Chovot Halevavot – Meaningful Actions #4

10 08 2012

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen

The Chovot Halevavot discusses the various marks of wisdom that a person can see in the world and the way Hashem is manifests in creation. He lists seven ways to see this.

The first mark is manifested in the four fundamental elements of the world: fire, water, air, and earth. In contemporary terms, these are energy, liquid, gas and solid matter. The earth is a ball, which by nature doesn’t stay stationary. Yet our world stays suspended in the middle of the universe. It is surrounded by water, above that air, and above that fire. Each element stays within its boundaries. Nature stays faithful to its Creator and doesn’t change. This shows the magnificent greatness of Hashem. David says, “You Hashem are the creator of heaven and earth, which exist eternally.” If there would be one slight deviance, the entire world would be destroyed.

The second mark is man himself. Every person is a small universe. The completion of this world is man. Without him there is no purpose. Humans are like a dot in comparison to the vast cosmos. Yet we see it is only man that can understand creation. In Tehilim David wrote, “Man is a little bit less than Hashem.” When Adam was created the angels wanted to say kadosh. They thought he was the Master of the world. Hashem is a perfectionist par excellence. He made man flawless and in whatever state he’s in his Divine Image remains.

The third mark is the amazing synthesis of soul and body. Hashem covered over spirituality with flesh and bones and formed Adam. Iyov said, “You made me as if someone poured milk into a bottle. You curdled me like cheese. Then you clothed me with bones, sinews, and ribs. You sheltered me, gave me life, favored me, and watched over my soul.”

The fourth mark is the animal kingdom which is made up of hundreds of different species. They swarm in the air, swim in water, and creep on the ground. Hashem created them all with a purpose and their daily existence is in His hands.

The fifth mark is the wisdom in the design of the plant world. There are myriad types of vegetation that have the ability to heal and provide nourishment.

The sixth mark is the wonders of Hashem that we see in industry and science. Hashem revealed different ways through which man can meet his needs in this world. Iyov said, “Who gave wisdom and understanding to the heart? Only Hashem.”

The seventh mark is the wisdom found in Torah. The Torah teaches us above and beyond what man could ever imagine or create. The oral Torah is not the work of man. The sages transmit concepts that were already accepted at Sinai. Through studying Torah a person can truly see the greatness of our Creator.

Chovot Halevovot: The Connection of Torah

15 05 2012

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen 

The Gemara says, “There are three keys that Hashem did not give over to agents.” They are, techiyat hameisim (resurrection of the dead), childbirth, and rain.

One can clearly see Hashem through rain. When there’s a drought, people realize that Hashem is in control. Rain is a direct blessing from Him. If it’s not coming down, it’s because of our sins.

Although Hashem does many miracles for us every day, the best proof that He exists is the Torah. In birchat hamazon we say, “Ki ein machsor l’rei’av.” If you fear Hashem, you have no deficiency. Torah brings us to yirat shamayim because Torah demonstrates the existence of the Hashem.

The Gemara says that at Har Sinai the Jews accepted the Torah out of fear. Years later after the Purim miracle they accepted the Torah out of love. Why wasn’t there a complete acceptance immediately at Har Sinai? The Torah is a part of creation. Just as we have no control over creation, initially the Torah too had to be against our will so that subsequently we would look at the world through the Torah lens and recognize Hashem on our own.



Chovot Halevovot: Using Ones Self #13

30 11 2011
Based on a shiur by Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen 

Community Kiddush #9

After the death of the two sons of Aharon, Hashem taught Aharon the laws of sacrifices. Rashi quotes Rav Elazar ben Azarya who tells a parable. A doctor once warned an ill person not to sleep in damp places or eat sharp vegetables, but he didn’t take the admonition seriously. When a second doctor told him he would die, he woke up sharply. Hashem taught Aharon the laws of sacrifices so that he would know Hashem’s will and not take matters in his own hands. Although Aharon was exceedingly righteous, the visual image of his sons’ death aroused him to understand the consequences if one doesn’t listen to Hashem.

The Chovot Halevovot mentions the significance of doing mitzvot with joy. This comes from feeling indebted to Hashem for all the gifts he showers upon us. What stimulates a person to have gratitude? When we recognize all the kindness Hashem does for us and when we study His Torah we come to realize how much we depend on Him. Logic is not enough to arouse feelings of gratitude. We have to thank Hashem by living the way he commanded us to. Just saying, ‘I love you Hashem,’ but not keeping the mitzvot leads to ingratitude. When good things happen, such a person won’t thank Hashem because the Creator doesn’t exist in his life. He has given Him nothing with his daily actions. Although we can logically understand that we need to thank Hashem, we need Torah to direct us. Aharon’s sons yearned to serve Hashem. They offered a sacrifice but it was on their own terms. It wasn’t Hashem‘s command. Therefore, they were punished.

There is a constant battle between the body and soul. The body has an advantage in that it precedes the development of the soul. It takes years for the soul to mature while the body begins functioning immediately after birth. Because a person is accustomed to materialism, it becomes difficult to part with it. Desires override the mind and makes it almost impossible to see the loftiness of Hashem. The only way to overcome this is through Torah. “Barati yetzer hara barati Torah tavlin.” (I created the evil inclination and I created the Torah as a spice.) Through Torah we can come to an understanding of the Creator.

The second advantage of the body over the soul is that the intellect is in essence spiritual. The body is at home in the physical world, but the soul is a stranger. With constant use, the body grows stronger, but coming to a recognition of Hashem doesn’t happen naturally. The only way to get there is through Torah. A small flame can pierce the thick darkness. With the brilliance of Torah, life becomes transformed. It enables us to win over the yetzer hara and purify our souls.

Becoming a true servant of Hashem hinges on one critical factor, submitting our will to His. This can be accomplished through yirat (fear) and ahavat (love and admiration) Hashem. Studying works of Mussar can help us attain these levels so that we can ultimately reach true sheleimut (perfection).

Tomer Devora- Real Truth #8

14 09 2011
 Based on a shiur by Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen 

Tomer Devora-Real Truth #8

The essence of Hashem is emet (truth) as the Gemara in Shabbat says, the signet of Hashem is emet. Hashem judges us with truth, justice, and straightforwardness. This mida of emet is actualized in every Jew. It is an inheritance from our forefather Yaakov of whom it says, “Titen emet l’Yaakov.” Yaakov represents truth. The Rambam writes that Yaakov is called tzaddik because he worked for Lavan with honesty. Although Lavan did not appreciate him and tried to trick him many times, Yaakov continued to serve him faithfully.

On the one hand we say Hashem is emet, which should imply pure justice, yet we find that He also shows us mercy even if we don’t deserve it. The evil inclination tries to convince a person that minor mitzvot and aveirot are not all that important. It tries to convince us that Hashem will overlook them. But this is not true. Hashem is “Kel emuna v’ein avel.” His actions are perfect and just. If so, where does mercy fit in?

The Mesilat Yesharim says that even if Hashem is compelled to chastise a sinner, he does so without anger and with pity. Similarly, the Tomer Dvora writes that Hashem is emet and mishpat but he is also rachamim and accepts our teshuva. Hashem doesn’t punish out of revenge, but rather out of love and compassion. The punishment serves as a tikun, to atone for sins. A person can repent and the sin becomes as though it never existed. A human judge is limited and must follow the letter of the law. But Hashem looks at a person differently. Man sins because he has an evil inclination and so Hashem gives him the opportunity to do teshuva and doesn’t punish him immediately. Emet means understanding a person’s situation; not deviating from justice, but still merciful.

The tenth mida in Tomer Devora is emet, the eleventh is chesed. Avraham represents chesed. He went lifnim meshurat hadin (beyond the letter of the law). Because Avraham exerted himself beyond his limits, Hashem dealt the same way with him. Similarly, if we restrain our natural inclinations, then Hashem too will go beyond the laws of nature with us.

Every Jew should try to reach a higher level in avodat Hashem lifnim meshurat hadin. We should attempt to be patient with others, understand their needs, and view every Jew as important in our eyes. We should love others even if they don’t deserve it, just as a parent loves his children. This is acting lifnim meshurat hadin (above the letter of the law) and it is what Hashem wants of us. The unique attribute of klal Yisrael is chesed l’avraham. When we go beyond what the law requires, we emulate Hashem and come closer to Him.


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.

Shavuot: The True Acceptance of Torah

5 06 2011
Based on a shiur by Rabbi Yitchak Cohen

Shavuot: True Acceptance of Torah  

The common denominator of the Shalosh Regalim is that there is a commandment to be joyous on each of the holidays. What does the Torah mean to be b’simcha? The Gemara in Pesachim notes that there is a disagreement between Rav Yehoshua and Rav Elazar in understanding the two verses, “Atzeret tehiye l’Hashem Elokecha” and “Atzeret tiyehe lachem.” One verse means that the holiday should be spiritual and the other verse tells us to rejoice with physical pleasures. Rav Eliezer says there is a choice on how to fulfill the mitzvah of simcha on Yom Tov. Either one can devote time to tefilah and limud hatorah or to physical enjoyment. Rav Yehoshua says Chetzi l’Hashem v’chetzi lachem-divide the day between the two pleasures. However the Gemara says this disagreement doesn’t apply to all the holidays.


Regarding Shavuot all opinions agree, “Chetzi l’chem v’chetzi l’Hashem.” It needs both aspects. One would think that Shavuot would be a day to devote more time to Torah and tefilah because it is the anniversary of the day when the Torah was given. Yet this day must also have “lachem,” it must be experienced physically. This teaches us that the Torah wasn’t given to us as a means of restricting, obligating, or restraining us from worldly pleasures. Rather in Birchat Hatorah, we ask Hashem, “Vaherev na..”-make it sweet, make it something that we will enjoy. The Kli Yakar writes on the verse, “Vehikravtem mincha chadasha.” Every day a person should have a tremendous desire for Torah as if he had just received it the first time. There should be a fresh newness and joy when studying Torah. “V’samchta l”hashem Elokecha“-your whole body should be b’simcha when learning Torah as if sampling a delectable new dish. This is the koach of Torah, the pleasure it can give a person.


Why is Torah called Torat Emet? Is there another Torah which is false? Torah is not about living for oneself or losing oneself in physical pleasures. It is Hashem’s instructions on how to live. If we follow its precise directions, we will perceive the world with a different perspective. Indeed it is only through Torah that we can come to see the truth of life. 

Mesilat Yesharim- Perishut: Controlling Your Desires

21 02 2011

Based on a 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.