Wednesday, February 25, 2015

466 - Purim

In the midst of a war, government officials often need to relay messages to a confidant planted in enemy territory. One of the tactics used to accomplish such a feat is to send him a letter which, superficially seems to convey nothing more than a friendly hello, while in fact it contains top-secret information. Only a trained eye has the ability to decipher the letter's subtle implications.

Divine Providence is the spiritual manifestation of this allegorical secret letter. The Ramban (Parshas Bo) writes that Hashem's interaction with the Jewish people is in essence a continuous series of miracles; albeit hidden ones. The fact that it rains if we perform His mitzvos or a person dies early as a result of transgressing one of His precepts, is in reality a wonder no less awe-inspiring than an outright miracle. However, these "miracles" are all hidden and masterfully woven into the tapestry of nature, making them hard to discern to the untrained eye. The Jewish People were the ones given the ability to decipher the true intent behind the seemingly unrelated events occurring throughout the world. 

Accordingly, the pasuk (Tehillim 60:6) which states, "You have given those who fear You "neis l'hisnoseis" a banner to be raised high," can be explained differently: "You have performed for Bnei Yisrael miracles in order to elevate them." Every time we decode a miracle concealed behind the fa├žade of nature, we literally sense Hashem talking to us. The feeling of such a relationship with the Creator has the ability to elevate a person to great spiritual levels.

Chazal tell us (Shabbos 88a) that although Bnei YIsrael were to some extent forced into accepting the Torah by Har Sinai, nevertheless, they willingly accepted the Torah upon themselves during the reign of Achashveirosh. Rashi explains that their willingness to accept the Torah was prompted by, "The love of the miracle performed for them." While most would have explained that their salvation from death is what triggered their willful acceptance, Rashi emphasizes an aspect which is tangential to the actual salvation. They not only rejoiced in their salvation; they had a great love for the miracle itself, and that is what brought them to accept Hashem's yoke. While the chain of events spanning nine years seemed to be nothing more than random unrelated occurrences, the Jewish people successfully deciphered Hashem's handwriting and connected the dots. They acknowledged the miracle and recognized that despite the prevailing hester panim, Hashem was clearly communicating with them. This elevated them to such a great extent that they willingly accepted Hashem's commandments.

Furthermore, Bnei Yisrael were condemned because they indulged in Achashveirosh's party. They forgot their inherent importance and they disregarded the very essence of the Jewish Nation which is one that "dwells in solitude" and which due to their nobility they do not mingle with the other nations. By way of a hidden miracle, Hashem also made them cognizant of their greatness. They are the "shoshanas Yaakov" - by way of their middos tovos they are compared to a rose which is the most gorgeous looking and beautiful smelling flower. (Da'as Shlomo)

By paying attention to the hidden miracles that abound, one can distinguish the hand of Hashem. Moreover, every year on Purim, Hashem reignites the spiritual spark that radiated in the time of the miracle, thereby allowing for all future generations to tap into the spiritual wellsprings experienced by our forefathers. Thus, Purim is a once a year opportunity given to us to acknowledge and appreciate our unique connection to Hashem and our own inherent greatness and spiritual beauty. Focusing on these ideas will elevate a person for a long time after the wine wears off!

A Freilichin Purim!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

465 - Terumah

In his introduction to this week's parsha, the Ramban enlightens us regarding Hashem's intention behind the commandment to build the Mishkan. "The essential purpose for the Mishkan was to create a place for the Shechina to reside. More specifically, the aron was designated for this purpose and therefore it is the first vessel to be discussed. Thereafter, the Torah discusses the shulchan and the menorah because, similar to the aron, they were vessels and additionally they [also] represented the reason for which the Mishkan was built."

Rav Wolbe notes (Introduction to Shiurei Chumash Mishpatim) that while the purpose of the Mishkan was to build an abode for the Shechina, a mere edifice would not suffice. There were specific vessels which were necessary to create the proper mechanism for both the Shechina to reside and the ability to receive prophecy. The aron, shulchan and menorah were the necessary vessels. 

This idea is not limited to the Mishkan. The effectiveness of all spiritual acquisitions and attributes is contingent upon their placement in a proper receptacle. Each receptacle is, in essence, the preparation for the attainment or fulfillment of the related spirituality. For example, one who wishes to acquire the trait of anivus (humility) might prepare a regimen of actions to be performed daily which engender humility. While he might make headway in his quest toward humility, he will not be able to perfect this quality if he does not discover the proper "vessel" intended to store this middah. The Mesilas Yesharim, based on a statement from Rebbi Pinchas ben Yair, charts a guide to spiritual perfection. Zehirus leads to zerizus, zerizus leads to nekius, nekius leads to prishus, prishus leads to tahara, tahara leads to chassidus and chassidus leads to anava (humility). The preparation needed for achieving humility is chassidus, which itself stands on a high rung of the ladder of spiritual ascension. One who wishes to jump to a high rung of the ladder might end up losing his footing. 

The Gra (Mishlei 19:3) comments that a person often blames Hashem for his failures in the spiritual arena, when in reality the finger of blame should be pointed toward him himself. It is because he did not follow directions that he did not achieve the desired results. One has to know where to look before trying to acquire a positive middah or defeat a negative middah.

We are all looking to grow in ruchniyus. It would be a terrible waste of time to spend weeks or even years trying all types of original ideas in order to master a specific area, when there might be a more secure way already outlined by Chazal. Ask someone in the know or study a mussar sefer which deals with the topic at hand and determine the proper type of preparation necessary for the acquisition of the relevant middah. Locating the proper "receptacle" is not merely a good idea; it is imperative for one's avodas Hashem for it is the only way to attain a true acquisition in any area of spirituality.

464 - Mishpatim

The beginning of the parsha discusses the laws pertaining to a Jewish slave. Although one can only be sold into slavery for the duration of a single shemittah cycle, should one wish, he can extend his stay in his master's house until yovel. However, he must first have his ear pierced by beis din. As the Torah tells us, "His master shall bring him to the Elohim, and shall bring him to the door or doorpost and his master shall bore through his ear with an awl and he shall serve him forever (i.e. until yovel)" (Shemos 21:6). Rashi tells us that "Elohim" mentioned in this pasuk refers to beis din.

Why does the Torah use the name of Hashem to refer to beis din? The Ramban explains that Hashem can be found with the beis din during all their legal proceedings, and it is He Who acquits and it is He Who convicts; for He is the ultimate Judge. In other words, the Shechina rests upon the judges and the actual judgment emanates from Him. 

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash, Mishpatim 21:6) cites the Rambam's explanation of semicha (Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:1) to shed light on understanding the root of this phenomenon. "Moshe placed his hands upon Yehoshua, and likewise Moshe placed his hands upon the seventy elders and the Shechina rested upon them. Those elders placed their hands upon others, and these others placed their hands upon others. Consequently, anyone who received semicha can trace himself back to the beis din of Yehoshua and Moshe Rabbeinu." Why did the Rambam feel it pertinent to add that after receiving semicha the Shechina rested upon them? He was informing us that by means of semicha, the elders of the generation have the ability, so to speak, to give over the Shechina to the next generation! 

We find a similar idea in the yotzer recited during Shacharis. We proclaim that all the angels accept the yoke of heaven from one another. The Gra explains that each angel accepts the yoke from an angel greater than he. The ability for the Shechina to rest upon both the angels and the judges is dependent on their accepting the yoke of heaven from one greater than they. We might add, says Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol. I, p. 75), that the same idea applies to the disciples of a Rebbi. It is not enough for them to merely accept upon themselves the yoke of heaven; they must accept it from someone greater than them. By accepting the yoke from one's Rebbi, he becomes a link in the chain of transmission of the Torah. This enables a person to receive the Torah in its truest form, for this link connects him back to Moshe Rabbeinu who received the Torah from the hand of Hashem.

Accordingly, we can appreciate the importance of connecting to a Rebbi. One must find a Rebbi from whom he can gain in Torah and avodas Hashem. Although this is the first step in spiritual growth, it also takes a certain level of maturity and pursuit of truth. One must be willing to rescind his own position should his Rebbi disagree, and he must be willing to accept criticism should the Rebbi feel it appropriate. As we all travel down the road of life, we would be completely lost without the direction of a spiritual GPS. Our GPS is our Rebbeim, who not only guide and direct us, but also connect us back to Moshe Rabbeinu who received the Torah from Hashem Himself!

463 - Yisro

Just prior to matan Torah Hashem told Moshe to inform Bnei Yisrael of the spiritual dividends that they would attain if they would accept the Torah: "If you listen to Me well and observe My covenant, you shall be for Me a segulah of all people, for the entire world is Mine" (Shemos 19:5). Rashi translates "segulah" as a beloved treasure, similar to the pasuk (Koheles 2:8), "v'segulas melachim" which refers to the treasure chest of kings which is hidden away. Rashi's explanation of the pasuk continues that Bnei Yisrael are Hashem's treasure, but we should not think that the reason they will be cherished is because they are the sole nation under His domain - "For the entire world is Mine" - Hashem has complete domain over all the nations. Hashem sees no significance in any nation other than Yisrael, thus it is evident that they are truly cherished as Hashem's "treasure chest."

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash, Yisro 19:5) elaborates on Rashi's explanation. He explains that Rashi was not making merely an etymological reference to the treasure chests of kings. There is an actual similarity between Bnei Yisrael and a king's treasures. Just as a king conceals his precious stones from the human eye, so too, if Bnei Yisrael observe Hashem's Torah and mitzvos they will be treasured and concealed i.e. granted access to penimiyus - the concealed areas of our world. 

What is penimiyus? It is the ability to translate intellectual knowledge into practice. This is an area which demonstrates Bnei Yisrael's distinctiveness. All other nations gauge wisdom and success by their outward appearance. As long as the philosophy being espoused sounds impressive, the philosopher is awarded great accolades. It makes no difference whether the philosopher or anyone else acts in accordance with the newfound knowledge. For many, as long as the honor was attained the goal has been achieved. 

The nineteenth century Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, the father of modern day philosophy, declared that he is afraid of only one thing: His theories would fall into the hands of a professor who will exploit it into a money-making venture instead of putting the knowledge into practice. His concern was well founded because that is exactly what happened! In contrast, let us appreciate Rav Yisrael Salanter, the father of the Mussar Movement, who lived at the same time as Kierkegaard. He revolutionized the study of mussar, and it is to his merit that mussar is studied daily in yeshivos worldwide. He is the direct impetus behind the millions of positive actions resulting from mussar study.

The other nations live in a world of chizoniyus with merely external trappings. By contrast, Bnei Yisrael were meant to live in a world of penimiyus. We must bear in mind that a diamond polisher might have all the knowledge needed to transform a mere stone into a brilliant jewel, but if he fails to put his knowledge into practice the stone will remain nearly worthless. Similarly, although Bnei Yisrael as a whole are inherently Hashem's treasure, any individual who wishes to shine must polish himself by transforming abstract morals into actions.

462 - Beshalach

After Bnei Yisrael's war against Amalek, Hashem told Moshe that ultimately "He will obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the Heavens" (Shemos 17:14). The parsha then ends with Moshe's declaration, "For the hand is on the throne of Hashem: Hashem maintains a war against Amalek for generation to generation." Rashi explains that Hashem, so to speak, "raised His hand and placed it on His throne" and swore to maintain a constant war against Amalek since neither the Name of Hashem nor His throne will be complete until Amalek is destroyed.

What does it mean that Hashem's Name and throne are not complete? Could it be that Hashem is lacking in some way? Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash, Beshalach 17:16) explains that Hashem's throne symbolizes the abode that we are intended to prepare for Him in this world, whereby His omnipotence and glory will be revealed to all, which is the very purpose of creation. When this is accomplished, His Name will be complete because all will recognize His supremacy. However, as long as Amalek exists, they are a constant impediment to achieving this goal. 

Amalek personifies the trait of azus - brazenness. Azus is the ability to witness even earth shattering events and nevertheless completely disregard their significance. The entire world was awed by the awesome miracles of yetzias Mitzrayim and Amalek remained completely unaffected. Moreover, it seems that these events had the very opposite effect, for immediately thereafter, they came to wage war against G-d's chosen Nation. The very existence of such wicked brazenness is a cloud which obscures Hashem's revelation in this world. It is difficult to discern Hashem's omnipotence when such defiance of spirituality is present. With the ultimate destruction of Amalek, the cloud will dissipate, allowing for Hashem's Kingship to shine in all its glory. 

Indeed, Amalek's brazenness has enormous implications. Yet, continues Rav Wolbe, there is a flip side to this type of brazenness which is referred to as azus d'tumah. One can harness this trait of azus for positive spirituality and thereby sanctify this trait of "brazenness" by turning it into a holy boldness - an azus d'kedusha. Azus d'kedusha is the ability to do what one knows is proper even if the entire world thinks otherwise. The Mishna in Pirkei Avos (5:25) exhorts us, "Be bold like a leopard . . . to do the will of your Father in Heaven."

In the very first se'if in Shulchan Aruch, the Rema instructs us, "Do not be embarrassed by those who ridicule you because of your avodas Hashem." How many times do we refrain from acting as we know we should because of what people might say about us? "If I tell him that I'm not interested in hearing lashon hara, he will probably twist his nose at me in derision." Be bold and let him twist his nose. As a matter of a fact, even if the whole world twists their noses, it shouldn't change the way you act, because brownie points with Hashem are worth a whole lot more than brownie points with them!

461 - Bo

After makkas bechoros, Hashem commanded Bnei Yisrael regarding their firstborn. "Sanctify for Me every firstborn of Bnei Yisrael, of man and animal, they are Mine" (Shemos 13:2). Rashi explains that the firstborn "belonged" to Hashem for He acquired them when he smote the Egyptian firstborn. What does the killing of the firstborn Egyptians have to do with the Jewish Nation?

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash, Shemos 13:2) explains that in truth it has everything to do with the Jews. The Novardakers would say that when one reads an obituary in the paper, he tends to think to himself that there is a segment of "people who die," but he himself is in no way connected to them. It is simply a quirk that they pass away and he himself is not destined for such a fate. It does not dawn upon him that indeed it has very much to do with him for he is surely destined to join that group sometime in the (hopefully distant) future. 

The Baal Shem Tov would say that the world is like a mirror. Everything a person sees has something to do with him. If Heaven ordained that he perceive those things then they must in some way be connected to him. Like everything else, the smiting of the Egyptian firstborn was a lesson for all those who witnessed the phenomenon. Hashem was revealing to Bnei Yisrael that He acquired all firstborn and He specifically chose to kill the Egyptians and spare the Jewish firstborn. Therefore Bnei Yisrael were commanded to heed the lesson and be mikadesh the Jewish firstborn. 

What is kedusha? Kedusha is that very same ability to take that which one perceives and make it pertinent to himself. Rashi on the pasuk, "For you are a holy people to Hashem" (Devarim 14:21), cites the Sifrei which explains the pasuk as a directive: "Make yourself holy with regard to those things that are permissible to you. If others prohibit something, you should not permit it in front of them." From the fact that the Sifrei defines such conduct as kedusha, it is clear that it is not merely an act of consideration for the feelings of others. Rather the Torah is instructing us to take heed of what you see around you. If you find yourself amongst people who are more meticulous in a specific area, you should apply that which you see to yourself. Try to emulate their deeds for at least as long as you find yourself in their company.

We might have graduated school, but we are always under Hashem's tutelage. He is constantly instructing us by way of the numerous occurrences that we witness throughout the day. Let us not fall asleep during His class. There is so much that we could learn and accomplish if we would apply that which we see to ourselves. If we witness someone's mistake we should realize that we are susceptible to such behavior and take the necessary precautions to prevent ourselves from wavering in that area. If we happen to hear about a person who is single who is looking for his bashert it might be a heavenly message that we have the ability to help them. An awareness of this concept allows one to look out a glass window and nevertheless see a reflection of himself.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

460 - Va'eira

Before Moshe and Aharon perform the tenmakkos, the Torah offers a short genealogical backdrop. The Torah begins with their great-grandfather Levi, continues with a list of all his children and grandchildren, and ends with the birth of Moshe and Aharon. "They are the ones who spoke to Pharaoh the king of Egypt to take the Jews out of Egypt; this was Moshe and Aharon"(Shemos 6:27). Rashi, bothered by the seemingly superfluous ending of the pasuk, explains that the Torahis informing us that they were complete in both fulfilling their missions and their righteousness "from beginning to end."

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash, Shemos 6:27, 1:5) comments, that this praise of Moshe and Aharon is in reality the goal of every Jew. We must aim to make it through life in general, and each day in particular, without getting derailed from the tracks of our purpose in this world. Chazal relate that Yochanon served in the most sacred position of Kohein Gadol for eighty years and subsequently became an apostate! He was undeniably a great man, but he did not persevere until the end of his life.     

The truth is that no one can know where life will take him. Yosef went one bright day to inquire about the welfare of his brothers and the next thing he knew he found himself as a slave and the sole Jew in the most immoral country in the world. These things do not happen only in ancient times. Rav Wolbe related that he himself experienced a similar phenomenon. While learning in the Mirrer Yeshiva in Poland just prior the Second World War, the Polish government forced him to leave the Yeshiva due to his German citizenship. The next eight years found him in Sweden without even a minyan of shomer ShabbosJews. Despite these radical changes, the Torah attests that Yosef maintained his original level of righteousness even in Egypt, and we can attest that Rav Wolbe remained steadfast to his ideals throughout his years in Sweden. 

Additionally, Rav Wolbe mentioned that he once met a Moroccan Jew who related that when he arrived in Israel he was taken to a non-religious kibbutz. He didn't capitulate to their lifestyle and he demanded kosher food. They could not get him to change his ways so they sent him to another kibbutz lest he succeed in convincing others to follow his ways. The same scenario repeated itself in the second kibbutz and the successive kibbutzim until they finally gave in and sent him to a yeshiva. How many of us would survive in such a hostile environment with our religious ideals intact? How long would we last if people taunted us every time we davened or attempted to keep kashrus?

The same tests often arise on a daily basis, albeit on a smaller scale. Rav Yeruchom Levovitz zt"l would say that a person changes "in accordance with his clothing." One's behavior is very much dependant on his surroundings. Although while by himself one might maintain a serious demeanor, when he is in the company of others he might act in a lightheaded manner. Although he merely changed rooms in the house, his behavior changed entirely! When people get married they often change as a result of their spouses. Similarly, a change of job, friends, locale or shul can change a person beyond recognition.

As with many creatures, people change their skin to adapt to their surroundings. Our goal is to define our ideals and stick to them no matter in what situation we find ourselves. This was the trait of Yosef, Moshe and Aharon, and it is the hallmark of our leaders throughout the generations!