Netivot Olam: Suffering In This World #12 part 2

9 01 2012
Based on a shiur by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

In Masechet Brachot, Reish Lakish says, “When a person busies himself with Torah, yissurim separates from him. In the evening the bird can go up.” This refers to Torah which lifts up one’s eyes. “And there is no evening like suffering,” as it says, “In the darkness of night.” Yissurim comes as a result of lack. It is meant to purify and galvanize change. Torah can elevate a person to the point where yissurim have no dominion over him. Torah is wholeness.

Rav Huna says in the name of Rav, “If a person sees yissurim coming upon him he should examine his deeds.” If he doesn’t find any personal flaws, he should assume it is because of bitul Torah. If it is not bitul Torah, then it is out of love, (not lack) as it says, “Hashem rebukes those whom he loves.” He wants to draw us closer, so He afflicts us. A person could suffer and not gain anything. He could choose to learn nothing and blame it all on external causes. Alternatively one can grow and view it as a catalyst for change.

Rav Yaakov Bar Idi and Rav Chana bar Chanina differed on their view of suffering. One said that any suffering that prevents a person from learning Torah cannot be yissurim shel ahavah (suffering out of love) for how can you turn someone on and then take away his ability to act upon it? The other says that if a person can still pray to Hashem and achieve deveikut (connection), it’s still yissurim shel ahavaha. Rav Chiya and other opinions maintain that even suffering where one cannot pray is an expression of Hashem’s love.

Suffering can be extrinsic in that it is a means towards actualizing potential. It also works intrinsically by purifying the body so that the soul becomes the person’s primary identity. This is learned from the law of shen v’ayin. A non-Jewish slave who loses a tooth or eye must be freed. If a slave can redefine himself as a free person through minor suffering, how much more so can a person whose entire body is afflicted with suffering become a different person.

The Torah commands us to add salt to a sacrificial offering. This is called brit melach. Similarly, yissurim are also called a covenant. Just as salt enhances food, yissurim sweeten sin by cleansing and purifying the person. Suffering humbles the body and atones for sins. It drives a person to begin thinking beyond physicality.

When a person cannot find any sin, it is bitul Torah, meaning he has unfulfilled potential that must be brought out. Yissurim puts a person on the fast track drawing out his untapped strengths.

Hashem doesn’t beat dead horses. There’s a vast difference between what a refined person and what a vulgar person can learn from suffering. For a tzaddik, it’s a sign of love. Yissurim expel the material side of a person and propel him higher.

Nobody longs for what they have. We long for what we don’t have. In order to generate this yearning, Hashem created barriers to prevent us from being who we are. When things are easy for us materially, we don’t think about spirituality because we are so involved in our physical self-fulfillment. Therefore, Hashem creates obstacles in the form of suffering to propel us to higher levels of spiritual yearning.

Engaging in Kindness

29 11 2011
Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hanoch Teller

Rachel and Leah In secular society, chesed (kindness) is considered a positive attribute but it is not something regulated or legislated. In Jewish tradition kindness is a significant value. In fact, the Chafetz Chaim wrote an entire book called Ahavat Chesed, in which he codified the numerous laws pertaining to this middah.

The Gemara in Suka mentions that engaging in chesed is superior to charity in three ways.  Charity is done only with money, but kindness can be performed with money and with one’s body. Charity is only given to the poor but kindness can be given to rich and poor alike. Charity is dispensed only to the living, while kindness can be done with the dead as well. It is called chesed shel emet (true kindness) because it can never be paid back.

The Mishna in Avot tells us that the world stands on three pillars, Torah, avodah (serving Hashem),and gemilat chasadim (kindness). Kindness holds up the world. The Gemara in Yevamot says chesed characterizes a Jew. In fact, being kind is such an intrinsic Jewish attribute that the Gemara says that if a person is ruthless one should investigate his lineage. The Midrash Rabbah asks why Megilat Ruth was canonized in the Bible if it contains no ritual laws. Rav Zeira answered that it was to teach us the great reward for those who do acts of kindness. The prophet Micha teaches that the three primary obligations of a Jew are to do justice, walk humbly with Hashem, and to love kindness.

The Rambam stresses in three of his eight levels of charity the importance of anonymity. We should always look for opportunities to do chesed whether we are acknowledged for it or not. Small acts of kindness that count big in heaven include picking up trash from the sidewalk, giving up your seat for an elderly person, helping someone cross the street, allowing another car to pass you, listening with your heart to someone down on their luck, giving your used clothing to the needy, praising someone for their good deeds, encouraging your children to donate their old toys, and initiating a dialogue at a social gathering with someone who appears left out,.

There was once a mitnagid who set out to prove that Chassidut was not all it was made out to be. He came to a Chassidic town and asked the townspeople where the Rebbe was. They answered that he had gone to say Selichot (the penitential prayers) in heaven. The mitnagid was determined to disprove their foolishness. The next morning he ambushed the Rebbe’s house and observed him walking out dressed as a lumberjack. He headed for the forest, chopped some wood, lugged it to the home of an old sick woman and lit a fire for her. When the mitnagid saw this he humbly admitted, “Surely he is in heaven, if not higher.”

The Essence of Shabbos

11 07 2011

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen

The Essence of Shabbos

Hashem told the Jewish people at the time of matan Torah, “I have a a precious gift in my treasure house.  I will give it to you on condition that you accept the Torah.” The Jews asked what it was and Hashem answered, “Olam habah.” They then said, “Show us an example of this,” and Hashem replied, “Shabbat.” Indeed the Mishna in Avot tells us, Shabbath is 1/60th of olam habah.  If we observe this day properly we merit entering a world of eternal truth.

Vayichulu hashamayim…”-Hashem completed the heavens and earth yet there was still something lacking. Just as a wedding without a bride is not a wedding, the world without the Shabbbath queen was incomplete. We honor the day with delicacies, fine clothing and bright candles. However the Zohar says oneg doesn’t only mean bodily pleasures, but thinking about the Creator, praising Him and bringing Him into our life. Similarly the Michtav M’Eliyahu writes that Shabbat is olam habah in olam hazeh. It is the heavens touching earth. Hashem’s glory is revealed in the world on this day. And indeed the soul of a Jew expresses itself on Shabbat.  If you enter a room and instead of flicking on the switch, you grapple in the dark for what you need, or you come home soaked from the rain because you couldn’t carry an umbrella. You’ve tapped into the kedusha of the day. “Vayishbot Elokim m’kol melachto” Hashem did not physically work. What does the verse mean to say that He rested? The commentators explain that the entire world was concealed and when Hashem created Shabbath He lifted the curtain aside and revealed to us what was hidden.

 “Zachor et yom haShabbat” Remember the Shabbath during the week. The verse tells us to complete all our work during the week so that we won’t have to think about it on the holiest day. “V’asita kol melachtecha.” It should be in our minds as if all our work was completed. Mundane thoughts of weekday activity shouldn’t enter our thoughts for we are in olam habah on this holy day.

 “Vayivarach Elokim“-Hashem blessed the Shabbath. The Michtav M’Eliyahu asks, how could Hashem give an eternal spiritual blessing to a day that is limited by physical time. Indeed we see that Shabbath is really spiritual. Man is created incomplete, our world is a world of falsehood, but Shabbath is perfection. It is completely ruchniyut.

The Gemara states that all mitzvot were given with revelation except Shabbath which was concealed. Weren’t the luchot (which contains the mitzvah of Shabbat) given publicly? The Gemara  intended to say that we do not know the reward for the day because it is not physical. We will reap the dividends in olam haba. The Reishet Chochma writes that Shabbat gives us an aura of kedusha, holiness which stays with us throughout the week. When we hold on to the day we can perceive truth. It’s not just what we eat or where we go. It’s what we think and talk and do on Shabbat which makes it special. Hashem gave us a precious gift.  Let us take the day along with its depth and beauty into the coming week.

The Joy of Life

2 11 2010

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen from his series, Man’s Obligation: A Study in Chovot Halevavot

Chovot Halevovot #7: The Joy of Life

King David said, “Mibsari echze Elokai. From my flesh, I perceive Hashem.” The Chovot Halevavot notes that the physical part of man a wonder. Hashem also gave us wondrous intelligence and the powers of recollection, differentiation, and perception. Our intellect distinguishes us from other living creatures.

The Shemoneh Esrei is divided into three sections: praise, supplication, and thanks.  All the blessings associated with supplication begin directly with entreaty except for the bracha of daat, which begins ata chonen. Why is this so? On Shabbat we do not entreat Hashem for any personal requests before reciting Havdala. One needs daat to make havdala. Therefore, we first recite “Ata chonen l’adam daat.” In a sense, Ata Chonen is praise to Hashem. Intellect is a gift from our Master to us while all the other bakashot in Shemoneh Esrei involve things that are a part of us like health, sustenance, and redemption.

Sometimes we do not appreciate our intellect until we see people who do not have it. The Pat Lechem explains that life becomes insurmountably difficult for a person without sechel. This is manifest in the way a person eats, drinks, dresses himself, and conducts himself.  Hashem’s blessing of intelligence indicates to us that there is a Creator.

How can we use our sechel to emulate Hashem? Sechel shows itself in sensitivities and feelings, not only in knowledge. The power of intellect can bring a person to emuna.  The Alter of Kelm used to say that Hasem created whatever was necessary for man to survive in this world, free of charge.  Emuna is something we need to survive, and therefore Hashem implanted it within each of us regardless of our level of Torah knowledge or intelligence.

The prophet Yeshayahu says, “The ox knows his master and the donkey his owner’s manger, but My people do not know Me.”  If an animal knows who is in charge of him, shouldn’t a person with intellect see that? Rav Elya Lopian answers that this is the animal’s nature while man has free choice. What is the prophet really saying? An animal naturally sees his master. Similarly, faith in Hashem is a natural part of us.

What is emuna peshuta? If you ask an atheist, “How do you know that your father is really your father?” He will most likely answer, “I never had this question, I feel it in my heart.”  Simple faith is a natural part of us, we do not need proofs or reasons. How then can man come to deny his Creator? Arrogance and refusal to submit to obligations and a higher calling can blind a person to emuna.

We can perceive Hashem not only with our intellect but with our power of speech as well. Communication is the pen of the heart. Hashem gave us a means to express our thoughts through speaking and writing.  This can be abused through lashon hara, shaming others, and hurting someone with angry words.  In contrast, we can sanctify Hashem’s name with these very gifts. Greeting a friend with a friendly “Good morning!” offering an encouraging word, and penning a letter of condolence are all ways to do chesed with our power of communication.  This too manifests the greatness of our Creator.

There are so many barriers blocking our perception of Hashem’s remarkable kindness to us.  Let us open our eyes and see His greatness with the awesome gifts He has given us.

Parshat Noach: Lessons of Proper Speech and Helping Others

7 10 2010

Parshat Noach – Wonderful Words
Based on a shiur by Mrs. Shira Smiles

“V’Noach matza chen b’einei Hashem. Noach found grace in the eyes of Hashem.” What grace did Noach posses? In addition, Hashem could have saved Noach in any number of ways. Why was it necessary for him to build an ark and live among the animals?

The core sin of the Generation of the Floodwas in the area of speech. They did not keep their word. Once the floodgates of dishonesty are opened, it flows down to all areas of life. In Tehilim 45 we read, “The beauty of man is when grace is on the lips.” Hashem made two covenants with the Jewish people: brit halashon – a covenant of the mouth, and brit milah – a covenant to act morally. The two are interconnected. This is the grace that Noach found in Hashem’s eyes. He mastered the art of refined speech.

The Sefat Emet notes that if a person learns silence, he can be careful when he does speak to communicate in a modest way. Indeed we see in this parsha that
although the Torah measures every word, two extra words are used to describe the non kosher animals of the ark. “Umin habeheima asher lo tehora” instead of “temeiah,” to emphasize how far one must go to speak in a sanctified way.

In Breishit, when Hashem created man, the Torah writes, “Vayipach b’apo nishmas chaim.” Targum translates this as, “ruach memalelah” – the power of speech. When a person abuses this power, he casts away the part of him that makes him human. A coarse manner of speech corrupts his divine image. Therefore, we understand why Hashem wanted to destroy the world. His plan was to recreate it with individuals who would appreciate the divine spark within them. When a person misuses his speech he destroys his human essence and becomes almost animalistic. This is why Noach spent the year with animals. It was a constant reminder of what makes a human being elevated and different from animals, namely his power of speech.

Rebbetzin Feldbrand, in Towards Meaningful Prayer, writes that “teiva” can be translated interchangeably to mean word or ark. He was saved by the power of words.

When we wallow in the superficial aspects of this world we are no better than animals. Noach was punished and sentenced to live with animals for a year. This was to teach him that his generation had stayed at the level of animals because he did not reach out to inspire them.

On some level we are all responsible for each other and are enjoined to pray when troubles come. If one does not daven, it shows a lack of appreciation for prayer and insensitivity to the pain of others. This needs cultivation. If you hear bad news, pray. If a friend confides in you, try to help him. If you cannot assist him, at least daven for him. Understand that if Hashem made you aware of this trouble, you have a responsibility to do something.

Why did Hashem show Noach the covenant of the rainbow after the Flood? The Sforno answers that in a sense Hashem is hinting to us that every person has a responsibility as part of Klal Yisrael to pray in a time of need. The rainbow signifies a time of judgment. It is our wakeup call to beseech Hashem to turn it into mercy.

As we begin the new year, let us rededicate ourselves to prayer, proper speech, and helping people in need with fresh vigor and hope for a year of growth and self improvement.

Chofetz Chaim -Laws of Proper Speech- Avak Lashon Hara

6 08 2010

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Beinush Ginsburg


Avak lashon hara is not actual lashon hara but involves anything that is associated with lashon hara and that can lead to it. While lashon hara is a Torah prohibition, avak lashon hara is a Rabbinic prohibition. The first category of avak lashon hara would be insinuating something negative.  “Who would’ve thought Shimon would turn out the way he did,” or “I don’t want to speak any lashon hara about Reuven,” are examples of avak lashon hara where nothing negative is actually said but there is a veiled hint.

The second category of avak lashon hara is praising someone excessively in public. The Gemara writes, “Al yisaper shivcho shel chavero…”- A person should not praise his friend for he will end up discussing his faults as well.  This does not mean that one should refrain from praise completely as we see many instances in Chazal where people were praised. Rather according to Rashi this means that one should not praise excessively and according to the Rambam it means that one should not praise a person in front of his enemies. This includes praising someone in public as there is bound to be someone who will say something negative. The one exception is a great tzaddik who may be praised publicly as even if something evil is mentioned, everyone will dismiss it as false.

In light of this halacha, how do we understand the custom of excessively praising a chassan and a kallah or a bar mitzvah in public? Normally, at a simcha, people expect the chassan and kallah to be praised. Therefore there is no concern that people will get excited about excessive praise or that it will lead to negative comments. Similarly, the Maharsha notes that one is allowed to praise ones Rebbe because every student knows to praise his Rebbe so it will not lead to jealousy or lashon hara.

May we merit to purify and elevate our speech and may this helps us attain spiritual perfection for the coming year.

Valuable Vision- The Three Weeks

15 07 2010

Based on a class by Mrs. Shira Smiles

The Jewish People does not only celebrate holidays of joy and grandeur. We also devote time to focusing on our communal failures and tragedies. In fact, we remember the time of our greatest loss, the destruction of our Holy Temple, for a full three week period, from the seventeenth of Tamuz to the ninth of Av.

Such a long focus on our tragedy would appear to be depressing. However, it all depends on one’s perspective. If we focus on ourselves, on our failings and subsequent suffering, commemorating the tragedy for so long is self-defeating. But if we concentrate on Hakodosh Boruch Hu, understand whatever happens to us is through His Divine guidance and Providence, then we can accept our tribulations with an element of joy, knowing that these, too, are a manifestation of God’s love for us. We can understand that Hashem, our Father, has raised us, but we
have rebelled against Him. Nevertheless, although He is forced to reprimand us and punish us, He does so out of love, so that we will correct our ways and grow properly, as any parent raising his child would do.

Can we recognize God’s love in difficult times, when His mercy seems hidden from us? We must not give up hope during times of trial. Rather, we must pursue Him, beseeching Him to lovingly show us His face.

This is the concept that lies at the heart of Shabbat chazon, the Shabbat of vision, the last of the three haftorot of tragedy before Tisha b’Av, one for each of the three weeks. The designation comes from the first word of this week’s Haftorah, “The vision of Isaiah…” The visions of these haftorot seem full of impending doom, for they foretell the quickly approaching hordes that will overrun Israel and destroy the Holy Temple. Nevertheless, upon closer inspection, one can discern the glimmer of hope even in these
foreboding prophecies.

How does Jeremiah, in the first Haftorah, envision this prophecy? He sees a rod of an almond tree. Within this image lies the hope that will turn despair into future joy. Right now, this rod is a mere stick, barren of any leaves, buds or fruit. But in twenty-one days, the almond tree will blossom and bear fruit.

So, too, in the twenty-one days from the 17th of Tamuz to the ninth of Av, the days that seem darkest and most empty for our nation, the potential for growth and rejuvenation is implanted within us. This desolation was necessary so that new spiritual life would spring forth, much as the gardener prunes the trees to allow the sunlight in so that the new growth will be vibrant and healthy.
The greater vision of this time is to internalize Hashem’s love for us, in good times and bad, and to open our hearts to His Presence, to know Him each day, and to return Him to our hearts, the seat of our emotions and passions.
At the end of Tisha b’Av, we bless the new moon, the symbol of new hope. It will reach its fullness on the fifteenth of Av, traditionally
a day of great joy and dancing.

Hashem supports us, Hashem loves us, in the days of our joy, and especially in the days of our tribulation and exile. We must look beyond the barren rod to its potential. The almond branch will bear fruit, and our term of exile will help perfect us so that we may merit the final redemption speedily, in our days.