5778 - Re'eh - Shabbos Rosh Chodesh Elul
Our Avoda This Elul
Every year when the month of Elul arrived, the Rav of Yerushalayim, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, used to relate a childhood memory from when he was still living in the city of Kovno. Rav Yisrael Salanter was also a resident of Kovno, and Rav Tzvi Pesach retained a vivid memory about Rav Yisrael one Elul when he was eight years old.
A sign had been posted in the main shul of Kovno that Rav Yisrael Salanter would be giving a drasha in the afternoon of Shabbos Mevarchim Elul.
"I went to shul at the designated time," said Rav Tzvi Pesach, "and I couldn't find a place to sit. With the innocence of a child, I decided to sit on the steps leading up to the aron kodesh. A few minutes later, Rav Yisrael entered the shul and walked past the aron kodesh to speak. He called out, ‘Rabbosai, we have already bentched Chodesh Elul.'"
"At the moment that Rav Yisrael cried out the word "Elul", he fainted from the awesomeness of the month, and as he fell, he landed on top of me. Everybody in the shul stood up in shock, and brought water to revive Rav Yisrael from his faint."
Rav Tzvi Pesach added, "I was only a boy of eight when this happened, but since that day, I have felt the weight of Rav Yisrael Salanter's Elul."
What Not To Do
We might not feel the weight of that Elul, but we do need to feel something. To try something, to begin somewhere.
The Torah instructs us:
אֵלֶּה הַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְרוּן לַעֲשׂוֹת בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן י"י אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֶיךָ לְךָ לְרִשְׁתָּהּ כל הַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם חַיִּים עַל הָאֲדָמָה. אַבֵּד תְּאַבְּדוּן אֶת כל הַמְּקֹמוֹת אֲשֶׁר עָבְדוּ שָׁם הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם יֹרְשִׁים אֹתָם אֶת אֱלֹהֵיהֶם עַל הֶהָרִים הָרָמִים וְעַל הַגְּבָעוֹת וְתַחַת כל עֵץ רַעֲנָן. וְנִתַּצְתֶּם אֶת מִזְבְּחֹתָם וְשִׁבַּרְתֶּם אֶת מַצֵּבֹתָם וַאֲשֵׁרֵיהֶם תִּשְׂרְפוּן בָּאֵשׁ וּפְסִילֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶם תְּגַדֵּעוּן וְאִבַּדְתֶּם אֶת שְׁמָם מִן הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא. לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כֵּן לַי"י אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. כִּי אִם אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר י"י אֱלֹהֵיכֶם מִכל שִׁבְטֵיכֶם לָשׂוּם אֶת שְׁמוֹ שָׁם לְשִׁכְנוֹ תִדְרְשׁוּ וּבָאתָ שָּׁמָּה.
(1) These are the statutes and the ordinances, which ye shall observe to do in the land which the Lord, the God of thy fathers, hath given thee to possess it, all the days that ye live upon the earth. (2) Ye shall surely destroy all the places, wherein the nations that ye are to dispossess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every leafy tree. (3) And ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their Asherim with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods; and ye shall destroy their name out of that place. (4) Ye shall not do so unto the Lord your God.
The meforshim grapple with this command: לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כֵּן לַי"י אֱלֹהֵיכֶם - Don't do this to Hashem your God. What is it that we should not do?
The Baalei HaPeshat (Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, Seforno) explain: We should not emulate the ways of the idol worshipers. They have varied locations and avenues for their service, we have a central location. Our relationships with Hashem, (whilst unique to each person), coalesces into a larger national relationship: הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר י"י אֱלֹהֵיכֶם מִכל שִׁבְטֵיכֶם.
Rabbeinu Bachya (כד הקמח בית הכנסת) writes that today we find this reality in shul:
גדול כח בית הכנסת שהוא דוגמת בית המקדש, ועל כן נקרא מקדש מעט, וכן דרשו רז"ל בפרק בני העיר: ואהי להם למקדש מעט - אלו בתי כנסיות ובתי מדרשות, והתפלה נשמעת שם יותר, לפי שהכל מתקבצין שם, ואין הקב"ה מואס בתפלתן של רבים
The power of Shul is immense for it is likened to the Beis HaMikdash... Since it is a place of coalescence, Tefillah is heard there, for Hashem will never turn away from the Tefillah of the many.
Rashi, however, quotes Chazal, that this pasuk is one of the 613 mitzvos:
אזהרה למוחק את השם, ולנותץ אבן מן המזבח, או מן העזרה.
It is a prohibition to erase the name of Hashem, or to pull out a stone from the altar or from the courtyard.
In the world of Halacha, their is a prohibition of treating the name of Hashem, and the Places dedicated to Him with disrespect.
Letters of the Scroll
This should be a good point of departure to talk about the respect that we should have for our shul, and our davening. But before we do so, there is an deeper level of understanding of this pasuk that unifies the pshat and the Halacha.
The Gemara (מ״ק כה א) tells us:
העומד על המת בשעת יציאת נשמה חייב לקרוע למה זה דומה לספר תורה שנשרף
Someone that witnesses death, is obligated to tear kriyah (even if they are not a relative). To what is it likened? To a Torah scroll that has been burned.
The Ritva (שם) questions : How can we compare every person to a Torah scroll? Of course, people that uphold the values of Torah contain within them parts of Torah, but what about people that are not engaged with Torah and mitzvos, are they also likened to a Sefer Torah?
He quotes from the Ramban (שער הגמול) that the Neshama of a person - every person - is likened to the names of Hashem that are inscribed in the Sefer Torah. That is to say, inside of each and every Jew is a Neshama. That Neshama is quite literally a "piece" of Hashem - a חלק אלוה ממעל. It's a name of Hashem.
The Imrei Emes (אמרי אמת ראה תרס"ח) thus explains: When the Pasuk tells us לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כֵּן לַי"י אֱלֹהֵיכֶם - Don't do this to Hashem your God, and when Rashi tells us "Don't erase the name of Hashem" the Torah is telling us not to erase the part of Hashem that is inside of each of us. But beyond that, the part of ourselves that we cannot ignore, erase or forget - that's the part that unites us in Avodas Hashem; in the Mikdash, and in the Mikdash Me'at.
You're the Tzadik
The Chiddushei Harim once noticed that a certain Chassid was staring through his window. He asked him "What are you doing?"
The chassid explained: Moshe begins his speech this shabbos with:
רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה - Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse.
The Ohr Hachaim Hakodosh explains that by looking at Moshe, the face of a tzadik - they would receive Bracha.
The Chassid continues: I too would like to look at a tzadik!
The Chiddushei Harim replied: In that case, you should know that the pasuk tells us ועמך כולם צדיקים - we are all tzadikim. Perhaps you should find the tzadik within yourself and stare at him instead.
Conversations with the Tzadik
I would like, thus, to have a conversation with the tzadikim in our shul, which each one of us; the Neshamos of every person here. Our conversation today is between the deepest, most connected parts of ourselves. Because to have this conversation with only bodies and minds, could, Chalila, result in frustration or even insult.
Rav Kook (Olat Re'iyah I, p. 11) explains:
אין התפלה באה כתקונה כי אם מתוך המחשבה שבאמת הנשמה היא תמיד מתפללת. הלא היא עפה, מתרפקת על דודה בלא שום הפסק כלל, אלא שבשעת התפלה המעשית התפלה הנשמתית התדירית הרי היא מתגלה.
We can only pray the way prayer is supposed to be when we recognize that in fact the soul is always praying. Without stop, the soul soars and yearns for its Beloved. It is at the time of outward prayer, that the perpetual prayer of the soul reveals itself in the realm of action.
That is to say, at our core, everyone here wants to daven in the most real way.
If we address our need to daven purely as a bodily function, (which, of course it is as well,) to ensure that our physical needs are met, then davening is little more than a shopping list. "Hashem, I need health and wealth and lactose free milk and gluten free, sugar free cookies, and avocados..." Such requests are necessary, important, even, but that is not what our Neshamos crave.
If we address Tefillah from the perspective of our intellect, our obligations and Halacha, there too, we have a religious requirement to discharge the duties of Tefillah. So we can rattle off some words and be "Yotzei" - we can fulfill the technical obligation.
But ultimately, as everyone knows, what we really want and need is to have a moment of connection - d'veikus with Hashem. Moments to disconnect from the insanity of the world and login to the world of Avinu Av HaRachaman; to deepen our connection with the Ribono Shel Olam. To get to know Him, and ourselves.
With this understanding, talking to the deepest needs of our Neshamos, I want to address the concerns of a number of people in the past few months regarding our talking in shul.
I am always hesitant to bring this up, because I truly believe that talking in shul is reflective of our Ahavas Yisrael, the desire to connect to our friends. Of course, there are perfectly legitimate reasons to talk in shul, good reasons even. And I don't like to give mussar to the incredible chevra in our Kehillah.
But if we're honest, we all know that the reasons we have to talk in shul might good and acceptable for the body, perhaps we can rationalize them our minds. But our Neshamos are deeply in pain.
So I have some suggestions to make, but before that, the first thing we should all know, is that Hashem does not put us in boxes. For anyone who thinks "I'm a habitual talker, this is not for me,", I have good news! You're wrong. Elul is the time for Teshuva; if we want to be different, there is no reason not to.
The Torah tells us ועתה ישראל - and now, Jewish People... Reb Baruch of Mezhbizh would explain, that regardless of what we've done in the past, ועתה and now, ישראל, you can be a good Jew.
Making a Commitment
These are my suggestions:
- I, personally, will be Mekabel (בלי נדר) on myself to have no conversations in shul. Please don't be insulted! I'm happy to offer smiles, fist pumps, and handshakes. If you need to speak to me, we can go outside shul. To the best of my ability, this will include conversations with my kids as well. As much as possible, I ask for you all to join me.
- Regardless of whether or not this is an avoda that you feel ready for right now, we are all going to be mekabel to not, Chas V'shalom, make people feel bad for not talking.
- For those that are joining me in this essential challenge, I wish to refer to the words to Rabbineu Yonah (Sefer HaYirah): ואם ישבו אצלו בני אדם המדברים, יניע שפתיו וידמה עצמו כמתפלל, ואל יתפאר לומר, איני מדבר, כי כל המתפאר כמעט הוא נוטל את שכרו - If people are sitting by you talking, move your lips and show that you're davening. And never attempt to raise yourself up by saying "I dont talk" for one who makes themselves look good by making others look bad loses all the reward...
- Finally, as a tzibur, if there is a noise in davening, myself or the Gabbaim will indicate to the chazzan to stop. This a simply a reminder of these values which we hold so dear.
The Tosfos Yom Tov instituted a מי שברך - A special tefillah for people who don't talk in shul, and we will be adding that Tefillah to our davening during Elul. Beginning now:
מי שברך אבותינו, אברהם יצחק ויעקב, משה ואהרן, דוד ושלמה, הוא יברך את כל מי ששומר פיו ולשונו שלא לדבר בעת התפילה, הקב"ה ישמרהו מכל צרה וצוקה ומכל נגע ומחלה, ויחולו עליו כל הברכות הכתובות בספר תורת משה רבינו ובכל ספרי הנביאים והכתובים, ויזכה לראות בנים חיים וקימים ויגדלם לתורה לחופה ולמעשים טובים, ויעבוד את ה' אלוהינו תמיד באמת ובתמים ונאמר אמן. <
He who blessed our forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, Moshe and Aaron, David and Shlomo, he will bless those who guard their mouth and tongue from speaking during prayers. HaKadosh Baruch He shall guard them from every trouble and distress and from every plague and illness, and they shall be subject to all the blessings written in the Torah of Moshe and all the Prophets and Scriptures, and they will merit strong and healthy children whom they shall educate to [become] Torah [scholars], marry them off and instruct them to do good deeds, and they shall serve Hashem truthfully forever. Amen.
I wish to challenge each of us, this Elul, to treat our shul as a real Makom HaShechina. To ensure that this space enables that real and deeper connection with Hashem to shine. To know that we are truly amongst those who fulfill לשכנו תדרשו - we seek out space for Hashem in our lives, in our shul.
May we be zocheh to the words of the Medrash, as quoted in the אגרת הגר״א:
וכל רגע ורגע שאדם חוסם פיו זוכה בשבילו לאור הגנוז שאין מלאך ובריה יכולים לשער
For every moment that a person hold back their speech, they merit a hidden light that no angel or creation can imagine.