Rabbi Yakov Haber
Converting Everything to Good
Look down (hashkifa) from the abode of Your Holiness, from the Heavens and bless Your nation Israel and the land which You have given us, as You swore to our ancestors, a land flowing with milk and honey (Ki Tavo 26:15).
This prayer ends the vidui ma'asros, the declaration recited at the time of bi'ur ma'asros, every fourth and seventh year of the shemitta-cycle. Rashi (VaYeira 18:16) quotes the Midrash that all instances of the word hashkifa in Tanach are for punishment except for this one. The Midrash elaborates that so great are the gifts to the poor - part of the ma'asros being ma'aseir 'ani, the tithe given to the poor, mentioned in the vidui - that it even converts the middas haRogez, quality of Divine anger, to that of Rachamim, mercy.
Sheim MiShmuel presents an important explanation of the quality of charity to accomplish this Providence-changing result of converting Divine anger to mercy. A poor person for some Divine reason has an aspect of middas haDin, or justice, drawn against him acting to create and continue the poverty. Someone who gives tzedaka utilizes this situation not to accuse the poor of c"v not being worthy of charity but utilizes this manifestation of middas haDin as an opportunity to develop the midda of chessed. In turn, this awakens the Divine middas haRachamim on the poor and the entire world. This analysis is reminiscent of the Gemara Bava Basra (10a) which presents the Roman general Turnusrufus' question to R. Akiva: "If your G-d loves the poor, why does he make them poor?" R. Akiva responds: "If there were no poor, how would we save ourselves from punishment!" meaning how would we have opportunities to develop our qualities of kindness.
Sheim MiShmuel gives several other parallels to utilize seemingly bad situations for the good. The famous Gemara in Yoma (86b) quotes Reish Lakish as teaching that one who returns to G-d out of love succeeds in having his sins converted into sources of merit. How can repentance convert sins to sources of merit? It would seem that the maximum repentance could accomplish is the erasure of the sins! One of the popular understandings of this statement is that the sinner, when internalizing how distant he is from the Source of Life and what he lost through his transgressions, yearns ever more for nearness to the Beloved, the Source of his life. Many compare this phenomenon to a spring: The more it is pushed, creating greater distance, the more it propels the item pushing it upward. It was precisely the sins that led to this greater longing, increase of love for Hashem, and more intensified return. Hence, they become sources of merit. This concept also has been used to explain the opinion in the Talmud (B'rachos 34b) that the level which Baalei Teshuva reach is higher than that of the totally righteous. The penitents were pushed even higher by their feelings of forsakenness and distance created by their sins.
A similar idea exists in the relationship between the six days of the workweek and the holy Shabbos. Through the engagement in the mundane world, the Jew recognizes how much he is "wandering" in the physical aspect of life and longs for a higher purpose. This purpose is represented by Shabbos, which in Sifrei Chasiddus is explained to also be an especially appropriate time for teshuva. The very word Shabbos contains a similar root (S-B-S) to the root letters of teshuva (S-B).
The shofar, in the well-known words of Rambam, awakens us from the havlei haz'man, the relatively worthless activities of This World. Only one who has erred in "getting caught up" in viewing life in this world as an end in and of itself and not as an ends to a means, can be appropriately awakened and inspired by the sound of the shofar to return to G-d with even greater zeal.
The Talmud at the end of B'rachos (63a) teaches us based on the passage in Mishlei (3:6) "b'chol d'rachecha da'eihu" - "know G-d in all your ways" - va'afilu lidvar 'aveira, even in matters of sin. Many different interpretations have been given to this passage. The Sheim MiShmuel's analysis provides us with another. The Gemara adjures us: Do not allow sin to serve solely as a means of distancing yourself from the Almighty! Rather, utilize it as a spring to thrust you to return ever closer to your Father in Heaven! Our lives are complicated with tremendous upheavals of good and bad. One thing is constant. G-d's Providence is precisely orchestrated to allow us to grow from all the events in our lives allowing us to become ever greater. May we merit utilizing the opportunity to prepare during the days of Selichos well for teshuva sheleima to The Source of all.