Monday, March 31, 2008

Pay Attention!

What is the significance of the exclusion of any cooking method for the korban Pesach other than dry roasting ? According to the Chid”a zt”l, the korban represents our inborn character traits, and the Maharal zt”l tells us that fire symbolizes the blazing light and energy of the intellect that is completely distinct from the material nature of the body. Not only is the mind distinct from the body, it is its very opposite—like fire, it consumes the material that it touches.

Roasting the korban Pesach directly over the flames signifies that when the fire of the mind is applied to each of our middos, we can discern precisely how, when, and to what extent it is to be utilized. This process goes against the natural human tendency to coast along passively manipulated by our middos. When we choose, instead, to pay attention and apply the mind’s fire to alter our course, we become worthy of cleaving to the ultimate intellect, Hashem, who is called “…a consuming fire.” (Devarim 4:24)

Rav Shach zt”l told the following true story:

In a certain shtetl, a shop that sold treife meat was unfortunately owned by Jews. The proprietors approached the Rav of the town and had the temerity to ask for…a hechsher! The Rav was flabbergasted. “How can I possibly give you a hechsher, when you sell nonkosher meat?!”

The owners glibly replied, “That’s our point—you should give us a letter that clearly states that we sell treife meat, and our shop is completely nonkosher.”

The Rav could not see the purpose of such a letter, but acquiesced. He handed them what they asked for, signed and sealed by him.

The storeowners framed the document and hung it on the wall behind the register, right near the entrance. Everyone saw the name and seal of the Rav up on the wall, and people flocked to the store to buy meat—no one bothered to read the fine print!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Imminence of Hashem

In Pesachim 88 we find that the Beis Hamikdash is not attributed to Avrohom since he called the place a mountain and not to Yizchak because he called it a field. It is only attributed to Yaacov who called it a house.

Why should the fact that Avrohom or Yitzchok Avinu referred to the Beis Hamikdash as a mountain or a field keep us from calling it after their names as well? The Mei HaShiloach zt”l explains that “mountain” and “field” allude to how much each of them revealed Hashem in the world.

Before Avrohom Avinu, virtually the entire world served idolatry, but he stood out in his beliefs like a mountain. He spent the better part of his life sharing knowledge of Hashem’s Oneness with everyone he met, a revolutionary concept for the people of his time that distinguished him from his contemporaries, and set him high above them like a mountain.

By the time Yitzchok Avinu came to adulthood, the work of revealing the existence of Hashem had already been done by his father. He focused, instead, on revealing Hashem’s Presence in the world. He taught the people of his time that the world is like a field that yields its fruit when it is worked. If we search, Hashem’s presence can be felt anywhere.

Yaakov Avinu took the message of his forefathers and brought it to a new level by teaching that Hashem is everywhere. Regardless of what we do or do not do, Hashem fills the entire universe, and this is the spiritual root of the Beis Hamikdash—“The whole world is filled with His glory.” The Ramban zt”l teaches that this is the underlying concept of yetzias MitzrayimHashem orchestrates all events, even the most apparently mundane or trivial ones, and open miracles merely “part the curtain” so that this crucial point is driven home to us.

A Chossid once approached the Chiddushei HaRim zt”l when the tzaddik was a young child, pulled out a gold piece, and made the child an offer:

“I’ll give you this coin if you can tell me exactly where Hashem is,” the man said with a smile.

The young prodigy’s response came quick as lightning. “And I’ll give you two of them if you can tell me where He isn’t!”

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Bris of Pesach

O nly two positive mitzvos bear
the penalty of kareis if they are neglected:
the eating of the Korban
Pesach and bris milah. The Sfas
Emes explains that this punishment
is a direct consequence. Since
the Korban Pesach and the milah
are the two main wellsprings of
vitality within a person, anyone
who cuts himself off from them
remains detached from spiritual
life – he suffers kareis. According
to Rav Hirsch, zt”l, the root of the
word bris is “barah,” or the rejuvenation
that comes from nourishment.
Milah represents purity of
the body, and its life-force is expressed
when it serves as the channel
for fresh Jewish souls to come
down to this world. Similarly, pure
speech has the power to infuse us
with new life and enthusiasm, or
Korban Pesach rectifies the
bris halashon in a number of ways.
It is the “peh sach" the mouth opened
to tell the story of the miracles of
yetzias Mitzrayim the night it is
offered, and the gateway through
which it enters into the body is the
same door through which words
emerge. One cannot attain the
spiritual renewal of the Korban
Pesach until the body is purified,
therefore any Korban Pesach
slaughtered on behalf of the areilim, uncircumsized men,  
alone is automatically disqualified—
and this is just one sign of
the greatness of bris milah.
The Brisker Rav, zt”l, once
served as sandek at the bris, that of
a new member of the family, which
was held in his home. Afterward
the mohel approached Rav Yitzchok
Zev and exclaimed, “Boruch
Hashem, we were privileged to
make a bris. And what a bris!”
He meant to convey his joy
in the Brisker Rav’s presence, but
Rav Soleveitchik gently upbraided
him. “What is the sense of saying,
‘What a bris’?! What could be
more momentous than the bris itself—
over which thirteen covenants
were sealed? You could compare
this to a simple and desperately
poor teacher who says, ‘If I
had the wealth of Rothschild, I
would be wealthier than him!
How? Well, I would have all his
money, plus what I make as a
Rebbi!’ People would consider
such a man a complete fool. The
value of a bris is inestimable—how
could one possibly add to its worth
just because it happened to take
place in the home of a melamed
like the Brisker Rav?”

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Parshas Parah: The Mystery of the Red Heifer

The Likutei Halachos zt”l brings the Medrash about the red heifer, “Let the mother come and clean up after her child.” The child of the heifer is the golden calf, the paradigm of willful sin, and the cleansing from the impurity of death symbolizes the internal cleansing of teshuvah. This is achieved by focusing on our good points and returning to our real identity, which makes the negative fall aside. Just as the red heifer is completely unblemished, the good within us is absolutely unsoiled by whatever bad we may have done.

But this focusing on the good is double-edged; like the ashes of the heifer, it can defile the pure even as it purifies the impure. Seeking out our own good points is appropriate for when we are feeling discouraged and far from Hashem, because it ensures that we won’t fall completely. However, when we are in a good state, such a focus can easily lead to arrogance. Knowing when to focus on the good in ourselves and when to focus on how far we have to go is a great challenge. Perhaps this is what Shlomo Hamelech referred to when he said that although he had tried to understand it, the mystery of the red heifer remained, “far from me.”

One Motzei Shabbos, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt”l spoke in his Yeshivah, the famous Yeshivas Etz Chaim. When they heard his moving words, his listeners could not help but cry along with him.

“When a Sefer Torah is found to be pasul, the law is that we put a belt on its outside so that everyone will know that it invalid. This will keep people from reading from it, because to do so would be a sin.”

At this point the Rav himself burst into tears. “Since this is the case, who knows how many belts I need to bind around myself, so that people will know that I am pasul? How will they otherwise be warned away from learning from me?!”

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Loving Kindness

We find in the Avos d’Rav Noson that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai was once leaving Yerushalayim, followed by Rabbi Yehoshua. When Rabbi Yehoshua caught a glimpse of the destroyed Beis Hamikdash he exclaimed, “Woe to us that the place that atoned for the sins of Israel has been laid to waste!”

Rav Yochanan ben Zakai responded, “Do not be too distressed, for we still have one act that atones as the Beis HaMikdash once did: chessed.

Once, a certain chossid came to Rav Chaim of Sanz zt”l and lamented that he lacked the money to cover his daughter’s dowry. The Rav sent him to a wealthy and learned follower with a written request to help the poor man raise the sum.

When the poor chossid presented the letter, the wealthy scholar demurred. “I don’t have the time, I’m too busy learning!”

A few months later, this man came to Sanz but the Rav didn’t shake his hand. When it was time for him to take his leave, the Rav said, “We find that when Yaakov struggled with a “man,” it was the angel of Eisav. But when it says that a “man” found Yosef, it was the angel Gavriel. How did Chazal know which “man” was which? When a “man” comes to show Yosef the way when he was lost, he’s a holy angel. But when a “man” refuses to give Yaakov a blessing because he is in a rush to sing shirah, he’s an angel of Eisav! Chessed, you do at all times!”

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

“…And Walk Humbly With Hashem, Your G-d”

Rebbe Shlomo of Zvil zt”l decided to abandon his exalted position and ascend to the Holy Land, taking with him only his grandson, Reb Mordche’le. The town was aghast when they heard that their leader was leaving them, and accompanied them as far along the way as possible. As soon as the two alighted the ship, the Rebbe turned to his grandson and said, “Now we can toss our tzetele of Rabbanus into the ocean!” He had decided long before that when he arrived in Eretz Yisroel, he would assume the identity of a simple Jew.

For three years, he lived in terrible poverty, and learned with incredible diligence in a small corner of the Chayei Olam Yeshivah. The people of Jerusalem knew him only as a man from Zvil, quiet and studious, steeped in kedushah.

During that time, Rav Yosef Chayim Zonnenfeld zt”l received a sum of money earmarked for the “Admor of Zvil”; but since no one in Jerusalem answered to that name, he kept the money in trust.

One day, a tourist from Zvil turned up in the Chayei Olam Yeshivah and noticed the masmid off in the corner. “Who is that man over there?” he asked.

“Oh, just a Jew from Zvil.”

“From Zvil, you say?” the visitor wondered. Drawing closer, he saw that the man’s face seemed familiar somehow. Wait, he looked just like…the Rebbe of Zvil!

“But this is the Rebbe of Zvil!” he cried. The rest of the yeshivah was shocked to find that stranger learning quietly among them for three years was the famous Admor himself!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Thirty Days Before Pesach

On Rosh Hashanah 7 there is an extensive discussion about the calculation of leap years. One of the opinions presented is that the decision to declare a leap year can only be made until Purim because of a basic fact of Jewish life. Since the laws of Pesach are publicly taught during the thirty days that precede the festival, people would not accept the deferment of the holiday after having already spent time in intensive preparation. Even now, the thirty days just before Pesach is a period that presents unique challenges for both the ba’al habayis readying his home for the festival, as well as the Rav responsible for making sure that his community knows the appropriate halachos.

One year, well in advance of Pesach, the Rav of a large city came to visit with the renowned Tiferes Shlomo of Radomsk, zt”l. He had come to receive a brochah from the great tzaddik.

Rebbe,” he said, “Please bless me so that I won’t stumble in any of the halachic rulings that I am going to have to make regarding Pesach. So many people come to me with difficult questions about chometz, and I am so in need of siyatta d’shemaya!”

The Radomsker Rebbe answered his visitor, “The greatest possible segulah for success in your rulings is to review all of the relevant halachos very, very thoroughly. As you well know, we begin our real study of the laws of Pesach from thirty days before the festival. If you’ll follow the words of Chazal and delve into the halachah as you should, you will merit to receive all of the siyatta d’shemaya that you need!”

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Importance of Zerizus

In the beis medrash of Rav Yitzchak Molcho, zt”l, in Solonika, learned two masmidim. One was a huge genius with an incredibly penetrating mind, but he was known to be quite attached to his creature comforts and was slow to extend himself for a mitzva. The second scholar was not blessed with the first’s acumen by any means, but he was known for his alacrity and joy in performing mitzvos as soon as the opportunity arose.

Whenever the more accomplished scholar would share his chidushim with Rav Yitzchak, the Rav would also compliment him highly. However, when the other scholar would enter the beis medrash, Rav Molcho would go further and rise as a show of respect. This irritated the first scholar to no end. Although Rav Yitzchak was not obligated to stand for either of them because his scholarship surpassed them both, there was no doubt that the first talmid chacham was far more accomplished than second. One day, the sharper man decided to take this up with the Rav.

Rav Molcho explained, “The other man’s deeds exceed his knowledge, but his zerizus proves that all of his learning is done for the sake of heaven! This is a person whose study is most worthy of my respect. Your lax attitude shows that you lack love of Hashem. If you would only internalize your learning, you would feel a powerful love of Hashem. The natural outgrowth of such love is zeal to do His will!”

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Spirit of the Law: Ta'anis Ester

2) On the thirteenth of Adar the Jews gathered together to defend their lives…Yisrael accepted this day as a fast day…

The Magid Meisharim told the Beis Yosef, zt"l one reason why we fast before Purim, "…to inoculate from the natural pitfalls of indulging in rich food and alcohol. [Fasting] prevents one from sin often caused by abundant food and drink and levity.”

The Tsefanas Paneach adds that the fast subdues the Amalek within and we have a chance to fulfill in a holy manner the halacha to get so drunk on Purim that we will not know the difference between Arur Haman and Baruch Mordehai.

The Liutey Halachos states that fasting can bring us to feel holy embarrassment which is the prerequisite of holy humility and drawing powerful vitality into one’s day. This holy bashfulness enables one to internalize that all food is from Hashem and undeserved. How can one consume more food than required? Doesn’t one realize that the entire strength of the yetzer hara stems from overeating?

The Two Merry-Makers

What is the merry making on Purim all about anyway?

Perhaps one answer is contained in the following story:

On ta’anis 23 we find that Rabi Beroka Choza’ah was once in the market of Bei Lefet when he met Eliyahu Hanavi. He asked Eliyahu Hanavi, “Are there any bnei Olam Habah in this marketplace?”

Eliyahu Hanavi answered, “No.” Just then, two people arrived, and Eliyahu Hanavi changed his answer. Indicating the newcomers, he declared, “These two are bnei Olam Habah.”

Rabi Beroka Choza’ah asked the two men what they do and they responded that they are merry-makers who cheer people up. “And when we see two people fighting, we make peace between them,” they said.

Someone once asked the Vilna Gaon, zt”l, a question about this aggadata. “What is so significant about cheering people up and making peace between people when there is conflict? They seem to be relatively minor accomplishments. Why should they earn these men the title of bnei Olam Habah, indicating that they deserve the greatest reward possible? People work hard to get to this level, toiling for years! Only the greatest bnei aliyah reach this awesome level. What really put the two jesters of Bei Lefet in this category?”

The Vilna Gaon responded, “This is not simply a case where their joking and jesting brought them to such a lofty level. These two had already achieved a very high level of emunah and bitachon, and it was this that caused them to feel happy at all times, no matter what the circumstances might be. They were so filled with faith in Hashem Yisborach that they literally felt no worries whatsoever. It was this quality that made them so joyful that their happiness was contagious. Their bitachon was so palpable that they could even uplift the hearts of people whose worries were rooted in a lack of trust in Hashem!”

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Absolute Separation

The Rambam zt”l writes that the mezuzah is meant to remind us of G-d’s Oneness so that we can shake off our immersion in the things of this transient world. The thought that nothing lasts forever but the knowledge of Hashem can restore us to right thinking and the proper path. But only the chosen nation, imbued by G-d with a powerful desire to focus on eternity, is so affected by the mezuzah. The Maharal zt”l explains that the mezuzah serves to separate the Jewish home from a non-Jewish one right at the doorpost, the line of demarcation between the home and the outside world. The Jewish people embody the purpose of creation—this is why we alone are called His “children,” and we are compared to fire. The non-Jews, on the other hands, are compared to water. And as we all know, fire will always succumb to water…unless an impenetrable barrier separates them. If one does, then the fire overpowers the water!

Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa zt”l once rented a wagon to take him to Warsaw. Although the shamash asked for an exact address, the Rebbe just waved the driver on and wouldn’t provide one. Suddenly, the Rebbe ordered them to stop and park outside, while he climbed out and entered a seedy-looking inn. Inside, he saw two Jews in conversation.

The first said, “I didn’t quite understand why we find in our parsha that, ‘they made a covenant, the two of them.’ (Bereishis 21:27) How could Avraham Avinu make a covenant with a gentile?”

His friend retorted, “I also had a question. Why doesn’t it just say, ‘they made a covenant?’ ‘The two of them,’ seems superfluous! But your question has answered both mine and yours. The verse means that although they made an agreement, they were still ‘the two of them’—totally separate. They may have made a peace treaty, but Avraham Avinu still kept his distance!”

The Rebbe turned right around and left the inn, saying, “The only reason I came was to hear those words!”

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Planting of Joy

The Chiddushei HaRim, zt”l, said, “In megillah 5a we find that Rebbi planted a seedling of joy on Purim. This hints that on Purim one has the ability to plant in his heart joy in Hashem. And just as a plant sprouts and flourishes, so too should one’s joy take root and flourish. We should become happier people after each Purim!”

A chassid once asked Rav Aharon Aryeh of Premishlan, zt”l, “The Chessed L’Avraham, zt”l, writes that between Purim and Pesach, we are each taken out of our personal forty-nine gates of impurity a little at a time. What can I do so that I will be able to feel this happening and change?”

The Rav responded, “The days between Purim and Pesach are powerful purifiers of the soul. It is only after we experience the holiness of Purim and the days between the two festivals that we are able to fulfill the wondrous duties of Pesach. You must think of yourself as a sick person whose convalescence progresses in stages. First, the doctor finds a way to strengthen the patient’s constitution so that he can bear the medications and get treated. After treatment and as soon as the patient is already better, he must take care not to have a relapse. This is exactly how it is on a spiritual plane.”

Rav Aharon Aryeh continued, “It is well known that joy can heal a person of all ills, but this too comes in stages. First, one plants the seed of healing with his great joy on Purim. This germinates during the days of preparation for Pesach—a hectic period that provides ample opportunity for spiritual growth provided that we hold on to our joy. Finally, we make it to the Seder night, the culmination of this great time. With great joy, we fulfill all the lofty mitzvos of the Seder, and this way we conclude the process of healing that began on Purim. Afterward, we immediately start to count the omer to ensure that we don’t have a relapse! Focus your mind on this, and you will surely see yourself emerging from your own forty-nine levels of impurity and entering into the gates of holiness!”

Monday, March 17, 2008

Missed Opportunities

Once, during a bitter Lithuanian winter, a yeshiva student approached a certain wealthy man. “Reb Yid, my shoes are torn and I have no money to buy new ones. Are you willing to loan me the money to buy a new pair?” he asked.

The wealthy man blandly responded, “I certainly could, but I don’t think it would be a kindness.” Warming to his subject, he began to lecture the young man. “You are suffering only because you don’t work, so I’d like to make you an offer instead. Come work for me in my factory! Why should you continue to study when it has brought you so low that you cannot even afford a pair of shoes? What will you do when you get married? How will you support your children? Take my advice and learn a trade. Anyway, it’s not likely that you will become a gadol b’Torah. Those who grow to greatness usually have the support of wealthy parents or in-laws so that they can learn undisturbed. Why should you waste your time?”

“I wasn’t asking you for advice!” retorted the young masmid. “I just asked for a loan. If you want to give it to me, I will purchase shoes and return to learning. If not, I will find a different solution or go back to learning without shoes!”

The wealthy man refused, and the young man went on his way.

Many years later, the Posek HaDor, Rav Yitzchak Elchonon Spector, zt”l, decided to print his groundbreaking chiddushim. Contributing to the project was considered a great zechus, and a certain wealthy man offered his assistance to the Rav.

The man said, “It would be a privilege to provide as much money as necessary to print your work!”

Rav Yitzchak Elchonon replied, “You may not remember me, but I once asked you for a loan to buy shoes. You refused and advised me to give up learning. You had your chance—now it is too late. I will not take your money!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Spirit of the Law: Matanos L'evyonim

Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, 143: 3

“On Purim every person must give at least one gift to two paupers...”

Misuse of the imagination can cause a person to have delusions of grandeur about his spiritual level. Rav Nosson of Breslov, zt”l, writes that matanos l’evyonim helps a person overcome these delusions that prevent him from feeling close to Hashem. When we give tzedakah to help another Jew, we are freed of the bondage of self-absorption and become open to dveikus. As the verse states, “Through tzedakah, I will gaze upon Your presence.” Many sources explain this literally. Even if one’s spiritual preparation is minimal, the act of giving tzedakah alone enables true dveikus, true connection with Hashem. This is especially true on Purim.

One of the worst defilements is the lust for money. Even someone on a high spiritual level who is unable to give tzedakah is distant from Hashem. As Rabbeinu Tam writes in Sefer Hayashar: “The hardest characteristic to change is miserliness.”

Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l once quoted a letter of Rav Yisrael Salanter zt”l that mentioned a well-known idea. Although it is possible to serve Hashem on a high level without learning Mussar, it is completely impossible to transform the negative inside ourselves without it. This is like trying to see without an eye, or trying to hear without an ear. Rav Wolbe then explained how this could be. The person hasn’t changed his mental outlook about the important issues in life. For example, it is possible to be a great servant of Hashem who has learned a lot of Torah, and the main thing in this person’s life is still money!

Rav Eliyahu Lopian zt”l, told about a certain prominent person from his hometown who was an excellent man except for a single failing: his desire for money was limitless. It was literally an act of self-sacrifice for him to contribute even the smallest amount for any cause at all. It was almost as if he became mentally ill about this matter.

On his deathbed, this miser whispered urgently to his friends and family at the bedside: “Learn a lesson from me! Even though I can feel that my life is slipping away, I am still a slave to my flaws. If one of you were to offer me a handful of coins, I would grab them and hide them beneath my pillow!” A short time later, the man expired. This is the lust that can take a person right out of the world. May we merit to uproot our self-absorption through giving generously to our fellow Jews!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Be Yourself

. Everything in one’s “domain,” inside oneself, is ready to be used for the service of Hashem. If one wishes, he can connect to Hashem through the faculties that he has been given. “שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד”—“I have placed Hashem before me always,” at all times, just as I am.

Rav Naftali Amsterdam, zt”l, once asked his mentor, Rav Yisroel Salanter, zt”l, a question close to his heart; one with which many might readily identify.

He asked, “How am I to serve Hashem with every action? If only I had the mind of the Sha’agas Aryeh, the heart of the Yesod V’shoresh Ha’avodah, and the sterling middos of my rebbi! Then I would be able to serve Hashem with everything, just as a true servant of Hashem should!”

“Naftali,” Rav Yisroel gently chided, “You can be a true servant of Hashem with your head and with your heart and with your character!”

When telling over this story, Rav Yerucham Levovitz, zt”l, would add: “Just as Hashem’s Presence rested in the Beis Hamikdash, so too does the Shechinah dwell within all who prepare themselves by bringing themselves closer to the Torah. It rests upon one’s own head, heart, and middos. We find this idea in the medrash that implies that Hashem enters us in much the same way as a great king can enter a small apartment if he so desires. Obviously, a humble abode must be prepared for the King as much as possible! One of the main innovations of the mussar movement was how to do this preparation. The first step is knowing that all of one’s avodah is directed toward himself, personally, and is his own responsibilty. One must not wear ‘borrowed clothes’—extra stringencies and exaggerated piety that is not in tune with one’s own true nature and level. Every element necessary for completion is in each and every one of us! We only need to seek them out!”

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Stop Terror!

During 1978 in Bayit Vegan, six young bnei Torah were cut down in the prime of their lives. Just last week, the murderers killed another 8 in yeshivah, Hashem yikom damam.

Here are Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro’s[1] highly relevant words from that poignant time:

“We struggle for our lives. The enemy within our midst secretly plots murder and destruction and great danger is palpable before our eyes. Why don’t people make time to gather together in public prayers for Klal Yisrael? Shouldn’t we pray to prevent another calamity?[2]

“There are two possible reasons for this. Either because dead flesh can not feel a knife’s cut or people lack emunah that prayer is the address to our salvation. Rabeinu Yonah writes, ‘one should pray every day that the sick recover, the healthy not take ill, and that Hashem protect us from all harm... Above all [one should pray to Hashem that he] protect the remnant of Torah and avenge those who harm them, quickly in our days. In addition we should pray that the Holy Nation does complete teshuvah.[3]

This is the avodah of bnei hayeshivah, to join in the pain of klal Yisrael. Who can bear to hear the terrible tidings of young pure bnei Torah who died such horrible deaths? We were set for a joyous Shabbos and suddenly this? Hashem yirachem.

Rav Chaim Voluzhiner, zt”l, felt another’s pain as much as his own. He would often shed bitter tears for another’s distress. He once rebuked his son, Rav Itzeleh, zt"l, who didn’t take people’s suffering to heart as much, ‘We were not created to complete ourselves, only to join in another’s pain.[4]

“It is well known that Rav Itzeleh, served the Jewish people at great personal risk. He prepared tachrichim and a fur coat before each of many meetings with the anti-Semitic Czar. Tachrichim in case he was murdered and a fur coat in case he was exiled to Siberia.

Nevertheless, only complete commiseration with another would satisfy Rav Chaim.”

During World War I, the Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, slept on the floor or a bench in the kitchen, with only his hands for a pillow. When his household asked him why, he replied, “In a time when Jewish sacrifices fall on the battlefields and our people freeze and starve every day, you expect me to sleep in a comfortable bed with a pillow and cover?![5]

Hashem should help us feel the pain and beg for salvation. Remember: every tefillah counts!

[1] Rosh Yeshivah of Be’er Ya’acov.

[2] See Shabbos, 32a.

[3] End of Sefer Hayirah.

[4] Introduction to Nefesh Hachaim.

[5] This last story brought in Mizahav Sh’vah, Shemos, 2:11.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Divorce in Preparation for War

After the Holocaust, many of the survivors in the DP camps were terribly broken and some fell away from Jewish observance altogether. Others held fast, however, and one group of survivors decided to make a minyan for the first yomim noraim after liberation. Among them was one survivor who, since the war had ended, never wasted a second from his learning. Understandably, the minyan requested that this man share some inspiring words of chizuk but the masmid refused. Rosh Hashanah and the intervening days of repentance passed, and Yom Kippur arrived. After the davening on Yom Kippur night, the minyan again begged the masmid to say a few words. This time, he acquiesced.

Chazal say that the evil inclination is called our enemy since he is always trying different strategies to cause us to fall into gehinnom. The yetzer hara has many methods to overcome us. Sometimes he uses money; by chasing money or some other worldly need, one can lose a lot of valuable zechuyos. A person might forgo davening with a minyan, he might be tempted to take interest, or steal, or cheat, or even violate the holy Shabbos!

The masmid continued, “But at times we all want to improve. During the times that we feel inspired, the yetzer hara uses his strongest tactic of all. He tells us to start tomorrow! The Gemara in Kesuvos 9b states that the custom was for Jewish soldiers to give their wives a writ of divorce before going into battle. The Kotzker Rebbe, zt”l, taught a powerful lesson based on this idea to help us win the war against the evil inclination. The soldiers didn’t only give their wives a get in anticipation of dying in battle and possibly rendering them agunos. It was also because we fear that a mental connection with the sweetness of marriage might distract the soldier from his task at hand. Likewise, we too must sever all emotional connection to distracting and damaging behaviors before we will be able to defeat the yetzer. How do we do this? By resolving to change, not tomorrow, but today!”

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Loving Rebuke

All those who attained Torah greatness and true piety had a deep love of hearing the truth of their failings—they were “oheiv es ha’tochachos,” they loved to be chastened and brought back to the right path.

Rav Yeruchem Levovitz zt”l returned to Slabodka to visit with his first Rebbi, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l, only to be reprimanded by the Alter about his approach with his students, with which he disagreed. Rav Yechezkel Sarna zt”l was a young student at the time, and was witness to part of this sharp dressing-down, one that lasted many hours. Although Rav Yeruchem listened patiently and did not even try to defend himself, Rav Yechezkel was sure that after being upbraided so forcefully, the distinguished visitor would be out of Slabodka at the soonest opportunity.

Much to his surprise, Rav Yeruchem appeared before the Alter the following day, and again sat through hours of lecturing, but this time the criticism was even sharper! The only observable difference was that Rav Yeruchem asked the Alter questions to elicit further clarification. Once again, Rav Yechezkel was sure that Rav Yeruchem would be out on the next train, but was again surprised to see him the following day. This went on for a full week—Rav Yeruchem was literally moseir nefesh to hear his own shortcomings!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Appreciating One’s Wife

One without a wife has no Torah or joy…True Gedolim appreciate their wives and respect them. As the Rambam, zt”l, writes, one should honor his wife more than he honors himself!

The Rosh Yeshiva of Be’er Yaakov, Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapira, zt”l, always treated his wife with the greatest respect. On Shabbos, she would sit at the opposite end of the table. Whenever he would make hamotzi, he would get up himself to bring the challah to his Rebbetzin, and always with the same shining smile. He explained once to his students that he didn’t want to simply pass her the piece since she would feel more comfortable getting it from him directly.

Once, the Rav and the Rebbetzin were slated to travel to a wedding. When the student who was giving them a ride arrived, he found the Rosh Yeshiva (who was already in his seventies) ready and waiting. The Rebbetzin apologized for the delay and asked if it was possible for the Rosh Yeshiva to wait a few minutes until she was ready. The Rosh Yeshiva responded, “Rebbetzin! As long as you are not yet ready, we aren’t waiting because we are ready to go and you are delaying us. Quite the contrary! Until you are ready, the time to go has not yet arrived!”

One time, a close disciple, Rav Yisrael Meir Kohein Arzi, shlit”a, was with the Rosh Yeshiva at home just before it was time to go to pray Ma’ariv in the Yeshiva. The Rosh Yeshiva said to Rav Arzi, “Come let me show you how one should treat his wife.” He entered the kitchen and told the Rebbetzin, “I am going to Ma’ariv now and will be back right after the davening.”

When Rav Arzi asked what the Rosh Yeshiva had meant to teach him, Rav Shapira explained, “When you leave your house, it is not enough to tell your wife where you are going. You should also say when you will be back. And you should abide by what you said by coming home on time!”

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Alter and His Talmid

Some time after the Alter of Slobodka, zt”l, moved to Yerushalayim, he fell very ill. He had to be confined to bed and all of his needs were provided for him by his devoted students. On one occasion, he needed to be given a spoonful of water to help him wash down his medicine. One of the talmidim attending him brought him a spoon filled from a bottle of clear liquid on the kitchen table. Although he thought it was water, it was actually rubbing alcohol left there by mistake.

When the Alter took this spoon of “water” into his mouth, he nearly choked. As he was gagging in great pain, he noticed that the student responsible for the blunder was slinking out the door, obviously deeply embarrassed to have been the cause of the great Rav’s distress.

The moment the Alter could speak, despite the fact that he was still unwell as a result of the alcohol, he requested that this student be brought before him as soon as possible. As it turned out, the student only came the next day when the Alter was completely recovered from the experience. As the student entered the room in a downcast manner, the Alter received him with a glowing countenance and said, “Don’t feel bad about yesterday. You actually caused me great happiness. Although at first I was very afraid, when I realized that there would be no adverse effects I was filled with joy. The error brought me a gain, that feeling of elation, not a loss at all!”

With these comforting words, the student’s dismay dissolved completely and he again felt at ease in his Rebbi’s presence.

Friday, March 7, 2008

A Coin of Fire

Chazal in Shekalim 4 state that when Moshe was unclear regarding machzis hashekel, Hashem showed him a coin that appeared to be of fire. Why did Hashem choose to show Moshe Rabbeinu a flaming coin? The Noam Elimelech zt”l explains that a coin is like a flame. Just as fire can be used to burn and destroy, it can also be used to shed nurturing warmth and light. Similarly, a coin that is donated to a truly charitable cause can bring life to the needy. But if a coin is given to the wrong cause, it can consume the lives of others.

Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev zt”l, once dreamed that he was witnessing a man’s judgment at the hands of the heavenly court. Every deed, both good and bad, was fully weighed and measured, and when all was said and done, the bad unfortunately outweighed the good.

In his dream, Rav Levi Yitzchak noticed a small coin buried among the good deeds and asked the heavenly court, “Tell me, what good did the man do with that?”

A heavenly voice proclaimed, “That coin was given to a poor family with seven children.”

Rav Levi Yitzchak said triumphantly, “If so, then the whole family should count towards his merit. That money gave life to the husband the wife, and all the children!” The scales then tipped in his favor.

They then brought a second man in, and his good deeds outweighed his sins. However, the accusing angels pointed out that he had stolen a coin from a family with seven children, all of whom later died. “The theft of that one coin should weigh against him as if had murdered them!”

Rav Levi Yitzchak wouldn’t hear of it. “The first man gave only one coin, but it was all that he could. He meant to give life to the whole family, so they all stand in his merit. But this man only meant to steal a single coin, not to kill an entire family! Judge him by his intentions, too, and call it petty theft.” And the scales tipped back in the man’s favor.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

For What Do the Shekalim Atone?

According to one opinion, the half shekel atones for the sin of the golden calf. The Shem MiShmuel zt”l explains that the Jewish people sinned because they were unable to properly harness their intelligence. As soon as they saw what appeared to be the body of Moshe Rabbeinu, their minds became clouded, and the Soton was then able to entrap them. How, then, should they have responded to such a frightening vision? By transcending their rational minds and strengthening their emunah instead. This is the deeper meaning of using an amount that is made up of six garmesin[1]: “she’chatu b’shesh”—they “sinned with the six” lower emotional attributes that make up every person.

The second opinion is that the shekalim come to atone for selling Yosef HaTzaddik. The brothers failed their challenge to use their minds and clear thinking to transcend their personal, ulterior motives. Their jealousy obscured the truth from their eyes and clouded their judgment regarding their brother’s fate. A coin atones for the sale of Yosef, because each of the brothers walked away with a coin. The fact that it is half a shekel symbolizes their need to have admitted their ulterior motives, and to have accepted that their minds were only working “half as well” as they should have.

The shekalim atone for both the sin of the sale of Yosef and the sin of the golden calf, because the roots of both sins were the same. “These and those are the words of the living G-d.”

A man from London came to Israel for a visit, and while he was in the country he decided to take the opportunity to visit the Chazon Ish zt”l. When he was about to leave, he asked the Chazon Ish for a message to bring back to the Jews of London.

The Chazon Ish answered, “The verse says that Noach was a pure Tzaddik in his generation. This teaches that people are judged according to the challenges of their time. And in ours, the main test is strengthening our emunah!”

[1] This is a measure of silver.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Illumination from the Darkness

The statement in Yuma 57, that the Bavlim“live in a dark land, so their wisdom is dark,” seems at first glance to be a criticism. But Rav Tzaddok Hakohein from Lublin, zt”l, explains it differently. The Torah of Bavel was generated in the confused (mevulbal) darkness of exile, and soTalmud Bavli can only be grasped through much pain and effort. As the Zohar Hakadosh relates: “The only true illumination is that which comes from the darkness”—through toil and suffering.
Rav Yisroel Salanter, z”l, writes:“Don’t refrain from learning Torah even if you will have to give it up soon to go into business. Torah learning is different from other types of learning. With secular studies, the outcome of the study is what counts.But in Torah, the main thing is the effort that one expends. Each and every single day of learning is its own goal. Consider yourself like a day-laborer. Don’t worry about finishing the building—you work on a daily wage, and your main goal is to find paying work every single day.”
Rav Yerucham Levovitz, zt”l, once said: “If you were to place all the good ever done without difficulty on one side of a scale, and on the other side one small thing done with difficulty, the small thing outweighs all the rest!” Sometimes people would approach the Steipler, zt”l, for a berachah, that they should be relieved of their difficulties and challenges so they could learn with ease. He would respond, “It is impossible to really succeed without difficulties.The secret of success is overcoming the difficulties!” This is the true illumination that comes from the darkness.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Don’t Let Aveiros Interfere!

“Reish Lakish says that we do not ‘pass over’ mitzvos,” that we are not to delay a mitzvah that presents itself in preference for an action that is not itself a mitzvah. How does this apply to our own avodas Hashem? The Tiferes Shlomo zt”l explains that the yetzer makes use of a certain strategy to dampen our enthusiasm just as we are about to pray. “How dare you, sinner that you are, even think of turning to Hashem now? The nerve!” Yet the truth is the very opposite—Hashem, in His mercy, attends to every honest prayer uttered by even the simplest Jew. We see this from the gemara quoted above: the word for “pass over” (“ma’avirin”) bears the same root as the word for transgression (“averiah”). When we are about to perform a mitzvah, we must not allow our aveiros to interfere. Every second is a new world, presenting fresh opportunities to do the Will of our Creator.

The Vilna Gaon taught that a meshumad, an apostate, is obligated in all mitzvos, just like any kosher Jew. His apostasy doesn’t grant him any kind of dispensation, and he is obligated in every detail of the law just as he was before he abandoned the Torah. When the Gaon heard of a Jew who had converted and joined a monastery, he sent an invitation to his home so that he could try to draw him back to Judaism. When the meshumad arrived, the Gaon honored him with a drink and said, “I would like to hear a b’rochah.“ The meshumad was taken aback. “I am no longer a Jew—why on earth should I make a b’rochah?”

The Gaon patiently explained. “Converting did not change anything, and kefirah is no excuse. You are a child of Avrohom Avinu, and you will eventually be punished for every single sin. But you will also be rewarded for every single mitzvah! Take the opportunity to earn yourself another z’chus!” The words of the Gra made a deep impression on his guest, and it was not long before he did a complete teshuvah.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Pinteleh Yid

R av Tzaddok HaKohen from Lublin, zt”l, writes that we are still called the “portion of Hashem”even if we are mired in defilement. This is because a Jew by nature is always connected to Hashem, and this is the Divine Presence that never leaves his innermost self.

During the Bolshevik revolution, there were many bloody battles between those still loyal to the Czar, and the Communists. The only thing that held steady throughout the period was that the Jews inevitably suffered wherever the “Whites” were in conflict with the “Reds.” It didn’t matter which side came out on top; either way, the winners would invariably claim that the Jews were traitors and deserved punishment.

Once, the Reds came to a small Russian village and completely overtook the area. Immediately, they declared that the local Jews were guilty of treason and should be put to death. The Bolsheviks rounded up the Jews in the town square and prepared a firing squad. The entire village was forcibly assembled, but one could still hear a pin drop just before the soldiers were ordered to fire. In that village, there was a pharmacist whom everyone quite reasonably assumed was not Jewish. In the heavy silence, this pharmacist started to push his way forward, and tried to join the three hundred condemned Jews. The villagers tried to holdhim back, not realizing why he wanted to risk his own life. The pharmacist continued to struggle, and cried: “I am also a Jew! If it is the fate of all the Jews to die, I should not be spared!”

When the villagers saw that the pharmacist had managed to push himself through to join the Jews they began to fight the soldiers for the man’s life.“ Who will heal us and prepare our medicines? You must spare him!” The Bolsheviks decided to spare the man, and also ave up on executing the Jews of the village. The revelation of this man’s eternal connection to the G-d of the Jewish people saved three hundred other lives!

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Shalom Bayis II: Bearing One’s Spouse

Many chassanim would ask Rav Wolbe, zt”l, what they should consider and daven for under the chuppah since it is such an auspicious time. And very often, men who were having trouble at home would also inquire about how to improve their shalom bayis. Interestingly, Rav Wolbe’s answer was often the same for both queries. “The term for marriage is laseis ishah. This really reaches the crux of marriage, because laseis literally means ‘to carry,’ or ‘to bear.’ We are assuming the responsibility to carry or bear our wives for the rest of our lives.

He would continue, “Everyone has his own particular nature which is determined by his innate characteristics and his upbringing, as the Chassid Yaavetz writes. He continues to explain what many do not realize: although people age, they generally don’t really change their middos for the better. Even one person in a thousand doesn’t really change himself from good to bad, although people do alter somewhat due to their choices in life. The vast majority remain the same! So before one tries to change his spouse, let him see how much he has changed himself. Invariably, he will find that he has not changed in any significant way. And if he has, then his own sterling middos will enable him to bear his partner’s bad middos with equanimity! Instead of waiting for one another to change, each should try to really live the verse, ‘Love covers all flaws!’ The most-needed quality of a couple is patience with one another’s faults. This is the foundation of all shalom bayis.”