"Moshiach is ready to come now-our part is to increase in acts of goodness and kindness" -The Rebbe

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Purim: Consistency despite diverse challenges

Purim: Consistency Despite Diverse Challenges

Rabbi Y. Oliver

There was a full year between Haman’s decree calling for the extermination of the entire Jewish people (G–d forbid) and the date of its expected implementation, for Haman cast the lots in Nissan, and the lot fell out for Adar, a year later.

The Alter Rebbe states[1] that the Jewish people knew during this year that were they to renounce observance of
Yiddishkeit, G–d forbid, and convert to pagan culture, they would be exempted from the decree. (In this respect Haman’s decree resembled the policy enforced against Torah observance under the Spanish Inquisition, where those who outwardly embraced Catholicism, may G–d save us, were exempted from the Spanish government’s harsh decrees.)

However, writes the Alter Rebbe, not only did the Jewish people not succumb to the temptation to convert, but they never even
entertained the thought of it. This utter refusal to convert despite the dire threat that hung over them constituted a truly heroic act of mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice.

The Rebbe explains the significance of the time period of a year. The Hebrew word for year,
shanah, is etymologically related to the word for change, shinui.[2] A year thus represents a full cycle, a period that encompasses all possible changes in time.

This quality is manifest in the
Esrog, which the Talmud[3] says remains on its tree—its source of life and sustenance—all year round. The Esrog is always in season because it has the special ability to tolerate vastly different temperatures. Moreover, not only does the Esrog not suffer from being subjected to such diverse and opposite conditions, but it thrives.

Likewise, a Jew should remain connected to his source, Hashem, regardless of any challenges he may face. Moreover, he should pass these challenges in a way that brings him to grow from strength to strength.

This was also the greatness of the Jewish people under Haman’s decree: During the entire year in which they suffered under the looming threat of genocide (G–d forbid), they maintained their loyalty to Hashem despite experiencing the full gamut of the vicissitudes of human experience.

This wide range of experience demonstrates true loyalty. When a person is only challenged with one type of test, even if it was somewhat difficult for him to pass it, it is still not clear whether his faithfulness stems from true selflessness, or whether he was merely following his nature. The possibility remains that if faced with a different type of test that involves truly defying his nature, he may fail.

This concept is expressed in the
Akeidah. Despite Avraham Avinu’s tremendous personal sacrifice for Hashem over many decades, when Hashem asked Avraham to slaughter his son, He pleaded: “I have tested you on numerous occasions and you have successfully passed them all. Now, be strong for My sake in this test as well, so that it should not be said: ‘There was no substance in the earlier tests.’”[4] What was so special and different about this test?

Avraham excelled in his love for Hashem and his kindness to one and all,[5] and the first nine tests involved pushing his limits in his expression of this inborn nature. However, the test of the
Akeidah, in which Avraham was commanded to slaughter Yitzchak, required extreme severity, and this ran totally contrary to Avraham’s nature. Thus, only after Avraham passed this test did Hashem tell him, “Now I know that you are G–d-fearing” because “you did not hold back your son, your only child, from Me.”[6]

Likewise, the fortitude of the Jewish people during the entire year that Haman’s decree hung over them holds the same lesson: True devotion to Hashem is only evident when one remains firm and unshaken in Torah observance even while being subjected to different types of adversity and challenges. For no matter how great one’s talents and skills, there are certain areas in which every individual finds difficulty; hence, these are the true test of his devotion to Hashem. Sometimes these areas of weakness may be obvious, but sometimes not, or one may err in his calculation. Thus, only through
diverse challenges can a person reach a true awareness of his spiritual level, and by overcoming these challenges, he reaches a true, inner bond with Hashem. This may also explain why Hashem brings a person to encounter a vast range of different challenges in life, for only by overcoming them all can his devotion to Hashem be truly known.

Based on the Rebbe's Sefer HaMa’amarim Melukat, Vol. 1, pp. 319-320.

[1] Torah Ohr, Megillas Esther, 97a.
[2] Avodas HaKodesh 4:19.
[3] Sukkah 35a.
[4] Sanhedrin 89b.
[5] Cf. Tanya, Iggeres HaKodesh, ch. 13.
[6] Bereishis 22:12.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Treating spiritual denial and delusion

The Previous Rebbe writes:
... We also find with respect to some bodily maladies, may G–d save us, that the sufferer may not only be unaware that he is sick, but mistakenly considers himself healthy. Some deeply afflicted people even consider the healthy people to be sick, and themselves—the sick ones—as healthy.

These emotionally sick people typically do not seek treatment; some of them even oppose it, claiming that they are healthy. Some of these people may even be very clever—original thinkers, talented orators, and the like.

The root of this sickness is the fantasies that these people have about themselves. One person has delusions of grandeur—he fancies himself the leader of the community or the city. Another views himself as the smartest fellow in the country, and the third is afflicted with yet another delusion.

They are all so busy with their imagination that they have little time to eat and sleep, and when they are brought to the people assigned to heal them, they claim that they are the healthy ones.

The person suffering from spiritual delusion and denial is even worse off than one who suffers from psychological delusion and denial, for in the case of the latter, there is usually someone to help, while those who suffer from the former are typically abandoned, and their sickness worsens and become gradually more ingrained, and they degenerate more and more as time passes.

Adapted from Igros Kodesh Admur HaRayatz, Vol. 4, p. 30.
As discussed in a previous post, it is human nature for a person to be in a state of denial about his or her spiritual sickness/es. The above letter complements that post, for it explains that this denial and delusion is even more severe than a psychological delusion, for the latter is usually detected by others and rectified, while the former is typically ignored, and is therefore more likely to go completely unchecked and atrophy.

This teaches us how careful we should be to be honest with ourselves about our spiritual state, for although there is a Mitzvah to rebuke one’s fellow Jew (Vayikra 19:17, Erchin 16b)—which includes helping them to so see that they are suffering from a spiritual malady—with regard to spiritual faults one can’t count on others doing so. Conversely, this letter also teaches us that it is a tremendous Mitzvah to inform someone of his spiritual shortcomings appropriately, for if you don’t, it is quite possible that no one else will, and the results of failing to correct these faults in good time may be unfortunate indeed, G-d forbid.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The tests of poverty and wealth

As recorded here, in 5718 (1958), the Rebbe paid a visit to the Kopishnitzer Rebbe, Reb Avrohom Yehoshua Heschel, of blessed memory (pictured above), to console him after the passing of his brother.

During this meeting, the conversation turned to the topic of wealth versus poverty. The Kopishnitzer Rebbe said that in order to influence Torah scholars to settle in the holy city of
Tzfas, funding is needed, and in order to enable this, Jews should be blessed with material prosperity.

To this the Rebbe responded that Jews should prosper regardless, for prosperity enables one to fulfill the Talmudic statement that a beautiful home—which is meant literally—expands a person’s consciousness (
Berachos 57b).

The Kopishnitzer Rebbe seemed uncomfortable with this idea, and there ensued a very “refined” debate on the topic of the desirability of wealth. The Kopishnitzer mentioned a verse—“Give me neither poverty nor wealth” (Mishlei 30:8)—that appears to imply that wealth should not be desired, to which the Rebbe responded that that verse negates poverty just as strongly; in fact, it negates poverty first.

The Kopishnitzer Rebbe then remarked that the Kotzker Rebbe, who was known as “The
Saraph” (one of the categories of angels, i.e., he was very holy) was known to have lived in great poverty. The Rebbe responded that for angels such a way of living is appropriate, but Jews who live in a material world need prosperity, and even wealth!

The Kopishnitzer Rebbe said: “Wealth is a test, and I am afraid of the test of wealth.”

The Rebbe responded: “Poverty is also a test; on the contrary, the test of poverty, which causes exertion, suffering, and so on, is much worse and more difficult—so much so that our sages have listed poverty as one of the three things that “deprive a man of his senses and of a knowledge of his Creator” (Eruvin 41b)! Thus, the test of wealth is better!”

After further explanation, the Rebbe concluded: “Hashem will surely help people to succeed in passing the test of wealth, for [it is written concerning the final redemption that Hashem] ‘[devises means that] he that is banished be not cast away from Him’ (
II Shmuel 14:14). This refers to every single Jew, even the wealthy ones [that Hashem will help them overcome the test of wealth]!”

The Kopishnitzer Rebbe then told several stories. Among them he related that Reb Dovid Moshe of Tchortkov used to walk with his head tilted downward, and once at the Purim meal, the jester remarked: “The Master of the World is not a robber, so why are you so afraid of him?”

To this the Rebbe responded with a smile: “I feel compelled to say, borrowing the expression of that jester: ‘Why are you afraid to ask the Master of the World for wealth?’”

The Kopishnitzer Rebbe responded: “I am already an old Jew, why do I need wealth?! It is better that I request that
Moshiach come.”

The Rebbe countered: “What is the contradiction—ask [
Hashem] for both things!” The Rebbe concluded: “In any case, I would like you to agree that Jews should have wealth.”

The Kopishnitzer Rebbe responded: “I agree wholeheartedly.”
What exactly was going on in this exchange? My understanding of it, and the reader is invited to comment and disagree with me, is that the discussion was not at all about whether wealth has its disadvantages, or whether poverty has its advantages; after all, they are both referred to as tests by Hashem, and the Jewish people have been given the test of poverty in some times and of wealth at other times. There can be no denying that in certain periods in Jewish history, those who suffered from poverty fared better than those faced with the test of wealth. Both “sides” agreed on this basic concept.

Rather, the discussion was about what is appropriate in the current post-war milieu, in which the Jewish people can potentially enjoy much prosperity not available to them in former times. The Rebbe argued ardently that now the test of wealth is preferable, while the Kopishnitzer Rebbe was hesitant.

At the end of the exchange, the Rebbe clearly wanted the Kopishnitzer Rebbe to agree with him. This was surely not merely for the sake of a philosophical discussion. Rather
, the Rebbe felt that their words were being carefully noted by the Heavenly Court, and that if the conclusion of their discussion would not come out firmly in favor of the Jewish people receiving wealth, this might detract from the material blessings that the Heavenly Court would allot to the Jewish people. The Rebbe expressed similar sentiments on many occasions concerning the power of speech, especially of words expressed by great Torah scholars, who are described as “kings” (Gittin 62a).

Now that we’ve established that nowadays the test of wealth is preferable to that of poverty, let us utter a prayer to Hashem that the entire Jewish people be blessed with wealth!

With Hashem’s help, in future posts we will discuss what the test of wealth entails, and how to overcome it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Worthwhile Sacrifices

Worthwhile Sacrifices

Rabbi Y. Oliver

I recently travelled on a plane, and I derived several important lessons from the experience. Here is one:

When something is truly important to us, we are willing to sacrifice for it.

Most people will not wake up early or put themselves in a situation in which they know they will lose a lot of sleep. If they missed their daily
shiur in Chassidus or Nigleh, or they didn’t finish Chitas, they may say that they can’t do it late or wake up early for it, because they will lose sleep. Likewise, they may say that they can’t stay at a farbrengen, or come altogether, because it will mean losing sleep.

But the traveller on an expensive plane flight somehow forgets these concerns. This shows us that when something is very important, and you’ve invested a lot for it, you have no trouble losing some sleep. The temporary discomfort is more than worthwhile when compared with the long-term profit one hopes to gain, and the amount of money one has invested.

This concept is reflected in
Tanya, chapter 25, where the Alter Rebbe urges one to be wary of the “battles of the [evil] inclination and its schemes to cool a person off [by enticing him] not to forfeit his money and his bodily health.”

Of course, there is also a limit to how much one can give up his money, or lose sleep, and the like. One who gives away all his money to
tzedakah will become a pauper and have to collect money himself. Likewise, someone who literally never sleeps may have a nervous breakdown and then not be capable of anything.

However, these are extremes, and this is clearly not what the Alter Rebbe means. The Alter Rebbe is saying that when someone comes to your door collecting and you have an opportunity to give
tzedakah, but it may mean giving up something you would have liked to have, don’t turn him down. If you miss eight hours sleep, and only get six and a half because you stayed later at a farbrengen or learnt with a chavrusa in the only time available, you’ll survive.

What about the discomfort, and even the pain, that it may involve? When we truly appreciate the value of Torah study and the like, we will not regard it as a loss in the first place. As the Rebbe puts it:

As we have often discussed, in order to accomplish a goal of tremendous importance, any effort exerted is utterly trivial when compared with the importance of the task. Thus, no effort should be spared in activities related to such an endeavor. This would even be true if one’s chances of success were doubtful.

This can be compared to a person advised to invest one copper coin on the chance that he may earn thousands upon thousands of golden coins, jewels, and pearls. He would surely not hesitate for even a moment to invest this coin, although the profit is uncertain.

If this is even true of material profit, it surely applies with respect to the tremendous spiritual benefit (aside from the inherent value of fulfilling of a divine command) of bringing the entire world to recognize the existence of the Creator and Director of the universe. There is surely no comparison between the efforts invested in this campaign and its tremendous importance. This would even be true if success was uncertain, and it is all the more so when experience shows the extent of our success.

Hisva’aduyos 5743, Vol. 3, pp. 1336-1337.