Monday, May 20, 2024

Tear Down That Wall

In last week's column, we provided an explanation for the custom to say “shalom aleichem” to each other when we recite Kiddush Levanah. We go outside and greet the new moon, perceiving in its reflected light our ability to rise and the levels we can attain if we exert ourselves and dedicate ourselves to Torah. Beholding the new moon generates thoughts of teshuvah, growth, and a new beginning. As we begin the journey towards a new beginning, down a path which will lead to personal growth, we wish each other “shalom aleichem.” I was reminded of a story that took place with the Ponovezher Rov which provides a different explanation and lesson derived from saying “shalom aleichem.” As is well known, the Ponovezher Rov, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, traveled the world seeking donations to keep his dream yeshiva alive.

The Rov was used to not always receiving the proper respect and was quite adept at dealing with setbacks and embarrassment. He once found himself in a shul whose rabbi didn’t take too kindly to his mission and refused to let him deliver the customary Shabbos morning drasha in shul. He asked the rabbi to simply permit him to say shalom aleichem to the people in the shul. Not realizing who he was dealing with, the rabbi agreed to the simple request.


The brilliant orator went up to the amud after laining and said to the assembled mispallelim, “Shalom aleichem, shalom aleichim, shalom aleichem.” He continued: “Why did I say shalom aleichem three times? Because that’s what we do during Kiddush Levanah. We say shalom aleichem three times.


“But please don’t ask me why we say it three times when we are mekadeish the levanah. I promised the rabbi that I wouldn’t be engaging in any homiletics. Have a good Shabbos.


With little additional fanfare, the Rov stepped away from the amud and began ever so slowly to return to his seat. A slight smile appeared on his saintly face as the people approached him and begged him to answer his question. He looked at the rabbi and the rabbi looked at him. With his eyes, the rabbi told the Rov that he could return to the amud and provide the answer.


“I’ll answer the question with a story,” said the Rov. “Two countries were at war. Their border was a river. Each side had its soldiers lined up on its end of the river, ready for the slightest provocation that would set off the powder keg of war. As the skies darkened above, one of the generals sent some soldiers to slip across to the other side to gauge the opposition.


The soldiers swam across and snuck around, trying to find the best point for them to attack. All of a sudden, in the still of night, they heard the most awful sound from behind them: the click of three guns. Fearing for their lives, they grabbed their guns and swung around to face their opponents and shoot them before they themselves were shot.


At that very moment, the sky cleared and the field of battle was lit up by the moon. The soldiers were amazed and shocked. They saw that the men they were about to shoot were actually their own countrymen, from a different brigade, who had also been sent to spy out the enemy fortifications.


Instantly, they said to each other, “Oy, shalom Aleichem, shalom aleichem, shalom aleichem, oy my brother!We aren’t enemies. We are brothers.”


And so, the Ponovezher Rov cried out to the people in the shul with the unfriendly rabbi, “Shalom aleichem, meineh tayereh breeder.”


We are one, we are on the same team, and we are battling the same enemies. Let us not fight each other. Let us recognize each other’s existence and positive attributes. Let’s join forces together to fight the battles of the day so that we can emerge victorious.


Yes, it is easier said than done. Some concepts sound nice during speeches, especially when proclaimed by skilled orators. Some ideas come across very well in writing. People hear a speech or read an article, shake their heads, and say, “Oh how nice it would be if that would happen.”


But then the Soton gets involved and declares it all too impractical. The fine idea suddenly dies before it can even get off the ground. However, the recent breakthrough in redifas shalom between Belz and Satmar proved that not every good idea is pie-in-the-sky. Not every opportunity for increasing peace and brotherhood in our world is impractical and should be ignored.


Almost everyone who heard about the rapprochement looked on and rejoiced, seeing in the news a potential for much blessing. They saw that it really is possible to create a kli machazik bracha on a large scale.


While the developments were historic and worthy of note, there is something deeper here that drew everyone in.


The Belzer Rebbe and the Satmar Rebbe represent two streams within Yiddishkeit, each rebbe a standard bearer of a mesorah. It wasn’t a shalom created out of a be-exactly-like-me-so-we-can-get-along attitude. The shalom was created with the understanding that we are different in our minhagim, levush and outlook, but we can get along and work together for kevod Shomayim, Satmar chassidim as Satmar chassidim and Belzerchassidim as Belzer Chassidim.

And that is a lesson we would all do well to learn.


Our own success has, in a way, worked against us. Today, each sub-group of Torah Jews has grown so much and is blessed with so many people that the mosdos and institutions are overflowing. Each group has its own leaders, machers, and go-to people. There seems to be no need to reach out to anyone outside of one’s immediate circle. People think that they have enough on the their own from their own, and can do very well, thank you, by remaining locked up with themselves, by themselves. We’ve become spoiled. It wasn’t always like that. We used to know that we needed each other.


We are split and splintered because of disputes that transpired decades ago, the details of which noone even remembers. Some are from a generation back, others from just a couple of years ago. But when the battles are long forgotten and all that remains is the rift, perhaps it is time to heal the fissure. We have new battles to fight today, and winning them requires for people of goodwill to band together as one, with a unified stance.


Back in the olden days, in the old country, where chassidim were real chassidim and misnagdim were equally as passionate, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik worked arm-in-arm with the Rebbe Rashab for the good of the people. They were equally proud of, and committed to, their paths. They understood that shalom doesn’t mean that everyone has to see everything the same way. It means recognizing that Yiddishkeit includes many paths.


This lesson emerges from this week’s parsha. A joyous Bnei Yisroel walked through the dry bed of the Yam Suf, exhilarated by the open miracles they merited to witness and participate in. Upon exiting at the other side of the sea, they sang the ultimateshirah, the song that reverberates throughout the ages and is chanted daily by their offspring. It was our nation’s finest hour, when even the lowly maidservant was privileged to behold gilui Shechinah in a way that the greatest prophets did not merit. Surely, we would think, at that point, when Hashem’smight was clearly seen and perceived, the Bnei Yisroel stood b’achdus as one, mirroring each other with their behavior, actions and speech.


Yet, the Mechiltah tells us a different story. The “kriah” of the Yam Suf was not a single split down the middle of the sea, creating a dry path upon which the exultant slaves traversed to freedom. Rather, twelve paths opened up through the Yam Suf. Eachshevet had its own corridor through the waters, from shore to shore. Even as all the shevotim joined in song, each shevet retained the uniqueness and beauty which was specific to that tribe– ish al machaneihu ve’ish al diglo.


We learn that since the walls between each shevet, as they walked through the Yam Suf consisted of water, the members of each shevet were able to see the other shevotim through the clear walls, marching separately but together. Even as each group walked on their own path, they were able to see, appreciate and recognize the validity of the other paths, and Jews, as well.


Perhaps this idea can help us understand why the shirah is enduring. Beautiful music is created through harmony. A symphony is formed by bringing together many diverse instruments to play various chords and notes. The combination results in melodious sound. The more instruments the orchestra consists of, the richer the music it produces. The shirah at the Yam Suf was the ultimate song, performed by the ultimate orchestra, twelve different groups, each with its nusach, inflection and tune.


We live in a time of plenty, boruch Hashem. We don’t have to worry about pogroms and beatings, or about despotic rulers expelling us from their lands. We have comfortable homes and beautiful mosdos, a situation that should make shalom between us ever easier.


Yet, it seems as if the goal is ever more elusive. It is as if, as we grow more confident and sure of ourselves, we increasingly and inevitably see more chesronos in others. We fail to recognize that the reason Hashem blessed us with plenty is not to find fault with others, but rather to embrace those in His orbit with a welcoming love.


The Gemara teaches that being scrupulous regarding neiros Shabbos leads toshalom bayis (Shabbos 23b). The Maharal explains that the function of a candle is to give light. When a space is illuminated, people see that there is enough room for others as well. Darkness makes everyone feel cramped and constricted. When it is dark and people can’t see, they don’t appreciate that there is room for others.


When a room is lit, everyone can see their own space and realize that there is space for others as well. That perception, created by the neiros Shabbos, leads to harmony and peace.


The bounty and opportunities afforded in this age should make it easier for us to appreciate the roles, gifts and places of the other shevotim, yet, for some reason, we only seem to be able to tap into our shared legacy of unity when we’re in trouble.


Over the past few years, I’ve merited to participate in various rallies in support of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin. Each time, I am astounded by the outpouring of love, care and empathy from all sorts of Yidden. When you sit amongst them, be they Satmar, Vizhnitz, Skver, yeshivish or plain old American Yankees, their hearts are really connected.


A Lubavitcher next to a Klausenberger, next to a Satmarer, next to someone who learned in Brisk, Sefardim and Ashkenazim, everyone together reciting the same words of Tehillim, each with their own inflection, tune and distinct havarah. Each one of them sings the same Az Yoshir every morning, hearing echoes of the harmony created by the shirah chadashah shibchu ge’ulim and carrying its message forth as he goes through the day.


What the rebbes of Belz and Satmar are showing now is that it’s not enough to pay lip service to this ideal and to say nice p’shetlach about shalom. Rather, we need to move forward and tear down the walls that divide us.


There has never been a better time.


The Maharam Shiff at the end of Maseches Chulin quotes some interesting homiletic drushim. The familiar posuk states, “Vechol bonayich limudei Hashem, verav sh’lom bonoyich.Those words were uttered in prophecy by the novi Yeshaya(54:13) in a nevuah referring to a time when all Jews will be learned and peace will prevail.


The Maharam Shiff darshens the posuk as follows: “Vechol bonayich limudei Hashem,” if every Yid will be scholarly and well-versed in the words of Hashem, then “verav,” what will be the function of rabbonim? Their duty will then be to work towards “sh’lom bonoyich,” increasing and promoting peace among Hashem’s children.


In recent weeks, our world has come under attack from so many directions. At the same time, we have come to realize that far more unites us than divides us. Our generation is blessed with so much Torah. It’s time to celebrate our shared commitment toShulchan Aruch and the Yud Gimmel Ikkrim, and work towards the “sh’lom bonoyich.” We have to work on viewing others the way they are seen from Shomayim – as Yidden.


When the kohanim stand before the aron kodesh to bless Hashem’s people “be’ahava, with love,” they don’t focus their blessings on their friends and family or even on those who send their children to the right schools. The kohanim spread their fingers wide apart to embrace everyone, because all Yidden are gebentched and worthy of Hashem’s brachos.


And that leads to the greatest bracha of them all, “Veyoseim lecha shalom – May Hashem bestow peace upon you.”


Let us resolve to tear down the wall of judgmentalism. Tear down the wall of accusation. Of negativity. Of Balkanization. Of hatred and enmity. We should never rush to judgment; to indict, convict and condemn before knowing the facts.


Let us build bridges of love, respect and care. Of shalom aleichem ve’al beneichem.


No matter what uniforms Jews wear, they are all giants worthy of the mantle of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov. They are all deserving to be treated with respect and decency, with brotherhood and in peace. We have to stop marginalizing people because of superficial differences. We must put a halt to bullying and advantage-taking of those who are weak and unable to defend themselves. We shouldn’t be careless when dealing with other people; nor oblivious to their feelings, nor should we be apathetic to their concerns.


12 mayanos. 12 paths. 12 ways through the Yam Suf. Each one valid. Each one holy. Each one vital.


Each one leading to the Promised Land. May we be zoche to arrive there speedily, in our day.



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