Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Reading the Megillah

A few reasons why we read Rus on Shavuos:

1)Yalkut Shimoni: the Megillah describes people suffering and enduring difficulty and displaying great self sacrifice. This teaches that one can acquire Torah only through much toil and self sacrifice.

2)Chidah: Rus demonstrates the punishment for selfishness and the importance of kindness. This teaches us that one can only accept the Torah if he does kind acts. A selfish person cannot learn truly learn Torah.

3)Likutei Halahchos: Rus was the ancestor of Dovid Hamelech. He was the paradigm of tefilah and humility, two absolute essentials without which one cannot learn Torah.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Only Dairy on Shavuos?

Chazal learned from the verse, “And you shall rejoice on your festival,” that one discharges his obligation of simchas Yom Tov by eating from the flesh of all sorts of offerings. Mar in Pesachim 109, states that there is no rejoicing without the enjoyment of meat, and that one can eat the meat of any dedicated offering for this.

Someone once asked Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, “If one doesn’t eat meat on Yom Tov, has he neglected the mitzvah of ‘v’samachta b’chagecha?’”

The Gadol answered, “Nowadays, one who doesn’t eat meat on Yom Tov isn’t entirely neglecting the mitzvah of simchas Yom Tov since he anyway cannot eat from the meat of the shelamim with which the Jewish people used to discharge their obligation when the Beis HaMikdash still stood. However, a person who abstains has not done the mitzvah b’hidur, in a really befitting fashion.”

Someone once asked a similar question to Rav Moshe Halberstam, zt”l. “Is it an absolute duty to eat meat on Yom Tov?”

The Posek responded, “Many halachic authorities like the Rambam, the Bach, and the Magen Avrohom, zt”l, hold that it is. But even those who disagree maintain that there is nevertheless a mitzvah to eat meat nowadays even in the absence of a chiyuv.”

Although the Shaagas Aryeh, zt”l, wrote that one can fulfill this mitzvah by eating anything that one enjoys, the Divrei Chaim of Tsanz, zt”l, rejected this out of hand. “His words are not necessarily true. One must eat meat!”

For this reason, the Darkei Teshuva, zt”l, held that one may not eat exclusively dairy on Shavuos. “We find that the Maharshal, zt”l, wrote that it is obvious that one must eat meat to since it is impossible to feel truly satisfied and content without eating meat at the mealI saw by my teachers that on Shavuos by day they would eat dairy at Kiddush and then wash their mouths out and wait a while before they continued to eat the meat meal. This is the proper way to celebrate Shavuos!”

. [Note: They are discussing a person who enjoys eating meat but prefers to eat only dairy or Pareve for whatever reason. If one would not enjoy eating the meat then doing so despite this is a violation of the mitzvah to enjoy Yom Tov.]

Monday, May 25, 2009

Converts and Kabbalas HaTorah

Rav Tzaddok HaKohen zt”l explains that both the written and oral Torah were built on the foundation of converts. Ma’amad Har Sinai is recounted in Parshas Yisro, and Yisro was the “father” of all future converts; similarly, Rabbi Akiva who was the descendant of converts is the foundation of the oral Torah. The ger personifies absolute self-sacrifice for Hashem and His Torah from pure love, for he has freely chosen to abandon a carefree worldly existence for the demands of fulfilling the Will of Hashem.
After coming into contact with the Torah and sincerely devout Jews in France, young count Pototsky, hy”d—the famous ger tzedek of Vilna— became convinced that he could no longer remain a Catholic. He studied with great devotion, and eventually went to Amsterdam and converted; in time, he assumed the name Avraham ben Avraham. After some travel, he settled outside of Vilna, but one day he was informed upon to the authorities. He had long been sought for the “crime” of conversion, and was quickly arrested and awaited the trial for his “capital crime.”
But his non-Jewish family pleaded with him to “return to the fold.” They petitioned him, claiming that he should think of the great humiliation he would cause the family if he was publicly burned to death.
The ger tzedek replied, “It seems difficult on the face of it that some non-Jews convert. Conversely, it is surely remarkable that sometimes we find a Jew who goes away from the religion of his fathers. What could be the meaning of this? We find in that Hashem went to all the nations and offered them the Torah—which they refused—before giving it to the Jewish people. Although the nations as a whole refused, do you think it likely that not one non-Jew was willing to accept the Torah? Surely there were, but Hashem went after the overwhelming majority that rejected Torah. Similarly, although there were plenty of Jews who were not willing to accept the Torah, whom the Vilna Gaon calls Eirev Rav, Hashem followed the overwhelming majority who did.
“Before the righteous moshiach arrives, all of these mixed-up souls require clarification. Why should a non-Jew who truly wanted Torah be denied, and why should a Jew who did not be allowed to keep it? For this, Hashem causes certain non Jewish souls to convert and other Jews to leave the path of their fathers.
“It comes out that although you always thought I was a gentile, you were mistaken since I am actually a Jewish soul from the time of the revelation of the Torah on Sinai. Surely you don’t think you can prevent me from living out my destiny? The only problem I have always had is that I have a body from a non-Jewish mother. What can I do with this treif body? The Torah clearly says we must take care of ourselves physically. But if you want take care of my problem and rectify this body through burning, I will bless you from the bottom of my heart. At that moment I will become a Jew in body and soul!”
After his long imprisonment and a trial for heresy, he was left to await execution. The Vilna Gaon zt”l sent a message to him secretly:
“I am prepared to save you through a mofes, a miracle brought about by manipulating the Divine Name. Will you allow me to do it for you?”
Avraham ben Avraham sent his bold response back to the Gaon: “I do not wish to be saved—I accept the Will of Hashem, and I will gladly die for the sake of His Name!” The ger tzedek of Vilna was burned at the stake on the second day of Shavuos. Like Rabbi Akiva, he left this world filled with joy to do the Will of his Creator—both living examples of the greatness of converts!
This ma’aseh moved the Rebbe of Tzanz, zt”l, so powerfully that he would exclaim several times at the high points of the third meal, “The Graf Pototski said ‘What do we do with the treif body!”

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Berditchever's Wisdom

Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, zt”l, once spotted a young man racing to and fro and shouting, “Gevald! My father-in-law entrusted me with a large sum of money to do business—how could I have lost it all? What am I going to do? He will surely throw me out of his house!”
The Rav called to the weeping young man from his window, “Please come into my house right now.”
When the young man entered, Rav Levi Yitzchak gently assured him that there was no reason to worry. “I am sure the lost money has already been found and will surely soon be in your hands again. But first you should have a little something to eat and drink to calm your shattered nerves.”
As the young man restored himself with a bite to eat, he calmed down. All of a sudden, he jumped up and raced out of the house without so much as an explanation. A short time later he returned very elated, with a broad smile on his face. He cried, “Rebbe! I have found the money! While I was eating I suddenly recalled that I left it on the shtender in the shul where I davened minchah. I rushed to the beis midrash and found it just where I had left it...”
Just then, the young man was filled with wonder at the Rav’s open nevuah. He could not contain himself from getting a confirmation of Rav Levi Yitzchak’s prescience. “How was the Rav so certain that the money would be restored to me when to all appearances it was lost, perhaps forever? What enabled the Rav to maintain such an absolute calm when I was so filled with panic?”
The Berditchever Rav immediately explained, “Don’t think that this was ruach hakodesh—it was common sense. When I saw you running around so filled with despair I noticed that you had not only lost your money, you had lost your head as well. The first thing for me to do was restore this to you as quickly as possible, since you had probably placed the large sum in an obvious place. I spoke with such conviction because I was sure that you would find the money the moment you were able to collect your thoughts!”

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Bending the Truth

A certain man felt quite tired of being grilled by strangers who wished to know his name and family even though it was of no consequence to the questioner. He wondered if he was permitted to lie about his identity. When he asked Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, the Rav ruled that it is permitted.
On another occasion a certain man was at a loss to know how to deal with visitors at times when this was inconvenient for him. The easiest way to deal with such a caller would be to ask his wife to say that he is not at home, yet one would think it is forbidden because it is definitely false. When this man put his question to Rav Shlomo Zalman, he was very surprised at the answer. “It is permitted to say the husband is out since the only reason why they wish to avoid telling the visitor that the husband doesn’t want to see him is so he should not be insulted or get angry. This is definitely a case of darkei shalom, for which one may bend the truth as we find in the gemara in Yevamos.”
Rav Shlomo Zalman added a relevant anecdote. “I heard that when Rav Hoffman, zt”l, would lie down for a nap, he would tell his rebbetzin to say that he was preparing the shiur and was not to be disturbed. He reasoned that not everyone really needs to know what he is doing and in truth his sleep was also a way to prepare since he was better able to teach when well rested!”
The rav concluded with a small lesson from the “fifth section” of Shulchan Aruch. “It is obvious, though, that one should give his wife such instructions—and the mother should never tell what her child knows to be an out-and-out lie when a child could overhear her—since this is teaching the child to lie even when there is no heter.”

Monday, May 18, 2009

Powerful Chizuk

Hope to Hashem

Rebbe Nachman, zt”l, explains the verse “All who hope to Hashem, strengthen and empower your hearts!” This means that anyone—even if the only thing they have going for them is that they are hoping to Hashem—should feel encouraged. Even if, G-d forbid, they are completely bereft of any other holiness or avodah, they should not give up on themselves but instead follow the direction of the verse and be encouraged!
Reb Nosson, zt”l, explains that the main mitzvah of kriyas Shema is to have true faith that everything we are going through is because Hashem wills it to be so. He is the one who is running this world from moment to moment. We draw this emunah upon ourselves from day to day when we read the Shema. As we say in the Shema itself, “And these words that I command you this day...”—“They should be new to you every day, as if you had just received the Torah.” We can feel this newness because, in reality, the Torah is given to us anew every single day.
The main point of learning Torah is to connect to Hashem through the light of the Torah. Every day offers the opportunity of a different connection, according to that particular moment in creation. Each and every day we bind all our thoughts and all our desires and yearnings and our entire awareness to this fact. The natural outgrowth of this is true connection to our loving Creator. The Shema is a reminder to keep Hashem in our minds and hearts throughout every second of the day. We renew this yearning each day as if it’s the first time—it is fresh and new for us—and we increase this focus daily. Hashem causes deliverance to sprout forth all the time—He is “matzmiach yeshuah.” Every new days brings an increase of holiness which is revealed into the world. As Rebbe Nachman said, the world is always getting “shener und shener”—better and better. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be difficulties, but that there is a plan and the closer we are to the redemption the more holiness is revealed.
This is why there are various time limits on the process of ritual purification. Some need to wait until sunset, and others have to wait seven days until their deliverance from impurity. When we left Egypt we had to count forty-nine days until we could receive the Torah.
The same is true of every person. We must know that rectifying our various problems is a spiritual process that takes time. We cannot really change in a day. While we are “hoping” and waiting for salvation, we must continue to work to achieve closeness with Hashem. The stronger we yearn the faster we break through the barriers. For some people, purity is achieved only after their sun sets entirely. This refers to one who spends his whole life yearning for holiness and seems to achieve nothing in terms of spiritual advancement. Nevertheless, he yearns as much as he can. He can sometimes be delivered only after he leaves this world. This is one way to understand the halachah of a person who has to wait for the sun to set in order to eat kodshim. This symbolizes the ability to immediately partake of one’s portion in the world to come without needing to be reincarnated or endure gehinnom. Since the person truly yearned for holiness as much as he could, he does not suffer after leaving this world. After “sunset,” he is purified and can eat from kodshim. On a person’s last day, every single good desire from every day of his whole life joins together. This is all that remains from one’s entire life—this is the power of hope.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Giving Up

The halachah is that the finder of a lost object does not acquire it if the owner does not know that his object seems irretrievably lost. The She’eris Menachem, zt’l, learns a very inspiring lesson from this. “One can explain that giving up, yei’ush, is ‘not from da’as,’ displays a lack of understanding. A true ‘bar da’as’—someone with genuine understanding—will never give up and always encourage himself to serve Hashem, no mater what!”
The Kotzker Rebbe, zt”l, adds, “The reason why one can acquire another’s property only after despair is because one really has no right to give up at all. He should trust that Hashem will help him recover what was taken from him. Therefore, if he gives up, he loses his right to his property. One must never give up!”
Someone once asked the Maharal, zt”l, “Why should one acquire what is not his property? Why does the Torah make a distinction if the one who lost the object gave up or not?”
The Maharal explains, “We must know that our money is not like our body or soul. Our body and intellect are ours for our entire stay in this world and they are the primary means through which we fulfill Hashem’s will in this world. With our possessions, there is a difference; sometimes people have ample money, and at other times they hardly get by. However, since we must usually work to make money it is easy to fool ourselves into thinking that one’s money is also a part of him like his own body. We must learn that it is only Torah and mitzvos that have real lasting value. If money remained in one’s possession no matter what, it would be that much easier to mistakenly attribute more value to it than it really has.
He concludes, “And if one will claim that it is still only proper for the finder to return the lost object, that is actually the halachah. It really is fitting to return any lost object, even that which lacks an identifying mark. Yet the Torah refrains from obligating us to do so in order to teach us to distance ourselves from too much attachment to money since you can’t take it with you!”

Friday, May 15, 2009

Keeping Hashem in Mind

When the Sar Shalom of Belz, zt”l, was just seventeen and was already an accomplished scholar, he would spend time at the court of the Chozeh of Lublin, zt”l. Of course, there were many chassidim there and such a young man was rarely afforded much time with the rebbe. When it was time for the Sar Shalom of Belz to go home, he went to take leave of the rebbe, as is customary. To his great surprise he found that the Chozeh of Lublin had not yet davened. This was a departure from the rebbe’s usual schedule to daven in his beis midrash on time. When the Sar Shalom approached the Chozeh’s room he noticed that the Yehudi Hakadosh, zt”l—a close chassid of the Chozeh—was standing at the door.
“I would like to give shalom to the Chozeh before I leave town for now,” the Sar Shalom said to the Yehudi Hakadosh.
“I am afraid that is not possible at this time,” replied the Yehudi. “The rebbe has not yet davened since he has a question that is occupying his full attention and he does not give shalom before davening,.”
“What is his question?” inquired the Sar Shalom.
“As you know, it is a constant mitzvah to always remember Hashem. Yet it is virtually impossible for the vast majority of people to think of Hashem at all times. The rebbe is bothered that apparently most people violate this positive commandment, and wishes to find a way to justify this apparent blemish.”
“I believe I have an answer,” replied the Sar Shalom without missing a beat. “The gemara in Bava Metzia 11 brings the Mishnah in Pe’ah: ‘What is as yet in front of the harvester is not called shik’chah—is not a forgotten leaving that is free for the poor. Shik’chah only applies to that which was left behind the harvester. The reason for this is that the verse, ‘Do not return to take it,’ applies only to what he does not plan to go back to.
The Sar Shalom continued, “That is your answer. Since the Jewish people plans to immediately return to remembering Hashem, it is not called shik’chah, so even if they forget they do not violate this positive commandment. It is only one who leaves thoughts of Hashem ‘behind him’ without interest in returning to it that violates this mitzvah!”
When the Chozeh heard this answer he was overjoyed. From that day on he gave more honor to the Sar Shalom then many of his much older chassidim.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Shiduch with a Ben Torah

Rav Yissachar Dov Ba’abad, zt”l, lamented the pitiful state of shidduchim during his times. “In Chulin 124 we find that Rav Nachman was the son-in-law of the Reish Galusa, yet in Bava Metziah 16 we see that Rav Nachman’s father was a court scribe, surely not a lucrative occupation. We can draw a very important lesson when we juxtapose these two facts. It shows how klal Yisrael used to relate to shidduchim. For them, the most important advantage of a shidduch was kavod HaTorah. So much so that they did what in our times would be virtually inconceivable: the daughter of the Reish Galusa married a talmid chacham who was the son of a simple court scribe!
“Today, in our great sins, almost no wealthy man would be willing to take such a lowly shidduch. Even someone with exceptional lineage thinks nothing of rejecting a proposal with the son of a melamed or a sofer, even if the prospective bochur is unquestionably good.”
Rav Tzvi Yavrov, shlit”a, pointed out that this has changed in many communities. “Although it used to be that whenever people heard of a person in learning getting engaged they would immediately rush to see the poor guy who was lowly enough to marry a ben Torah, nowadays, this is no longer the case at all. Quite the contrary!”
Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlit”a, explained that the Chazon Ish, zt”l, was very instrumental in changing people’s attitude in this regard. A certain bochur once approached the Chazon Ish, zt”l, regarding a prospective shidduch. The boy described the situation, “The girl’s family has exceptional lineage and her father sings her praises that she is willing to sacrifice by marrying a ben Torah, despite the material difficulties that often come along with this lifestyle.”
The Chazon Ish immediately advised him to avoid this match. “If the girl sees a life of Torah as a sacrifice and fails to grasp the fortune that such a life offers, she is not worthy of marrying a ben Torah!”

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

To Tell the Truth...

The Shelah Hakadosh, zt”l, writes that one who wishes to be certain that his children will follow in the way of Torah will do his utmost to inculcate in them the importance of being truthful. He tells of a certain man, with whom he often spent time. “He was one of the noble and pious Sefardim who would not tell even the smallest lie for any price. When I asked him how he had attained this precious trait, he explained that this was all due to his father. He would reward his children with many coins for every truthful word. At the same time, any falsehood uttered would be severely punished. In this manner, he inculcated in his children the importance of truth to such an extent that truthfulness entered his blood and soul.”
The Midrash recounts the power of always being truthful with the following inspiring story:
A certain young man had a natural propensity to steal. After he acted on this impulse numerous times, he felt so bad about himself that he decided that he would do anything to enable him to stop such sinful behavior. But he did not know what to do or how to rectify this character defect. He went before Rav Shimon ben Shetach and begged the Rav to tell him how to do a true teshuvah.
The Rav recommended that the young man accept upon himself never to lie under any circumstances. “This is a small thing!” the young man commented. He immediately took upon himself never to speak a false word no matter what.
A short time went by and this young man was once again assailed by an inner desire to steal. He broke into a stranger’s house and took everything of value. As he was ready to leave with his ill gotten gains, he was struck with a sudden thought. “What will I do if I am accused of emptying this house of its valuables? I cannot deny that I am guilty as charged since that would be a lie!”
He immediately returned everything he had taken and became a complete ba’al teshuvah!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Spirit of the Law: #15: Shabbos Clothes

Spirit of the Law: Shabbos #16

(Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 72:16) “One should make an effort to procure nice clothing and a tallis in honor of Shabbos. We interpret the word, ‘And you shall honor it,’ to mean that one should honor the Shabbos by having especially nice clothing set aside for it.” [Note: Rabbi Yochanan called his garments ‘mechabdusei’—that which gives honor. ]
Rav Nosson, zt”l, writes that all labor results in a finished product. We are able to create things and achieve things only by taking the abilities with which Hashem has gifted us and imbuing G-dliness in the work of our hands. The truth is that during the week most cannot come to grasp Hashem without doing these mundane acts which channel G-dliness into the realm of action. It is only by living life in the physical world that we can experience the Divine. Most people cannot sit all day and focus on Torah and holy matters, especially since this requires a high level of trust in Hashem. It is easier to work and exist in the physical world and spend the remainder of one’s time focusing on Hashem. For such a person, working makes them feel their spiritual lack and yearn for spirituality so that they then use their free time to serve Hashem.
There are many ways to spiritualize one’s material endeavors. A certain Breslover carpenter would apply each of his labors with the wood to himself and ask the Creator for help to merit this level. When he was cleaning the wood, he would beg to be cleansed from all spiritual impurity. When he was cutting the wood, he would plead with the Creator to mold him in the best way, trimming off anything not completely spiritual. Rebbe Nachman teaches another way to spiritualize one’s work. While at work, one should focus on the charity he will give from his earnings.
The sages tell us that one who works should learn more on Shabbos. Even one who spends his whole day serving Hashem during the week still has a certain involvement in the mundane, as Rebbe Nachman explains in Likutei Moharan. One must have a relationship with the material world in order to experience holiness. In the ultimate future, we will all be able to experience closeness to Hashem all the time without needing the divider of engaging in physical labor. Similarly, on Shabbos we can connect to Hashem without any filter. This is because Shabbos is a microcosm of the next world so one can focus on G-dliness without the need for creative labor in the material realm.
This is why we have special clothing for Shabbos. We experience the Divine in an entirely different level on Shabbos. The Divine is “garbed” differently on Shabbos than during the week. Of course, one must do his utmost to repent before putting on his Shabbos finery.
The Komarna Rebbe, zt”l, once asked his uncle, Rav Tzvi Hirsch from Zitochov, zt”l, “You taught that the moment a person puts on his Shabbos garb he merits atonement for all his sins. Yet I saw you today at Minchah crying when you said, ‘Forgive us...’ What were you asking Hashem to forgive you for? All your sins were already forgiven when you put on your Shabbos garments!
The tzaddik responded, “What can I do? As I was raised up from level to level, my new awareness of Hashem made old sins for which I had already been forgiven seem to require another teshuvah!”

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Spirit of the Law: Shabbos #15: Teshuvah is Easy!

(Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 72:15) “Every erev Shabbos one should search his deeds and repent what he has done wrong during the six days of the week, since erev Shabbos includes the six days of the week.”
The Ramak explains that Shabbos can only be received through teshuvah, especially from whatever bad we may have done during the past week. It is important to note that repentance is not as hard as many seem to think. Rav Chaim Volozhiner, zt”l, writes that teshuvah itself as outlined in the Gemara is easy to accomplish. One simply decides that he does not wish to return to his old ways. Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro, zt”l, explains this in depth.
The truth is that in that same work, Rav Chaim of Volozhin seems to contradict himself. He says (like the famous Rambam) that the Torah commandment of repentance comprises three key elements: regret, wholehearted abandonment of the sin; resolution to never repeat the sin. This last commitment has to be powerful enough to counter the natural entropy toward further sin generated by the original error. Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro, zt"l, discusses the subject at great length and surmises that there are really two basic stages; teshuvah itself, which is simple, and atonement which requires the three elements.
The most straightforward of explanations of how the simple teshuvah of the Gemara relates to the three-step full teshuvah described by the Rambam is offered by Reb Nosson of Breslov, zt”l. He writes that the process of teshuvah usually demands very many beginnings until one merits true and full repentance. This means that one must do teshuvah as outlined in the Gemara many times until one merits to truly atone for the sin by achieving the three conditions described above.
We must do teshuvah whenever we can until we merit complete teshuva. At the very least we must do teshuva every Erev Shabbos to merit the connection afforded to us on this most holy day.
In light of this teaching we understand why Rebbe Nachman, zt"l, declared with such certainty that there is no such thing as despair. Despair is the result of truly feeling the negative effects of one's sins and believing that it will never be rectified. Yet in reality teshuvah is easy. No matter how far we have fallen we can still rectify everything and ascend to the highest spiritual realms. All we need is to keep doing teshuvah again and again, until Hashem finally helps us rectify the bad, one negative character trait at a time!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

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 6, 2009

Spirit of the Law: Shabbos #14: Preparing for Shabbos

(Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 72:14) “It is a mitzvah to comb one’s hair, to cut one’s nails, and to take a haircut if needed [in preparation for Shabbos]… It is good to burn the nail clippings.”
The Ramak, zt”l, explains that Shabbos precipitates three major changes, and one of them is that our souls receive a powerful injection of holiness. We must prepare ourselves for this holiness spiritually and physically, since the body is like a chair on which the spirit rests. The more we prepare the body, the more holiness we can absorb. This can be compared to a flowing stream that can fill any vessel with which it comes in contact. The more prepared we are with vessels, the more water we can draw. Also, the nature of spiritual influx is that the light of holiness is always flowing. The amount of holiness is relative to the time and place in which we find ourselves, but the influx of our particular time and place is continuously flowing more than we could possibly take in. There can be no doubt that one who prepares for the holiness of Shabbos will be able to feel it to a much greater extent than one who is keeping Shabbos by rote.
This is why the Gemara records that the early chassidim would say things like, “Come and greet the Shabbos queen,” at the entrance of Shabbos. (Today, most recite Kabbalas Shabbos on autopilot, but it used to be the spontaneous expression of longing for Shabbos.) This preparation must be in thought, word, and deed; only by preparing in these three ways can one be completely ready to receive holiness. The truth is that Shabbos does wonderful things for us whether we are aware of it or not. However, when we prepare for it, we can feel the light of Shabbos much more powerfully.
This is alluded to in the verse: "וְשָׁמְרוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת, לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת לְדֹרֹתָם, בְּרִית עוֹלָם"—“And the children of Israel will guard the Shabbos, to observe the Shabbos throughout all there generations, an eternal covenant.” “Guarding” also implies waiting for something. By preparing for Shabbos, we express our longing for the holy Shabbos. “Observing (לַעֲשׂוֹת) the Shabbos” literally means to make the Shabbos. This means that through longing, through accepting the holiness of Shabbos, we “make it.” “Throughout all their generations” (לְדֹרֹתָם) also means a dwelling place (לדירתם). Through preparing and yearning for Shabbos we make ourselves fit to be a dwelling place for Hashem.
The holiness of Shabbos rests on a person to the degree that he did good things during the week. When the holiness of Shabbos comes, every good thing we did the whole week is elevated before the Creator. And the inverse is also true; if one did something bad, holiness cannot rest on him as it should. For this reason, the best preparation for Shabbos is to confess and truly repent. By sanctifying all of one’s limbs with true repentance, “beautiful utensils” are dedicated for Shabbos use. This can be compared to the sun which shines on everything equally. If it hits a gem, it gives forth a more brilliant light than it does when it hits some less brilliant object. Obviously, the cleaner the gem, the more light it reflects. If the gem is crusted over with dirt it will only sparkle after the dirt is removed. The more we polish our souls and remove the dirt with teshuvah, the more the holiness of Shabbos can shine in.
First we cuts our nails. The nails are the extremities of the hands. They are the point at which the outer forces of evil derive their life-force from a person who sins. Most of what we accomplish is done with our hands, and cutting the nails represents shearing away the bad that we have done in the course of the week. Each of the fingers of our hands represents a different sefirah, and trimming all ten nails parallels cleaning ourselves from every possible negative manifestation of each middah. Since the nail clippings represent evil, it is easy to understand why it is best to burn them. We must do our very best to eradicate the evil from within us.
The atmosphere of the six days of the week is impure compared to the air of Shabbos which is pure. This parallels the distinction between the environment of Eretz Yisrael and the diaspora. The outer forces of negativity have dominion outside of the Land, but not within it. Of course, one who sins in Eretz Yisrael draws these forces upon himself. This is why the halachah is that one may leave the Land if they can learn Torah better outside it. The most important thing is one’s Jewish identity which is his connection to Hashem and Torah. Similarly, the chitzonim have dominion during the six days of the week but not on Shabbos. For this reason, one must at least wash his hands, feet, and face in preparation for Shabbos. These are the body parts which are exposed to the impure atmosphere of the world. We must wash our hands and feet, just as the kohanim purified themselves by bathing their hands and feet before performing their service in the Beis Hamikdash.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Spirit of the Law: Shabbos #13: Redirecting Thoughts

Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 72:13 “It is forbidden to share a mikveh or bathing area with one’s father, father-in-law, mother’s husband, or sister’s husband…”
The Gemara teaches this halachah and its rationale is that bathing with one of these people can trigger lewd thoughts. Although there are various reasons suggested for why most are lenient about this law, the consensus is that one must be careful to fulfill it. The general rule is that the sages prohibited any activity which could lead to illicit thoughts when a person is in a low state. The reason for this is simple: better safe than sorry. Since what we do matters so much it is very important to have proper safeguards in place so we will not come to do what we may regret later. Another example of this is the prohibition against yichud.
Rebbe Nachman, zt”l, offers a prescription for avoiding negative thoughts. Since two thoughts cannot exist simultaneously in one’s mind, one has the ability to force his redirect his thinking at any moment in time. The thought process is literally like a horse that can stray from the road. However, as soon as one is aware of it the problem is easily rectified. One simply takes the reins in one’s hands and directs the horse in another direction. The horse has no choice but to go where directed. Similarly, one takes hold of his thoughts and turns them in a different direction. This is explained further in Chayei Moharan. There, Reb Nosson, zt”l, describes what he heard from a fellow student in Rebbe Nachman’s name.
“Thoughts were created fluid. For this reason, one’s mind is always on the move, going from thought to thought. [Note: It takes a lot of training to think of one thing for a long period of time. Rav Pinchas of Koritz, zt”l, said that an average person cannot focus on the same good thought for over a half-hour, even on Shabbos! ] This is like the pendulum in a clock that swings from second to second. Even when one sleeps, one’s thoughts are always moving fluidly. When one slumbers deeply he doesn’t remember what he thought but he was always thinking and his thoughts continued to march along. Just insert a different thought into the flow.”
On this subject, Reb Nosson taught that our thoughts are in our hands to think as we will. This is the main place where our free choice is manifest. If I don’t think about it, I will not do it. Similarly, if all day I am focusing on learning or connecting to Hashem, eventually I will achieve this. The main thing in thinking good thoughts and not bad thoughts is that first bad thought. We must be ever vigilant to redirect the beginnings of what seems to be leading to places we don’t want our thoughts. When our trend first seems to be turning to a bad place it is still quite easy to redirect our thoughts to better places.
The main protection against negative thoughts, however, is simplicity and temimus. We must accustom ourselves not to be sophisticated and to refrain from thinking extraneous thoughts. We should not let our thoughts roam and we shouldn’t think “too much.” We must cry out very much to Hashem about this—someone who is accustomed to thinking bad thoughts needs to be careful not to give up at all but to cry out to Hashem each time he falls. He must take hold of his thoughts at all times and return them from the depths of the evil inclination to the purity and simplicity of the true tzaddik.
Someone asked Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zt”l, what he can do to help weed out troubling thoughts. After all, one is not really in control of his thoughts, is he? The Rav told him to return early that night. When the inquirer approached the house he could hear the large family being put to bed. He knocked on the door but no one answered. Assuming that he had not been heard, he knocked again. There was no response. He spent the next ten minutes knocking until he finally left. When he next saw the Rav, he asked about this peculiar occurrence.
Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld explained, “I am the baal habayis. If I want you to enter, you enter. If not, you don’t. You are the baal habayis of your head. Leave the negative thoughts outside!”

Monday, May 4, 2009

Spirit of the Law: Shabbos #12

Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 72:12: “It is a mitzvah to wash one’s hands and hot water every erev Shabbos, and if it is at all possible, one should wash his entire body in hot water..”

Rebbe Nachman writes that we must realize that when we do something which distances us from Hashem, the sin forms a blemish that enclothes our souls like a garment. We all unfortunately have very many such garments, and we remove these garments a little at a time. For this reason we often seem to regress while we travel the path of spiritual development. We misunderstand the truth of our situation if we see temporary regressions as symptoms of outright failure. They only show that we are slowly releasing ourselves from these blemished garments which cover our souls.
At first, our progress was checked because we were held back by these garments. Subsequently, our progress improved and we felt better because we had divested ourselves of the uppermost layer of the soiled spiritual garments. A later regression does not necessarily mean that we did anything to instigate a fall—rather, it is just a sign that the next soiled garment is surfacing and it needs attention.
Rebbe Nachman’s words offer powerful encouragement for us when we feel that we are experiencing a yeridah. The general rule is that we can remove all the soiled garments slowly, over the course of many years, by learning Torah diligently with the intention to connect to Hashem and with the knowledge of the flaws that we want to correct.
Reb Nosson of Breslov writes that when washing on erev Shabbos, one should focus on the fact that he is removing the soiled garment of the soul and replacing it with clean garments in the merit of Shabbos. On Shabbos, the main element of our soiled spiritual garments is nullified by the holiness of the day itself. This is why we don our Shabbos finery after bathing on erev Shabbos. This parallel the clean garments with which our souls are dressed—the extra soul-level or neshamah yeseirah that arrives in honor of the Shabbos.