Back to This Week's Parsha| Previous Issues
CHESHBON - FIGURE IT OUT YOURSELFAnd Yisroel took all these cities; and Yisroel lived in all the cities of the Amorites, in Cheshbon, and in all its villages. For Cheshbon was the city of Sichon the king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab, and taken all his land out of his hand, to Arnon. Therefore those who speak in proverbs say, Come to Cheshbon, let the city of Sichon be built and prepared. (Bemidbar 21:25-27)
The Hebrew word for "those who speak in proverbs" is îåùìéí. However, this word moshlim can also be homiletically translated as "those who control." Thus we find the gemara (Bava Basra 78b) commenting on this possuk: This refers to those who control their yetzer (evil inclination). They tell us, "Come to Cheshbon - come make a cheshbon: The accounting of the world…"
The gemara derives from the possuk that this cheshbon, or accounting, can only be done by those already in control of their natures. The Mesillas Yesharim writes (Chap. 3) that those still confined by the chains of their evil inclination cannot recognize the truth. He explains this with his famous moshol. In medieval Europe the royalty used to plant a large garden in the shape of a winding maze. There were a myriad of winding paths with tall hedges on either side so the person standing on the path could not see any other path, only directly in front or behind him. They used to play a game and the players would have to find their way to the goal: a beautiful veranda situated in the middle of the maze. None of the people in the midst of the maze could see anything. But someone in the middle, standing on this elevated terrace, could see everything and give direction to the lost players.
This is the lesson for us, writes the Mesillas Yesharim. We are like the person on the path in the middle of the maze. We have no ability to determine the right path. Those who are in control of their natures are like those who have already succeeded in escaping from the winding paths of the maze. They see the proper path and can direct us to our goal. What is their advice? "Go make a cheshbon, the cheshbon of the world."
Rav Ben Zion Brook, zt"l, (Hegyonei Musar, III) wrote that this comparison seems faulty. In the moshol of the maze those who are lost in the maze get proper direction from one who has already succeeded in arriving at the goal - the verandah in the middle. From his vantage point he can see the right path and direct the people. However, in the lesson of Chazal, what do those who have conquered their natures tell everyone else? They don't give clear guidance; they just say, make a cheshbon. This is far from clear directions how to get out of this maze of life. This is more like someone who has found himself in financial problems who goes to his friend for advice and is told, "You have to analyze all your accounts and get out of it yourself." That doesn't sound like he's giving any sound advice.
Rav Ben Zion Brook concludes that we are forced to say that the Mesillas Yesharim is telling us the only real advice: You have to figure it out yourself! The only one who can get you out of the maze of life is you.
Most of life's quandaries and problems stem from your individual nature. You are stuck in a quagmire; be it desire for honor, or jealousy of others, or a lustful nature. If you do not find the way to overcome your personal issues, no one else can help you. Even if you would be told what to do, where to go, you still could do nothing because your bad character traits are in the way.
Therefore those who have succeeded in conquering their natures, once they have freed themselves from the shackles of their own personal makeup, they tell the confused individual: Go make a Cheshbon! Study mussar and meditate on it. Then you will see for yourself how to escape your darkness. Bitter experience teaches that is the only way out of the maze of life.
If Not Me, Then Who?
Rav Chaim Friedlander zt"l, (Sifsei Chaim p. 19) writes that a person's job is to be willing to change his mindset.
Rabbeinu Yona in Sha'are Teshuva (Sha'ar 2, section 26) comments, "We learn in Avos (1:14), 'Hillel used to say, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?"' This means that if a person does not wake himself up, all the mussar he learns is of no use."
One shouldn't think that he will change by osmosis just by hearing encouraging lectures. Mussar from others is merely the first wake-up call. Afterwards he must arouse himself and change. If not, all the mussar lectures (or mussar seforim) are useless. True, the mussar goes in when he hears it. But even the most marvelous lecture has merely a temporary impact. The yetzer hora soon causes one to forget it, and it quickly dissipates and fades away.
So what should he do? When you hear an inspiring lecture, reflect on what you have heard and internalize it and think about it constantly. Expand upon it, and draw conclusions. Find a place where you will not be disturbed by outside distractions and concentrate on how it relates to you personally. "What is really going to be with me?" Do not give excuses. Scold yourself. Don't rely on outside reproof alone. Say to yourself, "It all depends upon me, and me alone." This self-reproach should be frequent until it becomes second nature and you feel like a new person.
The Chofetz Chaim had a small room in the yeshiva in Radin. He would often seclude himself in the room to learn mussar. Once Rav Yerucham Levovitz, mashgiach of Yeshivas Mir, came to Radin to visit the Chofetz Chaim. Accompanying him was Rav Tuviah Rotenberg, the Rav of Luna. They went upstairs to the Chofetz Chaim's room and stood by the door. They heard him taking himself to task, examining his day with a fine-tooth comb. He found that altogether almost an hour had been wasted. (Really, the Chofetz Chaim never wasted a minute. The Chofetz Chaim's time wasted meant that he had utilized it for purposes which were not absolutely necessary. For the Chofetz Chaim this was bitul Torah.) He became embittered and started crying about the lost time that could never be recovered. He said to himself, "What will I answer on the Day of Judgment?" (Hame'oros Hagedolim, p. 414)
Once, his talmid Rav Naftali Trop, together with another individual, stood behind the door and heard the Chofetz Chaim enacting out a "play." "Reb Yisroel Meir has died! Reb Yisroel Meir has died!" Everyone came to the levaya. Afterwards he went up to the Beis Din Shel Ma'alah (Heavenly Court). Then they started testing him. "Nu, Yisroel Meir, tell us what you have learned. Start with Mesechta Brachos." He started reciting the gemara word-for-word, together with the commentaries. After some time he got stuck in one place. Then he started crying in a loud voice, "Oy! What is going to be? I don't know it!"
Rav Naftali, being a sensitive person, could not bear remaining there and ran away. The other person, however, controlled himself and remained to hear the rest.
At the end the Chofetz Chaim cried out. "No! He's alive. He's not dead! Yisroel Meir is alive! So do teshuva! LEARN!" (Rav Shimshon Pincus, Nefesh Shimshon, Shaare Emuna, p. 422)
The Dubno Maggid, Rabbi Yaakov Kranz, once spoke in a town and a few maskilim (members of the enlightenment movement) attended. After the talk, one of the cynics, who was totally unaffected by the warm and inspiring message, approached the famed Maggid. "The sages tell us," began the skeptic, "'that words from the heart penetrate the heart.' Rabbi," he snickered, "I assume that you spoke from your heart. Your words, however, have had no impact on me whatsoever! How can that be? Why didn't your words penetrate my heart?"
Rabbi Kranz smiled. In his usual fashion, he began with a parable. "A simpleton once went by the workplace of a blacksmith, who was holding a large bellows. After a few squeezes, the flames of the smith's fire danced with a fury. The man, who always found it difficult to start a fire in his own fireplace, marveled at the contraption. He immediately went and purchased the amazing invention. Entering his home, he smugly announced, "I just discovered how to make a raging fire with the simple squeeze of a lever!"
He set a few logs in the cold fireplace and began to push the two ends of the bellows together. Nothing happened. The logs lay cold and lifeless.
Infuriated, the man returned to the blacksmith and demanded. "I want a refund!" he shouted. "This blower doesn't work!"
"You yokel," laughed the experienced blacksmith. "You were blowing on cold logs! You must start a small fire on your own! If you do not start with a spark, a fire will never erupt!"
The Maggid turned toward the maskil and sadly shook his head. "If there is no spark, the largest bellows will not make a fire."
Shema Yisrael Torah Network