Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Chag Sameiach

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Last year, a friend was flying to New York from Israel for Sukkos. Like so many other passengers on the packed plane, he was bringing esrogim with him. Six of them to be exact. When he arrived at customs control, he handed in the requisite form, which he had filled out to the best of his ability. The customs agent looked at the form and asked him, “Do you have any fruit with you?”

“No,” he answered.

“Do you have an esrog?” the agent asked.

“Yes. In fact, I have six of them,” my friend said.

“So why,” asked the agent, “when I asked if you were carrying fruit, did you say no?”

“I never thought of an esrog as a fruit,” my friend responded in all honesty. “An esrog is an esrog!”

The agent, recognizing the man’s sincerity, proceeded to examine one of the esrogim. Upon ascertaining that it was clean of fruit flies, he allowed the gentleman through with his esrogim.

The story is cute and may even cause you to chuckle a bit, but it contains much truth and carries a deeper meaning.

Sukkos is referred to as Zeman Simchaseinu. A question that is pondered year after year is why the Yom Tov of Sukkos is referred to as our time of joy. What is special about the holiday of Sukkos that the Torah refers to it as the time of happiness? We are joyous on every Yom Tov. We are happy most of the year. What is it about Sukkos that creates so much joy amongst the Jewish people?

The mitzvos that we perform on this Yom Tov contribute to the joy. Rare are the mitzvos for which people go to all ends to fulfill their obligation like we find regarding the mitzvos of Sukkos. Jews spend hours and hours searching for the most beautiful and mehudardike Daled Minim.

Sukkos may be the holiday of simcha because it demonstrates that we humans have the ability to transform the mundane into the spiritual. Our lives have meaning because our actions can bring about holiness. We are not merely animalistic creatures, who spend their time foraging for food and a comfortable place to sleep, for we are granted intelligence and the ability to speak. We are masters of the universe. Everything we do has the ability to affect the entire world. When we do a mitzvah, we strengthen the world. We raise ourselves and we raise the level of the keili we are using to perform the act of the mitzvah.

On Sukkos, we take a simple fruit and turn it into a cheftzah shel mitzvah with so many deep spiritual meanings that we don’t even remember that it is a fruit. We take a simple, inanimate object such as a citron, which most of the world has no use for, and we literally transform it into the most prized of the Daled Minim. We spend fortunes on it and wrap it carefully before placing it in an ornate silver box.

We are overcome with joy when we finally find the esrog we were searching for, and we are then confident that we will be able to complete the mitzvah to the best of our ability. Perhaps more than any other mitzvah object, the esrog is handled with such pride and joy because it shows us that if we have the proper frame of mind, we can reach the heavens with the simple act of holding a fruit.

We do the same with the lulav, hadasim and aravos. On the first day of Yom Tov, we march with them to shul, demonstrating our joy that we were found virtuous during the yemei hadin and are prepared to live life on a higher plane. We are no longer creatures of the yeitzer harah, viewing everything in creation as tools for physical gratification. We recognize that our mission here is to serve Hashem by utilizing the goodness with which He surrounds us.

We begin with the esrog and the Daled Minim and continue with the sukkah itself. We collect items that grow from the ground and are not mekabeil tumah and place them atop a few walls. We thus fashion for ourselves another vehicle with which to raise our level of spirituality to that of anshei Elokim, G-dly people. We leave our year round abode and enter a temporary structure, enveloping ourselves in the tzilah demehemnusah, the shadow of the Shechinah. We utilize ordinary everyday objects as tools to achieve this state of G-dliness. We thus become filled with joy. We make a bracha on the sukkah and thank Hashem for keeping us alive so that we can enjoy this special moment, basking in the glory of Hashem.

The Gemara in Maseches Sukkah (9a) derives from the korban chagigah that just as a korban becomes sanctified when the makriv says, “Korban laShem,” so too, the walls and covering of the sukkah become sanctified and forbidden for mundane use for the duration of the Yom Tov of Sukkos.

The Vilna Gaon (Shir Hashirim 1:4) teaches that the sukkah alludes to the status of Klal Yisroel after Moshiach’s arrival, at which time we will all sit betzilah demehemnusah, as we did while we traveled through the desert on our way to The Promised Land. Much the same as the sukkah symbolizes the Mishkan in the midbar where the Shechinah dwelled, so too does it symbolize the Shechinah’s return to the rebuilt Bais Hamikdosh.

The Maharal, in his Shabbos Hagadol drasha, writes along similar lines and states that it is in the merit of the Yom Tov of Sukkos that the Third Bais Hamikdosh will be built to house the Shechinah.

This theme, that the sukkah is reminiscent of the construction of a resting place for the Shechinah, is taken to a much higher level by the Zohar (Vol. 3, 103a), who states that when a Jew sits in a sukkah, he basks in the shadow of the Shechinah - betzilah demehemnusah.

These ideas are not just allegorical and homiletic, but real and tangible. The Kav Hayoshor (95) states that the reason we are careful to keep the sukkah clean and to ensure that our behavior there is refined and proper is for this very reason: the sukkah is a home for the Shechinah and is a mikdash me’at.

With that in mind, how can we not be joyous on Sukkos? We place four temporary walls together and cover them with a leaky roof, leaving us with an unheated and unprotected, albeit nicely decorated, room, and we are then able to sit in the shadow of the Shechinah. We see that we have the ability to raise our lifestyle from being ordinary and commonplace to Divine and G-dly. Through our actions, we can bring the Shechinah into our homes, very literally.

The kedushah of the sukkah is so real that it obligates us to behave differently while in the confines of our temporary dwelling than how we behave in our permanent homes all year long.

An example of the elevated level of conduct demanded in a sukkah appears in the Mishnah Berurah (679:2), who writes that due to the holiness of a sukkah, it is proper to refrain from idle talk and speaking lashon harah and rechilus there.

Rav Dovid Cohen, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Chevron, in his sefer Zeman Simchaseinu, attaches great importance to the Chofetz Chaim’s warning about speaking lashon harah in a sukkah. He quotes the Nachlas Dovid, who states in the name of the Vilna Gaon that the mitzvah of sukkah vanquishes the evil inclination of lashon harah. He explains that this power is due to the fact that Sukkos mirrors the final redemption when the sin of lashon harah will be rectified.

Rav Cohen references Rav Chaim Palagi, who says that sukkah is emblematic of unity, for when the Ananei Hakavod enveloped Am Yisroel, they were considered as one. As such, lashon harah, which is the root of rivalry and machlokes, has no place in the sukkah. Since every Yom Tov brings with it the spiritual powers that it represents, and since Sukkos parallels, and bears the strength of, the Ananei Hakavod, we merit that when we sit in the sukkah, we are betzilah demehemnusah. Thus, actions which are incompatible with achdus have no place in the sukkah.

With this, we can also understand the simcha of the Bais Hashoeivah, which the Mishnah (Sukkah 5:2) and Gemara (Sukkah 52a) famously describe as the greatest simcha ever witnessed by man. Water was drawn from a spring and brought to the Bais Hamikdosh. Nothing is more available than water. Not only is water abundant, but it is also odorless, shapeless, and easily accessible. The lesson is that Jews can take simple water and raise it to the highest level of kedushah as an offering in the Bais Hamikdosh. Recognizing that they could effect the transition of one of the lowest forms of creation to the highest, brought such unparalleled happiness and joy to the Jewish people.

So often, we get overwhelmed by Olam Hazeh. We ponder the purpose of all that we experience and endure. We work hard and don’t always see our plans to fruition. We can get easily frustrated. Too often, the mundane humdrum of life wears us out because we don’t comprehend the purpose of it all.

But on Sukkos, we take a fruit and a stick and they become cheftzos shel mitzvah which are mashpiah bechol ha’olamos. We cobble together boards and bamboo to create a home where the Shechinah rests. We then see that our actions have positive effects and create heavenly places for us to live in. Our feelings of futility disappear, as our inner thirst for spirituality is fed and nourished.

We sit in the sukkah and bask in its warmth and holiness. We welcome our friends, family and the Ushpizin, and recognize that there is a greater purpose in all that we do. Our actions can bring Moshiach. It is not just a good drasha, it is real.

And it is not only Sukkos. Rav Chaim Volozhiner writes in Nefesh Hachaim (1:4) that no Jew should ever say to himself that he is useless and has no power to accomplish anything with his daily activities. Every action we undertake, every word we utter, and every thought we bear can accomplish great things in the upper worldly spheres.

Rav Yisroel Elya Weintraub, in his pirush Yiras Chaim, explains this idea and says that at the root of human failing is a person’s feeling that his actions have no intrinsic value. It is such insecure thinking that leads man to forsake the proper path and engage in sin. If people would be secure in the knowledge of the impact of their actions, they would not sin.

Rav Chaim Volozhiner explains that this is the meaning of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (2:1) which states, “Da mah lemaalah mimcha - Know what is above you.” Know, the Mishnah exhorts us, that what transpires in the heavenly bodies is a result of your actions in this world.

Perhaps we can apply that Mishnah to our lesson from the sukkah. Know what is above you. As you sit in the sukkah and look up, know that your actions have caused the Shechinah to hover above you. Know that what you do has significance. Know that you have the power with your actions to dwell in the shadow of Hashem. Know that you have intrinsic value. Remember that you can cause world-altering changes. Know that nothing you do is wasted. It is all for a purpose.

There is nothing that brings more joy to a person than recognizing that he has value, that his internal battles have heavenly ramifications, and that he can accomplish more than he ever dreamed. And yes, he can take an otherwise mundane fruit and turn it into a treasured esrog.

Ashreinu, mah tov chelkeinu, umah yofoh yerushaseinu.

Chag someiach.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Obvious Teshuva

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

With the Yom Hadin upon us, teshuvah assumes a special urgency. Knowing that our very existence depends of the quality of our teshuvah prompts us to probe the meaning and scope of this obligation.

But it turns out that referring to teshuvah as an obligation may be a matter of dispute. The Rambam, in Hilchos Teshuvah, does not appear to regard teshuvah as a mitzvas asei.

In the first perek, the Rambam states that when a person engages in teshuvah, a vital aspect of that process is viduy—confession—which he defines as a mitzvas asei. Yet surprisingly, the Rambam stops short of defining teshuvah itself as a chiyuv. It seems from his language that there is no obligation for a person to do teshuvah, but rather that if a person repents, there is a mitzvah to say viduy.

In Perek 5, Halacha 2, he states that “it is proper to do teshuvah and to leave our wickedness behind,” again without designating teshuvah as an obligation. The same is true of Perek 7, Halacha 1, where he writes that a person should endeavor – yishtadeil – to do teshuvah and clean his hands of cheit. Once again, no mention is made of teshuvah being mandatory.

One might conclude from the language of the Rambam that while it is certainly a virtuous act, there is no chiyuv to do teshuvah.

Yet, we know from many pesukim in the Torah that teshuvah is in fact compulsory. In numerous places, Hashem urges the Jewish people to spiritually cleanse themselves, to repent and do teshuvah and return to G-d’s embrace.

In fact, in his short introductory summation to the chapters on teshuvah, the Rambam writes that the perakim on teshuvah contain “one mitzvas asei, which is that the sinner should repent from his sin before Hashem and be misvadeh, confess.”

The Ramban and the Siforno state unequivocally that every Jew has an obligation to do teshuvah. Both Rishonim identify the source for this chiyuv in the posuk in Parshas Nitzovim, [30; 11]Ki hamitzvah hazose asher anochi metzavcha hayom,” which is always read on the Shabbos prior to Rosh Hashanah.

Both Rishonim agree that the words “ki hamitzvah” are referring to the mitzvah of - “vahasheivoschah el levovechah” - “you shall impress upon your heart”- which is mentioned earlier in the parsha. They interpret this command as an obligation to do teshuvah.

How then are we to understand the Rambam’s failure to designate teshuvah as a mitzvah incumbent upon every Jew? Perhaps by reviewing the pesukim of parshas Nitzovim we can gain deeper insight into the Rambam’s views on teshuvah.

The pesukim discuss what will befall Am Yisroel when they succumb to sin. They speak of how Eretz Yisroel will be destroyed and the nations of the world will wonder why the country was singled out for such devastation. They will be told it was because the Jews deserted the covenant they had made with Hashem. They served strange gods and were cursed and punished.

Eventually the nation will do teshuvah and return to Hashem. He will then have mercy on us and gather us in from our exiles all across the world and retrun us to Eretz Yisroel. When the Jewish people will repent and perform all the mitzvos properly, they will be blessed and Hashem will rejoice with them once again.

It is then that the posuk which the Ramban and the Siforno say relates to teshuvah, appears: “This mitzvah, which I have commanded you today is not hidden from you, nor is it remote in the heavens, or in a far-away land. It is very close to you and easy for you to perform.”

The parsha continues, with Hashem telling the Jewish people that He has placed before them life and and goodness, as well as death and evil. If you sin then you will be smitten, the Torah says, but if you choose life, and good, then you and your children will merit living. You will love Hashem, follow his commandments and cling to him, because he is the source of your life.

The Rambam, in his discussion of teshuvah, is essentially following the order and content of the aforementioned pesukim. This is why he writes, in perek 5, a lengthy explanation of the concept of bechirah. He explains that Hashem created man with the ability to choose which way he wants to live his life. He is free to exercise his choices in any direction; to be good and follow Hashem’s word, or to be evil. If he were not empowered with free choice, there would be no grounds for reward and punishment.
We thus choose our own path in life, and thereby determine our own fates.

The Rambam then continues in perek 6 and 7, stating that therefore, people are punished when they don’t follow the proper path. But teshuvah has the power to suspend punishment. A person should therefore endeavor to repent and mend his ways and do teshuvah, so that he will be spared Divine punishment and merit Olam Habah.

And just as the pesukim in Nitzovim end with redemption, the Rambam follows the narrative and writes that teshuvah will lead us to redemption, and bring the nation back to Hashem’s embrace.

Herein lies the answer to our original question regarding whether teshuvah is mandatory or merely proper and advisable. There are two types of teshuvah. The preferred is teshuvah m’ahavah, the outcome of a person’s perception that Hashem is his Creator with whom he wants to grow closer. Out of his love of Hashem and appreciation for his abundant kindness, he rejects sin, which distances man from Hashem. Teshuvah m’yirah, though not as pure and ideal, is also accepted and helps clear the slate of the repentant person. This teshuvah is generated by a person’s fear of sin’s consequences. He realizes that his choices are life-and-death choices, and opts for life.

Were there an explicit obligation to do teshuvah, it would negate the possibility of choice in the inner tug of war that pits a person’s desire to be good against the temptation to do evil.

If a person engages in teshuvah because he is forced to by Divine obligation, his teshuvah is lacking in the core ingredient that defines this spiritual process: a yearning for reconnection and reconciliation with Hashem.

What makes teshuvah real as opposed to perfunctory is its source. It is real when it springs from a person’s deepest self as an innate response to facing two opposite paths and with one’s own free will, fulfilling the command of uvocharta b’chaim, choosing life.

That is why the pesukim which speak about teshuvah in parshas Nitzovim speak of the choices one has to make in life and their consequences, without clearly spelling out the obligation to repent. The pesukim present the choices before man, and the benefits of teshuvah, but they do not obligate him to follow the proper path. That choice is left to us.

That quintessential choice is left to us because teshuvah cannot be commanded and still be authentic. The only way the process can rise to the level of authenticity is if it is freely chosen.

The Rambam follows this line of thinking. He explains the virtues of teshuvah, the nobleness of drawing closer to Hashem, and the general benefits which arise from a person repenting. But while he discusses the advantages of teshuvah and guides one through the process, he does not say straight out that a person is obligated to undertake this course of action. If a person does teshuvah simply because he wants to adhere to the mitzvah, he would defeat the entire purpose and his act would have little value.

So much of what we do in life boils down to a choice of good and bad. Our choices carry repercussions—for ourselves and others. If we do the wrong thing or go down an ill-advised path, we can be plagued for life. Often times the route that seems most appealing is actually the most destructive. By the time we realize our mistake, it is too late to pull back and extradite ourselves from the morass we’ve stumbled into.

Teshuvah provides us with that opportunity to reverse course. It gives us a chance to start over. If we recognize that we erred and wish to return to life, goodness and to Hashem’s circle, we have the ability to wipe the slate clean as we rectify our ways. We have been provided with the power to undo defective choices, escape from the mess and return to Hashem’s good graces.

In the period of the Yomim Noraim, the Creator judges us according to our actions throughout the past year and ordains our future based upon how we have acted. Out of his deep enduring love for us, He provides us with the opportunity to merit a good year even though our actions might not justify those blessings. He presents us with the fork in the road and begs us to choose the path of life.

It is a simple choice, to be bocher b’chaim and choose the path of a blessed and good life. No matter how poorly we have performed, the magnitude of our mistakes, and how low we may have sunk from the level expected of us, there is a way out. Teshuvah is the ladder which enables us to climb down from the house of cards we have built for ourselves, and to climb up from the pits of self-indulgence and false pride.

It is never too late and we are never too far gone for teshuvah to help us return to the place we belong. The Torah testifies that once we decide that we want to be on the path of life, teshuvah is not that difficult to perform. We have to show we care, express interest in righting ourselves, and initiate the process. Hashem will then reach out to us in these special Days of Awe and complete the process, drawing us even closer to Him than we were before.

Teshuvah and the good life we all crave is a matter of priorities. It’s all about us recognizing the truth of the words of the pesukim, of Chazal, of the Rambam and of the mussar seforim with which we have been blessed and should review in this period.

At its core, what ought to prompt a person to teshuvah is not complex or ambiguous. Teshuvah is obvious once we recognize on the deepest level that Hashem created the world and wants to help us succeed in it.

Teshuvah requires the humility to accept that we are powerless to arrange our own destinies by ourselves. We are dependant upon a Higher Power to provide us with sustenance and life. To the extent that we follow the path He has laid down for us—which we all know is the only way to go—we will merit a blessed life filled with every good thing we long for.

Let us hope and pray that we all merit a bona fide teshuvah and that together with all of Klal Yisroel, we will be inscribed for a kesiva vachsimah tovah.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Tov Lehodos LaShem

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The Gemara in Maseches Avodah Zarah (8a) relates that on the day that Adam Harishon was created, when the sun set and it became dark, having never seen this occurrence before, Adam remarked that it was because of his sin that the world turned black. He feared that the world was about to be destroyed and would return to the tohu vavohu that existed before creation. The Gemara relates that Adam and Chava cried the whole night and engaged in taanis. [This may be understood according to the Gemara in Maseches Taanis 16a, which says that the main component of a taanis, fast, is teshuvah.] In the morning, when the sky began lighting up again, Adam said that it is the way of the world - the sun sets in the evening and rises in the morning. He was so overjoyed with his discovery that he brought a korban.

I learned this Gemara and didn’t understand it. If Adam was up all night crying and doing teshuvah, then when he saw the sky begin to brighten, why didn’t he think that his teshuvah was accepted and that the world would remain constantly bright? Why did he immediately conclude that day and night are the nature of the world?

If he was up all night crying over his sin, appreciating the magnitude of what he had done and seeking forgiveness, why didn’t he think that Hashem had accepted his remorse and was returning light to the world?

Perhaps we can explain that teshuvah is a chiddush in the briah. Originally, when Hashem created the world, it was to be without teshuvah. It was only when He saw that the world wouldn’t last if it was based purely upon middas hadin that rachamim was added. In the original plan, there was no teshuvah. If a person sinned, he would die.

When Adam was up that first night of creation crying and fasting, he wasn’t praying that his sin be forgotten and its negative impact be erased. He was crying over his sin and he was fasting because he thought that the darkness meant that the world was coming to an end. He was broken over what he had done. He was doing teshuvah lishmah. He was repenting over his aveirah, because he realized the gravity of his actions and regretted what he had done.

As the Rambam writes in the first halacha of Hilchos Teshuvah, it is a mitzvas asei for a person who sins to be misvadeh to Hashem. The Rambam describes the mitzvah of vidui as a person admitting that he sinned, stating, “Chotosi, avisi, poshati,” and then expressing regret for what he did (“veharei nichamti uboshti bemaasai”) and promising to never commit that sin again (“ule’olam eini chozer ledovor zeh”).

This is the teshuvah that Adam was engaged in that entire first night.

Thus, when Adam saw the light beginning to return to the world, it didn’t dawn upon him that his act of contrition was capable of erasing the stain of his aveirah. When Adam and Chava saw the light, they assumed that it was simply part of nature for there to be periods of light and periods of darkness. They had no inkling that teshuvah had the ability to erase the effects of sin.

I found a proof to this explanation in the Medrash Rabbah (Bereishis 22), where we are told that after Kayin had killed Hevel, Adam met Kayin and asked him what happened when Hakadosh Boruch Hu judged him for the crime that he had committed. Kayin responded to Adam that he did teshuvah and was spared from death.

The Medrash says that upon hearing that, Adam began banging himself on the head and saying, “Kach hee kocha shel teshuvah ve’anochi lo yodati. I never knew the power of teshuvah. I never knew that it is so great that it can overturn a punishment of death.”

He immediately stood up and proclaimed, “Mizmor Shir Leyom HaShabbos.”

The Medrash bears out our idea that Adam did not appreciate the strength of teshuvah. Though he himself had previously done teshuvah and repented for his sin, the Medrash states clearly that he was not aware of the power of teshuvah. When Kayin recounted his experience, Adam was astounded to learn that teshuvah had the ability to temper the punishment for aveiros.

Adam knew that he was created to serve Hashem. He knew that aveiros create a chasm between man and his Creator. He didn’t know that teshuvah was powerful enough to take down the barriers created by chet. He knew that chet minimizes a person’s abilities and introduces tumah in the place of kedushah, but he didn’t know that teshuvah had the ability to return a person to his original holy state.

When Kayin revealed to Adam the koach of teshuvah, he said Mizmor Shir Leyom HaShabbos, which extols the virtue of teshuvah. When Adam stated, “tov lehodos laShem,” he was teaching future generations that it is a good idea lehodos laShem, to admit when they do an aveirah and to fulfill the obligation of doing teshuvah, because then they will be forgiven and will want lezameir leshimcha elyon, to sing the praises of Hashem out of the joy that their sins have been expunged, and lehagid baboker chasdecha, to sing in the morning of the kindness of Hashem. This is referring to the morning of Shabbos, the second day of Adam’s life, when he worried that the world had turned to darkness and would be destroyed. Because of Hashem’s kindness in instituting the gift of teshuvah, there is light in the world every day and it is not destroyed because of our aveiros or the aveirah of Adam. The posuk concludes, “ve’emunascha baleilos,” with Adam teaching us that one can go to sleep confident in the knowledge that the sun will rise in the morning and that the world will not be darkened and destroyed because of our sins.

We, in our day, are well aware of the gift of teshuvah with which Hakadosh Boruch Hu created the world. We have seen how, in the succeeding generations, beginning with Adam, and continuing with Kayin throughout Tanach and until this very day, teshuvah has saved man from destruction. It is not a chiddush to us that repenting has the ability to obliterate the mark of destruction which chet causes in the briah. To us, the knowledge that teshuvah has the power to return a person to his pre-chet state is so elementary that we take it for granted.

And that is the problem. We take it for granted and do not appreciate it. We don’t properly value the period of Elul during which Hashem is closer to us and more accepting of our teshuvah. Instead of engaging in acts of contrition as we approach the Yomim Noraim, we often procrastinate and leave teshuvah for tomorrow.

Tomorrow is coming. Rosh Hashanah, the day on which we are all judged for the way we conducted ourselves over the past year is upon us. The Yom Hadin, when everything pertaining to our lives in the coming year will be decided, is almost here.

Let us take advantage of the gift that Adam Harishon discovered. It behooves us to spend the remaining time leading up to Rosh Hashanah engaged in teshuvah and maasim tovim, so that we will merit a kesivah vachasimah tovah besifron shel tzaddiikim gemurim. Amein.