Thursday, December 30, 2010

257 - Vaeira

"And I appeared to Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov with the Name "Kel Shakai" and My Name "Ado-nai" I did not make known to them" (Shemos 6, 3). Rashi notes that Hashem did not say that He "did not mention to them" the name Ado-nai. Rather, Hashem said that He "did not make Himself known" by the name Ado-nai. The Avos never saw the manifestation of the middah connoted by this Name of Hashem. Ado-nai represents the fulfillment of what Hashem has previously guaranteed. Hashem was telling Moshe that He made numerous promises and also made a covenant with Avrahom that He would give his children Eretz Yisroel, but the Avos never saw the fruition of this promise. Now He would reveal Himself with the Name Ado-nai, and fulfill to Moshe and his generation what He promised the Avos.

According to Rashi's explanation, the Torah is letting us know that Hashem has two distinct names: "Kel Shakai" which denotes a promise to be fulfilled in the future, and "Ado-nai" which denotes the fulfillment of a previous promise. Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) asks why a promise and its fulfillment need two separate Names; are they not in reality one extended process? He explains that a "havtacha" - promise for the future, is not merely a means of reaching its fulfillment; it is a middah by way of which Hashem runs the world. The generations of our Avos were promised great things in the future, and they had to live with total faith that Hashem would ultimately fulfill what He promised. Their avodah was to live their lives in a way that showed their belief and complete reliance on Hashem's word.

In truth, our avodah is very similar to that of the Avos in this respect. We must live our lives with complete faith that all of our actions will be duly rewarded in the next world. We cannot see the reward nor the punishment that awaits those who perform the mitzvos or neglect them. Nevertheless, we must place our belief in Hashem's havtacha that ultimately we will be paid in full for all that we have done. We live in this world with the name of Kel Shakai - the promise of future compensation, and in the next world will we be able to perceive the manifestation of His name "Ado-nai."

The two Names of Hashem describe two distinct ways that He manifests Himself in our world, and we must live our lives accordingly. The more we strengthen our belief in the ultimate reward, the easier it we will be to fulfill our obligations of Torah, avodah and gemilas chassadim.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

256 - Shemos

When Moshe was born his mother put him in a basket and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river, while his sister, Miriam, stood from a distance to see what would transpire. The Torah relates that Pharaoh's daughter went to bathe in the river and she discovered the Jewish child in the basket. Miriam then inquired if she should call a Jewish wet-nurse to feed the child. Rashi tells us that this inquiry came after Pharaoh's daughter had taken Moshe to a number of Egyptian women, but he refused to nurse from any of them since he would ultimately use his mouth to speak with Hashem.

How did Moshe, who was at that time merely three months old, know that there was something wrong with nursing from a non-Jewish woman? Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) explains that one imbued with kedusha can sense when something isn't appropriate. Moreover, even certain animals have the ability to sense when something is amiss. Chazal relate (Chullin 7a) that Rebbi Pinchas ben Yair's donkey refused to eat from food that had not been tithed! Rebbi Pinchas ben Yair was on such a high level of kedusha that even his animals were affected to the extent that they were able to sense that the food was forbidden to be eaten.

Rav Yeruchom Levovitz zt"l would say that everything that we find regarding kedusha has a parallel in the area of tum'ah. If we have trouble comprehending a concept of kedusha because of our distance from that spiritual level, we might, unfortunately, have an easier time comprehending the concept when it is portrayed regarding tum'ah. Sometimes while walking in the street a person might suddenly glance in a specific direction and just then behold an indecent sight. He had no idea that exactly then he would witness such a scene; however, his psyche sensed the tum'ah and drew him to turn his gaze in that direction.

Lest we think that developing a sense of kedusha is limited to those who lived in the times of Chazal, Rav Wolbe recounted the following story. Shortly before his Rebbi, Rav Yeruchom Levovitz, passed away, his doctor felt that due to the severity of his failing health, he must eat meat which was not salted to remove its blood. This would be halachically forbidden under normal circumstances. When they served Rav Yeruchom his meal, he put the meat in his mouth but immediately spit it out, declaring that it was "non-Jewish meat." His level of kedusha enabled him to sense that the meat was not kosher.

Kedusha and tum'ah aren't merely abstract concepts of Judaism; they are a reality. Rav Wolbe once commented to a group of former talmidim, that his main goal in all his discourses was to convey this very idea that ruchnius is a reality!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

255 - Vayechi

Rashi in the beginning of this week's parsha notes that the space that the sefer Torah normally leaves in between parshios is lacking between Parshas Vayigash and Parshas Vayechi. He cites Chazal who explain that once Yaakov Avinu passed away, the eyes and hearts of Bnei Yisroel became "closed" due to the burden of bondage, when the Egyptians started enslaving them. Therefore, the Torah symbolically closed parshas Vayechi in reference to the closed hearts of Bnei Yisroel.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) asks, we know that the bondage in Egypt did not begin after Yaakov died; it only began after the very last of the Shevatim passed away. If so, what did Chazal mean when they stated that after Yaakov died, the eyes and hearts of Bnei Yisroel became closed due to the burden of bondage - the bondage did not start until many years after Yaakov died? He explains that the bondage mentioned by Chazal is not a physical enslavement, rather a spiritual bondage. They began experiencing the influence that the Egyptian culture was having on their lives.

As long as Yaakov Avinu was alive, he succeeded in ensuring that Bnei Yisroel remain on the spiritual plateau upon which they had lived when they were in their homeland Canaan. However, when Yaakov passed away, Bnei Yisroel lost the one who protected them from the cultural winds that blew in those days, and the Egyptian influence began taking its toll on their lives.

Although those living outside of Eretz Yisroel might be more susceptible to being influenced by non Jewish culture than those living in Eretz Yisroel, we are all affected in one way or another by the way of life of the nations around us. However, if we connect to a gadol ba'Torah or talmid chachom, we will certainly be more successful in preventing ourselves from being influenced by trends and fashions that are antithetical to the Torah way of life.

Friday, December 10, 2010

254 - Vayigash

When Yaakov meets Yosef after many years of separation, the Torah describes the emotional encounter. "And Yosef fell on his (Yaakov's) neck and he cried on his neck again" (Bereishis 46, 29). Rashi notes that the Torah only recounts how Yosef reacted while neglecting to tell us how Yaakov reacted. He explains that Yaakov did not fall on Yosef's neck nor did he kiss Yosef since he was busy reciting shema.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) comments that such behavior demonstrates the amazing level of menuchas hanefesh that defined Yaakov's character. Despite the fact that he had not seen his son for more than twenty years and had been under the impression that he had died many years earlier, nevertheless, when they were finally reunited, he did not lose his composure.

Nowadays, people have all but lost this middah of menuchas hanefesh. People are constantly busy. Many are caught up in feelings of depression. Many people act differently when they are together with a group of friends; they seem to change hats with their surroundings. They lack the menucha needed to define who they are without worrying what others will say about them. Some people simply can't come to terms with their faults and are always worried that other people will find out about them. Such behavior negates the possibility of them being satisfied with their lot and the menuchas hanefesh that such contentment brings along with it.

However, we must appreciate that menuchas hanefesh is an important middah in avodas Hashem. The Yeshiva in Kelm, which produced countless gedolim and ba'alei mussar, centered their avodah around the middah of menuchas hanefesh. Incorporating this middah is imperative to achieving shleimus, since it allows one to act in accordance with the Torah regardless of the situation in which he finds himself.

Yaakov Avinu perfected this middah, and hence he succeeded in perfecting himself. Although we are far from such shleimus, the least we can do in our quest toward attaining menuchas hanefesh is to focus primarily on our qualities instead of our faults. This will bring us to an awareness that we aren't as bad as we thought we were, and to feelings of confidence that will help in improving our avodas Hashem.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

253 - Chanukah

Chazal tell us (Shabbos 23b), "One who regularly lights candles will have sons who are talmidei chachomim, he who is careful with mezuzah will merit a nice house, he who is careful with tzitzis will merit a beautiful garment and he who is careful to recite the Kiddush will merit to fill up barrels with wine."

Rav Wolbe notes that when one performs a mitzvah properly, the reward is allocated in the object with which the mitzvah was performed. If so, he asks, shouldn't the reward for being vigilant regarding the mitzvah of lighting candles be to merit a beautiful menorah? The answer is that the mitzvah of Chanukah is not merely the physical act of lighting the candles, but we are also obligated to recognize the awesome spiritual light of the Torah. Performance of this mitzvah brings in its wake a reward similar to the rest of the mitzvos mentioned above: one who perceives the greatness of the light of the Torah will merit children who will be endowed with this spiritual light.

In essence, it was against this perception that the Hellenists were fighting at the time of the Chanukah miracle. They wished to make us "forget the Torah and stray from the statutes of [Hashem's] will." They wanted to prove that Greek wisdom is no different, or even better, than the wisdom of the Torah. Hence the victory of the war waged against this Hellenistic approach was in essence a strengthening of our knowledge of the superiority of the wisdom of the Torah.

What is so unique about "chochmas haTorah?" Chazal tell us that chochmas haTorah resembles in a small manner Hashem's unfathomable wisdom. It takes the greatness of Hashem to be able to encapsulate such wisdom in the Torah which discusses seemingly mundane topics such as laws pertaining to neighbors and damages. One who toils in the study of Torah succeeds in cleaving to the Source of the wisdom - a Source which is not governed by nature. Thus, the lives of Torah Jews aren't subject to the laws of nature. Consequently, it is a common occurrence that even for those for whom the doctors have given up all hope, to, nevertheless, recover after heartfelt tefillos offered on their behalf. The Torah's wisdom declares, "Even when there is a sword upon a man's neck, he should not refrain from davening for Hashem's compassion."

This is a fundamental difference between the wisdom of the Torah and Greek wisdom. Aristotle and his disciples only believed in that which they were able to comprehend. As the Rambam writes, had Aristotle not known how a baby was born and someone described how the fetus lives for nine months inside its mother without breathing or eating, he would have written it off as ludicrous, for such living conditions are beyond his comprehension which was limited by the laws of nature. Torah on the other hand, defies all laws of nature, for its source is the Creator of nature itself.

Chanukah is a time to set our perceptions straight. Torah isn't just a topic of study like any other wisdom. Torah is the study of Hashem's wisdom, and toiling to understand what is written within it brings a person to spiritual levels unfathomable, and certainly unattainable, by those who study only other wisdoms.

A Freilichen Lichtege Chanukah!

252 - Vayeishev

Despite the continuous attempts made by Potiphar's wife to try to seduce Yosef, he maintained his righteousness and did not sin with her: "And she spoke to Yosef day after day, and he did not listen to her to lie next to her, to be with her" (Bereishis 39, 10). Rashi explains the seemingly redundant language of the pasuk, "to lie next to her, to be with her. "To lie next to her" was said in reference to this world, while "to be with her" refers to the World to Come. Had Yosef sinned with Potiphar's wife, he would have ultimately ended up together with her in the next world. What is the meaning of this ambiguous statement?

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) explains that every action performed in this world does not end with the completion of the action. Rather, it creates a spiritual reality that continues into the World to Come. This spiritual reality is the reward or punishment one receives in olam haba. In other words, each mitzvah performed in this world is made up of two parts: the physical action and the spirituality that the mitzvah produces. Likewise, each aveirah contains both of these aspects. When one reaches the next world and has the ability to perceive the spiritual side of his actions, he becomes cognizant of the magnitude of those actions. Recognizing the enormity of the positive spirituality produced by his mitzvah is in and of itself the reward for that mitzvah, while perceiving the magnitude of his aveirah is the very punishment itself. This is what Chazal meant when they said (Avos 4, 2) "The reward for a mitzvah is a mitzvah, the reward for an aveirah is an aveirah." Had Yosef sinned with Potiphar's wife, the aveirah would have accompanied him to the next world.

An aveirah isn't "over" at the end of the transgression. As Chazal tell us (Sotah 3b) an aveirah surrounds the transgressor and cleaves to him like a dog until the World to Come where it turns into the punishment for that very aveirah. If this is true with regard to aveiros, how much more so does it apply to mitzvos. It behooves us to bear in mind that the magnitude of our every action is astounding!

251 - Vayishlach

The parsha begins with Yaakov sending messengers to his brother Eisav. "So says your brother Yaakov, 'I have dwelled with Lavan and was detained until now.'" Rashi tells us that Yaakov specifically chose the word "garti" (I have dwelled) for it has the numerical value of six hundred and thirteen. He was trying to convey a message that although he lived with Lavan for twenty years, he nevertheless guarded all six hundred and thirteen mitzvos of the Torah and was not influenced by Lavan's wayward behavior.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) says that we can gain another important insight from Yaakov's phraseology. Only because he felt that "garti" - that he was a ger, a sojourner in Lavan's house, did he succeed in keeping all the mitzvos. Despite the fact that he spent twenty years in Lavan's presence, he never became acclimated to his surroundings. He never allowed himself to be drawn into the culture or after the ideology of those living in Charan, because he always perceived himself as a sojourner and not a citizen.

One must be aware that there is truth to the claim that assimilation is a natural process. If a person perceives himself as a one of the populace "just like the rest of them," then there is nothing preventing him from becoming part and parcel of their culture and ultimately throwing off all vestiges of Judaism. Rav Wolbe related that when he was in Sweden, on the longest day of the summer the Swedes would dance around a tree and sing children's songs. Even though there doesn't seem to be anything intrinsically wrong with what they were doing, in reality there is a great danger involved. These songs and dances are an expression of the Swedish culture, and therefore, one must be extremely cautious lest he begin to acclimate to their way of life.

The most recent statistics show that forty percent of all Jews living in the Diaspora and fifty five percent of those living in America marry non-Jews. Unfortunately, assimilation has become "a natural process." In light of this fact, our avodah is to ensure that we maintain the correct perception of who we are. We are thankful to our host countries for allowing us to live there peacefully, but we are in no way part and parcel of their culture!

Monday, November 15, 2010

250 - Vayeitzei

When Yaakov Avinu ran off with his family and possessions without telling Lavan, Lavan gathers a few of his men and proceeds to chase after Yaakov. When he catches up with Yaakov, an interesting conversation ensues. Lavan accuses Yaakov of stealing his idols, Yaakov denies the accusation and allows Lavan to search all his possessions. When the search bears no fruits, Yaakov vehemently protests Lavan's unscrupulous behavior:

"You have searched all my possessions, what have you found from the possessions of your house; place them between my brothers and your brothers, and they will decide between the two of us. I have been with you for twenty years - your sheep and goats did not miscarry, and I did not eat any rams of your flock. I did not bring you killed animals, rather I took the loss; from my hand you claimed it whether it was stolen by day or by night. During the day the heat devoured me as did the ice by night, and sleep was held back from my eyes. I have spent the past twenty years in your house: fourteen years I worked for your two daughters and six years for your sheep and you changed my wages one hundred times!" To which Lavan responds, "The daughters are my daughters, the sons are my sons, the sheep are my sheep and everything that you see is mine."

Rav Wolbe comments (Shiurei Chumash) that one cannot help but be amazed at Lavan's response. Yaakov just gave a lengthy explanation of how everything was rightfully his down to the very last penny, and Lavan makes no mention of anything Yaakov said. He simply states that everything in sight belongs to him and not to Yaakov! The Mashgiach explains the rationale behind this behavior. There are times when there is a conflict between what logic dictates and what one desires (i.e. his negative middos). In such a situation, it is useless to try to argue logically with such a person. Explanations aimed at the seichel will not succeed in changing preconceived notions that are a product of one's faulty middos. Lavan simply "didn't hear" what Yaakov said, because he didn't want to hear. His lust for money wouldn't allow him to understand that all the possessions were rightfully Yaakov's.

This is the danger of bad middos. When one is entrenched in a mindset that is borne out of his negative desires, even a completely logical argument might not succeed in causing him to change that mindset. However, if we are interested in improving our middos, we will be granted siyata dishmaya, and we will surely succeed in rectifying them.

249 - Toldos

After Yaakov succeeded in obtaining the brachos that Yitzchok had intended for Eisav, Eisav planned his revenge. The Torah tells us, "When Rivkah was told the words of Eisav she called her younger son Yaakov and told him, 'Eisav intends to kill you'" (Bereishis 27, 42). Rashi explains that Rivkah was informed of this information through ruach hakodesh. Nevertheless, notes Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash), when Rivkah wished to send Yaakov to safer pastures, she told Yitzchok that the reason for her decision to send him off was because it was time for him to get married, and she was disgusted by the local prospective wives. She made no mention about the spiritual revelation that was the real impetus for her actions.

From this incident, we can perceive the amazing quality of tznius that characterized Rivkah's actions. She attained a level of spirituality that most people in the history of the world could only wish for, and she didn't let anyone in on the secret - even Yitzchok. Additionally, from this story we can deduce another trait that is attributed to great people. Though the real reason for her sending off Yaakov was for his own safety, she gave a totally different reason to Yitzchok.

Rav Wolbe continues, that many times gedolim mention one reason for a specific decision, while there are really more factors that contributed to the decision. Moreover, it may very well be that they didn't mention the main reason for their coming to their conclusion. There are people who for one reason or another decide that the reason given by the gedolim doesn't strike their fancy or simply does not apply to them. However, had they known everything behind the remarks of the gadol, they would not be so quick to act differently. This is one of the reasons that we have a concept called emunas chachomim. We act in accordance to what our gedolim tell us, regardless of whether we understand the reason or not.

A talmid once asked Rav Yeruchom Levovitz for permission to leave Yeshiva to travel somewhere. Being that it was Wednesday, Rav Yeruchom told him that there is a principle that one is not supposed to start something new on Monday or Wednesday. However, at a later date, Rav Yeruchom was giving a Chumash shiur and mentioned that the above concept does not apply to traveling. Rav Wolbe deduced from this incident, that the explanation Rav Yeruchom gave the talmid who requested permission was not the true reason for his decision. Either he didn't wish to reveal the true motive, or he was concerned that the bachur was planning on traveling regardless. Since he did not want the talmid to be guilty of defying his Rebbi, he gave him a reason that had no personal rationale.

Some people think they know better than our leaders. However, as seen in the story of Rivkah, emunas chachomim dictates that we listen to our gedolim even when we fail to understand the rationale behind their words.

Monday, November 1, 2010

248 - Chayei Sara

After Eliezer returned with Rivkah as a wife for Yitzchok, the Torah tells us, "And Yitzchok brought her to his mother Sarah's tent; and he took Rivkah as his wife" (Bereishis 24, 66). Targum Unkelos explains that Yitzchok saw that Rivkah's behavior paralleled his mother's behavior and only then did he take her as his wife.

In the previous pasuk the Torah states that Eliezer told Yitzchok everything that occurred to him. Rashi explains that Eliezer related the numerous miracles that had occurred in the course of his finding a mate for Yitzchok: the earth contracted to allow him to arrive at his desired destination quickly, and immediately with the conclusion of his tefillah his prayers were answered in the most amazing manner. If so, asks Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) quoting the Brisker Rav, what more was needed to prove that Yitzchok and Rivkah were literally a match made in heaven? After hearing about the miracles that brought about his prospective match, why did Yitzchok feel compelled to also examine Rivkah's actions before agreeing to marry her?

The answer is that even if there are earth shattering events that all point in the direction of a specific match, nevertheless, the deciding factor must be the woman's middos. Likewise, in the beginning of the parsha when Eliezer wished to find the proper wife for Yitzchok, he prepared a test to determine the quality of her middos. The Torah true way of checking into a shidduch is by determining the manner in which the prospective spouse conducts himself/herself.

There are many things - and maybe even miracles - that have the ability to make us lose focus of what is truly important. However, we must always bear in mind that "derech eretz kadma l'Torah" - good middos preceded and are the foundation for the Torah. Moreover, they are the foundation of the entire Jewish Nation, because our Patriarchs looked for good middos when choosing a mate to build their families and all future generations.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

247 - Vayeira

In this week's parsha we read how Avraham implored Hashem not to destroy Sodom, Amorah and the neighboring cities. Avraham claimed that it would be a grave injustice to wipe out the righteous together with the wicked, and therefore, Hashem should save these entire cities in the merit of the fifty righteous men who resided therein. Rashi explains that when Avraham requested that Hashem turn back His wrath because of the fifty righteous people, he was requesting that all five cities under discussion be saved. When he asked that they be spared in merit of forty righteous people, he was asking to spare four cities. In other words, Avraham asserted that ten righteous people have the ability to save an entire city.

It is of utmost importance that people recognize the great merits that are accrued for all, due to the Torah scholars amongst us. Chazal tell us (Sanhedrin 99b) that an apikores is one who asks, "What benefit do Torah scholars provide for society." It is because of them that protection is afforded for the entire community.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) adds that this idea holds true in our days just as in the days of Avrahom Avinu. He related that his father-in-law, Rav Avraham Grodzinsky hy"d, the Mashgiach of the Slabodka Yeshiva, lived in the Kovno Ghetto during the first few years of World War II. Every Friday night he would gather his disciples and deliver a discourse. When he realized that the Germans intended to liquidate the ghetto, he gathered ten disciples and formed a "mussar vaad." He used Avraham as proof that ten truly righteous individuals have the ability to save an entire ghetto, and therefore, he wished to create such an elite group of people. Each member of the group was to accept upon himself to act exactly in accordance with the instructions given by Rav Grodzinsky. He hoped that this way they would be considered righteous in the eyes of Hashem, thereby enabling their merits to save their entire community.

We might not be able to see the connection between our Talmidei Chachomim and the protection of our communities. However, the Torah clearly informs us, that it is in their merit that the less worthy are provided protection. If so, is there a limit to how much we owe our Torah leaders and Rabbanim?

246 - Lech Lecha

After Avraham defeated the four kings in battle, the king of Sodom made a request: "Give me the people and take all the spoils for yourself" (Bereishis 14, 21). To which Avraham replied that he swears not to take any of the bounty lest someone claim that it was he who made Avraham wealthy. The Ramban explains that the impetus for Avraham's swearing was to keep his yetzer hara in check. He cites a Sifrei which states that we find such conduct by all righteous men: they swear in order to prevent their yetzer hara from causing them to sin.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) comments that it is only the righteous who conduct themselves in such a manner. When they are concerned that their desires might get the best of them, they swear not to fall prey to their yetzer hara, thereby effectively erecting a fence between them and the sin, for they certainly will not renege on a promise. However, most of us are not concerned with such apprehensions. Therefore, we are often smug and do not take the necessary precautions to avoid likely or imminent aveiros. The Torah teaches us that this is not the proper way. The righteous do not trust themselves, and when an opportunity for sin presents itself they immediately incapacitate their yetzer hara by swearing not to falter.

Practically speaking, we should not place ourselves into circumstances where we will be tested or tempted to sin. However, if we anticipate that we might come to such a situation or we already find ourselves in such a situation, the best ammunition against the yetzer hara is to create a barrier by taking additional or exceptional precautions. Such conduct will give us the added dose of determination not to fall into the hands of the yetzer hara. If Avraham felt it necessary, shouldn't we?

245 - Noach

"Noach was a righteous man, pure in his generation" (Bereishis 6, 9). Rashi writes that some (of Chazal) explain this pasuk in a positive light, while others explain it derogatorily. Those who explain it complimentarily, assert that had Noach been in a generation with other righteous people he would have been an even greater tzaddik. However, those who explain it derogatorily posit that only in his generation he was considered a tzaddik, and had he lived in the generation of Avraham, he would not have been given even an "honorable mention."

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) quotes Rav Yeruchom Levovitz zt"l who stresses the Torah's perception of man's accomplishments. Though some explain the Torah's accolade as a true compliment and some explain it only in relation to Noach's generation, they both agree that one is measured with a yardstick in comparison to the generation of the greatest stature. For example, one can measure the amount of light produced by a candle in comparison to a lightbulb or flashlight, or in comparison to the greatest source of light that exists - the light of the sun. The Torah gauges one's spiritual level in comparison to the light of the "sun" - the founder of Judaism, Avraham Avinu.

One might look around at those in his surroundings and complacently think that he has surpassed his colleagues or friends in their spiritual ascent, and as a result he can slack off a bit. This is not the case. One who has the ability to grow or do more, cannot rest on the laurels of his past accomplishments. For as we have seen, a person is not judged in comparison to his family, his colleagues, his kollel, his city or even his entire generation. The true test of a person's greatness is to see how he would match up with his own vast potential. The spectrum of greatness begins with where one is now and extends to the pinnacle of Avraham Avinu.

244 - Bereishis

The Torah tells us (Bereishis 2, 25) that before Adom and Chava ate from the eitz hadaas they were not embarrassed by their lack of clothing. Rashi explains that they were not aware of the concept of tznius which enables one to decipher between good and bad. Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) points out that this explanation of Rashi reveals a novel approach to defining the term "tznius." Tznius is the manner by which one deciphers if his actions are good or bad.

How can one know the true motivation for his actions? Rav Yeruchom Levovitz would say that a person has to familiarize himself with the many faces and colors of the yetzer hara. Although one might feel a great desire to perform a specific mitzvah, he must be able to discern if the surge of adrenaline is coming from his yetzer tov or from his yetzer hara. Performing a mitzvah is commendable; but it should not come at the expense of a greater or more timely Torah obligation. As Rav Yisroel Salanter would say, "The yetzer hara doesn't mind if one says Tehillim the entire day - as long as he doesn't sit down to study Torah in depth."

With this we can understand the Gemara at the end of Meseches Makos (24a) which discusses that pasuk, "What does Hashem request of you but to do justice, love kindness and walk modestly with Hashem." The Gemara tells us that to "walk modestly with Hashem" refers to the proper participation in funerals and marriages. The Gemara concludes that if these things - which are normally performed publicly - must be done in a modest manner, how much more so must we ensure that those things that are meant to be done privately, be carried out modestly. In other words, the way to gauge if the justice and kindness are a true fulfillment of the commandment is to determine whether they would have been performed in the same manner even when far from the eyes of any onlooker.

Tznius is not just an inconspicuous manner of dress. It is an inconspicuous manner of living. If the actions which one performs publicly would be performed in the same way inconspicuously behind closed doors, then one can be confidant that he has fulfilled his obligation in the sincerest manner!

242 - Yom Kippur

Rav Wolbe writes (Alei Shur vol. I pg. 45) that had we not received any Mitzvos aside from Yom Kippur, from the Mitzvah of Yom Kippur alone we could deduce that the Torah is min hashamayim. Such an awesome day could not have been invented by man. The holiness of Yom Kippur is so great that it has the ability to obliterate the greatest sins and transgressions - if one desires wholeheartedly to rid himself of his wrongdoings. Even sins for which the desire for them is so great, that one can't even comprehend how he could not desire them, can be eradicated on Yom Kippur. One merely needs to sincerely yearn to be rid of them and believe that Hashem will assist him in his endeavors.

However, Chazal tell us (Yoma 85b) that Yom Kippur does not bring forgiveness for the sins that are between man and his fellow man, until he appeases his friend. If so, our avodah on Erev Yom Kippur must include appeasing those whom one has offended and asking for forgiveness. The Chofetz Chaim once spoke before Neilah and said that we can see the severity attributed to the mitzvos between man and his fellow man from the tefillah recited during Neilah, in which we beseech Hashem, "l'man nechdal mei'oshek yadeinu"; that our hands may refrain from stealing.

Most of us have someone or another that we have been meaning to appease but simply haven't gotten around to it. Now is the time. Make a call or send an email. It will be greatly appreciated, and your Yom Kippur will be more effective!

Gmar Chasima Tova!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

241 - Rosh Hashana

Rav Yisroel Salanter said that the way to ensure that one is signed and sealed for life on Rosh Hashana, is to be a person that is needed by many people. Since this person plays such a pivotal role in this world, Hashem will make certain that he continues to dwell amongst those people who need him.

Rav Wolbe writes (Alei Shur vol II pg. 424) that when one lives a Torah true life and observes his brethren who have not sampled the beauty of such a lifestyle, surely his heart will go out to them with a desire to bring them closer to Hashem and His Torah. If a person would see a man lying in the street immersed in blood from his wounds, he would certainly run to attempt to save his life. If so, when we see thousands that are dying from spiritual starvation, how can we not try to save as many of them as possible?

We can't just serve Hashem in our little corner and block out the rest of the world. If we have tasted some of the sweetness of Torah, we must share it with others who have not yet been worthy. This is one way to gain the title of a person needed by others, and ensure a sweet new year.

There is always someone out there that knows less than you about Yiddishkeit and could gain immensely form your knowledge. A Shabbos invitation, a telephone call (e.g. Partners in Torah), or a sincere inquiry as to his wellbeing can not only make an indelible impression on another Jew; it can ensure one that he will inscribed in the book of life for the year to come!

Kesiva V'Chasima Tova!

240 - Nitzavim-Vayeilech

"Life and death I have placed before you - blessings and curses - and you shall choose life" (Devarim 30, 19). The most elementary aspect of bechira (free will) is that people have the ability to choose not to sin, thereby saving themselves from death in this world and the next.

Rav Wolbe writes (Alei Shur vol. II pg. 41) that there have been various different apostasies throughout the generations. However, our generation has reached an all time low of apostasy. We don't even believe that we have free will. Courts of law absolve murderers from responsibility for their crimes because of psychological disorders and the like. We have absorbed some of this mentality and many of us believe that we are compelled to sin. Do we believe that it is possible to live from Yom Kippur to Yom Kippur, or even one single day, without sinning?

We must realize that we are responsible for our actions, and ultimately it is we and only we that will have to answer for them. Integrating this idea can aid us in our avodas Hashem, since the very knowledge that one has the ability to choose to uphold the Torah, gives a person the strength to overcome his yetzer hara when temptation knocks on his door.

239 - Ki Savo

In conjunction with the covenant that Bnei Yisroel would make with Hashem to perform the commandments of the Torah, Moshe tells Bnei Yisroel the following: "Haskeis U'shema Yisroel, today you have become a nation to Hashem your G-d and you shall heed the voice of Hashem" (Devarim 27, 9-10). The Sforno explains, "'Haskeis' - picture in your mind, 'U'shema' - and contemplate, 'And you shall heed the voice of Hashem' - when you picture this and understand it, then you will undoubtedly heed the voice of Hashem."

Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol. II pg. 274) writes that according to the Sforno the Torah is revealing to us that picturing Torah concepts can aid us in our fulfillment of the mitzvos. For example, we are commanded on Pesach to perceive ourselves as if we left Egypt. This includes conjuring up a picture of this momentous occasion. We should imagine the pillar of fire that illuminated the area, the awesome procession lead by Moshe and Aharon - each family surrounded by ninety donkeys laden with bounty - all marching out of Mitzrayim in an incredible display of Hashem's might. The same concept applies to the commandment not to forget the revelation at Har Sinai.

Picturing these events that defied all the laws of nature is not merely a fulfillment of a specific mitzvah; it is an essential part of our emunah. One's emunah in Yetzias Mitzrayim and his belief that the Torah came from Hashem, is not complete until he has depicted and contemplated these occurrences in his mind. Conjuring up a picture gives life to these events of the past, and this simulated experience can make an indelible impression on a person's life.

This is an activity that can be performed anytime and anywhere. Picture the Bais Hamikdosh, Akeidas Yitzchok, Yetzias Mitzrayim, Har Sinai, or any of the numerous momentous occasions in our rich history. Take a few minutes to let your imagination draw as many details as possible. The more time invested, the more real the event becomes. This is a simple exercise than can not only strengthen one's emunah, but hopefully aid one's preparation for Rosh Hashana. A true "picture" of Hashem as The King over the entire world will make it easier to accept the yoke of Hashem upon himself.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

238 - Ki Seitzei

The Torah describes Amaleik's encounter with Bnei Yisroel with the words, "they 'cooled you off' on the way." Rashi explains this enigmatic description with a mashal of a man who jumps into a boiling cauldron of water. Even though this senseless person who jumped in first got scalded terribly, nonetheless, he cooled down the water for all those who enter after him. Likewise, although Amaleik lost the war against Bnei Yisroel, they still succeeded in paving the way for others to wage war against Bnei Yisroel.

Rav Wolbe asks that why shouldn't the opposite be true? If someone witnesses a person get burnt horribly and observes him being rushed to the hospital, wouldn't that be the ultimate deterrent to copying the act that brought about such serious consequences?

The answer lies in understanding the instinct people have to mimic the actions of others. The urge is so great that it causes people to perform actions that can be categorized as downright foolish. Amaleik knew they would get burnt, but they also knew that the rest of the nations would follow in their ways and attack Bnei Yisroel.

As we prepare ourselves for Rosh Hashana, we should keep this idea in mind when taking an inventory of our actions. How many of them are performed simply "because that's what everybody else does?" Do we perform or refrain from a specific actions as an outcome of a conscious decision, or merely because we are mimicking the actions of others. If the latter is true, we should determine if any of those actions can be categorized as downright foolish?

Chazal tell us that on Rosh Hashana we stand before Hashem like sheep that pass through the corral door one at a time. We and only we are responsible for our actions, and at the time of judgment we won't be able to blame them on anyone else. A few minutes a week of time with oneself - without a radio, ipod or MP3 - can be very effective in determining where we stand. It's a small investment that can reap great benefits!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

236 - Shoftim

Although there is a specific mitzvah to do teshuva on Yom Kippur, we can't leave the mitzvah of teshuva solely for Yom Kippur. Such a fundamental aspect of avodas Hashem as is teshuva, writes Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol. II pg 438), cannot be accomplished in one day. It needs time, forethought and preparation.

Additionally, there is an impediment to the performance of this crucial mitzvah. While mitzvos that involve actions were given set times for their fulfillment, most mitzvos that are dependant wholly on the feelings of our heart were not allocated specific time slots. Hence, people tend to feel that the fulfillment of these mitzvos sort of happens by itself.

In reality no level of spirituality can be attained, "by itself." It is for this reason, that Chazal instituted specific actions to accompany mitzvos of our heart, lest we rely solely on the heart to perform the mitzvah. For example, even though one fulfills the mitzvah of renouncing his ownership of chometz with a mere internal decision that all his chometz should be null and void, Chazal required a physical activity in addition. They decreed that one must actually search for the chometz and destroy it.

This was not the case with the mitzvah of teshuva. Chazal did not institute any physical actions, and therefore, teshuva remains a mitzvah entirely in the realm of the feelings of one's heart. It follows that we must prepare our hearts to ensure a proper fulfillment of this mitzvah.

Rav Yisroel Salanter provides us with an effective manner of preparation. He writes that there is no better investment than the study of mussar. This together with hisboninus on how to improve some aspect of one's avodas Hashem, should succeed in enabling a person to make a kabbalah on Yom Kippur that will in some way change his future behavior - the primary goal of teshuva.

Yet, we must bear in mind that the kabbalah must be something small. Rav Yisroel Salanter offers an eitzah to help us facilitate the process of teshuva. He points out that the part of an averiah that is easiest to control is the most egregious part of the aveirah. He demonstrates this from Chazal who tell us that punishment for one who does not wear the white strings of tzitzis is greater than the punishment of one who does not wear the techeiles strings. This is because there is a bigger yetzer hara not to buy techeiles because it is more expensive, while the white strings are inexpensive and therefore an easier aspect of the mitzvah to fulfill. Similarly, for some, the punishment for not studying Torah on Shabbos might be greater than for not studying during the week when one is busy with his livelihood.

Our avodah during Elul should be to work on finding the easiest aspect of our avodas Hashem to rectify. This will enable us to make a kabbalah on Yom Kippur that will be very feasible to maintain, at the same time saving us from more severe punishment, G-d forbid. In this way we can reap substantial benefits from Elul and Yom Kippur.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

235 - Re'eh

"If there shall be a destitute person amongst you . . . you shall surely open your hand and lend him money, as much as he needs; whatever he is lacking" (Devarim 15, 7-8). Rav Wolbe writes (Alei Shur vol. I pg. 93) that kindness is not limited to fulfilling another's request for help. The title ba'al chesedisreserved for one who has the ability to discern what is needed without the request being made, and then fulfills that desire.

However, kindness is not restricted to monetary donations. A smile can uplift someone who is dejected and words of encouragement can bring another real happiness. These are such small actions that could have such big ramifications. These are merely two of many kindnesses that we have the ability to perform - if we just took notice of what people are missing!

Everyone appreciates a compliment, and almost anyone you come in contact with benefits from a good word or a cheerful smile. So do a chessed that takes no time or money and make a point of complimenting or encouraging someone - today!

234 - Eikev

Even one who does not have the ability to study mussar from a sefer can still reap many of the benefits of mussar by studying nature. When asked to suggest a sefer that could aid in strengthening one's emunah, Rav Wolbe (Igros U'Ksavim) answered that no sefer is needed, because simply studying nature can bring the same results.

However, the ability to gain from nature, like mussar study, also hinges on hisboninus. Although technological advancements assist us in numerous ways, Rav Wolbe would bemoan some of the spiritual repercussions of these advances. When a person observes a gorgeous sunset or beholds a breathtaking view, the first thing he does is take out his camera to snap a picture. Why doesn't he spend a minute to internalize his picturesque surroundings and eternalize it in his mind instead of in his camera? Such an activity can bring one to great levels of emunah.

The truth is that it is not just the magnificent landscapes that declare Hashem's awesomeness. Every aspect of nature has the ability to bring one to emunah if it is studied properly. Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol. II pg. 271) suggests being misbonein in a leaf of a tree. Notice the perfectly symmetrical veins that bring the water to each part of the leaf. Note the side facing up is a darker green than the side facing down, since it contains the chlorophyll that absorbs the sunlight and causes photosynthesis which provides the atmosphere with much needed oxygen. Who created this if not the The Creator? Fruits and animals also provide ample emunah-provoking thoughts, but only if the time is taken to be misbonein in their many marvelous features.

If you are going on vacation, take a few minutes to enjoy a sunset or beautiful view - without a camera! The effect such hisboninus can have on a person is worth much more than the souvenir provided by a picture!

233 - Va'eschanan

Continuing the topic of hisboninus discussed last week, we find in Alei Shur (vol. I pg. 90) that Rav Wolbe enlightens us to the proper method of mussar study. Mussar has the potential to change a person entirely - but only if studied properly. The most crucial aspect of mussar study is hisboninus: contemplating the idea being discussed in the mussar sefer. Moreover, one who studies Messilas Yesharim will discover that in truth, the way of attaining each end every spiritual level discussed in the sefer requires hisboninus.

There are two stages of hisboninus with regard to mussar study. Therefore, the amount of time allotted for mussar study should be divided into two halves. If one has ten minutes, the first five minutes should be spent on contemplating the idea being discussed to ensure that it is fully understood. One must bear in mind that there are no empty expressions in mussar seforim. Every word was measured and written with the intention of conveying a specific message.

Let us take an example from the Mesillas Yesharim. In the beginning of the second perek the Ramchal writes: "Hinei inyan hazehirus hu sheyheye ha'adom misbonein u'mifakeiach al ma'asav u'drachov ha'tovim heim o lo l'bilte azove nafsho l'sakonas ha'avdone chas v'shalom v'lo yeilech b'mihaleich hargeilo k'evair b'afeilah" - "Behold, the concept of vigilance is for one to contemplate and examine his actions and ways to determine if they are good or not; lest he abandon his soul and endanger it to destruction, G-d forbid, and he should not perform actions out of rote like a blind man in the dark."

Firstly, one must understand the difference between contemplating and inspecting, and actions and ways. Then he must determine why acting out of rote is dangerous to the point that it borders on a person's spiritual destruction. Finally, if acting out of rote is indeed so terrible, he must calculate what ramifications this fact will have regarding those actions that are in reality just habits from childhood.

The second five minutes should be focused on comparing what he has concluded from the mussar sefer with his personal state of affairs. He should determine exactly how far he stands from the ideal described in the sefer, and what the causes for the discrepancies are. When he has accomplished this, he should take the idea that he studied and repeat it over and over passionately, with the intention of internalizing the message and putting the newfound knowledge into practice. However, one must bear in mind that if he wishes to make a change, it must be done slowly. If one adjusts his behavior too drastically at once, he will most likely not be able to sustain the changes and will end up with nothing.

The above method of mussar study is tried and true. Why not try it today and see for yourself? You only stand to gain!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

232 - Devarim (Chazon)

In this week's haftorah we read how Yeshayahu Hanavi lamented, "Ami lo hisbonan" - My nation did not contemplate. The fact that he began his prophecy with this allegation shows just how essential hisbonanus is. What exactly is hisbonanus, and why is it so important?

Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol. I pg. 89) cites the Ramchal who reveals the secret behind hisbonanus. We find that The Torah is likened to a fire. This is because every word is like a coal and if it is untended it will glimmer slightly at best. However, it one fans the coal by toiling to understand the Torah, each coal will burst into a fiery flame. Additionally, a person is endowed with the capabilities needed to reach awesome levels of spiritual comprehension, but this too can only be accomplished if he "ignites the fire" through hisbonanus.

The Ramchal continues that the world was specifically created in this fashion to allow for free will. If at first glance everything would be crystal clear, and we would comprehend the absolute truth of the Creator of the world and the Torah, we would never sin. We would recognize how every mitzvah is a treasure and how every sin is literally a disaster. The yetzer hara would have no dominion whatsoever. In order to balance the scales, Hashem created a world where true knowledge is like a smoldering coal that has the potential to turn into a blaze. Man must choose whether to allow it to remain a dim coal or to ignite it.

With this in mind, writes Rav Wolbe, we can understand how the need for hisbonanus plays a fundamental role in the purpose of creation. Hisbonanus is the motor that triggers a person's seichel to comprehend things properly which aids him in his war against the yetzer hara. The more clarity he has in his role in this world, the less interest he has in sin.

Hisbonanus is the ability to focus on an idea and objectively contemplate the topic with the intention of integrating the knowledge into one's own life. It means taking Torah and mussar ideas that we might already know - but only as a smoldering coal - and turning them into a roaring fire that will burn its way into our minds and hearts. Hisbonanus is also the tool one must use to truly get to know oneself. If one focuses, with composure, on his emotional state, his way of doing things and his life goals, he can come to realizations that will literally change his path in life for the better.

As we approach Tisha B'Av, many feel that they simply cannot relate to the Bais Hamikdosh for which we are mourning. The truth is that it is almost impossible to feel connected without hisbonanus. However, if we take some time to ascertain and contemplate just what we are missing and how it affects us in countless different ways each and every day, we will b'ezras Hashem, be able to mourn, to some extent, the Bais Hamikdosh and thereby ultimately merit rejoicing with it. As Chazal tell us, "All who mourn Yerushalayim will merit rejoicing with it."

Sunday, July 11, 2010

231 - Mattos-Masei

When the soldiers returned from the war with Midyan, the Torah tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu, Elazar HaKohein, and the princes of the shevatim all went out to greet them. Rashi explains that some youngsters had run to grab some of the abundant spoils. Therefore, Moshe Rabbeinu and the other leaders personally went to prevent this from happening. When it came to a suspicion that someone was stealing, Moshe did not rely on sending a messenger to investigate. Rather, he felt it necessary to personally stop such behavior.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) notes that throughout the Chumash we find the great vigilance that our forefathers displayed when it came to matters that involved other people's property. Avrahom's animals traveled with a muzzle lest they graze in someone else's field. Yaakov lived in Lavan's house for more than twenty years and he didn't take a single item from the house. Additionally, we find that when Moshe went to collect the money for the building of the Mishkan, he wore a specially tailored garment that had no pockets or seams, lest anyone suspect that he might take some of the money for himself.

Rav Wolbe related that one Yom Kippur before Ne'ilah the Chofetz Chaim stood in front of the Aron Kodesh and gave a shmuess. He said that twice in Ne'ilah we state, "So that we may refrain from the oshek of our hands (money taken unlawfully)." We see the seriousness of stealing. Since Ne'ilah is a time to make a kabbalah (resolution), we should resolve that if we should have any money that belongs to someone else we will return it immediately after Yom Kippur.

Stealing is a terrible aveirah and yet we don't even have any idea what is included in this prohibition. For this reason, Rav Yisroel Salanter urged people to study the third section of Choshen Mishpat which deals with interpersonal monetary matters. Rav Wolbe heeded this call and instituted that the Kollel that learned in his Bais Hamussar should study those specific halachos. If we want to be sure that we don't unknowingly transgress the laws of gezel, we should take at least a few minutes a week, to study these halachos and gain a more comprehensive understanding of them. (Recently a number of excellent books have been published in English on these topics.)

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

230 - Balak

After Bilam failed in his attempts to curse Bnei Yisroel, he hit upon another plan. "And he turned his face toward the desert" (Bamidbar 24, 1). Rashi quotes the Targum who explains that Bilam's intention was to mention Bnei Yisroel's transgressions and thus causing Hashem to "remember" them. This would provide fertile ground for a curse to be successfully placed on Bnei Yisroel. Therefore, "he turned his head toward the desert" i.e. he mentioned the desert: the location where Bnei Yisroel worshipped the golden calf.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) notes that we find a similar concept when the Torah discusses the laws of the sotah. The Torah refers to the sotah's korban as a "mazkeres avon" - a remembrance of her sin. If she is guilty, her sin is remembered, and the sotah water enters her body and wreaks havoc on it.

There is another aspect to the dangerous effects of remembering a sin. There are wise men who say that when one recites the vidui on Yom Kippur he should not spend too much time thinking about each individual sin. For should he begin reliving his transgression, he might G-d forbid think to himself - even subconsciously - that he really enjoyed what he did and it actually wasn't so bad after all. In such a situation, remembering the sin will cause him to desire it once again, and the vidui will turn into a cause for punishment.
The Mashgiach cited a source that there is a way to know when one has been forgiven for a specific transgression. When he completely forgets about that sin, and thoughts about it don't even enter his mind, he can rest assured that he has been forgiven. In a similar vein the Mishna in Pirkei Avos (2, 2) tells us that it is good for one to busy himself with both Torah and derech eretz, for together they cause "sin to be forgotten."

Although David Hamelech declared, "My sin is before me at all times" one must be on an extremely high spiritual level to be able to withstand the continuous remembrance of his sins. Moreover, even such a person probably should not be constantly thinking about his sins. Rather, the pasuk is teaching us that at all times one should be careful lest he come to the situation that brought him to sin in the first place.

Proper teshuvah for a transgression should not include a detailed analysis of the sin. One must regret the performance of the sin, and the more one thinks about it the more he might become susceptible to repeating his mistake once again. Instead, one should take precautionary measures to ensure that he does not place himself in the same situation that led him to sin in the first place.