Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Long Days of Iyar

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

If you have ever driven a far distance in your car with your family, you know the drill. Drive for a few hours and then take a welcome break. You find a nice spot, get out of the car, stretch, eat, and then pile back into the car reinvigorated.

Lag Ba’omer is that roadside stop along the seven-week journey stretching from Pesach to Shavuos. Though it is not the final destination, the special day fortifies us and energizes us, so that we may continue along to our final destination of kabbolas haTorah.

When the Torah was offered to the Jewish people in the desert, they responded, “Na’aseh venishma, we will do and we will hear.”

Upon listening to their response, Hashem wondered who revealed to them the secret that malochim employ. Following their answer, angels placed two crowns upon the head of every Jew, one corresponding to the proclamation of “na’aseh” and the other for their resounding cry of “nishma” (Shabbos 88a).

We might understand why we merited a crown for proclaiming that we would follow Hashem’s commandments when we said “na’aseh,” but what is so great about the response that we would listen, expressed by “nishma,” which doesn’t convey any obligation to accept what we hear?

We often find the words “vayishma” and “tishme’u” in the Torah. For instance, in Parshas Re’eh, Hashem says, “Behold I am setting before you today blessings and curses. Es habrochah asher tishme’u… Vehaklalah im lo sishme’u…” Those who listen will be blessed and those who don’t will be cursed. Obviously, we are required to do more than hear in order to earn the Divine blessing.

In Parshas Yisro, the Torah tells us, “Vayishma Yisro,” that Yisro heard what transpired to the Jewish people at the exodus from Mitzrayim and in the battle with Amaleik. What was so great about the fact that Yisro heard the news? He wasn’t the only one who heard what happened. In fact, the entire world heard about it.

There is another place where the Torah uses the word “vayishma” to connote that a person heard something that should have also been heard by others. Describing the chet ha’Eigel, the posuk (Shemos 32:17) states, “Vayomer Moshe kol anos anochi shomeia.” Moshe Rabbeinu told Yehoshua that he heard terrible sounds when he descended from Har Sinai with the Luchos in his hands. The Meshech Chochmah (ibid.) cites the Gemara (Taanis 21a) which relates that Rabi Yochanon and Ilfa were together, and “Rabi Yochanon shoma, Ilfa lo shoma.” Rabi Yochanon heard something that Ilfa didn’t hear. Rabi Yochanon told him that it was incumbent upon him to act, since he was the one who heard it.

The Meshech Chochmah explains that Moshe Rabbeinu was telling Yehoshua that since we are here together and only I hear the awful sounds, apparently it is incumbent upon me to take action.

In this context, vayishma doesn’t just mean to hear. The word shoma indicates something deeper. To be shomei’a is not only to hear, but to act upon what one has heard.

Many people heard about Krias Yam Suf and milchemes Amaleik, yet only one person took the news to heart and decided to do something about what he had heard. Yisro picked himself up and went to visit the Jewish people in their desert encampment. He thus earned the eternal reward of having a parsha in the Torah named for him.

In Parshas Re’eh, Hashem promises the Jews that those among them who take His words to heart and act upon them will earn brochah. The people who ignore the words of Hashem will be cursed. Everyone heard what Hashem said. Some observe the mitzvos and others choose to ignore them.

Na’aseh venishma omru k’echod. As one, each one of the Bnei Yisroel responded in unison, “Na’aseh venishma,” that they would make every effort to hear what Hashem tells them with the intention of acting upon those words according to Hashem’s wishes. It wouldn’t be a cursory listening. They wouldn’t make believe they didn’t hear what He said. They would listen with an ear to follow and act. Hence the greatness of na’aseh venishma.

We can reinforce this interpretation with the Zohar quoted by the Bais Halevi in Parshas Mishpotim that with the statement of “nishma,” they were accepting upon themselves to study the Torah. We can explain that they were promising to hear and study Hashem’s words so that they may properly follow them.

Rabi Shimon ben Elozor teaches (Megillah 31b) that Ezra Hasofer instituted for the klalos of Parshas Bechukosai to always be read before Shavuos and those of Parshas Ki Savo to be lained before Rosh Hashanah.  The Gemara explains that Shavuos is considered a Rosh Hashanah, because on that day we are judged on “peiros ha’illan,” the fruits of the trees.

The Gemara in Rosh Hashanah (16a) takes this concept a step further, stating that the korban of the shtei halechem is brought on Shavuos so that the peiros ha’illan will merit being blessed.

Many seforim, based upon the Shelah Hakadosh (Shavuos 30b), discuss the idea that just as the world is judged on Rosh Hashanah because it marks the completion of creation, so are the Jewish people judged on Shavuos, because on that day the Torah was delivered to them. Shavuos is when Hashem reviews whether we have properly studied and followed the Torah He gave us.

Chazal use the expression peiros ha’illan, fruits of the trees, to refer to the success of our spiritual efforts. Our lives are based upon Torah and our observance of it, and thus the judgment on Shavuos is quite important to us.

How, then, did Lag Ba’omer prepare us for the final leg of our journey to the exalted day of Shavuos?

The Ramchal points out that the number of Sefirah days leading up to Lag Ba’omer is the gematria equivalent of lev, and the days following it add up to tov. Together, they form the words lev tov. In order to emerge meritorious on the judgment that day, we must seek to arrive at Shavuos pure of heart. First we purify our hearts and souls. Then we can fill them with goodness.

These are the days when we mourn the passing of the talmidim of Rabi Akiva, who were taken for the sin of not showing proper respect to each other.

The Maharal (Nesiv HaTorah 12) sheds light on the concept of there being two segments of Sefirah interrupted by Lag Ba’omer. He explains that the gematria of the first 32 days is equivalent to the numerical value of the word kavod. On chai Iyar, the 18th day of Iyar, which is Lag Ba’omer, they stopped dying. The gematria of Iyar is the same as the value of the word erech, which means long. Once they completed the period of kavod, they entered the period of erech chai, which corresponds to the notion that Torah observance leads to arichus yomim, the lengthening of one’s life. The month of Iyar is “erech, because it contains the ability to lengthen life. That potential was realized on the 18th day, chai Iyar, the day of Lag Ba’omer.

These are fascinating words, but what do they mean? Why is it about Iyar that makes it a month with the ability to extend life?

We must also analyze the significance of the fact that the talmidei chachomim who died during the period leading up to Lag Ba’omer were talmidim of Rabi Akiva.

The Gemara in Maseches Pesochim (22b) says that Shimon Ha’amsuni extrapolated lessons from every time the word “ess” appears in the Torah. When he reached the posuk of “Ess Hashem Elokecha tira (Devorim 6:13), he was stymied. That was until Rabi Akiva came and darshened that the extra word in that posuk is written to include a command to fear talmidei chachomim in the injunction to fear Hashem.

This droshah was “waiting” for Rabi Akiva - ad sheba Rabi Akiva - to reveal it. It was his chiddush. The great Tanna Rabi Akiva recounted that during his years as a simple shepherd, he had such antipathy toward talmidei chachomim that had he seen one, he would have bitten him like a donkey (Pesochim 49b).

It is explained that the Sitra Achra, who causes the evil found in this world, detected that Rabi Akiva’s purpose in life was to reveal the grandeur and glory of Torah and the talmidei chachomim who study it. Therefore, the Soton concentrated on making him be especially lacking in that area.

Appreciation for talmidei chachomim was the middah in which he was most wanting in his early life, as the Soton sought to prevent him from realizing his true tikkun and path to greatness, which lied in overcoming that deficiency.

It is understandable that once he began to learn Torah and climb the rungs of greatness, Rabi Akiva taught the lessons of ve’ahavta lereiacha kamocha and had as his defining lesson “lerabos talmidei chachomim.” This was the droshah that only he, as the shoresh, master and transmitter of Torah Shebaal Peh, could reveal.

Those to whom he transmitted Torah were expected to conduct themselves on a higher level in the area of kavod talmidei chachomim. By not following their rebbi’s teaching and showing disrespect for each other, they were in effect saying that they are not connected with their source of life. They were talmidim disconnected from the wellspring of their rebbi’s Torah and were thus punished with death.

This is the depth of the gematrios for the first part of Sefirah, kavod and lev. The first part of Sefirah equips us with the middos that refine and elevate us. We develop our appreciation for each other and then work to implement that sensitivity and use it in its most pristine form, demonstrating love, respect and appreciation for each other and for talmidei chachomim and Torah. We implement the kavod of the first part of Sefirah as we approach the second part, which corresponds to tov of kabbolas haTorah.

In effect, we are all talmidim of Rabi Akiva, because he was the shoresh of Torah Shebaal Peh. It is incumbent upon us to take his lessons to heart so that we will merit the tov, goodness, of Torah and its way of life. 

After settling in Eretz Yisroel, Rav Yecheskel Abramsky once reminisced to his Slabodka talmidim about life back home in Slutsk. With evident wistfulness, Rav Abramsky recounted the minhag of the simplest Jews in the Russian town.

“When they would enter the rov’s home to ask a shailah, even on a weekday, even with a simple question, they would change from their work clothes into bigdei Shabbos. That’s how great their respect was for Torah and talmidei chachomim!”

We need to recommit ourselves to the ideals of old-time kavod haTorah, the simple reverence for talmidei chachomim, rabbonim and even yeshiva bochurim that once prevailed.

With our sense of kavod restored, we can properly move to the final seventeen days, which correspond to tov. Activating the middah of tov, the innate goodness of our people, is another vital preparation for kabbolas haTorah.

In order to camp at the mountain as “one man with one heart,” it is imperative that we be good, decent, compassionate, generous people who join together for good causes. It is time we did away with the small-minded selfishness, pettiness, jealousy and cynicism that taint our world.

Hundreds of thousands of all types of Jews celebrated Lag Ba’omer together in Meron. They came from all over Israel and the world to partake in the commemoration of the hilulah of the Tanna who carried on the work and teachings of his rebbi, Rabi Akiva. It was Rabi Shimon bar Yochai who, ultimately, was melamed zechus on the Jewish people. It was he who transmitted the Toras hanigleh and Toras hanistar that he received from their master and shoresh, Rabi Akiva. And it is to his eternal merit that the closer we get to bias Moshiach, the more widespread the celebration becomes.

The total value of kavod, 32, and tov, 17, equal 49. We arrive at our Shavuos destination with respect for Torah and a sense of goodness. It would be most fitting to utilize those two middos for the quintessence of good - ein tov elah Torah. To be able to invest the respect we developed into the most valuable commodity of all, the epitome of good, means we have arrived at kabbolas haTorah.

There are so many needy Torah scholars who can use our help. There are so many roshei kollel and roshei yeshiva who carry crushing budgets and are struggling under the heavy load. There is so much that needs to be done. If we harness our middos of kavod and tov, we can help increase the amount of Torah learned in this world and the respect people have for it.

Adopt-A-Kollel is an exceptional organization, proving the difference people can make. By enabling individuals to give whatever they can afford - be it ten, eighteen, or fifty dollars a month; perhaps more, perhaps less - they are creating a magnificent partnership between mechabdei Torah in America and talmidei chachomim in Eretz Yisroel.

One of the most empowering features of this organization is the first word in its name: “Adopt.” They remind us the meaning of achrayus, responsibility. Just as adoptive parents open their hearts, homes and lives to welcome a child, we all have the capacity to adopt good causes. Perhaps we don’t have what it takes to fully adopt a person into our homes, but we all can certainly make room in our hearts for a good cause. Adopt something holy, make it yours, worry about it, care for it, and help it thrive.

There is nothing more precious than the Torah.

Rav Yaakov Neiman, rosh yeshiva of the Lomza Yeshiva in Petach Tikva, once shared the lessons imparted by his own parents. When he was a child in Lita, the local yeshiva did not have a kitchen or dining room. In those days, yeshiva bochurim would eat “teg,” rotating meals, each day at the home of a different local family. On Sundays, yeshiva bochurim ate at the Neiman home.

Rav Yaakov recalled that his mother would set the table with a festive tablecloth and the entire family would wait with eager anticipation for the bochurim.

Rav Neiman concluded that he felt that his mother’s dedication was repaid, in some measure, when he himself went off to learn in yeshiva. He also ate teg at local homes, and while some days he was fed well and treated with kindness, other days he ended up hungry. However, on Sundays, he said, he always ate at good, generous homes, which he attributed to the weekly graciousness of his mother.

The Ribono Shel Olam created a world for His kavod. He created a world for the sake of the Torah. By showing honor to this ultimate good, we affirm our role in creation and in Torah. Just as on Rosh Hashanah we all seek zechuyos to be granted life and engage in a period of introspection throughout the month of Elul so that we will be prepared for the hallowed day, the same is true for the time leading up to Shavuos and we must examine our actions as well.

On Shavuos, we will be judged on what we have achieved in Torah. During the month of Iyar leading up to it, we must seek to adopt better study and respect habits. If we do, we will merit being judged for another good year. Thus, this may be the explanation for the Maharal, who posits that the gematria of Iyar is equal to erech because the Torah grants arichus yomim. One who takes advantage of the month of Iyar to improve in aspects of Torah study, observance and appreciation will merit a blessed year of Torah, arichus yomim lahagos beSorasecha.

Perhaps we can understand the deeper connection between the brochah of orech yomim and Torah as it pertains to Sefiras Ha’omer with a story. At the levayah of the Sefas Emes, his son, the Imrei Emes, turned to his brothers and said, “Our father merited arichus yomim.”

The brothers were surprised. Arichus yomim? Their holy father, the Sefas Emes, was a young man. He was just 57 years old at the time of his passing.

The new rebbe explained, “I didn’t say arichus shonim; he didn’t merit length of years. He merited arichus yomim. He extended the potential of each day and maximized it.”

During this period of Sefiras Ha’omer, we count each day and make each day count. Each day is a step to something greater. We refine and develop our middos. Each day represents a unique avodah, and thus Iyar becomes a month of erech - long, maximized days.

Anyone privileged to have received a loving slap from Rav Ovadia Yosef recalls how he would say, “Orech yomim b’yemino,” as he slapped his petitioner’s right cheek, and then, as he said, “Ubesmolah osher vechavod,” he’d lovingly smack the left.

Kavod and erech, as that posuk indicates, are twin properties of Torah.

May these brachos of orech yomim and the osher vechavod, the twin assurances promised to those who cherish the Torah, always accompany us in Iyar, in Sivan and all year long.


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