Thursday, May 21, 2015

478 - Shavuos

Rav Wolbe (Daas Shlomo) makes an interesting observation regarding the Torah which was given by Hashem and received by Bnei Yisrael at Har Sinai. The Aseres Hadibros were all said in singular form. The Ramban explains that this signifies that Hashem spoke to and commanded each and every individual. On the other hand, the Torah tells us, "The entire nation proclaimed in unison, 'All that Hashem spoke we will do.'" Bnei Yisrael's acceptance of the Torah was done in complete harmony "like one person, with a single heart." While Kabbalas HaTorah (the acceptance of the Torah) was specifically a communal event, Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah) was specifically an experience for the individual. How are we to understand this dichotomy?

The Mishna in Avos (2:18) states, "Do not be wicked by yourself." Rav Chaim Volozhin explains that one should make an effort to daven with the tzibbur because if you pray "by yourself" and depend on your own merits, you might be considered "wicked." In a similar vein, the Medrash (Shir Hashirim Rabba 8:15) says that when Bnei Yisrael, through the recitation of Shema, accept Hashem's Kingship upon themselves in unison, Hashem approvingly tells the angels to listen to their voices. The Medrash continues that this is not the case when their recital of Shema is not carried out in harmony. Accordingly, any initiation of a connection to the Creator should ideally be performed by Bnei Yisrael as a tzibbur. 

The very essence of Bnei Yisrael is that they are a "single nation on the earth" (Shabbos Mincha). In contrast to the other nations, Klal Yisrael at their core is a single unit, and it was with this quality that they were meant to approach Kabbalas HaTorah. Each person would completely negate their own individuality thereby melding themselves into a single entity; a solitary creation of awesome stature capable of standing before the Creator and receiving His commandments.

This total display of solidarity resulting from the sublimation of individual feelings reverberated on High. Hashem reciprocated by giving the Torah as a whole to Klal Yisrael, while granting each and every person an individual approach to the Torah's multifaceted and infinite wisdom.

While we are generally concerned with our own achievements and success, proper preparation for Kabbalas HaTorah requires that we shift our focus toward others. The essential quality at Har Sinai was Bnei Yisrael's solidarity. They sublimated their personal priorities for the benefit of the masses. Therefore, it is important that we feel responsibility for the masses of Jewish People who haven't yet enjoyed a relationship with their Creator.

There are many unaffiliated Jews waiting for someone to fan the spark buried deep inside them. Moreover, there are many affiliated Jews who would gain immensely from a relationship with someone who has a stronger connection to Torah than they do. Bringing another Jew closer to His Father in Heaven not only enhances his life, it enhances our lives as well. For when all of Klal Yisrael unite in the acceptance of the Torah, their combined acceptance enhances the personal benefit of each individual.

Good Yom Tov!

477 - Pirkei Avos

"The Torah is acquired by means of forty eight qualities...[among them the quality of] loving reproof" (Avos 6:6). We find another statement of Chazal which highlights the greatness of one who acquires this quality: "Rebbi says, 'Which is the proper path that a man should choose for himself? He should love reproof, for whenever there is reproof in the world, pleasantness comes into the world, goodness and blessing enter the world and evil departs from the world'" (Tamid 28a). What is so unique about the quality of loving reproof that it brings so much bounty in its wake?

Rav Wolbe (Daas Shlomo) explains as follows. Yeshaya Hanavi (5:20) cried out, "Woe to those who speak of evil as good and good as evil, who make darkness into light and light into darkness, who make bitter into sweet and sweet into bitter." These weren't merely poetic musings. If Yeshaya said it, he really meant it. While in the physical world such extreme errors are very rare and generally caused by severe illness, in the spiritual arena they are all too common. Yet, truth be told, these spiritual mistakes are also the result of ailments. 

Rabbeinu Yonah (Shaarei Teshuva 4:1) writes that just as there are illnesses of the body, so too there are illnesses of the soul i.e. transgressions and negative middos. (The same idea is mentioned by the Rambam in Shemoneh Perakim and the Ramban in Beha'aloshcha 10:4). Just as a physical illness demands the therapy of a physician, likewise, spiritual illnesses requires therapy. Chazal tell us that this world can be compared to nighttime where a person's vision is clouded by the darkness and therefore he mistakes poles for people. A person falters and transgresses when his spiritual vision became clouded by the "darkness" pervading this world. In summation, spiritual ailments all stem from a lack of clarity.

Rashi (Bereishis 20:16) explains that the literal translation of "tochacha" (reproof) is a "clarification of ideas." The mitzvah to give tochacha to a fellow Jew, does not mean to shout "crook," rather, it entails clarifying for the offender the cause and basis for his mistake. Since a lack of clarity causes transgressions, gaining clarity is the remedy for spiritual ailments.

Rebbi (above) did not ask, "Which is the proper path to which a man should cling?" as mentioned in the Mishna in the second Perek of Avos. Rather, he asked, "Which is the proper path that a man should choose? The word she'yavor ("should choose") is synonymous with the word she'yivror which means "to clarify". Rebbi was asking which path leads a person to clarity. To this he answered, that one cannot rely on his subjective perception of himself to achieve clarity. Rather, if he loves hearing tochacha (reproof) from others, this quality will lead him to achieve complete clarity. By achieving clarity one escapes the spiritual "darkness" that abounds in this world, thereby allowing him a clear vision of what is good and what is evil. Hence, loving reproof causes "evil to depart from the world" and "blessing and goodness" to fill its place.

Clarity might be the spiritual panacea, but for many it is a hard pill to swallow. It is too difficult for them to hear that they are making a mistake. Many people sacrifice years of their lives to mistakes made due to a lack of clarity of vision; they could have asked for advice but they didn't. A little pride is simply not worth the price. Ask a mentor or even a friend for an objective opinion on a life decision. The clarity gained by such an encounter is immeasurable!

476 - Pirkei Avos

We say in the tefillah of Nishmas, "Even if our mouths were filled with praise like the ocean and our tongues were full of song like its multitude of waves... we would still not be able to properly thank you for even one of the millions and trillions of acts of kindness that You have performed for us." Rav Wolbe (Daas Shlomo) notes that Chazal's perception with regard to a person's obligation to give thanks to Hashem is astounding. Accordingly, one would have to be on the spiritual level of Dovid Hamelech to properly say thank you for a single bite of food!

In a similar vein Chazal tell us (Ta'anis 6b) that when the first rain of the season falls, one should bless Hashem and thank Him for "each and every drop of rain." A single rainfall, comprised of billions of drops, warrants billions of expressions of gratitude. Additionally, Chazal assert, "For each and every breath a person breathes he should praise Hashem" (Yalkut Tehillim 150). Analogously, while we perceive an orchard merely as a large group of trees, Chazal looked at an orchard as thousands of trees, each with tens of branches, thousands of leaves and hundreds of fruits. They appreciated each tree, branch and fruit as a gift from Hashem and they acted accordingly: They paid tribute for each drop of rain, they expressed their gratitude for each breath, and they blessed Hashem for every k'zayis that they ate. 

Hashem could have designed the world in a way that people would not need to breathe more than once a day or eat more than once a year. Yet, He specifically created it in a manner that requires one to breathe numerous times every minute and eat several times a day. A world wherein one is constantly receiving new life and Heaven sent bounty, makes it easier for the recipients of such beneficence to acknowledge that every minute of their life is dependent solely on the will and kindness of the Creator.

How can it be, wonders Rav Wolbe, that despite the infinite acts of kindness that Hashem performs for us on a daily basis, not only do we not feel an enormous debt of gratitude, we still ask Hashem at any given opportunity to shower us with even more kindness? Such behavior seems to stand diametrically opposed to the conduct of Chazal where they felt obligated by each breath and every droplet of water!

The Mishna in Avos (5:22) enlightens us to the root of the issue. "Those who have a good eye, humble spirit and meek soul are among the disciples of Avraham Avinu, while those who have an evil eye, greedy spirit and arrogant soul are among the disciples of the wicked Bilam." What is the difference between a humble spirit and a greedy spirit? Bilam, as he expressed to Balak, felt that he deserved a "houseful of gold and silver." He wished to amass as much as the world could offer. In contrast, Avraham's attitude was similar to one who is impoverished and meek and rejoices even in the smallest things. It was this trait of appreciating every single solitary aspect of creation that led to his discovery of the Creator at age three and ultimately to him being picked to be the father of the Chosen Nation.

It all boils down to our outlook on the world. Is the world all about glitter and glamour with the aim to stuff our pockets with whatever we can? Or is the world made up of an infinite amount of gifts from Heaven above? If the goal is to fill our pockets, there is no reason to thank anybody for anything since we are simply doing what we are supposed to do. In contrast, if we perceive every sparkling raindrop as a diamond and every breath as a Divine gift, we won't stop thanking Hashem for His unending kindness. Indeed, big people appreciate little things.

475 - Pirkei Avos

"Rebbi Yaakov says, 'This world is comparable to a lobby before the World to Come; prepare yourself in the lobby so that you will be able to enter the ballroom.' He would say, 'One hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than the entire next world...'" (Pirkei Avos 4:21,22). Rebbi Yaakov's initial statement implies that this world is merely a passageway to the next world, and the entire purpose of this world is simply for one to prepare himself for the next world through the performance of Torah and mitzvos. Yet, his following statement seems to indicate that aside from the ultimate reward gained by the performance of mitzvos, the mitzvos themselves have an intrinsic worth which far outweighs eternal life.

What is the inherent bliss of mitzvos that can be attained by their very performance without taking into account the ultimate reward? Rav Wolbe quotes Rav Yeruchom Levovitz zt"l who explains that the difference between a "lobby" and a "ballroom" is to some extent merely in size. The antechamber is also beautiful, but it is much smaller than the ballroom. He compared it to what he had once seen: the entire sefer Tehillim on a postcard. Every single word was there, just in microprint. In a similar vein, this world is a microcosm of the World to Come. Everything found in the next world can be found in this world but in limited size and manifestation. The World to Come has infinite possibilities of bliss while in this world there is a very limited amount of such sensations. They can be found in the proper performance of mitzvos, which can attain or possibly surpass certain aspects of the World to Come. 

There is an amazing Medrash at the end of Devarim. The Medrash recounts the conversation that took place between Hashem and the neshama of Moshe Rabbeinu just before Moshe took leave of this world. Moshe's neshama pleaded with Hashem to allow it to stay in Moshe's body: "Is there a purer body in the entire world more than the body of Moshe? I love his body and I do not want to take leave of it!" Hashem tried persuading the neshama to leave by guaranteeing it the greatest rewards: "Leave immediately and I will raise you up to the greatest heights and place you under My throne next to the angels and cherubs!" Nevertheless, Moshe's neshama responded, "Ribbono Shel Olam, Please leave me in Moshe's body!"

While in most cases the neshama detests being in this materialistic world and it is the body which begs to remain on earth, in Moshe's scenario the very opposite was true. He had already consented to die but his neshama refused to leave! It was willing to forgo the greatest rewards in the next world for the opportunity to remain in the pure body of Moshe Rabbeinu in this world. There was something greater to be gained by staying in this world than by moving on to the eternal world.

While Olam Haba is the world of hasaga - attainment and revelation, Olam Hazeh is the world of avodah - work and toil. Why does one hour of labor in this world outweigh the revelations of the next world? This can be explained as follows: Every worker gets pleasure and satisfaction from his work. The builder is pleased by seeing a building go up while the surgeon gets great satisfaction from observing a patient recover. A teacher feels contentment after presenting a fascinating class, while the street cleaner is happy to see expanses of clean sidewalk. Everyone strives to produce great results and it is the satisfaction of seeing these results that gives them the motivation to continue. The work of Hashem is no different. The Ramban writes that the commandment to serve Hashem (u'l'avdo bechol levavchem) requires one to serve Hashem wholeheartedly with pure intentions and not haphazardly or doubting the significance of his actions. Indeed, regardless of the intention one has fulfilled his obligation, but without purity of intent he has not performed avodah. True satisfaction and bliss come from crafting a perfectly pure mitzvah, halachicaly sound and carried out completely for the sake of Hashem without any ulterior motives. The Chazon Ish once wrote a letter outlining various aspects of the mitzvah of tzitzis and concluded by saying, "When you merit performing the mitzvah of tzitzis you will feel incredible happiness with sensations of holiness."

Human beings are pleasure seekers. Sometimes we feel that we can't enjoy life because we are limited by the numerous commandments and restrictions. "What can we do" we think to ourselves, "There is a purpose in life and you have to invest and suffer a little to be able to enjoy the afterlife." However, in truth, the very purpose of life is also the source of the greatest, truest and most long-lasting pleasure. Is it not an exhilarating feeling to know that you made a difference in a person's life - and he doesn't even know that it was you that did it?! Performing a mitzvah inconspicuously without anyone knowing except the Creator Himself, not only ensures purer intentions, it also guarantees great levels of true pleasure!

474 - Pirkei Avos

"Rebbi Chanina ben Chakinai says, 'One who is awake at night or one who travels alone and turns his thought to idleness, bears guilt for his soul'" (Avos 3:5). Rabbeinu Yonah explains this Mishna as follows: "Since these hours are desirable he should use them only for thoughts which are desirable before Hashem i.e. Torah thoughts. These hours are valuable and worthy of thoughts of Torah since he has no work to perform nor does he hear people's voices. Thus, one who turns his thoughts to idleness bears guilt for his soul, for he has wasted time which is opportune for clarity of thought and squandered it on something other than Torah."

Rav Wolbe (Daas Shlomo) comments that these hours are the litmus test of how one relates to the virtue of solitude (bedidus). A person who is awake at night or an individual traveling the roads, inevitably finds himself alone and he is forced into a period of solitude. If he lets his mind wander aimlessly, he has proven that he has no connection to this worthy trait. Naturally, a person is drawn after friends. Yet, the same way someone who has nothing to do with others is looked at derogatorily as a hermit, so too, one who connects solely with friends and detests the time he must spend alone, is also lacking a basic element of a healthy personality.

What exactly is bedidus and why is it so significant? Bedidus is the ability to be completely alone with oneself and to nevertheless feel a sense of great wealth with the realization that he is a veritable world in and of himself. The value of acquiring a connection to thismiddah is mentioned by Chazal. They stated that just as one of the middos of Hashem is that He is "livado" - He stands completely independent of anything in the universe, so too, Yaakov Avinu was stood "livado" - in solitude and independent of all others.

One who always ensures that he is in the company of other people, will certainly many glean positive practices from them. Such a person begins copying the deeds of others: he decides to start fasting "BeHaB" like Reuven, laying Rabbeinu Tam tefillin like Shimon, and he begins eating only hand-baked matzos like Levi. At face value it sounds terrific, but in reality he has not discovered, developed, or improved himself.

The Gra (Mishlei 14:2) writes that different people have different middos and each person must follow the path that will enable them to rectify their specific errantmiddah. Consequently, the path that one takes might look harmful to his friend. If he nevertheless perseveres and takes the path that he knows to be appropriate for his situation, then he is a truly G-d fearing. In contrast, one who chooses to conform to the norms of others to find favor in their eyes, and as a result fails to rectify his shortcomings, has in effect scorned Hashem.

The only way for you to discover who you really are i.e. your virtues, shortcomings and the path that you should be taking in life, is if you designate some time to spend solely with yourself. Unfortunately, such a possibility is becoming increasing difficult. While Chazal understood that a person awake at night or traveling by himself will be alone, that is only because they didn't yet have i-phones. Nowadays, a person is never alone. If it's not a friend, it's the radio, the Mp3 or the i-phone; there is always something to keep a person occupied. A long Shabbos afternoon is an oasis from the constant barrage of outside distractions. Take a walk for a few minutes and introduce yourself to yourself. You might discover that you haven't the slightest idea who you really are! Bedidus is not a burden, it is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to find out why it would have been worth it to create the entire world just for you yourself, as Chazal assert that one should sayb'shveli nivra ha'olam!

473 - Pirkei Avos

"Rebbi Tarfon says, 'The day is short, the work is great... and the Master of the house is pressing" (Avos 2:20). The Yavetz explains that "the Master is pressing" refers to Hashem who desires to bestow upon us goodness, for it was to this end that He created the world. What does this mean? Rav Yeruchom Levovitz cites the Seforno (Shemos 12:42) who explains the Torah's reference to the night of redemption from Egypt as "leil shimurim." Hashem wished to redeem Yisrael but He did not find them spiritually worthy until that night, for which He had been waiting (mishamer) because He desires to perform kindness. In a similar vein, we must try to accomplish as much as possible since Hashem (the Master of the house) is pressing and waiting for the moment that He will be able to bestow His infinite kindness upon an individual and reward him for the spiritual level that he achieves.

Rav Wolbe (Daas Shlomo) quotes the Seforim Hakedoshim who write that when a person is born he is allotted the amount of days necessary to perfect himself. Therefore, one must take advantage of each day because today's mission cannot be accomplished tomorrow. A day which was not utilized will ultimately manifest itself as a "hole" in a person's perfection. Every day carries with it new spiritual opportunities, and it was with this in mind that Moshe Rabbeinu davened, "Teach us to count our days" (Tehillim 90:12). 

The Zohar makes a statement similar to the above mishna in Avos. "The days are short and the baal chov is pressing." However, the meforshim explain that the baal chov mentioned refers not to Hashem but to the yetzer hara. Every day brings with it new challenges as Chazal tell us, "A person's yetzer hara renews itself every day" (Kiddushin 30b). Every individual is allotted a "consignment" of yetzer hara that he is meant to rectify over the course of his life, and we were provided with 613 mitzvos to be used as weaponry to combat the yetzer hara. This too was included in Moshe Rabbeinu's tefillah "teach us to count our days;" i.e. help us be alert to the daily trials presented by the yetzer hara.

Both explanations of Moshe's tefillah, continues Rav Wolbe, are very pertinent to the days of Sefiras Ha'omer where we literally count each day. Teach us to count each day and maximize it to its fullest potential. Moreover, we are taught that these days are replete with a bounty of Heavenly assistance in attaining spiritual acquisitions. On the night of Yetzias Mitzrayim, Hashem elevated Bnei Yisrael to the apex of spiritual ascension; a level that they certainly had not achieved on their own. They were given a brief taste of perfection and then they spent the next forty nine days toiling to regain this elevated plateau. The siyata d'Shmaya that they experienced during that era which enabled them to make a spiritual turnaround at a dazzling speed, is reawakened each year during the days leading up to Shavuos.

The Alter of Kelm writes that each day of the sefira, Bnei Yisrael acquired one of the forty eight qualities through which the Torah is acquired (see Pirkei Avos 6:6). Rav Wolbe concludes that while the Alter himself certainly worked on a new quality each day, it is more than enough for us to work on a single quality over the course of the entire sefira. Any quality that assists one in acquiring Torah knowledge is a vital asset. Each quality brings a greater connection to the Torah which not only aids a person in using every day to the fullest, it is also gives a person more ammunition against the yetzer hara who assaults us with new challenges on a daily basis.

472 - Rav Wolbe's Tenth Yahrzeit

Pirkei Avos begins, "Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Yehoshua and Yehoshua transmitted it to the Elders." How is this introduction germane to the rest of the Avos which deals entirely with middos and ethics? Rav Wolbe (Daas Shlomo) quotes Rav Yeruchom Levovitz's answer to this question. Chazal are informing us that one should not think that when he acquires Torah that it is to remain a personal acquisition. The Torah he learns must be transmitted to others.

This idea is so essential, says Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash, Bereishis 6:18), that it should be conveyed to boys as soon as they enter Yeshiva. They must be cognizant that all the Torah they acquire in their years in Yeshiva should be shared with Klal Yisrael. A grandson related that when he entered Rav Wolbe's Yeshiva at the age of seventeen, Rav Wolbe handed him a copy of The Jewish Observer, and told him to read the article written by Rav Pam about the spiritual holocaust taking place in America. When he finished reading the article, his grandfather asked him, "What are you going to do about this?" He was only seventeen at the time, but Rav Wolbe felt it important to instill in him a sense of achrayus (responsibility) toward the klal. 

We don't live in a bubble. Chazal tell us that "kol Yisrael areivim zeh la'zeh" - every Jew is responsible for the deeds of all other Jews. There are so many Jews that know nothing about Judaism, and the responsibility to teach them lies upon us. Rav Wolbe once asked a grandson if he volunteers for Lev L'achim, an organization in Israel which sends avreichim around non religious neighborhoods where they knock on doors and ask the residents if they are interested in learning about Judaism. The grandson answered in the negative and excused himself by stating that as an American, he is uncomfortable speaking the Hebrew language. He then asked Rav Wolbe if he should move back to America to enable him to do kiruv in his mother tongue. "Maybe," responded Rav Wolbe. The achrayus one needs to feel for the klal might be great enough to make the life altering decision of picking up and moving to a different continent!

Why not invite a neighbor for Shabbos, join Partner's in Torah or ask a colleague if they are interested in a weekly study session. You might be pleasantly surprised to find that many people are genuinely interested in finding out more about their heritage. You don't have to be a kiruv professional to teach a non-affiliated Jews. Any religious Jew knows so much more than his secular counterpart. How can you keep all your knowledge bottled up when there are Jews thirsting for a few drops of spirituality? Take the initiative today and make a change in someone else's life. This is the very first lesson of Pirkei Avos and it is the mantra of all our great leaders throughout the generations.

Gut Yom Tov!