Encouraging Words

1. We can receive the Torah at all times and in all places.

It is written, “Until the morrow of the seventh week you shall count, fifty days; and you shall offer a new meal-offering to HASHEM....You shall convoke on this very day - there shall be a holy convocation for yourselves” (Leviticus 23:16,21). We realize that the text does not mention the giving of the Torah, which took place on the sixth of Sivan, but indicates solely that it should be celebrated at the end of the seven weeks of the Omer. It’s very surprising: Why is the central event of this festival - to understand that the Torah was given on this day - not mentioned at all?

As well, it should be understood why no commentary of the Sages says that we have to go from time to time to Mt. Sinai, the place where the Torah was given to the Children of Israel and where the glory of G-d itself was made manifest. Nor do they give a reason as to why the Shechinah dwelt on the mountain but for a few days, and left it as soon as the Children of Israel departed, so completely that it was left without any trace of holiness. In effect, “As long as the Shechinah resided on Mt. Sinai, the Torah said ‘Even the flock and the cattle may not graze facing that mountain’ [Exodus 34:3], but once it has departed, it said ‘upon an extended blast of the shofar, they may ascend the mountain’ [Exodus 19:13]” (Taanith 21b).

This teaches us that there is no fixed time or place favorable for undertaking the study of Torah. In every place and at any time, the man who desires can begin its study, and that place immediately transforms itself into a small Temple (see Megillah 29a), and becomes similar to Mt. Sinai on the day that the Torah was given.

Thus if the Holy One, blessed be He, had left His holiness on Mt. Sinai, people would have thought that we can only receive blessing, sanctify ourselves, and walk in the ways of the Torah but there. Scripture teaches us therefore that the holiness of Mt. Sinai was but temporary, so that a man sanctifies by his study whatever place he devotes himself to the Torah, and receives the same amount of holiness that reigned on Mt. Sinai at the time that the Torah was given.

For the same reason neither is it written, by use of an exact date, when to celebrate the giving of the Torah; every moment that a man desires to study is like the day the Torah was given. Thus our Sages said “That they seem new in your eyes, as if you received them today at Mt. Sinai” (Pesikta Zoutah Va’etchanan 6:7; Rashi Tavo 26:16), as if these commandments were given to us even today. On the verse “Be attentive and hear, O Israel: This day you have become a people” (Deuteronomy 27:9), the Sages said “Was it that day that the Torah was given to Israel? There is a forty-year gap! But this teaches that the Torah is as valuable to the one who constantly studies it, as on the day when it was given on Mt. Sinai” (Berachot 63b).

We find an example of this with Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who started studying the Torah at the age of 28 (Avoth DeRabbi Nathan 6b), and yet became, after a few years with Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, greater than his other disciples, to the point that his Rav called him “a cemented cistern which loses not a drop” (Perkei Avoth 2:11).

And who surpasses Rabbi Akiva his disciple (Sanhedrin 68a), who up to the age of 40 (Bereshith Rabba 100:11; Avoth DeRabbi Nathan 6) was illiterate in Hebrew? This did not prevent him from reasoning a fortiori as follows: “If water, which is a fluid, can erode a rock which is hard, how much more can the words of Torah, which are hard like metal, engrave themselves in my heart, which is made of flesh” (ibid.). He actually was a very great Talmid Chacham, an overflowing wellspring of knowledge (Gittin 67a), to the point that, when the ministering angels wanted to rebuff him, the Holy One, blessed be He, told them “Leave this noble one alone, who is worthy of benefitting of My Glory” (Hagigah 15b). We can cite innumerable other examples, the conclusion being that regardless of time or place, anyone can begin to plunge into the study of Torah, exactly as if he were at Mt. Sinai on the day it was given.

The Torah was engraved upon stone (Exodus 34:1) to teach us that even one whose head and heart are as hard as rock, to the point that he dreams only of enjoying life’s pleasures in frivolous ways, into such a person the Torah can enter and penetrate to the deepest depths of his mind and his heart, which it nourishes and purifies.

We know that the letters mem sofit and samech miraculously appeared on the tablets of the law (in Hebrew, these letters are circular in shape, with nothing in the middle, yet the letters were engraved completely through the tablets - Shabbat 104a; Megillah 2b,3a). The letter mem was suspended in air to allude to the fact that even if someone is as totally closed as a mem and filled with nothing but troubles, problems and sadness, by studying the Torah in the same spirit as the verse “O how I love Your Torah! All day long it is my conversation” (Psalms 119:97), it will be for him a shield and a support that will help in surmounting all obstacles. The letter samech also alludes to the fact that the Torah is a support on which we can rest (the name of the letter itself, samech, brings to mind the word semichah, “support”). Even if a person finds himself on the threshold of despair and collapse, the Torah will help and provide him with the energy necessary not to fall. Hence it is written “Support me according to Your promise that I may live, disgrace me not in my hope” (Psalms 119:116). Also “Sustain me that I may be saved, and I will always be engrossed in Your statutes” (ibid., 117). When someone studies the Torah, he can be confident that G-d will support him.

2. The suffering of the righteous is due to love, and should not cause to question our faith.

A wonderful thought came to me concerning the verse “You shall stand the Levites before Aaron and before his sons, and wave them as a wave-offering before HASHEM. So shall you separate the Levites from among the Children of Israel” (Numbers 8:13-14). This means that we had to wave all the Levites (who numbered twenty-two thousand) before G-d in the eyes of all the Children of Israel in order to sanctify them. This would appear to be an astonishing thing: How does this public waving constitute a sanctification? At first glance, this would appear rather to be a humiliation! The conclusion to this verse states, “Moses, Aaron, and the entire assembly of the Children of Israel did to the Levites according to everything that HASHEM had commanded” (ibid., 20), and Rashi explains that this is a compliment on the faith of those who allowed all this to happen to them without protesting. In this case, why did the Torah not command that something else be done to sanctify the Levites, other than waving them? For example, why did the Torah not command instead that the hands and feet of the Levites be washed in front of all the Children of Israel, or some other similar act?

This comes to instruct us that when we see a Talmid Chacham who fears G-d and is wholehearted before Him, yet who nevertheless faces troubles and unbearable trials, we should not ask ourselves acrimonious questions about the situation. Such an attitude stems from the evil inclination, which seeks a way to make people stumble by creating doubts in them, and by raising the question of how it is possible that a righteous individual can experience such terrible troubles. This would bring one to say that there is neither G-d nor justice (Leviticus Rabba, beginning of 28). On the contrary, we should understand that the ways of Providence are hidden, and what to us appears as bad is actually, in reality, good.

One should be careful not to fall into the trap of hopelessness and doubt, for it is clearly evident that the righteous individual who undergoes all these trials accepts them. Indeed, he accepts them with great love, conscious of the fact that the Holy One, blessed be He, inflicts them upon him in order to test him and wipe out his sins in this world, so as to ensure his eternal reward (Pessikta Zoutah beginning of Re’eh). Moreover, certain righteous people spend all their lives undergoing difficult trials in order to protect their generation (Zohar III, 218b). The Sages have said that the sufferings that the Holy One, blessed be He, sends to the just in this world are better for them than a life of joy and abundance (Zohar III, 232b). There are otherwise some Tsaddikim who, although they have known only hardship and suffering all their lives, nevertheless ask G-d to give them still more, and accept them with complete love. We therefore don’t have to enter into the reasons as to why the righteous suffer. And even if life shows itself to be sometimes rough toward us, one should take heart and know that it is but a test from Heaven to see if we are faithful to our beliefs, and is a sign that the Holy One, blessed be He, loves us and has chosen us.

That is the reason for the waving of the Levites. The Children of Israel would understand that the Levites were being waved and shaken without asking why G-d gave such orders, orders which made them an object of ridicule. Yet these very same Levites were the ones chosen by G-d to serve in the Temple, and so the Children of Israel would understand that the Levites’ great merit lay in their willingness to happily undergo such treatment. Even if they had been thrown into the air and allowed to fall abruptly to the ground, they still would have rejoiced if this had been the will of the Creator. The essential thing for them was the service of the Temple.

Now if they themselves were ready to suffer this humiliating procedure because it was the will of G-d, what right do we have to ask questions? On the contrary, we must learn from them that one should be resilient in all tests, so that the Holy One, blessed be He, will show us His countenance of love. For we know that perfect love is achieved only when we overcome obstacles because they originate from the Holy One, blessed be He, whether the situation is pleasant or not.

3. Fleeting happiness versus everlasting joy

Ben Zoma said “Who is wise? He who learns from all men, as it is said, ‘From all my teachers I grew wise, for all Your testimonies are a conversation for me’ [Psalms 119:99]” (Perkei Avoth 4:1). There is even something to be learned from the wicked - as Rabbi Meir demonstrates by his example, having learned Torah from Acher (Hagigah 16b) - but one must pay careful attention so as not to be influenced by their wicked deeds. There are lessons to be learned not only from the behavior of men, but from that of animals as well, as Rabbi Yochanan said, “Had the Torah not been given, we would have learned modesty from the cat, [the prohibition of] theft from the ant, [the prohibition of] forbidden relationships from the dove, and derech eretz from fowl" (Eruvin 100b).

What does it consist of exactly? While I’m writing these lines, a world cup soccer game is taking place. The streets are completely empty (to the point that we can’t see a living soul) because everyone wants to see the French national team rejoice in its victory. And despite the fact that today is the 17th of Tammuz - a fast day - so many people are still reveling in their team’s world cup play.

But in spite of that, I too would like that they win, certainly not because of sympathy toward the French players, but because I am curious to see how the French people will forget about sleeping and spend the entire night shouting and celebrating. From this also I can derive, a fortiori, a lesson: Here are people who spend an enormous amount of time kicking a ball, running after it - and enduring great hardship - all with the sole intention of figuring out how best to avoid attackers while marching down the field and scoring a goal. And when they score a goal, their joy knows no limit. How much more so should a Jew rejoice when he observes the Torah and the commandments, working without respite - and enduring much hardship - to prevent the evil inclination from detracting from his service of G-d until he manages, despite all obstacles, to brush it aside and fulfil the goals of the Torah and the commandments! It’s clear that his reward will be substantial, in this world and in the world to come. For this victory over his instincts rises toward the heavens, and the righteous rejoice that they have triumphed over their evil inclination.

I would also like a French victory in order to see how millions of people will be capable of rejoicing in something that has completely no significance. On a personal level, this will allow me to understand, by comparison, the joy that will be exist when that exulted day arrives when G-d will return the exiles of Zion (Psalms 126:1), and Mashiah will come to reveal the glory of G-d’s kingdom over the entire world. Clearly, there will be no comparison!

And so it was. When France eventually won the world cup, the French people did not shut their eyes for the entire night, but spend it singing and dancing in the streets. I thought to myself that this was but a fleeting joy which would quickly be forgotten; a few days later everyone would go back to their own worries, and the joy that they had felt would have vanished without leaving them a trace of hope for a better future. And all because this happiness was based on but material satisfaction. This will not be the case with the joy that will permeate the world at large with the arrival of Mashiah, as wars will end and true peace will reign in the entire world (Isaiah 2:4); even the lion and the lamb will live peaceably (ibid., 6). This joy will be real and everlasting.

I also imagined how the players would receive the world cup trophy from the president of France, embracing him in front of billions of people watching worldwide. Conversely I thought of how the Holy One, blessed be He, would give to all the righteous, who won the battle against their baser instincts, 310 worlds in reward (Midrash Mishlei 8:9, end of Uqsin; Zohar II, 166b). And this will be done in the presence of all the righteous who have existed since the beginning of time, who will greet them with joy.

From the streets arose cries of rejoicing, while in my home I addressed this prayer to the Creator of the world: “Our Father, our King, avenge the spilled blood of your servants, avenge yourself on those who put the Shechinah in exile; for how long will Your Glory be a prisoner? Arise and take pity on Zion, so that we too can rejoice, eternally, in You.” And so the festivities went on for the entire night, up until the time of the Shacharit prayer. I honestly envisioned that Mashiah was coming, and that all the people of Israel would come out with a loud cry of joy to greet G-d.

4. G-d Teaches All Men

Another lesson that we can derive from the game in question is that, obviously, the two teams that reached the final had perfected their game, having advanced beyond all the previous stages by beating other teams. And yet only one team can win, since the trophy can’t be shared. It’s a huge lesson: Even to Bnei Torah, who are always in control of their instincts, it is forbidden to relax even for a moment, for their adversary the evil inclination is also a master in its specialty, and likewise wishes to conquer them at every moment.

This is why, if he wants to attain victory, a man should concentrate without stop on the performance of mitzvot and the study of Torah. Happy is he who leaves this world intact in his body and in his Torah (see Rashi on Bereshith 33:18), for he will merit his full reward in the world to come. And woe to him for whom all his life was filled with Torah and mitzvot, but on his last day committed a transgression, for his loss will equal his reward. Even if he has spent his life in overcoming all obstacles, his work will have been in vain if he lost the last day of his existence. What shame and what pain he will experience in the world to come when he will realize that his evil inclination finally won! He will leave the judgement filled with disgrace.

Whatever happens, we see that we can say “From all my teachers I grew wise” (Psalms 119:99), and that we can draw lessons in spiritual growth even from material events. This is what Kohelet says (Ecclesiastes 7:14): “G-d has made the one as well as the other.” This is exactly the case in circumstances where materiality veers man away from his service of G-d, and which risks attracting him to it through the glistening deceitfulness of riches and honor. He should tell himself, “These material things, which exist today yet tomorrow will be like a shadow, and which a man pursues in the attempt to gain riches and honor, will finally end when death comes around.” How much more should he, in order to gain eternal life and the pleasures of the world to come, refuse to let himself get caught up in the pleasures of this world! Indeed, he should take advantage of each moment to serve G-d and perform mitzvot. Thus the Holy One, blessed be He, will certainly honor him in the world to come, and he will merit having a crown on his head and to bask in the light of the Shechinah (See Rosh Hashanah 8b).

This conclusion was also reinforced in my heart when I saw the headings in the newspapers of the following day, which recounted in large type how the players traveled from place to place with the world cup trophy while millions of people cheered them and shook their hands. These observations came to reinforce my view of the great honor that will be merited in the world to come, and in the presence of millions of the righteous, by those who will have won through sheer effort against the great enemy, the evil inclination. Happy is he and his kind.

5. The tricks of the evil inclination

A Jew asked me if he had the right to watch the game in question.

I asked him, “Who would you like to see win?”

He told me, “France, naturally. Only she deserves to win!”

I asked him, “And what will you do every time the team scores a goal?”

He told me, “What does the Rav think?”

I told him, “I imagine that you’ll be sitting in front of that idolatrous box - the television - all tensed up with beads of sweat on your face, and anxiously uttering a silent prayer that they don’t lose. And at the end, when they will have scored a goal, you will get up and call out screaming with joy ‘Goal! Goal! Goal!’ Is that correct?”

“Yes,” he told me, “that’s it exactly!”

I told him, “Naturally, when they will have won the world cup, your joy will know no limits.”

He replied, “Yes, given that they win, that’s exactly what’s going to happen!”

I told him, “Listen to me sir. If you love G-d be very careful! For the Holy One, blessed be He, makes Himself known especially to those close to Him (Yebamoth 121b), and if you are close to Him and His Torah, He will ask for an accounting of every moment lost for study, and for every instance in which you created a separation between Himself and you. Now it’s evident that while you are watching the game, you will be thinking neither of G-d nor of His Torah, but only on vanities and trivialities. As Rav Haijkin said, there are people who love soccer balls to the point that they run after it with all their strength, but as soon as they get close they give it a swift kick. Is this what loving a ball means - giving it a kick?

“The Holy One, blessed be He, sees all your actions at every moment, and notices that you are certainly involved in the Torah and the mitzvot, but not with the same joy or the same enthusiasm with which you eat, or with which you scream after each goal in a game. Where therefore is the love and the joy for the performance of the mitzvot? Why are you more enthusiastic about the vanities of this world than the study of the Torah and the performance of mitzvot? What will you say to your Creator?

“That’s why - listen to me. If you take it upon yourself to perform the mitzvot and the study of the Torah with the same enthusiasm and the same zeal that you show when your team scores a goal, then you have the right to watch the game.”

“That’s impossible” he replied.

“In that case, forget about watching the game and go back to studying the Gemara, for all this comes from none else but Satan and his tricks. He wants nothing other than to breathe vanity and folly into the hearts of men, so that he can then accuse a person of having forfeited eternal life for the sake of tomfoolery. The proof that this type of enjoyment comes from the evil inclination is that it is inevitable, in the long run, that you will forget the entire game as well as the team’s victory.”

Now the tactics of Satan work so well, even among Bnei Torah, that there are some who would like to watch the game, even to the detriment of their own studies. These tactics give him the ability to act as accuser, so that he can affirm that the scholars in question would prefer this world to the world to come. I’ve managed to hold this reasoning up to several people, and to convince them that if they recommence their Torah study, then the following will apply to them: “The more study, the more wisdom” (Perkei Avoth 2:8). Regardless of when, where, or at what age we begin to study, the essential thing is to develop an appreciation for the fear of Heaven and a flavor for studying, as we mentioned at the beginning of this article. The evil inclination leads man into numerous traps, in order to make him vacillate to the point that he will have great difficulty to resist. Man would not have the slightest chance of winning without preparing himself beforehand. In terms of approaching one’s instincts, the best way of chasing away the evil inclination is to fix oneself set times for study. Thus we will rise every morning in the study of Torah, mitzvot, and good deeds, for the more a man trains himself in this, the easier it becomes to tame and conquer his desires. Thus it is said, “If you meet this miserable one, draw him in the house of study. If he is made of rock, he will dissolve; if of metal, he will shatter” (Sukkah 52b; Kiddushin 30b). Only the force of the Torah permits us to strike him with a serious blow.

It is also written, “it is not an empty thing for you, for it is your life” (Deuteronomy 32:47), which signifies that man can only gain strength and vitality in this world and in the world to come but by filling his life with Torah and the fear of Heaven. As I have already explained with respect to the verse that states “it is not an empty thing for you” the word “thing” (davar in Hebrew) is an allusion to the evil inclination, which is called ba’al davar, meaning to say that (far from being “empty” or void of strength) it has great force; it is made of fire (Zohar I, 80). It is equally a master of deception (Zohar I, 136a). We can weaken and void it only when we study the Torah and walk in its ways. It is precisely this of which the verse speaks when it says “Jacob arrived intact” (Genesis 33:18), the numeric value of which is the same as the expression “It is not an empty thing.” He arrived whole in his Torah (Rashi, ibid.).

May G-d help us to always cleave to Him. Amen.


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