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Torah Attitude: Parashas Va'Eschanan/ Shabbos Nachamu: How to love G'd
We have to serve G'd with both our good and evil inclinations. We serve G'd with our evil inclination when we overcome our challenges that it gives us. Both positive and negative character traits can be utilized at the appropriate time and in the appropriate measure to serve G'd. When the great Rabbi Akiva was taken out by the Romans to be executed the Talmud relates that he was smiling and seemed to be in a pleasant mood. The famous Count Walenty Potocki was condemned by the Church to be burned at the stake. The Chofetz Chaim used to pray to G'd that he should merit to give up his life to sanctify G'd's name. "This world is like an antechamber before the World to Come. Prepare yourself in the antechamber in order that you can enter the banquet hall." These great people knew that they had nothing to lose by giving up their lives for the honour of G'd and His Torah. We are obligated to love G'd both when He treats us with goodness and when He gives us difficulties. A person's situation is in accordance with his purpose in life. The righteous person who succeeds has been blessed with his resources so that he can be charitable and extend himself to others. The righteous person who is enduring one difficulty after another must understand that this is given to him as a challenge in order to provide him with extra reward in the World to Come. In order that we live up to the high ideals that are expected of us, we must always keep in mind G'd's unconditional love for us.
Serve with good and evil inclinations
In this week's Parasha we read the first paragraph of Shema. There we are commanded to love G'd, as it says (Devarim 5:5): "And you shall love HASHEM Your G'd with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources." The Hebrew word for "your heart" could be written as "leebcha" with just one letter "beis" (see Shemos 9:14). But in the above verse it says "levavcha" with two letters "beis". Rashi quotes from the Talmud (Berachos 54a) that this spelling comes to teach us that we have to serve G'd with both our good and evil inclinations. For both inclinations are connected to the heart, as the heart is considered the seat of a person's aspirations and cravings. However, an obvious question arises. We can understand that we shall serve G'd with our good inclination, as we aspire to do the will of G'd and fulfill His commandments. But how do we serve G'd with our evil inclination that incites us to give in to our physical cravings and do what we feel like?
Rabbeinu Yonah explains that we serve G'd with our evil inclination, when we overcome our challenges that it gives us. G'd rewards us no less for controlling ourselves not to listen to our evil inclination than for following the directives of our good inclination. Sometimes the reward for not giving in to our cravings is even greater than for doing what is right. It all depends on what requires more effort, for, as the Mishnah says in Pirkei Avos (5:6): "The reward is according to the difficulty."
Positive and negative character traits
Rabbeinu Yonah mentions another way how to understand our obligation to serve G'd with both inclinations. The good inclination represents what in general are considered positive character traits. And the evil inclination represents what are usually considered negative character traits. In truth, every character trait can be utilized at the appropriate time and in the appropriate measure to serve G'd. Rabbeinu Yonah uses kindness and cruelty as an example. There are situations where a person has to force himself to do what under normal circumstances would be considered cruel. And sometimes it would be a crime to show kindness and mercy. King Solomon addresses this as he says (Koheles 7:16): "Do not be overly righteous." The Midrash Rabbah (ibid) gives an example of such a situation from the Book of Shmuel (1:15:8-9). There it is described how King Saul took pity on Agog, the wicked king of Amalek, and refrained from killing him contrary to the instructions of the Prophet Shmuel in the name of G'd. The Midrash says that someone who shows mercy to a cruel person will eventually show cruelty to a kind person. This is exactly what happened to King Saul who later wiped out the entire town of Nov, a town full of righteous kohanim as related in the Book of Shmuel (1:22:18-19).
Character trait and measurement
Rabbi Avraham Pam, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath New York, once observed that the Hebrew word "midah" can be translated both as "character trait" and as "measurement". This, said Rabbi Pam, is to teach us that every character trait must be used in its right measure.
Use every character trait
The Torah obligates us to serve G'd with every character trait we possess and in this way to express our love for G'd. In order to accomplish this we must desire to do what is right and overcome our personal bias and cravings. Only then will we be able to use our various character traits in an objective fashion to do G'd's will.
The Talmud continues to explain that when the Torah commands us to love G'd with all our soul, in general it refers to if we are confronted with one of the three cardinal sins. In such a case we are expected to give up our life rather than to transgress any of them. There are some special circumstances when it even applies to other transgressions. When the great Rabbi Akiva was taken out by the Romans to be executed the Talmud (Berachos 61b; see also Jerusalem Talmud ibid) relates that he was smiling and seemed to be in a pleasant mood. When his students asked him how this could be, he said to them, "All my life I was pained by what it says, 'And you shall love G'd … with all your soul', and I was thinking when will I have the opportunity to fulfill this. Now that I have been given this opportunity should I not be pleased?"
The famous convert, Count Walenty Potocki, who became known as Avraham ben Avraham, was condemned by the Church to be burned at the stake. The Vilna Gaon sent him a message that he had the ability to save him, but this righteous convert answered that he was ready to give up his life for the truth he had found in serving G'd.
People who were close to the Chofetz Chaim relate that they used to hear how he would pray to G'd that he should merit to give up his life to sanctify G'd's name.
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (4:21) says, "This world is like an antechamber before the World to Come. Prepare yourself in the antechamber in order that you can enter the banquet hall." Only a person who lives with an awareness of the words of this Mishnah is capable to sacrifice his life for the honour of G'd. Most of us live with a disproportionate feeling of importance of this world. We therefore find it difficult to consider it just an antechamber with the sole purpose to prepare ourselves for the World to Come.
Game of dice
But these great people knew that they had nothing to lose by giving up their lives for the honour of G'd and His Torah. It is like in a game of dice where the lucky participant with one throw of the dice reaches the final point of the game and comes out as the big winner.
Good and difficult treatments
The Talmud continues to explain that "with all your resources" is just one way to translate the Hebrew words "uvechol meodecha". It can also be translated as "with whatever G'd treats you." We are obligated to love G'd both when He treats us with goodness and when He gives us difficulties. We find a similar idea in Tehillim (23:4), where King David says: "Your rod and your staff, they comfort me." We can well understand why we feel comforted when G'd leads us with a gentle staff. But how can it be a comfort when G'd punishes us with His rod? The answer is that we are aware that both the rod and the staff belong to G'd, our Merciful Shepherd, Who only wants what is best for us. We understand and appreciate that when He uses the rod, it is only to guide us back to the right path where we should be.
Purpose in life
We come across righteous people who are successful. They have what they need and live a good and pleasant life. On the other hand, we find people no less righteous who go from one difficulty to the next and suffer illnesses and financial problems all the time. The Talmud (Moed Katan 28a) explains that not everything in life is based on a person's merits. Rather, a person's situation is according to his purpose in life. Every person is born at the exact time that corresponds to his purpose, and his situation in life will be accordingly. The Zohar (Vayeishev 181a) elaborates on this and explains that both the one who succeeds and the one who suffers may be equally righteous.
Extend to others
With this insight, we can understand the two translations of "uvechol meodecha". The righteous person who succeeds is being commanded to express his love for G'd with all his resources. He must understand that being blessed with success is not just for his personal benefit, and the benefit of his immediate family. He was blessed with his resources so that he can be charitable and extend himself to others. This is one of the Torah's lessons, when it says (Devarim 15:7-10): "When there is a poor person among you … you shall surely give him, and your heart shall not feel bad when you give him. For it is for this purpose that HASHEM your G'd blesses you in all your deeds and in all your doings."
But for the righteous person who is enduring one difficulty after another, the other translation applies. He is instructed to love G'd even when he is treated with difficulties. The Talmud (Berachos 5a) teaches that when a person is suffering he must conduct a thorough introspection and analyze his deeds. If it is a man, who is obligated to study Torah and he does not find anything he needs to change, he should assume that he is suffering because he is lacking in his study of Torah. If it is a woman who is suffering, since she is not obligated to study Torah like a man, she should make sure that she does not cause her husband or sons to lack in their Torah study. If this is not the case, then one can feel secure that G'd only lets this suffering happen out of love. This kind of suffering is not a punishment. On the contrary, this is given to a person as a challenge in order to provide him with extra reward in the World to Come. Such a person should feel privileged that G'd trusts that he can endure his suffering without losing his faith. And he must remember that only because of his righteousness has he been chosen for this opportunity. As it says in Tehillim (11:5): "G'd tests the righteous."
G'd's unconditional love
From all of the above we see that the obligation to love G'd can sometimes be very difficult. In order for us to live up to the high ideals that are expected of us, we must always keep in mind G'd's unconditional love for us. Whatever we are doing G'd loves us, sustains us and provides us with all our basic needs. This is what we express in the blessing before Shema both in the morning and at night, as we mention G'd's love for the Jewish people. All that is expected of us is to reciprocate, and live up to our potential.
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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