Thoughts for Rosh Hashana -5763-2002


It is with praise to Hashem Yisborach, and great excitement that I begin writing these words. It is now five months since my open-heart surgery (which was in Cleveland on February 5, 2002), and this is my first time back at the computer to make a sicha.

Last year at this time, I could barely breathe, and walking was a tremendous difficulty. Now, Boruch Hashem, I'm breathing well and am walking considerably better.

I want to take this opportunity to thank all those who prayed for me, wrote to me, and visited me during my stay in America and when I returned to Eretz Yisroel.

On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur we say, "u'stshuvah u'sfilah u'tzdaka ma'avirin es ro'a ha'gezeirah" -"But repentance, prayer, and charity remove the evil of the decree."

A good portion of the Yomim Noroim- the Awesome Days we spend praying, crying and beseeching Hashem for a good year for our family, all of Yisroel and us.

I would like to convey some heartfelt feelings about prayer and tears, based on personal experiences, stories and observations that I have gathered, especially since my operation. I hope they will inspire you as much as they have inspired me.

Tefila-prayer and crying are for the future and the past.

The power and significance of praying and crying for the future can be illustrated in the following interesting conversation that took place between Plato and Yirmiyahu the prophet.

The Lev Eliyahu by Rav Eliyahu Lopian in Vol. I Shevivei Ohr 155 and in the Artscroll Kinnos by Rabbi Avraham Chaim Feuer-in the overview xii-xiii bring down from the sefer Toras Haolah from Rav Moshe Isserles (the famous ashkenazic codifier in the Shulchan Aruch) who relates the following encounter.

After the destruction of the first Beis HaMikdash-Temple, Plato met Yirmiyahu at the Temple Mount weeping bitterly over the Temple ruins and he asked Yirmiyahu two questions.

1) How is it befitting for such a preeminent sage in Israel and such intellectual stature, to cry over a building, which is really no more than a pile of sticks and stones?

2) The building is already in ruins, what good will your tears do now? Why cry over the past?

Yirmiyahu responded by asking Plato if as a renowned philosopher, he had any perplexing questions. Plato recited a long list of complicated questions. Yirmiyahu, humbly and quietly, solved them in a few brief sentences. Plato couldn't believe that any mortal man could be so wise.

Yirmiyahu then said, "All of this profound wisdom I derived from those 'sticks and stones' and that is why I'm crying. As for why I'm crying over the past, this I can't tell you because you won't be able to understand the answer."

Rav Lopian relates the Alter of Kelm's (Rav Simcha Zisel Ziv-one of the foremost students of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter) explanation of Yirmiyahu's answer. Our tears are not for the past, rather we cry for the future. As the Gemoro-Talmud Berachos 32b says that at the time of the Churban (Destruction of the Temple) although all the gateways to heaven were sealed, the gateway of tears always remains open. Every tear that is shed is collected in heaven and contributes to the reconstruction of the next Temple. This concept, which is so simple for any Jew to understand, is beyond the comprehension of a "rational" world-renowned Plato.

Further on in his overview (p.xiv) Rabbi Feuer brings the question, if the gates of tears are never closed then why are there gates in the first place?

The Gerer Rebbe explained that although sincere tears always gain admission above, the gates were needed to shut out false tears.

Rav Yonosson Eibeshutz (Yaaros Devash II:11) observes that the numerical value of BECHI - WEEPING is equal to that of LEV - HEART which is 32, because tears are meaningful only if they are sincere expressions of the heart.

All of this shows us the significance of our prayers and tears for the future, but let us not forget to praise Hashem for the past.

There is a small prayer of thanks that we say every morning when we get up. That is "Modeh ani" - I gratefully thank you…" We thank Hashem for returning our souls to us in the morning.

Unfortunately, many of us don't say it, or we mumble it and are so tired that we don't realize the meaning and significance of this small prayer.

I would like to illustrate for you a scenario that may help us to appreciate this prayer more.

Imagine a fellow who was unjustly convicted of murder and he was being taken down "death row" to be ultimately executed in the electric chair. He's being strapped in, and the warden is just about to throw the switch. All of a sudden, someone bursts in with a reprieve from the governor, who found out that this fellow was really innocent.

Can we even try to depict the joy and ecstasy that this fellow feels. He was literally saved from the jaws of death. Wouldn't he feel obligated to thank the governor profusely. Now, how would this fellow react if the governor would ask him to come to his office every morning at 7:30 for this fellow's benefit. Of course he would feel obligated to go, the governor saved his life!

Well, if we would only think a little, we would realize that we go through a worse scenario every morning. Every night our soul goes up to heaven and is put on trial (See Rashi in Shemos-Exodus 22:25). We know, of course, how many sins we do and invariably what the verdict should be. However, Hashem, in His Infinite Mercy, gives us a reprieve, that we don't deserve. Every morning, He gives us another chance to do teshuvah on what did till now. We can imagine the angels complaining, "Give us a break, we gave the guy already a few thousand chances and he still didn't do teshuvah." Nevertheless, Hashem gives us a reprieve, and returns our soul to us in the morning.

If we would just take a moment to reflect on this point, our Modeh Ani , every morning, would be recited with more feeling and meaning. How can we not thank Hashem for returning our souls even though we didn't deserve it. And imagine if Hashem asks us to come His office-the Beis Hamedrash every morning, for our benefit, how quickly we should run? We owe Him our life!

The problem is, that since it happens constantly, we take it for granted.

Sometimes, though, if we don't appreciate this on our own, Hashem arranges our life so that we personally get this message. Then, unless we are really thick, we open our eyes and learn not to take life for granted.

This year, I personally received such a message.

As I said before, I went through open-heart surgery this past February. Now, any time a person goes under anesthesia it is very dangerous. Even minor surgery can bring its complications. Here I was on the operating table before the operation reflecting on my situation.

They are going to literally kill you. They are going to stop your heart from beating and hook you up to all kinds of machines that will barely keep you "alive". Then they are going to cut open your heart and make the wall of the heart thinner, since it was too thick and greatly impeded my breathing. They will also replace one of the valves, which was faulty. Afterwards, they will sew you back up, and hope that when they remove your life-sustaining machines, your heart will start to beat and you will be able to breathe normally.

After pondering all this, I wondered, "are you so sure that you are going to make it?"

Of course, I couldn't know. But one thing I decided. If, with Hashem's help, I do survive, then the moment I wake up, could there be a more opportune time to recite the "Modeh Ani"?

Boruch Hashem, as you may have figured out by now, I did make it. When I was coming out of anesthesia I didn't know where I was, if it was before the operation or after. The nurse assured me that I was after the operation and everything was fine. Then , I mustered up whatever feeling I could under the after-effects of the operation and I recited the Modeh Ani, probably with more feeling then I ever did.

Let us start having the proper feeling in Modeh Ani and not wait for personal messages.

Sometimes, though, we want to repent, pray and cry, but we feel we are so unworthy. We are so wicked and full of sins, Hashem doesn't even want to look at us.

Let me reassure you. There is nothing further from the truth than this misconception. It is just the Yetzer Horo's-Evil Inclination's trick of discouraging us from repenting, praying and weeping.

The truth is that, no matter how bad we are, Hashem is waiting patiently for us to return and cry out to Him.

I will mention two points that will prove this.

In the Shabbos morning prayers we recite a Psalm, Chapter 34, (L'Dovid b'shanoso) .In verse 16-18 we say the following:

"The eyes of Hashem are toward the righteous, and his ears to their cry.
The face of Hashem is against evildoers, to cut off their memory from earth.
They cried out and Hashem heeds, and from all their troubles he rescues them."
The pronoun "They" in the last verse, according to many commentaries (the Even Ezra and Metzudas Dovid), refers to the "evildoers" that were mentioned in the previous verse. Even though they are evildoers and Hashem wants to "cut off their memory from earth," yet if they return to Hashem and cry out to Hashem, then He will listen.

The second point is a beautiful story from the sefer "Tuvcha Yabi'u" a collection of Mussar thoughts and stories from Rav Yitzchok Zilberstien, the Rav in Ramat Elchonon.

In Vol. II p. 286, he cites the words of the Chazon Ish about Tefillah. The Chazon Ish writes that Tefilah- Prayer is a staff of strength to every person. There is no Tefilah that comes back empty handed. There is no word of supplication and appeasement that a Jew utters from his mouth that will not have its effect. It could help for today or maybe tomorrow, this year or after many years. It could work for the one who prays or perhaps for his descendants. This should be ingrained in the knowledge of every Jew.

Then Rabbi Zilberstien brings the following related story.

In Jerusalem there is a certain baal-teshuva-a repentant Jew, who became religious many years ago. Since then he has succeeded tremendously in becoming a true G-D-fearing Jew. He also has tremendous success in all his undertakings including the organizing of many well-attended shiurim-lectures.

This fellow, whose name is Rav Baruch Hyman, recently revealed the cause of his success, and Rav Zilberstien advises that we should engrave this story on our hearts so we can learn and understand the great power of all prayer.

When Ben-Gurion was Prime Minister of Israel, the Minister of Education was Zalman Aran, who admired and praised Ben-Gurion immensely.

Aran was not a religious Jew, but his wife had some traditional Jewish upbringing. She tried to make a Jewish home, and she lit the Shabbos candles. She also realized the power of prayer and would pray that her children should become great people. Since her husband always would relate to her his admiration and the great qualities of Ben-Gurion, her prayers were that her children should become great… like Ben-Gurion.

One day there was a famous meeting between Ben-Gurion and the Chazon Ish in the Chazon Ish's house in Bnei Brak.

After the meeting, when Ben-Gurion returned to his office and his friends, he related to Zalman Aran about the greatness of the Chazon Ish. He even said that he saw on him the countenance of an Angel.

Aran then told his wife about the great impact that the Chazon Ish made on his boss Ben-Gurion. She listened to his words attentively, so much so, that she decided then and there that from now on she would pray that her children should grow up and become as great….as the Chazon Ish. After all, if Ben-Gurion, who her husband praised so much, if he himself praised the Chazon Ish and said that he was like an Angel, then she should go to the source.

"I", concluded Rabbi Hyman, "am the grandson of Zalman Aran, and the prayers of my grandmother- despite the fact that she wasn't one of the 36 righteous women of the generation- had its effect after many years. It brought me close to Torah and Mitzvos and gave me the power of success."

From this story we can learn that prayer is accepted even though the one who is praying may not be so worthy.

I would like to now relate some inspirational stories from the holocaust.

In the wonderful book of J.E.P. (Jewish Education Program) "Menucha Vasimcha" , Rabbi Mordechai Katz, on p. 63-65, writes the following.

"Out of the ashes and ruins of the concentration camps come stories of faith and heroism that shine as a light amidst all the desolation and waste."

Then he tells a story about an aged rabbi from Poland who smuggled into the camps a small Sefer Torah and a Shofar.

Every Shabbos he would read the Parsha of the week from the Torah before the prisoners left for their back breaking 15-hour work shift. It somehow gave them the courage and faith to stay alive.

Shortly before Rosh Hashana, the Rabbi told the inmates that they would have a special minyan on Rosh Hashana and even blow the Shofar. One of the prisoners protested that blowing the Shofar would surely put their lives in danger. The Rabbi explained, "We are in danger no matter what we do. Even our bodies don't belong to us, for these murderers can do with us as they desire. Only our spirit remains with us. Let us not give that over to them too."

On the morning of Rosh Hashana they got up early to pray. Never had they prayed so fervently. Then they held their breath as the Rabbi blew the Shofar. He blew a few blasts when, suddenly the door of the barracks was smashed in. A battalion of storm troopers appeared with leveled guns.

"Now I've caught you, you traitors," roared the commander. "You're sending signals to the enemy to bomb us."

"This is not a signal," replied one of the inmates. "This the sound of the Shofar and is part of our holiday prayers."

"Quiet!" screamed the commander. "Tell me who smuggled in that horn and who was the Jew who blew it. The rest of you can go free."

No one responded.

"Answer me," the commander demanded, "or else I'll choose twenty men from among you and shoot them immediately."

When they still remained silent, he gave the order to line up twenty men outside and shoot them. Then, just as the Rabbi was about to step forward, the air raid siren sounded. A raid! Everyone began to run, as a plane dove down upon them and dropped a bomb. The Germans ran for cover like scared rabbits, and many were killed. In the confusion, the prisoners managed to escape into the forest.

Later, when the inmates gathered around the Rabbi to discuss this miracle of Hashem, he said, "The Germans were right when they said that the Shofar was a signal. It was not a signal to the Allies, but to our Father in Heaven. We signaled Him that He should see our misery and punish our oppressors. Hashem Yisborach listened to our signal!"

The next selection is from an awesome book, "Responsa from the Holocaust," by Rabbi Ephraim Oshry.

Just realizing that even during the holocaust the prisoners wanted to adhere to the Torah, should make us, who are not going through these horrors, more observant.

He brings the following question:

The accursed evildoers, plotting treachery after treachery, were aware that the well of hope and comfort inside the synagogues gave the Jews the courage and strength to stand up to their tribulations. It was no surprise when the Germans issued a decree forbidding public prayer and Torah study under the penalty of death.

Reb Naftali Weintraub, the gabbai of the Gapinovitch shul- may G-D avenge him- asked me whether Torah law obligated him to risk his life to pray with his daily minyan and for Torah study.

Rabbi Oshry responds, "I did not have the heart to rule that every Jew should risk his life in order to study Torah or pray with a minyan. There were few with the purity of thought that could raise them to the level of a Daniel and his comrades Chananya, Mishoel, and Azarya, who risked their lives to sanctify Hashem's name even though they were not bound to.

On the other hand, how I could forbid anyone to risk his life? All Jews possess holy souls that originate at the highest level Above, and according to the Halacha, each individual must probe the degree of his personal love and awe of Hashem to determine his level of service to Hashem and his consequent right or duty to make sacrifices. Beyond any doubt the Master of Justice and Mercy guides each person to act with sensitivity.

In fact, the sacred sons of the living G-D acted as they had always done. They continued to study Torah and to pray with their fellow-Jews.

Even on Rosh Hashana 5703-September 12-13, 1942, the Jews did not fear that the Germans would hear the powerful blasts of the Shofar during the prayers. Not only did the Jews gather in the many houses of prayer set up for the holiday, but in the ghetto hospital the assimilationist doctors themselves defied the German decree and risked their lives in order to pray publicly."

After hearing how these Jews were ready to give up their lives for davening and Shofar blowing, how unworthy we should feel when we aren't even ready to give up some sleep for davening and Shofar blowing. We think we are doing G-D and our parents a favor if we show up after we are dragged out of bed for Shofar blowing.

The last point I want to dwell on may be a big revelation for many of us. Many of us think that how we live our lives affects only us, and therefore we can do what we want.

However, this is not true. What we do affects each and every Jew as can be seen in the following selection from the sefer "Menucha Vesimcha." He brings (p.65-66) an important lesson from the ARI, zl, (Rabbi Issac Luria, the renowned mystic) concerning this point.

He asks how come the Viduy-Confession is phrased in the plural, so that we say "O'shamnu" -We are guilt-laden" instead of "Oshamti" - I am guilt-laden" and so forth?

He answers, because Israel is one body of which each and every Israelite is an integral part. Hence it follows that all the members of that body are responsible for the whole, even as I'm responsible for my brother. If my fellow Jew sins, it is as if I myself had sinned. We are all guarantors for one another.

There is a beautiful parable in Midrash Rabbah in Vayikra (Parsha 4:6) related to this point. Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai tells about a certain fellow who was on a ship with other people. This fellow took a drill and went down to his room and started to drill a hole in the floor. When the other people protested, he told them, "What do you care? I'm making a hole in my room, not yours. They replied, "Don't you realize that when the water comes through the hole in your room it will sink the whole ship."

Of course, this works for the good as well. When we do something good it also helps everybody else.

May Hashem help us realize and incorporate all of these lessons, and may our Shofar blowing indeed be a signal to our Father in Heaven. He should see our misery and punish our oppressors.

We should all merit a K'sivah va'chasimah tovah.

And may we merit to see the fulfillment of the Posuk, (Psalms 29:11) "Hashem will give might to His people, Hashem will bless His people with peace.

I would like to add one post-script. With tremendous Shevach VeHodaah- Praise and Thanks to Hashem Yisborach, some days after I made this sicha, I was privileged to become a Zayde-Grandfather for the first time. My daughter Fayge gave birth to a girl on Sunday 26, Av-August 4, 2002.

They named her "Leah" after my Mother,o.h.

In fact, my Mother's Yahr-Zeit (anniversary of when she passed away) is this Friday, August 9. May "Leah" grow up to be a source of true Jewish nachas-pride for Hashem, her family and all of Klal Yisroel.

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