Thursday, July 31, 2008

Spirit of the Law: Tisha B'Av

124: 3:“…One doesn’t say Tachanun or Kel Erech Apayim on Tisha B’Av because it is a Moed. “
Rav Yerucham Levovitz, zt”l, explained this very succinctly: “There are moadim of closeness like the shalosh regalim, and there is also a moed of distance, which is Tisha B’Av!”
Rav Wolbe, zt”l, explained further. “In the Medrash Yalkut Yirmiyahu #2 we find: HaKadosh Boruch Hu said, Why was Yerushalayim destroyed? Because you, the Jewish people, said ‘I have not sinned.’ When a person sins and denies his deed, he is living a lie. Since Hashem is a G-d of truth, it is as if the person’s connection to Hashem is cut off with regard to that sin. The more one lives a lie, the greater the area where one lives without a real connection to Hashem. One has no chance of repairing the damage through repentance, since a person who denies what he has done won’t admit that he has done wrong! On the other hand, when a person faces up to the distance that exists between him and Hashem because of his sin, he is living in the truth. Paradoxically, his admission of distance is what connects him to Hashem. This is the distance that is also a moed, a meeting. In this way, a person can repair the damage done and draw closer to his Creator. When we see our many flaws, this is a great reason to be encouraged since we can correct them by taking the proper action.”
We learn this lesson from Kesuvos 13 as well. Chazal bring the verse from Mishlei 30:20: “She eats and wiped her mouth and says, ‘I have not sinned.’” The sin is magnified many times by rationalizing instead of seeing the problem and working toward a solution. Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro, zt”l, used to say, “Teshuvah means taking the next step forward to Hashem!”

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Silence is Golden

When the Imrei Emes of Ger, zt”l, returned from his first voyage to Eretz Yisroel, the Rav of Kalish, zt”l, tried to elicit some details about his journey. The Imrei Emes, however, did not seem to be willing to engage in conversation.
“Nu?” prodded the Kalisher Rav. “How does the Rebbe feel after his visit to the Holy Land? Don’t Chazal say that even the air of Eretz Yisroel makes one wise?”
The Imrei Emes nodded. “Yes, it’s true,” he answered. “And Chazal also said: the protective fence for wisdom…is silence!”
This can also mean that silence is sometimes the best defense, because with it, one can avoid an argument altogether.
A delegation of Sefardic rabbis once came to visit the Mahari”l Diskin, zt”l, the illustrious Rav of Brisk.
As soon as they arrived, the group of sages began to weave a number of intricate arguments about certain Torah subjects, while the Mahari”l simply sat quietly and did not participate.
Eventually they tired of this, and decided to take their leave. As they left, the members of the delegation shook their heads in dismay and lamented to one another, “What a pity—to see such a great scholar who has gotten old and forgotten his learning!”
What the group didn’t realize was that the gaon of Brisk was just as much a master of silence as he was a master of Torah!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Kallah and the Mother in Law

Once there was a young man who spent much time and energy every day taking care of his elderly mother. He did not hide this fact from the shadchanim with which he came into contract. On the contrary, he told them up front that he planned to continue taking care of his mother after marriage as well and wished to find a wife willing to assume this burden.
Understandably, this cut into his prospects. Although he was a very eligible young man in other respects with sterling middos, virtually no girl was willing to saddle herself with a young man with such harsh obligations from the outset of marriage. Why should she take on such an unbearable burden?
The shadchanim were afraid that this young man would remain single his entire life. Clearly, the mother should be placed in one of any number of frum old age homes where she would not be a burden to a new couple just starting out on life.
One shadchan broached this issue with the young man and advised him to ask this question of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l. The shadchan. who had hoped that the great posek would tell this young man to drop his foolish insistence and be realistic about shiduchim, found Rav Shlomo Zalman’s response to the bochur very surprising. “You are absolutely correct to search for a ba’alas chesed in precisely this manner. If a young lady is unwilling to take care of your mother, she is clearly not for you.”
After a time the young man finally found a ba’alas midos willing to take on this incredible self-sacrifice. She was willing to live in a small apartment with her husband and her new mother-in-law and help care for the elderly woman.
When the young man came to tell Rav Shlomo Zalman the news, he was completely floored by what he heard, “Mazel Tov! Now you know you are getting a true ba’alas chesed. But you must immediately start searching for a good home for your unfortunate mother. Actually placing such a burden on your young bride-to-be is unfair and is simply not an option!”

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Genuine Zealot

Chazal tell us that the Jewish people challenged Pincha’s right to kill a prince of Israel on account of religious zealotry. Although in that case they were wrong, it is no simple thing to be a zealot l’shem shomayim. One of the cardinal rules of genuine zealotry is that the “kana’i” must be filled with real love of Hashem and concern for his fellow Jews. Otherwise, he is likely to merely be spewing hatred for his fellow man under the guise of piety. Although Rav Amram Blau, zt”l, was the leader of the “kano’im” of Yerushalayim, his ahavas Hashem and ahavas Yisroel was palpable even as he led protests. When he died, the very policemen who had opposed him so forcefully tearfully attended his funeral. When they were asked why they had come to their “archenemy’s” funeral they replied that they had all felt that he was pained by what he saw as the necessity of protesting and knew with absolute certainty that he loved every Jew. His protestations had been nothing personal; one never felt any spite or hatred emanating from him.
One of the great students of the Maharil Diskin, zt”l, was also a very dedicated zealot. Throughout his mentor’s lifetime, he would always attend protests against various offenses and was a very formidable force within the ranks of the “kano’im.” He was clearly willing to die for the cause and the policemen who didn’t wish to actually kill the zealots didn’t have a permanent solution for this particular man. However much they beat him, he was back with new vitality at the next protest—once again clearly willing to die for the cause.
Shortly after the Maharil Diskin’s passing a protest was arranged. Although this man had definitely been present when the protest was announced, he did not attend. After the protest he was approached by the organizers who exclaimed, “Where were you? Your presence was sorely missed!”
“I will no longer be attending protests,” replied the student to the shocked group.
“But why?” they asked, clearly mystified.
“Until now, my rebbi the Maharil Diskin told me to attend, so I was sure that I was l’shem shomayim. After all, I was merely obeying my rebbi. But now that he is gone I can never attend…”
The man concluded, “Who is to say that my attendance is not merely a guise to vent my anger and hatred?”

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Service of the Heart

Someone once asked Rav Noach of Lechovitz, zt”l, “Isn’t prayer what we do when we praise the King for all the great things that He does, or ask Him to fulfill our needs? Why does the Gemara call it a service, an avodah, of the heart?”
Rav Noach responded, “The heart is like a field. It is only after a field has been well worked that one can plant in it and look forward to a good harvest. Before a field is worked, it is not worthy of being called a field. It is merely a desolate plot of land. The heart is the same. Prayer works our hearts out thoroughly and gives us the ability to connect to Hashem and feel the way a Jew should!”
The Chasam Sofer, zt”l, answered differently. “The reason why prayer is called an avodah is because we really don’t have the ability to do anything to serve Hashem of our own accord. The most we can do is yearn to serve Him and beg to be worthy of doing so until we reach the level of truly loving Hashem. We see this from the words of the book of Tehillim, especially chapter 119. Since the only way we come to serve Hashem is through pleading with Him to be found worthy of doing so, prayer is called service. This is also why the Gemara in Taanis 2a teaches that we come to love Hashem with our whole hearts through prayer. We can do nothing else but continuously daven to Hashem until He has mercy and brings us a little closer to Him!”

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Secrets of the Torah

In various places the Gemara concludes that certain details are a “guzmah” which literally means exaggerated. The Pnei Zakein zt”l warns us away from a misunderstanding; chalilah that one should think that the Sages, who never wasted a single word, would indulge in simple exaggeration. The truth is that guzmah also means to cut. When the Gemara wants to hint at a very deep secret and still keep the matter hidden, the Sages used the language of guzmah—words that slice their meaning in two without revealing the secret.
The Chofetz Chayim zt”l, in his explanation of a Medrash, wrote that every word, every single letter, of Torah actually contains the deepest mysteries inside it that will only be revealed by Hashem in the world to come. One who learns the Torah in this world will be able to understand the true meaning of the Torah in the next world, and whoever did not exert himself to learn in this world will not understand the secrets contained within that Torah in the next world.
Rav Yitzchok Aizik of Komarna zt”l, the “Pnei Zakain” on Shekalim, once related: “My father tasted the world to come in the Torah. He was so connected to the Torah that he would often spend several days immersed in his learning without eating anything. Even so, he never appeared to suffer from hunger. The Torah sustained him so much that his very face shined!”
“One time, I remember my mother telling my cousin that she worried for his health since he hadn’t eaten for five days. My cousin went to see after him, but my father insisted all was well.
“My precious child,” he said, “believe me when I say that I absolutely do not feel hunger. If I felt any hunger I would eat, because hunger causes bitul Torah and weakness.” He was so bound up to the deeper level of Torah that he did not even feel that he had not eaten for days!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Share in the World to Come

Chazal state that one who learns halachos every day is assured of his share in the world to come. Why should one be assured of such a great reward for doing what seems to be a very simple thing?
The students of Rav Chaim Vital, zt”l, once asked their mentor, “When the Mishnah (Shabbos, end of perek 5) discusses the cow belonging to the neighbor of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya that went out with a strap between its eyes on Shabbos in violation of the will of the sages, the animal is attributed to Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya and not its actual owner. Why was it considered his? Because he could have protested the man’s actions and didn’t. The Yerushalmi brings that this only happened once, yet the Tanna fasted so long as part of his penitence that his teeth became blackened! If this is how one should repent of such a subtle flaw, how can we ever attain true repentance and sanctity? How can we ever fast enough to negate all of our many errors?”
Rav Chaim Vital answered, “The degree of difficulty of something teaches us about its worth. In the times of the Mishnah, the world was much closer to Sinai and there was much less spiritual darkness. Anyone who wanted to come close to Hashem therefore had to work all the harder. Nowadays, because of the abundant darkness of exile, even just crying out from the depths of one’s heart is as precious to Hashem as the fasts of earlier times!”
When the Yismach Yisroel of Alexander, zt”l, told this story, he applied it to learning halacha: “As we know, Hashem is not a tyrant; He doesn’t demand that which we cannot produce. (Avodah Zarah 3) Today is much darker spiritually compared with what it was during the time of Rav Chaim Vital. This is why one who learns halachos every day is assured of his share in the world to come. This could be referring to learning when one finds it very difficult to do so, as it is in our time!”

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Earning Your Portion of the Wolrld to Come

It is well known that it is virtually impossible to achieve significant material comfort without real hard work even nowadays. During the time of the Ba’al Hafla’ah, zt”l, however, just making a simple living could consume all of a person’s time and energy. Jews often worked in petty trade, and people would exert themselves for days on end riding through rain and snow to purchase merchandise in one place just so they could cart it somewhere else where they hoped to make a profit. Sometimes the merchandise would be stolen or destroyed, or would lose whatever value it had even before it got to market. Such a misfortune could bring on swift ruin.
Once, a traveling merchant who had been riding the whole night and was in dire need of refreshment found himself at the doorstep of the famous Ba’al Hafla’ah. The man was literally freezing and was desperately in need of shelter from the blizzard that raged outside. He was graciously admitted to the house, and after some hot tea and cake warmed him up a bit, he posed a question to the gadol.
“The Rav can see for himself what my olam ha’zeh is like,” he began. “My question is, what will my olam ha’bah look like?”
The Ba’al Hafla’ah gently answered, “My son, this is what your olam ha’zeh looks like after putting in so much effort. What makes you think that you’ll merit a big portion in the next world without any toil at all?”

Monday, July 14, 2008

The World to Come

Someone once asked the Chofetz Chaim zt”l, “If every Jew has a portion in the world to come, why do we have to work so hard to keep all the details of the Torah?”
The Chofetz Chaim answered, “In Kiev lives a wealthy Jew named Brodsky who owns many businesses employing hundreds of different types of workers with different sets of skills and levels of expertise. And each is paid accordingly. Brodsky is a charitable man and also supports a number of poor relations, all of whom appear on the payroll. At times, Brodsky visits one of his factories or offices and speaks with his workers in front of the others, asking detailed questions about what they do and how much they are paid.
“Once, a worker answered his questions with a simple statement: ‘I receive a salary.’ All the others burst out laughing. How could the man not even feel enough shame to hide the fact that he was being paid for doing nothing at all?
“This is your answer: We all have a portion in the world to come, but isn’t it shameful not to have worked for it?”

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Key to Humility

Many people would come to the Imrei Menachem of Alexander, zt”l, seeking his guidance on how to achieve humility. He would say, “In Chovos HaLevavos we find a very deep story which I hold is the key to attaining humility. Rabbeinu Bachaya relates that a pious man once met a group of warriors on their way home from their exploits. They had won the war, and were laden with the spoils. He said to them, ‘You have returned from the small war. Now you will have to wage the real battle: the struggle against your evil inclination!’”
The Rebbe would then explain, “The Chovos HaLevavos is not referring to a pious man meeting actual soldiers returning from a physical war. Such people are hardly the types who care much for the milchemes hayetzer, the inner battle with their lower selves. This pious man had met with sincere servants of Hashem who had already defeated their evil inclinations by ascending new levels of Torah and avodah. Our pious man explained to them that they had really only just begun. True, they had obtained a measure of success and had even ‘taken spoils,’ but the real fight against the ego that gets inflated from accomplishments still awaited them. The most important battle is against pride, since it is only the prideful person who feels secure in sitting on his laurels and no longer moving forward. The more enamored we are of our achievements, the less we feel how far we still have to go and how much more we have yet to achieve!”

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Who is Amalek?

In Jerusalem, everyone had been awaiting the arrival of His Royal Majesty, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, and when he and his vast entourage finally came everyone went out to see the mighty ruler. The holy residents of Jerusalem were not mere curiosity-seekers—they were avidly awaiting the opportunity to recite the blessing over a non-Jewish king. People prepared themselves by studying the relevant halachos from the source in the gemara, and when the time came, everyone turned out for the extravagant reception in honor of the visiting monarch.
Those who were close to Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zt”l, noticed that he was not preparing himself to join in the gala event. This was strange, especially since the Rav was always the first to join in any mitzvah. And how much more confusing it was in this case, when the opportunity to fulfill this particular mitzvah might never present itself again. When those close to him questioned his unusual behavior—unusual in the sense of being too usual—the Rav answered, “You are correct. I am not planning to attend the reception at all.”
When asked why, he explained, “I have received a tradition from my teachers that some Germans are descendants of Amalek. There is no mitvah to make a blessing on a king from the line of Amalek!”
Those present did not comprehend how such a thing could be so, since the Germans were universally considered the most civilized and cultured people in all of Europe. After the Holocaust they understood all too well the truth of Rav Yosef Chaim’s prescient words!

Monday, July 7, 2008

“My Name is Chagigah…”

Once, a pious man had the practice of sequestering himself in a certain place to study Maseches Chagigah, and it was his way to review it over and over again. After he knew it well, he committed it to memory. Although the man was not learned in any other tractate, he spent all his days in the study of Chagigah until he had fully mastered it.
When the man passed away he was all alone in his home and no one knew of his demise. A strange woman soon arrived on the scene and stood over his body in a posture of grief. She raised her voice in a lament until all the townspeople gathered together to investigate her loud and mournful cries.
She called out to the people of the town, “Come, let us eulogize this man and bury him and honor his memory. Let us merit the life of the world to come! For this man honored me all his life long, and saved me from being abandoned and forgotten.”
Immediately, all of the women came to sit with her, and the town gathered and mourned him with great honor. The men provided shrouds and arranged his burial, and they honored him greatly at the funeral.
All the while, the mysterious woman cried and wailed and could not be consoled.
Finally, the people of the town asked her, “Who are you?”
She said to them, “Who am I? My name is Chagigah.”
As soon as the pious man was buried, the woman disappeared. All of the townspeople knew that they had been visited by Maseches Chagigah in the form of a woman, come to them to ensure the honorable burial of her devoted student. (Medrash Tanchumah HaYoshon, as brought in Menoras HaMaor, Ner 3, VIII:3:5)
The Chofetz Chayim, zt”l, would say: “Anyone who does a single mitzvah acquires a heavenly advocate. How much more is this so when a person studies a maseches so many times until he masters it and commits it to memory! Imagine to what extent it petitions on his behalf in the upper world to save him from Gehinnom and from all of the evil forces that pursue one’s soul. Imagine to what extent it uplifts him to attain all good, and to be bound eternally together with Hashem!”

Friday, July 4, 2008

The Danger of Duality

Rav Yitzchak Aizik Chaver zt”l taught that our tradition of avoiding eating, drinking, and other activities in zugos, or pairs, is a very deep matter. One unit represents Hashem’s absolute Unity; two is dangerous, because it introduces the concepts of duality, division, and conflict. Going from one to two is compared to the descent from Hashem’s Unity before creation to the “Other-ness” of a seemingly independent creation. Adding a third element is a way to restore the initial unity—much in the way that the midline of the body is the point of balance and integration that joins together two apparently independent sides. The odd unit is the way that we are brought back symbolically to the One.
The Ben Ish Chai zt”l illustrated this esoteric idea with a story. A man was hiking in the wilds on his own, when suddenly a fearsome lion crossed his path. It stared at him balefully, clearly sizing him up as prey. Fear-struck, the man’s mind raced during the few split seconds he had left, as he scurried to think of some way out of this deadly predicament. Just as the beast crouched to pounce, he came up with a desperate plan.
“Bang!” he shouted at the top of his lungs, sighting down his upraised walking stick. In mid-leap, the lion fell down, dead! Half-dead from shock himself, the man could barely believe it. “Could it be that my walking stick has such power?!”
Just then, a hunter came upon the man. Euphorically, the hiker exclaimed, “My stick is just as powerful as your gun! Look what it did to this lion over here!”
“You fool!” the hunter could barely restrain his laughter. “Did you really think that screaming ‘bang!’ brought him down? I saw he was about to devour you, and I held him in my sights and shot him with my own rifle!”
How foolish do we seem when we fail to the see the One pulling the strings behind the scene!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Teshuvah for Theft

Chazal teach that sins between a man and his friend are judged more stringently than those between man and Hashem; Yechezkel HaNavi even caps his litany of the twenty-four sins that brought about the churban with theft, as if to say that it is the ultimate act of trespass. (Yechezkel 22:13) The Mekor Chaim, zt”l, extrapolates from this that even if one is exemplary in all of his dealings with Hashem and his fellow man, theft renders him invalid. He is distant from Hashem until he makes restitution and changes his ways.
When the Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, was making his arrangements for his anticipated move to Eretz Yisrael toward the end of his life, he bequeathed his personal well to the public of Radin.
When asked why he did this, the gadol explained, “For years we had a grocery store here in Radin. Chazal write in Kiddushin that being a grocer is an occupation for thieves since it is all to easy to inadvertently (or intentionally, ח"ו) err in weighing out goods or making change for purchases. But how can one compensate the public when one doesn’t even know what mistakes were made or who lost by them?”
He continued, “Chazal taught that one who has stolen from the public should make a public restitution. That is why I am leaving my well to be used by all the inhabitants of Radin.”
Later on, all the wells in Radin froze over during a particularly hard frost—all except for the one that had belonged to the Chofetz Chaim. When asked about this unusual occurrence, the gadol was clearly pleased. “Wonderful! Now all those I stole from will certainly come and get restitution from my well!”

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

New and Improved

Rav Hirsch zt”l, writes that just as each day brings its own refreshing renewal, every years does as well. This is actually based on the words of the Arizal who explains the difference between each day’s renewals as opposed to each year’s. Each year we acquire an entirely new facet of the Torah. While each day we are building on what came before, each year must be completely different. This is the inner meaning of Chazal’s statement that the Torah has “seventy faces”—the average number of years in a person’s life. During each year, a new aspect of the Torah is revealed within the collective soul of the Jewish people—and last year’s Torah cannot be rolled over into a new year!
A talmid once asked Rav Shach zt”l, “Why do you work so hard preparing your lectures? It’s all written down in your work Avi Ezri. Why not just review it before the shiur?”
The Rosh Yeshivah explained, “You should know that it is impossible to learn Torah and really transmit it to one’s students through seforim alone. The student must hear Torah from a Rav who is living that which he teaches so it can enter into his heart. If I were to teach my shiurim straight from Avi Ezri, I would merely be mouthing that which has already been written, without having to add any new effort. How can I possibly give over the Torah if my students won’t feel how I toiled to gain a proper understanding? If I were just going to read from a book, surely it would be better to quote from the K’tzos or Rabbi Akiva Eiger zt”l, instead of my shiur! If you want to understand the true meaning of mesoras haTorah, it is that ‘words that come forth from the heart can enter into the heart of another.’”

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Making Time

One time, the Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, sent a message to one of the older bochurim in the yeshiva in Radin with a special request. The gadol asked that this very accomplished scholar devote some time to learning with a younger student who needed help to advance in his studies.
When the messenger arrived, the older bochur refused the request explaining, “I’m deeply immersed in maseches Zevachim right now and there is no way that this younger bochur will be able to keep up with the demanding pace I need to maintain.” He apologized profusely for refusing, but didn’t feel that he could really be expected to sacrifice his deep iyun for the sake of another student. He continued learning and forgot about the whole matter.
Some time later, this prominent student came to the Chofetz Chaim to ask a difficult question that had cropped up during his learning. He began to relate a complicated calculation of Tosafos in the sugya he was studying and then said that this seems to nullify a certain pilpul that is needed to answer yet another difficult question. He posed, “How would Tosafos answer this problem?”
After hearing him out, the Chofetz Chaim just looked at the student in a marked manner. Finally, he said, “Aren’t you the one who couldn’t make a little time for a younger student of the yeshiva? I wonder why you think that your problem in Tosafos has anything to do with me?”