Thoughts for Rosh Hashana -5764-2003


Once again I have the privilege to speak to our Alumni. It means a lot to me that I'm given this opportunity. This is my second sicha about Rosh Hashana since my surgery. May Hashem help me to be able to give many more.

There are many things that we should be well aware of, all our lives. However, when Ellul arrives and Rosh Hashana is just around the corner, these are days of reflection and we really have to wake up to reality.

One of the most important things that we have to understand is that EVERYTHING that we need and want comes from Hashem and from Hahsem ONLY! Even though, it may appear as if we ourselves are making a living with "our own two hands", the reality is not that way.

The "Orchos Tzaddikim- Ways of the Righteous" in the "Shaar HaSimcha-Gate of Joy" brings two parables that help us understand this point.

Firstly, he points out that, when a man splits wood with an axe, though it is the axe that is splitting the wood, the power doesn't come from the blade, rather from the man who wields it. The blade is merely the instrument of cutting.

Secondly, he stresses that, one whose livelihood and needs depend on somebody else, should not put his trust in his heart upon that man, but should place the root of his trust from the depths of his heart in the Blessed Creator. He compares it to a hundred blind men who are walking one behind the other. Each one has his hand on his neighbor's shoulder and is being led by him. Each neighbor is being led by his neighbor and so on until they reach the front of the line where there is one man who can see. Each person is not really leading the one in back of him [even though it may seem that way]. Rather, the man up front, who can see, is really leading them all. If the seeing man would detach himself from them they would all stumble and fall.

The Orchos Tzadikkim concludes, "Let a man take this to heart and reflect that there is no leader but the Holy One Blessed be He, and we are all like blind men, each being assisted and aided by his neighbor, and each neighbor being powerless to assist if not for the first Supreme Leader, the Giver of all, all of Whose ways are just….and so too should the supporter not think haughtily that it is he who supports of his own strength, but that he is like a blind man who leads his blind companion with the help of the first leader, who can see."

We should not just pay lip service to this. We should let it enter deep into our hearts that Hashem is the only address from where to get all our needs. Everyone else is just His messenger. Consequently, it will affect our whole way of living.

We should not be like the woman in the story that I heard from my Rebbi. She would come to shul on Rosh Hashana and pray fervently to Hashem. She would say, "Hashem, please give me a year of sustenance, and if you don't, then I will have to go to my sister in Florida, and she will support me." We have to realize that even if her sister from Florida will support her, this is also coming from Hashem.

Now when we realize this, we should have a certain fear as one has when he goes to some office for an interview. How many times to we fret and worry when we go to a Government Agency like Medicaid, Welfare, or some job interview. What will happen if they reject us? If only we had a drop of that fear on Rosh Hashana!

However, there is a big difference. Many times these agencies are antagonistic. They almost want us to fail. But imagine, if the interviewer is a good friend of ours or better yet our father. Of course, we still have no guarantees and we must prepare well for the interview, but we are happy in the knowledge that they want us to be successful, and they will help us in any way they can as long as we do ours. So too, we can have peace and serenity in knowing that the real Boss is Hashem the Merciful and Omnipotent, and as long as we do ours, he will give us what we need.

Rabbi Avrohom Pam, ztl.,in his sefer, "Atarah LaMelech," p. 172-173 points out that there is a certain fear and desperation we have during these days when we realize the immense work that we have to do. We know we should repent and change our ways, but knowing how far we've strayed, we feel we will never make it. Therefore, it is important to find words and ways to encourage and strengthen us and prevent us from giving up. So, he brings a beautiful Gemoro in Yoma which will give us some hope and realize that all is not lost.

The Gemoro in Yoma(85b) in the last Mishna brings the famous words of Rabbi Akiva. He explains how fortunate we, the Jewish people, are, for it is Hashem alone, our Father in Heaven, who purifies us although we have sinned.

The Mishnah cites two verses supporting this premise. First, they bring from Yechezkiel (36:25), "And I [Hashem] will sprinkle pure water on you, that you may be cleansed."

Then they cite another verse from Yirmiyahu(17:13), "The Mikvah of Israel is Hashem." Rabbi Akiva explains, "Just as a mikveh [ritualarium] purifies those who have become defiled, so too will Hashem purify the Jewish nation."

Rav Pam points out that the Mishna lists two distinct types of purification.

The first type is "sprinkling" which refers to the sprinkling of the water of the ashes of the Parah Aduma-Red Heifer in Parshas Chukas Bamidbor 19. This is used to purify one who has been defiled by a dead person.

The second one is immersing in a Mikveh.

He brings from the great tzadik and head of the Beis Din in Kovna, the son of Rav Yitzchok Elchanan, ztl. who gives a beautiful interpretation of why both types of purification were mentioned.

He points out a major halachic difference between the two types.

A mikveh will only purify one who is completely immersed in the body of water, without even one hair sticking out.

On the other hand, the water of the Red Heifer, even if it only fell on one limb even on the tip of his finger or on his lip, it purifies him.

So too, by Teshuvah-Repentance we find both concepts.

There is the repentant sinner that returns with all of his heart and becomes a totally different person. [This is like the complete immersion in the mikveh].

Then there is one who only returns with a little inspiration and rectifies only a few of his sins. [This is like the sprinkling of a little water on the tip of his finger].

This is why the Mishna mentions both types of purification.
It teaches us that if a person cannot reach the first level of complete purification, then he need not give up. He should at least try to reach the second level of sprinkling on the tip of the finger.

And even though the sprinkling is not enough and he still needs complete purification, at least this is a beginning and Hashem will help him go further as it says in the Gemoro Shabbos 104a, "One who comes to be purified, they will help him."

This is a tremendous encouragement for us. Even if we feel we can't achieve the first level, we can at least work on the second level.

But even in the second level, it has to be a solid, constant, lasting, and strong commitment even in one aspect, not an empty resolution which will not last very long. Whether it's in Praying , Shabbos, Kashrut, Tefillin,or Learning Torah. It could also be Aspects of Interpersonal Relationships, such as business dealings, loshon horo, or any other aspects of the Torah. If we would sincerely undertake to better ourselves even in one facet this will lead us to do even more.

There is a beautiful thought from the Alter of Novardok-Rav Yosef Yoisel Horowitz, that expresses this idea.

There is a Medrash Rabbah in Shir Hashirim on the verse " …the voice of my beloved is knocking open up…" (5:2) The Medrash brings, Rav Yasa who says, "Hashem says to Klal Yisroel, 'Open up for me an opening of repentance [even as little as] the size of an eye of the needle, and I will open for you openings [so big] that even wagons will be able to pass through.' " We have to just make the initial move towards repentance, and then Hashem will help us go further.

The Alter asked on this Medrash, that haven't we opened up an opening at least of a needle, so how come Hashem has not responded with a big opening? He answers that there are different materials that holes can be made in. If you make it in sand, then it won't last. But, if you make it in metal it will last. That's why the Medrash stresses, "the size of an eye of the needle," to indicate that the opening has to be an enduring and constant commitment, not just a temporary spark of repentance. That's why our temporary openings will not bring the desired effect.

Rabbi Paysach Krohn in "Around The Maggid's Table," p. 267, [Waters of Purity] brings another beautiful interpretation as to why the Mishna in Yoma brings the two types of purification.

He cites Rav Yaakov Galinsky who explains it with a parable.

Rav Yaakov compares it to two patients who share a room in the hospital. Both are very sick and need medicine to survive. The future looked bleak for both of them. However, there was one major difference between the two. The first patient can at least reach out for his pills lying on the tray in front of him. The second patient is so weak that he can't even get his own medicine. He is totally dependant on others. If no one comes, his end will surely come.

This is what Rabbi Akiva is teaching. There are two types of repentant Jews.

There are those who repent on their own volition, they come, so to speak, to the mikveh to be purified. To them applies the first verse that talks about the mikveh.

However, there are those who have, unfortunately, strayed so far from the true paths of Judaism that it seems almost futile to hope that they will return. In those instances, though, Hashem doesn't wait for the man to come to the mikveh to be purified, but rather Hashem "goes out" to the individual, and "sprinkles pure water" on the defiled Jew, so that he may be purified and return to the fold.

Rabbi Galinsky concludes, "How lucky indeed are the Jewish people, that Hashem does not forsake them. Even when some of them are rebelling against Him and not looking to be purified, Hashem, in His mercy, sprinkles water on them [with an unexpected incident or a sudden occurrence that awakens them from their spiritual slumber] so that they may return to Him."

So we see that Hashem helps even those who are not looking to repent. There are many stories, in fact, where people are going to do a sin and Hashem turns the situation into an inspiration of repentance.

One famous story, in the Gemoro Avodah Zoro 17a, is about a certain Rav Elazar ben Durdia who did a tremendous repentance because of a chance remark of a woman with whom he was engaged in sin. [See "How To Listen To A Sicha" and "It's About Time" where I elaborate on this Gemoro]

Another amazing story, that teaches us the same lesson, can be found in Rabbi Krohn's book, "Reflections of the Maggid," p. 222 [The Shot Heard Around The World].

He tells of a wealthy successful businessman named Joe, in Tel Aviv who was not religious. One day he had to go to his favorite restaurant to pick up some pork for his family's dinner. The line to get in was out the door, and he started to feel impatient. His mind wandered and suddenly he remembered a story that had taken place decades earlier.

The story was about his maternal grandfather, Shraga Feivel Winkler from Feldesh, Hungary. He was a melamed -a teacher of children, and was known as the most pious man in the town. He was respected by all who knew him.

In 1944, Reb Shraga Feivel was taken from his home by the Nazis and and interned in a slave labor camp outside Hungary.He had no contact with his family and had no idea of their whereabouts. As the war was coming to an end and the camps were about to be liberated, nazi soldiers wanted to humiliate as many Jews as they could before they were freed. They decided to make an example of Rav Shraga Feivel, whom they sneeringly called the "rabbi of the camp."

They got the Jews together in a wide circle and a Nazi officer started to speak. "In a few hours you will all be free. You will be reunited with your families -or whatever is left of them. But you, rabbi," he said, pointing to Rav Shraga Feivel, "you must first pass this test. I have a piece of pig's meat in my hand. If you want to live and see your family again, you must eat this in front of everyone." The Nazi roared, as he drew his pistol, "Otherwise, you will be our last victim."

Reb Shraga Feivel had starved himself throughout his stay in the camps rather than eating anything that was not kosher. He had not eaten meat in years. He existed on water, dirty fruits and vegetables, and anything else he knew was kosher.

"I will not eat this meat," he announced defiantly." The sudden crack of gunfire ruptured the air, as a bullet exploded in Reb Shraga Feivel's head, killing him instantly.

Now, in the hot humid evening, outside the treife-unkosher restaurant, Reb Shraga Feivel's grandson closed his eyes, envisioning that late afternoon, decades ago in the slave labor camp. He thought to himself, "I am standing in a long line waiting to buy pork-meat that my grandfather gave up his life for. Had he eaten just one piece of that pork, he would have been reunited with his family that he hadn't seen in over a year. I have my family. I have anything I desire- and I'm waiting on line for this? Either I am not normal or he is not normal. I cannot believe that my grandfather was not normal. I must find out why he would do something that seems to me to be crazy!"

He left the line and bought supper at another store. He came home a perplexed and troubled man. He had a long talk with his wife. They talked about their purpose in life, their future-and the emptiness that gnawed at their souls. They wanted a solution, but where could they find it?

A few days later, he heard about a seminar called Arachim (Values) that was being given by two scientists, Dr. Sholom Srebrenik and Mr. Tzvi Inbal. The academic credentials of the men giving the seminar were impeccable. He decided to attend.

For four days he listened, questioned, absorbed, discussed, evaluated, deliberated and reflected. At the end of the seminar he was convinced. His previous life was over. Yosi [Joe] Walis became a new person, determined that others should see what he saw, feel what he felt, and understand what he now understood.

When he found that money was preventing Arachim from getting their message out, he decided to help them out. He became the General Director overnight, a title he holds till this day.

In the last twenty years, Arachim has become one of the most effective kiruv-outreach organizations in Israel and the Diaspora. Arachim was the forerunner of the Aish Hatorah Discovery Program and the Gateways seminars. More than 120,000 people have attended Arachim seminars and more than 50,000 of them have been brought back to authentic Judaism.

And to think that this was all accomplished in part by someone waiting on line to buy pork. But Hashem sprinkled him with the "waters of purity," and he made a complete upheaval in his life that affected so many others.

The truth is, if we would think about it, we can also make a simple calculation like Yosi Walis did. How many stories to we read and hear about Jews risking their lives to daven with a minyan, especially on Rosh Hashana, hear shofar, put on tefillin, and many other mitzvos. Whether it was the Holocaust, Inquisition, or any of the other innumerable decrees against the Jews, they have always disregarded their own safety for the precious opportunity to do one of Hashem's Mitzvos.

So where are we?! When we have any little inconvenience, whether it's giving up sleep, money, time, or we just don't feel like it, we don't think twice about not doing what our ancestors risked their lives for. Either we are not normal or they are not normal. Can we really believe that so many of these precious and holy Jews would do something that's not normal?

The only difference between Yosi Walis and us is that he was honest. He was seeking the truth, so he found it. We just don't think, except when it comes to money. It's about time we thought about "getting our act together," especially in the days of Ellul, Rosh Hashana, and Yom Kippur.

I will conclude with one piece of advice on how to merit a good year even though we may not deserve it by virtue of our mitzvos.

One of my Rebbeim, Rav Zeidel Epstien, shlita, in his sefer "Ori V'Yishi p.31 and in "Meimrei Shlomo" Vol I, p.257, brings a Gemoro in Rosh Hashana 16b that gives us such a formula.

The Gemoro says, "Any year that is poor in the beginning will become wealthy at the end…" Rashi there explains that the Jews make themselves as poor people to speak supplications on Rosh Hashana.

The Gemoro is revealing to us an important formula. If a person feels that he doesn't have merits or good deeds, and he approaches [Hashem] as a poor man at the door. He remembers his debits from the previous years [to repent his sins] how he promised to pay them up, and realizes that not only did he not pay them up, but he added new ones. We ask Hashem to give us life and health. Why should He? For what merits? So we approach like a poor man at the door and admit that we, in fact, don't have any merits to speak of, but we are totally relying on His Mercy and Favor. If we come in this manner, that we really don't deserve it, then we have the possibility of meriting a good year.

Even if we think that we actually did some mitzvos, we have to realize a few things. How well did we do them? Did we do them with the same enthusiasm that we transgressed sins? Did we actually fulfill our real potential? The bottom line is, that we have a better chance of meriting a good year if we don't come as people who feel we deserve it, rather as poor people meekly asking for a handout.

I heard from my Rebbeim that Rav Yisroel Salanter uses this point to answer an interesting question.

Why is Rosh Hashanah before Yom Kippur? Wouldn't it be better to first cleanse our sins with Yom Kippur, and then face the Judgement of Rosh Hashanah with a clean slate?

He answers that if Yom Kippur was first, and we cleansed our sins, then we could very well delude ourselves into believing that we actually have merits to come to Hashem with. We deserve a good year. This would be dangerous. We have a better chance if we come to Hashem sullied with our sins, and with the realization that we have no merits to rely on. We only rely on his Mercy. As we conclude the "Avinu Malkeinu" prayer, "Our Father, our King, be gracious with us and answer us, though we have no worthy deeds; treat us with charity and kindness, and save us."

May we approach this Rosh Hashanah with the sincere commitment to at least make an opening of teshuvah-repentance the size of an eye of a needle, and come with the understanding that we don't deserve anything. Then we will, G-d Willing, merit a Good and Sweet year, and merit a Kesivah V'Chasima Tova- to be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.

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