Elul: Time of Fear and Awe

I am writing these lines as the hours dwindle down to the month of Elul. And you are reading them in these first days of that month. Elul is, of course, the traditional preparation time for the upcoming Yomim Nora’im, days of teshuvah and judgment – Rosh Hashana, the Ten Days of teshuvah, and of course Yom Kippur.

So, how do you plan to prepare? Or, are you indeed preparing for the preparation? After all, can you expect that when the sun sets, ushering in the first night of Rosh Hashana, that you will just “be there”? We see that Chazal were aware of this difficulty, and declared that a small measure of “awakening” be instituted during Elul – namely, blowing the shofar daily, and saying the 27th chapter in Tehillim twice daily. This, of course, is merely the institutionalized wake-up; surely each person has to make a personal cheshbon hanefesh and have some battle plan for 30 to 40 days hence.

If you are like most people (please forgive me for lumping you, a unique, special, exclusive individual with the insidious grouping called “most people”), you are basically clueless (again, please forgive me). Do you learn mussar – at all? Do you have a plan for self-improvement? After all, one doesn’t change even the most innocuous habit overnight – and we are, for the most part, creatures of habit. How will we have a fighting chance to have a year different from last year, and the year before that, if we basically stay the same?

To suggest in a column of this length a master plan for personal spiritual growth is preposterous. To whittle it down to preparing for the Yomim Nora’im doesn’t really make sense either. However, baruch Hashem, a specific mahalach, an approach, a doable step, a specific middah-which-contains-the-doorway-to-all-others presented itself to me, and that is what I’d like to share with you. One specific area to devote the rest of Elul to working on.

The Gemara in Shabbos (31A) states: Even if one were to be proficient in the entire gamut of Torah Sheb’al Peh (the Oral Law), nevertheless, the most important thing in the eyes of Hashem is whether the person has developed within himself yiras Hashem – fear of Hashem… and after going through a list of questions that a person will be asked after he has completed his life (always a distinct possibility), he will be told: even if you have answered all the questions appropriately, it is only if you have developed fear of Hashem that you are assured of a favorable judgement… The Gemara continues: fear of Hashem is like the preservative which safeguards the wheat – without the preservative, the wheat will spoil quickly, and all of the farmer’s previous work will have been in vain; so, too, without fear of Hashem, one’s actions and Torah knowledge quickly “spoil”, i.e, are not sustainable… fear of Hashem are the keys to allow one to enter the “inner chamber” of service of Hashem… And a last statement in that sugya: “Hashem has created His world for the express purpose in having its population fear Him. ”

There are many other Gemaras in this vein, my friends (see, for example, Brachos 33B). Fear of Hashem is a preservative, a safeguard, a “bottom-line” brake to keep us from pursuing an agenda which may be harmful to our soul. To keep us from relying on questionable “heterim.” To awaken us to think about what we are doing with our lives – for one day we will have to answer for and be judged upon our deeds and fulfillment of our potential (or lack thereof). And there’s no escaping that! Whether we are talking about the major Yom Hadin judging our entire lives, or the “mini” one happening every Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur, it is that latent fear that is the catalyst for change.

Let’s examine this a bit further and deeper.

Technically speaking, fear of G-d, to develop it, to acquire it, to feel it, to seek ways that it not dissipate, is a mitzvass assei – a positive mitzvah. We find it in Devarim 6:3; 10:12; and 13:5. But it is more than that – it is actually ubiquitous throughout Torah. How many people remember and realize that the midwives in Egypt, Shifra and Puah, acted as they did and defied Paroh because they feared G-d? (Shmos 1: 17) [Rav Yerucham Levovitz zt”l suggests that the verb in the possuk is not descriptive praise , but an active verb: the midwives did pe’ulos – actions and activities – to further their yiras Hashem, their fear of Heaven, as their nisayon was overwhelming; and they realized that only through seeking methods to advance and grow and really feel that fear would they be able to hold fast.]

When King Avimelech remonstrates with Avrohom Avinu about hiding the true identity of Sara, Avorohom responds: “But there is there is no fear of G-d in this place, and thus they will kill me in order to take my wife from me!” Wow! Avimelech has just criticized Avrohom Avinu for almost causing their populace to sin – and Avimelech “piously” cries, You have done with me unspeakable acts (in not disclosing Sara’s true identity as Avrohom’s wife). You have violated the civilized norms of our lawful society! Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l points out that Avrohom Avinu’s answer contains a key word, BUT (rak) there is no fear of G-d; BUT, meaning all your norms, civilized laws, and societal mores will fall away; if there is no yiras Hashem, man is capable of anything, will justify anything, will do anything, if he thinks he can get away with it.

Yosef protests to his brothers (before they are aware of his identity), “How can you suspect me of acting improperly; why, I am G-d fearing! ” Yosef is the land’s ruler, capable of doing what he pleases on a whim, yet fear of G-d would surely hold him back. The Giving of the Torah finds Hashem saying to Moshe Rabbeinu that the ultimate purpose of the magnitude of the sights-and-sounds of mattan Torah itself was to cause Bnei Yisroel to develop yiras Hashem! (Shmos 20: 17) The Egyptians in Egypt are described as non-yirei Hashem! (Shemos 9: 30). Yiras shamayim is all-embracing and comprehensive.

OK – what now?

to be continued…

Reiey-Shabbos Bulletin and Tefilla Halacha

Reiey final (PDF Format)

During “Elokai,netzor….”, one may answer as if in the middle of shema or its berachos–answering barchu; kadosh..and baruch (of  kedusha ); amein of hokail hakodosh and of shome’a tefilah; amein, “yehei shemei” and da’amiran b’alma..(in kaddish); the first three words of modim derabbanan; and the three ameins of birkas kohanim.
If possible, yiheyu leratzon…should first be said.

One may not do any work or activity of a secular nature in a Shul or a Beis Medrash. For the purpose of fixing or repairing something of the Shul, it is muttar, though even then it is better, if possible, to do the work outside the Shul.

Eikev – Shabbos Bulletin and Tefilla Halacha

One should NOT stop in the middle of shemoneh esrei to listen to an ongoing keri’as haTorah. And of course if one was accidentally called for an aliyah, one should not go. If one accidentally responds to kedusha, kaddish, etc , in the middle of shemoneh esrei, he should stop immediately, even in the middle of a possuk; he must go back to the beginning of the berachah he is in the middle of.

It is muttar to sleep in a Shul for any mitzvah purpose (not only for the sake of the Shul or for davening). This includes someone traveling to perform a mitzvah,who needs to sleep to gather strength for what he is doing.

Eikev final

Nachmu, Nachmu – Part 2

We are working on appreciating kedushas Eretz Yisroel in a deep, fundamental way, to somehow create a tikun of the sin of the lack of recognition, and worse, exhibited by the meraglim (“…and they despised the desirable Land…” Tehillim 106:24). We saw the Ramban in Vayikra (18:25) discuss how Hakadosh Baruch Hu directs and is mashgiach over Bnei Yisroel in Eretz Yisroel in a close, intimate, direct, way, while His control over the other nations of the world, and in other lands, is through the medium of various sorts of ministering angels. We asked what this means; and, no less, what it means to us in our lives in a practical, relevant, way. And what exactly is the virtue in whatever it means?

Let us take the phrase “left up to chance” – or, olom k’minhago noheg, or teva. The Ramban in Shmos (13:16) contends that it is absolutely wrong to think that Hashem left the governing of this world to a system of nature (even if you admit that He created the system). The very fact that miracles exist, and nature is overruled, forces us to come to a realization of Hashem’s hidden miracles – which means the daily governing of the world being empowered and enabled by Hashem.

We suggest that this does not mean there is no system of nature at all. Certainly Hashem created the rules which have things and events occur (in general) in a certain set way and a certain set pattern, and that this is always actively empowered by Hashem’s will that things and events occur in that way and in that pattern. And, as the Ramban points out there in Shmos, in case we run the risk of forgetting that Hashem is empowering all, every once in a while things break out of that pattern, and out of that sytem, and a miracle occurs.

However, certainly when under the influence of the “normal” system which is the will of Hashem, it is much more likely that the individuals are left to the vicissitudes of that system – it takes a more righteous individual to stand out and be saved from a general gezeirah. Chazal teach us: “Once the angel of death is given permission to kill, it does not distinguish between good (people) and bad (people)” – it would take an exemplary individual to be saved from the fate of his community. The Gemara itself speaks of a makas medinah – a national plague, and explains how that creates practical, real, ramifications in halachah. (If a person rents a field, and it got ruined due to a plague or it drying out, he cannot deduct from the agreed rental, even though this is now not the field he thought it would be. Rather, halachah views this as his own problem. If however it was a makas medinah, something affecting most fields in that locale – he can deduct!)

This shows that the Torah itself recognizes this concept of a gezeirah klali not directed “against” a particular person!

(Note: Do not extrapolate to any case you may know of – every case is different and there are tens, if not hundreds, of possible permutations which can affect the halachah.)

This would seem to mean that even if the individual as an individual does not “deserve” to have this happen to him or her, it will happen, by dint of his belonging to the general grouping which did deserve it. If there is a gezeirah that a ship will sink, an individual who might not have died otherwise might not be righteous enough to escape the gezeirah of the ship; or he may be, but he is not righteous enough for his possessions to be saved… and so on and so forth.

The Ramban in Iyov discusses this. “…to the extent that the completely pious individual clings to Hashem… to that degree he will be guarded from occurrences ,and even to the happenings of nature. According to his closeness to G-d, he will be protected with the highest levels of protection.”

So goes the tzaddik.

The Chovos Halevavos, in the beginning of Sha’ar Habitachon, writes the explanation of the posuk, “Blessed is the one who trusts in Hashem, Hashem will be his trust” (Yirmiyahu 17:7). Chovos Halevavos takes this to mean that the more one trusts and relies on Hashem, the more Hashem requites and fulfills the trust. Whereas if one trusts in other powers, in other things, Hashem removes that person from being under His Divine providence, and allows him to be that much more under the dictates of nature. Thus, people who trust in their wealth suffer the uncertainties of having wealth. In their intelligence, ditto. In democracy – well, last time I looked at the USA… A primary benefit of trusting in Hashem, says the Chovos Halevavos, is that Hashem responds in kind.

And the explanation of this is the same as the Ramban in Iyov – you actually can make choices which place you on a different level of hashgachah pratis, as explained above.

So far, we have had two manifestations of a life with a heightened hashgachah pratis – the tzaddik and the baal bitachon.

And Eretz Yisroel. That is what the Ramban is saying in Vayikra – the Jewish Nation, as a Nation, is under this intense direct guidance from Hashem, Who directly governs and operates the events affecting them. Where? Only in Eretz Yisroel, says the Ramban, the place in the world that Hashem has placed under that direct, intense, hashgachah pratis. And being under intense, specific hashgachah pratis obligates a person to enter into a closer, deeper, more inherent relationship with Hashem. That is why, Ramban writes in Vayikra, the true place for the fulfillment of all the commandments is for those who reside in Eretz Yisroel – even though the obligation of mitzvos which are personal obligations are technically not dependent on Eretz Yisroel – but there is an element lacking in their fulfillment when one is Chutz La’aretz, and their fulfillment there is considered “practice” for their “real” fulfillment in Eretz Yisroel.

And thus it is also obligatory for Jews to actually settle in, conquer, and take control of Eretz Yisroel, for in doing so we have conquered the Land; in the language of the Ramban, “Before Hashem,” on behalf of Hashem, wresting it out of the control of the intermediaries that He has arranged for Chutz La’aretz and for non-Jews, and putting it under the intense hashgachah pratis which is its due.

How much then does all this obligate us to be more exacting, more careful, more conscientious in doing mitzvos ,in devoting time to learning Torah, in tzni’us matters – when we live here, the Land where Hashem has decreed the closest bond, the most direct relationship, with His people.

Vaeschanan – Shabbos Bulletin and Tefilla Halacha


If someone is in the middle of shemoneh esrei and hears the chazzan saying “modim….” he should bow down [as per   the rules previously learned] , but of course not respond in any way.

If the Kohanim start bentching birkas kohanim, he should stop and just listen.

Someone learning in a Bais Medrash may put his head down and nap , if that becomes necessary as an aid to his learning.It is preferable to distance oneself from the Aron HaKodesh

Vaeschanan Bulletin