By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
This week marks the end of my sojourn in the beautiful town of Monsey. I was born here, and besides the time I spent in yeshiva and Yerushalayim, I’ve lived here my whole life.
My father came to Monsey in 1952 to learn at Bais Medrash Elyon and its kollel; he never left this town. Bais Medrash Elyon gave birth to this great place, producing exemplary talmidim and a Torah town.
My first memories involve me as a toddler taking baby steps in the shadow of towering giants.
Now would be a most appropriate time to be makir tov for having been blessed to live in this pastoral, peaceful town. I publicly express my appreciation to all the fine people who have lived here since I came here, and who created and sustained a great place to grow with the ruach of Torah.
I also thank all the fine roshei yeshiva, rabbonim, mechanchim and moros who taught me and my children, and all the children here, marking Monsey’s young with greatness and wholesomeness, enabling them to grow and succeed.
The baalei chesed who make this place livable for so many are unsung heroes who have earned eternal reward.
The shopkeepers, professionals, doctors, lawyers and accountants here are special, as are the butchers, electricians, plumbers, bakers and fixermen. I appreciate all of you and your contributions.
I would love to write a book depicting the people I grew up knowing, people blessed with so much. Many of them have since passed away, but their memories live on in my heart and I am sure the hearts of many. The town continues to expand, attracting good people with personality and greatness. Each deserves their own book. Maybe one day I will merit to commit my memories to writing so that others can enjoy and appreciate these people and their stories.
A special person I came to know in Monsey passed away this week. He wasn’t from Monsey, he was from Tzefas. Rav Elozor Mordechai Kenig zt”l spent much time here as he waited for a lung transplant and then recovering from the intricate surgery which saved his life. He would then come for regular check-ups. He stayed in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Yankel Klein, whose extended hosting and care raised the bar in chesed.
Towards the end of his first long stay here I came to meet him and was immediately smitten by his ehrlichkeit and kedusha. He possessed an inner happiness and calm I had never seen elsewhere. We had a long discussion and continued it upon his return here. He opened my eyes to chasidus, we would spend many hours learning together and discussing matters of hashkofah.
When he was here I would daven by him. His tefillos were otherworldly, beautiful and unrushed, each word was recited with meaning and heart. He was a living example of the way Hashem meant for us to live and to conduct ourselves. With unfailing emunah, he was always at peace and content. I would always leave him happier than when I had arrived, no matter the occasion.
I spent a Shabbos with him in Tzefas together with some friends. To welcome in Shabbos in his shul set atop a mountain in that holy city was supernatural and something we will never forget. Singing Lecha Dodi to a simple lovely tune, watching the sun set over the kevorim of the holy tzadikim, the chachmei emes who populated Tzefas and taught Klal Yisroel so much of what we know and appreciate about Yidishkeit, was a moving experience.
The parshiyos of Sefer Shemos form the foundation of our belief, as they detail our life in Mitzrayim, our freedom from there, and formation into a nation at Har Sinai. Along the way, there are many lessons we glean from the parshiyos that are oft-repeated but essential to our growth and behavior.
In this week’s parsha, Vo’eira, we learn of the makkos that Hashem performed in Mitzrayim leading up to our rescue from there. Moshe was called upon to initiate seven of the punishing supernatural occurrences. Three were performed by Aharon, who struck the Yam Suf to turn it to blood and to commence the makkah of tzefardeia. He hit the dirt to bring forth kinnim.
Chazal explain that because the Yam Suf protected Moshe when he was set afloat in the river as a baby, he would not, out of gratitude to the water, hit the water to set off the plagues (Rashi, Shemos 7:19).
The Gemara (Bava Kama 92b) derives from this that a person should not cast stones into a well from which he drank. We are proscribed from bringing any harm upon anything from which we benefitted, and certainly from harming a person who benefited us.
Likewise, Moshe Rabbeinu did not strike the ground to bring forth lice during the plague of kinnim, because, as Rashi explains, the dirt “protected him when he killed the Egyptian and buried him in the sand” (Rashi, Shemos 8:12).
Although dirt and water have no feelings or bechirah, Moshe showed appreciation for the benefits he received from them, because hakoras hatov is not about the benefactor, but about the recipient.
People who are makir tov appreciate the daily goodness they experience. They appreciate everyone who has helped them get to where they are. They don’t ignore the “little” people who enhance their lives in ways big and small. If you don’t do the small things right, you won’t do the big things right either. If you don’t appreciate the small things, you won’t appreciate the big things either. Grateful people notice and appreciate all things from which they benefit.
Our world is plagued by people who don’t appreciate anything or anyone. Echoing those on top of industry, entertainment and politics, people care only about themselves. They view others as tools to serve and service them, rarely appreciating the many people necessary to sustain their luxurious lives.
We must recognize that people are not objects we take advantage of, and when we think we have gotten as much as we can from them, or don’t need them anymore, we trash them, forget about them, ignore them, and move on to the next person we can squeeze before eventually dumping him. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do. Never think you’re done with someone or don’t need them anymore. The foundation of being a mentch is to always remember what a person did for you when you needed that person. Never forget it or stop feeling your debt of gratitude.
Many years ago, I did a favor for Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, founder of ArtScroll/Mesorah. For the rest of his life, he befriended me and was exceedingly kind. Every few years, he would remind me of what I had done and remark that he would never forget it. Long after I had forgotten, he would remind me. That is a mark of greatness with roots in Torah.
If we are cognizant and notice everything that goes on around us, we are better people. Moshe Rabbeinu didn’t refrain from hitting the water and sand out of concern that he would, in some way, be hurting an innate, inanimate object, but, rather, because he would be hurting himself. Though water has no feelings, Moshe did and was thus unable to act disrespectfully to something that had helped him.
Bilam beat his loyal donkey. At the time of creation, the animal was given the gift of speech so that it could berate Bilam for smiting the beast of burden. And what did the animal say? It gave Bilam mussar: “After all I’ve done for you, how can you hit me?”
An animal is a creature created to serve man, yet it has a right to complain when a person beats it. A person who presents himself as intelligent and close to G-d must behave with kindness and compassion to others, and to do so, he must be the type of person whose refined character is fashioned through appreciation of what others do for him. Not doing so, earned Bilam the ire of his donkey and eternal derision.
Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv once said that hakoras hatov is not remuneration that you pay someone for a favor he or she did for you. Hakoras hatov is a never-ending obligation, because the Ribbono Shel Olam wants us to be people who always remember that everything is a gift. Hakoras hatov is an opportunity and a means of keeping our value system intact. It is not about him. It is about me.
Developing the middah of hakoras hatov is essential to our growth. It is so easy to take others for granted. We are placed in this world to achieve greatness. It starts with the little things. Appreciate even what simple people do for you. Always be courteous and you will grow. It is not for nothing that if you look up the word appreciate in a thesaurus, you will see that included in its synonyms are gain, grow and rise.
The posuk in Mishlei (27:21) speaks of the gauges used for precious metals. A refining pot is for silver and a furnace is for gold. And what of man? The posuk concludes, “And a man according to his praise.”
Rav Elya Lopian explained that when a silversmith appraises the value of silver, he uses a refiner to see how pure it is. The measure of a man’s purity is seen in “mehalelo,” which literally means praise. The best indicator of a refined nature is a person’s ability to give thanks and praise.
Perhaps we can understand why this lesson is taught in Parshas Vo’eira, at the formative stage in which the family of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov becomes the Am Hashem. Rav Chaim Vital in Shaarei Kedusha (perek 1) famously writes that there is no Biblical mandate to have good middos, but proper middos are a prerequisite to receiving the Torah. It’s the hakdomah to the Torah. These parshiyos at the beginning of Sefer Shemos lead up to the parshiyos of kabbolas haTorah. A nation destined to receive the gift of Torah, had to first develop proper middos.
Throughout the story of the servitude in Mitzrayim, we see chapters that indicate to the nobility of spirit of the wives who endured oppressive days, but would lift the spirits of their husbands at night. We note the selflessness and sacrifice of the shotrim, who accepted beatings on behalf of other Jews. We study the chesed performed by the mother and sister of Moshe Rabbeinu, spiting Paroh to help newborns and their mothers. And as the makkos come, Moshe teaches another lesson.
There was no one better to teach that lesson than he, the onov mikol odom, the humblest of all men, who understood that everything is a gift. It’s the baal gaavah who refuses to recognize how beholden he is to those around him, for his arrogance precludes him from seeing the truth.
A rosh yeshiva once noticed a married talmid waiting on a street-corner outside his yeshiva, clearly agitated. “Let me guess,” the rosh yeshiva said. “You’re waiting here for your wife to pick you up and she’s late.”
The fellow nodded. “Exactly.”
“You’re cold and hungry and just learned a full first seder and you don’t want to wait. You’re wondering why she can’t just be on time, right?”
The young man blushed and admitted that those were his thoughts.
“Now, here is what I want you to do,” the rosh yeshiva said. “Until your wife comes, think about how much you owe her, how much hakoras hatov she deserves, how she married you and takes care of you, and how she raises your children and encourages you and respects you. Don’t think about anything else and you’ll see that when she comes, you will feel it – and she will feel that you feel it!”
Upon returning home from davening on Friday evenings, the Alter of Kelm would enter his home and stop for a moment. Standing by the door, he would look around and reflect on the many preparations for Shabbos undertaken by his wife. He would look into the dining room at the table and see how nice it was set. He would glance into the kitchen and see the different foods she had cooked. He would take in all that the rebbetzin had done, so that he would not be a kofuy tov, but would recognize and appreciate her goodness.
This is something we can all emulate.
Rav Avigdor Miller said that along with everything else, thankfulness is a segulah for good health and long life. Life is too short to be spent angry, insulted or resentful about perceived wrongs. Training yourself to see the chassodim all around opens a person to new avenues of happiness.
Of course, the middah of hakoras hatov causes us to appreciate all that Hashem does for us. This week’s parsha supports our emunah and bitachon, as we see how Hashem orchestrates what happens in this world. This reinforces our obligation to be thankful to our Maker and Provider.
To appreciate that all is from Hashem also enables us to persevere in tough times. When we recognize that things that challenge us are brought upon us by Hashem, with firm belief we are able to maintain the strength necessary to carry on. We recognize that we are not alone, and that which happens is not by happenstance. Everything happens for a reason, and by cleaving to Hashem and His mitzvos, we are granted the ability to surmount the challenge.
Moshe Rabbeinu was engaged in a battle with Paroh, the ultimate kofui tov. The savior of Mitzrayim and its economy was Yosef, but the king claimed that he didn’t know who Yosef was, lest the memory obligate him (Shemos 1:8).
The awareness that we give ourselves through being makir tov is to enable us to learn to see, recognize and perceive the truth. It is the secret to having emunah. Paroh was a kofer and Moshe was a ma’amin.
It’s easy to fall into a rut of negativity. Life is rough. Parnossah doesn’t come easy. Chinuch is challenging. People can be mean and fail to understand what lies in our heart.
Moshe Rabbeinu teaches us how to achieve geulah and how to develop emunah.
We are here to change the world and make it better. We can only do that if we recognize the problems other people have and the pain they are enduring. We can only contribute if we care about other people and appreciate their contributions to the spirit and essence of the world. To make the world a better place, we need to have hope and be able to offer hope to others. We have to respect other people and care about them.
Moshe Rabbeinu grew up in the king’s palace with nary an apparent worry. Yet, he ventured out to check on the situation of his brothers and sisters. He felt their pain. He risked his life to help a fellow Jew who was being pummeled by a Mitzri policeman. It was from that moment that he began the ascent that led him to become the greatest man who ever lived.
Everything we have is a gift from Hashem. Never forget that and never cease being thankful. Modeh ani is how we begin each day, for gratefulness is the foundation of Jewish life.
We achieve joy in life by helping others, appreciating others and treating others the way we would like to be treated. The first step is by being a makir tov.