Monday, May 27, 2024

Irrigating the Desert

In this week’s parsha, the posuk states, “All the work necessary for the Mishkon was completed, as the Jewish people did everything Hashem commanded through Moshe. They then brought the Mishkon to Moshe, the tent and all its vessels…” (Shemos 39:32-33).

Rashi (ibid.) quotes the Medrash Tanchuma, which explains that the people brought the Mishkon and all its keilim to Moshe because when they had finished constructing everything, they were not able to set up the Mishkon. The keroshim were simply too heavy to be lifted into place.

How was this accomplished? Hashem told Moshe that he should lift the heavy wooden beams. Moshe demurred, saying that it was physically impossible to stand them up. Hashem told Moshe, “You get to work with your hands. Act as if you are lifting them and they will lift themselves.”

The Medrash, in essence, is answering an enduring question. Often, we see a completed enterprise, a difficult plan that is realized, and we marvel: How could one person, or even a few people, manage to erect such a massive organization or building? From where did they get the strength to erect that edifice? Who was bright enough to devise that plan?

Chazal reveal the answers to these questions. When man accepts responsibility, rolls up his sleeves, and is prepared to do the work that is necessary, Hashem enables the impossible to happen.

Hashem completes man’s efforts. We start, and when our good intentions reach On High, He brings them to fruition.

Learning this Rashi led me to contemplate the wonderful work of so many heroic individuals and organizations that have impacted our world more than anyone thought possible. Since I had the distinct privilege of chairing the Shuvu dinner this past Motzoei Shabbos, their example is fresh in my mind and is illustrative of this principle.

It is hard to believe that 25 years have passed since the founding of Shuvu. Those who are old enough have seen it evolve from dream to reality, from hardscrabble caravans pursued by the government into a country-wide school system.

Rav Avrohom Pam zt”l dreamed it and others lined up behind him with mesirus nefesh to make it a reality.

Shuvu got off the ground in those early days because people seized the keilim and began building. They focused on the importance of the mission and Hashem brought the results. Foremost among those early builders was a wonderful trio: Sheldon Beren, Max Knopf, and Zev Wolfson.

They believed in the dream, wrote checks, and enabled Rav Pam’s nevuah to be realized. For example, Mr. Wolfson challenged Reb Avrohom Biderman, and as an outgrowth of that challenge, Shuvu’s high school network was greatly expanded and graduates from the elementary school system had a place to go to continue on the path to becoming fine Jews. Elementary school without high school does not bode well for continuity. Mr. Knopf wasn’t deterred when a municipality sought to destroy his building. He pressed on. A school principal laid down in front of a bulldozer to ensure that the school wasn’t destroyed. Thanks to that determination, thousands have gone through the doors of that school and onto Torah lives.

The visionaries blazed the trail. Their families continue their heroic work and many others have followed, rolling up their sleeves and ensuring that the dream lives on and goals are realized. With such perseverance and commitment, the Ribbono Shel Olam brings blessing.

A community rov went to the Chazon Ish zt”l looking for encouragement. He wanted to build a mikvah and was about to embark on a campaign giving speeches around town about the importance of having a local mikvah. He wanted the Chazon Ish’s brochah for his speeches to go over well.

The Chazon Ish told him instead that a thousand drashos about the importance of mikvah don’t accomplish as much as a beautiful, spacious mikvah.

“Get to work,” he told him.

The Chazon Ish instructed the rov to start building and promised to help, sending a representative to America to raise funds. They began construction, but the project dragged on.

Neighborhood residents went to the Chazon Ish, asking if they could begin using the facility before the construction was completed.

He answered in the negative and explained his reasoning. “This mikvah isn’t only for you and the other frum families in the area,” he said. “This mikvah is being built for the future as well and for families who are not yet religious. We need to make sure that the building will be done right, so that it will be attractive to them.”

The founders of Shuvu built for the future and the future is now. Tens of thousands of people are living Torah lives today because of Shuvu.

Those of us who were around then have fond memories of those heady early days, when Reb Avrohom Biderman traveled to the gedolei Eretz Yisroel, who laid the groundwork for the new organization. Reb Avrohom wondered where the emphasis should be, on quantity or quality.

By that time, some 700,000 Russian Jews had arrived in Israel. Should Shuvu go after all of them or concentrate on the ones most likely to succeed?

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l responded that both massive outreach and a superb school system were necessary.

Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l sat with Reb Avrohom for a very long time and walked him through the minefields he would be facing, holding his hand, guiding and directing him. Rav Shach perceived that this dream was real and gave freely of his time to help make sure it would succeed.

There was much mesirus nefesh on the part of the staff and administration and much siyata diShmaya over the past 25 years. There is no seed more effective and no foundation firmer than selflessness.

If one is fortunate to visit Eretz Yisroel, visit a Shuvu school. Like a breathtaking view fills your soul with wonder, this experience will leave you enriched and uplifted.

One particular visit that sticks in my mind was one from almost eight years ago, when I was in the presence of the Shechinah. It happened in Acco, a mixed Arab-Jewish city way up in the north of Eretz Yisroel.

The school in Acco was a direct outgrowth of a challenge issued by the revered founder of the organization. Towards the end of his life, a weakened Rav Pam told a parlor meeting audience how a group of parents from Acco had heard about Shuvu and wanted a school for their children. Shuvu was having a hard enough time keeping up with its existing schools, and the administration wondered how they could undertake the opening and maintenance of yet another one.

The elderly rosh yeshiva banged on the shtender and said, “One-hundred-and-fifty parents want a Torah school for their children! How can we say no? There is no cheshbon in the world that can allow us to say no to these parents.”

Watching him was like seeing a novi of old. You watched him and listened to him and closed your eyes and thought, “Now I know how the novi Yeshayahu sounded.”

Rav Pam was extremely frail. That night, he was quiet, gentle and soft, but he displayed the force and determination that have helped us persevere in golus. With all the strength left in his ailing body, Rav Pam emphatically declared, “There will be a Shuvu school in Acco and the Shechinah will be in that school.”

Shuvu made sure that his words would be realized, and I was zoche to witness the miracle of 500 children in a school that no one thought would ever really open or stay opened. I experienced the Shechinah.

I saw the Shechinah on the faces of elementary school children as they stood up to tell their personal stories.

“My family never kept Pesach before, but I was able to convince my father to try. When the bread in the house was gone, he went out looking for matzoh,” said one child.

Sweet little children described how they cleaned their homes for Pesach and saw to it that the holiday would be observed. Children from irreligious homes spoke of netilas yodayim and kashrus. They proudly told of how they’d persuaded their parents to become observant. They were so committed, that their age proved no barrier and they were able to turn around entire families.

Precious children sat attentively as in any elementary yeshiva school we know, the Shechinah radiating from their little faces, just like Rav Pam said it would.

To observe those children learning Torah is to see the Rashi in our parsha come alive. Man does the work, then Heaven steps in, and the light of the Shechinah shines through.

Through no fault of their own, the parents and grandparents of these children were locked behind an iron curtain and shorn of their glorious heritage. Hitler took the bodies and Stalin robbed their souls.

But they can be brought back. The years of cruelty and subjugation can be undone. The Soviet children can be given the same opportunities as ours, if they are only given a chance.

Shuvu gives them that chance.

Those children are not just numbers. They are living, breathing, adorable, cute, intelligent, young people, living Jewishly thanks to the mesirus nefesh of teachers, administrators and donors.

When a 17-year-old boy stands up to speak at a melava malka, you almost expect a Russian-accented speech betraying his roots. But when he looks and sounds just like any other yeshiva bochur that age, you realize that Shuvu is not just a dream. You appreciate that it can be done. Russian kids, who know nothing, can be mechunach and developed into bnei and bnos Torah.

One woman got up and said, “We came from Russia to Ashkelon and were looking for a school for our daughter. We saw an ad for Shuvu on television and heard ads on the radio. It sounded like a good school, so we went to check it out and were very impressed with the scholastic level. We didn’t know much about Yahadut.

“Look at me now. Our daughter would come home from school and teach us. She taught us about brachot, about netilat yadayim, about kashrut. She taught us about meat and dairy. She taught us all kinds of things we had never even heard of before. And then she taught us about Shabbat.

“Shabbat was the hardest. I was so scared of it. I work a whole week and it was my free day, my day off, when I could do what I want. I didn’t want anyone telling me what to do on that day. But my husband was intrigued by the idea and dragged me along. Today, we are shomrei Shabbat, and we keep kashrut, and, lately, also taharat hamishpacha. All thanks to Shuvu.”

The basic message was the same as each parent spoke. But instead of sounding repetitive and trite, the speeches had a cumulative effect on us. As each one delivered a short impromptu message, their words began sinking deeper and deeper into the hearts of those in attendance. By the time they were done, we were left speechless and overwhelmed.

What has been accomplished is astounding, but it obligates us to do so much more.
When you walk the streets of Eretz Yisroel, it breaks your heart to see the masses of kids out there waiting for Shuvu to reach them. There are so many people who will never know the brochah of a Torah way of life simply because there isn’t enough money to open additional schools and spread the Shechinah further. With pennies, their souls can be saved for eternity.

If we don’t reach these kids, others will. If we don’t intercede and stretch out our hands to them, others will. If we don’t get them off the streets and bring them to Torah, nobody else will. The work of Stalin and Khrushchev and the other Communist reshoim will be completed right under our noses.

The Torah recounts that the brothers threw Yosef into an empty pit. Rashi famously tells us that although the pit was empty of water, “mayim ein bo, aval nechoshim ve’akrabim yeish bo,” it was filled with poisonous snakes and scorpions.

The Vilna Gaon explains that this is the rule in life. In the absence of mayim, positive forces, nechoshim ve’akrabim, negative forces, take over.

Moshiach, we know, is approaching rapidly. The signs are everywhere. Let us work to rid the world of nechoshim ve’akrabim, negative forces. There is much we can do on our own, but a most productive way to bring about the necessary changes is to join with others who seek to fill the world with an ocean of mayim, a sea of emunah and yedias Hashem. The opportunities are everywhere.

The world is like a desert, bare and parched, but a little bit of water can cure a long drought. Help bring water to the Russians in Shuvu, Sefardim in Lev L’Achim, and all the others from around the world who thirst for water. Let us think about what we can do in this country as well.

Millions of Jews are dying of thirst. We have the water. Why aren’t we giving it to them? Why has wholesale kiruv basically become an Israeli enterprise? Why aren’t we supporting organizations such as Oorah to do what they do on a national scale? Why aren’t we enabling Torah Umesorah to establish and maintain more schools in the heartland, educating thousands of parched youngsters to conquer their thirst? Why are we satisfied with oases of water here and there? Why don’t we want to make our own country “yarok kegan Hashem,” irrigated and blooming, bringing the Shechinah from sea to shining sea?

We live in a time when people no longer accept what has been forced upon them their entire lives. Conventional wisdom is thrown out the window every day with more gusto. Donald Trump does nothing by the book and is thus the flavor of the day. Just because no one ever did it before, just because the experts say it can’t be done, doesn’t mean it can’t.

Instead of debating his merits, why don’t we take a lesson from what he is doing and accomplishing?

Even though everyone else has given up, why don’t we say that it’s time to press on? Nothing is impossible.

If we dedicate ourselves to preparing the world for Moshiach, spreading Torah and kedushah, creating places where the Shechinah can be comfortable, we will earn Divine assistance and realize our dreams.

If we take that Rashi seriously and recognize that what is incumbent upon us is hishtadlus, we could earn eternal gratitude and reward, much like all the greats throughout the ages who went where no one had gone before and did what had not been done, ignoring the naysayers and placing their faith in the One Above.

It’s Adar, the month that proclaims not to give up and to always declare, “This is my time, this is my thing, this is the time to get involved, to extend myself, to show that I care.”

Do it. Start the job and Hashem will be there to finish it.

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