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Weekly Chizuk


Don't Despair

You shall walk after the Lord your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and you shall serve him, and hold fast to him. (Devorim 13:5)

Excerpt from Chizuk! Citing Me'imrei Shlomo, vol. II, p. 261, lectures of Harav Shlomo Harkavi, zt"l (Mashgiach of Yeshiva of Grodno), edited by Moreinu Harav Zeidel Epstein, zt"l.

The Rambam and the Sha'are Teshuva (chap. 4) write that in the same way there are illnesses of the body, so too are there illnesses of the soul. Some physical illnesses in spite of their being harmful are not dangerous. Others could lead to the loss of an organ. Then there are illnesses that are dangerous to life itself. The same is true regarding illnesses of the soul. Some illnesses are harmful but not life threatening. Others are potentially dangerous. Still others result in severe aberrant behavior, thereby threatening one's life.

The malady called despair is a grave illness that can endanger one's very existence and has the potential to undermine his fundamental religiosity. One who believes that there is no hope becomes utterly discouraged of trying anything. He ceases coping, giving up on life as if he has no more obligations or responsibilities. He refuses to accept any encouragement, and his paralysis leads to total depression.

What is despair? The Hebrew word is ???? (yi'ush). In the Talmud, this applies to a lost object whose owner "despairs" of ever finding it again. (The result being that halachically it is permitted for someone else to take possession of this object.) If the object is truly lost, then there is room for despair. But as long as the object is not really lost, but merely misplaced, there is no room for despair. Moreover, if it is not lost, then halachically despair won't work. Yi'ush does not work for objects hiding in one's house, even though the owner thinks they are lost.

The gemara (Sanhedrin 97a) tells us that Yisroel will not be freed from golus until they despair of the redemption. When Klal Yisroel sink to a state of no hope, then everyone will just stop and give up. They will realize that all their efforts in bringing about the Geula are worthless. That is when the real Geula will come. The real Geula will occur with no human assistance. No one can bring the redemption aside from Hashem Himself. We have no one to rely on except our Father in Heaven. When we come to that recognition, then the Geula will be possible . As long as we think that we can bring about the Geula by way of natural means and human actions, there is no place for the Geula. Only when we totally despair in seeing the redemption will it come. When we know and recognize that we are at a total loss to help or do anything, this is yi'ush. Then we can put our expectations in Hashem Yisborach that He will send us the salvation and the Geula speedily and soon.

She has fallen; she shall rise no more, the virgin of Israel; she is forsaken upon her land; there is none to raise her up. (Amos 5:2)

The gemara (Brachos 4b) cites an interpretation of this verse: She has fallen; she shall fall no more; rise O virgin of Israel. The Zohar, however, interprets the verse literally. The virgin of Israel shall rise no more. The fall is so extreme that it is not possible to rise anymore. This will cause us to daven and beseech Hashem to have mercy and compassion on us. Thus will Hashem raise Klal Yisroel up to the final true Geula.

Is there really any place for total despair when all hope is lost? No! Absolutely not!

"When one is attached to the source of life - HaKadosh Baruch Hu - there is hope" (Koheles 9:4). The Maharal explains that the very fact that a person is alive connects him to all the good in the world, to the whole Torah, to all the mitzvos, to all perfection.

When one is connected to the source of life, even in the most nominal way, he is still attached to life. Consequently, he has a connection to perfection - the source of life itself. Even if one is utterly depressed, having fallen to the deepest pits, he is never entirely lost. There is no room for despair. There is still hope for the future. There is still a part of him literally attached to everything good in the world. Even the lowliest of the low feels within him a spark of greatness and distinction. His soul is divine, and thus he is attached and connected to God Himself. Only when a wicked person dies is there no hope. Upon death, the last thread linking him to the force of life is severed. Only then is it possible to despair and to lose hope.

Chazal say that when Zimri took the Midian princess (end of parshas Balak), Moshe Rabbeinu stood there frozen in bewilderment. He had forgotten the halacha, and so could not make a decision how to proceed at this time of crisis. He fell into despair. Chazal (Bemidbar Rabba 20:24) tell us that because of this he was punished: no one will ever know where he is buried. Since he went missing from his responsibility to the people to act to save them from disaster, so too, he disappeared and no one can ever visit his grave. Visiting a tzaddik's grave connects the person with that tzaddik (which, as is well known, has a very great benefit for the soul of the tzaddik himself).

What is even more startling is that Chazal tell us that it was decreed that he should forget the halacha in order to leave room for Pinchas to find his own niche in public service and receive his reward. It really wasn't Moshe's fault. It was decreed in Heaven. Nevertheless, this was all regarding Pinchas. That does not clear Moshe Rabbeinu of censure for standing back and shirking his communal responsibility for even one second. How was it that he did not wrack his brain and try to figure out what to do at that calamitous moment? True, Klal Yisroel had fallen from their lofty pinnacle at the time of the Giving of the Torah. They had worshipped the golden calf and Chazal compared them to a bride who had been unfaithful right under the chupa! Now, in this new incident with Zimri, they had fallen even lower. There was no way to protect them from total annihilation. Nevertheless, Moshe Rabbeinu had no excuse! There is no room for despair! One must always, in each situation, gather the strength to make decisions and create a plan of action even in face of the most hopeless defeat. This was a microscopic censure of the great Moshe Rabbeinu. He was suddenly faced with a confrontation against the whole of Klal Yisroel, and for a split second he wavered and was uncertain how to proceed, until Pinchas came. Compare this to the incident of the golden calf. After descending the mountain, he was met face to face with the entire Klal Yisroel involved in idol worship. He stood there alone and instantly recovered from the surprise. He ground the golden idol to dust and immediately dealt with the evildoers. He was not disconcerted just because he was outnumbered. He gathered the tribe of Levi, even though they were a small fraction of the entire people, and was prepared to battle all of Klal Yisroel single-handedly if need be. He brought the culprits to Beis Din and executed three thousand of them right in front of everyone. He made everyone else drink the water and the guilty were punished like a Sota.

Suddenly, with Zimri, he became frozen in despair from the prospect of battling the entire Klal Yisroel? Moshe's despair put the entire Klal Yisroel in danger. They were about to be totally wiped off the face of the earth. The possuk testifies that Pinchas was given the covenant of peace for he "has turned My anger away from the people of Israel, while he was zealous for My sake among them, that I consumed not the people of Israel in My jealousy." The implication is clear. If not for Pinchas, Klal Yisroel would have been destroyed. And this was all due to Moshe's despair. The only one who did not despair was Pinchas. He stood up and "was zealous for My sake." Pinchas saved Klal Yisroel.

This teaches us the power of despair: an entire nation, the purpose of the whole of Creation, the people of Israel, could be annihilated because of despair. And one person who didn't despair and acted, saved them all, and with them the entire Creation and the whole universe.

We have learned here that one must prepare himself in advance with the proper inner strength to guarantee that he will not fall into depression in even the most miserable and discouraging situation.

"You wait for man to humbleness" (Tehillim 90:3). This is interpreted as, "Until the humbling of the soul" (Koheles Rabba 7:1). Even when one's spirit is crushed and shattered to splinters, HaKadosh Boruch Hu still waits and is willing to help. As long as one is connected to the Source of life there is still hope and the prospect of returning and regaining strength and starting anew.

* * *

Rav Zeidel Epstein, zt"l, comments on this : We have a vivid example of this in R. Akiva. At the age of forty, he started from scratch and labored twenty-four years, managing to become one of the greatest Torah scholars of his day. He amassed 24,000 talmidim. Suddenly, he lost them all in the short span of just over a month. Here was the greatest Rosh Yeshiva of the generation. He had been surrounded by crowds of the best Talmudic scholars of the time. He had spent the major portion of his life building up the largest and most renowned yeshiva in the world. And suddenly, he was thrown into solitude and loneliness. He was probably over seventy by then. How terrible a tragedy this was for a man of his age, to endure such a misfortune and start anew - opening a new yeshiva with only five talmidim. But R. Akiva didn't despair. He started all over again! And in doing so, he succeeded in saving Torah in Klal Yisroel. The whole Talmud we have, our sole remnant of the Oral Tradition, is due almost entirely to those five new talmidim. This is a brilliant image of how important it is not to despair. One must fight his impulses, fight his situation, and trust in Hashem Yisborach that He will send him the Geula.

* * *

In 1923, the Chofetz Chaim zt"l traveled to Vienna to participate in the Agudas Yisroel convention, and he spent some time together with R' Avraham Mordechai Alter zt"l, the Gerrer Rebbe. In the course of their discussion, the Chofetz Chaim cited the verse from that week's parsha (Devorim 13:5), "Acharei [literally, 'after'] Hashem, your God, shall you follow and Him shall you fear; His commandments shall you observe and to His voice shall you hearken; Him shall you serve and to Him shall you cleave." The Chofetz Chaim commented:

"Our Sages observe that the Torah uses two words for 'after' - 'Acharei,' which means 'long after' (or 'far away') and 'achar,' which means 'soon after' (or 'close'). Why does our verse use 'acharei,' implying that one should follow Hashem from a distance? In fact, one should become as close to God as possible!"

He explained: Sometimes a person becomes depressed, and he feels that he is standing on the brink of a cliff as far from God as can be. He is confident that Hashem will not help him at this moment. One should know that such feelings are the work of the yetzer hora. Hashem is a Jew's "Father" at all times, and He accepts His children when they return to Him and saves them from all troubles. Even when one is "acharei," "far away," he should not despair of following Hashem. This is the meaning of the words in the High Holiday prayers, "Fortunate is the man who will not forget You, and the human being who will find strength in You."

The Gerrer Rebbe responded: "Now I will try to interpret this verse in the manner of the Chassidim. Specifically when a person feels distant from Hashem, that is when he can best follow Hashem, as it is written in Tehilim: 'God is close to the broken-hearted'."

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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