By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Count yourself among the majority if you had never heard of Poway, California, before Yom Tov.
That spot of a town twenty-five miles from San Diego will be anonymous no more in the Jewish world. Everyone will remember it as the site of a senseless killing of a Jewish woman because she was a Jew.
The name of the sparkling California city in the greatest democracy the world has known joined the long infamous list of cities where anti-Semitism has led to murder. This most recent heinous act took place on a Shabbos, on Shemini Shel Pesach, the final day of the holiday of freedom and cheirus.
Wherever we have been, we haven’t been able to completely celebrate our holidays. We have always had to look over our shoulders. No day of the calendar is immune from the vestige of the irrational hatred that has accompanied our people. Our pursuers have found us during the narrow straits of the Nine Days and the wide berths of chagim and zemanim lesasson.
The monster’s family said, “Our sadness pales in comparison to the grief and anguish our son has caused for so many innocent people. He has killed and injured the faithful who were gathered in a sacred place on a sacred day. To our great shame, he is now part of the history of evil that has been perpetrated on Jewish people for centuries.”
The family said that they did not know what had motivated their son. “How our son was attracted to such darkness is a terrifying mystery to us. Like our other five children, he was raised in a family, a faith and a community that all rejected hate and taught that love must be the motive for everything we do.”
What do they want from us? What can we do about it?
We walk in the street and those eyes follow us. We fly on an airplane and those same eyes of hate are on us. We can’t get rid of them. We go to a park and those same eyes are there. Even in a place of justice, we can’t take anything for granted. If looks could kill, there wouldn’t be many places we could go freely.
We wonder why. We see the world turning against us, as it hasn’t since the Holocaust, and we wonder why. We see the Democrat Party in this country swing against the Jews. The American president is the friendliest ever towards Jews and Israel, yet it is glossed over and haters see him as a hater of all people. We see media stalwarts engage in anti-Jewish demagoguery and can’t figure out why.
Why the hatred? Why the canards? Why the lies? Why is Judaism blamed for the sorry lives of losers? How is it that the stereotypes are being strengthened and resurrected instead of going the way of archaic philosophies, capricious and implausible, in the dustbin of illiteracy and irrational absurdism?
Lives converged. Jews went to a synagogue on a holy day to celebrate life. A sick Nazi headed to the same location to celebrate and cause death. An ancient people seeking malice toward none and goodness for all is mocked, vilified, hated and hunted down thanks to the world’s stupidest and oldest conspiracies.
The murderer shot at the rabbi, and a woman jumped in between them, sparing the rabbi’s life and offering up her own in an eternal act of kiddush Hashem reminiscent of so many throughout history. Yizkor Elokim nishmasah v’es nishmoseihem.
The G-d who created heaven and earth and chose the Jews for Himself caused the murderer’s gun to jam. The children were spared. The adults were able to live. A tragedy was generously minimized.
Jewish blood sullied another Pesach, just as the pogroms of old and blood libels that spread far and wide.
Thankfully, in our day, the butcher went down and the good people were permitted another day, another Shabbos, and the ability to live on in the shadow of Hashem.
We promise to never give up and never get down. We proclaim, “Yisgadeil veyiskadeish Shemei rabbah. I have to work to make this world a better place.”
Our obligation is to be like Hashem, fine and compassionate. Never lose sight of the traditions of kindness and compassion passed down by our forefathers. Never stray too far from the path of light into the swamp of darkness. Be kind. Be good.
In this time, we mourn the loss of Rabi Akiva’s 24,000 talmidim. We emulate their accomplishments and we seek to fill the void created by their absence. Rav Elchonon Wasserman taught (Kovetz Maamarim Ve’igros) that a person who is pretentious and egotistical cannot be successful in a leadership position. An effective leader can communicate with people because he relates to them, feels their pain, and does not consider himself on a higher level than others.
If you rid your soul of sinas chinom, then you will behave with mentchlichkeit and treat people properly. If you are practiced in ahavas Yisroel, people will respect you and listen to you. You will be able to help them improve their shemiras hamitzvos, Torah learning, understanding of life, and acceptance of what Hashem gives them.
Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, as rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Eitz Chaim in Yerushalayim, would test the students in the school’s younger grades. He once asked a young boy a question pertaining to the understanding of a Gemara. The boy gave the wrong answer.
Rav Isser Zalman said to him, “I’m sure this is what you meant to say,” and provided the correct answer. He sought to prevent the boy’s embarrassment from messing up so egregiously in front of the rosh yeshiva.
The student, however, was adamant. “No, that is not what I meant,” he said. He then proceeded to repeat the mistaken answer. Patiently, the rosh yeshiva tried again, “Yes, you’re right, because this is what you wanted to say,” and he rephrased the correct answer. The boy wouldn’t hear of it. “The rosh yeshiva doesn’t understand what I am saying,” he complained. He again offered the incorrect answer.
As boys began to giggle, Rav Isser Zalman rose from his seat and excused himself. “I have to tend to something for a couple of minutes and will quickly return,” he said.
The class rebbi opened the door to peek down the hall. There was the senior gadol hador with his eyes closed, talking to himself. He was repeating, “The obligation to respect everyone includes children,” over and over again.
After a few moments, Rav Isser Zalman returned to the classroom. He sat down with a huge smile on his face and began to painstakingly explain the Gemara until even that one boy understood it perfectly and was able to provide the correct answer to the question that was posed.
The greatest teacher is not the one who knows the most, and the greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one who motivates people to accomplish the greatest things. The greatest teacher is the one who understands his students and is able to reach them. The greatest teacher is the one who loves his students.
You can convince people to perform positive acts by appealing to their hopes or by playing to their fears. The one who excels makes sure to speak to people’s confidence and not to their doubts, with facts and not with fantasy. People respond much better and are more likely to rise to the challenge when they are treated with dignity.
For leaders and teachers, as well as parents and friends, communication is a lot more than words. What matters is not necessarily what we say, but how we say it. We can inspire and motivate when we communicate with love and care. By taking seriously the commandment of “ve’ohavta lerei’acha kamocha,” our children, students, friends and acquaintances will understand that they are admired and loved by people who have confidence in their abilities.
Others might be superior to us in intelligence, experience and diplomatic skills, but if we pay attention and exercise care when speaking to people, we can accomplish so much more. We must have passion in what we do. And we have to let it show. We can all help other people and remind them of their inherent greatness. We have to be optimistic about life and about our own abilities, and we have to convey that to others.
Everyone has the ability to affect the world. If we would maximize our abilities to study Torah as well as we can; if we would utilize the strength that Hashem gave us to build instead of destroy, to be optimistic instead of pessimistic; if we would use the brachos that Hashem blessed us with to benefit others, we could change the world.
Sefirah is a time for us to dedicate ourselves to perfecting those abilities so that we can grow in the study and the teaching of Torah.
When the Tzemach Tzedek was a young married man, he was in the home of his grandfather, the Baal Hatanya, with his family. While he was learning, a baby began to cry. He was so deep in concentration that he did not hear the child, and he continued his studying, oblivious to increasingly louder screams.
The Alter Rebbe was upstairs in his study when he heard the baby’s cries. He went downstairs, lifted the baby from his carriage, and handed the child to his grandson. The Tzemach Tzedek apologized for not hearing the baby. “I am sorry,” he said. “I was concentrating so deeply that I didn’t hear anything.”
“Yes, my dear grandson,” the rebbe responded. “I was also studying and was just as areingeton as you were, but I heard. Remember what I am about to tell you: Any Jew, no matter his level, must hear the cries of another Jew, regardless of how small he might be, and he must interrupt what he is doing to help the one who is crying.”
Let us be attuned to the sounds around us. Let us hear the cries and seek to help, comfort and soothe others. Let us see their smiles and join in celebrating with them.
Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein of Poway cannot point now, but he can pray and sing, inspire and lead, and so can we.
After the attack the rabbi wrote, “I remember shouting the words ‘Am Yisroel Chai! The people of Israel live!’ I have said that line hundreds of times in my life. But I have never felt the truth of it more than I did then.”
He said, “I believe everything happens for a reason. I do not know why G-d spared my life. I do not know why I had to witness scenes of a pogrom in San Diego County like the ones my grandparents experienced in Poland. I don’t know why a part of my body was taken away from me. I don’t know why I had to see my good friend, a woman who embodied the Jewish value of chesed, hunted in her house of worship… I do not know G-d’s plan. All I can do is try to… use this borrowed time to make my life matter more.”
And that is what we must do as well.
We must use every day like it is our last.
And we must make the most of every moment, treating it like the treasure it is.
“I pray that my missing finger serves as a constant reminder to me… that I am part of a people that has survived the worst destruction and will always endure; a reminder that my ancestors gave their lives so that I can live… and a reminder, to not ever be afraid to be Jewish.”
We must never be afraid, because the greatest Protector of all is our Guardian, today and for all time.
May we merit the geulah sheleimah, quickly and soon in our day.