Sunny Days in a Dark Winter

Just over two weeks have passed since the conclusion of the Yomim Tovim and the pleasant memories are still fresh in our minds. The inspirational tefillos of the Yomim Noraim, the awe-inspiring sounds of the shofar, Kol Nidrei, the avodah, and the final moments of Yom Kippur as we screamed Shema Yisroel and Hashem Hu HaElokim… During Ne’ilah, we davened to Hashem, “Pesach lonu sha’ar… Open up the gates for us, as they are about to close. We don’t want to lose that dveikus.” And Hashem listened.

The Yomim Noraiim were followed by days of furious activity, preparing for Zeman Simchaseinu, building sukkos, looking for dalet minim, Yom Tov shopping and preparing the seudos. How beautiful those days were, full of mitzvos, davening, and family togetherness. The climax of all these days came on Simchas Torah, dancing with the Sifrei Torah, rejoicing over our lot. Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu!

Our journey took fifty-two days, from Rosh Chodesh Elul through Simchas Torah, like the gematria of ben, a reminder that those days were all about our being the children of Hashem. But these cherished days have passed…and now what? Have the gates finally closed or do we still have a way of keeping them open? We are in the midst of the month of Marcheshvan, a month with no Yomim Tovim, no special days, not even a fast day to enhance our relationship with Hashem. The days are darkening earlier, the nights are longer, and a sense of melancholy seems to descend upon us. Life is back to normal, the excitement gone. How do we navigate this drastic change of times?

Well-known is a vort from Rav Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev to explain why there are no special days in Marcheshvan. It is the toch kedei dibbur, the next-door neighbor of Chodesh Tishrei. Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l explained that Chodesh Tishrei is the Yerach Ha’eisanim, the month strengthened by so many mitzvos and filled with our tefillos. We are constantly davening, “Vehasi’einu Hashem… Bestow upon us, Hashem, our G-d, the blessings of Your moadim.” Hashem listens and indeed showers us with blessings, shining upon us spiritual lights, and now we are saturated with kedusha and brocha.

Because of this, we need a full month for the sole purpose of absorbing all of the goodness. No more special days for now. Like water being poured down the drain, it must be done gradually, not too much at a time so that it doesn’t overflow. We need this month just to digest all that we have been fed so that we can maximize the use of this potential energy and convert it into our avodas Hashem.

I recently heard another explanation for why there are no special days during Marcheshvan in the name of Rav Boruch Hirschfeld, rov of Kahal Ahavas Yisroel in Cleveland, someone who has been a role model for me since my yeshiva days. After these exciting days, each with their unique mitzvos and blessings, we return to a month of plain days of routine to re-acclimate ourselves to appreciating a regular day of serving Hashem. No frills, no additives, just simple avodas Hashem. When you think about it, there really is no such thing as a plain day in the life of a Yid (heard from my good friend, Rabbi Eli Neuman).

From the moment we wake up and say Modeh Ani, thanking Hashem for returning our neshamah, to netilas yodayim, purifying our hands like the kohanim in the Bais Hamikdosh, the mitzvos we perform daily accumulate very quickly – a minimum of one hundred brachos a day, with three tefillos and Krias Shema twice, the various mitzvos that we perform every day, and every single word of limud haTorah.

And how about the constant chassodim that we do for our families? “Praiseworthy are those who maintain justice, perform righteousness in every time” (Tehillim 106:3). “Is it possible to perform acts of tzedakah at every moment? This is referring to “one who nourishes his sons and daughters when they are small” (Kesubos 50a). And what about a woman, an aishes chayil, a mother who is literally sustaining her family every moment of the day, cooking and cleaning, and nurturing the spirit of her progeny? All of this in a plain normal day. Can this be called regular? It is mind-boggling. It creates new olamos by the second. All in a day’s work.

We haven’t yet mentioned Shabbos, which is equal to all of the mitzvos in the Torah (Shemos Rabbah 25:16). Every moment that we rest on Shabbos is a mitzvah testifying that Hashem created the world and rested on Shabbos. It also infuses a special kedusha into the rest of the week. The mitzvah of tzitzis, as well, is equal to all of the mitzvos in the Torah (Nedarim 25a). “One who dons tefillin, the Shechinah does not leave him” (Tikkunei Zohar 124). No, in the life of a Jew there is no such thing as a simple day. Marcheshvan, the month with no Yomim Tovim, is meant for us to stop and think about the specialness of our so-called regular days.

Besides the energy that we have accumulated during the Yomim Tovim, there is another valuable treasure to warm us up as we approach the cold winter. Well after the pleasant fragrances of the esrog and the evergreen s’chach are gone, we are treated to another special aroma. The Avnei Neizer, Rav Shmuel of Sochatchov, was wont to say that the smell of Gan Eden emanates from all stories of Chazal, but especially from the tales of the avos hakedoshim, for they paved the pathway of kedusha for us to follow throughout the generations. In the darkness of golus, when there is so much confusion, the ways of our fathers illuminate the way for us. Learning about the struggles our ancestors faced, the hardships and disappointments, and how they persevered and were rewarded gives us great chizuk.

After Avrohom Avinu went out to war against the four kings and saved his nephew Lot, the nations of the world gathered at Emek Hashaaveh and crowned Avrohom as their king (Rashi, Bereishis 14:17). The Chofetz Chaim points out that maaseh avos siman labonim; this is a portent of the future for Klal Yisroel. We have suffered so much throughout the years. We were shunned by all the nations of the world and exiled from country to country. Despite our hardships, we are still faithful to Hashem, constantly turning our eyes upwards, ever hopeful that He will redeem us. In this, we draw strength from the history of our forefathers.

Avrohom Avinu, because of his resolve not to worship avodah zora, was imprisoned and eventually cast into a flaming furnace. All of his possessions were taken from him and he endured suffering and was exiled. But in the end, the goyim cut down cedar trees, built a massive platform, and crowned him as king on stage. The same happened with Yitzchok, who was at first antagonized by the Pelishtim, who ruined the wells he had dug and chased him out of their land. But in the end, they saw that everything that Yitzchok touched turned to gold, as Hashem was with him. They came to him to make peace, saying, “We have indeed seen that Hashem has been with you” (Bereishis 26:28).

And Yaakov Avinu suffered at the hands of Eisav and Lovon, the shame of his daughter Dinah’s abduction, and the anguish of losing his beloved Yosef. As he testified about himself, “Few and bad have been the days of the years of my life” (ibid. 47:9). But in the end, “Yaakov lived in the land of Mitzrayim seventeen years” (ibid. 47:28). They were, as Chazal say, seventeen years of an ideal life of bliss, mei’ein Olam Haba (Tanna Devei Eliyahu). And the nation of Yisroel, after hundreds of years of bitter golus in Mitzrayim, left amidst miracles and eventually found their menucha and inheritance in Eretz Yisroel.

These weeks give us a great opportunity to walk side by side with the avos hakedoshim. Rav Simcha Zissel, the Alter of Kelm, was wont to say that what separates the great people from the rest is the koach hatziyur, the ability to envision, to portray in our minds the lessons that we are learning. We must perceive the early difficulties of Avrohom Avinu visually.

According to the Medrash, already as a young child he was in danger of being killed by Nimrod, who learned through astrologers that Avrohom would one day be his nemesis. The child had to be hidden in a cave to be saved. Imagine the loneliness he must have felt at the time. His youth was filled with turbulence. He lived amongst people who served idols, which he found repugnant. He was looked at as a strange individual. And later, when he publicized his beliefs even more, his life was in constant jeopardy. One would have thought that after the great kiddush Hashem of emerging alive and well from the fiery furnace, when all the people, including Nimrod, bowed to him and were forced to admit that Hashem is the true G-d, that Avrohom had reached the pinnacle of his life, and that as a reward for sanctifying the name of Hashem, from here on in life would be a bowl of cherries. But it was quite the contrary.

Hashem told Avrohom to leave his land, his birthplace, and his family for an unknown land. Let’s picture what this means. Undoubtedly, Avrohom loved his family and was attached to them. Now he had to leave his familiar surroundings for a yet undesignated place. It is uncomfortable to travel even when you know your exact destination. Most certainly it is unsettling when you don’t know where you’re going.

Yet, Avrohom followed Hashem blindly, with the entire entourage of his followers. Finally, they arrived in the land of Canaan, their final destination. Now, finally, Avrohom could settle down and peacefully serve Hashem. But no, there was a famine in the land. Hashem wanted to spread the beautiful fragrance of Avrohom to other nations, so that they become acquainted with his way of life. He made him go down to Mitzrayim. What a disappointment. Avrohom could have thought to himself, “Will I ever find menuchas hanefesh? Here I am trying to do everything right and things are just going the wrong way.” But Avrohom Avinu persevered.

Can we picture what Sarah Imeinu felt like being Avrohom’s faithful eizer kenegdo, his partner in avodas Hashem? And how was she rewarded? By getting to spend private time with the degenerate Paroh. She could have felt shamed and dejected. But she, too, continued following the ways of Hashem. The nisyonos continued; the hardships did not cease. Together, Avrohom and Sarah faced their tests with aplomb, and in the end, they merited all the blessings of Hashem.

This should be a tremendous chizuk for all of us. Nowadays, it is difficult to picture the Yidden being at the top of the world and that the goyim will be enamored of us and rush to us for guidance. We must imagine what the scene will be like when Moshiach arrives. What a shock it will be for the entire world that all of their banter against us, their hatred, and their venom was sheker, and that we are the exemplars of perfection for all to learn from. The Arab countries and the United Nations will hold us up on a pedestal and regret how they treated us throughout the years. The New York Times and other publications of their ilk will write editorials apologizing to religious Jews for their diatribes against them.

And it should be heartening to every individual who is going through personal hardship. It is so lonely when we suffer and no one can feel our pain. The lives of the avos hakedoshim gives us strength that Hashem is always with us, He feels our pain, and in the end we will see yeshuos and gratification for all of our previous suffering.