This past Sunday we concluded a spectacular weekend retreat at Beit
Shvidler, where participants were treated to a potpourri of exciting
workshops, and lecturers stimulated their audiences with the very best that
Ohr Somayach has to offer.
In addition to our regular presenters, we asked education specialist Mrs.
Rivka Sher to address the challenges facing parents when tots and teens test
boundaries and their parent's patience to the limit. How is one to respond
to tantrums and manipulation? To what degree should we accommodate our
children's requests for gadgets and fancy clothing that they claim are
standard for their peers? Most importantly, the weekend generated a spirit
of chizuk and achdus, leaving all refreshed and energized.
Across the parking lot in the Yeshiva, a large contingent of Syrian college
students had joined together for a weekend of Torah learning, led by our
special alumnus, Rabbi and Mrs. Uri Nahum. Uri is the dynamic rabbi of
Mishkan Yerusahlyim, a blossoming kehilla and community in the heart of
Flatbush. The group benefited from their first exposure to a traditional
Yeshiva environment, and Rabbi Nahum looks forward to bringing his recruits
back for a more advanced learning opportunity.
This week's Torah portion begins with a glimpse of the closing years and
months of Yaakov Avinu's life. The Torah tells us little about this time
frame, other than that Yaakov lived in Egypt for seventeen years, surrounded
by his holy and pure children. He established a fortress of spirituality
that would buttress his children against the onslaught of slavery and alien
influences that would test their spiritual and moral fiber for the next two
Yaakov's life was a turbulent one. More than any other patriarch's life, his
was punctuated with extraordinary challenges and tribulations, beginning
from the time he was forced to flee from his brother, Eisav, and arrived
penniless in Lavan's home. He struggled against Lavan's unscrupulousness for
twenty years; faced down a vengeful Eisav; coped with the daughter Dina's
abduction and for 22 years, mourned his lost son, Yosef.
Despite these harrowing challenges, Yaakov maintained his righteousness and
faith. His final moments are described in this week's Torah portion where,
with his life's mission completed, he gathered his feet to the bed and
allowed his soul to ascend to the celestial spheres. The pasuk says, "He
expired," and our sages tell us that Yaakov never physically died; he simply
took off his outer garment and allowing his neshama to ascend upwards. What
sustained Yaakov throughout the periods of intense darkness and confusion?
How did he maintain such a powerful, unsullied connection with the Divine
while being so distant from his parental and spiritual moorings?
A personal story that is said to have happened to the wealthy
philanthropist, Paul Reichmann, can give us perspective on this enigma. Mr.
Reichmann is revered in the Torah world for his great humility and
magnanimous nature. Without fanfare he distributed his largesse to thousands
of worthy causes across the globe.
One Shabbos, he left his comfortable home to visit an ailing relative in
one of Toronto's Hospitals. Since the building had no Shabbos elevator, he
ascended the fire staircase to get to the eighth floor where his relative
was recovering from an operation. At the sixth floor, he felt wearied and
exited the staircase to catch his breath. He came upon a recreation area of
sorts in the ward adjacent to the staircase, where he found a chair and
regained his energy.
After ten minutes, he stood up to ascend the final staircases but found the
doors of the ward securely locked. Upon looking about more carefully, he
noticed that the ward's occupants were mumbling to themselves and behaving
strangely. He went over to a nurse and asked for her assistance in exiting
the ward. She looked at him quizzically. "You know the rules, sir, you can't
leave this ward!"
He protested that he had just accidentally entered to rest and identified
himself as Mr. Paul Reichmann. The nurse looked at him and laughed.
"Everyone on this ward thinks they are Mr. Paul Reichmann," she said. With a
nonchalant wave of her hand, she walked off. As Mr. Reichmann later told the
story, it took him quite a while to extricate himself from the
misunderstanding. Only after a grueling interview by the hospital director
was he finally believed, and graciously escorted to the top floor!
Our souls descend from the heavenly throne to this world, encased in a
physical body. During our time in this world, we are infected with a
seemingly obsessive drive for materialism in an environment severed from the
luxurious spiritual home from where we came, and to which we will ultimately
return. We are trapped in a world that is spiritually dark and foreboding.
The challenge is to view our situation the way Mr. Reichmann viewed his
encounter in the psychiatric ward. He was certain of his true identity,
understood that he was merely a passing visitor and, unlike the people
around him, was in full possession of all his faculties. Thus he was able to
transition back to his normal life without difficulty.
The name Yaakov is comprised of a yud, representing Hashem's presence, with
the word "eikev" - heel. Yaakov's soul illuminated his whole body until his
very heel-the point furthest from the neshama that comes into constant
contact with material earth. The intimate connection between his soul and
body was never compromised. Yaakov knew that G-dliness was the essence of
his identity, and the lower extremities of his body served merely to cloak
his neshama. Thus, he was able to maintain his lofty spiritual standing even
in Egypt, and when his life's purpose had been fulfilled, to pass on
seamlessly to the next world.
In our own lives, we too need to maintain an elevated frame of mind even as
we engage life's most pressing difficulties and moments. During our
temporary earthly sojourn, we need to keep in mind from where we have come,
who we truly are, and where we belong.
Our existence in this often crazy, topsy-turvy world, is only transitory,
after all. If we maintain our presence of mind and our spiritual bearings
despite the hurdles thrown our way, we will surely have no difficulty in
transitioning to our heavenly abode and to appreciating the spiritual bliss
that awaits us.