Friday, October 31, 2008

Absolute Atonement

One time, Rav Mendel of Premishlan, zt”l, invited all of his friends to a festive meal. They asked, “What could be the occasion for such an elaborate meal during the middle of the week?”
Rav Mendel said somewhat cryptically, “It’s a seudas hoda’ah,” but did not elaborate.
During the meal itself, the Rebbe explained what he had meant. “After recuperating from an illness, it is customary to offer thanks to Hashem with an elaborate meal. We all know the reason for this; the person is celebrating the fact that he has recovered. Now, when we consider the fact that all sickness comes from sin, this seems a strange thing to celebrate. Usually a criminal who was punished for committing a crime would hardly celebrate when the court finishes punishing him! Quite the contrary—after it is all over, the former criminal tries to move on and forget the past. So why do we celebrate recovering from illness?”
All the participants sat attentively, waiting to hear his answer.
The Rebbe continued, “What we are celebrating is what Chazal taught: being healed from a sickness is an outward sign that one’s sins have been forgiven, and one can now enjoy a true connection to the Hashem unencumbered by the sins that had been serving as obstacles. Similarly, Chazal taught that the sins of a person who has been publicly embarrassed are all forgiven.”
He concluded joyfully, “Today, I was shamed so thoroughly in public I am sure that all my sins have been pardoned. So this meal is my thanks to the Eibeshter for granting me a clean slate!”

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Transcending Pain

Chazal teach that one may place a vessel beneath a leak even on Shabbos so as to avoid damage from dripping water. The Mekor Chaim, zt”l, explains that this dripping symbolizes the incessant nature of yesurim that seem to linger on endlessly. One must make oneself a fitting vessel to receive suffering by refraining from complaining or feeling resentful against the Creator for them. How is it possible to actually do this, though?
Rebbe Aizik’l of Kaliv, zt”l, suffered from chronic illness. Despite this, it was well known that he never complained and was always very positive. His pains were so obviously oppressive that it astounded everyone who came in contact with him that he could bear them at all, much less maintain a positive attitude in the face of them. It seemed hardly human that he could transcend his physical suffering to such a degree.
Once, the Rebbe’s doctor, who had certainly seen his share of hard cases, asked his patient how he bore up with such fortitude.
“I simply don’t understand,” the doctor said, “What gives you the strength to bear your pain for such a long period of time?”
The Rebbe responded, “You have to look at it as I do. All the pain that was, is already gone. The pain that is yet to come is not here to bother me, so why should I let it get me down? The only thing I need to bear is this one moment’s pain. Is it really worth getting upset about one instant of suffering?”

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Breaking Free

It is hard for us to imagine the subtlety and insidiousness of the early Haskalah movement as it penetrated into the observant communities of Eastern Europe. One of the gedolei Yisroel once commented on the success of the so-called “enlighteners.” “The same evil inclination that entices us to be lazy in our avodah is what energizes the maskil to get up in the morning and fight Yiddishkeit!”
The influence of the Haskalah has continued unabated, and contemporary gedolim have always been vigilant on stemming its influence in the yeshivos. Rav Shach, zt”l, once advised a boy whose friend seemed to be moving quite quickly in the wrong direction to be very careful. The Rosh Yeshiva chided the boy, “Don’t you know that you have enough negativity inside yourself to help his warped opinions find a comfortable home in your heart?”
During the last two hundred years, the maskilim have found very fertile ground in the hearts of the young and foolish. Despite their sometimes sophisticated-seeming arguments, most of them didn’t go adrift because of deep intellectual questions. They became “freethinkers” so that they could act out their hearts’ desires unimpeded by conscience.
One time, a certain chassid was slowly moving away from his traditional practices and beliefs, and was gradually becoming more modern in his actions and dress. When this young man visited with the Damasek Eliezer of Vizhnitz, zt”l, the Rebbe asked pointedly, “What has happened to you?”
The young man replied, “Rebbe, what can I do? I have a strong yetzer hara which does not allow me to break free of acting on my bad impulses.”
The Rebbe responded, “The Gemara in Yevamos 46a states that declaring something hekdesh is one way in which a person can remove a lien from an object. But this can be read another way: through consecrating and sanctifying yourself, you can remove the yetzer hara’s lien on yourself! If you wish to be freed from your bad impulses you must act to sanctify yourself right now!”

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Rebuke and Accountability

In the synagogue of Radin, a sign hung on the wall: “Anyone who dares to raise his hand against his friend will be placed in cherem!” Once, a notorious bully beat another Jew viciously and the Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, instructed the shamash to punish the offender accordingly. Fearing a reprisal, the shamash conveniently absented himself from shul for the following tefillah.
As soon as the Chofetz Chaim noticed the absence of the shamash, he took matters into his own hands. The gadol ascended the bima himself and declared, “In order to fulfill the mitzvah of ‘fearing no man,’ (Devarim 1:17) I hereby pronounce so-and-so in cherem until he repents and asks forgiveness!”
A few hours later, the bully entered the shul in a contrite frame of mind, admitted his sin before everyone, and publicly begged forgiveness of his victim!
The Chofetz Chaim often directed other Rabbonim to actively rebuke their congregations. He would say, “Picture the heavenly judgment of an average baal habayis. The court will ask him if he set aside time for Torah study, and he will also be asked all the other questions normally put before the deceased. The defendant will offer various excuses but none will be accepted because the heavenly court knows the absolute truth. Finally, the baal habayis will try to exonerate himself by saying that the rav of his community never told him anything was wrong! And this excuse will be accepted to a certain degree because you never rebuked your flock. Why allow the sins of all those people to rest on your shoulders?”

Monday, October 27, 2008

Yiras Shamayim and Jewish Identity

The Torah Temima, zt”l, commented in his memoirs that the American obsession with the pursuit of money bred an odd sort of commitment to Judaism. People, unfortunately, just didn’t take the time to consider their priorities. As an example of this, he records that, in 1873, a fairly large American congregation was blessed with a G-d-fearing rabbi, but their very capable chazzan had far less yiras Shomayim. In this particular congregation, the custom was to recite all of the yotzros without exception. When the chazzan decided to lighten his load by skipping one of the yotzros during Shabbos Parshas Zachor, the rabbi was justifiably incensed. He delivered a fiery sermon about the importance of guarding every single custom of the Jewish people. The congregation was very moved by the derasha, and subsequently fired the chazzan for trifling with time-honored minhag.
A few years later, the congregation hired a different rabbi, one who identified himself as “progressive.” As soon as he assumed his new post, the rabbi delivered a fiery sermon about how unnecessary it is to continue saying, “v’sechezena eineinu.” This very same congregation that had fired its chazzan for disregarding tradition immediately obeyed the rabbi and changed the prayers! How can going to shul keep my Jewish identity pure if I don’t know what a pure Jewish identity is to begin with!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Antidote to Chutzpah

The Medrash writes that the tzitz rectifies the character defect we call chutzpah. The truth is that all sins are rooted in this defect, because sin means taking the vitality that our Creator invests in us from moment to moment for granted, and abusing it to go against Hashem’s Will. But the tzitz helps us overcome this natural tendency, because the inscription of Hashem’s Name upon it reminds us that everything is really from Him alone, and this serves as a powerful antidote to the force of severe judgment in the world. The Me’or V’Shemesh explains similarly that every righteous person in every generation can also overturn the Divine attribute of Judgment on a smaller scale by contemplating his cosmic smallness and dependence deeply, until it leads him to a feeling of complete nullification of the ego.
Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev zt”l arrived late to morning prayers one day, to the great surprise of his students. When he finally came, they waited until after shacharis to ask what had held him up.
“You know,” he said, “that I cannot pray until I really feel that I am the smallest and least person in the entire world. This morning, a poor Jewish swineherd came to my door, asking me advice about his filthy charges. When he left, I tried and tried, but I couldn’t manage to see how he was on a higher level than me! Finally, I succeeded, and so here I am.”
“But how could that ignorant Jew be greater than you, Rebbe?” they asked.
“Well,” Rav Levi Yitzchak smiled, “I realized that if I were him, I would never have come to ask advice of the local Rav!”

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Most Difficult Commandment

The disciples of the Gaon of Vilna, zt”l, once asked their master to reveal to them the most difficult commandment to fulfill. The Gaon’s answer surprised them: “והיית אך שמח”—“And you shall be always happy!” Although his answer seemed counterintuitive, after some consideration they realized that it truly is almost impossible to be joyous for eight straight days even when things are going well!
During World War II, Jewish blood was spilled like water. As the war was reaching its end, Jews in America already knew full well what was happening in Europe. Everyone felt the pain of the loss of loved ones from der alter heim. During the very last Simchas Torah before the war’s end, the Bostoner Rebbe, Rav Pinchas Dovid Horovitz, zt”l, held a festive tisch as was his custom. The atmosphere was so joyous and uplifting that those in attendance got carried away and burst into spirited song.
Suddenly, from a corner of the shul, an anguished voice called out: “Rebbe! Our brothers’ blood is being spilt in Europe, and we’re singing?”
The singing stopped abruptly as the man’s words cast a pall over the celebrants.
The Rebbe immediately called out, verbatim, the immortal words of the Rambam in the end of hilchos lulav: “The joy with which one does the commandments because of the love of the Creator who commanded them is a great avodah.”
The Rebbe then posed a rhetorical question, “Is joy really such a hard avodah? Doesn’t it just burst forth spontaneously until you can’t restrain yourself from dancing?”
His voice rang out with its own answer. “It must be that the Rambam was speaking of a time like our own, when our hearts are filled with worry and our eyes are filled with tears! Now is the time that simcha is a great avodah! So let us sing and dance to our Creator, and in the merit of this great mitzvah, may Hashem stop this terrible bloodshed!”

Shemini Atzeres and the Sukkah

Once, the disciples of the Yehudi Hakadosh, zt”l, (who had himself been a disciple of the Chozeh of Lublin, zt”l) and the followers of the Chozeh of Lublin engaged in a similar dispute. The clear practice of the Chozeh of Lublin was to return inside his house on Shemini Atzeres, and so his students felt justified in doing the same. The Yehudi Hakadosh, on the other hand, always ate in the sukkah on Shemini Atzeres, but his practice was open to different interpretations. Because the Yehudi Hakadosh took his meals in an enclosed porch all year long which served as his sukkah during the holiday after the roof was removed, it could not be said with great certainty whether he really meant to eat in the sukkah on Shemini Atzeres, or was simply eating in the room of the house where he normally ate.
The students of the Chozeh were indignant that the Yehudi meant to eat in the sukkah and was departing from his own, and their, Rebbe’s custom, while the Yehudi’s own followers maintained that he meant to eat in the house, and did not disagree with his own Rebbe at all. But the Chozeh’s students pursued the conflict and reasoned, “If he really wanted to ‘return to the house’ he should have ordered the roof closed!”
Rav Chaim Meir Yechiel Shapira of Mogelnitz, zt”l, once commented on this particular machlokes: “Whatever they do has a halachic basis, so the main thing in such an instance is to avoid the fruitless arguing that leads to sin’as chinam!”
The Vilna Gaon, zt”l, held that the gemara is conclusive regarding dwelling (and sleeping) in the sukkah on Shemini Atzeres. Once, it turned bitterly cold on Shemini Atzeres, but the Gaon insisted on proper fulfillment of the halachah.
He said, “Although it is extremely cold and we are not obligated to sleep in the sukkah, let us bundle up really well to make sure that we will not feel discomfort so that we can sleep there anyway. That way, we will provide a living example that one is also obligated to sleep in the sukkah in chutz la’aretz on Shemini Atzeres!”

The Beating of the Aravos

The medrash writes that the arava represents the lips. What, then, does the vigorous beating of the aravos on the ground signify? One lesson we can learn is that through continuous, vigorous, and sincere prayer—even just repeatedly crying: “hoshah na” on this holy day— anything can be accomplished.
But Rav Yehudah d’Modena, zt”l, teaches a different lesson: since the arava represents a Jew who is devoid of Torah and mitzvos, the beating it gets signifies that suffering in this world purifies even such a person and makes him worthy of eternal reward.
A young boy from London afflicted with cancer was taken to the States for treatment where the doctors said that if they go through with their plan, the boy could live a few more weeks. But would he be willing to go through terrible pain just to buy a few more weeks of life? The treatment alone would incapacitate him. At most, he would be able to daven for a few moments a day.
After hearing how difficult the course of treatment would be, the boy decided to refuse further medical intervention. Rabbi Ezriel Tauber, shlit”a, was called in to speak with him, and after their conversation the boy’s attitude changed completely.
He told his doctors, “I’ve decided that I do want the treatment along with all of the suffering that it will bring.”
What had Rabbi Tauber told this young boy? “If you live another second believing in Hashem even without pain, it’s worth absolutely everything. But with your pain, the reward that is yours cannot be measured at all.”
The boy lived a few more weeks, and his family testified later that until the very end he exhibited such willing acceptance of his suffering, even joy in it, because he could feel that every instant of pain sanctified by belief in Hashem made such a difference.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Unbending Pride

The general rule that blessings are to be said before performing mitzvos, and not afterward. The brochah is our expression of gratitude to Hashem for His kindness in giving us the mitzvah. Making a blessing is the natural outgrowth of taking joy and pride in the mitzvos that we do.
The Rambam, zt”l, was born in Cordoba, Spain. Before his bar mitzvah, the city was conquered by the “Almohadim,” a fanatically religious Moslem sect that believed in proselytizing by the sword and eventually ruled over Spain and North Africa. The Rambam’s family fled their onslaught and embarked on a long exile, finally finding refuge in Fez, Morocco. Although the Almohadim also controlled this city, in Fez they allowed Jews to remain without official recognition.
One Sukkos, the Rambam was proudly walking with his arba minim to synagogue and his unusually buoyant demeanor attracted the notice of a passing Moslem officer.
“Why are you walking with leaves and branches like a crazy man?” he asked.
The Rambam immediately responded, “You could call a person who throws stones crazy, but there is nothing outlandish about fulfilling the Creator’s will by taking the four species on Sukkos.” With that, the Rambam continued on his way.
A passing Moslem overheard his words and chided the officer, “How can you have missed his impudent reference to our own religious practices? He was obviously alluding to our custom of throwing stones in the holy city of Mecca! That infidel ought to be punished!”
The officer was so enraged that he ordered the Rambam captured and killed. As soon as the search began, the Rambam heard that he was a wanted man and fled to Eretz Yisrael. From there, he went down to Egypt and settled outside of Cairo, where he became the gadol ha’dor.
Like the Rambam, we should be so filled with pride when we go to make our blessing on the arba minim that it is noticeable to any passerby on the street!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Lulav and Proper Rebuke

The Torah’s term for a Lulav, “kapos temarim”, is defined by a process of elimination. Abaye rejects the proposition that the kufra, a lulav whose spine and leaves have hardened somewhat and been rendered prickly, can be used for the arba minim.
Rav Yissachar Dov of Belz, zt”l, was always careful to infuse all his interactions with other Jews with genuine love. He felt that the only effective way to reach out to estranged Jews and draw them back to Torah observance is through gentle and pleasant re-direction and education. However, one of the Belzer Rebbe’s most prominent chassidim was known to be a terrible kapdan, a harshly judgmental person.
One day, the Rebbe approached this chassid and tried to explain the error of his ways. “Abaye’s proof that the arba minim cannot include the lulav in its prickly kufra state is based on the verse, ‘The Torah’s ways are pleasant, and all her paths are peace.’ (Mishlei 3:17)”
The Rebbe explained, “This means that even the most beautiful lulav is disqualified if it pricks! Kal v’chomer that we should avoid jabbing at others in righteous indignation with painfully sharp words. Quite the contrary; the only way to achieve Hashem’s purpose is through gentle and loving persuasion.”
Sometimes, however, even gentle methods fail to bring positive results. Rav Naftali Amsterdam, zt”l, once asked his mentor, Rav Yisroel Salanter, zt”l, how to overcome the natural tendency to become frustrated when a wayward Jew refuses to accept moral correction.
Rav Yisroel answered, “Chazal said that the words of a person with fear of heaven are heard. This means that if the person offering gentle rebuke is being ignored, the one doing the talking must lack yiras shomayim. Why, then, should he be frustrated with his friend? Let the speaker instead direct his anger toward himself for lacking the requisite fear of heaven!”

Thursday, October 16, 2008

"Na'anuim": Shaking the Lulav

During the time of Rav Moshe of Rozvadov, zt”l, arba minim were scarce and so many bochurim and children did not have the privilege of having their own for the mitzvah. While the Rebbe would do the na’anuim, adults who had already finished that round of using their arba minim would pass them around to those children who did not have.
Once, one of the children pushed forward to receive an esrog from an adult and disturbed the Rebbe. He paused during the na’anuim and looked at the child for a moment, after which he finished up the remaining motions perfunctorily, not in the deliberate way that was his wont.
Afterward the Rebbe wondered aloud, “Why don’t the parents make sure their children do not disturb the adults? The na’anuim are very powerful and should be said with the utmost intention. The children who can shake the lulav are obligated—but not at the expense of someone else’s kavanah!”
When Rav Yisroel of Ruzhin, zt”l, was a child he spent a Sukkos with Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, zt”l. As an impressionable young boy he saw how the Rav did the na’anuim with boundless love and joy. In his fervor, Rav Levi Yitzchak was all too liable to break his lulav unintentionally, and so he always had someone at the ready with another lulav to replace the one that had been shaken a little too enthusiastically.
After watching the proceedings, the young Yisroel held his arba minim close as he stood below the amud and remarked, “There is a person so full of love of Hashem that he breaks his lulav. Yet there is also a different type of person on whom you see nothing at all. Such a person is so full of awe in Hashem’s power that he hardly moves a muscle!”

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Lulav and Tesuvah

Once, just before Sukkos, Rav Yisroel of Ruzhin, zt”l, arrived at a certain town and all of the Jewish residents turned out to greet him. Among them was a certain “free-thinker” who was careless about mitzvah observance and liked to ridicule gedolim whenever he could.
Thinking that the arrival of the renowned Rebbe of Ruzhin would provide ideal material for leitzanus, he had decided to join the others. Just as he joined the crowd surrounding the Rebbe, Rav Yisroel began to tell a story:
“Once there was a great king who owned a very precious watch set with priceless gems. It kept perfect time, and it was always with him. One day, the king decided to travel and so he entrusted this prized possession to a favored nobleman. Before leaving, he warned the man: ‘Make sure to guard it with your life!’
“After the king set out, the nobleman just couldn’t resist. He took the watch out of its case and began to play around with it. Suddenly, it slipped from his hands, fell, and broke.”
The Rebbe then cried out, “Oy! The king’s watch! How can I return it to him this way?! What will the King say! How will I stand before Him!”
At this, the “free-thinker” fainted dead away!
Over his inert form, the Rebbe pronounced: “This man has fainted because he believes that his life, like the watch, cannot be repaired. But the truth is that this is what the straight-spined lulav comes to teach us: even though we’ve just passed through Yom Kippur and admitted our guilt for our many sins, we can still straighten ourselves out. We are not like the nobleman in the story! We can still repair all that we have destroyed!”

Monday, October 13, 2008

Spirit of the Law: Hilchos Sukkah

Hilchos Sukkah 134:1-2
1. “…It is a mitzvah incumbent on each person to exert himself personally to build his own sukkah and place the s’chach on it. Even if he is a distinguished person, he should not feel that this is beneath his dignity since performing the mitzvah of sukkah himself is a great honor…”

Building a sukkah must be done not only on a physical level but on a spiritual level as well, and the main way to accomplish this is through prayer. Rebbe Nachman teaches that we should pray for even the most minor-seeming physical need, and we should certainly pray to attain our far more important spiritual goals. There are really two main ways in which we engage in prayer: one is most accessible when we don’t have emotional energy and are in a “down” phase, while the second is more appropriate for when we are feeling spiritually healthy and “up.”

What is the first path like? Once, on the first night of Sukkos, Rav Nachman of Tulchin remarked to his mentor, Reb Nosson of Breslov, zt”l, “After working so hard today to build the sukkah, I feel able to taste much more of the holiness of the sukkah!”

Reb Nosson responded, “However, you still haven’t tried to cry out to Hashem the whole day, ‘Ribbono shel olam! Master of the universe! Please give me a taste of the true holiness of the Sukkah!’ Imagine what kind of taste in the mitzvah of sukkah you would be feeling after such a prayer!”[1] So the first way is to keep pleading with Hashem as much as I can: “Please give me a taste of the holiness of Sukkos!”

But the tool of prayer becomes so much more powerful when we learn more deeply about the meaning of the mitzvah, and then transform what we have learned into prayer. As Rebbe Nachman taught, this transformation generates the most lofty sha’ashuim, pleasure and joy, on High. To help us open our minds to the deeper levels inherent in the mitzvah, let’s contemplate a lesson from Likutei Halachos…

Reb Nosson explains that one of the purposes of sukkah is to internalize the imminence of Hashem even when we feel very distant from spirituality. This is why we are obligated to eat and sleep in our sukkah. (Admittedly, the custom is not to sleep in the sukkah outside of Israel for a variety of reasons. It is important to note however that a number of great Rabbonim and Tzaddikim slept in their Sukkos regardless. One luminary who slept in his sukkah regardless of the weather or the presence of hostile non-Jews was the Vilna Gaon). Now, as we all know, how we eat and how much we eat (or overeat!) is one of the main causes of our feeling distant from Hashem. Similarly, when we sleep, we are experiencing a mini-death, one that usually, and unfortunately, can make us feel further from Hashem as well. It is only a very unusual person who will feel connected to Hashem while eating and sleeping. Since the sukkah is a living space almost always far more vulnerable than our usual home, eating and sleeping in it is meant to help us feel greater closeness to Hashem while we are engaged in the mundane world and at our most vulnerable. It is this very vulnerability that underscores our great dependence on Hashem, our need to rely on Him and trust in His protection. While dwelling in the ‘shade of faith’ (tzilah d’meheimenusa, as the Zohar Hakadosh writes), our sukkos elevate the acts that cause us to feel distant from Hashem by their very nature.[2]

Many say that the Torah of Ishbitz and the teachings of Rav Tzaddok HaKohen, zt”l, are a kind of continuation of the concepts found in Likutei Halachos, and so it seems that a little interjection of the Ishbitzer Rebbe, zt”l, wouldn’t be out of place here…

The Mei Hashiloach, zt”l, explains that the true meaning of the mitzvah of sukkah is to, “…leave one’s permanent dwelling and reside in a temporary one.” We must leave behind our natural tendency to think that the physical world is an independent and fixed reality and realize instead that it is just a transient mask that conceals Hashem’s presence. This is not a mere intellectual exercise; we must feel that each new moment of existence for every single creation emanates directly from Hashem. This is the foundation of all Divine service.

During his younger years, the Beis Halevi, zt”l, learned in a designated room in his father-in-law’s house. His father-in-law, a chossid of Rav Moshe of Kovrin, zt”l, had agreed at the beginning of their relationship that he would never disturb his son-in-law’s study for any reason whatsoever.

Once, Rav Moshe came to visit at his follower’s home. Although the Beis Halevi’s father-in-law wanted his Rebbe to meet his son-in-law, he couldn’t see how it would be possible to introduce them since this would mean interrupting the Beis Halevi’s constant study. On the day his Rebbe was going to leave, Rav Moshe finally had an idea. He couldn’t interrupt his son-in law…but someone else could! When he noticed that the Beis Halevi had left his room for a moment, he placed Rav Moshe’s luggage inside.

When the Beis Halevi returned and resumed his study, the Rebbe knocked at the door. “What do you want?” the Beis Halevi asked.

“My bags are here. May I come in?”

The Beis Halevi was just then learning the final section of Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim. Rav Moshe asked, “What about the first subsection? Do you manage to fulfill it?”

The Beis Halevi answered, “I work on ‘shivisi Hashem linegdi samid’ (‘I will place Hashem before me always’) fifteen times a day. But I’m always troubled that although the Ramoh says that imagining being in the all-knowing presence of the King immediately fills a person with fear, it takes me time to feel it.”

The Rebbe explained, “That is because you are thinking with your head. Fear of heaven resides in one’s heart, and it takes time to reach from your head to your heart. That’s why the Ramoh says to, ‘…place it on his heart’—not on his head!’”

2. “…Regarding the walls of a sukkah, there are many complicated halachos which not everyone knows… For this reason, it is better to make a four-walled sukkah. If one can’t afford this, he should at least make a sukkah of three full walls…”

At the beginning of Maseches Sukkah, the Gemara teaches that one must have at least two walls and a tefach (handsbreadth) of a third wall that are at least ten tefachim high, and not higher than twenty amos (cubits). Since there are many complexities regarding how to arrange the walls, it is best to have at least three full walls. (It is even better to have four walls so that the wind should not shake the sukkah or extinguish the Yom Tov candles, as the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch explains here.)

Two full walls and a third wall of a tefach width has a very special spiritual significance. The Arizal explains that in the verse, “His left arm is below my head, and His right arm embraces me,” (Shir HaShirim 2:6) the left alludes to the attribute of justice, and the right alludes to the attribute of mercy. This is why “the left arm” represents the Yomim Noraim, the season of judgment. Conversely, “the right arm” represents Sukkos, the embodiment of Hashem’s loving protection. We can see this love in the halachic parameters of a sukkah. While sitting within it, we dwell in the loving embrace of the Divine Presence. As we see from the Gemara, the Torah requires two proper walls while the third can have a width as small as a tefach. The two walls symbolize the upper segment of the arm and the forearm, and the remaining tefach represents the hand. This loving embrace is extended to every Jew, for Hashem’s “right arm” is always extended to accept the sincere repentance of any Jew, no matter what he or she might have done. Many gedolei Yisroel adopt a similarly forgiving attitude toward their fellow Jews, choosing to overlook their flaws and focus instead on the fact that we are all Hashem’s children, and all beloved to Him.

Rav Chaim Brim, zt”l, recounted that the Belzer Rebbe, Rav Aharon Rokeach, zt”l, was once walking on Shabbos with his gabbai when they suddenly ran into a group of Jewish men, women, and children. The people were singing as they strolled, and as they passed, the Rebbe turned to his gabbai to forestall any comments. “Hush! Don’t say anything to them—they must be singing because they are enjoying the holy Shabbos.” Rav Chaim explained, “Now, if they really meant to rejoice in the holiness of Shabbos, why didn’t the gabbai see this himself? The truth is that their singing had nothing to do with kedushah at all. But the Belzer Rebbe could only see the good in other Jews. He silenced the gabbai because he didn’t want this spoiled by the other man’s interpretation of their behavior. He also meant to say, “Don’t say a word, they don’t know any better. How can you judge them? On the contrary—say as much good about them as possible!”

[1] Avaneha Barrzel

[2] Likutei Halachos, Hilchos Shabbos 7:54

How to Inject Spirituality into your Sukkos

Spiritual Dan commented: "...I'm wondering the connection between the beautification of the mitzvah of the sukkah and the esrog, and the spirituality thereof. If we didn't luck out and our esrog is not as nice as it could be, how can we put the frustration aside and achieve the same high level of spirituality from the mitzvah? I guess it's related to your post: even if you have a halachic sukka, what's to say your spirituality couldn't be yet higher if you had beautified it more?"
Excellent question. By not loosing sight of the importance of the joy we feel while fulfilling Hashem's commandments. Although joy is not as great as doing actual mitzvos,Hashem's desire for us in this world, joy is of paramount importance while doing a mitzvah. Rabeinu Bachayah writes that every mitzvah has a separate yet intrinsic mitzvah: the joy we take in the mitzvah. He also says that the joy one feels in the mitzvah is even more important than the mitvah itself!
So we can inject more spirituality in our mitzvos by striving to feel the joy of the mitzvah. Even if you don't yet feel it, if you daven and yearn to feel it you will eventually "get it" as discussed at very great length in Likutei Halachos.
Now I know what you are probably thinking: Didn't Rebbe Nachman say that it is a great mitzvah to always be joyous? The answer is: Yes. But he didn't mean the happines of someone who won the lottery or whose sports team won the World Series. He primarily meant rejoicing in Hashem which is included in the mitzvah to love Hashem, one of the six perpetual mitzvos (as explained at great length by the Shela Hakadosh and many other sources.)Of course this joy is compounded if one is doing another mitzvah as well.Rebbe Nachman himself says that inappropriate joy is a "strange fire" and certainly no mitzvah.
But the first rule is Azamra! We must concentrate on the good in the mitzvah and forget about the negative. We have a choice. Either focus on the negative or rejoice in what we have. Remember, do your best to get the best but don't forget to enjoy every instant of each matter what!
Hashem should help us always rejoice in His kindness and His mitzvos especially during these elevated times!

The Dimensions of the Sukkah

The Likutei Halachos zt”l writes that the dimensions of the sukkah represent the different ways in which different people grasp spirituality. A sukkah is kosher if it is at least ten tefachim high. This minimal dimension represents the grasp of a simple person. Every complete spiritual unit comprises ten increments, representing the ten sefiros. The simple person manifests this basic ten-dimensional building unit of every tzelem Elokim in a “smaller” manner. The Torah scholar, on the other hand, has a greater grasp—represented by the height of ten amos. A person whose knowledge is constantly growing is always bringing his mental potential into actuality. It is as though he has the ten amos of his sukkah of understanding plus another ten amos of potential that he is about to inhabit. Twenty amos is the absolute maximum height of the sukkah because anyone who tries to grasp beyond his mental capacity invariably falls. This is because most falls are caused by trying to do more than we realistically can or should. As the Zohar says “too much oil extinguishes the lamp.”
If we build a platform, however, the sukkah is kosher even above this height. The platform represents rising to a higher spiritual level, which opens up new horizons of potential. As long as we are standing on the platform of genuine spiritual growth, we are in a kosher sukkah.
On the first night of Sukkos, Rav Moshe of Kovrin zt”l was standing in his sukkah, profoundly moved by the holiness of the day and this special mitzvah.
He said, “The walls of the sukkah appear to be of wood, and the s’chach looks like a bunch of branches. But the truth is that every part of the sukkah embodies holy names of Hashem. Every element of the sukkah has deep kabbalistic meaning! My own Rebbe said: with this mitzvah we enter into holiness with our shoes on! He meant that even the mundane human needs of the simplest Jew are transformed into lofty mitzvos through the sukkah. We eat and drink and sleep, and it is all a mitzvah!”

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sukkah and Spirituality

The Sefas Emes zt”l explains that we must go out to the sukkah with our entire selves: heart, soul, and our possessions. Through the mitzvah of sukkah one can obtain a lofty knowledge of Hashem and experience the spiritual freedom that the Jewish people merited during the redemption from Mitzrayim. True freedom means not being tied to the material, and we follow in the ways of our forefathers by stepping out of our comfort zone completely, and by entering the apparently insecure space of the sukkah trusting in Hashem’s protection.
The halacha is that even if one’s head and most of his body is in the sukkah if his table is outside it is as if he ate outside the sukkah. This teaches a very important lesson: it is insufficient to have our head and most of our bodies in the sukkah— we must also take steps to ensure that we are not drawn after our “table” back into the material world. We must be ever vigilant to completely sever our ties of dependence on the apparent material security of this world represented by the table. While we may think that we have fully entered the holiness of the sukkah, that we are deeply connected to holiness, leaving our table in the house shows that we may still be very connected to the diras keva. The Chovos Halevavos zt”l writes that this world and the next are mutually exclusive, like fire and water that cannot exist together and maintain their integrity. We are absorbed with either the material or the spiritual; we cannot be totally immersed in both.
The Alter of Novhardok zt”l told the following parable:
“Sometimes you meet a person who is really enslaved to his desires in body and soul, but he believes that he is free of materialism. He is like a prisoner with a police escort. To all who see them walking arm in arm he says, ‘I am this man’s master. He does as I say since he is my servant.’ But if anyone wanted to learn the truth of their relationship, there is one sure test. Ask him to try to get away from the police officer. Let us see just how free he is then!”

Saturday, October 11, 2008

When to Listen to your Wife

Several talmidim of Rav Shach, zt”l, came for a visit shortly before Sukkos. The moment they were ushered in, the Rebbetzin received a call. The caller was very happy to inform them that he had located a lulav that was completely free of any suspicion of being from the growth of the shemittah year. Since that year was motzei shvi’is, this was no small achievement.
When she told the Rosh Yeshivah, he was immediately consumed with a powerful longing to rush and obtain the lulav. On the other hand, what of the guests? It was certainly incorrect for him to leave them stranded waiting for his return. Not surprisingly, Rav Shach found a way around this. He asked the group, “Perhaps you would care to join me as I go to meet the person bringing my lulav?”
The Rebbetzin said, “But why go at all? He is bringing it here and will arrive in just a few minutes!”
The Rosh Yeshiva would not be moved. “Even just to go to some trouble for the sake of a mitzvah is itself a mitzvah. When it comes to a mitzvah I can’t wait even an instant! I rush to fulfill any mitzvah!”
As they was walking to meet the man bringing the lulav, Rav Shach explained further, “Although I always listen to my wife and am willing to go to almost any length for her, I could not listen in this matter. This is an issue that relates to my ruchniyus, my spiritual life. Although Chazal taught that one should consider his wife’s opinion in anything relating to the material, in spiritual matters one should not necessarily listen to his wife if she tries to deter him from ruchniyus by telling him not to bother making an effort. While it is true that even in ruchniyus one must ensure that his decisions do not adversely affect another person, it is still his own responsibility to decide what is fitting and do it promptly!”

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Why Rejoice on Erev Yom Kippur?

Our sages teach that one who eats on Erev Yom Kippur is considered as if he had actually fasted on both the ninth and the tenth of the month.
Someone once approached Rav Pinchas of Koritz, zt”l, and asked, “Why is eating on Erev Yom Kippur as great as fasting?”
The Rav explained, “Eating a festive meal today is our way of celebrating Hashem’s kindness in forgiving our sins on Yom Kippur, and this is how we demonstrate our faith that Hashem is kind and forgiving. Since it is in the merit of this faith that we are forgiven, our eating on this precious day can achieve so much.”
Rav Meir Marom, zt”l, was the Rav in Kovrin and had been a student of Rav Moshe of Kovrin, zt”l, a great Chassidic master. Aside from Chassidim, there were also many German Jews living in Kovrin who occasionally displayed some curiousity about the avodos of the Chassidim living among them. One Erev Yom Kippur, a local German Jew visited the Rav to see how he conducted his meal. The visitor was surprised to find the Rav in a state of euphoria. It was as if the Rav thought it was Simchas Torah instead of Erev Yom Kippur! This seemed strange to the German Jew, and not in keeping with the solemnity of the day. Although the visitor did not say what was on his mind, Rav Meir discerned his confusion.
“You wonder why I am so joyous?” asked the Rav. “Why shouldn’t I be joyous? Let me tell you a parable to help you understand. Once there was a king who announced he was clearing out his dungeons. All prisoners were to be granted full amnesty. Whom do you suppose this proclamation made the happiest? Obviously, the very worst perpetrator! That is why I am so festive. When the biggest sinner hears that all will be pardoned tomorrow, he certainly feels joyful anticipation and gratitude!”

Monday, October 6, 2008

"Words Have the Power of Life and Death"

Our Rabbi’s teach that if a person is meritorious, his days are lengthened, but if not, they are reduced, G-d forbid. Rav Yosef Shani, shlit”a, of Yerusahalyim, once shared a family story that illustrates this idea most dramatically:
Years ago, on Erev Yom Kippur, one of the Rav’s uncles was forced by his employer to show up for work until mid-day. “I know that you would rather not come, but you won’t have to do anything,” the boss reassured him. “Just sit at the counter in case someone comes in, and you can go home early.”
So Rav Shani’s uncle assumed his post, and spent the entire morning immersed in Tehillim. During that period, Rav Shani’s grandmother had been very ill, and it appeared as though she might not live through the next day or two. As the Rav’s uncle recited Tehillim, his heart was with his ailing mother.
Just then, a stranger entered the store. “What are you doing?” asked the man.
“My mother is ill, it is just before the holiest day of the year, and I am reciting Tehillim.”
The stranger scoffed, “Do you think that those words are going to do any good? You might as well read names out of the phone book!”
The older man was astonished, “What, don’t you believe in anything?”
The customer proclaimed, “I only believe in what I can see.”
Feeling a sudden inspiration, the Rav’s uncle asked, “If I pay you one British pound, will you sell me ten years of your life?”
The other man laughed, “You’ll pay good money for a fantasy? I’ll give you ten years of my life for that pound, and tonight while you’re fasting, I’m going to buy myself a bottle of Arak (spirits) and make a party!” The two signed a short contract and dated it. Then the man bought what he needed and left.
By the time Sukkos passed, Rav Shani’s grandmother had recovered, and everyone forgot about the incident.
Many years later, Rav Shani’s uncle himself passed away, and after the shloshim, the family went to dismantle his apartment. Lodged in a crevice in a closet, they discovered a slip of paper—and remembered that their grandmother had passed away exactly ten years after that fateful Erev Yom Kippur!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

To Fast or Not to Fast?

The Shem Mishmuel zt”l once wrote to his son-in-law Rav Yaacov Tsvi zt”l: “I heard from my daughter…that the doctor feels that you are recovering, may Hashem send you complete recovery. Yom Kippur is approaching and I want to warn you not to act overly righteous by fasting if the doctor tells you to eat. If he says that eating less than a shiur is not potentially dangerous to your health, then do so. If he says that this is not enough for you, G-d forbid that you should be stringent and endanger yourself. He who commanded us to fast on Yom Kippur commanded us to eat for health reasons. Do not think that only an immediate danger allows one to eat. Even when there is the shadow of a doubt, one must eat… This is the meaning of the gemara in Yoma: If the sick person says that he doesn’t need to eat but the doctor says he does, we listen to the doctor. This is even in the case of a sick person who himself understands the nature of sickness…even if he is a real expert, we still listen to the doctor.
“I am certain that you recall what you have heard from me many times that the main element of Judaism is to nullify one’s own understanding before that of the Torah and the chachomim. Even if they tell you that your left is really right. This is the most important avodah of a Jew, and by eating as ordered by the doctor you will be doing this distinguished avodah. Therefore you should feel no pain in the event of your having to eat, because in such an eventuality you will actually be doing a more precious avodah than one who fasts!”
But the above letter only holds true regarding one who is truly endangered. Before eating on a fast day one must be meticulously honest as illustrated in the following amusing story:
Once, on Yom Kippur in Slutsk during the time of the Beis Halevi zt”l, a certain wealthy man felt faint quite suddenly. He began to get hysterical and insisted that he must have water immediately. It seemed to be a case of pikuach nefesh, about which we would permit the normally forbidden even when we are in doubt. To clarify the matter, members of the community approached the Beis Halevi right away for a halachic decision.
The Beis HaLevi zt”l replied, “Of course, he is allowed to drink because of the possibility of it being pikuach nefesh. But, just to make certain that this man really understands the severity of his act, he will have to pay a very large sum of money for each sip that he drinks.”
When the wealthy man heard this, he felt “miraculously” restored. “I’m sure I can wait until the end of the fast,” he said!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Thoughts of Sin

“The thoughts of sin are worse than sin itself.” The Toras Avos zt”l explains that “thoughts” refers to the character defects that are the growth medium in which sin propagates. What makes those defects worse is that they also provide the mechanism by which we rationalize that the sins are actually mitzvos. And if we feel that the sin was justified, that it was a mitzvah, how can we possibly repent of it? Even Yom Kippur cannot atone for sins to which we don’t admit, and that we don’t regret!
The author of the Tumim zt”l was in a certain city for Yom Kippur, seated on the eastern wall next to a prominent resident. His neighbor clearly prayed with intense concentration and emotion, and focused especially on the words, “I am dust during my lifetime, and all the more so after death.” He repeated the phrase over and over, and wept over each word, long after everyone had finished their prayers. When he finally finished, the gabbai notified him that he was to receive a certain aliyah.
The prominent man responded as passionately as he prayed—but quite a bit louder. “Are you meshuggah? How can you give me an aliyah that isn’t shlishi or shishi?”
The Tumim couldn’t restrain himself. “Just this very moment you were crying intensely that you are nothing but dust! How can you possibly argue with the gabbai for not honoring your distinguished self?”
His disgruntled neighbor defended himself. “True, I cried about the fact that I am dust before Hashem…but what does that have to do with how I speak to the gabbai? Just because I’m dust, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have to give me shlishi! What a chutzpah!”
Afterward, the Tumim remarked, “You see how it is possible to cry intensely for a long time that one is just dust, and not believe it for a single moment!”