People read the news and become disheartened and troubled. They worry about healthcare and the direction in which the country is headed. They worry about Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. They worry that Israel will be attacked. They worry about brothers fighting each other in Eretz Yisroel, where the government is pushing ahead with a plan designed to weaken yeshivos and the Torah community. They worry about how it will all end.
People worry about machlokes and hope and pray that we will be blessed with shalom.
There seems to be no shortage of things to worry about. Merubim tzorchei amcha.
How can we overcome these fears? What can we do to improve our situation and make the world a better place for ourselves, our children and the people we care about?
There are some who have already given up and declared that our problems are unsolvable and that we should just worry about ourselves, aiming to get through the day.
Thankfully, there are many others who maintain their positive disposition and press ahead with fulfilling their obligations in this world, living positive, productive lives.
There are people all over who fit that description. They are the ones who get things done, not permitting apathy and negativism to thwart their drive. They remain motivated and focused on realizing personal and communal goals.
We all know them. They are the people who make things happen. We wonder what our communities, schools, yeshivos and shuls would look like without them.
When their ideas and plans are mocked, they push ahead. When they are told that their ambitions are impossible to accomplish, they forge ahead anyway, ignoring the naysayers. When defeated, they aren’t stopped. They regroup, strengthen themselves and try again.
Those are the types of people who attended the Sixth Annual Torah Umesorah Presidents Conference this past weekend. Jews from across the country, Canada and even a couple from Panama joined together to support each other and receive and provide inspiration to continue with their tasks. The energy and emotion of the people who aren’t deterred when doors are slammed in their faces were palpable. Intrepid pioneers who have built Torah in disparate cities such as Portland, Dallas, Seattle, Vancouver and Palm Beach Gardens sat alongside veterans from places such as Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Lakewood, Brooklyn and Monsey.
They were charged by Torah messages, inspired by moving addresses, and educated at workshops and expert panel discussions.
Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky encapsulated the weekend during his address at seudah shlishis, remarking that no one present had come for a vacation; it was too short a period of time for that.
Nobody had come for themselves. Everyone who was there had come for others. They came to be inspired in their missions of chinuch yaldei Yisroel. They came to learn how to better manage their schools and mosdos, how to market them, how to inspire others to become involved in spreading kedushah and teaching Torah in small towns and large cities, and how to pay for it all. They came to receive strength and succor for the battles they have to fight.
They came because despite all the obstacles placed in their way, they remain optimistic about the future. They know what their purpose in life is and they remain focused on realizing that goal. As the rosh yeshiva reminded his listeners, the children of Rav Chaim Volozhiner write in the introduction to his sefer that we were created to help each other. We were placed on this world to be “nosei be’ol im chaveiro.” Helping each other is a primary objective.
If we help each other, and if we unite for a common purpose and seek each other’s benefit, we are able to realize our potential and make the world a better place, both for others and for ourselves. If instead of concentrating on the negative, we work together to enhance our communities and spread goodness, we will light up the world like stars in the night.
At the beginning of Parshas Shemos, Rashi (1:1) says that the members of Klal Yisroel are compared to the stars of the heavens. Even though the Bnei Yisroel were previously counted, Parshas Shemos begins numbering them again, because they are as beloved as stars, which Hashem counts by their names.
Rav Leib Bakst zt”l, the Detroit rosh yeshiva,offered a classic interpretation of the comparison. When the world was initially created, the sun and the moon were of equal size. The moon was punished and its size was diminished. In order to comfort the moon, Hashem created the stars. Thus, stars were not created for their own benefit. Rather, their entire existence is to serve something else. The Jewish people, as well, were created to help each other. Therefore, they are beloved and compared to stars.
In this week’s parsha, Va’eira, we learn of the makkos with which Hashem struck the evil people of Mitzrayim. During makkas tzefardeia, frogs jumped into the Egyptian ovens, ready to bring about their own deaths.
The Gemara in Maseches Pesochim (53b) relates from Todus Ish Romi that Chananyah, Mishoel and Azaryah were inspired by those frogs and walked into a furnace, prepared to give up their lives al kiddush Hashem rather than bow to Nevuchadnetzar’s statue.
They analyzed the pesukim and concluded that the frogs could have fulfilled their obligation by simply hopping around Mitzrayim and making a general nuisance of themselves without entering the ovens and dying.
Chananyah, Mishoel and Azaryah said that although frogs aren’t obligated in the commandment of committing the ultimate sacrifice for kiddush Hashem, they did so anyway. Certainly, Chananyah, Mishoel and Azaryah, who are obligated to be mekadeish Sheim Shomayim, should be prepared to die al kiddush Hashem.
How are we to understand their assumption that an element of free choice was manifest in the manner in which the frogs carried out their shlichus? How were they permitted to draw a life-ending lesson from the actions of these short-bodied, tailless amphibians?
Furthermore, we learn that dogs were rewarded for their good behavior toward the Jews who were leaving Mitzrayim.
The posuk says, “Be a holy people to Me. Do not eat treifah… Cast it to the dogs” (Shemos 22:30). Rashi says that the Torah specifies that the forbidden meat should be thrown to a dog to teach that Hashem does not withhold reward from any creature. Since the dogs did not bark as the Jews escaped Mitzrayim (Shemos 11:7), Hashem said, “Give [the dog] its reward.”
The question, again, is that if an animal has no bechirah, why do we reward the dogs for having helped us in Mitzrayim?
A closer examination of the aforementioned Gemara in Maseches Pesochim may help us understand the lesson derived from the frogs, as well as the purpose of the rewards bestowed upon dogs.
The Gemara doesn’t actually say that Chananyah, Mishoel and Azaryah learned a kal vachomer from the tzefarde’im. The Gemara, in discussing the person named Todus Ish Romi, asks whether he was a gavra rabbah, a great man, or abaal egrofin, a tough person whom people feared.
The Gemara proves that Todus was a gavra rabbah because of the way he searched for the source of the mesirus nefesh demonstrated by Chananyah, Mishoel and Azaryah to be prepared to die al kiddush Hashem. Todus concluded that they derived their sense of obligation from the pesukim that describe the way the tzefarde’im went about their duty in Mitzrayim. He reasoned that if tzefarde’im, which are not commanded to be mekadeish Hashem, were moser nefesh, certainly we, who are commanded to be mekadeish Hashem, are obligated to risk our lives for that higher purpose.
The Gemara deduced from the lesson of Todus that he was a gavra rabbah, because if animals have no bechirah, it must be that Todus didn’t learn his kal vachomer from the way the frogs acted. Rather, he learned his kal vachomer from the way the pesukim describe their behavior.
From the manner in which the Torah detailed how the frogs swarmed to every corner of Mitzrayim, including the ovens, Todus determined that there was a lesson to be learned for all time.
From the fact that the Torah tells us to throw bosor treifah to the dogs and that the dogs didn’t bark as we left Mitzrayim, we deduce that the reason is to learn to be makir tov to those from whom we benefit.
A person who examines pesukim carefully, with the aim of deriving inspiration and moral teachings from the stories of the Torah, is a gavra rabbah. Todus was a gavra rabbah.
Likewise, one who enables others to learn how to be meitiv with each other can be referred to as a gavra rabbah, especially when coupled with ongoing mesirus nefesh.
Menahalim, principals, rabbeim, moros, school presidents, board chairmen and members, as well as the people who do chesed for the poor and the abused, and who help people pay their mortgages and tuitions, who go out on Hatzolah calls and who visit the sick and the lonely, seeking to do good, are gavra rabbahs. They learn from the Torah’s description of the tzefarde’im and from each other the obligation to be moser nefesh to be mekadeish Hashem with their every action.
A gavra rabbah analyzes the parsha and the briah and has the sensitivity and refinement to draw correct and positive conclusions.
Rav Chaim Kanievsky asks why the Torah recounts the reward that the dogs received for their role in Yetzias Mitzrayim, while there is no mention of any commensurate compensation for the tzefarde’im.
Perhaps we can answer that the action of Chananyah, Mishoel and Azaryah was their reward. Their mesirus nefesh was itself the greatest recompense. Any time anyone performs an act of kiddush Hashem because they learned a lesson from the frogs, that itself is a reward to those cold-blooded, scaly, vertebrate mekadshei Hashem.
The merits of people who follow our example and are hopeful, positive, giving and caring, teaching and spreading Torah, are accrued to us and are part of our reward for making the world a better place.
In Perek Shirah, where we are brought into the sublime world of creatures and the various odes that they sing to their Maker, we read the song of the tzefardeia:“Tzefardeia omer, ‘Boruch sheim kevod malchuso le’olam vo’ed.’”
The small creature that teaches us a resounding lesson about the purpose of existence has a most fitting song. Those who follow its lesson, echoing its acts of mesirus nefesh, proclaim with their every action, “Boruch sheim kevod malchuso le’olam vo’ed.”
This is the lesson of Todus and this is the song of the tzefardeia. We are surrounded by abriah, a magnificent symphony called creation. Animals and people, the flora and the fauna, the mountains and the trees, they are all expressions of Hashem’s will, telling a story and demanding something from us. They all sing shirah. Instead of despairing about our condition and instead of thinking that what is transpiring is not part of a divine plan, we should maintain our faith, emunah and bitachon and always be prepared to sing shirah.
As long as there are people who learn and teach Parshas Va’eira, as long as there are people who learn Gemara Pesochim, and as long as there are people who seek to fulfill Hashem’s mandate to our people, there is hope.
As long as there are people who are moser nefesh every day to make the world a better place, teaching and learning Torah, and spreading goodness, kindness, love, care and concern, there is hope.
As long as we realize our obligation in this world, we cannot give up. We can never say that the situation is hopeless.
May we sing the song of the tzefardeia every day, living it, seeing it and feeling it. It endures forever and so shall we. Boruch sheim kevod malchuso le’olam vo’ed.