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Torah Attitude: Parashas Ki Savo: How to strengthen our belief in G'd
During the month of Elul we have a special opportunity to do teshuvah (repent) and get closer to G'd. The very first commandment the Rambam enumerates is our obligation to believe that G'd, the Creator of the World, is the Source of everything that happens continually. "To believe in G'd" is the solid foundation upon which every other commandment is based. The Mechilta elaborates on this with a parable regarding a king who took over a country. Belief in G'd is one of six commandments that we are obligated to fulfill on a constant basis. "An ox knows its owner and a donkey its master's trough. Israel does not know. My people does not think." The objective observer of creation will instantly know that there must be a Creator behind it. It is not sufficient to have the intellectual knowledge of G'd's sovereign power but we must take it to heart as well and internalize it. When we pray to G'd, and we put our heart into it, it helps us internalize our belief in G'd and connect with Him. If we put more effort into our prayers and understand what we saying, we will realize that it is an opportunity to connect with G'd on a personal level. Our prayer can be a powerful tool that helps us to strengthen our belief in G'd.
Special effort to do teshuvah
We discussed last week how the seven weeks of comfort take us into the month of Elul. We explained that accepting comfort is not sufficient. Rather, we must make an effort to do whatever we can to get out of our long and bitter exile, and return to G'd and His service. Although this should be on our mind throughout the year, nevertheless during the month of Elul we have a special opportunity to do teshuvah (repent) and get closer to G'd. We all want to do what is right but the task ahead of us seems overwhelming. There are many things we need to change or improve, so where do we start?
The first commandment
The Rambam in his Book of the Commandments reviews each commandment one by one. The very first commandment the Rambam enumerates is our obligation to believe that G'd, the Creator of the World, is the Source of everything that happens continually. He explains that this is the underlying thought of the first of the Ten Commandments when G'd said (Shemos 20:2): "I am HASHEM your G'd." This is the foundation of all the commandments, for if someone does not believe in G'd why would he fulfill His commandments? And if a person only follows peer pressure or parental instructions without having a personal belief in G'd, chances are that as soon as the opportunity arises he will cease to observe the commandments.
Belief in G'd is a solid foundation
The Talmud (Makkos 24a) relates that various prophets instructed the Jewish people to focus on a number of specific commandments and from there develop a commitment for complete observance of all commandments. As the generations became spiritually weaker, there was a need to narrow-down the number of commandments that the Jewish people should start to focus on. The last prophet that the Talmud mentions is Habakkuk who narrowed it down to one single commandment, "to believe in G'd" (see Habakkuk 2:4). This is the solid foundation upon which every other commandment is based.
New king parable
The Mechilta (Shemos 20:3) elaborates on this with a parable regarding a king who took over a country. The new subjects requested that the king should present them with his laws. The king said to them, "First, you must accept my sovereign authority. Only then will I present you with my laws. For if you do not accept my authority, why would you follow my laws."
The Sefer HaChinuch explains that belief in G'd is one of six commandments that we are obligated to fulfill on a constant basis. In this way it will affect everything we do. As King Solomon says, "Mishlei 3:5): "In all your ways acknowledge Him." But we still need to clarify what we can do to firmly establish this belief and strengthen it.
Ox and donkey know
On the third Shabbos of the three weeks of mourning, we read in the Haftorah the prophecy of Isaiah (1:3), as he chastises the Jewish people and says, "An ox knows its owner and a donkey its master's trough. Israel does not know. My people does not think." This is a serious accusation against the Jewish people. The simple animals who lack intelligence know their masters and where they belong. How can it be that the Jewish people, who, as part of mankind, have been blessed with intelligence and understanding, do not recognize their master and forget where they belong? However, an obvious question arises. The ox and the donkey do not exercise free will and choose to go to their master and his trough. They simply do this by instinct. It is true that man was blessed with intelligence, but he was given an evil inclination that he must battle to overcome in order to choose what is right. Only then will he be able to acknowledge his master. So what is the justification for the prophet's accusation?
Rabbi Eliahu Lopian explains that the objective observer of creation clearly sees that there must be a Creator behind it. This is what King David expresses (Tehillim 19:2): "The heavens declare the glory of G'd and the sky tells His handiwork." G'd created us with objective minds and left it to us to develop them. But often we get influenced by other beliefs and ideals and become subjective in our outlook. As King Solomon says, (Koheles 7:29): "G'd created man straight and they sought many reckonings." Our original objective straightness allows us to recognize G'd instinctively no less than the animals know their master. But we stray away from this objective straightness when we follow other ideals rather than recognizing our real Master. And this is what Isaiah complains about. The prophet continues and explains that this has caused the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent exile. As he says (Isaiah 1:7): "Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire. Your land, strangers consume it in front of you." First of all, we must acknowledge that we have erred. And then it is up to us to rectify our wrongdoing by recognizing G'd and acknowledge Him as our Master. As we read in Parashas Va'Eschanan, the first week of the seven week's of comfort (Devarim 4:39): "And you shall know today, and you shall take it to your heart, that HASHEM, He is G'd in the Heavens above and on the earth below. There is none else."
Take it to heart
Rabbi Israel Salanter points out that this verse first speaks about knowing and then taking our knowledge to heart. This teaches us that it is not sufficient to have the intellectual knowledge of G'd's sovereign power, but we must take it to heart as well and internalize it. He explains that intellectual knowledge has no more effect on a person's actions and behaviour than the knowledge of another individual.
So what tool do we have to help us internalize our belief in G'd and take it to heart? In the second portion of Shema that we read in the second week of comfort (Parashas Eikev, Devarim 11:13) we are instructed to serve G'd with our hearts. Rashi explains, in the name of the Talmud (Taanis 2a), that this refers to our prayers. When we pray to G'd, and we put our heart into it, it helps us internalize our belief in G'd and connect with Him. However, if we examine the need for prayer it seems superfluous. Why do we need to pray to G'd? Surely He knows better than us what our needs are and what is good for us? I once heard an explanation that prayer is the nourishment for the soul, similar to the food that we intake to nourish the body. We need to pray three times a day to remind ourselves that we can accomplish nothing without Divine assistance. It is not G'd that needs our prayers, it is us, for through our prayers we strengthen our belief in G'd and get closer to Him.
Morning, afternoon and evening prayers
We start our day with the morning prayers, when we thank G'd for returning our souls and helping us to wake up refreshed. At the same time, we ask for His assistance in the various tasks ahead of us throughout the day. In the middle of the day, we stop and pray the Minchah service as to remind us that all our endeavours would not succeed without G'd's assistance and help. And finally, at the end of the day, in our evening prayer, we thank G'd for His help in everything we have been involved in and ask Him to look after us in the darkness of the night.
If we keep this in mind, our prayer will be a powerful tool that helps us to strengthen our belief in G'd, not only as the Creator of the world and the Caretaker who maintains it, but also on a personal level. It reminds us that whatever we need to accomplish G'd is the source for us to turn. If we put more effort into our prayers and understand what we saying, we will realize that it is an opportunity to connect with G'd on a personal level. At the same time we will strengthen our belief in G'd and get closer to Him. This is the every first step in the job ahead of us throughout the month of Elul. And on this foundation we can build further and strengthen every other area of our observance of His commandments.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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