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PARSHAS VO'ESCHANANI implore Hashem. (3:23)
Rashi explains the word va'eschanan as one of the ten terms for prayer, with its root being chinam, (for) free. Although tzaddikim, righteous persons, have the merit to ask Hashem to fulfill their requests, they are asking for a matnas chinam, undeserved favor. The truly righteous never feel that Hashem "owes" them. They have no claim to demand Hashem's mercy; rather, they implore Him for it. The mere fact that there are ten terms for prayer indicates its unique quality, as well as its diversity. Simply put, people come in all shapes and forms, with varied personalities and qualities. Likewise, the issues that confront us are also of a diverse nature. People respond to challenges differently. Hence, they pray to Hashem differently.
Some might counter that tefillah is tefillah, prayer is prayer. One opens up a Siddur, which is the prayer book designated by our sages as the uniform manual for prayer, and prays! What more is there to do? That form of understanding is the first mistake. In order for prayer to be meaningful and effective, one must know how to pray. Reading words by rote is not what Chazal had in mind when they designed the Siddur. Even he who understands the meaning and implications of the text defeats the entire purpose if he lacks one primary ingredient in his recitation of the tefillos. Let me explain this with two vignettes, which are both about women and the manner in which they expressed themselves in prayer.
The first woman was a congregant in the shul where Horav Shlomo Freifeld, zl, served as Rav. When he met this woman, she was already ninety-five years old. He knew her for ten more years until her death. A frail, ethereal woman, dressed completely in white, she would come to shul on Yom Kippur, clutching her large Korban Minchah Siddur and her Machzor. She would stand on her feet all day with her eyes glued to the Machzor and her lips uttering its text, and she fasted all day! An entire Yom Kippur on her feet, immersed in tefillah, without a break of any sort. After she concluded her davening, many of the more astute men of the shul would wait for her to descend from the woman's gallery and ask for her brachah, blessing. This woman was clearly a righteous woman, as Rav Freifeld observes from various other aspects of her life filled with mitzvah observance and acts of loving-kindness. Where did she obtain the sheer physical stamina to pray like that? Obviously, some aspect of the way in which she prayed elevated her, so that she was able to transcend the physical constraints that would normally hinder a person of her advanced age from performing in such an outstanding manner.
I think she had something in common with another woman. A number of years ago, Rabbi Emanuel Feldman wrote about an elderly widow who attended his father's shul in Baltimore. She was the type of congregant which eludes us today. She never spoke during davening, praying meticulously, caressing every word. She avidly listened to the rabbi's sermon as if it was Toras Moshe. She gave charity, generously supporting and honoring those who were engaged in Torah study. It goes without saying that she observed Shabbos and Kashrus religiously. She had one problem, however. Aside from her ability to read Hebrew, she was otherwise completely unlettered and unlearned. Thus, while she could read the tefillos, she was unable to distinguish between those prayers that are recited on a regular Shabbos and those which are recited on a special Shabbos, such as Chanukah, Rosh Chodesh, or Yom Tov. Hence, every single Shabbos, she would recite every prayer on every single page of the Shabbos service. This was her problem.
When a kindly woman would subtly point out to her that a certain prayer was not recited on that Shabbos because it was not applicable, she would smile and reply, "I ask you, what is so terrible if I say it? If it is not Rosh Chodesh today, soon it will be. So, it really makes no difference."
The young members of the shul would often make light of this woman's "cover to cover" davening, because they, like many of us, had no clue about the exalted nature of her tefillos. She prayed with total devotion, complete sincerity, with a spiritual integrity that is long gone from our fast-paced world of Torah scholarship. She was unschooled, but she davened with an emes, truth, with a childlike innocence that was pristine and without embellishment. She surrendered herself to the Almighty. Can we say that?
When one stands before Hashem in prayer, he must submit himself totally and exclusively to Him. Prayer is an expression of love. This woman's love for Hashem was so encompassing that she could not bear to skip a word! This is a far cry from those of us who look for every opportunity not to say Tachanun! She worshipped Hashem, not from intellect and knowledge, but from an inner spirit of love and devotion that transcends the mind. Hashem was a real Presence before Whom she stood in prayer. There was nothing abstract about Hashem. He was a reality. He was there, and she was talking to Him! In her mind, it was Chanukah and Rosh Chodesh and Yom Tov everyday, because everyday was a day to thank Hashem for His miracles. We Jews do not need a holiday to thank Hashem. Everyday is a thanksgiving holiday. In fact, every minute is a miracle for which we should offer our gratitude. This woman recognized that reality, as she loved Hashem with all her heart. For her, praying to Him was her greatest privilege. No word was extra. She could not say enough!
Two women - who represent so many others who understood the essence of tefillah: an expression of the innermost recesses of one's heart. Through tefillah, we connect with Hashem. It is an opportunity that should not be hurried, an experience that should not be robotic in nature and mechanical in expression. We should look forward to this moment with anticipation and reverence - just like those two elderly women.
I recently had occasion to read about another fringe benefit of prayer. It grants one the ability to cope with stressful or upsetting situations. Central to the process of coping, is the capacity for soothing and calming oneself. This can occur through prayer and other means of calming or relaxing activities. The soothing influence of prayer has two aspects. First and foremost is the knowledge that one understands that he is not alone. Hashem is with him. The Beditchever Rebbe, zl, once said, "A person can say that he is for Hashem or against Hashem, but he can never say that he is without Hashem." The Almighty is always there. A Jew is never alone. When he takes out his Siddur, or he makes a makeshift prayer comprised of his innermost feelings, he is talking to Hashem! He is not speaking into a void. Hashem listens to everything that he says!
In addition to negating the feeling of loneliness and other obvious spiritual benefits, prayer has psychological benefits. The very fact that we can actually do something in the face of events that are seemingly out of control is comforting. Indeed, a recent study concluded that prayer has a calming effect. It is associated with improved coping in a number of painful medical conditions, and it increases positive emotional adjustment following major surgery. The individual's ability to articulate his feelings and his knowledge that he is being listened to, are both very reassuring. Again, this must be carried out with sincerity, as an expression of one's heart. After all, according to the Rambam, the Torah-based obligation to pray is derived from the pasuk in Devarim 11:13, u'leavdo b'chal levavchem, "And to serve Him with all your heart." Tefillah is service of the heart.
You shall safeguard and perform them (the mitzvos), for it is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the peoples. (4:6)
Having been in exile for over two thousand years, we have often confronted the question of how to relate to the non-Jewish world in which we live. Many of our coreligionists have, over the years, thought that by being more like "them," we will be spared from any persecution. Regrettably, it could not have been further from the truth. The more we have tried to assimilate, the more intensely they have turned against us. Without mentioning any specific period or tragedy, they were all foreshadowed by assimilation and a shirking of our responsibility and pride as Jews. When one peruses our parsha, it may be noted that the Torah condemns spiritual compromise in the strongest terms. In fact, the more we adhere to the Torah way, the stronger our commitment to maintaining the traditions and our spiritual status, the greater will be our security and respect. If we want to achieve respect, we must act respectfully - respect ourselves and our Jewishness. Our greatest source of wisdom in the eyes of the non-Jewish world is the Torah.
The Bostoner Rebbe, Shlita, relates that he once attended a meeting, sponsored by a secular Jewish organization, that was honoring the dean of the Boston University Law School, an observant Jew and a close, personal friend of the Rebbe. Among the many dignitaries invited to the event was a recently appointed American Cardinal. When he walked in via a side aisle, the crowd rose to its feet. The Rebbe was seated at the central podium and did not see the cause of the commotion until too late. He was now in a predicament: Since the Cardinal's cross was blatantly displayed, it was wrong for the Rebbe to stand in respect. Indeed, the Midrash says that the reason Mordechai refused to stand up for Haman was an idol that was hanging from Haman's neck. On the other hand, to sit down just as the Cardinal was approaching would be an embarrassment and an insult.
The Cardinal kept approaching, when he suddenly saw the Rebbe standing up front. Realizing that a distinguished Jewish leader was present, the Cardinal subtly moved his cross under his heavy cassock and continued to walk towards the center of the podium.
Shortly after the meeting, the Rebbe was surrounded by a large group of non-observant Jews. They were incredulous over the Cardinal's action. "Can you imagine the honor the Cardinal demonstrated for the Rebbe? It was unprecedented, unheard of, incredible!" This was the reaction of non-religious Jews who, until about an hour earlier, could have cared less about the Cardinal's cross or their own Jewishness, for that matter. Suddenly, they were proud of being Jewish. It meant something to them. They were now proud to be Jews.
The Rebbe looked at them, and said, "My father was wont to say, 'Once you respect yourself and your Yiddishkeit, others will too.'" This is a lesson that is well-worth remembering.
You shall not take the Name of Hashem, your G-d, in vain. (5:11)
In his commentary to Parashas Yisro (Shemos 20:7), Rashi translates shav as falsely. Targum Onkelos uses both interpretations: vain, falsely. In the Talmud Shavuous 29a, Chazal teach that this commandment prohibits two forms of oaths. One who validates a known entity, such as swearing that a piece of wood is a piece of wood, is making a vain oath. There is no reason for this oath, and he is therefore profaning Hashem's Name by using it for no valid purpose. Another oath, which is more false, occurs when one swears that a piece of wood is a piece of gold. This is also an oath taken in vain, because it serves no purpose, but it is also clearly a lie. If the Torah means sheker, falsely, why does it use the word shav, which means in vain?
Horav Aizik Ausband, Shlita, derives an important principle from here. The Torah is hereby teaching us that when one lies, he acts in vain. He will not accomplish or enjoy any enduring success by lying. Hashem is the essence of absolute truth, and to lie is to go against Him. Ultimately, a lie will have no validity. He relates an incident that occurred during the reign of Czar Nikolai. The Czar was an evil man who sought every opportunity to oppress and hurt the Jews. He did not succeed, and he blamed this on his ministers, whom he claimed were all being bankrolled by the wealthy Jews. Every edict that he would decree somehow did not go into effect as a result of his ministers' subversion.
Once, he decided to issue a new set of discriminatory laws against the Jews. In order to circumvent the possibility of his ministers hampering these laws, he secluded all of them in a room and told them that they were not allowed to leave until the laws had all been worked out and signed by each one. They had until midnight of that night to complete the legislation. They had no alternative but to do as they were told. After completing the legislation, they were about to join the Czar in a festive, lavish banquet in honor of the new dawn that was to rise in Russia.
Suddenly, the Czar burst into the room and read their papers. "Foolish! This is a waste of time!" he screamed. He proceeded to take the papers over to the fireplace and throw everything in. An entire night's work, the legislation against the Jews, the Czar's wicked decrees - all became ashes. The Czar immediately left after completing his act of rage.
A short while later, the Czar came into their room and asked, "What is your conclusion? Where is your decision? I would like to sign the decree and get on with it."
The ministers looked at the Czar as if he had gone insane. They were shocked. Had he not just been there and burnt everything? Incredulous, and filled with fear, they just stood there dumbfounded and shaking. The Czar called for his guards and demanded the ministers be placed into chains and sent to the slave labor camps in Siberia. As this was taking place, one of the ministers gathered his courage and spoke up.
"Perhaps, I can explain. The Czar himself came here, reviewed our work and thrust all of the papers into the fire. This was not even an hour ago." When the other ministers saw that he had spoken up, they all began to chime in and verify what had occurred earlier. The Czar calmed down and said, "Apparently, G-d sent an angel that looked and dressed like me to save the Jewish people. I am foiled again."
Rav Aizik explains that since Klal Yisrael is the metzius, essence, of truth in the world, any decrees against them are inherently false and in vain. Nothing can succeed against the Jewish People unless it is the will of Hashem. Nothing. It is all in vain.
Not because you are more numerous than all the people did Hashem desire you and choose you. (7:7)
Hashem chose us not due to our numbers, but because we are a minority among nations. Klal Yisrael merited this unique selection because of our qualities. What was it that Hashem "noticed" about us that warranted our selection? Rashi says that it was our humility. When we are the beneficiaries of Hashem's favor, it does not go to our head. Humility is a way of life for a Jew, accepting everything that comes at us with equanimity. The Ramban goes a bit further when he says that Hashem loves us because we are soveil, tolerate with extreme patience, everything that comes at us. He cites the Talmud Beitzah 25b which states:
"There are three who are strong…Yisrael among the nations…He explains that the Jew's motto has always been, 'Either I am a Jew, or you may kill me.' He will not renege on his religion."
Horav Matisyahu Solomon, Shlita, gives us insight into the words of the Ramban. When a person seeks a friend that is loyal, his criterion will be that he maintain his fidelity under all circumstances. Otherwise, the relationship will break any time that he does something that does not please his friend. Friendship demands patience, in which each person is tolerant of his friend's behavior - regardless of his actions. He neither covers-up his friend's actions, nor does he break the relationship as a result of them. He remains committed, devoted and true, through thick and thin. He indulges him his criticism and accepts his rebuke, for what is a relationship that cannot sustain adversity?
This describes Klal Yisrael's relationship with Hashem. Let us face it. It has not always been easy. We know that Hashem loves us, but, at times, it is manifest as "tough love," and it hurts. Who are we to attempt to fathom His ways? The mere fact that, despite our inability to understand the darkei Hashem, His ways, we still remain firmly rooted in our belief and commitment is the greatest sign of our savlanus. This is the primary reason that Hashem chose us from among the different nations.
Rav Matisyahu cites the Midrash in Shemos that serves as support for the Ramban. The Torah writes, "I (Hashem) have seen these people, and behold! It is a stiff-necked people." The Jewish nation had just sinned with the Golden Calf. Hashem is telling Moshe Rabbeinu that they are stiff-necked. This is a simile for stubbornness. Once they had decided to sin, they no longer looked back. They just acted with abandon. The Midrash explains that Hashem's reference to Klal Yisrael as a stiff-necked nation was a positive statement. In fact, it was complimentary. The Eitz Yosef explains that Hashem was expressing His "wonderment" concerning the Jews. "After all, I chose them as my People specifically because of their trait of stiff-neckedness. Their firm resolution would give them the forbearance to withstand every nisayon, trial and tribulation that would challenge them. How 'surprising' it is that they fell and capitulated so quickly."
It all translates itself into one word: Perseverance. In order to continue on as a committed Jew, one must be able to persevere and withstand the hardships that may challenge his conviction. When we accepted the Torah, we accepted it in the wilderness. There are no rosebushes in the wilderness. It is a place where one must work very hard and overcome many obstacles if he wants to see something grow. Mitzvah performance takes commitment. There is nothing more edifying than the pleasure of performing a mitzvah for Hashem. Serving Him is an uplifting and satisfying experience, but, at times, it entails hardships, which is all part of the test of commitment. If we stand firm, we can overcome the obstacles that ultimately sustain our belief.
Hashem Tzvakos imanu - God of Hosts is with us.
Tzavah is a reference to a large group of people or things, such as an army. The idea of the name of Hashem as Hashem Tzvakos has a powerful connotation. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains that this name means that everything which Hashem created has a purpose. Everything in this world has a reason; everybody in this world has a purpose; otherwise, they would not be here. This applies to Jew as well as gentile, to the righteous and to the wicked. Hashem does not keep anybody alive unless he serves a purpose. Likewise, every part of the human body serves an objective. As medical science becomes more proficient, the researchers discover that everything has its unique place in the scheme of things. Every form of life, from the tiniest molecule to the largest creature, all belong and all have a purpose. They are all part of the tzavah, army, of Hashem. This, of course, contrasts the heretical theory of Evolution, which disputes the existence of a Creator and explains life as the result of random natural forces.
We live in a time when people say they are searching for meaning in life. This search compels them to "try everything" to satisfy their quest. As members of the Torah nation, we know the meaning of life, and we understand that life has a purpose. The mere fact that we exist is reason enough for us to serve Hashem. We believe that there is a special purpose for everyone, regardless of his physical and mental capabilities. If Hashem created him, he already has purpose. We are all part of Hashem's vast army. Those who deny this have gone AWOL.
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