Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The One Percent

Self-help books are a major industry. Thousands of volumes offering direction and guidance for people to improve, change and enhance every aspect of their lives generate much income for authors, publishers and bookstores.

Millions search for an easy way to improve their condition. They forget that a person is not wired like a cellular phone, which can be upgraded with the push of a button. Real change requires much hard work. Quick-fix solutions and “three easy steps” rarely lead to lasting transformation.

While contemporary bookstore shelves groan under piles of such works, we are fortunate that the process for change is mapped out for us. Our directives come from the eternal wellsprings of Torah, from the insight of Chazal, who created a system of growth that has worked for centuries.

The weeks of the Sefirah period are marked as an auspicious time for growth, with an opportunity to refocus on our priorities as we march towards Har Sinai, contemplating what defines us as the Am Hashem.

Each evening, we exult anew in the brocha of al Sefiras Ha’omer,” thanking Hashem for granting us the mitzvah of counting the Omer. Rishonim were puzzled by the text of the brocha, for, in fact, we are not counting the Omer at all. We are actually counting the passage of days since the date upon which the Korban Omer was brought during the times of the Bais Hamikdosh.

Though yet as children we were taught that we are counting down from Pesach to Kabbolas Hatorah (see Sefer Hachinuch, mitzvah 306), the fact is that we don’t refer to this period as the countdown to Shavuos. Why not?

It is puzzling, as well, that we refer to the Yom Tov that follows Pesach as Shavuos to mark the fact that we have counted towards it for the past seven weeks. It’s the zenith of a period of weeks, yet the actual period gets its name from the Omer barley offering, why?

The Omer offering exemplifies a lesson in achievement. The korban was brought from barley, which is viewed as a lowly grain, suitable for animal food rather than human consumption. Through proper development, though, barley can merit being offered to Hashem on Pesach. Thus begins the lesson of Sefiras Ha’omer.

Even barley can be elevated through refinement and focus.

The effectiveness of our leaders has always been found in their ability to inspire others and the realistic role models they served to their people. Gedolim were never looked at as museum pieces, marvels to behold, but, rather, as real-life examples of the heights every man can reach through hard work.

We were selected by Hashem to be His “one percent.” He has provided us with the ability to rise above our surroundings and attain greatness despite all that conspires to depress us. Even when we get bogged down, encumbered by physicality and sin, even when we weaken and become disillusioned, we should never view ourselves as terminal failures, for we can climb out of the morass of negativity.

It is a challenge to remain positive and focused when we are surrounded by disappointment, and it is easy to lose sight of our lofty role as a chosen people. It starts to sound like a cliché, chas veshalom.

There are too many prevalent voices eager to make us believe the worst about ourselves and our brothers and sisters who cling to the path of Torah and mitzvos. Without even realizing it, we are affected by the subliminal messages found in much of the media deriding our way of life.

We begin to perceive ourselves as barley instead of wheat, as chaff instead of enriched flour, and we begin acting in a manner unbefitting who we really are. Pesach marks the day we became a people, and we immediately begin counting the Omer to internalize the lessons of the Omer offering and the steps necessary to maintain our lofty status and achieve the ability to receive and accept the Torah.

The message of Kabbolas HaTorah and the Omer is really one: Man can climb to great heights.

One of the striking figures in the mussar world was my grandfather’s rebbi, the sainted Rav Doniel Movoshovitz of Kelm. An imposing man, the tzaddik was a walking example of the heights man can attain. His very being filled his students with a love for Torah, as he inspired them with a deep desire to grow.

After the passing of the Chofetz Chaim, his bereft talmid, Rav Elchonon Wasserman, began his custom of traveling to Kelm for the month of Elul to spend the spiritual period in the proximity of Rav Doniel. In reference to Rav Doniel, Rav Elchonon quoted the posuk in Yeshayah (66:1) which states, “Hashomayim kisi vehaaretz hadom raglai - The entire universe is Hashem’s footstoolve’el zeh abit el oni unechai ruach…, but to this Hashem looks, to a poor and humble person who is zealous regarding His word.

Rav Elchonon applied this to the master of humility, Reb Doniel. He would say that all the grandeur of creation, Hashem’s world, derives its purpose from the actions of a lone humble man.

And Rav Doniel himself, crown of creation, had a similar perspective on all people. A talmid once noticed that the rosh yeshiva looked ill, and he inquired if Rav Doniel was feeling unwell. Rav Doniel admitted that he had not eaten all day and was suffering from a severe headache. The student wondered why his rebbi didn’t take a break from his activities to partake of some food.

Rav Doniel explained that there were people coming to see him all day, “and how does one leave people simply to go and eat?”

The tzaddik of Kelm, stronghold of human development, saw people not as barley, but as the most refined, superior beings. The attitude that saw the splendor of man resulted in them being enabled to reach supreme heights.

The time period dedicated to seeing ourselves as capable to soar, which will lead us to the ultimate goal of each individual member and of our nation as a whole - Kabbolas Hatorah - is also the time when we mourn the 24,000 talmidim of Rabi Akiva who were taken from this world because they didn’t display proper respect for each other.

At the time of year when the splendor of each Jew is being revealed and we work to rise above the pettiness and negativity of the masses, we must go out of our way to show respect for each other.

This is hinted at in the way the posuk instructs us to count on the second day of Pesach, substituting the word Shabbos for Yom Tov, as it states, “Usefartem lochem mimochoras haShabbos. This is because Shabbos is the day that most resembles the world in its perfect form, mei’ein Olam Haba. The Torah is telling us that if we properly take advantage of the opportunity presented by Sefirah, we can rise to that lofty status as we complete the count on Shavuos and appropriately appreciate the Torah. Thus, the posuk completes the commandment of counting for seven weeks by stating, “Ad mimochoras haShabbos hashviis tisperu, count until after the seventh Shabbos,” again to reinforce the concept that properly utilizing the Omer count can lead one to a world of Shabbos, mei’ein Olam Haba.

Just as the poor and unemployed might be jealous of the hardworking and wealthy, blaming them for their failures, so do we, gifted with a rich inheritance, endure the bitterness and blame of the spiritual have-nots. The great sinas am ha’aretz to a talmid chachom that we experience so bitterly in our day is really nothing new. As Torah study increases during the period of ikvesa deMeshicha, so does the antagonism it engenders, as the Gemara foretells at the end of Maseches Kesuvos.

Rav Shmuel Shapira was a legendary Yerushalmi tzaddik who would spend much of the night in the bais medrash, reciting Tikkun Chatzos, being misboded and learning.

In time, neighbors began to convince his wife, Rebbetzin Faiga, that she needed to put her foot down and convince her husband to adopt a more conventional schedule. She went to discuss the matter with her father, Rav Yosef Kadish Krishevsky.

Rav Yosef Kadish was a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim who had ascended to Yerushalayim and became a leading member of the chaburah at Yeshiva Toras Chaim. Aiding his acclimation among the veteran Yerushalmim was a letter written by Rav Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk, urging a warm welcome for the newcomer.

Rav Yosef Kadish sat in his humble apartment and listened to his daughter describe the difficulties she was experiencing. He discerned that the rebbetzin was, in fact, capable of sharing a life with such a holy individual and her concerns stemmed from what people were telling her. He understood that his daughter had allowed others to temper her enthusiasm of having the zechus to be married to a tzaddik.

Tochterel,” he said, “so many generations have been raised on the same story of Chazal used to imbue doros of Yiddishe kinderlach with the ideals of ahavas haTorah. Every Jewish child has grown up with the account of how Hillel Hazokein nearly froze to death on the roof of the bais medrash, so determined was he to hear the shiur of Shmaya and Avtalyon inside. This picture is baked into so many Yiddishe hearts, and legions of talmidei chachomim got their first sense of what Torah means when they heard it.

“Now,” he continued, “it is very likely that if the story were to happen today, in our neighborhood, the neighbors would scoff and criticize. They would shake their heads at Hillel’s lack of concern for his own health and censure him for his complete lack of connection to this world. They would say that he isn’t realistic or practical. But tochterel, they would be wrong. With his action, he showed himself to be connected to reality on a far deeper level than talkative neighbors.”

The father’s wise words found their mark and Rebbetzin Faiga returned home dedicated to helping her husband attain the heights he eventually reached. Rav Shmuel Shapira became a leader of the Breslover kehillah, a rebbi of Rav Yaakov Meir Schechter, and a close neighbor of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who held him in high esteem.

Rav Krishevsky’s response should assist us as well as we look at the scoffers among us. We must not be deterred by the kulturkampf being waged on so many different fronts, in so many different countries. The levels that this has reached in our own land, pitting brother against brother, are doubly painful. Now, as the Holy Land is beset by so many domestic and security problems, a vicious war is being waged against Torah and halacha, with one wall crumbling after the next.

We mustn’t lose the image of Hillel on the rooftop. We have to ensure that we don’t develop an altered sense of reality about what is really practical, necessary and important.

Each day of Sefirah we have the opportunity to rectify a different middah, searching our own souls for areas that need tikkun just as we searched for chometz before Pesach. The journey that began with barley keeps growing ever more refined, culminating in the korban consisting of wheat which was offered in the beis hamikdosh on Shavuos, at the climax of our path to spiritual sophistication.

We count the Omer and then ask Hashem, “Harachamon,” that the “avodas Bais Hamikdosh” be returned. Upon completing the fulfillment of most other mitzvos, we don’t make this request. Tosafos in Maseches Megillah (20b, d”h kol) asks why Sefirah is different. Perhaps we can explain that this is tied to the fact that we pray for our efforts during the Sefirah period to realize their potential and lead us to the final redemption.

We then recite the special tefillahRibono Shel Olam,” asking that by engaging in Sefirah, we should be cleansed from tumah and blemishes caused by the particular middah of the day. Reciting the tefillah forces us to contemplate our actions and seek improvement.

The parshiyos we currently read are filled with mitzvos bein odom lachaveiro, commandants that direct us on how to deal with others - not cheating them, not speaking ill of them, not underpaying them, and not oppressing them. So often, the pesukim conclude with a reminder that “ani Hashem” or “veyoreisa mei’Elokecha.”

The message is that every Jew around us reflects Hashem’s light and essence, and we need to develop the ability to see them as such. Rav Doniel Movoshovitz saw people as being so much more magnificent and important than food. Each of us has the ability to live as Rav Doniel viewed us and to see others that way too.

The current period called Omer, a reference to the barley offering, is the quintessential preparation for Kabbolas Hatorah, for they both embody the same ideal: grasping the gift of Sefirah, counting and climbing until we merit the great day of receiving the gift.

We are the smallest of nations, the “one percent” in many ways, but if we appreciate that fact and embrace it and each other ke’ish echod beleiv echod, as one man, with one heart, united, we will merit preparing the entire world for the coming of Moshiach bekarov.


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