Friday, September 17, 2021

Time of Joy

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

We are meant to be joyous on every Yom Tov, but the Yom Tov of Sukkos has the special distinction of being referred to as Zeman Simchoseinu, our time of happiness. Why is Sukkos distinct in its added measures of simcha?

Tishrei is the most special month on the Jewish calendar, beginning with Rosh Hashanah, continuing with the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, Yom Kippur, Sukkos and Hoshanah Rabbah, and concluding with Shemini Atzeres. Each Yom Tov has its own halachos, cherished minhagim, and segulos, accomplishing different things for the Jewish people.

Tishrei is preceded by the month of Elul, when Hashem is closer to the Jewish people and more accepting of the teshuvah of those who seek to improve their ways as they prepare for the Yom Hadin, the judgment of Rosh Hashanah. All throughout the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, we add extra tefillos and concentrate on teshuvah, seeking forgiveness for our aveiros and to be sealed for a good year.

The posuk in Koheles (7:29) states, “Ha’Elokim asah es ha’adam yoshor veheimah bikshu cheshbonos rabim.” The Nefesh Hachaim (1:6) explains that when Hashem created man, He fashioned him to be good, proper and correct, yoshor, and in his nature, man had no inclination to do anything improper or to sin on his own. Adam was given bechirah, the freedom to choose on his own to do mitzvos or do aveiros should he be convinced by something outside of his body to do wrong. But according to his nature and the way he was created, he had no pull or desire to do what is incorrect.

That changed when the nochosh convinced Chava to disobey Hashem’s commandment not to eat from the Eitz Hada’as. As the Gemara in Maseches Shabbos (146a) says, the nochosh “hitil boh zuhamoh,” literally translated as infected her with moral contamination. When that happened, everything changed. The zuhamah was a spiritual poison that changed man’s nature and created in him a desire to sin. From then on, he didn’t need an outside push to do aveiros. He was able to be drawn to chato’im on his own.

If a person chooses to go in the path of proper conduct, then, each time he does a mitzvah and a chesed, it strengthens his ability to act positively. It is like exercise. Each time you lift a weight, your arm muscles strengthen. The more weights you lift, the further you walk, and the more laps you swim, the stronger you become.

It works the same way in the spiritual realm. When we do mitzvos and learn Torah, it strengthens our tzad hatov and we become better people and more drawn to doing mitzvos and learning Torah.

If we go the other way and begin doing aveiros, then the tzad hatov decreases, and each time we do an aveirah, our souls become blackened and we become more distant from Hakadosh Boruch Hu.

The Ramchal writes (Derech Hashem 4:8) that teshuvah is accepted with greater ease on Yom Kippur, and Yom Kippur even has the ability to totally erase the sins, repair the damage they caused, and return the repentant person to his previous holy condition, separated from ra and reconnected to Hashem.

A similar concept is presented by the Bais Halevi in his drashos (15). It was also recounted by Rav Chaim Shlomo Leibowitz in the name of his uncle, Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz, and published in a yarchon, Mishnas Yerach Ha’eisonim. Yom Kippur cleans away the chet, removes its residue, and returns the baal teshuvah to his original state before his chato’im created in him an inclination and urge to sin.

This is what Yeshayahu hanovi is referring to when he says that Hashem proclaims (Yeshayahu 1:18), “Im yihiyu chata’eichem kashonim kasheleg yalbinu, im yaadimu katolah k’tzemer yihiyu.” If you show remorse and are mis’choreit on the aveirah, Hashem will wipe it clean and you will return to your previous clean state.

This is why immediately following Yom Kippur, we begin engaging in mitzvos. We recite Kiddush Levanah, go home, make Havdolah, and begin building the sukkah.

Following the cleansing of Yom Kippur, we are now returned to the situation we were in before we sinned. We no longer have zuhamah. We don’t have the stains of sin on our souls. We don’t have anything pushing us to do the wrong thing.

We therefore become engaged in doing mitzvos, strengthening our tzad hatov and adding zechuyos to our ledger. As we study Torah and perform mitzvos, our devotion to Torah and mitzvos becomes strengthened.

As we busy ourselves with mitzvos, we are also ensuring that we don’t permit the ra, the Soton, the yeitzer hora, to return and begin building in us an appetite for chet.

And then Sukkos comes, and we enter the sukkah and dwell there for seven days, enveloped by Hashem’s protection, under the tzila demehemnusa. We perform the mitzvos of the chag, further strengthening our tzad hatov, so that by the time Yom Tov is over, we are bulked up with mitzvos and strong enough to take on the evil which will undoubtedly confront and seek to tempt us.

Not only that, but as we dwell under the shade of the sukkah, we are protected from aveiros.

Sukkos follows the Yomim Noraim because when the Bnei Yisroel sinned with the Eigel in the midbar, they lost the protection of the Shechinah and the Ananei Hakavod departed. They did teshuvah and were forgiven on Yom Kippur. On Sukkos, the Ananei Hakavod returned and surrounded them, sheltering them from their enemies and the elements.

On Yom Kippur, the hashpa’ah of the selicha of the original day of forgiveness in the desert is renewed, and following our teshuvah, we are forgiven for our sins just as our forefathers were. On Sukkos, we once again merit the protection of the Ananei Hakavod in the form of the tzila demehemnusa which hovers over our sukkos.

This is the meaning of the Zohar (3:103) which states, “Ta chazi, beshaata da tzila demehemnusa shechintah parsa gadfa alei mele’aila - When a person enters the sukkah, the Shechinah spreads its wings over him.” The Vilna Gaon expresses the concept a bit differently, saying that the posuk in Shir Hashirim (1:4) of “Heviani haMelech chadorov – The King [Hashem] brought me into his room” refers to the sukkah.

This is the reason for the extra joy on Sukkos, as the posuk (Devorim 16:14-15) states, “Vesomachta bechagecha vehoyisa ach someiach.” Sukkos is Zeman Simchoseinu, because on these days, we are cleansed from sin, concentrating on performing mitzvos and enveloped in Hashem’s embrace. What could be better?

The Vilna Gaon writes (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 simcha. This will be followed by Shemini Atzeres, when the deniers of Hashem’s existence will disappear and Klal Yisroel will celebrate “Atzeres tihiyeh lochem.”

Our children and grandchildren sit with us in the sukkah, much as we sat with our parents and grandparents in their sukkah, in a scene that has been repeated millions of times over the ages. The sukkah, as our existence, has usually been tenuous and fragile, but though it is a temporary structure, its message is permanent and eternal. Despite the way things appear, we are never alone, we will never disappear. As the sukkah, we will be everlasting because Hashem is with us, unseen, but evident, through his tzeila d’meheimnusa.

Despite all that has been thrown at us throughout the ages and as difficult as it was in some periods to observe the mitzvah, Jews have sought refuge in the sukkah, knowing and believing that Hashem’s spirit hovers there offering protection from the enemies, elements, the soton and the yetzer hora.

If a list were to be compiled of enduring symbols of Jewish life in golus, the sukkah would be there along with the haunting, melancholy, joyous Yiddish tune “Ah sukkale ah kleineh” playing in the background. The beautiful, classic tune tells the story of a man who fashioned his sukkah from some old wooden boards and covered it with green s’chach branches. As he sits in his sukkah, reciting kiddush on the first night of Yom Tov, a bitter wind blows, threatening the flickering candles, which refuse to be extinguished and continue offering light.

His young daughter is terrified that the sukkah will be toppled by the winds. “Have no fear,” he calmly tells her. “The sukkah is already standing for 2,000 years. The winds that are blowing, which you are so afraid of, will calm and dissipate, but our sukkaleh will remain strong.”

Way back when, the Slonimer Rebbe met a cantonist soldier on Sukkos. The unfortunate young man was one of the many children who were torn away from their families at a young age and placed in the Czar’s army for twenty-five years. The boys grew up removed from Torah and religion and led miserable lives in the Russian army. The young man whom the rebbe met was away for so long that only faint recollections of normal life remained. He was separated from his family for so long that he had forgotten most of which he learned and what it meant to be loved.

The rebbe looked at the soldier and said to him, “Your face has a special glow. Please tell me what zechus you have. Which mitzvah did you perform to merit this that I sense about you?”

The soldier did not remember doing anything special. He told the rebbe that he was forced to stand guard for hours at a time and when he was done, he had no strength left to do much but rest in bed.

The rebbe pressed him and the soldier remembered that on Sukkos, he had eaten a small meal in a sukkah. He said that for some reason on the first night of Sukkos, he felt a strong pull to eat in a sukkah. He asked a fellow soldier to stand guard for him, switching shifts so he could take a break.

He snuck out of the barracks and ran to the Jewish section of town where he was not allowed to be. He found a home with a sukkah behind it. He knocked on the door and asked the family if he might join them. They were thrilled to welcome and befriend a Cantonist. They helped the unlearned soldier recite kiddush and recite the brocha of leisheiv basukkah. He ate some challah and a piece of fish, bentched and quickly returned to his post before his absence would be noticed.

 “That’s it, rebbe. That was the only mitzvah I did in a very long time and it was nothing special,” he said.

 “What did you do when you returned to the base?” asked the rebbe.

The soldier looked down and said, “The truth is that I was so excited at having eaten in a sukkah that as I stood all alone at my post, I began dancing, so happy about what I had done.”

The poor suffering Cantonist, separated so long from Yiddishkeit and Yidden, had a burst of inspiration and ended up in a sukkah, where he was overwhelmed by the embrace of the tzeila d’meheimnusa, receiving a jolt of energy and happiness and an enduring glow.

The story of the Jew in golus. May we all be like that Cantonist, energized and empowered by the sukkah, swept off our feet with joy every time we merit to be enveloped in its embrace.

May we all be zoche that the situation we find ourselves in over Sukkos extends throughout the year, as we concentrate on doing good and avoiding the forbidden. May our Torah, avodah and maasim tovim strengthen us, bring us joy, and be a source of merit to bring Moshiach.

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Wake Up

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

There are various reactions to the sound of the shofar’s cry. The sensitive soul hears several messages as the plaintive sound forms a song like no other. It is a tune of triumph mixed with recollection and tones of introspection.

The Rambam, who compiled and clarified so many of the halachos that govern our lives, heard a unique message in the sound of the shofar and, deviating from his usual practice, provided a reason for the mitzvah.

He writes in Hilchos Teshuvah (3:4), “Even though [the commandment to blow the shofar] is a gezeiras hakosuv, there is a hint to the reason, for it is as if the shofar is saying, ‘Uru yesheinim misheinaschem. Wake up you who are asleep from your slumber. Search through your actions, repent, and remember your Creator.’”

The Rambam then quotes from the Pesikta:These are the people who get caught up in the frivolities of the period - havlei hazeman - and forget the truth, spending their time with silliness and emptiness. The shofar calls out to them and says, ‘Look inside your souls and improve your ways, and let each one of you leave behind his bad ways and improper thoughts.’”

Then the Rambam writes the eternal words that Jews have in their DNA: “Lefichoch, therefore, all people should see themselves during the entire year as if they are evenly divided between being zakai, innocent, and chayov, guilty. Every person should view the world the same way.”

Meaning, if he commits one sin, he will have caused for himself and for the entire world to be guilty. If he does one mitzvah, he will have ensured that he and the entire world are found innocent and he will bring about salvation for everyone.

“This is what it means when it says, ‘Tzaddik yesod olam.’ The tzaddik himself is the foundation of the world, because he has caused the entire world to be judged positively and to be saved.”

The Rambam’s words are often repeated and analyzed, especially at this time of year, by people seeking to do teshuvah. His teachings are so direct and touching, deeply affecting every person who studies them. But more than that, he codifies and organizes for us the teshuvah process so that we are able to progress along the path to achieve absolution of our sins, refinement of our neshamos, improvement of our character, and, most all, perfection of our shemiras hamitzvos. It would behoove any of us who has not done so to read through the words of the Rambam, softly and slowly, absorbing them and using them as an impetus to proper teshuvah.

While studying these perokim, I was pondering why the Rambam uses the metaphor of sleep for people whose time is consumed with trivialities. These people are far removed from asleep. In fact, they appear to be very much awake and occupied with fulfilling their various desires. Perhaps he should have referred to them as wayward, lost, or confused people who are wasting their lives away. Why is their condition referred to as slumber?

Furthermore, how does the second part of the halacha follow the first? Why does he say that lefichoch, because people waste their time, man should therefore view himself and the world as having an equal number of merits and sins - chatzi chayov and chatzi zakai - and thus seek to perform a mitzvah in whose merit he will tip the scale towards zakai and bring salvation to himself and to the world?

How does the way we view the world follow the admonition regarding those who are asleep behavlei hazeman?

The transitional word, lefichoch, indicates that there is a connection between the call to arise from our slumber and the mandate to see ourselves as chatzi chayov and chatzi zakai, perched on the dividing line between the abyss of evil and the path leading to eternal life. What is the connection?

The words of the Rambam, whose every nuance and hint reflect truth and Divine inspiration, require explanation. Are we, in fact, asleep? What is the meaning of the repeated references to slumber?

The story of Yonah Hanovi, which we lain on Yom Kippur, provides us with a strong allusion of what the Rambam means when he uses the word slumber, nirdom. Yonah sought to escape from following Hashem’s directive. He fled to a ship that was to take him to a far-off land. But Hashem caused a stormy tempest at sea, and the ship was rocked about and threatened to break apart. Everyone aboard began to panic, throwing all non-essential items overboard as they fought for survival.

With the ship rocking and commotion all around him, Yonah went to his room to take a nap, as if nothing was happening.

The captain finds him and is incensed. He calls out to Yonah, “Mah lecha nirdom? What are you doing, sleeper?”

How can a person be calm enough to lie down when the boat he is on, with all of its passengers, is at risk of sinking? The waves are lapping at the ship, threatening to rip it apart. How could a person rest comfortably when his life is in jeopardy?

The captain was thus infuriated at Yonah. “Mah lecha nirdom?” he said. “What is with you, apathetic person? How can you be so indifferent to reality? How can you ignore what is transpiring around you? Kum kera el Elokecha. Quickly, pray to Hashem that He save us all from certain death.”

The posuk in Shir Hashirim (5:2) states, Ani yesheinah velibi eir…Rashi explains that the posuk is referring to the era of the first Bais Hamikdosh, when Knesses Yisroel, sedate and serene, became lax in their avodas Hashem. They no longer felt that they were under pressure to perform properly. Everything was going well for them and they became like a sleeping person who slowly relaxes his limbs.

We see from these pesukim, and others, that when the metaphor of sleep is used, it is indicative of a person who is apathetic and has ceased to feel the pressure to do and to be, to produce and to accomplish.

To be asleep means to be oblivious to what is going on around you. It means to be blind and deaf to the realities and opportunities inherent in every moment and, most of all, to the potential that lies dormant within.

The famed Yerushalmi baal mussar and darshan, Rav Shalom Shvadron, was visiting Rav Eizek Sher, the Slabodka rosh yeshiva, in Bnei Brak, when Rav Sher said to him, “Let’s go to the window. I want to show you the cemetery.” Rav Shvadron was wondering how he would be able to see the far-off cemetery from Rav Sher’s window, but he followed.

Rav Sher began gazing out the window and pointing to the street below. I’m paraphrasing what he said to bring out my point, but he said something like this: “Do you see those people down there? They are wasting their time with the havlei hazeman. Instead of learning Torah and being productive, they are engaging in triviality, in matters of little importance. They are alive, but they are burying themselves with the havlei hazeman.”

Those people are nirdomim. They may be alive and awake, but their souls are dead. They are aimless. They don’t think about the preciousness of time and the many opportunities Hakadosh Boruch Hu gives them to spend their time productively, benefiting themselves, their families, their communities, and the world.

Says the Rambam, we cry out to them during these precious days and say, “Mah lochem nirdomim! Wake up! Uru yesheinim misheinaschem!” The shofar is the vehicle we use to convey that message.

A person’s potential is immeasurable, limited only by his lack of ambition, effort and belief in himself. The worst thing that we can do is rob people of their self-esteem, because that inhibits them from seeking to grow and excel. Our yeitzer hora excels at telling us that we cannot succeed in pursuing a goal. He convinces us that it is not even worth making the attempt. When we allow him to convince us, we fail.

A beautiful photograph of two young boys in a Shuvu school in Lod in Eretz Yisroel was taken this week. A boy is seen holding a siddur and davening. He is tugging at the tzitzis strings of the boy in the seat in front of him and kissing them as he recites Shema.

His parents have not yet come to appreciate the mitzvos with which we are blessed and have not yet purchased for this boy a pair of tzitzis. But he doesn’t let that hold him back. He wants to grow, he wants to lead a full Jewish life, and he wants to be productive and do mitzvos, so he reaches for the closest pair of tzitzis and grabs on to them and kisses them.

He doesn’t listen to his yeitzer hora. He doesn’t accept his fate and console himself with his situation. His soul is awake. He yearns to grow and do mitzvos properly. He doesn’t just shrug his shoulders and move on apathetically. He gets out of his seat, going beyond his comfort zone. He shows that he appreciates that Hashem has blessed him to be in this school, where he will receive a proper chinuch and be guided and nurtured toward becoming a proper ben aliyah.

We are all that boy. We all have excuses and reasons why not to, why we can’t, why it isn’t for us. But we need to be like him in the other way as well, ignoring the negativity of the yeitzer hora and responding to the tug of our neshamos and the shofar, which call on us to propel ourselves further, doing better, working harder, and leading a meaningful and productive life.

The greatest tragedy is when a person becomes unaware of, or indifferent to, his own abilities and begins to believe that he won’t realize his dreams and doesn’t even bother to make the attempt. The Daf Yomi cycle starts a new masechta and he really wants to try to get on the bandwagon and begin learning masechtos as he sees others doing, but he gives in to the yeitzer hora’s arguments that he won’t understand it anyway, and even if he does, he will soon forget it, so why bother expending the effort? Meanwhile, his friends are marching through Shas and he is checking out everyone’s status pictures. He is a nirdom.

The shofar tells us that we need to extricate ourselves from floundering in apathy and cold indifference. The Rambam says that this is accomplished by each person realizing how much latent strength he possesses and the difference he can make.

Lefichoch. Therefore, says the Rambam, when the shofar awakens you from your apathy and you realize what you can accomplish if you would only try, you have the power to tilt the balance of the world and bring it to its tikkun.

Lefichoch is a call to us to exit our bubbles and shelters of selfishness and indifference and to make a difference. The beginning of teshuvah is for a person to accept that what he does makes a difference.

A person must realize that Hashem created him with a purpose and a plan. Until man accepts that he has a calling, he cannot truly serve Hashem. This may be the depth of the reason why the two days of Rosh Hashanah are counted among the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, even though on Rosh Hashanah we do not stress teshuvah, but rather the malchus of Hakadosh Boruch Hu. On Rosh Hashanah, we do not recite viduy, but reassert the fact that the world has a Creator and He is the world’s King ruling over all. Since He placed us in His world, there must be a reason and a purpose to our existence. Recognizing that is the first step of teshuvah.

The posuk in Tehillim (89:15) that we recite prior to tekias shofar on Rosh Hashanah states, “Ashrei ha’am yode’ei seruah, Hashem be’Ohr Ponecha yehaleichun.” Dovid Hamelech praises the nation that knows the teruah of the shofar. The Medrash (Vayikra Rabbah 29:4) asks why Am Yisroel is deserving of that praise. After all, the nations of the world also know how to blow a shofar.

Perhaps we can explain that while the nations of the world are capable of emitting sounds from the shofar, the second part of the posuk, “Hashem b’Ohr Ponecha yehaleichun,” does not apply to them. They are able to emit sounds from a shofar, but because they don’t follow in the light of Hashem, those sounds don’t provoke them to shake off their sheinah and tardeimah. Thus, they continue being swept along and swallowed up by the havlei hazeman.

Lefichoch. We who follow the “Ohr Ponecha,” the Light of Hashem, are referred to as yode’ei seruah, because the sound of the shofar touches our neshamos and awakens us to follow that light. When the havlei hazeman draw the shades that block the light from reaching us, we become yesheinim. The shofar causes us to roll up those shades and allow the light to shine through. We are then awakened to fulfill our purpose in life.

The Zohar (3:18b) speaks of the merit of the yode’ei seruah, those who know the secret of tekias shofar: “Zaka’ah chulkhon detzadikiya deyadin lekavnah reusah lekamei mareihon veyadin lesaknah alma behai yoma bekol shufrah. Praised are the pious ones who know how to channel the awesome power of the shofar and to rectify the universe on the day of Rosh Hashanah through the sound of the shofar.”

Tzaddikim, the righteous ones among us, hear and understand the message of the shofar and utilize that knowledge to bring merit to the entire world, because that is the purpose of blowing the shofar.

The shofar reminds us of who we are and what we can accomplish. Each one of us has the ability to tip the balance of the cosmos and change the course of the world. The shofar tells a person that he is also a tzaddik, and all are looking to him to utilize his potential to attain greatness and bring salvation to the world.

A person who hears this message is a tzaddik in din. The Heavenly tribunal will pronounce him as zakai, and in his merit, those around him and the world will be saved.

After Yonah was brought out of his tardeimah, the winds continued blowing and the deadly waves crashed against the ship. The other passengers huddled together to figure out why they were being punished so. They asked, “Shel mi hara’ah hazos lonu? Who is the cause of these conditions that are affecting us so terribly?”

Yonah immediately responded, “Ki yodeia ani ki besheli hasa’ar hagadol hazeh aleichem. I know that I am to blame for what is happening to you.”

Yonah was a novi, surrounded by ovdei avodah zarah. Why did he so quickly conclude that he was the cause of the raging storm? There were no doubt other sinners on board. Why was he so sure that it was his fault that the boat was being destroyed?

It was because Yonah understood the lefichoch of the Rambam. He was a recovering nirdom. After accepting the mussar of the captain, he went further, as the Rambam prescribes, and looked at what was going on, as if he himself could bring about the necessary change and the yeshuah to the people on the boat, to Am Yisroel as a whole, and to the entire world.

This Rosh Hashanah, as we hear the song of the shofar, we can think of many role models, human beings who are attempting to realize their potential, rising up to confront the new challenges that keep coming our way.

We should all take a moment to look deep within our own hearts and determine if perhaps we are asleep, oblivious to the great things we could be doing, leaving our talents untapped.

Too often, we concentrate on the negatives, on the problems in our world, on the things going wrong and being done wrong. Yet, despite all that, there are so many good people, so much good being done, so many learning and supporting Torah at unprecedented levels. There are so many baalei chesed and baalei tzedakah, people who change lives because they are not asleep to what is going on and to their abilities. They appreciate the gifts Hashem has given them and entrusted them with, and they utilize them for the purposes for which they were intended, to help others and improve the world, preparing themselves and others for the great day we are all waiting for.

May our tefillos be answered and may this be a year of yeshuos, brachos, hatzlocha, gezunt, parnossah, and nachas, and may the great light finally shine over the yode’ei seruah, as the great shofar is sounded and we will all be gathered to Yerushalayim. Amein.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Hakoras Hatov

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Did you ever wonder from where we derive that Elul is an auspicious time to do teshuvah? The Vilna Gaon writes that Elul is a month of rachamim. We can always repent for our sins, but during Elul Hashem is more forgiving and accepts our teshuvah easier. How do we know that?

The Gaon’s mechutan, Rav Avrohom Danzig, writes in his sefer Chayei Adam that “these days of Elul have been yemei ratzon since the time we were chosen as Hashem’s nation.” When the Jewish people sinned with the Eigel and the Luchos were broken on Shivah Asar B’Tammuz, Moshe ascended the mountain and davened that Hashem forgive them. Hashem acquiesced and told Moshe, “Pesol lecha,” that He would deliver to Moshe a second set of Luchos.

“Moshe went up on the mountain on Rosh Chodesh Elul and remained there until Yom Kippur, when their forgiveness was complete… And since those forty days were days of acceptance then, every year the mercy of Heaven is renewed for us on these days… And therefore, Yom Kippur was established as a day of forgiveness for all time.”

It all goes back to the Eigel. Let us examine the sin of the Eigel and see how it applies to us.

In Parshas Ki Sisa, we learn of the tragic downfall of the Bnei Yisroel as they sinned with the Eigel. Moshe Rabbeinu had gone up to Har Sinai to receive the Torah. When he failed to return at the time the people had calculated, the nation that had ascended to exalted levels descended to worshiping a calf that they had formed from their jewelry.

We wonder how the people who stood at Har Sinai and proclaimed, “Na’aseh venishma,” fell so shamefully. How was it possible for this noble people to fall so far, so fast? What caused them to be led astray? Did they really think that an image they themselves created from a collection of golden jewelry was able to acquire Divine powers?

Rashi (32:1) explains that Moshe told his people that he would return in forty days and they erred in their calculation. Rashi quotes the Gemara in Maseches Shabbos (89a), which explains that the Soton “confused the natural order,” creating a mirage of Moshe’s body being carried in heaven as if in a casket.

And now we wonder: How can we blame the Bnei Yisroel? How were they supposed to know that what their eyes were seeing wasn’t real?

Indeed, they erred in accepting those images at face value and not contemplating their veracity. Nowadays, we know that every picture can be Photoshopped and changed, but even before the days of Photoshop, they should have known from previous experiences that there is often more than meets the eye and that something was wrong with their snap conclusion about Moshe Rabbeinu’s premature death. There is always another side to the story and an alternate explanation.

When the image presented facts that were diametrically opposed to everything they had seen and experienced going back to their time in Mitzrayim, they should have sought to understand how it could be and not accept the image at face value. It wouldn’t have been too difficult to consider whether they misunderstood how long Moshe said he would be gone for.

Instead of being misled to conclude that Moshe would never return, they should have trusted Moshe’s promise and sought to figure out how it could remain viable and consistent with what they saw. They should have restrained the impulse to rush to invent an immediate substitute for Moshe.

The urge to offer an instant response is one of the Soton’s ploys. The Soton achieves his goals by goading people facing a quandary or tragedy into making quick impulsive decisions, spurred on by tension as well as fear. No matter what is going on around us and how dire the situation is, it is vital to remain calm as we attempt to steer our way through. Once a person becomes ruffled, anxious and nervous, it becomes difficult to think clearly and make proper decisions.

The worst thing to do in a crisis is to give an immediate response. It takes time to think through the proper course of action and how to proceed. If you answer on the spot without thought, your response will generally be mistaken.

I have a rule: If a person proposes something to me and then says, “You have to give me an answer now or else the deal is off,” I always respond that the answer is no. You should never be forced to give a response without having the opportunity and time to think it through.

The slope from holiness to depravity is so slippery that, in a few short hours, the Jews slid from the apex of spiritual achievement to the lowest rung possible. Such is the ability of the Soton to use tension to capitalize on human frailty.

Upon Moshe’s return, he called for those loyal to Hashem to rally around him. Only shevet Levi responded to his call. The shevet that dedicated itself to the study of Torah and was free of Egyptian enslavement was the only one whose mind and heart weren’t clouded by the Soton’s devices and lined up behind their leader, Moshe.

The others panicked in a time of perceived crisis. The people couldn’t wait until the next day, when they would perhaps be calmer and more level-headed about their predicament and better able to analyze the situation.

Instead, they let themselves be fooled by the Soton and were convinced that Moshe wouldn’t return. Even when their worst fears were proven false when Moshe did in fact return when he said he would, they couldn’t bring themselves to accept the reality of their error. They were too far gone. Thus, when Moshe called out, “Mi laHaShem eilay,” they ignored him.

Life often throws challenges. We lose ourselves, make wrong choices, and then continue to rationalize our actions even as we slide into self-destructive behavior.

The Soton destroys overnight what took painstaking effort to construct simply by sowing insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty. We can outsmart him by remaining calm enough to act rationally and thoughtfully. Rather than falling for his guises and disobeying the word of the Torah and Moshe, it is of course preferable not to sin to begin with.

During this month of Elul, we learn from our past mistakes and seek to rectify them through contemplation of our thoughts and actions, resolving not to repeat those mistakes again. It is not enough to regret what we did wrong. We must also understand what was at the root of those misdeeds so that we can ensure that we will not transgress them again.

We live in an age when politicians and leaders engage in demagoguery instead of offering real solutions to the many problems that confound their countries. In order to solve problems, it is necessary to thoroughly understand the issues. That doesn’t seem to happen anymore, when politicians demonize the opposing parties and play groups against each other, alternately calming and inciting the masses as they feel necessary to maintain popularity. They create one crisis after another, never solving them, utilizing the quagmire for political opportunism.

Governing well and solving problems requires hiring the best people, hard work, a thorough understanding of the issues, and the ability to effectively negotiate solutions. It is simpler to demagogue and manipulate people’s thought processes, spreading fear and anxiety and polarizing the groups who don’t support you. “It’s all their fault,” they tell their supporters, setting up straw men to blame and knock down. “If we could only bring them into line and make them pay their fair share, the economy would improve and your life would be blissful,” they proclaim. The way the government is dealing with the Delta variant of the coronavirus is a case in point.

The Afghan debacle removed the focus temporarily from the Democrats’ efforts to get the rich to pay their “fair share,” as if they don’t already pay a large enough portion of their income in taxes, so that they can begin to pump trillions of dollars into all types of boondoggles and socialist gambits.

President Joe Biden doesn’t talk much. The most he does is read a statement that has been prepared for him, slowly and haltingly. He walks off the stage without answering any questions. On the rare occasion that he is forced to answer questions, such as last week, he invariably has a deer-in-the-headlights look on his face as he offers weak, lame and not necessarily truthful responses. He is not bright and is an awful decision-maker, and once he sets on a course of action, he continues along that course even as it is being proven to be wrong.

Biden saw polls that indicated that the American people have tired of the war in Afghanistan and thought that it would help his poll numbers to pull out of there. Since he is unable to give issues much thought, he hastily set an arbitrary exit date, dismissing the advice of people who tried explaining to him that it wouldn’t work.

He was in a big rush. He said that everyone would be gone and all operations would cease by September 11th. That sounded like a good date and had a ring to it that he envisioned using in campaign advertisements to demonstrate his resoluteness as leader of the free world. Because he acted without thinking, he ended up being his own worst enemy.

When it didn’t go as planned, he dug in his heels and lied. He did not have the capacity to own up to the truth and adjust his course of action.

He had said that his departure from Afghanistan would not be a chaotic mess and would not resemble the U.S. retreat from Saigon. In a way, he was correct. This departure was not as bad as the one from Vietnam. It was worse.

When asked about it last week, he said that he always knew that there would be chaos when it came time to leave Kabul. Just one month ago, he said that he had faith in the 300,000-man Afghan army and its billions of dollars’ worth of American equipment and training. Now he says that it didn’t work out because of Donald Trump, the Afghan army, and intelligence failures.

While throughout his career Biden has shown exceedingly poor judgment, he was sold to the voting public as an accomplished statesman who would be a competent and steady leader. He hasn’t been either. Throughout this disaster, he has barely been seen or heard from.

Neither the secretaries of state and defense nor the chairman of the army’s chief of staff or the national security advisor inspired any confidence or displayed intelligence in their comments on the situation. They projected weakness instead of strength, haphazardness instead of strategy, chaos instead of planning, yet they stand at the helm of the greatest country and armed forces in the world.

A leader can either be loved or feared. Biden is neither. By now, he is an embarrassment. Reagan and Trump were feared and thus able to accomplish what they did. Although he said that he would return America’s respect on the world stage, Biden is now a laughingstock. His poll numbers are dropping, and it won’t take long until his Democrat colleagues pick up on that and begin distancing themselves from him lest they fall in next year’s election.

From the president on down, it appears as if no one in his administration has the ability to make any decisions or fashion a policy of determination, strength and durability.

The vice president, Kamala Harris, was the only one more closeted than the president. One could be forgiven for thinking that their aides are working feverishly to keep both of them away from microphones, lest the American people realize that these leaders have no understanding of strategy and tactics.

The president committed America’s biggest foreign policy blunder, conducting the withdrawal backwards. Instead of first getting Americans and their allies out of the country and then ferrying out the billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment, he first pulled out the soldiers to make an arbitrary deadline and then tried to do the other things. He created a humiliating situation of devastation, defeat and catastrophe.

It is easy to laugh at Biden, but we need to turn the spotlight on ourselves during these days of Elul introspection as we approach Rosh Hashanah. How often do we act rashly, without thought and foresight, only to be embarrassed later?

The Soton confuses us. He paints visions in our heads that are not consistent with the truth. In everything he does, the Soton has one motivation: to put us in a situation where we will behave in a way that will harm us. He makes us think that people are against us and betrayed us, when they did nothing of the sort. He convinces us that we are smart, and then that we are stupid, in order to get us to do what he wants us to do. Sometimes he pumps up our self-esteem and other times he lowers it like a boom - whatever it takes to get us to mess up, to sin, to act in a way that robs us of our share in the World to Come.

And as he did at the time of the Eigel, he makes it appear as clear as day that the words of the Torah and Moshe are not relevant. We dare not fall for him, no matter how logical a pose he adopts.

In this week’s parsha of Ki Savo, we learn of the mitzvah of bikkurim, which we bring as an acknowledgement of the many gifts Hashem has bestowed upon us. Hakoras hatov is at the root of being a Yid.

It seems to me that we need to show our appreciation for the gift of these days of rachamim and ratzon that are the month of Elul. The way to express our appreciation is by engaging in teshuvah, asking forgiveness for not having properly followed the word of Hashem and seeking to return to Him.

We live in a time of great disturbances and terrible tragedies. Just last week, an 18-year-old bochur was killed inside a yeshiva. The news spread like wildfire, shaking every ehrliche Yid to the core. This is a reminder to us that nothing is guaranteed and nothing can be taken for granted.

Hakadosh Boruch Hu sends us reminders that we must do teshuvah and that the yemei hadin are upon us. He sends us floods and fires, pandemics and collapses, and when that isn’t enough, he brings bullets and death into the most hallowed halls of Torah.

We still have over a week left of the yemei harachamim of Elul. Let us take advantage of them and merit the kapparos we seek.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

A News Lesson

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Quite often, the news has the ability to provide lessons for us in our daily lives.

For the past two decades, Joe Biden, as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, vice president and as president, has been agitating for a US withdrawal from Afghanistan. For most of that time, he did not have the ability to carry through on his desire, as the people with the real power ignored him.

That all changed when he became president. He could no longer be ignored. Immediately after the election, the Defense Department set out to convince him that it was imperative that the U.S. keep a military presence in Afghanistan. So did his pick for Defense Secretary and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who continued trying to convince Biden until the decision was made. A group impaneled by Congress also recommended that American troops only be pulled out if and when the condition stabilizes.

But Biden, portrayed by Democrats and the media as a seasoned foreign relations expert, was convinced that an immediate withdrawal was the way to go. Eighty-three billion dollars was spent and over 2400 American servicemen lost their lives in the twenty year effort to dislodge the Taliban and keep them from reassuming power in Afghanistan.

Biden said one month ago, “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States in Afghanistan.” As it happened, the army pull out was guided by a date, not a plan, and thousands of Americans and its friends were left stranded, clambering to escape the country before being killed by the invading terrorists.

At that same time, the president said, “The likelihood there’s going to be Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” Instead, he presided over a humiliating end to American involvement in that country, which will be decried for years to come.

Last week Biden said that he did not regret the decision to leave. He said that the Afghan government and army “have the capacity” to defend themselves and he was confident they would.

As recently as Friday, the Pentagon spokesman said, “They have an air force, a capable air force. They have modern equipment. They have the benefit of the training that we have provided for the last twenty years.”

The State Department spokesman said also on Friday, “We are evaluating the threat environment on a daily basis. The Embassy is in regular contact with Washington with the most senior people in this building, who in turn are in regular contact with our colleagues at the [National Security Council] in the White House.”

Nothing to worry about. The experts were having meetings and discussions and everything was under control.

As the American pullout was being rushed, the Taliban began racking up victories. One region after another fell to them, and in no time at all they had taken over the country.

Powerful America stood by with its mouth agape and nothing of any consequence to say for itself. The president who started the whole mess remained holed up in Camp David. Nobody heard from him. He had nothing to offer. No good excuse. It took until Monday afternoon for him to fly to the White House to read a speech blaming others for the debacle and saying he stood behind the decision to pull up and leave. He then flew back to his bunker in Camp David, safely ensconced and detached.

His secretary of state was speaking for the administration on Sunday and was said to be “visibly shaken.” What a change from the previous administration, which spoke strongly and was feared by friend and foe alike. The best that Secretary Blinken could offer was that the Taliban had better behave, because the US would not recognize them. As if that would scare them.

How can something like that happen? How can so many years of human lives lost and money spent blow up in one week?

There are several answers to those questions and many more associated with the Biden debacle. It shows what happens when a person makes up his mind to do something and ignores the advice of experts. It also shows what happens when people who aren’t smart are given the reins of power. It shows what happens when a person’s judgment is clouded by preconceived notions and he cannot see what is plainly visible to anybody else.

Last week, in Parshas Shoftim, we studied the prohibition of bribing a judge. It is interesting that the Torah does not articulate the issur that way. The posuk (16: 19) states, “Lo sikach shochad – You shall not accept a bribe.” It does not say that you shall not give a bribe to a judge who is adjudicating your case.

The posuk continues and offers an explanation as to why the judge should not accept a bribe: “Ki hashochad ye’aveir einei chachomim visaleif divrei tzaddikim - Because bribes blind the eyes of the wise and confuse the righteous.”

Perhaps we can explain that the most important things a person possesses are his integrity and intelligence, allowing him to perceive what is going on in his courtroom and in the world. It allows him to study and understand Torah. It helps him correctly serve Hashem and do whatever he is doing properly. It allows him to correctly analyze situations and arrive at proper solutions.

I took a break from writing this column to go daven Mincha. I davened from the new siddur Tehillah L’Dovid, which my good friend, Rav Dovid Farkas, gifted me. It is an excellent siddur, with many halachos and peirushim to help enhance davening.

As I was following chazoras hashatz, I noticed that before the brocha of “Atah chonein l’adam daas,” the siddur offers the following introduction: “A person should understand that the beginning of the tefillah is the request for wisdom. Shlomo Hamelech, as well, did not request a long life, nor wealth. Rather, he asked for wisdom… We ask Hashem for intelligence and clear thinking so that we will detest evil, choose good, and understand taamei Torah, and through this, man is separated from animal, for without wisdom and intellect, a person is nothing.”

I took that as support for the explanation of why the Torah forbids bribery. It is to preserve our ability to maintain a proper thought process so that we can be proper bnei and lomdei Torah.

This week’s parsha begins with the words, “Ki seitzei lamilchomah al oyvecha - When you go to war against your enemy.” While the Torah is speaking of a time when the Jewish people will go to combat against a physical enemy, many meforshim understand the posuk to be referring allegorically to Jews battling their yeitzer hora. Our rabbeim teach us (based on Chovos Halevavos, Shaar Yichud Hamaaseh) that the most dangerous enemy man has is the yeitzer hora. We can never rest in battling him or we will be defeated by him.

In the month of Elul we determine anew that we must and can defeat him.

We are now in the middle of Elul, with Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkos, Hoshanah Rabbah, Simchas Torah and so much more to look forward to.

We all have a personal mission now, the success of which brings us to a realm of blessing and happiness. We get there by undertaking a self-examination to see what we are doing correctly and what needs improvement.

In order to be able to properly prepare ourselves for the yemei hadin, we need to use our daas. It takes wisdom and courage to correctly assess where we are holding at this stage of Elul and what lies ahead of us. If we fool ourselves, we will lose the opportunity to take advantage of these days of rachamim Hashem gave us to straighten ourselves out.

In Parshas Shoftim, we learn about the preparations Am Yisroel engages in prior to going to battle. Weak soldiers are weeded out, lest their presence lead to defeat.

The posuk (Devorim 20:2) relates that before the Bnei Yisroel go to war, the kohein announces to the nation not to fear battling their enemy, for Hashem will be with them, assisting them and ensuring their victory.

Following that, the shotrim address the people and seek out those who fear war: “Mi ha’ish hayorei verach haleivov? Yeileich veyashov leveiso - Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him leave and return home” (ibid. 20:8).

What is it about this fellow that causes him to be afraid to go into battle after the kohein promised that Hashem will be joining them in the war and guaranteeing their success? Rav Yosi Haglili (Sotah 43a) explains that the man who leaves is afraid to fight because he is a sinner. In order to be worthy of fighting in Hashem’s army, every soldier must purge himself of sin.

In order to be worthy of victory, there can be no ra - no evil or sin - because ra separates man from Hashem. In order for a soldier to merit Divine beneficence, there can be no aveiros disconnecting him from Hashem.

Ki seitzei lamilchomah al oyvecha. We are now in a battle against the yeitzer hora. We must beat him so that the barrier that has been erected between us and Hashem can come down. That barrier brings us down and can lead to our defeat r”l during the yemei hadin.

Where do we start? What can we do to enhance the meaning of Elul personally and for others, thus helping ourselves and those around us merit a successful Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, leading to a joyous, successful and healthy year? The parshiyos that we lain these weeks offer many lessons and examples for us to follow.

We learn the parshiyos of the week and find in their pesukim hints of support and encouragement in our daily exercises and battles. Without honesty and wisdom, we cannot expect to overcome the yeitzer hora, our ever-present enemy who seeks to detour us from our missions and intrude on our efforts to improve ourselves.

Every time we have an urge to do something, we need to consider whether that urge is coming from the yeitzer hatov or the yeitzer hora. If it will bring us closer to Hashem and make us a better person, then we should follow the urge, but if it will lead us away from Hashem and take us from our Elul mission, we should refrain from doing it and seek to rid ourselves of the urge.

It can take honesty and strength to recognize which acts will help us and which will not. We need to engage in the study of Torah and mussar especially in this period. We should pay special attention to davening and concentrate on what we are saying and the translation of the words, so that we can effectively be inspired and advocate for ourselves.

We need not look further than the news pages to see what happens when people do not have wisdom, failing to properly comprehend a combat situation. America spent twenty years in Afghanistan to prevent it from becoming a terrorist haven again. The war in that region began following the terror attacks of September 11, which emanated from that part of the world, where terrorists were allowed to operate with impunity.

People who read the map and understood the situation in that region realized that without rooting out the Taliban, al-Qaeda, ISIS and their compadres from those areas and robbing them of a foothold and home, the forces of evil would not be defeated. They would be ever-present, lurking, plotting and carrying out deadly attacks on Western targets.

The present administration determined that twenty years, 2,000 lives, and billions of dollars were enough. We can’t continue the war. It’s time to declare victory and leave.

The world quickly saw what happens when you quit the battle.

It happened now during Elul so that we will see for ourselves what happens when you decide that you can’t fight the yeitzer hora anymore. What happens when you decide that you are tired of fighting and have fought enough. What happens when you negotiate with the yeitzer hora and think you got him to come around and stop battling you.

The yeitzer hora never sleeps. He never tires. He never gives up. He lies in wait, plotting his moves. He wears you down, inducing you to think that there is a common goal, that he will behave, and that he means everything for your good. The minute you acquiesce to him, he comes in for the kill. As soon as he senses weakness, he is all over you, pulling you down, destroying you.

You can never negotiate with him. You can never think that he might mean it all for your benefit. You can never be fooled into doing something that if you would use your intelligence, you would know that it is wrong and detrimental to your well-being. There is no bribe that makes it worth doing an aveirah.

How did they do it? How did America blow this so badly? The same way someone skips Mincha one day and buys something very tasty but not really kosher. How did they do it? The same way someone skips out of the bais medrash and takes a drive down to the beach instead.

The battle against the yeitzer hora is constant, but it is winnable, especially in this month of chesed, when we receive huge assists as we arm up to defeat our eternal enemy. We use our daas and chochmah. We don’t allow our thought process to be corrupted. We do what good Jews have done since the chet ha’Eigel and seriously regret our errors and missteps. We fight our way back, every day getting a little better, showing improvement and getting closer to our goal of keeping ourselves free of any smattering of evil, because that is what chet is - evil.

The sooner we realize that, and the sooner we get to work, the easier and more victorious we will be in our battles.