by HaRav Sholom Schwadron zt'l
Days Of Awe: A Shmuess for Rosh Hashanah
Our Name for This Period
The Yomim Noro'im -- Days of Awe -- and the period of
mercy and forgiveness are almost upon us. Let's think what
the term "Days of Awe" means. There must be a good reason why
all of Klal Yisroel refers to these days by this name.
It appears that the name arises from the special quality of
these days and their ability to impart yiras
Chazal tell us that everything is determined by Heaven except
for the level of a person's yiras Shomayim. The
posuk (Devorim 10:12) says, "And now Yisroel, what is
Hashem asking of you but to fear Hashem . . .?" In other
words, a person has no power to do anything whatsoever
independently. The only thing that is really in his power to
determine is the level of his yiras Shomayim.
Let me tell you about one of the times that I went to see the
Brisker Rov zt'l, and I asked him about the posuk
(Devorim 5:10-11), "When Hashem brings you to the land .
. . to give you . . . and houses filled with everything good,
that you did not build . . . vineyards . . . that you did not
plant . . ." Later however, the Torah says (9:17),
"And you'll say in your heart, `My strength and the might of
my hand have acquired all this wealth for me.' "
How can this be? If a person did not even build his house
himself and was only able to take possession of his land
because Hashem promised that He "will send the hornet among
them" (7:20), how could it even cross his mind to
attribute his success to his own strength?!
It is known that the Brisker Rov was a quiet person who used
to say very little, yet on this occasion he spoke for a while
and remarked, "It's true, it's true; that's how it is!" He
cited pesukim such us, "Don't say . . . Hashem has
brought me to possess this land because of my righteousness .
. . You should know that Hashem is not giving you this good
land to possess because of your righteousness . . ."
(Devorim 9:4,6). In other words, even if you do have
merits and you are worthy, don't attribute your success to
that and say, "My strength and might have brought me here,"
for that is pride and is tantamount to idolatry R'l.
Everything is determined by Heaven and you are only receiving
the land because of Hashem's kindness.
Although it is in everyone's power to work on refining
himself -- and such efforts meet with success, for this is
what Hashem desires from us -- the yomim noro'im have
their own special quality of implanting fear of Hashem within
a person's heart. This is one of Hashem's kindnesses, for He
desires man's good and he wants man to attain forgiveness and
Implementing the Fear
This is the meaning of the posuk, "He will give us
life after two days and on the third day He will set us
upright and we shall live before Him" (Hoshea 6:2).
There is a well-known explanation of this posuk,
according to which the "two days" are the two days of Rosh
Hashanah and the "third day" is Yom Kippur. This could be a
way of explaining the gemora in Kiddushin (40),
which says that, "A person should always view himself as
having half merits and half liabilities. According to this,
one should see oneself as being in the middle, "in between"
category, whose verdict Chazal tell us remains in abeyance
from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. Even if someone did not
obtain a favorable judgment on Rosh Hashanah, "on the third
day . . . we shall live before Him" -- on Yom Kippur, he will
Each one of the Aseres Yemei Teshuvoh have this property of
imparting yiras Shomayim. Chazal tell us that the
posuk, "Seek Hashem when He is accessible"
(Yeshayohu 55:6), refers to the ten days from Rosh
Hashanah to Yom Kippur. One of Hashem's many kindnesses is
that He implants His fear within us at this time. In His
kindness and mercy, we receive yiras Shomayim from
Similarly, the posuk (Malachi 2:5), "My covenant was
with him, to bring him life and peace and I gave them to him
in fear and he feared Me and he fears from My Name." This
posuk refers to Pinchos, who was promised that he
would be a Cohen forever and that his descendants
would also be cohanim. Rashi explains, "And I will
give them to him in fear," means, "that he should receive
them with fear and so he did [as the posuk says], `and
he feared Me' ." According to Rashi, when the posuk
says earlier about Hashem's gift to the tribe of Levi,
"And I gave . . . fear," it means, "that they should receive
it in fear." This is why these days are called yomim
With this, we can also understand why the posuk that
follows, "Seek Hashem when He is accessible . . ." is, "Let
the wicked leave his path and the sinful man his thoughts . .
." What connection does this idea have with that of the
The explanation is that since it is a time of favor, when
Hashem is accessible, it is easy for a wicked man to leave
his path. The most important thing for him to do is to stop
sinning. Rabbenu Yonah writes in Shaarei Teshuvoh that
if a person confesses his sins but fails to abandon them, he
is like someone who immerses in a mikveh to purify
himself while still holding onto the impure creature that
defiles him. Confession is ineffective in the absence of
regret and without abandoning the sin. This is why the
posuk calls upon the wicked man to leave his path and
to change his evil ways.
The Alter of Novardok likened this to someone who boards a
boat, intending to travel in an easterly direction. The
passengers inform him however, that he has made a mistake,
for this particular boat is travelling due west. "Never
mind," he responds foolishly, "I'll just turn around so that
I'm facing east!" Obviously, he'll never reach his
destination by facing east on a boat that's travelling
A sinner might beat his breast while confessing his sins but
if he does not change his ways, he's in the very same
position as our traveler. Of what use is his confession?
Take the Antidote
Many people want to know: what exactly is teshuvoh?
How does one go about it? What path should one take? The
posuk in Mishlei (3:18) says, "It is a tree of
life for those who hold onto it, and those who support it are
happy." The medrash (Medrash Rabba parshas Kedoshim
25) comments, "Rav Huna said, `If a person stumbled and
sinned, he deserves to die by Heaven's agency. What should he
do in order to live? If he was used to reading one page he
should read two. If he was used to learning one perek,
he should learn two etc.' "
The gemora (Kiddushin 30) tells us that, "A person's
evil impulse overpowers him every day," and "A person's evil
impulse renews itself every day and if Hakodosh Boruch
Hu were not helping him, a person could not get the
better of it. Hashem says, `I created the evil impulse and I
created Torah as its antidote.' "
Torah is the remedy for the yetzer hora. The Ramchal
writes in Mesillas Yeshorim that, "This illness that I
created has no other remedy besides Torah." This is what the
posuk means when it calls Torah a tree of life for
those who hold onto it.
I would like to tell you what the Chofetz Chaim zt'l
said about this posuk. He noted that the posuk
does not speak about those who hold Torah i.e. those
who hold it up and support it because, he explains, Torah
does not need people to hold it up. It isn't going to
fall. The posuk speaks about those who hold
onto Torah, meaning those who plant themselves squarely
within Torah because they truly and sincerely feel that
without Torah, they will sink in a morass of earthly
When the King is Unacknowledged
In this vein, the Chofetz Chaim explained an awe-inspiring
idea concerning the instructions that Dovid Hamelech gave his
son Shlomo. The king told his heir, "And towards the sons of
Barzilai Hagil'odi practice kindness and they should be among
those who eat at your table, because in this way they drew
close to me when I fled from your brother Avsholom"
(Melochim I 2:7).
Granted, says the Chofetz Chaim, the sons of Barzilai showed
Dovid great kindness at a time when most of the nation were
sympathetic towards Avsholom, and the king made his escape in
a distressed state, "going barefoot" (Shmuel II
15:30). In return, they certainly deserved some generous
reward such as being appointed to important positions of
state. But why did they deserve the singular honor of eating
at the king's table as though they were his own relatives? It
was right to repay them for helping Dovid in his hour of need
but why with such honor? The Chofetz Chaim also notes that
the posuk says, "because they drew close to me,"
rather than the seemingly more accurate, "because they
drew me close," when they had mercy on Dovid in his hour
If the sons of Barzilai had merely shown sympathy towards
Dovid and provided for him when he was hungry, then it would
have been sufficient to reward them handsomely while
retaining a distance. However, what they did was far more
significant. They recognized him as king and Avsholom as the
rebel even while Dovid was in flight from his son. They
accorded Dovid honor just as though he was occupying the
throne in tranquil times. This is why Dovid said, "Because
they drew close to me" meaning, because they acknowledged me
as king. Despite everything, they felt that they were
ministering to the king. They thus deserved the honor of
sitting at Shlomo's table as though they were children of his
Quoting from the Tanna Devei Eliyohu, the Chofetz
Chaim added that, "In the future, Hakodosh Boruch Hu
will bring a sefer Torah and hold it in His arms and
He will ask each person, `What, if anything, did you do so
that Torah should not be forgotten by Klal Yisroel?'
He explains that this question will be asked of each person
at a time when the generations deteriorate and Torah is
persecuted and is not observed. Hashem will ask, "What did
you do so that Torah should not be forgotten?" Whoever is
fortunate to have acknowledged the rule of Hashem and His
Torah, will merit to eat at the table of Moshiach, may
he be revealed to us soon!
This is the meaning of the posuk quoted earlier: "It
is a tree of life for those who hold onto it" -- not "who
hold it" but "who hold onto it." Torah is a tree of life for
those who recognize its greatness and draw strength and
encouragement from it. This posuk will be fulfilled
and may we merit to eat at the table of Moshiach! This
is truly something wondrous!
The Essence of the Judgment
To return to the Yomim Noro'im, I heard the following
important idea from the gaon and tzaddik HaRav
Eliyohu Lopian zt'l concerning the difference of
opinion among the Rishonim about the three books that Chazal
tell us are open on Rosh Hashanah: "Those who are completely
righteous are inscribed immediately for life. Those in the
middle are in abeyance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur .
Tosafos (Rosh Hashanah 16) infer that anyone who has a
majority of merits is referred to as a tzaddik even if
he has some sins as well, while someone who has a majority of
sins is a rosho. However, Tosafos says, the gemora
(Kiddushin 39) tells us that a tzaddik who has
some sins may be inscribed for suffering in order to cleanse
him, while a rosho may be inscribed for life so that
he receives the reward for his mitzvos in this world. Thus,
they conclude, the inscriptions in the books of the living or
of the dead which the beraissa mentions, can only
refer to the life of Olom Habo. Other Rishonim
disagree with Tosafos' approach.
HaRav Lopian asks that according to Tosafos' opinion that
what is written in the books concerns Olom Habo, what
is the relevance of these books to Rosh Hashanah and Yom
Kippur, the days when the beraissa tells us that they
are open? If the entries only concern the eternal life of the
World to Come, why are they opened on Rosh Hashanah?
The following parable will illustrate an additional, even
greater problem. Imagine an avreich in his twenties
standing in judgment on Rosh Hashanah. If he is a
tzaddik, he will be inscribed immediately for eternal
life in Olom Habo and if chas vesholom not, he
is inscribed immediately elsewhere . . . However, he has many
years still to live, until he's seventy or eighty, in the
course of which he may repent completely. So how can his
verdict for eternity be determined now?
He explains this in the light of the gemora that says,
"The yetzer hora is [a] hard [adversary] for even its
Creator calls it evil." Wherever a person turns, the
yetzer places him in trying situations, especially
with regard to the neglect of Torah study. One needs a large
measure of Divine assistance in order to avoid stumbling, as
Chazal conclude, "if Hakodosh Boruch Hu were not
helping him, a person could not get the better of it."
Bearing this in mind, we can now understand Tosafos'
approach. "Complete tzaddikim are inscribed
immediately for life," means that they will receive
assistance in the form of the removal of hindrances so that
they can attain everlasting life in Olom Habo.
The opposite is true for complete reshoim. They lose
the Heavenly assistance needed to be saved from the yetzer
hora. When the Tosafos say that the life and death
referred to by the beraissa in connection with the
judgment of Rosh Hashanah is life in Olom Habo, they
thus mean the opportunity to earn the life of Olom
Praying for Life
The way to merit Heaven's assistance in being spared trials
is through prayer. The medrash says, "There are three
tefillos, `Tefilloh leMoshe', `Tefillah leDovid' and
`Tefillah Le'oni' (Tehillim 90, 145, 102)" The
medrash asks, "Which of the three is the most worthy?"
and responds, "Tefillah Le'oni," because, "Hashem does
not scorn a broken and downtrodden heart" (Tehillim
51:19). Having a broken heart in prayer means recognizing
one's own worth, realizing that one is a pauper in intellect
and that one is beset by trials.
Then, the second part of the first posuk in
Tehillim 102 is fulfilled: " . . . a poor man's prayer
when he drapes himself," i.e. in shame, during the month of
Elul and on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when Hashem makes
Himself available to us and wants us to return to Him and
repent. Then, "he will pour out his prayer to Hashem" and beg
Hashem to remove the trials that the yetzer hora puts
in his way so that he justly merits being inscribed on Rosh
Hashanah in the book of complete tzaddikim.
I will tell you a story that I heard from HaRav Yaakov
Kamenetsky zt'l which illustrates the tremendous power
of prayer. The Suvalker Rov zt'l who wrote the work
Shailos Uteshuvos Amudei Or, would sign each
teshuvoh with the prefix "he'oluv (the pitiful
one)", before his name. (Similarly, the Netziv also used
to sign with the words, "he'omus bo'avodoh -- the one
who is loaded with work.")
Reb Yaakov explained the significance of this particular
signature. The Amudei Or's grandfather, i.e. his mother's
father, owned a tavern where liquor was sold and he was a
very wealthy man. He had to travel into town and he left his
daughter, whose appearance was becoming, in charge of the
sales. The villagers were bad-hearted and they envied him, so
they spread false rumors about his daughter. When she reached
marriageable age, the tongues continued to wag about her and
because of this, not a single match was suggested for her. A
number of years passed during which she matured but did not
find any suitable prospective partner. Her father finally
said to her, "How will this end? One must not allow a Jewish
daughter to sit on her own until she grows grey R'l.
Maybe I can suggest a match with the wagon driver's
assistant, a boy by the name of Aharon (Shmeiser). Though he
is a simple fellow, there is no choice."
Naturally, both father and daughter burst into tears, but
they put their trust in Hashem and considered whether the
young man might agree. The idea was suggested to him and he
said that he would give his answer and after a few days he
replied that he agreed to the match. On the day of her
wedding, just before the chuppah, the bride prayed to
Hashem and said, "Ribono Shel Olom. You know that the
truth is that I am an upright woman and am innocent of any
wrongdoing. Please therefore merit me with sons who will be
great in Torah and in yiras Shomayim."
She indeed merited having four sons who were among the
greatest men of their generation. One of them was the
Suvalker Rov. That, related Reb Yaakov, is why he used to
sign he'oluv before his name.
Degrees of Cleansing
In the mishnah (Yoma 8:9) we learn, "Rabbi Akiva says,
`Happy are you Yisroel, before Whom are you being purified
and Who is purifying you? Your Father in heaven, for it is
said, "And I will sprinkle pure water over you and you will
become pure" (Yechezkel 36:25) and it says, "Hashem is
the hope (mikveh) of Yisroel" (Yirmiyohu 17:13) --
just as a mikveh purifies the unclean, so does
Hashem purify Yisroel.' "
What is the meaning of the double expression, "before Whom
are you being purified and Who is purifying you?" Both
questions seem to be asking the same thing. And why are two
different pesukim brought to teach apparently the same
There are two types of uncleanliness and two ways of becoming
purified. There is the defilement caused by a dead body,
which remains for no less than seven days. It is removed by
sprinkling the impure individual with water containing the
ashes of a poroh adumoh, on the third and seventh
days, following which he immerses in a mikveh and
becomes pure at nightfall.
A second type is caused by touching the dead body of an
impure crawling animal. This type of defilement lasts for
only one day, at the end of which the individual immerses in
a mikveh and becomes pure.
Similarly, one can identify two types of person. There are
those who are numbered among the upper levels of the nation,
who fear Hashem. Their defilement is of the less intense
kind, corresponding to the second type. If they sin, it is
usually a slight transgression and they immediately run and
immerse themselves in the purifying waters of
teshuvoh. This is the type of purification to which
the first question refers: "Before Whom are you being
purified?" for these people purify themselves before
Others have a heavier burden of guilt and are classed as
evildoers, for when their scales are balanced they transgress
one further aveiroh, thus weighing themselves down on
the side of guilt. The first posuk that the
mishnah quotes addresses this type of person: "And I
will sprinkle pure water over you and you will become pure."
When these people experience an arousal to do teshuvoh
on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Hashem purifies them.
The gaon HaRav Yehuda Leib Chassman zt'l points
out that in selichos we say, "Hearer of prayers, to
You all flesh shall come," which could be understood as
meaning that we bring just our flesh to Hashem but not our
hearts. In His great mercy though, Hashem listens to our
prayers for, "Hashem does not scorn a broken and downtrodden
heart." He hears our prayers on the Yomim Noro'im,
which are a time of special favor, and He fulfills his
promise, "And I will sprinkle pure water over you and you
will become pure."
"And he should return to Hashem and He will have mercy on
him, for He is very forgiving" (Yeshayohu 55:7) --
everyone is purified in the mikveh of teshuvoh.
One must take care though for just as when immersing in a
mikveh, not a single hair can be out of the water, one
must also immerse oneself completely in teshuvoh and
May we merit the fulfillment of the posuk, "For on
this day He shall atone for you" (Vayikra 16:30) and
may we all merit purifying ourselves, attaining forgiveness
and atonement, a kesivoh vechasimoh tovah and the
complete redemption, Omen!
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