Thursday, May 5, 2011


Sefer HaChaim - Chapter One

The central premise which will be developed over the course of this work, is that every damage can be corrected, every evil can be made good, and every wrong can be righted retroactively. The first proof we present is from the Mishnah, which states that if a building collapses upon a person on Shabbos, the laws of Shabbos are suspended in order to dig him out and save his life. If they dig through the rubble and find him to be alive, they should continue digging to remove him. If they find him to be dead, his body should be left until after Shabbos.

The Gemara asks why the Mishnah need say that if he is found alive he should be removed; is this not obvious? The Gemara answers that even if he is mortally injured, the laws of Shabbos are nonetheless suspended in order to preserve his life for just a few more minutes. From here, the Mishnah Berurah learns that the laws of Shabbos are suspended for the sake of a deathly ill person, even if only to preserve his life for a short time.

The Rishonim question this conclusion, since it is only permitted to desecrate Shabbos in order to save a person’s life and allow him to observe future Shabbosos. In this case, he will not live to observe a single Shabbos, let alone many. Why then should we desecrate Shabbos on his behalf?

The Meiri answers that if he lives for only a few more minutes, he may yet repent his past misdeeds and confess them before Hashem. This answer is somewhat perplexing. How does repenting fulfil the criterion of, “Desecrate one Shabbos on his behalf, that he may live to observe many?”

Perhaps we may suggest that through teshuvah, all the Shabbosos that were observed improperly over the course of one’s life can be corrected retroactively. What was lost over many years can be regained in just one moment. Therefore, we desecrate one Shabbos on his behalf, in order that he may return to claim all the Shabbosos that had been lost.

The Gemara tells us, “Some people earn their portion in the World to Come in just one moment.” In a single instant they can correct all the years of their life that had passed in emptiness and confusion. Not only is the person himself uplifted through teshuvah, but the stains that were made on the very fabric of time are wiped clean, and the years that had passed are uplifted. Everything that he had failed to accomplish over the course of his life can be completed in just one moment, through sincere teshuvah.

A proof for this can be drawn from the Minchah prayer of erev Rosh Hashanah, the last Shemoneh Esrei of the year. As with every weekday Shemoneh Esrei, we daven, “Bless for us, Hashem, our God, this year and all its produce.” Although the year has entered its final moments, it is not too late to pray for blessing to descend upon it. The entire year can be uplifted retroactively. My grandfather, the Divrei Binah zt”l, writes:

We daven, “Bless for us, Hashem, our God, this year and all its produce,” during the last Shemoneh Esrei of the year. How is it possible to pray for the year that has already passed?

Blessing descends upon something that has reached its completion. For example, a blessing recited over food uplifts it. The blessing signifies how the food has reached its completion – only then can the appropriate blessing be recited. For this reason, no blessing is recited over an unripe and inedible fruit. If the fruit is slightly edible, but not yet fully ripe, Shehakol is recited as opposed to its appropriate berachah. Only on a ripe fruit may Borei pri ha’adama or ha’eitz be recited. Thus, the blessing depends upon the degree of completion that the fruit has attained, as discussed in Shulchan Aruch. The most perfect blessing descends upon something that is perfectly complete.

As is known, the perfection and completion of time depend upon the actions of man. The Zohar states that a day on which a person properly serves Hashem Yisborach becomes eternal; that day will continue to exist forever. Therefore, we pray before Hashem at the completion of the year that He should bestow His blessing upon it. The year should be worthy of receiving a perfect blessing, like a completely ripe fruit that is perfect and receives a perfect blessing.

Some people earn their portion in the World to Come in just one moment. At the moment a person contemplates thoughts of sincere teshuvah in his heart, regretting the wasted days that have passed him by, he can rectify those days – especially the days of that same year.

Therefore, if Hashem sends an elevating spirit upon us, giving us the merit to return in sincere teshuvah, then how goodly and how pleasant will be the year that has passed, being worthy of Hashem’s blessing. For this we pray: “Bless for us this year.”

With this we can well understand why Shabbos must be desecrated in order to preserve life for even one moment. The expression “only minutes left to live” falsely implies that a few moments of life are of little value. This is not so. In just one moment, a Jew can draw upon himself eternal life. He can repair all that he has damaged over the course of his life, regain all that he has lost, and complete all that was lacking in his Torah and mitzvos. As long as his soul still resides within his body, he can revive the days that have passed through the principle of Techias HaMeisim, the Resurrection of the dead. Therefore, if there is the slightest possibility that a person may continue to live, even for just a few short moments during which he could rectify the past, there is sufficient justification to desecrate Shabbos on his behalf.

This is as we have explained in the companion volume, Mevaser Tov: Techias HeMeisim. Even if a sharp sword is held against a person’s throat, and even if it has begun to cut into his throat, he must not despair of Hashem’s mercy, as the possuk says, “Though He may slay me, I will still hope to Him.” The Midrash Tanchuma adds:

If a person sees in his dreams that a sword is drawn against him, and is thrust into his throat, and cuts down to his leg, he arises in the morning troubled with fear and goes to shul to pray. There he sees the Kohanim lifting their hand in blessing, and his fearful dream melts away.

Though the sword has been drawn and thrust into his throat, he may yet be granted life. Even if he is mortally wounded with only minutes to live, in those few moments he can enliven all the years of his life that have passed. The possuk, “Though He may slay me, I will still hope to Him,” takes on new significance. A person may indeed be about to die, yet hope is not lost that what has passed may yet be corrected.

So too, a person may be so set in his sinful ways that it seems as if the noble aspects of his soul have almost died. Yet in a single moment of sincere teshuvah he may ascend from his impurity, and draw upon himself a new life from the Source of all Life. As we say in the piyut on Yom Kippur, “As long as man’s soul rests within him, Hashem awaits the return of he who was formed from the earth, to enliven him and better his end.” The Divrei Binah explains:

The soul of man is an aspect of Godliness. As long as it rests within him he can return to his spiritual heights, enlivening himself with holiness. From his soul, he can draw light and life-force upon all the limbs of his physical body, connecting them to their spiritual source Above. His end, that is to say, his physical body which is the lowest level of his true self, is enveloped in the aura of holiness projected by his soul.

When a sick person leans towards death, God forbid, as long as he still breathes he can hope to recover and return to his full strength. The same is true with regard to teshuvah. In Hashem’s great mercy and His love for the Jewish people, He granted us the power to return to Him from the most dismal depths of sin, through the power of the Godly soul within us.

Our Sages learn from the possuk, “Let every soul praise Hashem,” that with each breath a person must praise Hashem. (The word for soul, neshamah, closely resembles the word for breath, neshimah). As long as a sick person still breathes, he can hope to recover. So too, a spiritually fallen person can hope to return as long as he still has a spark of holiness with which to kindle his soul. Thereby he can illuminate his entire body and uplift it to bask in the Supernal Light.

This is the meaning of the piyut, “As long as man’s soul rests within him.” As long as the glory of his immortal soul still shines within him he can cast its light upon his physical body, and thus, return to Hashem in teshuvah.

For this we pray in Shemoneh Esrei, “He revives the dead with abundant mercy.” The Ritva and Avudraham explain that this prayer is offered on behalf of those whose lives are like death, including the deathly ill, that Hashem may revive them. It also refers to the wicked, who suffer a living death in a spiritual sense. The Gemara tells us that the wicked are as dead even while they live.

The Maharshdam explains the Gemara “Divine spirit (Ru’ach HaKodesh) leads to the revival of the dead,” to mean that Tzaddikim endowed with Ru’ach HaKodesh have the power to revive the dead, as Elisha the Prophet revived the Shunamite’s son. So too, they have the power to inspire the wicked to return in teshuvah. This is also considered reviving the dead.

The Gemara asks:

Who were the dead that Yechezkel resurrected? Rebbe Yermiyah bar Abba taught that they were people who had not the ‘moisture of mitzvos’ within them, as the possuk says, “Dry bones! Hear the Word of Hashem!”

From here we see that a person without the freshness of mitzvos and the vigour of holiness is considered as dead. When he is awakened to return in teshuvah, it is a miracle on a par with the resurrection performed by Yechezkel.

The reason the wicked are considered as dead is that their lives are not the lives of men, but rather like those of soulless beasts. Animals also live and walk the face of the earth, but their lives consist of nothing more than feeding themselves and preserving their existence. Even plants live, yet it is clear that in contrast to the true life to which men must aspire, the lives of animals and plants are as naught.

The life of a Jew is spiritual; a life of Torah and mitzvos. When he abandons the Torah, the source of our life, then his life is no longer considered to be a form of living. The wicked have no human life within them, but only the life of animals and plants. For a human being, such a life is no better than death.

A comatose person, God forbid, is often referred to in vulgar parlance as a ‘vegetable’. He lives and breathes but cannot move; he is entirely unaware of what occurs around him. His life is a living death. The same is true of a mentally incompetent person who eats, drinks and wanders around, yet his life is no life, since he does not understand what is happening around him. He perceives light as darkness and darkness as light. So too are the wicked, who are as dead even while they live.

In addition, Torah and mitzvos are the source of Jewish life. Without Torah, we could not survive. As we say in davening, “For they are our life and the length of our days.” The very existence of the Jewish people, both spiritual and physical, depends upon the holy Torah. In this respect, the life of a Jew is very different from the life of a gentile. For our survival we depend on the Torah, just as other peoples depend upon the air that they breathe.

During the time of the Roman occupation of Eretz Yisroel, Torah study was strictly forbidden and punishable by death. Nevertheless, Rebbe Akiva gathered his disciples to publicly engage in Torah study. When asked if he did not fear the wrath of the Romans, Rebbe Akiva answered with a parable:

Once a fox walked by the riverbank and saw a group of fish swimming hurriedly from place to place. “From whom are you running?” asked the fox.

“We swim to escape the nets that men cast against us,” said the fish.

“Why don’t you come up here onto dry land to live together with me, as our forefathers lived together?” asked the sly fox.

“Are you not the animal who is called most clever of beasts?” asked the fish. “You are not clever, but a fool! In the water, the place of our life, we must fear our enemies; on dry land, the place of our death, how much more so.”

“The same is true with us,” concluded Rebbe Akiva. “When we toil in Torah study, of which it is said ‘For it is your life and the length of your days,’ such trouble has befallen us. If we forsake the Torah, how much greater would be our danger.”

We can further illustrate this point with a halachic ruling from the Rambam. If a person accidentally kills another person, he must run to one of the appointed refuge cities (arei miklat), before the relatives of the victim claim his life in vengeance. From the possuk, “He shall escape to one of these cities and live,” we learn that we must provide a viable life for him in his refuge. The Gemara adds that if a Torah student is exiled to one of these cities, his Rebbe must follow him, “in order that he may live.” Based on this, the Rambam rules:

If a student is exiled to a refuge city his teacher must follow him, as the possuk states, “and he shall live” – we must provide his needs, in order that he may live there. For the wise, and for those who pursue wisdom, life without Torah study is likened to death.

Without Torah, life is not truly life. The wicked, who have not the ‘moisture of mitzvos’ nor the vigour of holiness, endure a living death. When they are awakened to return in teshuvah, to live a spiritual life of Torah (which is indeed the very life-force of the Jewish people), it is a miracle of Techias HaMeisim – resurrection of the dead.

It has been known to happen that comatose people who have lain still as a block of wood for years on end, the so-called ‘vegetables’, have recovered to live a normal life. The same is true of baalei teshuvah who have ascended from the deepest abyss. They were far from a life of Torah and mitzvos, like infants that were captured and raised among the gentiles; ‘spiritual vegetables’, so to speak. Their return to Torah and mitzvos is a form of Techias HaMeisim. From a living death, they have returned to lead a life filled with light, blessing and perfect goodness...  see more

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