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20 Ellul 5760 - September 20, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
Restraining One's Mouth and Desires -- Some Thoughts for Elul

by HaRav Nosson Meir Wachtfogel,zt"l

Profound and important thoughts for Elul.

"It will be when he hears the words of this curse, that he will bless himself in his heart, saying, `I shall have peace though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart,' to add drunkenness to thirst. Hashem will not spare him, but then the anger of Hashem and His jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and Hashem shall blot out His name from under heaven. And Hashem shall mark him off for evil out of all the tribes of Yisroel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the Torah" (Devorim 29:18-20).

What terrible sin has this man committed? How has he angered Hashem to such an extent that Hashem's "jealousy shall smoke against that man?" Why does he deserve to be punished with all the curses written in the Torah and for his name to be erased from under heaven?

The Vilna Gaon, in his famous Igeres, reveals to us many principles of man's service of Hashem. "The rosho realizes he is acting wickedly but it is difficult for him to stop. Man must concentrate on overcoming this difficulty. He must not allow his innate physical urges to dominate him; instead he should overcome them. Until death a person should torment himself. This should not be done by afflicting his body but by restraining his mouth and desires . . .."

The Gaon is telling us that man has a natural inclination to do evil. Desire is anchored in his heart and continually tempts him to satisfy his bodily instincts without taking into consideration whether doing so is good or bad for him. Man's desires drive him to seek gratification from them, forcing him to strive for them.

As long as a person lives, his avodas Hashem necessitates halting life's turbulent current of passions and curbing his speech. Someone who neglects doing this loses hope in his battle against the yetzer and his lusts eventually lower him to the lowest level of Gehennom. Although this man realizes his way of life is causing his ruin he cannot save himself. His only chance to rescue himself from this bitter fate is through reinforcing his perception that the way he is acting is totally wrong. When his intellect gains control over his desires he will no longer be tempted to succumb to them.

These principles that the Gaon informs us of are based on a teaching of Chazal (Chulin 89a). "R' Yitzchok said: `What is meant by the posuk (Tehillim 58:2), "Is there indeed silence when you should be speaking righteousness, when you should be judging people with fairness?" What is man's vocation in Olam Hazeh? It is to make himself like a dumb person. I might think that also concerning divrei Torah he should be speechless; the posuk, however, teaches us that he "should be speaking righteousness." I might think that he should speak arrogantly, but the posuk teaches us that "you should be judging people with fairness." ' "

"Hashem Elokim formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul" (Bereishis 2:7). The Targum Onkelos explains "man became a living soul" to mean "he became a speaking spirit." The characteristic differentiating man from other beings is the power of speech. In fact man's natural tendency is to continually speak.

What should man do so that his mouth will not cause him to sin? Chazal (Midrash Rabba Koheles 6:7) write on the posuk "All the labor of man is for his mouth" (Koheles 6:7), that all of man's mitzvos and Torah is insufficient [to atone for what he] utters with his mouth.

As the abovementioned gemora writes, a man's vocation in Olam Hazeh is to be like a dumb person. He should restrain himself when he talks and pause in the middle of speaking. All that he speaks should be premeditated with every word weighed. He should talk only with great reluctance. Man's avodah, then, is to arrest the mighty stream of lust and control it.

A man's duty to torment himself until death -- not by afflicting his body but by restraining his mouth and desires, as the Gaon writes -- is not only intended to prevent his dropping into Gehennom and suffering there. Man requires self-restraint to recognize all the miracles that HaKodosh Boruch Hu does for us. Someone who is enticed by his desires cannot see or recognize Hashem's miracles; he is truly like a blind person.

When Klal Yisroel left Egypt and Pharaoh chased after them, HaKodosh Boruch Hu said to Moshe to command Yisroel, "Fear not, stand still and see the salvation of Hashem which He will show you today" (Shemos 14:13). The commentaries explain that bnei Yisroel were commanded to "stand still" and stop their tide of desires since anyone who is engulfed in earthly desires cannot possibly see Hashem's salvation. These physical urges naturally blind him from seeing any redemption.

Although Pharaoh beheld numerous overt miracles during the ten makkos, when Moshe forewarned him and afterwards prayed that they should stop, and although Pharaoh even reached a point where he agreed to send bnei Yisroel from his land, he caught himself and pursued bnei Yisroel and even descended into the Yam Suf, where the Egyptians drowned. Was Pharaoh insane? Why, after seeing all those miracles, would he pursue bnei Yisroel even into the Yam Suf?

It seems that Pharaoh did not stop his tide of desires but instead followed them like a blind man who can see nothing. He did not even realize what was liable to happen to him and actually committed virtual suicide by chasing after bnei Yisroel into the Yam Suf.

HaKodosh Boruch Hu, Who wanted to help us, commanded Moshe to warn us to "stand still." We should inhibit our desires so we may see Hashem's salvation. Not only Pharaoh acted in such a way but everyone who follows his lusts does the same. Such a person never tries to stop these physical instincts. He remains blinded by them and cannot see the danger facing him.

"R' Abahu said: `Why do we blow a shofar made from a ram? HaKodosh Boruch Hu said: "Blow before Me with a shofar made from a ram so that I will recollect Akeidas Yitzchok, and I will consider it as if you sacrificed yourselves before Me" ' " (Rosh Hashanah 16a).

Let us understand better what the gemora means by "I will consider it as if you sacrificed yourselves before Me." One explanation is that we want HaKodosh Boruch Hu to remember the zechus of Akeidas Yitzchok, in which Avrohom Ovinu was prepared to sacrifice his son Yitzchok. Avrohom Ovinu subdued his inclination to have mercy on his own son and instead was ready to carry out Hashem's will. Yitzchok too, willingly agreed to the Akeidah. We therefore ask HaKodosh Boruch Hu to subdue His anger against us and to grant us a good year.

This explanation is, however, unacceptable. What do Chazal mean when they add, "I will consider it as if you sacrificed yourselves before Me"? This refers to our own zechus, while according to the above explanation the Akeidah is actually the zechus of our Ovos.

"R' Lazar of the yeshiva of R' Yosi bar Ketzarta said: `Concerning all korbonos it is written "you sacrificed," but here is written "you did." HaKodosh Boruch Hu said: "Since you have appeared before Me to be judged on Rosh Hashanah and emerged safely, I consider it as if you had been created anew" ' " (Yerushalmi Rosh Hashanah 4:8).

The Korbon HoEidah explains that "you did" means "you have made [yourself]." Our being created anew is likewise understood from the Midrash Tehillim (81), which writes on the posuk, "Blow the shofar on the chodesh" (Tehillim 81:4) that from the word chodesh we learn to be mechadeish (to renew) our acts and from "a shofar" we learn to be meshapeir (to improve) our acts.

It is evident from the above that our duty on Rosh Hashanah is to become new creations. How is this done? By suppressing our tendency to follow our desires. The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 3:4) writes that although blowing a shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a gezeiras hakosuv it hints to a call to those sleeping to awaken and to those slumbering to stir from their deep sleep and to examine their deeds. These people, the Rambam says, have forgotten what truth is because of the follies of the times, and during their life they indulge in empty vanities that will not help or save them.

"Look at your souls, improve the way you behave, and abandon your evil ways." The Rambam teaches us that someone sleeping must stop the stormy current of life's lusts by first awakening himself. Rosh Hashanah is the time of making ourselves into new creations by first curbing our desires.

Someone wholly devoted to gratifying himself cannot agree to allocate money for spiritual purposes and is surely not prepared to forsake any of life's pleasures. His whole aim in life is indulging in these pleasures, so he will not agree to do without them.

When we say Malchuyos on Rosh Hashanah we are subjugating ourselves to the King of Kings, HaKodosh Boruch Hu. Even if we needed to sacrifice ourselves and all our material resources, we are prepared to do so. We have discontinued our pursuit of lusts and have erased any barrier to our readiness to sacrifice ourselves for Hashem.

Chazal referred to such a stage when they remark that Hashem says, "Say Malchuyos before Me and blow the shofar of a ram in order to recall Akeidas Yitzchok." Our patriarch Yitzchok was ready to sacrifice himself to fulfill Hashem's command. Yitzchok, whose midda was pachad Yitzchok, the midda of yirah, suppressed his worldly desires and therefore could be moseir nefesh for Hashem.

We too, when we blow the shofar, are zoche to the midda of yirah. Through the blowing of the shofar we remember how Yitzchok with his yirah detached himself from all desires, and we too follow his steps. HaKodosh Boruch Hu therefore remarks, "I will consider it as if you sacrificed yourselves before Me," since now we too are prepared to be moseir nefesh for the sanctity of Hashem's name.

During the whole year when we are immersed in our ta'avos, it is difficult for us to declare our readiness for mesiras nefesh, but on Rosh Hashanah we are unfettered by earthly desires. Through being ready to be moseir nefesh for Hashem's sanctity we are zoche on Rosh Hashanah to a favorable judgment.

Moshe said to the people, `Fear not, for Hashem has come to test you so that His fear may be upon your faces, so that you shall not sin'(Shemos 20:17). The Ramban (ibid.) writes, "In my opinion this is a real test that the Torah is telling us about [and the posuk does not mean "Hashem is coming to raise you," which is another way that it could be understood]. Elokim said He would test whether you observe His mitzvos, since (at Matan Torah) he removed from your hearts any doubt; now He will see whether you love Him and yearn for Him and His mitzvos."

The Ramban is telling us a great chiddush. The test of bnei Yisroel is after Matan Torah, after our receiving Torah and mitzvos, and not beforehand. When a person indulges his desires, he cannot withstand any test since he is blind to anything else and cannot even realize that he must choose between two ways. A man can be put to test only after he is liberated from ta'avos.

After HaKodosh Boruch Hu showed bnei Yisroel at Matan Torah that He is the Ruler of the World, that He is omnipotent by bursting all of heaven's firmaments and everyone saw that Hashem is Elokim -- only then were they able to be tested. Only then did Moshe Rabbenu say, "Fear not: for Hashem has come to test you so that His fear may be upon your faces, so that you shall not sin." After you have seen the truth and your earthly desires have ceased, this is the right time to test you to see whether you love Hashem and crave to Him and His mitzvos.

A person who "blesses himself in his heart, saying, `I shall have peace though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart' " (Devorim 23:18) openly shows how he is engrossed in ta'avos. His entire goal is to attain these pleasures and he neither hears nor sees any keloloh out of all the kelolos written in the Torah. Nothing scares such a person and he never has even the slightest thought of doing teshuvah. But since man was created to attempt to reach Olam Haboh and become nearer to HaKodosh Boruch Hu, this man has no zechus to continue living and is condemned to be erased from this world.

"Amolek was the first of the nations, but his latter end shall be everlasting perdition" (Bamidbar 24:20). Amolek too was condemned to be erased from the world: "You shall blot out the remembrance of Amolek from under heaven; you shall not forget" (Devorim 25:19). That wicked nation was decreed to be destroyed since "He feared not Elokim" (v. 18) and was dominated by ta'avos. When bnei Yisroel left Egypt, all nations were in awe of them: "The people shall hear and be afraid, trembling shall take hold of the inhabitant of Peleshes. Then the chiefs of Edom shall be amazed, the mighty men of Mo'av, trembling shall take hold upon them, all the inhabitants of Canaan shall melt away" (Shemos 15:14-15). Amolek, who was engrossed in earthly desires, did not pay any attention to all this and went out to wage war against Yisroel. This nation was therefore condemned to be blotted out from under heaven.

"Lift up your heads, O you gates, and lift them up, you everlasting portals, that the King of Glory may come in" (Tehillim 24:9). The Mashgiach (HaRav Yeruchom Lebovitz zt'l of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Europe) was accustomed to explain this as Dovid Hamelech telling us that we must open up wide entrances if the King of Glory is to enter them. Regular entrances are insufficient; only especially wide ones will do. We must be aware that we cannot say the malchuyos of Rosh Hashanah unless we open wide entrances in our hearts so that the King of Glory can enter them. To be zoche in our judgment we must suppress our desires, since only in that way can we open new and wide entrances for the King of Glory.

HaRav Nosson Meir Wachtfogel, zt'l, was the mashgiach of Yeshivas Lakewood in New Jersey.

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