By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Last week, a society accustomed to living on the dizzying heights of technology was suddenly thrust into a world reminiscent of a century earlier, with no lights, no refrigerators and no phones. We were reminded of certain truths. We saw the chessed l’Avrohom in all its glory, with neighbors helping each other, strangers lending a hand, and heroic responses by ordinary people.
This newspaper’s headquarters had no power, and the myriad details involved in producing a paper seemed beyond us. But in what we saw as a remarkable act of Hashgacha, the good people at the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, who never tire of sharing their message of respect and love, opened their doors wide and welcomed us all in, with all of our computers, fax machines, printers, wires, routers and who knows what else, so that the newspaper could be put together and printed just as it is every week.
We are grateful not just for their selflessness, but for what lies behind it. In a time of need, Jews rally together and rush to help. Neighbors hooked up generators, cut up and shlepped branches, and brought warmth and comfort, opening their homes and refrigerators to people who didn’t have fresh food, a shower, or a warm bed. Small heroic actions by simple people made the misery bearable.
And so it should be every day. It shouldn’t take a storm to bring people together. It shouldn’t take a blackout to cause us to rally to one another’s aid. We should always be there for each other, with love and care, even if we have our disagreements.
This week, we mark ten years since the passing of the rabbon shel Yisroel, a gadol of the variety of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky and Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector, to whom everything was personal and everything was their achrayus. Apathy and indifference were foreign concepts to Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach.
I remember the first time I went to see Rav Shach. I was a bochur learning in Yeshivas Brisk. I was petrified. He led so many battles and was legendary for his strength and determination. I expected to see a scowling old man in the room. Yet, when I walked in, what I saw was a sweet, soft, old, Litvishe Yid. He looked you in the eyes and made you feel comfortable and at home. His poorly made tie told a story of a figure totally removed from vanity and pride. Yet, that same grandfatherly softie was a lion, ready to spring into attack mode if he sensed that a Yid was being wronged, halacha was being ignored, or the Torah way was being compromised.
But he loved Yidden so.
He once remarked, his voice filled with pain, that he is mochel everyone who ever wronged him, except those who fed the perception that he didn’t like chassidim. Them, he wasn’t mochel. Not liking other Yidden was anathema to him. Jewish people? He loved each and every one.
One day’s mail brought a large yellow envelope addressed to the rosh yeshiva. In it was a long piece of rope and a message from an anonymous sender to the rosh yeshiva to – afra lepumei – hang himself and end his own life with it. Rav Shach placed the rope in a special place, and explained that he wanted to have this rope with him in the next world, as evidence that he had offered the ultimate korban on the altar of kevod Shomayim. It would prove that he had stood firm, knowing that despite his love for each individual Yid, there were practices and trends that he felt forced to condemn.
The rope was precious. In fact, it was in the famous drawer in the rosh yeshiva’s room, where he kept his “supplies” – candy for the children who would visit him, stationery for the many letters he wrote, paper for transcribing his classic chidushei Torah – that he kept that rope, representing the duality of his holy mission.
We need to learn from our rebbi, Rav Shach, what it means to be moser nefesh for the truth, for the way of life our rabbeim have taught us, for the derech hachayim. He once told me that most people are concerned about what others think about them and therefore don’t take a stand. They want everyone to refer to them as “ohavei shalom” and “rodfei shalom.” He said that as long as he was alive, it would be of no use, because he would battle the forces of darkness, evil and fiction. He didn’t relish those battles, but saw it as his obligation to not sit by and watch “kevalah es hakodesh.”
Much the same, kedoshei elyon invested their very lifeblood in establishing a Torah infrastructure in this country, which led to the renaissance and rebirth of Torah and Yiddishkeit on these shores. They gave their all for the way of life of Avrohom Avinu of “deracheha darchei noam,“ for Torah to be used as a tool of love and growth, not hate and suppression.
A pioneering P’eylim activist, a talmid of the American yeshivos, was sent to Eretz Yisroel in the early 1950s to help in the effort to convince immigrant parents to send their children to Torah schools. Upon his return to America, this bochur was infused with determination to raise money for the cause. Someone suggested that he approach the Satmar Rebbe, who was known for his generosity. Things were simpler in those days. The bochur made an appointment and entered the Rebbe’s room, telling him about the battle between the immigrant parents and the Israeli government for each neshamah, and how P’eylim volunteers were literally saving neshamos, one at a time.
The Rebbe asked which schools P’eylim was sending the children to. The bochur innocently replied that they were sent to frum Chinuch Atzmai schools.
Years later, the bochur described what had happened next. The Rebbe’s face changed colors and he passionately began to denounce the Chinuch Atzmai system, which accepted government funding. The Rebbe pounded the table as he spoke. At the same time, the bochur watched with some amazement as, while banging with one hand, the Rebbe, with the other hand, motioned for his gabbai to write out a check for five hundred dollars, a significant amount of money at the time.
The Rebbe finished his protest against schools that accept government help and then lovingly handed the generous check to the bochur, wishing him hatzlacha.
For that yeshiva bochur, it was a great lesson. He later recounted, “I understood what it means to live on different planes at the same time. I got to see that a man of zealous beliefs was also a man of true love and care. There was no contradiction.”
The Satmar Rebbe’s behavior, a fusion of uncompromising and unyielding dedication to what he perceived to be the truth and boundless love for each Jew, has been a hallmark of gedolei Yisroel, stemming from our first “gadol” all the way back. “Echad haya Avrohom…”
Avrohom Avinu was the first rebbi we had, whose call, “Vayikra beSheim Hashem,” was for a life of meaning and truth. He reached out to the masses, creating nefashos and bringing them under the shelter of the Shechinah, yet, at the same time, he was the father of a middah called chessed l’Avrohom, imbuing his descendants forevermore with compassion, empathy and love for every single Yid and every single person.
There is a Tosafos in Maseches Chullin (91b) that begs closer study. Rabi Avahu seeks to derive the halacha that a talmid chochom should not walk unaccompanied at night from the posuk of “Vayashkeim Avrohom baboker.” That posuk, which appears at the end of this week’s parsha (22:3), refers to the morning when Avrohom awoke to offer Yitzchok to Hashem at the Akeidah. Tosafos asks that Avrohom wasn’t alone that morning, as he was accompanied by Yitzchok and his two “ne’arim.”
Tosafos concludes that Rabi Avahu was seeking to derive his lesson from a posuk earlier in the parsha (19:27) which states, “Vayashkeim Avrohom baboker el hamakom,” that Avrohom awoke early in the morning to daven for the people of Sedom. Since he should have already gone to pray for them at night, it must be that a talmid chochom shouldn’t walk alone at night.
Tosafos then questions how we know that he was alone and concludes that he must have been alone, since he would not have wanted other people to see him engaged in tefillah for Sedom.
The Satmar Rebbe, most appropriately, offers a telling explanation. He says that Avrohom Avinu knew the fine line of how to balance love for reshaim with condemnation of their deeds. Not everyone is so discerning. Avrohom understood that if his tefillos for Sedom would become public knowledge, it might be assumed or perceived publically that Avrohom maintained that the evil people were really okay, and that he was even davening for them because he’s on their side. That wasn’t true, however. They were far from okay, but Avrohom himself knew that davening for them didn’t mean that he was condoning their behavior. It meant that he loved the people. Others wouldn’t understand the subtle difference.
Tosafos therefore says that Avrohom Avinu made sure that he was alone and unseen when he offered the tefillos for Sedom.
The Satmar Rebbe once expressed this truth with a remark he made. He said, “People think I’m a ‘hater,’ because they only hear me with my back to the aron kodesh and my face to the people. They only hear my public addresses warning against the dangers of Zionism. They don’t hear me when my back is to the people and my face is to the aron kodesh. They don’t know how much I daven for all Yidden and how much I love them!”
We have to learn from the example of our gedolim and know when each is called for – the love, but also the passion. There is no stirah.
It is de rigueur to speak of love, tolerance and acceptance, but we can’t forget the other side of the coin. The Chofetz Chaim, Klal Yisroel‘s rebbi in interpersonal halachos and how to respect and cherish others, was a lion, fierce and unyielding, when he sensed a need to act that way. When Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky’s authority in Vilna was assailed, it was the Chofetz Chaim himself who authored the pashkevillen which he ensured were released in protest. He knew the place for both.
The following letter, concerning his battle for the integrity of the Vilna rabbonus and the bais din of Rav Chaim Ozer, appears in the Sefer Michtevei Chofetz Chaim:
“I have heard that in The Moment newspaper, there is an article wondering how I was not careful in my letter of protest concerning the Vilna rabbonus, in areas of shemiras halashon and halbonas ponim, in which I have been careful my whole life, and in this instance as well. The article suggests that the letter was ascribed to me, but was forced on me by others.
“Therefore, I publicize that in an area of destruction of the foundations of religion, all of what I did was according to halacha. As I explained in my original letter of protest, we have a mitzvah and obligation to do whatever we can to fill the breach, and there is no issur in acting in this way.
“In fact, I am surprised by the reaction of so many gedolei Yisroel, who are silent and not raising their voices in protest.
“I close by stating that all matters that go out from my hand and signature, large and small, are always done by me and can be relied on as such…
“Yisroel Meir Hakohein m’Radin”
Have we forgotten how to react? We see people being trampled. We see people with the wrong motivations forcing their agendas, yet we sit silently. Unless it affects us, unless it impacts our turf or our kids’ acceptance into schools, we choose to look aside.
We see disturbing trends, but since today they only affect other people and so far we have been left alone, we don’t rally to action and stand up and say, “Enough is enough.” We mumble amongst ourselves, but we don’t rise above the chatter.
Our leaders were created by taking action and by being unafraid to speak the truth.
In that epic tefillah for the people of Sedom, Avrohom Avinu taught us the approach. He didn’t daven that they should die. He didn’t curse them. He didn’t threaten them. He didn’t castigate them. He didn’t ban them or banish them.
Why has the behavior of threatening and berating people entered our world? Why can’t we treat each other with respect? Why can’t we recognize the strides we have made and how far we have come? Why do we choose threats and condemnations as our tools, rather than softness, love and warmth?
Both the Baal Hatanya and the Chazon Ish use a similar expression when discussing dealing with Jews far from the Torah: “yimshecheim be’avosos ahava – pull them with chains of love.”
Just like Avrohom Avinu in prayer, we can practice love and still stand firm.
One of the softest and most gentle roshei yeshiva was Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz of Kamenitz. He would stress that the battle against the wicked must be waged with the underlying concept of “yitamu chataim, velo chotim.” As the sefer Tomer Devorah states, “You should even love the wicked ones in your heart and say a prayer that they will repent and become tzaddikim.”
It is related that when the Kamenitzer Yeshiva celebrated its chanukas habayis in 1937, the Beitar Zionist band showed up and volunteered to perform for no charge in honor of the great simcha. Despite everyone’s best efforts, Rav Boruch Ber refused to allow them to play, saying that he didn’t even want the bochurim to see them. So as not to embarrass them, they were brought to the old yeshiva building and played there while the bnei yeshiva were in the new building.
Rav Boruch Ber’s son-in-law, Rav Moshe Bernstein, would relate the story and point out that even though Rav Boruch Ber was emphatic that they should not play for the bochurim, he also made sure that the band members wouldn’t be personally embarrassed or hurt.
“Despite his opposition to Zionism and Zionists,” said Rav Bernstein, “Rav Boruch Ber never personally insulted any of its adherents. He would admonish them with father-like love, to the point that when he left the city, they were sad to see him go… He fought against chillul Shabbos,” added Rav Bernstein, “but I never saw him insult them publicly during davening or prevent them from going up to the Torah.”
That was the derech of Rav Boruch Ber, Rav Chaim Ozer, the Chofetz Chaim and Rav Shach when dealing with mechallelei Shabbos and people far removed from Torah. It should definitely be our derech when dealing with like-minded individuals who we think have erred or can use some admonishing.
A Kamenitzer talmid related that the rosh yeshiva whose warmth and mastery of Torah endeared him to the people of the town, once spoke out against what he perceived as a spiritual danger. In that instance, he managed to condemn an idea even while respecting the people. After Rav Boruch Ber heard that a group of parents in town were considering allowing a Haskalah Tarbut school to open, he called an assembly at the central shul. Once the shul was filled to capacity, the rosh yeshiva stood in front of the aron kodesh.
His pure eyes shining with tears, Rav Boruch Ber stood there, with great emotion, and recalled how Yeshivas Knesses Bais Yitzchok, which he headed, had originally been located in a larger city, but sensing strong detrimental influences, he sought to move the yeshiva to a smaller, quieter village. Three towns expressed interest: Kosova, Kamenitz and Birza. He approached the Chofetz Chaim, who advised him to go to Kamenitz, where, the Chofetz Chaim said, “There is a chazakah of Torah and yiras Shomayim.”
Rav Boruch Ber recalled the festive kabbolas ponim reception and the euphoria of the townspeople at the zechus they would have to host a makom Torah in their town.
He reminded them that when he moved to town, the townspeople unhitched the horses from the wagon he was riding in and insisted on pulling the wagon by themselves. He recalled his discomfort at the honor he was shown. “I couldn’t handle the excessive display of kavod,” said Rav Boruch Ber, “but my son-in-law, Rav Reuven (Grozovsky), assured me that you were sincere people, who just wanted to show honor for the Torah itself, not for me.”
Then, in a choked voice, he continued: “How can it be that the people of Kamenitz, who showed such enthusiasm and love for the holy Torah, are considering allowing the opening of a school where students will be taught to mock the Torah?”
There was loud weeping amongst the crowd as Rav Boruch Ber stepped down from the podium. The plan was dropped.
Love them, even as you reject their ideas.
Equally important, don’t be scared to reject their ideas, even as you love the people.
Because in the picture of Avrohom Avinu, shuckeling during tefillah near the gates of impure Sedom, we see a legacy for all of us, his children.
Have the courage to find a way to love, even when you’re disappointed. Have the strength of character to love those you disagree with. Have the emunah to be tolerant. And remember that the ones who demonstrate the most love, warmth and concern will ultimately emerge victorious.