The Jewish world is still in a state of shock over the murdering of 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue. People wonder how such a terrible event could happen in our time in this country. How has this happened in the modern day and age to American people, in an American city, in a synagogue?
We have always known hatred. Anti-Semitism has been with us ever since we became a nation. But somehow, we thought that such crimes could not happen here. We thought that America was different, that America was safe. Shootings, pogroms and attacks on Jewish gathering places were things of the past. We thought that only Europe is unsafe, and that only the Gaza border, Yerushalayim and the West Bank are dangerous.
Now we know that it can happen anywhere and at any time. A sick person can load a gun and walk into a Jewish place of worship and wantonly kill. We can’t stop him. Everyone is all worked up now, issuing statements to the media condemning the violence and anti-Semitism, and calling for increased security and sensitivity training. Time will pass and the memory of the Pittsburgh shooting will fade, but its effects will last for a long time.
A line has been crossed. Our safety can no longer be taken for granted. The protective bubble that deluded us into thinking that such things only happen to other people in other places has been punctured.
We live in frightening times. Hatred and rancor have taken over the country. Politics has descended into an uncivil state, affecting the country’s discourse and behavior. People can’t simply disagree. Instead, they descend into rabid hate. It is no longer enough to speak ill of people who think differently than you. It is now necessary to destroy them. Democrats are no longer as supportive of Israel as they were. How can they be? After all, Trump is all in for the Jews. Socialists seem to be steering the Democrat Party, and Israel isn’t their thing. Nor are Jews.
If we think about the changes that have come over this country the past couple of years, we can become worried about the future, so we choose to continue going about our daily lives, consumed with inconsequential matters. We don’t read the news seriously; we don’t want to know what is really going on. We rely on snippets of information. Anecdotes and sound-bites replace intelligent knowledge.
There is currently a collapse of society and moral standards, coupled with a climate of division and rancor that can lead to frightening results. The Pittsburgh shooting and last week’s mail bombs were carried out by evil, deranged people. They are indicative of a world gone mad.
To be sure, America is the best host our people have known, and moments of silence and mourning vigils were held across the country. The Pittsburgh Steelers football team amended their logo with a Magen Dovid to express the city’s outrage at the tragedy. We need to be thankful and appreciative of the country in which we live and the ideals it espouses. The Jews in Pittsburgh were killed for one reason, because they were Jews. The irrational hatred of our people reaches back for millennia, though it is on the rise, there is a measure of comfort to see it almost universally condemned following the murders.
Jews around the world are preparing to commemorate Kristallnacht, keeping alive the memory of the Nazi attack that unleashed historic murder and hatred. Many of the speakers, no doubt, will claim that never again will such a tragedy take place, because today there is a Jewish state and an army that fight for the Jewish people.
The insincerity of that statement hasn’t stopped people from making it. Despite the State, Jews are under constant attack around the world and in Israel. Iran continues to strengthen. Hezbollah and Hamas on Israel’s borders are arming for a coming war. Bombs of all types fly into Israel from Gaza. Nobody can stop balloons and kites, children’s playthings, from being used as merciless implements of terror. European Jews live in constant fear and anti-Semitic acts in the U.S. have risen 57% over the past two years.
What are we to do besides increasing security? Our world suffers from a lack of solidarity and commitment to each other. We need to rectify that. Where do we start?
This week’s parsha details the search for a wife for Yitzchok Avinu. Avrohom sends his trusted servant Eliezer to his homeland to find a suitable mate. Eliezer goes beyond what can be expected of a messenger and formulates special tefillos and tests to ensure that Avrohom’s will is carried out. Thanks to Eliezer’s loyalty, Yitzchok found his life partner and was able to continue the glorious chain begun by his father that has spanned the centuries to this veryEliezer’s behavior is contrasted in the parsha with that of Efron and Lovon, who sought to take advantage of Avrohom. They professed to be concerned about Avrohom’s welfare while plotting to take advantage of him. They were seeking to exploit his desperation.
Both Lovon and Efron made their marks on history as infamous charlatans. They are remembered for eternity as liars and cheats.
We must live by Avrohom’s standards of decency and honesty, despite the daily challenges we face. So often, we are tested to determine whether we will behave like Lovon or like Eliezer. There is a little of Efron everywhere. One can always find people who seek to take advantage of others for some gain. People are often tempted to twist the truth just a little in order to gain the upper hand. People promote themselves as virtuous to disarm others and to facilitate their exploitation.
The children and talmidim of the Avrohom Avinus and Yitzchok Avinus of this world achieve immortality and earn the loyalty and servitude of people such as Eliezer. Those who follow in the ways of Efron and Lovon are eventually exposed and become figures of eternal derision.
It is not always easy to be loyal to a cause or to a person. Life has a way of severely testing our moral fiber. Those who remain loyal to their ideals no matter how difficult it becomes are the ones who endure. They are the winners in the deadly contest of good versus evil.
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 97a) quotes a teaching from Tana Devei Eliyohu that following creation, the first two thousand years of the world were filled with emptiness. Rashi (ad loc) explains that the world was empty because the Torah was not yet given. There were 2,000 years from the time of Adam Harishon until A
Rav Moshe Feinstein asks how the Gemara can say that there were 2,000 years without Torah, since Noach studied Torah and established a bais medrash under the leadership of Sheim and Eiver.
He answers that Sheim and Eiver didn’t do any recruiting for their yeshiva. They didn’t go out to the world to try to interest people in studying Torah. People who on their own were searching for the truth went to the yeshiva and studied with them. Avrohom, on the other hand, traveled from place to place and sought out good people. He spoke of the fallacies of the prevailing way of life in their day and introduced people to the way of Hashem and Torah.
This was essentially the chesed path of Avrohom. He didn’t only act charitably to people who appealed to him for assistance, but went out of his way to find people who needed help. This was evidenced in last week’s parsha, when he left his home and sat under the desert sun, seeking out passersby to whom he could display kindness. He didn’t just study Torah by himself, but sought others with whom he could share the secrets of a blessed life.
The closer a person is to Torah and the more he studies mussar and works on his middos, the more inclined he is to think about other people and to be kind and considerate. He seeks to go in the ways of Hashem, who is merciful and kind – rachum vechanun – as we discussed last week. Such a person is a boruch. He is blessed. Those who veer from Torah and are distant from Hashem and His ways are selfish and inconsiderate. Such people are arur, evil and cursed.
The Maharal (Nesivos Olam, Gemillus Chassodim; Gevuras Hashem 4) explains this in his terminology. Man is comprised of spirituality, tzurah, and physicality, chomer. A person who is chomer is selfish and only takes; he doesn’t give. That is the nature of the physical realm. The more a person is tied to his spiritual side and the more he has rid himself of physical inclinations, the more he is a giver and not a taker.
Chazal teach, “Lo am ha’aretz chossid – A person unversed in Torah cannot be virtuous” (Avos 2:5), because he is held down by his physicality, which doesn’t allow him to be kind and good.
The posuk (Bereishis 9:25) states, “Arur Canaan,” the Canaanites are cursed, because they are a people of strictly chomer.
This is what Avrohom hinted at when he told his aides prior to the Akeidah (Bereishis 22:5), “Shevu lochem po im hachamor – Remain here with the donkey.” Chazal say that he told them to stay with the chamor, because they are a nation compared to the chamor, as their makeup is comprised strictly of chumriyus, pure physicality.
Avrohom was the first to throw himself into Torah, perfecting himself to the level that he divorced all chumriyus. He was therefore totally selfless and occupied with chesed, reaching out to many others to fill the emptiness of the world with Torah and goodness. He was able to impact the world and make it a much better place, allowing the light of Torah to penetrate the darkness and eviscerate the tohu.
We, in our day, must follow in the path of Avrohom and reach beyond our comfort zones to do chesed and teach Torah. The world is suffering from a plague of darkness, vile myopia, devastating immorality, lethal stupidity, deadly hatred, and predatory selfishness. It is incumbent upon us to light up the world and make it a much better place with Torah and chesed, just as our ancestor Avrohom did.
We don’t improve the world by issuing statements. It is almost as if nothing that happens of any consequence means anything anymore. Everything becomes an excuse to post shallow, trite aphorisms and stale talking points.
The parsha opens with the passing of Sorah Imeinu at the age of 127. We are all familiar with the Rashi that states, “Kulan shovin letovah – All her years were equally good.”
It would be superfluous for Rashi to hint that her years were all equally good because they were free from sin, since this is already stated in the previous Rashi: “Bas kuf kebas chof lecheit.” Sorah was free from sin.
If it means that all her years were good, we know that they weren’t. The day she was snatched from her husband and brought to Paroh certainly wasn’t a good one. The day she was kidnapped by Avimelech was surely terrifying. The day she saw Yishmoel being metzacheik with Yitzchok could not be described as a good one. The days that Hagar caused her pain were not good ones. Of course, she accepted whatever was thrown her way, but that alone does not turn bad days into good ones.
The explanation may be that Sorah Imeinu was the personification of goodness. She was so good and so concerned about other people and the welfare of the world that she seized every opportunity to act positively. Her days were filled with chesed and tzedakah.
She didn’t just stand by and say, “Why doesn’t someone do something?” When she sensed an opportunity for improving the world, she grabbed it. When she saw someone who needed help, she didn’t just offer them advice about where to go and what to do. She brought them into her tent and took care of them herself.
Because she was so intrinsically good, she spent her days and years engaged in goodness. She spread kindness and G-dliness wherever she went. In every situation and in every predicament, she discovered the means to increase decency in the world.
When Rashi describes her years as “kulan shovin letovah,” the tovah is not only a noun and an adjective, but a verb. All her years were spent consistently performing acts of goodness. That is the mark of a person whose essence is good.
Chazal say, “Avrohom megayeir es ha’anoshim veSorah megayeres es hanoshim.” Avrohom and Sorah were mekareiv tachas kanfei haShechinah thousands of people. Yet, when Avrohom became aware of the behavior of Lot’s shepherds, he distanced himself from his nephew. He could no longer live together with him in peace. They separated and Lot moved to Sedom.
It is not enough to just do good things. We also have to separate ourselves from evil and seek its destruction.
Rashi in last week’s parsha comments on the posuk (19:4) which states that all the people of Sedom surrounded Lot’s house. Rashi says that no one in the city protested their actions. The Sifsei Chachomim points out that it is impossible for thousands to surround one home. Rashi is alluding to the fact that we all have an obligation to protest evil, and those who fail to do so are punished as if they committed the crime.
Since nobody in Sedom protested those who were besieging Lot’s house, all Sedomites were accomplices in the demonstration against the guests who visited their town.
The people of Sedom who said, “It’s only a few deranged people at Lot’s door,” urging others to ignore them, were punished as if they themselves stood with the unhinged citizens of their city.
The Shulchan Aruch states, “Yisgaber ka’ari la’amod baboker.” The Mishnah Berurah explains that when you wake up in the morning, do not complain that you are tired and do not find excuses to remain in bed. Fight like a lion to rouse yourself and begin a day of service to Hakadosh Boruch Hu. Even if you collapse from exhaustion and fear that you cannot go on doing good, understand that you must persevere. Pick yourself up and carry on with your responsibility of spreading goodness in this world.
Rivka was chosen as a wife for Yitzchok because of her kindness. Eliezer thanked Hashem and said, “Atah hochachta…” (24:14). The Seforno (ibid.) explains that he was saying, “You, Hashem, taught her to be kind.” Rav Chaim Friedlander explains in Sifsei Chaim that Rivka learned to perform chesed by realizing that Hashem created the world so that He can engage in kindness to man and His other creatures.
Never give up. Never get down. Never say, “I am too old, too young, too poor, too rich, too tired, or too hungry to work to make this world a better place.” Remember that your obligation is to be a rachum vechanun. Never lose sight of the traditions of kindness and compassion passed down by our forefathers. Never wander too far from the path of light into the swamp of darkness. Be kind.
When the Tzemach Tzedek was a young married man, he was in the home of his grandfather, the Baal Hatanya, with his family. While he was learning, a baby began to cry. He was so involved in his learning that he continued to study as the baby howled louder and louder.
The Alter Rebbe was upstairs in his study when he heard the baby’s cries. He went downstairs, lifted the baby from his carriage, and handed the child to his grandson. The Tzemach Tzedek apologized for not hearing the baby. “I am sorry,” he said. “I was concentrating so deeply that I didn’t hear anything.”
“Yes, my dear grandson,” the rebbe responded. “I was also studying and was just as areingeton as you were, but I heard. Remember what I am about to tell you: Any Jew, no matter his level, must hear the cries of another Jew, regardless of how small he might be, and interrupt what he is doing to help the one who is crying.”
In Pittsburgh and elsewhere, Jews are crying. Let us hear their cries and seek to help, comfort and soothe them.
May we hear of no more tragedy and merit only good tidings.