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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And you shall say to him, "I declare today to Hashem, your G-d." (26:3)

Rashi comments, she'eincha kafui tovah. The farmer presents his first fruits to the Kohen, making a declaration of gratitude to demonstrate that he is not an ingrate. He has been blessed, and now he gives thanks. Horav Moshe Shapiro, zl, explains the concept of hakoras hatov, appreciation and gratitude, in light of the Bikurim offering. By nature, man does not want to be grateful, since it indicates that he is beholden to someone. No one wants to be obliged, to owe, because it diminishes his uniqueness, his individuality. By becoming subservient to another person his status is reduced and weakened. He is no longer the self-sufficient person that he once had been. The joy that accompanies his Bikurim presentation catalyzes the realization that he is not an ingrate. The Torah reviews the notion that we are the recipients of Hashem's benevolence a number of times. We incorporate this reality into our minds, constantly reaffirming that, without Hashem, we are nothing and we have nothing. Everything that we possess is a gift from Him. This is how we are makir tov to Him - by realizing that everything comes from Him. One does not have to "pay back" in order to be grateful. The mere realization that what one has is the result of the benevolence of another is in itself hakoras hatov. One acknowledges that he has received from another.

Rav Shapiro adds that, in addition to the fact that gratitude is a good and positive attribute, it also brings one closer to Hashem. When one recognizes the kindness of Hashem, he becomes closer to Him. Developing a close relationship with the Almighty is the raison d'?tre of man. This is our purpose in life. A lack of hakoras hatov ultimately distances us from Hashem.

In addition, hakoras hatov saves one from falling into the clutches of sin. Rabbeinu Yonah writes that one who sins should be remorseful and filled with pain over the fact that he has rebelled against Hashem. Had he only taken into account that he is a creation of yeish mei'ayin, ex nihilo, something from nothing, he would have realized that Hashem fashioned man with the greatest sense of kindness and altruism. Yet, puny man has the gall to disregard all of this good and rebel against his Creator. Clearly, if a person is imbued with a sense of hakoras hatov, it greatly diminishes whatever desire he has to sin. How can one pay back Hashem for all His kindness to us by sinning against Him?

Rav Shapiro cites the Gaon zl, m'Vilna, who interprets the pasuk, Hodu l'Hashem kiru bishmo, "Give thanks to Hashem, declare His Name" (Tehillim 105:1), to mean that one should invoke Hashem's Name on everything. Not only should one not deny the source of everything, but he should make a serious effort to refer to everything in such a manner that it is evident that it comes to him from Hashem. This idea must become ingrained in a person to the point that hakoras hatov to Hashem becomes second nature. Furthermore, one should view hakoras hatov as a debt of gratitude, in which the obligation weighs heavily upon the recipient, a debt which does not allow him to rest until he has in some way acknowledged the favor which he has received.

Stories abound about our Torah giants who demonstrate the feelings of gratitude and their expression to those from whom they benefitted. One story, which I feel is poignant and underscores the sense of hakoras hatov one must demonstrate, concerns the Michtav M'Eliyahu, Horav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zl. It was winter of 1948, and Rav Dessler arrived in New York for a reunion with his son, Horav Nochum Zev, Shlita, whom he had not seen in nine years. When he had last seen his son, he was a teenager going off to study in yeshivah. Now, he was a young father and the accomplished head of what was to become a major Torah center.

We can imagine that many questions coursed through the mind of this Torah sage. Nine years, a World War, a Holocaust, new beginnings in a strange land, marriage, fatherhood, a nascent school. Yet, one of the first questions Rav Dessler asked his son was: Who had helped him during the many years that he had been alone in America? His son mentioned Horav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, the Menahel of Mesivta Torah Vodaath, and Horav Shlomo Heiman, its Rosh Yeshivah. He also mentioned Horav Eliezer Silver, Rav of Cincinnati and head of Agudath Israel and Agudas Harabbonim. Rav Silver had been a close disciple of Horav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski, legendary leader of European Jewry. When he heard that a grand-nephew of Rav Chaim Ozer was in America, he extended himself greatly to the young man.

When the elder Rav Dessler heard this, he said, "We must go thank him." His son immediately took out his address book and gave his father Rav Silver's phone number in Cincinnati. Rav Dessler demurred, saying that nothing less than a face to face expression of hakoras hatov would suffice. He insisted that his son accompany him to Cincinnati to pay their respects to Rav Silver. This was a long trip, but Rav Dessler was adamant: hakoras hatov meant that much to him.

The Desslers arrived in Cincinnati at 5:00 A.M. and waited on Rav Silver's porch until the venerable rav came out on his way to davening. The younger Rav Dessler introduced his father, and the three proceeded to shul. After davening, they returned with Rav Silver for breakfast.

"Nu, Rav Dessler, what brings you to Cincinnati?" Rav Silver asked. Rav Dessler replied that he had come for no reason other than to pay gratitude to the individual who had extended himself to his son. Rav Silver listened, gave a smile and asked again, "Why are you really here?" Once again, Rav Dessler replied in all sincerity, "I have come to pay a debt of hakoras hatov." A few minutes later, Rav Silver asked, "Rav Dessler, please tell me what I can do for you." Rav Dessler repeated his previous response that he had come for nothing else but to express his personal gratitude to the individual who had gone out of his way to befriend his son. Rav Silver finally gave up and quietly said, "This must be mussar."

Yes, as the result of the ethical character development Rav Dessler had absorbed in Kelm - and later as a mussar personality himself - he imparted this sense of refinement to others. He understood that when one receives he must return the favor. Regrettably, some of us are aware that we owe, but instead of returning the favor, we seek ways to diminish the favor. We must remember that he who does not demonstrate hakoras hatov to his fellow man will ultimately extend his selfishness to Hashem.

Gaze down from Your holy abode, from the heavens, and bless Your People Yisrael. (26:15)

Viddui Maasros, the confession of tithes, occurs no later than on the last day of Pesach during the fourth and seventh years of the Shemittah cycle. The viddui consists of the farmer's declaration that he has fulfilled all that has been asked of him with regard to his obligations concerning the Levi, the poor, and Maaser Sheni, Second Maaser, which must be consumed in Yerushalayim. He says, "I have acted according to everything You commanded me" (26:14). Rashi comments, based on the Mishnah in Meseches Maaser Sheni 5:12, Samachti v'simachti bo, "I have been happy and have made others happy with it."

Horav Avrohom Pam, zl, derives an important lesson concerning the way a Jew should give tzedakah, charity. Just as one must give Maaser with joy, knowing that in some way he is easing the plight of someone in need, so, too, should he give tzedakah b'simchah, with joy. Giving should not hurt. It should not be a hurdle one must traverse. It should be a privilege, a joy, carried out with a sense of humility.

We often forget that our material success is not something for which we worked and which we actually earned. It is a gift from the Almighty, a gift that He gives us for a purpose - to be shared with others. As such, one should be excited that he has the ability to carry out Hashem's command. Tzedakah should not be given begrudgingly. It should be viewed as a z'chus, merit and privilege, offered only to him. This, says the Rosh Yeshivah, is what Rashi means when he says, "I was happy to make others happy."

Not everyone is blessed with the proper attitude. Regardless of their tax brackets, some individuals happen to be "givers," while others find it difficult to part with their "hard-earned" money. Hashem addressed this problem in Devarim 15:10 when the Torah says, "Let not your heart feel bad when you give him (the poor man) for in return for this matter, Hashem your G-d, will bless you in all your deeds and in your every undertaking." The commentators explain that the primary reward one receives for giving tzedakah is not as much for the giving as it is for his attitude upon giving it. If it is accompanied with joy, then Hashem will bless him in kind. If he carries it out begrudgingly, as if, "I just have to do it," or for fear of embarrassment, the reward is still there, but it is drastically reduced.

As a postscript, es chatai ani mazkir hayom, I am writing this on the plane returning from my first trip to Eretz Yisrael. Yes, there are still some people who have not been there. For anyone who has been there, it is obvious that it is a country in which there is no dearth of tzeddakos and no shortage of those who are in need. One cannot go anywhere without being "approached" in any number of ways - all legitimate - all sincere - all worthy, but, at a certain point, it gets to you. The geshmak and excitement of giving to real aniyim slowly dissipates as one is inundated from all sides. At the end of the day, he gives everyone anyway, but his attitude has regrettably changed. No more simchah, no more joy, no more privilege. He begins to begrudge, to give for all of the wrong reasons. Thinking back as I write this, I realize - I was going to give anyway. Why should I not receive the proper schar, reward, for the mitzvah?

These shall stand to bless the people on Har Gerizimů Accursed is he who lies with the wife of his father. (27:12, 20)

The tribes were divided, with half standing on Har Gerizim and the other half on Har Eival. The Leviim commenced with blessing, to the resounding Amen of those standing on Har Gerizim. This was followed with the curses which were articulated as they faced Har Eival. Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, suggests two noteworthy points concerning the blessings and curses which are worthy of introspection. First, it seems quite conspicuous that within the litany of curses, right in the middle of the series referring to social transgressions, the Torah interrupts with a number of sins concerning sexual aberrations. It would be logical to anticipate that the curses upon "one who takes a bribe" would follow after the curse concerning "one who perverts justice of an orphaned stranger." Why is mention made of moral transgression at this point? It should have been inserted later.

Rav Hirsch explains that these sexual deviations are interpolated into the series of social infractions by design. The intention is to demonstrate that both of these sins are equally serious. One should not justify his moral perversity by asserting that moving one's boundary, misleading the blind, and perverting the justice of an orphaned stranger or a widow, certainly constitute sinful behavior. They hurt society and undermine the peaceful goals of a community. Sexual indiscretion between two consenting adults has a limited harm factor. At most, it subverts the happiness of a few individuals who are hurt by the fallout of his misbehavior. It certainly does not wreak havoc on the public welfare of a community.

On the other hand, sexual offenses should indeed weigh heavily on the conscience of moral people. Other types of transgressions - such as moving one's boundary, relaying evil gossip, and other such misdeeds - are not as serious. They are certainly not aberrations. Perhaps one might come to validate such miscreant behavior. The fact that the Torah intermingled both types of behavior effectively refutes both of these notions. A sin is a sin, and no form of justification can change this reality.

Second, we note that while the Torah elects to mention only the curses, they were, in fact, preceded by blessings upon those who did not commit the activities detailed in the text as reason for curse. For the most part, the sins that are included in the curses are active violations of Hashem's law. Thus, the promises of blessing apply even to those who do nothing but abstain from committing a violation of Jewish law. Imagine, one who does not think of his parents in a disrespectful way is blessed; one who does not cherish idolatrous thoughts - even in private - is blessed; one who commits no unjust act against his neighbors is blessed; one who does not allow himself to commit acts of moral perversity, even in private, is blessed.

Herein, claims, Rav Hirsch, lies a message of incredible reassurance and encouragement: our chances of receiving blessing are much greater than our chances of being cursed. We are cursed only for the actual commission of an evil act. We are blessed simply for abstaining from those acts which warrant curse.

There is one exception, however. In the final pasuk, the last curse, "Cursed is he who does not uphold the words of this Torah," (ibid. 27:26) the Torah admonishes the individual who fails to act in a positive, affirmative manner to maintain the Torah, to labor with all his might to see to it that others also observe the Torah, who fails to reach out to the unaffiliated and encourage them to observe. In this case, blessing involves positive action. Mere abstaining does not cut it. The reason is basic, because the question is whether one is - or is not - willing and ready to acknowledge that the Torah is binding for all Jews, and to act on his willingness in order to see to it that the opportunity is availed to everyone. Under these circumstances, failure to act is sin which warrants a curse. Hashem's blessing will be catalyzed through the active involvement of everyone, making certain that the Torah will be recognized and observed by all Jews.

Because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d, amid gladness and goodness of heart, when everything was abundant. (28:47)

We read a tragic and bitter Tochachah, Rebuke, in our parshah. One shakes with fear simply from reading the curses that are in store for those who do not follow Hashem's command. Yet, when we take into consideration the behavior - or lack thereof - which warrants such punishment, we begin to tremble, since it appears to be very simple. The Torah tells us that the curses of the Tochachah are the consequences for serving Hashem with a lack of joy. We literally shake with the knowledge that such a simple "sin" warrants such serious consequences. Should a lack of joy warrant such punishment? It is not as if the person reneged the mitzvos; he observed each and every mitzvah, but he did not carry them out with joy! Is that so bad?

Simply, we might say that there is more to simchah, joy, than we realize. Perhaps the idea that one can be happy doing so many mundane, entirely secular activities, yet view mitzvah observance as a negative, is in itself a terrible condemnation. A lack of joy demonstrates a dreadful attitude towards serving Hashem - one that undermines our relationship with Him - one that regrettably defines how we view Judaism.

The Shem MiShmuel considers a lack of joy in mitzvah performance, but no such complacency when carrying out secular, mundane activities, as the actual sin of "a lack of joy." It is not what is missing in our observance, as much as for what we have exchanged it. This is how he explains the Navi Yirmiyahu's lament of, chatu b'kiflayim, "they have sinned doubly," in regard to Klal Yisrael's behavior precursing the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash. We took the joy that should have been inherent in mitzvah observance and applied it to everything but mitzvah observance.

It is because of this "double sin" that laku b'kiflayim, we were doubly punished. He explains that all of the joy that we should have manifested serving the Almighty was overturned and transferred to our enemies who celebrated our defeat and destruction. Because we did not have joy - they had it instead. The sin was transference of joy concerning that which is holy to that which is mundane. The consequential punishment is that not only did we lose out on our national happiness; it was instead added to the success enjoyed by our enemies.

Thus, when we eventually repair the breach in our relationship with Hashem by repenting out of love, to the point that we employ every opportunity to serve Him as a source of excitement and joy, then we receive a double nechamah, consolation, as the joy which has - due to our default - left us is appropriated back to us. It will be guarded within our realm so that the love that we have expressed to Hashem will never again be misdirected elsewhere.

Let us now advance ourselves to the present and ask the question: Have we changed? Do we celebrate Shabbos and Yom Tov in an appropriate manner? If the answer is yes, then let us compare this celebration to the manner in which we "observe" secular occurrences which generate anticipation and joy. Do we anticipate our festivals with the same amount of intensity that we expend on sports events? Do our Biblical festivals have the same aura of solemnity and excitement associated with them as some of the contemporary observances that, for some, have achieved festival status? Is Tisha B'Av still our national day of mourning, or has it been replaced with a more contemporary day of remembering national tragedy? Is Pesach still our Festival of Freedom, or have we shifted our focus concerning miraculous salvation and freedom to something more germane, something closer to our times? In other words, have we exchanged our allegiances and misplaced our priorities? When we think about it, the lack of simchah in mitzvah performance can be quite a demanding indictment.

Hashem will return you to Egypt in ships, on the road of which I said to you, "You shall never again see it." (28:68)

Being required to go back as a slave to the place from whence one was liberated is truly a curse, but why particularly Egypt? There were other places to where we had been to which we could have been returned. Ramban explains that it is degrading and ruinous for a slave to be returned to his original master. Nothing is more depressing than to have achieved a position of freedom, to have acquired dignity and respect, and then to lose it - and be relegated to return to one's old haunts as the miserable lackey he once had been. It is even worse than to have never left the misery. To have won and then lost liberty is much worse than not to have won it at all.

Horav Chaim Zaitchik, zl, relates that, during the Yamim Noraim, High Holy Days, the Alter, zl, m'Novardok, Horav Yoizel Horowitz, would fire up the hearts of his listeners with an impassioned plea exhorting them about returning to the sins of the past. A person that has for awhile succeeded in extricating himself from the muck that clouded his past behavior, only to return to his original nature, to his earlier sinful routine, is shameful and heartbreaking. When the person realizes how far he has fallen, he often becomes so sullen and depressed, that he encounters greater difficulty in pulling himself back up.

One who was on the rise and "messed up" is in a much worse predicament than the one who had never achieved much in a spiritual sense. It hurts so much more, once he sees where he has been, how high he has gone, and what his spiritual level could have been. The realization of what could have been is compelling, and, for some, overwhelming, to the point that they refuse to even attempt to return. The humiliation, the disgrace is powerful and, for some, debilitating.

In Hilchos Melachim 10:3, the Rambam writes, "We do not listen to a ben Noach, gentile, who converted and afterwards decides to "partially" renege his conversion to Ger Toshav status (a convert who lives in Eretz Yisrael, does not worship idols, but has not embraced Judaism). He either remains a complete ger, convert, or is put to death for violating the Torah." Why is he so severely punished? He has not transgressed any sin indictable for capital punishment. Rav Zaitchik asserts that his deliberate retreat from his original position of geirus, whereby he had achieved a specific spiritual plateau upon which he is now about to default, is sufficient reason to punish him so drastically. Going back, reneging upon one's earlier standard of commitment, is an unpardonable sin. One who converts and repudiates his conversion is much worse than one who had never initially converted.

This idea applies equally to anyone who has merited elevating himself, achieving a position of distinction. Once he has reached the top, he must maintain and execute all of the obligations and commitments that are intrinsic to his exalted position. He is now judged from a different perspective, an altogether different vantage point, than before.

Va'ani Tefillah

Moneh mispar la'kochavim, l'kulam sheimos yikra.
He who counts the number of all the stars has also given them names.

The enormous number of stars and heavenly bodies, with the vast distance that exists between them, is truly awesome. What is more incredible is that the Creator knows each individual body, its details and exactly where it is located in the constellation. Simply, this is the meaning of Hashem giving a name to each star. What is the uniqueness of giving a name? Is it greater than any of Hashem's other unfathomable abilities? The Sefas Emes explains that giving a name denotes the knowledge and understanding of the subject to its core. In other words, a name defines the essence of the subject. Every creation acknowledges Hashem in accordance with its individual purpose and objective in the scheme of things. The creations of Hashem are named based upon their depth of perception of Him. Their names define them. This was Adam HaRishon's incredible power. He understood the purpose of every creature, its function and uniqueness. Thus, he was able to give them names. Giving a name implies an unparalleled ability to understand everything there is to know about the subject. When a person understands this, he becomes overwhelmed by Hashem's depth of understanding of each and every creation.

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, posits that the reference to naming applies to the broken-hearted, those who have survived the galus, exile, at the End of Days. Each one of these survivors has a purpose to fulfill and, as a consequence, becomes very important to Hashem. Each of these survivors is special; each has his own individual name which defines his purpose.

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