Let him who is convinced that his views are true and right express them . . . at every opportunity . . . without considering how much support or how much opposition he will encounter. Only falsehood is in need of many supporters in order to win the day; falsehood must have the authority of numbers to make up for what it lacks in justification. Truth, by contrast, will always prevail, even if it takes time. Noble, courageous and pure, expressed with all the fiery zeal and conviction and with all clarity of sure awareness, stated again and again at every opportunity, truth will ultimately gain respect and admiration even of those who do not accept it. The only truth that can be lost beyond recall is that truth whose adherents no longer have the courage to speak up candidly on its behalf. Truth has never gone down in defeat as the result of opposition, it has done so only when its friends are too weak to defend it. - R' S.R. Hirsch

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Triumph Through Tragedy

G-d is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  (Psalm 46:1)

When we experience moments of difficulty, trials, illness, or tragedy there is a natural tendency to yearn for a less-complicated more pain-free life.  Perhaps if we were able to receive each trial and challenge as a gift in disguise, we would embrace and cherish them more.  However, theory is one thing and practice another.  When one is in the midst of pain and suffering, it is often difficult to place life's hardships into the proper perspective.  The forty-sixth Psalm provides much comfort in this regard.

R' Ephraim of Brod tells a story about a kind landowner:

Many people rented their homes and businesses from a kind landowner, including one Jew, for whom the price was set at 300 rubles a month. The Jew was careful to pay his rent on the appointed day each year.  

One day, the landowner informed his tenants that he would be going away for a while.  In the meantime, his manager would oversee the rental agreements and other fiduciary affairs.  The Jew was devastated.  He knew the manager and his track record; he was a money-hungry man who tried to extort as much as he could from those beneath him.  

Sure enough, he hiked up the prices of the rentals, gouging the tenants and causing a terrible sense of anxiety.  They knew that the landowner would never have initiated a price increase, but now they were powerless to do anything about it.  The manager was charging them almost double the amount of their original agreement.  How would they manage?  What would they do?  

When payday arrived, the Jewish tenant was 20 rubles short.  When the manager arrived at his door to collect the yearly rent, the poor fellow begged for a few more days so that he could come up with the money.  But his request was rudely denied.  Instead of an extension, he received a beating of 20 lashes, for each ruble he owed.  

Finally, the landowner returned home, and the Jew informed him about the actions of his manager; how he had stolen from the tenants, and about the cruel beating he had received.  The landowner was shocked that his manager had treated everyone so badly, and he felt sorry that everyone had suffered so much.  

He decided to make it up to the Jew.  For every blow the Jew had suffered, the manager would be forced to pay him 100 rubles.  Since he had received 20 lashes, the Jew would receive 2000 rubles.  The manager was subsequently forced to relinquish half his property to the Jew who had been beaten.  If only he had been beaten more, his reward would have been that much greater. 

We read these words in R' Shaul's letter to the Corinthians:

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.  (II Corinthians 4:16 - 18)

We find a similar theme within the first three verses of Psalm 46:

For the director of music. Of the Sons of Korah. According to alamoth shir. G-d is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.   Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.  Selah   (Psalm 46:1-3)

Alamoth shir, the secrets, the mysteries of life, that which is hidden from us.  The idea being that which is hidden from us will eventually be reason for shir, a song.  Another idea is that which is hidden to others can only be sensed in the ecstasy of song.  This brings to mind Paul and Silas:

The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten.   After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully.  Upon receiving such orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.  About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.   (Acts 16:22-25)  

I have always loved and been impressed by the fact that the other prisoners were listening.  What a remarkable scene.  That which is hidden from us will eventually be reason for song and praise because we will understand that Hashem is our machasa va'oz, refuge and strength, and that the ezra ve'tzaros, help is actually hidden inside the distress itself.

This is the idea behind a "very present" help.  Therefore we have no real cause to be afraid or to despair, even if it seems as if the earth is transformed, and things are so difficult to understand.  What's more, others who hear us are afforded the same opportunity, the opportunity to hear about the hope that we have inside and it is all for our good: 

And we know that in all things G-d works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  (Romans 8:28)

As our Sages remind us: We will not be afraid, because we see the hand of G-d even in the midst of the surging flood of catastrophes all around.  We know that He guides them.  Though they may roar and foment, they are His floods and it is G-d that rules them, causes them and guides them, obeying the command of His will.  We can be confident that, in the midst of whatever we may be going through, G-d is more easily accessible and more readily present than any other source that men are wont to look for help.

Chavivin yissurin - Suffering is precious (Sanhedrin 101a).

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

I Have Greatly Hoped in Hashem

I greatly hoped for the L-RD; and He inclined to me, and heard my cry (Psalm 40:1).

David hoped, and continued to place his hope, in the Almighty.  David teaches us how to save ourselves from despair: Keep on hoping and never give up.  The Adversary tries to deceive us into thinking that our failures are meant to break us and that we are defined by our failures.  He also wants us to view our illnesses, hardships, and challenges as punishments for all of our wrongdoings.  While that can sometimes be one element of our trying situations, every nisayon, test  is essentially a nes, a banner, to demonstrate to us His strength and power at work in us.

The Sages teach that David composed this chapter of the Psalms shortly after he had been healed from a long and difficult illness.  In a sense, he had immersed himself in the wellspring of hope and faith.  He knew that although he faced a tremendously difficult challenge, the Almighty would never forsake him nor let go of him.  R' David Kimchi (the Radak) explains that the pit of raging waters from which David was saved was the critical illness that engulfed him and threatened to kill him.  And, the Radak continues, through every challenge and trial that one endures and survives, he must sing a new song to the Almighty for his salvation.

In the 1920's, Rav Yechezkel Abramsky, who was living in communist Russia, was involved in the publishing of a Torah magazine called Yagdil Torah.  After just two issues, the Communist authorities shut down the magazine, viewing it as a threat to their ideals.  A short time later, Rav Abramsky was sentenced to five years of imprisonment in a Siberian slave-labor camp for his "crimes."  Although his sentence was eventually commuted, he endured much suffering and pain during that time.  Yet, he had one constant source of inspiration: Tehillim, the Psalms.  He cherished its every word, finding solace and strength. 

Rav Abramsky had always recited the Psalms each day.  After he was freed from prison, though, he added one more chapter to his daily regimen: Psalm 40, which begins with the words: "For the conductor, by David, a psalm.  I have greatly hoped for Hashem; He inclined to me, and heard my cry.  He raised me from the pit of raging waters, from the slimy mud.  He set my feet upon a rock, firmly establishing my steps.  He put a new song into my mouth, a hymn to our G-d; multitudes shall see and be awed, and they shall trust in Hashem." 

Quite often, when one is healed from an illness, even if he remembers to thank the Almighty for his recovery, he can overlook the progression of the illness and his recovery.  But if we take time and are careful to examine the kindness that the Almighty has bestowed upon us, we will learn to appreciate every step up to the salvation, for it is through the process that one draws closer to His Creator, hoping and thanking Him every step of the way.

The first half of this Psalm, and the first few verses of the second half, would lead us to believe that David was experiencing the purest bliss that one could imagine when he uttered these words.  However, once we read beyond the twelfth verse, we soon realize that this song was written when David was being oppressed by danger on every side and in dire need of deliverance.  In the midst of these troubles and trials David recalled the many prior instances in which G-d delivered him from similar situations and he is strengthened as a result.

David's song, then, is a song declaring that the very sufferings which are meted out by the hand of the Almighty are meant to discipline and train us, and in reality constitute His greatest acts of loving-kindness.  "He put such a song in my mouth," says David, "so that the multitudes, 'looking upon me' might learn from my own example to trust in G-d even while they fear Him.  For He is ready at all times to help those who cry out to Him."

For as our Sages remind us: Nothing can reach to the greatness in which G-d's love can help him who is most hopelessly entangled in struggles both within and without, to rise again.  

Monday, October 19, 2015

My Strength and My Shield

The L-RD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusted in Him, and I am helped; therefore my heart greatly rejoices, and with my song I will praise Him (Psalm 28:7).

When we recite the Psalms, we are searching for inner strength and the ability to endure in seasons of adversity and the most trying of times.  As he often does, in the middle of this Psalm, David concentrates on the faith and trust he has in Hashem and His greatness.  In Tehillos Maharitz, Rav Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky explains that the bitachon, the trust itself, was a significant part of David's salvation, since his heart remained steadfast and whole despite all the fear he experienced.  "Bo vatach libi," once I have placed my trust in Him, "ne'ezrati," I have already been helped.

R' Chatzkel Levenstein was known for his exceptional fear of Hashem.  Every ounce of his being was permeated with a constant awareness of Hashem.  For this reason, a smile was rarely seen on his lips.  So acutely aware of the One before Whom he stood, he could not afford to let his guard down. 

However, one time, one of his disciples entered his room and saw that a smile was playing on his lips.  Knowing how rare it was to the see the great rabbi in such a state, he mustered up the courage to ask him why he was smiling.   He figured something very good must have happened in the world for his rabbi to be happy. 

Although R' Chatzkel confirmed the notion, it was not at all what the disciple thought.

"Indeed something great happened today in the world, since I am now filled with a little more faith and trust.  And that is why I am happy.  You see, when I served as the rabbi in the Mirrer Yeshiva, there were times when the yeshiva was in such dire financial straits that I did not receive my monthly paycheck.  And that is why I lived, day to day, trusting that tomorrow Hashem would give me food for my family. 

"But when I began serving as the rabbi in Ponvezh, I began receiving a large monthly paycheck.  And because of that, I felt that I was now somewhat lacking in my faith.  But now, thank G-d, eight months have passed since I last received a paycheck from the yeshivah, as it has sustained heavy debts.  And so I feel that once again, my bitachon, my faith, has been strengthened."

David knew that he would face difficult times.  But he was also keenly aware that as long as he held on to his faith, that was reason enough to be thankful.  In other words, the ability to have faith and trust, and the strength that comes with it, is a wonderful gift in and of itself.  David is confident that his prayer has already been answered and derives his confidence from the realization that G-d is on his side and approves of his endeavors.

Therefore he is inspired to sing a joyous hymn praising G-d and the renewed demonstration of His greatness and power in his life.  This song, which serves as an outpouring of bitachon in the midst of direst peril, pays perfect tribute to the understanding and knowledge of G-d. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Higher Authority

Adapted from Parashat HaShavuah, by R' Michael Hattin 

 "And Hashem G-d commanded ('Va-yetzav') the human saying: Although you may eat from all of the fruits of the garden, you may not eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge..." (Bereishit 2:16).

It is a commandment that defines the relationship between G-d and humanity, and between humanity and the world. Without addressing the specific meaning of this command, it should be clear that a command of any sort imposes a limitation on the autonomy of the human being and in so doing invites the human being to recognize the existence of a Higher Authority. Being subject to a Higher Authority of course implies that the world is our responsibility.

The progression and process nature of the events is clear. Chaos is resolved into organization, the inanimate yields to the 'living soul' of the human, the cosmic order is finally completed by the creation of the only creature that possesses a moral will. And that human in turn, bound by a divine decree, is therefore mandated to care for the very creatures and things that are subject to his rule.

Examining closely Parashat Noach, we notice that a similar process is at work, only in reverse. Here Noach is selected for preservation precisely because he possesses the moral and ethical will that is demanded. The injunction to build a vessel of very specific dimensions is not only a means of producing the most sea-worthy ship, but more importantly is the opportunity for Noach to fulfill G-d's command precisely and to submit to His authority.

This Noach does admirably, and he is informed that the ark that is the subject of his labors will be the vehicle for the saving of all of the species that inhabit the earth and sky. In other words, just as Adam and Eve are designated as the stewards of the world which is entrusted to their care, so too Noach's ark will be the means of preserving and caring for the planet's creatures.

In contrast to Adam and Eve, however, who soon abrogate G-d's command, initiating a chain of events which will ultimately lead to the Flood, Noach's fulfillment of God's command represents the possibility of being saved from its effects. Not without a note of irony is it twice recorded that Noach did "according to all that G-d had commanded him."

Parashat Bereishit and Parashat Noach are really two complementary sections that at their core convey a central message. The unique status afforded humanity in the scheme of things is dependent on one thing and one thing only: the willingness of humanity to acknowledge and fulfill a higher law established by G-d. The rest of creation in turn only survives as a function of humanity's devotion to this endeavor.

That the world survives only as a result of the recognition of G-d's guiding power and His higher law is actually emphasized by a striking feature of the ark. Significantly, the Hebrew word which invariably describes this craft is teiva. This is an unusual word to describe a sea-going vessel which is often called in biblical Hebrew an oniya (see Bereishit 49:13, Devarim 28:68, Yona 1:3, etc.), or rarely a sephina (Yona 1:5), but never, barring our context and one other, a teiva. The only other usage of the term teiva at all is in describing the ark that the mother of Moshe fashions for her infant son.

No longer able to shield him from Pharaoh's cruel decree to cast all male children into the Nile, Yocheved prepares a teiva for Moshe and reluctantly releases it down the river.

What is the structural difference between a teiva and the vessels described by these other terms? R. Avraham Ibn Ezra (Spain, 11th century) remarks that here the Torah uses the noun teiva rather than sephina, because this craft does not have the form of an oniya, and has no oars or rudder" (6:14).

How unusual that the Divine Engineer offers such very specific directions to Noach about the construction of the ark ("Make an ark of 'gofer' wood, divide it into cells, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you shall fashion it: three hundred cubits in length, fifty in width, thirty in height shall it be. Make for it a skylight, slope its roof to the measure of a cubit, place the doorway on its side, and make it of three levels...") but neglects to mention the provision of oars or a rudder, or for that matter sails!

The significance of this glaring omission is quite obvious. The lack of oars or a rudder for the ark effectively renders it incapable of being steered. The rising floodwaters will bear the craft but Noach will have no say in what direction the craft will go or where it will land. In this sense he is no more the captain of the ark than are the other creatures. Like them, he is a part (albeit the most important part) of the microcosm that the ark represents. Only G-d's merciful providence will ensure that the ark successfully weathers the torrential floodwaters and lands intact on safe shores. G-d is the guiding power who drives the ark through the churning deep and steers it clear of mishap.

In a similar vein, when Yocheved places her infant son into his teiva and releases him to the unknown she is not simply attempting to save his life by aiding his escape down river. Her seemingly hopeless gesture, after all other possibilities of concealing Moshe have been exhausted, actually represents an act of great faith. By constructing this craft for him and allowing it to float away from her maternal embrace she is actually entrusting the life of her child to the Merciful G-d.

It is He who will care for Moshe and lovingly guide him downstream into the unexpectedly tender arms of Pharaoh's own daughter! Here again, the teiva represents G-d's role in shaping human destiny, and by entering the realm of the teiva we entrust our survival to a Transcendent Being who cares, commands, expects and hopes that we live up to our Divinely fashioned human potential.

Thus, Parashat Bereishit which begins with the greatest of possibilities but concludes so tragically, and Parashat Noach which opens with doom but concludes with the hope of a new beginning, are really complementary sections that pivot quite cohesively around the same central point. Humanity is the crown of creation and the rest of the world only exists for our sake. Therefore, it is our duty to behave towards G-d, each other and the world with moral responsibility. In fact, our survival depends upon it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

My G-d, In You I Have Trusted

Psalm 25:2-3

O my G-d, I trust in You; let me not be ashamed; let not my enemies triumph over me.  Indeed, let no one who waits on You be ashamed; let those be ashamed who deal treacherously without cause. 

The Midrash Tehillim (Midrash on Psalms) relates a story that offers light on these verses.  One night the royal watchman seized a traveler, suspecting him of a crime.  The intruder cried out, "Please don't punish me; I am a member of the king's household!"  The next morning, the prisoner was brought before the king.  The king asked him, "My dear son, do you even know who I am?"

The prisoner sheepishly responded that he did not know who the king was.  "But I do place my trust in you, dear king, because if I did not claim to be under your protection, the guard would have beaten me to death." 

The king listened to the man's words, and the expression on the king's face immediately softened.  He was impressed by the fact that the man placed his trust in him.  That mere fact was enough of a reason for the king to pardon him. 

David, in the Psalm, begs the King for mercy for one reason: because he places his full trust in Him: "Elohai becha vetachti."  And King David extends this request to include all those who trust in Hashem.  Although we may not be deserving of being members of the King's "household," we still ask to be saved, for having placed out trust in Him.

David knew that he was in need of forgiveness.  He also knew, that in the future, people would be in need of forgiveness.  There are many times when we face what appear to be insurmountable challenges, and we keep failing.  Still, we plead with the Almighty to give us another chance.  He does, and because of our trust in Him, before we know it, we are able to achieve the impossible. 

The alphabetical arrangement of the verses in this Psalm also indicate that David intended this psalm to be kept not only before his own eyes, but in the minds of all of the rest of mankind by constant repetition.  The Sages teach us that the last verse of the psalm was added by David when he made this psalm part of Israel's national collection of hymns, as it were.  Therefore, all of the preceding verses, which seemed to apply to only one individual, were now made to apply to all of Israel as well, and by extension all of mankind.

It is clear that David understands, that whatever joy or sorrow G-d decides to send his way, they are only intended to help him reach his goal of spiritual perfection which he knows he can only hope to attain with the help and guidance of G-d.  David asks that the L-rd keep him from errors which would only cause his enemies to rejoice.

Those who are drawn to G-d with every fiber of their being, David reassures us, will never be deceived in their trust.  On the other hand, the man who breaks faith with G-d will be grievously disappointed.  Such a man will have forfeited G-d's nearness and have nothing to compensate him for his loss.  Even if this man thinks he has achieved his heart's desire by breaking with Hashem and going his own way, he is in for a rude awakening.  No one can achieve lasting satisfaction from the fruit of work that is not in conformity with G-d's will, especially if the price of his "success" was a breach in faith against G-d and His ways.

G-d will not forsake anyone remains capable of being taught and trained.  Our Sages remind us that G-d is as upright as He is good, and as good as he is upright and that it is His desire to deal kindly with men, while at the same time desiring men to live uprightly and in conformity with His will so that He can bestow upon men the favor of His mercy.  He even shows sinners who have grown old in sin, those who have grown old on the path of life, the right paths in which they must walk. 

By means of His providence, He makes us realize that the paths which conform to His will, are the only ones that are good and true.  At first, when we are just starting out, we may tread these paths with a sense of reluctance, but as we learn to walk them out of are own free will, we learn to do so with joy and deep devotion, because His will has now become our desire as well.

David voices his conviction in verse fifteen that the sole purpose of all of G-d's ways and dealings with us, is related to our guidance and moral improvement.  "Therefore," David says with full confidence, "my eyes are always turned to G-d.  I earnestly expect that he will deliver me at any moment from the tribulations that have ensnared me and that currently inhibit my progress on His path."

Friday, October 9, 2015

He Who Adds, Detracts

Genesis 3:2-4  

And the woman said to the serpent, "We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; "but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, G-d has said, 'You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.' "  Then the serpent said to the woman, "You will not surely die. 

Rashi explains that Chavah (Eve) came to grief because she added to the words of Hashem.  While Hashem had certainly forbidden Adam and Chava to eat from the tree on pain of death, Chavah told the serpent that they were forbidden to touch the tree as well.   The serpent was quick to take advantage of Chavah's mistake, pushing her until she touched the tree.  Since she didn't die from touching the tree, surely she would not die if she ate from the tree as well.

The rabbis in the tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud cite this episode as proof of the principle that Whoever adds, detracts.  For by adding to Hashem's restriction against eating from the tree by forbidding touching it as well,  Adam and Chavah created a situation that allowed the serpent to deceive Chavah into eating from the tree.

And yet, on the other hand, a difficulty remains.  The Sages in the tractate Pirkei Avot enjoin us to make a fence around the Torah.  Moreover, in Pirkei Avot, Adam is lauded for creating a fence around the Torah by issuing this very restriction to Chava against touching the forbidden tree.  How can this be reconciled?

The Chasam Sofer and others explain that while it may be admirable to create restrictions that will help distance one from sin, care must be taken to emphasize that these restrictions are not part of the Torah itself, but additional fences erected by man; adding fences without making clear what is Torah and what is not can lead to a detraction.  Adam should have made it clear to the woman that touching the tree was not part of G-d's injunction, but his (Adam's).  If so, Chavah would have understood that touching the tree did not carry the penalty of death.

R' Bunim said that fences around the Torah perform two functions: It prevents one from trampling that which it protects, and it also provides a clear demarcation between what is inside the fence and what is not.  This is the rule that must be followed whenever restrictions are issued; they must prevent transgression, and at the same time they must be clearly identified as man-made, and not part of the Torah.

(Yeshua does not castigate the Pharisees and Torah scholars for man-made traditions and injunctions, but more so for elevating those injunctions above what G-d required in His Word and using some of the oral tradition to get around what G-d clearly commanded in the Torah, while burdening people unnecessarily.)

Now, whether one believes Adam instructed his wife about touching the tree or not, it is clear from her response that she added to what G-d had commanded.  She added to His words and attributed words to Him which He did not say.   This created an opening for the adversary and contains a critical lesson for us.

The phrase He who adds, retracts, cited earlier, raises the question: Why is one who adds to the Torah equated with one who detracts?  Why is he at fault?

Our yetzer hara (evil inclination) is constantly and relentlessly trying to cause us to sin.  The main protection that we have is the Word of G-d.  David declares in Psalm 119:

Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You! (Psalm 119:11).

How did Yeshua Himself respond to the Adversary when He was tested in the wilderness for forty days?

But He answered and said, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of G-d.' "   . . . . . For it is written: 'He shall give His angels charge over you,' and, 'In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.' "   . . .  "It is written again, 'You shall not tempt the L-RD your G-d.' "   . . .  "Away with you, Satan! For it is written, 'You shall worship the L-RD your G-d, and Him only you shall serve.' " Then the devil left Him . . .  (cf. Matthew 4).

It is written.  Period.  G-d said so.  No more, no less.  Simple.  But the yetzer hara will even tempt us by encouraging us to add to the Torah's commandments.  The issue then becomes that once a person can be convinced and persuaded that he is in charge of deciding what may be done and what may not be done, he is no longer conducting himself as a servant of Hashem nor walking in obedience.  Rather, he is doing what he deems is correct, in other words, he is doing what is right in his own eyes!  Such a person can eventually come to believe that there are commandments that do not apply to him or that he is above certain prohibitions.  So then, although his error began in adding to the Torah, it is certain to end in transgression.

It is therefore just as much of a sin to prohibit that which Hashem permits as it is to transgress His prohibitions, for both misdeeds originate form the same root: One's underlying belief that he may decide what is permitted and what is forbidden, as if he himself knew better than G-d.  (adapted from Sichos Mussar 5731:25 and 5732:34).

This idea is consistent from the beginning right up to the end of time:

"Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I teach you to observe, that you may live, and go in and possess the land which the L-RD G-d of your fathers is giving you.  "You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the L-RD your God which I command you (cf. Deuteronomy 4).

And,

For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, G-d will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, G-d shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book (cf. Revelation 22).