By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Parshas Ki Savo opens with the mitzvah of bikkurim. Through this mitzvah and the rich symbolism of the mitzvos surrounding it, we are taught how to achieve happiness.
After months of working in his field and orchard, a farmer takes the first fruits of his harvest and sets out for Yerushalayim. When he arrives there, he meets up with a kohein, approaches the mizbei’ach in the Bais Hamikdosh and recites the pesukim that recall the trials that Yaakov Avinu endured, followed by our forefathers’ suffering in Mitzrayim.
While there, he relates how Hashem rescued the Jewish people with scores of miracles and led us to the Promised Land, which flows with milk and honey.
Following that, the man presents the fruits of his labors to the kohein and returns home. He is then ready for the next part of the mitzvah, “Vesomachta bechol hatov.” There is a specific mitzvah to rejoice with all the goodness that Hashem has blessed him with.
The obligation to be thankful for our blessings Hashem has bestowed upon us, and to contrast that goodness with the difficult time that preceded it, appears to be the key to happiness. It is by approaching our situation in life with this perspective that we can merit happiness.
The path to happiness and fulfillment is often strewn with hardship. A person who works the fields is a perfect illustration of this dynamic.
First, the farmer spends hours working his fields as the blistering sun beats down on him. After months of hard work, his orchard begins yielding fruit, which he can harvest to feed his family and sell for a profit. Yet, before he can do anything, he must tie a ribbon around the first fruits to bloom. He then must take a trip and bring them to Yerushalayim as bikkurim.
The Torah instructs him to think back to the bitter days that Yaakov Avinu spent at the home of his father-in-law, Lovon, and to the period of slavery we endured in Mitzrayim.
Bringing bikkurim forced people in the time of the Bais Hamikdosh to reflect on the good in their life. Too often, people concentrate only on the negative. They complain about how hard they struggle to make a living. People fail to thank Hashem that they have a job and a boss who guarantees them a salary. Those who live in an agrarian economy don’t always appreciate that they have a plot of land on which to grow their fruit and may complain about all the chores that they must perform in order for their orchard to produce healthy fruit.
The mitzvah of bikkurim forces a person to revisit the first days of the season when he planted one of the shivah minim, not knowing if the seeds would take root or if the trees would bear fruit. It forces him to be thankful that, despite all the potential for ruin, in the end, Hashem helped him bring forth a good crop.
In Yerushalayim, he stands at the mizbei’ach and reflects on the mixture of hard and good times that the Jewish people have experienced throughout the ages.
As we approach Rosh Hashanah and examine how the year went, we too, must contemplate the hard times we all went through along with the good, examining our lives to measure how far we’ve come over the course of time.
We face challenges. There are times when we feel as if we are backed into a corner with no means of escape. Some have a tendency to think that their problems are insurmountable and submit to despair.
A man once went to the Tchebiner Rov. He had a terrible problem and complained that he could not go on with life. The rov told him a story. He said that it happened on Erev Yom Kippur that a man was holding a chicken in one hand for Kapparos. In his other hand, he was holding a siddur. As he began swinging the chicken and reading from the siddur, his glasses fell off.
The man didn’t know what to do. If he put down the chicken to pick up his glasses, the chicken would run away. Chas veshalom, he would never put a siddur on the ground. He couldn’t see without his glasses, and if he left the spot, besides that he wouldn’t see where he’s going, the glasses would likely be stepped on by someone else and become broken. What should he do?
The man with the problem said to the rov, “I give up. What did the man do?”
The Tchebiner Rov said to him, “I don’t know what he did, but I guarantee you that he isn’t standing there anymore. Problems have solutions. Change your attitude and you’ll figure out what to do.”
For someone facing a challenge, the problem seems so overwhelming and daunting, but we have to remember that the Ribono Shel Olam has no limitations. However large the issue seems to the person who is experiencing it and to those who love and care about him, in essence, to the Creator who can fix it all, it is not a big deal.
We get upset and we become miserable when we become trapped by the moment and cannot look past it. We get locked in the moment. We get locked in the problem. We have to know that if we have the right attitude and bitachon, we will find a solution.
Great men always knew how to view what was before them not as isolated incidents, but as part of something bigger. They knew that what was happening in their lives was part of an evolving process put in place by the Ribono Shel Olam. They knew that what was happening on a national and international level was a manifestation of history unfolding, orchestrated by the Creator.
Such people don’t become disheartened when they face struggles. They are cognizant of the fact that Klal Yisroel and its people march to their destiny on a long, winding road, sometimes in the sun, other times in the shade. There are storms of snow and others of rain; avalanches and slides, hurricanes, earthquakes and typhoons. But we continue on the path, irrespective of what is thrown in the way.
The great gaon, Rav Mordechai Pogromansky, represented the greatness of Torah, its chachomim, and bnei Torah. Even as he was locked in the Kovno ghetto, with death, destruction and deprivation all around him, Rav Pogromansky never lost his inner calm, which he attained through his deep emunah and bitachon. He remained devoted to Torah and giving chizuk to those around him. With the Jews walled into a small area, constantly patrolled by vicious Nazis, he would tell those who would gather around him that he didn’t see the German beasts who were everywhere. “I don’t see Germans all around us… I see pesukim of the Torah [from the Tochacha] surrounding the ghetto.”
He saw what was transpiring as the realization of the pesukim in this week’s parsha that we read softly. He saw those words coming to life. He was at peace because he knew that all that was going on, as awful as it was, in actuality were the pesukim of Tanach having grown skin, bones and muscle. He didn’t see Germans. He didn’t fear Germans. He saw and feared Hashem. He knew that whatever was going to happen was going to be carried out by the Ribono Shel Olam, and if he was supposed to live, he would live, no matter what those whose “pihem diber shov” would say or do.
Bombs were falling, devastation and hunger were his daily companions, yet this great soul, with depth, sensitivity and brilliance sensed the stark clarity of the pesukim of the Tochacha and the reality as expressed by the Torah. Everything around him was merely a reflection of that reality, a cause and effect built into creation by the Ribono Shel Olam.
He carried out the teaching expressed in Orchos Chaim LehoRosh (100) which states, “Al tevahel ma’asecha.” Even in a time of confusion and commotion, remain calm and composed.
This lesson was the epitome of Kelmer mussar, though we need not be a student of Kelm to conduct ourselves in that manner. The Alter of Kelm instituted the recital of Orchos Chaim LehoRosh in his yeshiva each morning following Shacharis. With deep concentration and the sincerity that defined them, the Kelmer talmidim would repeat in unison verses from the sefer, inculcating within themselves these timeless teachings. Other yeshivos have come to follow that custom during the month of Elul.
Al tevahel ma’asecha. Tunnel vision forces a person to panic, while the ability to understand that there is a bigger picture at play offers serenity. The knowledge that everything that is taking place is the fulfillment of pesukim enables a person to live a life of calmness and serenity no matter what is happening around him.
Every Shabbos morning, in the tefillah of Nishmas, we thank Hashem for saving us from “choloyim ro’im vene’emonim,” faithful, bad diseases. What type of illness is faithful? To what and to whom is the illness faithful?
In the Tochacha (28:59), the posuk speaks of “makkos gedolos vene’emanos,” great and faithful blows, and “choloyim roim vene’emonim,” great and faithful illnesses. The Gemara says in Maseches Avodah Zarah (55a) that before a person becomes ill, the Ribono Shel Olam makes the illness take an oath that it will leave the person’s body at the proper time. When a person becomes afflicted with an illness, the illness is sworn to the number of days it will reside within that person, the degree of pain it will cause, and instructions about when it will leave. When the illness promises to follow its instructions, it is dispatched to the person’s body.
When people are sick and suffering, they can become despondent and think that they will never be cured. They fear that they will never again be happy and pain-free. Chazal teach that sickness, like everything else in this world, is the result of a Divine plan. The amount the sick person suffers is planned. Hashem spares us of any pain beyond what has been prescribed for us.
Veho’ikar lo lefacheid klal. Daunting as it seems, hard as the situation appears, we should never forget that nothing occurs by happenstance.
When we think about what has been going on since Purim this year, it can be frightening, unless we understand the struggles in light of a bigger picture. Rav Mordechai Pogromansky recognized in the destruction a harbinger of hope, because the pesukim of the Tochacha were being realized. Everything was going according to plan.
Yaakov Avinu, the av who is identified with golus, the father who led his children into Mitzrayim, taught us an enduring lesson. He knew where his children were headed, but he had the foresight to bring along cedar trees as he went into exile. It was from those arazim trees that the Mishkon was constructed.
With those arazim, Yaakov didn’t only bring the physical timber his offspring would require to build a heavenly abode in the desert. He also taught them a lesson that would carry them through golus. Light follows darkness as assuredly as day follows night. There will be destruction, but it will be followed by rebirth.
Better times will come for those who don’t lose hope. The Chasam Sofer in parshas Bechukosai foretold that Tof-Shin-Pey would be a rough year, and he said that the year that follows will be one of blessing. May we all merit to enjoy many brachos in the coming year.
We study the parsha of bikkurim prior to Rosh Hashanah to encourage us not to despair and to always maintain our belief in Hashem, even on the dark days when the land lies fallow and an unbelieving person would give up all hope of ever growing anything.
The courage to keep up the struggle is the theme of Elul. We need to maintain our faith as we experience this internal turbulence. Hakadosh Boruch Hu says to us, “Pischu li pesach kefishcho shel machat va’ani eftach lochem pesach kefischo shel ulam.” We have to open the door, we have to plant the seed, we have to take the trip to Yerushalayim, and Hashem will do the rest.
Living in troubled, turbulent times, we have to maintain our faith and seek to persevere and do the right thing, no matter how difficult the challenge.
We must continue to constantly scrutinize our actions, always aiming to improve. We have to remember arami oveid avi and the avdus in Mitzrayim in order to absorb Hakadosh Boruch Hu’s mercy and kindness in accepting our tefillos and rescuing us from that awful place.
Just as He saved our fathers, He looks out for us and aids us in our daily battles and struggles if we remain staunch in our faith and do not allow setbacks to derail us.
We should all see our problems for what they are – temporary obstacles arranged by a knowing and loving Father. They can and will be overcome.
May we all merit to be inscribed for a happy, healthy and successful new year.
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