I had the zechus to spend the past Shabbos in Yerushalayim. The trip was bittersweet, but a visit to Eretz Yisroel is cathartic under any circumstances.
Though there are many problems in that land, it remains ours. Every neshomah has a connection to the city where the remnant of the Bais Hamikdosh stands, towards which we daven three times daily. Being able to walk in the land we were driven out of centuries ago is not something to be taken for granted.
My wife’s grandmother, Mrs. Miriam Mendlowitz a”h, who lived in Yerushalayim for the past fifty years, passed away last Wednesday morning at the age of 104.
As a frame of reference of how long she lived, she still remembered what it was like returning home to a desolate shtetel after the First World War. She was a sister-in-law of Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, the man who revolutionized Yiddishkeit in America and whose efforts led to the growth of Torah on these shores. He passed away in 1948, shortly after founding Torah Umesorah.
Mrs. Mendlowitz was blessed with arichus yomim, no doubt in the merit of her dikduk bemitzvos and maasim tovim, but her calm, pleasant demeanor certainly added to her longevity. She accepted everyone and everything that came her way with grace and dignity and appreciated the many blessings Hashem granted her. She had simchas hachaim that emanated from her deep emunah and bitachon, and thus merited the blessings reserved for those who are besimcha tomid.
It may sound fanciful, but the last thing she did upon this earth was move from her bed into a chair, where she began to sing with a grandchild the popular tune of “Mishenichnas Adar marbin besimcha.” When she was done, she closed her eyes and passed away.
A 104-year-old person, feeling their strength ebbing and knowing that they are breathing their final breaths in this world, can celebrate the simcha of Adar if they appreciate the fulfillment granted to those who master the secret of true happiness. Simcha, joy, is achieved by being content and satisfied with what Hashem has granted us. A person who grasps that every day, every breath, every child, and every dollar is a Divine gift, can be perpetually content and positive.
A person who is living the life Hashem intended for them can sing “Mishenichnas Adar marbin besimcha” not only at festive occasions, but also while lying on a deathbed.
One time, when Rav Chaim Volozhiner was parting from his great rebbi, the Vilna Gaon, he requested a brochah. The Gaon responded cryptically, blessing him that his life should consist of “temidim kesidrom.”
Knowing that his rebbi chose each syllable carefully and that each word he uttered was laden with significance, Rav Chaim understood that there was a hidden message in the two-word blessing he merited receiving.
After much contemplation, he realized the meaning of his rebbi’s brochah. The words with which the Rama begins his monumental glosses on the Shulchan Aruch are in the halachos of how a Jew conducts himself upon waking up in the morning.
The Rama quotes the posuk in Tehillim (16:8) in which Dovid Hamelech states how the Presence of Hashem was always before him: “Shivisi Hashem lenegdi somid, hu klal gadol baTorah uvemaalos hatzaddikim.”
The Rama writes that these words are the mantra by which a Jew should live every day of his life, from when he arises in the morning until he reclines in the evening.
The Rama concludes his incisive, enlightening commentary of Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim, each line illuminating like a torch of fire, with the halachos of Megillah. The Shulchan Aruch discusses the halachos of the 14th day of Adar Rishon, referred to as Purim Kotton. The Rama closes the discussion of whether there is an obligation of eating a festive meal on that day by quoting the posuk in Mishlei (15:15) which states, “Vetov lev mishteh somid.” The complete posuk reads, “Kol yemei oni ro’im, vetov lev mishteh somid – All the days of a poor man are bad, but he of a cheerful heart will always have a feast.”
The first and final comments of the Rama in Orach Chaim both quote pesukim with the word somid: “Shivisi Hashem lenegdi somid” and “Vetov lev mishteh somid.” Rav Chaim Volozhiner understood that the Gaon’s intention with his two-word message was that he should live a life guided by these two “temidim,” the constant awareness of Hashem’s Presence and the mandate to be besimcha.
Joy allows a person to lead a productive life. In fact, simcha is the fuel that allows a person to maximize his potential and to take advantage of opportunities that come his way and build upon them. A happy person is dynamic. The meforshim explain the previously-mentioned posuk of “Vetov lev mishteh somid.”
The posuk states that the days of a poor man are bad, but the bearer of a cheerful heart always feasts. Shouldn’t the contrast be between the poor and the rich? The poor person is hungry and sad, while the rich man can always feast; that would appear to be a perfect contradiction. The opposite of a sad and poor man is a satiated rich man.
The posuk is teaching us that wealth is not what brings happiness and poverty doesn’t necessarily cause depression. There are plenty of rich, famous, people who have done everything they ever dreamed of doing, yet they are depressed. And there are poor people who are happy. A person’s joy is dependent upon his attitude. A poor person has a rough life, to be sure, but if he is of cheerful disposition, he is able to seize the good moments and bright spots and use them to define his situation. He is able to appreciate the good that he has and look at the bright side of every situation. A person who lives with emunah and bitachon, and practices “Shivisi Hashem lenegdi somid,” knowing that nothing happens by chance and happenstance, can smile in the most trying of circumstances.
Rav Shaul Yedidya Elozor Taub of Modzitz lost everything in the Holocaust, arriving in New York mourning his family and chassidus. He settled in Williamsburg and, in short order, had a crowd that looked to him for encouragement, chizuk and, of course, beautiful niggunim. Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz would send many of his talmidim from Torah Vodaas to the rebbe’s tishen, which were known to be particularly joyous and rousing.
Someone asked the rebbe how he was able to maintain his attitude of simcha after sustaining devastating losses in the war.
“I have a valise in my room,” he responded, “and in it I keep all the sad thoughts and memories. Every day, I open it for half an hour and look inside, remembering and mourning. And then? Then I close it tight and go live my life for the rest of the day.”
Great people know that an optimistic, upbeat attitude is necessary to build and accomplish and live a full life. Those charged with rebuilding in the face of churban were especially aware that a “tov lev” can achieve extraordinary things. All of us in our lives experience ups and downs, good days and days that don’t go as we would like. To the degree that we maintain the midah of “tov lev,” we rise above it and are able to triumph and succeed. If we permit the situation to overtake us, we are doomed to being sad, cynical and unproductive.
A group of talmidei chachomim from an Israeli development town went to speak to Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach about the need for a yeshiva in their part of the country. They wanted to open an institution but found the challenges daunting. They encountered hostile bureaucracy, lack of funding, and other problems. Upon hearing their presentation, Rav Shach stood up and exclaimed with great enthusiasm, “We are living in extraordinary times. Even though there is opposition to Torah study, there is incredible siyata diShmaya rolling around in the streets for those willing to go out and do… I advise you to grab some of it and build Torah.”
Seeing and seizing opportunities, rather than the impediments, is what enables people to accomplish and live long and happy lives.
By focusing on the simple blessings and appreciating what we have, we can be like the poor man the posuk in Mishlei describes and can live in perpetual joy. What we need more than anything is to appreciate and count our blessings.
A badchan entered shul one day and announced, “I get a mazel tov. My son put on tefillin today.”
People turned to the gray-bearded jester. “You still have such a young son? Mazel tov.”
“No,” replied the badchan. “My son isn’t thirteen. In fact, he’s twenty-seven years old and is married with three children. But he put on tefillin today and I am grateful that he does. It’s a zechus to have raised an ehrliche son and I appreciate it.”
Rav Avidgor Miller once passed his daughter while walking on Ocean Parkway and exclaimed, “Boruch Hashem that you are married!”
“But I’ve been married for over twenty years,” she wondered.
“Yes,” replied the mussar master, “and I thank Hashem for each day anew. I never take it for granted.”
That attitude typifies the expression of joy that suffused the countenance of the great mashpia, Rabbi Miller.
The Gemara in Maseches Sukkah as well as in Eiruvin, when reckoning the proper dimensions of a sukkah, terms an expanded handbreadth a “tefach sochek.” Meforshim explain that this term, meaning “a smiling tefach,” denotes expansion. Just as a joyous person can accomplish on a large scale, so too, when discussing the concept of an expanded tefach, we refer to it as smiling.
As we are about to celebrate Purim Kotton, it is a most appropriate time to focus on our brachos. Adar is the time to develop the middah of tov lev, seeing the bright spots and making them last. We are to seize the happy moments and stretch them out, thus fulfilling the mandate of Chazal.
Everyone has sources of anguish and distress. In every life, there is some darkness. But it should be kept in a valise. The joyous moments, occasions and tidings should be spread out in front of us, allowing us to be mishteh somid, constantly joyous.
In Yerushalayim, you encounter people who are poorer than poor. They are encumbered by debt and don’t know where their next shekel will come from. The government is determined to increase their pain, as if they aren’t already suffering enough. They live in small apartments, getting by with the bare minimum, yet they are happier than the wealthiest people you know.
You see them and they smile, exposing their missing teeth, lost to decay brought on by their inability to afford dental care, yet their faces beam with other-worldly joy. They don’t have many physical possessions, but they know the secret that Shivisi Hashem lenegdi somid leads to mishteh somid. Although their cupboard is bare and a typical daily meal consists of bread, leben, cucumbers and tomatoes, they possess an inner joy that increases during the month of Adar.
May we merit attaining that simcha and long, productive lives.