By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
My dear friend, Yossel Czapnik z”l, was a keen observer of the human condition. Invariably, whenever someone was found to have engaged in wrongful or detrimental behavior and people would wonder how it was possible for the person to act so foolishly, Yossel would always give the same answer. He would say that it happened because the person didn’t learn mussar. The study of mussar keeps a person straight, honest, and humble, and prevents him from engaging in self-destructive behavior.
Yossel fell victim to Covid before Pesach, but his lessons are as true as ever.
This week’s parsha offers ample evidence of Yossel’s message as we ponder the actions and reactions of the recalcitrant Paroh and his inability to think logically. But we don’t have to go back to the days of the makkos for an application of the lesson. Apparently, the president’s electoral loss has affected his ability to think and act rationally. His ego led him to act in ways detrimental to himself, the country, the causes he championed, and all Americans. It is a disaster on too many levels. While it is true that he called for a peaceful and patriotic protest at the Capitol, when the horrific happened, his message calling for the craziness to end was tepid at best, and certainly unbefitting for the person charged with running the country.
A strong condemnation of the violent and irresponsible actions was in order, delivered with conviction from a leader who cares about law and order. His failure to do so destroyed not only his legacy, but the legitimacy of the Right and the Republican Party, along with the important positions they represent. His lack of communication with the people of this nation is an abrogation of his duty and responsibility.
What happened last week in Washington is a national tragedy. In a civilized country, disagreements aren’t settled by acts of violence. There is no justification for what occurred in the Capitol. No matter what people are upset about, they should never be permitted to take over the Capitol building and engage in wanton acts of insolence and destruction.
It has been said that the coddling of the rioters who, during the past summer of rage, caused billions of dollars of damage to government buildings and businesses was seen by those on the fringes as legitimizing violence as a method to achieve political gain. But by a minority doing what they did, with the apparent blessing of the president, the Right, as a whole, has been robbed of moral high ground and the cause of traditional values and freedoms has been seriously impaired.
The country will recover but will be paying a heavy price for many years to come. People who are ego-driven and self-centered end up acting in ways that are detrimental.
The Democrats have been driving the media narrative and owning it for the longest time now. Trump stood up to them and plowed ahead with the agenda he was elected on, following through on virtually every promise he made. For whatever reason, Hashem caused his opponent to be declared the victor and there was nothing Trump could do to retain his position.
What happened since the election results came in, fit very neatly into the narrative his enemies had created about Trump, and validated everything they had been saying and predicting about him for the past four years.
Democrats will now be in control of the Congress, Senate and White House, and their mission will be to undo everything that Trump accomplished as they press ahead with their progressive plans for the country. It is no longer important how they won the White House. The fact is that they own it for the next four years. They outsmarted the Republicans at every turn and can be counted on to do that for the foreseeable future. They set the national agenda and presented their case in a way that appealed to the masses of voters. They are winners and the Republicans are losers.
We live in a world where nothing is as it appears. We don’t know whom to trust and where to turn for direction and support.
Every week, we bid farewell to Shabbos with Havdalah. We light a multi-wicked, wine-stained candle and start thinking of the coming week. We proclaim, “Hinei Keil yeshuosi evtach velo efchod.” We proclaim that although we don’t know what the new week will bring, we aren’t afraid, because we know that Hashem will be with us. As we leave the holiness and peace of Shabbos and embark on our weekly venture into our everyday routines, we say to Hashem, to ourselves and to our families that we do not fear as we go back into the turmoil that is life, since we are armed with emunah and bitachon.
Later, at melava malka, we seek to further prepare for that transition. We sing “al tira avdi Yaakov.” We say, “Fear not, Yidden. You are equipped with the strength and ability to rise above what is out there and still remain true to yourselves, to each other, and to the Torah if you remain loyal to the teachings and lessons handed down from Yaakov Avinu.”
We proclaim that in order to navigate the highways of life and plow ahead despite the storms that inevitably seek to block us, we have to follow the path of Yaakov and the other avdei Hashem. Only by following the Torah and its mitzvos can we think of setting out on the road that is olam hazeh. Only by reinforcing ourselves with Torah and mussar will we be able to move ahead and accomplish the missions we were sent here to carry out.
The children of Yaakov stood out in Mitzrayim because “lo shinu,” they refused to change and adapt. Lo shinu – they remained loyal to the Torah that Yaakov transmitted to them and that Yehudah taught in the yeshiva he established. Lo shinu – they knew that everything else is transitory. Lo shinu – they knew what was true and what was lasting. Lo shinu – they knew what was false, fleeting, and temporary, and they knew that to survive as a people in a different country, they had to remain steadfast in their dedication to Yaakov’s ideals.
The posuk in the first perek of Tehillim admonishes us to be as trees planted on the banks of rivers, with deep roots – entrenched shoroshim – linking us to Har Sinai and the greatest mortals the world has known. We are guided by their legacy and teachings. We have a rich mesorah. We drink from the palgei mayim of our timeless Torah, as did “avdi Yaakov.”
Despite their challenges and obstacles, the Bnei Yisroel in Mitzrayim lived with the ideal of “lo shinu,” remembering where they came from and where they were headed.
In the land of Paroh, this was important. His leadership was based on fiction and false perceptions, as Rashi states on the words “Hinei hu yotzei hamoymah” (7:15). Paroh created a fictitious narrative about himself. He was unable to redirect his life even in the face of the makkos. The ego-driven lie he had fashioned about himself allowed him to lead a blissful existence. However, his conceit prevented him from recognizing that he was up against a higher power and the enslavement of the Jewish people was coming to end, thus bringing calamity upon himself and his nation.
It was in this climate of Mitzrayim, where fiction masqueraded as fact, that the grandchildren of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov distinguished themselves, a goy mikerev goy standing tall, a nation of truth and destiny.
When we live through times such as ours, incidents such as those that occurred last week should remind us that instead of seeking to blend into the cultural fabric of the country, we should remember who we are and from where we come. We have a destiny. The truth must be our guide and protecting it our concern.
We have to be honest with ourselves, confront our imperfections, and overcome them. We must set goals for ourselves and our personal development, never resting from laboring in the pursuit of excellence and G-dliness. As we study these parshiyos of geulah, we should rededicate ourselves to living lives of truth, Torah and mussar, and being true to ourselves and our destiny.
We dare not be impressed by the allure and glamour of fleeting beauty and popularity based upon superficiality and fallacy. We have to remain a people of depth and intelligence, of loyalty and determination. When the world shakes, we should rededicate ourselves to Torah to ensure that we are living proper lives. We should make time every day to learn some mussar to keep us faithful to ourselves and help us defeat the yeitzer hora, which seeks to destroy our decency and goodness.
We are a nation of survivors. If we stand tall, remind ourselves who we are and what we stand for, and work together to build a brighter future, we will soon merit the geulah. If we recognize our strength and power, we can remedy that which needs rectifying and reinforce that which requires strengthening.
Let us not be like the people of Mitzrayim and their leaders who were blindsided and unable to act sensibly and responsibly.
The first prime minister of Israel was thrown out of his party after having led the country for many years. When he opened a new party and ran for his old job, he went down in defeat and retreated to his home in Sde Boker. Reporters had many questions as the man who had dominated the country retreated to the sidelines. When asked if he would have done things differently, he answered that he was satisfied with every decision he made except for one. Ben Gurion said that he regretted freeing yeshiva bochurim from army duty.
Rav Zvi Shvartz of Rechovot recounts that he was learning in the Chevron Yeshiva at the time. Together with other bochurim, he shared the comment with Rav Chatzkel Sarna, the rosh yeshiva. Rav Sarna explained to them how that fateful decision came about. “Lev melochim vesorim b’Yad Hashem,” he said. The prime minister’s decisions were not his; Hashem managed everything so that it would be for the benefit of Klal Yisroel in Eretz Yisroel. Therefore, although he would have done things differently, at the time he wasn’t able to decide differently.
In hindsight, he saw that with every issue, he had taken the correct course of action. So, too, when it came to the question of drafting yeshiva bochurim, Hashem put the idea in his head to allow them to study Torah and help rebuild what was lost during the Holocaust. When he looked back at it, he couldn’t believe that he decided to exempt them.
Similarly, in our day, politicians make promises and lay out plans for what they will do should they get elected, but when they get into power, very often they take a totally different course. This is because it is not up to them anymore. Once they are in a position of authority, Hashem takes over the decision-making process and they act the way Hashem has guided them. They are no longer in control.
We see things going on and don’t understand how they can happen. The political world is in upheaval and nothing makes any sense. How can it be? How can it be that in this advanced age, people act so uncivilly, lacking intelligence and decency?
Lev melochim vesorim b’Yad Hashem. The only rational explanation is that Hashem is directing the thoughts and actions of people in power for reasons only He knows.
Since the onset of the Covid pandemic, nothing has proceeded rationally. Everything that has happened defies explanation. From the way the virus works, to the many missteps taken in battling it and healing people afflicted with it, to the near miraculously fast discovery of vaccines, to the way this country and many others have botched their delivery to the citizens, nothing makes sense.
And nothing that happened on the political scene can be explained easily either, from the George Floyd riots, to the presidential campaign and election, to the rush at the US Capitol last week. It all defies logic.
American Jewry had believed that the freedoms promised us by the constitution will protect us from those who would seek to harm us. But recent events have caused everyone to recognize that our safety, along with the rights to worship and practice religion as we please, can no longer be taken for granted.
Now there are politicians and corporations who are seeking to destroy the protections the constitution affords citizens of these United States, protections that enabled this country to grow and prosper and be a beacon of democracy, proclaiming freedom throughout the world. They couch their designs in lofty terminology, yet they jeopardize free speech and expression.
We try to make sense of the bizarre. We don’t understand what is happening. But as people of faith, we know that there is something going on behind the scenes, way deeper and more impactful than we can imagine.
Far be it from me to try to understand Hashem’s plan, but it is obvious that Hakadosh Boruch Hu is laying the groundwork to bring us Moshiach.
We all know that it was foretold that in the times of Moshiach, we will recognize that ein lonu lehisha’ein ela al Avinu shebashomayim. We will have no one to depend on but Hashem, as everything else that we believed in will crumble.
Let us recognize that all that transpires is part of a Divine plan. We may not always understand the workings of Hashem, but we must recognize that they are what causes everything to happen and nothing happens just because. We may be in for hard times, but let’s keep it all in perspective and remember that it is up to us and our maasim tovim to determine the outcome of this trying historic period.
Lev melochim vesorim b’Yad Hashem. We don’t know what the Ribono Shel Olam has in store for the country, for the world, and for us, but we ask that He protect us as the plan unfolds and that it should lead to the swift coming of Moshiach.
We don’t need to be lectured by politicians and others who are motivated by polls and egos. Let us seek the refuge and direction of sifrei mussar for direction in self-improvement and behavior so that we don’t engage in the types of actions that destroy people and nations.
Remember Yossel’s rule. It can save you much personal aggravation and help bring the geulah.