Wednesday, September 21, 2022

A Fresh Start

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The Rama (Orach Chaim 582:9) writes that on Rosh Hashanah, people should wish each other, “Leshanah tovah tikoseiv. May you be inscribed for a good year.”

The Mogen Avrohom (ibid.) adds to the wish that we offer to each other. He says that we should wish others, “Leshanah tovah tikoseiv veseichoseim,” that they should not only be written for a good year, but also that their good fate should immediately be sealed.

He explains that this is because upon their judgment on Rosh Hashanah, the tzaddikim are immediately written down in the Book of Life and sealed there. Beinonim (see Rosh Hashanah 16b) are penciled in, so to speak, and when they do teshuvah and add sources of merit to their account, they are granted a shanah tovah. We are to view others as tzaddikim and extend to them the greeting that is appropriate for tzaddikim.

The Taz (ibid., 4) adds that although we should view other people as tzaddikim, every person should view himself as a beinoni.

Someone who is able to view others as tzaddikim conveys that he has undergone teshuvah and thus can view others favorably and want the best for them. Someone who wishes others, “Leshanah tovah tikoseiv veseichoseim,” indicates that he is no longer encumbered by middos ra’os. He has reached the level of anovah, humility, that is praised. This indicates that he has been successful in achieving teshuvah.

The Gemara (Avodah Zorah 20b) cites Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi, who holds that anovah is the highest level a person can reach. Tosafos (ibid.) quotes a Medrash (Maseches Derech Eretz Rabbah 7), which states that three attributes are equal to each other: yiras chet, chochmah and anovah, fear of sin, knowledge and humility. He explains that a person cannot attain one level without the others; a person who is humble is also a yorei chet who has chochmah.

The Gemara in Maseches Taanis (30b) discusses the concept that the most joyous days for Klal Yisroel are the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur. The Gemara explains that it is easy to understand the greatness of Yom Kippur, because on that day, Jews can be forgiven for their sins, as evidenced by the fact that the second set of Luchos was delivered to Klal Yisroel on Yom Kippur after they had repented for the sin that caused Moshe to break the first set.

It would seem that the two attributes of the day are intertwined. Not only was the re-giving of the Luchos on Yom Kippur a sign that Klal Yisroel had been forgiven for the chet ha’Eigel, but by being given the Luchos, we were once again granted the power of the Torah. Torah raises us and brings us closer to Hashem.

A person who dedicates his life to Torah becomes sanctified, as his life takes on added significance. Just as teshuvah allowed the Dor Hamidbor to recover after the Eigel, it allows the sinner in our day to return to Hashem’s embrace.

We seek to become closer to Hashem. Torah is the prime means of accomplishing that.

This is why as Rosh Hashanah begins, we greet people in a way that indicates humility, for by displaying that we are humble, we are also showing that we have reached the other levels of human achievement and are yerei chet who have chochmah, Torah knowledge. On the night when we do things to remind us of the need to rectify ourselves to be able to pass judgment on the impending Yom Hadin, we do this as well.

Following the shofar blasts of Malchiyos, Zichronos and Shofaros, we ask Hashem to look at us “im kevonim im ka’avodim.” Either view us as children and pity us as a father pities his offspring or look at us as slaves and recognize that our gaze is fixed upon You until we find favor in Your eyes and are judged favorably.

Thus, we recite twice daily the kappitel of L’Dovid, for it refers to our bitachon in Hashem: “ori veyishi,” our light and hope. Even as others abandon us, seek to entrap us, and declare war on us, “bezos ani voteiach,” we maintain our faith that Hashem will assist us. During the Yomim Noraim period, as the Soton seeks to prevent us from getting closer to Hashem and disparages us before Him, we believe that He will look upon us with kindness and love.

Rosh Hashanah is the day when our fates are decided. The day is awesome and frightening. Everything that will happen in the coming year is decided on this day.

With gratitude for the good we have enjoyed in the past year, we stand at the onset of the new year like poor people, begging for our needs. We seek sources of merit that will shield us from the din, from anguish and agony, and from tragedy and despair.

We ask for life, for as healthy as our diet is, and despite doing exercise, there is no guarantee for good health. The price of food and many basics have risen so high that many people are unable to make ends meet. There is little we can do about it. We look for menuchas hanefesh, shidduchim, nachas, good health, and more, knowing that on Rosh Hashanah our fates for the upcoming year are decided.

We stand before Hashem and say that we have examined our actions of the previous year and will do what we must to merit the gift of another year.

How do we earn a better year?

How does a person arrive at teshuvah? Doing so requires conducting a cheshbon hanefesh. We subject our deepest selves to scrutiny and review how we acted throughout the year. Then we set about correcting our character flaws and rectifying the mistakes and errors of judgments we made.

We think about the times we were apathetic about performing a mitzvah, and if there was an aveirah, we must remove its stains and resolve to be more serious about the mitzvos and the Torah.

Teshuvah is humbling, as it reminds us of our place in creation and prompts a greater appreciation of Hashem’s role in one’s life.

Teshuvah returns us to where we were before we sinned. It sets us on the path we should have been on and provides us the energy we need to be properly and thoroughly engaged.

Teshuvah triggers an outpouring of sincere tefillah. With a fresh awareness of how small and helpless we are in the face of life’s frightening precariousness comes a spontaneous outpouring of tefillah. 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.

Middos tovos and proper ethics are prerequisites for teshuvah, for ga’avah prevents a person from recognizing his shortcomings and his dependence on Hashem. A conceited person is not able to reach the level of understanding required to draw himself closer to his Master. He remains entrenched in sin and self-indulgence, even as he goes through the motions of religiosity.

Ga’avah derails an individual from properly preparing for Rosh Hashanah and from becoming a special person.

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 views others as somehow deficient and inferior to himself.

This is what the Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 7:8) refers to when he writes, “Baalei teshuvah darkan lihiyos shifeilim va’anavim b’yoser.”

In the face of the yeitzer hora’s plots against our repentance, we have 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 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 Torah, which touches our inner core, raises us, and puts us back on course, following the literal translation of the word teshuvah, to return.

The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 11a) states that Rosh Hashanah is the day when 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.

The baal teshuvah has attained a new level of contentment reserved for those who are humble and walk in the path of Hashem.

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 work to reach that 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 who, as hard as they try, feel that they have not been able to return to a life without sin and blemish. What are they to do? Should they give up? Is it possible that teshuvah wasn’t meant for them?

The novi Yirmiyohu speaks to such people in the haftarah we read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

The novi proclaims (Yirmiyohu 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, 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.

The Bais Halevi explains that we say to Hashem, “Please don’t punish us. As a young calf, who has no idea about where to go, we have been whipped as we have veered from the proper path, but we are not able to get back on. We are lost. Hashiveini. Please, Hashem, bring me back. Return me to the proper path, but without the whip. Show me the way. Show me 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 for us. At times, it is difficult for us to right ourselves and we require painful reminders.

There is a concept in halacha of kofin oso ad sheyomar rotzeh ani (Rambam, Hilchos Geirushin 2:20). Even if a Jew proclaims that he does not want to follow halacha, 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 ve’omer rotzeh ani…” Every Jew wants to observe the mitzvos, but his yeitzer hora overcomes him. Therefore, when the 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 halacha.

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 removed from kedusha and Torah and fear that they can never rid themselves of their addictions and sins. 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.

Zeh hayom techilas ma’asecha. Rosh Hashanah is not just the commemoration of the first day of creation, but an opportunity to experience creation anew, and in the process renew our own personal circumstances.

On Rosh Hashanah, we daven for a year of new beginnings that will improve our experiences over the past year. We seek to merit a year of positive developments for ourselves and our families, keeping sadness and failure in the past.

We examine ourselves and, instead of being upset that we are not as good as we would like to be and were not able to realize all of our goals, we recognize that even if last year didn’t turn out as good as we would have wanted, this year can be different.

Hayom haras olam. Today is the day of creation. Not just back when the world was created 5,783 years ago, but also today and now. Hayom yaamid bamishpot kol yetzurei olamim. Today, the forces of creation are strongly present, as Hashem judges all His creatures and decides what type of year they will have. The day of Rosh Hashanah marks a new start for everyone. The realization of the new beginning provides us with the confidence that we are never stuck in a rut. With teshuvah, we can climb out of the mess we got into and be granted a new and better life during the year ahead.

Rosh Hashanah provides us with an awareness that allows us to believe that we can change. Everything can change. We can do it over.

In the shofar’s plaintive wail, we hear echoes of the blasts that were sounded at Har Sinai, when Klal Yisroel was formed into the nation of Hakadosh Boruch Hu. The shofar then proclaimed a new beginning. The world had reached its destiny. Ahead was much hope and promise.

The shofar was also blown at Yovel. When we blow it on Rosh Hashanah, it hints at the independence of the Yovel year, the collective song of freedom chanted by so many released slaves going home to begin life anew. The earth, as well, joins in the process, as land returns to its original owners in Yovel. We are reminded that we can all start again. We can get a fresh start, a new lease on life. Whatever happened in the past will stay in the past. It won’t weigh us down. We can get rid of the things that didn’t go right, the things we did wrong, and the mistakes we made, and begin anew, unencumbered.

Last year, we drove an old jalopy, with old tires, bad seats, roll up windows, and a leaky radiator. Last year, we were a regular at the mechanic, fixing and patching. This coming year, we can have a brand new beauty, in perfect running order, without any of the problems we had last year getting from place to place. It all depends on us: how we daven, how we learn, how we conduct ourselves. Learn some mussar. Learn the Rambam’s Hilchos Teshuvah. Listen to a couple of shmuessen. Make up your mind that Tof Shin Pey Gimmel will be your break-out year.

If you believe it, then it will be. Believe in Hashem. Believe in yourself. And you’ll be well on the way.

May we all be granted a new lease on life, and a year of brocha, hatzlocha, aliyah, good health, nachas, parnossah, and everything good.

Kesivah vachasimah tovah.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

What Happens Now

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

I recently had the good pleasure of meeting Rav Lipa Yisraelson. A grandson of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, this lovely and engaging person dedicates his life to publishing works of his grandfather, as well as those of his uncle, Rav Chaim Kanievsky. He gave me a copy of the “Amudo Shel Olam” biography that he published on Rav Elyashiv and told me that I would find material for an article on every page.

I opened the book to this story: In Israel, there was a particularly nasty election campaign in which the Leftist parties promised that should they get elected, they would draft yeshiva bochurim, among other things. When they won the election, their impending ascension to power had the religious community worried about what edicts would be coming their way.

One of Rav Elyashiv’s talmidim asked him what would happen now that haters of religion would be in a position to carry out their plans. The answer shocked him. Rav Elyashiv didn’t hesitate for a second. He said to him that to think about what will happen is bittul Torah.

Parshas Ki Savo is all about emunah and bitachon, demonstrations of faith in Hakadosh Boruch Hu. It opens with the obligation of bringing the first fruits of the harvest to Yerushalayim, where the grower stands at the mizbei’ach and recites pesukim that recall the tzaros of Yaakov Avinu and our forefathers’ suffering in Mitzrayim.

He then tells how Hashem rescued us from Mitzrayim and brought us to Eretz Yisroel. He presents the first fruits of his labors to the kohein and returns home. He is then ready for the next part of the mitzvah: “Vesomachta bechol hatov asher nosan lecha Hashem,” to be happy with what Hashem has given you.

The key to joy is realizing that whatever one has is from Hashem. When we recognize that the determinant of our success is Hashem, we can be fulfilled. When we recognize that Hakadosh Boruch Hu, who created the world and everything in it, including us, did so for our good and benefit, we can appreciate that everything that happens to us is for our good.

When a person finds himself in a predicament in which he does not want to be, he can either bemoan his sad fate and his bad luck or he can recognize that he is there because Hashem placed him there. When he realizes that and knows that he is there for a reason, he can deal with the situation without becoming broken. He does his best to deal with the situation as he waits for Hashem to decide that he can be removed from his predicament.

Three times a day, we recite the posuk, Posei’ach es yodecha umasbia lechol chai ratzon” (Tehillim 145:16), which seems to indicate that Hashem fulfills every desire. Many question that we know that the desires of many people are not fulfilled. How can we reconcile that with the posuk?

The Tzlach (Brachos 4b) answers that the meaning of the posuk is that Hakadosh Boruch Hu gives each person the understanding to be happy with what he has and to be content with what he received from Hashem through the sense that what he has is best for him.

When Yaakov Avinu was tormented by Lovon, and later in his life when he was forced to go to Mitzrayim, he did so appreciating that this was the best thing for him to do at that time. Though he did not want to go to Mitzrayim, and though he did not want to be mistreated by Lovon, he knew that these things were happening to him for a greater purpose.

And indeed, as the posuk states, he went to Mitzrayim with meager possessions and his children, but grew into a large and powerful nation there.

To be happy, a person must realize that although he can’t understand why he is in any given situation, it is for his good and for the greater good. If that is his state of mind, then he will be able to persevere no matter what is going on, and eventually he will prosper in a fashion that will be visible by all.

Perhaps part of the reason for the mitzvah of bikkurim is to force man to reflect on the good in his life. Too often, people concentrate on the negative. They complain about all the heartache they endure as they struggle to make a living. People fail to thank Hashem that they have a job and that they have a boss who pays them a salary. People don’t always appreciate that they have a plot of land on which to grow their fruit and instead complain about the intensive labor they perform in order for their orchard to produce healthy fruit.

The mitzvah of bikkurim reminds the grower of when he planted one of his shivah minim, not knowing whether the seeds would take root or whether the trees would bear fruit. And it forces him to be thankful that, despite all the potential for ruin, in the end, Hashem helped him bring forth a good crop.

In Yerushalayim, he stands at the mizbei’ach and reflects on the mixture of hard times and good times the Jewish people have experienced throughout the ages.

Life is full of challenges and situations we wish we would not be in. There are times when people feel as if they are backed into a corner with no way out. Prices keep rising and they can’t keep up. As hard as they work and despite their best efforts, they are not able to afford the costs of life in the twenty-first century.

Sometimes we feel as if a conspiracy of lies has spread an impenetrable web. There are times when it appears as if all the odds are stacked against us, and conventional wisdom indicates that it’s time to give up the fight. The papers write scathing articles and people scramble to respond and fret about things to come. Government enacts laws people fear will negatively impact our lives. People fear. They wonder what will be.

And Rav Elyashiv tells us that to think about what will be is bittul Torah. To read the paper and grow fearful of impending doom is bittul Torah. When the Left is in charge and aiming for our way of life, we must know that everything that happens here is by Hashem’s will and design.

The Gemara (Bava Basra 8a) quotes Rebbi, who said that amei ha’aretz cause all the bad things that happen in the world. The Gemara tells a story to illustrate.

It happened that the king obligated the people of Tiveria to prepare for him a new crown, a very expensive undertaking. [The crown of recently departed Queen Elizabeth is said to be worth $139 million!] The townspeople decided to divide the tax evenly between all of the city’s citizens. The city was home to many talmidei chachomim, and Rebbi ruled that they would not be obligated to contribute, since talmidei chachomim do not pay taxes.

The amei ha’aretz threatened Rebbi that if the talmidei chachomim would not pay their share, they would move out of the city rather than cover the entire expense themselves. Rebbi did not bend. Half of the amei ha’aretz moved out.

The king suddenly announced that he was cutting in half the amount the city had to pay for his new crown.

The amei ha’aretz returned to Rebbi and insisted that now that they were obligated to contribute much less, the talmidei chachomim should now pay as well, since the burden would not be as difficult for them. Rebbi did not agree and said that they would not pay anything. Again they threatened to leave, and this time the remaining people all left the city.

There was one person, a cleaner, who did not flee the town, and the king decided that he alone would have to pay the bill. When the man heard that, he packed up and ran off.

The king suddenly announced that he was vacating the entire tax that he had placed on the town to pay for his new crown. Rebbi proclaimed that all had seen that he was correct in his statement that bad things occur because of amei ha’aretz, because once they were gone, the tax was canceled.

The media at that time probably had a field day bashing Rebbi and the anti-social talmidei chachomim who refused to participate in the communal obligation. People who were deficient in their belief, who didn’t have proper emunah and bitachon, might have worried what would be. In shul and wherever people gathered, the banter and chit-chat were over what would happen and the impending doom.

Each time things looked more austere, they ran to Rebbi and asked, “What will happen now?”

And Rebbi looked at them and said, “Bittul Torah! This is from Hashem. It will have a good ending. You go back and learn, and if you will dedicate yourselves to Torah and mitzvos, then everything will work out.”

And it did.

The tendency to despair is understandable. But the mitzvah of bikkurim encourages us to never despair and to always maintain our belief in Hashem, even on the dark days when the land lies fallow and an unbelieving and unknowing person would give up all hope of ever growing anything.

This is why, in the Tochacha in this week’s parsha (28:47), the Torah says that the curses will befall us when we will not observe the mitzvos and chukim “because you did not serve Hashem with joy.” Many question why a person is cursed if he fails to serve Hashem with joy. The answer is that a person who believes that everything he has – or doesn’t have – is because Hashem, who is the Ultimate giver of goodness, willed it so will always be glad. He will serve Hashem with much joy and appreciation, while someone who doesn’t signifies that his belief is lacking.

Living in troubled, turbulent times, we have to maintain our faith and seek to persevere and do the right thing, no matter how difficult the challenge.

Rav Yaakov Galinsky told of a man with whom he survived the Holocaust, as they were together in Siberia and then later in a refugee camp. The man lost his entire family and all his possessions. He arrived in Israel alone, with nothing, and sank into a deep depression.

Rav Galinsky suggested that he go to the Chazon Ish for support. The Chazon Ish told him the story of a woman who supported her family. She would travel to the big city with loads of cash and buy merchandise at wholesale prices before returning home to sell it at a profit.

On one of her trips, she lost her pocketbook, which was filled with her cash. As much as she searched for it, she could not find it. She was heartbroken, having lost all the money her family depended on for food and their other expenses for the year. In desperation, before heading home to inform her husband of their loss, she went to the city’s rov and asked him to announce that if anyone found her pocketbook with the cash, they should turn it in to him.

A poor man found the bag. He responded to the rov’s call and went to his home. There, he explained that since he is learned, he knows that the Mishnah states in Machshirin (and is brought in Gemara Bava Metzia 24a) that if someone finds a lost object in a city with a non-Jewish majority, he is permitted to keep it. He told the rov that the find represented an answer to his prayers. He saw it as a gift from Heaven to enable him to marry off his daughter.

The rov was inclined to side with the poor man, but since it was obvious that he had found the woman’s lost cash, he told the man that he had to submit the question to Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector, the rabbon shel kol bnei hagolah, for a ruling.

Rav Yitzchok Elchonon responded that the money belonged to the woman. He said that the reason a person can keep an object found in a city with a non-Jewish majority is because we say that the owner surely gave up any hope of having it returned and was thus meya’eish. In this case, however, the money belonged to a woman. The Gemara in Maseches Gittin (77a) states that a husband takes ownership of all his wife’s possessions, and the husband was not aware that she had lost the money and thus could not have been meya’eish. Therefore, ruled Rav Yitzchok Elchonon, the money must be returned to the woman.

The Chazon Ish looked the depressed man in the eye. “That same ruling applies to you,” said the Chazon Ish. “Who gave you permission to give up - be meya’eish? Chazal teach that ‘afilu cherev chada munachas al tzavaro shel adam,’ even if the executioner’s sharp blade is on a Jew’s neck ready to decapitate him, he must not be meya’eish, he may not despair, for Hashem can still save him.

“Are you the boss over what happened?” asked the Chazon Ish. “Do you own yourself? Hakadosh Boruch Hu determines where we end up and what happens to us. We must do our hishtadlus and daven that we succeed, but we have no right to be despondent and be meya’eish!”

May our firm belief bring us much joy and happiness in the remaining days of this year and in the year to come. Amein.

Wednesday, September 07, 2022

We Can Be Great

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Parshas Ki Seitzei opens with the halachos of the aishes yefas to’ar. Rashi quotes the Sifri, who explains the reason the Torah permits an act that violates Torah norms. “Lo dibrah Torah ela keneged yeitzer hora.” This is commonly translated to mean that the Torah understood that man cannot withstand the temptation presented by this circumstance and therefore permitted it. In sanctioning the aishes yefas to’ar, the Torah makes an allowance for the limitations of a man’s self-control in the face of great temptation.

In fact, Rashi concludes, “She’im ein Hakadosh Boruch Hu matirah yisa’enah b’issur,” if Hashem would not have permitted marriage with a yefas to’ar, the average person would defy the Torah and marry her anyway, living a life of sin.

The problem with this explanation is obvious. Wasn’t the Torah meant to provide a moral code to govern our behavior and to empower us to tame our base desires? How is this outlook consistent with the Torah legalizing improper behavior due to a person’s lack of self-control? Is the argument that “people will do it anyway” a valid rationale?

We arrive at the answer by understanding that our Torah is a Toras Chesed and a Toras Emes. It represents the ultimate truth and the epitome of justice. Its precepts were given to human beings - not angels - to faithfully uphold. Because the Torah is perfect, it contains nothing that can be dismissed as too difficult for us to observe. There is nothing in the Torah that is not attainable by mortal men.

The words of Rashi, “lo dibrah Torah elah keneged yeitzer hora,” can be understood in light of this axiom that no mitzvah in the Torah is above the reach of the average Jew. “Lo dibrah Torah elah keneged yeitzer hora” can be understood to mean that the Torah speaks to the yeitzer hora. The Torah was given to enable us to overcome the evil inclination, which constantly seeks to entrap us. Thus, since Hashem determined that in the case of yefas to’ar we wouldn’t be able to overcome the yeitzer hora, it is permitted.

By permitting the yefas to’ar, the Torah is acknowledging that the yeitzer hora that tempts a person during battle is so powerful that even an extremely ehrliche Yid who is normally always able to triumph over his physical desires is likely to surrender to them during wartime. That is the reason the Torah made an exception in its moral code and permitted the yefas to’ar.

Rashi therefore states that the Torah is speaking to the yeitzer hora and informing him that this single exception itself serves to highlight the obvious inference regarding all other Torah laws - that all are accessible and within the scope of a Jew’s abilities.

It also speaks to man and says to him that there are no grounds to claim that any of the Torah’s laws are too difficult for small or average people and are only applicable to tzaddikim and holy men. It is possible for us, with our limited abilities, to adhere to every single mitzvah in the Torah. If not, those that are supposedly beyond our grasp would not have been mandated.

By contrast, man-made law is not always thought-out or sensible. Many laws have been written and passed just to make a point, even though its authors were under no illusion about their applicability or relevance. Many such laws are regularly and habitually broken - generally with impunity.

Not so the laws of the Torah. Each one is timeless and eternally relevant. By observing them, we demonstrate our belief in the Creator, Who knows and understands man thoroughly. In fact, it is from the Torah itself that we can acquire the truest understanding of human psychology.

As an example, the year is broken into seasons because Hashem knows that people cannot maintain the same level of intensity 354 days of the year. We need a break from the continuous stress we are under. We just experienced such a restful break with summer and bein hazemanim.

How strange that it feels as if the summer just started, and yet it’s already over. Just when we began to relax and enjoy life and all that it has to offer, it’s back to work, back to school, back to the city, and back to all that we seek to run away from during the summer.

We wait an entire year for the summer. Through those freezing cold, snowy, icy months, people keep themselves warm by looking ahead to the summer. There are entire industries built on the summer season. People buy summer homes and invest untold amounts of money planning vacations. Then, in the blink of an eye, summer ends.

And on its heels comes Elul.

Elul closes the door on everyone’s favorite season, as if to teach us that life is not really made for summers. Life is not meant for lounging around the pool and taking it easy. That’s good for once in a while. Everyone needs a break. But as we have come to know as we age, life is essentially very serious business.

If the purpose of life was to have fun, Hakadosh Boruch Hu would have set up the world and the seasons of the year differently. The sun would always shine and the weather would always be spring-like and comfortable in all four corners of the earth. Instead, most of the civilized world goes through seasons of cold and hot…spring, summer, fall and winter.

We are meant to live a full and varied life, a life of Torah and mitzvos, a life of challenge and accomplishment. If we spent our days uniformly in vacation-mode, nothing of importance would be accomplished. People might think that they are enjoying life to the hilt, but at the core, there would be emptiness. A person would realize that he has nothing to show for his time.

When summer and vacation end so quickly, when it begins to feel as though not just days and weeks but years are passing by in a flash, we realize the fleeting nature of life itself. Just as we are thinking these sobering thoughts, Elul arrives. Just as we are reminded that there has to be a higher purpose to life, just as we come to that realization on our own, Elul arrives to help us channel those solemn thoughts properly.

Some people get depressed when vacation time is over, when the season they so longed for seems to slip through their fingers. Elul consoles us. “Don’t be depressed or upset that the summer has ended so quickly,” it says. “Use the lesson you have just learned to help you progress in life. Learn that lesson and you will be happy later on. Instead of being depressed when the summer ends, you will greet the upcoming months with a sense of purpose.”

That lesson can enable us to live a more fulfilled life, brimming with accomplishments. The joy that it will bring will not be transient, but rather of the type that fills our body and soul. The joy will last much longer than the brief summer months. It will last longer than the four seasons of the year. It will last us throughout our lifetime.

Elul is a month that is meant to be used to reassess our priorities. Teshuvah flows from that reassessment. Elul reminds us that the Torah was not given to malachei hashoreis, but to bosor vodom.

Parshas Ki Seitzei and Elul coincide to remind us that “lo dibrah Torah elah keneged yeitzer hora.” Our obligation in this world is to subdue the yeitzer hora and withstand the temptations that confront us daily. Parshas Ki Seitzei and Elul remind us that we can be better than we are, that Hashem created us with the ability to be great people.

We were born with 248 limbs with which to carry out the 248 mitzvos asei. Far from being a random coincidence, this is a powerful testament to the Torah’s exquisite planning that matches a human being’s spiritual resources with his physical makeup.

During this period of Elul, let us resolve to use our strengths to improve our observance of the mitzvos. Let us resolve to overcome the temptation to feel that we lack the capacity to be as pure and holy as the Torah expects of us. With this renewed embrace of our purpose in this world, we will greet the Yom Hadin with the confident prayer for Hashem’s blessings for a year of health and happiness for ourselves, our loved ones, and all of Klal Yisroel.

Friday, September 02, 2022

Press the Switch

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The Gemara in Yevamos (63a) quotes Rabi Elozor, who derives from the posuk (Bereishis 12:3), “Venivrichu vecha kol mishpichos ha’adamah,” that blessing flows to all families of the world only on account of Am Yisroel.

The Gemara also quotes Rabi Elozor bar Avina, who teaches, “Ein puraniyos ba’ah la’olam ela bishvil Yisroel,” everything bad that happens in the world is “bishvil Yisroel,” for the Jewish people. He derives this from the posuk, “Omarti ach tiri osi, tikchi mussar” (Tzefaniah 3:7), meaning that Hashem does these things so that we should learn mussar from them and do teshuvah.

Yet, we take a glance at the news headlines and we wonder what any of them have to do with us.

Parshas Shoftim, which we lain this week, begins with the commandment to appoint shoftim, judges, and shotrim, enforcers. For centuries, darshonim have been discussing why this parsha is always lained on the first Shabbos of the month of Elul and how those obligations refer to us.

Many have said that the pesukim are obligating us to judge every action that we are about to perform and ascertain whether it should be done or not. Torah Jews should never act on impulse, or out of anger, or based on some other momentary stimulation. If the action is proper, then we should undertake it, and if it is not, then no matter what justification we can come up with, we should not do it. 

The parsha continues with the requirement to judge correctly, not to twist a judgment and not to accept bribes even when reaching the right decision, for doing so will lead to corruption and improper understanding. Though the Torah is addressing dayonim, as they decide on legal cases, the lesson to us regarding our own actions is quite appropriate. We must not let ourselves be led astray and become affected by things that subvert our equilibrium. “Tzedek tzedek tirdof.” We must always pursue what is right and just, as a people, as a community, and as individuals.

Hakol bishvil Yisroel. Let us examine what is in the news as we enter Elul and understand what it has to do with us. The main domestic news story relates to the FBI search through the private home of a former president, ostensibly to find documents he allegedly improperly took. Without getting involved in the politics of it, which is quite difficult because it is all about politics, we can learn several lessons from what transpired.

We see that there are no secrets in this world, and if someone does something objectionable, it is likely that he will be discovered, and if not punished, then he’ll at least be exposed and embarrassed. This is a lesson to us as we begin the period of introspection to remember that “kol maasecha basefer nichtovim.” Hashem knows all that you have done over the past year and during your life. We cannot hide or cover up our sins. We must face up to them, admit them, and resolve not to do them again in order to find favor on the Yom Hadin.

Crime rates continue spiking unabated, and we see what happens when justice is perverted, when policemen are afraid to police, and when woke prosecutors and judges twist the law. We read of what is happening in cities such as New York, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, among others. Criminals and thugs have no fear of the law, and crime rises as police are handcuffed instead of the bad guys. These once-great cities are overrun with crime and homelessness, and businesses and law-observant residents take flight.

When we see this happening, we need to remember the teachings of Chazal and recognize that there are lessons for us in the headlines. Especially during Elul, we need to see this and know that shoftim v’shotrim titein lecha. People who fail to police and judge themselves face the same outcome. Elul is here for us to proclaim to ourselves, “Tzedek tzedek tirdof.” We must straighten ourselves, act properly, be good, and do good.

Of course, it goes without saying that the recent passing of leading gedolim, some leaving us suddenly with no prior warning or medical history, coupled with a spate of tragedies in Eretz Yisroel over the past few weeks, need to send shivers down every spine and remind us to do teshuvah and mend our ways.

For the past couple of months, we have turned down the flame a bit as we enjoyed the warmth and calmness of the summer season. By now, bungalow colonies have emptied, camps have closed, yeshivos have opened, and schools are putting in the final preparations for ushering students back into their classrooms. A giant switch has been pressed and a drastic change is underway.

Since the time of the chet ha’Eigel, when the Jews did teshuvah for their sin, Elul has been a month of self-improvement and teshuvah, empowered with the ability to allow us to become closer to Hashem.

Aveiros create a separation between us and the Creator. Teshuvah removes the stain of aveiros and provides us the ability to become closer to Hashem.

When Hashem responded positively to the pleas of Moshe Rabbeinu, Elul became, for all-time, a period during which our attempts to return are more readily accepted.

Therefore, Elul has become the period when we seek opportunities for nitzchiyus. We ponder our actions, words and deeds as we become aware of the approaching Yom Hadin and seek for ourselves sources of merit.

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

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

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

As with all halachos, to gain an understanding of the process of teshuvah, the first place to go is the Rambam’s sefer Mishneh Torah. By studying the halachos of teshuvah as clearly laid out and explained by the Rambam, it is possible to arrive at a deep understanding of the process, thus making it easier to repent, adding potency to the study of mussar seforim.

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

The Rambam’s captivating words touch your soul and empower you to undertake to make the changes that each person needs to make. You become swept up by the beauty of his words and the clarity of his arguments of living a richer, fuller, and better life.

If, before we act, we would think about what we are doing, and whether good or bad will come from it, and for what purpose we are doing it, we would become better. If we would think before speaking, we could save ourselves lots of anguish.

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

Life is a test of wills. When we resist the urgings of the yeitzer hora and do good, we win. But when the yeitzer hora is able to guide us, we lose.

The Gemara in Brachos (61b) quotes Rav Yosi Haglili, who says that the righteous are guided by their yeitzer tov, the wicked are ruled by their yeitzer hora, and beinonim are ruled by both.

Everybody is led by a yeitzer. If he is a good person, he follows his yeitzer tov, and if he is an evil person, then he is led by his yeitzer hora. Beinonim vary. Sometimes they follow the yeitzer tov and other times the yeitzer hora. Our actions are either good or not good. Our task is to ensure that we don’t permit flawed thinking to mislead us into following the yeitzer hora and do things that are silly, wasteful, and wrong.

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

As part of our teshuvah process, when we read and study the parsha, we should resolve to help people who have been wronged or misjudged, people who don’t get a break and are abused and mistreated. We should undertake to do what we can to give everyone at least a fair chance and help bring about a time when everyone is treated the same, whether they are rich or poor, bright or average, with yichus or without. 

Many feel that they have been wronged by the system and that nobody cares about them. Let us be among those who work to ensure that no one feels that way. Let us ensure that Hashem cares for us as we show care and compassion for others. If we help others straighten out their situations, we can ask Hashem to help us with ours. The people we have helped become the most effective advocates for us on the Yom Hadin, as we request in the prayer accompanying Kapparos on Erev Yom Kippur from the posuk that says, “Malach meilitz echod mini olef lehagid l’odom yoshro motzosi kofer (Iyov 33:22-23).

We have written the following story before, but it bears repeating at this juncture.

There was a Jewish merchant from China whose business brought him to Europe. Taking advantage of his trip, he went to Radin in the search of a brocha. He introduced himself to the Chofetz Chaim.

Fun vanet kumt ah Yid?” asked the Chofetz Chaim.

“I am from China,” the man told him.

Vos hert zach in China?”

“It’s very difficult there,” said the man. “There is no proper chinuch. There is no shechitah. It is difficult to observe Shabbos.”

“It is a tzoras rabim,” responded the Chofetz Chaim. “In many countries around the globe, Jews are experiencing the same problems. I published a sefer for them. It’s called ‘Nidchei Yisroel.’ Please take some seforim with you and distribute them in China. The sefer teaches how to maintain your Yiddishkeit in difficult surroundings.”

The Chofetz Chaim paused. “What else is doing in China?” he asked.

The man discussed the state of the Jews there, not sure what else to add. He told the Chofetz Chaim that he had been away from his country for several weeks.

Before you left,” asked the tzaddik, “what were people there speaking about? What were the newspapers writing about?”

He responded, “The Chinese government built a huge dam, making available a tremendous amount of land for agriculture. But the dam was built very sloppily and could not withstand the awesome power of all the water it had backed up. The dam collapsed and flooded a very large area. 100,000 people died.”

The Chofetz Chaim was visibly shaken and became emotional.

Oy vey. Oy vey. The middas hadin is running rampant! It reached as far as China,” he said.

The man was perplexed.

“Can I ask the rebbe a question?” he queried. “Why is it that when I told you about the matzav of the Jews in China, you accepted it without much emotion, but when I told you about the Chinese people, you cried bitter tears?”

“During your European trip, were you in Warsaw?” asked the Chofetz Chaim of his visitor.

“Yes,” the man replied.

“How many Jews live there and what percentage of the population are they?” asked the Chofetz Chaim.

“There are about 300,000 Jews out of a population of a little over one million,” said the man.

“If a man stands on a soap box on a street corner delivering a speech in Yiddish, who is he addressing?” questioned the Chofetz Chaim.

“The Jews who are walking by, of course,” responded the man. “Why are you asking?”

“But you yourself said that they are but a minority in the city, correct?”

“Sure,” said the man, still confused. “But the goyim don’t understand Yiddish, so if someone is speaking in Yiddish, he must be addressing the Jewish passersby and not the gentiles.”

“Exactly,” replied the Chofetz Chaim. “The same is true with the dam that burst in China. When the water was unleashed to kill 100,000 people, that was the language of Heaven. It was a warning from Hashem. But the Chinese don’t understand ‘Shomayim language.’ We do. The Jews are the ones who cry out on the Yomim Noraim, ‘Mi bamayim.’ We understand that when such occurrences take place, they are meant to send us a message. But how are we, in Radin, to know about what happened? That’s why Hashem sent you here. He sent you to tell us what took place and for us to hear the Heavenly speech.”

When we read the paper and when we hear the news and things people are discussing, we need to understand that there are messages there for us. Especially during this month of Elul, we need to be plugged in to drawing inspiration from everything that comes our way, so that we derive the messages we need to hear to prompt us to do what we must to take advantage of this auspicious period and ensure ourselves a kesivah vachasimah tovah.

Amein, kein yehi ratzon.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Vacation

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Readers of this publication are familiar with Rabbi Moshe Garfinkel, a fine, dedicated cheder rebbi and yorei Shomayim who regularly writes letters to the editor. Last night, he sent a letter to the editor, not the usual type, but one addressed personally to the editor. He had an issue he needed addressed.

He wrote that he was troubled that there would be no paper the week of Shabbos Parshas Re’eh, Rosh Chodesh Elul. He feared that people would miss out on the Elul chizuk usually offered here and asked that we speak about Elul this week of Shabbos Mevorchim Chodesh Elul.

The letter was written so meaningfully and nicely that I can’t reject the request, and I hope those of you in the country, or out of the country, on vacation will not mind the intrusion.

Rav Eliezer Turk of Yeshivas Kaminetz in Yerushalayim repeated a story that he heard from the Kaminetzer mashgiach, Rav Moshe Aharon Stern, who heard it from Rav Shmuel Auerbach. He told that when he was growing up in Yerushalayim, there was tremendous poverty. Many people suffered from hunger. They had literally nothing to eat. Many survived on bread and water the entire week.

A group of bochurim felt that they could not bear it any longer and decided that they were going to leave Yerushalayim and move to America. They saw little opportunity to escape the poverty of Yerushalayim if they would remain there. The options available for them to advance financially were very few, if any. They had enough. They decided that they would move together to America, the land of opportunity with unlimited potential. They would go there and figure it out and go on to live happy, fulfilling lives.

Their families were aghast. “Going to the treifeneh medinah? How could you even entertain such an idea? If you go live there, you will become goyim. You will get sucked in and forget about your heritage. You’ll forget about Yiddishkeit and Yerushalayim.”

The families begged them not to go. But they wouldn’t listen. They promised that they wouldn’t forsake Torah and mitzvos and set off to have better lives.

Very quickly, the families’ worst fears were realized. Bit by bit, they dropped mitzvos, until they gave it all up and went as far as marrying out of the faith. They were gone.

All except one. Out of the entire group, one bochur remained religious. He was able to resist all the temptations and didn’t forsake any drop of his heritage. His devotion to Torah observance remained as strong as it was when he arrived at Ellis Island.

After ten years, he returned home to Yerushalayim and told everyone his story. Unlike the others who forgot about Shabbos and tefillin, through all his time there, he said that he did not miss a day of putting on tefillin. At first, people didn’t believe him, but as they continued talking to him and watching his conduct, they became convinced that he was telling the truth. In due time, he was redd shidduchim, got married, and raised a fine generation of ehrliche children.

Somebody asked him how he was able to remain true to the Yerushalayimer ideals while off in the American melting pot, which swallowed so many good people in those days. As his friends veered off, what held him?

He said that it was a word he heard from a great man prior to his departure that kept him going through the years of his American exile. “Listen to the story,” he said.

“It was Shabbos Mevorchim Chodesh Elul, the last Shabbos before we left for America. I davened Shacharis at the second minyan at the Perushim shul in Givat Shaul in Yerushalayim. All the years, when I was there on Shabbos Mevorchim Chodesh Elul, when the chazzan would call out, ‘Rosh Chodesh Elul yihiyeh b’yom ploni,’ immediately you could hear the sound of people crying from all sides of the shul. In the women’s section, they would faint upon hearing the announcement. But that year, for some reason, there was apathy in the room. When the chazzan called out Elul,’ there was no visible change on anyone’s faces.

“Nobody cried. Nobody fainted. Davening continued as usual.

“The Yerushalmi tzaddik, Rav Zerach Braverman, talmid of Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin, was also davening at that minyan. When he saw the apathetic manner with which Elul was greeted, he became very upset. As soon as Mussaf was over, he approached the bimah. He banged on it and screamed out from the depths of his soul, ‘Tayereh Yidden, my beloved fellow Jews, what happened here?! Elul was just announced. Shabbos Mevorchim Elul. Elul is about to spread its wings over us and we are indifferent? How can this be?

“‘ELUL!’

“Upon hearing the impassioned call from the depths of the heart of one of the special people of Yerushalayim, a fear spread over the people and they began to cry.

“So you’re asking me what kept me going all those lonely years? It was that word Elul, shouted by Rav Zerach. That ‘Elul’ reverberated in my ears all those years. Not just during Elul, but also during Kislev and Nissan and Sivon and any time I had a nisayon. The call of ‘Elul’ gave me the strength to withstand the temptation.”

Here we are, in the middle of the summer. Everything is going so smoothly and calmly. We are camped out in our summer homes and bungalows, floating down a river, or sitting around the pool, vacationing in a gorgeous or rustic resort.

And then, out of nowhere, we will be in shul Shabbos morning, engrossed in our thoughts, and we will hear the chazzan intone, “Elul!” We will say to ourselves: Elul already? Elul now, smack in the middle of the summer? No, it can’t be. Not now. Come back later.

A person catches a cold in the middle of the winter, gets fever, and has to go into bed. People ask him how he got sick. “How did you get that cold?” they wonder. The person in bed gives different answers. “It was cold yesterday and I went out without a coat.” Or he says that he left the window open in his room overnight and he woke up frozen. And other such reasons.

“But the real reason he got the cold,” Rav Chaim Shmulevitz would say, “is because he was cold during Elul. Had he warmed up during Elul, had he been upgevaremt during Elul, he wouldn’t have gotten a cold during Kislev.”

It’s our choice: Warm up for Elul and save ourselves aggravation later or remain chilled when the chazzan calls out “Chodesh Elul.”

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.

However, this posuk, which is widely repeated and mentioned as the source of the custom to blow shofar during Elul, 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, as they know that something serious is afoot.

We can say that the reason we blow shofar during Elul is to announce that change is in the air.

The Sefer Akeidah (Shaar 97) writes 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 and the weather warms, man’s physical strength and temptations increase.

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 during which the neshomah begins preparing for the growth of Tishrei. A sense of anticipation, optimism and hope pervade the air. Much like a family spends 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 at the beginning of Elul after having spent the previous weeks in a resort town regaining 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 strengthen the body, so is vacation necessary to strengthen the soul - even more so, for everyone is considered sick and in need of a vacation in regard to the neshomah. No one is healthy enough not to need 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 concentrate on pleasing the soul.

So, after all is said and done, Elul doesn’t really intrude on our vacations. When Elul comes, we are still on vacation, just a different type, with different, more wholesome and vital forms of enjoyment. We get out of the pool, hop off the bicycle, put away the weights, the elliptical, and the StairMaster, and change into Elul mode. It restores life and vitality. By the time Tishrei comes, we will be fully charged and ready to go physically and spiritually.