THE FIRSTBORNS BECOME KADOSH
At the time of Makas Bechoros, when all the firstborn of Mitzrayim were smitten dead, an important decision was made by Hashem. And we’ll quote a possuk in Parshas Bamidbar, the last possuk before chamishi. כי לי כל בכור ביום הכותי כל בכור בארץ מצרים – “For every firstborn now belongs to Me, on this day when I smote every firstborn in Mitzrayim. הקדשתי לי כל בכור בישראל – I have now made holy to Me every firstborn of the Bnei Yisroel” (Bamidbar 3:13).
Now ordinarily this is understood to mean that parents who have a firstborn son are obligated in Pidyon Haben. And the bechor himself must see to it that he is redeemed from the Kohen. It’s in that superficial sense that it’s generally understood. A bechor is holy and he therefore must redeem himself, a ceremony and then end of story.
But actually, even after they gave the five shekalim redemption they still remained kadosh. לי יהיו אני השם – “They shall be Mine; I am Hashem” (ibid.). That was the decision made by Hashem at that time. Although the firstborn, in ancient times, had always been the ones expected to perform the service of Hashem, but the Plague of the Firstborn, raised the bechorim of the Am Yisroel to a higher level of holiness. And that’s because they had been saved from the destruction meted out to the Egyptian firstborn, and they were therefore expected to dedicate their lives to the service of the One who saved them. And that’s why they were chosen on this night to be the kohanei Hashem who would officiate on behalf of the Am Yisroel.
Now pay attention to a Mishnah in Mesichta Zevachim (112b). You can look it up on your own as well. עד שלא הוקם המשכן היו הבמות מותרות – “Before the Mishkan was set up, it was permitted to offer sacrifices to Hashem anywhere.” In your backyard, on your roof, anywhere you wanted, you could set up a bamah for karbonos. והיה העבודה בבכורות – But “the service itself could be performed only by the firstborn.”
And you must realize that this was a very great pride for the bechorim. From then on, from that night of makas bechoros, every bechor could walk with a swagger; he was proud at his elevation above all others. He wasn’t just someone who needed a pidyon haben. No, he was a Kohen, the one chosen for the great service of the korbanos. The Gemara says that openly. He was the privileged one, chosen from the rest of this holy people. It was a duty, of course. It was a mitzvah and a chiyuv. But at the same time it was a very great prerogative. Nobody except the bechor could do the avodah, to serve Hashem by bringing korbanos. And these chosen ones were ecstatic at this opportunity
A KOHEN IS BORN!
And so when a couple had a firstborn who was a boy, a bechor, they were ecstatic as well. A Kohen was born into the family! Today, it could be that when a bechor is born it’s also a special happiness. We celebrate! It’s a boy! There’s a bris and sometimes a pidyon haben. It’s something, but it’s only a small kind of celebration, a faint reminder of what a bechor used to mean. Because in those days when the bechorim were the ones chosen to serve Hashem, it was a different kind of simcha. A Kohen was born into the family! A Kohen mamish! With full honors. It’s important to realize how much of an honor and a happiness it was for the bechorim.
And then tragedy struck. This great honor, the great privilege, was taken away from them. In one fell swoop they lost everything. בעת ההיא הבדיל השם את שבט לוי – “At that time, after the cheit ha’eigel, Hashem set aside the shevet Levi and He said: ואני הנה לקחתי את הלוים מתוך בני ישראל תחת כל בכור – “And behold, I have now take the Levi’im instead of the firstborn.” From now on, in place of the bechor the Levi will take over.
THE EIREV RAV TEAM UP WITH THE BECHORIM
What happened at that time? I’m just guessing, but it’s quite possible that my conjecture is correct. The avodah, the service of Hashem with korbanos, was at that time in the hands of priests – nobody else was allowed to do it – so when they made the eigel, who do you think were the most prominent in its service? Probably the bechorim! That’s whom the people looked to for the avodas hakorbanos; they were the priests of the people.
Of course, it was the eirev rav who were mostly guilty, but it could very well be that the bechorim were more active than anyone else in the ma’aseh eigel. It’s a guess, but it could be. After all they were the Kohanim. To whom else should the people appeal, to whom should the people turn, when they wanted to build an altar and make a special celebration for the eigel? They turned to the ones who held the privilege of officiating, and it was the bechorim who had that privilege. So it’s quite probable that it was the bechorim who led the way in serving the eigel.
And therefore it was at the time of the cheit ha’eigel that Hakodosh Boruch Hu deprived the bechorim of their privilege. They hadn’t shown the fortitude that leaders must show, the strength and wisdom needed to stand up against the rabble-rousers, the people who clamor for foolishness. And so, Hashem declared that the bechorim were Kohanim no more. And that left a vacuum, a vacuum that had to be filled.
EVERY SINGLE LEVI CAME
When Moshe Rabeinu came down from Har Sinai and saw what had happened in his absence, he said מי להשם אלי – “Who is for Hashem come to me!” And ויאספו אליו כל בני לוי – “All of the children of Levi gathered unto Moshe.” Now it doesn’t mean that only the Bnei Levi gathered to Moshe. Others came as well. I’m sure that Yehoshua also came; I’m sure he came. And others too. But no family volunteered as thoroughly as did the Bnei Levi. כל בני לוי – All the Bnei Levi came. Everybody from tribe of Levi stepped forward to fight for the honor of Hashem.
And so at that time Hashem said, “Now I’m going to choose the Bnei Levi to take the place of the bechorim.” The Torah says openly that at that time Hakodosh Boruch Hu took away the avodah from the bechorim and He gave it to the Levi’im. And that’s what the Mishnah in Zevachim (ibid.) says: משהוקם המשכן נאסרו הבמות – Once the Mishkan was set up it became forbidden to slaughter a korban outside of the Mishkan, ועבודה בכהנים – and the privilege to be the ones to serve Hashem in His home was taken away from the bechorim and given to Kohanim.”
HOW THE MIGHTY HAVE FALLEN!
Now rabosai, you must consider what a tremendous event that was. It’s passed over quietly by us every year as we read the parsha and most people don’t even think about it. But for the bechorim it was a catastrophe. They were terribly disappointed. Here they had come out of Mitzrayim triumphant and exhilarated. They were just recently crowned as the Kohanim, and they were flush with the glory of having been chosen as the ones who would be privileged to serve Hashem. And now, in the blink of an eye, it was taken away from them and given to others.
Were they hurt? Of course, terribly so. Where they jealous? Certainly they were jealous, I have no doubt about that; they were humans after all. Don’t suspect them of being angels. Nobody can withstand the loss of the opportunity to be great. And everyone knew that being close to Hashem meant greatness, and that the closer you are, the greater you are.
I’D RATHER DIE A HUNDRED TIMES THAN…
And so the bechorim were burning with envy. מאה מיתות ולא קנאה אחת – “Better to die a hundred times than to suffer that fiery cancer of jealousy” (Devarim Rabbah 9:9). We’re not talking here of envy of money or honor. No, we’re not talking about the foolish envy over empty things that frustrate people all of their lives. We’re talking here about the great people of our nation, those who knew what true success in life is. Those who understood that true success is kirvas Elokim, closeness to Hashem.
Now we must understand that human emotions are something that are not easy to overcome – especially when you are frustrated in the great ambition to come close to Hashem. What is greater in this world than the opportunities to come close to Hashem?! That’s what Dovid Hamelech said ואני – “And I,” ואני means “And as far as I’m concerned – I don’t care what you say; you might want glory, you might want money, but ואני, as far as I’m concerned, קרבת אלוקים לי טוב – to be close to Hashem, that’s for me the good thing. I consider that the good of life. קרבת אלוקים לי טוב. (Tehillim 73:28). To come as close to Hashem as possible, that’s what I care about.
THE BECHORIM LOST THE GREATEST OPPORTUNITY
And now, the bechorim lost that great opportunity to be close to Hashem. So you can begin to understand what was doing here. These were great people; they were the noblemen of our nation. They were from the yotzei Mitzrayim and they’d seen so much and were inspired to no end. They saw the makkos, and they stood at Har Sinai and heard the voice of Hashem. And those great events inspired them to kirvas Elokim more than we could ever imagine.
And now, the hope that they had, this dream of theirs that they would spend their lives in the ultimate kirvas Elokim, officiating at His mizbayach offering korbanos to Him – korban means to come close, from the word קרב – that great hope was now going lost. And they knew that it was going lost forever. Because when Hashem said והיו לי הלויים – “And the levi’im shall be Mine,” it was forever and ever. The chachomim say that כל מקום שנאמר לי – “Any place that it says לי, Mine, אינו זז לא בעולם הזה ולא בעולם הבא – it’s a privilege that will last not only in this world but in Olam Habah too” (Vayikra Rabbah 82:2).
HASHEM SAYS “ALL MEN ARE NOT CREATED EQUAL”
So if you’re a Levi, pay attention now. It’s a privilege for you, not only in this world but in Olam Habah too. I know that everybody will be jealous when they hear that, but it can’t be helped. Chazal tell us that: They’re being given especial opportunities to become close to Hashem and that’s going to give them a special status in the World to Come.
Now I know that it’s hard for you Americans to hear that. You’re all loyal citizens and you know what the Declaration of Independence says: “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal.” But you have to know that Hashem made a more important declaration that supersedes the declaration of the American founding fathers. Not everyone is created equal in Hashem’s world, and it’s His world that counts. It’s those who have been chosen to be close to Him who are most important in this world.
HASHEM’S BEN BAYIS
Now, I’m not saying that if you’ll become a very big tzadik or a very big talmid chochom that you won’t be able to excel; that you won’t be able to achieve success and greatness in this world. No, that’s something else. Because all of us have great opportunities in our lives to reach the pinnacle of perfection in service of Hashem – and we’ll be discussing that later tonight b’ezer Hashem. But in this sense, that the levi’im were able to be close to Hashem so easily, and to be in constant contact with Him in His home all day long; to be the privileged ones who were so easily able to keep Hashem in their minds at all times, that opportunity for greatness in perfection of kirvas Elokim li tov, was now lost to the bechorim.
And the bechorim were terribly frustrated and envious. A fire of envy burned inside them now. They were terribly hurt, no question about it. They looked on as the levi’im were doing their avodah in the Mishkan, and the words והזר הקרב יומת rankled in their minds without end. “Anybody who mixes in, who interferes, in the work of the Kohanim and the Levi’im, must die” (Bamidbar 18:7) That warning was directed at them now. You bechorim – keep out!
THE KOHANIM: “THE BOUNCERS”
And the Kohanim and Levi’im were warned about this. Hakodosh Boruch Hu emphasizes again and again: ושמרתם את כהונתכם – You must guard your Kehuna” (ibid.). What does it mean to “Guard your Kehuna”? To make sure to always get the first aliyah in the synagogue?! To not change your name from Kohen to Cone?! No! Guard your Kehuna means don’t let anybody else participate. Don’t be generous.
A Kohen might think if there’s a nice frum Jew who wants to come in and help out, why not? The bechorim wanted to help out a little bit. “After all, he said, “that’s who I was before. I shouldn’t be anything now? Nothing?!” So the Torah says, No! והזר הקרב יומת – “The outsider shall be put to death”. And yumas was carried out! It wasn’t מיתת בית דין but it was carried out by the people. The young Kohanim had a certain tradition that if a zar came into the precincts that were off limits to him to do an avodah, so they came running in quickly and they beat him to death. Hashem said to the Kohanim and Levi’im, “You’re not permitted to allow anybody to participate in your especial privilege. It’s only for you!”
And we understand that constantly the bechorim were hanging around the Mishkan, trying to get a chance. “Maybe we could come in and help a little bit, a little something.” “Nothing doing,” said the Levi’im. “Keep away, don’t help us.” And as they took apart the Mishkan, and as they rebuilt it again when they stopped, the bechorim had to stay back. והזר הקרב יומת.
And the Kohanim as well said, “Don’t come near. This is our special avodah, our special opportunity for being close to Hashem.”
So let us exert just a little bit of imagination and feel the plight of the bechorim – how unhappy they were, how greatly deprived they felt. And they were never able to forget it. It took a very long time for these feelings to dissipate from their hearts. The great privilege that had once been in their hands had now been snatched away from them.
Now, we should really ask ourselves: what did Hakodosh Boruch Hu think about this entire arrangement? After all, He certainly had sympathy for the bechorim. Hashem is oheiv amo Yisroel, so certainly He was sympathetic to the plight of the bechorim. It’s true, the Bnei Levi deserved a special distinction. After all ויאספו אליו כל בני לוי, they all gathered to Moshe to fight the battle for Hashem. They certainly deserved a reward. But still, didn’t Hakodosh Boruch Hu feel any compassion on the bechorim who lost out?
And why should we ask only about the bechorim? It’s all of us. The boys born after the bechor. And the girls as well. He’s not a bechor, she’s not a bechor, so what of it? What about every man, woman and child of the Bnei Yisroel? What about all of you sitting here? Every one of the Bnei Yisroel felt a burning jealousy when they saw the Kohanim and Levi’im being inaugurated into their eternal positions of closeness to Hashem. Maybe some more than others, but in those days people understood that closeness to Hashem was everything in life.
THE NAZIR SAVES THE DAY
If you look into the Torah you will find that Hakodosh Boruch Hu gave us a very great alternative to the bechorim and to everyone else as well. Hashem tells us: “If you cannot officially be My Kohanim, then I have for you something even better – something that is even better than being a Kohen.” And that is why as soon as the Torah tells us about the great loss suffered by the bechorim, and the installation of the Kohanim and Levi’im to the exclusion of the rest of the Am Yisroel, we are introduced to the parsha of Nezirus. It’s not merely a coincidence that the parsha of the Nazir is found immediately after Bamidbar. There’s something here.
Now what is a nazir? A nazir was someone who made a decision to step forward and dedicate himself or herself to Hashem. In the old days people lived with the knowledge that Hashem had taken us out of Eretz Mitzrayim to be His nation. They couldn’t forget that. It was part of their personalities and they therefore lived their lives in Hashem’s presence. The common people were so loyal to Hashem, so in love with Hashem; you have no idea how much the people were devoted to Hakodosh Boruch Hu in the early days.
IF HE’S GOOD LOOKING, HE COULD BE A PUBLIC SPEAKER
You know, today we’re far away from that. If a person is frum today we don’t examine him too much: how much he loves Hashem, how much he thinks about Hashem. We don’t examine those things. Halevai he should keep the basic mitzvos and he’s already a tzadik gomur. And if he’s a good looking fellow, and he knows how to speak well, he has a good delivery, he can already be a public speaker, a “Rav” and a darshan too. Does he love Hashem? Who knows? Does he think about Hashem? Who cares? As long as he knows something and he can speak. But in the olden days it was the love of Hashem that was the criteria. That’s how it was.
And the Nazir was the one who stepped forward from that milieu of love of Hashem to devote himself even more to Hashem. איש או אשה כי יפליא לנדור נדר נזיר להזיר להשם – “When a man or woman shall set themselves apart, to step forward from the rest, to utter a vow of Nezirus, to be set apart for Hashem” (Bamidbar 6:2). Although the word yafli is explained in the Gemara (Nazir 34a) as specifying a clarity of intention, yet my conjecture would be that this meaning is only a secondary understanding of the word. It is more plausible that in the opening verse of this great subject a more general idea is being expressed, the fundamental aspect of Nezirus.
THE NAZIR STEPS UP TO THE PLATE!
And therefore, the word yafli should be translated as “does an exceptional act”, for this word is simply the הפעיל form of the exact word הפלא that we find elsewhere. “Hashem has set apart, hiflah, the pious man for Himself” (Tehillim 4:4) as well as “Hashem had set apart, hiflah, between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt” (Shemos 9:14). And therefore we’ll give teitch in the possuk as follows: “When a person will undertake a vow to be exceptional in the eyes of Hashem, so he will take that step forward towards Hashem by uttering a vow of Nezirus, to be set apart for Hashem.”
Now when you study the laws of a nazir it states as follows: כי נזר אלוקיו על ראשו – “The crown of His G-d is on his head” (Bamidbar 6:7). Now that’s something that’s almost unequalled. The crown of Hashem is on the head of a nazir! Maybe the Kohen Gadol can be an equal to that. Maybe. He also has a crown of Hashem on his head – a golden tzitz with the name of Hashem on it. קודש לשם. But an ordinary Kohen, he didn’t have such a thing. A crown of Hashem for a Kohen? No. וקדשתו – You have to make him holy; you have to honor a Kohen. But it doesn’t say that the crown of Hashem is on his head.
And I’ll tell you more. The din is like this. Everybody knows that a kohen is not allowed to go into a cemetery. He’s forbidden from making himself tamei to a dead body. But when it comes to somebody in his immediate family, if a close relative passes away, he takes part in the levaya and the kevura and makes himself tamei. We learned that in Parshas Emor: לאמו ולאביו ולבנו ולבתו ולאחיו ולאחותו…יטמא – “To his mother or his father, to a son or daughter, or to a brother or an unmarried sister…he must make himself tamei” (Emor 21:2-3).
ANYONE COULD BECOME A KOHEN GADOL!
But a Kohen Gadol is a different story altogether. He is forbidden to make himself tamei to any relative at all. לאביו ולאמו לא יטמא – “Even for his father and mother he cannot be mitamei himself” (Emor 21:11). Why? Because he is busy with something much more important. And what could be more important? Hakodosh Boruch Hu! כי נזר שמן משחת אלוקיו עליו, the crown of Hashem is upon him (ibid.). The Kohen Gadol was attached to Hashem in his thoughts all day long, and nothing can pull him away from that. His attachment to Hashem in thought, is of such supreme importance that to direct his thoughts elsewhere, even towards the death of his mother and father, would be a profanation of Hashem’s service which claims all of his thoughts and emotions. It is because his thoughts and emotions are dedicated solely to Hashem, that he must demonstrate that he is unmoved even by the greatest personal tragedies.
Now, when you look at the laws of a nazir, it’s surprising to find laws of tumah that are so strict. But the first thing that hits you – right between the eyes – you’ll see that not only is the Nazir forbidden from becoming tamei just like an ordinary kohen, but even for his father and his mother he can’t make himself tamei. לאביו ולאמו…לא יטמא. The dead father is lying in the house and his son, the nazir, wants to come in; we don’t let him. “No, you cannot enter the house” we tell him. “You’re too holy.” כי נזר אלוקיו על ראשו – “The crown of Hashem is on your head” (Bamidbar 6:7). The crown of Hashem! We hear echoes here of the Kohen Gadol who also wore the crown of Hashem. The nazir is so holy, even more than a kohen. More than a kohen! He is holy like a Kohen Gadol! It’s a remarkable thing, and you have to study that.
DON’T FORGET THIS SECRET
Now this great esteem in which the nazir was held, the esteem that matches that of the Kohen Gadol, should be explained as follows. The exceptional holiness of both a Nazir and the Kohen Gadol is the fact that they both think about Hashem more than others. The crown is not on their head, it’s in their head! The Kohen Gadol is crowned with the golden plate, the tzitz, upon his forehead while the nazir is crowned by his long hair, but the true crown which both bear is the Awareness of Hashem. That’s the secret of nezirus that many people lose sight of. It’s the constant and consistent thoughts of Hashem that crown him as a nazir, that crown him with greatness. It’s the devotion of thought that crowns the nazir with “the crown of Hashem”.
“In the World to Come the tzadikim sit with their crowns upon their head and they delight in the radiance of the Shechina” (Brachos 17a). And the Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva 8:2) tells us that the “crowns upon their heads” means the knowledge of Hashem that they acquired in this world. It is this de’ah, this Awareness of Hashem, that is the true crown of greatness in this world. And it is because of that crown of da’as Hashem that one merits life in the World to Come.
ANYONE CAN BE A KOHEN GADOL!
And therefore, when we understand what nezirus really was, we become aware of the tremendous loss it is that we don’t have nezirus today. Because once you went through a period of nezirus, of being dedicated completely to Hashem, then for the rest of your life the impressions of the yimei nezirus, the nazir days, were engraved on your soul. The influence that it had, remained on your mind forever! For one month, and sometimes even more, you are devoted to thinking about Hashem. Now, it doesn’t mean you didn’t do anything else. You were learning Torah during that time, you could still go to work and raise your family. But your mind was devoted entirely to thoughts of Hashem. And that was a remarkable thing. It was a great opportunity given by Hakodosh Boruch Hu to devote yourself to Him.
And so Hashem said to everyone: You have an opportunity here. All of you! You don’t have to be chosen as a bechor or a Kohen. You could volunteer and become a Nazir. Hashem says: Anybody can become great! Devote yourself to Me for a little while. And you’ll be even more important than all the Kohanim and all the Levi’im. You’ll be like a Kohen Gadol! And to be a Kohen Gadol is a glorious opportunity!
STOP MOPING AROUND
And so nezirus was like an escape hatch for the wounded emotions of the bechorim and for all of the Am Yisroel who couldn’t get close to Hashem like the Kohanim and Levi’im. You can’t be close to Hashem in the way of the Kohanim and the Levi’im? But you can still be close to Hashem, very close, even closer than the Kohanim. You are going to wear the crown of Hashem on your head – how much closer can you get?!
And so if a person wished, instead of just moping around and complaining about his lot in life, he could accept upon himself the great opportunity. And that would bring him to even greater heights than those available to the Kohanim and Levi’im.
So where does that leave us? We don’t have the opportunity to be Kohanim or Levi’im – even the Kohanim can’t serve Hashem in the Mikdash today. And we can’t become nezirim either. We don’t even have the escape hatch of nezirus. Nobody should try it today because you can’t bring any of the korbanos today. So once you say you’re a nazir you’re out of luck; you’re stuck with no way to end the nezirus. So don’t say it! So what do we do today? After all, is it fair that we should lose all opportunities?
THE GREATEST CAREER
And that brings us to our subject for tonight. And that’s called הצנע לכת עם השם אלוקיך – “Walking secretly with Hashem”. The Navi said (Michah 6:8) that there are three things that Hashem wants of you. הגיד לך אדם מה טוב – “O’ Man, I’m telling you what is good, ומה השם דורש ממך – And what Hashem wants of you.” Hashem wants three things. The first is עשות משפט – “Keep the Torah.” That’s the basics, the minimum. You have to keep all the dinim of the Torah. The second is אהבת חסד – “You have to be willing to do favors for others Jews. You have to like to help other Jews, to do chesed. And the third thing, the best of all things, the avodah that will make you truly great is הצנע לכת עם השם אלוקיך – “You should walk with Hashem in a way that nobody could see it.”
In order to better understand how important this career, the career of walking secretly with Hashem really is, we’ll listen to a statement from the Mesillas Yesharim. He says: והנה זהו המבחן האמיתי – “This was the real test in which our forefathers were tested”. And he explains as follows: The greatness of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov was not in the great acts they did. Now, we have to understand this properly because absolutely, these were men who performed great acts and wonderful deeds. No question about it. But if we would measure them by their deeds alone as most people are wont to do, we would be underestimating their greatness. The true greatness of the forefathers was in that whatever they did, they did it with thoughts of Hashem in their minds.
AVRAHAM WAS A BUSINESSMAN!
Now, we should listen to these words carefully and analyze them. The greatness of our forefathers lay not in their deeds, but in the purity of their minds! Which means that when Avraham went to sacrifice his son for Hakodosh Boruch Hu, we all recognize that the akeida was a tremendous event. It’s pointed out as a very great achievement of Avraham Avinu. But the Ramchal is telling us here that it was when Avraham was buying and selling cattle, that was his true greatness. Avraham was in business, you know. His business was cattle, dealing with livestock. He was busy with it, very busy. And that was his true greatness! The akeida was great, no question about it. But the true greatness of Avraham was in that every move he made was an act devoted to Hakodosh Boruch Hu. His mind was a mind that was always attached to Hashem. That’s what the Mesillas Yesharim is telling us.
When guests came to Avraham, he slaughtered an ox for each one of them. One ox for each one so that he could serve a tongue to them each one of them. It was a glorious thing, to receive guests, strangers actually, with such lavish hospitality. It was a historic achievement, and it became a model for his children for all generations. To slaughter an ox! That meant that an ox went lost for one guest. Once you slaughtered it, you had to finish it or lose it to spoilage; there was no refrigeration in those days. And therefore slaughtering a single ox for each guest was a marvelous act of kindliness and hospitality.
AVRAHAM AVINU IN THE KODESH HAKADOSHIM
But that wasn’t his true greatness. The true greatness of Avraham was what he accomplished in his mind when he was slaughtering this ox. Because it wasn’t like when we take out our best cold cuts and give it to a guest at our table. No, it was nothing like that! It might have looked the same but it’s not comparable at all. You know what it was like? It was exactly like the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur, that holy moment when he was offering up an ox on the mizbayach, the par yom hakippurim. Only that what the Kohen Gadol did on Yom Kippur was merely a faint echo, an imitation of the kedusha, of the devotion of Avraham’s mind to Hashem, when he slaughtered those oxen for his guests!
Avraham was serving Hakodosh Boruch Hu the whole time that he was busy with his guests. Not for a moment did he forget that he was doing it for Hashem. Because Avraham was always walking, working, eating – everything was being done – with Hashem in his thoughts.
That’s the true greatness of our Avos. The acts that they did, the simple acts, the things we also do, were what made them great. They weren’t heroic acts in the sense that we think of today. Because we think about chitzoniyus and nothing else. But that’s not what Hashem is looking at. השם יראה ללבב. And because our Avos walked secretly with Hashem it was these simple acts that made them our heroes. That’s the true measure of a person’s greatness.
NOTHING DONE BY THE AVOS WAS ORDINARY
And that’s why the Ramchal says that if we want to point out who our forefathers were, what made them the progenitors of the Holy Nation, we point to their minds. Of course, there’s so much to say about our forefathers. We could sit here all night and talk about their deeds – and it would still only be a drop in the bucket. And yet even though we look back proudly at their deeds as examples to us, yet we are learning now that their true greatness lay in their ordinary acts. Because they did nothing ordinary! Whatever they did was always with Hashem.
Now, if that’s true, then we are learning something new here. We see that a man’s true greatness is his constant devotion in thought to Hakodosh Boruch Hu, which means the Chovos Halevovos that he fulfills by keeping Hashem in his mind. That is the greatest achievement of man.
NEVER GIVE UP!
And so you frustrated people; you who feel like your lives are mundane lives, and that your dreams of greatness have been dashed on the sharp rocks of reality. Had you been a Rosh Yeshiva, you would have founded big Torah schools, and you could have said big shiurim and pilpulim. And you could’ve raised up talmidim. Ahh! The sweet taste of greatness. That would have made you great. Or people have other ideas how to be a success in life. Whatever it is, people are frustrated. I speak to people and they feel they missed out on the great opportunity in life of being great in the eyes of Hashem.
But if you came here just to hear what I’m going to tell you know, it was worth it. So those of you who are dozing off, perk up for a few minutes. Because there is still open a great career for every man, for every woman and for every child who dreams of success in this world. There is a career that is available to you that would make you more successful than you could have ever imagined in your wildest dreams. And that’s the career of walking secretly with Hakodosh Boruch Hu. And it should be such a secret that nobody should know about it. Even your wife doesn’t have to know about it. Now if your wife comes to these lectures, what could you do already, but as much as you can, you walk in secret with Hashem. Your friends shouldn’t know and your children shouldn’t know. When you walk secretly with Hashem, the key to success is to keep it a secret from everybody.
THE BIG TZADIK MUMBLES A BROCHA
Rav Yosef Zundel z”l, that’s the rebbe of Rav Yisroel Salanter, when he was going to visit Vilna, so Rav Gershon of Shidava, an adom gadol, asked him a favor, to deliver a letter to his friend in Vilna. So Rav Yosef Zundel came to Vilna and he delivered the letter. Now, Rav Yosef Zundel looked like a very simple jew, an ordinary common poor Jew. So the man who took the letter thought he was a wagon driver, a baal agalah, and to show a little gratitude, he poured him a glass of whiskey, he said “Give the baal agalah a glass of whiskey to drink!”
Now, Rav Yosef Zundel was a big tzadik , he never would would never refuse a drink and embarrass the man trying to do him a favor. A tzadik wouldn’t embarrass somebody. So he downed the whiskey, and he made a brocha too. But here he ran into a problem, because he had to make a brocha like Rav Yosef Zundel makes a brocha, but he couldn’t do it without revealing his identity. If he would make a brocha like Rav Yosef Zundel does, then this man would discover who he is! So he made a brocha like a baal agalah makes a brocha, but he did it like Rav Yosef Zundel, in his mind. He said a brocha with fiery devotion, he thought of each word – but only in his mind. On the outside it seemed that he was just an ordinary Jew mumbling a bracha, maybe making a mistake in pronunciation too! But inside he was fire! Now, that’s some trick, it needs practice – to make a brocha like Rav Yosef Zundel’s brocha, but it should sound like a baal agalah!
RAV YOSEF ZUNDEL’S SECRET LIFE
But he was capable of doing it because he lived a secret life. In his hometown, in Salant, he wasn’t known at all! His talmid, one of the greatest people who ever lived, said about his rebbe- “He’s a man who has a ladder with its feet on the earth, but the ladder reaches up to heaven.” That’s how he describes his rebbe. But in that small town, he was nothing to the townspeople. That’s some accomplishment for a man who was a giant, who towered over the whole generation. He lived a life of marvelous thought and introspection. A life with the greatest fulfillment of chovos halevavos, besides for being a gaon in everything. But nobody knew about it because he walked with Hakadosh Baruch Hu secretly.
It’s only because we think that being a frum Jew means doing mitzvos, learning Torah, doing chesed, so we imagine that it’s the חובות האברים, the duties of the limbs, that are the ladder to perfection. But if we listen in to the Chovos Halevovos we’ll see that we know very little about our purpose in this world.
THE MOST IMPORTANT MITZVOS
He tells us that the chovos halevovos, that’s the duties of the mind, are more important than the chovos ha’eivarim, more important than the mitzvos. Of course, mitzvos you have to do – you have to do all of them. But mitzvos people can see. They give you honor for your mitzvos. “Ohhh! He’s a frum Jew, always doing mitzvos. He has such a beautiful esrog. He’s such a frum Jew, such an oived Hashem.” “Look at those expensive tefillin, the most mehudardikeh tefillin you can find. Ay yah yay! A tzadik!”
Now, you can’t hide your tefillin. And even your tzitzis should hang out if possible, why not?! It’s beautiful – you’re showing that you’re a frum Jew by the way you dress. But when we are talking about these things that are in your mind, nobody can see them. And that’s called הצנע לכת, walking secretly with Hashem. And that’s why it’s even more important to gain the ideals of the mind, than to do the mitzvos that we do with our hands.
THE NAZIR PUTS OUT ADVERTISEMENTS
So according to this, anybody who wishes can become even better than a nazir. After all, a nazir advertises who he is. The nezirim all wore white by the way. All the nezirim wore white in the olden days. It was an advertisement! And you see his long hair – “Oooh!” people say, “A nazir!” And that’s excellent; it’s a nachas to see him. You should even say a bracha on him when he passes by. Be careful not to touch him either. He’s special; you have to be careful with a nazir. And everybody is praising him.
But who’s praising this man who passes a peach pit lying on the gutter and thinks about Hashem? There’s a lot to think about when you see a peach pit! Who will praise the man who is walking down Ocean Parkway, looking at the trees and the leaves and the clouds and is thinking about Hashem? Nobody! They don’t even know that he’s thinking about Hashem. And if they would know, they would ridicule him.
KICKED OUT OF KOLLEL
Who’s going to give you smicha because you’re thinking about Hashem as you walk down Ocean Parkway? Nobody! You can’t go into a Kollel with this information and expect to be noticed. Trust me, you won’t get any honor because of that. Nobody is going to praise you; nobody is going to even talk about it. And if they do talk about it, it’s just to ridicule. Try walking into a kollel and tell them a drasha about apple seeds or a peach pit, and they’ll throw you out. “You’re wasting our time. Who needs peach pits and apple seeds?!”
Now, do you see on his face what he’s thinking? Is there a sign on his house? Does he have a diploma? No; it’s all in his mind. It’s a secret. It’s a secret from everyone except for the One that means most. You’re walking secretly with Hashem and nobody sees what you’re doing.
WHEN YOUR ONLY AUDIENCE IS YOUR WIFE
And the Chovos Halevovos explains that one of the greatest advantages of the duties of the heart is that you do it for no ulterior motives. Let’s say you’re in a shul, you’re a yeshiva man or a kollel man, or a regular balabus in a shul, and you’re praying. It’s hard to deny that we are encouraged by the fact that people are looking. Of course, we don’t do it because of that. But every additional shake gets a little bit of a push from the fact that there’s an audience. And I can prove it. Because let’s say you’re home and you’re saying Birchas Hamazon after the meal, so you’ll catch yourself sometimes saying it without so much shaking. It’s actually a pretty cold Birchas Hamazon and that’s because there’s no audience. Nobody but your poor wife. And you don’t feel like showing off so much in her presence. But suppose a stranger happens to be present at your table, it’s a different world then. I tell that to strangers. I say, “I”m glad you’re here because you’re giving me an incentive to bentch with more kavanah. Because you’re here I’m saying it better than usual.
Because I’m an old-hand, I know how to utilize it. I tell them, “I’m glad to have you here.” The first thing is that I give a mesiras moda’ah. I let them know that this is not the way I usually bentch and that I’m merely trying to make use of the opportunity. “Because you’re around I’m doing it better.”
And that’s why the Chovos Halevovos wrote his sefer. In the hakdamah he explains his purpose in writing this work. It’s a sefer that is dedicated to the subject of the duties of the mind. And he explains: there are chovos ha’eivarim that you have to do with your body, with your limbs. Things you have to do with your mouth, like prayer. And things you have to do with your hands; you have to give, you have to go, you have to sit in a succah. All kinds of mitzvos that are done openly, with your limbs. And about these mitzvos, the chovos ha’eivarim, we have plenty of seforim that enumerate them. And they speak about all the details.
THE REAL FIFTH CHEILEK OF SHULCHAN ARUCH
But about chovos halevovos, the mitzvos of the mind, he says that we don’t have any codes, no seforim to teach us the details. We don’t have enough written to explain them. And therefore he compiled a special work on this subject. And he adds, you might think that there are not many of them. That the duties of the mind are limited in comparison to the number of the duties of the limbs. So he quotes the following sentence from Tehilim: Dovid said, לכל תכלה ראיתי קץ רחבה מצותך מאד “Everything that I saw has an end to it, but your commands are exceedingly broad.” (Tehillim 119:83) Meaning that they are so broad and far-reaching that I see no end to them.
So the Chovos Halevovos asks: How is it possible that there is no end to the mitzvos? There are a number of mitzvos, and that’s all. They’re limited. There aren’t so many mitzvos. When you come to think of it, they’re pretty few. And that’s even when you include all of the mitzvos that are obligatory when you live in Eretz Yisroel and in the times of the Beis Hamikdash. When people observed taharos they had a much bigger Shulchan Aruch than we have today. But it’s very little when you start counting how many of them you actually have to do. Many things you’ll never even encounter in your lifetime. Yet here Dovid said that there is no end. He said, “To everything else I see there’s a limit. But רחבה מצותך מאד, “Your commandments are exceedingly broad.” There’s no end.
IGNORANCE IS NOT BLISS
This, the Chovos Halevovos explains, does not refer to the duties of the limbs, which do have a limit. But it refers to the duties of the mind. These duties are unlimited, the duties that a Jew has to fulfill with his mind are unlimited. This is something new that few people have ever thought of. What duties are there, they say. Because they think like a child thinks, that the little bit that he knows is all there is to know. So a man that never studies this subject thinks that there’s no such thing. It’s like all things that people didn’t study. They think it doesn’t exist and only when they enter it, they discover that it’s a whole new world of which they never dreamed before. It’s a world of duties of the mind.
Oh, you’ll say, that’s just for tzadikim, for chasidim, people who are doing lifnim mishuras hadin. But you’re making a very big error because the obligations of the mind are more fundamental than any other thing that the Torah requires. The duties of the heart are not a frill, it’s not a luxury for a Jew. To love Hashem, to think about Hashem, to alway be aware of Hashem, to be grateful to Hashem. That’s the foundation stone of being a Jew.
You have to spend time on learning how to love Hashem. Again and again the Torah mentions the command of loving Hashem. It’s a mitzvah just like shaking lulav; it’s mentioned more times than lulav, so what’s it there for, for us to ignore it? So you’ll tell me, “Mai kumashma lun? – I love Hashem already, of course I do.” No, you have to study it and discover its divisions and subdivisions. And once you begin studying the subject, you’ll discover that there is no end to it.
There’s another mitzvah called yiras Hashem, how to fear Hashem. And there are degrees, various departments of yirah. And each one is obligatory, and then there are subdivisions. It is a very big subject, and in fact there is no end to it! There is a mitzvah of bitachon, a mitzvah of emunah.
THERE’S A MITZVAH CALLED BECHIRA?!
There’s a mitzvah of bechira, did you know that? Rabbeinu Yonah says that, he writes that there is a special mitzvah to choose to do Hashem’s will. It’s not enough to do mitzvos merely because they’re mitzvos. You have to choose to do the mitzvos!
There’s a mitzvah of gratitude, a mitzvah of avoda, we never even studied these words, let alone how to apply them! What does it mean, “avodas Hashem”? There’s a confusion because people haven’t studied it. These are all very big subjects. And the Chovos Halevovos writes about them profusely and then he tells you that whatever I told you is only an example of these obligations!
FROM YOUR HEAD TO YOUR TOE
Now those people have been coming here for some time already have gained an inkling about the duty of gratitude. There’s a duty of gratitude. We don’t have time to study the subject now but there’s a duty to be grateful. You have to be grateful. “Oh certainly I’m grateful”, he says “Hashem gave me so much”, and that’s the end of it. That’s not good, that’s a blank check. He signs a blank check and gives it to Hakadosh Baruch Hu. The trouble is; there’s no money in the bank. It’s only when you back it up with actual feelings of gratitude, that your expression of gratitude means something.
Feeling gratitude is not merely to be grateful in general. You have to be grateful for each detail, and for the details of the details. From the hair on top of your head to your toenails, you have to be grateful for all the many things that you possess. And it’s impossible to say you’re grateful unless you study each one and you are happy that you have them. And that’s a big job.To travel from your hair down to your toenails is a journey that will take more than your lifetime. If you start studying your hair, you’ll barely get through studying your scalp by the time you’re old and white. I’m not even making the most superficial of observations right now, I’m leaving that to you. But as you keep on studying you’ll become more and more full of gratitude. And all this is just one of the duties of the mind.
There’s plenty to think about. Of course you have to know what to think about. You have to learn Chovos Halevavos. You have to learn what bitachon means, what bechina means, what it means to see the wonders of Hashem all around you, what it means to appreciate what Hashem is doing for you; the kindliness that He does for you every day. And the more you think about the details, it’s the details that will make you great. The more you think about the details of Hashem’s chesed, your heart actually fills with gratitude.
As you’re walking, you’re thinking, “Look how good my eyes are. Boruch Hashem, they’re focusing, and seeing, and blinking.” So the leitz that hears this ridicules it. “Good eyes?! Everyone has eyes!” They ridicule you! But you’re not looking for honor; you don’t care what the leitzim would say. Because you’re walking with Hashem in secret and thinking about your eyes. “I saw a man with bandages over his eyes. He had an operation. I never had an operation on my eyes. Boruch Hashem!” “I can walk!” he’s thinking. “There are people sitting in wheelchairs who can’t walk, and I’m walking.” “I can talk! There are people in the street who are making motion with their hands. But I can talk; I don’t have to make motions with my fingers.”
Here’s a man who can’t even urinate. He has a machine twice a week for three hours at a time to clean out his body because his kidneys don’t work. Boruch Hashem, you can urinate. You come out of the beis hakisei and Hashem is on your mind. I’m not even talking about the bracha. I’m talking about before the bracha, the thoughts in your mind that only Hashem sees. It’s a miracle! Your kidneys are able to take a small amount of blood and continually cleanse it. And that same water courses through your body again and again. The kidneys are constantly cleaning out the impurities from your blood. It’s all miracles.
WATCH OUT FOR PICKPOCKETS!
And so here’s a man, hanging onto a strap in the subway. All around him, packed in, jammed in, are goyim all around him. And this man is thinking about Hashem. He’s walking secretly with Hashem. His hand is on his wallet of course while he’s thinking. And tight – because nobody else around him is walking with Hashem. They have everything except for Hashem on their minds. So your hand is on your wallet and you’re walking hand in hand with Hashem. Your eyes are closed and nobody knows what you’re thinking. They think you’re sleeping. No, you’re not sleeping – you’re communing with Hakodosh Boruch Hu!
Or here you have a mother, or even a young girl, and she’s sitting down at the table to eat breakfast. Nobody knows what she’s thinking. Her husband, her mother, they think that she’s just chewing. That’s what they see after all. But she’s walking in secret with Hashem. As she’s eating, she’s thinking about the miracle of bread. I put a piece of bread in my mouth and what happens to that bread? That piece of bread is now being broken down into ten thousand different materials. It’s being changed into ten thousand different materials that are being transported by my bloodstream throughout my body. It’s making my eyes and my hair and my bones. It makes all the different secretions of the body. Ten thousand different things happen from that piece of bread. And so while she’s eating, she’s thinking about that miracle of bread. And nobody is watching while she’s eating. And if you do watch, what will you see already? It looks like anybody else who is eating. Chewing and swallowing, what’s so great about it? But Hashem looks. Hashem knows what she’s really doing. Only Hashem.
HIDING WHEREVER YOU GO
And this person is serving Hashem wherever he or she is. He’s walking with Hashem in his thoughts everywhere. He’s in his place of business; it doesn’t matter if it’s Manhattan or Williamsburg, but he’s serving Hashem. Let’s say you’re going to see a customer, so you have to wait in the outside room before they let you in to see him. So what are you doing? Just sitting there and twiddling your thumbs. No, you’re thinking about Hashem.
Or you’re in the dentist office, waiting for your turn. Don’t pick up a magazine and poison your mind with the shtus, with the wickedness and rottenness of the magazines. No! You’re sitting there thinking about Hashem. To anybody else in the waiting room you don’t look any different than the colored lady sitting next to you. But you’re becoming great! Great in your thoughts, which is the greatest perfection of all.
YOU’RE ALONE EVEN ON THE CROWDED STREET
And he spends his whole day walking with Hashem. He’s walking down the crowded sidewalk, but he’s all alone, all alone with Hashem. When a person learns to think about all these great things, that person is a really great man! He’s the man who finds the most favor in Hashem’s eyes. Because it’s only him and Hashem, walking together. הצנע לכת עם השם אלוקיך – that’s walking secretly with Hashem. How can you walk with Hashem? Are you going to walk arm in arm down the avenue? Yes, that’s exactly it. And it’s even better than arm in arm. You’re thinking about him constantly.
Now you can’t do it all your life. It’s not easy to train your mind to walk with Hashem always. But you’ll do it for a minute and you’re a chochom too. That’s how you get started on this path to greatness. One minute! Even one minute thinking about Hashem and you become great, a head taller than everyone else. You’re walking in the street with crowds of people. Walking, shopping, whatever it is. And you feel unimportant. You’d like to be important; everyone wants to be important. The minute you think about Hashem you shoot up and you become taller than everyone else in the street. That’s the quick recipe for importance in the eyes of Hashem.
This is the great career that is waiting for everyone. People are looking to accomplish something in life and they are searching in all places. But the greatest achievement in life is right here inside your head. Turn your gaze inward, because right here is where you could make the biggest achievement of all. To train oneself in the duties of the heart, to train oneself to think about Hakodosh Boruch Hu, and to walk with him wherever you go, that’s the greatest perfection possible for a person in this world. And it’s the career that is available to everybody.
Here you have a woman in her kitchen, going about her humble daily tasks. If she would learn to concentrate on emunah, on bitachon, on ahavas Hashem and yiras Hashem, and if she would nurture these great ideals within her, then she can become one of the greatest personalities in the entire Jewish nation.
BECOMING GREAT IN TORAH COULD BE A FAILURE?!
What does it avail a man if he becomes great in Torah, and even if he’s famous among the Orthodox – about the others we don’t care anyway – but even if he becomes famous among the Orthodox, if he has not grown great in his devotion to Hashem? If he thinks rarely about Hashem, then he is failing in his function in life. But if he adds the thought of Hashem to everything he does – not only his mitzvos and his Torah learning, to everything – then that man has now climbed to the pinnacle of perfection.
And so, this man hanging onto the strap in the subway, the mother eating a piece of bread, and the man walking down Ocean Parkway thinking about Hashem who he sees in the briyah around him – each one of them is bigger than the nazir who advertises his greatness to those around him. And you’re bigger than the Kohen as well. Who said that the Kohen has these thoughts in his mind? It’s true that לחם אלוקיו הוא מקריב, he’s the privileged one who serves Hashem in the Mikdash. But what makes you great is the thoughts of your mind. And the Kohen is honored because of his privilege. וקדשתו – “You must honor the Kohen.” Wherever he goes he’s afforded honor and respect. But here we have a man who gets no honor at all. So he’s even better. No honor at all!
TRAIN YOURSELF FOR GREATNESS
And so, any man who trains himself, or a woman who trains herself, anyone who adopts this as a career in life is bound to succeed. Because that’s the true greatness, that’s the greatness of the Avos and that’s the potential success of any person. It’s not the spectacular deeds that will make you spectacular; it’s the ordinary deeds, the ones you do, that when accompanied with the devotion of the mind that truly makes a man great!