Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hidden Treasures

A certain nobleman once asked a great tzaddik about the stories recounted by Rabba bar Bar Chana in the fifth chapter of Bava Basra. “How can such obvious exaggerations possibly teach anything meaningful?”
The tzaddik replied, “I will explain this with a parable. Once there was a wise king who was elderly and had only one young son. When the king saw that his days were coming to an end he worried about his child. The kingdom had vast treasuries and he fretted that his child would squander this wealth before he matured enough to understand how to use it properly.
“The wise king conceived of a plan to prevent such a disaster. He sent for artisans to make a magnificent picture of a lion in a certain part of the palace. But, strangely, the lion’s foot pointed towards a certain place in a very unnatural manner. This stood out, since the rest of the lion was completely life-like in every way. He had other similar works of art spread around the area of the palace where the prince would be.
“The purpose of this oddity was for his son to eventually notice it and wonder about it. When the boy matured he would understand that these anomalies must surely have a purpose, since the rest was done to perfection. He would eventually realize that these unnatural limbs point to something and search. In that very direction the old king cleverly placed a hidden cache of priceless jewels for his son to find when he was ready. In this manner his son would not squander the bulk of the treasure of the realm since he would only come into it when his wisdom was truly developed.
“The same is true for the deep teachings of the aggadata, of which the Rabba bar Bar Chana stories are an example,” concluded the tzaddik. “One who learns gemara sees the magnificent logic and depth of the Talmud and cannot understand how these strange sayings and stories are freely placed in the midst of the deepest sugyos. And for a while every student remains puzzled.
“But when the serious student matures, he realizes that these stories must have a deeper meaning and he begins to search for it. When he is worthy he finally recognizes that these stories hide the deepest secrets of Torah which only a truly mature person can appreciate and properly utilize.”

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Halachic Process

Rav Wolbe, zt”l, once explained why absolute honesty must be attributed to the true chachamim of each generation. “Every Torah Jew must have absolute confidence in the great achronim of every generation. We must never suspect the Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, or the Chazon Ish, zt”l, of falsehood even in worldly matters and certainly not in the all important area of halacha.
“When the Chofetz Chaim rules in a certain way it is as if he says this in the name of his teacher and his teacher’s teacher all the way back to Moshe on Sinai. Someone who doubts this, doubts the veracity of Hillel and Rabi Akiva as well since what is the real difference? Even this confused person must concede that if the halachic process of our greatest authorities is based on falsehood, perhaps the same is true regarding the earlier authorities, chas v’shalom!
“When Hashem sent prophets to warn powerful kings that they would fall and their kingdoms would be destroyed, they did so fearlessly despite the terrible dangers involved. The word of Hashem burned in their hearts and they foretold these events without the slightest change. Even though some suffered blows or even imprisonment for telling people what they did not wish to hear, they would not falsify or even hold back their prophecy.
“Like the prophets, the sages valiantly taught Torah whatever the consequences, since their only interest was to promulgate the truth. There can be no doubt that regardless of pressure or political considerations, the great sages of each generations remained true to the halacha which burned in their hearts. It is not for nothing that Chazal teach in Shabbos 138b, that ‘devar Hashem’ refers to both prophecy and halacha! ”

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Heavenly Advocate

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

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Chapter 72

# 20) "When one needs to open an oven that is sealed with mud on Shabbos, this should be done by a non-Jew. If a non-Jew is not available a minor should open the sealed oven. But if even a minor is not available a Jewish adult may open the oven door but he should do so with a change from the usual manner in which he would have opened the seal.

The Mekor Chaim explains that an oven represents a person’s heart and mind, the seat of his thoughts and emotions. Sometimes we feel as though we cannot seem to access our true selves or change our most important attitudes regarding important things. How can we possibly repent if our hearts seem blocked?

The best way to clear out the blockages of our hearts is to rejoice that one is a Jew. This is Hashem’s decision, which we should certainly appreciate. Who can possibly fathom the greatness of being a member of the chosen nation of Hashem? Rebbe Nachman of Breslov stressed the great importance of internalizing a feeling of gratitude to Hashem for making us a Jew. As we say during the uva l’tzion prayer, “Blessed is our G-d who has divided us from those who err and has given us the Torah of truth!”

One morning, the Chassidim noticed that the holy Chozeh of Lublin zy”a refrained from saying the blessing, “She’lo asani goy…” during the morning prayers. They were dumbfounded by this apparently inconsistent behavior, but didn’t have the nerve to ask the Chozeh for an explanation. After Shacharis, the Rebbe turned to his followers and said, “I’m sure that you are all wondering why I failed to say the brochah ‘she’lo asani goy’ this morning, and so I will tell you my secret. I already said it early this morning when I woke up.

“As soon as I awoke, I did my usual cheshbon hanefesh but I was dismayed to find myself without a single merit to my credit! I felt like the lowest of the low, the very worst person in the world. But, just then, I found a way to console myself. I said to myself, ‘I am still a Jew! I may not act the way I should, but I am still so blessed that I am not a goy!’ My heart overflowed with joy, and I immediately made the blessing right then and there!”

But what if a person is not yet able to connect to his inner gladness of being a Jew? In that case, he can still unplug his heart by starting again like a little child. Just begin again as the Breslover song goes, “What was was, the main thing is from now on!” Of course one must change what he did wrong, yet one of the best ways to connect to Hashem is by making a completely new start of it. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov said that one must sometimes make many new beginnings in the same day. Surely a person who feels stopped up must keep starting fresh until he breaks though to his heart.

And what if one cannot open his blocked heart even by starting again? In that case, he must make a meaningful change. First he should change his attitude which is blocking him from fulfilling the other two methods of unstopping his heart.

At the very least, he should learn an extra daf gemara or do extra mitzvos with the express purpose of drawing nearer to Hashem though these actions, as much as possible. Doing a little more spiritually with the simple desire to connect to Hashem is a very effective way to rid oneself of the over-sophistication which prevents him from feeling the joy of being Jewish and starting fresh from scratch.

The Bubble Bursts

Rav Shmuel Tefilinsky, zt”l, once told a story about a wealthy investor from outside of Israel. This man arrived in Israel with six thousand lirot with which to invest in real estate. Since the rents at that time were very high in Tel Aviv, this man decided that it would be worthwhile to borrow another six thousand and purchase a building for the astronomical price of twelve thousand lirot.
The man did so and for a time everything went well but not long after his big purchase there was a terrible depression and no one was able to pay the exorbitant rents they owed. Not surprisingly, real estate in general fell precipitously and the building which a short time before had been worth twelve thousand lirot was now only worth four thousand.
Of course, the bank did not really care about this wealthy man’s bad luck; they just wanted him to either make the payments on his loan or return the money that he had borrowed. They sold his building for four thousand and the miserable man was thrown in jail because he was unable to raise the remaining two thousand lirot that he owed.
Rav Tefilinsky commented, “If only this man had been happy to purchase a more modest building for six thousand, he would have had a building worth two thousand lirot during the hard times. And later, when real estate picked up again, its value would be restored to six thousand.
“This is a mussar haskel. Never borrow if one can avoid it!”

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Spirit of the Law: Ben Ish Chai, Sukkos

1) A person is obligated to sleep under in the actual air space of the sukkah (i.e. under the sechach.) One who sleeps under a bed that is over ten tefachim high has not discharged his obligation...

Rav Nosson of Breslov explains that after Yom Kippur we flee the Amalek within by entering into the healing Sukkah which represents the ananei hakavod, clouds of glory. Just as the clouds of glory protected those within from Amalek, so too, the sukkah affords spiritual protection from Amalek which works assiduously to blunt one’s holy sensitivity. Since the easiest way to accomplish this blunting is when one is occupied with mundane matters, we lift up all our mundane pursuits by bringing them into the sukkah. In this manner we realize that it is in our hands to elevate every aspect of ourselves by remembering that Hashem is with us at all times and especially when we feel distant.[1]

But we must be careful to remain under the sechach. The Arizal teaches that the sechach should have spaces in between since it represents that Hashem sends down wondrous kindness into the mundane world.

We must internalize that Hashem is with us no matter what! Whatever place we have fallen to can be elevated. The moment we realize this, Hashem gives us tremendous loving kindness. In as much as a person is “under the sechach,” he remembers that Hahsem is with him, he draws down His providence and tremendous loving kindness even if this is not deserved—even if the one who truly realizes that everything is from Hashem is wicked as discussed in the Midrash.

But if one allows himself to be distracted from focusing on Hashem’s providence, he will be unable to access this kindness. Much like in the desert, he will be pushed out of the clouds of glory and vulnerable to Amalek.

Rav Nosson of Breslov explains that the main reason we have not been redeemed is because of our lack of encouragement, specifically when things are difficult.

But it is never too late to begin again! As Rebbe Nachman taught, in this world a person can make a huge profit with no real cost to himself at all. All he has to do is what he can, since every little drop of effort joins to form a big merit which helps one in his need, in this world and the next.

2) One must first build the walls of the Sukkah and only then put on the sechach...

The Mekor Chaim explains that one’s sukkah represents his portion in the next world, but it seems strange on the surface, that the sechach, the main element of the sukkah is primarily refuse. Rav Nosson of Breslov explains that we use refuse for the sechach, since this represents imbuing the joy of the next world into one’s experience in this world.[2] As Rebbe Nachman teaches this joy becomes so intense that one doesn’t feel any interest in attaining the next world, since his feeling in this world is so joyous that he only wants to be involved in another mitzvah.[3]

But of course such joy must be balanced and rooted in holiness, otherwise, most often one’s joy is a “strange fire,” as Rebbe Nachman teaches. First we need a basic structure of proper values and balanced connection. Only then can we experience the true joy of the next world in this world. First we build a structure, which represents fulfilling the mitzvos and avoiding transgressing the aveiros of the Torah. Only then will we be able to “put on the sechach,” in a genuine manner.

Yet even with a proper basis (or working towards attaining one if actually doing everything is as yet beyond one’s ability) the only way to attain the light of Sukkos is through joy, as the Beis Aharon of Karlin stresses. This explains why Sukkos is called, zeman simchaseinu, “Our joyous time.

3) The first [olive sized piece of bread] eaten in the Sukkah on the first night of Sukkos is a Torah obligation... [Note: the Mishna Berura learns from the Vilna Gaon that each additional morsel of bread eaten in the sukkah fulfills its own Torah obligation above and beyond the mitzvah fulfilled by merely sitting in the sukkah, similar to matza on Pesach.]

Rav Nosson of Breslov explains that the sukkah may not be a permanent structure since it represents the bare absolute truth. So many people fall away from closeness to Hashem because of their perception of the truth, since it appears to them that they are distant and bad. But the real truth is that this is a gross error, since Hashem is always near to anyone who calls to Him in truth as the verse states, “Hashem is close to all who call to Him in truth.”

Rebbe Nachman explains that this means anyone who calls to him from whatever level he may be on. It may appear to one that he is hopelessly mired in a spiritual quagmire and will never merit lasting change, because he experiences an aspect of the plague of darkness and can not see the many ways to find lasting improvement and change. But truly calling out to Hashem from whatever level one may be at brings down a powerful light and enables one to see the many exits out of the darkness.

Through calling to Hashem honestly from whatever level one is at one merits to dispel the darkness and he can truly see that Hashem is with him even when he is involved in mundane pursuits.[4] This explains why at least the first morsel eaten in the sukkah fulfills a Torah obligation: the entire object of Sukkah is to strive to sanctify all of our mundane pursuits, especially eating with holiness.

4) One makes Kiddush after nightfall...

The Mekor Chaim explains that we sit in the sukkah for seven days because each day represents another stage of ten years, which together make up the seventy most important years of one’s life, from birth until seventy, [the average life span in many places of the world.] One merits to sanctify these years, through the mitzvah of sukkah, just as one sanctifies the seven days of the week through Shabbos. This sanctification is drawn down through kiddush, the very name of which means "sanctify."

In order to draw down this great holiness, we make kiddush at the onset of this holy chag.[5]

5) [Discusses the various customs of when one should say the blessing leishev baSukkah]

The Beis Aharon of Karlin explains that regardless of when one says the brocha, the main thing is one’s heart, since the sukkah represents partaking of the feast Hashem will make for the tzadddikim in the sukkah fashioned from the skin of the Levyasan in times to come. Since the word, Levyasan means to accompany or connect this alludes that we merit this level through connecting to Hashem in one’s heart. This includes both the joy in one’s heart and prayer which are called service of the heart. Yet the main focus of one’s divine service should be on attaining joy, especially during this special time.

[1] Likutei Halachos, Shabbos, #7

[2] Likutei Halachos, Hilchos Chezkas Karka’os, #3

[3] Likutei Moharan, I:5

[4] Likutei Halachos, Hilchos Ribis #5

[5] Mekor Chaim, Sukkah

Monday, October 5, 2009

Stories for Sukkos--Your Arba Minim

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!”
The Mekor Chaim, zt”l, writes that lulav is a conjunction of two Hebrew words: לו לב, “he has a heart.” Who is like the lulav? The person who takes another Jew’s troubles to heart, who devotes his entire self to showing consideration for the other’s needs with the same sensitivity that he would appreciate if their roles were reversed.
Rav Meir Raful, zt”l, lived in the apartment right above the famous Rav Avraham Ades, zt”l, the great scholar of Aram Tzova-Haleb who later became the Rosh Yeshiva of the famous Rechovot HaNahar of the kabbalists in the Bucharim quarter of Jerusalem. Rav Raful once related the story of his aliyah to Jerusalem in the very difficult year of 1923:
“Work was scarce, money was hard to come by, and the barest necessities were difficult to secure. On many occasions, Rav Avraham would hire me to do a chore and pay me more than double the regular cost of the job. When I would protest such a lavish display of generosity, Rav Avraham would say, ‘The Torah teaches that we must love the convert. Those who have moved up to Jerusalem with such self-sacrifice are certainly included in this mitzvah.’
“This happened a number of times. One erev Sukkos, I was penniless and could not even afford vegetables for the holiday. I wandered through the streets seeing people buying various foods in honor of the coming yom tov and all I could do was cry. I felt invisible; no one even noticed my pain.
“Suddenly, the Rav passed by and called, ‘Meir, Meir! Come here!’
“I went over to him, and he said, ‘Come to my house. I want to work out how much I owe you.’
“I don’t understand,’ I said. ‘Not only do you not owe me a penny, but every time you’ve paid me, it was at least double the going rate!’
“The Rav nevertheless insisted that I come with him, saying that he must owe me something. When we got there, he handed me money over my loud objections. He then ushered me out of the house, instructing me to go and buy what I needed for yom tov. It was only twenty-five grush, but he lightened my heart so much that it felt like twenty-five coins of gold!”
The esrog represents a person’s heart. Our sages teach that the loss of the flesh of the esrog is only irredeemable when the hole pierces the fruit all the way through. As long as a person knows that his failings, his “holes,” do not penetrate to his essence, he will still be motivated to change his ways.
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!”
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!”
Our sages teach that the willow of the arba minim must be of the arvei nachal with leaves that are elongated like a river, and not rounded like those of the tzaftz’fa that grows in the hills. The Kedushas Tzion of Bobov, zt”l quotes the medrash that the willow represents a Jew who lacks Torah and mitzvos who achieves atonement by binding himself together with others more worthy than himself. But, he says, this can only be effective if the less worthy Jew is not a tzaftz’fa, a grandiose person who places himself “in the hills” above others and “shoots his mouth off” (m’tzaftzef b’peh). The only way to deal with such a willow is by separating it from the other species and “putting it in its place,” lest it have a negative influence on the other three.
Once, a certain maskil from Minsk came to visit with the Beis HaLevi, zt”l, together with a large group of prominent Jews. During the course of a conversation about new Torah works, the man very self-assuredly turned to the renowned gadol and said, “One would think that a gaon of your stature would publish innovative leniencies, since you certainly have the knowledge and authority that demands.”
In a booming voice, the Beis HaLevi declared, “Absolutely right. And I’ve even published quite a few heteirim.”
Fairly bursting with pride from having secured the Beis HaLevi’s regard, and hoping to hear a few piskei halachah that would suit his ideology, the visitor urged his host to name a few.
Much to the delight of his listeners, the Beis HaLevi intoned in a voice laced with irony, “Some are machmir that only great scholars should wear tefillin d’Rabbeinu Tam, but I am lenient and permit them universally…While some are machmir and forbid Torah study when erev Tisha B’Av falls out on Shabbos, I permit it. Although some are machmir and prohibit fasting on Rosh Hashanah, I am lenient and allow that too.” By this point, the other people in the room could barely restrain their laughter.
The Beis HaLevi then delivered his makeh b’patish: “And even though some are machmir and forbid observing two days of Yom Kippur because of sfeika d’yuma, I am lenient and permit it!”
When our sages list the features which distinguish the kosher arava from the invalid tzaftz’fa, we find that one of these traits is color. While the true arava has a red stem, the tzaftz’fa has a stem that is white. Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, explains that since the willow represents a person devoid of Torah and mitzvos, the redness of its stem symbolizes one of his main redeeming qualities: an honest awareness of the impropriety of his ways. In that sense, the “redness” of sin is actually a positive sign, since it proves that at least the person knows the difference between right and wrong. The tzaftz’fa, on the other hand, represents a person who lives in denial. All the bad he does, and all the good that he fails to do, is all “white” as far as he is concerned. Such a person is very far from repentance and repair.
Once, one of the followers of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, zt”l, asked whether trying to cover up one’s sins isn’t really a kind of hypocrisy. He received an interesting response:
“There is a common saying, ‘If a person is going to eat a davar acher, he should at least let the grease run freely down his beard.’ They mean, why should he add hypocrisy to his sins? But I say, ‘If a person is going to do such a thing, he should at the very least wipe the grease off of his beard! Let him show a little shame!”
An Israeli baal teshuvah was once asked what had inspired him to turn away from the lifestyle of the Shomer HaTzair kibbutz on which he was raised. He said, “I heard Rebbe Nachman’s saying about ‘wiping the grease off of one’s beard’ and took it to heart. I didn’t stop sinning right away, but I did stop flaunting my sins. And it ultimately changed my life completely!”