Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz: Blinded


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yated new.jpgIn Parshas Eikev, Moshe Rabbeinu continues his admonishing of the Jewish people for their waywardness. He warns them not to delude themselves as to why Hashem has been kind to them and why they have experienced success. He reminds them that all Hashem asks for in return is that they have yiras Shomayim.

It’s not really much to ask for, especially when you consider the miraculous survival of the Jewish people through centuries of persecution. Without obvious Divine intervention, we would have been wiped off the map many times over. Yet, more often than not, we fail to heed the message of this week’s parsha. We discover that honoring Hashem’s request for Yiras Shomayim is far from a simple task.

We grow fat and comfortable, strong and haughty, and convince ourselves that it is our superior intelligence and mighty muscles that enabled us to reach the pinnacle of success. As long as the going is good, we fail to appreciate our severe limitations. Despite blatant evidence of our human frailties, we cling to a naïve belief in ourselves and our abilities.

It takes a downturn for us to be forced to admit our human fallibilities. By then, it is usually too late. By then, we have turned off too many people with our arrogance and disloyalty. We can no longer count on their friendship and mercy. We played hard to get much longer than we should have. We were deaf to our friend’s entreaties and good advice. We didn’t have to listen to anyone; rules were made for the dopes, not for us. Then, one day, it all comes crashing down on us and there is no one around to help us pick up the pieces.

We all know people whom we would like to shake up a bit to alert them about the true state of affairs, but we hesitate to burst their bubble—to shatter their delusions of grandeur. We reach out our hands to them in friendship and are smacked. We can do little more than stand on the side and wait for these people who we care about to right themselves.

When we read the pesukim of Parshas Eikev, we feel as if Moshe is pleading with the Jewish people the way we would plead with someone we deeply care about and are attempting to influence to accept reality. He reminds them of all they have been through, of all the miracles G-d wrought in order to bring them to where they are. He begs them to remember who has fed, clothed and cared for them, even as they remained ungrateful. He reminds them how stubborn and spiteful they were and how he repeatedly interceded on their behalf.

It is as if we have met someone who knew our grandparents and therefore had a warm spot for us. They reached out to us with kindness and tried to help us in our pursuits. Instead of appreciating where that kindness came from, that it was inspired by their warm memories of our grandparents, we lull ourselves into thinking that it is we ourselves who are so beloved.

Quite often, we meet people who are so chained by their egos, they are no longer capable of absorbing the truth. They remain blinded by their hubris to facts that are plainly evident to everyone else. The truth can be staring them in the face and their resistance to anything that challenges their prejudiced notions prevents them from recognizing it.

Some examples from last week’s newspapers put this willful blindness on display.

Throwing Good Money After Bad

Michael Steinhart retired from the hedge fund business in the mid 1990s with half a billion dollars in his pocket. Obviously, he was a brilliant trader. Since his retirement, he has spent $125 million on philanthropy in the Jewish world to ensure Jewish continuity. He now tells the JTA that he is unhappy with the results of his largesse. While he is to be commended for his fine intentions, and several of his initiatives are widely regarded, we agree with him that much of his money was misspent.

But the steps he is taking to rectify his mistakes will accomplish nothing more than throwing more good money after bad. He is now building, among other projects, a $100 million “Fund for the Jewish Future,” to be known also as Areivim. For a man like Mr. Steinhart who does not believe in G-d to be building grand projects to guarantee Jewish survival brings absurdity to a whole new level.

Let’s turn to Shimon Peres who in his inaugural message, mentioned his Volozhiner background, giving secular writer Hillel Halkin goose bumps of nostalgia. The writer’s great-grandfather was none other than the famed Netziv of Volozhin. Halkin wrote in The New York Sun that Peres’ reference “led me to reflect on a lost world that both of us ultimately derive from.”

Lost Souls Pining for Volozhin

When I read Peres’ words, I pondered the fact that this man was born right outside Volozhin and learned Gemara every day with his grandfather, a Volozhiner talmid. How painful to reflect on what he might have become as opposed to what has, in fact, become of him. Though he may occupy a prestigious position, he cannot shake his image as a loser, and not only because he lost every popular election in which he ever ran. He cut himself off from the chain descending from Sinai. Instead of spending a fruitful life observing Torah and mitzvos and continuing Talmudic study, as his grandfather would have wanted, he spent his life in syphsian political debauchery.

Had he remained loyal to the Volozhin of his grandfather and observed a Torah lifestyle, that life would have been of so much greater worth to the Jewish people. He and his progeny would not today be cut off from the tree of life hewn by the L-rd of Israel.

Alas, it is never too late. Perhaps now that his career climb has ended, Mr. Peres can yet still let go of his fantasies of a new Mideast and return to his forefather’s Torah without fear.

Doctoring Up The Netziv

As for Halkin, he twists historical truths around to portray the failures of Volozhin—those who left the yeshiva world and renounced their religious beliefs in order to embrace secularism—as the yeshiva’s greatest success stories. Not only that, he casts the Netziv as a progressive thinker molded in Halkin’s own image.

He expounds on the “intellectual and historical approach to Talmudic studies” that he ignorantly claims the Netziv introduced, as an innovation that “was unusual in its day…” And he lauds the Netziv who he asserts “broke with the ultra-Orthodox of his time” to preserve solidarity with those in the secular camp, recognizing that all Jews are brothers.

Therefore, the great-grandson concludes—and we would agree, albeit for very different reasons than Halkin—that “the ultra-Orthodox world in both Israel and America needs another Tsvi Yehuda Berlin today.”

It is so bitterly ironic, and another sign of our sad golus, that this lost soul proudly traces his lineage to the holy Netziv and believes that he can admonish the “ultra-Orthodox” about how they should be leading their lives.

It does not diminish the Netziv in any way to note that “Kol Yisroel areivim zeh bazeh” is not a Volozhiner concept, but one that is Biblical in nature and native to all Torah observant Jews. It does not minimize the greatness of the Netziv to note that ultra-Orthodox Jews would love nothing more than reaching out to their wayward brethren to return them to the fold, if only they were receptive.

The Netziv, as did all the leading rabbinic figures of the time, relentlessly battled the Maskilim who not only fought to introduce secular subjects into Volozhin but had the audacity to recruit government authorities to bolster their demands. Rather than surrender his principles, the Netziv closed the yeshiva, an act which he wrote at the time so devastated him he was afraid it would lead to his death. To even suggest that the Netziv looked benevolently upon those evil-doers who created so much havoc is historical revisionism at its most pernicious.

It was one of the oft-repeated canards of the Maskilim who hounded the Netziv to the point where his health broke down, that the rabbis were indifferent to the welfare of the Jewish community outside of their own narrow circle. It was so often repeated that even people who benefited from their chesed began to believe it. People like my great-grandfather, Rav Yaakov Haleivi Lipschutz zt”l of Kovno, devoted themselves to foiling the Maskilim’s schemes and to refuting their lies and distortions. They sought with all their strength to return kavod haTorah to the pedestal upon which it belonged.

Despite the best efforts of Mr. Halkin’s great-grandfather and mine, the Haskalah infiltrated the yeshivos of Lita and extracted many korbanos, The Netziv towered over Volozhin for decades, sleeping but a couple hours a night while serving as a bulwark of spiritual strength in the Volozhiner bais medrash, which pulsated with Torah 24 hours a day. He encouraged the talmidim to grow in Torah and showed them the path to leadership and greatness. A father to thousands of talmidim, it would be hard to exaggerate his impact on Jewry.

But a grandson who has strayed far from Volozhin has tried to doctor up the Netziv to fit his own image—an image antithetical to the principals the Netziv lived and died for. Halkin measures this Torah giant’s legacy by the Bialiks and Berdichevkys who drifted tragically far from their spiritual moorings, trading in nitzchiyus for temporal fame in this world.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews recognize more than anyone else the vacuum that could be filled by the Netziv were he to return today. But we have no use for the hollow doctrines of Haskalah that have caused the spiritual demise of whole sections of Klal Yisroel.

Modern Orthodoxy— From A Renegade’s Perspective

That leads us to an article in the New York Times Magazine which has aroused much angst in the Modern Orthodox world.

Harvard law professor Noah Feldman wrote a very personal and blunt critique of Modern Orthodoxy entitled “Orthodox Paradox,” in which he takes to task the school he attended, Maimonides Yeshiva in Brighton, Mass.

Feldman was valedictorian when he graduated from Harvard; he was a Rhodes scholar and a Truman scholar, and finished his doctorate in Oxford faster then anyone else had before him.

He is very upset. He says, that the Maimonides Yeshiva tried “reconciling the vastly disparate values of tradition and modernity” and tried to combine “Slobodka and St. Paul’s.”

“I have tried in my own imperfect way,” he writes, “to live up to values that the school taught me, expressing my respect and love for the wisdom of the tradition while trying to reconcile Jewish faith with scholarship and engagement in the public sphere.”

Feldman’s “imperfect way” of achieving the synthesis he sought led him to marry out of faith. He is distressed that in reaction to his choice, the school now refuses to recognize him as a student and actually cut his photo out of a report on an alumni reunion he attended.

Much like Halkin’s remaking of the Netziv, he absurdly brings his alma mater’s namesake as a witness for his defense. He cites “Maimonides” as advocating the study of the world as an intelligent way to get to know G-d. Nonsensically, he equates such study with the abandonment of halacha, ignoring the obvious fact that it was the Rambam himself who was the first to codify the halachos.

It is the height of ignorance and arrogance on Feldman’s part to imply even indirectly that the Rambam would countenance his marriage to a gentile woman.

But such is the folly of a brilliant person trapped by his desires, unwilling to grasp how antithetical his life is with the Torah’s imperatives. Once again the Orthodox are the ones projected as myopic, heartless and cruel.

Middle East Madness

What article about ego-driven people would be complete without a peek at the current leadership of the State of Israel? The current prime minister, who is approved by three percent of the population, give or take a few percentage points, was elected on a platform of unilateral disengagement from Gaza and the West Bank. The theory was that it would lead to peace and the new Middle East of Shimon Peres and Oslo.

Of course, we all know that Gaza has turned into a virtual terror state and base for yet more violent murderous acts against the Jews of Israel. But that hasn’t stopped Olmert and his gang from continuing along their path of self-destruction. They lost the war in Lebanon last year and lost the vital deterrence factor, as the Arabs saw that they don’t have to fear the vaunted Israeli army anymore. Iran threatens with a nuclear weapon and the Zionist haven is powerless to bring the process to a halt.

One Zionist icon after another is toppled by corruption, malfeasance and bankruptcy, yet the government muddles along and the people, amazingly, keep swallowing it. Incredibly, they do not rise up in disgust and indignation, crying out, “Dayeinu. We have had enough of the lies and deception.”

Deposed and now-resurrected minister Chaim Ramon, in any other civilized country, would hang his head in shame and sink into oblivion. In Israel, however, he is a leader – a deputy prime minister, in fact. Last week, he said, “Israel must move quickly, because we have a ‘partner’ in the non-Hamas leadership. I don’t know for how long, so we must act quickly.”

That’s right: act now before the Palestinians of the West Bank depose Abbas like they did in Gaza. Let’s quickly rush and give them over the West bank before Hamas comes.

Can rational people really think that way? Can thinking people be so misguided? Can it really be that they don’t see the folly of their ways? How can people be so totally blinded?

Fateful Warnings Meant For Our Own Times

Read the pesukim of this week’s parsha (perek 8, posuk 11 and on): “Be careful lest you shall forget Hashem… Lest you eat and become full and build nice, good fancy homes and become settled… Lest you have much gold and silver and become haughty and forget Hashem, your G-d, who took you out of Mitzrayim and led you through the Midbar where he quenched your thirst and fed you. Yet you say in your heart, I did this all myself with my own strength. Remember it is Hashem who gives you strength to wage war … If you will forget Hashem and go after strange gods and you will serve them and bow to them, I warn you that you will be destroyed…”

These pesukim are not just written to the people who have obviously gone astray; they are written to us as well, and should serve as a reminder to us that we should never let our gaavah get the better of us and fool us into thinking that we are self-sufficient, that we are smart and strong enough to take care of ourselves. We must always remember where we come from and where we are headed. We must be constantly aware that it is Hashem who provides us with the know-how and stamina we require to earn our livings and get ahead in this world, and to survive life’s many challenges and pitfalls.

Let us not fall prey to self-aggrandizement. Let us ensure that we don’t become blinded by ego and evil inclination, and that we remain loyal to the One who sustains us.

For as the parsha ends (11:22), “If you will observe the mitzvos, love Hashem and follow in his path… then Hashem will let you inherit nations that are larger and stronger than yours… Wherever you will set your foot down will be blessed… No one will be able to stand in your way.”


© 2007 Yated Neeman