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January 23, 2017 / 25 Tevet, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘Hashem’

Hashem Fights Our Wars

Thursday, December 29th, 2016

When the Yivanim entered the Beis HaMikdash, they defiled all the oil set aside for lighting the Menorah. When the Chashmonaim were victorious, they searched and were able to find only one small jug of oil with the kohen gadol’s seal intact. It had sufficient oil to last only one day but miraculously lasted eight days. In honor of the miracle of the oil lasting eight days, Chazal inaugurated these days for Hallel and thanksgiving.” – Gemara Shabbos 21b


The Maharal states that this Gemara seems to contradict what we say in Al HaNissim, a tefillah written by the Tanaim hundreds of years before. In the Al HaNissim, we proclaim thanks to Hashem for the miracle of the war. We thank Hashem for delivering the Yivani armies into our hands.

“You fought their battles, judged their judgments, took their revenge. You put the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few…” According to the Al HaNissim, the miracle of Chanukah was that Hashem delivered us from the armies of the Yivanim. Yet the Gemara in Shabbos says we celebrate Chanukah because of the miracle of the oil lasting eight days. The Maharal asks, “Which one is correct?”

The Maharal answers that both reasons are true and both are consistent. The actual event for which we give thanksgiving and sing Hallel is the salvation of the Jewish people. We won a war against all odds. However, it wasn’t clear that the victory was a miracle. To people living in those times, the military success seemed to be natural. It was attributed to Jewish resilience and bravery. It didn’t appear that Hashem had delivered us from the hands of the Yivanim; rather, it appeared as “their might, and the strength of their arms.”

It was only through the miracle of the oil that they came to understand the miracle of the battle. Once people saw the oil last eight days – an overt miracle from Hashem – they then came to see that their success on the battlefield was from Hashem as well. The miracle of the oil revealed to them the miracle of the war.

The Jews Had No Standing Army

This Maharal becomes difficult to understand when we take into account some basic history.

The events of Chanukah take place around the middle of the era of the Second Beis HaMikdash. From the time that Bavel destroyed the first Beis HaMikdash up until that point, the Jewish people had been living under the reign of gentile monarchies. Our right to exist and our form of self-government were decided by the ruling parties. We were a vassal state under foreign rule, and when the Yivanim entered Yerushalayim, the Jewish people did not even have a standing army.

While the war itself lasted three years, there were no formal battles during the entire first year of fighting. This was not a case of two armies squaring off against each other; there was no Jewish army. The fighting consisted of guerrilla skirmishes – some Jews would sneak up on a lone detail of Yivani soldiers, kill them, and take their arms – but at every point of the war the Jews were far outnumbered, outgunned, and preposterously less battle-ready than their enemies.

Even more startling is that almost all the original fighters had no battle experience. The leaders of the rebellion were kohanim. A kohen is a Torah teacher, one who serves in the Beis HaMikdash and guides Klal Yisrael in ruchniyus (spiritual matters). He isn’t a soldier. So this was a war led and fought not by soldiers but by roshei yeshiva. It was akin to Reb Shmuel Kamenetsky leading the Lakewood Yeshiva in battle against the U.S. Marine Corps.

How Could Anyone Not See the Miracle?

No intelligent assessment of the situation would have predicted a Jewish victory. How then is it possible that the Jews at the time saw these events as anything other than the miracles they clearly were? The answer to this question seems to be that when one is many years away and far removed, he gains a historical vantage point. He is able to see an event in context and can easily recognize it as a miracle. But to those living in the day-to-day heat of the battle, it is much more difficult to see the event from that perspective.

To those involved, it seemed to be a natural course of events. Granted, the odds were slim, but the Jews won. Skirmish after skirmish, battle after battle, the Maccabees came out victorious. There is no question they did well, which is why it seemed it was their skill, their cunning, and their wisdom in battle that won those wars. To people living in those times, the miracle was hidden. And then a single event focused their sight.

When the kohanim returned to the Beis HaMikdash and took out that little bit of oil that couldn’t possibly last for eight days and watched it remain aglow night after night, everyone knew it was miraculous. When they experienced the miracle of the oil, it reshaped the previous three years in their minds. They now could see the battles as the miracles that they were. Exactly as the Maharal said, “The miracle of the oil revealed the miracle of the battle.”

Our Own Times

In our own times, we witness an eerie parallel to these events and to the same mistaken interpretation. For almost 2,000 years we have existed as a lone sheep among seventy wolves. Universally hated and oppressed, the Jewish people have survived. And now, after almost 1,900 years of wandering, we find ourselves back in our own land.

Since 1948, the Jewish nation has witnessed profound miracles in the repopulation and development of the land of Israel. But it is the survival of our people that is the greatest miracle.

On May 15, 1948, one day after the state of Israel was declared, five nations attacked, each alone capable of annihilating the small band of Holocaust survivors. At the time there was no Jewish army, navy, or air force. Yet, against all odds, the Jews won that war, and against all odds we continued to win war after war – and now, ironically, the Jews are considered the superpower in the region.

To most people, Jew and gentile alike, it seems it’s just the way of the world. To the average witness to these events, it isn’t a demonstration of the hand of Hashem but just the ebb and flow of history.

The lesson of Chanukah is to see behind the veil of nature, to tune our sight to discern the true cause of events, and to see that it is Hashem Who runs the world and fights our wars – then as now.

Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafier

Kiddush Hashem 1966

Monday, December 26th, 2016

Who Knows Fifty? Fifty is the number of years since Israel celebrated her first Nobel Laureate.

heiman-122316Motzai Shabbat Chanukah – December 10, 1966, author Shai Agnon lingered in his hotel room in Stockholm waiting for three stars to appear in the heavens indicating that Shabbat had ended. Agnon davened Maariv, made Havdalah, lit four Chanukah candles, and dressed in his mandatory tailcoat tuxedo before stepping into a waiting limousine. He had arranged with the chauffeur to sit in the front seat, enabling him to plug his shaver into the cigarette lighter and shave. The limousine sped, accompanied by a siren-wailing motorcycle escort, to the Nobel Prize ceremony that had commenced at City Hall.

As a youngster growing up in America in the ‘40s and ‘50s of the last century, I was not attentive to Nobel Laureates or the ceremonies held in their honor. There were American doctors, chemists, scientists and authors who received Nobel prizes. That information was often splashed on book covers they authored. But the ceremony wasn’t followed or patriotic enthusiasm shared; not for the recipients or for the participants at the annual banquet in Sweden. Neither the prize or the laureates or their speeches were discussed around our family table – not on Shabbat and not at our annual family gatherings on Chanukah.

Our first Chanukah in Israel, soon after we married in 1960, saw me suffering from a terrible bout of homesickness. We were alone, without family or friends, unable to find a rental apartment in Jerusalem, holed up in an old rooming house without private facilities, without a kitchen, or heat. The room had two metal cots topped with straw mattresses, a small narrow table, one chair, and an old malodourous wooden closet with hanging space for three garments. My husband lit the wicks in the silver chanukiyah my grandparents had given us as a gift before our departure, and I cried, wiping my tears with a handkerchief, as tissues were not available in Israel.

“It won’t be like this forever,” my husband promised. “One day we will have a home, we will have a family; this is just the start, and all beginnings are difficult.” My husband was the soothsayer, the optimist, not one to throw in the towel in haste.

The author's husband lighting the menorah.

The author’s husband lighting the menorah.

Shabbat Chanukah was sunny and pleasant, early winter weather at its best. A heavy dose of fresh Jerusalem air was essential for my recovery from the blues. So we walked the length of the city and returned lighthearted two hours later. Starting at Rechov Meah Shearim on the eastern border with Jordan, we walked straight across town to Talpiot, a sparsely-populated neighborhood with small villas nestled romantically in a forest of trees at the southern border with Jordan.

Six years later, as parents of two children, we had settled in our fourth rental apartment in the Rechavia section of Jerusalem. My parents, who moved to Israel in 1964, lived with my grandfather a short distance away, on the edge of Shaarei Chessed.

Talpiot, a quaint Jerusalem neighborhood, hit the news as home of the famous author, Shai Agnon, the first Israeli awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature. Television had not yet debuted, thus the Kiddush Hashem that Agnon rendered at the ceremony in Stockholm could only be lauded through articles that appeared the following morning in the local press, on Kol Yisrael radio news, or in short newsreel film clips on movie screens. Six years in Jerusalem, and we reveled in all three available news options.

Agnon, wearing a black velvet kippah, addressed the audience in Stockholm in Hebrew. Opening his address he cited our sages that “One must not enjoy any pleasure in this world without first reciting a blessing.” He noted that food and scents, the pleasure of sights, and the recipient of good news, all require blessings, and when the Swedish Charge D’affairs notified him that he had won the Nobel Prize, he recited the brachahatov v’hameitiv” for the good news he received, and for the messenger who delivered the good news. He explained the importance of a blessing recited when beholding a monarch, and on stage he recited the bracha, honored to be in the presence of the King of Sweden.

Agnon’s words at the Nobel ceremony resonated for a proud observant Jew embracing a momentous occasion. “As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Yerushalayim, and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the exile, but I always regarded myself as one who was born in Yerushalayim. I belong to the tribe of Levi; my forbears and I are the minstrels that were in the Temple, and there is a tradition in my father’s family that we are of the lineage of the Prophet Samuel whose name I bear.”

heiman-122316-chanukia-litHis written works were his songs; the songs of a Levite sung in the shtetl Buczacz where he started writing poetry at age five. Jews in Israel glowed with pride for the Jerusalem recipient, his heritage, praise and gratitude, a Kiddush Hashem.

Born in Polish Galicia in 1888, Agnon first moved to Eretz Yisroel (Mandated Palestine) at the age of 19. His Nobel Laureate acceptance speech provided the tragic historical background of his return to Europe, his library, books and manuscripts burned to ashes in a house fire, and so too his family and loved ones, decimated in the Nazi death camps. He didn’t spare his audience discomfort, affirming two tortuous world wars conducted against his Jewish sisters and brothers. And when those worlds were destroyed, he continued to write and publish, books and stories, short and long, recreating and building his life in G-d’s Land, among his people in Jerusalem.

Who Knows Fifty? Chanukah 1966, Jerusalem was a skeleton city, cut in half, and denied recognition as Israel’s capital. Agnon’s Nobel Prize was the first taste of international recognition; a one night stand. Could anyone have foretold that the following Chanukah Jerusalem would expand beyond the barbed wire and concrete walls surrounding the city? If someone had “tweeted” the news that we would light a Menorah at the Kotel Hamaaravi the following Chanukah, we would have laughed! Laughed at the foolish “tweet,” same as Sarah laughed when told by the angel she would bear Avraham’s child at the age of ninety.

Agnon House Talpiot

Agnon House Talpiot

Fifty years ago Israel was living in the shadow of World War II, still hunting Nazi war criminals to stand trial in Jerusalem, eighteen and a half years young, and six months away from dominating powerful world headlines.

Thirty-nine years after Agnon, December 2005, Professor Yisrael Robert Aumann, a mathematician, received the Nobel Prize for Economics, for his game theory analysis. Like the State that had expanded in every area, Professor Aumann arrived in Stockholm accompanied by 34 guests, including 27 members of his immediate family, an impressive contingent of Torah-observant Jews who were also challenged by the motzai Shabbat award ceremony. As had Agnon, they too rose to the challenge, an inspiration to observant and non-observant Jews alike. They fulfilled the required elegant dress code with full-length modest women’s wear, and Professor Aumann, prominent with his white-knitted kippah and flowing white beard, had overseen that the fabric for the special tuxedo sewn for him be checked for shatnez.

Faigie Heiman

Tefillah: A Meeting With Hashem – Get Ready!

Friday, December 2nd, 2016

When we were younger, my parents would sometimes take us to the Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles. It was always an exciting trip, as my father would point out the unbelievable wisdom of the universe that Hashem revealed to the scientists.

I remember once going to an exhibit in the Aerospace Hall where a person could see if he fit the physical requirements needed to be an astronaut for NASA. When I saw that I was tall enough to be able to float in outer space, I was very excited. But then I saw the photographs and videos of the long and arduous training process needed before one could take that little spacewalk and decided that I had better things to do with my life. (As a side point, there are many halachic issues involved being an astronaut, such as when one observes Shabbos, when one should daven, and whether it is permissible to put one’s life in danger, etc. Therefore, the accepted ruling is that a Torah-observant Jew should not become an astronaut.)

But I did not have to give up my dream. The truth is that when we daven, we are all astronauts, and not because many of us (unfortunately) find ourselves “spacing out” in the middle of Shemoneh Esrei. The Gemara in Brachos (6b) cites the verse in Tehillim (12:9), “K’rom zulas l’vnei adam,” which literally means “When baseness is exalted among the sons of men.” However the Gemara gives a midrashic interpretation: “These are matters that stand at the top of the world, but people disrespect them.” Rashi explains that this refers to tefillah. We see from here that when a person prays, he rises higher than an astronaut – he goes to the highest levels of the universe! And that got me thinking. Without vast preparation, one cannot even think of going to outer space. How much more so if we want to truly rise to the world’s great heights through our prayers.

Indeed, the Shulchan Aruch rules (O.C. 93:1) that “one should wait an hour before starting to pray in order to be able to direct his heart to Hashem.” The Mishneh Berurah explains that only one who is on the high level of the chassidim of the days of the Gemara must wait that long. For all other people, it is sufficient to wait a few moments. But what is a person supposed to do during this time? How should we prepare ourselves?


Why Can’t I Concentrate?

Rav Shimshon Pincus zt”l in his classic sefer on tefillah, She’arim B’Tefillah (page 20), asks the million-dollar question: Why is it that no matter how hard we try, we only manage to concentrate for a few blessings of Shemoneh Esrei and then suddenly find our minds wandering? When it comes to speaking on the phone, even if we cannot see or hear the person we are talking with, we have no trouble concentrating on our words – as long as we know that the other party is still there. So why is praying any different? Since we all believe, without any doubt, that Hashem is standing right in front of us when we pray and is listening to every word, why do we have so much trouble paying attention to what we are saying?

Rav Pincus cites a Rashi in Brachos (31a) that cites a Talmud Yerushalmi explaining why we must mention that Hashem took us out of Egypt right before we daven Shemoneh Esrei. It explains that doing so brings Hashem closer to us – by praising him for the redemption from Egypt. Then, when He is close, we can ask Him for our needs. We see from here that making proper preparations for tefillah is what brings Hashem so close to us.

If a person does not take a few moments to put aside his own personal matters, he has left a huge separation between himself and Hashem. This can be compared to two people trying to talk to each other at a chasunah. Even though they are sitting right across from each other, if the music is so loud that even deaf people can hear it, or if there are other people in between them who are also talking, they will not be able to carry on a normal conversation. Before we daven we must forget about everything that we are involved with so that nothing will divide us from Hashem.


How to Connect

But there is an even deeper reason why this preparation is so crucial, says Rav Pincus. As we explained in the past, tefillah is not the recital of blessings and ancient words. We are actually having a conversation with Hashem. We praise Him, we tell Him what we need, and we thank Him for all He has given us. When you have a conversation with another person, that person must be interested in listening to you. If not, you might as well talk to the wall. The same is with Hashem – if we do not bring Hashem close to us, we cannot hope to have an ounce of concentration. Hashem is not there, so of course we cannot concentrate on the words – there is no conversation going on!

The Gemara in Brachos (31a) states: When a man prays, he should direct his heart to heaven. Abba Shaul says: A siman of this is found in Tehillim (10:17): “Tachin libum, takshiv aznecha – guide their hearts; let Your ear be attentive.” The Bach explains (O.C. Siman 98:1) that unless Hashem guides our hearts, it is simply impossible to have proper concentration when we daven. But if we try our hardest, then Hashem will help us. That is why it states that He will guide our hearts, as only then will His ear be attentive.

At first glance, this explanation seems difficult. It is clear to all of us that regarding everything we do in life – whether it is a spiritual activity or a mundane one – without Hashem’s help we cannot possibly succeed. So why is it necessary to point this out regarding tefillah? The answer is that Chazal are teaching us that tefillah is a conversation with Hashem and the only way to have a conversation with Him is if He is willing to come close to us. Therefore, it is not merely that we require His help – without Him it is not considered tefillah at all, as there is no such thing as a conversation without another party.

The first step in being able to daven properly is to S-T-O-P! Forget about the million things you need to do. If you don’t, your mind will automatically continue racing, and you won’t even realize that you are davening. Next, take a few moments to think: “I am about to talk to Hashem – the Master of the Universe.” Doing so will bring Him close to us, and that in itself will help us consider our davening as a conversation – not words spoken robotically without concentration. And finally, before each Shemoneh Esrei, we ask Hashem for help and say “Hashem sifasai tiftach – Hashem open my lips.” Now that we know that the only way to pray with concentration is with His help, we will say those words with much more emotion.

Rabbi Eliezer M. Niehaus

Tefillah: A Meeting with Hashem – A Personal Request

Friday, November 4th, 2016

Yankel, the town gvir, was doing quite well. His business was flourishing, money was pouring in from all sides and he was quite happy. Unfortunately, though, his observance of Torah and mitzvos was quite lacking. He came late to shul, left early, and rarely opened a sefer. One day, though, his fellow congregants were quite surprised to see him praying with much fervor. “He must be going through a difficult time,” they thought to themselves. But when they got close enough to hear his prayers, they were quite shocked. “Hashem,” said Yankel, “today I am about to make a huge business deal, and I can manage all by myself — all I ask of You is not to mess it up for me!”

What a pity! I think it is safe to assume that none of us would ever say or even think such a thing, but to a small extent we may have the same problem of self-trust. Let me explain.


Whom Can I Trust?

The Chovos Halevavos writes (Sha’ar Habitachon, chapter 2) that we only put our trust in someone after certain conditions are met, and all of them are found with Hashem. In a previous article, we discussed the first condition, that Hashem loves us dearly and only wants what’s best for us. The second is that as a result of that love He never stops thinking about us, is constantly taking care of us and is always watching us. The clearer that becomes, the more we will trust Him. How can we build up that awareness?

The pasuk in Mishlei says (3:5), “Bitach el Hashem b’chol libecha, v’el binascha al tishaen – Trust in Hashem with all your heart, and do not rely upon your own understanding.” Rabbeinu Yonah explains that complete faith in Hashem means not attributing any success to our own actions or ideas. We must believe with all our heart that without Hashem, we cannot accomplish anything.

And before you begin to wonder how to reach such a great level, Shlomo HaMelech continues: “B’chol dirachecha da’eihu, vehu yiyasher orchosecha – In all your ways know Him and He will smooth your paths.” Rabbeinu Yonah explains that there are many people who only turn to Hashem for help when they are about to do something really big, such as embarking on a sea voyage or traversing the desert. But when doing something small, they are sure they will be successful on their own. Thus, Shlomo HaMelech tells us: In all your ways you must turn to him – even before performing small actions. By doing so, you will straighten your ways and not rely on your intellect at all.

We see from here that one who only asks Hashem for help in areas where he realizes that he needs help demonstrates that the rest of the time he thinks he is taking care of himself, like Yankel the gvir. But if we make sure to always turn to Hashem, we will avoid this pitfall.


Daven for Everything!

The Chazon Ish once told Rav Elazar Tzadok Torchen (co-author of the sefer Shoneh Halachos): “Sometimes we see a bachur who was very strong in his observance of Torah and mitzvos before he got married, but after his chasuna he suddenly starts getting weaker. I believe the problem began before he got married. Obviously he had not worked enough on his emunah and, therefore, when he found himself out in the big world, he was not able to withstand the temptations that faced him.”

When Rav Torchen asked how one should work on one’s emunah, the Chazon Ish answered that a person should turn to Hashem and ask for each and every thing he needs. And he gave the following example: “Let’s say you need to buy new shoes. You go to the shoe store and tell the owner that you would like comfortable ones that do not cost too much and will last a long time. Instead of only requesting that of the store owner, first turn to Hashem and say the same exact thing: ‘Hashem, I need new shoes. Please help me find ones that are not too expensive, are comfortable, long-lasting etc.’ And then, if Hashem gives you what you requested, immediately thank Him for it, as that will reinforce the reality that all is from Him.”

We have now learned an important way to make ourselves aware that Hashem is involved in every part of our lives: Daven in your own words (English is fine) and in great detail (as above) before everything you do. As a first step, let us take one action each day and ask Hashem to help us succeed with it. For example, Rav Avigdor Miller zt”l would say that many people have been hit by cars as they innocently cross the street. So, before you step off the curb, say a short prayer asking Hashem to protect you as you cross. (But don’t let anyone hear you, lest they make fun!)


A Great Ending

Besides for saying short prayers throughout the day, a person should, as I heard from Rav Elchonon Meir Fishman, mashgiach of Toras Moshe, add his or her own requests at the end of the weekday Shemoneh Esrei, right before we say “yihyu l’ratzon” (after which one takes three steps back). At that point, open your heart and ask Hashem for all your needs in whichever language you feel the most comfortable. If you are not married yet, or if your children are not married yet – even if they are still young – don’t wait! Now is the time to ask Hashem to find you or your children a good shidduch without any of the heartache and delays that many people unfortunately go through. Daven that each one of your children should always be healthy and have yiras Shamayim. The boys should be talmidei chachomim and the girls should be tzniyus, and so on and so forth.

Rav Shimshon Pincus zt”l would say that we have treasure houses of presents waiting for us in Heaven – but they won’t come down until we open our mouths and ask! Ask Hashem for your heart’s desire – ask for anything – even the smallest, simplest things, and don’t be embarrassed. Nothing is small in Hashem’s Eyes! On the contrary, when we ask for small things, we make it clear that we are totally and completely dependent on Him. And then, even when we are going about our jobs and daily lives, it will be clear that we are not able to do anything without Hashem’s help.

However, Rav Fishman would add that since there is a rule that if we repeatedly ask Hashem for something He will sometimes give it to us even if it is not really in our best interests, we should conclude “v’hatzlicheini b’hatzlocha amitis – and give me true success.” Meaning, I only want this if it is truly good for me.

We are now in the month of Cheshvan, a perfect time to work on this concept. This is because the full name of the month is “Marcheshvan” and there are those who explain these words to mean “the lips are moving.” (See Ta’anis 22b “sifvassei d’ka mirachashon.”) That is, in this month our lips continue moving in prayer after all the tefillos of the month of Tishrei. If we keep our lips moving in prayer this month through all our personal tefillos to Hashem, hopefully they will continue moving all year long!

Rabbi Eliezer M. Niehaus

Hashem Hates Thievery

Friday, November 4th, 2016

And Hashem said to Noach, “The end of all flesh has come before me since the land is filled with robbery through them, and I will now destroy the land.” – Bereishis 6:13

In this pasuk, Hashem appears to Noach, telling him the world has turned to evil and He will now destroy all of life. Noach, his family, and the animals that remained pure will be the core of a new world. The reason for this destruction is stealing – “since the land is filled with robbery.”

Rashi is troubled that thievery is being treated as the pivotal point of the world’s existence. There are many sins that are worse. Rashi seems to answer this by saying that stealing was the crime that sealed their fate. Granted they were involved in other iniquities, but this was the one that actually demanded justice.

This Rashi is difficult to understand, as we know stealing is not one of the most severe sins. There are three cardinal sins a Jew is obligated to give up his life not to commit: idol worship, adultery, and murder. While stealing is certainly a serious crime, it isn’t among these – in fact, it isn’t even in their league.

Even more to the point, in a previous pasuk Rashi told us the main crimes then were idol worship and illicit relations. The Torah tells us “all flesh was corrupted.” It is clear that these more serious sins were rampant. How then can we understand Rashi’s statement that stealing was the crime that caused their destruction?

This question can best be answered with a mashal.

Different Scales of Measure

Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries on the planet; the average working man there earns about 180 dollars a year. Imagine that I walk into a savings and loan company in the United States and say, “I am looking to take out a mortgage on a new home.”

he loan officer will ask me, “What is your income? What assets do you have?”

I respond, “My friend, no need to worry. Why, I earn as much as ten men in Bangladesh. In fact, I don’t like to brag, but I earn as much as a hundred men there!”

Needless to say, I wouldn’t secure a loan. Because earning 1,800 dollars a year or even 18,000 dollars a year in our economy is below poverty level.

This is an example of different scales of measure. In a third world country where much of the population is starving, earning your daily bread and water might qualify you as well off, whereas in a more affluent world, it would be quite poor. More than objective wealth being the determinant of your status, it is the standard against which you are being measured. When the bar is raised, it becomes much more difficult to be considered acceptable.

So too in the system of Hashem’s judgment, there are different standards of measure. There is din – strict judgment – and there is rachamim – the mercy system. Strict din demands perfection. There is no room for shortcomings and no place for excuses; you are responsible. You did an act that act that brought about a result, so you are accountable – utterly, completely and totally. No mitigating factors, no extenuating circumstances. You are guilty as charged.

Rachamim is very different. This concept introduces understanding: “There were compelling factors.” “It was a difficult situation.” “There are few people in this generation who would have done much better.”

In the Heavenly system of judgment, there is a balance between rachamim and din. At one point, the balance may be 60 percent rachamim, 40 percent din. At another point it might be 80/20. If strict din would be in place, no mortal could stand. Even the Avos, the greatest humans who ever lived, would not have passed.

Certain times and actions change the balance between rachamim and din. Much of our davening focuses on asking Hashem to judge us more favorably, to introduce mercy into the deliberation. On the flip side, there are certain actions that strengthen the middah of din, moving the balance over to more strict judgment.

This seems to be the answer to Rashi. It isn’t that stealing is a more severe crime than immorality – it is less severe. However, there is an element to stealing that awakens din. Stealing from a person demonstrates a total disregard of his rights – it’s as if he isn’t a person. I can take away his property, even his very sustenance.

Chazal tell us, “As a person acts toward others, Hashem acts toward him.” Because robbery is an abrogation of a person’s rights, it causes a change in the way Hashem judges. It is as if Hashem says, “If you act that way toward others, then I will act accordingly to you.” Therefore, stealing changes the way Hashem judges because it causes the middah of din to react more strongly.

The other sins the generation was involved in had much more serious consequences, but they didn’t include a lack of respect for others, and therefore didn’t carry this element of changing the system of judgment. It was stealing alone that sealed their fate because it changed the system of judgment.

Living in the 21st Century

This concept is especially applicable in our times. Never before in the history of humanity has so much wealth been accessible to so many. Kings of yesteryear could not envision or imagine the luxuries that the common man today takes for granted. Yet it seems to be more difficult than ever to earn a living. The great test of life is not earning a living but how you earn your living. Are you honest? Are you scrupulous? Do you have standards and immutable rules?

While the primary motivation for honesty in business is that it is the right way to act, this Chazal demonstrates to us another reason: it changes the way Hashem acts toward us. It would be difficult to imagine the man who can say to Hashem, “I am entitled to earn a living! Based on my calculations of what You have given me and what I have done for You, You owe me.” Therefore, it is ill advised for a person to enter into calculations with Hashem, demanding his needs. Far wiser is the man who recognizes that we exist because of mercy. Before Hashem creates us, we do nothing to deserve being created, and after Hashem creates us we aren’t any different. We depend on Hashem’s mercy.

If we wish to gain favor in Hashem’s eyes, we need to utilize the systems He has created. By respecting other people and being scrupulously honest in our business dealings, we make it far more likely for Him to judge us with mercy and take care of us.

Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafier

Tefillah: A Meeting With Hashem -Teshuva Through Prayer

Friday, October 7th, 2016

“The Shabbos Shuva drasha will be given at 5:00 in the main sanctuary.” The age-old custom of listening to a Shabbos Shuva drasha will take place all over the world this Shabbos and definitely should not be missed. When the community gathers together to hear words of inspiration from the rabbi, it is a wonderful opportunity to prepare ourselves for Yom Kippur. The fact that we have come together as one unit to raise our level of spirituality causes much joy to Hashem, and that in itself is a reason to take part in this special event.

But we must know that besides the rabbi’s speech, there is another important one, given by none other than the navi Hoshea during the Shabbos morning services. For some people, hearing the chazzan begin reading the weekly haftarah is a signal to doze off. What a pity! These words contain such holy inspiration that just hearing them will help us peel away some of the layers of sin that cover our hearts. And certainly anyone who listens to Hoshea’s message will learn what to do in order to achieve true repentance.

So let us take a look at the opening words of the haftarah of Shabbos Shuva. There we will discover what we should be doing during these special days.


Take Words

The haftarah begins: “Shuva Yisroel ad Hashem Elokecha, ki chushalta ba’avonecha! Return, Yisroel, unto Hashem your G-d, for you stumbled in your iniquity. Kechu e’machem d’vorim v’shuvu el Hashem – Take words with you and return to Hashem…” (Hoshea 14:2-3).

The midrash (Shemos Rabba, Tezaveh) explains what these “words” are: “Klal Yisroel says to Hashem: ‘We do not have sacrifices to grant us atonement!’ And Hashem answers, ‘I only request words from you, and words means Torah.’ So Klal Yisroel says ‘But we don’t know how!’ And Hashem answers, ‘So cry and pray to Me. Did I not redeem your forefathers in Egypt because they prayed to me… and in the days of Yehoshua, was it not through prayer that I performed for them miracles? So too, I do not want from you offerings or korbonos – just words…’”

This amazing midrash addresses our generation, as we also do not have sacrifices. Hashem compares us to being in Egypt – where we needed salvation from the torture and slavery that entrapped us. And today we need miracles just like our nation needed in the times of Yehoshua. Why is this so?

The painful answer is that even though we try hard to fulfill the commandments of the Torah, many times we, unfortunately, fall short. And when a temptation to sin arises, we usually overcome it – but many times we don’t. All this needs atonement, as it is not possible to enter the World to Come with stains on our souls. We may have to endure various punishments or suffering, chas v’sholom. But Hashem, in His great kindness, gives us the opportunity each year, during these ten days of repentance, to achieve that soul cleansing and avoid the need to undergo pain.

So we say to Hashem: “What should we do? Once, we had a Bais HaMikdosh where we could offer korbonos and receive atonement. But we don’t have that anymore! We try to learn Torah, but we don’t know how! Our learning is not on the level sufficient to save us from our dire situation.” Hashem answers: “Cry and pray to me! That is what you should bring me – words of prayer!”

We see from here that there is a deep connection between prayer and repentance.

We find the same connection from the fact that viduy, confession, is part of the Yom Kippur davening – it appears five times during the silent Shemoneh Esrei and five times during the chazzan’s repetition. Similarly, we say in the moving prayer of U’nesaneh Tokef: “But repentance, prayer, and charity remove the evil of the decree!” So an integral part of achieving atonement is through prayer. Why is this so?


In Your Presence

As part of the viduy of Yom Kippur we say over and over “al cheit shechatanu lifanecha.” We ask forgiveness for the sin that we sinned “in Your presence.” I heard from the mashgiach of Yeshivas Toras Moshe in Yerushalayim, Rav Elchonon Meir Fishman, that the main reason we sin is that we forget we are in the presence of Hashem.

He illustrated his point in this way: Let us imagine that right now we hear the shofar of Moshiach. When that great shofar will finally be blown, there will be no doubts – this is it! Moshiach is here! As it gets louder and louder, someone walks into the room and starts telling you a juicy piece of loshon hora. Normally, you would have trouble resisting, but this time you scream: “Get out of here! The King is coming; how can I sin in His presence!”

When we express our remorse, we admit that “the sin was in Your presence.” The first step in repentance is to say to Hashem that until now we lived as if we were not in front of You, but now we have come back.

Now we can understand why we repent specifically during Shemoneh Esrei. As we explained many times in this series, tefillah is a meeting with Hashem. We put aside all other matters, business and personal, and turn to Hashem in prayer. At that moment, when we feel the strong connection to Hashem, we are able to truly feel how far we have strayed. We can honestly say that we sinned because we did not feel that we were in Your presence. So please accept our regret and forgive us!

This is what Hoshea is telling us: The way to repentance is through prayer! Praying is the quickest and most direct way of placing ourselves back in front of Hashem. That is why he stressed taking “words with you and return to Hashem” – because through these words of prayer we return directly to Hashem. And once we are there, we will be able to see everything in the correct perspective and truly turn over a new leaf in our lives.

Rabbi Eliezer M. Niehaus

Tefillah: A Meeting With Hashem – Are We Atheists In Foxholes?

Friday, September 2nd, 2016

“There are no atheists in foxholes,” goes the saying. When in dire straits, even the greatest non-believer will often admit that until now his life was a farce. He had denied G-d’s existence only because he wanted to live without any constraints – like an animal, without the burden of his conscience. Now, when he feels helpless, as shells explode around him and the angel of death ruthlessly snatches away his comrades, he raises his eyes in prayer to G-d, whom he just rediscovered.

We Torah-observant Jews are definitely light years ahead of that poor fellow. But in a certain way we are similar. Let us think about how we daven Shemoneh Esrei. We all try to concentrate, but it is difficult. Our mind wanders, and we daydream about countless topics. And before we know it, we find ourselves taking three steps back.

But if, chas v’sholom, a person is told by his doctors that he has a severe disease and needs to undergo intense medical treatment, his prayers take on new dimensions. Each word is said with emotion and feeling, because he knows that his life is on the line. And if his business is floundering, he pours his heart out during the blessing of Bareich Aleinu, and begs Hashem for help.

Sure, we are much better than the atheist who only sees the truth when it may be too late to start living a life of faith. But to a certain degree we also forget about Hashem when the sailing is smooth. How can we rectify the problem?


Foolish Complacency

This Shabbos is Rosh Chodesh Elul. In just thirty days it will be Rosh Hashanah, when Hashem will decide what will happen to us in the upcoming year – and sometimes the ruling can have an effect that will last for many years to come. Since we are judged based on our past performance, we should be quite terrified. But for some strange reason we are calm and complacent. Indeed, much ink has been spilled regarding this phenomenon: Just several generations ago, even the simple water carrier was terrified when Rosh Chodesh Elul arrived, but in our times, it is very difficult for us to truly be worried about our impending judgment.

One of the explanations given is that in those generations most people did not really know where their income would come from, nor whether there would be food available. And, at any moment, the gentiles could rise against the Jews with terrible pogroms and persecutions. Before the discovery of antibiotics, a simple cold could lead to deadly illnesses. The people living in those times truly understood that they were totally dependent on Hashem’s ongoing protection and kindness. Hence, the Yomim Noraim were truly scary days. But in our modern age, our livelihoods are relatively secure, we have doctors who can cure most ailments, and except for sporadic terrorist attacks, we feel more or less safe. Of course, in our hearts we know that everything we have is truly from Hashem, but those feelings are not enough of a reality in our daily lives. Thus, Rosh Hashanah does not have enough significance to us. What can we do to change our mindset?


The Poor “Rich” Man

The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 16b) states: “Reb Yitzchok says that any year that is poor in the beginning will be rich in the end.” Rashi explains that “poor in the beginning” means that “Klal Yisroel makes themselves poor on Rosh Hashanah to utter supplications and pray, as it says in Mishlei (18:23) ‘A pauper utters supplications.’” On Rosh Hashanah we must turn to Hashem in prayer the same way a poor man asks people for help. Rav Matisyahu Salomon, the famed Mashgiach of Beis Medrash Gavoha in Lakewood, explains this with the following parable:

Everyone thought that Bob was fabulously wealthy. The estate that sprawled over several acres, the fabulous mansion, the numerous luxury cars, the private yacht and airplane – they all bespoke riches. Not to mention his downtown skyscrapers and countrywide chain of stores. But the truth was far from what the eye beheld. For the last three years Bob had suffered tremendous losses on all financial fronts. He desperately tried to bail himself out of the rut he had fallen into, but to no avail. The bank began warning him of seizures and foreclosures, until, one day, it came. “If you do not pay us the money you owe, in exactly three days we will seize all your assets and properties,” the letter from the bank stated. Without waiting a moment, Bob ran to the bank manager and literally went down on his knees. “Please, please, have mercy!” he pleaded. “If you take everything away I am finished! I have new plans which will definitely succeed! Give me a few more months to save myself!”

If a person foolishly feels that he is all set and does not need Hashem for anything, he will not view his life as being on the line. Entering Rosh Hashanah in such a manner is not very smart. We must consider the possibility that we are in exactly the same situation as our friend Bob. Yes, Baruch Hashem, we have health and parnasah, but perhaps it is all on credit! Maybe Hashem in His infinite kindness is giving us a chance to mend our ways – but at any moment He can decide that the time is up. And in truth, that is what happens every Rosh Hashanah. Just as the bank reevaluates its client’s credit ratings from time to time, so too, each year on this day, Hashem evaluates how we have acted until now. And then He decides to extend us credit, or, chas v’sholom, not to.

We must approach Hashem the same way that Bob beseeched the bank manager, and beg Him like a poor man. If we do so, says the Gemara, we will merit a good year. The more we show that we realize that we do not deserve anything, the more we will deserve mercy.


The Daily Foxhole

Let us return to our daily Shemoneh Esrei. One of the reasons we have so much trouble concentrating during a regular Shemoneh Esrei is the same reason we do not feel scared about Rosh Hashanah: We simply do not feel that we are in danger. But if we would think about all the people who suddenly lost their parnasah or health, we would change our mindset. All those cases teach us that nothing can be taken for granted. Then, every time we ask Hashem for health, we will do so as one who really needs a medical salvation, because we never really know if our good health is really just on credit.

We are better off than the atheist in the foxhole – his faith in Hashem is buried so deep that it requires a life-threatening situation to bring it to life. We, on the other hand, know the truth – we are just fast asleep. With a little thought, we can awaken ourselves, and show our true colors.

If we use these days of Elul to instill in ourselves the reality that one good year does not tell us anything about the coming year, by the time we reach Rosh Hashanah we will truly be able to pray to Hashem like a poor man does. And then, we will merit, b’ezras Hashem, having a happy sweet New Year.

Rabbi Eliezer M. Niehaus

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/parsha/tefillah-a-meeting-with-hashem-are-we-atheists-in-foxholes/2016/09/02/

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