Saturday, Jul 20, 2024

Appreciating Achdus

Election fever is spreading across Eretz Yisroel. Their campaign season lasts but a few weeks, the people vote, and then the parties try to cobble together a coalition. The resulting government lasts until the next scheduled election or until the prime minster calls for new ones, whichever comes first. The current election was called by Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu, whose popularity was at a high point and sought to capitalize on it to keep himself in power for another four years. The calculation was a correct one, but due to hubris and missteps, he is not likely to emerge half as powerful as he thought he would.
There is also serious concern that he will seek to form his next government with parties to his left and freeze the religious parties out of the coalition. Even if he does bring them in, if the poll numbers are correct, the religious parties may not be satisfied with what they are offered. Not only are positions of power, and thus the ability to service the religious constituency in jeopardy, but the very real threat of drafting yeshiva bochurim into the army hangs over the Olam HaTorah.
With this as the backdrop, you would imagine that the frum community is coalescing around the parties that represent it and working to ensure that they receive maximum representation so that they will be in a better position to negotiate for their concerns and be able to prevent anything disastrous from occurring. And you’d be wrong.


On a recent trip toEretz Yisroel, a friend was walking through the alleyways that form the Bucharim Shuk. On a narrow road, he passed an assortment of small shops where the owners ply their wares, waiting for customers to come by and purchase their spices, pickles from large metal cans, rotating shwarma, chicken, meat, fruits and vegetables. There was one tiny stall that caught my friend’s attention. There was really nothing that caused the store to stand out. It was typical of the duchanim seen all over Yerushalayim.One wonders how they stay in business selling old challah covers and dusty Kiddush bechers alongside shoelaces, glasses and other small odds and ends.


The proprietor of the shop was a Sefardi man, with a flowing white beard and wise eyes, who seemed as ancient as his wares. He sat there recitingTehillim.


Next to him was a small handwritten sign. On top, in large letters to catch the attention of anyone entering the store, were the words, “Vayidom Aharon.” They were followed by a short message, which read: “Since we are now in the election season and sometimes people who talk about politics end up talking about talmidei chachomim and rabbonim, and sometimes disparagingly, I have accepted upon myself not to discuss the election. I appreciate your understanding. If you come into this store, please respect this kabbolah.”


There are all types of signs wherever you go in Yerushalayim, but this one was different. Too bad it is the only one of its kind.


Eretz Yisroel is a tiny country, surrounded by enemies who seek its destruction. The Iranian threat has dominated headlines for several years now, as its radical, irrational leaders pursue a nuclear weapon with the ability to exterminate Israel. Jews and freedom-lovers the world over fear that Iran is on the precipice of realizing its ambition and have serious concerns about the safety of the citizens of Eretz Yisroel.


Rav Michel Stern, a prominent boki inniglah andnistar in Yerushalayim about whom we have previously written, has recently been telling people that Iran is not what we should be worrying about. He says that the lack of achdus in our camp is much more dangerous than what is going on in Iran. Peirud, division, he says, is a more lethal threat than Iran.


People say and do the worst things in order to get elected and earn themselves some power. There is one politician who is running a TV campaign bashing yeshivos and kollelim. He says that the Rambam would endorse his view. Not only that, but the punch line of his commercial is, “the Rambam would vote for me and you should too!”


When Eretz Yisroel is facing external and internal threats, it is time for Jews to come together under one banner to confront the challenges that must be overcome. Yeshivos are being targeted by politicians from the left and the right, who make no secret of their intention to draft yeshiva bochurim. There is so much at stake in the coming election. It would behoove those who treasure Torah and lomdei Torah to reaffirm their commitment to achieving unity.


Achdus is something we always talk about. Teachers teach about it, public speakers speak about it, and writers write about it. Somehow, it sounds so nice in speeches and in theory, but, in actuality, it appears to be elusive. What can we do to bring about change and draw people closer together?


The Ramban teaches that one of the mitzvos that were given to commemorate Yetzias Mitzrayim is the commandment of petter chamor, redeeming a firstborn donkey. This gives rise to an obvious question: What does petter chamor have to do with Yetzias Mitzrayim?


Chazal (Bechoros 5b) provide the explanation: “Why are firstborn donkeys different than firstborn horses or firstborn camels? First, the Torah decreed it so. Second, they helped Am Yisroel during Yetzias Mitzrayim, for there was not a single Jew who did not have 90 Libyan donkeys loaded with the silver and gold of Mitzrayim.”


In other words, the Torah gave us the mitzvah of petter chamor as a way of expressing appreciation to these beasts of burden for the help they provided Klal Yisroel during the exodus from Mitzrayim. A bechor of a chamor attains the kedushah of a cheftzah shel mitzvah, because two thousand years ago, animalsthat had no bechirah were used to transport Jewish possessions out of slavery.


The chamor is not the only animal to which we express appreciation for its conduct at the time of Yetzias Mitzrayim. The dog also gets its due. The posuk (Shemos 22:30) states that meat that is unfit for consumption should be thrown to the dogs. Rashi, commenting on this posuk, explains that the Torah specifies to give the meat to dogs as a reward for not barking at the Jews when they left Egypt. Dogs are thus forever remembered for their momentary benevolence centuries ago.


Another lesson of hakoras hatov is learned from the fact that Aharon Hakohein performed the act that brought about the first three makkos of dom, tzefardei’a and kinnim. Moshe couldn’t turn the Nile’s water into blood, because the Nile protected him when his mother cast him there following his premature birth. For the same reason, he couldn’t strike the water to bring about the makkah of tzefardei’a. Aharon, not Moshe, struck the dirt in order to bring about the makkah of kinnim, because when Moshe smote the Egyptian and hid the body in the sand, the sand prevented that act from being discovered.


It seems quite extraordinary that we are commanded to mark our historic indebtedness to donkeys of centuries ago by performing a token of gratitude to their descendants through petter chamor. The notion that hakoras hatov obligates one to feel and show gratitude to inanimate objects is because by acting in that manner we become more perfect beings.


The reason this perplexes us is because most of us view hakoras hatov as belonging in the domain of bein odom lachaveiro, applicable from one person to another. “You did me a favor, so I become obligated to thank you.”


However, from these examples brought in the parshiyos of Yetzias Mitzrayim, which we are currently reading each week, we are introduced to a deeper dimension of the obligation of hakoras hatov. Showing gratitude is not just a social obligation and a nice thing to do. Gratefulness should become an integral part of our personalities. Whether it was water or dirt or an animal from which we derived benefit so long ago, as grandchildren of those yotzei Mitzrayim, we are duty-bound to acknowledge that kindness.


The way we act towards others impacts our souls and proclaims what kind of people we are. If we are cognizant and appreciative of others, it helps us. We become better people and can work to achieve achdus and accomplish much more with our lives.


Hashem created human beings as being unable to see success if we work only for ourselves. It is only as a community and as a member of a group that we can endure. From the time we are born until the very end, we can only survive if we are connected to other people. As infants, we need everything to be done for us. Even as we grow and become more independent, most everything that we require for our daily existence is provided by others.


Arrogant, unappreciative people refuse to recognize that as great as they are, without the contributions of others, they would be hungry, dirty, unclothed, unloved, homeless, illiterate and without much to live for. Everything that we have and everything that we know is only because someone took the trouble to teach us and equip us with the essentials of life and good health.


There really is no way one can be totally independent and live a meaningful life. Those who cause peirud engage in anti-social behavior that is not only detrimental to the broader community, but also to themselves.


In order to maintain our humility and mentchlichkeit, the Torah gives us many mitzvos to ingrain into our psyches the awareness of this world’s abundant blessings and the goodness with which Hashem showers us.


By working on perfecting our middah of hakoras hatov, we come to appreciate the good in others and the benefits we derive from each other. If we look at the bigger picture and see the good, then we are able to overlook the pettiness that divides us and unite, creating the achdus we need to be able to work together to combat those who seek our demise.


A few years ago, the Tolna Rebbe ofYerushalayim led a group of chassidim on a trip to Eastern Europe, where they davened at the kevorim of the admorim of the Tolna dynasty and other tzaddikim.


On the airplane, the Rebbe addressed the chassidim and said that in generations past, a chossid’s trip to hisrebbe usually involved enduring long weeks away from home, dangerous travel conditions, and deprivation. Thus, by the time the chossid arrived at the rebbe, he had become purified by virtue of the journey’s hardships. By the time he was at the rebbe’s doorstep, he was a suitable keili for a brocha.


The Tolna Rebbe quoted the Bais Yisroel of Ger, who said that today we no longer have the cleansing process that the journeys of old provided. With the invention of the airplane and convenient travel, a chossid can traverse the globe in comfort, arriving at his rebbe without forgoing any comforts to which he is accustomed.


The Tolna Rebbe told the people traveling with him that there is still a source of merit available for those who joined the chartered flight, with catered meals and pre-planned hotel stays.


“There are organizers and askonim who worked very hard arranging the logistics of this trip. Inevitably, some of you will be unhappy with your seats or accommodations. Perhaps the meals won’t work out and you’ll be left hungry. Don’t say a word!Be mevateir. Make our interactions with others positive and uplifting for them, leaving people with a good feeling whenever we can.


“It sounds easy,” said the Rebbe, “but it’s not easy at all. When there’s one portion of supper left at the end of a long day on the road and two people who haven’t eaten, when someone in the room will need to sleep on the lumpy couch, when there is only one luggage cart remaining and a pile of heavy suitcases, it will require strength to remain easygoing and not complain. But you can do it, and by acting that way, we, too, in our generation, can merit approaching the kevorim of the admorim cleansed.”


The Tolna Rebbe’s message is important and relevant. Though we are blessed with plenty, boruch Hashem, and we don’t face real hunger or privation, we all have many daily opportunities to conduct ourselves in ways that can cleanse and purify us and our communities.


No matter where we are and what we are trying to accomplish, it is crucial that we remain focused on the goal – not the immediate victory, but the ultimate one. Through unity, we can achieve more and be more effective.


The posuk in Devorim (7:7) tells us that Hashem didn’t choose us because of our great numbers, because, in fact, we are the smallest among the nations. Rav Moshe Shapiro asks why the posuk assumes that we would think that Hashem’slove for us is based on our size. We are obviously a small nation.He answers with a moshol.


Imagine a person walking along a path. Another person joins and begins walking alongside the first, so now there are two people on that path. Then a third fellow joins, and then another and another. Each person is walking along the same path as a means to get to a certain point, but their goals are different. They are headed to different places. The fact that they are walking together on the same path fails to unify them. They are walking side by side, but each one is a man to himself. They are individuals, not a group. There may be a thousand of them, but if you were to count them, it would be one and one and one, not one plus one plus one.


When a legion of soldiers marches into battle, even if the soldiers aren’t physically near each other and enter from various paths, they are united by a shared ideal. They are devoted to the same flag and general. There might be fewer of them than there are people on our imaginary path, but their unity gives them strength. They look out for each other, care for each other, and protect each other. There may only be two hundred of them, but when you count them, they are one plus one plus one.


This is how the posuk continues: “Rather, out of Hashem’s love for you… did He take you out…to bring you to the Land…”


We are not the largest in numbers, but we are the most in the sense that our numbers combine and add up, because we are united by a common legacy and goal.


If we are to bring about change at the ballot box in Eretz Yisroel,we have to figure out how to work together as a united group with common goals, not as separate individuals who walk on the same path. In Israel as in America, in order to properly confront the specter of new gezeiros that threaten our freedoms to practice Yiddishkeit as we have become accustomed, we need to appreciate our real strength.


With rising taxes, skyrocketing healthcare costs, prickly secretarial picks and prospects for congressional stalemates on economic issues, Americans are being reminded that elections have consequences. If the religious parties do not receive enough support and Netanyahu is able to form a coalition with the parties of the left, there may be terrible consequences for many of the causes we hold dear.


This past Sunday, the Rubashkin family completed the achdus Sefer Torah that was written as a zechus for Shalom Mordechai ben Rivka. The Sefer Torah was paid for by members of Klal Yisroel of all ages and stripes who sent in sums large and small for the Achdus Sefer Torah campaign. The siyum was celebrated by a small group comprised of Lubavitcher chassidim, Satmar chassidim and a couple of Litvaks at the Rubashkin home in Monsey. It is hoped that in the zechus of the achdus that the Rubashkin case has engendered, coupled with the Sefer Torah, tefillos, tzedakah and maasim tovim performed on Shalom Mordechai’s behalf, he will be zocheh to be reunited with his family bekarov.


Klal Yisroel must also join b’achdus to combat New York City’s assault on bris milah. Though initial efforts to protect the ancient tradition failed, we remain focused on the goal and undeterred.


May we merit witnessing the growth of achdus and the successes it engenders.




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