Monday, Jun 24, 2024

Let’s Be Great

The weekly news cycle, which includes the events and stories that recently transpired, captivates the country and molds people’s opinions. It informs and educates, and saddens and gladdens those who follow the fast-moving train. But for those who are sensitive enough to perceive that the rapid flow of news contains relevant messages with lessons for personal growth, the daily flow can also inspire.

The country is in the grips of an election season. In an era of flawed politicians and imperfect public servants, the candidates for president leave much to be desired. One is steps away from a criminal indictment, were it not for her deep connections and importance to her party. The truth is not the motivator; it is the campaign’s agenda that sets the narrative. Arrogance and blind ambition are the prime motivators. A lust for power radiates from the faces of politicians. They lie and navigate around the news seeking an advantage.

Last week, we saw such an example. Donald Trump, who has made protection from terrorism a mainstay of his platform and rode that to victory, faltered when it counted. The man who bases his campaign on the premise of a safer country and stronger law enforcement was not able to properly react to a homegrown Islamic terror attack. A radical Islamist who repeatedly pledged his loyalty to ISIS shot up a club, killing 49 people, and yet his crime is blamed on guns and used to promote liberal agendas, rather than to confront the evil that seeks to do to the West what it has done to Arab countries.

The opportunity to push the Right’s agenda was presented to Trump on a silver platter, yet he failed to deliver the right message. More Republicans separated from him. He got caught up with trivialities and his ego.

By doing so, he allowed his opponent, Hillary Clinton, to steal the moment. The woman who is flailing along with a lackluster campaign was able to use the attack to her advantage, as strange as that would seem. Running with the benefit of a mammoth fundraising operation; influential political aides; her husband, the former president; connections with power-brokers; and all the media in the country on her side, she was able to grab the opportunity handed to her by a Republican candidate who is spectacularly unprepared. She struggled mightily against her Democrat opponent, an old Jewish socialist from Vermont, yet when an event transpired that could have proven catastrophic to her candidacy, she triumphed.

The same thing happened the week before, when the State Department’s own internal investigator found that Mrs. Clinton has broken the rules. Instead of jumping on the opportunity to portray his opponent as unworthy of the office she seeks, Trump tied himself in knots of silliness, creating a storm of opposition to himself and allowing the media and political class to avert the glare from Mrs. Clinton’s malfeasance. Again, his ego got in the way.

For with the contemporary means of communicating, politicians have to master only one medium to triumph: the art of rhetoric. Everything is at most, only skin deep. There is no attempt to really understand an issue and analyze solutions. The only thing that seems to matter in this election cycle is a great sound bite, a tweet that can go viral, or a great line for use in a debate.

It’s all about talk. It’s not about explanations or answers, firm positions or the truth. Accomplishment, decency, experience and reliability matter little. It’s about style and spin. The people are as superficial as their leaders and don’t seem to care about much. The economy, terrorism, jobs, a world in crisis – they are all simply talking points not to be taken seriously.

We must ensure that the state of the world at large is not reflected in our camp as well. We need to banish those who rise to positions of influence through rhetoric and sound bites alone, and strengthen those with real ideas and genuine accomplishments.

Style is important, but leadership must be about substance. We have to be intelligent enough to judge people by what they do, not by what they say they will do.

Those committed to a life of Torah, who probe the depth of pesukim and dissect the words of the Talmud, Rishonim, Acharonim and baalei machshovah, become better people, with depth and greatness. Talmidei chachomim are not about empty words and cute soundbites, they are real.

One Friday evening, the Brisker Rov sat on his porch before Maariv, watching a child of one of the mispalelim at his minyan playing nearby. Suddenly, the rov saw that the boy was holding a button. He rushed to him and said, “Shabbos!” instructing the boy to drop the muktzeh button.

Then the rov went into the room where the minyan was held and apologized to the boy’s father. He explained, “Aveidas kotton le’aviv, an object found by a child belongs to his father. Your son found a button and was playing with it. I told him to drop it because of Shabbos, but I have to ask you mechilah, because the button I caused him to drop was yours.”

The greatness of the Brisker Rov was that he not only admonished the child, as most others would have done, but he also appreciated the entirety of the episode and therefore immediately apologized to the father for causing him a loss. Halacha drove him. One minute he could admonish a child, while the next he could apologize to an adult for doing what he had to do.

Many people know how to scream, “Shabbos!” but fail to perceive the entire situation, which might indicate that they owe someone an apology. It’s easy to judge others, but the Torah demands that it be accompanied by the ability to understand all angles.

In Parshas Beha’aloscha, which is read this week in the golah, the posuk (11:1) describes the sin of the misonenim: “Vayehi ha’am kemisonenim ra be’einei Hashem – The people were misonenim and Hashem was angered and caused a fire to burn that devoured the edges of the camp.”

Rashi explains that the word misonenim means excuse. The people were looking for an excuse to depart from the way of Hashem. They complained that they were traveling for three days straight and it was too difficult for them. “Vayichar apo,” Hashem became angry, because the trek was for their ultimate good, so that they would enter Eretz Yisroel quicker.

The people cried out to Moshe, who davened on their behalf to Hashem, and the fire sank into the ground.

Immediately thereafter, the posuk relates that asafsuf (eirev rav-Rashi), followed by the Bnei Yisroel, began bemoaning the lack of meat for them to eat. Rashi points out that they had left Mitzrayim with plenty of sheep and cattle, but they were once again searching for something to complain about, so the facts didn’t matter. They complained about the monn that fell every day to sustain them in the desert and spoke about the free fish the Mitzriyim fed them when they were slaves. Instead of being thankful for their bounty, they once again grumbled.

Shortly thereafter, the Torah tells of Eldod and Meidod, who prophesized in their tent regarding Moshe. A young man heard them and became upset with what they were saying. He ran to Moshe to inform on them. Upon hearing the report, Yehoshua advised Moshe to lock them up and force them to desist from prophesying. Moshe refused, admonishing his assistant not to be zealous on his behalf. He declared, “If only the whole nation could be prophets!”

Moshe learned the lesson of the misonenim and the asafsuf, and although he couldn’t have been happy with the subject of their prophecy, he wouldn’t lock up Eldod and Meidod. He only wished that more of the Jewish people would be worthy of prophecy. He saw the entirety of the situation and prayed for more holiness in his camp, ignoring any personal, selfish desires.

The parsha concludes with the story of Miriam and Aharon speaking disparagingly of Moshe Rabbeinu. Hashem admonished them, “Lomah lo yireisem ledaber b’avdi b’Moshe? Why did you seek to find fault in My eved, Moshe? You know that he is the leader of the people. You know that Hashem speaks to him regularly. You know of his greatness. Yet, instead of praising him, you mock him.”

They were punished for concentrating on a perceived fault instead of examining the totality of the person.

The parsha opens with the commandment to Aharon Hakohein to light the neiros of the menorah in the Mishkon. The lights were not for Hashem’s benefit, but rather for ours. The ability to achieve perfection in middos and to be people of substance, who examine an entire issue and seek to separate the bad from the good and support the good, is caused by the light of the neiros of the menorah. Those who are worthy see with that light, ki ner mitzvah veTorah ohr, living lives of greatness.

That is the depth of the promise made to Aharon when he was upset that he had no role in the chanukas hanesi’im. Hashem told him that his act, that of lighting the menorah, will live on for eternity, while that of the nesi’im would not. The light that Aharon kindled in the Mishkon is prevalent in our day as well. Those who see the light and benefit from it can follow in the path of Aharon, who was an “oheiv shalom verodeif shalom,” loving people and bringing about peace amongst them and between them and Hashem.

We must emulate his example.

We have to work hard in our communities to ensure that the battles we fight and the causes we champion aren’t just noise brought on by catchy words and superficialities. We have to be honest and ensure that our motivator is neither jealousy and pettiness nor a selfish desire to win or see our team come out on top.

Too often, hate and anger, fueled by rhetoric, pollute the air. Everything becomes a cause worth fighting over and people feel compelled to take sides, even when the particular stances they champion don’t reflect their true convictions. Rancor draws them in and doesn’t soften its grip.

They scream about muktzeh buttons without apologizing to the father, or the Father in heaven who seeks the best for His children.

Before we squabble, we should look beyond the surface to see what the words thrown around really express and the truth they conceal. We have to be honest and self-aware. Before we take a position, we have to look inward and make sure that our motives are proper, justified and responsible.

We have to look to see the perfection in Hashem’s world, perceiving the bigger picture that exists beyond our kehillos.

Before engaging in battle, we must see if there is a limud zechus, something that we failed to grasp the first time. We have to first see if there is a good side to the story before we declare war and condemn. We need to remove any personal considerations and selfish desires from the equation.

After the Second World War, several orphanages were opened in Eretz Yisroel to accommodate the many children who tragically arrived to the new country without parents.

In Bnei Brak, there was a large orphanage that housed hundreds of young women. One of the neighbors had an issue with the institution and complained to the Chazon Ish.

“On Shabbos,” he said indignantly, “the girls sing zemiros and you can hear their voices outside the building. It’s an outrage.”

The Chazon Ish’s face lit up. “You’ve made me so happy. Maidelach cut away from their murdered parents, with bare memories of what the Shabbos tables looked like back in Europe, feel so at home and so happy that they are once again able to sing on Shabbos? Thank you for the good news.”

He saw beyond the words. He grasped the truth beneath the surface and perceived the world in all its dimensions.

When we observe the current political climate, with hatred, speechifying and mud-slinging, we must do the opposite. Less talk and more action. Less hate and more depth. Less speechifying and more caring.

At the end of the Second World War, Rav Eliezer Silver arrived in Europe with the liberating American troops and sought to breathe life into the survivors. As he worked to gather a minyan for Kabbolas Shabbos in a liberated camp, there was one man who stubbornly refused to participate.

“Why won’t you join us?” he asked the poor, broken soul.

“After what I saw, I can never pray again,” the bundle of skin and bones answered the man trying so hard to infuse some life into him. “Let me explain. In the lager, there was one sefer Tehillim. You can imagine how desperate people were for a Tehillim, to open its tear-stained pages and pour out their hearts in prayer for salvation.

“The owner would lend it to people in exchange for three pieces of bread. After repeatedly witnessing the scene of people ravaged by hunger being forced to part with their meager rations in order to say a few kappitlach of Tehillim, I can no longer pray.

“I can’t be part of a group in which a person can take advantage of others in such an awful manner.”

A crowd had gathered and stood agape as the man told the rabbi his story. They wondered how he would respond to the complaint of the broken man against his co-religionists.

Rav Silver looked at the crowd with a loving, knowing smile. He reached out to the man who said he could pray no longer and, with a sweet tongue, said to him, “It’s a shame that you are reaching conclusions based on the sorry actions of one person.

“You see, I would reach the exact opposite conclusion. Look how great the Jewish people are that so many starving people parted with their bread for a chance to reach out to Hashem.”

With that, the poor man regained some facial color. A small smile formed on his sad face, as he grasped the hand of the rov and, together, they strode to be mekabel Shabbos, the entire crowd following behind, armed with a new perspective on religion and life.

Lechu neranenah laShem. Let us sing to Hashem. Let us thank Him for keeping us alive. Let us thank Him for bringing this rabbi to us to remind us how to live and how to think.

“Mi yitein ess kol am Hashem nevi’im” was Moshe’s response to Yehoshua’s claims. Would that the whole Klal Yisroel develop the ability to say nevuah. The ultimate tov ayin wasn’t threatened by others. He understood that each person has his or her mission and role to play in Hashem’s world.

There is so much good that we each can do. The lessons are plainly evident in the Torah, but lest we need reminders, we can learn from the election campaigns which paths to avoid.

Let’s seek to build, to be great for real, not just as a talking point and an election slogan. Our people never stopped being great. The greatness is there for all who seriously seek it.

Find the light of the menorah, of Torah and mitzvos. Let it light your path.

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