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29 Av 5763 - August 27, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
A Voice Cries Out: Elul!

Reminiscences from R' Moshe Eliezer Schwartzbord

Memories from the Yomim Noraim period in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, in the year 5695. Descriptions and experiences from the bustling `spiritual fair' that took place each year in Beis Yosef in Poland and Lithuania in the months of Elul and Tishrei

Dewdrops of Elul. We were rusticating from the boredom of routine. The past year had been dry, uneventful, and we seemed to be steeped in a torpor, a deep slumber, when the chimes of the upcoming year began pealing. Dewdrops of mercy descended from Heaven and covered the parched earth which had forsaken us. "A downpour of water from thickly clouded skies." Clouds of purity and sanctity spread across the blue heavens above us and the sound of the shofar could be heard throughout the land.


We converge here every Elul, every year. You with your large shofar in hand, pleading, threatening, wailing. And upon your back, a ladder firmly planted upon the ground, its head reaching the Heaven.

You lower the ladder into the pit and stretch out a long, long arm, as if you seek to draw us up from the pit and save us from the abyss, from the waters of the dunghill.


The morning of the first of Elul. With the pristine sounding of the shofar, rain began trickling down our faces. The showers of Elul revived our souls.

The trumpeting and blasting of the shofar, the ram's horn of our Patriarch Yitzchok, made us shudder and tremble to the very core of our beings. We felt the chills of the Days of Awe encompassing our flesh. The seething prayers roused our souls and tempered our hearts. We were purified, elevated upwards, lifted above our base natures, and we felt a sloughing off of our earthliness.

In the courtyard of the yeshiva, in the winding pathways, you could hear the voices resounding from the Beis Mussar, rising resonantly, and dispersing all around us in a multitude of sound- fragments of thoughts and emotions, notes and chords vibrating the soul, voices melding into a consonance of soulful cries of yearning and longing. They reproached us, demanded and pleaded: Don't just stand there idly, arms akimbo. "Wake up, you sluggards, from your slumber; rise up from your stupor."

And all the people in this Torah-camp, those who stand in the halls of the yeshiva in Pinsk: "Hashem is my light and my succor." "My light" -- on Rosh Hashonoh. "My succor" -- on Yom Kippur.

A Heavy Downpour of Selichos

The days passed. The shofar and prayers, seething and steaming, vibrated our souls and tempered our hearts. We were sanctified and elevated, and with every prayer, every blessing and fiery study session, we felt a fire percolating in our bones, causing us to shed our earthliness.

With pure dedication, sacrifice and great toil, we arrived at those hours of elevation, acquired a spiritual acquisition and a dissociation from material things of this ephemeral world. We approached the eternal life.

The days passed. The shofars blasted and trumpeted and began showering us with a heavy downpour of selichos. That was when we began to experience the dread of the Days of Awe, fast approaching.

The masmidim of Yeshivas Beis Yosef dare face the kingdom of the night and disturb the silence.

With flickering candles held in their hands, they forge ahead into the dark hours of the night, as if plunging into the mighty ocean depths, into infinite waters. They are loathe to leave the volume that prescribes precisely what they need . . . They thirst for every single word, plumb the significance of each tiny lettercrown . . .

After midnight of that selfsame night, we went to the Beis Hamussar where we sat before R' Sholom Brisker, one of the most distinguished staff members of our yeshiva. We were privileged to hear from his holy mouth a rousing talk on the month of Elul.

R' Sholom told us about Elul in the previous generation, a tale for the Days of Awe.


Why was Shlomo Tiktiner shutting his gemora, leaving his set place and going outside, precisely then?

He was removing his faded, shabby overcoat which he had outgrown, from its hook behind the bimah and, with measured steps, head lowered to view only his immediate four cubits, he quit the beis midrash in the middle of the second learning session, heading out to the road leading towards the yeshiva kitchen.

Shlomo lifted the fur collar of his coat, hunched up his shoulders, and buried himself into its protection from the biting cold. The rain increased in intensity and lashed angrily at his lean figure, spraying his face with piercing, freezing ice slivers. Shlomo continued his measured steps, oblivious to the stormy weather all around him. The storm in his heart was far stronger and upheaving.

Heaven and earth! Seek mercy for Shlomo Tiktiner!

And why was his soul in such stormy turmoil this evening? In another two hours, the most important vaad meeting in his whole life was scheduled to take place. Here, each member of his particular group would have to accept upon himself an absolute, binding resolution, sealed by the enchaining constriction of an irrevocable signature upon the resolution of Shivti beveis Hashem: A lifelong commitment to Torah study, a yoke till death did absolve.

Before Shlomo stands the question: Either--Or . . . To commit himself to the path of shivti or to return to his companions in the Polish village, to the broken cistern. . . . to the erstwhile water streams and their unpredictable water supplies . . .to the symbolically bloated flasks filled only with hot air . . .to the glint of ersatz jewels and the glantz that beguiled and beckoned.

When Shlomo reached the beis hatavshil kitchen, he found the worker setting the tables, putting an eighth of a loaf of old black bread before each setting and upon each chunk, a small cube of white sugar.

Shlomo went over to one of the set tables, dark and hoary with age, not having been scrubbed since last Pesach. He took a portion and thrust it into his coat pocket, heading then to the Beis Hamussar where the vaad was scheduled to take place in two hours time.

Then he would hear R' Refoel Kaminker, the rosh havaad, address him: "And you, Shlomo Tiktiner? Open your mouth and let your words illuminate us."

But Shlomo chooses to slide down a dangerous incline.


The Maskilim celebrated their victory. They had lain in ambush for Shlomo for an entire year, all the while supplying him with secular books and newspapers that injected an effervescent venom into the pure soul of the Tiktiner genius.

Shlomo was in distress, a captive to his weakness. And in yeshiva, the turmoil was great. "Maskil leDovid . . . when he was in the cave, a psalm . . . " Our comrade is in a dangerous situation. We must pray for his soul.

Shlomo arrives at the trade fair and is met and accompanied by success. He buys and sells, acquires and disburses. And when he is about to return home, the purse in his hand is heavy indeed, aside from the load of merchandise heaped on the wagon.

Shlomo's assets increase. His wealth multiplies until it cannot be counted. No longer is he the Shlomo who suffices with the barest minimum, but he is a distinguished business magnate. He builds himself a mansion surrounded by magnificent gardens and he, too, dresses the role of a man of splendor and wealth. Custom-made clothing, a gold watch fob with heavy chain gleaming ostentatiously from his waistcoat pocket.

Shlomo Tiktiner stops opening his holy seforim. His parched soul pines and thirsts. His spirit is so weary and restless.

But his thoughts meander among the palaces of peers and noblemen. His eyes are drawn to the glitter of gold and the panacea of precious stones. And the more extensive his affairs, the less time he has. Shlomo is laden with money, but is starved for time.

In one of the days of the "Month of Mercy and Forgiveness," when Shlomo arrives at the trade fair, he passes by a shul.

Hearing the sound of knocking on a window, he is suddenly roused, as if from sleep. Shlomo lifts his head and sees his rebbe, the mashgiach, standing by the window, beckoning to him to come in.

Pallor and flush alternate across his face. The gold watch chain stares at him accusingly. "Don't you know that Count So- and-So has made an appointment with you for a major business transaction for this very hour? How can you pass up such an opportunity?"

Shlomo's feet were riveted to the spot. They refused to budge. The Mashgiach's look stabbed him, pierced him through and through. He did not have the audacity to evade it. With faltering steps, he began shuffling forward, and entered the beis medrash.

The Mashgiach, his head and beard frosted with age, greeted Shlomo with the merry smile of youth. He laved him with a fatherly look and asked gently, "Did you engage in Torah study yet this morning?"

"N-n-no . . . " stammered Shlomo in all honesty.

"Come with me to the window," he heard the Mashgiach urging him. His feet moved towards the window.

"Look outside. Tell me what you see."

"I see . . . " began Shlomo falteringly, his teeth chattering, "I see the marketplace. Buyers, sellers, milling around. I see stands of merchandise and horses and wagons."

"Listen here, Shlomo!" said the Mashgiach, close to his ear, "In fifty years' time, this fair won't be here anymore. Instead, there will be a different kind of fair. There'll be buyers and sellers, but they will be other ones. The wares will have changed, too. So tell me why, Shlomo, are you so involved and distracted all the time with such temporary, fleeting matters, to the point that you have no time to study Torah? You are drowning, suffocating from lack of time!"

Shlomo was shaken to the core. He raised his voice and wept. "Of what value is all the wealth in the world if it causes a person to forget his obligations upon this world? Why, Shlomo?

"Wherefore are you in such a rush? Where are you running to, Shlomo? With such headlong speed that nothing can stop you!"


And it came to pass, at midnight, that the doors of the yeshiva opened to accept Shlomo. Shlomo had returned.

Whoever did not see the hero of our story, Shlomo Tiktiner, at the moment when he crossed the threshold of the yeshiva, never saw a marvelous spectacle in his days.

"I've come back to you. To my shtender and my gemora. I've returned, from the broken cisterns, from the dried up river beds, from the bloated, air-filled flasks. I am here! Turned my back upon the gleaming fake gems, from their simulated brilliance.

"Blessed are You Who gave us a Rosh Hashonoh, a day of shofar blowing, days to awaken us from our slumber, Who gave us the brakes to stop us from a fatal plunge into the abyss, Who granted us these Days of Awe, Who shone the beacon upon us to dazzle us from our stupor. We awaken to realize that man's soul is the illuminating candle, and not the external glitz and glantz all around. Stop! Look! Listen!

"Like a wanderer in the desert, I am starved, faint with thirst. No, not hungry for bread, nor thirsty for water, for bread I have, nor do I lack water. But my parched soul yearns, pines, withers, no end."

He dissolved into a paroxysm of sobs, and tears cascaded down his cheeks. Boiling, searing tears. With burning lips, Shlomo bent towards the fountain and sucked up into his soul its purifying waters.


Voices cry out from the Beis Hamussar. If they surprise you, dear reader, know that these are the bnei Torah who are studying mussar together, in the regimented sessions of the yeshiva. But if this is so, wherefore the need for a separate Beis Mussar?

Shlomo and his companions come here to find balm. Here they dress their wounds and here they are salved and soothed. They quickly find respite, here in the Beis Mussar, for here, you converse with the Creator. You pour out your heart like water: Tattenyu! Liebe Tatte!

"I am Your Shlomo. This whole year I have been fleeing from You, but here I am. I have returned to You. I am here, close to You, on hand. From now on, I will always remain close to You.

"Shivti beveis Hashem" -- I shall dwell in the House of Hashem -- for all the days of my life.


Rosh Hashonoh 5694.

Shlomo floats and is borne aloft upon the waves of pure waters. His ears pick up the creaking of scales, tipping up and down. His eyes do not budge from the three Books spread open on this day.

A tremor seizes him. He sees himself: so minuscule, helpless, confronted by the angels who scurry back and forth, also gripped with fear and trepidation.

Lo! It is the Day of Judgment!

"I, the impoverished Shlomo, who have nothing to boast of, seek from the depths of my heart a gift-upon-no-merit, a bounteous donation of Heavenly assistance. Please! Remember us for life. Let us not be like those who request life, but who abuse it, who dispense with it cavalierly, who use Your precious gift of life in order to rebel against You. Let us not be like those paupers who ask for alms and when they receive a penny, go to an alehouse and squander it upon whiskey."

Shlomo garbed himself with the cloak of the celestial beings and ascended to a new, elevated world. Below him sank a world of quagmire and dungheaps, a gaping abyss of mud and filth and quicksand where one sank, never to reappear.

But Shlomo remained aloft, afloat, and he approached closer and closer to the upper waters, calling out, "I beg to draw near to my King."

The sounds of the shofar, the horn of Yitzchok's ram, resemble the bleating and pleading of a fire engine siren, as it careens around corners, speeds up and down streets, warning and announcing! Rise up, brethren. Don't just stand there idly by. Fill your vessels immediately; extinguish the fire. Your town is on fire, and whoever has sinned must repent and put out the conflagration. The fire is spreading rapidly!

Upon hearing these words, Shlomo and his companions are seized with turbulent emotions and soulful yearning. An exquisite trembling grips them all and they exclaim, "Lo! The Day of Judgment is upon us!"

The healing sun of righteousness and lovingkindness beams down upon them from between the clouds of wrath.

Sublimely uplifted were the words of the Mashgiach during these Days of Penitence. They pierced the atmosphere of the yeshiva hall and stirred up a storm. Thoughts surfaced in our hearts and penetrated to our inner ear, causing us inner turmoil. In a roaring, demanding tone, it spoke, but through the clouds of wrath he gazed upon us in gentle love, and we sensed that love.

All Sleep -- Only One There Is Awake

In the nights past midnight, in the blackness, by the light of the moon and stars, your ears could pick up the sounds of voices bursting forth from the Beis Hamussar. And your eyes would discern a flame of light, of candles, whose beams cleared the dusty window. The houses all around were bathed in darkness, in a deep slumber.

Everyone is fast asleep. Only one is awake, Shlomo Tiktiner, in the silent Beis Medrash where you can hear the ancient clock ticking loudly. A large shadow looms on the wall, accompanied by the whispering of lips in an outpouring of the soul.

Ay, ay, yay! For lack of attention, the prince went astray and becomes lost. A farmer finds the child in the forest, helpless, vulnerable, and sets him to herd his geese in the village marshes. The child cries out, "But I am the prince!" And the farmer beats him until the child stops ranting that he is a prince. The child makes peace with his bitter fortune, forgets altogether that he is a royal personage, and from dawn to dusk, wades through the boggy marsh, in the mud, watching the honking geese.

The king seeks his son throughout the villages. Finally, he reaches the village where his only son is staying. The king announces: Gather all you townsmen unto me for I will grant a gift to each and every one. And when the prince's turn comes to make his one request, what he does ask? For a pair of boots, for winter is coming on, and if permitted, he would also dare ask for a woolen hat, and perhaps, two loaves of bread.

Says the king: This voice is familiar! Can you be my long lost son? Come to me! Come back with me to the royal palace! You will lack nothing. You are my own lost son!

Ay, ay, yay!

Dovid Hamelech says to the Creator: "I ask from Hashem only one thing. Shivti beveis Hashem, to dwell in the palace of the King for the rest of my life." Instead of requesting a pair of boots and some loaves of bread, I ask to be close to You, to dwell in Your palace.

And thus did the younger youths of the succeeding generation also plead, to the point of swooning, "Let me dwell in the House of Hashem . . . "

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