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.