvah process and is no doubt forgiven for his sin of speaking ill of his fellow.
Anovah, humility, encompasses all the positive traits of a baal middos. It is the epitome of what a Torah observer, and a person undergoing teshuva aspires to. A Ben Torah recognizes that all he has is from Hashem and that on his own he is nothing. One who is consumed with ga’avah by definition negates Hashem’s role in his life.
The Chazon Ish would take a daily walk down his sparsely populated street. As more people moved in, the township erected a streetlight to provide lumination for those walking on the street. As he walked on the newly brightened route, the Chazon Ish commented, that the greater the distance from the light, the larger the size of his shadow. So, it is with Torah and Hashem, he said. The further a man is from his source, the greater he thinks he is.
Not just anovah, but all middos of appropriate ethical behavior, are a precondition for proper Torah observance and study. In fact, Rav Chaim Vital says that the Torah never explicitly instructs us regarding proper middos, because they are the prerequisite for connecting with Torah and their observance is obvious, as all of Torah is predicated upon them. Before we can accept the yoke of Torah observance, we are expected to develop good middos. During the weeks of Sefirah which lead from Pesach to Shavuos, we endeavor to develop and cultivate good middos.
As we march towards Kabbolas HaTorah, ready to accept our mantle as a mamleches kohanim vegoy kadosh, we contemplate our mandate. With pure hearts and clean mouths; empowered by the mesorah; reinforced with emunah, bitachon and the koach haTorah; and infused with the middos that make us worthy links in the golden chain, we progress on our daily advance towards the Yom Tov of Shavuos.