Rav Tzvi Schvartz is the type of tzaddik many believe doesn’t exist anymore. He heads the Lev L’Achim branch in Rechovot and, with his white beard, bright eyes, broad smile, ready words of encouragement and active support, has been bringing neshamos back to life for decades in that city.
He once shared with me a memorable lesson that he learned from Rav Elazar Shach. When Russian Jews were immigrating to Israel by the thousands, many were brought to Ulpanim in Rechovot, where they were taught basics of the Hebrew language and the Israeli culture. Rav Schvartz was put in charge of running classes on religion for the incoming Russians olim.
He began by providing a series of classes on matters of religion, but soon realized that the vast majority of the new olim had no interest at all in the subject. So, he provided a few basic classes on Judaism for all of them and for those who showed interest he provided in-depth lessons. Due to the force of his personality and perseverance, he managed to touch the hearts and souls of many olim, returning them to the Torah and mitzvos from which the communists had cut them off for seventy years. He was so successful that he began a yeshiva and kollel for the fresh baalei teshuvah who demonstrated promise and displayed interest in progressing in learning.
Rav Tzvi went to Bnei Brak to share his nachas with Rav Shach, the spiritual father of Lev L’Achim.
The Ponovezher rosh yeshiva wondered where Rav Tzvi had obtained the funding to maintain his makeshift yeshiva and kollel. He explained that he received a generous stipend for the introduction-to-Judaism seminars, which every incoming Russian immigrant had to attend. The funding came from the Israeli government, which wanted to expose new immigrants to the culture and spirit of Judaism. He told Rav Shach that instead of forcing people who had no interest in the subject matter to attend the entire series of seminars, he chose those who expressed interest in the first two and concentrated on them. He permitted the others to opt out. Instead of utilizing the entire budget for all the olim, and wasting time and money on them, Rav Tzvi explained, he focused on those who showed potential.
Rav Shach responded that what he was doing was improper.
“You are incorrect,” said the rosh yeshiva. “Israel is new to these Russians. They listen to the lectures, but they are in a strange country and are worried about how they will adapt and what will be with their children. They are worried about finding housing and a job. They have many concerns. They aren’t concentrating on Yiddishkeit, something that they are unfamiliar with and is very low on their list of concerns.
“But,” the rosh yeshiva continued, “the years will pass, they will settle in, their children will be growing, and they will feel emptiness in their lives. They will be searching for meaning, for something to ground them. They will seek inner happiness to fill a void in their lives, but they won’t know where to look. They will have nothing to fall back on. There will be nothing faded in their memory bank to bring back to life.
“At that time, they will start to remember what they were taught in the Ulpan seminars. When they start searching, they will have something to search for. Their memories of something Jewish will be brought to the fore and they will seek out Torah. But if you don’t go through the motions of teaching them the full series of lectures, they will have nowhere to go when that day comes. They will have nothing to fall back on, and their lives will forever remain empty and devoid of Torah and Yiddishkeit.
“You have no right to do that to them,” Rav Shach concluded. “Every Jew deserves to have something to come back to.”
Here’s another story, from a different vantage point, that will help us get to our point and remember it.
Back when the railroad was coming to Russia, the transportation ministry worked to lay thousands of miles of track upon which trains would crisscross the large country. When the plans were publicized, it was discovered that the plan was to lay track over the grave of the Baal Hatanya. Alarmed, chassidim sent a delegation to the minister of transportation.
They arrived for the meeting and began to plead their case. “Maybe you don’t appreciate what a rebbe means to us, so allow us to explain.”
The minister cut them off. “You don’t have to explain it to me. My father and brother are religious. In fact, I was also religious until I was seventeen years old. I know what a rebbe is and what he means to you.”
The minister told the delegation his story.
“I was in yeshiva, when I decided that I wanted to join the Russian army. I became fixated with it. I didn’t want to give up religion; I just wanted to become a soldier. My father was worried that in the army, I would lose my connection to Yiddishkeit. He begged me not to go, but nothing he said impressed me.
“My father was a Karliner chossid. In a last-ditch effort, he asked me to go with him to the rebbe, Rav Shlomo Karliner. I obliged. We entered the rebbe’s room. The rebbe appeared to be on fire, his face radiant and his eyes alight, totally connected to Hashem. The force of holiness was so strong that my father could not open his mouth to speak for the first few minutes. Finally, he gathered his courage and told the rebbe of my intentions to join the military, how I refused to listen, and his fears that I would become a goy.
“The rebbe’s face grew red, his countenance aflame, hot tears streaming down his face as he turned to me and begged, ‘Efsher doch, efsher doch. Maybe, maybe [you’ll change your mind].’
“I turned him down and went to the army, and as you see, I am so far gone, you didn’t think that I knew what a rebbe is. I know the power of a rebbe, and every time I sin, those pleading words of the rebbe ring in my ears: ‘Efsher doch, efsher doch.’”
It’s the Three Weeks, the time when we mourn the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh. We mourn that we are in golus. Every time our enemies attack us with words, sticks, punches, guns, rockets and bombs, we hear those words: “Efsher doch, efsher doch.” Maybe this will be the year we fix ourselves and make our way back.
Maybe this will be the year we will think of what we have lost and what we are missing and do what we must to be returned home. Not only will the senseless hatred and suffering end, but the sick will be healed, the abused comforted, and the homeless will be back at home in the land that is ours.
As we have settled in to the long golus, people have found it difficult to remember what type of lives we are supposed to be living, who we are, where we come from, and what our mission is. Sometimes, the stresses and distractions of everyday living combined with the many allures out there overtake and engulf us, causing us to forget.
Megillas Esther (2:5-6) introduces us to Mordechai by stating, “Ish Yehudi hayah b’Shushan Habirah ushemo Mordechai ben Yair ben Shimi ben Kish ish Yemini. Asher hoglah m’Yerushalayim. There was a Jewish man by the name of Mordechai, son of Yair, son of Shimi, son of Kish, from the tribe of Binyomin (see Megillah 12b and Rashi), who had gone into exile from Yerushalayim.”
Who was he? A Jew, who followed in the ways of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, with the traditions of shevet Binyomin. He never forgot who he was. And he never forgot where he came from. He was an exile, a survivor of the churban, who longed to return home, no matter how comfortable his golus experience was.
And so it is in this golus. So many Jews have veered from their roots and it is difficult to return them. In the decades following the Holocaust, when Jews became scattered around the world, as far as they had gone from a life of Torah and mitzvos, they still remembered life back home. They remembered Shabbos and Yom Tov, the language, the sights and the smells. It was easier to touch their souls and kindle remaining sparks. The children of those people didn’t have much to remember other than the reminiscences of their parents, the accents, the recipes, and some words of Yiddish. It was harder to reach them, but they still had some Yiddishe feelings. Their children, however, have nothing. They know that they are Jews, but attach that appellation to concepts far from Torah. They are liberals who vote Democrat and support abortion and every abomination. If they are lucky, their children marry Jews. More often than not, they marry out of the flock and are lost forever.
We go to Eretz Yisroel and traverse the Holy Land. We tear kriah at the sites of the churban, stand at the Kosel, and imagine what was and what will be. We daven at the kever of the avos, the imahos, and Rochel Imeinu. We feel their presence and beseech Hashem to help us in their merit. We walk on the derech ha’avos, where our forefathers trekked to Yerushalayim to be oleh regel and go to Shilo, the site of the Mishkon before the construction of the Bais Hamikdosh. And wherever we go, a chill runs down our spine. We feel connected to who we are and where we come from.
At great expense, people travel to the alter heim in the countries of Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Croatia, Germany and elsewhere. They visit the old botei medrash, shuls, yeshivos and cemeteries to remember where they come from and what their mission is.
Every year, as we bentch Rosh Chodesh Menachem Av, the cheerful blessing generates bittersweet emotion. A new month usually brings smiles and hopes for a fresh start. But this Shabbos, the fact that the arriving month is Av, with its undertones of melancholy, causes our hearts to sink.
The period of national sadness that began on the 17th day of Tammuz increases with the start of Chodesh Av and peaks on Tisha B’Av.
Throughout our history, the first week of Av has seen wrenching, catastrophic events for the Jewish people. That legacy of sorrow and disaster continues. It’s a sadness shrouded in this rootlessness, a sense that things are not as they should be and we are not where we should be.
As we enter Chodesh Av, we wonder what we can do to reverse that cycle and when it will end.
Our search for a ray of hope begins with the awareness that the root of all our sadness and misery is the churban Bais Hamikdosh. We reflect on the Gemara in Maseches Yoma (9b) that teaches that the first Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed because we did not properly observe the halachos of avodah zorah, gilui arayos and shefichas domim.
The Gemara says that at the time of the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdosh, the Jews were proficient in Torah and gemillus chassodim. What brought about that churban was sinas chinom.
We’ve heard it so many times, but apparently we need to hear again that since sinas chinom caused the churban, the final redemption cannot occur until we have all thoroughly rid ourselves of the senseless hatred that seems to accompany the Jewish people wherever we are.
The parshiyos of Mattos and Masei are always read during the period of the Three Weeks. They deal with the connection of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisroel. We are connected to that land not only as a nation, but also as individuals.
Chodesh Av is about connection. It is about a relationship that was severed, to ultimately be renewed. We are working towards returning to our portion in Eretz Yisroel.
The parshiyos contain the seeds of our geulah, lessons for us to improve our behavior in golus in order to merit our share in Eretz Yisroel.
Parshas Mattos begins with the laws of nedorim and shavuos, different types of vows and promises a person makes, and the obligation “not to defile your words and to do whatever you said you would” (30:3).
In our society, words are cheap. They are thrown around aimlessly and carelessly, sometimes in a bid to impress and sometimes just to pass time. In the social media generation, everything is superficial, most of all words. They are conduits used to express thoughts and feelings that contain facile meaning and no depth. Little thought goes into what is said, or written, and therefore words carry no weight.
People go online to make sure they are up on the latest and bring garbage into their homes. They skim through all types of material, full of meaningless words strung together to convey vapid thoughts and feelings. They don’t realize that drip by drip, those silly, empty thoughts have an impact on them, and before long, their brains are filled with senseless views, opinions and ideas. The am chochom venavon becomes dumbed-down.
There was a time when people valued written and spoken words, when they perceived the inherent value of every utterance.
They were people of depth who appreciated the meaning of words. Their thoughts and the words with which they expressed them carried weight and were honored.
We are quickly losing that. In our society, words should have meaning. Meaning also has to have meaning. We should not be focusing on external values, such as financial worth, supposed status, and impressions. We must not be superficial. The world is too dangerous a place for us to act without information and without thought. Too often, we express opinions and act based on feelings and not facts, emotions and not intellect. To do so is folly and can have drastic consequences.
Words affect us and other people. To end the golus and help rebuild the Bais Hamikdosh, we should think before we speak and ensure that our speech is neither hurtful nor insulting.
Words have the power to break and the power to repair. Words heal and words sicken. Words bring people together and words separate people. The words we use have lasting repercussions.
As we complete the laining of the parshiyos this week, we exclaim together, “Chazak chazak venischazeik.” We cry out a resounding message to each other and to ourselves. We repeat a word that is laden with power: Chazak. Be strong.
With that, we complete another sefer in our march towards the Torah’s conclusion. We internalize the chapter of the Bnei Yisroel’s passage through the midbar and try to learn the lessons that this seder has presented, so that we may be strong and strengthened. We say chazak.
Study the words of the Torah and you will be strong. Share the words of the Torah and you will be strengthened. Say it together. Appreciate the power of words and use them properly.
Remember what our priorities are. In every decision, as you contemplate your various considerations, remind yourself of your identity. When your buddies are talking during davening or chatting outside during laining, consider whether that is the proper behavior of a frum person such as yourself. When you’re sitting and shmoozing and the conversation veers off course, wonder whether the discussion is proper for a ben or bas Torah such as yourself or if you’d be better off sliding away.
When you are considering where to go for vacation – Cancun or New Hampshire, Southern France or South Haven, South Beach or South Fallsburg – think about your DNA and where you belong. When the gang wants to go to a place that doesn’t jibe with Torah values, remember who you are, what you are all about, that you have goals and ambitions, and efsher doch you should find a way out of going to that place.
If we remember who we are, where we came from and where we are going, we would be so much better off and we may actually get there this year. Amein.