What Is Our Excuse?
“I once was walking down a path, and came across a man who laughed and mocked me,” related Eliyohu Hanovi, as brought in Tana Debai Eliyohu.
“I asked him, ‘My child, what will you tell your Father on the day of judgment when He asks why you did not learn Torah?’ He replied, ‘I will say that He did not give me the wisdom and intelligence to learn.’
“‘And what is your occupation, my son?’
“‘I am a fisherman,’ he replied.
“And so, I asked my final question. ‘Who gave you the wisdom to craft a net, to cast it into the water, to remove the fish and sell them? Did He give you the intelligence to earn a living, and not to learn Torah?”
“When the man heard these words of mussar, he burst into bitter tears, for he realized that he would have no excuse.”
And what is our excuse?
And I Will Be Silent
Rav Yechiel Mechel of Zlotchov once said before Rosh Hashanah, “When I will come before the Bais Din Shel Maaloh, I will be asked, ‘Have you learned Torah?’ To which I will demur, saying that I was very weak.
“When I will be asked why I didn’t daven properly and fast, I will say that I was unwell, and was in a lot of pain.
“‘And did you give tzedakah?’ they will ask me. Once more, I will have an excuse. How could I give tzedakah, if I was so poor?
“And then, they will say with an accusation, ‘You don’t have any Torah, any tefillah, or money. Why, then, were you arrogant?’ To this, I will be forced to remain silent.”
The King in Leipzig
Reb Meir, a chossid of Rav Mordechai of Lechovitch, would often travel to his rebbe for Rosh Hashanah. One year, he was in Leipzig on business, and was forced to remain there for the Yomim Noraim.
On the morning of Rosh Hashanah, as he entered shul, Reb Meir recalled the powerful intensity of his rebbe’s tefillos, and became so saddened – visualizing the dveikus he was missing – that he couldn’t daven a word. He remained standing in his place, dispirited and confused, yearning to be in Lechovitch.
Suddenly, the sweet sounds of “Hamelech,” as only his rebbe sang it, wafted into his ear, seemingly from a great distance. The heavenly melody had a dramatic effect upon the chossid; he stood up straighter, suddenly suffused with inspiration and joy. With this newfound fervor, Reb Meir found the strength to daven with his usual dveikus and passion, as he did in his rebbe’s court.
Much later, when Reb Meir was in Lechovitch, Rav Mordechai turned to him and said, “Venishma pisgom Hamelech – when a Yid says Hamelech with all his heart, one can hear the echoes in Leipzig…”
On a Sinking Ship
In 1740, Rav Elozor Rokeach, the Maaseh Rokeach, traveled from Amsterdam to Eretz Yisroel in his old age. Rosh Hashanah arrived while he was still on the ship, during his lengthy journey.
On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, a terrible storm started brewing, and soon the thrashing vessel began to take on water from a hole in its side. The terrified passengers gathered to bail out the water, uncertain as to whether they would survive the night. Only one passenger was seemingly unaffected – Rav Eliezer remained closeted in his room, absorbed in his holy thoughts.
Soon it seemed as if the passengers were doomed; the water accumulated rapidly, and the ship was about to sink. The two men who accompanied Rav Eliezer burst into his room and cried, “Rebbe! We are in grave danger! The ship is about to sink!”
“If so,” Rav Eliezer replied, “I want you to be alert. As soon as the morning star dawns, I want to blow the shofar.”
Blow the shofar? When they didn’t know which moment would be their last? But the two men didn’t say a word, and stood watch, waiting for morning.
At the exact moment of dawn, Rav Eliezer took the shofar and began to blow, powerful blasts that pierced the very heavens. Within moments, the vicious storm abated, and soon the sea was calm and serene as before.
The grateful passengers thanked the One Above for the great miracle, in the merit of His servant, the holy Jew on board. On Chol Hamoed Sukkos, they arrived at the shores of the Holy Land.
Later, Rav Bunim of Peshischa explained to his chassidim what really occurred. “Don’t think that the tzaddik Rav Eliezer had in mind to save the boat through the merit of blowing shofar,” he explained. “Rav Eliezer didn’t think about the danger at all. Instead, when hearing that they were in mortal danger, he yearned to fulfill the mitzvah of shofar one last time. And indeed, in the merit of the tzaddik’s powerful avodah, the ship’s passengers were saved from drowning.”
With A Broken Heart
The silence stretched in the great shul of Mezibuzh, as all waited for the elevated moment of tekias shofar. It was the culmination of the entire month of Elul, a season of intense soul searching and teshuvah.
The mispallelim had already said Lamnatze’ach seven times, and now waited, with mounting anticipation, for the rebbe to begin. Yet the Baal Shem Tov was in no hurry, and stood, waiting… but no one knew for what.
The rebbe’s devoted chossid, Rav Wolf Kitzes, who had been chosen to be the baal makri, stood near the rebbe, his face filled with anxiety. He had been given a list of the exalted kavonos to keep in mind during tekias shofar, which contained powerful secrets how to combat the Soton.
Shockingly, just a few moments before tekias shofar, the slip of paper disappeared, seemingly into thin air! Rav Wolf had already combed the bais medrash, but it was nowhere to be found. And now the olam was waiting. Nu, if everyone was waiting, kavonos or no kavonos, it was time to begin.
Finally, the holy Besht gave the signal. Taking a deep, shuddering breath, cognizant of his broken heart and utter devastation, Rav Wolf called out “Tekiah,” and the Baal Shem Tov blew the shofar, its cries pierced the heavens.
Shevarim. Teruah. Tekiah. Again and again, the shofar blasts rang out, jolting the chassidim out of their complacency, out of their year-long slumber.
And then, in just a few moments, tekias shofar was over. The first set of tekios had been blown, and the chazan began Ashrei.
Spent and devastated, Rav Wolf collapsed into a chair, letting the tears flow freely. He had been given a golden opportunity to announce the tekios with the proper kavonos, and he had ruined his chance.
After Mussaf, the Baal Shem Tov reassured his talmid muvhak, “Don’t be upset about what occurred. Instead, you should be dancing for joy. Your tekios were a zechus for all of Klal Yisroel!”
As Rav Wolf listened carefully, the Besht explained. “Your situation is like that of a castle with numerous corridors, and hundreds of elegant wooden doors. Each door can be opened only with a special key, which only the prince possesses. However, there is one thing that can open any locked door – an axe! The axe, with its powerful blows, can open the most tightly sealed doors with minimal effort.
“Rav Wolf, your tefillos were like the axe, devoid of exterior embellishments, powerful and pure. With your pashtus and simplicity, your humility and broken heart, you have literally melted the gates, allowing all our tefillos to enter.”
That year, the Jews of Mezibuzh merited an unusually sweet, mazeldig year.
Not Every Year
One year, the Divrei Chaim of Sanz said the kapitel L’Dovid Mizmor in a great hurry. The chassidim wondered about his haste, but did not question their rebbe. That year was a special, blessed time, of yeshuos for all. Many akaros who had not had children for years were blessed with offspring.
The next year, many chassidim who had not been blessed with children traveled to Sanz from far and wide, begging the Divrei Chaim to bless them with children. “Rebbe, please help us like you blessed the chassidim last year,” they begged.
The rebbe replied with a vort. “Let me explain to you why we say L’Dovid Mizmor on Rosh Hashanah night.
“The talmidim of the Arizal didn’t want to daven for their physical needs, preferring to concentrate on their spiritual status all year. Thus, before Rosh Hashanah, the Arizal bequeathed them special kavonos to have in mind during the mizmor, which are mesugal to provide man with all he needs. However, these kavonos remained a secret.
“Now that this secret has become known, and Yidden beg all year for their physical needs, this mizmor does not have the same power it once had. One cannot bring yeshuos through this kapitel every year.
“However, last year was a special eis rotzon for being helped, and through these kavonos, Klal Yisroel was blessed with a good and sweet new year. Remember,” said the rebbe with a smile, “a miracle does not occur every day.”
The Gehinnom is Hidden
The Shpoler Zeide would remain secluded in his chamber on Rosh Hashanah before tekias shofar, and nobody was allowed to enter. Once, one of the chassidim were intensely curious to see what the rebbe was doing, and he peeked into a crack in the door. He saw the Shpoler Zeide lying on his bed, crying bitterly.
“Ribono Shel Olam! What do You want from Your Jewish nation? I promise You, that if I wouldn’t see with my own eyes how Jewish children fulfill the Torah in golus, I wouldn’t believe it. The golus is so bitter, yet Klal Yisroel remains faithful.
“The enticements of the Yeitzer Hora lie before our eyes, and the tortures of Gehinnom are hidden in the sefer Reishis Chochmah. If You would do the opposite, hiding the enticements in a sefer, and keeping the Gehinnom open before all, I promise You that no one would sin.”
When the rebbe finished saying these heartfelt words, he stood up, wiped away his tears, and entered the bais medrash to begin tekias shofar.
To Change the World…
The Sanzer Rov famously said, “In my youth, I was consumed by a fiery desire to change the entire world. Later, when I became older, I realized that it was an impossible dream, and I decided to try and change my entire city.”
The rebbe continued, “When I became even older, I realized that I should narrow my focus to my own family members, and try to help them improve. And now, in my old age, I only have one request: Halevai that I should be able to do teshuvah, to improve my own character…”
One Day and a Year
“If the first day of Rosh Hashanah is warm, it will be warm all year. If the first day is cool, Klal Yisroel will have a cool year….”
The Munkatcher Rebbe interpreted this Gemara as follows:
“If one is ‘warm’ on the first day of the year, one davens with hislahavus and fire, one will receive assistance from Above to continue ascending the ladder in kedusha. However, if a person is cold and unmoved on Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the year, that is a sign that he will be stagnant in his avodas Hashem all year.”
As Precious as the Korbanos
In the great Kotzker bais medrash, an overzealous chossid was apparently doing his utmost to prepare for the Yom Hadin. He raced around the bais medrash, mumbling prayers, his body quaking in fear, moaning and groaning while beating his chest and confessing his sins, his shouts audible to all.
The Kotzker Rebbe entered the bais medrash, turned to the chossid and said, “Reb Yid, the Ribono Shel Olam whom you serve is not such an angry G-d. He accepts good behavior as well.”
The Kotzker was renowned for his sharp and penetrating analysis of human nature. Granted, we cannot ever achieve the ultimate in avodas Hashem, and any illusions to the contrary are mere arrogance. The quality of our spiritual offerings, when compared to that of our ancestors, seems almost pathetic in contrast.
Yet before we sink into despair, let us internalize the Kotzker’s message: Our Father yearns for our meager offerings. To our Creator, they are precious as the korbanos brought on the mizbei’ach during the time of the Bais Hamikdosh.
A Shortage of Wheat
What do our Sages advise us regarding the teshuvah process in our generation?
The Chofetz Chaim related the following parable:
When a wheat merchant purchases a large shipment from a farmer, he uses a special machine to remove the sand and stones, so that he should not end up paying for worthless clods of earth, instead of pure wheat kernels. However, during a time of hunger and deprivation, the merchant does not care about the sand and stones; he is happy that he has some wheat to buy!
Likewise, in previous generations, the tzaddikim were exceptionally careful to make sure every mitzvah was completed in its entirety, with pure intentions and lofty thoughts. However, in our generation, when there is an acute spiritual hunger, every single commandment is precious – regardless of its quality.
Whole Clothes and Broken Hearts….
The Mezritcher Maggid sent his talmid, Rav Mendel of Rimanov, to Russia, to be mekarev the Jews there. After two years, Rav Mendel returned to Mezritch to see his great rebbe, and Rav Levi Yitchok of Berditchev entered the maggid’s chambers to announce, “The talmid muvhak of the rebbe has come.”
Hearing this, Rav Mendel protested, “Am I worthy of the title ‘talmid muvhak’? Perhaps I once gave the rebbe a gartel with which to daven, but that is the extent of it!”
Rav Mendel went into the rebbe’s study, and the rebbe asked, “What did you accomplish in Russia?”
“I found Jews whose kapotes were torn and whose hearts were whole,” replied Rav Mendel, “and I turned them into Jews whose kapotes were whole and whose hearts were torn.”
He found poor Jews unable to earn a respectable living, wearing torn clothes. On the other hand, their hearts were whole, for they were unaware that a Jew’s sole purpose in this world is to perfect the soul. Rav Mendel transformed them into “wealthy” Jews with broken hearts, concerned with perfecting their souls.
What is Important
Rav Moshe Blau was once in the United States, staying at the home of a wealthy baalebos who complained that his children were straying from the true derech. Rav Moshe commiserated, but waited to offer his advice.
On Friday night, as they ate the seudah, one of the host’s young children turned on the light by mistake. In a calm and controlled manner, the host explained that it was forbidden to do so on Shabbos, and the matter was laid to rest.
On Motzoei Shabbos, the same child went to his father’s study and began playing with his rare coins. When the father discovered what his troublesome son had done, he raised a ruckus, carrying on in a voice that could wake the dead.
“Now I understand why your sons are not following in the Torah path,” Rav Moshe remarked. “They absorb your values, and they see that your own valuables are more important than keeping the Torah.”
Every Yid is obligated to ask himself, as the Yom Hadin approaches, “What are my values? Am I teaching my children about what is truly important?”
Remember Us for Life!
Rav Yisroel Salanter would spend a lot of time during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah on the tefillah of “Zochreinu lechaim.”
He would say that one who mumbles these tefillos and does not pay attention is like a rotzeach, a murderer, because his life, and the life of his entire family, lies in the power of these words. How can one daven this tefillah without his whole heart?
To Serve Him Better
Rav Meir of Premishlan once announced on Rosh Hashanah: “Ribono Shel Olam! I know if You will squeeze out the tefillos and supplications with which the Yidden turn to You all year, You will find tefillos about money. Parnossah is no small matter. And so, we turn to You and daven for parnossah.
“On the other hand, if You will squeeze out our money, You will find many mitzvos. Because what does a Yid need money for, it not to do mitzvos? A Yid wants to marry off his daughter to a talmid chochom, pay for a melamed to learn with the children, buy an esrog, etc.”
The Premishlaner concluded with a rousing tefillah. “Hakodosh Boruch Hu, we beg You, please send us parnossah so that we can serve You better.”
Just the Basics
The Chasam Sofer was very displeased with the baalei tekios who, while blowing the shofar, were delving into divrei kabbalah.
A baal toke’a once asked the Chasam Sofer, “What should I have in mind while blowing the shofar?”
“You should have in mind to be motzie the entire tzibbur with the mitzvah of tekias shofar,” the Chasam Sofer replied.
The Child was Melamed Zechus
When Rav Yitzchok of Vorker was an orphan child, he was raised by Rav Dovid of Lelov. Rav Dovid was an ardent disciple of the Lubliner Rebbe, and each time he went to Lublin, he took young Itzikel along. One Rosh Hashanah, it took a long time for the Lubliner Rebbe to enter the shul for tekias shofar, and Rav Dovid went into the rebbe’s chambers to see what was taking so long.
The rebbe explained that he saw a great kitrug on Klal Yisroel, and thus he could not begin tekias shofar. Suddenly, the Lubliner Rebbe noticed young Itzikel, who had come along. “Who is this boy?” asked the rebbe.
“This is an orphan whom I am raising as my own son,” Rav Dovid replied.
The Lubliner Rebbe turned to the child and asked him what he was learning. Itzikel replied that he was learning Hilchos Edus, the laws of bearing witness.
“Were you mechadesh something?” asked the Lubliner.
Said the future child, “It was difficult for me to understand the din that a relative is an invalid witness both for zechus and for chov. One understands that a relative might be inclined to be melamed zechus and thus bear false testimony, but how could a relative be an ed for prosecution?”
“And did you find an answer?” asked the rebbe.
“I answered as follows,” said the child. “The Torah says regarding eidim, ‘Ve’omdu shnei anoshim,’ and the two men shall stand. Thus, an ed must be in the category of anoshim. One who bears witness to prosecute a relative is not a mensch, and thus his edus is invalid.”
When the Chozeh heard the child’s brilliant words, he was suffused with joy. “With your answer, you wiped out the kitrug in shomayim,” he said. “We are bonim lamokom, and Hashem is our Father. So how can our Father be mekatreg on us?” Immediately, the Chozeh entered the bais medrash to begin tekias shofar.
A Hidden Code
The great Rav Uziel Meisels, a talmid of the Mezritcher Maggid, once said, “From shomayim, they revealed to me the purpose of tekias shofar. When two close friends, or a father and son, exchange letters, they keep up a hidden correspondence, replete with hints, which no one else understands.
“So, too, on Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, Hashem did not want the mekatregim to understand our pleas. Thus, the shofar is our hidden language, and only our Creator understands the message.”
Shidduchim for His Daughters
The Berditchever Rebbe searched for an appropriate baal toke’a before Rosh Hashanah, to blow the tekios in his bais medrash. Several baalei toke’a who had blown in the bais medrash before presented themselves to the rebbe, each showing their proficiency in lofty kavonos, but they did not appeal to the rebbe.
One day, a simple baal toke’a presented himself to the rebbe, and the Berditchever asked him what he has in mind during blowing the shofar.
“Rebbe, I am a simple Jew who does not understand the hidden secrets of the shofar,” the Yid replied. “I have four daughters of marriageable age, and all of them need shidduchim. So this is what I have in mind during the tekiyos: ‘Ribono Shel Olam, I am doing Your will, and blowing the shofar. I beg of you, please do my will and marry off my daughters.’”
“You will blow the shofar in my bais medrash,” said the rebbe with emotion. And so it was.
A Baseless Rumor
Reb Mottel of Slonim heard the following from his rebbe, Rav Dovid Lubliner:
When the bitter decree of the Cantonists was decreed, Klal Yisroel tore through the heavens with their tefillos. Shortly thereafter, there was a rumor that the gezeirah was invalidated, and Klal Yisroel stopped davening for mercy.
Sadly, a short time later, the decree was reinforced with more brutality than before. Said Rav Dovid, “The rumor was spread by the baal dovor in order to weaken Jewish tefillos, because if Klal Yisroel had continued storming the heavens, the gezeirah would not have been reinstated.”
A Chassidishe Cossack
Reb Chaim of Amdurer was renowned for his extraordinary dveikus during davening. A Cossack once went by the bais medrash, and when he heard the sweet, moving words of Reb Chaim’s tefillah, he stopped near the shul and began to cry. The Cossack drew out his whip with a flourish, smacked it against the wall, and said, “If I would be able to pray like that man, I would become a Jew!”
Another Yid by the name of Reb Shmuel was standing nearby and overheard the conversation. Then and there, he decided to become a chossid of Reb Chaim. Chasidim fondly called him “Reb Shmuel Cossack.”
Another time, when Reb Chaim was davening, a poritz passed by the bais medrash. When he heard the powerful davening, the poritz said, “If one would beseech a kidnapper who is about to kill his victim with such sweet and powerful supplications, then one could certainly spare his life!”
Calming Down with a Vertel
Reb Pinchos Dovid Reisz related that his father learned in the yeshiva of the Yetev Lev of Sighet, and would relate the rebbe’s fiery droshos, especially during the Yomim Noraim.
The Yetev Lev would arouse the tzibbur to teshuvah, and they would cry such bitter tears, that they were unable to compose themselves. The Yetev Lev would then calm them down with a vertel, whereupon he would continue with his divrei musar.
A Soldier During Wartime
The Sanzer Rov would sleep less during the Days of Awe than he did all year. During the month of Tishrei, he barely slept, and it was impossible to understand how he could function.
One year, when the Sanzer Rov came to the tish to make kiddush on the second night of Rosh Hashanah, he was very weak and exhausted. The chassidim understood that this was the result of the rebbe’s intense avodah during Elul and the days of Selichos.
As the rebbe sat in his chair, he sighed and said, “You know the routines during a war. The soldier fights with mesiras nefesh, and continues to run ahead. Finally, when he arrives at a place where he can rest, he falls down on the ground to sleep, because he does not have strength to even prepare a bed. However, despite his exhaustion, when he hears the signal to continue on, he overcomes his exhaustion and marches ahead, with renewed strength, as if he hadn’t nearly collapsed in exhaustion. “
With that, the Sanzer Rebbe stood up with energy, took his becher in hand, and began to make kiddush with renewed kochos.
Crying from Hunger
The Ruzhiner Rebbe once entered the bais medrash and told his chasidim the following parable.
A simple, illiterate Jewish villager once visited a neighboring city on Rosh Hashanah. He entered the shul, and saw the tzibbur davening. Suddenly, during Shemoneh Esrei, many of the congregants began to cry. “Why are they crying?” he wondered. “Nobody is hitting them.” Not having whom to ask, he surmised that they were hungry. Since he, too, was hungry, he also began to cry.
After Shacharis, the mispallelim stopped crying. The villager wondered why they stopped, since they hadn’t eaten yet. He decided that they were probably anticipating a well-cooked piece of meat, whose taste improves the longer it is cooked, and that is why they were no longer upset.
Then came the time for tekias shofar, and the crowd began to cry once more. Why were they crying now? The simple villager reasoned that although the meat tasted much better the longer it cooked, the olam simply could not wait so long. They were willing to give up on the more pungent taste of the meat, because they want to go home and eat it already!
When the Ruzhiner related the story, he began to cry, and his chassidim cried along. They realized that the rebbe was referring to the lengthy and bitter golus, and how desperately they yearn for it to end so that they can go home.
Why Did You Insult Me?
The Rov of Tiktin once gave a drosha before Kol Nidrei in the main shul of the city. Among the audience was the renowned Rav Meir Tiktiner, who cried bitterly upon hearing the divrei mussar. After the drosha, Rav Meir went over to the rov and cried, “Why did you humiliate me in public?”
The rov replied, frightened, “What are you talking about? I gave mussar to the entire kehillah, and did not have you in mind at all.”
But the tzaddik sobbed as he said, “All the other Yidden were tzaddikim. Whom did you have in mind, if not a sinner like me?”