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Rabbi Doniel Staum on Parshas Tzav - Shabbos Hagadol 5770 - "The Good Old Days"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Rabbi Yaakov Levitt of Bialystok related the following poignant parable[2]:

One day an elderly man from a simple village became severely ill. His children immediately summoned the best doctor from the big city to examine him. After a thorough checkup the doctor concluded that although his condition was very serious, with proper medication the elderly man would have a complete recovery.

He wrote out a prescription in which he detailed the exact ingredients necessary to create the elixir needed to restore his health. Before leaving the doctor gave the family strict instructions. “Remember to give the patient this prescription three times a day. Dissolve it in a cup of water and make sure he swallows it. Within a few days you should see significant improvement.”

The family thanked the doctor and assured him that they would do exactly as he said. Within a few days however, it was clear that the patient’s condition was rapidly worsening. They ran to summon the doctor. “What kind of a doctor are you?” they demanded, “not only has our father’s condition not improved, it has worsened terribly.”

The doctor couldn’t believe it. He hurried to the patients’ bedside and shook his head. “I just can’t understand what went wrong. The prescription I wrote out for you was exactly what he needs to combat those symptoms. But perhaps I made a mistake. Let me take a look at the prescription and see if I missed an important ingredient or wrote the wrong amount.”

The eldest son shook his head, “the prescription is all gone.”

The doctor was confused. “What do you mean it’s gone? What happened to it?”

The son explained, “How long did you think it would last? We followed your instructions to the tee. The day you left we immediately began ripping up the prescription paper into small pieces and dissolving it in water which we gave our father to drink. By now he has consumed the entire paper.”

The doctor was too stunned to speak. “You foolish people! You complain to me that you’re father did not get better from my prescription? It’s a miracle that he’s still alive at all. Did you really think your father would be cured by eating the paper I wrote on? The prescription paper is only to inform the pharmacist how to make the required medicine. If you would have followed the advice written on the prescription instead of having your father swallow it he would be fine now.”

A Todah (thanksgiving) offering was brought by an individual who survived a perilous situation. But one need not wait until a tragedy was averted for him to bring an offering of thanksgiving to the Mishkan/Bais Hamikdash. One was permitted to donate a Shelamim (peace-offering) any time he so desired[3].

In our daily prayers we ask G-d, “Bless us, our Father - all of us as one - with the light of Your countenance… And may it be good in Your eyes to bless Your people Israel, in every season and every hour with peace…”

Rabbi Avigdor Miller zt’l noted that in this blessing we are not requesting new things from G-d, rather we are praying that the good we have already been blessed with continue. We pray not only that G-d continues to shower us with blessings and goodness, but that we have the sense to appreciate what we have.

Very often people look back to years and decades gone by, sigh nostalgically, and exclaim, “Those were the good old days!” Rabbi Miller counters that we would be wise to realize that “These are the good old days!” Perhaps there was a time when we were more vibrant and youthful. Perhaps there was a time when our lives were more exciting and carefree. But almost invariably at some point in the future we will look back to today wonder why we didn’t appreciate it more.

The wisest of men exhorts us[4], "Do not ask why were the earlier days better then now, for it not out of wisdom do you inquire about this". Shlomo Hamelech urges us not to focus too deeply and ponder the 'good old days'. Rather, one should appreciate the gifts of the present and thank G-d for the blessings he has been endowed with. “Go, eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy… Enjoy happiness with the woman you love all the fleeting days of your life that have been granted to you under the sun… For that alone is what you can get out of life, and out of the means you acquire under the sun.[5]

Our problem is that in the daily bustle of life we hardly ever stop to smell the flowers.

An insightful and analytical friend of mine recently quipped to me, “I have finally pinpointed what it is about the way we celebrate Chol Hamo’ed[6] that bothers me so much.” He explained that in our fast-paced, rapid moving society we often find ourselves in a relentless pursuit of accomplishment and success. [The irony is that the furtherance of technology raises our expectations and demands for efficiency and effectiveness, which in turn ensures that we have less time, not more.]

Every six months G-d grants us an elongated week-long Yom Tov (holiday) celebration. A holiday is called a “Mo’ed” which literally means a meeting place. When one is invited to a meeting with a respected and important dignitary, everything in his life aside for that meeting is put on hold. He does not answer his phone, or check his messages. For the duration of the precious minutes of that meeting he is completely focused on the meeting.

A holiday is a Mo’ed in the sense that it is an opportunity for us to get off the rapid moving cogwheel of life, and to spend a week joyously appreciating the blessings of our lives, so that we can thereby feel gratitude and connection with G-d[7].

However, ironically we have taken Chol Hamo’ed and transformed it into a stressful and pressurized time - the very concepts that the holiday affords us an opportunity to escape from! We often spend the day stressing over where to go and when to leave. The whole holiday centers around the Chol Hamo’ed plans, which at times metamorphoses into an all out family feud. [This is not to say that one should not go on family trips during Chol Hamo’ed. Au contraire! However, the trips should be a time of familial bonding, a chance to enjoy the family without the daily pressures that abound.]

In the haggadah we read that while enslaved in Egypt we suffered terrible oppression. The author of the haggadah offers a fascinating definition of Egyptian oppression. ואת לחצנו זו הדחק" – ‘Our oppression’ refers to the pressure”. Aside from the physical servitude which our forefathers were subjected to, the Egyptians enslaved them mentally and psychologically. The slavery and workload was so intense that they did not even have the ability to dream about liberation and freedom[8].

Our celebration of the exodus includes the fact that we are no longer subject to Egyptian oppressive pressure. On the other hand, in our exile we are still very much plagued by stress and pressure and it inevitably takes its toll on us, physically and mentally.

In the Shemoneh Esrei of Yom Tov we request, “Load upon us - Hashem, our G-d - the blessings of Your appointed festivals for life and for peace, for gladness and for joy, as You desired and promised to bless us.” The holidays are an opportunity to stop the daily grind so that we can stop to smell the flowers and count our blessings.

But if we are too busy deciding what to do during the holiday and how to optimize the holiday then we have failed to utilize the holiday for what it was intended. We become analogous to the foolish children who swallow the prescription itself as the medicine instead of following its instructions.

Of course both Succos and Pesach have their own individual meaning that one must contemplate, analyze, and ponder. But even before one begins to think about the individual uniqueness endemic to each holiday, one must realize that the holiday itself is a mo’ed - a meeting not only between a person and his Creator, but also with himself!

If one indeed takes advantage of the mo’ed he will realize just how much blessing he has in his life, (even if others have more). The holiday will help him realize the omnipresent miracles that are part of his life on a daily basis.

It will help him live a life of shelamim, and not wait to express his gratitude until he has reason to bring a Todah!

“Load upon us the blessings of Your appointed festivals”

These are the good old days!

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[1] The following is based on the sermon I was privileged to deliver in our shul - Kehillat New Hempstead – Shabbos kodesh parshas Vayikra 5770. Because of the timeliness and relevance of this message I decided to record it even though I just related these words this past Shabbos.

[2] Quoted in the “Haggadah of the Palace Gates” by Rabbi Shalom Wallach

[3] The Shelamim was so called because ‘everyone’ received a portion of it. Some of the animal was burnt on the altar, certain parts were given to the Kohanim, and some was given to the owner to eat.

[4] Koheles 7:10

[5][5] Koheles 9:7-9

[6] The Intermediary days of Pesach and Succos

[7] The reason for Chol Hamo’ed is that the Sages realized that a week of absolutely no halachically forbidden work was too much for people. Based on analytical exegesis of the verses, they concluded that the Torah only considers the first and last day of the holiday to maintain the added stringency of Yom Tov, while the remaining days have a mitigated status of Yom Tov. Thus Chol Hamo’ed is an opportunity to spend time enjoying the blessings of the holiday, in a less restricted manner than Yom Tov itself.

[8] See Shemos “they did not listen to Moshe because of shortness of breath and hard work.” Also see Mesillas Yeshraim (chapter 2) where he explains that the secret to Pharaoh’s success was based on the incredible workload which ensured that the Jews could not contemplate their roots or think about their destiny.

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