Every Yom Tov adds to our life. It adds holiness and emunah and brings us closer to Hashem. A Yom Tov is not simply something that we experience and then move away from, going on to other things as the Yom Tov recedes in our memory.
We all have just enjoyed the beautiful Yom Tov of Pesach. Hopefully, regardless of where we were physically located for the duration of the chag, it touched our souls, bringing us joy and depth. We sang its songs, hummed its tunes, studied its sugyos, reviewed its halachos, and scooped up as many divrei Torah as we could.
And here we are, days later, much improved by the experience. Let’s not permit it all to fade away and return to living life the way we did before Yom Tov. Let us act noticeably improved, living better.
I thought it would be nice to share some poignant thoughts and stories I came across in various Haggados that I perused over Yom Tov.
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One day, as Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld was walking with Rabbi Gelbstein, head of the Yerushalmi Chevra Kadisha, it began to pour. Rabbi Gelbstein quickly opened his umbrella and held it over the head of his renowned elderly companion, but Rav Sonnenfeld would have none of it.
“I am now going to fulfill the will of my Maker, and as I do so, I am a soldier in Hashem’s army. Have you ever seen a soldier go to war with an umbrella over his head to protect himself from the rain? Of course not! The concepts of a soldier and an umbrella are diametrically opposed to each other. A soldier cannot allow himself the luxury of being under an umbrella. He has to be prepared for any eventuality as he concentrates on his mission, and it is inconceivable for him to be holding an umbrella in his hand at a time like that.”
We need to be cognizant of what it is we are doing as we perform a mitzvah. It is not just something we do out of habit or without concentration. We need to be like a soldier focused on fulfilling the will of Hashem.
As we march onwards through the days of Sefirah towards Shavuos, let us bear that in mind.
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Many years ago, it happened in a European country that there was a king who had one son. The king sought a mentor who would prepare the heir to the throne for his eventual position.
He hired an experienced professional who specialized in three areas: horses, diamonds and human psychology. The man began his task with much aplomb.
There was an equestrian auction, and since the prince sought for himself a fine horse, he proceeded to the area where the sale was held, with his mentor, an acknowledged expert in the field, naturally accompanying him.
A particular horse stood out, white and regal, with a perfect pedigree. The mentor counseled the prince not to bid on it. “That horse throws off its unsuspecting riders and kills them,” he said.
The prince found it strange that the expert would be able to discern that and he put him to the test. He asked the seller to ride it around the coral so that he could judge its gait. The seller quickly obliged. He climbed aboard the horse and began riding around the track. Suddenly, the horse began acting wildly, throwing off its rider and stomping him to death.
His confidence in the mentor reinforced and thankful that he had saved his life, the prince removed a small bill from his pocket and gave it to the man in appreciation.
Sometime later, there was a large diamond sale in the kingdom and the prince wanted to go there and check it out. He asked his mentor – a diamond expert – to join him. As they were inspecting the diamonds, the mentor told him that they should leave. “They are all fakes,” he said.
A few of the diamonds were inspected and it was ascertained that they were made of glass and worthless. In appreciation, the prince reached into his pocket and handed the mentor a small bill.
Having passed his tests in two of the areas in which he declared expertise, the prince decided that it was time to see how he did in the third, his understanding of human psychology. “Tell me what you think of me and my personality,” he said.
The man approached the prince and whispered in his ear, “You are not the son of the king and queen. You were found as an infant, abandoned. The king and queen had you brought to the palace and they adopted you as a baby.” The prince expressed disbelief, but the mentor told him again, “I have no doubt about it. You are not a royal child. If you don’t believe me, go back home and ask the king and he will confirm what I am saying.”
The prince, torn inside, returned to the palace and immediately went looking for his father. “Tell me, is what the mentor told me true? Am I your son or not?” To his great surprise, the king confirmed the story. “The queen and I were not blessed with children. When you were found, we had you brought to the palace and we concocted a story that the queen gave birth to a healthy baby boy.”
The crestfallen prince rushed back to his mentor. “It is true,” he blurted out. “I am not the natural born son of the king and queen. But tell me, how did you know?”
The man said to him, “I’ll tell you the truth. I am not a prophet. But tell me, do you think a king’s son, who was saved from death, would reward his savior with a pittance? If the heir to a royal blood line was saved from a heavy financial loss, would he reward the person who saved him with a small bill? Of course not! True royalty would handsomely express appreciation. When you didn’t, I knew that you were not an heir to a long line of kings and queens. You were a commoner who had been adopted.
Says Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein, we are children of royalty, heir to a golden chain stretching back thousands of years. It is not becoming of us to busy ourselves with pettiness, with silly things of little consequence. We have to be better than that. Let us demonstrate that we are worthy successors to the greats of our people who have come before us.
We were detached from our usual responsibilities for eight days plus and able to re-bond with our family and ourselves. Let us show that we learned lessons about priorities in life and will put them into practice. Let us show that we were able to calmly observe mitzvos and daven without being rushed and constantly checking our watches and phones.
Let’s try to maintain that renewed devotion to our spiritual obligations and the things that we now have realized are the really important things in our life, concentrating on dedicating ourselves to fulfilling our responsibilities calmly and joyfully, with love and dedication.
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One day, the distinguished mussar personality, Rav Eliyohu Lopian, arrived at the Ponovezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak to visit the mashgiach, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein. When they finished their discussion, Rav Levenstein asked his visitor to address the talmidim.
Until a few generations ago, he said, blood libels were a fact of Jewish life. Gentiles would allege that the Jews had killed a Christian child and sucked out his blood for use in the production of matzos. The story of the murdered child would spread like wildfire and the peasants were whipped into a frenzy to exact justice on the poor, helpless Jews. Pogroms would ensue, and Jews would be beaten, robbed, pillaged, and often massacred.
One evening prior to Pesach, in a city with a Jewish population of 30,000, a Christian child was found dead on the property of a Jewish family. The city erupted, demanding blood for blood. For some reason, the town’s mayor wasn’t convinced that the Jews had killed the Christian child. He questioned the justice of killing the Jews without being certain that they had committed the dastardly deed. “Maybe one of you did it so that you can massacre Jews,” he said.
“But how can we ever know for certain?” the townspeople responded. “We can’t compound the crime by letting the killer go free.”
The wise mayor told them that he had a way to know if it was the Jews from the home in front of which the boy was found or if it was someone else. “We will procure the services of a sniffer dog. He will pick up the scent of the child and follow its traces. If the dog sniffs his way towards the house, then we will know that the Jews killed the child. If that happens, we will kill the entire family and throw all the Jews out of our city. But if the dog traces the steps away from the house and towards the street, then we will know that he was murdered somewhere else and dumped on the Jew’s property. We will know that the Jews are innocent this time and we will leave them alone.
The plan was approved. The Jews ran to their shuls and began pouring their hearts out in prayer to Hashem. They begged to be saved. They davened that the dog be given the intelligence to make the correct decision and follow the scent away from the Jewish house.
The dog was brought and, under the watchful eye of the mayor, it began sniffing the lifeless body as it lay on the property. It smelled and smelled, picking up the scent, and began walking in circles around the dead boy, keeping its nose down and seeking to pick up all the various smells that surrounded it. Finally, when the dog was sure it had picked up the scents, it began slowly walking straight towards the street with its nose down, signaling that the boy was killed elsewhere and dragged there by evil plotters.
Said Rav Lopian, “That was the story. But I have a question for you. What reward do you think the dog should receive? It saved 30,000 Jews from immediate eviction and saved a Jewish family from immediate certain death. Shouldn’t it get something?”
“Should it get Olam Haba? Maybe, but dogs don’t get Olam Haba. So maybe a special Olam Hazeh? Also not. It gets nothing. Maybe a bone. Do you know why? Because it performed a purely natural act. It was trained to pick up smells and follow them. That’s what it did. It doesn’t know any differently. For doing that, it gets no reward.
“If so, when a Jew awakes in the morning, washes negel vasser, gets dressed and goes to shul, puts on his tefillin, davens, puts away his tefillin, and goes home to eat breakfast, what is that? It’s purely natural to him. He does it out of habit, without any thought. How much reward should he get for what he did?”
Of course, every mitzvah is rewarded, but I’m sure you get the point. If we do mitzvos by rote, out of habit, without thought or concentration, then we aren’t doing what we are supposed to do, and although we will be rewarded for what we did and our actions are certainly commendable, the reward is not what it would be if we would add thought and concentration and think about what we are doing and saying.
We have an opportunity to bring ourselves closer to Hashem and perform mitzvos properly. Let us do so.
When we ate matzah on Pesach, it was with great concentration. We went through great effort to procure the matzos, and when we ate them at the Seder, we made sure that we were eating the proper amount at the proper time while seated in the proper position. That is how we should perform all mitzvos.
When we read the Haggadah, we didn’t just run through it. We stopped to think about what we were saying and regularly paused to ponder what we were reading. That is how we should daven, thinking about what we are saying and not just racing through the siddur without stopping to think about the concepts and words we are mouthing. If we would, we would feel so much more connected to the Source of all life. Davening Shacharis would be a daily inspiration and not just something to finish and be done with. Its impact would linger throughout the day and infuse us with emunah and bitachon, as well as simcha and tzufriedenkeit. We would feel better about ourselves and do ourselves good, as our tefillos would be accepted On High.
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The Dubna Magid (Ohel Yaakov, Lech Lecha) explains the influence of Yomim Tovim with a moshol.
A king was camping in the desert and his water supply was finished. He had a choice: He could either send his runners ahead to find water and return with it or he could put to work the hydrologists who traveled with him.
If he would send his messengers, they would return with water, but it would be a limited supply. However, if he put his hydrologists to work, they would take soil samples, consult maps, and get to work digging until they reached water. It would take longer this way, but they would have water for as long as they wanted. They’d tap into the natural underground water, and as long as they kept the flow open, there would be water for many years to come.
So too, if we tap into the kedusha and hashpa’os of the chag, they will remain with us for many years and not quickly dissipate.
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The Meor Voshemesh writes that the reason we usually read Parshas Shemini after Pesach is because this parsha discusses the food that we are forbidden to eat. Someone who partakes of treife food is unable to learn Torah because he becomes defiled. Over Pesach, we became sanctified because we abstained from chometz and only ate matzah. By doing so, we purified ourselves and our mouths. Therefore, we attempt to maintain that higher level of holiness by ensuring that we refrain from the foods that dilute our kedusha and cause us to become impaired.
Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach retold that on a visit to Warsaw, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik saw the sefer Degel Machneh Efraim for the first time. He read there in Parshas Eikev that the author recounted a story told by his grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov.
Thousands of people from a certain country wrote a letter to the Rambam, inquiring about a point related to emunah. The Rambam demurred from responding to their question. Instead, he wrote them that they should inspect the kashrus of the shechitah in their area. Upon inspection, they discovered that the local shochet had been feeding them treife meat for some thirteen years. They wrote to the Rambam and asked him how he knew that there was a problem with the kashrus of their food supply.
The Rambam responded that he knew that the residents of that country were fine, observant people, so as he read their question, he wondered how it could be that they would send him a question that bordered on kefirah. He determined that it had to be that their hearts and souls had become corrupted by eating non-kosher food. He knew that they couldn’t have been knowingly eating neveilos and treifos, so he perceived that it had to be that the shochet was fooling them and feeding them forbidden meat.
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This week’s parsha discusses laws of foods. None of us could be accused of knowingly eating neveilos and treifos, but we can all use a reminder to be cautious about what we put into our mouths and what we put into our minds, hearts and souls.
Just as we were so careful over Pesach not to partake of even a morsel of chometz or have any of it in our possession, as we transition back to our non-Yom Tov daily lives, we should be more cognizant of pernicious influences and do what we can to lead our lives in tune with the higher spiritual levels where we are purer, happier and better.