Monday, July 16, 2012

335 - Pinchos

Shortly before Moshe passed away, he asked Hashem to appoint a leader over Bnei Yisrael who would stand in his stead. The Torah records Moshe's request and the unique manner in which he addressed Hashem. "May Hashem, the G-d of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the nation" (Bamidbar 27, 16). Rashi explains Moshe's choice of words as follows: He said to Hashem, "It is revealed and known to You the thoughts of each person and how their thoughts differ from one another; appoint a leader who can tolerate each and every one of them with their individual attitudes."

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) explains that a leader is someone who is broadminded. He isn't one who decides on a specific approach to serving Hashem and then forces it upon all his constituents. Rather, a leader is one who uses his talents and strengths to aid each person in their individual path of avodas Hashem.

Rav Chaim Soleveitchik zt"l was the embodiment of this type of spiritual leader. He had many disciples (Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, Rav Shimon Shkop, Rav Baruch Ber Lebowitz, and the Brisker Rav, to name a few) who they themselves became great leaders; but each one had their own inimitable way of doing things. He polished their individual qualities, and turned each one into a brilliant - and unique - diamond.

Mastering the trait of tolerance is a prerequisite for becoming a truly great leader. However, this is not a quality that is imperative solely for a leader. Each and every one of us must make an effort to acquire the trait of tolerance, lest we look down on another's manner of avodas Hashem. Instead of thinking, "Why does he have to dress, behave, or daven that way?" we should think, "Isn't it amazing that everyone acts differently, but they are all striving to serve Hakodosh Baruch Hu?"

There is no better time than the Three Weeks to work on acquiring this trait. It does wonders for one's bein adom l'chaveiro, and will definitely hasten the end of the galus which was brought about through sinas chinom.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

334 - Balak

Although Bilam failed in all his attempts to curse Bnei Yisroel, he succeeded in causing them to sin and thereby caused their downfall. He suggested that the Midianite women seduce Bnei Yisroel to sin with them. Bilam's idea was so successful that even Zimri, one of the heads of the tribe of Shimon, was seduced by a high ranking Midianite's daughter. Pinchos saw what was transpiring and he said to Moshe, "You taught us that when one lives with a gentile woman, a zealous person is permitted to kill him." 

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) defines what exactly zealousness is. He notes that we may behold a person who rants about the depravity of others while deep down he himself harbors an interest in those very same depraved actions! Chazal describe this idea with a parable. 

There was once a man who had a servant who was a drunkard. One day the master passed by a different drunkard who was rolling in the mud as many children stood around taunting him. The master thought that if his servant would behold how a drunkard looks after too many drinks, the servant would certainly be cured of his alcohol abuse. He quickly ran home and brought his servant to the scene of action. When the servant saw the drunkard in the muck and mire, he ran over to him and asked him where he got such good whiskey! The servant did not even notice the drunkard's disgrace because all that interested him was the alcoholic beverage that had been imbibed. In a similar vein, it is very possible that someone might scream about another's misdeeds, not because the actions disturb him, rather, because he himself identifies with those very actions. It is this desire for these actions which prompts him to discuss them at any given opportunity. Although this person decries the improper behavior, his reaction is not zealousness at all.

Zealousness is the middah of a person who truly cannot stand evil simply because it flies in the face of the Torah. He who truly despises immorality would be permitted to kill a Jew who lives with a gentile woman. The transgression bothers him to such an extent that he is willing to take action without the authorization of beis din. Moreover, if he were to ask, beis din would not tell him to kill the perpetrator. He has to have the internal drive to get rid of the evil without being told to do so.

Rav Wolbe continues that sometimes we denounce another person's actions, not out of zealousness but out of jealousness! Deep down there is a part of us that wishes that we would be able to do what he did. However, we are too embarrassed to agree with what he did, so instead we feel a need to denounce it. This in no way resembles the zealousness that led to the covenant of peace that Pinchos merited with his actions. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

333 - Chukas

We tend to translate "achzarius" as cruelty. The word conjures up pictures of brutality to others, and it is associated with the heartless mistreatment of animals. However, points out Rav Wolbe, from our Parsha we can glean an entirely different explanation of achzarius.

When Bnei Yisroel spoke disparagingly of Hashem and Moshe, Hashem sent snakes to bite Bnei Yisroel, and many people died as a result. Bnei Yisroel acknowledged their sin and begged Moshe to pray to Hashem on their behalf. Moshe acquiesced and prayed for them. Rashi comments that from here we see that if one's friend asks him for forgiveness, he should forgive him and not act with achzarius. We generally would not label a person who refuses to forgive someone who wronged him as an achzar; but Chazal do just that.

We find another two examples of achzarius mentioned by the Rambam. "One who fails to mourn a relative who passed away . . . has acted with achzarius. Rather, he should be worried and examine his actions and do teshuva" (Hil. Avel 3, 12). Additionally, "If the people do not cry out to Hashem [in response to a calamity that has befallen them], and they say it was caused by natural occurrences and happenstance; this is the way of achzarius" (Hil. Ta'anis 1, 3). Once again it is difficult to understand wherein lies the cruelty that classifies such people as "achzarim." So what does achzarius really mean?

Rav Wolbe (Olam HaYedidus pg. 20, 22) cites Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch zt"l who explains that "achzar" is really a compound word: ach (entirely) and zar (foreign). An achzar is one who acts entirely foreign to those around him. When a friend realizes the impropriety of his actions and wishes to regain his previous close relationship, he comes to ask for forgiveness. If the one who was wronged refuses to grant forgiveness, he has distanced himself and made himself entirely foreign to this friend. In a similar vein, one who fails to recognize that when tragedy strikes, Hashem is talking to him and trying to send him a message, has estranged himself from his Creator. Such a person lives in a world which is entirely foreign to Hashem's world.

Achzarius is the antithesis of what Yiddishkeit is all about. Judaism is supposed to bring one closer to his Creator and closer to the people around him. The Torah and mitzvos allow us to create a relationship with Hashem, genuine camaraderie with relatives and friends, and ultimately will bring true peace to the entire world. 

332 - Korach

            After the demise of Korach and his followers, the Torah tells us that Bnei Yisroel criticized Moshe and Aharon and held them responsible for the deaths of the two hundred and fifty people who were consumed by fire when they offered the ketores. In response to Bnei Yisroel's contemptible behavior, Hashem tells Moshe, "Remove yourself from within the midst of this congregation, and I will annihilate them in a moment" (Bamidbar 17, 10).

The Ramban (ibid.) questions the need for Moshe's separation. We know that the Omnipotent has the ability to wipe out an entire group of people who surround an individual while leaving that individual intact, which, indeed, occurred in Mitzrayim when in each and every house only the firstborn was smitten. If so, why was it necessary for Moshe to distance himself from those around him, when Hashem could have just as well killed them and left Moshe standing alive?

The Ramban answers that once Hashem's wrath had been ignited; everyone would have been killed unless a miracle was to occur to save those who should have been saved. Alternatively, Hashem wished to honor the tzaddikim by letting everyone know that He would not mete out a punishment as long as the tzaddikim were standing amidst the masses. The Ramban asserts, that either way, Hashem's intention in notifying Moshe Rabbeinu of his plans was to convey that Bnei Yisroel desperately needed Divine mercy and pardon, and that he had the power to prevent this catastrophe if he would intercede with prayer. 

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) cites another place where we find a similar intention behind Hashem's words. After Bnei Yisroel sinned with the golden calf, Hashem tells Moshe, "And now let go of Me, and My anger will flare against them, and I will destroy them" (Shemos 32, 10). Rashi comments that we don't find that Moshe was "holding on" to Hashem, and that being the case, what was Hashem asking of Moshe? Rashi explains that He was letting Moshe know that he could "hold on" to Hashem. If he would pray on their behalf, he would be able to avert the impending catastrophe. 

Rav Wolbe continues that Hashem desires all tefillos that are offered on behalf of Bnei Yisroel or in a time of need. They are our protection from strict judgment, and had Moshe not davened in both of the above situations the ramifications would have been unfathomably tragic. Although Hashem did not want these punishments to come to fruition, nevertheless, tefillah was imperative in order to avert the danger.

Unfortunately, there are many things which are in need of our tefillos, whether on a personal or communal level. Hashem is waiting anxiously for our tefillos. One tefillah of Moshe had the ability to save the entire Bnei Yisroel. Why not take a minute to daven for a relative, friend, acquaintance, or even better, for the entire Klal Yisroel. They need the tefillos, Hashem wants them, and we have everything to gain!

331 - Shlach

This week's parsha recounts how spies were sent to scout the Land of Israel and how they returned with a derogatory report thereby causing Bnei Yisroel to cry at the thought of entering the Promised Land. This aroused Hashem's wrath and a punishment was immediately decreed. Bnei Yisroel would wander for forty years and the entire generation would perish in the wilderness. Only then would Bnei Yisroel merit entering Eretz Yisroel. 

Nevertheless, there was a group of people that was unwilling to accept this fate. The Torah relates how they woke up early the next morning and, against the will of Hashem, began their ascent toward Eretz Yisroel: "And they defiantly (vayapilu) ascended to the top of the mountain" (Bamidbar 14, 44). Rashi writes that "vayapilu" connotes both strength and boldness (azus). Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) explains that sometimes people are compelled by outside factors to behave or take action in a certain way. Other times people act in a certain way because internally they have decided it is the proper thing to do. When an individual acts out of internal inspiration, he has acted with a measure of azus. 

The group of Bnei Yisroel who forcibly made their way to Eretz Yisroel acted with the above mentioned azus. They decided to do teshuva and enter Eretz Yisroel. However, they disregarded Moshe's warning and followed what their hearts told them was right. The problem was that they disregarded Hashem too. He made it clear that they were to remain in the desert for the next forty years and they decided otherwise.

Yet, there is also a positive side to the coin of azus, and that is azus of kedusha. A person who ignores the multitudes around him who insinuate that one is to live a life of "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die," and instead lives his life with holiness, has demonstrated this azus of kedusha. 

There are many things in the world that "everyone does." However, this should not be the determining factor as to whether we will follow in their footsteps. We ourselves must take the initiative to ascertain what the Torah dictates is the proper course of behavior and then act accordingly. Although such azus often disregards those around us, it puts Hashem at the epicenter of our lives.  

330 - Beha'aloscha

At the end of this week's parsha, the Torah recounts how Aharon and Miriam spoke against their brother Moshe. Despite the criticism leveled against him, the Torah tells us, "And Moshe was exceedingly humble (anav), more than any person on the face of the earth" (Bamidbar 13, 3). Rashi translates "anav" as "modest and tolerant". Moshe tolerated their criticism and did not get angry.

Rav Wolbe writes (Alei Shur vol. II pg. 214, 216) that tolerance is an essential virtue that is important in all our interpersonal relationships. As the Alter of Kelm writes, "How great it would be if we could habituate ourselves to act with tolerance, for it is the root of all middos and qualities and the source of serenity."

In addition to the tolerance a person must show toward others, one must also be tolerant of himself. We are all looking to grow and become better, but we constantly encounter difficulties. Sometimes we feel that the yetzer hara is out to stop us at all costs, sometimes we lose our drive to continue and sometimes we forget where we are headed. A person who lacks patience in his avodas Hashem will give up or get depressed; and there is nothing more detrimental to avodas Hashem than depression.

We think, "If only I would be able to daven the entire Shmoneh Esrei with kavanah, my whole day would look different." Or, "If only I would be able to rectify my negative middos, I would be a different person altogether." Although these musings might be true, nevertheless, we must bear in mind an important Medrash. Chazal tell us (Shemos Raba 34, 1) that Hashem does not expect from a person more than he can handle. Hashem knows our limitations and the impediments that stand in our way, and therefore, does not expect us to turn around our lives in a day, week, month, year, and sometimes even many years. We must remember that one who "grabs" too much will be left with nothing, while one who grabs a little will retain what he has grabbed.

The Vilna Goan expresses this idea in his explanation of the following pasuk in Mishlei (19, 3). "A man's foolishness corrupts his way, and his heart rages against Hashem." Sometimes a person begins studying Torah or serving Hashem and then stops because it became too difficult. He feels that Hashem is not assisting him in his endeavors and he becomes angry at Hashem for abandoning him. However, this person caused his own downfall since he jumped ahead in his avodah much too quickly and did not pace himself properly. Had he slowed his pace, Hashem would have assisted him in his avodah.

Tolerance is not merely a virtue to be exercised post facto when we realize that we haven't accomplished all that we planned. It is a middah that we must bear in mind when charting our course of actions. If we realize our limitations and are truly cognizant of our present spiritual level, we will succeed in advancing in our avodas Hashem at the proper pace, thereby achieving lasting changes for the better.

329 - Naso

In this week's parsha, the Torah delineates the laws of sotah - a woman who has acted indecently and is suspected of having committed adultery - and the laws of the nazir - one who has accepted upon himself a temporary "code of holy conduct" including abstention from wine. Rashi (Bamidbar 6, 2), citing Chazal, asks why the Torah juxtaposes these two mitzvos. He answers, that the Torah is implying that one who sees a sotah in her state of degradation should abstain from wine since wine can bring one to adultery.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) comments that we tend to think that witnessing the degradation of a sotah would automatically arouse feelings of repugnance toward her degree of corruption. However, the Torah tells us that our reaction should be more profound. When we see another's transgression, we must take the proper precautions so that we don't end up committing the same misdeed. One might ask, "Why? What does her misconduct have to do with me?" The answer is that what happens to another person can happen to you, too. If he slipped, then it is quite possible that you might slip too. Therefore, the Torah warns us to take the necessary precautions lest we follow the wayward conduct of the sotah

The first step in preventing such behavior is contemplating what brought this woman to her level of decadence. Generally, such situations don't just happen, rather, they evolve over the course of time. Someone visited her, they had a drink together, and one thing led to another. This behavior must be nipped in the bud which necessitates an abstention from wine, i.e. accepting upon oneself to become a nazir

Rav Wolbe continues that if this idea it true when one witnesses another's transgressions, all the more so it holds true regarding one's own transgressions. There is generally a process which leads up to a sin, and we must take the proper precautions to ensure that we stop this process in its tracks. If going somewhere, doing something, or talking to somebody, invariably causes us to sin, then we must set up concrete boundaries that prevent this behavior. Abstaining from these activities achieves a high level of kedusha that parallels the kedusha a nazir achieves through his abstention from wine.

328 - Shavuos

Chazal tell us (Bava Metzia 83b) that the pasuk (Tehillim 104, 20), "You make darkness and it is night" alludes to our world which can be compared to darkness. The Mesillas Yesharim explains that darkness causes confusion in two different ways. Firstly, it blinds a person, thereby obscuring certain objects entirely. Additionally, it clouds one's vision, causing him to mistake a pole for a man and vice-versa. Similarly, the physicality of this world obscures the pitfalls of life, and moreover, causes people to mistake good for bad and bad for good. Incidentally, the word "olam" (world) stems from the word "ha'alama" - hidden.

Rav Wolbe writes (Alei Shur vol. II pg. 86) that Torah is the "tool" that was given to us to navigate through the nighttime of this world. It illuminates the darkness and guides us in every possible situation that might arise. It is the instruction guide that gives us clarity in this sea of confusion. As the pasuk in Tehillim (19, 9) states, "The mitzvos of Hashem are clear, they enlighten the eyes." The mitzvos enlighten us to what is permitted and what is forbidden; to what is pure and what is impure.

Chazal relate an interesting story which summarizes this idea. Reb Yosi the son of Reb Yehoshua ben Levi took ill and passed away, but shortly afterwards he returned to this world. His father asked him what he saw in the next world. He answered, "I saw an upside down world: those who are higher in this world are lower in the next world, while those who are lower in this world are higher in the next world." To which his father replied that in truth he had perceived a world of clarity. "Where do we (the Torah scholars) stand in the next world?" his father queried. Reb Yosi answered, "Just as we stand here, so too, we stand there [in the next world]. Additionally, I heard them saying, 'Praiseworthy is he who comes here with his Torah knowledge (talmudo) in his hand.'"

As opposed to this world where everyone and everything is valued subjectively, the world to come is a world of total clarity. However, those who study Torah live with clarity not only in the next world, but even in this world. How does one reach this clarity? He lives his life "with his Torah knowledge in his hand." This can be explained in two ways. One who ingrains the Torah into his heart until it becomes part and parcel of his very being acquires a clearer perception of this world. Alternatively, one whose Torah study is in his hand, i.e. his learning is translated into actions, has the ability to traverse life with clarity.

The Torah is awesome and eternal. Even with the innovations, changes and added confusion of the twenty first century, the Torah illuminates the way and guides us through every step of our lives. May we be zocheh to be mikabel this Torah on Chag HaShavuos!