On Struggles in Starting Serving Hashem

Somebody wrote me and told me about personal struggles he is having at becoming frum as a BT, this inspired me to write a little something about this whole process, maybe it will help others.

When a person first starts to make tshuva, or gets m’gayer or even starts on that endeavor, a lot of bad stuff happens much of the time. Sometimes a persons family will start to hate them, they’ll have problems with employers, there will be countless obstacles in the way preventing them from doing anything etc. If I were to recount all the problems we’d be sitting here forever and we’d never reach the point that I want to bring out.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov zy’a states in one of his Torahs that all beginnings are hard, especially in regards to avodas Hashem. This is because when a Yid gets serious about any part of serving God, the Sitra Achra rises up against them and tries to prevent growth as much as possible. In the Zohar HaKodosh, a very interesting idea is brought down that can help counteract this. It says in Parshas Vayishlach (Zohar I 174b) that there is a “Malach Ra,” a wicked angel, which is a reference to the yetzer hara. It says there that the yetzer hara can be converted to a meilitz tov, a good intercessor, meaning that it will help us in our avodas Hashem rather than the opposite, chas v’sholom. A way is presented there, bringing from the second goat of the Yom Kippur avodah sent to the wilderness, of turning the yetzer hara into our assistant, rather than our enemy. The yetzer hara doesn’t backdown from receiving its reward, indeed it will persist in trying to trip a person up until it gets something, and this is the secret of that goat. Essentially, what a person needs is a permitted outlet for desire in order to give the yetzer hara it’s little bit to make it happy, rather than completely pushing it away. Like it says “kadesh es atzmecho b’mutar loch,” sanctify yourself through what is permitted to you. It says in the gemoro in Brochos that “b’chol l’vovcho,” with all your heart, from Krias Shma, refers to utilizing the Yetzer Hara and the Yetzer HaTov to serve Hashem. The Baal HaTanya writes much on the inyan of utilizing the nefesh habahamis to serve Hashem.

Having this in mind, what we can learn in avodas Hashem is that we must have a way of “letting off steam” or simple recreation that is permitted, and can be sanctified to Hashem. This is one of the inyonim behind the original practice of making l’chaim in shul after davening. If you take the drink and snack, and keep in mind that this is for avodas Hashem, to allow you to relax and satiate your hunger from fasting until davening a nice long shachris, then that l’chaim will push away the forces of darkness from interfering with your avodas Hashem. If it’s just drinking and eating though, it only feeds the yetzer hara, rachmona litzlon, and encourages frivolity. Everything goes after the kavanna, so if you have a holy intent when you eat and drink, it brings more holiness to you and helps fight the Sitra Achra personally and generally.

Hashem should help us all to make tshuva and grow in Avodas HaKodesh, and we should see the geulah shleimah swiftly in our days!

The Power of Thought

The Zohar brings down a very interesting idea (Zohar Chayei Sarah, 115) that what a person focuses on he becomes attached to, and those forces are dispatched to him by Hashem. Per example, if a person wishes to come closer to holiness and cleaves to holiness, involving his thoughts in higher things such as Hisbonenus and learning Torah, and he davens to Hashem, then he will be elevated to higher levels of holiness, he’ll receive help from Shomayim to come closer to Hashem. However, l’hefech, if a person focuses on tumah, then he’ll be sent demons and forces of tumah, ch’vsh r’l. The example brought is focused on the latter half, being Bilam and how he invoked forces of darkness through making himself incredibly impure. Other examples are brought as well of this, but that’s not what I’m seeking to focus on at this time. We have to look at the positive side, that being, reaching the state of holiness. This is a far more monumental task. It’s much easier to become tumah, one must simply engage in severe sins, burn some incense that’s associated with tumah, and there you go. We have much more work to do, as the only purely holy incense is that from the Bais HaMikdash, which we don’t have. Forces of tumah can be observed constantly in the world at large, even in our holy communities. The fact that people can’t sit for five minutes during davening without talking, or even ten seconds davening with kavono are perfect examples of this.

The Zohar is not talking about the “Law of Attraction,” which is a hoax. The Zohar is talking about the two binary forces that interact with Hashem’s world. Per example, if a person focuses on money, he’s not going to be brought money; rather, he’ll be drawn towards greed, avarice, and the forces of tumah will be set upon him to fill him with greater vices related to the gaining and collecting of money. If the person focuses on serving Hashem with simcha uv’tuv levov, then he’ll be sent forces of holiness that will bring him abundance, and hashpo’es tovos that will bring about wealth to some degree. This is not to say one will become rich from serving Hashem, the service must be done without anticipation of reward. In short, without ranting too long, what becomes attracted to a person depends on the level of his focus; if the person is focused on holy things, holy forces which are inherently beneficial will be sent to him, and if he focuses on wickedness, wicked things shall be sent to him. That is not to say our money-obsessed example will be unsuccessful, he may be wildly successful in the financial realm, but spiritually he has dug himself straight into the pits of Sheol Tachtiyoh; whereas the one who has focused on avoidas Hashem may not be quite as wealthy, but he has elevated himself to such a point that he will observe his s’char paid back to him in life, as Rebbe Nachman describes in Likkutei Moharan for the one who performs mitzvos lishma, even to the degree of not desiring s’char in Olam Haba.

Brochos as Part of the Natural World

In Maseches Brochos 40b, R’ Yosi has a problem with saying an informal brocho on bread due to the fact that it was not decreed by the chachomim. He uses the phrase “Kol hameshaneh m’matbea sh’tov’u Chachomim b’brochos lo yotzo,” everyone who changes from the way it was established by the Sages in blessings does not fulfill their obligation. The loshon should rather be “m’masakein shtikein,” rather than “matbea.” Matbea is using the same letters as “teva.” Teva means nature, whereas tikein is meaning to establish, or fix. The Chachumim established the brochos, but that doesn’t mean they created them in the same way as the word “tiken” can mean. The shoresh of teva shows to me a very explicit explanation as to the true nature of brochos: they are not a foreign concept that Chazal created simply for the sake of thanking Hashem for wonderful things. Rather a brochoh is an integral part of the natural reality Hashem created, this can even be seen in the exactitude of nusach that must be used. No matter what language a brochoh is said in, it must include Shem u’Malchus, (Hashem, Melech HaOlam) and identify the object as described in the gemoro. The fact a brocho can be said in any language also speaks to the universal nature of this particular inyan. The way in which Chazal was m’saken the brochos, from the very idea to exact nusach of “Boruch atoh Hashem Elokeinu Melech HaOlam,” reveals that the process of making a brocho is far more than a rabbinical enactment. This was a result of extreme ruach hakodesh that Chazal had, that they revealed the nature of reality to us in such a way that we can participate in the tikun olam as we must in our mission as Yidden.

Hashem should help us that we can make brochos with full kavonno, and through this elevate the holy sparks in gashmiyus, thereby bringing us the geulah shleimah!

VaYikra 5780

A gitten erev Shabbes! This weeks parsha is Parshas VaYikra. This parsha contains all the mitzvos pertaining to the korban chatos and korban oshom (two forms of sin offerings, for those unfamiliar). This can seem to be quite discouraging at first, especially for someone who has, rachmono litzlon, done a lot of aveiros, as the vast majority of us have done, Hashem Yerachem. However, there are still many things we can learn from this parsha.

Starting with the word VaYikra, which is written with a small aleph, the Baal HaTurim explains this is because Moshe Rabbeinu was incredibly humble and didn’t want to appear to have special status, rather he wanted this place where Hashem calls to him to be de-emphasized and be written the same was as it is when Hashem comes to Bilam, with the word “Vayikar,” which lends itself to a meaning of “chance” rather than a specific call. However Hashem insisted it should be written as VaYikra, meaning that Hashem specifically called on Moshe Rabbeinu, rather than VaYikar. We can learn from this that the secret to gadlus in avodas Hashem Yisborach, not anything that can be seen by others neccessarily, is to make oneself incredibly humble. The Baal HaTanya brings in Likkutei Torah that the world “קרא” is related to the word “קבל” through bringing the translation in Uva L’Tzion, in the Kedusha there. So when we call to Hashem, that means we must have the kavonno of receiving Hashem, referring to Ohl Malchus Shomayim, and the hashpo’os we can receive from Him. In order to attain this level, we must first attain a state of bittul, a state of nullification before Hashem Yisborach at least part of the time, ideally at all times. To reach bittul is possible through engaging in learning Torah and fulfilling mitzvos and davening with kavonno. The best exercise is to take a set of time every day and contemplate how Hashem runs every moment of your day, working through until you can truly see how Hashem runs the world completely from the drop of a leaf to a global pandemic. Once this mental state is reached, then the person can attain bittul and see how insignificant they are in relation to Hashem. At this point, the person can be called יקר, important/precious, with the small alef representing אני, meaning I. To become a proper vessel for Hashem one has to recognize his insignificance in relation to the grand picture, and at the same time realize that the whole world was created for his benefit, in order that the person should be able to serve Hashem with simcha and goodness of heart.

In relation to the korbanos, the most important aspect of this avodah, according to Chazal and the Zohar, was that the person viewed the animal they brought as the person alone, meaning that the animal was brought to die in the perosn’s place for their sins. Hence the fat and blood that was burned was to be the person’s fat and blood, and the act of confession over the head of the animal effectively placed the sins within the animal itself, so to speak. In place of sacrifice at this current time, we can pray and confess to Hashem alone in order to make tshuva. The key aspect, according to the Rambam, is that a person should feel true remorse and genuinely commit to change after confession, giving tzedakah, and fasting if the person is able and it is a safe time period. Even the Tikkunim of the Ari can be completed through giving tzedakah, as explained by the Baal HaTanya in Iggeres HaTshuva. So even though we don’t have a Beis HaMikdash right now, may that soon be corrected, we can still complete the process of tshuva through heartfelt prayer and sincere change. Like it says in the posuk “and we will pay you with the oxen of our lips,” meaning that in place of the korbanos, we will instead daven to Hashem until it is proper to bring them once more.

Hashem should bentsh us all with tshuva shleimoh, with refuos and yeshuos, and that we should be zoche to bring korbanos in the Beis HaMikdash according to His Will with the coming of Moshiach swiftly within our days!

Kavonno in Tefillah, Excerpt from Kuntress Oros Shel Daas

Considering how much people want to be back in the batei midrashim and davening with a minyan, yours truly included, I have decided to post a short excerpt from a project of mine in relation to kavono in tefilah and kedushas beis hamidrash:

Hashem should make my words acceptable to all, and heard completely without any misunderstandings or misgivings in any sense. This is perhaps one of the biggest challenges of our generation, that being proper kovod and kavono in davening. All the rebbes have written on this to one degree or another, none quite as much as Reb Areleh zy’a in our immediately previous generation perhaps, but this has always been a problem which is even more pronounced now in this time. The Rambam wanted to do away with chazaras hashatz in its entirety, beyond what’s necessary to say Kedusha, due to people shmoozing the whole time and ruining the atmosphere of holiness required for this avodah. All halacha seforim state in no uncertain terms that speaking in davening is an aveira and must not be done outside of a tzorich mitzva or tzorich tefillah in the most lenient parts of davening. Even signalling (such as saying “Nu??” and hand signs) are forbidden at certain points of davenen, such as krias shma and the brochos before. I beseech everyone to be very careful in this inyan.

Kavono is a prerequisite to be yotzei chiyuv tefillah. The Siddur Chelkas Yehoshua brings from the Rambam that one must see himself as standing before the King in the first brocho of Shmoneh Esreh, otherwise he is not yotzei tefillah at all. The Gemoro in Brochos brings that one must have kavonno on this brocho to be yotzei tefilah at the absolute minimum, though the Braisa maintains that one should be m’chaven on all brochos, if it is impossible, then he must have kavono with the first brocho. We can see from this how necessary and powerful kavono is. In the humble opinion of the author, the key way to fix the problem of a lack of kavono in davening is for everyone to understand peirush hamilos, each word should be known and familiar to the person as he davens. In previous generations we had the excuse of not having translations into simple language for everyone, or that a person couldn’t read well, neither of these excuses exist in our generation. One can acquire a siddur with a translation into English, Spanish, Yiddish, Russian, or nearly any language that is known to him. We have now countless siddurim that come with wonderful commentaries that explain the depths of the words and their full meanings now as well. There is no excuse to not understand each word in davening. This is only the first level though. After properly understanding the words themselves, one should acquire a siddur with peirush on tefillah. Siddur M’Sok Midvash and Siddur Chelkas Yehoshua are two that come to mind; the latter has both according to the simple meaning and al pi kabbalah, whereas the former has selections from the Zohar on the sections of davening and their meanings.

One of the greatest methods for kavonno in davening is learning before prayer in the beis medresh for an hour or so. What to learn depends on the person and their own personal feeling and level of comprehension. I believe the most efficacious forms of Torah to learn are Kabbalah and Chassidis. The Tzaddikim state that there are many wonderful things that occur when a person learns Kabbalah before davening. The Zohar itself states that the time spent in learning is an Es Ratzon, a Time of Will, when our prayers will be accepted on High and is hence a proper time for prayer. The key thing is that the learning causes a person to reflect upon himself, his station in life, how small he is in comparison to Hashem, and from a point of great humility and awe of God, go to daven with the proper attitude and focus. I will say, that this service should not cause one to err in any regard insofar as regards zman tefillah. The majority of authorities bring that it’s four hours into the day, however the Zohar HaKodosh states that chatzos (mid-day) is the latest time for Shachris because that’s the last hour of Chesed, and Avrohom instituted Shachris and he was the manifestation of Chesed; once chatzos comes, it changes to the time of Yitzchok, which is Din and Gevurah, hence it is no longer appropriate to daven Shachris and rather it immediately switches to Mincha time. The Baal HaTanya brings this shitta from the Tanna Kamma in Maseches Brochos as an acceptable shitta in halacha, however it must be carefully kept to without any failure. The gemoro is very clear in Brochos as to the horribleness that missing the zman outside of extenuating circumstances is.

Shmoozing before davening with friends is a sure-fire way to destroy kavono. It is brought in the sifrei chassidis that one who speaks devorim b’teilim (worthless words) before davening loses his yiras shomayim and ability to focus properly on the prayers. This is a clear halocho brought from the gemoro in the Shulchon Oruch, and to be lenient in this matter only brings problems upon the person. To talk with your friends about anything, be it business, family matters, how good the coffee in shul is, so on and so forth is a tremendous insult to Hashem Yisborach. It shows that one believes his friends and himself, all of us only flesh and blood creations formed out of dust, are more important than the Borei Kol HaOlamim! I beseech everyone reading this to please consider what you are doing in shul, what you’re doing for Klal Yisroel, and what you’re doing for Hashem when you engage in such conduct. Nothing is more precious than Hashem, the One Who possesses all the gold and silver, a whole warehouse of Yiras Hashem (Awe/Fear of God), runs the entire world and controls everything, and countless other praises beyond what we can utter. If you must talk, keep it short and simple. Do not sit for hours talking and wasting away your life. It’s for your own benefit in many ways to behave correctly, Hashem wants those who fear Him as we say every day in Pesukei D’Zimrah. We have to ask for much assistance from God to avoid erring in any way in these matters.

In regards to talking in the batei midrashim that we have now, one should reference the Beiur Halocho on Shulchon Oruch Hilchos Beis HaK’neseses, Simon 151, starting “avol b’veis hamedresh mutor”. He says there that in our batei medroshim there’s a big shaaleh as to if it is mutar or not, because we daven all of our tefillos in our batei midrashim and we don’t distinguish bewtween a beis medresh and beis haknesses.

Therefore, I want to encourage everyone to be careful not to speak unnecessarily in a beis medresh once they are open, and to avoid eating there if they don’t have to. Coffee or tea is almost unanimously agreed as to be okay, along with water, but established eating should absolutely be avoided beyond tishen or bottes with rebbes/tzaddikim.

Erev Rosh Chodesh Nissan 5780

Today is Erev Rosh Chodesh Nissan, which means it’s time to start cleaning up and getting ready for Pesach right quick, if you haven’t started yet!

All half-jokes aside, this is a pretty wonderful month all said and told. We’re coming into the month of geulah, as on Pesach Hashem rescued us from Mitzrayim. It is known from the sifrei sod that every time a Yom Tov comes around, the same energies are active as they were in the event that inspired the first time the Yom Tov happened. This is one of the reasons why the reading for the Megillas Esther must be so exact, because it is written in such a way that the events are described as present and future tense, which shows we must live through the events of Purim each year. The same idea applies to Pesach and the rest of the yomim tovim.

So in regards to Pesach, we have to look into the reasons according to sod as to why we have to remove all chometz, and eat only matzah. Rebbe Nachman from Breslov zy’a states in Likkutei Moharan that we have to be very careful to avoid “chometz hamochin,” chometz of the mental faculties. He explains that this refers to “chochmas chitzonius,” external wisdom, referring to philosophy and such things that can reduce a person’s yiras shomayim and ahavas Hashem. In regards to this, I can see many people reacting with scorn to the idea that a person should avoid certain forms of expression. The truth is, that these things, philosophy, certain forms of scientific understanding, etc. are not inherently bad things. Chochma, Wisdom, is like flour, for the sake of moshol. You can make bread out of it, or matza or something. When the flour is mixed with yeast and water, it becomes chometz; when it is mixed only with water and baked quickly enough, it becomes matzah.

Matzah according to Reb Noson of Breslov zy’a, as written in Likkutei Halochos, is the Nahama D’m’heimenusa, the Bread of Emunah (Faith). A person comes to Emunah through learning Torah, and seeking Hashem through prayer at any opportunity he can take. If a person is full of Emunah, and looks at the world through this lens, then they can avoid coming to the aspect of chometz hamochin. This should be our goal in getting ready for Pesach, to attain the recognition of Hashem and the vast amount of wonders He has accomplished for us now and throughout all time. We need from Rosh Chodesh Nissan to work at removing the things in our minds that take us away from this awareness, in order to experience the Geulas Mitzrayim to the fullest degree possible. Mitzrayim is the aspect of coarse physicality which tries to take us away from Hashem, chas v’sholom, so when we learn Torah which is completely spiritual and one with Hashem, as it says in the Zohar “Kudsha Brich Hu V’Oraysa kulo chad,” the Holy One Blessed is He and the Torah are completely one, we then cleave to Hashem through our mind and can break the klippos that impede our perceptions of Hashem’s might and wonders.

Hashem should bless us all with a wonderful Rosh Chodesh, a frailichen kusher’n Pesach, and that we should merit to the geulah sh’leima swiftly!

Beginning of COVID 19 5780

In light of this most recent plague that has come upon the world, I was assailed by thoughts before mincha the other day.

Chazal say in the gemoro in Brochos through a very long list of examples of stars and galaxies that Hashem loves Klal Yisroel so much He created all these things just for us. Contained in this are secrets pertaining to astrology and how Hashem influences the world through the celestial bodies. The ikar however is that Hashem creates everything in the world, whether for good or for apparent bad, specifically for Klal Yisroel. It says in Parshas Ki Savo a list of curses, and that we will receive them for not serving Hashem with happiness and goodness of heart. Rabbeinu Bechaye brings there that to serve Hashem with simcha is in itself a mitzvah, and therefore when we do not serve Hashem with joy and good heartedness we get double punishment. I do not wish for this to come across as a drosho of a certain “rabbi”, however I feel this is important to say and hence I shall. Doing mitzvos without joy is bad. That does not mean you shouldn’t do a mitzvah if you don’t feel happy from doing it, quite the opposite, you must do it in order to break the yetzer hara and the klippah that surrounds you and prevents you from fulfilling mitzvos with simcha, as is supported by the sifrei chassidus. What I mean to encourage is that we should all do each mitzvah with a true happiness, to genuinely work towards happiness in avodas Hashem.

The valid question one should ask is, “How?” The answer in short is through asking Hashem for help in this before each mitzvah you do. Hashem wants us to talk to Him, he especially loves the tefillos of tzaddikim and it says in the posuk “ameich kulom tzaddikim,” your whole people are tzaddikim. When you take five seconds before davening Mincha and say the L’Shem Yichud, and have in mind your own kavannah that you should daven this Mincha b’simcha, this then leads Hashem to help you daven with simcha, as Chazal say “k’shem sh’ish makdishin oso m’at makdishin oso harbeh, m’l’mato m’kadshin oso m’l’maalo”, when a person sanctifies himself a little bit he becomes sanctified a lot, from below he becomes sanctified from above. This principle applies to all avodah, when you put forth that extra effort, that kavannah, that yearning for simcha in avodas Hashem, you’ll gain help from Shomayim in fulfilling this wonderful mitzvah.

Hashem should help us be m’kayem all the mitzvos b’simcha, and we should be zoche to the geulah shleima bimheira v’yomeinu.