When Chodesh Elul approaches, everyone is talking about teshuvah, about repentance, and so just by walking in the Jewish street — I’m talking about the good Jewish street, where there are yeshivah men — so we already understand that this is the time to get busy. Just because of the atmosphere, by means of osmosis, we feel that it can’t be pushed off any longer! And therefore, now is the best time to study that subject of returning to Hashem.
The first thing we must make clear when we talk about repenting is that we shouldn’t make the common error that teshuvah is talking merely about righting some wrongs that you did. No, no; teshuvah in that sense is too limited, too hollow. I’m not saying it’s nothing; it’s very important, but when we talk about real teshuvah, we’re talking about shuvu el Hashem, about returning to Hashem; “el Hashem” means that we’re trying to begin walking on the road toward Hashem.
It means that we’re not merely repenting for things that were done incorrectly; what it really means is to come to Hashem by gaining certain qualities, certain attitudes and practices that were never done before in your life. It means to get better! That’s what teshuvah actually means — to get better. You’re not just traveling through life, doing mitzvos, learning Torah — teshuvah means you’re actively traveling toward Hashem. It’s an entirely different type of life.
A Big Job
Now, when you hear something like that, it could be that it already puts a damper on things. Here you thought you were just going to have to say you’re sorry and make some amends, or a few changes, and now you’re hearing about changing the direction you’re going in life. Instead of just being a better Orthodox Jew, we’re talking about shuvu el Hashem — about getting on the road and starting to travel toward Hashem. That’s already a big job; it’s a sobering thought.
But along comes the Torah and says it’s not so. When the Torah talks about the subject of teshuvah, it says: “כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת — This commandment of teshuvah that I’m commanding you today is not something that’s difficult. לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא — It’s not in the sky that you should say, ‘How can we go up and get it?’ וְלֹא מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם הִוא — And it’s not across the sea that you have to travel a long distance. כִּי קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ — This thing is very near to you. It’s in your mouth and in your heart, which means in your mind, to do it” (Devarim 30:12).
So what are we hearing? Hakadosh Baruch Hu is telling us that the mitzvah of teshuvah is extremely easy. True, there’s a certain new orientation you’ll need to take, a new path in life, but don’t worry, כִּי קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד, it’s very close to you. It’s only a matter of בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ — it’s in your mouth, something you should say, and something you should think, and that is sufficient for the mitzvah of teshuvah.
Now, we must understand that actually it’s not always so. When you’re dealing, let’s say, with the public like today, you will have many things that people have to be told that do require a drastic change in their lifestyle. Sometimes a man must sacrifice his ambitions, his career, for teshuvah. He might have to give up his parnassah, his profession, and become a pauper. Sometimes you have to move to a different country to save your soul. And why not? Don’t people move to save their health? If a man is told that for his health he has to leave a certain climate and settle elsewhere, even though it means giving up all his friends and family, and giving up his professional practice — what doesn’t a man do to save his life? He moves, even if it’s across the world, and he understands that it’s worth it.
I knew of a case where there was a couple that had a sickly child. And a physician for some reason told them that the child needed the climate of Southern Italy. That was very many years ago, about sixty years ago. I remember that. He needed the climate of Southern Italy. So what did they do? They moved to Southern Italy, that’s all. They only had one child. They couldn’t let his life be lost, so they moved to Southern Italy. That’s some change! They had to find a home. They had to find a new livelihood. But they moved to save their child’s life!
Now, a sin is a thousand times worse than sickness. הֱוֵי בּוֹרֵחַ מִן הָעֲבֵרָה כְּבוֹרֵחַ מִן הָאֵשׁ. Just like you flee from fire, so you flee from something that smacks of sin. A sin is extremely perilous, and when it comes to peril, you run away. And so, let’s say you live way out near Bangor, in some country place in Maine, and you see your child is losing his religion. There’s only one thing to do. Drop everything and come back to Brooklyn. You have no option! You can’t put your child in sakanah of losing his life! People have only one life to live! And you see people are being lost constantly! Constantly people are going lost because they don’t run away from sin.
Saving Your Life
A man called me up long distance, a frum man, married, who is working in a certain place. He says there’s a young lady there that took a fancy to him. And he’s somewhat perturbed. What should he do?
So I said, “Drop that job immediately! Don’t report for duty anymore!”
He’s hemming and hawing. “It took me three years to find this job, and it’s a good salary.”
“It makes no difference,” I told him. “You’re in great peril! You can’t afford to flirt with something worse than death!”
I had a case once where a woman told me in confidence that the Italian bachelor next door speaks to her every day, and she’s friendly with him. So I said, “Drop everything and take the first plane to Florida, and don’t come back anymore. Let your husband stay here to arrange all your affairs, and when he’s finished let him follow you to Florida. You’re in great danger if you don’t do that!”
Let’s say a mafia man called you up and said, “I’m coming to your house tonight because you didn’t pay up, and I’m going to take care of you. I’ll bring along the cement. I’ll see that you have a kimono made of cement.”
Are you going to wait for him to knock on your door? You’ll take the first plane to Mexico, even if you’ll never be able to come back again. And an aveirah, you have to know, is much worse than a mafia man!
Save Your Soul
And so we see that sometimes the most drastic changes are required. And if it’s required, we do it! Loyal Jews will take the most extreme steps to save themselves, even if it means becoming a refugee. A refugee drops everything. He leaves all his clothing in the house. He runs out of the house in the middle of the night, and he runs down the street as far as he can to get away from his home where peril threatens. And he makes up his mind, “I’ll never come back again to that dangerous place. I don’t want to encounter the mafia man in my house! If I come back there, my life is over!
You must do everything in your power to save yourself! And so, too, sometimes for certain aveiros it’s necessary to make drastic changes in one’s life. And certainly, he should do it. He shouldn’t hesitate because if a man can save his life, if he can still salvage and achieve something in this world, he must do it. Everything is worth the sacrifice to rescue the rest of your days, the remaining years that you have. Even elderly people move to other countries in order to gain a few more years; surely they should do so to save their souls.
Part II. Easy Teshuvah
Teshuvah for the Righteous
But we’re not going to talk now about such drastic changes, about people who are drowning in big sins and need to make that type of teshuvah. After all, when Moshe Rabbeinu was telling the Am Yisrael about the mitzvah of teshuvah, cajoling them and warning them about returning to Hashem, you have to picture the circumstances. It was in the Midbar, and the people were all shomreiShabbos. Everybody ate kosher, and everybody kept taharas hamishpachah. There was no question about anyone doing a sin in the Midbar that others could notice. That was out of the question.
Even a hundred years ago, in a small Jewish town or a big Jewish city — in Vilna, let’s say — it was impossible for a Jew to walk through the street without a hat. He wouldn’t survive. Every Jew went to the beis haknesses; there wasn’t a Jew who didn’t put on tefillin. It was the national practice for the Jewish people to keep kol haTorah kulah. And in the Midbar, certainly everybody kept everything! And so the question arises, what talk of teshuvah is there when everybody is perfect?
And the answer is that absolutely there is talk of teshuvah. There’s a lot of talk! Because teshuvah means something entirely different than you imagined. Doing mitzvos is the minimum that’s required of a Jew. It doesn’t make you special; it’s not your great achievement in life.
More Than the Minimum
It’s like a man who walks in the street naked, and another person is clothed in shorts, or in nothing but undergarments. Now, the man who is wearing shorts looks over at the naked fellow and he might feel extremely dignified. “Look how important I am! I’m dressed in bigdei yom tov, bigdei malchus.” This fellow is only wearing shorts, but he looks at his naked friend and he imagines himself to be dignified.
When comparing yourself to Jews who do nothing, certainly you might deceive yourself into thinking that you’re good, that everything is fine. But in those days, everybody was clothed in mitzvos. That was the bare minimum. Everybody did everything. And still, Moshe Rabbeinu was telling them that there was so much teshuvah to be done. Because just doing mitzvos is not everything. Actually, it’s just the beginning. You still need a big teshuvah.
And therefore, right now we are addressing an audience of Orthodox Jews, and everybody keeps everything. All of you are tzaddikim who should be נִכְתָּבִין וְנֶחְתָּמִין לְאַלְתֵּר לְחַיִּים טוֹבִים וּלְשָׁלוֹם. You’re all good Orthodox Jews and so we’re not going to talk about sins that you hear about in the camp outside of the Orthodox. We won’t talk about anything that’s severe in the eyes of the hamon am, that even the multitude will agree is a sin, things that require the most drastic changes. No, we’ll talk about things that even the most Orthodox can do to come closer to Hashem, opportunities to fulfill v’shuvu el Hashem, to start walking on that path of greatness, of coming closer to Hashem.
A Great Punishment
Now, in the Torah it states that this type of teshuvah is not difficult.לֹא נִפְלֵאת הִיא מִמְּךָ וְלֹא רְחֹקָה הִוא — It’s not far away from you. וְלֹא מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם הִוא — You won’t have to travel to Italy. You won’t have to give up your career. כִּי קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד — This thing is very close to you. The teshuvah we’re going to talk about is the easy road to teshuvah.
But before we talk about some details, it pays to make the following point about easy opportunities. When you consider how simple it is to take advantage of easy opportunities, you’ll begin to understand how guilty you really are. And I must take the time now to explain about this subject so you’ll understand how severe it really is to ignore the opportunities we’re going to discuss here — how guilty we are just because it is karov eilecha.
You know, tzitzis have two kinds of threads. There are threads of blue wool, which are expensive. In the days of old, when they wore tzitzis they had blue techeiles on their tzitzis. But it was very expensive. They also had threads of white wool, which were not as expensive.
Now, the Gemara in masichta Menachos (43b) says like this: Suppose a man neglected to put blue threads in his tzitzis. So naturally, he’s guilty; in the days when techeiles was available, it was a sin to neglect it. But let’s say he neglected to put in white threads; that, the Gemara says, is a much bigger sin, much more severe. גָּדוֹל עָנְשׁוֹ שֶׁל לָבָן יוֹתֵר מֵעָנְשׁוֹ שֶׁל תְּכֵלֶת — The punishment for neglecting the white threads is bigger than the punishment for neglecting the blue threads.
Ignorance Is Not Bliss
Why is it much worse? Because white threads are easier to find and cheaper to purchase. And the punishment for neglecting something that’s easy to do is bigger than the punishment for neglecting something more difficult. Whatever is easier is a bigger obligation. So now we begin to understand how serious are the easy opportunities to become better. Those things that are easier to begin working on entail a much greater responsibility.
And that means that what we’re going to learn tonight will create big responsibilities. And it won’t help to walk out now, to decide not to listen. Oh, no! You’ll be held responsible for not learning what you must do! You’ll be considered very guilty! I’ll prove it to you.
You remember when Avraham Avinu came to Gerar? So the Torah relates that Avimelech asked him, “Who is this woman with you?” He saw a beautiful woman with Avraham and that was his first question. So Avraham said (Bereishis 20:2), אֲחֹתִי הִוא, She’s my sister. And Avimelech didn’t hesitate; he took her and brought her to his palace. And that night he had a dream that he was going to be put to death for taking away a married woman.
In the morning he summoned Avraham and said, “Why did you deceive me?” And Avraham said, “Because when a stranger comes to town, people are supposed to be asking about one thing: “Do you have a place to eat? A place to sleep?” But you didn’t ask me any of these questions. You asked me, ‘Who is this woman with you? Is she your sister or your wife?’ Oh, if that’s your question, then I know I have what to be careful from. And so immediately I said, “There’s no yiras Elokim bamakom hazeh, no fear of G-d in this place, and I have to protect myself.” It was necessary for Avraham to deceive Avimelech for his own self-defense. Avraham couldn’t have answered, “She’s my wife,” because he was afraid that Avimelech would kill him in order to take Sarah.
Responsibility to Learn
Now, the question arises, why should Avimelech have been sentenced to death? After all, he was deceived by Avraham. It’s true that he didn’t ask the proper questions, but at the end of the day he was innocent. He thought he was taking an unmarried woman.
And the Gemara (Bava Kama 92a) answers that Avimelech is considered the guilty one because he never learned how to behave. Because he never took the time and energy to train himself in good manners, he forced Avraham to deceive him. And so, he was going to be killed shehayah lo lilmod v’lo lamad — because he should have learned correct behavior and he didn’t.
From here we learn, the Gemara says, that a ben Noach is put to death, שֶׁהָיָה לוֹ לִלְמוֹד וְלֹא לָמַד, because he should have learned and he didn’t. Had he gone to listen to Avraham — Avraham was speaking all the time, and he had thousands of talmidim — he would have learned how to behave when wayfarers pass through, how to put the right questions to them. And since Avimelech didn’t bother to learn and asked the wrong questions, he was guilty. He was sentenced to death because he should have learned.
So we’re learning here a big principle about all these easy things that a person could have fulfilled without any effort. He cannot say “I claim exemption because of ignorance.” Because it’s easy to learn! We’re not requiring him to study sugyos chamuros with Gemara and Tosfos. No, we’re talking about fundamentals of proper living, proper behavior, that are easy to learn. And because there are so many opportunities to learn the fundamentals, those who neglect these opportunities are held entirely guilty. If there are lectures such as these where you could learn, and if there are sefarim you could study, then you will be held responsible. And so, let’s not waste the opportunity — we’re sitting here together and it’s almost Rosh Chodesh Elul, so let’s get busy learning and studying a few of the easy opportunities that will help us start traveling on the road of returning to Hashem.
Part III. Week #1 — Keeping Quiet
Silence is Praise
Now, the first easy opportunity for teshuvah we’ll talk about is to keep your mouth closed. Shesikah! Silence! Not only is being quiet easy — we’re not being asked to do anything, after all — but it’s a great accomplishment, too, because you’re producing something important. That’s what the Rambam (Hilchos Dei’os) says: לְעוֹלָם יַרְבֶּה אָדָם בִּשְׁתִיקָה — A person should always be producing a great deal of silence. You hear that? It’s not just that you’re not talking — you’re manufacturing something important.
Imagine you have a factory where you make toothbrushes; or maybe you’re a tailor and you sew suits. Whatever it is, every day you’re producing. So you have to keep cheshbon, “How many goods did I produce today?” “Did I do better today than yesterday?” “What could I do different tomorrow in the factory to produce more toothbrushes?” And it’s the same with silence; you have to think about that. “How much silence did I produce today?” “What can I change, what can I adjust in my day tomorrow, in order to make it even more successful?”
And it’s a big step forward on the path of shuvu el Hashem because silence is considered a service of Hashem. That’s what Dovid Hamelech teaches us: “לְךָ דּוּמִיָּה תְהִלָּה — To You, Hashem, silence is praise” (Tehillim 65:2). It means the quieter I am, the more I’m praising You. Now, that’s an interesting idea because we always thought that the Hallelukahs and the brachos are praise. Ashrei, Hodu, and Modim — that’s how we praise Hashem. And now we’re being told that keeping quiet is the way; that the real career of praising Hashem is manufacturing silence. And something like that needs a good explanation.
Elokim Is Here
Now, who better to turn to for explanations than the chacham mikol adam? Shlomo Hamelech tells us in Koheles (5:1): “אַל תְּבַהֵל עַל פִּיךָ — Don’t be in a hurry to express yourself, וְלִבְּךָ אַל יְמַהֵר לְהוֹצִיא דָבָר לִפְנֵי ה׳ — and your heart, your mind, shouldn’t be in a hurry to say something in the Presence of Hashem.”
Now, those last words, lifnei Hashem, are very important; it’s the explanation we’re looking for: “Why should you not be hasty to open your mouth? Because you’re standing lifnei Hashem, in front of Hashem.
Where does that mean? In the Beis Hamikdash? In the beis haknesses? In the beis haknesses, you surely shouldn’t speak, but here “lifnei Hashem” doesn’t mean the beis haknesses. It means anyplace. What does that mean, that you’re standing in front of Hashem? It means that wherever you are, “כִּי הָאֱלֹקִים בַּשָּׁמַיִם וְאַתָּה עַל הָאָרֶץ עַל כֵּן יִהְיוּ דְבָרֶיךָ מְעַטִּים — Elokim is in the heaven, and you’re down below on this earth” (Koheles 5:1). And He’s watching; He’s looking at you.
Oh, now something else comes into the picture — Elokim is in the picture! Elokim is in Shamayim, above you, looking at you. And you’re down on this earth. “עַל כֵּן יִהְיוּ דְבָרֶיךָ מְעַטִּים — Therefore, your words should be few.” That’s why you shouldn’t talk so much.
In Someone’s Presence
Let’s understand that. When you’re sitting at the table with your family, or if you’re talking to your friends in the street, Hashem is present. You hear that? Whenever you open your mouth, you have to be aware that you’re speaking in the presence of Hashem. And the rule is: “חָכָם אֵינוֹ מְדַבֵּר בִּפְנֵי מִי שֶׁהוּא גָדוֹל מִמֶּנּוּ — A chacham doesn’t talk in the presence of somebody bigger” (Avos 5:7). Some people don’t know that rule. If you’re in the presence of an important person, keep quiet! There’s somebody else here, somebody very important, so keep quiet! If a man opens his mouth and words flow out without restraint, it means he doesn’t feel like he’s in anybody’s presence!
Let’s say you were standing in the presence of the President of the United States. He’s not such an important person today, but still you wouldn’t talk much in his presence. You certainly wouldn’t be shooting off your mouth. Now, l’havdil elef havdalos, if you are talking with the gadol hador, with, let’s say, Rav Shach, or Rav Moshe Feinstein, would you talk a lot? If you have any sense, you won’t say a word!
Let’s say you meet the Sigheter Rav, or you’re standing in front of the Lubavitcher Rebbe; when you’re standing there you don’t open your mouth. Don’t ask somebody else, “What’s the time?” And even if somebody comes over to you and asks you a question, you keep quiet. Don’t answer the question. Keep quiet! Not only because you might miss some precious words the gadol might say; even if he’s not saying anything, you don’t talk in the presence of somebody bigger than you.
And that’s what Shlomo Hamelech is telling us. Every person, no matter how frum he is, has to have a hargashah, a sensory perception, that he’s standing in front of Hashem — a perception that’s so real that it motivates him not to talk.
Of course, it’s not something that comes overnight — it takes practice — but it’s not difficult. Suppose you’re an ordinary Jew who never worked on these concepts; you don’t really feel the Presence of Hashem. But you’d like to do it; you aspire to become a ma’amin. Of course, you won’t admit that you’re not a ma’amin, but at least you’ll admit that you don’t feel the Presence of Hashem all the time. And so, each time you wish to open your mouth, you remind yourself: “כִּי אֱלוֹקִים בַּשָּׁמַיִם וְאַתָּה עַל הָאָרֶץ עַל כֵּן יִהְיוּ דְבָרֶיךָ מְעַטִּים — Hashem is listening, and therefore my words should be few.” Little by little, you instill in your neshamah an awareness of Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
And it’s karov eilecha! Does it cost any money for a person to just keep his mouth shut? כִּי קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד — How near, how close, how easy that thing is. Now, if you had to go outside in the cold weather, in the storm, in order to buy something to fulfill a mitzvah — well, if you didn’t, so it’s wrong; but still you have some excuse for yourself. It might not be the best excuse, but it’s something at least. But here we’re talking about where no effort is entailed so there’s no excuse; it involves no cost to keep the mouth closed.
Don’t Be a Faucet
And so, let’s start practicing it. Elul is here — four weeks to make use of the easy opportunities to do real teshuvah, to return all the way to Hashem. So let’s take the first week and use it for this: “The first week of Elul, I’m going to practice not speaking because I’m lifnei Elokim.”
When someone approaches you and makes a remark, don’t rush to respond. You’d like to talk; you have a wisecrack or a rejoinder; you want to say something. Instead, you should say to yourself, “No, I won’t say it because I’m standing before Hashem.” You don’t always need to answer. If someone says something to you, you have to say something back? Let’s say a cow says moo — do you have to moo back? A dog barks as you pass by — you have to bark back? So if someone speaks to you, unless it’s necessary, don’t say anything. Just listen. Who says you always have to answer?
And suppose you must answer; sometimes you must say something. So then make sure to count your words. You know, some people are like a faucet; they start pouring out everything they have inside. Everything comes gushing out. You know what that means? It means they’re being meisiach da’as from Hashem.
A person must always keep in mind that Hashem is listening. Keeping your mouth closed and keeping your words few when you do have to speak shows that you have emunah that Hashem is always listening. If you open your mouth and talk without restraint, it means you think you’re a free bird. It means that you have no emunah because belief in Hashem requires that we keep quiet. He’s standing right here, after all, and He’s listening.
The Great Light
Now you can understand what the Gra said. The Gra said as follows — and this should be a motto to all of us. על כָּל רֶגַע וְרֶגַע שֶׁאָדָם חוֹסֵם פִּיו — For every moment that you muzzle your mouth … — You hear that? Every moment! One moment, or two moments, or three moments; whatever it is, for every moment that you muzzle your mouth — זוֹכֶה לָאוֹר הַגָּנוּז — you’ll be rewarded by the concealed light, שֶׁאֵין כָּל מַלְאָךְ וּבְרִיָּה יָכוֹלים לְשַׁעֵר — whose greatness no malach and no creature can possibly measure. That’s how great the light is!
So you’re sitting here tonight and you kept quiet for a while. I was doing the talking so you had to keep quiet. Do you realize what a big benefit it was for you? For every second that you keep your mouth closed, you’re being rewarded with an eternal light of happiness in the World to Come! Besides in this world! That’s how great your reward of silence is.
“How could that be?” you’ll say. “All I did was keep my mouth closed?” The answer is what you’re thinking, why you’re silent. You’re doing it because you’re standing in the Presence of Hashem! It’s a demonstration that you’re aware of Hashem! Hashem is not just a word in the siddur; He’s right here in front of me, so I won’t prattle; I won’t shoot my mouth off in His presence.
Oh, that’s already a greatness! You’re much greater than the angels! And you’re fulfilling our great motto of tonight’s lecture; you’re fulfilling v’shuvu el Hashem.
Part IV. Week #2 — Smiling
Another Easy Path
Now, once you practiced this up for a full week — let’s say from Shabbos to Shabbos you’ve been keeping your mouth closed at every opportunity that comes your way. Every time you felt the urge to say something, you thought beforehand: “Is it really needed? I’m standing in front of Hakadosh Baruch Hu, after all; should I really open my mouth?” So now you’re ready for week number two — week number two of shuvu el Hashem.
We’re looking for another easy opportunity, something that is karov eilecha me’od. Now, once you’ve established yourself as a quiet fellow, you’ll see that there’s still so much good you can accomplish even with your mouth closed. And so we’ll take another path to teshuvah that doesn’t require any talking at all. You’ll be able to continue with your first week’s avodah, and at the same time you’ll add something else.
Smiling and Milking
The Gemara (Kesubos 111b) tells us in one place how great is the mitzvah of smiling to a fellow Jew. There’s a passuk in the Chumash, “וּלְבֶן שִׁנַּיִם מֵחָלָב — The whiteness of your teeth is better than milk” (Bereishis 49:12). What does that mean? So, our Sages make a play on words and tell us a yesod for life: טוֹב הַמַּלְבִּין שִׁנַּיִם לַחֲבֵרוֹ יוֹתֵר מִמַּשְׁקֵהוּ חָלָב — It’s better to show your fellow man a smile with your white teeth than give him a drink of milk. A smile is better for his health than a cup of milk.
In Slabodka, the Alter used to explain it like this: “Suppose a man is sitting on the sidewalk with a big can of milk, and for every passerby he ladles out a cup.” Imagine such a thing; a man is standing outside of the beis hamedrash in the morning with a can of milk and Dixie cups. And everyone who passes by, he ladles out a Dixie cup of milk. “Here, take a free drink of milk.” So everybody would agree that he’s a public benefactor. A drink of milk to every passerby?! Milk gives a person energy. It gives him nourishment. Milk has calcium in it. It has vitamins. It makes you healthy. Milk goes into you — it changes you.
“But here,” says the Alter, “is a man who does better than that. To every passerby, he offers a friendly smile. That helps a person physically even more than the drink of milk. Tov hamalbin shinayim l’chaveiro yoser mimashkeihu chalav, it’s better than giving him a glass of milk to drink. It’s healthier for that person to see you smile than to get a drink of milk. It builds him up physically more than vitamins because it makes him happy, too.
Now, is it so hard to smile at others? Not really. It could be that your face is already frozen into a scowl from so many years of not practicing this Gemara. But even so, it’s not that difficult to change.
And to make it even easier, our Sages guided us. I told you before that even the easy things require some study; just to talk in general terms, it’s not enough. And so we’re fortunate that our Sages spoke about this subject.
Shammai says, “הֱוֵי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת – You should receive all people with a pleasant cast of countenance” (Avos 1:15). Shammai said only a few words, less than ten words, but it’s full of information. Now, I’m not capable of understanding the depths of a mishnah, but my regular customers know that this maxim has at least four parts to it.
First of all, it says, “kol ha’adam — all people.” It means not only the person you like, who smiles at you. Kol ha’adam means even a nudnick, even someone you don’t like. Some people are not so pleasant. Sometimes a fellow likes to talk a lot, and you’re in a hurry to get rid of him. But still, a smile you can afford to give him. That’s the command of the Torah — you should greet every man with a pleasant cast of countenance. And so, that’s number one to think about this week: Kol ha’adam. Every person deserves from you a seiver panim yafos.
Show Your Face
Now, seiver panim yafos is three things. It says seiver and panim and yafos. It means three different things. I’ll explain that.
First of all, it includes panim. You must show your face to a person, not your ear. Panim means you show him the front of your face, not your profile.
Let’s say you walk into the house tonight and your mother says, “Hello, Chaim. Were there many people at the lecture tonight?” You’re passing by, going to your room, so without turning your head you say, “Yes, Ma. It was crowded.” That’s wrong. It says panim. It means, turn your face around.
When you come home from the Bais Yankev, and your mother is standing in the kitchen, are you going to walk by the kitchen and just show your mother your ear? Show your face to your mother, not the back of your head. You have neck muscles. That’s what they’re for, so you should show your mother your face.
Not only in the house. When you’re passing by a frum Jew on the street or someone in the hall of the yeshivah, in the hall of the Bais Yankev and the person greets you, don’t greet that person with your profile. Turn your face. That’s number one — panim. Greet people with your face.
Friendly and Pleasant
The second thing is, it says seiver. Seiver is from the word sevara. Sevara means thought, intention. Showing your face sometimes can be as full of expression as turning the bottom of a pan toward them. You might turn your face to your mother, your sibling, your fellow Jew, but your face is deadpan. Oh, no; the face is only part of the story. There must be some expression, some interest in your face. Show you’re interested.
There must be some seiver, some thought in the face. Show that you’re thinking of that person when you look at him, that you’re interested in him. Not merely a look, a stare, a meaningless expression — put some sevara into it. Think about what you’re about to do when you smile at him. You want to make his day, his life, more pleasant by looking at him in a friendly way.
And the third part of your smile is yafos — a pleasant face! You show your face, and it’s a thoughtful face, but there’s a scowl? No. No! יָאִיר פָּנָיו! Shine your smile on him. Show him a thoughtful smile.
Now, the Gemara says you should show white teeth. Of course, if you brush your teeth every day and you’re able to flash a white smile, that’s the best thing; but any kind of teeth are good. Even a yellow smile, a brown smile. It’s still a very great thing because any type of smile gives another person life. The warmth of friendship gives your fellow man such energy, such happiness. It makes him feel that he’s somebody. You give him a friendly smile, and the whole world becomes illuminated with sunlight. You have no idea what you have done.
And there are no excuses. It doesn’t matter if you have your own thoughts on your head, your own worries. Your face is a reshus harabbim; it’s affecting other people, so it’s your responsibility. Rav Yisrael Salanter related when he was a boy in the town of Salant, he once met a man on Selichos morning. Selichos in the olden days was serious business. So this man was coming from Selichos, and his face was still wet with tears. And so, when Rav Yisrael greeted him, the man barely noticed him; he was intent on his own teshuvah thoughts. He had just finished weeping through his tefillos and he barely noticed Rav Yisrael.
Many years later, Rav Yisrael wrote in his writings like this: Is it my fault that you’re a y’rei Shamayim? That means, do I have to suffer because you’re a y’rei Shamayim? You hear that? It means that whatever you have in your heart should remain there. Could be that it’s evlo b’libo, that there are worries on your mind, but as far as your fellow Jew, it should be tzahalaso b’fanav — on your face you must show interest, and happiness.
More Than a Minhag
I’ve seen this. I’ve been in the company of very great men who practice this. I remember one of my rebbeim; he was an old man and in his heart he was mourning because he felt that his time was coming to an end and he hadn’t accomplished enough. He looked back, and he saw his misdeeds. He was considering that soon would be the day of judgement, and he was thinking about how to make amends. It was evlo b’libo, in his mind there was mourning. But even if you barged in on him while he was busy with his own thoughts, his own cheshbon hanefesh, he didn’t show it! He was an oved Hashem, and therefore, to those around him he always displayed a happy face.
And so, make it a principle of yours this week that ya’ir panav, your face should shine on people. It’s an obligation! It’s not merely some minhag that you’ll find in Kitzur Shulchan Aruch or a bit of mussar that somebody wrote in the last generation. It’s a mishnah said by the roshei Tanna’im: Greet people with a pleasant cast of countenance.
When you meet people on the street, don’t pass them by with your head down, with a hangdog look, with just the corner of your eye. You must make it your business to raise up your face and shine your countenance upon them. Practice it tonight when you get home. Practice it on your wife, or on somebody you’ll meet here in the hall outside. Practice it all week long.
Part V. Week #3 — Think
The Silent Fence
Now we come to week number three of our Elul program. We practiced being quiet, and then we added to that the seiver panim yafos. And now that you’re quiet and happy, your mind is available to accomplish even more. That’s how the Rambam understands the words of our Sages, “סְיָג לַחָכְמָה שְׁתִיקָה — Silence is a fence for wisdom” (Avos 3:13). When a person is prattling, words and words and more words, so his mind can’t function well. But now we can begin applying our minds even more to teshuvah.
But remember, we’re looking for the teshuvah that is karov eilecha, something that’s close to us, easy to do. And so, we’ll talk now about transforming our ordinary deeds; not about adding more deeds, but about taking our regular deeds and using them to fulfill this passuk of shuvu el Hashem.
What Set Them Apart
We’re going to quote the Mesillas Yesharim at the end of chapter sixteen. He talks there about the great men of our past who were chosen by Hakadosh Baruch Hu. “Now, it really is worthwhile to study the following subject,” he says, “the subject of why Hakadosh Baruch Hu favored these great personalities.”
It’s a subject we should investigate. What was the reason Hakadosh Baruch Hu loved Avraham so greatly? Why did He love Moshe Rabbeinu so greatly? We think we know. We know that Avraham had ten trials, asarah nisyonos, and he passed them all successfully, and so on. Moshe Rabbeinu was devoted to his people, and he was a servant of Hashem with all his heart; an eved ne’eman. So we think we know what made them great. But we’re making a big error. We don’t understand at all the greatness of our great men.
Now listen to what the Mesillas Yesharim says. I’ll read it in English: He says, “This, in truth, is the test that the servants of Hashem were tested with, and this is what set apart each one according to his degree of greatness. What was the test? It was a test of who was capable of purifying his heart more — he was the one who was closer to Hashem and more beloved to Him.” What does that mean? So, he explains: “When they did their ordinary deeds — not the great deeds that are written about in the Torah, the heroic deeds of self-sacrifice that we always speak about — but even their daily deeds, they were done with the intention of serving Hakadosh Baruch Hu.”
When Avraham Avinu was busy managing his sheep and his cattle — that was his business: raising livestock — he was thinking always about serving Hakadosh Baruch Hu. When Avraham was in his tent with Sarah, or Sarah was in the tent with Avraham, each one was thinking about how to talk in a way that would serve Hakadosh Baruch Hu. When they sat down to eat, they ate with the thought, “How can I please Hakadosh Baruch Hu with my eating?”
Now, anybody who would have been present wouldn’t have heard anything. You might have heard great things, too; no question that whatever words were exchanged were noble words, but what was doing in their minds no reporter could have noted. No tape recorder would have recorded what was doing. They were just thoughts in their minds. And the Mesillas Yesharim says that it was these thoughts that made them great. “The true nobility of these great people,” he says, “was the way they lived in their inner lives, the way they thought.” They lived l’sheim Shamayim.
And our Sages say that this attitude, this way of life, applies to every single one of us. The mishnah is talking to all of us when it says, “וְכָל מַעֲשֶׂיךָ יִהְיוּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם — All your deeds should be for the sake of Heaven” (Avos 2:12).
Now, when the Rambam quotes that mishnah, he says it’s a remarkable statement. When we learn it, we don’t see anything remarkable. Certainly, everything should be done l’sheim Shamayim; why not? But the Rambam is nispa’el from this statement! He’s excited over this statement because those words are the heart of our lives. It means that we can live our lives — our ordinary lives — as ovdei Hashem. We can try as much as we can that with every physical, material act that we do, as much as possible we can do them for Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
And it’s a greatness that’s so easily available to all of us. Because people spend a lot of time and effort doing things; you spend effort on your home, on preparing meals, on cleaning the house; you spend effort on taking care of your clothing, on slaving away in the office or the factory. Who doesn’t spend hours during the week for material things in his home and his business?!
And all those hours, all those materialistic parts of our lives, can be easily transformed by means of our thoughts. It costs no money; no physical effort is involved. Ki karov eilecha hadavar me’od, how close this thing is to you, b’ficha, just with your mouth, uvilvavcha, and with your heart, with your mind, la’asoso, to do it.
When a mother feeds her child, if she does it like the lady next door does it — Mrs. Dominick also feeds her child; Mrs. Jones also feeds her child with compassion — so if Mrs. Levine and Mrs. Cohen merely do the same, what a missed opportunity that is! Because if a Jewish woman will feed her child and think that she’s an emissary of the One Who is פּוֹתֵחַ אֶת יָדֶךָ וּמַשְׂבִּיעַ לְכָל חַי רָצוֹן, He opens His hand and satiates all the living — this Jewish mother is thinking, “I’m opening up my hand, but I feel like my hand is the hand of Hashem, kaveyachol” — you know what that means?! She has taken a simple act that everybody does, and she has elevated it into one of the greatest forms of service of Hakadosh Baruch Hu!
Imagine a butcher standing behind the counter, serving meat to his customers. He’s wasting such an easy opportunity to acquire greatness. Instead, all he’s acquiring is money. If only he would think while he’s standing behind the counter, “Ah, let these Jews enjoy life. Let this big Jewish family enjoy a good piece of meat.” Just by means of those easy thoughts he would transform himself.
Ordinary married life becomes transformed by thinking l’sheim Shamayim thoughts. When a man and woman get married, instead of merely marrying because he wants a wife and she wants a husband, if they would add the thoughts of building the Am Yisrael, you know what a big reward they would have?! Imagine! A chassan is standing under the chuppah must think, “I’m marrying my kallah because I want to raise up a generation of avdei Hashem.” Of course, he couldn’t tell that to this young girl because she’ll feel that she’s being robbed of romance, but the truth is, that’s what they both should be thinking. And it’s what they can and should always be thinking, all the time, even many years after the chasunah. It’s going to transform all the humdrum days of marriage into avodas Hashem of the highest level.
Why shouldn’t each child be the result of a noble intent? The children will come naturally — they’re Orthodox people; they’ll have a lot of children. But why should they come as accidents? Isn’t that a tragedy? We’re not talking now about the number of children — let’s say you’ll have a lot of children anyhow, but why should they be conceived and born and raised in the same way as gentile babies?
After all, the gentiles are working, too; all over the world people are working and living and supporting children and marrying off children. Italians also want nachas from their children. Puerto Ricans also want nachas. But when Jews want nachas from children not because of selfish motives, that’s an entirely new way of living. Now, you can’t help being selfish, but if in addition to the selfish motive, you’re able to add one more thought of “I’m doing it for Hashem,” that’s the biggest teshuvah you can do.
Now, this is a subject that’s so important that we should go on for hours quoting examples how this should be applied. Because everything in life becomes different; everything becomes noble. Even eating becomes teshuvah. You know, if you ate something before you came here with the intent of coming here to the lecture, so that means you ate in order to come a little closer to Hashem.
You didn’t do it? It’s okay, because you’ll be eating again, I’m sure. Tonight, when you get home, if you didn’t eat yet and you’re going to have supper, as you sit down at the table, it wouldn’t be a bad idea not to rely just on your thoughts, but say with your mouth, “I’m going to eat now in order to make my body healthy so I should be able to serve Hashem.”
Your wife shouldn’t hear you because she’ll say you’re a big hypocrite. She’ll say, “Chaim! Who are you kidding? You’re eating because you have a big appetite.” And she’s right — you are a hypocrite. But you’re training yourself, and after a while the idea will grow on you. So don’t tell anybody the secret. Between you and Hashem, say, “Hashem, I’m doing it for You.” הִנְנִי אוֹכֵל כְּדֵי לְהַבְרִיא אֶת הַגּוּף כְּדֵי שֶׁאוּכַל לַעֲבֹד אֶת הַשֵּׁם — “I’m eating it to serve Hashem, in order to have power, to have strength to serve Hashem.” If you’ll do that, you’re already a head taller than everyone else.
Isn’t it a tragedy if you go into the YomHadin and you never thought once that you’re eating l’sheim Shamayim?! You never went to sleep l’sheim Shamayim? You never went into your office to work l’sheim Shamayim?
And the greater tragedy is that it costs no money; no physical effort is involved. Ki karov eilecha hadavar me’od, how close this thing is to you, b’ficha, just with your mouth, uvilvavcha, and with your heart, with your mind, la’asoso, to do it. And it’s because this road to teshuvah is so immensely easy that the responsibility for it is so immensely vast.
Part VI. Week #4 — Fear
Fear is Obligatory
And now we come to week number four, the last week before Rosh Hashanah. It means that the Day of Judgement is coming, and that means that it’s time to become afraid, to learn some yiras Shamayim. Now, I understand that today the rabbanim don’t want to talk too much about fear of Hashem — it’s all love and happiness; nothing to fear at all — but here we like to talk truth, and the truth is that it’s a mitzvah of the Torah to learn to be afraid of Hashem constantly.
And it’s not just anymitzvah — it’s the pinnacle of success! You remember when Hakadosh Baruch Hu wanted to praise Avraham Avinu after the tenth test that He gave him, the Akeidah, and Avraham passed the test successfully — what did Hakadosh Baruch Hu say about him? What words, what title did He give him? He said, “עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי יְרֵא אֱלֹקִים אַתָּה — Now I know that you are a man who fears Elokim” (Bereishis 22:12). To fear Hashem, that’s the paramount achievement.
So how can a person live his life without being afraid of Hashem? He loves Judaism, very good. He loves mitzvos; he’s enthusiastic about them — excellent. He may even learn a lot of Torah. All very good. But where is the fear? What about being afraid of Hashem?
It’s a mitzvah in the Torah, a very great obligation, to learn to be afraid of Hashem constantly. Not just awe, or respect — real fear, to actually be afraid of Hashem. Afraid of everything that could happen, chas v’shalom; afraid of what Hashem could do, what He could inscribe for the coming year, or the coming years.
The More, the Better
And so, at least this one week before Rosh Hashanah there’s no question that we can try a little bit to become yarei Shamayim. To learn, to train ourselves constantly to have that in our hearts, is an important form of teshuvah. Everyone after all must have at least some fear of Hashem as he comes before Him at the Great Tribunal, and therefore, even if everything is going smoothly, even when you’re doing things that are proper, you’re fulfilling everything, still you must bring into your heart a fear of Hashem.
Now, just to say, “Be afraid of Hashem” — that won’t mean much. We’re looking for a way that’s karov eilecha; something we can grab onto and make part of our lives; something we can do without adding any new obligations and yet it should still be a big teshuvah.
So let’s take a few examples. And it would be a good idea to make use of them as much as you can during this last week before Rosh Hashanah. Of course, once you get used to them, so you’ll continue with them next year, too; why not? After all, the more yiras Hashem the better. So let’s begin.
Don’t Let It Go to Waste
You read the newspapers; of course it’s a waste of time, but sometimes you pass by a garbage can and pick up a newspaper and you see that in Rwanda, some place in Africa, thousands of children are dying of starvation and disease. Thousands upon thousands! And they’re busy all the time fighting against each other. Many of them have been killed by other native tribes who wanted to have dominion over them.
Now, who thinks about such things? Somewhere in Africa the natives are killing each other — that’s my business? Yes, it’s most definitely your business. You know how I know that? It’s a Gemara in Yevamos (63a): “אֵין פֻּרְעָנוּת בָּאָה לָעוֹלָם אֶלָּא בִּשְׁבִיל יִשְׂרָאֵל — Troubles come on the world only because of the Am Yisrael.” And Rashi says, “לְיָרְאָם — to make Jews afraid, כְּדֵי שֶׁיַּחְזְרוּ בִּתְשׁוּבָה — so that they should do teshuvah.” That’s one of the big reasons that things happen in this world.
And therefore, if you think it’s none of your business, so Hakadosh Baruch Hu says, “What do you mean?! I’m telling you it’s your business, and you’re saying no?! I’m wasting My resources because of you! I’m killing those people so that you should learn from them, and you say it’s not your business?!” And therefore, Hashem has a big claim against us, “Look what I am doing! מַעֲשֵׂה יָדַי טוֹבְעִים בַּיָּם — I’m killing people, human beings with families, and you are wasting the opportunity that I’m giving you?! You’re not using it to become more and more afraid of Me?! What a waste!”
Reasons for Death
It means that when you read that there is a famine in India and people are dying of starvation, you’re supposed to become much more frum because of that! “Ooh, if I were there, how terrible it would be! And if Hashem wants to, chalilah, He can make the same thing happen right here in New York.” Don’t think it’s not so! That’s why they’re dying, to make us afraid of Hashem’s power.
It’s a passuk that everybody knows: “הֲיֹסֵר גּוֹיִם הֲלֹא יוֹכִיחַ – If He sends suffering on the nations, isn’t He showing something? הַמְלַמֵּד אָדָם דָּעַת — He is teaching people da’as; He’s teaching us to be afraid” (Tehillim 94:10).
Hashem has His plans and His intentions, and whatever He does to the nations is certainly just, but Hashem’s main intention is to teach us to fear Him. And so, whenever you hear something happen in the world, don’t say, “It has nothing to do with me. It’s interesting, but what’s it my business?” It’s your business especially.
Here’s a Pan Am airplane with 300 people on it, and it crashed into the Pacific Ocean. So what does the fool say? “Well, in most of the cases airplanes don’t crash, so I don’t have to think about that.” Or, “I don’t do those things anyhow; I don’t travel on airplanes. I travel on buses and trains, not airplanes.” And if you hear it happened on a bus; “Oh, that bus is someplace else, far away. I don’t go in that neighborhood at all.” There’s no end to the teirutzim you can use to dodge the opportunity to learn.
Now, that’s a terrible mistake. You’re misusing the airplane crash. That tragedy was for you, to remind you to learn yiras Hashem. Nobody knows when he’s going to be sentenced, chas v’shalom. A person may be packing his valise, full of joy for a happy trip. He doesn’t know that he is going now to his final execution. And therefore, a man must always be prepared with yiras Hashem. At all times a person should think, “Who knows what could happen to me because of my aveiros?”
Hakadosh Baruch Hu has ways and means of carrying out His retribution. Chas v’shalom, crossing a street — cars are coming from all directions. Suddenly a car turns, and it’s going too fast to stop. Sometimes it jumps the curb, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s too late. You have to be afraid!
So this week, as you’re walking down the sidewalk, say, “Ribono Shel Olam! Please let me get home safely! I’m afraid. I promise You that when I get home I won’t talk to my wife the way I spoke to her this morning. I won’t speak back to my mother like I did last night. I’ll be a good boy from now on.”
Illness for a Purpose
Because these things happen suddenly, and constantly. Every day there are accidents in the home. And therefore, people should learn to be afraid of Hashem — not to live in fear of things that might happen, but to live in fear of Hashem, Who can make anything happen.
Don’t we constantly hear about people who contracted serious illnesses? Rashi explains the purpose of illness in this world. The statement Rashi makes is as follows: Illness is for the purpose of making us afraid, לְהַכְנִיעַ אֶת הַלֵּב, so that we should do teshuvah. Suddenly a cell in a man’s body goes wild; it begins to misbehave. Nobody can be certain that, chas v’shalom, something like that won’t suddenly happen to him. Illness should make you afraid of Hashem.
Not only, chalilah, our own illness; somebody else’s illness, too. You see, on all sides, things happening to people who never expected it. There could be a boy fourteen years old who’s perfectly well, getting ready to enjoy a long happy life. And suddenly he gets a certain pain in his neck, and he’s taken to the hospital and they discover he has leukemia. Leukemia! “Ay yah yay!” he says. “Why did it happen to me?”
When you hear a story like that, be afraid! Why didn’t it, chalilah, happen to you? It’s a scary thought, the thought of death, and it should make you afraid of Hashem. “לְפָנָיו יִכְרְעוּ כָּל יוֹרְדֵי עָפָר — Before Hashem should kneel all those who go down in the dirt” (Tehillim 22:30). Everybody knows that someday he will die and be buried, and that’s why he should be afraid of Hashem. The eimas hamavess, the prospect of eventual death, must make everybody afraid.
Fun to Be Outside
As you pass by a cemetery, don’t merely say, “Baruch Hashem, I’m on this side of the fence.” That’s a good idea, by the way. Or when you pass a funeral parlor, say, “Baruch Hashem, it’s fun to be on the outside.” But at the same time utilize it to think, “I have to be afraid of Hashem.
When you pass a medical center, you see signs outside. Here is a specialist in sicknesses of the jaw muscles. Did you know you need a specialist for that? Yes, when the muscles in the jaw go wrong, it is a painful existence for that person. He needs a specialist.
There are specialists for stomach ailments, and specialists for heart disease. There’s a whole list there. You should read that whole list and gain yiras Shamayim from it.
Think about all the things people are suffering from; there are plenty of customers there, oh yes! When you pass a hospital, in addition to saying a tefillah for all the cholei Yisrael in the hospital, don’t forget to gain more yiras Shamayim. That sick person in the hospital also once walked outside of the hospital and never thought he would be inside. So be afraid!
And if you make it your business to utilize the hospital to learn yiras Shamayim, and you keep on doing that, then you won’t have to be inside. You’ll be able to remain outside because you’re learning the lessons before they come closer to home.
That’s the best way to conclude your Elul, with yiras Shamayim. “רֵאשִׁית חָכְמָה יִרְאַת הַשֵּׁם — The first thing you have to learn is to be afraid of Hashem!” (Tehillim 111:10) That’s the first thing, the best thing, to take with you into the new year. You want to live? You want to be well? You want to have a happy new year filled with happiness and success and good health? Be afraid of Hashem!
You Need a Plan
And so, we come back now to that statement in the Torah. כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת, this commandment that I am commanding you today to do teshuvah, לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא, is not in the sky. Will you have to go up into the sky to bring it down? No, it’s not that difficult. וְלֹא מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם הִוא, it’s not overseas. You don’t have to travel to Eretz Yisrael, to the Kosel, to do teshuvah. You don’t have to go anywhere. It’s right here. Where is it? It’s right inside of you. כִּי קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד, it’s in your heart, בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ.
All you have to do is make up your mind that you’re willing to serve Hashem in these ways. Nothing of great effort is required of you; no big expense, no mesiras nefesh.
But you must have at least a few specific things that you’re going to work on changing. It has to be a דָּבָר שֶׁיֵּשׁ בּוֹ מַמָּשׁ, a clear-cut plan; something you can sink your teeth into.
Grab Hold of Something
To say in general, “I’m going to be good this year,” is better than nothing, but not much better. To talk in general means almost nothing at all because תָּפַסְתָּ מְרֻבֶּה לֹא תָּפַסְתָּ — If you try to grab too much at one time, you’re going to grab nothing at all. It’s all going to fall out of your hand. But when you specify something clear-cut, then you’ll be able to carry it out. תָּפַסְתָּ מוּעָט תָּפַסְתָּ — If you grab a little bit at a time, you’ll be able to hold on to it.
But תָּפַסְתָּ means that you’re grabbing onto it. You’re holding on to that little bit very tightly. And that’s what we talked about here tonight — four easy paths of shuvu el Hashem that we can hold onto without letting go. And if you take these ideas that you heard here tonight, and you get busy doing them, that’s the teshuvah that Hakadosh Baruch Hu wants most. It’s v’shuvu el Hashem — you’re coming back to Hashem.
And even though there may be many more things that you should be doing that you’re not, but at least there are a few things you are doing. Hashem will see that you’re headed in the right direction. And if you’re headed in the right direction, then הַבָּא לִטַּהֵר מְסַעְיָן אוֹתוֹ — If you’re trying to get better, He’ll help you go further and further (Menachos 29b). You’ll get siyata d’Shmaya to do more and more, and you’ll live many more years of happiness and accomplishment in avodas Hashem.
A New Mayor?
The Friedman boys were walking home from day camp along with their counselor and next door neighbor, Ari Shpetter. “Look”, said Dovid, pointing to some election posters on a building. “Isn’t that Dudu Manor, the Israeli politician who just ran for Prime Minister?”
Moishy looked up to see the campaign posters that had been plastered around town the day before. Sure enough, there was Dudu’s face, with big letters saying “Dudu Manor for Mayor!”, “Everyone loves Dudu!”, and “Put Manor in City Hall!”
“Yep, it’s him,” said Moishy. “My friend Nachy told me that after he lost the election in Israel, he heard about Mayor McGillicuddy getting injured in his car accident (see Toras Avigdor Junior Parshas Va’eschanan) and thought if he came to America to run for Mayor of University City he’d have a chance of winning. He really wants to win the election. He even had a meeting with the Rabbonim and asked them to tell all of the frum Yidden to vote for him.”
“Why would an Israeli politician want to be the mayor of a town in America?” asked Dovid. “It’s quite a step down from running for Prime Minister of an entire country.”
“Who knows how politicians’ minds work?” laughed Moishy. “Remember, McGillicuddy wanted to give drivers’ licenses to ten year old kids who helped him with his ‘Save a Life’ campaign. And another time he hired Tzadok ‘Hatzadik’ to be the ‘Chief Kabbalah Advisor to the Mayor’. Politicians do pretty funny stuff.”
“Anyway, Dudu Manor put out a message to the Yidden saying that we should vote for him because he comes from Eretz Yisroel and if elected he will make University City just like Eretz Yisroel, since he knows what life is like there.”
“I highly doubt he will do that,” sighed Ari.
“Why not?” asked Moishy. “If he lived there his whole life then he should know better than anyone how to do that. He said that he grew up surrounded by Jews who live in Eretz Yisroel and a lot of his supporters will move here because of him, so there will be so many Yidden living here!”
“Yes, well he lived in Tel Aviv,” Ari said. “That city is not exactly a Makom Torah.”
“Yeah, but at least it’s in Eretz Yisroel,” Dovid replied, confused. “Isn’t Eretz Yisroel the most kadosh place in the world? And if he brings people from Eretz Yisroel here, won’t we have even more kedusha here?”
“Eretz Yisroel is Kadosh,” said Ari, “but only when it is a place of Torah. Dudu Manor’s supporters are not Shomrei Torah uMitzvos. They are mechalel Shabbos, eat treif, and don’t learn Torah. Even our small frum community here in University City has more kedusha than a secular kibbutz in Eretz Yisroel, which is full of people who live just like goyim.”
Dovid’s eyes opened wide in wonder. “You mean we are right now in a place that is more holy than some places in Eretz Yisroel?” he asked incredulously.
“Absolutely!” Ari smiled. “Yidden always need to live first and foremost in a place of Torah. That’s why, before the First Beis Hamikshash was destroyed, Hashem caused Nevuchadnetzar to send the “חָרָשׁ וְהַמַּסְגֵר”, ten thousand of the greatest Talmidei Chachomim in Eretz Yisroel, to Bavel to build Torah centers there before the rest of Klal Yisroel went into Golus. And for the same reason, Yaakov Avinu sent Yehuda down to Mitzrayim before everyone else, to set up a Yeshiva there so that the Bnei Yisroel would arrive in a Makom Torah.
“At the beginning of this week’s Parsha, it says about Eretz Yisroel “וִירִשְׁתֶּם אֹתָהּ וִישַׁבְתֶּם בָּהּ” – that we should take possession of Eretz Yisroel and live there. Rav Avigdor Miller explains that the purpose of this Mitzvah is to ensure that we live in a place full of Torah and Mitzvos, where we will be safe from the spiritual dangers of the rest of the world. The place for Klal Yisroel is where there is a place of Torah, where we can be protected from bad influences and strengthen our connection with Hashem. No matter where we are, the most important thing is to make sure we live with other frum Yidden who want to grow close to Hakadosh Boruch Hu. And the more, the better!
“So unless Dudu Manor plans to bring more Kollelim to our city, we are better off now than with any silliness that he wants to bring here from Tel Aviv.”
Takeaway: It is a zechus to live in Eretz Yisroel among frum Jews. Even if we don’t live in Eretz Yisroel but in a good frum neighborhood we should consider ourselves lucky to live in a place beloved by Hashem.