Lament or Smile?

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By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Everyone waits for summer and here it is, one of the happiest times of the year. During normal times, things slow down and life takes on a more casual tone, as people set out for new horizons to explore and places to enjoy. This year, under the cloud of corona, everything has become more difficult, including the escape from daily pressures and a change of scenery. We seek a reduction of stress levels and the constant reminders of an unseen enemy threatening us.

We may not be able to find consolation in the current conversations and events, but in the words of the Torah there are comfort and solace.

Before Tisha B’Av last week, a dear friend of mine sent me an email. He asked, “How are you approaching Tisha B’Av this year? Are you lamenting like the novi Yirmiyohu or are you smiling like Rabi Akiva?”

His question really got me thinking. What a rough year this has been so far. What a frightening situation Klal Yisroel is in. What an awful situation Eretz Yisroel is in. What an awful situation this country and much of the world are in. On Tisha B’Av, we mourn the churban, the source of all of our troubles. Of course I would be lamenting on the day that is the repository of all of Klal Yisroel’s sadness. But I also thought about Rabi Akiva and his powerful message.

Last Shabbos, we heard the comforting call of “Nachamu nachamu ami,” as we began the seven weeks of consolation, the Shivah D’nechemta.

Many wonder why the prophet Yeshayahu repeated his prophecy, saying nachamu twice. Why the repetition?

SEEING BEYOND THE SURFACE

The Maharsha explains that the double language is found in Maseches Makkos (24a). Chazal quote the Tannaim who viewed the makom haMikdosh following the churban together with Rabi Akiva. The others became upset after seeing what had become of the holiest site. After Rabi Akiva comforted them, they thanked him and said to him, “Akiva, nichamtanu, Akiva, nichamtanu. Akiva, you have comforted us, Akiva, you have comforted us.”

The double consolation is a reflection of Rabi Akiva empowering them to be able to see what is behind the surface. They had all seen foxes at the site of the Bais Hamikdosh. They saw the desolation of the present. Rabi Akiva saw the past and the future. Remembering the words of the prophet who had foretold the destruction, he saw consolation in the sorrowful sight. Just as the words of the prophet came true regarding the destruction, so would his prophecy about the rebuilding come to fruition.

Rabi Akiva was unfamiliar with Torah study until he reached the age of forty. He became drawn to Torah because he wasn’t locked into the present. He had the ability to see beyond what his eyes were witnessing. He saw a stone and water dripping on it and observed over time how drops of water were able to penetrate the tough substance of the rock. He watched, contemplated, and then understood. If water can break through rock, then Torah can impact a person as well, despite age and background. There was hope for him. If he would study Torah, it would penetrate. He did not have to remain a simpleton for the rest of his life.

He went on to appreciate the Torah with all its splendor and lessons, first applying it to himself and then to others, impacting us until this very day.

Whatever the answer to my friend’s question is, now, in the Shiva D’nechemta, we need to feel comforted. After mourning the churban, we need to follow the example of Rabi Akiva, viewing what is transpiring in the world and applying lessons of strength and consolation to ourselves.

IT IS ALL HASHEM

In Parshas Eikev, Moshe Rabbeinu continues his admonition of the Jewish people. He warns them not to fool themselves as to why Hashem has been kind to them and why they have experienced success. He reminds them that all Hashem desires in return is that they have yiras Shomayim.

Without obvious Divine intervention, our people would have been wiped out a long time ago. Yet, we become comfortable and conceited, convincing ourselves that our success is thanks to our superior intellect and strength. It takes a pandemic for us to realize how weak and dependent on Hashem we really are.

When we read the pesukim of Parshas Eikev, we can visualize Moshe pleading with the Jewish people. He reminds them of all they have been through, and of all the miracles Hashem performed in order to bring them to where they are. He begs them to remember who has fed, clothed and cared for them, even as they remain ungrateful. He reminds them how stubborn and spiteful they were, and how he repeatedly interceded on their behalf.

Read the pesukim of this week’s parsha (8:11 and on): “Be careful lest you shall forget Hashem… Lest you eat and become full and build nice, good, fancy homes and become settled… Lest you have much gold and silver and become haughty and forget Hashem, your G-d, who took you out of Mitzrayim and led you through the midbar, where he quenched your thirst and fed you. Yet you say in your heart, ‘I did this all myself with my own strength.’ Remember, it is Hashem who gives you strength to wage war… If you will forget Hashem and go after strange gods and you will serve them and bow to them, I warn you that you will be destroyed…”

These pesukim are not just written to the people who have obviously gone astray. They are written to us as well, and should serve as a reminder that we should never let our gaavah get the better of us and fool us into thinking that we are self-sufficient, that we are smart and strong enough to take care of ourselves. We must always remember where we come from and where we are headed. We must be constantly aware that it is Hashem who provides us with the know-how and stamina we require to earn our livings and get ahead in this world, and to survive life’s many challenges and pitfalls.

Let us not fall prey to self-aggrandizement. Let us ensure that we don’t become blinded by our ego and evil inclination, and that we remain loyal to the One who sustains us.

As the parsha ends (11:22), “If you will observe the mitzvos, love Hashem and follow in His path…then Hashem will let you inherit nations that are larger and stronger than yours… Wherever you will set your foot down will be blessed… No one will be able to stand in your way.”

The yeitzer hora causes us to concentrate on the wrong things in order to dull our thinking and lead us down the wrong path. When we don’t think straight, we easily become sidetracked, and silly things deter us from focusing on what is important.

When the trivial becomes important, the important becomes trivial.

PERSPECTIVE AMIDST THE CHAOS

We live in an age when, all too often, people concentrate on the insignificant, silly, superficial, glitzy stuff and don’t bother with anything that has depth or requires even minimal intelligence. People get caught up with perception and confuse it with reality. Often, nowadays, those skilled at creating clever perceptions win, while those who bother lifting the heavy load lose. Just look around in our world and you will see that being played out all the time.

Look at the world around us and see how an inept man with a dangerous agenda has a real shot at the presidency of the United States, because a perception has taken hold about the current president. A president who has carried out his promises and is doing exactly what he said he would do. People without a sense of history or responsibility buy into the narrative and support turning the country over to those who would steer it toward socialism and worse.

We have to be able to maintain the proper perspective no matter what storm is swirling about and regardless of how things are skewed. We need to remain calm and intelligent, examining current events and life in general with a broad perspective predicated on Torah values and leadership.

Summer is a season with a different format and pace, but despite that, we have to remain focused on getting to the same destination. In the splashing of pools, the lapping of waves, the heat and sometimes heavy rain, we need to hear the message that our tasks are never-ending.

This week’s parsha is called Eikev, which Rashi explains as a reference to the mitzvos that are easily trampled “with the heel.” There is significance to the heel for another reason as well. Chazal teach us that Adam Harishon’s heel shone with a powerful light, illuminating all of creation.

The heel, says Rav Chaim Volozhiner, is the most physical, tough, unrefined part of the body. It can withstand pain and irritation. It isn’t sensitive. Adam Harishon was so holy that even his heel shone brilliantly and enlightened the world. The kedushah touched him there as well. Every part of him, even the lowly heel, was holy.

The goal of man in this world is to bring kedushah back to the “heels,” the eikev. Like a heel in the body, there are places and times that seem devoid of holiness, and it’s our mission and mandate to invest them with meaning.

The avodah of these weeks, with their relaxed pace and change of venue, is to “fill the heel with light.” Fill the slow pace with light. Fill the simple things with light and always remember that our goal is to fill the entire world with light.

In this week’s parsha, we are told, “Hishomer lecha pen tishkach es Hashem Elokecha” (8:11). We are commanded never to forget about Hashem.

Summer, with its fond perspectives, settings and vistas, presents many ways to remind us who created the world and our role in protecting it and causing it to shine.

THE CHARM AND FRESHNESS

On Rosh Chodesh Elul – yes, it’s around the corner – we will begin reciting the words, “Shivti bevais Hashem kol yemei chayai lachazos beno’am Hashem ulevaker beheichalo” (Tehillim 27).

Dovid Hamelech’s request, to sit in the house of Hashem for his entire life and behold the splendor of His palace, is recited twice daily during Elul. Why does Dovid ask “levaker,” to visit, Hashem’s palace? Would Dovid have been content just to visit?

Home, wherever it is that you live, seems mundane and kind of boring. The place where you spend your vacations has charm and a special place in your heart. You go somewhere and you think it’s the greatest place in the world. You wish you could leave all your troubles behind and move there and live there full-time. Your vacation site seems idyllic, stress-free and blissful.

Throughout the year, that place comes alive in your memory, and just thinking of it and flipping through the pictures you took puts you in a good mood. You were relaxed and in a positive frame of mind there; you really appreciated the experience. You weren’t working or stressed, so you had time to visit the sites and attractions and really enjoy.

There was a time, before smartphones changed the world, when Disneyworld distributed free cameras to families visiting there. They reasoned that in the coming months, the people would view the pictures they would inevitably take with those cameras and would be reminded of the good time they had. They would then yearn to return.

Rav Elya Lopian says that this is what Dovid Hamelech asked for: “Let me experience that feeling in the house of Hashem. Give it the chein of vacation, the magic and charm of a reprieve from ordinary life, even as I sit there every day.”

Let us see the world through pure eyes, taking in the beauty and splendor of what we witness, viewing each facet and feature, and adapting those lessons to improve our lives as ovdei Hashem.

The grandiosity and majesty of creation center around man. We are the epicenter of everything, for all was created for us. When we behold beauty, we appreciate what we are, what we represent, and the potential that lies in our actions.

During the summer, we tend to experience vibrant scenes and fresh horizons. We become charmed by the sights and sounds around us, by the customs and habits in the place we happen to be visiting, because we are finally relaxed, in a positive frame of mind, and thus invigorated.

We ask that when we are in the presence of holiness, when we seek out Hashem and Torah in the bais medrash, we should be there in a state of “levaker beheichalo,” with the eagerness of a visitor, wide-eyed, positive and easily impressionable.

We drive five hours to some forsaken small town with pine trees, a few small shops and little else. If we are in a bungalow in the country, despite it being in disrepair, we find it charming, and everything around is majestic. The streets are peaceful, the people and simple sights endearing.

In reality, we could see the same chein in our own homes, shuls and shops, and find majesty and beauty ever-present in our everyday lives.

Some see the “eikev” of the parsha referring to the period in which we live, ikvesa deMeshicha, the heel of Moshiach. While that brings a rush of joy that we are finally approaching the days we have long been awaiting, it brings with it trials and tribulations, pandemics, depressions, recessions, lost and wayward people, and a general apathy and indifference to things important.

Over these next couple of weeks of peace of mind and calm, let us focus and contemplate about the bigger picture, as Rabi Akiva did, and explore ways to fill our lives and the world with goodness and light so that we may merit seeing not only the heel of Moshiach, but his entire body, as he arrives to tell us that our time in golus is up. May he come very soon.

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