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Torah Attitude: Parashas Ki Savo: I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me
The forty day period from Rosh Chodesh Elul to Yom Kippur was established as a time of reconciliation between G'd and the Jewish nation. The month of Elul exemplifies the special relationship between G'd and the Jewish people. Throughout the Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) King Solomon was Divinely inspired to describe the special relationship between G'd and His chosen people as the beloved relationship between a man and a woman. The two cherubim on top of the Holy Ark represented the relationship between G'd and the Jewish nation. The Holy Day of Shabbat is a weekly reminder of this special relationship. This special relationship is mentioned in this week's Torah portion where the Jewish nation is obligated to follow the commandments of their beloved G'd. The awareness of this special relationship between G'd and His nation has kept the Jewish people throughout the generations, in good times and in difficult times. The Ramban exclaims at the end of Parashas Bo: "We believe that whatever happens to us are all miracles." "Three books are open on Rosh Hashanah: one for the totally righteous; one for the totally wicked; and one for the in-betweens." The calculation of merits and transgressions is not a simple arithmetic exercise. The conduct of Abraham's nephew, Lot, provides an example of the difficulty of calculating merits and transgressions. In His great kindness, G'd gives us the opportunity to restore the loving relationship.
A time of reconciliation
The month of Elul is designated for the Jewish people to prepare themselves for Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment. In the Sephardic communities, special Selichos (penitential) prayers are said throughout the month. In the Ashkenazi communities, the custom is to blow the shofar every weekday at the end of the morning service and to say chapter 27 of Tehillim twice a day. Our sages (Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer Chapter 46) explain that our blowing of the shofar commemorates the blowing of the shofar at the time when Moses ascended Mount Sinai on the first of Elul. He went to receive the second set of tablets, after he had broken the first set when he saw how the Jewish people served the golden calf. The forty day period from Rosh Chodesh Elul to Yom Kippur became a time of reconciliation between G'd and the Jewish nation for all generations. At the climax of the forty days, on Yom Kippur, G'd gave Moses the second set of tablets as a sign that He had accepted the repentance of the Jewish people. In the same way we hope and pray every year on Yom Kippur that G'd accepts our repentance.
This month of Elul exemplifies the special relationship between G'd and the Jewish people. We find that this is hinted to in a verse in Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) (6:3): "I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me." The acronym of the Hebrew words of this verse "ani ledodi vedodi li" spells out the Hebrew name of the month "Elul". During this month, G'd, so to say, makes Himself more easily available to us. The blowing of the shofar and the special prayers are meant to arouse us to pronounce "I am to my Beloved." This is an opportunity for every individual to say "I want to get close to G'd", and G'd's answer is forthcoming as the verse continues "and my Beloved is to me." As the prophet says in the name of G'd (Zechariah 1:3): "Come back to Me … and I will come back to you."
Man and woman
All nations of the world are being judged by the Heavenly Court on Rosh Hashanah. As we way in the Mussaf prayer: "And regarding the states, it is being decided which one will be at war and which one will live in peace, which one will suffer from hunger and which one will be satisfied. And all individuals will be mentioned who will live and who will die." However, only the Jewish people are made aware of this judgment and are given the opportunity to make the effort to prepare themselves for it. This in itself shows the special relationship between G'd and His chosen people. This relationship is so special that King Solomon throughout the Shir HaShirim was Divinely inspired to describe it as the beloved relationship between a man and a woman.
Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner (Nefesh Hachaim 1:8) explains how this special relationship would manifest itself at the time of the Temple. The two cherubim on top of the Holy Ark represented the relationship between G'd and the Jewish nation. He quotes from the Zohar (Vayikra 59b) that the cherubim had the faces of a male and a female. The Talmud (Bava Basra 99a) describes that when the Jewish people kept the commandments, the cherubim miraculously would turn towards each other. Whereas, when they did not keep the commandments, the cherubim would turn away from each other. When the Jewish people merited it, the Talmud (Yoma 54a) says that on the three festivals the curtain in front of the Ark would be opened to reveal how the two cherubim actually embraced, as if to say "See how beloved you are to the Almighty."
Even during our exile, the Holy Day of Shabbat is a weekly reminder of this special relationship, as we say in our Shabbat morning prayer: "You did not give it [the Shabbat], HASHEM our G'd, to the nations of the lands … Only to Israel, Your people, did you give it in love." Already Friday night we express this in the Kabbalistic hymn "Lecha Dodi" welcoming the Shabbat, where we refer to G'd as "my Beloved". With this in mind, we can understand the custom of many communities to recite the entire Shir HaShirim on Friday afternoon prior to the beginning of the Shabbat.
This special relationship is mentioned in this week's Torah portion where the Jewish nation is obligated to follow the commandments of their beloved G'd. As it says (Devarim 26:16-19): "This day HASHEM your G'd commands you to perform these decrees and the statutes … You have chosen HASHEM today to be a G'd for you … And G'd has chosen you today to be for Him a treasured nation … and to make you supreme over all nations … and that you shall be a Holy people to HASHEM your G'd."
The awareness of this special relationship between G'd and His nation has sustained the Jewish people throughout the generations, in good times as in difficult times. It specifically manifested itself when every family would gather around the Shabbat table and forget about the hardships and difficulties they endured during the week. They had no doubt that whatever happened to them was directed by the hand of G'd. They were well aware of the consequences of the verses mentioned later in this week's Torah portion where it says (ibid 28:1-2 and 15): "And it shall be if you will listen to the voice of HASHEM your G'd to observe [and] to perform all His commandments … and HASHEM your G'd will make you supreme over all nations of the land. And all of these blessings will come upon you and reach you because you listened to the voice of HASHEM your G'd … And if you do not listen to the voice of HASHEM your G'd to observe [and] to perform all of His commandments … and all of these curses will come upon you and reach you."
As the Ramban exclaims at the end of Parashas Bo (Shemos 13:16): "We believe that whatever happens to us are all miracles. We are not affected by "nature" or the "ways of the world", neither as a group nor as individuals. If a person performs a commandment, his reward will bring him success. If a person transgresses a commandment, his punishment will cut him down. Everything is decreed from above … as the Torah writes regarding the blessings and curses."
Three books on Rosh Hashanah
An obvious question arises from these words of the Ramban, as we see that many people are living a long, good life despite their transgressions and many observant people suffer despite their piety. A similar question is apparent on the Talmud's teaching regarding the judgment on Rosh Hashanah. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b) says:" Three books are open on Rosh Hashanah: one for the totally righteous; one for the totally wicked; and one for the in-betweens. The totally righteous are inscribed and signed immediately for life. The totally wicked are inscribed and signed immediately for death. The fates of the in-between's are left open till Yom Kippur. If they merit they will be inscribed for life. If they do not, they will be inscribed for death."
Not simple arithmetic
Many of the early commentaries addressed the obvious question that we see many righteous people dying young and many wicked people who live for many years. The Rambam (Laws of Repentance 3:2) explains that the "totally righteous" does not mean a person who has not sinned at all but refers to someone who has more merits than transgressions. Similarly, the "totally wicked" is not someone who only sins and does nothing good; rather, it refers to a person who has more transgressions than merits. However, says the Rambam, the calculation of merits and transgressions is not a simple arithmetic exercise. One merit can outweigh many transgressions; and similarly, one transgression may outweigh many merits. Only G'd Himself knows how to make these calculations, since only G'd knows the details of every person's situation and is able to take all circumstances into His calculations. A person's background and surroundings as well as his present situation all make a difference. G'd may consider something to be a minor merit for one person, as it comes naturally to him. The very same thing may be considered by G'd to be a great merit for another person, as it was only achieved with great difficulty. Similarly, what G'd considers a grave sin for one person, may for another person be considered by G'd to be a minor transgression. A person may be inscribed in the Book of Life and have success in the merit of one good deed that G'd considers a major achievement for this person. And a pious person may be inscribed in the Book of Death due to a wrong decision that, for this individual, is considered a major transgression according to G'd's judgment.
The conduct of Abraham's nephew, Lot, provides a good example of the difficulty of calculating merits and transgressions. When Lot hosted two strangers, the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah demanded that Lot should eject them from his house to be sodomized by the crowd outside (see Bereishis 19:5). We would think that Lot's self-sacrifice to save these strangers was such a great merit, that this in itself should entitle him to be saved from the destruction of Sodom. On the other hand, the fact that Lot did not tell Avimelech that his uncle Abraham, who had adopted Lot after he was orphaned, was actually married to Sarah and was not her brother, we would not consider to be a merit of major significance. However, our sages point out that in fact Lot was saved in the merit of this seemingly minor merit (See Rashi Bereishis 19:29). Rabbi Nathan Zvi Finkel, the Alte of Slabodka, explains that his self-sacrifice for others' well-being was second nature to Lot, since he had been raised in Abraham's house whose main goal in life was to show acts of lovingkindness to his fellow human beings. However, overcoming the temptation of receiving a generous reward was considered to be a great merit for him.
Appeasement and reconciliation
As we approach the Day of Judgment, it is most comforting to know that these very days of judgment are days of appeasement and reconciliation. In His great kindness, G'd has given us the opportunity to restore our loving relationship. The verse starts with the expression "I to my Beloved" expressing the Jewish people's longing to get close to G'd. This is what we express when we blow the shofar throughout the month of Elul, to start our repentance of our past transgressions. And in turn the verse continues, "and my Beloved is to me", we trust that G'd will shower us with His love on the Day of Judgment and inscribe us in the Book of Life.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network