Thursday, Feb 29, 2024

The Smoke and Radiance of Our Special Time

 

As we all know, the past few months have been extremely difficult ones for Klal Yisroel. Obviously, for those who have lost loved ones and for those who have been permanently injured, emotionally or physically, the challenges have seemed insurmountable. In this column, we, too, have attempted to connect the dots to ikvesa d’Meshicha and Milchemes Gog Umagog, which would at least offer a glimpse of the light at the end of this seemingly endless tunnel. Now that we are entering into two months of the simcha of Adar, we should try to do even better. Perhaps we can already feel the warmth of a spiritual spring where the pain will be gone and the wounds will heal. But what, indeed, has been the purpose of all this suffering and pain?

Perhaps even more than a double Adar, Parshas Mishpotim provides an answer. The Torah (24:15-18) describes for us Moshe Rabbeinu’s murky path up the mountain to receive the Torah. Rashi elaborates that Hashem made for Moshe a corridor through the smoke so that he could rise to the top. The Gemara (Yoma 4a) teaches that it was through this thick medium that Moshe himself became sanctified to the point that he was worthy of receiving the Torah and being a vehicle and conduit for all of us down through the ages.

Here, too, we ask ourselves: Why did the process have to be fraught with such difficulty? Surely, Hashem could have provided Moshe with an easier route to the eternal gift that He was providing to the nation.

Rav Yaakov Edlestein answers that this was the lesson of smoke. The path to spiritual greatness must first go through a barrier of smoke. Chazal (Bereishis Rabbah 86) tell us that this is actually the distinction between the process of tzaddikim and that of resha’im. The wicked live on easy street, with seeming perfection wherever they turn. However, their end is destruction and retribution. The righteous, on the other hand, begin life in difficulty, but their end is serene and tranquil. Rav Edlestein concludes, “The main thing is to enter the cloud, even if smoke seems to block the way. One should not enter with trepidation, but we should realize that the darkness is a signal that one has entered the right path.”

Shlomo Hamelech taught this lesson as well both in print and in his life. He wrote, “Af chochmosi omdah li – Still my wisdom stayed with me.” Chazal (Koheles Rabbah to posuk 2:9) comment that this means that “the Torah that I studied in difficulty [was what] stayed with me.”

I once had the privilege of visiting Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach when he was speaking to a group of newly minted young baalei teshuvah from a yeshiva for beginners in Yiddshkeit. He recounted for them how as a young orphan, he literally lived in a freezing shul with no heat, bed or facilities of any kind. He existed from scraps in the garbage until a kindly woman took pity upon him, bringing him one meager meal a day. He told the baalei teshuvah that, ironically, those were his best days. He quoted Shlomo Hamelech that when one learns Torah amidst difficulty, it lasts for a lifetime. He then recounted chiddushim and insights that he had absorbed almost a century before in the icy winters of Lithuania.

Shlomo Hamelech himself (Koheles 1:12 with Medrash and meforshim) was the king of the ancient world, then only over Klal Yisroel, then only over Yerushalayim, and eventually only over his walking stick, when he wandered unknown and unrecognized throughout his former domain. Rav Chaim Shmulevitz explains that “his stick” did not mean that he was no longer a king, only that this was his only subject. We are all potentially royal and should not lose our dignity or even royalty because of adversity. We, too, should learn from his bitachon and emunah that things will change for the better.

The Brisker Rov, always intellectually honest, used to reminisce with a sigh that the chiddushim he merited to say and write when there was no food in the house were far superior to those he presented with a samovar (hot water urn) on the table. In other words, there is no comparison to the Torah learned with the condiment of calamity. The history of such luminaries as the Chofetz Chaim, the Chazon Ish, Rav Elyashiv and countless others is suffused with poverty – even starvation – yet buoyed by the ineffable joy of turning disadvantages into assets. There may be no glamour in poverty, but there is surely growth, siyata diShmaya and, eventually, a replay of Mattan Torah in the smoke itself.

If I may be allowed a play on words, which actually flows directly from the shoulders of these giants, the word for smoke in Lashon Hakodesh is ashan, which our early teachers revealed stands for olam – space, shanah – time, and nefesh – people. These three dimensions, apotheosized by the kohein gadol on Yom Kippur in the Holy of Holies combines all the elements that can lead to greatness. The fact that Moshe Rabbeinu had to pass through the veil of smoke is far from a coincidence, since Moshe Rabbeinu is all of us (ispashtusa d’Moshe bechol dor), giving us the path and courage to overcome impediments to reach the goal. Some meforshim indeed say that for this reason, Moshe Rabbeinu, the most perfect of human beings, had to have – of all things – a speech impediment, so that he, too, could climb its ladder to greatness.

During my wonderful years as a rov in Cleveland, I had the zechus of hearing stories from the gedolim, Rav Mordechai Gifter, Rav Eizik Ausband, Rav Chaim Stein and other roshei yeshiva, of the difficulties of their own early years and those of their predecessors. One of them was Rav Eliezer Gordon, who traveled from Lita to far-off London to raise funds for the yeshiva. Meeting one of the British rabbonim, he expressed great joy at seeing him. When the rabbi inquired as to the source of this satisfaction, the rosh yeshiva explained, “When I was the rov of the city of Telz, there was a shochet who presented his knife to me for inspection, but it was jagged and I dismissed him from his position. The man had no other parnassah and seemed to have disappeared from view, and I always worried if I had treated him too harshly.

“Recently, when I arrived here in London, I finally met this man and took the opportunity to beg his forgiveness. ‘On the contrary,’ the former shochet responded. ‘Just after you fired me, the gates of good fortune opened for me and I came here to England. Then I found a position as a shochet and I am now extremely careful about making sure that my chalaf is clean, sharp and carefully inspected.’”

Rav Gordon responded that he was happy that everything turned out well and that he could now stop worrying about his decision. The British rov, however, picked up the narrative in a different direction. “If so, I will reveal to you a secret. When the rabbinate position in Telz opened up, I was the major candidate and seemed like a shoo-in to be appointed to this important position. At the last moment, you were chosen instead and I felt extremely hurt by this turn of events. Eventually, I arrived here, where I was appointed to a wonderful shul, where I have been happy ever since.”

Now it was Rav Gordon’s turn to respond. “Please believe me that had I known that you were planning on receiving this position, I have would have recused myself entirely. Please be mochel me for your distress.”

The rov was very gracious, forgave Rav Gordon, and the two parted as friends. The next day, Rav Gordon passed away and was buried in London. He had traveled to London to solicit funds, but could have demurred, claiming that the distance was too much and he would have to be mevatel his own Torah and that of his talmidim, but he chose to go instead. Meanwhile, the Creator had arranged for Rav Gordon to leave this world with the mechilah of two people who could have felt some antagonism or jealousy toward him.

Rav Gordon could have taken the easy route, but chose a harder one and received the forgiveness that he perhaps needed to enter Heaven unencumbered. Not much comes from easy street, but the difficult path always leads to accomplishment, greatness and serenity.

We have spoken of several great people’s private vicissitudes and their resolutions for good reasons. Now let us imagine that we are indeed in the last throes of golus and the terrifying period just before Moshiach. All the cheshbonos must be rectified, all lapses must be cured, and all transgressions resolved. Does it not stand to reason that this must be a perilous time? However, on the brighter side, as we enter a two-month period of joy, followed immediately by the geulah of Nissan, we have encountered not just some fog, but serious smoke. If we know that we are on the right path, we can part the darkness a bit and see the ohr chodosh, the true and new light of Moshiach just ahead, bemeheirah beyomeinu.

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