Thursday, September 27, 2012

Servitude of Love

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz


Sukkos is a Yom Tov of complete joy. We expend so much effort in finding proper Dalet Minim and in building and decorating our sukkos. When the sun goes down on the fourteenth day of Tishrei, happiness descends upon the Jewish people wherever they are. There are few things that can dampen the enthusiasm that takes over young and old alike. The first would be something affecting the kashrus of your much sought-after esrog. 

However, even more disheartening than the loss of a pitum is the experience of sitting down in a beautifully decorated sukkah, paper-chains of blue and yellow and green crisscrossing its expanse, beautiful pictures decorating the walls, the table laid out with a crisp white tablecloth and the finest dishes, everyone dressed in their Yom Tov finest, the refraction of the lights and candles reflecting off the glowing faces of everyone seated around the table; and then the sky opens up above your s’chach drenching everyone with pouring rain.

Rain on Sukkos is distressing for a deeper reason than ruined soup and sukkah decorations. There is a Divine message inherent in the driving downpour. The Mishnah in Sukkah (28) famously tells us that rain on Sukkos is compared to a servant who comes to pour a drink for his master, and instead of accepting the cup, the master throws the drink back in the servant’s face.

How dispiriting it is to have an act of devotion and deference rejected in such fashion.

Why does the Mishnah bring out its point of the bad omen of rain on Sukkos through an allegory describing a slave and his master? The Mishnah could have made the same point utilizing an allegorical tale involving a son serving his father, rather than a slave and his master. 

A person’s children are his children no matter what happens. Nothing can change that. If a son is disobedient, he still remains a son. If a son doesn’t serve his parents properly, he is still their son. They may be upset with him, and they will try to educate him to improve his ways and manners, but they cannot divorce him from being their son.

Servants and slaves, however, exist purely to serve their masters. The concept of avdus is one of complete and utter servitude. Their very existence is dependent upon their masters’ mercy. Should the eved not serve his master properly, he won’t remain an eved much longer.

When a master rejects his servant’s help, the master isn’t merely rebuffing or insulting him. The master is rejecting his very essence. The master, in a statement of total invalidation, is declaring that he has no need for the servant.

Our relationship with Hashem is one of duality. We are both children and avodim. On Rosh Hashanah, following the shofar blasts of Malchiyos, Zichronos and Shofros, we recite a brief tefillah. We proclaim that we are bonim and avodim. We ask Hashem that if He perceives us as children, he should have mercy on us the way a father has mercy on his children. If He is dealing with us as avodim, we ask that we find favor in His eyes so that we will emerge triumphant upon being judged.

If that is the case, why, when it comes to Sukkos, is our relationship with Hashem depicted as one of avodim, and not as bonim, children?

Perhaps we can understand this by examining the biblical explanation for the mitzvah of sukkah.

Hashem commands us to sit in the sukkah, stating, “Lemaan yeidu doroseichem ki basukkos hoshavti es Bnei Yisroel behotzi’i osom mei’eretz Mitzrayim - So that your future generations will know that I placed the Jewish people in sukkos when I took them out of Mitzrayim.”

The mitzvah of sukkah is to remind us that Hashem redeemed us from slavery in Mitzrayim. When we sit in the sukkah, we proclaim that Hashem plucked us out of that awful situation and fashioned us to be his avodim. As Chazal say, “Avodei heim, velo avodim la’avodim.” We are avdei Hashem, not avodim to people who are themselves avodim.

Because we are His avodim, He freed us from the Mitzri physical servitude, split the Yam Suf for us, and put us on safe, dry land, where he built sukkos for us and spread his canopy of peace over us. The supreme joy of Sukkos is a celebration of our rewarding avdus of Hashem.

Therefore, since the Yom Tov of Sukkos is a celebration of our becoming exclusively avdei Hashem, when it rains on us in our sukkos, it is as if there is a Heavenly proclamation that our service is not appreciated. The avodah of Sukkos is avdus. It is a celebration of avdus. When there is a taanoh on us, it is a taanoh on our bechinah of avdus. Therefore, the Mishnah uses the moshol of an eved and his master to portray the calamity of Sukkos rain.

This might be the rationale behind the din of mitzta’er, which is unique in the performance of mitzvos. One who is pained by sitting in the sukkah is freed of his obligation to sit there. Our approach to this mitzvah is that of avodim. A servant doesn’t have the luxury of feeling inconvenienced. If a servant is unhappy and pained by what he has to do, he has failed in his role and is not properly cognizant of his function. A servant does as he is commanded. His job is to perform for his master and be there at his beck and call. If he cannot do that, he is a failure.

An eved Hashem who feels that he is inconvenienced by the mitzvos has lost focus. A person who is pained to fulfill the will of Hashem has failed in his avodah. Hashem says to him, “I don’t need you here. You may leave.”

Now we can understand as well why one who sits in the sukkah as rain is falling is termed a hedyot by Chazal. An eved whose services are not wanted must atone for his wrong doing and find favor again in the eyes of his master before returning to his service. As long as his master is displeased with him, he must stay away. Rain on Sukkos is a message to us that we must work harder to find favor in the eyes of Hashem. One who ignores that message is a hedyot. The proper response is sadness at being turned out and engaging in teshuvah in order to be welcomed back in the tzeila d’miheimnusa.

Rain on Sukkos, as well, forces us to reexamine our identity, as our very role as avdei Hashem is threatened.

On Rosh Hashanah, we called upon our status as avodim. Each time we blew the shofar, we asked Hakadosh Boruch Hu to have mercy on us, whether as sons or as servants. We are indeed both. We possess the fierce love and devotion of a son, coupled with the loyalty and dependability of an eved.

The avodah of the Yomim Noraim is to work on ourselves to be more subservient to the will of Hashem and be mamlich Him over us. With much longing, we say, “Veyomar kol asher neshomah be’apo, Hashem Elokei Yisroel Melech.” For ten days, we proclaim that Hashem is the “Melech Hakadosh.” We recite pesukim of Malchiyos and pray that “veyekablu ohl malchuscha aleihem.”

The point of all these tefillos and others similar to them is for us to recognize our duty as avodim to Hashem. We approach Sukkos confident in having surmounted that challenge and perfected our avdus. Therefore, when it rains, it is a sign that our avdus leaves much to be desired and we have not yet perfected ourselves as required.

Yetzias Mitzrayim was a march to a new reality. Once we tasted the bitter taste of servitude to the Mitzriyim, we were led out toward Har Sinai, where we were charged with the mandate of avdus Hashem.

Rosh Hashanah tells us of Hashem’s greatness, and once we internalize that, we realize how lowly we are. Yom Kippur brings us to true humility and shiflus. Broken and contrite, we are then ready for Sukkos, humble servants eager to serve their Master.

The excitement we feel about sitting in the sukkah is exhilaration about facing our destiny. In its embrace, we celebrate avdus.

Rav Shmuel Yosef Fishbane, rov of White Lake, NY, has a rich collection of stories about the people he has met over decades of reaching out to Yidden. He tells a story from the sad period in this country when Torah Jews found themselves jobless each Monday due to their refusal to work on Shabbos.

There was one person who would receive his notice of dismissal every week after having failed to show up for work on Shabbos. Each week, this Yid would take the piece of paper terminating his employment and place it in a box he kept under his bed. It was a curious minhag, which perplexed his family. The papers added up, and before long, he had a large collection of “pink slips.”

When Sukkos came, the man put up a small sukkah. Then he went to his room and pulled out the box. He proceeded to his sukkah and hung up the little papers all over its walls, testimony to his resolve and commitment to his avdus.

“These,” the man told his family, “are my sukkah decorations.”

Avodim like this man are filled with simcha, growth and a proper understanding of roles, despite the challenges life throws their way.

Perhaps we can understand the Mishnah and its moshol on a deeper level. Following the confrontation that took place between Yaakov Avinu and Eisov over the brachos of their father Yitzchok, Yaakov emerged victorious, but he had to run away to escape Eisov’s wrath. Upon his return, he was confronted by the malach of Eisov.

The malach wished to leave, but Yaakov wouldn’t let him go. As the posuk (Bereishis 32:27) says, “Lo ashaleichacha ki im beirachtoni - I will not send you off until you bless me.” Rashi explains the word beirachtoni to mean, “Eisov says I stole the brachos from him. Admit to me that the brachos of my father Yitzchok are rightfully mine.”

The malach answered Yaakov’s demand, saying, “From now on, your name will not be Yaakov. It will be Yisroel.”

How did the malach answer Yaakov’s demand?

Perhaps we can explain this based upon the statement of the Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 510) that both Yitzchok Avinu and Avrohom Avinu were named Yisroel. We can understand that the malach of Eisov was telling Yaakov that he was the one who was entitled to carry on the name of the avos, just as his father and grandfather had done. The malach was admitting that Yaakov was the one who would bear their legacy and transmit it to future generations, and through him, the nation of Klal Yisroel would be formed. Thus, it was natural that the brachos would belong to Yaakov as well.

Many Rosh Hashanah machzorim feature a fascinating piece of the Zohar prior to the tekios. While we generally assume that the incident with Yaakov and Eisov receiving the brachos from Yitzchok took place just once during their lifetimes, the Zohar states that it is an eternal battle that takes place annually on Rosh Hashanah.

Yitzchok, in the middas hadin, asks Eisov to bring him matamim. Rivkah warns her beloved son Yaakov. After preparing himself with tefillos and shofar, Yaakov approaches his father. Yaakov and Rivkah influence Yitzchok, who blesses Yaakov and reverts to middas horachamim. Joyfully, Yaakov leaves. Eisov then arrives with implements of Olam Hazeh to beat back Yaakov, but it is for naught. Yaakov davens, repents and fasts, and, finally, emerges victorious. Hashem wants to celebrate with His children. Yaakov builds a sukkah and is saved from the mekatreig. Hashem is then happy with His children.

The Medrash (Vayikra Rabbah 30:2) writes of a similar idea and states that the Jews and the nations of the world argue their case in front of Hashem on Rosh Hashanah. We don’t know who won until the Jews go out on Sukkos with their lulavim and esrogim. Then we are assured that the Jews have won and have once again overcome those who seek their destruction.

The Netziv, in his peirush Hamek Dovor (Vayikra 16:29), explains that in the debate regarding the survival of the Jewish people, essentially, according to teva, the Jews should lose. It is only because Hashem watches over us in the merit of our Torah, avodah and gemillus chassodim that we survive and are granted a new year. However, if you would add up the numbers and figure it all out with pen and paper according to the laws of nature and human understanding, there would be no way that the Jews would be able to defeat all those who seek their destruction.

With this, perhaps we can understand why the Mishnah compares Am Yisroel to an eved in the moshol depicting rain falling on the night of Sukkos. We have just endured the annual battle between Yaakov and Eisov, between the Bnei Yisroel and the umos ha’olam, between teva and Torah, avodah and gemillus chassodim. Klal Yisroel wins because it is lema’ala miderech hateva. It is not beholden to teva and the laws of nature.

Thus, when rain falls and prevents Am Yisroel from observing the mitzvah of sukkah, it is an omen that the teva may be dominant over Torah during the coming year and, therefore, it is indicative of calamity.

Yaakov was given the name Yisroel and the mantle of the avos to memorialize that he builds a sukkah where he celebrates his victory and brochah. But if rain prevents us from entering our sukkos, we fear that it is a message from Heaven that we are not worthy of being the Chosen Nation and bearers of that royal heritage, and, by consequence, treated specially because we are bonim laMakom. Thus, the Mishnah compares us to avodim, not bonim.  

This year, clouds of fear surround us domestically, in Europe, and, most prominently, in Eretz Yisroel. The enemies of the Jews fought very hard this past Rosh Hashanah, as they do every year, for the right to destroy us. We believe that the koach of our Torah, avodah and gemillus chassodim, coupled with our teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah, were ma’avir the ro’a hagezeirah, and we were chosen once again by Hashem.

The Bais Yisroel of Ger commented on the chasdei Hashem of the timing of the Yom Kippur War.

“This was a dangerous war,” the Rebbe said, “which, al pi teva, Israel should have lost. So Hakadosh Boruch Hu, in His great mercy, arranged for it to break out on the day when our zechuyos are strong and when our nation’s merits shine brightly. Thus, much of the damage was averted. Had it broken out any other day, the results would have been much worse, Rachmona litzlon.”

While according to the laws of teva we are too small to fight back and defend ourselves, affect elections, bomb bunkers and change world opinion, we know that Hakadosh Boruch Hu stands by us. Thus, as our grandfather Yaakov did, we build sukkos to celebrate our victory together with Hashem.

We pray that we will be seen as worthy heirs to the name Yisroel and treated as Hashem’s children and not as slaves, who are only around as long as their services are desired.

We pray that we will be treated as children, and even if we err and stray, we will always be welcomed back and never abandoned. We pray that this time, our zechuyos will be strong enough to drive away the enemy before he even has a chance to make a move. And, finally, we pray that we merit to sit b’sukkas oro shel livyoson very soon.

Rav Berel Soloveitchik would sit in his sukkah on Rechov Menachem in Yerushalayim and tell of the harrowing experiences of the Sukkos he spent with his father, the Brisker Rov, in Warsaw in 1940.

The Poles had lost town after town to the German Nazis, but decided to make a last stand in their capital city, Warsaw. Determined to beat the hapless Poles into submission, the Germans engaged in brutal daily aerial bombardments of the city. Death was a common occurrence. Streets were filled with all sorts of debris from the toppled buildings. There was smoke and fire everywhere. Hunger and deprivation were daily portions served up with good doses of fear and worry about what the next day would bring.

Part of the building where the Brisker Rov was staying was destroyed in a bombing right before Sukkos. The rov noticed that a man who was sharing the place with them was despondent. He attempted to console the person, speaking softly and offering words of hope about their dire situation. The man looked at him and said, “Rebbe, that is not why I am sad.” It wasn’t their precarious physical situation that had him down. “It’s Erev Sukkos and I don’t have Dalet Minim to make a brochah on.”

The rov told him not to worry. He had received a message that the Lubavitcher Rebbe had an esrog for him on the other side of town. A Gerrer bochur volunteered to make the long, dangerous trek to retrieve it. The rov reassured the man that he would be able to be mekayeim the mitzvah.

The first morning of Sukkos, the Brisker Rov was awoken early. It was still dark and there was noise outside. It sounded like people were gathering outside his window. He feared that something was very wrong, but he soon found out otherwise.

In the entire Warsaw, there were only four sets of Dalet Minim. The person the rov had encountered had told people that Dalet Minim would be available by the Brisker Rov. Word spread like wildfire, and tayereh Yidden, who were suffering from all types of depravation and who feared for their lives, braved the curfew and woke early to be able to make a brochah on the Dalet Minim. A long line was forming. 

The entire day, avdei Hashem streamed to that shattered building and stood on line for the zechus to be mekayeim the treasured mitzvah.

“Despite all that was going on and all they had been through,” the rov would recount years later in Yerushalayim, “there was a line of Yidden waiting to shake my Dalet Minim, like from here (his apartment on Rechov Press) to the Zichron Moshe shul. And then,” finished the rov emphatically, “we saw what Yidden really are!”

Four beautiful minim, together reflecting the splendor of a nation. Pri eitz hadar, for the am hadar, avodim and bonim of the Melech Malchei Hamelochim cognizant of their roles and overjoyed to fulfill them no matter what goes on around them, in Warsaw in 1940, and wherever we are today.

May we all merit a bright and sunny Sukkos, full of avdus, simcha and kedushah.

Ah gutten Yom Tov.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Door Is Open


by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz


The Mishnah in Maseches Yoma (85b) says, “Ha’omer echtah v’oshuv, echtah v’oshuv, ein maspikin beyado la’asos teshuvah, echtah v’Yom Hakippurim mechaper, ein Yom Hakippurim mechaper - A person who says, ‘I will sin and I will do teshuvah, I will sin and I will do teshuvah,’ does not merit that Hashem helps him to do teshuvah. If a person says, ‘I will sin and Yom Kippur will forgive my aveiros anyway,’ Yom Kippur doesn’t atone for him.”

Contemplating the words of this Gemara, we see a wonderful thing.

The person who says he will sin and then repents for his sin and then reverts to sinning again and says that he will repent for his misdeeds is admonished by Chazal. Though essentially a sinner, held captive by his desires and too weak to achieve teshuvah, he does have a positive attribute through which he can move forward if he so desires. He has the will to do teshuvah.

The other person the Mishnah refers to sins and doesn’t engage in any acts of repentance. He expects the holiness of Yom Kippur itself to cleanse him without him doing anything. He, the Mishnah says, has nothing. He merits no atonement at all.

The first person is weak. He is misguided. However, he appreciates the need for teshuvah and acts of repentance follow his sinning. Tragically, his weakness and inability to maintain the new and proper path he has adopted leaves him lacking and he reverts to his improper behavior.

He wants to improve. He wishes to become closer to Hashem. But he is weak. He isn’t strong enough to overcome his yeitzer hara. He thinks that he can both enjoy the sin and the teshuvah. Such a person cannot receive any help from Shomayim to do teshuvah.

But the second person the Gemara refers to is even worse. He refuses to be shaken from his complacency. He doesn’t even make an attempt to repent and mend his ways.

The omer echtah v’oshuv knows how to do teshuvah and is confident in its power, but he lacks the willpower and the ability to shift his perspective and realize that his act of teshuvah can be lasting, and that through his teshuvah the gates of heaven will open for him. He is so close to the path that leads all the way to the Kisei Hakavod, yet he is far from arriving at his salvation.

The one who says, “Echtah v’ashuv,” is too complacent and apathetic to realize his mistaken notion that he can enjoy the best of both worlds. Complacency and apathy are the strongest factors holding a person back from change. The lazy person’s attitude that everything is fine and can continue as it is holds him back from achievement. To engage in proper teshuvah, a person must have the awareness that it is demanded of him to do better and achieve more.

If we set our minds and hearts to use the kochos that Hashem blessed us with to behave properly and to accomplish His will, we will receive the support we need - maspikin beyado la’asos teshuvah.

The Torah addresses this condition in Parshas Nitzovim (Devorim 29:18): “Pen yeish bochem… shoresh poreh rosh velana, vehisboreich belevavo leimor shalom yihiye li - Perhaps there is among you a bad person... and he will bless himself saying, ‘I will have peace, though I do as my heart sees fit.’” The Torah warns a person who is apathetic, deluding himself into thinking that his blessings will continue, that his life will be pleasant and peaceful, and that he doesn’t have to engage in teshuvah and correct his behavior. Such a person is promised that his end will be bitter.

The words that the Torah uses to refer to this symptom of complacency, “shoresh poreh rosh velana,” begin with the letters that spell out shofar. This hints to the fact that the mitzvah of sounding the shofar is designed to shake man out of his complacency and shatter his smug sense of self-satisfaction. To repent, one must shout out to Hashem, “Hashiveini v’ashuvah! Help me. Bring me back. Korveini la’avodosecha. Assist me so that I can serve You.”

This is what the Rambam means when he writes in Hilchos Teshuvah (2:4) that “the way of teshuvah is for the ‘shov’ to be tzo’eik tomid lifnei Hashem. The person doing teshuvah is constantly crying out from the depths of his heart to Hashem.” He cries out and proclaims that he wants to return holiness to his life. He knows that his sins have created separation between him and Hashem, and he wants help to break that mechitzah hamavdeles and return to Hashem’s embrace.

He now knows that the climb is impossible. Without Hashem’s assistance, he will never get back to where he has to be. He makes the effort. “Pischu li pesach kepischo shel machat,” says the Ribono Shel Olam. One opens the door a crack and thus taps into the tremendous reservoir of assistance available to him. “Va’ani eftach lochem pesach kepischo shel ulam.” The wellsprings of chizuk and siyata dishmaya are availed to the baal teshuvah, enabling him to walk through the door of redemption.

Chazal praise the baal teshuvah (Brachos 34), stating that he merits reaching higher levels than even true tzaddikim. The language of the Gemara is, “Bemakom shebaalei teshuvah omdim ein taddikim gemurim yecholim la’amod.” Perhaps we can explain that concept as such. The baal teshuvah has traveled a path that called for crying out for Hashem’s help and grasping His outstretched hand. He has established a special relationship with his Maker.

The baal teshuvah, who was rachok, far removed, from Hashem is now karov, and in order to get there, he required the assistance of the Ribbono Shel Olam at every juncture of his development. The tzaddik who was always karov never required that supernatural Divine assistance to rescue him from the depths of richuk.

This concept is similar to the message we are taught in the posuk (Bereishis 6:9) which states, “Es ha’Elokim hishalech Noach - Noach walked with Hashem.” Chazal, quoted by Rashi (ibid.), differentiate Noach from Avrohom Avinu and say that Noach required Hashem to walk with him, while Avrohom was able to walk by himself.

The baal teshuvah walks with Hakadosh Boruch Hu, Who, kevayachol, waited patiently for him to return. This is much like a parent who helps his child take his first baby steps, leading him by the hand, and then looking on, always close by, hovering, watching, and encouraging.

The Gemara in Maseches Nedorim (40a) states, “Omar Rav: Minayin shehaShechinah sheruyoh lemaaloh mimitaso shel choleh - Rav says: From where do we know that the Shechinah rests above the bed of a sick person?” The Gemara brings a proof from a baraisa which states that one who visits a sick person must be careful about where he sits, because the Shechinah rests above the head of a choleh.

With this, we may be able to further understand the aforementioned Gemara in Maseches Brachos, which states that tzaddikim cannot stand in the company of baalei teshuvah. Although the Gemara is commonly understood as meaning that the baal teshuvah is on a higher level than the tzaddik, it is difficult to comprehend that a person who never sinned is not as worthy as one who sinned but repented.

However, if we understand that the baal teshuvah is like Noach, who merited for Hashem to walk alongside him coaxing him, then we can understand the lashon of the Gemara of “bemakom shebaalei teshuvah omdim.” This is akin to the baraisa which states that one must be careful about how he sits when visiting the sick because of the Shechinah being present there.

In the place where baalei teshuvah stand, tzaddikim cannot stand, to signify that Hashem is there helping the baal teshuvah. The baal teshuvah reached out and cried out, “Hashiveinu Hashem eilecha venoshuvah,” and Hashem responded to him, “Shuvu eilay v’ashuvah aleichem.” The baal teshuvah doesn’t walk alone. Hashem walks alongside him, supporting him, holding him up, and keeping him straight and on the proper path.

The story is told about a prominent family of marbitzei Torah who have their roots in a Russian shtetel. The hamlet their parents lived in had no cheder. When their father passed away at an early age, their mother, wanting to ensure that her beloved young son Yankel would have an opportunity to learn Torah, felt that she had no choice but to send him to a neighboring city which boasted a cheder of its own.

The boy was very young, and tears flowed as he and his mother parted ways at the train station. She assured Yankel that as soon as she would be able to visit him, she would.

Little Yankel went on the train and made his way to the bigger town and joined the cheder there. He acclimated to the city and succeeded in learning. The Second World War broke out and the widowed mother, weighed down by her usual duties and trying to stay alive, worried constantly about her son. But the war made travel extremely difficult and dangerous, and the much-anticipated trip to her son was regularly delayed.

Five years passed from the day Yankel had departed. Finally, the mother set out for the big city to reconnect with her son. 

As the train approached the city, her anticipation to see her beloved child mounted with each clickety-clack of the wheels rolling along the tracks. Finally, with a creak and a hiss, the train pulled into the ramshackle station and she descended from the train. Her son, Yankel, was standing there, waiting to greet her.

She embraced the young boy, who had clearly thrived and flourished during the years that passed. She asked Yankel how he knew that she was coming. How did he know to be waiting for her at the train station?

Yankel told her his secret.

“I didn’t just come today, Mama,” he said. “Every time the train from our town came to this city, I was here at the station waiting for you. And when you weren’t on it, I went back and checked the schedule for when the next train would come. I was here at the station each time waiting for you. That is what I did for five years. I never gave up.”

“But Yankel,” the emotional mother asked, “how did you do it for five years? You never gave up?”

“No, Mama,” said the young man. “No. Veil oib ah mama zokt az zi vet kumen, vet zi kumen. I knew you were coming, Mama. If a mother tells her child that she will be coming, then she will come!”

Just as Yankel was confident back then in war-ravaged Russia, so are we confident today wherever we are. Hashem promised us, “Shuvu eilay v’ashuvah aleichem. Return to Me and I will return to you. Do teshuvah. Follow what I have told you to do. Seek to approach me and I will return to you. I will be there for you.”

Hashiveinu Hashem eilecha venoshuvah.

That is where we stand now, during the forty days between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Yom Kippur. Hakadosh Boruch Hu is waiting for us to appear. He is waiting for us to do teshuvah and break down the mechitzah that separates us from him. And when Hakadosh Boruch Hu tells us, “Shuvu eilay v’ashuvah aleichem,” we can trust Him that He will be there for us.


• • • • •


How, it is often asked, do the two days of Rosh Hashanah fit into the theme of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah? After all, there is no mention of teshuvah in the tefillos of these two days. In fact, according to the Arizal, one should not even say “Avinu Malkeinu chotonu lefanecha,” for on the Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment, we do not hint at sin.

Perhaps we can understand this along the lines of what we have discussed. The beginning of the path of teshuvah is realizing that there is a partnership between us and Hashem. He wishes for us to reach out and cry for help, and then He will be there to help us along. Ki anu amecha v’ata Elokeinu. We work together. Shuvu alei v’ashuvah aleichem.

The two days of Rosh Hashanah aren’t about a particular sin, but about realizing our unique bond with Hashem and seeking to reconnect. Once we have brought ourselves to the understanding of that vital bond and we recognize that the connection has frayed and we have grown distant because of our sins, we can set out during the remaining days to return to Hashem through teshuvah.

When the Alter of Slabodka left Europe to join the branch the yeshiva had established in Chevron, the talmidim who remained behind were distraught at having to bid farewell to their rebbi. When the carriage came to take him to the train station, the students ran alongside it, hoping to hear one more word or one more thought from their master.

Even as the carriage began to move, the Alter spoke to the talmidim, opening the window so they could hear him clearly. Then, as the carriage picked up speed, he left them with one final thought:

Men vil em machen grois, ubber ehr lust nisht - We want to make him great, but he resists.”

The talmidim understood the message. The Alter’s focus in Slabodka had been on gadlus ha’odom, on helping his students realize the greatness inherent in man, and how much potential and ability they each possessed. But they made it hard. They resisted. Thus, the great mussar personality, who molded the figures who would brilliantly create a post-war Torah renaissance, shared the secret to a life of mussar one last time, on his final voyage from Slabodka. He reminded his talmidim to be cognizant of what man is, and what is expected of him. Gadlus.

Rosh Hashanah is about epitomizing that awareness. If we commit to our mission, Hashem helps us.

The days of Rosh Hashanah play an integral part of the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, because they grant us the strength to become baalei teshuvah. Once we know who we are, what is expected of us, and how much He wants to help us, we can march together - anu tzonecha ve’Atah Ro’einu - on the path leading to the mechilas avonos of Yom Kippur.

Hashem knows that come tekias shofar, we will be there as one, longing to return. We know that He will be there too, waiting to lead us along.

Because as Yankel said long ago on that train platform, “Oib ah mama zokt az zi vet kumen, vet zi kumen.” She will come. The Shechinah has promised us “v’ashuvah Aleichem.” We know that the Shechinah will be there for us.


• • • • •


There was once an important gathering of askonim and rabbonim taking place in the home of the Chazon Ish. The gadol wasn’t there, however, and everyone was waiting for him to come out of the adjoining room to lead the meeting, which was convened in order to reach a fateful decision impacting all the chareidishe Yidden of Eretz Yisroel.

One of the people went to the room and stood behind the door to see what was keeping the Chazon Ish from entering the meeting.

The man was astounded to witness the scene unfolding before him as all the important people waited in the dining room. He saw a middle-aged couple - a man and his wife, he assumed - sitting there, showing sundry items to the gadol hador and asking his opinion about them.

“Should we buy this button?” they asked. “What does the rebbe hold of this spool of thread? Should we buy it?”

After observing this going on for a couple of minutes, the rov who was watching couldn’t contain himself and allowed himself to be seen by the Chazon Ish. When they made eye contact, he motioned that everyone was on shpilkes in the other room. “Why are you paskening on buttons and threads while all of Klal Yisroel is waiting for you?” mouthed the rov very respectfully.

The Chazon Ish went to the door and told the rov that the man and woman were Holocaust survivors who landed in Eretz Yisroel with nothing. He convinced them to put together some money and open a small store selling sewing supplies.

“They are afraid to spend any money on their own,” explained the Chazon Ish, “so every week they come to me and show me various items they are considering buying for the store. I help them decide which items they should purchase.”

“But rebbe,” the rov protested, “the whole world is waiting in the other room for the decision we have to make. What is more important, der gantzer velt or buttons?”

The Chazon Ish looked the man in the eye and responded, “Dos iz der gantzer velt!”

Every Yid is ah gantzer velt. Every Yid’s problems are a gantzer velt. The success of every Yid is der gantzer velt. And if that’s the way the Chazon Ish viewed Yidden, we can be certain that that is the way Hakadosh Boruch Hu views Yidden. He waits for us to come to him, and when we come, He has all the time in the world for us.

We proclaim in the Yomim Noraim davening, “Vechol maaminim shehu pesucha yado.” We all believe that Hashem’s Hand is open to sustain us if we only come to Him. He calls out to us, “Shuvu bonim shovevim. Come back to Me, My dear children. Show Me your buttons. Show Me your yarn. Tell Me what ails you and what I can do to help, and I will be there for you, for you are My world. You are what is most important, especially on Rosh Hashanah, when you all pass Me by kevnei maron.”

In the Rosh Hashanah davening, we praise Hashem as the One who is “posei’ach shaar ledofkei b’seshuvah - opens the gate for those who knock on it seeking to do teshuvah.”

The mussar greats of old would, with great emotion, repeat pesukim, maamorei Chazal, and other words of inspiration to bring them to teshuvah. Rav Yaakov Galinsky recounts that in Novardok, they would say that the Alter of Kelm once conducted such a mussar session for seven hours. For the entire duration, with tears flowing, he repeated the words, “Pischu li shaarei tzedek, avo vom odeh Koh.” Then, suddenly, he jumped up from his place and screamed out, “Es iz doch offen! Farvos geit men nit arein? - The door is open! Why don’t we go in?”

Pischu li. The door is open. Let us all rush in. 

Kesivah vachasimah tovah. A gut gebentcht yahr.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

A Missed Opportunity

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz


The drama and hype of the current United States election process provide an opportunity to observe and draw lessons that contain implications for our everyday lives about the power we possess to influence others, to make a good impression, and to curry favor.

Last week, the Republican Party hosted its convention, where delegates from across the country gathered to nominate their candidate for president. As the country watched, the party offered a program that was designed to showcase their presidential candidate - his leadership abilities, positive attributes, life experiences, and ideas to improve the country’s situation - and generally present his overall suitability for the position he covets.

The party and the people who put together the week knew that the convention was their biggest chance to advance their narrative and reshape the race. America was watching. The voters were saying, “Okay, we’ve heard all the allegations. We’ve seen the critical ads. Our minds are open. Show us what you have. Tell us why we should believe in you and why we should vote for you.”

And the party blew it in prime time.

Yes, there were some good speeches. The public learned that the nominee is a good and decent man, and the vice presidential nominee is brilliant, focused and courageous. There was some impressive oratory and some intriguing ideas, but the most important point - why people should vote Republican - was largely ignored. The Republicans had been waiting and preparing for months for this one-time opportunity, but they were simply not persuasive enough.

They needed to break out their candidate in a big way, introducing him to America in a fashion that would convince wavering people that he is right for the job, not merely a good man. The Republicans realize that they are facing the campaigner-in-chief, who is as skilled at campaigning as he is bad at governing, and they needed to position their man as a better alternative. They were unable to do so.

They didn’t close the deal. They didn’t set forth their positions. They didn’t explain their positions. They didn’t convey why lowering taxes for all Americans will improve the economy. They didn’t explain that if taxes are raised on the so-called “rich,” the amount of extra income to the government’s coffers will be infinitesimal and will exacerbate the recession, because the people who spend money, build houses, shop, cause factories to hum and ensure that people have jobs, will curtail buying and spending.

Republicans are concentrating strictly on jobs, they say, but they failed to tell anyone what their economic strategy is and how their plans will lead to an increase in American employment. 

There was nothing specific. There was no talk about the Supreme Court. There was no talk about the need to achieve energy independence, what Romney will do to get there, and how Obama is hampering that goal. There was no explaining why a strong America is important for the world and how Obama is weakening this country. There were a few throwaway lines about Israel, Iran and some other important issues, but that was it.

For the most part, people saw and heard ego-maniacal politicians speaking about themselves and their stories - how their parents and grandparents came to this country from a foreign land and sacrificed, clawing their way ahead so that they and their children could succeed. It may indeed be that people like hearing those soupy, tried, stories, but such tales do not swing voters to the Republican column. Instead of talking about the Republican ideal and how voting in the Republicans will reverse the country’s downward slide, they engaged in self-congratulatory demagoguery.

In the field of touching people’s souls and convincing them that you have what it takes to improve their lot, Republicans were absent. People want to succeed. They wish to believe in something and someone. People want to belong to something big. They desire to be with a winner, not a whiner. They want to be offered solutions and shown plans that will lead them on a path of progress.  

The opportunity was wasted. The chance to reset the campaign and win over so-called independents and people who voted for Obama the last time around was lost.

If the Republicans lose the election, look no further than those crucial few hours last week to figure out why.

The lesson for us is large in this important period leading up to Rosh Hashanah. We have a chance now to make our case. Our very lives depend upon us making a good job of it. We must ensure that we don’t miss our opportunity.

When a president comes to a town, the street sweepers work overtime making sure that the route is spotless. The painters refresh the buildings that the president will be visiting. Landscapers trim the bushes and flowers are planted. Everything is done to put the best possible face forward. When the president leaves, everything returns to the way it was, but at least for a few weeks the town shines and the townspeople learn of the potential for beauty that they possess and may never have realized prior to the notable’s visit.

Much the same, lehavdil, before a prominent g’vir visits a yeshiva, the floors are polished and the walls are scrubbed clean. The talmidim are on their best behavior, making sure to wear clean, pressed clothing and expressing proper greetings to one and all. Everyone realizes that the yeshiva’s future may be on the line and they do what they can to make the best possible impression.

That is where we are now. We must do what we can to impress Hashem so that when He sits in judgment of us and determines our future, He will see our potential for greatness and that we recognize what we must do to improve and grow.

Thus, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 603:1) paskens that “Even those who are lenient in regard to eating pas palter all year long, refrain from eating it during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah.

Many wonder what the point is in undertaking a chumrah for a short period of time. What do we demonstrate by refraining from eating pas palter if we will resume consuming it after Yom Kippur?

The Ribbono Shel Olam is coming to our neighborhood, to our shul, to our bais medrash and to our home. He is coming to inspect us. We have a chance to clean up and show Him that we recognize the significance of the inspection and the opportunity it presents us. We will take advantage of His proximity to rise to the occasion and show our best side. These forty days are meant to define who we wish to become. The precious weeks of Elul and Aseres Yemei Teshuvah are a chance to endear ourselves to Him - Ani Ledodi Vedodi Li.

Just as a political convention is a chance to convince the public to vote for a certain party and candidate, lehavdil, Elul is our opportunity to lay out our platform and show what we have done in the past and what we are planning for the future, in a bid to prove to Hashem that we are worthy of His vote of confidence and support. Elul is an opportunity to ask Hashem to give us more time, more blessing, menuchas hanefesh, good health and the ability to do our jobs, le’ovdecha beleivov sholeim.

Rav Yisroel Salanter, the famed founder and leader of the Mussar Movement, while delivering a shmuess at this time of year, once quoted a Gemorah in Maseches Yoma (86a) that recounts the following tale.

Rav had been insulted by a butcher in his community. He waited for the butcher to ask forgiveness before Yom Kippur, as is customary. When this fellow failed to show up, Rav took the initiative of going to the man’s shop, certain that once the butcher saw him, he would seize the opportunity to make amends.

Rav Huna met Rav on his way and asked him where he was headed. Rav told him that he was going to reconcile with the butcher. Rav Huna replied that Rav was, in fact, going to kill this person.

When Rav entered the shop, the butcher was in the midst of chopping an animal head into pieces. He looked up from his work, noticed Rav, and cried out, “Are you Abba (i.e., Rav)? I want nothing to do with you!”

As he continued chopping, a bone flew off the table, struck him in the throat, and killed him. This was Heavenly punishment for showing such disrespect toward a great Torah scholar.

Rav Yisroel Salanter questions why the butcher died after this encounter with the rebbi of Klal Yisroel. If the sin of humiliating Rav was severe enough to make him deserving of death, why did he not die when he originally embarrassed Rav? And if the cause of his death was his failure to ask Rav’s forgiveness, he should have been killed in the span of time that passed since the incident took place. After all, he could have asked mechilah during all that time and he didn’t. Why did his death come about on that Erev Yom Kippur?

Rav Yisroel Salanter offered an explanation that should haunt us during this period of the year. He says that what caused the severe punishment was Rav’s coming to the man. The opportunity afforded by Rav’s arrival to his shop and the butcher’s decision to ignore the extended hand made his sin that much more egregious, resulting in the horrible punishment.

Rav Yisroel concluded in his shmuess that we are at the time of year when Hakadosh Boruch Hu approaches and comes closer to us. The novi cries out to us and pleads, “Dirshu Hashem behimatzo, kira’uhu bihiyoso korov.” This refers to the forty-day period between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Yom Kippur. Hashem is here. Call out to Him when He is close by. We have the chance to ask mechilah, improve ourselves, rectify our sins, and make our pitch to be granted a happy, healthy and successful year.

A more recent anecdote is told by an Amshinover chossid who heads a Yerushalayim yeshiva. One day, there was a knock on his door. The chossid opened the door and was astonished to see his rebbe standing there. The rosh yeshiva froze and had a hard time saying shalom aleichem. He was shocked and amazed, perplexed and frightened as he wondered to himself, “Why did the rebbe come to me? I would gladly have come had the gabbai called and summoned me.”

The rosh yeshiva quickly led the rebbe to a seat at the dining room table and waited to hear what he had done to merit this visit. When they were seated, the rebbe explained that he came because he needed a favor.

“Anything the rebbe wants,” responded the chossid, his mind racing as he wondered what type of favor the holy rebbe could need from him. 

“There is a bochur I know who desperately wants to learn in your yeshiva,” said the rebbe, “and I think it would be a good place for him. I know that registration is closed and that the yeshiva is packed, but I want you to do me a favor and make room for him.”

The rosh yeshiva readily agreed and then asked, “Why did the rebbe have to be matri’ach himself to come here to me? I would have been so honored had the rebbe summoned me to him to discuss this in the rebbe’s home or office, with the same result.”

The rebbe appeared surprised at the question.

“I am asking you for a favor,” he said simply. “When you want a favor from someone, it is proper that you go to them. You don’t call them and ask them to come to you.”

Here we are. The Ribbono Shel Olam has come to us. He is a rachum vechachun. He wants us to do Him the favor of helping Him help us. He wants to hear our speech and study our plans for change. He wants to see what our campaign can offer. He comes to us and asks, “Shuvu eilai v’ashuvah Aleichem, (Malachi 3,7). Come back to Me. Draw closer. Show Me what you can do.”

It is the opportunity of a lifetime. Let’s not squander it.