Chanukah – Miracles Within – Bilvavi

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Chanukah

Miracles – When Nature Is Overcome[1]

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming Uplifted To A Higher Level

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

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

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

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

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

Overcoming Our Own Personal Natures

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

Experiencing Chanukah – Rav Itamar Schwartz (Bilvavi)

Rav Itamar Schwartz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Chanukah

The Light of Chanukah: Spiritual Or Physical?

Let us learn here about Chanukah in a way that is not just about something that we go through, but as something that really can affect us, experientially.

All of the festivals contain ohr, spiritual light, but Chanukah in particular is the epitome of ohr. In the other festivals, the light is purely spiritual, but on Chanukah, although the light is also spiritual, it manifests also as a physical light that we empower, through the eight lights that we light on Chanukah.

The lights of Chanukah seem to be lit through a wick and oil, but the inner way to understand it is that the light revealed during Chanukah is what is lighting the wick. The wicks, the oil and the flame that we see are [merely] the physical ‘garments’ that clothe the spiritual light that is Chanukah. Of course, it looks like we are lighting it. But it is really the light [revealed during] Chanukah which is shining through the physical wick.

This is the depth behind the halachah that it is forbidden to benefit from the light of Chanukah: we may not use spirituality for This World. When we light [the menorah], a spiritual light emerges [from the hidden realm of spiritual light]. Our physical eyes just see a candle, but our soul sees spiritual light in it.

Although our soul sees spirituality in things, one needs to have a revelation of his soul in order for the soul to see spirituality. With our physical eyes, all we see are just candles burning; therefore we need to actually connect our soul to the spirituality of the hidden light that is revealed on Chanukah.

Seeing The Lights From Our Soul

The neshamah (Jewish soul) is described in the verse, “נר ה’ נשמת אדם”, “The flame of Hashem is the soul of man”. A ner (flame) is composed of a kli (vessel, or container)), oil, and the fire. Our neshamah is called “ner” (flame),and it is also called “ohr” (light), whereas the “kli” (the vessel or container) that holds the neshamah is our physical guf (the body).

The neshamah is called “ner” (flame). Our physical body is created from earth, whereas the soul in us comes from the “breath of Hashem” that was breathed into man by Hashem. Hashem is entirely ohr, so to speak. The earth which our body comes from is a dark material, thus our body is of a “dark” substance, whereas our soul is taken from “light”. Since man is a combined existence of body and soul, his existence is essentially a mixture of light and darkness.

Every person is essentially a light contained within darkness. There is a statement, “A little light can push away much darkness.”[1] We see from the physical world that a small light can light up a dark room, and so too, when our soul is concealed from our access, we will feel like we are groping in the dark. When our soul becomes revealed to us, however, there is a great light we experience, which sends away the “darkness” that is the body.

Thus, when a person hasn’t yet revealed his soul, he lives in darkness. He will experience life through a dark lens. When a person begins to merit a revelation of his soul, his soul begins to shine, and he experiences a degree of spiritual light.

These are the two kinds of lenses through which we experience life: either we see through a dark lens, or we see life through a lens of light.

In deeper terms, there is ayin ra, a “bad eye”, and ayin tov, a “good eye.” The perspective of “ayin ra” comes from the view of the body, and the perspective of “ayin tov” is the view from the soul.

They are different lenses in a person. It is not simply that there are different personalities of either “ayin ra” or “ayin tov” that some people have positive personalities and some people have negative personalities. Rather, “ayin tov” and “ayin ra” are perspectives of how we experience life – either we are viewing life from the prism of the body, or the soul. “Ayin ra” represents the body’s viewpoint, a view from “darkness”, which is a perspective that is darkened by materialism of This World. Thus it does not offer a clear view on life. In contrast, “ayin tov” is a view of “light”, which is pleasant and calming.

These are root concepts of the soul. The world we are in is a mix of light and darkness, a mix of good and evil. And it is mostly dark. What is the world looking like right now? What is it calling out? It is calling out darkness. The world is conveying to us a message of unhappiness, pain, and difficulty – a life of darkness. It is not a place that is mostly good, pure, holy and happy.

A person sees from the place in himself that he is at now. Therefore, if he has a dark lens on life, if he is living a materialistic kind of life where his body dominates and his soul is unrevealed in his life, then he will see a dark life in front of him. If you view life through dirty glasses, everything will look dirty, even if you are looking at something clean. For this reason, when a person sees others, he usually doesn’t see people as souls whom he can have a connection to. He usually just sees the thick materialism of others, he relates to their superficial shell, and as such, he relates to others as physical bodies, and he does not see them as souls in front of him.

But when a person reveals his soul, he will see others through a clear lens. Then he will see the joy, purity, and cleanliness in front of him. This does not mean that he will be naïve and that he’s not aware of reality. He is well aware of reality on this world, but he has gained a view of others that is pristine, clear, and clean.

For example, when he speaks with others, like when asking someone for directions, he will understand that he is speaking with a soul, and not with a body. When he asks questions to others, he is aware that he is asking it from his soul. And when a person speaks from his soul, the soul of the other picks up on it, because the soul is receptive to the sound of another soul. Where you speak from is what the other person will hear; if you speak from your body, the other person hears your gruff body talking, and when you speak from your soul, the other’s soul hears words coming from your soul.

The world today doesn’t have that much speech coming from the soul. When a person meets another and greets him, does he really mean it that the other should have a good day? “Good morning” has become more like a mannerism. Contrast this with what was said about the Alter of Slobodka, who would practice saying “Good Morning” to himself, because he held that it was giving a beracha (blessing) to others.

This is different view on life – totally.

Speaking and Acting From Within Yourself

When a person is talking, where is he speaking from in himself? A person can talk either from the most external part of himself, or from the most innermost part of himself that he identifies with.

Most natural speech flows from the external part of the soul. The more inner a person’s speech is, the more it reflects the statement “words from the heart enter the heart.” This should not just be limited to when a person is conveying a deep emotion such as “I love you”, or “I feel your pain”. It is referring to how a person speaks all the time. All of the time, we really need to speak from our innermost place that we currently identify with.

Most people live from their body and speak from their body, and the person hearing him hears the words from his body. But when a person speaks from his soul, it can go into another’s soul, and the other person will hear it from his soul, because his soul will pick up on it.

Chanukah is a time of “light”, but it is not just a time to light. The light of Chanukah specifically reminds us that the physical is a container for the spiritual – that our body contains a soul. The other festivals are also a spiritual light, but they don’t take on physical form. The light of Chanukah takes on a physical form, showing us that spirituality can be clothed by physicality.

These are not mere intellectual definitions, but a practical view of life to have every day of your life. We do many actions throughout the day. A person washes his hands, for example. How does he do it? We understand that this is allowed through the brain, which sends messages to the body and enables it to function. But when a person tells “Good Morning” to his children, does he do so with at least a little bit of feeling, at least a little more than when he washes his hands? Certainly, he puts some feeling into it. But how many times a day, or a week, or a month, or a year, though do we act from an inner place in ourselves? Are we speaking from a deeper place in ourselves on a more regular basis?

Most people do not access the depth that is contained in themselves. A person who is living inwardly is someone who lives with his depth, all the time, on a regular basis. He lives always with the deepest place in himself. Just like we all use the sink many times a day, a person who lives life in an inner way is using the deepest place he knows of in himself – all the time.

A person usually accesses his inner depth only when there are extreme emotions, of either intense joy or grief. A person usually cannot take that depth that he has reached and bring it more into his daily life. He may remember the pain he felt from his sadness or the joy that he felt when he rejoiced, but he will not remember the depth of the emotions that he reached.

The depth that we do recognize in ourselves, though – how much are we in touch with it on a daily basis?

Recognition of Ourselves

We must recognize who we are. Of course, the purpose of everything is to recognize Hashem. But if we do not recognize ourselves, we can’t recognize Hashem. Skipping self-recognition prevents recognition of Hashem. From recognizing ourselves, we can come to recognize Hashem[2].

Surely, the deepest thing possible is to connect to Hashem, but before we get to that stage, one has to know himself well and identify the deepest place in himself.

How can it be that a person is not in touch with the deepest part of himself? We can memorize many phone numbers. How can it be that we don’t recognize our own self?

If we really want to live a true life, we need to know what our deepest point is in ourselves, which can take a long time to know. After that, one needs to ask himself if his depth has deepened from before. The way we identify ourselves has to mature as the years go on.

We can say in general how deep the soul is, but you on your own need to uncover the depth of your own soul, and then you need to know how to live with it all the time. At least once a day, make sure that you are using it. That is what Chanukah is all about.

The Deepest Point In Yourself

I will try here to explain what the deepest point of the soul is, but it will be hard to understand it, both intellectually as well as emotionally, because each person is at a different point.

The deepest part of the soul, the deepest experience your soul can know of is to experience your very existence (havayah). (There is really a higher experience, which is to experience the reality of the Creator, which is reached through emunah and d’veykus with Hashem. That is an experience above the “I”, however. Here we are describing the experience that is within the “I”.)

One’s very existence is his deepest experience. It is not the will of a person, it is not aspiration, it is not giving, it is not enduring suffering, and it is not joy. Those are all deep experiences, but the deepest experience is to experience one’s existence.

A person needs to be able to remove all the external layers covering the soul, and then he can experience himself. It is not a place of any desires, because it is above all desires.

When a person purifies himself through doing the mitzvos, through attaining a state of purity, and through correcting his middos, then he calms the soul.[3] He can then experience the soul. When he experiences his own soul, he can feel his existence then and be able to live it on a daily basis.

All day, people are running around, and this causes people not to be in touch with the soul. This refers to internal running as well, in which people are running all the time with their desires. They are not calm inside, and they never reach their soul. Therefore, people wonder what the deepest experience is. But the deepest experience is: to experience your own self!

You can’t live from your depth if you haven’t accessed it yet. When you do access it, you need to then live with it all the time – sensibly, of course. This will reveal more and more depth to you as time goes on. In order to get to your own depth, you first need to live daily with the deepest point in yourself – you can think about it and can feel it throughout the day.

These are not ideas or opinions – it is about life. May we merit from Hashem to know our souls and to realize our depths, our existence, and from there, to reach d’veykus with Hashem.

[1] Chovos HaLevovos: Shaar Yichud HaMaaseh: 5

[2] Raavad (Rabbi Avraham ben David, 10th century scholar); based on the verse, “From my flesh, I see G-d.”

[3] See the series of Getting To Know Your Hisboddedus

Experiencing Chanukah – Rav Itamar Schwartz (Bilvavi)

Let’s Share the Joy

By Jonathan Rosenblum

A recent Israeli study concluded that chareidim are happier than their secular counterparts — and not just by a little bit. Sixty-two percent of the chareidim interviewed expressed a high degree of satisfaction with their lives, as opposed to just 26 percent of the secular Jews. And that is despite the fact that chareidim, on average, have far lower per capita incomes.

The study is just one in a long line of such studies yielding similar results. One team of Israeli researchers explained the life satisfaction differential in terms of the far higher levels of hakaras hatov (gratitude) and optimism among chareidim. A sense of gratitude, as opposed to an attitude of entitlement, is deeply ingrained in chareidi life. It starts first thing in the morning with Modeh Ani, and is reinforced throughout the day in countless ways, such as the recitation of asher yatzar.

Optimism goes hand in hand with the feeling that our lives are guided by a beneficent G-d. The confidence that good may come from even negative experiences comes naturally to chareidim raised from an early age on stories of Nachum Ish Gamzu and Rabi Akiva proclaiming, “Kol d’avid Rachmana l’tava avid — All that Heaven does is for the good.”

The very definition of “one who is happy” as “one who rejoices in his portion” reinforces both optimism and gratitude. The meaning of the mishnah in Avos (4:1) is that the key to happiness is the recognition that Hashem provides each of us with what we need for our mission in life. If that is the case, there is no reason to think that a greater measure of life’s “goodies” would enhance one’s ability to fulfill one’s mission. By the same token, optimism flows from knowing that one has been apportioned what one needs for that mission.

Researchers distinguish between two types of happiness: hedonic and eudaemonic. The latter refers to a general sense of well-being, and, in contrast to hedonic pleasure, is associated with a large number of positive outcomes: longer life expectancy, lower rates of heart disease, reduced chances of Alzheimer’s.

The four elements most identified with high levels of eudaemonia are intrinsic to an Orthodox life. The first is the awareness of a transcendent realm — i.e., of a G-d above. The second is belonging to a community. Communal prayer, shared life rhythms determined by the calendar, large families all provide a strong social support network for chareidim. A third element is the ability to present one’s life story as a coherent whole. That is something much easier for Orthodox Jews to do because they see their lives as guided by G-d. Finally, a sense that one’s life has meaning. There are multiple sources for that meaning and purpose, including Rav Chaim of Volozhin’s extended description in Nefesh HaChaim of how each thought, work, action has the power to open up pipelines of blessing to the world.

FROM THE HIGHER LEVELS of life satisfaction among chareidim, I take away two messages. First, it is not just that the Torah contains many life prescriptions that if followed will make people happier; but also that Jews who define themselves by their commitment to Torah really do take those prescriptions seriously. And as a consequence, their whole approach to life differs radically from that of the world outside our community. In short, the Torah’s message penetrates our inner psyches.

My second takeaway is how much we have to offer our fellow Jews, indeed the world at large. Rabbi Noach Weinberg used to say, “In an insane world, we are the least insane.” By that, he meant (I think) that being an observant Jew does not guarantee a blissful marriage, or that one will be a perfect parent, or that our children will fulfill all our dreams for them. Nothing goes without constant work on our middos, which, according to Rav Chaim Vital, are scarcely mentioned directly in the Torah because they are the precondition for the acceptance of Torah.

Yet we have been given a set of rules by which to live that provide the greatest possibility of human fulfillment because they come from the Creator of human nature, and thus comport with it.

Of late, I find myself thinking that much of modern existence has become completely unmoored from human nature, particularly the imperative of family formation without which humankind cannot survive. My most recent data point is an excellent article by Suzy Weiss at her older sister Bari’s site, in which she interviews young women, one only 19, who have had or are planning operations to ensure that they never bear children. Their reasons vary. One cites her plan to retire early and travel the world unencumbered by responsibilities; another, her lousy parents and wish to avoid their mistakes; a third, the inevitability of some suffering in even the most blessed life; a fourth, a desire not to add to the toll on Mother Earth from too many humans.

While their stories do not alone prove a trend, Weiss brings evidence of the decline in matrimony and childbearing as well. American marriage rates are at an all-time low — 6.5 per thousand. Millennials (born 1981–1996) are the first generation in which a majority (56 percent) are unmarried at this stage in their lives, and more likely to be living with their parents in their twenties and thirties.

In half the states, deaths outnumbered births last year; the preceding year, that was the case in only five states. Nearly two-fifths of Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2012) are afraid of having children because of the impending climax apocalypse. A survey of a representative sample of American adults conducted in Michigan found that over one-quarter are childless by choice. In San Francisco, dogs outnumber children.

We are now 60 years into the revolution that set out to release human pleasure to hitherto undreamed of heights by tearing down all traditional norms of courtship and marriage. Yet like most revolutions, it did not quite turn out like it was supposed to. Instead of increasing joy, the revolution has been accompanied by higher rates of mental illness, anxiety, and depression in every subsequent generation.

Men and women have been turned into two suspicious, warring camps, to the benefit of neither. Finding themselves constantly condemned for their toxic masculinity, many males at some point stopped trying. On American college campuses today, women outnumber men by a 60:40 ratio, and are the majority of law and medical students. But women’s very success has not come without a cost, particularly the absence of men with whom to build a life and family.

An article in Quillette a few months back noted that women are hard-wired to look for men who will serve as providers and protectors. But for the most educated and highest-earning cohort of women, those men are increasingly hard to find. And once found, enticing them into marriage is even harder.

The highly sought-after kind of men whom high-powered women view as marriage material are not so concerned with their partner’s earning capacity and have a wide selection of younger women to choose from. They often feel little impulse to commit at all. As a consequence, about 30 percent of the women in the most educated and highest earning cohort will never marry.

Baruch Hashem, we still live in a society in which the desire is marry and raise children is the nearly unanimous default position. I have no doubt that the richness of familial bonds has a great deal to do with our higher level of feelings of well-being.

But that must not remain our secret alone. Chazal tell us that Yaakov Avinu lost 33 years from his life, one year for each word of his complaint about the difficulties he had endured, in response to Pharaoh’s question — “How old are you?” But there are only 25 words in Yaakov’s answer. Rav Noach Weinberg used to explain, Yaakov Avinu was punished as well for the eight words in Pharaoh’s question, which was provoked by his downtrodden countenance.

Let us not repeat that mistake, but rather project joy in all that we do.

Originally published in Mishpacha Magazine, November 3, 2021
http://www.jewishmediaresources.com/2140/let-share-the-joy

A Brief Introduction to the Works of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

By Rabbi Gershon Seif

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch lived over a century ago, and yet his insights into the Torah and his teachings of the Torah’s view of life remain very current.

This brief essay cannot do justice to an explanation of the times within which Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch lived, his battles, and his worldview. Nor can it provide a real appreciation of his writing which is comprised of commentaries on the Torah, Psalms, Siddur, Ethics of the Fathers, as well as Horeb, an explanation of Jewish Law and the meanings behind those laws, and The Nineteen Letters, Hirsch’s first published work, which serves as an amazing digest of all of Hirsch’s future writings and views. In addition, there are eight volumes of collected writings, mostly culled from his years of writing articles to his community on a wide variety of topics. I highly recommend reading the introduction to Horeb to get a more complete picture of what these works are about as well as appreciating Hirsch’s mission.

Hirsch was the leader of a community at a time in history when change was everywhere. The number of observant Jews in Germany was dwindling as the masses were being swept up with the birth of the Reform movement. Hirsch was the brave warrior who battled two simultaneous battles.

While the older generation of his time was to be commended for its staunch adherence to the Torah, nonetheless Hirsch felt that much of that observance was dry and lacking in depth and meaning. He felt that this was a large part of why so many observant youth had abandoned their faith. Hirsch was an inspired, poetic soul. He saw symbolism in every Mitzvah. He saw meaningful, relevant lessons in every page of history, both Biblical and current. He was forever exhorting the observant community to appreciate the depth and beauty that lies within our Torah.

Those same talents were put to use to stem the tide of Reform. Hirsch challenged those who were abandoning Orthodoxy to have another look. He mocked the Reform’s need for “Up-to-date Judaism”. They needed an education in the beauty and depth of the Torah. They needed to be shown that the Torah is authentic. Symbolism of Mitzvos is only meaningful if they are Mitzvos of God, and if those Mitzvos teach us lessons of how to live, not the other way around. At that time, many were discarding most of the Mitzvos, yet claiming to maintain the spirit of the Torah. Hirsch sought to develop a system of understanding the spirit of the Torah directly from the study of the minute specifics of each Mitzvah. He used his linguistic skills to show profound meaning in every nuance of the Torah’s wording. He wrote many articles debating the claims that the Torah was not God-given.

Perhaps the term that appears most often in Hirsch’s writings is that of Torah Im Derech Eretz. Much ink has been spilled in attempts to explain Hirsch’s take on this Midrashic phrase which became his mantra. Derech Eretz (the way of the land) is taken by Hirsch to mean engaging in the world in a way that will uplift the world and all Mankind. Torah with Derech Eretz means that the Torah guides us through all of our experiences in the world and teaches us how to do this. There are many ways that this manifests itself.

Mitzvah observance is one way. When I keep the laws of kashrus, I sanctify my body and imbue it with all the lessons of the symbolism of that Mitzvah. The Laws of Shaatnez do the same in the realm of the clothes that garb my body. When I make a blessing over wine for Kiddush, the wine becomes elevated, as does the one who makes the blessing. When I buy a home and consecrate the home at the Channukas Habayis, I have elevated the home and myself as well. The family is a further extension of this idea.

Building a community based on Godliness is another way. The Torah gives us a whole body of civil law and teaches us about charity and kindness to sanctify our community life. As Hirsch quotes on numerous occasions when he discusses this topic: “Ikar Shechina B’tachtonim” – God’s presence has descended to this world, and it is our task to raise this world up and allow space for God to fill it.

In this same context, history is understood to be God’s conversation with Mankind. It is our task to understand history and be an active part in that conversation. One needs to understand God’s plan for all of Mankind as well as how and why the Jews are to be a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation – A light unto the world.

Earning a livelihood, expressing oneself through the talents of writing, art and music are all part of Derech Eretz. Of course we must always remember that it is Torah Im Derech Eretz. We are all to study Torah daily, and every community has its “Levites” who immerse themselves in the study of Torah completely. But Hirsch was convinced that for the average Jew on the street, his duty was to live a balanced diet of Torah study, communal involvement, and family life.

Hirsch himself attended a secular university as did many people in his community. Without a doubt, before Hirsch came on the scene, the people were already doing so in Germany. It is wrong to assume that it was Hirsch who introduced this notion into Orthodox living. Having been born into such a society and with his understanding of Torah Im Derech Eretz, he had no qualms advising his community to live by that model. Would Hirsch recommend that for today? That’s the subject of a big debate. I believe he would, provided that the students were well equipped to deal with the many challenges that confront a young, impressionable student that might otherwise shake his or her faith and level of observance.

A Baal Teshuva’s Father’s Perspectives

By “David Shub”

As the father of two BTs, the first words of advice to parents of other BTs is to say that you cannot make it a power struggle. Not only is it not a power struggle, but it is not a “fight” of who is right and who is wrong.

If someone had told me these words twenty years ago, when my older child was becoming “frum,” I would probably have become angry. Years of adaptation, adoption, and understanding have softened my initial view points.

Twenty years ago, my wife and I did not understand what was happening to our 14 year old child. The child was raised in a rather non-religious household. (I was raised in a secular Jewish household where religion was often mocked as the “opium of the masses,” but Yiddishkeit was an understood value.) We did join a Reform synagogue so that we would be able to give our kids whatever it was that we were not exposed to. When our daughter studied for her bat mitzvah, she displayed such a passion for Judaism that we thought we had a rabbi in the making. After her bat mitzvah she decided she wanted more, so we allowed her to enroll in a local Sunday Jewish High School that was run by an Orthodox principal and Orthodox teachers. The student body was comprised mostly of children from Conservative and Reform households.

The first “shock” to us occurred when I went one Saturday night to pick up our daughter after a Shabbaton. I walked into the basement of the Orthodox shul, and the students and teachers were sitting in a circle, chanting a strange tune. Periodically, during what I later learned was termed a “kumsitz,” individuals would stand and explain what the Shabbaton had meant to him or her. All I saw was “cult.”

As parents, we did not know where to turn. We knew that we could not deny our daughter’s attraction to this life because she would do things behind our backs. We sought advice of our Reform rabbi and congregation. Better she would have contemplated conversion than to adopt the Orthodox lifestyle, they intimated

High school became difficult for us. Our once athletic child now placed Shabbos before a game. She was going across town to spend Shabbos with friends. We made, what to some seemed a ridiculous decision, to Kasher the kitchen. If your child will not eat at your table, the family unit is destroyed. I remember a family member said to me when she learned what we were undertaking, “No one will come between me and my shrimp!” How foolish a statement.

I will pass over the fights, the arguments, the fears…just to say that we adapted ourselves to what we could no longer fight. Our daughter attended Stern College, a place which we felt was not nearly as academic as she was capable of handling. By the time she turned 21, she had met her “beshert” and had married in a very traditional Orthodox ceremony. I cannot say we “loved” the thick veil, the maheatza, the separate dancing, but we adapted.

Now, there are five grandchildren…and they all sit at our dining room table.

Our son, four years younger than his sister, tolerated much of the arguments in the house while his sister was straying from our path. He honored the Kosher kitchen, he honored the lights and phone restrictions on Shabbas, but he went his own way. He also attended the Sunday Jewish High School, but was not swayed by them. He graduated high school and went on to attend a very prestigious four year college. He graduated with high honors, and moved to Brooklyn where he housed with his college friends. He was the only Jewish boy. He worked in the financial area in New York. When he was around 25, he started to become interested in religion. He also met his “beshert,” although he could not believe that she was Orthodox. Unlike his sister, she was dressed in short sleeves and pants. But there is Modern Orthodox, as well as “black hat” Orthodox. They married in an Orthodox ceremony, with a modern touch. Probably because our daughter paved the way, we were less “stressed” by his route. And, of course, Modern Orthodox is easier to comprehend than the more extreme route.

What do we all want for our children? We hope that they will have married the right mate, and that they will have married into a family that loves and supports them. Our children have done that. Now, we have eleven of us at the dining room table, with a recent high chair with the twelfth addition to the family.

What has been the most difficult aspect to understand? For me, it is probably the covering of the head. Why camouflage beautiful hair with beautiful hair? I still have difficulty understanding that nothing, nothing at all interferes with the observance of Shabbos. I am not totally comfortable with the role of the woman in the family. I am baffled by the laws of “sneis.” I am not comfortable with the Yeshiva education where the secular studies program takes a secondary role.

When my oldest grandson tells me, “Grandpa, you should really wear a kippa,” I respond that “I know…” When my six year old grandson asks me why I drive on Shabbos, I try to explain to him that there are all kinds of Jews.

And when my kids come for Shabbos, we leave the lights on, we do not answer the phone, we make cholent, and leave an urn of water on the counter.

My son-in-law asks me, “Dad, are you thinking of becoming frum?” I respond, “No, not yet.”

In the long run, the Reform temple was wrong. It would not have been better if my children had converted. We have adapted, we have adopted, and we try to understand. It is best that they are Jews and that we sit at the table as a family.

Grandpa of Six (in 2006)

First Published February 7, 2006

Sukkos – The Jews Inner Self – Bilvavi Sukkos Talks Download

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

Rebbetzin Heller Gottlieb on Approaching the Viduy on Yom Kippur

Adapted from a newsletter article by Rebbetzin Heller Gottlieb

Keep in mind that Hashem accepts you with all of your faults and broken pieces, you needn’t act as if they don’t exist.

Review the viduy before Yom Kippur in the machzor.

Don’t fall into any of the usual traps when you read the list of potential sins that you may have done:
1. What a great list. It’s even alphabetical. How interesting. I think I did everything.
2. I am doomed. I think I’ll go out for pizza. This is too heavy.
3. My life is a mess. It can’t be fixed. No one who had a childhood like mine will ever be clean on the inside.
4. This is extreme. I’m basically a good person. What’s all this breast-beating good for?
5. I hate myself.

Instead, come to grips with the reality of imperfection. If you’re human, you’re imperfect. You have the chance now to open yourself up to greater and higher movement towards being the person you want to be. Every breath you take is a gift from the One who wants to (and can!) understand you totally. Read the list with the same sort of feeling you would have if you were discussing a heartbreaking issue with your therapist. You want to change, that’s why you’re there.

There is one critical difference. Your therapist can only help you hear yourself. Hashem can help you discover a self that you may never have encountered (or may have thought was lost). If you open yourself even a little bit, He will open His Heart to you beyond your greatest hope.

The Avodah of Rosh HaShanah

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download this and a number of other Drashos on Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur

Rosh HaShannah – Avodah of Ben & Eved

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Malchiyus – Declaring Hashem’s sovereignty

Hashem says on Rosh HaShanah, “Declare before Me malchiyus, zichronos, and shofaros; declare malchiyus so that I should rule over you.”[1]

The truth is that in all of the davening on Rosh HaShanah, the only time we mention “zichronos” and “shofaros” is in the tefillah of Mussaf. Throughout all of the tefillos, however, we mention malchiyus. This shows us that malchiyus is the main aspect which we mention on Rosh HaShanah.

“There is no king without a nation.”[2] In order for Hashem to be King on us, so to speak, we need to declare ourselves as His servants. In other words, the avodah we have on Rosh Hashanah is not just to declare Hashem as our King. It is mainly that we become His servants.

Now that we have clarified that the main avodah on Rosh Hashanah is to accept our servitude to Hashem, we must know what it means to be an eved, a servant. If we truly know what it means to be an “eved”, we can understand our mission on this day.

“Eved” – Derogatory or Praiseworthy?

The Gemara[3] says that when we do Hashem’s will, we are called a ben (son) of Hashem, and when we don’t do His will, we are called eved\servant. It seems from this statement that eved is a derogatory title, something we are called when we don’t do Hashem’s will.

However, we find that Moshe Rabbeinu is given the unique title “eved” of Hashem. He is also called “eved ne’eman” – “trustworthy servant of Hashem”.

This is a paradox. Is eved a derogatory title, or is it a praiseworthy title?!

Three Levels

It depends, because there are two implications of the word “eved.”

One person serves his king, not because he loves him, but because he needs the king to fulfill his needs. He’s serving the king all for himself. An eved like this is the negative implication of eved, because all his service to the King is for his own benefit.
There is a higher implication of eved, and that is when the servant doesn’t serve Hashem for his own personal interests, but because he’s devoted entirely to the king. This is the deeper meaning behind why “whatever a servant acquires, his master acquires it” – it is because ideally, a servant has no personal life of his own, and his whole life is devotes to his master. This is the desirable level of eved – and one who acts like this fulfills the purpose of Creation. This was the kind of eved that Moshe Rabbeinu was. It is the meaning behind the Mishnah in Avos, “Do not be like servants who serve their master in order to receive reward, rather, be like servants who serve their master not to get a reward.”
We see from the above that it’s possible for a person to act selflessly and be considered “eved”, and that one doesn’t have to on the level of “ben” in order to reach this. Ben is when a person goes even beyond that and serves the king out of his love.

A person needs to have selfless devotion to Hashem, and this is “eved.” With this as well, a person needs to have serve Hashem out of a love for Him, and this is called “ben.” If so, we have altogether three levels:

The lower kind of eved, one who serves Hashem only because he needs Him.
The higher kind of eved, one who serves Hashem because he lives his life for Him.
Ben, which is when one serves Hashem out of a love for Him.
Practical Guidance for Utilizing Rosh Hashanah

If we want to prepare ourselves for Rosh Hashanah and declare Him as King over us – and that we become His servants – we must understand that if we feel as if we are forced into serving Him, we are being the first kind of eved, and then the whole purpose of Rosh Hashanah will be lost. Our main task on Rosh Hashanah we must do is to be like the second kind of eved: that our whole lives should be about one goal alone – serving Hashem. This should be why we live our life, and we shouldn’t have any other personal desires. This is the inner meaning behind all of our avodah on Rosh Hashanah.

It is not enough just to daven slowly and with concentration on Rosh Hashanah. Our main job on this day is to come to a decision that we will change our lives and live only for Hashem – and not for ourselves.

This job obligates us to make a deep internal clarification. We must know exactly what we want to get out of our life, and to examine our deeds to see if they are line with the goal we are striving for. If one truly decides to live a life of serving Hashem, he has to see if all that he does 24\7 is reflecting this.

How We Can Let Rosh Hashanah Affect Us For The Whole Year

If a person accepts upon himself to become a true eved of Hashem, then Rosh Hashanah must not end for him on the third day of Tishrei; Rosh Hashanah has to carry over into the rest of the year as well, until the next Rosh Hashanah! If a person examines his situation and finds that on Purim and Pesach he doesn’t think about Hashem, it must be that he did not have a good Rosh Hashanah. It shows that he did not accept upon himself on Rosh Hashanah to become an eved of Hashem.

May Hashem merit us that we all accept His sovereignty on Rosh Hashanah, and that we should become His true servants – and through this, we can merit to have the light of Rosh Hashanah affect us the whole year round.

[1] Rosh HaShanah 16b

[2] Kad HaKemach, Rosh HaShanah 70a

[3] Bava Basra 10a

Pondering The Meaning Of Life

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Talks on Elul

Hashem Helps Us When We Connect Our Actions With Him

ומגן ומושיע עוזר מלך Hashem is our עוזר ,our ultimate Helper.

Hashem is our true Helper. When a person helps another, the one receiving the help is considered the main person. But when Hashem helps us, we realize that Hashem is the main one, and we are just secondary. As it is written, “My help comes from Hashem.”.

Chazal say that our evil inclination gets stronger every day, and if not for Hashem, we cannot overcome it (Sukkah 52a). On a deeper note, our every action needs Hashem’s help. How indeed does Hashem help us? Whenever we do an action, it is considered alive only if we put Hashem into the equation. Although we use our power of bechirah to do good actions, our actions can only be considered ‘alive’ when we realize how we need Hashem to help us, and this gives life to the actions we do. A person might do many good deeds, but inwardly, he can be dead, because there is no life-source to his actions; Hashem is missing from the equation. Once we put Hashem into what we do, Hashem is providing life to our actions, and then the actions we do are alive.

Life Vs. Imagination

A person needs to live an inner kind of life, in which all that he does is inwardly connected to Hashem. We must know what it means to really live life, and what it means to merely imagine what a good life is – to see the differentiation between these two. To illustrate, a child plays a game and is having a good time; he thinks that this is his life. As he begins to get older, he realizes that all his fun was the world of imagination, and that this is not life.

The life which we see in front of us, on this world, is all a world of imagination! In order to really know what our life is, we have to merit from Hashem that He open our hearts to understand what it really is. If our heart hasn’t been opened a little, we do not understand what “life” is at all. We might know what death is, but we won’t know what “life” is.

Our existence is that we are a soul clothed by a body. Therefore, we initially perceive life from the perspective of our body, even if we learn Torah and mitzvos; from the perspective of the body, we have an erroneous perception of what life is about. We have to daven to Hashem that He should open our heart (as we daven in the end of Shemoneh Esrei, “Open my heart to Your Torah”) in order to understand what life really is.

We should look back at out past and see that whatever we thought until now as “life” is not really life, just imagination. Most people are not experiencing the true meaning of life, even if they live for 70 or 80 years. People often do not even experience one moment of true life on this world!

Our neshamah in us knows what real life is. Even when we ask Hashem for life, we do not always know what it is. The meaning of life is really a secret; only our neshamah knows what it is. Sometimes we receive sparks of understanding of what the meaning of life is. But to actually arrive at a total recognition of what life is, we need to have our hearts opened.

During Elul, what are people asking Hashem for? People have all kinds of things they want and ask Hashem for a whole list of things. The more a person asks for various things, the more it shows that he doesn’t understand what life is. We are all asking Hashem for life! In Shemoneh Esrei of Rosh HaShanah, we daven Zochreinu L’Chaim, Melech Chofetz B’Chaim, Kosveinu B’Sefer HaChaim…we keep asking for life, because that is really our central request in Elul. As for our personal requests that we ask of Hashem, most of these requests are not for life itself, but rather about various details that branch out from our life, such as parnassah, etc. The main request which we ask for in Shemoneh Esrei is that we should have life!

Since we are young, we think that we know we are alive. But the truth is that most people don’t even realize what it means to really be alive! People ask Hashem that they be granted life only because they don’t want to die. But as for life itself, to know what it means to be alive – people often do not know what it is. We don’t want Hashem to take away our life, as we daven in the prayer of Shema Koleinu. But what is our life to begin with? What is the life that we are asking for more of? Do we realize the true meaning of what it means to be alive…?

If our hearts begin to become a little opened, we can realize that the kind of life we think we have been living until now is really the world of imagination. Compare this to a child. A child’s perspective on life is not life – it is imagination. It is hard to verbally express this concept in words. The point is that your heart needs to become opened, and then you will know what is being discussed here.

In Elul, we ask for life. We must realize that this world we see in front of us is all imagination! Ever since Adam ate from the Eitz HaDaas, this world became like one big imaginary kind of existence. This is the depth behind the curse of “death” that came to the world – it was a “death” to the ideal state of mankind. So when we ask for life in Elul, the depth of our request is that we are asking Hashem that we be granted the power to leave our imagination, and instead taste of the true life – the Eitz HaChaim, the source of true life.

It is not only a person who is immersed in physical interests who is living in imagination. Even a person learning Torah and doing mitzvos, who is not entrenched in physical pursuit, can also be living in imagination. We see from this from the fact that we have all kinds of dreams at night.

When we reveal the inner essence of our heart, we will then understand what the true meaning of life is, and then we will be able to truly have d’veykus with the Creator.

Two Kinds of Joy

Rabbi Dessler – Strive for Truth 6 – Re’ei

King Shelomo prayed: “Give me neither poverty nor riches; give me my allotted bread. If I am satisfied, I might deny and say ‘Who is God?’ If I am poor, I might steal and take the name of my God [in vain].”

Troubles arouse a person and turn him towards God. If all his needs are satisfied, he may imagine that he can do without God, and from that to denial is not very far. It is clear that human beings have a strong tendency to deny God. If a person whose needs have been satisfied for the moment has this tendency, how much more so a rich man who thinks his prosperity is guaranteed far into the future.

Because this danger was so clear to him, Shelomo HaMelech prayed that he would not have riches nor even the complete satisfaction of his physical needs, but only the essential minimum: “my allotted bread.” The implication is that he would have much preferred to be poor and lack even essentials, were it not that poverty has its own dangers. He might be tempted to steal and lie, and so eventually also come to deny God by taking a false oath.

SUKKA OF PEACE
“You shall make a festival of Sukkot…when you gather your harvest…”2 Everyone is happy when the harvest is in and they feel that their livelihood for the year is assured. The danger of denying God is self-evident. To obviate this danger, the Torah commands us to “dwell in sukkot for seven days.”‘ This is to teach us that safety is not in material things, but in our closeness to God. Our shelter is not the roof, but God’s sukka of peace. We realize that true satisfaction comes only from banishing material ambitions from our hearts and filling our lives with avodat Hashem.4

REJOICING IN THE FESTIVAL
Instead of rejoicing in the harvest, the Torah tells us to “rejoice in your festival.”‘ This means spiritual joy, as another verse says, “You shall rejoice before God, your God.” The Talmud learns from this verse—”and you shall rejoice in your festival”—that one is not allowed to celebrate a marriage during a festival: “Rejoice in your festival and not in your wife.”‘ It is all the more obvious that our joy should not be in our harvest or in our sense of physical security. The joy of the festival is spiritual joy. It is joy in the heartfelt fulfillment that comes from transcending material desires and putting in their place the service of Hashem.

But how is it possible to change one’s joy from joy in the material to joy in the spiritual? There is only one way in which to do this, which we shall now explain.

THE FIELD OF THE HEART
My rebbe told me this in the name of the Vilna Gaon, of blessed memory. It is impossible to sow a field unless it has first been plowed. Similarly, the blockage in our heart—timtum ha-lev prevents spiritual feelings from penetrating it. The hard peel surrounding the heart must first be pierced. Only then can spiritual insights be sown, and only then can fruit be expected to grow, in theform of changed attitudes.

How can the hard soil of the heart be plowed? With strong emotional upheaval. This can come from sudden disaster or from great joy. When a person is in a state of great excitement, for whatever reason, his heart opens. A person can now impress on it whatever he likes. He can say to himself: Now is my chance! The hard casing of my heart has been broken open. Quick! I must sow in it what I want.

The origin of the great joy may have been nothing more than a good harvest. But now that the heart is excited and aroused, its habitual blockage is removed. This provides the opportunity to show one’s heart that the joy of spiritual success far exceeds the joy of material success. Here is the chance to transform one’s joy into another, higher level of joy.

The water-drawing ceremony which took place during the nights of the Sukkot festival was one of the highlights of the service in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. “One who has never seen the water-drawing ceremony in the Holy Temple has never seen joy in his life.”8 This ceremony and the water libation—nissuch ha-mayim—that followed it were in essence a prayer for rain for the coming year. But our Rabbis transformed it into a celebration of the spirit. “Why is it called ‘the joy of the water-drawing’? Because from it they used to draw the holy spirit.”‘ Prophets used to draw their inspiration from this dramatic and joy-inspiring ceremony.”‘

So we see what the Torah meant by “Make a festival…when you gather…”” Use the physical joy of gathering the harvest as a springboard to reach spiritual joy. Then your joy will be complete. You will experience the supreme happiness of transforming the lower into the higher — the darkness of denial into the great light of faith in God.

HASSIDIC CUSTOMS
With this in mind, we can now understand the custom prevalent among Hassidim to arousc joy and good humor through external means, such as the judicious use of liquor. They use joyous occasions to speak words of Torah and serving Hashem. Whoever instituted this obviously understood the secret of opening the heart and sowing seeds of Torah and chessed — as we discussed above.

It is wonderful to see how all Jewish customs, in every section of Jewry, have the same goal—to further Torah and deepen our avodat Hasbem.

notes
1 Mishlei 30:8-9.
2 Devarim 16:13.
3 Vayikra 23:42.
4 See parasbat Shoftim, end.
5 Devarim 16:14.
6 Vayikra 23:40.
7 Mo`ed Ratan 8b.
8 Sukka 51a.
9 Bereshit Rabba 70:8.
10 Yerushalmi Sukka 5:1.
11 See note 2, above.

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

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

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

The Three Weeks – Building The World

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on the Three Weeks and Tisha B’Ave

Binah/Binyan – The Power To ‘Build’ Through Our Understandings

ומלמד לאנוש בינה Hashem teaches “binah”, intuition, to us.

The word binah is related to the word binyan, to build. Torah scholars are called “builders” – they are blessed with the power of binah. When a person exerts himself in learning Torah, he is really building the world.

How can we reveal our power of binah to build the world – and to be more specific, to rebuild the Beis HaMikdash?

The Depth Behind ‘Sinas Chinam’ (Baseless Hatred): A Viewpoint of Disparity

Chazal tell us that the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed because of sinas chinam (baseless hatred)6. What is the root of sinas chinam? From where does this negative emotion come from?

Simply, it comes from being egotistical. When a person only cares about himself, he couldn’t care less about others, so he will hate others for no reason.

But the deeper understanding is as follows.

When we build a structure, a brick is placed on top of another. Hashem created many details in Creation; we are all like many bricks that need to get added together, and form the complete structure of Creation. All details in Creation are many parts of one whole which will ultimately have to come together.

When we see the world – inanimate objects, as well as people – from a superficial perspective, we do not see how all these connect. But it is this superficial perspective which actually brought about the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash!

We are supposed to see how all the details in Creation are really meant to come together and form a structure. Therefore, the many details going on in Creation are not just a bunch of random details. They are many parts of one whole, which need to come together in a structure. The purpose of everything is always one and the same – to come together, to become unified, and form one structure.

Applying this to our own development, when a person is young, he doesn’t connect outward beyond himself. When he gets a little older, he begins to realize that there is a Creator, and he wants to connect with the Creator, but he does not necessarily see connection with others as part of his connection with the Creator. If a person gets a little wiser, he realizes that his connection with the Creator really depends on how he connects with others.

When a person views Creation through a lens of disparity, this was the perspective which enabled destruction to come to the world. This is the depth behind sinas chinam.

Sinas Chinam – To Be Inwardly Apart From Other Jews

Even more so, sinas chinam means “I can live on my own; I don’t need other Jews in order to exist.”

What about the mitzvah to do chessed? The person rationalizes, “Chessed is like any other mitzvah that is outside of myself, like shaking a lulav. I don’t need chessed to exist.” When a person views Creation with disparity like this, that is sinas chinam – this perspective is what destroyed the Beis HaMikdash.

What was the Beis HaMikdash? It was the place that contained the Shechinah. But what is the Shechinah about? It is about Hashem’s Presence dwelling in Klal Yisrael, when we are in union. When we are not unified and we are instead apart from each other in our hearts, there is no point of having the Shechinah.

“The king is called the heart of the nation”; Hashem called is our “heart”. But if our hearts are full of disparity towards each other, and we each feel like we can survive without other Jews, then our damaged heart will not allow Hashem to be the heart of the nation, and thus the Shechinah will not dwell among us.

Sinas chinam has two layers to it. The outer layer of it is to show signs of hatred, simply speaking. The essence of sinas chinam, though, is that a person feels himself apart from other Jews, that he feels fine without other Jews, that he feels like he can live without other Jews. Sinas chinam, at its core, is to have a perspective of disparity towards Creation, a lack of awareness that Creation is supposed to become unified.

Moving In The Opposite Direction of Sinas Chinam

How do we go in the opposite direction, then, and get ahavas chinam (‘baseless love’)? We know that we have a mitzvah to love other Jews like ourselves but, how do we actually get it?

Simply speaking, we need to get rid of sinas chinam and reveal our deep ahavah for other Jews that we have really deep down. True, but there is more to it.

Ahavas chinam is when we realize, “I cannot exist without another Jew’s existence, for we are all part and parcel with one another.” There is no individual Jew who can live without another Jew’s existence; when we internalize this understanding, we reveal ahavas chinam. Thus, hatred can only exist when a Jew thinks he can exist fine without another Jew.

This perspective of ahavas chinam is the power that can rebuild the Beis HaMikdash, as well as the world as a whole.

Learning Torah To Build The World

As an example, when a person learns Torah, does he realize he is building the world? Or is he learning it all for himself…?

Learning Torah is what unifies the details of the world together. When a person learns Torah, he must be aware that his learning causes unity in Creation, for Torah is the root of all souls. But if a person is learning Torah and he has no love for other Jews, he’s learning Torah all for himself, and such Torah does not build the world.

Uprooting Hatred, and Getting To The Root of Love

The Rambam describes our middos as “daas”. The essence of all our middos and emotions is daas. The depth of ahavas chinam, and removing sinas chinam, is thus not by working with our emotions. Our emotions of love or hatred can only be the result of what perspective we have deep down. If we reveal daas – and we come to actually sense it – then we can reveal love.

We know that doing things for other people can bring love, for “the heart is pulled after the actions”, but at the same time we must realize that we need daas. When we do actions for others, we need to reveal daas with it – to realize that we must unify with others.

To uproot sinas chinam, and to develop ahavas chinam, we need to do good actions for others and help others, but along with this, we also need to reveal our daas – to realize that we need to unify with others. It is a perspective which we need to gain on how we view others. This is the way to access the real emotion of love for other Jews. Destruction comes when we are missing this perspective.

Love For Other Is Not A Novelty

What does it mean to love? It is not simply to shower love upon others. Love is when we reach our daas, when we connect with others, by realizing that all of Creation needs to become unified.

When a person gets married, he believes this is his bashert (soul-mate). He believes the words of Chazal that finding a wife is like finding his lost object. He does not view the love towards his wife as something new; he realizes that he is revealing a reality which is already there, for Chazal say that husband and wife were already destined to be bound together in love.

In the same way, we should view other Jews in Creation – our love for other Jews must not be some novel concept to us. When you meet another Jew, don’t think to yourself that Ahavas Yisrael is some new concept that you have to work on. Rather, it is the reality, and you need to align your way of thinking with that reality. This is because we are all one at our root.

The only reason why we don’t feel that unity is because we are currently living in a world of darkness, which blurs us from seeing the true reality. Therefore, we feel apart from each other, but it’s only because we are not in touch with reality.

What We Cry About on Tisha B’Av

We cry on Tisha B’Av over the ruins of Jerusalem, which lies in disgrace. We are living in a time of hester panim (concealment of Hashem’s revelation). But even more than so, we should cry about an even more painful situation: there are many of our fellow Jews today who are going through all sorts of pain, suffering, and predicament. In our times we live in, our fellow Jews today have both physical suffering as well as suffering of the soul.

We cannot really cry over the destruction of Jerusalem if we do not feel unity with other Jews. Why we do we cry on Tisha B’Av? Is it because we can’t bring our own Korbonos for ourselves? Or are we crying because we don’t have the Korbonos that atone for the entire congregation…? Which of these aspects means more to you…?

In Conclusion

“Whoever mourns Jerusalem, will merit to its rebuilding.” Even if we do not merit the actual rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash, we can each have a part in its rebuilding, when we build the world through the deeper understanding that comes from our “daas”, towards our relationship with the other Jewish souls.

May we all merit to unify with other Jews, as one piece, and come together into one structure, in which “Hashem will be One, and His Name will be one”.

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

By Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller Gottlieb

Internalized Confusion Leads to Tragedy

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

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

With Spiritual Diminishment, We Make G-d Small, Instead of Making Ourselves Big

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

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

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

We Live in a World Where Spirit is Gone and What is Left is Stone

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

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

We’re Fine with using Animals for Food and Clothing, But not for Spiritual Purposes

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

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

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

The Temple Was our House for Spiritual Self-Expression

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

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

The 17th of Tammuz is Meant to Be a Heavy Day of Introspection

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

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

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

G-d Wants to Give, But Do We Want to Receive

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

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

We’re All Broken Vessels

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

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


First Posted on July 3rd, 2007
Based on a lecture By Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller which can be found here.

The Test of Shavuos

Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the Bilvavi and the Getting to Know Yourself (Soul, Emotions, Home) seforim has a free download available of Shavous Talks here.

The Test That Returns Each Year

Shavuos is the time of the giving of the Torah. Consequently, it is now the time to prepare to receive the Torah. In order to ‘receive’ the Torah each year we can gain inspiration from reflecting on what the Jewish people did to prepare themselves to receive the Torah.

When Hashem came down to Har Sinai, He revealed Himself to the Jewish people. The entire nation trembled at the awesomeness of His revelation. Moshe Rabbeinu had to reassure the people that they had nothing to fear, and that Hashem was merely giving them a test.

A difficult test is called a nisayon. The days of Sefiras HaOmer occur during three months of the Jewish calendar – the second half of the month of Nissan, the entire month of Iyar, and the beginning of the month of Sivan. The word Nissan is rooted in the word nisayon. In other words, this first month of the sefiras ha’omer, the month of Nissan, contains in it a nisayon – a test. The “test” is how we will prepare for the Torah.

The word Iyar (the month which follows Nissan) comes from the word “yirah”, awe. This alludes to how the month of Iyar contains the power of yirah which can help enable us to prepare for receiving the Torah.

Thus, the months of Nissan and Iyar both serve to help us prepare for Shavuos. The “nisayon” (test)of Nissan requires us to prepare for the Torah, and the month of Iyar aids us in having the proper yirah, which are both necessary in order to receive the Torah.

The word nisayon comes from the word nes, which means to “run”; if a person “runs” away from the nisayon, he fails to grow from it. Alternatively, the word nes also means “miracle,” which uplifts a person. The hint of this is that a nisayon can either cause a person to run away from it, or become uplifted from it.Thus, every nisayon we endure serves as a test of our power of free choice – we can choose to elevate ourselves through the nisayon we are presented with, or run away from the message and fail to grow.

When the people heard the voice of Hashem at Har Sinai and all the thunder and lightning that followed, they had a nisayon. They were faced with a choice – they could want to run away, orthey could choose to become uplifted. Their first reaction was to want to flee; only then did Moshe Rabbeinu calm them down and reassure them not to flee in fear. He was really teaching the people that the purpose of this nisayon was to uplift them.

The Test At Har Sinai and Each Year

What exactly is the nisayon which the Jewish people faced in receiving the Torah? What did they find so difficult?

The Mesillas Yesharim writes that everything in this world is in a nisayon. No matter who you are and what your situation is, one is always facing a nisayon.

The first nisayon at Har Sinai was whether we the Jewish people would really accept the Torah when it was offered by Hashem to them as an option. The second nisayon occurred at the actual time of the giving of the Torah and was a much deeper but more subtle kind of test. At this point the Jewish people had already reached the apex of perfection, standing at Har Sinai and seeing the revelation of Hashem. Their test was whether they were willing and courageous enough choose to hear the Torah directly from the voice of Hashem.

Did they pass the test?

The Torah tells us that they did not pass the test. When the people heard the voice of Hashem at Har Sinai, they were afraid that they would die from hearing Hashem’s voice. In their fear, they requested to hear the Torah from Moshe’s voice instead. The Vilna Gaon teaches that this deviation from listening to Hashem was the seed that ultimately led to the sin of the Golden Calf. The Jewish people were supposed to be on the level of being willing to die in order to hear the voice of Hashem. From this we learn that we actually need to serve Hashem on the level of being prepared to die just to listen to Hashem’s voice!

But surely we would be forgiven for wanting to live and give up the opportunity to hear Hashem’s voice, rather than hear Hashem’s voice and die? What is the problem with choosing to live rather than hear Hashem’s voice? The answer is that to live without hearing the voice of Hashem’s is not really a life!

Admittedly, the people’s fear of Hashem’s voice did not signify idol worship. However, the sin lay in the fact that their fear of dying (which they associated with hearing His voice directly) surpassed their love of Hashem. The people’s fear of dying led them to settle for hearing the Torah through Moshe instead of directly from Hashem’s voice. However, the people failed to realize that life without hearing Hashem’s voice is meaningless.

When Adam sinned, he was ashamed in front of Hashem. He said, “Your voice I hear amidst the garden, but I am afraid and hiding.” [1] He ran away from hearing Hashem’s voice. At Har Sinai, we reached the purified state of Adam before the sin and were tested once again to see if we would listen to Hashem’s voice or run in fear. However, we failed to pass the test.

All of us were at Har Sinai, for our souls were there in a previous lifetime. Thus, we all failed to pass that test – we were afraid to die. However, we have a chance every year to pass this test again every year at Shavuos time. Are we ready to die to hear the voice of Hashem?

Before we accept the light of receiving the Torah which returns every year on Shavuos, we are first tested again to see whether we have reached the level of choosing to listen to Hashem’s voice and risk dying. At Har Sinai, the test was overt. In contrast, the test of our current day is not as clear to us, though it is the same test. And though we are not on the same level as we were at Har Sinai, Hashem still sends us the same test to each and every one us each year [to see if we will pass].

Striving For A Relationship With Hashem In Our Daily Life

In practical terms, what is our “test” that returns to us each Shavuos? In order to understand the essence of this difficult test presented to us each year on Shavuos, we must first understand that there are two totally different ways to live life.

When faced with a difficulty, one kind of person will continue to learn Torah and do all the mitzvos, visit tzaddikim and give tzedakah. He may also daven by kevarim (and even talk to Hashem a little when he is there). In contrast, the second type of person who meets with challenges will talk to Hashem about them all the time, and share with Him all his problems.

The first type of person is missing the point of life. Of course, there is something special in visiting tzaddikim. There is certainly a concept of segulos, but relying on spiritual charms is not enough!! We need to have a constant relationship with Hashem, including regular interaction and talking to Him, so that when we face a challenge we will naturally talk to Hashem directly, without wanting or thinking we need someone else to do it for us!

When we daven to Hashem in Shemoneh Esrei, we must realize we are speaking directly with Hashem. We can choose to ‘hear His voice’ and have direct contact with Him. And this is not just limited to our Shemonei Esrei. Our entire life can and should involve Hashem in this way. We should strive to always feel that Hashem is in front of us. As we learn from the Mesillas Yesharim, we should talk to Hashem “as a man who talks to his friend.”

For instance, imagine that you need something urgently. There is something very specific that you personally can do about it. Talk to Hashem! Davening to Hashem is not a “segulah.” Rather, it should be natural to you. This mindset and practice affects our entire life. Tefillah is the art of a Jew, which we received from our ancestors. We can ask and thank Hashem before everything we do.

However, since many of us are unfamiliar with this regular practice, we do not feel that closeness to Hashem. Therefore, it is only natural that we would be less likely to be prepared to die for Hashem. There is no relationship, so we would be less inclined to sacrifice anything for Him. There has to first be a relationship with Hashem. Only once we have fostered and ignited a close and loving relationship can we ever hope to reach the level of being prepared to give himself up for Him.

Every year, Hashem approaches us on Shavuos and offers to speak to us again so we can hear His voice. The question is – are we prepared to listen to Him? The truth to this question lies deep in your heart. We must try to reach a level whereby we truly should be willing to and want to hear the voice of Hashem.

Of course, if you ask anyone if he wants to hear Hashem’s voice, he will respond, “Of course! What spiritual bliss that would be!” But as soon as he told that he will have to give his life for it and die for it, he turns back and runs away. At Har Sinai the people did not want to hear Hashem’s voice. Instead they chose to hear the Torah from Moshe. It is harsh to say something like this, but the same thing is likely to happen at the time of the Moshiach if one did not develop a strong enough relationship with Hashem. At the time of the Moshiach, we are taught that we will learn Torah. But from whom will we hear this Torah from? We will have a choice to hear it either from Hashem directly, or from Moshiach.

If someone never spent his life talking with Hashem, then when Moshiach comes, he will not be able to suddenly run to go hear Hashem’s voice teaching the Torah. He will reject hearing the Torah directly from Hashem Himself, in favor of hearing it from Moshiach!

The Sages teach that one must exert himself over the Torah, and must “kill himself in the tents of Torah.”[2] Why it is indeed necessary for us to ‘die’ for the Torah? On a simple level, this is a euphemism for sacrificing all materialism for the sake of ruchniyus, and a greater connection with the Torah. However, on a deeper level, we learn that just as the Jewish people were supposed to die in order to hear Hashem’s voice, so must we be prepared to die in order to hear Hashem’s speaking to us through the Torah.

And so, the question we must ask ourselves each Shavuos is: Are we prepared to die for the Torah?

Imagine if Hashem came to us again and asked us if we wanted the Torah. Imagine if we heard His voice and felt our souls leaving us, just as the souls of the Jewish people left them with each word of the Torah they heard from Hashem. What would we do? Would we be willing to continue listening and sacrifice our soul? Or would we say, “I don’t know about this. I have to ask my wife. Also, I have kids at home. If I die, they will be left without a father.” All kinds of excuses….

Preparation for receiving the Torah is really all about being prepared to sacrifice one’s life for the sake of Torah and to hear Hashem’s voice. And, this must be a true willingness in one’s heart, and it will not suffice as a mere utterance of the lips that is superficial.

Preparing For Shavuos: Making A Self-Accounting

Practically speaking, in the three days leading up to Shavuos, everyone should actively carve out some time of quiet to make a self-accounting and ask himself if he is ready to accept the Torah or not. Is he willing to stay and listen to Hashem’s voice at the risk of death? This is the question that each Jew should ask himself every Shavuos: “If I would be standing at Har Sinai right now, would I be on the level to receive the Torah directly from Hashem’s voice?”

People may assume that such willingness to sacrifice our lives for Hashem was only relevant and appropriate for previous generations, and that we surely cannot be on the level of standing at Har Sinai. They may react, “What do you want from us?? These words are not for this generation…”

But such an attitude reveals a rejection of receiving the Torah. Whether or not we are there yet, we must at least strive to have a yearning to reach that high level, and we must not remain complacent with a low spiritual level.

This willingness to die for Hashem and His Torah should not be limited just to Shavuos. It should carry over into the rest of the year as well – to life a life of connection with Hashem, all day, and not just when we daven three times a day. Every day, each person should actively consider deeply about his relationship with Hashem, and how much he is willing to sacrifice to get closer to Him.

The Torah says, “Remember the day in which you stood before Hashem, your G-d, at Horeb.” Don’t just remember that you stood at Har Sinai – remember that you stood in front ofHashem at Har Sinai.

These words here will ring true for anyone who searches for a true kind of life. It is the true way to prepare for receiving the Torah. I hope that the words here are not new to you; to the contrary, I hope that they are quite familiar to you. We must separate ourselves from the mores of our generation to become souls of the Creator of the World.

May Hashem merit all of us to accept the Torah before Shavuos, and to be ready to give ourselves up in order to hear Hashem’s voice and His Torah, all year.

[1] Bereishis 3:10

[2] Brochos 63b

Momentary Gains or Lasting Benefits

Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the Bilvavi and the Getting to Know Yourself (Soul, Emotions, Home) seforim has a free download available of Shavous Talks here.

We find three times where the Torah refers to counting: counting the years to Yovel (the jubilee), counting the days for purification of a zavah (VaYikra 15:19), and counting the omer. But a zavah does not make a beracha when she counts. Tosfot (Menachot 65b) explain that with the omer, we can be sure that it will lead to completion, but the zavah might not become pure at this time.

With the omer, then, we are able to begin (and continue) with an awareness of the end. If we do not anticipate an end, there is no blessing (and no requirement to count orally, which is why the zavah need not count orally). In life, too, we must always maintain an awareness of the end, as the Rosh writes that one must always be cognizant of death.

We might ask: Chazal have taught us (Avot 2:16) that “you are not expected to finish the task.” How, then, can one keep the end in mind if he will never reach the end?

If a person is ill, and there is no known remedy for his illness, that does not necessarily mean that he should despair of being cured. Often, there is ongoing research, and a cure might be discovered at a later time. He may want to begin saving his money for when it will hopefully become available. So, too, although one individual cannot single-handedly cause Mashiach to come, he should anticipate that it will come soon, and focus his actions toward that endpoint. Inwardly, a person must always yearn for that goal.

The value of this yearning is that he will have a completely different perspective on his actions. For example, if a person plans to move to a nicer home as soon as he can afford to, he will not invest more money in his current home than absolutely necessary. The opposite will be the case with someone who plans to stay in his home for many years. So, too, if we focus on the end (the times of Mashiach or our own deaths) our attitude toward this life and this world will be much different than if we were focused solely on our current state. We would be much less focused on material things. We would still take care of our needs here, but be aware that it is all temporary.

A person would not invest all his money in something unstable. Chazal in fact have advised that one divide his assets among cash, land, and merchandise. This world is unstable, and we must be aware of this fact not only with regard to money.

To illustrate: A person at a red light would not turn off his car engine, because he expects to move soon. But I was once in a traffic jam because the police stopped traffic for hours while they were looking for a criminal, and people parked their cars in the street and got out while they waited. Life is more like a car at a red light. We must be ready for any change in life. This world is full of drastic changes.

These changes in the world serve to remind us not to take the material world too seriously. We must focus on what has real permanence. For example, when a person seeks a wife, he is very careful, and he would not marry someone unstable, because marriage is a long-term commitment.

What has permanence here is the spiritual level. If a person seeks truth and stability, he must be aware of the instability of this world, and not take it too seriously, and on the other hand, connect to the permanent world of Hashem and the Torah. These relate to the eternal world. This awareness will enable us to accept the Torah properly on Shavuot and earn eternity.

Pesach – Internalizing Your Knowledge

By Rav Itamar Schwartz the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh.
Click here for the Bilvavi Hagaddah.
Click here for a number of Drashos on Pesach from Rav Schwartz.

Leaving Egypt – and then Receiving the Torah

First we left Egypt, and then we came to Har Sinai to receive the Torah.

It is written, “And you shall know today, and you shall return the matter to your heart.” Our avodah is always first to know the facts, and then to internalize our mind’s knowledge into our heart.

The Egyptian exile deterred us from receiving the Torah. As long as we were in Egypt, we could not receive the Torah; we have to leave it in order to become purified at Har Sinai and receive the Torah. In Egypt, we would not have been able to internalize the Torah had we received it. In Egypt, there was “bricks and mortar”, and this personified the exile. What exactly are these “bricks and mortar” that held us back from receiving the Torah? It wasn’t just that we had cruel physical labor. It was a spiritual kind of bricks and mortar – a blockage that held us back from receiving the Torah.

There were two layers to the redemption. There was a physical redemption, which took place when we actually left Egypt, in the physical sense. But there was also a spiritual layer to the redemption: the redemption that took place in our souls, enabling us to receive the Torah.

Although the physical redemption happened a long time ago, the spiritual redemption to our souls happens every year. Let us learn how we can merit to have the yearly spiritual redemption during this time – to reach the level of receiving the Torah, the level of internalizing our knowledge.

Removing The “Blockage of the Heart”

In the Haggadah we express, “By your blood shall you live” – which the Sages explain this to refer to the blood of the korban pesach (paschal sacrifice) and the blood of bris milah (circumcision) What is the connection between korbon pesach and bris milah? Simply it is because in order to eat the korban pesach, one had to be circumcised, as the Gemara says. But the deeper meaning is that one has to circumcise his “orlas halev” – the blockage that is on his heart.

There exist two kinds of orlah (blockages) which we remove – a physical blockage which exists in the part of the body that is circumcised by bris milah, and a spiritual kind of blockage, which is present on the heart. This is called orlas halev. When our heart is blocked, the Torah knowledge in our mind isn’t able to penetrate into our heart.

On Pesach, we were commanded to become circumcised; the simple meaning of this, as we said, was because we need to undergo bris milah in order to eat from the korbon pesach. But the deeper meaning is that we had to remove our orlas halev, “blockage of our heart” that was on us – as it is written, “And you shall circumcise the foreskin of your hearts.”

We must remove the barrier between our mind and heart, so that our mind’s knowledge can settle in our heart. And it has to be “in” our heart, not just on our heart.

In order to eat the korbon pesach, we had to have a bris milah. As we explained, the deeper meaning of this is that we had to remove our “orlas halev” in order to eat the korban pesach. In Egypt, we removed some of the blockage as we began to cry out to Hashem from our heart, but this process was not yet complete until we left Egypt, when we actually received bris milah – which was not just a physical act of circumcision, but a removal of the blockage on our heart.

How We Can Accomplish Internalization

How do we internalize the knowledge of our mind into our heart? We get to know the Torah by learning it well, but how do we internalize it into our heart? In the works of our Rabbis, there are two general ways described in how we can accomplish it.

The First Way: Da’as

One way is as follows. In our brain, we have three “minds” going on – three different mental abilities: Chochmah, Tevunah, and Daas. Chochmah is what one learns from his teacher. Tevunah is when we think on our own, and Daas is when we connect to our knowledge. Daas is when a person is always thinking about Torah, because he connects to the knowledge of his mind. Daas is an inner kind of thinking, not a superficial kind of thinking.

When a person merely intellectualizes about his learning, he’s either using Chochmah or Tevunah, but this isn’t yet Daas. Daas is only when a person thinks all the time about his learning because he is truly connected to his learning; from his deep connection to the Torah, he thinks about it as a result.

When a person uses his Daas, he is connected all the time to his learning as he thinks constantly of Torah – and in this way, his mind’s knowledge enters his heart. This is when a person learns Torah along with emunah in Hashem in his life. The Torah then penetrates into his heart.

The Second Way: Verbal Repetition

The second method brought by our Rabbis on how we can internalize is by making an direct imprint on our heart, and this is accomplished when we review matters repeatedly using our simple emunah. As it is written in the possuk, “I believed, for I spoke.” When we constantly repeat a fact, it eventually settles into our heart, where it becomes internalized knowledge.

Pharoah knew that Hashem existed, but he didn’t internalize this information. Pharoah means peh rah, “evil mouth.” In other words, he didn’t use his mouth in the right way, and thus he didn’t internalize his mind’s knowledge.

So one way to internalize is to use daas, which is by learning Torah in a way that we connect to it; and this is accomplished when we learn Torah together with having emunah in Hashem. The second method to internalize is to use our power of speech, to affect our heart.

The Third, Deeper Way: Repeating The Facts Of Our Da’as To Our Heart

But there is also a third way, which is deeper than the above two ways, and it combines the two methods together: to speak to ourselves facts that we know from our daas, with the intention that it should affect our heart.

This is also the deeper meaning behind why we count Sefiras HaOmer for 49 days. It is because by repeating to ourselves that today is another day towards Shavuos, it eventually internalizes in our heart; through the power of constant verbal repetition, the facts of our brain settle into our heart and become internalized.

Most people when they learn Torah are only using the lower power of Chochmah, which is located in the brain. This is mere intellectual knowledge, and it doesn’t always affect a person. But the higher, deeper kind of Chochmah is called Chochmas HaLev – the wisdom of the heart – and it is rare. It is accessed when we verbalize our mind’s knowledge to ourselves and we repeat the facts, over and over again, until it penetrates our heart. It then becomes Chochmas HaLev.

Feel The Contradiction Between Your Mind and Heart

First we must realize, though, that our mind and heart are in vast contradiction with each other. There are many contradictions going on between our heart and mind, and therefore, our mind and heart are very far from each other. Our heart is full of various desires that are evil, even though our mind knows that it’s wrong.

Desires, jealousy and honor-seeking are negative emotions that are present in our heart. These negative emotions contradict what we know in our mind. Feel the contradiction going on between your mind and heart – and let it bother you! When you feel very bothered by the great contradiction going on between your mind and heart, you can then realize that you must work to internalize your mind’s knowledge into your heart.

It is not enough to simply ignore these negative emotions that pass through us and hope that they will go away on their own. Rather, we should seek the truth, and instead we should seek to change our heart, by repeating our mind’s facts to our heart, through repeated verbalization.

In today’s generation, our heart is for the most part negatively affected, and we often don’t feel at all how it’s affected. But out heart is being affected more and more, for the worse, as our life goes on. If we don’t seek to change our heart, our heart only gets worse and worse as we get older, and we will only continue to get negatively influenced by our surroundings.

In order to survive the dismal situation of today’s times, we must continuously attempt to internalize our mind’s knowledge into our heart. We have to go through a constant purification process within ourselves. Our heart has to literally burn for Torah, for mitzvos, for love and fear of Hashem, for a bond with Him. It has to burn like a fire, or else we get worse and worse as our life goes on. Every Jew needs to have a heart that is actuallyburning for a bond with Hashem and for His Torah and mitzvos.

Unless a person develops a burning desire in his heart to internalize the facts he knows, he will remain his whole life and end it with his initial level of orlas halev.

We must bring our life to a halt (at least once) and seek how we can internalize our knowledge, how we can acquire a heart that burns for Hashem. A person might go his whole life and know a lot of Torah, but in his heart, he is a total ignoramus, and not only that, but his heart is evil from his youth. Even if he’s a prominent person when it comes to Torah knowledge – even if he gives shiurim and wrote sefarim – it doesn’t mean he has internalized the Torah into his heart…

If a person seeks to change his heart constantly, he will be much less affected by society. A person needs to realize that our surroundings place us in grave danger. We can’t become complacent! If we let ourselves become complacent in today’s times, we are in mortal danger.

To summarize: We must each seek to internalize our mind’s knowledge into our hearts – through our daas, and through repeating the facts with our mouth. And we must set aside time to reflect about important matters, (as Reb Yisrael Salanter would do, to go over one statement of Chazal and repeat it numerous times, passionately).

We need to do this all the time, not just once in a while: we must always seek to internalize the facts into our heart, by repeating to ourselves the facts that we know. Hashem created us with a lev tahor, a “pure heart” – and when we feel our pure heart, we will feel as if we have just converted anew to Judaism.

(Of course, we need a brain too, and not just a heart. We cannot live with just our mind or just our heart – we need to connect them both together.)

We need to have a life brimming with Torah, mitzvos and emunah. This is the true redemption from Egypt.

May we merit to leave the blockage on our hearts, and instead come to “know” Hashem – and to internalize the knowledge about Him in our heart.

TEN WAYS to help you and YOUR CHILDREN have a more Meaningful and Inspiring PESACH SEDER

Use these suggestions to infuse new meaning and excitement into your seder and create a lasting experience for you and your family.

1.Make the most of your Seder and best fulfill the mitzvah of V’higadita L’vincha by staying focused on telling the actual story of Yetzias Mitzrayim; concentrate on the events and their lessons.

2. Transform Yetzias Mitzrayim from a story into a reality by celebrating the Seder like you celebrate a Simcha in your own family. Speak about it vividly, personally and enthusiastically…you’ll inspire yourself and your children.

3. Prepare for the Seder! Spend time studying books and Midrashim that elaborate specifically on the details of each miracle to help your children appreciate the extent of Hashem’s kindness.

4. Make Pesach personal and relevant to your children. Use your discussion about the amazing miracles of Yetzias Mitzrayim as a means of opening their eyes to the miracles Hashem performs for us every day.

5. Show your children how so much of the Pesach Seder revolves around them, demonstrating how much Hashem cares about every child and values each one as an essential member of Klal Yisroel.

6. Involve your children in the Pesach Seder. Prepare stimulating and challenging questions that will guide them to understand the lessons of the Haggadah and be an active participant in the Seder.

7. Practice the lesson of the Four Sons during your Seder by making a particular effort to involve each child (and adult!) in a way that best suits his or her unique personality, style and level.

8. Take the time to patiently answer your children’s questions. If you don’t know the answer, create a powerful Chinuch experience by asking a rabbi and exploring the issue… together with your child.

9. Reinforce their Emunah through the Pesach Seder by explaining that the miracles of Yetzias Mitzrayim irrefutably demonstrated Hashem’s complete control over the world to millions of eyewitnesses. We attest to this truth every year on the Seder night.

10. Inspire yourself by remembering that tonight Jewish parents around the world are passing on a glorious 3,320 year old legacy to their children as their parents and ancestors have done before them. Realize that the Seder that you create for your children will inspire them for the rest of their lives and shape the future Seder that they will make for their children.

The Pesach Seder:
A Unique Opportunity to Instill Emunah in Our Children

The Mitvah of telling the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim is primarily focused on our children and family. Its main purpose is to instill in their hearts the full knowledge of Hashem’s sovereignty and the magnitude of His strength and miracles. One should explain the story to them in the language that they understand to make them aware of the extent of the wonders that Hashem performs. It is not sufficient to explain just the main points of Yetzias Mitzrayim written in the Haggadah. Instead, we should describe all of the miracles vividly as they are depicted in the Gemara, Midrashim and other Seforim. (Based on Yesod V’Shoresh Ha’avoda 9:6)

COURTESY OF THE COMMUNITY TRAINING INITIATIVE OF PRIORITY-1
Under the auspices of Harav Reuven Feinstein, Shlita

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Perspectives on Pesach Hotels

An article was many years ago Rabbi Jonathon Rosenblum, titled Five Star Pesach:

I will never forget an address by Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman at an Agudath Israel of America convention on the topic “Living a Life of Ruchnios amidst Gashmius.” I had never before heard Rabbi Wachsman, and I practically jumped out of my seat when he thundered: This topic represents a fundamental mistake. There is no ruchnius amidst gashmius. To the extent that a person is living in the world of gashmius he is removed from ruchnius!

I was reminded of those words recently on a recent trip to Los Angeles, where I had a rare opportunity to speak with a rav whose wisdom has always impressed me. In the course of our conversation, he asked to me, “What would you say is the greatest threat to Yiddishkeit today?” I leaned forward eagerly, confident that he would mention one of my favorite subjects. But I must admit that his answer would not have been on my top ten-list.

“Pesach in hotels,” turned out to be the winning answer. And my friend’s central criticism was similar to that of Rabbi Wachsman: the Pesach hotel industry takes what should be one of the ultimate spiritual experiences of every Jew’s life and encases it in a thick wrapper of materialism. Read the advertisements, he told me: “No gebrochts” right next to “24 hour tea bar;” “Daily daf hayomi” next to “Karate, go-carts, and jeeping for the kids.”

Rabbi Horowitz had his own take on this in The Greatest Threat to Yiddishkeit:

My dear chaver and colleague Reb Yonoson Rosenblum (#204; Five-Star Pesach) describes how he “practically jumped out of his seat,” listening to Rabbi Wachsman “thunder” that there is “no ruchniyus amid gashmiyus.” Well, I practically jumped out of my seat when I read Reb Yonoson’s quote of a Rav who claimed that Pesach programs are “the greatest threat to Yiddishkeit today.”

I do not know which Rav he was referring to, but I will gladly forward my home phone calls and those of Project YES to that Rav for a month. After listening to the terrible and very real challenges that we face individually and communally for thirty days and sleepless nights, I dare say that he may reconsider his thoughts as to what “the greatest threat to Yiddishkeit” is.

Rabbi Rosenblum continued with Pesach Hotels: A Second Look and Rabbi Horowitz published an opposing opinion in Rabbi Horowitz, I Beg to Differ.

Which leads to Azriella Jaffe’s take on the subject in a Yated letter to the Editor:

5/5/08
To: Letter to the Editor, Yated

I felt I needed to respond to the strongly worded sentiments of late that sounds something like: “I-would-never-go-to-a-hotel for Pesach! What is the frum world coming to, that Jews with money pay to escape the workload of preparing for Pesach, and thus, miss the entire spiritual meaning of the holiday?”

Until this Pesach, I was one of those who felt something between envy, disdain, and plenty of negative judgment towards the hotel-Pesach crowd. I’ve done a 180 degree turn, and I hope that Hashem will forgive me for my regrettable, previous inability to give benefit of the doubt. Allow me to explain.

I am an author and speaker on Jewish topics by profession, and I was contacted by the organizer of a Pesach hotel program with this offer: “If you’ll give over workshops/speeches for our attendees on the Shabbos and Yomim Tovim of Pesach, we’d love to have your family join us as well.” Now, I had a dilemma. This was a magnificent opportunity for a professional and family experience we would never have otherwise; how could I turn it down? But I was philosophically against the hotel scene, so what should I do? After consulting with my husband and my Rav, we agreed to give it a try this year. Not only were we all pleasantly surprised, I see the entire scene differently now.

What I didn’t realize until I met, and talked with, numerous guests, is that none of the guests in the hotel that I met were there because they are lazy. They are there with a story. A mother with cancer who can’t possibly make Pesach. A divorced father whose kids are with their mother for Pesach. A Bubbe in her late seventies who realizes that she can no longer handle 27 extended guests in her home for the Yomim Tovim, and they have the financial means to treat the family for a gathering at the hotel instead, so why not? Elderly couples whose married children are now making Sederim with their inlaws. Older singles who don’t want to be spending all of Pesach at relative’s homes who look with pity and disdain at their single status. Houses under renovation, Jews who had some kind of major nisayon this year, (or in some cases, two or three major nisyonos!) and they just “need a break.” Jews who find the shiurim and nightly entertainment particularly uplifting, and they realize that their spirits need an infusion of “spark.”

Yes, the food is delicious, and it’s superb not to have to wash a dish, or scrub the house down before Pesach. It certainly is a vacation. Yes, the Sederim are different when you aren’t in the privacy of your own home, and perhaps not ideal for some families. No question about it – there is truth to the concern that we mustn’t abandon our responsibility to pass along to our children how Pesach, (and all of its relevant mitzvos), is prepared in one’s own home. The hotel scene may not be necessary, appropriate or even enjoyable for many of us. But I urge all of us, as a community, to withhold judgment. I now understand that for many in our community, Pesach in a hotel does not substitute for a spiritual Pesach experience, but rather, it makes a kosher, meaningful Pesach possible.

Originally Published June 2, 2008

How Can Everyone Make Purim More Meaningful and Really Take Advantage of This Great Day

From the Weekly Bilvavi email. (send an email to subscribe@bilvavi.net)
Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh.

QUESTION What is the avodah for both men and women and Purim, and how can everyone make Purim more meaningful and really take advantage of this great day?

ANSWER There are a lot of aspects to Purim. The halachah of drinking on Purim applies only to men, and the parameters of this halachah is explained by the Poskim. But there are many other aspects of Purim as well which apply to both men and women. Here are some of those points to think about, and each person should try to do them on his or her own level, according to his or her personal capabilities – and not based on any reasons influenced by factors that are either social, or emotional, or family-based, because there are many times where people act based solely on “what’s normal”, and this uproots any serenity and joy that they could have on Purim.

1) Consider the aspect of reading the Megillah on Purim. Both men and women are obligated to hear the Megillah on Purim. And on a more inner level, both men and women can reflect on the events in the Megillah and see how there was Divine Providence laced throughout this story, because the word “Megillas Esther” means to “reveal” the “hidden”, to turn the concealment (hester) into giluy (revelation of Hashem’s Divine Providence). A person can go through all of the details in the Purim story, from beginning until end, and he can see how it was all an unfolding process of Hashem’s Divine Providence – as opposed to a bunch of random details that have no connection to each other.

On an even deeper level, each person, whether a man or woman, on his or her own level, can see Hashem’s inner mode of conduct hidden in the Creation, as explained in sefer Daas Tevunos, and how every event in the world can be seen through the lens of Hashem’s carefully planned Divine Providence, His goodness, and the revelation of His Oneness.

2) Consider the mitzvah of sending Mishloach Manos on Purim. The purpose of this mitzvah is to increase love and friendship. On the obligatory level, everyone is obligated to send two portions of food to someone. On an inner level, one should also think about whom he will make happy by giving Mishloach Manos to. Then one should think, “What can I put into this Mishloach Manos package which will make the other person happy? What would that person really enjoy?” One should put thought into how much Mishloach Manos to send, what the quality of it should be like, how nice it should look & what kind of nice messages he can send with it. Everyone should do this only according to her personal capabilities, and not over-do it.
Even more so, when giving Mishloach Manos, it should not just be an act of giving motivated by logic alone, but it should be given from the depth of one’s heart, with love and joy, to make the other person happy.

Included in this aspect (gladdening other people on Purim) is to make the children happy, with costumes and the like. But again, one should do this only within her actual capabilities, and only if she can do it with joy.

3) Consider also the mitzvah to give Matanos L’Evyonim (gifts to the poor) on Purim. One should look for a person who needs it the most, and who would be the happiest to receive it – and one should strive to give Matanos L’Evyonim specifically to this kind of person. A woman usually needs to ask her husband about whom she may give Matanos L’Evyonim to, mainly so that her husband should agree with her decision.

4) Regarding the seudah of Purim, [if you are hosting a seudah], try to serve dishes that each person there will enjoy, catered to his or her particular tastes. The main point of the seudah on Purim, of course, is to think about and discuss Purim-related matters and what Purim is all about, and to stay away from any words that can be insulting to others, which only serve to bring out the most unrefined and impure elements in one’s nature.

5) The purpose of the day of Purim is to reach a deep place in ourselves that is above one’s daas (logical reasoning and understanding). For men, whose main mitzvah is to learn Torah, their main work on this world is to develop the power of their logic throughout the year, by studying Torah. That is why men need the intoxicating effects of wine (or the dulling effect of sleep) in order to “nullify” their logical understanding and reach a place that goes beyond logical understanding. Women, who are exempt from Torah study, are therefore closer to the concept of nullifying their understanding and to more easily reach a place that goes beyond logical understanding. This is the point known as temimus
(non-intellectual simplicity or earnestness).

Thus the main avodah of the day of Purim is: “Be wholesome with Hashem your G-d”, to walk with Him in temimus (simplicity), without any intellectual thinking. It is about sensing His unlimited love for us, just as the people in the time of Achashveirosh re-accepted the Torah out of their great love of Hashem that they saw through the miracles of Purim. It is about feeling how He always gives of His kindnesses to us, out of His great love for us, by saving us from trouble, and by bestowing good upon us. From this understanding, we can come to feel the sweetness and pleasantness of being close to Him. This is the root of true simchah on Purim, because by feeling close to Hashem a person feels physically lighter, in the body in general and specifically in the feet. That is why one can easily sing and dance on Purim, just as by the song of Miriam, when the joy of the women made them feel lighter, causing them to quickly sing and dance.

And that is why the miracles on Purim happened precisely through women [Esther]. It is because women are closer to this temimus (simplicity and earnestness). Men need to drink on Purim as a means to reach this place of temimus, whereas women are closer to reaching it, without the means of drinking. It only requires a little bit of re-fl ecting and calm silence, to enter into the deepest place within oneself – and each person on his or her own level can do it. (from the Bilvavi Q & A archive.)

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Purim: Happiness In Spite Of Pain

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh.

Download a number of Drashos on Purim

What is happiness? Basically, it is to fulfill a lacking. The more lacking we feel, the greater happiness we feel when we fulfill what we’re missing.

It’s easy to be happy on Purim – after all, we experienced a redemption! We were saved from death. But how can we be happy today when we are in exile, and we are full of suffering?

In Tehillim we say, “Serve Hashem with joy”. This means that we can always be happy – but how? When we experience failure and we are down, how can we be happy?

It’s nice to say, “Gam Zu L’Tovah” — “This, too is for the best”. But that doesn’t yet prove we are happy; that would definitely show Emunah in Hashem, but how can we be actually happy in spite of all the suffering we have?

The way we can always be happy, even amidst pain, is by nullifying our will completely to Hashem.

What does it means to nullify our selves?

It doesn’t mean simply to give up what we want for Hashem, to sacrifice for Him, (which is indeed commendable). It means that my entire existence is completely for Hashem! Let us elaborate further.

Why is it that most people don’t feel that Hashem is always with them? How come people don’t feel Hashem in their life?

Many people will answer – “I must have many sins, therefore I don’t feel Hashem next to me.” That is true, but there is a more inner reason.

The true, inner reason is because most people simply never realize that Hashem even exists! How then can a person recognize Hashem in his life?

If a person nullifies his ego, he will automatically come to realize Hashem’s existence. The “Me, me me” in a person is what prevents a person from experiencing the simple awareness of Hashem’s existence.

When a person suffers — let’s say a person becomes ill – it is a time to “accept suffering”; the Mishna in Avos says that we must accept suffering. But what does it mean to accept suffering? Does it mean that a person should think, “Let my suffering be an atonement for all my sins?” That is not the purpose of suffering (although it is definitely true that suffering does atone one’s sins). The purpose of accepting suffering is to give up one’s very self to Hashem.

When one suffers, he has the opportunity to give up his very self, bringing himself ever closer to Hashem. This is how a person can rejoice even while he is suffering – by giving up his very self to Hashem.

What is Purim to us?

For many people, Purim is a day of strict halachic observance and nothing more. Purim can be a day of observing the mitzvos with all their dikduk and chumros – hearing the Megillah this way and that way, giving this and that for Mishloach Manos and Matanos L’evyonim – it can remain at that, a day of superficial mitzvah observance!

We are not trying to make fun of those who are very frum to carry out every halacha of Purim! We are not saying these are not good things. It is very commendable to observe and carry our all the halachos of Purim as best as possible. But there is a lot more to Purim than just the mitzvos of Purim!

The question we must ask ourselves every year is: “Did Purim change me?” Did you simply rejoice over the fact that the Jews were saved on Purim, celebrating the same celebration every year… or did you succeed in realizing that you have to give your self up for Hashem?

If you are simply happy on Purim because there was one time in history that the Jews were saved on this day, your happiness on Purim is only on Purim – that’s it! You will remain the same sad person after Purim ends, not having changed a bit.

The halacha is that “A person is obligated to get drunk on Purim until has lost his daas”. Why?

By getting drunk on Purim, we can come to a level of recognizing Hashem in our lives, by realizing that we must give our selves up for him. The Purim of today that we see is very far from the truth, from the way it is supposed to be. In fact, there is no day further from the truth than modern-day Purim; we are failing to use it properly. Let’s turn it around – V’nahafoch Hu!