How Beautiful Are Your Footsteps

In the Musaf Shemone Esre of Yom Tov we say, “Rebuild Your Temple….establish Your site….May we go up there three times a year…as it says in Your Torah, “Three times a year shall all men appear before Hashem Elokecho….on Pesach, on Shevuos and on Succos . Do not appear empty-handed. Each should come with his own gift, according to the blessing Hashem Elokecho has bestowed upon you.”

We must not appear empty-handed. Chagiga (7a) says that this refers to the korbonos which we have to bring when we come on those three festivals. The Mishna (2a) tells us the minimum. But there is no maximum. We should bring “according to the blessing Hashem has bestowed upon us.” If our flocks have been very productive, we should bring many korbonos to show our appreciation to Hashem.

“How beautiful are your footsteps” (Shir Hashirim 7:2) is interpreted by Chagiga (3a) as a praise of those who went three times a year on the sholosh regolim to the Beis Hamikdosh in Yerusholayim.  Going on foot to Yerusholayim and returning could have taken a few weeks. Multiplied by three, a large part of the year has already been taken up. All farm work had to be put on hold – a significant sacrifice in order to fulfil the mitzva of the Torah and to honour Hashem. If we bear in mind that, for the most part, they brought their wives and families with them to fulfil the mitzva of “giving joy to one’s wife and household on Yom Tov,” (Tosfos, Rosh Hashono 6b) the visit to Yerusholayim became a full-scale expedition. More than that, nobody was left to guard the farms and homes; people had to have bitachon that the promise of the Torah, (Shemos 34:24) “No-one will covet your land whilst you go up to the Beis Hamikdash three times a year,” would be fulfilled. This thrice yearly aliya l’regel was a tremendous demonstration of loyalty to Hashem. The posuk’s praise, “How beautiful are your footsteps” was extremely appropriate.

However the wording of the posuk, “ …yeroeh kol zechuracho” – all males should be seen – implies  more than just going to the Beis Hamikdosh with one’s korbonos. If our boss calls us in for a periodic meeting, he does not intend to discuss the weather. He wants to check up on our work. What have we done since the last meeting? If Hashem wants us to appear before Him, a shiver should go down our spine. An investigation of our worthiness seems to be likely. A meeting with Hashem is also not going to be a social call. What have we achieved since the last meeting, the last regel?

Let’s go back to the office meeting with the boss. He wants to know “tachlis”. How many sales have we achieved? How many new clients have we brought in? Have we been working hard? What about punctuality and a willingness to put in extra hours to achieve more? No, meeting the boss is no picnic.  We have to have answers, good answers.

And what happens if the boss gave us generous expenses to enable us to concentrate on building up the business, we’d better have very good answers. Let’s imagine the boss asking what we’ve done over the last few months for the firm and we answer him, “Well, actually I was busy with private work. I relaxed, took a couple of holidays….” The boss would rightly be very angry, “What, I gave you a salary and extra expenses and you pocketed them and took it easy?”

When we meet Hashem three times a year, he greets us with love. “Hi. Great to see you. It’s amazing you’ve come, with the ganze mishpocho.” But He also wants to know “tachlis”. What have we achieved since the last regel? Another mesechta, a new kevius? Were we misahev al habrios, making Hashem more loved by other people because of what we have done? Perhaps we made sholom with a relative we had been on bad terms with.  Did we do new chasodim, ring up or invite that lonely neighbour we had been meaning to befriend but never got round to? We have to have something to report to the Boss, “according to the blessings He has bestowed upon us.” We cannot go empty-handed. And if we say, “Things are ticking along, nothing new really…” Hashem’s “eyebrows” might go up. “A few months and nothing new? That’s a bit disappointing.”  And if we say, “The last few months I’ve been very busy with other things. I put my avodas Hashem on the back burner.” Hashem will be very disappointed. “Put avodas Hashem on the back burner? But I gave you expenses – parnosoh, good health and you pocketed them? Squandered the time? Did your own thing? That’s not acceptable.” How humiliated we would feel, how disappointed in ourselves. In fact the prospect of that humiliation would ensure that we would have new achievements to report. Chas vesholom that we should appear before Hashem empty-handed. Therefore going to Yerusholayim three times a year did not only transform our Yom Tov experience. Our preparation for those visits would have transformed the whole year.

We do not have the zechus to go to the Beis Hamikdosh three times a year but we hope and daven for that privilege. Therefore we have to do everything we can do to show a real desire to go. And that means making sure that when Yom Tov comes, we are not “empty-handed.” We have Torahdik achievments to our name. We accept all of Hashem’s blessings. We cannot just be doing “our own thing.”  Now is the time to start the list of achievements which we will be able to show to Hashem on Yom Tov, especially if b’ezras Hashem, we can be oleh l’regel to the renewed Beis Hamikdosh – and the words of Shir Hashirim will be apply to us – “How beautiful are your footsteps.”

A Holy People

In Pirkei Avos (3:1) we learn: Akavya ben Mehalalel says: “Consider three things and you will not come to sin: know where you came from, where you are going to and in front of Whom you will have to give a reckoning. You came from a putrid drop; you are going to a place of dust, worms and maggots and you are going to give a reckoning before the King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed be He.”

Akavya ben Mehalalel’s sharp directive to consider one’s very inauspicious origins will bring a person to humility, which is a prerequisite to acquiring yiras shomayim and sanctity according to the famous Braisa of Reb Pinchas ben Yair quoted by the Mesilas Yesharim. Likewise the prospect that one’s physical destination will be in a place of dust, worms and maggots should dispel any vestige of pride. And the knowledge that we will have to give a reckoning in front of the King of Kings should make us afraid to sin.

A later mishna (3:18) quotes Rebbe Akiva. ‘He used to say: “Beloved is man because he was created in Hashem’s image. It shows a greater love that he was told that he was created in Hashem’s image. Beloved are the Jewish people who are called the children of the Omnipresent. It shows a greater love that they were told that they are called the children of the Omnipresent. Beloved are the People Israel who were given a precious utensil (the Torah). It shows a greater love that they were told that they were given a precious utensil.”

This Mishna make a person feel his own importance. “I am created in the image of Hashem. I am from a People who are children of Hashem and we were given the Torah, the precious utensil of Hashem. This is strange. Was Rebbe Akiva unaware of the evils of pride, alluded to by Akavya ben Mehalalel in the first mishna? Or that humility is the prerequisite to sanctity? It is even stranger because it was precisely Rebbe Akiva’s humility which enabled him to become so great as a previous essay explained.

In his commentary on Pirkei Avos, the Abarbanel explains that there is a dispute between the two mishnas. Akavya ben Mehalalel felt that the best way to avoid sin is by encouraging extreme humility. We should know our gross origins, our disgraceful physical destination and that each puny man, is going to have to stand up in front of the King of Kings to give a reckoning. Without a shred of pride we should inevitably become obedient and G-d-fearing. This view is borne out by the behaviour of the young nazir from the south, described in Nedarim 9b who defeated his yetzer hora by telling him “Why are you so proud in a world which is not yours; in one who is going to become insects and worms?”

However Rebbe Akiva felt that this approach may work for some people including himself but many other people will respond negatively. They will be unmoved by such a warning and are more likely to say “Let’s eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Yeshaya 22:13). He held that it is more effective to show people how great they are and what good stock they come from. ‘Tell them that they are aristocracy, Hashem’s children and then they won’t want to sin.’ And Rebbe Akiva could bring a precedent for this attitude from the words of Yirmiyahu Hanavi, when he had to rebuke the people and tell them to do teshuva. He prefaced his words with the most beautiful praise of the people. “Zocharti lach chesed ne’urayich… I remember the kindness of your youth, and the love you showed to Me by coming after Me into the wilderness, a desolate and unsown land.” (Yirmiyahu 2:1). Yirmiyahu clearly felt that if the people were to improve they must think positively. They come from such good stock ‑‑ it is such a shame that they are sinning. Their sins are only skin deep. Such a great people who showed such faith in Hashem earlier will surely want to reclaim their noble heritage and their loving closeness to Hashem so they will do teshuva without delay. My late rebbe, Reb Moshe Schwab זצ”ל of Gateshead Yeshiva said that today we have to use the approach of Rebbe Akiva.

Yom Kippur is the day for teshuva from all our aveiros bein adam l’Makom and bein adam l’chaveiro. Amongst those who are shomer Torah umitzvos most aveiros are from the bein adam l’chaveiro category – between man and his neighbor. It has been said that most of those aveiros are between spouses. Within a marriage the possibilities of not honoring each other, not being always sensitive to each other abound. Sometimes a facial expression can upset a spouse. We may be tired or pre-occupied and we don’t always listen to each other as well as we should. These are all aveiros bein adam l’chaveiro for which we have to ask forgiveness and do teshuva.

This itself is remarkable and a source of pride. At a time when murder and cruelty are so common that they are not even reported in the newspaper, when even mass murder only gets a few lines on the back pages, we are doing teshuva for a lack of sensitivity to another human being! Who is like Your people, Israel? A unique nation on Earth. But this is our heritage.

The Gemara in Taanis 10b says that a person who goes from a place where they are not fasting to a place where they are fasting, in response to a local danger, has to fast with them. It may not concern him personally but he should empathise and fast with those at risk. Besides, it would show a lack of sensitivity to eat in front of others who are hungry. The Gemara goes on to say that if a resident of a town which was fasting forgot and ate, he should not join the other residents of that town for the rest of the fast. Why not? It is not derech eretz. People who are feeling weak and hungry will feel worse, when they see this one who looks and feels well because he has eaten. The Gemara says that Yaakov Avinu had enough food for his family even during the famine. But if the Canaanites were suffering from hunger and they had to go to Egypt to buy food, it would distress them if Yaakov’s family did not go as well. So he sent his sons to Egypt, even though was no real need, and despite the danger, to prevent any extra anguish to the local population. The Gemara also says that in a famine one should eat the minimum even if one has ample food. We have to feel the pain of others. Even though those other people are unaware of what we are doing, the Torah teaches us to train ourselves to suffer if others are suffering. To do otherwise reflects a lack of concern for another person’s plight and is unacceptable.

Chavivin Yisroel shenikra’u banim l’Makom, shenitan lohem kli chemda – how beloved are the Jewish people that we are called the children of the Omnipresent and that we were given this precious gift of the holy Torah. We have such wonderful sources to learn from and be inspired by. We have such high standards to aspire to. We want to try harder. We want to increase our bein adam l’chaveiro and the place to start is in our own homes with those nearest and dearest to us. This will inevitably lead to greater sensitivity to others, even strangers.

Rebbe Akiva said, “Ashreichem Yisroel …In front of whom are you becoming pure and who is purifying you? Our Father in heaven, as it says, “And I will sprinkle on you pure water and you will become pure.” (Yechezkel 36:25) and it says, “Hashem is the mikve of the Jewish people. Just as a mikve purifies the impure, so does Hashem purify the Jewish People.

This essay is printed in Rabbi Fletcher’s sefer From Strength to Strength.

Look Down…And Bless Your People

In the parsha of Ki Sovo, we read about the vidui maaser, the declaration that one had observed the halachic requirements of mitzvos connected with tithing one’s produce.

“I have removed all the consecrated food from the house, I have given to the Levi, the stranger, the orphan and the widow….I have not transgressed Your commandments nor forgotten to praise You….I have done all You commanded me.” The next pasuk continues with a request. “Look down from Your Holy abode and bless Your People Israel and the Land which You gave us as You swore to our Fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Devarim 26:13-15). Rashi comments on this last pasuk, “We have fulfilled our obligations, now You fulfill Your obligations as it says, “If you keep my statutes, I will provide rain in the right time.”

These pesukim and this Rashi are very difficult to understand. Who can stand before Hashem and declare “I have done all You commanded me?” And if this is not enough chutzpa, as Rashi said, we then come with demands on Hashem. “We’ve done our bit, now You do Yours.”

The Mesilas Yesharim in his chapter on humility, (Chapter 22), seems to warn us strongly against just such an attitude. No matter how much we achieve we should not forget that we have certainly not fulfilled all our obligations. Even what we have achieved has been only through the kindness of Hashem who gave us the means to do what have done. Pirkei Avos (2:8) says “If you have learnt much Torah, do not praise yourself for it because this is what you were created for.” There is never an excuse for arrogance. The Mesilas Yesharim brings the case of Nechemyiah ben Chachalya who was very successful in fighting intermarriage, Shabbos desecration and social injustice. Yet the Gemara Sanhedrin (93b) finds fault with Nechemyiah for the words which he said (Nechemyiah 5:19), “Remember in my favour, O my G-d, all that I have done for this People.”

We can perhaps lighten our question slightly with a comment by the late Rav Yosef Dunner zt”l the revered former Rav of the Addass Kehilla of London in his sefer Mikdash Levi. He points out that in the text of the Pasuk (26:14) “I have done what You commanded me” the wording is “osisi kechol asher tzivisani.” (not chol but kechol). Indeed, writes Rav Dunner, a person cannot say that he has done everything (chol) that he has been commanded but approximately everything (kechol). We are still astounded, however, by the brazenous and arrogance of making demands on Hashem based on our apparently faultless observance as brought in Rashi: “We have done what we are supposed to do, now You do what you are supposed to do.”A friend of mine from Ramat Beit Shemesh, Reb Yaakov Schoeman (n.y.) suggested the following possible answer.

There is a difference between the way we must look at ourselves and the way we should look at others. The Mesilas Yesharim is talking about the way we should look at ourselves, with humility. We should never think that our deeds are perfect. Surely we made mistakes, perhaps we could have done more. If we learnt Torah this is because Hashem has given us the possibility to do so in the form of our mental abilities, memory, a supportive enviroment etc. If we have given Tzedaka this is because Hashem gave us the means to do so and we have merely fulfilled our responsibilities. Good characteristics are probably inherited, we perform mitzvos because of the good education we received or good influences which we have been in proximity to, etc. We do not have to negate our achievements but we should put them in context.

However we should not look at other people’s achievements in this way. If they have learnt Torah we should try to be inspired by them, learn from their diligence. If they have good characteristics we should try to emulate them. Whatever others have achieved should be played up not down. Even if there are imperfections with others we should assume they are done by mistake. If we are not sure, we should give the benefit of the doubt, etc.

The Jew who asks Hashem for a blessing in the pasuk, is not talking about himself. Rashi uses the words “We have done what we should have done” Concerning himself he would have spoken with more humility. But he is looking at the achievements of the People as a whole. Concerning others, he sees only perfection. He sees Jews faithfully tithing their produce and bringing the first fruits to Yerusholayim. He sees Jews making sure that orphans and widows are looked after. He sees Jews rising early go to a shiur and learning again in the evening after a hard day’s work. He sees acts of kindness, bikur cholim, hatzala, chaveirim, misaskim. He sees Jews in the midst of serious challenges living with emuna and bitachon. He sees a Jewish People loyally keeping details of halacha despite a galus of two thousand years. He sees holiness. And that is enough reason to beseech Hashem, “We have done so much, we have continued to believe in You and to keep Your mitzvos despite persecutions, pogroms and a Holocaust. Now, please, keep the promises You wrote in the Torah and in the Prophets and bless the Land You gave us that it should flow with milk and honey. May all the wickedness disappear like smoke, may the Tzadikim see and rejoice, may You give honour to Your People

and may the time finally come to witness utzemichas keren l’Dovid Avdecho, bimhairo beyomeinu, omein.

Taken from Rabbi Fletcher’s sefer From Strength to Strength.

Yes, of course, Tatty

Seven short weeks after Yetzias Mitzrayim, Bnei Yisroel were standing at Har Sinai, being offered the Torah. “You saw what I did to Mitzrayim, that I carried you out on the wings of eagles and brought you to me. And now if you listen to my voice and keep my covenant, you will be a treasure to me from all the peoples, for the Earth is Mine. You will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…” And they accepted the offer — “Everything that Hashem has said we will do.” (Shemos 19:4-8)

Bnei Yisroel’s answer is perplexing. We are known as a stiff-necked, intelligent, perceptive and inquisitive people. Why did they not say, “Wait a minute, the offer looks good but it’s vague. What is in this covenant? What does it require us to do?” Since when has a Jew signed a contract without reading the small print? And in this case, there wasn’t even any small print. They were being asked to agree to a life-long commitment to keep a covenant without any idea of what was involved. As the Tzeduki said to Rava (Shabbos 89.)”You are an impulsive people for agreeing to accept the Torah without knowing what was in it.”

In fact, the nations of the world were apparently better negotiators. When Hashem offered them the Torah, they asked what was in it. Hearing that it contained commands which they were not prepared to keep, they duly turned down the offer. But the Bnei Yisroel just accepted the deal blindly, lock, stock and barrel! Why?

In Parshas Beshalach (13:21) we read, “Hashem went before them by day in a pillar of cloud and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light so they could travel by day and by night.” The Shem Mishmuel asks, ‘Why did the Bnei Yisroel have to travel by night?’ Who was in charge of their travel arrangements? Hashem. Couldn’t he arrange for travelling by day and resting by night? And if you will say that that they were in a hurry and couldn’t delay, that is no answer because Hashem had already done a kefitzas haderech to bring the Bnei Yisroel from all over Mitzrayim in one night so that they should all leave together. If there was any special hurry, He could have done another kefitzas haderech and Bnei Yisroel could have arrived at any destination Hashem wanted in plenty of time without travelling by night. So why was there a need for the pillar of fire to make night travel possible?

One possible answer to the Shem Mishmuel’s question is based on an important passage in Parshas Behaalosecho (Bemidbar 9:15-23). “On the day that the Mishkan was set up, the cloud covered the Mishkan and in the evening a fiery appearance would cover it…When the cloud lifts the Bnei Yisroel will journey and when the cloud stops the Bnei Yisroel will encamp. According to the word of Hashem the Bnei Yisroel will journey and according to the word of Hashem will the Bnei Yisroel encamp…If the cloud stays on the Mishkan for a long time, the Bnei Yisroel will not travel. If the cloud is only on the Mishkan for a few days, by the word of Hashem they will travel and by the word of Hashem they will travel. Sometimes the cloud will be over the Mishkan for one night or a day and a night and then the cloud will move on. Sometimes the cloud will be over the Mishkan for two days or a month or a year and the Bnei Yisroel will remain encamped and when the cloud goes up they will travel. According to the word of Hashem they will be encamped, according to the word of Hashem they will travel; they will follow the instructions of Hashem according to the word of Hashem through Moshe.”

Reb Moshe Schwab zt”l once spoke about the message of the pesukim which seem to be rather wordy. He said that we can learn from here how to conduct our lives, always according to the will of Hashem. We may have made plans but if Hashem has other plans, we have to change course. Surely the Bnei Yisroel would have liked at the very least an idea of how long they would be staying in one place. They didn’t know whether it would be one day or twenty years. How can you live your life like that? But Bnei Yisroel were absorbing the message. We have to be prepared to follow Hashem’s will in any situation, whatever that entails. Following on this idea of Reb Moshe, and based on the well-known posuk Lehagid baboker chasdecho ve’emunosecho baleilos,” (Tehilim 92:3), perhaps we can answer the Shem Mishmuel’s question of why Hashem sometimes required the Bnei Yisroel to travel by night by saying that this was necessary to show that sometimes the way Hashem wants us to go is easy and pleasant, symbolised by day. And sometimes Hashem chooses a path which at least for now is not so pleasant for us. We may be tested and challenged; this is symbolized by night but we still have to maintain our emuna and bitachon, following this path with Hashem.

Another answer to the Shem Mishmuel’s question could also answer our original question about Bnei Yisroel’s acceptance of the Torah without knowing what was in it. Let us picture a family scene: little Shimmy is playing with his toys when his father tells him that they need to go out. Will Shimmy ask where they need to go and why? Will he suggest that maybe it would be a better use of his time to stay at home with his toys? Of course not. He knows his father loves him, does everything for him and knows what’s best for him. If his father says they need to go, he relies totally on his father and off they go.

Hashem had shown His love for Bnei Yisroel in Mitzrayim. He had kept His promise to Avrohom Ovinu of bringing them out of exile after even less than four hundred years. They had gone out with great riches as promised. He had punished their enemies. He had protected them from all the makkos. He had enabled them to cross the Yam Suf and defeated Amolek. They received food from shomayim and water from a rock.

Of course Bnei Yisroel would be prepared to accept the Torah without investigating the contents. They knew that He was their Tatter in Himmel. They had seen that whatever Hashem wants them to do is for their good and they are capable of doing it. However this could be guaranteed only if Bnei Yisroel remembered clearly everything Hashem has done for them. Often we are excited and inspired by something but by the time we have ‘slept on it’, our inspiration has weakened.

After leaving Mitzrayim, Bnei Yisroel had to face a succession of new challenges. If they had had time to sleep, the impact of what they had seen, even weeks earlier, might have worn off. A lessening of these monumental impressions might have jeopardised their kabolas HaTorah at Sinai. Hashem gave them extra strength to travel without pause by day and by night, so that they could preserve the clarity of their memory and the freshness of their enthusiasm. When the great day of maamad har Sinai arrived, there would be no doubts.

Hashem who showed His love for us throughout the miracles of yetzias Mitzrayim would surely only give us what was for our good. Bnei Yisroel’s response to the offer of the Torah was clear and positive.

“Yes, of course, Tatty. Whatever You say we will do.”

With Adar fast approaching, it is the ideal time to buy Rabbi Fletcher’s new sefer, Dancing in our Hearts. Available at all sefarim shops. Enjoy.