Support Torah.org

Subscribe to a Torah.org Weekly Series

Posted on August 31, 2022 (5782) By Rabbi Pinchas Winston | Series: | Level:

Friday Night

It’s like getting off a moving sidewalk. While you’re on it, you move quite quickly even if you walk slowly. But the walkway beyond it doesn’t move at all, so when you get off and walk on normal floor, it feels like you’re going slow no matter how fast you are walking.

Elul is a lot like that too. The rest of the year is like the moving sidewalk which moves quite quickly. I mean, can you believe that we’re already just a month before Rosh Hashanah? If not for the addition of L’Dovid and the daily shofar blowing, we’d probably be at the doorstep of the Yemai Norayim wondering how we got there so fast. The Sephardim have already begun saying Selichos as well.

It’s also like a tractor beam from the world of science fiction. That’s a gravitational beam that can lock on objects within a certain distance and pull them in. Rosh Hashanah may be 30 days away, but L’Dovid locks on us now, and like a tractor beam, it pulls us towards Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, all the way to Shemini Atzeres. The average person would probably prefer to not think about Rosh Hashanah until it comes. Halachah compensates for that yetzer hara by changing up our dovening and making life feel more serious than it does the rest of the year.

The rest is up to us. You can lead the horse to water but you can’t make it drink. In our case, God could make us “drink,” but He’s not going to because it defeats the whole purpose. We’re being judged on our choices, not His. We can choose to be real with the opportunity of Rosh Hashanah, or to take it lightly.

I used to think that only meant rising to the occasion for 40 days, from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Motzei Yom Kippur. I used to think that all God expected from us was to push ourselves for 40 days to be in our best spiritual form for the final evaluation, after which we would gradually descend once again to our yearly behavior, albeit somewhat better. Apparently I was not alone in that thinking.

Then I realized that tzaddikim get judged for life the moment Rosh Hashanah comes in, and evil people, for death. They really don’t need the next 10 days of teshuvah since the tzaddik is already where they need to be spiritually, and the evil person isn’t interested in doing teshuvah anyhow.

That part I already knew for years. What was new to me was the idea that if I am doing what I am supposed to be doing the rest of the year, then I would not need Rosh Hashanah to decide my fate in the upcoming one. The judgment of the 10 days is for the beinoni, the person whose life says that they can go either way, in the direction of the righteous person, or the other direction, God forbid. If that is where my previous year has left me, then what kind of year was it? Was that the path I was choosing for myself from the outset? Wasn’t that itself a statement about how serious I took life?

Shabbos Day

IT’S OKAY TO be average, if that is the way God made you. According to Sha’ar HaGilgulim, it is possible. It says there that different souls have different potentials, some to be Torah scholars, some not. God never faults us for not being things we were not made to be. He only faults us for being less than we already can be. He gave us very specific potential. It’s up to us to figure out what it is, and how best to actualize it.

That’s a lot easier physically. You can just look at a body and see if it will be strong or weak, athletic or the opposite. Intelligence is also something that seems to naturally show up early in life. A soul however is invisible, and may be a lot “bigger” and “stronger” than the body that houses it. Many of the most spiritually accomplished people in history have been some of the physically weakest in their generation.

Not only this, but I have seen people who, if you had asked me a year before they became a ba’al teshuvah, if they could ever be Torah observant, I would answer no flat out. There was just nothing about them that said they could ever be interested in or handle such a 180-degree change of life. Then they proved me flat out wrong. Oftentimes they have even surprised themselves.

Equally surprising can be someone who seems so spiritual and ready for Torah but who does not go the distance. They’re intellectual there, they’re spiritually there, but they’re blocked for the time being. It might be an emotional block, like a fear of losing a connection to past friends and family, or it can be a spiritual block because they’re still fighting to drag themself out of the Klipos from which all souls begin.

After Adam HaRishon sinned with the Aitz HaDa’as, the Tree of Knowledge, all the souls that were previously a part of his and destined to become ours later on, fell into the realm of spiritual impurity, the Klipos. The greater the soul, the deeper it fell into the Klipos, and the harder it is for it to “leave.” It may still have a propensity to sin in ways that “simpler” people do not even consider to be a challenge.

And of course, there are stories like that of the Rambam, who was written off at an early age as someone who would never advance very far in Torah learning. But he wanted to, very badly. So he poured his heart out to God in front of an open Aron HaKodesh, and never had to look back. He became one of the most accomplished and influential gedolim of the last 2,000 years. There are other stories just like the Rambam’s, though less well known.

So how does a person figure out their spiritual potential? The same way engineers figure out the physical potential of their inventions. They test drive them and push them to the limits to see what those limits are. A person has to do the same thing spiritually, by putting themselves into situations that push their spiritual limits.

In increments, of course. Even the engineers don’t test things all out at first. They do it in stages and levels. If they succeed at one level, then they move on to test their product at the next level, until they get to a point that it is clear that only failure will result.

That’s where spiritual “product” testing and physical product testing can differ dramatically. There’s not a whole lot of reason for God to bend the laws of physics just to make some product more marketable. But He will bend them for someone who wants to spiritually advance beyond their means to do so, perhaps like the Rambam did initially. As the Gemora concludes: Someone who sanctifies themself a little, Heaven sanctifies them a lot (Yoma 38b).

The Rambam did, and look where it got him.

Seudas Shlishis

IF THE ONLY thing we had to battle against was ignorance, it might not be so bad. But it’s not. We have a yetzer hara, our own personal klipah that shadows like, well, a shadow. As the Arizal says, it “moved in” after Adam’s sin, and took over our lives like it is the ba’al habayis, the owner of the “home.”

So much of that resistance to spiritually grow comes from the yetzer hara that loves comfort more than life because it thinks that these are one and the same thing. Or at least it tries to convince us of this in order to stunt our spiritual growth and leave command over our lives in its hands, all the while making people believe that they are the ones in control.

But just wait and see what happens when the yetzer hara is no more. Wait and see how spiritually buoyant you will feel, and driven to accomplish great spiritual things. You will look back and wonder how you never felt that way earlier, while there was still time to use that energy to be spiritually greater. A tzaddik is “just” someone who understands this and makes the effort now while they can. They don’t strive to be righteous. They just strive not to be spiritually mediocre.

This week’s parsha starts out about this as well. On the surface of it, it is simply talking about setting up a complete legal system to keep people honest. On a deeper level, the commentators say that it is talking to each individual, that they should set up their own system of self-evaluation to judge their spiritual progress. They should police their yetzer hara and, when necessary, do something drastic to bring it back in line.

Part of the problem is that the yetzer hara is tricky, clever, and a “man” of many disguises. Amazingly, the most dangerous enemy a person will ever have to face passes as a friendly next-door neighbor who we’re convinced couldn’t harm a fly. Hardly. The yetzer hara inside of us is constantly conspiring against our spiritual growth and greatness, and doesn’t mind losing a few battles along the way to ultimately win the war.

And what is victory for the yetzer hara? It’s duking it out with the person until they’re too old to fight back and accomplish very much meaningful. The yetzer hara knows it’s going down too, but it has the satisfaction of taking their host down with them along the way. Victory is when the person reaches the point of realization that they should have, and could have, done more with their life spiritually, but didn’t.

Therefore, we have Elul Zman. It’s like a boxer who has taken a beating but gets to sit down and regroup in-between rounds. It gives you a chance to look at the enemy from a distance, to see it for it really is. Which is?

I have returned to giving a Thursday night class online, b”H. To get the link and notified of an upcoming class, write to: [email protected]

Ain Od Milvado, Part 16

ONE OF THE most difficult things to do is to square the Sitra Achra with Ain od Milvado. He’s an angel too, and he works for God. So why does it always seem like the Sitra Achra works for himself, and against God?

It’s a little like when you ask someone who seems down, “Is everything okay?” and they answer, “Ya, sure, everything is fine,” in a not so convincing way. The question is, do they want to throw you off and move on, or are they really saying, “If you really want to know, you’ll ask again and insist on the true answer”?

Sometimes people want to complain but do not want to seem like complainers. So, they try to get people to pull the complaint out of them, as if they’re saying, “Well, I really didn’t want to say anything, but since you insist on knowing…”

Right. People who really don’t want to complain fake their happiness well enough to fool everyone else around them. People who act in a way that tells me that something is not quite right really want to talk about it with people who are willing to listen.

Likewise, God runs history in a way that looks normal, except for a few things here and there that make the onlooker wonder, “Is something else going on here?’ Like the Sitra Achra for example.

Some people just find it simpler to not ask the questions, and put the contradictions under the category of, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” There is God and there is the Sitra Achra. We have to do our best to please God and block the Sitra Achra. The only problem is that sometimes this can lead to a way of thinking that might fall into the category of believing in false powers.

What God is really saying with all the mystery, “Catch Me if you can.” He is saying, “If you really want to know the truth about Me and how I run the world, you’ll ask further, investigate more deeply, and develop a more sophisticated understanding of hashgochah pratis.”

It’s like tracing a family tree. At the bottom of the tree. you’ll find all kinds of relatives are a very different from each other living in different parts of the world. But as you go up the tree, the number of relatives will decrease and the number of places they are living in will be less. Eventually everyone will be living in one place because they are only one family.

Likewise, if you trace all creations, including the Sitra Achra, back to their Original Source, there is only God. But you have to want to trace everything back to God, and be willing to make the effort. And to make that possible, God created many different instruments of His will, to challenge us to see how everything does work for God. Ain od Milvado.