Monday, Apr 15, 2024

The Gardeners

This week’s parsha opens with demands for justice and truth. The parsha is filled with messages of conviction, justice, clarity and honesty, including establishing a functional court system, with empowered judges and submissive litigants.

We learn about the mandate to appoint a king, who follows the rules and is held to high standards. The kohanim, who occupy leadership positions, also must follow a precise code of conduct.

The prophet also must live up to high standards. Charisma, eloquence and passion are of no importance if his words don’t radiate fear of heaven.

We see in the parsha how our system of justice embraces the accidental murderer, providing a haven for him as well.

There are halachos that protect business owners and ensure that every Jew lives within a framework of perfect justice. When we are forced to engage in battle, the military seeks fighters who embody the ideals of honesty, refined character and courage.

The parsha closes with a resounding lesson about the inclusiveness of our system. The lonely traveler who traverses the town becomes a communal responsibility. We are obligated to look out and care for him. Should tragedy befall him, the elders of town gather to atone for his death, proclaiming that they are not culpable for his death. We must all atone for his blood.

A single thread is woven throughout the parsha, welcoming us to this month of Elul, with its avodah of self-improvement and cheshbon.

Being part of creation obligates man. Hashem created the world with a certain harmony, as different aspects of creation complement and feed off each other. The Torah and the way of life it prescribes reflect the perfection that comes about when every Jew does his part in caring for others and acting responsibly and honestly when dealing with their fellow man.

Someone who visited the Chazon Ish left behind his walking stick. The Chazon Ish wrote a letter to the man, asking him to come retrieve it, because he could not be calm in the room as long as someone else’s possession was there. The Chazon Ish’s sensitivity to the laws of Torah was so real that he couldn’t bear the thought of having someone else’s property in his room. He reacted as we would to an ugly sight or unpleasant smell.

For some, this may be a difficult concept to imagine. The frontrunner for the most powerful position in the world is a woman who seems to live with a single credo: that rules don’t apply to her. Truth has long been cast aside in the desperate Clinton rush for money and power.

The fact that she has the greatest chance of getting elected speaks volumes about the state of the country and the value system of its citizens. She is supported by every mainstream politician, media outlet and business leader, who are petrified that Donald Trump’s election would change the way things are done in this country. Anyone who interacts with Washington fears that electing the crusading outsider will even the playing field, costing them power, influence and income.

The greater question is how all this affects us. How does it impact the way we view the world and lead our lives and communities?

The Apter Rov was once called to serve as a dayan in a din Torah. Very quickly, it became apparent which litigant was in the right and which was lying. The liar realized that his plan was exposed and that if he didn’t do something fast, he would be found guilty and forced to pay up. The only way he could win, he figured, would be to bribe the judge.

Knowing that the Apter Rov would never accept a bribe, he placed a large amount of cash in the Rov’s coat pocket, figuring that the Rov would know who put it there. The man assumed that the Rov would quietly keep it and adjudicate the case to his benefit.

A short while later, the Rov said that he must take a break. What had seemed to be such a simple case, was not anymore. He was bothered by the sudden twist in his understanding of the case and needed fresh air to rethink the arguments. He went to his chambers and put on his coat to go outside for a stroll. It was a cold day, so he stuck his hands into the coat pockets for warmth. He was astonished to find money in one of the pockets and immediately returned to the room of the bais din, declaring that he could no longer rule on the case. He had become tainted.

The Rov wasn’t only righteous and G-d fearing. His soul was so trained against dishonesty that even though he did not know that a bribe was given to him, the fact that money was placed in his coat pocket without his knowledge affected him. He knew intuitively that something was wrong. Honesty and ehrlichkeit are so much a part of him that he could not function once the money was in his pocket.

The Torah insists that we live honestly by ensuring that those selected to lead us are paragons of virtue. There are no shortcuts, loopholes or backroom deals.

Just a few months ago, a prominent rov was speaking to Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, when another gentleman, the coordinator of a large gemach, entered the small room. The rov, wishing to encourage the askan, introduced him to Rav Shteinman. “The rosh yeshiva should know that this Yid is a tzaddik. He issues halva’os (loans) to so many talmidei chachomim.”

Rav Shteinman reacted immediately. “I hope you don’t have any money from him on loan,” he said, “because, in that case, the compliment you just gave him is a form of ribbis devorim.”

The rov marveled at Rav Shteinman’s response, repeating it again and again. “I am an active dayan,” he said, “experienced in financial dinei Torah, but I wasn’t sharp enough to sense that my comment could be a violation of halacha. Yet, the aged tzaddik, who is attuned to perfect din, feels it right away.”

Rules do apply. And you must follow them to become a leader in our world.

When people follow the instructions of someone like Rav Shteinman, they are not merely agreeing with his ideas. They are expressing something much deeper. They are saying that the instincts, thought process and reaction of a gadol are rooted in Torah. They affirm that his mind is attuned to the Torah’s will, and therefore his vision is refined enough to see further.

Having leaders like that is the reason our nation is still here after so many challenge-filled years of exile.

Our mesorah has carried us through the ages. Like yesterday morning and this morning, tomorrow morning and the morning after we will affix to our heads tefillin in the color, shape and structure taught to Klal Yisroel via a halacha l’Moshe m’Sinai. Every day, we affirm the veracity of tradition when we place those boxes on our arms and heads. And when we bind them to the minds and hearts of our bar mitzvah boys, we say to them, “Dear son, know that with this, you, too, are connected to Har Sinai. This is our secret. It is the secret of our survival.”

Hillary Clinton leads in the polls because people are fickle and weak. The religion of the day is open-mindedness and tolerance, tinged with an unhealthy dose of apathy.

We know the story all too well.

The Torah in this week’s parsha (17:18-20) commands us, “Shoftim v’shotrim titein lecha bechol she’arecha.” We are to appoint judges who will properly and correctly administer fair justice, never accepting bribes of any kind or showing favoritism.

Throughout our history, we have been blessed to be led by “shoftim v’shotrim,” gedolim who stood tall and strong in demonstrating honesty and safeguarding the halacha and mesorah.

There has been always been pressure from some to make changes and conform to a modern zeitgeist. There are the usual claims that the rabbis aren’t open-minded and refuse to fall into line with whatever fad or idea is popular.

The rabbonim continue to lead, as they have since the time of Moshe. The foreign ideas pile up and clutter the dustbin of history. Just like Korach, they seek to appeal to the emotion and present specious arguments cloaked in demagoguery, seeking to cause populist revolts. They all meet the fate of their progenitor, Korach.

When the Reform and Haskalah movements began, the Chasam Sofer was fearless in his opposition to them. He was undaunted by the populist push emanating from the rabbis who campaigned to loosen the rules, with the promise that doing so would make Judaism more welcoming and accepted. When prominent rabbis of the day thought that organ music would be a welcome addition to the shul, the Chasam Sofer responded with the passion of a lion whose cubs are being attacked.

We tend to imagine the original Reform Jews as bare-headed amei ha’aretz, unlearned and uncouth. In fact, it wasn’t so. To the masses, they appeared to be pious and scholarly. It was only the leaders blessed with keen insight and sensitivity who saw through the charade.

The paradigm false messiah, Shabsai Tzvi, appeared to be a great sage, well-versed in all matters of Torah and Kabbolah. He spawned a movement of many followers, including the vast majority of the Jewish people, who were taken by his charm, knowledge, welcoming promises, and seeming love for the common man. A wave of teshuvah followed, as people sought to prepare for his final revelation. He was lauded wherever he went and praised for his scholarship and for bringing people to elevated spirituality.

Rav Yaakov Sasportas warned that Shabsai Tzvi was a false messiah who would cause much damage to the Jewish people. It was his stubborn insistence and leadership that prevented many from going astray when Shabsai Tzvi became an apostate.

Aharon Choriner was a talmid of great men, and appeared to be a religious talmid chochom. However, when the gedolim of his day read his seforim, they set out to delegitimize him. They saw that despite his outward religiosity, he had, in fact, broken with the mesorah.

Alluding to the infamous Mishnaic apostate named Acher, the Chasam Sofer referred to this man as “Ach’er” (an acronym of his name, Aharon Choriner, and the title Rabbiner), and waged war against the man and his writings.

In his will, the Chasam Sofer urged his children not to study the writings of Ramad, a.k.a. Moses Mendelsohn. Like Acher, Mendelsohn appeared to the masses to be a sincere, learned individual, who wrote a wonderful beiur on the Torah. Yet, included in his final wishes, the Chasam Sofer warned that he and his works were dangerous and found the need to admonish his offspring one final time not to look at his works.

“Shoftim v’shotrim titein lecha bechol she’arecha.” You should place good judges at every gate. And also at every opening, every breach, and every place where those who wish to change Judaism seek to enter. Install a shofeit there, install a shoter there, and allow them to stand tall and proud as they defend the Torah from all comers.

Generations later, the Chasam Sofer’s light shines brightly. His name and teachings are quoted hundreds of times each day in study halls and religious courts around the world. His approach and attitude, and those of many other leaders like him, shape many of our positions.

The people he fought are long gone. Their chain has been broken, their offspring swallowed by the society to which they sought to endear themselves.

In Vilna, there lived a Maskil, Avrohom Dov Lebensohn, who was known as Adam Hakohein. A poet and writer, he tried influencing a bright young orphan, seeing him as a potential force for the Haskalah movement.

The young man rejected his efforts. By spurning the lure, he charted for himself a saintly path. You know him, and Jews for all time will, for he went on to author a sefer called Chofetz Chaim and led the yeshiva in Radin. He would become the gadol hador, for his generation and succeeding generations as well.

Like his grandfather, Aharon Hakohein, he loved Jews. He was oheiv es habrios umekarvan laTorah. He found positive attributes in others, as he viewed them with an ayin tovah. The sage was a loving father to his people.

Actually, there was a Jew for whom he had no sympathy. When referring to Adam Hakohein, he would add the words “yemach shemo” – a curse, from a man who was a fountain of blessing and overly cautious with his words.

The Chofetz Chaim had seen how the dangerous Maskil had moved into the open “sha’ar” of a lonely orphan’s heart and tried to claim and sway it.

Today, our shotrim stand tall.

Efforts to tamper with and change Judaism to fit current trends are alive and well. Our Open Orthodox friends at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah are getting increasingly confident, as they continue to chip away at the foundations of Torah living. They see that the world remains silent in face of their revisionism.

Their Talmud expert, Ysoscher Katz, chair of Chovevei Torah’s department of Talmud and director of its Center for Halakhic Studies, is a darling of the liberal Jewish world. After all, look at him. He hails from a Satmar home. Despite that cloistered past, they say, he is progressive, he engages with modern Jewry, and he is “open-minded.”

It would do Katz well to study what happened to all those who came, as he does, to save us from ourselves, to usher us into a new era.

Last week, in honor of the Satmar Rov’s yahrtzeit, he mocked him, writing that “If Emerson was right that inconsistency is the sign of a great mind, then he was a genius. He was a bundle of contradictions.”

Never mind the Rov’s brilliance and holiness. Forget about how much time he spent studying and how much he knew. Ignore his deep understanding of all facets of Torah. Mock him because his views don’t mesh with your revisionist view of Judaism.

Katz concludes his missive by saying that the Rov was “great and greatly flawed. Unless we think that [his] competing traits cancel each other out…a flawed tzadik ceases to be a tzadik.”

With that, the towering giant is cut down to size by the uber-intelligent freethinker.

Such talk is nothing new for the person who feels a “deep sense of betrayal by Maimonides” and writes of his “rejection of the Maimonidean ethos.” The Rambam, who wrote with ruach hakodesh, and who is at the root of mesorah and halacha for every generation since the publication of his Divine work, is “disliked” by an arrogant, wayward son who preaches talmud and halacha in a school founded to steer Jews away from the strict rulings of the Rambam and all those who followed him.

He bemoans “the terror of religiosity,” apparently caused by parts of the Torah for which we must “suspend our moral compass.”

The champion of theological wisdom and sensitivity writes, “The Charedi stridency is…wrong and unjustified. When people are teetering on the edge, contemplating suicide, and wondering how they will make sense of who they are, we need to welcome and embrace them. Rejecting them is harsh and hurtful.

“Halakha has specific guidelines for how to adjudicate such cases. The charedi poskim repeatedly make a mockery of those rules. Denouncements and threats of excommunication have lately become de rigueur. Every time they disagree with the way a sensitive Modern Orthodoxy attempts to grapple with the complexities of observance in the 21st century, they denounce, condemn, and expel on a whim. In the process, they disregard halakha, completely ignoring the procedural laws governing such processes.”

When a deranged religious man by the name of Yishai Schlissel stabbed marchers in a pride parade, Katz wrote, “I know Schlissel. Not personally, but I know the personality. I grew up in the Haredi community and am familiar with that type of mentality. When I was still part of that community, I was not that different. While I left that community long ago, I remember what drives its members.”

And what is it with chareidim that so unnerves him and – according to him – leads deranged people to kill?

“Haredi society is based on an elaborate hierarchy of values that organizes and frames members’ lives. First and foremost in that lineup of ideals is kedusha (sanctity). Religious sanctity and spiritual purity are the Haredi communities’ most important values, carrying both religious and material importance. They believe it makes their communities spiritually healthy and physically safe.”

Lest you think that this is being taken out of context, read his justification for operating outside of halacha. It’s all the fault of the Litvaks. He writes, “The tragedy of MO (at least the American version) is that at its inception, its leadership adopted a litvish/rationalist ethos. Consequently, law, logic and reason became the sole arbiters for what’s acceptable or not acceptable, endorsed or not endorsed. In the halakhic context, it means that values and practices have meaning only if they originated within the narrow confines of halakha.”

So, it is halacha and the Lithuanian influences on Yiddishkeit that ruin it. Even Modern Orthodoxy can’t save Judaism from drifting off to extremism and irrelevance, because it was influenced by Litvishe rabbonim and roshei yeshiva. What’s needed are broadminded, caring, people such as him, who recognize that in order for Judaism to be passionate and inspiring, “the parameters… must be broader and much more comprehensive. There’s room for customs, practices and ritual observances even if they originated outside of conventional halacha.”

Halacha gets in the way of everything good, according to Katz. It is time, he feels, that we shunted it aside for practices that we determine are loving, inspirational, accepting and more in keeping with the times.

According to Katz, it is people such as the Rambam who get in the way of progress and cause religious Jews to drop out. “The skyrocketing attrition rate in Modern Orthodoxy has absolutely nothing to do with Open Orthodoxy,” he avers. “The reason so many of our youth are leaving MO is because of the rabid Maimonideism of its standard bearers, not because of Partnership Minyanim,” which trample on the boundaries of halacha and Orthodoxy.

And just to provide another opening into the view of this man’s soul, he writes that “Chazal were the R’ Riskins of their time. They too were committed to creating a Yiddishkeit which is in constant dialogue with their ethical sensibilities. They read Torah with a critical lens, and whenever they encountered a perceived injustice, they did whatever they could (within legitimate boundaries) to undo the challenging misread.”

Our good friends in Satmar have a mesorah from their great rebbe, Rav Yoel, who taught them to speak up, to point out hypocrisy, and to be confident, courageous and honest even when confronting powerful people.

Where, I wonder, are they? How are they allowing a product of their system, armed with a chassidic semicha, to continue making a mockery of our mesorah? The time has long passed to revoke the semicha that gives him his title and admit that, as happened over the years, a talmid she’eino hagun slipped through their system?

Bechol she’arecha, in every opening. We must stand guard, vigilant and proud. Why? Because the Torah tells us to. Why? For the same reason the Chasam Sofer fought the Reform. Why? For the same reason the Chofetz Chaim fought the Haskalah. Why? Because if we don’t, their innovations will take hold and we will have to fight vigorously to uproot them.

The Brisker Rov, it seemed, was always pointing out dangers, pointing out the flaws in various streams of Jewish thought. Even Torah Jews wondered why he couldn’t just sometimes agree with the mainstream.

Someone asked the Rov why he chose to resist. He responded with a story about a group of people who were walking through a splendid public garden, admiring the beautiful landscaping and magnificent colors. One man walked alongside the path, and as the others marveled, he found what to criticize. Where they saw a gorgeous flowering bush, he saw a broken branch. As the people were lost in the beauty of Hashem’s creations, this man was pointing out wilting flowers, a dead tree, and weeds here and there.

Finally, the people had enough of his negativity. One of them shouted at him, “Stop complaining and focus on the beauty.”

“You don’t understand,” the fellow replied. “You are all visitors. You can and should enjoy. I, on the other hand, am the gardener. My job is to keep this place perfect. My job is to inspect and maintain, to see what needs to be corrected and keep the garden beautiful.”

We are that garden, still here, still flourishing after all these years. There are dead trees all around, yet we thrive. There are flowers that are wilting and need tender care. There are weeds that must be plucked before they spread and rob nutrition from the plants.

Because we are vigilant, because we have gardeners charged with protecting us, we endure and proliferate.

Bechol she’arecha, at every gate. Let’s rise, as one, with our leaders at the head, and face this threat as we have faced all the others, confident in our past, present and future.

Let us all do what we can so that we may be able to proclaim, “Yodeinu lo shofchu es hadom hazeh.” Let us be able to say that we did all we could to root out the weeds and repair the sickly branches. We were loyal to our responsibilities, skillfully laboring to grow and cultivate the precious plants, flowers and trees that together form the great people we are so proudly a part of.



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