Rosh Hashana 5766-2005, A Time to Think


We will soon be standing on trial before the Supreme Judge of the world. The trial is not for a mere misdemeanor or traffic ticket; rather we are on trial for our very lives! The evidence and witnesses are overwhelmingly against us, it is hard to know what advice to give on how to approach such a trial.

I am reminded of a story that I heard from my Rebbi about a lawyer who had a client who was in a similar situation. This client was clearly guilty with a hundred witnesses ready to testify against him. The judge told the lawyer to take his client into a private room and give him the "best advice he could he could think of." They went into the judge's chambers and an officer was waiting outside the door. After a half-hour, the officer goes in and finds the lawyer alone, with the window wide open. The officer asked the lawyer where the client was. The lawyer said that the judge told him to give him the "best advice." Well the "best advice" was that he had better make a quick get-away out the window.

Well, in this trial, there is no place to escape to. The only place we can run to, is back to Hashem Himself [through repentance]. I hope that these few thoughts that I want to share with you will help us do just that.

The "Mesilas Yeshorim-Path of the Just" Chapter 2, warns us of one of the ruses of the yetzer horo-evil inclination.

He says that one of his sly tactics is to keep a person constantly busy with many different tasks, so that they don't have a moment to stop and think about which way they are going [in their service to Hashem]. Because [the yetzer horo knows that] if a person would just reflect and think for a brief moment about his [evil] ways, he would definitely start to regret his [wayward] deeds until he would completely refrain from sin.

The yetzer horo follows the same tactic as Pharoh. When Pharoh saw that the Jews were even thinking of leaving Egypt, he commanded that their work be increased, consequently they won't have time to think about anything.

The Chazal-Sages, however, did find time to reflect and think. Many times, they were inspired from the actual lessons that they were discussing, so much so, that it brought them to tears.

We find such an instance in the following moving Midrash.

The Torah tells us in Breishis Genesis 45:3 that when Yosef revealed himself to his brothers and told them "I am Yosef…" his brothers couldn't answer him for they were overwhelmed by him.

The Midrash Yalkut Shimoni [152] on this verse brings the penetrating words of Rabbi Shimon ben Elozor,

"Woe to us on the Day of Judgement, woe to us on the day of tochacha-rebuke- for Yosef, though he was the youngest of the brothers, overwhelmed them, and they could not answer him. Certainly this will be the case on the day that the Holy One will rebuke each person in accordance with his deeds." [In Midrash Rabbah 93:10 a similar Midrash is attributed to Abba Kohen Bardala, and in the Talmud Chagiga 4b, a similar midrash is attributed to R' Elozor-who in fact cried when he reached this verse (of Yosef and his brothers).]
The obvious question on this midrash is, where do you find any rebuke in the conversation between Yosef and his brothers? They may have been shocked at the revelation that this was Yosef, but you don't find any rebuke mentioned at all. There are many answers to this question. I will bring the answer of Rabbi Chaim Shmuelewitz which will teach us a very important lesson.["Reb Chaim's Discourses-p.97-99.]

We see from here that tochacha-rebuke in essence is not the verbal castigation as we have come to see it. Rather, it is making a person aware of the fact that he has made a mistake. When a person realizes that he has lived his life with a totally mistaken perspective, then tochacha has accomplished its purpose.

Consequently, this revelation of Yosef clearly showed the brothers that they were completely mistaken about Yosef and his dreams. They thought that he was a "grandiose dreamer" and tried to prevent the fulfillment of the dreams by selling him into slavery. Yet all the steps they took to prevent the fulfillment of his dreams became the very means for their realization. Their selling him was the stepping stone of his ascending to royalty. When Yosef said "I am Yosef" this was absolute proof that, contrary to what the brothers thought of him, he was a prophet of Hashem conveying the Divine word. It was the shock of this tochacha-rebuke in the face of their strong convictions that overwhelmed the brothers and left them speechless.

When R' Shimon understood this, he was tremendously apprehensive about the Day of Judgement, when the Holy One will show us that our lives were so filled with mistakes.

But it is not only the realization that one has had a mistaken belief that will make us so embarrassed in the World-to-Come. It is also the fact that one behaved and acted based on his erroneous beliefs and viewpoint. When a person realizes that his perspective was wrong, it automatically means that the entire chain of his deeds and actions was one continuous error. When the very goals and ideas upon which we base our actions evaporate, then the deeds become mere empty gesticulations.

Even worse, our deeds can sometimes stand out in its fullest measure of evil. The brothers of Yosef justified their cruelty to him by the belief that he was a vainglorious dreamer. When this presumption was refuted, the act of selling Yosef became a wrong and sinful act.

I think that we can all apply this lesson to ourselves. We also coast through life with certain erroneous beliefs and we behave and act based on them. Now, especially before Rosh Hashana which is also a Day of Judgement, we should start making an accounting of our beliefs and views to see how truthful they are. Obviously, the only Accountant that can help us is a Rebbi who uses the Torah as his "accounting book."

One example of erroneous beliefs, which is a major basis for many of our deeds, is the common fallacy that this world is one big "hefker-free for all." No one is keeping score. No one is keeping a record. You can do whatever you want, as long as no one catches you. You can literally "get away with murder." The proof is all the times that we do something wrong and nothing seems to happen to us.

But this is a terrible and tragic error. It may momentarily appear as if there is no record and no retribution for our misconduct. However, that is because Hashem is very patient and is giving us a chance to repent. Ultimately, though, nothing is ignored. There is a permanent record that Hashem keeps of every one of our deeds. If we don't repent or pay for them in this world, then we will get the bill in the world-to-come, which is a lot worse.

This point was somewhat brought home to me by an interesting story that happened to me when I was learning in Lakewood Yeshivah in Lakewood, New Jersey.

One summer I was learning in the Lakewood Yeshivah in New Jersey. My parents, a'h live in New York, so I knew that using the pay phone would require enough money for a long distance call. I knew that [at that time in history] you needed a "quarter" for the initial three minutes as opposed to a dime for a local call. What I didn't know was how much was necessary for the subsequent minutes that followed. Now, by a local call, I was used to having a recording of an operator get on and warn me, "Please deposit 5cents for the next five minutes or your call will be interrupted." [When I tried to test out their threat and not deposit the nickel (which of course is not the Torah way), I learned quite quickly that they meant business as my call was abruptly terminated.]

I expected in New Jersey also, that I would be instructed after three minutes how much to deposit. To my surprise, however, after the initial three minutes no recording came on and my call was not interrupted. Being very naive, I assumed that as long as no recording came on there was no extra charge. I was talking for quite a long time always expecting the ominous voice of the operator to come on, but to my premature joy she never did. I even commented to my mother, o.h. that it was cheaper to call long distance than local. I had about a half hour of conversation for only a quarter. I ended the call feeling very happy at this great "bargain." However, my joy was short lived. Immediately after I put down the phone, it began to ring. I picked up the phone and a real human voice said, "Please deposit $2.50 for overtime." Now, if I didn't care about stealing or making a Chilul Hashem-Desecration of Hashem ,chas veshalom, I would have just hung up. Boruch Hashem, I did the right thing and paid. But, this important lesson remained with me.

The whole time I was talking I thought that no one was keeping score on my phone call, but at the end, the point was hammered home to me, "there is no free lunch."

Another fact that will help us internalize this lesson is the many stories of Nazi war criminals, who seem to have escaped justice and retribution for many years. All of a sudden, after many years of "getting away with murder" these criminals are found and get their just due. You can imagine how surprised they are that just when they thought that there was nothing to worry about they see that this was a fateful mistake.

I heard in the name of Rav Zeidel Epstien,shlita, he should have a refuah shleima, that we also on the Day of Judgement will realize our fateful mistake that Hashem was really keeping score.

Let us learn this lesson now, and do teshuvah, so we will stand a better chance on the Day of Judgement.

Another erroneous belief that we live with, is in truly evaluating our own worth and purpose in life. Many of us underestimate our true potential and consequently we don't expect too much from ourselves.

We must always reassess and think about our true value and purpose on this world. As it gets closer to Rosh Hashana, it is more incumbent on us to do so.

Recently, I saw a Torah sheet in shul that helps us to really get a true picture of our value and purpose.

It is from a Rabbi Asher Balanson, a big Talmid Chochom, who lives in Telz Stone.

He tells of a story about Rabbi Naftali Amsterdam, a prime talmid of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter. Rav Naftali told Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, "If only I had the head of the "Shagas Aryeh"-a famous Torah genius, the heart of the "Yesod Veshoresh Ha'avodah-who was famous for his fiery,emotional avodah, and the middos-charcteristic traits of the Rebbi-Rav Yisroel Salanter's midos were legendary, then I could be a good oved (server of) Hashem."

Rav Yisroel responded, "Naftali, Naftali, with YOUR HEAD, with YOUR HEART, and with YOUR MIDDOS you can also a be a true oved Hashem 100%.

Rabbi Balanson points out how many times do we reflect on our own situation. We see only failures, problems, difficulties, and bad middos and we get depressed, ready to give up. We undertake certain projects on improvement and give up before we even start. We are totally convinced that we will never be able to accomplish anything of significance. We are certain that if only we could change this midah or that deficiency, then everything would go smoothly. But, the way we are now, we will never be able to get to any important level of avodas Hashem.

Rabbi Balanson then describes a cartoon that one of his students drew that had a very special message.

It depicted a young child with a very tough look on his face. The caption read, "I KNOW THAT I'M VERY SPECIAL, BECAUSE G-D DON'T MAKE JUNK." How very very true this is.

Rav Wolbe, ztl. says that we have to realize that we are totally and completely unique. From the time of Adam Harishon until now, there has never been anyone exactly like you and there will never be in the future. You have a unique mixture of good midos and bad midos which will never be exactly repeated in anybody else. Each of us has a unique purpose in life. We have things to accomplish that NOBODY ELSE in the entire world can do instead of us. And, Hashem has given us the tools to accomplish what we have to accomplish.

So, when we look in the mirror we have to think, "With MY HEAD, MY HEART, and MY MIDDOS I can accomplish whatever I have to accomplish. I'm very important, because I am unique. I can do it." We should always remember that "G-D DON'T MAKE JUNK."

There is a moving story from Rabbi Paysach Krohn, that will also help us to have a proper perspective on a lot of the things that we do. It is in his book, "Reflections of the Maggid," p. 41. It is called, "Healing a Trampled Sole."

It is about a certain Jew who had a Sefer Torah written and he donated it to his shul-synagogue. The surprising thing about it was that the cost of a new Sefer Torah is more than $30,000, and this Jew was not known to have substantial funds. When he was asked if there was any special reason why he decided to have the Sefer Torah written, he related the following heartbreaking story.

He was only 16 years old when the Nazis took him and his family from Lodz, Poland to a notorious concentration camp. He was separated from his parents and never heard from them again. He was placed in the slave labor barracks and suffered humiliation and heartache every day.

One night as he was lying in bed, a Nazi soldier came and grabbed his leather boots and yelled, "These boots are now mine."

The Jew was shocked. These boots were given to him by his parents shortly before they were captured by the Nazis. He treasured them because this was his only connection to his beloved parents. Now they were gone. He cried for hours and eventually fell asleep.

The next morning he went out of his barracks barefoot and found the soldier who had taken his boots. He didn't dare antagonize the soldier by asking for his own boots back, but he begged him to at least give him a pair of shoes so he won't freeze to death.

Much to his surprise, the soldier came back in a few minutes with a pair of shoes for him. He went back to his barracks and sat on his bed to put on his shoes. As he was about to put his foot in the shoe he looked into the instep and he gasped. The instep was a piece of parchment from a Sefer Torah!

He froze in terror. How could he step down on the words that Hashem Himself had told Moshe Rabeinu to write for all generations? But he had nothing else. It was either wearing these shoes or frostbite and death. He had no choice. Hesitant with guilt, he put them on uneasily.

Now, years later, he said, "With every step I took, I felt I was trampling on Hashem's Sefer Torah. I swore to myself then that if I ever got out of the camps alive, no matter how rich or poor I was, someday I would have a Sefer Torah written and give back to Hashem the honor that I took from Him by trampling on His Torah. That's why I gave the shul a Sefer Torah."

Rabbi Krohn adds an afterthought, "In his sincerity, this Jew felt that he was trampling on Hashem's Torah. Who could blame him? We must ask ourselves, 'Are we in any way trampling on Hashem's Torah? Do we, unwillingly and sometimes even willingly, violate basic precepts of His Torah, which is in essence trampling on his words?'

This Jew surely rectified his "misdeed." We as observant Jews should do no less."

Sometimes, though, we feel that we have strayed so far. We have not only abandoned the Torah but we are angry and have grievances against Hashem for various things that have happened or that didn't happen.

I am reminded of a story with Rabbi Eliezer Silver, ztl, who was a big Rabbi in Cincinnati.

After W.W.II, he went to a DP Camp where he saw many Jews. Despite what they went through, they still wanted to reconnect with their Judaism.

The Rabbi arranged a prayer Minyan in the synagogue. They all wanted to come except for one Jew who was extremely embittered. People said he was "angry with G-D."

The Rabbi went to speak to him and found out that he was not angry with G-D, but rather with one of his servants. The fellow explained that one inmate managed to smuggle in a siddur-prayer book and he allowed others to use it as well. However, he charged the users a portion of their meager rations in return for the usage of the siddur.

"Rabbi," the man said, "these people were starving. How can this inmate be so cruel as to take away from them a part of their meager rations. I cannot have anything to do with a religion that has such people!"

The Rabbi waited till the man finished and asked him, "Is that all?"

"Well, isn't that enough,? The man replied.

The Rabbi exclaimed, "You fool! Why do you only look at the person that TOOK? Why don't you also look at all the "servants of G-D" who were willing to GIVE their meager rations for usage of the siddur, for the opportunity to feel closer to the Almighty?!" The Rabbi touched him with his outstretched palm and left.

The fellow in the story concludes, "I went to the services the next day. Ever since, I have tried to remember that there are two sides to every problem."

We also must realize never to give up. Even if we have gone through most of our life embittered and disillusioned with Judaism, chas veshalom-G-d Forbid, it's never too late. We can always come back. The following inspirational story from Rabbi Krohn will illustrate this point beautifully. It is called, "Bound to His Father." It's in "Reflections of the Maggid," p.47.

It happened in the summer of 2000, when 16-year-old Mordechai Kaler volunteered to help in the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Greater Washington.

One of his duties was to try to get together a minyan-quorum for prayer among the residents. Some agreed and others refused, but they were pleasant about it.

One of the residents, however, was quite nasty and even cursed one of the volunteers when he invited him to the minyan. Mordechai Kaler undertook to try to talk to him.

He found the old man sitting in the lounge in a wheel chair. He explained to him softly but firmly that if the resident didn't want to join the minyan, we could respect that. But why should he curse the volunteer? He is just doing his job.

The elderly man asked Mordechai to wheel him to his room as he wanted to tell him a story. Alone in the room the elderly man told his story of horror, pain and sadness.

He came from a prominent religious family in Poland and when he was 12 years old, his family was taken to a Nazi concentration camp. They were all killed except for him and his father. One of the men smuggled in at least the shel yad- hand portion of the Tefillin-Phylactries. Even though they didn't have the shel rosh- head portion, their love for mitzvos compelled them to at least do what they could to fulfill at least part of the mitzvah of tefillin.

The day of his bar-mitzvah was approaching and his father wanted that at least on that special day that his son should wear a full set of tefillin. He had heard that in the barracks down the road a complete set could be gotten at great risk.

On the morning of his bar-mitzvah his father took his life in his hands and went to get the tefillin. The resident described the events of that fateful day.

"I was waiting by the window with trepidation. In the distance I could see him rushing to get back. As he came closer I could see that he was carrying something cupped in his hands.

As he got to the barracks, a Nazi stepped out from behind a tree and shot and killed him right before my eyes! When the Nazi left I ran out and took the pouch of tefillin that lay on the ground next to my father. I managed to hide it."

The old man peered angrily at Mordechai and said vehemently, "How can anyone pray to a G-D Who would kill a boy's father right in front of him? I can't!"

The resident had Mordechai bring the tefillin from his drawer. It was an old black tefillin pouch, crusted from many years of not being used. The man took out the tefillin from the pouch.

"This is what my father was carrying on that fateful day. I keep it to show people what my father died for, these dirty black boxes and straps. These were the last things I got from my father."

Mordechai was stunned and had no words of comfort for the old man. He could only pity the man who had lived his life in anger, bitterness and sadness. All he could stammer was "I'm sorry, I didn't realize," and he left the room resolved never to come back to the man again.

A few days later, one of the residents had to say Kaddish-prayer for the dead, which required a minyan of ten. Try as they could they could only come up with nine. All the residents were asked except for that embittered resident who would probably just get angry.

Reluctantly and hesitatingly Mordechai approached the old man. Mordechai apologized to the angry man for bothering him but someone needed to say Kaddish and they were one short of the minyan. Maybe he wouldn't mind coming just this once.

The old man looked up at Mordechai and said, "If I come this time, then you'll leave me alone?"

"Yes, I will leave you alone."

Then he said something to the old man that could have infuriated him, and to this day he doesn't know why he said it.

He asked him if he wanted to take his tefillin with him.

"If I bring them, will you leave me alone?" was the unexpected reply.

"Yes, I'll leave you alone."

The man told Mordechai to wheel him to the back of the synagogue, so he can be the first to get out.

Mordechai took him to shul and, after helping him on with his tefillin, left to take care of other things. When he returned, the shul was empty except for the old man. He was still wearing his Tefillin and tears were rolling down his cheeks. Mordechai asked him if he needed a nurse or a doctor, but there was no response.

The old man was staring down at his Tefillin and was caressing them. He kept repeating, "Tatte, Tatte-Father, Father, it feels so right." The old man said to Mordechai, "For the last half hour I've felt so connected to my Father. I feel as though he has come back to me." When Mordechai took the man to his room he asked Mordechai to bring him back to shul tomorrow.

Every morning when Mordechai came, the man was waiting by the elevator with his Tefillin. When in shul, the man would sit in the back wearing his Tefillin, holding a siddur, absorbed in his thoughts.

One morning when Mordechai got to the elevator the man wasn't there. When he checked his room and it was empty, he was alarmed. He ran to the nurse's station and confirmed his fears. The man had been rushed to the hospital the previous afternoon and later that day he had a stroke and died.

A few days later the old man's daughter came to thank Mordechai for all he had done for her father.

She said, "You made his last days so comfortable. When he was in the hospital, he called me frantically and asked me to bring his Tefillin. He wanted to daven one more time with them. I helped him with his Tefillin in the hospital and then he had his stroke."

He died wearing them.
Bound to his Father in Heaven.

When I read this story, I felt so bad for the old man. Not only for what he went through, but what a shame it was that the majority of his life he was embittered against Hashem and only at the very end of his life did he make peace.

I also realized another thing. This man still didn't have an answer to his question of "How can anyone pray to a G-d Who would kill a boy's father right in front of him?" So how is it, that he was able to make peace with the situation?

Perhaps, in the merit of helping to make a minyan and putting on his Tefillin, Hashem gave him a special Divine inspiration to realize a very important point.

We are not always going to understand everything that Hashem does in this world. We can certainly try to, but when we don't, the fault lies with us not Him.

I once heard from my Rebbi in the name of Rabbi Nachman Bulman, ztl. about a fellow who went to many Rabbis with the burning question of "Why" concerning the Holocaust. He received many answers but was not satisfied. Finally, he came to Rabbi Bulman who took the fellow's hand into his and said, "Sometimes, my child, we just don't know. We just don't know." With that he was able to make peace.

I will end off with a story from the Mashgiach of Lakewood Yeshivah, Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon in his book, "With Hearts Full Of Faith," p.103-104

He tells about the Mir Yeshivah's amazing Yom Kippur during W.W.II when they were in Shanghai, China.

The davening-praying was unbelievable. It was higher and purer than those of the years before. Rav Chatzkel Levenstein, the saintly Mashgiach, spoke at the end of the fast to encourage his students.

He explained how he felt that the prayers and repentance were sincere and complete. However, many of you are thinking that this moment of inspiration will pass. Tomorrow we will slip from the high place onto which we have climbed today. So did we accomplish? What was the use? Let me tell you a story.

Before we continue, I would like to point out that Rav Chazkel's question is as valid a question now, as it was during W.W.II. It echoes in our minds and makes us wonder whether all our efforts to have an inspiring Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are really worth it, since we see that it doesn't last.

Come, let us hear the beautiful and wise words that the venerable Mashgiach told his students. He said over the following moving story.

"There was once a man who built himself a beautiful mansion. During the celebration upon finishing the mansion, he decided that he would climb up and place a beautiful ornament on the pinnacle of the roof.

That great day came when he finished his mansion, and he made a special celebration and invited all his friends and family.

The moment came when he climbed up to the roof to place the beautiful ornament. But just at that moment, a sudden gust of wind blew him off the roof. He dropped the ornament and fell to the ground. Dazed and in agony, he cried out, 'Oy, my mansion has fallen down. My mansion has fallen down.'

His friends and family reassured him, 'Your mansion hadn't fallen down. You have. You may have broken bones and have to go the hospital. But when you recover the mansion will still be there. You'll be able to go into it. It hasn't fallen down.'

Rav Chazkel concluded, "My dear children, we built a mansion this Yom Kippur. Every prayer that we offered up is like a different room, and all together we have constructed a beautiful mansion. If tomorrow we feel that we have lost some of our inspiration, I want you to know that the mansion hasn't fallen down. It will be we that have fallen down. The mansion will still be standing. It will stand forever. One day, we will enter that mansion once again. When and how, that depends on us, but the mansion will always be there waiting for us. It will be there forever."

Rabbi Salomon reflects, "Rav Chazkel's words of encouragement to his students in the heat of a world war are an important lesson to all of us. When we stand in the shul and prepare to pray to G-D, the thought can sometimes be so intimidating that we may lose heart. We know that it will take so much emotional and spiritual effort to reach the highest level of prayer that we aspire. Who knows if we will be successful? And even if we are, we will be able to maintain ourselves on that high level? Or will we fall back to earth, so to speak? And if we do, is all the effort worthwhile?

The answer is, yes, most definitely yes. All the effort is indeed very worthwhile, because every transcendent prayer builds us a beautiful mansion. And no matter what happens, that mansion will endure forever."

May we apply Rabbi Salomon's story to our own davening and try to build as beautiful a mansion as we can. Let us also try to apply some of the lessons I mention here, which will enhance and beautify our mansion.

In this merit, Hashem should inscribe us in the "Book of Life" for a "Kesivah V'Chasima Tova."

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