Thoughts on the Weekly Parshah by HaRav Eliezer Chrysler
Formerly Rav of Mercaz Ahavat Torah, Johannesburg

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Vol. 9   No. 47

This issue is sponsored anonymously
with the prayer that the forthcoming year
will be free of strife among ourselves
and one of peace within our borders

Parshas Nitzavim-Vayeilech

A Good Life v. A Life of Good

The Torah places before us two distinct paths, that of life and good on the one hand, and that of death and bad on the other. In so doing, explains Rabeinu Bachye, it is informing us that we have the free-will to do as we see fit, and that our choice will determine G'-d's reaction. And it reinforces this vital lesson when it concludes "and you shall choose life", leaving us no doubts that the choice is indeed ours.


Defining the four terms used by the Torah, Rabeinu Bachye (in his final explanation) interprets "life" as Techiyas-Hameisim (the Revival of the Dead), which will lead to a great reward in the World to Come, inherent in "good", in return for a life of Torah and Mitzvos. And by the same token, "death" refers to those whose 'revival' will be to their detriment, and "bad", what they will then be made to suffer for having forsaken the path of Torah and Mitzvos.

This interpretation of these four terms is similar though not identical, to that of the Seforno and the Ibn Ezra, who present them as eternal life, the pleasures of this world, eternal death and suffering in this world, respectively. The latter interpret them as four levels of reward and punishment respectively, the former, as two, each with two sections. Either way, these commentaries restrict the Pasuk under discussion to the effect; the cause follows with the continuation of the Pasuk "When I Command you today to love Hashem ... to go in His ways ... to observe His Mitzvos ... ".


Others however, interpret the two sets of terms as cause and effect, and, interestingly enough, they do so in two opposite ways. The Targum Yonasan defines "life" as the way of life that G-d instructed us, namely that of Torah and Mitzvos (which the Torah itself immediately elaborates upon) - the casuse, and "good" as the reward that ensues - the effect. "Death", on the other hand, refers to the path of death (all alternatives to Torah and Mitzvos) - the cause, and "bad" to the retribution that the wicked will suffer for their misdeeds (the effect).

Rashi learns just the opposite. In his opinion, "life" refers to the reward (the effect), and "good" to the Torah and Mitzvos that we need to perform to achieve this (the cause). Whereas "death" pertains to what the wicked will suffer (the effect) for perpetrating "bad" (the cause). Now Rashi's explanation conforms with the conventional understanding of the four words under discussion. After all, the essence of our Tefilos throughout the Yomim Noro'im is a request for 'life' and not for 'good. Yet it is difficult to see why the Torah presents them in this order (first the effect and then the cause). Surely it would have been more appropriate to reverse them - "good and life, bad and death" in the accepted sequence of cause and effect (which is the sequence the Torah does indeed follow according to Yonasan ben Uziel's interpretation)?


This point is raised by the K'li Yakar, who explains the sequence in typically stunning fashion. Taking "life" and "death" literally, he explains that the Torah writes "life" and "good" to impress upon us the essence of life. Because G-d only gave us life in order to do good ("death and bad" merely follow the same pattern as "life" and "good" that precede it).

It is said that whereas most people recite a B'rachah in order to eat, Tzadikim eat in order to recite a B'rachah. Much in the same way, the K'li Yakar explains, when we pray to Hashem, we should not be asking Him for assistance to do good in order to merit life, but for life in order to do good!

Much in the same way, the Seifer Hapardes (followed by the Chofetz Chayim) explains the words ' ... and write us in the Book of life, for Your sake ... ' (which we will iy'h discuss in the next issue).

Taken at a deeper level, the Mitzvos were not given to us as a means towards self-gratification. But rather, life and the pleasures of life were given to us as a means to perform the mizvos, and that should be the gist of our Tefilos on Rosh Hashanah.


Parshah Pearls

(adapted from the P'ninim mi'Shulchan ha'Gro)

Permeated with Kedushah

"Because it (Torah) shall not be forgotten from their children" (31:21).

Last year, we cited the story of Rebbi Chiya, who would plant flax-seeds to make nets ... with which to catch deer ... which he would then Shecht, distributing the meat to the poor, and using the skin to make parchment. And on the parchment he would write the five Chumashim, which he proceeded to teach to five children ...

Chazal subsequently praised the deeds of Rebbi Chiya, because he prevented Torah from being forgotten. Nor was that praise confined to the mere fact that he taught the children Torah, but also extended to the way in which he did it. After all, he could have purchased ready-made skins and proceeded with his plan, yet not only did he himself not do that, but the Gemara goes out of its way to describe a process which, at first glance, appears irrelevant to the lesson being taught.

Clearly, that is not the case. His long and tedious preparations were in fact, vital to his plan to reinstate Torah in Yisrael. Had he indeed purchased manufactured skins from a tanner, his mission could have not have succeeded, and his success was due as much to the methods he used in preparing for the Mitzvah as to the Mitzvah itself.

As we well know, the Satan invests much effort in preventing a person from performing a Mitzvah, particularly when that Mitzvah is Talmud-Torah. But what does he do when he sees that his victim is bent on learning and cannot be stopped? He does the next best thing. He taints the Mitzvah with an element of 'she'lo li'sh'mah', if not directly on the person himself, then on the object of Mitzvah, creating an imperfection that will have a negative affect on the Mitzvah.

For example, he will make sure that the parchment on which a Seifer is written was purchased with money that was paid as interest or that was obtained through cheating or theft. This causes an aura of Tum'ah to permeate the parchment. The result is that the child (or the adult) who learns from this Seifer will be unable to grasp the subject-matter fully, or that he will simply forget his learning.

Rebbi Chiya was not satisfied with preventing such Tum'ah from interfering with the children's learning. He went one step further. He made sure from stage one, that not only was the parchment that he used for this Mitzvah not tainted with sin, but it was manufactured purely Le'shem Shamayim, for the sake of the Mitzvah, and what's more, it was sanctified with the Mitzvah of chesed. In this way, not only would the parchment not be tainted, it would be permeated with Kedushah. That is what he meant when he said that he would make sure that Torah would not be forgotten in Yisrael. Once the children learned from such 'holy' Sefarim (and, one may add, from such a holy Rebbe), they would be sure never to forget what they had learned.


Two Yeitzer Ho'ras

"Because I know their Yeitzer" (ibid.)

The Gemara in B'rachos (8a) cites Ula, who says that someone who benefits from his toil is greater than someone who fears G-d. The G'ro, cited by his Talmidim, explains that there are two kinds of Tzadik. The one needs to do battle with his Yeitzer-Ha'ra in order to learn Torah and perform Mitzvos, the other does so naturally, without a fight. Others refer to them as 'Tzadik' and 'Yoshor' respectively.

Each of these has an advantage and a disadvantage, they explained. The former is in constant danger (and perpetually afraid), as long as he is in this world (because he knows that even if today he wins the battle, tomorrow, it might be the Yeitzer-Ha'ra who wins). His reward in the World to Come, on the other hand, will be far greater than that of the latter, whose reward there (for easily overcoming his Yeitzer-Ha'ra) will be scant. Against that though, the latter, spared the worry that his friend undergoes, has it good in this world.

Consequently, what Chazal mean when they say that someone who benefits from his toil is greater than someone who fears G-d is - that the person who derives pleasure from his toil (the second category of Tzadik) is greater than the one who is constantly afraid (that he might sin [in spite of the greater reward that the latter is destined to receive in the World to Come]).


Once You Start Sinning ...

When Raban Yochanan ben Zakai fell ill, his Talmidim came to visit him. When they asked him for a B'rachah, he blessed them that their fear of G-d should be as great as their fear of humans. And when they expressed surprise at this seemingly meaningless statement, he proved the necessity of such a B'rachah. He pointed out to them that when most people sin, they ignore the fact that G-d sees everything, yet they look round to make sure that nobody else is watching them perpetrate the sin.


Notice, points out the G'ro, that Raban Yochanan spoke about people who were actually sinning, and not who were about to sin.

That is because, as long as they have not yet actually begun to sin, it is still possible to bring their fear of G-d to bear, to prevent them from going ahead with the sin.

But once they are in the throes of sin, it is too late! At that stage, says the G'ro, the only thing that will stop them is being caught in the act by their fellow man. How appropriate then, was Raban Yochanan ben Zakai's B'rachah, that the fear of G-d should have the same effect on them as the fear of their fellow-man, to stop them in their tracks even after they have begun to sin.


Delaying the Rod

"Behold whilst I lived with you, you rebelled against G-d, how much more so after my death. Because I know that, after my death, you will become corrupt, and stray from the path that I commanded you ... " (31:27/28).

We need to understand two things, asks the G'ro. Firstly, the basis of Moshe's 'Kal vo'Chomer'? And secondly, why Moshe refers to their future sins, when this is something that depends on human choice (and is therefore not predestined)?


These Pesukim, explains the G'ro, are based on two different strategies that a father might apply in handling a naughty child. The one takes him each time he misbehaves, and punishes immediately (in keeping with the advice of the Pasuk in Mishlei "Spare the rod and spoil the child").

The other does not punish him right away. He allows the boy's sins to accumulate, and it is only when they reach the limits of the father's endurance that he pounces, punishing him for all his misdeeds in one sweep (as the Pasuk writes in Ki Siso "And on the day that I punish you, I shall punish you for your sin [of the Eigel, too]").


Now it is obvious that the first child will take his father's treatment more to heart than the second, for the fresher the sin, the deeper the impression left by the punishment.

It is well-known that whilst Yisrael were in the desert, under G-d's direct influence, each deviation from the path of Torah and Mitzvos was met with a swift reaction on the part of G-d, followed by an immediate punishment (as we find following the Eigel, the Meraglim, the Mis'onenim and the rebellion of Korach).

After Moshe's death however, things changed. From then on, Yisrael's sins would accumulate until they had stretched to the limit, and it was only then that G-d punished them.


Now we can understand exactly what Moshe was saying. If during his lifetime, when G-d's swift and timely punishments made no impression on them, and they continued to sin, then it went without saying that, after his death, when they would not suffer immediately for their sins, they would not mend their ways. Because even when G-d would eventually strike, the impression would be less profound than in the desert, and would not deter them from sinning further.


(adapted from the Sidur Otzar Ha'tefilos)

It is a Mitzvas Asei (a Torah command) to confess one's sins - any day, any time, as the Torah writes in Vayikra (5:5) "and he shall confess his sin". The Zohar however, stresses the importance of performing this Mitzvah after the Amidah, which explains why we say S'lichos there.


Our Fathers' Sins

We understand why we need to confess our own sins, but why do we say 'but we and our fathers sinned'? Why do we need to confess for the sins of our fathers?

The Eitz Yosef explains this in two ways: firstly, he says, because, as Chazal have taught, we are punished for the deeds of our ancestors, when we continue in their ways. In other words, there are some sins which we can really ascribe to our fathers and grandfathers, who inculcated us with some of their bad habits. Nevertheless, we are held responsible and punishable for those sins, despite the fact that they were introduced and taught by our predecessors. We therefore need to mention our father's sins as part of the Teshuvah process. Without it, we cannot attain pardon for those sins.

And he bases his second explanation on Chazal, who maintain that the idolaters of today are not real idolaters. They are simply practicing what their fathers taught them, but their hearts are not in it. Sometimes, it seems, the fact that a person copies his father, detracts from the intensity of the sin, earning him a lighter punishment. That is why we make a point of mentioning that our fathers sinned too, to stress that we are merely mimicking their deeds, and therefore need not be punished so severely.

Interestingly, we have here the same reason that creates the need for confession, on the one hand, and absolves us from a heavier punishment, on the other.


Viduy - Confession
(translated from the Eitz Yosef)

Oshamnu - we behaved guiltily (towards our own souls as well as towards G-d).

Bogadnu - we repaid bad for good, and were treacherous towards each other .

Gozalnu - we stole (incorporating robbing our own soul, and robbing a poor man of his due greeting).

Dibarnu Dofi - we pushed away (declined to help) our fellow-Jew in time of need, and spoke with two mouths (slyly, to say one thing and mean another, or one thing in front of the person concerned, and another, behind his back).

He'evinu - we deviated from the straight path, or caused others to sin (e.g. by issuing false rulings).

Ve'hirsha'nu - we performed evil, or justified the Rasha and denounced the Tzadik, or incited ourselves to do evil (not merely on account of our natural inclinition).

Zadnu - we sinned intentionally, or planned evil against others.

Chomasnu - we cheated monetarily.

Tofalnu Sheker - we libeled our fellow-Jews.

Yo'atznu Ra - we gave ill advice to our fellow-Jew, to make him sin or for our own benefit.

Kizavnu - we lied (with or without a good motive).

Latznu - we mocked (poked fun).

Moradnu - we rebelled against our Rebbes.

Ni'atznu - we angered G-d.

Sorarnu - we went astray (referring to the severity of our sins), or strayed in our thoughts.

Ovinu - we perpetrated brazen speech (or sinned for pleasure).

Posha'nu - we perpetrated deeds of a rebellious nature.

Tzorarnu - we oppressed one another, or brought trouble upon ourselves, to be crushed by our tormentors, because ...

Kishinu Oref - we were stubborn, despite the fact that ...

Rosha'nu - we were knowingly wicked ...

Shichasnu - we corrupted ourselves (and were not successful in our wickedness) ...

Ti'avnu - we behaved abominably (even when it did not stem from our natural inclination) ...

To'inu - we erred (all of us, so we did not have a majority of Tzadikim to rely on) ...

Ti'tonu - we derided the Tzadikim who tried to rebuke us (and cannot claim that nobody tried to stop us, or that the rebukers themselves were unworthy). And this is the worst of all the sins, as Chazal have said 'Yerushalayim was only destroyed because they despised Talmidei-Chachamim'.

(Shichasnu - also has connotations of wasting seed, as well as of idolatry and adultery.)


'(We ought really to have dedicated our lives to the performance of Mitzvos, but) we strayed from Your Mitzvos and Your judgements. (And not only did we not treat them as a major issue, but) we did not ascribe to them any significance at all (as we proceeded to indulge in the futile pleasures of this world).

And You are righteous irrespective of what happens to us, because You performed the truth, whilst we were wicked'.


The Pesikta describes how G-d turns to the angels and says 'Come and I will show you the righteousness of My children. I am constantly loading them with tzoros and suffering, that comes upon then in each generation and on an ongoing basis. Yet not only do they not lash out at Me, but they respond by calling Me a Tzadik and themselves Resha'im'!


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