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Parshas Nitzavim / Rosh Hashana - Vol. 10, Issue 47
Compiled by Oizer Alport
In this verse, the Torah writes the words "lanu ul'vaneinu" - for us and for our children - with dots on top of each letter, something done quite rarely. Although there are rules for interpreting the meaning of such dots (see Rashi), the Chofetz Chaim explains that when writing a book, an author who wants to stress a certain point will draw attention to it by underlining the salient words.
Similarly, when discussing the importance of educating our children and raising them with proper values, the Torah saw no more fitting way to convey this message than to place dots on the words referring to us and our children. In essence, the Torah is "underlining" these words to emphasize the unparalleled significance in Judaism of teaching our children to be G-d-fearing Jews.
The importance which our Rabbis placed on educating their children is illustrated in the following story. One year on the night of Kol Nidrei, the Jews of a large community were assembled in the synagogue, ready to begin the solemn services. However, there was one critical problem: the Rav, renowned for his punctuality, was nowhere to be seen. After waiting several tense minutes, a delegation was dispatched to his house to find out what was causing the delay.
They arrived at the house of their beloved Rabbi, Rav Binyomin Diskin, fearing the worst. They were shocked when they peered through his window and observed him calmly seated by the table, studying together with his young son. Rav Diskin seemed completely oblivious to the congregation which was anxiously awaiting his presence in the synagogue.
Seizing his courage, one of the elders of the community knocked on the door and gently explained that the congregation was concerned about his uncharacteristic delay. The elderly Rav explained that with the arrival of the day on which a person's fate for the upcoming year is sealed, he found himself nervous about his lack of merits. Desperately seeking to accrue mitzvos which could tip the scale in his favor, he could think of no greater merit than teaching Torah to his young son, who not surprisingly grew up to become the saintly Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin.
Parshas Nitzavim is read annually close to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. At the time when the entire world passes before Hashem in judgment, the Torah uncharacteristically goes out of its way to "underline" a phrase to emphasize to us the importance of looking after our children and raising them properly. Indeed, our Sages teach that a person is judged and held responsible not only for his own actions, but also for those of his descendants (to the extent that he could have influenced them to behave otherwise). At this critical time, let us remember the message of the Chofetz Chaim and the actions of Rav Diskin and accept upon ourselves to redouble our commitment to educating and positively influencing our families.
Rosh Hashana is the beginning of a 10-day period known as the Aseres Y'mei Teshuvah (10 Days of Repentance). However, several commentators point out that there is no mention of confessing or repenting our sins in the entire Rosh Hashana machzor. In what sense are the two days of Rosh Hashana considered days of teshuvah, and in what way are we supposed to work on repenting on Rosh Hashana?
In his sefer Pachad Yitzchok (Yom Kippur 13), Rav Yitzchok Hutner points out that the conclusion of the blessing for repentance in the daily Shemoneh Esrei prayers seems unusual. In each of the other blessings, the conclusion reflects and summarizes the content of the blessing. For example, in the blessing atah chonen l'adam daas (You endow man with wisdom), we conclude chonen ha'daas - Who gives wisdom, and in the blessing bareich aleinu es ha'shana ha'zos (bless this year for us, Hashem our G-d), we conclude m'varech ha'shanim - Who blesses the years. However, in the blessing for repentance, we begin hashiveinu Avinu l'Sorasecha - bring us back our Father to Your Torah - and we conclude ha'rotzeh be'teshuvah - Who desires repentance - which does not directly reflect the text of the blessing. In keeping with the format of the other blessings, it would seem more appropriate to conclude ha'meishiv be'teshuvah - Who brings back in repentance. Further, what does it mean that Hashem desires repentance, and why is it relevant, if doing teshuvah is ultimately up to us?
Rav Hutner explains based on the well-known insight of the Mesillas Yesharim (4) regarding the nature and impact of teshuvah. The Mesillas Yesharim questions the very concept of repentance, as often the consequences of a sin are permanent and cannot be undone; if so, how can teshuvah help to eradicate a person's actions? The Mesillas Yesharim explains that the chesed (kindness) of teshuvah is that in Hashem's mercy, He views akiras ha'ratzon k'akiras ha'maaseh - the uprooting of one's desire to sin is tantamount to uprooting the sin itself. Although it is impossible to retroactively "delete" our mistaken actions, when we confess our sins, express our regret for what we have done, and accept upon ourselves not to do so again in the future, we change our ratzon - desire - and when Hashem sees a person do so sincerely and wholeheartedly, He views the uprooting of the desire as an uprooting of the actual sin.
Rav Hutner adds that in the positive direction, the Gemora (Kiddushin 40a) teaches that if a person wants to perform a mitzvah, but is prevented from doing so by circumstances beyond his control, Hashem views the person as having actually performed the mitzvah, since he had full intention and desire to do so. The lesson we derive from here is the vital role of a person's ratzon, which determines all of our actions and choices. With this insight, we can now appreciate why it is appropriate to conclude the blessing for repentance in Shemoneh Esrei using the expression ha'rotzeh be'teshuvah, because when there is a Heavenly desire for repentance, it correspondingly enables us to change our ratzon, which is the essential component to proper teshuvah. Rav Yosef Elefant of Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim develops this idea further based on a beautiful thought of the S'fas Emes. Rashi writes (Bereishis 1:1) that Hashem originally intended to create the world with His attribute of strict justice, but when He recognized that the world would not be able to endure under such stringent circumstances, He fused it with His Divine attribute of mercy. At first glance, Chazal appear to be telling us that Hashem changed His mind, which is difficult to understand. However, the S'fas Emes reinterprets the Gemora's teaching based on the explanation of his grandfather, the Chiddushei HaRim, for the concept ein davar ha'omeid bifnei ha'ratzon (see Zohar HaKadosh Vol. 2 162b), which is typically understood to mean that "where there's a will, there's a way," and nothing can stop a person who is truly determined from accomplishing his goals.
However, while this thought is certainly inspiring, it is often incorrect, as there are many objectives that a person may have which are simply unattainable for him, no matter how much he wants them, and no matter how hard he works to reach them. Therefore, the Chiddushei HaRim suggests that Chazal are teaching us that in the world of רצון, there are no limits to what a person can desire and strive for. As Rav Elefant expresses it, you can't do whatever you want, but you can want whatever you want.
With this understanding, the S'fas Emes explains that in the world of thought and desire, Hashem's attribute of strict justice reigns supreme. In the world of dreams and aspirations, nothing stands in the way of a person's goals, and one must strive for perfection. At the same time, Hashem is also cognizant of the fact that in the physical world in which we live, it is not realistic to demand such levels, and He therefore judges our actions with His attribute of mercy. Nevertheless, Hashem still expects us to maintain our idealistic pursuit of perfection and to seek only the best in our spiritual accomplishments.
With this insight, it becomes clear that Hashem did not change His mind as it appeared initially, but rather He created the world by expecting us to desire perfection, while simultaneously judging our execution with compassion. In light of this explanation, the S'fas Emes adds that in order to appease Hashem's attribute of strict justice on Rosh Hashana, a person should ensure that in the realm of מחשבה and רצון, his desires and goals are to reach the highest levels, which will help him merit to be judged with mercy and compassion.
With this introduction, Rav Elefant explains that Rosh Hashana's place at the beginning of the Aseres Y'mei Teshuvah becomes quite clear. One of the primary themes of Rosh Hashana is Malchuyos - to crown Hashem and accept Him as Melech - our King. The Vilna Gaon and Malbim both explain (Tehillim 22:29) that in contrast to the word moshel, which connotes a dictator who rules by force, the term Melech is used in conjunction with a king who rules with the consent of the people. Accordingly, the concept of Malchuyos implies a willing recognition and acceptance of Hashem's kingship, and our obligation to perform His will. In this sense, Rosh Hashana requires us to change our ratzon to Hashem's ratzon, and correcting our ratzon is the critical component in teshuvah. It is therefore quite appropriate to begin the 10-day period of repentance with Rosh Hashana, as it is through Malchuyos that we arrive at the essence of teshuvah.
The Haftorah that is read on the first day of Rosh Hashana recounts the story of the birth of the prophet Shmuel to the heretofore barren Chana. The Meiri writes (Rosh Hashana 11a) that the story of Chana's conception after years of enduring the pain of her inability to give birth is read as a lesson for us about the power of heartfelt prayer on this special day. In Chana's prayers, she beseeched Hashem to bless her with zera anashim.
Although most commentators understand this as a plea for a male child, the Gemora (Berachos 31b) quotes several opinions about what this unusual expression means. One opinion explains that this phrase indicates that Chana did not ask for an exceptionally smart or strong child, but rather an average, normal son who would blend in with his peers. Rashi explains that she was afraid of an ayin hara (evil eye), and she did not want her child to be extraordinary in any way that would cause him to stand out and attract people's attention.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz points out that nevertheless, her ordinary and ungifted son - Shmuel - grew up to be one of the greatest leaders in the history of the Jewish people, a leader who was compared to Moshe and Aharon (Taanis 5b). He explains that this teaches us that even though every person is born with certain natural strengths and talents, nobody should ever despair and give up on himself - or on one of his children - and decide that because something seems difficult and does not come to him naturally, it must be beyond his capabilities. One of the lessons of Shmuel is the tremendous potential latent in every human being, even one who seems merely average, if we simply apply ourselves to the utmost to serving Hashem. This message is particularly relevant on the first day of Rosh Hashana, and as we ponder our futures and set our goals for the upcoming year, we should remember that Shmuel teaches us that if we truly apply ourselves, the sky is the limit.
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Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):
1) Moshe began his speech to the Jewish people (29:9-10) by emphasizing that all of them were present, even the converts. Since one of the essential components of conversion is circumcision, how were they able to accept converts in the desert, where the Jews themselves were unable to circumcise their newborns because the climate made it too dangerous and risky to perform circumcision (Rashi 33:9)? (Panim Yafos, Derech Sicha, M'rafsin Igri)
2) The Torah refers (30:11) to a commandment which isn't hidden or distant from a person. It isn't in the heavens or across the sea, but rather it is very close - in a person's mouth and in his heart. While it is possible to err regarding the location of an item or its distance from oneself, how is it feasible to mistakenly think that an item which is as close to oneself as is physically possible is in reality thousands or millions of miles away? (Ohr Yahel Vol. 3)
3) In the Avinu Malkeinu prayers, we ask Hashem to inscribe us in the Sefer Zechuyos - the book of merits. What is the intention of this request, as Hashem will reward us for our good deeds even if we don't pray for it, and He certainly won't write down mitzvos that we have not done simply because we petition Him to do so? (Matnas Chaim, K'Motzei Shalal Rav Yomim Noraim pg. 99) 4) In explaining the 13 Attributes of Hashem's Mercy, Rashi explains (Shemos 34:6) that the repetition of Hashem's name refers to the fact that Hashem is merciful before a person sins and after he sins and repents. What need is there for Divine Mercy before one sins, and even if he thought about sinning, the Gemora in Kiddushin (40a) teaches that Hashem doesn't punish a person for sinful thoughts until he acts on them? (Daas Z'keinim, Rabbeinu Asher Rosh Hashana 1:5, Riva, Kotzker Rebbe quoted in Amud HaEmes)
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