Thursday, September 24, 2015

At the Root of Sukkos Joy

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The Rambam writes at the end of Hilchos Sukkah (8:12) that “even though there is a positive commandment to be joyful on the holiday of Sukkos, there was a heightened celebration in the Bais Hamikdosh to fulfill the posuk of ‘Usemachtem lifnei Hashem…’”

He continues, “It is a mitzvah to partake in the special joy, but not everyone who wanted to do so was able to, nor were they ignorant. Only the great men of Yisroel, the heads of the yeshivos, the Sanhedrin, chassidim, zekainim and anshei ma’aseh were the ones who sang and danced and created simchah in the Bais Hamikdosh during the days of Sukkos. The rest of the nation, the men and the women, came to see and hear” (8:14).

Why, if there is a mitzvah to be especially joyful on Sukkos, was it only the talmidei chachomim who danced? Why did everyone else just watch the gedolim as they demonstrated extreme exuberance? Why didn’t the hamon am also sing and dance?

Let us analyze the special Yom Tov of Sukkos and, through a new understanding of the chag, perhaps understand the principles set forth by the Rambam. 

The Tur (Orach Chaim 417) states that each of the Yomim Tovim is celebrated in the merit of one of our forefathers, the avos. Sukkos is keneged Yaakov Avinu, as the posuk hints when it states, “Ulemikneihu asah sukkos.” [Interestingly, the Vilna Goan (Aderes Eliyohu, Parshas Bolok 22, 23), cites the posuk of “V’Yaakov nosa sukkosah” as an indication that the Yom Tov of Sukkos is connected to Yaakov.]

Yaakov Avinu is tied to Torah study. He is referred to as the “ish tam yosheiv ohalim,” for he dwelled in the tent of Torah, and famously studied Torah for fourteen years in the yeshiva of Shem v’Eiver. Since this chag is in his merit, it stands to reason that the joy expressed on this Yom Tov is the joy of Torah.

The Vilna Gaon states (Even Sheleimah 11:14-15) that everything that transpires during the month of Tishrei hints to the World to Come. First there is the Day of Judgment, Rosh Hashanah. Then all sins are forgiven on Yom Kippur. Finally, there is the great joy of Sukkos and Shemini Atzeres/Simchas Torah. The future will mirror this. First there will be the Day of Judgment and then the realization of the pesukim, “Vezorakti aleichem mayim tehorim,” and, “Ki eslach la’asher ashear.” Then there will be Sukkos, as the posuk says, “Vesukkah tihiyeh letzeil yomam,” referring to the time of simchah. This will be followed by Shemini Atzeres, when the deniers of Hashem’s existence will disappear and Klal Yisroel will celebrate, “Atzeres tihiyeh lochem.”

They will then partake in the joyous meal of the Livyoson, brought about by the tremendous amount of knowledge that will then flow into the world, as Moshe Rabbeinu, who is referred to as Livyoson, reveals the secrets of the Torah.

Hakadosh Boruch Hu will bring joy to the tzaddikim by being mechadeish for them chiddushei Torah, as the posuk states, “Vayechezu es haElokim vayochlu vayishtu.” This is what is referred to as the ohr haganuz, the hidden light, which will be revealed to the tzaddikim le’osid lavo.

In fact, the sefer Maaseh Rav (Sukkah 232) writes that the Vilna Gaon was very happy on Sukkos and even more so on Shemini Atzeres, because according to Kabbolah, there is a bigger mitzvah to be joyous at that time. The Tosafos Maaseh Rav states that on the seven days of Sukkos, the korbanos hachag are keneged the seventy nations, and Shemini Atzeres is akin to the World to Come, when no strangers will interfere with our simchah, just as no strangers have any relationship with the Torah.

From this we see that the joy of Sukkos is akin to the joy of what will transpire at the End of Days. That joy, as we see, will be caused by the revelation of the ohr haganuz and the wealth of Torah that will be studied with the tzaddikim. The great men of the Jewish nation, in turn, will share their newfound knowledge with the rest of Am Yisroel.

Perhaps this is the reason that the tzaddikim danced in the Bais Hamikdosh on Sukkos as the rest of the nation watched. They knew that what was transpiring is a hint to what will transpire after the redemption. They demonstrated that they believed in the future of Am Yisroel, when the ohr haganuz will be revealed to the tzaddikim, who will engage in the joyful study of Torah with Hakadosh Boruch Hu Himself. The joy of the tzaddikim was a precursor of the great joy that they will experience after the arrival of Moshiach. The joy of the nation was in showing that they share that belief in netzach Yisroel and eagerly await the day that the neviim foresaw: “Ki oz ehpoch el kol ho’amim sofah berurah likroh kulom b’sheim Hashem, l’ovdo shechem echod,” Tzefania (3, 9). “Vehaya kol hanosar m’kol hagoyim haboim al Yerushalayim, v’alu midei shana b’shana lehishtachavos l’melech Hashem Tzvakos velachog es chag haSukkos, (Zechariah 14, 16).” All the nations of the world will join to bow to Hashem and celebrate Sukkos with us.

That, additionally, is the reason why on every day of Sukkos, fewer cows are offered as korbanos than on the prior day. Since the korbanos are keneged the amim, and since, le’osid lavo, the amim will admit to Hashem’s Kingship, therefore when we bring fewer korbanos each day, we are hinting to the period to which Shemini Atzeres alludes, when the beliefs of the nations will be acknowledged as fictitious and the sheker in the world will be diminished, as foretold by the neviim.

Returning to the relationship between simchah and Sukkos, we have to examine the statement of Chazal that someone who did not witness the Simchas Bais Hashoeivah never saw real simchah. What is the tremendous joy evoked by the simchah of drawing water for the korban of nisuch hamayim and what is the connection of Sukkos to water?

We have already discussed that the Yom Tov of Sukkos is keneged Yaakov, and that Yaakov’s middah was Torah.

We all know that Torah is compared to water, as evidenced in the posuk (Yeshayahu 55:1) which advises, “Kol tzomei lechu lamayim - All those who are thirsty should drink water.” The advice refers to Torah. Those who are thirsty for knowledge are counseled to seek out the Torah.

Moshe Rabbeinu was the person anointed by Hashem to bring us the Torah. His very name and essence were derived from water, as the posuk states, “Vatikra shemo Moshe, ki min hamayim mishisiyhu.” However, Moshe erred with water when he hit the rock that delivered water to the Jews in the desert instead of speaking to it.

Perhaps Sukkos is a tikkun, a rectification, of that mistake. Therefore, we draw water and pour it at the mizbei’ach, seeking to trigger great celebration. The joy is brought about from the tikkun of that cheit, rectifying the mistake Moshe made when he took his stick and hit the rock, instead of speaking to it, as Hashem had commanded.

Interestingly, Moshe’s stick was the stick of Yaakov. It was regarding this stick that the posuk quotes Yaakov as he thanked Hashem for His kindness upon leaving the house of Lovon: “Ki bemakli ovarti es hayardein, v’achshov hayisi lishnei machanos.” Yaakov recalls how, upon going into exile as he fled his brother Eisov, he possessed that stick, and with it he succeeded in crossing the Yardein River.

Thus, on Sukkos, when we pray for water, we beseech Hashem to remember Yaakov, the same Yaakov in whose zechus we celebrate the Yom Tov. In Tefillas Geshem, we state, “Zechor to’an maklo v’avar Yardein mayim - Hashem, please remember the one who took his stick and crossed the water of the Yardein River… Ba’avuro al timna moyim - In his merit don’t hold back the water from us.”

We ask Hashem to look aside from Moshe Rabbeinu’s error and pardon him for what he did. We say, “Look to Yaakov, who acted properly with that same stick; successfully crossed the river, and removed the stone that prevented the flocks from drinking from the be’er mayim.”

Ein mayim ela Torah. Allegorically, water represents Torah. We have seen that Sukkos signifies the World to Come after the geulah, when the truths and essence of Torah will be revealed. We ask Hashem to look past Moshe’s cheit and allow us to benefit from Torah, which is epitomized by Yaakov, who is keneged Sukkos.

As I was thinking these thoughts and wondering if there was any point to them, I came across an amazing chapter from the Vilna Gaon’s talmid, Rav Yitzchok Eizik Chover, published in the recently released Miluei Even on Even Sheleimah. This is what he says:

“The main cause of the current golus is the sin of misusing the gift of speech for lashon hora and sinas chinom, which is brought about by bittul Torah. As Chazal say (Eiruchin 15b) on the posuk in Mishlei (15:4), ‘Marpeh lashon eitz chaim - The tree of life heals the lashon.’ What should a person do to ensure that he doesn’t speak lashon hora? He should toil in Torah.

“Therefore, this golus was brought about because the Jews caused Moshe to sin with the stone and not speak to it… The water in the stone is the sod of Torah, as indicated by the Zohar. Because Moshe did not speak to the stone, forgetfulness of Torah was caused, as I have explained elsewhere. The stone became blocked and it is difficult to study Torah without great exertion.”

From here we see clearly the connection between Moshe and water and golus, which we discussed. But there is an even stronger connection.

Rav Dovid Tevel, prime student of Rav Chaim of Volozhin and author of the classic sefer Nachlas Dovid, writes the following in his drush sefer, Bais Dovid (chapter 10): “I heard in the name of the Vilna Gaon…that mitzvas sukkah combats the yeitzer of lashon hora.” After a detailed discussion, he concludes, “Thus, Sukkos is keneged the final redemption, because at that time, the sin of lashon hora will be rectified.”

This is proof to our discussion that Sukkos is keneged Yaakov, who optimized Torah. Sukkos hints to the period after Moshiach, when the joy of Torah will be shared between Hakadosh Boruch Hu and the tzaddikim. The cheit of Moshe will then be repaired and he will serve as the Livyoson, sharing the sodos of Torah with the tzaddikim. The blockage that was caused when he hit the rock will be cleared, because the Bnei Yisroel will have returned to Torah, and through the merit of Torah they will be redeemed.

This is the explanation of what Rav Chaim of Volozhin writes in Nefesh Hachaim (4:31): “The main path to teshuvah mei’ahavah is through proper Torah study, as first we say, ‘Hashiveinu Ovinu leSorasecha,’ and then, ‘Vehachazireinu beseshuvah sheleimah lefonecha.’”

Through our acts of teshuvah throughout the period of the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, we arrive at Sukkos returned to the Torah, for that is what we worked on during the 40-day period beginning with Rosh Chodesh Elul. We are able to connect to the zechus of Yaakov, which is Torah. Since we have fortified our connection with Torah, on Sukkos we can combat the sin of lashon hora. Now that we have the ability to beat back the sin of lashon hora, we can merit the geulah, because the golus was caused by lashon hora, which we are now empowered to rid from ourselves. Thus, we can begin to contemplate the World to Come, when Moshiach will arrive and the tzaddikim will joyously study Torah with Hashem.

So, on Sukkos, we draw the water and bring the korban nisuch hamayim, because the blockage to Torah, signified by water, will be repaired. We are all joyous. The tzaddikim, who will benefit first from the ohr haganuz, are enraptured, for on Sukkos they can taste that great day and already feel its joy. The amcha, everyone else, stands, watching and listening, waiting for the tzaddikim to share the new knowledge with them. The joy is akin to that which will be brought to the world with the geulah, which will be bezechus haTorah, hanimshol lemayim. Thus, we say, “Mi shelo ra’ah simchas Bais Hashoeivah lo ra’ah simchah miyomov,” for the closest experience we have in this world to that which will take place when Moshiach comes is at the Bais Hamikdosh, when the water flows.

May we merit partaking in the joy of that great day very soon.

Chag someiach.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

A Life of Choices

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The Rambam’s Yad Hachazokah is classic and timeless. Written beautifully with clarity and depth, he presents the laws and principles of the Torah for all forthcoming generations. His seforim are a foundation of our lives and studies. As we go through Elul and approach the Yomim Noraim, engaging in teshuvah, it stands to reason that one of the guides illuminating our path to help us mend our ways should be Hilchos Teshuvah of the Rambam.

After delineating the obligation and path of teshuvah over several chapters, the Rambam seems to digress in perek 5. He writes in halachah 1, “Permission is granted to every person. If he wishes to turn himself to the correct path and be a righteous person, he can do so. However, if a person wishes to act improperly and be wicked, he can do so as well… Man is the only creature that differentiates between good and bad and has the ability to do whatever he pleases, good or bad…”

One immediately senses that the Rambam is veering from his standard path of precision in halachah, addressing what appears to be a theological issue and not one related to the act of teshuvah. We wonder what the point is of engaging in this discussion in his halachic compendium.

In halachah 2, he continues, “Let it not enter your mind that unwise gentiles and most unwise Jews say that Hashem decrees upon a person at birth whether he will be righteous or wicked. It is not so. Every person can be as righteous as Moshe Rabbeinu or as wicked as Yerovom. He can be intelligent or dim, compassionate or cruel… Nobody can force him or decree upon him or drag him to either path, for it is a person’s own choice which way to go.”

Then he writes, “Therefore, if a person sins, he has hurt himself, and it is proper that he cry and bemoan what he has done to his soul… Because of our own volition, we have done these bad acts. We should do teshuvah and leave our sins behind, for it is up to us.”

The Rambam then writes in halachah 3, “This concept is fundamental, a pillar upon which the totality of Torah and mitzvos rest... The choice (between blessing and curse) is in the hands of man. A person may follow his desires to do good or bad... Hashem doesn’t force or decree that people do good or bad; everything is left to man’s free choice.”

In halachah 4, he continues, “If Hashem were to decree that an individual be righteous or wicked, or that he would be born with a characteristic that would draw him to a certain way of conduct, attitude or deed - as fools who believe in astrology claim - then how could Hashem command us, through His nevi’im, to do specific actions and desist from others... if it has already been decreed on man that he behave in a particular fashion?

“What would be the relevance of the entire Torah? Where is the sense of justice that would administer punishment and reward? …Don’t wonder how it can be that man has free will to act as he pleases, if nothing can happen in the universe without the permission and will of the Creator? Even though whatever we do is in accord with Hashem’s will, we alone are responsible for our own actions... Just as the Master of the Universe desired that fire and wind rise upwards, while elements of water and earth flow downward... that each creation has its specific nature which He created for it... so too, He wishes for man to have free choice and to be responsible for his actions without being compelled to act in any specific way... Therefore, man is judged according to his behavior.”

And finally, in halachah 5, he writes, “Because Hakadosh Boruch Hu is already aware of what will happen even before it occurs... if Hashem knows that man will be righteous, it will then be impossible for man to be wicked. For if it were possible for man to defy what Hashem knows, then it would mean that His knowledge is lacking...

“Know that this area is ‘longer than the earth and wider than the sea,’ with deep and fundamental principles and lofty concepts dependent upon it... Human knowledge cannot grasp this concept in its entirety, for just as it is beyond the potential of man to comprehend and conceive the essential nature of the, too, it is beyond man’s capacity to comprehend and conceive Hashem’s knowledge.”

That being said, the Rambam personally addresses the reader. As you read his words, you can imagine the learned teacher of every observant Jew lovingly reaching out through the ages. With much compassion, we imagine the Rambams smile as he says, “Aval tzorich atah leida ulehovin badovor hazeh she’ani omeir.” He begs us, “Please know and understand deeply what I am saying.”

After explaining the difficulty in properly understanding the concepts of yediah and bechirah, the Rambam concludes, “This is certain: Man’s actions are in his own hands, and the Holy One, blessed be He, does not lead him in a specific direction.”

And once more, he reaches out to us and tells us, “Know this, without any doubt, that what a person does is totally up to him and Hashem does not pull or push him in any direction, nor does He dictate to him to do this and not to do that.” And then he says something peculiar: “This fact is not verified only through religious tracts, but is proven without a doubt from divrei chochmah.”

As I studied these words, I wondered why the Rambam goes to such great lengths to explain to us and convince us of the principles of bechirah. Why is it so important? And why is it so basic to hilchos teshuvah to know that it is a person’s choice what type of individual to be? Why is that so integral to performing teshuvah?

In fact, the Raavad (ibid., halachah 5) comments that he doesn’t understand why the Rambam goes into a lengthy discussion of these topics. In fact, he states that the Rambam opened up a conversation and did not sustain it.

Finally, why does the Rambam conclude by stating that this is a proven fact and has nothing to do with religion?

Let us try to understand the connection between teshuvah and bechirah and suggest what the Rambam’s message might be.

In our generation, the age of entitlement and blame, the most common reaction and defense when a person does something wrong is to look for someone upon whom to place the blame. Everyone claims to be a victim of some type or another. People don’t blame themselves for acting improperly; that would necessitate owning up to their actions and doing something about it. Instead, people - and society at large - search for outside factors upon which to blame improper behavior. If a person fails, he says that it is because his parents were too authoritarian or too permissive. His mother showed too much love; his father didn’t show enough. They blame the behavior on the school - it was too big, too small, too intimidating, too free.

A person’s behavior is blamed on the family he was born into. They were poor; what do you expect? They were rich; he was spoiled. Or on the neighbors. They were unruly, or domineering, or didn’t ever give him a turn in their games.

The Gemara in Maseches Avodah Zarah (17a) tells the story of Rabi Elozor ben Durdaya. A most immoral person, he was inspired to do teshuvah.

Overcome with shame and regret for his actions, he fled for the hills, determined to do teshuvah. He beseeched the mountains and hills to plead his case with Hashem. They refused to intercede on his behalf, telling him that he had to argue his case himself. He turned to the heavens and earth to intercede, but they also turned him down. He looked to the sun and moon for help, but was similarly rejected.

Finally, he collapsed, his head in his hands, crying from the depths of his being. Eventually, he stood up and proclaimed, “Ein hadovor talui elah bi. It all depends on me. It’s my responsibility.”

Finally accepting that what he had done was his own responsibility and no one but he could make it right, he collapsed in tears and died. As his soul left him, a bas kol announced that Rabi Elozor ben Durdaya’s teshuvah was accepted and he was destined for Olam Haba.    

Darshonim cite that Gemara as a portrayal of the teshuvah process a person must undergo. They explain that when the Gemara states that Rabi Elozor ben Dordaya turned to the “horim,” the mountains, and asked them to pray for him, this is to be understood allegorically. The darshonim would say, “Al tikri horim, ela hoyrim.” He wasn’t referring to the mountains and asking them to pray for him. He was blaming his situation on his parents. Perhaps they had spoiled him or deprived him or hadn’t given him enough love, in contemporary parlance. He tried blaming them, but it didn’t work. So he searched for others to blame.

When the Gemara says that he reached out to heaven and earth, it represents his attempt to blame the environment - his schools, teachers and friends. He tried blaming them. They influenced me. Everyone else was also doing it. They picked on me. The teachers were lousy. It’s their fault.

That tact also didn’t absolve him of responsibility for his sins.

So he tried blaming the sun and moon, meaning his financial situation. He was too rich. Mah yaaseh haben shelo yecheta? He was too poor. What can be expected of him?

When that also didn’t accomplish anything, he tried blaming the mazalos for his conduct. This is perhaps a hint to the foolish belief cited by the Rambam that astrology influences man’s behavior. Rabi Elozor tried arguing that it wasn’t his fault that he was such an immoral person, for this was his nature; the weakness was inborn.

The Heavenly Court rejected this defense as well.

Finally, with all his excuses refuted, Rabi Elozor ben Durdaya concluded that “Ein hadovor talui elah bi.” What he did with his life was his fault, not anyone else’s. He became consumed by that thought and overwhelmed by the weight of the inherent responsibility he had now perceived for the first time. Broken by that realization, he died performing teshuvah.

The Nesivos Shalom observes that Chazal added the appellation of rebbi to his name, because through his act and understanding, Rabi Elozor ben Durdaya became a teacher to all shovim, returnees, demonstrating the attitude and mindset that lead people to take responsibility for their actions and experience genuine change.

When he comprehended the Rambam’s teaching about bechirah, he was able to enter the realm of teshuvah.

What a person makes of his life is his own choice. Some have it easier and others have it harder. Irrespective of a person’s background or situation, Hashem has granted him the ability to overcome it all and become as great as Moshe Rabbeinu, if he so chooses.

However, as long as a person feels comfortable blaming his present on his past and on things beyond his control, he will not engage in teshuvah and all of hilchos teshuvah will be theoretical to him.

The Rambam expends much effort in this perek in addressing people with that mindset. He says to them, “What you are and what you make of your life is your own choice. No one can force you to be evil. No one can force you to sin. If you sin, it is because you let your yeitzer hora get the better of you. There are many people who had those same experiences as you, yet they are righteous, outstanding individuals. They triumphed over their circumstances, and so can you.”

There are many poor people who rose from their situation and became great talmidei chachomim. In fact, Chazal say, “Hizharu bivnei aniyim ki meihem teitzei Torah.” Poverty is not an excuse for a life of crime, just as wealthy children are not guaranteed a blessed life. Every person can become great or small, good or bad.

We have to shake our attitude of entitlement or the belief that we are victims of circumstances, and instead realize just how blessed we are, with everything in place for us to soar.

Therefore, the Rambam says that this is not a religious concept. A person who has strayed from the path may not be prepared to hear religious teachings. He has closed his mind to anything related to Yiddishkeit. If you try to prove that what he makes of his life is his own challenge and responsibility, independent of outside factors, he will refuse to listen. He is done with religion and preachers.

Thus, the Rambam says that this is a fact of life and cannot be argued. What a person makes of his life is not preordained, but is wholly dependent upon the choices he makes and the way he deals with challenges. Man cannot blame his situation on anyone but himself. Man is never so far gone to declare that he cannot return to the path of the good and just. “It’s a fact, it’s up to you. You must own up to it. Man up and repent.”

Every person is unique. Every person has different abilities and challenges. Every person has a distinctive mission. He has been gifted with the ability to realize that mission and to succeed in living a happy and blessed life, but he has to accept his role, believe in himself, and withstand the challenges life throws his way. Should he stray and falter, he can always get back on track.

The Yomim Noraim are a period for us to conduct an honest assessment of how we are doing. Understanding bechirah leads us to teshuvah and being included in the Sefer Hachaim. Those who live lives of Torah and mitzvos are the most alive beings in creation.

Rav Yisroel Isser of Ponovezh was a hidden tzaddik who worked as a peddler, traveling from town to town selling his wares. Recently, his sefer Menuchah Ukedushah was reprinted. Rav Yisroel Isser was a prime student of Rav Chaim Volozhiner and himself a rebbi to many talmidim, as well as a primary source of teachings and stories from and about the Vilna Gaon and Rav Chaim. Among his talmidim was the famed Rav Shlomo Elyashiv, known as the Leshem because of the Kabbalistic work with that title that he authored.

A story that Rav Aryeh Levin heard from the Leshem is recounted in the introduction to the new edition of the sefer Menuchah Ukedushah.

One year, Rav Yisroel Isser found himself in a tiny village on Motzoei Shabbos of Selichos. Rav Yisroel Isser took a Selichos in hand and began to recite it. As the chazzan called out the opening words of the posuk, “Lecha Hashem hatzedakah velonu boshes haponim,” he was so overcome by emotion as the power and truth of the message struck him that he was unable to raise his head.

He was shaken by the fact that we are ever-blessed with Hashem’s kindness and have embarrassingly little to show for all the opportunities in our lives.

For the rest of his life, Rav Yisroel Isser would pray for the opportunity to recapture the tremendous emotion of that year, to feel what he had felt in that tiny village.

The Leshem, master of hidden and revealed Torah, retold this story with great feeling, as it is central to the avodah of these days. During this period, we are tasked with a dual avodah: appreciating what we have, so that we may be blessed in the future, and also realizing the missed opportunities and doing teshuvah.

One Shabbos, Rav Chaim Leib Auerbach and his young son, Shlomo Zalman, walked from the Shaarei Chesed neighborhood of Yerushalayim to Meah Shearim to participate in a Kiddush. As the two were walking, something caught Rav Chaim Leib’s attention. To his astonishment, he saw a man dressed in pajamas standing on his porch smoking a cigarette.

Rav Chaim Leib turned to his son and said to him in Yiddish, “Close your eyes. Don’t look at that sheigetz.”

The sheigetz spoke Yiddish and overheard the conversation. He became very upset and called down to Rav Auerbach in Yiddish, “Are you calling me a sheigetz? How can you call me a sheigetz when I personally had a discussion with Hakadosh Boruch Hu?”

He continued: “You heard correctly. I asked Hashem a question and He answered me. I’m no sheigetz.”

He put down his cigarette and shared his story.

“I was born in Russia to Jewish parents. My father died when I was very young. I grew up with goyim, went to school with them, and was eventually drafted into the Russian army. One night, we were fiercely attacked. Everyone around me was killed. I looked out at the battlefield and was shaking with fear. I was the only survivor. I began to wonder why I was chosen to live.

“I crawled into a foxhole and began to talk to Hashem. I said, ‘I don’t know if You exist. I was orphaned as a young child. I grew up with goyim. I was never in a shul. I don’t know anything. But if You are really out there, please show me a sign. I will stick my hand out of the bunker, and if a bomb or bullet comes and shoots off one of my fingers, I will know that You exist. I will begin going to shul, studying your Torah, and living the life of a proper Jew.’

“And that is what happened. I stuck up my hand, a bullet whizzed by, and it blew off my finger.” He held up his hand and said, “Take a look. You’ll see that I am missing a finger.”

“Do you hear what I’m telling you? How do you call me a sheigetz? I am a Yid who Hashem has spoken to.”

After asking him mechilah, Rav Chaim Leib posed to the man the obvious question: “So tell me, how is it that you are smoking on your porch on Shabbos in Yerushalayim ihr hakodesh? What happened to you that you ended up like this?”

“I’ll tell you,” the man answered. “For months, I looked for a shul and couldn’t find one. Then the army discharged me and I went to live with my mother. I felt bad for her and stayed with her. There was no shul in her town. And so it was, until I forgot about fulfilling my vow.”

Rav Shlomo Zalman would repeat the story and say that he remembered it his whole life. He would add that in life, there are times of great inspiration, and when they come, we must immediately act upon them. “That man must have had a great neshomah for such a story to happen to him. Had he immediately run to a shul to daven and learn, he would have become a great man,” Rav Shlomo Zalman said.

Instead, the man procrastinated and kept finding excuses not to do teshuvah. Every day, he pushed it off to the next, until the inspiration to improve was totally gone and forgotten.

We must ensure that we are not like that man, chas veshalom. During this period, when Hashem is close to us and awaits our return, we must rid ourselves of the common excuses and accept that what we have become was totally up to us. Even if we have sinned, even if we have fallen in with a bad group, even if until now things have not gone well for us, we should not give up on ourselves and view ourselves as doomed. We each have the ability to change at any time, especially at this time of year.

Let us open our eyes and see how endless the possibilities are and how much tzedakah Hashem has bestowed upon us. How many of us took up the suggestion of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach offered here a few weeks ago to jot down daily the kindnesses Hashem has granted us?

Were we to ponder Hashem’s goodness to us on a regular basis, we would become better Yidden and better people, as we would feel the boshes ponim, the humility, that will lead us to correct our ways, choose life and take control of our destiny.

May we all merit finding the wisdom, strength and resolve to choose wisely and receive Divine favor to be granted a year of blessed life.

Kesivah vachasimah tovah.

Ah gut gebentcht yohr.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Be Happy-Never Forget

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This week’s parsha of Ki Savo begins with the mitzvah of bikkurim, bringing the first fruits to the Bais Hamikdosh and reciting pesukim expressing appreciation for the gifts with which Hashem has blessed us. As the parsha continues, Moshe Rabbeinu tells the Jewish people that their first obligation upon entering the Promised Land is to inscribe the words of the Torah on giant stones and offer korbanos of tribute to Hashem.

They were then to gather at Har Grizim and Har Eivol to hear the brachos and klalos from the Kohanim and Leviim. With six shevotim on one mountain and six on the other, the members of shevet Levi stood in the middle. They turned their faces towards Har Grizim and proclaimed that those who follow the mitzvos are blessed, mentioning one commandment after the next. They then turned their faces to Har Eivol and repeated the same commandments, stating that one who fails to observe them will be cursed. 

They then gave a general brochah, delineating the blessings that accrue to those who follow the word of Hashem and behave properly. This was followed by what is known as the “Tochachah,” foretelling the awful tragedies that would befall our people if we wouldn’t follow the Torah.

The brachos and the klalos, the blessings and the curses, were virtually the same words, spoken by the same people. The words of Hashem sustain the world and bring blessings to those who follow it. But those very same words also have the power to bring about destruction and churban.

This concept is discussed by Rava in Maseches Shabbos (88b): “Amar Rava: lemaiminim ba sama dechayei, lemasmailim ba sama demosa - For those who expend all their energy to study and understand the Torah, it is a drug that sustains life, but for those who fail to do so, it becomes a drug of death.”

The same idea is discussed in Maseches Yoma (72b), where the Gemara quotes Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi as deriving from the posuk of “Vezos haTorah asher som Moshe” that for those who merit, the Torah is a life-giving potion, but for those who disobey its commandments and do not merit its life-giving qualities, the Torah is like poison.

The Gemara supports this message by quoting Rava’s statement, albeit with a slight change. The Gemara says, “Amar Rava, de’uman la sama dechayei, delo uman la sama demosa - for the one who uses the Torah skillfully, it is a drug of life, and for the one who uses it unskillfully, it is a drug of death.”

I saw a vivid demonstration of this last week in Los Angeles, where I joined many others at the Goldstein-Rechnitz wedding. The kallah’s father, Shlomo Yehudah Rechnitz, has been blessed with wealth and has achieved international renown for his amazing, seemingly countless and boundless acts of chesed. His contributions to Torah are legendary. In addition to his many famous acts, there are hundreds of benevolent deeds he has done in private that most people are not aware of. Few know about the many yesomim he helps in myriad ways. Only the recipients are aware of his magnanimous acts of thoughtful caring in a fashion reminiscent of hidden tzaddikim of old.

The wedding was a testament to his munificence, with so many Torah giants, leaders, askonim and regular gutteh Yidden in attendance. . Many exerted themselves to be there that night, to show their heartfelt hakoras hatov, matching the way Shlomo Yehudah exerts himself for Klal Yisroel on a regular basis.

Money is a gift. Lemaiminim ba sama dechayei. To those who use it properly, it is a life-giving blessing, for themselves and for those who merit to benefit from them.

I stayed with friends in Los Angeles for Shabbos. I had made up to meet someone at a prominent local hotel prior to leaving to the airport on Motzoei Shabbos. As I stood at the hotel entrance, I saw a procession of Rolls Royces and exotic cars pulling up. I had never seen so many exotic cars gathered in one place and found it hard to believe that so many people driving such cars should all be heading to the same place.

The man I met there explained that those people were arriving to attend the bas mitzvah of his cousin’s daughter. The festivities began on Shabbos and the food wasn’t kosher. This man was too pained to go inside the ballroom, but made up to meet his mother there as she arrived. He stood next to his van, wishing a gut voch to his mother and bemoaning the fate of his relatives.

The people who were hosting the party and those attending have obviously been blessed with tremendous amounts of wealth, but it is doubtful how many mitzvos that girl will observe. Those people immigrated to this country to escape persecution and were blessed by Hashem with enormous financial success. Yet what is their future? And what will be of their children? Does the community at large benefit at all from all the money they have made? Or is it squandered on mansions, fleeting glamour; cars and other items manufactured for the mega-wealthy? We have no ill-wishes for anyone and eagerly await their return to the blessed path, but the contradiction could not have been more extreme.

The year following the passing of the Baal Hatanya, as the baal kriah was reading the pesukim of the Tochachah, the rebbe’s son and successor, Rav Dov Ber, wept as each of the terrible curses was recited.

Chassidim wondered why the rebbe appeared to be hearing the awful klalos for the first time. He had never cried like that when the curses were read in previous years.

He explained that his father had served as the baal kriah. “Bei di Tatte, hub ich gehert nohr brachos.” he told them. “When my father lained, I heard only brachos.”

Certainly, Rav Dov Ber understood the meaning of the pesukim when his father read them, but his father had added the dimension of blessing to the klalos, and he was mourning the loss of that now-missing element.

Success is a tool for blessing if used accordingly and properly. When a person is given the means to succeed and he abuses what he has been given, he creates the opposite of blessing. Delo uman la sama demosa.

We look around and see talented, capable, gifted people who use their skills and blessings to do damage, rather than to accomplish. They take the brachos and turn them into klalos.

Rav Avigdor Miller zt”l was known to be very scrupulous about time management. He was exceedingly careful not to waste time. At a grandchild’s wedding, the person seated next to him noticed that Rav Miller appeared anxious. Rav Miller explained that he was bothered by the fact that he was missing a scheduled shiur due to the simchah.

“But isn’t the marriage of a grandchild a cause for rejoicing and gratitude?” the surprised gentleman asked.

Several years later, the same fellow met Rav Miller, who thanked him profusely. “I owe you so much for that comment you made a few years ago, and I have thought about it many times. You are right. A grandchild’s wedding is a reason to feel appreciative and happy - nothing else - and you helped me see it for what it is. Thank you.”

We thus understand the transposition of parshas bikkurim in this parsha of brochah. While it may seem obvious that meriting parnossah is a blessing, a negative person might say, “I work so hard and I have no time to daven or learn, no time for my family, and no time for the community. My business swallows up my energy and time.” A person who is consumed with his work complains how difficult it all is. He whines that he has no time for anything because he is too busy reaping material benefits.

He is complaining about what is, essentially, a brochah. A person like that is unappreciative of his blessing and unlikely to use his brochah to help others, to support Torah and engage in chesed.

However, a positive, G-d-fearing person says, “Boruch Hashem, I have parnossah and I am able to provide for my family. I understand that this obligates me to do more, to give back, and to share my blessings.”

The vidui recited when the first fruits are delivered to the Kohein is reflective of this attitude. The one reciting it appreciates his blessings, thanks Hashem, and recognizes that the brochah obligates him to use it for positive acts and to benefit others.

Therefore, the parsha of bikkurim is followed by those of brochah and klolah, for they can be the same. What to one person is blessing, can be for another a curse. It all depends on one’s attitude, emunah and bitachon. Hashem gives us the ability to do good things and succeed, but He leaves it up to us to determine how we use those abilities.

Rav Akiva Eiger was traveling with his son-in-law, the Chasam Sofer, and as they approached their destination, their wagon was surrounded by throngs of people dancing, expressing adulation and pride. The two giants were uncomfortable with the open display of kavod. As the Chasam Sofer looked down in distress, Rav Akiva Eiger climbed down from the wagon and joined the dancing masses.

He later explained to the Chasam Sofer, “Once I saw that kavod was present, I realized that I could ignore it and try to negate it, as you did, or I could try to elevate it and turn it into a positive force. I focused not on whom they were honoring, but on the fact that the Jews revere the Torah so much that they dance in honor of those who teach it. I became deeply moved and joined the beautiful dance in honor of the Torah.”

Instead of disregarding the unwelcome attention, Rav Akiva Eiger transformed it into an opportunity for good. No matter what confronts us in life, we should seek to use it as an occasion for benefit that can result from it.

This lesson is also relevant at the beginning of the school year, when dedicated mechanchim and mechanchos welcome fresh faces into their classrooms. Every child is a mixture of middos, of positive traits and more challenging ones, but every trait can be used as a force for growth.

As parents, mechanchim and as growing people, we need to understand that when we use the blessings we were given unwisely and twist the words of Hashem, the very things that can propel us into the stratosphere can pull us down. Habrochah asher tishmeu, if you listen, perceive the inherent goodness in your situation and use it to serve Hashem, then what you have is a brochah. Im lo sishmeu, if you misconstrue it, it will be cause for destruction. 

It can be frustrating, sometimes, when we see the gifts that abound being misused. So much money that can be used for so many lofty purposes is burnt on foolish altars. So much Yiddishe talent and drive is misdirected. As mamleches kohanim, we are endowed with the abilities and strengths to light up the world and to impact all of creation, if we would only appreciate what we have and what we can do. There is no worse klolah than being blind to one’s own capabilities and brachos.

Rav Avohom Eliyohu Kaplan, who lived over a hundred years ago, was one of Lita’s classic greats. A student of Kelm, Slabodka and Telz, he embodied the greatness of Litvishe Yidden. He led a tragic life. He was named for his father, whose death preceded his birth, and he himself passed way at the young age of 34. A rosh yeshiva and author of two seforim, his son published “Be’ikvos Hayirah,” a collection of his deep, lyrical, emotional and at times gut-wrenching poetry and prose.

He writes there of a shmuess he heard from the Alter of Slabodka about the greatness of man. The Alter based the talk on the Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 10:6-7) which states that every blade of grass has a malach milemaalah that hits it and tells it, “Gidal! Grow!”

Imagine, said the Alter, if after that, man walks on grass without a second thought, pressing down upon it without realizing that under his feet is the product of the work of a malach Hashem that only exists to grow the very blade of grass he is stepping on.

Moreover, the blade of grass was only created for the benefit of man. From this we can perceive the greatness of man. How much benefit does man have from a blade of grass? Yet, for that minute amount of pleasure, a malach is created strictly to ensure the growth of that single blade.

When we walk outside and glance at a stretch of landscaping, breathe in the beautiful air, and gaze at the azure sky above, we must appreciate our greatness and the fact that all this was created for us. How can we think silly thoughts when we perceive the glamour of the tapestry Hashem has laid out for us! How can we tread carelessly on such a beautiful setting created for our benefit! How can we not be careful about our manner of dress and the cleanliness of our clothing, bodies, minds and souls!

Our lives are so full of blessings. We have to appreciate them and use them to better ourselves and the world.

Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz is a person with a huge heart, who expresses his soul through music as well as philanthropy. At the wedding, he distributed a CD of some of his compositions. He gave me a copy and said, “They are all great, but listen especially to the last song.” 

The song is based on a poem written by Rav Avrohom Eliyohu Kaplan that appears in the sefer his son published (page 171). As Shlomo Yehuda sings it, the haunting, transformative message of the poem comes alive.

These are the words of his classic “Shakah Chamah, Shakah Nafshi” translated into English along with the lines added by Shlomo Yehuda. The emotion and beauty of the Hebrew original is lost in translation, but the message is extant. May we all merit utilizing the gifts Hashem has bestowed upon us and seeing our prayers fulfilled.

The sun has set, my soul has sunk,
With sorrow as deep as the sea,
Because my soul is poised,
To fail and fall,
With my flesh and blood

Lo, the sun rises again and shines,
My soul as well rises and shines,
Roaring, thanking my great Maker,
As an awakening lion,
For my soul to me He has mercifully returned.

My days pass, my days do end,
Neither taking nor giving.
If this is called life,
Tell me, Hashem, what is death.

Days do come, days do go,
I fear not evil because You are here,
Those who find You, life they have,
You are the Master who gifts me all.

Pity me, Hashem, because I don’t know,
How I can continue like this.
Is it better to forget everything and to be happy,
Or should I remember all and cry?

This is how I seek to live,
Taking shelter in your shade,
To never forget, yet to always be joyful,
As I remember all the gifts you have given me.

Hashem, please keep me alive until tomorrow,
So that I may interpret the dream.
The sun is setting, the clouds are coming,
Night is rising from the depths.

Your Blessings please, I beg, bestow,
For in Torah I toil.
The sun rises, with it my soul,
Until Moshiach comes, let me live and fulfill my role.