Sunday, December 6, 2009

204 - Vayishlach

The Parsha begins with Yaakov sending a message to his brother Eisav, "So says your servant Yaakov, I lived with Lavan and was detained until now" (Bereishis 32, 5). Rashi writes that the word 'garti'- I lived, has the numerical value of six hundred and thirteen. He was implying that although he lived with Lavan, nevertheless, he kept all six hundred and thirteen mitzvos and did not learn from Lavan's evil ways.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) explains that it was only because Yaakov felt like a sojourner - 'garti', did he succeed in keeping all the mitzvos of the Torah. Those living in Charan definitely had their own culture and all the residents living there grew up absorbing their ideology. Nevertheless, even after twenty years, Yaakov perceived himself as merely a guest, since he did not acclimate to his surroundings in the slightest. It was only because he stuck steadfastly to his roots that he succeeded in not being influenced negatively.

The Mashgiach adds that there is some truth to the claim that assimilation is a natural process. If one behaves as the gentiles around him, this will automatically lead to assimilation. He related that during and after World War II, he resided in Sweden for eight years and he beheld a number of their customs. On the twentieth of December they would dance around a roasted pig. Additionally, on the longest day of the summer, the entire populace, men, women and children, would dance around a big tree and sing children's songs. Even if there is nothing intrinsically wrong with what they were doing, there is great danger involved, and someone endowed with a heightened sensitivity can perceive how joining in such customs distances a person from the Torah.

The Torah tells us that there is a prohibition of "b'chukoseihem lo seileichu - Do not follow their statutes." The root of the word "chok" (statute) is "cheik" - chest, because a country's customs stem from the "heart" of the nation. Hence, one who joins in their customs has already drifted from the Torah to a certain extent. However, he who perceives himself as a "ger" in a foreign land, will merit having the siyata dishmaya to hold onto the Torah without swaying from its precepts even an iota.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

203 - Vayeitzei

After Yaakov Avinu married whom he thought was Rachel, the Torah tells us, "And it was inthe morning and behold she was Leah" (Bereishis29, 25). Rashi notes that at night he was not able to distinguish that she was Leah. He explains that Yaakov gave Rachel signs, lest Lavan try to switch her with another girl. When Rachel realized that Lavan was planning to substitute Leah for her, Rachel gave over the signs to Leah so that she not be embarrassed.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) suggests that we take a minute to appreciate Rachel's greatness. She knew good and well that Yaakov would father all the shevatim and hence the entire Jewish Nation. Additionally, she had no idea if Lavan would also agree to marry her off to Yaakov, nor if Yaakov would agree to marry another wife. By giving over the signs to her sister, she was in essence giving up an eternity that was rightfully hers. She was giving up the chance to mother the chosen nation: the purpose behind the creation of the world.

Although Chazal tell us that it is better for one to throw himself into a fiery furnace than to embarrass his friend in public, this refers to one who actively embarrasses his friend. This was not the case with Rachel, since even with her playing a passive role Leah would have been embarrassed. Therefore, Rachel was in no way obligated to do what she did, and with superhuman strength she overcame all her emotions and saved her sister from disgrace. While she understood the enormity of the significance of giving birth to the Jewish Nation, she also understood that it is impossible to build upon someone else's humiliation.

Later in this parsha we find a similar level of consideration on Leah's part. "Afterwards she [Leah] had a child and named her Dinah" (ibid. 30, 21). Rashi tells us that Dinah was so named because Leah, so to speak, made a "judgment" (din) with herself. She calculated that if she would have a seventh son, Rachel would not even have as many sons as each of the two maidservants, so she prayed to Hashem, and He changed the child into a daughter. Leah wanted to mother as many shevatim as possible. However, since her intentions were entirely l'sheim shamayim, when this desire would have contributed to someone else's embarrassment, she did everything in her power to prevent her ambition from coming to fruition.

The extent of one's actions l'sheim shamayim can be defined by how he acts when his actions might hurt another person's feelings. If he refrains from his course of action, he has not only proven that he acts truly for the sake of Heaven, he has emulated our matriarchs in conquering his negative middos in a superhuman fashion!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

202 - 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, 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.

201 - Chayei Sara

Chazal tell us that the speech of the servants of our forefathers is 'superior' to the Torah that was given to the later generations. For we find that the Torah relates the story of Eliezer finding a wife for Yitzchok in its entirety twice, while many fundamental halachos of the Torah are conveyed through merely a subtle hint (Rashi, Bereishis 24, 42). Why is it that the Torah felt their speech to be of the utmost importance? Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) explains that the Torah uses the speech of our forefather's servants as a way of transmitting the guidelines of derech eretz. Each action and expression of Eliezer was rooted inderech eretz, and therefore a lesson for future generations that the Torah felt too crucial to ignore. Yet, we still must ask why derech eretz is of such great importance?

Chazal write (Tanna D'Bei Eliyahu 1, 1) "Derech eretz kadma l'Torah" - derech eretz precedes Torah. Rav Wolbe explains that when one goes shopping, he must take along a bag to hold the potatoes and a special container to hold the eggs, because without a proper receptacle it's not possible to bring his purchases back home. Similarly, this concept holds true with regard to spirituality. Torah must be placed in a proper vessel, and that vessel is derech eretz.

Derech eretz can be defined as those actions and behavior that every person should recognize to be proper without having to be taught. Before one starts learning Torah, he must first behave in accordance with the dictates of seichel i.e. a deeply perceptive intuition. Once that is accomplished, he has reached the level where he can be called human, because one who lacks basic derech eretz is referred to by Chazal as being worse than a dead animal. Only then can he hope to internalize Torah which brings a person to a level above that of a normal man, so to speak, above the laws of nature.

There is yet another aspect that falls under the category of derech eretz. The Medrash writes that Torah learning must be interspersed with acts of chesed, as the Mishna states, "It is good to learn Torah along with derech eretz, for both together eliminate sin." We see from here that chesed is also included in derech eretz. If we pay close attention to the story of Eliezer and Rivkah, we will be able to glean numerous insights into the way to conduct our lives with both forms of derech eretz.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

200 - Vayeira

"And Hashem said, 'Will I conceal from Avraham that which I am going to do? For I am fond of him because he will educate his children and household to follow the ways of Hashem, to perform acts of charity and carry out judgement'" (Bereishis 18, 17 - 19 as per Rashi's explanation). Rav Wolbe comments (Shiurei Chumash) that it seems from this pasuk that Avraham's great righteousness and many acts of kindness were not a great enough merit for him to be worthy that Hashem reveal His plans to him. It was only educating his children to follow the ways of Hashem that earned him the extra fondness which in turn led to Hashem revealing His intentions with regard to the destruction of Sodom. From this we can deduce how great is the importance of chinuch and, therefore, we must make an effort to be sure that we are properly educating our children and pupils.

Chinuch must be carried out intelligently. This necessitates that the level of education be appropriate for the child's age. Chazal tell us, "A five year old begins studying Torah, a ten year old begins studying Mishna, a thirteen year old is required to keep the mitzvos etc." (Avos 5, 24). They determined specific ages for all aspects of Torah study and mitzvah observance in consonance with a child's natural growth process. If this holds true for learning Torah and performing mitzvos, how much more so does this apply to the areas of behavior and derech eretz. One cannot demand from a child to behave in a way that is way beyond his level of maturity; nor at every age is a child able or ready to understand that a particular action is forbidden. Every stage in a child's development requires thought as to the proper way of conveying messages in a palatable manner. This is the key to ensuring that there always remains a pleasant atmosphere between the educator and the one being educated.

Rav Wolbe writes (Alei Shur vol. II pg. 379) that although the above idea might seem simple and self evident, nevertheless, it is the reason why many people do not succeed in chinuch. They do not pay attention to the stages of growth of the child and therefore, do not act in accordance with the child's level of maturity.

Although this idea is critical in the development of one's children, it also rings true in regard to each and every person's own growth in avodas Hashem. One must be objective in assessing his own spiritual level and act accordingly. Demanding from oneself more than he can handle, ruins the learning process and hinders spiritual growth. Taking a good hard look at oneself and one's children may change the way numerous things are done; bearing significant fruit in the long run.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

199 - Lech Lecha

The Torah refers to Avraham's right hand man as, "damesek" Eliezer (Bereishis 15, 2). Rashi explains that "damesek" is an acronym for "doleh u'mashkeh" - lit. draws forth and gives to drink - since he would teach Avraham's Torah to others. Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) points out that we see from this appellation that Eliezer wasn't simply repeating Avraham's words verbatim. He delved into Avraham's lectures to understand their intent, he internalized their message and was then able to extract pearls of wisdom and teach them to the other students.

The Alter of Kelm would write down his discourses and distribute them among his close disciples. They would then reciprocate by commenting on what he wrote. One talmid extracted from a single discourse nearly twenty fundamental ideas with regard to chinuch! Hearing or reading a mussar discourse sets the groundwork for character improvement. However, real change only comes as a result of reviewing and inculcating the message.

In Rav Wolbe's yeshiva (Be'er Yaakov) there was a designated time for reviewing each mussar discourse. He would often say that feelings of spiritual arousal that one feels after hearing a mussar discourse do absolutely nothing for a person in the long run. One must review what was said and after understanding its significance, he can build on it in a way that fits his personality.

This idea holds true not only with regard to parroting speeches, but also with imitating other's actions. In the words of Rav Yeruchom Levovitz, "Just don't go with 'borrowed clothing.'" Don't copy this one's actions and that one's deeds. Everyone has his special role in avodas Hashem and he was given the tools to actualize this potential. One must find a plan of action which is appropriate for him and proceed accordingly.

The next time you hear or learn some mussar, take an extra minute to try to understand what the mussar is telling you. A small amount of mussar that is understood well will go a lot further than a vast amount of mussar whose message was lost somewhere along the way.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

198 - Noach

"Let us build a city and a tower which reaches the heavens. . . And Hashem descended to observe the city and the tower that the people had built. And Hashem said, 'Behold they are one nation that speaks one language. . . Let us descend and mix up their languages so that each one will not understand the language of his friend'" (Bereishis 11, 4 - 7). Rashi explains that Hashem said "let us" for He was including His beis din. Hashem's great humbleness prompted Him to ask permission from the angels before He carried out what He deemed as the proper course of action.

We find this exact idea in last week's parsha, too. Before creating man, Hashem said, "Let us make man in our form and image" (Bereishis 1, 26). There too, Rashi explains that it was Hashem's middah of anava that prompted Him to consult the angels. Since man would be fashioned in their form, He felt it only right to present the idea to the angels. Rashi adds that writing "let us" might cause nonbelievers to mistakenly think that there is more than one creator. Nevertheless, the Torah wished to convey that derech eretz ordains that even a great person should ask the opinion of one smaller than he.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) highlights the lessons to be learned from these pesukim. Firstly, Hashem could have completely ignored anyone else's interests and done as He pleased. However, He chose to ask their opinion, lest they have a bad feeling about what was going to be done. So too, any person who is in a position of authority, should not enact rules and regulations without asking the opinion of those under his dominion. Harmony reigns only when everyone understands the need for the regulation.

Elsewhere, in a slightly different vein, Rav Wolbe says that we see that a great person should ask the opinion of someone smaller than he, despite the fact that the latter's opinion will not influence the decision. Hashem would create man even if the angels would not have agreed. Nevertheless, it was an act of anava to request the permission of the angels. Additionally, we see from the pasuk that one should not attribute his actions solely to himself, rather he should say, "We" instead of "I."

The Mashgiach concludes that we should reflect for a minute on the great importance of middos tovos. In order to convey to us a lesson in derech eretz, the Torah was willing to take the risk that people would mistakenly think that Hashem was not the sole Creator of man. In light of this, a few minutes of daily mussar is definitely a worthwhile investment!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

197 - Bereishis

"Na'aseh adam b'tzalmuseinu k'dmuseinu" (Bereishis 1, 26). Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) quotes the Nefesh HaChaim who explains the concept of "tzelem Elokim." Firstly, he points out that in this context, the word "d'mus" cannot be translated as "image," because Hashem has no image at all. Rather, "d'mus" is a derivation of the word "domeh" which means comparable, for in some way man can be compared to his Creator. So too, "tzelem" which is a synonym for the word "d'mus," has a similar connotation.

Secondly, he notes the Torah's choice of "tzelem Elokim" and not "tzelem Hashem." Elokim is the description of Hashem as "Master of all strengths Who is able to do anything." In other words, Hashem created everything ex nihilo. He gives the strength to everything to allow it to exist. Should He decide, for but a moment not to give any item its "strength," it would instantly cease to exist. It is in this respect that man is somewhat comparable to his Creator. Hashem ordained that with every action, every thought, and every word, man affects one or many of the myriads of the higher worlds. A positive action gives strength to the existence of these worlds, while a negative action in effect destroys them. As we say after Ein K'Elokeinu with reference to talmidei chachomim, "Do not read ba'nayich (your sons) rather bo'nayich (your builders)," because they are the builders of the spiritual worlds. In light of this concept we can explain the Mishna in Pirkei Avos (2, 1) "Know what is above 'from' you. . ." One must know that everything in the spiritual worlds above him is "from him" - i.e. is directly affected by his actions, thoughts and speech. Therefore, a person should not think, "What could little I do already in this world?" Even though it might be indiscernible to him, everything he does has the ability to create or maintain the higher worlds.

Rav Wolbe comments that most of us live our lives in consonance with what the Nefesh Ha'Chaim writes is the incorrect perception. We have no idea of the awesome potential of man and hence, we conduct our lives with a constrained mindset. At the end of the parsha (ibid. 5, 1) the Torah is referred to as "the book of mankind" (see Ramban), since one who lives his life in accordance with everything written in the Torah, has revealed man in his truest form. In the eyes of the Torah, greatness is not measured by how many grandiose buildings one has built or lawsuits he has won. It is measured by how many times a person overcame the countless temptations that present themselves throughout a person's life.

The Alter of Slabodka spent his entire life preaching about the greatness of man in general and Adam HaRishone in particular. His discourses had a major effect, and numerous great leaders emerged from his yeshiva (Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Avrohom Grodzenski, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, Rav Eizak Sher, Rav Meir Chadash to name a few). If we want to become big, we must begin by thinking big, and the first step is recognizing the awesomeness of being a tzelem Elokim.

(Spending some time thinking about our remarkable forefathers mentioned in the stories depicted in the Torah might also give us an idea of just how great man can become. And as Chazal tell us, "A person is obligated to say, 'When will my actions reach the actions of my forefathers!'")

Thursday, October 8, 2009

196 - Simchas Torah

Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol. I pg. 48) quotes the Kuzari who enlightens us to the proper way of rejoicing on Yom Tov. "Our Torah is divided between fear [of Hashem], love and simcha; bring yourself close to Hashem with all of these means. Your subjugation to Hashem on a day of fasting does not cause a greater closeness than your simcha on Shabbos and Yom Tov - as long as the simcha is with kavana and a complete heart. For just as supplications require thought and kavana, so too, simcha in the performance of His mitzvos and the study of His Torah requires thought and kavana. . . Recognize what good He has bestowed upon you [through giving you the mitzvos] for it is as if you have been invited into His residence and to dine at His table. . . and if the simcha brings one to song and dance - this is avodah and dveikus to Hashem!"

The correct manner of simchas Yom Tov can only be achieved through fully comprehending the words of the Kuzari. Fear borne out of awe from the majestic grandeur of Hashem, the love of one created in the form of Hashem toward his Father in Heaven, and simcha of one commanded with the commandments of his King are what make up the entire Torah! Simcha is the medium through which one's closeness to Hashem is given expression. When a person has a certainty in his emunas Hashem, simcha and even song and dance follow. They are a means of serving Hashem and a way toward attaining dveikus.

This description of simcha is quite distant from the way simcha is used in the vernacular. We must be extra careful on Simchas Torah not to get caught up in frivolous merriment that has nothing to do with Hashem and His mitzvos. If we would be privileged we could draw a wealth of emunah and inspiration from the dancing. A strong sense of the connection to our Creator would be aroused through our song and dance, creating an intense desire to strive toward spirituality and purity of heart. These feelings would accompany us, thereby positively influencing our avodas Hashem for an extended period of time. This is the way Torah true simcha should look!

How foolish are those that wait for days of simcha as opportunities to "let go." One must prepare for simcha precisely as he would prepare for any fundamental aspect of avodas Hashem, and it requires thought and kavana exactly like davening and fasting.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

195 - Sukkos

The Rambam writes (Hilchos Lulav 8, 12) “Even though there is a mitzvah to have simcha on every Yom Tov, there was an added element of simcha in the Bais Hamikdosh on Sukkos”. What was responsible for this extra aspect of joy?

Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol. II pg. 452) explains; Chazal (Sukka 53a) tell us that during the simchas bais hashoavah which took place in the Bais Hamikdosh on Sukkos, Hillel would declare, “If I am here then all are here, and if I am not here who is here?” Tosfos explains that he was speaking in the name the entire nation. When Bnei Yisroel are unified in their service of Hashem, it can be considered as if Hashem is present in this world. As the pasuk states, “And He was King in Yeshurun” When? “When the leaders gathered together and the tribes of Yisrael were united.” The purpose of creation is for there to be those who accept the yoke of Hashem’s kingship, and this is actualized when Bnei Yisroel gather together in His service.

The seforim ha’kedoshim write that all of the Yomim Tovim throughout the month of Tishrei are aimed toward building the spiritual configuration of Bnei Yisroel. On Sukkos, we complete the final step by “putting up the walls” of Hashem’s sukkas shalom that has sheltered Bnei Yisroel through the generations. The unique simcha on Sukkos is a result of the culmination of our spiritual makeup that began with our acceptance of Hashem’s Kingship on Rosh Hashana: There is a nation who accepted the yoke of Hashem, and hence an opportunity for Him to bestow His goodness on the representatives of humanity and take them under His wing of protection. If so, the purpose of creation has been fulfilled. Could there be a greater reason than this to be b’simcha? Albeit that we do not have the Bais Hamikdosh and the same level of hashra’as ha’Shechina, nevertheless, through our sukkahs which culminate our acceptance of Hashem’s Kingship, we are able to replicate to a major extent the heightened level of kedusha and rejoice during the Yom Tov of Sukkos.

As we spend the next week in the Sukkah in a joyous atmosphere, let us bear in mind the impetus for the simcha and the reason this world was created.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

194 - Yom Kippur

The Rambam writes that any person who desires perfection can reach a level similar to that of Moshe Rabbeinu, and he who desires evil can reach a level similar to that of Yeravam ben Nevat. Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol. II pg. 40) explains that the decision to go one way or the other can be decided in a few minutes, however, the actual process must span many years. It is not in a person's ability to change from a rasha to a tzaddik in one day. Although every person has bechira, it is basically impossible to exercise his bechira to the degree that will allow him to turn around 180 degrees in one moment.

The Mashgiach quotes Rav Dessler who ingeniously explains the concept of bechira. When two countries wage war, the objective of each country is to conquer the entire territory that is presently under the dominion of the rival country. However, the actual battle takes place on only one front. When the battle is over, one country has added territory while one has lost part of its territory - and the battle then moves to a different location. The war between the yetzer hatov and yetzer hara is no different. Most of our actions are not a product of our bechira because they are not at the battlefront. There are many mitzvos and good deeds that a person does without choosing at all; rather, they are dictated by the way he was brought up or his intrinsic nature. Likewise, there are many aveiros that he does without even realizing that they are wrong; it is simply the way he was educated. His nekudas habechira (point of bechira) is merely at one specific location: where what he knows to be true clashes with what he imagines is true (but deep down really knows it's not). For example, many people speak lashon hara without even realizing that there is anything wrong with what they are doing. However, the yetzer hara will not come to these people and try to convince them to be mechaleil Shabbos. Since they were little children they have been habituated to keep Shabbos and the yetzer hara has no chance of gaining a foothold in this area.

One's nekudas habechira is not stagnant. Every time he conditions himself to perform a mitzvah he gains ground on the yetzer hara and moves the battle to a point deeper in enemy territory. The yetzer hara no longer tries to get him to disregard this mitzvah because it is no longer a challenge to overcome this temptation. This mitzvah now enters the domain of the yetzer hatov. The yetzer hatov can now embark on conquering more territory by defeating the yetzer hara in a more difficult mitzvah. The opposite holds true for one who conditions himself to perform an aveirah.
It follows, that the level of one's upbringing merely determines his battlefront - his nekudas habechira. The nekudas habechira of one who grew up among sages will be regarding the finer aspects of each mitzvah, while the nekudas habechira of one who grew up among criminals will be at a much different point. For him, stealing is a way of life and he doesn't even fathom that there is anything wrong with it. His bechira might come to light when he must decide if he will murder his victim or merely take his money and let him live.

We must approach Yom Kippur with this idea in mind. There might be many aspects of Torah and mitzvos in which we feel that we are deficient. However, our teshuva must begin with the aveiros that are within our nekudas habechira. One who on a daily basis davens without any concentration cannot change this pattern in one moment. He must try to rectify this problem gradually. If he feels that it is in his ability to concentrate while he recites "Birkas Hatorah" then he should start with that. This is why Rav Yisroel Salanter said one should make a small, practical but ironclad kabbalah (resolution) before Rosh Hashana. After finding one's nekudas habechira, a kabbalah will help him condition himself in a small aspect of his avodas Hashem, thereby conquering territory from the yetzer hara. He will have won this battle and moved closer toward winning the whole war.

A Gmar Chasima Tova!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

193 - Rosh Hashanah

David Hamelech proclaimed in Tehillim (Chap. 121), "Hashem is your shadow." Chazal explain that just as your shadow mimics your motions, so too Hashem "mimics" your actions. This concept applies not only with regard to daily Hasgacha pratis - it is the manner that Hashem executes judgment on Rosh Hashana. "Says Rava, if one overlooks others' transgressions [toward him]; Hashem will overlook all his sins, as the pasuk states, 'He pardons sin and overlooks transgression.' For whom does He pardon sin? For he who overlooks [another's] transgression" (Rosh Hashana 17a).

Rav Wolbe writes (Alei Shur vol. II pg. 430) that this is a phenomenal means of achieving a favorable judgment on Rosh Hashana. If Hashem meticulously counts one's many transgressions that were carried out over the course of an entire year, he might be in serious trouble. However, Chazal revealed to us that it all boils down to the way we treat others. If we are offended by another, and instead of being quick to retaliate, we overlook his misdemeanor - we have in effect saved our very selves from punishment. This obligates us to put special emphasis on our interpersonal relationships during this time of year.

However, it is not just the judgment aspect of Rosh Hashana that requires us to improve our middos. Accepting upon ourselves His Heavenly Kingship also necessitates a middos workshop as seen clearly in the following Chazal. "'And He was King in Yeshurun' When? 'When the leaders gathered together and the tribes of Yisrael were united.' Rav Shimon bar Yochai said this is analogous to a man who took two boats, tied them together, and built a palace upon them. As long as the boats stay tied together, the palace remains standing. Once they separate, the palace collapses. So too, as long as Bnei Yisrael remain united, Hashem has a foundation on which His Kingship can rest" (Sifre, V'zos Habracha). If Hashem is to be our King, then we must be His nation. This requires that we be united. Especially at this time of year we must go out of our way to befriend others, love our fellow Jew, and pursue peace at all costs.

Rav Wolbe adds that it is written in 'seforim' that when saying kedusha, there is a minhag to look to the right and left before saying kadosh, kadosh, kadosh. This is because we declare in the kedusha that "we will sanctify His Name in this world just as the angels sanctify Him in the heavens." The angels dwell in complete harmony and therefore sanctify Hashem with total unity. Hence, if we are to sanctify Hashem just as they do, we must be sure that we are at peace and in complete harmony with all those around us. Therefore, we turn to the right and the left to confirm that we live in complete harmony with those around us. If this is true about every time we say kedusha, how much more so does it apply on Rosh Hashana!

As Rosh Hashana approaches, we have these two significant reasons to make an extra effort to overcome our negative middos, and accentuate our positive middos. Though at other times of the year we might feel the need to work on each middah individually and at a slower pace, we do not have that luxury during Elul and Rosh Hashana. We must distance ourselves from anger, hatred, jealousy and bearing a grudge as far as possible. Moreover, before shachris we should accept upon ourselves to love our fellow Yidden and overlook their offenses. As Chazal tell us, this is the way to guarantee a positive judgment.

May we all merit a Kesiva V'Chasima Tova!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

192 - Netzavim/Vayeilech

Chazal tell us, "After the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh, each day carries with it more curse than the previous day. [If so] on what [merit] does the world exist? On the "kedusha d'sidra" and the "amen yehei shmei raba" that is recited after the study of aggada. As the pasuk says, 'The land that's darkness is like pitch blackness; a shadow of death without order'. [However,] if there is order, it will light up the darkness" (Sotah 49a).

Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol. II pg. 321) explains that when the Bais Hamikdosh stood there was an abundance of blessing that permeated the world. Once it was destroyed, Hashem "hid" Himself and sealed the wellsprings of bounty, thereby leaving us in the dark. The blackness that pervades all aspects of this world - be it in the political, financial, or spiritual arena - gets darker every day. We no longer have the sacrifices that brought the world closer to Hashem and opened the conduits of blessing. If so, wondered Chazal, what gives the world its energy to continue to exist? They searched and found two small sedarim that serve as a worthy merit: the "kedusha d'sidra" and the "amen yehei shmei raba" which is recited after the study of aggada. Rashi explains that kedusha d'sidra refers to the seder of kedusha (in U'va L'tzion) that was initiated so that the entire Jewish Nation should recite at least a small portion of Torah every single day. This, coupled with the "amen yehei shmei raba" that was recited week in and week out each Shabbos after the aggadic discourse, give the world the ability to continue. The golden rule is that if there is seder, it will light up the darkness.

When one follows a schedule during his day, he feels satisfaction that he has had a fulfilling day. This is not so when his day lacks any semblance of schedule. He climbs into bed with a sense of disappointment: "Could this be considered a productive day"? If you encounter someone who is confused - unsure of himself and his aspirations, busy with insignificant things and seeing no future for himself - check to see if he has any schedule in his daily life. A lack of seder brings along with it a lack of desire; so it is no wonder that he gropes around in darkness to find himself.

If we have been acting in accordance with the guidance given the past few weeks, we should have already established a basic outline of how we want our weekdays to look. Now, writes Rav Wolbe, we should make some sort of seder for the days of Shabbos and Yom Tov. These holiest days often pass not only without spiritual growth, but also with an abundance of wasted time. Our agenda should include an ample amount of time for resting, but we must not forget to allocate time for spiritual endeavors. If we do this, we might merit "tasting" Shabbos. For as we proclaim in the Shabbos mussaf, "Those who 'taste' it - earn life."

(A sefer that deals with the halachos or hashkafos of Shabbos or of a specific Yom Tov, can do wonders in enhancing a Shabbos/Yom Tov experience.)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

191 - Ki Savo

At the beginning of this week's parsha we read about the mitzvah of vidui ma'asros. After one finishes taking off the proper tithes, he must proclaim that he has fulfilled the mitzvos associated with the produce. "I removed the holy produce from the house, and I gave to the Levi, the convert, the orphan and the widow; in compliance with all the mitzvos that You commanded me" (Devarim 26, 13). Rashi explains that this pasuk is referring to the various tithes that must be taken. One declares that he has taken tithes according to Hashem's commandment i.e. he has followed the proper order. I first removed the bikurim, then the terumah, then the ma'aser rishon and then the ma'aser sheni. Once again we see the emphasis that the Torah places on doing things with a seder.

As mentioned last week, the first step in living a life with seder is making an outline of how we want our day to look. The next step is much harder - we must keep to the schedule! There will be times that we must cut a conversation short or give up an enjoyable pastime in order to maintain our schedule. Moreover, we might have to overcome feelings of lethargy, or push off less important endeavors to a later date lest our sedarim unravel. The rule with regard to seder is that he who is stubborn will succeed. If we let every excuse get in the way of the times we have designated, how much will we end up accomplishing?

Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol. II pg. 320) writes, we should bear in mind that success in our avodas Hashem is dependent on maintaining seder. The Alter of Kelm compares seder to the clasp on a pearl necklace. There is no question that it is the pearls which are of primary importance, but without the clasp the pearls would scatter leaving us with a mere string. So too, every human is a strand of pearls; he is composed of numerous qualities, strengths, talents and intellectual capabilities. However, if he lacks seder in his life, then all his traits will "scatter" and he will merely be left with unfulfilled potential.

We should spend a few moments at the end of each day to assess how the day went. Did we keep to our schedule or do we need to make a stronger effort tomorrow? For years, Rav Yeruchom Levovitz, the famed Mashigiach of Mir, recorded what he did with every minute of his day. We aren't on such a level just yet, but a general perusal of how the day was spent is in everyone's ballpark.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

190 - Ki Seitzei

"When you go to war against your enemies. . ." (Devarim 21, 10). Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash Parshas Matos) points out that we see from the war against the Midyanim the great orderliness that was present even in a time of war. There was an exact count of all the spoils - from the captives down to the different types of animals. There wasn't a free for all as we would have expected at a time of war.

Seder is an integral part of creation. We say in tefillas ma'ariv, "He orders the stars in their heavenly constellations as He wills." From the minutest building blocks of all matter, such as atoms and cells, to the huge celestial orbs, there is a meticulous order that defines all of creation. This order testifies to a will that governs the universe - the will of the Creator. This itself is one of the clearest proofs that there is a Creator. If there is order, then there must be Someone that established the order.

The same idea holds true for us in our small everyday world. When we see someone who is organized we know that he must have a strong desire that motivates that order. This applies not only to the mundane, but also in the spiritual arena. The first step in organizing one's spiritual life is an ironclad determination. The second step can also be gleaned from the work of the Creator. "Hashem established the earth with wisdom, formed the heavens with insight" (Mishlei 3, 19). Likewise, if we are to establish a seder for our spiritual growth in a way that will endure, it must be thought out and implemented with wisdom.

There are two basic questions that one must ask himself. "What is the goal I aim to reach in my avodas Hashem?" Once he has defined his goal clearly, he should ask himself, "At this point in time, what can I do to reach my objective?" Serious thought must be put into answering these two questions clearly and truthfully. The answers should form a basic vision for how he wishes his day to look. One should not demand too much from himself, but also not too little. The day should include ample time for sleeping, eating, resting and talking; however, there must be fixed times set aside for davening and learning. As Chazal tell us, the very first question they ask a person in the next world is, "Did you set aside a designated time for Torah learning?" Even one who spends his days learning, is asked if he set aside specific times for learning, because one accomplishes much more if the learning is done with a seder.

Making a defined order in our spiritual lives is a good step in our preparation toward the Yomim Noraim. So let's sit for a bit and think, "What do I want to achieve in my avodas Hashem?" After that we should take a pen and paper and make an outline of our day so that we can reach our objective. At the end of the day, this is what truly counts in life. (Alei Shur vol. II pg. 319)

Friday, August 21, 2009

189 - Shoftim (Elul)

"Tamim ti'hiyeh im Hashem Elokecha" (Devarim 18, 13). This, in essence, is the mitzvah of reaching shleimus (perfection) in avodas Hashem, as Unkelos translates, "Be complete in your fear of Hashem." Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol. II pg. 57) quotes a Medrash (Bereishis Raba 1, 1) which refers to the Torah as a pedagogue. The purpose of an educator is to bring the pupil to perfection in the area studied. Hence, the purpose of the Torah and mitzvos is to bring a person to shleimus. If so, shleimus can be defined as the adherence to the laws of the Torah as they are set down in the Shulchan Aruch, along with good middos.

While the adherence to the laws of the Torah can be accomplished through studying the Shulchan Aruch, what is the way to polish our middos to produce a sterling character? Rav Wolbe (ibid. vol. I pg. 46) in explaining the way to take advantage of the days of Elul, quotes a letter from Rav Yisroel Salanter which sheds light on the area of character perfection.

"It is known and has been proven that even without the study of mussar it is possible to serve Hashem on a lofty level. However, one who desires to change his character from bad to good without the study of mussar, is like one who desires to see without eyes or hear without ears." Since preparation for the Yamim Noraim must obviously include the desire to change one's negative character traits, therefore, the study of mussar is especially crucial during the days of Elul.

What is the proper method of mussar study? Rabbeinu Yonah (Avos 1, 14) writes that one who does not arouse himself will not be aroused through mussar. One can quickly learn through many mussar seforim and still not gain anything. A superficial perusal does not penetrate the recesses of the heart and will not effect a serious change. A person must first digest the idea stated in the mussar sefer and then evaluate himself in light of what he has learned. Can he relate to the topic of discussion? If he feels that he is deficient in this specific area, what is the reason behind his deficiency? Can he find a practical means to apply the mussar?

Five minutes of serious mussar study a day during this Elul can change you for the better forever!

188 - Re'eh

Charity is not limited to a donation given to the collector at your door. "If there shall be a destitute person amongst shall surely open your hand and lend him money, as much as he needs; whatever he is lacking" (Devarim 15, 7-8). Rashi explains: "Lend him" - If he does not want to accept a present, then give him money in the form of a loan. "As much as he needs" - however, you are not commanded to make him wealthy. "Whatever he is lacking" - even a horse to ride upon and a servant to run before him. "He is lacking" - this refers to a wife.

Rav Wolbe notes (Alei Shur vol. II pgs. 198,199) that there is no rule of thumb when it comes to a deficiency. He who would like to work on becoming a true ba'al chesed must listen and look for what the recipient is really missing. The Torah states that we must wed the pauper a wife, and certainly she must be someone who is suitable for his personality and nature. So too, we must address the rest of his material needs and deal with them in a manner that is fitting his stature and individuality.

Let us stop for a moment and try to picture the situation in which this formerly affluent man finds himself. He must move out of his mansion and into a humble abode. He has lost all his gold and silver utensils to his creditors. He can manage with all of this; yet, there is just one thing that he just can't handle: He has lost his fancy car and he must make his way around by foot or via public transportation. He leaves his house and returns home feeling humiliated. Such a person wouldn't have the audacity to ask that we supply him with a car; however, we ourselves should be able to understand that this is what he is truly lacking. Practically, those who are lacking food or require medical treatment might take precedence in where we must donate our charity. Nevertheless, should we have the ability one way or another, we would be obligated to provide him with the car that he is so sorely lacking.

If one would work on recognizing what this man was lacking, then instead of getting angry that he has the chutzpah to complain about his traveling when there are people crying for bread, we would look to lighten his burden. We will probably not be able to provide him with a "horse to ride on and a servant to run before him", yet, if we truly understand him we can comfort him, that with G-d's help, he will soon return to his former prominent standing.

Unfortunately, there are many different types of shortages. One person might need monetary help, while the second needs advice, needs to find a job, or needs medical or spiritual assistance. Some people speak about their problems, while others not only don't speak about them, but also don't know that they even exist. Before working on actually assisting others, we must first become aware of the matter in which they truly need assistance.

Let us take a minute to listen to another and try to understand what they are lacking. If he doesn't tell you straight out, then it might very well not be easy to discern what he is missing. However, recognizing where someone truly needs assistance, is the first step in becoming a ba'al chesed.

187 - Eikev

In the first pasuk of this week's parsha, "V'haya eikev tishmi'oon" (Devarim 7, 12,) Rashi translates "eikev" as a heel. He explains that if we heed the mitzvos that people trample with their heel, Hashem will bestow upon us the many brachos enumerated subsequently in the parsha. It is the small actions that garner great blessings.

On the other hand, says Rav Wolbe (Da'as Shlomo), we find that the same concept applies to aveiros. The Gemara (Avodah Zara 18a) relates that the daughter of Nakdimon ben Gurion was once walking and two Roman noblemen took notice of her manner of walking. "Look how beautiful this young girl's footsteps are!" one commented to the other. When she overheard their comment, she immediately placed even more emphasis on her manner of walking, and as the Gemara continues, she was severely punished by Heaven. Chazal tell us that through this story we can understand the pasuk in Tehillim, "The sin of my heel will surround me." It is the seemingly small and insignificant aveiros that a person "treads on with his heel" that surround him at the time of judgment. Additionally, the Medrash tells us that both Moshe Rabbeinu and David Hamelech were tested specifically with small actions to see if they were fit to become leaders of Bnei Yisroel.

Why is this so? Why are the small actions so crucial, to the point that they have the power to activate great blessing or, G-d forbid, trigger terrible punishment? Why are they the litmus test for determining true greatness? The answer is that grandiose deeds are not testimony to one's benevolence, nor is refraining from giant aveiros evidence to his fear of Heaven. Often big mitzvos are accompanied by pomp and therefore are more readily performed. One might donate ten million dollars to a charitable institution that will put his name on their building faster than he would give a significantly smaller donation to an organization that would send him no more than a simple receipt. Similarly, one might have a guilty conscience when it comes to serious aveiros, while he feels not a twinge of regret when speaking during davening or other aveiros that seem insignificant to him. Hence, the Torah was not so "worried" about the serious aveiros, since a person's conscience usually pushes him to do teshuva. It is the small aveiros that people trample daily that lack repentance and therefore stay with a person until the Day of Judgment. It is only big people that are meticulous with every small action.

Chazal tell us that one who purifies himself a small amount in this world, is purified a tremendous amount in the world to come. So let us take a small step in purifying ourselves by deciding to be meticulous in an area that we have hitherto trampled upon. Here too, small actions are imperative. Don't take upon yourself something that you know will backfire due to its difficulty. Small steps and small actions make big people.