By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
The opening posuk of Seder Shemos marks the end of one era and the start of another. “V’eileh shemos bnei Yisroel habo’im Mitzrayma.” On the surface, the posuk addresses the details of the move from one country to another. However, in Torah, there are always many meanings beyond the surface. It stands to reason that there are depths to the fact that seventy people began a period of golus in Mitzrayim.
While the word shemos itself is defined as names, and thus the posuk tells the names of the people who arrived with Yaakov, the Baal Haturim and the Levush see the word shemos as a reference to the obligation of studying the weekly parsha. The first letters of shemos stand for shnayim mikra v’echad targum.
What they appear to be saying is that the halacha to review the parsha twice each week and its Targum translation once is tied to the parsha of golus.
Jews in golus struggle to find their footing. The flame of Yerushalayim lies in their hearts along with memories of a glorious past and dreams of a splendid future. The Jew tries to adapt to living a golus life without letting go of the sublime ideas that maintain our nation.
Reviewing the weekly parsha, studying the timeless words and lessons of the pesukim, reminds us of our identity, who we are, where we are, and where we want to be. The Targum translation, which helps us understand what is happening around us. Over the years, the Targum has been Aramaic and Arabic, Spanish and French, Polish and Russian, Lithuanian and Hungarian, German and English, and so many other languages.
We study the Chumash and translate its messages for our times, into a language we can understand. For no matter the year or place, our priorities must never change.
The country in which we find ourselves is undergoing change. One president is leaving and a new one is coming. The United States is going through a period of a new dawn. We have to appreciate the change and respect the fact that adjustments will need to be made.
We do not want someone who will promote the socialist, leftist, anti-religious, anti-moral agenda. By voting for Donald Trump, the people proclaimed that they have had it with the lies, the leftists, and those who redefine marriage. We have had it with the party that spent the past eight years embarrassing and threatening Israel.
We are an am kadosh. We stand for something. And what we stand for is not corruption, immorality, or the cynical alignment for temporary financial gain with those who lower the declining moral level of the country even further. There is a culture war being fought in this country. We have to decide which side we are on. We cannot be cavalier when it comes to our beliefs.
The vision and principles of the person who will occupy the Oval Office really do make a difference. His position on Eretz Yisroel is important. His plan for the economy is important to us. We need a viable economy to make ends meet, to pay tuition, to support mosdos and to help others. We all know too many sad stories of households where space and food are lacking. And besides, it is true that the president and politicians really do impact the moral climate of the country.
Just this week, the United States participated, along with 70 other countries, in a so-called peace conference in Paris, designed strictly to pressure and embarrass Israel. The country many have depended upon to shoulder the truth joined in stabbing Israel.
In times like these, we have to show that we are not apathetic. We have to demonstrate that we are not corrupt, we have principles, and we are not pragmatists. We don’t need those two-faced politicians addressing us at our dinners for our shuls, mosdos and yeshivos. We have had enough of those. We don’t need another guy coming around mouthing some nice words about Yiddishkeit and how he will always stand by Israel and then running off and waving rainbow flags at the parades of those who seek to destroy the Judeo-Christian principles of morality upon which this great nation has been built. We don’t need another politician who troops down our streets trolling for dollars and then goes to those who seek to destroy the moral fiber of our community, fighting the new president’s cabinet and judicial appointments. We have no use for people who supposedly represent us, but continuously vote against the best interests of our community.
We want to maintain traditional values, we want jobs, we want responsible tax policy, and we want less governmental intrusion.
We don’t owe anyone an apology that we are not from the generation of Jews who incorrectly felt indebted to FDR. We have no allegiance to the party of Carter, Clinton, Sanders, Schumer, and Obama.
There are always those who say that we can’t be so doctrinaire. We have to bend halacha here and there, they contend. We must be more welcoming, more forgiving, more objective, more accepting and more tolerant of those who have chosen the wrong path. We’ve got to reach out and conform to all.
How wrong they are. We must remember never to capitulate.
We need to promote people with depth, knowledge, leadership and communication skills who can identify problems, work on solutions, and convince people to follow them. We should demand intelligence and competence. We can no longer afford the same old sound bites. Tough times require tough leaders, tough answers to tough questions, and real solutions to real problems. We have to demand better leadership in our world. We must find people who have the achrayus to think every issue through thoroughly before registering an opinion, writing articles and going places. Askonus takes hard work and strong ideals; leaders must know what they stand for, communicate and articulate a vision, and defend and fight for the truth.
Meanwhile, we look at the people promoted by the media as leaders and we gasp. One of the heroes on the news cycle leading up to the inauguration was John Lewis, a Georgia politician who found sudden relevance in attacking Donald Trump and the legitimacy of his electoral victory. For good measure, he announced that he would not participate in the inauguration.
How nice! A voice of courage and conviction, a renowned civil rights leader, a crusader for justice and equal rights. The mainstream media rushed to band around this new hero and voice of truth.
Nothing against the good congressman, but when was the last time you heard his name? When was the last time anyone spoke of anything heroic this gentleman did since the March on Selma? Has he spoken in defense of the beleaguered country of Israel? Has he spoken up against arming Iran? When did he hold a press conference to bemoan the rising number of deaths in Chicago?
Last week, hearings were held in various senate committees for some of Trump’s nominees. Senator Jeff Sessions faced hostile questioning from Democrat colleagues, who sought to paint him as a Klan-sympathizing racist. To those of us who have been following the Rubashkin saga, their portrayals of the Justice Department stung. Under Obama, the department was deaf to any request for review of the case. All doors were shut. They didn’t care about justice, their concern was politics.
And so, we celebrate this new era in America as an end to eight years of hypocrisy and smug phoniness. We welcome a new president and pray for his success. We are grateful for this malchus shel chesed, the most pleasant exile our people has experienced. We should not take that for granted. Within the past month, we saw how tenuous our relationship was with the past administration and that as much as we feel safe and secure in this home, there is always a cause for anxiety. We pray for the peace and prosperity of this country, and that the president and his administration succeed in their stated goal of making America great again.
We look at the change in guard with hope, but we never forget our history.
Moshe Rabbeinu was the first leader of our people. After his childhood in the royal palace, he identified with the pain of his people. His first venture out of the palace walls that the Torah records enabled him to confront the evil of slavery. He also came face-to-face with the problem his people suffered, and the result of that encounter sent him into a personal exile to Midyan. From living as a prince, he was relegated to the life of a shepherd.
His introduction to leadership came in a dramatic encounter.
As he was leading the sheep to pasture on Har Chorev, he noticed a bush on fire. Yet there was something strange going on. The branches would not be consumed and the fire would not go out.
He approached the bush and stopped walking. There was something going on. There was a relevance and power to the bush. There seemed to be something supernatural going on.
Moshe bent closer to investigate and felt that there was a lesson here for him. He perceived a latent sanctity to the sparks.
Hashem called out to him from the bush and told him that, in fact, he was standing on holy ground. Hashem directed him to return to Egypt and lead His people to freedom in The Promised Land.
What was it that caused Hashem to appoint Moshe leader of the Jewish people?
Moshe saw the bush aflame and recognized holiness. Although he was in a desert, with nothing around, he was searching for kedusha wherever he went. When he came upon this spot, he froze in place. Perhaps he had come across the kedusha he was searching for. In the darkness of a strange land, in midst of the vacuity of a desert, he found it.
This is what identified him as the person who can lead the children of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov from the morass of Mitzrayim. As we exist in golus, the ability to differentiate fact from fiction and holy from vile is paramount. The need to constantly be on the lookout for kedusha and learn from daily encounters is what keeps us on the path to redemption.
Throughout our history, our leaders have been able to perceive holiness where others saw emptiness. They saw holy sparks where others saw darkness, and they found glory in a lowly bush with no chance for growth.
In golus, there are times when people want to give up. They think it’s over. We’ll never crawl out of this, they believe; we will never be able to bounce back. They see people who have erred and give up on them. They think that nothing good will ever come from them. They are burnt out. Yet, the good and the great among us see sparks of holiness waiting to be lit. They see a soul on fire, suppressed but looking for a way to break out.
Rav Elimelech Biderman told the story of a man in his seventies who recently arrived at the home of a fellow Tel Avivian, who heads a Yerushalayim yeshiva for baalei teshuvah. He said that he wishes to repent for his secular life and join the yeshiva. The man told his story.
“I was but a young child when my father was killed towards the end of the war. My mother, who went through the horrors of that period, came to Israel after the war and made her way to Tel Aviv, where she gave up religion.
“She heard of the nearby home for orphaned children. I was her only possession, but she wanted me to succeed, so she sent me there to be fed, taken care of and educated. After a short time, she came to visit me. To her horror, she discovered that she had sent me to a religious place headed by the Ponovezher Rov.
“She immediately packed up my things and took me to her tiny run-down apartment in the slums of Tel Aviv. That was the end of religion for me.
“The Ponovezher Rov would regularly visit ‘his children’ in the bais yesomim. When he heard that my mother had taken me home, he immediately called for a taxi and came knocking on our door. He identified himself as the father of the orphans. My mother opened the door and really let him have it. She told him all she had gone through during the war. She was done with religion. Nothing to talk about. No matter how much the Rov pleaded with her and tried to calm her, it was no use. Her son was not going to any place that would teach him Torah.
“The Rov asked for a chair. He sat down and began wailing. He cried over a boy who would be lost. What a tragedy. He couldn’t bear the thought of it. He cried and cried. Finally, after ten minutes, he picked himself up, said goodbye, and left. This happened in 1950.”
Fast forward to 2016. The man sat with the rosh yeshiva and told him that for the past sixty plus years, he couldn’t forget those tears. Finally, he had enough and here he was. “Bring me back,” he said. “I want to do teshuvah.”
The Ponovezher Rov was one of those in every generation who possess the neshomah of Moshe. They perceive sparks where others see hopelessness. They give everything they have to bring home a wayward sheep.
That boy had a spark. Every boy has a spark. Every mother has a spark. There is always room for hope. Never give up. Never say they are too far gone.
“Hazorim b’dimah.” He tearfully planted a seed. Sixty years later, that seed sprouted. Sixty years later, the spark flamed up.
The bush would not be consumed and was finally at peace.
As we enter this new era, let us never lose sight of our goal. Despite all that goes on, through joy and pain, never forget who we are and what our goal is. Let us remember that we are on a path to redemption. We are sparks being drawn magnetically to a great flame. The flame atop the mizbei’ach in the rebuilt Bais Hamkidosh.
B’miheirah b’yomeinu, amen.