By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
This past Shabbos I was in Miami, Florida. Lest some of my fellow “northerners” feel a twinge of jealousy at the image of this writer luxuriating in the warm sunshine while so many of us are trapped in frigid temperatures, I hasten to report to you that on Shabbos it rained all day in chilly Miami. On Sunday when we left, the thermometer was having a very difficult time reaching north of the twenties.
To add to the “glamour” of the trip, the hotel we stayed at was not located on the beach, but rather across the street from a noisy airport, which never sleeps.
Ironically, the people we were with didn’t mind the noise, as they too seemed to never sleep. They weren’t there to vacation or to bathe in the sun. This group of individuals – three hundred of the finest, most energetic and devoted in this country – traveled to Miami from all over the United States to learn how to work even harder than they already do. These people are dedicated to making a difference in others’ lives. Driven by an amazing wellspring of optimism, they change the world one child at a time, one family at a time, in city after city. In small towns and large cities all across the country, they go about their holy work quietly, sparking a sweeping revolution.
What fuels this incredible devotion and tireless activism for spreading Torah? We can find a clue in this week’s parsha, where the posuk tells us that the Bnei Yisroel were not able to accept Moshe’s words promising deliverance from Mitzrayim. “Velo shamu el Moshe m’kotzer ruach um’avodah kasha,” they didn’t heed Moshe due to breathlessness and harsh labor.
How is it possible, we wonder. Could they really not respond to the immortal words of redemption that came from Hakadosh Boruch Hu, the stirring words that for milennia Jews have repeated at their seder table every Pesach, as they drink the four cups of wine?
The Jews whom Moshe addressed were so utterly exhausted from the back-breaking labor, they could barely draw a breath. They simply couldn’t absorb his words of consolation and deliverance. Sometimes we are so desperate for salvation that when the salvation arrives, we can’t switch gears to accept it. We crave deliverance yet when it is at hand, we are so wrapped up in our pain that we ignore it.
Although the Jews were almost beyond the point of being able to be reached by Moshe’s words, they were nevertheless redeemed from Mitzrayim because that was their Divinely ordained destiny. Hashem had promised that he would deliver them from their oppression and when the appointed hour arrived, they were plucked from servitude whether they were prepared to leave or not.
Not always are we so lucky. Most often we have to be properly tuned in, in order to hear messages being sent to us, and to grasp their import. If we want to be helped we have to believe that help is possible. If we give up hope and aren’t able to accept that a solution is possible, that very defeatism tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Keeping hope alive is vital to securing success. Once the dream dies, once we claim we are incapable of reviving it, we have in effect surrendered to our fate.
Given the magnitude of the problems facing our yeshivos and day schools, you would imagine that at a gathering of three hundred heads of educational institutions in cities across the nation, you would hear messages of doom and gloom for the duration of the convention. You would expect to hear tales of woe about mounting deficits, of the inability to raise money in these difficult times. You’d be justified for anticipating a great deal of carping about parents’ failure to come through with their tuition commitments, and how as a result, cash-strapped schools are threatening to buckle under the tremendous financial strain.
It would be natural to hear a barrage of complaints from mechanchim and people involved in school administration about all the difficulties testing them as they try to flourish in a time of depression, and the adversity they face daily in their missions to bring Torah to the next generation.
Yet, remarkably, despite all the many obstacles thrown in their path; these people are so optimistic and upbeat. And they left even more cheerful and confident than when they arrived.
They spent a whole weekend trading success stories with each other on how they are managing to plant nascent Torah seeds all across in the country. Participants drew encouragement from the wonderful esprit de corps, and the ability of so many of those present to take encouragement from achievements that are measured not by sweeping transformations, but in terms of small, incremental victories.
As idealistic as the mechanchim are, they are also clear-eyed and grounded. In no way are they blind to the pressing challenges that would demoralize people with less perseverance and determination. They are so focused on what they are accomplishing that they don’t let anything get in their way. Because they understand that they are working in the vineyard of Hashem, a deep sense of accomplishment compensates for the frustrations and disappointments that threaten to deflate the spirit.
People like this refuse to be discouraged by those who advise them that their goals are impossible to attain. Because they work lesheim Shomayim and refuse to be deterred, the Divine Hand reaches down from on High and assists them.
Every one of us was created to carry out a shlichus, or mission, in life. Those who succeed are the ones who refuse to succumb to faintheartedness and discouragement. With faith in the One Above, they ignore the difficulties that would derail lesser men. They continue their hishtadlus with the faith that Hashem will clear a path for them and help them over the hurdles.
People who don’t work lesheim shomayim become bitter. In their bitterness, they blame others for their difficulties, acting out of bitterness and jealousy without considering how their words and actions will come back to haunt them. They fail to consider the repercussions of their hostile words, hurting themselves and their cause.
The people who gathered at the Torah Umesorah Presidents Conference this past Shabbos are cut from very different cloth. They care deeply about the Jewish people. From one speaker after another, the sense of genuine Ahavas Yisroel shone through. Through their words and the tales they recounted, one could sense how many Yiddishe neshomos have been reached with the power of true caring. They work tirelessly to preserve the pach shemen tahor which survives to this day, thanks to the resolute determination of dedicated intrepid souls.
As I spoke to these people and listened to their speeches, I couldn’t help but think to myself how the defining trait of our great leaders is precisely this devotion to one’s people that I was witnessing. When love for one’s fellow Jew is the core motivation, there is no room for hatred, bitterness and retaliation.
Through their words and the tales they recounted they portrayed how a display of love can accomplish more than a flash of hate, calmness can achieve more than anger, and you don’t always need a hatchet to kill a mosquito
It is true that we live in a period when we are more susceptible to those who are blessed with the gift of oratory and the ability to offer glib optimistic promises. There are many other individuals in leadership positions who are looked up to by a variety of people strictly because of the way they communicate and not necessarily because of their superior knowledge or intellect. Superb communication skills, far more than superior knowledge, intellect or good character, tend to dazzle people. Unfortunately, people find out too late that masters of rhetoric do not necessarily make good leaders.
These leaders demonstrated that in our world true leadership is set by example and leaders rise to their positions by virtue of their quiet, heroic actions, which speak more eloquently than one thousand masters of rhetoric.
We have in our midst people of sterling character, of quiet heroic action, individuals who are intelligent, capable and resourceful, who can envision solutions and follow through on a project to completion. These people realize that all their talents and possessions are gifts from Hashem. They remain humble and G-d fearing. It is this kind of person whom we need in positions of leadership.
The Torah Umesorah Presidents Conference testified that, boruch Hashem, we have people of this caliber sprinkled all across the country as roshei yeshiva, rabbonim, kollel yungaleit, mechanchim, menahalim, teachers, and the baaleibatim who enable their institutions to exist and flourish.
They are people who use their gifts wisely, fulfilling their obligations and accomplishing far more than can realistically be expected of them. They are the people who make our nation great and who ensure that the chain of greatness will continue.
The Zohar writes in this week’s parsha that the reason the Jews weren’t able to accept Moshe Rabbeinu’s words of comfort, was because the mekor of cheirus was not yet opened.
It may be that the reason we in our day are able to remain optimistic in the face of the grave threats and dangers assailing us is not because we are better and stronger people, but rather because Hakadosh Boruch Hu has opened the mekor of cheirus.
Despite all the reasons for pessimism and negativity, we are able to remain focused on our goals and accept words of support and hopeful idealism. To overcome the many setbacks and travails, we need to take advantage of that blessing and not surrender to defeatism.
Chazal teach, Ein lecho ben chorin elah mi she’oseik batorah – only one who toils in Torah is truly free. According to our understanding of the Zohar, we can expand that to mean that those who labor at learning, disseminating and supporting Torah are blessed with extra measures of cheirus, the force that enables one to maintain a fortified and uplifted spirit in the face of adversity.
That force was certainly on display this past Shabbos in Miami. If you search deep enough, you will perceive it the hearts and souls of the holy people who toil in the vineyard of Torah in your own community. Blessed are all those who number in their ranks, as well as those who benefit from them, and appreciate their work.