By Rabbi Moshe L Kuskin
I recall the scene vividly. It was several decades ago. I walked into the Yeshiva Beis Medrash. There sat the illustrious Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Shlomo Friefeld zt”l, next to the Aaron Kodesh, facing the students. I approached meekly. I was a college student, visiting, still wet behind the ears, as far as my recent entry into the religious Jewish community was concerned. I had not studied Torah and was filled with secular ideas. Starting to ask a few questions about Yeshiva life, Rav Friefeld kindly, but firmly, interrupted me. “It’s a sick society out there. There is only one way to heal yourself from it—Come to yeshiva and study Torah.”
Immersed as I was in the ways of the world, the statement shocked me, yet woke me up to the stark reality of life in those times. Fast forward 30-40 years and the Rosh Yeshiva would have surely answered differently, “It’s an insane society out there…”
Those times were characterized by a secular society that had already begun to lose its moorings. The excesses of materialism and hedonism, escapism through drugs, radical politics and the beginnings of militant feminism had cracked through and fractured the veneer of normalcy of the previous generation. Over the course of the next generation, which has been even more unrestrained by traditional moral values, society has hurtled farther and farther to the extremes. Behaviors once considered perversions are now heralded as normal and admirable by legislators and those who profess to be doctors and scientists. The psychosis of gender dysphoria, which manifests in less than 1 percent of the population, is now embraced as a legitimate behavior, such that the liberal elites no longer consider gender to be biological but, rather, up to the individual, according to how they “identify.”
The words of the Navi Yeshayahu have come true (5:20) “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness…” as the political pundits, led by the Hollywood elites who practice unrestrained immorality and have the highest divorce rates in society, have gained the moral high ground, calling anyone who opposes these perversions as engaging in some form of “phobia”, intolerance or immorality.
Two leading companies, which sell men’s cosmetic products have now officially declared, through their advertising, that the basic gender “masculine” is considered toxic.
Destruction of Life
New York state has just legalized abortions up to 24 weeks of pregnancy — when abortion is never medically necessary and when children born prematurely are routinely able to survive outside the womb. The new law even creates lenient exceptions, essentially sanctioning elective abortion up to the moment of birth. Under the new law, there are not even protections for a baby who happens to survive the abortion; in fact, it can then be deliberately killed or allowed to die without any repercussions to the attending “caregiver” who does not even have to be a physician. This blatant lunacy represents out and out murder–the legalization of infanticide.
This loss of the concept of the value and sacredness of life in the microcosm exists now against the backdrop of what the world has experienced in the macrocosm for decades. The holy Zohar states that in the time immediately preceding the arrival of moshiach the wicked of society will bring the world right up to, but not including, the point of destruction. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, often in the hands of dangerous and unstable leaders, the rampant terrorism and barbarism the world has been experiencing for so long without respite, all point to the fulfillment of this prophecy.
Disaster of Drug Use
This same N.Y. legislature, so sanguine in its establishment of legal infanticide, has also recently banned “conversion therapy,” thereby further legitimizing the practice and “normalcy” of behavior that the Torah considers to be an abomination. And the same Governor, who so proudly signed these bills into law, has placed front and center on his agenda the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. This is in spite of overwhelming evidence that regular use can stimulate psychotic behavior in a large number of people. In a smaller number, that behavior can be permanent and severe. The psychosis induced by marijuana can include depersonalization, derealization, paranoia, disorganized thinking, persecutory delusions, grandiose delusions, auditory or visual hallucinations, impaired attention and memory impairment. In a Swedish study involving a large number of subjects, ages 18 to 20 years old, who were followed for 15 years, the researchers found that those who used the drug more than 3 times per year during that time period had a six fold increase in the risk of developing schizophrenia.
As one who grew up in the 70’s, I can attest to the fact that the brightest and the best of my generation were literally destroyed by drugs, even casual use of this “gateway” narcotic leading to passivity, withdrawal from society, impaired thinking and personality changes.
The Rambam in the 5th chapter of Hilchos De’os writes that a person is greatly affected by the surrounding society in which he lives. Therefore, a person should strive to live among righteous individuals. However, if society is so evil that he can not live among them for fear of being influenced, he should move to a cave or a desert, if necessary, and dwell in seclusion.
During WWII the Mirrer Yeshiva was miraculously saved from the Nazi hell fires that enveloped Lithuainia and escaped to Shanghai. After the war the entire Yeshiva made its way to America and settled in New York. Upon their arrival, after stopping over in a few cities, the holy mashgiach, HaRav Yechezkel Levenstein, zt”l, asked one of the administrators why they couldn’t have settled in a more remote location since the Sages teach that the larger the population center, the more enticements from the yetzer hara that exist (see commentary of Rashi on Shir HaShirim 7:12). One of the wealthy supporters of the Yeshiva happened to overhear the conversation and had the audacity to ask the mashgiach sarcastically, “so why don’t you just move to a desert like the Rambam says?” The mashgiach calmly answered him. “Believe me, I considered the Rambam, but, in today’s world, society has fallen to such a low state that if a person moves into seclusion, he will no longer have the innate ability to conduct himself properly, and he, too, will become dissolute.”
This was over two generations ago, and it was the holy mashgiach, a virtual angel who walked among men, speaking! Think how much worse is our situation today!
Where is Noah’s Ark?
Those who study Kabbalah have taught that the masses that comprise today’s generation are reincarnated souls from the generation of the mabul– the flood of Noah. This helps explain the rampant and unbridled immorality of society today. Facing a a mabul, Noach was commanded to build a place of refuge—a Teivah, an ark. The Kli Yakar (Bereishis 6:15) explains that the Torah goes out of its way to delineate the dimensions of the Teivah as well as exactly how high the waters rose above the mountains and for how many days the mabul lasted. All of these numbers–the linear and cubic dimensions of the ark and the numerical descriptions of the water are all multiples of 15. This is in order to teach us that immorality was the main cause of the flood. It was of such great magnitude that it caused even the animals, who are completely controlled by natural instinct, to pervert their behavior. When immorality occurs, it removes the letters yud and heh, which have a numerical value of 15 and which spell one of the names of HaShem, from ish and isha, man and woman, the normal and traditional basis for a family in society, and leaves the word aish—fire. Hence, the boiling waters of the flood that the creation drowned in, and, conversely, the refuge for the name of Hashem—yud, heh which has a numerical value of 15, that the ark represented.
The word teivah, ark, can also be written and is pronounced the same way as teivah, meaning “word.” Rabbi Klonymos Kalman Halevi Epstein, author of the seminal Chassidic work, “M’eor V’Shemesh,” explains that a righteous individual, especially through the highest form of teshuvah, repentance and love of Hashem, has the power to reverse Hashem’s attribute of strict justice to one of mercy and loving kindness. By doing so, he can literally reverse the letters of a word of G-d’s decree to create a different meaning. This is hinted at by G-d’s command to Noach to build a “tzohar” צהר)) a light for the ark. Thus צרה , affliction, can be changed into light (צהר) and rejoicing. We can apply this concept to the story of Purim, as well, where “v’nehapachu,” everything was turned over and reversed due to the prayers and fasting of the Jewish people, and instead of Haman’s evil decree the Jews had “orah v’simchah,” light and gladness.
Modern Day Ark
Today, we must find our own refuge, our own teivah, with its inherent attributes of purity, righteousness and and closeness to Hashem, and it can be found in one place–in the Beis HaMedrash. We must dedicate our lives to Torah and mitzvos, as if our very lives depend upon them, to save us from the insanity that has enveloped society. Even if one is only able to devote a small amount of time daily to Torah study, he should strive to do so without exception. Our Sages teach that if one truly values this limited time as the main purpose of his daily activities, then it is considered as if he studied Torah the whole day. And, it is well known that women, who are not obligated in the study of Torah, receive the same benefit and segulos of learning Torah by virtue of encouraging their family members to study Torah.
This concept of seeking refuge in the Beis Medrash as a teIvah amidst a mabul is actually hinted at by the following gematria: the numerical value of “make yourself a teIvah” is the same as the numerical vale of the words of the verse “v’atem hadeveikim baShem Elokeichem Chaim’ (Devarim 4:4) “And you who cleave to the living G-d,” for cleaving to Torah means cleaving to
G-d, as our sages teach, “kudsha Brich Hu v’oraisa v’Yisroel chad hu,” (Zohar) “Hashem, Torah and the Jewish people are one” (inseparable).
The Only Defense
One of the greatest teachers and disseminators of Torah in modern times, Rav Avigdor Miller, zt’l, once related how he was surprised to learn that one of the members of his shul, a simple and unlearned man, was sending his daughter to an extremely religious school, one that some might have considered “extreme” for a person of his background. When asked by Rabbi Miller why he had chosen to enroll his daughter in such a school, he replied, “In today’s immoral society one must go to the opposite extreme to protect our children.”
The Talmud teaches that moshiach will only arrive in a generation that is either completely righteous or completely evil ( Sanhedrin 98a). Yet, how is it possible that every single person in an entire generation could be righteous or, conversely, that every single one could be evil? The commentaries answer that the Talmud is teaching us that moshiach will arrive at a time when there is a distinct and discernable schism in society. Either the people of that generation will be overtly evil or overtly righteous, but those who “straddle the fence,” ambiguous in their morality will not exist. Increasingly, this is what society has become today. Evil is overt and rampant in ways that it never was before. Politics, once the venue for civil discussion of ideas to advance society’s goals has become little more than a venue for character assassination and the machinations of malevolent individuals. Journalists, once ostensible purveyors of objective truth, have become partisan hacks, spewing vitriol and “fake news.”
We can no longer afford to be lackadaisical or dilatory in our spiritual direction. We must be part of the “kulo zachai,” the completely righteous lest we fall prey to the only other option we are witness to—pandemic evil. A famous senator once said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” We may aptly substitute the word “righteousness” for the words “liberty” and “justice”– Extremism in the defense of righteousness is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of righteousness is no virtue. We must cling to Torah, our teivah, amid the cascading waters of degeneracy and wickedness. For it is “your life and the length of your days” (Devarim 30:20).