What is the power of this work, which is written in a simple, straightforward style, and lacks any dramatic stories?
The sefer Sichos im Harav Shlomo Hoffman has sold 25,000 copies in Hebrew, and, under the title Secrets of the Soul: Conversations with Rav Shlomo Hoffman, another 6,000 copies in English. For those not familiar with the world of Torah publishing, in which publishers often print only 2,000 copies at a time, and sometimes only 1,000, these are very large numbers.
And that makes me feel upbeat. Because it shows that just as Klal Yisrael has an unerring sense of who its leaders are, so can it identify those rare seforim that help bring us to a new spiritual level.
A woman in Karmiel called Rabbi Meir Simcha Stein, who compiled the sefer based on many years of vaadim and personal meetings with Rav Hoffman ztz"l, to say that her no-longer-observant sister had picked up the sefer at her house one Shabbos and told her later, "If I had had this sefer when I was younger, I never would have left religious observance."
A rosh yeshivah in one of Israel's most prominent yeshivos told Rabbi Stein, "You ruined my Yom Kippur. I picked up the sefer to read for a few minutes before going to sleep on Erev Yom Kippur and could not put it down until I had finished it. That sleepless night left me weak all Yom Kippur."
What is the power of this work, which is written in a simple, straightforward style, and lacks any dramatic stories? It makes the words we sing when replacing the Torah scroll in the Ark, "Deracheha darchei noam, v'chol nesivoseha shalom — Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace," come alive. That means, inter alia, that anyone who comes into contact with one shaped by Torah should be struck by the pleasantness of his or her ways.
But it also means that the Torah is naturally suited to the human soul, and the human soul to a life of Torah, as the same Creator Who fashioned the human soul also gave the Torah to His chosen people.
Rav Hoffman's great achievement is to show the path toward a balanced human personality uniquely suited to a life of Torah. Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach provide two outstanding examples of that balance. All those who came into contact with them invariably described them as "so normal."
"Speaking with Rav Yaakov was like driving in a luxury sedan," remembered Dr. Yaakov Greenwald, "You didn't feel you were moving."
"Normal" in this context obviously does not mean "common" or "average." Rather, by normal, I mean a certain inner equilibrium — i.e., the Rambam's "golden mean." Each gadol had the ability to put people at ease and to guide them according to their individual level, without coming across as judgmental.
THE PATH TOWARD such balance is by no means confined to our preparations for the Yamim Noraim, but it is highly relevant to the teshuvah process. Chapters 2 through 4 — "Anxiety over Sin, and Optimism toward Teshuvah"; "Teshuvah Means Going in the Right Direction"; "Coping with Sin" — are all highly relevant to the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah.
Last year, I discussed an encounter between the Chevron Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Yechezkel Sarna, and Rav Hoffman, during the latter's first Elul in the yeshivah. The Rosh Yeshivah stopped him in the hall and asked him why he looked so stressed. The 16-year-old bochur replied that it was Elul, and the Rambam writes that one has not done full teshuvah until Hashem can give witness that he will never return to the sin.
Rav Sarna told him forcefully that that is the work of a lifetime, not of Elul. The teshuvah necessary for the atonement of Yom Kippur, however, requires only that one be headed in the right direction — i.e., that one recognizes one's sin and the necessity of correcting one's behavior. The Gemara in Shevuos (13a) says that Yom Kippur atones for those who are doing teshuvah — shavim — not those who have already done teshuvah — shavu, said Rav Sarna, in the name of Rav Yisrael Salanter.
This year I'd like to focus on Rav Hoffman's insights on the actual path to teshuvah once one is headed in the right direction and acknowledges that he has done something wrong. Much of Rabbi Hoffman's advice on this score can be summarized, I believe, as follows: Don't confront the yetzer head on, and don't try to overpower it. The more one tries to combat the yetzer, the more one arouses resistance.
One very frequent mistake is to take on kabbalos that are beyond one's capacities and soon end in failure. Thus the Gaon writes on the verse, "The swift of foot is sinful" (Mishlei 19:2), that a person must proceed just as one climbs a ladder, one step at a time. By hastily taking on unrealistic goals, and the inevitable failure that follows from it, he has only opened himself to depression and feelings of failure, which are among the yetzer's principle tools.
Rather than wallowing in guilt for past sins, one should focus on the way forward. Excessive guilt and thinking about one's failures are inevitably counterproductive. For the more one thinks about his or her sins, even in the context of telling himself how disgusting they are, the more he is drawn after those sins.
Yiras Shamayim, Rabbi Hoffman stressed, is not a sense of anxiousness or depression, either of which is negative, but rather thinking about how to improve and grow. Don't obsess over your failures, but focus on how to fix them. The former just makes a person anxious and cuts his life short, while looking for solutions points one in a positive direction and adds to his life.
Rabbi Hoffman quotes the Seforno's commentary on Hashem's words to Kayin prior to the murder of Hevel: "Why has your face fallen?" When a fault can be corrected, it is not right to think about the past. It is proper to try to repair it in the future instead.
The key to triumphing over the yetzer is to strive to uplift oneself. First and foremost, that uplift comes from Torah learning. Rav Elchonon Wasserman used to say in the name of the Chofetz Chaim, "The yetzer hara does not mind if a person fasts, cries, and prays all day, as long he doesn't learn Torah."
And secondly, from maintaining one's spiritual level. Thus the Gaon explains the verse in Koheles (10:4), "If the spirit of the ruler rises against you, do not abandon your post, for a remedy relieves great sins," to mean that if the yetzer ensnares you in his trap, do not fall from your spiritual level, but rather continue in the good paths you have walked until now. Later you will heal from the sin.
The forms of teshuvah may change according to the person and the times, but what remains constant is that what depresses must be avoided and what uplifts pursued. Once a person becomes depressed or filled with a sense of failure, he is in yetzer's playing field. Similarly, afflicting the body with fasts and the like only saps one's strength and weakens one in the confrontation with the yetzer.
The last mashgiach of Slabodka in Europe, Rav Avraham Grodzinski, once asked Rav Yitzele Blazer why he had switched the emphasis of teshuvah from focusing on fear of sin to ahavas Hashem. Rav Itzele replied that Rav Yisrael Salanter and his generation were capable of striving for teshuvah mi'yirah, but the subsequent generations were not. They would only become depressed by the fear of punishment. So he had decided to focus on teshuvah mei'ahavah instead.
IN A LETTER of approbation, in which he recommended learning Rav Hoffman's vaadim to "every parent and educator, avreich, and bochur," Rav Moshe Shapira described him as "one of the wisest people of his generation in understanding Toras hanefesh." He was a true mechanech because he was a true mechunach, wrote Rav Shapira, a close talmid of Rav Isaac Sher, the Slabodka Rosh Yeshivah, and of Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler; and a confidant of Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach, who relied upon him for the treatment of bochurim suffering from emotional problems.
Fortunate is our generation that Rabbi Hoffman's wisdom is being carried forward in multiple works by faithful talmidim.