emunah, tefillah, a little mussar, and a shmeck of geula

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Yesod of Teshuva

In EmunahSpeak: A Real Deal Teshuva we said that, Teshuva is not a once a year spiritual form of Pesach cleaning or something to be pulled out of the bull pen on the ruchniyas equivalent of rainy days, to level out the speed bumps that we invariably hit as we navigate our way through the minefield of life’s challenges.

Although, by all rights Teshuva should be part and parcel of our daily routine no less than negel vasser, the sad truth is that for most of us it has become seasonal, with opening day being Rosh Chodesh Elul.

But unless one digs down deep, foundation wise in Av, the how, what, and why of the mechanics of Teshuva that will dominate one’s thinking hours in Elul will be anchored in something less than solid bedrock.  For as we explained in EmunahSpeak: A Real Deal Teshuva-part two, if you build a roof in Elul in lieu of a foundation, instead of growth you’ll end up with a levitation act which will predictably succumb to the laws of spiritual gravity.

The hardest thing in this world is to change.  Everyone has a defense or justification for maintaining the status quo ante, and as Rabbi Chaim Malinowitz lets us hear, it should therefore come as no surprise that the biggest impediment to Teshuva is probably self-justification.

To do Teshuva you have to strip away all of the excuses.  So say goodbye to all of the ifs, buts, and maybes, as you take yourself down to your spiritual socks.

Rabbi Malinowitz tells us in the name of the Chovos Halevovos that to properly develop a yesod for your Teshuva you must look at yourself in the mirror and open your spiritual eyes wide enough to see that you need to change things.  And that takes Knia (humility), because the only way to see what needs to be seen in that mirror is to mevatal yourself to the extent that you break down your ego.  Then and only then can you discern the disconnect between what you should be and what you have become.

And accordingly, the Chovos Halevovos places Sha’ar HaKnia just before Sha’ar HaTeshuva because Knia is the stepping stone to Teshuva.  It’s so foundational that without this yesod of Knia, the most intense and sincere Teshuva will lack the capacity to affect the gut-rehab level of change that’s needed to present yourself anew to Hashem.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Unique Mission

Who are You Anyway?

It’s quite common for a person to feel that he’s no more than a cog in a wheel or even worse, an interchangeable part that can be shunted from one task to the next with neither identity nor relevance, be it economic or one’s standing as an individual.  Such a person is oblivious to the essence of who he is and where he’s going.  And we’re not necessarily talking about assembly line workers here.  In the fast pace, computerized, number crunching society that is ours, even professional people have been sucked into the great abyss of the unknown as it pertains to the who of who am I(?).

Rabbi Yonoson Rosenblum suggests that all this indicates that we have lost our conception of self.  We, in effect, live in a virtual missing persons bureau of the soul in which we don’t know who we are.  And if one doesn’t know himself then how can he even begin to know anything outside himself?

And more importantly, how can he know Hashem?

The good news is that while this outlook may be quite common, it’s about as close as one can get to a 180 from reality because we are reminded by Rabbi Rosenblum that each of us is born with a unique mission in life to which no one else has been assigned, and Hashem gives us the necessary ability to bring our unique mission to fruition.  No one but you can bring your strengths, your challenges, and your perspective on life to the table for the task at hand.

In the same way that no two sets of fingerprints are the same or that no two people have the same DNA coding, Hashem doesn’t delegate the same task to more than one person, which by definition means that if you don’t dig down deep enough within, deep enough to hear the niggun of your tachliss in this world, it simply won’t get done because that certain task that was given over to you was given over to the contextual you. It’s about you and you only, so if it can’t be done by you it can’t be done at all.

This concept of our singular uniqueness means nothing less than if it were theoretically possible for someone NOT to have something unique to contribute to Hashem’s world, he simply wouldn’t be here.

To take it even a step further, Rabbi Rosenblum informs us in the name of Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz z”l, that a person will be judged on how he handles the unique commission that was his and his alone in the same way that the Beis Din in Shomayim will judge the tog taiglach of his very existence as a Jew vis รก vis his mitzvah observance and his hashkafas.

The truth is that there are actually two separate concepts in play here.  One is the G-d given talents that are ours and the other is the unique task that each of us was given. 

The Chovos Halevovos teaches in the Shaar HaBitachon that if a person finds his heart drawn in a certain direction, be it music, art, mathematics, carpentry, mechanics or any other skill that might serve as cover for making a living, then he should hearken to that voice within and seek his parnossa accordingly.  And what’s good for parnossa is certainly no less appropriate for executing the special charge with which each of us has been blessed.

As per the Chovos Halevovos, we have to ferret out our special strengths and inclinations from our weaknesses and leverage them to successfully fulfill our purpose in this world.  More often than not, those strengths and inclinations will dictate the direction in which we will go. And if we dutifully follow them we will eventually leave our imprint on this world in one form or another, be it in neon or invisible ink.

But Rabbi Rosenblum tells us that there will be times where a second step will manifest itself. 

You saw something that needs fixing?  Maybe you have an insight into a way out of the shidduchim crisis.  No one else does.

And it doesn’t matter a whit if you’re exactly one day back from seminary and you grew up in house without brothers or you’ve never married off any of your children and you presently have five girls in the parsha with the youngest being thirty.

If you saw something then maybe it’s your task.  Maybe you’re Hager and no one sees the well but you.  And maybe if you saw something, Hashem let you see it because he’s sending it your way.

And He’s sending it your way because you’re unique, you have a mission, and you have something important to do on your sojourn in this world.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Gently Speaking

Iggeres HaRamban

The actual mussar of the Iggeres HaRamban opens with the Ramban’s admonishment to his son that he should accustom himself (yourself) to speak gently to all people at all times.

Rabbi Moshe Hauer tells us that there is no deep meaning here that we have to ferret out because the Ramban’s words are to be taken literally, as in all words, (whatever comes out of your mouth), to all people (even those below you), and at all times (whenever and wherever you are).  And he adds that this general principle to always speak gently may be the most important rule in the entire Iggeres.

The what of this we understand, but what of the why?

Koheles teaches us that the words of the wise are heard when they are gentle.  And as Rabbi Hauer puts it, locks don’t work by force and neither do the words of the wise. The chacham anticipates certain situations and makes his words heard when things are calm, before a crisis hits the fan.  In addition, the chacham deliberates in calmness so that everything will be focused.

Clarity comes with confidence and confidence comes with calmness.  Rabbi Hauer lets us know that the more we’re able to bring a certain calmness to a situation before it becomes stressful the better we will be able to ride out the storm.  And the only sure way to bring that certain calmness into whatever it is that’s going on is to talk the talk as per the Ramban’s dictum.

Many people hear good things.  Some hear it on a constant basis and others even hear it over the course of many years, but it has little if any impact on their lives because they don’t internalize it.  And the reason that they don’t internalize the mussar that they have heard is because from the outset they never set their mind to be mekabel (to accept).

Unlike mere listening which is passive, being mekabel is an active response that requires a person to fully engage himself in order to acquire that which he is being taught.

Rabbi Yisroel Brog tells us that in order to effectively be mekabel the thought that the Ramban is trying to convey with the words accustom yourself, a mentch has to take on a new minhag.

Taking on a minhag in the context of accustom yourself to speak gently means making up your mind to speak in a certain way all of the time.  You can’t change your speech depending on who you’re talking to.

It has to be something immutable.

You have to speak all of your words gently without exception, meaning that you speak the same way to your wife as you do to your chavrusa, as you do to your children, as you do to your employees, as you do to the cleaning lady, as you do to the cab drivers in Yerushalayim, and as you do to the illegal Mexicans who cut your lawn.

In order to accustom yourself to speak gently to all people at all times you’ll have to accustom yourself to be the new you to all people at all times because the old you simply won’t cut it.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Heed, My Son…

Iggeres HaRamban

…the discipline of your father and do not forsake the guidance of your mother.  And so begins the Iggeres HaRamban with this quote from Sefer Mishlei.

The Rabbeinu Yona in his sefer, Shaarei Teshuva, introduces us to a person who shuts himself off from mussar, which is the spiritual equivalent of shutting oneself off from oxygen and then some, because whereas the lack of oxygen will only impact on a person’s life in this world, the lack of mussar will also severely circumscribe his breathing in the next.

Rabbi Moshe Hauer tells us that if you're your own rebbe you're in big trouble because a person is incapable of seeing his weaknesses.  A good friend doesn’t look at you through rose tinted glasses.  He gives it to you over the head if need be.

The key to Teshuva, as the Rabbeinu Yona has made clear, is to be open to guidance.  A person has to be mekabel, and he acquires this trait by training himself to be a shomaya (one who hears),  and it’s with this fundamental yesod that the Ramban begins the Iggeres with the words Shema beni (Heed, my son).

Shema beni is a clarion call to open oneself up to guidance, and who is the most basic person to give guidance/mussar if not a parent?

But as Rabbi Hauer explains it, it’s really a two way street because while the child most definitely has to bend an ear in the right direction, in one way or the other it’s incumbent upon the parent to create the circumstances in which the child will be inclined to bend that ear and open up and pay attention.

And exactly how does a parent go about creating an environment in which his child will be motivated to absorb that which he is striving to give over?

Rabbi Hauer lets us know that the best way to influence someone is to be a role model that the person would want to emulate, and that probably counts double for kids.  Today we often refer to this as mentoring but the Ramban was ahead of the curve on this more than seven hundred years before mentoring found its way into a dictionary.

And this is the big key to Shema beni, because before the Ramban actually gets into the mussar that permeates the Iggeres he introduces himself as the conveyor of that mussar.  He is both the parent and the role model par excellance, and as such he is a unique position to focus his son’s attention on the content of the Iggeres.

But he wasn’t the only game in town.  In fact, he wasn’t in town altogether because he had been exiled by the King of Spain, and he chose to go to Eretz Yisroel, and it was from there, in Acco that wrote the Iggeres.  In light of this reality, the Ramban puts down one more contextual marker so as to further lay the ground work for the ultimate acceptance of his words.

The Ramban didn’t jumpstart the Iggeres with half a verse.  After opening with Heed, my son, the discipline of your father he finished off the verse with and do not forsake the guidance of your mother.

Rabbi Hauer enlightens us with the fact that with the second half of the verse the Ramban put the idea of co-parenting on the table with both parents being in sync with a common language and a common approach.

The Ramban’s lead into the body of the Iggeres proclaims to his son that he should pay close attention because he has something important to say.  And then he follows with the words and do not forsake the guidance of your mother, thereby signaling to him that if he should ever be in need of direction he should seek out his mother because whatever she will tell him in his father’s absence is part and parcel of their common Torah. 

The Ramban was not only speaking to his reality that was compromised by geographical separation, he was also speaking to ours in which the father of the house sets the instructional tone and the mother imparts it on a daily basis.

Monday, July 9, 2012

If You Feel Blessed (2)

In EmunahSpeak: If You Feel Blessed, we learned from the Chovos Halevovos that: …if you feel that Hashem has bestowed you with extra tov you should feel obligated to pay back a little more by adding something to your avoda, be it an extra twenty minutes of learning, a little more kavana in davening, or perhaps resolving to put more effort into doing chesed.

This principle also works on a national level.

Can anyone deny that Hashem has given his people, the Am Segula, more than He has given any other nation in the world?  Just to recite what Hashem has done for us as recorded in Dayenu, which is one of the Haggadah highlights of every Pesach Seder for both frum and not yet frum Jews alike, would already be way beyond the scope of this piece.

And that’s just from the get go.

Are we not the only member of the ancient nations club that answers present at the roll call of 2012?  Where did the rest pack out to?  Most of them have disappeared without a trace while we can practically trace every route we’ve taken on our long march through history.

And yes, even in this two thousand year most recent golus, with all of its expulsions and persecution, Hashem has still dealt us a better hand.  Rav Miller z”l was wont to point out that throughout the length and breadth of the this bitterer golus, with the exception of the local aristocracy which in any case was a miniscule percentage of the overall population, the Jews always lived better than the goyim amongst who they dwelt.

Therefore, we have to do better than the other nations of the world towards Hashem because He has given us more and continues to do so.  Moreover, the fact that we are members of this exalted group means that we have to factor our national/group identification into the personal hakoras hatov that we owe to Hashem.

What price tag do you put on the honor you have every day of saying Blessed are You, Hashem…., Who did not make me a Goy?  For that alone we should feel obligated to bump up our Avodas Hashem.

But the Chovos Halevovos is not finished with us just yet.  Having already taught us that if you get more in this world in one form or the other you should feel the need to ratchet up the practical level of your gratitude, it now comes to close the circle.

Let’s say that you married off your last daughter in the midst of a shidduchim crisis without so much as breaking a sweat or you have never had to give any thought as to where you would get money for Pesach, even though you are of modest means, and you took stock of your situation, relative to those similarly situated, and did the right thing by Hashem by increasing your avodah in which ever way you deemed appropriate.

What goes around, comes around is not just merely a saying.  It’s a Divine Attribute because the Chovos Halevovos promises that if you met Hashem’s gaze by responding in kind to the beneficence He is bestowing upon you then Hashem will continue to shower upon you that special shefa that distinguished your lot from that of others.

And He will even add to it.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

If You Feel Blessed

One of the major foundation principles of the Chovos Halevovos is that we owe everything to Hashem.  The problem is that there is nothing we can do for Him.  The closest we can get to doing something is to acknowledge that he has given us everything and, as a consequence thereof, being makker tov to Hashem should be the focus of our lives.

Our whole Avodas Hashem, as per the Chovos Halevovos, is predicated on the concept of paying back something of what we owe.  

Rabbi Chaim Malinowitz fleshes out the Chovos Halevovos and lets us hear a very big chiddush in its name.  To whit, if you feel that Hashem has bestowed you with extra tov you should feel obligated to pay back a little more by adding something to your avoda, be it an extra twenty minutes of learning, a little more kavana in davening, or perhaps resolving to put more effort into doing chesed.

The more you get the more you give.

And we’re not just talking gashmius here.  The Chovos Halevovos is telling us that our obligation to bump our avoda transcends the obvious scenarios such as windfall profits from a big deal in the midst of a recession, a big raise, or even a lottery winning.

If you are zoche to live in Eretz Yisroel and/or to learn in kollel your debit with Hashem is somewhat bigger than it otherwise might be.

Hashem placed you in an area which has a Bais Yaakov high school in addition to a yeshiva high school for boys, and therefore you don’t have to send your children out of town to board?  It matters not that everyone in your town is in the same position as you.  In relation to the thousands of Yidden living in areas that have no choice but to dorm their kids far away from home, you are the beneficiary of a little something extra.

How about the fact that we live in a dor (generation) that has ready to eat food and ready to wear clothes, not to mention the full gamut of modern conveniences such as refrigerators, washing machines, cars, and the like?  If you wouldn’t want to live in 1870 then how do you express your appreciation that you don’t?

The Chovos Halevovos divides our Avodas Hashem into two distinct approaches. The goal of a person in his life should be to discover Hashem on his own using his seichel.  For a number of reasons it is not possible to head straight for that goal so Hashem, in his great mercy, gave us rules (mitzvahs) of the Torah in order to level the playing field so as to give us a stepping stone or better yet, a jumping off point toward the higher level of Avodas Hashem based on our seichel.

These rules of the Torah train us to give thanks, by way of the mitzvahs, for everything Hashem did/does for us (Pesach/our freedom, Birkas HaMazon/for what Hashem just gave us to eat etc.).

Therefore, if Hashem gives us more, we understand from the structure of the mitzvahs that we are supposed to do more than we have heretofore done.

Or put another way, if you feel blessed you should be putting a little more on the table.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Brocha of Achdus

And may it be good in Your eyes to bless Your people Israel, at every time and at every hour with Your peace.  Blessed are You, Hashem, Who blesses His people Israel with peace.

So ends the brocha of both Sim Shalom (Shacharis) and Shalom Rav (Mincha and Mariv), the nineteenth and last brocha of the Shemona Esray, and as with the other brochos the chasima (end) of this brocha is a microcosm of the thirty-four words that preceded it.

For every other brocha in the Shemona Esray, you are flying solo, be it in relation to the personal or communal requests that you are making from or the praises you are giving to Hashem.  If the guy next to you is not with the program, then it’s his wish list that will take a hit, not yours.  Or at the very worse, there will be one less vote counted for the rebuilding of Yerushalayim or the ingathering of the exiles.

The brocha of Sim Shalom is cut from different cloth because it’s the brocha of achdus and we’re all in it together.  On that score, Rabbi Yitzchok Kirzner z”l tells us that this is the only tefillah in the Shemona Esray in which we ask Hashem for something that depends upon our being united. 

Boruch Dayan HaEmes.  We’re doomed.

If we can’t get it together achdus wise, then what can we possibly bring to the table in the first part of the brocha, where we ask Hashem to shower a host of goodies such as peace, kindness etc., upon us and upon all Israel and then a few words later, when for good measure, we ask Him to bless all of us as one?

The good news is that we’re not collectively being held hostage to our inability to achieve even a minimal level of achdus in the world beyond Sim Shalom.  The truth is that the whole question of achdus, as it impacts on the blessings that we are attempting to invoke both upon ourselves and the Klal, near the beginning of Sim Shalom, is in each individual’s hand.  Even if the guy next to you is somewhat less than a team player, you can still push the envelope on achdus in the context of Sim Shalom.

We have on numerous occasions in a number of EmunahSpeak pieces decried both the lack of achdus in Klal Yisroel and the over hyping of certain situations and events as being paradigms of achdus, which in reality have nothing whatsoever to do with the subject.  And we did so because neither the fact of nor the lack of achdus is a group phenomenon.  It’s not quantitatively expressed by the size of the crowd at Citi Field or the head count at the Kletzky levayah.

And as we said in EmunahSpeak: Nu?:….when a family of Torah Jews is slaughtered in their beds or eight Yeshiva bochurim are gunned down in their Yeshiva we seem to be incapable of stepping outside of our label saturated existence long enough to attend the funeral.  It matters not a whit how many people show up because it’s not a numbers game.

It’s all about the mosaic of Torah Jewry.

In Shomayim, three hundred of EVERYBODY at a levayah will trump thirty thousand of only a certain SOMEBODY every time.

Reduced to its lowest common denominator, achdus is qualitative, and in the context of the brocha of Sim Shalom it’s brought to fruition by the power of one.

Notwithstanding the fact that it is Hashem that is being asked to give the actual blessing, Chazal have given us, by way of the chasima of this brocha, the awesome power to bless Klal Yisroel.  Given the wording of the chasima it’s as if each and every Yid actually invokes it while making Hashem his shaliach to carry it out.

So how do we score one for achdus by merely reciting the nineteen words at the end of Sim Shalom and what does it have to do with Hashem bestowing the manifestation of His finest attributes upon us, upon all Israel, and blessing all of us as one?

It’s all in how you say it and what you’re thinking at the time.

If you’re not blessing all as one, then how do you expect Hashem to do it when you ask Him earlier in the brocha to bless us, our Father, all of us as one.

You either have everyone in mind when you say the words, and may it be good in Your eyes to bless Your people Israel or you don’t.

You can't run, hide or try to dance your attitude under the radar.  And you also can't internally hold your nose because it’s only you and Hashem, and He's occupying more space in your head than what you're pleased to call your thoughts, so who are you kidding anyway?  Do you really think you can mentally exclude Lakewood, Satmar, or YU without rendering your effort a brocha levatola?

The bottom line achdus that’s going to unleash the power of Sim Shalom is in your head and the head of everyone who recites it.  The attitude, mindset, and kavana with which you massage those last nineteen words of the brocha will be the template that Hashem will apply to the first thirty-four.