By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Rosh Chodesh Elul is upon us. As the summer winds down, we marvel at how swiftly the days flew by, these weeks that began with so much promise. A blur of shining sun, beckoning green fields… exhilarating country air… and it’s all over.
So short-lived our summer vacation, so fleeting that wonderful wave of rejuvenation! Just as the tension of our daily schedules began to dissipate in the sunshine, news of one heart-wrenching tragedy after another struck our community, waking us up from our summer reveries. The most recent, just last week, when a precious six year old boy was, in a second, snatched away. Even at his young, tender age, he already displayed a mature understanding of Hilchos Shabbos and an appreciation for middos tovos and mitzvos appropriate for someone much older than he. A special boy with much potential, Dov Ber ben Rav Shmuel Yaakov was plucked away suddenly, without warning.
K’tzais hashemesh batzohorayim; the sun was extinguished in midday, plunging us into darkness.
And so, hearing the words ring out in shul last Shabbos, “Rosh Chodesh Elul yehiyeh beyom hachamishi uveyom hashishi”-we felt our hearts give a jolt, thinking of the Yom Hadin only a month away, and how all of life’s blessings are so precarious.
In 30 days, we will face a trial which will determine the future course of our lives. Our every action and thought will come under scrutiny in this Heavenly investigation. Everything that we own and everything we hope and pray for is at stake. Our health, security and prosperity hang in the balance. The outcome of that trial will determine whether we will live in peace or in war, in luxury or as paupers.
How are we preparing ourselves for the coming Day of Judgment? An army that doesn’t properly strategize loses the war. Similarly, a person who doesn’t adequately prepare for the Yom Hadin can, chas veshalom, lose the most important case of his life-with dire consequences we would rather not contemplate.
In order to win a favorable judgment, we have to be realistic about the actions and outcomes for which we’ll be held responsible, and the obligations still left undone. We must straighten things out and get our profiles and résumés in order.
If we start out early enough, we can work on improving ourselves slowly, step by step and day by day. We can begin with the easy things and work our way up to the areas of self improvement that are more difficult. Our middos need improvement, and our davening needs to be more authentic and meaningful. We can increase the amount of time we spend learning. We can disburse more tzedakah. Our dikduk b’mitzvos can be taken up a level.
In the latest volume of the Sefer Machsheves Mussar based on the shmuessen of Maran Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l, the aveirah of chomos which sealed the gezar din of the Mabul is discussed.
The common explanation of how this cataclysm came about is that the Divine decree was sealed because the people habitually stole. Rav Shach, however, quotes a Medrash which states that they were also guilty of chomos devorim. He cites the Vilna Gaon who explains that just as it is sinful to steal less than a shava perutah, one who protests too loudly against a person who robbed him is also considered a chamson. And just as the gezar din was caused by those who were financial chamsonim, so was it caused by verbal chamsonim.
If you scream too loudly at someone, even someone who caused you a loss, and embarrass him more than he deserves to be shamed, it is considered chomos and leads to tragedy.
Tragedies have inundated us this summer. People are left bewildered, wondering what we can do to merit Divine mercy. As ma’aminim bnei ma’aminim, we know that we are to take mussar from all that occurs in this world. Especially when tragedies strike so close to home, we can’t escape the sense that these bitter events carry a specific message for us.
When we see the most honorable families suffering great misfortune, we know that they have been afflicted not as a punishment but as a means of inspiring and purifying their fellow Jews. As the posuk states, “Bikrovai ekodeish.” Through the response of these righteous people to their Divinely decreed fate, Hashem’s name will be sanctified.
But the formula works only if the klal takes these lessons to heart, if people strive to improve themselves and become closer to Hashem.
Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman recently wrote a letter addressing the many tragedies and illnesses that have struck the religious community of late.
“I’ve been trying to understand the enormity of what is happening,” Rav Shteinman said to someone. “I tell people who need a yeshuah to try and remember if they hurt the people closest to them. By closest, I’m referring to parents, friends, melamdim. A father sometimes thinks that he can slap his son, or insult his wife. He thinks it’s permitted, because, after all, they’re his to treat the way he likes. Teachers [believe they] are acting for their students’ benefit when they criticize and humiliate them. Everything is done in the name of well-meaning mussar and rebuke. Nevertheless, their actions are often unjustified.
“It’s known that in our holy Torah, there are laws bein adam laMakom as well as bein adam lachaveiro. The Aseres Hadibros are composed of halachos pertaining to the relationship between man and his Creator, and laws that prevent us from harming our fellow man.
“Ona’as devorim, the sin of hurtful speech, is more serious than the sin of harming another financially. It applies equally between a man and his wife and a woman and her husband. Ona’as devorim is even worse when said to a woman, because she tends to be more vulnerable and sensitive, being easily hurt and prone to tears. This ban includes hurtful words of any kind, especially those used to wound the feelings of a widow or orphan.
“The opposite of this conduct is chessed. The merit one can gain from it is immeasurable. The Rosh at the beginning of Maseches Pe’ah explains that Hakadosh Boruch Hu especially desires mitzvos that bring goodwill among mankind even more than mitzvos bein adam leKono.
“People are moreh heter to themselves, such as when a teacher or rov says that they have to humiliate someone to ensure discipline. But this is not correct. We can only do whatever is necessary to prove the point, but not to humiliate one another! It’s even more serious when the humiliation is done in public.
“A rov or teacher must get his point across, but in a way that doesn’t embarrass. Generally, the one who feels he is being humiliated will retaliate twice as strong. The teacher’s act of shaming the child is certainly in the category of ona’as devorim. One must be very careful with this. Parents also shouldn’t embarrass their children.
“When one causes suffering to others, he is punished in Olam Hazeh, too. Every person must pay attention to what he does and what he says so as not to hurt his fellow man. The truth is that the punishment is much worse in Olam Habah, but most people are not aroused by what they can’t see directly, so I am speaking about something that everyone understands well.
“On the mitzvah of ‘Lo sonu ish es amiso – Do not afflict pain upon someone else,’ the Sefer Hachinuch writes that even though there is no malkos for a lav she’ein bo maaseh, and thus there is no apparent punishment for this transgression, a person will get malkos from the One Who commanded this.
“One who is careful not to hurt other people will merit all the brachos of the Torah and will enjoy a pleasurable life in this world and the next.”
In his sefer Ahavas Chessed, the Chofetz Chaim explains the posuk in this week’s parsha (19:9) which states that we are to love Hashem and go in his ways – “laleches bidrochov kol hayomim.” He says that this posuk is similar to the one in Parshas Eikev (10:12) which states, “What does Hashem ask of you, but to fear Hashem, to go in His ways, to love Him, and to serve Hashem with all your heart and soul.”
The Sifri explains that the way to walk in the path of the L-rd is to be merciful and generous just as He is. “Mah Hamakom nikrah rachum vechanun, af atah hevei rachum vechanun ve’oseh matnas chinom lakol.”
The Chofetz Chaim expounds that just as there is an obligation to study Torah every day, so too there is a duty to perform acts of chessed daily. He says that by doing chessed, a person’s sins are forgiven, his life is lengthened, and he is spared from tragic incidents and the pangs of Moshiach.
He goes even further, adding that if these concepts would take root among Am Yisroel and people would rush to perform the mitzvah of gemilus chassodim, the world would become full of middas hachesed, and all tragedy and sorrow would be banished.
Perhaps the way to understand his words is by realizing that when hardship and tragedy befall good people, it is due to our sins which cause middas hadin to be unleashed in the world. The way to combat the middas hadin is by increasing the amount of chessed in the world.
“The shift from selfish and mean-spirited behavior to kindness and generosity would empower the middas hachesed to overcome the middas hadin. It follows that if all Jews would be involved in chessed, it would cause a revolution, and evil and sadness would be replaced with goodness and joy.
When we see the middas hadin running rampant, when we see the Soton score one victory after another, we have to recognize that it lies in our power to defeat the forces of evil. Through breakthroughs in our own character, we have the power to dictate the moral and spiritual climate of our environment. Collectively, our inner victory over pettiness, egotism, anger and jealousy can enable the middas harachamim to overcome the forces of destruction that r”l are striking down some of our noblest.
As we mourn the latest korbonos, and as we prepare for the awesome days of Elul, our response must be to heed the advice of the Chofetz Chaim, Rav Shach, zichronam livracha, and Rav Shteinman shlit”a. These giants strove to give us the weapons of the spirit to protect ourselves and our community from the ravages of the middas hadin. Only by training ourselves to use these tools to the fullest will we be helped from Above to merit the vanquishing of the middas hadin, along with full absolution, on the coming Yom Hadin. Amein.