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Cache of the Day: Adar

Sima Freidel Steinbaum

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

“You’ve got to fall to get better.” These words weren’t part of a mussar vort, per se; they were matter-of-fact words of encouragement from a tenth-grade skateboarding instructor to an eight-year-old, first-time student. Could this lesson apply any better than to the Jews of Shushan? The Purim story begins with them falling, in the shape of attending Achashveirosh’s feast, and having death decreed on the entire nation as a result. And then, this most negative of all beginnings ends with the reacceptance of Hashem and His Torah in the purest way possible.

Nafal, nun-feh-lamed, is the root of the Hebrew for “to fall.” It also means: to stumble; to drop, to decline; to collapse, to be defeated, to surrender, to be conquered; to be killed. The verb to fall, in English, comes from words meaning “fall, fail, decay, die, deceive, and make a mistake.” The words “false” and “fallacy” come from the same roots.

Look at the idioms involving falling: we fall “out” with someone we’re fighting with; fall “in” with the wrong people; fall “apart” or “to pieces” when we can’t cope; fall “into” clutches, disfavor, disgrace, disuse; fall “on” hard times; fall “short” of our goals; fall “from” power or grace; and fall “prey” to all manner of bad things. And this is only scratching the surface.

Falling isn’t always a physical act. We can fall in the middle of the busiest street or right in front of someone, and it might go completely unnoticed — if our falling is of the spiritual kind. We’re all predestined to fall, “Yet there is no man so righteous that he does [only] good and never sins” (Koheles 7:20). But — just as we still build a physical maakeh on our roofs to protect others, although we know that “the faller is going to fall,” we’re obligated to build spiritual guardrails to protect ourselves, even knowing we’re destined to fall spiritually throughout our lives.

But “When you build a new house, you must place a guardrail [maakeh] around your roof. Do not allow a dangerous situation to remain in your house, since someone can fall from [ki yipol hanofel mimenu] it [an unenclosed roof]” (Devarim 22:8). But ki yipol hanofel mimenu doesn’t really mean “since someone can fall from,” it literally means, “when the faller falls from it.”

The root of maakeh, ayin-kuf-hey, doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Torah. But, says Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, it could be related to ayin-vov-kuf, meaning “to press down,” or “to confine.” And this ties in. Sometimes it’s not enough, not by a long shot, to build that railing. Sometimes it takes a huge spiritual effort to keep ourselves from doing the wrong thing, necessitating that we basically “sit on” our yetzer hara, “press down” on our yetzer hara to keep it from throwing us, or more accurately, to keep us from letting our yetzer hara convince us to throw ourselves off the roof.

“In the way that a man wishes to go, in that way they lead him” (Makkos 10b); Hashem clears the way for anyone who wants to sin. If we want to ignore the injunction to build a spiritual maakeh, we can. If we’re determined to fall off that roof, we will. And Hashem will let us. But why does Hashem let us sin whenever we want to? Why doesn’t He stop us? Where’s His love for us?

Letting us do wrong is one way Hashem shows how much He loves us. Because way too often we’re not really that into changing; not until we hit bottom, that is. Only when we can’t get any lower do we decide that there’s nowhere else to go but up. Only then do we decide that yes, it’s time to change. Yes, we all have to fail and fall. “For seven times the tzaddik falls and gets up …” (Mishlei 24:16). Rav Yitzchak Hutner, ztz”l, wrote: “The wisest of all men said, ‘The tzaddik will fall seven times and will rise.’ The unlearned think that this means, ‘Even though a tzaddik falls seven times, he will rise.’ The wise know the meaning is: ‘Because a tzaddik falls seven times, he will rise.’$$separatequotes$$”

The tzaddik is a tzaddik not despite his falls, but because of them. We shouldn’t let ourselves fall out of negligence, but we do have to recognize that falls are going to happen, and we need to learn from them and get stronger from them.

A college basketball team recently set a college record with 90 straight wins. Their win streak was broken several games after that, the first lost for several players in their entire collegiate careers. Their coach said, “It’s pretty much entering the real world. I think some of these guys have been living in fantasyland, and that doesn’t last forever. The real world is you win, you lose. That’s why they have the saying, ‘You win some, you lose some.’ There’s no saying that says, ‘You win ’em all.’$$separatequotes$$”

Those players needed to fall, to lose a game, so they could learn how to lose — how to get up after a fall and keep going. We all need to learn how to lose, both so we can learn how to get up and keep going, and so that we can appreciate our victories. Someone who’s never lost can’t really appreciate what it means to win.

This is what the Jews of Shushan did. They got up and kept going. Their fall to the lowest lows resulted in their reaching the highest heights, a reacceptance of Torah out of love. This Purim, let’s get up, keep going, and join them.

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