Thursday, September 8, 2016

543 - Da'as Atzmeinu 11 (Shoftim)

As we discussed previously, when there are conflicting interests between our ratzon and what we sense to be pleasurable, our bechira is the mediator that decides how to proceed. In contrast to these two clashing factors which are instinctive, bechira is an attribute which must be acquired. The means of acquiring this quality is daas - intellect. Daas has the ability to take the instinctive "me" and transform it into a lofty being which is governed by intellect. Daas enables pleasures to be chosen wisely, and thereby elevates the natural tendency of pleasure seeking and makes it more sophisticated.

Torah law dictates that any acquisition must be accompanied by an element of daas. One who lacks daas cannot acquire an object. In a similar vein when we utilize our daas toward getting to know ourselves, we "acquire" ourselves i.e. we create a profound internal connection.

The intellect and discernment that are characteristic of daas are required also for a true analysis of middos. The topic of middos is the most confusing and most mistake-ridden subject in the Torah. While mitzvos have definite amounts (amah, kizayis etc.), middos are dependent on each individual person. Moreover, detecting each individual middah can often be difficult. For example, when Reuven approaches Shimon with a smile on his face, is he expressing kindness or flattery; is his shining countenance a manifestation of good heartedness or a representation of a conniving mind? Sometimes the difference between positive and negative middos can be a figurative hairsbreadth apart. 

Furthermore, at times it is difficult for one to determine which middos are present inside himself. While this is true with regard to negative middos, it is even more apparent when trying to uncover one's positive middos. Unfortunately, people are generally critical of others and therefore focus on their negative traits. This behavior then backfires when they attempt to focus on their own middos: they focus on the negative aspects and fail to see the many positive qualities.

There are a number of seforim that are extremely helpful in helping one get to know oneself. They include the Rambam's Shemoneh Perakim, Chovos Halevovos, Shaarei Teshuva and Ohr Yisrael. The road to become truly familiar with oneself cannot be traveled overnight. It requires paying attention to the thought processes that occupy our minds on a daily basis and understanding what makes us tick consciously and subconsciously. 

Yet, because a person is blinded by his partiality to himself, he evades perceiving the truth. Should he nevertheless reveal a destructive middah, he will automatically try to invent all types of excuses to cover this flaw. If he is unsuccessful in finding a satisfactory answer for his imperfection, he may become depressed. Interestingly enough, people also evade discovering their qualities. The rationale for such behavior is that the knowledge that Hashem has bequeathed a person with a valuable middah brings along with it certain responsibilities. The attribute was obviously given to him so that it be used toward personal growth or to benefit others. Subconsciously he may feel that it is so much easier to be average without any special responsibilities. 

However, the truth is that there is no reason to get depressed when revealing a negative trait and there is no reason to be worried or become haughty after revealing a quality. Deficiencies can be rectified and qualities were given to us to assist us in self improvement. Take a stance and get to know yourself. Elul is a great time to find out exactly who is the "ani" in "Ani l'Dodi v'Dodi li!"

542 - Da'as Atzmeinu 10 (Re'ei)

As we discussed last week, the essence of a person is made up of three facets: pleasure, willpower (ratzon) and the ability to choose (bechira). While the first two facets can be found even in toddlers, bechira requires decisiveness which necessitates a level of intellectual capacity that cannot be found in young children. The decision of how to act made by a child who craves a candy but knows that he will be punished for taking one without permission, does not constitute an example of his exercising his bechira. The accurate interpretation of this situation is that the child has two conflicting desires (to eat candy and avoid being punished) and thus the outcome will be decided by whichever desire is more intense. One instinct prevailing over another instinct cannot be called bechira.

In contrast, adults have the capacity required to arrive at intellectually sound decisions. Nevertheless, in actuality even adults exercise their bechira quite infrequently. Most of our decisions are an outcome of our nature, upbringing, habits and desires. It is possible that a person can live his entire life without ever having to use the trait of bechira! A person who grew up in a religious atmosphere and performs the mitzvos by rote, has a calm disposition and was not beset by trials or tribulations, might very well fit the bill of one who possibly never used his bechira. It's an extreme scenario, but it demonstrates the reality that bechira is not as commonplace as we might have thought.

So when do we use our bechira? We can glean the answer from Rabbeinu Yonah. He writes (Sha'arei Teshuva 3:17), "You should know that the greatest attributes were bequeathed to us via positive commandments. Examples of these attributes include the attribute of bechira as it says 'And you shall choose life', and the attribute of learning Torah... the attribute of following in Hashem's ways... the attribute of contemplating His greatness... the attribute of remembering and contemplating His kindnesses... the attribute of holiness... the attribute of avodah... the attribute of fear [of Hashem]... the attribute of love [of Hashem]... these attributes all have many different levels." 

The placement of bechira amongst the loftiest spiritual levels indicates that it most probably is not part of our everyday routine. Just as we understand that attaining love and fear of Hashem requires a serious investment of time and effort, we can be sure that bechira is no different. Consequently, in general we should relate to others and even ourselves as if we are forced (by way of our nature, upbringing etc.) to act the way that we do. Additionally, we should never put ourselves into a difficult situation and rely on our bechira, because even Shlomo HaMelech, the wisest of all men, failed when he relied on his bechira (see Sanhedrin 21a).

Nevertheless, we are commanded to choose life by exercising our bechira. It is clear that if we are obligated in this area then we absolutely can and must acquire this attribute. Moreover, as Rabbeinu Yonah writes, each of the attributes mentioned have numerous levels. When a person chooses to perform a mitzvah because of the honor that it will bring him, he has also exercised his bechira to a certain extent. He chose to be honored through the performance of a mitzvah as opposed to looking for honor in non-spiritual pastures. The highest level of bechira is performing the mitzvos simply because that is what Hashem commanded. 

The turning point in one's spiritual life can be defined when a spiritual pleasure competes with physical pleasures from a ­bechira standpoint. When one feels that spirituality also offers pleasure, and appreciates this pleasure in contrast to a physical pleasure, he has altered his very essence. His bechira now takes into account the knowledge that, "A person was created for the sole purpose of having pleasure with Hashem by basking in the radiance of His Shechina, for this is the truest pleasure and greatest bliss that can be found!" (Mesilas Yesharim chap. 1). To choose or not to choose, that is the question.

541 - Da'as Atzmeinu 9 (Eikev)

On our journey toward getting to know ourselves, we have discovered our dominant middos, and revealed the powerful forces of the imagination and the yetzer hara which wield great influence over our actions. Now, writes Rav Wolbe, we are ready to approach the most fundamental aspect of one's character - the "me" of a person.

There is no other word that we use on a daily basis as frequently as the word "I". The "I" of an adult relates to the same thing that it referred to decades earlier when he was a mere child. It's the word that upon which his internal world rotates. It is the word that encapsulates the unique blend of personality and numerous character traits that make up a specific person. Sometimes, when a person says "I" want/think/need etc. he might have to spend a good deal of time to be able to discern which of the hundreds of possible middos is the impetus behind the statement. "I" is also the word which describes control; it refers to the ability to accept or refuse, to support or undermine.

If we were to decipher the "I" with the intention of understanding its essence, we would discover that it is made up of two basic facets. The first aspect is a person's will. This profound force is what guides a person through life in general and through the numerous daily decisions in particular. It is also a most powerful force, for there is much truth to the cliché, "Where there is a will there is a way." 

The second aspect is the sensations associated with pleasure and pain. From day one, everything that a human strives for involves some form of pleasure. It begins with bodily pleasures of food and drink and progresses to the pleasures involved in games and from there it moves on to the desire for honor. If the person is a ben aliyah then he will seek to find pleasure in the spiritual arena with an eye to attaining the ultimate pleasure described in the first perek of Mesilas Yesharim "l'hisaneig al Hashem" (the pleasure of a connection with Hashem). Hand in hand with a human's pleasure seeking is the natural tendency to run away from anything that might cause him pain.

The Hebrew word for pleasurable - areiv - shares the same root as the Hebrew word to blend - l'hisareiv. What is pleasurable mixes and fuses into a person's being, while those things which are unpleasant are rejected by the body. It is with this in mind that we daven each morning that Hashem make the Torah pleasant for us so that it may bind with us and become part of our very essence. 

Understandably, there is a close connection between a person's will and the feelings of pleasure and pain. The internal nature of a person is his drive toward pleasure while the external nature is his will. Pleasure is exhilarating and thus it almost always directs the desire to follow the path that will bring pleasure. Even if a person wants something very badly, if he does not enjoy it then it will never become part of him. Conversely, if one enjoys something, even if originally it did not interest him, the pleasure will ultimately ignite the desire.

When there is a discrepancy between a person's will and his sense of pleasure, he must exercise his bechira (free choice) to come to a decision as to how he should proceed. This describes the essence of a human in a nutshell. It's the body (the sensations associated with mainly tangible pleasures), the soul (the profound and essentially spiritual will), and the capacity of bechira which resolves their conflicts. It is up to the "I" to decide if one's will shall be subordinated to the body, or if the innate drive toward pleasure shall be directed by one's willpower toward lofty spiritual endeavors. Some say you are what you eat. In truth, you are what your bechira decides!

540 - Da'as Atzmeinu 8 (Va'eschanan)

Rav Wolbe notes that a person who is interested in getting to know himself, must be aware of one more concept. As was mentioned, most often it is a person's imagination which leads him to sin. After fantasizing about the pleasure that an action will presumably bring him, he follows his illusion and commits an aveirah.

However, sometimes it seems that an aveirah strikes without any prior warning. For example, a person might simply be shmoozing and the next thing he knows he is speaking lashon hara. Acting out of anger is another example of such a phenomenon. Generally, lashon hara and anger are not specifically pleasurable and thusly they are rarely prefaced by one fantasizing about such behavior. This being the case, what brings a person to commit these sins?

Chazal tell us that such behavior is an outcome of the dominion given to the yetzer hara. "Should a person's anger bring him to tear his clothing, breaks vessels or throws away his money; such behavior should be perceived in your eyes as if he has worshipped idols. For this is the method of the yetzer hara. Today he says do this and tomorrow he says do that, until he succeeds in bringing a person to idol worship" (Shabbos 105b). The yetzer hara is that Pied Piper who has that uncanny ability to get people to follow him blindly, even when there is no significant amount of pleasure in it for them. 

The yetzer hara was given this dominion for the simple reason of enabling the world to run as Hashem sees fit. We were put into this world to earn reward by navigating through life without falling into any pitfalls. This can only be accomplished if the world is set up in such a way where we must choose between good and evil. Accordingly, the yetzer hara was created for the sole purpose of digging pits to entrap people. He has been given great dominion, and he even can offer us pleasures, but he cannot provide lasting happiness.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 91b) describes just how controlling he is. Antoninus asked Rebbi (Rebbi Yehuda HaNasi) at what point the yetzer hara exerts control on a person. Rebbi responded that the yetzer hara already exists from the time of conception. Antoninus replied that if this were the case then the fetus would "kick his mother" and leave her womb; i.e. the yetzer hara would force the baby into the world prematurely thereby causing its death. Rather, it enters the body at the time of birth. This sums up the influence of the yetzer hara: He cruelly pushes a person to perform actions that ultimately wreak havoc upon himself. 

Yet, we know that Hashem established the world in a manner that good mirrors evil (zeh l'umas z'eh asah HaElokim). If such a powerful negative force exists, there must be a similar positive force; one that has the ability to propel a person to take action which will ultimately bring upon him blessing and goodness. This force is known as yiras shamayim. It is the force which invariably prompts a person to fulfill his obligations and to take necessary precautions.

The summer vacation is a litmus test of sorts which can gauge a person's yiras shamayim. Is he merely seeking to get away and have a good time or is he thinking beyond enjoying the fleeting pleasures of vacation? Does he take the proper precautions before choosing a destination? Does he pack a sefer inside his suitcase? We must bear in mind that we strive not for superficial pleasures but for true and lasting happiness!

539 - Tisha B'Av

Many of the kinnos read on Tisha B'Av were authored by Rabbi Elazar HaKalir. In the twelfth kinnah (Ohali Asher Ta'avta) he concludes each stanza with different pesukim, each one ending with the word "poh" (here). His intention was clearly not merely for poetic style. Rav Wolbe explains (Alei Shur vol. II p. 411) that he was encapsulating in this word the tragedy of the destruction of the Bais HaMikdosh and also conveying to us an important message.

When the Bais HaMikdosh stood, Hashem's main abode was "here" on earth. We literally lived with Hashem in our midst. Despite His infinite holiness and loftiness, He resided in a house of wood and stone. The Bais Hamikdosh was the site where the physical and material were sublimated and fused into spiritual elements. This spirituality extended to Klal Yisrael and their lives were focused entirely on the spiritual. With the destruction of the Bais HaMikdosh and Hashem's departure from our midst, this all changed drastically. He is no longer "here" and consequently, it feels as if spirituality was relegated to the heavens while we were left to contend with an extremely materialistic world. 

Yet, there is another idea that The Kalir was imparting via the choice of pesukim which end with the word "poh". The following are but a few of the pesukim paraphrased in the kinnah: "But as for you (Moshe), stand with Me here" (Devarim 5:28). "Whoever is here standing with us today before Hashem our G-d, and with whoever is not here with us today" (ibid. 29:14). "Why is My beloved (Avraham) [here] in My Temple?" (Yermiah 11:15). "Is there no longer a prophet of Hashem here?" (Melachim 22:7). 

In the pesukim of the kinnah, the word "here" is used almost entirely with people, and not just anyone but specifically righteous people: Bnei Yisrael as they stood before Hashem, Avraham, Moshe and the prophets. Who decides whether Hashem rests His Shechina here on Earth? Human beings do. If we are up to par in our spiritual level, then Hashem resides amongst us, and the opposite situation brings negative results.

In Mishlei (27:8), Shlomo HaMelech declares, "Like a bird wandering from his nest - so is a man who wanders from his place." Rashi explains the pasuk as referring to a Talmid Chacham who wanders from his studies and fails to review the Torah that he learned. When a person wanders from his proper level of spirituality, he can no longer be found in "his place". Hashem comes looking for him and he is no longer "here" where he is supposed to be. If an entire generation of people is not "here," Hashem will have no place to rest His Shechina. 

This was the question posed to Adam HaRishon after he transgressed the single commandment he was given: "Ayekah?" Where are you? Where has your heart gone? Chazal (Bereishis Rabbah 19:9) draw a parallel between the question "Ayekah?" and the lamentation of "Eichah." The lamentations on the destruction of the Bais HaMikdosh begin with a pointed question to every generation - those who suffered the destruction then and those who suffer now from the aftereffects of the destruction - "Where have you gone?"

After we sit on the floor on Tisha B'Av and listen to the reading of Eichah, we should take a moment to contemplate the question left hanging in the air. Where have 'you' gone? How come Hashem cannot find us to rest His Shechina upon us? Why have we abandoned our proper place of Torah, Avodah or Yiras Shamayim? Practically speaking, it is a question of "Where are we going in life?" Where is our focus? What is important, what takes precedence and on what do we put emphasis? Maybe when we were younger we had goals and aspirations for a more spiritual life and since then we have wandered away from them?

There is much free time on Tisha B'Av. The very least we could do is attempt to answer the above questions. If we can answer these questions and realign our lives, then we will b'ezras Hashem merit seeing the rebuilding of the Bais HaMikdosh speedily in our days!

538 - Da'as Atzmeinu 7 (Masei)

Over the past few weeks, we have discussed the various middos and tendencies that can be found inside of us. This week we will discuss the force which causes our middos to spur us to act. This most powerful force is our imagination. In fact, our negative middos materialize in our conscious solely with the help of the imagination. It affords us an exact depiction of what we hope to gain by employing our middos.

The imagination is powerful. We can conjure up pictures of an unlimited amount of pleasures and forms of recreation, and conversely, it allows us to depict all types of frightening situations. The amazing thing is that while everything we fantasize about is a mere figment of our imagination, we nevertheless feel as if those thoughts are a reality. Additionally, people waste a considerable amount of time reveling in situations that never occurred and never will occur! Indeed, the imagination is the polar opposite to the intellect which thrives on truth and strives to decipher the true reality in life. 

What is the secret behind the imagination? What's its purpose and what makes it so powerful? The Seforno (Bereishis 3:1) answers our questions with his enlightening explanation of the snake which enticed Chava to sin and eat from the eitz hadaas. The snake parallels - and thusly symbolizes - the yetzer hara. Like the yetzer hara, there is very little benefit from the snake, and it is extremely destructive despite the fact that it is rarely seen. Through the imagination which depicts the most enticing pleasures, the yetzer hara arouses ones desires, which in turn cause him to stray from the path that Hashem intended for him to follow. The ammunition given to us to enable us to combat this dangerous duo of fantasy and desire is the intellect which has the ability to quash thoughts which have no basis in reality. 

Another most interesting aspect of the imagination is that many of our depictions are rooted in our childhood. Children have the greatest ability to fantasize, and with wild imaginations they can depict even the most outlandish scenarios. Unfortunately, often the way that we perceive certain people and specific situations is exactly how we depicted them when we were very young. The result is that it is common for people to be extremely occupied with an imagination which is busy with childish portrayals!

The bottom line regarding imagination is that every time we encounter a person, there are really two people standing before us. There is the person as he is perceived by those around him, and there is the person how he perceives himself. Generally, the two stand diametrically opposite one another. Subconsciously, a person may depict himself free of any flaws and packed with qualities and virtues which are magnified many times over. Not only that, it is quite possible that he pictures himself with certain positive qualities that he does not have, while totally oblivious to the numerous qualities with which he was endowed. 

The biggest problem is that this faultless clone that he has created does not stand quietly in the recesses of his mind. Because one thinks that this figment of his imagination is truly himself, he speaks, thinks, acts, and reacts accordingly. One who wishes to discover who he really is must take notice of his impersonator and pay attention to the discrepancies between it and his true self.

Our generation takes the cake when it comes to being caught up in the imagination. Movies, video clips, newscasts and internet take over the mind and set it off on a whirlwind of desires and fears. So what should we do? Open a siddur, Tehillim or Gemara. Set your focus on true reality and fine tune your intellect thereby arming it to combat the constant barrage of fantasies brought on by our overactive imagination!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

537 - Da'as Atzmeinu 6 (Matos)

In addition to the Middos that can be found in every person, there are also certain tendencies that are part and parcel of every Jew's makeup. Chazal tell us (Yevamos79a) that there are three simanim (features) that characterize the Jewish Nation - they are compassionate, bashful and performers of kindness. These are not specific Middos, rather, they are general features that can lead to many positive Middos, and a deficiency in these areas often brings numerous negative Middos in its wake.

Moreover, these three features are the root of the three most central aspects of Judaism - Torah, avodah and gemilus chassadim. In contrast, the three opposing negative tendencies lie at the root of the three cardinal sins - idol worship, adultery and murder.
Compassion is a tendency to connect to others, feel their difficulties and sympathize with them. The idea of avodah is to connect to Hashem and only one whose heart is open to connecting to others can hope to create a rapport with Hashem. The opposite tendency is that of achzarius (cruelty). Such a person is "ach zar" - entirely foreign, since he has no ability or interest in connecting to or understanding other people. Such a person feels entirely disconnected from the Creator, Who - as he surmises - most probably does not busy Himself with the mundane matters that characterize human beings. Thus, he turns to avodah zara, lit. a foreign service, i.e. the feelings of foreignness push him to toward a different type of spiritual service. 
Bashfulness is defined as the tendency to hide not only one's weaknesses but also his qualities. The opposite tendency is brazenness. A brazen person looks to stand out. He's interested in focusing the spotlight on himself, thusly highlighting both his positive and negative characteristics. Someone who sets his focus internally can hope to learn the Torah which can be described as penimiyus of the physical world. In contrast, the brazen fellow whose eye is focused externally simply cannot connect to the Torah. The cardinal sin which is the antithesis of the Torah is adultery. One who commits giluy arayos has revealed something which is meant to be hidden.
A performer of kindness has the tendency to give and give some more. His love for giving is the quality needed to bring him to the third fundamental area in Judaism - gemillus chassadim - performing kind deeds. The negative parallel is the miser. He cannot bear to give anything to anyone, and he is focused solely on taking and thereby adding to his own stockpile. His intense aspiration to procure his desires can lead him to transgress the cardinal sin which stands opposite kind deeds, since he might even resort to murder if there is a person who stands in his way.
Every member of Bnei Yisrael was blessed with these three most wonderful predispositions. They prepare us for the proper performance of the Torah fundamentals and distance us from those sins which are abhorred by Hashem. With this in mind it is understandable why in Parshas Yisro, immediately following Kabbalas HaTorah, the Torah cautions us regarding the three cardinal sins, since they are diametrically opposed to everything the Torah stands for.
Yet, it is interesting to note just how the Torah refers to these three sins: Do not fashion the keruvim out of silver instead of gold for that is tantamount to idol worship. Do not build the mizbeiach with metal since knives are used for murder. Do not climb the mizbeiach with stairs since this causes one to broaden his steps, which is analogous to revealing one's nakedness (giluy arayos). When building the Bais Hamikdosh we must distance ourselves from the cardinal sins to the nth degree, because being cautious in these areas is the foundation of the entire Torah. 
As we set out to rectify our middos, we should take a moment to appreciate just who we are. Each and every one of us has three innate features that set us on the correct path toward perfection. Our job is to take the potential and turn it into a reality, thusly living life the way it was meant to be lived!