Friday, August 28, 2009

Arizal On Ki Teitzei and Elul

The Arizal explains this week's parsha (Sefer Halikutim) in a very inspiring manner: he stars off with the verse regarding Cain: "evil crouches at the doorpost," and explains that this refers to every Jew. Every Jew starts off with the Yetzer Hara and only receives the Yetzer Tov when he is thirteen years and one day old. But one's limbs are already accustomed to working with the Yetzer Hara from day one. When a person wishes to do teshuvah, this represents going out to war against his enemies as the first verse in our parsha discusses. And Hashem will give them into your hands," This refers to the Yetzer Hara. "And you will take captives," that is you will regain mastery over your limbs. "And you will see an eishes yefas to'ar," this refers to the neshama. "And you will bring her into your house and she will cut her hair" this refers to obliterating all emunos ra'os, bad faiths in your head." "And shorn her nails." means that you will cut away all connection to unnecessary materialism. "And she will remove the garment which she had on when she was captured," that is the evil garments that were on his neshama as a result of all of his sins as the verse states, "Remove your soiled garments." After this she will cry for her Father," this represents Hashem. "and her mother," this represents all of Israel [which was distanced as a result of his sins since all Jews are connected]." "For a month's time," this is the month of Elul, since in this context, the month means days and not years and Elul is a time that is fitting to do teshuvah.
In a different place on the parsha: Rav Chaim Vital explains that a Bar Mitzvah parallels our exile from Egypt. The seven days of the holiday represents the seven years from Bar Mitzva until twenty. One must be careful to avoid chametz and seor especially during these years. If he does so, he will merit to avoid sin later with much greater ease. The fourty nine days of the Omer represent the next fifty years of life, when one must continue to hold a strong vigil and strive to prepare to connect to Hashem. If he merits this then at the fiftieth day/year he attains the level of Matan Torah regarding which it says that Hashem spoke "face to face."

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Never Shame Another

People often have a strange notion that if they do something as a joke, it is for some reason not prohibited since they “didn’t mean anything by it,” or “were just having a little innocent fun” at their friend’s expense. Such people may be very careful with the details of Torah law, but sadly use lame excuses like these to insult others in public even though the violation is compared to killing the victim! Unfortunately, it is often very difficult to break the habit of one who habitually embarrasses others, especially if he is wealthy or influential.
Once Rav Chunah Halberstam, zt”l, the av beis din of Kalshitz and the author of Direi Chunah, visited a certain city whose rosh hakahal was known for his biting humor. This rosh hakahal would embarrass everyone but was especially free with those he felt were of lower social status than himself. Although people had tried to explain the seriousness of this sin to the rosh hakahal he would just brush such rebuke aside, and continue publicly shaming others. The only way this problem could be corrected was through drastic measures.
Rav Chunah—who knew of the problem—turned to the rosh hakahal and said, “You should know that one is literally obligated to give up his life before embarrassing a fellow Jew. Everyone knows that we are obligated to give up our lives for the three cardinal sins of murder, idolatry, or gilui arayos. But it is not only these sins themselves but also the subsidiaries of these three sins that demand such a response. We find in Bava Metzia 58 that anyone who embarrasses another is compared to having killed him. Clearly one must give up his life before doing so, since this is just like murder!”
These fiery words of rebuke which were spoken with pain made a great impression on the rosh hakahal. From the day people noticed a marked improvement in his behavior.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Secrets of Torah

At times we find that the Gemara concludes that certain details were 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!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Rav Shlomo Zalman's Humility

The humility of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, was legendary and was complimented by his insightful ability to avoid getting involved in conflicts. To this aim, he would often sidestep answering questions regarding thorny public issues. One time, someone pestered him to give an opinion in a certain public dispute. Rav Shlomo Zalman dodged the question brilliantly, as was his wont. He demurred, “Since you live in Bnei Brak, where the altercation is taking place, you can ask a local rav. Why must I rule when there are so many competent authorities in your city?”

When the neutralized askan finally went on his way, Rav Shlomo Zalman said to the person accompanying him, “Am I a rav at all, then? Over which community or neighborhood do I preside? I am just an old man. I don’t understand why people ask me…”

When he saw how astonished his companion was by this statement. He amended it. “Nu... So you can say that I teach young men.”[1]

On another occasion, the elderly posek was accosted by an American tourist who had just come to town. The tourist did not know the times for davening and decided to ask the kindly looking elderly gentleman just leaving the shul. Rav Shlomo Zalman began to enumerate all the many times for prayer in the shul. After he completed the list he repeated himself until the tourist had a clear grasp of when the times were.

The tourist felt a great appreciation to the kind gentleman and asked for his name. “Avuhah d’Shmuel,” replied the Rav with a smile.[2]

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Local Customs

As is well known, the Maggid of Dubno, zt"l, would often travel to different locations to give over his inspiring parables and teachings. On one journey, the Maggid stopped at the home of a villager who had rooms for rent, but he was very surprised when they did not serve supper.
“We do not really serve food since we are so poor,” the proprietor explained.
The Maggid ruefully went up to his room to try to sleep, but he had no food with him and was wracked with hunger pains. Some time after he had gone to his room, the Maggid heard what appeared to be the family eating their evening meal. Sure enough, when he walked out of his room he found that the proprietor did have food to serve everyone else; he just did not want to be bothered with feeding his paying guest. So they had waited quite some time and only ate when they were sure their honored guest was fast asleep.
The Maggid would retell this story and say, “Through this experience I understood the gemara in Bava Metzia 86 which teaches that one should always follow the local custom, since our teacher Moshe did not eat or drink for forty days when he ascended on high to receive the Torah. This seems strange. Why not say that he didn't sleep for forty days since one cannot naturally live without sleep for even three days, while one can live without food for longer? The answer is that if Moshe didn’t eat since the angels did not, it is clear that he also didn’t sleep—if he had, perhaps they ate while Moshe slept!”
The Modzhitzer Rebbe, zt”l, would learn a very inspiring lesson from this very same gemara. “The gemara tells us, 'אל ישנה אדם מן המנהג'—one should not deviate from the prevalent custom. We can learn from this that no matter how he is treated from heaven he should not complain and say that he wishes things were different!”

Friday, August 21, 2009

No Tricks

As is fairly well known, many cities in Israel have a very well-developed system of public transportation. Although regular use of the buses can be fairly expensive, there is an option to purchase a monthly pass that allows unlimited travel for a set amount of money.
A certain student had purchased such a pass as he did every month but he had lost his pass. Although on every document that is issued there is a disclaimer explaining that the pass is not transferable for any reason, this young man figured his case was different. After all, he had paid for a pass. So he asked his friend if he could borrow his monthly pass to travel when the friend did not require it. The friend felt fairly certain that this was no problem, but since he knew that the halachos of financial matters are extremely complicated he decided to ask his rebbi, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l.
When the boys asked their question and explained why they felt it was halacically permitted for them both to use one bus pass, Rav Shlomo Zalman reacted in a very strong manner. He literally stood up from his chair and exclaimed, “But this is a chilul Hashem!”
On another occasion, two cousins with the same name earned flight points with a certain non-Jewish airline. Although each one’s points alone didn’t amount to much, their combined points could earn them a free ticket. The two wondered if one of them could take all the points for himself and cash in on the reward. After all, the company was owned by non-Jews, and what difference did it make to them if the young men took advantage of their program?
But when they consulted with Rav Shlomo Zalman in this matter he absolutely forbade any such tricks. “That is gezel gamur!” he declared.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Widow’s Comfort

A certain widow wished to show Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, her appreciation, but she was not certain how to go about this. After some thought she decided that whenever a new fruit was first introduced into the market she would buy him some to show how much she valued all of his help and emotional support.
Of course fruits first coming into season are exorbitantly expensive and the widow was receiving public funds. A certain student felt that it was not right for her to use the money to purchase something that he knew Rav Shlomo Zalman had no need or interest in. After all, when had he ever eaten a new fruit before it already was well in season and cheap? But when this person, who was very close to Rav Shlomo Zalman, asked what possible need was there for the widow to use money from tzedakah to purchase luxuriously expensive fruit, the rav got very upset with him.
“We are talking about a widow who has been broken by her bitter lot in life. The one thing which gives her pleasure in this world is to purchase expensive fruits for my use—and you wish to rob her even of this little enjoyment?”
On another occasion, a different widow came to him to ask what the best way was for her to give her deceased husband’s soul an aliyah in Gan Eden. His answer astonished her.
Rav Shlomo Zalman said, “Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you. Go out and buy your orphaned children toys that they will enjoy and make sure to find time to go out on trips with them. This is the best possible elevation you can make for your husband’s soul. Do your best to forget about your mourning and make your four children happy!”

Sunday, August 16, 2009

An Early Start

The Pnei Menachem of Gur, zt”l, recounted that in 1942, when he was still a bochur, his father the Imrei Emes, zt”l, sent him to Tzfas to learn with his elder brother, the Lev Simcha, zt”l. The two made a seder to learn Seder Zeraim, both the Mishnayos and the Yerushalmi. Many years later, the Pnei Mencahem recounted some of the powerful encouragement his brother had given him to take advantage of the time and learn while he was still a youth.
“In Bava Metzia 85, chazal tell us that the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed because they did not bless תחילה, which most take to mean before learning. But there is another way to read this. It can also mean that they did not capitalize on the blessing of youth and learn Torah when they were still young. Squandering their youth is what caused this terrible destruction. We see from this the preciousness of learning when one is still young...”
On another occasion, the Lev Simcha said, “The gemara in Bava Metzia 107 regarding the importance of eating breakfast seems difficult on the face of it. We have certainly seen many people who have eaten an early breakfast but have not come to such might. In Kotzk they would explain that the word פת has a numerical value of four hundred and eighty, the same as the word תלמוד. In this context the gemara means that those who learned Talmud in their youth easily outdistance many who learned later on.
“This resonates well with another pointed teaching of Kotzk: if people were born old and grew young, they would know how use these precious years properly. Because it is not this way, people do no recognize the importance of youthful learning when they are still young.”
But Rav Tzvi Hirsch of Ziditchov, zt”l, learned this passage differently. “Since פת is gematria תלמוד, our gemara is teaching the vital importance to having a daily gemara seder in the morning. One who learns gemara in the morning hours when he is still clear will easily outdistance someone who learns when his mind is unfocused...”

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Equal Rights?

Although even today there can be serious fighting regarding who will lead davening when two people have yahrtzeit, many years ago this was a frequent cause of contention. Although this is more in the realm of the custom of each community, a complex system of very intricate rules regarding who davens first was nevertheless put into place so as to save many a senseless struggle, which certainly is no merit for the deceased.
Two people in a certain town had yahrtzeit, one for his mother and one for his father. This led to great contention, as usual. There was only one minyan in the city and both men wished to lead all the services.
When this question was brought before the Chidah, zt”l, he replied that the one with yahrtzeit for his father definitely takes precedence. “The reason is quite simple. We find in Bava Metzia 11 that a poor person takes precedence over a wealthy man. Since a man is most often much closer to sinning then a woman and, in addition, men have a perpetual obligation to learn Torah to overcome their base nature, their needs after death are not the same. The sins that most men are drawn after hardly apply to most women, and certainly bitul Torah is not a problem at all. Therefore it is obvious that the one who desperately needs any possible merit is the deceased father, not the mother. In addition, women have many merits that protect them, unlike men.
“From all of this it is clear that the man who lost his father takes precedence over the one who lost his mother, since his soul is certainly poor compared to hers.”
But when the Shaarei Efraim, zt”l, was consulted regarding the very same question he ruled that it was not so simple. It is not that he argued on the logic of the Chidah, he merely pointed out, “These halachos are predicated on custom. In a place where the custom is that the yahrtzeit of a father takes precedence over that of a mother, that is how they should conduct themselves. But if there is no custom the two should throw lots to find which has the rights of that year.”

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Taking Care of Other People's Property

A certain grocer in Yerushalayim was in an absolute quandary. One Friday, well after midday, he discovered a large bag filled with grapes in his store. Since grapes were costly and these would surely spoil in the hot weather, he was unsure what to do.
He decided to go to Rav Eliyashiv, shlit”a, to ask if he could sell them and repay the owner when he was found. But Rav Eliyashiv explained that this was forbidden. “You may not sell them since you must keep them for the owner.”
“But they will be spoiled by tomorrow,” protested the grocer.
“Put them in a refrigerator,” Rav Eliyashiv replied.
“But so late on erev Shabbos, people do not have much space in their refrigerators…”
The gadol was clearly unimpressed. “Distribute them in several, then.”
As the grocer was walking home a certain man stopped him and asked if he had any delicacies to sell. “We just had a boy and I must make a shalom zachor this very night,” he explained.
The grocer decided to ignore Rav Eliyashiv and sell the grapes. After all, wasn’t this a clear sign from heaven—especially since the father was a very wealthy man and could afford to pay an exorbitant price for the grapes?
The grocer took five times the value of the fruit and reasoned that the owner would certainly be pleased.
That night the grocer heard a knock at his door. It was the shamash of the Rebbe of Toldos Aharon. He explained that he had finally recalled leaving the grapes that he had purchased for the rebbe in the grocery and had come to pick them up. The matter was urgent, since he needed them for his health.
The foolish grocer had tremendous anguish as he explained his error.
When this story was recounted to Rav Eliyashiv, he said, “There is no doubt that he had no right to sell the grapes. In Bava Metzia 38 we find a machlokes regarding leaving a deposit of fruit with a fellow Jew. The machlokes, however, only concerns a situation if the fruit will certainly spoil. If one can keep them without spoiling, everyone admits that they may not be sold.
He concluded, “Even for five times their value, they may not be sold!”

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Kohein’s Privilege

Although in the diaspora birkas kohanim is a rare event, in Israel it is recited each morning. A certain kohein enjoyed his morning coffee but also woke up a bit late for davening. His solution was to rush to shul and then get a coffee after kedushah. Unfortunately, this often caused him to miss birkas kohanim. Since he was often the only kohein in the early minyan he attended before work, this incensed the gabbai and other mispallelim.

They wished to teach this kohein a lesson that he would not soon forget. Of course, before they acted on their impulse, they first wanted to ensure that their plans were halachically acceptable. As the shul’s representative, the gabbai went to Rav Wosner, shlit”a, and asked if he could refuse this kohein the first aliyah.

The man argued, “After all, if he doesn’t do his job as a kohein, is the kahal responsible to give him the special mark of respect due to a kohein? I heard that the Chasan Sofer, zt”l, actually refused to give a kohein who neglected to do birkas kohanim the first aliyah. If this is true, then there is a good precedent for using this privilege to teach the man a lesson...”

Rav Wosner disagreed. “Although you should definitely tell this man off since he doesn’t do birkas kohanim regularly, you may not withhold rishon from him. He admits that he is a kohein and does not actually violate the positive commandment and has not violated his kehunah.

He concluded, “It is true that that the Chasan Sofer fined a kohein in this manner, but that was a special case. He did not mean to rule that one should halachically nullify a kohain’s right to honor in every case!”[1]

[1] שו"ת שבט הלוי, חלק ט', סימן כ"ז

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Sensitivity to Another

The Alter of Slobodka, zt”l, was well known to be a mechanech par excellence. He always noticed what others did and would issue moral direction in exactly the right manner to help the student. His incredible success attests to his acumen. So many prominent rabbis and poskim emerged from Slobodka, that the Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, remarked that he was jealous of the Alter. When the surprised hearers asked why, the Chofetz Chaim replied, “I write seforim but he makes mentschen!”
One time the Alter was walking behind a bochur in the street when he noticed the young man go to the side of the sidewalk, stoop to the ground, and pick up a paper. After he gazed at the paper for no more than an instant he replaced it on the ground.
The Alter approached and requested that he explain his strange behavior.
“I noticed that the paper was printed in Hebrew and I figured it was sheimos from a holy sefer and required genizah. But it only took a moment to realize that the paper was not sheimos at all—far from it—and I put it back on the side. After all, it is very much to the side and no one will be damaged by it.”
The Alter looked at him gravely and gently said, “Tell me, what is the halachah for someone who causes his friend to fall to the ground?”
“He is responsible for all damage incurred to the person,” the young man replied.
“How did you fail to realize that another person may very well walk by and also mistakenly think this page is sheimos and bend over for nothing to lift up this paper? By throwing it back down—despite the fact that no one will physically trip over it—you have fashioned a bor b’reshus harabim. This is a stumbling block for your friend since what difference does it make if the bor makes a person fall to the ground or bend over for naught? The moment you picked up the paper and noticed that it was not sheimos, you should have kept it to throw in the garbage to save another some trouble!”

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Spirit of the Law: Shabbos 72:19

He brings the halacha that uncooked foods which cook fairly quickly may not be left in a hot oven from before Shabbos unless they are cooked (enough to be edible from) before Shabbos. If one placed a food that was not yet cooked into an oven that will not be cooked by Shabbos, the food is prohibited until after Shabbos.

The Eglei Tal writes in his introduction to Hilchos Shabbos that the main mitzva of Talmud Torah is to take pleasure and joy (sass visameach) in one’s learning. Learning in this way causes the words of Torah to be absorbed in ones blood!" Interestingly although the Eglei Tal was a Chasidic Rebbe, when someone showed this piece to the Chazon Ish, zt"l, he looked very pleased and said “This is the ultimate goal of the Litvasher path!—“Dos is shpitz Litvak!”

In a similar vein, Rav Wolbe, zt"l, writes in a letter: "The main way to develop ahavas Hashem is that one feels such great pleasure in every word of Torah and Emunah that this learning Torah is literally the ultimate pleasure for one –tachlis ha’hana’ah.” (This is how he learns the famous Rambam in Sefer Hamitsvos.)

Anything learned in this spirit draws down tremendous holiness. Of course, some people take pleasure specifically in a particular sefer or method of learning. The Mishnas Chasidim writes that one who feels drawn to learn a particular type of learning should spend most of his time doing this, since usually feeling a draw to some particular holiness signifies that this is likely his personal rectification.

It is important to note that the Mishnas Chasidim says clearly that one should learn some of each major category of Torah. Yet one should still spend most of his time learning what speaks to him.

(Many Yeshivos focus mostly on learning in depth since without proper analytical skills one will lack true comprehension of what he learns. Another reason for this is because this sort of learning is easier to enjoy since it is intellectually stimulating.)

The Mekor Chaim explains that subjects or material which one knows he should learn and are "easily cooked" -- easy for one to learn through should not be put off for "Shabbos" when one thinks he will have a better opportunity or a higher state of consciousness. The reason why is that one must seize his opportunity whenever it presents itself to him. One who puts it off and does not learn this material through even in a shallow manner by doing what he can, will not be able to learn it until after Shabbos, that is it will not work out according to his plan. Either he will be unable to learn it through even if he is afforded the higher consciousness of Shabbos or the foreseen better times will not come.

Of course one who truly loves to learn will use every moment he can to connect to Hashem, the One who gave the Torah. Another clear point: there are many levels of expression of this love but the main thing is to begin fresh the moment one catches on that he has fallen or erred.

Once someone asked the Kotzker Rebbe if it was better for him to work now full time until he has saved enough to learn full time or if he should just make whatever time he could to learn even as he worked.

The Rebbe responded that he should learn as much as he was able while he worked. "This is a clear mishna in Avos: Don't say I will learn when I have time since perhaps you will not have time. The explanation can also be read, 'since you are a person who is not going to have free time to learn.' It is quite possible that Hahsem wants one to learn even though it is difficult for him."

Sometimes, Hashem's plan is for someone to work to overcome the difficulties involved in stealing time. Clearly this is more precious to Him than a person who has time on his hands to learn but no obstacles that must be surmounted, since the reward is commensurate with the difficulty experienced.