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Weekly Chizuk

Parshas Ki Savo

Don't Fall Into the "Ostrich Syndrome"

(Adapted from a recorded lecture by Rav Yisroel Eliyahu Weintraub, zt"l.)

Rosh Hashana is quickly approaching. Everyone knows that in another few days we will all be receiving a new judgment regarding the coming year. The fact that we don't see anything happening isn't to say that nothing is happening. It's happening, we just don't see it.

We can understand this with a moshol. There is a big bird called the ostrich. It is a large fat bird which lives in the wilds of Africa. It is a delicacy in the diet of the great African lions. Whenever an ostrich sees a lion, she starts running with all her might to escape. That's natural. After a few minutes she turns her head to see what the matzav is and yikes, the lion is gaining ground. He's only a few hundred meters away. Now the situation is really serious. She's going to be lunch for the lion. She's got to find an avenue of escape. So she hunts for a hole in the ground and sticks her head inside. She opens her eyes and Ah! Now the lion disappeared. She doesn't see him anymore. Now she's safe. What's the reality? In a few moments she's going to be the lion's dinner.

The moral of the story is obvious. We cannot allow ourselves to suffer the "ostrich syndrome." Closing our eyes to the danger is the worst strategy possible. We must learn how to deal with the problems and not hide from them. A person who always runs away from his problems, his problems accompany him wherever he tries to hide. The ostrich is called by Chazal "a stupid bird." Her stupidity is in thinking that by closing her eyes she's found an answer to her problems.

The gemara in Rosh Hashanah (16b) states:

R. Kruspedai said in the name of R. Yochanan: Three books are opened [in heaven] on Rosh Hashanah, one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for the intermediate. The thoroughly righteous are immediately inscribed conclusively in the book of life; the thoroughly wicked are immediately inscribed conclusively in the book of death; the verdict of the intermediate (beinonim) is suspended from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur; if they deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of life; if they do not deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of death.

Rashi explains that the beinonim are those whose merits equal their aveiros. They are half-half. Therefore their judgment is suspended until Yom Kippur. The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva Chap. III) cites this gemara with a slight addition:

Just as a person's merits and sins are weighed at the time of his death, so, too, the sins of every inhabitant of the world together with his merits are weighed on the Yom Tov of Rosh Hashanah. If one is found righteous, his [verdict] is sealed for life. If one is found wicked, his [verdict] is sealed for death. A beinoni's verdict remains tentative until Yom Kippur. If he repents, his [verdict] is sealed for life. If not, his [verdict] is sealed for death. The Rambam adds a pshat to the gemara: if a beinoni does teshuva, then he will be sealed in the book of life. Many meforshim have grappled with this Rambam. Why does the beinoni have to do teshuva in order to gain life? Rashi explains that he is 50-50. Let him just perform one more mitzvah and he'll tip the scales to the side of righteousness and be inscribed for life. Why did the Rambam add that the determining factor is specifically whether he does teshuva or not?

The Meiri in his Chibur HaTeshuva quotes the Ra'avad who explains that this gemara is not discussing quantities of mitzvos or aveiros. Rather it is discussing the disposition of the person. A tzaddik is one who is inclined to do mitzvos. A rosha is one who is inclined to do aveiros. A beinoni is straddling the fence. Sometimes he feels like a tzaddik, and sometimes like a rosha. Thus the judgment that everyone is subjected to is to determine what his disposition is.

The Ra'avad adds that the tzaddik we are discussing is not a total tzaddik. He still has a yetzer hora. Every once in a while his yetzer overpowers him. However, this is only incidentally, it is not indicative of the true nature of this person. His basic nature is good and inclined to good things. In the eyes of Heaven this person is called a tzaddik on Rosh Hashanah and judged for life.

A rosha is the opposite: he is someone who typically desires the wrong things. However, sometimes it happens that mitzvos come his way and he will perform them. Sometimes he gets in a good mood and does something right. But mitzvos are not part of his real personality, they are only incidental. His mind is sunk in areas which are contradictory to the Divine will. He is called a rosha and his verdict is for (spiritual) death.

A beinoni is someone about whom it is difficult to say exactly who he is. His personality is inclined half this way, and half that way. For the beinoni to merit a good verdict on Rosh Hashanah it is not enough for him to merely perform one more mitzvah. His temperament will still remain intrinsically the same, half-half. His verdict depends upon changing his disposition, changing his inclinations. He must do teshuva and accomplish a deep turnaround in his being. As a moshol he cites the Rambam (chap. 2) who mentions concept of changing one's name as a method of performing teshuva: Among the paths of repentance is for the penitent… to change his name, as if to say "I am a different person and not the same one who sinned;"

When the gemara says one must change his name, it doesn't mean simply changing his name from Yankel to Sruli. Changing one's name means changing himself. He is now a different person. He thinks differently, he acts differently, he's different. Yesterday you were Yankel. Today you're Sruli. A different person. That's teshuva.

* * *

Along these lines, in one of his lectures, Rav Shimshon Dovid Pincus zt"l once focused upon a common mistake that many of us make.

Let's take for an example a Yid, a baal teshuva. Once, he used to desecrate Shabbos, publically, privately, Shabbos didn't exist for him. He ate treif and had no clue about kashrus. He was steeped in the 49 levels of tumah. Baruch Hashem, Hakadosh Baruch Hu helped him and he did teshuva. He doesn't keep everything yet, but he's definitely on his way up. He keeps Shabbos and doesn't eat treif.

Now let's imagine this person on a trip. He finds himself far from his home and he's famished! He goes into the supermarket and hunts for something to eat. He finds something, it's not treif, but he's not sure if it's kosher. He goes ahead and decides to eat it.

What is going through his mind at that moment?

In his deep subconscious he makes the following calculation. "Ribono Shel Olam, G-d Almighty. I used to be secular. I lived like a goy. You wrote in Your Torah that when someone repeats an aveira again and again it becomes second nature and permitted in his eyes. I could have remained a goy. Look at my family. All my siblings are secular! But me? In my good-heartedness and generosity I left everything behind and became a baal teshuva. I gave up desecrating Shabbos, I gave up treif. But not to eat this!? Let's not exaggerate."

Let's take another example. Imagine a frum businessman. Every night he takes time out to go to his gemara shiur. After the shiur he comes home, plops himself down on the couch and takes out a newspaper. Opposite him in the living room is a bookcase full of seforim. What is he saying to himself? "Ribono Shel Olam, I'm not a kollel man, I'm a businessman. With a generous heart I gave up of my precious time to go to a shiur in gemara. Please, don't exaggerate! Don't tell me that I can't read a newspaper!"


Let's now take a yeshiva bochur. He's been learning hard and trying his best to be at all the sedorim of the yeshiva. Finally Bein Hazmanim comes. He goes home. What does he tell himself?

"Ribono Shel Olam. I'm not the biggest masmid. I was very generous in going to yeshiva and learning so hard. So many hours each day, day in, day out. I came home for Bein Hazmanim and even though it's vacation I learned this morning for a good few hours. And now You tell me to also learn a few more hours at night? Ribono Shel Olam, what do You want from my life? Was I obligated to learn on my vacation time? Don't You remember last year and two years ago when I didn't learn at all Bein Hazmanim? The day will come when I'll be a masmid. But I think that today the few hours I learned this morning in the Beis Medrash were enough. Ribono Shel Olam, please, let's not exaggerate!"

What's at issue here? There is a portion of this person's "self" which he is guarding. He has changed. But, something inside is holding back. He can't make a deep and total change. He is afraid of "letting go". He hasn't yet changed his name. The old "me" is still buried deep inside with all the old desires and wants.

It is now erev Rosh Hashana. Our job is to concentrate on making deep changes and doing full teshuva.

* * *

We have the minhag that during Elul every morning after Shacharis, we blow the shofar. The Tur (581) remarks that this is to wake you up, "Yidden, do Teshuvah!" When a shofar is blown in the city, it is an air raid siren, and everyone becomes gripped with fear. So writes the Tur.

The shofar is a moshol. Everything that happens to a Yid is a message, it's a wakeup call. One trained in seeing hashgacha pratis will start seeing everything as a Heaven sent message. Our job in these turbulent times is to hear the wakeup call. Especially today, everything happening around us contains a message. Now, during Elul, and on Rosh Hashanah, when we hear the shofar we should realize that it is not just a musical instrument. It is not just a nice minhag. Hashem is talking to us, "Yidden, do Teshuvah!"

Wishing everyone a Gut Shabbos!

© Rabbi Eliezer Parkoff
4 Panim Meirot, Jerusalem 94423 Israel
Tel: 732-858-1257
Rabbi Parkoff is author of "Chizuk!" and "Trust Me!" (Feldheim Publishers), and "Mission Possible!" (Israel Book Shop Lakewood).
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