Tehillim.The Rhythm of the Heart

Chapter One
By Rav Y Reuven Rubin

There is an old nigun I often heard from the Bobover Rebbe, zt”l. Sung in Yiddish, it speaks of secrets true to our inner selves. The words set to the haunting tune are attributed to the rebbetzin of the Ropshitzer Rebbe (1760 – 1827), a woman renowned for her wisdom and piety.

The song tells people to take a spodek (fur hat) and hide it in a safe place. In those days, rabbanim used to wear a spodek on weekdays. Why hide it in a secret room? The tune continues, “So we can tell our children’s children that such a hat was once worn by ehrlicher Yidden.”

The rebbetzin, whose husband was acclaimed as one of that generation’s foremost sages, realized that times were changing — and not necessarily for the better. It was vital that future generations retain a connection with their glorious past. The old fur hat would tell of a different time and place, when one lived in closer proximity to our heritage and our Torah goals. The spodek would help them know and connect with past generations.

Her foresight was acutely accurate. In the two hundred years since her era, the world, and the Jewish world in particular, has undergone vast upheavals. Not only the spodek has been forgotten, but a whole way of life.

When I was a child, Tehillim Yidden still abounded. Today, they are getting a bit thin on the ground. A Tehillim Yid did more than just say Tehillim; a Tehillim Yid lived Tehillim.

Tehillim, the Book of Psalms, is not just a sefer with some important lessons; it is the heart of Jewish life, the rhythm of our soul. Moshe Rabbeinu brought us the Torah, with its written and oral laws, giving us a pathway to Hashem. King David’s gift to the Jewish people is Tehillim. It helps us find the expressions we need to proceed on that path.

When I was a yeshiva bachur, a man named Reb Shmuel had the job of waking up the bachurim fartugs. This quaint expression meant that he had to schlep some sixty adolescent boys out of their cozy beds at the unearthly hour of 5 A.M. He did this with one special tool — Tehillim.

Reb Shmuel had a loud, booming voice, which was an asset to the job. On the other hand, he could not carry a tune or anything even vaguely resembling a tune. So it was no melodious, gentle wake-up call. At precisely ten minutes before five each morning, Reb Shmuel would start screaming verses of Tehillim — and there was no way any of us could stay in bed with that going on.

Reb Shmuel had been through the Holocaust. He had experienced many of the shades of hell that made up that singular tragedy. More than once, he told us that Tehillim was what kept him going.

To hear Reb Shmuel say his Tehillim was to hear the pain and the glory that is the Jewish experience. More than just sensing his deep feelings of hope, you actually felt those words being engraved into your soul. Though I never learned a shiur by Reb Shmuel, he was my rebbe. He taught me that Tehillim should be alive in your heart.

After I married, I got to know another Tehillim Yid. My father-in-law said Tehillim all the time. Between his many shiurim, he was constantly turning the pages of his well-worn Tehillim. He did much more than just recite the words. He lived them. Doubt and worry never entered his domain because the answers were always right there in King David’s words.

My father-in-law would sit amid the hubbub of the family, his stream of Tehillim the background music of our lives. From kids’ grazed knees to the inevitable difficulties life brought us — everything was healed with those warm words.

My mother-in-law was no different, only a bit more organized about it. She had a particular number of kapitlech (chapters) that she said for each child, grandchild and ultimately great-grandchild. When her sight began to fail, she switched to a sefer Tehillim with huge letters. Toward the end of her life, even that sefer was of no use anymore, but she told us she felt she could still “see” the letters, even without her sight. Because she had imbued the walls of her home with her heartfelt Tehillim, those same letters remain in the memories of her loved ones.

We no longer have spodeks the likes of the Ropshitzer Rebbe’s to hide for the next generation to gaze on, and I sometimes fear we may soon find it hard to show our youth what a Tehillim Yid is or what he stands for. It is with this in mind that I share some thoughts about the meaning of these cherished words. Maybe in this way we all can join together and at least aspire to being Tehillim Yidden.

The five books of Moshe start with the creation of the world. The first words are “Bereishis bara, at the beginning G-d created.” The Bobover Rebbe, zt”l, used to point out that the word bara connotes bari, good health. Good health, both physical and spiritual, is the foundation for future growth. King David’s five books of Tehillim tell us how to achieve this good health.

The first verse shows us our starting point: Happy is the man who has not followed the advice of the wicked, stood on the path of sinners or sat among the scornful. To build spiritually healthy life, we must first stay clear of negative influences. The canvas on which we paint our lives can become besmirched by the darkness the wicked spew forth. Painting over such the stain is difficult, and the pure, bright colors of Hashem’s will be dulled. As King David tells us later, “Turn away from bad and do good” (Tehillim 34:15). Doing good starts with turning away from bad. Rashi translates Tehillim’s opening words, ashrei ha’ish, as meaning “the praises of man.” Turning away from bad not only makes for a happier person, but one who is praiseworthy as well.

In the convoluted world we find ourselves in, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of sitting with the scornful. Chutzpa is a commodity that is sold en mass to the herds of people too frightened to think for themselves. Even in the heimishe world, all too often we can detect a smattering of scorn, derision and insolence.

Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch (1808-1888) points out that the root of the word ashrei is ashur, which means to “strive forward.” The wicked maintain that a Torah lifestyle is old-fashioned, a step backward for its adherents. They try to convince us that keeping Torah ideals is detrimental to our happiness, and that the Torah’s rules are harsh and archaic.

King David tells us the truth. The only way to move forward is to steer clear of such counsel and become totally imbued with the Torah’s values. The Zohar tells us that a gentile once asked Rabbi Elazar, “You say you are close to the King, so why are your people always in difficult circumstances while the other nations live in tranquility?”

Rabbi Elazar answered, “We are humanity’s heart, and like a human heart, we feel all the pain and distress; the other nations are similar to other parts of the body.”

The Sfas Emes (1847-1905) explains that our soul should likewise feel every nuance of spiritual pain. Because we allow materialistic goals to seep into our heart, we have become desensitized to spiritual matters and so no longer feel such pain. How tragic. But, says King David, whose voice remains eternally fresh, we can avoid this pitfall. The first step toward real holiness, as this kapitel tells us, is to become aware of the negative forces — evil, sin and cynicism — that draw us away from our Source and to disassociate ourselves from them.

This entry was posted in Beginner and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Tehillim.The Rhythm of the Heart

  1. Chapter Two

    Sometimes you wonder how people survive. Or, more to the point, how they manage to keep an upbeat slant to their lives.

    I once met an askan, a man active in his community and renowned for his tireless efforts on behalf of the Jewish people. We shared a long car ride, which gave me a golden opportunity to hear a few of his insights in this area. His story enhanced my appreciation of what people like him do for the rest of us and deepened my understanding of their source of strength, and I’d like to share it with you.

    Some years ago, this rav undertook to build a Torah institution in a particularly difficult community. People told him Torah adherence would never take hold in that area no matter how much effort he put into it. Our hero was not to be dissuaded. He had seen Torah blossom in other deserts and felt that a Torah institution was just what the area needed. He started with nothing. He took out bank loans, using his own few possessions as collateral, and slowly his vision took shape. An empty building got needed renovations and students began to trickle in, enthused by the rav’s considerable ability. Staff was added, and the institution slowly became a fixture in the community.

    What takes but three or four lines to write obviously consumed years of the rav’s life. It’s impossible to put into words the toils and troubles such an undertaking entails. Suffice it to say, aggravation was a constant companion.

    As the new community center was being built, the rav’s debts were growing. It was his credit on the line, and every expansion of the center’s activities added to his financial vulnerability. But you have to understand the mind of a true askan. He wasn’t out for personal gain. If his signature on some bank papers could help the endeavor, that’s what it was for.

    Time passed, and the rav was busy creating new initiatives for the burgeoning Torah center. As the debts grew with his increased staffing needs, the office that was supposed to watch over such things somehow forgot to tell him the gravity of the situation.

    One fine spring day, as the rav was preparing for a special family simcha, things came to a head. His oldest son was to become bar mitzva that coming Shabbos and, of course, the whole simcha would be taking place at the institution, which was an integral part of the family by now. The Wednesday before the simcha, a huge van drove up to the institution’s door.

    “We’re from the electricity company. You owe us two thousand dollars, so we’re shutting off your power supply.”

    There was no talking to them. They had their orders. Bar mitzva or not, there would be no light.

    The rav was in shock. He had no idea the office had not paid the bills. What was he going to do?

    His mind raced. People are coming for Shabbos. The rebbetzin will be devastated. How will we cope? His mind went into overdrive. First things first: Don’t tell the rebbetzin. Protect her. Take care of it yourself.

    “Don’t tell the rebbetzin” is never a clever move. She heard about the disaster even before the rav got into his car to drive home. When he got there, he found his wife barely able to speak. This was the family’s first big simcha. Her entire extended family was coming from far and wide to see the rav and his institution and generally kvell over her nachas. Now they would be sitting in the dark, both literally and figuratively.

    The rav called the electricity company. They would settle for two thousand dollars cash, nothing less. If it would be paid that same day, then they might restore the power before Friday, but no promises.

    The rav did some fancy footwork, raised the money by phone, ran to his car, glanced back at his hopeful wife and drove off to collect the promised funds.

    Finally, he was ready to make his way over to the electricity company. He decided it would be a kindness to his wife to first stop home and tell her in person that all was now under control. When he got there, his daughter, who had just come home from seminary, asked if she could go with him to pay the bill.

    They set off, and soon the bill was paid — with the hope that the power would be back on in time for the simcha on Shabbos. As the rav returned to his car, he got in, stared at the driving wheel and collapsed. Tears streamed down his face. The burden of the entire day was too much, and he could take no more.

    “Why?” he sobbed, oblivious to all else. “Why is this happening?”

    His young daughter looked at him in disbelief. “Tatty, you always taught us to have faith. There must be a reason for all this. Maybe it’s to turn away an ayin hara, an evil eye. Who knows? You’re always the one who gives us strength. Don’t give up now.”

    At this point in telling me the story, the rav looked at me sheepishly. “You know how hard that lesson was for me? But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s been more than twenty years since that day and, baruch Hashem, I still feel wonderful about what my daughter said.” He smiled. “By the way, they turned the electricity back on in time for the simcha.”

    The second chapter of Tehillim begins, Why do nations assemble and peoples plot in vain, kings of the earth take their stand and regents intrigue together against Hashem and His anointed? Let us break the cords of their yoke and shake their ropes off us!

    The holy Alshich explains that the nations of the world fulminate against Hashem and His anointed nation because they fear the ultimate coming of Mashiach. They have concluded that instead of opposing Hashem at that time, it would be better to sever the link between Hashem and the Jewish people now, forestalling the redemption altogether. The wicked reason that by destroying our connection with our Father in Heaven, they will never have to face the final reckoning.

    When life takes a turn through a dark tunnel, we should remember the light at the end. The darkness is a ploy by the forces of evil to cut us off from our holy Source. The darkness doesn’t necessarily come from forces without (although I wouldn’t discount the electric company). It can also come from within, from the difficult parts of ourselves we struggle with. No matter what, there are times in everyone’s life when we feel stretched beyond endurance.

    Comes along the sweet singer of Israel who tells us, He Who sits in Heaven will laugh. Hashem will mock them. Then He will speak to them angrily, and in His rage, terrify them. If we persevere and crown our efforts by staying on course, Hashem finds celestial joy in our growth. This is Heavenly laughter. It mocks the naysayers, from without and within, the voices that foresee our failure.

    Once we have passed through the tunnel and come out the other side, Hashem will express anger at those forces. The greatest expression of this rage will be to force our enemies to witness the failure of their schemes. That rav and his story put this into a clearer perception and gave me a new insight into the words of this kapitel. As one anonymous saying goes, “People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centered. Love them anyway. If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway. If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway. People really need help but may attack you if you help them. Help people anyway. Give the world the best you have, and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.”

    Hashem runs the world. It’s up to us to do our best while remembering that He loves us more than we love ourselves. He wants what is good for our soul, the eternal part of us. It may be dark at times, and there will be people who try to stop us from doing His will, but take courage from this kapitel and let its message become part of your being.

  2. Chapter Three
    by Rabbi Y Reuven Rubin

    One thing always comes up when working with those who choose to adopt a Torah lifestyle at a mature age. It isn’t always the first thing said or even the second, and it may not be put into words, but only implied. Yet somewhere along the way, it definitely creeps in: “Rabbi, I feel so low. I lived a life so far from Torah. How can I pretend to be frum after having done the things I’ve done and seen the things I’ve seen?”

    Alarm bells start ringing in my head whenever I hear this. This problem doesn’t bother only those who come to Yiddishkeit late in life. Anyone turning away from a path that has not been spiritually fulfilling may find himself expressing such feelings.

    You may wonder why such a cheshbon hanefesh sets off alarms in my mind? Listen again to the words, and then you will understand.

    “I feel so low….” Notice what’s happening here. The fact that a spiritually empty lifestyle gives a person cause to reflect is something to be grateful for. But I detect depression slipping in here, and that’s a serious danger. The Karliner Rebbe (1740-1792) was wont to say, “Depression is not a sin — but the sins depression brings about are greater than any sin on its own.” When the fog of depression falls over one’s heart, all growth in Torah is in jeopardy.

    What can be done to prevent depression? After all, the previous path really was no good.

    There isn’t a general prescription for everyone. Each person needs to be approached as an individual. There is, however, one great source of comfort and understanding that can give everyone insight, and that is Tehillim. From its beginning, it tells how King David approached teshuva and how we can learn, in practical terms, the art of repentance from him. As we come to the third kapitel, imagine for a moment King David’s situation. There are tzaros, and there are tzaros. The author of Tehillim can tell us a thing or two about such matters. We see King David being pursued by his own son, who wants to dethrone him. Worse, the majority of the populace supports the coup. Most depressing of all, much of this is due to David’s own mistakes.

    Things couldn’t seem any darker. Yet we find him lifting up his voice to Hashem with great poignancy. He starts his prayer with the words, A song by David. A song always expresses joy. With these first words of the psalm, we can begin to understand how he could not only survive such a shock but also grow from it.

    The holy Alshich wonders about this opening. How, he asks, it is possible for this particular kapitel to begin like this, considering the circumstances? He answers, in part, that David felt gratitude to Hashem for the anguish. Fleeing from his own son was a tremendously humiliating and aggravating experience, as any parent can imagine. But David hoped that his anguish would be accepted by Hashem as part payment for his sin. A comment by Rabbeinu Yona touches on this same point. He tells us that David’s serene acceptance of the torment and agony at this time made him worthy of Divine protection. His acceptance was the first step in his teshuva, and it set up a feeling of positive spirituality in his heart. No man lives without blemish. When problems strike, the first reaction should be to look within one’s own heart. Yes, David takes immediate action and runs for his life, but not without realizing that he has fallen in his own spirituality through his sin.

    Notice, though, that this realization or acceptance does not lead to depression. David’s acts are positive, and he does them all with a sense of hope.

    Rav Shlomo Freifeld, zt”l, was an expert in giving encouragement to people in despair. One of his favorite lines was “Don’t be strong. Be great.” When life throws one of its curves at you, you can be strong, biting your tongue and bearing it stoically. That may get you through the hardship, but you haven’t gained anything other than a sore tongue. On the other hand, if you choose to accept what was sent your way and work through it, if you stretch every sinew of your soul to learn from the adversity, you can achieve greatness.

    David cries out in pain, How numerous are my tormentors! The great rise up against me! His ache is palpable, and still he sings because his faith in Hashem gives him the courage to turn adversity into a learning experience. “Yes, this painful reality came about through my own folly,” he is saying, “but still I sing. I joyfully accept what is happening and in that state of joy pray for Hashem’s support.”

    The Torah is replete with incidents of great people stumbling. As human beings, they are fallible, as are we all. Their stories carry a strong theme, one we should carry with us for life’s rough spots: They were able to climb beyond their mistakes without succumbing to feelings of depression and hopelessness.

    The Rebbe Reb Tzaddok HaCohen of Lublin (1823-1900) in his Kedushas Shabbos speaks about the redeeming virtue of sin: “After the terrible sin [when Adam and Chava partook of the Tree of Knowledge] brought darkness on all future generations by causing Hashem’s decree of death on man, Adam nevertheless merited the light of Shabbos. This is the way of creation in the world — first darkness and then light — so that one may appreciate the superiority of light.”

    This is a startling statement. The Rav Tzaddok is telling us that when sin begets a reaction such as teshuva, which leaves one in a more exalted state than he was originally, the past misdeeds are seen as the stimulus for man’s spiritual growth. As Rav Tzaddok continues, quoting the Gemara, “‘In the place where baalei teshuva stand, even completely righteous tzaddikim cannot stand’” (Berachos 34b). This Gemara now takes on more than just an encouraging note. It teaches us that, given the right circumstances, when a person decides to overcome past misdeeds, those mistakes become his redeeming virtues.

    King David continues this kapitel by saying, I lie down and sleep, awake yet again, for Hashem sustains me. Having turned to Hashem with a positive inclination and repented his sin, David can even sleep securely. He has faith that Hashem will help him awake again — spiritually — as He has done in the past. For it is Hashem’s will that we return to Him, and it is through His support that we survive.

    There is no greater strength than accepting one’s past misdeeds and turning away from them onto the path of righteousness. Despair, on the other hand, only leads to failure.

    Obviously, this isn’t always apparent at the beginning of one’s trek through life, but that’s what being great is all about. As the kapitel tells us at its end, Deliverance belongs to Hashem. Your blessing be on Your people — selah! Our success is through Hashem’s blessing. We are His people and as long as we revel in that knowledge we can be strengthened even when we make mistakes.

  3. Rhythm of the Heart
    by Rav Y Reuven Rubin

    Chapter Four

    I used to get upset. I really did. There are these folk who walk around in every city clutching clipboards and stopping passersby to ask them all sorts of questions. They work for consumer groups that are trying to find out what customers really think. They’re called “market researchers,” and I’m sure you’ve come across them, too.

    I used to get upset because they never stopped me. What was it about my face that told them I was unworthy of any cohesive opinions? What kind of democracy is it that doesn’t allow me to express my brilliant insights? It really bothered me, until one day I met one of these opinion takers off duty.

    “What is it with you guys?” I asked him. “I’ve passed many of your ilk, and not once have you stopped me to ask if I have a few minutes to share my genius with you.”

    “Well, Rabbi,” he answered, “you just don’t fit our model of an average consumer.”

    This sounded like blatant anti-Semitism to me.

    “Rabbi, do you know what kinds of questions we ask?”

    “How can I if I was never asked?” I replied.

    “Basically we ask what beer you drink, how many pints a day, where you go Friday nights and other such lifestyle questions.”

    “Lifestyle questions? That sounds like a recipe for the ending of life, not a style to live one.”

    “That’s the point, Rabbi. Your answers would throw off all our data.” Since then, I stopped getting upset.

    If you think about it honestly, though, the truth is that we all have some soul-searching to do in this area. In our heart of hearts, it is possible that we are enamored with all the wondrous sights culture has to offer us, and, though we may deny it, deep down many of us look on with a dull yet diligent ache of envy at the excesses of the crass world around us.

    Some may be saying, “Who me? Never!” or “I’m a card-carrying member of the fruma brigade. I wear my tzitzis with pride.” This may be true, but at the same time are we concerned with the brand name of the suit the tzitzis proudly adorn? Are we certain that in this freewheeling society we are not falling into the same rut as so many others and beginning to crave all that those opinion watchers are promoting?

    Yes, there can be a glatt kosher brand of the American dream, but is it right?

    The Chiddushei Harim (Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Rothenberg Alter, the first Gerrer Rebbe, 1799-1866) once observed, “A person is where his mind is.” Although we may physically be in shul, if our emotional dialogue is with the latest glossy magazines, then that’s where we really are. In Kotzk, a young student once came to the Rebbe to complain about alien thoughts that kept troubling him during his prayers. The Kotzker remarked, “But they aren’t really alien. They’re yours.”

    King David concerns himself with this in the fourth kapitel of Tehillim. When he composed this psalm, he was running away from his own son, Avshalom, who had spearheaded a revolt against him. This rebellion was supported by many of the population, including prominent citizens respected by their peers. It seems they were immersed in a fantasy that if David were removed from the picture, the Jewish people would be able to become more in tune with the heathen world around them and live a better life.

    David calls out to them: “Distinguished leaders! How long will you put my honor to shame, love vanity and seek deception?”

    David doesn’t address the bnei adam, the ordinary citizens; rather, his words are directed to the bnei ish, the distinguished leaders. “You should know better,” he tells them. “You have fallen for the empty value system of the trend-setters. You think the outside world holds secrets for a good life, but in the end, you will find out you were deceived. The empty fantasies you have allowed to capture your minds are what motivates this rebellion.

    “Don’t be fooled. Hashem has singled me out for a special role as His devoted follower, and He will listen when I cry out to Him. You are standing at the brink of sin. Don’t fall into the trap!”

    David then continues to admonish them: Many people say, “Who will show us good?” Rashi points out that this whole tragedy began because of the people’s jealousy of the heathen nations, whom they perceived as living in greater comfort and enjoying life more. David tells his tormentors, “Commune with your soul when you lie down to go to sleep, and say nothing.”

    Many of our tzaddikim have coached us accordingly. When your heart is abuzz with the static of the materialism of life, step back! Create an oasis of quiet, even if only in your own bed. Be silent, stop the madness that screams in your soul, listen to that stillness and then pray, Let the light of Your face shine on us, Hashem.

    In this psalm, David addresses the most frum Yidden, the cream of the crop whose ultimate downfall came because they hankered after the creature comforts of the heathens around them. They weren’t advocating giving up any part of Judaism, G-d forbid. Instead, they aspired to a form of Yiddishkeit rooted in a value system based on materialism.

    Let us think for a moment. Are our values safe? Yes, kollels swell in number, and new yeshivos are always opening. But with this must come a purging of the corruption that can destroy the fiber of our people. If we fall for the glitter of the empty, driven lifestyles of the consumer world, then we are building on shifting sands. A kollel couple should not feel inferior because they can’t afford luxuries that really have no place in a heimishe home to begin with.

    Even the manner in which shidduchim are approached often takes on a whiff of a material binge. It becomes more and more difficult for struggling parents to make weddings because they can’t even talk in terms of the thousands being demanded. This is no small matter, and it cries out for solutions.

    David finishes the chapter with words that ring true down through the ages: For You, Hashem, will make me dwell apart for my own security. Our only hope of real security, a security that gives us true rest from the evil that seeks to poison us, is when we dwell apart. This doesn’t mean living physically isolated from others, an unrealistic vision in the global village of today. Instead, we must teach our young (and ourselves) that the clipboard mentality is not ours. We have a higher calling, for we are today’s distinguished leaders, the sons of great men — Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov — and should act accordingly.

    The Torah warns us not to stray after our hearts and our eyes. Without even being aware of it, we are all prone to the egocentric error of not only accepting but also desiring the worldview that puts its faith in the perceptions and conclusions of mortal man. Only by fully attuning our hearts and thoughts to Hashem’s word can we avoid disastrous perceptions. By following the Torah wholeheartedly, we will be able to say, as David did, that Hashem has “eased the pressure” — the pressure that torments anyone who seeks the deceptively alluring materialism that surrounds us.

  4. Chapter Five

    It’s almost official. The scientists are finally working on proving what we have known for thousands of years. Soon it will be receiving the seal of approval from those fellows in white lab coats. In two separate studies, scientists are working to determine how much prayer helps those in need. They are going to try to substantiate if praying helps those who are ill and, furthermore, if long-distance praying is effective.

    To the Torah Yid, this sounds foolish. After all these years of saying Tehillim, we are well aware of its positive effects. Be that as it may, let the scientists have their fun. Perhaps at least some of them will come to realize how a heartwarming kapitel can lift one’s spirits.

    In another development on the scientific front, a recent study has shown that people who pray live longer have lower blood pressure, suffer less heart disease, are less likely to be depressed and have a better life expectancy. Not bad for us Tehillim zuggers, eh? The study took place in America and included forty-two different research programs with a total of 126,000 people living in all parts of the country.

    Without going into details of the report, the bottom line was: prayer is good for you. However, it came along with two important caveats. It seems your prayers need to be recited with others, as in a quorum, and you have to understand what you are saying. The conclusion was that a shared religious lifestyle does wonders for one’s health, and meaningful prayer gives support to one’s positive emotions.

    I found the part about understanding what you are saying particularly intriguing. Certain passages of Tehillim seem to roll off the tongue without most of us having an inkling of their import, and many are the tales of how people found salvation through the pages of their Tehillim despite their lack of understanding. Although generations of holy Jews have given every letter a poignancy that creates its own holiness, people seeking connection with the holy words definitely find certain chapters difficult. Their message seems beyond our sphere of experience, and we are left wondering where we can find ourselves within the words written.

    The fifth kapitel is one such chapter. It speaks on two levels. David describes one who is loyal to the Torah and cries out, When I can speak, Hashem, listen, and even when I can’t verbalize my concerns, understand them. He then goes on to speak of those who are insincere in their Torah adherence and prays that Hashem drive them away: Condemn spokesmen of disillusion to oblivion. Hashem abhors bloodthirsty and deceptive people.

    Here is a king who is suffering due to the machinations of a group of rebels who act in public as if they are devoted to doing Hashem’s will, but who in truth seek the blood of Hashem’s anointed one. Hashem, guide me on the paths of Your righteousness and smooth the way for me, because my enemies are watching my every step. Their talk is insincere — within is treachery.

    While this is all moving, it presents the Tehillim zugger who understands the words with a problem. When does a small insignificant Yid ever come across such world-class evil people that he can identify with King David’s plea?

    Reb Nachman of Breslov was a great exponent of saying Tehillim regularly. He tells us: “The essence of the recital of Tehillim is to say all the psalms about yourself and find yourself in each and every kapitel. For the psalms were made for all of Klal Yisrael in general and each individual in particular. The war that every person has with his evil inclination and everything that takes place in his life are present in Tehillim and explained there. Indeed, the whole sefer Tehillim was recited and established only in order to fight the war against the evil inclination and its minions, which are the chief enemies and adversaries of a man. This is what David really prayed to Hashem about — that He save him from them.”

    So although I may not come across men who seek to kill me, I can surely relate to the devils that live within myself.

    David couched his pleas with words that spoke of external enemies, but his message was for all generations. That message is clear: One must beg Hashem for help in overcoming the wily acts of our own homegrown urges.

    This is no simple matter. It is all too human to deny that such forces live and thrive within our good selves. No one wants to look in the mirror in the morning and accept the fact that he isn’t the charitable, loving tzaddik he likes others to think he is. In truth, we allow ourselves to be fooled into a false sense of righteousness, thinking, After all, look at all the bad that seems to thrive all around us. I’m certainly not like that.

    Thus David calls out to our inner self: And all those who take refuge in You will be happy, singing joyously forever…. If you want to find real joy, you must strive to take refuge in Hashem. This can be done only when you take command of the battle you must wage against your own internal enemies.

    True, the whole of one’s life is traversed with skirmishes and battles that seem unending, but this is the majesty of Tehillim. It speaks to every level and every time. The pintele of our souls, that inner spark, knows from whence David cries. Yes, the battle must be waged, and the first step is to acknowledge the enemy’s presence.

    Yet we need not despair. The kapitel concludes, All this will happen when You, Hashem, bless the righteous, Your favor crowning him with protective armor.

    These words tell us that one who stands on the battlefield of his inner landscape and strives against his evil inclinations can be assured that Hashem will envelop him with Divine favor, which will totally shield him from the forces raging against him.

    Reb Nachman of Breslov once said, “If you believe that things can be ruined, you should believe that things can be repaired.” There is no room for despair, because David has given us the hope to overcome our adversaries. We need but open up his cherished gift and speak to our hearts with his unique words.

    The Torah tells us, “And you shall seek Hashem from there, and you shall find Him” (Devarim 4:29), and the Kotzker Rebbe would remark, “The seeking is the finding.” Some will despair when considering the difficulties that abound in striving for closeness with Hashem. The Kotzker tells us differently. He says that the act of seeking is in itself the means of finding.

    Those scientists speak of a longer and healthier life for those who pray. I don’t know about such things. The last time I looked, such matters were in Hashem’s hands. I do, however, believe that one thing is certain: The time we have on this earth can be, and should be, a positive life spent in growing closer to our holy Source through battles fought and hopefully won. And the resulting glory of having experienced a searching for Hashem that was itself a finding will hopefully lead to Hashem’s enveloping us with favor like protective armor.

  5. Chapter Six

    All of us face moments of crises. Take Reb Yisrael, for example. For years this tall, humorous fellow was part and parcel of communal life where I am Rav. You never saw a frown on his face, never heard a word of disquiet pass his lips. He was just there, a vibrant member of the shul’s stalwart brigade. Then he vanished for a time, and no one could find out where he had gone. After a month’s absence, he showed up as if he had never missed a day.

    No amount of questioning could clear the mystery. He had gone, and now he was back.

    As Rav, I was of two minds. Should I try to find out what had happened? Maybe I could help in some way. Or, should I remain quiet, allowing our friend to approach me if and when he wanted?

    One Shabbos afternoon, Reb Yisrael solved my dilemma. He came to my home and asked me if I had a moment to spare.

    “Reb Yisrael, for you I have all the time in the world,” I said.

    “Rebbe, I have just been to hell and back…” At that point, he broke down and told a tale of woe that even now I cannot completely come to terms with.

    It would serve no purpose for me to share his confidences with you. I only want to express how humbled I was by his ability to look tragedy in the face and still remain the joyful person he is.

    Reb Yisrael is no great scholar. He never had the advantage of a yeshiva education, his childhood being marred by his father’s passing when he was only eight. His limited background allowed for only a smattering of practical learning, scarcely going beyond the siddur. Yet he had somehow absorbed the heart of Yiddishkeit, with a capacity to believe that no matter what life handed him, Hashem would see him through. During his long absence from shul, he had lived through situations that could have ripped his whole life apart. Yet he persevered and came through it a stronger Jew.

    We are all Reb Yisraels, each schlepping our own pekale of difficulties. Rabbi Yisrael Miller, in his book What’s Wrong With Being Happy? writes on this subject most beautifully and brings the sixth chapter of Tehillim to make his point. My sighs have exhausted me. My tears drench my bed….

    King David cries out from his sickbed with so much anguish that Chazal tell us his bed linen had to be changed numerous times a day due to the tears that soaked it. Such pain is almost beyond comprehension. And yet every Yid says these words almost daily. There is relevance for us in David’s cries.

    In Tachanun, we use David’s words to express our own pain. These words are not just poetry. They are real to our own experience and meant to connect with the inner self that often has to suffer both physically and emotionally. As it says in this kapitel, Heal me, Hashem, for the illness has penetrated even my bones. This pertains to physical suffering. My soul too is utterly terrified refers to emotional and spiritual trials.

    The Me’am Lo’ez tells us that King David felt the soul’s pain was more difficult to bear than the body’s. As long as his spirit was strong, he could withstand physical suffering, but when the soul was stricken with dread, he feared for his eternity.

    When you meet someone, it is likely that that friendly face hides a deep river of self-doubt and despair. If we were honest, we could say the same thing when we look in the mirror. Since Adam and Chava, mankind has not been able to be at total peace with itself. This is the outcome of being banished from Gan Eden.

    The test in life is to try to create as much peace as one can and to accept that this will always be difficult. King David offers no quick fixes to his pain; in fact, it took thirteen years for him to recover. What he does teach us is that ultimate recovery from all our ills comes from Hashem.

    When facing demoralizing situations, we should take a lesson from David. He asks nothing for himself. He fully realizes that he has not earned such merit. Rather, he asks G-d to release his soul from the pressing straits David is experiencing. “Save me,” he pleads, for only an act of Your kindness can help. Withdraw Your wrath, Hashem, David begs. “I sincerely regret leaving Your holy presence and wish to return. Please let me.” Then David exclaims, For after death, I will not be able to mention You, nor will I be able to praise You from the nether world. As proof of his changed attitude, David declares that his sole motivation in begging for restored health is to use the gift of life to sing Hashem’s praises.

    Each of us can find hope in these words. We are not the first person nor the only person to experience difficulties, for such is the human condition. King David has shown us the way through hardship. We can channel our prayers toward finding true relief. When our stated goal becomes acclaiming Hashem’s glory, relief is near. How holy we are to discover the secret of turning adversity into spiritual growth.

    More, we owe it to our family, friends, neighbors, business associates and everyone with whom we come into contact to realize that they too are carrying their own burdens. Remembering this will make us more willing to help. The Torah is replete with mitzvos that guide us in this direction, and there can be no greater help than lifting one’s neighbor out of the depths of despair.

    This doesn’t mean we should try to play psychologist or that we should we pry into others’ hearts. We can, however, make things easier by empathizing with them.

    Whenever I am faced with a situation where someone is being difficult, I ask myself, What’s really bothering him? Are his words hiding the fact that he is hurting about something I know nothing about? I wish I thought in such terms all the time but, since I too carry my own pekel, communication sometimes breaks down.

    Next time you are in a rough patch with someone, stop. Think for a moment. Ask yourself, What troubles is this guy really having, and how can I help him instead of being just another part of the problem?

    As our kapitel ends, My enemies will be ashamed and terror stricken. Instantly, they will repent and feel regret. If we don’t help the other guy, we may become the enemy, an added pain for him to deal with. We may not even realize we’re being seen in such a light — we may only feel terror stricken by it all.

    How often do you hear someone voicing real anguish over something you thought of as an innocent occurrence? Every second generates its own impression. Many people live their whole lives with tension and torment. You can actually see it in their faces. How sad this can be, how soul- destroying.

    Should it only be the grave that gives us release? There is so much hope and caring out there if only we return to Hashem with hearts devoted to acclaiming His goodness.

    The first step is always the hardest — but it will give us instant relief from our suffering. All we have to do is realize that to help ourselves, we must first offer help to others.

  6. Chapter Seven

    What have you heard from your somatosensory cortices lately? “Uh, what’s that again?” I can hear you asking. Believe me, I felt the same way when I first heard the term.

    The somatosensory cortices are brain structures known to be involved in mapping and regulating internal states. Recent scientific studies claim that by tracking blood flow in these areas, we can actually see how various emotions activate different regions of the brain. Hence my question. Or, in laymen’s terms, “How do you feel?”

    Be this as it may, the wizards in the lab still have a mystery on their hands. They can’t figure out why deeply rooted emotions are as they are in the first place. They can scan the results of these events, but the whys and wherefores are still unknown.

    I would like to bring to their attention the words of one of history’s greatest doctors on the subject. One Friday evening, as he began the Friday night meal, the Kotzker Rebbe said, “The world is filled with wise, learned men, researchers and philosophers, who spend their time pondering, analyzing, researching and philosophizing on the verity of the existence and the functions of Hashem and His creations. But how much can they truly understand? No more, of course, than the limit of their intelligence.

    “The Jewish people, though, were given tools — the mitzvos — with which they can reach far beyond their own limitations. This is the whole truth in the meaning of the words ‘We shall do and we shall hear.’ If we have the tools with which to act, then we will be able to hear, to understand, to attain anything, even in the highest and loftiest realms beyond our limited human capabilities.”

    I introduced the Rebbe as being a doctor, realizing of course that this may sound dubious, to say the least. But let me explain.

    Our tzaddikim are the doctors of our souls. As such, they are able to reach places no medical or scientific expert can. The most challenging, complex and difficult to understand subject is the human mind. The seventh kapitel of Tehillim sheds some light on the mysteries of the mind.

    King David never had an easy time of it. He was constantly bedeviled by enemies. Of them all, he considered King Shaul the most difficult. The Gemara tells us that, unlike the others, Shaul was a truly great and righteous man. But Saul pursued David relentlessly. Time and again he promised he would stop, only to rekindle the feud soon afterward. Twice David had it in his power to destroy this implacable foe, and twice he showed mercy. At each occurrence, Shaul repented his past misdeeds, as the prophets quote him, “I have sinned…. Behold! I have acted like a fool and erred very much.”

    Shaul suffered from an all too human affliction: he was jealous of the young David. As a result, he became depressed, and this led to tragedy. David’s emotions were also complex. Shigayon by David, which he sang to Hashem, concerning Kush ben Yemini.

    Chazal tell us that the word shigayon is related to the Hebrew word shgia, error. David sang a song at the time of Shaul’s downfall. Later he realized it was a mistake to do so at that point, and he therefore asked to be forgiven. Why the remorse? Because even though Shaul was an enemy, he was anointed the first king of Israel and was in many ways more devout than David.

    Hashem, my God, I have taken refuge in You. Save me from all my pursuers and rescue me…. Like so many verses in Tehillim, this can be understood at many levels. At the simplest, David is asking to be saved from his enemy, Shaul. Then again, perhaps David is speaking of the enemy within. If a man as righteous as Shaul wanted to do him harm, perhaps the fault lies within. David might have wondered, What is it in me that is causing his hatred? His own character flaws might be at the root of the debacle.

    Lest they devour my soul like a lion, tearing it to pieces, there being no one to rescue me. Without siyatta diShemaya, the soul can be ripped apart by that king of the jungle, jealousy. Of all the traits that can get the brain working overtime, jealousy must rank pretty high up on the list. This passage can allude to Shaul as the lion or, once again, to David’s misgivings about his own actions.

    David goes on: If I repaid my friends with evil, I, who released those who unjustifiably torment me — then let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it and trample my life to the ground, and may my soul remain forever in the dust. David is saying, “I have treated others in a proper fashion. Even more, I released my enemy on two occasions. If that is not the case, then let them take me to the dust.”

    However, we can look at this from a different angle. Perhaps David is questioning his own motives in releasing Shaul. The Kotzker tells us that when Reuven convinces his brothers not to kill Yosef but instead to cast him into the pit, it is ostensibly to return later to save the lad. Even so, Reuven’s act of mercy is not without its murkier motives, to which the Midrash alludes when it interprets Reuven’s later return to the pit in terms of teshuva, repentance. In fact, the Midrash praises Reuven as the first man to repent.

    Reb Mendele asks, “Had not others done teshuva before? What about Adam and later Kayin?” True, but Reuven’s teshuva had a new aspect never seen before. Reuven perceived that his act of mercy was tinged with self- interest, for his father could justifiably hold him responsible for his younger brother’s safety. What would he say? How could he face him? This realization, that one could do a mitzva with mixed motives, was a fresh insight and earned Reuven the status of being mankind’s first baal teshuva.

    So, too, David was suggesting that perhaps all that kindness he showed others — even his altruistic freeing of Shaul — might have stemmed solely from selfish reasons that of which even he was not aware. “If so,” he says, “let my soul be driven by those I have wronged, even to the dust of the earth!”

    Finally, the sweet singer of Israel cries out, He began digging a pit and deepened it, only to fall into the pit he himself dug. The mind is so tricky that we can think one thing but at another level feel something entirely different. It is so deep, this pit that can entrap us. It’s so hard to really know and not to deny, I will express gratitude to Hashem for His justice, and sing praises to Hashem’s exalted name. As the soul doctor said, we have mitzvos, and through doing them we can see through the fog, see through the limitations of this mortal life.

  7. Chapter Eight

    It was a different time, a different place. I was living in Eretz Yisrael and serving as a mashgiach at one of the country’s largest poultry plants. Let me describe what this job entailed.

    Some folks may think their Shabbos chicken was born in a clean, sanitary plastic bag. I hate to be the one to disabuse anyone of such sweet thoughts of pastoral splendor, but in the quest for truth, one must tell all. Chickens do not hatch out of the egg straight into plastic bags. Along the way, they are raised by farmers, hauled off to the slaughterhouse, shechted and then processed. In general, none of these activities are for the squeamish.

    My responsibilities lay in overseeing the overall kashrus of the end product. Each morning, at about 5:30 A.M., large trailer trucks arrived at the factory filled to the brim with cages holding chickens. We were shechting some thirty thousand birds a day, and I was involved in making certain that everything ran smoothly according to the highest level of kashrus. I won’t bore (or disturb) you with the details; suffice it to say that thirty thousand chickens can make you wish you’d never see another drumstick for the rest of your life.

    Becoming so heimish with my winged friends actually made me into a bit of an expert on the management and breeding of the creatures. The halachic guidelines start from the first moments the chicks are born and are encountered along each step of the way.

    Let me give just one example. Birds reared in cramped spaces fail to develop proper legs. This can be seen by the swelling noticeable around their tendons — a condition that renders them treif. I could always tell when a particular farmer had tried to push things too far, because his flock would have a large amount of non-kosher chickens thanks to inflamed tendons. This was no simple matter, since in such cases the farmer stood to lose lots of money.

    One farmer once came over to me after an especially disastrous day and said, “Well, Rabbi, you really earned your pay today!” I looked at him in puzzlement. My duties were nowhere near finished. My pile of doubtful cases still held hundreds of birds that needed inspection.

    “Sure, you get paid to make things treif, and today you exceeded your usual zealous self.”

    I could see this fellow was not very pleased, but in truth he had only his own greed to blame.

    “My dear friend,” I answered him, “you’ve got it all wrong. I am here to make your product kosher, and it hurts me to have to do otherwise.”

    The problem has long been that those without a Torah understanding tend to see halacha as an obstacle to the charms of a stricture-free life. The truth is, however, that Torah adherence creates the ambience for a glorious life, both in this world and in the next. Those deformed chickens are a perfect example of what can go wrong. Their swollen legs showed that they never were given the chance to live normally. They were never allowed to move freely but were crowded together throughout their short lives. In following Hashem’s laws, we are forced to allow chickens in our care to develop normally. If not, they will never grace a Shabbos table.

    It wasn’t only the chicken’s feet that concerned us. As I mentioned, our interest started from the moment the chicks were hatched.

    Shortly after birth, chicks are vaccinated for certain diseases. This is done in several ways. At one point, we were concerned that in the course of the vaccination the membrane covering the chicken’s brain could be damaged. (I told you this is not for the squeamish.) To test if this was a legitimate concern, I had to go to farms that hatch eggs and watch how the procedure was done. For some strange reason, this usually took place at 5 A.M. in the coldest, dampest places imaginable. So much for the rigors of the intrepid kashrus supervisor.

    I touch on this only to show how halacha actually protects everything we eat. More than that, it teaches us to have a reverence for Hashem’s creatures.

    I was always aware of the responsibility every shochet feels toward his role. Every knife has to be perfect — not because there is a mashgiach looking over his shoulder, but because shechting with an unfit knife would be a desecration of Hashem’s will. Every bird slaughtered finds its tikun (rectification) through the shochet’s adherence to Hashem’s laws. This is the sole reason the bird was created, and every shochet knows that its destiny lays in his hands.

    My experience in that poultry factory taught me that this responsibility begins way before the shochet ever approaches the bird. In reality, it encompasses everyone — in whatever position he finds himself in life.

    This might sound like an exaggeration. After all, it’s only a bird, and besides, there are another thirty thousand of them. But believe me, every bird was that important. If not, the whole shechita process itself would have been worthless. It is worthwhile for me to wax lyrical about my feathered friends just to show how all-encompassing Hashem’s Torah is and how positive its fulfillment can be.

    In the eighth kapitel of Tehillim, we hear King David speaking of these truths. Hashem, our Master, how mighty is Your name over all the earth, Who has set Your glory above the heavens! The holy Alshich explains that the angels in Heaven said this passage when they requested that the Torah be given to them. They well understood that the Torah has many facets that they, as angels, could not possibly fulfill. However, they wanted the spiritual truths of Torah to be theirs. They felt that mankind would never be worthy of them.

    But the next passage tells all. David answers, Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, You have established strength…to silence enemy and avenger. Even the smallest human being is mightier than all other creations because he alone is imbued with the power of speech, which gives him dominion. The Torah is for us, for those who face the daily grind of deciding life’s issues. Angels have no perception of what the Torah really wants. Theirs is an existence devoid of choices. To choose to do Hashem’s will is life enhancing, but no angel could grasp this.

    It’s missing the point to teach Torah without stressing this life- fulfilling aspect. Outsiders see us as living a different, strange lifestyle, and they see it as some awkward form of deprivation. In truth, though, the entire core of our adherence should be built on the positive world the Torah seeks for its children.

    In a world of increasing secularization, it is even more vital to teach and stress the Torah’s life-empowering gifts. No longer can we rely on a child’s passive absorption of values from home and community. The outside world encroaches too aggressively.

    Perhaps this is the meaning of our kapitel when it continues, Yet You have made him slightly less than the angels, and have crowned him with a soul and splendor. True, the angels sought the Torah because they were aware of mankind’s capacity for folly, but with this very same Torah mankind can find true honor and dignity. With it, You gave him dominion over the works of Your hands. You put everything at his feet…. The Torah-observant lifestyle gives a person the ability to have this dominion in the real sense of responsibility, including his treatment of chickens. Every aspect of life has its roots in the Torah, and through our understanding of this, our lives can become wholesome and truly enriched.

    The psalm concludes as it began: Hashem, our Master, how mighty is Your name over all the earth! This principle is so beautiful and life affirming. Everything in life, from the most mundane to the most spiritual, is linked together through Hashem’s word, and if followed, then everything can be felt in these positive terms.

  8. Chapter Nine

    You’ve been there, too. I know you have. It’s that place where all of us have been, that tight place that reeks of pain and worry. In every life there are times when we find ourselves in what can only be called tzaros, troubles. It may be a health problem, a financial crisis or something amiss at home. Whatever it is, it hurts, and you find your heart gripped with fear.

    And then, like a flash of lightning, Hashem’s brightness shines through, and your fervent prayers are answered. The clouds lift, the air becomes breathable, and you feel ten times lighter. At that moment, you are so uplifted that your soul seems to be flying as you thank Hashem for His ongoing benevolence.

    Our kapitel speaks of such moments: I will thank Hashem with all my heart. I will relate all Your wonders. We are meant to extol Hashem’s goodness with our lifeblood. Yet not only are the apparent wonders worthy of our thanks, but those everyday “wonders,” the stuff that only our hearts are aware of.

    Too often we count our blessings through the events that seem to be written in capital letters, forgetting that the everyday is no less miraculous. When those dark days find their light and our spirits are rightfully lifted, at that moment we should connect ourselves with Hashem’s everyday chessed. Those heightened feelings can find resonance for a more positive existence beyond the moments of special spiritual attachments.

    The Piaseczner Rebbe warns us about utilizing such moments properly. He writes: “You cannot be sure that the minute your wish is fulfilled your broken heart will open up. An iron wall will close off the temporary breach; your heart itself will feel like stone. Sealed and boarded up at every possible entrance, you remain locked outside yourself.” If Hashem in His kindness gives us cause for heightened awareness of His ongoing providence, yet we don’t build on those experiences, we will find our hearts locked out of our essence.

    King David appreciated this truth, and his next sentence gives us an insight on how to acquire true value at such times: I will rejoice and exult in You. I will sing praise to Your name, the One most high. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that the Hebrew word used here for singing praise, azamra, is connected to, tzemer, growth. Moments of elation should lead to a sense of spiritual growth. When Hashem shows us a special glimpse of His ongoing mercy, we must utilize these insights for our continuous growth. David says he will thank Hashem and do so with his entire heart, his entirety, because these moments bring him to see everything as Hashem’s wondrous deeds. Thus his future will bring added growth, a growth that will bring kiddush Hashem into this world.

    In parashas Vayeitzei we read that Yaakov Avinu dreamed of a ladder reaching from the earth up to the heavens with G-d’s angels ascending and descending. This can serve as a beautiful lesson. The creation of heavenly beings starts through our will to do something here on earth.

    The Degel Machaneh Efraim quotes his grandfather the holy Baal Shem Tov as saying that it is impossible for a Jew to remain at the same level perpetually. One must either go up or down. Descent, too, can be for the purpose of ascent, provided that one realizes he is in a state of smallness and prays to Hashem that he rise to greatness. By linking the emotional highs with a greater sense of growth, David is expressing how such moments can serve as footsteps toward continuity.

    There is a moving passage in the sefer Kedushas Levi that elucidates this.

    “Our Sages taught that Hashem appeared to the Jewish people at Sinai as an old man, while at the time of the exodus from Egypt, He appeared to them as a young lad.”

    This alludes to the two forms of service of the Creator. In the first, a person serves Hashem simply because He is a great Ruler. He does not consider the goodness and kindness Hashem bestows on him, because such favors and pleasures are like nothing compared to the great delight experienced in the act of serving the Creator. Such a person knows that he worships the great and powerful King Whose servants number in the millions and Whose glorious chariots are infinite in number. This type of service is called greatness of mind, wherein one serves the Creator with the greatness of his intellect.

    Then there is another kind of worship, where one serves the Creator because the Creator grants him much kindness and goodness. This person worships the Creator with smallness of mind.

    At the Exodus, the Jewish people saw Hashem’s miracles and wonders and then worshipped Him. This was service with a smallness of mind.

    This is what our Sages meant when they said that Hashem appeared to the Jewish people as a young lad at the Red Sea, for a youth has a limited mind, and at that point they served Hashem out of smallness of mind. In contrast, at the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the impurities of the Jewish people had departed, and no earthly pleasures held any importance for them compared with service of Hashem. This was greatness of mind, and this is what our Sages meant when they said that Hashem appeared to the Jewish people as an old man at Sinai, like one who possesses a great mind.

    This Kedushas Levi is enlightening. Life gives us opportunities to see Hashem’s Hand. We can allow our minds to remain small and never go further than the level of the young lad, or we can grow and obtain the level of a wise old man.

    Hashem’s love for us is so great. He gives us golden opportunities, and with each bit of growth He fills us with such spiritual warmth that we “rejoice and exult.” The act of growing brings with it exultation.

    The kapitel continues, And those who know Your name will place their trust in You, for You do not forsake those who seek You, Hashem. Total trust is the trust of one who sees Hashem’s goodness in everything, in every action. Those who truly trust in Hashem will never be bereft of His light because Hashem will not allow them to become lost.

    We who were raised in the post-Holocaust world have witnessed this daily. Our teachers taught Torah with numbers inscribed on their forearms, yet they taught of light, of simcha. Theirs was a world of the greatness of mind. Now we are asked to pick up their holy torch. But with what will we carry on their legacy? Are our minds as great, or have we allowed them to atrophy into smallness?

    I don’t pretend to know the answers. I can only suggest that each of us ask the question.

    I have a vivid memory of a warm Yid learning this shtikel Kedushas Levi with me. It was at his family’s Shabbos table, where I was a guest student. I really don’t know how much that Yid knew how to learn. I certainly am no expert on such matters. What I do know are the tears of deveikus, of closeness and yearning, I saw running down his cheeks while he read these words aloud from his sefer. He was certainly not small of mind, and despite the fact that he was a humble machine operator during the week, on Shabbos he was a creator of angels. I only wish that just once I could be on that level.

    So let us take those moments of bliss and use them for further growth — after all, that’s what they’re here for — and may our hearts truly rejoice in what is real and good.

  9. Chapter Ten

    The tenth verse in this kapitel describes the wicked: Pretending to be harmless, he overpowers the downtrodden. The Kobriner Rebbe explained this type of evil person with a parable.

    An old mouse sent her son out to search for food with a strict warning to beware of enemies. The young mouse met a rooster and hastened back to his mother in great terror. He described the enemy as a haughty being with a comb that stands up.

    “He is no enemy of ours,” said the old mouse, and she sent her son out again.

    This time he met a turkey, and he came running home even more frightened than before. “Oh, Mother,” he said panting, “I saw a great puffed-up being with a deadly look.”

    “He is also not our enemy,” replied the mother. “Our enemy keeps his head down and appears exceedingly humble. He acts smooth and is soft-spoken and friendly. If you meet him, beware!”

    With this pithy tale the Rebbe shared with us a great truth concerning our most formidable enemies, a truth more clearly evident today than ever before.

    Our world has become totally enmeshed with secular values to the point that these new strictures are the religion of the day. The culture of our times tells us that nothing is sacred and the only reality is that which the individual yearns for. How did things come to such an impasse? When did things go wrong?

    In truth, there was no one catastrophic event that changed the way the world views things. The decay we see today was introduced drop by drop. Slowly, over a period of time, things began to change. Technology made it possible for events and ideas to reach ever-growing circles.

    Some saw this as a great boon for mankind. No longer would the masses be left in darkness. The light of technology would give everyone the opportunity to become an equal partner in society.

    It sounded grand, but it was a false premise. The reality was that with each advance new and slicker salesmen arose with one goal in mind — to get the innocent bystanders of society to part either with their money or with their ability to think independently.

    This process is called “the dumbing down of society,” and it is part and parcel of where our world is headed. If we take notice, it becomes obvious that each new breach of moral borders comes with a specific agenda that enriches or enhances some power-seeking group.

    There was a time when a civilized community had limits that all held sacred. If one crossed those borders, he did so with the knowledge that his actions were not in keeping with the standards of his friends and family.

    While in the world at large, which lacks the truth of the Torah, there was never a formula for perfection in terms of human behavior, there were universally accepted codes that stood for the lofty aspirations and hopes that lie within the human heart. These have been destroyed because, simply and bluntly put, it’s better for business if everyone strives to obtain more and more materially. That’s what consumerism really is — using and using to the point of abusing everything in sight.

    Thus the spiral that started with what seemed to be altruistic intent has sucked the world into a vortex of fear and greed. We fear being seen as failures in a materialistic way, and we find that, no matter what we do have, it can’t assuage the hunger for more.

    This is the enemy the Rebbe described. Our greatest foe is not the dangerous monster baring his fangs; it’s the insipient salesman who wants only to give you more and more goodies.

    Let me share an example of this with you. The great advances we have witnessed in the field of medicine will make anyone with sense feel encouraged. Diseases that were once incurable are now swatted away with a few pills. We seem to be living longer and in better health. All this wondrous magic flows from those friendly folks in the laboratory who seem to be able to whip up almost any concoction needed to cure mankind’s ills.

    That’s all well and good, but there is a downside to all this.

    Even in our cozy Westernized democracy, one must question certain practices that may well be putting us all in danger. It is common knowledge that the huge pharmaceutical companies offer incentives to the medical practitioners who prescribe their products. After all, they are the ones who end up actually selling the goods. Did you ever ask your doctor if he receives material benefit from the manufacturers of that expensive new cure he just prescribed for you?

    I won’t elaborate further on this subject, although it can fill an entire book. I just want to show how the wrong values that have taken over so much of the world’s outlook can be introduced so innocently.

    I can hear you already: “Well, this is all about the outside world, but what relevance does it have for the Torah community?”

    The answer, my dear friends, is “Plenty!”

    How many heimishe Yidden find it impossible to make a simcha because of the outlandish expenses that have become the norm? Once on a time Jews offered to share in friends’ and neighbors’ simchas by hosting a sheva brachos for the young couple. A few friends would join together for a simple meal that was richly spiced with that most valuable of ingredients — true Yiddishe joy. Now there are many who are embarrassed to host such occasions. They feel they can’t afford the extravagantly catered events these meaningful affairs have evolved into. There is almost no difference between the expense of the wedding itself and the following seven days of celebrations. If this isn’t the stealthy march of materialism into our world, then what is?

    Our kapitel does not start off with any particular salutation. Perhaps this is because its timeless plea needs no specific setting. King David is calling out to each of us who feels trapped by the smooth-talking enemies that surround us. The wicked man arrogantly pursues the poor, entangling himself in schemes of his own making. We are all poor at one level or another, and we all need Hashem’s support in order to persevere and escape the relentless trap of our most dangerous enemy.

    In secular society today, the route to success and fame seems to be just as David put it: The wicked man congratulates himself on fulfilling his personal desires, and the brazen robber pats himself on the back for blaspheming Hashem…. He says to himself, “Nothing bad will happen to me or any of my descendants.” His speech is full of insincere pledges while in his heart lurk evil schemes and sin.

    What can we hope for? David tells us this, too: Hashem is King forever and ever! We must use David’s words for our own painful needs. They reach out to that essence that is the only true answer. Our Creator was, is and always will be. Nothing can change this truth.

    You heard the personal desires of the humble poor, Hashem. Remove worldly concerns from their hearts so they can turn to you. Then listen to their entreaties that You dispense justice for the orphan and the downtrodden, so the wicked will no longer terrify people on earth. Hashem will always hear our soul’s plea if we don’t give in to the enemies around us, especially if we don’t succumb to the enticements of those who disguise themselves as our friends. Then we will feel the comfort of Hashem’s strength, and we will no longer be terrified or unsettled.

  10. Chapter Eleven

    Grandchildren are great teachers, and having them for an extended visit is a virtual hands-on experience. I have just had the pleasure of such an encounter, and as my little teachers frolic their way into Tatty’s car, I bid them a fond (though exhausted) farewell, knowing how much I owe them. Children have a way of seeing things with an open mind. Their vision is not obscured by the callousness of a world grown too weary to hope. To them, all is possible, and parents and grandparents are truly righteous and good.

    Parents are often so busy trying to keep things under control that they don’t really enjoy the truths their children reveal. Grandparents, however, not only have more time but have gained that extra sense of experience that allows their hearts to listen.

    Don’t think this ability comes easily. It’s the result of years of living through the hard knocks we call life and finally learning to appreciate what’s really important and meaningful. In fact, to be totally honest, even we old-timers aren’t always listening, because in some areas of our minds, the difficulties of life have left us deaf to the chirping hope of the young. This is something I try to remember when opening my heart to my grandchildren’s view.

    One area in which my grandchildren always leave me with newfound strength is their all-encompassing trust in Hashem. They naturally accept that Hashem is the Creator of all they see, and that we adults are Hashem’s prophets who are here to tell them how to live. In the world of a child, parents are the lawgivers, the Moshe Rabbeinu of their experience. This is a daunting situation we elders should never lose sight of, yet we are only human, and we do sometimes let the other side show.

    During this particular visit, I had the great honor of entering a peekaboo contest with my two-year-old granddaughter. Besides being cute, sweet and innately brilliant, she even had time to humor her old zeidy. She did this by hiding her face behind whatever came to hand, usually an ill-used blanket of ancient derivation. There were no words in this game, only smiles and laughter. My little wonder (yes, I am prejudiced) hid her face in said shmatta while I pretended I didn’t see her. Then she unmasked herself with glee, overjoyed at having successfully put one over on her zeidy. This went on for a long time until finally I got bored, and we found another game to play instead.

    Often, this was the cue for the young lady’s older brother to enter with a game of his own. At the sagely age of five, he has developed a penchant for fixing things. The fact that they may well not be broken means little; he can soon rectify that inconvenience with a few well-selected bangs. This young genius received a new toy on his arrival. It is a plastic electric screwdriver-wrench — a one-tool-contains-all of mass destruction. He liked to walk around, using it on any unwary piece of furniture. He graciously condescended to use it on any unsuspecting humans who came his way as well.

    I mention all this while kvelling to illustrate a point. These children are still in their natural state of giving goodness and are reenacting things that should come natural to us. The peekaboo game is one that ignites a child’s will to be found by a loved one, and my little grandson’s fix-it mania (he asked me to tell you that he is a good yingele and that his name is Pinchas) shows a will to make things whole again. It may sound far-fetched to speak of children’s games in such lofty terms. Let me explain through the words of our kapitel.

    The chapter begins, I have taken refuge in Hashem’s Divine providence, so how dare they say to me, “Go wander off to your mountain, bird”? This psalm speaks of the constant Divine guidance with which Hashem runs this world. Yet there are wicked people who seek to belittle our belief. They mock us, in effect saying, “You are like foolish birds flying about with no guidance. Go to your supposed mountain that is your belief. You will find nothing there but wind and rocks on which to crash.”

    These scoffers saw proof for their arguments in David’s tribulations. However, the righteous David tells us, “I have taken refuge in Hashem’s Divine providence.” I have found my security in the knowledge that there is a Divine plan for me as an individual — even in the throes of tribulation — and nothing can move me from the truth.

    Yes, the wicked bend the bow, placing their arrow on the bowstring.” They are always working to shoot at the heart of my beliefs, but they “shoot at the righteous when it is dark.” Someone shooting in the dark cannot possibly strike his target a direct blow. The arrows shot by the wicked cannot find their mark if my heart is true. While they may sometimes wound me, they won’t find their way into my soul if I remain conscious of Hashem’s constant love.

    “Hashem tests the righteous” — He tests me so I may grow and become ever more sensitized to His Presence. In contrast, “He despises the wicked and the lover of violence.” Hashem doesn’t bother to test the wicked because they have shown their inability to see Hashem’s hand in their daily lives. A Torah Yid is blessed when given the opportunity to act on these truths, and when we do so, we give positive reassurance to our young as well.

    Sometimes we may think that just because, in our limited understanding, it seems as if Hashem has hidden His face, He does not see, G-d forbid. In reality, though, it is as David tells us, “For Hashem is righteous, and He loves righteousness. The upright will behold His countenance.”

    My granddaughter can hide her face, but deep down she feels secure because she knows that whenever she removes her mask, I’ll be there for her. And my grandson reminds me that Hashem is the one true Creator Who wants only to fix our broken hearts through His “tests” of our inner selves.

    Everything is in His loving hands. It is our challenge to understand this truth at every level and at all times.

    King David spoke of his trials and tribulations. His was not an easy time, yet he strove to find Hashem’s face at every juncture, even when he knew his troubles were due to his own misdeeds. Hashem never disappears; it is we who somehow withdraw and then fail to realize we have done so.

    There is a famous story of a great chassidic master who once came on his grandchild in tears. “What’s wrong, my child?” he asked.

    “Zeidy,” replied the child, “I was playing hide-and-seek with my friends, and when it was my turn to hide, they all went off without even looking for me.”

    On hearing his grandson’s words, the tzaddik broke down in tears. “Hashem hides from us,” he cried, “wanting us to find Him, and we don’t even look for Him.”

    Children are so wise. They have an unshakable feeling for kedusha. We must keep them holy by giving them the fundamentals for the greatest understanding one can possess — the knowledge that Hashem is with us every step of our lives.

  11. Chapter Twelve

    It’s that time of year again, when we Yidden seem to be strangers to all that is going on around us. The rest of the world is either resting from one holiday or enjoying the next bout of merriment. We draw on our hidden Chanuka inspiration until it’s time to begin our joyous Purim preparations. In the midst of all this, there is a unique activity that even we join in. It’s sale time everywhere. “Fifty percent off our previously extortionist prices,” proclaim the signs. (Well, not quite, but you get the gist of it.) People flock from near and far, lines start forming days in advance, and it seems that everyone in the land has been deprived of his basic needs until this very moment. If you are the brave type, you too will join the throngs, money clasped tightly in your hands, seeking to find the bargain that will bring light and joy to your life.

    Before you bundle up and sally forth, let me tell you a secret: There are no bargains. Anything worth having will cost as much as always. It’s the junk they’re unloading, and you will be getting the better end of the deal in every way if you sit home and say a few tehillim.

    After much investigation, I have discovered that there are never any sales of your particular shoe size or your exact shirt length. This year’s sales racks are full of items such as organic shirts, perfumed handkerchiefs and a cornucopia of outsize yellow jumpers for the menfolk (I am not making this up). In short, it’s sale time only for items one would never buy otherwise.

    Somehow, you walk into these grabbing festivals, and the frenzy overtakes you. You come to the stores with your list of real needs, but as you surf along the rows of merchandise and realize that what you came for isn’t there, you do what any red-blooded consumer is trained to do. You buy something, anything, as long as it’s half price. You will never use it, it will lie in your closet for years, but you will buy it “just in case.” This little glimpse into the contemporary mind is indicative of a much larger malaise. People really believe that things can be gotten cheaply, that nothing is worth full value and that everyone is entitled to a free ride. Unfortunately, this attitude has found its way into the realm of morals as well.

    There is an expression, “No pain, no gain.” This used to be a real insight into the truth of one’s moral growth, for there’s no such thing as a sale on life’s basic values. Once they are compromised, they are lost. Sadly, we have become the victims of the smooth talkers of the moral marketplace.

    Today even Torah-true believers find it uncomfortable to speak out on subjects that the New Age demigods have encircled with the halo of “political correctness.” Our kapitel speaks of such times. “They spout false ideologies to each other, glibly speaking hypocrisy.”

    King David begs Hashem to save us from those who have sunk so low that their entire beings are corrupted. Not only do they lie, but they themselves believe these lies. The atmosphere is so corrupt that one doesn’t even expect to hear the truth anymore. As the holy Alshich points out, even glib tongues speak in vain. No one believes anyone because everyone knows the other is lying. Each sees through to the other’s heart, past his slick tongue.

    This doesn’t refer only to salesmen of material goods. Just take a look at the world’s leaders. The kapitel’s next words, quoting the boasts of the corrupted, sound all too familiar: “With our tongues we will prevail. Our lips are with us — who is master over us?” This is the sad reality of today. Those of smooth lips rule us with their lies.

    How did we come to such a state? Where were the good and noble of mankind when it all began? The words of the Sfas Emes concerning Pharaoh’s dream reveal the truth in its starkness.

    The Torah relates, “And behold, seven other cows came up after them…and stood by the other [fattened] cows…and the [lean] cows ate up the seven well-favored and fat ones” (Bereishis 41:3-4). The Sfas Emes says our Sages’ description of the evil inclination’s growing control over a person first as a passerby, then as a guest and finally as a master is based on this verse.

    The seven lean cows first “came up” after the seven fat cows, slowly and inconspicuously. Then they “stood by” them like guests in their pasture, and finally they “ate them up” altogether. So too the evil inclination approaches man inconspicuously, then confronts him time and again as a guest, until eventually he rules over him and his household completely. This insight of the Sfas Emes is laser sharp. Look around today. What was once seen as beyond the pale is now discussed as the norm. The world reacted to the horrors of world war by becoming more liberal in its thinking. In some ways, this was a good thing. Society had allowed hatred and prejudice to have their way for far too many years. The problem started when the guilt of past misdeeds allowed for blurring of reality.

    The barriers of proper behavior that are the building blocks of a civilized society were labeled as constrictive and demeaning. The new order called for no rules except those that each individual wrote for himself.

    The lean and scrawny cows sidled up to the well-balanced creatures and whispered in their ears, “Look what you’ve done — the whole world was brought to war.” The well-favored cows lowered their heads. “Maybe they are right. Maybe it was our fault.” Soon the thin, vacuous cows were taking over the pastures of our minds, our schools and our homes. Finally, the good and well favored were entirely swallowed up, and no one dared say a word.

    The madness we see today has reached such proportions that even those who are meant to be moral teachers are found cowering behind the barn, afraid to raise their heads. The mentality of the bargain basement has taken over. Morals are sold cheaply to the masses, yet, like all those bargains at sale time, they are worthless.

    The current scenario was also foreseen by King David. “Because of the oppression of the poor, because of the sighing of the needy, now I will arise,” says Hashem. ‘I will grant the one they dismiss, deliverance.” The sickness such thinking has caused puts all of us into the category of the poor and needy.

    Even in the bastions of the Torah world, we find those who have allowed their borders to become fuzzy. Daas Torah is no longer seen as the bridge to our Creator. Things are whispered that weren’t even imagined years ago, because the “lean cows” have swallowed up our hearts. Yet David promises that Hashem will arise to save us if we at least see ourselves as being oppressed and truly sigh to Hashem.

    The current problems that plague the Jewish people can find their genesis in the slick tongues of recent years. The connection between Hashem and His people has become a source of contention. The wizards of “real politics” are too embarrassed to tell the world that we are a people of the Torah and that this same Torah charges us with the responsibility of living in Eretz Yisrael in holiness.

    Outside the holy land, the same slick salesmanship pervades. The unrest is all about politics and not about Divine truths.

    But people deserve more than cheap bargain basement Yiddishkeit. Their souls cry out for the real thing. Witness the thousands of baalei teshuva flocking to the Torah centers of the world. These are the poor and needy whose sighs have been heard.

    The kapitel ends, “You, Hashem, will securely save them from such a vile generation forever. The wicked walk on all sides when the ones they had scorned are exalted among the sons of man.” Our hopes lie only with Hashem. With heartfelt prayer, we will see the day when evil will be put to the side forever.

  12. Chapter Thirteen

    Kaleidoscope: Optical toy producing changing patterns; any complex pattern.

    This is how my dog-eared dictionary describes one of the most fascinating gifts I ever received as a child. I would gaze through it entranced and become almost mesmerized at the multitude of haphazard designs I encountered. They say that no two patterns are ever the same.

    I got to thinking about kaleidoscopes. I find their ability to use the same bit of crystals to create so many different pictures very similar to how we humans act. There is no exactitude to our behavior; every moment the crystals of our minds shift and create new facets and new degrees of experience. You go along life’s pathway and your mind flits about, taking untold diversions from where you think you want it to be. Shifting colors, different shapes — it’s all there, and you don’t understand where it comes from.

    In my role as a rav, I have seen so many different shapes of the human condition that I am no longer surprised by anything. People are so complicated that there is never any certainty in terms of human relations. A father can go off in the morning to his Daf Yomi shiur, daven with an early minyan, come home to help get the children get off to cheder, and truly feel an enormous uplift in his spirituality. Then he may well go to his business and find himself knee-deep in some very dubious dealings. A bit later he’ll give a large donation to a kollel, and then he’ll discuss someone else’s private life with all the gusto such nefarious chats can engender.

    This is the kaleidoscope of the mind, turning all those crystals into different shapes and different colors.

    Who is the real you — the warm davener, the crafty businessman or the loose-tongued neighbor? The answer is that we are all of these folk, and at any given moment the crystals can turn to take on yet another shape. It doesn’t take much to change our mental landscape. A word, a sight, something heard — each has the potential to distort our inner mind’s view.

    And as quick as we change, so we can change yet again. To me, this is the most instructive of all, and to be fair, I find it all a huge mystery. In my limited experience, I have found that the one certainty in this regard is that there is no certainty.

    This doesn’t mean that the human mind is so fragile that one must give up hope for its stability. In fact, the battle of our existence is to become the master over our fragile inner self. It’s a difficult challenge, but then again, we have an entire lifetime to work on it. The ability of self- deception only adds to the mystery and sometimes blinds us to who we are.

    The Piaseczner Rebbe, zt”l, wrote of this many times. He challenged his readers to listen to the inner conversations that ramble about in their heads. He pointed out that they would be astounded at their own mad thoughts. This kaleidoscopic musing represents the war we wages with those sides of our personality not yet turned toward our Creator.

    Yet understanding our natures is not meant to cause us despair. On the contrary, it is intended to give us hope. Knowing that all humans are locked in the same wrestling match gives heart to those who think they are uniquely bad or beyond the pale.

    Our kapitel can be understood as speaking of this lifelong conflict. King David cries out, Until when, Hashem, will You forget me — forever? Until when will You hide Your face from me? We often feel that all our promises to improve are for naught. Each day a person hopes to become a more positive human being, and then each day those internal crystals shift again, and he is no longer the mensch he aspired to be. With each prayer, we beg Hashem for help, yet we seem to be lost and not even noticed. Until when must I devise plans within my soul to be free of sorrow in my heart by day? Until when will my enemy rise high above me?

    This chapter mentions the words “until when” four times. This may be indicative of the changing patterns of our minds. Each set of “crystals” cries out from its setting for Hashem’s help. Even when we are swept up in actions that deep down we know are wrong, we acknowledge that Hashem is with us. Our souls cry out from the depths that are seemingly obscuring our vision of Hashem’s will.

    This cry is the beginning of our salvation. Look [at my troubled life] and answer me, Hashem. Brighten my eyes, lest my slumber turn to death. The worst circumstance is when one is oblivious to his weaknesses. If we’re not even aware of where we are in life, we can’t plead to Hashem to look at us. This self-delusion is the greatest of slumbers and can only lead to spiritual death. If we are aware that we are indeed vulnerable and capable of such wide fluctuations of desires, then we are on the path to redemption. We can ask Hashem to look at our troubles and bring light to our eyes.

    Yes, the mind is a tricky place indeed. Like quicksand, it is full of weaknesses that seem to grab us at any wrong step. This is the tapestry of our existence, and it is there for a purpose. We can choose to give up and allow the facets set by the kaleidoscope within to create the agenda, or we can rage against our own weaknesses and seek Hashem’s help.

    This kapitel gives us hope and support. First, it allows us to recognize that we are not alone. Everyone wrestles, each within his own situation. Second, by inviting Hashem to look within our hearts, we are actualizing the realization that He is in fact the source of our salvation.

    Thus the chapter concludes, I trust in Your kindness. My heart will exult in Your deliverance. There will be deliverance, because I have accepted that it is to be found in Hashem. Then I will sing to Hashem, for He has dealt kindly with me.”

    Yidden, we need never despair. Inner struggles should be seen for what they are — a stepping-stone to the soul’s refinement. We can overcome our weaknesses and sing to Hashem. This song will tell about all the delusions and faults we have overcome with Hashem’s help.

    Yes, we may very well feel weary at times. The battles take so much of our energy, and sometimes it seems that our life force is ebbing away. This kapitel reminds us that King David knew a thing or two about such matters, and he has given us his words as eternal support. The song we will sing on emerging will be this “Song by David,” whose words reach out to envelop us with hope and encouragement.

  13. Chapter Fourteen

    A young student asked me a question that only someone actively involved in seeking new meaning in life could pose. “Rabbi, why is Tehillim so depressing?”

    I looked into his searching face and realized that his question was coming from someone who was learning the words of King David with fresh yet untutored regard. He wanted to find help in these age-old words, but he could not get past their painful descriptions. I replied, “King David tells us the reality of life, but he does so from a position of hope and promise. Nowhere do we see the holy singer of Israel fall into total despair. His greatest message is that we can work beyond what we see and find the ultimate salvation that Hashem holds forth.”

    This conversation turned into a long and as of yet unfinished dialogue that I treasure greatly, for it has given me an opportunity to articulate what I myself must understand. Even at his most stressful, painful moments, David saw the light of hope. It is our job to find it in every chapter he authored.

    In kapitel 14, David foresees the destruction of the First Temple at the hands of Nebuchadnetzar. He prophesizes that our enemies will defile our holiest places, and no one will lift a finger to stop them. Nothing could be darker than such devastation, no moment as painful.

    David describes our enemies with the words, The degenerate one said in his heart, “There is no God.” They deal corruptly and abominably; there is no one who does good. Rav Hirsch sees the word naval, the degenerate one, as related to the root word for withered and worn out. He explains that just as a withered leaf has no will of its own but gets caught up in the currents of any passing breeze, so it will appear in those dark times of disaster. All the moral strength in man will seem withered away, and people will act according to the winds of their passions. Without the willpower to withstand, they will fall into the vortex of mindlessness.

    A Jew’s position of uniqueness among the rest of Hashem’s creations is based on his unique ability to choose right from wrong. This is how we resemble the image of Hashem. When this Divine spark turns cold, we hear our enemies declare, “There is no G-d.”

    David speaks of eternal happenings. Our own times relate to his words all too well. While today Hashem’s enemies use different tools to deaden the hearts of mankind, their goals are the same. They want us to deny our image of Hashem, our holy spark. So they deluge the air we breathe with the rot of secular selfishness and create an atmosphere where no matter how much we have, we feel the need for more. No generation has wallowed in so much material good, yet no generation has seen so much mental anguish and unhappiness. Unfortunately, so many have become withered and dry, and they get blown from one craving to the next, mindless of their potential for greatness.

    One day, I went to the post office to send off some mail and found myself waiting on a long line of mostly young students. I noticed that almost all of them were wearing little wires sticking out of their ears and attached to small boxes fastened to their waists.

    In and of itself, this phenomenon wasn’t something unusual. Those wires were part of an old invention called a Walkman. The strange thing about the sight was that even when those kids were talking to the clerk at the postal counter, they still had their tapes blasting full force into their ears. It’s a miracle they could even hear what they were being told.

    This behavior is indicative of the world these young people inhabit. They don’t hear what those nearest them are saying because they are too engrossed in the jarring stuff being shouted into their heads. It’s no wonder the world we live in seems deaf to the cries of the soul.

    David described this sorry situation with the words, They have all gone astray, together they became corrupt. There is no doer of good, not even one. Yes, things are pretty bad indeed. The streets are not fit to walk on. Everywhere we turn, posters and advertisements bombard us with decadence. Homes are infiltrated with all types of junk, and even the schools no longer teach moral rights and wrongs. This is truly devastation on the level King David foretold.

    At the same time, however, he speaks of hope and promise. It’s astounding to witness how the truth of his prophecy can also be seen in our times.

    I am reminded of a powerful insight that my dear friend and colleague, Rabbi Y. Y. Rubinstein, once wrote: “If you see a sign that says ‘NO ENTRY,’ it means there is a door.” He used these words to explain the passage where Hashem told Moshe to stop praying for the salvation of the sinning Israelites: “And now, do not try to prevent Me from acting. Let My anger flare up against them, and I will consume them and make you a great nation” (Shemos 32:10). With these words, Hashem hinted to Moshe a fabulous truth — a closed door is still a door. And with this understanding, Moshe prayed even more.

    In our generation, too, perhaps more than ever, Hashem wants to hear our beseeching voice and bring us salvation through its cries. Thus, after describing a world at its lowest, David says in the next breath, They will be stricken with terror, for Hashem is with the righteous generation. At the specific point where the corruption started, our enemies will be stricken with terror. The greatest terror of all will be the realization of how shallow and meaningless their lifestyle has become. Their sophisticated talk will be seen as foolishness because their lives will be revealed as empty and devoid of any real joy. Those who disparage the plans of the poor, those arrogant leaders who made fun and shamed the Torah adherent as being of no relevance in the modern world, will have to turn to Hashem amid the ashes of their own destructive doings because Hashem is their refuge.

    And then, in full voice, the kapitel sings out, O that out of Zion would come Israel’s deliverance! When Hashem returns the captivity of His people, Yaakov will exult, Israel will rejoice. This is David’s positive answer to the devastating reality presented earlier. There is no room for despair. We need only turn to Hashem.

    Recent events depict the words of this psalm all too well. Those who wanted to build a Jewish world based on ideals foreign to the Jewish soul have witnessed their great experiment turn to ashes. No one supports them, the so-called leaders of the other nations have turned their backs, and even their young have no real connection with their heritage. Their aspirations have withered away and left them terrified. The only vibrant segment left in the Jewish world today is the Torah-true community they despised and discarded. This community thrives with growth and vigor, and we wait the day when even those terror-filled unfortunates will find themselves seeking Hashem as a refuge.

    Perhaps we can take a cue from David and open up our hearts to those out in the cold, frozen by the frigid winds of an indifferent and valueless world. Maybe we can help them thaw and give them the warmth they need to come back to meaningful Jewish life. Maybe we can offer them Tehillim’s keys to open their hearts and find the way to the heavenly gates in fulfillment of David’s hopes.

    Our Torah sages kept their Tehillim open. They prayed from the darkest places and saw a vision of truth and light. This has always been our strength. What seemed to outsiders a closed door is an invitation to us to open it. Tehillim speaks of true hope. David never ceased to find the key to Hashem’s gates, and his great gift to us is that promise for all times.

  14. Chapter Fifteen

    Statistics show that one in five people are affected by it, eighty percent of visits to the doctor are because of it, and a fifth of children suffer from it. This worldwide epidemic was little heard of twenty-five years ago, yet today we find it crippling the population at large and causing untold grief and pain.

    The name of this terrible scourge is stress, and though many will shrug and say, “Oh, that’s some modern gobbledy gook for slackers who don’t want to work,” don’t be fooled. This is a real disease with real consequences. And if you feel that stress is only a problem in the secular world, I am sorry to disabuse you of any such notions.

    Stress has stepped into our community with a vengeance. Daily I hear of regular frum homes that are under siege from the stress of everyday living. One must work harder than ever just to keep up to everyone else’s standard, quality time spent with children is fast disappearing, and many heimishe homes see both parents consumed by their work loads to the detriment of the entire family. It is a difficult struggle just to earn enough to pay tuition, and grandparents find it ever harder to help their struggling children. Most working parents put in long hours and still find themselves bringing home work that wasn’t completed.

    We thought the new technology breakthroughs would make things easier, but in a perverse way, it’s just the opposite. Mobile phones put us on call twenty-four hours a day, and if we try to hide, the answering machines buzz with messages that must be returned as soon as possible. Fax machines churn out documents day and night, everyone is busy, and the environment we live in is so noisy you can barely think straight. It’s little wonder that so many are getting ill. The most heimishe parents, with all the good will in their souls, are finding this world a difficult place indeed, and our children feel this atmosphere of anguish and often act out accordingly.

    Into this maelstrom of disquiet we must endeavor to inject some relief. Perhaps we can’t change what the secular world has wrought, but as Torah Jews we must do whatever possible to make things better. If we can ameliorate some of the static in the air within our community, we can create pockets of safety that will give us all some breathing space.

    The first step is to diagnose the problem in terms of our own existence. What causes so much stress in our lives, and what irritants can be eliminated from our lifestyle?

    Anyone who looks deeply at the root causes will find several dynamics at play. First, we are driven by a certain degree of insecurity. It used to be that someone who had a job was more or less stable. Today the marketplace throws away its workers with ever more abandon. Skills become obsolete all too soon, and we have to work harder than ever just to stay in place. Employers are victims as well, trying to keep up with a ruthless world that has no respect for those at the bottom of the pile. This makes for a working environment that reeks of unhappiness.

    But this is not the core of the Yid’s stress. Jews have always known how to adapt to precarious terrain. The real tragedy is that when returning to the heimishe world after a day out there in the cold, we don’t find the support that was once the byword of the yiddishe velt. In a word, we are not nice enough to each other.

    Let us look at the fifteenth kapitel of Tehillim for guidance. A mizmor song by David. Hashem, who will live in Your tent? Who will dwell on the mountain of Your sanctuary?

    King David is about to describe what a Torah Yid should be. He asks a question that may seem quite basic, perhaps even superfluous. The Torah has 613 commandments. Aren’t these the keys to obtaining entrance into Hashem’s tent?

    David goes on, however, to describe eleven behavior patterns that seem beyond the call of exact Torah duty. In reality, however, they contain the secret to allowing our minds to think and develop as they should. If we want to live in a safe and warm Torah world, it is these eleven facets that must be polished and refined.

    As he begins to enumerate these vital traits, we notice something unique and eye opening. Every one of the eleven points involves our relationship with our fellowman.

    He who walks in wholehearted integrity, does what is right and speaks the truth within his heart. Interestingly enough, we don’t find a mention about the length of one’s coat or the size of his tallis, not a peep about the color or shape of one’s hat.

    The next line reads, He who has no slander on his tongue, who has done his friend no evil nor disgraced those close to him.

    David knew a thing or two about people, especially those who grabbed onto minor acts and forgot the real essence of Hashem’s Will. As the Talmud Yerushalmi states, “The people of David’s generation were all righteous and observant. Yet they would fall in battle because they harbored slanderers and talebearers.”

    So what kind of Yid is David talking about? My dear friends, he is talking about the real Yidden, those who live under the cover of Hashem’s tent. Our times have seen great growth and the rebirth of our people, yet so many of our dearest and closest are in pain. In such times, we need to analyze how we relate to others, because so much of this stress is caused by our disregard of the feelings of those around us. We do evil if we don’t give support to those who are suffering. We can’t walk in righteousness if it’s over the prostrated bodies of friends who are desperate for a kind word. Stress is caused by anger and despair at one’s situation, and such negativity dissipates with a warm smile and heartfelt empathy.

    Each generation has its specific challenge. Ours may well be in the realm of David’s eleven points. Think for a moment. So many of us have an acquaintance we see every day who is burdened with something that causes him enormous stress. We can ease that burden. All it takes is a bit of caring on our part. As the verse tells us, He who walks in wholehearted integrity — How wholehearted can we be if we know that others are hurting and we do nothing? Does what is right — What is more right than the chessed of giving someone else hope? And speaks the truth within his heart — It is within our hearts that we are answerable to our actions. We may say that we care and we’ve done our best, but what kind of message is really in our hearts?

    Stress is a killer disease. It wears the afflicted person down until he becomes totally depressed. Tehillim tells us that to be part of that nation that strives to live in Hashem’s tent we must reach out and alleviate others’ pain. We must be honest in our hearts and bring real joy into our daily interactions with others.

  15. Chapter Sixteen

    Judaism is lofty and full of idealistic truths. Real life has many knocks that present a challenge. How do we live Judaism the way it’s meant to be lived? How do we make sure there isn’t a vast difference between what is written and what is actually practiced?

    I was thinking of this when I came across a vort based on the famous words in kapitel 16 of Tehillim, “Shivisi Hashem lenegdi tamid, I set Hashem before me always.” The Baal Shem Tov is quoted as saying, “The word shivisi can also mean ‘I made equal.’ Everything becomes of equal worth to me because I serve Hashem constantly. I care not if I am praised or blamed, whether I eat dry bread or luscious fruits. I serve Hashem equally in every circumstance and every place, when I am alone or when I speak to people, when I am at home or on the road. I believe that Hashem’s care is never absent from me. He sends people to talk to me because He wishes me to serve Him through speaking to them. He leads me away from home because I am wanted for His service elsewhere. Only He, my Creator, knows what is for my good and what is not.”

    What a powerful message! It speaks of a level so high that it seems impossible, yet if the holy Baal Shem Tov spoke so and had it recorded, he meant for us more ordinary folk to learn from its wisdom and strive toward its ideal.

    How do we even begin to approach such a level?

    We must try to answer this question, for if not, our understanding of where we should be is lacking. The entire kapitel describes how fortunate is the person who seeks to be close to Hashem, and how such a feeling gives him a sense of confidence and peace. “Protect me, Hashem, for I have taken refuge in You.” Here we have it in a nutshell. David tells Hashem, “My life consists of only You, Hashem, and I know that everything that happens is part of the ongoing plan meant for my growth. I can become closer to You because I realize that ‘You are my Master; I have no well- being without You.’”

    There is no reality that is not Hashem’s. Everything else is an illusion, just smoke and reflections in the worldly mirror of doubt and pain. Our problems begin when our ego gets in the way and makes it difficult for us to become subservient to the reality of Hashem’s totality. Yet our Creator purposely made us with this rough edge so we would have the freedom to choose and receive reward for our efforts.

    Where does one turn to find such devotion? In every generation, Hashem sends unique souls that are living examples of King David’s aspirations. If you merit to find yourself in the radius of such souls, it is your obligation to watch, listen and learn. Perhaps part of this obligation is to tell others of such holiness, and it may very well be that the Baal Shem Tov spoke of this matter for this very reason.

    With a humble heart and great trepidation, I would like to share just a few snapshots that I remember witnessing from one of our generation’s greatest lights. I do so only to illustrate our kapitel; I don’t pretend to understand more than just the obvious that was seen. This light was the Bobover Rebbe, zt”l, and in the shivisi Hashem realm, he was an expert.

    Let us take a look at one scene back in the early sixties. We are traveling on a train that is taking us from Haifa to Tel Aviv. The Bobover Rebbe has come to Eretz Yisrael to give chizuk to his small but growing yeshiva. The train is taken up almost entirely by chassidim, who have waited for hours at the port of Haifa just to be able to travel with their Rebbe. I have been allowed to stand in the Rebbe’s compartment, and I watch as the train rattles along, swaying back and forth. We stop at a few stations along the way. At each stop there are crowds of Yidden waiting to catch a glimpse of the tzaddik, and the air takes on more and more of an atmosphere that seems alive with spirituality.

    The Rebbe goes to the open window, Yidden cry out shalom, and everyone becomes animated with a joy that is almost tangible to the touch. The Rav smiles that heart-warming smile that is only his, and in those few moments, he transforms all those waiting into varmer chassidim.

    You must understand, my dear readers, that these Jews were almost all survivors of the Holocaust. Many had grown cold and numb from the pain they carried within. They had come to catch a glimpse of the Rebbe in the faint hope of re-igniting their souls, and with his magical smile, the Rebbe did exactly that.

    I can hear the fleeting conversations between the Rebbe and the few who managed to get close to the window: “Shalom, Yankele! Do you remember when we walked together to the tisch of my father, zt”l?” “Oy, Rebbe! I remember those days every moment.” “Mendele! Where have you been? I asked all over about you.” “Rebbe, I was far, far away, but seeing you has brought me home.”

    On and on it goes, snatched words that carry years and generations. Each stop is only for a few minutes, and all too soon the train is back on its rocking way. The Rebbe’s face seems so intense; no one dares to speak, he is somewhere way beyond our existence.

    Then we come to Tel Aviv, the final destination. There are thousands standing in the cool night. They are waiting for the man who represents their lives before all the suffering, who at the same time stands for their hope of the future. Police enter the car, ready to escort the honored guest through the throngs. The Rebbe is white as a sheet. He stands there, and one can detect his lips moving with words that fly straight up to the heavens: Shivisi Hashem… Yes, that’s the passage he is saying. I leave the rest to you.

    That night, the Rebbe gives a talk to the large gathering who have come to his new community in Bat Yam. These are the same sort of Yidden that had flocked to his train earlier. Most have gone through so much and lost so much, and they have come to hear words from their holy teacher’s son. Can he bring them back to the fold? What words are possible, in light of all the pain in the recent past?

    The Rebbe stands in front of the rows and rows of expectant faces. He starts to speak, and in moments the building is awash with tears. In his passionate manner, he cries with his listeners, “Do you remember your holy mothers? How they stood by the candles every Friday night and begged Hashem for only one thing? ‘Eibishter, hut rachmanus oif mir. Zay az mine kind zol blaben a Yid, Hashem, have pity on me. Let my child remain a Jew.’”

    Such power! Such feeling! The tears roll down faces that have seen so much and suddenly find themselves home again. Shivisi Hashem…here, there, wherever You place me.

    Another scene, one played out regularly. The Rebbe is sitting in his office. It is Chanuka, moments before kindling the lights. The yeshiva is facing a terrible crisis, and funds are needed within hours or everything may fall apart. The Rebbe is on the telephone, cajoling someone to help. Another phone rings. The Rebbe picks it up. A Yid is in trouble. He needs to know if he should undergo a serious operation. The Rebbe listens, asks a few pertinent questions, and gives his heartfelt blessing. He then returns to the other line and finishes asking the potential donor for his help. The shammas walks in; everyone is waiting for the Rebbe to light the menora. The Rebbe stands up and looks to the heavens. He puts on his gartel and walks briskly into the room where the menora awaits to be lit. The mitzva is performed. The Rebbe sits in deep thought, gazing at the lighted row of wicks, and we all feel the sweep of angelic wings overhead. Shivisi Hashem…there’s no difference if it’s on the phone, in the hospital or in front of the menora.

    And finally, just one more example — dancing. The Rebbe danced in a manner that only one who is totally imbued with Hashem can. It was like watching the whole of the Shemoneh Esrei expressed in a physical form — its highs, its lows, everything was there together with the heartfelt beseeching. Purim was special in this way. I will never forget how, after the entire night of the tisch, the Rebbe would dance, clearing away any thought of Haman and his like. At the last moments, he would stand at the door of the shul, his hand on the mezuza, his voice raised in song. We would all be dancing, and he would drive us on with the words, “Tzama lecha nafshi, My soul thirsts for You” (Tehillim 63:2). One total unit of devotion to shivisi…it was all the same.

  16. Chapter Seventeen

    A sweet story is always worth repeating. A young student once went to see the Lev Simcha. When asked which yeshiva he attended, he replied with the name of an institution renowned for its work with newly committed students. “But I’m not a baal teshuva,” he quickly added. “Why not?” was the Rebbe’s rejoinder. “We should all strive to be baalei teshuva.”

    In this world of labels and characterization, some people may think of baalei teshuva as a certain kind of exotic being — brave and noble, but not really part of the general population. Of course, this is ludicrous. Every person stagnates unless constant thoughts of teshuva are on his mind. The whole of one’s life should be considered and refined regularly. If not, we stop growing.

    King David knew what it was to do teshuva, and through his Tehillim, he left us ample lessons to be learned. This particular kapitel was written after the events surrounding the death of Batsheva’s husband Uriah. From his previous heights of spirituality, David felt he had fallen into the abyss. His sin weighed heavily on his mind. He realized that as leader of his people, his sin could be held against them as well. David knew there is no such thing as a behavior that is solely the business of the one who performs it. In spiritual matters, a “victimless crime” does not exist. We are all responsible for each other, and when one fails, his actions have repercussions on others. The spiritual air we breathe changes when a member of our community becomes ensnared in sinful actions.

    Thus David cries out, Hear, Hashem, righteousness. Pay attention to my cry. Listen to my prayer from guileless lips. David’s first step is to accept his wrongdoing. He dares not even start to repent until he has wiped away all deceit from his lips. Our sages tell us that David was the first to repent, and thus he paved the way for all future baalei teshuva. The Maharal points out that while we know of previous penitents, such as Adam, Cain and Reuven, David’s teshuva was unique. The others had all sought someone or something else to blame for their sins, and only later on did they admit to the wrongdoing. David, though, reached this step first. When the prophet accused him in the matter of Batsheva, he responded simply, “I have sinned.” Because of this attitude, he can now cry to Hashem and hope for Divine attention.

    If David’s approach was unique in previous generations, how much more so now, where every misstep is readily blamed on others. David’s humble acceptance of his responsibility is an inspiration. Mitigating circumstances may have pressured us into acting as we did, but when we face Hashem, we must be honest. We must take hold of ourselves and not try to escape responsibility by blaming circumstances beyond our control. “Stuff happens” in every life. The test is what we do with that “stuff” to make our lives more positive.

    David continues, Please dismiss the accusations against me. May Your eyes see only my integrity. Here David asks that Hashem take into account all the good he has done in the past. After accepting his guilt, David does not give up and become totally despondent. He is fully aware that a depressed state will never bring about a positive future. Instead, he speaks for a moment about the good he brought to this world, asking that in this merit his current state be put aside.

    You examined my heart, inspecting it in the night. You cleansed me of my scheming thoughts, that they may never cross my lips again. David then returns to his teshuva. He knows full well that he was tested and failed. Our sages tell us that David actually asked to be tested. He aspired to a higher level of holiness and was told that to reach the level he hoped for, he would first have to pass just such a crisis. His failure therefore carried a double weight on his heart. Not only would he never reach the level he had hoped for, but he had placed his people in jeopardy. Thus David prays that no scheming cross his lips. Again he tells us that in the final analysis, we have to clear our minds from all scheming and reasoning. Instead we must take ourselves to a simpler place: Support my footsteps on the circuitous byways so that my feet will not falter. Even these circuitous byways, where our view of the final goal is sometimes obstructed, are laid out for us by Hashem. Life is filled with ups and downs, but if we follow to Hashem’s pathways, we our journey is sure to be safe.

    I have called out to You because You will answer me, God. Today we seek help in many quarters, but the ultimate answer must always come from Hashem. The main thing is to call out to Him.

    Sometimes we are so busy seeking reasons for our distress and failures that we forget it is Hashem Who runs this world. Just as a loving father always awaits his child, so Hashem waits for us to turn to Him. Nurturing a festering anger against people around us won’t bring anyone joy. Here we are told to direct our cry of pain to Hashem, Who will always listen.

    The kapitel now comes to a passage that draws together all the various strings that make up true teshuva. Guard me as the apple of Your eye. Hide me in the shadow of Your wings from the evildoers who want to rob me, from my mortal enemies who surround me. The “apple of the eye” is the pupil, the point that lets in light. The Radak says that when we look into another person’s pupil, we see our own reflection as a small man. The ArtScroll Tehillim quotes Harav Gifter, zt”l, who derives from this a moral lesson. Most people observe others in order to find fault in them, thus boosting their own egos by feeling smug and superior. This is not the proper way. Rather, when you look at someone else you should see only yourself and realize what a small man you are compared to your neighbor. Here is the secret of being truly on the road of teshuva. As long as we stare into others’ eyes and see their faults and mistakes, we can never get past the superficiality of it all; we can neve r see that in truth, we are the small-minded and insecure ones. David faced his situation, and therefore he had the right to ask Hashem to guard him as “the apple of His eye.”

    We are given these words of King David so that we too can come to such levels. There is so much bitterness going around today. People look down on others, never really understanding or caring. This is a wall we have erected ourselves. Such a barrier does not allow for growth, and certainly not for teshuva. It causes the anger within us to fester, because the ill feeling, which is certainly a sin, doesn’t dissipate. Rather, it gets worse because of our lack of true teshuva. This can surely be one of the causes for the devastation we see all around us.

    As David saw, every action has an effect on others, and like a physical virus, this spiritual one is highly contagious. When we start to look at the “little man” within instead of looking critically at those around us, we too will hopefully be able to end with King David’s final words: Because of my concern for justice, I will merit to behold Your countenance. At the revival of the dead, I will be satisfied by Your likeness.

  17. Chapter Eighteen

    It had been a difficult time. Those last days remain seared in my mind, the memory and its poignancy never to be forgotten. Larry was dying, and there was nothing we could do but give comfort and say Tehillim. Here was a man who had been so alive and full of grace. Yet in the space of a few months, he had become completely helpless. The pain was agonizing, both for his family and for everyone who knew and respected him.

    Larry was the president of our congregation. Unlike some in such positions, he was respected by all. In addition, he was an outstanding doctor with an international reputation. He had received honors from many famous personages, including the Queen of England. He was not old, and he had great plans for the future. Then one day he went shopping, collapsed and awoke to be told that he was ill with an ailment that had no known cure. From one who walked tall and spoke with unrivaled eloquence, he slowly shrank into a pain-ridden shadow who could not even eat on his own. His loyal wife and their grown children carried the burden of his care with fortitude. The blow was doubled with the realization that their beloved husband and father had once been the tower of strength in their lives. This strength had extended to our entire community. His involvement as president of the shul had given direction to us all. He was a very caring and spiritual person, who became emotional whenev er people with problems turned to him.

    I remember how once, on his return from a trip to Eretz Yisrael, he described his feelings of elation at taking part in a kabbalas Shabbos service at the Kosel. I asked him what it was that had so moved him. He replied that to watch and share in such a joyful moment with hundreds of other Yidden had given him great chizuk. He went on to explain that he fully realized that among those hundreds of strangers there were no doubt many who were of broken spirit and enormous pain. Yet they all sang together and somehow rose above the tedium and difficulties of their daily lives to enter a place of calm serenity.

    Another time, he asked me if we could introduce the singing of Yedid Nefesh before kabbalas Shabbos. This was not the custom of the nusach we generally followed, and I was intrigued.

    “Where did you hear that sung?” I asked him.

    “In Eretz Yisrael. It’s so lovely, and the words are so powerful.”

    Obviously I was glad to do his bidding. As a chassid, I had long missed this beautiful way of introducing the Shabbos tefilla. As time went on, this song of Yedid Nefesh became synonymous with Larry and his yearning for all that is good and positive in our lives.

    It was this beloved, thoughtful man who now was slipping away from us, and we were all aware of how sad the situation was. On the last day, during what turned out to be his last hours, I was sitting with the family around his bed. We had run out of words. Each of us was wrapped up in his own thoughts, saying Tehillim, helplessly watching Larry’s desperate pain. He was more or less unconscious, and when he was awake, his eyes were pools of sadness. Some of those sitting there could not take the grief, and every so often someone would slip outside the room to cry.

    I searched my aching mind for something that would ease his heart. I couldn’t grasp what it was I sought, but I felt I was missing something. I too slipped out of the room, and as I breathed some fresh air outside his home, my rebbetzin arrived. She had come to be with the family, and she anxiously asked me what was going on.

    I relayed the situation to her, and she said only one thing: “Sing Yedid Nefesh.”

    How obvious! I had been too lost in the trauma to see it. His prayer, his song, would give him the strength and comfort he sought.

    I went back into the room. Larry looked up at me with mute beseeching. I started to quietly sing those cherished words. “Yedid nefesh Av harachaman, the Beloved of my soul, a merciful Father,” and Larry stopped his agitated searching and calmed down. A smile appeared on his face, and most wondrous of all, he sang in a still, small voice the words of his prayer.

    These were his last moments. He lay back on his pillow with a face no longer wracked with pain. Soon afterward, with the words Shema Yisrael on his lips, he returned his soul to Hashem.

    Each of us has a prayer that is our own, a shtikele tefilla that sends messages to our inner being with laser-beam accuracy. Obviously, every prayer in the siddur is holy, but for each person there is, or should be, a tefilla that talks to his individual core. Its words seem just that more personal, and its theme talks about needs that are yours. For Larry, this was Yedid Nefesh, and with its words he was able to find that which he desperately sought.

    King David also had his special shtikele tefilla, and Chapter 18 of Tehillim is it. This kapitel is the only one recorded twice, both here and in sefer Shmuel. The Abarbanel is of the understanding that David originally created this tefilla as a youth, while surrounded by his many problems and misfortunes. This song was meant to be his all-inclusive one that would give him strength throughout his eventful life. Throughout his life, David kept this psalm at hand, reciting it on every occasion of personal salvation.

    Just stop for a moment and listen to some of his words:

    “I will love You, Hashem. You are my strength.” Hashem is loved by His servant thoroughly, and this in itself gives strength. It is a wondrous facet of Hashem’s goodness. The more we divest ourselves of our materialistic egos and turn to Hashem, the more we feel the strength to do so.

    “Hashem is my boulder, my fortress and my rescuer — my God, my rock in Whom I take refuge, my protective shield and source of my salvation, my stronghold.” Hashem becomes the shield from harm, for with strong faith in Him, we can counter all the slings and arrows of those who seek to dissuade us from our true course. In this way, Hashem is not only our fortress that stands on high ground, solid and firm, but He is also the force that will rescue us when we slip away from His rock and stronghold.

    “Lauded One!” I call out to Hashem, and I am delivered from my enemies. David faced many enemies, some external and some from within himself. By calling out to Hashem and remaining focused on this one truth, he was delivered from all.

    The psalm goes on to illustrate in vivid imagery the wondrous ways that Hashem saves us.

    He saved me from my powerful enemy and from those who hate me, for they were too strong for me. David makes a heartening admission. Yes, there were times when his enemies were way beyond his abilities. However, by focusing on Hashem’s love, he eventually saw those enemies trampled in the dust.

    We all have moments when our tormentors seem so strong that we can’t imagine how we will persevere. Cares and troubles seem to overwhelm us, and we thrash about in agony. David gives us light. Yes, there are times when things seem beyond hope, but Hashem is always there to rescue us. As a communal Rav, time and again people come to me with situations that seem impossible to cope with. I try to explain that this is nothing unique — life is sometimes like that, and we can find strength if only we truly turn to Hashem.

    I realize this sounds easier said than done, and I may even be considered guilty of sounding trite in the face of others’ pain. That is far from the truth. We all feel such times of constricted emotions. Much of it is self- inflicted because we have not fully developed our own spiritual quota, and a sort of panic sets in, but the truth is there.

    David sang his song throughout an entire lifetime, during the most difficult hardships imaginable. Each moment of doubt, confusion and pain can be overcome if we sing our own tefilla, the one that touches our innermost selves.

    On his deathbed, Larry taught me more than I could ever give him. We too can learn from David’s lesson. Each of us must find his song and sing it well.

  18. Chapter Nineteen

    “Hashem! Intimate Father and Friend of the Jewish people! You are my life’s treasure. Your Presence is the wealth of my being; there is nothing of value other than You. How poor is the rich man who lives without You, despite all his earthly riches!

    “Why do you people chase empty treasures? Why do you strive to amass fortunes of earthly value? Put aside for a moment your illusions of treasure; forget for the while their false security. See what you have really collected: a mound of soul-distressing spiritual squalor.”

    So opens a most moving appeal by the saintly Piaseczna Rebbe, zt”l. It is actually frightening to read these words, spoken with such emotional pain. He goes on to cry out to us all,

    “Why do you not pity your own lives, which are slipping away with your delusions? How can you be so foolish as to live in the castles in the air, filling your lives with earthly pleasures or selfish honor? Don’t you see how you are wasting your lives with false hopes, empty joys and pipe dreams?

    “What a shock to your souls and what agony that first step into the beyond which awaits you after death will be. You will run to find solace in your earthly securities, pass the time at your usual diversions. How horrified you will be! For pieces of metal and paper money, for these I have sacrificed my life? How I have ruined my soul!”

    The Rebbe spoke thus because, as a true shepherd, he wanted only to save his flock. This brilliant master of our people, who was so brutally taken from us during the Holocaust, was speaking to the committed Jews of his generation. He called out with such pain to the good Jews of his times, Jews who might have been learning daf yomi and davening three times a day. He knew full well to whom he spoke, and he didn’t mince words.

    The Rebbe understood the human mind. He made his plea knowing that the mind of a person works at many different levels. There are so many different agents working within a person’s consciousness, each one dragging him in another direction. This is the focus of his message. There will come a time when we will feel so lost that we will ask ourselves in overwhelming confusion, Will I ever find myself?

    Are we, living in today’s super-modern generation, any better? Have we learned any lessons from all that has occurred between then and now?

    All around us is this same chaos of the soul. Our abundance of material wealth makes it an even more difficult life-challenge to keep in mind where we should be and who we really are.

    But there is a way forward. There is a path that can lead us to a clearing even in a world cluttered with fantasy.

    Kapitel 19 speaks of Hashem’s flawless exactitude in creating the world. Everything is so perfect, each creation has its own specific niche, that any observer must stand amazed at such monumental wisdom.

    The heavens relate the Creator’s glory, and the firmament conveys His handiwork. Day following day makes a statement of His strength, and night following night inspires us to see His wisdom. David marvels at how the comings and goings of day and night — what we call the natural order of things — bears witness to Hashem’s creativity.

    The Heavens do not speak or talk, for their voices make no natural sound. The heavens don’t have to make an audible announcement of their existence. The message is so enormous, it is easily felt by the soul.

    “The orbit of their praise extends over the globe, and their message extends to the ends of the earth. In this world of noise and distraction, we are meant to catch our breaths and gaze at the heavens, to realize that the greatness of Hashem is far beyond our mortal comprehension and the noise of the street. While we may be deluded into thinking we can create wealth and perform wondrous deeds, nothing comes close to Hashem’s majesty. The heavens we see bespeak this truth.

    Are we really willing to allow all the hubbub of this foolish, vain world to distract us from the truth? More to the point, will such an attitude not come back to haunt us?

    I once read an illuminating parable. Three nomads were making their way through the desert on camels. In the heat of the day, they suddenly heard a heavenly voice calling out to them, “Get off your camels!”

    The petrified fellows quickly slid off their mounts.

    “Prostrate yourselves on the ground!”

    They did so with a shudder.

    “Fill your hands with the dust of the desert and remount your camels. Proceed to your destination, but don’t open your hands!”

    They hurriedly did as the mysterious Voice had commanded. After hours of difficult riding, they reached the next oasis. On their arrival they opened their hands and discovered that instead of sand, they were holding jewels.

    “Oh,” they lamented, “if we had only known, we would have taken so much more of what we thought was worthless dirt!”

    This life is very much like a desert, empty of real values. We travel through it, and every once in a while we are lucky enough to clearly hear the Voice that constantly calls out from the heavens above. We are told to do Hashem’s will, His mitzvos. We do so with half a heart, for our minds are often preoccupied with other matters. Eventually, we will reach our destination and realize that each moment was really a potential jewel. Then we will bitterly regret our foolishness.

    There is but one way to clear our spiritual heads, and that is through Torah. The kapitel tells us, Hashem’s Torah is flawless; it breathes life into the soul. Hashem’s precepts are trustworthy, and make fools wise. Even broken and simple people such as ourselves can be restored through the Torah’s light. Every person can find clarity if he seeks it through the words of Hashem. This means that each of us is capable of spiritual growth through the Torah’s healing message — on condition that we put forth the effort. By sleeping through a shiur, we won’t find salvation. There must be an uncluttered corner in our minds that accepts the reality and learns Torah with sincerity and simplicity that stirs our soul.

    There is so much Torah available today, but unfortunately we are often afraid to be seen as seekers. We prefer to follow others and so never really communicate or seek our true point of need. Although we find ourselves learning, it may not affect us or fill us with the joy it should. This doesn’t have to be our fate. Hashem’s precepts are truthful and just, bringing happiness. If we are serious and honest in our quest, we will find true happiness.

    The kapitel continues, Sincere fear of Hashem endures forever. Reb Chanoch Henoch of Alexander explained, “Only if a person’s fear of Hashem is sincere will it endure.” The Kotzker Rebbe added, “If the fear of Hashem endures, then we know it is sincere.” We see from here that sincerity, purity of heart, and fear of Hashem have a symbiotic relationship. To achieve such a state, we have to accept that Torah must become our essence.

    This is so hard in a world full of distractions, but the kapitel gives hope here as well. Who sees his own mistakes? Cleanse me from those concealed from me. Also, from evildoers and their influence, spare Your servant; do not let them control me. King David leads us in turning to Hashem for His watchful help. When we accept that every reality is in the Torah, then we allow Hashem into our daily lives.

    So here we find the answer to the Piaseczna Rebbe’s plea. Hashem has given us the wherewithal to leave behind this valueless, material world. Through seeing the greatness of His creation, we can find our way. This takes courage, but that strength is waiting for us in the Torah. Through its words, the fear that His awesomeness arouses will be enduring and lead us to real purity.

  19. Chapter Twenty

    “Now sing it again, a little slower and with more gefeel.”

    So went a summer day’s music lesson some forty years ago. We were all bachurim spending the summer months in a boys’ camp in upstate New York. During the long hot Shabbos afternoons, we counselors were allowed time together for an hour of singing and plain shmoozing. That particular Shabbos found us sitting around a table full with the prerequisite bottles of cola and opened packages of peanuts. We were singing away in our regular, boisterous, slightly off-key yet exuberant way, when the camp’s director passed by. Overhearing our fast-paced version of a particular niggun, he couldn’t stand the decimation of what was to him a beautiful, soulful tune. Hence the lesson we received — one I never forgot and hopefully never will. He taught us how to bring the entirety of our neshamos into what could have simply remained a chassidic ditty. The words were simple enough, yet needed deeper understanding.

    What was the song, you must be wondering. Literally the words meant “One, two, three” — I told you they were simple. They were sung in Yiddish, but that doesn’t necessarily bring more meaning to them. Rather, it was the way you said them that made the difference. The melody was both lively and soul stirring, and like all Yiddish music, it held more than mere words.

    The camp director was an older Yid who had seen more than his fair share of tzaros. He had spent his teens in the concentration camps and had lived through events that would sear the entirety of anyone’s existence. He sat down with us and started to sing our nigun with such heart that one could barely recognize it as the same revved-up frolic we had earlier rendered.

    “Da de dum dum oy teda da da eintz tzvei drie.” He slowly sang the song, letting it build up, take on more speed, and bring out even larger amounts of neshama. Soon we were all holding hands, standing up and dancing in our places. Tears of joy, of release, of longing were seen in every eye. “Eintz tzvei drie” — it was so simple, so bittersweet, yet so personal. Each felt his own unique needs in its swaying tempo. We sang together, and at the same time, we were each flying in our own cloud.

    Now, some forty years later, that same special nigun runs in the soundtrack of my heart. Whenever I feel a certain elation, I find its simplicity flooding back. “One, two, three” — it still does the trick. It still takes me that one step above the mundane.

    This week it really played itself in my mind while I was at a wedding.

    Wait a minute, you may wonder. What is unique about a wedding? After all, rabbis go to weddings all the time. It’s one of the perks of the job. In truth, every wedding is a bit like that simple nigun: “One, two, three.” Each affair has basically the same simple ingredients. It is what the participants make of it that defines it, and for this Jew, this wedding held a myriad of joys. It was the culmination of a whole series of such affairs, and as such, it rang forth in my mind with a special clarity. The chasan had been a university student who had spent some time in our community. He was from what must be one of the smallest Jewish communities in all Europe, yet his involvement in anything to do with Yiddishkeit had always been astounding. He had become the focal point of an entire group of students, many coming from entirely secular families, and had been the example of true Yiddishkeit to many of his peers. After a while, a solid chevra had formed, and this group was no w entering adulthood and marriage. Each one became engaged to a frum partner, and each wedding was celebrated with shared joy. Now it was this young man’s turn. His kalla is just as committed to Yiddishkeit as he is, and together I know they will build a home worthy of the kiddush Hashem we all aspire to.

    When I saw this young man come to the chuppa dressed in a kittel, grasping scraps of tefillos in his hand, he represented to me the greatness of the Jewish soul. Here was the answer to all the naysayers who bemoan the future of our people. True, the secular world does rip away many of our finest with its vacuous promises of fun and success, but at the core there are these spiritual heroes who come ever closer to Torah. Like the melody says, “One, two, three” — simple, but so deep. Words could never find the wholeness of this truth; it can be found only in a song.

    Our kapitel tells us this in its own way. He will remember all your offerings, sacrifices and even the ashes, forever. No generation had given more of itself than the one that witnessed the Holocaust. Every family was touched; each had its own burnt offerings and special sacrifices. Yet from such a brokenhearted people we have seen the building of a new world, a world that can turn away from the secular glimmer of gold and seek out Hashem instead. Yes, Hashem has remembered and given us nachas beyond all expectations.

    May He fulfill your desires and bring your plans to fruition. Because our Gedolim gave us hope, we desired that which we see today. Since our dreams revolved around Torah, our yeshivos and seminaries grew way beyond all expectations.

    We will rejoice over the victory You send and raise aloft our banners in the name of our God. May Hashem fulfill all your requests. Our banners are the next generation. We try to raise them with humility, in the knowledge that this is Hashem’s way of delivering us from the grasp of the mundane and cruel world that surrounds us.

    Some rely on chariots and some on horses, but we will evoke the name of our God. There are those who proclaim that we can only survive by embracing the trappings of the coarse society around us. They see loyalty to Hashem as ludicrous in these times. In answer, we show them the fruits of such loyalty — our young, and their hopes and aspirations.

    They have bowed down and fallen, but we have risen and stand firm. Those who worshipped the falseness of this materialistic world have unfortunately been crushed under the weight of their wayward goals. The many who have seen the truth of Hashem’s love have been able to stand firm despite the ridicule of others.

    Hashem, save us! The King will answer us on the day we cry out to Him. Our challenges are not yet over. There are still many problems and many people who need our support and care. However, we have learned to where we must turn. We have the right address. Hashem will always answer when we call from the depths of our hearts.

    You can see why that old nigun is playing in my mind. I have been asked to attend a sheva brachos for the young couple tonight. In attendance will be the entire chevra. One learns in a kollel in London; another, a physician, was encouraged and supported by his wife to take off a year to learn in Eretz Yisrael. On and on, they all have grown. The hosts of the evening are a doctor and his wife, who teaches in a local seminary. These young people are our future, and we have much to learn from them. I will come with a dvar Torah (that’s also part of what rabbis do) and perhaps, well just maybe, I’ll teach them a nigun. A simple one, no real words, just “One, two, three.”

  20. Chapter Twenty-One

    “Rabbi, how’s the Yaknawho?”

    So I was joyfully greeted one Yom Tov Pesach morning. The warm welcome sprang forth from Reb Allan, a regular member of our shul with an irregular past.

    Every shul has a Reb Allan, and if it doesn’t, it should. It’s the Allans of this world who bring a new joy to Yiddishkeit, a joy seen through fresh eyes that seem to soak up every nuance of what may sometimes be perceived as old or dull through years of constant usage.

    Until a short while ago, our Reb Allan was a complete stranger to all things Yiddish. His was a Jewishness limited to bar mitzva celebrations, weddings and funerals. The passing of his mother is what brought him to the portals of our community. He attended shul regularly that entire year, saying Kaddish and slowly becoming absorbed into the group that attends daily services.

    We are blessed to host a large number of university students, and they make up a large percentage of our regulars. Many of these young people are first becoming frum themselves, which makes their questions that much more intriguing and their exuberance that much more alive.

    Into this cauldron of experiences, our hero found his niche. He soon became a sort of mascot, asking vexing questions of his own and generally supporting the shul’s activities.

    The first yahrtzeit of his mother soon arrived, and everyone wondered if Reb Allan would continue to be counted as a regular minyan man. The yahrtzeit was the day before Rosh Hashana, hardly a time to give up one’s shul career.

    On Yom Tov itself, I came up with what I must humbly describe as a masterstroke. Allan had been using one of those silky scarf-type talleisim, an item long cherished in certain circles of Anglo Jewry but now seen as not quite the real thing. When he arrived on Rosh Hashana, I sidled up to him, took his scarf away, and handed him a huge woolen tallis that would make any rav proud.

    “Wear this Allan, it fits you better.”

    I was astounded by the look of pleasure that crossed his face, and as I helped him with his new attire, his eyes welled up with tears. Since that day, he can be counted not only as a member of the minyan, but as an avid scout for other new attendees.

    Allan possesses a great joie d’vivre, a passion to live life with joy, and as his involvement with Yiddishkeit expanded, that joy expanded as well. He can bring laughter to the faces of students who may be struggling with their own problems, and he certainly has enhanced my own view of life’s ups and downs. Those born into a frum lifestyle may fail to see some of its unique quirks, and that’s where the Yaknawho greeting comes in.

    That year we celebrated the seder night on motzaei Shabbos. I therefore announced a reminder to one and all to recite the formula of Yaknahaz at the seder.

    At this, Allan piped up, “Rabbi, what’s a yaknawho?”

    “Allan, that’s an acronym for the steps one takes on this special occasion during the recital of Kiddush at the seder table. It stands for yayin, kiddush, ner, havdala and zman.” I then explained the niceties of this special Kiddush and wished him a gut Yom Tov.

    Well, this new word struck his sense of humor, and one could hear him asking all and sundry if they would be saying their Yaknawho that evening. It became a sort of buzzword; hence his happy greeting the next morning.

    I tell you all this with a purpose: It would serve us well to learn from Allan to enjoy our Yiddishkeit with freshness. When faced with the positive outlook of such folk as Allan, many cringe and feel somewhat discomfited. We can’t understand what they see as being new and vibrant, so we place them in some kind of ghetto especially created for those who don’t “fit in.”

    We live in times that carry with them difficulties never before realized. The stress and strain of just getting by is enormous, both financially and emotionally. The more material blessings we gain, the more the strain seems to grow. Yiddishkeit can give us hope and strength. Our Torah is the one place where true joy can be found. The problem is that we often live our Torah life without focusing on this truth. Things become stale, and coldness creeps in.

    What can we do? For a start, we can share the newness as seen through the eyes of the Allans of this world. We can reawaken the sense of pride in a new tallis or feel the sense of wonder at newly obtained lessons. The constant call to learn Torah is so we always discover new facets of its all-encompassing wisdom. The heart that stops searching is one that quickly calcifies into stone.

    Look for a moment at kapitel 21 of Tehillim. It was offered up at the time David became king, and it speaks of all future redemptions. Hashem, a king will be glad for Your strength and will be extremely joyous when You come to the rescue! When we recognize that everything — all the strength we can hope for and all our deliverance from the mundane — is from Hashem, then we will experience true exultation. Joy found through awareness in G-d has no boundaries, because it springs forth from a place that is not earthbound. Here a newly anointed king speaks out and tells all future generations that real joy can be found only in Hashem.

    One who realizes this has but one desire: to come closer to Hashem. His words tend to lead him in this holy direction. You gave him his deepest desires and have not denied him what he openly asked for. When one slowly leaves the world of secular fantasy and becomes imbued with Torah ideals, his desires change, as indicated by the words he utters.

    For You have anticipated him with blessings of good. You placed a crown of pure gold on his head. While those entrapped in the secular world seek life’s material richness, the Torah-true Jew finds true blessings at every turn. Hashem crowns each of us with the pure gold of His security.

    He asked You to give him life. You gave him long life in this world and eternal life in the next. There are so many who seek real life, one that means something beyond the next thrill or contrived experience. It is there waiting for us all the time; it is given as a gift from our loving Father in Heaven, Who so desires to give us this fullness of life if we are just willing to acknowledge it.

    How often we come across those who fritter away their days killing time because they can’t see beyond the circle of darkness around them. Hashem offers us days full of meaning and ripe with caring. This is eternity, and it has given our people the ability to rise above life’s indignities.

    His worth is magnified by Your rescue. You have placed on him majesty and splendor.There is no greater glory for man than to accept Hashem’s deliverance on a daily basis, deed by deed, large and small. Ours is not only a lifestyle lived for the bold moments of heroic feats; rather, it is underlined by the everyday nudging that brings one closer to Hashem’s light. This is our treasured majesty and splendor, something ethereal yet detectable in the faces of those who choose to live with it.

    For You will establish him for eternal blessings. You make him overjoyed with Your presence. We have it within us to retrieve all the blessings of Hashem forever. Hashem desires our joy, and we are meant to live this out in a real way.

    Dear friends, if we live our Yiddishkeit without a sense of joy, without the thankfulness that King David shared with us, it is as if we are living without hearing the sweet beat of our own hearts. So Reb Allan, thank you for making us all aware once more of this reality. We may well know the intricacies of Yaknahaz, but you have given us the sense of its joy.

  21. Chapter Twenty-Two

    It would have been a priceless snapshot — something witnessed which could be pored over for eternity. The time was somewhere in the 1960s; the place, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A chassidic leader of thousands comes to visit the saintly Satmar Rebbe, zt”l. The two sages sit among the pushing throngs of chassidim, each one trying to hear the holy words being spoken. The Satmar Rebbe asks the crowd to leave the room. He wants to speak with his honored guest in private. The olam soon departs, and only the two tzaddikim remain. However, the door is left ajar, and some of the talmidim stand at the opening to catch a glimmer of whatever inspiration will transpire.

    The visiting Rebbe turns to the aged tzaddik and asks for a blessing.

    “What can I possibly offer my most honored guest?” is the humble reply.

    “Dear Satmar Rebbe, I find it harder and harder to listen to all the pain people bring to me. I feel their hardships — it cuts my heart — and I fear that I will fall apart from tzaros Yisrael.”

    There is a moment of silence, then a whimper. From the room nothing can be heard except the deep crying of the two holy leaders. Each shares his burdens with the other. There is no verbal answer, only shared tears of strength — for that is the only answer that can be given.

    I said this was a snapshot scene, and just like any exquisite picture, it too must be studied again and again to sense its fullness. Each time you gaze at it you will discover more, for nothing is two-dimensional, especially when it comes to Yiddishe tears.

    Ours is a long history written in every shade of human experience. The Jewish nation has survived what no other nation has. It has always been the role of our leaders to guide this often-wounded people through it all. The greatest gift our tzaddikim have given us is their ability to hear our pain, share in our woes, and give courage through their attentive empathy. This does not come easily. With every story told, a bit of the tzaddik’s heart is slashed. The hardest task of a spiritual leader must be that of carrying the burdens of his flock.

    At a lesser level, but just as vital, each family head should have some degree of this ability so that more than just the occasional scraped knee can find a healing balm.

    Then there is that most difficult of all worlds — the private one each of us carries within ourselves. We are all a world unto ourselves, and every one of us has the broken shards of trampled dreams that cut into our hearts when the days seem darkest. Where can we find the strength? From which river of healing waters do our leaders sip their healing nectar?

    From the very beginnings, leadership among our people was seen in terms of a caring shepherd who seeks only the good for his flock. Moshe Rabbeinu was the shepherd that sought out one small wayward lamb and then carried it back to the fold.

    Time and again, leadership among our nation has been spoken about in such terms. King David was just such a shepherd, and his understanding is the gift that he left for future generations.

    In this kapitel, David cries out to all those who seek Hashem in times of darkness. His words can be placed in several eras, and in fact we are told that he said them with a prophetic realization of what would befall our people in generations to come. Many explain that he had Queen Esther in mind; however, we can find ourselves in these hallowed words as well.

    “For the Conductor at dawn, a mizmor song by David.” Right at the beginning, this kapitel tells us where we can find help. The night of one’s life always has the promise of the new day’s dawning. From that point onward, we can begin to discern some hope.

    We are told that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai once took his son Eliezer for a walk on the mountain peaks of the Galilee. The night and the times were the darkest Klal Yisrael had ever experienced. The darkness could be felt not only in terms of what could be seen, but in the spirit. These were the days that had witnessed the ruthless destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, and people may well have wondered if light would ever shine on Klal Yisrael again.

    As Rabbi Shimon and his son gazed into the ink-black sky, they witnessed the beginnings of the day’s dawn. First one dim stream of light appeared, then another. Slowly but surely, the color of the world around them changed as night turned into day.

    The holy Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai turned to his worthy son and said, “This is how the geula will come. Slowly, one shard of light will creep into the dark and be followed by another, until the whole world will be suffused with Hashem’s light.”

    The first three verses of this kapitel speak of such a feeling of loss, that there seems no way to even hope for light. My God! My God! Why have You abandoned me? You are too far away to save me or hear my cries of distress. My God, I call out day and night, but You do not answer and do not calm me. The verses call out our despair and soul-destroying anguish, yet in these words we discern the beginning of hope. For as children of Hashem, we still address our prayers to our one Father in Heaven. Even in the midst of our pain, we instinctively know where our salvation lies.

    Yet You are holy, perpetually lauded by the Jewish people. Our whole being is built on the prayers our ancestors directed to You.

    Our forefathers placed their trust in You. They placed their trust, and You saved them. It was to You they cried out and fled to safety. It was in You they placed their trust and were not humiliated. When life throws up its difficulties, we are meant to reiterate these truths. We can accept that throughout the ages every generation has had its darkness, and as Yidden, we have always sought out Hashem and found courage.

    We may feel totally unwanted and unworthy, as the verses continue, As for me, I am a worm, not a man, subject to human scorn and an object of derision. Compared to people who lived in previous generations, I may not even seem to be a true man, one able to be considered as having been created in Hashem’s image. But if I stay focused, I will realize that despite the haze of pain, Hashem wants to rescue me — despite my unworthiness — as much as I want to be rescued. In fact, by committing myself to this truth, I will have started that act of rescue. Let us always remember, even in our darkest moments, that we too can say, as did David, At birth, I was thrust upon you. From my mother’s womb, You have been my God.

    The kapitel goes on to relate David’s terror in stark terms:I was poured out like water, and all my bones became disjointed. My heart melted like wax inside me. It is as if every niche of possible pain is covered. Into those lonely recesses, David brings in light by pleading with Hashem to save him. But You, Hashem, do not distance Yourself! May You, the source of my strength, quickly return to help me. David never loses sight of the fact that Hashem is his only source of strength.

    When rescue comes, and David is raised up high on the horns of a wild ox, he states with unequivocal gratitude, I will speak of Your name and Your omnipotence to my brethren. I will praise You in public.

    I often find myself having to counsel young (and some not so young) people who feel lost in this secularized world where everything seems to be measured in soul-destroying terms. They can’t seem to find a handle to grasp onto what will keep them afloat. I often turn to this kapitel, for it tells us that in the end, All the gluttons will eventually bow down to God. When they are about to die, they will lower themselves in front of Him, but He will not allow their souls to live. Those who went through life indulging themselves eventually will be forced to acknowledge Hashem, and people who lived lives of emptiness will sink to the ground in despair when they face death.

    While this kapitel travels up and down the entire spectrum of life’s tribulations, it ends with resounding joy. David’s cries are answered, and Hashem saves him from the lion’s jaw. Filled with gratitude, David declares: Through the offspring of those who serve Him, my Master’s deeds will be related to the following generation. They will come and tell of His righteousness, what He has done, to the third generation.

    Yes, my friends, we all encounter darkness, and its shades are perceived at an individual level that is unique to each of us. But if we stay the course, focusing on the miraculous richness of spirit that is our heritage, we will experience a rebirth that will declare Hashem’s righteousness for those who come after us.

  22. Chapter Twenty-Three

    The last 100 years have seen enormous gains in scientific discovery. Just think about it for a minute. Things now commonplace were seen as fantasy just decades ago. Human flight, mass communication, antibiotics — all of these were unheard of a century ago. New frontiers are traversed daily in mankind’s constant march toward new developments.

    I am sure that every thinking person can enumerate his personal list of what he considers to be the most momentous discovery of these fast-moving times. For me, the most astounding of all must be…superglue!

    That’s right, superglue is my personal wonder. Until its moment of discovery, shleppers like me were forced to suffer the consequences of their clumsiness. Since its discovery, anything is possible. I can mend things once deemed beyond all help. In just a moment, I can bond together broken pieces of favorite dishes that would otherwise have been destined for oblivion. The wonders of this glue never cease to amaze me.

    For those still living in the past, let me give you just one recent example. We have a chinik, a teakettle, which has been part of the Rubin Shabbos experience for years. It’s special to every family member, and Shabbos just wouldn’t be the same without its dribbling presence.

    A few weeks ago disaster struck. The chinik’s black enamel handle broke off. What could be done? How would the Rubin Shabbos function without its chinik? Buying a new one never entered our minds; there are some things that just can’t be replaced.

    For days I walked about with a gray cloud over my head. Then a brainstorm entered my feverish mind. Superglue, that stuff of miracles, would mend the chinik and save the day.

    Off I went to the local “Do it Yourself” superstore, quickly searched out the glue department and found the magical stuff in its cute little innocuous container.

    Being an old hand at such matters in addition to being terribly anxious to bring the healing balm to my sorrowful chinik, as soon as I got home I ripped open the package and pricked the bottle open. Out bubbled the clear liquid that would bond the handle to its rightful place forever. My fingers feverishly wiped around the edge of the connection, making certain that none of the glue’s strengthening prowess was wasted. As I did so, a small alarm bell rang in my head. “Wait! Do not get glue on your fingers, and if you do, don’t ever let said fingers come into contact with other such appendages.” But by then I was too committed to worry. “I’ll wash my hands off later. The chinik comes first. Lekovod Shabbos Kodesh!”

    Well, friend, let me tell you a little about the bonding abilities of superglue. My chinik was now firmly repaired, ready to give the Rubin family Shabbos service for many more years to come. The only problem was that Rubin senior now had two of his fingers so glued together that there was a real threat he would never be able to put on tefillin again. Hot water eventually helped in separating the two, but the residue of glue stayed firmly attached to my skin despite ruthless scrubbing. I tried everything — detergents, window cleaner, even nail polish remover — but nothing would get rid of the stuff. After a few days of hiding my hands in public, things got a bit better, and I am happy to report that at this moment my hands are finally glue free — that is, until something else breaks.

    While my misadventure may have proven humorous, it got me thinking a bit deeper. Yes, science is wondrous indeed, and some bonds can be made to seem imperious for all time. However, there is one bond that is truly forever, a bond that means everything to the Jewish people.

    When Yaakov Avinu leaves Beersheba for Haran, he lies down to rest and has a wondrous dream (Bereishis 28:12). He sees a ladder standing firmly on the ground, reaching upward to the heavens. Angels are going up and down, and v’hinei Hashem nitzav alav, “Behold, Hashem is standing above him.”

    The Izhbitzer Rebbe explained that there are two words that can be used for standing. One is omed, which simply means standing there, and the other is nitzav, which implies being planted in place. A human being is an omed. He always has the choice to stay in one place or move away. A nitzav has no such choice; it is planted in its place, like a stone.

    By using the expression of nitzav, Hashem was telling Yaakov a beautiful message. “Dear child, I have no choice but to be with you.” Hashem wanted us to realize that no matter what, no matter where, He would always be planted and bonded with us. Hashem’s connection with us is forever, something that can never be moved nor shifted. We may ascend and descend the ladder to Heaven, sometimes rising and sometimes falling, but Hashem will always be planted above us and within us. No matter where we are, because we are Hashem’s children, He will be with us.

    What a powerful message! It gives one a sense of tranquility despite the world’s thunderous storms.

    One of Tehillim’s most beloved kapitelach tells us this same message. In Psalm 23 we read, Hashem is my shepherd. I shall not lack for anything. A shepherd cares for his flock and stays with it through thick and thin. Every lamb is precious to him, and not one goes unaccounted for.

    Even when I walk through the valley overshadowed by death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me. Your rod and Your staff are what will comfort me.

    Dear Yidden, just think of all those who have uttered these soothing words — and where fate placed them. In the hell of the death camps, on the fire pyres of the inquisition, under the hooves of rampaging Cossacks — through this and untold more, our holy ancestors held onto these sweet words. And Hashem remained with them, just as He had promised Yaakov Avinu. He never moves, and this is the only reality that really matters.

    We can gain so much strength from this truth. Gevalt, how much we suffer! Yet we are never alone. Hashem is shepherding each and every one of us through it all. Others may ask how we Yidden survive despite everything, but we don’t have such questions, for Hashem is eternal, and He has promised to be there for us forever.

    You set a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anointed my head with oil. My cup overflows. All those who sought to destroy us stand mute in the face of who we are. Hashem sits us down to the prepared table of the Torah, and with this we anoint our lives and our cup of joy overflows.

    How many of us suffer from a personal walk through a valley of tzaros and tears? It would be disingenuous for anyone to minimize such pain or disregard its power of destruction. People all around us carry so much within themselves, it’s a wonder they can muster a semblance of a smile. Yet Hashem is always with us, pulling us back into the flock with His rod, or giving us a light tap with His staff to send us scurrying back into place.

    Sometimes we forget this truth. The words of this kapitel are meant to remind us. There is a custom to say this kapitel whenever we wash to eat to remind ourselves just how much Hashem watches over us.

    Time and again, I realize that many of our problems come about because we find it so difficult to internalize these truths. We mouth them over and over, but in the heat of stress, we neglect their message. Let us remember the generations of sweet, pure Yidden who eternalized its message: Even when I walk through the valley overshadowed by death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.”

    This kapitel carries within it a strong message. It permits us to release our anguish by internalizing the truth that we are never alone. Hashem shares our every moment. This is why David is able to ask as he is being anointed king, May only goodness and kindness continue to pursue me…. Even his troubles can be seen, in retrospect, as evidence of Hashem’s kindness and goodness.

    Every word of this psalm is saturated with so much hope, that I only wish it was possible to grab every broken Yid and tell him so.

  23. Chapter 24

    “Arguments are never about what they’re about,” said a sagely poet of ancient vintage.

    Think about it. It’s a simple statement, yet so complex. Look at any argument and think about it. How often is the protagonist really arguing about what is being discussed? Usually, there are much deeper things going on underneath, problems that were never discussed, feelings that were never aired. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, there is a blowup — and you are left shocked and wondering, “Where did that come from?”

    Even worse, you don’t find the space to think in rational terms when you feel under attack. Instead, righteous indignation takes over, and you find yourself fully committed to a knockout, full-fledged fight that has nothing to do with what everyone is screaming about.

    I’ve been making a survey lately — nothing particularly scientific, just a Rubin straw poll of sorts. My contention is that most new shuls are born shortly after Sukkos or Pesach, with Pesach pulling a bit ahead of Sukkos in the league standings.

    Whatever do you mean? I hear you ask. Well, simply put, most new minyans start off with a few disgruntled folk who are upset with where they were davening until then. My survey did not include shuls that were started by rabbanim who moved into new areas, nor those following a unique nusach that didn’t have a previous home. My survey revolved around the run-of-the- mill, bearable-turned-disaster shuls that have as their start-up someone else’s pain and sorrow.

    Why after Pesach and Sukkos? Simply because people have more time on their hands during the Yom Tov season and find themselves in shul more than usual; after all, staying home a whole week can get a person into trouble if he doesn’t watch out. The kids may have been acting up (after all, they’re home a whole week too). Besides, Pesach has the added advantage of a changed diet.

    Everything together contributes to edgy people, and then bang! Something happens in shul. It doesn’t really matter what — it may be a silly remark, or an innocent mistake that would be considered quite unremarkable in normal circumstances. But people are on edge, and there go the rockets. Words fly, positions are taken, and viola! A new shul is on its way.

    Obviously, this scenario can be played out at any level. At home with one’s spouse, over the telephone with one’s in-laws — it makes no difference. The ingredients are all the same. The tragedy is that we don’t stop to think, “Why am I doing this? What’s really bothering me? Where can I get real help? And who am I hurting when I lash out like this?”

    Whenever one faces a troublesome spot of argument, the first thing he should do is ask himself, “What’s really going on here? If this is just a slight problem, why is it fast becoming a major one in which circumstances take on their own velocity and change things forever?”

    It would be interesting to discover how many sins are strewn on the path of such events. How many innocent people become involved in the worst types of lashon hara over such proceedings? How many well-meaning, sweet Yidden become embittered by the utter crassness of it all?

    There also seems to be a certain inclination to drag Yiddishkeit into all this. All at once, everyone climbs aboard the l’sheim Shamayim wagon as it starts its rickety careening into others’ souls.

    Let us look at the holy words of King David and see what real l’sheim Shamayim consists of.

    The entire world belongs to Hashem, including the continents and their inhabitants. David begins with the fundamentals. He testifies how the whole world is Hashem’s, everything is here for Hashem’s purpose, and all the people you see about you are also here because Hashem willed it.

    For He established it on seas and founded it on rivers. To the simple onlooker, the rivers and seas look lifeless. No one can discern the teaming activity that goes on beneath the surface. Yet we know that under the cover of the waves lives an entire world of life. If we understand this, why can’t we realize that beneath the surface of each problem and each individual there is a huge world of conflicting emotions swimming about?

    David continues with a piercing question. Who will ascend Hashem’s mountain? And who will stand in the place of His Sanctuary? From all this world of activity, who will make it up the mountain of true G-dliness?

    Notice that the holiest of places is designated as a mountain. Mountains are hard to climb. There are no quick shortcuts. Each step must be taken with great care. However, once one is on top he can look down and see that the summit can be reached through many different pathways, and that each climber was given individual help from Hashem in finding his way.

    “One whose deeds and thoughts are impeccable, who has not betrayed the divine spark within him. Here is the clinching barometer of holiness: integrity. One’s hands must be clean, and his heart must be pure.

    What are clean hands? Well, I can venture to answer what they are not. They are not dripping with the blood of those who get hurt through communal strife. They are hands unstained by the pain caused by sharp, thoughtless words pointed at others’ souls. And the pure of heart are those who feel the needs of others and care about what can happen in the midst of communal conflagration.

    To reach the heights, a person must be someone who has not betrayed the divine spark within him. The greatest betrayal is self-deceit. When you become involved in a dispute, you give yourself a hundred different reasons why. You dare not think about the real reason, for then you would have to admit that the whole thing is about something that has no bearing on what is actually happening. You deceive yourself because it’s more comfortable than facing your own weaknesses. We have been given a soul that is derived from the highest Source of spirituality, yet because we lose sight of the true motivation for our actions, we carry this soul without proper purpose.

    He will acquire blessing from Hashem and receive what he justly deserves from God, his Rescuer. What a startling insight! The one who will acquire Hashem’s blessing and the full measure of what he justly deserves is the humble fellow who sought his inner truth. There is no mention of complicating life with added chumros to the point that the original intent of the halacha is long forgotten. Nor is there a word indicating that ostentation in one’s practice is the fast track to Hashem. Instead, it’s about clean hands and a pure heart — so simple, yet so invigorating.

    David sets us free; free from the torment of anger misplaced and hence never resolved. He tells us that we can climb Hashem’s mountain if we calmly strive to keep ourselves separate from those factors that aim to besmirch our thoughts and deeds.

    Raise your heads, O gates, and be uplifted, O gateways to eternity, so that the King of Glory may enter. Listen to these sweet words. You — yes, you and every Yid — are a gate to eternity. If you choose to create a kiddush Hashem by living a life that is pure of heart, you will be uplifted. Your actions will bring you to an actual gateway of eternity, not only for yourself but for others as well. It will be through this entrance that Hashem, the King of Glory, will be seen in this world. As the Kotzker Rebbe used to say, “Where is G-d? Wherever you let Him in!”

    It’s interesting to note that this powerful psalm is designated to be said on the first day of every week as well as every time we replace the sefer Torah during the weekday readings. There can be no week, and no resting place for our Torah ideals, without its message. Even while we kiss the Torah scroll, we are reminded to be ever vigilant about striving to become actual gateways to true eternity.

  24. Chapter Twenty-Five

    I have a license to save lives.

    No less important, while acquiring it I learned a profound lesson in life.

    It happened many years ago, while I was still a bachur in yeshiva. I was considered a very good swimmer. Our yeshiva sponsored a summer camp, and one of its main features was the sparkling clean swimming pool. The problem was that none of the heimishe chevra were trained as lifeguards. The head counselors asked me to take a lifesaving course. Hopefully, I would pass the test and become officially certified.

    Well, my friends, I won’t bore you with the intricacies of said course, but it was a bit more than waddling about in a pool up to your knees in lukewarm water. The final exam was the highlight of all the many weeks of training. The instructor told us we would have to jump into the pool and save a drowning man in a simulated situation.

    That sounded fair enough. After all, that’s what we were being trained to do. The instructor added that the “victim” was himself a lifeguard who was an expert in acting as if he were actually drowning.

    “Fine, bring him on,” I thought in my naïve, young head.

    Out of the shadows came this enormous house of a guy. This man was huge! He dived into the water and swam out to the middle of the deepest area. He then turned, and, with an acting ability worthy of stardom, proceeded to “drown.”

    I jumped into the water, with all the past weeks’ lessons running through my feverish mind. Within seconds, I was but a foot away from this thrashing turbulent whale who was screaming for all of Brooklyn.

    It was then that an unspoken but most vital fact became apparent. When someone is drowning, he becomes so panicky that he strikes out at anyone approaching. The floundering, panic-stricken victim may drag down the person who comes to the rescue. And my drowning hulk did a superb job of acting his part.

    I spare you the details of that eventful swim. Suffice it to say that I did succeed in saving the fellow and soon had my very own certificate allowing me to everyone else, too.

    The lesson I learned that day has stuck with me. So often people seem to become overwhelmingly panicked by events that they lose all sense of where their salvation can be found. We thrash about drowning in our own doubts while the helping hand is but inches away. Every once in a while we need to take stock and get a grip on things.

    In the hurly burly of everyday life, we tend to get all mixed up, forget what we are here for, and become chewed up by over-energized impulses. This can’t be helped. Our times are so full of noise and distraction. The yetzer hara is no slouch. After all, he has been at his job for a long time. In each generation, he pounces on that era’s particular weaknesses and focuses on them.

    Today’s generation is surrounded by noise and light. Think about it. In past times, one rose with the sun and went home at twilight. A person sat in his house with candles and soon went to bed. There was a feeling of safety in the house simply because after dark, you were home with your family in the comforting shadow of flickering candles. The streets were dark and mostly vacant. Sitting in your home, you would learn some, talk with family and think.

    Today we live with twenty-four hours of non-stop light. Slowly but surely, the border between day and night has disappeared. Stores are open all the time, the streets are noisy; it’s all hustle and bustle. The consumer gurus have us running at high speed, pushing us to spend, spend and spend some more. There are no quiet places. We all have phones in our pockets, beepers on our belts, and tapes blaring with loud chassidic music. We can’t think, and that’s just where the old Satan wants us. Our young carry an anguish that is new to us and difficult for us to relate to. It is an anguish generated by consumerism and lack of self-image.

    This frightening vortex of jumbled feelings seems to go on and on. The turbulent waters threaten to engulf us, we are truly at risk of drowning, and no card-carrying lifeguard can help.

    So what should we do? Where should we turn?

    Kapitel 25 has some answers for us. This psalm is the first that is arranged according to the aleph-beis, the Hebrew alphabet. Perhaps if we look at its message we will understand why it is in this unique order.

    To You, Hashem, I offer my soul. My God, I have placed my trust in You. Do not let me be shamed or allow my enemies to gloat over me. In the rush of caring for my physical needs, I stop. I stop with the willpower that is given to me through my awareness that Hashem is my G-d. With this realization, I put all my trust in Him. I don’t dare trust myself, for I know how weak I am. In this moment of rationality, I pledge my trust to the only One Who can protect me.

    I beg Hashem, “Please, do not let me be ashamed of my own self. I fully realize how far I have drifted, and I am red-faced with shame. Only with Your strength can I come closer and hopefully cleanse my soul. Please Hashem, help me, for I have so many enemies — both the forces at work externally and those unfortunately found internally as well.”

    Also, let no one who seeks You be shamed. Let those who betray the destitute be shamed. Listen, please, my Father in Heaven. I know I don’t turn my heart to You as much as I should, but I am really hoping, and my hope is from my heart, so please don’t let me be shamed.

    Some explain that destitute here intones an aspect of emptiness. David prays that those who are traitors to nothingness, for no reason whatsoever, shall find shame, for nothing else can shock them into reality. There are many who have turned traitors to our heritage for no reason at all. This fact alone will be their shame.

    One lesson I learned in that lifesaving course is that sometimes, when facing a panicky victim who is thrashing about, the only thing to do is to shock him into reality. However, the next verse speaks to the humble Yid who knows that all is not well. He doesn’t need shock treatment like those who are beyond all thought of Hashem.

    Let me know Your attributes, Hashem. Teach me Your pathways. Hashem, in all this rush, I forget what path I should be on. It’s so easy to get lost. Please let me know with clarity where I should be. The road of Hashem is through the Torah, but deciphering the pathway that will bring me to that road needs the understanding that must be learned at the deepest of levels. Please, Hashem, give me this knowledge.

    The kapitel goes on, Instruct me in the hidden truth behind Your conduct and teach me its deeper meaning, for You are the God of my salvation. I may very well be drowning, Hashem, but I know there is a truth, and that truth is You. Please, teach me to live continuously with the knowledge that You are Hashem.

    All Hashem’s paths are kindness and truth to those who keep His covenant and His testimonies. I realize, Hashem, that there are many paths that are Yours, and that in them is the fullness of kindness and truth. It’s just so difficult sometimes, amid all the noise and chaos.

    Behold my affliction and my travail, and bear all my sins. Hashem, only You realize the extent of my pain. Allow me to find the dry land of safety. Carry my sins, for they are so heavy for one so troubled. Preserve my soul and rescue me. Let me not be ashamed, for I have taken refuge in You. Please, Hashem, save my life. I have no other refuge and no other lifesaver other than You.

    This is a powerful kapitel, and its telling point is its form. It is in the order of the aleph-beis because maybe, just maybe, when you are trapped in the vortex of the noisy whirlpool of life you have to start with a simple lifeline — aleph-beis. Go on, take the line from there…make it simple….

  25. Chapter Twenty-Six

    “Az es macht zich nisht vi m’vill, miz men vellen vi es macht zich.”

    Yiddish has a way of saying things that just don’t sound the same in any other language. This pithy saying means, “If you don’t have what you want, want what you have.” Our Sages explain that things are as Hashem wants them to be, and our task in life is to grow through the circumstances that Hashem places us in. If we spend our days bemoaning what can’t be changed, we can only expect shattered dreams and depressing thoughts.

    The Lechovitzer Rebbe, zt”l, used to teach his chassidim, “If your life is not as you will it, adjust your will to your life!” This is not a defeatist attitude. Rather, it is a true path that can bring positive strength even in difficult times. When we internalize that Hashem knows exactly where He wanted us to be placed, we can begin to discover what we are meant to do in our given situation.

    Unfortunately, so many people fall into despair because they perceive themselves as being stuck in a rut that has no redeeming features. This is just what our old adversary, the yetzer hara, wants us to feel. He wants us to become so muddled in thoughts of angry despair that we can’t even begin to find any light in our hearts.

    King David knew what it was to feel estranged from his environment. There were times when he was belittled and shunned by all. Yet he strove to find Hashem at every juncture, and he left us his beautiful words so that we, too, can take heart. He lived his life for all future generations, and he articulated his feelings so that others could gain from them. Even when stumbling, he gave forth words of Heavenly praise, so that we who would stumble in the future would have those words as a comfort and hope.

    David wanted to live through every sort of test. He felt that in this way he would not only grow on a personal level, he would also be giving direction to future generations. In Chapter 26 we read of the disastrous results he faced due to his tempting of Hashem’s plan.

    David asked Hashem to test him as our forefathers had been tested. He aspired to their level of spirituality and wanted his beloved people to be able to call on his merit during the Shemoneh Esrei prayer just as we call on the merits of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. He was not ready to accept the level of growth Hashem had placed for him, and he ended up failing his self-requested challenge.

    Obviously, this is all far beyond our understanding. However, David left us this kapitel so that even in our lowly state we can gain from his experience.

    The Gemara (Avoda Zara 4b) comments that both the sin of Bnei Yisrael with the golden calf and the sin of David in the episode with Batsheva were moral lapses that could not have been expected from them. Rather, they were allowed to sin in order to demonstrate the power of repentance to would-be sinners; both collectively, as seen by Klal Yisrael, and individually, as demonstrated by David.

    The psalm begins with David begging to be tested.

    Judge me Hashem, for I have walked in my integrity and I have trusted in Hashem. I will not waver. Examine me, Hashem, and test me; refine my mind and my heart. David seeks to be tested so that his heart can become even more refined. Yet although his motive is sincere, he ends up failing. Ours is not to decide what Hashem’s plans are. We must seek refinement wherever we find ourselves, allowing Hashem to lead us further.

    For Your kindness is before my eyes, and I have walked in Your truth. Who else but David could even ask to be allowed to raise himself to the levels of our forefathers? He suffered so much, yet still viewed everything as kindness.

    I have not sat with men of falsehood…and do not associate with those who sin in secret. David lays out his lifestyle before Hashem. He has never followed the pathways of the corrupt, and he has steered clear of those who sin in secret. I will wash my hands in purity, and I will encircle Your altar, Hashem…. Even a hint of wrongdoing was washed from his hands before he allowed himself to feel worthy of encircling Hashem’s altar. Therefore everything seemed in place for perfection — and yet he stumbled. Even though he always stayed away from evil and from those who practiced it, and even though he sought out and found Hashem’s kindness throughout difficult times, something went amiss.

    The Rebbe Reb Zushe, zt”l, was a renowned tzaddik and brother to the illustrious Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk. He would often say that after 120 years he would not be asked why he wasn’t as great as his brother Elimelech. Rather, he would be taken to task why he wasn’t as great as Zushe could have been.

    We are each put into this world for a purpose, and it is our responsibility to figure out what that purpose is rather than become entangled with the unique tasks of others. Reb Zushe never lost a moment worrying why he wasn’t reaching levels that were his brother’s. His only fear was that he wouldn’t come to the level that Hashem had marked out for him.

    This chapter describes what happens when someone seeks what wasn’t meant for him to find. David sought the spirituality of another age, and that was not part of Hashem’s plan for him. Yet despite this failure, David does not despair. He sings out, to make myself heard in a voice of thanksgiving and tell of all Your wonders. Yes, I fell, but in that fall I want everyone to hear my voice of thanks. All the wonders that are Hashem’s overwhelm me even at this moment of failure.

    Hashem, I love the dwelling of Your House and the place where Your glory resides. Never despair, Yidden! You may fall, but if you love the dwelling- place of Hashem, that warm pleasant place within your soul, you will find hope and comfort.

    Gather not my soul with sinners nor my life with men of blood. Rav Nachman of Breslov used to say, “If you believe you can ruin something, you must also believe you can fix it.” David is telling us we must never despair. Even if we ruin things spiritually, we must believe we can change things and correct our ways. Don’t give up.

    As for me, I will walk in my integrity. Redeem me and favor me. This is such an uplifting message. It brings such hope! Even when we fail, we can lift ourselves up and find a heart that is whole and redeemed.

    My dear readers, sometimes these words of David literally lift one from the words themselves. We often find ourselves in a quandary: How can I feel worthy when I don’t feel able to reach the levels of those about me? David gives us insight. He, too, sought things that weren’t meant for him. Yet although he tripped, he did not lose sight of what was paramount — the altar of Hashem. Even more, he focused on this truth and redeemed himself through his prayers.

    David’s message is eternal. If you feel you have ruined something, then trust in Hashem that you can fix it as well. Just don’t give up. Furthermore, we live in homogenized times where everything has a sort of sameness to it. We seem to feel we must all look alike, dress alike and even think alike. This can’t be the road to one’s self-truth! We weren’t created to all be the same person. Rather, find out who you are meant to be, and don’t fail by trying to be someone else.

  26. Chapter Twenty-Seven

    The staff at a safari park was on the verge of calling the police to investigate a series of silent telephone calls…until they found out that the caller was one of their chimpanzees. Chippy the chimp stole a mobile phone from a keeper at the park. The phone’s owner said, “It’s been driving us bananas. He must have been hitting the redial button and then going through my phone book. It was a pure fluke, but people have been jumping out of bed thinking there was an emergency at the park.”

    Amusing — and in a way, indicative of our society. There are more than a few monkeys using phones these days, and more to the point, when calling others we sometimes wonder if we haven’t in fact gotten the local zoo instead.

    On a more serious note, we must ask if we listen to the calls our souls make to our hearts and minds. Are we like the fluky chimp, pushing the right buttons but never hearing the voice that cries from within? We daven every day, each of us is in direct contact with our Creator, yet somehow there is an aching feeling of disquiet. We somehow have missed the point of it all, and feel uneasy despite our position as Hashem’s chosen children.

    A philosopher once wrote, “If expensive things cannot bring us remarkable joy, why are we so powerfully drawn to them? Because of an error similar to that of the migraine sufferer who drills a hole in the side of his skull: expensive objects can feel like plausible solutions to needs we don’t understand.” We have a need for the comfort that only a connection with Hashem can assuage, but in this materialistic world, we don’t always understand this. Therefore, we seek that comfort in trinkets of gold and silver.

    Let’s not hide behind our three-times-a-day davening. Let’s not cling to the falseness that allows us to talk ourselves into thinking that these words are not meant for us. Stop for a moment. Stop and make a cheshbon hanefesh. Have you seen the prices of the gifts that have become mandatory for the chasan and kalla to give to each other? Have you thought of what our weddings cost? Do we really need expensive cars and homes that are furnished with luxury items never even considered by our parents? Aren’t we doing this to answer a need that is so deep and so holy we can’t begin to find it?

    Children ask their parents for cloths that cost a fortune, because all their friends have such apparel. Why? Why do we go down this path? Because we really do want something — but it is not something we will find in a store. It can only be found within ourselves.

    There is no better time than the present to look into our essence and bring strength to our needy souls. The Koretzer Rebbe used to say: “It is proper to cry on the holy days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to show that despite all our apparent wisdom and learning, we are as helpless as children, who cry for what they want.” Our first step should be an admission of our smallness.

    We are not perfect. While it may be hard to look within one’s own darkness, it’s the only way we can begin to bring light. In Mussaf of Rosh Hashana, there is a famous responsive reading that begins: “Vechol maaminim, And all believe.” The Rebbe Reb Bunim of Peshischa explained the seventeenth verse, “He is good, and benefits the wicked and the good” as meaning, “Hashem benefits those who are sometimes wicked and sometimes good.”

    I don’t think we need any further explanation. We know who we are, and where we stand, and so we must direct ourselves accordingly.

    Let us take a brief look our kapitel and draw strength from its message.

    Hashem is my light and my salvation — of whom should I stand in awe? Hashem is the strength of my life — of whom should I be afraid? The first and foremost truth is that Hashem is the source of the only true light. With this realization, we are already saved. All the fears and insecurities we suffer are because we forget that Hashem is the only source of strength, and we need never fear.

    When evildoers approach me to devour my flesh, my tormentors and foes stumble and fall. The evil that lurks without and that which worms its way in, all of it will lose its power to harm when we focus on Hashem.

    I have asked only one thing of Hashem, and this is all I will request: that I may dwell in the house of Hashem all the days of my life, to behold Hashem’s pleasantness and to meditate in His Sanctuary. We should seek only this awareness: that pleasantness and goodness is found only with closeness to Hashem. Luxury homes and shiny cars are nothing but an illusion. Real pleasure is found in the house Hashem creates for us.

    For He will conceal me in His Sukka on the day of evil. He will secrete me in the hiding place of His Tent and lift me high on a rock. We all have times of distress, for such is the human condition. Hashem will hide us from the pain, but where? Not in our great mansions, but in His Tent. There we will find the solid rock that is our safety zone, the rock that will never move or shake. This will give us the uplifted feeling all mankind seeks and needs. We need never look to the trinkets of this world for safety; Hashem’s rock awaits us in His Tent.

    Now my head is raised high above my enemies around me, and I will offer victory sacrifices in His Tent. I will sing and chant to Hashem. When we accept Hashem’s Tent as our place of abode, all the so-called sacrifices we make to remain steadfast become the stuff of our song to Hashem. Song has a power that transcends the here and now.

    Hear my voice, Hashem, when I call, and favor me and answer me. We admit that our attention span is not a long one and that we may soon forget what is real. We ask Hashem to answer us whenever we call out, and with His graciousness answer us despite our weaknesses.

    My heart has already spoken to You, saying, “May my face seek Your face, Hashem!” This is all I ask. Dear Father, Who is compassionate, in my heart of hearts it is only You I seek. But I am weak, and storms batter my soul. Let me follow my true heart and seek only You.

    Do not hide Your face from me nor turn away Your servant in anger. You have been my help always — do not cast me off or abandon me, God of my rescue. Life can seem so clouded by the crassness of material want. No wonder we find ourselves thinking that Hashem has turned away from us. We beg Hashem not to let this seem so, not to turn us away, for our only real help comes from Him. Only He can save us from the tugs of a materialistic society.

    This kapitel offers so much, particularly in our times. Listen to King David’s last words: Seek Hashem! Be strong, and He will give you courage — and seek only Hashem. This is so encouraging! If we seek only Hashem and look to Him for our security, we will find the courage to persevere. Not only that, but through that courage we will find even deeper wellsprings of faith. Hashem, our loving Father, will repay our faith in him by giving us even more of the same.

    Yidden, we need never fear! We need only truthfully search for our hearts’ deepest desire.

  27. Chapter Twenty-Eight

    The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reported a new phenomenon: Starlings have begun to sing new songs — tunes picked up from the ringing melodies of cellular phones.

    This statement has an element of truth that renders it too real to be fiction. Our world today has become one huge stage where everything and everyone imitates something that is itself only a manufactured imitation.

    People talk and walk in the manner they perceive to be what others expect of them. They dress according to styles created by others, and they even think according to set, politically correct ways.

    This globalization of the world has the ability to deaden human thought. But, you may ask, what does this have to do with us? The Torah world refuses to march to those tunes set by the secular world, so surely we are not touched by all this silliness.

    This is not as simple as you may think. The human mind plays tricks on us all, and we really should take a moment just to stop and think about such matters. True, we do not run after the false imagery of the outside world, or at least not consciously, but let us not allow ourselves to fall into the trap of false security. Hashem wants us to be challenged. It is through such tension that we grow. If we are lulled into thinking that just by nodding along with all our neighbors in the Torah world we are growing, we are guilty of bearing false witness to our own souls.

    The Torah starts with very deep words: “In the beginning Hashem created the heavens and the earth.” The Kotzker Rebbe remarked, “Hashem created only the beginning. From that point on, it is up to man to build himself and his world.”

    In fact, this was the basis of the Kotzker dictum: Every one of us has to build himself and become a “something” through his own arduous work.

    Many “somethings” can become a holy congregation, but many “nothings” only add up to one big nothing!

    Creating a world worthy of Hashem’s spirit depends on a certain degree of self-reliance. We can only start a spiritual chain reaction that will bring sparks of holiness to those around us when we are ready to accept that we have it within ourselves to do so. If we choose to just shuttle along self-righteously, we are like store-window mannequins; pretty, but not doing anything worthwhile. The world around us numbs us to our lofty potential. That’s exactly where we must strive to become more animated. Lots of times it’s all too easy. You send the kids to the right schools, you daven in the right shul, and you eat, drink and dress in the right way. All is well, and you are safe.

    However, how all right is it deep within your inner self? Are you activating your potential, or are you sleepwalking through the gift of life Hashem has given you? The fog that we call reality seems to keep us safe, but in reality it covers up true safety.

    This is not simply a question of which degree of frumkeit one chooses. That is of secondary importance when speaking of the frontiers of one’s reality. We should be aware that such questions need to be asked, and that it is the “dummying down” caused by life’s treadmill that keeps us from even looking for answers.

    How does one step off this treadmill? In Kotzk, the answer was that one should never be guilty of imitation, of doing things for no reason other than because others do so. Even more, don’t do them just because it’s what you’ve always done. “Don’t daven today simply because you did so yesterday!”

    These are powerful words that seek entry into one’s inner self. Torah Yidden have it within them to find out where their neshamos are meant to be, and through Torah study they can bring their neshamos to that place. We should not be satisfied with being shleppers, carried away by herd mentality, for that is not what we were created for. Ours is not meant to be a life lived by mimicking the ring of a cellular phone.

    So where to begin? How does one find space within the noise of this world? In kapitel 28 we find King David asking Hashem for release from this world’s noise and friction. He requests this so he can focus his heart and mind completely on Hashem and His service. Let us look at his holy words and see how they give us a path toward finding some semblance of tranquility.

    To You, Hashem, I call. My Rock, do not be deaf to me lest You become silent to me, and I become like those who have descended into the pit. There is only one true Rock, only one real, steady, never-changing and never-shifting reality, and that is Hashem.

    This may sound like a simple fact, but it is up to us to truly absorb it. Growth comes only when we internalize ideas that are spoken about but not always lived.

    David felt it clearly. “Hashem is my Rock,” he proclaimed, not other people’s opinions or society’s whims. We too must beg Hashem to hear our real plea, the one emanating from the spark within our deepest feelings. Inside every Yid there is a small voice with the capacity to cry out to Hashem without fear of ridicule. When we are ready to articulate these truths, we realize that without spiritual vitality we are just like those who are long dead. David frames his plea with such images so that we make no mistake of what we speak of here.

    Hear the sound of my pleas when I cry out to You, when I raise my hands to Your holy Sanctuary. The Pnei Menachem, zy”a, was known to be very demonstrative during prayer. He would caress the Aron’s cover and turn and lift his hands to the heavens. His entirety appeared as one molten flurry of body and soul. When asked why his mode of davening was so different from that of his predecessors who davened in a very constrained manner, he explained that he sacrificed his personal consideration because this generation must be allowed to see how a Yid once prayed.

    Sometimes the inner self must seek release; release from the strictures of the mundane road we travel. David admits to this. He cries, he lifts up his hands and allows his whole being to become part of his supplication. We too must do everything possible to find Hashem’s sanctuary, for only there will we find the peace that will allow us to discover our inner landscape.

    Do not drag me along with the evildoers and transgressors, who talk of peace with their companions though evil is in their hearts. It’s so easy to glide along with the flow and allow yourself to become robotic. David tells us that we must speak out and articulate these dangers. Don’t let me be dragged along, Hashem, he pleads. Don’t let me become lulled into spiritual sleep by their words of peace, for through such sleep evil comes to my soul.

    For they do not understand Hashem’s deeds or His handiwork. He will destroy them and not rebuild them. Those who sleepwalk through life cannot regard the wonders of Hashem that are apparent on a daily basis. It is their unfortunate fate that their time on this earth will come to naught spiritually, a loss that will never be rebuilt. We have only this one place to create our spiritual sanctuary. Those who allow themselves to miss the opportunity do not receive a second chance.

    David then turns about with a sense of joy. Blessed is Hashem, for He has heard the sound of my pleas. Hashem is my strength and my shield. My hearts trusts in Him. I was helped and my heart rejoiced, and with my song, I will extol Him.

    Tehillim never ceases to amaze me. King David is so human, yet his faith and trust are so beyond our mortal understanding. Humans are vulnerable. Their thoughts can fly high and then dip to depths unknown. We often run the full gamut of emotions within seconds. David is seen here crying and begging that he not fall into the grasp of indolent self-satisfaction. Yet in the same prayer, he extols Hashem for saving him from this evil. Once Hashem has heard the sound of his pleas, David feels himself immediately protected by Hashem’s strength and shield. His heart finds soothing trust, and he is overjoyed. His song is one born from the immediacy of Hashem’s comfort, and this in itself is the greatest praise.
    The chapter ends with such strengthened hope. Save Your people and bless Your inheritance. Care for them and elevate them forever. David found his tranquility despite all the confusion and plotting that surrounded him. He now uses this newfound confidence to ask Hashem to deliver all the future children of Israel, the one unique nation that is Hashem’s inheritance. As a dedicated shepherd, he asks Hashem not only to care for them but to elevate them physically, placing them out of harm’s reach, and spiritually as well.

    This is a far cry from those birds imitating the rings of our cellular phones, and it’s so comforting and beautiful to know that such a reality awaits us all.

  28. Chapter Twenty-Nine

    There are moments when it all makes sense, when the clouds part and you actually see the light.

    Krias Shema commands us: “You shall love Hashem your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your resources…. Let these matters that I command you today be on your heart.” Gutte Yidden explain that often we are so preoccupied with the daily grind of existence that we don’t allow Hashem’s words to actually enter our hearts. This should not dissuade us from doing mitzvos. Their merit will rest on our hearts, and when we have a moment of inspiration, our hearts will open and those spiritual sparks will enter.

    Living in this “real world” is not spiritually easy. There is so much distraction and so much annoyance. Torah Yidden are also all too human, and the noise gets to us as well. But we have mitzvos to perform, and their merits rest and wait on our hearts.

    Then there are those magical moments of inspiration. Our hearts open, and in flows all that sweet nectar of Hashem’s love for our actions. How else can we explain the sudden rush of holiness we feel at certain moments? There is no script that can tell you when the moment will arrive or what will set it off. It could be a certain sparkle in your child’s eyes. Perhaps it is a song sung extra sweetly late one Friday night, its kedusha heard as if for the first time. These are the catalysts that open our hearts to receive the reservoir of Hashem’s goodness.

    I make it a point to tell young students who are becoming involved in Yiddishkeit that they should look for opportunities to see spiritual greatness in action. They should try to witness moments of holiness by watching tzaddikim daven, by observing them at simchos and by hearing them sing songs of happiness. This way they will store up heart-opening images for the future.

    Those raised in a frum atmosphere often take such things for granted. Yet when we are blessed with such examples of G-dliness, we should savor them tenderly. In a callous world not really conducive to spirituality, it is even more vital for us to grasp whatever comes our way. It is not enough to feel that our adherence to Torah despite the secular atmosphere surrounding us will allow us to thrive. Ultimately, adherence without tangible inspiration always becomes stale and in need of revitalization.

    Anyone who ever witnessed the Pnei Menachem call out “Lechaim!” at a tish, or saw the Lev Simcha pace back and forth during davening, has within his mental landscape a vision of true holy simcha. You can recall it forever and remember how warm and loving you felt while there. I can easily conjure up the image of the many times I witnessed the Bobover Rebbe dancing at simchos. His whole countenance shone in Divine happiness. When he danced before a kalla, you actually felt that the angels were standing alongside, clapping and singing in joy. These were moments that opened the heart and allowed all those mitzvos lying there to fall inside and take root.

    King David describes such moments in this kapitel. Listen with your heart, and you can feel his joy.

    Ascribe to Hashem, you sons of the mighty, ascribe to Hashem glory and might. We are told that “the sons of the mighty” refers to angels. Angels know full well the glory and might of Hashem. But we also know that, through the Torah, we humans can aspire to an even greater understanding. To ascribe connotes preparing. Through our performance of mitzvos, we prepare for an angelic understanding.

    Ascribe to Hashem the glory due His name. Prostrate yourselves before Hashem in the splendor of holiness.” If you seek glorious simcha, true inner happiness, then you must seek it in Hashem’s ways. Only there is simcha forever. Stretch yourself out, delve into Hashem’s Torah, and you will experience true splendor.

    Hashem’s voice is on the waters….” Stop and listen. Hashem calls to us from every nook and cranny. The Yid who is sensitized through a Torah life can hear Hashem wherever he is.

    David specifies hearing Hashem’s voice on the waters. Yes, you really can hear it there through its majesty. I have walked at the waters’ edge with some very special, holy Yidden. Seeing the way they gazed at the ocean waves was a lesson in tefilla.

    The voice of Hashem in power! The voice of Hashem in splendor! You can find Hashem’s energy both in the strength seen in nature’s powerful events and in the still splendor of His creation. Have you ever thought about what draws you to certain settings and the feelings you have for their beauty? There is no scientific reason to explain why we should feel inspired by nature’s astounding sights. The sight of beauty is the greatest proof that we were created by a loving Essence. When we see majestic sights, our hearts swell and we proclaim their beauty for no rhyme or reason. It is simply because something deep inside recognizes that Hashem lives within them, within their uniqueness.

    The voice of Hashem breaks cedars. Hashem shatters the cedars of Lebanon. The cedar tree is tall and majestic, but it bears no fruit. Hashem’s voice, His Torah, can cut through such vain barrenness and bring forth green shoots of generations to come.

    In our generation, we witness this every day. High and mighty people who thought they knew all the secrets to success sit barren in their old age, bereft of any nachas from their generations. They spent their lives in huge mansions where they held gala parties to which all were invited — all, that is, except Hashem. And then, wonder of wonders, some of their young offspring allowed Hashem’s voice to permeate their lives. In doing so, they shattered the cedars, their elders, but in reality they are giving them true happiness.

    The voice of Hashem hews flames of fire. The voice of Hashem sends a tremor through the wilderness…. There is such joy in these words. We often use the expression a firedike Yid, “a Jew burning with fire.” Hashem’s holiness can burn through any coldness of heart and cut through all the numbness everyday tedium brings. Even the driest, most desolate desert can tremble with Hashem’s spirit. Yidden who may seem so far away, so bleached of any warmth, can become as molten lava when they open themselves to Hashem’s voice.

    Hashem sat enthroned at the flood. Hashem is enthroned as King forever. Even when there was nothing else but disaster, when the flooded world was destroyed under the weight of mankind’s own evil, even then Hashem was the Creator. He waited and saw Noach through those times of darkness, and through Noach a new world was born. The rainbow that appeared following the flood is the symbol of Hashem’s constant patience. He awaits our return, waiting for us to open our hearts.

    Hashem will give strength to His people. Hashem will bless His people with peace. Here we receive a wonderful promise: Hashem is going to give us strength! There is no debate here, no questions. Hashem will do this for us if we but accept it.

    I am constantly astounded at the strength of Yidden. Simple folk, people without much learning or sophistication, often show such faith and strength that it can only be a gift given directly by Hashem. It would take a whole book just to describe some of these examples. If you want a few, go visit Yidden in the hospital or listen to loving mothers who care for ill children.

    The word for peace in the holy tongue is shalom. The word shalom has its roots in shaleim, wholeness. Peace can only be ours with wholeness of being. That is why one of Hashem’s names is Shalom, for His is the only true Oneness.

    This, then, is Hashem’s direct blessing to us. Wholeness is the peace we desire. It can be ours if we accept the joy Hashem desires for us and allow it to warm our heart.

  29. Chapter Thirty

    Ah, those youthful memories. They give so much insight if only we remember them in time. Just today my mind wandered back some forty odd years ago to another place, another world.

    We lived in Kew Garden Hills, a section of New York City that is now very heimish, but in those long-forgotten days was a secular bulwark. The area was Jewish, but the folk weren’t quite as frum as one would hope. In fact, it supported a large Conservative establishment, and hardly a kappel could be seen in the street. All the local shops were open on Shabbos, and kosher food was hard to find.

    Into this sterile atmosphere came a handful of heimishe Yidden who lived there basically because the housing was spacious yet affordable. On one of the side streets, a chassidic rav opened up a shtiebel, and it was in this vibrant environment that I grew up.

    The rav’s name was Harav Yosef Gelernter, zt”l, and he was a true Torah pioneer. His was a living Yiddishkeit that left little to the imagination. As a Polish Yid and Gerrer chassid, Reb Yosef glowed in the darkness of what was otherwise a community seeking to separate itself from its Torah roots. He bravely built a mikve, wore a shtreimel and created an oasis of strong, Torah-true Yiddishkeit despite the hostility of his neighbors.

    My memories centered around how the shtiebel looked on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Of course, most Jews, no matter how far their road has led them away from Torah, want to go to shul on the High Holy days. The problem is deciding where to go. Surprisingly, to many in that long- forgotten community, the Rav’s shtiebel was the place to be.

    They were far from being considered frum Yidden, but they came anyway. Some came because they harbored memories of long-forgotten shtiebelach in der alter heim or the Lower East Side. These lost souls still found the thought of davening with the older folk a warm, sweet reminiscence. Others came because it was cheaper. The seats in the big temple went for hundreds, while you could get in the rav’s shul for almost nothing. So, while during the year the shtiebel hosted about fifty devoted souls, on Yom Tov the numbers would swell to well over a hundred and fifty.

    The logistics of this mixture were interesting to behold. Generally, the regulars would sit in the first few rows around tables, while the guests would be lined up in rows of rented chairs reaching all the way to the back. Rav Yosef was our baal tefilla, and his davening would transport us to a realm of spirituality that had no connection with the post-war America he found himself in. His tears were of ancient vintage, deeply ingrained with the tinge of deveikus, clinging and yearning for Hashem.

    Rav Yosef was a survivor of several camps. He had seen what no human should ever have to see. Yet he stood strong and proud, tallis on his head, voice clear and sturdy, davening with the fervor he had learned in the mesivta of Warsaw.

    What did our guests make of all this? True, they would begin the morning shmoozing while the frumies got on with the day’s business. However, every once in a while they would stop and listen, and then their listening would become participation, and slowly but surely they would find themselves being swept up into the spiritual energy around them. I personally saw these supposedly cold-hearted, unconnected fellows open up their hearts for just a moment and stand there astounded by their own feelings.

    Ah…it was such an innocent time. Souls were so thirsty, and huge fires were ignited with a bit of warmth.

    We take all too little notice of the dynamic power a shul can create, not only for such guests as the aforementioned, but for our own souls as well. There are moments when each of us needs the support that only communal tefilla can offer. At such times, we seek out Hashem together with others and allow ourselves to become spliced with what we so desperately need. It can’t happen on our own. We need the sighs, the cries and the strength of others to energize our own deficient souls.

    In kapitel 30, we celebrate the constant renewal of our shuls. The chapter begins, A mizmor song for the dedication of the Temple, by David. We know that the Beis Hamikdash was built by King Solomon. How is it that its dedicational song is attributed to David? Rashi explains that David composed the song that would be sung in the days of his son, King Solomon. This may also indicate that all future places of heartfelt prayer were and are continuously revitalized by David’s unique words. Perhaps that’s why we start each morning’s prayers with this kapitel, placing the dedication from then into our here and now.

    I will exalt You, Hashem, for You have raised me up and did not give my enemies cause to gloat over me. The Sfas Emes tells us that the downtrodden state of Klal Yisrael is actually part of their uplifting. The word dilisani, “raise me up,” has its root in the word deli, a bucket. Just as a bucket must be lowered to bring up fresh, life-giving waters, so too Klal Yisrael must sometimes be brought to a lower depth before being raised up. The descent is part of the rising.

    Hashem, my God, I cried out to You, and You healed me. The Mezibuzher Rebbe said this signifies that the act of crying out to Hashem is itself a source of healing for spiritual ailments. The Kobriner Rebbe touches on the same thought. He explains the words from Shemos (15:26), “For I am the Master Who heals you,” to mean that the knowledge that Hashem is the Master is a cure for maladies of the mind and heart.

    Hashem, You lifted my soul from the netherworld. You kept me alive, so I didn’t descend into the pit of Gehinnom. The netherworld is usually understood to be referring to Gehinnom, a place for sinners after death. Here we see that even during one’s lifetime a person can find himself in such emotional pain that it is as if he is already visiting that place of purgatory.

    David tells us that even from within such total misery one can find life. Through our connection with Hashem, we can find a way of preventing ourselves from falling into life’s deep pits.

    Let Hashem’s pious ones sing to Hashem and give recognition to His holy name. David shouts out to all generations, “Let Hashem’s pious ones sing” — as a kehilla, we become part of the pious ones, part of the many and the searching. This group, just by being together, expresses deep recognition and appreciation of Hashem.

    In the evening, one retires weeping, but in the morning, there is joy. At the end of a long day, we may feel vulnerable, but if we come to reclaim our devotion in the morning, we can find life’s true joy.

    You have turned my eulogy into dance. The past pain becomes cause for future dancing. If we bond together, we can help create an ambiance of kedusha that allows for each individual to defy the gravity of this mundane world. As one, our dance raises us above the ties that bind us to earthly wants.

    So that my soul sing to You and not be stilled. Hashem, my God, I will thank You forever. There is voice-song and there is soul-song. They may seem the same, but the sensitive ear knows the difference. The song sung from the soul will go on forever. It comes from eternity and has no beginning or end. This song will not be stilled, not by our enemies and never by the holy nation of Israel. Hitler, may his name be blotted out, tried and failed. You can still hear our soul-song as I heard it in that shtiebel, and who knows how many generations will continue to sing its glory.

    We start our davening with this kapitel, for it inaugurates our mikdash me’at and gives meaning to our coming together.

  30. Chapter Thirty-One

    When I was about six years old, I had a dream.

    Don’t get excited — it wasn’t a prophetic vision or even one particularly inspiring. It was just a dream or, more accurately, a nightmare, and it comes to mind every once in a while.

    I had a fairly serious case of pneumonia, which in those days could be life threatening. I remember being given all sorts of pills and injections, and I can still see in my mind’s eye how I lay in a huge bed with the family whispering all kinds of things they didn’t want me to hear.

    During this long illness, my dear grandmother took it on herself to become my full-time nurse. It was she who gave me my medicine, and it was her gentle hands that bathed my feverish head with alcohol compresses. A lot of water has cascaded under my life’s bridge since then, so my memory might not serve me as well as it should, but one thing I remember well was “The Dream.”

    I wasn’t sleeping very well. My difficult breathing made my nights restless. One night as I was dozing off, I thought I heard a voice. I looked up from my huge bed and saw the shadow of a big monster on the wall! Really. The thing seemed to be trying to get into my room and was making sounds that made my hair stand on end. I called out to my grandmother, “Grandma, save me!”

    My poor grandmother came running into the room. “What’s the matter sweetheart?” (I was a cute little kid then.)

    “There’s a monster trying to get into the room,” I whimpered. “He’s going to eat me up!”

    “Don’t be silly. There are no monsters outside.”

    What do grandmothers know about the real world, I thought and said, “Grandma, he’s tall and making terrible noises. Listen!”

    This went on for a time, with poor Grandma feeling like any Jewish parent: in a word, guilty. The monster, she knew, was the product of my feverish six-year-old mind, and there was no way she could persuade me I was wrong.

    She turned to me and softly said, “Sweetheart, why don’t you daven that the monster go away?”

    That was an idea! Soon little-boy me was davening to Hashem that He take the monster away.

    The prayer worked, and I soon settled down into a deep sleep. It’s funny, but to this day, fifty years later, I can still remember the growling of the monster that lurked at my sickbed door.

    I share this little vignette to show how when one is anxious and frightened, one can turn to Hashem for support. This may sound simple enough, but in this tale there is a deeper dynamic.

    The fact was, I prayed for the wrong thing! The cause of my monster was my illness, and I should have prayed for the fever to let up. Praying that non-existent monsters take their business elsewhere was off the mark. Nonetheless, the little six-year-old learned a lesson that would serve him in good stead for life.

    We may not know what the real root of our anxiety is — it may be nothing more than the concoction of a feverish mind. It makes no difference, because to the one involved it is all too real. The way we sees our situation is our reality, and it is at this level that we must cry out.

    Interestingly, even when we think rationally and consider our fears with all the cool and collected thought maturity brings, we really don’t fully understand the cause of our anxiety. We may say to ourselves, “This is happening because of ______, and I have nothing to worry about.” Yet in the pit of our stomach, we still have that ache, and in the back of our mind, we still agonize. At such times, we must turn to the only One Who can ease our minds: Hashem!

    The Rebbe Reb Bunim used to say, “When a man’s heart is heavy and full of anxiety, he may lighten it through ardent prayer and belief in G-d’s mercies.”

    That little six-year-old was given courage to overcome his monster through a child’s prayer. We each experience new and different fears as we go through life, yet the remedy is the same. Turning to Hashem with a full heart and humble mind is the source of strength that is ours, and that is forever!

    King David was afflicted with enormous trials. His problems were not the product of a delusional mind, but very real and life threatening. Time and again, he verbalized his fears and begged Hashem for salvation.

    One may ask, “Why does David constantly turn to Hashem with words of fear and anxiety? He must have had enormous reservoirs of faith. If so, why was he so afraid?”

    Perhaps this in itself caused him to pray. Though he knew Hashem’s will would prevail, the fact that he felt fear was itself cause for prayer.

    Let us look at this kapitel and see how David handled his feelings of disquiet.

    In You, Hashem, I found protection. Let me never be ashamed. With Your righteousness, help me escape. David cries out that he find protection only in Hashem and pleads not to be ashamed by his fears. He knows he really should not be afraid, but he is only human. Let me escape these terrors of the heart, he begs, through Your righteousness.

    Turn Your ear to me — quickly rescue me. My cry may be so silent that it cannot be heard. I am ashamed of it myself, yet it is there. Turn Your ear, listen to my silent murmur of fear. Just knowing You are listening will quickly rescue me.

    For You are my boulder and my fortress, and for Your name’s sake, guide me and lead me. In my rational state, I fully accept that there is no island of safety other than You. However, human beings are not always rational, so guide me, Hashem. Lead me for the sake of Your will to become closer to You.

    Take me out of this hidden snare they have placed for me, for You are my strength. The snare is the web of worry that my mind hides within me. It appears when I find myself trapped by doubt and fear. Now, at this point of desperation, hear my voice say clearly, “You are my stronghold!”

    Into Your hand, I commit my spirit. You liberated me, Hashem, God of Truth. The greatest liberation is found in knowing the ultimate truth, that all reality is Hashem. If we commit ourselves to this, then we are safe.

    I will rejoice and be happy for Your kindness, for You saw my suffering. You know the troubles of my soul…. True joy comes from deep within our hearts. When we give ourselves over to Hashem, we can actualize a sense of real exultation. Our hearts become free of dread, and this is real rejoicing. No other person can see the extent of our personal suffering for it is unique to our own mindset and how we view things. Only Hashem knows exactly what nibbles away at our soul.

    …and You have not handed me over to the enemy but have stood me in a broad expanse. The enemies from without and within only have power over us if we don’t give ourselves to Hashem. When we do, we find ourselves in a broad expanse, a place that allows our hearts and minds to broaden in understanding. Have compassion on me, Hashem, for I am in distress. My eye, soul and innards waste away from anger. One’s whole outlook in life can become embittered when one becomes disconnected from Hashem.

    The kapitel goes on to hint further of the necessity of calling out to Hashem. David reiterates in his beautiful way the essence of our understanding. Hashem is there for each and every one of us. The little boy frightened of the monsters at night has a lot in common with us so- called grown ups who are just as frightened of more mature monsters.

    As the chapter ends, May this be a source of inner strength and courage to all who long for Hashem. We gain the inner strength and courage we so desperately seek if only we turn to Hashem. We need not fret in the darkness of our night or seek foolish nostrums. Instead, cry out to Hashem. That will give us courage!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *