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October 25, 2014 / 1 Heshvan, 5775
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Zachor – Feeling Low Leads To Lowliness


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A colossal failure of mammoth proportions.

Shaul HaMelech fails in his mission to destroy the nation of Amalek in its entirety and to this day, we suffer from its ever-present force of evil.

What was it that kept Shaul from completing his mission? Why did he spare the life of Agag, the king of Amalek, giving him the opportunity (before Shmuel HaNavi killed him) to have a child whose descendant was the evil Haman? Why did Shaul not kill all of the animals of Amalek as he was told to do?

The Navi tells us (Shmuel Aleph, 15:17): “Haloh im katan atah b’einecha, rosh shivtei Yisrael atah, ve’yimshachacha Hashem l’melech al Yisrael—Is it not true that though you are small in your own eyes, you are the leader of all the tribes of Israel! G-d has anointed you to be the King of Israel!”

When Shmuel questioned why the animals were left alive, Shaul said that the nation expressed their desire to offer the choice animals as korbanos, and he wanted to fulfill their will. Shaul knew that he was under strict orders from Hashem to destroy all of Amalek’s property and wealth but was apparently afraid to go against the will of the nation. According to the Abarbanel, besides the animals, the nation also wanted to keep Agag alive due to his leadership qualities (perhaps thinking he could be of service to them in some way) and Shaul listened.  He was a leader prone to “following the polls” and severely underestimated who he was – and should have been. It is good to be modest and humble but not at the expense of reaching one’s potential, especially one’s spiritual potential. This was Shaul’s “Achilles’ heel.”

And this is a lesson we need to apply to ourselves.

Too often, we look at ourselves and are very disappointed. Will I ever change? Will I ever live up to the resolutions and kabbalos for growth that I make? These thoughts can easily lead to depression and spiritual surrender— the absolute worst possible scenario in ruchniyus. As Reb Nachman of Breslov said, “Depression may not be an aveira, but it’s the biggest aveira.” This is because feeling bad about oneself is the greatest impetus to lowliness.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe in Alei Shur (Volume 2, page 173) stresses that especially in our generation we need to build ourselves up, working on the exaltedness of man, romemus ha’adom, and not knock ourselves down. Once we have established and strengthened ourselves, we can work on our major weaknesses.

In other words, said Rav Wolbe (in his sefer on chinuch), a “fire and brimstone” approach no longer works for most people. As Rav Yitzchok Hutner once said, we are a “soft-drink generation” and have a difficult time ingesting the hard stuff.

Truth be told, though, we have far more temptations and challenges distracting us from avodas Hashem then previous generations. A famous, shocking but true remark from the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum, ztl, was “On one single train ride in New York, one is exposed to more immorality than someone in a European shtetl was exposed to over a lifetime.”

Nowadays, unfortunately, we can add to the Satmar Rebbe’s remark and say the same about a simple drive on the highways, shopping in a mall and even a leisurely walk down the streets, due to the lack of tznius so prevalent in the secular world. Not to mention the very serious issues relating to the Internet.

We seem to be living in the generation the Or HaChaim (Shemos 3:8) described many centuries ago:

“The main purpose of exile is to draw out the sparks of holiness which have become severely damaged through the (Jewish People’s) descent into the 50 gates of impurity. We are promised though that in the future, Hashem, the Kel Elyon, will rain down and influence us with an abundance of the living Torah (Toras Chaim) with which to combat and survive the 50th gate (of impurity with the 50th gate of wisdom). We can only achieve the wisdom of the 50th gate by experiencing the exile. This will all occur especially in the last exile. . .The Torah of the last exile will serve to muzzle the mouth of impurity and it will be utterly destroyed.”

The Or Hachaim is telling us that in the generation before the ultimate tikun olam, rectification of all sin and the arrival of Moshiach, we will face the strongest tests and challenges of impurity the world has ever seen. It will be a society consumed by the impurities of the 50th gate. In the final epic battle with the koach hatumah, Klal Yisrael will be come up against spiritual challenges like never before.  And after winning these last battles and withstanding the temptations, the redemption will finally arrive.

The Ruzhiner Rebbe, z”tl, is quoted as saying over two centuries ago that in the generation before Moshiach one will have to climb the bare walls to remain a Jew who fears Heaven. We seem to be living in such times. In order to remain a good Jew, we have to climb the walls and separate ourselves as much as we can from general society.

So, these are our challenges. Severe challenges. Is it any wonder then that our generation is not on par spiritually with other generations?

However, we should never beat ourselves up when we experience spiritual downfalls. Rather, the following should be our approach toward failing spiritually.

Shlomo Hamelech tells us (Mishlei 24:16): “Ki sheva yipol tzaddik v’kam – A righteous person falls seven times but he gets up.”

Rav Yitzchok Hutner (in his book of collected letters, no. 128) received a letter from a student who was in a spiritual slump. In Rav Hutner’s reply he explained this verse. It is not a statement of the greatness of a person who is already a tzaddik—that he has the courage to rise up so many times repeatedly even after failures. Rather, it is telling us that by design, a tzaddik is someone who becomes righteous by never giving up, by experiencing the process of falling over and over again but eventually rising to the top. Rav Hutner writes emphatically:

“…A failing many of us suffer from is that when we consider the aspects of perfection of our sages, we focus on the ultimate level of their attainments….while omitting mention of the inner struggles that had previously raged within them. A listener would get the impression that these individuals came out of the hand of their Creator in full-blown form. Everyone is awed at the purity of speech of the Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, considering it a miraculous phenomenon. But who knows of the battles, struggles and obstacles, the slumps and regressions that the Chofetz Chaim encountered in his war with the yetzer hara?”

Allow me to quote from some meaningful lyrics sung by popular contemporary singer and composer, R’ Eytan Katz:

If you have transgressed, Don’t get yourself depressed, Just get up from the floor, That’s what Hashem requests.

The Midrash (Tanna D’Bei Eliyahu Rabbah 1:2) lists certain attributes of Hashem Yisbarach. One of those listed is that Hashem is sameach b’chelko-satisfied with His lot.

The Vilna Gaon explained that this refers to Klal Yisrael. No matter what level we are on, even in generations when we feel spiritually low, He is happy with us. Why? Because we still exist, because we are still observing His Torah, despite all the myriads of challenges and tests with which we are faced. Says the Vilna Gaon, perhaps a particular generation is not as spiritually great as a previous generation if measured by amounts. But we must factor in the level of resistance that a generation needs to traverse.

As we constantly work on ourselves and our ruchniyus, we must gain encouragement by understanding that even if we’re not as great as we may have hoped to be, we’re also not nearly as bad as we think we are and there is much within us to build upon.

We must never fall into the mistake of Shaul, of being “small in our own eyes” which leads to more and more smallness. We have to feel good about who we are in order to achieve anything.

And these are some of the happenings in this week’s haftorah.

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