Friday, February 29, 2008

Entering the Har Habayis

The first High Commissioner of Palestine was appointed by the Brittish Mandatory authorities between the two World Wars. A semi-observant Jew, Sir Herbert Samuels was known to be careful not to violate Shabbos publicly. Every Shabbos, he would walk the long distance from his home on Augusta Victoria on Mount Scopus all the way to the great Churvah of Rav Yehuda HaChassid in the Old City.

To the surprise of many, when Sir Herbert first met the Rav of Yerushalayim, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zt”l, the venerable gadol made a request of the Jewish official. “Please have warning signs affixed near all of the entrances to Har Habayis so that ignorant Jews will know not to enter the area and risk transgressing all of the many prohibitions involved. They could even be liable to kares unless we take steps to prevent such violations!”

In those years, the Jewish community was very careful with this prohibition and did not enter Har Habayis at all. Although there is documentary evidence that some Rishonim did enter certain permitted areas of the Har Habayis, later generations would not rely on this since there are conflicting shittos and there is too much of a possibility of error.[1]

Sir Herbert requested in turn that Rav Sonnenfeld put his request in writing.

The Rav wrote, “I have taken the liberty to request permission of Your Honor to place signs in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Spanish to inform the Jewish people that we lack the ability to purify ourselves properly to enter this most holy place nowadays. It is therefore prohibited from the Torah for any Jew to enter the Har Habayis.”

When they left, the Rav’s escort asked his motives for this request since no Jews of the yishuv would ever consider doing such a thing.

Rav Sonnenfeld responded, “It is true that no one goes there now. However, what about Sir Herbert himself? As High Commissioner, isn’t it likely that he will be required at some time to go there? Once the signs are posted, they will provide him with an excuse to refuse to enter the area without offending the British authorities!”

[1] The overwhelming majority of authorities prohibit entry under any circumstances. This is not the time for a discussion of the relevant sources, but if anyone is interested please let me know.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Shalom Bayis

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch zt”l writes that the Kohen Gadol embodies the moral ideal of the entire Jewish People. His is supposed to provide a role model to which every Jew can aspire—a model of moral excellence and completion. The foundation of this development and completion is marriage—the state that Chazal said is also the basis of all true happiness. This is why the Kohen Gadol may only perform the avodah of Yom Kippur while married. Having once been married is not enough; to do the avodah, the Kohen Gadol had to be living within the state of marriage.

The Ramak zt”l explains the depths of this law. Until one marries, it is obvious that the Shechinah is absent from a man’s life, because the Shechinah only rests upon a man in the merit of his wife. So if a man does not get along with his wife, it is clear that the Shechinah is not “living in harmony” with him either! It is important to realize how indebted we are to our spouses, and must work hard to ensure that they do not harbor any resentments against us. It is all too easy to take one’s wife for granted, forgetting that, “A woman of valor is her husband’s crown.”

A certain avreich went to the Stiepler Gaon zt”l for guidance in learning. After outlining to him how to structure his time by learning both for broad general knowledge while setting aside time for in-depth analysis, the Stiepler remarked, “You sound like a true masmid. However, don’t forget to help your wife around the house.”

The young man tried to deflect the implied mussar with an explanation. “My wife is in complete agreement with me that the main thing is my learning. She does not ask for me help, nor does she want it.”

The Steipler responded, “That is her mitzvah. Your mitzvah is to make sure to help around the house. She is your wife…you didn’t buy a slave when you married her!”

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Order of the Service

During korbanos we say the beraisa "Abaye mesader ma’aracha," which discusses the order of the service, which elements take precedence and why. The Likutei Halachos zt”l explains the relevance of these details to our personal service of Hashem. The service in the Beis HaMikdash alternated between “avodas penim” and “avodas chutz,” service both within and outside the heichal, which was the epicenter of spiritual life of the Jewish people. This fluctuation alludes to the phases of easier and more difficult times we all go through in our spiritual growth. Sometimes we feel so close to attaining our goals, as if we are really in close proximity to holiest place, but soon we suffer reversals that make us feel as though we’ve been pushed back, outside. All of our great leaders went through this kind of progress punctuated by setbacks, each in his own unique way and on his particular level. Only those who had the endurance to carry on despite these temporary reversals eventually grew into their potential greatness.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l would often discuss the challenges of his eight years alone in Sweden. “Even Rabbonim who were once chareidim gave dispensations for actions that entail a penalty of kareis!” In later life, he would say that it was only the merit of his regular mussar study that kept him committed to uncompromising Torah observance, and that gave him the strength to encourage others to do the same. But by his own admission, that mussar seder in Sweden did not come easily.

“After learning diligently for a period of time, I felt like I was making no progress at all, and felt that I should just give up. I wrote a letter to Rav Yechezkel Levenstein zt”l in Shanghai, and he answered me as follows: “First of all, you must accept that you are not an authority on the matter of your own spiritual growth—no one is! There is no doubt that the mussar is having a profound effect below the surface. If you will only hold strong and continue, you will eventually see yourself transformed!”

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Spirit of the Law: Purim I: Month of Adar

Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Chapter 141, 1

1) From the onset of Adar one should magnify his joy. (Mishenichnas Adar marbim b’simcha.) If a Jew has an altercation with a non-Jew he should take him to court during Adar since it is an auspicious time.

The Ohev Yisrael, zt"l, writes that the word “b’simcha” has the same numerical value as the word “shana,” year.[1] The more b’simcha, joyous, one is during Adar, the more joy one will experience the entire year!

The Chidushei HaRim, zt"l, states that just as we go into the illumination of Tishrei through Elul, we attain the dveikus, or intimate connection with Hashem, of Nisan through Adar. In Adar, our repentance is born of love and is stronger than the teshuva of Elul which is rooted in fear.

The Divrei Shmuel explains the deeper meaning of the preference to take a gentile to court during this month. On a deeper level, this refers to judging the non-Jew within us which is the aspect of Amalek within. One who has difficulty struggling with the negative inside himself (and who doesn’t in our generation?) overcomes this with much greater ease during Adar.

The Chidushei HaRim writes further that Adar is a conjunction of the phrase Aleph-Dar (א-דר=אדר). Aleph refers to Hashem, sometimes known as Alufo Shel Olam, the lofty One of the universe, and dar literally means dwells.[2] This means that during the month of Adar, due to the boundless joy we experience, it is easier for us to become a dwelling place for Hashem.

Chazal say, “One who wishes to preserve his property should plant an Adar on it,” which could mean either planting a type of tree known as an adar, which is usually understood to be a maple, or to plant the tree during the month of Adar. As it says in Tehilim (93:4,) "Adir bamarom Hashem”—“Hashem is All Powerful on High." But what does the verse have to do with securing one’s material wealth? The Chashva L’teshuva, zt"l, explains that the needs of every Jew are allocated from heaven. The reason why people lack is because their heavenly allotment is being withheld. What should one do to avoid losing out, then? “Plant an adar.” Adar refers to one who is steadfast as a mighty maple in his faith that Hashem is All Powerful!

Once, two friends met and one complained to the other that things were very difficult financially. He was literally at the end of his rope and didn’t know what to do or where to turn.

“Well,” responded his friend, “Rebbe Nachman writes that ‘one who is always happy will succeed.’ So I recommend that you strive a to feel happy all the time.”

“But that is one of the most difficult things to do! How can I possibly work towards such a lofty goal?” complained the disgruntled man.

Nu, what won’t people do to make a living?” his friend answered.

[1] Both equal 355. (ב=2 ש=300 מ=40 ח=8 ה=5 & ש=300 נ=50 ה=5)

[2] To this day an apartment in Hebrew is called a “dirah.”

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Power of Speech

The Chazon Ish, zt”l once said that although people know that life and death are in the hands of the loshon, it is usually only the power of the negative that they really feel, the stab of an inconsiderate word, or the character assassination of lashon hara. But what about speech as a force for life? Sometimes what we say can literally bring someone back to a life of sanctity, and help them get on the right track again. This is why we have to weigh what we say with extreme caution. What we say is literally life and death!

Rav Aharon Bakshet zt”l was in Kelm for Yom Kippur and he saw the Alter of Kelm zt”l was awake the whole night, seemingly deep in thought. After the fast, he approached the Alter and asked why he had not slept the whole night. The Alter explained: “I have to guide the community. On Yom Kippur I spend the whole night thinking about what the individuals under my care need to be told to further their spiritual development. I also give consider how each person should be approached to help them grow. How I should rebuke, and how I should encourage. This is a very difficult task, so I always do it on the night of Yom Kippur. This way the merit of the holiest day of the year is with me as I speak to each and every one the whole year long!”

Which Is Which?

Rav Chayim Brim zt”l once came to ask a chinuch question of the Chazon Ish zt”l. “One the one hand, the yetzer tov is telling me to do it this way, but on the other hand, the yetzer hara is telling me to do it the other way!”

The Chazon Ish retorted, “It’s not as if the yetzer hara comes to you all dressed up, wearing a sign saying who he is! How do you know which one is the yetzer tov talking, and which one is the yetzer hara?!”

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Everyday Wonders

A man once came to the Chazon Ish, zt”l, steeped in terrible worry and pain. He poured his distress out before the gadol.

“In natural terms,” said the man, “there isn’t a hope of recovery. It would take a miracle! But miracles don’t happen every day,” he lamented.

The Chazon Ish shot back, “Untrue! Miracles are indeed happening every single day!”

On another occasion, a very sick man came to consult with the Chazon Ish. The doctors had given him only four more days to live, and said that they couldn’t guarantee him any longer than that.

The Chazon Ish heard the poor man’s story and said, “Let me ask you. What did Hashem create on the first day?”

The man responded, “Light.”

“And on the second day?” the Chazon Ish asked.

The man answered, “The firmament.”

And so the Chazon Ish continued to ask him about the first four days of creation. And the sick man answered each question correctly.

The gadol then said, “If Hashem could create so many things during just four days, doesn’t that mean that He could also create your remedy in four days too?”

Four days later, the newspapers declared that a wonderful new discovery called penicillin could now be obtained. The man’s relatives sent an emergency shipment over from England, and he lived!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

To Save a Life

As we find on Yuma 84, even a question of preserving life takes precedence over Shabbos. The Ramban writes that refraining from violating Shabbos in such a case isn't even middus chassidus. In fact, one who avoids violating Shabbos on this account and dies is considered as though he had thrown his own life away, G-d forbid.

However, that which constitutes a threat to life for one person does not necessarily hold true for another person. Rav Chaim Soliveitchik zt”l told Rav Boruch Ber zt”l "A Rav must be clever." Rav Boruch Ber, applied this statement to discerning what is truly life threatening since establishing the parameters of genuine need demands great insight.

Rav Gedaliah Moshe Goldman zt”l, the Rebbe of Zvhil, spent over seven years in Siberia. One Shabbos, he and an elderly prisoner were summoned to the camp commandant’s office.

“You are free to leave as soon as you sign your release forms,” he said.

The Rebbe struggled with himself. On the one hand, it is forbidden to write on Shabbos. On the other, perhaps this is a case of pikuach nefesh and he must sign! After a moment’s consideration, the Rebbe concluded that his situation was not life-threatening; after all, he had survived until now. He refused to sign.

“You’re not signing the release?” exclaimed the incredulous commandant. “That’s fine with me. As far as I’m concerned, you can sit here forever!”

The commandant then turned to the elderly Jew and said, “You are free to go as soon as you sign your release form.”

He too refused to sign, but the Rebbe intervened.

“I am prepared to sign for my companion so he can go free,” he exclaimed.

The commandant was perplexed. “I don’t understand. Why can you sign for your friend’s release, but not for your own?”

The Rebbe answered, “I can’t sign for myself since I may only violate the Shabbos if my life is clearly in danger, and I don’t believe that it is. He, however, is elderly. He has no chance of surviving if he remains here much longer. Therefore I must certainly sign to save his life.”

The commandant was dumbfounded. “You’ll sign for him, but not to save yourself? That’s incredible! You can both leave without signing!”

Friday, February 22, 2008

Igniting the Spark

In Shekalim 2, we find an interesting statement: “Rav Abba said, the nature of this people is hard to fathom. When asked to give for the Golden Calf they gave. Yet they also donated when funds were requested for the Mishkan.” What a statement! Is Rav Abba offering praise for the Jewish people or rebuke?

Rav Menachem Zemba hy”d explains: No matter what we’ve done in the past, we must never give up. In one moment, we can turn over a new leaf through sincere repentance! Even after we fell to the absolute depths of contributing for the Calf, within a short time we were able to change for the better and became faithful believers of the highest order. We became worthy of giving of ourselves for the Mishkan, the home of the Shechina in this material world. As Jews, we all have a spark hiding within us. And we always have the power to coax it into a roaring flame!

The Klausenberger Rebbe zt”l lost his wife and ten children during the Holocaust, and himself ran the gauntlet of several concentration camps. Despite backbreaking labor and severe beatings he never lost hope, and always tried to fulfill mitzvos to the best of his ability even when discovery would cost him dearly. After being discovered for one such “transgression” and being “disciplined,” a Jewish professor and fellow camp-mate asked cynically, “Can you still honestly say: Atoh bichortonu…?”

The Rebbe passionately replied, “It is far better to suffer at the hands of our tormentors, than to be the ones who torment others. Yes, Atah bichortonu!”

The professor was taken aback, and the Rebbe continued. “We say in the Haggada, “In every generation they stand over us to destroy us.” How many great and mighty nations have tried to destroy us? Yet today they lie on the dust-heap of history, while we get up again and again with renewed vigor. I don’t know if I will live through this churban, but I can guarantee you that the Jewish people will always survive. Even after this blood bath is over, the remnants will get up, dust themselves off, and our people will continue marching toward our destiny until the end of time!”

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Words of the Wise

Blogger yitz from Hechal Haneginah brought the following great story in his comment on "Don't Push" down below.
Once there was a large crowd at the Tish of Rebbe Yechezkel of Kuzmir, a contemporary of the Vorker Rebbe. The Rebbe noticed that there was one foolish man pushing his way into the entire crowd, disturbing them all. He quoted the verse in Mishlei/Proverbs 27:22, "If you crush the fool in a mortar...his foolishness will not leave him." Did you ever see a fool crushed in a mortar? he noted. That's for crushing peppercorns, not fools!
He answered that even though "the reward of a gathering is the crowded quarters," the fool, even if he will push his way around the crowd, will not be affected by the [holiness of the] gathering, and his folly will not depart from him. This story is brought in the sefer Divrei Yisrael, by the first Modzitzer Rebbe, who was the Kuzmirer's grandson.

This great story reminded me of another penetrating lesson of Rav Yechezkal of Kozmir:
Rav Yechezkel of Kozhmir, zt”l, once offered important guidance in rendering halachic decisions. “When you think about it, the process of halachah appears perplexing at times. For example, very often we find that while the Shulchan Aruch permits something, the Ramoh can be stringent. Is it possible that one has permitted that which is truly forbidden? Could it be that that one or the other actually ate traifos, for example? The truth, however, is as we say, that ‘these and those are the words of the living G-d.’ There are many possible interpretations of the law, but the actual halachah depends on the sages of each and every generation. And what determines what the halachah really is? The speech of the chachomim. Each sage’s word made the object or action in question permitted or prohibited. It is his words that reveal the ratzon Hashem for that particular question, in that particular place, and that particular moment in time. Accordingly, a moreh hora’ah must use his faculty of speech very carefully and make certain never to abuse it. Every word he speaks should be in absolute holiness and purity!”

When the Divrei Yisrael, zt”l, recounted this advice he would comment, “This explains the fact that halachic precedent doesn’t necessarily follow the greatest scholar’s opinion. Sometimes the halacha follows the lesser scholar because his speech is more pure than the greater scholar’s. This can be understood from the Gemara in Kesuvos 22a which states: ‘The mouth that prohibited is the mouth that permitted.’ This can also be read differently. ‘It is the mouth that permits. It is the mouth that prohibits.’ In order for the words of the contemporary scholar to become halacha they must be spoken by a mouth that is holy and pure. It is the worthy mouth alone that permits and prohibits!”

Spirit of the Law: Purim Katan

Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Chapter 142:10

“We don’t say tachanun, Kel Erech Apayim or lam’natzeach on the fourteenth and fifteenth of the first Adar and it is forbidden to eulogize or fast. On the fourteenth one should embellish meals slightly.”

The Chasam Sofer, zt”l, explains the above halachos in a surprising way. The Ramban in Sefer Hamitzvos, implies that Chanukah and Purim are actually Torah obligations. However, virtually any act done to commemorate their respective miracles, discharges this obligation. Megillah etc. on Purim and the lights etc. on Chanukah are not Torah obligations.

During a leap year there is an extra Adar and we celebrate Purim during the second Adar, but the Torah obligation applies to the fourteenth and fifteenth of the first Adar. By fulfilling the halachos of Purim Katan we discharge this Torah obligation.

Rav Tzaddok Hakohain from Lublin, zt”l, writes that on Purim Katan, every Jewish heart is brimming over with great joy and connection, the deep spiritual roots of the mitzvos of Purim. This joy is the main way to erase Amalek, the source of all evil, from within. It is therefore forbidden to eulogize or fast and we don't say tachanun etc. on these holy days.

Once some Chassidim visited Rav Mordechai of Nadvorna, zt”l, on Purim Katan. There were many lit candles in his house giving off a festive glow which puzzled the Chassidim.

They wondered aloud, “Why so many candles?”

“Why does the abundance of candles surprise you?” the tzaddik replied. “Today is Purim Katan, a great and wondrous day. Don’t you know that today all the worlds are filled with abundant spiritual illumination?”

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Pure Kindness

The Avnei Neizer, zt”l, once asked Rav Yitzchak of Vorki, zt”l, “The Gemara in Megillah 4a states that those Jews who dwell in the rural villages are permitted to read the megillah earlier than usual to enable them to supply provisions for their brothers in the city on Purim itself. We don’t find that Chazal were lenient on farmers regarding any other mitzvah—why did they make an exception in this case?”

Rav Yitzchak explained, “The Gemara in Bava Basra brings Shlomo HaMelech’s indictment of the ‘chessed of the non-Jewish nations’ as a sin (Mishlei 14:34) and explains that the idolater’s charity is flawed because it is generally given for ulterior motives. If the act of kindness did not have a talismanic effect to bring him the blessing he sought, he wants a refund! Since the idolater had been trained his entire life that giving money altruistically is just wasteful, he doesn’t really care what happens to the recipient as long as he, himself, experiences a benefit from the act of giving. A Jew, on the other hand, does care about the fact that his giving has helped those in need. For this reason, even if a Jew gives charity with a condition in mind, it is still considered charity. It is assumed that even if the charity doesn’t act as a segulah for him to attain the object of his desire, he will not regret the act of giving because beneath it all he has a sincere desire to help others as well.”

Rav Yitzchok concluded, “What does this have to do with Purim? The root of all the character defects of the nations is Amalek, as it says in the verse: ראשית גוים עמלק—‘Amalek is the head of all nations.’ (Bamidbar 24:20) Purim is the time when we obliterate Amalek from within and without. The ultimate expression of Amalek is selfishness. This is why we make a special decree so that the people of the villages can help their brothers in the city; self-sacrifice for the sake of one’s fellow Jew is the ultimate destruction of Amalek!”

"Little Purim"

A freilichen Purim Katan!

For those who want to really feel the joy of Purim next month, you might want to start saying the prayer that Rav Berland, shlit"a, wrote for the occasion.
It is long, but if you say a little bit every day, you will not believe the difference it will make for your Purim.
Tefillah L'Oni--Purim

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Tonight's Eclipse

“There will be an eclipse tonight.[1]” a good friend informed me early this morning. “Is there anything in the Torah about eclipses?”

I replied with the following:

The Talmud in Sukka 29, states that an eclipse is a bad sign. Since eclipses are only a natural consequence of the orbital motion of the heavenly bodies, why does our gemara invest them with such portentous meaning? The answer lies in the axiom that the whole of creation really depends on time, for everything that happens in the material world occurs within the dimension of time. Rav Yerucham Levovitz, zt”l, wrote that people hit upon a deep truth when they feel that time is of great significance, since a great part of our avodah revolves around preparing ourselves to receive the positive spiritual influences that descend at particular times of the day, of the week, of the month, and of the year.

Our daf is saying that the eclipse represents the inverse of this—a time designated by Hashem during which He expresses his anger, ח"ו. This parallels the affinity the three weeks of Bein HaMeitzarim has for catastrophe, or, להבדיל, the unique energy of contrition and renewal that is especially accessible during Elul. Mitzvos have the power to make us transcend the normal, natural, influences of time. This is the concept of אין מזל לישראל. Conversely, one who sins during a particularly inauspicious time is compared to a person who foolishly drops sparks onto bone-dry tinder. Without thinking, he endangers himself and everyone else around him.

Many Gedolei Yisroel pointed out that World War I, which was really the prelude to World War II and the destruction of European Jewry, began on Tisha B’Av. Fewer people are aware that World War I was marked by another inauspicious sign.

Once, Rav Eliyahu Lopian, zt”l, was learning parshas Bereishis with his young grandson. When they reached the verse, “And they [the heavenly bodies] shall be for signs, and for festivals, and for days, and for years,” they read Rashi’s words, “And they shall be for signs—this teaches that when the luminaries are eclipsed, it is a bad omen for the world.” (Bereishis 1:14)

The Rav paused and said, “On the 29th of Av in 5674 (August 21, 1914), there was a full solar eclipse that made it look as dark as night outside.” On the very next day, Germany won its greatest victory on the eastern front of the entire war—the Battle of Tannenberg against Russia.

[1] [1] When I asked him to elaborate he responded: The Moon will be in total eclipse from 0301 GMT to 0351 GMT. This will be visible east of the Rocky Mountains in North America, as well as in all of Central and South America, West Africa and Western Europe. The zenith of totality is close to French Guiana. (see:

The Secrets of the Torah

The Heichal Habrochah zt”l explains that the the task of sanctifying the mundane endeavors of this world require long and painstaking effort. To do this properly, we have to be deeply aware that no two actions are the same, no two moments are the same. For every day is completely new and fresh, and new light and connection to Hashem is waiting to be discovered every day. The tefillin of one day is completely different from the tefillin of the next. No tefillah is exactly like another. But it is almost impossible to achieve this level of awareness without the Beis Hamikdash. Certain individuals do achieve such levels, and the Sages said about such people: “Whoever has holy awareness, it is as if the Beis Hamikdash was built in his days.”

Once, when Rav Tzvi of Ziditchov zt”l was a young man, he spent the whole day doing business with non-Jews. When his day was through, he went to daven Minchah, and prayed with tremendous exuberance. It almost seemed as though his every limb was on fire, and anyone could see that he was full of a great longing for his Creator. Praying with such devotion usually takes a lot of preparation, so his older brother thought that perhaps his fervor was less than genuine.

He asked his younger brother after the prayers, “Where did you get such a davening from without spending any time preparing?”

Rav Tzvi answered, “When you go out to the field, or a little village, and there is no one but gentiles around… If you can maintain holy thoughts, you raise up all the holy sparks in the stones, the trees, the animals, in everything growing and living in the whole area. What could be a greater preparation for davening than that!”

Monday, February 18, 2008

Don't Push!

The Chassidim pushed and crowded around the tisch of their Rebbe, Rav Yitzchak of Vorki zt”l, and many were crushed in the confusion.

The Rebbe spoke up: “Every single Yid is like a holy sefer! How can you push each other like this? You have to treat one another with respect, like you would treat a holy book! You can’t lean on your friend or push him!”

One of the Chassidim spoke up boldly: “But, Rebbe, doesn’t the halachah permit stacking one sefer on top of another as long as it isn’t Tanach?”

The Rebbe smiled and answered, “True. But each of you shouldn’t see himself as a holy sefer at all—just his friend! If your fellow is like a sefer kodesh and you are nothing of the sort, how could you possibly push him and climb on top of him?!”

How can we come to true love and unity? By seeing the holiness of other Jews, and not focusing on ourselves!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Lack of Mussar

In the years leading up to the Russian Revolution, a spirit of discontent swept through many of the Russian and Lithuanian yeshivos. During one particular period, there was such strong opposition to the study of mussar in Slabodka yeshiva itself, that a number of former talmidim decided to publish their views. One of the dropouts even announced that he would stop at nothing until they succeeded. This young man was known to have been quite a brilliant student. After much effort, however, the group didn’t seem to be any closer to achieving its aims. Discomfited, they decided to try a different tactic.

The most radical student said, “It’s obvious that our problem is Rav Noson Tzvi Finkel, zt”l, himself! It is the Alter of Slabodka who keeps on incommoding our every plan. All we need to do is get him out of the way and it will be no trouble to remove the study of mussar from the yeshiva.” The others agreed.

It never crossed their minds that it would be a challenge to get the Alter out of the way; they would simply visit him and see how he reacted to being threatened at gunpoint!

“And if he won’t resign, well, we just can't be held responsible for the consequences,” the ringleader said.

A group of these renegades forced their way into the Alter’s house soon after and made their demands. The Alter, however, was unperturbed. He merely gazed sadly at the leader, and said calmly, “You only left us and our mussar a short while ago, and look what has happened to you already.”

The ringleader's puffed up arrogance was deflated by the Alter’s caring words. Completely chastened, he turned tail and the whole group followed suit.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Protection Through Humility

On Yuma 89, we find that a petitioner asked Rava if he is permitted to commit murder to save his own life, and Rava told him to allow himself to be killed. No one can know if his life is more precious, if his “blood is redder,” than his friend’s.

Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa zt”l would bring this gemara as a proof that every person is duty-bound to feel that he is not any more important in Hashem’s eyes than any other Jew. And this feeling has very broad ramifications, because every sin is really rooted in false pride.

Human nature is such that feeling unique and set apart from others seems to constitute a license to indulge sinful desires. And this feeling of uniqueness can persist and prevent a sinner from repenting too. He might think, “Look how terrible I am—Hashem won’t even want me!” With humility, however, even someone who has already sinned can feel inspired to repent. Whether we are speaking about the time before or after the sin, subduing one’s natural tendency to arrogance is what allows a person to stay close to Hashem in a balanced and healthy way.

When a massive earthquake struck the Galilee in the winter of 5597, Tzfas was leveled. Over 5,000 Jews died or were injured in a single moment of heavenly wrath. One of the leading Rabbonim of Tzfas, Rav Avrohom Dov of Avritch zt”l, the author of the Bas Ayin, was in shul with his congregation when it struck. As soon as he felt the first tremors of the earthquake, he threw himself down to the floor near the bimah and commanded his congregation, “Come to me!” As they lay prostrate, crying out in prayer, half of the shul to the other side of the bimah collapsed into rubble. Their side remained untouched.

Afterward, the Rav explained his actions. “I saw that the entire structure was going to fall, for the sitra achra had permission to destroy us. Absolute humility was the only thing that could save us. So we had to submit completely—and we were saved!”

First Work, Then Eat!

Rav Tzaddok HaKohen zt”l taught that the usual times for eating the first meal of the day indicate something far greater than appetite. Eating has the power to fill a person with arrogance; it actually increases the substance of the person, and if he eats before prayer, he could make the mistake of thinking that he is the source of his own vitality. This is why it is so important to pray first, so that we recognize the source of our sustenance and life-force. Only then does eating fill us with humility rather than conceit. So the usual meal-time for average people was four hours into the day, or six for scholars. Agripas ate at the ninth hour—for it was only then that he had finished all the spiritual work he needed to do before the meal.

As a young man, the Imrei Emes zt”l traveled by train to Biala to visit his father-in-law. During the entire journey, Rav Avrohom Mordechai studied his Gemara without pause. He happened to share his carriage with a young Jew who did not appear to be a chossid. The fellow glanced repeatedly at the masmid with unconcealed admiration, marveling at his diligence. “I’ve never seen such intense hasmadah in my life!” he remarked to himself.

Just before midnight, Rav Avrohom Mordechai seemed to remember something, took a look at his pocket watch, and exclaimed, “It’s nearly chatzos!” He laid aside his precious sefer, took out a sandwich, washed and quickly polished it off.

The stranger took this in with surprised distaste: How could a talmid chochom unceremoniously drop his studies and eat so ravenously?

Rav Avrohom Mordechai seemed to read the young man’s mind. “The truth is that I am not at all hungry. My mother gave me this sandwich with instructions to eat it for supper today. As soon as I saw the time, I rushed to finish it quickly—for how could I disobey my mother?!”

Thursday, February 14, 2008

“Torah Scholars Increase Peace in the World…”

In the end of Adar 5727 (1967), the Slabodka Yeshiva finished Maseches Yevamos and made a gala siyum. The bochurim begged Rav Yechezkel Abrahamsky, zt”l, to speak during the celebration, and he eventually agreed. Rav Abrahamsky taught a very powerful lesson that none could forget. Just before making the actual siyum mesechta he said, “On the last amud of Yevamos we find a statement incorporated in our prayers which is actually repeated several times in Shas: Talmidei chachamim marbim shalom baolam... What does this really mean, that Torah scholars ‘multiply peace in the world?’ Is this meant to teach us that a Torah scholar should spend the bulk of his time going from house to house making peace between husband and wife and man and his neighbor?! No, this statement actually refers to a much higher calling.

Rav Abrahamsky continued, “People who are truly happy are at peace with everyone. Unsatisfied people are contentious and always looking for a fight. All of their days are one big grudge and they are always angry at everyone. It is well known that the true Torah scholar takes tremendous pleasure from every daf gemara that he learns. They get more pleasure from learning the holy Torah than a new millionaire gets from his sudden fortune. As the wealthy man basks in his abundant blessings, the Torah scholar basks in the glow of the even greater windfall of acquiring an eternal connection to Hashem! For this reason he is a man at peace with all. He is so filled with delight and fulfillment from his learning that he never gets angry and never holds a grudge against anyone. Truly a part of the Am medushnei oneg! He hardly notices mundane matters that don’t go his way since he is so filled up with the pleasure of his learning; such things are insignificant in his eyes!”

Rav Abrahamsky concluded, “This is what the Gemara means. The very fact that such joyous and fulfilled people exist is how they fill the world with peace!”

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Torah Without Yirah?

Rav Yechezkel Sarna, zt”l, had two brothers who learned in yeshivos where mussar wasn’t studied. When he visited one, he found that the bochurim got dressed up right after seder. Rav Yechezkel assumed they must be headed out to a simchah, but when he asked about it they answered, “Don’t be ridiculous—we’re dressing up to go out on the town!”

Upon visiting his other brother, Rav Yechezkel found everyone very somberly focused on lighting candles. This puzzled him greatly, so he asked for an explanation.

The bochurim were aghast as his ignorance. “Don’t you know that today is Herzl’s yahrtzeit?”

When Rav Wolbe, zt”l, told this story he remarked, “This is what happens in a yeshiva without mussar. In one we find boys drawn after gilui arayos and in the other avodah zarah! Not surprisingly, neither yeshiva exists today!”

Rav Wolbe continued, “A long time ago, the Ramchal, zt”l, traveled through Frankfurt and reported that there was a yeshiva filled with several hundred bochurim who learned very diligently, yet when he broached the subject of yiras shomayim, it was like they were made of dead wood. Is it any surprise that by the time Rav Hirsch, zt”l, became Rav of Frankfurt, there was a mere handful of religious families and this yeshiva had vanished without a trace? Without mussar, even one who diligently learns Gemara with Tosafos, prays intensely and keeps all the mitzvos, won’t have a clue about yiras shomayim!”

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Righteous Jewish Women

Women often show more fear of heaven than men as the following story illustrates.

Years ago, a “progressive” religious movement made great inroads into Lithuania. When it came to Brisk, it had a profound influence on the community and people began to feel that the time had come to make changes in the time-honored traditions of the town. Since such “innocent” changes had often led to breaches in the observance of halachah in other towns, the Brisker Rav, zt”l, saw the institution of any change as a threat to the religious integrity of the whole community. He therefore vehemently opposed the idea of a choir for the high holidays despite the fact that the parnassim of Brisk were very much in favor.

Well aware of the Brisker Rav’s opposition, the parnassim decided to circumvent him. They chose singers, planned at which points in the prayers the choir would sing, and even set up a platform. They planned to introduce the choir right in the middle of the Rosh Hashanah service without asking leave of the Rav. On the festival, when the parnassim signaled the group to take their places, the Brisker Rav immediately ordered them back to their seats. The group obliged, but as they turned to sit, the parnassim ordered them back on the platform.

As they ascended, the Rav again ordered them to their seats. The parnassim disregarded the Rav and again ordered the choir to take their places. After another few moments of this, the Rav finally turned to the women’s section for help.

He exclaimed, “Jewish daughters! These people are trying to destroy the Torah and you remain silent?”

The wives of the parnassim responded to his call, publicly derided their husbands for their behavior, and the parnassim gave up!

Cause and Effect

The Ramchal, zt”l, writes that every act makes an impression on the world as a whole. Even a very small motion registers in the upper worlds and has a resulting impact on all of creation. However, since no two people are the same, no two actions have the same effect. What this means practically is that while two people can be sitting together at the same table, speaking and eating and drinking, one of them can be having a profound impact on the entire world because his words and actions are suffused with sanctity, and the other’s more mundane acts barely register.

The gemara in Sukka 28, provides a striking example of this. While Rav Yonasan ben Uziel learned, every bird that flew overhead would be instantly vaporized. Although many thousands of others have learned with great intensity, they never achieved this particular level of producing a perceptible change in the world. What distinguished Rav Yonasan ben Uziel from the others? The profound illumination, the fire within him, burned so strongly that its effect could be seen in the world around him. There are endless levels in the realm of personal sanctity, ranging all the way from being a simple observant Jew all the way to a scholar who is also steeped in holiness. How much a person’s actions can spiritually affect the world at large depends on both the intention that he has in mind during the act, as well as his own personal degree of sanctity and connection to Hashem.

Rav Tzvi Hirsch of Zidichov, zt”l, spoke about this in relation to himself once. He said, “If a person is on the proper level, he can discern the effect of his actions on the world. Once, I went to shul wrapped in my tallis and tefillin intensely focused on the mitzvah and powerfully connected to Hashem. While walking, I heard a heavenly voice calling before me, ‘Efrayim is a dear child to Me.’ (Yirmiyahu 31:19)”

“But,” he continued, “The opposite is also true. That very day I took my pipe without thinking of Hashem and I heard, ‘Woe to him who rebels against his Master!’”

Monday, February 11, 2008

True Humility

The Nodah B’Yehudah, zt”l, would always pray neilah for the congregation in Prague every year on Yom Kippur despite the fact that he wasn’t an accomplished singer. In fact, it was well known that the gadol could barely carry a tune. Even so, in deference to the prevailing custom in Prague and at the insistence of the roshei hakahal, he faithfully led the neilah prayers from year to year.

One year, a certain poor man prayed in the great shul and heard the Nodah B’Yehudah sing the neilah service, and after Yom Kippur he went from door to door to collect. Instead of offering the regular pitch, however, he decided that he would capitalize on his natural gift of impersonation. While speaking to one baal habayis, he made a little routine out of mimicking the Rav’s characteristic nusach and saw that the man found him quite entertaining and proved willing to give him more money than usual. Since it had worked once, the beggar decided to try it again, and when this imitation was considered hilarious by all who heard it, he made it a part of his regular pitch.

When the roshei hakahal got wind of his disrespectful behavior they were furious and threatened to forbid the man from collecting charity.

The poor man ran to plead before the Rav, “Everyone knows how poor I am, and people are giving me so much more money now! I mean no offense to the Rav; I’m just trying to be entertaining so that people will open up their hearts and pockets a little.”

The Nodah B’Yehudah was completely unconcerned with his own honor. Not only did he allow the poor man to continue his antics, he even gave him a letter of approbation: “This man is free to support (l’chalkel) himself by imitating my m’chalkel!”

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Forty Days To Purim!

The Zohar HaKadosh teaches that there is no way to experience holiness without preparation.

In Breslov, we have a custom to begin our preparations for Purim forty days before the festival. What are the preparations? Crying out to G-d to be worthy of the great joy and light of Purim!

Many Breslovers sing the words of Reb Nosson to the tune of the higher chorus of "V'Nahafoch Hu":

"Hatzileini m'klippas Haman Amalek, v'zakeini l'kedushas Mordechai V'Esther!"
"Save me from the impure force of Haman/Amalek, and make me worthy of the holiness of Mordechai and Esther!"

A freilichen Purim!

Do Your Part, and Hashem Does the Rest!

Once, when the Chofetz Chayim zt”l was already infirm, he needed to travel to another town so his students were forced to carry him as they transferred from one train to the other. “How will we manage to carry his seat all the way to the stop in time to pick up the connecting train?” they worried.

Much to their surprise, they spotted their connection right across the tracks just as they pulled into the station! It had apparently gone astray, and wound up right where they needed it, just at the right time. The exit of their train was exactly opposite the entrance to their connection, and it was a simple matter of a few seconds’ walk to transfer the Chofetz Chayim to the car.

The conductor called out to them, “I’ve been driving this train for thirty years, and I’ve never made a mistake like this before!” When one of the students pointed out the “miracle” to his Rebbe, the Chofetz Chayim reacted unexpectedly. “Why are you so surprised? Don’t you know that when a person has pure intentions, Hashem helps him straight away?!”

Friday, February 8, 2008

Reversing Impurity

A certain baal teshuvah once came to Rav Aharon HaGadol of Karlin zt”l, and begged to be shown the path to true repentance, since he had been living a life steeped in sin.

Rav Aharon HaGadol took his time examining the man, and shook his head. “I’m sorry, my son, but the impurity that clings to you is too powerful. How can I give you a remedy? Go to the great Maggid of Mezritch—perhaps he will be able to do what I cannot.”

The tzaddik gave the baal teshuvah a brief note for the Maggid: “The bearer of this letter is defiled from top to toe, not a millimeter of his soul is undamaged, but he truly wants to come close to G-d.” He then sent the poor man on his way.

The journey from Karlin to Mezritch was long and arduous, and the man suffered from all the cold and privation that traveling on foot from White Russia to the Ukraine could put in his path. Eventually, he found his way to the holy Maggid, and gave him the note without saying a word.

The Maggid slowly raked him over with his piercing gaze, and then surprised him with a gentle smile. “You don’t look too bad to me. I’m sure that Rav Aharon wrote the truth when he saw you last…but your journey has already purified you more than you think!”

The Sanctity of Shabbos

Our Parshah discusses the constuction of the holy vessels of the Mishkan.
The Chida zt”l explains that although we have been bereft of the Beis Hamikdash and its vessels for so long, each vessel has a symbolic significance that applies to every Jew, at all times. The golden table represents our own table, and the work that we do in good faith to keep food on it. We should invite Torah scholars, and the poor, to share from what we have. The table also represents Shabbos, a taste of the world to come. The great light of Shabbos descends when we pray, and when we eat the Shabbos meals—each one uplifts us more. The table and the menorah must face one another. The menorah represents the Torah, and each of the seven candles represents the seven days of the week permeated with Torah and sanctity. Six of them lean inward, towards the seventh, the Shabbos, because keeping Shabbos is the source of all blessing, spiritual and material.

Once, while visiting a town close to Radin, the Chofetz Chyim zt”l summoned a certain Jew to him. This Jew owned a brick factory that also produced on Shabbos. He claimed that if he stopped the furnaces for Shabbos, he would lose two extra days of production in re-heating the furnace.

The Chofetz Chayim turned to this man and said, “I knew your late father. I attended his wedding and also your bris. As you can see, I am already a very old man and I will soon be seeing your father. He will surely ask me as to how you are doing. What shall I tell him?” The Chofetz Chayim broke down and started to shed bitter tears.

In a choked voice he continued. “Shall I tell him that you violate the holy Shabbos? How can I possibly cause him such pain?”

The factory owner began to sob miserably and promised to sell his business. But the Chofetz Chayim was not appeased. His tone turned suddenly stern. “Don’t put this off until tomorrow. Do it now! You may not have a tomorrow!”

Thursday, February 7, 2008

A Cry in the Dark

The Rebbe of Radoshitz, zt”l, liked to tell a story about true love of Hashem. Once, while he was staying at an inn while on a journey, he was awakened suddenly in the middle of the night. The Rebbe heard heart-rending moaning and sobbing, apparently emanating from the innkeeper’s own quarters. The man was so brokenhearted that his cries had reached the Rebbe’s room.

The Rebbe said to himself, “It must be that this innkeeper is actually a hidden tzaddik. Although there was nothing in the way he behaved when I met him earlier to indicate that he has it in him, it seems that the mourning of Tikkun Chatzos has so overtaken him that even I can hear his crying. I’ve never heard a more sincere recitation of the tefillah in my entire life!”

Just as the Rebbe was considering this new perspective on the innkeeper, the man’s loud moaning apparently woke up his wife. Her voice trembled with worry as she called to him, “Yankel, what’s the matter?”

Yankel’s response was a real eye-opener for the Rebbe.

The innkeeper sobbed, “Kugel, kugel, kugel! Why does it have to be kugel every single night? This heartburn is killing me!”

When telling the tale, the Rebbe of Radoshitz would end off by saying: “I had thought the innkeeper was a nistar in love with Hashem and yearning for redemption. Little had I realized that he was just in love with his stomach and yearning for a change in his evening menu!”

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Rope for the Oxen

"א"ר אסי יצה"ר בתחילה דומה לחוט של בוכיא ולבסוף דומה כעבותות העגלה."

On Sukkah 52 we find a number of descriptions relating to the evil inclination. Rav Asi says, “The evil inclination first appears as fragile as a gossamer thread, but in the end it is like a rope used to harness oxen.” Rav Shalom Shwardron, zt”l, illustrated this statement with his own experience:

“Once, on my way to Eretz Yisrael via ship, we passed the famous port of Venice. I had heard reports of the Italian city’s breathtaking beauty and apparently so had my fellow passengers, because as soon as we were in sight of the port everyone congregated on the deck so they could get the best view. I also slowly made my way to the deck to see if there was truth to what people say, but when I got a clear view of the city it did not appear beautiful at all. Quite the contrary, it was full of steeples with crucifixes and this disgusted me to no end.

“On another journey, we once again passed Venice and a similar thing occurred. But this second time I found the vision of the port tolerable, although not especially lovely. But on a third such occasion, I was so dazzled that I begged to borrow a telescope from a fellow passenger so that I could get a better view. Just then, I caught myself and remembered a teaching I had heard from the Rebbe Rav Leib, zt”l, and the Brisker Rov, zt”l. They said that if we succumb to the temptations of the yetzer hara, we gradually relinquish control over ourselves. Ultimately, the yetzer hara becomes the master of the house.

Rav Shalom concluded, “This is the meaning of our gemara. The tzaddikim are well aware that the evil inclination starts small, with challenges as tenuous as a spider’s web. Succumbing may not seem serious in the short term, but ultimately the yetzer takes over and binds a person to be its beast of burden, like an ox under the harness. Then what used to seem repulsive will appear to be beguilingly beautiful!”

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Burning Rage

"דאמר רב חסדא ברותחין קלקלו וברותחין נידונו..."

On Rosh Hashanah 12, there is a discussion about the punishment that was meted out to the generation of the flood. Rav Chisdah said: “They inflamed themselves to sin, so their retribution was exacted through the heat of scalding waters.” The manifestation of their bad middah itself is what came to punish them in the end.

Once, in a certain small town, there lived a man who was known to get infuriated over every little thing. When he would get angry, he would literally thrash his arms and stamp his feet, and his whole body just screamed “fury.” Everyone in town called him “Angry Zalman.”

When this man got old, he grew very ill. People summoned the town doctor, and after he examined Zalman, he announced that his patient had only a few more hours to live. The man’s family members ran to call the members of the chevrah kadishah, so that they should attend to him during his final moments.

The news soon passed from person to person around the town. Hearing this, the children decided to enjoy a cruel joke. Since they knew how volatile Zalman was, they wanted to see how he would act on his deathbed. They went and climbed up the latticework of his home so that they could get a good, clear, view into his room through the window.

There he lay on his deathbed, with no other thought than that he was about to leave this world. Surrounded by his family and the chevrah kadishah, about to say viduy and kriyas Shema for the very last time, he suddenly spotted the children clinging to the window frame and staring in at him.

Completely unable to contain his fury, Zalman began to scream at the children to come down from the window. Using his very last ounce of strength, Zalman died shrieking and flailing his arms and legs, just as he had over every minor incident throughout his long life.

Rav Shalom Shwardron, zt”l, would end this story by saying, “This is what happens to a person who doesn’t refine his middos. Whatever bad trait besets him the most is the one that comes back to haunt him in the end!”

Monday, February 4, 2008

Hashem Cries over Three…

"...על שלשה הקב"ה בוכה בכל יום..."

Once, the Ahavas Shalom, zt”l, came to visit at the home of his wealthy uncle in Kolomaya. To his distress, he noticed that this uncle didn’t give charity as a man of his means ought. At the same time, the man did learn Torah with tremendous diligence.

The Ahavas Shalom approached his host one day and said, “In Chagigah 5b we find that Hashem cries over three people: one who can learn but fails to, one who can’t learn and does, and a leader who lords it over the community. The well known question is, why does He cry for one who cannot learn but does anyway? What is this person doing wrong?

The Ahavas Shalom mused, “One possible answer is that each person comes to this world to correct his flaws. A person who has no assets and can learn is apparently here to learn and teach Torah. One who has great assets but has difficulty learning is primarily here to give charity. One who has the capacity to learn and also has a lot of money is here to do both. For such a person, one with out the other is simply not enough. If such a person learns and thinks that this absolves him of his obligation to give tzedakah, he is tragically mistaken. Hashem cries over the fate of that man! Unless he changes his ways, this person will not do what he needs to in this lifetime and will be forced to return again to this world to rectify his neshamah. We see something similar from the fact that Daniel told Nevuchadnezzar that his sins would only be absolved through charity.

The Ahavas Shalom then turned to his uncle and proclaimed, “Don’t you understand? For a man of your means, learning alone is simply insufficient!”

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Hidden Agendas

Subconscious motives are very subtle and hard to detect. Even people on the highest level can be subject to them as the following story illustrates.

Shavuos with Rav Issur Zalman Meltzer, zt”l, was extraordinary in every way. The learning was fervently intense, as was the davening and the joy of Yom Tov itself. The divrey Torah at the meals were profound and heartfelt. It was an experience that many bochurim would not forgo for any price! One year during the middle of Shavuos-night learning, the bochurim were dancing and cake and coffee were being served as is customary. At this point, the Alter of Slabodka, zt”l, arrived at the Yeshiva.

He said to them in his penetrating way, “You may not realize this, but you really need to make a deep cheshbon hanefesh why you are here awake at this late hour. It is just possible that while you think your motives are pure and you are up because you want closeness to Hashem, your main reason is just to enjoy the refreshments! If so, this obviously is not related to the fact that Hashem gave us the Torah on this most holy day!”

Rav Issur Zalman exclaimed, “How can you even say that someone might be here for the refreshments and not the learning?”

The Alter removed a Moed Katan from the shelf and turned to page 20b.

He read, “Mar Ukva wanted to observe the laws of mourning over his brother-in-law. Rav Huna said to him, ‘You really want to eat tsudanaysa.’ Rashi explains that this is the meal served to the mourner.”

The Alter concluded, “So we see that one can even be willing to assume the laws of mourning and his main motivation could still be the good food!”

Friday, February 1, 2008

Shalom, Shalom!

" שאלו תלמידיו את רבי זירא ואמרי לה לרב אדא בר אהבה במה הארכת ימים אמר להם מימי לא הקפדתי בתוך ביתי..."

On Taanis 20 find that when Rav Ada bar Ahava was asked in what merit he had been blessed with such incredible longevity, he answered, “In my entire life, I never got angry at home.” Home doesn’t necessarily only mean at home, but with his wife in particular. As Rabi Yosi said, “I never called my wife, my wife, but rather my home.” (Shabbos 118b)

It once came to the notice of Rav Rafael of Barashad, zt”l, that his wife was spending beyond their means. People approached him and said that their income was not sufficient to cover her somewhat extravagant purchases on behalf of the household, and that he ought to take the matter in hand. Knowing that he had no choice but to confront her about it, he went home.

When Rav Rafael arrived, his wife was dutifully awaiting him. Instead of entering the house as he normally would, he immediately walked in and sat down on a bench. He said feelingly, “Dear heart! My crown! Shalom, Shalom, Shalom!”

His wife was somewhat perplexed by this effusive greeting, and waited to hear what else Rav Rafael had to say.

He continued in a gentle voice, with a smile on his face, “I’ve heard that you have been spending a lot of money, more money that we really have. Now, the Shelah HaKadosh says clearly that a single argument drives away a hundred livelihoods. So could it be that the solution is to have a fight with you over this? Will it make the problem go away? Quite the contrary! That’s why I say: Shalom, Shalom Shalom! Peace, peace, peace!”