Nitzavim: Focusing on Other Things

Well, it’s all but official.  We’re heading to another lockdown by next week.  Will I be davening at home or with a minyan is still up in the air.  But, it seems certain, that at least I’ll get to enjoy my Sukkos--in my Sukkah.


Of course, nobody is happy about this.  But of course, everybody has themselves to blame.  The government, for opening up so quickly, having silly rules, silly counting mechanisms for the sick, not enforcing the real rules, empty threats, etc., and the people, for not being careful.  You have mass anti-Netenyahu protests, mass weddings in the religious world, full bars and pubs, people not being careful with masks. And now, we all have to go to lockdown which will cause tremendous financial hardships for many people.


It’s an important lesson.  Don’t think that your actions affect only yourself.


Okay…on to more positive things.


There's a famous Gemara regarding Rebbe Elazar ben Shimon, who once met a very ugly man.  As he passed him, he asked him, "Are all people in your city as ugly as you?"  To which the man replied, "Go and complain to the one who made me."  At that point, Rebbe Elazar begged the man for forgiveness.


It's a very strange Gemara.  We're not speaking of some regular person with bad middos.  We're speaking of the son of Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai.  Obviously, something deeper is going on.


Rav Meir of Premishlan gave his own interpretation of this Gemara.  When Rebbe Elazar passed this man, the man was in the middle of davening.  And throughout his davening, his face was contorted, and he was making strange gestures with his body.  Rebbe Elazar did not approve of this, since this is not how you speak to the King.  He therefore reprimanded him for his conduct.  When the man told Rebbe Elazar to speak to "his Creator" about it, he was "putting blame" on Hashem. And for what?

This man suffered with all sorts of thoughts throughout his davening.  No matter how much he tried to concentrate, his mind would automatically carry him somewhere else.  When he was fighting these thoughts, his face and body would contort in strange ways.  Therefore he said to Rebbe Elazar, "You were born to holy parents and were raised in a holy environment, so you have no problems davening with pure thoughts.  I, however, was not born in such a situation.  Therefore, I'm plagued with these terrible thoughts throughout my davening, and each time I daven, I need to fight them with all my strength.  So, go speak to your Creator…He made me this way."


Rav Yaakov Meir Schecter writes that we learn two things from here which are important to remember, especially during the next few weeks in which we increase our davening.  The first is that unwanted thoughts in davening are not necessarily your fault.  When you have issues with focusing, you don't have to be down on yourself.  You were given a certain mental capacity (to concentrate) and a certain soul.  You can only work with what you have.


Rav Schecter continues to explain that while the person was right in that regard, Rebbe Elazar was right as well.  This person was fighting these thoughts with "frontal assaults," doing his best to keep these thoughts out of his davening.  But this is not necessarily the right approach.


It's known that a person can only think of one thing at a time.  Yes, he can switch between thoughts, but he cannot think of two subjects at the same time.  Therefore, instead of fighting to rid oneself of these thoughts during davening, or bad or depressing thoughts at any time, one should "simply" try to focus on another thought.


Regarding bad thoughts in the street, he should focus on something pure, like Torah, or at least something neutral or pleasing, like a funny story you heard, maybe something from work, or set your mind on something else that you can focus on.  (Where I live, which is mainly secular, many women suffer allergic reactions to clothes on their bodies in the summer.  “Thankfully,” there are many dog owners as well, who let their dogs go wherever they wish.  One member of the Kollel remarked that we need to be thankful for all the “treats” that the dogs leave in the middle of the street, so we’re so focused on where we are walking that we are forced not to look up at other things.)


With davening, the best suggestion is to simply put your finger on the words in the siddur and say each word, one at a time, focusing just on the simple meaning of the words themselves.


By fighting the Yetzer Horah front-on, you are rarely going to win.  He needs to be pushed off to the side.  By focusing on the simple meaning of each word, one can slowly build himself up to concentrate more and more in his davening, and to push evil or depressing thoughts out on the street.


Have a great Shabbos!