Tuesday, September 8, 2015

493 - Ki Savo

A large portion of this week's parsha is dedicated to the tochacha (chastisement). Ninety-eight curses in all are spelled out for those who fail to abide by Hashem's commandments. It is scary to read it and even scarier to know that these prophecies all came true when the curses materialized into a reality during the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdosh (see Ramban to Vayikra 26:16). The severity of middas ha'din is overwhelming and one must stop and ask, "What could possibly be the reason behind all these calamities?"

Rav Wolbe (Daas Shlomo) explains that the world was created with an option for wickedness and iniquity. Our goal is to remain righteous despite the many challenges, temptations and enticements offered by the various evil forces present in the world. When one strays from the proper course, the purpose of middas ha'din is to alert the transgressor that he has veered from the beaten path.

Dovid Hamelech declared, "The judgments of Hashem are true, altogether righteous" (Tehillim 19:10). Rav Wolbe explains that just as this declaration refers to the rulings and penalties found in the Torah, it applies as well to Hashem's judgments manifested through middas ha'din. The numerous persecutions and expulsions which the Jewish People have suffered over the past two and half millennia are actually the very secret of their survival (Rashi to Devarim 29:12).

Rav Wolbe related a most astounding conversation he once had. He was talking to man who was in Auschwitz and worked near the gas chambers for two years. This man had the terrible misfortune of witnessing complete transports of Jews being led to their deaths. He related that many of the Jews barely even knew that they were Jewish but every single Jew,without exception, cried out at the last second, "Shema Yisrael!" Jews who, had their lives continued peacefully, would have had no chance of earning a proper portion in the next world, due to middas ha'din earned themselves a ticket to Olam Habba in their last moments of life! While it does not explain all the atrocities that occurred, it gives us a whole new outlook on middas ha'din. It drives home the reality that we have no way of comprehending the depth of Heavenly calculations.

Although middas ha'din also strikes the other nations of the world, there is a fundamental difference between their punishments and the punishments meted out to the Jewish Nation. Other nations suffer from middas ha'din only after the fact. When they have already failed their purpose in creation and lost their right of survival, Hashem metes out a punishment that obliterates them from the face of the earth. In contrast, the Jewish Nation is castigated and disciplined before things get too out of hand. The result is that we are punished more than once, but this suffering is the key to our continuity.

The Yomim Ha'Noraim were given to us to prompt us to evaluate if we have veered from the proper path and enable us to straighten ourselves out should the need arise. This yearly occasion prevents the buildup of sin and enables us to start each year with a clean slate. Take a moment to review the various manifestations of middas ha'din this past year: the Har Nof massacre, the Sasson Family tragedy, the Arab hostilities worldwide to mention a few. These jolts might very well have been sent to prompt us to improve our davening, Shabbos observance or our relationships bein adom l'chaveiro.

Chazal tell us (Megillah 31b) that we read the curses in parshas Ki Savo before Rosh Hashana so that "the year and all its curses should end." Our heartfelt tefillah to Hashem is to please put an end to the tragedies - but allow their message to remain. We have an opportunity to clear the slate and start anew. Let us grab the opportunity and run with it before these holy days are behind us!

Monday, August 31, 2015

492 - Ki Seitzei

The mitzvah regarding the ben sorer u'moreh is extremely unique and a bit difficult to understand. At face value it seems that a thirteen year old boy who is merely found eating and drinking gluttonously is to be put to death. What has he done to deserve such a severe punishment? Chazal fill in numerous details which are not mentioned explicitly in the Torah. Among other details, the boy must be between the ages of thirteen and thirteen and three months. He must eat a specific amount of meat and drink a specific amount of wine in an extremely ravenous manner. Additionally, the food and drink must be bought with money stolen from his parents in order for him to conform to the requirements of a ben sorer u'moreh.

We still have some basic questions. Exactly which commandment did this boy transgress that warrants his receiving a death penalty? Moreover, if what he did was so terrible, why is the time frame for this transgression restricted to three months out of a person's entire life? The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 248) enlightens us to some of the rationale behind this mitzvah. He writes that the ben sorer u'moreh is guilty of transgressing the sin of "lo sochlu al hadam - lit. Do not eat over the blood" (Vayikra 19:26). Based on the Gemara in Sanhedrin (63a), the Chinuch explains that the Torah is exhorting us not to eat a meal that can bring one to spill blood i.e. cause himself to receive the death penalty. (See Ramban to Devarim 21:18 who differs).

He elaborates on the emphasis the Torah places on the boy's gluttonous ingestion of meat and wine. He asserts that excessive eating and drinking leads to the commission of a multitude of aveiros, as the Torah tells us, "Yeshurun became fat and rebelled" (Devarim 32:15). Food nourishes the body and cultivates materialism while reflecting upon mitzvos and yiras shamayim nourishes the soul and cultivates spirituality. Excessive intake of food weakens the "spiritual immune system" of the body which in turn leads to sin. Therefore, the Torah cautions us regarding excessive eating and attaches a death penalty to show the danger and severity of such behavior. However, the Torah specifically directs its message toward the thirteen year old boy who has just reached physical and spiritual maturity. The age when the intensity of adolescence is combined with a new sense of responsibility for one's actions, is the perfect time to hammer home the gravity of such wayward behavior: Don't overindulge. The lesson is taught once to this young boy and it is meant to last a lifetime.

Rav Wolbe (Da'as Shlomo) comments that while we might have thought that refraining from unnecessary eating is an area of avodas Hashem limited to the pious and righteous, the Chinuch lets us know that this is not the case. This is an idea which must be inculcated into children from a young age: Eating is not an end in and of itself. We are to eat so that we can be healthy and properly serve Hashem. The holiness of mealtime is apparent from the procedure required by Chazal when partaking of food. We must purify ourselves by washing our hands and then we make a bracha before eating. After we conclude our meal, once again we must wash our hands (mayim achronim) to wash away any negative materialistic consequences and once again bless Hashem and thank Him for the food.

Yet, continues Rav Wolbe, there is an even broader lesson to be learned from the Sefer Chinuch. The mitzvah of ben sorer u'moreh gives us an outlook on life in general. We most certainly can partake from the pleasures available to us, but these pleasures should be "pleasures with a purpose." When the pleasure is beneficial to our avodas Hashem, then such pleasure is imperative. However, one who engages in a lifestyle where pleasure becomes the objective, has fallen prey to the "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die" dogma of the other nations.

Our eye must always be on our ultimate goal i.e. the next world. Elul is the time to reevaluate our mindsets and lifestyles and properly align them, should there be a need. While the Torah's message was aimed at a thirteen year old, the significance of the message must accompany us throughout our lifetime!

491 - Shoftim - Elul

Rav Wolbe (Daas Shlomo) cites a mind boggling Medrash (Bereishis Rabba 2:7). Reb Avahu said, "From the beginning of time Hashem gazed at both the actions of the righteous and the actions of the wicked. Yet, it is not clear whose actions He desired. Once the Torah writes, 'And Hashem saw the light that it was good' it is clear that He desires the actions of the righteous and not the actions of the wicked." What is this supposed to mean? Could there be a possibility that Hashem prefers the actions of the wicked over the actions of the righteous?

Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm, offers a beautiful explanation. Indeed, even the wicked perform good deeds. However, they limit their good deeds to grandiose actions whose effects can be heard around the world. They will found organizations, create moral ideologies and give their lives for the sake of their country. In contrast, the righteous focus on the small, even minuscule, actions. Chazal were asking who's good deeds are superior - those performed by the righteous or those performed by the wicked? The answer was provided by the Torah: Hashem prefers the small actions of the righteous over the high-flying deeds of the wicked. A similar idea is mentioned by the Rambam. He asserts that for one who wishes to give tzeddaka, it is better that he give many small donations than one big donation. Many small mitzvos are preferential to a single big action.

Rav Yisrael Salanter writes that the focus of teshuva also must be on the small actions. Many are overcome with despair when faced with the prospect of teshuva. "There is no possible way for me to stop speaking lashon hara" or "I simply can't overcome this middah" they lament. However, there is no room for despair when the topic is teshuva. They are absolutely right; at the present time they cannot entirely overcome their inclinations. Nevertheless, they can greatly reduce the severity of their actions if they would merely desist at the times when it is easy for them to refrain from transgressing. If they would take small steps and resist for five minutes here and there, they will already have progressed tremendously down the road of teshuva.

With this in mind, our understanding of Chazal's well known statement becomes even more profound. "Hashem says to Klal Yisrael, 'Open for me a hole like the eye of a needle and I will open for you gateways that wagons and carriages will be able to pass through!'" Hashem specifically is interested in the small holes. Teshuva must begin with a focus on the small actions.

"Just five minutes" is a mantra that can change your life. I will refrain from lashon hara just for five minutes. I will learn just for five minutes. I will spend just five minutes on helping another Yid. The truth is that sometimes one doesn't even need five minutes. A wave of the hand to motion that one can't talk now can save a person from pages of bittul Torah or loads of lashon hara. Moreover, Hashem guarantees that He will reciprocate our small gesture with a huge dose of Heavenly assistance, as He waves us through big gateways of teshuva!

490 - Re'ei

Parshas Re'ei discusses an ir ha'nidachas - a situation where an entire city of people is found guilty of worshipping avodah zara. The punishment is as extreme as the transgression: The city is to be wiped out, all its contents must be burnt, and the city may never be rebuilt. The Torah concludes with an assurance, "And nothing from the banned property shall remain in your hands so that Hashem with turn back from His wrath, and He will give you mercy and He will be merciful to you" (Devarim 13:18).

The Gemara (Shabbos 151b) expounds on this pasuk. "Rebbi Gamliel the son of Rebbe says, 'And He will give you mercy and He will be merciful to you: Whoever shows mercy to people, Heaven will act with mercy toward him, and whoever is not merciful toward others, will not be shown mercy by Heaven.'" Rav Wolbe (Daas Shlomo) comments that while the first half of Chazal's declaration is logical, the second half is more difficult to understand. We can understand why one who does not have many merits can succeed in garnering heavenly mercy, since he acts with mercy toward other people and thus Hashem will deal with him mercifully. However, how are we to understand that one who learns Torah, acts honestly and possesses an abundance of other good middos, will nevertheless not be a recipient of heavenly mercy simply because he is not merciful to others?

Chazal are teaching us that if one does not act mercifully to other people it is impossible for him to receive heavenly mercy. A person's middos are vessels through which he is able to acquire heavenly bounty. Exactly proportional to the utensil prepared can one obtain heavenly bounty, and therefore, one who has not created a "receptacle" to store mercy cannot be a beneficiary of heavenly mercy.

In a similar vein, the Gemara (Rosh Hahasana 17a) tells us. "Said Rava, 'Anyone who is forgiving to another will be forgiven for all his sins as the pasuk says, 'He bears iniquity and forgives sins.' To whom does He bear iniquity? To one who forgives sins.'" One who is not forgiving simply lacks the tools needed to open the conduits of forgiveness. This concept is illustrated by a story related in the Gemara (Taanis 25b). One year there was a famine and Rebbi Eliezer, acting as chazzan, recited the twenty four brachos instituted when praying for rain but his prayers were not answered. Then Rebbi Akiva stood before the amud, recited two petitions and his prayers were answered immediately. Understandably, this caused people to question the greatness of Rebbi Eliezer. A bas kol was heard from Heaven: "It is not because one is greater than the other, rather one acts forgivingly while the other does not."

Rebbi Eliezer was a disciple of Bais Shammai and was of the opinion that one cannot just forgive and forget when it comes to an infraction to a talmid chochom because it undermines kavod Hatorah. He was not wrong in his opinion, but the reality was that he did not have the tools needed to access rain when Heaven had declared that the generation was undeserving. Only someone who practiced overlooking iniquity was able to influence Hashem to overlook the generation's shortcomings and provide rain.

This concept applies to all of a person's middos. Truth be told, most middos find expression between man and his fellow man. The manner in which we act toward others is the way Hashem acts with us. It's both frightening and exhilarating. How can a miser or an irritable person approach Rosh Hashana? On the other hand, there is nothing more invigorating than knowing that acting kindly, being merciful and forgiving others can rid oneself of mounds of aveiros! Elul is the time to take this knowledge and put it into practice!

489 - Eikev

In Parshas Eikev there is a single pasuk which encapsulates all of what is expected from us in this world."Now Yisrael, what does Hashem ask of you? Only that you fear Hashem your G-d, to go in all His ways and to love Him..." (Devarim 10:12). While the pasuk seems to be quite straightforward, Chazal explain it homiletically. "Do not read the word "mah" (what) rather "mei'ah" (one hundred). Hashem asks of you one hundred blessings a day. It would seem that fulfilling this dictate of Chazal, answers all of what Hashem asks of a person.

In explaining the significance of every bracha, Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol. I p. 112) cites the Radak in Yeshaya who explains words of praise penned by Chizkiyahu Hamelech. Chizkiyahu was deathly ill and after his miraculous recovery he wrote a letter in which he stated "I said with my days cut short I will go to the gates of the grave deprived of the rest of my years. I had said I will not see Hashem" (Yeshayah 38:10, 11). The Radak quotes Rav Saadyah Gaon, who explains that "seeing Hashem" is a reference to giving thanks. The Radak concurs, explaining that "perceiving Hashem means thanking and praising Him and contemplating His ways."

How can one "see" Hashem? We can see Him through recognizing His kindness and thanking Him for it. We are supposed to review over and over again - a hundred times each day - the truth that Hashem is the King of the world and it is He Who has given us every pleasure of which we partake. It is He Who gave us our body and our soul, and it is He Who gave us the Torah and the mitzvos. Everything we have is a result of His infinite kindness and we must thank Him for His beneficence. The extent that we will see Hashem on a daily basis is proportionate to the amount of attention we pay to what we are saying.

There is an added dimension to the daily requirement to make one hundred brachos. We don't thank Hashem once and for all for giving us water or giving us clothes. Every day calls for an additional thanks. Every drink calls for a new bracha. Chazal wanted us to appreciate that the world is not to be perceived as an ancient phenomenon. Rather, each and every day, and numerous times throughout the day, Hashem renews His kindness and recreates the world in its entirety. Thus, Chazal instituted daily brachos to thank Him for His constant kindness and never-ending bounty.

A well known gadol was wont to say that the length of a bracha depends on the height of a person. Thebracha begins when the food is taken into his hand and the bracha ends just before the food enters his mouth. Hence, the taller the person the longer the time he has to make a bracha! It's quite humorous, it's often true, and it's very unfortunate. We literally have in our hands the recipe for seeing Hashem, and we let it fly off into the breeze when we mumble the bracha under our breath or have our minds on a conversation with a friend. Choose a singlebracha that is going to be "yours," give it the proper frame of mind and this will open your eyes to see Hashem in a way that you never previously experienced!

488 - Va'eschanan

Chazal tell us that a person must say, "When will my actions rival the actions of my forefathers, Avraham, YItzchok and Yaakov." The source for this obligation, writes Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol. II p. 159), can be found in this week's parsha. In the first paragraph of Shema Hashem commands us, "You shall love Hashem with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your resources"(Devarim 6:5). The Medrash (Yalkut Shemoni 837) cites Rebbi Meir's explanation: "You shall love Hashem with all your heart like Avraham, with all your soul like Yitzchok and with all your resources like Yaakov."

Focusing on the greatness of our forefathers and striving to emulate their love for Hashem, forces every Jew to acknowledge the innate greatness that can be found in each and every individual who is part of our exalted Nation. This idea is extremely important for anyone engaged in bettering himself. Before one begins working on rectifying his negative character traits, it is imperativethat he be cognizant of and familiar with his positive character traits. Otherwise, as he learns through a mussarsefer, he will end up concentrating solely on the negative aspects of his own personality. Such behavior is a sure-fire way to bring about depression or to cause him to give up the possibility of curing his spiritual maladies.

Before starting Mesillas Yesharim, one should open to the table of contents and peruse the various different chapters. He must become aware of the fact that, not only do the virtues of zehirus, zerizus, nikius and taharah etc. exist,they are very much within a person's reach. Moreover, it is advisable that the first time he learns through the sefer, he should not stop after each chapter to size up where he stands in relation to what the Mesillas Yesharim writes. Rather, he should simply appreciate themiddah being discussed and yearn to achieve it himself.

The Ramchal writes in Derech Eitz Chaim, that merely thinking about the awesome spiritual levels attainable, aids a person in his journey toward perfection."A person should spend some time free of all distractions and think about what we have mentioned. He should ask himself, 'What did our forefathers do that caused Hashem to cherish them? What did Moshe Rabbeinu do? What did Dovid, the anointed of Hashem, and all the great people who preceded us do? Then He should think how worthy it is for a person to act in a similar fashion so that it will be good for him! He should then contemplate where he stands in relationship to the path followed by the great men of prior generations...The bottom line is that for one who does not think about this, it is exceedingly difficult to reach perfection, while the person who does think about this is very close to perfection." Even just thinking about the greatness attained by our predecessors helps us achieve the goal for which we strive.

The first step to self improvement is being cognizant of one's ma'alos, because if we would appreciate our innate greatness we wouldn't bother ourselves with the pettiness that brings about most lapses in avodas Hashem. The summer is a time which affords many people some extra time for relaxation. It might be very worthwhile to relax with a book about one of the greats of the past century. Their spiritual stature is something to strive toward, and if they could do it so could we! The purpose of reading these books is not to imitate those portrayed, rather to appreciate what we too can achieve if we would utilize our virtues to the best of our ability!

487 - Devarim

Devarim opens with Moshe addressing Bnei Yisrael. The Torah describes the location of this speech with eight or nine different names of places. Rashi explains that the locations mentioned refer not to actual places; rather, they are allusions to the various transgressions Bnei Yisrael committed over the course of their travels through the desert. Moshe was admonishing Bnei YIsrael and, not wanting to embarrass them, he made veiled references to their sins.

When alluding to the golden calf, Moshe refers to this sin with the name "Di Zahav" translated as "more than enough gold." Rashi explains that Moshe was stating that it was the abundance of gold bestowed upon them at the time of the exodus from Mitzrayim that caused them to make the golden calf. Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) notes that the pasuk seems to imply that had they not had the gold they would not have sinned. This idea seems quite clear from Rashi in Shemos (32:31) where he writes that Moshe told Hashem that by blessing Bnei Yisrael with so much wealth He had in effect caused the sin of the golden calf! Bnei Yisrael's situation was analogous to a king who gives his son food and drink, beautifies him, hangs a pouch of money around his neck and places him at the harlot's door; what can you expect from the son? This being the case how could they be blamed for making the golden calf if they were basically forced into making it?

Although Bnei Yisrael were placed into a difficult situation, they certainly had the ability to overcome the test given to them. When Chazal tell us that their position caused them to sin, Chazal are conveying an important message to us. The Torah is teaching us the attitude that one should assume prior to placing himself into a situation of nisayon is that he will almost certainly fail the test. One cannot place himself into a situation and rely on his will power and past performance to enable him to prevail over the temptation to sin. Rather, it is always necessary to act with foresight. Before entering any possible problematic situation one must identify the potential issues and refrain from engaging in any questionable behavior.

This is a lesson we must heed for life. We cannot go away on vacation in the summer to a place that compromises our religious standards and wave away all concern with an assertion that "I won't be affected." When making your plans, take all possibilities into consideration. The same applies when choosing a job, a community, a school for your children and when choosing friends. Before entering into a questionable relationship, clarify your ideals and standards and act accordingly.

Additionally, Klal Yisrael has endured a great amount of suffering due to sinas chinam. The destruction of the second Bais Hamikdosh was caused by baseless hatred and thus the ensuing tragedies of the next nearly two thousand years can be attributed to this terrible trait. Moreover, how many marriages and other relationships have ended because of petty arguments? A little foresight - taking into account the possible ramifications before saying lashon hara or quarreling - will save a lot of physical and spiritual heartache. Moreover, it will also aid in the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh for which we so desperately yearn.

ובעזהי"ת צום החמישי יהפוך לנו לששון ולשמחה