Monday, February 28, 2011

Spirit of the Law: Netilas Yadayim; Sanctifying the Hands

The Rashba, zt”l, explains that we wash our hands each morning like a kohein must wash his hands and feet to prepare to serve in the mikdash. The Baal Shem Tov, zt”l, explained the significance of this mitzvah.
“When the verse warns that we should not fall into arrogance, it states that we should not mistakenly think, 'כחי ועצם ידי עשה לי את החיל הזה'—‘My power and the force of my hands brought me all this wealth.’ We see that feeling hubris comes from a mistaken attitude regarding our actions which are the work of our hands. The kohein sanctified his hands to wash away such mistaken attitudes and understand that Hashem gives us the strength and enables us to do his will.
“The kohein also sanctified his feet to symbolize that we are washing away the הרגל, our tendency to do things by rote without thinking about it and without freshness. In order for avodah to be kosher it must be done with humility and with freshness, never by rote.”
The Mekor Chaim, zt”l, explained why we do not wash our feet every morning as well as our hands. “Although washing each morning represents sanctifying ourselves like the kohein who was obligated to wash from the כיור each day, those who do not go barefoot are not required to wash their feet, unlike a kohein in the beis hamikdash. This is because now that the beis hamikdash has been destroyed it is very difficult to purify our feet. Although we can learn to act with humility it is virtually impossible to completely purify ourselves from acting by rote.”

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Honor of Kings

Certain people believe that we should pay no heed to what non-Jewish political leaders do. In contrast, the Alter of Slobodka, zt”l, held to a very different view. “We find in the Tanach that the honor conferred by mortal kings—even non-Jewish kings—is considered very important. For example, regarding Yosef we find, 'ויסר פרעה טבעתו מעל ידו ויתן אותה על יד יוסף וילבש אותו בגדי שש וישם רביד הזהב על צוארו וירכב אותו במרכבת המשנה ויקראו לפניו אברך' . ‘And Pharaoh removed his ring from upon his hand and gave it upon the hand of Yosef, and he dressed him in silken garments and placed a golden diadem upon his neck, and had him ride in the viceroy’s chariot, and they called before him, “Avreich.”’ We find a similar example of such greatness regarding Mordechai. Even regarding the ultimate future we find a description of how the non-Jews will honor us which concludes with, 'והיו מלכים אומניך' —‘And kings will be your nursemaids.’
“In Zevachim 19 we also find a similar regard for the respect conferred by a non-Jewish king. ‘Once, Rav Huna bar Nosson went before Izgadar the king of Persia and his belt was higher than it should be. The king lowered it so that his garments should be pleasing and said, “It says about you that you are a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. You must therefore go with your belt in its proper place like a kohein when he does avodah.’
“‘When he told Ameimar this story, Ameimar commented, “He fulfilled in you, ‘And kings shall be your nursemaids.’”
“One may well ask what is so great about a non-Jewish king showing Rav Huna bar Nosson some respect. The answer is that no king rules without Hashem’s tacit agreement. Since Hashem crowned him and allows him to rule, the honor he confers is very important. Even if a non-Jewish king merely straightens a sage’s belt one time, this is a great enough honor to partially fulfill the verse, ‘And kings shall be your nursemaids.’”

Friday, February 25, 2011

“Woe to the Children”

Once there were terrible decrees against the klal. After things began getting more and more pressured, an additional decree was passed that made things even harder. The Chasam Sofer, zt”l, was very upset by this final decree and was heard to say, “I have no choice but to complain on high.”
He gathered all the Jews of the city and gave a fiery discourse, “Our sages teach that when the Jewish people enter shul and recite אמן יהא שמה רבא מברך, a heavenly voice emerges and says, ‘Fortunate is the King who is praised in His house. What is it to the father whose children have been exiled? Woe to the children who have been exiled from their Father’s table.’
“Hashem doesn’t need the beis hamikdash or our sacrifices. Does He eat meat? Surely His entire pleasure is that He commanded us and we do what He said to fulfill His will. It follows that when we are in exile and still do Hashem’s will, He has the same pleasure from us as He did when the holy temple stood. It is even possible to give Hashem greater pleasure when we do His will despite the hardships of bitter exile. As our sages teach, the Jewish people are likened to a date palm which has only one heart. We too have only one heart for our Father in heaven.
“We see that He loses nothing from our exile. It is we who lose while in exile, since when we offered sacrifices on the altar, Hashem’s presence shined on us and we could easily attain ruach hakodesh. Due to our many sins we were exiled from our land, and we cannot ascend three times a year to fulfill our duty. This is the meaning of the heavenly voice. Hashem says, ‘What is it to the father whose children have been exiled?’ What does He lack when we are in exile? Nothing at all. He still gets at least the same pleasure when we do His will as He did before. But, ‘Woe to the children who have been exiled from their Father’s table,’ completely bereft of all spiritual good...”
Shortly after this the decrees were nullified, but the Chasam Sofer’s feet began to hurt him. He attributed it to having resorted to a sharp tone in his plea as we find in the gemara in Sukkah regarding Levi.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Out of the Mire

Once, a certain bochur with profound yiras shamayim fell into a deep pit. At the bottom of the pit was a morass from which the boy could hardly extricate himself. As he struggled to get free he tearfully turned to Hashem and said, “Ribono Shel Olam! I know why you have arranged for me to fall into this pit: so that I do a complete teshuvah and change my ways. Well I can guarantee that it will be impossible for me to repent until I am allowed to escape from this predicament. How can I do teshuvah when my mind is so confused and I am preoccupied with my fate? Can I then do teshuvah when I am stuck in this mud? I swear that after I escape from this difficulty I will spend time alone and make a proper cheshbon hanefesh with yishuv hada’as...”
After recounting this story, Rav Sinai of Zhamograd, zt”l, explained, “This is what we mean when we petition Hashem, 'השיבנו ה' אליך ונשובה'—‘Restore us to You, Hashem, and we will return.’ Here we are in bitter exile. How can we do teshuvah which requires da’as, true understanding, of the folly of our ways? 'חדש ימינו כקדם'—‘Renew our days as of old.’ We cannot do teshuvah when we are in such dire straights far from our land, without our holy temple desolate. First Hashem must redeem us from our exile like he took us out of Egypt. When He returns us to His land and rebuilds our holy temple, then we will do proper teshuvah!”

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Avodah of Korbanos

Rabbeinu Yonah, zt”l, explains the way in which the avodah of korbanos relates to us during our lengthy exile. “When they slaughtered the sacrifice, the man who brought it would feel a powerful identification with the offering and would cry tears of pity while praising Hashem and declaring, ‘Master of the world! If not for Your great mercy it would have been me who was slaughtered just like my sacrifice. This would have been fitting since I have transgressed Your commandments. May it be Your will Hashem, my G-d and the G-d of my fathers, that slaughtering this sacrifice should be considered as if I myself had been killed for my sins. For is revealed to You that I would do this to myself to atone for my sins if this was Your will...’
“The penitent would react the same way when the blood was sprinkled, since he would feel as though it were his blood that was sprinkled. And the same was true of all avodos. The kohein was likened to the ministering angels who offer the nefashos of the tzaddikim on the supernal altar.
“Know that when we pray we are like one who brings a sacrifice to Hashem. Our souls are bound to the supernal world of neshamos and the shaliach tzibbur parallels the ministering angels who offer sacrifices to Hashem. Like Chana in her famous prayer, we must pour out our nefesh to Hashem, as the verse states, 'ואשפך את נפשי לפני ה''. She prayed with her entire heart and this was considered by Hashem as if she sacrificed herself to Him.
“This is the meaning of the verse, 'ה' צלך על יד ימינך'—‘Hashem is your shadow upon your right hand.’ Just as a shadow mirrors our actions, so too does Hashem act toward us as we act toward Him. If we cry to Him, He is right there crying alongside us. If we distance ourselves from Him, He distances Himself from us. And when we draw near to Him, He draws close to us.”

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Shouldering the Burden

The Panim Yafos, zt”l, once explained proper gratitude. “The verse states in Tehilim, 'מה אשיב לה' כל תגמולהי עלי'—‘What can I repay Hashem? All of His kindnesses are עלי.’ The word עלי can be understood in context of designating a sacrifice where one who says הרי עלי is like one carries a weight on his shoulders.
“This means that he should feel obligated to repay Hashem for all the kindnesses He has bestowed. He bears such a heavy weight since he feels as though he has not begun to repay for even one kindness that he has received. This is also the meaning of Yaakov’s astonishing statement, 'קטנתי מכל החסדים'—‘I am unworthy of all of the kindnesses.’ He says this since he felt as though he had not managed to even repay one kindness to Hashem...”
But the Imrei Emes, zt”l, learns a different lesson from this. “We can explain by understanding the symbolism of tefillin. The head tefillin allude to holy thoughts, that is, accepting the yoke of heaven, while the tefillin on one’s arm represent holy actions. This is the meaning of the Talmudic statement of the meaning of טטפות: טט is two in Katfi. The word כתפי alludes to the shoulders, the כתפיים. Through this we understand the statement of our sages in Zevachim 4 that one who says הרי עלי is like one carries s a weight on his shoulders. Wearing tefillin is just like saying, הרי עלי, since it alludes to accepting the yoke of heaven in thought and deed.
“Hashem took us out of Egypt, even though we did nothing to deserve it and the ultimate redemption will also be due to undeserved kindness. Obviously we are obligated to do whatever we can to accept upon ourselves the yoke of heaven!”

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Staff of Yehudah

The Ben Ish Chai, zt”l, explains why the verse only refers to the heads of the exile in Bavel as a shevet, or staff. He cites the Seder Hadoros:
Once there was a Parthian king who decided to eradicate the seed of Dovid in his area. He began killing everyone known to be a descendant of Dovid, sparing no one.
He was so ruthless that he managed to eradicate everyone except a single widow who was newly expecting a child from her brutally murdered husband. But of course the king’s next step was to track down all of the wives of those he had killed to ensure that no child survive his decree.
That very night he dreamed that he was in a resplendent garden with magnificent tree bearing all sorts of luscious fruits. But the king was in a angry mood in the dream and he began to chop down all the tree of the garden until none remain aside from a little sapling, standing straight as a shevet, or staff. The king lifted up his axe to destroy this final remnant when an old man with ruddy skin and beautiful eyes gave a great shout, grabbed the axe from the king and struck him a blow to the head.
The king fell at the feet of the old man begging him to spare his life. “Isn’t it enough that you destroyed my garden, you must also destroy this little shoot that stands like a staff planted in the garden?”
The king begged forgiveness and swore to change his ways. If the old warrior would spare him he would devote his days to protecting this shoot and nourishing it. He swore solemnly to care for it always, day and night, planting from its fruit until the entire garden is restored.”
The old man spared him and he woke up terrified.
He called the Jewish sages into the room and they explained that the old man had been Dovid Hamelech and that he had sworn to protect his descendant.
The king was as good as his word and made a special place in his palace for the young mother to be, giving her everything she required. And this kindness extended to the child she bore, who was named Rav Bustenai after the garden or “bustan,” in the king’s dream.
The Ben Ish Chai concluded, “This is why the verse uses the word שבט to allude to the exilarchs from the line of Bustenai.”

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Body and Soul of Halachah

The Toldos Yaakov Yosef teaches a very inspiring lesson from a statement on today’s daf. “The language the gemara uses for the obligation to learn the laws of Pesach before Pesach, 'שואלין ודורשין', is strangely doubled. This is because every halachah is composed of two different layers which must be studied and applied.
“For example, the mitzvah of prayer has an outer shell and an inner dimension. Saying the words of the prayer is compared to the body of the mitzvah, while the kavanah is its soul. And the same is true regarding all other mitzvos.
“It follows that the halachos of destroying chometz has two dimensions: the physical acts involved in eradicating chometz and their deeper meaning. Destroying chometz hints that we must destroy the evil inclination. When we burn the chometz we focus on incinerating the evil within. And the same is true regarding when we kasher food implements for Pesach. Our sages famously teach, כבולעו כך פולטו—‘removal of whatever has been absorbed is through the exact same process with which it was absorbed.’ If it was absorbed through boiling we must boil the vessel to kasher it, and the same is true regarding other ways that chometz may have been absorbed in the vessel.
“The inner meaning of this is we must concentrate on doing a balanced teshuvah for what we have done, just as the absorbed chometz only comes out if we apply the same heat through which it was absorbed. If we did something apathetically, it is relatively easy to repent this. If a forbidden action was done with enthusiasm it is that much harder to remove its impression.
“The language 'שואלין', teaches that we must ask and delve into the actual halachos of what to do. The word, 'דורשין' implies that we search for the deep mussar these acts teach us. The Torah scholar’s job is to educate people in both the body and soul of these halachos!”

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Power of Teshuvah

The Sifsei Tzaddikim, zt”l, explains why a ba’al tesuvah is higher than a tzaddik with a parable. “A certain person discovered a fortune of money in a deserted place in the woods not far from his home. The money was out in the open and he was afraid that someone else would discover it and take it before he had a chance to come back for it. The problem was that he had nothing with which to convey such a large cache of coins to his house.
“After a few minutes of thought he realized that if he took off all of his clothes, he would be able to form a makeshift sack to carry the money. The moment this thought hit him he immediately took off all of his outer clothes and put the money in his improvised satchel. But since it was so heavy he had no choice but to drag it home with great difficulty. As he was almost at his door, a gang of bandits spotted him and snatched his treasure away.
“Imagine the disappointment of this unfortunate wretch. After all his pain and self-sacrifice, he lost the money right on the threshold of his home. He wishes he had never taken the treasure in the first place.
This is how the yetzer hara feels when a person does an עבירה לשמה. It takes much time and effort to trap a person in sin. If the moment the yetzer is about to entrap him it turns out that he does the sin for the sake of heaven, the yetzer wishes he had never tried to entrap this person in the first place.
“This explains why a baal teshuvah stands in a higher place than a tzaddik. He transforms all of his sins to merits and makes the yetzer wish he had never started with him to begin with!”

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Unique Event

The Alter of Kelm, zt”l, explains how important the memory of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai is for our emunah. “See what Moshe said to the entire nation: 'שאל נא לימים הראשונים השמע עם...מדבר מתוך האש'. If we consider this we will understand that our Torah—which was eventually copied by the nations, as the Rambam writes—was given to all of us in fire.
“Go and investigate if there is another nation who claims to have received their tradition in front of every man, woman, and child. Every Jew heard and saw the voice of Hashem speak from within the fire. Why didn’t any other nation make this compelling claim? The simple answer is that they could not. The only thing that would sound plausible is if a so-called prophet claims to have received a vision, possibly with a few disciples as witnesses. This is certainly impossible to verify, unlike our claim that everyone was there, which can easily be checked. Surely it is impossible to convince anyone of this claim if there is not huge evidence corroborating it. If people did not find evidence for such an outrageous claim everyone would emphatically deny it.
“This claim is enough to build one’s emunah. If we will contemplate its truth each day, our emunah will grow strong. But we must never think that dry knowledge of this fact is enough. Instead we must see this in our mind’s eye each and every day. We must understand that the more we do so, the more this is internalized. This is why we are warned, 'השמר לך פן תשכח...יום אשר עמדת'—‘Guard yourselves lest you forget the day that you stood before Hashem your G-d at Chorev.’”

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Today's Idolatry

Rav Wolbe, zt”l, once discussed the most dangerous idolatry of our generation. “Of all the heresy and idolatry that has reared its head in each generation those facing our generation are the lowest. The main idolatry of our generation is the denial of free will.
“Among the nations this mistake is often used to free killers from paying for their crimes. Such people are viewed as sick and if there was any kind of specious psychological pretext for the crime, they are acquitted. Yet this same sickness has also penetrated into our enclaves. Who among us believe that he is not forced to sin due to circumstance? Who thinks that it is possible to live from one Yom Kippur to the next without sinning? It is even hard to find someone who believes that he can go one full day without sin.
“We must work hard on Yom Kippur to internalize the belief that it is truly possible to choose live a sin-free life. We must know that the foundation of man is that he has a choice. This is the purpose of creation and, especially in our times we must strengthen our emunah in this iron-clad fact. We must believe that we are capable of overcoming our inclination to do evil, and that we are responsible if we fail to exert every possible effort toward this goal.
“There are two levels of free will. Internalizing that every action is a choice which forms our portion in the next world, either spiritual life or spiritual death, chas v’shalom, is the first. The higher level of bechirah is choosing what brings to dveikus as an outgrowth of our love of Hashem and running away from what distances one from Him.”

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Taking on the Yoke of Heaven

When someone once asked the Divrei Yisrael of Modzhitz, zt”l, why many say l’shem yichud before performing a mitzvah he explained in a wondrous manner. “Our sages teach that, 'אמירתו לגבוה כמסירתו להדיוט'. Although this literally means that one’s pledge for hekdesh is equivalent to handing it over to a person, there is another explanation which answers your question. We explain simply that saying one’s intentions causes the action to already belong on high, and enables him to do it with proper purity. It follows that evil has no part in such a mitzvah since it has already been consigned to Hashem above and this cannot be reversed.”
The Alter of Kelm, zt”l, explained that feeling and showing love for one’s fellow man is the most important way to develop one’s middos. “Our sages famously teach: 'ואהבת לרעך כמוך' is a כלל גדול בתורה. This means that through loving one’s fellow Jew he is able to truly fulfill the Torah. This is because focus on love for one’ fellow slowly diminishes his arrogance and anger which are the products of negative self-love.”
He added, “This is also why we find that during judgment one will be asked whether he has made his friend a king over himself. This is the critical factor in determining how much a person accepted the yoke of heaven.”
This is another way to understand the statement, "אמירתו לגבוה כמסירתו להדיוט". The more completely one gives himself over to his friend, the more effective his words of Torah and tefilah will be.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Another Kind of Pilpul

Rav Aharon of Belz, zt”l, was exceedingly careful to always judge every Jew favorably. He once explained why while attending a rabbinic conference. “If you encounter a difficult Rambam what do you do? Surely you work on it until you find a way to explain it. The same should hold true when you encounter a Jew who acts in a way that is difficult to understand. You must work and work until you find a way to excuse his behavior.
“My grandfather, Rebbe Yehoshua of Belz, zt”l, explained that for this reason he preferred to learn pilpul. This discipline provides the necessary tools to find a way to give every Jew the benefit of the doubt.”
On another occasion he explained more thoroughly, “A Jew must feel as if he is the hired advocate of his fellow. Just like an advocate does his utmost to defend his client from any accusation and certainly sees no evil in his client, so too every Jew must search and search until he finds a way to see only good no matter what he sees or hears about a fellow Jew.”
Once, at his tisch, the name of a certain person was called signifying that he should approach the rebbe for shirayim. For some reason this man did not come when called. Despite the insult, since the man surely heard his name called, the rebbe immediately defended him in a very creative manner. “In Avoda Zarah 66 we find a machlokes which we can apply to shirayiim and explain why this man has not come forward. Those who come forward hold that the main thing at the tisch is the טעם taste, so they must take what is offered and eat it. But if we hold that the main thing is the name, it is enough that we called his name!”