Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Shabbos for Hashem

Rav Yissochor Dov of Belz, zt”l, was staying in Vienna with his father and he decided to go for a walk one Shabbos afternoon. He passed a small shul, and even from the street he could hear someone singing the words of the Gemara he was studying at the top of his voice. The Rebbe could not believe his ears, and moved closer to the shul so that he would be better able to hear the deep joy and yearning clearly audible in the stranger’s voice. He stood by the door so as not to disturb the masmid, but eventually he couldn’t hold himself back and decided to enter the shul. What he saw surprised him; the “masmid” was dressed in a simple soldier’s fatigues.

The Rebbe said, “Tell me, what brought you here, learning with such diligence?”

The soldier explained, “When I was drafted into the army, I begged Hashem to save me from chillul Shabbos. Miraculously, I was attached to the private staff of a certain officer who was willing to give me Shabbos off. I took upon myself that Shabbos would be devoted to serving Hashem, and that I would waste as little time as possible in bittul Torah. This is my time off, and I must use it to come close to Hashem to the best of my ability!”

Afterward, the Belzer Rebbe said, “Who knows if this soldier isn’t holding up the redemption since his sacrifice might be more pleasing to Hashem than the korban tamid! But this cannot be. Of course his dedication is only bringing the geulah that much closer!”

Monday, April 28, 2008

Joy and the Gra

Once, Rav Moshe Shapiro, zt”l, attended the sheva berachos of a close student and wished to arouse the attendants to gladden the choson. He said, “In order to make the chosson joyous, we must first really feel his happiness ourselves. This will make us elated and we will naturally do the mitzvah of gladdening the heart of the chosson and kallah!”

He immediately started to sing a joyous refrain. Everyone joined in and things turned very lively. Everyone there was warmed by the joy of that sheva brochos which continued long into the night.

He would say, “At the end of Kesuvos 16b the gemara asks the famous question, ‘Kietzad merakdin lifnei hakallah—How ought one dance before the bride?’ Rashi explains this to mean, ‘What does one say before her?’ But this seems difficult, since the gemara merely asks how we dance before her.”

He answered his own question, “We see from this that the dance one does before the kallah should really make a statement; it has to speak the sentiment all by itself!”

Indeed, whenever Rav Shapiro would dance at a wedding, one would see how he lived what he taught. It was almost as if sparks were flying up from beneath his feet.

At all times, the Rosh Yeshivah would share in his fellow Jew’s joy. He was fond of quoting the Iggros HaGra: “They say to a person during his judgment, ‘Did you allow your friend to rule over you—did you make his will your own?’ This ought to be done in a pleasant way, because most of the underpinning of the Torah is the duty to impart joy to one’s fellow man!”

Rav Shapiro would say, “The Gaon is teaching us a novel concept. One must give sovereignty to his friend, not as an obligation or chore, but with pleasure, since most of Torah is to gladden one’s fellow man!” Even the most learned person who fails in this area has failed to fulfill most of the Torah!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Splitting the Sea

It often seems as though learning any part of Torah thoroughly is as difficult a as splitting the sea! But there is a way. We must "plunge in," by doing what we can even though the effort seems insignificant. If we persevere, we will find to our surprise that Hashem has indeed split the sea. Unfortunately, most people are too lazy even to try.

Since many people work during the day to make a living, the indictment of laziness really means that they don’t take advantage of the time available to them when they are “off hours.” If one learns with diligence, even a little a day goes a long way.

In Kelm, the schedule included a wake-up call in the middle of the night for a five or ten minute seder. During that time, the bochurim were permitted to learn whatever they wanted with a chavrusah. After some time, all of the bochurim noticed how much they were advancing because of those extra five or ten minutes of learning. The practice always fulfilled its purpose: that the bochurim would come to see the vast potential hiding within the short span of five minutes.

The Imrei Menachem of Alexander, zt”l, was once with a group of people and one of them said, “I became a talmid chacham from just ten minutes a day! I was very busy with my business, but before breakfast every day I would learn Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim for a quick ten minutes. After doing this for some time, I found that I had acquired a broad base of knowledge in this area of halachah.”

The Rebbe commented, “When I was younger, there were times when I had errands to run and tasks to deal with which took up a great deal of my time. However, I was always careful that I would sit and learn right up until the moment I left and from the moment I returned. While I was on the way, I would also be thinking in learning. Every free moment is potentially of immeasurable worth! I knew people who were such great masmidim that even on their wedding day they learned right up until the chuppah!”

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Joy of Being Jewish

In order not to be construed as chillul Shabbos, the korban Pesach must be slaughtered “for its own name,” for its own sake and not as any other kind of sacrifice. It must be, in the words of Rav Tzadok HaKohen zt”l, “meyuchas,” or linked by name to its origins. Pesach alludes to our chosen status as a people, expressed in Hashem’s “jumping” over our homes in Goshen, a manifestation of His “having mercy on us,” as rendered by the Targum. We relive the redemption through the korban Pesach, how Hashem distinguished us from every other nation and made us into meyuchasim. This clarifies why the korban itself must be meyuchas l’shem Pesach to be valid—it is the statement of “shelo asani goy” for the entire Jewish people!

One morning, the Chassidim noticed that the holy Chozeh of Lublin zy”a refrained from saying the blessing, “She’lo asani goy…” during the morning prayers. They were dumbfounded by this apparently inconsistent behavior, but didn’t have the nerve to ask the Chozeh for an explanation. After Shacharis, the Rebbe turned to his followers and said, “I’m sure that you are all wondering why I failed to say the brochah she’lo asani goy’ this morning, and so I will tell you my secret. I already said it early this morning when I woke up.

“As soon as I awoke, I did my usual cheshbon hanefesh but I was dismayed to find myself without a single merit to my credit! I felt like the lowest of the low, the very worst person in the world. But, just then, I found a way to console myself. I said to myself, ‘I am still a Jew! I may not act the way I should, but I am still so blessed that I am not a goy!’ My heart overflowed with joy, and I immediately made the blessing right then and there!”

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

False Advertising

In the hectic days before Pesach one must be extra vigilant not only to clean but to think creatively where chametz may have been placed or entered into the house in unusual ways. Unfortunately, one must either learn form the experience of others or one’s own, chas v’shalom.

One young man found a roll in a cupboard of his small apartment on Pesach, much to his horror. He couldn’t believe it. “How can that possibly be? I checked the entire house, including that cupboard which I distinctly remember was empty.”

After some careful questioning, his four-year-old admitted to have secreted the roll there from the final meal just before the biur. The lad explained, “Everyone told me there would be no more bread and I was afraid I would get hungry and have nothing to eat…”


A person once needed to send matzos abroad. Although he wrote “fragile” on the boxes, the matzos were broken when they arrived. Subsequently, the man decided to write the word “glass” on the boxes, and his solution worked. Afterward, the man’s friend asked, “Who said you are permitted to lie in writing in order to safeguard an object?”

The question was presented to Rav Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, shlit”a, and he permitted the action. Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlit”a, explained Rav Eliashiv’s psak: “In Yevamos 115b we find that even if a barrel is marked ‘terumah’ we assume that the contents are chulin, since it was common practice to label a barrel terumah merely as a means of safeguarding the chulin contents from thieves. Clearly, then, there is no prohibition against falsifying the nature of the contents of a container in order to safeguard them!”

Dayan Yaakov Yisrael Fisher, zt”l, dissented, however. “Although I also permit the action, I rely on a different reasoning. The Gemara in Yevamos is no proof at all. No one actually marked a vessel filled with chulin with the sign for ‘terumah.’ Chulin was merely placed in a vessel which had once contained terumah and was marked appropriately at the time it was originally filled! In our case, the word ‘glass’ was actually written on boxes containing matzah!”

Rav Chaim defended his proof, though. “What’s the difference? The point is that by placing the chulin in a vessel marked as ‘terumah’ the sender is fooling people into thinking that the contents are terumah. Just as writing ‘glass’ on a boxes of matzos fools the handlers into believing that they contain glass. We see from the Gemara that this is permitted as long as one does it to protect his property.”

Rav Fisher still disagreed. “There is no correlation between the two cases. Placing the chulin in a vessel marked ‘terumah’ is a form of shev v’al taaseh since the person didn’t actually commit a lie to writing. He merely stored one item in a box that had been duly marked when it contained something else. Writing glass on a box of matzah is an overt action. I permit because he did not write that the contents are glass, he merely wrote the word ‘glass.’”

The Rebbe of Toldos Aharon, zt”l, explained further: “The man is merely requesting that they handle his packages like glass!”

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Outwitting the Sages

Once, while traveling through Lithuania, a certain Rabbi spent time with one of the local Rabbonim in a small town. During the course of their conversation, the visiting Rabbi complained, “I always find it so difficult to arrange the sale of chometz for the Jews of my community. I don’t speak Lithuanian, and it’s very hard to explain the process to a goy when there is a language barrier.”

The local Rabbi was surprised. “I don’t speak the language either, but I’ve never had a problem. I just sell the chometz to a non-observant Jew!”

The visitor was shocked. “How can you sell it to a Jew? That chometz cannot be used after Pesach!” The man then went and told this story to the townsfolk, who were naturally outraged. After hearing this, they demanded that their Rabbi tell them who had ordained him. To their indignation, they found that he was not ordained at all.

When the town insisted upon his resignation, the local Rabbi said, “Just wait one month. If within that time I don’t bring you a semichah from Rav Chaim Ozer, Rav Chaim Brisker, and Rav Itzele Ponevezher, I will leave.”

Sure enough, before the month was out, the local Rabbi returned with semichah from all three gedolim! One man suspected foul play, and after talking with the returned Rabbi in learning, he was certain of it. This man traveled to Rav Chaim Brisker and, together, they figured out what had happened. How had the false Rabbi managed to fool such great sages? He had brought a forged semichah from Rav Chaim to Rav Itzele, who was known to be such a masmid that he would never waste time to test someone whom Rav Chaim had already approved. Once the false Rabbi had a genuine document from Rav Itzele, it was a simple matter to use it to procure another letter from Rav Chaim Ozer. And once he had that, Rav Chaim Brisker gave his own based on the two reliable witnesses who had preceded him!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Korban Pesach , Heseibah and Simple Jews

Rav Nosson of Breslov, zt”l taught that whenever we are about to begin serving G-d in earnest, we have to make haste—just as the original korban Pesach was eaten in haste, while later ones were not. At the start, we must detach ourselves from the worldly desires that entrap us. As soon as we feel the stirrings of inspiration to change, we must take advantage of the momentum and break out of the ties that bind us to the vanities of this world. Who knows if we will be given the opportunity again to make a radical break with our past behavior? Later, when we have already broken free to some extent, we can relax a bit and progress gradually—just as the Pesachim of later generations were unrushed.


The Imrei Emes zt”l asked a pointed question on Pesachim 99 which states that a poor person must do hesibah and drink the four cups during the Seder: How could we entertain the thought that a poor man is exempt from heseibah or the four cups? He’s a Jew, isn’t he? But since poverty here signifies poverty of the mind, and leaning during the meal represents mental freedom, harchavas hada’as, we can see why the Mishnah must clarify that even a “poor” Jewish man must recline while he eats. He must likewise drink all four cups of wine—for they parallel the four terms of redemption, and represent the four spiritual worlds of atzilus, beriyah, yetzirah, and asiyah. Even the most down-trodden Jewish soul reaches up and touches the highest of all worlds.

Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev zt”l once met a poor Jew, an apprentice, who had grown out his hair in imitation of the prevailing non-Jewish fashion.

“I’ll give you a gold piece if you’ll shave that chupchik off,” offered the tzaddik, but the man refused.

“I’ll give you five.”


“How about ten?” pushed the Rebbe.

“No thanks,” demurred the man.

“Twenty? Twenty-five gold pieces…” offered the Rebbe, but the man would not give in.

“If you cut your hair, I can promise you a place in the world to come!” exclaimed Rav Levi Yitzchak. At that, the man immediately agreed, and went to have it done.

Rav Levi Yitzchak raised his eyes to heaven, and said: “Master of the universe! This poor man is just an apprentice who slaves for months to earn twenty-five rubles. And what he was unwilling to do for twenty-five rubles, he raced to do for the promise of Your reward that he’s never seen in his life! Are these Jews not worthy of the world to come?!”

Thursday, April 17, 2008

“Tonight, We Eat Only Matzah…”


The Likutei Halachos brings down that avoiding chometz and eating only matzah during Pesach represents the cleansing of the mind and heart from all forms of philosophical doubts and hesitations that block our avodas Hashem. Just as chometz becomes leaven through the act of waiting, so too does the mind get filled with negative thoughts through brooding and hesitating over negative ideas. This is why it is important not to let one’s mind “become chometz”—instead, it should be kept in the clear, pristine, and pure state symbolized by the simplicity of matzah. This is especially relevant to the avodah of prayer, because wherever our minds are, that is where we are.

One day in the beis medrash, as the prayers were drawing to a close, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev zt”l seemed to be observing a group of his Hasidim. While everyone was busy wrapping up their talleisim and tefillin, he made his way over to them. To their surprise, he approached them with a hearty greeting. “Shalom aleichem!” he thundered.

They looked somewhat puzzled to hear their Rebbe offer the greeting traditionally given only after returning from a journey of at least three day’s duration. “But Rebbe,” they protested, “we haven’t been anywhere! We’ve been here in Berditchev all along!”

Rav Levi Yitzchak continued to make the rounds, shaking their hands vigorously, as if they were newly-arrived travelers, all smiles.

Suddenly, he turned serious and said, “From the way you were praying, it was clear that your minds were elsewhere! So, welcome back from Odessa, welcome home from the market in Lodz! Since none of you were actually here while you davenned, I was glad to welcome you back once you returned!”

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Elements of Creation

Pesachim 115 states that matza is called “lechem oni” because it is a type of bread over which we recite many things (the haggadah.) The Shem M’Shemuel zt”l of Sochatchov asks: since the haggadah is actually recited over the pesach and the marror as well as the matzah, why did Chazal tie it in to the matzah alone?

The answer lies in the nature of the lechem oni. Only three of the four essential elements that make up the universe are present in the physical matzah: earth is represented by the wheat itself, water is combined with the flour, and fire is the heat of the baking. Air, however, is absent. The four elements parallel the four letters of Hashem’s Name, but without air, the matzah lacks an essential ingredient. When we raise our voices in the recitation of the haggadah, however, we incorporate the element of air “into” the matzah, making it complete.

It is brought down that, as the Chasam Sofer zt”l grew older, he adopted the practice of uttering his prayers in barely a whisper, focusing instead on building inner fervor in the most astounding way. His laser-like intensity was turned completely inward, rendering his tefillos all the more powerful.

But even during those latter years, he would change his normal custom on the first two nights of Pesach. At the sedorim he would recite the haggadah with a fiery enthusiasm, in a voice that thundered loud enough for people to hear him throughout the city!

He taught: “Seder night is when we fulfill the mitzvah of ‘vi’higadita l’vincha’—‘and you shall tell it to your children.’ Certainly saying it out loud is preferable!”

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

“And Your Faith is in the Nights…”

The Yismach Yisroel, zt”l, writes in the name of the holy Zohar that while matzah is the food of faith, the sukkah is the shade of faith. On Sukka 27 we find a clear parallel drawn between the two festivals. “Just as it is a duty to eat matzah on the first night of Pesach which begins of the fifteenth of the month, so too is it a duty to eat in the sukkah on the first night of Sukkos which begins on the fifteenth of the month.” Faith is mainly developed during the “nights,” in the darkness of mental obscurity. As the verse says, “Your faith is in the nights.” (Tehillim 92:3) What one grasps with the light of one’s intellect is not faith, emunah; it is knowledge, or yediah. Faith is that which transcends what one can grasp at the present time. During Sukkos, emunah surrounds us, and on Pesach we absorb it into our innermost being. This process must be reflected in our actions—if not, the emunah is not really genuine.

David Ben Gurion went to meet with the Chazon Ish, zt”l, and tried to convince the gadol to overturn his adamant opposition to the draft of religious girls into the Israeli army.

During the presentation of his case, Ben Gurion said to the Chazon Ish, “I am also a believer!”

“Really,” replied the gadol. “And how does that obligate you?” he asked.

“This does not obligate me in any way whatsoever,” responded the Prime Minister.

“It would be interesting to know which philosopher asserts that belief in something does not obligate one to do anything,” chided the Chazon Ish.

Ben Gurion was silent as the gadol concluded, “If you find any truly deep thinker who does make this claim, let me know. I find the concept very interesting!”

Monday, April 14, 2008

Understanding the Question

Rav Yisroel Salanter, zt”l, would say, “Yene’s gashmiyus iz mein ruchniyus”—caring for another’s material need is my own spiritual concern.

One erev Pesach, a man came to ask a shailah of the Beis HaLevi, zt”l.

The petitioner asked humbly, “Could the Rav please tell me if it is permitted for me to use milk for the arba kosos at the seder?”

The Beis HaLevi answered straight away, “Absolutely not. However, I think that I might be able to help you in another way.” Reaching into a drawer, he pulled out a handsome sum of money and handed it to the man.

The Rav said kindly, “Please go out and buy the wine that you need for the seder.”

The man thanked the Rav effusively, excused himself, and rushed off to buy what he needed for the festival.

The Rebbetzin had overheard the exchange, and after the man left she asked pointedly, “I can understand that you gave him money for wine. But why did you give him such a huge sum? There was much more money there than he needed for just wine!”

The Beis HaLevi answered, “I didn’t need to be told outright that he needed more than just wine. If he was asking about using milk for the arba kosos, it meant that he hasn’t got meat either! And if he couldn’t afford meat, do you think that he could afford all the matzah that he’ll need for Pesach?”

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Seder Night

There were two brothers; one was a simple and pious tailor, and the other was an accomplished scholar and mystic. They met on the first day of Pesach, and after exchanging wishes for a gut yom tov, the simple brother could see that his brother was bursting with good news. He asked his learned brother why he seemed so especially joyful that day.

Somewhat smugly, the mekubal replied, “You may not know this, but the kavannos for the Seder are so intricate, I’ve never been able to focus on them perfectly before. But last night, I finally did it! That’s why I’m so happy!”

The simple brother sighed and said, “All of your kavannos are really over my head, but I have to say that I too was very joyous last night.” He lit up, and went on. “All I could think about was how grateful I am that Hashem took us out of Egypt and made us His chosen people!”

The learned brother suddenly looked crestfallen. “Oy vey!” he exclaimed, “That’s the one kavannah I forgot!”

Friday, April 11, 2008

Parshas Metzorah: Plain Hyssop

With regards to the hyssop used for the purification of a metzorah, the gemara disqualifies all subspecies with a prefix added to the word hyssop since this indicates an entirely different variety. Only plain hyssop may be used.[1]

The medrash teaches that hyssop represents humility, and the Mei Hashiloach zt”l notes there are nevertheless many “species” of humility that are disqualified from use. “Greek hyssop” represents strategic humility, like that seen in a person who knows enough about the nature of his opponent to refrain from shouting during an argument, since this will make his claim seem irrational. “Blue hyssop” is the humility seen in a person who acts humble only because he knows that others respect a modest man. “Desert hyssop” is the humility of a person with poor self-esteem. Such a person feels like a desert, devoid of all good. His humility has little worth because he actually feels himself deserving of humiliation. “Roman hyssop” is the apparent modesty of a person who doesn’t bother “lording it over” simple people. He saves all his arrogance for people of stature. The only kosher hyssop is the plain and ordinary variety. This is the person who knows that everything good in him is a gift from Hashem, and so he feels no pride in borrowed finery.

Rav Pinchas of Koritz zt”l would say, “Most sins entail misusing one’s body in some way, but the sin of arrogance is an exception to this rule. All a person has to do to fall into the worst type of pride is to lie in bed and think, “I am the absolute greatest. There is none like me!”

Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa zt”l shared his view on humility. He said, “Why do we have two eyes? One helps me see how far my friend has gone, and the other lets me see how far I still have to go!”

[1] [1] See Sukkah 13 and Rambam, Hilchos, Tumas Tzaras, chapter 11 #1

The Essence of Shabbos

“These are the elements of the offering of the korban Pesach that supersede Shabbos…” The Torah teaches us that the Shabbos testifies that Hashem created the universe. Although Shabbos is the first memorial of the ma’aseh bereishis and His Providence, it is nevertheless one that goes beyond our actual experience—no person witnessed the act of Creation.

Rav Hirsch zt”l explains that the korban Pesach, like all of the sacrifices of the festivals, takes precedence over the prohibition of certain melachos on Shabbos because it is part of our historical experience. The korban is the means through which we draw near (“karov”) to Hashem at the special moment when we recall acts that revealed Him to us, and our historical memory is the strongest evidence possible. Instead of the korban violating the Shabbos, it actually uplifts it, by revealing the essence of the Shabbos itself.

Rav Eliyahu Lopian zt”l was visiting with the Chofetz Chayim zt”l for Shabbos, and when he and a few others entered the tzaddik’s home after the Friday evening prayers, he stood to greet them. They expected him to begin singing Shalom Aleichem, as is customary, but he surprised them with an interesting explanation.

He stood before them and said, “Right now, I ought to be singing Shalom Aleichem—but the angels have no appetite, and will forgive me if I make them wait a bit. It is clear that my guests, on the other hand, are very hungry…so let us make kiddush straight away.” It was only after kiddush, when everyone had washed and eaten a k’zayis, that they sang Shalom Aleichem and Eishes Chayil.

We greet the angels because they draw down the holiness of Shabbos. But feeding a Jewish guest at the Shabbos table is the very essence of the sanctity of Shabbos! This is the way of tzaddikim—they understand the essence, and can see when it might be necessary to give precedence to that which seems secondary. But only when it upholds the true meaning of that which was primary!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Merciful One Wants the Heart!

W hen the time came to leave Mitzrayim, the Jewish people were lacking the merit needed to survive makas bechoros and earn the exodus. Rav Tzadok HaKohen zt”l explains that Hashem responded by providing korban Pesach. It repairs all defilement of the body at its root—the sin of eating from the ,Eitz Hada'as. One experiences a revelation of the highest levels of G-dliness. This is provided the person had first done the necessary groundwork to sanctify his body through bris milah. This was the greatness of the first korban Pesach, that even the bodies of essentially unworthy people could be so purified and prepared for kedushah. This can be reached every time the korban is brought in the future. Even today, when we are unable to bring the actual offering, we can still draw these levels down to us by yearning to bring it with our whole heart!- The Merciful One wants what is in our hearts!
During the time of the Ariza”l, a man who had escaped the Inquisition by hiding his Judaism returned to the fold and was taught about the lechem hapanim. In his great simplicity, the fellow immediately went and baked twelve loaves of bread in the shape of the offering and placed it before the ark in the synagogue. The shammash found the breads, and took the unexpected bounty home for himself. This went on for some time, with the man believing that the bread was “accepted from Above.”
When the Rabbi heard the story, he immediately put a stop to the charade, and insisted that the ba’al teshuvah stop bringing the loaves. Just as the words left his mouth, a messenger arrived for the Rabbi from the Ariza”l bearing a letter: “Your fate has already been decided, and the time has come for you to leave the world. By what right did you disrupt the heartfelt offering of this simple man that brought such pleasure to HaKadosh Boruch Hu, as if it was the actual lechem hapanim?!” The Merciful One wants the heart!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Raising the Roof

In Pesachim 85 we find that the Jewish people used to eat the korban Pesach in large groups, such that each person was only left with a k’zayis of meat. As they ate from the korban, they would joyously sing the Hallel loud enough to “raise the roof.” As Rashi explains, the thunderous singing made it seem as though the roof was actually going to break apart! This is the joy we are meant to feel on seder night—but to feel that level of happiness, we need to first have a sensitivity to the kedushah of the festival.

The Baal Shem Tov HaKadosh zt”l would explain this idea through a parable.

“A musician was playing his instrument with such skill and sweetness, everyone who heard him was swept away by the sound. His tune was so powerful that his audience couldn’t hold themselves back; they started to dance with more and more energy and joy, until they were leaping nearly to the ceiling!

“The closer one got to the music the more intense was the sound, and the pleasure and joy of the dancers grew and grew. Whoever was closer was more enrapt, and danced with all the more fervor. At the height of the dancing, a deaf man entered the room. All he could see were wild people, leaping and whirling like marionettes, as if they were under some sort of spell. Because he was cut off from the music, the scene looked to him like something only a madman would dream of, and all the people seemed foolish, or insane.

He said to himself, “Is this what they call happiness?” The Baal Shem Tov would then conclude: “If only the deaf man could sense that the source of all this rejoicing is the sweetest of music, he too would dance with all his might!”a


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Sweetness in the Bitterness

Rav Tzaddok HaKohen zt”l explains that maror is called “parperes ha’pas” because it draws one to eat bread, just like any other bitter, spicy, sour, or salty food. This is likewise true of the bitterness that crops up in life. Just as maror arouses an appetite for the bread that is the staff of life, so too does suffering awaken inside a person a yearning to connect with the Wellspring of all spiritual vitality. We see this from the story of the Exodus itself; the more the Egyptians oppressed us, the more did we multiply—increasing our collective life-force—and the more we were aroused to cry out to Hashem in prayer. The power of pain is that it inspires a person to seek true life!

The Chofetz Chayim zt”l once entered the yeshivah, and found two young men learning together—one came from a wealthy and prominent family, and had never lacked for a thing in his life. The other boy was completely destitute, well-versed in the trials and tribulations of a life of poverty.

The Chofetz Chayim approached them. “How many daf did you manage to learn today?” he asked.

They answered in unison, “One page.”

The Chofetz Chayim turned to the wealthy boy. “You have indeed learned a single page today, but your friend here has learned one hundred!”

The young man spluttered, “How could that be, Rebbi?! We studied side-by-side the entire day—never budging an inch from one another!”

The gadol explained. “The Sages taught that a mitzvah fulfilled while suffering is one hundred times as valuable as one that was performed in ease. If so, the one page learned by your friend is worth one hundred daf of yours!”

Monday, April 7, 2008

Medicine for the Soul

The Ramchal zt”l teaches that every element of the seder is meant to revive the energy of the historical redemption, and in doing so enable us to prepare for the ultimate redemption. The marror is the bitterness of exile that purified us so that we became fit to attain closeness to Hashem. The pesach involved abandoning the idolatrous worship of the sheep in Egypt, and transforming that impulse into an offering to Hashem. Matzah is, even now, the means through which we refine our bodies and souls by eliminating the leaven, the yetzer harah element. By eating only matzah for the seven days of the festival, we receive an “inoculation” of pure yetzer tov that uplifts us and makes us fit to receive a spirit of kedushah the whole year long. It is a spiritual vaccine with long-term effects.

It was the custom of Rav Nachman of Kossov zt”l never to drink the especially strong wine made in honor of Pesach during the actual festival itself. Once, he had occasion to visit with another great Rebbe during Pesach, and his host offered him a drink from his precious stock.

Rav Nachman declined, “Thank you so much, but I really can’t.”

His host was puzzled. “Is there something wrong with the wine?”

The Kossover smiled serenely and said, “Not at all! But the Zohar HaKadosh says that matzah is a repository of good health—it is a medicine.”

His host was now doubly confused. “What does that have to do with drinking my wine?”

Rav Nachman went on, “Don’t you know—it is forbidden for a person taking medication to drink strong wine!”

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Spirit of the Law: Pesach I

1) “During the entire month of Nissan one does not say Tachanun…” (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 107:1)

The Mekor Chaim, zt”l, explains that Tachanun is usually said in order to bring about the downfall of the sitra achra, the “side” of spiritual impurity. We cast ourselves down to symbolize the descent into the sitra achra, and by the time we come up we have extracted holy sparks from the abyss. By doing this, the hidden light of holiness which has been swallowed by the other side reverts to the side of kedushah.

However, during Nissan—the time of the great miracles of the birth of the Jewish people—the sitra achra has already been subdued and there is no need to do this rectification. On the contrary, not only does the sitra achra have less power, but a little teshuvah during this holy month goes a very long way!

The Chesed L’Avraham, zt”l, writes that between Purim and Pesach we escape the forty-nine levels of impurity a little at a time. Each day, we are removed from a bit more defilement. By the time Rosh Chodesh Nissan arrives, we are sufficiently removed that we don't even need to say Tachanun to be worthy of a true connection with Hashem. As we have already seen, Tachanun clears away our blemishes. The Arizal explains that although our Shemona Esrei is a connection to Hashem, it is incomplete without the Tachanun prayer. It is Tachanun that removes the sins swallowed by the other side that block our ability to really connect with Hashem. First, we do teshuvah. Then we “fall” in order to show that we are rectifying the damage done by our sins. Only after this process is our connection to Hashem through our Shemona Esrei truly consummated, since the sins impeding us have been removed.

During the month of Nissan, we are already elevated to such an extent that we do not need this process to remove the residue from our sins which would otherwise stand in our way. At this time, our teshuvah and dveikus during the Shemona Esrei alone is enough to merit true connection. This is because Hashem has sufficiently removed us from our personal forty-nine levels of defilement that keep us from living the fulfilled and joyous lives that we all instinctively know we should be living. Our ego gets in our way with its harmful pride and we cannot enjoy our blessings. So we go down in Tachanun to represent the fact that we are nothing at all and that nothing is coming to us. We then remove the sparks which the other side grabbed hold of because of our tremendous arrogance. This is why in earlier times people would literally lie prostrate on the ground during the prayer—complete prostration is the embodiment of humility. (Based on Likutei Halachos).

2) “We do not fast during the month of Nissan, even for a Yahrtzeit…” (Ibid., 107:2)

Rav Pinchas of Koretz, zt”l, explains that everything in the natural world comprises an aspect of katnus (“smallness” / “immaturity”) and gadlus (“greatness” / “maturity”). The katnus of the thing is always in inverse proportion with its real significance in the scheme of things. For example, although a day-old calf can already walk, although its katnus state is quite advanced, its gadlus state is spiritually undeveloped. In contrast, a day-old infant can do nothing and must be well swaddled and protected to ensure its survival. Even if it takes a baby as long as two years to master walking, this is still within the range of normal. There is no creature with as undeveloped katnus as a human being. The reason for this is because once a person comes to gadlus, he can come to great levels of gadlus. Mankind rules over all of creation. If he is worthy, a person can even rule over angels!

Sleep is also an aspect of katnus and so there is also a difference between creatures in this area. A horse, for example, sleeps standing up. Most beheimos tehoros sleep on their knees (at least part of the time). A human being, however, lies down to sleep—the most vulnerable and “undeveloped” position. The katnus of the sleep state is in an inverse relationship with the gadlus one attains while awake and mentally active. As the verse says, “chadashim la-b’karim”—“one is renewed each morning.” A person is renewed each day with increased understanding and more maturity. An animal’s mentality is negligible compared with that of a person; their gadlus is limited, so the katnus of their sleep state is far less and they need not lie down.

Another example of the katnus that precedes gadlus is this seemingly endless exile that we are enduring. When Moshiach comes we will merit intensely strong gadlus, and so we must first endure overwhelming katnus at great length. Fasting is also an aspect of katnus as we find in Pri Etz Chaim. For this reason, a bride and groom fast on the day of their wedding, and this is why it is very important to fast in general. Without experiencing the requisite degree of mochin d’katnus, one is unable to receive the mochin d’gadlus that are in store. This is one reason why there are a minimum number of fasts throughout the year. Rav Pinchas of Koretz even recounted that he had known several cases of people who were chronically ill because they had blemished their mochin d’katnus. He told them to fast and they subsequently enjoyed quick recoveries.

During Nissan, we are gifted with an abundance of holiness from on high. This is the wrong time to be fasting to correct the state of katnus. During Nissan, we are in an aspect of gadlus and fasting would only blemish this state. This is true of all fasts except for that of the firstborn on Erev Pesach (see Spirit of the Law—Pesach 113) and the fast of a bride and groom. This latter fast is a very important means of preparing for the couple’s new life together. Without marriage, one is a broken half. We need a fully rectified state of mochin d’katnus to be able to receive this intense gadlus for life called marriage. Even though we are in an aspect of gadlus in Nissan, our level before marriage compared with our level after marriage is like entering the greatest gadlus from the greatest katnus. Therefore, a bride and groom should fast on the day of their wedding.

3) “During Minchah of Shabbos Hagadol, one should recite the Haggadah instead of Barchi Nafshi since this Shabbos was the beginning of the miracles and the salvation…” (Ibid., 170:3)

Rav Nosson, zt”l, writes that all miracles come in the merit of Shabbos. This is because all miracles are a result of Hashem’s special providence over the whole world which is an aspect of the world to come. Shabbos is a mini-taste of the world to come in this world. Therefore, all miracles come from Shabbos, and this is why the miracles and the salvation of Pesach started on Shabbos.

This Shabbos is called Shabbos Hagadol since miracles are referred to as “gadol”—“great things.” (We see this in the verse: “Recount to me the great things that Elisha wrought.” [Melachim II:8:4]) All of these miracles were achieved in the merit of the special providence that is drawn into the world on Shabbos.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Night and Day

Rav Tzaddok HaKohen zt”l explains a difference between Shabbos night and the following morning. Although the main preparation that we do to receive the holiness of Shabbos is when it enters at night, we still must accord special honor to the daytime. Daytime is when the sanctity of the day that comes from Above descends in its fullness, so it is fitting that if we have a special food item that suffices for only one meal, it should be reserved for the morning meal. The Ariza”l taught that the kedushah elyonah, the highest holiness, comes during the daytime—but the only way we can internalize it is by making our efforts to sanctify ourselves when Shabbos comes in the evening before.

Two brothers stood humbly before the great Maggid of Mezritch zt”l: the tzaddikim who were later to be known as Rebbe Shmelke of Nikolsburg, and Rebbe Pinchas of Frankfort. They begged the Maggid to teach them the path of serving Hashem.

The Maggid responded by asking the brothers a question.

“When a man puts the tefillin on his arm, he makes the blessing: Who sanctified us with His mitzvos… But the man’s heart is completely blocked-up, and he doesn’t feel any sanctity, any elevation, when he does the mitzvah at all! How can he have the nerve to continue and put the tefillin on his head right away, even though he doesn’t feel any holiness?”

The brothers stood wondering, waiting for the answer.

“Come with me, and I will teach you how to feel the kedushah, and how to bring it into the depths of your hearts…”

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Parshas Tazria: Outside? Inside!

Why must the metzorah be separated from the rest of the Jewish people? The Sefas Emes zt”l explains that the Jewish soul is so lofty, it has no connection to sin. Even the damage caused by the terrible crime of loshon hora is only manifest on the surface, on the speaker’s skin. This symbolizes that even the worst sins only “graze” the person superficially, but the “pintele Yid,” the holy Jewish spark, remains untouched.

The 248 limbs and 365 sinews of the physical body parallel the integrated body of the Jewish people. Since impurity has no grasp on the Jewish people as a whole, anyone showing signs of defilement is expelled to the outer perimeter—the “skin” of the camp. And there he must remain, on the outside with impure outsides, until he is healed through teshuvah. When that happens, he rises to the level of the baal teshuvah—and is considered greater than one who never sinned. Sometimes it takes a shock, like the appearance of tzora’as, to awaken the pintele Yid deep within so that the healing can take place.

Rav Eliyahu Lopian zt”l told a tale about a certain apikores who was notorious for the heretical ideas he tried to spread. Once, the man was afflicted with a severe disease. The doctors in charge of his case examined him closely and decided that his situation was grave indeed, and his only chance for survival was a difficult surgery. Although the chances were high that he might not live through the operation, the apikores agreed since it was his only hope. As he lay on the operating table, just as the anesthesia was about to take effect, the man cried out in a powerful voice: “I entrust my spirit into Your Hand, Hashem, the true G-d!”

Rav Lopian explained, “The Jewish spark of emunah was buried so deep inside this man, no power or person could penetrate that deeply. It was only the threat of imminent death that could awaken it and bring it to the surface!”

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Understanding Children

Someone asked Rav Pinchas of Koretz, zt”l, “Why am I having more trouble with one child than my other children? This one seems so much more sensitive and takes everything to heart. What does this signify?”

The tzaddik replied, “The more potential invested in one’s neshamah, the more nervous and confused one is liable to become. Even the minor disturbances which most people hardly notice can throw a person with a more sensitive nature. A more material-oriented neshamah can be in a place that is filled with distractions and not become at all confused by them. Such a person can be in a house full of non-Jews and still be able to pray and learn with his usual level of devotion, while a higher neshamah may feel that this seals his lips completely. This neshamah which is distracted easily and harder to deal with is actually closer to higher things, and this is why lower things confuse it.

Rav Pinchas continued, “We see this from the Gemara in Chagigah 18b which states that even the clothing of Kohanim which must be guarded from defilement so that they may eat terumah can defile one who wears these same garments and render him unable to eat from the korbanos. The garments of one who guards from defilement so that he can eat from the korbanos can defile one who then seeks to deal with the water that has been sanctified by the ashes of a parah adumah. There are levels upon levels, and the more sanctified the neshamah, the more it must be guarded from impurity. Impurity on the personal level refers to confused thoughts.

Rav Pinchas concluded, “You must make time and invest extra effort in this particular child—you can see from his very sensitivity that he has much more potential than your other children!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Thirteen Brisos

The Sefas Emes zt”l explains that bris means connection, and the way we connect to our Creator is by emulating His ways. The thirteen brisos the gemara tells us were made over millah, parallel Hashem’s thirteen attributes of mercy, for those supernal middos are awakened by repentance from below. Milah gives us the power to rectify our middos through teshuvah and compassionate thought, speech, and action.

The six days of the week relate to this mundane world, and Shabbos is a taste of the world to come. The eighth day is even higher—it represents the teshuvah described above. This level of teshuvah is even higher than Shabbos, and this is why the “milah of thirteen covenants” supersedes Shabbos.

Once, Rav Shlomo Kluger zt”l was invited to be sandek at a bris. He made certain to arrive on time, but after what seemed an interminable delay, he began to wonder aloud what was holding things up. “Where is the baby? Why are we waiting?” The answer he received was very disconcerting. “The father is deathly ill, and it seems as though he could pass away any moment. The family is just waiting for the inevitable so that the baby can take his father’s name.”

Rav Kluger’s heated response shocked everyone present into action. “Bring the baby at once, there is not a moment to lose!” At the Rav’s insistence, the milah was performed without further delay. After the bris, the Rav entered the sickroom to wish the father mazel tov. He then explained himself to the rest of the family. “I could not force the angel of healing to come exclusively for the father’s sake—such a thing was beyond my ability. I figured that he has to come when we do the bris to assist the mohel and heal the newborn, however. So once we already had him in the house, I was able to ask that he go into the next room to heal the father.” To compound the family’s joy, the father enjoyed a complete recovery. After a mere three days, he was already well enough to go to shul!