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.