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.