Thursday, September 8, 2016

543 - Da'as Atzmeinu 11 (Shoftim)

As we discussed previously, when there are conflicting interests between our ratzon and what we sense to be pleasurable, our bechira is the mediator that decides how to proceed. In contrast to these two clashing factors which are instinctive, bechira is an attribute which must be acquired. The means of acquiring this quality is daas - intellect. Daas has the ability to take the instinctive "me" and transform it into a lofty being which is governed by intellect. Daas enables pleasures to be chosen wisely, and thereby elevates the natural tendency of pleasure seeking and makes it more sophisticated.

Torah law dictates that any acquisition must be accompanied by an element of daas. One who lacks daas cannot acquire an object. In a similar vein when we utilize our daas toward getting to know ourselves, we "acquire" ourselves i.e. we create a profound internal connection.

The intellect and discernment that are characteristic of daas are required also for a true analysis of middos. The topic of middos is the most confusing and most mistake-ridden subject in the Torah. While mitzvos have definite amounts (amah, kizayis etc.), middos are dependent on each individual person. Moreover, detecting each individual middah can often be difficult. For example, when Reuven approaches Shimon with a smile on his face, is he expressing kindness or flattery; is his shining countenance a manifestation of good heartedness or a representation of a conniving mind? Sometimes the difference between positive and negative middos can be a figurative hairsbreadth apart. 

Furthermore, at times it is difficult for one to determine which middos are present inside himself. While this is true with regard to negative middos, it is even more apparent when trying to uncover one's positive middos. Unfortunately, people are generally critical of others and therefore focus on their negative traits. This behavior then backfires when they attempt to focus on their own middos: they focus on the negative aspects and fail to see the many positive qualities.

There are a number of seforim that are extremely helpful in helping one get to know oneself. They include the Rambam's Shemoneh Perakim, Chovos Halevovos, Shaarei Teshuva and Ohr Yisrael. The road to become truly familiar with oneself cannot be traveled overnight. It requires paying attention to the thought processes that occupy our minds on a daily basis and understanding what makes us tick consciously and subconsciously. 

Yet, because a person is blinded by his partiality to himself, he evades perceiving the truth. Should he nevertheless reveal a destructive middah, he will automatically try to invent all types of excuses to cover this flaw. If he is unsuccessful in finding a satisfactory answer for his imperfection, he may become depressed. Interestingly enough, people also evade discovering their qualities. The rationale for such behavior is that the knowledge that Hashem has bequeathed a person with a valuable middah brings along with it certain responsibilities. The attribute was obviously given to him so that it be used toward personal growth or to benefit others. Subconsciously he may feel that it is so much easier to be average without any special responsibilities. 

However, the truth is that there is no reason to get depressed when revealing a negative trait and there is no reason to be worried or become haughty after revealing a quality. Deficiencies can be rectified and qualities were given to us to assist us in self improvement. Take a stance and get to know yourself. Elul is a great time to find out exactly who is the "ani" in "Ani l'Dodi v'Dodi li!"

542 - Da'as Atzmeinu 10 (Re'ei)

As we discussed last week, the essence of a person is made up of three facets: pleasure, willpower (ratzon) and the ability to choose (bechira). While the first two facets can be found even in toddlers, bechira requires decisiveness which necessitates a level of intellectual capacity that cannot be found in young children. The decision of how to act made by a child who craves a candy but knows that he will be punished for taking one without permission, does not constitute an example of his exercising his bechira. The accurate interpretation of this situation is that the child has two conflicting desires (to eat candy and avoid being punished) and thus the outcome will be decided by whichever desire is more intense. One instinct prevailing over another instinct cannot be called bechira.

In contrast, adults have the capacity required to arrive at intellectually sound decisions. Nevertheless, in actuality even adults exercise their bechira quite infrequently. Most of our decisions are an outcome of our nature, upbringing, habits and desires. It is possible that a person can live his entire life without ever having to use the trait of bechira! A person who grew up in a religious atmosphere and performs the mitzvos by rote, has a calm disposition and was not beset by trials or tribulations, might very well fit the bill of one who possibly never used his bechira. It's an extreme scenario, but it demonstrates the reality that bechira is not as commonplace as we might have thought.

So when do we use our bechira? We can glean the answer from Rabbeinu Yonah. He writes (Sha'arei Teshuva 3:17), "You should know that the greatest attributes were bequeathed to us via positive commandments. Examples of these attributes include the attribute of bechira as it says 'And you shall choose life', and the attribute of learning Torah... the attribute of following in Hashem's ways... the attribute of contemplating His greatness... the attribute of remembering and contemplating His kindnesses... the attribute of holiness... the attribute of avodah... the attribute of fear [of Hashem]... the attribute of love [of Hashem]... these attributes all have many different levels." 

The placement of bechira amongst the loftiest spiritual levels indicates that it most probably is not part of our everyday routine. Just as we understand that attaining love and fear of Hashem requires a serious investment of time and effort, we can be sure that bechira is no different. Consequently, in general we should relate to others and even ourselves as if we are forced (by way of our nature, upbringing etc.) to act the way that we do. Additionally, we should never put ourselves into a difficult situation and rely on our bechira, because even Shlomo HaMelech, the wisest of all men, failed when he relied on his bechira (see Sanhedrin 21a).

Nevertheless, we are commanded to choose life by exercising our bechira. It is clear that if we are obligated in this area then we absolutely can and must acquire this attribute. Moreover, as Rabbeinu Yonah writes, each of the attributes mentioned have numerous levels. When a person chooses to perform a mitzvah because of the honor that it will bring him, he has also exercised his bechira to a certain extent. He chose to be honored through the performance of a mitzvah as opposed to looking for honor in non-spiritual pastures. The highest level of bechira is performing the mitzvos simply because that is what Hashem commanded. 

The turning point in one's spiritual life can be defined when a spiritual pleasure competes with physical pleasures from a ­bechira standpoint. When one feels that spirituality also offers pleasure, and appreciates this pleasure in contrast to a physical pleasure, he has altered his very essence. His bechira now takes into account the knowledge that, "A person was created for the sole purpose of having pleasure with Hashem by basking in the radiance of His Shechina, for this is the truest pleasure and greatest bliss that can be found!" (Mesilas Yesharim chap. 1). To choose or not to choose, that is the question.

541 - Da'as Atzmeinu 9 (Eikev)

On our journey toward getting to know ourselves, we have discovered our dominant middos, and revealed the powerful forces of the imagination and the yetzer hara which wield great influence over our actions. Now, writes Rav Wolbe, we are ready to approach the most fundamental aspect of one's character - the "me" of a person.

There is no other word that we use on a daily basis as frequently as the word "I". The "I" of an adult relates to the same thing that it referred to decades earlier when he was a mere child. It's the word that upon which his internal world rotates. It is the word that encapsulates the unique blend of personality and numerous character traits that make up a specific person. Sometimes, when a person says "I" want/think/need etc. he might have to spend a good deal of time to be able to discern which of the hundreds of possible middos is the impetus behind the statement. "I" is also the word which describes control; it refers to the ability to accept or refuse, to support or undermine.

If we were to decipher the "I" with the intention of understanding its essence, we would discover that it is made up of two basic facets. The first aspect is a person's will. This profound force is what guides a person through life in general and through the numerous daily decisions in particular. It is also a most powerful force, for there is much truth to the cliché, "Where there is a will there is a way." 

The second aspect is the sensations associated with pleasure and pain. From day one, everything that a human strives for involves some form of pleasure. It begins with bodily pleasures of food and drink and progresses to the pleasures involved in games and from there it moves on to the desire for honor. If the person is a ben aliyah then he will seek to find pleasure in the spiritual arena with an eye to attaining the ultimate pleasure described in the first perek of Mesilas Yesharim "l'hisaneig al Hashem" (the pleasure of a connection with Hashem). Hand in hand with a human's pleasure seeking is the natural tendency to run away from anything that might cause him pain.

The Hebrew word for pleasurable - areiv - shares the same root as the Hebrew word to blend - l'hisareiv. What is pleasurable mixes and fuses into a person's being, while those things which are unpleasant are rejected by the body. It is with this in mind that we daven each morning that Hashem make the Torah pleasant for us so that it may bind with us and become part of our very essence. 

Understandably, there is a close connection between a person's will and the feelings of pleasure and pain. The internal nature of a person is his drive toward pleasure while the external nature is his will. Pleasure is exhilarating and thus it almost always directs the desire to follow the path that will bring pleasure. Even if a person wants something very badly, if he does not enjoy it then it will never become part of him. Conversely, if one enjoys something, even if originally it did not interest him, the pleasure will ultimately ignite the desire.

When there is a discrepancy between a person's will and his sense of pleasure, he must exercise his bechira (free choice) to come to a decision as to how he should proceed. This describes the essence of a human in a nutshell. It's the body (the sensations associated with mainly tangible pleasures), the soul (the profound and essentially spiritual will), and the capacity of bechira which resolves their conflicts. It is up to the "I" to decide if one's will shall be subordinated to the body, or if the innate drive toward pleasure shall be directed by one's willpower toward lofty spiritual endeavors. Some say you are what you eat. In truth, you are what your bechira decides!

540 - Da'as Atzmeinu 8 (Va'eschanan)

Rav Wolbe notes that a person who is interested in getting to know himself, must be aware of one more concept. As was mentioned, most often it is a person's imagination which leads him to sin. After fantasizing about the pleasure that an action will presumably bring him, he follows his illusion and commits an aveirah.

However, sometimes it seems that an aveirah strikes without any prior warning. For example, a person might simply be shmoozing and the next thing he knows he is speaking lashon hara. Acting out of anger is another example of such a phenomenon. Generally, lashon hara and anger are not specifically pleasurable and thusly they are rarely prefaced by one fantasizing about such behavior. This being the case, what brings a person to commit these sins?

Chazal tell us that such behavior is an outcome of the dominion given to the yetzer hara. "Should a person's anger bring him to tear his clothing, breaks vessels or throws away his money; such behavior should be perceived in your eyes as if he has worshipped idols. For this is the method of the yetzer hara. Today he says do this and tomorrow he says do that, until he succeeds in bringing a person to idol worship" (Shabbos 105b). The yetzer hara is that Pied Piper who has that uncanny ability to get people to follow him blindly, even when there is no significant amount of pleasure in it for them. 

The yetzer hara was given this dominion for the simple reason of enabling the world to run as Hashem sees fit. We were put into this world to earn reward by navigating through life without falling into any pitfalls. This can only be accomplished if the world is set up in such a way where we must choose between good and evil. Accordingly, the yetzer hara was created for the sole purpose of digging pits to entrap people. He has been given great dominion, and he even can offer us pleasures, but he cannot provide lasting happiness.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 91b) describes just how controlling he is. Antoninus asked Rebbi (Rebbi Yehuda HaNasi) at what point the yetzer hara exerts control on a person. Rebbi responded that the yetzer hara already exists from the time of conception. Antoninus replied that if this were the case then the fetus would "kick his mother" and leave her womb; i.e. the yetzer hara would force the baby into the world prematurely thereby causing its death. Rather, it enters the body at the time of birth. This sums up the influence of the yetzer hara: He cruelly pushes a person to perform actions that ultimately wreak havoc upon himself. 

Yet, we know that Hashem established the world in a manner that good mirrors evil (zeh l'umas z'eh asah HaElokim). If such a powerful negative force exists, there must be a similar positive force; one that has the ability to propel a person to take action which will ultimately bring upon him blessing and goodness. This force is known as yiras shamayim. It is the force which invariably prompts a person to fulfill his obligations and to take necessary precautions.

The summer vacation is a litmus test of sorts which can gauge a person's yiras shamayim. Is he merely seeking to get away and have a good time or is he thinking beyond enjoying the fleeting pleasures of vacation? Does he take the proper precautions before choosing a destination? Does he pack a sefer inside his suitcase? We must bear in mind that we strive not for superficial pleasures but for true and lasting happiness!

539 - Tisha B'Av

Many of the kinnos read on Tisha B'Av were authored by Rabbi Elazar HaKalir. In the twelfth kinnah (Ohali Asher Ta'avta) he concludes each stanza with different pesukim, each one ending with the word "poh" (here). His intention was clearly not merely for poetic style. Rav Wolbe explains (Alei Shur vol. II p. 411) that he was encapsulating in this word the tragedy of the destruction of the Bais HaMikdosh and also conveying to us an important message.

When the Bais HaMikdosh stood, Hashem's main abode was "here" on earth. We literally lived with Hashem in our midst. Despite His infinite holiness and loftiness, He resided in a house of wood and stone. The Bais Hamikdosh was the site where the physical and material were sublimated and fused into spiritual elements. This spirituality extended to Klal Yisrael and their lives were focused entirely on the spiritual. With the destruction of the Bais HaMikdosh and Hashem's departure from our midst, this all changed drastically. He is no longer "here" and consequently, it feels as if spirituality was relegated to the heavens while we were left to contend with an extremely materialistic world. 

Yet, there is another idea that The Kalir was imparting via the choice of pesukim which end with the word "poh". The following are but a few of the pesukim paraphrased in the kinnah: "But as for you (Moshe), stand with Me here" (Devarim 5:28). "Whoever is here standing with us today before Hashem our G-d, and with whoever is not here with us today" (ibid. 29:14). "Why is My beloved (Avraham) [here] in My Temple?" (Yermiah 11:15). "Is there no longer a prophet of Hashem here?" (Melachim 22:7). 

In the pesukim of the kinnah, the word "here" is used almost entirely with people, and not just anyone but specifically righteous people: Bnei Yisrael as they stood before Hashem, Avraham, Moshe and the prophets. Who decides whether Hashem rests His Shechina here on Earth? Human beings do. If we are up to par in our spiritual level, then Hashem resides amongst us, and the opposite situation brings negative results.

In Mishlei (27:8), Shlomo HaMelech declares, "Like a bird wandering from his nest - so is a man who wanders from his place." Rashi explains the pasuk as referring to a Talmid Chacham who wanders from his studies and fails to review the Torah that he learned. When a person wanders from his proper level of spirituality, he can no longer be found in "his place". Hashem comes looking for him and he is no longer "here" where he is supposed to be. If an entire generation of people is not "here," Hashem will have no place to rest His Shechina. 

This was the question posed to Adam HaRishon after he transgressed the single commandment he was given: "Ayekah?" Where are you? Where has your heart gone? Chazal (Bereishis Rabbah 19:9) draw a parallel between the question "Ayekah?" and the lamentation of "Eichah." The lamentations on the destruction of the Bais HaMikdosh begin with a pointed question to every generation - those who suffered the destruction then and those who suffer now from the aftereffects of the destruction - "Where have you gone?"

After we sit on the floor on Tisha B'Av and listen to the reading of Eichah, we should take a moment to contemplate the question left hanging in the air. Where have 'you' gone? How come Hashem cannot find us to rest His Shechina upon us? Why have we abandoned our proper place of Torah, Avodah or Yiras Shamayim? Practically speaking, it is a question of "Where are we going in life?" Where is our focus? What is important, what takes precedence and on what do we put emphasis? Maybe when we were younger we had goals and aspirations for a more spiritual life and since then we have wandered away from them?

There is much free time on Tisha B'Av. The very least we could do is attempt to answer the above questions. If we can answer these questions and realign our lives, then we will b'ezras Hashem merit seeing the rebuilding of the Bais HaMikdosh speedily in our days!

538 - Da'as Atzmeinu 7 (Masei)

Over the past few weeks, we have discussed the various middos and tendencies that can be found inside of us. This week we will discuss the force which causes our middos to spur us to act. This most powerful force is our imagination. In fact, our negative middos materialize in our conscious solely with the help of the imagination. It affords us an exact depiction of what we hope to gain by employing our middos.

The imagination is powerful. We can conjure up pictures of an unlimited amount of pleasures and forms of recreation, and conversely, it allows us to depict all types of frightening situations. The amazing thing is that while everything we fantasize about is a mere figment of our imagination, we nevertheless feel as if those thoughts are a reality. Additionally, people waste a considerable amount of time reveling in situations that never occurred and never will occur! Indeed, the imagination is the polar opposite to the intellect which thrives on truth and strives to decipher the true reality in life. 

What is the secret behind the imagination? What's its purpose and what makes it so powerful? The Seforno (Bereishis 3:1) answers our questions with his enlightening explanation of the snake which enticed Chava to sin and eat from the eitz hadaas. The snake parallels - and thusly symbolizes - the yetzer hara. Like the yetzer hara, there is very little benefit from the snake, and it is extremely destructive despite the fact that it is rarely seen. Through the imagination which depicts the most enticing pleasures, the yetzer hara arouses ones desires, which in turn cause him to stray from the path that Hashem intended for him to follow. The ammunition given to us to enable us to combat this dangerous duo of fantasy and desire is the intellect which has the ability to quash thoughts which have no basis in reality. 

Another most interesting aspect of the imagination is that many of our depictions are rooted in our childhood. Children have the greatest ability to fantasize, and with wild imaginations they can depict even the most outlandish scenarios. Unfortunately, often the way that we perceive certain people and specific situations is exactly how we depicted them when we were very young. The result is that it is common for people to be extremely occupied with an imagination which is busy with childish portrayals!

The bottom line regarding imagination is that every time we encounter a person, there are really two people standing before us. There is the person as he is perceived by those around him, and there is the person how he perceives himself. Generally, the two stand diametrically opposite one another. Subconsciously, a person may depict himself free of any flaws and packed with qualities and virtues which are magnified many times over. Not only that, it is quite possible that he pictures himself with certain positive qualities that he does not have, while totally oblivious to the numerous qualities with which he was endowed. 

The biggest problem is that this faultless clone that he has created does not stand quietly in the recesses of his mind. Because one thinks that this figment of his imagination is truly himself, he speaks, thinks, acts, and reacts accordingly. One who wishes to discover who he really is must take notice of his impersonator and pay attention to the discrepancies between it and his true self.

Our generation takes the cake when it comes to being caught up in the imagination. Movies, video clips, newscasts and internet take over the mind and set it off on a whirlwind of desires and fears. So what should we do? Open a siddur, Tehillim or Gemara. Set your focus on true reality and fine tune your intellect thereby arming it to combat the constant barrage of fantasies brought on by our overactive imagination!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

537 - Da'as Atzmeinu 6 (Matos)

In addition to the Middos that can be found in every person, there are also certain tendencies that are part and parcel of every Jew's makeup. Chazal tell us (Yevamos79a) that there are three simanim (features) that characterize the Jewish Nation - they are compassionate, bashful and performers of kindness. These are not specific Middos, rather, they are general features that can lead to many positive Middos, and a deficiency in these areas often brings numerous negative Middos in its wake.

Moreover, these three features are the root of the three most central aspects of Judaism - Torah, avodah and gemilus chassadim. In contrast, the three opposing negative tendencies lie at the root of the three cardinal sins - idol worship, adultery and murder.
Compassion is a tendency to connect to others, feel their difficulties and sympathize with them. The idea of avodah is to connect to Hashem and only one whose heart is open to connecting to others can hope to create a rapport with Hashem. The opposite tendency is that of achzarius (cruelty). Such a person is "ach zar" - entirely foreign, since he has no ability or interest in connecting to or understanding other people. Such a person feels entirely disconnected from the Creator, Who - as he surmises - most probably does not busy Himself with the mundane matters that characterize human beings. Thus, he turns to avodah zara, lit. a foreign service, i.e. the feelings of foreignness push him to toward a different type of spiritual service. 
Bashfulness is defined as the tendency to hide not only one's weaknesses but also his qualities. The opposite tendency is brazenness. A brazen person looks to stand out. He's interested in focusing the spotlight on himself, thusly highlighting both his positive and negative characteristics. Someone who sets his focus internally can hope to learn the Torah which can be described as penimiyus of the physical world. In contrast, the brazen fellow whose eye is focused externally simply cannot connect to the Torah. The cardinal sin which is the antithesis of the Torah is adultery. One who commits giluy arayos has revealed something which is meant to be hidden.
A performer of kindness has the tendency to give and give some more. His love for giving is the quality needed to bring him to the third fundamental area in Judaism - gemillus chassadim - performing kind deeds. The negative parallel is the miser. He cannot bear to give anything to anyone, and he is focused solely on taking and thereby adding to his own stockpile. His intense aspiration to procure his desires can lead him to transgress the cardinal sin which stands opposite kind deeds, since he might even resort to murder if there is a person who stands in his way.
Every member of Bnei Yisrael was blessed with these three most wonderful predispositions. They prepare us for the proper performance of the Torah fundamentals and distance us from those sins which are abhorred by Hashem. With this in mind it is understandable why in Parshas Yisro, immediately following Kabbalas HaTorah, the Torah cautions us regarding the three cardinal sins, since they are diametrically opposed to everything the Torah stands for.
Yet, it is interesting to note just how the Torah refers to these three sins: Do not fashion the keruvim out of silver instead of gold for that is tantamount to idol worship. Do not build the mizbeiach with metal since knives are used for murder. Do not climb the mizbeiach with stairs since this causes one to broaden his steps, which is analogous to revealing one's nakedness (giluy arayos). When building the Bais Hamikdosh we must distance ourselves from the cardinal sins to the nth degree, because being cautious in these areas is the foundation of the entire Torah. 
As we set out to rectify our middos, we should take a moment to appreciate just who we are. Each and every one of us has three innate features that set us on the correct path toward perfection. Our job is to take the potential and turn it into a reality, thusly living life the way it was meant to be lived!

536 - Da'as Atzmeinu 5 (Pinchas)

There are four basic elements that make up all matter: fire, water, wind and dirt. Rav Chaim Vital writes (Sha'arei Kedusha) that, so too, all Middos are rooted in these very same four elements. After clarifying for ourselves what our main Middos are, we should try to classify the Middos into these four categories. Doing so will point the direction that we should follow when trying to rectify our middos.
The element of fire symbolizes the drive to advance and conquer. It manifests itself in the negative middos of arrogance, and in turn anger when things don't go as wished. Additionally, it propels a person to pursue honor and it breeds feelings of hatred when others stand in his way. The flip side of these middos is the virtue of anivus - humbleness which prevents anger and breeds love.
The element of water symbolizes food, and the love and pursuit of pleasures. Included in this category is jealousy and the obsession with money or other desires. The positive side is using all pleasures for their specific purpose and not for partaking of pleasures for the sake of the pleasure itself.
The element of wind manifests itself with "shooting the breeze" i.e. speaking for no purposeful reason. Included are lying, flattery, speaking lashon hara and self glorification. The opposite is opening one's mouth only when doing so is commendable or needed.
Dirt, the final and lowliest element, is the cause for feelings of depression, laziness and despair. The parallel positive middos are the cognizance that everything Hashem does is for the best and the ability to serve Hashem with happiness.
Rav Wolbe urges us to study the first two chapters in Rav Chaim Vital's Sha'arei Kedusha which discuss the four elements and the importance of having good middos. Therein he writes that there are 248 limbs and 365 sinews in a human body. There are also 248 positive commandments and 365 negative commandments which parallel each of these parts of the body. The fulfillment of the mitzvos is what gives "life" to the parts of the body, and it was with this intention that we were commanded to perform the mitzvos and fulfill the dictums of the Torah.
Although Chazal relate to various negative middos in the most severe terms, interestingly enough, the middosare, for the most part, not included in the 613 commandments of the Torah. Rav Chaim Vital explains that good middos are crucial for the proper performance of the mitzvos. Accordingly, the acquisition of good middosprecedes the performance of mitzvos and thereforemiddos are not discussed in the Torah. Moreover, someone who has already acquired good middos will be able to perform all the mitzvos with much ease!
Good middos are not only the essential ingredients for good relationships, they are also the essential ingredients for the performance of the mitzvos. So invest some time into avodas ha'middos and reap the priceless dividends!

535 - Da'as Atzmeinu 4 (Balak)

Middos are exceedingly profound and there is no wisdom that can be compared to the wisdom of one who obtains an understanding of the workings of middos. The first step in this endeavor is to discover the middos that reside within oneself. There is no better time than now to invest some effort into achieving this goal. Begin paying attention to the middos that surface each day. After a while you will reveal which middos seem to express themselves almost constantly and which middos surface only occasionally. Slowly but surely you will succeed in clarifying which are your primary middos.
The importance of gaining this knowledge is discussed by Rav Yeruchom Levovitz in his explanation of the brachos that Yaakov blessed his sons just prior to his death. The Torah tells us (Bereishis 49:28) "He blessed each man similar to his blessing." Rashi explains that Yaakov blessed each son with a bracha that was appropriate for the blessing that would ultimately be bestowed upon him. What does this mean? What type of blessing was it, if the outcome of the blessing was meant to occur sometime in the future anyway?
A second question can be asked regarding thebrachos that were given by Yaakov to his grandchildren Efraim and Menashe. When Yaakov crossed his hands and placed his right hand on the head of Efraim the younger son, Yosef protested that Menashe deserved thebracha given with the more important hand. Yaakov replied that he knew what he was doing, and although the offspring of Menashe would be great, the offspring of Efraim would surpass them in prominence. What did Yaakov answer him? Yosef wanted that bracha to go to the older son so that his offspring would be the ones to benefit from the greater prominence?
The answer to both questions is the same. Yaakov did not and could not change the order or type of brachos. Each and every one of the beneficiaries of his brachoswas blessed with a bracha that was tailored to his exact nature and strengths. Yaakov's blessing to Yehuda focused on the latter's virtue which allowed him to publicly admit his involvement in a seemingly promiscuous act. If this virtue was in reality an innate quality, why did this act secure for him and his offspring the coveted position of kingship? Yehuda was rewarded with kingship because he maximized this inborn quality of his to its fullest potential. This accomplishment is the greatest blessing.
This explains all the blessings of Yaakov Avinu. He blessed each of his offspring that they utilize their inborn strengths to the maximum. Since he could not change the qualities and natural characteristics of Menashe, Yaakov could only bless him that he utilize his specific middos in the best possible way.
Rav Yeruchom continues that every person has an inborn middah that is naturally just about as close to perfection as possible. This middah is so dominant that the person has difficulty understanding others who struggle in that area. For example, Chaim who is naturally calm cannot comprehend why Shimon blows up at every silly thing. Conversely, Shimon jumps at every opportunity to do chessed and can't figure out why Chaim lounges around on the couch all day doing nothing. A person has the ability to use his dominant middah to rectify any wayward middos of his that need fixing.
Rav Wolbe adds that the opposite is also true. Each person has a single negative middah which needs an extreme amount of improvement. It is most probable that a person's dominant positive middah is specifically tailored to be able to rectify his dominant negative middah. One who reveals his dominant positive and negative middahhas accomplished something remarkable: He has discovered what Hashem expects from him!
Begin tracking your middos. Jot down every time you feel a specific middah arise. We all have hundreds and possibly thousands of middos, but we should focus on the main middos that surface regularly. Create a "circle ofmiddos" whereby your dominant positive middah is written on the highest point of the circle and your dominant negative middah is written opposite it on the bottommost point of the circle. In between you should fill out the rest of your common positive and negative middos. When you finish, you should celebrate, because you discovered who you are and what Hashem wants from you!

534 - Da'as Atzmeinu 3 (Chukas)

What exactly are middos? The Rambam refers tomiddos as dei'os. People tend to relate to their middos as innate human functions similar to sight, hearing, hunger pangs and feelings of satiation. However, it is clear that the Rambam did not consider middos merely as physical functions that are not subject to change. Rather, he defined them as dei'os - intellectual perceptions that can be modified and even changed entirely from the negative to the positive. Truth be told, it seems that middos have qualities of both bodily functions and intellectual perceptions as will be explained.
If we take a minute to think about our middos, we will discern that they are in effect what we would call self evident truths. It is abundantly clear to a hot-tempered individual that he is to respond with rage to anyone who dares ruffle his feathers. It is patently obvious to one who is arrogant that he deserves honor and praise for his many qualities. Similarly, one who is lazy feels that it goes without saying that he must refrain from a good deed if they require any amount of exertion.
Where do these ideas come from? For the most part they are a product of one's imagination. The mind conjures up all types of pictures and possible situations that drive a person to act in a specific manner. For example, the mind of the lazy individual is self programmed to depict the most farfetched dangers that could possibly happen in any given situation. This in turn causes him to refrain from putting in any effort to engage in the performance of good deeds because of the various dangers involved.
Yet, if we delve a little deeper, we will discover that what we thought to be self evident truths are actually mistaken realities. Anger does not gain anybody positive recognition. If anything, the opposite is true; it engenders disdain and even hatred toward one who behaves irascibly. Likewise, arrogance is an entirely misplaced feeling since people haven't created their own qualities and virtues, and therefore, they don't deserve the credit. Additionally, laziness is fueled by fears that are completely unfounded.
A little contemplation of our middos in light of the above truths can go a long way. Imagine a scenario that will cause an immediate arousal of a specific middah, and a less then positive gut reaction. Being that the scenario is merely a figment of our imagination, we have the liberty to take a moment and determine what the proper reaction should be. If we know toward where we strive, we can condition ourselves with proper pictures of how to respond to all types of challenging situations. We can replace our negative mindsets with a positive frame of mind thereby changing our intellectual perceptions (dei'os) - otherwise known as middos.
Avodas hamiddos is based entirely on the concept that it is possible to change and channel one's intellectual perceptions which are the basis for his middos. If we lacked the ability to change our mindsets there would be no purpose to work on our middos because there would be no way that we could change them for the better. Nevertheless, deep down, middos our also innate functions of our body which cannot be uprooted entirely. They can be properly channeled but they cannot be gotten rid of.
So our middos are here to stay. The question is merely how they are going to look. If we make a concerted effort to work on them, we can change them from rotten apples to shiny diamonds. It's up to us. Start today. Depict a scenario which rubs you the wrong way. Think about the way you normally would react, and determine the way you should react. Should you blow up at your annoying neighbor or should you turn your eyes heavenward and realize he is merely a stick in Hashem's hand? The more we mull over it, the easier it will be to react properly when the situation arises. It's tried and true, so why not try it too?

533 - Da'as Atzmeinu 2 (Korach)

Rav Wolbe states that his intention is not to give an all encompassing description of the numerous character traits. Rather, his goal is to clarify the proper way to relate to various different middos and traits that are found within ourselves.

Chazal (Sanhedrin 91a) relate an interesting conversation that took place between the Roman emperor Antoninus and Rebbi Yehuda HaNasi. Antoninus contended that both the body and the soul have the ability to absolve themselves from punishment in the world to come. The body can claim that it wasn't he who was at fault for the misdeeds. The proof is that from the time the soul took leave of the body the body lay lifeless in the ground. On the other hand, the soul counters that he certainly wasn't to blame and it too comes armed with proof. From the time the soul left the body it has been floating in the air like a bird. Accordingly, challenged Antoninus, it seems that one cannot be tried and punished for his transgressions!

Rebbi responded by way of a parable. A king had a beautiful orchard and he enlisted two guards to protect the gorgeous fruits - one blind and one lame. The lame man said to his blind friend, "I see delicious fruit. Please carry me on your shoulders and I will pick fruits for both of us." That is what happened and they both enjoyed a feast. Sometime later the king visited his orchard and asked the guards what happened to all his fruit. The lame man responded that he certainly could not be accused of perpetrating the crime because he doesn't even have legs with which to walk. The blind man claimed that he couldn't have been at fault since he couldn't even see the fruits in the first place. What did the king do? He placed the lame guard on top of his blind friend and judged them as one. So too, Hashem takes the soul and returns it to the body and judges them both together.
In a similar vein, says Rav Wolbe, the functions of the body and soul (כוחות הנפש והגוף) are both employed as "guards" for the orchard of pleasures in this world. The only difference between them is that the physical functions are blind while the functions of the soul are lame. The pleasures involved in living, eating and drinking, creating a family and love of one's children, prompt the body to do everything in its power to remain alive and carry out these activities. The bodily functions do an excellent job of ensuring proper existence in this world. Yet, they are "blind," since they can't see the goal of their work.
In contrast, the soul is the guard gifted with sight. It sees the goal and has the ability to give direction to our lives. It guides us toward what we should strive, for Whom we should work and what we are meant to achieve. It guards a person from abusing his strengths and working for naught. The problem is that it is "lame" since it is lacks the ability to execute its desires. For that, it needs the body which was created with the ability to perform all the various functions needed for proper survival.
However, there is a catch. Fulfillment of any craving brings us pleasure, and thus, from day one we have become accustomed to a never ending cycle of hunger - appetite - tasting food - pleasure - satiation - pleasure of feeling satisfied. The same applies to the rest of the bodily desires. This cycle triggers the imagination, causing it to create a picture of the pleasure, not as a means of survival but as an end unto itself. Instead of the hunger working to ensure that the body receives proper nutrition, the "guards" of the body begin to misuse their position and cause the body to crave food and other necessities purely for the sake of pleasure. Pleasure without purpose defeats the very purpose of our existence.
With this in mind, there is no reason to be embarrassed from any of the desires and cravings found within us. If Hashem put them there then none of them are lowly since they are all imperative for our existence here on earth. Our job is to make sure that they remain aligned and to avoid searching for pleasure in the wrong pastures!

532 - Da'as Atzmeinu 1 (Shelach)

In light of the difference between the parshios being read in Eretz Yisrael and in Chutz La'aretz, and in consideration of the message of last week's dvar Torah encouraging us to get to know ourselves, I have decided to digress from the regular divrei Torah and concentrate on getting to know ourselves. Rav Wolbe himself guides us to this end in one of the most well known sections in his sefer Alei Shur titled "Da'as Atzmaeinu" (vol. I p. 141).

As with any mussar idea, the purpose is not to merely appreciate the thought, but rather to understand and integrate the idea into our lives thereby effecting long lasting positive changes. My tefillah is that we succeed in achieving this objective, thus bringing ourselves closer to perfection and in turn increasing the glory of the Ribbono Shel Olam!


The truth is that knowledge of one's self is not a subject that can be learned. Even one who is cognizant of a few positive and negative middos that are nestled inside himself has still not achieved the goal of self knowledge. Rather, it is an experience that one encounters at a certain juncture in his life. It is the realization, on one hand, that he has unlimited potential for greatness, and on the other hand, it is the acknowledgment of the fact that his self interests dictate every single solitary action that he performs. As one philosopher pithily summed up this experience, "It feels like descending into Gehinom while still alive."

We all like to believe that if we are not entirely righteous, we're at least straight and upstanding individuals. The revelation that every one of our actions is rooted in selfishness gives us the feeling that the rug has been pulled out from underneath us. This shakeup could and should be the impetus for one to search for a truer existence.

In contrast, how pathetic is the fellow who lives his life "serenely" without any knowledge of his true self. He subconsciously refuses to pop his bubble of his imagined righteousness and therefore is unwilling to reveal all that lingers under the surface. Such a person is certainly not wicked and he will definitely receive great reward for his numerous good deeds, for Hashem does not hold back reward from anybody. However, he will not be a ben aliyahor a man of truth.
Our goal is to get to know ourselves. Acquiring this knowledge will automatically prompt us to invest serious effort into improving ourselves. Moreover, this very knowledge itself is elevating. Many years ago in Germany they found a man who from birth was raised in a cellar. He never saw the light of day nor had he ever even seen another person. Only after he was released did he become aware that he had spent his entire life in a dungeon. As long as he was inside he had no way of realizing that he was living a most vacuous existence in the cellar.

Similarly, one who has not revealed his true self identifies himself with his desires. The revelation of who he really is, in and of itself, separates a person from this subjectivity. While his negative middos still must be dealt with, he has succeeded in coming to a realization that those middos are not his true lofty self. As long as one is living complacently he simply has no idea that he is residing in a spiritual cellar. Join us for the next few weeks and b'ezras Hashem we will begin living in earnest!

In Parshas Shelach, Rashi tells us that the Torah compares the departure of Spies to their return. This teaches us that just as they returned with bad intentions, so too, when they departed, they set off with bad intentions. Rav Wolbe explains (Shiurei Chumash) that had there been no negativity when they departed there is no way such a fiasco would have occurred. He cites the Zohar which states that the nese'im knew that when they would enter Eretz Yisrael they would lose the coveted position of being nese'im - and they simply weren't willing to give it up. Thus, although they were from the greatest men who lived during the greatest era in history, nevertheless, they were blinded by a personal bias! When one is unaware of his biases he doesn't even realize how it affects everything he sees and does. In the above scenario, the outcome was forty years in the desert and the death of the entire generation. Unfortunately, they had not worked on "Da'as Atzmeinu!"

531 - Beha'aloscha

In this week's parsha Moshe requests of his father-in-law, Chovov, that he join Bnei Yisrael on their journey to the Promised Land. Rashi (Bamidbar 10:29) explains that Chovov was just another name of Yisro, and he adds that Yisro had numerous names.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) elaborates on Rashi's comment. The Mishna in Pirkei Avos (4:17) states, "There are three crowns - the crown of Torah, the crown of Kehuna and the crown of kingship - but the crown of a good name surpasses them all." A good name is acquired by way of one's actions. More specifically, when one takes a potential quality and transforms it into concrete actions, he defines his character and thereby creates a reputation and good name for himself. Yisro maximized his numerous qualities and created many names for himself. For example, he cherished the Torah and was therefore called Chovov. He gave good advice to Moshe thereby adding a section to the Torah, and therefore he was named Yisro.

Conversely, it is possible that a person will have no name whatsoever. The Chida quotes Rav Chaim Vital as saying that after a person passes away he is met by three angels. One of them asks the deceased person for his name. If in response he swears that he does not know his name he is duly punished. How could it be that a person forgets his own name? A name defines one's essence and it is quite possible that a person was not in touch with his true essence over the course of his entire life. While he certainly fulfilled many mitzvos and performed many actions, nevertheless, he might not have developed and actualized his personal potential, and thus lost the opportunity of acquiring a name for himself.

Rav Yerucham Levovitz would say that every person is born with an underlying positive middah. One does not need to work on perfecting this middah since it was given to him without a flaw. He must merely be careful that this perfect quality does not get eroded by negative behavior. Moreover, this middah is the key to his self perfection. By taking advantage of his specific middah he has the ability to rectify the rest of his middos which need refinement.
Rav Wolbe adds that the opposite is also true. Each person was created with a single underlying negativemiddah that needs much rectification. It stands to reason that a person's underlying positive middah is directly aligned to combat his underlying negative middah. One who is not in touch with himself is simply clueless as to what Hashem wants from him and how he is supposed to get there.
We all have the opportunity to make a name for ourselves. While society in general looks outward in their attempt to create a name for themselves, a Jew's avodahis to focus inward in order to achieve this goal. Get to know yourself and you will be on your way to acquiring "the crown of a good name" which surpasses all else.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

530 - Shavuos

Each morning in the bircas haTorah we ask Hashem, "Please make the words of Torah sweet in our mouths." One would think that it would be more accurate to petition Hashem to give us the ability to understand the Torah or to gain greater clarity into the profoundness of the Torah. Why is it that the emphasis is placed on the pleasure that we wish to experience when learning Torah?

Rav Wolbe (Da'as Shlomo Geulah p. 207) explains that the word "v'haarev (make sweet)" shares the same root as the word l'areiv which means "to mix." When a person partakes of something pleasurable, it blends into his very essence thereby becoming part of his physical or spiritual makeup. We daven to Hashem that we should find the study of Torah sweet and pleasurable so that all Torah learned should mix into the very fiber of our bodies and souls.

One who experiences the pleasure of Torah will undoubtedly achieve the levels mentioned at the end of this bracha, "May we... know Your Name and study Torah for its sake." Since he feels the pleasure involved with learning Torah he will seek to study its words without any ulterior motives, simply for the sake of learning Torah and getting to know He Who gave us the Torah. Additionally, the enjoyment will in turn endow us with a large dose of love for Hashem Who gave us this most pleasurable present.

It has been said that human beings are pleasure seekers from day one. Even the movements of a little baby can be attributed to the desire to feel pleasure. Not only that, but the actions of adults, even those which are performed with a heavy heart and amid much difficulty, can also be traced back to some sort of pleasure that they seek to attain. The question is only where a person looks for pleasure: Does he search for it in our materialistic world, or does he turn to spirituality to fulfill this desire?

We are all looking for happiness, and feelings of contentment and satisfaction. Physical and material pleasures might make us feel good, but they generally do not bring lasting happiness and satisfaction. If we are looking to live a truly pleasurable life, then we should set our focus on the Torah. One's daily daf yomi or learning session should not merely be a way of assuaging his conscience which tells him to learn something each day. If given proper priority it can be the most enjoyable part of the day and a way of literally fusing your body with the Torah.

Shavuos is the day that we receive the Torah anew each year. It is worthwhile to put in a heartfelt prayer that the Torah we learn should be sweet and pleasurable. This is an endeavor which has the ability to change us and every single day of our lives for the better!

Good Yom Tov!

529 - Bamidbar

This week's parsha delineates the various responsibilities of the Levi'im. "And the assignment of Elazar ben Aharon HaKohein is the oil of illumination, the spices of the incense, the daily flour offering and the anointment oil" (Bamidbar 4, 16). Rashi cites the Gemara Yerushalmi which explains that Elazar was not merely charged with overseeing that the above items were transferred from place to place; he actually carried all of them himself!

The Ramban (ibid.) calculates the enormous load that Elazar carried. The illumination oil for an entire year amounted to one hundred eighty-three lug (a lug is approximately ½ liter), and the spices for the incense weighed 365 maneh (a maneh is approximately ½ kilo). Rav Wolbe figured that altogether he probably carried more than 1000 kilo! He was charged with this physical assignment in addition to the other jobs that were delegated to him. These jobs included coordinating and supervising the transportation of the vessels of themishkan carried by the bnei Kehos, which entailed assigning each and every Levi their individual task. The amount of responsibilities Heavenly assigned to a person is in direct proportion to his greatness. The greater the person is the greater the load he is given.

How was Elazar able to accomplish all of this? The answer, says Rav Wolbe, can be found in the above Ramban. He concludes, "And those whose hope is in Hashem will have renewed strength" (Yeshaya 40, 31). It might be heavy and difficult, but he must bear the burden of responsibility with the knowledge that Hashem delegated it specifically to him. This will give him the strength to endure and succeed.

Rav Wolbe continues that this is something that we must constantly bear in mind. One who is a Rav, a Rebbi, a Gabbai or a teacher might sometimes get overwhelmed with the amount of responsibility he has been given. We might add that in truth every single Yid has numerous responsibilities toward Klal Yisrael. These might include raising a Torah true family, helping out in the shul, donating his time, money or other resources to benefit the Klal or learning with those less knowledgeable than us. Recognizing that Hashem specifically chose us for these tasks, not only prevents us from "throwing in the towel," it infuses us with vigor and an intense desire to succeed!

528 - Bechukosai

At the end of the tochacha, Hashem guarantees us, "I will remember My covenant with Yaakov and also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also my covenant with Avrahom will I remember" (Vayikra 26:42). Rashi points out that regarding the covenants of Avrahom and Yaakov Hashem states that He will remember them, while the word "remember" is not mentioned in conjunction with the covenant of Yitzchak.

Rashi cites Chazal who explain that one only needs to use their memory to remember something which he does not presently see in front of him. Accordingly, Hashem does not need to recall and remember the covenant He created with Yitzchak, since He sees Yitzchak's ashes [from the Akeidah] piled up on themizbeiach in front of Him.

What does this mean, asks Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash Parshas Vayeira 22:14)? We all know that Yitzchak was not actually sacrificed and burnt on themizbeiach, and obviously no ashes were created. He answers that the Navi states, "And a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear Hashem and who give thought to His Name" (Malachi3:16). Chazal ask (Kiddushin 40a) to whom is the pasuk referring when it mentions those who give thought to Hashem's Name? They answer that it refers to those who had a true desire to perform a mitzvah but circumstances that were out of their control prevented them from actually fulfilling their intention. Hashem considers their desire as if the mitzvah was performed, and thus the mitzvah is written down in the book of remembrance before Him.

Indeed, Yitzchak was not actually burnt on the altar. Nevertheless, the intense and true desire that he had to perform the mitzvah was accredited to his account, exactly as if it had come to fruition. The most essential aspect of the mitzvah is the desire and therefore even if one is prevented from doing the mitzvah Hashem considers it as if the mitzvah took place. Rav Wolbe adds that understandably one who has a thought to do a mitzvah and does not perform it despite the lack of outside interference, does not fall into the above category. Had he truly had the desire to perform Hashem's will, he would have followed through and would have done it.

This idea is an eye opener regarding the proper way to approach a mitzvah. It seems quite possible that a person who did not actually perform a mitzvah will receive more reward than his counterpart who actually performed that mitzvah but without a true desire! Our desire makes all the difference. Accordingly, one who truly wishes to spend more time learning, davening or performing chessed, but is precluded from doing so because of business or familial obligations, will merit books full of mitzvos to be accredited to his name in the World to Come!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

527 - Behar

The second half of this week's parsha deals with numerous laws that pertain to a fellow Jew who becomes impoverished. If you lend him money, "Do not take from him interest." If he sells himself to you as a slave, "You shall not work him with slave labor." If the situation is such that he sells himself as a slave to a Non-Jew, we must make an effort to extract him from his undesirable environment. As the Torah instructs us, "He shall have redemption; one of his brothers shall redeem him" (Vayikra 25:36, 39, 48).

The final two pesukim in the parsha seem to be totally out of place. There the Torah commands us not to make idols or erect statues and it exhorts us to observe Shabbos. What do these mitzvos have anything to do with what was mentioned beforehand?

Rashi explains (ibid. 26:1) that these commandments are specifically directed to the Jew who sells himself to the gentile. When this slave observes his master's behavior, he should not look to imitate him. He should notsay, "Since my master engages in forbidden relationships, so will I. Since my master worships idols, so will I. Since my master desecrates the Shabbos, so will I." The Torah wrote a condensed book of the most basic prohibitions tailored specially for the Jew that finds himself in spiritually challenged circumstances.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) comments that the Torah does not give up on anybody. A Jew can never reach a situation of total spiritual despair. His situation could be so bleak that he even sold himself to chop wood and draw water for a house of idol worship (see Rashi 25:47). Nevertheless, the Torah reaches out to him with a "Kitzur Shulchan Aruch" exhorting him to keep at least the basic tenets of Judaism.

The early twentieth century brought many Jews from Europe to America. At the time, America was a spiritual wasteland and many Jews lost any vestiges of Judaism. At that time the Chofetz Chaim wrote a condensed book of laws to aid his brethren in their newfound surroundings. Likewise, he wrote a special sefer geared specifically for those who had been drafted into the army for years on end and had limited access to anything religious.

It doesn't make any difference where the Jew finds himself for the Torah is always holding his hand and guiding him. Thus, there is no room or reason for despair since Hashem cares about every Jew even in the most depressing and bleak situations. So pick your chin up and smile, since the Creator of the world sees you, knows what you're going through, and is relating to you in your very situation!

526 - Emor

Toward the end of the parsha the Torah relates the incident of the "mekalel." A man, born to an Egyptian father and Jewish mother, got involved in a confrontation regarding the place he chose to pitch his tent. Being that his mother descended from the tribe of Dan, he set up his tent in the area designated for that tribe. His neighbors confronted him and asserted that since his father did not descend from Dan he could not remain among that tribe. The Torah clearly states, "Bnei Yisrael should encamp each man by his banner according to the insignias of theirfathers' household" (Bamidbar 2:2). The dispute was brought before Moshe's beis din. They ruled in favor of the tribe of Dan and the man went out and cursed Hashem.

The Torah continues, "They placed him under guard to clarify for themselves through Hashem" (Vayikra 24:12). Chazal tell us that this incident occurred at the same time as the incident of the mikosheish (the man who gathered sticks on Shabbos in a prohibited manner). Rashi infers from the pasuk that despite the fact that they were both placed in jail at the same time, nevertheless, they were not put in the same cell.

While the Torah does not use jail as a means of punishment, it is used to confine an offender when there is uncertainty as to the punishment deserved. Themikosheish was put into jail because although it was known that he deserved the capital punishment, the method of his execution was not known. In contrast, the man who cursed Hashem was jailed because it was not known if he deserved to be executed. Consequently, he was placed in a separate cell.
What would have been so terrible, asks Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) if they would have placed both transgressors in the same cell? He explains that although it is quite commonplace in our day and age for someone who was arrested at a protest rally to be placed in the same cell as a murderer, the Torah operates differently. Divine judgment is so exact to the extent that a transgressor who was stoned cannot be buried in the same cemetery as a transgressor who was beheaded. While they were both killed because of their aveiros, they cannot be equated. Likewise, a person who deserves to be executed cannot even be imprisoned alongside someone who might not deserve capital punishment.

There is a timely lesson to be learned from this incident. Rav Itzele Peterburger would say that if two people commit the very same transgression but one gives a groan as he performs the aveirah, the groan is recorded in heaven. Indeed, they both did commit the same aveirah, but they cannot be classified together because the difference between them is like night and day.

Conversely, when one performs a mitzvah, he is rewarded in heaven in proportion to the effort invested. Five minutes of Torah learning when one's body is aching for bed, is worth a whole lot more than when he is well rested and alert. In the same vein we cannot compare ourselves to our neighbors. While we all perform the exact same mitzvos, each mitzvah is so very different from another.

525 - Kedoshim

Please Note: We will be following the order of the Parshios as they are read in Eretz Yisrael - Those in Chutz La'Aretz please keep this dvar Torah handy to enjoy next week! 

This week's parsha begins with a bit of an ambiguous commandment: "Kedoshim te'hiyu" - You shall be holy. Kadosh (the root of the word kedusha) means to be separated, so while it is clear that the Torah wants us to distance ourselves from something, the commentators differ as to exactly what the Torah intended with this mitzvah. Rashi maintains that the Torah is instructing us to distance ourselves from forbidden marital relationships. Separating oneself specifically with regard to this matter has the ability to bring a person to holiness.

The Ramban contends that the Torah is not referring to a specific topic. Rather, it is a general commandment to separate oneself. He cites Chazal who often refer to talmidei chachomim as "perushim" i.e. those who separate themselves by way of their behavior from mainstream society. In a similar vein the Torah calls upon us to be perushim.

The mitzvos of the Torah do not deal with every possible scenario. After laying down the basic precepts, the Torah gives us an all encompassing directive "You shall be holy." The Torah doesn't tell us how much one is allowed to eat nor does it limit how many women a man can marry. Thus, a person can completely indulge himself in his food and marital life and talk using inappropriate language. As the Ramban writes, "one can act in a depraved manner with the 'permission' of the Torah." Therefore, the Torah instructs us to separate ourselves and not go overboard even when the issue at hand is not one that is specifically forbidden by the Torah.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash, Vayikra 19:1) comments that according to the Ramban's explanation, the Torah is, in effect, instructing every Jew to act like a talmid chachom! Practically it means that each person, proportionate to his spiritual level, should limit the amount he indulges despite the fact that such indulgence was not specifically prohibited by the Torah.

As a mashal, Rav Wolbe related that shortly after the founding of the State of Israel there was a big disagreement regarding the drafting of girls into the Israeli Army. While many felt that they should share the duties of protecting the country, the Gedolim, headed by the Chazon Ish, vehemently opposed the proposal. The Chazon Ish was asked in which of the four sections of Shulchan Aruch does it say that it is prohibited for women to be drafted into the army. He responded that the prohibition is written in the fifth section of Shulchan Aruch which only talmidei chachomim have the ability to decipher.

Rav Wolbe explains that the Chazon Ish was informing the questioners that after learning the entire Torah, a talmid chachom is able to deduce how the Torah desires that we act in any given situation. Indeed, it isn't written black on white, but it is implied, and those who comprehend the Torah's viewpoint are able to interpret its message clearly. In a similar vein, Hashem gave us limited parameters and then succinctly summed up His position with a directive to "be holy." Understand how you are intended to behave and act accordingly.

Yiddishkeit is not just a checklist of do's and don'ts. Nevertheless, unfortunately that is how many relate to Judaism. What they have done is they have separated the Jewish religion from Yiddishkeit. Yiddishkeit gives expression to the spirit of the religion and it signifies a spiritually aristocratic way of life. We are to become an island of noblemen in the middle of the ocean of a degraded society. We are instructed to separate ourselves from the gentile way of life because we are different. A prince conducts himself with nobility.

524 - Pesach

Yetzias Mitzrayim was the event that took the numerous individuals who were all offspring of Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov and forged them into a single nation. This process of redemption not only turned us into a nation, but also demonstrated our uniqueness. While the water in the Egyptian's cup turned into blood, the Jew could drink from the very same cup and enjoy crystal clear water. The Egyptians endured extreme darkness and at the very same time the Jew enjoyed the radiance of daytime. The redemption demonstrated that the Jew was part of a Divine nation, and thus he merited a unique level of Divine Providence.

Chazal tell us (Medrash Tehillim 114) that the creation of the Jewish Nation was not a simple process. The Torah describes this event as, "taking out one nation from inside another nation." Accordingly, the Medrash compares the process to a cow experiencing difficulty giving birth to its calf. The shepherd must insert his hand into the womb of the cow, grab hold of the calf and pull it out of the mother. In a similar vein, Bnei Yisrael were so entrenched in the Egyptian society that they had to be yanked "from inside" the womb of the nation which enveloped them.

Rav Wolbe comments that this might very well be the reason why, as stated in the Hagaddah, the redemption was performed, not by an angel or any other intermediary, but by Hashem Himself. Had the purpose of the midnight revelation merely been to kill the firstborn, an angel certainly could have sufficed. However, there was another aspect that had to be accomplished: Bnei Yisrael had to be completely severed from their previous surroundings and only the Omnipotent One had the ability to accomplish this feat.

The exodus from Mitzrayim was not meant to be a onetime occurrence. Chazal tell us (Pesachim 116b), "In each and every generation a person is obligated to perceive himself as if he went out of Mitzrayim." Whenever and wherever the Jew finds himself, he must make an effort to free himself from the non-Jewish culture which has permeated every nook and cranny of our planet. This idea is hinted to in the Haggadah, for we declare, "Originally our forefathers were idol worshippers and now Hashem has brought us close to His service." What do we mean by "now" Hashem brought us into His service? Didn't Yetzias Mitzrayim occur more than three thousand years ago? Indeed, we left back then, but each and every year we must once again disengage ourselves from the nations around us.

The Seder Night affords us an opportunity to turn off the internet i.e. disconnect from the outside world, and spend a good few hours focusing on inculcating ourselves and our children with the beauty of being part of the Jewish Nation. We are supposed to experience our uniqueness, appreciate that we are very different from the nations around us and realize that Hashem intended it to be that way. While we live amongst the other nations we must ensure that we don't live "inside" of them. May we merit ridding ourselves of all non-Jewish trappings, thereby experiencing Yetzias Mitzrayim in its truest form!

Chag Kasher V'Sameiach!