Have a Harp

This week, we begin Seder Shemos, the story of redemption. But it opens with a surprising episode.

Try to imagine the scene. Moshe Rabbeinu was tending to his flock in the wilderness, when he saw a bush alight in flames. He paused to consider what was transpiring, as he wondered how it could be that although the fire continued burning, the bush was not being consumed.

Like his ancestor, Avrohom Avinu, who studied the world and concluded that it could not have come into being by itself, as the Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 39:1) relates, so too, Moshe perceived that the Creator was announcing His Presence. He recognized that this was a defining moment in his life.

While Moshe was standing at the bush, the Ribbono Shel Olam addressed him, stating that he has been selected for a lofty mission, with a mandate to save His people.

Moshe asks for assurance. “What Name shall I tell them?” he says. “Who shall I say sent me on this mission to rescue the Jewish people from decades of slavery?”

Hashem revealed Himself using the name of “Ehkeh asher Ehkeh – I will be with them through this golus and all the subsequent travails and hard times.”

Moshe had now experienced the revelation of the Creator, who had decreed that the children of the avos, Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, to whom He had previously appeared, would be enslaved in a strange land and eventually freed.

No doubt exultant after his conversation with Hashem and knowing that the painful enslavement would soon end, Moshe went to share the good news with his brethren who had been suffering for as long as anyone could remember. He appeared to them and said the words they had been waiting to hear: “Higia zeman geulaschem – The time of your redemption has arrived.”

Tragically, almost unbelievably, the enslaved heirs of the avos to whom Hashem had previously appeared did not listen.

“Velo shamu el Moshe mikotzer ruach umei’avodah kashah.”

The Jewish people didn’t listen to him. They couldn’t listen. They were incapable of hearing the words that should have transformed everything for them. They failed to digest the message promising hope for a better tomorrow. It was too much for them.

Like every posuk in the Torah, this posuk is recorded for posterity to instruct and guide us. The words and their lessons remain relevant for eternity. The tale of a people too tired to hear the words they had been awaiting for two hundred years is relevant to us in our day.

We live in a state of anticipation, constantly awaiting the great announcement. Like the Chofetz Chaim, with his special kappota ready for Moshiach’s imminent arrival, we all carry a sense of expectancy, viewing the events around us through eyes that look beyond the occurrences. Our ears listen for the footsteps of a redeemer.

We are equipped with the tools to see beyond the moment, keeping our ears open for the mevaser tov, who will come to tell us that our troubles are over.

The sun shines brightly, though at times its rays are concealed by clouds. We have to possess the ability to see beyond the clouds to the light and warmth of the sun.

Few things are more disturbing than encountering bitter people. Surrounded by opportunity and blessing, they insist on concentrating on the negatives. Such people remain locked in by the inability to see beyond the sadness that envelops them. They are unable to dream of a better day or of working to achieve lasting accomplishments. They can’t acknowledge greatness in others, nor do they possess the self-confidence to achieve anything themselves.

There is so much goodness in our world. There is much to be happy about and proud of, yet too many are consumed by the negative, concentrating on the bad news and failing to see the entire picture. We forget that we are blessed to live in a land of plenty, which provides for the poor and those unable to make ends meet.

Since the Holocaust, which almost decimated our people, we have reestablished ourselves and flourish in cities and towns across the globe. We have more than we ever had and continue to grow and flourish.

The process of learning Torah and avodas hamussar is meant to train us to see the tov. We are to acquire an ayin tovah that allows us to discern the good in what we do have and to appreciate the fortune that abounds, if only we were ready to look a little deeper. In order to be good Jews, we have to be happy with the present and positive about the future. If we aren’t, it is an indication of how much we are lacking in the study of Torah and mussar.

Torah and mussar keep a person who studies them active, optimistic, energetic and positive. It shapes an individual into a mentch, a person who respects others and is worthy of respect himself.

The Ohr Hachaim (6:9) explains that the reason the Jews in Mitzrayim were not able to listen to the words of Moshe was because they were not bnei Torah. Torah broadens a person’s heart, he says. Had they been bnei Torah, they would have been receptive to Moshe’s message. We, who have been granted the gift of Torah, have no excuse for not being open to hearing the words of the Moshe Rabbeinus of our generation and those who seek to improve our lots and help us prepare ourselves for the geulah.

The Boyaner Rebbe would make a siyum during the Nine Days on Maseches Makkos. People thought that he made the siyum on that masechta because of its relatively small size, until the Rebbe explained that there was a deeper reason for his custom.

The final Gemara in Maseches Makkos tells the story of the Tannaim walking alongside Rabi Akiva up to Yerushalayim. When they beheld the makom haMikdosh in ruins, they began to weep, but Rabi Akiva smiled. They asked him why he was smiling, while they cried at the sight of foxes walking out of the place of the Kodesh Hakodoshim. He explained, citing pesukim, that in order for the nevuos of geulah to be fulfilled, the nevuos of churban must be completed first.

Now that the destruction is so complete, he reasoned, we can anticipate the geulah.

Akiva nichamtanu. Akiva nichamtanu,” they famously replied. “Akiva, you have comforted us.”

The Boyaner Rebbe explained that during the days that commemorate the churban, he wanted to be reminded of this lesson. He wanted to remember that there is no situation that doesn’t carry hints of a better tomorrow.

We have to work, as Rabi Akiva did, to locate those markers, those lights along the side of the road promising good tidings. It would behoove us to keep our ears wide open for good news. We have to look for the sparks of goodness in the Jewish people. We should be thankful for the shuls available to daven in and the yeshivos and botei medrash spreading Torah and kedusha to a thirsting people. We should be thankful for the peace and tranquility we enjoy, and for the homes, the heat, the cars, the gasoline, the electricity, and everything else that we are blessed with in this country.

Reb Aron Pernikoff was an elderly man who spent most of his time at the Montreal Community Kollel. Though he was not blessed with an easy life, he exuded a tranquil joy, a loftiness and a chashivus.

Reb Aron would quote the posuk in Tehillim that tells of the tragic descent of the Bnei Yisroel into golus after the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh: “Al naharos Bavel, shom yoshavnu gam bochinu bezochreinu es Tzion – We sat and wept by the rivers of Bavel when we recalled Yerushalayim. Al aravim besocha talinu kinoroseinu – We hung our harps on the willow trees that grew at the river.

He would ask where the exiled Jews had harps from. When people go into exile, especially when they are barely escaping with their lives, they take with them only bare necessities. Why would they have harps with them?

He would answer that a believing Jew knows that wherever he is going, no matter how bleak the future appears, there will always be reason to sing. They brought along musical instruments in anticipation of those opportunities.

Torah grows. Shabbos grows. Every week, there are dinners, parlor meetings and receptions for yeshivos, shuls and mosdos of tzedakah and chesed. People come and help each other.

That is heartening, almost therapeutic. These affairs present an opportunity to sing in the darkness of golus, to join together and say, “Look, even thousands of years removed from the days of gilui Shechinah and the fires of korbanos, we can still gather around the holy mekomos haTorah. We can still come yachad shivtei Yisroel and joyously pledge allegiance to the ideals of eitz chaim hee lamachazikim boh.”

The Nazis entered the town of Gubruvah on a Friday afternoon, rounded up all the Jews, and burned their homes and property. The Jews were forced into the shul; everyone of all ages was there. The Nazis informed the people that they were going to burn down the building, with them inside, as they had done in so many Lithuanian towns. They warned that anyone who left the building would be shot on the spot.

The babies and young children wailed loudly, while their frightened parents wept quietly. There was no food or water and very little air. Nobody was able to calm the people or offer words of consolation, much less give the children something to eat or drink to quiet them. It happened so quickly that nobody thought of bringing anything with them as they were herded into the shul to await certain death.

Yoel the baker sat in a corner, rolled up like a ball, reciting Tehillim. As night fell, he rose, bolted out of the room, and ran down the street. Certain that the prognosis had driven him mad, people pitied him, as they waited to hear the inevitable gunshots announcing his murder. Suddenly, he returned with a sack of challahs on his shoulder.

As he chanted that it was Shabbos, he offered as many people as he could to partake in a piece of challah in honor of the holy day.

Shortly after this transpired, the Nazi commander entered the shul and ordered his men to set everyone free and burn down the empty building. Everyone was convinced that their miraculous freedom was earned in the merit of the mesirus nefesh of their neighbor, Yoel, who risked his life to help his fellow Jews.

Thankfully, our travails don’t come close to the suffering our people endured not that long ago. Those who are moser nefesh for members of the community do not have to sacrifice nearly as much as the Gubruvah baker, but it is refreshing to know and see so many people who extend themselves for others. It is in their merit that we have come so far. I spent this past Shabbos in the company of a few hundred good people who dedicate their lives to helping plant and support Torah across this country. Billed the Torah Umesorah Presidents Conference, it provides an opportunity for people who care about our nation to meet, greet and rub shoulders, sharing stories and tips, supporting each other in their individual missions.

People of all types, driven by positive energy, brought along their harps to celebrate past successes and plan new ideas and directions. At a time when many are negative and apathetic, it is worth celebrating the mere fact that so many people are dedicated to achieving greatness for the Jewish people.

As Gary Torgow, who epitomizes all that is good about our people said in his memorable speech there, “You, who are influencing and inspiring the day-to-day efforts of Klal Yisroel in your communities, must visualize and recognize the far-reaching global and eternal implications of what you, your spouse and your families are doing for the nitzchiyus of the Jewish people. Although many days may seem like such a grind, pushing upstream and fighting the inevitable battles, try wherever possible to keep uppermost in your minds the long-term and cosmic ramifications of your efforts.”

Back in Mitzrayim, the people were so beaten that “velo shomu el Moshe mikotzer ruach umei’avodah kashah,” they could not accept a message of inspiration and hope.

In our day, we cannot allow messages of negativity and strobes of tumah to prevent us from keeping ourselves in shape to be on the lookout for embers of holiness and moments of hope in the morass of our golus lives. Our souls need to sing, as they set our minds to flight and allow our imaginations to breathe life into even stale moments.

Despite the negatives and problems that confound us, we keep our ears tilted to hear the sounds of imminent geulah and open to the besoros tovos that are around us.

Let us not grow despondent about our situation. Let us always see the positive and the good. Let us always be on the lookout for Eliyohu, who will soon announce that the time for national music has begun once again.

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