Sunday, September 13, 2009

Labor (Avodah) Day Workshop With Bilvavi Author in Woodmere

This past Monday, we had a small workshop with the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh seforim, Rav Itamar Shwartz. He gave three drashos during the day, and we had time for hisbodedus, personal meeting times with the Rav, learning, and meals between the drashos. I will try to give a brief summary of what the Rav said in each of the drashos, followed by a few more pictures from the Labor Day workshop below. MP3s of the drashos from the workshop and from all of the drashos during the trip in general will be posted, IY"H, when they are available.

The Rav's main point in the first drasha was that it is possible for us to change. Dovid Hamelech said "וְלִבִּי, חָלַל בְּקִרְבִּי" (Tehilim 109:22), which Chazal say means that he was in complete control of his yetzer hara (Brachos 61b & Bava Basra 17a). The Alter Rebbe says in the first perek of Tanya that Dovid Hamelech killed his yetzer hara through fasting. Do we have emunah that we can reach this level? Do we aspire to reach this or other great levels in the coming year? What is my goal that I hope to reach by the end of my life? What kind of person do I aspire to be by that time?

You might ask, though, how can I aspire to reach such heights. It's too difficult. It's not logical to think that I could become a great tzadik. I am only human and the yetzer hara is a malach. And who is stronger... a human being or a malach? Certainly the malach is stronger! The Gemara in Kiddushin 30b even says we are unable to beat our yetzer hara on our own, "ואלמלא הקב"ה עוזרו אין יכול לו"!

But the answer lies in that Gemara in Kiddushin. It may be true that I cannot become that great tzadik by the end of the year or even by the end of my lifetime on my own, by any stretch of logic. But Hashem can cause me to reach that level as a matnas chinam, a gift. If I give up on becoming a big ba'al madreiga, a big tzadik simply because I know it is impossible to reach that level, then indeed I will never reach that level. I may not reach all the way to the levels to which I aspire, but if I don't aspire to that level, I will certainly not reach it! At least if I set high long-term goals, I will have some chance of reaching them.

But since these levels are unattainable using pure human strength, they are only attainable through Hashem's help. This means that high levels can only be reached by crying and davening b'emes to reach those levels. It may not be shiach to do the avodah necessary to reach a very high level of tzidkus right away, but we should work on two tracks. On the level of aspirations and goals, we should shoot for and daven to reach the highest heights. But on the level of "avodah," what we're actually working on, we should pick the next attainable thing, as we often hear in preperation for Rosh Hashana.

His major theme, I think, in the second Labor Day shiur, was "avodas Haratzon." As he discussed in a few pieces in his new sefer on the Yomim Norayim, The days from Elul to Yom Kippur are called "Yemei Ratzon." The simple meaning of this is that it is a time when Hashem has "more ratzon" to accept our teshuva and tefillos during this time. But Rav Shwartz teaches that this time is not only called "Yemei Ratzon" because of Hashem's part. But also because of our part. It is the time when we should be workking on clarifying and correcting our retzonos, our desires.

It is a time to sort out our multitude of desires. If I make a list, I may have 50 or 100 things that I want in life. Then, it is worth clarifying which ones of those are merely expressions, manifestations, or examples of other, deeper desires that I have in life. And of that shorter list of true desires, it is appropriate to clarify where those desires come from; the body or the neshama.

I must ask myself whether my main ratzon in life is a ratzon for kedusha or whether it is for other things. When I put on a talis and tefillin each day, am I doing this out of habit so that I can avoid feeling guilty when i do what I really want to do afterward, whether that is going to work, eating, or whatever. Am I living to do a mitzvah or to learn Torah? Or are those things obstacles on the way to doing what I really enjoy. If, as it is for me many times, the latter, then my ratzon is not in the right place. And part of my davening and work in preperation for and on Rosh Hashana, after I've clarified what the state of my ratzon currently is, is to daven for a change in ratzon from devarim chitzonim, superficial things, to devarim shel etzem, matter that relate to the actual point of life.

He said that the reason behind almost all failures is a lack of ratzon, will, and desire. We can usually attain (eventually) the things we really want. If I fail at attaining something in kedusha, it is really because I want something else more than I want that. So avodas haratzon is an essential pre-requesite to making real changes in one's level in avodas Hashem.

In the third drasha, which he gave only to men, (there was a sepperate drasha for women but, for obvious reasons, I cannot summarize that one) he discussed why learning Torah (specifically heavily analytical learning) is essential to reach high levels in avodas Hashem. He said that avodas Hashem inherently requires avodas Halev, working on and understanding one's own heart. But an avodah like this requires a very delicate and refined analytical ability. It requires the ability to make subtle distinctions and clarify the root of things, rather than only their branches. He also pointed out that this "koach he'havchana," ability to make subtle distinctions, is uniquely developed through learning Gemara in-depth.

It is possible to learn Gemara in an intellectually lazy way also. One can learn a kasha and then teretz in the gemara, and then a kasha & teretz in Tosafos, and then a kasha and teretz in the Ran, the K'tzos, the Brisker Rav and so on. Someone like this will amass a lot of information, but will not develop his own ability to use his mental capacity of Bina, to build one idea on another and be "mavein davar mitoch daver," derive one thing from another. One will generally not develop this koach through Daf Yomi, which goes too fast to develop any analytical kochos in the mind.

Rather, he said that the only way to develop the mind through learning is by being misbonen, contemplating and thinking about the sugya, and thinking in learning. After you read the gemara's kasha, stop for a moment. Think about the question and see if you can think of your own teretz. Analyze the gemara's kasha and the apparant assumptions behind it. Think of a couple of questions of your own on the Gemara's question. Then read the answer and see if it was the same as your own, if you came up with one. When reading Rashi, ask yourself why Rashi had to say that, what was he adding, and what was bothering him that required him to make the particular comment in the particular way he made it.

The same thing applies with Tosafos. He also suggested ending a seder after reading a kasha, before seeing the teretz. Think about it and think about it until you can think of an answer. But even if you can't think of an answer, or if you make a mistake and think of a wrong answer, you have still done the work that develops the mind and its analytical powers. And these powers are essential to avodas Hashem. Because without the intellectual subtelty necessary to precicely idenitfy one's own kochos hanfesh, it will be difficult to get very far in avodas Hashem, which requires avodas Halev, working on the heart.

May this brief summary help give people a couple of roshei perakim going into their preperations for Yom HaDin. IY"H, the full shiurim will be available soon. As always, I made these notes from memory almost a week after the fact, so any mistakes are mine and should not be attributed to Rav Shwartz. Kol tuv and a k'siva v'chasima tova.

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Neil Harris said...

Thank you for taking time to post this.

Shira said...

Yes, thank you. Do you think someone in the women's group might have a summary of his message to women? Would be curious to hear. Thanks