Jul 09 2015

The People’s Guide

image_pdfimage_print

A young man in Poland was once diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. His teacher, the holy Rabbi Yisrael Meyer Kagan, known as the Chofetz Chaim, advised him to seek a blessing from a certain scholar in another town. He asked his student not to reveal to anyone the nature of his counsel. The student traveled to receive the blessing, and, to everyone’s surprise, recovered rapidly from the illness. As the Chofetz Chaim had requested, he told no one about the special blessing.

Twenty years later, after this young man had gone on to marry and raise a family, his sister-in-law was diagnosed with the same life-threatening illness. After great pressure from the family, he told his wife the secret of his recovery, and she became hopeful that such a blessing might heal her sister.

But soon afterwards, the man himself fell ill once again — and he was frightened that this happened because he had told his wife how he was healed, against his teacher’s request. He had no choice but to visit the Chofetz Chaim, who was now elderly and weak, and ask again for his assistance. After hearing the story, the Chofetz Chaim said, “I really wish I could help, but I’m not as strong as I used to be. After sending you for a blessing, I took it upon myself to fast forty forty days for the sake of your recovery, and I’m afraid I’m not able to do that anymore.” The Chofetz Chaim was so dedicated to the needs of others not only did he fast for forty days on behalf a student, but he deliberately made the student believe that someone else should get all the credit!

Near the end of Moses’ days he asked G-d to appoint a successor so “the congregation of G-d should not be like sheep who do not have for themselves a shepherd (Numbers, 27:17).” Why didn’t he simply say “like sheep without a shepherd”?

The Jewish People would certainly find a successor, of that Moses had no fear. His concern was that their leader and guide would only do the minimum of what’s necessary to be seen as a responsible leader, and secure his job. Moses prayed that the shepherd not be devoted to only himself, but to the sheep. May the people have a leader for themselves! (Lekach Tov, Kehilas Yaakov, and Rav Sholom Shvadron zt”l)

Jul 03 2015

Open Your Eyes

image_pdfimage_print

donkeyIn this week’s reading, we learn the incredible story of Bila’am, who traveled to curse the Jews, only to be confronted by an angel – and his own donkey.

His donkey saw the angel first, with a drawn sword, and prudently steered to avoid the angel by walking off the path. Bila’am responded by hitting the donkey, especially when it trapped Bila’am’s leg against the wall as it desperately tried to avoid their death.

The donkey was doing the right thing; Bila’am refused to see. Even when G-d miraculously gave the donkey the power of speech, Bila’am responded by threatening to kill it. Finally the donkey started to get through: it asked Bila’am, (paraphrasing Num. 22:30) “in all the years you have ridden me as your donkey, have I ever acted like this towards you?” And Bila’am admitted that it had not.

And then, finally, G-d opened Bila’am’s eyes. Or, at least, this is what the translations say. The Hebrew word, “VayeGal,” comes from the root “Galui,” something which is revealed, the opposite of hidden. Of course Bila’am could see, his eyes were wide open the whole time. But he could not see the truth — that there was an angel standing in front of him.

He should have known the truth. Clearly the donkey was acting wildly out of character — he should have known there was some good reason without needing to see the angel himself. Only once he began to understand, and admitted that the donkey had never acted this way, only then did G-d let him see the truth.

Friends of us once recounted the story of taking a walk on a Shabbos afternoon, when a well-known Rabbi and his daughter suddenly emerged from their house and jumped into a waiting taxi. After Shabbos, the daughter called them to let them know that her father had a medical emergency, which required “breaking” the Sabbath in order to save his life in accordance with Jewish Law. The wife, telling this story, recalled thinking to herself “no, really? We thought that after 80 years, the Rabbi had said ‘I’ve had enough of this Jewish observance, let’s go for a ride!'”

Sadly, though, it’s not always so simple. It’s not always so obvious that the person acting so out of character might have a very good reason (even emotionally) to act contrary to his or her normal behavior. And it’s our obligation to try to see beyond the limitations of our eyes, to imagine .

This world is all about concealment. We only know part of the story, we don’t know all the facts, we don’t understand. If Bila’am should have understood that there must be a really good reason for his faithful donkey to suddenly act this way, we should certainly try to recognize that good people don’t suddenly go bad — and interpret their actions for the best.

Jun 26 2015

An Unbroken Chain

image_pdfimage_print

We read this week about the passing of Aharon, the first Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. At the time of his passing, G-d tells Moshe to ascend the mountain with both Aharon and Elazar, his son — and to remove the vestments of the High Priest from Aharon, and place them upon Elazar before his father’s passing.

IMG_1802_1__61147.1423773883.1280.1280The Sifsei Chachamim points out that this is a unique moment. It was forbidden to leave the Temple Mount wearing those unique garments — so why was Aharon told to ascend the mountain in them, and Elazar to return wearing them?

Aharon was special to the Jewish nation in two ways, which we could perhaps describe as “personal” and “professional.” He, Aharon, was a pursuer of peace, the one who helped people to reconcile their differences. But he also held a critical office in the leadership of the Jewish people, as the High Priest.

Every time a great leader or teacher passes away, it is natural to worry that no one can fill his place, that he was irreplaceable. By having Elazar descend back to the Jewish nation in the Priestly Vestments, HaShem was sending us a message — that as much as every individual truly is unique, the nation will not be leaderless.

Hashem had to order them to ascend the mountain. None of the three, of course, wanted to see Aharon pass away. But Moshe was also ordered to dress Elazar. The impression given is that Elazar would not, otherwise, have wanted to put them on. He would have hesitated, but HaShem showed him that he should wear them. He would never be Aharon, his father — but he would be Kohen Gadol.

Just last year, following the passing of Rav Ovadiah Yosef, who had been the leader of Sephardic Jewry around the world, Rav Shalom Cohen, Dean of Yeshivat Porat Yosef in Jerusalem, was appointed to succeed him as the head of the Moetzet Chachmei HaTorah, the council of scholars that guides Sha”s, the Sephardic party in Israel. While Rav Cohen was a member of that Moetzet since its formation over thirty years ago, many pointed out that he always invested his time in scholarship and in teaching his students, rather than political matters.

It has been this way throughout our history, that the true leaders have not sought leadership, but only to dedicate themselves to God and the Jewish people. They find leadership thrust upon them, often by their own predecessors if not by that predecessors’ other students. HaShem promised us that just as the Jewish people will always survive, we will never find ourselves like a ship without a rudder. The two go together — we will always find ourselves with leaders, to guide us forward through history.

Jun 12 2015

The Land of Israel

image_pdfimage_print

EinGediThis week, we read the portion of the spies, send by the Children of Israel to go spy out the land that they would enter. This wasn’t, as Rashi tells us from the Medrash, a Commandment — but rather “if that’s what you want to do, send them.” G-d knew, of course, that this was going to be counterproductive, but He allowed them to make their own decision. As we know, they returned with an evil, destructive report.

The Ba’al HaTurim comments that there is a hint to future exile in the very word “send” — the numerical value of “Sh’lach” is 338, and the First Temple was destroyed in 3338.

It seems that speaking ill of the Land of Israel doesn’t go out of style. I was there recently, and a daughter just completed a year of study. A close relative, one much less familiar with today’s reality in the Holy Land, described this as having sent my daughter to a war zone. [We live in Baltimore; need I say more?]

It is sad to contemplate how many Jews now believe that not only is Israel a war zone, but that Israel is warlike, responsible for the ongoing conflict. On campuses across America, Jews unfamiliar with the history of anti-Semitism now lend credence to its modern iteration — the delegitimization of Jews living in our ancestral homeland.

Instead we are told that native “Palestinians” are Arab, and Jews — who never left that land except by force — are “immigrants.” That Jews anxious to simply live in peace are the problem, while those who celebrate murders are simply “resisting occupation.” That terror attacks against Jews should be ignored, while efforts to neutralize those terrorists are Israel “attacking” Gaza.

Reverse the error of the spies — go to the Holy Land and see for yourself. You will see how safe it is, generally speaking. Learn how Israel defends Jewish lives in a more humane fashion than any other army in the world, including those of the US and its allies. And above all, appreciate what it means to be able to stand on holy ground.

Older posts «

» Newer posts