Thursday, September 20, 2018

Covered


Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Sukkos, the Yom Tov that commands us to be fully joyous, as the posuk (Devorim 16:14-15) states, “Vesomachta bechagecha vehoyisa ach someiach,” is upon us. After the intense days of the Yomim Noraim, we look forward to the celebrative days of Sukkos. The kitchen is humming with action as the sukkah goes up, the children are busy coloring and decorating, and everyone is anticipating the welcome respite.

The Vilna Gaon famously expressed that the most difficult mitzvah of the Torah to observe is that of being happy on the eight days of Sukkos without having any sad thoughts or worries intruding.

I read the diary of a young man who learned in the Volozhiner Yeshiva. He writes gushingly about the joy of the Lithuanian Jews during Sukkos. I have excerpted a few paragraphs. Read along with me:

“The small towns of Lita were solemn a whole year round; there was no income and poverty was all they knew. But when Yom Tov arrived, old, dark bread was replaced with white bread, and everyone wore freshly cleaned clothing. Yom Tov brought a tremendous change. Everything was different. It felt like going from darkness to great light.

“During the Yom Tov of Sukkos, the town of Volozhin was adorned. All its inhabitants were swept up in celebration. The yeshiva bochurim sang and the school children danced around so merrily. From every corner of town, there was heard only much joy and happiness, as the town of Volozhin was overcome with rejoicing and festivity.

“The rest of the year, people were not overtly joyful, but when Yom Tov descended, they erupted in joy. Their natural inclination became one of jubilance and satisfaction. On Yom Tov, those very same people who were so serious all year sang and danced in blissful animation.

“This was true of all the Lithuanian shtetlach, but was most pronounced in Volozhin due to the presence of so many yeshiva bochurim. A whole year, they were in a different world, in the world of learning, but when Sukkos came, their inner happiness burst forth and they added even more to the city’s exultation.”

To enhance our joy, let us scratch beneath the surface of the mitzvah for which Sukkos is named. We hope that a greater, deeper understating and appreciation for the Yom Tov will increase our simcha during these days.

The Torah commands us (Vayikra 23:42-43) to dwell in a sukkah for seven days, beginning on the 15th day of Tishrei, “lemaan yeidu,” so that the generations will know that when Hashem took the Jews out of Mitzrayim, He gave them sukkos in which to live.

It is interesting to note that the Torah does not say that the mitzvah is to remember what took place at that time. Rather, the mitzvah is to know. Other mitzvos, such as tzitzis and Pesach, are to remember what happened, as the Torah states, “Lema’an tizkeru.” Why is the mitzvah of sukkah different?

The Tur (625) has a different question. He asks that the sukkah mentioned in the posuk (ibid.) refers to the Ananei Hakavod, which protected the Jews upon their exit from Mitzrayim. Why is the holiday of Sukkos commemorated during Tishrei and not during Nissan, the month the Jews left Mitzrayim?

The Vilna Gaon (Shir Hashirim 1:4) offers an answer. He writes that the Ananei Hakavod we commemorate on Sukkos is not the Holy Spirit that hovered over the Jews to protect them when they left Mitzrayim. If that was the reason for the celebration, the holiday would be marked during Nissan.

Rather, the sukkah commemorates that Hashem returned his Shechinah - via the Ananim - to the Jewish people following the sin of the Eigel. When the Jews sinned, Hashem removed His Shechinah and the Anan from among them. Moshe then returned to the mountain to plead for forgiveness. He descended on Yom Kippur. The next day, 11 Tishrei, he addressed the Bnei Yisroel and informed them of the mitzvah of constructing the Mishkon. He appealed to the people to donate the materials necessary to build the Mishkon, which would be the dwelling place of the Shechinah.

The Torah relates (“baboker baboker,” Shemos 36:3) that the people brought their donations for the next two days, the 12th and 13th of Tishrei. On the 14th of Tishrei, the builders of the Mishkon weighed, measured and accepted the gold and other materials from Moshe. On the 15th, they began to build. When the construction of the Mishkon commenced, the cloud returned.

Sukkos, says the Vilna Gaon, celebrates the return of the Shechinah cloud that was dependent on the construction of the Mishkon. That happened on the 15th of Tishrei, the day that begins the seven-day Yom Tov.

The Ramchal (Derech Hashem 4:7) states that on Sukkos, a remnant of the light of the original Ananim shines again. The influences that they affected in the midbar are manifest once again during the Sukkos period.

The Yalkut Shimoni (Emor 653) states that Hashem provides special protection for anyone who observes the mitzvah of sukkah. We can understand this based on the Ramchal that the power of the Ananei Hakavod is regenerated on Sukkos. Just as the Ananei Hakavod protected the Jews in the midbar from heat, cold, rain and sun, so too, on Sukkos, when we commemorate those miracles, the sukkah protects us from those who seek to hurt us.

The teaching of the Ramchal also helps us understand the statement quoted in Be’er Heiteiv (639:1) that observing the mitzvah of sukkah is akin to partnering with the Creator in the creation of the world.

Since, according the Vilna Gaon, we observe Sukkos in commemoration of the return of the Ananim to the encampment after the Bnei Yisroel repented for the sin of the Eigel. After we undergo the purifying process of Rosh Hashanah, the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah and Yom Kippur, we are then worthy of constructing our little Mishkon and meriting for the Holy Spirit to hover over the sukkah. Providing a resting place for the Shechinah in this world replicates the creation of the world, which provides a physical home for the Shechinah.

Sukkah is different than other mitzvos in that it is a mitzvah not only to sit in the sukkah, but to construct it as well. This is evident in the Rama (624:5), who says that those who are punctilious in their observance of mitzvos begin putting their sukkah together immediately after Yom Kippur, in order to go from one mitzvah to the next. In siman 625, the Rama states that it is a mitzvah to work on the sukkah right after Yom Kippur because of the rule that we perform a mitzvah when it comes our way - “mitzvah haba’ah leyodcha al tachmitzena.”

Some commentators say that it is derived from the posuk which states, “Chag hasukkos ta’aseh lecha - You shall make the Yom Tov of Sukkos” (Vayikra 23:41).

This phenomenon is not found with respect to other mitzvos. For example, we wear tefillin daily, but there is no specific commandment to produce them. There is no mitzvah to grow the lulav and esrog. Why is there a mitzvah to construct the sukkah?

We can understand the reason according to the explanation of the Vilna Gaon. Since when building a sukkah we are not simply constructing a room where we can eat and sleep, but also a holy place where we will be b’tzeila demehemnusa, we must purify ourselves and demonstrate proper dedication. That doesn’t happen by itself. It requires dedication and the purity that we achieve through the cleansing process Yom Kippur offers.

The Chofetz Chaim writes in his preface to sefer Chofetz Chaim that towards the end of the second Bais Hamikdosh period, sinas chinom and lashon hora spread, and because of that, the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed and the Jewish people were dispersed into exile. He says that although the Gemara states that the people were beset by sinas chinom, in fact what is meant by that is that the senseless hatred led to lashon hora. Lashon hora is what caused the churban.

With this, we can understand the ruling of the Mishnah Berurah (639:2) that since the sukkah is a very holy place, Torah and holy matters should be discussed there and idle chatter should be minimized. Certainly, says the Mishnah Berurah, we must be careful not to speak lashon hora or rechilus there.

The sukkah, which commemorates the Ananei Hakavod, allows us to merit sitting b’tzeila demehemnusa, in the shadow of the Shechinah. Since lashon hora causes the Shechinah to depart, we are cautioned to abstain from speaking lashon hora in the sukkah.

This is also why the Ananim in the desert were in merit of Aharon Hakohein (Taanis 9a). Aharon loved and pursued peace, and worked to bring people together (Avos 1:12; see Netzach Yisroel 53-54). He engaged in activities that prevented strife and sinas chinom among the Jewish people, allowing the Ananim to stay, for the Shechinah only rests upon the Jewish people when they are united.

The Tur (417) writes that the Shalosh Regolim are connected to the three forefathers. Pesach is for Avrohom, Shavuos is for Yitzchok, and Sukkos is for Yaakov, regarding whom the posuk (Bereishis 33:17) states, “Ulimikneihu asah Sukkos - And for his animals he constructed sukkos.” The beginning of that posuk also states that after the confrontation with Eisov, Yaakov traveled to Sukkos. This is the complete posuk: V’Yaakov nosa Sukkosa vayiven lo bayis ulimikneihu asah sukkos al kein kora sheim hamakom Sukkos.” The Zohar quotes the beginning of the posuk as the source that Sukkos is connected to Yaakov.

It is interesting that besides constructing sukkos, Yaakov consecrated the stone at the center of the Bais Hamkidosh known as the even shesiyah (Yoma 54b). The Medrash (Tanchuma, Terumah 9) teaches that when Yaakov went into exile in Mitzrayim, he brought trees that would later be harvested for their wood for the Mishkon.

Homiletically, Yaakov was engaging in the mitzvah of constructing a sukkah and mikdosh to the best of his abilities, since he lived many centuries before they were commanded. For us to benefit from them, it is incumbent to raise ourselves and participate in their construction.

To have the Shechinah in the sukkah, we have to work at it and prepare ourselves for the task. There can be no better time to work on the sukkah than after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Sukkos is Zeman Simchoseinu, our time of joy. For having been cleansed of our sins, we merit to sit b’tzeila demehemnusa, in the shadow of Hashem’s grace. Is there any greater joy?

Additionally, Sukkos foretells the End of Days, when we will be redeemed and merit the geulah sheleimah. The messianic period will usher in a time when we will repent, unite, and cease speaking lashon hora and engaging in other activities that cause division among the Jewish people.

When we act all year the way we conduct ourselves in the sukkah, we will merit the permanent return of the mikdosh and the Shechinah.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Kingship


Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

My grandfather, Rav Eliezer Levin zt”l, who learned in the famed yeshiva of Kelm for seven years, once told me that during Elul there was a sign hanging in the yeshiva. It read: “Ein Melech belo am - There is no King without a people.”

I understood the message to refer to the need of the Jewish people to affirm Hashem’s Kingship on Rosh Hashanah. As Chazal say (Rosh Hashanah 34b), we recite the pesukim of Malchiyos in Shemoneh Esreikedei shetamlichuni aleichem,” in order to accept Hashem’s dominion over us.

On Rosh Hashanah, we blow the shofar and declare, “Hayom haras olam. Today is the birthday of the world. Today is the anniversary of Hashem’s melucha.” The avodah of Rosh Hashanah is to declare Hashem our Melech on the day His Kingship is celebrated and reaffirmed. The theme of malchus is integral to the day.

In the Shemoneh Esrei of Rosh Hashanah, we recite ten pesukim of Malchiyos. During the ten days between the onset of Rosh Hashanah and the completion of Yom Kippur, we conclude the third brocha of Shemoneh Esrei with the words “Hamelech Hakadosh,”

Rav Chaim Volozhiner writes that his rebbi, the Vilna Gaon, would rejoice as the shofar was blown on Rosh Hashanah. He would say that just as the nations celebrate the coronation of a king, when we blow shofar on Rosh Hashanah, we, as Hashem’s people, coronate Him over all the worlds.

The Alter of Kelm states (Chochmah Umussar 2:152) that the avodah of shetamlichuni aleichem necessitates that the king’s subjects be united and work together, for the king’s rule is weakened if they are divided.

It is likely that this is the message that was signified by the sign that hung for the month of Elul in the pantheon of mussar and greatness known as Kelm.

Soldiers focus on victory and aren’t challenged by different roles and different ranks. Everyone involved is on the same team, an agudah achas, united by the same goal. Their own personal wants are set aside for the greater good. Men of different backgrounds and social standing fight together and sacrifice for one another. They recognize that the greater cause is larger than each individual.

Effective people see beyond their own personal honor and comforts. When this time of year comes around, everyone realizes that the focus is on kevod Shomayim. Personal egos and agendas are cast aside, as we all unite to allow Hashem’s glory to shine.

Rav Nochum Zev of Kelm, son of the Alter of Kelm and leader of the Kelmer Yeshiva, was invited to address a large gathering. When his turn came, he ascended the podium, apologized that he was unable to speak, and returned to his seat. He later explained to his daughter that although he had prepared a drosha, he noted that the rov who addressed the gathering before him spoke poorly. The Kelmer tzaddik feared that his own speech would reflect negatively on the previous speaker. Rather than cause embarrassment to another Jew, he refrained from speaking.

No doubt, the message he prepared was laden with depth and inspiration. He spent time and effort preparing it, and he clearly believed that it held important lessons for the people in the crowd or he wouldn’t have planned to deliver it. Yet, the giant of Kelmer mussar sacrificed his presentation because he was part of an agudah achas, sensitive to the feelings of another person on the team. Though he could have shone and inspired, nevertheless, since doing so would have involved causing embarrassment to a person he might not have known, the message he had traveled far to deliver lost its importance and value.

His mission wasn’t about himself and self-aggrandizement. Rather, it was about Hashem and His people. Thus, if his action would hurt another member of the group, he would remain silent.

When we undertake an action, we need to ascertain that it will help bring us closer to Hashem and bring honor to Him and His people. When faced by a dilemma and uncertain as to how to proceed, we need to take the path that the Torah would suggest.

Should we tell a lie, a tiny lie, and make a few more dollars on a deal, or should we be honest, even though that would cause us to incur a loss? Inherently, we know the answer, but our greed sometimes gets the better of us.

Should we take advantage of someone else and earn money, praise or honor for ourselves, or should we act with humility and unpretentiousness, allowing another person to shine, even at the expense of us missing out on an opportunity for advancement?

If we view ourselves as part of the greater community and consider other people’s feelings, needs and desires, we create harmony among Hashem’s creations and bring honor to our Melech.

The man who was the chazzan for Mussaf in the shul in which Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld served as rov passed away two weeks before Rosh Hashanah. The shul’s members asked the rov how they should go about finding a good chazzan so close to Rosh Hashanah. He told them not to worry. “I’ll find someone,” he said.

A few days passed. Rosh Hashanah was fast approaching, with no word of who the chazzan would be. The mispallelim fretted, but they didn’t say anything to the rov. The first night of Selichos approached and still there was no chazzan. A representative of the group approached the rov and asked him how the search was going. “Have no fear,” said Rav Yosef Chaim. “I will find an appropriate person.”

Rosh Hashanah came and there was no word about who would lead the august congregation in their Yomim Noraim prayers. Curiosity was at its apex, yet the rov would not reveal who he had found for the task.

When laining was over on the first day of Yom Tov, dozens of pairs of eyes gazed at the rov. Rav Yosef Chaim stood up and motioned towards the son of the chazzan who had passed away. He said to him, “You have to be the baal tefillah. Go to the amud and lead Mussaf just as your father would have done had he been here.”

The young man was stunned. He stammered that he had never davened for the amud and had not prepared for the task. The sagacious rov told him not to worry. “You heard your father daven for many years and are familiar with the way he davened. You will do just fine.”

Senior members of the community approached Rav Yosef Chaim after davening. They told him that they accepted his choice but wondered why he would send an avel to lead the davening, when the Shulchan Aruch rules that a mourner should not be the chazzan on the Yomim Noraim.

Rav Yosef Chaim responded, “The widow of the departed chazzan was in the ezras noshim of our shul. How do you think she felt remembering that her husband had led the davening here for so many years? Think about her pain as the fresh wound was reopened.

“Now think about how much more it would have hurt had someone else taken her husband’s position, and instead of hearing him, she would have heard the voice of a stranger.

“I wanted to minimize the pain of the widow as much as possible. Therefore, I decided to choose the person closest to her husband. That would be her son. The Mishnah Berurah rules that when there is no other choice, it is permissible for a mourner to be the chazzan.

“In this case, with the widow present in shul, I felt that there was no other choice.”

Such is the sensitivity of people steeped in Torah who care about others and the greater good. Rav Yosef Chaim, the beloved rov of Yerushalayim, would do nothing that would hurt the feelings of another person. He emulated the middos of Hakadosh Boruch Hu. As Chazal (Shabbos 133b) say, “Mah hu rachum af atah heyei rachum, mah Hakadosh Boruch Hu nikra chanun af atah heyei chanun... Just as Hashem is merciful, so are we to be merciful. Just as He is righteous, so must the Jewish people be righteous…”

And so must we.

The Vilna Gaon writes in Even Sheleimah (1:1,3) that the root of sin is bad middos. A person’s task in this world is to break those middos and improve his character. Someone who wants to repent and do teshuvah for sins he committed should begin by rectifying his middos. The key to change involves examining middos and perfecting character traits.

At the root of the teshuvah process is becoming a better person. At the root of becoming a better person is perfecting your character. Doing so will not only help you get along better with other people, but will allow you to join b’achdus and be part of something great.

One of the most integral elements of teshuvah is viewing ourselves as part of the group of Am Yisroel and appreciating what that means. Teshuvah involves us not seeing ourselves as superior to others or more important or better than they but appreciating the goodness in everyone.

Humility is the underlying ingredient of self-improvement, getting along with people, caring about others, influencing them, and living b’achdus.

People who are consumed with themselves don’t give to others, don’t bend for others, and don’t compromise for others. It’s all about them. People driven by superficiality are selfish and consumed by self-gratification. They don’t bring Hashem into their lives. Life becomes a long expedition of pleasure-seeking and power-grabbing, without thought of communal responsibility or a serious examination of life.

Achdus is imperative for malchus to happen.

The cleansing process of Elul and the yemei hadin, the honesty and self-awareness brought about by the awesomeness of these days, coupled with proper reflection, brings us to a level where we can do our part in being mamlich Hashem.

Rav Yisroel Salanter advised that to be granted life on Rosh Hashanah, it is vital for a person to be an active member of a community. His advice is usually understood to mean that if we wish to be granted life, health and happiness, we have to make ourselves needed.

The more that people need us, and the more goodness and happiness we bring into the world, the more reason for Hashem to keep us here. The merit of performing important functions for Am Yisroel helps us when we are judged for the coming year.

But there is another way to understand his admonition. In order to be a person who is involved with the klal, and in order to be able to work with others b’achdus, you have to have perfected your middos. Someone who is caught up with himself, lacking depth and humility, cannot be involved with the klal. A klal mentch, a person who assumes responsibility to help others because he is interested in helping people, is a person who has refined his middos and character.

Rosh Hashanah is a time of repentance. We review our acts of the past year and seek to correct our faults. We examine where we have gone wrong and failed, and we seek to improve ourselves so that we will act correctly in the coming year.

The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 7:3) writes that just as we are commanded to do teshuvah for sins that are of an active sinful nature, we must rid ourselves of improper ideas. We have to do teshuvah for the times we were angry, for hatred of other people, for jealousy, for improper competition, for cynicism and mockery, for the pursuit of money and honor, and for gluttony.

The Rambam adds that it is more difficult to atone for these character sins than for those that involve sinful acts, because we become accustomed to those traits and thoughts.

Teshuvah is not only for what we are used to calling aveiros, but also for our latent urges for prestige and money, and for our jealousy of other people.

The Rambam states in Moreh Nevuchim (3:17) that people are punished for an improper act, even if there is no specific commandment not to do it, if it is an act that human intelligence warns man to desist from. He adds that, conversely, if a person performs a positive act, then even if it is not a specific commandment, he is rewarded.

The same idea is put forward by Rabbeinu Nissim Gaon, Rav Yaakov Emden and the Sefer Chassidim. In the Siddur HaGra, the Al Cheit of “Shechatanu lefonecha bevli daas” is explained in this way. We beg forgiveness for not thinking through our actions properly, for we are commanded to carefully consider our actions, and if we don’t, we have sinned.

If something doesn’t make sense, we shouldn’t do it. If we don’t want to be treated a certain way, we should not treat people that way, even if it doesn’t say anywhere in the Torah that it is forbidden.

When tempted to act unscrupulously, we must resist the temptation, even if we are promised that there is nothing wrong, because we are smart enough to realize that there is. If we let financial incentives override our intelligence, we have sinned. The Yomim Noraim demand that we take a serious look at ourselves.

One year, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, a chossid rushed before his rebbe, Rav Yitzchok of Nadvorna, to bid him a good year. “Where are you rushing to?” the rebbe asked the man.

“I am a chazzan and I have to examine the machzor and prepare the tefillos,” responded the chosid.

The rebbe told him, “The machzor hasn’t changed since last year. It would be wiser for you to examine your actions and improve yourself in preparation for the yom hadin.”

Recognizing our place in the world leads us to care about other people and utilizing our talents to improve their lives. Introspection leads to achdus and to becoming an integral part of a klal. That is what Rav Yisroel Salanter was referring to.

When we are alone, we are vulnerable and isolated. Uniting with others allows us to benefit from their support. We then have people with whom to celebrate and lighten sadness. If you live only for yourself, then your life is as small as you are. You never allow the strengths you have been blessed with to develop and flourish as they would if you’d be involved with others. You wallow and decline because Hashem endowed us with strengths in order to use them for communal benefit and for causes of Torah.

Every person has an individual mission to carry out. Whatever your life task is, it involves other people. The more we affect the lives of other people, the more we become a vital part of Klal Yisroel.

The more we realize that we are part of a group ruled by Hashem, the closer we will be to realizing our goal. When we remember that we are small when we stand alone, but can achieve much when we are united, we will find favor in Hashem’s eyes and in the hearts of our fellow Jews.

Useshuvah, usefillah, utzedokah maavirin es ro’a hagezeirah.”

The Maharal writes that when a person pities and contributes to the poor, he causes Hashem to shine upon him midah of rachamamim, mercy. The Chofetz Chaim takes this concept further and writes (Ahavas Chesed) that when a person acts charitably with others in this world, he arouses the midah of chesed in Shomayim. He explains that this is what is meant by the posuk (Shemos 15:13), “nochisu b’chasdecha, am zu goalta.” Because the Jews in Mitzrayim gathered together and resolved to be charitable with each other, Hashem miraculously freed them from the evil clutches of Mitzrayim.

A person who seeks to improve himself and chart a better course for the new year cleanses himself of his wrongdoings. He turns to Hashem and asks to be returned to His good graces along with the rest of Klal Yisroel. He rises above selfishness and apathy.

Tzedokah tatzil mimovess, for the more we give, the more we share with others, the more unselfish and humble we are, the more we live b’achdus with everyone and the greater our chances of a favorable outcome. We give tzedokah and cause Hashem to view us charitably.

The sefer Ohr Hayoshar, written by a talmid of talmidei Ha’arizal, states that Hashem is merciful with anyone who is merciful with others; his tefillos are accepted and he accrues many advocates who argue for him during his judgement in the Beis Din Shel Ma’alah.

Chasidim relate that the Kamarna Rebbe said in the name of Rav Mordechai of Chernobel, who said in the name of the Baal Shem Tov, who heard from Eliyohu Hanovi that every time one Jew blesses another “Kesiva vachasimah tovah,” malachim advocate for him.

On Rosh Hashanah, we seek to unite as an agudah achas, acting charitably to each other and wishing the best for all. Before Yom Kippur, we ask mechilah from each other. On Sukkos, we grasp four minim, symbolizing all sorts of Jews. Then, finally, on Simchas Torah, we dance as one, with no more barriers between us.

To view ourselves as members of a larger group, caring about each other, as soldiers in a fighting army, to think about how Hashem would want us to act, that is the avodah of Malchiyos.

May we merit seeing the realization of the tefillos, “Meloch al kol ha’olam kulo bichvodecha,” which will take place when “Veyei’asu kulam agudah achas,” Jews will once again unite “la’asos retzoncha beleivov shaleim.”

May it happen soon.

A shenas geulah veyeshuah to all.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

As One


Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Ever since I became involved with Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin some ten years ago, I have not ceased to be amazed by the many unbelievable twists in his case. Everything that could never happen, happened. Things that never happened to anyone else, happened to him. As his legal travails began a decade ago, his passport was taken from him and he was jailed, lest he fly off to Israel, the refuge of Jews facing charges the world over.

His passport was returned to him this past August 15th. That same day, he left for Eretz Yisroel to offer prayers of gratitude for being freed from his long ordeal. He also wanted to thank the roshei yeshiva, rabbonim, rabbeim and other good people who prayed for his release for many years.

His visit to Eretz Yisroel is another indication of how strong emunah and bitachon are rewarded.

We hear amazing stories of faith from hundreds of years ago, from the Holocaust period, and about great people throughout Jewish history. We think that such stories could not happen in our time, because we are not on a high enough spiritual level to possess the belief of giants of years past. If nothing else, the saga of Sholom Mordechai teaches us that a regular person in our day can be in an awful situation and not let go of his steadfast faith. The result was that he was rescued from a devastating situation.

I had the distinct pleasure of spending almost a week together with Sholom Mordechai in Eretz Yisroel, visiting gedolei Yisroel, meeting people who had davened for his release, and saying Hallel at the Kosel.

The welcome we received at each stop was overwhelming and served as an inspiration in the power of achdus, emunah and bitachon. The rabbonim congratulated Sholom Mordechai on his miraculous freedom and the zechus he experienced that a neis was performed through him.

They impressed upon him the obligation to continue his marathon of speeches, telling his story and strengthening emunah and bitachon among his listeners. Many discussed the zechus of bringing about achdus in Klal Yisroel, as Jews of all types davened for him and celebrated his release together.

It was a welcome reminder of the pact Sholom Mordechai and I made some ten years ago after we got to know each other and became friendly. Way back before the trial even began, we agreed that as a zechus for his victory, we would travel together and demonstrate how people of different backgrounds, hailing from different ways of avodas Hashem, could bond despite the differences. We decided that the first place we would go would be Eretz Yisroel.

We had no way of knowing that it would be ten years until we would be able to realize that agreement, but when we finally were able to, the result was nothing short of amazing. Everyone had heard of him and was familiar with his story. People stopped him in the street, smiled, and said “Boruch matir assurim,” before walking away. They didn’t engage in conversation. They didn’t intrude on his privacy. They were just so overwhelmed to see with their own eyes the person Hashem freed that they walked over and said those three words.

The word “historic” is bandied about with abandon. Every parlor meeting is termed “historic,” not to mention dinners and public functions. Every speech and occurrence is quickly branded a “kiddush Hashem.” These terms have been cheapened and have lost their value. But when something truly historic takes place and when a real kiddush Hashem occurs, it is incumbent upon us to stand up and take notice.

When a frum Jew is targeted by the Fake News and corrupt prosecutors force a business into bankruptcy, collapse its assets, and then collude with a witness and a judge to send a fine person to jail for bank fraud, everyone takes notice. When Sholom Mordechai was found guilty and sentenced to 27 years in prison, there was almost no one who did not see a vendetta and excessive punishment.

When every leading legal expert and ethics expert, men who spend their lives prosecuting criminals, judging, teaching, and living justice, signed petitions, wrote letters, and participated in the campaign to free Sholom Mordechai, that was historic.

When even after finding incriminating documentation, appeal after appeal is denied, people feel that there is some kind of agenda at work.

When Jews around the world daven for the release of a prisoner and follow his case religiously, that is historic.

When the prisoner is never broken and publicly maintains his faith in Hashem through all the curious twists, turns and negative decisions in his case, it is historic.

When Jews of all types come together at public gatherings to hear from his lawyers, daven for him, and donate to help cover his enormous legal fees, that is historic.

When he was freed in dramatic, miraculous fashion on Zos Chanukah, Jews around the world burst out in emotional song, dancing in the streets, in shuls, in botei medrash and in stores across the Jewish world, because it was historic.

We saw history. We experienced history. We saw Hashem save a person who had emunah and bitachon. We saw achdus. The night he was freed, we got a small taste of what it will be like when sinas chinom is banished once and for all.

The emotions were experienced again by our Israeli brethren. Like a selfie magnet, everyone wanted a picture with him. They saw that not only hundreds of years ago, and not only in decades past, but even today, it is possible for a regular person to merit a neis through emunah and bitachon.

When told about the person who had come to visit him, Rav Chaim Kanievsky broke out in a wide smile. Rav Chaim shed a couple tears when Sholom Mordechai told him that the few lines Rav Chaim wrote him when he was incarcerated were an immense source of chizuk and that the letter was always with him in his cell.

One night, we went to daven Maariv in Yerushalayim’s Zichron Moshe shul. Although Sholom Mordechai had never been there before, I guaranteed him that he would leave there charged with energy.

Real Jews connect to him and Zichron Moshe is the hub of real Jews. It is filled with people who have nothing, but who are happier than people who think they have everything. These are people who live simply, in small old dirahs where three rooms are enough space for families of ten or more. They are much more in touch with the spiritual and reflect what Jewish life was like generations ago, when everything was simpler.

When the Zichron Moshe mispallelim realized who was there, the small shtiebel, which usually accommodates twenty people, became increasingly packed, until the temperature rose and there was barely enough oxygen to go around. When Maariv ended, more people came into the room to see Sholom Mordechai and shake his hand. When he came out, the Yiddelach broke out in spontaneous dancing and people began flocking to the bais medrash to see the famous prisoner and say, “Boruch matir assurim.” It was midnight when we left, energized and mechuzak.

Friday morning was a reminder of the Brisker Rov’s statement that the chein, or charm, of Yerushalayim is evidenced in its children. We went to Toldos Aharon, where a meeting with the rebbe was followed by a visit to the cheder. In each class, Sholom Mordechai told a bit of his story, as the children sat glued in rapt attention. One group sang and danced for him.

From there, it was off to the Kosel, the place from where the Shechinah has not departed, for an emotional reunion of sorts. As people recognized Sholom Mordechai, they came over to see the man for themselves and exchange brief words of chizuk.

Pictures were being snapped right and left, as people wanted to remember the moment that the person who has become a living example of a yeshuas Hashem came to the Kosel to sing Hallel. It was a reminder that we all have much to be thankful for. Hashem is the merciful G-d and answers the prayers of all those who reach out to Him with emunah and bitachon.

We spent a day visiting the gedolim of Bnei Brak. Each one was warmer than the next. Everyone had heard his story and was effusive with brachos. We visited the homes of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, Rav Gershon Edelstein, Rav Berel Povarsky, Rav Dov Landau, Rav Shimon Galei and the Alexander Rebbe. We met the Sadigura Rebbe, whom we had also visited during a trip to New York. There were lechaims and lekach, and uplifting conversation. We got to meet Rav Elimelech Biderman, who has earned renown for the weekly booklets of his uplifting talks.

We had an appointment by Rav Shimon Baadani, the leading Yemenite talmid chochom and a senior Sephardic leader. We assumed that we were visiting him in his home and were embarrassed when we were led to the kollel he heads and brought over to him as he was bent over his shtender, struggling with a Tosafos.

I apologized. “Slicha kevod harav. We are so sorry to disturb your learning. We thought we were going to be visiting you in your home.”

He responded, “Zeh habayit sheli. This is my home. This is where I am day and night, and this is where I meet people.”

His simplicity and sweetness were overwhelming.

After some conversation, he turned to us and said, “The achdus you have achieved is remarkable. Perhaps you can bring some achdus to this country.”

He actually summed up our mission as we approach the Yom Hadin. There is no greater zechus than bringing Jews together. When we are divided, the Soton is empowered and is able to prevent Moshiach’s arrival.

When we are divided, we are lacking and are creating black holes in Shomayim. We daven and say, “Bayom hahu yihiyeh Hashem echod ushemo echod,” pining for the day when Hashem’s oneness is revealed to all. Our unity and achdus are vital to the achdus Havaya. [See Rashi Devorim 33:5; Maharal Gur Aryeh Ibid; Ramchal Maamar Hachochmah on Tefillos Rosh Hashanah]

When we daven, we use the plural, e.g., choneinu, hashiveinu, refo’einu, etc., including ourselves with every other Jew. We don’t just ask for a refuah for ourselves, but for everyone. We ask that everyone be written in the book of life, blessing, peace and prosperity. To be zoche on the Yom Hadin, we have to be part of a larger group. Communal merits cannot accrue to the person who breaks away and goes off on his own. That person is judged critically.

We have to seek to bring people together, not drive them apart. We have to work to bring people to Hashem, not drive them away. We have to use our abilities to bring about peace and achdus. Klal Yisroel is about the greatness of the individual, but it is also about the greatness of the group. Regardless of how great we think we are, if we are not part of the larger body of Am Yisroel, we are lacking as Jews. We beg forgiveness from each other so that we can be unified. We help the needy and show that our ego doesn’t preclude us from being concerned about other people. We don’t live for ourselves. We live to help others and to enhance the greater good.

We all have needs and wants. We all daven for a good year. We want to have simcha, nachas, brocha and good health. We want to grow without much aggravation. We want so much. We look for sources of merit, engaging in teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah. Let us seek to help others achieve the same, help bridge divides, and increase emunah and bitachon in our own hearts and those of others, meriting to be written in the sefer of tzaddikim.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Battles


Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

As we begin the study of this week’s parsha and encounter the narrative of “aishes yefas toar,” we wonder what message there is for us. While the course of action for a man who went to war, emerged victorious, and then chanced upon a yefas toar is applicable and contains many directions and actions to follow, there is also a message for all of us, especially during the month of Elul.

Kadmonim and mekubolim raise the curtain and provide an understanding of the pesukim that describe the parsha of yefas toar and how she goes about adapting to a new life.

The parsha begins, “Ki seitzei lamilchomah al oyvecha - When you will go out and wage war with your enemy” (21:10). The Ohr Hachaim (ibid.) explains that the posuk refers to the battle for which man was placed in this world. The soul is dispatched to withstand tests.

And she shall remove the garment of captivity from upon herself: This will be through ridding oneself of sin, teshuvah and submission to Hashem. Then be misvadeh and cry for the betrayal from your father and mother and detachment from them.

She will weep for her father. This is Hakadosh Boruch Hu.

She will weep for her mother. This is Knesses Yisroel.

For one month. This is the month of Elul, the period of teshuvah.

The Ohr Hachaim’s source is the Zohar Chodosh (Ki Seitzei 72:1), which is also quoted in Yesod Veshoresh Ha’avodah (Shaar Hamayim).

The Arizal (Likutei Torah, in this week’s parsha) offers a similar explanation. He says that “Ki seitzei lamilchomah refers to a person who has decided to do teshuvah. He is setting out to do battle with his enemies, namely his yeitzer hora and the limbs that betrayed him and caused him to sin.

Unesano Hashem Elokecha b’yodecha. Hashem will cause you to beat the yeitzer hora.

Vero’isa bashivyah aishes yefas toar. This refers to the neshomah.

Vegilcha es roshah. He should remove bad beliefs from within himself.

Ve’asisah es tziporneha. He should cut out luxuries.

Vehaisirah simlas shivyah. The covering that is fashioned by sin should be removed.

Uvochsa es aviha. This refers to Hakadosh Boruch Hu.

V’es imah. This is Knesses Yisroel.

Yerach yomim. This is Elul.

Rav Tzadok Hakohein of Lublin (Pri Tzaddik, Ki Seitzei 2) quotes Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, that understanding that this parsha refers to man’s eternal battle with the yeitzer hora is not homiletic drush and remez, but is the actual p’shat poshut, the simple explanation of the pesukim.

So, as we study Parshas Ki Seitzei this week, it should be clear that these pesukim are meant to help usher us into the avodah of Elul. We read about a man doing battle for Am Yisroel and a woman mourning her old home, but, essentially, on a different level, we are reading about teshuvah and Elul.

Elul is everywhere. You just have to know how to find it.

We are familiar with the teaching of Chazal that “bemakom sheba’alei teshuvah omdim ein tzaddikim gemurim yecholim la’amod.” Those who return to Hashem stand at a higher level than great tzaddikim who never sinned. On the face of it, this is a difficult concept to behold. Why should someone who sinned be on a higher plane than someone who never deviated from the word of Hashem? We tend to understand the concept in terms of the fact that the baal teshuvah traveled a long journey, and despite having fallen, he had the strength to raise himself from the depths, allowing him to return a cleansed and holy person, while a tzaddik who never sinned did not have to overcome such obstacles.

Perhaps we can suggest a different understanding.

The Eitz Yosef on the Medrash at the beginning of Parshas Eikev discusses the process of teshuvah and redemption. He says that we don’t have to complete the act of teshuvah in order to merit the redemption. It is sufficient for us to show that we have become inspired to repent and begin to undertake teshuvah, and Hashem will begin the geulah.

Teshuvah is a motion, a small shift back to the right direction. When we display a genuine desire to do teshuvah, Hakadosh Boruch Hu notices and comes to assist us on the way back.

The posuk in Tehillim (103) says, “Kirechok mizrach mimaarav,” as far as the east is from the west, “hirchik mimenu es peshoeinu,” that is the distance Hashem has removed us from our sins. Rav Nosson Dovid of Shidlovtza explained that the distance of east from west is essentially not much. You stand facing east and then you turn around and are facing west. So too, with teshuvah, you turn to go in a new direction and you are considered as having a new destiny.

Rav Chaim Volozhiner explains in Nefesh Hachaim (1:12) that when a person performs a mitzvah, he begins the action and Hashem helps him complete it.

We can say that the person who is seeking to repent merits special assistance from the Ribbono Shel Olam. When he turns away from sin and shows interest in repenting, he begins the arduous process and Hashem helps. This is why teshuvah is the only mitzvah regarding which Chazal tell us that Hashem says, “Pischu li pesach kepischo shel machat, open a hole the size of the eye of a needle, and I will do the rest.” He becomes involved in a Jew’s attempt at returning, helping him navigate the difficult path.

Thus, we can understand the meaning of the teaching that “bemakom sheba’alei teshuvah omdim,” the level of the person who has performed teshuvah, is higher than that of the tzaddik who never sinned. That is because the baal teshuvah merited Hashem’s assistance. Hashem has, so to speak, stood beside him and grasped his hand. He has felt the Divine Presence. Hashem has been part of his journey, so his “makom,” his place, is elevated.

It follows, therefore, that Elul should be a happy month, for it is the month when we begin walking down that holy path. As we study the sifrei mussar, think about how we are doing, turn inward, engage in introspection, and contemplate our future, Hakadosh Boruch Hu comes to help us. He is here, at our side, waiting to help us back.

We have to show the will.

Perhaps the Torah chose to reveal the secrets of teshuvah, depicting the desperate cries of the neshomah as she pines for her father and mother, her return to purity and holiness, in the parsha of yefas toar to demonstrate to us a lesson through the central character, the soldier who finds a foreign woman in the spoils of war. He is so weak that he is not embarrassed to bring this strange woman back home with him. The Torah is telling us that even a person like him can do teshuvah. Even someone who has sunk that low can turn from a life of lust to a life of holiness. Even he can merit Hashem walking beside him, leading him to the light of teshuvah and a blessed life.

This is the secret of Elul. The Baal Hatanya taught that during this month, the king is in the field. During the rest of the year, subjects must work to obtain an appointment. They must wait, fill out forms and use all the connections they have in order to get a moment of time with the leader. During Elul, the king circulates among his subjects, hearing their voices and concerns.

During Elul, Hashem is nearby, ready to extend a hand, a yad lashovim, drawing us close and inviting us to come back home. But we have to be there, ready to hear the invitation and accept it.

When Hashem sees you want to do teshuvah and haven’t forgotten your neshomah, He becomes overjoyed and grabs your hand with great excitement to bring you where you belong.

Rav Shlomo Reichenberg recounted how he ended up in yeshiva after being sent to Kibbutz Chofetz Chaim when he was brought to Israel as a young Holocaust survivor in 1945.

“I went to the office and asked to be transferred to a yeshiva. They readily agreed and suggested two yeshivos for me, Ponovezh in Bnei Brak and Kol Torah in Yerushalayim. I made my way to Bnei Brak and found the one story building that was the Ponovezh Yeshiva at the time.

“When I walked through the door a man stopped me. ‘Who are you looking for?’ he asked.

“‘Rav Kahaneman,’ I answered.

“‘That is me. What can I do for you?’

“I told him that I wanted to come study in the yeshiva. He asked me where I had come from, and I told him I had arrived from Bergen Belsen. He asked me where I had been before the camp and I told him that I was in the Veitzin Yeshiva, near Budapest.

“‘Do you remember anything from what you learned there,’ he asked.

“I was afraid, for I sensed that he was going to test me in order to determine whether he should accept me into the yeshiva. I told him that he should ask me a question to see if I remember anything. He asked me which was the last mesechta, and I said Chulin.

“‘Can you tell me a machlokes between Rashi and Tosefos in this mesechta?’

“I told him one. When I finished, he kissed me on my forehead. He then took my hand in his and proceeded to drag me through the streets of Bnei Brak until he stopped at a small building. He knocked on the door and walked in. It was the house of the Chazon Ish.

“The rov was overcome with emotion. The words spilled out of his mouth. ‘Rebbe, I met this boy who is a concentration camp survivor. I asked him if he could tell me a machlokes between Rashi and Tosefos and he did.

“He then began to say, ‘Gadlus hatorah, gadlus hatorah,’ and couldn’t catch his breath. Then he turned to the Chazon Ish and said, ‘If a concentration camp couldn’t make a Jew forget Torah, then definitely Torah will never be forgotten.’

“After the rov calmed down, he told me to stay there and talk to the Chazon Ish. The Chazon Ish was very interested in hearing about life in the concentration camp. I sat there talking to him for two hours. When we finished talking, he said to me, ‘This is your new home. The door is always open for you…’”

Everyone has moments that can get him going. There are many times in life when there is a call to you, a message with your name written on it, coming out of nowhere. You can either pick up on it and experience something life-altering or you can ignore it, let it slip by, and lose a chance for eternity.

Read any book of stories about baalei teshuvah and you will find the moment when someone touched a college kid and a light went on. They were invited in and they accepted the invitation. “Do you have a place to eat tonight?” “Did you put on tefillin today?” One thing led to another, and it was as if there was something there guiding the person in the direction of a religious life. They backpacked through Asia, then went to Israel for some reason, and ended up at the wall. They were all alone when they came, but when someone asked if they want to find out what Torah is, they said yes and gave him their name and phone number.

They came alone with their backpack, but left surrounded by the ohr hamakif, the spirit of Hashem hovering over them.

Rav Todros Miller of Gateshead Seminary recounted the tale of an English girl who brought her car to a London mechanic. Testing the vehicle, he turned on the engine. Emerging from the speakers was an audio recording of a shiur delivered by Rav Mordechai Miller, of Gateshead Seminary, on sefer Shaarei Teshuvah.

The mechanic was transfixed by what he heard, and when the girl returned to retrieve the car, he asked her to bring him some tapes from that rabbi. Influenced by those tapes, the man became a complete baal teshuvah. Random words emanating from a car as he poked under the hood touched him and caused him to ponder his existence. He could just as easily have tuned out and pressed on with his work, engaging in the usual shop talk.

Instead, he listened for just a moment. A chord was struck deep inside of him. At that moment, as his heart opened, he was flooded with the ohr hamakif of which Rav Chaim Volozhiner speaks. He was on the road to teshuvah, a Divine force propelling him forward.

When we hear those voices, when teshuvah is calling, we have to make sure not to hit ignore, but to tune in and tune up.

After all, as the pesukim this week remind us, the neshomah comes down to this physical world from its encampment at the feet of the Kisei Hakavod, the holiest place in all of creation. It struggles to acclimate to a hostile world, longing for the kedushah it once knew and felt. It cannot adapt, as it is tested and tormented daily. It becomes tainted, it forgets, and loses its outward shine.

And then there is a jolt. A spark. And it remembers. It reaches for the heavens once again and discovers that in this world, it really is possible to attain the kedushah it remembers. It is possible to be enveloped in holiness, to live a life of G-dliness and remain untainted by idle pursuits, a drive for more money, or a lust for power and dominance. At that moment, he begins to be a baal teshuvah and the original shine returns, building up to a sparkling luster.

We go through life, one day following another. Let us appreciate our gifts. Let us appreciate the neshomah we have. Let us look to help improve the world. Let’s not be satisfied with a little Torah here and there. Let us daven like we really mean it. As we breathe, let us appreciate each breath, and when we experience a breathtaking moment, let it be a jolt to remind us who we are, what our task is, and where we are headed.

Let’s live lives that make it worth the struggle. Let’s act so that the ohr hamakif hovers over us, protecting us and creating a cocoon of holiness for us to thrive in.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Judges


By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

For the past month, we have satiated the body. Now the time has come to do the same for the soul.

The calm, warmth and light of summer replaced the tension, cold and darkness of winter.

We stand now at the juncture of the past and the future, energized by a new vitality to venture into the month of seriousness and introspection, the month that plays a vital role in leading us to life and joy, the month of Elul.

Since the Jews repented for the sin of the Eigel, Elul has been endowed with extra heft as a month of self-improvement and the ability to become closer to Hashem. When Hashem responded positively to the pleas of Moshe Rabbeinu, Elul became for all time a period during which our attempts to return are more readily accepted.

Aveiros create a distance between us and the Creator. Teshuvah removes the stain of sin and enables us to return to Hashem’s embrace.

The carefree days end with the approach of Elul, as we embark upon a period of increased foresight and thought.

The Gemara in Maseches Bava Basra (78b) asks about the definition of the posuk (Bamidbor 21:27) which states, “Al kein yomru hamoshlim bo’u cheshbon,” explaining that it means that those who rule over themselves say, “Let us make the proper calculation,” before undertaking any action.

Those who rule over their yeitzer don’t allow themselves to be guided by impulse and fleeting temptation. Rather, they consider the reward of doing a mitzvah, as opposed to the loss incurred by sinning. A person who lives his life in that way will not fall prey to contemptuous actions, and will lead a life of value and success.

This explains the statement by the Alter of Kelm in his sefer (vol. 1:121) that at the root of mussar is cheshbon. It is also the basis for the teaching of the Maharal (Droshas Shabbos Shuvah) that a person who is considerate about his actions will not sin.

How do we approach Elul, and from where do we learn how to make the required calculations?

As with all halachos, to gain an understanding of the halacha, the best and first place to go is the Rambam’s sefer Mishneh Torah.

One Elul, Rav Nota Freund of Yerushalayim went with a kvittel to the Husiatiner Rebbe, asking to merit true and complete teshuvah. After the rebbe read the note, Rav Freund asked how he could attain that teshuvah.

The rebbe told him that to achieve a true and complete teshuvah, it is incumbent to study Hilchos Teshuvah of the Rambam. He explained that the Torah, which discusses every mitzvah, is the root of each mitzvah’s existence in this world. The power of teshuvah is thus accessed by studying its halachos and basis in Torah.

By studying the halachos of teshuvah as clearly laid out and explained by the Rambam, it is possible to arrive at a deep understanding of the process, thus making it is easier to repent.

Through studying the succinct, direct and information-laden words of the Rambam, we gain an appreciation of the weight of a mitzvah and the destruction caused by an aveirah, as well as the cheshbonos involved with each. It is impossible to undertake even a cursory study of his words and not be emotionally affected and spiritually uplifted.

The Rambam’s captivating words touch your soul and leave you ready to quietly undertake heroic acts to mend your ways and live a holier life. Aspirations for professional success, as well as for fame and fortune, fall to wayside as you become swept along by the beauty of his words and clarity of his arguments of living a richer, fuller and better life.

The spirit of the mitzvah envelopes the student, and as he learns one halacha after the next, a holy spirit overtakes him and he finds himself going from being petty, uncharitable and rigid to selfless, patient and honest.

It is no wonder that a custom developed in Lithuania to study one perek of the Rambam’s Hilchos Teshuvah at every Shabbos meal between the week of Shabbos mevorchim chodesh Elul and Yom Kippur.

This is something that each of us can do. If before we act, we would think about what we are doing, whether good or bad will come of it, and for what purpose we are doing it, we would become better. If we’d consider that by saying something, we will be entering into a machlokes needlessly, then why utter the statement? Our brilliance may amaze others for one minute, but they will quickly forget how smart we are and be left with a sour feeling about our uncaring personality and we will have gotten ourselves involved in a fight. That could have been prevented had we given thought before our utterance.

We can do something that may bring momentary happiness, but when we look back at the time, energy and money we wasted pursuing a fleeting passion, we realize that had we thought whether we were accomplishing anything, we would have spent our time in a beneficial way.

A person can be on a diet, seeking to lose weight to improve his blood pressure and cholesterol and gain better health. He goes every day to the gym and works out. He also abstains from certain foods. But then, one day, he is invited to a barbecue, and in a bid to be cool, he wallops a steak and a few dogs and chips. He just set back his agenda, and by the time he needs to pop another pill to get his pressure down, the tempting flavors and smells of the barbecue are long gone.

Life is a test of wills, and to the degree that we follow the urge to do good, we are good. But if we let go and fall prey to the urges that ignore the good in favor of the temporal, then we lose out every time.

The Gemara in Brachos (61b) quotes Rav Yosi Haglili, who says that the righteous are guided by their yeitzer tov, the wicked are ruled by their yeitzer hora, and beinonim are ruled by both. The terminology Rav Yosi Haglili uses to make his point is “shoftom,” from the word shfot, which is generally translated as to judge, as in “tzaddikim yeitzer tov shoftom.”

This translation follows the Vilna Gaon (Chiddushei Aggados), who explains that the word “shoftom” is used to signify that the yeitzer is like a shofet, a judge, who decides how people should conduct themselves.

What is interesting is that we see from here that nothing that a person does happens by itself, just because. Everybody is led by a yeitzer. If he is a good person, then he follows his yeitzer tov, and if he is an evil person, then he is led by the yeitzer hora. Beinonim vary; sometimes they follow the yeitzer tov and other times the yeitzer hora. Nothing that we do is just pareve. Our actions are either good or they are not good. Our task is to ensure that we don’t permit faulty considerations to mislead us into following the yeitzer hora and doing actions that are silly, wasteful and wrong.

This week’s parsha of Shoftim begins with the commandment to appoint shoftim, judges, and shotrim, enforcers. For centuries, darshonim have been thundering during the second week of Elul that the posuk refers to us.

To follow the terminology of the Gaon, we can say that the posuk is telling us that we have to be able to judge each act and properly determine whether it should be done or not. Even when it is difficult for us to act on the judgment, we must be able to force ourselves to do what is proper. We shouldn’t be doing anything that a proper judgment would determine to have no beneficial value.

The pesukim continue with the injunction to judge properly, not to twist a judgment and not to accept bribes even when reaching the right decision, for doing so will lead to corruption and improper understanding. The Torah refers to judges who are ruling on cases, but the inference to our own actions is there as well. We must not let ourselves be led astray and be affected by accoutrements that subvert our equilibrium. “Tzedek tzedek tirdof.” We must always pursue what is right and just, as a people, as a community, and as individuals.

Take a look around and see what happens when justice is perverted, when prosecutors are corrupt, when policemen are afraid to police, and when judges twist the law. See a country torn apart, with a president under investigation since the day he was elected. See what happens when politics determines who goes free and who faces dreadful sentences. Look at a city like Chicago, where there is no order in certain areas and dozens are shot as a regular occurrence, yet murderers don’t face justice.

People who fail to judge and police themselves face the same outcome. That’s why Elul is here. It is here for us to grab a hold of ourselves and pronounce, “Tzedek tzedek tirdof.” We must straighten ourselves out, act properly, be good and do good.

The parsha concludes with the halachos of the eglah arufah. If a person is found dead outside of a town, the elders and judges of the town, along with the kohanim and levi’im, must proclaim that they had no hand in the death of the person. They didn’t see the dead man walking in their town and not offer him food and seek to care for him. They vow that they had no remote role in his death.

Perhaps this week, as we read and study the parsha, let us contemplate people who have been wronged, misjudged, don’t get a break and are abused and mistreated, and let us vow to do what is right and proper. Let us stand up for the ones who have no one to stand up for them. Let us fight for what is right.

Let us do what we can so that every child has a place in a school where they belong and that every child, rich or poor, smart or not-so-smart, healthy or not, receives a proper environment in which they can grow and excel.

Let no person feel that nobody cares about them, that they aren’t worth caring about. Let no one feel that they are just strangers passing through. Let us be among those who work to ensure that no one goes to bed hungry and sad.

May we merit the brachos the Torah reserves for those who do what is right and just: Tzedek tzedek tirdof, lema’an tichyeh veyorashta es ha’aretz.”