By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
I had been planning this trip for a while and was looking forward to going to Yerushalayim for Shabbos. Then the predictions of the great blizzard set in. The flight was cancelled. I would have to forgo the opportunity.
Thankfully, a seat on an El Al flight was found and I was able to go.
I was very heartened to merit that which our grandparents could only hope for. I happily walked the streets of Yerushalayim without giving it a thought. We traveled to Naharia to Rav Dovid Abuchatzeira. As usual, he was cheerful and effusive. To speak to him is to behold the greatness of Sephardic Jewry. His quick, incisive responses and his care for every Jew are inspiring.
A scion of a historic family, his spiritual powers are legendary. His brachos have helped multitudes. You look at him and he smiles warmly, grasps your hand and befriends you, his holiness and brilliance enveloped in humility and warmth. Pesukim quickly flow off his lips, along with tefillos and advice. You leave there overwhelmed by the experience and wondering how he knew what he told you. You pray that his brachos and tefillos will be accepted on high.
People stream to him from around the world, and as he listens to their problems and concerns, he seeks to energize and reinvigorate them. In a large anteroom where people await their turn, gabboim provide barekes and coffee.
Baba David displays a special touch of care and concern for every person. Not only does he freely give of himself and his time to multitudes, but he cares enough about people to provide them with a drink and nourishment after they traveled all the way to the country’s northern border.
That same day, we visited Rav Yaakov Edelstein in Ramat Hasharon. The Lithuanian-born nonagenarian radiates a genuineness and greatness from past eras. With his Litvishe rabbonishe yarmulka perched atop his head, he speaks with softness and brilliance.
Recognized as a leading gadol baTorah, he lives off the beaten track in an Israeli city where he illuminates Torah to generations.
My son and I presented Rav Edelstein with our newly-published seforim. It was a special nachas to watch quietly as he intently perused a chapter in my son’s kuntress. With deep concentration, he held the works as he delivered brachos we will never forget.
This gadol has mastered Shas and poskim, nigleh and nistar, and is a lighthouse of chizuk and advice to other Yidden. The elderly gaon sat and reviewed the sefer with the interest of a proud grandfather. It was evident how precious every drop of Torah is to him.
Meeting people such as Rav Edelstein provides a boost in emunah. Here was a ninety-year-old man reading the chiddushei Torah of an American boy. A person who loves Torah and has spent his life studying it, never has enough of it.
In addition to the chronological sequence of Parshas Beshalach, which we lained last week, and this week’s parshas Yisro, there is a deeper connection between them.
The Gemara (Chullin 7a) states that Rav Pinchos ben Yoir merited splitting a sea. Certainly, one has to be on a lofty level to bring about such a miraculous occurrence, but if a Tanna could cause water to part, the Ohr Hachaim asks, why did the Yam Suf resist being split by Moshe Rabbeinu, as is recorded in the Medrash (Shemos Rabba 21, 6).
The Ohr Hachaim (Shemos 14, 27) explains that following the transmission of the Torah to the Bnei Yisroel, every individual possesses the ability to reach the loftiest levels. The reason that the splitting of the sea by Moshe Rabbeinu was such a great milestone, was because he split the Yam Suf before the Torah was given. It was thus much more difficult for man to rise to that level of greatness and achievement. However after kabolas haTorah a person who reaches the level of tzaddik can master over Creation.
Last week’s almost-blizzard brought to mind the story of the flood that threatened the city of Dvinsk. The Daugava River was flooding and the townspeople desperately turned to the respected rov, Rav Meir Simcha, and begged him to save the town and their possessions. Everyone watched as the gaon and kadosh walked to the seething sea and called out, “I command you to calm your waters.”
The waters refused to take heed. They continued to threaten the city.
Rav Meir Simcha then stepped closer and called out to the mighty river, “With the power of the Torah, I command you to desist.”
The bubbling waters immediately settled down. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and returned home.
This story is often retold. A few years ago, a leader of a weekly Avos Ubonim group in Ramat Beit Shemesh told this story to his group of fathers and sons. Upon hearing the story, one of the fathers jumped to his feet and called out, “My grandmother lived in Dvinsk and she told me this story. It is a true story. She was there. She was one of the people who assembled on the river bank. She saw it!”
Thus, Parshas Beshalach precedes Parshas Yisro. Moshe Rabbeinu split the Yam Suf in Beshalach, before the Torah was given, but now everyone can raise themselves to the level at which they can touch the extraordinary.
The posuk in Tehillim states, “Mikolos mayim rabbim adirim mishberei yom – Hashem’s strength is more than the roar of the waters and waves of the sea” (Tehillim 93:4). Rav Yecheskel Abramsky zt”l observed that many people derive inspiration from witnessing the grandeur of nature. The rushing waves and glorious waterfalls call out, “Adir bamarom Hashem – Hashem is powerful and majestic.” Dovid Hamelech declares, “Eidosecha ne’emnu me’od – For me, eidosecha, the Torah itself, is ne’emon meod, very trustworthy.” The Torah, says Dovid, can create the same reverence and awe. Mastering a shvere Rashba and a teirutz from Tosafos, he said, can accomplish for him what a splendid waterfall can do for someone else.
The miracles of Yetzias Mitzrayim gave way to a new era, as the Torah itself – the ultimate neis – became our treasured possession. In this week’s parsha, we become a people carrying the potential to impact the whole world.
In our day and age, we can tap into the power of Torah and experience our own sense of its wondrous properties. The simplest and most direct way is to sit by a Gemara and plumb its depths. After learning well, one feels a special sense of accomplishment, marvel and joy. Torah is meshivas nofesh, as the posuk says. It imbues one who learns it with desire and energy to continue.
While we all have the ability and potential to attain greatness, oftentimes we get bogged down with the vagaries of life and get detoured from our mission. We forget how great we can be. We lose sight of our goals. Our aim is off. We look around but are lost and can’t find our way back home.
We then sense the power of Torah by spending time in proximity to those who have touched eternity and reached great heights through lives of toil in the tent of Torah.
Those who follow the election season in Israel and get their information from the general media can be led to believe that roshei yeshiva and rabbonim spend their time planning election strategy and attending rallies. When you view these giants from up close, you see how far that misconception is from the truth.
I was at the Kosel one night and saw an older Sephardic man with a white beard and rabbinic hat walking towards the Kosel. I had never seen him before and there was no entourage surrounding him. There was no commotion that you would expect around a major leader. But there was something about his face and his look. I thought I recognized him from the many pictures I had seen, but how could that be him? I took a chance and stretched out my hand. “Shalom aleichem, kevod harav,” I said.
He didn’t know me and I didn’t know him, but from the way he smiled back at me, I sensed greatness. He loves Jews. He was happy to meet a new face. I knew it was him.
He was Rav Shimon Ba’adani, a member of the Moetzet Chachmei HaTorah of Shas and a leader of Sephardi Jewry. I watched as he sat down on a chair in the corner and lost himself in a Tehillim.
I was told that Rav Chaim Kanievsky enjoys seeing new seforim, so I went to bring him my sefer Peninei Chein. I was accompanied by my son, Yishai, who brought a kuntress of chiddushim that he recently published. When Rav Chaim was presented with the new seforim, his face lit up. He smiled, overcome with joy.
Rav Chaim was so happy to see a new sefer, joyful that people still work to uncover and share chiddushei Torah. His happiness was living proof to the reality expressed by the Medrash that compares Klal Yisroel to fish in the sea. When rain falls, fish rise in order to grasp an extra drop of water. Even though they are surrounded by water, when given the opportunity for an extra drop, they jump for it.
Rav Chaim’s life and entire being is Torah. He finishes kol haTorah kulah every year. Ask him a question on any topic and be awed by his encyclopedic knowledge and brilliance. Still, despite his Talmudic scholarship, American guests bearing new seforim are welcomed with joy. They bring gifts of Torah.
I told my friend, Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin, about the kabbolas ponim we received. He responded that there are prominent askonim who frequent Rav Chaim’s home, and each time they visit, he asks them their name. He simply doesn’t remember. Yet, a humble mechaber who authors a work of Torah is received like a dignitary.
Several years ago, word spread about a fellow who posed a strange question to Rav Chaim. He had wanted to test the veracity of the aforementioned Medrash, so he conducted an experiment in his own living room aquarium. He sprinkled water into the tank, but the fish didn’t jump. They continued swimming in their familiar repetitive paths.
Rav Chaim answered that fish in an aquarium have kleine mussagim, small aspirations. They don’t know enough to realize how vast the sea is and the value of water. They don’t see past their tiny enclosure. Fish in the sea that swim about and are surrounded by the vastness of an ocean appreciate the greatness of water and take advantage of every opportunity. The Medrash refers to them.
Rav Chaim lives in the ocean of Torah. Watching him, being in his presence and speaking to him enables one to appreciate and behold the greatness that man can attain.
We knocked on the door of Rav Berel Povarsky, rosh yeshiva of Ponovezh Yeshiva. He was sitting at his dining room table. Everywhere we looked, all we saw were bookcases full of seforim. Rav Povarsky lives in a sparsely furnished yeshiva apartment. His life is occupied by Torah. Ever since he was a young man, he has been conversant in Shas. His life is his seforim, his shiurim, and his Torah.
Eretz Yisroel is a place of groiseh mussagim, great people who inspire within us a desire for greater achievements. They show us through their own accomplishments what we can aim for and attain with proper dedication. They live simply and frugally, and have minimal physical possessions.
In the homes we visited, we could sense what our nation experienced at Har Sinai. We beheld the splendor and beauty of creation. Eidosecha ne’emnu me’od.
We aren’t naïve enough to ignore that there is much that needs improvement. We saw the dichotomy of negativity and positivity wherever we went. There were things to celebrate and things that required a second look in order to gain a positive approach. And there were matters that obviously need to be tended to.
But the positive has to outweigh the negative. It is there if you look for it. Any doubting heart can be melted by standing at Toldos Aharon as young children are dismissed from cheder for Shabbos. The most beautiful children on earth smile and sing as they scatter in different directions towards their homes. Inside the Toldos Aharon bais medrash there is a bris, as another child is welcomed into Klal Yisroel. The rebbe is the mohel and sandek. The grandfather brings in the baby, the father recites the brachos, and you have a feeling that this boy will be another successful link dressed in the golden kaftan.
If you want to see the effects of Torah and proof of its transformative power, spend time with those whose lives were altered by contact with its truth. I joined a Shabbos reunion for talmidim who attend various yeshivos in Eretz Yisroel, but are all bound by a common thread. They were born into irreligious homes, unaware of their own Yiddishkeit and what it means for most of their lives. Through Oorah, they discovered Torah living. Thanks to its programs and innovations, they discovered what it means to be happy and fulfilled. Today, they are on their way to becoming genuine bnei Torah.
The Shabbos meal for these students was held in the new hall of Khal Chassidim, the storied shul in the Shaarei Chesed neighborhood, whose streets were walked by the likes of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l and Rav Shalom Shwadron zt”l. To walk on those streets is to feel their presence along with that of the holy and humble giants who lived in that neighborhood and spent their lives in the two adjacent shuls: Khal Chassidim and Bais Knesses HaGra. Maggidus is in the air. Gadlus and pashtus can be felt as well.
Khal Chassidim has undergone a tremendous transformation and renovation. The Gra shul is the same humble shul it has been for the past many decades, standing as a throwback to an earlier, simpler time.
After seeing the gentrification everywhere, I checked on the home of my old friend, Rav Friedman, who told me many years ago that he would never sell his house. He didn’t care how much the land was worth. He would take a humble stand for the neighborhood’s old way of life. Not having been to Shaarei Chesed in a while and wondering about him, I was relieved to see that amid the multi-million dollar buildings on Rechov HaShelah, Rav Friedman’s old bungalow stands humble and proud.
During the Friday night meal, a tall young man delivered a droshah. He looked and spoke like a real yeshiva bochur. Two years ago, he wasn’t frum. He related a vort from the Kli Yokor with the passion and heart of a seasoned maggid. Hearing him and seeing others just like him served as a heartening reminder that the eternal voice of Torah resonates now as it has throughout the ages. It is not the same voice as Rav Shwadron’s, but it beholds the majesty and eternity of Torah. A young man can come out of the Oorah’s TheZone and inspire souls, young and old, in Shaarei Chesed. Is Torah not eternal?
At a question-and-answer session with the spiritual father of Oorah, Rav Chaim Mintz, someone asked him about the propriety of watching the Super Bowl. Rav Mintz looked around the room and, with a quiet, proud, modest smile, said, “In this room, right here, is the Super Bowl.”
Rav Mintz wasn’t offering a sound-bite. He was stating a fundamental truth: What drives the football game, what makes it into an event is the hype. In the room in which we sat, filled with young men who forsook so much to persevere, to toil and to immerse themselves in a life of Torah, there was energy and excitement. There is no need for hype. There is no bluster. There is sheer joy and fulfillment.
All who participate are winners. The only losers are those who don’t take part. Those who don’t have the courage to dream and grasp the opportunity are locked in a world of struggle and emptiness. Those who have taken the Oorah challenge are today growing and advancing in a joyful life.
And then it was over. After Shabbos, I checked the news as I began to prepare this week’s paper from afar. I saw that snow was predicted for Sunday night into Monday, when I had planned to fly. Sadly, I recognized, I would have to leave Eretz Yisroel a day early. I was both sad and happy at the same time. I was sad that my trip was coming to an early close and I’d have to forgo everything that I planned to do on Sunday, yet I was happy that I was able to visit Eretz Hakodesh and that I was able to experience what I did.
There I was, once again, in the land Hashem gave to our forefathers. My heart beat differently in that country. There was an extra bounce in my step.
Is everything perfect in the Holy Land? No. Sadly, we are very far from that. There are way too many problems there, in our world and in the general world. There are financial and spiritual challenges, there is machlokes, and security is a never-ending concern. But look at the flip-side and you’ll see unprecedented amounts of Torah, chesed and kiruv levavos. You’ll see the pursuit of greatness.
In a drosha for Tu B’Shvat, the Gerrer rebbe, Rav Pinchos Menachem Alter, once quoted his grandfather the Chidushei Harim that every Jew possesses deep down a degree of chein which can never be removed. The deep roots of the Jew continue to sustain him, even though they may be deeply buried, as those of a tree. To the degree that one appreciates those roots and the nutrition and sustenance they provide him with, he is enabled him to grow tall and bear beautiful, succulent fruit.
After spending three days in Eretz Yisroel, I returned on a high. There is energy and a power of invigoration in that country that leave no one unaffected. May we all merit to feel that spirit and be motivated to realize great accomplishments.