english – ki tavo

                                 PREPARING FOR ROSH HA’SHANAH

I once overheard a conversation that echoes in my ears every year around this season. A young son of a rabbi who was looking to become wealthy asked one of his father’s wealthy congregants how he can get rich. “It only takes one day a year,” the man answered, “but you have to do it right. Rosh HaShanah is the day when G-d decides how much money you are going to make that year. I made all my money on that day while I was in shul.”

Both the questioner and I were shocked by this powerful statement – especially from someone who makes a few million a year. I realized, though, that the wealthy congregant was not referring only to the “work” of Rosh HaShanah, but also to his preparations for that day. By the time he reached Rosh HaShanah, he was ready for another year of serving G-d on an entirely new level.

In the days of Elul, everyone claims that they want to change. Someone said to me recently that a good article or good speech in Elul is one after which you feel your life has changed. I disagree!  This definition of change is more or less equivalent to that of the person who walks out of a Weight Watchers‘ session, and says he lost 50 pounds in just one hour. People almost never change at lightning speed. An inspiring Elul speech may indeed give someone the desire to change, or provide a new plan for change – but to actually change is an entirely different story.

Change is scary because it involves struggle. It means acknowledging that the way I presently think or feel or perceive is flawed. It means that every day I have to stick to the new commitment that took me only a few moments to make. All this takes time. Something like forty days. Welcome to Elul!

As Rosh HaShanah approaches, many of us have the unfortunate feeling that “I am not ready yet for the new me I want to be for the new year.” This can cause us to feel the need to take big steps of change, something like a full court shot or a touchdown throw. When we are pressed for time, we may try to cut corners of the full teshuvah process, and miss out on some of the key steps to change.

Overcoming the enemy within

When planning an attack in real war, the generals know that there are certain strategies that work and others that do not. If your Air Force flies high over the enemy, they will be identified and shot down. If, however, you have your planes fly low, they will be less easy to spot, and they will be in a better position to overcome the enemy. Similarly, when we try to make massive change, the negative tendencies built into ourselves see this as an attack, and they know how to counter it. But if it is small change, they do not perceive this as an attack – and even manage to get used to the change.

This approach is implicit in the famous parable in the Midrash which deals with the concept of teshuvah, and the foolishness of people who are afraid to escape their sinful habits (Koheleth Raba 7). A group of thieves in prison start digging secretly until they are able to tunnel out an escape route. They all escape except for one of the thieves who stays behind. When the prison guard comes around for inspection, and sees how all but one member of the group escaped, he gives the straggler a beating while yelling: Fool! How did you forgo an opportunity to escape and save your life!?

Now, we might ask: Why does the Midrash compare doing teshuvah to digging a secret escape tunnel?  Why not breaking down the door, picking the lock, or something less demanding?

The answer is that real teshuvah is not a frontal attack against our past behavior. Rather, it is a procedure of one small step at a time. We must do it patiently, and dig away at our negative priorities and beliefs. This is teshuvah. This is change. There is no shortcut or front door.

The fact that we have lots of work ahead of us this Elul should not cause us to feel discouraged. One reason for that is a vitally important insight of the Mabit in his Beit Elokim (Shaar HaTeshuvah, Ch. 12). He notes that there is a major difference between the mitzvah of teshuvah and other mitzvoth. Take, for example, the mitzvah of tzitzit. With strings only on three corners of our garment – instead of four – it is not as if we have fulfilled three-fourths of the mitzvah. We have accomplished nothing. In contrast, if we take only one of the 24 steps of teshuvah spelled out in Rabeinu Yonah’s Sha’arei Teshuvah, we have fulfilled a part of the mitzvah of teshuvah. It’s not “all or nothing.”

Another important insight which can help us this Elul is that of RabbiYisrael Salanter (Ohr Yisrael, Igeret 8). R’ Yisrael first draws on the Rambam: “Everyone has merits and sins. The person who has a majority of merits is a tzaddik, and the person who has a majority of sins is a rasha (evildoer). This scale of measurement is not according to the amount of merit or sin. Some sins are very heavy, and just a few of these outweigh a great number of merits. Similarly, certain merits outweigh a much larger number of sins. The weighing is done with G-d’s judgment alone, and only He knows the weight of each merit and sin.” (Hilchot Teshuvah, Chapter 3)

Although the Rambam does not tell us how to measure our merits or sins, R’ Yisrael points out that one way to know the weight of a mitzvah or sin is by how hard or easy it is for us to fulfill it or refrain from doing it. The same sin is considered much “weightier” when it would have been easy to refrain from. And the same mitzvah is considered “weightier” when it was hard to fulfill. R’ Yisrael therefore writes that if one is capable of finding those sins that are actually easier for him to refrain from, and do teshuvah on them, this may very well help significantly in lightening the side of sin on the balance scale.

This is very useful information for preparing ourselves for the Day of Judgment. It means, for example, that if we cannot stop speaking lashon hara totally, we can at least stop ourselves when it is easy for us to refrain. If we cannot stop ourselves from not learning Torah when it is hard or difficult,


at least let us learn Torah when it is easier or learn lighter subjects. If we cannot stop ourselves from getting angry every time we are provoked, maybe we can at least eliminate all the times when we are capable of some sort self-control.

And we can rest assured that if we start with that which is easy, then that which is hard will be more easily within our reach.



What does a Jew do when G-d blesses him with a new crop?  As described in this week’s parashah, he brings the first fruits – the bikurim – to the Beit HaMikdash, and makes the special viduy declaration over them. The purpose of this mitzvah is to declare that one is grateful for all the good that he is given by G-d. This is also the reason why the declaration is called viduy – a term that usually means confession. The viduy over the first fruits is a confession of gratitude. This whole procedure was done with pomp and ceremony which included a parade with fancy baskets and bulls adorned in gold. The viduy itself was recited in a loud voice.

This is not the only place where the Torah commands us to show that we are grateful (makir tovah). Wise people know that the difference between the happy and the despondent is usually not due to money, pleasure, honor, or the like. Rather, happy people are happy because they know how to appreciate what they have been given. And if their cup appears to be half empty, they know that it’s really half full. Even if they have almost no money/pleasure/honor, they feel appreciative to G-d for bringing up the sun each morning. This alone can fill one’s heart with happiness. But aside from the benefit a person derives from perceiving the world this way, the Jew is obligated by G-d to thank Him for the sun every day in the morning prayers ((ברכת “יוצר אור”. As a matter of fact, this is the longest brachah we have. Although many people would be more thankful to G-d for winning the lottery, this is a grave mistake.

If we take a moment to ask ourselves what we need most for survival, we might be inclined to mention money, support, family, friends, house, car, Blackberry, etc. But the Chovot HaLevovot  helps us see that we are way off base. He makes the following remarkable observation: What we need most, G-d gives us in the greatest abundance and at the cheapest price despite the high demand. The thing we really need most is air. Thus G-d made sure that air is free and freely available. The next most important thing for survival is water. Not surprisingly, water is the second most abundant item on the planet. Third is food – also available in abundance…  Just thinking about how much G-d actually supports us should inspire us to be appreciative (and to remember just how much we need Him).

Why do people sometimes avoid feeling appreciation? The answer is that appreciation creates obligation – the obligation to recognize that we are not in power; the obligation to be thankful to G-d, and to obey His every word.

One way to increase our capacity to be appreciative to G-d is to view ourselves as guests in His world. Concerning guests, the Talmud says: What is the difference between a good guest and a bad one? A good guest says: “Whatever the host made or did was to accommodate me.” The bad guest says: “Whatever the host made or did was for himself. I am just tagging along” (Berachot 58b). With regard to our visit in this world as well, we have to choose what kind of guest we want to be. Do we want to be a good guest and say: “G-d brought the sun up for me today,” or do we want to be a bad guest in this world and say: “G-d had to bring up the sun anyway. I just happen to be here”?

One of my Rabbis would say that when we wake up in the morning and bless G-d for opening our eyes (through the blessing (פוקח עוורים, we need to be thankful to G-d for creating light as well – and all the benefits we get from light. We even need to be thankful to G-d for putting it into the human mind to invent glasses. Indeed, the glasses sitting right on our nose can serve as a reminder of all these kindnesses. It seems, by the way, that Moshe Rabbeinu himself made use of a “built-in” reminder to keep G-d’s kindness to him in the forefront of his mind. We see this in his reluctance to accept G-d’s request that he lead the Jews out of Egyptian slavery. Moshe emphasized that his lisp would prevent him from doing the job effectively. But why, we wonder, didn’t Moshe ask G-d to cure the lisp? The explanation seems to be that Moshe did not want to ever forget his gratitude to G-d for saving his life as a baby when Pharaoh put him to the test. The Midrash tells us that a dish of gold and a dish of coals were put in front of the baby Moshe. Had he reached for the gold, this would have “clinched” the stargazers’ case that Moshe was destined to be the redeemer of the Jews – and Pharaoh would thus have put him to death. But G-d saved his life by having an angel push his hand away from the gold, and over to the coals. The baby Moshe grabbed some coal, and put it to his lips, causing himself a permanent lisp. Moshe wanted this lisp to remain with him in order to always remember this miracle, and keep up his gratitude to G-d for it. Moshe’s level of appreciation may be the reason why he was chosen to be our Teacher.


A Real Jew

The Jew starts his day with the words מודה אני. The wordמודה   actually has two connotations. One is confession and the other is thanks. The two are very much connected, and are reflected in the Hebrew word for Jew, yehudi. The more we acknowledge and are thankful to G-d for everything He does for us, the better Jews (yehudim) we are.

This concept also applies to being thankful to other human beings. The Midrash says: כל הכופר בטובתו של חברו לבסוף כופר בטובתו של מקום  (One who denies the goodness from a friend will eventually deny the goodness from G-d).  Those who are ungrateful for the goodness received from others will not be happy because they will not feel thankful for the goodness received from G-d. Only gratitude and appreciation can make a person happy throughout life.



SHABBAT SHALOM   rabbiyoseffarhi@gmail.com   0527161854


About the author, Yosef

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