Teshuvah: Returning to Our Source

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

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Teshuvah – Returning To Hashem Through Abandoning Past Sins

“השיבנו אבינו לתורתך” – “Return us, our Father, to Your Torah.”

When a person sins, (rachmana litzlan – May Hashem have mercy upon him), there are three aspects of teshuvah that he needs, as we say in this blessing of Shemoneh Esrei. Besides for the fact that he has sinned against Hashem, he has also distanced himself from the Torah.

Thus, when we seek to do teshuvah, not only do we ask Hashem to return us to Him, but we also ask to be returned to the Torah, that we should once again keep the Torah. The final step of the teshuvah is when we merit a “complete teshuvah” –החזירנו בתשובה שלימה לפניך.

So first, we ask Hashem to return us to the state in which we recognize Him as our Father. השיבנו אבינו. Then, we ask Hashem that we be returned to His Torah.השיבנו אבינו לתורתך. We can then merit to come to a “complete” teshuvah, which this blessing of Shemoneh Esrei concludes with – החזירנו בתשובה שלימה לפניך.

Teshuvah is to return. To where are we returning to? To Hashem.

Returning To The Proper Path In Life – To Abandon The Indulgence In Permissible Desires

On a more subtle note, even if we wouldn’t sin, we still need to do teshuvah, because even if a person doesn’t sin, he can still be far from Hashem. The essence of teshuvah is to return to our Source, even if we haven’t sinned. This is because a person can still be distanced from Hashem even if he doesn’t sin.

For example, there is a concept of “a disgusting one who acts within the permission of the Torah.”[1] When a person lives for his body and not for his soul, he indulges in physical pleasures that are not prohibited by the Torah. Although he hasn’t sinned, he has indulged in his body, and he needs to abandon this situation – as well and return to his source, his soul’s source, which is Hashem and the Torah.

When a person sins, the sin puts constraint on his connection with Hashem; that is very clear. But even if a person doesn’t sin, and even if he has done teshuvah over the sin, he can still be heavily attached to materialism, and this will prevent a person from connecting himself to Hashem.

Living A Life of The Soul

Rabbeinu Yonah in sefer Shaarei Teshuvah writes that a person needs to to abandon his improper path, in order to do teshuvah. This can even be referring to a kind of person who lives religiously, but his soul is not revealed in his life. He does not feel his soul, and instead he lives life through his body. Although he puts on his tallis and tefillin in the morning, it’s only on his body, because he lives and experiences life entirely through his body.

Teshuvah is not just about leaving our sins; it is about abandoning the very path a person is at [initially] in his life, which is heading towards materialism.

The Root of A Life of Soul: Realizing That Hashem Is Our Father

השיבנו אבינו לתורתך וקרבנו מלכינו לעבודתך – “Return us, our Father, to Your Torah; and draw us close, our King, to serve You.” After we return to keeping the Torah, we can return to serving Hashem. But the very first thing we need to realize that Hashem is our Father – and that we are His children. The blessing starts out with the words השיבנו אבינו – “Return us, our Father.” That is the first thing we need to realize: Hashem is “our Father”.

If a person doesn’t realize this, he is saying words that aren’t truthful to where he is right now; his mouth and heart are not in line with each other. Although Chazal established that we all say this tefillah in Shemoneh Esrei, if a person doesn’t realize the truth of what he is saying, from a deeper perspective he is saying something that’s not true to his life.

Getting In Touch With Your Inner Soul’s Desires

So a person must ask himself how much he is in touch with his soul in his life. How can one recognize it? Our soul loves spirituality – such as Torah, mitzvos, and connecting with Hashem. By contrast, our body loves This World and its desires.

For example, let us examine the emotion of love which we are familiar with. What do we love? Is our love only being experienced through our physical desires? Desire [by itself] is not the same thing as love. On another note, if we “love” something of This World, that’s not “love” – it is simply desire.

Teshuvah – Repenting and Returning

The first part of teshuvah, simply, is to repent from our sins. That is the obvious part. But in addition, we need to uncover the deeper aspect of teshuvah, which is that we must realize that we are returning to our Source: our Father.

Ask yourself the following: If we would be given more life on this world, would we stay here so we can do more mitzvos? Or we would we want to stay here so we can continue to enjoy this world’s pleasures…?

Teshuvah is a deep power in our soul, to wish to return, to our point of origin. When a person learns Torah and does mitzvos, he can still be living a life of the body…. even if he still sits in yeshivah for many years and always learns Torah every day!

The deep aspect of teshuvah is to realize that we are children of Hashem, that we are a neshamah (Divine soul). And just as the body enjoys the pleasures of this world, so does our neshamah yearn for Hashem, for Torah, and for mitzvos.

Our Avodah: Revealing Our Neshamah

But we do not need to “acquire” an enjoyment for Hashem and for Torah; it is already there in our soul! The problem is that the soul isn’t often revealed, because the body is initially dominant on a person, and it is concealing the soul.

Therefore, our avodah is thus not to acquire our spiritual feelings. Rather, our avodah is to reveal our neshamah, from its potential state into its active state – and then we will naturally love Hashem and Torah, as an automatic result.

Yearning To Live A Life of Neshamah

People who are able to sit and learn their whole life and to love learning Torah are able to do so not because they always have the answers to all their questions when they learn. It is rather because they have succeeded in uncovering their natural yearning for Hashem and for his Torah.

Therefore, we must be aware when we do teshuvah, that we need to return to our original Source, the way we were originally, when we were pure. To illustrate, a child cries when he is looking for his home. Why does he cry? It is because he yearns to return to his home, to his source.

If a person lives life through his body, even if he learns Torah and does mitzvos, he lives an animalistic kind of existence. One must reveal the light of the neshamah in his life.

That is all part of the teshuvah process that one needs to do, in addition to how he needs to abandon sin. If a person doesn’t have a constant yearning to return to his soul, if he doesn’t feel a burning kind of desire of his soul to return to Torah and to do Hashem’s will – then he has to do teshuvah exactly about this problem!

One needs to yearn to return to an inner kind of life in which he recognizes that his soul is his true source, wishing that he could return to his original state of purity.

The Main Kind of Teshuvah That Is Needed In Our Times

Most people in today’s world are not entrenched in sin – rather, the main problem we see today is that people are simply entrenched in a “body” kind of life.

Teshuvah is not about learning “more” Torah and “doing” mitzvos. It is about living a life of neshamah. It is that when we go to sleep at night, our neshamah continues to yearn for more closeness with Hashem and with Torah. It is that when we get up in the morning, we feel this yearning of our neshamah, and that we continue to feel this yearning even as we walk in the street.

Therefore, besides for doing teshuvah for our past sins, an essential part of our teshuvah is that we need to search for an inner kind of life, in which we feel ourselves yearning to return to our original purity.

Do any of us want next year to the same as this year? If we want next year to really be different than this past year, we must have a constant yearning every day and all the time to live a life of yearning for Hashem, for Torah, and for mitzvos.

Letting Go Of This World

To help give yourself an idea of how you can work on this, each of us should imagine what the day of death will look like, when our soul will leave our body.

If we always think about this – in a serene way of course, and not to be sad or morbid about it – we can begin to feel that our body is not who we are. We will then be able to feel that our real self is our neshamah. One day, we will leave our body. Thinking about this will help you realize the inner world that is going on inside of you.[2]

We must realize that the kind of world we see in front of us – even though there is much Torah and mitzvos today – is a lifestyle that is centered around interests of the body. We need to uncover the perspective of our neshamah and experience life through it. Of course, this will involve a lot of avodah to get there, but this is the root that we can uncover and be in touch with.

In Conclusion

May we merit from Hashem to understand that there is a kind of inner life we can live, in which we can return to our Source – to merit to return to our Father, and thereby come to have complete teshuvah.

[1] See Ramban to Parshas Kedoshim 19:1

[2] For more details, see Bilvavi Part 4, Chapter 5 – Calmly Letting Go Of This World

How Do You Feel Sad About Something You Never Saw? (Bilvavi)

Rav Itamar Schwartz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

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How Do You Feel Sad About Something You Never Saw?

Our avodah during the Nine Days involves certain actions we do, which eventually lead up to the day of Tisha B’Av – the very climax of our pain. There are outer actions we have to do according to halachah, but there is also an inner work to be done.

It is hard for us to imagine what it was like when we had a Beis HaMikdash. It is very far from our mind to comprehend, and it is hard as well even to imagine it. We are thus very far from feeling the pain of the destruction. How can we feel pain over something which we never saw, something which we can’t even really imagine?

The avodah we have during the Nine Days is about feeling the pain [over the loss of the Beis HaMikdash and what we used to have, before we were placed into exile]. Pain involves our deep emotions. Thus, we need to try to awaken ourselves to cry about what happened during these days. But it is very difficult for many people to do so. People read the stories and the history of what happened during those times, yet it is still very hard for people to actually feel pain and to cry over the tragic period of our history.

We need to find a way to open ourselves up, so that we can feel the depth of the pain of the destruction. We will try here, with the help of Hashem, to draw these matters closer to our hearts, so we can come to feel the pain that we are supposed to feel; to feel how the Shechinah is in exile.

The Superficial Way To Feel Pain

There are two ways how a person can try to draw himself close to mourning over the destruction. One of them is not that effective, while the other way is more effective.

One way (mentioned above) is for a person to awaken himself, in a superficial manner, to get inspired. This can be done by reading the statements of Chazal about the destruction. For most people, however, this doesn’t work, because it is hard to actually feel the pain of the destruction just by reading about the tragedies that went on. A person reads on and on about the many tragedies that Chazal say took place, yet he still doesn’t feel that it has to do with him, and it doesn’t get him to cry.

The Inner Way To Awaken Pain Over the Destruction

An alternative way, which is the way that will help us, is to awaken from within ourselves an internal kind of crying. Then we will be able to actually cry on our outside as well.

This is not accomplished through the usual inspiration that comes from outside of ourselves. We will explain.

All the maalos (qualities) which the soul can attain – such as yiras shomayim (fear of Heaven), kedushah (holiness), taharah (purity), etc. – are all desires of our soul to gain more and more levels in ruchniyus (spirituality). This is the universal desire of the Jewish people: to grow in our ruchniyus. But we must understand that inspiration alone will not suffice in order to accomplish this.

When the Beis Hamikdash was around, there was the Shechinah (Hashem’s revealed Presence), and this enabled people to reach very high levels in their ruchniyus. The great spiritual light that existed then affected all people, even the simplest Jew. The Vilna Gaon writes that we have no comprehension of even the simplest Jew of those times.

If anyone thinks about this – not just intellectually, but as an internalization – he would really see what we are missing today. The desires that we have to grow in ruchniyus, and the frustrations that we each have in trying to grow, would not have existed had we lived in the times of the Beis Hamikdash! It was so much easier to serve Hashem then! If we think about this and what this means for us, we would realize the true depth of the destruction.

All of our frustrations, and all of our various failures, are all a result of exile. Because we don’t have the Shechinah, it is so much harder for us to serve Hashem. We have yearnings to serve Hashem, we really want to grow in Torah and mitzvos, and in all areas of our ruchniyus – but we have so much frustration in trying to succeed. This is all because we don’t have the Shechinah.

If this doesn’t bother a person, that’s a different problem altogether. We are talking about someone who does realize it’s a problem. If a person realizes what he’s missing, he should go deeper into this reflection and what it means: If I would have the Beis Hamikdash in my life, I wouldn’t have so many problems in my ruchniyus.

If a person thinks about this, he will be able to awaken the pain that he is supposed to have over the destruction. There is a lot to think about here: how far we are in our ruchniyus. How far we are from Torah, from Tefillah, from Ahavas Yisrael, from shemiras einayim, from taharah…and from all other areas we need to be better at.

Anyone who thinks about this – calmly, and in solitude (as the Chazon Ish writes to do) – will discover how painful this realization is, and this will bring a person to cry.

In Summary

The avodah during these days is to first contemplate this on at least an intellectual level, and then internalize it in our hearts: how much we are missing.

If we would have a Beis Hamikdash, our hearts would be different, our daas would be different, our middos would be different. Contemplate this, and you will realize how painful this discovery is. And if you merit, it might even bring you to tears.

This is how we can awaken ourselves to cry. Of course, this is not yet reaching the purpose of why we mourn. We are only saying how we can open ourselves up to feel the pain we are supposed to feel.

Most People Need This Approach

The true Tisha B’Av one is supposed to have is to feel the general painful situation of the Jewish people, but this is only reached by someone who has great Ahavas Yisrael. Most people, though, have not reached such a high level of Ahavas Yisrael, and therefore they find it hard to cry over the situation of our people today.

That being the case, practically speaking, most people will need to simply awaken from within themselves a personal reason to cry, such as by thinking about one’s personal frustrations in areas of ruchniyus.

We can only cry over the loss of the Shechinah if we have already drawn ourselves close to the Shechinah, but most people aren’t close to the Shechinah; therefore, it is hard for most people to relate to the concept of the “pain of the Shechinah.” Therefore, most people need to simply open themselves up to cry: by thinking about their own private suffering, by thinking about how much we are missing from our own life.

The Higher Stage: Contemplating Another’s Pain

Let us continue one step further, but first make sure that you are on the first level: first realize where you are in your ruchniyus. If your heart has been opened at least to this first level, you can continue to the next level we are about to say.

Think about the following. Who do you love on this world? Everyone has people whom they love on this world; who do you love the most on this world? Think about this, and now, think: Do you feel the pain of the person whom you love the most? Do you feel his physical pain? If you do, what about the things that bother him spiritually? Do you feel any pain, whatsoever, at his\her situation? If you do, now connect yourself to his\her pain. Then, think about the following? The pain that your beloved person has is all a result of the loss of the Shechinah on this world! This is because all of the pain in the world comes from the absence of Shechinah.

What If Someone Doesn’t Care About Ruchniyus?

In the first stage we explained, we explained how a person should try to awaken his spiritual pain and frustration, so that he can awaken himself to the pain and mourning over the loss of the Shechinah. But what if someone’s spiritual situation doesn’t bother him that much? What can he do to awaken himself to tears over the loss of the Shechinah, if he doesn’t care that much about his own ruchniyus in the first place?

He can at least think into his physical situation, and let himself be bothered by the things in his life that are not alright. Every person has things in his life that bother him. After all, who doesn’t have hardship and difficulty on this world? Thinking about this can help a person open himself up to the idea of feeling pain, and now that he has brought the pain to the surface, he can remind himself that all of this pain is because we are in exile, because we don’t have the Shechinah.

A person has to sit and think about these reflections during Tisha B’Av, so that he can open himself up to the idea of pain and mourning over the exile and the loss of the Shechinah. Besides for hearing Eichah and reciting Kinnos on Tisha B’Av, a person must make sure to actually make these reflections and awaken himself to feel some level of pain.

This self-introspection must be done privately. Simply think about what pains you in your life. Anyone is on the level of doing this. Then, after you remind yourself of the pain you have in your life, realize that all of your pain is rooted in the fact that we do not have a Beis Hamikdash, that we are missing the Shechinah. This will help you open yourself up to the concept of pain, and it will be a small opening for you to help you feel the real pain you are supposed to feel.

May we all merit to feel the pain of the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, and to be of those whom our Sages say, “Whoever mourns Jerusalem, will merit to see it in its rebuilding.”

Lag B’Omer – Inner Bonfire

Rav Itamar Schwartz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Growth In Soul, Time, and Place

Generally speaking, there are three ways how one can receive spiritual growth: through his soul, through certain times, or through certain places.[1]

1) Soul – If a person grows spiritually through the soul, it means that he has succeeded in inspiring himself to receive new levels of spiritual growth. This can happen either through directly inspiring his own soul, or if he hears others who inspire him.

2) Time – When a person receives spiritual growth because of certain times, it is because there are special spiritual gifts contained in those times that allow for growth; examples of this are Shabbos and Yom Tov. Time-based growth can affect the person as well and help him grow spiritually, even if the person hasn’t yet managed to elevate his soul to the point that he can attain this growth independently.

3) Place – A person can also receive a spiritual boost by being exposed to a certain place – for example, by going to a holy place, such as Eretz Yisrael, or a holy burial site of a tzaddik[2].

These are the three general ways of how a person can receive spiritual growth [later ir will be mentioned that one can also receive growth from another person, such as being inspired by another person, or by a tzaddik, or from hearing an inspirational person].

The Advantage of Growth In Soul Vs. Growth Through Time and Place

However, there is a fundamental difference between receiving growth from one’s soul [which is more direct], with receiving growth from time or a place [which are external factors]: When a person attains growth from his own soul, he has reached the new levels on his own, and this results in a more permanent change for the soul.

Of course, even when a person attains growth via his soul, he can still have ups and downs from his level, but it will only be a temporary fall, for he has ultimately achieved a new level for his soul via his inner exertion to get there. It will have become easier for him to get back to that newly attained level, because he still has within him the root to get there, now that he has acquired it within himself.

In contrast, any spiritual growth attained from a certain time or place is external only, and it will be dependent on the holiness of the time or place. It is also temporary and therefore it does not retain the same permanence as soul-based growth.

Though people may feel temporarily elated after visiting certain holy places, they often soon resume their routine life [and sink back to their previous spiritual level]. When a time of growth is over – for example, when Shabbos or Yom Tov ends – or when a person leaves a certain holy place, the actual spiritual effects of the holiness fade. He is only left with a certain impression of the previous growth, a shadow or reminder of what he once reached and what he could yet achieve. We can see it clearly. People go to certain holy places and feel spiritual elation there, but after that, they go back to their routine life, and all of the inspiration is forgotten.

When spiritual growth comes from a certain time or place, it is similar to when a person becomes spiritually uplifted by another person. Since the other person’s inspiration is external, the effect is more likely to be temporary unless a person works hard to integrate it into his own soul. When the other person leaves, the spiritual effect often dissipates.

Tools To Maintain Inspiration

Thus, a person’s avodah (inner task) is two-fold. He can reach higher levels of internal spiritual growth by working hard on himself and using tools that can assist with permanent change. He can also realize that any lasting benefits of growth dependent on external holiness (time, place or person) may be fleeting and merely provide a temporary impression unless he works hard to integrate it through corresponding internal spiritual work.

There are pros and cons to being inspired by external factors such as holy people, times or places. The pros are that a person is able to receive a much higher spiritual boost than his current level. One can still receive those great levels, relatively quickly, without working hard to elevate one’s soul. On the other hand, the disadvantage of external spiritual elevation is that a person will struggle to maintain the high level after the holy time, place or person has disappeared. A person may experience frustration when recalling his temporary boost and at his failing to maintain it afterwards.

This is a very subtle but important point, which, when one is aware of it, it can cause misconception. A person may experience great elation on a certain Shabbos and feel that he has ascended spiritually. However, what happens on Sunday? He remembers how he felt on Shabbos, and then he tries to relive the spiritual high. However, since his spiritual growth in this instance was sourced purely from a holy day [and it wasn’t matched with corresponding internal growth], the effects will dissipate with time; trying to recreate Shabbos on Sunday when we have not grown internally is living in a fantasy world.

Certainly it is possible for us to feel the spirituality of Shabbos even on Sunday, but only if one has worked on himself to a point where he is able to reach the levels independently, and by acquiring the inner tools that would enable him to maintain the level of Shabbos for afterwards. Without either of these two factors, then after Shabbos a person is only left with a faint “imprint” of Shabbos. This ‘imprint’[3] can certainly instill in him a burning desire to return to those moments of elation, but one will still need to implement these two points in order for the spiritual growth to stay with him.

When a person is aware that all the levels he has reached is only through his mental capacities (mochin\mind) – meaning, he is aware that these are all temporary moments of elation, but that they haven’t yet been etched into his soul – then he views these levels as something delightful which Hashem has given to him, and he also views them as an ‘indicator’ that shows he has grown spiritually. But if a person overdoes the “indicator” and is always thinking about these levels, when really hasn’t yet acquired them – he is just imagining things. Usually, this problem exists by people who became very inspired from reading a sefer or when they hear a Torah tape.

When it comes to growth we receive from times or places, the danger [of self-delusion] is greater. This is because at the time that the person felt the spiritual growth – such as Shabbos – there was a true feeling, and it is hard for a person to free himself from the intensity of the feelings he remembers. Yesterday, the feeling was there, but today, the feeling is gone.

We can give a simple example that helps us understand this idea very well. On Sukkos, a person shakes his lulav and esrog. If someone comes to shul on Chanukah with his lulav and esrog, he would be a laughingstock. Everything has its time and place. Yet, those who have yet to internalize and maintain the spiritual growth of the holy days throughout the rest of the year are dependent on the spiritual boost of the external, physical mitzvos. Their spiritual level is reliant on these physical times, places and actions so they yearn to connect this way all year or at inappropriate times.

Heart Matters Are Not Understood Every Day

To what will this apply to? In the coming lines, we will discuss a point that is really above our level. We must realize that the coming concepts are really above our level, for we have not acquired them yet.

On Lag Ba’omer, the spiritual gifts contained in this day are that the “gates of wisdom are opened”. This essentially means that that one’s soul on this day can receive levels which he normally can’t absorb. But we must understand that the levels we can attain on this day are temporary and they only last for the day of Lag Ba’omer.

At first glance, this may sound strange. One might say, “If I have already comprehended it, how can it be that I will lose my comprehension of it?! If you told me yesterday that two plus one is three, then why would I forget about this the next day?!”

But that is the mistake. The soul’s wisdom does not refer to intellectual matters; rather, it refers to words that come alive in one’s inner world of the soul. Intellect and understanding are not the same thing. Intellect is referred to as seichel, while understanding, havanah, is avanta d’liba (“understanding of the heart”). There are many smart people in the world, but knowing something with your brain is not the same thing as absorbing something in your heart; there is a very big difference between the mind’s intellectual knowledge and the heart’s knowledge, understanding.

Thus, if a person is aware in advance that whatever he reaches on Lag Ba’omer will not last when it ends, then he will know how to receive the spirituality of this day properly. He will be less likely to lose heart when the levels he has attained on this day inevitably disappear, and less likely to pressure that it was supposed to remain permanently. Instead, one will simply have an inner push to return to these levels and internalize them [by doing the soul work that is involved].

This is possibly the meaning of the statement in Chazal that “Every day, the words of Torah should be to you like new.” What does this mean? A lot of ink has been spent on explaining this. But it appears to mean that even if you understood something yesterday, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you will understand it tomorrow. A matter may have entered your intellect, but has not yet been cemented in your heart. Sometimes the next day brings additional understanding deeper than the previous day’s level, if one has managed to purify oneself in the interim.

We are referring to deep, subtle matters which must be lived, in order to be understood and internalized. We are often familiar with only an intellectual understanding of a matter, which is usually permanently retained. In contrast, heart understanding is unique in that it is not anchored in the heart in the same way as intellectual knowledge is anchored in the brain. Thus, with heart understanding, there is a risk that its gain will merely be temporary and ephemeral (unless we do constant, inner avodah to maintain it).

This distinction is crucial to understanding the wisdom of the Creator. Our intellect is cold, simple, and rational. In contrast, heart matters, such as searching for Godliness, are a “burning fire”. Only the heart can understand Godly matters. And the heart is accessed through avanta d’liba, an inner understanding, which can only be accessed during certain times.

The Mystery of Remembering Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai

We will speak a little about what is relevant for Lag Ba’Omer, but as we said before, we should remember that it’s only relevant for Lag Ba’Omer; after this day passes, we are left with nothing but a ‘mark’ from it. Therefore, a person should not attempt to grow further from that ‘mark’ after Lag Ba’Omer ends, and if he does, he should be warned in the same way that the people were warned not to ascend Har Sinai when Moshe was receiving the Torah.

It is somewhat of a mystery. Throughout all the generations, there were many Gedolim and tzaddikim who are not remembered so much on their yahrtzeit[4]. People remember the yahrtzeit of Dovid HaMelech[5], but there is almost no one who knows what day of the calendar the yahrtzeit of our own Avos (forefathers) is. There are all kinds of traditions that state which days of the year they died on, but for some reason, there is no clarity in this matter. Only one tzaddik, who came much than the Avos – the Sage, Rav Shimon Bar Yochai – is so remembered. Everyone goes to his grave on this day (Lag Ba’Omer). Why does he get so much attention, more than all the other tzaddikim?

We should think about this. If we are rejoicing in something and we don’t know what to rejoice about, then such rejoicing is superficial; our happiness has to come from our soul, or else it is just by rote and will not amount to anything. So we must know what we are rejoicing about on Lag Ba’Omer.

The Special Time of Lag Ba’Omer

It is written in Koheles (3:1), “For every time.” Chazal comment on this that there was a time for Adam to enter Gan Eden, and there was a time for him to leave Gan Eden; there was a time for Noach to enter the Ark, and there was a time for him to leave the Ark. There was a time for Avraham to be circumcised, and there was a time for him to circumcise his children.”

We can learn from this Midrash that long before Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai passed away on Lag Ba’omer, this day was already sanctified. Thus, our outlook on this day doesn’t have to begin with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai definitely brought the meaning of this special time into the dimension of the soul as well, because long before he lived, this day was already precious. It was a day that inherently contained inherent spiritual gifts.

Let us now reflect: what is the inner meaning of this day?

Lag Ba’Omer and Amalek

Lag Ba’omer falls out on the 18th of the month of Iyar. The gematria (numerical value in Lashon HaKodesh[6]) of the word “Iyar”,[7] together with the number 18[8], is equal to the word “Amalek”.[9] In other words, there is a connection between Amalek and this day. Soon, we will explain the connection.

Sadness – Not Connected To The Root

Whenever a person is sad, this really comes from the fact that he isn’t connected to a root. He is like a branch disconnected from its root. The root has a ‘root’ as well to it: the lack of connection between the person and Hashem. By contrast, happiness is when there is connection to our Source.

It is written, “With hardship shall you bear children.” The pain of child labor is called “etzev”, which can also mean “sadness”. Birth is a separation of the baby from its mother; when the baby was in its mother, it is considered part of the mother. Now, it has disconnected from its mother – this is the “etzev”\sadness of giving birth.

Childbirth, and the etzev which follows it, reflects the concept that a person has to be integrated with his Source. The purpose of man is to integrate himself with his root, and keep connecting himself to his roots until he arrives at the root of all roots, the Creator.

On Yom Tov we have a mitzvah to be happy. Yom Tov is “moed”, which comes from the word “vaad” – a meeting. When there is a meeting, there is connection, and thus there is happiness.

The Meaning Behind the Bonfires

There is a minhag[10] on Lag B’Omer to light bonfires. We don’t just light small fires like we light for Shabbos and Yom Tov. We light big fires – bonfires, which are called “lehavah” in Hebrew.

The inner meaning of this is to show us that we need to have a big “fire”, a lehavah, in our hearts, for Hashem. If a person has this inner fire, he is inwardly connected to Lag Ba’Omer. If a person is just lighting physical bonfires, but his soul is cold inside, he is not truly celebrating Lag Ba’Omer.

It is written, “The house of Yaakov will be a fire, and the house of Yosef will be a big flame.” This is referring to the inner layer of a Jew’s soul, the burning desire for Hashem. At first there is a small fire, and then it becomes a huge flame, a lehavah. When a person increases his inner fire for Hashem until it is a big flame, then he can integrate with Hashem.

In other words, bonfires on this day are not just superficial acts of lighting big fires. It is meant to remind us of our innermost point of the soul, which is like a great, fiery desire to be connected with Hashem.

Countering The ‘Separation’ Caused By Amalek: Connecting To Hashem

It is well-known that the evil force of “Amalek” causes disparity in Creation. Chazal say that Amalek attacked us in Refidim, from the words “rafu y’deihem b’Torah”, implying that “our hands were weak in Torah”. When a person’s hands go weak, he loses connection to what he is holding. Our hands were weak then in “holding” the Torah – there was a weakening in our connection to Torah; and that enabled Amalek to attack us.

Torah is called “words of fire”[11]- the Torah is a ‘fire’, but we on our own must turn it into a big flame, a “lehavah”. This is referring to the concept of becoming totally integrated with Hashem.[12]

The power that is inherent in the day of Lag Ba’Omer is essentially the power to become connected to the Creator – the opposite of Amalek’s agenda, who wants to cause us to be separate from the Creator. This is also the inner meaning of what it means to “erase Amalek” from our midst, and thereby remove its evil. The “great flame” that can be reached on this day – integrating one’s self with Hashem – is what can prevent Amalek from coming to weaken us.

Amalek weakened our “hands” in Torah. What does this mean? When our hands become weak, we lose connection to what we are holding; thus there was a weakening in our connection to Torah. But why is this part of the body chosen to symbolize our connection to Torah? Don’t we learn Torah with our mouths and minds, not our hands?

The answer to this is that there are two points contained here. On one level, a person can only connect to something with his “hands” – in other words, when he is holding onto it. You use your hands to hold onto something, such as a person who is drowning and catches a piece of wood to hold onto. Thus the “weakened hands” in Torah meant a lack of connection to Torah.

On another level, the Zohar states that Torah without fiery feelings of love and awe of Hashem does not ascend to Heaven. In other words, although the generation was learning Torah, they were lacking a certain connection to it; they weren’t connecting themselves to Hashem through it. Amalek “weakening our hands” in Torah meant that the force of Amalek can disconnect a person from the root of his Torah learning: Hashem.

The Power Contained In Lag Ba’Omer: Overcoming Doubt

The power contained in this day [Lag Ba’Omer] is essentially the ability for a person to remove himself from all the obstacles that hold him back from closeness to the Creator.

The main obstacle which holds us back from being close to Hashem is the force of Amalek, as is well-known. Amalek’s power thrives on safek (doubt). When a person has doubts about something, he cannot connect to it, as a result.

To illustrate, consider a person who comes to a crossroads and is faced with choice of following one of two paths. If this person chooses one path but lacks certainty and thinks in his heart the whole time: “I’m not sure about what I’m doing…”, he cannot be properly connected to the path he is taking. Even if he made the right choice, his doubt and uncertainty block him from connecting to it. In contrast, when a person is confident in himself and his purpose and role and choice, he is able to connect to what he does.

Doubts prevent a person from truly connecting to Hashem in an inner way. Even if a person is taking the right path towards Hashem, if he is doubtful about what he’s doing, then that means he is not really connected to the path he is taking, which means he is not really connected with Hashem.

How can a person leave doubt and enter into the inner world of the spiritual? A person needs to become sure about the truth that he knows about! This will eradicate his doubts. How can a person become absolutely sure about the inner truths? The truth is actually very clear. When a person understands it, it is then that he leaves all the doubts.

Hashem Is Here, There, and Everywhere

Compare this to a person who wants to get from Jerusalem to Bnei Brak. He doesn’t know if he should go right or left or straight ahead. Whichever way he takes, he is doubtful, because he has no idea if he will end up in Bnei Brak. But once a person is in Bnei Brak, he has no doubts about where to go – because he is there. This is because if you’re there, you don’t have doubts about where you are.

A person must realize that in whatever “derech” (path) he takes, all of the many different paths essentially bring him to this one and only point: Hashem! There is no such thing as a valid “path” that doesn’t bring you to Hashem. It doesn’t matter if a person is happy, sad, or suffering; all of these are situations that, in the end, can bring you closer to Hashem.

So what are people not sure about? A person knows that Hashem is at the end of the path, but he’s not sure if he’s taking the right path. He may be thinking, “Who says it’s the right path for me…?”

The deep perspective is for a person to realize that Hashem is found everywhere, in every situation, and therefore, he has nothing to be doubtful about. He doesn’t doubt the ‘path’ he is taking which will lead him to the truth, because he is secure in the knowledge that all paths lead to the Creator, for the goal is always to reach closeness with the Creator.

Above The Perspective of ‘Pesach Sheini’

Lag B’Omer often falls out within the seven days of the time period known as “Pesach Sheini” (observed on the 14th of Iyar). When we had the Beis Mikdash and we were able to bring korbonos, there was a mitzvah of Pesach Sheini, for those who were ritually impure on Pesach and couldn’t bring the korbon pesach on the 14th of Nissan; or for those who didn’t make it to Jerusalem on time for Yom Tov. Those who didn’t make it were held back due to the ‘place’ they were in, whereas those who were impure were held back due to the situation of their soul – they were distant from Hashem, thus couldn’t come.

But there is an inner point in which one can know and feel in his soul that Hashem resides inside him, always, even when he in a state of impurity. Such a person had no need for Pesach Sheini. In the physical world, a person needed Pesach Sheini if he was ritually impure, but in the inner world of the soul, once a person comes to the recognition of feeling Hashem in his soul, he doesn’t need “Pesach Sheini” there. This, the fact that Lag B’Omer always falls out within the “seven days of Pesach Sheini” and it reveals a certain heavenly light: that Hashem is found even amidst our state of impurity (just like there are seven days of the first Pesach, so is there a concept that there are seven days of the second Pesach).

“There Is No Place That Is Empty From Him”

When a person is aware that Hashem is found even in the lowest place where he has fallen to, he doesn’t need any “hands” to lift himself up.

If a person thinks simply that “Hashem is Heaven, but I live on this earth”, and that he must try to somehow ‘ascend’ to Heaven – then he will need his “hands” to lift himself upwards [and he won’t be able to get there]. But when a person knows clearly that Hashem is found in any place – for “There is no place empty from Him” – then even when he has fallen low, he can still arrive at a point of clarity in which he sees how Hashem is there at any place, time or situation. There is no amount of spiritual impurity that will be able to get him to have any doubts about this.

We rectify the evil of Amalek in Creation, essentially, by realizing how Hashem is with us even when we are in a lowly situation. Hashem is found with us even as we are amongst the lowest levels of impurity – even Amalek.

Thus, practically speaking, in order to gain from this day of Lag B’Omer, we need to search for the Creator – and because He is everywhere, we can find Him at any moment, in any place, and in any time.

May we merit to arrive at the innermost point – the “lehavah”, the “great flame” that iswithin us, represented by the bonfires we light, which can remind us of a burning desire for Hashem; and may we merit the Redemption, speedily.[13]

[1] This is based on the concept of “Olam, Shanah, Nefesh” (World, Time, and Soul) – everything exists in three dimensions: place, time, and soul [Sefer Yetzirah, III]

[2] Note from the sefer: (the sefarim hakedoshim mentioned that a tzaddik’s grave is as holy as if it were in Eretz Yisrael, even if it is outside Eretz Yisrael),

[3] In Hebrew, “roishem”

[4] memorial day

[5] Shavuos

[6] The Holy Tongue

[7] 221

[8] 221+18 = 239

[9] The word “Amalek” is equal to 240. (As is well-known, in the system of Gematria, the word itself counts as one)

[10] custom

[11] Yirmiyahu 23:29

[12] “hiskalelus” – integrating

[13] Editor’s Note: As a supplement to this derashah, refer to Fixing Your Fire_006_Conceit_Handling Inspiration

Defining Happiness – Rav Itamar Schwartz (Bilvavi)

Rav Itamar Schwartz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

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The Source of Sadness

What is a person’s natural mood – to be happy (b’simchah), or to be sad (atzuv)? Without considering other possible factors that take away a person’s happiness – what is a person’s natural state? What is the source of our sadness, and what is the source of our happiness?

The source of sadness is clearly explained to us by our Sages. All sadness came onto the world as a result of the first sin of mankind. After the sin, Adam was cursed with the pain (“etzev”, which comes from the word “atzvus”, sadness) of hard work, and Chavah was also cursed with “etzev”, with the pains of child labor. If not for the first sin, it wouldn’t be possible for people to become sad.

So we know what causes sadness: sin. But what brings simchah\happiness? From where do we get our simchah from?

First, we need to define simcha\happiness – and then we can know what the source of it is.

The Two Kinds of Happiness

There are two kinds of simchah\happiness. One kind of happiness is when I am happy because of something; there can be many things that can cause me to be happy. Another kind of happiness is when I am happy for no reason at all; just like you can’t ask why dirt is dirt and why water is water, so is there a kind of happiness which you can’t explain why it is so. It just is.

In other words, there is an external kind of happiness, and an inner kind of happiness.

External Happiness vs. Inner Happiness

The external kind of happiness, which is to be happy based on a reason, is just the absence of sadness – but it isn’t really “happiness”. The inner kind of happiness, though is actual happiness; it is not just an absence of happiness. It is a happiness simply because that is the way we are created – to be able to be happy, without any reason.0F1

1 Editor’s Note: The Rav has spoken more about this concept in Getting To Know Yourself, where he mentioned the observation of the Brisker Rav zt”l, who pondered: Why is that children are naturally happy, whereas adults find it harder to be happy? As we go through life, we go through various circumstances which may harden us and damage the happiness which we were born with (but it is always there, deep down). The fact that children are naturally happy shows us that we are all born with a natural happiness that is not dependent of any one reason.

The first sin of mankind made it possible for a person to become sad; the curses that came to mankind are essentially forms of sadness, which did not exist in the desired plan of creation. Creation became altered through the sin and brought sadness to the world, making it possible for people to become sad. Not only that, but the sin also caused that we need a reason to become happy.

There is a mitzvah to rejoice on Yom Tov, but this is also happiness based on a reason. We celebrate all of the Fomim Tovim because we were taken out of Egypt. The deeper understanding of this is that the entire concept of Yom Tov came into creation as a result of sin as well. If not for the sin, we would have no need for festivals, because if we need a reason to be happy, this is all the result of the curse given to mankind, so it is cannot be the deepest source of our happiness.

In other words, to be happy “because” of something is that I need to be happy when I achieve something. This is the external kind of happiness.

By contrast, the real, perfect kind of happiness is a very inner kind of happiness. This is the happiness of the tzaddikim, who “rejoice in Hashem”. The inner kind of happiness is an intrinsic kind of happiness; it is when I am happy for no reason at all. This is the higher kind of happiness, which is experienced by tzaddikim.

The ultimate kind of happiness we should achieve on this world is the inner kind of happiness, which is to be happy with one’s intrinsic existence, and not to need any reason to be happy. But this inner happiness is usually concealed from us and it very far from our grasp.

Practically speaking, most people live off of their achievements, and not from their intrinsic existence. Happiness based on achievement is the lower kind of happiness, not the higher kind of happiness. Since that is the reality right now, we will focus our discussion on the lower kind of happiness and on how we can attain it.

Although it is not the ultimate kind of happiness, as we have explained, it is still a kind of happiness nonetheless. Thus, let us try to learn how to achieve it, so that we can at least have some degree of happiness.

Why Most People Aren’t Happy

Most people are not able to have constant happiness, and the reason for this is because they need to always see results, in order to be happy.

But when you are happy only when you get something, it’s like what is written, “Stolen waters are sweet.” The sweetness lasts only for when we have it, but when our achievements go away, we no longer have a reason to be happy. Such a happiness is based on what’s new in our life, so when it’s still new to us, it can give us happiness, but when it’s no longer new, the happiness goes away with it. Even the happiness of Yom Tov, which is a mitzvah, is only a temporary happiness. It is only three times a year.

In the future we will have the ultimate happiness, which is the happiness of the tzaddikim, who “rejoice in Hashem”. For now, we must try to at least have the lower kind of happiness, which is to be happy with our achievements.

Most people today don’t even have the lower kind of happiness, because they aren’t even aware what makes them happy. Many times you can ask a person, “Why are you happy?” and he says, “I don’t know…”

Is such a person happy because he’s such a ‘happy go lucky’ person that everything makes him so happy? That isn’t the reason for his response. It is simply that he isn’t aware to what makes him happy, and that’s why he doesn’t know if he’s happy.

Awareness To What Makes You Happy

The only way to be happy on this world is, to be aware as you’re doing something that will lead to your happiness. If you are aware what makes you happy (and you are involved in trying to achieve it), then you can be happy, but if you’re not aware as to what makes you happy, then you won’t achieve happiness.

If you are aware that you are on the way toward happiness (and you’re doing something to get there) you will be able to be happy. But if you’re not aware, then even when you get what you want and you’re happy, your happiness goes away as soon as whatever you get is no longer here anymore.

You must be aware to what makes you happy, and what makes you sad. This awareness is part of our journey toward happiness, and it has a lot to do with how you are happy or sad.

Being Happy Now, Before You Get What You Want

To illustrate what we mean, let’s say a person has a child after waiting twenty years for a child. He is ecstatic, but why? It’s not just because he has a child. It is because he waited so long. From here we can see that happiness depends on being aware of your journey toward whatever it is that you wanted to achieve. This is called a tahalich – a “journey”. We must always see the tahalich we are on, if we ever wish to be happy.

Let’s say a person is happy when he gets to his results, but he doesn’t care about what he did in order to get there. If that is his outlook on life, he will never be happy, even when he gets the results he wanted. We can see from one who has a baby after a long time of waiting; he isn’t just happy from the results, but he is happy only because he is aware of his journey in getting there. Without that awareness of what he had to go through to get his results – in this case, the birth of a child – he wouldn’t appreciate the child. Now that he had to wait so long, his joy knows no bounds when he finally has a baby.

The basic idea we learn from this is that in order to be happy, a person needs to be aware about his actual journey toward happiness. That means he has to be happy, even now – before he sees results. He’s on a tahalich toward happiness, and he has to see that’s he’s on that tahalich, if he is to appreciate what he’s striving for.

We can see that people lose their happiness very quickly, even after they get what they want. This is because they aren’t aware of the steps they took to get there and only focus on the results. When people only care about results, then whatever happiness they get vanishes with time.

Happiness – Feeling Like I’m Moving

When a person is doing something in order to become happy, he is really moving. He’s trying to gain happiness, so he’s moving toward it. The movement itself is what is making him happy (if he realizes it). It is our movements which make us happy.

We can see this from dancing. A person uses his feet to move; what does a person do when he is happy? He dances. He dances with which part of his body? His feet.

The depth behind this is that happiness is when we move. It’s not like how we are used to thinking, that we can only be happy when we arrive at what we want. Really, happiness is when we are happy with the very steps we are taking in order to get there. Thus, if we don’t have this awareness we won’t be happy, because our whole happiness can only come from appreciating how we’re moving towards it.

We are used to thinking that one can only be happy when he gets his results, and what he did to get there is meaningless; the main thing if he achieved or not. The usual mindset of people is to only value achievement, while efforts alone are regarded as meaningless. The truthful perspective, however, is that a person can only be happy with what he achieved only when he is aware with what he did to get there. Great achievements alone do bring one to have happiness. Only when we realize our efforts – as we are trying to achieve – will we be able to appreciate our achievements are receive happiness from them.

Happiness Defined: Awareness of Effort, Plus Achievement

It’s really two-fold: The results and the effort together make a person happy. If I am happy with only results but not with my efforts, I won’t even realize my own happiness when I get what I want, and I won’t be able to keep my happiness. But if when I get my results I am aware that I had to take a certain path to get there – I will be able to appreciate my achievement. So even when you are happy with your achievements, your happiness is really coming from how much you put into it to get there. If you have this awareness, you will be able to be happy with your achievement, but if you are not aware of this, then you won’t be happy – even when you finally get what you want.

Thus, the harder the struggle to get there, the more you enjoy the happiness when it comes. Like we see from the father who didn’t have children for a long time and finally had a child, he has much more profound kind of happiness, because the path he took to get there involved a lot of perseverance (and he recognizes that). The happiness of your achievement is really based on seeing the change to your situation, thus the greater you see how your situation changed from bad to good, the greater the happiness.

The Future Happiness

The happiness of the future redemption will also be this kind of happiness, but on a much higher level. It will be a major change to our situation, and that is why we will be so happy. It will be a very great happiness because of this long, painful exile we are in. The pain of this exile only adds to the quality of the future happiness. The depth of our whole exile is really that most people are only happy when they have results. But in the future, it will be revealed to all people the way to be happy with even the path to get there. Then, our happiness will be perfect. (For now, we cannot reach the perfect happiness, and thus we will have to settle with imperfect happiness, which we are describing).

Knowing Why We Are Happy

What we must ask ourselves is: are we happy with only our achievements, or are we happy even with what we are putting in in order to get there? We need to become aware what is making us happy. The way we are defining happiness here is not what we are used to. We will therefore elaborate more on the definition of happiness, and then these words will appear simpler.

Let’s say a person is happy when he achieves something. What does that mean? If you think about it, it’s not really a happiness that comes from getting what he wanted. It is really because he breathes a sigh of relief: “It’s finally over.”

Happiness is really to be happy with whatever it was that brought me to my happiness. How do we know this? Happiness is the opposite of sadness. Sadness is when a person puts in effort and doesn’t see results; a person is very sad when he fails after trying so hard to get something. If that is sadness, then happiness, which is the opposite of this, is the other way around: when a person is happy with doing something that brought him to what he wanted.

So happiness is not experienced when I get what I wanted; it is more about getting to what I want. Sadness, by contrast is when I don’t see results, and thus all my efforts are in vain – which makes me sad. (If I wouldn’t base my happiness on results, I wouldn’t be sad, because I could just appreciate my efforts.)

This is why it is not possible in this world to be totally happy, because all of us have some fruitless efforts; this makes us partially sad, even though we have other achievements. Chazal praise a person who “rejoices in his suffering”. The depth of this is that a person rejoices in the path he is on, which is that he is on his way toward being healed. It’s not that he has to enjoy his suffering for the sake of suffering; it is rather that he is happy because he recognizes that he is on a certain path (the road to his recovery, which may involve some suffering).

The Condition Needed

There is a condition for this kind of happiness to work: A person has to be able to see that he eventually will have results from what he is doing now. (This can either be because he has emunah, or because it just makes sense that he will see results from his efforts.)

Meaning, if a person just embarks on an unrealistic goal, he won’t be able to be happy, because realistically speaking, he can’t say that his efforts will get him any results. But if he is on a path in which his goal is a realistic possibility, then he’s able to be happy – even before he gets to his goal.

What is the understanding of this? Superficially, this is like when someone is told, “Don’t worry, everything will turn out good in the end.” But that is not the depth behind it.

A person is sad because he is doing something that is moving along slowly and fruitlessly – it doesn’t seem like he’s getting anywhere; he’s on a path which will not bear any results. Such a person indeed is not able to derive happiness from what he’s doing. Why? Happiness comes from moving toward a goal, and a person who doesn’t seem to be making any progress in what’s he’s doing isn’t moving.

But if someone is on a realistic undertaking to get toward a certain goal, then he can be happy now even before he gets to his goal, because he’s moving along a realistic path to get to a realistic goal, and that’s something that can give him happiness.

Now that we have understood this, it is apparent that a person cannot be happy even when he gets what he wanted to achieve if he wasn’t aware of how he got there. If a person is happy with his efforts, then he can be happy with his results, but if he isn’t happy with his efforts, he won’t even be happy either when he gets his results.

How To View Your Failures

Now we can go a step further with all this.

If a person understands this, he is able to make himself happy even “retroactively” – it is possible to undo all your frustration! How?

The whole reason why we ever became frustrated was because we failed in our life at certain situations; all of us have gone through failures and very difficult times. The only reason why we were frustrated at our failures was because we only wanted to see results, and we aren’t aware of the happiness we could have been having with the efforts we put in.

To illustrate, Chazal say1F2 that if a person tells you, “I tried, and I succeeded – believe him; but if he tells you, “I didn’t try, yet I succeeded” – don’t believe him.” The depth behind this is that in order for a person to really achieve, he needs to be aware of his efforts. If he wasn’t aware of his efforts, then he won’t even arrive at his achievement, so don’t believe him if he says, “I didn’t try yet I succeeded.”

When we don’t see results from our efforts, it makes us sad. It a death-like kind of feeling not to achieve, and it reminds a person of death, which is epitome of sadness.

But if a person is aware that he is on a path that can lead to results, he can be happy even before he sees results. Not only that, but even if he didn’t see any results in the end, he can turn all his frustration into happiness – by becoming aware that he put effort into something. After all, he engaged in a realistic, worthy undertaking. So what if he didn’t see results from it? He was involved in trying to achieve a realistic goal. That itself is a reason to be happy.

If we become aware now that we took certain steps to get to our results, then we can make ourselves happy with those efforts, even if they were failures!

In this way, we can turn all our sadness and frustration into happiness; we can clean ourselves up from all the “dirt” (sadness) that has piled up on our soul from all the years until now, and turn all of our bad experiences into happiness – when we remember that what causes us to be happy is our efforts, not our results. The whole reason that we weren’t happy in the first place was because we lacked the awareness of our efforts and only focused on the results, which we didn’t get. So now, become aware of all your efforts you made (which would have made you happy then, had you been aware of it), and you will discover that all of your frustration can be undone. It’s like giving your soul a cleaning.

The Test of Shavuos

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

The Test That Returns Each Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Test At Har Sinai and Each Year

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

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

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

Did they pass the test?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Striving For A Relationship With Hashem In Our Daily Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preparing For Shavuos: Making A Self-Accounting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Bereishis 3:10

[2] Brochos 63b

Bringing Holiness Into How You Eat

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

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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.

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

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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

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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.

Rav Shimshon Pincus zt”l on “Taste and See that Hashem is Good”

From Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh – Part 4 – Reviewing Basic Goals

There is a story told over about Reb Aryeh Leib Malin zt”l that once a young boy asked him a certain question in learning, and when he told him the answer, the boy didn’t understand. After many times of trying to explain the answer and being unsuccessful, Reb Malin zt”l told him the following: “I can explain it to you from all different kinds of angles until you understand it. But I can’t give you my level of grasp.” (He was not referring to sharpness or memory, but clear understanding).

Once, Rav Shimshon Pincus zt”l came to a yeshiva to speak, and in middle, he said the following: “I can talk and explain a lot, but believe me: If you would only know what it is to feel like when a person lives with Hashem in his life, you would run after it, after I explain to you how you can get there. You don’t understand how much darkness you are in, what you are missing in life, and how far you are from the truth, from “taste and see that Hashem is good.”

He continued: “And you should also know that even if you would ask me how you can taste that feeling, I wouldn’t be able to give it to you. Hashem did not give me the power to be able to give over what it tastes like – the taste of true d’veykus with Hashem.”

Everyone has special times in which they feel themselves growing spiritually and enjoying this. However, people come to imagine that such elation is supposed to be every second, and that this is what it means to be close to Hashem all the time.

This is a mistake! Being close to Hashem is unlike anything you recognize from until now. A person can live all the time with closeness to Hashem, or chas v’shalom, the opposite. A person has to decide, with total conviction, with clarity, if he truly wants to let Hashem enter his heart.

This is the meaning of, “Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh” – “In my heart, I will build a sanctuary.” It is to truly live with Hashem. It is not merely about thinking about how Hashem is next to us, or to put the four-letter Name of Hashem in front of us all the time. These are superficial methods, as they does not define being close to Hashem. Being close to Hashem means that Hashem is found within one’s heart.

We cannot really explain what it is to anyone who hasn’t reached it yet. But what we can all do is to firmly believe that it is possible to attain, just as all the other tzaddikim in the past reached – and lived – closeness with Hashem.

Once Reb Moshe of Kobrin zt”l said that if lustful people would only know how enjoyable it is to be close to Hashem, they would give up that fake, physical pleasure for the real thing – an intimate closeness with Hashem, which is true pleasure.

In fact, all the various loves that people have on this world, besides for a love for Hashem, is fake love. People who don’t have a love for Hashem haven’t tasted what true love is.[5]

This is the way Hashem made the world; as long as a person remains outside the world of closeness with Hashem, he will never attain it – not even a tiny bit of that inner world.

The way to get our inward reality is through emunah. Part of emunah is to have faith in the many leaders throughout all the generations, faith in their students and in their students who came after them. With faith in our leaders, we can believe the words of the Chazon Ish who wrote that it’s possible for a person at times to temporarily resemble an angel even as one stands on this physical earth, and that such a feeling cannot be expressed to anyone. This is the true feeling of being close to Hashem.

If a person believes in this, he will then be able to truly feel, in a very real way and not in his imagination, a simple feeling no that is no less that how one can feel a table or a chair: that there is a Creator of the world. If a person believes that there is such a feeling he can experience, and he decides to live his life for this goal, closeness to Hashem – he leaves this world of darkness, and enters into a world that is radiant.

If the reader is still doubtful at this point about the words here, then there is no proof we can bring to convince him otherwise. But one thing we can ask of him: For your own sake, and for the sake of the Jewish people, and for the sake of giving your Creator a satisfaction, cry to Hashem every day, hour after hour, and ask Him that he guide you to the truth. If a person really begs Hashem for this, and if he really wants it, Hashem will surely help him get to the truth, that he be able to give a nachas ruach (satisfaction) to Hashem all his life.

[5] Editor’s Note: Of course, this is not to negate the love we are supposed to have to people, especially to those who are dearest to us, such as our families and friends. It appears that intention of the author is that once a person tastes love of Hashem, his own love will deepen, and his relationships will deepen as a result (see “Heart of the Jewish Woman”). As for having a like towards various worldly pleasures, it is clear that love for these things is just indulgence and cannot be considered love in the first place.

Utilizing The Power of Concentration

Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the Bilvavi and the Getting to Know Your (Self, Soul, Feelings, Home)
An excerpt from this article which is from the sefer: Getting to Know Your Feelings available from Amazon.

Utilizing The Power of Concentration

First, before we speak of solutions for those who are in deep emotional stress, we will speak of a general solution to deal with emotional problems. (Just like we know how to take care of our body, we need to learn how take care of our soul.)

We are speaking even of the emotions found in the animalistic layer of the soul. How can we have a healthy animalistic soul?

The best way to develop healthy emotions is to access the simple power of unity in the soul, which we can reach when we lead a life of concentration. In practical words– remain focused on what you are doing, and do not do two things at once.

When a person does many things at once, he gets in the habit of fracturing his focus. The soul then stops concentrating, and disconnects from the actions he is doing. The inevitable result will be scattered emotions. In the worst case scenario, if there is one emotion that is more extreme than all the other emotions, such a person can have an emotional breakdown.

This is the first part of the solution to emotional problems: Do one thing at a time. Don’t do two things at once. Prevent your thoughts from floating somewhere else while you are doing something. Concentrate on what you are doing.

This may explain why some people have a hard time concentrating during davening. It is possible to daven out of obligation and not feel anything. When we do something, and our feelings aren’t there, then our thoughts wander away from what we are doing. Davening is a spiritual manifestation of this problem, but it also exists for the non-spiritual: the tendency to “space out” when performing a task that is not of interest.

One can invite trouble when he isn’t focused. Doing one thing, while thinking about something else at the same time, can be a recipe for disaster. The soul gets used to the idea that you can do many things at once and that you don’t have to be thinking.

Our generation has more emotional problems than any other generation. In previous times, people were focused on what they were doing. Today, it’s perfectly normal and acceptable to be talking on two different phone lines at the same time. To the first caller, the person says, “One minute…one minute,” and then he talks to the next one on the other line. People who function this way from a very young age get used to doing two things at once. His mind becomes scattered, and the soul suffers from this.

Only a life of calmness and quiet can allow a person to focus on what he is doing. Even our animalistic soul can understand this. We see that when people want to do something they are interested in, they can focus very easily. The question is whether we can learn to focus all the time instead of in small increments.

Concentration Enhances The Quality of Life

The Chovos HaLevovos[16] writes: “Smaller, pure amounts are bigger than big amounts, and big amounts that aren’t pure are just as good as small amounts – they are useless.”

When people try to “save” time and maximize each moment, it appears to be an admirable trait, but in reality it is detrimental to emotional health. A person gets used to doing so much without ever focusing totally on any one thing. People are doing too much, and there is too much emphasis on quantity over quality.

When we get used to focusing on what we do, we will begin to internalize what we are doing. Instead of just “going through” life, we will be connected to what we do and experience all that we can in a meaningful way.

The more we concentrate on what we do – actions and thoughts together and unified – the more our animalistic layer in the soul gets used to truly experiencing what the body is doing, and we start to enjoy life! We will feel vitality from living and from the concentration that we are putting into it.

Concentrating on what we do leads to experiencing what we do. When we experience what we do, and are concentrating and focused, then all the various emotions become connected into one unit. This is the general beginning of building healthy emotions.

And For an Offering … I Will Sacrifice My Soul

Vayikra 5774-An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK
By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When a man will bring near, from [among] you,( meekem) a sacrifice to the Lord; from animals, from cattle or from the flock you shall bring your sacrifice           

–Vayikra 1: 2

When he brings. [The pasuk is not discussing an obligatory sacrifice, in which case it would have said, “a man shall bring ….” Rather,] the pasuk is speaking here of voluntary sacrifices [and thus says, “When a man …brings a sacrifice”]. — [Toras Kohanim 1:12]

from animals: but not all of them. [The phrase therefore] excludes the case of animals that have cohabited with a human, as an active or a passive partner. – [Toras Kohanim 1:17]

from cattle [The phrase] excludes an animal that has been worshipped [as a deity].

from the flock: [This phrase} excludes muktzah-an animal set aside [i.e., designated for sacrifice to pagan deities]. — [Toras Kohanim 1:18]

–Rashi ibid

Several sefarim from the Izhbitzer school pose a grammatical question about this pasuk ; Why the garbled sentence structure with the verb appearing before stating the subject precisely? The syntax of the sentence ought to have been “When a man from among you will bring near?

What follows is a sampling of the wide array of answers that are offered:

Referencing the famous drasha-derivation of a Halachah from close textual readings, of the gemara ( Sukkah 41B): “and you shall take lachem-to yourself–from that which belongs to you”, Rav Leibeleh Eiger  understands the odd placement of the word meekem – “from (among) you”, to mean that the real sacrifice is not from ones property / livestock, but from oneself. After all, the pasuk need not mention that the donor of the sacrifice is from “among” the Jewish People as the entirety of the Torah is addressed to an exclusively Jewish audience. Rather, the pasuk seeks to convey the concept that the “stuff” of the bringing near/sacrificing is from “you”, from the very being of the donor.

Many people tend to compartmentalize their lives.  Their attitude is that they “owe” G-d the performance of mitzvos and the avoidance of transgressions.  However, if something in their lives; be it a thought, a word or action is Halachically / morally neutral; a devar reshus– something we are neither commanded to do nor to avoid; then we are, so to speak, free agents, we are on our own.  As long as something is Halachically permissible then, the thinking goes, we ought to “go for all the gusto”, take full advantage of all permissible pleasures and thus, live life to its fullest.

This may be a pervasive attitude but it is not an authentically Jewish one.  At the beginning of Parashas Kedoshim the Ramban famously condemns it as being the mind-set of a nahval birshus hatorah– a vile lowlife with the Torah’s imprimatur and “seal of approval.” Rav Leibeleh teaches that the nearness and the sacrifice of what is termed a korban derives mainly from meekem; giving up something of yourself, leaving some pleasure on the table, some of the great deals unconsummated or some adventurous experience unlived.

This, he maintains, is what Rashi is referring to when he explains “the pasuk is speaking here of voluntary sacrifices,” that a generosity of spirit and volunteerism grip the worshippers heart so that he is prepared to strive for the paradigm of  “sanctify yourself with [i.e. by giving up some of] what is permitted to you.”

There is a well known argument between the Ramban and the Rambam as to the main underlying reason for the mitzvah of the korbanos-sacrifices in general . Per the Ramban (Vayikra 1:9) korbanos are meant to be an audio-visual aid to the teshuvah process of the sinner offering the korban.  The animal being sacrificed becomes a stand-in; a substitute for the donor.  When observing the sacrificial process the following types of thoughts and emotions are supposed to run through the heart and mind of the donor:  “There but for the grace of G-d go I. By offending my Creator and the transgressing His will I have forfeited my right to exist.  If justice was not tempered by mercy it is my own throat that ought to have been slashed, my own blood collected and sprayed, my own skin flayed from my body and my own viscera or limbs immolated on the altar.”

In light of this Ramban and extending the concept that, even after using the animal as a surrogate, the essential offering of the korban is still meekem-from you, the Izhbitzer and Rav Leibeleh Eiger argue that it follows that any Halachic limitations applying to the animal would apply to the donor as well. These limitations are the pasuks way of explicating ways and means to achieve the goal of sacrificing oneself through “sanctify yourself with [i.e. by giving up some of] what is permitted to you.”

Just as the animal is invalid for sacrifice if it was used for immoral purposes so too the donor must sacrifice meekem; of his pleasure-seeking, and purify himself from his baser animal instincts that drive his libidinous tendencies. Just as the animal is invalid for sacrifice if it has been worshipped, so too the donor must sacrifice of his ego-gratification and cleanse himself of lording it over others and being domineering over others or making himself salient above others in any way. Just as the animal is invalid for sacrifice if has been dedicated/set aside-huktzah as a sacrifice for idolatry, so too the donor must sacrifice of his social-networking with parties that have dedicated themselves to causes antithetical to the service of HaShem, the root of sadness and depression, and the donor must lose any sense of awe and self-abnegation towards anything worldly and temporal.

By not maximizing his own self-actualization and sacrificing of his lusts, of his glory-seeking, of his need for social approval and of his worship of temporal worldly matters the korban will be meekem, from the essential YOU.

~adapted from Toras Emes Vaykra D”H Adam (the first)

Mei HaShiloach II Vayikra D”H Adam

See also Bais Yaakov Vayikra Inyan 23

Soul Movements

In the sefer Da Et Atzmecha (Getting to Know Yourself) the author describes something amazing, the movement of the soul:

In physical movement, we are familiar with six directions: the four sides, and up and down. Our teachers have taught that the soul moves in only two directions: expansion and contraction. Every movement must either be a contraction or an expansion.

When a person analyzes himself, he must categorize all movements as either expansion or contraction. Certainly, the degree of expansion and contraction will not be identical in every situation. For example, when a person runs, he may run quickly or slowly. So, too, there are more extreme movements and more measured movements.

In general, the soul moves either to expand or to contract. In the language of Chazal, expansion is referred to as the aspect of chessed, and contraction is referred to as the aspect of din. There are no other kinds of movement.

When a person understands that all his movements are either contraction or expansion, he can begin to understand himself. On a simple level, a person seems happy, and feels that this is an inherent quality in the soul, or he may be sad, and feel that this is the soul’s quality. Or he may feel generous, and believe that such is his soul’s quality. But the truth is that happiness comes from expansion; sadness, from contraction; giving, from expansion; and taking, from contraction. (Section two, chapter two)

What I found amazing, when I first learned this sefer last summer, was how nicely this idea of expansion and contraction fits into Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Desser’s concept of giving and taking. Rav Dessler z”tl divided the world into two types of people: Givers and Takers. To quote from Rabbi Aryeh Carmell’s translation of Michtav Me-Eliyahu, “Man has been granted this sublime power of giving, enabling him too be merciful, to bestow happiness, to give of himself.” (Strive For Truth! Volume I, page 119)

When we choose to give to another we are expanding our soul and growing into being a bigger and better person. Conversely, by taking we become smaller people. I attempted to teach this to my older children (ages 10 and 7) by blowing up a balloon inside a box and showing them how as the balloon expanded it touched more of the box and as air was let out and it contracted the balloon became smaller. The question is, do you want your soul to expand or contract?

I have found this teaching has totally changed the way I look at my actions. Offering someone a ride somewhere is no longer just an act of chessed, it allows my soul to grow. Making the choice to do something that I want to, at the expense of others in my family (like going to a museum that only I would enjoy) I now see as an action that would be considered a contraction of my soul. When I think about things in these terms, the choice is pretty obvious which way I want my soul to move.

This way of looking at things has also trickled down to my kids. At my minyan’s kiddush this past Shabbos, my 7 yr old daughter proudly told me that she was going to pour some 7-UP for herself, but thenMrs. Cohen asked for it, so she gave the bottle to Mrs. Cohen before she took for herself. My daughter then proudly told me that her neshama expanded.

The sefer Getting to Know Yourself is available for purchase online and at most Jewish bookstores. It is also available for reading online here.

Getting to Know Your Self – Soul Centered Self-Esteem

We’ve talked in the past about the amazing sefer Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh (In My Heart I Will Build a Sanctuary) and the need to focus our lives and our mitzvah performance on constant awareness and connection to Hashem. The author, Rav Itamar Shwarz explains that if we don’t consistently and consciously focus on the fact that there is a Creator, Who created us, and is constantly exercising His providence on all that happens, we might live a life full of Torah and Mitzvos, but we will, G-d forbid, find that we didn’t achieve their intended purpose of creating a close connection to G-d in this world and the next.

In his third sefer, Da Es Atzmecha (Getting to Know Your Self) Rav Shwarz shifts the focus from Hashem to understanding ourselves. His first major point is that a person must view himself primarily as a soul wearing the garment of the body. He proves that without conscious effort to adopt this view, we will live primarily as bodies that have a soul and identify more with the body than the soul. The result will be that we will not live the amazing Torah prescribed life that a soul-centered perspective brings.

One major application of the soul-centered perspective is self-esteem. Rav Shwarz points out that self-esteem in the world of psychology and in parts of the Torah world is focused on praising the person’s deeds, their character or pointing out that their low self-esteem is based on an illusion. This method is based on the fact that a person is a body with intelligence and emotions and the focus is on what the person does with their facilities.

If a person has the proper soul-centered perspective, they will see that in essence they are a Divine soul as we say each morning “My G-d, the soul You have placed in me is pure”. Our soul is holy, positive and perfectly good and when we identify with this perfection that is our essence, we will automatically attain a positive self-esteem.

Another ramification is that when a person does an aveirah they must still see and identify themselves with their perfect soul. More than getting us to sin, the Yetzer Hara wants lower ourselves and self-esteem after we sin. In addition, the more the person identifies with their essential perfection, the less likely the will come to sin.

Rav Shwarz does an amazing job of bringing very esoteric concepts to a level that we can all understand with very practical examples. As with Bilvavi, Mesillas Yesharim and any Mussar classic, the key is not just to read it, but to keep on reviewing it (with the author’s suggested exercises) so that we can begin to internalize it. It has recently been published in English and I highly recommend you purchase it, as there are significant sections added that are not available in the translation on the web site.

Rav Schwarz will be giving a one day intensive workshop in Woodmere on Labor Day in Hebrew. He still has some speaking slots available on his US visit – see here.

Giving and Unity

Every interaction with another person holds the potential for unity. How can that be? Let’s let the author of Bilvavi explain it:

The power of giving can unite a person with all of creation. We may not, G-d forbid, unite with the evil manifestation of anything, but we can unite with the hidden good in all of creation. There is no created being in the world without some spark of goodness. If it did not have a spark of goodness, it would not be able to exist.

Hence, when one gives properly and in the proper place, it engenders unity. The Talmud (Ketubot 105b) states that the word shochad (a type of giving) is a contraction of shehu chad (becoming one), because the giver and taker become one. Superficially, a person thinks, “I gave to that person. That was good, but now, it’s over. I had the thing and then gave it a way. The act took a minute or two, and then we went on our separate ways.” But in depth, as Chazal teach, they become one.

If I gave a carton of milk to a neighbor from downstairs who needed it, or I met someone in the bus station who needed money for bus fare, and I handed him nineteen shekalim, do I become one with him? How can such trivial acts unify people? If one wants to unite, as with a spouse, it is a process of years, as we all know. How can a minor act unify people?

Here is the answer: If you take a magnet and place it next to another one, they will become attached to each other. But if something else is placed between them, they will not be able to join. The moment the intervening item is removed, they will naturally join. This is the deep condition of all of creation. If we would try to create a new unity where one never existed, it would be difficult, and in fact, impossible. But the natural state of people is to be one. All of our souls were contained in Adam HaRishon. There, we were one person. Afterwards, we became more and more divided from each other, until coming to our current state. Unity is not a new state; it is a return to the primal state.

There is a divider that separates us, namely, the body, which has a desire to take, but once one removes that will to take, he will sense a natural unity with other people. If the natural state of people is to be absolutely separate, the avodah to unite them would be very difficult and actually impossible. But since they are essentially one, but each person later fashions his own will and his own concerns and an attitude of taking, there is a separation caused between people. After we have removed this desire to take, and have acted upon the loftier desire by really giving, there is no real need to “create” unity. You must understand this, because it is subtle and deep. Giving, in depth, does not unite; it removes the cause of separateness. After the cause of separateness has been removed, we naturally unite.

From the third volume of Bilvavi, Da Es Atzmecha – Know Yourself which can be read online here.

The Most Important Sefer to Learn

by Rabbi Boruch Leff (Reprinted from Yated Ne’eman 06.20.2008)

This column has always been devoted to how we can maintain growth in our avodas Hashem, even as adults. We mentioned in our very first column that the Ribbono Shel Olam wants us to be people who are constantly growing, always raising the bar of our spirituality. Most of us went to Jewish day schools, Bais Yaakovs or chadorim, and continued our Torah education by attending yeshivos or seminaries. We all grew tremendously with each passing year, with each passing shiur. We grew in learning, in davening, and we also refined many of our middos and derech eretz from hearing the tens and hundreds of shmuesen in yeshiva and internalizing them.

At a certain point though, tragically, most of us gave up on dramatic changes in our spiritual lives. But this is not how we are supposed to live. As long as we are still breathing, we have much to accomplish. Every day of our lives, nay, every moment, we are to be growing, developing, improving. Whether we are 8 years old or 88, we must always be growing up

Allow me to suggest an improvement of a vital area of transformational growth that we can start to implement today.

B’ezras Hashem, I am nearing the end of what is probably the most important sefer I have ever learned. Now, I don’t mean to say that this sefer is more important than the Chumash, or Shas. But I do say that if you are looking to truly and sincerely grow close to Hashem, if you are looking for real, practical guidance in how to live with Hashem on a constant basis, if you are looking to live with the Ribbono Shel Olam as your Friend, your Father , and your King, you must go to your neighborhood seforim store today and buy BILVAVI MISHKAN AVNEH-Volume 1.

Why do I feel so strongly? Never before has a sefer been written that is simple, clear, and practical in its instruction as to how we should live our daily lives-and it’s only 135 pages. I do not mean chas v’shalom to denigrate any of the classic seforim of mussar and chasidus. Of course, the sefer is built on all the wonderful and amazing seforim that our gedolim have given to Klal Yisrael throughout the ages. However, anyone who starts to learn Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh will see clearly what a transformational work it is. The sefer was printed maybe five years ago by a tremendous talmid chacham, tzadik, and true oved Hashem, Rav Itamar Schwartz, from Eretz Yisrael. It has been translated into an English sefer, as well. To order online »»

We have mentioned the sefer in this column many times before but I felt compelled to mention it again now in the strongest of terms since I have grown tremendously from learning it in recent months. Hence, I share this realization with you.

What makes Bilvavi so special? We would all like to have the Shechinah live with us. What does that mean? It’s not as lofty and beyond us as it seems. Rav Shimshon Pincus explains that whenever we think about Hashem we bring Hashem’s Presence, His Shechinah, to us. Yes, there are vast ways and holier levels of experiencing the Shechinah, but just thinking about Hashem does truly bring the Shechinah down to us.

We all want Hashem to be with us closely at all times. How can we accomplish this? Imagine a relatonship with one of your friends. Why are you friends? The answer is that you make him feel comfortable to be around you and he makes you feel welcomed to be with him. You share things in common with your friend-you enjoy his company. It works exactly the same way with Hashem. If we want His Presence, we have to live our lives in such a way that He will feel comfortable to be with us. We have share things that in common with Hashem. Like a friendship, when we do things that make Him feel uncomfortable, He leaves.

Bilvavi teaches us how to live with Hashem and how to make Him feel comfortable with us. The more we talk to Him and think about Him in all that we do, the more we relate to Him as if He is truly there with us, the more we treat Him as a friend, the more He feels comfortable spending time with us.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe (as recorded by his students) quoted a Zohar, “My children, [I swear] by your lives that there is nothing closer to Hashem than a person’s heart, and He is happier with it more than all sacrifices in the world.” One’s heart is the “holy of holies” of his spiritual makeup (Alei Shur vol. II pg. 65). If we would direct our desires and thoughts toward Hashem, He would be closer to us than anything else in the world. As the Zohar says, the heart is the location of His closeness, within the heart lies a natural attraction towards the Creator.

This is what is meant by the Targum on “And if you behave with me “keri” and you do not listen to me, I will continue to smite you seven ways like your sins” (Vayikra 26, 21). Onkelos says that keri means with hardness because “they harden their hearts to refrain from coming close to Hashem.” Rav Wolbe notes that it is within the very nature of the heart to strive for closeness to Hashem. Only if one deliberately chooses to harden his heart will he succeed in silencing this inherent drive!

Most people are of the opinion that longing for Hashem is solely the lot of spiritually lofty people. However, this is not the case. The basic nature of the heart is to crave Hashem’s closeness. The most fundamental sin is to suppress this innate yearning of the heart, and it is around this failing that the entire tochacha revolves.

When can we feel this closeness to Hashem that the heart desires? Rav Wolbe suggests that we can feel it during tefilla. Our tefillos are “dry” at times because we do not have a true desire to come close to Hashem. We have in effect hardened our hearts and refrained from coming closer to Hashem. Our first step is to truly want a relationship with our Creator, and then, through our tefillos we will strengthen our natural inclination for kirvah and bring ourselves closer to Hashem.

And how can we generate this type of kirva and relationship? By learning Bilvavi Miskan Evneh

If you want to grow. . . , go out and buy (and/or read) Bilvavi today!

May this article be a zechus for a refuah shlaimah b’karov to Yehudis Sarah bas Esther.
Comments or questions may be emailed to: sbleff@yahoo.com

Boruch Leff is a weekly columnist for Yated Ne’eman and the author of three books: Forever His Students (Targum/Feldheim 2004), Shabbos In My Soul (Targum/Feldheim 2007), and More Shabbos In My Soul (Feldheim 2008). For copies click here »»»

You can read Bilvavi online here.

Becoming Close and Attached to Hashem

From Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh I – Paragraphs 39-42

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We will try to inspire the reader to want to become close and attached to Hashem.

Each of us knows that the day will come when he will take leave of this world, as it says, “Every man dies eventually.” (Berachos 17a). Everyone wants to be spared from Gehinnom and to merit Gan Eden. What does one do in Gan Eden? The Ramchal writes in the beginning of Mesillas Yesharim, “Man is created solely to find delight in Hashem and enjoy the radiance of His Shechinah.” This is the primary enjoyment in Gan Eden. Consequently, if one does not become truly attached to Hashem, there will not be much for him to do in Gan Eden. “Gan Eden” in reality is a state of deveikus to Hashem. If a person, chas veshalom, does not want to cleave to Hashem, what will he do in Gan Eden? If a person claims that in this world, he wants to benefit from this world, but when he leaves this world, he will want to cleave to Hashem, one must realize that this is a ridiculous idea. The sefarim hakedoshim have written that the way a person thinks and feels in this world is the way he will be in the next world. Therefore, if in this world, a person’s mind and heart are not attached to Hashem, but to other matters, so too will they be in the World to Come. Even if in his mind he will want to cleave to the Creator there, he won’t be able to. Against his will he will continue to desire whatever he was attracted to in this world.

In other words, a person cannot create a dichotomy, to be unattached to Hashem in this world, but cleave to Him in the next. Either he will cleave to Hashem both in this world and the next, or not in either one, chas veshalom. (Of course a person who has not used his life properly can be rectified eventually, but here is not the place for that discussion.) Hence, one must understand that if he is not attached to the Creator in this world, he will not be so in Gan Eden and the World to Come, and he will not have what to do there. One must consider deeply the fact that he is losing eternity by not achieving deveikus to Hashem in this world. The World to Come is called “the world which is completely good.” What is the goodness there? The Ramchal has written, “‘As for me, closeness to Hashem is my good.’ Anything else deemed good by people is vanity and deceptive emptiness.” You see that there is no goodness other than closeness to Hashem. So if a person is not close and attached to Hashem, he has no connection to the world that is completely good. Of necessity, to merit this good in Gan Eden and in Olam Haba one must live with deveikus to Hashem, an appreciation that “closeness to Hashem is my good” even in this world.

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In this world, a person running a business takes an inventory once a year. He closes the store for a day to take stock of what was sold and what wasn’t and assess his progress. A person must do the same with his life. This is not merely a short self-accounting for fifteen minutes, a half hour, or even an hour. He must halt the whole course of his life and ask himself: Do I want to be close and attached to the Creator, or not? If I do, am I treading on the path that brings me closer to feeling this palpable closeness I seek? Or perhaps my path of learning Torah with the mind only and performing the mitzvos with minimal inspiration, will not bring me to true closeness to Hashem. One should take as much time as he needs to reach this recognition, but he must emerge with an awareness and a clear will to live his life solely for the sake of closeness and deveikus to Hashem. Then, his task will be to identify a definite path that will bring him there. But again, first of all, it must be clear that this is the entire true purpose of life – closeness and deveikus to Hashem.

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Once it has become absolutely clear that the sole purpose of life is true closeness to Hashem, and a person feels a real will to live that kind of life, the time is appropriate to try to understand and reflect upon the path that brings him to this kind of life. He might think that since he is immersed in Torah and mitzvos, the day will certainly come when he will suddenly feel closeness to Hashem in his heart. This, however, is an error that many have fallen into. They think that closeness to Hashem just comes automatically to anyone who learns Torah and keeps the mitzvos, but this is not at all the case.

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Chazal have said, “Even the emptiest of them [the Jewish people] are filled with mitzvos like a pomegranate” (Berachos 57a). The obvious question is: why, then, are they called “empty” if their mitzvos are as numerous as the seeds of a pomegranate? The Gaon HaRav Dovid Povarsky, zt”l, gave a wonderful answer. He said that one might have many mitzvos to his credit: Torah, chessed, and many more. However, he will still be defined as empty. Why? Because a pomegranate has many seeds, but each one is distinct from the others. It is not like an apple or pear that is one unit. Rather, each seed stands alone. Similarly, a person can learn Torah and perform many mitzvos, but he will still be considered empty, because his deeds are separate from each other, with nothing unifying them.

Torah and mitzvos must be performed as parts of one unit, not as disconnected acts, chas veshalom. They must all participate in the building of one’s inner spiritual edifice. If he has not achieved that inner element that unites all his Torah and mitzvos, a person might learn Torah his entire life and fulfill many mitzvos, but still be among “the empty ones among them”.

What is that inner element? Deveikus to Hashem! The Torah must be studied in harmony, bearing in mind the principle that “Hashem, the Torah, and Yisrael are one” (Zohar 3:73). Through the Torah, one must cleave to his Creator. The term mitzvos is based on the word tzavta, referring to a bond with Hashem, as mentioned above. Consequently, both Torah and the mitzvos have one inner goal, which is closeness and deveikus to Hashem. If one is working to reach this goal, all the Torah he studies and all the mitzvos he performs will be interconnected, for they all will bring him to a common goal. But if Torah and mitzvos are not performed in a way that brings a person to this closeness, and there is nothing to unite them, they will remain disconnected from each other. When one’s heart is empty of the Creator, and there is no realization of “I will dwell in their midst” in his heart, this unifying element is lacking. There may be Torah and mitzvos, but there is no unified heart devoted to our Father in Heaven. There is no inner element attaching him to Hashem.

Every person must take stock of his spiritual situation and ask himself: “Do my way of life, my Torah, prayer and mitzvos, bring me to palpable, true deveikus to Hashem, or perhaps, chas veshalom, my deeds are like those of “the emptiest of them,” lacking an inner element that unifies all the Torah and mitzvos I perform?

Bilvavi – Re-evaluating our Judaism

“The beginning of a person’s task is to clarify for himself what the purpose of his life is.”
– opening line of Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh (A Sanctuary in my Heart)

It sounds a lot like the opening of Mesillas Yesharim-(the Path of the Just), but Bilvavi changes our understanding of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato’s mussar classic. In the traditional understanding of the Path of the Just, we view spiritual progress as a ladder starting with Torah, through working on our observing of mitzvos to chassidus and dveikus (closeness) to Hashem, and then to higher levels.

Bilvavi makes one significant change in this understanding by focusing on this line of the Ramchal and answering the question of our purpose posed in the opening line:
“In truth, the only true completeness is closeness (dveikus) to Hashem. As Dovid HaMelech said “And for me, closeness to Hashem is good.””

Bilvavi zooms in on this concept and says that the focus of our Yiddishkeit must be developing a constant connection, awareness and closeness to Hashem. He goes into great detail in defining what this closeness is and how to achieve it. It goes beyond kavanna in brachos, mitzvos and davening to a constant awareness of Hashem. In fact he states that our entire Olam Haba is based on the degree of constant connection and awareness we establish. The author states that many (perhaps most) people, even those sitting and learning in Yeshiva, are missing this critical point.

Bilvavi teaches this experiential (and not just intellectual) Emunah and closeness is available to anyone who works on it, from the manual laborer, to the professional, to the person learning full time in the Yeshiva.

So what should a growing BT or FFB do? To start with

1) You can read the entire first two seforim in English or Hebrew at Bilvavi.Net.
2) You can go to Dixie Yid’s posts and mp3s on the sefer and it’s author.
3) You can hear Rabbi Yossi Michalowicz shiurim on the entire sefer.

A Sanctuary in my Heart (Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh)

The Sefer “Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh (In My Heart I Build A Sanctuary)” is a highly acclaimed manual for the development of a personal and intimate relationship with Hashem. It was authored by Rav Itamar Shwartz, who recently toured the United States.

Dixie Yid has posted all the recorded shiurim of the tour. The shiurim are in easy to understand Hebrew.

If you prefer text to audio, an english translation of the text is published here.

Here is an excerpt:

What in truth is the purpose of man in his world? The words of the Mesillas Yesharim (Ch. 1) are known. He wrote, “In truth, the only true completeness is deveikus (attachment) to Hashem. That is what David HaMelech said (Tehillim 73:28): “And for me, closeness to Hashem is good….” In other words, if one wishes to know what makes a man complete, he should consider what David HaMelech understood to be good for himself. If it was good for him, it is good for every single one of us. He said, “And for me, closeness to Hashem is good.”

No one is interested in a broken table or a broken chair. No one wants to sleep on a broken bed. All the more so, no one deep down wants to be a broken person, but a complete person. (There is a concept of a broken heart, but that is not relevant here.) What is a complete Jew? One who doesn’t lack hands? Who doesn’t lack legs? No, that is only superficial perfection, bodily perfection. True completeness, which is in the soul and is inward, is the completeness derived from closeness to Hashem. As the Ramchal wrote (Ch. 1), “In truth, all true completeness (the completeness of every single person without exception) is deveikus to Hashem.” As he says there, “Anything else deemed good by people is vanity and deceptive emptiness.” This is all a Jew really has in life — closeness to Hashem and deveikus to Hashem. The whole essence of a Jew is to be close to Hashem and to cleave to Him. Not only in the World to Come is a man’s purpose to cleave to the Creator, but even in this world, man’s job and purpose is to cleave to the Creator. If there is a moment in which one does not cleave to the Creator, for that moment, he is an incomplete human. He lacks true completeness, which is deveikus to Hashem.

A sincere person, who hears these words and truly accepts them in his soul, must take these words of the Ramchal and write them on a sheet of paper and place it in his pocket. About every fifteen minutes (so the words will be before his eyes at all times), he should remove the paper from his pocket, and contemplate it well, and remind himself again and again: Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? The answer is deveikus to Hashem. He will read the words again and again until they are alive before his eyes and he no longer needs to look at the paper. Rather, his soul will clearly recognize the purpose of life and he will constantly seek to apply the message.