Times of Separation, Times of Closeness-Netivot Olam II #5

30 06 2011
Based on a Naaleh.com shiur by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

Times of Seperation, Times of Closeness Shalom is the key to putting the fragmented puzzle pieces of this world together again.  The Torah tells us to actively pursue peace because it completes everything including our own piece of the puzzle. A Jew’s purpose is to be mashlim (to make whole) everything he encounters.  If you are about to eat a pear, say the bracha with kavanah. If you meet someone you don’t know, realize that Hashem engineered the meeting. Get acquainted with the person. In this way you will be fitting the puzzle pieces of you and him together.

The deeper we feel that there is a lack, the more intuitively we try to fill it. The more aware we are of our incompletion, the more we will proactively pursue wholeness. Pursuing peace means giving of ourselves to others in a generous and unstinting way, so they become a part of us. Shalom requires us to look for opportunities to give of ourselves so that we can make wholeness happen. Say hello to the woman in line after you at the supermarket. Treat people who serve you with respect and dignity. Express appreciation and be generous with praise and compliments.

People are naturally drawn to completion and closure. This explains the insatiable desire people have to vicariously experience the resolution of  life-struggles through literature, drama, and film. We enjoy the experience of closure when everything finally comes together at the end.  Similarly, when we plant a seed, it develops and grows and only rests when it is fully complete. So too there’s a growth impulse inside each of us which says, “Complete yourself.”

Shalom has unifying power. If a person doesn’t return someone’s shalom greeting, he’s robbed the other person of the opportunity to feel whole and connected with him. To become part of a greater whole we have to pursue peace. However we cannot be everyone’s best friend, nor is it necessarily a desirable goal. Friends influence us greatly and we need to be selective.  There’s a difference between offering something of yourself to someone and sharing your intimate secrets. You can be discerning, yet kind and giving. When each piece of the puzzle maintains its own integrity, the puzzle is complete.

Doing chesed-tapping in to our Elokut so that it pours forth to others, is the idealized way to make peace. Pursuing shalom means wanting to make everyone more whole, by giving of ourselves. It does not mean acknowledging our integrity and the other person’s integrity to the point of having no borders. There are times to give freely, times to withdraw, and times to leave things as they are.

May we reach perfect sheleimut in our quest to become true lovers of peace.

Mesilat Yesharim- Perishut: Controlling Your Desires

21 02 2011

Based on a Naaleh.com shiur by Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen

The Chovet Halevovot writes in Shaar Haprishut that there is a nishmat chaim, a living breath, within each of us that is a chelek Elokai mi’maal, a part of Hashem from above. Because we are spiritual beings, Hashem wants our minds to prevail over our selfish desires. The mishna in Avot states, “Who is mighty? One who conquers his evil inclination.” Sin starts with taavah (desire). It is not an intellectual decision. Sin begins when a person’s desires control his intellect. Instinct entices us to indulge in the pursuit of materialism. Therefore, a person should attempt to refrain from material pleasures and concentrate on his soul and how to come closer to Hashem. Dovid Hamelech explains that although a person may abstain from physical enjoyment, if in his heart of hearts, he still desires these indulgences, his thoughts may set him on the wrong path.

In Chelkei Haperishut, the Mesilat Yesharim delineates three areas in which a person can practice prishut: hana’ah, dinim, and minhagim.  To abstain from hana’ah means enjoying the minimum pleasures of this world.  If material pursuits such as clothing, food, listening to music, or exercise help a person in his avodat Hashem, then these activities are productive and bring him closer to G-d.

The Gemara in Shabbat describes how Dovid Hamelech would wake up at night and play the harp. The music would elevate his soul until he reached such lofty levels that he would receive Divine inspiration. The Gemara cites this as a classic example of simcha shel mitzva. Any material enjoyment that leads to a higher level of self-development is good and is achieving its destined purpose.

When one is unsure how to proceed, a person should ask himself, “What will be the result of this action? Will it lead me to perform more mitzvot or will it lead me astray?” 

Prishut b’dinim means being stringent even if halacha does not demand it. This needs to be carefully considered. Sometimes the observance of a chumra may lead to a kulah. In addition, only those at a certain level of kedusha can take upon themselves such extra stringencies.

Prishut minhagim is separating from people who may lead one to sin. This refers to common folk and day-to-day talk which can lead to lashon hara and levity. The Mesilat Yesharim does not advocate hiding from people. On the contrary, Torah is compared to fire. It must be studied in a group. A single match extinguishes itself. Two candles have the potential to burst into flame. Studying Torah together with others is powerful and has lasting influence.

What are ways to acquire perishut? The Mesilat Yesharim notes that one should look at the downside of physical desires. One should realize that pleasures can lead to the destruction of man. The proof is Chava and the sin of the eitz hadaat. The Ramchal first notes that one should not follow after one’s eyes. External appearances might be appealing, but internally there is nothing really there. The eitz hadaat was appealing and prompted her to succumb to sin.

Every sin has a yetzer tov that tells the person of the reward he will receive if he controls himself. The yetzer hara tells him to enjoy life at the moment. A person should accustom himself to think that this world is only an antechamber to the next world. Going to a house of mourning helps one acknowledge the transience of life. Spending time in a place of Torah leads to contemplation of our purpose on this earth. It is so easy to sink into the mores of our times which advocate making life as easy and enjoyable as possible. In reality, this leads a person away from true sheleimut. Taavot of olam hazeh don’t have lasting permanence. The elevation and spiritual growth one attains through perishut is eternal.

Tomer Devora-Examples of G-dliness

22 12 2010

Based on a Naaleh.com shiur by Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen

Examples of G-dliness

The sefer, Tomer Devora, is based on a verse in Micha, “Mi Kel komocha..”-Who is like you Hashem.  It describes how man should adopt Hashem’s Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, transforming himself from a mere human to a G-dly individual. This class focuses on the middah of chesed as expounded further in the verse, “Ki chofetz chesed hu..”-Hashem desires chesed.

In the heavens above, there are angels whose sole purpose is to receive and present the chesed of the Jewish people to Hashem, particularly in a time when they are not following the Torah. This chesed intercedes for them and sweetens the judgment. Even terrible sins punishable by death, merit forgiveness through chesed. Why is chesed so significant in the eyes of Hashem?

The Michtav M’Eliyahu writes that giving is the foundation of all mussar and machasava. It is a prerequisite for emunah and avodat Hashem. Chesed is a form of giving. When a person gives of himself, he indicates that he is investing in something spiritual and eternal. The Jewish nation distinguish themselves as being merciful, modest, and kind. We do not pride ourselves on our physical prowess or intelligence.  The Torah tells us “Vahavata l’reicha komocha…” Ahava comes from the root word “hav”-to give. We indicate our love by giving of ourselves. Our goal should be to give without expecting anything in return. Even those who hurt us, should be the recipients of our chesed. This is how Hashem acts with us and this is our basis for emunah.

The text in Micha reads further, “Yashav yerachameihu..”-Hashem is merciful to those who return. When one person sins against another, the level of love and respect for the other person can never be the same. In contrast, when a person does teshuva, he becomes even closer to Hashem. This is the level we should strive to achieve with those who wrong us. While a tzaddik can have a relationship with Hashem, a baal teshuva is in the category of a servant who is even closer to his Master.

The Midrash asks, why is Magen Avraham called Avraham’s bracha? Does it not say Elokei Avraham? Avraham brought Hashem’s existence into the world with his actions. Similarly, when we emulate Hashem’s middot, our divine like aspect comes to the fore. We glorify Hashem with our righteous actions and bring His presence into the world. May our efforts to perfect our inner selves sanctify Hashem’s name and bring atonement for all of Klal Yisrael.

Honorable Mentchen II: Appropriate Criticism

17 11 2010

Based on a Naaleh.com shiur by Rabbi Hanoch Teller

Honorable Mention II: Appropriate Criticism #1

In his Shabbat Shuva drasha, Rav Chaim Brisker would say, “Chaim is speaking to Chaim, but if you wish you can eavesdrop.” A very productive way to give criticism is to accept part of the blame and admit that you too have the same problem. This makes the perpetrator far less ashamed of doing wrong, and moves him towards rectifying his flaws.


Confine your criticism to a specific act. General criticism demoralizes people. It’s important not to make unrealistic demands. Suggest small steps and ways to improve.  A good way to offer criticism to a miser would be, “Maybe this year you can give one percent more.” Increase the amounts little by little and soon the miser will turn into a generous donor. It is forbidden to shame someone in public. However if by remaining silent you will condone unethical behavior, you may speak out. In fact the gemara in Avodah Zarah says that if you don’t rebuke a sinner, you bear responsibility for the sin as well. If someone is speaking lashon hara and circumstances make it difficult to stop him, try to change the subject. If that fails, get up and leave.


The quintessential example of proper criticism is the story of King David and Natan Hanavi.  The prophet approached the king after he had sent Bathsheva’s husband to his death. He came in the guise of one soliciting advice. There were two men, one wealthy and one poor, who lived in the same city. The rich man had many sheep while the poor man had one small lamb. One day, a guest came to call at the rich man’s house. The wealthy host took the poor man’s lone lamb and prepared a meal for his guest. The prophet then asked the king, “What should be done to this wealthy man?” King David immediately answered that he deserved death. Natan Hanavi then told David that he was the man.  By depersonalizing the rebuke, the prophet was able to make King David view the act in its moral simplicity and indeed he had no choice but to admit and repent.


Think about all the times you were criticized and didn’t change. Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv of Kelm would say, “Don’t become angry if you can’t make people be the way you wish them to be, because you too can’t make yourself the way you wish to be.” Confront the person himself.  It’s very tempting to share our resentment of someone with others. However, the obligation is to rebuke the person himself, not destroy his good name. Give him an opportunity to defend himself. Before criticizing someone, ask yourself the following questions: Am I being fair or am I exaggerating?  How can I express myself without inflicting too much pain? How would I feel if someone criticized me this way? Am I enjoying criticizing this person? Is my criticism confined to a specific act or trait? Are my words non-threatening and in part reassuring?


In Parshat Kedoshim, the verse says, “You shall rebuke your fellow man and do not bear sin because of him.” Rashi explains that rebuking should be done with sensitivity. Do not publicly embarrass the offender. It is both ineffective and immoral, and only puts the sinner on the offensive. In addition, you will have lost the opportunity to bring about change. The Sefer Hachinuch notes that criticism should be delivered privately, with tact and refinement.


Mastering the art of constructive criticism takes thought and insight.  Let’s invest the effort to do it right.

Ahavat Chesed: Why Can’t I Just Be A Good Person

16 11 2010

Based on a Naaleh.com shiur by Rabbi Beinish Ginsburg

Why Can't I Just be a Good Person

The Chafetz Chaim wrote Ahavat Chesed when he was close to fifty years old and already well regarded in the Torah world. Normally authors much younger and relatively unknown will gather approbations for their work.  Yet the Chafetz Chaim solicited haskamot for Ahavat Chesed, including one by the noted Torah scholar, the Netziv, which will be discussed here. The Netziv had his own angle on chesed that fits perfectly with the approach developed in Ahavat Chesed. The Chafetz Chaim had two themes in mind when he wrote his work. First, to teach us the technical details of the mitzva including what is prohibited and permitted. Second, to emphasize that chesed is not just a thoughtful act but an actual mitzvat asei in the Torah. These two points are interconnected, because the fact that chesed is a mitzva, impacts the details of the halachot.


Hashem created man with an intrinsic need to do chesed. Kindness is built into human nature. The Torah describes Hevel as “achiv,” the brother of Kayin. Why does the Torah emphasize this? Of course Hevel was Kayin’s brother. The Netziv writes that Kayin felt a natural brotherly love for Hevel and wanted to do chesed with him. Indeed, at the beginning he gave Hevel some of his produce. The Torah makes special mention of the story of Sedom and how they were decimated to teach us that lack of chesed corrupts our basic human essence.


Rav Nissim Gaon explains that everyone is obligated in logical mitzvot. How can he possibly say that non-Jews are obligated in chesed if it is not one of the Seven Noachide Laws? The gemara in Sanhedrin answers that these seven laws only include the “don’ts.” The “do’s” include many more. Everyone, including non-Jews, is obligated in chesed because it is part of being human. Jews have a double obligation because it is also a mitzva in the Torah.



Hashem promises that one who fulfills the mitzva of shiluach haken will achieve long life anywhere in the world. However, with regard to kibud av, which is harder to fulfill, the Torah promises reward, long life “al ha’adama,” in Eretz Yisrael. What is the difference? The Rambam explains that a Jew receives more reward in the land of Israel because it is Hashem’s palace and His Divine Presence is more closely felt there. Therefore, the verse says, “al ha’adama” to teach us that a person receives more reward in Israel even for a logical mitzva like kibud av, because it is a mitzva in the Torah. Chesed too, though it is an easily understood mitzva, is a mitzva in the Torah and therefore, comes along with all its ramifications. The Netziv notes that even though a logical mitzva makes sense in general, its details may not because Hashem’s standards are higher than normal human standards. It is not dependent on common sense or feelings. Rather, each mitzva includes its myriad halachot.


The Chafetz Chaim wanted to highlight the significance of kindness, and that it is a mitzva and not just a thoughtful act.  May our studies of his monumental work help us reach ever greater heights in middat hachesed.

The Joy of Life

2 11 2010

Based on a Naaleh.com 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.

Insights of the Chassidic Masters: Standing Before G-d

5 09 2010

Based on a Naaleh.com shiur by Rabbi Moshe Weinberger

Chassidic Masters

The Baal Hatanya, in his introduction to his essay, “Atem Nitzavim” explains the Torah’s ambiguity about Rosh Hashana. He writes that Rosh Hashana is the day we were created. It is the beginning of man’s existence. Therefore, Hashem wanted us to strain to understand it, to uncover the starting point within each of us, to remember the struggle and to recapture the magic of this very pivotal moment. This is compared to a couple remembering their wedding, and to parents recalling the birth of their first child.

When we study the Torah, mussar, chassidut, or halachot relating to a particular holiday, it is critical to understand its central core.  All learning and prayer connected to a particular holiday shines forth from this point. The Torah does not specify the theme of Rosh Hashana, but Chazal tell us that “Hamelech” sums up the essence of the day. In fact, old Chabad chassidim would call Rosh Hashana the “Day of Coronation,” for on this yom tov we crown Hashem as king over us.

The Gemara writes, “On Rosh Hashana, Hashem tells us, ‘Say before me these prayers: Malchiyot, so you will accept my kingship, Zichronot, so that I will remember you in a good way. How does one accomplish this? With the shofar. From this passage we understand that the essential theme of Rosh Hashana is accepting Hashem’s kingship, and the shofar is the means to attain this. Additionally, if we examine the prayers of Rosh Hashana, we will find that they revolve around the theme of kingship. The writings of Chassidut explain that our mission on Rosh Hashana is to reconstruct the malchut of Hashem by making ourselves worthy of crowning Him.

Rav Sadya Gaon lists several reasons why we blow shofar, but the inner meaning of the shofar is kingship and coronation. We verbalize and actualize our acceptance of Hashem’s kingship through the shofar.

In Tehilim, King David writes, “Bakshu fanei, es panecha avakesh.” Hashem says, “Seek my face.” Panei is related to penimiyut. Our avoda on Rosh Hashana is to reveal the deep inner connection between our soul and the essence of Hashem. For a person to say “Hamelech” on Rosh Hashana and ignore the King is not only absurd but dangerous. If Hashem is really our King what kind of effect has He had on our life? Accepting the yoke of Hashem’s kingship as a means to fulfill one’s responsibilities as a Jew is a very important outgrowth of Rosh Hashana but it is not the core. The essence is making Hashem a part of life during the year; knowing what “melech haolam” means when we say a bracha and developing a real connection with malchut Hashem. This will all depend on how we crowned the King on His coronation day. The call of the shofar jolts us awake and the prayers of Rosh Hashana helps us realize that nothing rules over us except Hashem.  Our “Hamelech” is not Wall St, Elvis Presley, our boss, or our physical desires.   We answer to a Higher Authority.   By tapping into the power of “melech” in everything we do, we will become stronger more dedicated servants of Hashem.