A Month of Rejoicing? – Part 3

As we approach Tisha Be’Av, our tefilos for the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash deepen in intensity. But what chance have we that our tefilos will be answered, if we don’t listen to our nevi’im who told us the causes of its destruction?

In this week’s haftora, Yeshaya HaNavi gives a very powerful rebuke to the Jewish People. “Children have I raised and exalted, but they have rebelled against me.” “Why do I need your numerous sacrifices? When you come before Me, who asked you to trample on My courtyards? Bring your worthless meal offering no longer. It is an incense of abomination….My soul detests your Shabbos, your New Moons and your festivals. When you spread your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; even if you intensify your prayer, I will not listen.”(Yeshayahu 1:2-18)

What did we do wrong? It seems we were bringing korbonos according to halocho. We were observing Shabbos and Yom Tov with every stringency. What could possibly explain this awesome punishment — that Hashem does not want our mitzvos? That He does not answer our tefilos? Yeshaya goes on. “Learn to do good, seek justice, vindicate the victim, render justice to the orphan, take up the grievance of the widow.” Because of our callous disregard for the weaker members of society, Hashem says that we are “trampling on His courtyard” and “He hates our observance of Shabbos and Yom Tov.”

The Torah warns us, “You shall not taunt or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in land of Egypt. You shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan. If you dare to cause him pain, if he should cry out to me, I will surely hear his cry….” (Shemos 22:20-23)

In nineteenth century Russia, the poor, orphans, defenseless and downtrodden were the victims of communal unethical behavior under Czar Nicholas 1. The Czar had instituted the cantonist system in which a quota of child conscripts would be taken by force from each community to join the Russian army.   Many of the children later died from malnutrition, beatings, disease and loneliness. Did the rich members of the community volunteer their children? Of course not. They organized Jewish kidnappers called chappers who stalked the streets in search of defenceless Jewish children, sons of widows or the poor, delivering them to the Russians for a fee. This aroused fury among poorer Jews against the rabbinic leadership who seemed to turn a “blind eye” to this disgraceful practice and later led to rebellion against the Torah itself whom the Jewish leadership represented. These dissatisfied people were now easy prey for secular Zionism and Socialism. (Triumph of Survival pp. 164-165, Rabbi Berel Wein). We see the long-term consequences of unethical behaviour within communities and we can understand better why Yeshayahu should be so strong in his rebuke.  “Hashem abhors the Shabbos of a Jew who observes every stringency, who brings korbonos with great care about his ritual purity and davens with great fervour but is uncaring towards the widow, orphan and others who cannot defend themselves. And Hashem will not listen to his tefilos, certainly concerning rebuilding the Beis Hamikdash.Lomo li rov zivcheichem?– “Why do I need your korbonos?….your trampling on My courtyards.”

Unfortunately a small number of reshaim threaten the spiritual and physical wellbeing of defenceless victims in our communities. But when the victims cry for help, committees of askonim make it their business to defend the criminals, in flagrant breach of explicit halachos which allow a community to do whatever is possible to protect themselves from those who threaten them. (Choshen Mishpat 388:12) They defame the victims and anyone who tries to help them. Often they resort to physical threats not only to the victims but to their children and grandchildren. Letters with forged rabbinic signatures appear on shul notice-boards. Amazingly, these people find supporters who succumb to financial and other threats, leading them to work on behalf of the guilty rather than defending and helping the innocent. They ignore the Torah’s warning that when innocent victims cry out, Hashem hears their cries. And we, forgetting Yeshaya’s warning, sometimes wonder why Hashem doesn’t answer our cries.

Yet Yeshaya comforts us that all is not lost. ‘If our sins are like scarlet, they can yet become white as snow. Even if they are as red as crimson, they can become white as wool.” Communal determination to right the wrong, to change direction, to transfer our allegiance from the criminal to the victim can alter Hashem’s perception of us. “He can restore our judges as at first and our advisers as at the beginning. Zion can be redeemed with justice and those who return to her with righteousness.” And Chodesh Menachem Av can be indeed transformed finally into a month of rejoicing.


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A Month of Rejoicing? – Part 2

Mutual respect between Jews who have different hashkafos concerning the State of Israel was our theme last week. The Netziv pointed out that a lack of respect between Jews who followed different derachim in avodas Hashem was the cause of the churban bayis sheini. Changing this destructive attitude could make us worthy of a new Beis Hamikdash and a transformation of the month of Av to a month of rejoicing.

A step in this direction would be a clear understanding of the background of the different hashkofos, with the understanding that each side has a strong foundation. We must be wary of distortions of the original hashkofos, which can lead to extreme positions, which none of our original Gedolim would have approved.

Since we are talking about Gedolei Yisroel – we must accept that there cannot be a clear-cut source in Shas or Poskim that some Gedolei Yisroel knew about but others had forgotten. It must be that they differed about the applicability or interpretation of the sources which others brought. All Gedolei Yisroel have great ahavas Yisroel and do only what they feel is best for klal Yisroel. Yet, as in the Sanhedrin of old, there is room for different opinions. We must also realise that it is not relevant to this discussion whether there should have been a Jewish State. The international community including The Soviet Union and America and the United Nations all decided to create a Jewish State with the encouragement of mainly secular Jews, all for their own reasons. The question was how religious Jews should relate to the new State.

Agudas Yisroel saw the great need of the moment to protect the rights of religious Jews living in the Jewish State as well as try to influence the State as a whole to be more Jewish than its secular founders had planned. Because the secular Zionists wanted a united voice at the United Nations, they agreed to the famous status quo agreement which said that Shabbos would be an official day of rest. Besides the issue of kedushas Shabbos, this would enable religious Jews to find employment. Kashrus would be observed in all government institutions and crucially the new government would allow an independent religious school system. Later, the leaders of Agudas Yisroel did not see voting in elections and involvement in the political process as any form of acceptance of Zionist ideology. As their spokesman explained in 1948, “The Zionist movement was a voluntary organization and we did not support it because it did not recognize the authority of the Torah. It is quite a different case with a state to which everyone belongs de facto. This is the difference between a state and a movement. In a state, for example, should we not participate in the elections, it would mean relinquishing our basic rights and even assisting the secularists to rule over us with even greater strength.”[1] The Steipler Rov zt”l in Krayana D’Igrassa (203) strongly supported the approach of Agudas Yisroel in this matter.

Although this policy of Agudas Yisroel has been the basis of the growth of the religious community in Israel to today’s unprecedented level, it involves a risk that we can be influenced and that we ourselves would begin to see the State as the source of our protection. In the worst case, we could fall to the level decried by Yirmiyahu haNavi in this week’s Haftorah “ They have forsaken Me, the Source of living waters, to dig for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns which do not hold water.” (2:13). It is up to us to strengthen ourselves never to forget that only Hashem is our Saviour and to fulfil the pasuk, Boruch Hagever asher yivtach B’Hashem vehoyo Hashem mivtacho.

The Satmar Rebbe certainly had halachic objections to the views of Agudas Yisroel as he wrote in Yoel Moshe but it would appear that he also placed an emphasis on the dangers of their approach. If we were to be involved in voting and in the Knesset and especially accepting government funding, true Torah hashkofa would inevitably be compromised. He also placed great emphasis on the danger that we might think, “My strength and might of my hand has achieved for me this wealth.” (Devarim 8:17). Therefore he told his followers to have nothing to do with the State, not to vote and not to receive any funding from the State. This would be the only way to maintain the purity of our hashkofos.

This is truly a machlokes l’shem shomayim; we should be able to respect both opinions even if our tradition is one rather than the other.

This second attitude contains a risk that opposition to the State can be so strong that one develops a lack of concern for the people who live there. Although the Rebbe himself had great ahavas Yisroel and no doubt davened not only for their ruchnius but also for their safety in times of war, others can become so extreme in their antagonism of the State that they do not daven at all for the over six million Jews who live there, even if they are in danger. Some even support Israel’s enemies who would like nothing more than to carry out a second Holocaust (chas vesholom). Surely nothing could be further away from the Rebbe’s holy intentions.

To be continued.


[1] A History of Agudas Yisroel by Joseph Friedenson P. 47.

A Month of Rejoicing?

The parsha tells us that he was a hero. He knew what to do when even Moshe Rabeinu had forgotten. He was heavily criticised by the court of public opinion. But Hashem praised him and gave him a very special reward. “Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon Hakohen removed my anger from the Jewish people and … behold I give him my blessing of peace.” (Bamidbar 25:11-1). Pinchas realized that what was happening was not only unacceptable but potentially disastrous. The precedent of Zimri, the Prince of Shimon marrying a Midianite princess could have led to a national spiritual and physical tragedy. Someone had to do something, fast. When he reminded Moshe Rabbeinu that “haboel aramis kanaim pogim bo” – the penalty for the sin of Zimri was instant death, Moshe Rabbeinu told him to carry out the punishment himself. Pinchos did so with zeal. He ignored the danger he was putting himself in and did what he had to do. What a hero! What a tzaddik! What a rôle model. So what’s the problem?

In last week’s parsha, Bilaam asked tamos nafshi mos yesharim – to die like the yesharim. (Bamidbar 23:10) Who are the yesharim and why did Bilaam want to die like them? The Netziv (ibid) explains that yashar refers to the characteristic of kindness bein odom l’chaveiro. Bilaam did not aspire to be a tsaddik or chassid, which he knew he could never achieve. But surely everyone can aspire to be kind to others. This is not a specifically Jewish concept. It is the basis of a functioning society. True, chessed in Jewish terms goes a lot deeper but Bilaam, as he contemplated his plan to uproot the Jewish people, had a pang of conscience and intimated that he would have preferred to die a yoshor, with acts of kindness to his name.

In his introduction to Sefer Bereishis, the Netziv says that Sefer Bereishis is also called Sefer Hayashar because in it we see how our Avos lived with a desire to do good to all people. Avraham Ovinu invited idol worshippers into his home. He davened, even argued with Hashem to save the people of Sodom despite the fact that they represented a way of life diametrically opposed to his.

In Parshas Haazinu (Devarim 32:4), Hashem is described as tsaddik veyoshor. The Netziv says that this is a prophetic acceptance and tzidduk hadin that Hashem will later destroy both Batei Hamikdash. Hashem was a Tzaddik when He destroyed the first Beis Hamikdash because the people were guilty of avoda zoro, shefichus domim and gilui aroyos (Yuma 9b). He was a Yashar when He destroyed the second Beis Hamikdash because the people were guilty of Sinas Chinam. (ibid) The Natziv says, “The people were tzadikim and chasidim but were not yeshorim. Because of the sinas chinam in their hearts, if anyone differed slightly from their way of yiras Hashem, they suspected that they were tzedukim and apirkorsim. This attitude eventually led to no less than shefichas yomim,. We describe Hashem as being yoshor because He cannot tolerate such tzaddikim. Even though what they do is leshem shomayim, their behavior destroys society.”

Sometimes we hear the claim that they are merely following the example of Pinchas, who fearlessly and unhesitatingly showed zero tolerance to Zimri. The difference is that what Zimri was doing was unquestionably a grave sin and Hashem had given specific instructions for dealing with it. This can in no way be compared to physically attacking somebody who adheres to a different path in avodas Hashem following his own Rebbe. The Netziv says that such behaviour destroys our society and makes us unworthy of a Beis Hamikdash.

It is well known that our great Gedolim differed in their approaches to the State of Israel. All were against the concept of a secular Jewish state. The Chazon Ish, the Steipler Rov, Rav Shach, Rav Eliyashiv and many Rebbes all decided to work within the system to fight for the rights of Torah and the Torah-observant citizens of Israel and encouraged people to vote in elections so that their representatives should be able to fight the Government at the highest level. Others led by the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Shmuel Wosner, Rav Moshe Sternbuch and many other tzaddikim consider this forbidden and they refused to be involved in national elections although the Satmar Rebbe was lenient in local elections. These are two ways both led by great rabbonim. Eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chaim. It is not for us to say who is right and who is wrong. But based on the Netziv we have quoted, we can see how wrong and dangerous it is to attack those who follow a different but acceptable path in avodas Hashem. We have unfortunately seen how sharp words have led to violence and the consequences can be tragic. We all have much to do within our own path of avodas Hashem. With mutual respect, ahavas habrios, and excellence in midos bein odom l’chaveiro we can achieve so much more. We can even merit the transformation of Av to a month of rejoicing and the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash.

My new sefer The Hidden Light is now on the shelves and selling “like hot cakes.”

Bilaam’s Tear

The best-known posuk of Parshas Balak is the praise and blessing Bilaam gave to the Jewish home. “How goodly are your tents, Yaakov, your dwelling places, Yisroel.” Chazal say that eventually all the curses Bilaam, the one-eyed soothsayer, gave to the Jews were fulfilled except for this pasuk which will always be a blessing. (Sanhedrin 105b). It seems that even Bilaam did not really mean to curse the Jewish home. He was genuinely impressed. But what was it about the Jewish home which impressed him so much? Was it their sanctity and purity? What would Bilaam, who was famously ‘married’ to his donkey, know about sanctity and purity? Rashi says that he noticed that the entrances of their tents were not opposite each other. But was this unique? Non-Jews also want privacy. “An Englishman’s home is his castle,” is an English proverb. What impressed Bilaam so much?

Some suggest that not having entrances opposite each other indicates a more significant aspect of Jewish life than a desire for privacy. We do not look at our neighbor to decide what we should be doing with our lives. We are part of a grand orchestra, each of us playing our own instrument to create beautiful harmony, as we read in the final chapter of Tehilim, “Some praise Him with the blast of the shofar, some with the lyre and harp. Some praise Him with a drum and dancing, some with the organ and flute. Some praise Him with clanging cymbals, some with resonant trumpets.” We are all in different situations; we all have different strengths. For each of us to succeed in our mission we need to focus on what we have to do, not what our neighbor has to do. Bilaam thought that everyone’s purpose is the same, that everyone is in the same rat race pursuing money, power and honour. There is only one winner. Maybe this is what impressed him about the Jewish home.

Another implication of the entrances of their tents not being opposite each other which might have impressed Bilaam was that the people did not check what possessions their neighbor had in order to be desirous of acquiring the same thing. The Jews are careful not to covet, in the words of the posuk, “the wife of his neighbor, his man-servant, his maid-servant, his ox or his donkey or anything which belongs to his neighbour.” Even Bilaam would have appreciated the damage that jealousy causes to a person. You are never happy with what you have. You buy what you cannot afford. Your nights are spent imagining how your life would be so much more enjoyable if you had what your neighbor had. Your days are spent working ‘like a dog’ to be able to buy a similar thing. When you finally acquire it you find out that another neighbor has a newer model and the cycle of jealousy begins again. “The Jews must enjoy life much more than me,” Bilaam would have mused.

Other aspects of a Jewish home would have impressed him. For instance, their observance of Shabbos, Hashem’s gift to the Jewish People. We may not appreciate Shabbos fully if we live in the Western world with its concept of a week-end. If they do not keep Saturday as special maybe they keep Sunday or even Friday. They do this because of Jewish influence. When the Torah was given, everybody worked non-stop. There was no concept of a Sabbath and no reason to mark the end of the week. A month or a year has some astronomical significance but not a week. This is still the case in some parts of the world. When Bilaam saw that the Jewish people worked for six days, even if that only involved going out to find the mon, but rested on the seventh day, this was an eye-opener. “What a good idea,” he must have thought. To work non-stop, day after day is soul-destroying. Without Shabbos, we become machines. Work becomes our master. Deadlines and customers rule us. When we say to an insistent customer on Friday afternoon, “We’ll see to it next week. Shabbos is coming in and there’s nothing to talk about,” we are in charge. We have regained our humanity. Bilaam could not have appreciated the spiritual aspects of Shabbos, reconnecting with Hashem, davening, learning. But he might have appreciated a chance to be a man rather than a machine. It is not for nothing that we say in Shabbos davening, “Those who experience Shabbos have merited life. Those who love her words have chosen greatness and honour. ”

On the subject of honour, Bilaam might have noticed how members of a Jewish family show each other honour. A Jewish husband is taught in the kesuva that he must honour his wife. He has to pay special attention to speak respectfully to her, (Yevomos 62b). He must not create an atmosphere of fear in the home. (Gittin 6b) Even on a busy Friday afternoon, when he wants to check whether his wife has tithed the vegetables or prepared the eiruv, he must speak softly to her. (ibid). At the same time a Jewish wife will show honour to her husband. Her husband sits at the top of the table. He is the head of the household – the captain of the ship. “What beautiful harmony there is in a Jewish home,” Bilaam may have thought. “She treats him like a king and he treats her like a queen.”

And then he may have noticed the children honouring their parents. They speak with love and respect. They don’t contradict, demand or argue. A mere hint from their parents and they run to bring them what they need. And they all sit round the table discussing insights on the weekly parsha and then sing together. The parents also show so much love for their children. Each child, no matter what number in the family, is a tachshit – a precious jewel. And isn’t that the elderly grandfather or grandmother? The family are looking after them with such devotion.

“This is incredible,” Bilaam must have thought.” Where I come from it’s every man for himself. Everyone is shouting, demanding, never satisfied. Our wives are our chattels. They’re not happy and we’re not happy. And the children? Don’t ask. As soon as they’re old enough, they’re away, only calling when they need more money. When we’re old, the ‘lucky’ ones get put in an old age home. The rest are left to cope by themselves, relying on the government to pay their winter heating bills. If you’re old and ill, the hospitals consider you worthless. A big sign “DO NOT RESUSCITATE” is hung on the end of your bed[1].

Bilaam might have noticed the quiet optimism which reigns in a Jewish home. They are full of faith and trust in Hashem. In the worst situations they say “All is for the best.” In the best situations they are full of praise to Hashem. They are happy people. They have beautiful families. Everything that Bilaam was lacking, they had. And so Bilaam, in the middle of cursing the Jews, in the height of his desperate quest to achieve the wealth and honour which he knew would bring him no happiness, bereft of all love except for his donkey, took a careful look at the Jewish homes and, in a rare moment of honesty, admitted, with perhaps a tear in his one eye, “ The Jewish home is indeed beautiful. Ma tovu oholecho Yaakov – How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov. And for once, he meant it.

Rabbi Fletcher is the mechaber of Do You Know Hilchos Shabbos? Do You Know Hilchos Brachos? Do You Know Shas? (Brachos-Pesachim), Dancing in our Hearts, The Hidden Light and many Torah articles. If you want to buy any of his sefarim or want to join his mailing list, please write to [email protected]

[1] Sometimes this is halachicly correct and appropriate. I am referring to times when it done out of lack of respect for the patient and without considering the sanctity of life.

Mad Dogs and Jews

Last week in Beit Shemesh, a wild dog somehow found its way into a block of flats near the edge of the town. The residents were petrified. No-one could get in or out. The dog wasn’t even barking but no-one was prepared to challenge it. Maybe it hadn’t eaten supper yet! Frantic calls were made to the municipal authorities to send the official dog-catcher. Yishai arrived eventually and calmly captured and removed the animal, to the cheers of the residents. Was this an incident best forgotten or can we learn something from it?

The later sections of Mesilas Yesharim discuss aspects of avodas Hashem which are way beyond the spiritual level of most of us, in the area of fear of Hashem and in particular fear of sin. This applies both to the past and to the future. We find that some of our greatest ancestors were never satisfied with their level of avodas Hashem, thinking that perhaps they had fallen short in some way. This section about fear of the past is probably not for us at all. We would be continuously worried and would not achieve simchas chaim which is so necessary for us and our children. However, we can aspire to the concept of fear of sin in the future, even if we don’t reach the highest levels.

Let’s talk about the ideal first and then discuss some practical ramifications for our lives. The concept of sinning against Hashem should be abhorrent to us. After all, He provides us with everything; how can we possibly think of going against Him? Our vulnerability is clear. He can turn off the supply of blessings in a moment and then where would we be? To challenge Him would be akin to an ant defying a human. We can blot out its life in a moment. It is laughable even to think of defying the Source of our life. The stupidity of challenging our Creator is multiplied much more if we think of the punishment we could incur. An ant might die instantly and that is the end of its existence. But Hashem can punish us in this world or the next while we continue to exist. We could be liable to severe punishments in untold ways. With this in mind, logic would tell us to run a mile from any risk of sin.

How can we bring this concept to life? We could imagine meeting a wild animal in the street. How terrified we would be. Running away is not an option but if there was a chance of taking refuge in a nearby building, what a sigh of relief we would give, especially if there was a door we could lock behind us.

To really feel such horror at the possibility of sinning may be a high madreiga. But we should at least feel the importance of avoiding coming close to sinning. If we know that a certain group of people are constant loshon hora speakers, we should look for another circle of friends. Another group discuss politics bein gavra l’gavra. We should move to another part of the shul or maybe a different shul altogether. It is natural to want to be one of the crowd. One who fears sin may have to consider changing his or her crowd.

Clear sources in the Torah warn us to stay far away from the possibility of sin. A nazir who is forbidden to drink wine may not even go near a vineyard. (Shabbos 13a). Tzitzis are supposed to remind us to keep all the other mitzvos of the Torah. (Bamidbar 15:39). The posuk says (Vayikra 18:6) “Do not come close to immorality.” Hilchos Yichud forbid a man to be alone with a woman who is not his wife. This is a vital fence against immorality. Although there are certain leniencies in halacha, they should only be used in emergencies and with the guidance of a rav. Parents should warn their daughters, who may not realise how vulnerable they are, never to be alone with a man other than a father or brother.

The residents of the block of flats in Beit Shemesh who felt up close the fear of a wild dog can use the experience to strive towards feeling the same fear when they are close to sinning. One must escape and lock the door securely, to make sure to keep far from sin even if others are unfortunately succumbing. And the rest of us, who just read about it, can also imagine the fear of being there, in order to strive towards this madreiga of yiras cheit. For Jews, no experience should be wasted – not even an encounter with a mad dog.