Rav Belsky, Zt”l: Taking Mussar in Egypt and Today

rav belsky
Rav Belsky, zt”l, at a hachnasas sefer Torah in Camp Agudah. (Tzvi Liberman)

The following is an amalgamation of comments made by Rav Yisroel Belsky, zt”l, regarding previous world tragedies, whose lessons are relevant to today’s coronavirus pandemic.

This is adapted, with permission, from a Rav Belsky Haggadah, to be published iy”H for Pesach 2021 by Rabbi Dovid Abramowitz.

Earthquakes, tsunamis, famines, plagues, tornadoes, floods!

When major calamities strike around the globe it is natural to think that such events are within the normal range of the functioning world, and therefore there is nothing personally relevant. Such an evaluation is based upon years of one’s own observations. However, the truth is that when we hear of powerful and painful events in the world, which primarily affect non-Jews, we must understand that the Ribono shel olam is sending us a message. This may seem farfetched. What is the source for this understanding?

Rashi[i] in Parshas Va’era explains that when the Yidden do aveiros and deserve punishment, Hashem warns us before implementing that punishment. But the warnings don’t begin with actions directed at the Jews. Rather, the first step in giving us mussar is to punish the non-Jews for their own misdeeds in a striking way which should grab our attention.[ii]

The message to us is that there is din v’chesbon in the world. Hashem wants to startle us so that we pay attention, begin self-examination[iii] and correct ourselves so that He does not have to hit us directly. (Similarly to tzaraas which begins upon one’s house.)

Rashi cites the Navi Tzefanya. Hashem describes, I destroyed nations, knocked down their towers, destroyed their streets which are now empty, their cities are in ruin and desolate. Hashem explains, I had hoped you would pay attention to what I did to the nations, and taken mussar from it. If you had done so it would not be necessary to destroy the Bais Hamikdash, and I would have been able to bring about all the wonderful things which I had prepared for Klal Yisroel. But you didn’t listen and were not mikabel mussar.

The passuk describes a progression: pay attention, increase yiras shamayim and take mussar from those events. Even grand, striking events do not create yiras shamayim, but they are a stimulus to each of us, individually, to develop yiras shamayim which must make us stir from our complacency and begin to make a cheshbon hanefesh­ ­­– decide that things are not right, that they must be different, and determine that we must make a change in our life. Once we begin thinking and create within ourselves the mindset of yiras shamayim, we will be shaken when additional events take place and see them for the messages that they are. We will take mussar from them instead of identifying them as natural phenomenon and ignoring them.

This process was critical to the development of the Yidden in Egypt. Hashem hardened Pharaoh’s heart and ensured that Egypt suffered through the entire 12 months of makkos because Egypt deserved punishment for all the tortures they had inflicted upon the Bnei Yisroel [iv]. However, Rashi explains that another reason for the makkos was this concept which we have been discussing, Ach tiru osi, tikchi mussar [v].

Hashem sent the makkos to fill the Bnei Yisroel with pachad and yirah, so that they should correct their ways and have yiras shamayim. The makkos were spaced to enable the Yidden to contemplate what Hashem was teaching with each one.[vi] They utilized this opportunity and gradually increased their yiras shamayim which was one of the most essential elements of yetzias mitzrayim in that it is the critical prerequisite for emunah which they needed to be able to accept the Torah.[vii] Without being in that frame of mind the experiences of kriyas yam suf would not have yielded לִהְיוֹת לָכֶם לֵאלֹקִים, which was the ultimate objective of yetzias mitzrayim and Mattan Torah – to create a nation focused on the spiritual – to create the Am Hashem.

I don’t know if the makkos that we experience in the world around us are any less devastating than the makkos in Mitzrayim. So why don’t we take mussar? Because we live in a frame of mind which blocks us from developing yiras Hashem. We become accustomed to anything, and nothing alarms us enough to urge us to change. A youngster who sees something for the first time is shaken up – but the older people calm him down and tell him, “Don’t worry. It’s nothing. Things like this happen all the time.” They missed the message, and sabotage anyone else from hearing it.

In the last year in the life of the Chofetz Chaim there was a terrible earthquake in Japan. The Chofetz Chaim commented, “Men meint nisht zei, men meint unz – They don’t mean them. They mean us.”

Wouldn’t it be wondrous to stand by Har Sinai with the kolos and brakim? But we might just observe that the clouds have ionic behavior which interacts with the negative charge of the earth and the resultant lightning yields roars of thunder. Nothing to get excited about. The natural reaction which could be utilized for self-correction is subdued.

Everything that happens in the world contains a message. Who are all those messages intended to influence? It is not possible that every individual in the entire world is expected to respond, but at the very least, a sample of Klal Yisroel should be jarred and affected. A Jew should be aroused by the slightest provocation, and our minds should be working overtime to feel the message in the air. We need to be chachamim, people whose minds are dominant, and move out of our old set of habits which lock out yiras shamayim. People often reach a plateau of growth, but Talmidei Chachamim never stop growing because they draw mussar from every experience.

Every year when I go through these sidras I ask myself the same question: “Am I picking up the message?” There are surely a thousand messages which the Ribono Shel Olam is sending me every day in my own life. There are so many different things I should be doing for myself and for others. If people would be hearing the message that Hakadosh Baruch Hu is sending them constantly they would be changing from year to year. We would be different every day, every week, but at least every year there would be something surprising in their behaviors. I ask myself, ‘Why am I no different than I was before?’ We all know ourselves what we need to correct and perfect, lev yodea maras nafsho, a person knows his private life. We have to identify our own barriers to growth, our figurative kotzer ruach u’meavodah kasheh. Not others’ barriers, but our own.

How to respond and how to acquire yiras shamayim from events that are thrown in our faces, which warn us, I don’t know myself. Every person must search in the depths of his heart and determine how to respond and how to acquire yiras shamayim. Each person. Each individual. There is no universal formula. A person must search the depths of his heart for his own personal hisorerus, but hisorerus there must be. And if there will be the hisorerus then events will progress toward the geulah shelaimah.

In Egypt the makkos were immediately followed by the geula. Then and now, the giant change which is the geula is the sum total of all the little changes of the individuals. In order to achieve a total geula we need to begin with smaller geulas. If there is no change in each individual, how is the big change going to happen? That is why there are more makkos in the world today. If we are holding by the ikvisa dimoshicha then they are there to jiggle us and jar us. Every little bit of progress by each individual creates that tremendous momentum that will result in the geula shelaima. The Eibishter help it should happen bimheira b’yamenu.

[i] Vaera 7:3 Rashi Va’ani aksheh

[ii] The non-Jews are being punished for their own sins, but determining what they did to deserve punishment is unproductive and distracting.

[iii] The first step in perfecting oneself is to identify that which is incorrect in one’s actions. However, that is often where everything stops – because precisely that which one needs to correct is often viewed as part of the trappings which make for a fulfilling and joyful existence.

[iv] Eduyos 2/10

[v] There were many messages which the makkos conveyed: To create an awareness of the existence of the Ribbono Shel Olam who created and runs the world – (Shemos 6/7); The difference between the Jew and non-Jew (Shemos 11/6); Recognizing the kedusha of the Bnei Yisroel and their special role in this world, which was realized in their transformation to a spiritually focused nation during the Chag Lashem; To give a mesorahUlmaan tesaper b’aznei bincha… (Shemos 10/3); but this Rashi explains what the purpose of the yiras shamayim was, and what mussar the Bnei Yisroel were expected to absorb.

[vi] Ramban

[vii] Therefore biyas hamoshiach will also have powerful events – to again cause Vayaminu ha’am Bashem vayiru es Hashem.