Tuesday, Jun 25, 2024

Chastened, But Not Defeated

Like a clear, refreshing well whose waters appeal to everyone, the Torah and insight of the Chofetz Chaim have become the property of an entire nation, providing hope and clarity, meaning and depth. Bitachon and Hashgocha Protis shine through each word of his seforim and the biographies that describe his life. In a story that took place nearly a century ago, the words of the rabbon shel Yisroel help us make sense of things. The tale was related by the renowned maggid, Rav Yankel Galinsky. There was a Jewish merchant from China whose travels led him to Europe to seek out new avenues of distribution and sources of goods. Before heading home, he made a detour to the hamlet of Radin to seek a brochah from the Chofetz Chaim. He introduced himself to the Chofetz Chaim.

Foon vanet kumpt a Yid?” asked the Chofetz Chaim.


“I am from China,” the man told him.


Vos hert zach in China?”


“It’s very difficult there,” said the man. “There is no proper chinuch. There is no shechitah. It is very hard to keep Shabbos.”


“It is atzoras rabim,” responded the Chofetz Chaim. “In many countries around the globe, Jews are experiencing the same problems. I published a sefer for them. It’s called ‘Nidchei Yisroel.’ Please take some seforim with you and distribute them in China. The sefer teaches how to maintain your Yiddishkeit in difficult surroundings.”


The Chofetz Chaim paused. “What else is doing in China?” he asked.


The man discussed the state of the Jews there, not sure what else to add. He told the Chofetz Chaim that he had been away from his country for several weeks.


Before you left,” asked the tzaddik, “what were people there speaking about? What were they writing about in the newspapers?”


The visitor thought for a moment, suddenly recalling an incident that had been widely covered by the newspapers back home. He shared the account with the Chofetz Chaim.


“The Chinese government built a huge dam, making available a tremendous amount of land for agriculture,” said the man. “But the dam was built very sloppily and could not withstand the awesome power of all the water it had backed up. The dam collapsed and flooded a very large area. 100,000 people died.”


The Chofetz Chaim was visibly shaken and became emotional.


Oy vey. Oy vey. The middas hadin is running rampant! It reached as far as China,” he said.


The man was perplexed.


“Can I ask the rebbe a question?” he queried. “Why is it that when I told you about the matzav of the Jews in China, you accepted it without much emotion, but when I told you about the Chinese people, you cried bitter tears?”


“During your European trip, were you in Warsaw?” asked the Chofetz Chaim of his visitor.


“Yes,” the man replied.


“How many Jews live there and what percentage of the population are they?” asked the Chofetz Chaim.


“There are about 300,000 Jews out of a population of a little over one million,” said the man.


“If a man stands on a soap box on a street corner delivering a speech in Yiddish, who is he addressing?” questioned the Chofetz Chaim.


“The Jews who are passing by, of course,” responded the man. “Why are you asking?”


“But you yourself said that they are but a minority in the city, correct?”


“Sure,” said the man, still confused. “But the goyim don’t understand Yiddish, so if someone is speaking in Yiddish, he must be addressing the Jewish passersby and not the gentiles.”


“Exactly,” replied the Chofetz Chaim. “The same is true with the dam that burst in China. When the water was unleashed to kill 100,000 people, that was the language of Heaven. It was a warning from Hashem. But the Chinese don’t understand ‘Shomayim language.’ We do. The Yidden are the ones who cry out on theYomim Noraim, ‘Mi bamayim.’ We understand that when such occurrences take place, they are meant to send us a message. But how are we, in Radin, to know about what happened? That’s why Hashem sent you here. He sent you to tell us what took place and for us to hear the Heavenly speech.”


With the crystalline clarity that Torahgives a person, the Chofetz Chaim taught us how a Yid reacts to headlines. These last few weeks, though, the headlines weren’t referring to episodes from across the globe, but, literally, to events occurring in our own backyards.


Stop, said the Chofetz Chaim, and think! When floodwaters are unleashed, their waves crossing borders and flooding homes and businesses, sending thousands of people running and causing billions of dollars of damage, Hashem is sending a message to us. Ein od milvado. Comfortable as it is to wave it off and ascribe these natural disasters to climate change and global warming, we know better: They are the result of our ma’asim and are a call for us to become better Yidden.


And so, as we seek to grow and learn from the headlines, we contemplate the world around us and it isn’t a pretty sight. Our problems are not just meteorological. They are political as well. We’ve endured a difficult week and it behooves us to learn the lessons that can direct us back to timeless truths.


The day after the election, so many writers, columnists and pundits wondered: Why did Mitt Romney lose? And perhaps more pointedly, how was it allowed to happen? How did America pass up this chance, the lifeline it had been extended? Good questions, all of them. Rarely has there been a candidate for high office who is as decent a person as Romney is, self-made and accomplished, charitable and generous. Intelligent, well-spoken, and well-versed in all the issues facing the country, he not only appeared presidential, he also acted that way.


His opponent basically failed in almost everything he attempted during his first term, except for his law that will change health care in this country as we know it, driving up costs and enforcing inefficiency in the system. His first term was such a failure that he tried as hard as he could not to discuss it. During the entire campaign, he never ran on his record, for doing so would have been inviting defeat.


So why did Romney lose and what lessons can we learn from his defeat?


Obama beat Romney by approximately 2.7 million votes, an impressive number, especially when considering that, in the 2008 election, Republican Senator John McCain, a much weaker candidate than Romney, received 3 million more votes than Romney. In other words, if all the Republicans who voted for McCain would have voted for Romney, he would now be president-elect instead of a vanquished loser. The defeat is compounded by the fact that McCain garnered fewer votes than George W. Bush did in 2004 and that over 9 million people who voted for Obama in 2008 did not vote for him this time around.


How did Romney lose?


Apparently, the Romney campaign concentrated on raising hundreds of millions of dollars and spending it on pricey consultants and television advertising. Obama and his advisers also raised a lot of money and advertised heavily, but they did something else. They worked hard for four years. They were in every town and every city and every county and every voting district of this country where they saw potential. They worked for votes. They had hundreds of offices in Ohio alone. They went door to door and spoke to communal leaders, politicians, and regular folk. They pressed their case on a retail level. They made friends and they rang doorbells. They brought people out to the polls in early voting and on November 6th. They didn’t stop working until Election Day. They out-hustled Romney’s campaign.


Yes, the Obama’ites ran a dirty campaign. Yes, they were negative. Yes, they lied. No, they had no record to run on. However, at the end of the day, they won. They were victorious because they did the grunt work. They didn’t rely on the big money. They didn’t depend on advertising campaigns. They rolled up their sleeves and recruited voters, one by one. It’s hard work. It’s no fun and no glory. It’s getting to know people, making friends, motivating people, and getting them to work.


But that is what you have to do if you want to win elections. Had the Republicans operated that way and turned out their base, it would be a different country today.


This lesson – that of retail politics, as it’s called – is the first of many that are so relevant to us.


There are no quick-fix solutions to change, and great accomplishments never come without great effort. Often, even in our communities, the glory pulls us. We are drawn to the cause or project that offers glitz and glamour and floods the market with public relations material extolling its virtues. Yes, publicity is important and without it we stand little chance of advancing our causes. People have to be familiar with a cause in order to support it. People have to talk about it and have a good feeling about it, and that does not happen without effective PR, but that is just one component of what it takes to succeed. What spells success in the field of lofty ideas, mosdos and building Torah is the work of raising money, in small amounts, at a grassroots level.


In recent years, I’ve made many new friends, individuals who’ve stopped me in the street to offer crumpled bills and small checks for the Klal Yisroel Fund, people who reminded me how the great communal infrastructure we enjoy was built.


From amcha bais Yisroel, bit by bit.


The bricks in these spiritual edifices aren’t made of mortar or lime, but hard work, bizyonos, humiliation and determination. Rav Shlomo Lorencz recalled accompanying Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l to the office of a wealthy American Jew. The secretary informed them that the prospective donor wasn’t in and they had best return another time.


Rabbi Lorencz left his card, which featured his name and title, “Chaver HaKnesset,” emblazoned across it, and they turned to go. Suddenly, the door swung wide open and the host magically appeared. The donor wasn’t prepared to miss the glitz of a visit from an Israeli politician, even though he wasn’t available for the rosh yeshiva.


Like many others who spent their years raising money for Torah causes, Rav Henoch Cohen of Chinuch Atzmai was privy to many incidents that underscore this reality, the readiness of our leadersto sustain humiliation and scorn in order to build Torah. He recalls driving three gedolim, Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky. Each man was a giant, yet the reception they often received was unceremonious.


One evening, Rabbi Cohen was driving them to Long Island to visit someone in a bid to convince him to help Chinuch Atzmai. One of the roshei yeshiva spoke. “Drive slower,” he said, “so that we will arrive there after eight o’clock. He probably has a butler who works until then, but after eight, he’ll open the door himself and, hopefully, once he sees us, he won’t have the heart to turn us away. With a butler, it’s easier to do so.”


Today, we utter these names – Rav Aharon, Rav Moshe, Rav Yaakov – with such phenomenal reverence. It is difficult to fathom that they were treated with disrespect by anyone, but that was the reality back then. Today, the situation may be better, but it still leaves much to be desired.


We see pictures of gedolim, their countenances aglow as they deliver a shiur or sit at their shtenders, but we don’t see the long, hard nights when they toil for hachzokas haTorah, sustaining the world.


A great man once compared this world to a cruise ship, where passengers and guests enjoy the entertainment, food and view, lining the deck and chatting. Deep in the recesses of the ship is a room where the captain and engineers work to keep the ship moving, their faces and arms black from grease. They are the ones working. Everyone else seems to be enjoying, while they are soiled and exhausted.


These are the roshei yeshiva and roshei kollel who get “shvartz in ponim” running around seeking partners they can enlist to support Torah.


I remember accompanying the Philadelphia rosh yeshiva, Rav Elya Svei, to a wealthy fellow, only to receive an embarrassingly miniscule donation. I was uncomfortable, but Rav Elya was unfazed. “Azoi boit men Torah,” he said.


In order to have a broad base of supporters who are not fickle and dependent upon the vagaries of the economy or on constant massaging, you must work among the amcha people, selling your project and earning respect. It is this support that provides the backbone upon which you can build and develop relationships while you are seeking out larger contributions.


The Chofetz Chaim famously rejected a proposal to have the Vaad Hayeshivos support the Olam HaTorah out of a central fund, rather than have meshulochim circulate through the cities and towns, because, as he said, “Torah belongs to every Yid, and every yochid deserves, and needs, the zechus of hachzokas haTorah.”


Lehavdil, the difference in approach between the two parties in the recent presidential election hammers home that lesson. There is no match for hard work, not even a better platform and better connections.


Which brings us to another lesson to be learned from Romney’s defeat.


Communication is vital to success. The Democrats successfully defamed Romney and created a negative image of him in the minds of the populace. The hundreds of millions of dollars they spent portraying the kind, successful businessman as a vicious, heartless, cruel, money-hungry shylock was money well spent. Romney was slow to respond, and throughout the summer, the negative narrative was played and replayed. The imagery sunk in and could not be dislodged.


We hear shmuessen about the effects of lashon hara, but here we have clear and resounding proof of just how powerful it is. Snide and supercilious as it was, the labels stuck. In Mitt Romney’s defeat, we see so many other unhappy endings that result from a hateful comment here and a mean-spirited remark there. Life is full of them.


This leads us to the next lesson.


Romney is a dignified gentleman, with a history of achievement. He espouses moral beliefs and the traditional path of American greatness. Though born to wealthy parents, he took no money from them and started out at the bottom, working his way up, by himself, earning his fortune rather than inheriting it. Yet, he lost the election to an opponent whose only accomplishment was successfully getting elected to public office thanks to his ability to speak and position himself as a historical transitional figure. It was – and is – superficial, with little or no depth. It was a victory of style over substance.


The narrative that the Democrat party has succeeded in spreading is that Republicans are against the poor and middle classes, which is clearly not true. The Democrats worked long and hard to make the people believe that the Republicans are evil, that they hate the poor, that they are cold, heartless and cruel, and that were they to be in power, everyone receiving public assistance would starve to death.


This is of course false. The Republican Party is and has always been for small government and fewer taxes, working with the philosophy that if left to their own devices, people will rise and succeed. They believe that the job of government is to stay out the way and to enable people to work, grow, find and maintain good jobs, grow and build their own businesses, and enable them to provide with dignity for their families. The party also has supported a good many entitlements helping those who are unable to make ends meet.


The fact is that the government has to be able to pay its bills. The policy of continuously borrowing to expand spending can eventually bankrupt a government.


As a New York resident, I feel like my vote was wasted. I put in little dots next to each Republican candidate on the ballot, but as I did so, I felt I was wasting my time. I knew that not one of them would win. The Republican Party on a local level has totally failed in recruiting and fielding quality candidates and working to get them elected.


The vision and principles of the person who will occupy the Oval Office really does make a difference. His position on Eretz Yisroel should impact how we vote. His plan for the economy is important to us. We need a viable economy to make ends meet, to pay tuition, to support mosdos and to help others. We all know too many horror stories of households where space and even food are lacking.


A liberal president and liberal politicians really do impact the moral climate of the country. More deviancies are accepted and supported.


It won’t be long before the health care law starts impacting not only your pocketbook, but also your ability to seek out a doctor and treatment of your choice. As our friends in Far Rockaway can tell you, the government, overstaffed as it is, has a hard time delivering services on a practical level. The bureaucracy and long lines at the various government offices symbolize the make-up of a government where little gets done. And yet, under Obamacare, it is those overwhelmed bureaucrats who will be deciding where and how a patient should be treated, if at all.


The lesson in this bitter defeat is a scary one. The accomplished one fell before his photogenic opponent, because we live in a freeze-frame, photo-op world. It is not about what type of person you are or how much you’ve accomplished. It’s all about the picture you portray of yourself. It is about how you appear in pictures and how many photos of yourself you are able to publicize.


America, it seems, has gone superficial. Where it was once a nation of idealists, it has become a nation where ideas are secondary to externals.


Truth will endure forever. As the posuk in Mishlei states, “Sefas emes tikkon lo’ad” (12:19). One of the quietest admorim in Chassidic history – so quiet, in fact, that many people did not appreciate the depth of his knowledge – left this world with the words of that posuk on his lips. He knew that the light of truth can never be extinguished. The written notes he left behind were published under the title “Sefas Emes.” His chiddushei Torah today help make the complex sugyos of Kodshim understandable to scholars, posthumously revealing him as a gaon olam. Until this very day, his sefer on Chumash is a classic, opening the doors of Chassidic thought to all sorts of Jews.


Our disappointment in the political process reminds us how fortunate we are to have a process all our own. Speak the truth and you will be heard. Go into any bais medrash, look on the shelf, and you will see that sefer, Sefas Emes. You will witness just how truth endures through the ages.


We need to learn to invest our kochos, our money, our energy and our resources in eternity. We must not be taken in by the here-and-now, but by what lasts for eternity.


On a visit to America, the Ponovezher Rov heard about a wealthy Canadian who was interested in having his name on a building in Eretz Yisroel, but all the Rov’sefforts to reach the man were futile.


On his flight back to Eretz Yisroel, the Rov was seated next to an irreligious Jew. Ever the gentleman, he reached out his hand to his seatmate. “And what is your name?” he asked. To his great surprise, it was the very millionaire he had tried vainly to meet. He saw it as a sign from Heaven and spent some time sharing his dream with this Yid, telling him about himself, his yeshiva and his need for a building to accommodate the yeshiva. Finally, he made his pitch.


“Your name belongs on that building,” said the Rov. “Your name would be perpetuated upon a beautiful building on top of a mountain. Additionally, it would be a tremendous source of merit for you for eternity.”


The man responded that the Rov was a week late, for one week prior he had donated money for a stadium to rise in the city of Yaffo. It would be named “Bloomfield Stadium” in his honor.


This man didn’t have the zechus. He wanted to have his name perpetuated in Eretz Yisroel. He wanted to help the state develop and flourish. He wished to effect change, but he didn’t. He failed. His money was wasted. Had he assisted the Rov in building the yeshiva, he would have helped share in the development of bnei Torah who would go on to raise Torah families, to become leaders of Am Yisroel, and to serve as rabbonim,roshei yeshiva, dayonim, menahalim, mechanchim and productive members of society. He would have had a share in bringing more light and more kedushah into the world. Alas, he missed his opportunity.


Let us not be like Mr. Bloomfield.


Another vital lesson from this election debacle:


We need to inspire and cultivate real leadership.


There are well-intentioned people in our community who want to bring about change and improve the world. While their efforts should be encouraged and commended, we need to bear in mind how the brilliant, widely-hailed, oft-quoted architect of campaign victories, Karl Rove, raised $300 million and spent it on various elections this year. According to the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group that studies campaign financing, only one percent of that money – only one percent!achieved a positive result.


We need to identify people with depth, knowledge, leadership and communicative skills who can identify problems, work on solutions, and convince people to follow them. We have to stay away from those whose only interest is their own. We should demand intelligence and competence. We can no longer afford the same old sound bites. Tough times demand tough leaders, tough answers to tough questions, and real solutions to real problems. We have to demand better leadership in our world. We must find people who have the achrayus to think every issue through thoroughly before registering an opinion. Askonus takes hard work and big dreams, as well as clear, articulate communication. Leaders must know what they stand for, communicate and articulate a vision, and be prepared to defend and fight for what they believe in.


Intelligent Mitt Romney, as good and as decent as he is, and as moral and accomplished a man as he is, couldn’t explain what he was for. He couldn’t get a positive message out. We need to be able to do that if we are to succeed in this new world. We need to promote people who are competent and effectual.


Romney was, in the words of a columnist, refashioned into something very different, to the point that nobody really knew what he was. In fact, even he might not have known.


And one more point to ponder.


There are some now in the Republican Party who are ready to throw in the towel. They haven’t yet analyzed the numbers. They haven’t crunched all the data to ascertain why their party lost the race. Still, they are ready to capitulate and compromise on the primary issues their candidate ran on and for which their party stands.


We must remember not to capitulate. At times like these, there are always those who say that we can’t be so doctrinaire and we shouldn’t be so glued to the old ways. We have to bend halacha here and there, they contend. We must be more welcoming, more forgiving, more objective, more accepting and more tolerant of those who have chosen the wrong path.


No matter what happens in life, we should not be handcuffed by setbacks. The posuk in Mishlei (24:16) states, “Ki sheva yipol tzaddik vekom. In the unfortunate event that a tzaddik repeatedly falls, he picks himself up and continues on.


If we fail, if we lose, if we strike out as we are pursuing a dream, we must not become dejected. We must regroup and move forward. We do not grow bitter and, by extension, ineffective. We have to view what happened as a setback, but nothing more than that. We figure out where we went wrong, we adjust the game plan, we recalculate the route, and then we get right back at work. Because that’s our way.


We don’t give up. We realize that all that transpires is from Hashem and that He is sending us messages. His plan in preparing the world for Moshiach is being played out. We must be chastened, but not defeated. Instead, we must be motivated to work even harder in being mekayeim our shlichus in this world so that we may be zocheh to the ultimate geulah quickly.


There is a delightful story about achassidishe Yid named Reb Mendel Futerfass, who spent a long year in the freezing Soviet gulag. One morning, as he sat with his cellmates, one of them asked him why he always seemed upbeat while they were so glum.


“I will answer you,” he said. “You, Ivan, were a prominent lawyer prior to your arrest. Now, you have nothing. Your fancy degrees don’t help you. You, Boris, were a doctor, with patients lining up to see you. Here, no one remembers. You carry logs all day. But I was simple. I was just a plain chassidishe Yid, content to serve my Maker. Now, I am still that very same thing, a simple Jew trying to serve my Creator.”


Before the election, we wanted to do Hashem’s will, and now we want the very same thing. So we march on, upbeat, because even though much has changed, everything is really the same.


The way many have risen to help our brethren affected by Hurricane Sandy gives us cause to see light amidst the darkness. This past Shabbos, from New York to Los Angeles and in every frum city in between, from sea to shining sea, appeals were held to raise funds to help Sandy’s victims begin to put their lives back together. The response was overwhelming, enabling tzaddikim, like those from Achiezer, and roshei yeshiva, like those from Long Beach, as they pick up the pieces. May the response be a source of merit to all of Am Yisroel in these trying times.




Walking the Walk Have you ever had the experience of recognizing someone in the distance simply by the way they walk? I have, many times.

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