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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


See, I present before you… a blessing and a curse. The blessing: that you listen… and the curse if you do not listen. (11:26,27,28)

Parashas Re'eh opens with an enjoinment to "see" both blessing and curse. "Seeing" here means intellectual perception, since blessing and curse are not entities which can be observed by corporeal eyes. It requires intelligence to comprehend, distinguish and acknowledge that, indeed, those who are Torah observant Jews are blessed, fulfilled, feel a sense of achievement and spiritual growth. It takes a fool to disregard and purposely overlook the vacuousness and almost daily crises that plagues those who have chosen a lifestyle that caters to the fulfillment of materialistic and physical needs and desires. One who pursues the pleasures of the flesh is never satisfied. He always wants more;"more" is defined by how much his neighbor has, because envy is intrinsic to his life. Therefore, brachah and kelalah are not necessarily terms relating to Heavenly reward descending on many, but rather, definitions of a lifestyle to which people adhere - either by choice or by default.

The Torah teaches that brachah, blessing, is the result of committing oneself to carrying out the ratzon, will, of G-d. Blessing is the direct consequence of a life of serving Hashem. In contrast, one who does not listen to Hashem's decree will end up wallowing in the self-imposed curses that structure his lifestyle.

The Torah, therefore, instructs us to see for ourselves the lifestyle of those who adhere to the Torah way and, in contrast, to view with pity the way of life of those who lead a life without Torah. Now, the question arises: Who says so? Who says that those who have chosen a life without Torah are not happy, are not blessed? Since when do we have the monopoly on defining the meaning of success, pleasure, happiness? We might pat ourselves on the back and claim that "they" are not happy, but, if we were to ask "them," they would think that we need to have our heads examined. They certainly project themselves as being filled with joy - often much more so than we do.

A serious problem prevalent is in the homes of some who are committed Torah Jews: They do not believe they are living a life of blessing, and even those who have "convinced" themselves of this reality have yet to succeed in imbuing this feeling into the psyche of their children. In order to inspire others, one must himself be a strong believer. He must sincerely believe that his life is truly a happy one. How does one accomplish this?

I take the liberty of excerpting a free translation of a letter which Horav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zl, the Michtav MeiEliyahu, wrote in 1938 to his son, Rav Nochum Zev, who was then learning in Telshe, Lithuania. "Everybody seeks a happy life. We must first have a clear idea concerning the meaning of happiness (otherwise, what we think we want, we really do not want). If we were to question the average person, 'What is happiness?' his response would probably be 'Having everything one wants.' Since what people want most costs money, it would give that money is the key to happiness. Thus, the happy man must be the brilliant businessman, the top executive, the go-getter, who views every moment in life as an opportunity for making money. Ambition is what breeds success. Do not stop for a moment. Do not be a batlan, ne'er-do-well, who apparently lacks the quality of ambition.

"Let us go a step further. Have we ever actually seen a happy man? Most people will, upon first glance, respond, 'Yes, we have seen happy people:' True, we may conjecture that there are some wealthy people that are not all that happy, but, for the most part, wealth and happiness are synonymous with one another. They certainly appear to be happy. Interestingly, when they are discreetly asked to tell the truth, their response is: 'No, I am not really happy.' They might have osher with an ayin which spells wealth, but they lack osher with an aleph, which means happiness.

"It is usually the same problem across the board. Wife is unhappy; she never has enough to keep her in a decent mood. The children are spoiled rotten and are doing poorly in school; they do not seem to care. When children are uncaring about life, they take it out on their parents. After all, they have given them everything. So, when all is said and done, the rich man only appears happy. He is far from being enviable.

"Perhaps it is the middle-income bracket which engenders happiness. These are people who work hard all of their lives and fall in between the "haves" and "have-nots;" they neither benefit from programs that help the poor, nor are they able to maintain much status among the wealthier echelons of society. They spend their entire lives working in preparation for retirement, when they plan on being happy. Sadly, when they achieve retirement status, they are either too old or too weak, with little rest left for enjoyment. They certainly are not the paradigms of happiness.

"So, it must be the worker who barely ekes out a living, who complains bitterly concerning his 'miserable' lot in life. He cannot represent the standard for happiness, because he is always complaining about something. If he is not being exploited by the rich, then he is getting a raw deal from someone else. His life seems too wretched to be considered happy.

"Having shown that happiness in the way we perceive it does not really exist, we then ask why Hashem created such a wonderful world in which everybody within it lives in misery, in which its inhabitants do not seem able to achieve the elusive happiness for which everyone strives? Hashem does not make mistakes. We are not properly reading the script, the way it is meant to be read. Our Sages teach, 'Jealousy, lust and glory/status-seeking remove a man from this world' (Pirkei Avos 4:28). The world as G-d created it is a happy place. It is we who have removed ourselves from the world of happiness created by Hashem. We have transformed a world with great potential for joy into a world of suffering. This was accomplished when we fell prey to the three greatest obstacles to joy - kinah, envy; taavah, lust; kavod, glory seeking.

"Chazal teach (Pirkei Avos 3:1), 'Who is (a) rich (man)? He who rejoices in his portion.' They do not say that he is 'also rich'; nor do they say that he is 'very rich.' They say that he is rich - period! One who is not satisfied with his portion/lot in life is not only not happy, he is not rich - regardless of the size of his bank account. It is not about money; it is about being tzufrieden, happy, with what Hashem chose for him.

"There are 'haves' and 'have nots'. The 'haves' are happy with their portion in life. The 'have nots' are poor, because, regardless of how much they have, it is either not enough, or it is not what they want. There is no happiness in the world in material things; there is only happiness in spiritual concerns. The individual who enjoys a rich spiritual life is happy. There is no other kind of happiness in existence.

"This feeling is evinced by real bnei Torah, those fortunate individuals who devote their whole minds and desire, enthusiasm and ambition, to the pursuit of Torah and wisdom. They are the ones who experience true joy in this world. While there certainly cannot be happiness without goals, drive and ambition - it all depends upon what are these goals and to what ends, and for what purpose the drive and ambition is directed. Happiness is achieved when the goals which one has set for himself are attainable, when they are not contingent upon someone else's approval for their fulfillment, when they are free of those self-frustrating and destructive urges called jealousy, lust and glory seeking. This can be only when one's ambition flows from the love of Torah, love of wisdom, love of mussar - the desire for true, ethical living."

I have cut the letter short, but the author's incredible foresight is amazing, in his ability to cut through the ambiguity that plagues so many and to address the crux of the problem.

Horav Noach Weinberg, zl, was once visited by a young man who had an unusually happy disposition. The Rosh Yeshivah asked him for his "secret." He replied, "When I was eleven years old, I received a gift of happiness from G-d. I was riding my bicycle when a strong gust of wind blew me onto the ground, into the path of an oncoming truck. The truck ran over me, severing my leg.

"As I lay there bleeding, I realized that I might be relegated to living the rest of my life without a leg. How depressing! But then I realized that being depressed would not bring back my leg. So, I decided right then and there not to waste my life despairing.

"When my parents arrived at the hospital, they were shocked and grief-stricken. So I told them, 'I have already adapted. Now you too must get used to this.'

"Ever since then, I see one of my friends getting upset about little things: his bus came late; he received a bad grade on his test; somebody insulted him. I, however, just enjoy life."

At a young age, this young man had attained the perspicuity that focusing on what we are missing is a waste of energy. The key to happiness is to take pleasure and satisfaction in what one has. This, explains Rav Weinberg, is the underlying meaning of sameach b'chelko, being happy/satisfied with one's portion (in life). Happiness is a state of mind in which one focuses on the gifts that G-d has granted him. One can have millions and yet be miserable - or he can have very little, yet feel unbridled joy.

There is one catch to being happy: One must open up his eyes and be willing to see the blessing which Hashem has given him. One who is blind to blessing is cursed. It is a self-generated torment for which no one is to blame other than he who refuses to see beyond the limits of his myopic vision.

If there should stand in your midst a prophet… and he will produce to you a sign or a wonder… and the sign or the wonder comes about… do not listen to the words of that prophet… for Hashem, your G-d, is testing you. (13:2,3,4)

The false prophet attempts to sway the nation away from Hashem, to seduce the people to worship idols, by offering "proof" that he is the "real thing" and that his message is Heaven sent. He produces a miracle, a wonder that is undeniable, that gets the people thinking: "Is it possible? Could he be for real?" Hashem instructs us not to listen to him, because he is part of a test to ascertain and confirm our nation's true conviction. Do we truly believe in Hashem, or is it only a matter of convenience, something we do as long as there is no pressure?

In his magnum opus, Mesillas Yesharim, Ramchal develops the theme of "ordeals of a person," in which he states that "life is nothing but a series of challenges of various degrees and varying forms." A Jew must overcome these tests in order to demonstrate his fidelity to Hashem. The tests are commensurate with a person's spiritual plateau. Those on a lesser plane-- whose capacity for seeing the truth is limited-- will be given minor tests, while those who are on a higher spiritual level will be tested more stringently. Avraham Avinu was put through ten ordeals, with the most trying being Hashem's command that he sacrifice Yitzchak Avinu.

Our parshah's theme is: Ki menaseh Hashem Elokeichem eschem, "For Hashem, your G-d, is testing you." The Torah predicts the scourge of false prophets who will preach blasphemously in an attempt to undermine the Torah's principles and impugn our commitment to Hashem. They will even have the power of manipulating our minds by performing supernatural wonders to evidence their authenticity as Hashem's intermediaries. We are admonished not to listen to them, to ignore their miracles which, albeit may seem real, are only situations whereby Hashem tests our commitment to Him.

Miracles do not sway our people. Heavenly intervention, regardless of its nature and efficacy, provides insufficient reason for us to question our loyalty to Hashem. Chazal relate an intriguing episode that took place during a halachic dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and the Chachamim, Sages, who issued the majority ruling. The Talmud Bava Metzia 59b describe how Rabbi Eliezer invoked a number of Heavenly miracles to prove his point. The Chachamim were not moved. They were in the majority, and the halachah was on their side. Finally, a Bas Kol, Heavenly Voice, emerged and proclaimed, "Why do you dispute Rabbi Eliezer's opinion, when, in fact, his opinion prevails everywhere else in halachah?" Chazal replied, Torah, lav baShomayim hee: "The Torah is not in Heaven." This means that even a Divine decree cannot alter what the Torah has already decided.

Rabbeinu Nissim Gaon explains this difficult passage in the Talmud as a test of the Chachamim's spiritual ardor. Would they adhere to the Torah's rule of Acharei ha'rabim l'hatos, we follow majority rule, or would they be overwhelmed by Divine Revelation and miraculous phenomenon?

Horav Yeruchum Levovitz, zl, derives an important principle from this Talmudic passage. During the course of our lives, we are confronted with various ordeals, situations that challenge our faith. While each and every one of us does not experience the same form of tribulation, we all receive the dose that coincides with our individual capacity, the personal tolerance level that we can manage. The test consists of confronting the occurrence/ordeal and acknowledging that it is only a test. Regrettably, some individuals are not prepared to accept the "why" of an ordeal. They devise all sorts of rationalizations in an attempt to justify yielding to physical desires and rejecting Hashem's mandate. Only after every attempt at rationalization has failed do they attribute it to Hashem testing us.

Hashem gives the false prophet supernatural powers, because He wants to test us. It says so clearly in the Torah. This is, however, insufficient for some people, because they want to believe the prophet; they want to be swayed by his powers. We must remember that life is only a test. We have no option for failure.

The Baal Shem Tov gives a parable of a king who wanted to test the loyalty of his subjects. He engaged someone to circulate among the populace, spreading rumors in an effort to incite a rebellion. There were some fools who succumbed to the arguments and machinations of the king's agent. The wise people asked, "Is it possible that a king who is as powerful as our ruler would tolerate such brazenness against him? The fact that his person has been permitted to make such statements is an indication that the king is actually using him to test his subjects' loyalty."

The same idea applies to life. Only a depressed fool would believe the defiance that has been provoked by the false prophets throughout the ages. True, they have succeeded in swaying many. Klal Yisrael, however, realizes that it has all been a test.

And He will give you mercy and be merciful to you and multiply you, as He swore to your forefathers. (13:18)

When someone is charged with carrying out an execution, it can have a strong negative effect on his sensitivities. After all, it means taking the life of another human being. This emotion is exacerbated when it involves the mass execution of an entire Jewish city of men, women, children -- even livestock. Such action takes its toll on the most compassionate person, rendering him callous to suffering. Thus, Hashem promises the nation that the executioners, who carry out this most difficult punishment, will be infused with a Heavenly-sponsored dose of compassion to counteract the soulless nature of their work. Once the people have achieved an unusual level of compassion, Hashem will treat them mercifully. The Almighty responds to our initiative. When we act with mercy towards others, He acts with mercy towards us.

We would think that this is a cause and effect response. We act with mercy towards others - Hashem responds to us in kind. It actually goes much further. Horav Yaakov Meir Shachter, Shlita, quotes the Zohar HaKadosh that says, "When Hashem seeks to 'stimulate' His compassion for a person, He sends him a gift. What is the gift? He 'arranges' for a poor man to approach him, to petition his support on his behalf. By acting mercifully towards the poor man, he 'activates' Hashem's compassion, so that this person will become the subject of Hashem's sympathy."

Rav Shachter quotes a similar idea from the Likutei MaHaran, who writes: "When a person is in need of Heavenly compassion, Hashem sends him compassion by enabling him to demonstrate his compassion for another person. Thus, he will personally receive Hashem's Mercy. This is what is meant by Chazal in the Talmud Shabbos 151b, 'Whoever is compassionate to others, they (Heaven) will be compassionate to him.' This is what is meant by the Torah, 'And He will give you mercy and be merciful to you.' By granting you the opportunity to demonstrate your mercy to others, He will show mercy to you."

It is almost a quid pro quo in which Hashem gives us the opportunity to earn His mercy, by showing what we can do. Rav Shachter extends this concept to every good endeavor which Hashem wants to make available to us. He will create a situation in which the individual who is in need of a specific Heavenly favor will be allowed to show his own proclivity to perform a similar deed. For instance, a person is censured by Heaven and is to become the subject of Heavenly-anger. Hashem will arrange for someone to anger him, and, if he controls his response by not allowing his indignation to get the better of him, he will warrant Hashem's forbearance. By controlling his personal anger (especially in a situation in which he could have been justified in becoming angry), the individual has given Hashem reason to pardon his sin.

This applies to every opportunity which presents itself for us to exhibit self-control, forbearance, patience, decency and sympathy. A person should think twice before allowing his base nature to prevail over the proper way to respond. In all probability, this challenge is a gift from G-d to enable him to earn points and garner merit - a merit that will quite possibly avert a Heavenly punishment that He is holding back due to His love and compassion. So, what we think is a terrible challenge, an overwhelming obstacle, might actually be a gift in disguise.

If there will be among you a needy man... you shall not make your heart unfeeling and not close up your hand to your brother, the needy man. (15:7)

Literally, the translation of this pasuk is: "You shall not do violence to your heart." Horav S. R. Hirsch, zl, observes that the Torah is teaching us that Jews are, by nature, good-hearted and sensitive towards others. It is, therefore, assumed that if Jewish hearts are permitted to give free rein to their natural impulses, they will do good. On the other hand, the individual who does not act with feeling and consideration is selfish and calculating, going against his true-self. Jewish hands are also, by nature, open to the poor and are closed up only by unnatural selfishness. As a result, the Torah admonishes us not to close our hand. Not to give tzedakah, charity, going against our grain, overcoming our natural prosperity to act correctly, with feeling and compassion for the betterment of others.

The heart wants to give. The brain looks at the situation from a rational perspective. The mind feels that each individual should fend for himself. From its cold and calculating perch, it views chesed, acts of kindness, as an infringement upon oneself: "I worked hard to achieve; no one helped me along the way. Why should he be different?" The heart is the seat of compassion, and the Jew is by nature a rachaman, merciful, and a gomel chesed, kind-hearted, with a proclivity towards demonstrating kindness towards others. It is to this tug of war that the Torah speaks: "You shall not make your heart unfeeling; rather, you shall open your hand to him."

The Torah does not write, "You shall give" but rather, "You shall open." Our hearts want to give; our minds are attempting to close our hand. The Torah says, "Open that hand;" do what your heart motivates you to do. It is this notion that, throughout the millennia, has produced the wonders of Jewish charity. These acts have designated the Jewish People as the undisputed world leaders of chesed. All who are in distress, who are weighed down by various forms of adversity, know that the welcoming address for all sorts of aid is the Jewish People.

We must underscore that charity and tzedakah are not on the same plane. Tzedakah is not acting out of benevolence, compassion, or generosity. It means doing what is right and just. One is executing his duty as a Jew. There are those who give out of a sense of guilt. They have been inordinately blessed with material bounty. Thus, they feel compelled to split the pot with others. This is not why we give. There are those who feel that what they have is theirs by right. They have worked for it, but they will be noble and kind and give a little to others. This is not why we give. We give neither out of nobility of heart, nor to expiate our guilt for having more than others.

We believe neither that material wealth is criminal, nor that being poor is a curse. One who is wealthy is blessed and should consider himself G-d's agent to disperse funds to those in need. He has been given an awesome privilege and an even greater responsibility. By creating a world consisting of "haves" and "have nots," Hashem allows people who give tzedakah to emulate His ways, thereby becoming His partners in Creation. When one rejects the poor man's petition, as a result, he disdains Hashem's choice of him as a benefactor of others. Likewise, the one who is the beneficiary of tzedakah should not feel like a second-class citizen. He is receiving what is rightfully his. In the scheme of Creation, Hashem decided that it was best for him to be on the receiving end of the tzedakah experience.

Lo s'ametz es levavcha v'lo sikpotz es yadecha: The admonishment not to shut off the feelings of our heart and not to close up our hand is actually a process that evolves throughout one's life. Some of us are precocious and outgrow the clenched fist syndrome early in life, while others, regrettably, take it with them up to their final mortal moments. The Midrash in Koheles Rabbah says: "A baby enters the world with hands clenched, as if to say, 'The world is mine; I shall grab whatever I can.' A person leaves this world with his hands open, as if to say, 'I can take nothing with me.'"

When we are young, it is all about "us." We grab at everything, regardless of whom it might inconvenience. As we mature, we develop an awareness of a world outside of ourselves, a world of other people, some of whom are closer to us than others. Throughout the maturing process, we begin to shed our self-centeredness and become givers, rather than takers. I say this in general terms, but one would be na?ve to believe that all of us shed the narcissism and self-indulgence that is a product of immaturity. Sometimes the juvenile demands and delusions that "it all belongs to me" - or, at least, it should- remain with us as adults. We still demand that everything revolve around us, as we attempt to grab whatever we can, and clench our fists when we are asked to step up to the plate and help others.

At a certain point in life, when we confront our own mortality, we begin to realize that there are more important things in life than my money, my material possessions, my, my, my. As we grow older, we want less for ourselves and seek to give more to others. Thus, when we prepare to leave the world, the clenched fist has completely opened up. Sadly, for some it is too little, too late.

Va'ani Tefillah

K'yimei ha'Shomayim al ha'aretz. Like the days of the Heaven over the earth.

What is the meaning of "Like the days of Heaven on earth"? Should it not have said, "Like the days of Heaven and earth"? Ha'K'Sav v'ha'kabbalah explains that the greatest blessing for which one can strive is to merit a life of "Heaven," spirituality, on earth. If he is able to transcend the material/physical dimension which dominates this world, he is truly a fortunate person. Therefore, we hope that, while we are here in this world of the mundane, we are able to enjoy a life of Shomayim. Horav Eliyahu Lopian, zl, adds that such a blessing is endemic to life in the Holy Land. Eretz Yisrael has a spiritual character to it unlike that of any other place in the world. Hashem has blessed this Land with His special blessing, allowing the Jew to live in Eretz Yisrael and ascend spiritual heights, which are much more difficult to attain anywhere else. This is what is meant by al ha'adamah asher nishba la'avoseichem la'sis lahem, "upon the ground that Hashem has sworn to your ancestors to give them."

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