Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rabbi Yissocher Frand on Shabbos and Repentance

This past evening Rabbi Yissocher Frand spoke in Silver Spring at one of the local congregations, Shomrei Emunah. I went, not expecting much, simply to fill in as a neighborly blogger, reporting on the important events of in the community. To my surprise, Rabbi Frand managed to exceed expectations (granted that is quite easy when you have expectations as low as mine). There was nothing seriously offensive and nothing particularly heretical in his speech. Rabbi Frand even brought down a story by Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik. Here are my notes. As usual, any mistakes are mine. Since this blog is read by a wide variety of people, I have taken the liberty of translating many of the Hebrew terms Rabbi Frand’s uses.

There is a tendency to relapse back to undesirable behavior. Even if we actually repent we slip back and our efforts go for not. This is one of the main impediments to repentance. Repentance is like dieting. We might lose a few pounds but we know that we will get it back. I speak from personal experience. In past years I have suggested numerous things. This year I would like to suggest a new approach. This does not involve taking on something new. My suggestion is to keep Shabbos. Most of you have kept Shabbos all of your lives without the intended result. What does Shabbos have to do with repentance? There is a story about a person who was involved in five accidents. It was shown that four were not his fault. The insurance company still wanted to drop him because of “bad karma.” Rabbi Weinberg advised this man that these accidents were a form of stoning because of violating Shabbos. This was a Shabbos observing family so what does it mean that they violated Shabbos. Rabbi Weinberg asked what the household looked like before Shabbos. It was chaotic and the man’s wife often lit candles less than eighteen minutes before Shabbos. This was changed and the policy was reinstated now that the “religious problem” was taken care of. (I have a problem with anything that implies that God is likely to directly interfere in the lives of lay individuals to punish them. It smacks too much of an arbitrary father in the sky, landlord deity. Insurance companies deal with odds. They of all people should understand that statistically you will get people who have five accidents and most of them not their fault. If the people who are supposed to understand statistics are failing in the defense of reason than we are in serious trouble.)

What does Shabbos have to do with repentance? We know the story of Cain and Abel. God curses Cain and Cain exclaims that he could not bear the punishment. God puts a mark so that no one would harm Cain. Cain goes out from God. According to the Midrash, Adam asked Cain what happened and Cain said that he repented and that God forgave him. Adam exclaimed how great repentance was and sang the song of Shabbos (Psalms 92). Adam did not know about repentance? Why is his reaction to sing about Shabbos? According to the Nesivos Shalom (Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, the previous Slonimer Rebbe), Cain was not just worried about his physical being, Cain was worried about his soul. Cain was being banished to a world of temptation and he knew that he could not survive that. God made a sign. That sign was Shabbos, which is called a sign. God was offering a solution to Cain, that he could keep Shabbos and save himself. This was what excited Adam. He knew about repentance but never connected Shabbos to repentance. (My father is a big fan of Nesivos Shalom as is my thesis advisor.) Sin does something to someone’s soul, just like a stroke affects a person’s mind, cutting off the connection between the brain and the rest of the body. Shabbos is the spiritual therapy that restores the damaged connection to God. We are constantly assaulted in this world. But as the Zohar says, Shabbos is the day the soul is restored.

Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, in one of his sermons on repentance, told over how, as a child, he used to go to a Modzitz shtiebel (small synagogue). The Hasidism would sing into the evening because they did not want Shabbos to end. There was a porter there whom he knew from his weekday work. Rabbi Soloveitchik could not recognize the man’s regal bearing on Shabbos. Rabbi Soloveitchik, as the Litvak (Lithuanian), asked when the evening services were. The man responded: “are you so impatient for Shabbos to end?”

Back in the old times when it was still okay to go to movies they would show newsreels. In 1933 the Munkatcher rebbe’s daughter got married and this got onto the newsreels. You can check this on Youtube. (There is a group of little boys and girls singing Hatikvah and a large group of older children engaged in mixed dancing.) It was a major event. The Rebbe got the chance to speak to Jews in America and he told them to keep Shabbos. The Rebbe who did not like pictures, agreed to be in a movie so he could speak to American Jews and tell them about Shabbos.

I am not a Hasid; my parents were German Jews. I eat gabruchts (wet matza) on Passover and put tefillin on during Chol HaMoed with a bracha (blessing). There is one thing that I envy about Hasidim, Shabbos. Go to New Square for Shabbos, go to Belz. The better the Shabbos you have the better your soul will be and this will help repentance last. It will allow us to stave of what the world throws against us. If Shabbos is merely a day to crash it will not have the desired effect. There is a program called “Turn Friday Night Into Shabbos.” We need a program to turn Shabbos into Shabbos.

The problem with Shabbos is that it happens every week. We take it for granted. There was a rabbi who had a conversation with a Roman Catholic from Topeka Kansas on a plane. The Catholic asked the rabbi if he kept Shabbos like when the woman of the house, in her finest, lights candles and the family sits down to a meal with silverware and crystal. The Catholic had the advantage of only seeing one or two Shabbosim.

If you want to appreciate something invest in it; buy and read books on Shabbos. We need to stop doing certain things in regards to Shabbos. Try praying at a slower pace; try coming early and say Psalms. Limit your reading to things that are not secular, no newspaper, no sports, no business. The words “never mind Shabbos” should never cross our lips. You have to want Shabbos. Women have the advantage in that they already actively prepare for Shabbos. All they have to do is think about it. I have a letter from a woman who decided to accept Shabbos by midday on Friday. Is this woman crazy? She heard her daughter complain about it being Shabbos because Friday was such a tense time. Now her children come from school to a calm home. Now her children are used to her planning for Shabbos all week long because she cannot start planning Thursday at midnight. (I can easily see this only exacerbating the problem.)

Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon writes that there is no better way to install faith in children than Shabbos. We all know the temptations that our children are up against. I tell my wife that I am glad that we are out of the child raising business. Let our children deal with it.

I would like to close with an atypical Holocaust story. Judith Novack wrote a book called The Lilac Bush about her experiences. In her town they would speak Hungarian during the week but only Yiddish on Shabbos. In 1944 when the Jews were deported, she was the only one to survive. After liberation she and other survivors got on a train to go back home. They hatched a plot to throw rocks at the synagogue to show how angry they were at God. When she picked up the rock she remembered her Shabbos table. She thought how she could not bear to live her life without Shabbos.


Anonymous said...

Hey Benzion. Interesting Stuff...I hope Tishrei is treating you well. One question though...why would hashem not likely be involved in every person's life on an individual basis? Why you you describe this as "unlikely?" Keep in touch!

Jeff Berlin

Izgad said...

There are two problems with having God directly involving himself in human affairs on a regular basis. The more God directly interferes with natural events the less there is a need for natural laws. A perfect God would be able to create natural laws that do not require him to constantly interfere. What is a better computer, PC which always has updates and corrections or Apple that gets it right the first time? The more God is involved in the world the more he is responsible for the bad that happens. A God who would perform a miracle to save a poor Jew from the local landowner is responsible for not stopping trains to Auschwitz. A prime mover deity could hide behind free will and allowing human beings to live their lives. A God who is an active participant does not have this excuse and would therefore be at least as responsible for the Holocaust as Hitler.

I have no problem with saying that God has directly interfered a few times in history in order to bring his plan into play. These would have to be extraordinary circumstances way beyond saving one Jew; it would even go beyond saving the State of Israel or stopping the Holocaust.