Friday, May 24, 2024

Path of Growth

Too often, we don’t appreciate what we have. This happens either because we are too close to it, or because since we are involved in it, we don’t value the experience. For a proper perspective to appreciate our blessings it is sometimes necessary to step back and look at what we have from a distance.

In most of our lives, there is more happiness than sadness, more gain than pain, and more to be thankful for than to be upset about.

The Yom Tov of Pesach presented us with an opportunity to appreciate our blessings. On Yom Tov, we spent eight days subsisting on matzoh, surrounded and affected by kedusha. We refrained from unnecessary work and pressure. We were happy, spending our days davening, eating delicious Yom Tov meals and learning Torah, and engaging in simple conversation with family and friends.

The euphoria lasted eight days and then it was over. After so much work getting everything together and efforts devoted toward fashioning those days into yemei cheirus, we suddenly found ourselves returned to the world of avdus and back to the regular grind.

But perhaps, while we were engrossed in the yemei kedusha, we failed to fully appreciate their beauty. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we look back at those days and their restorative qualities. Remembering them and their experiences will help inspire and strengthen us to be able to surmount the challenges we face.

On Pesach, we had ample opportunity to appreciate the glory and splendor of what it means to be part of the am hanivchar, a nation taken from the depths of impurity by Hashem’s love.

That message should inspire us to new heights in ahavas Yisroel, the perfect introduction to the weeks of Sefiras Ha’omer, a time when we work to cleanse and purify our middos as we count the days from Pesach to Shavuos.

Sometimes, we hear words and we cry from emotion or we laugh from joy. Words can uplift and inform us, expanding our horizons. And sometimes, words can even be false, painting an inaccurate picture and leading to mistaken conclusions. We must always endeavor to be careful about what we say, for our words have ramifications and influence others.

The Chofetz Chaim was the master of pure speech, teaching generations to remain silent even when the urge to speak is powerful. Yet, the same Chofetz Chaim was the quintessential ish devorim, speaking and writing prolifically, meeting with individuals and groups, and being involved in so many communal issues.

His aversion to lashon hora wasn’t because he didn’t appreciate the role of dibbur, but davka because he did appreciate it, perceiving the power and potency of every word and phrase. Speech is a tool that must be cherished, a force that should be unleashed only in a positive fashion.

Anovah, humility, encompasses all the positive traits of a baal middos. It is the epitome of what a Torah observer and a person undergoing teshuvah aspire to. A ben Torah recognizes that all he has is from Hashem and that on his own he is nothing. One who is consumed with ga’avah, by definition negates Hashem’s role in his life.

The Chazon Ish would take a daily walk down his sparsely populated street in the nascent town of Bnei Brak. As more people moved to the small dusty town, the township erected a streetlight to provide illumination. As he walked on the newly brightened route, the Chazon Ish commented that the greater the distance he was from the light, the larger the size of his shadow. So it is with Torah and Hashem, he said. The further a man is from his source, the greater he thinks he is.

All middos of appropriate ethical behavior, not just anovah, are prerequisites for proper Torah observance and study. In fact, Rav Chaim Vital says that the Torah never explicitly instructs us regarding proper middos, because they are prerequisites for connecting with Torah and their observance is obvious, as all of Torah is predicated upon them. Before we can accept the yoke of Torah observance, we are expected to develop good middos. During the weeks of Sefirah that lead from Pesach to Shavuos, we endeavor to develop and cultivate good middos.

As we proceed towards Kabbolas HaTorah, ready to accept our mantle as a mamleches kohanim vegoy kadosh, we contemplate our mandate. With pure hearts and careful mouths; empowered by the mesorah; reinforced with emunah, bitachon and the koach haTorah; and infused with the middos that make us worthy links in the golden chain, we progress on our daily advance towards the Yom Tov of Shavuos.

Humility, anovah and vatronus are keys to long happy lives. People who study Torah and mussar should not need shalom bayis lessons, as the same middos that help them grow in Torah help them live with their spouses.

We are all quite familiar with the reason the students of Rabi Akiva passed away during the Sefirah period. Lo nohagu kavod zeh bozeh. They didn’t treat each other with proper respect. The talmidim of the great Rabi Akiva were the conduits through whom the transmission of Torah to the next generation would take place. These were people who were to have excelled not only in the study of Torah, but also in the 48 behavioral levels apparent in a Torah scholar.

By failing to treat their colleagues respectfully, they showed that they had not attained the proper level of behavior and middos. In addition, they demonstrated that they didn’t view the other talmidim as people who had perfected their character traits and excelled in Torah, as required for those who are trusted transmitters of Torah, and therefore weren’t deserving of their respect.

Our ambition and drive must be to excel in Torah and avodah. We have to value excellence and appreciate it in others. We should demand the best for ourselves when it comes to spiritual matters and not easily compromise when it comes to what is really important in life. We must become ameilim baTorah in a literal sense.

We are familiar with the first Rashi in this week’s parsha, as he wonders what the connection is between the mitzvah of Shmittah and Har Sinai that leads the Torah to combine the two (Vayikra 25:1).

Perhaps we can explain that just as in order for a person to undergo the observance of Shmittah, he must be strong in his faith that Hashem authored the Torah and will indeed provide for those who leave their fields fallow during the seventh year, so too, the study of Torah, which was delivered on Har Sinai, is reserved for those of perfect faith who have emunah and bitachon that Hashem reveals Himself to us to through the Torah and that there is no higher calling.

Last week, we highlighted in our front-page story the statement from Rav Don Segal that every Jewish child can develop to be a gadol. To me, it was a simple truth, one that we have encountered many times in the works of Rishonim and Acharonim. The Torah was given to all, and every person who applies himself in the study of Torah and its 48 kinyonim can attain greatness. I was astounded to receive letters from people complaining that children are under enough pressure as is. Why, they asked, are we adding to their crushing burden?

Our chinuch system must teach our children to appreciate the gift of Torah they have been given. Our children need to realize that they are the Chosen People, selected to live a life of kedusha and tahara, of simcha and sasson, and that they are not mutually exclusive. Torah breathes life into those who follow its ways. A Torah life is a blessing. Hashem created the world through Torah, and through Torah He speaks to us. The more we learn Torah, the more we grow in the purpose for which we were created and the closer we become to Hashem. People who understand that, happily engage in ameilus baTorah.

Children who appreciate the full picture of Yiddishkeit and know that ehrlichkeit and middos tovos are an integral part of their being, understand that fidelity to a value system is their birthright.

No, we cannot expect people to be interested in delving into Torah if they never gained an appreciation for it. We can’t expect people to enjoy learning if they have a problem with reading or comprehension. We can’t expect people who weren’t taught properly to be able to learn and study on their own. That is definitely not their fault.

However, children who have been shown the sweetness of Torah and painstakingly and lovingly taught by talmidei chachomim, appreciating Torah and its essence, continue along a growth path and are able to do what it takes to achieve greatness.

Despite all the temptations thrown at them by society, and no matter what pressures and inducements they face, they will remain steadfast, focused, honest and upstanding. They will bring us all much nachas.

The Torah promises that if we are ameilim baTorah, if we work according to the Torah and concentrate our main efforts on Torah study and observance, we will be blessed and successful in all we do.

The Torah is what gives us our identity and what defines us. As we stand in the Sefirah period, we commemorate that we were freed from Mitzrayim so that we could accept the Torah on Har Sinai.

We count towards Shavuos, the day that marks our receiving of the Torah, to demonstrate that we are striving and reaching upward. Each day of the count we seek to improve ourselves so that we better appreciate the gift that is the Torah.

We don’t count the way one would normally count down to an anticipated date. We count upward. We are each saying, “I am not the same person I was yesterday. I am better. I have progressed yet another day and have taken another step towards my goal. I am on the way to realizing that the most important thing I can do is accept the Torah, study it, and follow it with devotion.”

If we want to excel in our lives as Torah Jews, we have to understand what successful people realize. The key to success, both spiritual and material, is to devote ourselves to the task with all our strength and talent. We have to study Torah as if we wish to become gedolim, doing our best to comprehend as much as we can and establishing a connection with the Borei Olam.

We have to be noheig kavod zeh bozeh, view others and ourselves with respect, and take ourselves and our responsibilities seriously. We have to take pride in what we do, so that we can succeed in being good Jews and good people. It won’t happen with a haphazard, lackadaisical approach, or by going through the motions perfunctorily. It demands a lifetime of ameilus coupled with discipline and determination.



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