Friday, January 29, 2010

Spirit of the Law: Tu B'Shvat

Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Chapter140 #26) The fifteenth of Shevat is Rosh Hashana for trees...The custom is to eat many different species of fruit on this day.

I: Rav Nosson of Breslov, zt"l, writes that every human being is always longing for Hashem. A Jew's longing for connection to Hashem is even more powerful. Usually, this longing gets channeled into other areas. People mistakenly think they yearn for money, honor or physical pleasures such as food. Attaining these never satisfies in a lasting way however, since the source, the inner desire for closeness to Hashem has not been addressed, just stifled.

When the Maharil Diskin, zt”l, was asked why the gemara compares the sinners of Israel to a pomegranate, he responded “A pomegranate has a hard exterior upon which no good is noticeable. It is only if you open it up, and delve into it’s depths that one finds the many, many good seeds in the Rimon.” Even if you peel off the outer shell you see only the white insides. You only find the seeds by breaking through the bad. Similarly, every Jew is a neshama kedosha which is always yearning with a powerful longing for his source. "

On Tu B'Shvat the sap begins to rise in trees. It is partially due to this process that the tree later develops in the spring. This is why it is Rosh Hashannah for trees.

The verse states, "Man is as a tree of the field."The "sap" of each person is the hidden inner essence of each person, their fiery longing for Hashem. Like the sap of trees, the inner essence of each person is aroused on Tu B'Shevat. Connecting to our inner longing is the prerequisite for all spiritual growth.

This is one reason we eat fruits on this holy day. We acknowledge the correlation between bearing spiritual fruits and arousing our powerful yearning for Hashem. The more we connect to our powerful inner longing for Hashem, the more spiritual fruit we will bear in the coming year. The less we connect, the more this longing will be misdirected towards the material and the less spiritual growth we will yield. It is our choice.

May Hashem help us to grow and thrive, and bear an abundance of spiritual fruit.

II: On the subject of Tu B’Shevat, the Chidushei HaRim, zt”l, shares a very powerful concept: the “new year’s” judgment of Tu B’shvat primarily determines one’s access to novel Torah concepts (chidushei Torah) for the upcoming year.

Rav Nosson of Breslov, zt”l, writes that there are two levels of chidushei Torah. The first is the joy and rapture of bearing and sharing the fruit of one’s Torah learning, bringing down and sharing novel Torah concepts. This is the spiritual root of the sweetness of fruit to the palate. Without this feeling of sweetness, a person has virtually no genuine connection to Torah even if he or she learns assiduously and innovates novel interpretations. The second, lower, level of chidush is accessing a feeling of renewal and connection from every bit of Torah learning, prayer, and avodah even when there is nothing objectively novel about the concepts in which one is immersed. One still feels a powerful joy and connection, and this is the ultimate fruit of Torah study, as we say in the daily blessing: “Hashem, please make Torah learning sweet in my mouth.”

May we merit renewal and connection every day of the coming year, each person on his own level, in his own way. Tu B’Shevat is the time to pray for newness in Torah, especially in the Oral Torah, since Shevat was the month during which Moshe began to transmit the book of Devarim, which is the nucleus of all Oral Torah. This is the time that Moshe began to “Be’er es haTorah”—“explain the Torah”—but the word for explain is be-er, the well, which parallels the mazal of this month, the D’li, or water-bearer. May Hashem help us all to feel true joy and connection in our efforts to “draw up and pour out” the waters of the Torah! Without the joy, where are we?

Rav Yisroel Salanter zt”l had a student who was famous for his diligence as well as his creative thinking; he had the distinction of being both a masmid and a mechadeish. This bochur studied many years under Rav Yisroel, but one day, to the shock and dismay of all the other students, the “prodigy” went off the derech!

When the terrible news was brought to the Rav, he displayed no surprise at all.

“During all the years that I oversaw this student’s progress, I never glimpsed the least glimmer of joy on his face. He worked very hard to grasp the depth of a subject, but it was obvious that he was never really moved by any of his chiddushim. He never allowed himself to be connected to the Torah, and so it was easy for him to fall away!”

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

White Instead of Black

When Rav Raphael of Barshad, zt”l, first began to search for the ideal way to serve Hashem, he heard that learning the Zohar Hakadosh was a great segulah for attaining fear of heaven. He therefore began learning a great deal of Zohar. After learning through the whole Zohar, he started the Zohar Chadash. Towards the end of the Zohar Chadash, there is a warning against being like Bil’am, who was a complete fool despite his great knowledge of serving Hashem.
Rav Raphael said to himself, “If one can know so much and still be a fool, perhaps I should focus instead on the Shulchan Aruch so that my study will bring me to ma’aseh.”
He started learning the Shulchan Aruch in depth, but when he got to Orach Chaim #231, “All of one’s acts should be for the sake of heaven,” he again felt that something was missing.
“Are all of my actions really l’shem shomayim? Perhaps I should spend more time on mussar?” he wondered. Rav Rafael therefore added study of the Shelah HaKadosh to his schedule.
He was so immersed in the Shelah that he would learn it at every opportunity. He would even take it with him when waking the townsfolk for davening so that he would not waste a single minute. But after a while he again felt as if something was missing. So he traveled to the famous Rav Pinchas of Koretz, zt”l, for advice.
Rav Rafael poured out his heart. “I want to serve Hashem in truth, but everything I have tried has been insufficient!” He was so distressed that he actually fainted.
When he came to, Rav Pinchas said, “If you stay with me, you will come to truth.”
Three years later, Rav Rafael dreamed that he was playing cards. Although his hand started out with black cards, they all turned white in the end. When he shared his dream with Rav Pinchas, he was given a powerful interpretation.
“Your dream is like the gemara in Beitzah 10b, about one who designated black birds and found white ones instead. When you first came to me, you were blackened with worry and chumros, and this prevented you from serving Hashem in truth. But now you are white with virtue and purity!”

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Joy of Torah

The Baal Shem Tov HaKadosh zt”l explained the joy of Torah through a parable.
“A musician was playing his instrument with such skill and sweetness, everyone who heard him was swept away by the sound. His tune was so powerful that his audience couldn’t hold themselves back; they started to dance with more and more energy and joy, until they were leaping nearly to the ceiling!
“The closer one got to the music the more intense was the sound, and the pleasure and joy of the dancers grew and grew. Whoever was closer was more enrapt, and danced with all the more fervor. At the height of the dancing, a deaf man entered the room. All he could see were wild people, leaping and whirling like marionettes, as if they were under some sort of spell. Because he was cut off from the music, the scene looked to him like something only a madman would dream of, and all the people seemed foolish, or insane.
He said to himself, “Is this what they call happiness?” The Baal Shem Tov would then conclude: “If only the deaf man could sense that the source of all this rejoicing is the sweetest of music, he too would dance with all his might!”

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Rav Zusha's Method of Learning Talmud

Rav Meshulam Zusha, zt”l, joined the disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch, zt”l, together with his famous older brother, Rav Elimelech of Lizhensk, zt”l. Although Rav Zusha soon proved that he was a profound thinker, he mainly gained the admiration of his fellow students because of his deep yiras Shomayim. Even in his younger years, he showed an intuitive grasp of the inner meaning of the Torah, sometimes at the expense of the plain meaning of the text. Although this would seem to be a disadvantage, the Rama M’Pano, zt”l, writes that even as far back as the time of the Tanaim and Amoraim certain unusual individuals developed first in yiras Shomayim and deeper learning and only afterward acquired a penetrating analysis on the level of nigleh.
In any event, Rav Zusha tried to learn Gemara with various chavrusos, but his unusual approach drove several potential partners away until he finally managed to integrate his deep understanding of Torah with its more revealed aspects.
During one such attempt, Rav Zusha attempted to arrange a chavrusa with Rav Shmelke of Nickolsburg, zt”l, a great Chassidic figure in his own right. When Rav Shmelke arrived at the appointed time, the two sat down and opened up their Gemaras. Rav Shmelke painstakingly began to expound the peshat of the opening Mishnah of Meseches Yevamos: “Fifteen women exempt their Tzaros and their Tzaros Tzaros from Chalitzah and from Yibum. ‘Exempt their Tzaros’ means that if one of them is married to his brother, then both she and any other co-wife to whom the brother is married is exempt from Chalitzah and Yibum.”
Rav Zusha was overcome with emotion and exclaimed, “Who told you that this is peshat? I think it should be read differently! ‘Fifteen’ alludes to the Divine Name that we call Kah (which is a yud =10 and a hei =5). ‘Women,’ ‘Nashim,’ can be read as the abbreviated conjunction of two words—na Shem—as in Ana Hashem, ‘please, Hashem.’”
Filled with fervor, Rav Zusha was nearly weeping, “Ana Hashem, ‘potros tzaroseihen v’tzaros tzaroseihen ad sof haolam!’ Please, Hashem, release the Jewish people from their suffering and from all of its painful aftereffects for all time in the merit of Your holy Name Kah, with which You created this world and the next!”

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Cruelty to Animals

Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein, shlit”a, once gave a very inspiring talk on the prohibition to cause pain even to animals. “The verse in Nitzavim adjures us to cleave to Hashem—ולדבקה בו. Chazal explain that although one cannot literally cleave to Hashem, we can emulate His attributes. Just as He is merciful and gracious, so should we emulate His ways. It is very simple to determine whether a person truly emulates Hashem: just observe his actions. How does he treat animals, for example?
“This topic in general is a very important one. Very often, one finds that when children go to the zoo, they delight in pestering the animals. They throw objects into the cages, and sometimes even throw stones at the hapless creatures to see how they will react. Of course such actions scare the animals and cause them pain. Strangely, their parents often do not rebuke them for violating the prohibition of tzar balei chaim, and we can only conclude that this sin is not known to many.
“The Sefer Chasidim point out that a person will be brought to judgment for any needless pain he caused to animals. Even overloading an animal and striking it when it cannot walk on account of being overburdened will be cause for judgment. In addition, those who pull the ears of cats to hear their cries of pain are sinners.
The verse states, ‘וביום ההוא נאום ה' מכה כל סוס בתמהון ורוכבו בשגעון’—‘This is the promise of Hashem: On that day, anyone who strikes a horse will be struck with confusion, and who rides it will be struck with madness.’ Our sages teach on this verse that Hashem will collect payment from riders of horses who kicked their horses needlessly.
“Instead, we should use the time at the zoo to point out to our children the wonders of creation. Each animal or bird is designed exactly as he should be in order to survive in his environment. Some have scales, others fly while others have a protective house on their backs. There is no end to the lessons and wonder one can extract from focusing on the animals in the right way with the proper guidance.”

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

How to Empathize

During his last years, the Tchebiner Rav lived in Shaarei Chessed. At that time, there was a certain very broken, lonely man who would collect tzedakah in the neighborhood shuls. This person was well known—if not well liked—by all on account of his bizarre dress and strange behavior. He had his own unusual way to sing יהללו when the Torah was being replaced into the aron kodesh. Since his voice was cracked and he could not hold a tune, this was very annoying to the other people in shul. Nevertheless, if there was a chosson, he would always belt out his tune, often accompanied by bored children who immediately flocked to him and did their utmost to “help him along.”
Once, when this man was collecting in the Tchebiner Rav’s minyan, the Tchebiner Rav gave him a princely donation before they had replaced the Torah into the ark. “I am not giving you this merely s a gift,” he proclaimed. “I give this to you on condition that you make the minyan happy with your unique tune for יהללו.”
The man was thrilled to his core and began to sing his special tune. But this time, since the Rav had asked for it, everyone joined him and it was actually a fitting way to replace the Torah. The broken man was overjoyed at his triumph and would tell everyone he knew about the admiration that the Tchebiner Rav had for him. Not only had he given him a big sum of money, he had even asked for his special nigun!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Characteristic of a Fool…

The Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, would often take people to task for not devoting enough time to learning. Whenever he would notice an expensive and unnecessary ornament gracing a former student’s home, he would bemoan, “I don’t see a carpet, or drapes, or what have you. I see pages and pages of Gemara!”
He once offered a novel explanation of the importance of making full use of every moment for study. “The Gemara says in Chagigah 4a that one of the characteristics of a fool is that he habitually loses that which he is given. The halacha follows the Tosefta that Rav Papa cites, that one who always loses that which he is given is a fool.
The Chofetz Chaim then cried out, “There is nothing more precious than time! You can’t buy more for all the money in the world! In the course of a single minute, one can say two hundred words. Each word is a mitzvah in itself. How can one waste the time for the purchase of luxuries? Even worse, how can one be such a fool as to let it slip away through simple carelessness?”
Of course, there are other lessons that can be learned from this Gemara. A certain “chossid shoteh” once came to the Maggid of Kozhnitz, zt”l, and asked for a segulah to help him find an object that he had lost. The man had foolishly left his belonging unattended in a public place, and it was almost certainly stolen because of his irresponsibility. Even so, the man exhibited no awareness that he had caused his own trouble and still sought the item.
The Maggid said with some asperity, “Go home and say ‘Eizehu’ three times. That is your segulah.”
Without a second thought, the man went home and recited Eizehu Mekoman three times with painstaking kavanah, but nothing happened. His lost object failed to materialize.
He returned to the Maggid with a complaint. “I recited Eizehu three times just as you said, but nothing came of it. I still haven’t found my aveidah!”
The Maggid answered curtly, “I didn’t mean Eizehu in Zevachim. I meant in Chagigah! Eizehu shoteh hameabed mah shenosnim lo!”

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Joy of Mitzvos

Rav Avraham Vaknin, zt”l, of Yerushalayim recounted the reaction of a simple poor Yerushalmi when the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah came his way.
This poor man was once walking through the streets bowed down with a heavy heart due to his many debts. The time for payment had arrived and he lacked the wherewithal to repay. As he shambled along, he suddenly noticed an expensive gold necklace on the ground. He immediately rejoiced at his good fortune. Although he lacked for money, he was overjoyed because Hashem had sent him such a precious mitzvah. He immediately set up several signs in the vicinity where the chain had been found and bided his time.
He waited one week, then a second, and even a month or two with no response. When six months had elapsed most people ignored the now tattered signs, but the finder ensured that they remained up, just in case.
Fully a year later, the owner of the necklace—who lived outside of Yerushalayim—found himself in the neighborhood again and ran into the signs. He immediately recalled his lost necklace and went to the address listed on the signs. The finder asked for simanim, which the owner immediately gave. The finder excused himself and had a look to verify that the necklace had all the simanim, and was thrilled when he saw that it did. After verifying that the owner was not in a rush, he begged him to wait a very short time and immediately ran out of the house.
After a minute or two passed people began to enter the house. When the eighth person entered the house, the baal habayis returned to join them and the owner of the necklace and begged the impromptu minyan to wash for a seudas mitzvah. He quickly set up a bare meal of bread and something to go with it and they all washed.
After everyone had eaten the baal habayis explained, “This is a seudas mitzvah, since I have the great opportunity to fulfill the Torah commandment of hashavas aveidah!”
After a long and heartfelt l’shem yichud, the finder returned the lost object with joy so profound it left a deep impression on all those present.