Thursday, Dec 9, 2021

What Life is All About

Ever since Yaakov’s showdown with Eisov, that saga has been providing Yaakov’s progeny with a prototype for dealing with an enemy in his various guises. Sometimes the enemy presents himself as a friend, sometimes as a brother or a protector, and sometimes as a concerned colleague or the government. Other times, the evil one is apparent in his hatred and enmity.

Sometimes, we hold ourselves back and other times we allow the yeitzer hora to control our actions. Yaakov provides guidance for us in such instances as well.

The posuk relates that after separating his family and possessions into two camps in preparation for an onslaught from Eisov, Yaakov was left alone: “Vayivoseir Yaakov levado” (Bereishis 32:25).

Rav Nosson Wachtfogel would recount that he only met the Chofetz Chaim one time. Hearing that the tzaddik hador was in the area, he made his way there to hear his words of inspiration. He would say that he was surprised that for an hour, the Chofetz Chaim discussed only one point. For one hour, the Chofetz Chaim told the crowd that each person should work on himself to attain the level where his avodah emanates from within himself, not from copying others, not from being swept along with the crowd, not by observing the actions of someone else or from being concerned about what another person will think of you. A person must work on himself so that he can daven without looking around to see what others are doing and how.

The Chofetz Chaim told his audience that this is learned from the avos, Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, whose devotion came from within and not from copying anyone else.

Vayivoseir Yaakov levado.” Yaakov was virtually alone. By himself, he developed into the great av of the shevotim and of Klal Yisroel. He did so by absorbing the lessons of his great father and by dedicating all of his time and effort to Torah as a yosheiv ohalim, and then, later, while in the yeshiva of Sheim V’Eiver.

With this, we can understand the Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 77:1) that quotes Rav Brachya in the name of Rav Simon, who said that similar to the posuk referring to Hakadosh Boruch Hu which states, “Venisgov Hashem levado” is the posuk in this week’s parsha that says about Yaakov, “Vayivoseir Yaakov levado.” Levado indicates that, like Hashem, he was by himself.

The teaching is explained on many different levels, but we can understand it according to the statement of the Chofetz Chaim. A person has to be able to be great independently. Yaakov Avinu reached that level of achievement. And so must we.

We have to be able to withstand the various pressures that are brought upon us in this world, which lead many people to live their lives conforming to certain social norms and standards. People who cannot afford to keep up with the Cohens extend themselves as they portray a level of financial success that they don’t come close to.

Without sufficient self-respect and self-worth, they seek the acceptance of others and endeavor to earn favor in the eyes of other people. Everything they do is not for themselves, but for others. The home they live in, the car they drive, and the clothes they and their children wear are all to impress their friends and neighbors.

They can never achieve inner happiness and satisfaction, for their satisfaction is totally dependent on the views and opinions of others, not the result of their own achievements. They have no goals for themselves to reach, enjoying a feeling of accomplishment, for they are always trying to impress others.

Vayivoseir Yaakov levado.” Yaakov succeeded in vanquishing the malach of Eisov, as well as Eisov and Lovon, because he was secure in the knowledge that what he was doing was proper. He had no interest in impressing them, but rather in defending and fighting for the truth, as the posuk states, “Titein emes l’Yaakov.” The middah of Yaakov is emes, truth.

We must be honest with ourselves and not allow outside influences and considerations to impress us. We must ensure that we are not compromised by the subterfuge that is so prevalent in the olam hasheker.

My grandfather, Rav Leizer Levin, studied for seven years under the Chofetz Chaim in Radin, living in his house for over a year as payment for learning with a son of the Chofetz Chaim. He would recount that one year on Sukkos, the Chofetz Chaim was the only person in Radin who possessed a lulav and esrog. The townspeople and bnei yeshiva all lined up to make the brocha on the daled minim of the Chofetz Chaim.

One person was so enthusiastic that as he took hold of the daled minim and made the brocha, he began to shake them fervently. My grandfather would recall how he saw that the Chofetz Chaim was upset with the man’s outward manifestation of piety.

Many gaonim and tzaddikim hid their high levels from people, as my grandfather did. This is so different from the conspicuous practices prevalent today, when everything has to be seen, recorded and shared.

Their lives centered around living the way Hashem wanted them to. They didn’t seek to impress anyone but Him. Levado. They were alone with their Creator. All their lives, they were kind and good to other people, but not because they sought their approval or recognition.

Rav Eliezer Turk recounts that he was with Rav Moshe Mordechai Shulsinger at a shalom zachor when a certain Reb Chuna joined. He was an elderly talmid chochom who attended Rav Shulsinger’s shiur, where he often contributed by asking questions and making astute comments.

With Reb Chuna’s permission, Rav Shulsinger began to tell his story. In his youth, he studied in the Galanta Yeshiva under Rav Yehoshua Buxbaum. He arrived at the yeshiva with a drive to succeed, but quickly saw that learning wasn’t for him. As hard as he tried, he found it impossible to grasp the concepts. Rav Buxbaum tried helping him and procured for him the best chavrusos, but it was for naught. Despite his best efforts, he simply could not understand the Gemara.

He decided that he simply wasn’t cut out to learn and went to his rebbi and told him that he was going to leave the yeshiva and get a job. Rav Buxbaum sat with him to try to figure out what type of job would be best for him and how to ensure that he remains on a high spiritual level.

Chuna was well-liked in yeshiva, and when he told his friends that he was going to be leaving, they were upset and held a goodbye party for him.

The morning after the party, Chuna was set to leave. He packed his bags and checked the time before heading out to the train station. He saw that there were still fifteen minutes left before he had to leave to make the train taking him home. He thought that he would learn for a couple of minutes, but his seforim were packed. As his eyes searched the room, he saw an old sefer gathering dust atop the closet. He took it down, dusted it off, opened to a random page, and began to read. This is what he read: “When a person finds himself feeling lonely and nobody can help him, at that time a special door opens from on High to bring him supernatural siyata diShmaya, Divine assistance. If the person takes advantage of the opportunity, he can merit rising in his levels of Torah understanding and in serving Hashem.”

The sefer was speaking directly to him. At first, Chuna was angry. He thought to himself, “Why did I have to open that old sefer now?” and he threw it back on top of the closet. All types of thoughts were flowing through his brain. One of them was that he had to get moving, because if he didn’t, he would miss the train.

And then, he began thinking again that the sefer was talking to him in his situation. He thought, “The book has probably been lying there for years, without anyone opening it, and punkt today my eyes chanced upon it and I opened it to those lines so appropriate for me in my situation. It must be that Hashem is sending me a message to return to the yeshiva and not to leave.”

He walked back and forth, lost in his competing thoughts. He had five minutes left to decide whether to go or stay. His love of Torah and deep will to succeed in its study were pushing him to stay, if only for one more day, but then he began thinking that everyone would laugh at him were he to walk back into yeshiva after telling everyone that he was leaving to work. Especially after that grand party they held for him, he’d be mocked by all.

Finally, as the minutes ticked by, he decided that he would go back to yeshiva for one day. He removed his Gemara from his suitcase and headed back to the bais medrash. He would give learning one more try, one last shot, and then he would head off to work. And just as he feared, as he walked into the bais medrash, dozens of pairs of eyes turned to him. He could almost hear them thinking that poor Chuna must have gone nuts and lost his mind.

“What happened?” he could hear them asking each other. “Why is he back?”

Ignoring everyone, he took his Gemara, sat down in his old seat, and began trying to make the best of his last day in yeshiva. He tried to review what he had studied the previous day, but as usual, it didn’t go. As he tried figuring out the Gemara and following its line of reasoning, it just didn’t click.

He gathered his guts and turned to the boy who sat near him and said, “I’m sorry. I’m trying to figure out this Gemara and it’s just not going. Please help me.” He began reviewing the Gemara and telling him what he didn’t understand. The boy looked at him quizzically and said, “What you are asking does not come from not understanding the Gemara. Your question shows that, in fact, you understand the Gemara very well. The question you pose is asked by the Rashba, the famed Rishon.”

Chuna couldn’t believe it, so the boy went and found a Rashba and read him his very question inside the sefer. With a burst of energy, Chuna returned to his Gemara and worked hard to understand its holy concepts. He had more questions and posed them to his neighbor. Each time, he told him that his questions were asked by great Talmudic commentators.

By the time the day was over, Chuna decided that he was staying. He never had as productive a day in yeshiva as that one. He felt that he was finally, for the first time in his life, comprehending a sugya in the Gemara.

Hashem was really talking to him.

Chuna began dedicating great energy to his learning, and with much siyata diShmaya, he began a lifelong upward climb, becoming a super talmid chochom.

When he was alone, levado, thinking that he had hit rock-bottom, and was about to fall out of the system and away from Torah, he grabbed a hold of himself. He didn’t care what people would say about him. He ignored everyone and everything, and sat down with his Gemara, dedicating himself with all his energy and ability.

When he was all alone, not paying attention to the world around him, that was when he began seeing success and feeling satisfaction, purpose and happiness.

We don’t have to be as hopeless as Chuna to merit Hashem’s assistance. We don’t have to be minutes away from giving up. Wherever we are and whatever we are doing, if we adopt the middah of Yaakov Avinu and find our inner strength, levado, not paying attention to all the outside concerns and considerations, we can make it.

If we wish to merit siyata diShmaya to succeed, we need to stop living for other people. We need to stop worrying about what other people will think about us and begin living for ourselves, for our families, for our neshamos, doing what the Torah asks of us, what our rabbeim and parents ask of us, rousing our inner greatness and strengths and being the good people the offspring of Yaakov are meant to be.

Doing so will bring us success, inner joy and true happiness, and after all is said and done, that is what life is really all about.

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