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