The following is a message from Harav Yaakov Hillel, rosh hayeshiva of Yeshivat Ahavat Shalom, in advance of the Yom Tov of Pesach:
To my brothers and friends, loyal supporters of Ahavat Shalom Institutions and supporters of all Torah institutions:
I have recently returned to Eretz Yisrael after visiting several countries in the Diaspora on behalf of the Torah world in Eretz Yisrael. I would like to share with you the Torah viewpoint of recent events. I expressed these thoughts to many Torah supporters abroad, and they derived great benefit and encouragement from them in these difficult days.
The Financial Crisis and its Impact on our Nation’s Philanthropists
We face troubled times. The worldwide financial crisis has affected numerous people everywhere. Extremely wealthy and prominent individuals have lost fortunes totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, affecting the entire economy. The market value of the largest corporations has plunged, companies have collapsed, businesses have failed, and the stores are full of merchandise sitting untouched on the shelves. This combination of events and more has had a far reaching impact, resulting in a drastic lowering of real estate values, striking at many people’s financial base and wreaking havoc everywhere. This is one of the greatest crises the world has seen in recent decades.
The crisis directly affects our people’s Torah and hesed institutions. Their situation, none too good in the best of times, has now become even worse. My understanding of what is taking place leads me to turn to you, our kindhearted and charitable Jewish brethren. I know most of you personally, and can testify firsthand to your generous contribution of very considerable sums for the support of Torah institutions. I know you to be aware of the responsibility you bear to support Torah and foster its growth throughout the world. I often meet fellow Jews with warm, overflowing hearts who are sincerely willing and eager to give tzedakah. When I encounter this great desire to give, I wonder about the words of our Sages, who said that “When Israel is asked, they give”
(Jerusalem Talmud Shekalim 2a). I, on the other hand, have seen that the Jewish people give even when they are not asked – they give of their own volition, willingly and happily, with dignity and mesirut nefesh.
Nakdimon ben Gurion’s Fall
The fact is that today, many baale tzedakah who would ordinarily give generously to
Torah institutions, are deeply pained by their inability to contribute as they have in the past. Several have confessed to me that while their own standard of living has remained the same, they feel great anguish at their inability to donate the large sums they would like to give to charity, a situation which causes them great pain. I witness their sorrow every day, and as an active partner in the upkeep of Torah in Eretz Yisrael, I personally experience their distress.
I want to share with you our Sages’ profound and very powerful words concerning charity. These words serve us as a wakeup call, demanding serious soul searching on our part. The Sages record a shocking incident which took place during the terrible famine prior to the Destruction of the Second Temple. The great Sage Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai saw a woman bending down to pick out barley grains from horse dung. When she saw him, she said, “Rebbe, support me.” When he asked her name, it turned out that this unfortunate woman was the daughter of Nakdimon ben Gurion, one of the wealthiest men in Jerusalem. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai was horrified at the depths of poverty to which she had sunk. His shock and sorrow were especially acute because he remembered her wedding day, when he personally had signed on the marriage contractfor the fabulous sum of millions of gold dinars.
The Gemara which relates this heartbreaking incident also recounts Nakdimon ben
Gurion’s great acts of charity. When he would go from his home to the bet midrash, his servants would spread costly silk fabrics at his feet. He purposely left them behind for the poor, who would support themselves by selling the expensive silks. We also know that Nakdimon ben Gurion risked his entire vast fortune to provide the pilgrims who came to Jerusalem for the Festivals with sufficient water during a draught.
The Sages ask an obvious question. If Nakdimon ben Gurion was so very charitable, how could he have sunk so low that his own daughter was reduced to searching for grains in dung, just to stay alive? Their answer is surprising and very harsh: “For what he should have done, he did not do enough” (Ketubot 66b). Yes, Nakdimon gave charity, and yes, he did great acts of hesed – all that was true. And yet, even so, for who he was and what he had, what he did was simply not enough. From someone in his position, the Al-mighty expects much, much more.
The demands on one who does give, but not to the full extent of his abilities, are enormous. Much more is expected of one who can.
Did You Also Question the Good?
On my recent trips abroad many philanthropists asked me, “Why? Why did this happen to us?” They feel a certain resentment. They gave so much charity and did so much hesed, willingly and generously, and now they have lost millions, even hundreds of millions. They cannot help but ask, “Why do we deserve this?”
I answered them with a question of my own. “What were you doing when the money flowed in abundance, when success was yours and you accumulated hundreds of millions? Back in those days, did you also ask ‘Why do I deserve this?'”
Something is going on, and we must stop and think. We need to step back and take a good, hard look at what is happening.
Our Sages tell us that “One who considers his ways, merits to see the salvation of the
Holy One, blessed be He” (Moed Katan 5a). This means that one who studies and analyzes the significance of events around him will be privileged to discern the miracles and wonders performed by the Holy One, blessed be He, and the salvation concealed within nature and routine.
A businessman may negotiate deals involving millions of dollars, with great success.
He takes it for granted, never realizing that his success is something out of the ordinary, which it most certainly is. He does not recognize the hidden Hand of Divine Providence behind his fabulous deals, leading and guiding him along the path of blessing and success. Only one who looks for G-d’s Hand will be privileged to see it.
This is exactly what we say three times daily in our prayers, when we thank Hashem: “for Your miracles which are with us every day, and for Your wonders and Your kindness at all times, evening and morning and afternoon.” Miracles and wonders are concealed within the framework of nature and routine on a daily basis. As the Ramban says in his famous commentary on Parashat Bo, “And through the great and famous miracles, man acknowledges the hidden miracles which are the foundation of the entire Torah.
For one does not have a share in Torat Moshe until we believe that all our affairs and happenings are all miracles. They have no element of ‘nature’ and ‘the way of the world,’ whether for the masses or for the individual, etc.”
Material and Spiritual Success are Interdependent
Let us take this concept a step further, and consider the meaning of the financial success the Al-mighty has granted many Jews around the world. How are we to understand this great wealth?
If we look back at the last two decades, we will notice two developments which appear to be unrelated, but are actually intimately connected.
One is the truly amazing flourishing of the Torah world in Eretz Yisrael and throughout the Diaspora. Before World War II, there were almost no Torah scholars who were able to stay in learning long term. They numbered perhaps several dozen, with a small number of kollelim supporting them. In the decades following the war, we have been privileged to see the founding of hundreds of kollelim, where thousands of Torah scholars learn Torah day and night. In every corner of the globe there are now Torah schools and yeshivot, Torah schools for girls, and institutes for baale teshuvah who are finding their way back to authentic Judaism. Dozens of Jewish hesed organizations have been founded around the world, for the benefit of all Jews. This is undoubtedly an incredible, wondrous phenomenon.
At the same time there has been a parallel development, no less incredible. Hundreds of Jews worldwide have been blessed with astonishing success in business. Many have become wealthy beyond any logical expectations and predictions, certainly beyond their numbers in proportion to the population at large.
A more profound look shows that the two phenomena are intertwined, and in fact mutually dependent. It is impossible to maintain the Torah world and the enormous growth of the yeshivot and bate midrash without the necessary financial support. As our
Sages tell us, “If there is no flour, there is no Torah” (Avot 3:17). Therefore, in order to allow for the continued existence of Torah, the Al-mighty showered abundant blessing on many Jews, who serve as the pipeline through which the plenty is passed on to the Torah world.
We need to understand that when one is granted plenty beyond his own basic needs, it has been given to him for a specific purpose. The Al-mighty created the world in such a way that it includes both supporters and the supported. In order for the world to be built on a foundation of hesed and giving, there are people who have wealth and people who have nothing, providing the setting for a civilized world where one group complements the other. When a wealthy individual gives to a poor individual, he is actually fulfilling his designated mission by delivering the money which has been given to him on deposit. Of this Scripture says, “Do not withhold good from its owner, when you have the ability to do” (Mishle 3:27). In other words, do not deprive another of the good which you are capable of giving him, for he is actually its true owner. Our job is to prove that “you have the ability to do it” – that we are capable of giving to others. If we were not, the Al-mighty would not have blessed us with such plenty to begin with.
There is no other way to explain the enormous abundance which so many Jews were granted. I have met people who have hundreds of millions of dollars, enough to support themselves and their descendents after them to the end of the seventh millennium with no need for any further effort on their part. As they told me themselves, even if they were to dine off disposable utensils made of solid gold three times a day, they would still have plenty to spare. One extremely wealthy man, the owner of numerous homes, estates, cars, yachts, and airplanes, asked me what the purpose of all his wealth was. He had fantastic sums of money sitting in the bank, earning fabulous interest. Why, he wanted to know, had he been given all that money? I told him that only two things could happen to that kind of wealth. Either he could lose it, G-d forbid, as has happened to others who lost everything in a single bad deal, or if he was wise, he could use it to support the poor and Torah scholars.
He Could Have Done More
It is certainly possible that the answer to the question of those who have incurred great losses is the same as our Sages’ answer to the question of Nakdimon ben Gurion’s fall.
I have friends who donate millions of dollars to support Torah institutions. Some of them told me that they have recently lost hundreds of millions in risky investments, in the attempt to get a slightly higher return on their money. Honest introspection on their part uncovered that the sums they gave to charity were only ten percent of that same high interest rate their money had been earning. This may explain their great losses now; they may be witnessing a repeat of Nakdimon ben Gurion’s story. He gave, our Sages tell us, but not enough. Blessed with phenomenal wealth, he should have utilized it to give even more charity and do even more hesed.
Blessing is Guaranteed to Those who Support Torah
With Hashem’s help, we will very soon merit the return of the years of plenty, and enjoy bountiful success and abundance. Our brethren will once again make vast sums of money and be blessed with great success. Today, however, we are still undergoing an educational process: the Al-mighty wishes to teach us a lesson. Now, as we approach the era of Mashiah, He wishes to increase the power of Torah on earth and strengthen His people in Torah, the archetypal Tribe of Yissachar by continual Torah study, and its partner, the Tribe of Zevulun, by supporting Torah study. It is through this merit that we will be deserving of speedy Redemption.
The Plagues of Egypt: A Lesson in Emunah
The Festival of Pesah is about to begin. These are the days when great and wondrous miracles were performed for our ancestors in Egypt, among them the Ten Plagues visited upon the Egyptians. The Rosh, in his work Orhot Hayyim, explains that the Almighty rained down plagues upon Egypt, overturning the laws of nature, for one primary purpose: to teach Israel that He alone rules the world, and constantly supervises everything that takes place on earth. By so doing, He uprooted the non-Jewish belief that while Hashem is indeed the Creator, He abandoned the world after Creation, leaving it to be run by the mercies of the stars and constellations.
This is also the reason behind the wording of the first of the Ten Commandments, in which Hashem commands us to believe in Him as the One G-d: “I am Hashem your G-d
Who took you out of the land of Egypt.” Would it not have been more logical to say “I am the G-d Who created the world”? Why is the Exodus cited as the basis of belief, rather than Creation itself?
Because the miracles of the Exodus prove Divine intervention, the continuous involvement of G-d in nature. This is the foundation of our people’s faith.
The Splitting of the Sea: a Lesson in Bitahon
After the nation learned in Egypt to have faith in G-d, they arrived at the Dead Sea, where they were faced with a test of their trust in G-d.
There is a major difference between faith (emunah) and trust (bitahon). Emunah is man’s intellectual understanding that there is a Creator. He recognizes Divine intervention and knows that G-d rules the world. However, on its own, emunah is still not enough to carry man through the bad times, when he is he tested and must contend with suffering and hardship. During these moments, he is likely to fall and forget his faith; we have seen that people who profess emunah are nonetheless unable to withstand difficult tests of that emunah. Examples are those who give in to financial pressures and open their businesses on Shabbat, for fear of heavy losses if they were to close, or parents who do not send their children to good Torah schools for fear that it will prevent them from succeeding in the business world. These people have faith – they do believe in G-d, however they fail and fall because they lack bitahon, complete trust in Him.
At the Splitting of the Sea, we as a people learned what bitahon is. The nation stood in the desert, with the Sea looming before them and the pursuing Egyptians closing in behind them. There was nowhere to go and no way to escape, and they cried out to the Al-mighty to save them. Hashem’s answer to Moshe was astonishing: “Why are you screaming to me? Talk to the people of Israel, and they will travel on!” (Shmot 14:15).
Rabbi Hayyim ben Attar asks the obvious questions: Why should the Jews stop praying? And was the Al-mighty commanding them to commit mass suicide by leaping into the raging sea?
He explains that the central issue here was that of bitahon, trust in Hashem. When one believes in Hashem’s Divine intervention and turns to Him in prayer, that prayer does not ascend directly to the Holy One, blessed be He. It first goes before the Heavenly Court, where the supplicant is judged. Based on his deeds, is he worthy of having his prayers accepted, or is he unworthy?
At that point in time, had the Jews continued to pray, they would have been found unworthy of a miracle of the magnitude of the Splitting of the Sea, because their deeds were wanting. As our Sages tell us, the Heavenly angels denounced the Jewish people before Hashem, saying “these people (the Egyptians) are idol worshippers, and those people (the Jews) are idol worshippers” (Yalkut Shimoni 234). This is why Hashem told Moshe, “Why are you screaming to Me?” This was not the time for prayer alone. This was a test of the nation’s bitahon, mesirut nefesh and faith in the Al-mighty, even when
it appeared to defy all logic, and even when it appeared to be utterly impossible. If the nation would pass this test, they would be worthy of salvation.
When did the water part, allowing the nation to pass through on dry land? When
Nahshon ben Aminadav exhibited total mesirut nefesh by leaping into the Sea until the waters reached his neck. This is the enormous power of mesirut nefesh. It ascends directly to the Heavenly Throne, where there is no Court, no register of man’s deeds, and no weighing of merits. There is only pure, unmitigated hesed, bestowed upon those who trust in Hashem with mesirut nefesh.
This is why “many are the sufferings of the wicked, but one who trusts in G-d is surrounded by hesed” (Tehillim 32:10). Even the wicked individual merits unmitigated
hesed when he trusts in Hashem with all his heart, regardless of his spiritual standing and his past record of sin. This is the tremendous power of bitahon with mesirut nefesh: it bestows pure hesed.
The Torah Upholds Us in Troubled Times
With this in mind, the Pesah season bears a great lesson for us to learn and internalize. On the first day of Pesah we begin by recounting the miracles of the Exodus from Egypt, expressing our belief in Divine intervention and Hashem as the world’s Ruler. We view nature through different eyes and thank Hashem for all the good He bestows upon us, literally at every step we take. On the seventh day of Pesah we recognize the power of trust in the Al-mighty with mesirut nefesh, internalizing the fact that even during the hard times and the difficult moments, we must trust in Hashem and do His Will with mesirut nefesh.
Even when financial hardships threaten and the economic horizon appears bleak and menacing, we must act with mesirut nefesh and continue to support Torah institutions, even if it appears to contradict logic and common sense. The merit of this mesirut
nefesh ascends before the Heavenly Throne and arouses Divine hesed to bestow great plenty and success in all its forms, in a manner which transcends the natural order.
We find further support of this concept in the verse “It is a Tree of Life to those who uphold it, and its supporters are fortunate” (Mishle 3:18). There are two extremes in the support of Torah. At times, one supports Torah in a state of blessing and plenty. He sees success in his endeavors and joyfully contributes to the upkeep of Torah study, becoming worthy of even greater blessing. This is a state of “its supporters are fortunate.” But there are also situations when a Torah supporter experiences great difficulty, akin to the plight of a shipwreck victim. He feels that he is afloat in a vast ocean, where the threatening waves surging around him threaten to pull him under. At times like this, the Torah is “a tree of life,” the lifesaving piece of driftwood in a dangerous sea. If he latches on to Torah for dear life and continues to support Torah scholars with mesirut nefesh, he will be rescued; the Torah will carry him through. But one who lets go of the Torah in troubled, turbulent times is liable to drown altogether, G-d forbid. The verse alludes to both of these circumstances.
My dear brothers, my dear friends, we are being tested. Our tie to Torah, our opportunity to be a conduit for blessing, is being scrutinized in Heaven. If you have the wisdom to act with complete trust in the Almighty, against common sense and logic, Torah will be your Tree of Life. It will lift you above the waves and restore you to the position you previously enjoyed, and even higher. The Al-mighty awaits our mesirut nefesh. He wants to see His Torah supporters give, even when it is hard to give. When He sees that we all carry on despite the difficulties – both the Torah scholars, who have always endured hardship in order to learn Torah, and the Torah supporters who continue to support to Torah when times are hard – we will be granted tremendous salvation, with great blessing and success on a scale beyond the natural order.
Miracles and Wonders Even in Our Times
Let us conclude with a ray of light to strengthen our faith and help us see the Hand of Divine intervention in our world. We can recognize the light within the darkness, the workings of the Hand of Hashem even when He appears to be concealed from us, by seeing how the Holy One, blessed be He, cares for His people in the Holy Land. In recent years dozens of missiles have fallen daily on Israeli territory, in the north and in the south, and yet – there were almost no casualties. Logically, it makes no sense at all.
Eretz Yisrael is very densely populated, with very little vacant land. Even so, the vast majority of missiles landed precisely in those few empty, uninhabited patches. Even the rare exceptions which fell in populated areas claimed no casualties. Had this happened in Texas or Nevada, it would have made logical sense to say that most of the missiles simply happened to fall on empty land. For this to have happened in Eretz Yisrael, where there is so little vacant land, is almost impossible. It is an open miracle; it is the Light of Divine Providence shining on Am Yisrael.
When I spoke about this to a group in New York, there was a professor of economics in the audience. He personally checked out the facts and examined the statistical probability of the missiles landing as they did. He came back to me, stunned. This, he said, was indeed an absolute miracle which went against all the laws of probability.
Surely such miracles prove to us that the Hand of Divine Providence hovers over us, and gives us the strength we need to act with mesirut nefesh. We see how the mesirut nefesh of our people’s dedicated baale tzedakah, who give beyond their means, relying on Hashem and trusting Him implicitly, make our people worthy of exceptional, miraculous treatment which defies the laws of nature.
I will conclude with a blessing. May the Holy One, blessed be He, fulfill all your hearts desires in the best possible manner, and bestow upon you unending blessing, abundant livelihood and good health, with many long days and years of success, blessing, peace, and joy, and Jewish nahat from all your descendents. May we soon merit eternal salvation, and partake of the korban Pesah with the coming of Mashiah, speedily in our times.
Pesah kasher v’sameah to you all.
With love and deep affection,
Rabbi Yaakov Hillel