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Torah Attitude: Parashas Nitzavim/Vayeilech: All children of one Father
The Vilna Gaon instructed the innkeeper that he may not serve the secular patron unless he agreed to make a blessing before consuming his drink. Many people make the same mistake as that secular patron, believing that they can choose to avoid adhering to the laws of the Torah and to be affected by the consequences described in the Torah for transgressing the commandments. With the knowledge that G'd is our loving Father, Who only wants the best for His children, we accept and believe that every part of the Torah is for our benefit. The Talmud states that whoever has the ability to admonish another Jewish person or group of people, and refrains from doing so, it is considered as his personal transgression. In a community where there are many non-observant Jewish people around a person, and he had the ability to make a difference in their level of observance, he will be accused before the Heavenly Court and must bear the responsibility for their transgressions. As we are all children of one Father we owe it both to our siblings and to our Father to ensure that the whole family is united in a life of harmony and peace.
The Vilna Gaon and the patron
Rav Chaim of Valozhin (Keser Rosh printed in the back of Siddur Hagra) once related how his teacher, the Vilna Gaon, was sitting and learning at an inn during a trip. A total secular Jew entered the inn and requested a drink. As the Gaon noticed the secular appearance of the patron, he instructed the innkeeper that he may not serve this patron unless he agreed to make a blessing before consuming his drink. The patron refused to say the blessing over the drink and remarked that it made no sense for him to make a blessing. He said, "My lifestyle is totally secular. I conduct myself like any gentile and never make any blessings." The Vilna Gaon told him, "You are acting like a total fool. Just because you live a secular lifestyle, and transgress serious commandments, you are still obligated to fulfill even a minute detail of any commandment, just like any other Jew. Don't for one minute think that the major punishment awaiting you will free you from the minor transgressions. Even if you deny the existence of G'd, you will be punished for all your evil until your soul is purified. You are a descendant of Abraham and that will never change. As such, you are still part of the blessing that G'd said to Abraham (Bereishis 12-3): 'I will make you into a mighty nation … and all the families of the earth shall be blessed by you."' When the patron heard this very clear message, he became very shaken. He resolved on the spot to turn his lifestyle around and became a fully observant, G'd-fearing Jew.
Many people make the same mistake as that secular patron, believing that they can choose to live a secular life and avoid adhering to the laws of the Torah and being affected by the consequences described in the Torah for transgressing the commandments. In this week's Torah portion, Moses is concluding his final speech to the Jewish people and he clearly warns against such an attitude. As he says, (Devarim 29:9-19) "You are all standing today before HASHEM your G'd … to pass through [i.e. to make] a covenant [with] HASHEM your G'd … and [to accept] His curse [if you break the covenant] … Not only with you do I make this covenant … but with whoever is here standing with us today before HASHEM our G'd and with those who are not with us today [i.e. future generations] … Perhaps there is among you a man or woman, a family or tribe, whose heart turns away today from being with HASHEM our G'd … And it will be when he hears the words of this curse and he blesses himself in his heart, saying 'peace will be with me, for I walk as my heart sees fit" … G'd will not be willing to forgive him … And all the curses written in this Book will come down upon him."
The Torah clearly teaches that it is not up to the Jewish individual or family to decide whether they want to be part of the Torah society and affected by the word of G'd outlined in the Torah. This is to be compared to a loving and caring father who knows well the perils and dangers of the world, and makes arrangements with his children to secure their future life. The inexperienced children may have difficulty understanding why the father is so strict and restricts them from many activities others seem to enjoy. Only the father, with his life experience and vast knowledge, knows that with these restrictions he provides them with a long, good life. Similarly, G'd has chosen the Jewish people as His special children, as it says (Shemos 4:22): "So says G'd. My firstborn son Israel (see Rashi ibid). He has blessed us with His many blessings from the time of our Patriarch Abraham and throughout the Torah. In addition to this he has commanded us to live an elevated lifestyle that includes many restrictions and prohibitions. We may not always appreciate and understand the purpose of these restrictions and prohibitions, and the severe consequences from transgressing them. However, with the knowledge that G'd is our loving Father, Who only wants the best for His children, we accept and believe that every part of the Torah is for our benefit.
Responsibility for each other
The rebuke given by the Vilna Gaon to a total stranger teaches us an additional lesson of the responsibility we have for each other. Just as the secular Jew will not get away with saying "peace will be with me for I walk as my heart sees fit", so may the observant Jew not say "peace will be with me as long as I walk in the ways of the Torah; it is not my problem what everybody else does." The Talmud (Shabbat 54b) states that whoever has the ability to admonish another Jewish person or group of people, and refrains from doing so, whatever they do wrong will be considered as his transgression.
Chofetz Chaim's warning
The Chofetz Chaim once warned how a pious Jew may come before the Heavenly Court and be accused of violating the Torah. First, the court accuses him of desecrating the Shabbat. The person responds, "There must be a mistake. I have always been extremely careful to observe every law of Shabbat. Several times I even lost my job as I refused to work on the Holy Shabbat." The Heavenly Accuser does not acknowledge his protest but continues to bring an accusation for not observing the dietary laws. "What", says the bewildered man, "is this the world of truth? All my life I only bought Glatt kosher meat and was very careful using only those products with the most reliable supervision." The Accuser still ignores his protest and continues with the list of accusations. Finally, the Heavenly Court explains to the frustrated accused that it is correct that he himself in his personal life was extremely careful to observe the Torah commandments. However, there were many non-observant Jewish people around him in his family and community and he could have made a difference in their level of observance had he taken advantage of opportunities to address their shortcomings. He was being accused by the Heavenly Court for his responsibility for their transgressions.
All children of one Father
This is what the Torah continues to state in this week's portion (Devarim 29:28): "The hidden [sins] are for HASHEM our G'd, and the revealed [sins] are for us …" As Rashi quotes from the Talmud (Sotah 37b): "If a person sins in private, his fellow Jew cannot be held responsible for something he has no knowledge of. G'd will deal directly with the person who committed those sins. But for sins committed in public or known to others, it is the responsibility of every Jew to try and influence their fellow Jew to return to the ways of the Torah." We are all children of one Father and we owe it both to our siblings and to our Father to ensure that the whole family is united in a life of harmony and peace. As we approach Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, it is the obligation of each of us to internalize this timely message of the Torah, thereby helping to ensure that we, together with the whole Jewish nation, will be inscribed in the Book of Life, to a year of peace and harmony for everyone. Amen.
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