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PARSHAS NITZAVIMSee - I have placed before you today the life and the good, and the death and the evil. (30:15)
The Torah informs us that the choice between a life devoted to Torah principles versus one that is not is tantamount to the choice between life and death. Two lessons are to be derived from this pasuk. First, Torah is the path to life; a life without Torah is the path to death. It is as simple as that. Torah is equated with good and life. No Torah is compared to evil and death. Second, the choices are equal. Torah is pure life; no Torah is pure death. They are commensurate. No grey areas exist. It is all black and white.
In his early years, Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, would gather the young boys of the neighborhood and learn with them. He would warm their spirits with his captivating stories, and his inspiring talks would infuse them with faith. It was a small group, which met on a regular basis. One day, one of the boys did not appear for class. Naturally, the next day, Rav Sholom asked the boy, "Where were you yesterday?" The boy replied, "Rebbe, the truth of the matter is that I love to learn, and I greatly enjoy attending the shiur. There is one thing, however, which I love and enjoy even more than the shiur; this is the sport of soccer. Yesterday, there was a soccer game. I gave it precedence over the shiur."
The boy was straightforward. He told the truth, hiding nothing. He enjoyed his sports more than he did his Torah study. This did not mean that he did not enjoy his Torah lessons. It is just that they were second to soccer. Rav Sholom listened to the boy and replied, "I always thought that there was nothing sweeter than Torah. Now, you tell me that soccer is even sweeter. This is incredible. Tell me about this soccer game. I would like to understand it."
The boy began to explain the objective of a football game. He was quite knowledgeable, explaining that the objective of each team was to get the ball across the goal of the other team. Rav Sholom asked about the score and the length of time played. The boy explained that the home team had won with a score of two to one and that the game had lasted ninety minutes. Rav Sholom began to think out loud, "Hmm, three points; ninety minutes. I have a thought. Is there a field nearby?" "Yes," answered the boy. "Good," said Rav Sholom. "Tomorrow, after the shiur, you and I will go out to the field. Now, let us learn."
They came to the field, where Rav Sholom announced, "Torah gives a person the ability to think more astutely. I have been able to conceive a way to score thirty points in half an hour, ninety points in an entire game." The boy, of course, did not believe what his rebbe was saying. Such a score was practically impossible. Rav Sholom was adamant. He said that he would show him that it was possible.
Rav Sholom told the boy to kick the ball toward the goal. Since it would take about one minute to kick the ball and retrieve it, in the space of ninety minutes, the score would reach ninety points. "But, rebbe," the boy countered, "such points do not count. First, there is no opposing team to block the ball from reaching the goal, and, even if the ball gets past the members of the team, there is a goalie that will block the ball from reaching the goal."
"Oh," said Rav Sholom. "Now I understand, but now, I would like you also to understand. Learning is sweeter than honey. To experience the precious nature of Torah, one must study when there is a challenge - like when there is a soccer game that competes with one's time. The sweetness of such study becomes intrinsically more valuable. When one must give something up for Torah, its study becomes more meaningful. Furthermore, similar to soccer, in which the playing field must be even, with each team requiring eleven players, likewise, we find that the greater one is, so, too, the stronger is his yetzer hora, evil-inclination. The challenge must be equal."
Everyone is confronted with the challenge, a challenge in which each side has equal power. The winner receives nothing less than life - the loser nothing less than death. When the stakes are so high and the opposing team is so strong, one must work hard to win, but his first priority is u'bacharta ba'chayim, choose life. One must know wherein lie his goals. He could be a great player, but if he hits the wrong goal post, he has, sadly, lost the game.
The yetzer hora knows that our time is a limited gift from Hashem. If it can convince us to waste this precious time, it has won a good part of the battle. When the Telshe Rosh Yeshivah, Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, would see yeshivah students engaged in mere talk, he would remark to them, "You are not killing time, you are killing yourself!"
The Gaon, zl, m'Vilna, was meticulous concerning every moment of his life. Once, prior to Rosh Hashanah, he calculated that, for six minutes during the past year, he had not been actively engaged in Torah study. He understood that each minute lost was a minute lost for eternity. He would never retrieve that minute. This is how the Gaon lived. This is why he was the Gaon.
Rav Gifter would often quote Horav Zalman Sorotzkin, zl, who offers a brilliant insight into the action Chizkiyahu Hamelech took in order to promote Torah study among his constituents. The Talmud Sanhedrin 94b teaches that "Chizkiyahu naatz cherev al pesach bais hamedrash - "He stuck a sword by the entrance of the bais hamedrash and declared, 'Sancheirev is here with a powerful army with which he has been able to conquer the rest of the world. We are the last bastion, the last nation which he has not yet attacked. He has a cherev, sword, and we must be fearful of that sword.'"
The king then unsheathed his own sword and put it into the door of the bais hamedrash, and said, "Whoever leaves the bais hamedrash and halts his study of Torah shall be killed with this sword". As a result of this powerful motivation, Klal Yisrael's collective level of Torah erudition was unsurpassed. Indeed, when a census was taken of Klal Yisrael, it was discovered that nary a man, woman, or child was found that was not proficient in the laws of ritual purity - which is a very complex topic.
Chizkiyahu's action, although commendable for its zeal, comes across as lacking on a realistic basis. Does someone deserve to be killed because he does not study Torah? Clearly, Torah study is most important. It is what keeps our people going. It is the lifeblood of the Jew, but to be killed for not studying seems to be much too demanding, almost irrational. No law imposes the death penalty for not learning. Since when is not carrying out a positive mitzvah grounds for the death penalty?
The Lutzker Rav explains that Chazal are conveying a penetrating lesson to us. We know that when we actually feel something with our senses, it leaves a greater impact upon us. While we know that Torah study is our life, "knowing" is not the same as having someone stand in front of us brandishing a sword in his hand, implying that it is either "learn or die"! Thus, we realize that not learning is committing an act of murder - our murder!
Chizkiyahu was intimating, "You see, Torah is your lifeblood. With that, you will succeed against Sancheirev and his army". The people listened, abandoning their fields and vineyards, and other areas of livelihood. When they arrived at the bais hamedrash, they were greeted by the sword. This was a reminder to them, 'If you leave the bais hamedrash, you are actively killing yourself. If you stay in the bais hamedrash, there is no sword that can harm you.'
The Rosh Yeshivah would add his own thought, "During war, if a soldier abandons his post, he is AWOL, a deserter! Likewise, one who does not enter the bais hamedrash in a time of war is a deserter!"
The Ramchal writes in his classis Mesillas Yesharim what has become for many - and really should become for all of us - the catchphrase of our life: Adam doeig al ibud damav, v'eino doeig al ibud yamav; "Man worries about the loss of his money, but does not concern himself with the loss of his days." (Sadly) damav einam ozrim, v'yamav einam chozrim. "Man's material possessions do not help him, and his days do not return."
Next week, we will entreat Hashem for renewed life, longer life, healthier life. Do we know what life means? Do we understand the inestimable value of life? Do we understand that time is the most precious commodity there is - and, thus, Hashem's greatest gift? If we are going to ask, we should at least know what we are asking for.
The Midrash Tanchuma states: Ein va'yelech ela lashon tochachah. "The word vayelech means rebuke." Apparently, Moshe Rabbeinu went to all of the tribes to bid them farewell. His farewell was couched in reproach, in which he informed the people of their shortcomings. Where in the pasuk is this indicated? It seems that all Moshe told them was that he had reached the age of 120 years old, that he was no longer able to "go out and come in", and that he was not going to enter into Eretz Yisrael. In other words, Moshe was gezegening zich, bidding farewell, to the nation that he had shepherded for forty years. Intimating that he had completed his purpose in life and that now it was time to "move on" hardly constitutes a rebuke.
The Rishonim, early commentators, offer their individual interpretations of Moshe's vayelech. Ibn Ezra writes that Moshe went to each tribe to notify the people of his impending death. He encouraged them not to worry, since Yehoshua immediately stepped into his shoes, allowing for a seamless succession to the nation's leadership. Ramban says that Moshe assuaged their depression concerning his upcoming demise, "After all," he said, "I am old. There is really very little you could benefit from me." Apparently, Moshe understood the emotional upheaval which would transpire with his passing. He wanted to make it a little easier for them. Clearly, neither of these expositions reflects a farewell based upon rebuke. What is the Midrash implying?
Horav Chaim Zaitchik, zl, explains that there is essentially no greater form of rebuke than notifying people of one's mortality. When the people saw that their quintessential leader, the man who spoke "face to face" with the Almighty, was going to die - what should they have said? When one confronts his own mortality, he is humbled, as well as frightened. If that is not rebuke - what is?
Confronting mortality, facing the reality that death is an inevitable aspect of human existence, is very difficult. Today, for the most part, death is sanitized. It takes place away from the daily stream of life. Thus, people begin to think that death happens to others - never to themselves. If someone dies, it is the result of a mistake, a missed diagnosis, the wrong therapy, an accident. The reality of death is something from which most of us shy away. It is so much easier to continue living in a dream world.
When one comes face to face with the greatest leader of the Jewish nation, when this great leader comes to one's tent and bids him farewell, because he too is going to die, it is the moment of truth; it is the moment of tochachah. Suddenly, one begins to realize that what is happening to Moshe can also - and will - happen to him - someday. Not today - not tomorrow - but one thing is for certain - it will happen - someday. He had better prepare himself to be ready for that day, expunge the aveiros, sins, do more mitzvos. It is no different than packing for a long trip. Take what you need. Leave what will hinder you on the trip.
The Midrash Tanchuma to Parashas Va'eschanan states the following. (I cite it due to its time sensitivity, considering that this is the last Shabbos of the year.) "Moshe Rabbeinu, who just yesterday ascended to the Heaven like an eagle, now asks to cross the Jordan River - and is refused. Yesterday, the Heavenly Angels trembled before him, while today, he claims to be frightened by the effects of Heavenly anger. Yesterday, he spoke like a rich man - (with self-confidence); today, he speaks like one who is the victim of abject poverty, begging Hashem to allow him to enter Eretz Yisrael." Moshe sought to teach Klal Yisrael a most important lesson. He chose his last few moments of life, the most valuable moments of his existence, to teach the nation what it means to be mortal. Let them realize what is the end of all men. The Heavenly emmisaries came and told him, "You only have half a moment left (time is almost up)". Moshe placed his two hands over his heart and declared, "Look at what is the end of all men.'"
When Klal Yisrael saw this emotional scene before their eyes, when the people came to grips with the notion that death visits everyone - even Moshe, did they need any other rebuke? What rebuke would be more effective than seeing Moshe Rabbeinu tell them that all life comes to an end?
Rav Zaitchik concludes with an inspiring observation: The Torah in Sefer Devarim 14:1 says, "You are children to Hashem, your G-d; you shall not cut yourselves." Lo sisgodedu, is commonly translated as, "Do not cut yourselves." Our special relationship with Hashem should preclude any notion of following the abominable practices of pagans who cut their skin as a sign of mourning. The Jew should not be so terrified of death that he cuts himself out of a sense of grief. We know that the essence of a Jew is his neshamah, soul, and that the body is a mere physical container. The soul lives on; thus, while grief should be expressed, it should not be in such a manner that gives rise to the concept that mortal life has permanence or that death puts an end to everything.
In an alternative interpretation, Chazal (Yevamos 13b) say this means lo saaseh lachem agudos agudos, "Do not make for yourselves groups/groups." Do not divide yourselves into different groups, cliques, where membership in an individual group is based on some specific form of exclusivity or choseness. Klal Yisrael is all one family - not fractured into small elite groups. What relationship exists between elitist groups and excessive mourning for the dead? Elitism is repulsive, how is it linked to death? Rav Zaitchik explains that, when people confront the reality and aftermath of death, when they see the deceased and the entire burial process, they immediately forget their anger. They suddenly realize that there are more important things in life than "mine" and "yours," and anger and dispute. They come to terms with the stark reality: "We all end up in the same place. What do we have to argue about?"
So now, write this song for yourselves, and teach it to Bnei Yisrael. (31:19)
Every ben Yisrael, Jew, is enjoined to write a Sefer Torah. The source of this mitzvah is the above pasuk. Mitzvas Kesivas Sefer Torah, the commandment to write a Sefer Torah, has the distinction of being the last, 613th, mitzvah of the Torah. It is the culmination of the Torah's commandments. When one writes something down on paper, he concretizes it. I remember visiting my Rosh Yeshivah, Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, with a request for his approbation on one of my volumes. He began to weep. He said that part of his learning process was to put to immediately paper the chiddushim, original thoughts, which he innovated during his learning.. Due to his illness, his hand had begun to tremble, making writing most difficult and hardly legible. For this, he wept. His learning was (to him) incomplete.
In his commentary to this pasuk, the Torah Temimah wonders where in this pasuk is the indication that one is required to write an entire Torah scroll. The pasuk says, 'Write this song," which is a reference to Shiras Ha'azinu, the song of Ha'azinu, which is in the following parsha. It does not state that an entire Torah be written. He quotes the Rambam, Hilchos Sefer Torah 7:2, who interprets the commandment that every Jew write a Sefer Torah, which includes Shiras Ha'azinu. Since one may not write the Torah piecemeal, parshiyos, parshiyos, chapters, chapters, it is prohibited to only write Shiras Ha'azinu. The song must be part of an all-inclusive edition of the entire Torah.
The Rambam begs elucidation. To say that it is prohibited to write individual parshiyos impugns the allowability of writing the parshiyos of Tefillin and Mezuzah. Only small segment of the Torah is included in the Tefillin - even less goes into the Mezuzah. What does the Rambam mean? In his A Vort from Rav Pam, Rabbi Sholom Smith quotes the Rosh Yeshivah, zl, who explains this matter in his usual manner - with simple, poignant profundity that goes to the crux of the issue.
The purpose of Kesivas Sefer Torah is not to store it in one's bookcase. It is for V'lamadah es Bnei Yisrael, "To teach Bnei Yisrael." For the purpose of teaching Klal Yisrael Torah, one may not write chapters, chapters. The two parshiyos of Tefillin and Mezuzah are not written for the purpose of studying them. They are placed into the boxes and remain there for all time. Therefore, there is no issue concerning writing their parshiyos, parshiyos.
What is the problem with writing chapters, chapters, if the Torah is written for the purpose of teaching? Rav Pam explains that, when one learns Torah, he must focus on the entire Torah as one whole, one unit. He must see before him the entire Torah. When one views the Torah piecemeal, it undermines his drive and passion to become knowledgeable in the entire Torah.
Rav Pam relates that Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl, was once shown an innovative printing of a Gemorah. It was printed on individual loose-leaf pages to be later placed in a loose-leaf binder and placed together. He became upset, exclaiming, "Is this what the Torah is, a sheet of paper? A talmid, student, must see the entire hekef, broad scope, of Torah, thereby realizing the all-encompassing profundity of Hashem's wisdom. Only when one sees the whole Gemorah in its entirety, does he develop a desire to master it all. If, however, he views Torah as a piece of paper, how can he be inspired to become fluent in all of Shas?"
It is not this author's place to remark concerning the importance of covering ground in Torah study. Historically, however, in Europe, the baal ha'bayis, learned layman, was well-versed in all of Shas. He did not only cover the first few blatt, pages, of a Meseches. He studied and became proficient in the entire Meseches. Rav Pam decries the fact that we have not mastered Shas and that only Orach Chaim and parts of Yoreh Deah are the areas of Shulchan Aruch in which we are accomplished. We are, in essence, neglecting the entirety of the Torah.
Rav Pam suggests that this is what the Rambam is teaching us. Do not write Torah, parshiyos, parshiyos, do not settle for mediocrity in Torah study. Torah is our life blood. Why would anybody want to shortchange his life?
Perhaps we might supplement the shortsightedness of learning Torah parshiyos, parshiyos, with an analogy which I feel applies with regard to all self-guided perceptions. We see what we want to see. We also see only what is within our ability to see. Thus, if the big picture is either beyond us or above us, we might think that we are seeing something, but it is nothing in comparison to one whose vision is more perceptive than ours.
Let me explain. In his Michtav MeiEliyahu, Horav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zl, describes two approaches to Torah. There is the individual who is able to absorb the inner essence of Torah, because his level of purity is quite lofty. His closeness with Hashem, his deveikus, clinging to the Almighty, is so close that it precludes any personal need to probe the inner reason for specific mitzvos intellectually. He does not find it necessary to know why Hashem wants him to perform a certain mitzvah. It is enough for him simply to know that Hashem wants it. His closeness to Hashem is his all-encompassing interest. Nothing else matters. He is neither guided by need or expediency. Reason does not play a role in his relationship vis-à-vis Hashem.
The second Jew has not yet achieved this pinnacle of faith, this intense closeness with Hashem. He will apply his intellect to understand and give reason for those mitzvos which are cogently perceptible. He will, however, execute those mitzvos which are above him, because this is a Jew's obligation. He needs a reason, but he understands that some things are beyond his realm of perception, although he does feel that something is inordinately missing. His relationship with Hashem is that of yiraah, fear/awe - not of deveikus, closeness/clinging.
Having delineated between these two individuals, Rav Dessler offers the following analogy to explain this distinction: A child who is learning the Aleph Bais, compared to an adult who is proficient in Talmud. The child sits on the adult's lap and gazes into the same Gemorah as the adult. The child sees the familiar alef, bais, gimmel, while the adult, of course, sees and understands the profundities of the Tannaim and Amoraim which are recorded in the Talmud. They both see the truth, but what the child sees is far from the whole truth. The adult is hardly aware of the letters or of their combination into words; his mind is absorbed with the underlying ideas behind the words. The child has absolutely no inkling concerning the concepts. Likewise, all intellectual achievements fade into oblivion when compared with the inner truth of deveikus.
This is the problem of learning parshiyos, parshiyos. One thinks that he "knows," but, in reality, he is merely focusing on the structure of the letters. He is clueless about their connection and the depth of their meaning. There are those whose level of proficiency in Torah is, at best, limited. Yet, they have no problem expounding their beliefs and postulating what they feel is the correct manner of religious observance. They refuse to concede their apparent lack of knowledge, because they think that, if they can recognize the letters, they have license to connect them any way they want to fit their personal interpretation.
As we stand here on the last Shabbos of the year, in preparation for a period when our prayers must be meaningful, sincere and reflect our true emotions, it is especially important that we not delude ourselves into just staring at the letters. It behooves us all, for our sakes and for the sakes of our families, to open our eyes to the truth and connect the letters in the way Hashem would like us to - rather than in a way that suits our fancy.
V'nasnu al Tzitzis ha'kanaf psil techeilas. And they shall place upon the Tzitzis of each corner a thread of turquoise wool.
The question concerning techeiles, the string of blue-dyed wool that was to be included among the eight strings of the Tzitzis, sparked one of the greatest controversies involving European Jewry. The question was simple: Did the chalazon, creature from which the dye was taken for the techeiles, in fact, still exist? The opinions were strong, with the pro-techeiles group contending that they had proven beyond any shadow of a doubt the identity of the chalazon. The other group felt that their proof was insufficient. We must remember that the individuals involved in this debate were great Torah scholars, who were deeply committed to every mitzvah of the Torah.
Officially, the chalazon was last existent during the period of the Am
oraim and hidden after that. The Radziner Rebbe, zl, was a great tzaddik who felt that he had discovered the source of the dye; thus, it was incumbent upon every Jew to wear techeiles. Apparently, the majority of the gedolim rallied behind the Kovner Rav, Horav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, zl, who refused to accept the proof. The Brisker Rav, zl, was asked what harm would it do to follow the techeiles contingent. The worst would be that it would not be techeiles. It certainly was not harmful to dye one of the fringes.
He explained the following: The Torah (Devarim 32:7) writes: "Ask your father, and he will relate to you, your elders, and they will tell you." He quoted his grandfather, the Bais HaLevi, who interpreted the second part of the pasuk, "Your elders will relate to you," as referring to Kabbolas HaTorah, accepting the Torah, which occurs in each generation, as the outgoing generation transmits the Torah that they have learned to the next generation. The first part of the pasuk, "Ask your father," however, teaches us concerning those activities and entities which are dependent upon reality. This means that, even if the Torah writes that one may eat an ox, if the generation, for some reason, does not eat an ox because they are not certain whether the animal they call an "ox" coincides with the Torah's definition of ox, we do not eat ox. We live by a mesorah, tradition. If our father did it; we do it. If, for some reason, he did not - whether it be venison, buffalo, or other issues which have sprouted up over the generations - we simply follow the mesorah. The mesorah was not to wear techeiles. The subject is hereby closed. Coincidently, the Radziner disputed this exposition and wrote his opinion to the Bais HaLevi.
Last, the Brisker Rav cited the Gaon, zl, m'Vilna, who observed that the word l'dorosam, for their generations, is placed between the enjoinment concerning Tzitzis and that of techeiles. This teaches that only the actual mitzvah of Tzitzis is "for generations" - unlike techeiles, which was hidden and, thus, no longer applicable.
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