By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Parshas Ki Savo begins with the mitzvah of bikkurim. Through this mitzvah and the rich symbolism of the mitzvos surrounding it, we are taught how to achieve happiness.
After months of toiling in his field and orchard, a Jew takes the first fruits of his harvest and sets out for Yerushalayim. When he arrives there, he meets up with a kohein and then approaches the mizbei’ach in the Bais Hamikdosh and recites the pesukim that recall the trials that Yaakov Avinu endured, followed by our forefathers’ suffering in Mitzrayim.
He then relates how Hashem rescued us with scores of miracles and led us to the Promised Land which flows with milk and honey.
Following that, the Jew presents the first fruits of his labors to the kohein and returns home. He is then ready for the next part of the mitzvah, “Vesomachta bechol hatov.” There is a specific mitzvah to rejoice with all the goodness that Hashem has blessed him with.
The obligation to be thankful for the blessings Hashem has bestowed upon us, and to contrast that goodness with the difficult time that preceded it, appears to be the key to true happiness. It is by approaching our situation in life with this perspective that we can merit happiness.
The path to happiness and fulfillment is often strewn with hardship. A person who works the fields is a perfect illustration of this dynamic.
First, the farmer spends what feels like endless hours working as the blistering sun beats down upon him. Finally, his hard work pays off and his orchard begins yielding crops, which he can harvest to feed his family and sell for a profit. Yet, the Torah tells him that he must take the first fruits and bring them to Yerushalayim as bikkurim.
The Torah instructs him to think back to the bitter days that Yaakov spent at the home of his father-in-law, Lavan, and to the period of slavery we endured in Mitzrayim.
Bringing bikkurim forces Jews to reflect on the good in their life. Too often, people concentrate only on the negative. They complain about how hard they struggle to make a living. People fail to thank Hashem that they have a job and a boss who guarantees them a salary. Those who live in an agrarian economy don’t always appreciate that they have a plot of land on which to grow their fruit and may complain about all the chores that they must perform in order for their orchard to produce healthy fruit.
The mitzvah of bikkurim forces a person to mentally revisit the first days of the season when he planted one of his shivah minim, not knowing if the seeds would take root or if the trees would bear fruit. It forces him to be thankful that, despite all the potential for ruin, in the end, Hashem helped him bring forth a good crop.
In Yerushalayim, he stands at the mizbei’ach and reflects on the mixture of hard times and good times that the Jewish people have experienced throughout the ages.
As we approach Rosh Hashanah and examine our actions over the past year, we, too, must weigh the bad with the good, examining our lives to measure how far we’ve come over the course of time.
We all face challenges. There are times when we feel as if we are backed into a corner with no means of escape. Some have a tendency to think that their problems are insurmountable and submit to despair.
A few months ago, I was speaking to my rebbi, Rav Avrohom Yehoshua Soloveitchik, and the name of a common acquaintance came up. The rosh yeshiva asked how his talmid was doing.
I responded, “Ess geit em shver. He’s having a hard time.”
Without hesitating for even a moment, he looked at me very seriously, if not angrily, and shot back, “Bei der Ribono Shel Olam iz gornit shver.”
In his pithy, concise way, he was teaching a lesson. For someone facing a challenge, the problem seems so overwhelming and daunting, but we have to remember that the Ribbono Shel Olam has no limitations. However large the issue seems to the person who is experiencing it and to those who love and care about him, in essence, it is but a blip on the radar screen of life, almost like a small imperceptible bump on a road.
We get upset and we become forlorn because we become trapped by the moment and cannot look at the bigger picture. We get locked into the moment. Though we are limited in what we can perceive, we cannot forget that “Bei der Ribono Shel Olam iz gornit shver.”
Great men always knew how to view what was before them not as isolated incidents but as part of something bigger. They knew that what was transpiring in their lives was part of an evolving process put in place by the Ribono Shel Olam. They knew that what was happening on a national and international sphere was a manifestation of history unfolding by the Creator.
Such people don’t become disheartened when they face struggles; they are cognizant of the fact that Klal Yisroel and its people march to their destiny on a long, winding road, sometimes in the sun, other times in the shade. There are storms of snow and others of rain; avalanches and slides, earthquakes and typhoons. But we continue on the path, irrespective of what is thrown in the way. Because “By der Ribono Shel Olam is gornit shver.”
A fascinating biography was recently published about the great Litvisher gaon, Rav Mordechai Pogromansky. Each page of the book is more fascinating than the next. Reading it is an exercise in mussar and leads to an appreciation of the greatness of Torah, its chachomim, and Litvisher bnei Torah.
Even as he was locked in the Kovno ghetto, with death, destruction and deprivation all around him, Rav Pogremansky never lost his calmness brought about by his deep emunah and bitachon. He remained devoted to Torah and giving chizuk to those around him. With the Jews walled into a small area, constantly patrolled by vicious Nazis, he would tell those who would gather around him that he didn’t see the German beasts who were everywhere. “I don’t see Germans all around us… I see pesukim of the Torah [from the Tochachah] surrounding the ghetto.”
The great giant saw what was transpiring as the realization of the pesukim in this week’s parsha that we read quietly. He saw those words coming to life. He was able to remain calm and sleep at night because he knew that all that was going on, as awful as it was, in actuality, was the pesukim of Tanach having grown skin, bones and muscle. He didn’t see Germans. He didn’t fear Germans. He saw and feared Hashem. He knew that whatever was going to happen was going to be carried out by the Ribono Shel Olam, and bei em iz gornit shver. If he was supposed to live, he would live, no matter what those whose “pihem diber shov” would say or do.
Bombs were falling, devastation and hunger were his daily companions, yet this great soul, with depth, sensitivity and brilliance sensed the stark clarity of the pesukim of the Tochachah and the reality as expressed by the Torah. Everything around him was merely a reflection of that reality, a cause and effect built into creation by the Ribono Shel Olam.
Rav Pogremansky repeated what he heard in the ghetto from the famed Kovno Rov, Rav Avrohom Kahana Schapiro, author of the classic sefer Devar Avrohom. Amidst the commotion and turmoil of the ghetto, the Kovno Rov stated that he was jealous of the kohein who hid the jug of oil that the Chashmonaim found and from which they lit the Menorah following their miraculous victory over the Yevonim.
An unforgotten, anonymous kohein, or, as the Kovno Rov referred to him, “der umbakanter suldat,” had the presence of mind to hide a pach shemen tahor. The Yevonim were plundering everything and most of the Jews had gone over to the other side. Everything seemed lost. Churban was everywhere.
Yet, in this setting, der umbakanter suldat grabbed a holy flask of oil and hid it. He knew that a time would come when the powerful Yevonim would be usurped of their power, when churban would yield to rejuvenation, and the shemen tahor would be needed to ignite the Menorah.
Der umbakanter suldat knew that what he was seeing was pesukim coming to life, and he recognized that one day, the pesukim that foretell rebirth would also jump off the pages.
Der umbakanter suldat was the person the Kovno Rov learned from and was jealous of. He was the person who carried out the teaching expressed in Orchos Chaim LehoRosh (100), which states, “Al tevahel ma’asecha.” Even in a time of confusion and commotion, remain calm and composed.
This lesson was the epitome of Kelmer mussar, though one need not be a student of Kelm to conduct himself in that manner. That suldat certainly wasn’t, but we can all learn from him.
The Alter of Kelm instituted the recital of Orchos Chaim LehoRosh in his yeshiva each morning following Shacharis. With deep concentration and the sincerity that defined them, the Kelmer talmidim would repeat in unison verses from the sefer, internalizing these timeless teachings.
Many yeshivos follow that custom during the month of Elul. Rav Nosson Wachtfogel, mashgiach of Bais Medrash Govoah in Lakewood, would chant the special teachings in the traditional Kelmer niggun.
Al tevahel ma’asecha. Tunnel vision forces a person to panic, while the ability to understand that there is a bigger picture at play offers serenity. The knowledge that everything that is taking place is the fulfillment of pesukim permits one to live a life of calmness and serenity no matter what is transpiring around him.
Every Shabbos morning, in the tefillah of Nishmas, we thank Hashem for saving us from cholo’im ro’im vene’emonim, faithful, bad diseases. What type of illness is faithful? To what and to whom is the illness faithful?
In the Tochachah (28:59), the posuk speaks of makkos gedolos vene’emanos, great and faithful blows, and cholo’im gedolim vene’emonim, great and faithful illnesses. The Gemara says in Maseches Avodah Zara (55a) that before a person becomes ill, the Ribbono Shel Olam makes the illness take an oath that it will leave the person’s body at the proper time. When a person becomes afflicted with an illness, the illness is sworn to the number of days it will reside within that person, the degree of pain it will cause, and instructions about when it will leave. When the illness promises to follow its instructions, it is dispatched to the person’s body.
When people are sick and suffering, they can become despondent and think that they will never be cured. They fear that they will never again be happy and pain-free. Chazal teach that sickness, like everything else in this world, is the result of a Divine plan. The amount the sick person suffers is all planned. Hashem spares us of any pain beyond what has been prescribed for us.
Veho’ikar lo lefacheid klal. Daunt-
ing as it seems, hard as the situation appears, we should never forget that nothing occurs by happenstance.
When we read about what is transpiring in Eretz Yisroel, it can be demoralizing, unless we understand the current struggle in light of the bigger picture, a long history of kedushah and tumah battling for the fate and destiny of Yahadus in Eretz Hakodesh.
We must not let ourselves become swept into thinking that what is happening is something new that has never happened before. The same battles that are being waged now have been fought before. Ever since the founding of the state, the status of bachurei yeshiva and the role of halacha have been points of contention. Just as our spiritual fathers triumphed, just as yeshivos rose from the ashes and continued to grow, and just as the Torah community defied the predictions and prognoses of its demise and thrived, so will the good times return.
Rav Mordechai Pogremansky recognized in the destruction a harbinger of hope, because the pesukim of the Tochachah were being realized. Everything was going according to a plan.
Yaakov Avinu, the av who is identified with golus, the father who led his children into Mitzrayim, taught us an enduring lesson. He knew where his children were headed, but he had the foresight to bring along cedar trees as he went into exile. It was from those arazim trees that the Mishkon was constructed.
With those arazim, Yaakov didn’t only bring the physical timber his offspring would require to build a heavenly abode in the desert. He also taught them a lesson that would carry them through golus. Light follows darkness as assuredly as day follows night. There will be destruction, but it will be followed by rebirth.
Better times will come for those who don’t despair.
We study the parsha of bikkurim prior to Rosh Hashanah to encourage us not to despair and to always maintain our belief in Hashem, even on the dark days when the land lies fallow and an unbelieving person would give up all hope of ever growing anything.
The courage to keep up the struggle is the theme of Elul. We need to maintain our faith as we experience this internal turbulence. Hakadosh Boruch Hu says to us, “Pischu li pesach kefishcho shel machat, va’ani eftach lochem kefischo shel ulam.“ We have to open the door, we have to plant the seed, we have to take the trip to Yerushalayim, and Hashem will do the rest.
Living in troubled, turbulent times, we have to maintain our faith and seek to persevere and do the right thing, no matter how difficult the challenge.
We have to continue to constantly scrutinize our actions, always aiming to improve. We have to remember the arami oveid avi and the avdus in Mitzrayim in order to absorb Hakadosh Boruch Hu‘s mercy and kindness in accepting our prayers and rescuing us from that awful place.
Just as He saved our fathers, He looks out for us and aids us in our daily battles and struggles if we remain staunch in our faith and do not allow setbacks to derail us.
We should all see our problems for what they are – temporary obstacles placed by a knowing and loving Father. May we merit to be inscribed for a happy, healthy and successful new year.