Wednesday, January 14, 2015

460 - Va'eira

Before Moshe and Aharon perform the tenmakkos, the Torah offers a short genealogical backdrop. The Torah begins with their great-grandfather Levi, continues with a list of all his children and grandchildren, and ends with the birth of Moshe and Aharon. "They are the ones who spoke to Pharaoh the king of Egypt to take the Jews out of Egypt; this was Moshe and Aharon"(Shemos 6:27). Rashi, bothered by the seemingly superfluous ending of the pasuk, explains that the Torahis informing us that they were complete in both fulfilling their missions and their righteousness "from beginning to end."

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash, Shemos 6:27, 1:5) comments, that this praise of Moshe and Aharon is in reality the goal of every Jew. We must aim to make it through life in general, and each day in particular, without getting derailed from the tracks of our purpose in this world. Chazal relate that Yochanon served in the most sacred position of Kohein Gadol for eighty years and subsequently became an apostate! He was undeniably a great man, but he did not persevere until the end of his life.     

The truth is that no one can know where life will take him. Yosef went one bright day to inquire about the welfare of his brothers and the next thing he knew he found himself as a slave and the sole Jew in the most immoral country in the world. These things do not happen only in ancient times. Rav Wolbe related that he himself experienced a similar phenomenon. While learning in the Mirrer Yeshiva in Poland just prior the Second World War, the Polish government forced him to leave the Yeshiva due to his German citizenship. The next eight years found him in Sweden without even a minyan of shomer ShabbosJews. Despite these radical changes, the Torah attests that Yosef maintained his original level of righteousness even in Egypt, and we can attest that Rav Wolbe remained steadfast to his ideals throughout his years in Sweden. 

Additionally, Rav Wolbe mentioned that he once met a Moroccan Jew who related that when he arrived in Israel he was taken to a non-religious kibbutz. He didn't capitulate to their lifestyle and he demanded kosher food. They could not get him to change his ways so they sent him to another kibbutz lest he succeed in convincing others to follow his ways. The same scenario repeated itself in the second kibbutz and the successive kibbutzim until they finally gave in and sent him to a yeshiva. How many of us would survive in such a hostile environment with our religious ideals intact? How long would we last if people taunted us every time we davened or attempted to keep kashrus?

The same tests often arise on a daily basis, albeit on a smaller scale. Rav Yeruchom Levovitz zt"l would say that a person changes "in accordance with his clothing." One's behavior is very much dependant on his surroundings. Although while by himself one might maintain a serious demeanor, when he is in the company of others he might act in a lightheaded manner. Although he merely changed rooms in the house, his behavior changed entirely! When people get married they often change as a result of their spouses. Similarly, a change of job, friends, locale or shul can change a person beyond recognition.

As with many creatures, people change their skin to adapt to their surroundings. Our goal is to define our ideals and stick to them no matter in what situation we find ourselves. This was the trait of Yosef, Moshe and Aharon, and it is the hallmark of our leaders throughout the generations!

459 - Shemos

Shemos begins with a description of galus Mitzrayim. Rav Wolbe comments (Shiurei Chumash Parshas Shemos 1:10, 5:14) that while other nations relate to exile as something entirely negative, the Jewish People understand that galus is also very beneficial. Mitzrayim is referred to as the "kur habarzel" (Devarim 4, 20). Rashi explains that kur habarzel is a pot used for refining gold. The exile in Egypt refined and purified Bnei Yisrael, thereby honing them into the Chosen Nation.

However, at face value, it seems that the galushad the exact opposite effect! Bnei Yisrael descended all the way down to the forty-ninth level of impurity, and the only credit whereby they merited redemption was their holding fastidiously to their Jewish names, language and mode of dress. How was the benifit of galus achieved?

The Torah tells us (Shemos 5:14) that the Jewish taskmasters were lashed when Bnei Yisrael failed to fill their daily quota of bricks. Rashi explains that they had compassion on their brethren and therefore they did not push them past their limits. The taskmasters paid dearly for this kindness because whenever the daily total of bricks fell short, they were the ones who endured the punishment. This was a manifestation of the purification process achieved by the galus. While in years of tranquility Hashem might gauge a person by his performance in the area of Torah and mitzvos, duringgalus Hashem measures a person by his level of mesirus nefesh. The taskmasters bared their backs for the sake of their brethren, thusly bringing out their greatness. This ultimately secured for them the coveted position of "Elders" whereby they reached the level of prophecy (as mentioned in parshas Beha'aloscha).

During the Holocaust the Nazis set up Jewish coalitions with the intention that the Jews in the coalition would gather lists of other Jews to be deported to concentration camps. While some Jews complied, others endangered themselves and refused to comply. There were even those who committed suicide to protect their brethren from being killed. Additionally, there were many Jews who were moser nefesh - literally sacrificing their lives - to perform mitzvos. For example some gave up their rations of bread to buy tefillin or a siddur. The story is told of a young boy who gave up his rations and fasted for three days so that he could buy a few pages of a siddur! We simply cannot fathom how precious and dear such a mitzvah is to Hashem! This boy in galus attained a level so lofty, that in times of tranquility only the most righteous can even hope to attain.

Bnei Yisrael are again in galus, and once again there is a purpose for the galus. A Jew who performs under duress rivals the highest levels attained by the greatest people during times of spiritual plenty. The Arizal was asked that if the earlier generations who were so holy and righteous didn't succeed in bring Mashiach, how could we, on our relatively low spiritual level, possibly expect to bring Mashiach? He answered that specifically because the spiritual level is so low nowadays, even the smallest mitzvah is as potent as the mitzvos performed by those living in earlier generations. While it is unfortunate that we're in galus, we are fortunate to have the ability to elevate ourselves to the highest levels of spirituality with every single mitzvah performed. Another five minutes ofTorah learning, a phone call to cheer up a neighbor, aperek of Tehillim are all diamonds of inestimable value!

458 - Vayechi

The parsha commences with Yaakov summoning Yosef and requesting that Yosef ensure that he not be buried in Mitzrayim. Rashi explains that one of the motives behind Yaakov's request was his fear that the Egyptians would make him into a deity. They recognized Yaakov's greatness, and hence, he felt that there was a real concern that they would turn his burial place into a shrine.

Certainly, Yaakov's sons recognized their father's greatness to a far greater extent than the Egyptians. Nevertheless, says Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash, Parshas Vayechi 47:29), Yaakov was not concerned that his own children would worship him posthumously. He wasn't worried about such a possibility because the Jewish People are accustomed to greatness. Despite his immense stature and the fact that his likeness is etched into the Kisei Hakavod, it was clear to his children that he was human. Likewise, even the greatest leaders of our nation were challenged and contradicted. Korach quarreled with Moshe and l'havdil the Ra'avad frequently disagreed with the Rambam. 

In contrast, the gentile nations are awed when they come in contact with spiritual greatness. Chazal relate (Sotah 47a) that Rebbi Yehoshua ben Prachya had a disciple (Yeishu) who once spoke in a very indecent fashion and Reb Yehoshua felt that such behavior warranted his eviction from Yeshiva. Subsequently, that disciple repeated before a group of gentiles one of his rebbi's discourses, and they were so amazed that they declared him a deity. Rav Yeruchom Levovitz said that if the other nations would have merited a person of the Rambam's stature they would have immediately made him into a god. In Prague there is a statue of the Maharal: The citizens were so impressed by his holiness that they immortalized him with a stone likeness. 

More recently, in the early twentieth century, there was a motion to pass a law that would seriously compromise the Jewish education of all the schools in Poland. The Chofetz Chaim, who was in his nineties at the time, made a trip to the minister responsible for the decree. He spoke to the minister in Yiddish and when his aides wished to translate his words into Polish, the minister said there was no need, for he had "understood" the rabbi and he would rescind the law. Furthermore, when the Chofetz Chaim blessed him, the minister broke down into tears. The Chofetz Chaim looked like a simple Jew and he did not have any regal trappings, and nonetheless, when the minister beheld his holiness he was awed into submission.

Let us take a moment to appreciate the greatness of our nation. Our gedolim and rabbanim have attained levels never dreamed of by gentiles. We are so accustomed to see and hear about these great people that we sometimes fail to appreciate just how tremendous they are! We should thank Hashem for our being part of His remarkable nation, and we should strive to reach those awesome levels attained by our leaders. If they could do it, we could too!

457 - Vayigash

In this week's parsha, the Ibn Ezra (Bereishis 46:15) quotes Rashi who says that Yocheved was born just as Yaakov's family entered Mitzrayim. The Ibn Ezra disputes this historical detail, because accordingly Yocheved would have been one hundred and thirty years old when she gave birth to Moshe Rabbeinu. Had that been true, certainly the Torah would have mentioned it just as it felt it noteworthy to mention the birth of Yitzchak when Sarah was a mere ninety years old! The Ramban quotes the Ibn Ezra but nonetheless defends Rashi's explanation with an eye opening elucidation.

He maintains that the Torah only mentions those miracles which were foreseen by a prophet prior to their arrival. However, the numerous miracles performed to assist the righteous or to thwart the wicked are not mentioned in Tanach. There is no need to single out these miracles because the Torah in its entirety is made up of miracles. The whole concept of reward and punishment clashes with what we refer to as nature. There is no reason why one who eats animal fats forbidden by theTorah should be severed from his life source and die at a young age, nor is there any natural reason that rain will cease to fall as a result of planting during the shemittahyear. These are both miracles, but since they were not foretold by a prophet people tend to dismiss them and attribute such phenomena to natural causes. "He died because of a heart attack" and, "A heat wave originating in the southern hemisphere is at fault for the severe droughts." Overt miracles that were not foretold are in effect "hidden" like the rest of the miracles of the Torah. 

Rav Wolbe writes (Daas Shlomo unpublished manuscript) that with this concept we can understand the idea of pirsumei nissa - publicizing the miracle - instituted by Chazal in association with the mitzvos of Chanuka and Purim. Miracles that were not foretold can easily be ascribed to natural causes. Even the ten plagues in Mitzrayim might have been written off as a series of natural disasters had Moshe not warned Pharaoh prior to their arrival. Hence, we are commanded to publicize and thank Hashem for those hidden miracles that would have otherwise been dismissed. 

In the Shabbos morning davening we state, "[Give thanks] to Him Who alone performs great wonders." The Medrash (Tehillim 136) asks why the passuk emphasizes that Hashem performs wonders alone. Is there anything that Hashem does not do alone? The Medrash answers that Hashem is the only One Who even knows the great wonders performed. Often, even the recipient of the miracle is unaware that a miracle was performed for him!

Every day we thank Hashem in Shemoneh Esrei for "Your miracles that you perform for us daily." A thinking individual, says Rav Wolbe, asks himself, "I woke up in the morning, davened, ate breakfast and went to learn/work/school. When exactly did the miracles for which we are thanking Hashem occur?" However, if we pay close attention to the "coincidences" of the day, we might very well notice Hashem's involvement in our lives. The miracles are there, we just need to peel off the "coating" of nature which conceals them, and then thank Hashem for "His great wonders, for His kindness endures forever!"

456 - Chanuka

Chazal refer to Chanuka as days set aside forhallel v'hoda'ah (praise and thanks). Rav Wolbe makes a keen observation. When we mention the numerous different levels of praise that human beings offer Hashem, the first rung on the ladder is generally hoda'ah. In thetefillah of nishmas we state that "it is incumbent upon all creations l'hodos l'hallel l'shabeiach l'fa'eir (to give thanks, praise, laud and glorify)..." In the hallel we proclaim "with song yodu v'yishabchu vifaaru..." In contrast, we find that the praises that the angels offer (as mentioned in the tefillah of yotzeir ohr) differ slightly. "And they all open their mouths with holiness, purity, song, and hymn - umivarechim u'mishabechim u'mifaarim..." The first level of hoda'ah is lacking in their repertoire of praises.

Although on most levels the praises of humans and angels are equal, the specific concept of hoda'ah is limited to humans alone. This is because the concept ofhoda'ah is giving thanks for something received from Hashem. The essence of an angel is the mission for which he was created, and he does not have the tools with which to receive anything that would in turn call for him to give thanks. In contrast, hoda'ah is not only a vital part of human obligations, but it is also the first rung on the ladder of praises offered to Hashem. 

Just as giving thanks is a fundamental part of ouravodah, being deficient in this area (kefias tovah) is extremely detrimental and destructive. The Ramban explains that the sin of the Generation of Dispersion was their ambition to make a "name for themselves" (v'naaseh lanu sheim). They wished to entirely disconnect themselves from their Creator, something which our Sages tell us was rooted in their negative trait of ingratitude. One who desires to disengage himself from Hashem has in effect stated that he does not wish to recognize and thank his Benefactor for all the goodness and bounty that He bestows. The Generation of Dispersion wished to disconnect the creation from the Creator, and measure for measure Hashem disconnected them from one another by dispersing them throughout the land. 

In contrast, with regard to the miracle of Chanuka we say in al ha'nisim: "And they designated these eight days of Chanuka to give thanks and praise to Your GreatName (l'hodos u'lehallel l'shimcha hagadol). When we give praise to Hashem we show that we are not interested in making "a name" for ourselves, rather, we recognize Hashem and desire to connect ourselves to our Creator. The world is His, and we wish to thank Him for the endless good which He provides us on a daily basis.

The Mashgiach observes that one who thinks that he lives in a world where everything is already here for him and therefore their use is coming to him, cannot see Hashem in the creation. Everything exists solely due to the will of Hashem, and therefore it is as if He is constantly creating yaish mei'ayin (something from nothing). The Sages instituted the recitation of blessings before partaking in worldly pleasures for they wished to make us cognizant of this reality. When we say "borei pree ha'eitz" this allows us to conjure up Hashem's creation of the Earth and the commandment that it should produce vegetation, trees and fruit. Have we not just beheld Hashem's creation of the fruit from complete nothingness?

The avodah of Chanuka is to understand that everything that we have is due entirely to the will of Hashem. How thankful we must be for all the bounty He bestows upon us. With regard to material acquisitions we are told "And you should be happy with all the good that Hashem has given you." How much more so is this true with regard to our spiritual acquisitions. The difference between us and those who do not know the beauty of theTorah, allows us to recognize the greatness of the Torahand thank the Giver for His boundless kindness. Contemplating this concept is a most worthwhile endeavor, especially during the days of Chanuka that were designated for this purpose.

455 - Vayeishev

Yosef was sold into slavery as a teenager and had to fend for himself in the most depraved country of the time. Moreover, his master's wife was extremely determined to seduce him, and day in and day out he had to deal with her advances. Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash, Parshas Vayeishev 39:11) notes that Yosef, who personified the middah of kedusha, was tested specifically in that area. In a similar vein, we find that Avraham, the quintessential baal chessed, was tested with a test that was the antithesis of chessed: sacrificing his own son.

Rav Wolbe informs us (Alei Shur vol. I pg. 35) that this is a phenomenon which occurs even in the twenty-first century. When the yetzer hara attacks fiercely, there is no reason to become dejected or depressed. It is quite possible that from the very attacks of the yetzer hara we can deduce the aspects of avodas Hashem that need improvement. Moreover, his attacks reveal to us the specific area in which, if properly addressed, we have the capacity to achieve perfection. Simple logic dictates that the yetzer hara strikes precisely in the area that a person has the greatest ability to perfect himself. 

This idea is highlighted by Rav Tzadok Hakohein (Tzidkas HaTzaddik 49, 181). He asserts that every person has his own distinct temptations. If one notices that he has an intense desire in a particular area he should know that it is in this very area that he is spiritually equipped to receive Hashem's blessings; if he directs his heart to Him. Moreover, one should be aware that the sin that he has transgressed most often is the exact area ofavodas Hashem in which he can achieve complete integrity! Therefore, Chazal tell us that when one sins with a particular limb, he should rectify that transgression by using that specific limb to perform mitzvos. Such behavior does not merely rectify that specific sin, it also improves the transgressor himself. Each person was created with the purpose of rectifying a different aspect of avodas Hashem which cannot be accomplished by anyone else. Rectifying the sin aids one in fulfilling their purpose in this world. 

Rav Tzadok bequeathed to us the keys to properly relating to ourselves. When the yetzer hara strikes we get embarrassed; our honor was slighted with his attack. We held ourselves in high regard, and the yetzer hara showed us exactly how lowly we really are. Therefore, most people want to simply sweep their failures under the carpet and forget them as fast as possible. However, this is not the correct response for we are in effect unplugging the red warning light so that we shouldn't see it blinking. Rather, we must perceive it as a wakeup call to address the area in which we are destined to achieve greatness.

It is common for people to compare themselves to those around them. "Why can't I get up for Shachris like my friends who jump out of bed like a cannonball?" "How come everyone is progressing in their shemiras halashonand I can't seem to keep my mouth shut?" The answer to these questions is that getting up in the morning orshemiras halashon might not be the aspect of avodas Hashem that those people were created to rectify. Each person has a unique set of challenges. If one pays attention to the voice of the yetzer hara and works on rectifying the deficient areas, then his faults will become the impetus for attaining perfection, and consequently the catalyst for receiving Hashem's great blessings.

454 - Vayishlach

If we were to give a title to this week's parsha, we might call it, "The Guide to Galus." The Ramban (Bereishis 33, 15) writes that Chazal knew through oral transmission that Vayishlach is the parsha of Galus. Thus, every time Rebbi Yannai would travel to Rome to petition the government concerning communal matters, he would first study this parsha. The Torah's description of Yaakov's interaction with Eisav gives us numerous guidelines regarding the way we are to relate to the gentile nations.

As Rashi explains, Yaakov prepared for his encounter with Eisav in three ways. He made an attempt to appease Eisav by sending a generous gift, he prepared for war, and as one must always do along with anyhishtadlus, he offered a prayer to Hashem. Rav Wolbe says (Shiurei Chumash, Parshas Vayishlach 32:4, 9; 33:4, 15) that throughout the generations Klal Yisrael have used monetary pacification as a means of warding off harsh decrees and combating the negative intentions of our enemies. 

Moreover, we find an even greater level of subservience on Yaakov's part, when he finally met Eisav. Eisav ran toward Yaakov and hugged and kissed him. The Seforno tells us exactly what caused Eisav's change of heart: "His feelings changed instantly when he perceived Yaakov's submission. Had the rabble-rousers who lived in the times of the second Bais Hamikdosh acted in similar fashion, the Bais Hamikdosh would not have been destroyed!" It is not easy for a person to lower himself before others, but there is simply no other way to deal with the other nations. Rebelling against them is not in line withthe Torah's dictates. 

As Jews, we have always had to "apologize" to the other nations for being the "Chosen Nation." The realization that Hashem chose us from among all the other nations of the world requires us to appease those who did not merit this designation. This is an idea which really applies to all interpersonal relationships. If someone from a group of friends was appointed to a position of prominence, whenever he finds himself amongst his friends, he should appease them by demonstrating his deference to them.

Yet, despite the presents and displays of submission, when Eisav offered his assistance Yaakov flatly refused. Just before Eisav departed from Yaakov he offered to have some of his henchmen join Yaakov. Yaakov replied, "Why should I find favor in the eyes of my master." The Ramban explains that Yaakov declined since he had no interest whatsoever in them or in their culture. While the child of an American who moves to France will almost indefinitely become part and parcel of the French culture, a Jew must be careful of such a phenomenon. Even when the non-Jews extend a friendly hand as Eisav did, we must decline their assistance and goodwill. Our desire is to live in solitude. Non-Jews certainly have what to offer, but Judaism offers so much more.

When the Ba'al Ha'Tanya returned from a trip to Petersburg he told his Chassidim that Eisav did not fool himself; this world has many beautiful cities and attractions. Nevertheless, Yiddishkeit has so much more to offer. Appreciate being a member of the Creator's handpicked nation, and do not forget to show deference to those who have not merited that appellation!

453 - Vayeitzei

When Yaakov awoke after his prophetic dream, he erected a mizbeiach and made a promise to Hashem: "If Hashem will be with me and protect me on the path I travel and He will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear. And if I will return "b'shalom" (safely) to the home of my father and Hashem will be for me a G-d. Then this stone which I have set as a monument will be for a me a house of G-d and all that You give me I will tithe for You" (Bereishis 28:20-22).

Rashi explains that when Yaakov entreated Hashem to assure his safe return, he was not merely asking to return home alive. Yaakov was worried lest he learn from Lavan's evil ways. Thus, he was asking Hashem to allow him to return from the house of Lavan "shaleim" (complete) i.e. free of sin without having learned from his corrupt behavior. 

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash, Parashas Vayeitzei28:10, 21) points out that learning from another person's behavior generally starts with copying his mannerisms, and this form of imitation happens very quickly. Two people who reside together for even a few months almost automatically begin copying each other's mannerisms to a certain extent. Although Yaakov was already seventy seven years old and staunchly set in his ways and convictions, nevertheless, he was afraid that he would be negatively affected by his uncle, Lavan. It is only natural that he would in some way begin to mimic Lavan's behavior, and this worry prompted him to offer a prayer for assistance. 

Earlier in the parsha, Rav Wolbe points out that even mimicking the actions of tzaddikim might not be the most optimal behavior. Rashi on the first pasuk tells us that when Yaakov left his hometown, Be'er Sheva, a great void was created in the city. When he departed, "the splendor, glory, and majesty of the city departed along with him." Since Yitzchak was still in Be'er Sheva wasn't there still plenty of glory, splendor and majesty left in the city? The Medrash answers (Bereishis Rabba 68:6) that you cannot compare the power of one tzaddik to the power of two tzaddikim.

The presence of two tzaddikim doesn't just mean twice the amount of the identical positive spiritual force. Rather, every tzaddik offers a unique spiritual approach and mindset. We tend to think that a disciple should be an exact copy of his Rebbi. However, this is not the case. A Rebbi's job is to help his students discover and build upon their unique qualities. Although Yaakov certainly learned from Yitzchak, he had an original approach to avodas Hashem. Yitzchak's avodah revolved around the middahof din - strict judgment, while Yaakov's avodah revolved around the middah of emes - truth.

In the aftermath of the massacre that took the lives of four kedoshim in Har Nof, we are all looking for some area of avodas Hashem in which we can strengthen our performance. We have all heard amazing stories about the uniqueness of the avodas Hashem of these great individuals. Although we should seek to emulate their ways we should not simply imitate their actions. As with all aspects of avodas Hashem, one should first take a good look at himself and only then make a kabbalah that is hand tailored to his personal needs. Many gedolim have suggested that since the tragedy occurred while thesekedoshim were davening, one should take on somechizuk in the area of tefillah such as not to bring his cellphone into shul during davening. If one already is careful in this area, then he should find a different aspect of tefillah in which he feels he needs chizuk. Any chizukwill be a zechus both for the kedoshim who reached the pinnacle of kedusha, and for us as we strive to live our lives in a way that will ultimately bring us to our own pinnacle of kedusha.

452 - Toldos

Although Eisav was the firstborn, the Torah relates that he forfeited all the rights associated with this status when he sold the birthright to his younger brother Yaakov. Eisav walked into the house one day totally famished and noticed Yaakov preparing a pot of soup. Eisav, seemingly because he was worried he would die of hunger (as he stated, "Behold I am going to die"), sold his rights of the firstborn for a bowl of soup. However, Rashi, citing Chazal, recounts the exact conversation that took place between the two brothers before the sale was finalized, and explains the pesukim in a different light.

Yaakov asked Eisav to sell the birthright which included the right to serve in the Bais Hamikdosh, a task originally assigned to the firstborn. Eisav then inquired as to what exactly the service in the Bais Hamikdosh entailed. Yaakov replied, "There are numerous restrictions, punishments and death penalties involved in this service (e.g. those who serve while intoxicated are put to death)." Eisav responded, "I am going to end up dying because of this service, and if so for what do I need it?" Eisav wasn't simply worried he was going to die of hunger; rather, he was worried that he would die as a result of serving in the Bais Hamikdosh. 

This being the case, says Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash, Parashas Toldos 25:34, 28:9), it is difficult to understand the following pasuk: "Yaakov gave Eisav bread and a stew of lentils and he ate and drank, he got up and left, and Eisav scorned the birthright" (Bereishis 25:34). Rashi comments that the Torah is testifying to his wickedness: Eisav scorned the service of Hashem. In light of Rashi's explanation a few pesukim earlier, we have to understand what Eisav did wrong. After all, he had a valid concern that the avodah in the Bais Hamikdosh would cause his death. Why should his decision to sell the birthright be considered an act of derision?

In order to attain a higher level in one's avodas Hashem, one must be willing to take a risk. Achieving a greater level of spirituality does not happen by itself; it requires effort. If one is not willing to go out on a limb and take some sort of risk, then he obviously feels that avodas Hashem is not really a worthwhile endeavor. He has in effect "scorned the service of Hashem."

This idea comes up again at the end of the parasha as well. The last pasuk in the parasha tells us that Eisav married Machlas the daughter of Yishmael and the sister of Nevayos. Why do we have to know the name of Machlas' brother? Rashi explains that the Torah in informing us that Yishmael just passed away and therefore Navayos had to take care of his sister's marriage. Rashi continues that from this bit of information we can deduce that when Yaakov ran away from Eisav, before taking up residence in his uncle Lavan's house, he spent fourteen years learning Torah. At the time, Yaakov was sixty three years old and he still had not married and raised a family. Despite the risk of reaching old age, he decided that he should spend another fourteen years in the toil of Torah. There are no "crash courses" in Judaism. He realized that avodas Hashem entails expending effort and taking a risk, and if he needed to invest another fourteen years in his avodah then that is what he would do.

The ramifications of this lesson in our daily lives do not have to be as drastic as putting our life on the line or dedicating fourteen years of our life to a specific cause. Even dedicating a small portion of time to learning, davening or chessed often carries with it a risk of a financial loss. It's a risk and it takes effort, but if you are serious about growing spiritually, you will jump at the opportunity!

451 - Chayei Sara

This week's parasha recounts the conversation that took place between Avraham and his servant Eliezer, whom he instructed to find a wife for Yitzchak. "I will cause you to swear by Hashem, the G-d of heaven and the G-d of earth, that you not take a wife for my son from the daughters of Canaan among whom I dwell. Rather, travel to my land and birthplace and take from there a wife for my son Yitzchak." Eliezer then inquired what he should do in the event that the woman would not be willing to leave her homeland. Should he instead bring Yitzchak to her place of residence? Avraham replied, "Be careful not to return my son there. Hashem, the G-d of heaven, Who took me from the house of my father. . . He will send His angel before you and you will take a wife for my son from there" (Bereishis 24:3-8).

Why did Avraham initially refer to Hashem as the G-d of the heaven and the earth and thereafter refer to Him solely as the G-d of the heaven? Rashi explains that the second reference related to the era prior to Avraham's teaching the populace about the Creator. At that point, Hashem was, so to speak, the G-d of only the heavens since those on earth did not recognize Him as the Creator. After Avraham succeeded in enlightening the world regarding Hashem's omnipresence, He became the G-d not only of the heavens, but of the earth too. 

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash, Parashas Chayei Sara 24:7, Ma'amarei Yemei Ratzon pp. 365-367) elaborates that even prior to the people's acknowledgment of Hashem, He was obviously also the G-d of earth. Yet, this dominion was hidden and in theory only. After the inhabitant's of the earth became cognizant of Hashem's presence, the manner of His dominion changed along with it. His divine intervention became clearer and there was a greater level of he'aras panim gracing the earth.

Chazal tell us, "As long as the wicked are in the world, [Hashem's] wrath is in the world" (Sanhedrin 111b). Hashem's wrath refers to the state of hester panim, where His countenance is hidden. The consequences of hester panim are manifested in numerous ways, including the destruction wreaked upon the generations prior to Avraham. The world was entirely destroyed during the flood, sans a handful of survivors, and not too long thereafter all the nations were dispersed to the four corners of the earth. By changing the way people perceived Hashem, Avraham succeeded in changing Hashem's relationship with the world. Until that point, Hashem related to the world through the middah of din - strict judgment. From then on began an era of he'aras panim, when Hashem began to interact through themiddah of chesed.

This concept is not limited to the behavior of the generations of our forefathers; it holds true in the twenty first century as well. Directly proportionate to our relationship to Hashem, is the bond that He creates with us. If our tefillos are mumbled halfheartedly or while still half asleep, Hashem's response might also be unenthusiastic. However, if we are passionate about our Judaism and make an attempt to infuse our avodas Hashem with enthusiasm and excitement, then we can look forward to a more intimate relationship with our Creator. Why not try it. Strengthen your commitment in any given area of avodas Hashem. You might be astounded by the Heavenly assistance you receive in that area!

450 - Vayeira

Before destroying Sodom and its environs Hashem felt that it was only proper that He inform Avraham of their impending destruction: "Will I conceal from Avraham that which I am intending to do? For I am fond of him because he will educate his children and household to follow the ways of Hashem, to perform acts of charity and carry out justice, so that Hashem will bring upon Avraham that which He spoke about him" (Bereishis18:17,19). Rashi explains that Avraham commanded his offspring to guard the ways of Hashem in order that Hashem reciprocate and deliver to his family all the good that He had spoken about.

This idea seems quite difficult in light of the Mishna in Pirkei Avos (1:3). The Tanna exhorts us, "Do not be like the servants who serve their master with the intention of receiving remuneration. Rather, be like those servants who serve the master without the intention of receiving remuneration." With this in mind, why would Avraham specifically command his children to serve Hashem with the explicit intention of receiving reward? 

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash, Parashas Vayeira18:19, 22:12) explains that although in one's personal avodah he should strive to serve Hashem without an eye on the paycheck, nevertheless, when it comes to educating one's children it must specifically be done with an emphasis on reward. The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva10:4-5) writes that attaining the level of "lishma" serving Hashem with the single intention of doing His will, is a level reserved for the wisest of men and their disciples. The Rambam continues, "Therefore, when teaching children... one should teach them to serve Hashem out of fear [lest they get punished] and with the intention of being rewarded." The foundation of chinuch is educating a child to do a mitzvah "she'lo lishma" i.e. with the specific goal of receiving reward.

Later in the parsha, Rav Wolbe extends this idea even further. After Avraham successfully passed the tenth and final test of offering up his long awaited child, Yitzchok, the angel told him, "Now I know that you fear Hashem" (ibid. 22:12). Was it only now that Avraham's fear of Hashem was apparent? Had he not already passed nine other tests? Although Avraham had shown that he possessed fear of Hashem, he hadn't attained perfection in this area. Perfection means that no flaw whatsoever can be found in the middah. If at any point an ulterior motive is found, it suggests that all previous behavior might have merely been performed for that ulterior motive. Avraham's possible ulterior motive was his son Yitzchok. His entire service of Hashem might have been carried out with the intention of being rewarded with offspring who would carry his name and continue his legacy. When he brought his son as an offering, he proved to one and all that he fulfilled Hashem's commandments regardless of any ulterior motive.

Unfortunately, says, Rav Wolbe, our avodas Hashem is almost entirely based upon ulterior motives. He would say, "The boys come to Shachris because there is a Mashgiach, and I come to Shachris because I am the Mashgiach!" Rav Yeruchom Levovitz zt"l would illustrate this idea with the following example. One might be davening in his in-law's house and thinking that he heard his mother-in-law passing by, he would intensify his concentration. However, after realizing that it was only a cat, his intense concentration would suddenly wane!

Truth be told, continues Rav Wolbe, we shouldbase our avodah on a concrete ulterior motive. This will give us the drive to become bigger people. Once someone reaches a higher level he will have the ability to discard the ulterior motive, but until then it is imperative to find a good reason to become a great person. Whether the impetus is money, honor or your reputation, it's a desirable springboard so that you can be all that you can be in the army of Hashem!

449 - Lech Lecha

The Torah relates that both Avraham and Lot were so heavily laden with livestock that it got to a point that there was not enough grazing land for all their animals. Consequently, a fight broke out between Avraham's shepherds and Lot's shepherds. The Torah continues with Avraham's reaction to the dispute: "And Avraham said to Lot, 'Please let there not be a fight between you and me and between your shepherds and my shepherds because we are brothers'" (Bereishis 13:8). Rashi cites the Medrash which explains that when he said "we are brothers" he was not referring to their blood relationship but rather to their facial resemblance.

The question begs to be asked. Why is the fact that they looked alike a reason that they shouldn't fight? Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash, Parashas Lech Lecha) explains that the physical body is a representation of the neshama. The connection of the body and the soul does not work like super glue which has the ability to attach two totally dissimilar things to each other. Rather, one's facial features are merely a physical manifestation of the spiritual force from which they stem. In a similar vein, Chazal tell us that every physical dimension has a spiritual counterpart: "Every blade of grass has an angel who hits it and tells it to grow" (Bereishis Rabbah 10:6).

Since Avraham's and Lot's external appearance was similar, they shared similar internal spiritual qualities. When Avraham begged Lot not to fight, "because we look alike," he was informing his nephew that they shared a focal point in their avodas Hashem - the middah of chessed. This was certainly a reason that they should stay as far away from fighting as possible.

Earlier in the above story, the Torah tells us, "And Lot, who was traveling with Avraham, also had sheep, cattle and tents" (ibid. 13:5). Rashi explains that the cause of Lot's affluence was "his traveling (his close relationship) with Avraham." Where did Rashi see this explanation in the pasuk? Rav Wolbe explains that the Torah does not simply tell us stories. If the Torah informs us that Lot was traveling with Avraham, there must be a reason behind this piece of information. It was this association that brought about his acquisition of "sheep, cattle and tents." Once again, the Torah is directing our focus to the spiritual source. Lot's wealth wasn't simply by chance or due to his business acumen. His financial success was an expression of a spiritual source which came as a direct result of his connection with Avraham. Everything physical or material could be traced back to its spiritual source.

This idea is made clear in the following story. On one of Maran Harav Shteinman's trips to Chutz La'aretz, he was asked why we need so many men learning in kollel. After all, fifty years ago (and probably throughout most of our history) there was not nearly such a high percentage of men learning full time. He responded, that in truth, the opposite question should be asked. Baruch Hashem the Jewish People has many affluent members. Why do we need such a high percentage of wealthy Jews when throughout our history we never had so many affluent Jews? He explained that the reason there are so many wealthy Jews is only because there are so many men learning who need to be supported. If there would be fewer men learning there would also be less money to go around! Spiritual bounty generates material prosperity!

448 - Noach

Noach's very first agricultural endeavor after leaving the teivah was the planting of a vineyard. The Torah tells us the ramifications of his action: "He drank from the wine and became intoxicated and he uncovered himself inside his tent" (Bereishis 9:21). Rashi points out that the word "ohalo - "his tent" should have been spelled with a vav at the end of the word as opposed to a hei. The Torah spelled it with a hei thereby hinting to the ten tribes whom were called "o'hala" and were sent into exile due to the sins that ensued after they partook of wine.

The Maharal explains the connection between inebriation and exile. A person was created with the expectation that he use his mind to cleave to Hashem. Man's mind is rooted in the heavens like a tree is rooted in the ground. When he becomes inebriated, he becomes uprooted and he severs that connection. The metaphor of the uprooted tree alludes to man's being separated from familiar territory and going into exile. The Maharal continues that in a similar vein, Noach's drunkenness resulted in him uncovering himself: Exile and nakedness are both demonstrations of leaving the confines of one's privacy.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) adds that drunkenness is not caused solely by imbibing alcoholic beverages. It is possible for a person to become intoxicated by the pursuit of honor or his personal desires. Negative traits like these have the ability to disconnect the mind from any thoughts of Hashem.

We find this idea later in the Torah with the story of Korach and his cohorts. Moshe told Korach's two hundred and fifty followers to offer ketores "in the morning." Rashi explains that Moshe pushed off the offerings until the next morning because, "now it is a time of drunkenness for us." Their drunkenness had nothing to do with wine intake. Rather, they became "drunk" as a result of the negative middos that triggered their argument with Moshe.

People get caught up in all types of pursuits. When one totally involves his mind with a particular endeavor, he very often forgets to bring Hashem into the picture. In such a situation, he has, to a certain extent, disconnected himself from Hashem; a dangerous phenomenon. Many times he loses his sense of direction and his avodas Hashem - whether it be bein adom l'Makom or bein adom l'chaveiro - suffers as a result. Before embarking on any serious endeavor one should seek the advice of an objective person. Such advice has the ability to help a person not only in a practical sense, but also spiritually because it allows him to maintain a connection to his Creator. There is no greater success than that!

447 - Bereishis

Adam Harishon was given a single commandment: Not to eat from the eitz hadaas. While at that time he did not yet have an internal yetzer hara which seduces to sin, he had to contend with an external yetzer hara, the snake, which was given the task of convincing him to transgress that single commandment. Unfortunately, the snake was successful in its endeavor. It seduced Chava, who in turn caused Adam to sin, thereby bringing death and numerous other curses upon themselves and all future generations. The snake was also not spared from Hashem's curse and among other things its legs were cut off. 

Why was the snake punished? Being that it was employed by the Creator to seduce man to sin, what exactly did it do wrong? Rav Wolbe writes (Shiurei Chumash 3:14, 3:6) that it seems that it wasn't really a punishment, rather an inevitable consequence. Man was created with awesome spiritual potential. The snake attacked by enticing man that he could be even greater. If he would eat from the eitz hadaas he could even be an equal to G-d Himself i.e. he would have the ability to create worlds. When man sinned, his spiritual stature was greatly reduced. The yetzer hara had to now be tailored to fit the new "smaller" man, hence, the snake's legs were severed and its clout was greatly reduced. It would now attack man with different, lower, spiritual enticements, as the pasuk states, "And you will bite his heel" (Bereishis 3:15). The yetzer hara entices people to jealousy and anger and other lowly behavior. 

When Adam failed to fulfill his mission, that mission was divided up amongst all of mankind. Each person has a certain task to fulfill during his lifetime. It is mindboggling to think about just how tremendous Adam's test was. In the single commandment that he was given he had the ability to rectify and overcome all the evil of creation. When he failed his test, his assignment was spread out over thousands of years and millions of people! 

Shlomo HaMelech exhorts us in Mishlei (4:13), "Hold fast to mussar, do not let go. Guard it for it is your life." The Gr"a explains the pasuk as follows: The entire purpose of life is to rectify one's middos that have not yet been rectified. Therefore, hold tight to the study of mussar because it gives you the keys to fulfill your mission in life. 

Everyone is in this world for a purpose. Each one of us has a portion of Adam's mission to accomplish and specific middos to rectify. Don't look at the person next to you because he has a totally different task than you. If you do not fulfill your job, no one else will fulfill it. Moreover, no one has the ability to fulfill it! It is a heavy responsibility but it should not be a burden. Rather, it should be our guide for life - "Does this action/behavior/lifestyle assist me in fulfilling my purpose in life or does it hinder me?" Even after Adam's sin, man has such tremendous spiritual potential. If we use it properly, we will accomplish our purpose in life and succeed in rectifying Adam's sin, thereby paving the way for Moshiach Tzidkeinu!

446 - Yom Kippur

When Aseres Yemei Teshuva arrive and with Yom Kippur fast approaching, many people fall into a depression. They know what is expected of them and they feel that they simply cannot live up to Hashem's expectations. Alternatively, others experience a sense of indifference: "I am on such a low spiritual level" they think to themselves, "that the whole idea of judgment and rectification of sins doesn't even apply to me." The first step in the teshuva process is to uproot both of these perspectives. Everyone is judged and held responsible for their actions, and there is no one who has reached a point where he cannot rectify his situation. 

Rav Wolbe (Ma'amarei Yemei Ratzon p. 69) cites a pasuk that highlights this idea. "When a man has transgressed a sin that warrants death and he is killed, you shall hang him on a tree. You shall not leave his corpse overnight on the tree . . . because a hanging person is a disgrace of Hashem" (Devarim 21, 22-23). Rashi explains this pasuk with a parable. There were identical twins that each went his own way. One became the king while his brother turned into a bandit who was caught and hanged. Whoever saw the hanged man commented that the king is hanging. Similarly, a person is created in the likeness of his Creator and therefore leaving his body hanging is a disgrace of Hashem. The Torah refers specifically to a man who was stoned and hanged because of a severe transgression as a person in the likeness of the Creator! 

This is an idea that can be applied to all transgressors. There is no reason for depression nor should there be a feeling of wanting to give up. Even the person who finds himself on the lowest, bleakest spiritual level must believe that he has as aspect of kedusha which remains intact. In truth, this knowledge is the first step in his teshuva process: to reiterate this idea until it penetrates and resonates deep inside one self. 

Chazal tell us that in the place where Ba'alei Teshuva stand, even the perfectly righteous cannot stand. The Ba'al Teshuva must for a moment elevate himself and tap into an extremely high spiritual "place" which is an exercise unnecessary for the perfectly righteous. This "place" is the above mentioned aspect of kedusha which always remains holy and unaffected by his wayward actions. It can be found deep inside a person, behind the many barriers created by his sins. It is referred to as "the place" because it is the true place of person. It is from within this place that a person has the ability to reach high and pure levels of spirituality. The Chovos Ha'Levovos writes, "Like a bird which wanders from its nest, a man wanders from his place." The transgressor has strayed from "his place" - the springboard for spiritual growth - and he must search out that place and return home. 

Rabbeinu Yonah (Sha'arei Teshuva Shaar 1, 10), when describing the charata (remorse) imperative for teshuva, writes that one should think as follows: "Behold, the Creator blew into my nostrils a living neshama, containing wisdom of the heart and clarity of the mind, to recognize Him, fear Him and to rule over the body and all its facets, just as He gave him dominion over the rest of the living creatures which do not speak, because a [man's] honor is precious in His eyes." Rav Wolbe notes that it is clear from Rabbeinu Yonah that a person must be cognizant of these ideas before he regrets his sins. Without the knowledge of just how great a person intrinsically is, one will never come to do teshuva. 

Aseres Yemei Teshuva and Yom Kippur offer us an awesome opportunity for achieving teshuva and a closeness to Hashem. However, this opportunity will not be utilized unless we realize that our true "place" is with kedusha and not sin. This realization will galvanize us to make the most of these precious days so that we will be able to return to what we now know is really home!

445 - Rosh Hashana

Chazal tell us, "Recite before Me [pesukim of] kingship so that you proclaim Me King over you. Recite before me [pesukim of] remembrance so that I will remember you favorably. And by what means? With the shofar" (Rosh Hashana 16b). While the beginning of the above Gemara seems to imply that with the recitation of the pesukim of malchiyos one has proclaimed Hashem King, from the conclusion it is clear that the mere recitation of the pesukim is not enough. Proper acceptance of Hashem's Kingship can only be achieved through the blowing of the shofar.

What does the shofar accomplish that the pesukim cannot? Rav Wolbe explains (Mamarei Yemei Ratzon p. 376) that the shofar is the instrument used for revelations. We say in the mussaf of Rosh Hashana, "You appeared to Your holy nation, with the sound of the shofar You revealed Yourself to them." The Rambam writes that the shofar blown each Rosh Hashana acts as a bugle to wake people from their reverie: "Wake up, sleeper, from your sleep, awaken from your slumber, do teshuva and return to Hashem." The shofar arouses a person and reveals to him exactly where he stands in his spirituality. Although the recitation of the pesukim is the acceptance of Hashem's Kingship, if this recognition has not penetrated the heart then the acceptance is not complete.

While there are many esoteric reasons behind the mitzvah of shofar, the Shelah explains us to the simple significance behind the various blasts. Each set of blasts begins with a tekiah. The straight sound of the tekiah symbolizes the straightness with which each man was created. Unfortunately, man often leaves the course Hashem charted for him and decides to follow his own path, thereby replacing straightness with crookedness. The shevarim symbolizes the groan of man when he realizes just what he has done and groans over his transgressions. The teruah, the short, stuttered wail, symbolizes the even greater feeling of bitterness resulting from truly comprehending one's forlorn state. He wails because he realizes that he simply cannot continue on his wayward path, and he makes a decision to return to the original state of straightness in which he was created - the final tekiah. This explanation complements the above idea: The shofar allows us to feel how far we have fallen due to our transgressions.

The problem is that we are completely numb and we simply do not feel! We behold tragedies, and are aware of our own sins and we remain totally unaffected. The Gemara tells us, "Look how terrible the dust (i.e. a fringe aveirah) of shemittah is. A person does business with fruit of shemittah, and is punished that he will end up sending his possessions. If he doesn't feel it (he continues his wayward actions) he will end up selling his real estate. If it does not come to his hand he will end up selling his house. Why does it say the first time [referring to his continuing to sin] 'if he doesn't feel it' and the second time it says 'if it doesn't come to his hand?' Because when a person transgresses an aveirah once and then a second time, it seems to him that the aveirah is permitted (and he no longer feels it)" (Arachin 30b). Rashi explains that "not feeling it" means that he was not shaken by the punishment to cause him to refrain from sinning.

Regesh - a heartfelt feeling [of remorse] - is what galvanizes a person to do teshuvah. What do we do if we have lost our regesh? Rav Yisrael Slanter instructs us, "The first step in avodas Hashem is regesh; a person should study a statement from Chazal and review it many many times until it makes an impression upon him and he feels what he is lacking. This will bring him to subdue and then completely overcome his yetzer hara, and it will bring him to a level where he is ecstatic and joyful to serve Hashem." 

Choose one statement of Chazal that relates to an aspect of avodas Hashem which you would like to improve. Recite it again and again and take it with you into Rosh Hashana. When the shofar is blown, appreciate the message being conveyed: Hashem, I went awry in this area and I want to come back home and accept your Kingship wholeheartedly. Regesh leads to remorse, which leads to subjugating one's yetzer and makes way for an exhilarated desire to accept Hashem's Kinghip - the purpose of Rosh Hashana!

444 - Netzavim-Vayeilech

The last two pesukim in parshas Netzavim state as follows: "I have placed before you life and death, blessing and curse, and you shall choose life so that you and your children will live. To love Hashem your G-d, to listen to His voice and to cleave to Him, for He is your life" (Devarim 30, 19-20). The Ibn Ezra has a very novel interpretation of these pesukim. He explains, "To love Hashem..." refers not to the life we are to choose, rather, it refers to the quality of life we will merit if we make the proper choice. "Choose life so that you and your children will live to love Hashem." The very purpose of life is to love Hashem. The explanation is astounding, but what does it mean?

We say in birchos krias shema, that all of Hashem's creations do His will "with fear and trepidation." However, serving Hashem with "love and favor" is reserved solely for humans. To truly appreciate this idea we must delve a little deeper.

When we look around at the creations that make up all of nature, we generally relate to them collectively as one giant machine that carries out its job devoid of any life. However, the Torah tells us that this is not the case. Rashi in the beginning of Bereishis (1, 6) tells us that although the heavens were created on the first day, they were soft and moist. Only on the second day did they become firm from Hashem's shouting, "Let there be the heavens," similar to one who stands dumbstruck because another person threatened him. All the creations carry out their jobs like clockwork because of their tremendous fear of Hashem.

When we look around at the creations that make up all of nature, we generally relate to them collectively as one giant machine that carries out its job devoid of any life. However, the Torah tells us that this is not the case. Rashi in the beginning of Bereishis (1, 6) tells us that although the heavens were created on the first day, they were soft and moist. Only on the second day did they become firm from Hashem's shouting, "Let there be the heavens," similar to one who stands dumbstruck because another person threatened him. All the creations carry out their jobs like clockwork because of their tremendous fear of Hashem.

Fear is what keeps all creations in line. If a human would realize how lowly he is compared to Hashem, he would be absolutely dumbstruck. What gives him the ability to bridge the huge chasm that separates him from his Creator, and serve Him with love? The Torah tells us that when man was created, Hashem blew into him "nishmas chayim" - a soul of life. The Ramban explains that this neshama was not created from the base elements. Rather, it originated, so to speak, from Hashem Himself! In this respect a human differs from an animal, for he contains a neshama which emanated directly from the Creator. 

With this we can understand the Ibn Ezra. The neshama - our source of life - yearns and strives to reattach itself to its root. It wants to reconnect with its awesome source of existence - it strives to love Hashem. The goal and purpose of life is to love Hashem and cleave to Him. It is a person's neshama - his life source - that gives him the ability to raise his head, despite the ominous fear of Hashem, and stand before Him and serve Him with love.

Elul is the month that was given to us with the specific intention of becoming closer to Hashem - "I am to my Beloved, and my Beloved is to me." In truth, achieving love of Hashem is not just the call of Elul; it is the very purpose of life. How fortunate we are that we have the ability to stand up tall in front of the Omnipotent and serve Him with love!