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Torah Attitude: Parashas Shoftim: Repentance, prayer and charity can change the verdict
This Torah Attitude is dedicated to the loving memory of Mr. Lawrence Bain, a caring husband and devoted father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. T.N.Z.B.H.
On Rosh Chodesh Elul and throughout the whole month, we blow the shofar to remind us that the Day of Judgment is approaching. In the Mussaf prayer on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we mention that repentance, prayer and charity changes the harshness of the verdict. A person who dedicates himself to the benefit of the public is judged in the Heavenly Court according to the needs of the community he is serving. One should separate a tenth of one's income to charity. Many people find it difficult to support Kollel students. Levy and his descendants were chosen by G'd to be servants of the public, supported by their fellow Jews. The tribe of Levy stood steadfast in their belief, never did any member of Levy serve idols. Despite that most of the Jewish people in Egypt served idols, they continued to support the tribe of Levy, even during the harshest times of slavery. The tribe of Levy was prohibited from having an inheritance in the land of Canaan and did not share in the spoils from the cities that were conquered when the Jewish people entered the land of Israel. This teaches us the importance to sustain a group of people like the Levites who dedicate themselves totally to serve G'd and study His Torah. With our repentance, prayers and giving charity we affect not only our own personal situation on the Day of Judgment, but the entire world.
Rosh Chodesh Elul
This past Shabbos and Sunday, it was Rosh Chodesh Elul. The Tour (Orach Chaim Chapter 581) quotes from Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer that on Rosh Chodesh Elul G'd instructed Moses to ascend Mount Sinai for fourty days to receive the second set of tablets. In order to ensure that no one would make a mistake when to expect Moses to descend, a shofar was blown to notify everyone that Moses was beginning his ascent. Our sages, therefore, instituted that every year on Rosh Chodesh Elul and throughout the whole month, we blow shofar to remind us that the Day of Judgment is approaching. Now is the time to turn around and repent. In the Sephardi congregations, special Selichos prayers are recited throughout the whole month, whereas the Ashkenazi custom is to say these prayers only in the last days before Rosh Hashanah.
Our opportunity to repent and do teshuvah is unique. No judge has the authority to erase an accusation, even if the accused repents and expresses regret for his transgression, and acknowledges that he was totally wrong. No doubt the judge will be more lenient due to the remorse of the accused, but he cannot wipe his slate clean. Only G'd, in His great mercy, accepts the repentant person and encourages everyone to repent. As the Prophet Hoshea (14:2) says, "Repent Israel to HASHEM your G'd, for you have stumbled with your sins." The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b) teaches that besides repentance we have two additional tools to change our situation. As we say in unison during the Mussaf prayer on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: "Repentance, prayer and charity change the harshness of the verdict." In the Midrash Rabbah (Bereishis 44:5-13) it says an even stronger statement, that these three "things" actually have the power to annul a Heavenly decree.
We can well understand that when we repent and pray for mercy we can change our verdict. But why is giving charity better than the fulfillment of any of the other 613 commandments? We can answer this question with an insight that Rabbi Simchah Zisel of Kelm used to teach before the High Holidays. He explained that when we dedicate ourselves to the benefit of the public, we are not being judged in the Heavenly Court as individuals, but rather our judgment will be according to the needs of the community we serve.
Sick person cleans synagogue
Someone once approached one of the great disciples from Kelm, Rabbi Yecheskel Lewenstein, the Mashgiach in the Mirrer Yeshiva and later in Ponevez Yeshiva, to request a blessing for a sick person. Rabbi Lewenstein suggested that the sick person should undertake to teach Torah lessons to other people. He was told that the sick person was not capable to teach others Torah. He then suggested that he should undertake to clean the synagogue where he was praying, so that he was of service to the public. The sick person accepted the Mashgiach's advice and had a full recovery.
In the same way, someone who dispenses charity to others assists them with their needs and becomes a public servant to the community. This changes his status from being judged as an individual to being judged as a public servant. Obviously, this has the power to change his verdict. In the month of Elul, it is therefore especially important to be generous and dispense charity to the poor. The poor benefit with their needs for the approaching holidays, and at the same time it enhances the position of those who dispense charity before the time of judgment.
Get rich by giving
The Chofetz Chaim (Ahavas Chesed 2:18-19) rules that one should set aside one-tenth of one's net income for charity. He explains that one's first priority is to look after the needy of one's immediate family. Secondly, one should support Torah scholars. It says in last week's parasha (Devarim 14:22): "You shall tithe all the crop of your planting." The Midrash Tanchuma (18) points out that the Torah uses a double expression "aser te'aser". The Midrash explains that the word "te'aser" could also be read as "te'asher" which means "become rich". Says the Midrash, "Give tithe and become rich, and you shall not lack." The Midrash concludes that although the Torah is instructing us to take tithe when we harvest, it is also a hint that one should separate a tenth of one's income to support those who toil in Torah studies.
Supporting Kollel students
Many people do not understand why they should support Kollel students who spend their days studying Torah. These people feel that everyone should work to provide for themselves and their families. How can one just rely on the support of the more affluent? They can understand that teenagers need to be educated in Yeshivot for a number of years, and that it is the obligation of the community to support these institutions in order to give the students from poor families an opportunity to study Torah. But once these young people get married and start their own families should they not join the workforce and become self-supporting, rather than sitting in a Kollel spending the entire day in Torah study?
Levy receives donations
We might be able to gain a better understanding of the necessity to support the Kollelim based on what it says in this week's parasha (Devarim 18:1-5): "There shall not be a portion and inheritance for … the entire tribe of Levy … G'd is his inheritance … for him has G'd chosen from all your tribes to stand and serve in the name of G'd … all the days." Right from his birth, Levy and his descendants were chosen by G'd to be servants of the public, supported by their fellow Jews. Rashi (Bereishis 29:34) quotes from our sages that G'd Himself gave Levy his name and presented him with twenty-four kinds of donations given by the Jewish people to the Kohanim and the Levites. The actual name "Levy", says Rashi, translates as "the one who is being assisted with donations."
Levy steadfast belief
The Rambam (Laws of Idol Worship, Chapter 1) describes how Abraham came to believe in G'd, and how he taught his followers and explained why idol worship is wrong. Eventually, says the Rambam, Abraham had tens of thousands of students and he instilled in them the truth about serving the Creator. The Rambam continues to relate how Abraham taught Isaac everything he knew, and he saw to it that Isaac would succeed him. Isaac in turn taught Jacob all he had learned from Abraham and appointed him to continue to teach about Monotheism. Jacob continued to teach his children and followers. Later, he appointed Levy to head the academy and teach the ways of G'd and how to keep the commandments that Abraham had passed on. He impressed upon his children that they should always appoint someone from the tribe of Levy to be in charge to ensure that this knowledge would not be forgotten. This, says the Rambam, continued for many years. But as the growing Jewish nation went through the exile in Egypt, many were influenced by the Egyptians and started serving idols. However, the tribe of Levy stood steadfast in their belief. The Rambam concludes that never did any member of the tribe of Levy serve idols.
Jewish people support Levy
Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian points out that despite that most of the Jewish people in Egypt served idols, they continued to support the tribe of Levy, even during the harshest times of slavery. They remembered and understood the importance to keep up this academy of Torah as they had been instructed by Jacob. Later, throughout the sojourn in the wilderness, we see how the tribe of Levy continued to excel and in general did not sin with the rest of the Jewish nation. They did not participate at the golden calf, and when Moses came back into the camp and exclaimed "Whoever is for G'd come to me!", all the Levites responded and gathered around him immediately (see Shemos 32:26). Towards the end of the sojourn, after Aaron's death, the Jewish people got scared and started to return to Egypt. Again, the Levites were the ones who were strong in their faith. A whole battle erupted between the Levites and the rest of the Jewish people, till the Levites forced them to proceed to the land of Israel (see Rashi Devarim 10:6).
No inheritance to Levy
It is no wonder that G'd separated the tribe of Levy from the rest of the nation, and they were never counted together with the other tribes. As Rashi (Bamidbar 1:49) writes, "The legion of the King are worthy of being counted separately." The Rambam (end of the Laws of Shemitah) quotes the above-mentioned verses from this week's parasha. He explains that the entire tribe of Levy did not have any inheritance in the land of Canaan. Neither did they have any share in the spoils from the cities that were conquered when the Jewish people entered the land of Israel. Says the Rambam, "And why did Levy not receive an inheritance in the land of Israel and did not get a portion of the spoils together with his brothers? For he has been separated to serve G'd … and to teach His straight ways and His righteous statutes to the multitudes. As it says (Devarim 33:10), 'They shall teach Your statutes to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel.' Therefore, they were separated from the regular ways of the world. They do not wage war like the rest of the Jewish people. They neither have an inheritance nor do they acquire anything by their physical strength. For they are G'd's army. As it says (ibid 11), 'G'd shall bless His army.' He acquires their needs for them. As it says (Bamidbar 18:20), 'I am your share and inheritance.'" Continues the Rambam, "This does not only apply to the tribe of Levy. Rather, any individual in the world who desires to separate himself to rise and serve G'd … And he throws off the yoke of calculations that people in general make, such a person can sanctify himself to the highest level of holiness. G'd will be his share and inheritance forever, and will make sure that he has what he needs just like G'd did for the Kohanim and Levites."
Support service of G'd and Torah study
This teaches us the importance to sustain a group of people like the Levites who dedicate themselves totally to serve G'd and study His Torah. For they guarantee our continuity and survival under any circumstances. Wherever we have lived, G'd has miraculously provided us with Torah scholars to teach and guide the Jewish people. A lot more than the Jewish people support them, they support us. For without them, we would not survive as a nation. The Talmud (Pesachim 68b) teaches that not only the Jewish people is secured by them. As a matter of fact, the whole world only exists as long as there are people studying the Torah. As it says (Jeremiah 33:25), "If not for My covenant [of Torah] day and night, I would not establish the laws [of nature] of the world."
Repentance, prayers and charity
We live in a time of insecurity with dangers lurking worldwide. The financial markets of the world are very volatile, adding financial insecurity to the insecurity due to the threat of wars and terrorist attacks. Our sages have taught that through repentance, prayers and giving charity, we affect both our own personal situation on the Day of Judgment, as well as the general situation in the world. May we rise to our responsibility and fulfill our obligations to ensure that the coming year will bring peace and prosperity to the Jewish people and the rest of the world.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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