Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Refugees Alone Together

It might just be a discarded candy wrapper on the floor of the shul, or trapped on a seforim shelf. Maybe it’s a piece of a festively-colored flag still sitting in the corner or a stray arava leaf floating down from atop the aron kodesh.

The reminders of the recent Yom Tov are everywhere, as we struggle to hold on to the glorious days that have come and gone.

The period following Sukkos is one of the loneliest times of the year. As the decorations are peeled off and the sukkah is taken apart and put away, we feel exposed and removed from the comforting shelter in which we were enveloped for more than a month.

This year, that feeling is compounded when we note how we are accosted daily with news that would cause people from a different generation to blush. There seems to be no place to hide from the constant onslaught. Wherever you go, that is what people are discussing. Next week, hopefully, that will end, as the citizenry elects an administration dedicated to law, order, morals, and making America great again.

From when we began reciting “LeDovid Hashem ori” at the beginning of Elul, we were drawn into a transcendent world. The shofar was blown every morning, calling upon us to shape up. Bemotzoei Menuchah, we felt the tremors increasing, as we ushered in the days of Selichos. The week reached a crescendo as we stood in awe upon hearing the 100 piercing cries of the shofar.

During the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, we inched closer. Finally, we stood like angels dressed in white on Yom Kippur, emerging from Ne’ilah feeling reborn and reenergized. We were clean and fresh and ready to soar.

Then we climbed the next rung, going from teshuvah to simcha, entering the sacred abode of the sukkah, betzilah dimehemnusah. We sang and ate, drank and celebrated, rejoicing with Hashem.

By the time Sukkos began, we felt that the barriers between us and Hashem had come down. We fell in love with our daled minim and Yom Tov limudim. Then Simchas Torah arrived and we felt one with the Torah and other Jews. We sang, grasping the hands and shoulders of fellow Yidden, dancing joyously and feeling fulfilled.

And then, suddenly, it all came to an end. We were thrust out of that cloud of sanctity and into the mundane world once again, with only echoes and happy memories to accompany us.

However, as Rav Yitzchok Hutner taught his talmidim, “We don’t say that a Yom Tov has passed us by, but rather that we have experienced a Yom Tov.” The sublime moments, heartfelt tefillos, earnest kabbalos, exultant songs and intense simcha are now part of us. Our neshamos have been expanded.

We enter this new period with enthusiasm and desire to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Torah whose completion we just celebrated. We seek ways to hold on to the message of the sukkah and what it represents.

We have been buffeted about through centuries of exile, moving from place to place, rarely feeling welcome or at home. The small wooden hut of Sukkos represents a place of refuge in the environs of golus.

In this week’s parsha, we learn from Noach how it can be done.

The posuk states, “Es haElokim hishalech Noach – Noach walked with Hashem.” Perhaps we can understand this posuk to mean that Noach walked with Hashem because he had no one else to walk with. Noach was essentially all alone. He had no one. No one other than Hashem. He had no one to converse with, so he spoke to Hashem.

For 120 years, Noach attempted to convince the people of his generation to right their ways, to no avail. He was unable to sway anyone to live a life of dignity, honor and respect.

We don’t know how great Noach would have been had he lived during a different period. All we know is what the Torah tells us about him. He was a tzaddik and a tomim, a righteous, upstanding person in a generation in which there were no others.

We study the parsha named for Noach and discern that it is possible to stand out. The world may be living deceitful, dishonest, immoral lives, but that doesn’t have to stop us from following Hashem’s creed of kindness and goodness.

We learn this week’s parsha and observe that we can rise above the influence of those around us. We can be strong, honest and moral in a time of depravity. And if we are, we will find favor in the eyes of Hashem.

It is hard to stand alone, but that is our mandate and the call of the hour.

When the Brisker Rov and his family were on the run, trying to escape Europe, they spent a night in a neighborhood inhabited by anti-religious people. Late that night, before they went to sleep, the rov’s children saw him pulling a table towards the front door of the apartment. It seemed strange, and they inquired what his intention was.

The rov explained that he wasn’t blocking the door because he was worried about security. He told the family that the Rambam (Hilchos Deios 6:2) writes that if a person finds himself in a country which has bad customs and corrupt, sinful people he should separate himself from them and move to an area populated by righteous people… if necessary he should go to a place where there are no people, such as a desert or a cave. “While we are forced to be here to save our lives,” the rov said, “I wanted to remind myself that we should remain apart.”

The significance of the teivah that Noach built is that he found a way, in a generation of hedonism, immorality and wickedness, to create an island for himself. This is a lesson that is still relevant to us in today’s world.

While our physical situation at the present time is better than it was anytime over the past 500 years, and Torah is being studied around the world in greater numbers than anyone can remember, there are many dark clouds on the horizon and awful winds are blowing.

Leadership wanes, crises loom, solutions are lacking, fiction replaces truth, glossy veneers substitute for depth, and ignorance is more popular than brilliance.

Spiritual threats abound. The air seems to have been poisoned, and no one is able to find the proper antibodies. The culture of this country, which was founded on – and led by – religious values, has sunk to unprecedented lows. The assault on traditional family life is tangible. The deviation from the script of a decade ago is very strong and has swept across the country the past few years.

People pine for leaders who speak truth to power and actually care about them and their interests. Citizens have a hard time making ends meet and look at the entrenched powerful people, their lifestyle and the laws they champion, and wonder what’s going on. They wonder why taxes take such a bite out of their paycheck and why the government is everywhere they look. They want to know why the health insurance plan that was supposed to cut their expenses did just the opposite and how they are supposed to afford it. The middle class feels strangled. People don’t know where they will get the money to pay their mortgage, insurance, taxes and tuition.

Religious people and those raised on bedrock moral values find no place to hide from the onslaught of decadence. They wonder where their country’s values have gone. They shudder when they see the changes wrought on the moral character of the US and fear that the election may return to power individuals with deviant agendas. They resolve to vote and take a stand for moral values in the country. They head to the voting booth with an eye on the Supreme Court and the weight it carries.

Chazal say that had the people of Noach’s time followed his example and heeded his admonitions, the Torah could have been given in their day (see sefer Pri Tzaddik on this week’s parsha). Instead of floodwaters, they could have had the Torah, which is referred to as mayim. Instead of destruction, they could have experienced rebirth. Instead of desolation, they could have merited prosperity. Instead of klolah, being cursed, they could have had brocha and been eternally blessed. Because they preferred to follow the path of their desires, they earned for themselves infamy, shame and violent death.

We wonder what we can do to stay afloat in a sinking world. We look to Noach as someone who can provide us with inspiration and serve as a guide, reminding us not to feel lonely and not to give up, despite the odds against us.

Noach knew the secret of the sukkah. Noach knew the secret of the teivah.
We follow Torah and not cultural icons so that we remain honest, moral and refined. We don’t get sucked in by societal fads which seem to provide a quick hit, but end up corrupting us and leaving us feeling empty.

We need to have our own personal teivah, for it is be folly to seek inspiration and guidance from the big world that surrounds us. We are blessed with an ancient code of conduct, and when we abide by it, we hold our heads above water.

This is the lesson we received from the sukkah and this is the lesson we are reminded of this week. We aren’t here to win friends or popularity contests. We are told that Noach, one of the less popular figures in his time, found chein in the eyes of Hashem. That’s the only chein that matters.

The Sukkos weather was the best of the year, but we know that winter is fast approaching. We must prepare ourselves for the cold and the snow. Though we have left the comforting walls of the sukkah, we can still maintain its protection if we preserve the levels we reached over the past months of Elul and Tishrei. If we stand tall, we will be blessed with the fortitude to weather the impending storms and not be swept away by the mabul of a world devoid of character, conscience and integrity.

In our personal teivos, constructed and reinforced with Torah, we can breathe purified, rarified air and contribute to the spiritual warming of the global community.

Rav Shlomo Freifeld maintained a tolerant atmosphere in his yeshiva, Sh’or Yoshuv, which was home to many fresh ba’alei teshuva and other struggling souls. The yeshiva had no formal dress code, and bochurim were free to wear tee-shirts. One morning, a talmid entered the bais medrash wearing a shirt emblazoned with the name of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle company.

The rosh yeshiva asked the boy to change his shirt. “You want to know why?” Rav Shlomo asked. “Is the company paying you to wear that shirt? Of course not. You’re wearing that shirt because Madison Avenue suckered you in, but that’s not the approach of a ben Torah. A ben Torah thinks for himself. He has his own mind and opinion. You don’t have to sell another company on your shirt. Your mind and your opinions should belong to you.”

Someone who constructs for himself a teivah of Torah and dedicates his life to its study and observance becomes blessed not only with unforgettable knowledge, but also with the dynamism, excellence, exuberance and leadership that the Torah infuses into man. It protects us and our families from the dangerous storm waters swirling about.

Those who construct their personal teivah bravely walk with Hashem, ignoring the calls of the masses who have lost their way in the fog of life. They remain faithful despite being unpopular, for they know that their dream will never die. Their hope springs eternal. Their chein finds favor b’einei Hashem.

The Lakewood mashgiach, Rav Nosson Wachtfogel, shared that he had a kabbolah going back to Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin that “during the final war before Moshiach, the ehrliche Yidden will be spared. And who is ehrlich? One who is muvdal from the amim (separated from the nations).”

The world is on fire. The Middle East is at war. Russia is on the rise, rapidly assuming its old powerful position, as threats of a new cold war are strengthened. Iran, the largest state supporter of terror, gains ground and power. Under the weight of a refugee crisis, Europe is breaking apart. The world’s superpower, the United States of America, is facing an unprecedented crisis in leadership. The Divine fingerprints are apparent all over.

Now is the time to seize those lofty moments, the heights we scaled over the Yomim Noraim, the joy of our little huts over Sukkos, and the ecstasy of being part of the circle of Hakafos; and grasp them tightly. We can be ehrliche Yidden. We can rise above the commotion and noise. We can keep holding on to our flags. We can be alone together.

We are all refugees escaping that which threatens us and seeking to establish healthy, safe Torah lives for ourselves and our families.

We emerge from the holiest days of the year with the security of the knowledge that those who seek Hashem’s approval are the real winners. So, let’s go ahead and build that wall to separate us from the awful mess that surrounds us. Let us make our homes islands of kedusha and construct teivos to remain apart from the many threats to our hallowed Torah way of life.

If we do so, we will find chein in the eyes of Hashem and man.

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