Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Find Your Path

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

An American tourist turned off of Rechov Meah Shearim with a dreamy look in his eyes as he wandered about in the small alleyways. A local man approached and asked if he needed help with directions.
The visitor explained that while he looked like a wayward tourist, he was, in fact, born and raised in Meah Shearim. He hadn’t returned for some forty years, and this was the first time he was back in the place where he had grown up. He had gone far from his roots, he told the Yerushalmi, and decided that it was time for him to return and see what he had left behind.

There was one thing about which he was most curious. He remembered a scene from his youth.
“There was a young man who would sit alone in a small shul and learn,” he recounted. “That was all he did. His sweet voice would waft out through the windows, capturing passersby. He alone had the key to the shul, and he seemed to be there perpetually hunched over a Gemara, standing up to walk around and contemplate an idea, then returning to the Gemara. What happened to the young scholar from Ohel Sara?” he asked.

The local led him to the Ohel Sara shul and told him to peek through the window.
“Here he is,” said the Yerushalmi.

The visitor looked on in awe, a sight of more than forty years earlier coming to life in front of his eyes. That very same scholar, Rav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, was sitting in his spot in the same shul, learning with the same sweet voice, hunched over a Gemara.

Rav Elyashiv chose a path and never veered from it. As remarkable as his hasmodah and focus, was the fact that he stepped onto a derech as a child and never left it. He remained on that blessed path his entire life.
Staying on the path, as much as anything else, leads to a life of brocha.

That is the key of this week’s parsha, which begins with the words, “Re’eh, see, anochi nosein lifneichem brocha ukelalah, I place before you blessings and curses. Es habrocha asher tishme’u…” 
Those who listen and follow Hashem’s word remain on the path of brocha. Those who choose not to listen have no path to follow and find themselves ending up in the wrong places.

Someone who listens to the word of Hashem and follows His path is fortunate enough to know where to go and, just as importantly, what to avoid. If you have a path through life, you know how to live.
People who don’t have a path to follow get lost and end up far from the path of blessing.

Life throws so much our way that if we are not on an established derech, we can, when confronted by challenges, become sad, anxious, depressed and lonely. Those who don’t follow a derech will often lack the self-confidence needed to get back to where they belong.

The test of life is to withstand the ever-present pressures and difficulties. If we are ensconced firmly on a path, with a clear goal, then we have the strength to handle challenges.
People who find themselves in trying situations, facing danger, illness or financial difficulty, can retain their values and equilibrium if they follow the path of “re’eh” and brocha.

When Rav Yisroel Salanter was on his deathbed, he called one of the local gabboim, a fellow Rav Yisroel suspected would be asked to remain with his body until the kevurah. 
Rav Yisroel spoke with the poor man about the fear of being with the dead and explained to him why he need not fear, thus giving him strength to face the imminent task.

Not long after, Rav Yisroel’s soul left him and the gabbai was able to discharge the mission of remaining with the body, because this tzaddik was calm and tranquil enough in his final minutes to continue on his well trodden path and maintaining his lifelong practice of focusing on others. He felt bad for the poor man who would be left alone with the lifeless body.
Many question why the parsha begins with the word “Re’eh,” in the singular, and then continues with the word “lifneichem,” which is plural.

Perhaps we can suggest an answer of our own. 
The path is set for the individual to see and contemplate - re’eh. Once he has chosen to conduct  his life on the proper derech, he is able to impact and help many people. Hence the plural; lifneichem.

Every individual possesses the power to impact and influence the many. Man is given the capability to shape not just his own destiny, but that of many others.
We need to follow the blessed path, and if we do, there is no limit to the impact we can have on other people. The one who is blessed can cause a revolution among others, and that is the greatest source of merit.

There are people who are able to help many others. They are people of brocha. One such person in our times was Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, whose shloshim was recently marked. He began with one sefer. Its success emboldened him and showed him that there was a huge need for the type of work he became famous for publishing. From a small start, he went on to have a lasting impact on Jews around the world.
When regular people, like you and me, are on the right path, armed with visions, dreams and words, we can light up the world, if we only want.

The Kotzker Rebbe explained the shift in the posuk from the singular to the plural as a reference to the idea that we all have an individual path to Torah: Re’eh, find your path, your way, your road to Torah, but know that there is a path for each individual person. In our schools and homes, we need to remember that what works for one talmid or child doesn’t necessarily work for another.
This, too, is a directive for this period on the calendar, as we prepare for another year of doing our jobs as parents and teachers and meeting the call of the hour.

It’s time that we developed the humility to really try to understand the way our children perceive things and speak to them, rather than at them.
Rav Avrohom Pam, whose yahrtzeit will be marked this coming week, would recall a moment in his own home. There is a machlokes haposkim whether to first light the Chanukah menorah or to first recite Havdolah on Motzoei Shabbos Chanukah.

Rav Pam’s minhag was to light candles first. One year, as he struck a match and was preparing to say the brachos, his five-year-old son called out, “I don’t care what you do. I’m not lighting candles until after Havdolah.”
Rav Pam considered his son’s words and their source. He understood that his son was so frightened at the prospect of what he considered chillul Shabbos that he lashed out. Without hesitating, the rosh yeshiva looked lovingly at his son and thanked him.

As we bentch Rosh Chodesh Elul this Shabbos, we demonstrate that we are committed to living the next year more productively. “Anochi nosein lifneichem.” The anochi - that is us - can gain for ourselves great benefit if we are “nosein lifneichem,” helpful to others.
Success in impacting others starts with a respect and appreciation of where people are coming from. We have to learn to listen better and take the time to consider why people say what they say instead of brushing them off or shouting louder.

Re’eh. See the children and the adults. See the opportunities, each one an island of its own. Open your eyes, even if the sights appear new, even if you don’t completely understand them, and even if what you see calls for a new approach. Take the time to see and understand. 
When we will recognize that other people think differently and have a path to avodas Hashem that is different than ours, we will join lifneichem, all of us as one, a nation marching forward into the new year, assured of endless blessing.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

People is People

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Maybe because it was a slow news week, or because the Trump-Russia story is getting tiresome, or because it was a convenient way for the New York Times to cover our community from their vantage point; the Gray Lady has been running negative articles targeting our community and its practices.

First it was an article against bris milah - not only metzitzah, but the whole thing. The hardworking Times reporter dug up disenfranchised Jews and wrote about their decision not to circumcise their newborn sons. One of those newborns isn’t halachically Jewish, but that’s clearly beside the point. The goal is to plant seeds of confusion and uncertainty in the minds of readers.

Then it was a lengthy article about 62 families who moved to Jersey City, a major enough story to merit space on page A17. It’s as if 62 families moving into a city of 250,000 residents is something groundbreaking.

Are they Irish, or Italian, or blacks or Hispanics moving into a Waspy city? Of course not. The Times would never tolerate such bigotry. The 62 families are Jewish. Not only Jewish, but ultra-Orthodox. And worse than that, they are Hasids.

And get this. The Hasids have nerve. “The influx, however, has provoked tensions with long-established residents, as the ultra-Orthodox seek to establish a larger footprint for their surfing population.”

Those pushy Hasids again. Even the mayor says so.

“They literally go door to door and can be very pushy trying to purchase someone’s house,” said Mayor Steven Fulop, a Jew of course. He told the writer that “his town took pride in its diversity, but had been concerned about ‘very aggressive solicitation.’”

Then two more little dots for the reader to connect and complete the story.

The article is headlined “A Wary Welcome for Orthodox Jews as Prices Push Families Beyond Brooklyn,” and repeatedly speaks about Jews moving out of Brooklyn, as if that is something terrible.

“Squeezed out of their traditional neighborhoods, ultra-Orthodox Jews have taken steps that have raised concerns as they settle into new communities,” the article reports.

The continued reference to leaving Brooklyn is a dog whistle to watch out or you’ll have a ghetto in your backyard. A lead puncher is Mayor Fulop, who the paper identifies as “a grandson of Holocaust survivors and a graduate of yeshivas.”

Ah. So he has a right to speak.

Which yeshivos? I Googled it, and it turns out that the good mayor was in yeshiva as a child, but didn’t really stick around. I’m not judging him, and my heart is pained for another Yiddishe neshomah that drifted away, but by the time he graduated high school, he wasn’t in a Jewish institution anymore. The choices he made after that don’t indicate that the spirit of the yeshiva had stayed with him.

He’s certainly not the one to make a statement or provide analyses on our behalf.

The article also made sure to mention Lakewood - you know, the town where religious Jews have taken over - and remind readers that the municipality voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, making some sort of vague point without explaining it.

The author, who is probably a nice person, writes: “Lakewood is also feeling the impact of a fast-growing minority group. Decades ago, the area was rural, filled with hardscrabble egg-raising farms owned by Jewish Holocaust refugees, a few grand hotels and an estate that once had been owned by John D. Rockefeller.”

Holocaust Jews are the good kind, but the ultra-Orthodox Brooklynites? Watch out for them. They destroy farms and Rockefeller-esque properties. And they are going to destroy your town if you’re not careful and allow them to move in.

We, too, just like the good mayor, have a right to weigh in on the topic of Jews moving into rundown neighborhoods and helping the local economy.

Perhaps the relevance of 62 families moving into Jersey City is something very different and contains a message for us.

In Tehillim, we learn that after the meraglim convinced Klal Yisroel to reject Eretz Yisroel in the midbar - Vayimasu b’eretz chemdah” - Hashem promised “lehapil zarom bagoyim ulezorosom bo’arotzos,” to spread the children of the people who lost their trust in Him amongst the nations and disperse them throughout the lands (Tehillim 106:24-27).

Where does it say in Chumash that after the sin of the meraglim, Hashem swore to disperse the Jews around the world?

The Peirush Maharzu on Medrash explains that the root of this was the posuk that states that Hashem swore that His glory would fill the world: “Veyimolei kevod Hashem es kol ha’aretz” (Bamidbar 14:21). He explains that the only way for Hashem’s glory to fill the earth is through Jews living in every corner of the globe. The Jewish people are His ambassadors. Thus, it is derived that the Jews would be evicted from Eretz Yisroel as punishment for that sin and would be dispersed around the world.

The posuk in this week’s parsha (Devorim 11:1) says, “V’ohavta es Hashem Elokecha.” Chazal (Yoma 86a) derive from the posuksheyehei sheim Shomayim misaheiv al yodcha.” Our mission is to make the name of Hashem beloved.

Because our mission here is to increase love and appreciation of Hashem, there is significance to all we do. The story isn’t 62 families opening a shul in a former dry cleaners shop that was boarded up in a rundown neighborhood, but that kevod Hashem is spreading.

For our children to succeed, we have to invest them with self-confidence. For them to thrive, we need to tell them their strengths and point out their gifts. That should be obvious to everyone by now.

And sometimes, we need to give ourselves an injection of national self-esteem, to remind ourselves of who we are, who our forefathers were, where we come from, and why we’re here. We don’t always know. Sometimes we act as if we have forgotten.

The Chazon Ish writes that the length of golus makes us forget.

And we need to remember.

We lack self-confidence. We try to mix in with the others, because we aren’t proud enough of our identity.

We have to be self-confident.

In last week’s parsha (Devorim 7:7), we learned, “Lo merubchem mikol ha’amim.” Hashem doesn’t love us because we are the largest or most powerful nation. He loves us even though we are the smallest.

We shouldn’t make believe like we are something we are not. Compared to all the other nations of the world, we are quite small and different.

Rav Leizer Yudel Finkel zt”l, the Mirrer rosh yeshiva, met the sons of the Brisker Rov after their arrival in Yerushalayim. He was surprised to see that their dress was unique. They were wearing the old-fashioned caps and suits of Eastern Europe, attire that was very different from the dress of the yeshiva bochurim all around them. Rav Finkel mentioned to their father, the Brisker Rov, that their mode of dress made them look very different than everyone else in the resurgent olam hayeshivos.

“Yes,” the Brisker Rov agreed, “it does. Because they are takeh different.”

Sometimes, we need to celebrate ourselves and realize that we have a mission and a mandate that make us takeh different, as the posuk in Parshas Vo’eschanan (Devorim 4:6) states, “Ki hi chochmaschem uvinaschem l’einei ho’amim.” “Study and observe My mitzvos,” Hashem says, for that is what identifies you as a smart and intelligent people in the eyes of the other nations.

We have it all. The nations of the world don’t hate us for being us as much as they hate us for trying to be them.

It’s summertime. People travel. Those who live in sheltered neighborhoods get to be exposed to Hakadosh Boruch Hu’s beautiful world and its inhabitants. We get to make an impression, to play our role as ambassadors. People who have only heard about us or read about us in the paper, watch us and see how we conduct ourselves. They notice if we are pushy, if we clean up after ourselves, and if we make sure our children don’t run wild.

On his visit to America, Rav Meir Shapiro asked for a hairbrush. The Lubliner rosh yeshiva then stood in front of a mirror and brushed his beard. His host was bewildered by the sight.

“I am a European rov,” the famed guest responded. “For many in the audience tonight, seeing me will be their enduring image of an old-time rabbi. I feel obligated to make it as pleasant as possible, so that they will view our world positively.”

If you read accounts of contemporary baalei teshuvah, you find that many of their journeys began with the sight of a religious family, or a glimpse of a Shabbos table. In so many cases, there was no seminar or lecture, just an image, followed by the thought of, “I want that in my life.” Read Rav Uri Zohar’s story. Read the stories of the thousands who fell under his spell and sent their children to a yeshiva and became religious. You’ll see stories of ordinary people who met a religious Jew and decided to find out more.

Hundreds of kollel men fan out across Eretz Yisroel cold-calling for Torah and bringing souls back to Torah and Yahadus just by being themselves.

We all carry much power, which is emitted by the way we walk, the way we interact with each other, and the way we carry ourselves. Everything makes a difference.

The message of the New York Times article referenced earlier is not the negative impression that it was ostensibly meant to create, but that if 62 families in a city populated by hundreds of thousands make waves, then we can all do the same, in the wider world, wherever we go. We shake ‘em up. We get noticed. What we do and the way we act make a big difference.

In hilchos Shabbos, the Chazon Ish (siman 56:7) rules as follows regarding milking cows on Shabbos: “It is forbidden to milk cows on Shabbos, and this is the minhag wherever Shabbos is valued, and it’s the Torah’s way to maintain peaceful relations with everyone…

The last few words seem quizzical and unrelated to the halacha. What does having good neighborly relations have to do with milking cows on Shabbos?

Rav Yitzchok Hutner explained that the Chazon Ish wrote this p’sak at a time when the Israeli Histadrut labor union was on a campaign for Jews not to make use of Arab labor. They called it avodah zarah. The Chazon Ish held that Jews should try to maintain good relations with their neighbors, and thus inserted the line into a teshuvah in halacha in order to indicate the importance he attached to that dictate.

To be aware of those around us and act as a good neighbor is as eternal as the halacha itself.

Perhaps the New York Times article was a message to remind us of who we are and how we can impact others.

In the very last paragraph, the article quotes a Jersey City resident. “Eddie Sumpter, 34, a black neighbor around the corner who was able to buy a bigger house by selling his previous home to a Hasidic family, said he welcomed the newcomers. “‘We live among Chinese. We live among Spanish,’” said Mr. Sumpter, who is a cook. “‘It don’t matter. People is people. If you’re good people, you’re good people.’”

People is people. If we would accept that and be comfortable with our role and identity, embracing it and taking pride in our distinctive dress and conduct, we would be the light unto others we’re meant to be. People would see us as people.

A talmid approached Rav Avrohom Pam before bein hazemanim. “I am returning home,” he said, “and I have several non-religious aunts who will extend their hands in greeting when I arrive. How should I handle it?”

“I will share with you a rule I live by,” Rav Pam replied. “If a person expresses himself with courtesy and respect, then others around him will respect him even if they don’t understand his practice. If you are polite and considerate, and explain the halacha with confidence, then I assure you they will respect your conviction and not take it personally.”

Rav Pam’s rule for life is a guiding light for this season of travel and relaxation, as well as all year round.

We have to know who we are, and then those around us will know it too.

We is good people.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Where We Are

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Think about it. Last week was Shabbos Chazon and the signs of mourning were everywhere.

This week is Shabbos Nachamu and you can feel the happy energy. Celebration is everywhere.

What has changed between last week and this one? Last week, we mourned the absence of a Bais Hamikdosh. This week, it still lies in ruins. The shu’olim still run rampant over the Har Habayis. We are sorely lacking so much. Why are we suddenly happy?

Yeshayahu, the novi of nechomah, speaks to us seven weeks in a row. This week we read the first of those seven haftoros. What is nechomah anyway? What does the word mean?

The posuk in Bereishis (6:6) states after Adam and Chava sinned, “Vayinochem Hashem,” indicating that Hashem, kevayachol, “regretted” what He had done. Rashi explains that the word nechomah also refers to stepping back, re-evaluating a situation and shifting perspective.

Apparently, this is a facet of comfort, the general use of the word nechomah.

In the haftorah of this Shabbos, Yeshayahu repeats the comforting words of his hopeful prophecy. He says, “Nachamu, nachamu ami,” telling Klal Yisroel twice to be comforted. Clearly, there is significance to the nechomah bekiflayim, the double measure of solace.

At the end of Maseches Makkos, when Rabi Akiva sees the chaos and impurity on the Har Habayis as a harbinger of better times, his friends proclaimed, “Akiva, nichamtonu. Akiva, nichamtonu.” They repeated the comment, following the lead of the novi who had doubled his words.

Perhaps we can explain that nechomah, comfort, has two stages. There is the actual comfort, the words that form a healing balm on our souls as we are reassured that all will be well. There is also the comfort that is brought about when we are no longer myopic and step back to look again and see a bigger picture.

This Shabbos, we are promised that Hakadosh Boruch Hu will assist us in achieving both definitions: nachamu, nachamu.

Once again, the Jewish people approach Shabbos Nachamu in an all-too-familiar place. The nations of the world are aligned against us as we attempt to live decent, honorable, peaceful lives. As we are forced to fight against evil, they chant for our deaths.

They hate us.

Once again, the Har Habayis has been overtaken by shuolim.

Throughout our history, we have encountered this animosity. Although there have been times when the hatred was delicately concealed, it is currently becoming more in vogue and acceptable to bash Jews. It has become acceptable for celebrities and icons to express their open hatred. While they couch their rhetoric in words of sympathy for the poor Palestinians, the truth emanates. They couldn’t care less about the Palestinians. They just hate Jews. Once again, Jews in Europe cower and seek escape routes, a chilling reminder of seventy years ago.

Arabs kill Jews and then demonstrate throughout Israel and in European capitals against Jewish people. Lovers of Israel are unwelcome in American universities, which drive campaigns against Israel. The Left battles Israel at every opportunity, offering nonsensical, hypocritical excuses for their anti-Semitism.

Much of the modern anti-Semitism is depicted as anti-Zionism, though the folly is obvious. Jews fight for their safety and are condemned. Millions of Jews were driven to their deaths from those very countries in which anti-Semites currently flex their muscles.

Anti-Semitism morphs to fit with the times. The age-old hatred for the Jewish nation adopts different slogans and chants, but at the heart of it all is the same old hatred for Yitzchok by Yishmoel, and Yaakov by Eisov and Lavan.

Whether it’s under the guise of blaming the Jews for spreading the plague, or drinking human blood, as in the days of old, or cloaked in humanitarian vestments, hate is hate. In Europe, a continent soaked with Jewish blood, it is in vogue to bash Jews, demonstrate against them, accuse them of the vilest crimes, and create an atmosphere reminiscent of the darkest days of Jewry that many believed we would never return to.

The eis tzorah is palpable in England, where Jews were burned alive; in Paris, where the Talmud was lit up and destroyed; in Germany, home of Kristallnacht and the Holocaust; Poland, home of the crematoria; Austria, birthplace of Hitler; and many other places.

We wonder how it will end. When will justice triumph? When will care and concern about the good and the kind be paramount?

We recognize that we suffer persecution and discrimination because we are Jews. The world’s hatred of the Jew is not derived from their concern about human rights violations or political decisions.

We are reminded regularly that sinah yordah l’olam, hatred for the Jewish people descended to the world as we gathered at Har Sinai to accept the Torah. Since that time, we have been cast apart from other nations, despised, reviled, stomped on and murdered. Miraculously, we endure.

This Shabbos, we will go to shul and listen as the haftorah proclaims that Hashem calls out to us and says, “Nachamu, nachamu Ami. Be comforted, be comforted My nation.”

Where do we find answers to our questions?

In the Torah. These parshiyos give us the depth we need to see clearer, the second type of nechomah.

A young man boarded a bus to Bayit Vegan and saw one of its most distinguished residents, Rav Moshe Shapiro, sitting there. He approached the rov and asked, “How are we to understand what happened during World War II?”

Rav Moshe looked at him and nodded. “Shalom,” he said, effectively ending the conversation. He didn’t say another word.

Later, someone asked why he hadn’t answered the questioner. Rav Moshe explained, “He knows where I live in Bayit Vegan, and he knows how much time he had until the bus reached my stop. He asked a question whose answer is much longer and more complex than the few minutes of the bus ride, so clearly he didn’t want the real answer, but a conversation, and I don’t have time for small talk.”

To understand the events of Jewish history, we must peer beyond the curtain, studying and scrutinizing the happenings of our people and the pesukim of the Torah. Small talk and pedestrian thoughts will not lead to understanding what has befallen our people throughout the millennia.

The pesukim of this week’s parsha form a retrospective review, reminding us of the beginnings of our nation and our first footsteps as the Chosen People.

We feel along with Moshe Rabbeinu as he pleads for mercy. “Asher mi Keil kamocha - Who else is like You, Hashem?” he wonders (Devorim 3:24). Rashi explains that a king of flesh and blood is surrounded by advisors who question his merciful decisions, whereas Hashem can extend mercy without listening to others.

There is a spark of nechomah.

We read about the essence of life, “V’atem hadveikim baHashem Elokeichem chaim kulchem hayom,” and we feel a surge of hope. Life means connecting to Hashem, displaying more intensity in tefillah, and demonstrating more concentration when we sit by a Gemara (Devorim 4:3).

We continue by listening closely to Moshe Rabbeinu’s reminder: “Mi goy gadol asher lo Elokim kerovim eilov? Who else has this gift and ability that Hashem listens every time we cry out to Him?” (Devorim 4:7).

Has Hashem performed such miracles for any other nation? Has He gone to war for them and inspired awe and terror like He has done for us? (Devorim 4:34).

We study the Aseres Hadibros, which form the building blocks of our lives as Torah Jews. We recognize that they set us apart from the rest of the world, and by following their precepts, we are placed on a higher, blessed plane.

We study the words of “Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echod,” which are the bedrock of our faith. We wake up to those words and go to sleep to them. They form the last physical action by souls ascending to heaven and have been the enduring final message of martyrs through the generations.

In 6:18, we are taught how to live as ehrliche Yidden: “You should act honorably and be truthful; then Hashem will be good to you and will bring us into the land He swore to our forefathers and will drive away our enemies from confronting us.”

If we seek Hashem’s protection and aid in battle, we must affirm our commitment to honesty and to battling corruption. Not just by listening, but by acting. If we tolerate men of ill-will and sometimes even promote them, how can we expect Hashem to fight for us?

We read about how He will lead us into the Promised Land, where we will find homes filled with good. It is an attainable goal, assured to us by He who is “ne’eman leshaleim s’char.” If we follow the word of Hashem, as laid out in the pesukim of this week’s parsha, we know that we will merit salvation, prosperity and peace.

The founding of Israel and the Six Day War were turning points in our history, but people became enamored with the power of man and seemed to overlook the Hand of Hashem. We are sent regular reminders that if we forget the Divine role and Hand in our existence, we are doomed to experience tragedy.

We merit nechomah when we recognize that we are kachomer beyad hayotzeir, wholly dependent upon Hashem’s mercy for our very existence.

Parshas Va’eschanon and the Aseres Hadibros are always lained on Shabbos Nachamu to remind us that our nechomah arrives when we follow the Aseres Hadibros and the Torah. It is through fidelity to Torah and Hashem’s word that we merit living peacefully, in Eretz Yisroel and everywhere else.

A young bochur davened in the bais medrash of the Bluzhever Rebbe. On Chanukah, the crowd would file by the rebbe after hadlokas neiros to receive his good wishes. The boy asked his friend to take a picture of him as the rebbe spoke to him.

The Bluzhever Rebbe noticed. When the bochur reached him, the rebbe took the boy’s hand and held it. Bochur’l,” he said, “you probably want a picture with me because I am a relic of a vanished world. And while it’s important to remember what was, it is also important that you understand that within you and your generation lie the koach, the ability, to guarantee its survival.”

We study what was because it gives us a charge for the future and a path forward.

That is why we rejoice now, comforted and secure in what we have learned over the past nine days. Over this time, we got in touch with our source, origin and destiny, and recognize our marching orders for the future. We even draw comfort from the fact that we mourned and that we have never forgotten, despite so many years and so much suffering.

After studying the messages of Eicha and Chazon, how can we feel anything else but “Nachamu, nachamu Ami? We understand where we were and where we are and how we got here. We are thus able to experience consolation.

Armed with the Torah’s enduring message of where we are going and how to get there, we reach the state of consolation, nechomah.

Nachamu, nachamu. Forever and ever. Amein.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Do It With Love

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

When you walk into a room where people are sitting close to the floor with a prominent rip in their clothing, the atmosphere is heavy and sad. Not a word is exchanged. Then a menachem, a comforter, walks into the room. Initially, the people on the floor look up at their visitor with sad, knowing eyes. Then they slowly come alive, sharing stories of their departed loved one, exchanging reminiscences. “What do you remember?” they ask. “What can you share?” They then accept words of chizuk as expressed in the eternal phrase of nechomah: HaMakom yenacheim es’chem.

During these days of Av, we are all mourners. We remember the time when the Bais Hamikdosh stood in the center of Yerushalayim. We reflect on how different and blessed life was at that time. We think about all the tragedies that occurred to the Jews throughout the ages and become sad, because we know that Tisha B’Av is the repository of sadness and mourning for everything that has befallen us.

The tragedy and sadness have to be part of our essence. We have to mourn, not look for ways to free ourselves from displaying that as believing Jews, we realize our history and what has befallen our people in the churban and ever since. How can we laugh and party when the memory of the six million is with us in this period? How can we engage in happy and fun activities while remembering the Harugei Beitar, the millions of our brothers and sisters who were led into slavery?

How can we be so callous about Jewish suffering? Just this past Shabbos, innocent Jews were slaughtered at a Shabbos table in Eretz Yisroel. How can we not feel their pain? How can the reaction to such a tragedy be more apathy? In these days of Av, how can we not mourn what happened to this family and so many others like it?

The halachos of the Nine Days are not simply laws that we outwardly observe. Nor should we look for ways to wiggle out of them. They are meant to influence our thought and feelings during this time. An observant Jew is meant to be in a state of sadness these days, contemplating our losses, as a mourner would do. We are lacking if we don’t feel the losses in our hearts.

We all know that the second Bais Hamidkosh was destroyed because sinas chinom was prevalent amongst Jews at that time (Yoma 9b). However, the Gemara in Maseches Sanhedrin (104b) points to the chet hameraglim as the cause of the destruction. It was on the 9th day of Av that the Jews in the desert cried for naught. Their “bechiyah shel chinom echoes all these years, giving generation after generation many reasons to cry.

Too many of us no longer cry. That itself is a reason to cry.

The meraglim lacked the ability to see themselves for who they were. They were reduced to the size of insects in their own eyes, feeling small and insignificant, because they accepted the attitudes and views of others as fact.

The Jews heard their report of their mission to the land that Hashem promised them and broke down in tears. “Woe is to us,” they cried. “We are being led to a country that will destroy us.” They were insecure about their ability to merit Hashem’s blessing and protection. They feared that they wouldn’t be worthy of the promises that they would inherit the Land.

They didn’t perceive their own greatness.

The historical accounts of the churban Bais Hamikdosh appear in Maseches Gittin because the break between Klal Yisroel and Hakadosh Boruch Hu was a tragedy not unlike a get (divorce). The novi Yeshayahu cries out (50:1), “Ei zeh sefer krisus imchem asher shelachtiha - Which get has Hashem sent you.”

Hashem, however, never stopped loving His people. He never divorced Himself from them. There was no get. The people who were singled out and set apart with privileges unavailable to others believed that they had been cast aside. Because they lacked self-confidence, they were easily misled and taken in by apocalyptic predictions.

Years later, during the period of Bayis Sheini, although the Jewish people were religiously committed, the rot at the root of the chet hameraglim was still present. Because the people were cynical, negative and pessimistic, they didn’t feel Hashem’s love, nor did they appreciate His proximity. They didn’t see the Jewish people as being worthy of Divine love, so they hated each other. They wrote sifrei krisus to each other because they didn’t appreciate the greatness inherent in every individual Jew. Insecure, they were blind to their own worth and, like the Jews at the time of the chet hameraglim, because they felt undeserving, they didn’t appreciate what they were given.

On Tisha B’Av, mourning is how we repent for what they did. We sit on the floor, reciting Kinnos, recalling how good we had it, how much love there was, how close we were to Hashem, and the holiness and unity that were apparent in our lives. We bemoan the losses we suffered. We recognize through our tears how much Hashem loved us, and we proclaim that we know that He still loves us and that we are worthy of that love. By doing this, we repent for the sins of the meraglim and sinas chinom.

Many of our problems are rooted in the sin of low self-esteem, of not realizing who we are. People give up on becoming great even before starting the process. They are easily knocked off course and lose motivation to succeed and excel, because they don’t believe in themselves. This is one of the ways the yeitzer hora causes us to live a hopeless, sad and sometimes self-hating life.

We don’t talk about it much, and maybe we should, but that doesn’t mean there is not an epidemic of young people who hate themselves and cause themselves pain because they can’t cope. These people start out like the rest of us, but because of bad vibes they pick up, they end up on a downhill trajectory and often hit bottom.

To get up, they need love, they need care, they need self-value, and they need to know that they make a difference and their lives are important. It may be easier said than done, but it saves lives and makes us and them better people.

How do we combat it? By putting our arm around a young person’s shoulder and letting them know that they are loved. By talking to them and treating them with respect, we instill self-pride in them.

How do we combat it? By talking up to people, not down. By pumping people up, not taking them down. By not being judgmental and by bearing in mind that every person wants to feel good about themselves. You can help them have that feeling if you talk to them as if their lives have worth, no matter how they act and how they look.

By caring about people and their feelings, you are helping give people a lifeline and a reason to carry on.

Chazal famously teach us that a generation that doesn’t merit the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh is viewed as having had the Bais Hamikdosh destroyed in its time. The Sefas Emes explains that anyone who doesn’t believe that their actions can contribute to the building of the Bais Hamikdosh is accountable for its destruction. Those who don’t realize that they have the power to bring about the return of the Bais Hamikdosh have a part in its destruction.

To believe that we make no difference is part of the churban.

Our response to churban is to have faith in ourselves and know what we are, who we are, and what we can achieve.

This, says the Sefas Emes, is what’s meant by the brocha we recite in Birkas Hamazon referring to Hashem as the “bonei (presently building) berachamov Yerushalayim.” Rebuilding the Holy City is a steady, ongoing process. At any given moment, Hashem is rebuilding Yerushalayim. It is destructive to think that we can’t play a role in that process.

We lost the Bais Hamikdosh because of two related sins: bechiyah shel chinom, a futile cry, and sinas chinom, baseless hatred.

Rav Yecheskel Abramsky quoted the posuk which states, “Umacha Hashem dimah mei’al kol ponim.” He explained that Hakadosh Boruch Hu will wipe off the tears of every Jewish face. “If every Jew is precious enough to Hashem that He takes the time to wipe off the tears of every face,” he said, “then we also have to do our part to erase tears and pain.”

Our every act, word and tear has a purpose. They are not for naught, chinom. Realizing what a Jew represents is the greatest and most effective antidote to sinas chinom. Each of us carries so much power. We have to appreciate the mitzvos and ma’asim tovim of our friends and see their efforts with an ayin tovah.

In a Tisha B’Av shmuess, Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi succinctly commented, “One who looks at his friend with sinas chinom and mocks the efforts of his fellow Jew isn’t just a hater, but an idol-worshipper. Because he wants every person around him to act as he does, think as he does, and agree with him about everything, he worships no one but himself.”

On Tisha B’Av, we see that no one is chinom and nothing they do is chinom. We re-learn how to love. We recognize that just because we look differently and act differently doesn’t mean that we are inherently different. Because the other fellow wears green and we wear black doesn’t mean that we should hate him and throw stuff at him. Just because someone dresses differently doesn’t mean he is not worthy of love and care.

The Chofetz Chaim would travel from town to town selling his seforim. It happened that he found himself staying at a Vilna kosher inn. At mealtime, a large burly fellow walked in and sat himself down at the table. He called over the server and ordered her to bring him roast duck and a large glass of an adult beverage. When the food came, he grabbed it from the server and began to eat voraciously, without a brocha or any decency and manners.

The owner saw that the Chofetz Chaim was appalled by the man’s behavior and was debating whether to get up and speak to the man. He walked over to the sainted gaon and begged him not to go over to the glutton and not to say anything to him. He was worried that something would break out. The uncouth man was a veteran of Czar Nicolai’s army and was liable to curse and lay a hand on the Chofetz Chaim.

The innkeeper approached the Chofetz Chaim. “Please, rebbe,” he said, “leave him alone. There is no one to talk to. He is an illiterate bully. When he was seven, he was taken away with other Jewish children and, as cantonists, they were taken to Siberia. He grew up with local peasants, and when he was 18 years old, he was inducted into the Czar’s army, where he spent twenty-five years.

“Forty years of his life found him among uncivilized ruffians, far removed from any Jewish community. He never learned a word of Torah and never saw a Jewish face. Rebbe, please don’t start up with him. Your respect is worth more to me than getting into a tussle with him.”

“Have no fear,” Klal Yisroel’s rebbi responded. “I can speak to him and set him straight.”

With that, the Chofetz Chaim lovingly and with a smile approached the man. “Shalom Aleichem. Is it true that you were kidnapped as a young child, taken to Siberia, grew up among gentiles, and never merited to study even one word of Torah?

“It would seem to me that you suffered gehennom in this world, enduring various types of torture. No doubt they mocked your religion, tried to convert you, and forced you to eat pig and other non-kosher foods. Despite all you went through, they didn’t break you and you remained a Jew.

“I would be glad to have the sources of merit that you have and be a ben Olam Haba as you are. All the decades of mesirus nefesh for Yiddishkeit and kevod Shomayim rank you with the greatest of our people. In the World to Come, you will be seated among the giants of our people, the tzaddikim and gaonim.”

As the Chofetz Chaim spoke, tears began streaming down the face of the tough army veteran. He was shaken by the loving words of praise and support. His heart was touched as it never was before.

When the man found out who was speaking to him, he began to cry loudly and kissed the Chofetz Chaim.

The aged tzaddik completed his pitch: “A person such as you merited being considered a kadosh who was moser nefesh for Hashem. If you live the rest of your life as a ‘kosher Jew,’ you will be the happiest man alive.”

The former cantonist undertook to do teshuvah and became an observant Jew.

Parshas Devorim, like the rest of the last seder of the Torah, is Moshe Rabbeinu’s farewell message to his people. This week’s parsha introduces us to the seder that describes the stay of the Bnei Yisroel in the midbar and ends with prophetic words concerning their entry into Eretz Yisroel.

The Jewish people went on to settle the land, erected the Mishkon in Shilo, built the Botei Mikdosh in Yerushalayim, and experienced two churbanos before being tragically evicted from the land promised to them. They were sent into golus, where we remain until this day.

We will reach our desired state of shleimus when we will be gathered from exile and permanently brought to Eretz Yisroel with the geulah.

Rabbeinu Bachya (Devorim 1:1, 30:3) explains that the main role of Eretz Yisroel will also only be realized after the final redemption. Our people lived in the land for a temporary, relatively short period. After Moshiach returns us there, the purpose for which the world was created will be realized. Thus, the final pesukim of the Torah connect to the first ones in Bereishis. This is because the permanent return of  Klal Yisroel to Eretz Yisroel is similar to the creation of the world, because at that time it will begin realizing the purpose for which it was established.

Similarly, Chazal teach, “Sofo na’utz b’sechilaso,” the end is tied to and rooted in the beginning. The paths, peaks and valleys of our existence combine to lead to our destiny.

Seder Devorim begins with Moshe Rabbeinu rebuking his people, because to merit geulah and entry into Eretz Yisroel, they had to engage in teshuvah. As the Rambam says (Hilchos Teshuvah 7:5), “Ein Yisroel nigolin ela beseshuvah,” Klal Yisroel will only be redeemed if we engage in proper and complete teshuvah.

Since Moshe loved his nation and selflessly wanted them to be able to enter the land that Hashem promised their forefathers, he admonished them with love and respect so that they would accept his tochacha. He spoke to them in a way that preserved their self-esteem (Rashi, Devorim 1:1; see also Rambam, Hilchos Teshuvah 4:2), because he knew that for people to accept mussar, it is usually advantageous to maintain their dignity.

It’s not as if Moshe wasn’t aware of their obstinate and disrespectful nature. Rashi (ibid.) explains that Moshe gave them mussar only after the entire nation had gathered in one place. Moshe knew the nature of these people and wanted to prevent loathsome characters from being able to proclaim that had they been there, they would have spoken back to and challenged Moshe. Therefore, he gathered them all together, indicating, “If you have what to say, say it here to my face.”

Despite his keen understanding of their displeasing behavior, his speech was laced with love and respect. The role of parents, teachers and leaders when reproaching is to do so without destroying the person, while providing clarity about the correct path and conveying confidence for the future.

It is commonly noted that we lain this parsha before Tisha B’Av because it contains Moshe’s admonition beginning with the word “Eicha,” which we lain in the same tune as Megillas Eicha on Tisha B’Av.

Perhaps we can suggest that another reason is to teach us how to give mussar and bring people home. It is not by demeaning them, yelling at them, or making them feel utterly useless. It is by crafting the corrective message with sensitivity and infusing it with love, demonstrating that it emanates from a loving and intelligent heart.

Man is created with a heart and a brain, impulses and emotions, competing character traits, and a complicated psychology and thinking process. In his youth, a person requires parents and teachers to set him on the proper path and teach him Torah, responsibility and manners. He needs to be shown and taught how to think and how to act. Man has successes and failures as he goes through life. Due to his very nature, he often requires course corrections by real friends, family and those who care about him.

Torah and mitzvos help us battle the ever-present yeitzer hora, but that is not always sufficient. Every generation has unique temptations. The further we get from Sinai, the harder it is to deal with them. Just like Noach in his day - Chazal say, “Noach hayah tzorich sa’ad letomcho” - we all need help to make it and can’t always do it on our own.

To the degree that people recognize this, they can be sources of support and constructive chastisement.

It is interesting that this month of Jewish tragedy is referred to as Av, which is the same as the word meaning father. Perhaps we can say that it is a reminder to us to reprimand, with fatherly love, those whose sins prevent us from realizing the redemption, treating others as a father would and lending them a shoulder to lean on and a hand to help them climb.

It is a reminder to act as Moshe did, as the Chofetz Chaim did, admonishing in a way that could be accepted so that the people would merit exiting their golus and entering the land of geulah.

The Torah teaches us to understand difficult moments by recognizing that “just as a father punishes his son, Hashem punishes Klal Yisroel” (Devorim 8:5).

We are to understand that when we are hurt by Hashem, it is an act of love, not anger. A parent disciplines because he wants to prod his child to growth and success. Even when the admonishment is painful, it is understood to be in context of parental love and hope.

So, during Chodesh Av, we read this week’s parsha, in which Moshe Rabbeinu, the av lenevi’im, the most effective rebbi we have ever had and the eternal Jewish father figure, demonstrates how a loving father offers rebuke.

In order to bring people to teshuvah, which will bring us to the ultimate geulah, we need to preach as Moshe preached, and rebuke and reprimand as he did.

An examination of the posuk beginning with the word “Eicha” reveals the state of the Jewish people at the time of Moshe Rabbeinu’s talk with them. Far from a great people simply lacking in refinement, they were actually rambunctious apikorsim, who would mock Moshe and incessantly quarrel among themselves (Rashi, Devorim 1:12).

Yet, Moshe saw greatness in them and worked to bring them to the level that would allow Hashem to end their golus and bring them to Eretz Yisroel. So too, in our day, if we are mochiach with love, treating all Jews as brothers and sisters, and care about them, we can also help bring the nation out of golus and into geulah.

So much Jewish blood has been shed. So much heartache has been felt throughout the centuries in exile. On Tisha B’Av, we sit on the floor and plaintively ask, “Lamah lanetzach tishkocheinu?” For how long will death endure? For how much longer will we linger in golus? We want to go home.

Help us follow in the paths of Moshe Rabbeinu and the Moshes of every generation. Help us love all Jews and bring them back. Help us show them the way so that we can all finally go home.

Enough with hate. Bring on the love.

On Tisha B’Av, we say in unison, “Hashiveinu, Hashem eilecha venoshuvah, chadeish yomeinu k’kedem. Hashem, bring us back to You…”

People all over say and intone these words with love and inspiration. Hashem, we know that Your arms are opened wide, waiting to receive us. We know that we are worthy of Your embrace.

Bring us back. Take us back. We’re ready.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Maybe, Maybe

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
It was back when the iron-horse railroad was coming to Russia and the transportation ministry planned to lay thousands of miles of track upon which trains would crisscross the giant country. When the plans were publicized, chassidim discovered that they called for a track directly over the kever of the Baal Hatanya. Alarmed, they sent a delegation to the minister of transportation and appealed to him.

They arrived for the meeting and pleaded their case. “Maybe you don’t appreciate what a rebbe means to us, so allow us to explain. He is more than a teacher and a guide. He represents life itself.”

The minister cut them off. “You don’t have to explain it to me. My brother and my father are religious. In fact, I was also religious until I was seventeen years old. I know what a rebbe is and what he means to you.”

The delegation was shocked and thought that they were about to catch a lucky break, but then the man continued talking.

“I was in yeshiva, when I decided that I wanted to join the Russian army. I became fixated with it. I didn’t want to give up religion; I just wanted to become a soldier. My father was worried that I would lose my connection to Yiddishkeit and begged me not to go, but nothing he said impressed me.

“My father was a Stoliner chossid. In a last-ditch effort, he asked me to go with him to the rebbe [Rav Shlomo Karliner, whose yahrtzeit was on Sunday]. I obliged. We entered the rebbe’s room. The rebbe appeared to be on fire, his face radiant and his eyes alight, totally connected to Hashem. The force of holiness was so strong that my father could not open his mouth to speak for the first few minutes. Finally, he gathered his courage and told the rebbe of my intentions to join the military, how I refused to listen, and his fears that I would become a goy.

“The rebbe’s face grew red, his countenance aflame, hot tears streaming down his face as he turned to me and begged, ‘Efsher doch, efsher doch. Maybe, maybe [you’ll change your mind].’

“I turned him down and went to the army, and as you see, I am so far gone, you didn’t dream that I knew what a rebbe is. I know the power of a rebbe, and every time I do an aveirah, those pleading words of the rebbe ring in my ears. ‘Efsher doch, efsher doch.’”

It’s the Three Weeks, the time we mourn the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh. We mourn that we are in golus. Our enemies gang up on us and we hear those words, “Efsher doch, efsher doch,” ringing in our ears. Maybe this will be the year we fix ourselves and make our way back.

Efsher doch, efsher doch. Maybe this will be the year we will be set free and get to go home. The sick will be healed, the abused comforted, and the homeless will be back at home in the land that is ours.

The posuk states, “Umikneh rav hayah livnei Gad velivnei Reuven” (Bamidbar 32:1). The children of shivtei Gad and Reuven did not want to join the rest of Klal Yisroel to continue on to Eretz Yisroel, the land they and their forefathers had been yearning to reach for hundreds of years. Why were they so connected to the land of Eiver HaYardein?

The rebbe of Peshischa interprets the words “mikneh rav” homiletically as a reference to the “kinyan” bond of these shevotim with their “rav,” their mentor and rebbi who had led them over the past few decades. They worried that in Eretz Yisroel, despite the opportunities for growth, they would be lacking the identity that comes with having a rebbi and would forget who they are and where they came from. They felt that since Moshe was buried in Eiver HaYardein, staying there would maintain their connection to who they are meant to be. Rightly or wrongly, they preferred being rooted outside the Promised Land to feeling rootless within the sacred embrace of Eretz Yisroel.

While some may not agree with the premise of the thought, it goes to the heart of the challenges we have faced throughout the long golus. People have found it difficult to remember who we are and where we come from, where we are headed and what our mission is. Sometimes, the stresses and distractions of everyday living threaten to overtake and engulf us and we forget.

Megillas Esther (2:5-6) introduces us to Mordechai by stating, “Ish yehudi haya b’Shushan habirah ushemo Mordechai ben Yair ben Shimi ben Kish ish Yemini. Asher hugla m’Yerushalayim. There was a Jewish man by the name of Mordechai, son of Yair, son of Shimi, son of Kish, from the tribe of Binyomin (see Megillah 12b and Rashi), who had gone into exile from Yerushalayim.”

Who was he? A Jew, who followed in the ways of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, with the traditions of shevet Binyomin. He never forgot who he was. And he never forgot where he came from. He was an exile, a survivor of the churban, who longed to return home, no matter how comfortable his golus experience was.

Rav Michel Twerski told of a distinguished chassidic rebbetzin, a child of great tzaddikim, who was confused towards the end of her life. Once, when a hospital aide asked her for her name, the rebbetzin was experiencing a difficult moment. She replied, “I don’t know who I am anymore.” Then, she sat up straight and, with all her dignity, she continued, “But I do know whose I am.”

We go to Eretz Yisroel and traverse the Holy Land, tear kriah at the sites of the churban, stand at the Kosel and imagine what was and what will be, and daven at the kever of the avos, imahos and Rochel Imeinu. We feel their presence and beseech Hashem to help us in their merit. We walk on the derech ha’avos, where our forefathers trekked to Yerushalayim to be oleh regel and go to Shilo, the site of the Mishkon before the construction of the Bais Hamikdosh. And wherever we go, a chill runs down our spine. We feel connected to who we are and where we come from.

At great expense, people travel to the alter heim in the countries of Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Belarus, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Croatia, Germany and elsewhere. They visit the old botei medrash, shuls, yeshivos and cemeteries to remember where they come from and what their mission is.

The struggle in golus is remembering who we are and hearing the call of “efsher doch,” reminding us that maybe we can find the way back to where we belong.

In the early nineteenth century, the government eased restrictions on Pressburg’s Jews, allowing them rights of residence. Many rejoiced, but the Chasam Sofer became worried. “Why is our Father making us more comfortable in an alien land? Why isn’t He making us welcome at home, in His house?” he asked.

Every year, as we bentch Rosh Chodesh Menachem Av, the cheerful blessing generates bittersweet emotion. A new month usually brings smiles and hopes for a fresh start. But this Shabbos, as we recognize that a new month is about to dawn, the fact that it is Av, with its undertones of melancholy, causes our hearts to sink.

The period of national sadness begins on the 17th day of Tammuz, increases with the start of Chodesh Av, and peaks on Tisha B’Av.

Throughout our history, the first week of Av has seen wrenching, catastrophic events for the Jewish people. That legacy of sorrow and disaster continues. It’s a sadness shrouded in this rootlessness, a sense that things are not as they should be and we are not where we should be.

As we enter Chodesh Av, we wonder what we can do to reverse that cycle and when it will end.

Our search for a ray of hope begins with the awareness that the root of all our sadness and misery is the churban Bais Hamikdosh. We reflect on the Gemara in Maseches Yoma (9b) that teaches that the first Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed because we did not properly observe the halachos of avodah zora, gilui arayos and shefichas domim.

The Gemara says that at the time of the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdosh, the Jews were proficient in Torah and gemillus chassodim. What brought about that churban was sinas chinom.

We’ve heard it so many times, but apparently we need to continue hearing that since sinas chinom caused the churban, the final redemption cannot occur until we have all repented for that sin, cleansing ourselves of the senseless hatred that seems to accompany the Jewish people wherever we are.

The parshiyos that we lain this Shabbos, Mattos and Masei, are always read during the period of the Three Weeks. They deal with the connection of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisroel. We are connected to that land not only as a nation, but also as individuals.

Chodesh Av is about connection. It is about a relationship that was severed, to ultimately be renewed. We are working towards returning to our cheilek in Eretz Yisroel.

The parshiyos contain the seeds of our geulah; lessons for us to improve our behavior in golus in order to merit our share in Eretz Yisroel.

Parshas Mattos begins with the laws of nedorim and shavuos, different types of vows and promises a person makes, and the obligation “not to defile your words and to do whatever you said you would” (30:3).

In our society, words are cheap. They are thrown around aimlessly and carelessly, sometimes in a bid to impress and sometimes just to pass time. In the Twitter generation, everything is superficial, most of all words. They are conduits used to express thoughts and feelings that contain facile meaning and no depth. Little thought goes into what is said, or written, and therefore words carry no weight.

But we know that words are so much more than that. Words are life itself.

There was a time when people valued written and spoken words, when they perceived the inherent value of every utterance.

They were people of depth who appreciated the meaning of words. Their words carried weight, and were honored.

We are quickly losing that. In our society, words should have meaning. Meaning also has to have meaning. We should not be focusing on external values, such as financial worth, supposed status and impressions.  We must not be superficial. The world is too dangerous a place for us to act without information and without thought. Too often, we express opinions and act based on feelings and not facts, emotions and not intellect. To do so is folly and can have drastic consequences.

Words affect us and other people. To end the golus and help rebuild the Bais Hamikdosh, we should think before we speak and ensure that our speech is neither hurtful nor insulting.

Once, in midst of a telephone conversation with Reb Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, the line was suddenly disconnected, another reality for those unfortunate souls in our federal correctional system. They wait on line for a chance to place a phone call, and then their connection to the outside world goes dead.

I felt bad for him and went back to what I was doing. For him, it was a bigger deal. The next day, we reconnected. He said that when the line went dead, he was very sad. “I was waiting to talk to you, and when I finally got through, you were gone and I was alone again.”

I asked how he gets over those feelings and remains in good spirits. He matter-of-factly responded, “When we got disconnected, I was sad, so I ran to my Gemara and began learning. Torah lifts me up. Learning Torah makes me happy.”

The power of words.

A man isolated from family and friends, deprived of a connection to his loved ones, Reb Sholom Mordechai is sad because of a conversation cut short. When cut off from those treasured words of love, he finds comfort in the holy words of the Torah and comes alive once again.

Words have the power to break and the power to repair. Words heal and words sicken. Words bring people together and words separate people. The words we use have lasting repercussions.

The Stoliner Rebbe’s efsher doch and the potency of his holy words live on.

And sometimes, when a tzaddik speaks, the inherent sincerity can melt a soul too. A young man, a child of Gerrer chassidim, survived the horrors of World War II with his body intact but his faith shattered. He was done with religion.

He became friendly with a girl he met and became engaged to her. He bumped into the man who had been his mashgiach when he was in yeshiva, the prominent Gerrer chossid, Rav God’l Eisner.

The former chossid informed the mashgiach that he was engaged and that the young woman wasn’t Jewish.

Rav God’l smiled and said to the survivor, “Mazel Tov. Wonderful.” He shook hands with the former student and then quietly, quickly added, “Ubber fort, ess past nist fahr ah Gerrer chossid. What you are planning to do is unbecoming for a Gerrer chossid.”

The words struck the young man’s heart with the force of a hammer’s blow. The words triggered introspection and with time he remembered who he was and where he came from.

As we complete the laining of the parshiyos this week, we exclaim together, “Chazak chazak venischazeik.” We cry out a resounding message to each other and to ourselves. We repeat a word that is laden with power: Chazak. Be strong.

With that, we complete another sefer in our march towards the Torah’s conclusion. We internalize the chapter of the Bnei Yisroel’s passage through the midbar and try to learn the lessons that this seder has presented, so that we may be strong and strengthened. We say chazak.

Study the words of the Torah and you will be strong. Share the words of the Torah and you will be strengthened. Say it together again and again. Appreciate the power of words and use them properly.

Make the ikkar the ikkar and the tofel the tofel. Remember what our priorities are. In every decision, as you contemplate your various considerations, remind yourself of your identity.

Efsher doch, efsher doch. May this be the year.