By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
This Shabbos is referred to as Shabbos Hachodesh, the last of the four Shabbosos of special Torah readings leading up to the Yom Tov of Pesach. The Sefas Emes explains that Chodesh Nissan is the first of the months, because it was in this month during Yetzias Mitzrayim that Hashem unveiled the hanhogah of revelation.
He cites the Medrash (Shemos Rabbah 15:13), which compares the posuk of “Bi melochim yimlochu” (Mishlei 8:15) with the posuk of “Hachodesh hazeh lochem” (Shemos 12:2), which we read this Shabbos. He explains that the word “bi,” comprised of the letters bais and yud, has a numerical value of twelve, corresponding to the twelve months of the year. Every month opens the gate to a distinct light of Hashem, which corresponds to a different form of hanhogah. Nissan was when the hanhogah of hisgalus was revealed.
In fact, in many siddurim, before Mussaf of Rosh Chodesh, there is a list of the twelve Hebrew months with a corresponding tzeiruf, or arrangement, of the four letters of the Sheim Havayah, the Holy Name of Hashem. Each arrangement is based on a posuk in Tanach.
The Arizal taught that when the acronym of the posuk forms the letters of the Sheim Havayah in their natural order of Yud and Hey and Vov and Hey, the Sheim Hashem shines the brightest. The month in which the Sheim is in order is Chodesh Nissan. The order is based on the posuk of “Yismechu Hashomayim Vesogel Ha’aretz (Tehillim 96:11).
The power and potency of Hashem’s name is revealed in this posuk. It refers to the fact that He maintains and sustains all the world, as everything exists only by His word. The beings that exist in the Heavens are always aware of this reality, because they are steadily exposed to Hashem’s glory. Therefore, Yismechu Hashomayim, in Heaven they are always joyful. However, here, ba’aretz, Hashem’s glory is often concealed and there are barriers that prevent us from seeing things the way they are seen in Heaven.
In the month of Nissan, however, Hashem burst forth openly into the lower worlds, revealing His presence and strength in Mitzrayim, beyod chazokah uvizroa netuya.
At that time, all of creation rejoiced in this revelation on earth and in heaven, which is the meaning of the posuk of “Yismechu Hashomayim Vesogel Ha’aretz.
Each year, during Nissan, that energy once again fills the world, providing us with a chance to perceive the revealed presence of Hashem in the lower spheres. Pesach, the Yom Tov of emunah, gives us the opportunity to fill our hearts – and the hearts of our children – with this awareness.
Every Yid was created with a purpose: to bring Hashem’s glory into this world. Shehakol bara lichvodo. We were all created to bring honor to Hashem.
We have many opportunities to be mekadeish sheim Shomayim. The gedolei Yisroel who urged bnei Torah to participate in the Israeli elections saw the process of a mandate to bring kavod Shomayim into the world. By doing our part to ensure that there is adequate and effective representation of yeshivos, kollelim, mosdos of chessed and tzedakah, families and individuals, we use our voting power to create a kiddush Hashem.
Talmidim retell how one year, on election day in Eretz Yisroel, Rebbetzin Shmulevitz awoke at 5:45 a.m. to see her husband, Rav Chaim, already wearing his coat, pacing up and down.
“Chaim’ke,” she said gently, “where are you running?”
“I’m going to daven,” Rav Chaim said, “and then I must vote early before I return home.”
“You’re in such a rush that you’re forgetting how early it is,” the Rebbetzin pointed out. “You’ll finish davening and the polls still won’t be open.”
The Mirrer rosh yeshiva, who famously learned through the night and dedicated his life to ameilus baTorah, saw this as a cherished opportunity, a chance to bring a bit more kavod Shomayim into the world.
This week, our brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisroel seized this mitzvah to follow the call of the gedolim and vote. They heard Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman’s call at last week’s rally in Bnei Brak, “Every person has the chance to make a kiddush Hashem,” and they responded with renewed vigor and drive. All the speakers at that rally and all those who pushed for frum Yidden to vote stressed the obligation to create a kiddush Hashem.
Jews the world over, fretted over this week’s elections in Eretz Yisroel. People were concerned about which direction the new government will take and who will lead it. Terrible fissures have appeared in the religious community, and we wish they could be quickly repaired without causing further damage.
Fixed on our mandate to bring about kavod Shomayim, we panic at the thought of creating a chillul Hashem.
One day, Maran Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l entered the office of Ponovezh Yeshiva and saw the secretary engaged in a conversation with a telephone company representative. The fellow had come to upgrade the public telephones and noticed that, over the years, many phone calls had been made without having been paid for. The users of the telephone had apparently figured out a way to avoid depositing the required asimon for the call to go through.
The rosh yeshiva began to rummage through his pockets, pulling out bills. “Take! Take!” he pleaded. “A yeshiva is a place of kiddush Hashem, not, chas veshalom, chillul Hashem. Please take the money.”
He didn’t launch a commission to investigate who’d been misusing the phone. He didn’t say this isn’t my business, why am I mixing in to someone else’s conversation. The first thing he did was create a kiddush Hashem by erasing the chillul Hashem as best as he could.
The new government in Eretz Yisroel faces age-old problems, but some of the familiar storylines have developed new twists.
Iran, with the acquiescence of the Western world, is marching forward to attaining a nuclear weapon. Israel’s very existence is threatened. Its prime minister, blessed with the gift of oratory, has been warning of the dangers that Iranian possession of the bomb could present. He is mostly ignored by the people in power. While we have serious disagreements with him, and he has shown himself unable to maintain long-term relationships with our community and with many other political allies, he is an effective governmental leader, an intelligent analyst, and a student of history. The possibility of him being replaced by so-called “pragmatic” leftists kept right-wingers up at night.
We watch from afar with fear and dread. We wonder what it’s all about and why this is happening. The truth is that we don’t know. There are many things that take place in the world that we must accept without understanding.
At the same time, we must recognize that nothing is happenstance, and while the ways of Hashem are mysterious, he is a Keil Rachum Vechanun. We should increase our reliance on Him, thus bringing about a bit more “Vesogel Ha’aretz,” connecting earth to heaven.
Perhaps the successes of previous Likud-led governments by Netanyahu and others left us apathetic, thinking that the age-old battle between Zionists, religious and secular, and the chareidi community was a thing of the past. Maybe we bought into the narrative that times were different and we weren’t as saddened by golus as we should have been. Hashem turned the whole country on its head, and the very people in whom we had placed false hope turned on us, robbing us of money, jobs and bread. Perhaps this whole mess occurred to remind us that ein lonu lehishoein ela al Avinu Shebashomayim.
We must remember that our fate is in the Hands of Hashem and we must work harder to demonstrate that we are worthy of His protection.
Several people have mentioned to me about private nissim that occurred to them on Purim. While snow was falling on us in the Northern United States, the sun was shining on our brethren around the world. Divine assistance was there, helping people who were struggling with various maladies, as well as legal and financial issues.
Just as gedolei Yisroel urged participation in the elections, convinced that every person might be the one to make a difference, we have seen this truth in all realms. Individuals have been able to positively shape our future.
Some of their victories aren’t on the public record, but some are. Few noticed the awesome political and spiritual victory for Torah Jews that coincided with Shushan Purim this year. It serves to drive home with clarity the Purim lesson of recognizing a Divine miracle masked by mundane events. It is saga we at the Yated were deeply involved with and witness to and it is with great satisfaction and nachas that we hope the case is now closed.
Upon the urging of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l and others, a few dedicated people worked with mesirus nefesh, ignoring the naysayers, sacrificing for the cause, and ultimately earning the siyata diShamaya of overturning a gezeirah.
The Purim miracle that brought about the ultimate venahafoch hu in the long-running metzitzah b’peh saga in New York City, which we have been covering in these pages for many years came about through a number of ordinary-looking guises: a hard-hitting New York City lawsuit, a fortuitous change of mayoral administrations, and a trailblazing Rockland County DNA-protocol.
When we take a closer look at the timeframe surrounding these natural-seeming events, we can trace the thread of extraordinary occurrences.
First, the formal, bureaucratic-sounding headline: “NYC To Permanently Stay Enforcement of Consent Law.” With as little noise as possible, climaxing two years of contentious litigation with Jewish groups, the New York City Health Department performed a stunning about-face in its policy vis-à-vis metzitzah b’peh and its proposed regulation.
At Mayor Bill de Blasio’s prompting, the Department of Health agreed to drop the consent law regulating bris milah and to shift the hostile stance that pervaded the city’s health department and administration in the Bloomberg days. Finally, the onus was off of mohalim and those who wished to have metzitzah performed. They were no longer portrayed as villains or murderers. Parents who opted for metzitzah b’peh were no longer described as irresponsible people who perform barbaric practices without regard to health concerns.
In the midst of former Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s mudslinging campaign against metzitzah, such an outcome could not have been anticipated. The public scorn heaped upon mohalim in particular and the Orthodox Jewish community in general had reached toxic levels, poisoning the relationship between the government and a significant portion of the populace. Jews were regularly slurred in the media as wild-eyed fanatics bent on putting their children in harm’s way in order to practice a dangerous religious rite.
The pressure was intense, and many were ready to throw in the towel, were it not for the singular efforts of select people who responsibly carried the mandate placed upon them by gedolei Yisroel to see this battle through until it would reach a successful end.
Tampering with bris milah by New York City officials was a slow, incremental process, which many people bought into without realizing that they were being played as fools and lied to. It began with a libel campaign in 2005 against a reputable, ehrliche mohel, who was viciously castigated and reported to authorities by someone on a crusade against metzitzah b’peh. The Yated was threatened with a libel suit until we publicized the proof against the original perpetrator.
That helped turn the tide, but the mohel was still virtually besieged in his home, accused without grounds of infecting a baby he had circumcised. He was subjected to relentless harassment, portrayed as a murderer, and threatened with serious charges. He was vilified, tarred and feathered without the benefit of a chance to defend himself. He was unable to practice his profession and was left without a livelihood, for no reason. It seemed as if everyone had jumped on the bandwagon against him, and he would have been lynched were it not for the people who rallied to his side, eventually turning the awful tide.
While the campaign against that specific mohel dissipated and the original instigator was embarrassed into silence, that was only the first shot. The issue continued percolating and then escalated with attacks against other mohalim. The Center for Disease Control published a study that purported to show “probable causation” between herpes and metzitzah b’peh.
Although the study was deeply flawed, the New York City Board of Health passed a law in October 2012 banning metzitzah b’peh without explicit parental consent on a signed, incriminating document. Subsequently, other studies were published and disseminated, all based on faulty reasoning, pseudo-science, hatred and lies. Even after Bloomberg left office, the public slander and governmental harassment campaigns continued. The media and blogs happily complied.
Jewish groups protested the amendment to the Health Code that forced parents to sign incriminating statements that metzitzah kills babies and coerced mohalim to speak disparagingly of their religious beliefs.
They petitioned the government to use DNA-testing to nail down the true source of neonatal herpes in the cases that were reported to the Health Department, as opposed to automatically vilifying mohalim. Their protests and pleas were spurned.
When attempts at a negotiated settlement failed, a coalition of Jewish groups and mohalim went to court. Rallying the community was an uphill battle. Experts shrugged off the lawsuit in New York City as an exercise in futility. Critics derided it as a waste of money. Cynics didn’t see what was so bad about agreeing with the mayor and his health experts. Even some supporters of metzitzah b’peh questioned whether the decision to sue over the consent regulation made sense.
With bris milah under assault in Europe and Scandinavia, the consent law in New York City, capital of the Jewish Diaspora, came to be viewed by the Orthodox camp as setting a dangerous precedent that threatened bris milah everywhere.
Restrictions on circumcision, masked as humanitarian concern for the rights of children, were in force in some parts of Germany, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland, and rabid opponents of the practice tried to institute a ban against it in San Francisco. Governments and agencies under the European Union were weighing laws that would restrict or abolish circumcision of minors.
Attention was focused on New York City to see if the consent law, the first government regulation of bris milah in United States history, would prevail, despite the city’s massive Jewish population with its vaunted political power.
As opposition to the consent regulation mounted throughout the Torah world, Torah authorities on five continents – the United States, Israel, Canada, Europe and Australia – joined the battle.
Reflecting solidarity among the Torah world’s leadership, the rabbis proclaimed that the right to practice bris milah without government interference must not be compromised. They urged Jews not to alter any aspect of bris milah, quoting Chazal who say that any mitzvah for which Jews have given their lives, such as milah and the prohibition against avodah zarah, has miraculously endured.
“If the federal judicial branch agrees with the City and affirms the law, it will undoubtedly set a precedent for other cities and states. One jurisdiction after another will follow the trend that New York City started,” Rav Uren Reich, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva of Woodlake, told the Yated back then, shortly after the bris milah lawsuit was filed.
“Once bris milah becomes government-regulated,” the rosh yeshiva said, “laws will be passed, one at a time, to have it done only in hospitals by licensed medical professionals, at a time that suits the hospital, not kefi halachah.
“Down the road a bit, we’ll hear that parental consent doesn’t count because the child himself has to give consent. After all, it’s his body. And since the infant can’t give consent, the government has the right to be the child’s protector and subject circumcision to complete regulation, all in the name of health and safety.”
Eizehu chochom? Haro’eh ess hanolad. Talmidei chachomim see three steps ahead. The rosh yeshiva, with vision, urged the Torah community to throw its weight behind the lawsuit. “History has shown that no mitzvah that Klal Yisroel fights dearly to protect can be taken from them,” he said.
The bris milah lawsuit proceeded with a confluence of oral arguments playing out on Chanukah two years in a row. The intense court battles over bris milah unfolding on Chanukah poignantly conjured up the struggle of centuries ago with the ruling Greeks for the freedom to uphold the Torah.
A critical phase of the lawsuit, an appeal to the Second Circuit to reverse the judgment of a lower court that had sided with the city, fell out on Chanukah and Rosh Chodesh. For Jewish observers in the courtroom, the proceedings were once again tinged with the echoes of that distant period, as Jewish hearts relived and drew strength from the immense sacrifice Jews had made for bris milah so long ago.
The outcome of this pivotal hearing dramatically reversed the status of the lawsuit, with a panel of judges siding with the plaintiffs and stating that the consent law in its present form encroached on religious freedom and was unconstitutional. The law was sent back to the lower court for “strict scrutiny.”
It was a supreme laYehudim moment, a reminder that when we believe in our mandate and take our own responsibility seriously, we can affect change.
In retrospect, the consent law had been fatally undermined by several powerful forces: a Torah community that “circled the wagons,” coming together as a dynamic, united camp; a cogent, brilliantly argued lawsuit; and the Rockland County protocol.
The Rockland County protocol, created and implemented by Rockland County epidemiologist Dr. Oscar Alleyne together with Attorney Yerachmiel Simins, the askan behind the efforts to overturn the anti-metzitzah actions, uncovered DNA non-matches between mohalim and the infants they had been suspected of infecting. It was conclusively proven that the infants had not become sick because of the mohalim.
The protocol’s findings debunked the pseudo-science preached by the Department of Health regarding neonatal herpes. No longer could medical authorities claim that post-circumcision timing and onset of lesions in a herpes-infected baby, plus a positive herpes test, conclusively pointed to metzitzah as the source of the infection.
DNA-testing had overturned those assumptions, exposing the flawed, non-scientific theory behind the Department of Health’s war against metzitzah.
Faced with continuing litigation in the lawsuit, including the drawn-out process of discovery that risked an unfavorable outcome, the de Blasio administration wisely chose to ditch the consent law and to reach a settlement with the plaintiffs out of court.
This concluded in an extraordinary way, with officials conducting a media teleconference on February 24th. The government spokesmen who participated did so without identifying themselves, asking to be quoted merely as Official One and Official Two.
Reporters were discombobulated as the officials announced that an agreement had been reached with the plaintiffs in the lawsuit and explained why the City had adopted a policy shift.
“For the benefit of all children, we have to enlist the community’s cooperation in a way that will respect their sensitivities,” one official said. He explained that the former policy of automatically ascribing blame to mohalim in neonatal herpes cases where metzitzah had been performed was mistaken and would no longer continue. The City would now employ DNA-testing similar to the Rockland County protocol.
In support of the administration’s policy shift, one of the officials actually defended metzitzah b’peh to stunned reporters. “Let me explain something: The ritual itself does not cause herpes. And every mohel who sheds the virus does not cause herpes. 70 percent of the population sheds and they don’t go around infecting people.”
He was asked, “Why do you have confidence the community will cooperate [with DNA-testing]?”
His response: “We have confidence the community will ban a mohel found to have infected a baby, because we believe these parents care about their children and don’t want to harm them. No administration cares about these children more than their own parents.”
Thus was the quiet conclusion on Shushan Purim to an epic saga. After all the hype and bluster, and after all the debates and the nasty comments by politicians, bloggers and co-religionists, what we were saying all along was borne out.
It was a Purim neis, in which seemingly mundane events clearly masked the miraculous.
We get lost in the daily news and fail to see the forest for the trees. When the deluge of negativity and frightening news threatens to overwhelm, it is comforting to note that miracles happen every day, as we say in davening “v’al nisecha sheb’chol yom imonu.” Sometimes we recognize them, but sometimes we don’t. Let’s be on the lookout for them and appreciate the good that we have. It helps us deal with the tough stuff when we understand and remember that we are not alone.
Rav Eizik Sher zt”l, heir to the derech of Slabodka, arrived in Eretz Yisroel just a few steps ahead of the approaching Nazis, who had set their sights on world dominion after decimating Europe. The German Afrika Corps, under the leadership of the vaunted General Erwin Rommel, marched on towards Yerushalayim.
Tzaddikim counseled calm and great men believed that Hashem would save them, but the general mood in the Holy Land was tense. Reports of the heinous and inhuman Nazi actions had reached the people there. There was no reasonable way to assume that, militarily, the Nazi beast would be stopped from approaching and rolling through Eretz Yisroel.
At the height of the panic, as most people feared for their lives, the Slabodka rosh yeshiva addressed a large gathering. He shared a story about two people who were walking during those fearful times. Suddenly, a group of mosquitoes darkened the air around them, disturbing them. One of them lifted his arm and swatted the flock of pesky insects.
“To Hakadosh Boruch Hu,” the man told his companion, “our enemies are even less significant than those mosquitoes.”
The audience was comforted by Rav Sher’s story, as they perceived the truth of the spoken words. In an extraordinary and surprising turn of events, the Nazi army was rendered powerless and retreated back to Germany like a pack of mosquitoes.
We march on, bringing Hashem’s name to the world, trying to reflect the reality of Yismechu Hashomayim, which is so clear in Heaven, down here. We act in ways that are mekadeish sheim Shomayim, whether it is in the way we drive, shop, walk, talk or deal with other people.
We look forward to merit ah gutten Chodesh Nissan, when the world will be filled with the ultimate rejoicing, Vesogel Ha’aretz.