Thursday, November 10, 2011

300 - Vayeira

In this week's parsha we read how Avrahom implored Hashem not to destroy Sodom, Amorah and their environs. Avrahom 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 reside therein. Rashi explains that when Avraham requested that Hashem turn back His wrath in face 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 (rightfully) felt 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 on behalf of the Torah scholars amongst us. Chazal tell us (Sanhedrin 99b) that the definition of a heretic is one who asks, "What benefit do Torah scholars provide for society?" It is only 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 Avrahom 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 themselves to act exactly in accordance to 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 be used for the salvation of their entire community.

We might not 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? Additionally, can we fathom the loss incurred by the passing of a great Rosh Yeshiva? From this week's parsha we can glean how much we must appreciate our Gedolim!

Monday, November 7, 2011

299 - Lech Lecha

At the end of this week's parsha the Torah describes Hashem's commandment and Avraham's performance of the bris milah. To truly appreciate the enormity of this event, we must take a few minutes to contemplate the implications of the Torah's account of this mitzvah.

The parsha begins with Hashem telling Avraham to leave his land of residence for an unknown destination. Avraham was seventy five years old at the time. However, the Torah does not tell us anything about the first years of his life. We aren't told that he was thrown into a fiery furnace because of his staunch faith in Hashem, nor does the Torah describe the twenty years he spent in jail, as related by Chazal. Rather, the Torah chose to begin its narrative of Avraham from the first time Hashem spoke to him. This was the type of event that the Torah felt imperative to record for all future generations.

The parsha concludes with Hashem's mitzvah of bris milah. This was an even higher spiritual level and a greater connection to Hashem than described at the beginning of the parsha. Not only did the Creator speak with a human being, He actually created a covenant with him! Moreover, the relationship between them was so great that Hashem obligated Himself to guard this covenant!

In Tehillim (148, 13) it says, "Praise the name of Hashem for His name alone is exalted." Hashem is exalted beyond our comprehension. Nevertheless, the following pasuk declares, "And He will raise the pride of His nation, causing praise for all His pious ones; for Bnei Yisroel His intimate people." Despite the awesome loftiness of the Creator, there is a nation on earth that He considers to be His cherished and intimate people and with whom He interacts!

This relationship began with the Avos, and more specifically with Avraham Avinu. It is hard to comprehend how a human being was able to grow so tremendously, to the point that he merited obtaining a covenant with Hashem. One who questions the veracity of the prophecies of our Avos or of Moshe Rabbienu hasn't demonstrated that he doesn't believe in the Creator. Rather, he has shown that he doesn't believe that such greatness is attainable by a human being.

One of the very foundations of our faith as Yidden is that a person has the ability to reach the level where Hashem will actually speak to him. From here we see the awesome potential that every Yid has in creating a relationship with Hashem. Let us not sacrifice this potential by getting caught up in the petty things in life!

298 - Noach

"These are the offspring of Noach, Noach was a righteous man" (Bereishis 6, 9). What is the connection between Noach's offspring and his righteousness? The answer, says Rashi, is that the Torah is informing us that the primary progeny of a person are his righteous deeds. Rashi's explanation still needs further elucidation: Why are one's mitzvos considered his progeny?

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) explains the comparison as follows. When raising a child, parents hope and pray that their child will be physically and emotionally healthy. Additionally, when he comes of age, the parents marry off the child so that he, too, can produce another generation, and that generation will produce yet another one. Likewise, when one performs a mitzvah, it should be a "healthy" mitzvah - executed in a manner that achieves its entire purpose, and, when possible, the outcome should last for generations to come.

We beseech Hashem in davening, "So that we not toil for naught" (U'va L'tzion). In other words, we are praying that our actions should achieve the desired results. For example; one might found an organization, along with all that goes into such a massive endeavor, only to find that the officers do not see eye to eye and simply cannot get along with each other. The organization then has elections and votes in new administrators, and they, too, end up fighting, and ultimately the organization falls apart. In such a scenario, all the toil that went into creating the organization was for naught. In contrast, a wise man ponders and deliberates before initiating an action to determine if the intention behind his endeavor is pure, and he anticipates what problems may arise. Finally, when he does act, it is with vigilance and astuteness. He nurtures an action as one would nurture a child. In this vein, we must be careful that our tzedakah is given to worthwhile causes. Giving tzedakah to an unworthy cause is another example of "toiling for naught" (See Bava Basra 9b).

Rav Wolbe adds that there is also a deeper understanding of the Torah's equating mitzvos with progeny. There are those who study Torah as they would any other area of wisdom. They have no specific interest in the Torah being absorbed into their very being, and consequently, such Torah does not become integrated into their personalities. Moreover, it is possible that the Torah will have a negative effect on them, as Chazal tell us (Yoma 72b), "[If] one does not merit [to study the Torah properly] it (the Torah) acts as a poison."One must personally identify with Torah in the same way that he identifies with his children.

A righteous deed has the ability to live on for many generations. This depends to a great extent on the purity of one's intentions and his foresight.

297 - Bereishis

The bracha recited daily, "Blessed are you Hashem . . . Who clothes the naked" refers to the clothing that Hashem tailored for Adom and Chava after they ate from the eitz hada'as and became cognizant of their nakedness. However, before they transgressed Hashem's commandment, they were not embarrassed despite their lack of clothing. Rav Wolbe's insightful explanation (Shiurei Chumash) aids us in understanding this idea.

When Adom was created, his very essence was his neshama (soul). The physical body was created merely as "clothing" for the neshama. (Rav Elya Lopian would refer to the body as "pants of flesh"). Hence, his lack of material clothing was no reason for embarrassment since he had a physical body that served that very purpose. Once Adom sinned, he altered his very makeup and his essence became a mixture of both body and soul. The physical body no longer clothed Adom; rather, it became part and parcel of his being and, therefore, required its own covering. It was at this point that Hashem prepared clothing for Adom and Chava.

Rav Wolbe continues that we identify ourselves as, and associate ourselves with, our physical bodies. Though we are made up of both "guf" and "neshama," it is much easier for us to relate to the bracha of "asher yatzar" than to the bracha of "Elokai neshama." To the question, "Who are you?" most people would give an answer that describes their physical appearance and/or occupation, while completely overlooking the spiritual aspect of exactly who they are. This is one of the side-effects of human sin.

Despite this confusion, it is incumbent upon us to familiarize ourselves with our neshama. Who are you really? In what areas of avodas Hashem do you connect significantly with Hashem Yisborach? What are your weaknesses, and, more importantly, what are your strengths? Make an appointment with yourself and get to really know yourself. "You" are the most interesting person that you will ever meet. Moreover, with a solid understanding of your spiritual makeup, your avodas Hashem has the potential to improve greatly!

Piska Tava!

296 - Sukkos

The Rokeiach writes that just as it was the norm to circle a city before attacking, as we find Bnei Yisroel did before their battle against the city of Yericho, likewise, on Sukkos we circle around the Torah (with the four species). Rav Wolbe (Da'as Shlomo) explains the Rokeiach's perplexing comparison as follows.

When Bnei Yisroel prepared to attack Yericho, it wasn't merely the physical wall surrounding the city that hindered their entrance. There was also a spiritual wall inside their hearts that had to be abolished through the blowing of the shofar and the encircling of the city. Just as back then Bnei Yisroel had to destroy this "internal wall", so too, each year on Sukkos we must destroy the internal wall inside of us that hinders our connection with Hashem.

What is this "internal wall?" Didn't we achieve forgiveness for our sins on Yom Kippur, thereby ridding ourselves of all deterrents to our avodas Hashem? The answer is that we did achieve forgiveness, but we still live in the same world, and it is this world that blurs our view and prevents a proper connection with Hashem. Feelings of permanence in this world, an attraction to the culture and allure of the other nations, and an erroneous outlook that nature is something separate from the Creator, all come together to comprise this spiritual wall.

It is amazing to take note of how on the Yom Tov of Sukkos, we attempt to "destroy" the many aspects that comprise this division. Firstly, the Torah tells us, "Leave your permanent abode and go into a temporary abode." The Torah isn't negating the need to live properly; rather, it is merely setting our priorities straight: the next world is the true world and this transient world is preparatory.

Additionally, the Medrash (Parshas Emor) says that the four species symbolize the four letters of Hashem's Name. In other words, when one sees nature he should be able to distinguish Hashem behind this facade. According to the Ramban (Drashos) it is for this reason that we read Koheles on Sukkos. We are trying to ingrain in ourselves that there is no nature; everything is controlled by Hashem, and it is to Him that we will have to ultimately answer.

The Haftoros read on the first day of Sukkos and on Shabbos Chol Hamoed describe the days of Moshiach when all the nations of the world will recognize Hashem's omnipotence. Reading and thinking about these prophecies help us quash the lure toward the culture and lifestyle of the other nations.

Sukkos culminates in the Yom Tov of Shmeni Atzeres. After succeeding in breaking down the spiritual wall that divides us from Hashem, we merit the connection toward which we have strived. On Shmeini Atzeres we don't eat in the Sukkah, shake a lulav or eat matzah. We simply spend the day with our Creator. May we be zoche to achieve this awesome connection!

Chag Kasher V'Sameiach!

295 - Yom Kippur

Rav Wolbe writes (Alei Shur vol. II pg. 442) that we find three different aspects of teshuva described by the Targum: Firstly, "Return, Yisroel to Hashem your G-d" (Hoshea 14, 2) is translated by the Targum, "Return Yisroel to the fear of your G-d". Additionally, "Take words with you and return to Hashem" (ibid. 14, 3) is translated as, "Bring with you words of confession and return to the service of Hashem." Finally, we find the pasuk "Wash yourselves, purify yourselves" (Yeshaya 1, 16) explained by the Targum to mean, "Return to the Torah."

Rav Wolbe elaborates on the Targum's explanations. The literal meaning of the word "teshuva" is to return, for the entire concept of Teshuva is returning and becoming closer to Hashem. How does one accomplish such a feat? How can one bring himself closer to his Creator? This can be accomplished in any one of three ways; by returning to the Torah, the service, or the fear of Hashem.

Torah is not only the elixir of life; it is also the most foolproof way of combating the Yetzer Hara. As Chazal tell us, Hashem declares, "I created the Yetzer Hara and I created the Torah as an antidote." If one contemplates the impetus for his aveiros, he will find that each and every one of them is rooted in a laxity that he has taken toward some area of Torah study. We might be able to trace them to the fact that he hasn't set aside time for Torah study, or that he settles for a superficial understanding when he could delve deeper. Maybe he hasn't studied the applicable halachos or he hasn't reviewed what he has studied. It is possible that he should be spending time studying mussar or even the siddur (from which one can glean emunah and bitachon) and he hasn't taken the time to do so. There is no better day to do "teshuva to Torah" than Yom Kippur, the day we received the Torah in the form of the second set of luchos.

The teshuva mentioned in conjunction with avodas Hashem, is achieved by the proper attitude toward performing mitzvos. Most mitzvos are aimed at purifying, sanctifying and elevating our bodies from the physical to the spiritual. The constant performance of the mitzvos, day after day, leaves small, but nevertheless, indelible impressions upon our bodies. However, there is one catch. The performance of mitzvos only leaves these impressions, when one pays attention to what he is doing. Avodas Hashem performed out of rote, even if done for many years, will leave a person on the same spiritual plane that he started. Doing teshuva by performing mitzvos with a sense of purpose is another way of returning to Hashem.

"Returning to the fear of Hashem," means returning to the study of the fear of Hashem. Out of all the various aspects of Torah study, the Yetzer Hara expends special effort to prevent people from studying about the fear of Hashem (i.e. mussar). He knows just how powerful this study is, and he wages his war accordingly. One's teshuva must include time allotted toward the study of mussar.

There is no time more conducive to making a chesbone hanefesh (spiritual reckoning) and doing teshuva than the Aseres Yimei Teshuvah in general and Yom Kippur specifically. All three forms of teshuva mentioned above are viable ways of coming closer to Hashem. We now have the knowledge of what teshuva is. Let us take this knowledge and implement it in these ways in order to return to Hashem and achieve a teshuva shleimah!

Gmar Chasima Tova!

294 - Rosh Hashana

The Navi (Nechemia 8, 1-12) depicts the emotional first Rosh Hashana experienced by the remnants who returned from the Babylonian exile. Everyone gathered in the streets and requested from Ezra HaSofer to read from the Torah. He then proceeded to read and explain the Torah and mitzvos in a clear and concise fashion. This caused much weeping among Bnei Yisroel, for they realized just how far they had strayed from Hashem and His commandments. However, Ezra HaSofer and Nechemia encouraged them, "Today is sacred to Hashem your G-d, do not mourn and do not weep. . . Eat delicacies and drink sweet beverages and send portions to those lacking, for today is sacred to our Master. Do not be despondent, because the enjoyment of Hashem is your strength."

Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol. II pg. 474) notes that the tears shed by those penitent Jews upon hearing the Torah's commandments indicated their sincere regret for their wayward actions. If so, he asks, why did Ezra and Nechemia cut short their heartfelt teshuva?

The answer lies in understanding the difference between Rosh Hashana and the subsequent days of the "Aseres Yimei Teshuva." One who studies the tefillos of Rosh Hashana will find that there is no mention of vidui or feelings of regret for recalcitrant behavior. This is because the teshuva of Rosh Hashana is not aimed at individual transgressions. Rather, the focus is on accepting the yoke of Heaven with genuine happiness! On Rosh Hashana, "The enjoyment of Hashem is our strength." Consequently, after blowing the shofar we declare, "Praiseworthy is the nation who knows the shofar blasts." "In Your Name they will rejoice all day long and through Your righteousness they will be exalted." We specifically select pesukim of rejoicing, for there is no greater delight than accepting upon oneself the yoke of Heaven.

Truth be told, if Rosh Hashana were not days of judgment, we should dance from sheer joy when reciting Aleinu. For many, this is a novel approach to Rosh Hashana. Yes, there is a seriousness that comes along with this awesome Day of Judgement. Nevertheless, we should bear in mind that there is no greater joy in the entire world than serving Hashem and having the opportunity to develop a relationship with Him!
Kesiva V'Chasima Tova!

293 - Netzavim-Vayeilech

The Gemara in Meseches Sukkah (46a) states: "Come and see how Hashem's attributes differ from those of human beings. A vessel formed by a human being has the ability to store items only when it is empty. In contrast, Hashem's vessel has the ability to store only when it is full, as it is written, 'If you listened (to the Torah), you will listen,' but if you haven't listened [in the past], you will not listen [in the future].'" A person completely void of Torah is not a vessel that has the properties needed to retain Torah.

Rav Wolbe writes (Alei Shur vol. I pg. 201) that this idea is expressed by the Ramban in an insightful explanation of a pasuk in this week's parsha. The Torah tells us (Devarim 29, 17-18), "Perhaps there is among you a man or woman . . . whose heart turns away from Hashem . . . And when he hears the words of these curses he will bless himself in his heart saying, 'Peace will be with me though I walk as my heart sees fit', thereby adding the watered upon the thirsty."

The Ramban explains as follow: If one fulfills a desire to perform a transgression, even though his soul had previously been satiated ("watered") and did not desire sin; nevertheless, his soul will now "thirst" to transgress that sin once again. Moreover, his desire will grow to the point that he will begin thirsting to transgress aveiros that hitherto he had no desire for at all. As Chazal tell us (regarding immorality) the more one satisfies the desire, the hungrier it gets.

How does one assure that he doesn't fall into this terrible cycle described by the Ramban? This is accomplished through the performance of mitzvos. We were given 613 mitzvos and they dictate how we spend every hour of our lives. These mitzvos fill up our bodies and souls and prevent any unwanted desires from creeping into our minds.

There is no better way to prepare for the Yomim Nora'im than by making an extra effort to fill oneself up with extra Torah and mitzvos. An extra minute in the Beis Medrash or a short phone call to a lonely soul, does not garner merely the mitzvah at face value. It fills up our soul, thereby forming a vessel that can hold more Torah and mitzvos, and prevents unwanted thoughts from penetrating our hearts and minds.

Friday, September 16, 2011

292 - Ki Savo

The very last pasuk in this week's parsha reads: "You shall observe the words of this covenant 'lman taskilo' (lit. so that you will succeed) in all that you do." Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol. I pg. 89) cites the translation of the Targum Yerushalmi which differs from the simple interpretation of the pasuk: "You shall guard the words of this Torah and observe them so that you will contemplate all that you do." Accordingly, the purpose of the entire Torah is to transform the impetuous impulsive person into a misbonein - one who contemplates and analyzes all that he does.

Hisboninus is the key which unlocks the spiritual treasure chest. How does one achieve perfection in the performance of mitzvos? How does one acquire emunah and bitachon? How can one perform proper teshuvah? They can all be attained through the trait of hisboninus. This, in essence, is the purpose of mussar study; to aid us in being misbonein into ourselves and our relationship with the Torah and mitzvos.

One who studies the classic mussar sefer, Mesillas Yesharim, will perceive that hisboninus is the key to acquiring each of the middos discussed in his ladder toward character perfection. The very first middah discussed is Zehirus - vigilance, and besides it itself being a form of hisboninus, it is also acquired, "through hisboninus regarding the enormity of our avodah." Nekius is attained "through constant study of Chazal's words," Prishus through a penetrating gaze into the negative aspects of worldly pleasures, and Tahara is achieved by, "One (who) delves and constantly thinks about the lowliness of this world." Chassidus can be reached "when one is misbonein deeply about Hashem's great loftiness," Anava through "habitually being misbonein where one came from" and Yiras Cheit through "being misbonein into the fact that there is a Shechina and He knows all that occurs."

It could very well be, continues Rav Wolbe, that many people find mussar study difficult simply because they never acquired this trait of hisboninus. This being the case, there is no better time to work on attaining this trait than the weeks before Rosh Hashana. Take one single mussar thought and try to be misbonein into it (e.g. "One who gets angry is as if he has worshipped an idol.") Think about it, ponder its meaning, contemplate its truth and then see how your actions correspond to your newfound knowledge. The results of this exercise might be astounding!

291 - Ki Seitzei

"Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you were leaving Mitzrayim" (Devarim 25, 17). Rashi tells us that they cut off the milahs and threw them toward the heavens. What exactly does this mean? Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) helps us decipher the intention behind Amalek's enigmatic actions.

The Zohar writes that the letters of the word "Beraishis" also spell out "bris aish" - a fiery covenant. A covenant is what joins two, often conflicting, interests, and unites them into a single force. Bnei Yisroel, through the mitzvah of bris milah, succeed in creating such a covenant. Their performance of this mitzvah unites physicality with spirituality; the body with the soul, and man with his Creator.

Amalek, on the other hand, stands in stark contrast to this unique characteristic of Klal Yisroel. Chazal tell us that the head of their patriarch, Eisav, is buried in Me'aras Ha'machpeilah alongside some of the greatest people who ever lived. How did he merit such an awesome honor? The answer is that in his head, Eisav was as great as our Avos. His comprehension of The Creator was on par with the greats of our nation. However, there was one thing lacking, and that was his ability to bridge the gap between body and soul. He did not translate his knowledge into actions, and his awesome level of spirituality remained in his head without ever being integrated into the rest of his body.

It was this trait of their forefather that Amalek wished to demonstrate when they threw the milahs heavenward. They lived their lives with a partition separating between the physical and the spiritual, and they had no interest in uniting the two. They took the bris milah - the representation of the unification of body and soul - and threw it Heavenward.

The avodah of a Yid is to take knowledge of the spiritual and translate it into physical actions. There is no better time to do this than the month of Elul. We all know, and we have heard it many times, Hashem is drawing closer to us during this month with the anticipation that we will draw closer to Him. Yet, have our actions expressed this knowledge? Have we shown Hashem in any way that we also would like to come closer to Him? Even the smallest step toward this end generates a tremendous amount of siyata dishmaya (Heavenly assistance), and aids us in reaping the benefits of Elul!

290 - Shoftim - Elul

Rav Wolbe's father-in-law, Rav Avrohom Grodzinski, makes a penetrating insight into the month of Elul. In his sefer, Toras Avraham (pg. 193), he cites the Tur (O.C. siman 581) who quotes the Pirkei D'Rebbe Elazar. "On Rosh Chodesh Elul, Hashem told Moshe to ascend the mountain in order to receive the second luchos. They sounded a shofar in the camp, "Moshe has ascended the mountain," lest the nation stray after idol worship (again). . . Therefore, Chazal initiated that every year we are to blow the shofar commencing with Rosh Chodesh Elul to warn Bnei Yisroel to do teshuva, as it is written, 'Is the shofar ever sounded in a city and the people will not tremble?'"

Rav Grodzinski comments that it is difficult to understand the trembling mentioned in conjunction with the shofar. When they were notified that they were going to receive the second set of luchos, they should have been overjoyed. Not only did this proclamation indicate that Hashem had forgiven them for the sin of the golden calf, it also heralded their receiving the entire Torah, something that even the Avos did not merit. With this in mind, where does fear and trembling fit into the picture?

He answers that Bnei Yisroel recognized the awesome joy associated with receiving the luchos, and they trembled lest they lose this intense pleasure. They already witnessed how with a single sin they fell from the pinnacle of spirituality, and they feared lest the situation repeat itself. This is the trembling associated with Moshe's ascension. Similarly, this is the fear instilled by the shofar each and every year. Elul presents an opportunity that simply cannot be missed. On Rosh Hashana Hashem apportions life, and the keys to all physical and spiritual success. On Yom Kippur, one has the ability to rid himself of a year, or even years, of transgressions. Is there a greater joy than this? One must take delight in this awesome opportunity, and tremble lest it slip through his fingers. This fear is what propels a person to do teshuva so that he, too, can gain from this treasure chest of the Days of Awe.

How does one go about doing teshuva? Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol. II pg. 415) cites Rabbeinu Yonah's explanation of Hillel's dictum (Avos 1, 14), "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" Rabbeinu Yonah explains that if one does not arouse himself, no amount of mussar can help him. It is possible to listen to many mussar discourses and to read through many mussar seforim and gain nearly nothing. A person has to arouse himself by properly digesting what he has heard or read. He should take a line in a mussar sefer and see if he can relate to what is written. If his actions are not in tandem with what he has read, he must take a minute to contemplate the reason behind this laxity and if there is anything, albeit minute, that he can do to change his situation.

Along with Elul comes a fear. Not a fear laced with dread, rather, a fear mixed with joy lest one lose the tremendous opportunity that is knocking on his door. Hashem has so much that He wishes to give us, we must merely arouse ourselves so that we can be worthy of receiving it.

289 - Re'eh

In this week's parsha, amongst numerous other places, the Torah warns, "Lest you seek out their gods, saying, 'How do these nations serve their gods - and I will do the same myself" (Devarim 12, 30). Why did Hashem feel it imperative to warn the Jewish people not to stray after the gods of the surrounding nations - something the Torah itself describes (Rashi to Devarim 29, 16) as "repulsive as excrement?"

Rav Wolbe answers (Ma'amerei Yemei Ratzon pg.273), with an insight from Rav Yeruchom Levovitz zt"l. He explains that the practice of flattering wicked people stems from an internal drive to find favor in everyone's eyes. Even if one were to meet a deranged person, he would hope to make a favorable impression during his encounter. Moreover, if there were somebody - even on the other side of the world - who doesn't view him in a favorable manner, he would endure sleepless nights and go to great lengths to rectify the situation. Therefore, when Bnei Yisroel passed through the idol worshipping nations, they too wished to find favor in the eyes of their neighbors. What better way could there be to find favor in their eyes than to worship their gods?

Rav Wolbe continues, explaining that this is the force that pushes people to run after the newest styles and fads, even if they were concocted by foolish people, so that they not be looked down upon by their colleagues and peers. This is a drive which can potentially be very dangerous. It can cause one who feels that others ridicule his religious observance, to disregard mitzvos or halachos for fear of becoming an object of derision.

Halacha mandates that someone who wishes to convert to Judaism must be told, "Don't you know that currently Bnei Yisroel are scorned and mocked?" If he answers, "I know and I'm not worthy" he is accepted immediately. His answer indicates that he recognizes the penimius of Bnei Yisroel and acknowledges that it is worthwhile to pursue his goal, despite any scorn he might endure.

No one wishes to be perceived as a fool. However, our Sages tell us that it is better for one to be considered a fool in the eyes of the world his entire life, than to be considered a fool for even one moment in the eyes of Hashem! Styles and fashions, newspapers and songs that are antithetical to Torah values, have no place in our homes and offices. The drive to be "one of them" is there, but it could, G-d forbid, bring disaster in its wake. It has the ability to cause one to neglect Torah laws and we must nip it in the bud lest this drive gets out of hand.

288 - Eikev

"One should be careful to perform a small mitzvah just as he would perform a big mitzvah, for one does not know the reward allotted for mitzvos" (Pirkei Avos 2,1). Similarly, Chazal tell us that the pasuk in Tehillim, "Great is the reward reserved for those that fear you", refers to the reward allocated for the performance of small mitzvos. Likewise, Rashi in the beginning of this week's parsha explains, "V'haya eikev tishma'oon", if you perform the small mitzvos that one treads upon with his heal (eikev); Hashem will safeguard His covenant and kindness that He swore to your forefathers.

Someone who is bent on changing the world thinks about founding international organizations promoting peace or charity. Similarly, the thoughts of one who simply wants to improve his character revolve around great acts of kindness or remarkable accomplishments. However, the aforementioned statements of Chazal contradict such ideas. Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol. II pgs. 189,190) adds, that just as the world is made up of indiscernible atoms and our bodies are made up of microscopic cells, so too, our spiritual makeup is defined by our small actions; for good or for bad.

The potency of small actions is comparable to a pill where the active ingredient makes up merely one or two percent of the entire dosage, and a greater quantity would do more harm than good. Likewise, small actions do not arouse our instinctive feelings of opposition. One who takes upon himself a grand resolution that causes him to feel pressured, will slowly but surely feel a desire to rebel.

Rav Wolbe related that after the Yom Kippur War he flew to Egypt. When the plane entered Egyptian air space, he noticed that they were flying extremely low, just a few meters above the ground, and he asked if they were experiencing engine trouble. He was told that because they had entered Egyptian air space, they were flying beneath the height detectable by radar, lest they be noticed. Rav Wolbe applied this idea to spiritual resolutions. Our instinctive feelings of rebellion only detect grandiose actions and resolutions, while the small resolutions go unnoticed.

When one focuses on changing a specific character trait, the most practical solution is to work with small steps. One small action done continuously for numerous days does not overwhelm a person, while it still has the ability to change him for the better.

287 - Vaeschanan

"Hashem will disperse you among the nations...and from there you will seek Hashem and you will find Him if you search for Him with your entire heart and soul. When you are afflicted and all these [terrible circumstances] befall you in the end of days, you will return to Hashem and adhere to His word" (Devarim 4, 27-30). The Ohr HaChaim comments that there are two modes of teshuva mentioned in these pesukim. The first possibility for teshuva is one that comes from inside a person without any external impetus. The second is borne out of suffering that besets a person and prods him to repent; and even such a teshuva is welcomed and accepted by Hashem.

Rav Wolbe writes (Ma'amarei Yemei Ratzon pgs. 99-102) that if one can come to repent without any outside cause, it must be that teshuva is a force within a person that drives him to penitence. Thus, we find people that return to Torah true Judaism without anyone arousing them to return; rather, it is an internal yearning of their soul that compels them to revisit their Jewish roots.

According to the Ramban, the Torah is referring to this when it states: "This mitzva is not distanced from you - it is not in the heavens ...nor across the is close to you - it is in your mouth and heart to be accomplished (Devarim 30, 11-14). The Ramban explains that no matter where one has strayed, literally or figuratively, teshuva is at his fingertips - to be performed in any place and at any time. He must merely confess his sins ("in your mouth") and repent ("and heart"). The 'closeness' of teshuva is this inner force that pushes us to repent.

The Mashgiach notes, that it is not only Jews who contain such a force; we find such a phenomenon by gentiles too. When the prophet Yonah was commanded to travel to the non-Jewish city of Ninvei and exhort them to repent, he not only refused but also tried to 'run away' from his prophecy. What possessed him to take such drastic measures? He was afraid that the people of Ninvei would accede to his demand to repent. This would be an indictment against the Jewish People who had not taken the prophet's exhortations to heart. Why was Yonah so absolutely sure that these gentiles would repent? It must be that this force which encourages repentance lodges even in the hearts of non-Jews.

Since teshuva is so near to us, and that is why some have made a one hundred eighty degree turnaround in their level of Torah observance, we must wonder why it is that we find many times that as Torah observant Jews we have not repented for the sins that we transgress? Moreover, doing teshuva for these sins seems to pale in comparison to what it must take for someone to muster the courage and willpower to repent and make extreme changes in their life and religious observance. The answer is, that for aveiros that we perceive to be 'insignificant' such as lashon hara, bitul Torah and negative character traits, it is much more difficult to repent. The Gemara tells us that he who commits an aveirah twice has in affect permitted this transgression for himself; he no longer looks at such an action as a sin. This is where the difficulty lies. When one perceives that his entire lifestyle is wrong, such a realization hits him hard and drives him to repent. However, if one has dulled his sensitivity due to repetition of certain sins, he has immobilized the force inside that precipitates teshuva.

What can we do to contend with our lack of remorse? The only answer is to learn mussar on a daily basis. Mussar enlightens us to appreciate the depredation wrought by an aveirah and arouses us to the very teshuva, which in essence is close to our hearts.

286 - Devarim

Thursday, July 28, 2011

285 - Masei

Sefer Bamidbar ends with the laws regarding one who kills a person by accident. He must flee to a city of refuge and remain there until the death of the Kohein Gadol. In Parshas Va'eschanan we read how Moshe Rabbeinu designated three cities in Eretz Yisroel as (cities of refuge)"" (Devarim 4, 41). Chazal (Makkos 10a) explain " " (lit. toward the rising sun) homiletically. Some explain that Hashem was telling Moshe, "Cause the sun to shine for the murderers." Others explain that Hashem was commending Moshe on a job well done: "You have caused the sun to shine for the murderers."

Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol. I pg. 190) points out that this was the very last mitzvah Moshe performed before he passed away. The greatest prophet felt it imperative to dedicate his last hours on earth to causing the sun to shine for dejected people. The truth is that his entire life was dedicated to this cause. When he was growing up in Pharoh's palace the first story the Torah tells us about him is, " " (Shemos 2, 11). From the beginning until the end, Moshe's life was a continuous saga of caring for the downtrodden, thereby causing the sun to shine for them.

This concept characterizes our regarding . The importance of causing the sun to shine for others can be seen from a statement of Chazal (Kesubos 111a). "Uplifting another person emotionally is more important than providing for their physical needs." (Avos 4, 20). Responding to a greeting is an act of , while initiating a greeting is much more than that. It is an act which literally lights up another's life. Everyone craves and appreciates the interest that another person shows in them. Even a baby responds warmly to a smile: He gurgles and his face lights up in response. Conversely, if he receives a stern look, he immediately starts crying.

A smile doesn't cost anything and it gives so much. Why not confer them more freely? There is no better time to increase than the three weeks between Shivah Asar B'Tammuz and Tisha B'Av. Smile at someone whom you would normally pass by without showing any sign of recognition. You lose nothing yet you accomplish so much!

284 - Matos (Bein Hameitzarim)

We cannot truly comprehend Hashem. "His throne is in Heavens above and His powerful presence is in the loftiest heights" (Aleinu). Yet, Bnei Yisroel through their avodah and tefillos, have the ability to bring Hashem down to this physical world.

Chazal tell us (Devarim Raba 2, 6) that idols are close by, but, at the same time, they are really far away. A gentile makes an idol and places it in his house - close by. However, when he prays for help he receives no answer, as if the idol is quite distant. In contrast, Hashem's abode is in the heavens which is a five hundred year journey away. Yet, even a prayer in a person's heart is heard by Hashem, for in reality He is very close by.

Regarding the Torah, the Medrash (ibid. 8, 7) says that Bnei Ysroel asked Moshe, "You say the Torah is not in the Heavens nor is it across the ocean; if so where is it?" To which he responded, "It is in your hearts and mouths - it isn't distant, it is very close." Rav Wolbe adds (Alei Shur vol. II pg. 405) that the very purpose of the Torah is to engender closeness, by bringing Hashem down into our lives. One who begins learning Gemara and studies the laws of a bull goring a cow, might wonder how such a topic is supposed to bring one closer to Hashem. After a while he will begin to realize that there is no aspect of our lives that is not directed by Hashem's will. Every topic in Gemara is a lamp that illuminates and guides us in some aspect of life. Although other nations also believe in The Creator, in their eyes He is entirely metaphysical and abstract, and they don't have the wherewithal to connect with Him.

Even the final redemption is tentatively close at hand. When Bnei Yisroel asked Bilam when the final redemption will take place, he answered "I see it but it is not near" (Bamidbar 24, 17). To which Hashem responded, Bilam does not wish to see My redemption for then he will be severely punished and therefore, he says that the redemption is not near. However, you shall yearn for the redemption since it is close at hand: "Observe justice and perform righteousness for My salvation is soon to come" (Yeshaya 56, 1).

The Torah delineates a number of aveiros that were committed by Bnei Yisroel. However, there were two aveiros that undeniably had the most far reaching ramifications. The first was the sin of the golden calf, whereby Bnei Yisroel lost most of the uniqueness given to them. They lost their great stature (the crowns), the freedom from the death, and the ability to study Torah without forgetting. Additionally, Chazal tell us that any suffering that befalls the Jewish nation includes some of the punishment that was intended for the Jewish people when they worshipped the golden calf. The second aveirah was the sin of the spies. Their derogatory report about Eretz Yisroel caused the nation to cry, and thereafter that day was designated as a day of crying for all generations.

In the Jewish calendar, the days on which these two aveiros were committed, fall out within a mere three weeks of each other. These three weeks are the time designated to contemplate just how far we are from Hashem. In reality, Hashem, the Torah and the final redemption are all within arm's reach; it is our aveiros that cause the distance. This is the time to mourn that distance which was caused by our own actions. This mourning itself has the capacity to minimize this distance.

283 - Pinchas

In this week's parsha Bnei Yisroel are counted once again. "These are the ones counted by Moshe and Elazar Hakohein. . . And from these there was no man of those counted by Moshe and Aharon in the Sinai Desert" (Bamidbar 26, 64-65). Rashi comments that the Torah emphasizes, "there was no man", because the women were still alive at the time of the second counting. They were not included in the punishment incurred as a result of the spies' derogatory report and the nation's subsequent objection to entering the Land of Israel. In contrast to the men who expressed their grievances against Eretz Yisroel, the women cherished the Land. This was demonstrated by the daughters of Tzlafchad who came to Moshe requesting that they be allocated a portion of land in Eretz Yisroel.

It is interesting to note, says Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash), that women were always at the forefront of the great events mentioned in the Torah. Chazal tell us that in the merit of the righteous women our forefathers were redeemed from the bondage in Mitzrayim. Additionally, when Bnei Yisroel stood ready to accept the Torah at Har Sinai, the women were placed first in Hashem's command to Moshe: "So shall you say to the daughters of Yaakov and relate to the sons of Yisroel" (Shemos 19, 3). Finally, it was the women who cherished and thereby merited entering Eretz Yisroel, while their male counterparts perished in the wilderness. In contrast to those who perceive women as maintaining an inferior spiritual status, the Torah clarifies for us their true level of greatness.

In a similar vein, Rashi (Bamidbar 27, 7) tells us that the eyes of the daughters of Tzlafchad "saw" what was not "seen" by the eyes of Moshe. Their request precipitated Hashem's commandment to Moshe as to regarding what should be done with the estate of a man who dies and leaves only daughters. It was in the merit of these wise women that Bnei Yisroel were taught the laws pertaining to inheritance. Once again we see the greatness the Torah ascribes to women.

Rav Wolbe points out that there is another lesson to be gleaned from the daughters of Tzlafchad. They are yet another example of the emphasis the Torah places on the importance of each individual. Their simple request, which demonstrated an intense spiritual desire, brought them honor in the eyes of their generation and all future generations since Hashem recorded their dialogue in the Torah. We all have the potential to leave our mark!

282 - Balak

There was no prophet who described Bnei Yisroel's essence better than Bilam, says Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash). The Ramban writes (Bamidbar 22, 20), Hashem specifically desired that a non-Jewish prophet bless Bnei Yisroel. This is an idea that is already mentioned in the Gemara. Chazal tell us (Avodah Zara 3a) that in the future when Hashem will reward Bnei Yisroel, all the nations of the world will protest that Bnei Yisroel are undeserving since they failed to perform the mitzvos of the Torah. Hashem will respond that gentiles themselves will testify to Bnei Yisroel's vigilance in guarding the Torah's precepts. Lavan will testify that as an employee of twenty years Yaakov didn't take a single item that wasn't his. Nevuchadnetzer will testify that Chananya, Misha'el and Azarya refused to prostrate themselves before the idol, and so on and so forth. Here too, Hashem finds it imperative to bring our arch enemies in testimony to our righteousness.

Rav Wolbe explains this phenomenon as follows. Dovid Hamelech said (Tehillim 92, 12), "When those who would harm me rise up against me, my ears listen." Rav Yisroel Slanter says that when an enemy talks we must listen. If our enemy says that we are righteous, we can be certain that we are truly righteous. However, if he has anything negative to say, then we know we still have what to work on, as the pasuk says, "When Hashem favors a man's ways, even his enemies will make peace with him" (Mishlei 16, 7). Therefore, Hashem is interested in the praises sung by our enemies, for there is not truer praise.

How does Bilam describe Bnei Yisroel? "From the tops of rocks I perceive [them] and from hills do I see it, a nation that will dwell in solitude" (Bamidbar 23, 9). Rashi explains, Bilam was saying that he looked into Bnei Yisroel's origins - the patriarchs and matriarchs - and found that their foundation is rock solid. Every action of our forefathers was committed with the direct intent of creating and building a spiritual nation. Bnei Yisroel were spiritually built into "a nation that will dwell in solitude" andthis is their very essence. We are to be so totally removed from the other nations that the Torah even forbids us to praise them or their possessions.

Bilam perceived that the spiritual construction performed by the Avos was all with the intention of building a nation that will dwell in solitude. Even when living among the other nations, we must bear in mind that Bilam's description is our very essence, and it behooves us to live our lives in accordance with this mentality.

281 - Chukas

In an attempt to shorten Bnei Yisroel's final journey to Eretz Yisroel, Moshe sends messengers to the King of Edom requesting permission to pass through Edom on the way to the Promised Land. The King of Edom refuses to grant permission and Bnei Yisroel are forced to take a more circuitous path. Thereafter, the Torah writes, "And Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon on Har Ha'har near the border of Edom, saying, 'Aharon shall be gathered to his people'" (Bamidbar 20, 23). Rashi explains that there is a reason the Torah emphasizes that this conversation took place near the border of Edom. Since they allied themselves with the wicked Eisav (Edom) they lost this righteous man (Aharon).

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) notes, that all they wanted to do was simply pass through the Land of Edom undisturbed. If so, he asks, why did Hashem refer to this endeavor as an act of alliance with Edom and an interest in befriending Eisav? This question derives from the fact that we don't truly understand the danger of living among other nations. We are so used to living in galus, that we don't even realize to what an extent those around us influence our lives. We mimic their actions, copy their way of thinking and absorb their culture. Even merely speaking the language of the populace brings along with it certain negative influences. The most profound characteristics and ideologies of a nation are expressed through their language.

Bnei Yisroel merely requested permission to pass through the land of a foreign nation, and the Torah labels this attempt as an alliance with evil. The danger of such an action was so great that as a result they lost one of their greatest leaders.

We live in galus and there is nothing to do about it until Moshiach comes. However, what we could and should do is minimize the negative effect of the people among whom we live. Take a look around the house and see if there are things that are not proper for a Jewish home. If there are, why not dispose of them? Moreover, take a look around yourself and see if there are any hashkafos that have no place in a Jewish body!

280 - Korach

The parsha begins with Korach leveling a criticism against Moshe and Aharon: "The entire nation is holy and Hashem is among them, and why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of Hashem?" (Bamidbar 16, 3). Moshe responds, "In the morning Hashem will make known the one who is His own and the holy one." Rashi cites the Medrash which explains the intent behind Moshe's choice of words. He was telling Korach that Hashem set definitive boundaries in the world. Just as he does not have the ability to change morning into night, so too, he does not have the ability to change Hashem's appointment of Aharon as the Kohein Gadol.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) explains that the Medrash is informing us that the appointment of Aharon as the Kohein Gadol was a "creation" no different than the creation of day and night. When Hashem places a person in a specific position, He literally molds the person to fit the position. There is no possibility to change this mold.

This is a concept that applies to each and every one of us. Hashem created each person with a unique character and there is no way to alter this initial character. Chazal tell us that one who is born during the rule of the mazal of Ma'adim, will invariably spill blood. There is no way for him to change this innate characteristic. Nevertheless, continues the Gemara, he has the ability to channel the characteristic to a specific occupation that suits him. He can be a Shochet, a Mohel, a blood letter or a murderer. These are options that span the entire spectrum of occupations. A Mohel spills blood for a vital mitzvah, a murderer spills blood in sin, and the Shochet is somewhere in between. A Shochet also performs a mitzvah, however, it is not an obligatory mitzvah to slaughter animals being that one does not have to eat meat.

Likewise, Chazal tell us that when Shmuel Hanavi came to anoint David as king, he was concerned because David had a red complexion (similar to Eisav) which indicated a natural tendency to spill blood. Shmuel was relieved when he noticed David's fine-looking eyes, since they signified that he would spill blood only with the consent of the Sanhedrin - the "eyes" of the nation.

Every person has certain innate tendencies that cannot be uprooted. The possibilities for channeling these characteristics are numerous. The choice is ours. Why use it in a destructive manner when you have the ability to use it in a constructive fashion?

279 - Shelach

When the spies returned with a derogatory report after scouting Eretz Yisroel, Hashem threatened to wipe out Bnei Yisroel and create a new Jewish nation with Moshe Rabbeinu as its patriarch. Moshe petitioned Hashem, and through a winning argument succeeded in averting the fulfillment of this threat: "The nations that heard Your fame will say, 'Because Hashem lacked the ability to bring this nation into the land that He promised them, He slaughtered them in the desert'" (Bamidbar 14, 16). In other words, wiping out Bnei Yisroel will result in a terrible chillul Hashem. To which Hashem responded, "I have forgiven [them] for the reason you have said."

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) cites the Rashbam in Parshas Eikev (9, 25). Before his death, Moshe castigates Bnei Yisroel regarding their transgressions committed while in the desert and the numerous prayers that he offered on their behalf. The Rashbam explains that Moshe was letting them know that they won't always be able to rely on such prayers. Moshe's prayers succeeded because Bnei Yisroel had not yet entered Eretz Yisroel. Therefore, there was always the possibility that the other nations would claim that Hashem lacked the ability to conquer the thirty one kings of the Land, which constituted a chillul Hashem. However, once Hashem would bring them into the Promised Land and systematically destroy the inhabiting nations one after another, no longer would anyone be able to claim that Hashem's ability is lacking. Hence, the current method of praying would be ineffective!

All prayer has to somehow be connected to kiddush Hashem or preventing chillul Hashem. Even when one prays for the speedy recovery of someone who is ill, the intention should be that in this person's present situation he cannot properly serve Hashem, and his recuperation will lead to a greater degree of kiddush Hashem.

We aren't on the spiritual level to ensure that all our prayers are offered with the perfect intentions. Thus, we must pray in every given situation, regardless of the purity of intention. Nevertheless, we should bear in mind that the ultimate purpose behind health, wealth, and tranquility, is to have the ability to serve Hashem without any distractions, thereby glorifying His Name in this world. Often, if we dig deep enough, we will realize that this is the underlying impetus for our prayers. Bringing these thoughts to the forefront while praying, may succeed in making our prayers all the more effective.

278 - Shavuos

Rav Chaim Vital (Sha'arei Kedusha perek 1) writes: "After Adom Harishon ate from the eitz hada'as, his body and soul each became a blend of good and evil. This is the idea [referred to by Chazal] of the snake injecting 'contamination' into Chava and Adom. Through this contamination he caused sickness and ailments to their bodies and souls. This is the meaning of the pasuk, 'For on the day that you eat from it you will surely die' - death of the soul and death of the body."

Nevertheless, Chazal (Shabbos 146a) tell us that when Bnei Yisroel stood at Har Sinai this contamination ceased and they once again attained the level of Adom Harishon prior to his sin. If so, writes Rav Wolbe (Da'as Shlomo Shavuos pg. 284), we are to understand that the Torah must have penetrated all the areas of contamination i.e. the various facets of their bodies and souls. With this in mind it is clear, that without Torah, even the greatest human cannot divest himself of the evil fused in both his body and soul.

With this introduction we can understand a cryptic passage from the Chovos Ha'levavos (Sha'ar Avodas Elokim). "The Torah combines varied concepts - those mitzvos that cannot be comprehended with logic (chukim), together with the basics of those mitzvos that have a logical interpretation. This was done because the generation that received the Torah was at that time under the dominion of their desires, and their mind was too weak to comprehend even the logical mitzvos. Therefore, the Torah combined both types of mitzvos, so that one who can comprehend them will perform them as compelled by his own comprehension (a higher level than one who performs it because it is written in the Torah), while one who cannot comprehend the mitzvah on his own will at least perform it no differently than the chukim that he performs despite the lack of any logical explanation."

A superficial reading of this passage might lead one to think that the generation that accepted the Torah was on a low level and ruled by the passions and desires. He might even entertain the thought that the Torah was given specifically to such a generation and in modern times it is not needed due to our greater morals and intellectual abilities. In truth, the Chovos Ha'levavos is expressing a profound idea. The generation that accepted the Torah was the greatest generation to walk this earth. Yet, before they accepted the Torah they still contained the contamination injected by the snake and there was evil intermingled in their very being. Hence, even though they were on a high spiritual level and would have never acted on a negative trait, the very possibility that a bad trait might be aroused was enough to obscure an objective perception of the proper performance of even the logical mitzvos. Therefore, they accepted these mitzvos and performed them no differently than they performed the chukim.

Let us take for example the mitzvah of "loving one's fellow like himself." It sounds pretty simple, it's pretty logical and everyone talks about it - but how many people actually act accordingly? The Ramban comments that it is quite difficult to fulfill this mitzvah. A person wishes upon his friend everything good - as long as he himself is at least slightly better off! At Har Sinai there were those who accepted upon themselves to properly perform this mitzvah like a chok.

The Torah combined the logical mitzvos with the chukim so that we should be meticulous in their performance as we are meticulous with the performance of the chukim. On Shavuos we are obligated to accept the Torah. This includes accepting upon ourselves to perform the logical mitzvos (e.g., not stealing, damaging, or taking revenge etc.) with the same meticulousness as we perform the mitzvah that prohibits eating chazir or wearing shatnez!

Good Yom Tov!

277 - Bamidbar

The Jewish People are not the sole believers in Hashem. Nevertheless, says Rav Wolbe (Da'as Shlomo Shavuos pg. 496), there is a marked difference between the belief of the other nations and our emunah in Hashem. In Tehillim (113, 4) we read, "Exalted above all the nations is Hashem, in the Heavens is His glory." The nations all know that there is a G-d, but they perceive that due to His exalted stature He has made His abode in the Heavens, with little or no involvement in the day to day activities down here on earth.

In contrast, Bnei Yisroel believe that Hashem is much closer to home. The Torah tells us, "He discovered them in the desert; in desolation - in a shrieking wilderness. He encircled them; He granted them discernment; He protected them like the pupil of His eye" (Devarim 32, 10). Bnei Yisroel are encircled by Hashem. As the Rambam writes, "Our Sages said anyone who has tefillin on his head and arm, tzitzis on his garment and a mezuzah on his doorpost is guaranteed not to sin, for he has many reminders - i.e. the angels that protect him from sinning as it says, 'An angel of Hashem encamps around him and saves him.'" Moreover, Bnei Yisroel are not only encircled with angels, they are encircled by Hashem Himself - "Hashem surrounds His nation" (Tehillim 125, 2). Just as we are surrounded by air, we are surrounded by Hashem's glory.

As Rashi explains, Hashem's encirclement of Bnei Yisroel manifested itself in numerous forms. He enclosed them in the clouds of glory, He encircled them with flags on all four sides, and He surrounded them with Mt. Sinai when He held it over their heads like a barrel (forcing them to accept the Torah). Let us take a closer look at each of the occurrences mentioned by Rashi, two of which are described in Medrashim on this week's parsha.

The Tanchuma (Bamidbar) tells us that there were seven clouds of glory. Six clouds surrounded them, one on top, one underneath and four more: one on each side. The seventh cloud traveled in front of them; killing snakes and scorpions and leveling mountains and valleys. Bnei Yisroel were encircled as if in a cocoon; all their needs were cared for to the point that clouds ensured that even their clothes did not wear out.

The Medrash (Raba Bamidbar) tells us that when Hashem revealed Himself by Matan Torah, He was accompanied by 220 thousand angels, all carrying flags. When Bnei Yisroel observed this phenomenon, they too desired such flags, and Hashem acquiesced as we read in this week's parsha. The flags displayed the uniqueness of each facet of Bnei Yisroel in the eyes of Hashem. These flags were so precious to Bnei Yisroel, that when the nations tempted them with positions of great honor, they retorted, that anything that they can offer pales in comparison to the flags that they received from Hashem.

The third occurrence mentioned by Rashi is Matan Torah. Chazal tell us (Brachos 17a) that the world to come contains no food or drink. Rather the righteous sit with crowns on their heads and bask in the radiance of the Shechina, as it says (by Matan Torah), "They perceived Hashem and they ate and drank" they were satiated (from the Shechina) as if they ate and drank. If an example of the world to come can been seen from Matan Torah, we can deduce that by Matan Torah, Hashem gave Bnei Yisroel a taste of Olam Habah. This taste of the world to come can be felt every time we learn Torah, about which we say, "And eternal life he planted within us."

Bnei Yisroel don't merely believe in a G-d Who "sits up in Heaven." We believe that Hashem is very involved in every aspect of our lives. We are literally encircled with His glory. He protects us, He cares about each individual, and He gives us the ability to live an other-worldly life right here in this world!

276 - Bechukosai

In this week's parsha we read in the tochacha, "And if you behave with Me "keri" and you refuse to heed Me, I will add another blow upon you" (Bamidbar 26, 21). Rashi tells us that the word "keri" comes from the same root as the word "mikreh" which means casually. The tochacha comes as a result of behaving casually regarding avodas Hashem: sometimes performing the mitzvos while at other times neglecting them.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) cites the Rambam who offers a different explanation for the word "keri." In the beginning of the halachos pertaining to ta'anios, the Rambam writes as follows: "There is a positive commandment to cry out and blow the trumpets at the advent of any trouble that befalls the populace. . . However, if they do not cry out nor blow the trumpets, rather, they say that what has occurred is due to natural circumstances and this calamity has come merely by chance. . . the calamity will lead to other calamities. In regard to this it is written in the Torah, 'And if you behave with Me "keri" and you refuse to heed Me, I will add another blow upon you'." The Rambam understands "keri" to mean coincidentally - by chance. If one perceives all of Divine Providence as coincidence, he is guilty of behaving toward Hashem in a manner of "keri" and the terrible punishment for such behavior is delineated in the subsequent pesukimof the tochacha.

Additionally, we find that tumah - spiritual impurity - is described as "keri." According to Rashi's explanation, the manifestation of spiritual impurity is the casual performance of avodas Hashem. The Rambam adds another dimension to spiritual impurity: failing to notice the hand of Hashem and instead attributing all occurrences to natural causes.

Both explanations are true. Nothing is by chance. Each and every current event has not occurred by chance; they are carefully orchestrated by the Creator Himself. Additionally, our avodas Hashem should not be performed casually - "by chance." We are His servants at all times and our performance of His mitzvos should reflect that - day and night, rain or shine.

275 - Behar

Why can't we charge interest? After all, the very same money could have been invested or put into a bank account, and due to the loan one is losing that added income. Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) explains that when one's brother is in need of assistance, a person doesn't take into account losses that might result from aiding his brother. Hence, when a fellow Jew needs a loan, one should have the same outlook. We must help him, and this act of chesed should be complete without any thought of remuneration. In contrast, the Torah tells us regarding one who is not our brother; "To a gentile you may charge interest" (Devarim 23, 21 see Ramban).

In this week's parsha we read the prohibition of lending money with interest. "Do not take from him interest, and you shall fear your G-d; and let your brother live with you" (Vayikra 25, 36). Rashi explains that specifically here the Torah adds an exhortation, "and you shall fear your G-d" due to the uniqueness of this prohibition. Not only is there an inclination to charge interest and, therefore, it is difficult to refrain from such practice, one also excuses his actions with, "My money is lying idle by my friend when it could be reaping dividends." Hence, the Torah warns, "And you shall fear your G-d."

Every Jew is a brother or sister. The above pasuk provides two valuable lessons. We must relate to our fellow Jews no differently than how we would relate to our closest relatives, both in material and spiritual matters. What wouldn't one do for a sibling? Some food for thought before the next time we are asked to do a Chesed.

Additionally, Rav Wolbe cites the Ramban on the above mentioned pasuk of this week's parsha. The pasuk concludes, "and let your brother live with you." The Ramban explains this to mean that if indeed you did charge interest, you must return the interest to the borrower, "so that he will be able to live with adequate needs." The Mashgiach concludes, if I am commanded to ensure that my fellow Jew has an adequate material life, how much more so must I ensure that he has the ability to live an adequate spiritual life. If a fellow Jew is having difficulty with any aspect of Yiddishkeit - from its basic precepts to understanding a commentary on the Gemara - we are obligated to offer our assistance.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Friday, May 6, 2011

274 - Emor

"Until the day following the seventh week you shall count fifty days, and you shall offer a new mincha to Hashem" (Vayikra 23, 16). Rashi explains that the Torah refers to this korban mincha as a new offering since it is the first offering to be brought from the new crop of grain. Rashi continues that although the minchas ha'omer was brought earlier (on the second day of Pesach) it is not reckoned as the first mincha because it was unique since it was brought from barley as opposed to the rest of the minachos that were brought from wheat.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) points out that there is one other mincha that was brought from barley: the mincha of a sotah. He elaborates on the reason behind this phenomenon. Every physical object has a spiritual counterpart. These minachos were brought from se'orim (barley) which has a linguistic connotation of sa'arah (hair). Chazal tell us that Hashem judges the righteous meticulously and punishes them for even an infraction the size of "a hairsbreadth." In other words, se'orim connote, and therefore arouse, Hashem's judgment.

A sotah brings a barley offering since her situation warrants Divine judgment. Is she guilty of adultery and deserving of punishment via the bitter waters or is she innocent and worthy to be blessed with beautiful children. In a similar fashion Bnei Yisroel would bring a barley offering after the first day of Pesach. A day earlier they experienced freedom from bondage, for as we know the exodus was not a onetime event. Rather, we revisit and relive that momentous occasion each year on the Seder night, as per the commandment to feel as if we left Mitzrayim. Hence, there was a need to judge Bnei Yisroel. How have they utilized their newfound freedom? Has it galvanized them into a greater service of The Creator, or have they, G-d forbid, strayed from the proper path?

Though we no longer have the Beis Hamikdosh and the minachos, nevertheless, we do have the ability to experience freedom on the night of the Seder. We must then ask ourselves how these feelings have affected us. Do we have, or are we at least working toward, a greater level of emuna? Are we even a tad less enslaved to our yetzer hara and our desires? This is the lesson of the minchas ha'omer. Let us take it to heart and apply it to our lives. One single paragraph in the Chazon Ish's sefer emunah u'bitachon (available in Hebrew and English), read during a coffee break, over the phone or during supper, can aid us in attaining greater levels of emunah - which freedom from bondage should engender.

Friday, April 29, 2011

273 - Kedoshim

If one was asked to determine which of the following hurts most; detaching an entire fingernail, removing an eye or an abdominal surgery, he would have zero interest in evaluating the pain level of each of those procedures in order to come to a decision. This is so, says Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol. I pg. 80), despite the fact that eyes and fingernails are not limbs upon which one's life is dependant. Nevertheless, the body feels an acute pain when it is missing any limb; even if it is not one of the vital organs.

In a similar vein, regarding the mitzvos we say in davening, "ki heim chayeinu - for they are our life." Together, all the mitzvos of the Torah create a spiritual "body." The Torah does not differentiate between the various mitzvos nor does it categorize their levels of importance, because the lack of even a single mitzvah causes a deficiency in one's spiritual makeup and a flaw in his spiritual "body."

The Torah contains mitzvos between man and Hashem and mitzvos between man and his fellow man. There are obligations to be fulfilled with one's limbs and others to be fulfilled in one's heart. Additionally, some mitzvos are constant while others are time oriented. The fulfillment of all the mitzvos together aids one in achieving perfection in this world and assures him an honorary portion in the next world.

Some people are naturally more outgoing and may have leanings toward performing chessed or toward loving their neighbor. However, they might be lacking in their performance of mitzvos between man and Hashem because they are missing that same level of inborn motivation. Others are disgusted at the thought of defiling their mouths with non kosher food, but they have no inhibitions about sullying their mouths with lies or lashon hara.

In this week's parsha the Torah implies explicitly that we are not to follow our natural tendencies in deciding which mitzvos to perform. The Torah commands us (Vayikra 19, 3), "A man should fear his mother and father." Rashi notes that in contrast, regarding the mitzvah of honoring one's parents the Torah the Torah gives precedence to the father, as it is written, "Honor your father and your mother." He explains that naturally a child fears his father more than his mother, but honors his mother more than his father. Hence, the Torah places an emphasis on fear of the mother and the honor of the father.

We read in Krias Shema, "So that you should remember and perform all of My mitzvos and be holy to your G-d." Through the performance of all of the mitzvos together one achieves the very purpose of Yetzias Mitrayim; that special connection to Hashem described in the following pasuk: "I am Hashem your G-d, Who has taken you out of Mitzrayim, to be unto you a G-d."

272 - Pesach

Before Adom Ha'rishon sinned, he was able to clearly discern that despite the fact that this world seems to be a reality, it is merely a fa├žade in comparison to the reality of ruchniyos in general and Hashem in particular. However, after he sinned, the yetzer hara i.e. the power of imagination became part and parcel of Adom's very being. The extent that he exercised the use of his imagination, the more he turned the physical world into a reality. This in turn obscured the true reality of the spiritual world.

Rav Wolbe (Da'as Shlomo Geulah pg. 313) writes that this concept holds true for each and every one of us. The Torah relates regarding the staffs Yaakov Avinu placed in front of the sheep, that the sheep gave birth to offspring which mirrored the designs on the staffs. The "imagination" of the sheep had the power to create a reality. The same holds true for our imagination. When a person uses his imagination to conjure up various worldly pleasures, he is creating; he is turning the physical world into more and more of a reality. This in effect obscures the reality of ruchniyos thereby giving it inferior status.

How does one combat this yetzer hara masked in his imagination? The answer can be found in the Kuzari (3, 5). "The pious commands his imagination to conjure up the most splendid images stored away in his mind in order to create a picture for a desired G-dly phenomenon such as the revelation by Har Sinai, Akeidas Yitzchok, the Mishkan along with Moshe and the service performed therein, the glory of the Bais Hamikdosh and many other images." It is imperative that one utilize his imagination in his avodas Hashem. Otherwise, his imagination unchecked will run wild, and solely paint portraits of the many pleasures and temptations of this very materialistic world.

The importance of using one's imagination to aid his avodas Hashem is expressed succinctly by the Sforno in his explanation of two pasukim in Devarim (27, 9-10). "Haskeis" - Depict in your mind "U'Shema" - and contemplate. "V'Shamata B'kol Hashem Elokecha" - When you depict this and comprehend it, then you will most certainly heed the word of Hashem."

This being the case, concludes Rav Wolbe, we have clarified for ourselves the avodah of Pesach. A person is obligated to feel as if he himself left Mitzrayim. This can only be accomplished by picturing the bondage and the subsequent freedom. For this reason we are instructed to recline, drink four cups of wine, and eat matzah and marror. Going through the motions of freedom, observing the "pesach" and tasting the bread of affliction all aid our imagination in a more complete picture of Yetzias Mitzrayim.

If we truly want to gain from this Yom Tov of Pesach, let us follow the Kuzari's advice. Let's not merely "go through the motions" of the Seder, but also take some time to picture the scenes of Yetzias Mitzrayim. The ten makkos, Paraoh's nocturnal search for Moshe and Aharon, each Jew with ninety donkeys laden with the bounty of Mitzrayim, Kriyas Yam Suf and the cloud and fire that led the Jews through the wilderness. These pictures can do wonders in advancing our emunah and additionally, prevents our imagination from tempting us with the false pleasures of olam hazeh.

271 - Metzora (Pesach)

The Ramban, at the end of Parshas Bo, writes that Hashem does not perform miracles in each generation merely to refute the notions of every nonbeliever who ever lives. Therefore, He commanded us to perform numerous mitzvos in remembrance of Yetzias Mitrayim - the era which He did perform countless overt miracles which disproved the possibility of any other supreme being, and demonstrated His continuous providence of all that occurs here on earth. According to the opinion of the Ramban, the purpose of many mitzvos is to help us achieve the level of emunah attained by Bnei Yisroel at the time of Yetzias Mitrayim.

On the pasuk, "And you shall relate to your children on that day saying, for this Hashem did for me when I left Mitzrayim" (Shemos 13, 8), Rashi explains, "for this" so that I should fulfill His commandments such as pesach, matza and maror. Rashi's explanation implies, in contrast to the Ramban, that the purpose of the mitzvos is not a remembrance of Yetzias Mitzrayim, rather the opposite, the very purpose of Yetzias Mitzrayim was in order that we should perform His mitzvos.

Rav Wolbe (Da'as Shlomo Geulah pg. 278) writes that in reality, the Ramban and Rashi do not disagree; rather, their explanations complement each other. Rashi in numerous places (see R"H 28a, Brachos 33b) writes that the mitzvos were given to us as a yoke, i.e. to show our absolute servitude to Hashem. The purpose of Yetzias Mitrayim was, as we say in Shema, so that Hashem "shall be for you a G-d." Bnei Yisroel were to accept Hashem's Kingship, which manifests itself by the performance of His commandments. The Ramban does not disagree, for he writes explicitly (Devarim 6, 13), "The [intent of a] mitzvah is to be like a slave who is acquired by a master who makes the work of his master primary and his own work secondary." The Ramban is merely giving a reason behind the mitzvos, as he writes, "And now I will reveal to you the ta'am (reason - lit. flavor) behind many mitzvos."

In other words, there are two aspects in every mitzvah. The idea of a mitzvah, as explained by Rashi, is to demonstrate our total subjugation to Hashem. Additionally, as the Ramban writes, each mitzvah has its own reason and purpose specifically designed to serve Hashem in that manner. The purpose of many of the mitzvos is to relive the spiritual high felt at the time of Yetzias Mitrayim.

Rabbeinu Yonah writes (Sha'ar Ha'avodah) that one is obligated to search for a reason behind each mitzva. Even if we fail to understand the reason behind a specific mitzvah, we must still fulfill that mitzvah as a servant fulfills his master's commandments regardless of whether he comprehends the motive behind their instruction. Nevertheless, if we do succeed in understanding the purpose of the mitzvah, it gives a wonderful "flavor" to the performance of the mitzvah. This being the case, it behooves us all to take a few minutes to review this most important Ramban (Shemos 13, 16 V'atoh omer lecha. . .) before sitting down to the Seder on Pesach.

270 - Tazria

"When a woman conceives and gives birth to a son" (Vayikra 12, 2). The birth of any child, says Rav Wolbe (Zeriah U'binyan B'Chinuch pg. 32), is an entrustment from Hashem. Dovid Hamelech commented in Tehillim (8, 5) "What is a person that you should remember him, and a man 'ki sifkideno'? "Ki sifkideno" can be translated homiletically, "that you entrust him with a deposit (pekadon)." The birth of a child is an expression of Hashem's trust in a person to the extent that He has deposited a human in his care.

Children aren't given to a person so that he should have someone to take care of him when he gets old, or as an object in which to take pride. Children are a deposit from Hashem, and one must care for the deposit responsibly. What does one have to do to succeed in properly caring for this most special deposit?

The Ramban notes that in the first parsha of krias shema we say, "And you shall teach [Torah] to your children, and you shall speak [in Torah]." However, in the second parsha of krias shema we say, "And you shall teach Torah to your children so that they shall speak in them." He explains that the first step in teaching a child is invariably accomplished by way of a father speaking to the child. Nevertheless, this is not the goal. The ultimate goal is that the child should be able to speak in Torah on his own.

Consequently, we are entrusted with a deposit and we are to teach him Torah and guide him in a way that will enable him to grow properly. However, the ultimate goal is that he should want to take the initiative in his life and develop a personal desire to grow in Torah and mitzvos. It is a sad sight to behold a "chinuch" that stifles the individual and personal ambition of a child.

Children aren't merely a privilege; they are a great responsibility. They aren't "Our children"; they are Hashem's children whom He has deposited with us, for a purpose and with a mission. We have been entrusted to educate our children in a way that will facilitate their developing their own personal desire to grow in Torah and mitzvos.