Brachos 9: The Pains of Exile
The devastation of the Holocaust is unimaginable to us both in its scope and the horror of countless innocents being murdered in cruel and unusual ways. It is surely difficult to imagine learning anything good from this sea of destruction. Remarkably, the Rebbe of Klausenberg zt”l, himself a survivor who lost his whole family in the war, was able to teach a positive lesson from this terrible time.
“When Moshiach will arrive and we will be completely redeemed, the accuser will surely arise and try to limit those who are allowed to experience this long-awaited deliverance. He will declaim, ‘Master of the world! Surely You will not redeem those who did not keep Your law. Only those who kept Torah despite the hardships of exile deserve redemption!’
“But Hashem will not accept this proposal. ‘When My people were slaughtered, every Jew was considered worthy of death by virtue of his being a Jew. Everyone was considered a ‘good Jew’ despite their lack of observance. Now that the redemption has come, they will not be considered Jews?’
“The proof to this is from the Gemara in Brachos 9. There we find that Hashem says that Avrohom Avinu will claim that Hashem fulfilled His promise to ‘pain’ the Jewish people in exile. Will He not also fulfill ‘and they will leave with great wealth’? We see that if the Yidden could be subjected to the pains and tribulations of exile, they also have the privilege of reaping its rewards!”
Brachos 10: His Return to Ramah
The Chofetz Chaim zt”l gleaned a special insight from a statement on Brachos 10. “The verse states about Shmuel Hanovi: ‘His return was to Ramah, since his home was there.’ Our sages comment on the meaning of ‘his home was there.’ The redundant ‘there’ teaches that wherever he went, his home was with him. Of course this seems difficult. Why say that his home is Ramah and then tell us that everywhere he went was like his home?
“We can understand this in the context of the words of our sages that one who acquired words of Torah has acquired a home for the next world. This idea also applies here. The word for his return, teshuvaso, also means his reply. Whenever people asked him questions, he was always thinking about Ramah, those matters that are ‘berumo shel olam,’ the loftiness of the next world and how to acquire it. ‘His home was there’: in the World to Come.”
Brachos 11: The Businessman’s View
The Alter of Kelm zt”l used a relevant parable to explain why people, even those who really want to excel, often do not succeed when it comes to learning Torah. “Hear me my brothers! As we find in Brachos 11, the first bracha of Birchas HaTorah is ‘la’asok bedivrei Sorah.’ This seems strange. On the surface, it would seem that ‘lilmod Torah’would be a more appropriate phrase for this blessing.
“Although la’asok means to delve, it also means doing business. The lesson here is that one must treat learning Torah like he would his business. If someone went to an accomplished businessman and asked about one of his many businesses – which bring in money on the side – instead of his main business, what do you suppose he would reply? He would say, ‘Why are you asking about my sideline? Ask instead about my main business…’
“This comparison is explicit in the verse, ‘If you seek Torah like money…then you will understand.’ We can infer that if you do not seek Torah like people seek money, you will not understand!”
Brachos 12: Hashem Uplifts the Bent
Perhaps the most common emotional block that people need to overcome in our time is lack of self-esteem. In some people, this is an obvious lack; these people cannot see the positive in themselves even though their strengths are clear to everyone who knows them. Others manifest their lack of confidence through false bravado. Most arrogant people do not feel confident. If they are healthy, why would they need to pander for attention in the many ways that everyone else knows they do? So much has been written about this problem; it is natural for us to seek solutions, and many have offered suggestions.
Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l prescribes a stunningly simple way to work on lack of self-esteem. It involves three exercises every day. He doesn’t insist that one make a special time for this either. All one has to do is focus on the inner meaning of his actions and words each time he bows and straightens up during Shemonah Esrei.
Rav Wolbe taught: “A thinking person should not need to hear a reason for bowing when we say boruch (or Modim) during Shemonah Esrei. This is obviously a way of physically expressing our avodah of that moment: to nullify ourselves completely before Hashem. We bow specifically when saying boruch to show that when we petition the Source of all blessings, the only appropriate way to ask is by lowering ourselves before Him.
“What seems odd at first is that we raise ourselves specifically when we say Hashem’s Name. Why then? This question is actually raised by the Gemara in Brachos 12. Shmuel explains there that this fulfills the verse that we say in the first Hallelukah: ‘Hashem uplifts the bent.’
“What bends a person over with woe and self-doubts? What makes him feel like a lost sheep with no hope? The simple answer is that he knows only that he himself is nothing. But he doesn’t yet feel the deep connection between him and the Creator. He doesn’t understand how Hashem acts with us. Our sages explain in the Medrash the verse of ‘kedoshim tihiyu – you shall be holy’ in a way that we might not expect. Usually, this is understood to be a commandment that we comport ourselves with holiness. The Medrash reveals that this verse is also a promise. The verse guarantees that the Jewish people will always be holy. It is this promise that enables us to straighten up specifically when saying the Sheim Hashem. If we truly lower ourselves before Him, we access the Creator’s promise to make us holy. Just as Hashem is above the world, we will be lifted up high above mundane concerns, filled with profound holiness. How can one feel like a lost sheep when Hashem Himself promises to uplift him if he will only humble himself a bit?”
Brachos 13: The Unity of Shema
We find in Brachos 13 that one must have kavanah while saying Shema. The Rambam writes that one should remove all extraneous thoughts while saying Shema. This is not always an easy task, however. How is one to ensure that he always has kavanah when saying Shema no matter what?
The Tiferes Yisroel gave heartfelt advice to his children on this very matter in his own tzava’ah:
“Know my dear children. The first verse of Shema should be broken up into three segments, which encompass three foundations of our emunah. The first segment consists of the first two words, ‘Shema Yisroel.’ This segment expresses our belief in Hashem and that He gave us the Torah. When the Torah was given, Hashem’s voice was heard. We must listen to His voice even now.
“The second segment consists of the next two words: ‘Hashem Elokeinu.’ This alludes to reward and punishment. The Sheim Hashem alludes to the attribute of mercy, while Elokeinu alludes to judgment. If one listens to Hashem, he is the beneficiary of the middas hachessed. But if one fails to obey Hashem, he must do teshuvah or he will be subject to the middas hadin.
“The final segment of ‘Hashem Echad’ alludes to techiyas hameisim. Just as Hashem is an absolute unity, the neshamah which is a spark of Hashem is also one. Whatever is completely one can never die or be separated forever.
“My beloved children! When I say Shema, I imagine that I am a small child and that my mother is standing right next to me. We are once again reciting Shema together, word by word. This never fails to help me stay completely focused on the words and their meaning.”
Brachos 14: The Material World
On Brachos 14, there is an astonishing statement. The Gemara there says that one who goes seven days without a dream is called ra, evil.
Some explain that this statement is not literal. For example, the Ateres Dovid in Parshas Bo explains that this refers only to understanding that our existence is ephemeral, like a dream. “The seven days allude to the seventy years a person sojourns on Earth. One who doesn’t know that the material world is only a dream is called ra.”
But Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l understands this statement literally. “He is called ra because a spiritual person has dreams. If one goes seven days without dreaming, this is a sign that he is not connected to the spiritual reality. When Avrohom asked Yishmoel and Eliezer if they saw the cloud on Har Hamoriah and they replied that they did not, he compared them to donkeys. Obviously, he did not mean that they were subhuman. The Hebrew word for donkey, chamor, is also the word for the material, chomer. Avrohom Avinumeant that they were not connected to a high spiritual level at that time. Avrohom understood that if one does not perceive spiritual realities, it is because he is too steeped in materialism. A person can naturally feel what is going on all over the world; even decrees that have been enacted on high. But that is only if he is not too steeped in materialism.
“I had a friend in Mir who picked up his wine glass to make Kiddush for the second Seder when he suddenly had a vision of his father being killed in a pogrom. He immediately put his cup down and began to cry bitterly. The next night he received a telegram that his father had been killed in a pogrom the day before.
“Rav Yeruchum would say that knowing what has already occurred is not such a great level. Truly great people perceive what is yet to come.”
Brachos 15: The Progressives?
When the Chofetz Chaim zt”l was staying in Grodno, some representatives of what they called the “Cheder Hametukan,” which advocated learning a lot of dikduk but not much Torah, and even less yiras Shomayim, came to see him. They wished to convince the gadol to agree to support their “progressive” cheder. Who didn’t know of the saintly Chofetz Chaim and how dedicated he was to helping the Jewish people? They felt sure that his approbation would further their movement, and they were surely correct.
When they noticed that the Chofetz Chaim balked at supporting them, one of the representatives brought what he felt was an excellent proof that their way was superior. “What do people have against focusing on dikduk? After all, don’t our sages say on Brachos 15 that when one says Shema he should be meticulous? But how can he be medakdek if doesn’t know the rules of grammar?”
The Chofetz Chaim still refused to support them, however. “Although you are correct that the halachah is that one should be medakdek lechatchilah, we also rule that one who recites Shema without being medakdek has discharged his obligation,” said the Chofetz Chaim. “But one who knows dikduk but doesn’t say Shema does not discharge his obligation according to anyone!”
Lapid Eish, Part I, p. 277; See also Shu”t Divrei Yatziv, Orach Chaim II:296:1
Marbitzei Torah Umussar, Part I, p. 143
Pinkas Hakabbalos, p. 128
Misgeres Zohov brought inhagahos toMishnayos Zeicher Chanoch, p. 589
Bais Tzaddikim Ya’amod, Part I, p. 64
Shiurei Chumash, Bereishis, p. 338
 HaChofetz Chaim, Chayav uPo’alo, Part I, p. 372