Thursday, November 28, 2019



            An Israeli journalist once asked a ba’al teshuva who he felt was greater, the little Yerushalmi children in Me’ah Shearim who have never had exposure to contemporary society, or he, who had reformed his entire life? The journalist assumed that the ba’al teshuva would reply that he is greater because he had left behind surroundings and familiarity of his youth in order to adopt a Torah lifestyle. However, the ba’al teshuva replied that in his opinion the Yerushalmi children are greater: “I experienced the trappings and pleasures of the outside world, and I am starkly aware that it’s ultimately empty and meaningless. To me, it’s clear that Torah provides true meaning and a life of direction and purpose. But those Yerushalmi children have no way of knowing that. To them the allure of the outside world still seems exciting and tempting. The fact that they maintain their beliefs anyway requires faith and dedication that are beyond me.”   

          The prophet Yeshaya conveyed to the nation that G-d was displeased with their Service to Him: “G-d said: Since this people has drawn close, with its mouth and with its lips it has honored Me, yet it has distanced its heart from me; their fear of me is כמצות אנשים מלומדה - like rote of human commands.”[1]
          One of the greatest challenges we face is to maintain a level of excitement and passion when doing mitzvos and serving Hashem, particularly regarding those mitzvos we perform on a daily basis. When a young man dons his tefillin for the first time shortly prior to his bar mitzvah, he is extremely excited and proud. But with time that excitement wanes and becomes a matter of rote, especially during those mornings when he is tired. 
          When Yitzchak and Rivka davened for a child the Torah states, “And Hashem heeded his cries, and his wife Rivka conceived.”[2] Rashi explains that Hashem listened to the prayers of Yitzchak more than to the prayers of Rivka, because the prayers of a righteous person who is the child of a wicked person[3], cannot compare to the prayers of a righteous person who is the child of a righteous person[4].
          The words of Rashi are surprising. One would think that one born and raised among heretics who pulled himself up by the bootstraps to become a devout believer is greater than one born into a reputable upstanding home. In addition, the gemara[5] states, “In the place where one who has repented stands, the most perfectly righteous cannot stand.” If so, why was Rivka’s prayers not as poignant, if not more poignant, than those of Yitzchak?
          Rabbi Sholom Schwadron zt’l related that one day a man was standing next to the marketplace minding his own business watching people busily shopping. Suddenly, he felt two hard jabs at his chest. As he looked up angrily to see who had punched him, he realized that he was in the middle of saying Shemone Esrei and had just recited the beracha, Selach Lanu.[6]
          Rabbi Simcha Wasserman zt’l explained that a person who decides to revolutionize his life by adopting a Torah lifestyle that was completely unfamiliar to him, reaches spiritual levels that even surpasses the most righteous individuals, who did not have to undergo such struggle to achieve that connection. Still, one who repents generally does so because he felt internal strife and emptiness. He was searching and yearning for meaning and knew that something had to change in his life. It was that journey and self-discovery that led him to a path of Torah and mitzvah observance.
          One born into a home of Torah values however, never knew of anything different. For that person, it is a greater challenge to appreciate the privilege he was been born into, as a Torah observant Jew. One who has been davening three times a day, repeating the same words all his life, inevitably has a more difficult time finding meaning in his prayers. That is why the sincere prayers of one born into a home of righteousness, are greater than the prayers of one raised in a home that does not practice Torah values. One who developed an appreciation for prayer looks forward to the thrice daily opportunity for connection, and therefore it is not as great of a challenge for him to daven. One who was trained in it from youth, can maintain his callow understanding of prayer throughout his life, and never develop that appreciation for the greatness and opportunity of prayer. For him to do so, requires overcoming habit and rote, which is always a formidable challenge.[7]   

          In the daily Shema we recite: “And these matters that I command you today shall be upon your heart.”[8] The Medrash comments that each day a person should feel as if that day G-d commanded him to perform the mitzvos.[9]
          Shema is the mantra of every Jew. The custom is to recite Shema in the presence of an infant boy the night before his b’ris milah. Just before a person leaves this world, if he has the ability, he recites Shema. Twice a day, every day, morning and evening, a Jew recites Shema, and then repeats it again just before he retires for the night. 
          It is therefore particularly in the Shema recitation that we are commanded to maintain a sense of freshness and excitement for Avodas Hashem. We should never take for granted the message of Shema. Just as the world does not run on automatic pilot, but is renewed by G-d each day, so must our Service to Him be performed with renewed vigor and excitement each day.
          In days of old, a watchman was stationed at all railroad crossings. He would sit at the top of a tower next to the crossing. If he would see a horse and buggy traveling toward the crossing as a train was speeding down the track, he would wave a flaming torch in all directions to warn the conductor.
          One cloudy day, the watchman saw an oncoming train rapidly approaching the crossing just as a horse and wagon slowly made its way across the tracks. The watchman grabbed his wooden stick, raced to the top of the tower, and began waving it in all directions. But no matter how vigorously he waved the stick the train would not slow down. Moments later, the train crashed into the horse and buggy causing significant devastation and loss of life.
          The watchman was forced to stand trial in court with serious allegations leveled against him, which included involuntary manslaughter. When the charges were announced the watchman was indignant. “I did my job. I waved that torch as hard as I could. It was the conductor who should be charged for not adhering to the warning!” The prosecution sharply replied, “It doesn’t matter how much you waved the stick. You neglected to fulfill your primary duty, which is to light the stick before you start waving it. If there is no fire atop the stick, the conductor won’t see it, so how can he understand its message?!”
          Prayer is incredibly powerful, and its words are incredibly poignant. But words recited without emotion cannot compare with those recited passionately. The concentration and fervor we have while praying is the fire that propels those words to far greater heights.[10]
          The Sages explain that “G-d desires heart”[11]. It’s not merely about what we do, but also how we do it. That is true all of our actions, especially prayer.
          The prophet Yechezkel informed the nation:  “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”[12] Our task is to seek that sense of freshness and excitement in the mundane and not allow what we do to become a matter of rote.
          The sad truth of life is that we often don’t appreciate our greatest gifts. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a little bit of reflection, we can elevate every day and savor the blessings we are granted.

          “Hashem heeded his cries”
          “These matters that I command you today shall be upon your heart.”

Rabbi Dani Staum LMSW
Rebbe, Heichal HaTorah, Teaneck, NJ
Principal, Ohr Naftali, New Windsor NY

[1] Yeshaya 29:13
[2] Bereishis 25:22
[3] The righteous Rivka was the daughter of the wicked Besuel
[4] The righteous Yitzchok was the son of the righteous Avrohom
[5] Berachos 34a
[6] The custom is that we strike our chests twice when reciting that beracha. Rabbi Schwadron was humorously depicting how we often pray as if on autopilot, allowing our mouths to recite the familiar words out of habit, while our minds are completely elsewhere.  
[7] It is truly inspiring to watch the manner in which ba’alei teshuva daven with intense concentration.
[8] Devorim 6:6
[9] Sifrei, Devorim 31
[10] Rabbi Aharon Lopianski notes that it is not always as important to understand the meaning of every single word as it to understand the general gist of what one is saying. When one has a general understanding of the words it is far easier to relate to them and to maintain concentration.
[11]  זוהר, רעיא מהימנא ג', כי תצא רפא, סנהדרין קו:
[12] Yecheskel 32:26


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