Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Hashiveini Ve'ashuvah

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

In one of the Al Cheit confessions that we recite on Yom Kippur, we beg forgiveness “al cheit shechatanu lefonecha besimhon leivov,” for the sins we committed through confusion of the heart.

Why do we need to ask forgiveness for sins that are caused by confusion? Why are they not onsim, accidental mistakes, from which the Torah absolves us?

The answer is given by way of a parable. Imagine a man traveling on his boat. A vicious wave tips the boat and throws the man into the water. After initially flailing about, he summons his inner strength and swims to the shore. When he reaches safety, he realizes that in the confusion and turmoil, he forgot his Rolex watch on his boat and that he will never see it again. Obviously, the man is easily forgiven for forgetting about his watch under those conditions.

Now imagine that the man is thrown from his boat by a strong wave, and after swimming ashore, he realizes that he swam to safety without thinking about saving his wife who was traveling with him. In all the tumult, he forgot about her. The act of forgetfulness in such a situation is unforgivable. Their relationship doesn’t allow for forgetting.

At Har Sinai, we forged a relationship with Hashem that endures through blood and fire, in good times and bad. Ki anu amecha ve’Atah Elokeinu. There is no exclusion in times of confusion. We seek to live with that reality, pledging allegiance to the ideal and embodying it. Emunah and bitachon are our lifeblood.

The emotional high point of the tefillos of the Yomim Noraim follows the gripping prayer of Unesaneh Tokef, when the entire shul cries out, “Useshuvah usefillah utzedakah maavirin es ro’a hagezeirah!” Teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah have the power to overturn a ruinous judgment. But how exactly does this work? What is so unique about these three activities that they can reverse a Divine verdict?

Rav Zvi Schvartz from Rechovot once asked me what the difference is between a person who is a kofer and a person who is a ma’amin. The answer, he said, is gratitude. A kofer, at his core, is a kofui tov, whereas a ma’amin is a makir tov.

The conversation prompted me to gain an insight into the manner in which teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah are intrinsically related, and how they are able to neutralize an evil decree.

Rav Schvartz’s comment is packed with profound insight. A kofer cannot acknowledge a Supreme Ruler of the world, because that would imply indebtedness to a Force other than his own intelligence and strength. In his arrogance, he is convinced that he is totally self-sufficient. He is subservient to no one.

Jews who sin are contrasted with animals, as the posuk states, “Yoda shor koneihu vachamor eivus b’alav, Yisroel lo yoda, ami lo hisbonan.” Even an animal recognizes its master, who feeds it and cares for it, the posuk states. Am Yisroel, when sinning, doesn’t recognize the G-d Who cares for them.

A ma’amin knows that he was placed in this world by Hashem, Who cares for him and sustains him. He knows that his life and his livelihood are gifts, and that every aspect of his existence, including his environment, social standing and day-to-day accomplishments, come from Hashem. The awareness that he owes all of life’s blessings to the One Above stimulates constant gratefulness and appreciation.

A ma’amin wakes up in the morning and says, “Modeh Ani, thank You, Hashem, for giving me another day of life.” He davens and says, “Modim, I thank You for all Your miracles, wonders and favors that sustain me.” He sits down to breakfast, thanking Hashem both before and after he eats. Gratitude to Hashem for another 24 hours of life and hope for His continued munificence set the tone for the rest of his day.

He doesn’t permit his ego to block his awareness of his dependence on his Creator. He doesn’t feel diminished as a human being when he expresses appreciation to Hashem for His guiding Hand in every facet of life.

He is not too conceited to recognize that there is Someone above him Who watches over him and cares for him. It doesn’t hurt his ego to be thankful every waking moment. And since he knows that Hashem sustains him, he knows that Hashem created the world and he knows that he must follow the commandments that Hashem laid out in the Torah in order for him to thrive in this world.

Both as appreciation to Hashem for all of the kindness He extends to us and because he recognizes that the Creator has placed us here for a purpose, the believer engages in teshuvah in order to bring himself closer to his Maker. Hakoras hatov is an integral part of his personality, and he understands that if for no other reason than hakoras hatov, he has to keep the mitzvos.

For a ma’amin, hakoras hatov sparks a readiness to reciprocate in some small measure by upholding the Torah and clinging to its laws. But just as important, hakoras hatov inspires teshuvah. It generates the desire to purify oneself, strengthen one’s faith, and come closer to the One Who protects and nurtures.

Thus, as Rosh Hashanah approaches, the ma’amin intensifies his efforts to do teshuvah in order to please his Maker to the greatest extent possible. He does this out of a sense of appreciation for the good he has received and the recognition that the One Who nourishes him has set a code for him to live by.

How does a person arrive at teshuvah? Doing so requires conducting a serious cheshbon hanefesh. A person must subject his deepest self to intense scrutiny, seriously reviewing every aspect of his conduct. But that is only half the battle.

Once we have performed a painstaking self-assessment, we have to internalize and apply what we’ve discovered. We have to set about correcting our character flaws, and rectifying the mistakes and errors of judgment we made.

The process, when performed correctly, can be excruciating. After going through it, we emerge changed people. It is not enough to beat our chests and klap al cheit. We have to actually change our psyches and adopt different behaviors. The teshuvah process has to humble every being as it reminds him of his proper place in creation and prompts a greater appreciation of Hashem’s role in his life.

Teshuvah brings us back to where we were before we sinned. It sets us on the path we should have been on all along and gives us the energy we need to do it right this time.

Teshuvah triggers an outpouring of sincere tefillah. Tefillah is a natural outgrowth of teshuvah. With a fresh awareness of how small and helpless we really are in the face of life’s frightening precariousness comes a spontaneous outpouring of tefillah, on three levels. We proclaim Hashem’s supremacy over all of existence, we thank Him for His daily kindnesses, and we beg that we merit His continued generosity.

We pray for His salvation from all our troubles, individually and collectively, and for a year of health, happiness and success.

Middos tovos and proper ethics are prerequisites for teshuvah, for if a person is conceited, he will never come to recognize that it is not his “koach ve’otzem yado” that support his lifestyle, and it is not his superior intelligence that earns him his living. Rather, he is dependent upon a Higher Power for all he has. Tikkun hamiddos and proper ethics are prerequisites for teshuvah.

A man once arrived in the yeshiva of Kelm. The person sitting next to him during davening noticed that at the portions of davening that called for the return of the Shechinah to Tzion, the distinguished-looking visitor uttered the words with great devotion. During the portion of davening requesting personal sustenance, however, the person rushed through the prayers. The talmid who observed this conduct discussed it with the Alter of Kelm.

The Alter explained that the person, despite his impressive outer appearance, was in fact not really a great ma’amin. “In matters pertaining to himself,” said the Alter, “he believes that he controls his life, arranges his own success, and doesn’t require G-d’s help. In areas outside of his realm, he prays for Hashem to bring about the changes everyone is awaiting.”

As long as a person continues to believe in “kochi ve’otzem yodi,” that his success is due to his superior intelligence, his ga’avah will render him incapable of repenting. He will be unable to reach the level of understanding required to draw himself closer to his Master, and he will wallow in sin and self-indulgence even as he goes through the motions of religiosity.

A person with an untamed ego will not be able to thoroughly examine himself and his actions in order to repent. His ego will blind him from recognizing that he is not in charge and that he has to subjugate himself to his Creator.

How often does it happen that you try to show someone the truth about something and, despite the absolute clarity, the person refuses to listen? You patiently work through an issue, take it apart piece by piece, and reconstruct it to forcefully drive home the truth, all to no avail, because the person you are trying to reason with can’t sidestep his ego and view the matter objectively.

Ga’avah is one of the yeitzer hora’s favorite tools. It prevents a person from comprehending what is obvious to everyone else. It derails a person from properly preparing for Rosh Hashanah and from becoming a special person.

In the face of the yeitzer hora’s constant maneuvers, we have to throw our energies into seeking strategies to offset the many challenges that prevent us from becoming better people. One of the most effective strategies, the Gemara tells us, is chochmah.

The posuk in Mishlei states, “Emor lechochmah achosi at.” The Gemara in Maseches Brachos (17a) explains that the ultimate purpose of chochmah is teshuvah and maasim tovim.

In order to overcome the roadblocks put in place by the yeitzer hora, we have to strengthen our ability to use chochmah. Only with chochmah can we subdue the yeitzer, as the posuk (Mishlei 24) states, “Betachbulos ta’aseh lecha milchamah,” in fighting your enemy - the yeitzer hora - you have to use chochmah to outwit him.

Chochmah is acquired by learning sifrei mussar, which touch our inner core and put us back on course, following the literal translation of the word teshuvah, to return.

Another powerful weapon available to us is embedded in the Yom Hadin itself. The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 11a) states that Rosh Hashanah is the day on which Yosef was freed from the Egyptian jail, as well as the day that marked the end of crushing slavery for the Jews in Mitzrayim. Thus, in addition to being a day of judgment, Rosh Hashanah is also a day of redemption. On this day, we can all be released from enslavement to the yeitzer hora and to the web of desires that ensnares us. The avodas hayom and the day’s built-in redemptive power can return us to an earlier, more ennobled state.

Once a person reaches that higher level of spiritual awareness brought on by teshuvah, he realizes that he is not superior to other people, who were created just as he was, b’tzelem Elokim. His eyes open to the plight of the many people in this world who are in need of assistance, evoking his sympathy and compassion. As part of the spiritual growth triggered by teshuvah and tefillah, he has a growing awareness that it is not enough to care for himself and satisfy his own indulgences. He must share his blessings with others.

Ga’avah prevents a person from helping others. An arrogant individual looks down upon others and views them askance, with a measure of scorn and hate. His negative middah keeps him from using his gifts to help others. He looks down upon them and views them as somehow deficient, and inferior to himself.

Once the baal teshuvah repents, however, he becomes a makir tov to the Ribono Shel Olam and thus proves that his convictions have been corrected and his priorities straightened out. He has come to recognize that he is not all-powerful, and that he is dependent upon the grace of Hashem for his wisdom, wealth, health and happiness. He has attained a new level of contentment reserved for those who are humble and walk in the path of Hashem.

This thought echoes the oft-repeated comment of Rav Yisroel of Salant that the way to prevail on the Yom Hadin is to behave selflessly, helping and giving to others, and becoming involved in improving the klal. A communal-minded person indicates via his altruism and benevolence that he recognizes his mission: to emulate Hashem by being a giver. A baal tzedokah who conducts himself lesheim Shomayim is, in essence, the truest manifestation of a makir tov.

When teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah flow naturally, a person indicates that he has reached the level of observance required to prevail in the din of Rosh Hashanah. Thus, with our hearts focused on implementing the lessons embedded in these words, we proclaim, “Useshuvah usefillah utzedakah maavirin es ro’a hagezeirah.”

We endeavor to reach that lofty level and find favor in Hashem’s eyes, so that He will bless us all with a kesivah vachasimah tovah.

But then there are those of us who, as hard as they try, feel that they have not been able to return to the desired pure and exalted state. What are they to do? Should they give up? Is it possible that teshuvah wasn’t meant for them?

My dear friend, Rav Simcha Bunim Cohen, reminded me that the novi Yirmiyahu speaks to such people in the haftorah we read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

The novi proclaims (Yirmiyahu 31:17), “Shamoa shomati Efraim misnodeid. I have heard Efraim moaning. He is saying, ‘Yisartani va’ivaseir k’eigel lo lumod, You have rebuked me and I have accepted Your punishment like an untrained calf. Hashiveini ve’ashuvah ki Atah Hashem Elokoy. Bring me back and I shall return.’”

The Bais Haleivi, in his peirush al haTorah, in Parshas Vayishlach, as an addendum printed on the bottom of the page, offers a fascinating explanation of the posuk. He says that Klal Yisroel asks Hashem to help us return to Him with teshuvah. We say that we are k’eigel lo lomud, like an uneducated calf.

When a cow is plowing a row in a field, or pulling a wagon, and it veers off course, the farmer or the driver whips it and it returns to the path it is meant to be on. That is only if the cow has previously plowed or pulled a wagon. Since it knows where it should be and the job that is required of it, if it is punished for going the wrong way, it can rectify itself.

But if the cow is untrained, has never plowed, or never pulled a wagon on a road, then as much as you whip it, the cow won’t do what is demanded of it. In fact, if it is whipped, it is liable to run even faster in the wrong direction, requiring the owner to work even harder to return it to the furrow.

The Bais Haleivi explains that we say to Hashem, “Please don’t whip us. Don’t punish us, for we know not of what we do. We have received so many punishments and reminders to adhere to the proper path, but we are untrained and lost. Hashiveini. Please, Hashem, bring me back. Return me to the proper path, without the whip. Show me the way; where I should be going and how I should behave, ve’ashuvah, and I will return and remain on the path You have charted for me.”

Teshuvah is for everyone. We all want to return to Torah and behave as Hashem intended. At times, it is difficult for us to right ourselves and we require painful reminders.

There is a concept in halachah of kofin oso ad sheyomer rotzeh ani (Rambam, Hilchos Geirushin, 2:20). Even if Jew proclaims that he does not want to follow halachah, if he is beaten and submits and declares that he will do what is incumbent upon him, we accept his declaration. The Rambam (ibid.) explains that “rotzeh hu la’asos kol hamitzvos ulehisracheik min ha’aveiros, veyitzro hu shetakfo, vekivon shehukah ad shetoshash yitzro veomer rotzeh ani…” Every Jew, says the Rambam, intrinsically wants to observe the mitzvos, but his yeitzer hora overcomes him. Therefore, when his evil inclination is beaten down and the person says that he wants to do the mitzvah, we accept his declaration as if he willingly observed the halachah.

Everyone essentially wants to do teshuvah and return to Hashem’s embrace, but some find it difficult to overcome their habits and the yeitzer hora, which leads them astray. They feel so removed from kedushah and Torah that they feel they can never rid themselves of their addictions. If they would only call out, “Hashiveini! Hashem, help me. Bring me back,” then ve’ashuvah, they would be able to return. No one should ever give up on themselves, and we should never give up on anyone.

We must remember that people are inherently good. If people have fallen into lives of darkness, we should be there for them. Hashiveini ve’ashuvah. The day will come when they will return to a life of light. We pray that their return is not dependent on whipping and other punishments.

I was discussing this concept last week with my friend, Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin, who heads Lev L’Achim, and he shared an insight. We all know that Elul is an acronym of the words Ani LeDodi VeDodi Li, which appear in Shir Hashirim (6:3). The complete posuk reads, “Ani leDodi veDodi li haroeh bashoshanim, which is literally translated as, “I am my Uncle’s and my Uncle is mine, the shepherd with the roses.”

What does it mean? Chazal use the acronym to explain that Hashem is especially close to his beloved nation during the month of Elul. He is our shepherd and we are his flock. But shepherds use different methods to keep their sheep together and to lead them where they have to go. Some strike them when they veer off the path. Some throw sticks at them to keep the flock together. Some send dogs after them. Others shout at them. Some throw stones to scare the sheep.

But then there is the loving shepherd who sits under a shady tree and plays the flute. The sheep gather around him and follow his melody. Such a shepherd is referred to as a roeh bashoshanim, herding the flock with roses and love.

We proclaim that Hashem is especially close to us during the month of Elul, guiding and leading us as a roeh bashoshanim.

We turn to Him and plead: Please don’t strike us. Don’t afflict us. Don’t send Hamas, ISIS or Iran to remind us who we are and what we should be doing. Please don’t have the government enact harsh decrees so that we will be chastised in order to return to the proper path. Heal the sick, cure the wounded and empower the weak, and lead us with a flute, not a stick. Show us the correct path with roses, not stones.

Hashiveini ve’ashuvah. Lead us back, Hashem. Bring us into Your embrace and inscribe us in the Book of Life.

Kesivah vachasimah tovah to all.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Fear of Elul

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Fear is a uniquely Jewish attribute.

The posuk praises people who constantly fear: “Ashrei odom mefacheid tomid” (Mishlei 28:24). The yorei Shomayim, the choreid ledvar Hashem, is never entirely relaxed. He is always fearful, ensuring that he lives the proper life.

The legendary Brisker gaon, Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin, was an awe-inspiring figure. It was well-known in Yerushalayim Shel Ma’alah that when he davened on leil Shabbos and reached the words “lefonov na’avod beyirah vofachad,” a vein in his forehead would begin throbbing. His face would turn the color of fire and he would tremble. The people of the Holy City would avert their eyes, unable to look at the holy countenance aflame.

Yet, this same very angelic figure would be overcome by awe when he approached the Kosel, barely able to articulate his tefillos because of his reverence for the sacred site. In fact, a window of his humble home faced the Kosel and the Har Habayis. He was so sensitive to the kedushah and churban evidenced by the view that he always kept that window covered, lest he catch a glimpse of the holy site and be overcome.

It is said that Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, author of the Ohr Somayach and Meshech Chochmah, once encountered Reb Yehoshua Leib. He was so overcome with fright that he was unable to utter the words “Shalom Aleichem.”

As fearful as the great Rav Meir Simcha was of Rav Yehoshua Leib, Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz of Kamenitz once met Rav Meir Simcha and couldn’t bring himself to greet the gaon of Dvinsk. He explained his reluctance: “My rebbi, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, referred to the Ohr Somayach as a ‘sar haTorah’ and I should greet him as a friend?”

A holy chain of fear.

The reverence was transmitted through the generations, from gadol to gadol and from talmid to talmid. In our generation, when yirah has become a forgotten word and respect is all but lost, it is hard to conceive that not many years ago there existed such a tangible fear born out of respect.

Rashi, at the beginning of this week’s parsha, offers a puzzling explanation for the juxtaposition of parshiyos (Devorim 29: 9). He quotes the Medrash which states that after Klal Yisroel heard the 98 klalos as described in Parshas Ki Savo, they were so distressed and frightened that their faces turned green. They were despondent, as they felt ill-equipped to handle all the Torah’s commandments and were mortified at the ramifications of non-observance.

Moshe reassured them, saying, “Atem nitzovim hayom. Although you’ve angered Hashem numerous times over the years - with the meraglim, the Eigel, and other sins - you are still standing here and haven’t been destroyed.”

At first glance, the answer seems self-defeating. Imagine a parent warning his children that if they misbehave, they will suffer serious consequences. When the children react with fright, the parent reassures them that the threat isn’t really that serious after all and brings a proof to that effect.

The Lucerne rosh yeshiva, Rav Yitzchok Dov Kopelman, explained that Divine punishment is not meant as a consequence or retribution for a sinful act. It is merely a tool used by a loving Father to guide His wayward children onto the correct path. What is important is that they behave properly, not the imposition of the penalty.

Once Moshe saw that “peneihem morikos,” their faces had changed colors, he understood that the klalos had achieved their desired effect and the people would behave properly.

This is Jewish fear - not a fear that leads to despair or brokenness, but a fear that leads to Vegilu biradah, rejoicing in trembling. Tzaddikim such as Rav Yehoshua Leib, Rav Meir Simcha and Rav Boruch Ber were inspired, optimistic people. Their fear did not hold them back. It motivated them.

When people talk about the mood and attitude in the great Torah centers of pre-war Lithuania during the days of Elul, what they are describing is yiras Shomayim, not depression. When we hear about the women who fainted when the chazzan recited Rosh Chodesh bentching for Elul or the imagery of fish in the sea trembling, we should understand that it was not due to panic or dread, but rather reverence and awe generated by being in the Presence of Hashem.

The holy fusion of fear and joy found amongst tzaddikim is an expression of their deep vision, their ability to perceive that the fear itself, the peneihem morikos, is the reaction hoped for by Heaven. Shomayim doesn’t punish. It reminds. Ehrliche Yidden are attuned to these reminders.

Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer and his wife, Rebbetzin Baila Hinda, were joyous people, yet they lived with this awareness, an ever-present sense that the Creator was with them. One day, as the rebbetzin prepared a glass of tea for her husband, the cup suddenly shattered in her hand. Within moments, she sat down with her husband to consider why it had happened and what the message was.

“Did you perhaps display a ‘closed hand,’ not giving tzedakah when requested?” the rosh yeshiva wondered.

The rebbetzin recalled that when she was doing her shopping earlier that day in the Machane Yehudah shuk, a collector approached her for money. The rebbetzin, who only had a large bill with her, asked the poor man to wait a moment while she got change from one of the kiosks. She changed the bill into smaller denominations, but when she returned back to the beggar, he was gone.

“Yes,” concluded the rosh yeshiva, “that must be why you endured this accident.”

For tzaddikim, reminders suffice. Dai lechakima beremiza, say Chazal. The wise man needs only a hint.

The best way to appreciate this season is to approach it as chachomim, with our eyes open and hearts awake to the messages being sent our way. It is easy to ignore them, to be apathetic or stubbornly refusing to consider that those messages are directed at us. But then the messages become more insistent. Peneihem morikos, Rashi teaches us. The fright itself should be enough to evoke Divine rachamim.

Think about it. If used correctly, fear can be the healthiest of emotions, a tool to craft a blessed new year for us and our families.

At one of his Thursday night shiurim, when all sorts of questions were welcomed from the audience, Rav Avigdor Miller explained the nature of bitachon.

Bitachon means Hashem will take care of you if you trust in Him, but that trust requires you to do what He wants you to do, and He wants you to be ‘mefashfeish bema’asov,’ to search into your ways. Self-scrutiny is a mitzvah like tefillin is a mitzvah.

“If a man has a toothache,” continued Rav Miller, “and he goes to the dentist, and the dentist says, ‘Open wide,’ he should think, ‘Why do I have to open my mouth wide? Because I shouldn’t have opened my mouth so wide at other times. I opened my mouth against my wife; that’s why I have to open it for the dentist now. I opened my mouth against my fellow Jew, so now I have to deal with this.’”

Living with this awareness, Rav Miller was teaching, is itself an expression of faith. Seeing Hashem’s message in all occurrences is empowering, because it underscores how relevant our every action is and how important it is to Him to prod us on to the right path.

Perhaps this answers the paradox regarding the nature of Rosh Hashanah. The day contains the obligation of experiencing the joy of a yom tov, yet, at the same time, the fear of judgment is just as essential. We can understand it by comparing it to the fear experienced by someone who has sat in conversation with a gadol. Sure, you are overcome by awe, it is difficult to speak, and you choose your words carefully, but despite that, at the same time, you have never felt more alive and relevant than when you are in his presence.

I remember way back when I sat with Maran Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l for the first time after this newspaper was founded. I was very young and clean-shaven. Rav Shach overwhelmed me with Torah, love and guidance, and it was difficult for me to speak. The nicer he was to me, the more self-conscious I was about the fact that I didn’t have a beard.

I was charged and enthused about my mission, but I resolved then and there that it would be the last time I appeared before him without a beard. As I was leaving, one of the gate-keepers commented on how nice the rosh yeshiva was to me. I responded by telling him about how unworthy I felt, a young Amerikaner without a beard. He assured me that Rav Shach didn’t judge a person by his chitzoniyus and that I shouldn’t have felt insecure.

When one is in the presence of greatness, especially when the great person reacts in a kind and loving fashion, one is at the same time joyful and fearful, as the posuk states, “vegilu biradah.”

Rav Chaim Brim would recall the fear that overcame him when he was in the presence of the Brisker Rov. He retold his experience when the Rov spoke at the celebration of a sheva brachos for his son, Rav Meir Soloveitchik.

He recounted that the Rov said that the words we recite affirming our belief in the imminent arrival of Moshiach, “achakeh lo bechol yom sheyavo,” do not mean that a person waits for Moshiach each day once a day. Rather, it means “kol hayom,” throughout the entire day. We await the arrival of Moshiach all day.

“When the Rov said this vort,” testified Rav Chaim, “we all lowered our heads in shame in the face of his obvious, tangible emunah and our own low levels. It was humiliating.”

Yet Rav Chaim and his contemporaries seized every moment to spend time in the presence of the Rov, welcoming the humiliation and shame, embracing the simcha of true bushah.

During these days, it is our certainty of Hashem’s proximity and our assurance that He is listening closely that is the cause of both our simcha at the opportunity it affords and the fear of the magnitude of His power and might.

“Dirshu Hashem behimatzo - Seek out Hashem when He is accessible,” says the posuk. This is the most empowering time of the year, the exalted moments when we are being ushered into His Presence. Yes, He will scrutinize our actions and seek to help us improve, but by being vigilant and attuned to His will, we ask that He give us the opportunity to improve without being rebuked or disciplined.

Hashem ori,” we say twice each day between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Shemini Atzeres. He illuminates the path before us, helping us identify mistakes we have made and a path to repair them. This way, we can experience teshuvah without the reprimand and closeness without the push, and thus “veyishi, Hashem is my salvation, so “mimi ira, from who shall I fear?

If we truly fear Him, then we need not fear others. If we fear Him, then we perceive that, indeed, there is nothing to fear at all.

The Gemara in Maseches Chagigah (5b) relates that Rav Papa said, “Ein atzivus lifnei Hakadosh Boruch Hu - There is no grief in Hakadosh Boruch Hu’s presence.” Now that we are in the period when we are closest to Hashem, there should be no grief, even as we approach the Day of Judgment, when all of mankind will undergo Heavenly scrutiny.

There is a new Israeli song that has gone viral. The words, which are from Likkutei Maharan, provide succor for us during these days of Elul, the Yomim Noraim, and throughout the year:

Hashem says, “Anochi hastir astir Ponai bayom hahu,” but the rebbe says, “V’afilu behastorah shebesoch hastorah bevadai gam shom nimtza Hashem Yisborach. Gam mei’achorei hadevorim hakoshim ha’omdim alecha ani omeid.

Hashem says, “If you disobey My commandments, I will hide Myself from the Jewish people,” but the rebbe says that even when Hashem is hiding, know that He is there and ever-present, and He stands behind the difficult things that happen to you.

We are all faced by so many difficult tribulations and wonder how we can withstand them. Know that you are not alone. Hashem is there right alongside you, guiding and assisting you as you seek to find your way in the darkness. He is there all year, yet He is even closer during these days of Elul and the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah.

Don’t grow despondent. Don’t think the job is too difficult for you. Don’t think that you can’t overcome the nisyonos that you are faced with. Don’t worry that you won’t succeed in doing a proper teshuvah for your aveiros. Don’t think that you won’t be able to bring yourself to the level that will ensure that you emerge zakai in din.

Those who fear Hashem feel Him. Those who fear Hashem merit His closeness. Those who fear Hashem know that He is there with them, helping them approach Him.

May we all merit to be anoshim chareidim, people who fear Hashem, and thus emerge meritorious on the Yom Hadin.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Elul Vacation

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The great Chassidic master, the Mezeritcher Maggid, taught that three principles in avodas Hashem can be learned from a child. Children are happy without any special reason, they are never idle, and they cry out when they want something.

Last week, I learned a fourth.

My children recently moved back to America after living in Eretz Yisroel for several years. I was taking a walk with my sweet little Yerushalayim-born-and-bred granddaughter. Her small hand was clasped tightly in my own as we walked, when the sound of sirens was heard in the distance, a call alerting volunteer firemen to a blaze. Perhaps because the sound is not infrequent, and since I am not a fireman it is irrelevant to me, the siren’s cry barely registered in my mind. My granddaughter, however, panicked. I felt her tense up, squeezing my hand very tight.

“Zaidy, we have to run,” she said.

“Why do we have to run?” I wondered.

Tears filled her eyes and her voice quivered. “Otherwise, Zaidy, rockets are going to fall on us!”

From my granddaughter, I learned what it means to hear - to really hear.

When I heard her comment, said with such simplicity and self-assurance, I understood the answer to a question posed by the Chevroner rosh yeshiva.

The Tur (Hilchos Rosh Hashanah 581) states that Chazal instituted the custom of blowing the shofar during the month of Elul so that people will be alerted to perform teshuvah, as the posuk (Amos 3:6) states, “Im yitoka shofar be’ir ve’am lo yecherodu? Can a shofar sound in a city and the nation will not tremble?” This question demonstrates that the sound of the shofar causes people to be fearful.

Rav Dovid Cohen, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Chevron, points out that the posuk, which is widely repeated and mentioned as the source of the custom to blow shofar, does not refer at all to teshuvah or Rosh Hashanah. The posuk mentions the shofar and its ability to evoke fear as a tool of war. When the shofar sounds, people panic, because they know that war is imminent.

How, then, is this a source for the shofar we sound during these days of Elul and Rosh Hashanah?

Rav Eliyohu Meir Bloch, the Telzer rosh yeshiva, would begin each Elul by announcing to his talmidim that “mir zennen yetzt in ah tzeit fun milchamah, we are now in a time of war.”

Just as in a time of war leisurely pursuits are scuttled, so too during Elul that same mindset and attitude must pervade. Things that are acceptable throughout the year have no place now. The sense of urgency and desperation spawned by war is the rule of this month. There are no atheists in foxholes and there shouldn’t be any apathetic people during Elul.

Those who are aware and cognizant of the season are shaken to do teshuvah when they hear the sound of the shofar, because they recognize it as a call to battle and are reminded that they have to defeat the yeitzer hora. Since they are spiritually sensitive and attuned to the realities of the season, they jump to attention when they hear the sound, because they know it is relevant to them.

While the distant ring of the fire-bell in Monsey didn’t call me, since I can’t put out fires and I am not conditioned to respond to it, my granddaughter heard the siren - which she had sadly come to know and take seriously - and she felt the urgency. She recognized what it means, its implications, and its relevance, and she reacted.

Those in sync with the ratzon Hashem are alert to the kol shofar. They are constantly engaged in the milchemes hayeitzer that defines life for a human being. Thus, when they hear the sound of the shofar, they tremble with the knowledge of “hinei yom hadin.”

They recognize that sound from the last war, from the last time they had to battle the yeitzer hora, from last year’s yemei hadin.

The Sefer Akeidah (Shaar 97) compares this month to the four seasons of the year. He says that the body declines over the winter and comes back to life along with the rest of nature during the spring and summer. When it is cold and snowy, the hibernation factor kicks in and man is driven indoors, unwilling and unable to navigate the roads of life amidst the cold and ice.

When spring and summer arrive, people awaken. Their moods improve and they spend more time outdoors, exercising and engaging in activities that increase physical pleasure. As the flowers and trees bloom again and the weather warms, man’s physical strength and temptations increase.

Lehavdil, the Yomim Noraim are for the neshomah what summer is for the guf, says the Akeidah. It’s the time when our souls come alive. Elul is spring, the month in which the neshomah begins preparing for the growth of Tishrei. A sense of anticipation, optimism and hope pervade the air. Much like a family will spend happy hours in the spring planning their summer vacation, Jews map out their spiritual course during Elul for the coming season of din.

The Alter of Slabodka once returned to his yeshiva during Elul after having spent the previous weeks in a resort town recouping his strength. The talmidim of the yeshiva, the repository of future gedolim, ventured forth to greet their mentor. Upon receiving them, the Alter delivered a short shmuess.

“We arrive from the physical vacation to a spiritual vacation. We come from the summer months spent in forests and fields and begin the months of the yemei haratzon, which we spend in the yeshiva. What distinguishes this vacation from that one?” he asked. “Just as vacation is necessary to fortify the body, so is vacation necessary to fortify the soul - even more so, in fact, for everyone is considered sick and in need of a vacation in regard to the neshomah. There is none so hale and hearty that he doesn’t require this treatment…”

Apparently, the mussar giant was echoing the teaching of the Sefer Akeidah. A person’s body requires downtime, a time when it doesn’t feel pulled in every direction, thrust onto a merry-go-round of pressure. The soul does as well. Elul is the time when we disconnect from everything else to focus on pleasing the soul.

Elul is the time when we can escape the year-round commotion and meet our spiritual needs. Elul is, in essence, a resort of healing and therapy for the soul. This is why we proclaim twice a day during this period, “Shivti beveis Hashem,” expressing the hope that we will be strong enough to provide ourselves with this essential break from year-round apathy.

Those who take their vacations seriously are constantly on the lookout for exotic destinations, scenic locales and peaceful venues. Spiritual seekers are no different. When the Chofetz Chaim passed away, his talmid, Rav Elchonon Wasserman, who was accustomed to spending Elul in Radin with his rebbi, set out to find a new milieu for Elul. He settled on Kelm and its mussar master, Rav Doniel Movoshovitz. When he returned home after spending a month there, he said that he had discovered “ah vinkele fun erentzkeit, a small corner of sincerity.”

Sophisticated people invest effort and resources to find the proper place for these all-important Elul days, realizing that the success of the entire next year depends upon them.

Elul isn’t merely a chance to catch our breath before the intense days of Tishrei. The Me’iri (Chibur Hateshuvah 2) compares Elul to the idea of “Dorshin hilchos haPesach kodem hachag shloshim yom,” the requirement to study the laws of yom tov during the thirty days prior to its arrival. So too, prior to the Yemei Hadin, we prepare ourselves during the month-long period of Elul.

Rabbeinu Yonah, at the end of his Sefer Hayirah, explains it a little differently. He quotes the posuk in Koheles (3:1) which states, “Lakol zemon ve’eis lechol cheifetz tachas hashomoyim - Everything has its appointed season, a time for every matter under the heavens.”

The Jew lives with ittim, the times of the year. Just as during the joyful period of Purim we increase simcha and mishteh, and during the sad period of Av we are mournful, from the beginning of Elul until the end of Yom Kippur a person should be chareid, fearful, of the awesome judgment he faces. That is the call of the season.

Chazal teach that every soul will face questions on the Day of Judgment, after 120 years. One of them is, “Kavata ittim laTorah?” Literally, the question is whether the person set aside special times for learning Torah during his life.

The Sefas Emes understood the question differently. He says that the Heavenly tribunal will ask us: Kavata ittim? Did you establish the ittim, the various time-periods listed in the posuk in Koheles – a time to be glad and a time to be sad, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to do battle and a time to make peace, a time to love and a time to hate?

Each emotion and action is preceded by the word “eis”: Eis le’ehov ve’eis lisno, eis milchamah ve’eis shalom… The Sefas Emes explains that the word eis teaches that our behavior in each situation must be dictated by the Torah. A person will be asked if he danced when the Torah said to dance and if he cried when the Torah said to cry. “Kavata ittim laTorah” refers to the way you conducted yourself in every eis described by the posuk and whether it was in accordance with the precepts of the Torah.

As the Ohr Hachaim and others teach about last week’s parsha of Ki Seitzei lamilchamah al oyvecha, while the Torah refers to the Jewish people going to battle against their enemies, it also serves as a lesson and guide to us how to battle our eternal enemy, the yeitzer hora.

It is a serious battle, the most serious of all battles we face. Life is too short and too serious to ignore the opportunities we have for change and growth. Teshuvah is too precious a gift to be ignored as we struggle to make a living, run carpools, meet deadlines, go to simchos, travel for business or pleasure, and run to shiurim or events. We must all take a break to think.

Even in our day, when the attention span of people has shrunk to an infinitesimal fraction of a second and superficiality is the mode of thought and conduct, we must preserve the ability to rise above the shallowness and engage in serious thought and introspection.

Rabbeinu Yonah begins his classic sefer, Shaarei Teshuvah, by referring to teshuvah as “min hatovos,” a supreme gift from Hashem. Just as we thank Hashem for the many favors He bestows upon us, such as good health, happiness, nachas and sustenance, so must we gratefully thank Him for providing us with the curing gift of teshuvah.

Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz was vigilant in the mitzvah of kibbud av vo’eim, going to extremes to care for his parents. During the First World War, his father joined him as they were exiled. The refugee experience took its toll, and upon their return, his father took ill. Rav Boruch Ber sat at his father’s bedside day and night, engaging him in conversation and encouraging him to carry on.

Rav Boruch Ber’s talmidim noticed that this was taking a toll on their rebbi and they began to worry about his own health. They managed to convince their rebbi that it would not impact his father’s health if he would leave for a couple of hours at night and get some bed rest. They would take turns spending the night there and ensuring that all Rav Leibowitz’s needs were taken care of.

In time, the rosh yeshiva’s father was niftar. Rav Boruch Ber was consumed by guilt that he didn’t constantly remain at his father’s side. He felt that allowing talmidim to replace him at the bedside for a few hours at night was a mistake and that he had failed in his mitzvah of kibbud av. He became distraught and met the Chofetz Chaim to discuss with him what he should do.

The Chofetz Chaim did not attempt to assuage his feelings of guilt and tell him that he did as much as was physically possible and was not deficient in his obligation to his father. Instead, he discussed with him the topic of teshuvah. He said, “There is a marvelous creation called teshuvah. Even if a person sins, the path of teshuvah is always available to him. When a person engages in this process, not only does it cleanse him of his sin, but once a person has done teshuvah, he becomes a new man.

“You have done teshuvah for not being there. You are not the same person now as you were when you left him. You are a new person, with a new metzius. The person who did that aveirah is not you. There is no reason to be distraught.”

Rav Boruch Ber left the room with the heavy load clearly lifted from his shoulders. He said, “I am a new person. The past is gone. The Chofetz Chaim brought me back to life.”

Teshuvah grants us rebirth and a new life. The old mistakes cease to hold us back.

In line with the explanation of the Akeidah, we can appreciate this idea. People return from vacation revitalized and restored, glowing with good health. They feel like new people.

Elul is a like a vacation. It restores our life and vitality. When we emerge from Elul and Tishrei, we can exude spiritual health and vigor and actually be entirely new people in every sense of the word.

Just because we did something wrong yesterday does not mean that we are doomed for life. An ehrliche Yid should never feel that he is in a rut. Aveiros get you down, but teshuvah lifts you up and reJewvenates you.

We all echo the request of Dovid Hamelech in his ode to teshuvah: Lev tahor bera li Elokim, grant me a pure heart, veruach nachon chadeish bekirbi, and grant me a new spirit.