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Rocket Ship of T’shuva

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

We have learned that t’shuva is the force which makes the world go round. Just as gravity keeps us here on earth, t’shuva keeps us longing for the heavens. For the individual, the source of this force lies in his or her willpower. The will is the battery of t’shuva. For a person to be healthy, happy, and in harmony with the universe, his will must be freed from the bondage of sin and directed toward goodness and God.

We are not accustomed to thinking in terms of the will. In school we learn about many different subjects, we learn about different professions, we learn how to get along in the world. But we don’t learn very much about being good. Rabbi Kook, however, teaches that education should focus not on professional training alone, but on finding ways to direct all of man’s endeavors, both material and spiritual, toward the world’s general aspiration for goodness. He writes:

Pure honesty demands that all of the labor of science should be directed toward the fundamental ideal of enhancing man’s will with the ultimate goodness fitting to it, to refine the will, to strengthen it, to sanctify it, to purify it, to habituate it through educational channels to always strive for what is lofty and noble (Orot HaT’shuva, 15:2).

When, however, mankind strays from the proper course, and instead of striving to elevate the will, leaves it wallowing in its baseness, wanting only to satisfy the will’s lower passions, then humanity plunges into darkness, degeneracy, and idolatry.

Out of its depths, (mankind) will cry out to the God of truth and return to the holy goal of making the foundation of every activity the uplifting of the will…. This is the entire basis of t’shuva, the elevation of the will, transforming it to good, to rise up from darkness to light, from a valley of tribulation to a gateway of hope (Ibid).

Previously, we saw that t’shuva can come about gradually, or in a sudden powerful flash. Gradual t’shuva resembles any developmental, step-by-step process whereby one thing leads to another in a natural fashion like the growth of a tree, which progresses from the seed to the fruit in a slow, predictable process.

Sudden t’shuva is different. It seems to come about all at once with superhuman energy and willpower. Where does this great thrust of life energy come from? If we had spiritual glasses to analyze the process, what catalysts and forces would we see?

The longing for goodness that makes up a person’s willpower has a resiliency like that of a spring. Sin causes the will for goodness to be contracted, like a spring which is being stepped on. The further a person is caught up in sin, the tighter the spring is compressed. When a person frees himself from the shackles of sin, he is freeing his willpower to return to cleaving to God. Since his willpower was in such a constricted state, when it is released, it explodes with a super momentum and force, far greater than the force of gradual t’shuva. The sudden baal t’shuva has a magnificent outburst of will which propels him into a frenzy of spiritual endeavor. From the depth of his darkness, he discovers an incredible light, an incredible good_ ness. All at once, BOOM, he is turned on by God. His prayer, his Torah study, his good deeds are all filled with a fiery intensity and fervor for universal good.

It is this revitalized energy which makes the newly religious seem “born again.” This occurs because his willpower has been rescued and recharged. This accounts for the teaching that a tzaddik cannot reach the level of a baal t’shuva (Berachot 34B), for a tzaddik is motivated by the normal, step-by-step will to do good, and not by the explosive, shot-out-of-a-cannon passion of the baal t’shuva.

Because of its great power, Rabbi Kook warns that t’shuva, if misused, can become a lethal weapon. Like a surgical knife, t’shuva can be the key to new healthy life, or to self-destruction.

blockquote>When one contracts the will, when one represses the life-force through an inner course of abstaining from life’s pleasures out of the desire to avoid all transgression, a contraction of the will for goodness also occurs. The power of the moral side of life is also lessened. A man engaged in purifying his life suffers a weakness like that of a sick person who was cured by electric shock therapy, which wiped out the disease, but also weakened his healthy life-force (Orot HaT’shuva, 9:10).

The Key to Success

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

As we continue on the t’shuva train toward Yom Kippur, I would like to take this opportunity to bless the readers of the Jewish Press, and my friends the world over, with a year of health, happiness, and success.

While the greatest success a Jew can achieve is to live a Torah life in the Land of Israel, success comes in many shapes and sizes. To make sure that your new year will be blessed with success, here’s a wonderful teaching of Rabbi Kook, condensed from our commentary, “The Art of T’shuva,” which has the power to make everyone a winner.

It is no secret that western society is success oriented. Everyone wants to be a success, whether it be a successful basketball player, a successful lawyer, a successful doctor, a successful housewife… the list goes on and on. Success is championed as one of life’s greatest values. Everyone loves success stories. Everyone envies successful people. From the earliest ages, children are taught to admire success. Parents push their kids to be successful. The drive to succeed is reinforced in schools. The competition is fierce to get into top colleges, because they are seen as the doors to success. Working your way up the ladder of success is the mainstay of capitalism. Accordingly, bookstores are filled with dozens of guides on how to succeed.

Accordingly, the poor soul who does not succeed is a loser. In western society, if you are not a success, you are probably very unhappy. Your self-image is bound to be low. The successful people are the winners, and you are nothing more than a bum.

Rabbi Kook has good news. If you are a loser, all is not lost. You too can be a winner. You too can succeed. How? Through t’shuva.

That’s right. The key to success is t’shuva. For when life is looked at through spiritual glasses, for what it really is, the most important thing is neither money, nor honor, nor power, nor fame. The most important thing is pursuing a life of goodness. True success lies in simply striving to be good. For real achievement is measured by what is important to God, not by what society flaunts. In God’s eyes, a woman can be successful without looking like Barbie. A man can be a success without having five or six credit cards and a six-figure salary. The real man, the real success, is the baal t’shuva, the man of Torah.

Rabbi Kook discusses this startling idea in his writings on ratzon, רצון. The Hebrew word ratzon is usually translated as will, or willpower, but the word has a deep connotation which requires some further explanation. He writes:

The will which is forged by t’shuva is the will which is imbedded in the depths of existence, and not the lesser will that concerns itself with the superficial and external facets of life. This (deeper) will is the most fundamental force in the foundation of life, and this is the genuine character of the soul (Orot HaT’shuva, 9:1. See the “Art of T’shuva,” Ch.12).

This fundamental force is the desire to get closer to God. This is the deepest expression of the will. For instance, the desire to eat ice cream is a relatively superficial desire, an offshoot of the desire to eat. On a deeper level, the desire to eat is an expression of the will to survive. While not every man has a desire to eat ice cream, every man does have a will to survive. This will, the will to live, is a deeper phase of ratzon, and something less dependent upon a man’s free choice. This can be seen in an old, dying person. Though racked with sufferings, he still clutches onto life with his last ounce of strength. Even if he lapses into a coma, the will to live in his soul continues to function.

On an even deeper level, buried in the will to live is man’s deepest, most basic will — the will to get close to God. The will to be connected to God finds expression in the will to do good and in the longing for goodness. Just as G-d is good, we should be good. Just as God is giving, we should be giving. Man is the only creature who possesses a free will. Our task is to align our will with the will of our Creator. For the Jewish people, living a life of goodness means living a life filled with Torah, which is God’s will for the Jews. This is our true happiness, as it says, “The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart” (Tehillim, 19:9).

Choosing an Accessible Vehicle

Friday, September 14th, 2012

Having mobility issues can be challenging in many ways, from obtaining a proper wheelchair to navigating your environment. One of the biggest challenges is getting from origin to destination. Whether you have your own vehicle or need to rely on public transportation, you need to do research on what is the most appropriate accommodation.

Many major cities now have public transportation that is handicapped accessible, from city buses to taxis. However, most people find it very difficult to get around relying on this. The only practical alternative is to purchase a specially accommodated vehicle.

When shopping for mobility options, don’t be overwhelmed! There is a wide variety of options available.

The requirements these vehicles must meet will vary depending on an individual’s needs. Someone who can drive themselves, or who has the ability to transfer out of their wheelchair into a regular car seat will need a very different vehicle than someone who will always be a passenger and must remain in their wheelchair at all times.

It’s important that you consider your needs, or the needs of the person you’re caring for, not only today, but for the service life of the new vehicle, five or even seven years down the road. Can the person transfer from a wheelchair to a vehicle seat now, but might not be able to in the future? Can you afford to buy one vehicle that’s appropriate now and another one in a few years when that person’s needs have changed?

There’s no such thing as, “one size fits all”. Usually, when people shop for a new car, 99% of the population will comfortably fit into just about every vehicle offered. But the needs of wheelchair and scooter users are much more specific and extremely diverse. Because of the complexity of the choices available and the relatively high cost of these vehicles, families should do their homework carefully to find the right balance between features and price.

A good mobility dealer will serve as your personal mobility expert. It’s their role and responsibility to find the best mobility option to fit your needs, your lifestyle, and your budget. In order to do this, you’ll need to meet with your local mobility dealer in person to find the best available option to fit your family and the wheelchair user. You can either stop by the local dealership or they can schedule a time to visit you at your home.

If you do a search online, you will find a multitude of dealers who can be contacted online and in person. If you visit a local dealer, you can see, touch, and try out the vehicles. And they provide full support after the sale, which is an important service that the online dealers do not offer.

There are many considerations to take into account when deciding which type of vehicle to buy:

Size of wheelchair and wheelchair user – if the wheelchair itself is very large this determines the minimum size of vehicle needed.

Parking availability – Is there a driveway available or only on-street parking? Do you go to school/doctor appointments where parking is limited?

Size of family – Do you have a lot of other family members that also need to fit in the vehicle?

Seating – If an adult is the wheelchair user, would they be driving or be able to sit up front in the regular car seat next to the driver? If it is a child, you will need to put them in the back of the vehicle. There are a variety of vehicles available. Some are adapted with a special lift or ramp for bringing the person into the vehicle in their wheelchair. Others have regular car seats that swing out, enabling someone to transfer or be transferred from their wheelchair to a regular seat.

Minivans-

According to Dan Bussani of Bussani Mobility Team, there are a few different brands of minivans that are available already converted for handicapped access. The main difference between them is the size of the vehicle.

Conversion companies take the basic minivan from the manufacturer and adapt them for wheelchair or scooter accessibility to meet an individual’s daily transportation needs. Approximately 12-15,000 units are done a year.

Feel Frightened and Depressed? Be Happy!

Friday, September 14th, 2012

Should an individual choose a life of sin, God forbid, rather than a life of t’shuva, a terrible darkness envelopes his soul, and his thoughts, aspirations, and character become seeped in evil. These people are the wicked of the world, who see the world in the dark colors which mirror their soul. These are the cynics who find fault in everything, the irreverent who complain against God.

Lacking the will to escape his dungeon of sin, cut off from the world’s future of goodness, the wicked cower behind defensive masks of scorn. They are like the sour notes of a symphony, the coughs in the theater, the laughter in the balcony, the Nietzsches and Nazis of the world, who condemn the ideals which they cannot obtain. Too weak to escape the clutches of sin, they become its proponents.

The fear that accompanies the awakenings of t’shuva is what keeps people imprisoned in darkness. It is a fear that grips whole nations. Rather than acknowledge that their cultures are based on falsehood and evil, entire civilizations cling to their delusions and myths. Instead of embracing the light of God, the world pays mere lip service, hiding behind one brand of paganism or another.

Existential pain is not only experienced by those far from God, but also by the righteous. A tzaddik who dedicates his whole life to fostering goodness, can also fall out of harmony with existence. Because his soul is so sensitive to evil, he reacts to every small transgression with grief and despair. Perhaps his intention in doing a good deed was not on the proper level. Perhaps he failed to maintain concentration throughout all of his prayers. To the extent that he fails to be pure in all of his actions, emotions, and thoughts, his soul experiences and calls out for t’shuva. He longs to be closer to God, to be reunited with the harmony of existence.

Rabbi Kook explains that the pain of the righteous person stems not only from his own personal shortcomings. Even if he were to be sinless, he would still feel the pain of the universal soul as it longs for a higher connection to God. Because of the unity of all existence, as long as the world is darkened with sin, the tzaddik suffers too. He feels the absence of Divine light in the world, and the pain of the exiled Shekhinah. He carries the pain of the world in his soul, and he expresses, with all of his being, all of his organs, all of his strength, the world’s longing for God. Because he embodies the sufferings of the world, when he is forgiven, the world is forgiven with him.

Rabbi Kook has further good news. We all can be righteous!

Every person who deeply feels the remorse of t’shuva and the inner turmoil to redress his wrongdoings, both those which he can readily mend, and those which he hopes to address, with God’s help, in the future — he should include himself with the righteous whose thoughts of t’shuva renew the entire world with a new light” (Orot HaT’shuva, 8:6).

Rabbi Kook’s level after level exploration into the psychology of sin does not end in despair, but in peace and salvation. He explains that the despair a person feels when he confronts his sins is itself a source of hope. The fact that a person is in a state of pain and despair means that he senses his alienation from the positive forces of life. He realizes that sin is not the ideal. This means that the light of morality and holiness in his soul still flickers. In his innermost heart, he still longs for goodness. All is not lost. The important thing is not to fall prey to despair, and to remember that a great happiness is on the way.

When an individual contemplates embarking on a course of total t’shuva, of mending all of his feelings and deeds, even if this is only a thought, he must not be discouraged by the feelings of fear which arise when he faces his many sins, which now seem so pronounced. This is only natural, for as long as a person is seized by the baser side of his nature, and by the dark, negative traits which surround him, he does not feel the weight of his sins so strongly. Occasionally, he feels nothing, and fancies himself a tzaddik. But since his moral sense is awakening, the light of his soul immediately is revealed, and it probes all of his being and exposes all of his wrongs. Then his heart shudders with great fear over his lowliness and lack of perfection. But it is exactly at this instant that he should feel that this awareness, and the worry it causes, are the best signs, forecasting a complete salvation through self-perfection, and he should strengthen himself through this recognition in the Lord his God (Ibid, 8:16).

A Pathway To Teshuvah

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

Yom Hadin is almost here and this time of year brings with it a range of emotions. Some people are excited – a new year, the start of school, new clothing. For others, Rosh Hashanah instills fear – the need to correct wrongdoings, to beg for forgiveness and make promises to be better. For still others, there is a feeling of being overwhelmed – either by the awe of the Yom Hadin or perhaps the reality of so many days of Shabbos, Yom Tov, Shabbos (that’s a lot of cooking and baking). We are often so busy taking care of all the “things” that need to be done, that we don’t have enough time for spiritual and emotional preparation. It feels like most years I come to Selichos feeling as if I haven’t done enough to prepare.

We are about to stand before Hashem and celebrate the creation of His world in which we are privileged to live. We are ready to honor Hashem’s Malchus and to ask for another year in which to do good and live in a proper way.

Aneivus (humbleness), self-dignity and teshuvah – three ideas that at first glance might not seem to belong together. In reality they are directly intertwined and each depends on the other. Think about this: A person cannot do teshuvah without first accepting and loving themselves and a person cannot accept and love themselves without turning to Hashem.

What is humbleness? Growing up many of us were taught to have aneivus. It was not considered fine to think highly of oneself – that was gaiva (haughtiness). It was not proper to give too much credit to one’s own accomplishments. Many people and especially women have learned these lessons all too well. I respectfully suggest that many have thought of as gaiva is actually what aneivus should be.

In order to understand what humbleness is it is important to know what is isn’t.

Humbleness isn’t:

1. Being self-deprecating in speech or thoughts.

2. Putting yourself last.

3. Denying your own needs (eating right, exercise, sleep).

4. Denying your own feelings, achievements, accomplishments.

5. Always doing for others and never doing for yourself.

6. Denying your hopes and dreams.

The above is actually the life of a slave. It is what we left behind in Mitzrayim, in order to be able to become Bnei Yisroel and be able to serve Hashem. Unfortunately, too many people think that slave mentality is the way to be humble. However, not only isn’t that not the way to serve Hashem, it also makes real teshuvah very difficult.

We are each created b’tzelem Elokim – with a responsibility to live our lives with dignity — to treat ourselves with dignity, to treat others with dignity and to expect others to treat us with dignity. Imagine a beautiful lake. Above the lake is clean, cool air. It is fresh and feels right. Below the lake is the slimy, muddy yuck that you don’t want to put your feet in to. It is dark and murky.

We need to live above the lake in the clean, cool air – serving Hashem b’simcha, knowing when we have given too much of ourselves and need to say no, living our lives with honesty and dignity. Living below the lake means living with sadness, negativity, martyrdom, machlokes, abuse, and a disconnect with Torah and Hashem.

We need to recognize when people are trying to pull us into the murky waters and learn how to pull ourselves back up. Teshuvah and closeness to Hashem is the most powerful way to do this.

Many of us may believe that it is not proper to think highly of ourselves – but if we do and we recognize our self-worth, we won’t look for kavod from others. We don’t need approval from others if we give it to ourselves. Too often we judge ourselves by how others see us; we think we have to measure up to another’s idea of success in order to be worth anything. However, if that is our recipe for self-respect – most of us will NEVER get there, and we risk losing a real relationship with Hashem in the process. With self-dignity we can be emotionally complete and truly serve Hashem.

Parshat Nitzavim

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

Colin Powell, despite reaching the pinnacle of power, has never forgotten his simple roots in the Bronx. This proud connection to his past manifests itself in many ways, ranging from his work ethic to his love of hotdogs. It also manifests itself in his appreciation of what the “regular guy” brings to the table in every organization. All too often people focus on the leaders and big players who are on everybody’s radar. But in a certain sense, it is the people in the trenches—the ones nobody knows—who are the real heroes; the people who really drive society forward.

One of the responsibilities of a leader is to articulate a vision and sense of purpose for the organization. This includes ensuring that every member of the organization understands the vision, buys into the vision, and appreciates his personal role in actualizing the vision. To illustrate this point Powell relates an interesting anecdote in his new book, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership (2012). He was once watching a documentary about the Empire State Building. Most of the documentary focused on the building’s history, architecture and construction. But towards the end the camera showed a large room filled with hundreds of filled and tied black garbage bags. Deep beneath the powerful offices, majestic lobbies and observation deck was the trash room. Although it was obvious what the room’s function was and what the jobs of the men working there were the narrator nonetheless asked one of the workers, “What’s your job?” The man looked back, smiled and said, “Our job is to make sure that tomorrow morning when people from all over the world come to this wonderful building, it shines, it is clean, and it looks great” (p.24). Powell explains that this man got it. He was not merely a custodian. He was a key cast member of the Empire State Building.

I always wonder when I read stories like this if the writer truly believes what he’s writing or is just writing what he thinks sounds good. However, in this particular case Divine providence provided me an answer. The week before I read this book I had visited a private school in Manhattan to discuss curriculum issues. Amid our discussion the headmaster related that his daughter worked for the State Department; she had been initially hired by Colin Powell who was then secretary of state. Though she was a Democrat and Powell a republican there were a number of things that convinced her to take the job; what clinched it however, was this: at the conclusion of the interview, Powell showed her around the Department of State. Entering a hallway, they encountered one of the custodians cleaning the floor. Powell stopped, and addressing him by name asked how he was doing and how his wife’s doctor’s visit had gone. The man responded in kind. She saw how Powell genuinely cared about this person and viewed him as a valued player in the State Department. The headmaster told me that his daughter decided right there that Powell was the kind of person she wanted to work with.

The necessity for leaders to articulate a clear vision, explain it to the masses and inspire them to believe that they all have a role in its realization is underscored by the Torah at the beginning of this week’s Parsha. The Torah describes (29:9-11) how all of Bnei Yisrael were assembled in front of G-d to make a covenant with Him. The assemblage included the chieftains, constables, children, women, and converts – the full strata of Israelite society, from its leadership to its physical laborers. Nobody was excluded. The commentators discuss the Torah’s careful delineation of all the different categories of people present that day.

The Alshich comments that the Torah wanted to emphasize that in truth it is impossible to determine who is more important than whom. While it may seem evident to our earthly senses that person A is more distinguished and honorable than person B, the Heavenly perspective might be very different. The person who seems honorable to us might in fact have played a less significant role in the progress of history than the person who seems simpler. When Moshe assembled all of Bnei Yisrael that day as one group, people realized that they would each be accorded equal respect and attention.

Netzavim: Choose Life

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

The Torah’s injunction to Choose Life may be one of its best known and quoted commandments. But is it completely understood? Rabbi Avigdor Miller, zt”l, explains its depth and its relevance to every act a person makes.

“The life and the death I have given before you…in order that you should live, you and your seed.… And you shall choose life” (30:19). “Choosing life” is one of the highest accomplishments (Shaare Teshuvah III:17). This means that not only does Hashem allow us the free will to choose (a principle that materialist psychologists deny), He also gives us the information that we possess free will.

Further, Hashem in His great kindliness also urges us to choose life. This means that when we keep His Torah we not only are choosing life, we are pleasing Hashem who “desires life” (Yecheskel 18:23) for us. Thus, whenever a good deed is done, we can beforehand add the intention of fulfilling this mitzvah of “choosing life” in order to bring pleasure to Hashem Who is interested in the life of every one of His beloved (10:14-15, 14:1, 23:6, 33:26 and elsewhere) people.

To add this intention to our Mitzvos and good deeds, and to keep this intention in mind as much as possible, is one of the highest accomplishments. Thus instead of eating and sleeping by mere force of habit, or instead of being polite to our fellowmen because of custom alone, and instead of Tefillin and Mezuzos and Shabbos-observance and Kashrus without any additional thought, if we add the intention of causing pleasure to Hashem Who wishes that we choose Life, then we are attaining a very high degree of perfection.

But “choose life” is a mitzvah and therefore not optional. We are hereby sternly admonished to have compassion upon ourselves so that we gain the supreme gift called Life. What is this gift of Life? It is the priceless opportunity to live longer, in order to achieve more and more perfection and merit, and it includes the infinite happiness of the endless Afterlife. Thus Hashem in this verse commands “You shall choose life” for your own benefit; to neglect or waste this opportunity to gain Life is one of the greatest catastrophes that could ever happen.

To lack compassion on one’s self by failing to seek life is the crime of crimes. Hashem pleads with us to have pity on ourselves: “Choose life!” By doing that which is our duty, we are thereby gaining life in this world as well as eternal life in the Afterworld, for we have fulfilled the specific mitzvah in addition to fulfilling the general mitzvah of “choosing Life.”

A further insight: Except in certain instances (see Rambam, Teshuvah 6:3), Hashem does not interfere to cause men to choose evil. We see also that a man’s choice affects not only him but also his seed. This, though apparently a contradiction of the principle of free will, is understandable – for when a man dies, he cannot have any more children, and in this sense his deeds affect his (unborn) seed. Similarly, when one sheds his fellowman’s blood, he is held guilty for the blood of the victim and the blood of his (unborn) seed and the seed of his seed, forever (Bereishis Rabbah 22-21).

Meritorious deeds confer benefits not only on one’s unborn seed but also on the children that have already been born. Sons under the age of 13 (daughters under 12) are sometimes included in the punishment of the parent. Thus, the ” choice of life” is not only for the person alone; each man is urged to choose Life for his posterity, and for all those who may be influenced or affected by his choice.

Compiled for The Jewish Press by the Rabbi Avigdor Miller Simchas Hachaim Foundation, a project of Yeshiva Gedolah Bais Yisroel, which Rabbi Miller, zt”l, founded and authorized to disseminate his work. Subscribe to the Foundation’s free e-mail newsletters on marriage, personal growth, and more at www.SimchasHachaim.com.

For more information, or to sponsor a Simchas Hachaim Foundation program, call 718-258-7400 or e-mail info@SimchasHachaim.com.

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