Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Who We Are

The novi Yirmiyohu mourns, “Vayeitzei mibas Tzion kol hadarah… Her adversaries have become her master, her enemies are at ease, for Hashem has aggrieved her for her transgressions.

“Al eileh ani bochiya eini eini yorda moyim.

“Hashem is righteous. It is I who has disobeyed His words. Hear this all the nations and see my pain, as my youth has gone into captivity.”

This week’s parsha is comprised of beautiful words uttered by Bilam the prophet. He had intended to attack and curse, yet from his mouth emanated poetic words of praise. When he beheld the splendor of Klal Yisroel, he found himself unable to curse them.

But this year, the words of Eicha seem more appropriate, as the week of Parshas Balak brings a torrent of criticism and mockery our way. Our community finds itself struck dumb, unable and unwelcome to offer answers and defense.

The “innocent until proven guilty” bedrock of democracy seems to have been swept away, as an entire town and way of life are being impugned. Suddenly, being a bigot and a racist, and attacking Jews, have become virtues. Old stereotypes are awakened and brought to the fore after lying dormant under the surface.

We live in an era of fake news. We are apathetic when Donald Trump is the target, but when we are affected, we are pained and anxious, being bashed by people close and distant.

Tammuz and Av, the months of Jewish tragedy, have barely begun, and the whip is out. We are thrashed and trashed, and our boat rocks from side to side as storm winds blow.

Certain siddurim include with the tefillah of Mussaf of Rosh Chodesh a special name of Hashem as revealed by the Arizal in pesukim corresponding to each of the twelve months. The sheim of the month of Tammuz is found in the words of Haman. In his angry rant against Mordechai, the wicked one stated, “Vechol zeh einenu shoveh li – This is all insufficient for me.” The final letters of the words in that statement are hey, vov, hey and yud, spelling out, in reverse, the name of Hashem.

Kabbalists explain that the name of Hashem that indicates the hanhogah of mercy is reversed this month because Rosh Chodesh Tammuz begins a season of din. Now is a time for us to bear down, daven, and seek zechuyos.

During Shacharis we ask Hashem, “Useneinu hayom uvechol yom ,” to grant us every day that we be viewed with kindness – chein, chesed and rachamim – by Hashem, as well as by all those who see us.

The request seems to be redundant. If we find favor in the eyes of G-d, then certainly people would also view us favorably, and even if they don’t, of what concern is it to us?

In the newly published siddur Shaarei Yecheskel, Rav Yecheskel Levenstein explains that from this tefillah we see that man is obligated to act in a way that ensures that his conduct elicits praise from man.

This is akin to Rebbi’s lesson that “the proper path for man is that which is honorable for himself and brings him honor from others” (Avos 2:1).

We are meant to be an honest, hardworking people. We are meant to be a G-d-fearing people, whose G-d abhors falseness of all types. We are prideful and self-sufficient, philanthropic, caring and sharing.

That is who we are and what we are all about.

And yet, when the opportunity arises, the haters pounce to tar and feather the entire Torah community with a broad brush.

The tzaddikim, talmidei chachomim, people who study Torah lishmah, and those who leave the house at 5 a.m. and return at 10 p.m. to put bread on the table, pay tuition, cover their mortgage and shell out taxes are ignored as if they don’t exist.

A city whose clock revolves around sidrei hayeshiva, the few square miles where more Torah is learned that anywhere else outside of Eretz Yisroel, the town of incredible tzedakah and myriad gemachim, from where so many wonderful seforim come forth, is darkened.

“Kol amuh ne’enochim.” We are all pained. We are all suffering. We are all condemned.

The Netziv writes in Bereishis (Harchev Dovor 47:28) that the main reason most of our existence has been spent in exile is, as explained by Hashem’s revelation to Avrohom (Bereishis 17:6), that his children are meant to be a light unto the nations. That is only possible if they are scattered among them.

Thus, he writes (Haamek Dovor, Bereishis 17:6) that Hashem’s brocha to Avrohom of “Vehifreisi oscha” is not referring to having plentiful offspring, because he had already been blessed with this. Rather, it refers to the fact that his grandchildren will spread around the world so that they will be able to increase knowledge and understanding everywhere. Our mandate is to illuminate the world for its inhabitants.

The Rambam writes (Hilchos Deios 1:7), “How does a person instill in himself the deios, proper thoughts and actions, which are incumbent upon us to follow? By acting upon these ideas repeatedly until they become implanted within him and they become like second nature and are performed without difficulty… This is called the derech Hashem, the path of Hashem, which was taught by Avrohom to his children, as the posuk says, ‘Lemaan asher yetzaveh es bonov v’es beiso acharov, veshomru derech Hashem la’asos tzedek umishpot. Avrohom commanded his children and those who follow them throughout the ages to be righteous and just.’”

The Rambam completes the thought: “And those who go in this path bring goodness and blessings to themselves, as the posuk states, ‘Lemaan hovi Hashem al Avrohom asher diber olov.’”

Despite the halacha of Eisov sonei leYaakov, we are to bring daas and chochmah to the amim. And what path are we meant to follow? That of tzedek and mishpot.

Doing so brings us what we need and deserve.

We all feel a familiar pride when our children point out that a cashier has given us extra change. We have had the opportunity to point out an error that would have benefitted our account to a bank teller and seen the look of amazement and gratitude wash over their faces.

That is who we are, and that is our role.

In times of challenge and constant questioning, the best response is to stand taller and prouder and more committed than ever to being an upright people.

In a time of weak leadership and failed spokesmen, we need to speak with actions and lead by example. We need to remain loyal to the teachings of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, Moshe and Aharon, Dovid and Shlomo, to never, ever, forget who we are and what we represent.

Bilam refers to himself as a “shesum ayin,” which literally means a person of good vision. Rashi explains that he was blind in one eye; the other eye compensated for the blindness and had very good vision.

Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa would say that man was endowed with two eyes so that he could reflect two parallel truths. With one eye, he views himself as a great being with much potential, as indicated by the statement, “Bishvili nivra ha’olam.” With the other, we are to view ourselves with great humility, as indicated by the posuk which states, “Ve’anochi afar va’eifer.”

Bilam’s failing was rooted in the fact that he had just one eye. He saw his own greatness, but he never contemplated that he was but a mortal, here on a mission, whose every breath is a gift from Heaven.

We are a people of two eyes and dual visions. We must never lose sight of our essence – afar va’eifer – and why we are here.

Bilam’s eye is always upon us. Ma’asei avos siman labonim. What happened once will happen again. Just as Bilam only gained respect for our people as he examined them, so may it be in our day.

Let us act in ways that allow people to see our kindness and respectfulness. Let us speak softly and properly with all. Let us extend common courtesy when driving, shopping and interacting with people in general.

Perhaps it’s time to consider hanging an American flag outside our homes on national holidays, demonstrating our patriotism and thanks to the country that has been more welcoming and kinder to us than any in our long history.

Rav Shlomo Freifeld was once being driven by a talmid in an old car. As the rosh yeshiva entered the car, the young man sought to cover a gaping hole in the seat, from which stuffing had poured out. He reached for the American flag he kept handy to cover and fill the hole.

Reb Shlomo lifted the flag and gently folded it. “Here,” he said. “This represents the country you live in. It is not meant to be used that way. Treat it with respect.”

Every year on July 4th, Rav Avrohom Pam would hang an American flag in front of his home. The story is told that one year, after he had become weak and unwell, a granddaughter arranged to have a date pick her up at the home of her grandparents. Since the date was set for July 4th, she asked her grandmother if she could convince Rav Pam not to hang the flag that year, since it was an “old-fashioned” thing to do and would cause her embarrassment.

Rebbetzin Pam assured her that since Rav Pam was not feeling well, he wouldn’t be hanging the flag that year and there was no reason for concern.

The boy came to the house and rang the bell. Rav Pam answered the door and welcomed the boy. Then he asked him for a favor. “Before going inside, would you mind helping me with something?” The boy was happy to oblige the rosh yeshiva.

Rav Pam brought the American flag, and the bochur proceeded to help him fly it like every year. Thanking the boy, Rav Pam remarked, “I have to show my hakoras hatov, even if I am not feeling well.”

That is who we are.

Hakadosh Boruch Hu set the path for us in golus. The avos expounded upon it. Chazal delineated how to deal with Rome and everyone else. Rishonim and Acharonim wrote extensively about it. Latter day gedolim who lived through pogroms, the worst anti-Semitism and the Holocaust paved the path for us through shmuessen and personal example.

We scramble. We try to catch our collective breaths and find the right words, yet we come up empty.

Perhaps now is not a time to speak. Maybe now is a time for quiet reflection. A time of vayidom Aharon.

It is a time to study and contemplate, resolve to review the laws and halachos, ponder our situation in golus, and endeavor to work to make ourselves better people and the world a better place.

It is not a time for clever sound bites, but a time for returning to the basics and demonstrating through all of our actions and interactions what we really are and what we can really be.

Bilam was engaged by Balak to curse the Jewish people, but he found himself unable to. He was only able to bless. Upon seeing Bilam’s ability to bless, Balak should have asked him to bless his nation Moav that they be able to overcome their enemies. Why did he continue to insist that Bilam curse the Jews?

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (5:19) states that students of Avrohom Avinu are recognized by their “ayin tovah,” while those who follow Bilam are recognized by their “ayin ra’ah.”

The mindset of Bilam – and generations of talmidim of Bilam, defined by the middah of ayin ra’ah – has always been to destroy. They don’t know another way. Blessing is anathema to them. They can’t build up their side. They can only destroy the other.

A follower of the Radomsker Rebbe had a financial dispute with a chossid of another rebbe. They tried to work it out, to no avail. The Radomsker chossid turned to his rebbe for help. He told the rebbe that he was very frightened. He said that the other litigant threatened that if he does not accede to his demands, his rebbe would curse him. The Radomsker chossid was in a panic.

The Radomsker Rebbe looked at him and said, “I don’t know how to curse, but I am a kohein and I can do something much more effective. I know how to bless!”

His response is essentially our legacy as talmidim of Avrohom.

There will always be those who see only the negative, who have just “one eye.” At times like these, they come out like earthworms after a heavy rain, shouting and condemning. We must use our eyes to see good, to focus on what we are doing right and build upon it as we rectify that which is lacking.

As Bilam rode to carry out Balak’s request to curse the Jews, his donkey, which was created at the beginning of time for this very purpose, sought to talk him out of it. Unfazed by the wonder of a donkey speaking, Bilam argued with the donkey, even as the animal increasingly mocked him with each exchange.

Rashi (Bamidbar 22:33) cites the Medrash (Tanchuma 9) which states that following the incident, the donkey died to spare Bilam the embarrassment of people pointing at the animal and saying, “That’s the donkey that rebuked its master.”

The mussar master Rav Avrohom Grodzensky pointed out that a good animal lost its life to protect the dignity of someone who was on his way to hurt Klal Yisroel. This serves to remind us that despite Bilam’s failings, he was a person, nivra b’tzelem, crafted in G-d’s image and thus deserving of respect.

All around us are human beings shenivre’u b’tzelem.

Everyone is worthy of respect.

Rav Avrohom Genechovsky, the Tchebiner rosh yeshiva, was known for his gaonus, tzidkus and exceptional respect for all people. One Motzoei Shabbos, a talmid went to the rosh yeshiva’s home for Havdalah. He saw seated there at the table a secular couple, the woman with her hair uncovered.

The talmid wondered how his rebbi would recite the brachos in front of her. Moments later, Rav Avrohom filled the becher and lifted it.

Then he intoned: “Before we sanctify the new week and part from Shabbos, let us turn to Yerushalayim, the holiest place.”

And with that, he turned his back on his company and began reciting Havdalah.

It is possible. We can stay focused on our lofty role and still respect those around us. We can live bigger and higher and be an ohr lagoyim.

There’s never been a better time to start, to get back to our mission and role.

Let’s do it.

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