Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

What Am I Doing?

These days talk of presidential politics and Covid have taken over the public conversation and thought. People are consumed by those topics, seemingly to the exclusion of all else. It would seem that we need to be reminded that there should be more to our lives than current events and the fleeting pursuits that occupy the minds of the masses.

By remembering that at our essence we are Torah Jews with a solid core, we can remain rooted in the values that have allowed us to endure and prosper, without losing sight of the important things in life, not becoming overtaken and swept along by trivial pursuits and conversations.

We cannot permit banality and superficiality to overtake us. We have come too far and paid too high a price to get here to slide backwards into becoming puerile addicts chasing after the latest posts and clickbait.

Let’s look at this week’s parsha and learn some lessons we can all follow. We learn about Yaakov Avinu’s dream, his years with Lovon, his marriages, and the birth of the shevotim. Ever since we were youngsters in school, we have been riveted by the account of many stones joining together to become one single rock upon which Yaakov rested his head as he left the yeshiva of Sheim V’Eiver on his way to Lovon.

We were generally taught that Yaakov slept on Har Hamoriah, site of his father’s Akeidah and the future site of the Botei Mikdosh. The sun set early and all of Eretz Yisroelfolded under him, as Hashempromised him the land and assured him that He would watch over him and bless him with many descendants.

Yaakov awoke in the morning and was overcome by the awesomeness of the promise he had received as he slept. He awoke and said, “This is a holy place. Hashem is in this place and I didn’t even know.” He consecrated the stone upon which he had slept and promised to give Hashem ten percent of his possessions. 

Yaakov traveled on to Choron, where he came upon shepherds sitting aimlessly with their flocks around a watering hole. They explained that they had to wait until all the local shepherds would come and then all of them would together push off the huge rock that covered the underground cave filled with water. When Rochel arrived with her sheep, Yaakov summoned the strength to roll off the boulder by himself.

Yaakov was the av of golus. What happened to him on his way from Bais Lechem to Choron was the introduction to Yaakov’s first foray into exile as he began his journey into golus.

He walked until dark and then lay down to rest in a place seemingly devoid of holiness. Upon awakening, he realized that “ein zeh ki im bais Elokim, this is a place laden with kedusha, the house of Hashem and the gate to heaven.”

Yaakov Avinu was essentially teaching us how to survive in golus. Throughout the ages, we have been forced to leave our homes and move to places that seemed empty of any good. We viewed them as unable to receive holiness, much less become homes for kedusha and people who seek to live exalted lives. The places seem as inert as stone when we get there.

The Jewish people’s golus experience is tragic. In essence, we are a family torn apart and spread across the world. We have endured all types of oppression and pain over the course of this journey. On the surface, it seems that we have been removed from the realm of the Divine, pushed into a world without holiness.

But as we have bounced from place to place, we have seen, as Yaakov Avinu taught, that even the darkest places in the world can be homes for kedusha. A stone can become a mizbeiach. Ein zeh ki im bais Elokim. This is the secret of survival in golus. We can live under the thumb of evil rulers such as Lovon, and still conduct our lives according to Torah providing we maintain our values and drive for self-improvement and kedusha.

Along the way, we learned not to give up on any place or any person. There was a time when everyone believed that America could never become hospitable to Torah Jews. There was a time when anyone who immigrated to this land was doomed to a life of dark emptiness, and for many years that was the case.

Eventually, Hashgocha orchestrated for leaders who had learned the lesson of Yaakov to come here. They planted yeshivos where people said no Torah could grow. They insisted on shemiras Shabbos where there was none. They convinced parents to send their children to receive a Torah education when doing so was mocked and vilified as old-fashioned and wrong.

And now, in America, there are frum communities located from coast to coast, where Torah blossoms on a massive scale. This came about because some of Yaakov’s children didn’t go to sleep when they got here. They didn’t view the place as stone cold. They believed that any place, anywhere, can be transformed into a Bais Elokim.

Not only in America, but around the world, Torah is found in places no one ever thought it was possible. Wherever Jews who remember Yaakov’s lesson go, the brocha he received that night in his dream of “uforatzta yoma vokeidma vetzafona vonegba” is being realized on an unprecedented scale.

No matter where our people end up, they believe, they build, they plant and they grow. And while doing so, they uncover and reveal sparks of holiness in the largest cities, the smallest towns, and the lightest and darkest corners of the world.

We never give up on anyone. We never say that he or she is beyond hope. We know that there is good everywhere. Our task is to find it and cause small hidden sparks of goodness to flare up into flames. We need to remember what we are about and not permit the flames to die down as we endure the Covid crisis and are locked in our homes with nowhere to go.

The anthem of golus­ is “achein yeish Hashem bamakom hazeh.” Never think you are alone. Never think you are forsaken. Never think anyone is too far gone. Never think that there is a location that cannot be transformed into a place where we can live and flourish. And even with all the problems we face today, we must seek to use our time constructively, improving ourselves, our homes, our loved ones and the communities in which we live.

Rav Chaim Volozhiner foretold that America would be the final station of Torah in golus. When we uncover enough watering holes here, we get to finally go home. Let’s keep those holes open and flowing with Torah and kedusha. Lethargy, apathy and mindless activity can cause them to atrophy and weaken their flow.

We have been spread across the world, and wherever we’ve gone, we’ve established botei Elokim, spreading kedusha and Torah where naysayers said it couldn’t be done. The cycle repeated itself every few hundred years. Jews would grow accustomed to their host country after having brought as much kedusha to that land as possible. The country rose up against them, and once again the Jews were on to the next bleak outpost. Finally, we are here, learning and teaching Torah across the land, awaiting that great day of “vehayah Hashem lemelech al kol ha’aretz.”

We often lose sight of those who refined and purified the American landscape, enabling the Torah world to rise. The great impact of the famed post-war giants sometimes overshadows the silent, hidden avodah of those who came before them and first uncovered the “achein yeish Hashem” on these shores as well.

The going was rough in those early turn-of-the-century days, as millions of Jews escaped the poverty and pogroms of Eastern Europe and came here looking for a better tomorrow. They settled in cities and towns all across the country, initially eking out a living as peddlers and shopkeepers. The ruach was stone cold. The water pits were blocked and refused to open.

With the peddlers came rabbonim, who sat and learned by themselves and with the people. They wrote seforim and corresponded with the giants of Europe. They fought for Shabbos and Jewish education. Oftentimes, they failed and many were lost, but they increased the kedusha here. The zechuyos created by limud haTorah accumulated, balancing out the forces of hedonism and allowing frum people to live and thrive here. They cleared the air of spiritual pollution to the degree that shuls and yeshivos could be built, and botei medrash and kollelim could flourish all across the country.

In Omaha, Nebraska lived Rav Tzvi Hirsch Grodzensky, cousin of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, who toiled in Torah. In Boston, Rav Zalman Yaakov Friederman presided over huge kehillos and made sure that there would be kashrus and rabbonim in Massachusetts, as he learned and taught Torah. Rav Eliezer Silver of Kovno ended up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and from his pulpit there, he influenced the entire Torah world.

Travel across this country and you’ll find Jewish cemeteries in the strangest of places. You think you’re the first frum Jew to ever drive through some forsaken town off the beaten path, and then you pass the bais olam and realize that neshamos were moser nefesh to find sparks of kedusha in that location and do their best to lay a spiritual foundation in this country and help prepare the world for Moshiach.

Generations of such people, who came to the final golus from Europe, brought with them Torah and mitzvos, sometimes leading very lonely lives. Others were more fortunate. Whether they learned into the wee hours of the morning in the Rocky Mountains or led quiet tishen on Friday nights in places very far from Mezhibuzh, they were slowly but surely pushing away the rocks that blocked the water of Torah from spreading. History might not be aware, but everything that came after those pioneers is because they uncovered the holy spark of “achein yeish Hashem bamakom hazeh,” and our existence here proves that.

We have made it through many nisyonos here in this country. We cannot allow the nisayon of Covid to get the better of us. We must remain strong and dedicated to Torah and mitzvos, just as before. We are being tested with new temptations that dull our passions for kedusha. We must remain loyal to our upbringing and not let what our people have worked for to fall by the wayside as we seek things to do to occupy our time.

A person who has the awareness that the Master of the Universe maps each step and writes every chapter lives with emunah and simcha, for he knows that whatever happens, there is one reaction: achein, behold, yeish Hashem bamakom hazeh. Wherever it is, He is there too.

Yaakov Avinu throughout this parsha faces all sorts of challenges. He travels, lonely and impoverished, and arrives with nothing. He faces Lovon’s trickery and deceit, and then toils under a blazing sun and in fierce cold for a selfish boss. Never do we see him focused on the great evil being perpetrated against him. He never assumes the role of nirdof. He isn’t consumed with Lovon’s spite.

He saw the Hand of Hashem there, too. “Achein yeish Hashem bamakom hazeh.”

Thus, he emerged from Bais Lovon with all the brachos in the world, rich in family and possessions.

A person is crafted by Hashem, a wondrous, spectacular creation. Each person has value. Every grandchild of Yaakov has the potential for kedusha.

In that spot, the very place where Yaakov revealed Hashem’sPresence, the Bais Hamikdosh will stand, the ultimate testimony to the fact that along the entire journey, the long path through golus, He accompanied us: He was there, leading us home.

As we continue on the path of the golus, dark and confusing as it may be, we have it within us to stop and say, “Achein yeish Hashem bamakom hazeh.” I possess a neshomah. Is what I am doing helping to sustain the neshomah, or is it serving to negate the influence of the neshomah on my life? Is what I am doing in my home helping to make it a place where Hashem can be felt, or is it turning it into a hedonist temple?

Imagine if before we did something, we would say to ourselves, “Will what I am now engaged in help bring Moshiach?” How much nonsense would that save us from! How much wasted time would that prevent! How much better, happier and more productive would our lives be!

We would live wholesome, healthy lives, planting the seeds of Moshiach.

We have the strength to roll away the stones that block our paths. All we need is the will.



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