Wednesday, December 17, 2008

155 - Vayeishev

In this week's parsha we read how Yosef is falsely accused of improper conduct and as a result is thrown into jail by his master Potiphar. After sitting in jail for ten years, Yosef is presented with an opportunity to be released from bondage. He correctly interpreted the dream of another jail mate, the Sar Hamashkim, - foretelling his imminent release. Yosef felt that this would be an opportune time to bring his case before Pharaoh, and he requested from the Sar Hamashkim to remember him favorably before the king. Rashi (Bereishis 40, 23) tells us that because Yosef placed his trust in an Egyptian, he was punished by having to spend another two years in jail. 

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) notes that the Ramban in the beginning of Parshas Vayishlach writes that tzaddikim do not rely on their righteousness, but rather attempt to save themselves with the resources available to them (as discussed in last week's dvar Torah). If so, he asks, why was Yosef punished for asking the Sar Hamashkim to help him? Wasn't this a normal act of hishtadlus? 

Rav Wolbe quotes the Chazon Ish (Sefer Emunah U'Bitachon) who explains as follows. One definitely has to make a hishtadlus. However, he must calculate if his hishtadlus has a reasonable chance to succeed. As Rashi tells us, the Egyptians are described as "rahavim" - arrogant, and therefore, Yosef should not have placed his trust in an Egyptian. His request was made out of despair - like a drowning man grabbing at a piece of straw - and it was for this reason that he was at fault. On Yosef's high spiritual level, such an attempt could not be considered a reasonable hishtadlus.

The Mashgiach offers another explanation as well. There was nothing wrong with the actual request that Yosef made of the Sar Hamashkim. Yet, as Rashi emphasizes, "Yosef placed his trust in the Sar Hamashkim."  One must be aware that all attempts are merely a fulfillment of his obligation to make a hishtadlus; his trust must be placed completely in Hashem. On Yosef's high spiritual level, he was punished for placing his trust to a small degree in man.

Even when one plants a seed in the ground, he should be cognizant of the fact that it is Hashem Who causes the seed to sprout. The planting is an act of hishtadlus; the actual sprouting happens because Hashem decides to fulfill the farmer's desire and causes the tree to grow. Everything that happens in this world is solely because Hashem so wishes. Therefore, despite our obligation to make a hishtadlus, it is merely a hishtadlus, and it is in Hashem that we must place our complete trust.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

154 - Vayishlach

The Ramban in his introduction to Parshas Vayishlach enumerates a number of lessons to be learned from the stories recounted in the parsha. "This parsha was written to publicize that Hashem saved His servant and redeemed him from a power mightier than him and sent an angel who rescued him. Additionally, it teaches us that Yaakov did not rely on his righteousness but rather attempted to save himself with all his resources ..." Rav Wolbe explains (Shiurei Chumash) that Hashem created the world in a way that it should run in accordance with the laws of nature. The Avos understood that if He so willed that the world operate in such a manner, they must act accordingly. Therefore, all their dealings with others were within the framework of these laws.
Yaakov didn't merely say, "Hashem you're in charge and please save us." He sent presents to his brother in an attempt to appease him, while preparing for war and the possibility that he might be overwhelmed and be forced to flee. He did everything in his power to save himself and his family, because he realized that it was incumbent upon him to do his share, and that this too is an aspect of avodas Hashem.
Toward the beginning of World War II, Rav Leib Malin urged all the bochurim in the Mirrer Yeshiva to flee to Japan despite the fact that there were many great people that were of a different opinion. Rav Yeruchom Levovitz had impressed upon him that one must not rely upon miracles, but rather do all possible to save oneself in a conventional manner. His advice was responsible for the survival of the Mirrer Yeshiva; all those who fled to Japan were saved from the horrors of the Holocaust.
Nevertheless, Yaakov also davened to Hashem to save him from his angry brother. His down to earth attempts to save his family were intertwined with a prayer to Hashem. Likewise, we find in Parshas Miketz, that Yaakov told his sons to prepare a present for the viceroy of Egypt in an attempt to appease him to free Shimon and Binyomin. He also added a prayer on their behalf: "And may Hashem grant you compassion" (Bereishis 43, 11). All one's endeavors must be complimented with a tefillah to Hashem. Even when one must take medication he is supposed to pray, "May it be [Your] will that this endeavor provide a cure for me" (Shulchan Aruch O.C. 230, 4).
Hashem created the world in a way that requires us to abide by the laws of nature. However, there is a danger that he who is successful in his endeavors might begin to think that it was his brains and brawn which brought him success. Although we must do all we can, we should not lose sight of Who really is in charge. We must also pray to Hashem to help us succeed, because hishtadlus and tefillah go hand in hand.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

153 - Vayeitzei

"And Yaakov made a promise saying, 'If Hashem will be with me and watch over me on the path which I will take and give me food to eat and clothing to wear. And if I will return to my father's house in peace and Hashem will be for me a G-d - This stone that I have placed as a monument will be a house for Hashem...'" (Bereishis 28, 20-22).
Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) notes that in effect Yaakov was asking that Hashem watch over him with an extremely high level of Hashgacha Pratis. What justification did Yaakov have to ask for such special treatment from the Almighty? Rav Wolbe explains that Hashgacha Pratis works measure for measure in accordance with the amount of effort that a person puts into his avodas Hashem. The closer one gets to Hashem, the more acute the Divine Providence becomes. Hence, Yaakov wasn't merely asking for a free handout. He realized that he would need to reach a lofty level of spirituality for him to merit the ultimate Hashgacha Pratis - that Hashem dwell in an abode on earth. He was declaring that if he succeeded in reaching a high level of spirituality, Hashem would then reciprocate and "be with him", watch over him and take care of his physical needs. If this would happen, that would be his cue that he was successful in his endeavor. He would then be able to build his monument into a house for G-d, because by perfecting himself, he will have created a proper resting place to accommodate Hashem's Shechina here on earth.
Our forefathers merited constant Hashgacha Pratis in all of their dealings, because they made an effort to serve Hashem with every action. Moreover, they earned the ultimate Hashgacha Pratis when Hashem's Shechina rested upon them. They subjugated themselves entirely to Hashem and thereby merited that thrice daily we refer to Hashem as, "The G-d of Avraham, the G-d of Yitzchok and the G-d of Yaakov."
Nevertheless, this rule of Hashgacha Pratis is not limited to our Avos. It holds true for each and every one of us. As Chazal tell us, Hashem leads a person on the path he wishes to follow. For example, if one is extremely cautious with regard to his speech or his thoughts, Hashem will assist him not to transgress an aveirah in that area. The more of an effort that one makes in his avodah of the Divine, the more Divine Providence he merits.
We say in Tehillim (121), "Hashem is your shadow" - since He mimics our behavior. If we are vigilant in a certain area of avodas Hashem, Hashem helps us in that area. [There was a man who decided to take upon himself to be careful not to miss hearing the haftorah on Shabbos. One week he had to excuse himself and he missed hearing the haftorah. On his way home he was called into a minyan that needed a tenth man, because someone had stepped out in the middle. He entered to find them just about to commence the reading of the haftorah. As they finished, the original tenth man reappeared, and he was free to go home; the Hashgacha Pratis was clear.] Why not try it and see for yourself the special Hashgacha Pratis one merits when he puts in the extra effort in his avodas Hashem.

152 - Toldos

Rashi tells us that during Rivka's pregnancy she felt conflicting movements within her womb. When she passed by a place where Torah was studied, she would feel sensations as if the baby wanted to leave her stomach indicating that he was interested in spending his time learning Torah. On the other hand, when she passed by a house of idol worship, she would feel the very same sensations - implying a dramatically different way of life. Unsure of what to expect, Rivka went to the beis medresh of Sheim to find out what Hashem had in store for her. Hashem told Sheim to relay to Rivka that she is expecting twins, one will be righteous and the other wicked. Hence, the conflicting messages she has been receiving, since some of the movements are by one child while some are by the other.
After this inquiry we find no mention of any concern on Rivka's part. It would seem that she was reassured by Sheim's explanation. Rav Wolbe asks (Shiurei Chumash), shouldn't she have had more reason to be concerned, for now she knew that one of her children was going to grow up to be wicked? He explains that originally Rivka thought she was expecting only one child and she was afraid that he was schizophrenic - vacillating between serving Hashem and idol worship. Once she was informed that in reality she was expecting two children, one righteous and one wicked, she was able to come to terms with this knowledge because it is the normal way of the world - a constant struggle between good and evil.
The Mashgiach elaborates, when good and evil are mixed up into one entity, it is very difficult to overcome the evil. Even if one refrains from sinning for one reason or another, in most instances he has merely pushed the desire into his subconscious, only for it to resurface at a later date. When the evil is defined and isolated, one knows his enemy. It is easier to subdue his negative desires because he has a clear picture of what he is fighting. Hashem created the world in such a way that there is always a balance between the forces of good and evil and it is incumbent upon each person to choose good and overcome evil. However, if one is not sure as to what is really good and what is evil, he doesn't know what is expected of him, and he lacks the assertiveness to truly overcome those things he suspects are bad.
Our fight with the yetzer hara is a continuous and difficult battle. The very first step in this life-long struggle is defining the evil so that we have clarity in our mission. If one isn't sure when it is permissible to become angry and when it is forbidden, and in general has a hard time comprehending what is wrong with getting angry, he will have an even harder time overcoming this negative trait. The same holds true on all fronts of the war against the yetzer hara. The best way to defeat the enemy is to study a sefer that deals with the trait one wishes to rectify, thereby gaining the tools to define the enemy and vanquish him.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

151 - Chaya Sara

When Sara Imeinu passed away, Avraham went to Bnei Cheis to purchase Me'aras Ha'Machpeila as a burial ground for his wife. After he bought the land from Efron, the Torah tells us, "And Efron's field "rose" ... as an acquisition of Avraham" (Bereishis 23, 17). Rashi explains that the field, so to speak, "ascended" when its ownership was transferred from a layman (Efron) to a king (Avraham). Rav Wolbe asks, (Shiurei Chumash) what difference does it make to the field who owns it? He explains as follows.

The Vilna Gaon on Megillas Esther (3, 13) writes that there are three mitzvos performed on the day of Purim - the reading of the Megilla, Mishloach Manos to complement the Seudah and Matanas L'evyonim - corresponding to the three components that comprise a person. The reading of the Megillah corresponds to his neshama, the Mishloach Manos to his body and Matanos L'evyonim to his material acquisitions. It is evident from this explanation that one's money and possessions are part and parcel of who he is. If so, we can understand the spiritual ascension of Me'aras Ha'Machpeila after it was purchased by Avraham. It had been an essential part of Efron and now it became an essential part of Avraham, the greatest person alive at the time.

Rav Wolbe elaborates that we tend to believe that we are in control of our money and we may do with it as we see fit. However, this is not a correct perception. Every dollar and every material acquisition was Heavenly ordained that it be placed in a person's possession, and he becomes a guardian of all that he owns. Therefore, he must appropriate his money properly and not act negligently with regard to his belongings. One who constantly spends his money on frivolities might very well be lacking in his emunah. Such a person shows that he does not believe that his money was given to him by Hashem with a specific purpose in mind.

The Torah relates a number of stories, which according to Chazal, demonstrate this idea. One such example is when Yaakov Avinu prepared his family in anticipation of their meeting with Eisav, and he crossed over a river with his family and all his belongings. However, he forgot some small vessels and he put himself in danger by going back to retrieve them. Yaakov acknowledged the fact that his money was G-d given and therefore, spent time and effort to retrieve seemingly trivial utensils.

All possessions are given to a person for a purpose. If he doesn't need it himself, then it was given to him to allocate to others who do need it. Just because one may have no use for an item, this does not permit him to act carelessly with it. One who shows care for his possessions has in effect displayed his emunah that the Creator gave him those belongings for a specific reason.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

150 - Vayeira

The Gr"a says that the 613 mitzvos are merely the general commandments, because the specific details of each mitzva are endless. He proves this idea from the fact that many parshios in the Torah contain not even a single one of the 613 mitzvos. If we were not supposed to be gleaning details from these parshios with regard to the performance of mitzvos, for what purpose were they written? Rav Wolbe comments (Shiurei Chumash) that Parshas Vayeira is a case in point of this idea of the Vilna Gaon. Despite the fact that it contains not a single commandment, it contains a veritable "Shulchan Aruch" with regard to the area of chesed. Vayeira commences with recounting Avraham's extraordinary hachnasas orchim.
Despite Avraham's very advanced age and weak state of health, as he recovered from his circumcision, he nevertheless went out searching for guests in the scorching sun. When he finally spotted the G-d-sent angels in the guise of Arabs, he asked Hashem to put their conversation on hold(!) so that he could tend to his guests. He offered his guests merely bread, but then hurried to prepare them a gourmet meal: slaughtering three cows so that he could give each one the best cut of meat. Avraham didn't wait until the entire meal was prepared; as each dish was made he hurried to bring the food to his hungry visitors. He waited over them as they ate, and personally escorted them after they finished their meal.
However, the chesed mentioned in this week's parsha is not limited to Avraham i.e. the host. The Torah tells us that the angels asked Avraham, "Where is your wife Sarah?" to which he answered that she could be found inside the tent. Rashi points out that although the angels knew the whereabouts of Sarah, they asked Avraham so that he would appreciate his wife's modesty. It didn't make a difference that Avraham was nearly one hundred years old and had been married for over seventy years - a wife should always be endeared to her husband. This is chesed that pertains to a guest.
Moreover, the Torah reveals a chesed performed by Hashem Himself. After being informed that she would give birth to a child, Sarah laughed and questioned the possibility of such an event in light of the old age of Avraham. Hashem (the G-d of truth) repeated this conversation to Avraham - with a small change intended to preserve their marital harmony. Instead of relaying that Sarah said, "My husband is old" He stated that Sarah said, "I am old." Chazal derive from Hashem's remark that it is permissible to lie for the sake of making peace. When the intention is one of chesed, an untruth cannot be considered deceit.
Our second encounter with the chesed performed by Avraham comes in the wake of his being informed about the imminent destruction of the cities of Sodom and Amorah. Though the inhabitants were wicked, he was concerned about them and extended himself on their behalf by praying fervently for their survival. They were neither his colleagues nor his friends - he didn't even know them; they needed help and he did everything in his ability to save them.
If we take a minute to study this Shulchan Aruch of chesed, we will find many aspects that we can incorporate into our everyday lives. There is nothing loftier than helping another, there is almost never a situation where it is too difficult to perform chesed, and it is never beneath one's dignity to personally perform the kindness. The beneficiary deserves the very best treatment, without delay and every single person is a potential beneficiary - regardless of his greatness, age or social status. We have much to gain from an in depth study of the parsha - even one that contains none of the 613 commandments!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

149 - Lech Lecha

People tend to believe that the earlier generations were less advanced than later, more cultured, generations. We know that for Jews there is a concept of yeridas hadoros - a continuous decline in their spiritual level as they get further away from Matan Torah. However, with regard to Non-Jews, people think that their spiritual level hasn't changed, and if anything, they have only advanced as the generations have moved along. Moreover, some claim, Non-Jews had no knowledge of G-d before the introduction of the religions of Christianity and Islam. Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) opens our eyes to a number of incidents in the Torah that prove the exact opposite. The earlier generations believed in Hashem to an extent unmatched by later generations.

In Parshas Vayeira (Bereishis 20, 2-8) the Torah relates that King Avimelech took Sarah as a wife - believing that she was Avraham's sister. Hashem came to Avimelech in a dream and warned him lest he touch Avraham's wife. Avimelech rose early in the morning and recounted his dream to his servants who all trembled in fear after hearing what happened. The very fact that Avimelech merited having Hashem speak to him in a dream is proof that he was on an extremely high spiritual level. Additionally, it could only be the fear of Heaven that propelled the king out of bed in the morning and caused his servants to quake in fright.

In addition, Rashi in this week's parsha (Bereishis 16, 1) tells us that Sarah's maidservant, Hagar, was the daughter of Par'oh - the most powerful ruler in the entire world. After beholding the miracles that occurred to Sarah, he sent his daughter off to work as a maid for this extraordinary woman. He declared, "It is better that my daughter be a maidservant in this household than she be a mistress in any other household!" It is doubtful, to say the least, that in our day and age the President of the United States would send his daughter to work in the home of the Gadol Hador!

What caused Par'oh to make such a remarkable statement? The Torah recounts the amazing events that led up to Par'oh's declaration. Due to a famine in the land of Cana'an, Avraham traveled with his wife Sarah to Egypt - the land of plenty. Upon beholding Sarah's beauty, the Egyptians seized her for they felt she would be an appropriate wife for Par'oh. As a result, Hashem brought terrible afflictions upon Par'oh and his family. The Ramban explains that Par'oh contemplated the cause of his suffering until he came to the realization that it was due to the abduction of Sarah. Hence, he scolded Avraham, "Why didn't you tell me that she was your wife?" Par'oh fulfilled Chazal's dictum, "When one begins to suffer he should examine his actions [to determine the cause of his suffering]."

The Mashgiach adds that we are a little too lax in examining our actions. When one catches a cold or virus he immediately attributes it to some phenomenon. Instead he should take a few moments to reflect on what has happened: "Who caused this, and why did it happen?" A minute of introspection might reveal some action that should have been avoided. One can't know for sure if it was that, which was the cause of his suffering, but regardless, it will motivate him to improve in the future.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

148 - Noach

Chazal tell us (Rashi to Bereishis 10, 9) that Nimrod "knew his Master and intentionally rebelled against Him." How could it be that Nimrod acknowledged Hashem's omnipotence and, nevertheless, rebelled against Him?

Rav Wolbe explains that the concept of "knowing one's Master and rebelling against Him" was more prevalent in the earlier generations because they had a clear perception of Hashem from their earliest years. It was precisely because of his closeness to Hashem that Nimrod had a problem. It was difficult for him to maintain such a lofty madreiga for an extended period of time. Had someone asked Nimrod if he believed in Hashem, he would have answered, "Absolutely!" and, nevertheless, his impulses refused to act in keeping with this knowledge.

Likewise, when a person ascends a rung on the spiritual ladder, there is an automatic feeling of resistance. Rav Dessler compares this concept to a spring. The harder one presses down on the spring, the harder it will bounce back toward him. The bigger the resolution one accepts upon himself, the more resistance he will feel and the harder it will be for him to maintain this new madreiga.

When one learns mussar and engages in serious self introspection,he will be surprised to find that he, too, possesses (to a certain extent) these feelings of resistance toward ruchniyos. One such example is our behavior after Yom Kippur, when many people sing and dance. Is this happiness borne out of genuine feelings of gratitude to Hashem for pardoning our sins? One who learns mussar will discover that it is more likely that this singing and dancing is an expression of joy at being relieved of saying so many tefillios andconfessions. It is simply too difficult for us to maintain the lofty level of Yom Kippur. This is a subconscious act of rebellion against Hashem!

The Alter of Kelm writes that Chazal's statements can be compared to stars and the way to properly "see" them is with a "telescope" i.e. the study of mussar. Though the above statement of Chazal might seem "distant" and difficult to understand, the study of mussar acts as a "telescope" for it allows us to discover these very traits inside ourselves and thereby understand the profundity of Chazal's words.

Thus, it is imperative to progress spiritually with small steps since there is less resistance. Someone who decides to completely refrain from speaking by accepting a ta'anis dibbur for a day, and thereby prevent himself from speaking lashon hara and other prohibited speech, may find that the resistance is too great. The next day he might end up speaking twice as much as he had until now! Additionally, one must make an effort to internalize his awareness of Hashem, for then it becomes not mere "knowledge", but part and parcel of his very being. The result will be that he will act in consonance with his knowledge instead of rebelling against Hashem.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

147 - Yom Kippur

There is a well known Gemara (Rosh Hashana 16b) that describes the judicial scene in Heaven on Rosh Hashana. "There are three books open: Those who are completely righteous are immediately signed and sealed for life. Those who are completely wicked are immediately signed and sealed for death and those in the middle (beinonim) hang in balance until Yom Kippur. If they are found to have merit they are sealed for life, and if they lack merit they are sealed for death." The simple explanation is that the righteous refer to those with more mitzvos than aveiros, the wicked are those with more aveiros than mitzvos and the beinonim are those whose portfolio contains half mitzvos and half aveiros. However, the Alter of Kelm asks that Chazal say that one who does not fulfill even one Rabbinic commandment is considered a rasha - one who is wicked. If so, how can we refer to such a person as righteous simply because his merits outweigh his transgressions? He explains that the criterion for defining one as a tzaddik in the context of Rosh Hashana is not the amount of mitzvos he has performed. Rather, one is considered a tzaddik if he is close to doing teshuva, while a rasha is one who is far from doing teshuva.

If so, asks Rav Wolbe (Ma'amerei Yemei Ratzon pg. 228), who can be considered a beinoni, since a person is either close to the performance of teshuva or far from this process? He answers by way of clarifying a stanza in the selicha said on Erev Rosh Hashana (28). "Man serves two masters throughout his life: He serves his yetzer hara and his Creator as he wills. It is good for him to cleave to his Creator at all times for then he is a servant [of Hashem] and free from his master (yetzer hara)." A person mightserve Hashem through davening, learning Torah or any other mitzvah, and nevertheless, still desire to enjoy life the way he deems fit. Outside the framework of his spiritual servitude to Hashem, he wishes to behave among his friends as he pleases, without being inhibited by thoughts of yiras shamayim. Who doesn't feel this dichotomy to a certain extent?

The person described above might feel pangs of regret at his shortcomings in the spiritual realm. He realizes that his tefillos are lacking concentration and he has fallen short in his performance of mitzvos. With regard to this aspect he can be considered, "One close to performing teshuva." In contrast, he perceives his second "identity" - the half that wishes to live as he pleases - as a completely different entity. He has no feelings of guilt despite his shortcomings and transgressions in this area, and in this regard he cannot be considered, "Close to performing teshuva." Such a person is the "beinoni" mentioned in the Gemara Rosh Hashana.

So what is the avodah of a beinoni? He must make an effort to internalize the advice of the selicha. "It is good for him to cleave to his Creator at all times - for then he is a servant [of Hashem] and free from his master (yetzer hara)." The intention is not that one must become completely righteous overnight - for that is unrealistic and cannot endure. However, he should take some time to contemplate his purpose here on Earth and adjust his mindset accordingly.

G'mar Chasima Tova!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

146 - Rosh Hashanah

The Ramban in his introduction to the story of Akeidos Yitzchok (Bereishis 22, 1) explains the purpose of a nisoyon. A person is tested for his own benefit: so that he can be rewarded for a good deed and not merely a good heart. Though Avraham Avinu succeeded in purifying his heart to the nth degree, nevertheless, this greatness remained merely potential (b'koach). The ten nisyonos with which Avraham was tested, were a means of turning his greatness from potential into concrete actions (b'po'el), because the ultimate objective is perfecting one's actions.

Rav Wolbe (Ma'amerei Yemei Ratzon pg. 97) writes, with this in mind let us try to understand the Mishna in Pirkei Avos (2, 13). R' Yochanan ben Zakkai asks his disciples to, "Seek out the proper path to which a man should cling." They returned with various answers – a good eye, a good friend, a good neighbor, one who considers the outcome of his deeds and a good heart. Said R' Yochanan ben Zakkai, "I prefer the words of R' Elazar (who chose a good heart), for your words are included in his words."

The other four responses all focused on tangible actions and a practical way of life (b'po'el). A good eye rids one of much evil. He judges others favorably and he is cleansed from hatred and jealousy. A good friend will perform kindness, share in another's grief, forgive and forget and many other positive middos. A good neighbor surpasses a good friend, for he contains all those qualities and, moreover, he acts beneficially to even those who are not his closest confidantes. Someone who considers the outcome of his actions fears Hashem, and his every action is made with an acute awareness of its ramifications. If so, in what aspect does a good heart, which represents potential (b'koach), supersede all these other positive qualities?

Rav Wolbe explains that a good heart is the best preparation for life, because it encompasses all good actions. The actions are the most important aspect of one's avodah, and they properly portray the goodness of the heart of one who is performing those actions. A lack of an ability to perform reflects a flaw in the "goodness" of the heart. He who truly possesses a good heart will in time come to be a person who possesses a good eye, is a good friend and neighbor, and one who considers the actions of his deeds. Because Avraham possessed a good heart, he had the ability to pass all ten nisyonos with which he was tested.

Rosh Hashana is the day on which we are supposed to accept upon ourselves the yoke of Heavenly Kingship. Accepting this yoke is akin to possessing the good heart mentioned in the Mishna: it is a general concept that encompasses all aspects of our lives. However, just like a good heart, accepting the yoke of Heaven cannot remain only b'koach – it must translate into actions. We must make an effort to focus on Hashem's loftiness, His Kingship and the great advantage gained by accepting this yoke upon oneself. However, it can't end there. This knowledge must translate into actions, and the b'po'el of accepting the yoke of Heaven is fine tuning our middos to act solely in accordance with the will of Hashem.We must not try to be someone we are not. In each person's specific situation - with his friends and family, his house and necessities – he must make an effort to act in accordance with the will of Hashem. Our actions after Rosh Hashana will mirror the extent to which we accepted the yoke of Hashem.

May we all merit a Kesiva V'Chasima Tova!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

145 - Ki Savo

Among the many curses which are enumerated in this week's parsha, that could befall those who fail to keep the mitzvos, the Torah tells us, "And your will live your life with uncertaint.. and you will not trust in your life" (Devarim 28, 66). Despite the ominous connotation, Rashi's explanation makes them seem like minor inconveniences: "And you will live your life with uncertainty, refers to one who must buy wheat from the market. And you will not trust in your life, refers to one who relies on the baker [for his bread]." Rav Wolbe (Ma'amerei Yemei Ratzon pg. 314) asks, what is so terrible about one who must shop in the store or bakery for his food? He answers that Chazal understood that the ultimate situation, and life in its truest form, is when one has the ability to be self sustaining: Hashem allows him to personally own land, harvest the wheat and bake bread. If one must be dependant on others, he lives his life with uncertainty - a situation which the Torah considers a curse.

Rav Wolbe writes that the same is true with regard to ruchniyos. A person should not be dependant on those around him to decide what to do and what not to do. One who merely mimics those around him and does things because "that's what everyone does" is not living life in its truest form. The Maharal notes that despite Hashem accepting Hevel's sacrifice, it did not protect him when he quarreled with his brother Kayin, and he was killed. This was because Hevel's act of offering a sacrifice came only after Kayin took the initiative. He mimicked his brother's actions; therefore, the mitzvah was lacking and did not have the ability to protect him in his time of need.

A person must take out some time to contemplate his character. What are his strengths, his weaknesses and his good and bad middos? Each person has their own personal avodah and there is no reason to look at others to see what to do. The Maharal asks why the Mishna in Pirkei Avos says, "Whoever's fear of his sin precedes his wisdom - his wisdom will prevail."

Why is emphasis placed on "his" sin? He explains that every person has his specific sin(s) which he must overcome, and it is when he conquers his yetzer hara for that specific sin that his wisdom will prevail.The way to start really "living life", is to stop imitating others and begin probing into our own traits and aveiros. If we take two minutes to write down our strengths, we will know the course of action we must take, without mimicking the actions of those around us. Likewise, if we write down our weaknesses, we will be able to focus on the areas in which we personally must make an effort to grow, without looking at a friend to observe what not to do.

144 - Ki Seitzei

The book of Iyov begins with a dialogue between Hashem and the Satan, which, as Rashi tells us, took place on Rosh Hashana. Hashem asks the Satan, "Have you taken notice of my servant Iyov? There is no one like him in the entire land: a pure, upright man who fears G-d and abstains from bad." To which the Satan answers that he acts this way because all is well with him. "Send out Your hand and destroy all that he has [and let us see] if he does not curse You."

Rav Wolbe (Ma'amerei Yemei Ratzon pg. 66) extrapolates from this story that the judgment of Rosh Hashana revolves around the extent that one overcame the impediments and nisyanos that arose and threatened to hinder his service of Hashem. The Satan was claiming that Iyov could not be considered the ultimate tzaddik since he had not faced trials and overcome them, and, therefore, his verdict was that he be tested with nisyonos. However, the judgment for us, who constantly face nisyonos, focuses on the extent to which we overcame those nisyonos.

There are people that feel they are not on the level to overcome the nisyonos that they face. Some despair and get depressed, while others inwardly say that all will be fine because, in their lowly state of affairs, the need to overcome nisyonos doesn't apply to them. The first step in the teshuva process is eliminating these thoughts. We must uproot the feelings of despair and the notion that on our level we "can't accomplish."

In this week's parsha the Torah commands us, "When a man commits a transgression that deserves death and he is killed, you shall then hang him on a tree. Do not leave his body hanging. . . for the disgrace of Hashem is hanging" (Devarim 21, 22-23). Rashi explains that such an act would be a disgrace for Hashem Himself, because men (and more specifically Bnei Yisroel) are made in His image. Rashi elucidates this idea with a mashal: There were identical twins who took different paths in life. One brother became a king while the other became a thief and was hanged. Everyone who saw the thief hanging mistakenly thought that it was the king who was hanging. Says the Mashgiach, even in a situation where a man transgressed one of the most serious aveiros and as a result was killed and hanged, he still retains his Divine image and is considered "a twin brother of the King."

There is no situation that calls for depression or despair. Everyone has an element of kedusha inside of them – they must merely believe and admit that it exists. This is the first step in the process of teshuva: teaching oneself, and absorbing the idea, that there is an element of kedusha found within each person. One should not get bogged down by the amount of aveiros he has accumulated. Rather, he should recognize that his true identity is one of kedusha and not one of aveiros. Focusing on this idea will bring one to abandon his negative actions and return to Hashem and a life of kedusha.

143 - Shoftim

Rashi explains the commandment, "Do not show favoritism" (Devarim 16, 19), as a warning to a judge not to act harshly with one litigant and kindly towards the other: "He should not make one [litigant] stand while the other sits, because when one sees the judge honoring his opponent, he becomes disoriented." How is it, asks Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol. I pg. 191), that a litigant who was well prepared when he stepped into court, completely loses track of all his claims? He answers that this comes as a result of the hester panim of the judge. Being the recipient of hester panim clouds one's thoughts and weakens his mental defenses.

Every person desires to feel that others take interest in him. Additionally, every person has the ability to display he'aras panim (a glowing countenance) thereby giving others what they so much desire. However, often we are witness to incidents where two people live side by side but without any understanding of one another. They might reside in close physical proximity, but their relationship remains distant and, sometimes, even bitter and full of resentment.

If we were to try to uncover the underlying reason for these feelings, we might discover that the problem lies in that each person is waiting for the other to initiate the relationship. A teacher might be waiting for the student to come forward with his questions and concerns, while the student is waiting for the teacher to reach out to him. This is true with regard to any relationship between two people. Each one thinks there is something causing the other to refrain from nurturing the relationship; the days go by and the chasm between them widens. In truth, all that is lacking is the realization that it is incumbent on each and every person to display he'aras panim, and not ignore the people around him.

How great are our Sages whom encapsulated this idea in a mere few words: "You should [be the one to] initiate a greeting to every person" (Avos 4, 16). One who answers his friend's greeting has acted out of derech eretz, while one who initiates the greeting has brightened another's day. A few well placed words contain an awesome power. Even a mere smile has the ability to light up another's day. Watch a baby who is sensitive to the looks on the faces of people he encounters. When a baby encounters a person who is smiling his face lights up and he gurgles excitedly, however, encountering a frown would immediately cause him to cry. Who knows what is more important for the proper development of a child – the nourishment in the form of food or the nourishment given through the he'aras panim shown to him? One thing is certain: a child that grows up without any he'aras panim is like a plant that grows without any sunlight. There is no possibility that he will be emotionally healthy.

Smile at your neighbor, friend, spouse or colleague. You might very well affect his day in a way you never would have believed. It will also give him the impetus to smile at the next one, causing a chain reaction that will make the world a better place.

142 - Re'eh

In this week's parsha, amongst numerous other places, the Torah warns, "Lest you seek out their gods, saying, 'How do these nations serve their gods - and I will do the same myself" (Devarim 12, 30). Why did Hashem feel it imperative to warn the Jewish people not to stray after the gods of the surrounding nations - something the Torah itself describes (Rashi to Devarim 29, 16) as "repulsive as excrement?"

Rav Wolbe answers (Ma'amerei Yemei Ratzon pg.273), with an insight from Rav Yeruchom Levovitz zt"l. He explains that the practice of flattering wicked people stems from an internal drive to look to find favor in everyone's eyes. Even if one were to meet a deranged person, he would hope to make a favorable impression during his encounter. Moreover, if there were somebody - even on the other side of the world - who doesn't view him in a favorable manner, he would endure sleepless nights and go to great lengths to rectify the situation. Therefore, when Bnei Yisroel passed through the idol worshipping nations, they too wished to find favor in the eyes of their neighbors. What better way could there be to find favor in their eyes than to worship their gods?

Rav Wolbe continues, explaining that this is the force that pushes people to run after the newest styles and fads, even if they were concocted by foolish people, so that they not be looked down upon by their colleagues and peers. This is a drive which can potentially be very dangerous. It can cause one who feels that others ridicule his religious observance, to disregard mitzvos or halachos for fear of becoming an object of derision.

Halacha mandates that someone who wishes to convert must be told, "Don't you know that currently Bnei Yisroel are scorned and mocked?" If he answers, "I know and I'm not worthy" he is accepted immediately, for such a person is a righteous convert. He recognizes the penimius of Bnei Yisroel and acknowledges that it is worthwhile to pursue his goal, despite any scorn he might endure.

No one wishes to be perceived as a fool. However, our Sages tell us that it is better for one to be considered a fool in the eyes of the world his entire life, than to be considered a fool for even one moment in the eyes of Hashem! Styles and fashions, newspapers and songs that are antithetical to Torah values, have no place in our homes and offices. The drive to be "one of them" is there, but it could, G-d forbid, bring disaster in its wake. It has the ability to cause one to neglect Torah laws and we must nip it in the bud lest this drive gets out of hand.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

141 - Eikev

"R' Meir would say, 'A person is obligated to make one hundred blessings every day as the pasuk states, 'What (mah) does Hashem ask of you except that you should fear Him (Devarim 10, 12)?' Do not read the pasuk 'mah' - what, rather 'me'ah' - one hundred'" (Menachos 43b). The Torah is informing us that the purpose of our avodah is to bring us to fear Hashem. Our Sages revealed a specific way to reach this objective: the recitation of brachos on a daily basis. How exactly does one's recitation of blessings bring him to fear Hashem?

Rav Wolbe explains (Alei Shur vol. II pg. 314) that for one to fulfill his obligation, he must mention both Hashem and His Kingship in every single bracha. Moreover, if he said "Melech" - the King, but left out the word "ha'olam" - of the world, he has also not fulfilled his obligation, for a king without a kingdom cannot be considered a king. Therefore, every single blessing contains recognition of the Heavenly Kingship. Additionally, many brachos continue, "the Creator of " which gives us another opportunity to strengthen our emunah with the knowledge that He is the One Who created the universe and all it contains. If a person would reflect on the blessings instead of blurting them out of his mouth, one hundred blessings a day would be a more than sufficient means of bringing him to yiras shamayim.

Rav Wolbe continues, revealing the depth behind the blessings. The Gemara (Yerushalmi Brachos 6, 1) states, "It is written, 'To Hashem belong the land and its contents, the earth and its inhabitants.' One who partakes of pleasure from this world before the mitzvos (i.e. brachos) permit it, is guilty of m'eilah. Rav Avaho said, 'The world is similar to a holy vineyard [which requires one to redeem its grapes]. What must be done to redeem the world's pleasures? One must make a bracha."

This gives us a new outlook on the entire world. According to the first explanation in the Gemara, the world is comparable to a sacrifice which requires the sprinkling of its blood in order to permit the kohanim to partake of the animal. Likewise, the world is holy and, therefore, we are forbidden to indulge in its pleasures before making a bracha which permits us to enjoy them (despite the fact that they still retain their holiness - just like the analogous sacrifice). According to the second explanation, the bracha acts as redemption for the pleasure. We 'give', so to speak, the bracha in return for the pleasure (thereby removing the holiness from the pleasure, just as the holiness is removed from the vineyard after the redemption process). However, both explanations are based on the idea that this world is in reality kodshei shamayim and it was given to us as a catalyst to bless Hashem. One hundred brachos a day gives us one hundred opportunities to arouse ourselves toward the realization that we live in a holy world and we must not indulge before we bless the Creator.

As with all aspects of growth, one can't work on too much at once. Let us try to concentrate on the bracha of "hamotzi lechem min ha'aretz." Instead of blurting it out, picture stalks of wheat swaying in the breeze and acknowledge the fact that the bread came to you from the hand of the Creator.