Thursday, Jul 25, 2024

Let’s Be Great Again

In this week’s parsha, the world gains much light.

The Medrash relates that the experience of our forefather, Avrohom Avinu, is akin to a traveler who came upon a birah dolekes, a palace aflame. Rather than continuing on his way, he stopped. He was intrigued; there was something there, a message, a call, and he heard it loud and clear.

And from that moment on, he was never the same.

Everything changed when Avrohom Avinu stopped at that birah dolekes.

He beheld a goal, a meaning to life, a point of existence.

He saw the grandeur of the palace, the work that went into it, the marvelous architecture and brilliant construction, and he knew that it could not have come into being on its own. Someone owned it, someone built it, and someone cared for it.

At a young age, he raised himself above the people around him and began living on a different plane.

Often, as people describe hearing shocking news or undergoing a life-altering experience – good or the opposite – they wonder how life continues around them, cars zipping along, people walking by speaking on their phones, and children laughing and playing. The ordinary seems so strange in the face of the extraordinary.

Such was the life of Avrohom Avinu.

Wherever he went, he spoke of a Creator, as he tried to open people’s eyes. He had seen the extraordinary truth and couldn’t understand how people went about their lives as if there were no Creator.

Shortly after Avrom’s and Sarai’s arrival, there was a hunger in The Promised Land, forcing them to travel to the land of Egypt in search of food. Rashi (Bereishis 13:3) teaches that on their return trip from Mitzrayim, Avrom and Sarai stayed at the same lodgings they had visited on their way in.

Rashi says that one of the reasons Avrom returned to the same places was “leshalem hakafosav,” to pay up his debts. The Chasam Sofer explains what his debts were. Along his route to Mitzrayim, Avrom was met with mockery and ridicule. They said to him things like, “Where is the Master of the Universe of whom you speak? You are poor and downtrodden. Why doesn’t this Merciful G-d you speak of take care of you?”

On his triumphant return trip, laden with money and flush with success, Avrom had “debts” to pay. He wished to meet with all the scoffers. He arrived at their motels and was able to show them what the Creator had provided for him. There was so much more to life than they had realized. Avrom was compelled to tell them what they were missing.

This week, a long and bitter election campaign finally came to an end. Opinions were shared and people were engaged. One side won, and everyone has emerged with bruises from an unprecedented political battle. So many people were engaged for so long in following the campaign. Donald Trump has the type of personality and style that kept people riveted to the ups and downs of the campaign. Those who loved him hung on to every word spoken at his raucous rallies and during his endless interviews. The Never-Trumpers, Republican and Democrat, were increasingly repulsed every time the candidate opened his mouth. There had never been a candidate like him, coming from nowhere, never having held office or run in any political race, taking on the mainstream powers that be. He was loved and reviled, brash and impudent, and his message resonated with many.

Hillary Clinton was not nearly as magnetic, but Democrats supported her, some more begrudgingly than others. She represented their agenda and the chance to bring it forward for another four years. Politicians of all stripes feared that the outsider would upset their power and way of doing business. They rallied around Hillary. The media led the campaign for Clinton, doing everything in their ability to destroy Trump.

The people got to speak in the voting booth. And now we move on. We have to remember that there is so much more to life. We are so much richer than that. Our world is so much more elevated. We have to get back to what it is that sets us apart and makes us great.

We must leave the smallness behind us and see big to behold the birah dolekes.

Chazal say, “Talmidei chachomim marbim shalom ba’olam – Torah scholars increase peace in the world.” Rav Yecheskel Abramsky explained this concept by noting that someone engaged in a major business deal doesn’t notice small things. A person about to close on a multi-million-dollar transaction doesn’t get annoyed if it’s raining. Someone going to the hospital for life-saving surgery doesn’t get into a fight over a parking spot. Talmidei chachomim, he said, are people who see a glorious world, a landscape filled with beauty and opportunity. They don’t fight, because they have neither time nor room for pettiness. They are bigger than that. They are focused on other things, so there is peace around them.

Rav Shimshon Pincus was once publicly attacked for a position he had taken. Though he was quite obviously pained by the public verbal assault, he didn’t respond. Later on, one of his children asked him why he didn’t defend himself; after all, he had a good answer and, besides, there were people listening who might have been influenced by what his attacker said.

He explained, “What he said bothered me for a moment, but then I remembered that we try to be big people and to work on big things, which are so much larger than that conversation and the embarrassment he caused me. Once I remembered that, his words stopped being important!”

After Avrohom followed the word of Hashem and moved to the land of Canaan, he became fabulously wealthy, as did his live-in nephew, Lot. Their shepherds quarreled, because those who worked for Lot were not scrupulously honest.

Avrohom’s reaction? “Hipared na mei’alay – Please separate from me” (Bereishis 13:9). “Sorry,” he was saying, “but we are no longer on the same page. We aren’t seeing the same thing. We are headed in different directions. If you go left, I’ll go right, and vice versa.”

A few pesukim later (13:14), Hashem informs Avrohom about the flow of blessings that will come his way, taking care to remind us that Hashem spoke to Avrohom “acharei hipared Lot mei’imo, after Lot had parted from him.” Every word in the Torah is laden with significance. When the posuk informs us that the Divine assurance was given after uncle and nephew split up, there is a message there. The brocha begins when Avrohom is divested of pettiness and separated from people with petty attitudes.

This Shabbos marks the fifth yahrtzeit of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel. His lesson resonates, just as his gentle voice echoes, because he was a gadol from our world. We identified with him and were drawn to him because he was one of us.

He grew up as we did. Then he saw a birah dolekes.

A young teenager, he awoke one morning across the planet from his native Chicago. Sleeping in the Meah Shearim study of his host and great-uncle, Rav Leizer Yudel Finkel, when he opened his eyes to face the new day, the American boy saw a magnificent sight.

Thinking that his guest was asleep, the Mirrer rosh yeshiva approached his seforim shelf and spread his arms wide. He embraced tens of seforim at once, and began to run his hand up their spines, lovingly greeting each one, as if saying, “Good morning.”

“Afikei Yam, Noda B’Yehuda, Pnei Yehoshua, Minchas Chinuch…”

The teenager looked on, wide-eyed, as a talmid chochom reunited with his seforim after a few hours of sleep.

It was a birah dolekes. He saw the light.

Many years later, Rav Nosson Tzvi retold the story during a shmuess at his home. As he spoke, he couldn’t resist turning towards his seforim shelf and singing the names of seforim, his own tangible ahavas Torah conveyed in every word.

When a person sees a new reality, he can never look back.

A wealthy American donor was solicited for the Mir by Rav Nosson Tzvi. The rosh yeshiva explained that the yeshiva had more talmidim and programs than ever before, and he needed more funding.

“Why don’t you just say, ‘Enough’? There are thousands of talmidim, tens of shiurim, and so many different chaburos,” the philanthropist wondered. “Enough is enough. There is a limit to how much one man can do.”

With his loving, soft voice, Rav Nosson Tzvi replied, “I would never ask you why five or six or seven million dollars isn’t enough for you, or why you don’t just stop working, as you have enough to live on for the rest of your life. I understand what drives you. You’re a businessman. You see the next opportunity and challenge and jump to take it on. I’m the same way, just with Torah. Why would I stop?”

Beyond the humility and respect in the answer, the rosh yeshiva was conveying what he had seen that long-ago morning: When someone sees the truth, smaller things stop being important.

The Divrei Chaim of Sanz arose in the morning and started to recite Modeh Ani. He said the words, but he couldn’t seem the muster the usual enthusiasm, so he stopped and instead said Birchas HaTorah. Then he opened a Gemara and learned intensely for a while, and then, after being immersed in learning, his face glowing, he started again.

“Modeh ani lefonecha Melech chai vekayom, thank You for this new day.” This time, however, he was on fire. The day had meaning, a purpose, a goal. It was dolekes, alight!

We approach these parshiyos hashovua still suffering from withdrawal from the most illuminated days of the year. Their memory has faded and they are almost forgotten, so we seize this life raft, the pesukim, Medrashim and meforshim telling us who we are and where we come from.

They are our birah dolekes, beckoning us to enter and soak in the light.

Let’s be great again. Let us put the pettiness aside and concentrate on what is important. Let’s live lives of greatness and meaning.

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