Thursday, Jul 25, 2024

Oases of Holiness

Throughout the long golus, our people have had homes in many countries. Regardless of the backdrop and climate, we've always stood out. Our nation has always been marked by tznius and purity, testimony to the fact that the Creator whose name is interwoven with our own is “sonei zima,” loathing of immorality.

In this week’s parsha, we are confronted with a daunting challenge to the standards we always maintained. After seeing his efforts at cursing the Bnei Yisroel stymied, Bilam developed a plan to entice them. “Vayachel ha’am liznos” (Bamidbar 25:1). Rashi quotes the Gemara (Sanhedrin 106) which delineates his scheme.

Our nation had previously been confronted with depravity and spiritual contamination. However, this was the first time that we faced a strategy specifically designed to change the moral climate and pull us into sin. It worked.

Bilam was crafty, cunning and successful. And he has progeny following his ways. His diabolical ruse has endured, inspiring various other organized crusades of debauchery throughout the years.

We don’t have to look past the news headlines to find  examples of what thorough and clever campaigning can achieve.

In the United States, the president’s signature legislation, written with great craftiness, specifies that only those states that set up health exchanges would receive the subsidies that are a cornerstone of the savings promised under Obamacare. It is clear and obvious that Congress set it up this way so that governors would be forced to establish the exchanges or risk losing millions of dollars for their citizens. This was repeatedly confirmed publically by Jonathan Gruber, the primary architect of the law.

The chief justice said that if that were the case, the entire program would be in chaos, because you can’t have some people getting subsidies and some not. So he ignored the intent of Congress, and the wording of the law, and he saved the sloppily written and conceived Obamacare law from itself.

And just like that, victory was declared. The left won, again demonstrating an uncanny knack for pulling victories out of a hat and moving society over to their point of view. The same chief justice who previously ruled that a penalty isn’t a penalty, because if it would be a penalty it can’t be imposed, and Obamacare would not be able to be foisted on the people if they aren’t penalized for not buying in to it. Thus he found that the penalty is really a tax, which the commerce clause permits.

Despite everything stacked against them, the left manages to outsmart and outfox their opposition. Just look at the societal changes they have brought about in this country over the past decade. They have effectively broadened the classification of the rights inherent in what used to be a sacred union. They redefined marriage from the way it has been understood and practiced since the beginning of time. They have also foisted upon an unwilling majority entitlements and differing social norms, amending America’s relationship with historical allies and weakening the country’s courage and confidence to lead on the world stage. They marginalize all opponents, paint them as radicals, and then move the goal posts once again as they set up to battle for the next cause on their agenda.

Just two weeks ago, the confederate flag was flying proudly – as it has been since the Civil War – across the southern part of this country. A white lunatic went on a rampage in a black church and, within a matter of days, the flag was blamed for the crime and all across the south people began pulling it down. Though nothing about the flag had changed, the die was cast and the plan was put in motion. The media did their job and politicians of all stripes responded, running to microphones to declare that the flag had fluttered for the last time. Stores pulled anything with a confederate symbol from their shelves. Manufacturers stopped their productions mid-run. And before anyone realized what was happening, the flag was gone and the liberals had won yet another round. This column is not about defending that flag, but it is no more offensive today that it was yesterday, when Democrats, including the Clintons, supported it. What changed was that it became a target of the left. When that happened, everyone climbed on board and it was gone.

Things reached a head last Friday, a day referred to by Kadmonim as ominous (Magein Avrohom, Orach Chaim 580). Many people have the minhag of fasting on this day, Erev Shabbos of the week when we read Zos Chukas HaTorah, which the Targum Onkoles interprets as Dah Gezeira D’Oraysa. It’s a day when twenty-five wagonloads of Gemaros were burnt in France and it’s a day when the modest values of our holy Torah were burnt by the United States Supreme Court.

The men and women of the highest court in the US forced a way of life upon citizens who have voted against it, reminding us, once again, that traditional values and religion in general are under attack. Words, laws and precedents no longer have meaning. Things taken for granted for millennia are shoved away by powerful groups and interests. People depended upon to maintain justice and equilibrium are shown to be tools of the progressive agenda. There is no place for refuge, no escape from the cultural changes that are overtaking this country and the world.

The kochos of tumah are on the ascent. In order to fight back, we must increase kedushah in the world. We must invest more into proper chinuch and we must be intelligent about it. We will not be able to shield ourselves and our world from it, by simply closing our eyes to what is taking place. Ignoring the revolutionary changes that are taking place around us is wrong. Thinking that by blocking ourselves from the impact of new realities mean they will not affect us is  a grave mistake.

We are seriously impacted by what takes place around us. The increase of tumah affects the air we breathe and the underpinnings of the country in which we live in many spiritual ways, and it also trickles down to us in our cloistered world. We are not immune to anything, unless we immunize ourselves.

Hundreds of years ago, the Kotzker Rebbe closeted himself in his room. He famously commented to a chossid who opened the window to the room, “Der velt shtinked. Farmach dem fenster. Close the window and don’t allow the stench of the world into this room.”

How can we effectively close the windows to our homes, rooms and offices?

How are we to respond?

Before the 1992 presidential election that pitted Governor Bill Clinton against incumbent George Bush, a talmid went to visit Rav Shimon Schwab zt”l. The mainstream Orthodox position seemed to be to support the Democrat, since the Bush administration was seen as particularly harsh to Israel. Rav Schwab felt otherwise and he explained his thinking to his visitor.

“What will be with Eretz Yisroel is Hashem’s business. The posuk says, ‘Lev melochim vesorim beyad Hashem. He guides and directs leaders the way He sees fit. We are mandated to be a mamleches kohanim vegoy kadosh, to bring about and spread holiness in the world.”

Rav Schwab added, “I believe that a Yid has to vote for the candidate who will keep the atmosphere as refined as possible.”

We, charged with ensuring that the moral climate remain clean and holy, have our work cut out for us.

The Rambam at the end of Hilchos Me’ilah (perek 7) tells us how to respond: “How much did Dovid Hamelech suffer from the scoffers and heretics who would challenge him regarding the meaning and purpose of the chukim? And the more they antagonized him…the more he would increase his devotion to the Torah.”

Like Dovid Hamelech in his time, we are constantly being attacked. Secular permissiveness is licking at our shores, as we are mocked by those who insist on appending the appellation “Orthodox” to their name. They vilify many of our traditions and teachings, move the bar on many topics and customs, and act contrary to halachah, yet continue to make inroads, taking over shuls and schools across the country and being welcomed into an increasing number of Orthodox botei knesses.

Nobody wants to be perceived as negative, old-fashioned or anti-progress, so what started out as something far-out has become increasingly accepted and mainstream right under our noses. Once it’s in vogue, it’s harder to resist. Weak leaders capitulate to the demands of congregants and organization members. More shuls and Orthodox people fall under their spell.

As we see in our personal lives, most people are fickle. They don’t have the stamina to fight for the truth, stand up to bullies, or defend their beliefs. Most allow their innate desire to be loved to dictate their conduct. Similar to the chief justice, who ruled with an eye on the editorial pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post, people act in the manner they consider most prudent, neither making waves nor fighting them. 

With this latest Supreme Court ruling, it will become easier for those with contempt for our values to marginalize us and label us as racist, bigoted, and irrational extremists if we do not respond cleverly and act responsibly.

Strong leadership, strong principles, courage and conviction are the only answers in times like these, as redefinitions will be taking place, affecting religious freedom and things we have become accustomed to taking for granted.

We can succeed.

People used to view the US Supreme Court as the fount of justice. If ever a jurisdiction, or court, or prosecutor, or politician were out of control, they felt that there was a group of people to whom they could turn for final redress. There was a place that cared about the truth, the law, and what was right. Well, those thoughts have now been dashed with a trio of rulings that left many scratching their heads, others in mourning, and leftists and liberals dancing in the streets.

Our grandparents persevered when liberties were limited. The nisayon at the present time is to persevere when the liberties are – if we may say so – too great. The storm that threatens us is no less intimidating than those that our forefathers faced in the ghettos and pogroms, though today’s flood may be less physically painful. Against all odds they won, and so can we.

Simply closing our eyes to what is taking place isn’t enough to shield ourselves and our world from it. Ignoring the revolutionary changes taking place around us and reasoning that this way they will not affect us is a mistake.

We can and should invest more in proper chinuch, using intelligence and proper planning to achieve and accomplish. Our rallying cry must be the words of the Rambam, who says, “Kamah hayah Dovid Hamelech mitzta’er,” Dovid Hamelech persevered by attaching himself to Torah and growing more elevated and exalted. The Rambam closes by quoting the posuk in Tehillim (119:69) which states, “Toflu alay sheker zeidim, ani bechol lev etzor pikudecha.” The more falsehood he was attacked with, the deeper Dovid Hamelech connected himself to the Torah. The more we cleave to Torah, the stronger we are.

Shlomo Hamelech writes in Mishlei, “Bechol eis yihyu begodecha levonim,” we must always endeavor to keep ourselves clean. Should we find a spot, we must immediately cleanse it before it sets in. In times such as these, we should Scotchguard ourselves against stains through the study of Torah and mussar and seforim which lead to increased kedusha and tahara, emunah and bitachon.

In this week’s parsha, we read how the Midyanite king feared the ascent of the Bnei Yisroel and sought out the services of the spiritual leader of the gentile nations to curse the Jews before they would swallow him. Bilam attempted to fulfill the king’s wishes, especially after he was plied with fame and fortune in return for his work. Things didn’t go as planned and Bilam ended up blessing the Jews.

The brachos, placed in his mouth by Hashem, bear eternal messages. “Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov,” he proclaimed. The greatness, beauty, nobility and modesty of the Jewish home are hallmarks that have defined Torah Jews throughout the millennia. “Hein am levodod yishkon.” No matter what was going on around us, irrespective of the outside cultures, we always attempted to maintain our homes as oases of holiness.

Bilam was characterized by his “ayin ra’ah,” his bad eye, haughty manner and conceited demeanor, while we are defined as talmidim of Avrohom, possessing an “ayin tovah,” a good eye and humility. We are defined by our unfailing love for each other, which leads to kindness, concern, caring and a humble existence, as we walk in the shadow of Hashem, come what may.

When Bilam saw that he wasn’t able to curse the blessed, beloved nation, he led them to temptation and caused them to fall prey to immorality. He perceived that the way to cause their extermination was by lowering them to the levels of the decadent people who surrounded them. As long as they maintained their kedushah and taharah, they would not fall and could not be defeated.

The posuk states, “Kedoshim tihiyu ki kadosh ani” (Vayikra 19:2), which the Ramban explains to mean that if we are holy, we can remain connected to Hashem.

All through the ages, there have been attempts to tempt us to veer from the path of eternal truth. As long as we remained loyal to the Torah’s teachings and morals, we were successful in remaining untouched. When we succumbed to the enticements and left the path of Torah, the nations attacked us and drew blood.

We are entering a period in which we will be pressured to get with the program and accept where society has led the surrounding culture. We will be painted as an old-fashioned, bigoted, spiteful, hateful, phobic tribe. It will require spiritual, mental and intellectual strength to withstand the onslaught.

On a visit to Bnei Brak, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l walked down the central street, Rechov Chazon Ish. From every window, it seemed, came forth the sound of children learning Torah. Every second building was a kollel. The city is dominated by massive, world-famous yeshivos. Many Chassidic centers have established themselves there as well.

Rav Hutner paused and reflected. “The Gemara says, ‘Kol halomeid Torah beseiser, if one learns Torah in seclusion, machrizin alav begolui, it eventually becomes announced in public.’ Before there were all these mosdos, the Chazon Ish sat in seclusion, in a humble room, and poured his lifeblood into Torah. Now, the city of Bnei Brak and all the Torah in it is the public announcement of his toil.”

Every individual can create kedushah and chase away tumah. Although we do not have the abilities of the Chazon Ish, by maximizing our dedication to Torah in our hearts and homes, we create buffers from tumah and increase goodness and holiness in the world. Bit by bit, ehrliche Yid by ehrliche Yid, we bring light into places of darkness, until the entire world becomes aflame with kedushah and taharah, on physical and spiritual levels, seen and unseen, perceived and hidden.

We can do it. We have to do it. We must use the gifts of the am chochom venavon and the heritage of ohalim tovim and middos tovos transmitted to us since our founding. Hashem doesn’t give us trials we cannot overcome. With Torah wisdom, accompanied by strength, humility and ayin tovah, we will be zocheh to continue our growth besiyata diShmaya



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