By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
It seems as if the words were written especially for us. Nachamu, nachamu, Ami. A healing balm for a suffering people. While the novi speaks about a people that had been hit twice, we weren’t only lakah bekiflayim. We have been hit a lot more. As a people, we have been slammed so badly and so often that any other nation sustaining what we have would have long withered away by now.
Since the churbanos the novi spoke of, we have been beaten, stoned, burnt, locked in awful ghettos, deprived of every human need, and driven from country after country. The Holocaust took a terrible toll. Since then, bechasdei Hashem, we have bounced back and built burgeoning Torah communities around the world.
There have been ups and downs, victories and defeats, heroes and anti-heroes, but, by and large, we have been wildly successful. Lately, however, we have suffered a steady series of blows that makes us reach for words of nechomah as if reaching for oxygen.
Each year, when the baal kriah reads the opening words of the haftorah, you can feel the joy wash over the people in shul, as smiles form on their faces. It’s like a ladder coming down, seven rungs of nechomah, giving us the means to climb upward in the yemei harachamim.
Each year, we experience emotions of loss and pain during these months, but this year we received an extra dose, with economic worries and calamitous tragedies one after another, in rapid succession.
So as we seek to become keilim worthy of nechomah, we ourselves need to become people of nechomah, comforting ourselves and comforting each other.
The call of the hour is to develop and strengthen our interpersonal skills, deepening our appreciation for each and every Yid we encounter.
Speaking last week at a kinnus to mark the completion of shivah for Rav Elazar Abuchatzeira, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman remarked that a Jew who is desensitized to bein adam lachaveiro is capable of even bloodshed, Rachama litzlan. The rosh yeshiva traveled to Beer Sheva to share this message. The second five dibros are bound with the first five, he said. Bein adam lachaveiro is as fundamental as bein adam laMakom.“We are in the last generations before Moshiach’s arrival,” said Rav Shteinman, “and we need to be extra careful with the honor of our friends. It’s forbidden to humiliate another person. We have to be careful to protect the kavod of each other…to pay attention to this issue of bein adam lachaveiro so that such incidents shouldn’t reoccur.”
A friend of mine related a story that he heard from an elderly Munkatcher chossid who witnessed the incident and vouches for its authenticity.
In a town near Munkatch, there was a feud between the rov and president. The president was a learned fellow, and he announced that all shailos in halacha should be presented to him, rather than to the rov.
One Friday, the president’s wife was cooking for Shabbos and a question arose regarding the kashrus of a chicken. The chicken had what appeared to the woman to be a broken, bloodied leg, and she knew that she had to ask a shailah to determine if the chicken was kosher. Her husband was out working, so, with no other choice, she went to ask the rov, who examined the bone and paskened that the chicken was kosher. She cooked it and prepared it for the Shabbos meal.
When her husband learned of her deed, he was furious. With his vast knowledge of halacha, he paskened that the chicken was treif and refused to eat it on Shabbos. He told his wife to put it on ice and keep it until after Shabbos. When Shabbos concluded, he stormed into the rov’s home and summoned him to a din Torah by the Minchas Elazar, the Munkatcher Rebbe.
The two men traveled to Munkatch and entered the Rebbe’s room, placing the chicken before him.
“Look what an am haaretz we have for a rov,” said the rosh hakahal. “He told my wife that we can eat this obviously treife chicken.”
The Rebbe examined the chicken and then spoke.
“Boorich Atooh…shehakol nehiyeh bidvaro,” he said, and then broke off a small piece of the chicken and ate it.
The elderly Munkatcher chossid recounted how the president’s face fell, with the Rebbe’s actions serving as a louder condemnation than any words. He left in disgrace.
The chossid who repeated the story related that after they had left the room, one of the Rebbe’s close talmidim asked him why he ate from a chicken that had been subject to question, even though it was kosher, in contrast to his usual practice of not eating from something that had a shailah.
The chossid finished the story: “The Rebbe pounded on the table so hard that the seforim jumped. ‘What? Un mentch fleish iz yuh glatt kosher? And human flesh is permitted for one to eat? How could I stand by and watch that man destroy the rov? I couldn’t.'”
When we judge others, and when we embarrass or speak disrespectfully to them, we are destroying them. We can disagree without getting personal. We can compete without seeking to drive our competitor out of business. We can chastise without embarrassing. And we can joke without being malbim pnei chaveireinu.
There are myriad opportunities to simply use words or actions to build people up, make people feel appreciated and worthwhile, and inject people with self-respect and dignity.
Take something as simple as the ubiquitous Israelis who come knocking on our doors with their hands outstretched. They are an easy target, they intrude, they don’t know us, and we don’t know them. All we know is that they want our money. “Go get a real job,” we can say disdainfully. “Sure, it’s easier to knock on doors than to work.” We all know the routine.
But let’s think about these very people for just a moment and use them as an example to make our point.
Our brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisroel are suffering greatly. Although they’ve always lived on lower economic levels, with large families crowded into small, two-bedroom apartments, people were content with what they had. The mothers and girls had one Shabbos dress apiece and the fathers and boys possessed one Shabbos suit each, yet they didn’t feel deprived. Now, things have worsened for thousands of our brothers in Eretz Yisroel. Their grinding poverty recalls previous generations, when people went to bed hungry.
We meet many people from these unfortunate families on this side of the ocean, as they work their way through our neighborhoods, knocking on doors and asking for a handout. We view them as intruding shnorrers. Perhaps some of them fit that description, but if we were to stop and speak to these people before handing them a dollar, we would encounter many wonderful, geshmake individuals who simply have no place to turn. Where they live, there is little economic opportunity, and bureaucratic conditions make gainful employment virtually impossible. So, with a sigh, they accept that they have no recourse other than to “go to chutz la’aretz.”
By the time they have joined the circuit of door-to-door begging, they are way past their last dollar and are heavily in debt. As a desperate last resort, they take out another loan and buy a plane ticket to New York.
They come here and travel from shul to shul, and house to house, some with sad eyes and some with hearts full of bitachon and simcha. They trudge about, waiting to find good Jews who will have rachmanus on them and treat them like human beings, not unwanted outcasts.
A fellow who recently knocked on my door had the trademark wide-brimmed hat of the Yerushalayimer Yidden. He had deep-set, coal black eyes and a brow furrowed with so many creases, lines telling a tale of debts mounting on top of debts. His gravel-voiced “Shalom aleichem“ carried the flavor of Meah Shearim, hints of the Eitz Chaim cheder or perhaps Chayei Olam.
Far be it from me to speak about accepting collectors graciously. I am guilty of being too distracted to receive these Yidden the way they ought to be greeted, but one night, for some reason, I had the zechus to see my visitor for what he was – the same as me, a father trying to feed his family.
I let him in, sat down with him, and heard him out. He had a lot to say. He had so much bottled up inside of him. His feet hurt from hours of shlepping around, and he welcomed the opportunity to talk about Yerushalayim, its streets, and its people. He was collecting for an upcoming wedding of one of his many children. I asked him if, by any chance, he had a picture of the chosson.
It was as if I wrote out a check to him for $10,000. He pulled out a picture from his pocket, beaming with pride.
“Dos iz mein zun, der chosson,” he said. “Azah feineh chosson, nein? Ihr zet zein lichtigeh ponim?”
He was so touched that he was being treated like a person, like a father, and not like a shnorrer. He then said that he had a picture of his extended family taken at a recent family simcha.
“Would you like to see it?” he asked.
“Of course,” I answered.
It made his day to share the picture he carried with him. He pointed at each child and told me their names, their ages, where they are, and more. For a few precious moments, he felt human again. I gave him a donation and he danced out of the house, heading to the next door, praying it would open.
I never did that before and I am not saying that you have to. But we have become jaded and apathetic. There are so many of them, it seems, that we can’t possibly treat them all with kindness and patience. Do we ever stop to imagine ourselves in their place? Do we ever stop to contemplate the fact that if not for the Hashgachah that caused us to be born and raised in this land of plenty, we might easily be one of them? How would we feel going from door to door in a strange country, begging people we don’t know for a couple of dollars so that we can return home and have the electricity bill paid, the makolet bill paid, and make a decent simcha for our close ones?
In essence, we are them. We are in a place we don’t belong, knocking ourselves out to feed our families and meet our obligations. Though we don’t feel it as much as they do, we are dependent upon the mercy of our Father to find favor in the eyes of people we meet and those with whom we do business. We are fortunate that He showers us with kindness and gives us what we need and more, to enable us to lend a helping hand to relatives, friends, neighbors and Yidden from around the world who need assistance.
As I was writing these words, someone I know called me from Yerushalayim. Having read several articles in the Yated about Reb Ben Tzion Oiring, he decided to look him up while visiting Meah Shearim and deliver him some much-needed chizuk. He climbed the five flights of stairs on Rechov Shomrei Emunim and was welcomed into the very humble Oiring apartment. At that point, a little girl knocked on the door with a note from her mother. The Oirings did not know who the girl was.
The adorable little child held out the note for Reb Ben Tzion to read. The note said: “I have nothing to give my children to eat. Please give what you can.”
Can you imagine the scene? A family so destitute that they send out their child with a note to people who are poorer than poor for help. People who have nothing appeal to people who have almost nothing for sustenance and a few crumbs of nechomah.
Imagine if this girl had come to your door. You no doubt have a pantry stocked with items to spare to feed a starving family. You no doubt have money in your wallet. But the Oirings had nothing in their wallets and the cupboard was bare. Mrs. Oiring gave the girl the only thing she had to spare: a bottle of ketchup.
Providentially, our American friend reached into his pocket and took out what he had, giving the girl 100 shekels to bring home to her mother. At least those precious children didn’t go to bed hungry one night this week.
Do we not have to be thankful for what we have? Do we not have an obligation to look at people like Reb Ben Tzion Oiring and his neighbors differently when they come knocking on our doors seeking out crumbs of physical, mental and spiritual nechomah?
And what about the people who come collecting for organizations that are floundering and barely holding on?
Last week, I was at a parlor meeting for Lev L’Achim. I stood there listening to Rav Uri Zohar make his pitch. He spoke about the 3,000 volunteers who go out and add to the level of kedushah in this world.
People think, “This is Uri Zohar’s job. He’s working for Lev L’Achim. He’s into kiruv. I’m not.”
What they don’t know is that he doesn’t get paid for his work! He doesn’t get paid to come here. He doesn’t receive a commission from the money he raises. Nobody pays him a dime to go trudging about like a shnorrer, begging for money to save souls from oblivion. And not only does he not get paid, but neither does his boss, Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin. He’s also a volunteer. He shleps around, begging people to contribute to the organization. Yet he doesn’t get paid for his work.
These special people do it because they care about Yidden. They see so many Jews out there with hands and hearts outstretched, waiting for someone to come and save them. They don’t know how to say no. They don’t know how to turn away and watch fellow Jews fall away from Yiddishkeit.
They are heroes for our time, as are people who get paid for their work, such as mechanchim, mechanchos, and those involved in every form of harbotzas Torah and gemillus chessed. How do we greet them when they come to us? Sometimes, a smile and acknowledging the importance of their mission are as important as a check.
There are people fighting to sustain Orthodoxy and Torah in cities and towns across the country. Take for example, Bnei Torah in Norfolk, Virginia, who are desperate for support to keep their yeshiva and Bais Yaakov afloat. The intrepid Yidden in Eugene, Oregon, would love nothing more than for their fledgling community to take shape. Rabbi Chaim Nosson Segal, our shaliach in supporting them in their vital mission for the growth of Torah, is traveling this week with a group of yeshiva bochurim to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to bring the beauty of Torah to a state that is almost devoid of it.
They, and others like them, are doing our work, the work of nechomah, bringing the words of Yeshayahu Hanovi to Jews everywhere. They are our shluchim.
While every person is different and we don’t have their talents and the ability to do what they do, we all have the capacity, in our own way, to bring the words of “Nachamu, nachamu” to “ami.” It is by becoming people of nechomah that we will merit nechomah of our own.
Do we ever stop to contemplate the pain of a father who’s been investing his energy, kochos and resources into his children’s hatzlachah, and he is then informed that the yeshiva has no room for his son? What about the mother, whose tears flow freely each week during hadlokas neiros, when she hears that her child is on the outs?
Can we help? Perhaps we have the words to comfort them and reassure them that we’re all in the same boat. Perhaps we can remind them that the Ribbono Shel Olam accepts everyone and that their wonderful child will find the place that is right for him or her.
In order for us to begin the march out of golus, which we so eagerly anticipate, we have to begin rectifying the way we view each other. It is not just the way we view people who come looking for a handout, but the way we treat our friends, neighbors, chavrusos, spouses and the people we work with and do business with. Until we treat other people the way we would like to be treated, we are doomed to remain in golus, far from our true home.
If, through our skewed way of dealing with fellow Jews, we rob others of their dignity and force them to demean themselves in order to be approved by us, we will not merit the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh. As a splintered nation, with individuals and factions acting on their own and without having the greater good in mind, we delay the arrival of our final redemption. If we live life in attack mode, undermining honest leaders and seeking to destroy those who are trying to make our world a better place, we are in effect consigning ourselves to continued golus.
Chazal remind us that hateful and spiteful behavior between Jews is the one force that holds back the geulah more than any other. In the days of the alter heim, when life in the storied shtetlach was a daily struggle, Jews appreciated each other and didn’t seek to take advantage of one another. During the Holocaust period, when Jewish blood was made cheap, Jews knew to value one another. There were always internecine squabbles, but not to the degree that we experience today in our period of plenty.
Hakadosh Boruch Hu has blessed us with abundance. We have miraculously risen so high from the ashes of the Holocaust that we don’t fathom the miraculous nature of our revival. Nor have we sustained that love and appreciation for fellow Jews which survivors and victims felt.
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Yoma 1:1) teaches the following message about sinas chinom: “We find that the first Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed because there were those who were ovdei avodah zara, megalei arayos and shofchei domim. We know that the Jews during the period of the second Bais Hamikdosh studied Torah and observed the mitzvos, were punctilious in giving maaser, and had proper middos. Yet, they loved their money and hated each other for no reason, and sinas chinom is as great a sin as the three cardinal aveiros.” The Bavli in Yoma (9b) contains a similar limud.
The Vilna Gaon explains that the severity of sinas chinom stems from the fact that at the root of the hatred and jealousy lies lack of trust in Hashem.
Those who are jealous and those who resent other people’s successes in essence deny that Hashem runs the world and He decides what each person should receive. People who are consumed with accumulating wealth attribute their gains to their own talents. They don’t believe that Hashem decrees how much people earn. Anyone who surpasses them in business, career, talent, status or popularity becomes the object of their jealousy, resentment and hatred. When they see the size of another person’s house, they are overcome with anger. When they see someone else make money, they hate them. “How dare they! Who do they think they are?!” Were they to believe that all a person has comes from Hashem, they wouldn’t be so filled with jealousy and hatred.
That is the explanation of the words of the Yerushalmi. The Jews of the generation of the Bayis Sheini loved their money and therefore hated others with sinas chinom.
Since the Bais Hamkidosh has not been returned to us, it is an indication that we have still not overcome the sins of sinas chinom caused by jealousy. We are still consumed by these dark forces. We can’t stand to see other people succeed, and when they do, we endeavor to rip them down. We are constantly judging others negatively. We have our fingers on the trigger, waiting to catch someone making a mistake so that we can embarrass them and destroy them.
The Mishnah states that the epitome of strength is embodied by a person who controls his yeitzer. The truly rich person is one who is happy with his lot. The Maharal comments on this Mishnah that if one can defeat others, it is not necessarily because of his own personal strength; it may be because of his opponent’s weakness. However, if he triumphs over the evil inclination which seeks to entrap him, that is a true yardstick of strength. He is not strong because his opponent is weak. He is strong because he has beaten a strong opponent.
In the same vein, if one considers himself wealthy because of his holdings, then his wealth is determined by outside factors and is never secure. On the other hand, if a person is content with whatever Hashem assigns him, that kind of “merchandise” can never be diminished by outside circumstances and is thus the only real, enduring wealth.
We all seek wealth, comfort and happiness. We long for an end to our suffering and pray for the golus to end. Those blessings are contingent upon our determination to defeat the urge to believe in our own abilities and deny the Hand of Hashem.
Since sinas chinom ultimately flows from jealousy, and jealousy is a product of egotism, we have to work on the antidote: strengthening our trust and belief in Hashem, as well as our love of our fellow Jews. We must work on treating everyone with the dignity, respect and compassion – the way we ourselves want to be treated.
It’s a Shabbos of nechomah and a season of nechomah. We are fortunate to be equipped with the tools of nechomah, such as patience, a smile, and a few extra minutes that can make the difference. There are so many broken people out there. Many of them seem to have it all, standing tall and proud, but when you look closely, you see that they are suffering too.
We can be people of nechomah. We can listen, empathize and encourage.
In Slabodka, Elul was a most intense period, a time of extreme focus. However, related a talmid of the yeshiva, one year was different. That year, even veteran talmidim of Slabodka, accustomed to the solemnity of the Alter of Slabodka and his message, felt frightened. That period was referred to as “The Shvartzeh Elul,” a reference to the darkness of the Alter’s words and the stark portrait he painted of punishment for sins.
During the year of “The Shvartzeh Elul,” the Alter spent the month before the yom hadin discussing sechar ve’onesh and the reality of the impending din. Slabodka was terrified.
But then, on Rosh Hashanah of that year, the Alter rose to speak on the first night, something he had never done before. He, who regularly wouldn’t speak at all on Rosh Hashanah, rose and faced his talmidim. “We have spoken much about sechar ve’onesh and din, about the impending judgment and its implications, but there is one more thing you should know. There is a way to be found worthy, to emerge victorious in judgment.”
“How so? Mit ah gut morgen. By walking around with smiles on your faces. With warm words of greeting for your friends. With uplifting and encouraging comments to those around you. Then you will all be zocheh badin…”
We have the tools to be worthy of nechomah.
Mit ah gut morgen ken men zoche zein tzu ah guteh leben. With a good morning we can merit a good life and the nechomah we so crave.
In that merit, may we all be zoche to the true nechomah that Yeshayahu prophesized about and Jews have yearned for since the churban. May we all be transported to Yerushalayim Habenuyah speedily in our day.