Halacha Date: 24 Elul 5783 September 10 2023
Once, during the month of Elul, Hagaon Harav Yaakov Neiman zt”l (legendary Rosh Yeshiva of Ohr Yisrael in Petach Tikvah) was walking in the street and met up with an acquaintance. As they spoke, the Rosh Yeshiva mentioned that they were in the month of Elul, when every Jew is obligated to perform self-introspection and repent fully before Hashem.
The man replied: “Honorable rabbi, I am already sixty-six years old and for as long as I can remember, I pray three prayers a day with the congregation in the synagogue, I study Daf Yomi every day, and I conduct my business honestly. I keep all of the Mitzvot! I truly believe these days were not meant for me, for I am fine and have nothing to repent for!”
Rav Neiman was shocked by these words and when he returned to the Yeshiva, he told the students what had happened. He exclaimed, “How can it be that an average person feels that he has nothing to repent for? This is such a grave mistake! Rav Nissim Gaon, a great and holy sage who living generations ago, wrote in his famous confessional prayer recited on Yom Kippur that all the time in the world will not suffice to delineate our sins!”
Rav Neiman continued to expound on this based on the words of our Sages (Berachot 5a): “Rabbi Levi bar Chama said in the name of Reish Lakish: One should always empower one’s Good Inclination over one’s Evil Inclination, as the verse states, ‘Tremble and do not sin.’ If one beats the Evil Inclination, good. If not, one should delve in Torah study.”
We must understand what the Sages meant by using the word “empower” and why they said “always,” for it seems that one need not act like this all the time, and this is only true when one’s Evil Inclination gets the best of him. Only then must one empower one’s Good Inclination to be victorious over the Evil inclination. The next part is confusing as well. It states that if one was not victorious over the Evil Inclination, one should go and study Torah. Is it ever possible to be victorious over the Evil Inclination without regular Torah study? Didn’t the Sages teach us that Hashem exclaims, “I created the Evil Inclination, and I created the Torah as its antidote!”
Therefore, Rav Neiman explained, as follows: One must always feel that he is at war with the Evil Inclination and thus empower oneself against it. When one arises in the morning and goes to the synagogue, one may think that everything is business as usual, however, this is a big mistake, for we are at war! The Evil Inclination will try to persuade one to pray indifferently and without concentration and one must empower one’s Good Inclination to overcome it and pray well!
When one goes out to the street, one may be tempted to think that one will do so as usual, however, this too is erroneous, for we are at war! One must either preserve one’s sanctity or fall prey to the all the depravity of the street. This is the way we must treat every step and encounter in life; we must be on guard and always empower our Good Inclination against our Evil Inclination. The most basic part of our service of Hashem is the knowledge and understanding that we are at war!
Thus, when one pays attention to this and realizes that every step of life is fraught with so many details and that every situation presents an opportunity for tremendous spiritual growth or, G-d-forbid, failure, one comes to the realization how long the path of service of Hashem really is and how much one really has reasons to repent for in order to reach one’s lofty spiritual goals!
We must all take heed of these precious words, especially during the month of Elul, about which the Kenesset Ha’Gedolah writes that even if one has transgressed the most severe prohibitions of the Torah, if one repents whole-heartedly during the month of Elul, one shall be forgiven.
Since we had mentioned Hagaon Harav Yaakov Neiman, let us recount an incident that occurred between him and Maran zt”l.
In the year 5731 (1971), Hagaon Harav David Yosef Shlit”a was a student in Yeshiva Ohr Yisrael in Petach Tikvah, headed by Hagaon Harav Yaakov Neiman zt”l. One day, Rav David and some of his friends were traveling by bus and when they boarded, they saw that the driver was a Middle Eastern Jew wearing a black Kippah on his head. They started conversing with him and during the conversation, they told the driver that this boy is the son of Harav Ovadia Yosef. The bus driver turned to Rav David and exclaimed: “You should know that in your father’s merit, I became religious. I live in Kefar Avraham and I have a successful vegetable plantation, thank G-d. I only drive a bus in my spare time. Years ago, when your father still lived in Petach Tikvah, I used to attend his classes and I grew very much in Torah and fear of Heaven. All my children study in Yeshivot today.”
When Rav David got home, he told his father, Maran zt”l, what had transpired on the bus. Maran zt”l asked if he could find out the bus driver’s name. After searching a bit, Rav David found the bus driver’s name and information. Maran zt”l called the driver and asked him if he could come to his home. When the man arrived, Maran zt”l told him, “My son, you reside in Petach Tikvah and therefore all the residents of the city are your responsibility. There is a holy Yeshiva, Ohr Yisrael, in the city and you must take care of them, for they are truly needy!”
The driver responded that he would take care of all of the produce the Yeshiva would need for one year. The man arrived at the Yeshiva with his first shipment of many crates of fruits and vegetables which lasted the Yeshiva for a while.
When Rav Neiman saw this, he called over Rav David and told him, “David, please tell your father that I am exempting him from paying this year’s Yeshiva tuition because of the great gesture he has done for the Yeshiva!” Rav Neiman then called Maran zt”l and warmly thanked him for his kind gesture to the Yeshiva and he notified him that he would not have to pay tuition (50 liras per month). When Maran zt”l heard this, he arrived at the Yeshiva and handed Rav Neiman head checks for the entire year’s tuition, and he did not budge until Rav Neiman promised to deposit them.