Just One Dance

My wife’s comment on Simchas Torah pretty much summed it up, “I feel like this is the biggest tease for you.” You see, my mom a”h was niftar right before Pesach and when I asked a shiloh about how I should observe dancing on Simchas Torah I was told that I should just dance once during each hakafah. In a way it was the biggest tease. I was in a shul whose Morah d’Asra is the person I have learned more Torah from than anyone else in my adult life. I was surrounded by both baalei batim and klei kodesh that were inspired and on fire for Yiddishkeit. While not being the most physically active dude I really do live for dancing on Simchas Torah. Yet, I spent a majority of the night and day sitting with a sefer. I felt as if I’d been put on “pause” while the rest of the world kept moving.

Gnawing at me was a story that Rav Moshe Weinberger, Rav of Cong. Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY always tells before Maariv of Simchas Torah.

Rav Isaac l’Kalover recounted that there was once a Jew who came to a trade show in Leipzig to sell his merchandise. He planned to make a lot of money so he stayed in the nicest hotel he could find. While things didn’t workout as he planned in terms of selling his merchandise, he had a great time in the hotel. He ate the nicest meals that he had even eaten in his life and the bed and room were more comfortable than he had ever experienced in his little town. After a few days, the management began to get a bit worried. They noticed that he wore the same clothes every day, seemed to be enjoying the food a bit too much, and generally didn’t act like someone accustomed to such wealth. One day after this Jew enjoyed a big meal the manager came over to him about his stay and the food. He assured the manager that the had never experienced such nice accommodations or such delicious food and that he was very satisfied.

Still concerned, the manager showed him the bill and asked whether he thought there would be a problem paying it. The man admitted that while he had intended to make a lot of money at the big trade show, things had not worked out and he had no money to pay the bill. Infuriated, the manager grabbed the man and was about to take him to the police who were likely to beat him up and kill him. Protesting, the man said, “Wait! You won’t get any of your money back by handing me over to the police. But I will make an arrangement with you. I am a very talented dancer and I attract big crowds back home. Let me dance outside the restaurant and you will see that my performance will attract a crowd and you will see that the additional business brought into your restaurant will far exceed my bill.

Indeed, the Jew danced up such a storm that a large crowd gathered and ultimately, the business brought in by his dancing far outweighed the cost of his own hotel stay and use of the restaurant. Reb Isaac’l concluded that during the previous year and even Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we have enjoyed the beautiful accommodations of this world, but that we do not have the Torah and mitzvos to “pay” for our stay here. But as the days of judgment come to an end on Hoshana Raba, we say to Hashem that he should not take us away from the world. The dead cannot serve Hashem. Rather, we promise that we will dance in honor of Hashem and the Torah on Simchas Torah and that our dancing will bring so much honor to heaven, that it will more than “pay” for our stay in this world. (Adapted from Rav Weinberger’s 5775 drasha by Binyomin Wolf)

So, I was left with the question of how effective was my “payment” this year if I was only dancing once per hakafah? Aside from the learning I attempted do do using hakafos this question was running hakafos in my head. I tried to have the kavanah of being as “Simchas Torahdik” as possible while not going as nuts as I would had I not been in a a a aveilus. Even when I came home that night I still wasn’t sure if I had fulfilled my chei’uv by dancing.

However, what questions and reservations I had were washed away when I recalled an offhand remark I heard on my way to shul just the day before on Shabbos morning. I had the honor of waking my friend’s mother to shul (she uses a walker and I had trouble keeping up with her). She mentioned that like myself, she had a son-in-law that was also in aveilus. In the course of our conversation, she said that the whole year of mourning is the last act of kibud av v’em that a person can do, even if it means curtailing your dancing.

“Make His will like your will,” says Rabban Gamliel ben Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi in Pirkei Avos 2:4. I often find ascribing ideas like ‘being m’vater’ (to give up) or ‘bittul’ (to nullify or be selfless) my actions or lack of actions as something of an afterthought. I’m probably not as mindful as I should be about putting my wants or ‘will’ in the proverbial back seat in my Avodas Hashem. In this case the back seat ended up being a front role seat in the social hall/basement of a shul. All in all, not too shabby.

Succos and Koheles

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download this and a number of other Drashos on Sukkos

Koheles – Everything Is “Hevel Havalim”

“Moed” – A “Meeting” With Hashem

Yom Tov is called moed. Moed comes from the word vaad, which means “gathering” or “meeting.” Who are we meeting with? With Hashem! When a person makes up to meet with his friend, they make up that they will meet in a certain place. Where is the place that Hashem would meet us in? In the Beis Hamikdash. In the times of the Beis Hamikdash, there was a mitzvah three times a year to go up to the Beis Hamikdash. It was an eye-to-eye meeting with Hashem, just like when two friends meet each other and make eye contact.

Nowadays, we have no Beis Hamikdash. Where then can we meet with Hashem?

Yom Tov is our meeting with Hashem. It continues to exist, long after we no longer have a Beis Hamikdash.

Hashem is fully ready to meet us – He is everywhere. Nothing is holding Him back. The only thing that prevents a person from meeting with Hashem is his very self. If a person manages to remove the barrier holding him back – his very self – he would then be able to meet Hashem, wherever he is. The Mesillas Yesharim[1] writes that a person who is constantly connected with Hashem is considered to always be walking with Him, even as he lives here on this physical world.

When a person is always connected to Hashem in his life, even though he has no Beis Hamikdash to meet with Him, he himself has become like a Beis Hamikdash – and he can meet with Him.

Every Yom Tov has an inner power in it that enables a person to meet with Hashem. A person has to receive the inner point of each Yom Tov which will connect him with Hashem.

On Sukkos, what is that inner point of Yom Tov that can connect a person with Hashem?

Removing the Barriers

On Shabbos of Chol HaMoed Sukkos, Chazal established that we read the book of Koheles.[2] This is not a coincidence that we read Koheles specifically on Sukkos. There must be some connection between the book of Koheles and the theme of Sukkos; otherwise, why would Chazal establish that we read Koheles on Sukkos?

Shlomo Hamelech begins the book of Koheles with, “Hevel havalim (“futility of futilities”), so says Koheles; hevel havalim, everything is hevel havalim.” Rashi brings from Chazal the following: “Koheles is making an announcement and saying that all of Creation is futile; he says “hevel” seven times in the possuk, corresponding to the seven days of Creation. The commentators are perplexed: How could Shlomo HaMelech say such a thing?! How could he say that Hashem’s Creation is all futility and vanity?

The depth of the matter appears to be as follows. The world is called “olam”, from the word “he’elam” – “concealment.” This world really conceals Hashem from being revealed to us. The world – this world of he’elam – was created in seven days; in other words, there are seven levels of he’elam. A person’s job on this world is to remove all the he’elam – to remove all the barriers between him and Hashem – and come to reveal Hashem. All of a person’s avodah is essentially to show how all of creation is one big he’elam.

When a person comes to really feel that all of Creation is hevel – in that it conceals Hashem from us – he personally reveals Hashem in his life. He essentially enters the state of before Creation, in which there was no he’elam yet; he will be able to become constantly attached to Hashem as a result. Anything which deters a person from being attached with Hashem is a kind of he’elam. When a person manages to remove that barrier from upon himself – he views everything as hevel, since it’s all getting in the way of revealing Hashem onto the world – he will be able to always become attached to Hashem.

This is the inner point that one can reveal on Sukkos. This is the way how one meets with Hashem on the Yom Tov of Sukkos.

Reb Chatzkel Levenstein zt”l once said that it’s not enough for a person to read the book of Koheles written by Shlomo Hamelech; every single person has to write the words “Hevel havalim…everything is hevel havalim”, and these words have to be ingrained in one’s blood. A person has to feel clearly in his heart that this world is completely hevel – it leads us astray from Hashem. This is the Avodah of Sukkos: write your own personal sefer Koheles!

Before and After the Beis Hamikdash

When the Beis Hamikdash was around, a person had special Heavenly assistance to reach utter closeness with Hashem and get past all the barriers of this world. He would bring the korbonos (sacrifices) and eliminate the physical aspect of the animal, transforming the physical into the spiritual. He would reveal G-dliness in what was previously something totally physical, something that was a kind of he’elam.

Now that the Beis Hamikdash isn’t around, we have to accomplish this very same goal, but through the abilities of our soul. We need to eradicate the he’elam of this world and instead to come meet with the Creator of the world – the state of total attachment with Him that existed before creation, when there was no he’elam yet.

[1] chapter 26

[2] Ecclesiasties

Attaining the Needs of Our Soul

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

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

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

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

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

The Love We Have Towards Ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How We Love Others

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

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

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

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

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

Simchas Yom Tov

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

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

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

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

Overeating: The Prime Example of Materialistic Pursuit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Needs of A Child

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

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

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

The Test

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

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

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

What Weddings Have Become Today

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

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

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

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

Changing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Newly Developed Awareness

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

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

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

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

Feeling Another’s Soul

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

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

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

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

Leaving The Body And Entering The Soul

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

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

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

Pesach and The Essence of The Three Festivals

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Pesacb

Terms For Yom Tov

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

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

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

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

Regel\Walking – Going From One Place To Another

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy Habits

How do we ascend in our souls through Yom Tov?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defining The Joy of Yom Tov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make This Assessment

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Chagigah 4a

[2] Pesachim 109a

Purim – Rising Above Doubt

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Purim

Exploring The Connection Between Purim and Yom Kippur

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

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

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

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

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

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

The War With Amalek/Doubt

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

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

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

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

The Inner Point of The Soul Where There Is No Doubt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purim – Yom Kippur

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrating the Doubt–free Purim and Yom Kippur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practically Applying This Concept

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Tikkunei HaZohar 421 (57b)

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

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

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

3 sefer Bnei Yissocher

[4] Tehillim: 73

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

[6] Shemos 17:12

[7] The king of Assyria who destroyed Babylon.

[8] Yalkut Shimeoni Tehillim 139

[9] Yoma 74b

[10] Referring to Hashem’s essence.

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

[12] Rashi in end of Parshas Beshalach

[13] Zohar Beraishis 11a

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

[15] Avos 1:16

Tu Bishvat – Eat some fruit! Enjoy life!

Some call it Israeli Arbor Day. Others think of it as Jewish Environmentalism Day. Mystics make a symbolic holy meal called a seder at night. Others plant a tree in Israel.

Its true name is Tu Bishvat, Hebrew for the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shvat which always comes at this time in the winter, and is known as the New Year for Trees. Years ago it was practically an unknown or un-celebrated holiday on the Hebrew calendar but over the last ten years it has grown in popularity for different groups, from different angles.

Older traditional kabbalists started the original “seder” in Tsfat, Israel in the 16th Century. The seder consists of symbolic eating of fruits combined with recitation of verses from holy books. And with the popularity of Kabbalah these past years… this holiday has also taken on new meaning for some mysticism enthusiasts.
On the other hand young people who are into environmentalism are also taking part in a seder, but for different reasons.

For example, Next Dor is a local organization in a house that offers a place for young Jews to gather for social and educational events in a non-denominational atmosphere. At the house in St. Louis City, Next Dor is hosting a Tu Bishvat Seder. According to Yoni Sarason, spokesman for Next Dor, the seder will include both traditional aspects as four cups of wine and four types of fruit corresponding to the kabbalistic concept of four realms of creation, and also, as he puts it, “more modern Eco Jewish aspects.”

In general the holiday is focused on the theme of appreciation to the Creator for the benefits and pleasure of food. Because of its sweetness, fruit is most iconic for this focus. Fruit is nature’s dessert.

And in some ways this holiday is not that unsimilar to Thanksgiving, but with kabbalistic pilgrims.

You can do your own version of a Tu Bishvat seder by merely having a variety of fruits and expressing your appreciation to the Creator for the blessings you have.

Shvat
Shvat is the month of Aquarius, the water carrier. Water is a symbol for wisdom. There is a potential outpouring of wisdom at this time. What is wisdom? The type of knowledge that allows you to become one with the Infinite.

There’s a three step process that the sages seem to be telling us is good for this:

Step One: Make a brocha and take a bite of a sweet juicy grape, fig, pomegranate, olive, date, apple, pear, etc.

Step Two: Silently thank the Creator for making the fruit, the tastebuds to enjoy the fruit, and your ability to have access to the fruit.

Step Three: Feel the closeness of Creator.

We celebrate the fruit in the winter when things look bleakest. Outside its pretty barren, but deep down the sap is starting to rise in the trees. This marks the beginning of the blessings to come.

Sometimes when things look bleakest, the blessings are in the making.

Eat some fruit! Enjoy life!

For more about the month of Shvat see: KME and St. Louis Spiritual Living Examiner

A Gourmands Approach to Sukkos

From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School

-For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-

A Sukkah built taller than twenty Ahmos is posul-unfit to perform the mitzvah in. What is the source of this law? Rabbah answered: The Posuk states:,” That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in Sukkahs” (V’yikra 23:43) [With a Sukkah] up to twenty Ahmos [high] a man ‘knows’ that he is dwelling in a Sukkah, but with one higher than twenty Ahmos he does not ‘know’ that he is dwelling in a Sukkah, since his eye does not catch sight of it [the schach-roofing]!

-Mishna and Gemara Tractate Sukkah 2A

 As an apple-tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the sons. I yearned for His shade and sat underneath it, and His fruit was sweet to my palate.

-Shir HaShirim 2:3

While it’s often been said that there’s no accounting for taste a societal consensus does exist as to what constitutes good taste and poor taste. While hamburgers, franks and coca cola are flavorsome and greasy comfort foods it is foie gras caviar and champagne that come to mind when we contemplate the finer things in life.  Day-Glo bright colors may appeal to kindergarteners when finger-painting, but a more developed visual sensibility perceives beauty in the muted hues and the delicate interplay of light and shadow that inform the work of the great renaissance masters. Certain artistic, fashion, cultural and even political choices are considered refined and sophisticated while others are scorned as low-brow or philistine.

Torah and Mitzvahs are the very finest things in life. While we all know this to be true on an abstract level it is the rare soul that has an inborn taste for the spiritual high-life. For the vast majority of people who hanker for ruchniyus-spirituality it is an acquired taste. We find that Dovid HaMelech-King David had “eyes to behold the goodness of the light” i.e. highbrow spiritual tastes. Here is the glowing review that he wrote about Torah and Mitzvahs: “They are more enviable than gold, even more than a great deal of fine gold, and are sweeter than honey and the drippings of honeycombs.” (Tehilim 19: 11).

The question is…how do we cultivate our spiritual palates? How should we go about acquiring a preference for the very finest things in life?

Rav Leibeleh Eiger cites a passage in the Zohar stating that the “shade” mentioned in this posuk in Shir HaShirim refers to the Mitzvah of Sukkah. He adds that the end of the posuk: “his fruit was sweet to my palate” refers to the Mitzvah of the daled minim – Lulav, Esrog etc.  By means of performing the Mitzvah of Sukkah one gains the heavenly assistance required to develop a King David-like keen and subtle vision. The essence of the Mitzvah is about vision. The tractate expounding this Mitzvah opens by proclaiming that a Sukkah that the eye cannot catch sight of is no Sukkah at all.

Accordingly, a more in sync translation of the posuk (and, coincidentally, a more literal one as well) would be: “In/ due to His shade [the shade of the Sukkah- described in the Zohar as “the shade of faith”] I have come to covet, to crave [the truth]…and due to His fruit [the various produce of the Holy Land that comprise the Mitzvah of the four species the truth has become] sweet and savory to my palate.”

But here’s the rub: How does one acquire a taste for the Mitzvahs of Sukkah and the daled minim ?

To carry the food analogy a bit further we should regard these specific Mitzvahs as Hors d’oeuvres. Appetizers, as their name suggests, are items served at the beginning of the meal to stimulate the appetite or small samples of the main course that fuel the desire for more. Antipasto and Hors d’oeuvres are cooked and spiced by design to make the consumer crave, and better enjoy, the other courses.  One who arrives at a banquet with a poor appetite will nibble on them and they get his gastric juices flowing. Rav Leibeleh proposes That we begin thinking of Sukkah and the daled minim as appetite stimulants and palate refineries for spirituality. If we do, we will seize upon them with gusto.

Contrary to the popular cliché seeing is not believing.  It is, well, seeing!  There is no longer any need for faith in something’s coming or existence once we behold it with our own eyes. This is among the things that our sages were alluding to by calling the Mitzvah of Sukkah “the shade of faith”.  Faith precedes actual vision like an appetizer precedes a real meal.

As we work on acquiring a more refined taste, a more cultivated palate, a subtler sensibility we must have faith that we will get there one day.  You can’t wean a person off of hamburgers and beer unless he comes to believe that, if he keeps working at it, at some point he’ll find filet mignon washed down with a good cabernet sauvignon even more delicious. The shade of the Sukkah provides shelter and relief to all those who can’t yet see the light or taste the sweetness of Torah and Mitzvahs but who deeply believe that in the shade of the Sukkah, in the Sukkahs delicate interplay of light and shadow , they will come to covet and crave the truth.

Adapted from Toras Emes-1st Day  Sukkos 5634-1874 A.C.E. (page 81)  

Sukkos – The Jews Inner Self

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download this and a number of other Drashos on Sukkos

Sukkah and the Four Species – The Dual Natures of Man

On Sukkos, we have two mitzvos: to sit in the sukkah, and to shake the Four Species. These two mitzvos represent the two sides of man. The Four Species, which we shake around and move, represent how man is always in movement. We are full of various retzonos (desires), and all of these desires are a kind of movement. The mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah represents a totally different side to us. In a sukkah, we don’t move; we sit there.

Hashem is mainly called by two names. The lower name of Hashem is “adonoy” – He is our adon, our master. This refers to how we serve him with the mitzvos. The higher name of Hashem is the four-letter name of havayah, and this refers to the simple recognition of His existence. The two names of Hashem reflect the two sides of our life’s mission. On one hand, we “move” constantly by doing all the mitzvos. This is how relate to Hashem as our Master, Whom we serve; that He is adonoy. But the inner essence to our life is that we recognize his existence and integrate our own existence as a part of Hashem. This is how we relate to Hashem with his higher name, havayah. It is the deeper part of our life.

The fact that Hashem exists is not just a fact about life, but it is something which we can connect ourselves to. The mitzvah of sitting in the Sukkah is entirely about this concept – to sit in Hashem’s Presence, with no need to move around, and instead to connect to Hashem’s Endlessness.

In this discussion, the intention is not merely to say a nice dvar Torah for Sukkos, but rather, to define the very essence of Sukkos: accessing our innermost point of our self – our point of non-movement – when we integrate with Hashem. It is also a concept that has ramifications to our entire life. It is the way how we can prepare for the future, when we will sit in the Sukkah made of the leviathan skin.

The depth of our Avodah on Sukkos is to combine the two sides of mankind and integrate them together: the Four Species, which represents our mitzvos\movement, and the mitzvah of sitting in the Sukkah, which represents our recognition of Hashem\non-movement.

Our Actual Essence Vs. The Outer Layers of the Self

We will try to explain this as much as Hashem allows us to understand it.

The most complicating thing in the world is our self. Anything else we recognize are all superficial realities – such as our house, the block we live on, the country we live in, even the world; it’s all an external, superficial kind of recognition. If this is all a person knows of, then he lives a superficial kind of existence – he lives on the outside world. He is thinking all the time about things that are outside of himself. The clothing we wear is not either a part of who we are.

When a person begins to look for his inner essence, he is apt to think that he “is” what he “does.” He identifies himself based on his actions, his emotions, and his thoughts.

For example, a person has an affinity to do chessed (kindness), so he thinks of himself as a “good person” since he sees that he is drawn towards doing good things. When he has to reprimand his children sometimes, he feels horrible inside, because now he thinks he’s a “bad person” by having to act cruel to them.

If a person is deeper, he knows that there is more to himself than the actions he does. He is aware of his thoughts – and he identifies himself based on what’s going on in his mind. Yet this is erroneous as well, because a person is not his thoughts either.

Our actions, our emotions, and our thoughts are just outer layers that cover over our essence. They are like garments that clothe our soul.[1] But there is more to who we are than our actions, emotions, and thoughts.

How can a person identify who he really is?

To be frank, there is almost no one who truly knows who he is, and there is almost no one as well who really recognizes Hashem. If a person doesn’t know he really is, he can’t either recognize Hashem!

There are many people who are searching to find Hashem. But, it is written “From my flesh I see G-d”[2]; in other words, we need to know who we are in order to be able to recognize Hashem.

Only By Recognizing Our Self Can We Recognize Hashem

We will expand more upon these words, because it is a very fundamental concept which needs to be understood well.

There is no person who has no self-knowledge of himself whatsoever; all of us know ourselves to a certain extent, besides for those who have become mentally ill (may G-d have mercy upon them). But the way we understand ourselves is superficial: we recognize ourselves based on the outer parts of our self, such as our actions, our conversations, our emotions, and our thoughts. These are outer layers to our soul – garments that cover over our actual soul – and therefore these factors are not a real way to identify ourselves.

When a person only has a superficial understanding of himself, he will in turn have a superficial relationship towards G-d. It is written, “From my flesh, I see G-d”, so if a person doesn’t properly recognize his own “flesh”, his real self, he won’t come to really identify Hashem either. As a result, he will never form a deep bond with the Creator, because he doesn’t really conceptualize the Creator’s existence in the first place.

We can compare this to a person who wishes to grind flour but he has no home appliance to grind it with. The “I” in a person is a tool for one to recognize the Creator of the World, because “The Holy One and Yisrael are one”. If someone recognizes his own Yisrael, the Jew inside himself – his beginning, for Yisrael is called “the beginning” (see Rashi Beraishis 1:1), then he can come to recognize the beginning of his own beginning, which is the Creator; the Ultimate Beginning. But if a person never got to his own beginning, and he only knows of branches from his beginning – his various abilities – then not only is he missing a bond with the Creator, but he is missing his own Jew within. The essence of the Jew is that he is a Yisrael; thus, if a Jew does not recognize that he is Yisrael deep down in his soul, he is missing self-recognition.

How indeed can a Jew attain self-recognition? It is not written in any sefer\book in the entire world. A book is an outer entity, and thus it impossible for the actual “I” to be described in any book! If the “I” could be written about in a book, that would be releasing the “I” from its inner chamber out into the open world, and that itself is impossible.

The only one who can reveal the “I” is Hashem Himself. “I am Hashem your G-d.” The word anochi (I) stands for the words ana nafshai kesavis yehavis, “I Myself can write this.”[3] In other words, the only one who can write about the “I” is Hashem. Hashem has given us the tool in how we can recognize Him: the more we recognize our self, the more we recognize Him. If we have only a superficial self-recognition, then our recognition of Hashem will also be superficial. If we recognize what our essence is, then we will be able to recognize the essence of Hashem.

The Torah begins with the letter beis, in the word Beraishis. The Ten Commandments began with the letter aleph, in the word “Anochi.” The depth of this is that Hashem reveals Himself in the letter Aleph, which is the beginning letter. If we come to our letter “aleph” in our soul – our point of beginning – then we will be able to come to the total level of Aleph, the Absolute One, the Absolute Beginning – the One who existed, exists and will always exist: the Creator. But if man doesn’t recognize who he is, then he won’t be able to recognize his Creator.

What is the most hidden thing in Creation? Hashem’s Name is never pronounced. Whenever the Name of Havayah is used in the Torah, we read it as “Adonoy.” The actual “I” of Hashem, even when it is written, is never read. And when we do read a name of Hashem, it is not written there. This is not only a fact about reading Torah. It a perspective to have on Creation, a perception of our soul.

There in inner kind of writing of our soul which cannot be read. If we could read it, we would be in the state of Moshiach’s times, which we are not in right now. When we all will be able to pronounce the Name of Havayah, Moshiach will come. Nowadays, only a few individuals are allowed to use the Name of Havayah. Our Avodah is for us to reach the Name of Havayah of Hashem, which we do not currently recognize.

We usually relate to Hashem with the fact that we must do the mitzvos He commanded us with. However, there is an inner aspect to our relationship towards Hashem which we start out being unaware of, and we must discover it. It is the fact that we are not just servants of our Master, but rather, our whole existence is connected with Him.

That is the difference between the lower name of Hashem, Adonoy, and the higher name of Hashem, which is Havayah. The lower name, Adonoy, represents how we must do the mitzvos, for He is our Master. The name of Adonoy implies that our relationship with Him is dependent on the actions we do. The higher name, Havayah, reflects that we are all integrated with Hashem, regardless of what we do or not, because the connection is intrinsic. “A Jew who sins is still a Jew.”

The point of havayah – our true existence, in which we are integrated with Hashem – is the point that is hidden away deep in the soul. When we do the mitzvos, it builds the outer layers of our soul, but it doesn’t build the point of havayah in the soul.

When a person performs a mitzvah, he is doing an action. The root of all action is the power of ratzon – the will. The will represents man’s nature to always be in movement; ratzon comes from the word ratz, to “run”, to move. If a person considers his ratzon to be the deepest part of himself, he identifies himself with the power of movement, of action. He is at the level of the Four Species, which move in all six directions of the world – but he hasn’t yet gotten to his own self. He hasn’t yet gotten to the “Sukkah” inside himself – to the “Yisrael” inside him, his true “I.”

With a poor sense of self-recognition, even a person sitting in the Sukkah doesn’t grasp what the concept of Sukkah is. Although it appears as if he’s reached the point of non-movement, because he’s sitting in the Sukkah – he’s only there physically, but he doesn’t see himself as being in the tzeila d’meheimenusa, the “shadow of faith” that the Sukkah is. He’s doing all the mitzvos for His Master, but he hasn’t yet reached emunah – the sukkah that is all about emunah, recognizing Hashem’s existence.

Thus, there are essentially two stages in our bond with Hashem: first we become His loyal servants by doing all his mitzvos. At a later stage in life, we must eventually enter the second, inner stage, which is to recognize Him with our emunah. These two stages are represented by two great events that our people went through: the exodus of Egypt and the Giving of the Torah. By the exodus, we were released from Pharoah’s servitude and now we became servants of Hashem. By Sinai, Hashem revealed Himself with the giving of the Torah, and now we reached a new level: we recognized Hashem.

When Hashem revealed Himself by the Torah, He did not reveal Himself with His lower name, Adonoy, but rather with His higher name, Havayah. This shows us that the Torah is essentially the higher name of Hashem, Havayah.

For this reason, we never really begin to learn the actual Torah, because we are not connected to Havayah. And surely, we never finish it, for that reason. “The Torah of Hashem is wholesome, it settles the soul.” The Baal Shem Tov said that the Torah is wholesome and perfect because no one has ever begun to learn it and complete it. What is the meaning of his statement? No one ever begun to learn the Torah?! The meaning is that the Torah throughout the generations until the end of time is not yet the actual Name of Hashem to us, and this is the deep reason why the Name of Hashem is not allowed to be pronounced.

When a person recognizes his real essence, he merits to truly learn the Torah – the essence of the Torah. Through his learning, he can then come to recognize Hashem – not just the actions and middos of Hashem, but an actual recognition of Hashem Himself, so to speak, in the same way that he recognizes his own essence.

Only a person who feels his own essence can come to feel the reality of Hashem. Of course, anyone will claim that he can feel himself as existing, not just a Jew, but any non-Jew as well, and even animals, can feel they exist. But as we explained, most people never arrive at true self-recognition, and they only are aware of the outer layers to their existence.

Summary

To summarize: If we want to define the purpose of Creation, the definition is clear. The purpose of Creation is to recognize the reality of Hashem. The way to get there is through self-recognition. The self is the point in a person which never ceases, for Hashem and Yisrael are one; just as Hashem is eternal, so is a soul of Yisrael eternal. If a person views himself as an entity that can cease, then in turn he views his bond with Hashem with the same superficial perspective.

The soul of a Jew is a “piece of G-d from above”, and therefore, one can come to recognize Hashem through the recognition of himself. A Jew is the only nation on this world which is capable of feeling the inner self and thereby sense the Creator with just as much clarity.

This is the lesson of Sukkos: we have two mitzvos – to sit in the Sukkah and to shake the Four Species. We have both of these mitzvos because we are meant to integrate both of the lessons they represent together. The Four Species represents how we must move to do all the mitzvos, the actions through which we serve our Master with. The mitzvos are the way for us to get through to our heart and reveal it. “The heart is pulled after the actions.”[4]

What is it that we must reveal from our heart? It is not limited to the great exalted feelings of love and fear of Hashem. It is not about becoming awe-struck from elation. It is about reaching our essence, our “I.” The point of doing all the mitzvos is so that we can use all these actions to reach our I” and reveal it. In this way, we integrate Adonoy with Havayah.

The “I” can be reached in several ways. There is way to reach it directly, but only the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur knew the secret of how to do it. The other way is the way which we generally take, and that is through doing all the mitzvos so that we can get through to our essence and recognize the Creator as a result. But when we do the mitzvos, the focus should not be on the actions, but rather on the goal, which is to come to our essence.

Reaching Our Point of Menuchah\Serenity

Understandably, the words here are very deep, but they are the secret about life.

All of us want grow higher and elevate ourselves. Yet, this is still a superficial approach. It’s superficial because life is not just about feeling more elated. Elation is still a kind of movement, and as we explained, movement is only the outer layer of our existence. For this reason, there is almost no one who reaches what he wants in life, because a person keeps evading his main goal, in spite of his many aspirations to grow and become more elated in spirituality.

There is a well-known parable that illustrates this message. A man dreams that there is buried treasure underneath the bridge of his town, while in reality, there is buried treasure sitting underneath his house all along.

The lesson we can learn from this is that even when a person seeks spirituality, he might very be well be running away from his real “treasure” all along. For example, if he thinks that Hashem is in Heaven, while he is merely on this lowly earth, then all he will know of is the mitzvos, and his entire life will be limited to performing superficial actions. The truth is that Hashem is found everywhere (Zohar III 225a) – He is found inside a person! Our Avodah is to uncover our true existence, and then we will find Hashem there.

Of course, it will require a lot of “movements” to get to that inner place in ourselves, but we must at least aspire to reach this point of serenity (menucha). When a person reaches menuchah in himself, Hashem is truly revealed, because menuchah represents Shabbos, the point of non-movement and a cessation from all labor. One who attains menuchah on this world can recognize the Creator, and he attains it no less than how all of us will eventually recognize Hashem in the future. But if someone never reaches the point of menuchah in himself, the “Shabbos” in himself – he will not come to the recognition of the One who created the world.

[1] See Tanya chapter 4, and Tzidkas Hatzaddik 263.

[2] Iyov 19: 26

[3] Yalkut Shimeoni: Shemos 20: 226

[4] Sefer HaChinuch, 16

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

Shavuos – Not Just Another Uber Driver

The Talmud relates [Pesachim 68b] that Rav Yosef would make a tremendous party on Shavuos. He would say, “If not for this special day (on which the Torah was given), look how many Yosefs there are in the market place”. Rabbi Frand explains “If not for the fact that I as a Jew have that precious gift of Torah, I would literally be ‘just another Joe'”.

On a recent Uber trip, one of my kids got into a discussion with the driver about Judaism. The driver was amazed that a Torah Observant Jew can’t eat whatever (s)he wants, can’t wear whatever (s)he wants, can’t say whatever (s)he and can’t do whatever (s)he wants. The driver remarked that he does basically anything that he wants.

What the driver missed, and what we often take for granted, is that just basic Torah observance, Shabbos, kashrus, etc, makes us great. Chazal teach that Hashem created man with a yetzer hara for desire, egocentricity and laziness and only by following the antidote of Torah and its commandments, can we rise above our base nature and become great human beings, with the possibility of connecting to people and connecting to Hashem with all our actions. When we heed the directives and follow the mitzvos of the Torah we unify the world and create a reality in which “Hashem will be One and His Name will be One”.

The Mesillas Yesharim is structured around the beraisa of R. Pinchas ben Yair which states:
“Torah leads to Watchfulness; Zeal; Cleanliness; Separation; Purity; Saintliness; Humility; Fear of Sin; Holiness; Divine Inspiration; the Revival of the Dead.”

It starts with Torah and every step is infused with different aspects of the Torah: the warnings of the Torah, the mitzvos of the Torah, the learning of the Torah, the middos of the Torah and more.

Shavuos is the time for us to raise our commitment to Torah and to growing well beyond an Uber driver in the marketplace. Chag Someach!

Yom Tov – Finding Our True Source of Happiness

R’ Itamar Shwartz
Download Rav Shwartz Shavous Talks here.

Defining The Joy of Yom Tov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making This Assessment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lag Ba’omer, Rebbe Akivah, and Kabbalah

By Rabbi Tzadok Cable

As we cross over the midway point of Sefiras Ha’omer we approach the milestone of Lag Ba’omer – the 33rd day of the Omer. What significance lies within this special day and what connection does it have to the days of Sefiras Ha’omer? When we look into this question the first thing that comes to mind is that Lag Ba’omer marks the day when the students of Rebbe Akivah stopped dying and it also marks the yartzeit (the day of passing) of Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai.

Rebbe Akivah was of course the great master and leader of the generation who saved the Torah from being forgotten through his sacrifice. One of his main cornerstones of teaching was “Ve’ahavtah L’reacha Kamochah – love your neighbor as yourself. Rebbe Akivah understood and emphasized in all of his teaching and in all areas of life, the importance of interpersonal relationships and the high level of sensitivity that the Torah demands us to have towards one another. To Rebbe Akivah this was not only a central precept of Judaism but also one that by mastering it would lead to growth and increasing levels of completion in all other areas of Torah.

With this in mind we must certainly be perplexed by the following teaching from the Talmud

“They said that Rebbe Akivah had 12,000 pairs of students between the cities of Geves and Antifrus, and all of them died during one period of time because they didn’t conduct themselves with the proper respect for one another. And then the world was desolate and the Torah was in danger of being forgotten until Rebbe Akivah came down to our Rabbis in the south – Rebbe Meir, Rebbe Yehudah, Rebbe Yosi, Rebbe Shimon, and Rebbe Elazar ben Shamuah and they reestablished the standing of Torah at that time. The Tannah teaches us that the period of time when Rebbe Akivah’s first students passed away was between Pesach and Shavuos. Rav Chamah bar Abbah and some say Rav Chiyah bar Avin said they all died a very bitter death, what is that referring to “Askarah”(according to our tradition this is the most painful form of death in the world). Yevamos 62b

The Beis Yosef in his comments on the Tur in Siman 493:2 says that there is an alternative version of this story found in a Midrash. The Midrash says that all of the first students of Rebbe Akivah died between Pesach and “pros ha’atzeres” which means fifteen days before Shavuos. He goes on to explain that this means that the students died between Pesach and the 33rd day of the Sefiras Ha’omer period.

These two alternative texts are the foundation for the different customs of mourning that we observe today during the Omer period. These practices of mourning include not getting married, not getting haircuts, and not dancing during this period of time. Some keep this custom for the entire 49 days of the Omer period based on the text of the Gemara above. However, the prevailing custom amongst Ashkenazic Jews today is to keep these customs of mourning for the first 33 days of the Omer (or what is otherwise known as “Lag Ba’omer – the word “Lag” – ‘lamed’ ‘gimmel’ has a numerical value of 33).

But putting the legalities of this time period aside there is a very difficult problem in this historical accounting. How is it possible that the 24,000 students of Rebbe Akivah were guilty of not conducting themselves with the proper respect for one another? Rebbe Akivah was the one who lived and taught to the greatest degree the foundation of “V’ahavtah L’reachah Kamochah”. How is it possible that his message wasn’t clearly established and practiced amongst his students? We can find the answer to this dilemma from our tradition. We know that there is a general rule in how Hashem deals with people in this world called “Hakadosh Baruchu Medakdek al Hatzadikim K’chut Hasa’arah” which means that G-d is actually more exacting in judgment (even to a hairsbreadth) with the righteous than he is with normal people. We know the famous Gemara in Bava Kamma 50a

“There was once a story that happened to the daughter of Reb Nechunia Chofer Shichin where she fell into one of the water wells that he had dug for the Jews coming up to Jerusalem for the 3 festivals. People went to tell this news to Rebbe Chaninah ben Dosa who was a very pious individual so that he would pray for her. The first hour passed and Rebbe Chaninah said she is still alive, the second hour passed and he said the same. The third hour passed and he said she has come out of the pit. When she came back from being saved she related a miraculous story of how a sheep had wandered and fallen into the opening of the well. There was an old man following it and he saw me and saved me. (Rashi comments that the old man was actually the spirit of Avraham Avinu who had come to save her) They asked Rebbe Chaninah if he had prophecy in order to know she was saved and he said I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet but I knew that the mitzvah that her father sacrificed so much for could not possibly be the cause of death for his offspring. Nevertheless Rebbe Acha said that Rebbe Nechunia’s son died of thirst as it says “and for those in G-d’s close surroundings it is extremely tenuous”. This verse is teaching you that G-d is exacting with the righteous ones even to a hairsbreadth.

The question once again is that we understand why Rebbe Nechunia’s daughter was saved from this form of death. What we don’t understand is how it could have been that she should have fallen into that well to begin with. Would Hashem not protect the offspring and descendants of Rebbe Nechunia from any form of danger with regards to these wells which their father dug with such self sacrifice? The answer lies in a deeper understanding of why Hashem is exacting with the tzadikim even to a hairsbreadth. This seems so unfair. Shouldn’t it be that someone who is so dedicated to reaching the highest level of service of Hashem, and who sacrifices to such a great degree to do so, should receive some sort of immunity?

The answer is of course – NO! This is a warped view of the ways of the Almighty. He doesn’t offer diplomatic immunity to his righteous ones. On the other hand, if this is true then why would anyone want to make this sacrifice and try to be so great when all that is waiting for him on the other side is being treated with such exacting judgment? The answer is that the advantage and the benefit of living life on a higher plane of completion and to such a degree of sacrifice far outweighs the comfort of being treated with greater mercy but remaining less connected to Hashem. You can’t have it both ways. The tzaddik realizes that even though he will be judged more strictly as he reaches greater levels in the service of Hashem, it is worth it because in return a deeper level of closeness and a stronger bond with the Almighty becomes available. The normal person who doesn’t make that push may be treated with more mercy and allowed a more lenient form of judgment. However, in return for that he looses out on a greater level of closeness that can only be gained by the path of the tzadik. This is the insight of this teaching about Hashem’s way with the tzadikim.

Therefore, not only is the righteous person treated with greater exactingness in judgment, but he is judged more strictly specifically in the areas where he is great. It is no coincidence at all that Rebbe Nechunia’s daughter fell into one of his wells, nor is it a coincidence that Rebbe Akivah’s students passed away specifically because they weren’t complete in the area of “Been Adam Lachaveiro” – interpersonal relationships. Specifically because Rebbe Akivah was so great in this area, he was tested and judged so strictly with regards to it. Perhaps more than anything else we focus our attention on the centrality of “Bein Adam Lachaveiro” during the Omer. This is the time that the Torah wants us to make the transition between the barley offering on the second day of Pesach to the two wheat breads of Shavuos. We discussed in another article about the significance of the counting of the Omer that the whole point that the Torah wants is for us to realize that our productivity both physically and spiritually needs to be refined from more selfish to more selfless. The more selfless a person becomes the easier it is to fulfill the precepts of “Bein Adam Lachaveiro”.

We saw above that Rebbe Akivah wasted no time after his 24,000 students passed away. He immediately picked up the pieces and started to rebuild. He knew what needed to be done and he knew where he had fallen short in the past. It is therefore by no coincidence that one of the students that developed from his second try was Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai, the father of the Kabbalistic teachings and the author of the Zohar. The Tosefta in Chagigah 2:2 teaches us the following:

“Four men entered into paradise Ben Azai, Ben Zoma, Acher, and Rebbe Akivah. Ben Azai gazed at what was there and died, Ben Zoma gazed at what was there and went insane, Acher gazed at what was there and became a heretic, and Rebbe Akivah went up there in peace and came back down in peace”

Our tradition says that this idea of going up to paradise has to do with learning the mystical secrets of Kabbalah. To enter paradise means to gain access to the mystical secrets of the universe and thus be able to incorporate them into the way and manner in which we perform our Divine Service. Of the greatest scholars of his time only Rebbe Akivah was able to go into this realm of thought and absorb the depths of understanding available there. Only Rebbe Akivah was prepared and worked out enough to manage to gain access to the deepest ideas in the Torah and bring them back down to the physical realm, to the mundane day to day life we live.

What gave Rebbe Akivah this ability? It was his mastery of Bein Adam Lachaveiro. Because Rebbe Akivah had mastered the art of being selfless, therefore he was able to absorb the deepest secrets of the unity of G-d. He had no sense of self to distort the ideas and twist them to fit his “personal interest”. Clearly, one of his greatest students – Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai, was the benefactor of the greatness of his master and followed in his footsteps to the greatest degree. This is specifically what gave Rebbe Shimon access to the secrets of the Kabbalah like his master. Interestingly enough, we find throughout the Zohar that Rebbe Shimon constantly referred to his students as “a group of friends”. He saw the crucial element of Bein Adam Lachaveiro as being central to reaching the levels of depth and insight that can only be found in the Kabbalah.

Of course it is by no coincidence that Rebbe Shimon passed away on the 33rd day of the Omer. This is the same day that marks the ultimate breakdown of Rebbe Akivah’s first attempt at healing the rift in the world between the Almighty and His children. Rebbe Akivah’s message was clear even then. It’s all about Bein Adam Lachaveiro. This is the only way to bring the ultimate level of completion to the world through Torah. Anything short of striving for this ideal will leave a warping and a distortion in our full understanding of the Torah. The source of this distortion will be rooted in the aspect of selfishness. Rebbe Shimon passed away on the same day but in a totally different context. He left behind the “close group of friends” with whom he had shared such a close and deep relationship, that together they were able to bring down the revelation of the deepest secrets of the mystical teachings of the Torah. He left behind the Zohar with all that this gives us as Jews and with all that adds to the world. One of the most common and basic teachings in the Zohar is that someone who has truly mastered the stages of preparing himself to attain an understanding of the secrets of the Kabbalah, is capable of making the most profound and deepest form of transformation on the world. He can fix the world more powerfully and more intensely than others. Certainly if we understand that the Torah is “the precious tool that G-d used to create the world” (Avos 3:18), than all the more so we understand that someone who has refined themselves from all selfishness and thus attained the clearest and deepest understanding of Torah can wield the greatest change and the greatest impact on our universe through his Divine Service.

Perhaps we can now understand what David Hamelech was saying in Psalms 119:18 “[Hashem] – Open my eyes and I will see the wonders of your Torah”. The word for open in this verse is “gal” – the letters are ‘gimmel’ ‘lamed’ the same numerical value as 33. David says “Hashem open my eyes, meaning – allow me to see you and the others in the world that you have Created in the true form in which they exist without the distortion of selfishness. Then as a result of this “I will see the wonders of your Torah. This is a reference to the deeper teachings of the Torah. Furthermore, in the selichos we say in one of the stanzas “purify our impurities and to the light of Your Torah open our eyes”. Again here the word for opening the eyes is ‘gimmel’ ‘lamed’. In other words we say “Hashem purify our impurities – meaning our point of selfishness which constantly drives us away from you, and as a result “open our eyes to the light of your Torah”. Again here the reference is to the deeper element of the light of the Torah. This is the aspect that can only be perceived and revealed to a person when they are ready to absorb it.

Based on this it is clear that the 33rd day of the Omer is a very special day. It marks the bridge and the transition of our preparation during the Omer from selfishness to selflessness. We have 17 more days to go until Shavuos but we have crossed the bridge. The seventeen remaining days have the same numerical value as the Hebrew word “good” – TOV. This is when we can cross the threshold into a new level of understanding the world. We can see the good in everything. We can understand the secrets of our universe and learn to use them to bring the ultimate good into the world. This is the legacy of our great master Rebbe Akivah and his giant of a student Rebbe Shimon. Let us take this special day and use it to give us inspiration that we too can reach selflessness. And through this we will merit to stand again on Shavuos as a nation at the base of Mount Sinai like one man with one heart!

Rabbi Tzadok Cable:

My name is Tzadok Cable. I am originally from Miami Beach, Florida, but I have been living in Israel since 1992. Over the years I have had the opportunity to learn Torah from some of the leading Rabbis of our time including: Rabbi Noach Weinberg zt””l, Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz, Rabbi Yirmiyahu Kaganoff, Rabbi Yonason Berger, Rabbi Nosson Weisz, and Rabbi Yochanan Bechoffer. Over the last 8 years I have been running the Rabbinical Ordination Program at Yeshivas Aish Hatorah.

I have realized during my years of learning and teaching that there is a tremendous thirst and interest in the world today for deep, explorative, and impacting Torah content. I strive to address this interest in my teaching style. In recent years I have seen the trend in the world towards the usage of the World Wide Web and social media on the internet. My vision is to use this trend to provide an opportunity for people to find what they are looking for.

I have developed a vast range of resources and made them available to you on binyanhaolam.com.

Fifty Ways to Meet Your Lover (Sefirat HaOmer)

Mystical writings make this time period analogous to a woman preparing for union with her lover. She purifies herself for seven days. Seven is also the number of types of impurity that must be eliminated, and in our case linked to seven weeks, the time period between Passover and the Biblical holiday of Shavuot, forty-nine days called Sefirat HaOmer, “Counting the Omer”. God reveals all wisdom that there is to know on the fiftieth day, Shavuot, symbolized by the consummation of a marriage. In other words, to learn wisdom is to become one with the Infinite.

Therefore “spiritual purification” is a theme of these fifty days. Each day is designated for us to pray for and work towards a small piece of spirituality.

Don’t get me wrong, anyone who wants God’s wisdom can have it. He loves everyone and wants to give to them. But the more we are equipped to deal with it the more useful it will be.

There’s an old story of a person who seeks to speak with a wise Zen master.

As the proposed disciple sits before the master, the disciple begins to expound on his own knowledge to impress the master. The master stays quiet and begins to pour tea into a cup for the visitor. After the cup is full the master continues to pour until the tea is pouring over the sides causing the disciple to jump up and yell “Stop, the cup is full and can hold no more!”

The wise Zen master replies, “And what about you? Are you full of wisdom? If so, there is no more room for me to teach you anything.”

Wisdom is being poured out from above, but we have to be ready to receive it. Are we humble enough to know how little we know about marriage, parenting, happiness, and meaning? If so we will hit the jackpot.


Step by Step

We are commanded to count each and every day between Passover and Shavuot. This implies that spiritual growth is best achieved step by step, one day at a time. Our soul wants to soar straight to the Infinite. Our body also wants to become holy overnight so it doesn’t have to work. The real path, though, is to fire up a burning desire for purity every single day, working step by step to make progress on the ladder to the Heavens.

Seven Shepherds

One path the sages recommend to grab this opportunity is to emulate the Seven Shepherds. Each week is designated for a different holy one to try to be like.

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David each represents a different character trait. The first week is dedicated to Abraham, the second to Isaac, and so on. There are seven kabbalistic terms in Hebrew that do not lend themselves to an English translation so I will describe an aspect of them instead.

1st Week:
Abraham exemplifies the quality of Chesed, a trait evidenced in his extreme love of mankind. This first week, in order to purify yourself and tap into the flow of Divine assistance, we can look for the positive things in others that bring to the surface that natural love in our hearts for all humanity. If the Almighty can love all His children, so can we.

2nd Week:
Isaac exemplifies Gevura, a trait of discipline and inner strength. He never wavered from whatever he deemed the will of God. To imitate him we can focus our attention on things we are doing that we know are not God’s will and eradicate them.

3rd Week:
Jacob is Tiferet, the ability to be in harmony with all forces. Sometimes he fought, sometimes he bowed. He knew how to handle every single person that came his way. He even had two names which showed his flexibility. He blessed each of his children, showing that he spent time considering the nature of each child, trying to give each one what he needed, encouragement, rebuke, insight, etc. We can do this too by thinking deeply about each of our close family and friends and think about what each person needs.

4th Week:
Moses is Netzach, the Torah’s eternal conduit. We can emulate him by studying the insights of the Torah and try to remove any of our own personal influence on the insights, looking for the pure unadulterated truth.

5th Week:
Aaron is Hod, a trait which made him beloved by all who knew him. He loved peace and did everything he could to bring peace into the world at every opportunity. We all want people to get along, but how many of us are doing anything about it? This fifth week we can emulate Aaron by doing something practical and specific that brings more peace in the world.

6th Week:
Joseph is Yesod, similar to Jacob’s ability to relate to all people, Joseph’s ability was to be able to bond with, join, and become a part of each and every person he met. He easily and successfully became a trusted assistant wherever he went, whether with Jacob, Potiphar (an Egyptian official), the jailer of the dungeon, or to Pharaoh himself. He was immediately trusted because he truly felt the pain of each person he met. We can imitate him by trying to become one with the people we know and their challenges to the point they truly trust us.

7th Week:
David is Malchut, a trait that allowed him to connect his own royal power and tie it to the Almighty. Power corrupts unless you constantly remind yourself that your power is only the Divine putting you in a position like a marionette puppet. When all others were afraid of Goliath, David said, “Are you going to let this guy curse the Almighty? HaShem will help you defeat him.” David knew that the Almighty runs the show at all times. “To You are the greatness, the strength, the harmony, the permanence, and the glory….” We can look at all of our abilities or power roles this week and see how we are merely a conduit for the Almighty.

If you try to emulate each character trait for one week of the seven week period you will experience a new type of enlightenment at the end. This is a simple straightforward approach to the Sefirah period. A more complicated approach uses all seven traits each week. Because each trait is incomplete without all the other six. You can’t have real love like Abraham if you don’t include Isaac’s awe of God. Otherwise you’ll transgress God’s laws to fulfill your love. You’ll spoil your children and become a doormat to your spouse. Each trait properly includes all the others. So a complicated approach to the 50 days has a different combination of two traits each day.

Our tradition says that the Israelites accomplished this when they left Egypt and fifty days later received the Torah.

Riding the Escalator of Life

Sometimes we get a special gift. When you work on spirituality in a consistent way the Almighty opens up a gate for you that you might not have imagined. If you look for reminders of what you are working on you will also notice on a daily basis how the Almighty is guiding and directing your efforts at self-growth. This daily testament to His role in our daily life is comforting and keeps us connected. But when we get that special gift, sometimes a whole new world opens up.

Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch) had an angel come to him and teach him many secrets because of his consistent study of the Mishna, the Oral Tradition. We are not all going to have such a special and holy event happen to us like that but each on our own individual level will receive a boost.

Kind of like that way someone gets “discovered” after plugging away for many years at something. Kimya Dawson was a relatively unknown recording a performing artist for years until one day an actress in a movie called “Juno” recommended her recording with the Moldy Peaches for the soundtrack which became a chartbuster. Now Kimya Dawson is “suddenly” a recognized star. Suddenly….after years of continuous effort. In the spiritual world it happens too.

Whatever area of growth we want to grab a hold of, consistency and continuity will be helpful, and sometimes they will be the cause of a major leap that propels us into a higher level. Our small path of steps just might be turn into a springboard. Now is the time to take the first step.

First Published on May 14, 2008

How I Learned to Stop Complaining and Love Yom Tov

Making Yom Tov requires a Jewish woman to be a frugal shopper, an adequate cook, an event planner, an astute student of Jewish law, and a gracious hostess. She needs to be all this while still being a wife, a mother, or often a career woman too. In short, making Yom Tov is an endeavor that requires a Project Manager. Being the balaboostah is not a simple task, as she must oversee all aspects of the project from start to finish. Over 20 odd years of running my own kosher kitchen in our Torah observant household, I have learned through repeated failures and successes how to stop complaining and love Yom Tov. Here are ten of my tips:

1. Always prepare well in advance.
Like any big project, making Yom Tov requires a schedule. Give yourself ample time, weeks or months if necessary, to do all the planning, shopping, cooking and freezing. Inviting guests is often best done at least a few weeks ahead of time, lest you find yourself disappointed that people have made other plans. It helps to know as soon as possible exactly how many people you are catering for. This way you know what quantities of food to buy, and you also have time to search for bargains. Then you can measure out your freezer, because unless you have a separate freezer for Yom Tov, (which some lucky women do) you will still be using it for everyday food storage. You need to know there will be room to store all the Yom Tov food, before and after it is cooked. I like to work out what to purchase and cook by dividing it into the number of servings for each meal. If I know that I will be serving 45 portions over the entire two days of a Yom Tov, then I know I need 45 portions of soup, 45 portions of fish, 45 portions of desert, and so on and so forth.

Then I cook in short cooking sessions over the course of days or weeks. To do a long cooking marathon into the wee hours of the morning leaves me too exhausted to go to work the next day. Instead, I grab an hour or two here and there, in the early evenings and on Sundays, to cook a tray of fish balls, or a tray of chicken, to bake a cake, or to make a kugel or two, etc. Then I pop them into the freezer with labels taped on the containers to keep track. Following this method ensures that by the time Yom Tov comes around I am relaxed and ready without panicking or having endured undue loss of sleep.

2. Never try to keep up with the big Rebbetzins or the Goldsteins.
Yom Tov became much more enjoyable for me when I stopped comparing mine to other women’s Yom Tov tables. I used to drive myself crazy by feeling inadequate when my table wasn’t as fancy or my food not as elaborate as the big Rebbetzins or the Goldsteins next door. It took me a while, but soon enough I realised that it was all so self-defeating. Just as no matter who you are, there is always going to be someone smarter, richer, or better looking than you, there will always be those women whose Yom Tov making is more efficient, more beautiful, and more tasty than yours too. Some women have more talent and an eye for aesthetics or cooking. Some women grew up with better Yom Tov making training than others, so they have an advantage. So what? At the end of the day, only Hashem knows your particular circumstances. And your circumstances includes things like your inborn talent, the amount of money you can spend, the amount of time you have, the amount of energy G-d gave you, your family situation (5 little kids under the age of ten is challenging for anyone), and the type of lifestyle you live. No one else can or should judge you. Remember, the only one you really need to impress is the Almighty. Only He really knows if you extended enough effort to honor the Yom Tov, and that is between you and G-d.

3. I make sure I cook what my family likes.
The most important people you have to satisfy is your own family. No sense of copying a great fancy recipe just because it looks great in the latest trendy kosher cookbook, or because your friends loved it, if your own family doesn’t like it. It’s your home, it’s your Yom Tov table, and your most special guests are your own family. Keep them happy first and foremost, and then your guests will also enjoy your meal all the more. If your husband likes plain instead of fancy, then make plain. You can prepare an extra dish or two just for the guests, but be sure the bulk of the meal satisfies your family. Remember, your guests will leave after the meal, but your family lives with you. Believe me, a family with happily filled tummies makes for more a much more pleasant Yom Tov and more shalom in the home.

4. Use paper goods.
Yes, I know you invested in fantastic crockery and cutlery, or maybe you have that special set handed down to your from your grandmother. So use them, for at least part of the Yom Tov if you must, but paper goods will save you so much extra cleaning time. After Yom Tov you will appreciate doing only two loads of dishes in the dishwasher instead of ten. And its less pile up in your sink and on your benches during Yom Tov too. Paper goods need not be expensive to be pretty and practical. I absolutely love popping them all in the rubbish bag after the meal, it’s a machayah!

5. Turn on Torah tapes or inspiring Jewish music while working.
Preparation time can be long, mundane, and mind numbing. You can utilize that time by making it inspiring. Not only are there heaps of Torah leaning tapes you can borrow or buy, but the internet has dozens of Torah websites that have unbelievably good Torah classes on audio. Listen while chopping, kneading, mixing, scrubbing, and polishing. Not only will you stimulate your mind, you’ll have some words of Torah to give over at the table, and the holy vibes of the Torah learning will get absorbed into your food making it all that more tasty.

6. Be inner directed.
Don’t look for compliments or appreciation from hubby, kids or guests. If you get it, then great, but don’t be needy of it. Get your head straight as to the purpose of making Yom Tov and, that is to strengthen your connection to G-d and to create holiness, to sanctify your home, and to do the mitzvah. Not everyone in your life will always understand how hard you worked, especially kids, and some guests, so get over it!

7. Go to shule only after I am rested.
I love going to shule, but not if I haven’t got the attention span or the energy. It’s better to get bit of rest or quiet time sometimes on Yom Tov mornings, even if it means missing a Kaddish or two. So what? We’re not men, we are not obligated to be there, we can daven just as well at home most of the time. It’s just nice if we can go and only if we enjoy it. And why drag your kids along if they won’t behave, or if you spend the whole time chasing them, or shushing them to be quiet?

8. Go to a Torah class or gathering if there are any.
No matter how tired I get on Yom tov afternoons, if there is a Torah class, or a frabrengen, or any type of speaker or gathering, I try with all my strength to drag myself to go. I find that once I am there I am always happy I went. After all that cooking serving, hostessing, etc., it’s great to have some social interaction with other women and it can charge your batteries up even better than a short sleep.

9. Indulge yourself and buy at least one nice new thing.
Get something nice for yourself for Yom Tov, whatever you can afford. If not an entire outfit, it may be a piece of costume jewelllery, or shoes, or get a facial, a manicure, or get the sheitel done. Whatever it is that makes you feel more feminine, more princess like, more pampered, do it, and do not feel guilty. The Torah agrees that we women need these little perks.

10. Endorse yourself for a job well done!
When it is finally all over and done with, when you have finally put that last dish away in its place in the cupboard, take a deep sigh and pat yourself on the back. You did it again!

Also posted on Shoshanna’s blog.
Originally Posted on 10/27/2010

Purim, the BT and Unity

I still remember my first Purim as a BT. I didn’t drink, reasoning that I didn’t come to Torah observance to party. However I did get to witness a few unbelievable Purim Shpiels at Ohr Somayach in Monsey as Rabbi Lam was a central participant.

After many years I have a much greater appreciation of Purim and its connection to the BT. Purim at its core is about Jewish Unity and Teshuva. Faced with annihilation that entire Jewish people banded together to rediscover their true purpose and reconnect with Hashem and His Torah. As Baalei Teshuva we certainly have first hand experience of the intense Teshuva experience and the power it creates.

On the Unity side, the mitzvos of the day, illustrate this theme. The reading of the Megillah is a public proclamation of Hashem’s guidance over the affairs of the Jewish People. It is often noted that Purim night is the most crowded event at Shul, with the possible exception of Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur.

The Purim Seudah is a unifying experience as are all Shabbos and Yom Tov meals. Shaloch Manos and Matanos L’Evyonim are both mitzvos designed to created closer bonds between Jews. Some Poskim hold that the drinking on Purim at the Seudah serves to bring us together, as sometimes it is necessary to loosen up to make closer connections.

Baalei Teshuva long for authentic Jewish connections, which is why communal integration is one of our major issues. And as Jews who have been on both sides of the observant/non-observant divide, we have the potential to spur the community to further unification. But first we need to feel in the depths of our hearts that we are all part of one Jewish People. If we can feel that deep connection, many of the divisions caused by judgementalism would fade, as we tend to judge ourselves favorably. Deeper connections would also spur us to collectively work on the crisis’s of Jewish Assimilation, Financial Pressures, Kids at Risk and Shidduchim. Often we see these as somebody else’s problem, but as integral parts of the Jewish people we need to view them as all of our problem.

Today as we engage in the very communal act of a public fast heading into Purim, perhaps we can focus on the essential mitzvos of these days, working on caring deeply about our fellow Jews and collectively returning to Hashem.

Tu B’Av – Completing the Circle

By Yossi from NJ

Tractate Ta’anis ends with a fascinating and somewhat enigmatic Mishna:

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, Israel had no days as festive as The Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur; for on those days, the maidens of Jerusalem would go out dressed in borrowed white clothing – borrowed, in order not to embarrass those who had none. All the garments required ritual immersion.

The maidens of Jerusalem would go out and dance [in a circle] in the vineyards.

And what would they say?

“Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself. Do not consider physical beauty. Consider rather family. ‘For charm is false, and beauty is vanity. A woman who fears Hashem, she is the one to be praised..’ (Mishlei/Proverbs 31:30) “.

And it is further stated ‘Go forth and gaze, O daughters of Zion, upon the King Shlomo, adorned with the crown His nation made Him on the day of His wedding and on the day of the joy of His heart’ (Shir HaShirim 3:11) On the day of his wedding – this is the giving of the Torah; and on the day of the joy of His heart – this is the building of the Holy Temple, may it be rebuilt speedily in our days! Amen.

Chazal often use the metaphor of a wedding for the giving of the Torah; Hashem, the groom, joining in an intimate relationship with his people. In fact, the Alshich explains that Moshe broke the first luchos when he saw the chet ha’eigel as if to say, “the ring (the luchos) has not yet been given, so rather than being like a married woman who has commited adultery, the Jews were still not in the ‘betrothed’ stage”.

Yom Kippur was the day that Moshe brought the second luchos down; therefore the Mishna compares it to a wedding day. And Shlomo HaMelech consecrated the first Beis Hamikdash on Yom Kippur – that year they did not fast, but rather celebrated it as a festival.

The Gemara (Ta’anis 30b) raises the obvious question:

I can understand the Day of Atonement, because it is a day of forgiveness and pardon and on it the second Tablets of the Covenant were given, but what happened on the Fifteenth of Av?

At least six reasons are recounted, each, it seems to me, has the common denominator of a renewed relationship, and ultimately, hope for the future.

  • R’ Yehudah in the name of Shmuel said, it is the day on which the tribes were permitted to intermarry. While in the desert, each tribe would only marry within, so as not to complicate the division of the land (since a woman’s property would transfer to her husband upon her death), on Tu B’Av of the fortieth year, this ban was lifted.

  • R’ Yosef in the name of R’ Nachman said, it is the day on which the tribe of Binyamin was again permitted to marry into the congregation of Israel. The ban, due to the incident of the concubine at Givah (see Judges 19-20), only applied to that generation.
  • Rabah bar bar Chanah in the name of R’ Yochanan said, it is the day on which they realized that the decree of those destined to die in the desert had ended. Rashi explains, every year on Tisha B’Av, the men who were between the ages of 20 and 60 at the time of God’s decree, would dig graves and lay in them. In the morning, an announcement was made, “Let the living seperate from the dead”. In the fortieth year, no one died – the people thought they had erred in their calculation and repeated the procedure every night until the 15th of Av, at which point they realized that the decree had expired. Alternately, Tosafos (B”B 121a) raise the possibility that people did die in that year, but the mourners got up from Shiva on Tu B’Av, the seventh day (inclusive) after Tisha B’Av.

    The Gemara continues, only then did Hashem continue to speak to Moshe “face to face” – in the interim, Moshe received prophecy, but not in the intimate manner that he did before the “dying in the desert” began or after it ended.

  • Ulla says, it is the day on which Hoshea ben Eilah removed the guards that Yeravam had set up to prevent people going to Yerushalayim for Yom Tov.

    Yeravam ben Nevat was the first king of the divided kingdom of the ten tribes of Israel. In order to sever the people’s attachment to Jerusalem, and to prevent them from going up on the three festivals, he established and enforced the idolatry of the golden calves (see I Kings 12).

  • R’ Masna says, it is the day on which the slain Jews of Beitar were allowed to be buried. On that day, they established the Beracha of ha’tov v’ha’meitiv. ha’tov – that the bodies had (miraculously) not decomposed; v’ha’meitiv – that they were allowed to bury them).

    The destruction of Beitar was seemingly the end of hope for the kingdom of Judah. This had been the stronghold of Bar Kochba – the last hope for organized rebellion. The Gemara says that 2.1 million people were killed there by the sword. The Emperor Hadrian did not allow the bodies to be buried, rather, the corpses were used as “fences” around his vineyards. After his death, (12 years later) the new Caesar allowed their interment – on Tu B’Av.

  • Raba and R. Yosef both say – It was the day on which they stopped chopping wood for the pyre on the Mizbe’ach. As R’ Eliezer ha’Gadol taught, from the fifteenth of Av, the sun’s strength wanes, and they stopped cutting wood for the pyre as it wouldn’t dry properly. It was called the axe-breaking day. From this point on, whoever adds on to his night-time Torah study will have years added to his life.

    My Rav explains that this last reason is the primary one. Now that the men could go back to learning Torah full-time, this alone was cause for celebration.

The Gemara, as it often does, concludes the tractate with an Aggadic teaching:
Ulla Biraah said in the name of R’ Elazar: In the future, the Holy One, Blessed is He, will make a circle of all the righteous people, and He will sit among them [in the middle of the circle], and each one will point with his finger, as it says, And he shall say on that day, ‘Behold! This is our God; we hoped to Him and He saved us; this is Hashem to whom we hoped; let us exalt and be glad in His salvation” (Isaiah 25:9).

Ben Yehoyada explains that just as a bride circles her groom, so the righteous will form a circle, as it were, around God. Further, the “finger” suggests a bride’s ring finger.

The Yaavetz points out that the word used here for circle “Machol”, has the same root as mechila, forgiveness. The Gemara thus implies that in future God will forgive all the sins of Israel, enabling all of Israel the privilege of joining this circle.

The Apter Rebbe wrote,
The circle has no top and no bottom, no beginning or end. So too, in the future the righteous will experience no jealousy or dislike, for no one will be said to be on a higher level than another…

This itself is the “holiday for Israel” – when there is no jealousy, competition or envy between them. This is what our sages allude to: Israel had no holidays like Tu B’Av – as the 15th letter of the Aleph Bet is the letter Samech, which is a round circle, with no top or bottom. This is the concept of the dance, and this is the greatest holiday for Israel.
(Ohev Yisrael Likutim 113:B)

So perhaps the last verse quoted by our Mishna can also be refering to Tu B’Av – certainly, it is a day of weddings, of gladness of the heart, and of Torah. Further, the Pri Tzaddik wrote that the future Beis HaMikdash is destined to be built during the month of Av.

“May it be rebuilt speedily in our days! Amen.”
Originally Posted August 9. 2006

Mourning’s End – Understanding Sefira and Lag B’Omer


The Torah’s Honor

The untimely demise of a Torah giant impacts every Jew, leaving a deep feeling of loss. If two Torah leaders died on one day (G-d forbid), the tragedy would be immense. We cannot even fathom how we would feel if the number was ten, fifty, or a hundred. In this light, we can begin to grasp the devastation of 24,000 Torah scholars dying between Pesach and Shavous, all students of Rabbi Akiva.

Our Sages reveal that they all died for the same reason: they did not honor each other properly ( Yevamos 62b). Their failure to honor their colleagues prevented them from appreciating words of Torah said by others. As a result their understanding of Torah was confined to their own insight, an extremely limited perception. Lacking total comprehension, they were not worthy to pass the Torah on to the next generation.

This flaw was rooted so deep in their conduct that they were not aware of it. Even Rabbi Akiva did not perceive it and never reproached them for it. If so, why were they punished so severely? The period between Pesach and Shavous is a time when a Jew is meant to prepare himself to receive the Torah. They should have used this opportunity to look within themselves and recognize their shortcomings. Instead, their souls were returned to their Creator.

Because of this tragedy, the Jewish people observe a period of national mourning between Pesach and Shavous. During this time we refrain from getting married, taking haircuts and shaving ( Shulchan Aruch 493:1-2). In addition, the accepted custom is not to listen to music ( Igros Moshe 1,166 and other poskim ) or to dance, even at a seudas mitzva ( Mishna Berura 493,3).

Days of Mourning
Although the students of Rabbi Akiva died between Pesach and Shavous, all agree that there were not deaths on every single day of this period. Some Rishonim cite a Midrash which says that the students died continuously from Pesach until “ Prus, ” half a month before Shavous (Abudraham , Razah and others.) According to this calculation, mourning should be observed as long as the deaths continued, i.e. until the 19th of Iyar, the 34th day of the Omer . This is the conclusion of the Shulchan Aruch (493,2) and the accepted practice among Sephardim.
Other poskim cite a comment by Tosfos saying that they continued to die until right before Shavous (Maharil). However they did not die on the sixteen days that Tachanun is not said (i.e. seven days of Pesach, six days of Shabbos, and three days of Rosh Chodesh ) leaving a total of thirty-three days. Those who accept this version do not mourn on the exact days that the students died, but rather during a corresponding thirty-three day period established by our Sages.

The Rema follows this view and it is the accepted practice among Ashkenazim (Rema 493:2-3 citing Maharil see Bach ). Some have the custom to observe this period from the second day of Pesach to Lag B’Omer, and others from the day after Rosh Chodesh of Iyar until Shavous.


Dancing at Two Weddings

What are the practical implications of these two different understandings? According to the Sephardi custom , one may not celebrate a wedding until the thirty-fourth day of the Omer . According to the Ashkenazi custom, a wedding may be held until the second of Iyar, or from Lag B’Omer onwards (depending on the custom of the parties involved).

However in certain areas there is a halachic concept of miktzas hayom c’kulo (part of a day is like a full day). For this reason, although seven days of shiva are required, a mourner “gets up” from shiva on the morning of the last day. Therefore Ashkenazim may take a haircut after sunrise of the thirty-third day of mourning, and Sephardim after sunrise of the thirty-fourth day.

May one officiate or participate at a wedding which falls during the period of mourning one observes? An Ashkenazi who knows he will attend a wedding during the Omer ahead of time should follow the custom which places the date of the wedding outside of his mourning period if possible. However at times this is not possible, e.g. he has two weddings, each in a different period.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that since attending a wedding is a fulfillment of the mitzva of rejoicing with a bride and groom, and the couple are allowed to get married at times permitted according to their custom, it is permissible to attend a simcha during one’s Sefira mourning period (Responsa Igros Moshe, 1,159; 2,95).

The Rema rules that since a bris mila is considered to be a personal Yom Tov for the father of the child, he may have a haircut the day before. The haircut should take place close to nightfall unless the bris is on Shabbos, in which case he may do it at any time on Friday. The same halacha applies to the Sandek and the Mohel , for the bris is also considered to be a Yom Tov for them ( Mishna Berura 493,12).

If one needs to take a haircut for health reasons one may be lenient and do so during Sefira ( Aruch HaShulchan 493,2). If one will sustain a financial loss (e.g., you may lose your job) it is permitted to shave or get a haircut (Responsa Igros Moshe , Orach Chaim 4,102). Similarly if one is learning to play a musical instrument for financial reasons, he may practice during Sefira ( ibid . 3,87).

Lag B’Omer
A number of poskim maintain that according to the Rema, a wedding may be celebrated on the night of Lag B’Omer ( Chok Yaakov , Elya Rabba , Graz , Mor Ukatzia Igros Moshe ibid . and others). Since Lag B’Omer is a Yom Tov in its own right, one should not mourn on that day. A proof for this is that Tachanun is not said during Mincha on Lag B’Omer or the day before ( Mishna Berura 493,9). If one has a good reason to hold a wedding on the night of Lag B’Omer, one should consult with a rabbi.

The commentators are unclear on the exact nature of Lag B’Omer ( Pri Megadim ). There are a number of reasons offered for the festival, all of which share a common theme – the strengthening and beautification of Torah for the Jewish nation. In this light, Lag B’Omer fits well into the period between Pesach and Shavous, which is a time of preparation to receive the Torah. At the same time, this period serves as a rectification for the transgressions that brought about the original decree against Rabbi Akiva’s students.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai
It is commonly believed that Lag B’Omer has significance because it is the anniversary of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s death, as well as the day that he and his son left the cave after years of hiding from the Romans ( Kaf HaChaim 493,27; Aruch HaShulchan 493,7; Chaye Adam 131,11 and others). On the day of his death Rabbi Shimon revealed the mystical insights of the Zohar and he did not die until he had completed this revelation ( Bnei Yissaschar, Iyar 3,3). To commemorate this momentous transmission, Rabbi Shimon stipulated that Lag B’Omer should be a day of simcha and promised tremendous reward to those who would rejoice on this day at his graveside . As a result many have the custom to ascend to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Eliezer in Meron to celebrate Lag B’Omer.

The Ari relates an incredible story which sheds light on the magnitude of this day. A great tzadik named Rabbi Avraham HaLevi had the custom to add the prayer of nachem (consolation for mourning) to Shemonah Esreh during the Omer . One year he went to Meron for Lag B’Omer and said nachem usual. The image of Rabbi Shimon appeared to him and told him that he had desecrated this holy day with his prayer, and as a result he would need consolation in the near future. Within a month one of Rabbi Avraham’s children died ( Magen Avraham 493,3 ; Kaf HaChaim 493,26.)

Lag B’Omer is an auspicious time to pray to be blessed with children and it is a well-known segula to pray for this purpose at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon on the day. Some people also distribute eighteen rotel (a fluid measure) of wine or grape juice, another act considered auspicious.

The sanctity of the day has the power to restore life as well. More than a hundred years ago a woman ascended to Meron on Lag B’Omer to give her son his first haircut on his third birthday. In the midst of the celebration the boy suddenly fell deathly ill and shortly afterwards everyone thought that he had passed away. His mother cried to Hashem that she had brought her son to rejoice on Lag B’Omer and instead tragedy had befallen her. Shortly afterwards, she heard the boy crying and he soon recovered ( Ta’amei HaMinhagim p. 263).

Other poskim also associate Lag B’Omer with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in a different way. After the death of his 24,000 students, Rabbi Akiva acquired five new disciples, one of them was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. On Lag B’Omer he gave them semicha , declaring them to be rabbis, thereby assuring that the transmission of the Torah would not be halted by the death of his previous students but would continue with his five new disciples ( Chida, Tov Ayin 18.)

The Miracle of Manna
The Chasam Sofer has a different approach to the nature of Lag B’Omer ( Responsa, Yoreh Deah 233). He proves that when the Jewish people left Egypt they first received the Divine sustenance of the manna on Lag B’Omer. Just as the miracles of Chanukah and Purim are commemorated with national festivals, so too we remember the manna on Lag B’Omer.

One should keep in mind that the manna was not just a source of food for the Jews in the desert. It provided spiritual sustenance that elevated the Jewish people, enabling them to later learn Torah ( Meam Loez, Shemos 16,12). In this respect it has a direct connection to the receiving of Torah and it is appropriate to commemorate this event before Shavous.

The Talmud ( Yavamos 62b) tells us that the students of Rabbi Akiva were punished because they did not show honor for one another. This statement implies that they felt respect for each other but they did not outwardly show it.

In these troubled times it is incumbent upon the Jewish people to look for ways to find favor in Hashem’s Eyes, especially in this matter where we have transgressed in the past.

Demonstrating respect for all of our fellow Jews is no trivial matter. It is an essential prerequisite to receiving the Torah.

Rabbi Travis is the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Toras Chaim.

Originally published here on 5/4/2007

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

Twice Adar – Understanding the Halachos of Adar Rishon and Adar Sheini

Rabbi Daniel Travis
Kollel Torah Chaim

Rising to the Occasion

“When Adar arrives we increase our level of happiness” ( Taanis 29a). All year long Jews strive to feel the tremendous sense of joy that should accompany our service of G-d. As we draw closer to Purim, we are instructed to raise our spirits to an even higher level.

What is the reason for this?

We can answer this with help from the famous dictum of the Rema, “There is no joy greater than that which we feel when we have eliminated doubts” (Responsa 5). Adar and Nissan are months during which Hashem performed extraordinary miracles for the Jewish people. Through studying and celebrating these events we can achieve clarity of faith and rid ourselves of any doubts regarding G-d’s eternal dominion over the world. When everything is so clear, we know that our Father in Heaven is watching over us every moment of the day, and we are free to experience a constant state of simcha .

Haman’s lots determined that we celebrate Purim in the month of Adar, the month in which Moshe Rabbeinu was born. What do we do in a leap year, when we have two months of Adar?

Although all opinions agree that Purim is celebrated in Adar Sheni, the overwhelming joy of this period makes its presence already felt in Adar Rishon, with the celebration of Purim Katan. However, numerous other issues arise concerning the halachic question of which Adar is which.

Shabbos Mevorchim

The following scenario raises a fascinating halachic conundrum: On the Shabbos before Adar Rishon begins, the chazzan stands before the congregation in synagogue, holding the Torah scroll. As he clears his throat to announce the new month, he wonders to himself, “Should I call the upcoming month Adar, or must I say Adar Rishon?”

This chazzan’s seemingly simple question is discussed extensively by the commentators . They agree that Adar Sheni is the “real” Adar and Adar Rishon is the additional month ( Ridvaz 1:150). Although this information has relevance concerning when to commemorate a yahrzeit (a memorial day for the departed), our Sages did not define words based on halachic parameters. Interestingly enough, the meaning of a word is mainly determined by its colloquial use, i.e. what people mean when they say it.

Most Rishonim agree that when people say or write the word “Adar” by itself, they are referring to the first Adar, Adar Rishon (Rosh, Ran, Nedarim 63a). This answers our chazzan’s question, and he can say that next week will be “Rosh Chodesh Adar.” However, it is always better to avoid ambiguity, and for the sake of clarity it is preferable if he explicitly announces, “Adar Rishon” ( Mishna Berura 427:3).

An Adar Deadline

All kinds of legal questions can arise when people are not specific about which Adar they mean. Here is an interesting story of one young man whose confusion became almost overwhelming:

David’s father passed away on the second day of Adar during a non-leap year. To honor his father’s memory, David made a vow that by Rosh Chodesh Adar of the following year he would reprint a book written by his great-grandfather.

David hired a printer and wrote in the contract that the books must be ready by Rosh Chodesh Adar.

Meanwhile, David became engaged and the wedding was scheduled for the third of Adar Rishon.

Three weeks before the wedding David contacted the printer and requested that the first few hundred copies be printed as a souvenir to be given out at his wedding. The printer told him that he had not been planning to complete the books until the middle of Adar Rishon, but he could do it for him for an extra thousand dollars.

That week David found among his father’s papers a document recording a $1,000 loan given to someone three years previously, also a leap year. The document was dated “the fourteenth of Adar,” but David clearly recalled that the loan had been given on Purim – i.e., the fourteenth of Adar Sheni. The borrower had since died, but David hoped that with the signed document he would be able to collect the debt from the estate.

To add to his concerns, David wished to fast on his father’s yahrzeit , as was the custom in his family. Would this mean that he would have to fast on two consecutive days – the day of his father’s yahrzeit and the following day, the day of his wedding?

This story encompasses four halachic issues, each one discussed in a different section of the Shulchan Aruch .

The first question regards David’s vow to print the book by Rosh Chodesh Adar. Must they be ready by Rosh Chodesh Adar Rishon or Rosh Chodesh Adar Sheni?

The next question is by which date did the printer obligate himself to complete the printing?

Third, we must clarify whether the loan document is valid or not. If the loan is considered to have been predated to Adar Rishon, it would be invalid and David is not allowed to use it to collect from the property of the borrower.

Finally, we must determine whether the yahrzeit of David’s father should be observed in Adar Rishon or Adar Sheni.

The Shulchan Aruch and the Rema both rule that the word “Adar” used by itself refers to Adar Rishon. Therefore, since David vowed to print the books by Rosh Chodesh Adar, he must have them ready by Rosh Chodesh Adar Rishon ( Yoreh Deah 220:8).

Similarly, regarding the printer’s contract, since the word “Adar” without explanation means Adar Rishon, the printer is obligated to finish the job in time for David to fulfill his vow without any extra charge ( Choshen Mishpat 43:28).

Concerning the document David found, since the word Adar means Adar Rishon, while the loan was actually given in Adar Sheni, the date is incorrect, meaning that the document is predated and therefore invalid (cf. Rema, Even Ha’ezer 126:7).

In conclusion, when someone says or writes the word Adar, the Shulchan Aruch and Rema agree that it means Adar Rishon, even if he actually meant Adar Sheni.

However, other authorities differ, ruling that the word Adar refers to Adar Sheni (Bach, Shach, Yoreh Deah 220:8). Because of this and other factors that could affect the final ruling, a halachic authority should be consulted in every case.

The question of the yahrzeit depends on other factors. Let us study them in more detail.

Yahrzeits

The Shulchan Aruch writes that if a person passed away in Adar of a non-leap year, the yahrzeit should be observed in Adar Sheni during leap years ( Orach Chaim 568:7).

Regarding vows and financial contracts, the exact date usually depends on what people intend when speaking or writing. However, the date of a yahrzeit has more significance because it is a day of judgment for the deceased and his family, and can only be determined by the month which is considered halachically the “real” Adar. Since Adar Sheni is the real Adar, the Shulchan Aruch places all yahrzeits in that month.

The Rema, however, notes that even though Adar Sheni is the real Adar, we follow the principle of doing mitzvos at the first opportunity and yahrzeits should be marked in Adar Rishon ( Yoreh Deah 402:12). Yet the Rema himself cites authorities who say that since this issue is unclear, it is praiseworthy to observe the yahrzeit in Adar Sheni as well ( Orach Chaim 568:7).

The Mishna states that “the only difference between the first and the second Adar is that the megilla is read and matanos l’evyonim are given [in the second Adar]” ( Megilla 6b). In this vein, some rule that keeping the yahrzeit in both Adar Rishon and Adar Sheni is not just desirable – it is an obligation ( Magen Avraham , Gra, Mishna Berura ). As with the previous halachos , there are many different issues involved in determining which opinion to follow, so a Rabbi should be consulted.

Bar Mitzvas
While the question of when to observe a yahrzeit depends on which month is considered the real halachic Adar, regarding a bar mitzva in a leap year we calculate differently.

In order to consider a child as having reached manhood according to the Torah, it is not enough to identify the real Adar. This calculation requires us to be aware of when thirteen years have completed. Here, even the Rema agrees that a boy born in Adar during a non-leap year does not become bar mitzva until Adar Sheni of his thirteenth year, since the year cannot be considered complete until then (Rema , Orach Chaim 55:11).

Continuous Celebration

The Rambam writes that any celebration that is not accompanied by lifting the spirits of the downtrodden is mere self-gratification ( Hilchos Yom Tov 6,18). Therefore the commentators write that when preparing one’s seuda on Purim Katan , it is proper to give charity to orphans and widows ( Eshel Avraham 697,2). Similarly someone who experienced a personal miracle should distribute money among Torah scholars ( Mishna Berura 218,34). However, there is another secret for making sure that one has the correct intentions when celebrating miracles.

After discussing the opinions of whether one should make a seuda on Purim Katan, the Rema concludes his commentary on Orach Chaim , the section of the Shulchan Aruch which deals with daily life, with a quote from the Book of Proverbs: “ Vetov lev mishteh tamid ,” (One who has a good heart is always feasting). In doing so he repeats the word tamid that he mentioned at the beginning of the Shulchan Aruch where he quoted a Psalm: “ Shivisi Hashem lenegdi tamid ,” (I place Hashem’s Presence in front of me always).

The Birkei Yosef notes that the use of the word “ tamid” in both of these instances hints at a very deep concept.

The temidim , the offerings which were brought on a daily basis in the Temple , had to be offered in their specified order, i.e. the morning korban must always precede the afternoon one.

The use of the word tamid at the beginning and the end of Orach Chaim implies a connection between the two ideas. Only after a person senses Hashem’s Presence before him can he aim to achieve the second level of tamid of “One who has a good heart is always feasting.”

Rabbi Label Lam on Personal Growth Lessons from Tu B’Shevat

Today is Tu B’Shevat.

Rabbi Label Lam gave a wonderful Drasha a few years back where he looked at the Mishna in Pirkei Avos which states “Rabbi Yaakov said, one who is walking along the road and is studying [Torah], and then interrupts his studies and says, ‘How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this plowed field!’, the Scripture considers it as if he bears the guilt for his own soul.”

In questioning what is the great crime here and why the cases of a tree and a plowed field is chosen, Rabbi Lam uncovers some powerful personal growth lessons that we can glean from Tu B’Shevat – the holiday of trees.

Click on this link to listen to Rabbi Lam on Personal Growth Lessons from Tu B’Shevat. (To download the file to your computer, click with the right mouse button on the link and select Save Target As)