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 Parshas Vayeilech - Vol. 3, Issue 52
Compiled by Oizer Alport


Vayomer aleihem ben meah v’esrim shana anochi hayom (31:2)

            Rav Chaim Kanievsky is world-renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge and memory, as well as for his terse replies to questions. Somebody once wrote to him asking for the source of the concept of making a party to celebrate one’s birthday, wondering whether it was perhaps based upon an obscure Medrash or the writings of one of the Rishonim. He was quite surprised to receive Rav Chaim’s concise reply: Minhag Pharaoh – it is a non-Jewish custom which originated with the practices of the wicked Pharaoh!

            For this reason, it is recorded that the Aderes, Rav Eliyahu Dovid Rabinowitz-Teumim, got upset at those who offered him wishes for a “Happy birthday.” He added that if the Gemora in Eiruvin (13b) concludes that it would have been better for man had he not been created, how can a person celebrate the day on which something occurred that wasn’t in his best interest!? Rav Moshe Shternbuch writes that for these reasons, the Chasam Sofer felt that Jews shouldn’t celebrate the day on which they were born but rather the day on which they were circumcised and entered into the Jewish covenant.

In addressing the Jews on the last day of his life, Moshe emphasized that on that day he was 120 years old. The Gemora (Sotah 13b) derives from here that the righteous die on the day on which they were born, as Hashem completes the years of the righteous from day to day and from month to month. This is traditionally understood to mean that the righteous die on the day on which they were born.

At the funeral of Rav Chaim Volozhiner, one of the eulogizers, Rav Dovid of Novhardok, suggested that a more accurate interpretation would be that the righteous die on the day of their bris mila, at which time they entered into the Jewish covenant with Hashem. Although the source for this teaching is Moshe, who died on the day of his birth, this is explained by the fact that he was born already circumcised.  Rav Dovid noted that with this new understanding, it isn’t surprising to point out that Rav Chaim Volozhiner died exactly one week after his birthday, on the day of his bris mila!

            In the interest of presenting a balanced perspective about the Jewish view of birthdays, it is interesting to conclude by noting that a Rabbi related that when his wife was in seminary, the teacher was discussing the Jewish view of birthdays and presented the aforementioned non-Jewish origins of the concept. One of the girls raised her hand and innocently protested, “But my Zeide sends me a birthday card every year!” The teacher didn’t want to insult the girl’s grandfather and suggested that she should continue to enjoy his cards, but emphasized that the girls in the class should understand that the idea of celebrating one’s birthday isn’t a Jewish tradition.

            Undaunted, the girl pressed her point and argued, “My Zeide knows what he’s doing, and if he sends birthday cards, it must be a Jewish custom!” The teacher felt bad for the girl, but once again reiterated her philosophical stance to the rest of the class. To the teacher’s surprise, the girl exclaimed, “You don’t understand! My Zeide is Rav Moshe Feinstein!”


K’chu imachem Devorim v’shuvu el Hashem (Haftorah – Hoshea 14:3)

            In the special Haftorah that we read this week for Shabbos Shuva, the Navi Yeshaya advises, “Take with you words and return to Hashem.” Although repentance is the main theme of this time of the year, it is also one of the most difficult projects for us to succeed in. Some have even cynically suggested that instead of getting excited and making a new list of proposed improvements, a person should simply take out last year’s list and change the date at the top, as the lists will surely coincide. How can a person follow Yeshaya’s suggestion to take words with him and do proper teshuvah?

            The Chofetz Chaim explains both the root of our difficulty in doing teshuvah as well as the solution by way of an insightful parable. A merchant was once purchasing new inventory from a warehouse. Just as he paid his bill and prepared to leave with his new merchandise, another salesman came in and presented the clerk with his list of needed items. The clerk was about to begin compiling the order when he remembered that the last few times this customer came to the warehouse, he didn’t have the money to pay his outstanding bill and promised that he would do so the next time he returned.

When the clerk demanded payment of the accumulated debts, the embarrassed man explained that he still didn’t have the money but begged for one last chance to earn it. The clerk was considering the man’s request when the owner of the warehouse overheard the commotion and declared that he wasn’t willing to extend the man’s line of credit any longer. As the salesman began to plead with him, the first merchant, who was observing the proceedings, interrupted to announce that he understood the root of the problem and would like to propose a solution.

The warehouse served as a wholesaler, selling large quantities to merchants at cheap prices. This arrangement was ideal for someone such as himself whose business was based in a large town, as his sales volume was sufficient to allow him to turn a profit. The other salesman, however, came from a small village where has unable to sell enough of the large quantity he was forced to buy at the warehouse to recoup even a fraction of his costs. The merchant suggested that the warehouse owner make an exception and permit the salesman to buy only the small quantity that he would be able to sell, and over time he would turn a profit and slowly be able to pay off his debts. This insightful proposal was accepted by all and worked successfully, just as the merchant had projected.

When the Yomim Noraim draw near, a person naturally wants to rectify his ways. He sincerely examines all aspects of his life to determine which areas could use improvement. He then comes to Hashem and pleads for another year in which to make all of the changes he has accepted upon himself, yet year after year he finds himself asking for additional time to make many of the same improvements that he promised to make the year before.

Eventually, there comes a time when the accusing angel will argue that Hashem (the warehouse owner) has repeatedly given more and more merchandise (time in this world) to this person (the salesman) in exchange for a promise of payment (complete repentance) in the year to come, but without any payment on the horizon, it is unreasonable to continue extending the petitioner’s line of credit.

The wise merchant overhears the commotion and explains that a person is simply unable to accept upon himself so many improvements in so many spheres of his life all at once. Rather than unrealistically promising to completely change oneself and become a totally different person, it would be more practical and effective to choose a small number of areas on which he will focus his energy and gradually improve until he is able to “pay his debts” in those categories and move on to others  one-by-one. A person who heeds the sage advice of the merchant (the Chofetz Chaim) will merit fulfilling the exhortation of Yeshaya to take the words of his Yom Kippur promises with him and to truly return to Hashem, something that we should all merit in the coming year!


Answers to the weekly Points to Ponder are now available!
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Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1)     Rashi writes (31:2) that Moshe completed his Divinely-allotted years, implying that he didn’t die prematurely. How can this be reconciled with the Gemora in Shabbos (55b) which teaches that had he not sinned at Mei Merivah, he would have lived longer? (Gur Aryeh, Shu”t Radvaz 2:782)

2)     Moshe commanded (31:12) all of the people – men, women, children, and converts – to gather together to hear the reading of the book of Devorim by the king during the festival of Sukkos every seven years. How was it possible that all laws were properly followed, yet eight years passed from one reading until the next? (Minchas Chinuch 612)

3)     The Gemora in Sotah (35a) teaches that Dovid HaMelech was punished for referring (Tehillim 119:54) to words of Torah as zemiros (songs). Why was he punished for doing something which the Torah also does, referring to itself (31:19) as a shira – song? (Genuzos HaGra, Tal’lei Oros)

4)     If a person is capable of writing a valid Sefer Torah, is it preferable to perform this mitzvah (31:19) himself or by hiring a professional scribe whose Sefer Torah will be more beautiful? (Chai Odom 68:7, Bishvilei HaParsha)

5)     The Shulchan Aruch rules (Orach Chaim 603:1) that during the ten-day period from Rosh Hashana until Yom Kippur, a person should accept upon himself additional stringencies which he normally does not observe throughout the year. Does doing so take on the status of a vow which must be annulled if he desires to revert to his original practice? (Beis Yosef Orach Chaim 603, Aruch HaShulchan Orach Chaim 603:2, Elef HaMagen 603:2)

6)     Each year the reading of the entire Torah is finished on Simchas Torah. How is it possible for a complete Hebrew year to go by without the reading of one of the 54 portions of the Torah?

 © 2008 by Oizer Alport. Permission is granted to reproduce and distribute as long as credit is given. To receive weekly via email or to send comments or suggestions, write to


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