Thursday, September 11, 2014

443 - Ki Savo

The entire world is full of pleasures. Some pleasures are a reality, while some pleasures are mere fantasy. Chazal tell us (Berachos 55b) that a wicked person is shown enjoyable dreams in order to give him pleasure, so that he will consume the reward for his good actions in this world. A vision totally disconnected from reality is also a source of pleasure. The truth is that even from a spiritual standpoint our purpose is to find pleasure through our actions. As the Mesilas Yesharim tells us (chap. 1), "A person was created to find pleasure in Hashem and to enjoy the radiance of His Shechina."

However, says Rav Wolbe (Daas Shlomo) not all pleasures were created equal. A drunkard might immensely enjoy indulging in a favorite alcoholic drink. Yet, shortly thereafter his stomach hurts, he vomits, and, covered in filth, he falls asleep in the middle of the street. When he sobers up he is no better off since his mood is terrible and his entire body aches. His pleasure was short lived.

The uniqueness of the Torah is that it doesn't just guide us to pleasure; it guides us to lasting pleasure, i.e. true happiness and contentment. A quick perusal of this week's parsha reveals a veritable handbook to such pleasure. The parsha begins with the mitzvah of bikurim, "And you shall rejoice with all the goodness that Hashem has provided you and your family." We are meant to appreciate and enjoy whatever Hashem gives us. The parsha continues with vidui ma'aser where, regarding the mitzvos associated with the produce of the land, a person declares, "I have fulfilled all that You have commanded me to do" i.e. I was happy and I made others happy (see Rashi). Thereafter he petitions Hashem, "Look down from Your holy abode from the heavens and bless Your nation Yisrael and the land that You have given to them." 

Further on the Torah tells us, "Hashem has distinguished you today to be his treasured people. . . and to make you supreme over all the nations that He made - for praise, for prominence, and for splendor." We have a treasured and supreme connection to Hashem that elevates us above nature and beyond the confines of all other nations.

The Torah continues with the blessings and curses associated with the performance of mitzvos. We know that reward for mitzvos is not given in this world. If so, why are all the blessings given to those who perform the mitzvos connected to our physical needs which are limited to the present world? The Baalei Mussar explain that the blessings mentioned are not a reward for the mitzvos rather they are an automatic outcome of the mitzvos. One who travels on the beaten path will pass rest stops offering a wide array of amenities, while he who strays from the beaten path will encounter only thorns and thickets. The Torah is the guidebook to traverse life with all the proper amenities! On the other hand, the curses come as a result of, "Not serving Hashem with happiness and goodness of heart - despite great abundance." The Torah is rhetorically asking, "True happiness and contentment is found in the Torah. How could it be that you didn't find your happiness in all that the Torah has to offer?" 

The parsha ends with the pasuk (as explained by the Targum), "You shall guard the words of this covenant and perform them so that you will succeed in all that you do." Success is one of the defining factors of happiness and contentment.

For many people, happiness is limited to watching television, surfing the net, listening to music or enjoying a good book. Rav Wolbe related that in France they took a survey where they asked people, "What is happiness", and "Are you happy?" Most answered that happiness is "financial stability" and only eight percent answered that they are happy! What a pathetic world! In contrast, we have the ability to achieve true and lasting happiness through Torah, tefillah, Shabbos, and the many other opportunities that the Torah affords us!

442 - Ki Seitzei

What happens when two people have a dispute? The Torah describes the legal process: "When two people have a dispute and they approach the court and they judge them; the court vindicates the righteous one and finds the wicked one guilty. If the wicked one deserves lashes the judge should bend him over and hit him according to his wickedness. He shall hit him forty times, no more, lest he hit him an additional time and your brother will be degraded in your eyes" (Devarim 25, 1-3). 

Rashi points out the obvious question. Three times the pessukim refer to the one found liable as wicked and immediately thereafter the Torah refers to this same wicked man as your brother. What changed that the Torah ceased to refer to him as a wicked person and chose a more positive term? What changed is that he received forty lashes. Once he received his punishment he is no longer wicked. He is your brother - no different than any other Jew. 

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) notes the great difference between the way the Torah deals with a wrongdoer and the customary way a court of law deals with an offender nowadays. When a criminal is caught, he is brought to court and they open a file. Even after he receives his punishment, his name is forever tainted and he is black listed as a convict. Additionally, on a social level it is difficult for him to regain his former stature and renew his past relationships. In the world of Torah law this is not the case. As soon as the punishment has been meted out, the offender becomes your brother in every possible way. 

Moreover, Rav Itzele Blazer would say that from a Torah view, even a thief has to be dealt with in a respectable manner. If he has the money to repay what he stole, he must make restitution, and no one will know what occurred. This differs greatly from the way thieves are dealt with in contemporary society where as soon as someone is caught, his crime is publicized, which can ruin his entire life. The mitzvos bein adom l'chaveiro are not limited to those completely righteous. The halachos apply even to criminals, and if so, they most certainly apply to your neighbors and colleagues. Even if you do not see eye to eye with them on a few or even numerous occasions, this does not absolve you from acting toward them in the same way that you would act toward your close relative. Although the difficult person is not your blood relative, he is still your brother!

441 - Shoftim

Elul is a unique opportunity. Every year Hashem gives us a month packed with rachamim to be used in preparation for the upcoming judgment that will take place on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. What is the way to properly utilize this extraordinary gift? The answer can be found in the Ramban in this week's parsha.

The Torah exhorts, "Tzedek tzedek tirdof" - Righteousness righteousness shall you pursue so that you will live and inherit the land (Devarim 17, 20). After explaining the simple meaning of the pasuk, the Ramban quotes a Medrash which explains the pasuk with a kabbalistic approach. Although the complete intent behind his words is beyond our comprehension, there is still an important message that can be gleaned from the explanation: "Tzedek refers to the attribute of judgment in the world. If you judge yourself, 'You will live' and if you do not judge yourself, Hashem will judge you and force you to live."

How does one judge himself? Rav Wolbe (Da'as Shlomo) explains that he must answer the following question: "What do I want to achieve and accomplish with my life?" i.e. "What is my true desire?" The Gr"a (Mishlei 16, 2) writes that every person has an underlying core desire which is the source of all his actions and speech. This desire encapsulates the true aspiration of his life. However, this desire is buried deep inside a person and is therefore difficult to unearth. When one succeeds in discovering this desire he will have gained clarity into his essence and his truest aspiration.

This revelation has the ability to bring a person to teshuva. When he realizes that his actions are directed by a wayward desire, this should galvanize him to rectify the situation. Indeed, this is a difficult task and it can be compared to a heart transplant! He must uproot the desire and plant a new one in its place. This is not a task which can be completed in a day. It could very possibly take months or years to completely correct the situation. Yet, the very fact that he wishes to change his errant aspiration already places him in the category of "one who comes to purify himself" and is guaranteed that "he will be helped".

The teshuva process begins with the realization that one is straying after a core desire. This realization can only be achieved if one asks himself the above question. If one takes a minute each day of Elul to ask himself what he really wants from life, he will be well prepared for the Yomim HaNoraim. As the Ramchal writes (Derech Eitz Chaim) this pointed question is "the best and strongest remedy that one can find against the yetzer hara; it is simple and the results are tremendous!"

440 - Re'ei

Rav Wolbe cites the Seforno on the first pasuk of this week's parsha: "See that I am placing before you today a blessing and a curse" (Devarim 11, 26). The Seforno explains, "See to it that your actions are not mediocre like the behavior of most people. For I have placed before you today a blessing and a curse which are the two extremes. Blessing is bounty much greater than what one needs to manage and curse causes a deficiency where one does not have enough to manage. Both of these options are available for you to choose". 

This idea of going to the extreme with one's actions is rooted in the Gemara in Brachos (63a). "Bar Kapara taught, 'What is a small parsha that encapsulates the entire Torah? In all your ways you shall know Him.'" Every single action should be carried out with the aim of "knowing Hashem." If one's decision to follow the path paved by the Torah is halfhearted, his actions will be mediocre. Rather, one's commitment, and hopefully in turn his actions, should be passionate. His mind should be focused on a single path, and all actions should be performed with the intent of doing the will of the Creator. 

Such a directive seems to deny us any possibility for pleasure. However, if we take a look at another pasuk a little later in the parsha, we will find that this notion is totally incorrect. Regarding the mitzvah of ma'aser sheni (the tenth of one's produce which must be eaten in Yerushalayim), the Torah explains part of the rationale behind the mitzvah. "You shall eat before Hashem in the place that He has chosen to reside in, the tithes of your grain, your wine, your oil, your cattle and your sheep so that you will learn to fear Hashem your G-d all the days" (ibid. 14, 23). The Torah "forces" us to eat our produce in the environs of the Bais Hamikdosh, because such a visit has the ability to ingrain yiras Shamayim in a person. 

Yet, a few pesukim later the Torah states that one who does not have the ability to bring all his produce to Yerushalayim, should redeem the produce with money, take the money to Yerushayim and buy produce there. "And you shall eat there before Hashem and rejoice - you and your family." Wasn't the purpose of eating the produce in Yerushlayim to instill fear? How does happiness make its way into the parsha of ma'aser? The answer is the secret of a Torah true existence. Only in Judaism do fear and happiness go hand in hand. The very focus on doing Hashem's will and fearing Him is what brings a person true happiness! Directing all of our thoughts and actions toward one goal is a tall order, but at least we know where we should be heading. Moreover, if we knew how much happiness it could bring us, we would have started heading there a long time ago!

439 - Eikev

Twice in this week's parsha, we are urged to follow in Hashem's ways: "Now Yisrael, what does Hashem ask of you? Only to fear Hashem your G-d, to follow all His ways and to love Him" (Devarim 10, 12). The parsha ends with the second mention of this idea: "For if you will fulfill this mitzvah that I command you, to love Hashem your G-d, to walk in His ways, and cleave to Him . . ." (ibid. 11, 22). These are two of the numerous times that the Torah refers to the idea of our actions mirroring Hashem's actions, which refers to perfecting one's middos.

Rav Wolbe (Da'as Shlomo) notes that we find this concept mentioned even before Bnei Yisrael received the Torah. After experiencing the awesome Heavenly revelation during the splitting of the sea, Bnei Yisrael declared, "zeh Keili v'anveihu." Rashi, in one explanation, writes that v'anveihu is composed of two words, ani v'Hu - I and Him: I will make myself like Him by cleaving to His ways. The Maharal writes that the common denominator of all the interpretations of zeh Keili v'anveihu is the publicizing of Hashem's Name in this world. With this in mind it would seem that the objective of ani v'Hu is to glorify Hashem's Name in this world, rather when perfecting one's way.

Accordingly, following in Hashem's ways has two different purposes. The mitzvah to walk in His ways was given to us as a means of attaining perfection. If we emulate Hashem's deeds then we, too, will attain a certain level of His perfection. However, there is another aspect to following in Hashem's ways that is not focused on the person performing the deeds, rather, on his Creator. If we act in a manner that mirrors the ways of Hashem, we will have succeeded in creating a kiddush Hashem, glorifying His Name in the world. 

Which ever aspect you choose to focus on, it is clear that the Torah places a great emphasis on the importance of good middos. Moreover, it is clear from Chazal that they perceived negative middos as the reason behind the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh. Baseless hatred is singled out as the cause for the destruction. Additionally, the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza where a man was publicly embarrassed due to his strained relationship with his host, was perceived by Chazal as the catalyst for the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh.

Summer months generally bring us into close proximity with many other families in a way different from the rest of the year. Other people's dirt, noise or inconsideration are great ways to get us angry. If we can control our middos then we have succeeded in walking in Hashem's way, thereby perfecting ourselves and glorifying Hashem's Name in the world!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

438 - Va'eschanan

Rav Wolbe visited a cannon brigade during the Yom Kippur war. He writes (Iggros V'Kesavim II pg. 6) that he was amazed by their living conditions. They live extremely simply without any comforts. They sleep in their clothing and they do not even take off their shoes! The constant tension and the fact that they are so far from home add to the difficulty. 

He thought to himself that if only we would fight the "war of Torah" with the same mindset as those soldiers - living with only the most basic necessities - we would grow to great heights in Torah. The problem is that we think that such an existence is only for soldiers; and we're simply not soldiers. So, we allow ourselves a little more comfort, a little more relaxation and a little more fun. After all we deserve it. The result is that instead of becoming big, we remain very small people spiritually!

Unfortunately, Eretz Yisrael is once again in the midst of a war. Nothing has changed with regard to the living conditions of the soldiers. They sleep in their clothing and they shower every few days with water bottles. Most probably nothing has changed with our mindset either. "Thank goodness we don't have to live under the conditions which the soldiers live," we think to ourselves. 

Although we certainly do not expect people to begin sleeping in their clothing with their head resting on sandbags, there are definitely aspects of a soldier's lifestyle that we can incorporate into our avodas Hashem. Not everything has to be exactly perfect before sitting down to learn or embarking on a mitzvah. Grab the opportunity whenever it presents itself. Additionally, before entering the battlefield, the soldiers must give in their cell phones. Before we enter the Torah battlefield i.e. the Beis Medrash, we should also give in, or at least turn off, our cell phones. 

Summer is a time for relaxation for many. Nevertheless, let us not forget that at all times we are soldiers in Hashem's army. Our conscientiousness with our avodas Hashem has the ability to bring the soldiers fighting in Gaza home safely (and keep them home!) and restore peace to those living in Eretz Yisrael!

437 - Devarim - Tisha B'av

The Gemara (Chagiga 5a) tells us, "Rebbi was holding a sefer Eichah and reading from it. When he reached the pasuk, 'He threw the glory of Yisrael down from the heavens to the earth" the sefer fell from his hands and he exclaimed, '[Bnei Yisrael were hurled] from a tall roof to a deep pit.'" The pasuk already told us that Bnei Yisrael were thrown down from the heavens to the earth; what was Rebbi adding when he exclaimed that they were cast into a deep pit?

Rav Wolbe (Da'as Shlomo) explains that we have a basic misconception with regard to the Churban. We perceive the mourning associated with the Churban specifically in regard to the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh, the holiest site on earth. While the destruction of this hallowed abode was an enormous tragedy, it is not the only aspect we mourn on Tisha B'Av.

When the Bais Hamikdosh stood, the Jewish Nation lived a "heavenly" existence. Their entire lives revolved around spirituality. Ruach Hakodesh abounded and the simplest Jew lived and breathed ruchniyus and constantly strived to attain higher levels in this area. Their actions were a constant display of kavod Shamayim. It is quite probable that even the non-Jews lived on an altogether different level.

When the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed, we did not merely lose a holy building; our entire world drastically changed for the worse. The Jewish People were cast from their heavenly existence down to the ground. However, Rebbi felt that Bnei YIsrael did not land on the ground. They fell into a deep pit devoid of any spiritual light and air. The physical world became the focus of attention, and with its great allure it draws people in - hook, line and sinker. Money and honor became the name of the game. Bnei Yisrael had landed in a deep pit. This pain is compounded with the pain felt by the Shechina being sent into galus. This is the tragedy that we mourn on Tisha B'Av.

Rav Wolbe adds a timely idea connected to the above pasuk. Rashi explains that after Hashem raised Bnei Yisrael to the highest heights of the heavens, he threw them down in one swift motion and not little by little. The Medrash adds that while the climb up was an arduous journey, the tumble down happened in a split second. When middas hadin (strict judgment) strikes, it strikes suddenly without warning. However, we find the same idea regarding the geulah, as the pasuk states (Malachi 3, 1), "Suddenly the Master whom you are awaiting will enter His Sanctuary" with the arrival of Moshiach. [May we merit his speedy arrival!]

Additionally, says Rav Wolbe, we find that Hashem often tests a person by seeing how they react when suddenly placed in a specific situation. The Medrash tells us that Kayin, Bilam, and Chizkiyahu all failed to properly answer Hashem when He appeared to them without warning. Had they had time to think about their response they certainly would have answered differently, but the litmus test to determine a person's level of spirituality is how he reacts when suddenly faced with a test. Preparation in advance arms a person for all scenarios. The summer months often come along with various situations that arise during vacation. One should prepare himself before embarking on his vacation lest he lose his bearings when faced with scenarios that might compromise his normal level of observance.