No Standing in Place
Chanukah, referring to the re-dedication of the Beis HaMikdash, derives from the same root as chinuch (education). The two ideas are connected in that both emphasize the importance of beginnings and building a solid foundation.
We have just learned again, through the life of Yaakov Avinu, one of the foundational ideas upon which our chinuch must be based. After all his travails with Lavan and Esav, Yaakov wanted nothing more than to just rest a bit – vayeishev Yaakov. But it was not to be. HaKadosh Baruch Hu delivered, as Rashi explains, the clearest possible message that there is no peace and relaxation for tzaddikim in this World. No matter how much you have achieved, no matter how great your spiritual level, if at this moment your greatest desire is to stay put, then your place is not in this world, but in the next.
Standing still is not just a dangerous idea; it's an impossibility. That is the message of the ladder Yaakov saw in his dream as he embarked on the journey to Padan Aram. The angels were going up and coming down. None were stationary.
If we are not constantly pushing ourselves to go up, we will go down (see the Vilna Gaon to Mishlei 15:24) The spiritual gravitational forces operating upon us are constantly pulling us downward, and if we are not exerting a countervailing force in the other direction, the trajectory is inevitably downward.
No matter what one's past achievements, there is no resting on one's laurels. One of the sharpest pieces of mussar I ever received came well over three decades ago. Around the time that I started learning by Rabbi Tzvi Kushlevsky, my classmates from law school were just beginning to "make partner" in America's most prestigious law firms. They were making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, while my kollel stipend was a few hundred shekels.
One morning in the middle of morning seder, I put my head down for a few minutes. My chavrusah commented off-handedly, with no evident malicious intent, "It's amazing how much some people sacrifice to learn Torah, and how little they do with the opportunity after that." He let me know that there was no time to pat myself on the back for having turned my back on a lucrative law practice.
IT IS DAUNTING, no doubt, to understand that stasis is not an option. But that realization carries with it a corollary that should empower us: If at any given moment we are either ascending spiritually or declining, each moment is of crucial importance. It is an opportunity to be used either for good or bad, to open up, in Rav Chaim Volozhiner's language, conduits of blessing to the world or, chas ve'shalom, to close them.
That appreciation of the preciousness of time and therefore of the importance of our lives was one of the ideas that most powerfully attracted many of ba'alei teshuva I know to Yiddishkeit. It is the key to feeling truly alive.
I realized recently that the happiest time of the day for me is the morning shiur on Mesilas Yesharim. Studying Mesilas Yesharim is a far cry from living according to Mesilas Yesharim. But even lifting one's sights upwards as an expression of aspiration makes one feel more intensely alive.
NOTHING IS SADDER than seeing someone – particularly teenagers -- without any ambition or goals. And unfortunately that state characterizes far too many of our young. A friend of mine who has taught for years at one of the many yeshivos that serves as a reclamation project after twelve years of religious education describes to me the daily (and unsuccessful) battle to get his Gemara shiur to put away their hand-held devices during shiur. Even during a private conversation, many talmidim do not make eye-contact or stop texting friends.
Their entire days are spent distracting themselves and avoiding ever having to think about anything. Texting is easier than cracking a Tosfos so texting wins. These kids have too infrequently experienced the sweetness of exerting themselves to reach a goal, of striving to achieve something.
Hearing about them I'm reminded of Rabbi Noach Weinberg's lectures on pleasure and pain. Reb Noach fought against the notion that pain is the opposite of pleasure. Comfort, he insisted, is the opposite of pleasure. The body seeks comfort, sleep, oblivion – less dramatic forms of suicide. The soul seeks growth, knowledge, inspiration. And the price for the latter is effort and pain.
IF EVEN YAAKOV AVINU could experience the siren call of comfort for a brief moment, we can be certain that each of us is tempted, each according to his own level. Every time we notice those fighting to resist the lure of comfort and striving to grow, we should take note and be inspired.
I have a neighbor who retired early from the practice of law and today spends his day learning, including a full seder in a kollel with young men half to one-third his age. At the time of his retirement, he was considered one of the top corporate attorneys in an international business center. And within the Torah community, he was viewed as something of a talmid chacham for his breadth of yedios and penetrating analysis. He was honored and respected in every respect of his life.
Yet instead of basking in that honor, he decided to pick himself up and move to Eretz Yisrael and thrust himself into a world in which his store of Torah knowledge would no longer stand out and into a beis medrash filled with Torah scholars whose younger minds can hold more information and process it faster.
He chose to grow in Torah by becoming the tail of the lion. And so should we all choose growth. It starts one moment at a time.
These Lights Must Not Be Extinguished
Sixteen years ago, a 26-year old avreich in Bnei Brak received a phone call from a place of which he had never heard asking him to come and teach Torah. The caller had picked up Rabbi Aharon Bezalel's Kuntrus HaChaim, and wanted him to come to Tzoran. Rabbi Bezalel had never heard of Tzoran, a bedroom community east of Netanya, and it is pretty sure no one besides the caller had heard of him. The original municipal plan for Tzoran did not even make provision for a shul.
The young avreich learned that there was an Egged bus from Bnei Brak that passed Tzoran once a day (no return), and began travelling there every afternoon. Within less than a year, an abandoned caravan had become a makeshift shul and there was even a kollel. Rabbi Bezalel raised the money for a mikveh, which today serves over 400 families.
He also started a cheder. When I first met Rabbi Bezalel in late 2007, the cheder had 86 boys, from kindergarten to fifth grade. But it lacked Health Ministry approval and had too few students to qualify for Education Ministry funding. Rabbi Bezalel was not only the principal, but also the secretary and janitor.
With $20,000 raised from less than a handful of donors, he was able to make the necessary improvements and enroll enough students for Educational Ministry funding. Today, the cheder has 160 students and its graduates have gone on to learn in some of the finest yeshivot ketanot in the country. I cannot think of too many returns like that per tzedakah dollar invested.
Now, Rabbi Bezalel faces another crisis. A court has ordered him off his current premises by December 31. His only hope is to rent an abandoned shell of an auditorium nearby or to receive a plot of land from the regional council on which to build a pre-fabricated structure. Though the cost of latter is greater (400,000 shekels/$115,000) dollars, he would thereafter be freed of monthly rent (15,000/mo. shekels for the auditorium), and he has a donor willing to eventually pay for a permanent structure (but nothing until then).
In either event, he will have barely over a month, if he can raise the necessary funds, to either completely redo the interior of the auditorium or to build a complete structure from scratch. Even with a great deal of "sweat equity" from parents and serving as his own building contractor, it will be a 24/6 race against the clock.
What happens if Rabbi Bezalel has to close the school? There are no real alternative schools for the parents, without dropping several degrees in the quality of their sons' religious education. When Rabbi Bezalel first arrived in Tzoran, there was barely a shomer Shabbos Jew to be found in Tzoran or the thirty communities in the area. Virtually all his parents are ba'alei teshuva of a little more than a decade at most.
Some of the parents would probably move to Torah enclaves like Elad to ensure the quality of their children's chinuch. But the move of relatively recent ba'alei teshuva to all- chareidi communities has proven to be fraught with spiritual danger for both parents and their children.
I'm heavily invested emotionally in Rabbi Bezalel. I'm a sucker for mesirus nefesh. When I first travelled with him to Tzoran, the car in which we rode was at least 100,000 miles past the junk heap. At night, he collected money in the Itzkowitz shtiebl in Bnei Brak for gas money to go back and forth twice a day. And at 36, he was already notably hard of hearing, as a consequence of the constant pressures on him, including mortgaging his small apartment to keep the cheder going.
But ultimately the case for saving cheder Achdut Yisrael rests on the return on the one-time investment needed now – the 160 or more boys, kein yirbu, who will be learning yearly at the only traditional cheder (with Education Ministry standard secular studies) in the area for decades to come.
What better time than Chanukah to keep the pure light of Torah burning in an area that until recently was filled only with darkness?
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