We’ve all spent the last month discussing the miracles of yetzias Mitzrayim with our families. Until the early hours of the morning, Jewish homes all over the world were sitting round a table on two successive nights recalling the events of three thousand years ago. As instructed by the Hagada, we even imagined that we ourselves were participants in the wondrous events of that time. Recalling Hashem’s supernatural power always strengthens our emuna, that He is truly the Kol Yochol, the One who can do anything He wants.
There is less emphasis, possibly, on something else we are supposed to acquire by recalling yetzias Mitzrayim and that is yiras shomayim – fear of Heaven. The Mitzri’im, from Paro to his servants, to the ordinary Mitzri, to the captives in prison cells all sinned to various degrees and they were all punished. Basic yiras shomayim requires us to be afraid of being punished by Hashem if we sin. We must never think that other people’s misfortunes are a consequence and a punishment for their sins ( “ein matzdikim es hadin”) but when we suffer a misfortune we are supposed to be mefashpesh our deeds to investigate what we may have done to deserve this punishment. Yiras shomayim should be the basic characteristic of every Jew. With it, we can acquire wisdom as the pasuk says: ‘Reishis chochma yiras Hashem.’ (Tehilim 111:10). Without it, we are compared to a tree without roots, easily blown over by spiritual gusts of wind. (Pirkei Ovos 3:22)
We go up from there to Yiras Haromemus, fear or rather awe of Hashem. He is so powerful. His wisdom is so immense, his creation of the Universe so breathtaking, that we cannot even think of sinning. The Rambam (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 2:2) brings the words of Dovid Hamelech (Tehilim 8:4) “When I see Your Heavens, the work of Your fingers…what is man that You should remember him?” We are so humbled by our relative insignificance that even the idea of transgressing His will does not enter our mind.
A well-known Jewish axiom is that if we are not improving, we are deteriorating. Staying on one level is not possible. The days of Sefira, of course, lend themselves to shteiging – to going up the ladder of self- improvement so we must work towards the next level – the lofty madreiga of ahavas Hashem – loving Hashem. Our daily krias shema tells us explicitly that we are obliged to love Hashem. And not just a little, but loving Hashem with all our heart, soul and might. As Rashi comments, “Even if we have to sacrifice our life.” In case we think that we are at that level and would be prepared to give up our life and die al Kiddush Hashem if we faced with such a test (ח”ו), the Chovos Halevovos (Shaar Ahavas Hashem) gives another interpretation of the posuk. It arguably requires an even deeper level of loving Hashem than willingness to give up one’s life if called on to do so. He says that some people might love Hashem because of the many kindnesses He does. Some might love Hashem because He is so forgiving and does not punish us as our sins really deserve. Both these reasons for loving Hashem are substandard, says the Chovos Halevovos. True love of Hashem is even if we are not receiving anything from Him besides life itself. Loving Hashem when racked by pain, without any material possessions like Iyov, is the benchmark of true love. This is love which is not dependent on receiving anything from Hashem. The Chovos Halevovos understands that this is one interpretation of “loving Hashem with all our heart, soul and might” which means that even if we have no possessions, no comfort, nothing except life itself, we will still love Hashem sincerely. I am bringing this interpretation, not because I claim to be on that level, not because we should feel guilty if we are not at that level, but just so that we should hesitate before imagining that we have reached the highest level. Anyone who does so is not only probably fooling himself but might find that Hashem will give him a chance to prove that he is really on that level; and he might regret his over-confidence! Incidentally the Chovos Halevovos brings yet another interpretation of the pasuk which is arguably less demanding than Rashi’s explanation of the willingness to give up all our possessions and even our lives al Kiddush Hashem. According to this third interpretation, we have to love Hashem so much that everything we do should be leshem shomayim. We should use everything we have, whether it be our material possessions, our intellectual abilities, our talents, every moment of the day in the service of Hashem. This is also a high level but perhaps not quite as demanding as the other interpretations.
For most of us, even acquiring the substandard level of ahavas Hashem which the Chovos Halevovos previously mentioned, loving Hashem because of His many kindnesses to us, would be quite an achievement. And this is an opportune time of the year to work on achieving this level.
Spring is a wonderful season. Chazal tell us to say the brocho on fruit trees during the month of Nissan to thank Hashem for “creating beautiful trees for our pleasure.” If we visit the local park or, for those who are gebensched to live in Ramat Beit Shemesh, if we walk down the road, we will be greeted by a dazzling array of trees and bushes in various shades of green together with flowers and blossoms in ‘glorious technicolour’ displaying Hashem’s great wisdom and kindness. Remember we said before that He only created these delights to our eyes “to give us pleasure.” This alone should inspire us to thank and love Hashem for what he has seen fit to share with us.
Many sections of our tefilos trigger a surge of gratitude to Hashem for His kindnesses to us which can lead us to develop our love for Him. The daily Birchas Hashachar when we mention many of Hashem’s blessing to us is one example, Pesukei D’Zimra especially on Shabbos when we say Hodu L’Hashem ki tov, ki l’olom chasdo is another. Modim of Shemone Esre when we thank Hashem for His daily miracles is yet another.
An often lost opportunity to develop feelings of love for Hashem, for those who include it in the Shabbos tefila, is Anim Zemiros. The wording is poetic and the meaning is not always readily understood but it could be called a miniature Shir Hashirim because of the phrases indicating our devotion to and love for Hashem. “Anim zemiros b’shirim e’erog ki eilecha nafshi sa’arog. I will compose a pleasant song, I will weave beautiful poetry because my soul pines for you. Nafshi chomdo betzeil yodecho loda’as kol roz sodecho. My soul desires to be protected by the shade of your hand, to know Your innermost secrets. Midei dabri bichvodecho homeh libi el dodecho – As I speak of your glory, my heart yearns for Your love.” etc. What a shame to rush through it as we take off our tallis.
On the theme of Anim Zemiros, I read an amazing story recently. Parents in a secular kibbutz did not want their son, Ben, to have any religious ceremony on reaching his barmitzva but wanted to mark the occasion in some way. Since Ben had a melodious voice they had the idea that it would be cute if Ben sang Anim Zemiros in front of the guests at a party on the kibbutz. Someone suggested a certain rabbi who could teach Ben to sing Anim Zemiros. The rabbi hesitated but then agreed. At their first meeting he told Ben that his job was to teach him to sing Anim Zemiros, but he would sing it more impressively if he knew the meaning of the words. Ben and his parents agreed. The rabbi started the next lesson by showing him the garden full of trees and flowers outside the window of his house. “Do you know who made such a beautiful world?” the rabbi asked, “Never thought about it,” Ben shrugged. The rabbi told him about Hashem, the Creator of the whole world. Another time they looked up together at the myriad stars in the sky. Again the rabbi asked if Ben knew who had made all these stars. “Would it be this Hashem?” Ben asked. “Exactly,” said the rabbi. They then began to learn the meaning of Anim Zemiros, line by line. Ben’s enthusiasm grew and grew; he was looking forward to his barmitzvah when he would explain to all the guests the meaning of Anim Zemiros before singing it. And he would encourage everybody to respond every second line as is the custom. To cut a long story short, the barmitzvah was a great success. The guests enthused at the most original ‘entertainment’ and Ben’s parents were full of pride. They even cried with joy in front of all the guests. And Binyamin, as he now preferred to be called, his parents and even some of the guests became baalei teshuva. All in the merit of Anim Zemiros.
Look out for my soon to be published sefer The Hidden Light which contains ‘A New Look at the Holocaust’, essays on emuna and hashgacha pratis stories about me and my family.