By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Here we stand, a week before Rosh Hashanah, wondering where we are relative to where we should be at this time of year. We wonder if we have accomplished as much as we have to in order to be zocheh in din. How much more can we achieve and how far are we from what Hashem wants us to be? We review the year in our minds and feel as if we have been here before. We have worked so hard in the past to right ourselves, only to fall back to previous levels. We may become disheartened as we ponder whether we can do it again.
It was a Motzoei Yom Kippur in the Mirrer Yeshiva. Far from the familiar embrace of the hallowed building in Mir D’Lita, the yeshiva was in its temporary home in Shanghai. The holiest day of the year had just come to a close. A cloud of intensity and emotion had filled the large Bais Aharon shul, headquarters of hundreds of Mirrer refugees. The echoes of the day’s powerful prayers for themselves and their loved ones still in danger were reverberating off its walls.
The talmidei chachomim of the yeshiva had emptied out to break their fast, removing their hats and jackets after a long, oppressively hot day. A lone figure remained in the cavernous room. The mythical mashgiach, Rav Chatzkel Levenstein, lingered in the bais medrash, walking back and forth, talking to himself in soft and mournful tones. His countenance, always luminous, was angelic at that exalted moment.
The mashgiach had not sat down throughout the long day, his Shemoneh Esrei of Shacharis continued until krias haTorah, when he was called for the aliyah of levi. His Mussaf continued until the start of Minchah, and again he remained standing in prayer until just before Ne’ilah. At that time, he offered words of chizuk to the talmidim, ushering forth a last wave of energy before the sun set and Yom Kippur concluded.
Now, with everyone gone, the mashgiach stood in the empty bais medrash speaking gently. “Sometimes a person is able to raise himself and achieve great heights,” the mashgiach said, “but what happens is that after a while at that exalted level, he returns to being the same person he was. Why do we lose the roishem, the impression, of teshuvah?” The mashgiach left the question hanging and then concluded, “A person must work and toil his entire life to be omeid b’nisayon, acquiring and internalizing the means to do battle and succeed.”
By this time, we hope that each of us is engaged in the process of teshuvah, preparing for the holiest days of the year and working to be zocheh b’din. The goal, as Rav Chatzkel taught, isn’t just to make it through Elul and come prepared on some level for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but to become elevated in a genuine and lasting way. The objective is to develop ourselves and emerge from this period of introspection and preparation on a higher level than when we began the process.
As we prepare ourselves for the Yom Hadin, we have to do so in a way that will remain with us throughout the rest of the year as well.
The Vilna Gaon, our rebbi in niglah and nistar, drush and sod, reveals the purpose of life. “Ikkar chiyus ha’adam, the purpose of existence,” he says, “is for man to destroy his bad middos. Ve’im lav, lamah lo chaim? If he won’t do so, what’s the point of his life? (Even Sheleimah 1:2).
Life is an ongoing process, and without constant progressive evolution and growth, it is futile. In life, the nisyonos keep coming. There is seemingly no rest from them. Our task is to continue rising, reaching the next level, firming up, and moving up to the next rung.
The Alter of Kelm once said to his talmidim before Rosh Hashanah, “What is the worst gezeirah possible for us in the new year? That it will be exactly the same as the year before.”
The noted mussar personality, Rav Mordechai Schwab, would eagerly observe the changing seasons. He would watch the summer’s heat give way to the crisp coolness of the fall, which would then morph into the winter’s penetrating cold and finally the rebirth and regeneration of spring. He would say that he saw the changing of the seasons as a metaphor for spiritual life and a reminder that change is the essence of life.
Rav Meir Chodosh, the Chevroner mashgiach, was one of the survivors of the horrific massacres that decimated Chevron in 1929, when bloodthirsty Arabs tore through the city and its yeshiva. As the murderers searched through a pile of corpses looking for signs of life so that they might snuff out yet another Jew, Rav Meir lay there immobile, pretending to be dead so that they might pass him by.
During those moments, as the Arabic conversation swirled around him, he suddenly had a memory of an incident that had taken place years earlier, when he was a young bochur in Russia. He had been seized by Russian soldiers during the tumultuous period leading up to the First World War and was unable to produce proper documentation proving his citizenship. Overjoyed with their find of a hapless undocumented Jew, the soldiers instructed Rav Meir to stand against the wall and told him they were going to kill him on the spot. The lead soldier aimed his gun at him.
Shaking with fright, Rav Meir leaned against the wall, barely able to stand. The soldier began to shout at him, “Stand straight, Jew! Show respect!” Rav Meir was unable to oblige and the soldier grew angry, yelling louder.
Rav Meir recited viduy and Shema Yisroel as he prepared for his young life to come to a sudden and tragic end. Suddenly, a nearby window opened and a high-ranking general looked out. He began to berate the soldiers for yelling and disturbing his afternoon nap. “You woke me,” he said. “Why are you making a commotion? Get out of here.”
The humiliated soldiers beat a hasty retreat and Rav Meir’s life was miraculously saved.
The memory of that incident suddenly came back to him as he lay there in Chevron, amidst a pile of bodies.
Later, in a shmuess, Rav Meir shared a lesson he derived from that fateful experience. The first miracle had elevated him to a high spiritual plateau, and he was determined to remember the kindness of Hashem and live accordingly, keeping the heightened awareness alive.
Alas, the mashgiach continued, in time, he returned to his routine, and the effect of the neis wore off. Eventually, he went back to living life as he had prior to his miraculous deliverance. It was only when he was once again in that awful situation, staring death in the face, that the spectacular moment suddenly came back to him. He resolved that if he would live, the experiences in his past would always be his present and future, and he would never again lose sight of what had transpired to him and the levels of emunah they had inspired.
Our avodah, as well, is to keep alive those inspired moments, through changing seasons, moods and situations, no matter what nisyonos we face.
When Golias was wreaking havoc amongst the ranks of Klal Yisroel’s army, a young shepherd showed up at the front to bring provisions to his brother. His name was Dovid. When he arrived at the encampment, he was disturbed by the power of that rasha and the reaction of Klal Yisroel. “Ki mi haPlishti ha’arel hazeh? Who does this impure Plishti think he is that he might mock and taunt the ranks of Elokim Chaim?” (Shmuel I 17:28).
Dovid’s older brother was upset at him, thinking that he had come to the front merely to watch “the action.” Dovid’s fighting words were passed on to Shaul Hamelech and the young shepherd was brought before the king.
Upon meeting him, Shaul was convinced that the physically unintimidating Dovid could never battle the towering Golias. Dovid reassured him. “Your servant was a shepherd…and a lion and a bear came and lifted one of the sheep from the flock. And I went after and killed it and saved the sheep from its mouth… Both the lion and the bear your servant smote – and this Plishti will be as one of them…” (Shmuel I 17:34-36).
On the posuk that tells of the sheep, a seh, there is a mesorah of kri and ksiv – that the word is written as zeh, meaning this, but read as seh, meaning sheep.
The Vilna Gaon explains the interchanging of the word seh with the word zeh. Dovid Hamelech had a miracle happen to him. He was able to kill a wild beast with his bare hands. He understood that if the Ribbono Shel Olam allowed this to happen, there was a deeper purpose to what had transpired and a lesson for him for life. Dovid was determined to remember the incident so that when further nisyonos arose, he would recall that he had the power to triumph. He wanted to maintain the level.
The Gaon quotes a Medrash which states that Dovid cut off some wool from the sheep whose life he saved and made himself a cloak from that wool.
With this, the Gaon explains the depth of the mesorah in reading the posuk. “Venasa seh meiha’eider“ is rendered as “Venasa zeh meiha’eider“ because Dovid would wear that cloak and point to it and say, “Zeh! This is from the wool of the sheep that was attacked by a lion, which I killed with my bare hands. Hashem allowed me to experience this miracle and I want to make sure I will remember it.”
The call of the hour during the final week of Elul is to perceive our own strengths, commit to using them, and pledge to live with that awareness throughout the following year. We must peer into our souls and see what motivates us, what makes us tick, what we are doing right and what we are doing wrong. Then, we can honestly begin fixing what needs repair and doing what we are able to improve ourselves and enhance our behavior and Torah observance.
Many people suffer from insecurity, unaware of their abilities and unsure of themselves. Great mechanchim are able to identify latent qualities of their talmidim and bring them forth, making the students aware of their own capabilities and drawing upon them when a nisayon arises.
When Rav Leib Malin was a talmid in the Mirrer Yeshiva, he felt compelled to protest something that had taken place. He, along with some others, made their way to the back of the bais medrash, planning to walk out as a way of registering their objection to whatever it was they disagreed with. As they walked, they caught sight of the awe-inspiring figure of the mashgiach, Rav Yeruchom Levovitz, standing at the door with his arms crossed. He clearly wished for them to sit down and forget about their intended protest. They did.
Later, Rav Yeruchom called in Rav Leib. “I didn’t agree with what you wanted to do, but you had obviously thought through your plan and were convinced that it was correct. Why, then, did you stop when you saw me? If you felt that what you were doing was proper, you should have been prepared to continue. You have to take responsibility for your thoughts and actions.”
Years later, when the Second World War broke out and difficult decisions had to be made, Rav Leib rose to the challenge. Some of his positions were unpopular (he was among those who were resolute that the yeshiva had to escape to Japan, a decision that saved the lives of the Mirrer talmidim, but, initially, many considered that avenue of escape to be foolish) and there was open resistance to him. He stood firm. “You have to take responsibility,” his rebbi had said. He remembered.
The perceptive mashgiach had made him aware of his own potential for achrayus and leadership. When the situation arose, Rav Leib was aware of his abilities and able to rise to the occasion.
At the beginning of Parshas Vayeilech, as Moshe Rabbeinu prepared to leave this world, he said to the Jewish people, “Lo uchal od lotzeis velavo – I am no longer able to come and go.“
Rav Tzadok Hakohein explains that Moshe Rabbeinu was saying that he had reached a level where there were no more nisyonos. He no longer had the peaks and the valleys, the aliyos and the yeridos, that are part of life. Moshe Rabbeinu was telling Am Yisroel that since he had reached that level, there was no longer a reason for him to remain physically alive in this world.
Nisyonos define us. They give life meaning and substance. We must hold on to moments of inspiration and chizuk so that when the inevitable challenges appear, we know how to act.
Rav Moshe Leib Sassover was very active in the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyin, working assiduously to release Jews from prison. There was a man who was jailed for being delinquent in paying rent to a wealthy landowner on whose property he lived.
Rav Moshe Leib’s efforts to raise the funds necessary to pay the debt came up short. He traveled to the poritz anyway, thinking that perhaps he would be able to convince him to accept the money he had raised and free the poor man from jail. The landowner refused the compromise and told the rebbe that he wouldn’t settle for anything less than the full amount.
Having failed in his mission, Rav Moshe Leib left the poritz‘s house with the money, dejected.
On his way home, he saw police dragging a Jewish man and mercilessly beating him. This Jew was a highway robber who ambushed people on the roads, and the police had enough of him and were going to hang him in the public square and rid the community of the menace once and for all.
Rav Moshe Leib went over to the bandit, who was gushing blood, severely beaten. He said to the man, “Do you promise to do teshuvah if I free you? Will you live a clean and honest life if I manage to convince them to let you go?”
When the man assured the rebbe that he would repent and never rob anyone ever again, the rebbe took the money he had raised to free the poor Jewish tenant and used it to bribe the policemen to let the robber go.
The rebbe took the man, who was in terrible shape after his beating and near death experience, into his wagon to bring him home.
Along the way, the rebbe spoke to the bandit, trying to convince him to give up his career and earn an honest living, which wouldn’t involve hurting people and placing himself in mortal danger.
As the rebbe spoke, the man remained silent, not uttering a word during the entire journey. When they finally reached the man’s house, the rebbe, who had saved his life, asked the robber to give his hand and promise that he wouldn’t go back to his old ways.
The man refused. He said that he was not going to abandon his chosen career. He explained: “Just because I had a bad day today doesn’t mean I’ll have a bad day tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow will be a better day and I’ll make a big hit.”
Rav Moshe Leib took leave of the man and sadly continued on his way. It was an awful day. His trip was a crushing failure. He wasn’t able to get the first Jew out of jail, and the Jew he did free told him that he wouldn’t give up his life of crime.
That night, Rav Moshe Leib dreamt that everything that happened to him that day was to teach him the proper way to serve Hashem. Never give up. Never let defeat get you down. If things don’t work out today, that doesn’t mean they won’t work out tomorrow. Keep on trying until you get it right.
This is a powerful lesson for us as well. It’s almost Rosh Hashanah. We try to be better and feel we are failing. As long as we don’t give up, as long as we keep on trying, we are succeeding.
Twice a day, we recite “LeDovid,” expressing confidence in our abilities to overcome. “Im tachaneh alai machaneh lo yira libi.” If a nisayon comes my way to test me, I shall not be afraid. I am confident in my ability to withstand the nisayon. With the help of Hashem, I will rise up and triumph.