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

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Hashem Gives Wisdom

We have a tradition that all of our Yom Tovim (including Chanukah and Purim) are more than mere markers on the calendar to commemorate events from the distant past.  They are all alive and kicking in real-time with their historic significance being transposed into the present.

In the same way that the first Pesach was all about our freedom, those days on the calendar that we refer to every year as Pesach are infused with the attribute of freedom.  And so on for all the other Yom Tovim.

On the chag of Shavuos that we celebrated yesterday and the day before (in chutz L’Aretz), we were once again zoche to the hashp’ah of receiving the Torah as we are every year at that time.

Rav Shimshon Pincus z”l, says that the truth is that every time we learn Torah we are experiencing a Mattan Torah.

And then he asks the obvious question:

“Then what’s so unique about Shavuos?”

Based on a Shavuos ma’amar by Rav Pincus, Rabbi Yerachmiel Goldman answers in his name as he tells us that it’s Chag HaShavuos that makes it possible for us to receive the shefa of Torah all year round.  It’s the shoresh for all of our Torah.

From that yesod, Rabbi Goldman then reveals to us in the name of Rav Pincus z”l, the unbelievably holy and mystical process by which all of us learn Torah.

For starters we are reminded that Mattan Torah also means a matana, not in the sense that we were incredibly fortunate to be given such a gift but rather that it was impossible that we should have been given such a gift because Torah is beyond human comprehension.  Unlike chochmah b’almah where we are hard wired to be able to receive Hashem’s Siyata D’shmaya in understanding the Second Law of Thermodynamics and such, Toras Hashem comes to us by virtue of a wireless hookup because we are only able to understand it because the Shechina is here with us.  Without the active work-a-day presence of the Shechina we would have no chance of understanding Toras Hashem.

By definition that means that if you learn Toras Hashem, the Shechina is there with you.  And as a caveat that means that Torah has to be learned as Toras Hashem, not as just another chochmah, chas v’shalom.

But Rav Pincus z”l, doesn’t stop with the Shechina.  The process of our learning is even on a more rarefied and personal madreiga because we are told that any Jew sitting and learning Torah is receiving it from the Mouth of Hashem Yisborach. 

Or put another way, every time you sit and learn you are learning b’chavrusa with Hashem.

Rabbi Goldman tells us in the name of Rav Pincus z”l, that if Moshe Rabbeinu had to learn from Hashem all the more so us.  If the learning of Torah was up to us it would be constricted by our own limits.

When learning with Hashem there are no limits because it’s Hashem that gives wisdom.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

It’s Ours for the Wanting

Shabbos is the day of Hashem. 

The Ramchal tells us in the second paragraph of the first chapter in the Mesillas Yesharim that:

Our Sages of blessed memory have taught us that man was created for the sole purpose of rejoicing in G-d and deriving pleasure from the splendor of His Presence; for this is the true joy and the greatest pleasure that can be found.  The place where this joy may truly be derived is the World to Come….

There is a teaching of Chazal that Shabbos is a taste of the World to Come, and just like dveykus with Hashem is the bottom line of our hoped for existence in the World to Come as per the Ramchal above, so it is with Shabbos.  For as Rabbi Shimshon Pincus z”l, tells us, Shabbos is a relationship, with the relationship being one of attachment to Hashem.

So how do we get from here (Shabbos) to there (attachment to Hashem)?  As Rav Pincus z”l makes clear, the starting point is Emunah.  We acquire Shabbos through Emunah, and through Shabbos we acquire Hashem.

It’s as simple and as difficult as that. 

Kedushas Shabbos is different from all other kedushas in the world.  Unlike other forms of kedusha, which either exist or do not exist, the existence of Kedushas Shabbos is conditional in the sense that one has to plug into it. Without some activity on our part it remains in sleep mode vis á vis us for the 25 hours that connect one week to the next.

The irony is that the only thing interposed between ourselves and Kedushas Shabbos is us, by our failure to manifest the actions and attitude that would pull back the curtain so as to enable us to saturate our senses with the Kedushas Shabbos that was there all along.

So how does a person merit Kedushas Shabbos?  And exactly what actions and attitudes are we talking about here?

With big kavanahs?  Maybe toiveling in a mikvah on erev Shabbos?  Or perhaps the recitation of special tefillahs appropriate for the time in conjunction with a seder in Hilchos Shabbos?

We merit Kedushas Shabbos by preparing special foods for Shabbos and shining our shoes.

That’s it?!


Rav Pincus z”l reveals to us that all a person can do to merit this kedusha is to desire it.  Only those who want the gift of Shabbos get it.

You have to want it, and if you do it’s there for the taking because someone who desires Shabbos and who makes a big deal out of Shabbos merits Kedushas Shabbos.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

So Who are You Relying on? (part 2)

In EmunahSpeak: So Who are You Relying on… we said that The avodah of bitochon is to train oneself to rely only on Hashem. 

No small statement, this.

After a chapter and verse recitation of a number of things that we do in fact foolishly rely on, we quoted Rabbi Chaim Malinowitz’s take on the view of the Chovos Halavovos as put forth in the Sha’ar HaBitochon:

The avodah of bitochon is that we should rely on Hashem that the store will be open on time, that the milk will be fresh, that the cars will stop at the red light etc..  Bitochon and relying are active verbs.  We are relying on Hashem that the bank will have our money, that our boss won’t fire us. We are relying on Hashem to bring us customers, not the size of the ad that we place in the media.

And so it is.  But that’s not all it is.

The picture that Rabbi Malinowitz painted for us was but a broad-stroke lick and a shmeck of what it means to rely upon Hashem.  But the devil is in the details.

How about a cup of coffee? 

On a very basic level, along the lines of what we previously brought out in EmunahSpeak: So Who are You Relying on… we are relying on Hashem rather than the store that there will be coffee, sugar, cups, lids, milk, and stirrers.  This is Relying on Hashem 101, and it’s a very high madreiga, because most everyone else relies on Costco, the merkolit, or the corner bodega.

But if you would actually like to drink something then we have to take our reliance on Hashem to a more advanced level.

One who relies on Hashem does so to the exclusion of anything else.  In reference to our cup of coffee it means that we rely on Hashem period, not on Hashem in addition to the laws of physics or chemistry.  Therefore we are relying on Hashem that the cup won’t leak.

And unless you prefer iced coffee, you are relying on Hashem that the water should be hot.  And if you do, in fact, prefer iced coffee, you are relying on Hashem that the ice cubes should be cold. And moreover, you are relying on Hashem that those cold ice cubes will chill your coffee.

And if you do want your coffee hot, then rely on Hashem, not the Styrofoam cup, to keep it sizzling.  Use of the Styrofoam cup only gives us the right to rely on Hashem because without either it or something equivalent we would not have done the proper hishtadlus required to bring Hashem into the picture in the first place.

And those whose palettes desire something more than the taste of water rely on Hashem to give the brown liquid in their cup the taste of “real” coffee.  Those who rely on Starbucks to take care of the taste run the risk of getting decaf on the wrong end of a labeling mistake or something worse.

To the extent that we are hung up on taste we are also relying on Hashem that the sugar or its substitute will be sweet.  But that in itself is not enough to put us on a cavity watch, so we are relying on Hashem to that the sugar will sweeten the coffee.

This still won’t hack it because I’m also relying on Hashem that the coffee will mix with the sugar (and the milk) when I stir it.

All this for a cup of coffee.

Anyone for tea?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

If I Forget You, O Yerushalayim,....

….may my right hand forget (its skill).  May my tongue cleave to my palate if I remember you not, if I fail to elevate Yerushalayim above the zenith of my joy.

The Midrash Shocher Tov (Midrash Tehillim) taught as follows:

If a man covers his house with plaster, he must leave a small place uncovered as a mourning reminder of Yerushalayim.  If a man prepares all that goes with a feast, he must leave out some small thing as a reminder of Yerushalayim.  If a woman is adorning herself, she must leave off some small thing as a reminder of Yerushalayim, for it is said: If I forget thee, O Yerushalayim, let my right hand forget her cunning.

And the Rama tells us that from the words, if I fail to elevate Yerushalayim above the zenith of my joy, we derive our custom of putting ashes on a chosson’s head prior to the chuppah and the breaking of the glass at its conclusion.

Rav Avigdor Miller z”l, took a very dim view of what has become of the breaking of the glass following the recitation of the Bracha Achrita under the chuppah.  He was of the opinion that rather than induce the intended tear and/or a longing for the Yerushalayim that was, it has been reduced for many years now, if not generations, to nothing more than a signal for mazel tov

 And even on those occasions when the music, and the dancing of the chosson/kallah out of the chuppah room are put on hold for a few minutes in deference to the singing of a few possukim from Al Naharos Bavel, it’s more often than not a moment of musical appreciation for the Shwekey et al. rendition of the possukim rather than one of introspection.

The same goes for leaving a part of our dwellings unfinished and the like.  After all, who lets loose with a sigh every time he walks past the unpainted portion of the wall next to his front door?  If one ever noticed it at all it has long since become part of the scenery.  And as for putting ashes on the chosson’s head, their symbolism is more often than not fighting a losing battle with the dominant thoughts that are already residing in the chosson’s head, not to mention all of the kavanah expended on being careful that a stain from the ashes should not trespass on the kittel.

Due to our many sins, the Yetzer Hora has gently nudged us in the direction of the customs that Chazal have bidden us to take on; those that are meant to keep the memory of Yerushalayim alive within us, while ever so subtly drawing us away from their source.

What meaning can these customs hold for us if the well from which they were drawn no longer quenches our thirst?  When we succumbed to the Yetzer’s sleight of hand and stopped reciting Al Naharos Bavel before bentching on weekdays, we tore all of the above mentioned simanim loose from the bedrock upon which they were moored.  No longer tethered to the possukim that spawned them, they ceased to invoke in us that fleeting but wrenching feeling of remembrance and loss that they once did.

The Mishnah Berurah cites the Shelah HaKodesh as the source for reciting Al Naharos Bavel before Birchas Hamazon.  The very same Shelah HaKodesh is not coincidently also the source for our custom to recite Shir Hamalos (Tehillim 126) before Birchos Hamazon on Shabbos, Yom Tov, Rosh Kodesh, and special occasions.  If you feel the weight of obligation to say one of them, as you do with Shir Hamalos, then why not the other?


The Shelah HaKodesh had an off day perhaps when he gave his psak concerning Al Naharos Bavel? 

The Yetzer Hora will encourage us to break glasses and burn ashes haint biz morgen.  He’ll even let us sing If I forget thee, O Yerushalayim…, along with a small choir to the accompaniment of a twenty piece orchestra.  But the last thing he wants is that we should actually read the words.

By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and also wept when we remembered Tzion.

What else is one to think about when reading these words, if not Tzion?  Is there any wiggle room here for ambiguity?  And is there any symbol that can better convey what our feeling should be toward Tzion than the word wept?

And even at the warp speed that’s unfortunately all too de rigueur vis à vis bentching, how does one’s eye glaze over If I forget you, O Yerushalayim, may my right forget (its skill).  May my tongue cleave to my palate if I remember you not, if I fail to elevate Yerushalayim above the zenith of my joy.   

It doesn’t.

And it isn't dry either.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Hashem is Here, Hashem is There….

Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere.
Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere.
Up up, down down, right left and all around.
Here there and everywhere, that’s where he can be found.
Up up, down down, right left and all around.
Here there and everywhere, that’s where he can be found.

So sings Uncle Moishy in one of his signature songs.

The original Chabad version as rendered in the Official Jewish Songbook substitutes East side, west side, all around the town for Here there and everywhere, and given the advent of the GPS generation it appears that Uncle Moishy was on to something because who today would know in what direction to point when singing East side, west side?

Be that as it may, in the same way that many of us never quite shake the dumbed down understanding of Chumash that we acquire as children, we also tend to “hear” the concept rather than the reality of Hashem is here, Hashem is there… in the context of a children’s song.  Ironically, it’s only the childish genre that distracts us from the fundamental truth that’s being expressed therein because the words themselves are spot on in their simplistic profundity.  So much so, that one would be hard pressed to more clearly make the point.

And what have the children been singing all these years if not the Emunah national anthem?

Here there and everywhere, that’s where he can be found points us in the right direction but unless we look in that direction through the lens of Emunah we’ll see nothing but nature.

Where is G-d to be found, asked Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk?  And he answered, in the place where He is given entry.  But how does He enter if not by virtue of our Emunah?

In EmunahSpeak: The Call of the Hour we said that Rav Wolbe states in his sefer, Ali Shur, that Emunah is a reality, not a concept.  Our job is to take the juvenile abstraction of Hashem is here, Hashem is there that we melodically internalized way back when, and morph it into the mature reality of Emunah.

In EmunahSpeak: Living With Hashem Rabbi Moshe Hauer….tells us as per Rav Kook that the perspective of Emunah is the opposite of blind faith.  It’s a perspective of being able to see things with a perfect clarity because Emunah is not an intellectual conclusion.  It’s not even a regesh.  There is a live connection (Neshama) inside each of us that is part of Hashem that Hashem blew into us.  And that piece that is in us knows that there is Hashem out there (and over there and up there and down there).  It feels it and it knows it viscerally.  Navuah (Navi) means to be able to see Hashem, and Emunah is a piece of navuah.

It comes out that a ba’al Emunah is a person that knows with a certainty that Hashem is here, there, and everywhere which culminates in a palpable feeling of living with Hashem. 

Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere is all that stands between us and spiritual blindness because as the Kotsker Rebbe observed, the one who does not see the Omnipresent [literally, place] in every place, will not see Him in any place.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Leveraging Yissurim

There are number of ways to look at Yissurim.  In EmunahSpeak: Seeing the Good, we addressed the subject on two levels.

On a very basic level we spoke about how Hashem only wants the best for us and how we should view life’s curve balls as the real Plan A rather the ruination of what we thought was Plan A.

We went on to point out that for most of us it is the madreiga of grinning and bearing it, which means that if we’ve got our heads screwed on right, really tight, we won’t have a meltdown when a pipe bursts in our house putting most of what we own three feet under water.  We’re not happy about it, to be sure, and as much as we may try, we also seem to be incapable of discerning the good that will eventually put in an appearance.  And nonetheless, we’ll say gam zu l’tova, accepting b’lev shaleim that it’s all Hashem’s will. 

If you think that this is no big deal of a madreiga, see how close you get to it the next time Hashem doesn’t sign off on your plans. Nonetheless, this response is passive, and we’re locked in on defense with no pushback on our part.

On a much higher level, high enough to be but theoretical for all but a few, Rabbi Yisroel Brog shared with us an amazing insight.  He told us, in the name of the Tanya, that the yissurim that we endure in the course of our sojourn in this physical world come from a world that is totally tov, and we are incapable of seeing the tov in much the same way that we are incapable of seeing ethereal beings such as angels.

And because these yissurim do in fact come from a world that is totally good, they have to come to us as such because this world cannot handle anything emanating from that world that’s not dressed up in a levush of yissurim.

Those who are samayach with their yissurim disregard the package (the yissurim) and look inside (the tov).  They are samayach because they realize that they are zoche to a good that is so special that it has to be packaged in yissurim.

In the first case we endure, while in the second a very chosen few are able to see past their yissurim to the good lurking within..

So what about the rest of us who, in a spiritual sense, are very much subject to the law of gravity?  How do we leverage our yissurim as opposed to passively grinning and bearing it?

Being makir tov is a pretty good start.

You broke your leg, and now you are hopping around on crutches?  Whatever Hashem’s reason, one thing is certain:  He had one.  And the fact that He had one precludes any idea of mistake or accident.  So, while you were uncomfortably leaning on your crutches during Shemona Esray, did you remember in Modim to thank Hashem that your leg wasn’t amputated because of diabetes or that you didn’t crack your skull instead?

According to the view of the Chovos Halavovos, no matter how good we are and regardless of how many mitzvos we do or how much Torah we learn we can’t begin to pay Hashem back for the fact that he brought us into this world and sustains us.  And to accentuate the point he notes that before we draw our first breath we are already nine months behind in the cheshbon.

Simply put, Hashem owes us nothing and we owe Him everything.  Whatever we get is a gift with one hundred and twenty years of perfect health being a bigger gift than two painful years on a respirator.  This being true, it therefore logically follows that those two painful years on a respirator are a bigger gift than four even more painful years on a respirator.  And so it goes.

Whatever yissurim come our way are ironically by way of Hashem’s Middas HaRachamim, not Middas HaDin, and they are better than we deserve because we have no claim in strict Din whatsoever for anything.

You got hired?  Boruch Hashem!  You got fired?  Boruch Hashem!

Each event was brought about for a different reason to be sure, but they are both Boruch Hashem nonetheless because in the same way that we are supposed to bless Hashem for the bad as well as the good we should thank him also, and we do so by leveraging our yissurim as a vehicle for something positive to say in Modim.

Yissurim are also a revelation, in that their ebb and flow make us keenly aware of the miracles inherent in our bodies.  They are an advance seminar in the Sha’ar HaBechina of the Chovos Halavovos and as such, our relationship to them should be viewed as one of rebbe and talmid in which we imbibe a shmeck of the profundity of our physical existence.  

Rav Miller z”l, taught us that by bringing attention, for instance, to a part of the body that we have temporarily forgotten that we possess, yissurim draw the attention of the thinking person to the seamless perfection of Hashem’s handiwork as manifested in us. 

Hashem has to arrange for something to go wrong (in the form of yissurim) for us to come to a clear understanding of the “miracle” of everything going right.