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)

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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!

Dealing With Disappointment

By Yonoson Rosenblum

Torah isn’t just a lifestyle choice, no matter how attractive or comfortable. Above all, it is the Truth

Rabbi Berel Wein has famously remarked, “Don’t judge Judaism by the Jews.” As great as my admiration and affection for Rabbi Wein is, I have never been a fan of this particular comment.

Most important, it is futile: We all know — and need to know — that Judaism is being judged all the time by the Jews, and particularly by the most identifiable among us. That is particularly true for the gentiles judging Judaism, but also for nonobservant Jews as well.

Nevertheless, I recently came to appreciate a new profundity in Rabbi Wein’s line, in a context other than the one I always understood it. I have always assumed that Rabbi Wein was addressing his words to those on the outside of Torah Judaism looking in.

But lately it dawned upon me that he might well have been speaking to those on the inside dismayed by the behavior of their fellow Orthodox Jews. The occasion for my reevaluation was a call I received this week from a baal teshuvah of decades’ standing. He told me that he finds himself terribly disillusioned by those whom he most respected, and that he is hearing the same from many friends who, like him, are baalei teshuvah of longstanding, and even from those who were born into religious families.

My caller — someone whom I have never met — and his friends were particularly upset by the communal response to COVID-19. He had a particular grievance, as he is a doctor who has treated many of the Torah scholars in his community and their families. And he has grown increasingly exasperated at being told, “The doctors don’t know what they are talking about [with respect to urging people to wear masks, especially inside, or maintaining social distancing].” He had always been taught that the halachah pesukah is to act in accord with the best consensus among doctors at that particular moment in history.

THAT PHONE CALL left me badly shaken, and since that conversation, I have been thinking about what I could tell my caller.

Let me begin with a couple of quasi-sociological observations. The first I heard well over thirty years ago from Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb: No one becomes an Orthodox Jew exclusively for intellectual reasons. (And that is even more the case for those born into the Orthodox world.) For the baal teshuvah, the beauty of the Shabbos table, the warm families (albeit often idealized), the desire to connect oneself to the great chain of the Jewish People, the awe one feels for figures totally unlike anyone whom one has met before — in my case, Rabbi Nachman Bulman and, ybdlcht”a, Rabbi Aharon Feldman — all play a role.

Second observation: Community plays an outsized role for an observant Jew, as compared to his secular neighbors. Every Jew is defined by his membership in Klal Yisrael (and in many cases various sub-communities thereof as well). Many of our basic obligations depend on a larger community for their optimal performance. And the feeling of being part of a community of people who care about one another is one of the great joys of a Torah life. The decision of a number of chassidic rebbes to go ahead with Tu B’Shevat gatherings of thousands was, I’m told, based on the fear that without such communal events, many would feel that their Yiddishkeit had been drained of all meaning.

Yet we have to remember that we are not only members of a community. We are also individuals, with our own unique relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. As I have written many times in the name of Rav Moshe Shapira ztz”l, “On Rosh Hashanah, we confront Hashem as a solitary individual, stripped of social context.”

At some point, we have to make sure that our constant question is: What does Hashem want from me at this moment? And not: What will the neighbors say? When we do that, we will find other kindred souls on the path. Disappointment with a particular rav or even with a large part of a community need not leave one alone or bereft. As I pointed out to my caller, many of the most prominent local rabbanim and poskim in his community fully support his position, and the shul with the largest number of daily mispallelim is also the strictest with regard to masks and social distancing.

In order to overcome the inevitable disappointment that arises when our idealized vision of having moved into a perfect community does not pan out, we have to remember that Torah is not just a lifestyle choice, no matter how attractive or comfortable it happens to be. Above all, it is the Truth. Lifestyles can be cast aside when they no longer satisfy or they become a source of embarrassment. But the Truth obligates us, even when we are alienated to one degree another from the community. Once one perceives the Torah as the ultimate Truth, he can no longer imagine himself living a life other than as a Torah Jew.

In one sense, baalei teshuvah have it easier than FFBs. The initial idealistic excitement of upending their lives brings a tremendous momentum to their entry into the Torah world. Yet in the end that momentum will not be sufficient to sustain one over a lifetime, any more than maintaining the default position of having been born into a religious family will sustain a rich religious life.

We were born to labor, and labor we must. Always. When one feels distraught over certain perceived communal shortcomings, it is time to turn inward and focus more intensely on our individual tasks as Torah Jews.

The Maharal in his introduction to Derech Hachayim on Pirkei Avos describes man as coming into the world with a threefold task: to complete himself with respect to his fellow man; to complete himself with respect to Hashem; and to complete himself in relation to himself. The three cardinal sins, which require one to give up one’s life rather than commit them, each derive from the fact that they render completion in one of those areas impossible: murder, with respect to connecting to one’s fellow man; idolatry, with respect to one’s relationship to Hashem; and animalistic licentiousness with respect to completion of oneself. A remarkable two-volume work by the late Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Greenwald, With Truth and with Love, explores these different forms of connection in detail and in the context of an overarching Torah vision.

But the necessary precondition for marshaling all our kochos for self-completion is to be constantly reinforcing our conviction in the truth of Torah. There are many ways and combinations of ways toward developing knowledge of the Truth of Hashem and His Torah. But it is critical that each of us be involved in them. For some it will be the contemplation of the quality of human beings formed by the deepest immersion in Torah. One need go no further than the three extraordinary Jews portrayed in the last issue of Mishpacha. For others, it might be reflection on history’s long-lasting miracle, the survival of the Jewish People, and, in particular, those Jews grounded in Torah.

Some will find compelling science-based proofs for the Creator. In his explication of the Divine Name Shakkai (the expression of Hashem as He Who imposes limits), in Exodus: A Parasha Companion, for instance, Rabbi David Fohrman cites leading cosmologists to show that had there been any infinitesimal variation in the relative strengths of the four forces that comprise the universe — gravity, electromagnetic, the nuclear strong force, and the nuclear weak force — it could not have come into existence.

I cannot imagine a week without hours devoted to Chumash and delving into the commentaries, both ancient and modern, that derive infinite layers of meaning from the text and guidance for our everyday lives. Or a day without participation in the same debates that have engrossed the greatest minds for thousands of years.

That immersion will not keep me from feeling frustration over those actions by chareidi Jews that push other Jews away from ever experiencing the excitement and feeling of connectedness that I do. But it ensures that I would never wish to be leading a life different from the one I am at present.

Originally Published in Mishpacha Magazine – February 10, 2021

Bringing Holiness Into How You Eat

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download some amazing Drashos on Eating and Tu B’Shevat

For everything that we eat or drink, we have to recite a berachah (benediction\blessing) over the food, before we eat\drink and after we eat\drink. There is a verse, “A good eye is blessed.” When we make a blessing over food, we need to “eat” the good in it, and then it is “blessed.” Everything in creation is a mix of good and evil, and our avodah is to sift out the good from the evil. All of our food too is a mix of good and evil. Either we can see the “good” in it and eat it with a “good eye”, or we are seeing it from the “evil eye” and we are eating the food out of an evil desire for the food. Ever since Chavah saw the fruit of the Eitz HaDaas and she desired us, there is a part in us which desires food as soon as we see food, and this desire is coming from evil. It is the desire to simply eat the food and satisfy the desire.

In everything we encounter, we must see the good and evil in each thing [as we began to mention in the previous chapter]. We must first see the “good” in everything, Hashem has placed “good” into everything in Creation. But if a person just eats without doing any thinking at all before he eats, he eats without any yishuv hadaas (settled mind), and by default, he will eat simply to satisfy the desire for the food. And if a person goes further with this and he indulges in the food, this is an even more evil part of the desire.

The ideal way to eat is to eat with yishuv hadaas – to eat it calmly. For example, when you look at food, think about the following. First of all, there is “good” in this food here. That is why you are making the blessing over it. The food is a creation of Hashem. “Borei pri ha’etz”, “Borei pri ha’adamah” – we need to recognize how Hashem is the Creator, in each food we eat. This is the “good” we can find in each food. The “good” in each food is how we connect to the good in each food, and this is how we have an ayin tovah, “good eye”. Having a “good eye” in this way connects us to the food in the right way: to feel thankful to Hashem for the food right before we eat it.

When a person pauses for just half a minute before he eats the food and he thinks that Hashem created it, he lives a whole different kind of life! Right before you are about to eat, pause a second and remember that Hashem bestows good upon us, and that we are thanking Him for it. Hashem is giving you something good – remember that, and thank Him for it. In order to connect to the good in a food, you need a “good heart”. Your soul is then truly satisfied inside from this “good” in the food that you have connected yourself, which is achieved by attributing the food to Hashem’s goodness.

Hashem keeps giving us all kinds of things every day. A large part of this is food. We all know in our brains that Hashem gave these foods to us, but we don’t always remember. We have to remind ourselves before we eat that Hashem gives it to us. We need to sense it right before we eat, and it is not enough just to know about this intellectually. Even if we sense that Hashem gives us so much, we must be able to sense it right before we eat.

For example, if a person takes an apple to eat, remind yourself of how good it is that Hashem is giving it to you. Think about how Hashem’s good is contained in this fruit. This is a deeper kind of awareness than just knowing that Hashem gives you the fruit. Think that it is good, for Hashem has placed His good in everything in Creation, and He is now giving it to you.

The Chovos HaLevovos writes in Shaar HaBechinah that every day, a person has to find something new to thank Hashem for. This doesn’t just mean that each day we receive something else from Hashem. Rather, it is that each day we need to see how each thing is good, and this is a new thing to thank Hashem for each day. Don’t just think that this food is good because it gives you strength to serve Hashem better; that is true, but it is not yet the deeper awareness. The deeper awareness is to realize that the food in your hands is good, because Hashem gives you good each day.

Yearning on the Tenth of Teves

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

The Absence of Seeing Hashem In Creation

It is not coincidental that the fast of Asarah B’Teves, the tenth day of the month of Teves, is also during the tenth month of the year.

The significance of the number 10 is found in many places. There is a mitzvah for a person to give maaser, to tithe his crops and animals, to the Levi and Kohen. The holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, is on the tenth of Tishrei. Avraham Avinu was tested with ten trials, and the Jewish people endured ten trials in Egypt. What is the root of all this?

The Mishnah in Avos says that the world was created with ten expressions of Hashem. That was how the world was created, but what is the purpose of it all? To recognize the One who made it all. How do we recognize Him? Through mitzvos, tefillah, and perfecting our middos. Those are all the tools, but what is the goal? To recognize Him completely, to have d’veykus in Him, as the Mesillas Yesharim writes in the beginning. So the world was created through ten expressions, and the purpose of all of Creation is for the creations to become close and attached to Him.

The purpose of the world is manifest in the dimensions of time, space, and soul. In time, the purpose of the world is revealed on Yom Kippur, when all sins are forgiven, when everyone becomes purified, and the purpose of this purification is that all of the creations can be close to Hashem. At what time does a person feel closest to Hashem? Some people can feel the closeness during a time of turbulent emotions, such as in a time of joyous celebration, or during a troublesome time. But the time when almost all people feel closer to Hashem is, on Yom Kippur.

Where is the place in the world where the purpose of Creation was revealed? It was by the Beis HaMikdash. That was where a person could clearly sense Hashem. Our Sages said that when a person entered the Beis HaMikdash, he could feel clearly that he was standing in Hashem’s Presence. In our own times, people can also feel this closeness, of feeling Hashem’s Presence, on varying levels. Some feel it more and some feel it less. But in those times, in the Beis HaMikdash, everyone felt it clearly. The Vilna Gaon says that we have no comprehension of the level of even the simplest Jew then.

Furthermore, there were ten miracles that took place every day in the Beis HaMikdash. There was a unique revelation of Torah that came forth from there, “For from Zion comes forth the Torah, and the word of Hashem, from Jerusalem”, and this was a continuation of the revelations that took place on Har Sinai when the Torah was given. Har HaMoriah, the mountain where the Beis HaMikdash rested on, was a continuation of the light of Torah which Hashem revealed on Har Sinai. It was the place that revealed Hashem’s Presence so clearly on this world. Everyone who entered the Beis HaMikdash was able to sense clearly what was important and what wasn’t, what the main part of life is, why we exist, what we are living for, what our purpose is.

This revelation was not only limited to the Beis HaMikdash. An illumination of it spread to the rest of Yerushalayim, and also to the rest of Eretz Yisrael. Offshoots of it could also be felt at the other ends of the world. The closer a person got to the Beis HaMikdash, the closer he felt to Hashem. This was known as the event of aliyah l’regel, ascending by foot [on the festivals] to the Beis HaMikdash. Chazal say Yerushalayim was the “highest of the lands”, which means it was the highest spiritual peak of the world. But it also meant that a person who went there would ascend on a soul level. It was the place in the world where the purpose of Creation was revealed. The closeness to Hashem there was felt clearly in the soul as a simple feeling of the heart. That was the case in the times when the Beis HaMikdash stood.

The beginning of the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash took place on the 10th of Teves. The Beis Yosef writes that if the 10th of Teves would fall out on Shabbos, it would be observed even on Shabbos. What is the great spiritual significance of this fast day?

There was a very deep destruction that took place on this day. It was the beginning of the destruction of a place in the world where the purpose of Creation was revealed. It signified the beginning of an event where we could no longer go to a place in the world where the clarity of Hashem’s presence was felt, where the purpose of the Creation was revealed. Certainly, the purpose of Creation can still be revealed, even in our own times, but it has become very hidden since the beginning of the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash [which took place on the 10th of Teves].

To illustrate the idea, we know that all of Creation came from Hashem’s word. In the times of the Beis HaMikdash, a person could sense Hashem so clearly that even when he viewed a simple creation in front of him, he saw how it came from Hashem. One saw the light outside and was aware that the light comes from Hashem’s light, which He created on the first day. One was able to see then how the water, the earth, the sky, the sun, the moon, the heavens and all of the stars in it, the plants, mountains, animals and all people in the world, all of Creation, comes from Hashem – from the ten expressions that He used to create the world.

Today, when we see all of this, we do not see it all as the expression of Hashem. We just see a world in front of us at face value. That is the meaning of the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash! When the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, it was not only a massive burning and an obliteration of an edifice of many stones. It was a destruction of all that the Beis HaMikdash stood for!

The beginning of the tragedies took place on the 10th of Teves, because the purpose of the Creation went into hiding, on this day. It was no longer revealed clearly in the world, and instead it went into a concealed, hidden state. The 10th of Teves is about the destruction of all the spiritual revelation that used to exist clearly in Creation. Today, this spiritual revelation is hidden. A simple, average Jew in the times of the Beis HaMikdash could feel it. Today, the average Jew cannot.

The Chofetz Chaim wrote many important sefarim, such as Chofetz Chaim and Shemiras HaLashon, which had many novel halachos on the laws of permitted and forbidden speech. He also wrote the monumental work Mishnah Berurah, which explains many aspects of daily halachah. But he also wrote a sefer on the laws of Kodshim, detailing the laws of the sacrifices and avodah in the Beis HaMikdash, which he wrote for Kohanim, so that Kohanim can know the halachos of the avodah in the Beis HaMikdash. He said that he wrote this sefer because the arrival of Mashiach was imminent, and that Kohanim should therefore be prepared for the halachos. He had very clear emunah in the arrival of Mashiach. His emunah in Moshiach’s arrival was clear and simple.

Yet, the same Chofetz Chaim, who possessed such strong and clear emunah, also worked very hard to maintain his emunah. He said that whenever he felt somewhat lacking in emunah, he would open up a Chumash and begin to read through the first chapter of parshas Beraishis, to renew his emunah. He would begin with “In the beginning, Hashem created the heavens and the earth”, and review all of the events, until he felt his clarity of emunah again. Then he would return to his regular learning.

The destruction that took place on the tenth of Teves was a total antithesis to the above.

Why Do We Want The Beis HaMikdash?

Many people know about this, but how many people live it? In the times of the Beis HaMikdash everyone felt it clearly and yearned all the time for even more closeness.

Every day we daven for the return of the Beis HaMikdash, in Shemoneh Esrei and in Bircas HaMazon. But in our souls, we have to await it. Each person needs to wonder if he really has the yearning, if he really feels what he’s missing without the Beis HaMikdash. Do any of us have a yearning that it be rebuilt? And if we do, why do want it? For what do we need it? We believe in the Sages that there will be a third Beis HaMikdash, as Hashem promised us through the words of His prophets, and that it will be eternal. But for what do we need it? First we need to yearn for it.

Fasting on Asarah B’Teves is the basic level of observance, and it is an obligation upon each Jew, but it is only the external part of this day. We need to infuse an internal meaning into this day, besides for actually observing the fast. The internal part of our avodah on the tenth of Teves is, that we need to wonder if we want the Beis HaMikdash – and in addition, why we want it.

The Sages said that all Heavenly blessing came to the world because of the Beis HaMikdash. So if a person is missing livelihood, he might yearn for the Beis HaMikdash so that he can be financially secure. Others are more spiritual than this, and they want the Beis HaMikdash because they want atonement for their sins. Only someone who feels bothered and pained at his sins can relate to this yearning. This is a higher level than the first kind of person, yet it is not the highest level to reach. A higher level is to yearn for the revelations of Torah that were available in the world because of the spiritual effects of the Beis HaMikdash. But even this isn’t the highest level to yearn for the Beis HaMikdash. The truest reason to yearn for the Beis HaMikdash is, as explained earlier, because it was the revelation of Hashem’s presence on this world.

Some people don’t care at all for the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash. They are the worst results of the destruction. But even in those who do yearn for it, they need to know the reason why we should want it rebuilt. We need to yearn for it because it enabled us to have more emunah, a clearer recognition of Hashem!

In Conclusion

Every person on his own level should yearn for a greater closeness with Hashem, and this should be the reason why one should desire the rebuilding the Beis HaMikdash. But it should not be limited to this, for that would just be self-serving. It is about wishing for a world where everyone will know of Hashem. It should be a yearning for the betterment of the entire world.

The more one awaits the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash for this reason, the more one is truly yearning for the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash. Just like a person misses his house when he leaves it and he wishes to return to it, so did we have a Beis HaMikdash, which was each Jew’s true bayis, his true home. Just as a person misses his home when he leaves it and he wants to go back to it, so does each person need to yearn to return to the “house” in his own soul: The Beis HaMikdash. That is our true home, our spiritual fort, where we belong to.

Every day when we daven Shemoneh Esrei, when we ask for the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash, let us think for just a moment, about why we want it. Are we saying it only because it’s part of the text of Shemoneh Esrei established by the Men of Great Assembly…? Or do we truly want the Beis HaMikdash to be rebuilt?

Let us awaken in ourselves a true yearning for the Beis HaMikdash, and let us wonder why we should want it. We should truly yearn for its rebuilding, but for the truest and innermost reason for its rebuilding. When that is how we yearn for it, we will certainly merit to see it rebuilt in our times!

Translated from the Hebrew audio shiur:
https://www.bilvavi.net/sugya/chodesh.teves

Chanukah – Transcending Self-Centeredness

By Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller Gottlieb

The Greeks centered their opposition to the Jews on three religious laws that one the surface of things couldn’t be less threatening to them or their way of life. Why would a Greek concern himself about someone else circumcising his son? If a neighbor likes having three rather lavish meals on Saturday after attending the synagogue why let it occupy space in your mind? The most puzzling was their antagonism towards consecrating the new moon, a religious ceremony that had no observable impact other than being the basis of the Jewish calendar. Can you imagine losing any sleep over when Ramadan comes out next year?

The underlying antagonism was caused by what these commandments represent. Circumcision is a statement. It tell you that you are not born perfect, that perfection has to be earned, and that the path towards perfection requires a certain degree of sacrifice, and a certain measure of authentic submission to a force higher than your own ego. Nothing could possibly be less Greek.

Shabbos takes us even further from the Greek vision of a human centered world. What we say by keeping Shabbos is that even our creativity and our ability to dominate nature and make it our own, is not the end of the story. The highest level from our point of view is taking all of our creative energy and saying, “let go. It’s time to step back and see what God, not I, created”. When you see things from that angle, it isn’t hard to see what was so offensive about defining time through ritual instead of through human observation.

What all of this tells you is that this is the time of year that you can decide once and for all that you can finally stop being a closet Hellenist. You body, your endeavors and your sense of reality can all go beyond the limitations of the little castle called “me” and explore a new planet, one called “transcendence”. You can be bigger than your ego and your assumptions.

Let the light of the candles that reflect eternal truth give you enough light to step into the next phase of your life, into a more holy and God aware future.

The Eight Sheets of Chanukah

By Ruby

With 5 weeks left to my son’s Bar Mitzvah, invitations were sitting at home waiting to be addressed and mailed. All my wife had to do was create the spreadsheet with all the addresses, set up the mail merge, and feed the envelopes through the printer. I had the really tough job – to buy stamps – and I was determined to do it right. I estimated 150 stamps would do. But which theme stamp would be most appropriate for a Bar Mitzvah? I went looking at the USPS website. Flags? Too standard. “Happy Birthday”? Too juvenile. “I Love You”? Too mushy. Flowers? Too feminine. Fighter planes? Maybe… But not very mitzvah-ish. Then I saw them. Chanukah stamps with a dreidle. Perfect! We’ll be mailing them on Chanukah. And they come in sheets of 20, so I needed 8 sheets of Chanukah. What could be better?

Off to the post office on Pine St. I went, and when my turn came I happily requested “8 sheets of Hanukah, please”.

The clerk frowned and said “Hanukah? We’re out of Hanukah”.

“No! it can’t be!” I exclaimed. “You must have Hanukah stamps”.

So she looked and looked through all her drawers and all her folders. In the end, all she could find was one single sheet of Hanukah stamps.

“But that won’t do”, I said. “One sheet won’t last. I need eight sheets of Hanukah.”

She called over to the next clerk who looked through his folders. He came up with another two. “Three, that’s all we have”, she said.

Suddenly emboldened, I said “Please check in the back. I know you will find 8”.

Her eyebrows raised at my attitude, she headed towards the back. As she passed each other clerk I saw her say something to them, and each time the clerk shook his head. After checking with the last clerk, she looked across the room at me and shrugged. I gave her a nod of encouragement and she disappeared into the back. (If I were one of the people standing behind me in line I would have killed me…) Several minutes later she emerged with a triumphant look on her face.

“8 sheets of Hanukah!” she proclaimed.

“Thank you so much for your perseverance”, I said. “I knew you would find 8”.

“How could you be so sure?” she asked.

“Why, it’s the miracle of Chanukah”, I said.

A Freilichen Chanukah to All.

Originally Published December 22, 2006.

The Secret Of All Growth

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

To receive Bilvavi on the Parsha – send an email with Subject “Subscribe” to subscribe@bilvavi.net

Avraham Avinu’s test of the binding of Yitzchok, which required him to show mesirus nefesh, was a fundamental lesson in how to acquire all levels of avodah. The Mesillas Yesharim says, “Sanctity is at first exertion, and in the end, a gift.” This is not only true of the level of sanctity, but it is true of all the levels after that, which includes even ruach hakodesh and techiyas hameisim.

This is a rule that applies to anything spiritual we want to acquire, even the most basic level. Any spiritual attainment requires mesirus nefesh on our part – if not total mesirus nefesh, which only a few individuals attain, we at least need the minimal level of mesirus nefesh, which is: To exert ourselves just a little bit beyond our regular level.

When one is clear about this and he puts this into practice, he can enter into a life of going beyond his natural capabilities, and herein lays the success in life. If one is not clear about this, he may try hard his entire life and he may attain much, but he will remain in his normal human limitations. A life of practicing mesirus nefesh enables one to reach above his natural level.

The spiritual tasks in our life are daunting. A Jew may have the aspiration to know all of the Torah, which is wider than the sea and longer than the earth – this includes all five books of the Chumash, Nach, all of Mishnayos, the Talmud Bavli and Talmud Yerushalmi, the Sifra, Sifrei, Tosefta, and more – with all of the commentaries of the Rishonim and Acharonim! In addition to this, one also has the 613 mitzvos to keep. Even though we do not fulfill all the 613 mitzvos today, we have plenty of them to keep. And in addition, one is also a husband and father, and he has to provide for his household. He is busy from various responsibilities in life. He has to do chessed, spread Torah to others, and set side time to prepare for davening. When is there time to live and finish everything?!

The true answer is that there is no time! We really do not have enough time to finish everything. What is possible for us, however, is to enter into an inner world (our olam pnimi), which takes us beyond the limitations of This World. When it becomes opened to a person, only then can one reach much more than what he is naturally capable of.

May Hashem enable us that Avraham’s act of the binding of Yitzchok on the Altar should radiate within the depths of our souls.

The Only Absolute Connection We Have

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

To receive Bilvavi on the Parsha – send an email with Subject “Subscribe” to subscribe@bilvavi.net

In Parshas Lech Lecha, Avraham Avinu is told by Hashem, “Go from your land, from your birthplace, from the house of your father, to the land which I will show you.”

Our Sages list this as one of the “ten nisyonos (trials)” which Avraham was tested with, and we are also taught by our Sages the rule, “Maaseh Avos, Siman L’Banim” – “The actions of the forefathers is a sign for the children.” Just as Avraham Avinu went through ten trials where he was tested by Hashem, so does every soul go through “ten trials.”

This does not mean that we are given the same exact tests as Avraham Avinu, but our tests are a reflection of those tests. We are not always told by Hashem to leave our country and move elsewhere, but the lesson of it always remains true in our own lives, where we are confronted with the spiritual test of having to leave behind our past in general.

Avraham Avinu’s test was that he had to disconnect from his roots, and leave it all behind to go out there into the world. His country, his birthplace, the house of his father, were all different aspects that bound him to his past, and he was told to disconnect from it and leave it all behind, in order to become elevated. This shows us that there exists in the soul an ability to disconnect from that which we are powerfully connected to, to that which we feel permanence in, on This World.

Avraham Avinu was told, “Go from your land, from your birthplace, from the house of your father.” The soul becomes disconnected from its root in Heaven in order to come down onto this world, and at death, the soul doesn’t want to leave this world, now that it has become attached to it. If a person lived a life in which he grew attached to materialism, he will suffer a disconnection from it upon death. But if a person lived a spiritual life, an internal kind of life, a Torah life – at death, he will only disconnect from this world in the physical sense. The spiritual world, the inner world he had lived through his neshamah on this world, does not become severed from him. It continues and it intensifies after death.

One needs to be aware that everything on this world is temporary; every time and period of your life is a temporary situation. The nisayon (test) which we have on this world is: Will we form any absolute connection, other than with Hashem, Torah, and Klal Yisrael? The deep power in the soul to have absolute connection must be channeled to Hashem, Torah, and Yisrael.

Bilvavi on Succos Download and Intro of Inner Meaning Behind The Four Species and the Sukkah

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download some amazing Drashos on Succos

The Inner Meaning Behind The Four Species and the Sukkah

In the Yom Tov of Sukkos, the main mitzvos are to shake the four species and to sit in the sukkah. (There used to also be the mitzvah of nisuch hamayim in the Beis Hamikdash, but we no longer have the Beis Hamikdash).

The mitzvah of the four species involves movement – we shake them and move them around, which symbolizes how we want to move away from evil, and instead to come closer to Hashem. By contrast, the mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah involves no movement at all – we sit in it and don’t move at all. This symbolizes a different aspect of our avodas Hashem: to reach the point of “non-movement.”

In other words, there are two steps in our avodas Hashem- sometimes we have to “move”, and sometimes we “don’t move”.[1]

Sukkos of Today and Sukkos of the Future

There is a halachah on Sukkos that we have to sit specifically in the “shadow” (“tzeil”) of the sukkah. This is the sukkah of nowadays – we sit in the sukkah’s shadow, which symbolizes how Hashem’s radiance is concealed from us.

However, in the future, Chazal state that the sukkah will be made from the skin of the leviathan – it will be a sukkah of entirely light. The Sukkah of the future will be the perfect sukkah, in which “all citizens” (“kol ha’ezrach”) will be enveloped within it; “ezrach”, “citizen”, is rooted in the word “zerichah”, “light.” This alludes to the sukkah of the future, which will be totally light. This is because the depth behind the sukkah is not just to be “in the shadow” of the sukkah, but to sit in the light of Hashem.

Dovid Hamelech says that “Hashem is my light, and my salvation.” Chazal expound on this verse that “my light” is referring to Rosh Hashanah, while “my salvation” is referring to Yom Kippur. Sukkos, which is the continuation of this, is the actual revelation of “my light”, Rosh Hashanah – which is entirely Hashem’s light.

It is only nowadays that the sukkah is like a “shadow”, because since there is evil in the world, the evil places a “shadow” on the “light” of Rosh Hashanah and dims it from its full effect. But in the future, there will be no more evil, and then Sukkos will no longer be a concept of shadow, but rather a concept of complete spiritual light.

Shemini Atzeres – The D’veykus With Hashem Above All Spiritual Light

Even higher than Sukkos is the level of Shemini Atzeres, which is the day of complete unity between Hashem and the Jewish people. It is a power that is above even the spiritual light revealed through Rosh Hashanah and Sukkos.[2]

Chazal say of this day that Hashem said, “Remain with me one more day”. This is the great desire of Hashem toward His people, and it was there even before Hashem created light on the first day; this great desire that He has to us returns on Shemini Ateres.

[1] The Rav has been brief here in this fundamental concept; we will elaborate here to give more background. Generally speaking, the lower mode of Avodas Hashem involves movement, such as the six days of the week, when we move and work, representing the mundane. On Shabbos we don’t move, because we do not work; thus non-movement is always seen as the higher aspect of our Avodas Hashem. In sefer Da Es Menuchasecha (which is available online in English as The Search for Serenity), these concepts are explained at length in regards to achieving menuchas hanefesh – that the more we reach our “non-moving” state of our soul, the closer we come to our inner peace. The innermost part of our soul, our Yechidah, is a non-moving part of our existence, because our actual self is very still, content with its existence, for it is a cheilek eloka mimaal, a “portion of Hashem”. Our very essence is unmoving because it is rooted in Hashem, who is unmoving. Non-movement is also explained more in sefer Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh: Shabbos Kodesh, as well as in sefer Da Es Hargoshosecha (soon to be released in English as “Getting To Know Your Feelings”). This footnote does not nearly exhaust the topic; it is a very vast subject which the Rov frequently discusses, and the references we have given here are the main sources where the Rov discusses it at length.

[2] Editor’s Note: See sefer Sifsei Chaim: Moadim (Vol. I) who explains how the spirituality of Shemini Atzeres is deeper than the first days of Sukkos. On Sukkos, we have the mitzvah of sukkah and the four species, because we are given these tools on Sukkos to reach closeness to Hashem through them. However, Shemini Atzeres is a higher connection we have with Hashem, as it is the culmination of the entire Yomim Noraim; thus, it doesn’t require us to sit in the sukkah or to shake the four species, because it is more of a direct connection with Hashem.

Joy on Rosh Hashanah

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download some amazing Drashos on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

Awe and Joy on the Day of Judgment

Rosh HaShanah is the Yom HaDin (the day of judgment). Is there any heart that does not tremble from it? Just as a person is afraid when he stands in court, so is Rosh HaShanah a time of trepidation, where we stand before the King of all kings. There is a natural fear that all people have of the judgment of Rosh HaShanah, each person on his own level.

But on the other hand, Rosh HaShanah is also described as a joyous time. It is written, “Eat from the fattest foods and drink sweet beverages…and do not be sad, for the joy of Hashem is their splendor.”[1]There is a mitzvah to eat, drink, and be joyous, on Rosh HaShanah. Some opinions even forbid fasting on Rosh HaShanah, because it is a time of joy.

What is the joy that takes place on Rosh HaShanah? The fear of Rosh HaShanah we are all familiar with. We know it is the time where people are judged, where life and death is decided; naturally there is a fear on this day. But it is hard to understand why Rosh HaShanah is also a joyous time. What is this happiness all about?

Joy: When Sin Is Removed

It is well-known that the Arizal said that he mainly reached his high levels of comprehension through simcha (joy). Let us think into this.

The simple-known reason of the Arizal’s success is because he intensely desired the Torah and he was aware of its value. It is certainly true that he valued the Torah very much, and that he appreciated holiness. The Arizal found joy in the Torah, before he became the Arizal. Now that we have his writings, it became easier for us to find joy in the Torah, but the Arizal found joy in the Torah way before he composed his writings, through his exertion in Torah and in doing the mitzvos. The joy he had from Torah and mitzvos enabled him to reach all of his great revelations.

This is the simple understanding of how the Arizal found his great joy. There is also a deeper reason, though.

It is written, “G-d created man upright, but they seek many calculations.”[2] Originally, man was yoshor (upright), and after Adam’s sin, man fell from the state of yoshor into the state of seeking “many calculations”: all kinds of rationalizations that lead to sin.

Why does man become sad? The word for “sadness” in Hebrew is “etzev”, from the word atzavim, “images”, a term for idol worship. Had Adam HaRishon never sinned, no one else who came after him would have been enabled to sin; there would be no sins in the world. There would be no idol worship in the world; every sin is a degree of idol worship. If we would live in a world in which there is no sin, there would be no sadness.

Sadness happens because the soul deep down is in pain that it has sinned. It is pained that it has become distanced from her Creator. (This is at the root of the matter. When we analyze the branch of the matter, it is because the body enables sadness, for the body is created from the element of earth, which is the root of sadness).

When a person is found living with Hashem, there is “Splendor and joy in His place.”[3] There is no place for sadness in Hashem’s abode. “One cannot come to the king in sackcloth” – this is not just because it is a dishonor to the king to come in sackcloth, but because the palace of the king is a place of joy, and sackcloth is a connotation of pain and sadness, the antithesis of joy.

A person can only be sad when he becomes distanced from the Creator. When a person sins, this causes “timtum halev” (blockage of the heart); there is distance between man and his Creator, and then there is sadness.

It seems to a person that he is sad because he has financial issues, or because he has a problem when it comes to raising his children or a problem with shidduchim. But the deep reason of why sadness appears is because of a person’s sins. The sins create a distance between the person and Hashem. A person’s sins might make their appearance in the form of problems with children or with shidduchim, but those things are just the garments that are covering over the real issue. Those problems are not the root of the sadness.

The true joy that a person can know of in his life is: to reach a situation in which he is cleansed from sin. This is when one purifies himself from sins, through doing true teshuvah. The Rambam says that the teshuvah must be on the level in which Hashem testifies on the person that he would never commit the sin again.[4] When one does genuine teshuvah, he becomes happy.

Of Motzei Yom Kippur, it is said, “Go eat your bread happily…for G-d is already satisfied with your deeds.” When one’s sins have become erased, he can then go eat his bread happily. The joy is not simply because his sins have been forgiven; that is also a reason to rejoice, but the depth of the joy is because it is sin that causes sadness, and now that the sins have been removed, there is no place for sadness in the person. When sins are removed, a person naturally finds himself happy, for the soul is connected to the Creator, and this is a natural joy of the soul, where it delights in its very bond with the Almighty.

The Arizal was thus joyous when he learned Torah, because he purified himself from any sins, so that he would be able to learn Torah with proper fervor and awe; together with his exertion in learning. This brought him to joy, and from this joy, he reached awesome levels of comprehension.

Joy comes from returning to our pure state, where we are cleansed from sin. When a person tries to get his happiness from external factors, it can only be temporary happiness, and it is minimal. True joy is only when a person removes from himself the reason that is responsible for all sadness in the soul – sin.

The Joy on Rosh HaShanah – Passing Before The King

This also helps us understand the joy that is present on Rosh HaShanah. Although Rosh HaShanah is the Yom HaDin, it is also a day of simcha (joy). The reason to be happy on Rosh HaShanah is because it is the day where “All in the world pass before Him, like sheep of a flock.” It is one day of the year where each person is granted a ‘ticket’ to enter before Him.

Throughout the rest of the year, only tzaddikim have access to Hashem’s palace that is opened to them. (They feel Hashem simply at all times. This is the meaning of the 36 tzaddikim who greet the Shechinah each day – to receive the Shechinah is to palpably sense Hashem). A regular person cannot enter into that ‘place’ during the rest of the year. But there is one day a year where all people are given the right to enter before the King of the world: Rosh HaShanah. On this day, there is no one who cannot come before the King of all Kings. When one merits to be with the King of all Kings and to be close to Him, he is filled with joy.

The joy on Rosh HaShanah is thus not to be happy over the fact that it is Yom HaDin (although from a deeper perspective, there is also a concept of having joy in the concept of the Yom HaDin; but we won’t discuss this). The Yom HaDin evokes fear, not joy. Which part of Rosh HaShanah evokes joy? The fact that it is a day of great closeness with Hashem. When a person is close to Hashem – there is “Splendor and joy in His place.”

Thus, the reason to be joyous on Rosh HaShanah is, because a person is passing before the King of the world.

Preparing For Rosh HaShanah With Both Fear and Joy

If a person never thinks on Rosh HaShanah that it is the day where we are guaranteed to pass in such close proximity before Hashem, he is missing the joy of this day. One must therefore prepare before Rosh HaShanah, on two different levels. Firstly, one must reflect on how it is the yom hadin, where all people will be judged for every single action; the more a person has purified his heart, the more he will have a sense of fear. Secondly, one must realize that it is the day where we declare Hashem as king – and all people are granted the right to enter before Him.

Hashem is scrutinizing each person on Rosh HaShanah, and there is no one who goes unnoticed. The simple understanding of this is that it refers to the judgment. But the deeper meaning of it is that Hashem counts each person lovingly, like a father who loves to see his children, like a king who enjoys seeing his people. There is a desire from Hashem, so to speak, to see each of His children, and that is why each person is scrutinized before Him.

There is no day where we are so guaranteed to feel close to Hashem as on Rosh HaShanah! If a person only prepared for Rosh HaShanah with a sense of dread of the Yom HaDin, but he is not aware of the joy of this day, he might merit a good judgment, but he will be missing the point of this day: the fact that Hashem is more fully revealed, in the minds and hearts, of all of us.

Rav Itamar Shwartz (Bilvavi) on Pondering The Meaning Of Life

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

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 isproviding 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.

Crying From Within on Tisha BAv

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

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

Who Is The Redemption About?

At the end of the first berachah of Shemoneh Esrei, we say, למען שמו באהבה, “l’maan Shemo b’ahavah” (For the sake of His Name, with love).

We await the redemption, but besides for this, we await the kind of redemption which is “for the sake of His Name”. Rather than simply bringing the redemption simply for the sake of His children, Hashem will bring the redemption is “for the sake of His Name, with love.”

A Seeming Contradiction

The Three Weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av is a time where we are supposed to feel pain and mourning over the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. Yet, we also look forward to the redemption. This seems like a contradiction in our Avodas Hashem. How do we integrate these two seemingly contrary feelings – joy due to hope for the future geulah (redemption), but also sadness at the current state of exile, the galus?

Personal Suffering vs. National Suffering

It is natural for humans to want to escape pain. We are creatures of comfort and long to be redeemed from any uncomfortable or painful situations. However, escaping pain is not the purpose of the Redemption. Rather, the purpose of the Redemption will be “for Hashem’s sake”, as we say in Shemoneh Esrei – “l’maan shemo b’ahavah” ,“For the sake of His Name, with love.”

The sole purpose of the Redemption is to reveal Hashem’s name in the world, which is the purpose of Creation.[1] [Thus, we must long for the Redemption not to end our personal suffering but rather to achieve the whole purpose of Creation, for His Shechinah to be able to rest in this World.]

The Root of Exile

What does the passuk mean when it refers to the Redemption being for the sake of the “Name” of Hashem?

A name reveals the nature of something. In the gentile world, a name is meaningless [it is merely an arbitrary string of letters attached to things to enable people to communicate]. Similarly, the name of a gentile does not define his essence. However, in contrast, Jewish names reveal their essence. The names of people and things are intricately woven into their essential nature. Thus, the “Name” of Hashem when it is revealed in the future will reveal Hashem in the world.

Thus, since the entire purpose of Creation is to reveal Hashem in the world, the Redemption will be in His name’s sake. The word for exile in Hebrew is “galus”. The Hebrew word for redemption is “geulah”. Both these words are rooted in the Hebrew word “giluy”, meaning “to reveal”. This hints to the fact that both the exile and the redemption will reveal Hashem.[2]

Exile is essentially Hashem’s concealment of His radiance toward us (otherwise known as “hester panim”).[3] In other words, our current exile is synonymous with the revelation of Hashem concealed from our minds and hearts. In contrast, the redemption will reveal Hashem in our minds and hearts. It will be the time in which we will exclaim, “This is my G-d, and I will glorify Him”, and when all the nations of the world will exclaim, “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu” (Hear, Yisrael, that Hashem is our G-d).

Needless to say, the four periods of exile that the Jewish people have endured (the fourth of which we are still currently enduring) have been rife with suffering and tragedy. However, the sufferings of the exiles are just the external branches. The root of the exile is the hester panim. The fact that Hashem has concealed His radiance from us – that is the true exile.

Chazal state that wherever the nation of Israel is exiled, the Shechinah (Hashem’s Presence) is exiled as well. However, it is important to note that the exile only occurs because the Shechinah has gone into exile. The exile ends when the Shechinah returns and Hashem is again revealed to us.

In other words, all of the exiles – from Egypt until the present exile, which is Edom (Rome and all the nations that have branched out from it) together with Yishmael (the Arab nations) – are merely representative of the true underlying cause of the exile – the absence of Hashem’s radiance toward us.

Why Are We Crying?

Of course, during this time of mourning, we have to think about the suffering of the Jewish people. However, it is important to remember that the suffering and tragedies are not the original cause of our situation but rather the result of our situation. The cause or root of the problem, the root of all the exiles, is hester panim. Without being aware of this, a person just has the “branches” [the consequential effect] without the “root” [original cause].

In summary, there are two layers to our mourning. There is the external layer, crying, which concerns the suffering we experience during our exile. However, these tears are really sourced in the internal, root cause of our sadness – the hester panim.

What Do We Really Want?

In the words ”le’maan Shemo b’ahavah’ of Shemoneh Esrei, why we do we also say the word b’ahavah (“with love”), and not simply l’maan “Shemo” (“for the sake of His Name”)?

[In order to understand this, it is useful to explore the meaning and source of the Hebrew word “ahavah.”] The Hebrew word for father is av, which is rooted in the word ahavah, love. Ahavah also means ratzon, to “want”.[6] This alludes to our Avos (forefathers), who wanted the true ratzon (will) – the desire to do Hashem’s will: “It is our will to do Your will.”

Thus, the ahavah of “l’maan Shemo b’ahavah”, concerns the love that comes from the revelation of our very deepest ratzon. There are other kinds of ahavah, love – including ahavah rabbah (“great love”) and ahavas olam (“eternal” love). However, the love expressed in the words “l’eman Shemo b’ahavah” is greater than both of these. It is a love that comes when the true ratzon, the will of Hashem, is revealed. It is a revelation of “retzoneinu laasos Retzoncha” – “Our will to do Your will.”[7]

Exile thus represents a state whereby we have not achieved this greatest love, where our will is not to do Hashem’s will.There is no revelation of “retzonenu laasos Retzoncha” in exile. Admittedly, even in exile there can still be a revelation of the desire to see Hashem, for “It is our desire to see Our King” (“retzonenu liros es Malkeinu”.)[8] [In other words, we ‘want to want’ to do Hashem’s will. But we have not achieved the level of actually wanting it and incorporating our will into His will.]

Another way of understanding this distinction is to consider the prayer [which we recite later in Shemoneh Esrei], of לישועתך קוינו כל היום, “For Your salvation we await, every day.” This salvation is the true redemption. However, we obviously do not fully have sufficient ratzon for Hashem to save us, otherwise the redemption would have already come. Unfortunately, our ratzon itself is in exile! Our true internal, higher soul and its desires remain hidden from us. And as we explained above, since ratzon forms the basis of this greatest love, the absence of ratzon is the absence of the love.

How To Reach The Real Crying

To truly have pain over the exile, we have to first fire up our ratzon to truly want the redemption. Only when we have uncovered and fired up our true, inner desire for redemption will we truly feel pain over the exile, that we have not yet obtained what our hearts’ desire. This weeping can only be achieved when a person recognizes within himself of what he is truly missing and how discontent we truly are. This realization will bring us to true tears, not just fleeting moments of emotion.

The following scenario may assist us to understand this better, demonstrating how the greater the ahavah, the greater the ratzon and emotion involved with this person.

This is also true of feeling the pain over the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash and the current exile. We do not necessarily feel the pain (and thereby achieve the avodah of the Three Weeks/Nine Days) without work. How, indeed, can we reach this inner source of the crying?

We have to focus on our true ratzon. What do we truly want? Learning Torah and doing the mitzvos only shows what we want on the outside. What do we truly want on the inside? What is a person’s true ratzon in life…?

Hashem will bring the Redemption “for the sake of His Name, with love.” He has a will (ratzon) as well as a love (ahavah) for us. The more we strive to connect ourselves to these middos of Hashem (of ratzon and ahavah), more we reveal our ratzon for the redemption, and the closer we will be to our salvation from this exile.

The Avodah of Tisha B’Av

What is the practical avodah we need to do on Tisha B’Av (I would instead say: What, practically speaking, is the avodah we need to do on Tisha B’Av?)?

Fasting and being forbidden to learn Torah make Tisha B’Av difficult to endure on the outside. To inspire themselves to reach a point of mourning, many people read different statements of Chazal in the Gemara about the destruction or listen to inspiring lectures. However, such mourning is simply an external sadness and pain.

In order to reach a true, inner pain, we must consider and reflect on what the destruction truly represents– the fact that we no longer have the Shechinah is because we do not have the ratzon to bring it here!

This is what we truly have to mourn about on Tisha B’Av. The destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, the many tragedies that took place then, the suffering of all the exiles – these are just the external layer of the destruction. It is the destruction to our soul, and to our soul’s true ratzon to reveal Hashem into the world, that we should really be crying about.

[1] As explained at length by Ramchal in sefer Daas Tevunos

[2] Maharal (Netzach Yisrael: 1)

[3] Ramchal (sefer Daas Tevunos)

[6] Siddur Nusach Arizal, Tefillas Shacharis Shabbos, “b’ahavah u’bratzon”; Kedushas Levi Tehillim 69:14

[7] Berachos 17a

[8] Rashi Shemos 19:9

Rav Itamar Shwartz (Bilvavi) on Shavous and the Soul Perspective

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. Here are some short excerpts:

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

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

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

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

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

If anyone reflects, he’ll find that most of the day is spent on physical gratification – whether it’s coffee, smoking, food, newspapers, etc. Each to his own.
To begin to change this, one should try to make sure that he’s giving himself at least a little attention each day to his soul’s needs.

Today, pleasure is often only experienced sensually, with the physical. People often are completely devoid of experiencing any enjoyment whatsoever with regards to their souls. A person can start to change this by making sure to give his soul a little pleasure each day. This is just the beginning step.

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

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

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

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

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

Pesach Redeeming Your Soul

Rav Itamar Schwartz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh
Download a number of amazing Drashos on Personal Redemption
Download a number of amazing Drashos on Pesach

Exile of Our Daas

The Egyptian exile was an exile of our Da’as (our mind). We learn this from what Hashem told Avraham Avinu, that “you will surely know (“yodua teida”) that your offspring will be foreigners in a land that is not theirs…”

The Egyptian exile was an exile of our da’as, and its redemption was a redemption to our da’as. From the double usage of the word da’as in the possuk (yodua teida) we learn that there are two kinds of exiles that both involve an exile of our da’as. Let us reflect what these two kinds of da’as are.

The Baal Shem Tov explains that these two kinds of da’as are a “masculine” kind of da’as and a “feminine” kind of da’as. The redemption from Egypt was a feminine kind of da’as, and the future redemption will be a masculine kind of da’as. What does he mean?

We can understand the Baal Shem’s statement as follows. Each individual has two components: feelings and vision. (An example of “vision” is that a person is obligated on the night of Pesach to see himself leaving Egypt”).

The feminine kind of da’as is “feelings”, and the masculine kind of da’as is “vision”. Egypt was an exile of our feelings – our feminine aspect of da’as. Its redemption was a redemption as well of our feminine da’as. But the future redemption will involve our masculine kind of da’as, which is our vision. “For with an eye and an eye we will see the return of Hashem to Zion.”

It is well-known that the final redemption is also contained in the first redemption. The redemption from Egypt is the root of the final redemption.

We must know what these two different kinds of redemption are in our soul.

Our Mind Is Still In Exile

There are two “kings” that reside in a person: the mind and the heart. The mind’s vision is limited and we need to learn how to expand it.

The Zohar always uses an expression of ta chazi, “come and see”, while the Gemara always uses an expression of ta shema, “come and hear.” When a person hears, he hears the feelings, but when a person sees, he doesn’t use his feelings, just his limited vision. The abilities of feeling and vision are two distinct forces in the soul, and each of them need to be removed from what’s blocking them. Our mind’s vision is prevented by being too narrow-sighted, while our heart’s feelings can be stuffed with timtum halev (spiritual “blockage”).

In the Egyptian exile, our heart was in exile. There was a redemption to this, so our feelings. But our mind still hasn’t been totally redeemed. Our feelings of the soul, such as ahavah (love), yirah (fear), hispaarus (pride), etc. were redeemed in Egypt, but our mind’s vision – in other words, our inner vision, the ability to see holiness – is still concealed in this exile.

The avodah of the Egyptian exile was to recognize Hashem’s goodness and to come to have feelings for Him, such as love and fear of Hashem. But what is the avodah of the final exile?

We must expand our minds in order to know this.

The Secret of The Redemption: Unity

The Arizal explains that the night of Pesach is a time of “gadlus hamochin” (a higher state of mind). What is the higher state of mind, and what is the lower state of mind?

Simply speaking, it means that sometimes our mind is more or less clear. But the more truthful outlook is that gadlus hamochin is a straight way of thinking – “G-d made man upright” (Koheles 7:29) – it is a straight kind of vision, and in it lies a person’s mind.

In the redemption of Egypt, anyone who didn’t merit to leave Egypt perished. The wicked perished in the plague of darkness. Everyone else who left Egypt left as one collective unit – there was achdus (unity) of the entire nation at the redemption. At this redemption, the entire Jewish people were united to follow Hashem into the desert, experience the splitting of the sea and the giving of the Torah. At all of these events, all 600,000 souls of the Jewish people were all present.

The inner way to look at reality is to see everything as one. From an inner perspective, a person sees how many details are really all one collective unit. The secret that brings redemption is unity in one unit. For example, the entire Jewish people in Egypt did not change their names, language, or dress.

Thus, the redemption is all about achdus – unity. There is a redemption that will take place to the Jewish people as a whole. There is also a personal redemption to each person that will take place, a redemption to each person’s soul. This is to redeem our mind. To redeem our mind, we must acquire an inner perspective on things – a perspective of achdus, to be able to see how many details connect and are all one.

Before, we mentioned that we have two different component in us: feelings, which are in our heart, and our vision, which is in our mind. Our mind, which is otherwise known as the masculine kind of daas, has an advantage over the heart in that it can see how many details connect as one. Our mind is capable of seeing achdus.

The second Beis Hamikdash was destroyed because of sinas chinam (baseless hatred). The future redemption will be the opposite of this; it will be a unity of the world. The secret of the redemption is achdus.

The secret to the redemption when a person acquires this inner perspective – the way to see unity in many details.

The secret to the current exile is contained in the Egyptian exile. By understanding what the Egyptian exile was, we can learn about our own redemption from the current exile, because the root of all redemption is the redemption from Egypt.

What Is This Unity?

What is this secret of “achdus” of the final redemption, which is contained in the Egyptian exile?

We say in the Haggaddah, “And G-d took us out of Egypt, not through an angel or through a seraph or through a messenger, but G-d Himself, in His Honor.”

There is a concept that everything which takes place in the world also takes place in time, and everything that takes place in time also takes place in our soul. In our own soul, there can be a redemption by Hashem Himself.

On the night of Pesach, there is a revelation of G-dliness in every person’s soul! “Not through an angel or a seraph or a messenger, but G-d himself.” As long as a person doesn’t block this revelation from happening, it becomes revealed in one’s soul on the night of Pesach: a personal redemption that takes place in the soul.

When a person still has an egotistical “I”, he is separate from others. But when there is a revelation of G-dliness in the soul, a secret of “oneness” (rozo d’echad) is revealed in the soul.

If a person looks at another person according to the other’s opinions about life, then he is apart from others. Chazal say that “Just like all faces are different, so are all minds different.” But when a person looks at another person’s soul with a deep perspective, he sees G-dliness in another Jew’s soul. He sees “Hashem Himself” that resides in the deepest point in every Jew’s soul. (This deepest point is the called “Yechidah”.) When a person has this perspective, he has an outlook of achdus toward every Jew and he unifies every soul into one unit.

This revelation that takes place in the soul on the night of Pesach is the root of the future redemption.

Thus, on the night of Pesach we have an additional form of avodah. Besides the well-known avodah of connecting ourselves to “leaving Egypt now”, we must also reveal the root of the future redemption. We must recognize what the redemption is and connect to it.

The Root of The Future Redemption – Nullifying Your Ego

The power of the future redemption is essentially the ability to leave the selfish “I” in a person. As long as a person is still egotistical, there is a divide between a person and Hashem. When a person still has his ego, he has only his daas, and each person’s daas is different. This is the depth of Chazal that “Just as all faces are different, so are all minds different.” A person’s self-absorption prevents the revelation of achdus.

We need to acquire the higher daas. This is called “Keil de’os (G-d of knowledge”, an expression used by the Rambam). This is not regular daas of a person; it is a higher kind of daas that is hidden from us. It is the kind of daas which unifies the many varying opinions of people, the many different kind of daas that everyone has.

In the redemption from Egypt, even though it was a redemption of our daas, it was only a redemption of each person’s private daas. We are still different from one another, because we each have our own opinions. It wasn’t yet a total redemption.

There are two ways how we can see this. First of all, Moshe Rabbeinu was afraid that the people wouldn’t be worthy of being redeemed, because of the wicked individuals present. This was already a lapse in the unity of the Jewish people. In addition to this, even when they were redeemed, the Erev Rav (“Mixed Multitude”, Egyptian non-Jews who escaped Egypt together with the Jewish people) came with them, which affected the unity of the Jewish people.

The future redemption, though, will be a total redemption of our daas. It will be nullification of our daas and in its place a revelation of the higher Daas, the Daas of the Creator. The revelation of Hashem by the redemption will be a revelation of the achdus of the Jewish people.

Thus we have two missions on Pesach: we must feel as if we are leaving Egypt now, to receive a new vitality in our feelings. But this isn’t enough. Even with renewed feelings, our perspective can still be very limited. Feelings without a developed mind can be imbalanced. Feelings aren’t everything. Some people are so zealous that they go overboard with their zealousness. We must realize that our feelings are only a garment on our soul. Feelings aren’t everything, and we shouldn’t get caught up in them – they need to be fused with an expanded mind.

For example, the mitzvah of Ahavas Yisrael really applies to wicked people as well. One of the four sons is a wicked son; we must still love him as a son, even though he is wicked. In the future redemption, all the dispersed members of our people will be gathered together, even the wicked members. Although in Egypt, “had the wicked son been there, he wouldn’t have been redeemed”, still, in the future redemption, which is a more complete redemption, the wicked will be included.

This kind of feeling is a feeling expanded by the mind. This is the gadlus hamochin contained in Pesach.

“Now we are slaves, Next Year we will be free”

We need both kinds of redemption: the past redemption of Egypt (which we already experienced), and the future redemption. These are two different kinds of redemption.

The previous redemption, the redemption from Egypt, is a light that we must return to each year on Pesach. The future redemption is something else: we must draw it closer to us and extend it upon us even now.

In the beginning of the Hagaddah, we say “Now we are slaves, Next year we will be free.” These are the beginning words of the Hagaddah, and they are the preface to what occurs on the night of Pesach.

In these words we mention two things. We mention the “bread of suffering” which our ancestors ate in Egypt, yet we also mention the future redemption – “Next year we will be free.” This is not just a yearning for the redemption (which is also a wonderful thing to aspire to), but it is a connection to the redemption.

If we only consider the light of the redemption to be a thing of the past, then the purpose of the festival remains concealed.

The redemption hasn’t yet come. Thus, the avodah we have on this Pesach is to awaken in us the inner meaning of the redemption – the higher aspect of the redemption, not the lower aspect of the redemption. We need both aspects. The point is that we need the higher aspect of the redemption as well.

Inspiration Lasts Only If We Expand Our Mind

Upon understanding these words, we can look at the inner depth of the avodah upon us, in a new light. There is a deep point hidden here.

Every year, the holy Jewish people want to be awakened and inspired. People hear inspiring lectures – each to his own. Everyone wants to awaken in his soul a feel for the holiness of the Yom Tov. But we must know that many times we just have “inspiration” (hisorerus) and after some time, our inspiration wanes and we just go back to “usual”.

What is the mistake that people are making? It has to do with what we have been saying until now: feelings, without the mind to guide them, are only half the equation. Even if we redeem our “feelings” and we are full of renewed feelings for holiness, without expanding our mind the feelings won’t last. It’s only “half” the redemption.

If all we do is open up our feelings, without expanding our mind – then we only have the first kind of redemption, a redemption from Egypt. We will be missing our current redemption.

With just feelings and no mind, the inspiration we get doesn’t last. We will be able to connect to the redemption from Egypt with our renewed feelings of love and fear of Hashem, but after that our inspiration will go away, and we will just be left with the remaining exiles that came after Egypt….

In order for our inspiration to last, we need an expanded mind. On the night of Pesach, one is obligated to “see” himself as if he’s leaving Egypt. What does it mean to “see” yourself leaving Egypt? Are we supposed to become deluded by our imagination?!

We can understand that all our souls were there one time in Egypt, but why must we see ourselves actually leaving Egypt now?

We need to be able to “see” since the other part of our redemption is to redeem our power of vision in the mind.

This halachah, that one must see himself leaving Egypt, contains the higher aspect of the redemption: to redeem one’s vision of the mind.

The depth of this is that if a person hasn’t nullified his ego and he doesn’t integrate himself with the Jewish people, then he doesn’t know how to “see.” He doesn’t have a vision of achdus. His redemption has nothing to do with Hashem – it’s all about redeeming himself. When a person remains absorbed in himself, he might have wonderful feelings for Avodas Hashem, but he actually might be on a very lowly level. Reb Yisrael Salanter’s words are famous – a person can be so afraid of the yom hadin (day of judgment), yet he damages others when they see a scowl on his face.

When a person only seeks to have great feelings in avodas Hashem, it doesn’t mean yet that he is pure. It’s possible that he is self-absorbed in himself as he seeks to gain high levels in avodas Hashem. He is so self-absorbed in his personal growth that he doesn’t even see any person next to him! Even when such a person relates the story of the exodus to his household, he’s wrapped up in his own self as he seeks higher levels to attain. Such a person is sorely mistaken in the purpose of the festival.

When a person doesn’t realize that the main part of the redemption is to be redeemed from one’s selfish ego, he is missing the whole redemption. He might love and fear Hashem and have all the great feelings that one can reach, but it’s all another way of being self-absorbed. This is not a true redemption.

The true redemption to have on Pesach is when one nullifies his self and integrates into the Jewish people, as a part of a whole.

When one considers the redemption of Pesach to be about himself, he only redeems “himself.” We cannot call this a redemption. The purpose of the redemption is that all should recognize Hashem; it is about revealing Hashem, not about revealing one’s “I.”

The way to redeem yourself on Pesach is actually by nullifying yourself. When a person is locked up in a jail, he desires to escape it – he wants his “I” to escape. His escape from it will just be all about how he worries for himself. But the depth to the redemption is to leave your very self and forget about yourself.

This is really the depth of Ahavas Yisrael, which is the secret of the final redemption. Ahavas Yisrael is really when your soul has a redemption – when you leave yourself!! In other words, there is a kind of personal redemption in which you leave your inner imprisonment, and then there is another kind of redemption – when you leave your “I”. This is when you leave your ego for the sake of integrating with the rest of the Jewish people.

Thus, the beginning of redemption is to redeem our feelings. We need to first leave the materialism – the “bricks and mortar” – and enter the world of spirituality. The second part of our redemption, which is the purpose, is to reach our masculine kind of daas – the revelation of unity on the world; in other words, to nullify your “I.”

Hashem should merit all of the Jewish people that we all integrate with each other and from there, to integrate in unison with the Creator, who is really the only One who exists.

Preparing for Pesach is Part of our Avodas Hashem

Rav Itamar Schwartz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of amazing Drashos on Pesach

In whatever time or situation we are in, we should always be aware that it is an inseparable part of our avodas Hashem. It doesn’t matter if it is something that has to do with ruchniyus (spirituality) or not or if it is something more mundane. Wherever we are, whatever the situation, it is somehow part of our avodas Hashem.

We must wonder in every situation: how is a Jew supposed to go about this?

In these weeks, the frum world, who keep Torah and mitzvos, is very careful to clean the house scrupulously from any trace of chametz. We have a commandment in the Torah to make sure that we do not see or find any chametz in our house; but this mitzvah has much to it which seemingly has nothing to do with Pesach.

Upon reflection, we will be able to see how preparing for Pesach is part of our avodas Hashem, and how through it we can bring ourselves to be closer to Hashem.

“Melumadah” – Acting By Rote

There is a simple point that we must all know and be aware of. This simple point is that we can find Hashem in anything – without exception!

1) When a person begins to clean his house for Pesach, he first has to get rid of the “melumadah” – the tendency to do things by rote. We are not simply cleaning out the house for Pesach “because we have to clean.” Why are you cleaning for Pesach? Because that’s what you did last year and the year before it?! That is not the reason.

2) We all know that to clean the house for Pesach is a mitzvah of the Torah, but what are our thoughts as we do this? If a person doesn’t stop to think, he is only bothered by questions such as: What is the best way to clean the house? What needs to cleaned, and how much? The whole relationship with Hashem is lost with all these questions.

So first, we must get rid of our tendency to just to things without thinking. We must realize that preparing for Pesach is purely avodas Hashem. After we know this we can begin to know how it is avodas Hashem, but the first step is this: don’t just do it like a robot. Just like we understand that learning and davening is avodas Hashem, so must we be aware that preparing for Pesach is avodas Hashem.

If a person feels that cleaning the house for Pesach is not part of avodas Hashem, we can almost tell him that he is forbidden to do it! The Chovos HeLevovos writes that there is no such thing as a gray area; it’s either forbidden or permissible. If it’s not a mitzvah, then it’s wrong to do.

We will try to explain how cleaning for Pesach can be avodas Hashem, in a way how everyone will be able to enter the Yom Tov amidst avodas Hashem, not amidst stress.

Why Do We Clean The House?

If we think into it, besides for the mitzvah of the Torah to keep the house clean from chametz on Pesach, there are more reasons why we need to clean the house.

3) One possible reason why a person cleans is because he feels bad to make the rest of his family do everything! He personally doesn’t care for the house to be clean. Most of the Pesach preparations have nothing to do with the mitzvah of destroying chametz – just various household chores. Why does a person do all these things for Pesach? Many times it is simply because he feels bad standing around and watching everyone else do all the work. He’s doing it all for the sake of chessed.

That is one possible reason why a person spends so much time with Pesach preparations.

4) Another possibility could be that we don’t like it when the house is dirty. Hashem created each person with a natural desire to have a clean house. Some people are cleanlier than others, and they can’t take even the slightest amount of messiness. But all people want their house clean somewhat, so they clean for the house for Pesach.

5) Another possibility can also be because people like it when things are orderly. During the rest of the year people are very busy, and they want to have one time in the year where they sit down and just arrange everything in its place (This is not the same thing as a desire for neatness.)

So far we have mentioned five possibilities why a person cleans the house for Pesach: Acting robotic, doing it because it’s a mitzvah of the Torah, kindness, cleanliness or orderliness.

The first kind of person we mentioned – the one who does it robotically – is obviously not doing it in the right way. That is simple and we don’t need to explain why.

The second kind of person, who does it because it’s a mitzvah, has to put some more thought into it. It is not enough to know that he must clean the house – there must be some more life involved, some more thinking.

Before he begins to clean the house, he should talk to Hashem and say, “Ribono shel olam, Why am I going to clean my house? I have other things to do; I can be learning or relaxing. The reason why I am going to clean my house now is because You, the Ribono shel Olam, commanded me that the house be free of chametz. Since I want to give You a nachas ruach, I will exert myself now to clean my house.”

While a person is cleaning the house, this is what he should be saying to himself. If someone knows how to think in learning Torah as he does something, then he should think in learning and he doesn’t have to do this. But if someone usually doesn’t think in learning as he cleans the house, and his thoughts are just floating elsewhere, then he should at least for a few minutes here and there remind himself of what he’s doing and why he’s doing it.

We are speaking about a very simple thing one can do; there are people who are on a very high level and always have d’veykus in Hashem wherever they are, but we are not speaking of this. We are speaking about something very basic and simple.

If a person cleans the house because he wants to be nice and doesn’t want everyone else to do all the work, he also has to think about this and say, “Ribono shel olam, Why am I doing this? I don’t personally feel a need to clean my house. The only reason why I am doing it is so that I can do chessed with my family.”

A person should keep talking to Hashem throughout the entire time: “Ribono shel olam, it is my will to do Your will. One of the pillars of the world is chessed, and I am thus doing chessed in order to give You a nachas ruach.”

After a day of doing this, besides for the physical exercise you get out of cleaning the house, your entire day is filled with pure avodas Hashem. In this way, a person never leaves ruchniyus even while being involved in this mundane world.

The Natural Desire for Cleanliness

Let us elaborate on the last two points, which are more subtle points about our soul.

There is a desire in a person for cleanliness. Everyone loves cleanliness – some more, and some less. The soul of a person naturally recoils a bit from messiness. People often see a mess and start cleaning it, and if you ask them, “What are you doing? Why you are cleaning it up?” the answer is, “It bothers me.”

People clean because they can’t stand the sight of something dirty or messy, and cleaning it up removes this anxiety. It seems that this has nothing to do with trying to become close to Hashem, and that a person is trying to save his soul from some pain.

But if we think into it just a little, we can connect everything to Hashem. If a person likes to clean, the first thing he should ask himself is: “Why do I like to clean? Did I make myself this way? No. Hashem gave me this nature.”

Realize that whatever your nature is, it was Hashem who gave you such a nature. Not only that, but Hashem is constantly renewing Creation; He is constantly renewing your nature, which is that you like to clean and that you hate messiness.

After you realize with certainty that it was Hashem who gave you this nature to desire cleanliness, and that He continues to renew this nature in you, now think: “Why did Hashem give me such a nature? What is the purpose of wanting cleanliness, and how do I use this natural desire in a person? What are the pros and cons of it?”

The desire for cleanliness doesn’t happen on its own. (It is absurd to think that it does, but the yetzer hora gets a person to succeed not to think.) A person must think to himself, “Hashem gave me this desire for cleanliness. It was Him who placed this desire in me.”

This realization helps you begin your relationship with Hashem.

What indeed is the root of why we like cleanliness?

Cleanliness (nekiyus) is one of the ten steps in the ladder of avodas Hashem as described by Rebbi Pinchos ben Yair, the basis of sefer Mesillas Yesharim. Cleanliness exists for us to cleanse ourselves from sin, because sin sullies our soul. Every power in the soul is also manifested somehow in our body; the power of cleanliness of our soul manifests itself in our body with the need for physical cleanliness.

The truth is that the more a person grows spiritually, the more he increases his cleanliness. Some people are very clean in their soul and others are very particular also about physical cleanliness (in addition to their spiritual cleanliness), but the point is that the more a person purifies himself, the more of a need for cleanliness he has, and the purer his soul becomes.

The root behind cleanliness comes from an inner desire to be purified. This gives us a whole different attitude to have about our need for physical cleanliness – it is rooted in our soul’s need for cleanliness and purity.

Knowing Your Motivation For Cleanliness

There are two reasons why a person wants physical cleanliness; one reason is unnecessary and more of a luxury to a person, while the other reason is coming from our soul’s need for purity and closeness.

There are situations in which we clean more than we have to, and it is extra. It is hard to say exactly what is considered overdoing it, and each person needs to decide for himself what is considered already too much. If a person is just taking a shower or brushing his teeth simply because he is very concerned about his body, this is totally unnecessary (except for certain rare individuals who won’t get affected by this).

Something even worse than this is when a person is really bothered by uncleanliness and he doesn’t clean. Such a person not only has physical messiness, but he damages his soul with this. He is denying his soul’s demand for cleanliness.

So before begins to clean, he must ask himself: What is my motivation in cleaning the house? Am I doing it out of a compulsiveness to clean (just like there are people who indulge in food and drinking), or am I doing it to help my household? If he realizes that he is doing it to help, then he should work on the avodah we mentioned before (which is to say a tefillah to Hashem).

If he discovers that he’s doing it because he has a personal need for cleanliness, he must really ask himself if he is overdoing it or not, or if it comes from a sensitivity in his soul for cleanliness (and he therefore needs it). Everyone must uncover what is motivating him to clean.

Most people do not have these issues. We will therefore discuss a more simple kind of issue that people have which is much more common: when people love to clean something that is clearly a mess. In this, we need to put some thought into the cleaning.

Before a person cleans, he should say: “Ribono shel olam, this mess really bothers me. Who gave me this feeling? You – Hashem. Where does this nature in me come from? It comes from a power in my soul to demand purity. Ribono shel olam, is it Your will that I break this nature of mine and endure the messiness? Or is it Your will that I live with purity and cleanliness? Since it is clear to me that You want my soul to desire this cleanliness, I will go clean the house in order to get close to You and give You pleasure.”

Even though you’re doing it shelo lishmah – not for the sake of Heaven (because you’re doing it out of your need for cleanliness) – you can still add this element of lishmah into your action.

But always remember that cleaning the house for Pesach is purely avodas Hashem. It must be done properly with thought and concentration.

The Importance Of Orderliness

Another point to be addressed is the fifth reason why a person wants to clean the house: to have orderliness.

Just like a person has a natural need for cleanliness, and this comes from the soul’s desire for purity which Hashem put in us, so did Hashem put in us a natural desire for orderliness.

Some people have a more of a need to be organized than others, but all people have a need to get things organized. This is not by itself – it is a nature which Hashem gave each person.

Without our natural desire for orderliness, no one would get anywhere. In order to build up anything, there is a certain order involved. Since every person on this world must build himself, Hashem endowed each person with an ability to have orderliness. Without orderliness, we wouldn’t be able to develop our avodas Hashem.

The more orderly a person is, the more he is able to develop in avodas Hashem. The less orderly a person is, the more confusion he has, and he feels like he is an exile. A person has to get out of this exile of confusion and become more orderly. This is the beginning of an inner freedom.

Orderliness is thus a need of our soul, but we often use it just for our body’s physical needs, such as the need to look very put together and organized.

Just like a dirty house makes our soul suffer, so can living in a messy house bother us so much that it is an impediment to our avodas Hashem. If we don’t care about how our house looks inside, we will definitely be affected spiritually as well.

It is well-known that when a tzaddik would look for a prospective match for his daughter, he would inspect the boy’s room and see if he’s neat. When a person has no sense of orderliness when it comes to the physical, it is a sign that he has is spiritually messy as well.

In order for our soul to get orderliness in spiritual matters, a person needs to first make sure he’s neat when it comes to his physical matters. But we must always remember that it is Hashem who gives us such a nature. We must recognize that our need for orderliness comes from Hashem, and that this need that people have doesn’t come by itself.

Realize that this need for orderliness can be used as a way to connect to the Creator. Like this, a person can take the physical world and use it to develop a relationship with Hashem. It is an inner kind of life, a life spent with Hashem even in ordinary, mundane actions.

When a person realizes that the need for organization is necessary in his avodas Hashem, he is able to realize that organizing the house is not just an act of kindness with his family, but it is a necessary part in one’s personal avodas Hashem.

In this, there are two parts. Some people were born with a need for orderliness, and it really bothers them when things aren’t in place. The avodah of such a person is to realize that this need comes from Hashem, and it is a way to serve Hashem.

But others don’t feel such a need for cleanliness. They know with their minds that a person should be orderly, but they don’t feel that this is a need for their soul. Such people feel that it makes sense to clean the house once a year, or else the house becomes unlivable…but not more than once a year.

This person’s avodah is the opposite of the first kind of person. Besides for the fact that he must organize his house, he also needs to awaken in his soul a desire to have orderliness.

Days Which We Can Grow From

A person wonders: Why did Hashem make it that people have to work so hard on Erev Pesach? Doesn’t this sacrifice our opportunities to grow spiritually by making preparations for Yom Tov? If we have to work so hard cleaning up, how do we prepare for the Yom Tov??

But if you think about it, these days before Pesach contain tremendous areas which we can use to attain growth in. If Hashem made it this way that we have to clean and organize the house, then that is the way for us to acquire all the precious areas of growth which we need.

Really, cleaning up and organizing the house are there to remind us of our soul’s need for purity. This is a precious gain in our avodas Hashem. But the yetzer hora comes and takes away the message of it and turns it into mundane actions, drying it up from all the avodas Hashem contained in it.

If a person understands the depth of avodas Hashem, he doesn’t clean the house simply because he wants it to be clean. He cleans the house because through that, he connects to an inner point in his soul – the need for spiritual cleanliness. He understands that now is precisely the time to work on this.

The truth is that all of life is like this: the yetzer hora comes and takes what’s very important and turns it into something that’s not important. In whatever we encounter, we should always see the greatness we can achieve in this situation. The more confusing and seemingly pointless a situation appears, the more greatness lies in it if we uncover it.

If a person before Pesach is caught up in this and that and he comes into the Yom Tov exhausted and stressed out, what is all our hard work worth? We don’t gain from this kind of a life.

If we don’t see how everything we do can be a form of avodas Hashem and how much being involved with the world takes away from our soul, then these days go to waste. Our preparation for Pesach should not be a physical preparation; although we do exert our body to prepare for Pesach, really, there is an inner depth taking place in what we are doing. It is really a preparation of our soul for the coming days. Through preparing for it in the right way, a person comes into Yom Tov the way he should.

Each person can take these words and open them up more to himself, each to his own. The common denominator between all people is the days preceding Pesach are days of ruchniyus, not days of materialistic pursuits. They are days of closeness to Hashem.

Hashem should help us that we prepare properly for Pesach during these days, from a sincere desire to give pleasure to our Creator. In these days preceding Pesach, each of us should merit to increase our true closeness and love of Hashem.