Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Ashes of Humility

Our sages teach that ashes formed on Erev Yom Tov are considered “prepared” ahead of time. They may therefore be used for the mitzvah of kisui hadam, covering a slaughtered animal’s blood, on Yom Tov itself. The Biala Rebbe, zt”l, would explain this metaphorically: “Why are the ashes considered already ‘prepared’—because the most important preparation for prayer is to be completely humble, to see oneself like dust of the earth and ashes.” As Avraham Avinu said as he beseeched Hashem, “…and I am merely dust and ashes.” (Bereishis 18:27)
Rav Raphael of Barshad, zt”l, a disciple of Rav Pinchas of Koretz, zt”l, would always spend many hours preparing for Kol Nidrei on Erev Yom Kippur. Only after an extended period of intense learning and soul searching would the Rav go to the mikveh. After immersing, he would prepare himself to daven Minchah and eat the seudas hamafsekes. After the meal, he would sit again to learn and prepare himself for the tefillah zakah. During the course of his long day of preparing for Yom Kippur, the Rav was careful not to waste a single moment of precious time.
One year, just as Rav Rafael left the mikveh, he was approached by a man who clearly wanted to speak. Unfortunately, this person had all sorts of nonsense on his mind and occupied a great deal of the Rav’s time with what was essentially an extended monologue without any real substance. It was literally impossible for the Rav to tear himself away without insulting this other person, and since he had no choice he remained standing outside the mikveh while the priceless minutes ticked by.
After the gentleman left, the Rav said to himself: “The Ramban writes in his famous letter that we can attain humility by accustoming ourselves to speak all of our words gently to everyone, all the time. Clearly, this even means someone who is wasting our time talking about nonsense while we are leaving the mikveh on Erev Yom Kippur!”

Friday, September 11, 2009

Spirit of the Law: Elul: Chapter 128: #1-9

1) The days of Elul are days of days of spiritual favor…

We all wish to take advantage of these most holy days of Elul, but how?

The Chidushei Harim and the Bas Ayis, explain that the Hebrew word, Elul makes up two words, לא לו which means not and for him. The message here is the more one is nullified to Hashem, the more he is able to take in G-dliness and connect himself heart and soul to Hashem. But, sometimes, this takes a pure hearted reminder.

Rav Moshe of Kobrin recounted: once when I was a child I was playing with other children my age when my eldest sister, who was the first born in our family, said something that was to have a profound effect upon me until this very day. “Are you going to play with your friends even today? Don’t you know that today it is already Elul and even the fish in the sea tremble out of fear of the upcoming Day of Judgment?”

She said this in such with such palpable fear and love of Hashem, that I was immediately filled with trembling for several hours. And I have never forgotten this warning.”

In this vein we find that the Chazon Ish would say that yiras Shamayim cannot be learned from a book alone. Like a candle that must be lit from another flame, one must receive yiras Shamayim from someone who already has it.”

But it is never too late to start again!

2) The custom is to blow the shofar during this month...

The Chidushei Harim, zt”l, explains that we blow shofar during Elul as a kind of drill for the real thing, on Rosh Hashanah. It is only by preparing during this month by allowing the daily shofar blasts to slowly enter our heart, that we will feel a powerful inner movement to teshuvah when the shofar is blown on Rosh Hashanah.[1]

Rav Yisachar Dov of Belz, zt”l, explained differently. On Rosh Hashanah we are so filled with dread that it is only on account of having blown the shofar in the course of the month of Elul that we can possibly fulfill this holy mitzvah on Rosh Hashanah. [Of course this fear must be balanced and must bring one to a feeling a great alacrity and care not to lose the great spiritual opportunities of these days, upon which our entire year is hinged.

3) It is the custom of Anshei Ma’aseh, people who embody the spirit of holy action, to check their mezuzos and tefilin, during this month...

Although this is an excellent practice, it should never cause us to forget about the essentials. First and foremost we must rectify ourselves by repenting our sins and improving our character.

Sadly, some people are not anshei maaseh at all but they use practices such as checking their mezuzos etc, since they prefer to focus on such things, then to even acknowledge their painful character defects. For someone who does not consider the results of his actions, there is truly no limit to the irreparable damage he can cause.

Rav Wolbe, zt”l, recounted that when he was in Mir he stayed with a certain baal habayis for quite a while. When Elul came around, this man re-inspected all of his mezuzos and tefillin to ensure that they were 100% mehudar. When the young Rav Wolbe saw this he was frankly jealous of the man’s scrupulous attention to mitzvos.

One day, when the lady of the house returned home, she confessed to her husband that she had paid quite a bit extra for vegetables in the market. Disregarding the young scholar’s presence, the man became livid and embarked on a tirade which lasted an hour. His beleaguered wife was terribly distressed by his outburst, and soon complained of a headache. She excused herself and went to lie down. A short time later, the poor woman died. Hashem Yishmor!

Years later, Rav Wolbe was known to comment on this tragedy, “For an extra twenty cents spent on tomatoes this man indulged his terrible temper and killed his own wife, Rachmanah litzlan! Even with all of his attention to mitzvos, the fact that it was Elul didn’t mitigate his bad middos in any way at all!”

4) During the seven weeks from after Tisha B’Av until Rosh Hashanah we read a different haftorah of comfort...

Even if Rosh Chodesh Elul falls on a Sunday we do not recite the usual haftorah of machar chodesh, which is recited when Shabbos is the day before Rosh Chodesh, since it does not discuss the comfort of Jerusalem...

During Tisha B’Av we confronted the negative within which each of us which prevents the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash. But our great focus on the negative could bring to feelings of despair. For this reason we are so careful to specifically recite the seven haftoros of comfort. We each have to understand that eventually every Yerushalayim will be rebuilt and we will merit true teshuvah. As Rebbe Nachman cried out, “there is no despair at all.”

Rav Tzaddok Hakohain of Lublin explains that the seven weeks of comfort correspond to the seven lower Sefiros[2] which correspond to the emotional drives in every person: joy and expansiveness, fear, pride, the will to prevail and the desire to show off one’s attainments. But of course, each of these can be used to serve Hashem. One can serve Hashem with love and fear. He can feel proud to be a Jew and give Hashem pride as it were. He can work hard to be victorious over the evil within and feel grateful to Hashem for his spiritual attainments.

Through the holiness of each Shabbos we build another one of these drives and are enabled to clarify them and use them to serve Hashem.[3]

5) We begin Selichos from Sunday...

Most people begin to say selichos, either after midnight on motzei Shabbos or early Sunday morning.

Rav Yissachar Dov of Belz, zt”l, explains that we start to say selichos after Shabbos, even if it means almost a week more than the four days minimum, because we want to begin to say the selichos while the light of Shabbos still shines upon us.

We can also explain that the Zohar writes that one cannot feel holiness without preparation. What better way to find time to prepare to begin the selichos, then to have a full day of spiritual pursuits to focus on this mitzvah.

6) ...One should at least stand while reciting Kel Melech yoshev and the thirteen attributes of mercy...

Rav Nosson of Breslov explains[4] that when one says the thirteen attributes of mercy, he should especially focus on Hashem’s kindness, in that he judges us favorably even though we have sinned. This is the deeper meaning of notzer chessed l’alafim, which literally means that Hashem rewards for good deeds until a thousand generations. Rav Nosson explains that Hashem guards the little bit of good a person has done and uses this to sweeten even thousands of accusers. Of course he must repent the evil he has perpetrated but Hashem waits for him to do so.

This is the meaning of the rest of the sentence, nosay avon vafesha v’chata’a v’nakey. He carries sin, blemish and iniquity and cleanses it. This means in our context that Hashem supports the evil offspring of the sins, and waits for one to do teshuvah.[5]

7) One should choose the most worthy person to act as the prayer leader for Selichos and the high holy days...

These prayers are so powerful and important that we should be very careful to find the best person to represent us.

Yet the Baal Shem Tov said, that if one knows that his prayer leader is not worthy, he should make efforts to pray with as much concentration as he can muster and rely on Hashem. Although it is certainly fitting to daven in a place where the prayer leader is worthy, one should not worry overly much if his leader is unworthy. As always, he should just do what he can and hope to Hashem.

8) A mourner should not be the prayer leader if there is another as worthy as he is...

The cantor in the Maharil Diskin’s shul, died shortly before the month of Elul leaving a widow and children. Strangely when the gabayim approached the Rav to discuss finding a new cantor, he put them off and would not discuss this. Since they knew that their Rav had certainly thought it through before reacting in this manner, they let this issue slide.

When the first day of Rosh Hashanah arrived they asked the Rav who he had in mind to daven. To their great surprise he replied that the deceased cantor’s son should daven.

After the services they asked the Rav how he had ruled against the Shulchan Aruch which states clearly that a mourner may not be a cantor when there is another as worthy. “After all, there are many people as worthy as he is, who could have served as cantor.”

But the Rav disagreed. “Think of the widow of our old cantor. She is surely feeling her loss very keenly just now. How would she feel if instead of hearing her husband’s davening as she has been accustomed to do for all these years, she heard a stranger daven. Surely this would have caused her untold grief. The only replacement which would not pain her is her own son. Surely this is also a case where there is no one else who is as worthy as the son!”

9) Someone who says selichos without a minyan may not recite the thirteen attributes of mercy...

Rav Nosson explains that the thirteen attributes of mercy give a person a balanced understanding of true mercy, through which he learns when to act with audacity and when not to.[6] This is a degree of tremendous understanding, which can only be attained through carefully examining one’s motives over and over again. One must have holy brazenness but only when this is appropriate. It is for this reason that we recite this prayer many times.

This is also why one who has no minyan may not recite this prayer since it is only in through connecting to a “Jewish community” of at least nine other Jews that one can access this level of mercy and learn holy audacity. As our sages say, Hashem does not despise the prayer of the many.

[1] מובא בנאות דשא

[2] פרי צדיק

[3] This explanation of the Sefiros is from תנאי הנפש להשגת החסידות, translated as “Visions of a Compassionate World.”

[4] ליקוטי הלכות, הלכות השכמת הבוקר, א, ג

[5] This is based on the Ramak in Tomer Devorah as well

[6] ליקוטי הלכות, הלכות מתנה, ה', ה'

Monday, September 7, 2009

Shiduch Question

A certain bochur got to be of marriageable age and met a girl that he wished to marry but was suddenly plunged into a quandary since he had an older sister. Someone pointed out to him that this was not right. After all, even Lavan says that one should not marry off the younger before the older. Perhaps he was halachically obligated to wait until his sister found her match. After all, how could he cause his sister such intense pain?
Although this young man clearly was obligated to get married, perhaps he was also obligated to wait? But his sister was three years older than he and she had not yet met her match. Even if he was supposed to wait, there surely had to be some kind of boundary of precisely how long one is obligated to wait.
The young man decided to ask the Chazon Ish, zt”l, for guidance in this matter. The Chazon Ish answered, “You can definitely go ahead with your wedding and you need not wait for your sister at all. As for the pain this will cause your sister, we see from Bava Basra 16 that this is permitted, since you mean l’shem Shamayim, just a we find that Peninah caused her sister Chanah pain l’shem shamayim, so that she should daven with her whole heart to have children...”
Rav Tzvi Yavrov, shlit”a, asked Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlit”a, the obvious question on this story. “But we find there that Peninah was punished for tormenting Chanah; so how did the Chazon Ish prove anything from their case?”
“You are mistaken,” Rav Chaim explained. “The reason why Peninah was punished was for the manner in which she inflicted the pain. This is hardly relevant in our situation.”

Friday, September 4, 2009

Bilvavi Author Speaking Schedule Now Available

Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh seforim will be coming in on Sunday for a speaking tour. He will be in Lakewood, Boro Park, Flatbush, Monsey, and Toronto. He will also be available for private appointments on Labor Day, September 7th in Woodmere, NY. In addition, there is a one day seminar with Rav Shwartz on Labor Day in Woodmere. All of the information is available here:

Please publicize this information so that this information can be widely distributed.


Thursday, September 3, 2009

When Things Do Not Go According to Plan

A certain man had good cause to rejoice: his wife had given birth to a baby boy. He arranged everything for the bris which would take place on the eighth day and even traveled to nearby Lublin to invite the Chozeh of Lublin, zt”l, to be the sandek. The Chozeh graciously agreed, and everything was set.

On the day of the bris which was called for early afternoon, the family and friends slowly gathered in the appointed place to wait for the great event. Unfortunately, when the time came, the Chozeh had not yet arrived. Since the father really yearned for the Chozeh to be the sandek, he decided to wait.

When, after an hour, there was still no sign of the Chozeh, the family began to get worried. It was a winter day and the sun would set early. After another short while of anxious waiting, they finally decided to do the bris without the Chozeh.

Just as they were about to wash for the seudah a little over a quarter of an hour before sunset, the Chozeh finally arrived. The family requested his presence at the seudah and sat him at the head of the table. During the seudah, they noticed something very strange. It seemed that the Chozeh was much more joyous then he appeared during a bris when he had actually been the sandek. This infectious happiness lifted up the mood of the all of the attendees, and they expressed their happiness with enthusiastic singing and Torah.

After the bris, someone asked the Chozeh why he was so joyous—he had not even attended the actual bris.

He answered, “I am so happy because, in a way, not having made it to be the sandek is better than being sandek. Since the custom is to only choose a truly great person to be sandek, one who is blessed with this distinction must fight thoughts of arrogance which can impinge his joy. However, if one planned to do a mitzvah and was prevented against his will, Hashem views this as if he had done the mitzvah anyway.

The Chozeh concluded, “Surely no hubris can be felt by someone who missed doing the mitzvah! Yet Hashem views it as if it was done. This means Hashem views it as if he had done it with perfect connection and focus. It is as if I have merited to do a mitzvah with completion and humility—shouldn’t I be filled with ecstasy and joy?”

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Nothing Personal

Rav Shach, zt”l, once related: “It’s interesting to note that the Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, only brings a contemporary Gadol in his Mishnah Berurah a single time. In hilchos Rosh HaShanah, he writes that it is correct to blow the shofar out of the right side of one’s mouth. In the Biur Halachah, he cites Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, zt”l, who refers to Rosh HaShanah 34 to provide an explanation. There, we extrapolate some halachos of the shofar from the laws of chatzosros. He adds that since the verse says clearly that when they blew the chatzosros milchamah during Gidon’s war, they held the torches in their left hands and their shofaros in their right, we see that they blew from the right side.”

Rav Shach continued, “The truth is that the Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, did not bring a halachah from a contemporary Gadol, only a reason for a custom. But it remains curious why he cites the Ohr Someach and no one else? My theory was always that it had to do with a certain argument that existed between the two Torah giants. The Chofetz Chaim held that even if the government threatens to shut down a yeshiva, it must refuse to incorporate secular studies into its schedule. The Ohr Someach, on the other hand, held that it is more important for the yeshivos to stay open, and they should therefore teach the secular subjects. The Chofetz Chaim and Rav Meir Simchah had a number of heated exchanges about the matter. I always felt that the citation was a peace-offering from the Chofetz Chaim toward Rav Meir Simchah.”

Rav Shach conluded, “Even though this was just my own theory, I always felt certain that I was correct. I once met Rav Mendel Zaks, zt”l, the son-in-law of the Chofetz Chaim and presented it to him. He affirmed that this indeed had been the Chofetz Chaim’s intention, and he had even told this to the group of baal habatim with whom he learned the Mishnah Berurah in Radin. We must learn from our gedolim how to convey to those whom we may have insulted that we didn’t mean anything personal. Even if we did it l’shem Shomayim!