Taking the Next Step in Teshuva

By Micheal Sedley

Elul is upon us and collectively the Observant community is getting into Tshuva Mode.

Beyond BT poses an interesting question which I think applies to many people who are Ba’al Tshuva, or have moved in the level of observance over a period of years:

When I first became a BT, Teshuva was so easy. Over the course of 2 years, I was keeping Shabbos, Kosher, Davening regularly and performing all the seasonal mitzvos.

After 8 years it has become a lot harder to do Teshuva, even at this time of year. When I look over the last year, the changes are much smaller and were much more difficult to make.

Have other people experienced this change in Teshuva?

Are there a different set of tactics and goals at this later stage?

Is there anything special about the Teshuva of a BT at this point or am I now fighting the same battles that a FFB faces?

“Former Teshuva Master”

I think in a nutshell the problem is that the focus of one’s tshuva must change, and the new focus is often more difficult.

Many people going through a transition towards more observance have a list of things that they know deep down they should be doing but aren’t yet. This list may even be subconscious, but come Rosh Hashana time it’s relatively easy to find the item on the top of the list and commit oneself. If last year I didn’t daven, than this year I’ll start davening. If I’m already davening, maybe I’ll increase the Tfilllot I say each day, or attend minyan each day, or be more careful with kashrut, or Brachot, or some other easy-to-identify Halachic obligation.

This type of Tshuva is relatively easy, and it’s a wonderful feeling to look back over the past year and say “two years ago I ate traif, last year I stopped eating non-kosher meat, this year I’ll be 100% kosher”.

The problem is that eventually you find that you’re living a complete halachic lifestyle – there is nothing quick and easy on the top of the list. Sure you could improve your kavana during davenng or cut down on Bitul Zman or Lashon Harah, but these things are hard to quantify, they aren’t the sort of thing that you can put a check mark next to on your list. I think that this is one of the reasons that suddenly a “Former Teshuva Master” can find it very difficult to have a meaningful Elul.

To make matters even more difficult, this question is seldom addressed directly. In Yeshiva whenever there was a talk on Tshuva they always used a simple example like “lets say someone wants a cheeseburger and stops himself, that’s tshuva” – the problem is that most tshuva is not so easy to qualify, and besides I’ve never had a cheeseburger in my life, and don’t have a particular ta’ava for one, so the metaphor really doesn’t talk to me.

Anyway, the article from Beyond BT got me thinking, and I tried to put together a list of things that I really can work on. I probably wont achieve all of these improvements this Elul, it is possible that I wont achieve any of them, but at least if I have a list it’ll be a place to start on this year’s tshuva adventure.

These items are just off the top of my head, if you have suggestions, feel free to leave a comment. Bli Neder over the next 40 days (until Yom Kippur) I’ll review this list, maybe modify it, maybe just think about it, but hopefully this will help give me some direction to move in during Elul, and maybe – just maybe, after Yom Kippur I’ll have at least one measurable improvement in my life.

* I’ll make a conscious effort to appreciate my wife more, especially her non-stop effort to keep the household running smoothly. I’ll identify additional ways that I can help around the house and show additional support for my wife both physically and emotionally.

* I’ll make a conscious effort to spend more time with each of my kids. They all need time with their father on a daily basis and I’ll try to make sure that spending time with them is part of my daily or weekly routine. This could include learning Gemara with my oldest, or practicing reading with the girls (each at their own level), or maybe riding a bike or playing a board game with them – each of them.

* I’ll work on anger, especially with my kids. It is very easy to loose patience with your own kids, but I’ll try to never raise my voice to them and to treat them at least as well as I would the kids of a neighbor (I can’t imagine myself yelling at someone else’s kids).

* I’ll try to use all my time as constructively as possible. When I’m working I should be 100% at work, when I’m with the kids I should be 100% with the kids, when I’m in a shiur I should be 100% at the shiur.

* I’ll slow down with my Brachot, especially Birkat Hamazon. Does mumbling and skipping words in Birkat Hamazon really show my appreciation for the food that I just ate? Is it really so difficult to make sure that I say ALL of the words?

* I’ll try to start off my day by being ON TIME for shul – how difficult should it be to get to shul a few minutes before it starts to put on Tfillin, recite Korbanot, and maybe even look at Parsha Shavua?

Have a great Elul!

Originally posted in August 2008 here.

The Essence of the Month of Elul

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Elul

Elul – The Month of Maaseh\Action

With siyata d’shmaya, we are nearing the month of Elul, may it come upon us for good tidings. Let us try to understand a little, with the help of Hashem, the avodah upon us during these days, and hopefully we will each merit to also act upon these words, each on his own level.

Each month contains a special power that is connected to the particular time of the year that it is found in. The power of Elul is called maaseh, action. The power in man to “act” is especially manifest in Elul.

The Sages state (according to one opinion) that the world was created on the 25th of Elul. The Creation is called the “handiwork of Hashem”, His maaseh (action), thus the month of Elul is rooted in the original maaseh of Creation. Hashem revealed the power of His maaseh in Elul, so to speak; He “made” the heavens and the earth, which is all in terminology of “maaseh”.

When Elul arrives each year, the power of Hashem’s maaseh returns each year, as it were. Being that man has an avodah to resemble Hashem (as the Sages say, “Just as He is merciful, so should you be merciful; just as He is compassionate, so should you be compassionate”), there must also be a power of maaseh on man’s own level, in some small resemblance to Hashem’s power of maaseh. What exactly is that maaseh, though, that we must perform?

The Gemara says that “the purpose of Torah is teshuvah (repentance) and maasim tovim (good deeds).” The simple meaning of this is that these are two different things the Torah leads to: repenting, and good deeds. It seems as if these two matters bear no connection; simply speaking, if a person commits a bad deed, he must repent over it, and thereafter he must perform good deeds. But the depth of the matter is as follows.

When Hashem created the world, He made it over the course of six days. This was an utterly pure and holy action, but even more so, Hashem created it with His ten expressions; His dibbur (word). He said “Let there be light” and there was light. He told the heavens to be created, and they were created. All of Creation is thereby powered by His word. When people perform an action, we usually attribute it to ourselves, thinking that it is our hands which do things. Our hands are the symbol of human action. But the symbol of Hashem’s actions are His word, for it is His word which created each thing.

Elul are days of maaseh, but it is hard to understand how exactly these days are days of maaseh. The Tur says that Moshe Rabbeinu stood for 40 days to receive the Torah, and the first 30 days of this were in Elul. The 40th day was Yom Kippur. Where is the ‘action’ in these 30 days of receiving the Torah? Moshe stood there for 40 days to receive the Torah, but how was this “action”? In truth, however, it shows that Elul is both a time of action and a time of receiving Torah. It is just hard to understand how exactly it is a time of action. What we need to understand is that these days are of a different kind of action that the usual kind of “action” that we are familiar with.

This is a deep concept, so we will need to explain it very thoroughly.

Action\Building In Elul: Using Our Power of Speech In Selichos

The Gemara says that Torah scholars are called builders[1], for it is written, “And all your builders are those who learn [the Torah of] Hashem”. How is something built? The power to ‘build’ [in the spiritual dimension] is not like how we build physically, which is through our hands, but through speaking words of Torah. A Torah scholar spends his day speaking of Torah, and that is how he builds the world.

This power is also given to all of us as well: we can build and perform deeds, through our power of speech. Just as Hashem created the world through His word, so did He give us the power to build, through words.

Where do we see this kind of ‘building’ take place, though? In Elul and in the Ten Days of Repentance, we make heavy use of our power of speech. There is Selichos, where we repeatedly ask Hashem for mercy. This is surely connected with the fact that we must increase our good deeds during Elul; but we just need to understand what exactly the connection is.

The way we know the answer to this depends on knowing what our soul’s power of maaseh is. What does it really mean to ‘do’ something? In the spiritual dimension, how can we ‘do’ something? We can understand that our body ‘does’ something, but how does our soul “do” something? If we understand what it is, we can understand what the avodah of “maaseh” in in Elul, but if not, then perhaps we will be able to increase our good deeds in Elul, but we will not have succeeded in developing the soul’s power of maaseh.

Let us reflect into the soul’s power of maaseh. The body performs actions, and it is our words which execute actions. Man is called “nefesh chayah” (living spirit), and Targum translates this to mean “ruach memalelah”, a talking spirit; man’s power of speech is essentially his spiritual power to “do” things. Thus, our power of dibbur (speech) is the source of our power to perform deeds (maaseh).

To illustrate this [on a deeper level], a Torah scholar lives in the realm of Torah words. He is constantly accessing his spiritual power of maaseh. In contrast, someone who does not live in the realm of Torah is not making use of the spiritual power of maaseh; the only maaseh he performs are physical actions with his hands,

Being that dibbur (speech) is identified with man’s title of nefesh chayah (living spirit), dibbur\speech is the source of all our spiritual actions. In Elul where we use the power of dibbur a lot [through prayer and Selichos], we are thus involving ourselves in a dibbur that leads to maaseh; we are involved with a kind of dibbur that is all about maaseh. Soon we will explain what it is, but this is the outline of the concept.

Action Is About Completion

What exactly is the soul’s power of maaseh\action that is contained in the power of dibbur\speech?

The Gemara says that one should perform that which he says. Otherwise, he has not completed that which he spoke about. We can learn from here that an “action” implies the completion of something. [On a deeper level], the “world of action” we live in is the finalized and completed form of all the higher worlds which precede it. What we “do” here on this world is the last step of everything that emanates from the higher worlds; it all ends here. Hashem intentionally created an imperfect world – and it is “completed” in the world of action we live in. We were created imperfect, and it is our task to complete ourselves, here on this world, this world of action.

A person thinks, then he says what he is thinking, and then he acts upon what he says. The action is the final step of the thinking process; it is the final step of everything. So action is not just an action – it is the completed and final step of a process.

What is the soul’s power of maaseh, then? It is essentially the completion of the soul. Our body completes an action when it finishes “doing” some kind of labor or work, and our soul “does” something when it has completed its spiritual work on this world.

The Depth of Teshuvah: Uprooting The Reason To Sin

Let us try to understand a little more about the concept of maaseh.

Elul is the time where the world began (according to one opinion in the Sages, as mentioned earlier), but in the order of the months, it is the final month of the year. This shows the connection between Elul and maaseh: because Elul is the completion of the year. This is not because it is the ‘last month on the Jewish calendar’; it is the time of the year where our soul has finished its work for this past year.

Teshuvah (repentance) includes regret and confession, and the Ramban famously writes that Hashem knows what the person is really thinking as he does teshuvah, if he is earnest or not. The depth of his words is because teshuvah is about putting an end to the sinful action. If one continues to sin, his “action” continues, thus he has not reached completion. If one confesses the sin but he continues to sin, he has not yet ended his sinful action. He is missing his soul’s completion. But if he does teshuvah, that means he has put an end to the sinful action; he has reached completion.

Thus, the soul’s power of maaseh is to put an end to things; for one to place boundaries and limitations on himself that he will not cross.

Elul, the days of maaseh, are also days of teshuvah. The connection between these two facts lies in the understanding of the earlier-quoted statement of our Sages, “The purpose of Torah is teshuvah and good deeds”. It is because when we do proper teshuvah, we access the power of maaseh. The concept of teshuvah is thus connected to the soul’s power of maaseh, which is essentially the idea of putting and end to things, to place boundaries and limitations on any sinful acts which we were doing, so that the sinful actions won’t continue to spread any further.

There are some parts of the soul which do not need boundaries to be placed on them. The desire in our soul to learn Torah, to daven, and to do mitzvos are all holy desires, which should only be increased, not decreased. But there are parts to the soul which we need to place limitations on. That is the idea of teshuvah.

Teshuvah is about returning the soul after one has sinned, not just to stop sinning. In order to do teshuvah in which one will not return to the sin, it is not enough to do teshuvah over the act itself, but to do teshuvah over the reason that motivated the person to sin. Often we are used to doing teshuvah over the sinful act, but not over the reason that caused us to sin. For this reason, the teshuvah of many people does not last. The depth of teshuvah is to stop the particular aspect in the [external layer of the] soul that is being motivated to sin.

Whenever our Sages said their words, they were not speaking to our bodies. They were speaking to our souls. The language of the soul is different than the language that the body understands. Of course, our body is a factor; much of keeping Halachah affects our body, not just our souls. But teshuvah is about returning the soul, not just to stop sinning. When one sins, the action is no longer here, but the motivation to sin is still here. We aren’t supposed to do teshuvah just on the mere actions that we did; we are meant to do teshuvah on the motivations to sin, which remains on this world long after the sin is over. That is how we return our soul when we do teshuvah – and that is the depth of teshuvah.

To Feel Complete

Let’s attempt now to explain this in clearer terms. We will ask: Why does a person sin? What is the internal source in the person that causes a person to do the opposite of Hashem’s will, chas v’shalom?

In the blessing of Borei Nefashos, we say, “Borei Nefashos rabbos v’chesronam” –the Creator of many souls and their deficiencies.” A person sins when he feels deficient about something and he seeks to fill that deficiency. If he would feel filled, he would not seek to fill himself with anything from the outside, and he would never commit the sin.

Thus, we can now understand better how the depth of teshuvah is not merely about stopping to sin, but about uprooting the reason that caused the sin in the first place.

For example, if a person spoke lashon hora about someone, why did he speak lashon hora? He was jealous of him, or doesn’t like him. What is his teshuvah? To stop talking lashon hora about the person? Or to uproot his negative emotions towards him? The only reason why he spoke evil speech about the person was because he had an evil ‘eye’ towards the person. Every sin stems from some deficiency in the soul. That is where the main aspect of the teshuvah lies.

The main avodah of a person in doing teshuvah, besides for avoiding the sin, is to do “complete teshuvah” – to uproot the inner reason that caused one to sin. Incomplete teshuvah, by contrast, is to repent over the evil deed that was committed, without regretting the evil motivation that caused it. Teshuvah is therefore about returning the soul’s abilities to their pure source, after they had been used for evil.

For example, when a person steals 100 dollars, not only should he return the money; his teshuvah should be about regretting the desire he had to steal. If he would have been “happy with his lot” as the Sages teach, then he wouldn’t have come to steal. He only stole because he felt deficient about himself. Had he felt complete within himself, he never would have come to sin. The main part of the teshuvah is thus to return the soul from its deficient state into its original, complete state.

This is the meaning of “complete teshuvah” which we daven for in Shemoneh Esrei, and this is also the idea behind the soul’s power of maaseh.

Now we can understand better what the power of maaseh is. Maaseh is to feel complete and to feel that we lack for nothing; to feel complete within ourselves.

Of course, this is a power that needs to be used in its proper time and place. It does not mean that one should not have aspirations for holiness. If one learned a page of Gemara, he must certainly want to learn more pages of Gemara and he must not remain satisfied with the page of Gemara he learned. The power of maaseh, to feel complete, is only referring to being at peace from avoiding materialistic desires, not spiritual desires.

If a person is jealous of another person, if a person lusted after something, it was because he felt deficient about himself. The root of sin is always about some kind of deficiency the person felt. Thus the depth of teshuvah is to nullify the very desire for the sin, not just to regret the act of sin itself.

The days of Elul are called yemai ratzon, “days of will” – for it is the time to get in touch with our innermost will; to uproot the negative desires we have. This is what lays in the power of maaseh. When I don’t feel a necessity to pursue a desire, because I feel complete within myself, this is called maaseh – the “action” is complete.

The Deep Source of Teshuvah

This is a subtle and deep approach towards teshuvah. We all know we must do teshuvah, we all resolve to be better this year, but there is much more to teshuvah than this!

Chazal say that teshuvah was one of the things that existed already before Hashem created the world. Why was there a need for teshuvah if nothing was missing at that point from Creation and there was no possibility of sin? It is to show us that the level of “complete teshuvah” is only when one connects to his deep inner source which lacks nothing.

If we do not know this deep source of teshuvah, it is very hard to actually do teshuvah. We all know what teshuvah is, we all want to teshuvah, but if we do not understand the deep source that it comes from, we cannot really do teshuvah.

The Sages said (concerning physical action): “The eyes sees, the heart desires, and the actions complete.” Not only does the body complete and “do” action that begins in the eyes and the heart (this was said in the context of physical desire), but so does the soul contain the power to “do” actions that complete: by feeling complete within itself, with no need for anything else outside of it. In this way, a person will never feel deficient, and he will never come to sin.

On Rosh HaShanah, it is brought in Halacha that one must rejoice[2]. How can we rejoice on Rosh HaShanah, when Hashem is judging the world? It is because if one doesn’t rejoice on Rosh HaShanah, it is because he feels deficient. If he is incomplete, he cannot come to do real teshuvah.

So we must really know what teshuvah is about. Teshuvah is not only about regretting the sin and resolving not to sin again. The depth of teshuvah is to reach the deepest part of our soul, where we feel complete. When we feel that completion, we will find there that we have no desire to sin.

“One who is greater than his friend, has a greater yetzer hora than him.”[3] Why is this so? Compare this to a person who has a hundred dollars, who wants two hundred dollars. The more one has, the more he wants. But how indeed does one get rid of all his extraneous desires? By accessing the power of teshuvah that came before Creation. (In spirituality, we must aspire endlessly and always want more. But when it comes to materialistic desires, we must nullify all of these desires.)

That is complete teshuvah: to return to the deepest part of ourselves, where there are no desires. In that place in our soul we find the deeper power of teshuvah that has been around before Creation.

The teshuvah in Elul leads to Rosh HaShanah, the beginning of the year; thus the teshuvah in Elul leads to a new beginning. It is not simply leaving this past year and entering the new year. It is about reaching an entirely new beginning.

Elul are days of maaseh. It is not about simply doing more good deeds, although that is also true that we must increase our goods. It is about reaching the completion of our soul, where we feel complete inside ourselves, where we are so attached in closeness to Hashem that we feel the greatest sense of completion from this.

Elul is depicted as “Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li” (“I am to my Beloved, and my Beloved is to me”)– one who does not feel this in Elul cannot feel completion, and then he will be missing the true depth of teshuvah. But if one feels the meaning of “Dodi” (“my Beloved”) in Elul – that Hashem is our Beloved companion Who fills all of our life – this enables him to feel completion at this, and from that place in himself, he is spurred on to do “complete teshuvah”.

The Deep Source of Our Completion

Thus, we can now understand that “Torah scholars are called builders” in the sense that they build from a place of completion in themselves, not out of deficiency. They build the world through their words of Torah, and the Torah is complete; thus they are building the world from a complete source.

The more a person is attached in closeness with Hashem, he is connected to completion and perfection, and he lacks for nothing. It won’t be possible for him to sin, because there is no more reason that motivates him to sin. Of course, we are human and imperfect. But when one is close to Hashem, he receives a special spiritual light of completion, which makes him feel complete and doesn’t allow him to sin.

In the days of Elul and Yomim Noraim, we should know that these are not just days to increase Torah learning and to do more mitzvos, although that is certainly truthful to do; it is not the purpose. The purpose of these days is to enter the depth of this time, to enter the deepest part of our own souls, where our soul is connected to the reality of Hashem. It is a place in the soul which is attached to perfection, and when we connect to this place in our soul, we are connected to completion and perfection, and there is then no possibility of sin there, with the more we are connected to that place. It is there that we can do complete teshuvah.

In Conclusion

We ask Hashem in Shemoneh Esrei, “Return us, in complete repentance, before You.” To do teshuvah “before Hashem” is to do teshuvah and become closer to Hashem through it. If the teshuvah doesn’t bring one closer to Hashem from it, it is not “complete” teshuvah.

May the Creator merit us to reach this perfection in our souls and to connect ourselves to the reality of the Creator, and to do His will always, throughout every day of the year.

[1] Berachos 64a

[2] Tur: Orach Chaim 597:1

[3] Sukkah 52a

The Bilvavi’s Personal Teshuva Journey – From the Mind to the Heart

Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh and the Getting to Know Yourself, Getting Know Your Soul, Getting Know Your Emotions seforim has a free download available of Elul Talks here.

The Rav Speaks
We all know and believe that Torah and mitzvos are what life is all about, but do we really feel that these are what make our lives meaningful? Read Rabbi Shwartz’s personal account of how he searched and grappled with these issues, and how he came to feel these truths in his own heart. He promises that we can get the same results as he did.

Feeling Empty

I remember about 17 or 18 years ago I looked on the calendar and saw that it would be Rosh HaShanah soon.

Since the Yomim Noraim were approaching, I knew that I must feel something, but I didn’t know what to feel. I didn’t see anything in my life that is missing. I knew that I felt empty, but I didn’t know what it was that I was missing.

Why did I feel so empty? I learned all day; I had three full sedarim in the day where I learned. I davened and did all the mitzvos. So why did I feel empty inside?

I sat and thought: Am I missing something? Why do I feel empty if I am doing everything I am supposed to?

It bothered me very, very much.

I started to look at others to see if I could know how others are happy, and I saw that everyone else was happy except myself. Then I became very lonely, because I felt that everyone else was happy and enjoying their learning – everyone except me.

After many years, I met many people who felt what I felt then – people who feel like they’re empty inside and haven’t found themselves in life. There is no one here in Eretz Yisrael who hasn’t found themselves when it comes to mitzvos and Halacha. So what was missing in my life that I have to change myself?

I began to ask people if they felt like me. No one understood me – they were like Pharoah’s servants who couldn’t interpret his dream. No one gave me answers I was satisfied with.

This was one of the hardest times in my life – I can’t forget it. I had no idea what to do and where to go in my life. But I knew that I shouldn’t give up; I knew I’m not an old person at the end of his life, that I’m young and that I have hope.

I davened to Hashem to help me

After some time, I went to a private room and cried to Hashem. I asked Hashem, “Hashem, I know there is no more prophecy anymore, but what do You want from me? Tell me what You want from me!”

I cried terribly to Hashem. But I had faith that Hashem would send me my answers and show me what He wants from me in my life.

I hope no one goes through what I went through then. But if you ever went through this too, I want you to know that I was there too and went through it – and I came out of it.

After this, I remember that I made a list of all the things I was unhappy with my life, and I wrote how I feel like an old person who has no satisfaction in life. But I told myself not to give up, and I knew that Hashem will help me and show me what He wants from me. I didn’t know where my answer would come from, but I trusted in Hashem that He would send me the answer. How?

I knew it wouldn’t come from my mind. I knew that when Hashem opens up my heart, it will be then that I understand – to understand what the reality of this world is.

The Realization

I remember this clearly. I was sitting and learning with a sefer, and suddenly it hit me: I felt the reality that Hashem exists. Then, everything became clear to me.

I grew up in a frum home and learned in a good yeshivah, and I knew all about Emunah that a person is supposed to have. I was taught the 13 principles of faith of the Rambam about belief in G-d. But I realized that although I knew a lot, I didn’t feel what I knew.

Then I knew what I was missing.

This is what I realized: There is a place in one’s heart where he can feel the Endlessness of Hashem’s existence, and when a person doesn’t feel this, he feels empty. He will search and search and he will not find the answers to his emptiness.

Some people were not blessed by Hashem with much feeling, and this emptiness doesn’t bother them, the same way a table doesn’t feel anything. They get up and go to work or even if they go learn, they simply don’t feel this emptiness. They feel fine. But any person with a little feeling can see how this world is full of so much emptiness – tohu and vohu, and utter darkness. They want light – the light of Hashem – to illuminate their darkness.

The more feeling a person is, the more unhappy he is with what the reality is. XXX
There are a few people who are very deeply feeling people and they are in a lot of pain. They see others who are fine and look happy, and they don’t know why they themselves aren’t happy. These people suffer greatly inside. In addition to this, they are searching to fill their emptiness, and they don’t know how.

The more feeling a person is, the more unhappy he is with what the reality is. He sees others sitting and learning and enjoying their learning – he sees how by others, the Torah is their life. But he doesn’t feel in his own life how the Torah is life. He knows that it is supposed to give him life, but he doesn’t feel it. He feels that Torah doesn’t give him life, so maybe life is found elsewhere… such as the streets…

We must know one thing. The world is full of false pleasures; the Sages say that our soul will never be satisfied with this world’s pleasures, whether it is forbidden pleasure or whether it is permissible pleasure. Why? It is because our soul comes from Heaven; it wants something else.

The Root Of All Problems

At one point in my life, I realized what the root of all problems in the world is.

Baruch Hashem, people know most of the statements of Chazal, but they only know it intellectually – and that’s it. People know that Chazal say that the world stands on Torah, and that Hashem looked into the Torah and created the world, etc. But what is missing from us? We only know it – but we feel differently in our own life.

What we need to do is truly feel the truths about Torah and how it is everything, and then everything will change.

Falafel and Vacations

For many years, I thought about this until I finally came to this conclusion.

One time I passed by a falafel store and I saw a long line waiting out the store; a new kind of falafel came out, and everyone was waiting in line to try it. I thought to myself, “Maybe they’re right – maybe there really is something to this falafel? Maybe this falafel will make me happy?”

I waited on line, I bought it, I ate it – and I was very disappointed.

I began to think about what makes people feel more happy and alive.

I realized that some people feel a certain vitality from the honor they receive from other people, but I knew right away that that this was a false kind of vitality.

I saw people who were always going on vacations who seemed to really be enjoying it, though. I thought maybe there really is something special to all these vacations. I went on one of these vacations, but I was terribly disappointed. I rented a car, checked out into the hotel room, and as soon as I got into the room, I threw the keys onto the bed in frustration. I realized that while going to a hotel may have given me some more relaxation, it didn’t make me feel happier with my life.

It took many years for me to go deep into my soul and realize that I couldn’t be happy with my life based on anything external, but that it has to come from within myself. The more connected I felt to Torah and to Hashem, the more alive I felt. The more I would run after pleasure from the outside of myself, the more I realized I was chasing wind.

This is not a lecture. I am talking about a true story of my life – I am talking about my search, and what I found. Candies, cigarettes and walking on the beach can all give a person relaxation, and sometimes a person does need to relax in order to have some yishuv hadaas, but these things don’t give a person life. A person can only feel alive when he is truly connected to Hashem and the Torah.

More Frustration

It took me a lot of time to come to this conclusion.

One of the hardest times in my life I remember was when I learned in Yeshivah. I learned in Yeshivas Ponovezh, and I learned a lot. But I didn’t feel that my learning was giving me more life. I knew that the Torah is supposed to give me life, but I didn’t feel it. I thought that maybe I am the kind of student that the Sages say doesn’t see success in his learning. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to learn; I knew how to learn very well. I was regarded as an excellent student. But I didn’t feel like the Torah is what is giving me life, which is what I am supposed to feel.

I thought maybe I should leave yeshiva – I didn’t feel like I came onto the world to learn Torah. I knew that there are people who feel that they came onto this world to learn Torah, but I just didn’t feel that way.

I went to Jerusalem and decided that I will speak to one of the Gedolim who was there and ask him for his advice.

I went to his house, but he wasn’t available. I was very frustrated that I didn’t get into him, and I didn’t know what to do. I was very, very frustrated!

The Answer

At some point later, I realized what the answer was.

I thought to myself and realized clearly that if Hashem was the one who said that the Torah is our life – “Ki heim chayeinu” – then it must be so, and that I should never give up.

My Message To You

Don’t ever give up, even for one moment. Hashem is Avinu Av Harachaman – He is a merciful Father, and He wants you to have life. If you really want to find life in the Torah, you will find it.

If someone feels empty inside – or even if he doesn’t – he must know that he will not find anything pleasurable on this world; it’s all in his imagination that maybe there is something good out there other than the Torah.

Any pleasure on this world is fleeting and will not give a person enjoyment out of his life. If you really want to have a true life, cry to Hashem from the depths of your heart, “Open my heart to Your Torah” – not just that Hashem should open your mind, but to open your heart that you should have the true life – and then you will become a truly happy person, plain and simple.

I hope with all my heart that all of you should merit this and that Hashem should open up your hearts to realize that besides for a deep connection to Hashem and learning the Torah, there is nothing else we have that will give us enjoyment out of life.

Beat the Rosh Chodesh Elul Rush – Start Thinking About Teshuva Today

Rosh Chodesh Elul is coming which means that the Teshuva season is about to begin. If we want to have a successful Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur, seforim strongly advise us to start early in the month. It’s a tremendous opportunity for growth and we’d be foolish not to take advantage of it.

Most of the current day Rebbeim advise us to pick something small. Maybe saying Asher Yotzar with Kavanna, or pausing before we speak on occasion or perhaps starting an extra 10 minute seder in Mussar, Mishnah or Tanach. The sky is truly the limit, but we have to start reaching for it when Elul begins.

Being that our goal is to get closer to Hashem and we’re doing mitzvos to accomplish that goal, it might make sense to try to do the mitzvos with a little more Kavanna. There are three simple thoughts we can have before doing any mitzvah:

1) Hashem commanded us to do the mitzvah
2) We are the ones being commanded
3) And the specific mitzvah, whose commandment we are fullfilling is …. (whatever mitzvah you are doing)

It’s really pretty simple and it will help us get so much more mileage out of the mitzvos we already do.

Here’s a few resources for extra motivation:

Stepping Stones to Repentance: A thirty-day program based on Ohr Yisrael the classic writings of Rav Yisrael Salanter By: Rabbi Zvi Miller here’s an excerpt

DAY ONE: “BOUNDLESS BLESSINGS”
“There is no enterprise that yields profit like preparation for the Day of Atonement. Through studying Mussar and reflecting on how to improve one’s ways, a person is inspired on Yom Kippur to make resolutions for the future. Even the smallest, most minute preparation to enhance one’s Yom Kippur experience is invaluable, bringing boundless blessings of success. It saves one from many troubles — and there is no greater profit than this.” (Ohr Yisrael, Letter Seven, p. 193)

Rebbetzin Tzipora Heller – Three Steps to Genuine Change. An excerpt:

In the course of our lives, we close doors to higher and deeper selves and sometimes forget that we, too, are more than earners, spenders, and travelers through life. Our thoughtless enslavement to mindless routine can leave us without much of a relationship to our souls. In a materialistic society, it is all too easy to view others as competitors. As toddlers we observed that when you have three cookies and give one away, all you have left are two. From that point onward we are afraid to give.

R’ Dovid Schwartz zt”l- Rabbi Yonah of Gerona – Guilt is Good – mp3

R’ Daniel Stein – Hilchos Teshuva Introduction – mp3

R’ Moshe Schwerd – Din V’Cheshbon – mp3

R’ Yakov Haber on Rosh Hoshana and Hirhur Teshuva according to Rav Soloveitchik can be downloaded here.

R’ Yakov Haber on Rosh Hoshana davening can be downloaded here.

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.

The Dyslexia of Teshuvah

How could men as great as the tribes of Israel have committed the crime of selling a brother into slavery?
Why was it Yehudah who took the lead in saving Binyomin?
Why does Yehudah begin his soliloquy with the word “bi= please”; instead of the standard word for please “na“?

Yehudah walked up to Yoseph and said בי אדני“Please, your highness, (alternatively; it is within me, my Master) please let me say something to you personally…”

Bereishis 44:18

“Send the boy with me” said Yehudah to his father Yisrael …”I will be responsible for him myself.  You can demand him from my hand. If I do not bring him back and have him stand here in your presence I will have sinned to you for all time.”

Bereishis 43:8,9

I will have sinned against you for all time: For the world to come.  [from Bereishis Rabbah 91:10, in other words Yehudah staked his share in the world to come on Binyamin’s safe return to Yaakov]

Rashi ibid

When the Most High allocated nations their birthright and split up the sons of man, He set up the borders of nations to correspond to Israel’s descendants.

— Devarim 32:8

Yehudah said to his brothers “what gain is there in killing our brother [Yoseph] … let’s sell him to the Arabs … “

Bereishis 37:26,27

 If one person kidnaps and sells another and [the victim] is seen in his hand then [the kidnapper] shall be put to death

Shemos 21:16

… Rabi Yochanan said in the name of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai: Dovid was not the kind of man to do such an act [the sin with Bas-Sheva] nor was Israel the kind of nation to do such an act that act [the sin of the golden calf] … Why, then, did they commit these acts? [G-d predestined it so] in order to teach us that if an individual sinned [and hesitates about the possibility and efficacy of repentance] he could be referred to the individual [Dovid], and if a community commits a sin they should be told: Go to the community [the generation of the Exodus] … This accords with the following saying of Rabi Shmuel bar Nachmani, who said in the name of Rabi Yonoson: What is the meaning of the verse “So said Dovid the son of Yishai, and so said  the man raised on high”? [It means this:] “So said Dovid the son of Yishai, the man who elevated the yoke of repentance.”

— Avodah Zarah 4B-5A

“Return to Me, and I will return to you,” says HaShem of the legions. But you say: “How can we return?!”

— Malachi 3:7

Parashas Vayigash begins with Yehudah’s soliloquy in his dramatic and historic encounter with Yoseph. The encounter was dramatic because Yehudah was “all-in”; he was risking everything; both his freedom during the balance of his temporal life as well as his eternity. It was historic because, as it culminated in Yoseph’s revelation to, and rapprochement with, the rest of his brothers, it meant that the rip in the fabric of Bnei Yisrael-the children of Israel; had been repaired and made whole again.

The cosmic significance of the shivtei Kah-the branches/ tribes of G-d; cannot be overestimated. As we see clearly from the passuk that states that all of humanity’s borders and birthrights were merely intended to correspond to Israel’s descendants,  the shivtei Kah were kivyachol-so to speak; G-d’s objective in Creation. So while human nature is to forget the unpleasant details in “alls-well-that-ends-well” narratives, it is still extremely troubling to consider that the first chapter of this story began with what was apparently a heinous crime; a sin that is covered by the commandment of “Thou shall not steal” in the Decalogue and that is a capital offense. How could the shivtei Kah the — founders of our holy nation — still be venerated as holy, exalted souls after committing such a cardinal sin?

Rav Leibeleh Eiger approaches this nettlesome question using the precedent set by the Gemara-Talmud; in Masechaes Avodah Zarah.  At times when we see the righteous acting sinfully — completely out of character, we understand that the point of their behavior was not the kilkul-spiritual ruination; of the sin but the tikun-metaphysical repair; brought about by their teshuvah-repentance; for that sin. The powerful teshuvah that these spiritual giants accomplished serve as templates — how-to guides — and provide inspiration for latter-day sinners who would love nothing more than to do teshuvah themselves but find the task too complex, daunting or discouraging.

Rav Leibeleh asserts that Yehudah is the father of sinning for the sake of instructing others on the fine points of teshuvah. Yehudah took a leading role in the sale of Yoseph into slavery i.e. the sin; so that he, among all of the brothers, would be the one to blaze the trail for the teshuvah / tikun for that odious crime as well. The entire point of the episode was to open a new avenue for teshuvah and a closer reading of his astonishing encounter with Yoseph yields a valuable lesson in the dynamics of teshuvah.

After approaching Yoseph for their historic encounter the very first words that Yehudah uttered were בי אדניbi adoni. Translated in a hyper-literal way these words mean “it is within me my Master.” The roshei teivos-first letters of the words; in this phrase are beis and aleph; an inverted sequence of the first two letters of the aleph-beis-alphabet and therein lies an allusion to the teshuvah dynamic.

Read more The Dyslexia of Teshuvah

Don’t Just Bless … Reverse the Curse

Why didn’t Avraham bless Yitzchak?
Why was Yitzchak unaware of whom he was actually blessing?
Neither Yaakov nor Moshe required savory dishes before offering their respective blessings.Why did Yitzchak require a savory dish before blessing his son?

Yitzchak, who dined on Esavs game, loved him while Rivkah loved Yaakov.

— Bereishis 25:28

And it was as Yitzchak aged and his eyes grew too weak to see that he summoned his older son Esav and said “My son” and he [Esav] responded “I am here.” … “go out in the field and trap me some game and make me a flavorful dish the way I love it and bring it to me to eat, so that my soul will bless you before I die.”

— Bereishis 27:1,3-4

And Elokim said “the earth should issue forth flora; seedbearing grasses and trees that are fruits that produce seed infused fruits along species lines upon the earth.” and it (almost) happened. The earth issued forth flora, plants bearing their seedbearing own species and trees [that are wooden] producing seed infused fruits …

— Bereishis 1:11-12

and trees that are fruits [The Divine Creative Will was] that the taste of the tree should be identical to the taste of the fruit. However, it [the earth was insubordinate and] did not do so but “the earth issued … trees [that are wooden] producing seed infused fruits,” but the trees themselves were not fruit. Therefore, when man was cursed because of his Original Sin, it [the earth] too was punished for its sin (and was cursed.)

— Rashi Ibid from Bereishis Rabbah 5:9

HaShem Elokim said to Adam “Because you hearkened to your wife’s voice and ate of the Tree regarding which I specifically commanded you ‘Do not eat from it’ the earth will be cursed on account of you. All the days of your life you will eat of it [the earth’s produce] with sorrow. It will sprout thorns and thistles for you … “

— Bereishis 3:17,18

HaShem Elokim commanded the man saying:  “Eat from all the trees of the garden. And from the Tree of Knowledge /Union of Good and Evil do not eat from it. For on the day that you it from it you will definitely die.”

— Bereishis 2:16,17

The woman saw that the Tree was good to eat, desirable to the eyes and attractive as a means to gain intelligence.  She took from its fruits and ate and also gave some to her husband with her — and he ate.

— Bereishis 3:6

… but you shall not sever it; for man is a tree of the field

— Devarim 20:19

The Biskovitzer poses several pointed questions about the brachos-blessings; that Yitzchak bestowed on Yaakov, while under the impression that he was Esav:

Why, in fact, did Yitzchak deliver his brachos erroneously and unconsciously? Why was Yaakov’s worthiness for benediction concealed from Yitzchak, the conduit of blessing? Even with his physical vision impairment and the willful blindness caused by his love for his eldest son, as a prophet, Yitzchak could easily have been informed by HaShem that Yaakov is the son deserving of blessing.

We find two other great figures in TeNaK”h who bestowed brachos; Yaakov — first on his grandchildren Ephraim and Menashe — and then later, on his deathbed, on his sons. Immediately preceding his death Moshe blessed the Tribes of Israel as well. Yet neither Yaakov nor Moshe requested mataamim-a flavorful dish; in order to elicit their brachos; so why did Yitzchok?

In order to appreciate the Biskovitzer’s approach to resolving these questions we must first examine how some of the great Torah thinkers understood the roots of blessing and curse.

The Original Sin of the first human beings was not merely the first in a long unbroken chain of transgression on the part of humanity; it was qualitatively different from almost all subsequent sins.   The magihah-writer of the annotations; in Nefesh haChaim explains that while the original humans were endowed with bechirah chofshis-free will; there was still a paradigm-shifting difference between their bechirah chofshis and ours.

While our yetzer hara-inclination to evil; is internal and presumes to be, at minimum, a component of our essential identities, the yetzer hara of Adam and Chavah was extrinsic to their beings and distilled, clarified, unadulterated evil. Our yetzer hara’s “pitch” to us is: “here’s what I want to do.”  Whereas the nachash hakadmoni-the primordial snake; said “here’s what I think you ought to do.” The nachash hakadmonis powers of seduction and persuasion were delivered in the second person.  Like a presidential candidate from the opposition party trying to unseat the Incumbent kivyachol-as it were; the nachash hakadmonis exhorted Adam and Chavah to vote for the yetzer and against the Yotzer-the Creator; yet the “voters” never conflated the identity of the opposition candidate with their own.  When they exercised their bechirah chofshis to sin they understood that they were submitting to the will of the nachash hakadmoni — not acting on their own initiative.

However, as the Original Sin was the ingestion of the fruits of the Tree of Union of Good and Evil the first humans incorporated evil into their very beings.  It is not merely that the Original Sin was qualitatively different from all subsequent sins; it was that, by its very nature, it effected that transformation. Man became what he ate, a tangled amalgam of good and evil. For the remainder of their lives Adam and Chavah, and all subsequent generations of human beings (until our patriarchs blazed the trail and the nation of Israel stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai) have been conflicted and ambivalent. Even when humans use, rather than abuse, their bechirah chofshis by choosing to do good and shunning evil they are often convinced that they have gone against their own desires. Once internalized, the yetzer hara becomes as inextricably linked with all human thought, speech and deed as a conjoined twin.

Rav Chaim Volozhiner taught that the meaning of the passuk (Koheles 7:20) “For there is not a righteous man on earth, that does good, and doesn’t sin,” is that even the greatest of tzaddikim-righteous people; do good with “something lacking.”  There good is not clarified, distilled unadulterated good. It may be miniscule, but on some deeply concealed subconscious level there is an admixture of self-interest — of a tad less than lishmah-for its own sake; — in even the noblest persons Torah learning and mitzvah performance.

Conversely, Rav Chaim and some other thinkers have argued that there is no evil perpetrated by even the wickedest people that does not incorporate some tiny smidgen of goodness. This is the meaning of the passuk (Iyov 7:20) “If there will be even one angel among a thousand, an advocate, to vouch for a man’s uprightness.” The better angels of our nature may be testifying to a 1 tenth of one percent amount of noble intentions against 99.9% of evil drives and motivations, nonetheless, it is there.

As man is a microcosm, or more accurately as the cosmos is a macro-man, the Original Sin brought about a merging and mixture of good and evil on a cosmic level. An overt manifestation of this effect on the cosmos are the presence of weeds, thorns and thistles growing in the same fields that grow the good, delicious and nourishing produce. The earth cursed through the Original Sin brings forth a jumble of good/nutritious and evil/noxious.

The Biskovitzers approach is predicated on the concept that, after the Original Sin, merely choosing good and rejecting evil is insufficient.  To effect a genuine tikun-repair; of the Original Sin birurim-sifting and selections; must take place. The hodgepodge of good and evil in both the microcosm and the macrocosm must be untangled and clarified. Until and unless evil is distilled and expunged from the muddled fusion, man and the cosmos will not have been rectified. It is not enough to bestow blessing on man still conflicted and ambivalent and on an earth still cursed and pregnant with the thorns and thistles of evil.

When Chavah was first tempted to commit the Original Sin she made three observations: that the Tree was “good to eat, desirable to the eyes and attractive as a means to gain intelligence.”   The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 65:13) says that while Chavah yearned for gratification of the palate, visual stimulation and intellectual satisfaction, Yitzchak declared that he would derive pleasure from taste alone. As he commanded his son “make me a flavorful dish the way I love it and bring it to me to eat.” Yitzchak was blind and he was ignorant i.e. he lacked knowledge of the factual events surrounding his bestowing of blessing. The Biskovitzer asserts that eliminating the elements of attractiveness to the eyes and the mind that initiated the Original Sin was indispensable to the tikun process.

It is striking and noteworthy that while the Divine Creative Will was that trees and their fruits should share an identical flavor, there was never an expression of the Divine Creative Will that trees and their fruits should share the same qualities of visual attractiveness or extend the same benefit to cognition. Yitzchaks blindness and ignorance of the facts removed two of the three factors of Original Sin. This cut things to the chase by leaving only the element that had been corrupted and broken even before the creation of the human beings; the dissonance in flavor between tree and fruit, between producer and product.

Paradoxically the earth’s anticipatory, pre-Original Sin contained within it the seeds of tikun at the very moment of kilkul-deficiency and ruination; for the Tikunei Zohar (99B) reveals that the Tree of Knowledge itself was entirely good. It was only in the fruits of this tree in which good and evil merged together. The Tree was created as clarified, 100% pure good while its fruits required birurim.  While Adam became what he ate, the Biskovitzer understood the Midrash to be teaching us that Yitzchak became what Adam had never ingested or tasted; the Tree itself. Yitzchak, the bark of the Tree of Knowledge itself, avoided the ill effects of the bite of its fruit. But like the Tree of Knowledge itself, Yitzchak the man-tree bore fruits of good and evil united in utero. These human fruits of the Tree of Union of Good and Evil required birurim.

The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 61:6) teaches that Avraham abstained from from blessing Yitzchak because, as both evil Esav and good Yaakov existed within him in potentia, blessing him would have been comparable to cultivating a “tree of life attached to a tree of lethal poison.” Now, in Yitzchak’s advanced age, maintains the Biskovitzer, the time had come for the tikun of the Original Sin by threshing away evil from good and bestowing blessing exclusively on distilled goodness and life. As the Zohar (Volume I, 143A ) reveals, when Yaakov received the blessings the earth finally emerged from its curse. The blessed Yaakov manifests man restored to his pre-Sin state. As death is the wage of Original Sin this is why, per our sages (Taanis 5B) our patriarch Yaakov never died.  Adam is rectified and restored through Yaakov and — as teshuvah and tikun always reach back into the past and modify it — we now have, as the Izhbitzer taught, an alternate narrative and a new reading of HaShem’s command to Adam:  “HaShem Elokim commanded the man saying:  ‘Eat from all the trees of the garden and [also eat] from the Tree of Knowledge of Good … (And) [But] Evil do not eat from it.’”  Yaakov is that clarified-by-birurim soul of man that reveals retroactively that Adam was nourished exclusively by the good of the Tree.

Only those who are purely good, with no admixture of even the slightest trace of evil, can be safely and truly blessed. To do otherwise is to irrigate and fertilize a field of weeds, thorns and thistles. This is why Yitzchak bestowed a blessing while Avraham did not. When Yitzchak tasted the savory dish that Yaakov and Rivkah had prepared for him he discovered his own fruit with no difference in flavors, the taste of the bark and the taste of the fruit were identical. Yitzchak, needed to be blind to, and ignorant of, the fruit of evil and to discern the uniformity of flavors, and the blessing worthiness of his “fruit” only through his palate.  This is one of the meanings of the gemara (Taanis 8B) that teaches that “blessing is not to be found other than in a thing hidden from sight.”

~adapted from Mei Hashiloach Bereishis D”H Vayetzav
Neos Deshe Toldos
D”H Vayehi
Nefesh HaChaim 1:6 in
the Hagahah

Keep the Change

As the Neilah service on Yom Kippur reaches its crescendo, the congregation cries out in unison: “Hashem Hu HaElokim” (Hashem is G-d) seven times. We can probably still hear this cry echoing in our minds. At that precious moment, we have reached the peak of the spiritual heights we have been climbing since the beginning of Elul.

“Hashem Hu HaElokim” finds its source in the tanakh, Melachim I 18:39. At that point in history, it had already been three long years since Eliyahu had imposed a drought in order to: 1. prove to King Achav that Hashem grants great power to his Prophets; and 2. inspire the Jewish Nation to teshuvah. King Achav and Ovadiah HaNavi then separate in order to search for fertile land. While traveling, Ovadiah “happens upon” Eliyahu HaNavi who convinces Ovadiah to arrange for a meeting between Eliyahu and King Achav. At this meeting, Eliyahu proposes a contest between himself and the 450 prophets of Ba’al to be held on Mt. Carmel. A “Battle of the Prophets”, if you will. King Achav accepts the challenge and sends for the prophets of Ba’al.

After the nation congregates on Mt. Carmel, Eliyahu reproves them, asking “How long will you stand on both sides of the threshold? If Hashem is G-d, follow Him! And if Ba’al is god, follow him.” The People could not answer. Sometimes the truth hits that hard.

Eliyahu then set down the contest rules: Both he and the prophets of Ba’al would be given a bull to sacrifice. Each was to slaughter the bull, cut it into pieces and place them on top of firewood on their respective altar. But they were not to kindle the firewood! The prophets of Ba’al were to call upon their god to send down fire, and Eliyahu was to call upon Hashem to send down fire. The One who would send down fire would be recognized as the true G-d, and the other as a falsehood. Both the People and the prophets of Ba’al agreed to this trial.

Eliyahu encouraged the prophets of Ba’al to go first and they took one of the bulls, slaughtered it and prepared it for sacrifice on their altar. They then called upon Ba’al all morning, hopping and dancing and cutting themselves till they bled, as was their manner of worship. But there was neither a sound nor any other response from heaven! As time went on, Eliyahu began mocking the priests of Ba’al, saying “Call louder, maybe your god is with his advisors, or maybe he is at war with an enemy; maybe he is asleep”. (Rashi states that Eliyahu even said “maybe your god is relieving himself”.) The prophets of Ba’al increased their efforts and continued to call upon Ba’al until the time of Minchah. Still, not a murmur, not a sound, not a sign from the heavens.

Then Eliyahu HaNavi cried out to the People, “Come near to me,” and they came near. He took twelve stones and he made a trench around the altar. He put the wood in place and cut the bull into pieces and placed them on the altar. Eliyahu commanded the People “Fill four jars with water, and pour it on the offering and on the wood.” Then he said, “Do it a second time.” Then he said “Do it a third time.” Eliyahu himself then filled the trench surrounding the altar with water as well.

Eliyahu drew close to the altar and prayed, “O L-rd, G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yisrael, make it known today that You are the G-d of Israel, and that I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your command. Answer my prayer, O L-rd, answer my prayer that this People may know that You, O L-rd, are G-d and that just as You allowed them to slip backwards from You – if they repent, You will also bring them closer to You.” At that moment, the fire of Hashem fell from Heaven and consumed the offering, and the wood, and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that Eliyahu had poured in the trench. Amazing!! The people had no means of response other than to spontaneously proclaim “Hashem Hu HaElokim, Hashem Hu HaElokim, Hashem is G-d! Hashem is G-d!” There was no question. Afterwards, Eliyahu had all of the prophets of Ba’al killed.

When word got back to Queen Izabel, the wife of King Achav and a fervent idol worshipper herself, she sent a message to Eliyahu HaNavi: “At this Time tomorrow, I will make your soul like their souls.” In other words, just as you killed the prophets of Ba’al, I will kill you. Queen Izabel was incensed, she was roused to the level of cold blooded murder. Why then did she say “At this time tomorrow”? Why not now? Does the schoolyard bully say “You’re in trouble now, meet me at the flagpole next month”? Why did Izabel, in all of her red-blooded passion, in the throes of vengeance, say “I’ll get you tomorrow”. The simple answer is that all of the People had witnessed the miraculous workings of Hashem and Eliyahu earlier that day. Queen Izabel would be unable to muster even a single mercenary at the highest of prices, to carry out her murderous intent. But tomorrow, ah tomorrow, after going back to their workaday lives, they’ll all begin to forget already. Then, Queen Izabel will be able to find men to oppose Eliyahu.

Unbelievable? Not really. In the inimitable words of Nasan HaNavi to David HaMelekh, “You are that Man”. You and me both. We walk out of Yom Kippur motivated, with resolve, “I’m going to change.” “I’m going to be better.” “I’m going to be great.” “I’m going to be a Tzadik!” “This is gonna be the year I turn it all around.” “Hashem Hu HaElokim” resounds through the canyons of our minds. But the next day, the very next day, when we return to our everyday lives, we begin forgetting. When we go back to our jobs, to the traffic, to the lack of sleep, to the financial worries and day-to-day troubles. Our resolve weakens, we are already on our way back to where we were.

How do we avoid falling into this repetitive cycle? Sure, we’ve changed but how do we keep the change. The torah in Parshas Va’eira says “And G-d spoke to Moshe and Aharon and commanded them regarding the Children of Israel and regarding Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to take the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt” The Talmud Yerushalmi in tractate Rosh Hashana infers from this pasuk that while still in Egypt, G-d commanded Moshe to inform the Jewish people of the Mitzvah of Freeing Slaves. When the pasuk tells us that Moshe and Aharon were to command the Children of Israel, it means that they would be delivering a command for the future: when they live in the land of Israel, and they have Jewish slaves, they should send them out to freedom after 6 years.

Why did Hashem deem this to be an appropriate time to tell the bnei yisrael about ‘shiluach avadim’- freeing slaves when they wouldn’t even be in a position to fulfill the commandment for more than fifty years. Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, zt”l, answers that, in actuality, there was no more appropriate time to tell them about ‘shiluach avadim’ than that very moment. When they are slaves, they know the burden of servitude; they know what its like to have a master. Presumably, it’s not an easy thing to send away a slave. After one has had an unpaid worker who has toiled exclusively for him for six years, it is not easy to let him go. If G-d would have given Bnei Yisrael this mitzvah later on, when the Jewish people already had their own slaves, they would have heard it in an entirely different way. Now is the time to tell them about sending away poor slaves. Now it will make an impression. Now it will be meaningful.

Rav Shmulevitz points out that a person needs to hear something at the precise time when he will be most receptive to it. One has to “seize that moment” of opportunity before it eviscerates.

The Gemara in Sanhedrin praises Palti Ben Layish as exceeding even Yosef HaTzaddik in Yosef’s ability to stave off the advances of Potiphar’s wife. What did Palti ben Layish do to deserve such praise? The Talmud relates that Shaul HaMelekh had a daughter who was married to David, but Shaul argued, erroneously, that based on a technicality she was not married to David and, legally, had no husband. Shaul took this daughter and gave her as a wife to Palti ben Layish.

Palti ben Layish was faced with a dilemma of epic proportions: He could not refuse the King; he had to take his daughter as a wife. Yet, he knew very well that this was a married woman. There he was in the bedroom, on his wedding night, with a married woman. What did he do in order to ensure that he would succeed in withstanding temptation? He took a sword and stuck it in the ground and said “Anyone who ‘occupies himself with this matter’ will be stabbed by this sword.” The Gemara goes on to say that because of this tremendous act, Palti Ben Layish merited the assistance of Heaven and was able to live with the King’s daughter for many years and never so much as touch her.

What was so incredible about the act of sticking the sword into the ground? Why did he merit this unbelievable “siyata d’ishmaya”. The answer is that on that first night, Palti ben Layish clearly knew what was right and what was wrong. On that first night, he had his priorities straight. On that first night, it was crystal clear. He knew that she was a married woman and that it was forbidden to touch her. But, he also knew himself and he knew the human condition. He knew that when “Izabel’s tomorrow” came and as the days and the months and the years passed, his feelings would dissipate, his clarity would become murky. He would come up with an excuse, he would become weak, and he would rationalize. Therefore, he said to himself, “I need a reminder; I have to seize this moment of absolute clarity and take a concrete step that will remind me of the time when I knew what is right and wrong in this situation.” There are moments when one does not rationalize, when one can clearly see the truth. Those are the moments to seize as our permanent reminders.

This, says the Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva, is something that we all can and must do. There are many occasions when we will be put into situations where in the beginning we will know what’s right and what’s wrong. We know “Hashem, Hu HaElokim”. We know we can be better. We know we can change. We know we can be great. But, later on, there will be reasons– financial reasons, professional reasons, practical reasons and a whole library of rationalizations. How will we know what is right and what is wrong? We have to seize the moment. We have to stick that sword in the ground and say to ourselves “I know what’s right and what’s wrong, and I’m not going to let that change and become unclear!”

That is the lesson of Palti ben Layish. We have to grab the opportunity so that when the time comes, when we have temptations and questions, we will always be able to look back and say “We knew it was right then — and we know it is right now!”

Succos comes quickly on the heels of Yom Kippur. Hashem himself provides us with a reminder. Look around you, Hashem Hu HaElokim! For those of us who have not already “Seized the Moment”, it is beginning to wane. “Izabel’s tomorrow” is creeping in. Pretty soon we’ll all be back at work. It is time to plant our swords. Peg an area of growth to some part of the day that will serve as a reminder. I won’t eat dinner before I learn one page of mussar. I won’t go to bed before I say one kapitel tehillim for sick people. I won’t eat lunch before I call my parents. I won’t take off my tefillin before I learn one mishnah. Plant your sword today so that tomorrow you will still remember, with perfect clarity “Hashem Hu Ha Elokim.”

Originally Published 10/10/2008

Beyond Beinoni

What’s so bad about being a Beinoni, at least I’m not a Rasha? What’s wrong with some Steak, Scotch, and Sushi as long as I daven, learn, and do chesed? America is the home of Lifestyle Judaism, where we can have our cake and Torah too – so why rock the boat? The short answer is that our purpose in this world is to develop a constant connection to Hashem and to unite all our actions, and in fact the entire world, in line with that connection. If our Torah observance is not resulting in continually improving connection, then we need to introspect.

The Rambam states (Hilchos Teshuva 3.3) that the Beinoni needs to do Teshuva – we need to change. Since lasting change needs to be done over time, we don’t have to give up all our permitted creature comforts. What we do need to do is work on our Avodas Hashem, so we can begin the process of uniting our actions in line with our connection to Hashem.

The Ramchal in Mesillas Yesharim gives us an extremely practical path of improving our Avodas Hashem and it starts with focusing more regularly on our purpose in life. The Ramchal explains that the essence of our existence is fulfilling mitzvos, serving God and withstanding trials, and worldly pleasures are only means to provide us contentment in order to free our heart for service of God. So we don’t have to give up our pleasures, we just need to bring them in line with our purpose.

We have until Hoshana Rabba to show that we are seriously committed to improving our Torah, Tefillah, Mitzvos and Gemillas Chasadim. May we all find success in demonstrating our committment and thereby merit being sealed in the Book of Life.

Yom Kippur – Disconnecting from Sin

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of other Drashos on Yom Kippur

A Day of Soul With No Body

It is written, “For on this day you shall be forgiven and be purified.” Yom Kippur is the time of purity, in which Hashem purifies the Jewish people. The words of Rabbi Akiva are well-known: “Praiseworthy are the Jewish people – before Whom are they purified, and Who purifies them? Just as a mikveh purifies those who are impure, so does Hashem purify the Jewish people.”

Let us think of how our purification process is compared to that of a mikveh. In the sefarim hakedoshim, it is brought that one should immerse in a cold mikveh, because the words “mayim karim” (cold water) has the same gematria (numerical value in Hebrew letters) as the word “meis” – “corpse.” In other words, when a person immerses in a cold mikveh, he is considered to be like a dead person.

What is the gain in being considered like a dead person? Hashem doesn’t want us to die – He wants us to live. A dead person cannot serve Him and do mitzvos. So what is the gain in being considered like “dead” when one goes to a cold mikveh?

There are many meanings behind this concept, but we will focus on just one point, with the help of Hashem.

What, indeed, is death? When a person dies, does he stop existing? We all know: of course not. We are made up of a body and a soul; by death, the soul leaves the body, the body is buried and the soul rises to Heaven. So the whole concept of death is that the soul leaves the body.

If we think about it, this is what Yom Kippur is all about. We have a mitzvah on this day to fast, and our body is denied certain pleasures. We have to be like angels on this day – souls without a body. Only our body suffers from this, though – not our soul. The soul actually receives greater vitality on Yom Kippur (as the Arizal writes). Normally, we need to eat and drink physically in order to be alive, but on Yom Kippur, we receive vitality from above, and thus we do not need physical food or drink.

The Arizal would stay up all night on Yom Kippur. Simply speaking, this was because he didn’t want to take a chance of becoming impure at night (from nocturnal emissions). But the deeper reason behind his conduct was because Yom Kippur is a day in which we are angelic, and we don’t need sleep. Yom Kippur is a day of soul with no body.

On every Yom Tov, there is a mitzvah to eat. Although Yom Kippur is also a Yom Tov, we don’t eat, because it is a day of soul with no body. It is the only day of the year in which we live through our soul and not through our body. The rest of the Yomim Tovim involve mitzvos that have to do with our body.

It is also the only day of the year in which we resemble the dead. We wear white, and there are two reasons for this: the inner reason is because we are resembling the angels, and the external reason is because we want to remind ourselves of death, who are clothed in white shrouds. The truth is that these are not two separate reasons – they are really one and the same: a dead person is a soul with no body, just like an angel.

Let us stress the fact that we do not mean to remind ourselves of death in order to scare ourselves. Although there is a concept of holy fear, that is not our mission on Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah is actually scarier than Yom Kippur, because it is the day of judgment. The point of reminding ourselves of death on Yom Kippur is, because Yom Kippur is a day in which one is a soul without a body – resembling an angel.

The Purity Available Only On Yom Kippur

That is the clear definition of Yom Kippur, and now we must think into what our actual avodah is on this day. We mentioned before the custom to immerse in a cold mikveh before Yom Kippur. It seems that this is because when we immerse in cold water, we are considered dead, and thus we are purified. But on a deeper note, the death which a person must accept when he immerses in the mikveh is so that he can realize that he is really a soul, without a body. Hashem purifies us on Yom Kippur – when we consider ourselves to be like a soul with no body.

Our purity does not happen on Rosh Hashanah or on Sukkos. It does not happen on Pesach or on any other Yom Tov. We are purified only on Yom Kippur – the time in which we are a soul without a body.

The Lesson We Learn from Yom Kippur For The Rest of the Year
Read more Yom Kippur – Disconnecting from Sin

The Lost Art of Teshuva

Rabbi Bentzion Shafier of the Shmuz is one of the rare speakers with content, inspiration, listen-ability, and practical application in every one of his shiurim. One of the many great things he has done is to make all his shiurim available online for free.

He has compiled a Nine Part Series on The Lost Art of Teshuva and each shiur can be listened as a standalone. You can also download all nine at once in one zip file!

Here is the link to The Lost Art of Teshuva

Here are the summaries of the shiurim:

Part 1 – Rosh Hashanna – Issues of the Day
In this introduction to teshuva Rabbi Shafier explains how Rosh Hashanah impacts us all-from the largest cosmos in our universe to the smallest news headline. Listen to this first to really get into the spirit of Elul.

Part 2 – Diamond with a Flaw
If you’re overwhelmed by fire and brimstone droshos, this shmuz is for you. Full of chizuk and encouragement, it discusses how we are all ‘diamonds’-and what we can do to polish up those scratches.

Part 3 – Finding Direction in Life
This shmuz will show you how it is possible to come through Yom Kippur a vastly different human being-for all eternity. Essential preparation for the Yom HaDin.

Part 4 – Limiting Beliefs
What is holding you back? We have the potential to be higher than melachim, and yet we often arrive in shul thinking about those same old mistakes. In this shmuz Rabbi Shafier will show you how to stop limiting yourself and start actualising your amazing, unlimited potential.

Part 5 – A Fresh New Start
Focus. That’s what we need right now, in the days that are leading us to Yom HaDin. In this shmuz, Rabbi Shafier gives us that clarity to focus on the incredible gift that is teshuva, and the devastating consequences should we fail to make us of it.

Part 6 – Yom Kippur – Finding The Real You
In this generation it may seem that teshuva is impossible-what can G-d possibly expect from us when we’re surrounded by such unprecedented immorality? Rabbi Shafier answers this fundamental question in this shmuz and gives us the chizuk we need to move forward this Rosh Hashanah.

Part 7 – The Four Components to a Complete Teshuva
When we realize the greatness of our own potential, we can begin to understand the gravity of sin and the incredible gift that is teshuva. An essential shmuz that will deepen your awareness of why you were created.

Part 8 – Is It Possible To Do a Partial Teshuva
In this shmuz Rabbi Shafier brings examples from Chazal to show us how even the lowest of people can do a full teshuva-and even get rewarded for their actions.

Part 9 – A Mitzvah To Do Teshuva
The halachah shmuz, this is the fundamental guide to the ins and outs of what exactly teshuva involves and how to make sure we get it right. Includes many practical examples on how to get the most out of this auspicious time.

Click to download The Lost Art of Teshuva series.

What Is The Most Important Thing That You Want In Life?

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Elul

The days of Elul are here, and a new year is before us, approaching. There is no Jewish soul during these days who isn’t inspired at least on a minimal level. Every Jew has some feeling, at least a tiny feeling, to do teshuvah (repentance), to change.

Let us try to understand a bit more about this matter, so that we can have a clearer and deeper understanding of it.

Everyone has many things in his life that he wants. A husband wants his wife to be a good wife to him, a wife wants to have a good husband, and they both want good children, good health, ample livelihood, and a comfortable home. Each person has many more things to add onto this list as well. Now let’s come to a person and ask him: “Now that you’ve listed all these things that you want, from all of these 50 things you wrote down, what do you want the most?”

There’s a saying in Israel going around, “Ha’Ikar, Berius” – “The main thing, is health.” A 20-year old isn’t concerned about health, though. Only when people get older do they start to worry about their health. And if they have good health, what, then, do people think about? Happiness.

The truth is, however, that even if a person would have both complete health and happiness, he would be in a lot of danger [spiritually speaking]. Why? Because he would grow complacent and feel, “I have everything!”

Every person, as we said, has many desires. But what is the main thing that a person wants in life? One needs to think about this at times. It’s possible for a person to live 70 or 80 years yet not even once did he think, “What is the thing I truly want, more than anything, in my life?”

Of course, a person might give a quick answer to this. But it won’t be truthful. It is not a question that you can answer so quickly. It needs more than half a year’s worth of time to answer!

If Elijah the Prophet would reveal himself to a person and say to him: “Hashem has decreed that whatever you asked for, will happen. You can now ask one thing, as in the verse “One thing I seek from Hashem, that is which I sought” – what would a person ask? That his oldest daughter should become engaged? That the bank shouldn’t put his house in foreclosure? What would a person ask for…?

As long as a person hasn’t yet thought about this, he remains unclear about the main point of life. If he is unclear about it, he is like a person who has many important businesses yet he is unaware of what his main one is. He will invest most of his money in the businesses that are less important, and the main business will be financially neglected for the most part. His main business will surely fail with this approach – clear and simple.

So a person first needs to become clear what the main point of life is that he is living for. The question is: How much is a person willing to invest, in order to figure out what he truly wants in life?

When a person goes for a blood test and the results don’t come back good, he goes back for more blood tests, until they tell him, “We see that something here is abnormal. But we don’t know exactly what it is. Maybe go to a certain doctor for this, Dr. X. He is an expert and he will almost definitely know what the problem is.” In such a situation, a person would be prepared to spend much money in order to find out what the illness is in his body. It is directly affecting his health and his entire life. Now: How much is a person willing to invest in knowing what he truly wants in life?

If a person is sure that his main interest in life is money, a nice house, a nice car, or getting lots of honor, then he also has a problem to deal with. It is clear that such a person is living for a purpose that is clearly not the purpose of life, and he will have to deal with this problem.

The first thing, then, that a person needs to do, is to try to figure out to himself what the main thing is that he wants in life. After that he can begin to understand on what level his Avodas Hashem is.

Before a person figures this out, chances are that he is living in a totally delusional realm. He might be a person who has regularly fixed times for learning Torah, for an hour at night or more; he might regularly give tzedakah and try to be a baal chessed and to host guests, and many other wonderful things. But what does he really want in life? It is not tzedakah, hosting guests, or the hour of learning Torah he has every night. Those things rank at either #9, #17, or #36 on his list of what he considers “the most important things that I want”….

What is the main point in life that a person wants more than anything else?

A Big Surprise About The Reward In The World To Come

We all Baruch Hashem do the mitzvos, for the most part. We make effort to daven, to put on tefillin, to wear tallis and tzitzis, to keep Shabbos, etc. What will be our reward for all of this? We will be paid back with spiritual reward. But if a person doesn’t care too much for the spiritual, he can’t enjoy the reward for all his mitzvos! He will come upstairs to the High Heavenly Court and there is nothing physical there, only spirituality. But that is not what he wants, so he will remain there with nothing.

If a person wanted a nice car more than anything else, after 120 when he goes upstairs, with millions of mitzvos at his side, he will be told: “Here is payment for all of the millions of mitzvos that you did. Here is your greatest wish: the new car which came out this year.” Understandably, he will not want to get into that car, realizing that he has lost his entire spiritual reward! This is what is meant in the verse, “A man according to his praise.”

This is not some kind of joke, and it is not a mere thought of mussar.

If anyone is working at a job and he finds out that he will not get paid at the end of the month, what would he do…? What happens if a person finds out after 70 years of living that he will not get any payment for anything he did? Does anyone have a guaranteed ‘insurance’ in the World To Come that he will get paid for all the mitzvos he did?

Compare this to a child who did something good, so his father buys him a new car as a gift. What can the child do with the car? Only after 16 years old can he can get a permit to drive. Right now, he can’t do anything with the car. Hashem is loyal to pay back anyone with reward, but who says that the person when he gets upstairs will be able to use the reward that was given to him?

Imagine a person who works for someone for a month and then at the end of the month, he is given a pair of glasses as his payment. He doesn’t need glasses, he can see quite fine. This is not considered payment to him, because he doesn’t need the glasses.

We all Baruch Hashem make effort to do the right actions, each person on his own level. But is it clear to any of us what we want? If a person wanted what they will give to him in the Next World, he can enjoy it as reward. But if this isn’t what he really wanted in his life, he cannot enjoy his reward in Heaven, because this is not what he wanted. Chas v’shalom, it can be the realization of the verse, “He pays back his enemies….to destroy them.”

Knowing What You Really Want In Life

Every person needs to figure out for himself if Hashem is satisfied with his actions or not, and this is a very important issue to know. But that is a second question to know. The first question one needs to answer for himself is: “What do I want from myself??”

Here is an example from the physical world to illustrate what we mean. Sometimes there is a boy who is 19, 20, 21 or 23, and he has no idea what trade he wants to learn. To our chagrin, his parents do not really understand his soul and what he really needs, and what his true interests are. A year goes by and he still hasn’t decided what he wants to do with his life; perhaps he has some options now, but he hasn’t yet decided. He learns about a certain trade for another half a year, then he stops, thinking that it’s better to switch to a different field. The parents are at a loss of what to do. They are prepared to spend all of the money in the world, just so that their son should become focused and learn something. But the boy doesn’t even know what he wants from himself.

In the physical world, it is clear that if a person doesn’t know what he wants, he won’t be able to make something out of his life. How can it be, then, that a person can remain unclear about the entire meaning of his life altogether?!

Of course, a person can say: “I want Torah, mitzvos, and good deeds.” But is that really what the person wants? Or does he want other things than this too [which he considers more important]? A person might do good deeds, learn Torah, and keep the mitzvos, and surely his deeds are important, but what does he really want in his life?

Dovid HaMelech testified about himself what he wanted: “And as for me, closeness to Hashem, to me, is good.” [1]There is a well-known question: Was it only ‘good’ for Dovid HaMelech? Is it ‘not good’ for everyone else? The answer is: No! Most people do not want closeness with Hashem! Therefore, for them, it is not called “good”. Most people, if you would come to them ask them if they want to have the reward of dwelling all day with Hashem (as Dovid HaMelech says) and nothing else, they will say: “I don’t want the mitzvos, or the reward.”

A story is told over about one of the tzaddikim who was asked to be shown what Gehinnom (hell) is and what Gan Eden (paradise) is. They showed him a person sitting with a shtender and learning. They said to him: “This is Gan Eden, and it is also Gehinnom.” He didn’t understand what this meant; either it’s Gan Eden, or Gehinnom, but how could it be both? They explained it to him: “It is very simple. If a person loved to learn Torah, this will be Gan Eden for him. If he did not love to learn, for him, this is Gehinnom.”

Gehinnom is experienced by one who never connected to the heavenly realm, and he remains connected to this lower realm. What happens the moment he dies? If all he wanted his whole life was money, a car, a nice home, and other worldly desires, what happens the moment he dies? He has nothing to do when he goes upstairs. He will have no car and no house there, nothing. That is his Gehinnom – the fact that none of his desires can be actualized.

It is certainly possible that a person learned Torah (Baruch Hashem), put on tefillin every day, gave tzedakah and hosted guests, but in his heart, he wanted other things entirely. He doesn’t even understand what the issue is. He would come to his Rav and ask: “What sin did I commit? Where is it written that I did anything wrong?” But it doesn’t have to be written anywhere – rather, he’s in a situation that is entirely the wrong place to be in.

This is not another side issue, but a root issue, of where a person is living from, what he wants, what he breathes from morning until night, what interests him, what he is involved with in his life.

Every person has ruchniyus (spirituality), but the question is, how much percentage it takes up in his life, and how much of a percentage of balance there is between his spiritual side of life and his material side of life. Where is he found? Is he 99% found in the material, and only 1% in the spiritual? Or the opposite? Or are the percentages different?

A person gets up in the morning, and until he goes to sleep at night he is thinking about the material side to life, such as making money and his health. Only at night does he grab an hour to learn Torah (in the best scenario, that is). If he is worried about his spiritual situation, he uses even more time for Torah study, but since he only cares for his material situation, he doesn’t.

There are some people who want to feel good about themselves, so they give maaser (a tenth of their earnings). Once I was speaking to a wealthy Jew, who entered into a million-dollar business deal. I asked him: “For what reason do you need this?” He answered, “So that I’ll be able to give maaser from all the profit.”

I said to him: “You didn’t do it to give maaser. You did it because you wanted to make millions of dollars. But to quiet your subconscious, you tell yourself that you’ll give away a tenth of it for Hashem. If you would have really entered this investment for the sake of giving tzedakah, for Hashem, why are you only giving away a tenth of the profits? Why not 100% of the profit? Obviously it must be because you are really doing it to become a millionaire. Your heart isn’t at peace with this, though, because deep down you know it stems from a lust for money. So you are trying to ‘bribe’ Hashem, by giving away a tenth of the profit.

“But this won’t help you. Hashem knows exactly the reason why you entered this business endeavor. It is not because you don’t have what to eat and you need to support your family, or because you really want to give it all to tzedakah and increase the honor of Heaven. It is simply a desire for more money. Giving maaser from it is just the excuse.”

The deepest, most fundamental question in life for each person is: “What do I really want?”

If a person answers that what he really wants is ruchniyus (spirituality),he should think of the following: If that is really what he wants, then why doesn’t it take up his mind the entire day? If a person has an affidavit in the bank which he doesn’t succeed in finishing by the end of the month, he thinks about it the entire day. If a person has a child who is ill, Heaven forbid, he searches for the right doctors and healthcare and it occupies his mind the entire day. Not because it’s ‘written’ anywhere to do so, but because this is what he wants.

If a person claims that he really wants ruchniyus, he should think about it for most of the hours of the day, besides for anything else necessary that he needs to think about, which he needs to take care of. In the end of day, there are other things which also must occupy our mind, due to the various responsibilities of life. But in spite of that reality, there is one main point which you should want with all your heart.

Ruchniyus Should Be Real To You

Each and every one of us wants, with Hashem’s help, to merit a good, sweet year. Who doesn’t? On Rosh HaShanah night, everyone is blessing each other to have a shanah tovah u’mesukah, a good sweet year. But does anyone think that the year will suddenly become transformed into a good, sweet year, just because his friend said so?

Let’s imagine for ourselves a person standing in front of the Heavenly court in judgment, and it is decreed upon him that he must die. His friend comes to him and says to him, “May you have a happy, sweet new year.” Will anyone think this will help?

The problem is that we have gotten used to a lifestyle where the spiritual side of life is ambiguous and unreal to us.

When two people lift a glass of wine together and declare, “L’chaim” (To life), does that really mean that we are given a new year of life? How exactly does that work? When we are dealing with the spiritual, suddenly things seem unclear to us.

Think for a moment: If a person owes a thousand dollars to his friend, and he comes to him and says “May it be the will of Hashem, as if I have paid you”, will his friend accept that? Will it solve anything? No! Why is it then that when it comes to the spiritual side of life, suddenly people believe that eating all of the simanim will make everything good? We eat different foods on Rosh HaShanah night, confident that we will merit a good year, in their merit – but where do we get this from?

Our words here are aiming at something deeper of what the intention should be in this custom, and not G-d forbid to nullify the custom of eating these foods. The point we are driving at here is that we have gotten used to being imaginative and unrealistic about the spiritual world, without approaching it as real.

A person may think that just because he has done certain customs on Rosh HaShanah night, everyone at the table will have a good year! But he did the same thing last year, and it didn’t work. His blessing didn’t ‘work’ for everyone. It is unrealistic to assume that the coming year won’t have any troubles in it, and that everyone will have it all good and pleasant, in their health, livelihood, etc.

The point here is very basic and fundamental: Ruchniyus (spirituality) has to become a simple reality in our lives, no less real than the material side of life. If ruchniyus would be a clear reality to us, our desires for ruchniyus would be realistic, in turn.

But when ruchniyus is cloudy, unknown, and unclear to us, when it is not tangible to us, this causes us to be immersed in the material side of life, and ruchniyus to us is then limited to all kinds of various segulos (spiritual charms). A person will think, for example, that if he gives a fifth of his earnings to tzedakah, says certain tefillos on Motzei Shabbos and also gives some tzedakah to Vaad HaRabbonim, then, everything will be fine. But he is not living this ruchniyus in the same way he experiences the material side of his life.

Changing Our Life

Each of us has already been through many Rosh HaShanahs. Does it help anyone, having been through Rosh HaShanah many times?

Maybe you’ll say: “We have good hopes for this year. We hope this year will be a better one.”

One year, about one or two days after Rosh HaShanah, I was walking in the street and I thought to myself: “The world looks exactly as it did, when it was the 28th of Elul. Nothing has changed at all!” Does anyone think that after Rosh HaShanah anything will change? Where will this sudden change come from?

Now let’s come and think about this: We know that life continues. We aren’t little children anymore who are 2 or 3 years old. Do we want the coming year to look like the past year? Or do we want to change one day?

If a person has a business that isn’t making any profit, and his wife comes and tells him, “Enough. This business used to be doing well, and it seemed profitable. But now you need to spend 2 or 3 years learning a different trade, so that we can support our family, with Hashem’s help.” In the same way, we must change the entire direction of our life. It is not one detail we have to change, but our entire life.

In simple words, a person needs to reach the conclusion of what he really, truly wants. If he discovers that he really wants material comfort, he must change the direction of his life and desire the spiritual. And if he says that he really wants ruchniyus, he should examine his life and see if everything he wants throughout the day is matching up with his desire for ruchniyus.

No one can succeed 100% in changing, because no one in the world is perfect. But it is always upon a person to keep checking himself to see if he is getting closer to the goal of life, or if his actions are contradicting the goals which we are supposed to want.

First, we need to clarify what we want, and after that we can begin to examine our actions. A person gets up in the morning and says Modeh Ani– does he really want to say it, or not? If he eats before davening, does that match up with what he really wants in life? If he learns Torah, does this fit in with what he wants or not? One can take apart all aspects of his schedule and keep seeing if they fit his spiritual goals in life or not. The point is to become aware of what you truly want in life, and to then inspect all your deeds and see if they are aligned with your goal.

The point of this is not to start changing everything you do, from this day onward. Rather, there are some things which require quick change, and some things which you will only be able to gradually improve in. Compare this to a person who has a house in need of repair, and he doesn’t have enough money to get all the repairs done. He must sit down and make a list of what’s most important to fix first, then what’s second to most important, etc. Every year he can do another repair, in order of preference. Slowly as each year passes, the house can get more and more repaired.

Dealing With The Truth About Life

If a person doesn’t clarify to himself what he wants in his life, he has no reason to live!

Once there was a Jew who passed away on Erev Yom Kippur, and when the Brisker Rav heard about it, he said, “He was born a fool, and he died a fool.” Someone there who was close to him (perhaps it was one of his children) exclaimed: “Rebbi! Of all times to speak lashon hora! It’s Erev Yom Kippur!!” The Rav zt”l responded: “You don’t understand what I said. I tried finding merit for this person, who led a sinful life. The only single merit that I could find about this person was that he was born on Erev Yom Kippur as a fool, and he remained foolish until he died, so there is no complaint we can have on him.”

But does anyone think that this would be a true way to live? Is that how we should lead our lives? Would our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchok, and Yaakov, and the rest of the leaders throughout the generations, live this way? Have the times changed so much that people now consider priorities to be secondary, and what was secondary has now become priority? Has everything become completely upside-down?

This is not an inspirational lecture for Rosh HaShanah, nor is it a program. I am presenting to you a very simple question which each person needs to ask himself: “What do I really want? Am I taking the right direction in my life?”

The fact that most people don’t want to think about this and that there is almost no one who speaks about this publicly doesn’t show us that it’s not true. It is the truth and there is nowhere to run to from it. It is as unpleasant as thinking about the day of death, which no one likes to think about, yet that doesn’t help us evade death. People die even if they never think about it; it is useless to avoid thinking about it. The same is true for our question of what we are living for.

The issue is if we are truly prepared to deal with the truth in life. One needs to ask himself: “Do I believe that there is a Creator of the world, or not? Yes. Do I believe He gave the Torah at Har Sinai? Yes. Do I believe that there is an eternity? Yes. Do I believe that there is no physicality in the eternal world? Yes. Do I believe that in the eternal world there is only One alone – the Creator of the world, together with His Torah? Yes. Is my life really aligned with all of this?”

Take apart all the parts of your life, bit by bit, and inspect them truthfully, to see if they are matching up to the truths you recognize. If one hasn’t yet made this clarification of the truth, he should begin to do so, starting today. Sit and learn the sefarim that deal with this topic, or speak to Torah scholars who are knowledgeable in this topic, those who know what the truth is. But whatever option you choose, begin to do it, immediately! Now!

We all know that there is a truth, that there is a Creator of the world. The question is if a person is prepared to align his lifestyle with this truth. We live in a world where there are many well-known truths that all people know about, yet many live in a way that is totally opposite than this knowledge. The world today is not lacking in this knowledge; it is not found at the other side of the Sambatyon. Most people know the truths, but they behave differently.

When Rosh HaShanah arrives, the Rav in the shul might get up and say a nice idea for Rosh HaShanah. Everyone will praise the derasha and say how good it was. But what did the idea help? Perhaps everyone listening fulfills a mitzvah of learning Torah for two minutes. But did it change anyone? Did a person become a different person from listening to the Dvar Torah he heard, as the Rambam says, that one who does teshuvah is not the same person anymore and he becomes an entirely new being?

I hope that you understand that I did not say here anything new, not even one thing. So if they are not my own novel words, you should agree to act upon them. Don’t do it because I said to, but because each of you alone knows it on your own.

May we merit with the help of Hashem, each of us, to align our lifestyle with the goal and purpose of life.

[1] Tehillim 73:28

Stepping Up Our Teshuva Early in Elul

Rosh Chodesh Elul has arrived which means that the Teshuva season has begun. If we want to have a successful Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur, seforim strongly advise us to start early in the month. It’s a tremendous opportunity for growth and we’d be foolish not to take advantage of it.

Most of the current day Rebbeim advise us to pick something small. Maybe saying Asher Yotzar with Kavanna, or pausing before we speak on occasion or perhaps starting an extra 10 minute seder in Mussar, Mishnah or Tanach. The sky is truly the limit, but we have to start reaching for it when Elul begins.

Being that our goal is to get closer to Hashem and we’re doing mitzvos to accomplish that goal, it might make sense to try to do the mitzvos with a little more Kavanna. There are three simple thoughts we can have before doing any mitzvah:

1) Hashem commanded us to do the mitzvah
2) We are the ones being commanded
3) And the specific mitzvah, whose commandment we are fullfilling is …. (whatever mitzvah you are doing)

It’s really pretty simple and it will help us get so much more mileage out of the mitzvos we already do.

Here’s a few resources for extra motivation:

Stepping Stones to Repentance: A thirty-day program based on Ohr Yisrael the classic writings of Rav Yisrael Salanter By: Rabbi Zvi Miller here’s an excerpt

DAY ONE: “BOUNDLESS BLESSINGS”
“There is no enterprise that yields profit like preparation for the Day of Atonement. Through studying Mussar and reflecting on how to improve one’s ways, a person is inspired on Yom Kippur to make resolutions for the future. Even the smallest, most minute preparation to enhance one’s Yom Kippur experience is invaluable, bringing boundless blessings of success. It saves one from many troubles — and there is no greater profit than this.” (Ohr Yisrael, Letter Seven, p. 193)

Rebbetzin Tzipora Heller – Three Steps to Genuine Change. An excerpt:

In the course of our lives, we close doors to higher and deeper selves and sometimes forget that we, too, are more than earners, spenders, and travelers through life. Our thoughtless enslavement to mindless routine can leave us without much of a relationship to our souls. In a materialistic society, it is all too easy to view others as competitors. As toddlers we observed that when you have three cookies and give one away, all you have left are two. From that point onward we are afraid to give.

R’ Dovid Schwartz – Rabbi Yonah of Gerona – Guilt is Good – mp3

R’ Daniel Stein – Hilchos Teshuva Introduction – mp3

R’ Moshe Schwerd – Din V’Cheshbon – mp3

R’ Yakov Haber on Rosh Hoshana and Hirhur Teshuva according to Rav Soloveitchik can be downloaded here.

R’ Yakov Haber on Rosh Hoshana davening can be downloaded here.

Complete Teshuva

Rabbi Itamar Shwartz

In the blessing of השיבנו, we mention three kinds of Teshuvah – returning to Hashem, returning to the Torah, and returning in “complete” Teshuvah. What does it mean to do complete Teshuvah? Teshuvah means to return, to return to the original state we were in. Every sin affects a certain part of the body; when a person does teshuvah, he returns the damaged part of the body, to its original, undamaged state.

The Nefesh HaChaim says that every word of Torah is pure, even words such as “Pharoah”, “Bilaam”, and “Amalek”, who represent the most evil and impure forces in Creation. Therefore, first we ask Hashem to return us to the Torah, because from the power of Torah, we can have the strength to restore everything back to its original purity. That is the first part of the blessing, in which we ask Hashem to return us to the Torah.

But what is teshuvah shelaimah? The soul of man is comprised of five layers – Nefesh, Ruach, Neshamah, Chayah, and Yechidah. Each part of our soul requires a different Teshuvah. Teshuvah doesn’t end with stopping to sin. Shaarei Teshuvah writes that a person has to abandon the improper path he is on; it’s not enough to abandon sin – a person has to leave the very path he is on. Our soul abilities are mixed together, thus, we need to give ourselves inner order to our soul.

The Teshuvah we can do during Elul and Tishrei can rectify the entire soul, all five layers. It can be a Teshuvah shelaimah. If a person only does Teshuvah for the bad deeds he did that year, he has only done Teshuvah on the lowest part of his soul, the Nefesh, which is the sphere of his actions. A person has to penetrate into his entire soul and do Teshuvah for all of the soul’s layers.

Our soul is like a ladder footed on earth, and its head reaches the heavens. The Yechidah, the highest part of the soul, is really in the Heavens.

Our soul, beginning from lowest to highest, is: actions (Nefesh), emotions (Ruach), thoughts (Neshamah), life-source (Chayah), and connection to Hashem (Yechidah). When we do Teshuvah, we need to clarify what’s going on in our soul, beginning from lowest to highest.

For example, we are examining our actions. We need to become aware of the emotions behind our actions – like if we are doing the mitzvos with enough enthusiasm. This is how we connect Ruach with our Nefesh. Then we need to connect Ruach to our Neshamah, which is by analyzing if our emotions are in line with the thoughts of Torah we learn. If our feelings aren’t matching our thoughts, and if our actions are lacking feeling, we see that there is more Teshuvah to be done.

What is Teshuvah? The superficial answer is that we repent from our sins. This is what we are used to thinking ever since we were young. This is true, but that is not all there is to it. The first thing we must know is how we begin doing Teshuvah. First we need to begin with the lowest part of soul, our Nefesh, which is our deeds. But at the same time, we must be aware of the goal of all this, which is to arrive at the highest part of our soul – to deeply connect with Hashem, to stand “before Hashem”.

So if a person does Teshuvah for his deeds, and when it comes Yom Kippur he takes upon himself resolutions to better himself, and he feels elation and purity from Yom Kippur (anyone who doesn’t feel purity on Yom Kippur is very far from any vestige of spirituality…) and then he stops doing teshuvah at a certain point, it shows that he’s missing a certain understanding. We need to really understand what teshuvah is, by using our power of daas. To just go through learning Hilchos Teshuvah of the Rambam is being superficial. Even if a person feels some purity on Yom Kippur, this is not enough. We can’t be satisfied from this.

Teshuvah is a five-step process, as we said, and the goal is to deeply connect with Hashem, to be able to stand in front of Hashem pure. A person has to see how much he came to realizing that he is in front of Hashem after all the Teshuvah of Elul.

Moshe went up to Heaven for 40 days to receive the Torah, after the sin with the Calf. The depth behind this was not just so that he should wait for 40 days until Hashem forgave us. It was because he wanted to receive the Torah from the One who gave it. This helps us understand what teshuvah is.

Hashem breathed into a man a breathe of His life, so to speak. When a person does teshuvah, he has to return to the original breathe of life which Hashem breathed into us.

When we come to do teshuvah, we must seek teshuvah shelaimah – to do teshuvah with awareness of the goal, that we want to be able to stand before Hashem in purity when it comes Yom Kippur, after we do teshuvah from Elul.

Thus, we ask Hashem to return us to the Torah and to serving Him, because this will prepare us to have to be able to have complete Teshuvah. Real Teshuvah is not just to “return” to Hashem from sin. It is to return to our “Father”, as we express “Return us, our Father”. We must understand that only Hashem can return us to teshuvah. It is all due to the spiritual light which Hashem allows us to have during these days.

We can only do teshuvah because Hashem helps us, and in addition, we need to do teshuvah with Hashem in the equation. We return to Hashem from Hashem’s help and with awareness of Hashem, as we do teshuvah.

This understanding will totally change how you approach teshuvah. “Your right hand is open to accept those who return.” These are days in which Hashem can return us to Him.

All of our avodah during Elul must be done with awareness of the goal, that we want to arrive at deep closeness with Hashem. We must do teshuvah with Hashem in the equation. We can only do teshuvah with Hashem’s help, and our goal of doing teshuvah is to reach closeness with Hashem.

We must absorb this inner perspective on how to do teshuvah – the perspective that comes from our neshamah, as opposed to the superficial perspective towards teshuvah that comes from our body.

May we all merit to reach complete teshuvah.

From Bilvavi.net

It’s Never as Bad, or as Evil, as It Seems

How does Jewish sin differ from sin in general?
Why do we read Parshas Parah only at this time of the year?

I have recorded a homiletic interpretation … of R. Moshe Hadarshan … And have them take for you… just as they took off their own golden earrings for the calf, so shall they bring this [cow] from their own [assets] in penance. A red cowThis is comparable to the baby of a maidservant who soiled the king’s palace [with fecal matter]. They said, “Let his mother come and clean up the mess.” Similarly, let the cow come and atone for the calf.] … [Midrash Aggadah and Tanchuma Chukath 8]

–Rashi Bemidbar19:22

A Kohen who converted to an idolatrous religion should not “raise his palms” in the priestly blessing. Others say that if he repented then he may perform the priestly blessing.

–Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 128:37

But if he actually worshipped an idol, even if he was forced to do so and even if he subsequently repented, he may not perform the priestly blessing.

–Be’er Heitev ibid footnote 63

Approach the altar: [The salient corners of the altar reminded Ahron of the juvenile horn-buds of the Calf] because Ahron was embarrassed and frightened of approaching [the altar] Moshe said to him: “Why are you ashamed? You have been chosen for this [role]!”

– Torath Kohanim on VaYikra 9:7

Fire came forth from before HaShem and consumed them [Nadav and Avihu], such that they died before HaShem. Then Moshe said to Ahron, “This is precisely what HaShem meant, [when He said], ‘I will be sanctified through those near to Me (Shemos 29:43) … “

–VaYikra 10:2,3


מוֹצִיא מִזָּלוֹת יְקָרוֹת. מַתִּיר מֵאֲסוּרוֹת מֻתָּרוֹת. נוֹתֵן מִטְּמֵאוֹת טְהוֹרוֹת
HaShem brings forth the priceless from the worthless, He allows the permissible from the prohibited, He produces the pure from the impure.

Piyut-“Yotzros” for Parshas Parah

The mei chatas-the waters whose main ingredient were the ashes produced from immolating the carcass of the Parah Adumah-the Red Heifer, are the only means to gain purity after contracting impurity through contact with the dead- tuma’as meis. A person who has become tamei meis may not consume the korban Pesach-the Passover sacrifice. (Or, for that matter, any consumable sacrifices.) When the Bais HaMikdash-the Temple in Jerusalem, stood those who were tme’ei meis would undergo the mei chatas purification process required to enable them to offer their korban Pesach.  Nowadays, as the Bais HaMikdash lies in ruins, the four special parshiyos/ maftir readings that precede Pesach are all meant as a preparation for the holiday.  So we can easily understand that it is apropos to read Parshas Parah at this time of the year.

However, during each of the shalosh regalim-pilgrimage holidays, multiple offerings had to be sacrificed and consumed in a state of ritual purity.  This being the case, the Biskovitzer asks: Why is the reading of Parshas Parah limited to pre-Pesach preparation?  Logically, we ought to be reading it before Shavous and Sukkos as well. The insights that he and other members of the Izhbitzer school provide by way of answering this question reveal a profound and deep-seated difference between Jewish sin, and sin in general.

In Torah literature the Parah Adumah is known as THE Chukas haTorah, THE (most) irrational mitzvah of the Torah (preceded with the definite article.)  In a broad sense the entire body of Torah law covering the rules of purity and impurity contains only chukim-irrational mitzvos.  After all, the states of ritual purity or impurity rise above sensory perception.  We can neither see taharah-purity nor smell tumah-impurity.  Similarly, there seems to be no rhyme or reason when trying to connect the dots between cause and effect in either tumah or taharah or in endeavoring to understand their various levels.  But what makes the Parah Adumah a category of chok unto itself is the conundrum of it being a factor causing both tumah and taharah.  Those who prepare and handle it contract a low level of tumah while those who were sprayed with the mei chataas regain a state of purity after being in the thrall of the most powerful and fundamental form of tumah.

Tumah is identified with sin while having attained atonement and rapprochement is associated with taharah.  As such, the conflicted nature of the Parah Adumah serves as a metaphor for the convergence of sin and repentance; of merit and the demerits; of kilkul-spiritual ruination, and tikkun– it’s repair and restoration. The Parah Adumah itself is seen as atoning for the greatest of all sins; the Golden Calf.  It is the mother that comes to clean up the mess that her baby left in the king’s palace.

While the Calf is the “child” and the Red Heifer the “parent” oddly enough, in this case, it is the child that gives birth to the parent.  Absent the Golden Calf there would never have been a Red Heifer. The Biskovitzer maintains that the message of the Parah Adumah is that Jewish sins even the most catastrophic an egregious of Jewish sins; are not all bad.  A weed cannot produce a tasty apple.  If we were to see a delicious apple hanging from a noxious weed we would be forced to conclude that there’s more to this weed than meets the eye.  While it may look and smell like a weed, it must contain some genetic material capable of producing such delicious and nourishing fruit.

If ever there was a sin, a metaphysical weed that looked “all bad” it was the Golden Calf.  Yet when considered on a deeper level it was motivated by something virtuous. K’lal Yisrael, the Jewish People wanted (a) god to lead them.  Ultimately HaShem agreed to this and said “and they should make a sanctuary for me and I will cause my Divine Indwelling to be among them.” (Shemos 25:8) And when they besieged Ahron to become their agent to serve/ worship and to build the altar this too remained as a permanent fixture in the Divine service of HaShem, as Ahron became the Kohen Gadol.

Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, when listing many examples of spiritual/metaphysical darkness that are the necessary prerequisites to the light that follows, goes so far as to say that the sin of the Golden Calf was the primary cause of the construction of the Mishkan and that the sin of Nadav and Avihu was the primary cause of the Mishkan’s holiness.  Still, the Lubliner Kohen pointedly reminds us that, while the light is contained in the darkness and that spiritual purity and sanctity are present in potentia in every Jewish sin, that sin nevertheless remains, well, sinful … and something to be ashamed of. (cp Taanis 11A Tosafos D”H Amar Shmuel). Otherwise, why would it be prohibited to remind those Ba’alei Teshuvah-masters of repentance, who were motivated to repent by the love of HaShem, of their earlier misdeeds?  While we know that repentance motivated by such love has the power to transform premeditated, and even malicious, sins into zechuyos, merits/ mitzvos, there is nonetheless something untoward and unseemly about the original acts which still appear as sins in the historical record.

This explains Ahron’s reticence and sense of shame and apprehension when he first approached the altar to do the Divine service.  Ahron had done absolutely nothing and exerted no efforts to attain the Office of Kohen Gadol.  On the contrary, his culpability in the sin of the Golden Calf would have seemed to torpedo any chances that he had to serve in the Mishkan.  The halachah states that a Kohen who worshipped idols is disqualified from serving again as a Kohen to HaShem, even after returning to the fold and repenting. How much more so for the “enabler” of this foulest idolatry of the Jewish People? It was only his profound sense of shame over his involvement in the sin of the Golden Calf and his feelings of unbridgeable distance and alienation from HaShem that, paradoxically, brought him closer to HaShem than anyone else. To paraphrase the paytan-liturgical poet, of the Parshas Parah yotzer vis-à-vis Ahron;  HaShem brought forth the premier servant from the most mutinous rebel.

The Biskovitzer concludes that while ritual purification from contact with the dead is required in order to consume any of the korbanos we read Parshas Parah only before Pesach because they convey the identical message.  During the Exodus from Egypt the ministering angels “challenged” HaShem’s salvation of the Jews and simultaneous destruction of the Egyptians by saying; “these and those are both idolaters.”  Yet, during the night of the slaying of the firstborn, HaShem “passed over.” He, kivyachol-as it were, leapfrogged from one Egyptian occupied home to the other while leaving the Jews occupying the homes in the middle, unscathed.  On a level so profound, deep and imperceivable that even the angels could not grasp it, there was, indeed, a difference between Jewish idolatry, and the concomitant descent into the 49 gates of impurity, and the idolatry of the Egyptians.  While both Egyptians and Jews worshipped idols, the Jews had suffered terribly for k’vod Shamayim-for god’s greater Glory.  Jewish idolatry was not all bad, somehow the purity and sanctity of Mattan Torah-the revelation at Sinai inhered in the degradation, defilement and, yes, even in the idolatry of the Jewish slavery experience in Egypt.

~adapted from Neos Desheh Parshas Parah
Takanas HaShavin 5 page 21
Resisei Laylah 24 pages 3031

This post is An installment for Shmini-Parshas Parah 5774–  in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK
By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

Steer Clear of Band-Aid Solutions

What was the immediate purpose of Yoseph being privy to the dreams of his fellow prisoners?
Why is one dream about plants and the other about processed foods?
Why was the wine steward reinstated and the baker slain?

Soon thereafter the Egyptian king’s wine steward and the baker offended their master, who was the king of Egypt.

Bereishis 40:1

 [Regarding] this one (the wine steward) a fly was found in his goblet, and [concerning] that one (the baker) a pebble was found in his bread.  (Bereishis  Rabbah 88:2)

Rashi ibid

The wine steward told his dream to Yoseph,  “in my dream” he said, “there was a grape vine right in front of me and in the vine there were three shoots; and as soon as it began budding, its blossoms flowered, and its clusters matured into ripe grapes … I took the grapes and squeezed them into Pharaoh’s chalice and placed the chalice into the palm of Pharaoh’s hand.”

Bereishis 40:9-11

When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was good, he said to Yoseph: ‘I also saw myself in my dream and there were three baskets of fine white bread on my head; and in the topmost basket there were of all kinds of baked goods for Pharaoh [to eat] but birds were eating from the basket on my head.

Bereishis 40:16,17

Rabban Gamaliel sat and taught, “Woman is destined to give birth every day, for it is said, ‘the woman conceived and gave birth all together (Yirmiyahu 31:7).’” A particular disciple mocked him quoting, “there is no new thing under the sun (Koheles 1:9).” Rabban Gamaliel replied ”Come, and I will show you its simile in this world [currently under the sun]”. He went out and showed him a hen [hatching her daily egg]. On another occasion Rabban Gamaliel sat and taught, “Trees are destined to yield fruit every day, for it is said, ‘ and it shall bring forth branches, and bear fruit (Yechezkel 17:23).’ Just as the branches [exist] every day, so too new fruit will ripen every day.” A particular disciple mocked him quoting, “there is no new thing under the sun.” Rabban Gamaliel replied “Come, and I will show you its simile in this world”. He went out and showed him the caper bush. On another occasion Rabban Gamaliel sat and taught, “[The soil of] Eretz Yisrael is destined to bring forth pastries and silk robes, for it is said, ‘there shall be grain as large as a handbreadth in the land (Tehillim72:16).’”  A particular disciple mocked him quoting, “there is no new thing under the sun.” Rabban Gamaliel replied “Come, and I will show you its simile in this world”. He went out and showed him morels and truffles; and for silk robes [he showed him] the bark of a young palm-shoot.

Shabbos 30B

 Rav Yehudah said in Rav’s name: Of all that the Holy One, blessed be He, created in His world, He did not create a single thing lacking a purpose.

Shabbos 77B

The kingdom of the earth is analogous to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Zohar Miketz 197A

Rav Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of Rav Yonasan: in his dreams a man is not shown anything other than the musings of his own heart.

Brachos 55B

The musings of his own heart. i.e. what he ponders during the day/ waking hours [is what he dreams about while sleeping]

Rashi ibid

On a superficial level the fall from grace of Pharaohs wine steward and the baker and the wine steward’s rehabilitation reads like just another instance of palace politics that have characterized the courts of kings from time immemorial. However Rav Leibeleh Eiger avers that, as the primary “audience” watching this drama unfold was Yoseph haTzaddik-the righteous; there is a profound lesson to be learned from it. As Rav taught everything has a purpose even if the purpose is not readily apparent or easily understood.

The episode of Rabban Gamiel and his skeptical student teaches us that some of G-ds creations serve a dual purpose; their utilitarian function in the temporal here-and-now world, as well as serving as symbols and allegories for matters spiritual or belonging to the eternal world-to-come. The sanctified-poetic sensibility and the discerning eye perceive some of the loftiest, transcendent matters in the most mundane of allegories.

Rav Leibeleh Eiger goes a step further and says that some creatures and historical events one and only purpose is to function as hints and allusions to the inner metaphysical realities that they allegorize.  This is particularly true in the politics, intrigues, pomp and ceremony of royal courts as the operative principle is that “the kingdom of the earth is analogous to the Kingdom of Heaven.” This is even truer here with Yoseph haTzaddik as the Divinely intended audience. It is part of a tzaddiks job description to cultivate a penetrating and discerning awareness to tunnel in and mine lessons from the pnimiyus-inner content; of all that meets his eyes.

The primary qualitative difference between the respective dreams of the baker and the wine steward is that the bakers dealt with a final product , a processed food; fine white bread, while the wine stewards dealt with the most primary source of the beverage; the grapevine itself.  Both men found themselves incarcerated and in a dire predicament for having been deficient in their service to Pharaoh. The wine steward desired to do teshuvah-repentance; and tikun– repair; to restore his former relationship with his master and invested a lot of time reflecting on what went wrong and how he could set things right.

Read more Steer Clear of Band-Aid Solutions

Jonah-itis

Do you suffer from Jonah-itis?

If you have one or more of the following symptoms you may be suffering from Jonah-itis:

– You are an expert in distracting yourself from doing what you are supposed to be doing.

– You have clarity in your core purpose, your mission, but rationalize why you should not actually be fulfilling it.

– You would rather die than move out of your comfort zone to accomplish something awesome.

– You would be prepared to spend exorbitant amounts of money to escape your reality and calling.

This disease is debilitating and may have disastrous consequences if not treated at the first sign of symptoms. Be warned that ignoring the symptoms is not an option – you will need to accomplish your core purpose whether you like it or not and whether you want to or not.

At the root of these symptoms is an individual’s unwillingness to admit that they are in this world to fulfill a higher spiritual purpose.

This disease was first is diagnosed in Jonah (Yona HaNavi) and is therefore named after him. None other, then Gd Himself, gave Jonah his personal mission. Yet he rejected it. He tried to escape. He rationalized it as not a good thing. Instead, he was willing to spend all his money to board a ship to nowhere and give up his life rather then surrender to a higher will. But ultimately Gd’s will must be fulfilled and Jonah had to surrender his personal desire and rational understanding to that of Gd.

Teshuva is a 3 step process:

1. Acknowledging and letting go – acknowledge the mistake and articulate exactly what went wrong. Feel the pain of the moment and meditate on it briefly. Let go of the resistance/rationalization/negativity. Recognize that it is our own inhibitions that are holding us back from accomplishing what we have been sent here to accomplish.

2. Taking ownership – verbalize the resistance or negativity either in writing or orally. This does not need to be communicated to anyone but keep it and return to it if and when faced with similar challenges in the future.

3. Commitment – committing to move forward is the most important step of all. Acknowledging, as human beings, our fragility and vulnerability to making mistakes whilst committing not to look at our mistake as a failure but rather as an opportunity to learn and grow.

You know my friends, from the beginning of time all the way back to Adam, Avraham and Moshe a certain pattern was evident. These people were heroes…men who had the courage to rise to a challenge and change the world in the process. Before doing so however they each went through a deep and usually painful internal struggle. It was only their persistence in the face of adversity, their desire and unbinding resolve to achieve the seemingly impossible that enabled them to become the heroes of history.

This same pattern can be observed among all heroic men and women who have made a real difference in our world. We all have a hero inside of us that is waiting to be discovered. Unfortunately it is usually only by overcoming massive internal inertia, a tragic event or some other a major challenge that helps you discover who you really are. You are the hero in this story of yours.

And perhaps my friends this is the reason that we read Maftir Yona towards the end of Yom Kippur – as a remedy to Jonah-itis. Yom Kippur is a call to action to each one of us to do teshuvah – to acknowledge and let go of our sins, our mistakes; to take ownership of our resistance and negativity and to commit to bring the tikkun/the repair to the world that only you can bring through the fulfillment of your core purpose, your unique mission.

This Yom Kippur the choice is yours.…or may be its not.

Falling In or Standing Out?

Why is Viduy Maasros called a viduy when we aren’t confessing to any wrongdoing?
Chazal teach us that on Rosh Hashanah we are judged collectively and individually. How is that possible?
… I have removed all sacred shares from my home; I have given [the suitable shares] to the Levi, the orphan and widow, in accordance with all the precepts that You commanded us. I have not transgressed your commands nor have I forgotten anything. I have not consumed of it [the second maaser-tithe;] while in mourning, I have not apportioned / consumed any of it while tamei-halachically impure; nor have I used any for the dead, I have paid attention to the Voice of HaShem my Elokim and have acted in harmony with all that You commanded me.

—Devarim 26:13,14

Hashkifah-Look down; from your holy meon– habitation; in heaven and bless Your people Israel, and the soil that You have given us, the land streaming milk and honey, as You swore to our forefathers.

—Ibid 15

And the men arose from there, and they looked down upon Sodom …

—Bereishis 18:16

and they looked down:  Wherever the word הַשְׁקָפָה =hashkafah is found in TeNaK”h, it indicates misfortune, except (Devarim 26:15) “Look down (הַשְׁקִיפָה) from your holy meon,” for the power of gifts to the poor is so great that it transforms the Divine attribute of Wrath to Mercy.

—Rashi ibid from Midrash Tanchuma Ki Sisa 14

Divine Judgment is passed on the world at four intervals [annually] … On Rosh Hashanah all those who’ve come into the world pass before Him like children of Maron i.e. single-file, individually

Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 16A

And [please] do not put Your slave on trial; for before You [under Your exacting judgment] no living being will be vindicated.

—Tehillim 143:2

Who can say: “I have made my heart meritorious; I have purified myself from my sin”?

—Mishlei 20:9

Rabbah bar Bar Chanah said in the name of Rav Yochanan: [All the same on Rosh Hashanah] they are all viewed [together] with a single [all-encompassing] look. Rav Nachman bar Yitzchok said: We also have learned the same idea: “[From the place of His habitation He looks השגיח upon all the inhabitants of the earth.] He that inventively designed the hearts of them all, Who comprehends all their doings” (Tehillim 33:14,15). … what it means is this: The Creator sees their hearts all-together and considers all their doings[collectively].

Gemara Rosh Hashanah 18A

The revealed facet of this teaching of the sages is self-evident but the esoteric meaning is undoubtedly difficult to grasp

—Rambams commentary to Mishnah ibid

Rabi Yochonan taught “tithe so that you grow wealthy.”

—Taanis 8B

The pauper speaks pleadingly; but the affluent respond impudently.

—Mishlei 18:23

 The juxtaposition of the Yamim Nora’im-days of Awe; and Parashas Ki Savo, almost always read a mere two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, is among the oddest vagaries of the Torah calendar. Whereas the month of Elul, the yemei Selichos and Yamim Noraim are characterized by detailed A-Z confessionals the “viduy” maasros-“confession” of proper tithing; that we find in Parashas Ki Savo seems to be anything but a confessional. While the Sforno and other commentaries search for a subtextual sin being alluded to; on the surface it reads like a kind of turned-on-its-head anti-confessional informed by an apparently unseemly braggadocio.

In it the “confessor” does not own up to any wrongdoing at all. On the contrary — he spells out all of the righteous and law-abiding things that he has done vis-à-vis the tithing of his agricultural produce.  If this braggarts confessional were not enough the cocky confessor concludes his Divine conversation with a crude, insistent, strong-armed demand; boldly inviting Divine scrutiny and reeking of tit for tat: “Hashkifah … and bless Your people Israel, and the soil that You have given us … as You swore to our forefathers.” It’s almost as if the confessor was kivyachol-so to speak; challenging HaShem by insisting “I’ve done mine, now You do Yours!”

We know that on the yemei hadin-judgment days; of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the Divine Judgment proceeds along two, seemingly mutually exclusive tracks; the individual and the collective.  On the one hand the mishnah teaches that on Rosh Hashanah, like sheep passing beneath the shepherds crook for exclusive inspection, all pass before G-d single-file, kivyachol, to be judged individually.  But on the other hand the gemara, teaches that on Rosh Hashanah all are viewed and judged collectively with a single all-encompassing look. According to the Lubliner Kohen, the gemara was, so to speak, apprehensive of the awesome and awful implications of trying to survive such a withering examination and, so, it diluted “sweetened” absolute justice with the less demanding single, all-encompassing look. The Rambams comment that “the esoteric meaning of this mishnah is undoubtedly difficult to grasp” is interpreted by one of the great 20th century Jewish thinkers to mean that judging collectively and individually simultaneously are two antithetical elements in one process. It seems impossible that they could coexist.

That said, being judged as a member of a large collective is the safer of the two tracks and lends itself to greater optimism for a positive outcome for the defendants. As the Izhbitzer explains; HaShem judgmental scrutiny is infinite in its scope and breadth and plumbs the infinitesimal in its attention to detail.  Whenever He focuses on a single individual that individual is gripped by terror, for no individual can face G-d and declare that s/he is completely righteous and totally free of sin. One on trial by G-d can only exhale and begin to relax a bit when s/he is part of a communal body and when it is that collective entity, rather than its individual component parts, that is being judged. In a collective the component parts “clarify” one another for every soul is outstanding and pure in one specialized field. Or, as the Lubliner Kohen puts it, component parts of the whole are complimentary.  What one lacks another completes … and vice versa.

Read more Falling In or Standing Out?

A Good Time to Think About G-d

A friend of mine was in a Mussar Vaad and was instructed by the leader to think about G-d a number of times through out the day. He confessed that it was very difficult and a member of the Vaad was texting reminders throughout the day.

I faced a similar problem a number of years ago after having been inspired by the sefer Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh to think about G-d throughout the day. I set up a few recurring reminders in MS Outlook. After a week or two the reminders were quickly dismissed without much thinking about G-d.

So we’re faced with a problem. We need to think about G-d to have a relationship, but how and when? Perhaps when we mention His name during the 100 blessings we recite each day. However, as many of us will admit, we often find it difficult to focus when we’re davening and saying brachos. We’re a distracted nation.

But we need to start somewhere. I think it makes sense to start with the most important time to think about G-d, and that’s when we say the first verse of the Shema: “Listen, Israel: Hashem Is Our God, Hashem Is One”.

The fifth chapter of the Shulchan Aruch says that when we say the four letter name of Hashem, like in the Shema, we should have in mind that Hashem exists, always existed, always will exist, and He is the Master of Everything.

Based on experience, I will warn you that thinking about Hashem twice a day during the Shema is not a simple matter. It will require some effort to do it regularly.

Teshuva is a tremendous opportunity to strengthen our relationship with Hashem. Thinking about Hashem when reciting the Shema is a good step on the road to that stronger relationship.

Elul…make the most of it

Elul…sweetness, light, redemption.

This is the month that Hashem gives us the opportunity to determine our destiny. Not to succumb to a fate that is inconsistent with our innermost desire but the choice to proactively affect our lives. The Slonimer Rebbe z”l writes that on Rosh Hashana we choose the life we want to live and ask for the tools that will assist us in refining and lighting up our world. Elul is a 30 days of preparation so that you have absolute clarity when making that decision.

The fact that you woke up this morning and are able to read this message is Hashem telling you, “I want you here, you have a mission to accomplish, and this mission has been waiting since the beginning of time for YOU to achieve.” We are here, partnering with Hashem to make a difference. We are granted the years of our life to fix, resolve and leave our mark, as we live our legacy. We don’t have much time. Seize the opportunities that are granted to you and make a difference.

We each have incredible potential and it’s about time that we stop talking and reading about it and take action. Live every day of your life to your best. Not the best…but YOUR best!

The questions we should be asking ourselves as we account for our existence are:
“Why am I here?”
“Am I living a meaningful life?”
“Am I living consistently with my values?”
“Am I the best spouse, teacher, friend, mentor, parent that I can possibly be?”

These are not “one off” questions, they are questions that can and need to be asked daily. These are the questions that help orient our lives and make them meaningful. Truthful answers to these questions have the power to help us transcend adversity and embrace each opportunity to reveal our inner essence.

We can be assured (but never perturbed) when at the moment of enlightenment, as we feel that we have discovered our unique mission in this world the inevitable happens. There will be a distraction. There will be obstacles. There will be challenges. And that is part of our story. Overcoming difficulty brings you closer to your mission. We are not born at the peak of a mountain, because it is not so much about the destination as much as it is about the journey to arrive there.

Hashem charges us to live a fulfilled life whereby we realize and actualize our dormant potential. We must act with courage to leap beyond our comfort zone to live our legacy.

אלול spelt backwards is לולא which translates as “if only”. This precious month is about reflecting all those lost opportunities throughout the year when I could have or should have but didn’t. It’s about asking for forgiveness for not bringing to the world what I was meant to. It’s about resolving to remain steadfast and committed to my mission.

May it be your will Hashem that we are granted clarity. That we are strengthened in our resolve to foster a deeper relationship with You as we embrace our unique mission in this world and remain loyal throughout the journey.

Rabbi Aryeh Goldman has released an ebook “Days are Coming – Inspiration for Elul and Tishrei”. Subscribe at hitoreri.com to receive your copy.