Friday, May 30, 2008

A Life of Emunah

The Shem Mi’Shmuel , zt”l, teaches that material reality reflects spiritual reality. The nighttime represents situations and times that are challenging, when everything is dark and unclear, and danger lurks everywhere. It is at just such times that we stand most in need of a beacon to light our path and keep us going. Our faith in Hashem is just such a lodestar; it broadcasts the glow and warmth of spiritual vitality out into the night to guide and strengthen us.

When spiritual night descends, the first step is to bind ourselves to Hashem. No matter what we go through, we must remain determined to strive to be connected. Once the connection is fast, we are able to illuminate the darkness with the pure light of faith in Hashem.

HaRav Yechezkel Abromsky, zt”l, was exiled to Siberia in his youth, bereft of tefillin, Torah, and the opportunity to do mitzvos. Every day, he would wake up and say modeh ani and wonder, “What kind of day awaits me; a day of slave labor, beatings, and humiliation. If I could only learn, it would all be worthwhile. But even that is beyond my reach. What do I have to be grateful for?” When he would reach the words, “rabbah emunasecha,” however, he could feel new life start to spread through his limbs. “How great is Your faith! My emunah in You is the one thing that no one has the power to take from me! Modeh ani! It’s worth living another day for this alone! A day of Siberian exile is beyond price— because emunah makes any life worthwhile!”

Thursday, May 29, 2008

For the Sake of Heaven

The Divrei Yisrael of Modzhitz, zt”l, once said: “There is a well known parable regarding a tightrope performer. True, he takes money for his work, but clearly has his mind only on what he is doing while on the tightrope. We all know that if he is distracted he will surely fall. Similarly, although chazzanim take money, while they sing their mind is on the davening, not the money. It is possible to apply this to the famous gemara which states that one should learn Torah even not lishmah, for it’s own sake, since, “mitoch shelo lishma ba lishmah”—although the underlying intention is not lishmah, from doing it for not lishmah reasons one learns lishmah, because he is only thinking about what he is learning as he learns.”

This is similar to the following recollection of the Michtav M’Eliyahu, zt”l: “Every Shabbos night my father and uncle would wake up around midnight and learn until davening Shabbos morning. During the long winter months, the nights were so long their weekly seder often lasted a total of nine hours.

“As a boy, I would also wake up several hours before davening to learn. My mother, the daughter of the Alter of Kelm, zt”l, would also be up to study Midrash, Ramban, and Malbim on the weekly sedrah. When my mother woke up it was the greatest pleasure for me since she would serve us coffee and very tasty baked goods.

Rav Dessler concluded, “Although I woke up for the learning, I must admit that the savory cakes were a big part of my zeal to spring out of bed as soon as I woke up!”

The Divrei Shmuel warns that the opposite is also true regarding physical things. “Even one who for a certain period eats more than they need ‘lishmah,’ for example at many seudos mitzvah or to get energy to do a certain task, will often come to overeat shelo lishmah. In physical matters: mitoch lishmah ba lishelo l’shmah!”

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Meshulach

A meshulach once arrived in Brisk and went from house to house collecting money for tzedakah. When he reached the home of the illustrious Rav Chayim Soleveitchik, zt”l, however, he was turned aside without a penny. The town wondered what the fellow had done to deserve such mistreatment, but no one had the nerve to ask the gaon about his behavior. Some time later, it became known to all that the meshulach was actually a missionary in disguise, and all those who had contributed to his cause had inadvertently supported sinful activities.

Members of the community approach Rav Chayim zt”l with a complaint: “Now we see that the gaon had ruach hakodesh—but why weren’t we told before? Why were we allowed to give to his cause?”

Rav Chayim zt”l laughed. “You accuse me of something that I don’t have! I didn’t know anything about him at all. All I knew was that when he came to my door, I immediately wanted to give him money. There was no internal resistance at all. Right away I understood that it is impossible that there is any mitzvah involved—if there had been, my yetzer harah would have put up a fight…”

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Power of Tears

The “gates of tears” are never locked. Rav Yehudah HaChassid explained that this even refers to one who lacks good deeds; as long as he cries to Hashem, he will be answered. The Shiltei Gibborim zt”l said that anyone who cries during prayer has the entire heavens crying along with him…and those prayers will ultimately be fulfilled.

A boy from Bnei Brak went to the army and befriended an irreligious soldier, from a kibbutz in northern Israel. Once, they both got a pass for Shabbos. The frum boy said, “Why travel all the way to the kibbutz? We’re so close to Bnei Brak—come to my house for Shabbos instead.” His friend agreed.

When it came time to go to shul, the religious soldier said to his friend, “Why not join me?”

The kibbutznik responded good-naturedly, “I don’t really know what it’s all about, but since you asked, I’ll come along.”

The next time they had a Shabbos “off,” the kibbutznik came to shul without being invited, and slowly but surely he became a baal teshuvah.

His father had learned in cheder with the Chazon Ish and later became irreligious, and was furious. The man decided to go to the gadol ha’dor to “rectify” the situation.

“Your people kidnapped my son!” the man thundered.

“When there is a kidnapping, one usually calls the police,” the Rav said calmly.

“I’ll do worse!” threatened the father.

“Go right ahead,” the Chazon Ish retorted.

“Avremel,” exclaimed the father, “Don’t you know how many tears my father shed that I should remain frum? They didn’t help him, and this won’t help you either!”

The Chazon Ish sprang from his seat and cried, “Tears are never wasted! Your father’s tears may not have helped you, but they are helping your son!”

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Waters of the Mikveh

The Gemara teaches that the equivalent of the sacrifices today is prayer and study of the laws of korabanos, and Rav Shlomo Friedman zt”l explains that this concept also applies to the mikveh. One who immerses with pure intentions can also become truly purified even in this day and age. The Arizal taught that this purity is essential for attaining holiness, and if we long to feel the added sanctity of Shabbos, the Zohar Hakadosh tells us to immerse. As the Chayei Adam writes, going to the mikveh will allow us to experience the neshamah yeseirah, the “extra” soul of Shabbos, which is manifest in an outpouring of love and fear of Hashem.

For a person who sincerely wants to grow and come closer to Hashem, the mikveh is clearly crucial. The Tikunei Zohar explains one reason why its waters have the power to return a person to his source and feel renewed. When a vessel needs to be remade, we return it to the smelting fire in which it was forged. Just like a fetus submerged in the waters of the womb, immersion in the mikveh is the return to the primordial state that precedes new life. We repent before immersing, and emerge purified from the sins of our old selves.

Rav Yosef Chayim Sonnenfeld zt”l would spend a long time in the mikveh every day, and since he was one of the great sages of his generation, people noticed his extended visits. They paid careful attention to his practices and discovered that the Rav actually immersed 310 times, every day. Since Rav Sonnenfeld was known to be extremely careful to make full use of his time, it was clear that not a single immersion was superfluous. One member of the community asked what his meditations involved during those many descents below the water’s surface.

Rav Sonnenfeld explained, “I think about the greatness of the mikveh, that it has the power to transform a goy into a Jew. Surely it can take a Jew like me and make me into a true Jew!”

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Spirit of th eLaw: Lag B'omer

7) “…According to both customs, all of the prohibitions of sefira are permitted on Lag B’Omer…”

According to the Chasam Sofer, zt”l, one reason why we celebrate on Lag B’Omer is day #33 of the sefira count transcends the thirty-two different major types of defilement listed by the Rambam in his introduction to Taharos. Apparently, each day represents working through a different av hatum’ah and from day thirty-three onward we are done with the spiritual roots of impurity. This is the concept of the verse: "גל עיני ואביטה נפלאות מתורתיך"—“Uncover my eyes and I will see the wonders of Your Torah.” The Hebrew word gal is the inverse of the number 33—lag. The word niflaos, wonders, can also be read nun–plaos, which means “fifty wonders.” This is why we are joyous and experience greater dveikus on Lag B’Omer.

Rav Nosson, zt”l, also explains another way in which lag (33) corresponds to gal. Lab B’Omer is the gal (monument) that was erected to separate Yaakov and Lavan. This monument represents the barrier that a person must erect to keep out illicit thoughts. It is only fit, then, that we should pray on Lag B’Omer for pure thoughts and our moral improvement!

The Sifsei Tzaddik, zt”l, cites the following gemara: “Rashbi said, ‘I can discharge the whole world from judgment.’” (Sukkah 45b) This is actually true for all generations. Each year on Lag B’Omer, when we make a resolution to change our ways, Rabbi Shimon effects an atonement of all our sins and all our prayers are answered.

One time, a Jew from Eretz Yisrael was in Ruzhin, and was spoke with the famous Rebbe Yisrael Ruzhiner, zt”l, about Lag B’Omer in Meron.

The Rebbe asked, “So what do you see in Meron?”

The chossid answered, “Inside the cave it is Yom Kippur, and outside it is Simchas Torah!”

He meant that the heartfelt prayer near the grave itself has the sincerity and intensity of the teshuvah of Yom Kippur, and the enthusiastic and lebedike dancing outside has the joyous fervor of Simchas Torah.

The Rebbe took great pleasure from the man’s answer and said, “If so, one sees good!”

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Spirit of the Law: Sefiras Homer 11

11) “On Shavuos we do not daven before the stars come out since the verse states that we shall have seven full weeks of counting.”

Reb Nosson, zt”l, writes that the seven weeks of sefira correspond to the seven main middos: Chessed, Gevurah, Tiferes, Netzach, Hod, Yesod, and Malchus. Each of these corresponds to a different day of the week: Sunday to Chessed, Monday to Gevurah, and so on. Hashem’s providence is drawn upon us through our observance of the Torah’s mitzvos. This special providence is renewed each year during the time of Matan Torah. We wait for the seven weeks to be absolutely complete, since Hashem’s hashgachah pratis must be drawn down onto the cycle of seven in its entirety on Shavuos. It is all the more important to be careful about this halachah when we consider how important it is that during the last week Malchus, which can only be rectified by drawing all the other middos into balanced action in this world, achieves completion.[1]

[1] Likutei Halachos, Shavuos 1:7

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Spirit of the Law: Sefiras Haomer 10

10) “The custom is that men and women refrain from melachah-labor during the nights of sefira from sunset until they count the omer.” (According to Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, this refers to skilled labor that would distract them. However, it is permitted to turn on a light or do something that is not distracting.)

One reason for refraining from labor is so that one will not forget to count. One of the things we focus on in the count is the fact that everything we do counts and that we should make every single instant of each day count by utilizing it to the hilt.[1] As the verse says: "למנות ימינו כן הודע ונביא לבב חכמה"—“Teach us to count our days, and we will bring forth a heart of wisdom.” (Tehillim 90) We must not allow ourselves to get distracted and instead take some time to focus on what the counting represents and that our avodah during this time affects the entire year.[2]

It is important to conclude with the words of the Maggid of Kozhnitz, zt”l. The verse states: “For seven weeks we will count, until m’macharas ha'Shabbos hashevi’is (the day after the completion of the seventh week) we will count fifty days.” The Maggid said that "until mi'macharas" teaches that even if we haven’t merited to do teshuvah and count with proper focus during the entire sefira, we can still rectify the counting even the very last day.

The same holds true if we catch ourselves at any point and re-commit to proper fulfillment of the mitzvah. Even if we only manage to do so on the very last day (m’macharas ha'Shabbos), it is still as though we had counted all fifty days in the very best way how much.

Rebbe Nachman said: “If you believe you can destroy, believe you can repair!”

[1] Likutei Halachos, Hilchos Pikadon 4:5

[2] Rashash in Nahar Shalom

Monday, May 19, 2008

Spirit of the Law: Sefiras Haomer 8 & 9

8) “On the day before a bris the father, sandak, and mohel can cut their hair…”

The reason why we mourn during sefira is because the students of Rabbi Akiva didn’t merit to work together in love and fellowship. If they had been worthy, they would have merited to bring Moshiach and rebuild the Beis Hamikdash.

A bris is likened to the bringing of a sacrifice. For those who make the bris, it is as though the Beis Hamikdash has already been rebuilt. This is why they may take a haircut even during this time of mourning. Bringing their “korban” is a much higher avodah than maintaining the state of mourning, and it is only fitting that the one bringing the “offering” (the father is offering up the child, the mohel is like the kohein making the sacrifice, and the sandak is like the altar on which the sacrifice is brought) should lack nothing for this momentous event.

9) “To make shiduchim is permitted during these days…”

A person without his or her match cannot possibly be spiritually complete. For this reason, even Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, were not able to bring the incense. Lacking wives, they lacked the ability to really make this rectification. Rav Nosson of Breslov explains that the tikkun of ketores is the transformation of anguish into joy. This can only be done through learning how to relate to another person—and for such a relationship to really work, one must be unselfish and giving. It is only by overcoming the challenges to one’s self-absorption that marriage presents that one elevates the sparks. This is accomplished by learning how to be joyous through what used to cause them anguish. Nadav and Avihu wanted to be in a continual ascent on high without having to cross any barriers. They thought that this is what would bring them to the highest rectification—that of the ketores. However, because they never had to exercise self-restrain in order to maintain shalom bayis with their spouses, the Arizal called them “halves.”

Once we understand the greatness of the spiritual work of marriage, we can more easily comprehend why it is permitted to finalize a shiduch even during these days of mourning. If a person finds the correct shiduch, he should immediately make a commitment and not wait, since inaction would mean that he might lose the prospective match to another, G-d forbid.

(Spirit of the Law 7 discusses Lag B'omer and will B'ezras Hashem be posted presently.)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Spirit of the Law: Sefiras Haomer VI

6) “During these…days, the students of Rabbi Akiva died…”

The Gemara tells us that Rabbi Akiva didn’t treat one another with the respect that they deserved. Rav Nosson explains (Likutei Halachos, Purim 6:19) that their main mistake was in their being overly punctilious with each other. Instead of acting with love and kindness, they descended into anger and pettiness.

Rav Wolbe, zt”l, writes that the main way to avoid becoming angry with another is to learn how to bear his or her idiosyncrasies, especially when one feels frustrated that the other person is not changing quickly, or perhaps at all. One should repeat to himself, “I have to tolerate them, just as they have to bear my problems and character defects. Even if I was treated improperly, I should continue to show understanding and compassion for my friend.”

The Ramak writes that this is one of the Divine attributes that we must learn to emulate. Despite the fact that all of our strength comes from Hashem at all times, we still rebel against Him often. Even so, He allows us to persist in our behavior and bears our stupidity and smallness without preventing us from sinning further by depriving us once and for all with the life-force that sustains us.

The spiritual work of sefiras ha’omer is to refrain from anger and to act instead with kindness and love toward others. As the Baal Shem Tov taught, when I see bad in them, it is only a projection and reflection of my own character defects. If I can’t tolerate my friend, it seems that it is my own defects that I am not willing to overlook! Rav Chaim Vital, zt”l, writes, “Why get angry at your friend and not at yourself for driving out your Divine soul by losing your temper!”

Friday, May 16, 2008

Spirit of the Law: Sefiras Haomer V

5) “…We say the maaravis [a piyut said during maariv in certain communities] for the second day of Pesach on that day even if the first day fell out on Shabbos (and we didn’t say the first day’s piyut because of this). The reason why is because it speaks of the cutting of the omer which was on this night…”

Rav Nosson explains the tremendous significance of the omer offering. The omer is made up of barley, a grain used as animal fodder. The kohein takes the grain and waves it up and down and in all four cardinal directions to represent that even our experiences which seem to be divorced from holiness, that are “dispersed to the ends of the earth,” are all manifestations of Divine providence. We reveal the unified inner essence of all of our diverse experiences by searching for Hashem in everything we do. Nothing is really divorced from the Divine; it merely seems that way to us. The word for waving the sacrifice around is tnufa. This can be read as two separate words: tnu peh—literally, “give a mouth,” or “express it.” One reason why we don’t “express it” or pray is because we feel that the challenges that we face are divorced from the Divine. The moment we reveal that He is truly everywhere and waiting for our petitions, we regain a mouth with which to plead with Hashem for help.[1]

[1] Likutei Halachos, Masa U’Matan 4:9

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Chazaras HaShatz

Someone once asked the Kotzker Rebbe, zt”l, “Why do we still repeat the shemonah esrei nowadays? After all, everyone says the shemonah esrei, don’t they? What need is there for a shaliach tzibbur?”

The Kotzker Rebbe responded, “As you know, if one wishes to bring merit to the soul of a person who has died, electing to lead the prayers is one way to do it. One of the reasons for this is of course the kaddish. But one can say kaddish even without being the chazzan! The truth is that the chazaras hashatz also helps the souls of those who have passed away. And this is why it is an injunction that will never be revoked, even though it has been many long centuries that people have already known how to pray for themselves. One would be hard pressed to find someone who really doesn’t say the entire service for himself.

When someone put these questions to the Chazon Ish, zt”l, he answered differently. “We still recite the chazaras hashatz for the am she’basados, the people stuck in the fields, of today. They are those people who do not pray because they don’t know better. Either they or their parents were taken in by the modern sectarian and ‘enlightenment’ movements, and they don’t understand the importance of prayer at all. Since these people are considered like people taken captive while young and raised among non-Jews, they are hardly responsible for their failure to come to synagogue. We recite the chazaras hashatz for them!”

Kavod HaTorah

For Gedolei Yisrael, the main concern is doing the Creator’s will. There are many astonishing stories about the boundless devotion for doing ratzon Hashem exhibited by Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l.

One of Rav Moshe’s talmidim once recounted, “Rav Moshe saw as part of his responsibility as a Rosh Yeshiva that he ought to invite along a group of talmidim whenever the unusual mitzvah of chalitzah was performed. That way, we would have the opportunity to see how it is done properly.

“Rav Moshe would examine the shoe to be sure that it was valid. He would then crouch down on the floor to examine the foot of the yavam for any trace of dirt that could invalidate the procedure. He would have a receptacle of water nearby. If the Rosh Yeshiva found dirt, he himself would rinse the grime off of the yavam’s foot.”

Perhaps such behavior seems unbefitting for a great Rosh Yeshiva and poseik? The Rosh Yeshiva’s attitude was the exact opposite: What could be more respectable than fulfilling a mitzvah properly?”

On his way to America, Rav Moshe stopped in Latvia. His brother-in-law suggested that he take a position there, since he was afraid that if Rav Moshe came to America he would not be respected as a talmid chacham of his stature deserved. Rav Moshe decided not to remain in Latvia even though he was offered a very prestigious position. When he arrived in America, his brother-in-law asked, “Why didn’t you take my advice?”

Rav Moshe answered, “I left Russia not for my own comfort but for the sake of raising my children as Jews. It is not clear to me that Latvia will stay suitable for this aim. Since my whole purpose in leaving Russia is to raise my children as Jews, I would rather raise them in America which is free and likely to remain so. It is far better to come to the U.S. where I will be able to raise my children to do Hashem’s will even if it means working as a street cleaner than to take an honorable position in a place where the future of Yiddishkeit is insecure!”

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Power of Chessed

There is a very great level of unity that can only be achieved when we selflessly help our fellow Jews. Such pure devotion, however, is generally only seen in those rare individuals who have transcended the natural human tendency toward self-absorption. By overcoming this deeply entrenched flaw, their acts of kindness can have profound effects on the emotional and spiritual life of their beneficiaries.

Rav Eliyahu Lopian zt”l once recalled that the non-observant communal head of his town was surprisingly close to him and the boys in his yeshivah, and went out of his way to help them at every opportunity. He was always astounded by the paradox of a powerful man who opposed the Torah path, but would nevertheless go to great lengths to help them. Rav Elya zt”l once asked him about this inconsistency, and the man’s answer took him completely by surprise.

He said, “You were close to the Chofetz Chayim, and as a young man, I tried to enter his yeshivah in Radin. My heretical views came to light right after I took my entrance exam, and because the administration saw me as a threat to the other students they told me to buy a ticket for the next train out of Radin. Since it wasn’t leaving until the next day, I asked to sleep in the yeshivah. Permission was denied, but I was invited to sleep in the Chofetz Chayim’s own home. The only space available was a small loft above the Gadol’s room. The night was bone-chillingly cold, and I couldn’t sleep. The Chofetz Chayim obviously thought that I could, for after midnight, the door opened and he quietly entered my room. He removed his own coat and laid it over me gently, and then went back down to his studies. And that coat has kept me warm to this day!”

Monday, May 12, 2008

“And from the Desert, a Gift”

A prerequisite for Torah greatness is true humility: the “gift” of Torah can only be received by the person who makes himself barren as the desert as we learn from the verse, “and from the dessert, a gift.[a]” It is only afterward that a person can come to greatness. The Gedolim were always filled with this precious middah of humility.

When the Ahavas Yisrael of Vizhnitz, zt”l, was already elderly, he felt ill and consulted a doctor. The doctor said that the Rebbe should go to the famous Carlsbad spring to convalesce. When the Rebbe arrived there, Rav Sofer, a grandson of the Chasam Sofer, was also there for his health. One of Rav Sofer’s friends recommended that he should take advantage of the opportunity and go to see the famous tzaddik. Rav Sofer decided to take this advice and made his way to where the Rebbe was staying. When he arrived, he saw an elderly man learning.

Before Rav Sofer had time to open his mouth, the old man said, “What does your honor, a grandson of the holy Chasam Sofer seek?”

“I have come to where I understood the Rebbe of Vizhnitz is staying since I would like to meet with him,” Rav Sofer answered.

“What for?” interjected the old man. “Who is the Vizhnitzer after all? An elderly man who knows a how to learn a little, put on a long coat, and became a Rebbe. Why waste your time visiting him? Wouldn’t you be better off learning a daf Gemarah instead?”

Nu, nu,” acceded Rav Sofer. And he returned to his rooms.

A little while later, the same friend told him that the Rebbe was in shul and asked him to join him for a visit of his own. Rav Sofer acquiesced once again.

When they arrived, he was surprised to find that the Rebbe was the very same elderly man who had dissuaded him earlier!

Rav Sofer protested, “The Rebbe tricked me with his words earlier.”

The Vizhnitzer Rebbe shook his head and replied, “Not at all. I know the Rebbe better than anyone, and you can take it from me that every word I told you was absolutely true!”

[a] Nedarim, 55.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Spirit of the Law: Sefiras Haomer IV

4) “Before one counts, one should know what that day is so that his brochah is said with the proper day’s number in mind. If one did not know the number during his brochah, he nevertheless discharges his obligation. One who counted the wrong day by saying today is five days instead of six and does not correct this cannot count sefirah with a brochah for the remainder of that year's sefirah.”

The Sefas Emes, zt”l, writes that one merits to receive the Torah on Shavuos in accordance with one’s yearning for it during Sefiras HaOmer.

Rav Pinchas of Koritz, zt”l, said that although the word “sefirah” means “to count,” it also means “to shine.” Through fulfilling the mitzvah of couting sefirah, one merits to do teshuvah which causes one to shine with supernal light. The Maggid of Kozhnitz, zt”l, says similarly that the days of sefirah “shine into” or shed light on all the places in ourselves that we need to correct.

When we say a brochah it is only a tikkun inasmuch as we focus on what it really means and on what we are about to do. Rav Wolbe, zt”l, brings the Ramchal who says that in accordance to how much we recognize Hashem, to that degree does He bestow His blessing on the world. The ha’aras panim or “shining countenance” of Hashem graces the world. One who does not recognize Hashem in the world and acts as though He is absent draws the opposite, a “darkened countenance,” and invites the opposite of abundance, G-d forbid.

One who makes a brochah with intense concentration (or some degree of focus, at the very least) draws Hashem’s shining countenance into the world. One who tosses off brochos without considering what he is saying does the opposite. This is all the more true of the mitzvah of sefiras ha’omer which is predicated on yearning for Hashem through the counting! The more we are yearning for the Torah, the more we will grasp of it on Shavuos. This doesn’t only mean how much content we will learn, but how much connection with Hashem one will experience in fulfilling the Torah’s mitzvos. One who doesn’t know which day it is when he makes the brochah has failed to embody the most basic element of the brochah, and according to Rashi the blessing is invalid. Although post-facto we do not follow Rashi’s opinion, the halachah is that one should be careful from the outset to fulfill Rashi’s condition. How can we illuminate our souls with the sefirah if we don’t even know what night it is when we make the blessing? This is an easy task. Just check the day’s number before making the brochah.

One who counted the wrong day didn’t do the mitzvah at all and this is like skipping a day. If a person is careless with the day, it is likely that skipping one doesn’t worry him too badly! If, however, one stood to win or lose a large sum if he counted all the days, I highly doubt that he would get confused at all. It would be important to him, and he would act accordingly. We must try and internalize the fact that every mitzvah is worth far more than mere money!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Spirit of the Law: Sefiras Haomer III

3) “One who asks his friend during or after bein hashemashos: ‘What is today in the Omer?’ He should respond: ‘Yesterday was so-and-so.’ If he says that day’s count, he may not count with a brochah for himself afterward.”

The Mekor Chaim, zt”l, cites the Zohar Hakadosh which states that the seven weeks of the Omer parallel the seven days that a woman counts before she immerses. Perhaps this is one reason why, according to the Kabbalah, women do not count sefirah., Since they do a micro-counting of seven days that represents becoming cleansed so that they can connect properly to Hashem, the macro-counting is superfluous. (This will be discussed at length, with Hashem’s help, in chapters 157 and 159.)

If a person misses one day, his count is lacking in completion; he can no longer count with a brochah. When we consider the present halachah, of one who said the day’s count aloud unthinkingly and failed to make a brochah, we find that such a person has a flippant attitude about the sefirah. Not only did he forget to count with dveikus, he didn’t even make a minimal brochah. Since the count was lacking completion and vitality, he cannot go back and make the blessing. (One who answered his friend’s query with that day’s number but had in mind not to discharge his obligation may, in fact, count with a brochah afterward. The fact that he was conscious enough to mentally exclude his own future counting shows that his providing the day’s number was not forgetful and careless.)

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Spirit of the Law: Sefiras Haomer II

2) “If one forgot to count the entire night, he can count during the day without a brochah and the rest of the nights he may count with a brochah. If he did not count during the day either, he may not make a brochah on subsequent nights.

Rav Nosson, zt”l, writes that counting the Omer represents our yearning to receive the Torah on the 49th day. This represents our time of waiting to become purified. We all have things that we wish to improve. Most of us have very long lists indeed! Rav Yisrael Salanter, zt”l, taught that it is common for a person who is coming closer to Hashem to actually feel that he is getting worse. Because he has started to pay more attention, he begins to see the negative within. Everyone else, however, notices that the person is really getting better and easier to live with. Rav Nosson writes that one must yearn and yearn until he is enabled to change his bad behavior a little at a time. While we are yearning we must do what we can and keep on yearning. Matan Torah represents when we move up a level and finally improve ourselves with help from above. We are helped only if we yearn as much as we can to change. If we conveniently turn a blind eye to our faults and ignore them, we will never change, G-d forbid. This has nothing to do with how religious we are. One can be very religious and, yet, still be completely oblivious to his glaring faults.

Rav Wolbe, zt”l, recounted that when he was in Mir he stayed at the home of a certain baal habayis. When Elul came this man checked all of his mezuzos and tefilin to ensure that they were kosher. When the young gadol saw this he was jealous at how careful this man was in his mitzvah observance. When the lady of the house came home, she confessed that she had paid extra for vegetables in the market. The man became livid and launched into a tirade that lasted an hour. His badgered wife then complained of a headache and went to lie down. A short time later she died! Hashem Yishmor!

Rav Wolbe commented, “For an extra twenty grush spent on tomatoes, this man indulged his terrible temper and paid a terrible price! The fact that it was Elul didn’t mitigate his bad middos in any way!

The first step is seeing our faults and yearning to change them. If we keep yearning, we will see that one day when we do a self-examination we will find that we have overcome our fault to a certain extent and now have a different area to work on. What used to be a challenging situation for us will no longer appear to be a challenge at all. However, we must be “counting the days” until we are rid of our defect. If we forget even for one night, then we are really in trouble.

The night represents spiritual darkness and challenges. Although it is hardest to stay focused during the more trying times, if we do, we see a tremendous brochah afterward. If we will only have the presence of mind to cry out to Hashem when it’s hard we can overcome our troubles much more easily. It is only our arrogance that prevents us from asking Hashem to help us face whatever challenges might lie ahead before they come upon us. This is why the brochah is said specifically at night. If we succeed in connecting to Hashem through our test, we will truly see a blessing in our efforts to improve. If we only remember to count during the following day, this indicates that although we are yearning we are not really thinking about the inevitability of nisyonos. One who merely recalls to count the Omer during the following day has slipped and must know that he has lost out on the brochah that he might have gained. However, he may still count since he hasn’t completely lost sight of his spiritual goals. If one misses a full day, however, he has completely lost track of his mission. Such a person must start again from scratch (obviously not with counting, but in the spiritual sense), a task that is much harder to accomplish.

Dovid Hamelech concludes Tehillim 119 with the moving words: “Seek Your servant, for I have not forgotten Your mitzvos.” Rebbe Nachman, zt”l, explains that a sheep that strays from the flock recalls the shepherd’s call for a while, but if it strays for too long it will not even respond to the shepherd’s call. It has already forgotten what the call signifies. So too, Dovid Hamelech beseeches Hashem to call him back while he still remembers the mitzvos and has not strayed for too long. One who didn’t even remember to count the following day represents one who has strayed so far that he can longer continue the process without doing a great teshuvah.

The Gemara in Menachos explains that this world was created with the letter hei to teach that although it is easy to “fall” through its open bottom, nevertheless the “foot” offers an opportunity to climb up and re-enter through the smaller opening up above. Although teshuvah is possible, it is a difficult path because the temptation to fall again is very difficult to resist. One needs to achieve a much higher level than one needed to merely resist the original sin. In short, the rest of this same counting and yearning which ended so abysmally will usually yield much more brochah than it potentially could have.

Even though it is possible to do teshuvah and change the bad trait to good, it is human nature not bother exerting effort for merely forgetting or refraining from doing good. For this reason, most people start to work on changing only to fall away. This is because they do not engage in the required toil of teshuvah and self-introspection that would have allowed them to claw their way back to transforming their blunder into something positive. This is one way to understand why the person who forgets the entire day doesn’t make a brochah for the rest of his counting that year.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Spirit of the Law: Sefiras Haomer I

Kitzur Chapter 120:1) “On the second evening of Pesach we start to count the Omer…”

Rav Nosson, zt”l, explains that we count the Omer to internalize that everything that we do counts. Our days are numbered, and every little motion makes a tremendous difference. We add the days cumulatively because each good point combines with all the rest. Everything that we do in this world builds our place in the next. The good that we do builds our place in Gan Eden. The bad characteristics that we are not actively trying to change (at least by praying about them and feeling humility because of our failings) unfortunately builds our place in Gehinnom. Obviously, teshuvah wipes one’s slate clean of the negative. Thankfully, one can never wipe one’s slate clean of the good he has done.[i]

The halacha is that although one may hear the blessing from his friend, one must count for himself and not allow his friend to count for him. This teaches us not to be discouraged if we feels as though others are doing better spiritually then we are. Every individual must count for himself since we are all individual worlds and cannot be compared to anyone else. Of course, we should not feel superior to anyone else merely because we seem to be more successful than they are. On the contrary! Rav Wolbe, zt”l, would say, “If I have more potential than my friend, I have to work and toil to utilize my potential. If I see someone with mediocre capabilities, I should respect him since he may be utilizing his potential to the hilt!” As Rav Yisrael Salanter, zt”l, taught, “If I have the head of one thousand people, I must do the avodah, the spiritual work, of one thousand people!”

[i] Likutei Halachos, Pesach, 9, Mekor Chaim, 489

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Sanctify Yourselves…

Rav Gad Eizner, zt”l, used the following parable to explain Rava’s exhortation to, “…sanctify yourself by abstaining from that which is permitted.”

“Imagine a father who went out walking with his son. Every time they passed a toy store, the child would see a toy and beg, ‘Tatte, won’t you please by this toy for me?’ The father obliged, and for a little while the child was preoccupied with the gift. As soon as another toy in a different window caught the child’s eye, the first toy lost its charm completely until he was ready to toss it in the trash.

“The child pointed to the new object of his fancy and implord, ‘Tatte, I would really like that toy instead. Won’t you please get it for me?’ Once again, the parent capitulated. However, when they passed a third store and the child asked for yet another toy, the father finally put his foot down. The child began to scream violently and held his breath until he was literally blue. Some concerned passerby observed that if the tantrum were to continue, the child would certainly need to be brought to the emergency room! Feeling as though he had no recourse, the father paid for the third toy. A little down the road was a candy store. Of course by this time, the child knew full well that if he pleads for some sweets his father won’t have strength to refuse. And he was absolutely correct.

“We can leave an analysis of how the child’s chinuch got so off track for another time. But anyone would say for certain that such a state of affairs is very bad for the child and his future. Why should this be so, though? The father is not accustoming his son to anything particularly terrible, since everyone knows that children do need to play, and sweets in moderation are fine. The problem here is that the father is training to child to believe that he must have everything he wants! This is one reason why we must place a limit on that which is permitted. Only if we accustom ourselves to refrain from excessively indulging in the permitted will we have the inner controls needed to refrain from sin when temptation strikes!”

My friend, Dixie Yid requested that I share the following:

Click here for more information on the upcoming Elul/September visit to North America by Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh seforim. Your yeshiva or mosad can bring him to your community, which is a very exciting opportunity.

You can also get to Rav Shwartz's shiurim from his last trip to the U.S. at the link:

Monday, May 5, 2008

Building on the Positive

An assembly was convened in Baranovitz to develop strategies that would galvanize the community to avoid laxness in Torah observance. Rav Meir Karelitz and the famed Mirrer Mashgiach, Rav Yerucham Levovitz, zt”l, attended.

When Rav Karelitz spoke, he elucidated an important principle in education, in how to set other Jews back on the right path. “The main way to build up a true connection to spirituality is by developing the positive. This is the best way to destroy another’s tendency and attraction to negative behaviors. This principle underlies a dictum we find in Nedarim 40a, ‘The building of youth is really destruction, while the destruction of elders is really building.’

He continued, “When the young and inexperienced wish to build, they think that the best way to go about new construction is by first breaking down the bad. The elderly and more experienced educators realize that this will never work. The best way to destroy the bad is by strengthening and building on the positive that is already in place!”

The Chazon Ish, zt”l, acted on this principle. One time, he worked hard to convince a certain yeshiva to accept a weaker student. The yeshiva found that this boy had not severed ties with some very inappropriate friends who hung around in the worst areas of town.

When they complained to the Chazon Ish about his protégé, he requested that they summon the boy. One member of the yeshiva’s staff was present at their meeting. The Chazon Ish took an obvious interest in every aspect of the boy’s learning and growth during their conversation, and spoke about his feelings and assessments at great length. When the he left, the young man was glowing with joy.

The staff member was confused, “But wasn’t the entire purpose of calling him here to correct his associating with such bad friends?”

The Chazon Ish responded, “Until now, he had no real pleasure in spiritual things; the only delight he took was with his old friends about town. If we deprive him of his old associations, he will have no pleasure in life. First, I must help him find pleasure in learning. Only then can he be weaned from the street!”

Friday, May 2, 2008


Once, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zt”l, was informed that an ostensibly observant Jew had been seen violating the Shabbos by lighting a fire. The Rav rushed to the home of the perpetrator and, indeed, spied a column of smoke rising from the man’s chimney.

Without even so much as knocking, the Rav burst in the house and exclaimed, “Could it be that you profaned the holy Shabbos and lit a fire? It’s an act that is chayav kares!”

The homeowner remained absolutely calm. He had anticipated all along that his pious neighbors would surely take offense at his blatant disregard for Shabbos and react violently. With aplomb, he retorted with a question of his own.

“How can you burst into my house without even knocking?” the man fired back. “Is this proper etiquette—to barge into another man’s domicile without even asking his leave? Have you no respect for the rights of a man over his own private space?”

Rav Sonnenfeld shot back vehemently, “Rules of etiquette hardly apply when there is clear and present danger to life and limb! I heard that there was a fire in your house—naturally, I burst in to try and avert the catastrophe!”

Thursday, May 1, 2008

A Philosophical Question

Many years ago, in the Provencal city of Montpellier, the community was violently split over the issue of their children’s education. One group held that the best thing they could do was to teach their children classical studies like Greek philosophy in addition to Torah. The second group noticed that, in far too many cases, students who began the path of secular studies were drawn further away from Judaism in the long run. This group felt that not only was it inappropriate to teach such potentially dangerous material to children, they felt that it should be forbidden to anyone under the age of twenty-five.

There was a lot of heated debate about the two approaches, but both groups remained intractable. The anti-philosophy group eventually decided to devolve on themselves and their descendants a cherem if any one of them would pursue secular studies prior to the minimum age. The pro-philosophy group tried to circumvent the force of this declaration by declaring the first group in cherem if they were to follow through with their ban. In return, the anti-philosophy faction declared this tactic non-halachic and considering putting their opponents into cherem for their audacity! Fortunately, both groups eventually agreed to place their controversy before the Rashbah, zt”l.

He responded, “This question could be compared to a group that decides to issue a cherem on another group to force them to refrain from eating onions because the food can be detrimental to the heart, as we see in Nedarim 26. Since there is no halachic prohibition against eating onions, such a cherem will certainly not take effect. All the more so in our case, where one group wishes to issue a ban against what they perceive to be a spiritual threat and their opponents wish to obstruct them.

The Rashba concluded, “Do you think that if someone wished to refrain from wine and used the force of a formal ban on himself to assist him in his effort, the community could stop him by issuing a cherem against him? On the contrary, the Torah calls this man holy! All the more so does the cherem of the proponents of secular studies not take effect against a group who feels that they are simply trying to save their spiritual lives. They are merely trying to do what they can to prevent this chochmah that has been responsible for causing so many to fall from spreading in their community!”