Living Yiddish

For some reason, in the wake of the Siyum Hashas, we have been inundated with feel-good stories about Yiddishkeit, many involving gentile policemen and the like. The storylines are basically the same: We behaved so well at the Siyum Hashas that troopers and stadium staff are commending us.

We are supposed to feel better about ourselves because people who man a stadium for sports events and concerts said that the Jews who came together for the serious and elevated purpose of celebrating the Daf Yomi cycle’s completion of Shas were better behaved than those who come to revel in Hellenistic entertainment, often ingesting spirits to induce the desired revelry.

I ask you, my dear friends: Is that what makes us great? Is that what defines us? Is that what instills pride in us and inspires us to strive for more and move higher?

Torah is our motivator, Torah is our identifier, and Torah is what binds us together and gives us our identity. We live for Torah and we strive for Torah. Everything else in life pales compared to it. We seek to live lives of kiddush Hashem, meaning devoted to Hashem and to studying and observing His Torah.

The milestones of Torah are our milestones and what we celebrate, according to the guidelines of the Torah, which include proper derech eretz and middos tovos. We do not seek the approbation of the outside world. Their values are not ours, and what motivates and interests them should hold no incentive for us.

What is good about learning the daf and celebrating its study is not what some Gentile did or didn’t say about it, or about the way we celebrate it. What is good about learning the daf and celebrating its study is that it enhances our lives in this world and the next, giving meaning to life and enhancing our neshamos. We should never lose sight of that, even though, of course, we are heartened when we get good press instead of the usual anti-Semitic hate.

As Yidden in golus, we need to be reminded of our roles here and how we are to deal with those around us.

We are familiar with the Chazal that among the catalysts of the Bnei Yisroel’s redemption from Mitzrayim was that “lo shinu es shemom, lo shinu es leshonam, and lo shinu es malbushom,” they didn’t change their names, language or mode of dress.

Throughout tens of centuries of golus, Medroshim such as this have served to remind us of who we are, where we come from as children of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, and our mandate to stand taller and prouder than those who surround us and separate from them and their modes of thinking.

This Chazal can be understood on its most basic level as conveying that man’s name, style of dress and language form his personality. Every nation prides itself on these outward displays of their national identity. Though beaten down in servitude, the Bnei Yisroel realized that they had their own destiny to fulfill. They didn’t permit their travails and hardships to cause them to lose sight of their own destiny.

But there is also a deeper understanding of this Chazal.

The dream of returning to Eretz Yisroel is part of our DNA. We are a people with a legacy and a destiny that we never lose sight of. Our lives are focused on achieving the goal of Acharis Hayomim.

The first posuk in Sefer Shemos, which details the descent into golus, states, “Ve’eileh shemos Bnei Yisroel habo’im Mitzrayma – And these are the names of the Bnei Yisroel who are coming to Mitzrayim.”

Commentators point out that the Hebrew word depicting their arrival in the strange land should have been in the past tense, “sheba’u,” which would translate as “who came.” Instead, the posuk uses the present conjugation, “habo’im,” which means “who are coming.”

The explanation is that the Jews never “came” to Mitzrayim and settled there. Instead, they were in a constant state of “habo’im,” refusing to make themselves at home and never forgetting the dream of returning to Eretz Yisroel. They were steadily coming there. They thought that every day would be the day they would leave Mitzrayim. When they didn’t, they were “bo’im” once again. But each time, with sadness and resignation, they accepted their arrival and once again began dreaming of leaving. They were thus in a constant state of coming.

The result was “lo shinu.” They refused to change and adapt. They were unwilling to acclimate and forget their own identifying factors, because they were only there temporarily. They knew what was true and what was lasting. They knew what was false, fleeting and temporary, and they knew to which category they belonged.

Rashi (Shemos 3:12) states that the Jewish people were redeemed from Mitzrayim in the merit that they would accept the Torah on Har Sinai. The manifestations of lo shinu were an indication of their fidelity to what is real, and Hakadosh Boruch Hu thus knew that they were ripe for Kabbolas HaTorah, for the Torah is the complete and total truth. It is the very essence of truth, and truth means to be real, not superficial.

People who live a life that they don’t really believe in are easily dissuaded. They are easy prey for charlatans and false ideas. There is no loyalty to ideas or values, and the only concern is which lifestyle is in fashion and which viewpoint is current. They flow with the stream, veering this way and that as the fashionistas dictate. What they thought yesterday to be ugly and unthinkable can easily become today’s beauty and must-have. Because their view of style is not grounded in any reality, it is easily fungible. It is all superficial and easily transformed.

What is true lasts forever. As the posuk states, “Sefas emes tikon lo’ad.”

The posuk in the first perek of Tehillim describes us as being like trees planted on the banks of rivers, with deep roots – entrenched shoroshim – linking us to Har Sinai and the greatest mortals the world has known. We are guided by their legacy and teachings. We have a rich mesorah. We drink from the palgei mayim of our timeless Torah.

Despite their challenges and obstacles, the Bnei Yisroel in Mitzrayim lived with the ideal of “lo shinu,” remembering where they came from and where they were headed.

In the land of Paroh, this was so important. His leadership was based on the make-believe and false perceptions, as Rashi states on the words “Hinei hu yotzei hamoymah” (7:15). Paroh created a fiction about himself that anyone could have seen through had they cared enough to follow him around one day. No one did, because they were content to play along. They didn’t care. It made them feel good about themselves to have a king who passed himself off as superhuman.

They were like the chaff, blown about, representing nothing and standing for nothing. They were a nation of sheker. They were happy and comfortable with the lie they lived.

It was difficult for the people of Mitzrayim when the makkos rained down upon them. People whose lives are predicated upon truth are able to recognize that they have erred and change their lives accordingly. The Mitzriyim were unable to accept the truth. They turned away from it. They grew accustomed to the fiction of Paroh and the comforts it afforded them. When it was proven to them that they had erred, they were unable to change course and adapt to the truth.

The posuk states repeatedly that Paroh was unable to redirect his life because Hashem hardened his heart. However, the posuk doesn’t say that the hearts of the citizenry were hardened. Why did they not do teshuvah? It was because their inertia was a given. They lived superficial lives, parroting old stories about the greatness of their king and his mission even as the forces all around them showed otherwise. They couldn’t be confronted with the truth, for it would have ruined their blissful lives.

It was in the climate of Mitzrayim, ruled by fiction and dominated by lies, that the People of Truth distinguished themselves, a goy mikerev goy standing tall, a people of destiny.

Today, as well, we see a generation that chases every fad, so unsure of its own identity and so insecure with its own destiny that it identifies itself by the toys it owns, the gadgets it carries, and the cars being driven. A rootless generation looks to superficial signposts to mark its way. We see a gullible generation, easily lied to and eager to buy into anything that promises enjoyment. We see vacuous people without values living selfishly and hedonistically, covering their impulses with a fig leaf of religiosity.

A leader such as Moshe Rabbeinu and those who follow in his footsteps in every generation, including ours, are able to confront their imperfections and overcome them. They provide a goal for themselves and their followers to live up to. They are never satisfied, never resting from laboring mightily in the pursuit of excellence and G-dliness. They are courageous enough to stand out and stand apart, providing the inspiration necessary for others to follow that lead. The truth is their guide and concern; nothing can divert them from pursuing it. They are ambitious for themselves and for their talmidim, always seeking improvement and growth. They always seek to inspire and build up their people and remind them of what they are capable.

It is our task, as we study the parshiyos of geulah, to rededicate ourselves to living lives of truth and being true to ourselves and our destiny. We have to be ever cognizant of who our forefathers are – those we know, those of recent memory, and those from the distant past.

We have to remain a people of depth and intelligence, of loyalty and determination. If anything, the recent Daf Yomi celebration and attention to Torah that it spawned should inspire us to learn more and with greater depth so that we can better appreciate our way of life.

We should be reminded that what counts is what our avos would say about us and our actions. If what we are doing brings us closer to the geulah, then we should continue pursuing that path. If it doesn’t, we should be honest enough with ourselves to recognize the error of our ways and rectify our actions and behavior.

In a Russian bazaar, a horse kicked a man and stomped on him, leaving him seriously wounded. Passersby ran to be of aid. One asked whether his arms were broken, while another asked whether his legs were broken. But then a doctor arrived and told them that when a patient is in a situation such as the one in front of them, first you must ascertain if his heart is pumping, and only after you’ve done that do you check the rest of his body. If he is in cardiac arrest, you tend to his cardiac needs, because without a pumping heart, his hands and feet are of no use.

The Chofetz Chaim cited this tale when he once found himself in a small shtetel to which he had traveled to sell his seforim. The townspeople asked him if he would address them on the topic of shmiras Shabbos, because Shabbos observance was growing lax there. He asked them about Torah study in the town and they told him that learning was also weak there.

As he rose to speak, he told them, “Just as the doctor told the people in the Russian marketplace, limud haTorah is the heart of Klal Yisroel. If there is no limud haTorah, then there is no heart and Shabbos is not Shabbos. First you need to strengthen yourselves in the study of Torah, and after you have accomplished that, you can work on improving the observance of Shabbos and the other mitzvos.”

We should seek to live lives of kiddush Hashem, causing others to praise us, but recognize that the value of what we do and the importance of Torah study, having Torah values and living a Torah way of life, is because that is what being a Yid is all about.

Yiddish is not only a language. It is a way of life. Let us all resolve to live Yiddishe lives al pi Torah.

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