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Parshas Reeh

I think I can't, I think I can't
by Rabbi Yosef Levinson

"You cannot eat in your cities ma'aser (sheini)… and the first born,…and all your vow offerings" (Devarim 12:17).

The Torah commands us to eat ma'aser sheini (the second tithe) and all korbanos (offerings) only in Yerushalayim. This restriction involves both a mitzva asei (positive mitzva), we must eat these sacred foods in Yerushalayim, and also a lo sa'aseh (negative commandment), we are forbidden to eat ma'aser sheini and korbanos outside of Yerushalayim. The wording that the Torah uses for this lo sa'aseh is very unusual - "You 'cannot' eat". This term implies that it is physically impossible to eat these foods outside the Holy City. Rashi is quick to point out that it is clearly possible for one to partake of these foods in any place. Therefore, he explains, the Torah only means that we are not permitted to eat them. Still, if the Torah altered its usual language, it must be to teach us a lesson.

The term "one cannot do" something, can be used in one of two ways. If one would say "I cannot hold a car over my head" or "I cannot punch a hole through a brick wall with my bare hand", they are stating the literal truth. These are impossible feats. But one might also say, "I cannot put my hand into a fire" or "I cannot jump from a skyscraper". Both of these acts are literally possible, however, the usage of the word "cannot" is still considered appropriate. This is because the consequences of exposing one's hand to fire or jumping from a building are obvious and one is able to picture them vividly. Ultimately, fear and trepidation would paralyze one to the point that they cannot physically jump from a building.

This is the meaning of our passuk. The Torah is advising us that in our battle against the yetzer hara (evil inclination) we should envision damage to our neshama and the retribution that we will face in the afterlife if we give in to our temptations. Rabbi Eliyahu Meir Bloch zt'l of Telz adds that there are many things that we 'cannot' do if we know that people are watching. Our sense of shame and embarrassment holds us back. Similarly, "Shivisi Hashem l'negdi tamid" - we must perceive that we are constantly in Hashem's presence (Tehillim). We cannot sin when we are before Him.

R' Itzele Petersburger (Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer, disciple of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter and author of Kochvei Or) asks: "Why is it that fear from danger and harm in this world is a natural instinct and beyond our control, yet fear of sin does not come naturally?" We would not dare to put our hand into a fire because we fully understand the outcome of this act. The same should apply in regard to aveiros (sins). Reward for observance of the mitzvos and punishment for sinning is a fundamental belief in Judaism. We are taught that the fires of Gehinom are sixty times stronger than earthly fire. However, while we run from danger in this life, we are more lax in our fear of punishment in the Afterlife.

R' Itzele explains that bechira (free will) is the foundation of the Torah. As the Rambam writes, "If it is predetermined who will be righteous and who will be wicked, then observance of the Torah would be meaningless. How could Hashem reward the tzadikim and punish the resha'im (wicked)?" (Hilchos Teshuva ch.5). Therefore even though our understanding of reward and punishment should instill fear within us, Hashem removed this natural instinct, which would otherwise have hindered our free will making it impossible to sin with the knowledge that Hashem will punish us for our actions.

However, when we decide to study works of mussar (ethics) and to reflect on Yiras Shamayim (fear of Heaven), then our efforts will bear fruit. It will become impossible for us to sin against Hashem. This does not conflict with our bechira, for it was our choice to instill ourselves with fear. So too, when we reflect on the consequences of sinning, then we will come to the realisation that we CANNOT transgress the ways of Torah.

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