By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
When there is bad news in the world, when there is pestilence, terrorism or a war, people ponder why these things are befalling them. They look for others to blame. They blame the liberals, the leftists, the media, the Arabs, the internet, the iPhone, the freiyeh, and the Tziyonim. When all else fails, they chalk it up to chevlei Moshiach.
Whatever the problem is, they can generally point to one or more of the above culprits and that usually works for them. They are satisfied that they know why it happened and can move on without much introspection.
Those who live according to the Torah know that tzaros befall individuals, communities, countries and the world because of sin, as the Rambam writes (Hilchos Taanis 1). We rationalize and try to make sense of anything that occurs in life, usually attaching natural reasons to what transpires. If we would acknowledge the truth of Hashem being behind everything, that would obligate us to mend our ways and do teshuvah to rectify the underlying problem.
In Israel, a great commotion ensued after Rav Chaim Kanievsky advised that chadorim and yeshivos should remain open, following strict scientific preventative measures as Israel endures another lockdown. Rav Chaim was accused of planning an insurrection, and as for the chareidim who followed him, well, you can imagine what was said about them. I don’t have to repeat it here. Last week, on Israeli television, no less than three channels discussed the fact that two weeks after the schools were opened, the infection numbers among chareidim were lower than among all other groups. “How can it be?” they asked. “Maybe there is something to what the rov says that Torah is what sustains the Jewish people.”
Rav Chaim’s gabbai and grandson, known affectionately as Yanky Kanievsky, was featured in a long interview in Israel’s Yediot Acharonot newspaper, which tried to understand the phenomenon. Torah is our lifeblood and we cannot afford to be without it. If scientifically schools can be open and children and adults and their families can be protected, then we are obligated to see to it that Yiddishe kinder are studying Torah.
There is always more going on than what meets the eye.
In this week’s parsha, we read that after the destruction of Sedom and Amorah, Avrohom looked out at the smoldering cities, “vayashkeif al pnei Sedom” (Bereishis 19:28). It is interesting to note that the posuk uses the term “vayashkeif” to describe Avrohom Avinu’s gazing at the cities. Lehashkif denotes a deep, penetrating gaze. It implies looking and contemplating. He didn’t merely go there to glance indifferently as a tourist would. He stood there beholding the scene.
To most onlookers, the city was nothing more than a bastion of hedonism and immorality, inhabited by sadistic and selfish people. They were so vicious that offering hospitality to strangers was a capital crime punishable by death. It was a place whose destruction most people would view as a cause for celebration.
Yet, our forefather Avrohom had a deeper perspective. He gazed into the town’s innermost soul and found supreme goodness.
What did he see? The posuk states in Tehillim, “Motzosi Dovid avdi – I have found My servant Dovid.” Chazal (Bereishis Rabbah 41:4) ask, “Heichon motzosi? Where did I find him? B’Sedom.” The roots of Dovid Hamelech were found in Sedom.
Dovid Hamelech descended from Rus, a daughter of Moav, who merited surviving Sedom’s destruction. Moshiach ben Dovid emerged from Moav, a fulfillment of Avrohom Avinu’s vision and conviction that good could emanate even from Sedom.
Rav Shlomke Zviller was well-known as a holy person, detached from his surroundings and living on a different plane. Yerushalayim, where he resided, is a city with a tremendous number of stray cats. Old Yerushalayimers say that the rebbe would feed cats and display great kindness toward them.
The rebbe’s custom aroused the curiosity of many. One day, his gabbai decided that he had to understand why the rebbe spent time with the cats. He began pestering the rebbe about his habit until the rebbe revealed his secret.
“I feed the cats because they have holy neshamos,” he said. “They are the gilgulim of chassidim who were involved in a certain bitter machlokes many years ago. They were sent here to achieve a tikkun for those neshamos.”
Sometimes, a person experiences hardships and begins wondering what he did wrong to deserve such punishment. In the times of the Arizal, people who were facing adversity would approach him for assistance. Sometimes he would tell them that the torment they were living through was connected to their neshamos in a previous life and not brought on by anything they had done in this life.
The Arizal was able to see beneath the surface and perceive the reason for people’s misfortune. He saw the blemishes on their soul that needed to be rectified.
A person in difficult straits approached Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach, whose yahrtzeit is this week, and shared his tale of woe. Rav Shach took out a Shabbos zemiros and turned to the zemer of Koh Ribon. He read aloud the words “lu yichyeh gevar shenin alfin la yei’ol gevurteich bechushbenaya.” Rav Shach explained that these words mean that even if a man were to live for one thousand years, he would not be able to fathom the cheshbonos of Hashem and the constant chassodim being performed for him.
To emphasize his point, Rav Shach began a discussion about Akeidas Yitzchok. Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer states that Yitzchok Avinu’s neshomah left him at the Akeidah. The Zohar states that when Yitzchok was revived, Hashem sent him a different neshomah. He writes that Yitzchok’s initial neshomah was one of bechinas nukvah, and had it remained, Yitzchok would not have been able to have children. The neshomah that Hashem sent him following the Akeidah was bechinas duchrah and thus he was able to father children.
Rav Shach told the broken man, “In other words, what the Zohar is saying is that if not for the Akeidah, Yitzchok would not have had children. It was due to the experience of the Akeidah that the bechinas nukvah was removed from Yitzchok and Klal Yisroel sprung forth from him. It is impossible for us mortal beings to understand why things are happening to us, to others and to the world, but we must know that everything that occurs is part of a clearly designed Divine plan.”
Many wonder why such a big deal is made over Avrohom’s conduct in the nisayon of the Akeidah. Avrohom had discovered on his own that Hashem created the world and directs it. He dedicated his life to spreading that truth among the masses, jeopardizing his very life for that cause. When Hashem appeared to Avrohom and commanded him to undertake a certain action, as difficult as it was, of course Avrohom was going to do it.
Rav Shach explains that the only novi to whom Hashem appeared b’aspaklarya hame’irah was Moshe Rabbeinu. Only Moshe was told explicitly what Hashem wanted him to do. All other nevi’im received their prophecies in a dream and in a parable.
When Hakadosh Boruch Hu appeared to Avrohom and told him regarding Yitzchok, “Vehaaleihu shom l’olah,” Avrohom would have been justified in interpreting the command in numerous ways, none of them involving the death of Yitzchok. After all, Hashem had promised Avrohom that his name would live on through his son Yitzchok. It would have been perfectly reasonable to assume that Hashem had something else in mind and that “vehaaleihu” didn’t mean to sacrifice his beloved son, but rather to raise him.
But Avrohom analyzed Hashem’s words as though they were referring to someone other than his son, and he reached the conclusion that Hashem’s intention was for him to offer Yitzchok as a korban.
When we are obligated to perform a mitzvah, or when we have obligations to carry out, the temptation is to find an easy way out. There are always excuses and rationales that we could use to realize our responsibilities in an easier way. As bnei Avrohom, we have to demonstrate fidelity to the Torah and its principles, even when it appears difficult and we don’t understand it.
The posuk states, “Vayashkeim Avrohom baboker… And Avrohom awoke the morning of the Akeidah and set out to find the appointed place.” Many explain that the posuk is teaching us the greatness of Avrohom. Even though he was going to sacrifice his son, he awoke at the crack of dawn to fulfill the word of Hashem.
The Brisker Rov says that it is natural that a person who is going to fulfill the word of Hashem would wake up early to perform the action without delay. He says that the lesson of the posuk is that Avrohom was able to sleep the night before setting out to shecht Yitzchok. Even though he knew that he was going to kill his beloved son in whom all his dreams for the future were invested, he was able to sleep peacefully.
He who is sure of himself, without doubting or questioning the ways of Hashem, serves with complete faith and sleeps very comfortably at night. One who deals honestly with his fellow man; one who hears the pleas of the hungry, the desolate and the poor; one who rises to every occasion and doesn’t turn a deaf ear to the cries of the abused and afflicted; one whose life isn’t a string of excuses and half-truths is a child of Avrohom Avinu and can sleep comfortably at night.
Rav Dovid Soloveitchik, may he have a speedy refuah sheleimah, told of his experiences during World War II. He described the situation in Brisk as the Germans pounded the city to complete their takeover of Poland. In the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah of 1939, the bombs seemingly didn’t stop falling from the sky.
His father, the Brisker Rov, was not in the city, and Rav Dovid, who was then a teenager, was petrified along with everyone else regarding what their fate would be. Houses were destroyed one after the next and streets were being blown up. That was until a local ehrliche Yid told him that every bomb has an address where Hashem wants it to fall, and if it is not meant for you, then it will not hit you. By now, that advice has become a cliché, often repeated in the name of the Brisker Rov, but living through constant bombardment and hearing it for the first time and accepting it is something totally different.
Rav Dovid recounted that during that period, a siren warned of an imminent bombing by the German Air Force. Everyone ran from their apartments and from wherever they were to basements and shelters. There was a man who was paralyzed and couldn’t move without help. He was stuck alone in his third-floor apartment as bombs hit the building. The entire building collapsed on the people in the basement. The paralyzed man landed on top of the pile and was easily evacuated without injury.
We look around and are worried. We analyze this week’s election and fret about the future. We receive the tragic news of people felled by the virus, which has apparently rearmed itself and is spreading here and around the world, though at a much lower mortality rate. We see how New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have been able to demonize our community in the name of health and science without repercussion. Millions are convinced that the rate of corona in our community is higher than in any other because we don’t care about life and health. We worry about our businesses, our incomes, our children and their schools. We worry about our health. There are so many things to worry about these days; some people are overcome with anxiety 24/7.
The posuk (Vayeira 18:1) states that when Hashem appeared to Avrohom Avinu to visit him following his milah, “vehu yosheiv pesach ha’ohel, Avrohom was sitting outside the tent.” The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 48) states that Avrohom attempted to rise, but Hashem said to him, “Sit, veyihiyeh hadovor siman levonecha, and it will be a sign of what will happen to your children. Just as you sit and the Shechinah stands, so will your children sit and the Shechinah will stand above them. This will be when the Bnei Yisroel enter the botei knesses and botei medrash and sit down to honor Me and I will stand above them, as the posuk states, ‘Elokim nitzov ba’adas Keil.’”
In a speech, Rav Shach quoted this Medrash and said that traditionally, Jews have always sat outside of the tent as we lived in golus among the nations of the world. Jews had no permanent place, but were always on the go, never feeling safe and always fearing the next gezeirah, pogrom, inquisition, pillaging and exile.
Whenever Jews got too comfortable in one place, ill winds would come and blow them out of that country. When we begin to view ourselves as equal citizens, something happens to remind us that we are a homeless nation on a centuries-long trek home.
We are home when we are in our shuls and botei medrash, davening and learning, awakening our neshamos, restoring our faith while remembering our mission and essence as the Shechinah hovers above us.
In these anxious days, let us remember who we are and what we are about so that Hakadosh Boruch Hu will have mercy on us and return us to where we belong. Until then, let us have the faith of Avrohom Avinu, and people such as Rav Shach and ybcl”c Rav Dovid Soloveitchik (Meshulom Dovid ben Alte Hendl), so that we may grow and prosper, worry-free.