Tuesday, Jun 25, 2024

On Sparks and Stones

We are enthralled each year anew as we learn the parsha describing Yaakov Avinu’s dream, his years in Lavan’s house, his marriages, and the birth of the shevotim. Ever since our earliest years, we’ve sat riveted by the account of many stones joining together to become the single rock upon which Yaakov rested his head. We were generally taught that Yaakov slept on Har Hamoriah, site of his father’s Akeida and the future site of the Botei Mikdosh.

The sun set early and all of Eretz Yisroel folded under him, as Hashem promised him the land and assured him that He would watch over him and would bless him with many descendants.

Yaakov awoke in the morning and was overcome by the awesomeness of the promise he had received as he slept. He awoke and said, “This is a holy place. Hashem is in this place and I didn’t even know.” He consecrated the stone upon which he had slept and promised to give Hashem ten percent of his possessions.

Yaakov traveled on to Charan, where he came upon shepherds sitting aimlessly with their flocks around a watering hole. They explained that they had to wait until all the local shepherds would come and then all of them would together push off the huge rock that covered the underground cave filled with water. When Rochel arrived with her sheep, Yaakov summoned the strength to roll off the boulder by himself.

Yaakov was the av of golus. What transpired to him on his way from Bais Lechem to Charan was the introduction to Yaakov’s first foray into exile, as he began his journey into golus.

He walked until dark and then lay down to rest in a place seemingly devoid of holiness. Upon awakening, he realized that “ein zeh ki im bais Elokim, this is a place laden with kedusha, the house of Hashem and the gate to heaven.”

Yaakov Avinu was essentially giving us the keys to survival in golus. We chance upon places that seem desolate, barren of any good. We view them as unable to receive any holiness, much less be a home for kedusha and people who seek to live exalted lives. The places are as inert as stone.

The golus experience is tragic, a family torn apart and spread across the world. We have endured all types of oppression and pain over the course of this journey. On the surface, it seems that we’ve been removed from the realm of the Divine, pushed into a world without holiness.

But we come to realize, as Yaakov Avinu taught us, that even the darkest places in the world are potential homes for kedusha. A stone can become a mizbeiach. Ein zeh ki im bais Elokim. This is the secret of survival in golus.

We don’t give up on any place or any person. There was a time when everyone believed that nothing good could take hold in America. They believed that anyone who immigrated to this land was doomed to a dark life of emptiness, and for many years that was the case. But eventually, Hashgocha orchestrated for giants who had learned the lesson of Yaakov to come here. They planted yeshivos where people said no Torah could grow. They insisted on shmiras Shabbos where there was none. They convinced parents to send their children to receive a Torah education when doing so was mocked and vilified as old-fashioned and wrong.

And look at what we have in America now: frum communities from coast to coast, Torah blossoming on a massive scale. How? Why? Because some of Yaakov’s children didn’t go to sleep when they got here. They didn’t view the place as stone cold. They believed that any place, anywhere, can be transformed into a Bais Elokim.

Not only in America, but around the world, Torah is found in places no one ever thought possible. Wherever Jews who remember Yaakov’s lesson go, the brocha he received that night in his dream of “uforatzta yoma vokeidma vetzafona vonegba” is being realized on an unprecedented scale.

No matter where our people end up, they build, they believe, they plant and they grow. And while doing so, they uncover and reveal sparks of holiness in the largest cities, the smallest towns, and the lightest and darkest corners of the world.

We never give up on anyone. We never say that he or she is beyond repair. We never say that they are beyond hope, as inert as stone, as dark as a seemingly forsaken place, for we know that there is holiness and good everywhere. Our task is to find it and cause embers to flare up into flames.

The anthem of golus­ is “achein yeish Hashem bamakom hazeh.” Never think you are alone. Never think you are forsaken. Never think anyone is too far gone. Never think that there is a location that cannot be transformed into a place where we can live and flourish.

We are all familiar with Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s prophecy that America would be the final station of Torah in golus. When we uncover enough watering holes here, we get to finally go home.

We have been spread across the world, and wherever we’ve gone, we’ve established botei Elokim, spreading kedusha and Torah where naysayers said it couldn’t be done. The cycle repeated itself every few hundred years. Jews would grow accustomed to their host country after having brought as much kedusha to that land as possible. The country rose up against them and once again the Jews were on to the next bleak outpost. Finally, we are here, spreading Torah across the fruited plain, awaiting that great day of “vehaya Hashem lemelech al kol ha’aretz.”

We often lose sight of those who refined and purified the American landscape enabling the Torah world to rise. The great impact of the famed post-war giants sometimes overshadows the silent, hidden avodah of those who came before them and first uncovered the “achein yeish Hashem” on these shores as well.

The going was rough in those early turn-of-the-century days, as millions of Jews escaped the poverty and pogroms of Eastern Europe and came here looking for a better tomorrow. They settled in cities and towns all across the country, initially eking out a living as peddlers and shopkeepers. The ruach was stone cold. The water pits were blocked and refused to open.

With the peddlers came rabbonim who sat and learned by themselves and with the people. They wrote seforim and corresponded with the giants of Europe. They fought for Shabbos and Jewish education. Oftentimes they failed and many were lost, but they increased the kedusha here. The zechusim created by limud haTorah accumulated, balancing out the klipos hora and allowing frum people to live and thrive here. They cleared the air of spiritual pollution to the degree that shuls and yeshivos could be built, and botei medrash and kollelim could flourish all across the country.

In Omaha, Nebraska, lived Rav Tzvi Hirsch Grodzensky, cousin of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodeznsky, who toiled in Torah. In Boston, Rav Zalman Yaakov Freiderman presided over huge kehillos and made sure that there would be kashrus and rabbonim in Massachusetts, as he learned and taught Torah. Rav Eliezer Silver of Kovno ended up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and from his pulpit there, he influenced the entire Torah world.

Travel across this country and you’ll find Jewish cemeteries in the strangest of places. You think you’re the first frum Jew to ever drive through some forsaken town off the beaten path and then you pass the bais olam and realize that neshamos were moser nefesh to find sparks of kedusha in that location and prepare the country for its spiritual rebirth and the world for Moshiach.

Generations of such people, who came to the final golus from Europe, brought with them Torah and mitzvos, sometimes leading very lonely lives. Others were more fortunate. Whether they learned into the wee hours of the morning in the Rocky Mountains or led quiet tishen on Friday night in places very far from Mezibuzh, they were slowly but surely pushing away the rocks that blocked the water of Torah from spreading. History might not be aware, but everything that came after those pioneers is because they uncovered the holy spark of “achein yeish Hashem bamakom hazeh,” and our existence here proves that.

Rav Moshe Mordechai Shulsinger writes that during one of Israel’s wars, people went to Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach asking for areas in which they should improve to help the war effort. He offered two suggestions. The first was to recite the first brocha of Birkas Hamazon from a bentcher. The second idea was not to be “fartayned” all day. “Don’t be perpetually aggrieved,” he said. “Some people go through every day of their lives with complaints against everyone. ‘They didn’t do what I told them to do.’ Or, ‘They didn’t ask me how to do it. If they would have asked me, the whole thing would have come out so much differently – and better, of course.’ People have complaints against their spouse, parents, children, rabbonim, rabbeim, moros and chazzan. They think that other people tried hurting them, harming them, and insulting them. People become bitter, angry and upset and get into fights.”

Stop, Rav Shach advised. Stop complaining. Stop seeing the incompetence of those around you and start seeing the blessings.

“A person can spend his day in kapdanus and bitterness,” Rav Shach would say.

Don’t say that this is an empty place. Don’t say that the water is buried beneath a rock too heavy to move. Don’t say that everything is bleak and hopeless. Rather, think, “Achein yeish Hashem bamakom hazeh.” Open your eyes and see the potential. See the good. See what the good people do and want to do, and help them remove the stones and pebbles in their lives.

A person who lives with the awareness that the Master of the Universe maps each step and writes every chapter lives with emunah and simcha, for he knows that whatever happens, there is one reaction: achein, behold, yeish Hashem bamakom hazeh. Wherever it is, He is there too.

A while ago, some yungeleit went to speak to Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman. A member of their kollel was niftar, lo aleinu, and they wanted to be mekabel something in his memory. They had various ideas, but wanted the rosh yeshiva to suggest an appropriate kabbolah.

Rav Shteinman listened to their proposals. Then he spoke. “Those are all very nice ideas, but I think you should try something else. You live in a relatively new neighborhood, where people move in and new buildings are rising. I think that everyone in the kehilla should sign a letter being mekabel that no matter what, they will avoid neighborly disputes. Your upstairs neighbor might be doing construction and it will be very noisy for a few months. Your neighbor down the hall might close in his porch and obstruct your view. Instead of fighting, step back and contemplate the brocha that led to that construction. Think of a growing family that needs more room, or more space for an overworked mother, bringing menuchas hanefesh to another family. That kabbolah will be an eternal source of merit to your friend’s neshomah.”

Yaakov Avinu throughout this parsha faces all sorts of challenges. He travels, lonely and impoverished, and arrives with nothing. He faces Lavan’s trickery and deceit, and then toils under a blazing sun, and in fierce cold, for a selfish boss.

Never do we see him with ta’anos, focused on the great evil being perpetrated against him. He never assumes the role of nirdaf. He isn’t busy with Lavan’s spite.

He saw the Hand of Hashem there, too. “Achein yeish Hashem bamakom hazeh.”

Thus, he emerged from Bais Lavan with all the brachos in the world, rich in family and possessions.

During the last Sukkos of Rav Yitzchok Hutner’s life, months before his passing, he received hundreds of visitors. Talmidim and their families descended upon his Yerushalayim apartment to pay their respects.

He was weak, and the deluge of people was difficult for him to manage. He spoke with each one, and he was visibly worn out at the end of one Chol Hamoed day.

“Why does the rosh yeshiva allow people to come? Why not just close the door tomorrow and post a sign that the rosh yeshiva isn’t taking visitors?” asked a concerned talmid.

“Veil ah mentch, because a person, iz ah sheineh zach, is a beautiful thing,” Rav Hutner answered.

A person is crafted by Hashem, a wondrous, spectacular creation, and each person has value. To close a door on a person is to lose out on beholding the glory. It wasn’t about the inconvenience or difficulty, for achein yeish Hashem bamakom hazeh. Every person carries some of that kedusha.

In that spot, the very place where Yaakov revealed Hashem’s Presence, the Bais Hamikdosh will stand, the ultimate testimony to the fact that along the entire journey, the long path through golus, He accompanied us: He was there, leading us home.

All along, dark and confusing as it may be, we have it within us to stop and say, “Achein yeish Hashem bamakom hazeh.” What a great way to live, always being positive, looking for the good everywhere, and planting the seeds of Moshiach.

We all possess the strength to roll away the stones that block our paths and the paths of others. Let’s do it.

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