Tisha B’Av Preparation – Preserving Our Prayer Portal – Lessons from Bar Kamtza’s Pain

It’s not often that Bar Kamtza is portrayed as the good guy, but in this shiur by Rabbi Herschel Welcher, titled “Lessons from the Pain of Bar Kamtza“, we take a look at the story from Bar Kamtza’s perspective and see the lessons we can learn and apply today. Please download the shiur here.

In a shiur titled, “The Morning after the Mourning“, Rabbi Moshe Schwerd explains how we were responsible for closing the Prayer Portal of the Beis HaMikdash and how we’re unfortunately repeating the lesson with our distracted approach to prayer today. Please download the shiur here.

We’re All Broken Vessels – The 17th of Tammuz

Based on a lecture By Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller which can be found here.

The first major tragedy in history was when Adam ate the fruit and internalized confusion. Prior to that sin, confusion was external, but after the sin the confusion was internalized. Man went from an objective reality of true and false to an often confused subjective reality of good and evil.

Much of the negativity in the world is due to this confusion, where collective mankind brings upon itself tragedies such as hunger, poverty and war. This is the negative side of free choice and these tragedies result from our confusion. If we had G-d awareness, we would be able to get past these tragedies. If we had a strong sense of G-d’s presence, confused negative traits like selfishness, violence, cruelty and abusiveness would not exist.

After the first sin, G-d withdrew His presence from the world, but it was restored by people such as Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov until a full awareness of G-d was acheived at Sinai. So how did the people worship the golden calf shortly thereafter?

Nobody thought the golden calf was the creator of the world. Nobody creates an idol in the morning and thinks that it created him in the afternoon. The golden calf was representative of the powers of nature and strength, it was a representation of G-d. What is so bad about this? What’s so bad about idol worship is that we were created to elevate ourselves. Idol worship brings G-d down to man instead of man rising up to G-d. When we try to make G-d small, we fail as humans, we stop moving upwards. This lack of spiritual ambition was the second great tragedy.

Many people today are not intellectually confused, they are spiritually lost. They don’t see the value of becoming “big”. When we build golden calves we weaken spiritual ambition and cause spiritual diminishment.

When Moshe came down from Sinai on the 17th of Tammuz and saw the Golden Calf, he smashed the tablets. The Midrash says the tablets were very huge and the letters of the tablets carried the weight of the stone, the spirit carried the body. When he saw the golden calf, the spirit was gone and all that was left was stone, so the tablets fell under their own weight and were smashed.

Today we live in a world of rampant materialism and foreign lifestyles. It is a world where spirit is gone and what is left is stone. This is one reason why we fast today.

The next significant event is that the sacrifices were stopped before the destruction of the temple. Even during the siege of Yerushalayim, the Jews would offer sacrifices. They would send down money over the wall and an animal would be sent up. One day they sent down money and a pig was sent up. It was at that point that the sacrifices stopped.

Today, many of us have trouble with sacrifices both emotionally and intellectually. But most of us have no problem using animals for food or for leather. We are fine with exploiting animals for our physical purposes, but if we talk about using an animal for spiritual means it becomes barbaric and ridiculous. This is because we have stone and we don’t have spirit, we can relate to eating, but we can’t relate to worship.

Animal sacrifice is a way of experientially relating to G-d. The person offering the sacrifice had to put their hand on the animal, saying I am mortal, I came from you and I will return to you. It was an extremely powerful way of relating to G-d. The reason we’re concerned about the day the sacrifices stopped is because of what it says about it. The fact that the temple could be destroyed is an example of spirit turning to stone and the animal sacrifices being another symptom.

The other tragedies on this day were the Torah was burned, an idol was brought into the temple and the walls of Yerushalayim were breached, leading to the destruction on the 9th of Av. When we talk about losing the Temple, it’s hard to grasp what that means. The temple was called a mountain by Avraham, a field by Yitzchak and a house by Yaakov. A house is a place where you can personally express yourself. For a Jew, personal self-expression means putting back spirit where there is only stone. The Beis Hamikdash was a place where spiritual experience was a part of physical experience, it wasn’t two different worlds like it is today.

We can’t relate to what we are missing in the temple experience, because we have never met anybody who met anybody who met anybody who saw the Jewish people when our major identity was spirit and not stone. We don’t know who we are anymore.

What does this have to do with us personally? When we think about what gives our life joy it comes down to two things, triumph and love. If we think about our happiest moment, there is no doubt there is triumph and love. Triumph and love only happen when spirit is greater than stone. Our world is very banal and grey and the only thing that allows us to rise above this physical existence is the moments of triumph and achievement that are truly spiritual that come to us through the mitzvos.

The 17th of Tammuz is a personal day when we have to do an accounting of our soul, a cheshbon nefesh. We have to figure where we are, where we want to be, where we want to be next year. What do we want people to say about us in the end, how would we want today to look if it was our last day? It’s a heavy day, it’s meant to be heavy.

In addition to looking at this personally, we have an obligation to look at this collectively. Collectively, we are not in such great shape, especially in regard to events in the Middle East. We are all collectively responsible for the state we are in.

Today we have to say, can we be the person we talk about every day in the Shema? Can we love G-d with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our possessions? Do we live up to the ideal of spirit over rock. G-d has promised us that when we live up to our potential, He will give us the land and He will give us peace. When we fail, we are expelled. This is what we say in the Shema, if we serve Hashem with our heart and our soul we will get blessings. But be careful that your heart is not seduced. We can’t let our emotions lead us to choosing the physical over the spiritual. This will lead us to worshipping and serving other G-ds, our own private golden calves. We all know at least one person who is enslaved to their ego, or their income or their career. This is personal enslavement. When we reach that state of enslavement, G-d will expel us from the land, because He cares for us. G-d on his side wants to give, but do we want to receive?

Fasting has two purposes to move us away from the physical and to recognize our fraility. We move away from the physical pleasure, specifically eating which is a big part of our life. As it gets late in the day, many of us will ask, when is the fast over. We will be concerned about the phyisical. This need for the physical reminds us that we are frail and we are physical. Part of raising the spiritual over the physical is being forgiving of each other. The more we are aware of our own fraility, the easier it is to remember that every person we encounter is a member of the brotherhood of the frail. Everybody else faces the physical and gratification struggles that we do. We need to forgive them like we want G-d to forgive us.

In the time of the sacrifices in Shilo, after pottery vessels were used for libations, they had to be broken within sight of the alter. After coming in to possession of some of these pottery shards, Rebbetzin Heller realized that these shards were pieces of someone else’s Teshuva. She sent some of these shards to a friend in the States who had suffered some great losses. She asked her what she thought about the shards. Her friend told her, “We’re all broken vessels”.

Once we see everybody as a broken vessel, we can forgive them, we can love them, we can let what we see of their spirit overcome what we see of their stone. This is the key that will help us overcome the destruction that we find ourselves in now. This is the way the Third Temple will be built.


First Posted on July 3rd, 2007

Earning a Living Doesn’t Have To Be Difficult

By Ben Tzion Shafier

Parshas Chukas
“And Hashem said to Moshe and Aharon, ‘Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore, you will not bring this congregation to the land that I have given them.’” — Bamidbar 20:12

The be’er disappeared when Miriam died
For almost forty years while the Jews were traveling in the desert, their source of water was the be’er, well, a large rock that provided the water they needed to survive. The Jewish nation then consisted of about three million people. They had also taken many animals with them when they went out of Mitzrayim, so they required millions of gallons of water each day. The be’er provided all they needed and more.

When Miriam died, the rock disappeared, and Klal Yisroel, the Jews recognized that their survival was in jeopardy. Hashem told Moshe Rabbeinu, our teacher to go out into the desert, speak to the rock, and bring the water back. When Moshe and Aharon went to the rock, they spoke to it and received no response. Moshe then assumed that just as it was necessary to hit the rock when the Jews first went out into the desert, so too now. When he hit the rock, it began pouring forth water.

Later, Hashem told Moshe and Aaron that they had erred. Hashem told them to speak to the rock, and it was through the power of speech that the miracle was to come about. On some level, they were lacking in their trust in Hashem, and this caused them to miscalculate. Had they been more complete in their trust, they would have used words alone, and the rock would have provided the water.

Rashi tells us that because of this mistake, the Jewish people lost out on a great lesson. Had Moshe only spoken to the rock, the Jews would have said to themselves, “A rock doesn’t require sustenance, yet it listens to the word of Hashem; surely, we, who rely on Hashem for parnassa, livelihood must listen to Him.” However, since Moshe hit the rock instead of speaking to it, that lesson was lost.

Rashi seems to be saying that if Moshe had spoken to the rock, the Jewish people would have increased their level of service to Hashem. They would have realized that their livelihood was dependent upon their doing mitzvahs, and this would have added focus and precision in the way that they fulfilled them.

Reward for mitzvahs isn’t in this world
There are two problems with understanding this Rashi. One is that the Gemara tells us that the reward for mitzvahs is not in this world. While it is true that Hashem rewards every good a person does, the place of that reward is in the World to Come. In fact, it is considered a curse to use up your payment in this world – something that is reserved for wicked people. So it doesn’t seem to be correct that their livelihood was dependent upon listening to Hashem.

The second problem with this Rashi is that any motivational system must be tailored to fit the audience. The people of this generation received the Torah on Har Sinai. They spent almost forty years surrounded by the Clouds of Glory, completely immersed in Torah study, and sustained by the mon, manna. They were on the highest madreigah, level of any generation in history. So even if their parnassa was dependent upon their listening, how would they be motivated by something so mundane as earning their daily bread?

Obstacles that prevent us from serving Hashem
The answer to this question is based on understanding the Rambam (in Hilchos Tshuvah, Perek 9). He explains that even though we don’t receive reward for doing mitzvahs in this world, if a person keeps the Torah properly, then Hashem will remove all of the obstacles that normally prevent a person from keeping the mitzvahs. Sickness, war, poverty, and hunger prevent a person from learning or fulfilling the mitzvahs, commandments. If a person is happy and dedicates himself to keeping the Torah, Hashem will shower him with all of the requirements to better serve Him, including peace, tranquility, well-being, sustenance, and all else that a person needs to follow the Torah.

The Rambam is telling us that since Hashem created the world in order to have man follow the Torah, when a person uses the world properly, then Hashem allows him to have his needs met in this world without strain. This will help him better serve Hashem.

Hashem was telling Moshe and Aharon that this lesson would have greatly affected the generation of the desert, but it was lost. Had the people seen the rock obeying Hashem’s command, they would have been moved to a powerful realization: “The rock doesn’t have needs, yet it listens to Hashem. How much more so should we, who have so many needs? Hashem has promised that if we follow in his ways, He will remove all obstacles from our path. But if we don’t listen. . .”

That was a lesson that would have affected even this generation because their very survival depended on it. While people may have many lofty motives, one of our strongest drives is self-preservation. Had that generation come to a more clear recognition that their existence was dependent upon keeping the Torah, it would have changed even their appreciation — but it was a lesson lost.

Earning a living isn’t easy
The concept that Hashem takes care of our needs when we use our lives properly can be a great source of motivation. Earning a living isn’t easy. Market economies rise and fall. Entire industries come and go. Careers that are in high demand in one decade are outsourced and sent overseas the next. Financial security in an ever-changing world is fragile at best.

While our main motivation to keep the Torah is that Hashem commanded us to do it for our benefit in the World to Come, the reality is that we live in this world. We have bills to pay, children to put through school, and many, many financial obligations. Knowing that Hashem will remove the obstacles standing in our way, as long as we dedicate ourselves to passionately keeping the Torah, can be a great impetus to growth.

This is not to say that life will be a bed of roses. There will still be nisyonos, life tests and different settings that we need for various reasons. However, the basic starting position is that Hashem will take care of my needs so that I can better serve Him. That understanding can aid us to focus on our true purpose in this world and allow us a much greater degree of success in all of our endeavors.

For more on this topic please listen to Shmuz #161 – April 15th The Test of Emunah

Rabbi Shafier is the founder of the Shmuz.com – The Shmuz is an engaging, motivating shiur that deals with real life issues.

All of the Shmuzin are available free of charge at www.theShmuz.com or on the Shmuz App for iphone or Android. Simply text the word “TheShmuz” to the number 313131 and a link will be sent to your phone to download the App.

Attaining the Needs of Our Soul

Rabbi Itamar Shwartz (Author of Bilvavi Mishkan Evner)
Download Rav Shwartz’ Shavous Talks here.

Three Kinds Of Love: For the Creator, For Torah, and For Another Jew

With the help of Hashem, we are approaching the time of the giving of the Torah.

When the Torah was given, there were three great revelations. The first revelation was that Hashem came down onto Har Sinai, and opened up all the heavens and showed us that Ain Od Milvado, there is nothing besides for Him. The second revelation was the Ten Commandments, which contains the entire Torah. The third revelation was that we all stood together with one heart.

The sefarim hakedoshim reveal that there are three kinds of love that we need to seek: love for Hashem, love for the Torah, and love for the Jewish people. These three kinds of love were all revealed at the giving of the Torah. Our love for the Creator was revealed when Hashem revealed Himself to us. Our love for the Torah was revealed through the Ten Commandments. Our love for the Jewish people was revealed when we had complete unity with each other, standing together with one heart.

The Love We Have Towards Ourselves

When a person is born, his power of love isn’t developed yet. He does not know of love for Hashem, for Torah, and for another Jew. He loves himself – and he identifies himself as a body, so he loves his body. As a person gets older, he is supposed to mature and develop his love to become more spiritual, forming a love for Hashem, for Torah, and for other Jews.

When a person loves himself, there are two kinds of love: love for his body (guf), and love for his soul (nefesh).

Unless someone works on his middos, he naturally worries for himself all day, from morning until night. People also think a little about others, more or less, and it depends on each person; some are a bit more purified.

A person worries about his physical needs and for his emotional needs (we are referring to his nefesh habehaimis (“lower, animalistic layer of the soul) and not to the deeper, spiritual needs of the soul).

Most people put more focus on their physical needs. This is usually a very strong kind of love. People eat and drink because they love their body.

Most people are concentrating on their body’s physical needs – and not their soul’s basic emotional needs.

We are not even addressing how people neglect their soul’s spiritual needs, which are higher needs; even the basic emotional needs of a person are often neglected. Most people are busy and occupied with [shopping for] clothing and food. And if that is the situation of Jews today, surely non-Jews are like this too. The world today is mostly running after physical gratification.

Unless a person works to change this, when it comes Shavuos time – a time to prepare for loving Hashem the Torah and the Jews – it is far from him. If he doesn’t meet his soul’s basic emotional needs, he won’t even care about his spiritual needs.

How We Love Others

A person who pays attention to his body and neglects his soul only loves others superficially. He might feel like he “loves” his friends, but in reality, he only loves their bodies.

Even with his family he’s like this; he only loves his wife and children with a “body” kind of love. The Chovos HaLevovos writes that our family is part of our flesh. Therefore, if a person loves only his ‘flesh’, and not his soul, then although he will love his family, he only loves the physical ‘flesh’ of his family. He can love his wife who is called his ‘flesh’ (that is, if he even reaches the basic love for his wife…), but he only loves her from his body, not from his soul.

If a person doesn’t love his own soul, he does not know what it means to love the soul of another. This is because love is an extension of how much a person loves his own self[1]. If a person only loves his ‘flesh’, he will love others only for their ‘flesh’. (One he truly loves his soul, though, is a very inner kind of person). His whole Ahavas Yisrael towards other Jews will be superficial, because he only loves others’ ‘flesh’, and not their souls. This is not Ahavas Yisrael.

We can find that there are certain people who only love their own ‘type’ – similar to how the chassidah\stork only does kindness with other storks, and not with other animals. (And for this reason, the stork is a non-kosher bird, because it does not do real kindness – only to those who are the “same type”…) It is all because most people are only loving the flesh of others, because they only know of love for their flesh, and they do not know of love for the soul.

A person can only love others in the same way he loves himself, because love to others is an extension of how much you love yourself. If one only loves his ‘flesh’ – his physical existence – his love can only go so far as to love the ‘flesh’ of others, but he cannot love their souls. He doesn’t love his own soul.

Simchas Yom Tov

When Shavuos comes, it’s a time of Simchas Yom Tov (rejoicing in the festival). What is the simchah? Is it physical contentment, or it is a spiritual feeling?

Of course, Chazal say[2] that the mitzvah is fulfilled through meat and wine; these things do bring a degree of happiness. But it’s clear that meat and wine are not the entire of happiness of the Yom Tov. This is not only true with regards to Simchas Yom Tov. It is true with regards to all of life: the physical aspects of our life cannot be everything. There is more to life than our physical needs.

When a person does mitzvos – like if he puts on tefillin – it might be on his ‘body’, but it’s not necessarily affecting his soul. This is because if a person identifies himself as a body and not as a soul, it will hamper his connection to anything spiritual.

Learning Torah is spiritual. Even the intellectual aspect of it is spiritual. If a person only identifies with his body and not with his soul, then even if he learns Torah for many hours of the day, it won’t affect his soul.

Overeating: The Prime Example of Materialistic Pursuit

The generation is full of physical desires (including kosher and non-kosher). New things come out every day. When a person pursues them, his soul gets concealed more and more, as the person only gives attention to his physical body. He embodies the possuk, “Ach besari” – “Nothing but my flesh”…

When a person eats and eats, he can get so involved in it that he feels as if the food is a part of him! The Chovos HaLevovos writes that when people indulge in food, it connects a person more and more to materialism, and the more a person indulges, the thicker he is entrenched in the materialism. The person begins to feel very connected to food with the more and more he indulges, and he identifies the food as a part of himself…

Nowadays, when a person meets with a friend, he usually eats with him. Rarely do people meet each other without seeking to have some kind of meal with each other. Why can’t people meet each other and just be happy that they see each other, without eating with each other? With many friendships, it’s based on how eating they have with each other!

When it comes to spending time with family, all people often do is eat meals with each other, and that’s the basis of their whole relationship…

The physical desires of this world all affect us with the more we indulge in it. When we only give attention to the needs of our physical flesh, we experience life only through our physical flesh – and that is how we will see others: as mere physical flesh. Our whole relationship towards others will only be based on recognizing them as physical bodies of flesh.

And, taking this further, rachmana litzlon, that is how a person will also relate to Torah and to Hashem: he will have a very superficial connection with Torah and with Hashem, because he is only living life superficially. Even if he tries to experience a connection with Hashem, he won’t get to it, because he is living only in his physical flesh.

The Maharal says that the more a person attaches himself to choimer\materialism, the less the Torah can enter him. The Torah is spiritual, and it cannot enter materialism.

Physical Affection: Feeling The Other’s Body – Or Feeling The Other’s Soul…?

When two friends meet each other and they feel really close with each other, they will usually hug and kiss each other, as signs of affection. What are their motivations, though? If they only love their bodies, and not their souls, then they are hugging and kissing the other person’s body, not the other’s soul!

They should really wish to hug and kiss the others’ soul, and the signs of physical affection would be a reflection of that inner love for each other. But because they live life through their bodies, they can only know of love for the others’ body…

It is similar to when Esav kissed Yaakov. When Esav kissed Yaakov, he wasn’t kissing the soul of Yaakov. He was kissing the body of Yaakov. It wasn’t a love emanating from his soul, because he only knew of physical gratification. The rules is that “Esav hates Yaakov” – even though he kissed him. Because it wasn’t a real kiss.

But if a person lives a life of the soul, and he loves his soul in turn, he will open himself up to begin to love the soul of others.

The Needs of A Child

The love that most people have for their families is only for their bodies, and not for their souls.

We can see this from the fact that most parents do not provide even the most basic emotional needs of the child, such as that the child should feel loved and happy. They give lots of things to their children, but they don’t provide the emotional needs.

Why? It is because they don’t even give themselves their own emotional needs. Therefore, they don’t realize that their children aren’t getting their emotional needs met, because they don’t give importance in their own life to their own emotional needs.

The Test

If a person was given a choice if he will be given 10 minutes of good food or 10 minutes of happiness, what would he choose?

Here is the litmus test. If a person says he’ll go for the food, it shows how he views life, that his life is all about loving his physical flesh. If a person says he’ll choose happiness, it shows that he identifies with his soul’s needs.

We are not describing a high level to be on. We are talking about how a person experiences life.

What Weddings Have Become Today

Take a look at simchos (celebrations) today. When people go to a wedding, how many of them can say that they rejoiced the chosson and kallah? What is the simcha that most people have by weddings? The food! People go to weddings and eat and eat and eat; weddings nowadays have become an entire evening for one to simply fulfill his physical desires! What does this have to with rejoicing a chosson and kallah?!

A person often gets caught up in all the good food there, and he often doesn’t even get around to rejoicing the chosson and kallah. If we ask him, “Did you get to rejoice the chosson\kallah?” The answer is, “I didn’t even think about that. I was too busy eating the food and having a good time.”

If you ask him if he enjoyed the wedding, he might answer, “Sure, I enjoyed the wedding.” Baruch Hashem, he enjoyed it. He enjoyed it all for himself; he didn’t even think to rejoice the chosson or kallah. Can we call this simcha?! Is this the simcha of a wedding?!

The only happiness that we have today – conceptually – is (besides for Yom Tov) by a wedding, a simchas chosson v’kallah. But to our chagrin, weddings today are not about simcha – people go just for the food. They gratify their bodies through it, not their souls.

Changing

The choice that everyone has on this world is: If he will live life through his body, or through his soul.

A person should ask himself how much physical gratification he’s getting, versus how much of his basic soul needs that he is getting. One should try thinking about this every day.

If anyone reflects, he’ll find that most of the day is spent on physical gratification – whether it’s coffee, smoking, food, newspapers, etc. Each to his own.

To begin to change this, one should try to make sure that he’s giving himself at least a little attention each day to his soul’s needs.

Today, pleasure is often only experienced sensually, with the physical. People often are completely devoid of experiencing any enjoyment whatsoever with regards to their souls.

A person can start to change this by making sure to give his soul a little pleasure each day. This is just the beginning step.

When a person then feels a desire for something physical, such as for food – if he feels that he can give it up for something that is a soul need, he is making progress with this. It shows that he has begun to change his perspective at least a little.

Someone who does this and gets used to this will come to an amazing discovery. He will begin to actually feel others. He will feel other’s happiness when they make a simcha, and he will feel their sadness when they go through a loss. His soul will be able to feel the other’s soul.

A Newly Developed Awareness

The more a person gets used to satisfying his soul’s basic needs, he will begin to live a life of the soul. It will open a whole new kind of awareness in himself.

Most people identify themselves as a body and live life through that awareness. People know intellectually about the soul, but they are mostly experiencing life only through their body.

Once a person identifies himself more with his soul, he will feel like his body is a heavy weight upon him. He will feel like, “This body of mine that I’m carrying all the time is so heavy!” Even if he isn’t a heavy person, he will still feel that his body is like a heavy weight upon him that he has to carry around. He used to think his body was himself, so he didn’t feel this heaviness as a burden. He thought his body was “Me.” Now that he has begun to identify himself as a soul, his body feels like something on top of him that’s a heavy load. Slowly, his desires for the physical will listen.

This has to become a natural feeling toward oneself, and in this way, one will begin to naturally feel that others are souls as well – as opposed to feeling them as mere bodies of physical flesh.

Feeling Another’s Soul

To give an example: When two friends meet each other and they shake each other’s hands, what do they feel? Do they just feel each other’s hands, or do they feel the other’s soul? If the person only feels the other’s hands, then he is acting with the same emotions with which a non-Jew lives life.

When a person meets another, why doesn’t he feel if the other is in a happy mood or a sad mood? It is because he only feels the other’s body. He doesn’t feel the other’s soul.

The more a person gives attention to his own soul’s needs, the more he will naturally feel another soul, as he begins to pay attention to his own. He will feel both the emotional as well as the spiritual needs of others. Without feeling oneself as a soul, love for others doesn’t even begin.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that after beginning to change his mindset that he will have perfect love toward others; he will still feel bothered by some people. But at least he has begun to open up in himself the ability to love others, and he’s on his way to building his love for others.

Leaving The Body And Entering The Soul

When we heard the Torah at Har Sinai, our souls left us. In other words, we left the perspective of the body and entered the perspective of our soul!

This shows us that the way to prepare for the Torah – [at least] one of the ways – is to leave our body’s perspective and to instead enter into our soul a bit. This will resemble how the souls of the Jewish people left their bodies at Har Sinai.

May we be zoche to leave the thick materialism of this world and instead feel how we are a soul, beginning from the most basic needs of our soul [our emotional happiness], and then to the more spiritual needs of our soul, until we finally reach the highest part of our soul – the point of total d’veykus (attachment) with Hashem.

Sefiras Ha’Omer- Why We Count, What We Count

Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafier

Sefiras Ha’Omer- Why We Count, What We Count – Parshas Emor

“And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the rest day, from the day when you bring the Omer of the waving — seven weeks, they shall be complete.” — Vayikra 23:15

Sefer HaChinuch: The Torah commands us to count the Omer so we can relive the Exodus from Mitzrayim. Just as the Jews back then anxiously anticipated the great day when they were to receive the Torah, so too we count the days till Shavuos, the Yom Tov that commemorates the giving of the Torah. To the Jews then, accepting the Torah on Har Sinai was even greater than their redemption from slavery. So we count each day to bring ourselves to that sense of great enthusiasm, as if to say, “When will that day come?”

With these words the Sefer HaChinuch defines the mitzvah of Sefiras HaOmer. The difficulty with this is the statement that “to the Jews then, receiving of the Torah was even greater than being freed from slavery.” It seems hard to imagine that anything would be greater to a slave than being freed. This concept is even more perplexing when we envision what it was like to be a slave in Mitzrayim.

A life of suffering and bloodshed

The life of a Jew in Mitzrayim was one of misery and suffering. They had no rights. They had no life. They couldn’t own property, choose their own destiny, or protect their own children. They didn’t even have the right to their own time. A Mitzri could at any moment demand a Jew’s utter and complete compliance to do his bidding. If a Jew walked in the streets, it was every Mitzri’s right to whisk him away, without question and without recourse, and force him into slave labor for whatever he saw fit.

Waking in the early morning to the crack of the Mitzri’s whip, the Jews were pushed to the limit of human endurance till late at night when they fell asleep in the fields. Without rest, without breaks, the Jews lugged heavy loads and lifted huge rocks. Sweat, tears, and bloodshed were their lot. In the heat of the sweltering sun and in the cold of the desert night, at the risk of life and limb, the Jew was oppressed with a demon-like fury. A beast of burden is treated wisely to ensure its well-being, but not the Jew. He was pushed beyond all limits. Finally, when Pharaoh was asked to let the Jewish people go, he increased their load, taking it from the impossible to the unimaginable.

How could anything in the world be more desirable to the Jews than freedom? How could it be that anything, even something as great as receiving the Torah, could mean more to them than being redeemed from slavery?

What the Jews experienced by living through the makkos

The answer to this question lies in understanding the great level of clarity that the Jews reached by living through the makkos and the splitting of the sea.

For ten months, each Jew saw with ever-increasing clarity that HASHEM created, maintains, and orchestrates this world. With absolute certainty, they experienced HASHEM’s presence in their lives. This understanding brought to them to recognize certain core cognitions.

Every human has inborn understandings. Often times they are masked and subdued. Whether by environment or by desire, the human spends much of his life running from the truths that he deeply knows. When the Jews in Mitzrayim experienced HASHEM’s power and goodness, they understood the purpose of Creation. They knew that we are creations, put on this planet for a reason. We were given a great opportunity to grow, to accomplish, to mold ourselves into who we will be for eternity. We have a few short, precious years here, and then forever we will enjoy that which we have accomplished. Because they so clearly experienced HASHEM, their view of existence was changed. They “got it.”

Because of this, the currency with which they measured all good changed. They recognized that the greatest good ever bestowed upon man is the ability to change, to mold himself into something different so that he will merit to cling to HASHEM. They recognized that everything that we humans value as important pales in comparison to the opportunity to grow close to HASHEM. Because they understood this point so vividly, to them the greatest good possible was the receiving of the Torah — G-d’s word, the ultimate spiritual experience.

And so, while they anxiously anticipated the redemption from slavery as a great good that would free them from physical oppression, they valued the reason they were being freed even more. They were to receive the Torah.

Davening is me talking to HASHEM; learning is HASHEM talking to me

This concept has great relevance in our lives, as we have the ability to tap into this instinctive knowledge of the importance of learning. When a person gets caught up in the temporal nature of this world, the currency with which he rates things changes. The value system now becomes honor, power, career, or creature comforts. That is what he views as good, and that is what he desires. The more a person involves himself in these, the more important they become, and the less precious the Torah becomes. Our natural appreciation of Torah becomes clouded over by other desires and an ever-changing value system.

However, the more a person focuses on his purpose in the world, the more he values the Torah. He recognizes it as the formula for human perfection. He now sees the Torah as the ultimate gift given to man because it is both the guide and the fuel to propel his growth. With this changed perspective, the very value system with which he measures things changes, and now his appreciation, love, and desire to learn increase until finally he becomes aligned with that which HASHEM created him for — perfection and closeness to HASHEM .

For more on this topic please listen to Shmuz #166 – Sefiras HaOmer –

Rabbi Shafier is the founder of the Shmuz.com – The Shmuz is an engaging, motivating shiur that deals with real life issues.

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Should I Hide Being a BT?

By “Alan”

I live in a fairly black hat community and it seems to me that many BTs make great efforts to hide the fact that they are BTs. There are people here who are BTs for 5-10 years, who learned for less than 2 years full time in Yeshiva, who don’t even consider themselves BTs anymore.

One person told me that many people hold that being a BT is a negative, although few will tell you that to your face or say it publicly. Being known as a BT effects how people view you, shidduchim, and jobs in certain community organizations, so he feels it makes sense to hide the fact that you are a BT, whenever possible.

My problem is that I think that living this type of charade will cause problems for me and my family in the future. It seems like we are denying a reality instead of dealing properly with it. I didn’t choose to be born into a non-observant family and I feel that the strides I’ve made are significant and I continue to work on my Yiddishkeit. So tell me again why we should hide or deny the fact that we’re BTs?

Originally Published July, 2007.

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From the comments:

Ora says:

I’ve never felt that I had to hide my background, but I’ve chosen to do so on several occasions. Mostly for four reasons.

1) (especially when I had been religious for less than 2/3 years) It’s nice to “pass.” It takes a lot of effort to get to the point where you are knowledgeable enough and comfortable enough with Jewish life that those who grew up in religious homes can’t tell that you didn’t. I liked the feeling I got when some girl from seminary who I’d known for months would say, “Oh, your family isn’t religious? I didn’t know!”

2) I don’t want to deal with stereotypes. I don’t know if the people I’m meeting have BT stereotypes, or if they think of being a BT as a positive or negative thing. But either way, I don’t want that one part of my history to influence their opinion of me. This is especially strong when I first meet people. In fact, now I have a pattern of telling people a bit of my story after I’ve known them for a little while, and then the full story comes out after a few months.

To be honest, sometimes it’s more annoying when people are overly positive than slightly negative. I don’t like being told “Oh, BTs are so inspiring, you gave up so much, blah blah blah” when I’m feeling like an uninspired slacker. Also, I don’t feel like I gave up very much to get to where I am, because I wanted so badly to be here that all the other stuff didn’t really matter. So I don’t feel that I deserve the praise.

3) I’m afraid that people will take my opinions less seriously. As in “oh, you’re a newcomer, what do you know,” etc. I have never once encountered this attitude, but my fear of it is still there. I think a lot of BTs who hide their identities do so mostly do to their own fears and not actually FFB attitudes.

4) Ultimately I don’t think it matters very much. So many of my friends who were raised in religious households weren’t really religious until they were in their late teens/early 20s. They might use terms like “raised religious” or “FFB,” but until a certain period in life they were just going with the flow (and then at some point fully accepted Hashem/Torah). Others were seriously introspective and spiritual even as kids, but had a period where their hashkafa grew apart from that of their parents. We’re all pretty much in the same place now. So I don’t see how telling someone “I’m a BT” will give them useful knowledge. It will eventually come out in anecdotes/ when they meet my family/ etc if we’re close, but I feel no need to mention it if the subject doesn’t come up.

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From the comments:

Dovid says:

This is a wonderful post and I’m thankful to all who have commented thus far. Integration into a frum community is not an easy process. After all, we’re not talking about our first day on campus at college here. For us, “Orientation” is an ongoing process that for some continues for years or even decades,
depending on what stage in life we are when we become BT’s.

My wife and I became BT’s in our mid 30’s, so we did not have the opportunity to develop over
our younger years like most BT’s that we know. No time studying in Ohr Someach or Aish, etc. during our college years, when most of our BT friends began their BT journey’s. No, for us it was a quicker decision both for ourselves and our children (6 and 3 at the time). We were in an “out-of-town” community with a small shul that had maybe 3 Shomer Shabbos members and the rest of them either non-committed but enjoying the shul. We knew that we needed to move away, because the community presented conflicting values and observances that would confuse our children. For us personally, the “Modern” communities presented an outlook (both outward and otherwise) too similar to the secular lifestyle that we were trying to move away from. We wanted a frumkeit that was so clearly different than the secular life we left, that our children would grow up to feel “uncomfortable” with an outlook that shared the fashion and open-door philosophy we found to proliferate in these communities. After consulting with our Rav and a few good friends, we chose a large and diverse frum community that is essentially black hat, (although their are all sorts of those, and streimlach-a-plenty). Yes, it was a bold move indeed.

We have been here for 7 years now, and as expected, we have found many, many other BT’s here. BT’s seem to gravitate to each other somehow. It has been a great comfort to us that this is the way of things. We can talk and share our experiences together and help each other along the way. We have all experienced the “cold shoulder” from FFB’s who have no clue about what it is like for us, and we don’t blame them personally. They simply have lived such cloistered lives, that they don’t know what to think of folks like us. But for the most part, we have had positive experiences here. I would have to say that even though our children have adapted well, I expect that they will some day likely marry into other BT families. I would be pleased if they married into FFB families as well, but I think that people generally will be attracted to others whose families are similar to their own. There are exceptions of course, but I think it will take more than one generation for our family to more completely meld into the community that we’ve chosen. We do not hide our BT status, and do our best to show our brothers and sisters who are FFB, that we have come a long way to be here (a lot longer trip than driving from Flatbush). Some don’t feel comfortable with that, and others are most welcoming and encouraging. Upwards and onwards…

Pesach and The Essence of The Three Festivals

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Pesacb

Terms For Yom Tov

There are three festivals – Pesach, Shavuos, and Sukkos. We find different terms used by our Chazal (holy Sages) in describing the festivals. Our festivals are called zmanim, chagim, moadim, and regalim.

They are called zmanim and moadim, since they are established as certain times of the year. They are called chagim from the word machog, which means to “cycle”, because the cycle of the festivals repeats itself each year.

They are also called moadim from the word vaad, which means “meetings.” Three times a year we would trek to the Beis HaMikdash and bring a korbon; we would all gather together and ascend upon the mountain of Hashem, the site of the Beis HaMikdash. But this was not just a “vaad” in the sense that we were all gathered together. It was our meeting with Hashem – we would appear “in front of Hashem”. It was a vaad in that we were all gathered together, and it was a vaad because we were all meeting with Hashem.

Another term to describe the three festivals is “regalim.” The simple meaning of this is “feet” that we would all walk by foot to travel to Jerusalem for Yom Tov. For example, the Gemara[1] deduces from the word regalim that a person is only obligated in the mitzvah if he has normal feet to walk with, but if he limps, he is exempt from the mitzvah.

Regel\Walking – Going From One Place To Another

Let us reflect on the regalim aspect of the Yom Tov.

Chazal say that the world stands on three pillars – Torah, Avodah, and Chessed; these are like three “feet” which the word stands upon. The world stands on three pillars, and so does time. Time stands on the three festivals of Pesach, Shavuos and Sukkos, which are like the three pillars that uphold time.

The word regel, besides for its simple meaning of “foot”, can also mean “because of”, like when Yaakov told Lavan, “And Hashem blessed you, because of me.” It is also written, “The feet of His pious ones are protected [because they are pious].”

In other words, the three festivals are not a purpose unto themselves; they exist “because” of a greater goal. The festivals take us and lead us to a certain point.

If a person is unaware that the Yomim Tovim serve a greater goal that they lead to, then he does not experience Yom Tov through his soul; he only experiences it through his body. The festivals are given to us so we can use them to reach a higher place than we were at until now. A festival moves us from one point to the next point.

We have so far mentioned two aspects of Yom Tov. One aspect of Yom Tov, we mentioned, is that it upholds a person. The second aspect of Yom Tov is that it leads us to a higher point. Thus, meeting with Hashem for three times a year was not just to travel there with our feet. The purpose of Yom Tov was that we should ascend to a higher point. That is the deeper implication of regalim.

Yom Tov is a time to ascend spiritually. Just as we ascended onto a certain place in the world on Yom Tov – the site of the Beis HaMikdash – so must we ascend, in our very soul, to a higher place than the one we are at now.

Holy Habits

How do we ascend in our souls through Yom Tov?

The answer lies in the following: there is another meaning of the word regel. It can also mean to “search”, as we find in the word meraglim, “visitors” of the land, who really come to search out the land. This hints to us that the way we ascend through Yom Tov\the regalim is by “searching” for something. The first regel is Pesach, which we begin by searching for any chometz.

Yom Tov is a regel, and this implies that we need to search for something on Yom Tov.

Chazal say that it is better had man not been born; now that we have been born, we need to examine our deeds. We need to search inside ourselves. What is it that we need to search for?

The word regel can also come from the word hergel, which means “habit.” We ask of Hashem, “Shetargileinu B’Torasecha”, that “we should become accustomed in Your Torah” – we want to develop a habit for the words of Torah. Doing things out of habit is usually not a good thing [this is called melumadah, doing things by rote]. But there are times in which we find that doing things out of habit is a good thing [and then hergel is being used for holiness]. On Yom Tov, we need to search inside ourselves and see which of our habits are good, and which are not good.

We count 50 days of the Omer until we get to the giving of the Torah, in which we have hopefully become accustomed to the Torah by then, when we have hopefully reached our aspiration of “And we should become accustomed in Your Torah.” At first we search ourselves out on the night before Pesach, and this is the beginning aspect of the regel. In between Pesach and Shavuos, we have hopefully become more accustomed to going to the Beis Midrash, that our feet are naturally taking us to towards the Beis Midrash [as Dovid HaMelech describes in Tehillim]. On Shavuos, we ideally reach the apex of getting used to holiness, which is the purpose.

This is the first aspect of the three regalim, which begins with Pesach – at first we search inside ourselves to see what our habits are, if they are holy or unholy. If we find habits in ourselves that are not for holiness, we need to destroy it, just as we destroy the chometz we find in any nooks and crannies. Along with this, we need to gain good kinds of habits – to become used to learning Torah, which is how we use the power of hergel\habit, for holiness. “Shetargileinu B’Torasecha.”

The First Step In Growing From Tom Tov: Inner Order To Our Soul

When we search inside ourselves to discover what our habits are, we must proceed in steps. It is written of the Jewish people when they would travel to Jerusalem, “How beautiful are your steps.” When we would travel to Jerusalem by foot, it was with “steps” – in other words, our avodah needs to be practiced in steps. We must give ourselves some inner order to our soul. As the Mesillas Yesharim says, we cannot acquire the various levels of piety all at once. Spiritual growth is a gradual, step-by-step process.

So when we search ourselves inside, we must do this in steps. It must be done with carefully planned thought; “Sof maaseh b’machshavah techilah” – “The end of actions if first with thought.”

Thus, we need to gain a clear perception of what our soul’s abilities are. As one of the Sages said, “You see a clear world.” We should be clear in what our soul abilities are, from the lowest point to the highest point, and be aware of the many parts in our soul. Then we should search our entire soul, in an orderly fashion [beginning from our lowest point of the soul, all the way to the highest point of our soul] and discover what our habits are leading towards. We need to mark down all our habits that are holy, and all our habits that are unholy, so that we can be ready to the holiest habit of all – to become accustomed to learning the Torah.

This is the first step of how we grow from Yom Tov.

The Second Step In Growing From Yom Tov: To See Where We Are Going

There is a more inner avodah we have on Yom Tov as well. This is contained in another term for the word regel – the term “aragah”, which means “thirsty.” We find this in the possuk, “Just as a deer thirsts over the banks of water, so does my soul thirst for You, G-d.” The feet of a person leads him toward something he wants and longs for. Yom Tov, which is called regel, leads a person to what he is thirsty for, to what he has “aragah” (thirst) for. Yom Tov reveals to a person what his aspirations are. It shows what we really want, what we are really getting pleasure from in life.

So the first part of our avodah is that we need to search inside ourselves and discover what our habits are, and after that, we need to discover where we are actually heading towards. If we discover in ourselves that we are heading towards habits that are bad, we need to destroy them.

When we left Egypt, we were “redeemed from a house of slaves”; we were not just redeemed in the physical sense from Egypt, but we were redeemed in our souls. There were “seventy souls” who went down to Egypt, connoting that the exile in Egypt was taking place in our souls as well. The redemption from Egypt was essentially an inner redemption, a redemption from the exile upon our very souls. Hashem took us out from there and instead “brought us closer into His service.” We became close to Hashem because we gained inner clarity within our souls. The redemption showed us what we really wanted and enjoyed and longed for.

Defining The Joy of Yom Tov

The unique mitzvah of all three festivals is that we have a mitzvah to rejoice on Yom Tov. Chazal state that the mitzvah of Simchas Yom Tov (joy on the festival) is fulfilled through meat and wine.[2]

Yom Tov is a revelation of our happiness, and it also shows us what makes us happy. The meat and wine only satisfies our nefesh habehaimis, the lower and animalistic part of our souls, but this is not the entire simcha of Yom Tov. It is only needed so that we can give something to our nefesh habehaimis to satisfy it, because if we don’t satisfy it, our nefesh habehaimis will rebel and get in the way of our true, inner happiness.

Therefore, if a person thinks that Simchas Yom Tov is all about dining on meat and wine, he only satisfies his nefesh habehaimis, and he only knows of an external and superficial Simchas Yom Tov. Woe is to such a person!

What is the real happiness of Yom Tov? The possuk says, “And you shall rejoice in your festival.” Our true happiness on Yom Tov is the happiness we have in Yom Tov itself. It is to rejoice with Hashem, Whom our soul is thirsty for. It is from this that we derive the depth of our happiness, on Yom Tov.

“The righteous rejoice in Hashem.” When a person lives a life of truth, when he lives a very internal kind of life, his entire happiness is “in Hashem.” He is happy
“in” his feeling of closeness with Hashem and with His Torah – the place where true happiness is derived.

So Yom Tov, the time to rejoice, is the time in which we discover the happiness we are used to. It is a time to discover if our main happiness is coming from externalities such as meat and wine (for the men) jewelry and clothing (for the women) and candy (for the children) – or if our happiness is coming from an inner place. It is only inner happiness which satisfies our spiritual needs – our Nefesh HaElokus (G-dly soul).

Yom Tov is thus not just the time in which we rejoice, but it is a time in which we clarify to ourselves what our soul is really rejoicing in. On Yom Tov, we do not just attempt to ‘connect’ ourselves to happiness, as if happiness is somewhere on the outside of ourselves. The festivals are called regalim, which implies that we reveal from within ourselves where we are habitually drawn towards, where we really are.

When a person never makes this internal clarification – when he never bothers to search himself outside, and he never discovers what truly makes him happy – he is like a dove who cannot find any rest. Yom Tov to him will feel like a time of confusion; he is like the dove who could not find any rest from the mabul (the flood), which is from the word bilbul, confusion.

A person should cleanse himself off from the desires for this world’s pleasures and instead reveal his thirst for the true happiness.

Make This Assessment

When Yom Tov arrives, the first thing we need to clarify with ourselves is: If Yom Tov really makes us happy.

You should know that most people are not really happy on Yom Tov – not even for one second do they really experience Simchas Yom Tov! [This is not just because the Vilna Gaon says that the hardest mitzvah to keep is Simchas Yom Tov, due to the fact that it is for a 24-hour period lasting for seven days. We are referring to a much more simpler and basic level, which most people do not even reach].

Most people enjoy some moments of relaxation on Yom Tov, but they never reach one moment of true simcha. If someone experiences even one moment of Simchas Yom Tov, he has begun to touch the spiritual light of Yom Tov.

In order to reach true simcha on Yom Tov, we need to remove the various bad habits we have towards the various ambitions we have that are not about holiness. We must remove any “thirsts” we may have for things that are not truthful sources of pleasure. When we begin to feel our souls’ thirst for its source – Hashem – we will find our source of happiness there.

A person needs to discover: “What makes me happy?” If someone’s entire happiness on Yom Tov comes from meat and wine, then according to Halacha he has fulfilled Simchas Yom Tov; he has made his nefesh hebehaimis happy. But he did not reach the goal of Yom Tov; he did not reach “And you shall rejoice in your festival.” He hasn’t even touched upon the real happiness of Yom Tov.

The three festivals are called the regalim. They have the power to awaken us to spiritual growth, and to know what is making us happy. From knowing that, we are able to continue that very same happiness and extend it into the rest of the year.

[1] Chagigah 4a

[2] Pesachim 109a

Preparing for Pesach is Part of our Avodas Hashem

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Nissan

In whatever time or situation we are in, we should always be aware that it is an inseparable part of our avodas Hashem. It doesn’t matter if it is something that has to do with ruchniyus (spirituality) or not or if it is something more mundane. Wherever we are, whatever the situation, it is somehow part of our avodas Hashem.

We must wonder in every situation: how is a Jew supposed to go about this?

In these weeks, the frum world, who keep Torah and mitzvos, is very careful to clean the house scrupulously from any trace of chametz. We have a commandment in the Torah to make sure that we do not see or find any chametz in our house; but this mitzvah has much to it which seemingly has nothing to do with Pesach.

Upon reflection, we will be able to see how preparing for Pesach is part of our avodas Hashem, and how through it we can bring ourselves to be closer to Hashem.

“Melumadah” – Acting By Rote

There is a simple point that we must all know and be aware of. This simple point is that we can find Hashem in anything – without exception!

1) When a person begins to clean his house for Pesach, he first has to get rid of the “melumadah” – the tendency to do things by rote. We are not simply cleaning out the house for Pesach “because we have to clean.” Why are you cleaning for Pesach? Because that’s what you did last year and the year before it?! That is not the reason.

2) We all know that to clean the house for Pesach is a mitzvah of the Torah, but what are our thoughts as we do this? If a person doesn’t stop to think, he is only bothered by questions such as: What is the best way to clean the house? What needs to cleaned, and how much? The whole relationship with Hashem is lost with all these questions.

So first, we must get rid of our tendency to just to things without thinking. We must realize that preparing for Pesach is purely avodas Hashem. After we know this we can begin to know how it is avodas Hashem, but the first step is this: don’t just do it like a robot. Just like we understand that learning and davening is avodas Hashem, so must we be aware that preparing for Pesach is avodas Hashem.

If a person feels that cleaning the house for Pesach is not part of avodas Hashem, we can almost tell him that he is forbidden to do it! The Chovos HeLevovos writes that there is no such thing as a gray area; it’s either forbidden or permissible. If it’s not a mitzvah, then it’s wrong to do.

We will try to explain how cleaning for Pesach can be avodas Hashem, in a way how everyone will be able to enter the Yom Tov amidst avodas Hashem, not amidst stress.

Why Do We Clean The House?

If we think into it, besides for the mitzvah of the Torah to keep the house clean from chametz on Pesach, there are more reasons why we need to clean the house.

3) One possible reason why a person cleans is because he feels bad to make the rest of his family do everything! He personally doesn’t care for the house to be clean. Most of the Pesach preparations have nothing to do with the mitzvah of destroying chametz – just various household chores. Why does a person do all these things for Pesach? Many times it is simply because he feels bad standing around and watching everyone else do all the work. He’s doing it all for the sake of chessed.

That is one possible reason why a person spends so much time with Pesach preparations.

4) Another possibility could be that we don’t like it when the house is dirty. Hashem created each person with a natural desire to have a clean house. Some people are cleanlier than others, and they can’t take even the slightest amount of messiness. But all people want their house clean somewhat, so they clean for the house for Pesach.

5) Another possibility can also be because people like it when things are orderly. During the rest of the year people are very busy, and they want to have one time in the year where they sit down and just arrange everything in its place (This is not the same thing as a desire for neatness.)

So far we have mentioned five possibilities why a person cleans the house for Pesach: Acting robotic, doing it because it’s a mitzvah of the Torah, kindness, cleanliness or orderliness.

The first kind of person we mentioned – the one who does it robotically – is obviously not doing it in the right way. That is simple and we don’t need to explain why.

The second kind of person, who does it because it’s a mitzvah, has to put some more thought into it. It is not enough to know that he must clean the house – there must be some more life involved, some more thinking.

Before he begins to clean the house, he should talk to Hashem and say, “Ribono shel olam, Why am I going to clean my house? I have other things to do; I can be learning or relaxing. The reason why I am going to clean my house now is because You, the Ribono shel Olam, commanded me that the house be free of chametz. Since I want to give You a nachas ruach, I will exert myself now to clean my house.”

While a person is cleaning the house, this is what he should be saying to himself. If someone knows how to think in learning Torah as he does something, then he should think in learning and he doesn’t have to do this. But if someone usually doesn’t think in learning as he cleans the house, and his thoughts are just floating elsewhere, then he should at least for a few minutes here and there remind himself of what he’s doing and why he’s doing it.

We are speaking about a very simple thing one can do; there are people who are on a very high level and always have d’veykus in Hashem wherever they are, but we are not speaking of this. We are speaking about something very basic and simple.

If a person cleans the house because he wants to be nice and doesn’t want everyone else to do all the work, he also has to think about this and say, “Ribono shel olam, Why am I doing this? I don’t personally feel a need to clean my house. The only reason why I am doing it is so that I can do chessed with my family.”

A person should keep talking to Hashem throughout the entire time: “Ribono shel olam, it is my will to do Your will. One of the pillars of the world is chessed, and I am thus doing chessed in order to give You a nachas ruach.”

After a day of doing this, besides for the physical exercise you get out of cleaning the house, your entire day is filled with pure avodas Hashem. In this way, a person never leaves ruchniyus even while being involved in this mundane world.

The Natural Desire for Cleanliness

Let us elaborate on the last two points, which are more subtle points about our soul.

There is a desire in a person for cleanliness. Everyone loves cleanliness – some more, and some less. The soul of a person naturally recoils a bit from messiness. People often see a mess and start cleaning it, and if you ask them, “What are you doing? Why you are cleaning it up?” the answer is, “It bothers me.”

People clean because they can’t stand the sight of something dirty or messy, and cleaning it up removes this anxiety. It seems that this has nothing to do with trying to become close to Hashem, and that a person is trying to save his soul from some pain.

But if we think into it just a little, we can connect everything to Hashem. If a person likes to clean, the first thing he should ask himself is: “Why do I like to clean? Did I make myself this way? No. Hashem gave me this nature.”

Realize that whatever your nature is, it was Hashem who gave you such a nature. Not only that, but Hashem is constantly renewing Creation; He is constantly renewing your nature, which is that you like to clean and that you hate messiness.

After you realize with certainty that it was Hashem who gave you this nature to desire cleanliness, and that He continues to renew this nature in you, now think: “Why did Hashem give me such a nature? What is the purpose of wanting cleanliness, and how do I use this natural desire in a person? What are the pros and cons of it?”

The desire for cleanliness doesn’t happen on its own. (It is absurd to think that it does, but the yetzer hora gets a person to succeed not to think.) A person must think to himself, “Hashem gave me this desire for cleanliness. It was Him who placed this desire in me.”

This realization helps you begin your relationship with Hashem.

What indeed is the root of why we like cleanliness?

Cleanliness (nekiyus) is one of the ten steps in the ladder of avodas Hashem as described by Rebbi Pinchos ben Yair, the basis of sefer Mesillas Yesharim. Cleanliness exists for us to cleanse ourselves from sin, because sin sullies our soul. Every power in the soul is also manifested somehow in our body; the power of cleanliness of our soul manifests itself in our body with the need for physical cleanliness.

The truth is that the more a person grows spiritually, the more he increases his cleanliness. Some people are very clean in their soul and others are very particular also about physical cleanliness (in addition to their spiritual cleanliness), but the point is that the more a person purifies himself, the more of a need for cleanliness he has, and the purer his soul becomes.

The root behind cleanliness comes from an inner desire to be purified. This gives us a whole different attitude to have about our need for physical cleanliness – it is rooted in our soul’s need for cleanliness and purity.

Knowing Your Motivation For Cleanliness

There are two reasons why a person wants physical cleanliness; one reason is unnecessary and more of a luxury to a person, while the other reason is coming from our soul’s need for purity and closeness.

There are situations in which we clean more than we have to, and it is extra. It is hard to say exactly what is considered overdoing it, and each person needs to decide for himself what is considered already too much. If a person is just taking a shower or brushing his teeth simply because he is very concerned about his body, this is totally unnecessary (except for certain rare individuals who won’t get affected by this).

Something even worse than this is when a person is really bothered by uncleanliness and he doesn’t clean. Such a person not only has physical messiness, but he damages his soul with this. He is denying his soul’s demand for cleanliness.

So before begins to clean, he must ask himself: What is my motivation in cleaning the house? Am I doing it out of a compulsiveness to clean (just like there are people who indulge in food and drinking), or am I doing it to help my household? If he realizes that he is doing it to help, then he should work on the avodah we mentioned before (which is to say a tefillah to Hashem).

If he discovers that he’s doing it because he has a personal need for cleanliness, he must really ask himself if he is overdoing it or not, or if it comes from a sensitivity in his soul for cleanliness (and he therefore needs it). Everyone must uncover what is motivating him to clean.

Most people do not have these issues. We will therefore discuss a more simple kind of issue that people have which is much more common: when people love to clean something that is clearly a mess. In this, we need to put some thought into the cleaning.

Before a person cleans, he should say: “Ribono shel olam, this mess really bothers me. Who gave me this feeling? You – Hashem. Where does this nature in me come from? It comes from a power in my soul to demand purity. Ribono shel olam, is it Your will that I break this nature of mine and endure the messiness? Or is it Your will that I live with purity and cleanliness? Since it is clear to me that You want my soul to desire this cleanliness, I will go clean the house in order to get close to You and give You pleasure.”

Even though you’re doing it shelo lishmah – not for the sake of Heaven (because you’re doing it out of your need for cleanliness) – you can still add this element of lishmah into your action.

But always remember that cleaning the house for Pesach is purely avodas Hashem. It must be done properly with thought and concentration.

The Importance Of Orderliness

Another point to be addressed is the fifth reason why a person wants to clean the house: to have orderliness.

Just like a person has a natural need for cleanliness, and this comes from the soul’s desire for purity which Hashem put in us, so did Hashem put in us a natural desire for orderliness.

Some people have a more of a need to be organized than others, but all people have a need to get things organized. This is not by itself – it is a nature which Hashem gave each person.

Without our natural desire for orderliness, no one would get anywhere. In order to build up anything, there is a certain order involved. Since every person on this world must build himself, Hashem endowed each person with an ability to have orderliness. Without orderliness, we wouldn’t be able to develop our avodas Hashem.

The more orderly a person is, the more he is able to develop in avodas Hashem. The less orderly a person is, the more confusion he has, and he feels like he is an exile. A person has to get out of this exile of confusion and become more orderly. This is the beginning of an inner freedom.

Orderliness is thus a need of our soul, but we often use it just for our body’s physical needs, such as the need to look very put together and organized.

Just like a dirty house makes our soul suffer, so can living in a messy house bother us so much that it is an impediment to our avodas Hashem. If we don’t care about how our house looks inside, we will definitely be affected spiritually as well.

It is well-known that when a tzaddik would look for a prospective match for his daughter, he would inspect the boy’s room and see if he’s neat. When a person has no sense of orderliness when it comes to the physical, it is a sign that he has is spiritually messy as well.

In order for our soul to get orderliness in spiritual matters, a person needs to first make sure he’s neat when it comes to his physical matters. But we must always remember that it is Hashem who gives us such a nature. We must recognize that our need for orderliness comes from Hashem, and that this need that people have doesn’t come by itself.

Realize that this need for orderliness can be used as a way to connect to the Creator. Like this, a person can take the physical world and use it to develop a relationship with Hashem. It is an inner kind of life, a life spent with Hashem even in ordinary, mundane actions.

When a person realizes that the need for organization is necessary in his avodas Hashem, he is able to realize that organizing the house is not just an act of kindness with his family, but it is a necessary part in one’s personal avodas Hashem.

In this, there are two parts. Some people were born with a need for orderliness, and it really bothers them when things aren’t in place. The avodah of such a person is to realize that this need comes from Hashem, and it is a way to serve Hashem.

But others don’t feel such a need for cleanliness. They know with their minds that a person should be orderly, but they don’t feel that this is a need for their soul. Such people feel that it makes sense to clean the house once a year, or else the house becomes unlivable…but not more than once a year.

This person’s avodah is the opposite of the first kind of person. Besides for the fact that he must organize his house, he also needs to awaken in his soul a desire to have orderliness.

Days Which We Can Grow From

A person wonders: Why did Hashem make it that people have to work so hard on Erev Pesach? Doesn’t this sacrifice our opportunities to grow spiritually by making preparations for Yom Tov? If we have to work so hard cleaning up, how do we prepare for the Yom Tov??

But if you think about it, these days before Pesach contain tremendous areas which we can use to attain growth in. If Hashem made it this way that we have to clean and organize the house, then that is the way for us to acquire all the precious areas of growth which we need.

Really, cleaning up and organizing the house are there to remind us of our soul’s need for purity. This is a precious gain in our avodas Hashem. But the yetzer hora comes and takes away the message of it and turns it into mundane actions, drying it up from all the avodas Hashem contained in it.

If a person understands the depth of avodas Hashem, he doesn’t clean the house simply because he wants it to be clean. He cleans the house because through that, he connects to an inner point in his soul – the need for spiritual cleanliness. He understands that now is precisely the time to work on this.

The truth is that all of life is like this: the yetzer hora comes and takes what’s very important and turns it into something that’s not important. In whatever we encounter, we should always see the greatness we can achieve in this situation. The more confusing and seemingly pointless a situation appears, the more greatness lies in it if we uncover it.

If a person before Pesach is caught up in this and that and he comes into the Yom Tov exhausted and stressed out, what is all our hard work worth? We don’t gain from this kind of a life.

If we don’t see how everything we do can be a form of avodas Hashem and how much being involved with the world takes away from our soul, then these days go to waste. Our preparation for Pesach should not be a physical preparation; although we do exert our body to prepare for Pesach, really, there is an inner depth taking place in what we are doing. It is really a preparation of our soul for the coming days. Through preparing for it in the right way, a person comes into Yom Tov the way he should.

Each person can take these words and open them up more to himself, each to his own. The common denominator between all people is the days preceding Pesach are days of ruchniyus, not days of materialistic pursuits. They are days of closeness to Hashem.

Hashem should help us that we prepare properly for Pesach during these days, from a sincere desire to give pleasure to our Creator. In these days preceding Pesach, each of us should merit to increase our true closeness and love of Hashem.

Purim – Rising Above Doubt

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Purim

Exploring The Connection Between Purim and Yom Kippur

There is a famous teaching of our Sages, “Yom HaKippurim is like Purim”[1] – Yom Kippur is “k’purim” – like Purim. This implies that Purim is ‘similar’ to Yom Kippur, and perhaps equally or even more holy. Let’s explore our avodah on Purim and its relationship to Yom Kippur.

The festivals of Pesach, Shavuos and Sukkos are celebrated for two days outside of Eretz Yisrael, because of the doubt about their exact dates (sefeika d’yoma).[2] Since all of the festivals contain sefeika d’yoma, they all contain an element of doubt. On an inner level, this means that we are exposed to doubt during these festivals.

For example, consider Rosh Hashanah and Amalek. Rosh Hashanah is a time that celebrates the remembrance of the beginning of Creation, whereas the evil nation of Amalek represents the concept of safek/doubts. Amalek is called “reishis.” the “beginning” of the nations.2 [Hence, Amalek has power on Rosh HaShanah, since Amalek gets its strength from beginnings]. Specifically, we celebrate Rosh HaShanah for two days, because in the times of the Beis Hamikdash it was difficult for witnesses to see and pass on the exact time of the new moon. Thus, since the Sanhedrin could not be sure if the month was sanctified or not, we celebrate two days of Rosh HaShanah to cover both possibilities.

Unlike the other festivals, Purim is not celebrated on two different dates due to the reason of sefeika d’yoma. Rather, the two days of Purim is only simply to celebrate the two different military victories which occurred on two different dates. Specifically, Purim falls on either the 14th or the 15th of Adar, depending on whether the celebrant resides in a walled city or an un–walled city. The Rabbis agreed that inhabitants of walled cities recite the Megillah on the 14th of Adar, whereas inhabitants of un–walled cities recite the Megillah on the 15th of the month.

So Purim is different from the other festivals since there is no doubt about its date. However, there is an even greater reason why Purim is dissociated from doubt. Purim is a festival celebrating our victory over Amalek which has the same gematria as the word safek.[3] It is well–known that the evil force of Amalek is essentially the very concept of doubt. Thus, Purim, in which we were victorious over the force of Amalek (Haman), is the antithesis of doubt.

Furthermore, we celebrate Purim in the month of Adar, and Adar stands for “aleph dar.” “The Aleph (the One)will dwell”.23 This phrase alludes to how Hashem Himself fights Amalek during the month of Adar. Haman was an Amelekite and Mordechai defeated Haman during Purim also in the month of Adar. Thusly, Adar is a month of victory over Amalek – and we won through our emunah in Hashem. In addition, Moshe was born in the month of Adar, a leader who helped the Jewish people in their victories over Amalek.

The War With Amalek/Doubt

In summary, the very concept of Purim is the opposite of doubt. Purim is a celebration of the Jewish people’s triumph over Amalek/safek/doubts. (Of course, as we will explore below, we cannot erase Amalek completely in our times, because Amalek is at war with Hashem, in every generation. Only in the future will Hashem erase Amalek completely; when Amalek will be completely erased, Hashem’s Name will be complete.)

Every time we doubt Hashem, chas v’shalom, Amalek is winning. Amalek pounces on us at the first sign of doubt in our emunah. The generation who left Egypt surely believed in Hashem, they were in doubt about what Hashem would do to save them. We can refer to their very doubt as “Amalek” triumphing over them.

Amalek also comes to attack our kedushah (holiness). When the Jewish people left Egypt, we were on a very holy level, but the Erev Rav (the “mixed multitude.” which included Amalek) came with us and influenced us. Thus, our redemption from Egypt was not complete.

Amalek was particularly terrible since they also paved the way for other nations to fight us. Chazal compare Amalek to a person who jumps into a scalding hot bath; he burns himself in the process, but he cools it off for others. So too, Amalek were the first nation to have the audacity to attack the Jewish people, and in a brazen manner. By having the audacity to rise up and even attempt to conquer the Jewish people, they showed the other nations that such a coup is possible.

The Inner Point of The Soul Where There Is No Doubt

Now let us learn how this matter applies to our personal souls, and what power we have that can counter Amalek/safek/doubt.

Hashem is called “tzur levavi.” “Rock of my heart”.[4] The revelation of G–d lies deep in all of our hearts, as is it written, “And I will dwell amongst them.” The Sages state that Hashem dwells “in all of them.” every Jewish soul – within each of us lies an inner point in our soul, a “cheilek eloka mimaal.” a “portion of G–d above.” [5] This point is completely holy and it cannot be tainted by doubt. Only the outer parts of us are subject to doubts.

After the Original Sin, human beings were given free will to choose between good and evil. In This World, it is difficult to separate between good and evil. All of us live with two options – good and evil. We as humans are fallible, so our choices are open to imperfections, which lead us to doubt ourselves. But Hashem cannot be doubted. Consequently, there resides no uncertainty or doubt within the G–dly part of our soul, as long as a person merits successfully in uncovering it and revealing it outward.

When Bnei Yisrael fought against Amalek [there was a constant pattern], When Moshe’s hands fell, Amalek gained strength. When Moshe’s hands were raised Amalek became weakened. The possuk says that Moshe’s hands were raised in “emunah”.[6] The power of emunah in our soul is essentially the revelation of G–d within man. When one really lives with emunah – not just because he knows about Hashem, but because he palpably feels the emunah in Hashem deep inside his heart – then he lives with less doubt, and in turn, he is strengthened. But without complete emunah in our heart, we are subject to doubts and are weakened as a result.

Amalek fights Hashem in every generation. We are commanded to fight Amalek and never forget their attack on us. However, the outcome of our efforts to fight Amalek is ultimately in Hashem’s hands. Only Hashem can erase Amalek, because Amalek is all about safek, and man cannot defeat the force of safek without Hashem. We have to fight, but only Hashem can annihilate safek completely.

In other words, the only way to overcome safek is for us to completely integrate our own selves with Hashem. When a person reveals total emunah in Hashem from within himself, he is essentially revealing outward the deep, inner revelation of G–dliness within his soul. This is the only way man can defeat Amalek. Only when one erases his own doubts by connecting his existence with Hashem, will he essentially receive the power to erase Amalek.

Unfortunately, these days it is difficult for us to even identify Amalek itself, because the wicked king Sancheriv[7] mixed up all of the nations, making it impossible for us to discern the origins of the people of other nations. Thus, we are even in doubt about where our doubts lie, which creates an even more powerful safek. Even more so, Hashem’s presence is more hidden and concealed from us in exile – we constantly lack certainty in Hashem and His truth.

In summary, safek (doubts in emunah) fuels Amalek’s power. Whether the doubts are external or internal, Amalek thrives on our doubts and then takes us over. Thus, our ongoing war with Amalek is unlike any other war. It is an inner, spiritual war being fought between our powers of emunah and safek/doubt. It is about fighting forHashem’s revelation as the “Vadai Shemo” (His Name is absolute). Only when our G–dly part of our soul dominates does Amalek’s hold weaken.

Purim – Yom Kippur

Besides Purim, there is another day of the year which is completely holy and not associated with any safek – Yom Kippur. Although there should have been a sefeika d’yoma on Yom Kippur too, the Sages decreed that we should not have two days of Yom Kippur. On a simple level, this ruling was decreed because it is dangerous to fast for two days. But the deeper reasoning for having only one day of Yom Kippur is so that it should not be subject to any safek/doubt.

Chazal refer to Yom Kippur as the “yomo shel HaKadosh Baruch Hu.” the “day of Hashem.”[8] You cannot doubt Hashem. We can have doubts about ourselves, but Hashem cannot be doubted. Hashem gave the other festivals to the Jewish people and thus these festivals also have an association with humans and doubt. In contrast, Yom Kippur is called “the day of Hashem”. Unlike human beings, Hashem has no doubts, and doubt cannot mix or be associated with Hashem. As the Sages say, “Is there such thing as doubts in Heaven?”.[9]

On Yom Kippur we are like angels. This day is clearly the day of Hashem, the day in which Hashem reigns supreme. Since there are no sins and we are forgiven, so there is no room for the human concept of doubt to creep in.

In summary, the festivals were given to man, who is naturally full of doubt. Thus, there can be doubt associated with the festivals. In contrast, Yom Kippur belongs to Hashem, Who has no safek. Yom Kippur is a day in which doubt cannot take hold.

[Now we can see the connection between Purim and Yom Kippur, and why Purim is like Yom Kippur: they are both days in which can rise above doubt].

Celebrating the Doubt–free Purim and Yom Kippur

These days, we all generally live with uncertainty. We all have ‘Amalek’ in the soul!Hashem’s existence, His presence, His love for us, is all doubted and unclear to us. But Purim shows us how a situation with two or more options does not have to be confusing because both options are actually necessary. On Purim, we bless Mordechai as well as Haman. On a deeper level, we can recognize on Purim that even Haman is ultimately needed!

In the future, Hashem and His Name will be One. The Gemara raises a pertinent question: “Is He not [already] one in our times?” The Gemara then answers that in the future His name will be the name of havayah[10], while now He is called by His name of adnus[11] (Master), which is not the same thing. Chazal teach that Hashem’s name is not complete in our times due to the presence of Amalek[12] – who fuels our doubts of emunah.

There is a teaching that our “heart cannot be revealed by the mouth”[13]. This means that we do not express what is truly in our hearts. The fact that we read the name of havayah of Hashem but we do not pronounce it, and instead we currently pronounce it with the name of adnus, reflects the fact that our “mouth and heart are not in line with each other”. We can see the meaning of havayah in our heart, but the mouth cannot express it. The Torah itself is made up of names of Hashem, but Amalek causes one to doubt even His name!

We are always confounded by doubts. For example, a person gets married, but doubts if his wife is the right one for him. Or he buys a house but remains unsure if he has made the right purchase, and he agonizes over his decision. All of these doubts actually come from Amalek!

Options and doubts are the hallmark of our current exile. And as long as a person has doubts, he does not have simchah. “There is no simchah like the clarification of doubts”.[14] Simchah is when we erase our doubts, and therefore, if a person has safek, he cannot have simchah.

True simchah is achieved only when there is a harmony between our guf (body) and neshamah (soul). The opposite of simchah/joy is sadness, and sadness comes from the body, which was created from the element of earth. When Adam ate from the Eitz HaDaas, the body was cursed with death, which causes it to return to the earth. The Jewish people contain a body and a soul. Whereas the soul wants to rise to Heaven, our body wants to be here on earth. While our soul yearns for G–d, our body wants materialism. This internal war creates a force of doubt. [We are all born with this struggle with doubt, and our life is a constant battle between our spiritual and our material desires].

Thus, our life in This World is riddled with doubt. But the good news is that a person can penetrate a place in his soul where there are no doubts! When a person erases Amalek within himself, he can connect both body and soul together. This “clarification of doubts” will enable him to reach simchah here in This World even before the redemption.

On Purim, we are commanded to become intoxicated until we reach the point of not knowing “the difference between cursed be Haman and blessed be Mordechai.” When we reach this point of shedding our [consciousness] daas, the body and soul become harmonized and all doubt is left behind.

The festival of Purim celebrates the Jewish people’s victory over Haman the Amalekite and therefore doubt. Haman intended to kill us and separate our bodies and souls. Our victory demonstrated that we are “one nation.” Haman himself acknowledged this, albeit begrudgingly. And on a deeper note we also can be “one” within our own self.

In the future, Chazal say that all festivals will cease except for Purim when Moshiach comes. Chazal are teaching us a lesson pertinent to the present – that we can connect even now to the light of the future. Purim thus represents our ability to access an inner point of certainty and trust regardless of the external doubts in our current life.

Living a life full of doubts prevents us being connected to the spiritual dimension. One destined to live in the World To Come (ben olam haba) is essentially one who reveals the inner point of oneness and certainty in his soul, the revelation of G–dliness within himself. A ben olam haba refers to the place in the soul where there are no doubts.

All realities in this world can be doubted, because they are finite and are not based on Truth. Only Hashem is One and only Hashem is forever. By connecting to His Oneness and emes, we too can erase our doubts.

Purim proves that there is a time where we can exist free of doubts. Although we currently live in a world of doubt, Purim represents a time in this World where we can have both body and soul and still experience certainty and trust without a doubt.

The words here are not simply an intellectual matter. Celebrating Purim does not simply require knowledge of reading the Megillah and learning how to fulfill all the laws of Purim. In order to experience Purim properly, we must experience a day of no doubt in our heart. Then we must actualize this attitude in our life.

Practically Applying This Concept

When a person has a doubt, how does he remove it internally?

One way to get rid of doubts is to seek Rabbinical guidance, as Chazal say: “Make for yourself a rav and remove yourself from doubt.”[15] However, this is only a limited solution since doubt is deeply embedded within us.

The inner way to minimize doubt is by connecting to our inner dimension – to our inner spark of Hashem’s presence – in order to view our doubts objectively and remind our self that these doubts are not who we really are. We must bring Hashem into the picture. Remind yourself that He is the only true reality and clear out all the uncertainty – He placed the situation of doubt in front of us. We now have a choice – to focus on the doubt, or to focus on the Source of everything (including the doubt itself), which has no doubt.

When you have doubt about which path to choose, you can tell yourself that Hashem created and gave us both these two options. When you remember that Hashem does everything, your entire avodah changes – instead of finding the ‘correct’ option, you rather are trying simply to find Hashem in everything. If one really wants to do the will of Hashem in every situation, he will find how Hashem is clothed in every situation.

The simchah of Purim is that one can internally feel that everything is from Hashem. The real choice is not between the two or more options. Rather, our choice is simply whether or not to do Hashem’s will. If we focus on ourselves and our choices before us, then we will naturally be riddled with doubts, as we are human and finite and fallible. But if we manage to focus on the fact that Hashem is doing everything, and we nullify our own will to His will, then we can reach an inner place of certainty, of “HaVadai Shemo” – “His Name is absolute.”

Hashem is fighting Amalek, not us. If we fight Amalek ourselves, we are bound to lose. Only once we recognize that Hashem fights Amalek are we enabling Hashem to win in our case. The path before us will become clear only by choosing to focus on doing Hashem’s will.

Purim is the time to see that Hashem is behind all decrees. Even Haman’s decree ended up being good. Just as Hashem makes the decrees He can nullify them if He chooses. Purim shows us that though man always has doubts, there is no doubt associated with Hashem. The best way to leave all doubts is to see Hashem in and behind every action.

Practically speaking, we should try an exercise of emunah every day in order to battle against Amalek. This will gradually allow the knowledge that Hashem is the One behind everything to penetrate our hearts and overtake our doubts. When we are faced with indecision, we should tell ourselves that the situation was created by Hashem and that He is the only Truth. In this way, one will merit to erase Amalek from his heart and merit the simchah of leaving their doubts.

Through this work, with the help of Hashem, may the light of our discovery lead to the illumination of all of Creation, when Amalek will be completely erased, and “Hashem will be One, and His Name will be One.”

[1] Tikkunei HaZohar 421 (57b)

[2] a concept and legal principle in Jewish law which explains why some Jewish holidays are celebrated for one day in the Land of Israel but for two days outside the Land.

2 “Raishis goyim, Amalek” – “The first of the nations is Amalek” – Bamidbar 24:20

[3] The Hebrew word Amalek has same numerical value as the hebrew word Purim (240)

3 sefer Bnei Yissocher

[4] Tehillim: 73

[5] Iyov 3:4; Kli Yakar Bereishis 1:3, 9:201; Tanya (Ch. 2), Nefesh haChaim (Ch. 1)

[6] Shemos 17:12

[7] The king of Assyria who destroyed Babylon.

[8] Yalkut Shimeoni Tehillim 139

[9] Yoma 74b

[10] Referring to Hashem’s essence.

[11] A substitute pronunciation of the divine name, havaya

[12] Rashi in end of Parshas Beshalach

[13] Zohar Beraishis 11a

[14] Shaalos U’Teshuvos HaRema 5; Metzudas David to Mishlei 15:30; also attributed to a statement of the Rambam

[15] Avos 1:16

Rabbi Dovid Schwartz Needs Your Tefillos

Rabbi Dovid Schwartz, a good friend to many of us and a Beyond BT contributor is in very critical condition. The name Raphael has been added. Please increase your Tfillos and learning for the merit of Raphael Yitzchak Dovid Ben Gittel Leah.
Click here to sign up for a few perakim of Tehillim for a week for his recovery.

Please read his classic post on the how to deal with conformity.

Towards a Subtler Nonconformity

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz

The majority of the posts and comments on the conformity debate deal with standardization in dress and speech. The basic consensus is that swallowing hard and adopting a bleak conformity is just another of the many sacrifices that we make for integration into the Frum community. Unlike relinquishing, say, seafood this demanding sacrifice seems to reward those who make it with a lifetime of ambivalence. Here are some thoughts I hope will make us more comfortable within our own skins by recasting this never-ending and draining sacrifice as a labor of love.

We need to ask ourselves: “Do I yearn for nonconformity or individuality?” At times, nonconformity implies a grouchy contrariness simply for the sake of being contrary. It often indicates insecurity and low self-esteem that cannot be assuaged without gaining notoriety. The nonconformist may be subconsciously saying “If I can gain prominence by excelling at what I do and where, I am… terrific if not I will do so by deviating from the expected standards in obvious and attention-grabbing ways”. In short it often comes from an unhealthy place.

Individuality, on the other hand, expresses the central Human longing for self-actualization and the resistance to external oppressive forces that would squash it. It is a wholesome drive that unites rather than divides BTs and FFBs. It is born in a whisper at our innermost core that demands that we be who we truly are. Where nonconformity is reactive, individuality is proactive. The drive for individuality concerns itself not with modes of dress but with the personality being clothed, not with the language but with the message, not with affectation but with effects, not with mannerisms but with middos (character traits).

IMO, we often under valuate our lifestyle makeovers. In spite of the popular “Avrohom” and “Yisro” models for repudiation of the dominant culture, what compels a Jew to do T’shuva in the post-Sinai era is not a rejection of secularity or secularities’ excesses. These may serve as triggers to the process but they are not the key moving forces. Rather, it is the drive for individuality. A Jew is a Jew and can never hope for self-actualization without Torah and Mitzvahs i.e. living as a Jew. An eagle that has grown up among marching penguins does not take flight to spite the penguins and mock their black and white conformity. The eagle flies because that’s what eagles do. Even when both are at rest the eagle is qualitatively unlike the penguin. It need not behave differently to be different. Yet, its very being compels it towards unique behaviors.

There is a Midrash about the cruelty of S’dom. In S’dom there was only one bed for wayfarers. When the forlorn traveler was forced to spend a night in S’dom they were made to lie down on a “one-size-fits-all” bed. If they were too short a rack would stretch them and if they were too tall they would be decapitated to fit the bed.

The dominant culture with its tyrannical egalitarianism is the heir to the mantle of S’dom’s bed. While ostensibly celebrating nonconformists by allowing for some superficial dissimilarities it is a culture that demands leveling and conformity between men and women, between old and young and between criminal and victim. Many a soul has been stretched to the breaking point or constrained and crushed by this harsh and unreal steamrolling.

Paradoxically, the outward uniformity of frum societies proffers the blessing of true individuality. It is precisely because so much external uniformity is expected that people must dig deeply to discover what makes them unique and irreplaceable individuals. In analyzing both the sacred avodah of Hagrolah (the sacrifice lottery) on Yom Kippur and Shoshanas Yaakov, the anthem of Purim, Rav Hutner Z”tl explains that once we posit that two things are, in fact, different it follows that the greater the number of layers of external similarity they share then, perforce, the deeper and closer to their cores will be that which actually differentiates them.

Chazal describe Hashem as “the peerless Artist” because every piece of His work (human beings) is a one of a kind creation. Our aching to be unique is a paean to the Divine Artist. It is nothing less than the ultimate, logical conclusion of imitatio dei (Mitzvah of Divine Imitation:clinging to the ways & middos of HaShem). Just as He is Yochid (singularly individual) so shall you be! Individuality ought to be embraced and celebrated in spiritual, sophisticated, deep-seated ways that flow outward from the core of our values and our beings not relegated to some quirks at the outer limits of our most public personas. Such quirkiness represents little more than a clichéd, shallow conformist’s losing touch with their individuality by “going with the (nonconformist) flow”.

One Nation, Indivisible

Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafier

Parshas Shemos

And he said, “Who placed you as a judge and ruler above us. Will you say to kill us as you killed the Egyptian.” And Moshe feared, and he said, “Now the matter is known”. Shemos 2:14

When Moshe came of age, he went out to visit his brothers — to share in their suffering. What he saw caused him great anguish. The oppression, subjugation, and cruelty were present wherever he looked. The next day, Moshe again “went out to his brothers,” this time he witnessed two Jews engaged in mortal combat. One was standing over the other in an attempt to kill him. Moshe called out, “Wicked one, why are you hitting your friend?!” This put an end to the bloodshed.

However, Moshe’s intervention wasn’t appreciated. Quite the opposite, their response was, “Who appointed you to be a judge over us? Are you going to kill us as you killed the Mitzri yesterday?” The Medrash tells us this was actually a threat. The day before Moshe killed a Mitzri guard, who was mercilessly whipping an innocent Jew. The two Jews who were fighting had seen this, and they now warned Moshe that they were going to report him to the authorities for rebelling against the king—which they did.

When Pharaoh heard that the heir apparent had openly challenged the law of the land and defended a Jew against his master, he brought Moshe to trial for tyranny. In the end, Moshe had to flee Mitzraim at the risk of his life.

Interestingly, when Moshe first heard their threat his response was, “Now the matter is known.” Rashi explains that for many years, Moshe had a question: “Why is it that of all the seventy nations, the Jews are singled out for oppression?” Once he saw that there were talebearers amongst the Jews, he understood why this nation was so fated.

3 questions

This Rashi is very difficult to understand for a number of reasons. 1. Moshe witnessed two people threatening to report him. Two individuals don’t define a nation. 2. Didn’t all the other nations speak Loshon Harah as well? 3. Even if it were true that entire Jewish People were gossipers, what is so egregious about this sin that an entire nation should suffer cruel, brutal subjugation?

The answer to this can best be understood with a moshol.

Making a hole in my cabin

Imagine a man boards a transatlantic ocean liner carrying an electric saw. Late at night, one of the ship’s personnel hears a distinct rattling noise coming from the man’s cabin. The crewmember knocks on the door – no answer. The noise continues. He knocks again. Still no response. Fearing danger, he kicks in the door, only to see the passenger standing poised against the ship’s hull, electric saw in hand, attempting to cut through the skin of the ship. The crewmember screams out, “Stop it! What are you doing?”

The passenger calmly responds, “Sir, do you see this boarding pass in my hand? Do you see that it states that I have the right to a private cabin? Why are you disturbing me? Here I am, in the privacy of my own compartment, doing what I want. If I want to drill a hole in my room, that is my choice. I have paid for this cabin and I have the prerogative to do whatever I want here. Leave me alone.”

The Chofetz Chaim compares this situation to the Jewish people. He explains that our nation is one unit – irrevocably tied together in a common fate. What happens to one affects another. The state of each individual impacts the whole. There is no such concept as one person doing what he wants in the privacy of his home and not affecting the Klal. But more than this, we are one body. Where the tail goes, the head can’t be far behind. When Moshe saw the levels that the tail had sunk to, he knew that the body of the nation couldn’t be that high. This single action shed light onto the madregah of the people.

The Chofetz Chaim explains that the antidote to Loshon Harah is “loving my neighbor.” If I, in fact, viewed him as connected to me, I would never speak negatively about him. It would be like bad-mouthing myself.

This seems to be the answer to this Rashi. The Jewish nation is one. If such an incident of vicious slander could occur, it reflected on the state of nation. If the people had been on a higher level, this could not have transpired. It meant that the nation as a whole was lacking in a key ingredient – a sense of common destiny, a sense of brotherhood, the sense that I am one with my fellow Jew. And that is why the nation deserved to be punished.

More is expected from the Chosen Nation

If the people involved were the French, the Germans, or the ancient Greeks, this wouldn’t have been an issue. They are a people by circumstance, born of common lineage and brought up in a common land, but there ends the connection. The Jewish people are different. As children of Avrohom, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, we share a common heritage and destiny. We are bound together for eternity. We are one.

For that reason, when Moshe witnessed this act of cruel gossip mongering, he took it as a sign of the health of the nation. If the bottom has sunk this low, the head can’t be that much higher. He then understood why it is that the Jews deserved such treatment. If any other nation degrades one another, there isn’t much fault found with them. If a member of the chosen people speaks badly about another, that bodes serious consequences. We are held to a higher standard.

This concept is a powerful lesson to us about the unity of the Jewish people, our common destiny, and the power of each individual to impact the whole.

Rabbi Shafier is the founder of the Shmuz.com – The Shmuz is an engaging, motivating shiur that deals with real life issues.

All of the Shmuzin are available free of charge at www.theShmuz.com or on the Shmuz App for iphone or Android. Simply text the word “TheShmuz” to the number 313131 and a link will be sent to your phone to download the App.

Shovavim – Repairing Our Thoughts

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Introduction To “Shovavim”

The holy sefarim[1] describe the days of “Shovavim” (Parshas Shemos through Parshas Mishpatim) as days of teshuvah (repentance), based on the possuk, “Return, wayward sons”, and that the main sin which we need to focus our teshuvah on during these days is to rectify the sin of keri (spilling human seed).

We need to know what the root of the spiritual light is that exists during this time, what exactly it means to damage the Bris, and how it is rectified.

In many places, the custom during these days is to recite Selichos (prayer supplications) and to perform various tikkunim (soul rectifications) for the public.

The ancient scholars who taught the inner parts of the Torah[2] established five ways to rectify the sin of spilling seed, and each of them are based on the five different causes that can lead a person to the sin. The five causes that bring about this sin are: 1) Thoughts, 2) Desire to gaze at another woman[3], 3) Desire for gay behavior[4], 4) Wasted spittle[5], 5) One who deliberately delays circumcision[6].

In these coming chapters (Shovavim #02, #03, #04, #05 and #06) we will not delve that in-depth into the esoteric concepts here; rather, we will see the homiletic statements of our Sages about these matters.

We will begin, with the help of Hashem, with the first path of rectification of the sin, which is to rectify the thoughts.

Rectifying The Thoughts: Returning To The “Beginning”

The power of thought is described as the “beginning point” of man. To illustrate the concept, the first thing Hashem did to create the world was that He thought about it. The beginning of a matter is always with thought, thus, thought is seen as the beginning point. Thought is the first kernel of wisdom that allows for the wisdom to become expanded further and further.

Since the purpose of Creation is to reveal the sovereignty of Hashem, “the end of action is first with thought”, therefore, the end of Creation, which will be the purpose, is somewhat reflected in the beginning point of Creation. So the concept of thought, which is the beginning point of Creation, is actually a reflection of the purpose of Creation.

Before the conception of the Jewish people, the Torah describes the 70 nations who descended from Esav. Although the Jewish people are called raishis, “the beginning,” they were still preceded by the 70 nations. What is the meaning of this? It is because the 70 nations of the world are a different kind of beginning. They are another kind of tool which brings about the revelation of Hashem. We see this from the fact that in the future, Hashem will first reveal Himself to all the nations, “And His Kingdom will reign over all jurisdictions”, and after that, the Jewish people will then become the tool that will reveal the purpose of Creation. The purpose of Creation is the revelation of Hashem’s Presence upon the world, and when His sovereignty will be revealed, that will be the tool that brings it about.

Thus, there are different tools which Hashem has set into motion that will reveal the purpose of Creation. Even the gentile nations of the world will be a key factor in the process; this is actually the deeper meaning behind why Esav’s head is buried with the Avos. It is a hint to the fact that the beginning of the nations is really good at its root. The nations of the world have a good beginning, because they will be the first stage in the revelation of Hashem upon the world; it is just that their end will not be lofty as their beginning was. Their dominion will come to an end, and that is why only Esav’s head is buried with the Avos, because only the “head” of Esav is worthy. The Jewish people, by contrast, have both a beginning and an end which will reveal Hashem upon the world.

When one’s thoughts are damaged through sinful thinking, that essentially means that the “beginning” point in a person is damaged. This has several aspects to it. One aspect of our thoughts is that our thoughts are meant to remain inside us; our thoughts are private, and they are supposed to be kept private. To illustrate, we don’t know what others are thinking; the reason for this is to show us that thoughts are supposed to be kept private. When thoughts do need to become revealed, they must be revealed in a proper way, because in essence, they are really meant to be kept private.

Thus, we have a two-fold avodah in protecting our power of thought: We need to keep them private, and in addition, when we do reveal them, they need to be revealed properly.

The Root of Damaging The Bris: Feeling Completely Independent

The root of a person’s downfall is when he thinks he is perfect. “Esav” is called so because he was asuy, already “made”, meaning, he was born “complete”; the inner meaning of this is that he thought he was complete, and that is the depth of his ruination. When a person thinks he is complete, he denies the fact that he needs others in order to be completed. Because he thinks he is perfect, he doesn’t feel a need to connect with others. This is really the depth behind damaging the Bris: when a person thinks that he does not need to receive from others. When a person is unmarried, he can understand well what it means to feel lacking; he knows that he needs to be completed by another.

Although we find that the Sage Ben Azai did not marry, because he desired learning Torah alone and didn’t feel the need to be completed by a woman, still, although he reasoned well, we know that his path is not meant for us to take, for the Sages recount that when he was shown Heavenly revelations as a result of his spiritual level, he could not survive the revelations, and he died out of shock.

After Adam sinned, before Kayin and Hevel were even conceived, it is brought in the holy sefarim[7] that droplets of keri left his body; and for the 130 years that he was separated from Chavah after the sin, demons were formed from those droplets. Why was he punished? It was because he blamed Chavah for the sin; “This woman you gave me, it is she who gave me from the tree that I ate.” When he said this, the deeper implication of this was that he was basically saying that he doesn’t need her, chas v’shalom, for he was declaring that woman is detrimental to man. So he thought he doesn’t need her to complete him, and that he is better off without her.

This leads us the way to how we can fix the sin of spilling seed. When one feels incomplete, and he is aware that he needs to receive from others in order to become complete, he has fixed the sin at its root. Perfection is not achieved by feeling perfect about yourself and not needing others; rather, it is achieved precisely when one realizes he is incomplete without another to help him reach perfection.

The Deeper Implication of Misusing The Thought Process

In the power of thought, there are three kinds of thoughts: Chochmah, Binah, and Daas. Chochmah is the knowledge that one learns from his teachers. Binah is to reflect on the words of the Chochmah and thereby expand upon them. Daas is to connect the information that the Chochmah imparts and the information that the Binah imparts, bringing them to their potential. Daas reflects the concept that Chochmah needs Binah in order to become complete.

Thus, when a person has sinful thoughts, he has misused his daas, because he thinks he doesn’t need others in order to be complete.

The external part of the rectification for the sin is to feel lacking without another, but the inner layer of the solution is for a person to realize that he needs to become a tool that reveals beginnings. Soon, we will explain what this means.

The truth is that the concept of damaging the Bris was already existent as soon as Chavah’s body was separated from Adam’s; this already reflected a kind of separation between man and woman, in which man thinks that he doesn’t need woman for completion. Once Adam became separated from her, the idea of damaging the Bris became possible. It was the idea that it is possible for husband to be complete without his wife.

When one damages his thoughts, it is not only that he has misused his mental powers of Chochmah, Binah and Daas. The thoughts are damaged even when one has extraneous thoughts – when he lets his thoughts turn outward to think about things that he doesn’t need to think about. Just like the eyes are supposed to be controlled and they should not be turned outward that much, so is there a concept that the thoughts of a person not turn outward.

Repenting Over The Shame Caused By Sin

According to the Kamarna Rebbe, the 50th Gate of Impurity, which is the lowest level, is the sin of heresy, and it is created through the sin of damaging the Bris. This shows us how the Bris is damaged – but it also shows us at the same time how it can be repaired.

We can ask: Why is spilling seed considered to be the lowest level of impurity? Why can’t it just be viewed like any other desire that a person has?

The deep reason is as follows. Before the sin, Adam and Chavah were unclothed, yet they were not ashamed in their nakedness. As soon as they sinned, they realized they were naked and they grew ashamed; this shows us that the entire concept of shame began after the sin. Before the sin, there was no concept of shame. Why? It is because shame is when a person is concerned of what others think about himself; what is a person is ashamed of? He is ashamed of how he appears outwardly to others. But he is not concerned of how he appears inwardly to others. Before the sin, Adam and Chavah were so pure that they were only concerned of how they looked internally, not outwardly. After the sin, they became concerned with externalities, therefore, they were ashamed of how they appear outwardly to others.

So the pure state of mankind is to be concerned with who really is deep down, and not to be concerned of how he appears outwardly to others. Thus, the way to repair the sin is by returning to the original state of Adam, in there was no shame yet; meaning, for a person to concerned about his internal state, to keep his thoughts private as they are meant to be, and not to reveal them outwardly, not to think into things that he shouldn’t think about.

Thus, it’s not enough for a person to simply be ashamed about damaging the Bris. Although shame over a sin normally atones for all sins, the sin of damaging the Bris requires a higher kind of teshuvah, and shame alone is not enough to rectify it, for it was the sin that brought about shame to the world; the sin requires more than just shame and repentance, then, to rectify. What really needs to be rectified is the very fact that we are ashamed! Because if not for the sin in the first place, we would never know what shame is.

Of course, this does not mean chas v’shalom that one should harden himself and not feel bad after he sins. It means that a person has to reach an inner place in himself in which he returns to the state of before the sin, in which there was no shame yet, because then, when man was entirely pure, he was not concerned of anything external or outward!

When a person’s thoughts think about things that he shouldn’t think about, he is turning his thoughts outward, and this can lead chas v’shalom to eventually damaging the Bris. Our avodah during Shovavim is to return to our source, that even our power of teshuvah should be returned to its source.

During the Ten Days of Repentance, we say in Selichos that “If one’s heart understands and he repents, he will be healed”, meaning, if one is ashamed because of his sins and he repents, his teshuvah is valid. However, the teshuvah we do during Shovavim is a different concept of teshuvah than the usual kind of teshuvah. Shovavim comes after the Ten Days of Repentance, because the sin of damaging the Bris needs its own rectification and thus it cannot be covered by repenting during the Ten Days of Repentance. It is because teshuvah alone does not rectify damaging the Bris [as the Zohar states].

But that doesn’t mean that a person shouldn’t feel ashamed about damaging the Bris. Of course a person should feel ashamed and do teshuvah about it! But it is just that after he does that, he should then do a deeper kind of teshuvah – he should do teshuvah over the very fact that he has shame as a result of the sin; he should do teshuvah over the fact that he allowed his thoughts to be turned outward, that he allowed himself to be involved with the external and left the inner world of his thoughts.

Of course, now that we live after the sin, our initial nature is to seek what’s outside of us. But our avodah is to return ourselves to the original state of mankind before the sin, and to describe this in deeper terms, it’s referring to the power of emunah. Emunah helps a person stay in his proper place, where he will never feel a desire to go outward from himself.

Thus, the first way to rectify the sin of damaging the Bris (spilling human seed) is through rectifying our thoughts, and this means to return our thoughts to their source – that we should keep our thoughts inward, and not let them roam outward.

Private (Intimate) Matters Should Be Kept Private

The Chida[8] and others write that if someone reveals secrets to others when he wasn’t supposed to, he will end up sinning with damaging the Bris. This is because he turned outwardly when he should have remained inward. A secret should only be revealed to one who is modest, because he will know how to protect the secret.

When a person lets his thoughts roam around to explore thoughts that are forbidden or extraneous, that is the first root of what leads to damaging the Bris. But it also includes not to speak about private matters with others.

“Matters of the heart are not revealed to the mouth”[9], meaning, inner and private matters should not be revealed outwardly by the mouth to others. When a Bris [the covenant of marriage between man and woman] remains private between them and it is not spoken about to others, it remains as a protected covenant, as long as it is not spoken about through the mouth [to others].

This is what it means to have Kedushas HaBris, to keep the holiness of the Bris Kodesh: to protect the private nature of the Bris [the covenant of marriage between husband and wife]. Holiness means to conduct one’s private affairs in a hidden manner, in a dark room, privately, and it should be kept hidden and protected – never spoken about with others.

This is the first rectification of repairing the Bris Kodesh. May Hashem help us be able to act upon it practically.[10]

[1] Arizal: shaar ruach hakodesh: tikkun 27; further discussed in Levush, Magen Avraham, Beer Heitiv, and Pri Megadim to Orach Chaim: 685

[2] Rav Chaim Vital in Shaar Ruach HaKodesh (Arizal), ibid.

[3] This will be discussed b’ezras Hashem in Shovavaim #005 – Repairing Lust

[4] See Shovavim #04, Shovavim Today

[5] Shovavim #003

[6] Shovavim #006

[7] Shaar HaPesukim, Yechezkel

[8] Avodas HaKodesh: Tziporen HaShamir: 7: 113

[9] Koheles Rabbah 12:1

[10] Editor’s Summary: In the beginning of the chapter, it was stated that we have a two-fold avodah in repairing our damaged thoughts. The first part is to protect our private thoughts; this includes two aspects, 1)Not to think about forbidden things, which is obvious; 2)Not to reveal our private matters to others. The second part of the rectification was that when we do need to reveal our thoughts to others, they must be revealed properly; now it has been explained at the end of the chapter to mean that matters of privacy should only be revealed to someone who is modest who won’t tell it to others.

Ten for the Tenth of Teves

Ten points about the Tenth of Teves from an article by Rabbi Berel Wein.

1) The Tenth of Tevet marks the onset of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylonia, and the beginning of the battle that ultimately destroyed Jerusalem.

2) The date of the Tenth of Tevet is recorded for us by the prophet Yechezkel, who himself was already in Babylonia as part of the first group of Jews exiled there by Nebuchadnezzar, 11 years earlier than the actual destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem itself.

3) The Tenth of Tevet is viewed as such a severe and important fast day that it is observed even if it falls on a Friday (erev Shabbat), while our other fast days are so arranged by calendar adjustments as to never fall on a Friday, so as not to interfere with Shabbat preparations.

4) On the eighth of Tevet, King Ptolemy of Egypt forced 70 Jewish scholars to gather and translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek. Even though the Talmud relates to us that this project was blessed with a miracle

5) The 70 scholars were all placed in separate cubicles and yet they all came up with the same translation

6) The general view of the rabbis of the time towards this project was decidedly negative. The Talmud records that when this translation became public “darkness descended on the world.”

7) The ninth day of Tevet is held to be the day of the death of Ezra the Scribe. This great Jew is comparable even to Moses in the eyes of the Talmud. “If the Torah had not been granted through Moses, it could have been granted to Israel through Ezra.”

8) Ezra led the return of the Jews to Jerusalem from their Babylonian exile. It was under his direction and inspiration, together with the help of the court Jew, Nechemiah, that the Second Temple was built, albeit originally in a much more modest scale and style than the grandeur of Solomon’s Temple.

9) Since fasting on the eighth, ninth and 10th days of Tevet consecutively would be unreasonable, the events of the eighth and ninth were subsumed into the fast day of the Tenth of Tevet.

10) The rabbinic policy of minimizing days of tragic remembrances played a role in assigning the Holocaust remembrance to the Tenth of Tevet for a large section of the Israeli population.

Chanukah – Miracles Within

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Chanukah

Miracles – When Nature Is Overcome[1]

On Chanukah, we make a blessing of שעשה ניסים לאבותינו, expressing our thanks to Hashem for this time where He performed miracles for us. Although we also experienced miracles on Pesach, only the Rabbinical festivals of Chanukah and Purim contain a blessing where we thank Hashem for the miracles performed, which we express in the prayer of Al HaNissim in Shemoneh Esrei.

Hashem runs the world through a system of laws He created which we know as “nature” (teva), and He also built into this a system that works above the normal laws of “nature”: miracles (nisim). Hashem has allowed the laws of “nature” that He created to be the system of the normal “laws” (chukim) which He runs the world with.

When we analyze Creation deeper, there are actually different kinds of “nature” in creation. There are four classifications in Creation: the non-living objects (doimem), plants (tzomeiach), animals (chai), and people (medaber). Each of these has their own specific natures. Human beings, animals, plants, and inanimate objects each have their own specific kind of “nature”.

Each of the creations has their limitations. If Hashem enables a rock to grow and have life to it, it would be a miracle for the rock, because the nature of a rock is that it cannot grow. If Hashem were to allow a plant to move from place to place like an animal can, this would be a miracle for the plant, because a plant’s nature is that it does not grow. If an animal is allowed by Hashem to talk, such as the donkey of Bilaam who was allowed to talk, this is a miracle for the animal, because an animal’s nature is that it cannot talk.

Thus, what is the depth of a miracle (nes)? It is when a different “nature” is revealed in something. A miracle is not simply that Hashem changes the rules. Rather, as the Ramban and others explained, the definition of a “miracle” is when a lower level creation is allowed to function on a level that is normally above its natural level. When a rock can grow, when a plant can walk, when an animal can talk, these are all miracles, because they would be functioning on a higher level than they are normally on. Thus, in the days of Chanukah, we experienced “miracles” in the sense that a higher level of creation was revealed within this lower realm that we dwell on.

Becoming Uplifted To A Higher Level

When one has a difficulty (nisayon\נסיון), either his avodah is to find a way to run away from it (וינס), such as what happened with Yosef when he had to run away from the wife of Potiphar; and sometimes the avodah of going through a nisayon is to bear through it and thereby become uplifted from it (להתנוסס).

When the family of the Chashmonaim had to go to war with the Greeks, it was a nisayon for them, and they passed the test, becoming uplifted from it and rising to a higher level than before. That was the miracle. The Chashmonaim faced some difficulty in their avodah in their own individual souls, and because they passed the difficulty, they were elevated to a higher level, where miracles were performed for them.

In clearer terms, as mentioned earlier, a miracle is when a lower level creation is allowed by Hashem to function on a higher level. This can apply within human beings as well: what is considered nature for one person might be considered a miracle for another person, and vice versa. If Shimon is on a lower spiritual level than Reuven, and Shimon rises to the level of Reuven (which is a natural level for Reuven to be on), this is a miracle for Shimon.

Thus, every year when Chanukah returns, where the spiritual light of “miracles” is revealed, this does not simply mean that the miracles of Chanukah are revealed to us in the very same way it was revealed to us last year. Rather, the definition is that if we have risen to higher levels since a year ago, last year’s miracle isn’t considered a miracle anymore for us, because it has now become our natural level.

The spiritual light of the miracles are shined upon us during this time of the year, as our Sages explain, but the depth of this concept is that it depends on the level we have reached since last year. If one has passed more nisyonos (difficulties) since last year, he merits a greater level of “miracle” this year, because now that he has become more elevated since last year’s level, the miracle of last year is now his natural level, and he is now ready to receive greater miracles than the year before.

Overcoming Our Own Personal Natures

Applying this to us on a personal level, every person has his own “natures” which Hashem has implanted into his soul. There are four elements contained in our various “natures”: fire, wind, water, and earth. These are the roots of our negative middos (character traits). Fire is the root of conceit and anger, wind is the root of idle speech, water is the root of seeking hedonistic pleasure, and earth is the root of sadness and laziness, with their branching traits.[2] These are the natures of our middos. When one works to improve his middos, he is really working to uproot the various natures that Hashem has implanted in him.
Read more Chanukah – Miracles Within

Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman – ztz”l

Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman, the leader of Torah Jewry, passed away today at the age of 104. An estimated 600,000 people attended the funeral, held on short notice.

Here is an excerpt from Rabbi Shteinman, Humble Giant, Serving God and the Jewish people for 104 full years.

Torah Leadership

In contrast to the Western style of choosing leaders – often a self-aggrandizing popularity contest between egocentrics – Rabbi Shteinman was chosen with no elections, campaigning, or brash publicity antics. He became leader based on his deep humility, compassion, respect for God, and commitment to serve – with no thought to personal compensation or glorification. He served with no salary, no palatial office, no private jet, and no term of office – maintaining his position solely on the people’s trust.

When it came to Torah study, Rabbi Shteinman was a purist. He defined “yeshiva” as not simply a place for high-level Torah study, but as a safe haven free of forces antithetical to Torah. Particularly in the digital age, where negative influence is impervious to physical barriers, he believed that the best protection is unswerving commitment to Torah values.

Rabbi Shteinman was known as a moderate. He backed the idea of Nachal Charedi, providing a path for yeshiva students to serve in the Israeli army. For this Rabbi Shteinman took some heat, and for years courageously stood up to criticism. Rabbi Shteinman instituted a policy of “no child left behind,” starting schools for less-talented children, children of immigrants, and others at risk. And he increased Torah influence in Israel by approving the inclusion of a charedi minister in Israel’s cabinet.

Rabbi Shteinman was a role model for anyone trying to steer clear of the many trappings and pitfalls of a modern lifestyle. When Israeli Ambassador to Japan, Nissim Ben Shitrit, visited Rabbi Shteinman’s small and humble apartment, he astonishingly remarked: “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

On weekdays, his entire daily food intake was one cucumber, one boiled potato, and few spoons of oatmeal. Rabbi Shteinman had trained his body to desire food only for pure motives – to keep his body healthy – without a drop of hedonism. On Shabbat, he ate different foods in honor of the holy day. When he was offered delicacies as a guest, he obliged by eating half a grape.

Rabbi Shteinman typically sat on a word bench with no back. He used various techniques to stay awake for long hours and study. Over the years, many people offered to upgrade his accommodations, but Rabbi Shteinman always refused, insisting that he has precisely what he needs and no more.

Vayeshev Yakov: Achieving True Jewish Unity Through a Divine Division of Labor

An elaboration of the teachings of Rav Hirsch on the first two psukim of the parsha
By Yakov Lowinger

Rav Hirsch says of this week’s parsha that the overlooked feature of the original sinah and kinah — between Yosef and his brothers — was that they could have just simply focused on their connection to and service of Hashem, which carries with it a natural division of talents and labors and supersedes the formation of negative divisions. Instead, they obsessively focused on the superficial differences between them. The b’nai Leah thought they were superior and looked down upon the sons of the sh’fachos, instead of recognizing and appreciating the unique role that their half-brothers were to play. Yosef, a bit arrogant and caught up in his own beauty, would work with the bnai Leah during the day and spend time with the sons of the sh’fachos at night. Not quite a member of the first club, he basked in the superiority and adulation he felt in the presence of the second. He was not only “brotherless”, in the sense that he could not form a real connection with any of his brothers (Binyamin being too young at the time), but also “motherless”, growing up mostly without the love and attention of a mother figure unlike all of his older brothers. He develop in himself an extreme feeling of individuality and isolation, which was the cause of his attempts to win more of his father’s love by tattling on his brothers. The b’nai shfachos, on the other hand, perhaps feeling slighted and marginalized, turned inward and eventually joined the campaign against Yosef — better to be on the more powerful side than on the side of the privileged but troubled loner.

These descriptions in the Torah sound eerily like petty feuds, rivalries, and attempts at social exclusion that the world has seen untold times, and yet they are even still the primary cause of all our sufferings in exile. Just serve Me, Hashem says, and you will get along. You will develop an understanding of your own special duty to me, and cease to worry about the superficial differences over time. But they, as we, would not listen. Although we are the same, brilliantly diverse chunks of the infinite rained down into this world into more or less similar bodies and life challenges, yet instead of focusing on the differences that are real — the different levels and duties of our souls — we focus on the ones that hurt, fascinate, and occupy us on the superficial level, the exoticness of the slightly different-looking and differently quirked behavior, and so forth. How easily this obsession turns to hate and isolation, because these differences not only form no basis for a higher unity, but need to be maintained and reinforced through an ongoing effort.

The differences in our neshamos are just there, require no special maintenance, and our the basis for a beautiful coming together that the physical world can only serve as an expression of. But Yosef and his brothers occupied themselves in maintaining the differences between them, an activity which requires constant upping of the levels of jealousy and hatred just to keep those differences noticeable. Since these superficial differences are not really there, it is only through manipulation of emotions that they can be made noticeable — and this level of manipulation must be intensified over time or we would just grow numb to these supposed differences (c”v!). This effort to constantly point out surface differences and generate negative feelings about them only leads to disastrous events, from the selling of Yosef to the churban and on down the line.

It is only when the disastrous consequences of sinah and kinah are clear, do we attempt to return to each other, but this work of repairing exaggerated differences is far more difficult than the work of creating them in the first place. So the longer we are in galus, the opportunity to simply ignore our differences and serve Hashem alone, the opportunity for each of us to focus on our unique avodah in the Divine division of labor becomes more and more precious. The superficial differences among us have become so magnified over the generations that we almost can’t see past them to what really distinguishes us from one another — our neshamos and the avodah they impose on us. Only this recognition, 1) that the differences we see in the physical world are nothing in comparison to the differences in our neshamos, and 2) these superficial differences and the work that goes into maintaining them only serve to divide rather than unite, will lead us to…
3! An understanding that our neshamos were sent down here to be TRULY different from each other, uniting their special avodos to bring us to the ge’ulah, may it be soon. This will be the ultimate vayeshev Yakov, not in the sense of being settled but in the sense of shuv or teshuvah, all the sons of Yakov returning to Hashem and each other one triumphant last time.

Chanukah – Transcending Self-Centeredness

By Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

The Greeks centered their opposition to the Jews on three religious laws that one the surface of things couldn’t be less threatening to them or their way of life. Why would a Greek concern himself about someone else circumcising his son? If a neighbor likes having three rather lavish meals on Saturday after attending the synagogue why let it occupy space in your mind? The most puzzling was their antagonism towards consecrating the new moon, a religious ceremony that had no observable impact other than being the basis of the Jewish calendar. Can you imagine losing any sleep over when Ramadan comes out next year?

The underlying antagonism was caused by what these commandments represent. Circumcision is a statement. It tell you that you are not born perfect, that perfection has to be earned, and that the path towards perfection requires a certain degree of sacrifice, and a certain measure of authentic submission to a force higher than your own ego. Nothing could possibly be less Greek.

Shabbos takes us even further from the Greek vision of a human centered world. What we say by keeping Shabbos is that even our creativity and our ability to dominate nature and make it our own, is not the end of the story. The highest level from our point of view is taking all of our creative energy and saying, “let go. It’s time to step back and see what God, not I, created”. When you see things from that angle, it isn’t hard to see what was so offensive about defining time through ritual instead of through human observation.

What all of this tells you is that this is the time of year that you can decide once and for all that you can finally stop being a closet Hellenist. You body, your endeavors and your sense of reality can all go beyond the limitations of the little castle called “me” and explore a new planet, one called “transcendence”. You can be bigger than your ego and your assumptions.

Let the light of the candles that reflect eternal truth give you enough light to step into the next phase of your life, into a more holy and God aware future.

Alternate Trajectories – Part 4

Written By C. Sapir,

You can read part 1 here.
You can read part 2 here.
You can read part 3 here.

One day, Ben mentioned that he had taken a client out to eat, and I innocently asked where they had eaten.

“Don’t ask questions that you don’t want to know the answers to,” he advised me in a friendly tone.

From then on, I didn’t ask him where or what he had eaten outside the house. It wasn’t my business. What was my business was my own kitchen, and I knew I could trust him not to do anything that would treif up my kitchen. Ours is an honest relationship, and even after Ben’s commitment to Yiddishkeit eroded to the core, his commitment to me and our marriage remained steadfast. Since Shabbos, kashrus, and taharas hamishpachah were non-negotiable to me, Ben wouldn’t do anything to break my trust or sabotage my observance of those or any other mitzvos.

In recent years, I’ve been contacted by numerous women – both baalos teshuvah and frum-from-birth – who are heartbroken over their husbands’ spiritual deficiencies. Some are upset that their husbands aren’t going to minyan or aren’t learning three sedarim a day. While I wish, inwardly, that that would be all I have to deal with, I truly sympathize with their disappointment. Others are grappling with far more serious issues, like chillul Shabbos.

My advice to these women is usually to separate the marriage issues from the religious issues, and work on the marriage. When the relationship is loving and respectful, religious differences can usually be overcome. But when the relationship itself is troubled, then religious differences only exacerbate the existing chasm.

All the years, Ben and I had made a priority of spending quality time together and investing in our marriage. After we moved away from New York, our life took on a slower pace, and Ben and I had found time to play chess, cook fun things together, read the newspaper aloud to each other, and discuss politics, history, and current events. In doing so, we had strengthened our relationship to the point that it could withstand significant challenges, from the loss of a child to Ben’s gradual abandonment of frumkeit.

“How do you respect a husband who’s not frum?” a woman will occasionally ask me.

“You want to know how I do it?” I respond. “I look for the good in my husband. He’s a mentsch. He’s kind to me and to the children. He’s warm and caring to our friends and guests. He’s generous. He works hard to support the family. He works for clients and community members pro bono when they can’t afford to pay.”

“But what about bein adam l’Makom?” she’ll protest.

“Have you ever learned Tomer Devorah?” I tell her. “It’s a slim volume written by Rav Moshe Cordovero, the Ramak. He was a great kabbalist, and a disciple of Rav Yosef Karo, who wrote the Shulchan Aruch. Tomer Devorah explains Hashem’s 13 Middos Harachamim and describes how we humans, who are created in His image, can emulate these middos. For instance, Hashem is nosei avon – He carries us even in the midst of an aveirah – and we, too, can continue to ‘carry’ our loved ones even when they transgress.”

In keeping with the Tomer Devorah’s teachings, I’m not going to ruin my marriage by nagging Ben to work on his relationship with Hashem. Instead, I’m going to continue davening and try to be a shining example of someone who does have a relationship with Hashem.

Part of being that shining example is remembering that Hashem matched me with this husband, and trusting that He knows what He is doing. He could have matched me with any man on the planet, yet He chose this special person just for me. We may be on alternate spiritual trajectories, but each of us is exactly what the other needs.

Orginally published in Mishpacha Magazine August 25, 2017

The narrator of this story has formed a support group for observant women (BT or FFB) married to men who are no longer observant.

You can contact her at tomerdevora13@gmail.com

Alternate Trajectories – Part 3

Written By C. Sapir,

You can read part 1 here.
You can read part 2 here.

Ben and I hosted numerous Shabbos guests, many of whom were just discovering Yiddishkeit, and we helped shepherd these not-yet-religious people toward greater observance, even as Ben himself flagged religiously. When guests had questions at our Shabbos table, he would say, “Ask my wife!”

Much as I tried to get the kids interested in learning and Yiddishkeit, they sensed Ben’s ambivalence. The girls were less affected by that ambivalence, and grew into frum Bais Yaakov girls, but the boys showed more interest in sports and science than in Gemara.

As the children grew older, I worried about the ever-increasing materialistic standards of our in-town community, and I wished that Ben could be a more involved father and husband. Thinking that we might do better in a different environment, I consulted daas Torah for guidance.

The rav I spoke to advised that we move away from New York and the East Coast. I discussed the possibility with Ben, who agreed that it was a good idea to move, even though he had just made partner in his law firm. Although moving would mean giving up the prestige and income he had worked so hard to attain, he realized that the work schedule he was keeping was burning him out and stealing his children’s childhood from him. Later he told me that I was his “Sarah,” and just as Hashem had told Avraham “Shma bekolah – listen to her voice,” he had chosen to listen to the wisdom of why I felt we should move.

We looked at the map and considered communities that were big enough to boast Jewish infrastructure and small enough that our presence would make a difference.

The community we ended up choosing had several Orthodox shuls, but only one was in walking distance of our house. It was more yeshivish than Ben would have preferred, but he did feel welcome in the shul.

Sometime after we moved, we went on a family trip to a place in the mountains that had alpine slides. We took a ski lift to the top of the mountain, but as everyone else was getting onto the slides, I realized that the hat I was wearing would be blown off if I went down the slide. I would have to ride the ski lift down the mountain while everyone else had fun sliding.

Standing there on top of the mountain, it occurred to me that I was doing this purely for Hashem’s sake. My husband had told me many times that he thought it was ridiculous
for me to cover my hair.

I thought of the rebbetzin I was so envious of, surrounded as she was by talmidei chachamim. “Please, Hashem,” I begged, “all I want is to have a husband who learns and sons who learn. Why can’t I have that?”

Right then and there, Hashem gave me the answer. It’s because someone has to set an example of a woman whose connection to Yiddishkeit and Torah is not through a man. I don’t have a father, or a husband, or a son, or a brother who learns Torah. My connection to Hashem is about me.

Looking out at the mountains, I thought of all the Jewish women who have no man in their lives: widows, divorcees, older singles, women in lonely marriages. Someone has to stand up for these women and show them that they can have a rich spiritual life even without a man in their life to act as their spiritual conduit.

That idea became my lifeline. Holding onto it helped me to stop wishing so much for what couldn’t be, and instead embrace what was and explore who I could become with, and not despite, my husband.

Twelve years after we moved, our family suffered three losses in a span of one year. First, our married daughter had a stillbirth. Less than six months later, our teenage daughter was tragically taken from us. Then, just four months later, Ben’s mother passed away suddenly.

Ben and I were both grief-stricken by the losses, but his faith was shaken, while mine remained intact. Having bolstered my emunah by davening and learning Torah all the years, I knew that whatever Hashem does is best for me, no matter how unpleasant and painful it may feel. I also knew that the body is only a temporary garment for the neshamah, and that death is merely a separation, not an end. We all come into this world to die and go to Olam Haba, except that some people’s journeys through this world are longer and some peoples are shorter. So while the death of a loved one hurts dreadfully, I didn’t see any of our losses as reason to doubt Hashem’s existence, His goodness, or His love for me.

Ben did. At first, he was angry at Hashem. Then he started to question whether Hashem even existed.

I felt sorry for Ben that he couldn’t feel Hashem’s love and access the consolation that comes with knowing that everything Hashem does is for the good. We were both suffering tremendous grief, but my grief was so much less painful than his, because my emunah gave me a context for the pain.

For decades, I davened fervently that Ben should return to full Torah observance. My real hope was that that after his parents reached 120 and he would have to say Kaddish for them, he would get back into the habit of davening. I knew that despite his theological issues, he would say Kaddish faithfully.

And indeed, when his mother died, Ben was scrupulous about saying Kaddish. For years, he hadn’t been much of a shul-goer, and he had long since ceased davening three times a day, but during the year of aveilus, he made a point of davening every single tefillah with a minyan.

Ben wasn’t the only one in his family who was scrupulous about saying Kaddish. His sister Candice, who lived in Manhattan, said Kaddish every day, too. In her Open Orthodox congregation, that was just dandy. But when she came to visit us, things got sticky.

Ben tried explaining to Candice that this wasn’t how things were done in our community, but she would not hear of missing Kaddish. Out of respect for our shul, she dressed for Shabbos in her most modest outfit, and then went with my husband to Minchah and Maariv Friday night. She was alone in the women’s section.

The rav and congregation did not take kindly to Candice’s recitation of Kaddish, even from behind the mechitzah. The rav tried to stop her from saying it, and when she refused, he asked her to at least say it quietly.

“If you were mourning your mother, would you want to do it quietly?” she asked pointedly. And the next time the congregation got up to Kaddish, she said it aloud again.

To the astonishment of both Ben and Candice, the rav stopped the Kaddish in middle and skipped to the next part of davening.

Ben was horrified. “I’m done with shul,” he told me. “And I’m done with the frum community as well.” That was the last time he said Kaddish.

With that, my hopes for Ben to develop a deeper, richer connection to Hashem through davening regularly and saying Kaddish were dashed. But I wasn’t the only one who was saddened by Ben’s closing the door on shul and the community. He was, too.

“Do you think it’s easy to lose your emunah?” he asked me. “Do you think it doesn’t hurt to lose faith in everything you’ve believed in and wanted to believe in?”

There was nothing I could do or say that would repair the damage. From then on, I went to shul alone on Shabbos morning.

to be continue

Orginally published in Mishpacha Magazine August 25, 2017

The narrator of this story has formed a support group for observant women (BT or FFB) married to men who are no longer observant.

You can contact her at tomerdevora13@gmail.com

Utilizing The Power of Concentration

Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the Bilvavi and the Getting to Know Your (Self, Soul, Feelings, Home)
An excerpt from this article which is from the sefer: Getting to Know Your Feelings available from Amazon.

Utilizing The Power of Concentration

First, before we speak of solutions for those who are in deep emotional stress, we will speak of a general solution to deal with emotional problems. (Just like we know how to take care of our body, we need to learn how take care of our soul.)

We are speaking even of the emotions found in the animalistic layer of the soul. How can we have a healthy animalistic soul?

The best way to develop healthy emotions is to access the simple power of unity in the soul, which we can reach when we lead a life of concentration. In practical words– remain focused on what you are doing, and do not do two things at once.

When a person does many things at once, he gets in the habit of fracturing his focus. The soul then stops concentrating, and disconnects from the actions he is doing. The inevitable result will be scattered emotions. In the worst case scenario, if there is one emotion that is more extreme than all the other emotions, such a person can have an emotional breakdown.

This is the first part of the solution to emotional problems: Do one thing at a time. Don’t do two things at once. Prevent your thoughts from floating somewhere else while you are doing something. Concentrate on what you are doing.

This may explain why some people have a hard time concentrating during davening. It is possible to daven out of obligation and not feel anything. When we do something, and our feelings aren’t there, then our thoughts wander away from what we are doing. Davening is a spiritual manifestation of this problem, but it also exists for the non-spiritual: the tendency to “space out” when performing a task that is not of interest.

One can invite trouble when he isn’t focused. Doing one thing, while thinking about something else at the same time, can be a recipe for disaster. The soul gets used to the idea that you can do many things at once and that you don’t have to be thinking.

Our generation has more emotional problems than any other generation. In previous times, people were focused on what they were doing. Today, it’s perfectly normal and acceptable to be talking on two different phone lines at the same time. To the first caller, the person says, “One minute…one minute,” and then he talks to the next one on the other line. People who function this way from a very young age get used to doing two things at once. His mind becomes scattered, and the soul suffers from this.

Only a life of calmness and quiet can allow a person to focus on what he is doing. Even our animalistic soul can understand this. We see that when people want to do something they are interested in, they can focus very easily. The question is whether we can learn to focus all the time instead of in small increments.

Concentration Enhances The Quality of Life

The Chovos HaLevovos[16] writes: “Smaller, pure amounts are bigger than big amounts, and big amounts that aren’t pure are just as good as small amounts – they are useless.”

When people try to “save” time and maximize each moment, it appears to be an admirable trait, but in reality it is detrimental to emotional health. A person gets used to doing so much without ever focusing totally on any one thing. People are doing too much, and there is too much emphasis on quantity over quality.

When we get used to focusing on what we do, we will begin to internalize what we are doing. Instead of just “going through” life, we will be connected to what we do and experience all that we can in a meaningful way.

The more we concentrate on what we do – actions and thoughts together and unified – the more our animalistic layer in the soul gets used to truly experiencing what the body is doing, and we start to enjoy life! We will feel vitality from living and from the concentration that we are putting into it.

Concentrating on what we do leads to experiencing what we do. When we experience what we do, and are concentrating and focused, then all the various emotions become connected into one unit. This is the general beginning of building healthy emotions.