The Chanukah period reminds us of the abilities of me’atim and chalashim. Those who were few in number and weak in body were victorious over powerful armies. They returned home as acknowledged heroes due to their winning attitude, courage and valor. Their emunah and bitachon caused them to stand straight and tall in the face of overwhelming negative odds.
The success of their accomplishments should be a lesson to us in our day, as we are surrounded by trials and a steady onslaught of nisyonos that threaten to cause us to forget what we are capable of achieving and the heights we can reach.
This week’s parsha of Vayeitzei provides an illustration of what can be accomplished by those who maintain the proper perspective.
The Torah (Bereishis 28:11) recounts Yaakov Avinu’s vision as he set out on his long and arduous journey from the home of his parents. As he passed Har Hamoriah (Rashi, ibid.), the sun set early and he went to sleep. As he slept, he saw a ladder, whose feet were planted on the ground – “sulam mutzov artzah,” but whose head reached the heavens – “rosho magia hashomaymah.”
Hashem stood above the ladder and promised Yaakov that He would be with him during his travails and ultimately reward him with ownership of Eretz Yisroel.
When the Tzemach Tzedek was a small child in school, the children came upon a ladder during their recess period. The boys stood around the ladder, bragging how they would climb to the top of it. One by one, they began climbing, each managing a few rungs before sheepishly returning to the ground. Only one of the boys climbed to the top of the ladder.
The Tzemach Tzedek’s grandfather, the Alter Rebbe of Lubavitch, was watching from his window as the boys clambered up and down the ladder. When his grandson came home from school, he asked him why he succeeded where all the other children had failed. The future rebbe answered that he didn’t look down. “They were frightened because they looked down as they were climbing up. I kept my eyes focused on the top. I kept looking ahead, not back.”
If you look up, you aren’t threatened by what lies below.
Yaakov Avinu left his parents’ home all alone. His parting gift was a threat on his life by his murderous brother. He was stripped of all his possessions and money en route and was left with nothing but the clothes on his back and a walking stick. His response to the pitiful circumstances was to grow ever bolder, more optimistic and positive, turning to Heaven and promising to give maaser from the bounty he would eventually receive.
Yaakov Avinu was a builder. He took twelve stones, which Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer tells us were the very stones that Yitzchok had rested upon at the Akeidah, and those stones became one. The stones, a symbol of endurance and permanence, represented the nation he would spawn, a people resolute, firm and courageous.
Eisov was a destroyer, a murderer of men. His philosophy was: “Hinei anochi holeich lomus. What’s the point if we’re all going to die anyway?” His mindset was in diametric contradiction to the outlook of a brother who saw eternity. “Yaakov Avinu lo meis.” Yaakov, his brother, was eternal. As darkness descended, as his world closed in on him, Yaakov Avinu instituted the nightly Ma’ariv prayer.
The many stones that fill this parsha are obstacles strewn in the path of Yaakov Avinu, who walked alone. His sole possession was his walking staff, as he testified later, “Ki bemakli ovarti es haYardein [Bereishis 32, 11].” He faced Eisov, then Elifaz, before finally encountering Lavan. Yaakov Avinu left Lavan’s impure home and stepped into the embrace of the malachei Eretz Yisroel, which were sent forth to greet him and welcome him home. With angels at his side and the Shivtei Kah surrounding him, he concluded a journey he had started with just a staff, bemakli.
Yaakov’s secret was embodied by the ladder in his dream; for essentially it was an instrument of earth that reached heaven. Yaakov had a heightened view, a vision that transcended that which was before him. When obstacles were placed in his path, he looked beyond them, seeing the potential ahead. He viewed hardships as opportunities for growth. He always concentrated on the future, the positive, and did not permit himself to be held down by negativity and the trappings of a trying moment.
Great people, throughout the ages, have always been defined by their vision and their ability to imagine, dream and react accordingly.
Rav Yisroel Salanter, the originator of the mussar movement, and those who followed in his path took poor, hungry, teenaged bochurim and put them on paths to greatness. They took boys destined for lives as illiterate shoemakers and smiths and trained them to be gedolim and rabbonim. The mussar revolution wasn’t only about learning seforim such as Tomer Devorah, Orchos Chaim LehaRosh and Mesilas Yeshorim for a few minutes each day, but about educating people of their potential. Mussar teaches the heights every person can attain if they are cognizant of their abilities and intent on realizing them. The cure for the human condition is to appreciate that there is a cure. Any person who sets themself on the path of living a Torah life can achieve greatness.
The baalei mussar sought to do away with the practice of eating “teg,” where yeshiva bochurim’s meals were comprised of leftovers provided to them by local families. Poverty was rampant. Yeshivos could not afford to operate kitchens, so the bochurim depended on the scraps of the townspeople.
The baalei mussar taught the bochurim that they were not beggars dependent on others for food. They taught them to wear clean clothes and take pride in every action they did, between the walls of the yeshiva and outside. Cleanliness was stressed, as were proper diction and comportment. Mumbling and sloppy dress were unacceptable.
Many years ago as a bochur in the Philadelphia yeshiva I heard a shmuess from my rebbi, the rosh yeshiva Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, in which he told of a Kelmer talmid who fainted when he noticed that he was missing a button. “Ah mentch darf gein vi ah mentch,” he said when I recently reminded him of the story.
An essential component of being a person of character is to be driven to succeed. We need to possess a strong desire to accomplish something in order to feel that we have a purpose in this world. We have to be driven to excel at what we do. We must know that we will accomplish whatever goals we set for ourselves if we ignore all the inevitable michsholim that will crop up. If we are not lazy, we can change the world as long as “rosho magia hashomaymah.” Hashem blessed us each with tremendous abilities with which to enhance the world, but we can only dream of utilizing them if those three words remain uppermost in our psyche.
Study great people who leave a mark on this world and you will see a passion to grow and spread their wings. Greatness is inside of us, but without drive, it goes to waste. Too many people are lost, too many have no direction, too many can’t read or write or function properly in our world, because they were never taught or given the tools to believe in themselves and their abilities. If at-risk kids who hang around wasting their days would be convinced that their lives have meaning, that they have value, that they are intelligent and capable, and that they can make something of their lives if they would set their minds to it, they could be rescued from the precipice of despair.
How can that be accomplished? By educating children, teenagers and grown people that roshom magia hashomaymah.
Rav Eizek Sher was a relic of the pre-war Slabodka Yeshiva. As a son-in-law of the famed Alter and a head of the yeshiva when it was reconstituted and known as “Chevron,” the young bochurim who learned there revered him.
Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi, one of today’s prominent Israeli roshei yeshiva, recalled that as a young bochur learning in the Chevron Yeshiva, he worked hard to develop a relationship with Rav Eizek. He finally merited a daily session with the mussar great, walking Rav Sher home from the yeshiva after davening.
One day, he accompanied Rav Eizek on the walk home, but upon reaching their destination, the rebbi turned to the talmid, shook his head and said, “Nisht azoi. Not like that.” They retraced their route to the yeshiva and then walked back to Rav Sher’s home.
Once again, Rav Sher was displeased by something and the two returned to the yeshiva. The young bochur was perplexed. What did Rav Eizek want from him? He mustered up the courage and finally asked.
Rav Eizek straightened his shoulders, stood ramrod straight and looked the bochur in the eye.
“Azoi geit ah general. This is the way a general walks,” he said.
He was instructing young Boruch Mordechai regarding the proper deportment and comportment of a ben Torah.
It’s a lesson that was well learned, as anyone acquainted with the rosh yeshiva, Rav Boruch Mordechai, can attest. He learned to talk as a general, walk as a general, and always be seen as a general would. He learned what he could accomplish, the army he could yet lead, and his responsibility to view himself that way. He and so many of the talmidim of Slabodka and Chevron learned the definition of rosho magia hashomaymah.
The secret of having courage and remaining strong in the face of difficult challenges is to live with that awareness, seeing the ladder at all times and remaining true to the vision.
This past summer, an ailing Reb Moshe Reichmann was undergoing radiation treatments. It was a brutally hot day, and as they set out in the car to the hospital, his son, who was driving him, offered him a bottle of water so that Reb Moshe could refresh himself. He refused the offer.
“But it’s hot. You need to drink,” his son protested. “Please drink. It is so hot outside. You might faint if you don’t drink.”
The weakened, deathly ill Mr. Reichmann refused to even take a sip from the bottle. He explained: “I don’t have a cup from which to drink. In my entire life, I never drank from a bottle and I am not about to start now.”
Simple, yet elegant. Alone in a car with his son, weak and no doubt thirsty, but determined and strong enough not to forfeit his self-respect.
If you read all the coverage in our paper last week about this great man and were left wondering how he succeeded in erecting a Torah world and a business empire, failing and then weathering difficult challenges to rise again, the answer lies in this little story. Reb Moshe Reichmann knew who he was. Though he was humble, as a ben Torah he understood the greatness he embodied. He knew that rosho magia hashomaymah.
A friend once told me of the time he was standing at a Yerushalayim bus stop when he noticed Rav Moshe Shapiro, one of the great talmidei chachomim and baalei machshovah of this generation, approaching. Rav Moshe, heading home to Bayit Vegan, made his way to the stop to take the 21 bus. The bus pulled up to the stop and Rav Moshe was still some distance away.
Rav Moshe saw the bus, and it was obvious that if he wouldn’t quicken his pace, he would miss the bus and have to wait twenty minutes for the next one to come by. Nevertheless, he didn’t run and didn’t even walk any faster. He continued to the stop, walking at the very same pace. He might miss the bus, but he wouldn’t compromise his personal dignity. Rav Moshe carries himself with an awareness of who he is and what he represents.
With Rav Eizek Sher’s image of a generahl ever-present, missing a bus isn’t a factor. The significance of one’s role, not the smaller issue of the inconvenience of missing a bus, defines Rav Shapiro’s actions.
As it happened, the bus driver noticed the dignified man walking towards the stop. He waited for him to board the bus before taking off… but that’s a whole other story.
Yaakov Avinu imbued us with these dimensions, with a sense of gadlus ha’adam. Generations later, his descendants reflect these qualities.
Reb Moshe Reichmann was a great man. Money and fame didn’t ruin him. In times of incredible success and failure, he maintained his equilibrium.
We can emulate this if we work on ourselves.
We don’t have to be a talmid of Kelm or Slabodka to live this way, carrying ourselves with a sense of respect, cleanliness, dignity and poise.
We have the power and wherewithal, because we are children of Yaakov.
We are children of dignity and grace. These attributes are part of our legacy, a heritage that we are to treasure and perpetuate, thus bringing great nachas to our Heavenly Father, to the world and to ourselves.