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.

186 - Tisha B'av - Va'eschanan

Rav Wolbe quotes an astounding Chazal (Vayikra Raba 26, 2) that puts the importance of good middos in the proper perspective. In the days of Dovid Hamelech, even the small children were so proficient in Torah that they were able to explain each law of the Torah in ninety-eight different ways. Despite the generation's greatness in Torah, because they spoke lashon hara, when they waged war against their enemies they fell in battle. In contrast, the entire generation of King Achav worshipped idols and, nevertheless, since they refrained from speaking lashon hara they were victorious in battle.

How could it be that the tremendous amount of Torah study did not protect the people of Dovid Hamelech's generation from defeat? Additionally, why were there gossipmongers in the times of Dovid Hamelech; doesn't Torah study automatically generate good middos? However, the truth is, with regard to spiritual growth nothing is automatic. One who does not make a conscious effort to work on himself, will remain deficient in that area. It is evident from Chazal that a deficiency with regard to middos is so great, that it overrides other mitzvos and tips the scales against the Jewish people.

Another example of the severity associated with being derelict in middos is the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdosh. Chazal tell us that although those who lived at that time studied Torah, performed mitzvos and did acts of charity, since they were guilty of sinas chinam the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed. This demonstrates the severity of bad middos to the extent that all the mitzvos that they did could not rectify their shortcomings nor prevent the calamity that such bad middos precipitate. This brings us to the realization that there is no way out, other than to make make a conscious effort to work on developing good middos. Such qualities don't simply come by themselves, and when there are shortcomings in this area, the consequences can be catastrophic chas v'shalom.

Hatred has no place among the Jewish people - especially among those who spend their days immersed in Torah study. The Mishna (Sanhedrin 3, 5) tells us, "What is an expression of hatred? When one, as a result of his hatred, does not speak to another person for three consecutive days."

When we mourn the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh - we are mourning the fact that it does not stand today. Our Sages tell us, "In every generation that the Bais Hamikdosh has not been rebuilt, it is as if the Bais Hamikdosh has once again been destroyed." Our generation has not been cleansed from the negative trait of hatred. During the days leading up to Tisha B'av, and all the more so on Tisha B'av itself, we should make a conscious effort to purge ourselves from sinas chinam, restore harmony to those relationships that were neglected and once again talk to those people with whom we had resolved not to speak. If the amount of sinas chinam amongst Bnei Yisroel is diminished as a result of Tisha B'av - then the fast will have been worthwhile.