Thursday, Dec 9, 2021

Greatness

Life is tough, the news is tough, and the economy is tough. It’s tough all around. We have faith that Hakadosh Boruch Hu is causing everything to happen, often for reasons we cannot yet understand.

While some are making more money than imaginable a couple of years ago, many others are floundering. Entire industries have been destroyed. Importers can’t get products; exporters can’t ship theirs. Prices are going through the roof. Everything has gone up in price quite considerably. Commercial property owners are facing vacancies and owners of apartments can’t collect rent. In every field of human endeavor, it is virtually impossible to find employees, and those who do are forced to pay salaries that they can little afford. Covid has not yet left us. It is like an albatross waiting to lower its boom and pounce.

The news spread like wildfire throughout the Olam HaTorah on Sunday. Rav Yehuda Goldberg was niftar. A relatively young and energetic outstanding marbitz Torah, known and beloved to so many, especially those in the world of Telz, was cut down in the prime of his life. An outstanding ben Torah, always positive and full of chizuk for others, a talmid of Telz and Brisk, he personified the greatness of those storied yeshivos.

A loyal talmid to his rabbeim, as a rebbi for decades in the Riverdale Yeshiva, he lifted the lives of many hundreds of bochurim. He was the personification of a person whose life revolves around Torah and its mitzvos. He was always learning, always growing in his avodah, always with a smile, happy about the life Hashem blessed him with. Now, we remain with the Torah, inspiration and memories he left behind. He was a dear friend of this newspaper, frequently calling to offer chizuk over the decades of our publication.

And he wasn’t the only one to leave us over the past couple of days. Rav Hertz Frankel, legendary longtime Satmar English principal and ambassador for the Satmar Rebbe, leaves behind a lifetime of good work for Klal Yisroel. A fountain of information and insight, he was long a friend of this paper.

Rav Noach Cheifetz was a legend in the world of kiruv. A longtime rov in the mystical holy city of Tzefas, he was in a unique position to reach out to lost and struggling souls. His son, Rav Natan, continues his legacy as a leading director of Lev L’Achim.

Rav Boruch Saks, who was niftar this week, was a maggid shiur at the Staten Island Yeshiva for over fifty years and after moving to Lakewood was appointed as rov of the Pine River Village Nusach Sefard minyan. He was previously rov of the Zeiri Agudah minyan in Boro Park and Camp Mogen Avrohom. He was a shining example of someone who lived his life by and for Torah.

There was a common thread connecting these three very different individuals and many other good people who we can learn from and emulate.

We are all familiar with the stories of Parshas Vayeira, which have fascinated and inspired us for as long as we can remember. The parsha opens with Hakadosh Boruch Hu appearing to Avrohom as he recuperated from his bris milah. In the middle of their conversation, Avrohom sees three men approaching and runs out to greet them.

The question is old and has been asked millions of times: Why would Avrohom interrupt his conversation with Hakadosh Boruch Hu to offer food, drink, and respite to a group of desert wanderers?

Just imagine that you are speaking to Rav Chaim Kanievsky. Is there anything that could cause you to interrupt the conversation mid-sentence? How about if you were with the Chofetz Chaim? Is there any way you would ask him to hold on while you gave a drink to some shlepper you don’t know?

How can it be that Avrohom Avinu, who had reached the pinnacle of human achievement and merited an audience with Hakadosh Boruch Hu, gave it up to run out to offer help to strangers?

Rav Dovid Soloveitchik explained that the greatest thing we can achieve is to properly perform a mitzvah. Although meriting gilui Shechinah – a conversation with the Creator – is a tremendous achievement and an indication of having reached the pinnacle of accomplishment, mitzvah performance is what we are all about. Therefore, Avrohom, as satisfied as he must have been to be conversing with the Shechinah, knew that his primary obligation was to perform the mitzvah of chesed.

Whenever anything transpires, a Jew’s first question must be: What does the Torah say I should be doing now? There can be monumental occurrences taking place, but our minds must focus on what Hashem wants us to be doing then. We can’t get caught up with the vagaries of the moment. We always have to be conscious of the fact that as Yidden, we have certain obligations.

Steve Jobs was a brilliant young man who had invented a new computer. He was convinced that his invention was life-altering, but had no experience running a company. John Scully was the hugely successful president of Pepsi. Jobs set his eyes upon him and set about recruiting him to run his young company. But Scully had no interest. Why should he give up a top job in a top company for some genius kid from California who had an idea?

Then Jobs made his final pitch. He said to the experienced, respected, industry icon, “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

We need to ask ourselves the same question when considering a career or course of action: Do I want to make a difference in the lives of people? Or do I want to have a nice, simple life? What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. Everyone is different and has differing needs and abilities. But a primary consideration must be to ponder what the Torah would advise us to do.

If you are involved in something and don’t know how to proceed, consider what the Torah would say. If you have a disagreement with someone, should you look aside and be mevater, or, because you are right, are you going to press the issue and cause a machlokes?  We decide on the correct course of action by following the Torah.

The great niftarim were people whose every move was dictated by the Torah. That was the secret of their success and popularity. They set an example for their talmidim and all who knew them.

It is interesting to note that the Torah tells us that Avrohom interrupted a conversation with Hakadosh Boruch Hu to care for three anonymous travelers, but it tells us nothing about their conversation. Instead, the Torah provides a lengthy description of how he provided for the strangers.

Everything in the Torah is intended to elevate us and to teach us how we are to conduct ourselves. Obviously, the more important part of the story is that we learn from it how to do chesed and care for others.

How would we have reacted in that situation? What would we do if we were doing something important to us and a strange beggar comes to the door? It is one thing to be nice to a person we know. It is another to be thoughtful when dealing with someone who is an ill-kempt idol worshipper.

Anyone can be nice to a likeable person. The test of greatness is how we treat ordinary folk who may be different from us and for whom we have no special affinity. The way we treat a nudnik after we had a hard day is an indication of the type of person we are.

Avrohom treated each stranger as if he were an important dignitary, because to him, every person who provided him with an opportunity to perform a mitzvah was indeed important.

People streamed to the tiny apartment of the Chazon Ish, whose yahrtzeit is this week, seeking his advice and blessings, and to discuss matters of Torah and communal welfare with him. Often, he was in a weakened state and would lie in bed as people spoke to him. Somebody asked him why he gave so much of his time to listen to and answer so many people.

The Chazon Ish replied that if he would have money, he would use it to help people, but since he doesn’t, he is mekayeim the mitzvah of gemillus chassodim in this fashion.

Every person has an obligation to help other people in any way that he can. If he can’t write a check, he can make a call. If he can’t make a call, he can give advice, and if he can’t give advice, at least he can listen and show that someone cares. There are so many needs and so many people with needs that there is bound to be a way that even simple people like us can be of help.

A secular Israeli couple became connected to Torah and decided to move to Bnei Brak, so that they could raise their daughter among religious people. Upon their move, they were faced with a serious problem that many FFBs are regrettably familiar with: No school would accept the girl they gave up so much for. Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach, rosh yeshiva of Ponovezh and leader of Torah Jewry, whose twentieth yahrtzeit is this week, became aware of the problem.

As a student of Avrohom Avinu and as a man whose every step was decided by what the Torah demanded of him to do in that situation, Rav Shach phoned the person who headed Chinuch Atzmai, the religious school system in Israel, and asked for his assistance in getting the girl accepted into the local school. The leader told Rav Shach that he was unable to assist him in his mission. He said that the principal of the school is a very tough woman and he has a very hard time with her. He was sure that should he reach out to her, it would be a wasted effort.

Rav Shach found the woman’s number and called her himself. When she answered the phone, he said, “Hello, this is Leizer Shach calling. I want to speak to you about a fine girl who belongs in your school.”

How would you react if Rav Shach called you with a request?

Not this woman. She turned him down.

“They are baalei teshuvah,” she said. “I can’t take the girl in. The board of parents who oversee me will never permit such a thing.”

Despite her arrogance and obstinacy, the gadol hador continued the conversation. “Please give me their names and phone numbers,” he said.

There were a dozen people waiting outside Rav Shach’s room to enter and speak with him. He had many other pressing issues to deal with, but ensuring that a bas Yisroel had a school to attend was a priority.

He sat at his table and called each parent representative one by one. “Hello, this is Leizer Shach. I am calling to discuss an issue with you…”

He discussed the matter with each parent who was a class representative and resolved the matter. The girl was accepted to the school and Rav Shach kept tabs on her development.

Rav Shach had never met the girl or her parents, yet he felt that the Torah demanded of him that if he could get the girl into the school, he had an obligation to do so. Without concern for his personal dignity and time, he sat by the phone, lobbying the principal and then the individual parents on behalf of the girl. Every ben Yisroel and bas Yisroel is entitled to be in a Torah school, and if he could make that happen, he would. This is demanded not only of a gadol b’Yisroel, but of every person. If you can help someone, in any way, and in any situation, you have an obligation to set aside your own personal considerations and ignore your ego or inherent hesitations, and as uncomfortable as it may be, you must do what you can to help them.

That is the lesson of this week’s parsha and the reason the Torah records the story for Yidden of all times to study it and learn from it. The opportunities for chesed are there. We need to grab them. The opportunity to do other mitzvos also present themselves quite often, but sometimes at a time that we would rather be doing other things that we consider more enjoyable or more pressing. Quite often, the mitzvah is performed in anonymity or without any fanfare, and there is little motivation that by performing it you will be recognized as some kind of hero. But we must do it anyway.

The success of Klal Yisroel and one of the secrets of how we lasted so long and have steadily overcome so many threats to our survival is that there have always been – and still are – good people who, in the dark of night and loneliness of the righteous, forsake much to do what is right and necessary in every situation. Because of such people, communal schools are built, teachers are paid living wages, and children are afforded a proper chinuch. Because of people who place Olam Haba before Olam Hazeh, there are rabbeim and moros in classrooms across the country and around the world this week teaching our children about Avrohom Avinu, as well as Rav Shach, Rav Yehudah Goldberg, and the many other gedolim and simple good people who have helped individual Yidden and Klal Yisroel flourish.

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