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.