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.