Ten Short Essays in Preparation For Rosh Hashana
Copyright: Rabbi Michoel Fletcher
WHAT I LEARNED FROM OUR PASSIFLORA
Passiflora, otherwise known as passion fruit, grows in our neighbour’s garden in Ramat Bet Shemesh. It has grown and grown until it reached the first floor, where we live. It ‘spotted’ our balcony and climbed on to the railings around the top. It never stops growing. Once it has attached itself to one bar it sends out ‘feelers’ in different directions until it finds another bar to attach itself to. My wife and I enjoy the pretty greenery which gives our balcony some privacy, not to mention the delicious fruit which in shemitta year is hefker. With a bit of encouragement from us, it has even wound itself around a corner and it is still growing. When will it stop? After all it must be at least a hundred yards long by now but no. It is never satisfied. It grows, grows and grows some more. As Elul began this year, I realised what the passiflora can teach us.
The minhag to say L’David Hashem Ori twice a day from Rosh Chodesh Elul is clearly designed to guide us during this month of preparation for the Yamim Nora’im. What is the theme of this mizmor?
The first section sounds rather warlike. “ Hashem is my light and salvation. Whom shall I be afraid of? Hashem is the strength of my life. Whom shall I fear? When the evildoers are advancing towards me to devour my flesh, these are my enemies, they will stumble and fall. If a troop is encamped against me, my heart will not fear. Even if they wage war against me, I will put my trust in this.”
How does it relate to us ordinary Jews, who are not facing our enemies on the battlefield? Why is this a preparation for Rosh Hashana? Did Dovid Hamelech really feel no fear when he faced his enemies? A few quotations from Nach should at least answer the third question.
In Shmuel Alef (17) we find a giant from the Pelishtim, Golios taunting the Jewish army asking for any Jew to fight with him and if Golios would vanquish the Jew, the Jews would be slaves to the Pelishtim. If the Jew would vanquish Golios, the Pelishtim would be slaves to the Jews. However all the Jews were afraid and no-one volunteered to fight Golios. Eventually young Dovid, not even a soldier, stepped forward. When Golios saw Dovid, he mocked him and invited him to come towards him so that he could offer Dovid’s flesh to the fowl of the heavens and the beast of the field. Dovid replied,(17:45) “You come to me with a sword, spear and javelin but I come to you in the name of Hashem….On this day, Hashem will deliver you into my hand ….and I shall offer the carcass of the Philistine camp to the fowl of the heavens and the beast of the field.” And, of course, that is exactly what miraculously happened.
Another, lesser- known event, gives even more clarity in Dovid’s attitude to his enemies. Shmuel Alef (21:13) tells that Dovid was captured by Achish, king of Gat and was at his mercy. Dovid feigned madness and the king was convinced that he was a mentally ill person who merely looked like Dovid, and let him go. What was Dovid thinking when he stood defenceless in front of a sworn enemy? A pasuk in Tehilim reveals Dovid’s inner thoughts at that moment. “By Dovid, a michtam when the Pelishtim seized him in Gat. In Hashem … I have trusted. I shall not fear. What can mortal flesh do to me? (Tehilim 56:5) The lashon hakodesh is even more direct, even derisive. “Ma ya’aseh basar li? For Dovid there wasn’t even a question. Whatever Hashem decides, that’s what will happen. Achish, king of Gat, with all his armed soldiers, was a mere mortal. Dovid focussed entirely on intense tefila even as he did his hishtadlus and escaped unharmed.
We asked earlier what we ordinary Jews who are not fighting on the battlefield, can learn from these first pesukim in L’Dovid Hashem Ori and how it is a preparation for Rosh Hashono. The answer is that it can transform our davening completely. When we say hagibor in the beginning of the Shemone Esre, what are we really thinking? We can say the word gibor, thinking of a powerful king. Or we can learn from Dovid Hamelech that Hashem is the ultimate unstoppable power. Nothing stands in the way of His will. A powerful king is still only human. Even powerful kings and dictators are sometimes overthrown. But Hashem is in a league of His own. No mortal can lift a finger against the will of Hashem, never could do and never will do. We may ‘know’ this. If asked, we believing Jews, would all say that Hashem is all powerful. But do we feel it? Do we live it? Do we really think it as we are saying the word gibor? If we would do this, our Shemone Esre would be much more intense.When we make our requests in the intermediate Brachos we would’t just mouth the words.We would appeal to Hashem from the depths of our hearts. Please Hashem. If You agree to do as I ask, nothing can stand in Your way. Shema Koleinu.Listen to our voice, our prayers and our supplications.
Kol hachoshvim olai ra’a, meheira hafer atzasam vekalkel machshevosam – Annul the plans of all those who are planning evil against me.
One of our challenges every Elul is, what can I do to prepare for Rosh Hashono? We are shomrei Toah umitzvos, we keep Shabbos, we daven, we do chesed. What extra can I do? The answer is that we can learn from the passiflora. It is already long, very long. But it continues to grow. We too can always grow in our shemiras hamitzvos, our tefila, our madreiga. The lesson we are learning here about Hashem’s gevura is only one of many. But realising the depth of every word in our tefilos can be a springboard for increased kavana in our tefilos. A meaningful tefila brings us closer to Hashem which in turn strengthens our resolve in general shemiras hamitzvos. There is always room to improve and grow. After all, should we less determined than our passiflora?
MAD DOGS AND JEWS
Recently in Beit Shemesh, a wild dog somehow found its way into a block of flats near the edge of the town. The residents were petrified. No-one could get in or out. The dog wasn’t even barking but no-one was prepared to challenge it. Maybe it hadn’t eaten supper yet! Frantic calls were made to the municipal authorities to send the official dog-catcher. Yishai arrived eventually and calmly captured and removed the animal, to the cheers of the residents. Was this an incident best forgotten or can we learn something from it?
The later sections of Mesilas Yesharim discuss aspects of avodas Hashem which are way beyond the spiritual level of most of us, in the area of fear of Hashem and in particular fear of sin. This applies both to the past and to the future. We find that some of our greatest ancestors were never satisfied with their level of avodas Hashem, thinking that perhaps they had fallen short in some way. This section about fear of the past is probably not for us at all. We would be continuously worried and would not achieve simchas chaim which is so necessary for us and our children. However, we can aspire to the concept of fear of sin in the future, even if we don’t reach the highest levels.
Let’s talk about the ideal first and then discuss some practical ramifications for our lives. The concept of sinning against Hashem should be abhorrent to us. After all, He provides us with everything; how can we possibly think of going against Him? Our vulnerability is clear. He can turn off the supply of blessings in a moment and then where would we be? To challenge Him would be akin to an ant defying a human. We can blot out its life in a moment. It is laughable even to think of defying the Source of our life. The stupidity of challenging our Creator is multiplied much more if we think of the punishment we could incur. An ant might die instantly and that is the end of its existence. But Hashem can punish us in this world or the next while we continue to exist. We could be liable to severe punishments in untold ways. With this in mind, logic would tell us to run a mile from any risk of sin.
How can we bring this concept to life? We could imagine meeting a wild animal in the street. How terrified we would be. Running away is not an option but if there was a chance of taking refuge in a nearby building, what a sigh of relief we would give, especially if there was a door we could lock behind us.
To really feel such horror at the possibility of sinning may be a high madreiga. But we should at least feel the importance of avoiding coming close to sinning. If we know that a certain group of people are constant loshon hora speakers, we should look for another circle of friends. Another group discuss politics bein gavra l’gavra. We should move to another part of the shul or maybe a different shul altogether. It is natural to want to be one of the crowd. One who fears sin may have to consider changing his or her crowd.
Clear sources in the Torah warn us to stay far away from the possibility of sin. A nazir who is forbidden to drink wine may not even go near a vineyard. (Shabbos 13a). Tzitzis are supposed to remind us to keep all the other mitzvos of the Torah. (Bamidbar 15:39). The posuk says (Vayikra 18:6) “Do not come close to immorality.” Hilchos Yichud forbid a man to be alone with a woman who is not his wife. This is a vital fence against immorality. Although there are certain leniencies in halacha, they should only be used in emergencies and with the guidance of a rav. Parents should warn their daughters, who may not realise how vulnerable they are, never to be alone with a man other than a father or brother.
The residents of the block of flats in Beit Shemesh who felt up close the fear of a wild dog can use the experience to strive towards feeling the same fear when they are close to sinning. One must escape and lock the door securely, to make sure to keep far from sin even if others are unfortunately succumbing. And the rest of us, who just read about it, can also imagine the fear of being there, in order to strive towards this madreiga of yiras cheit. For Jews, no experience should be wasted – not even an encounter with a mad dog.
“LIKE THE RISING OF THE SUN”
We all want Hashem’s blessings. We all want to be inscribed in the Book of Life this coming Rosh Hashono. We wouldn’t claim to be tzaddikim gemurim who are written immediately in the Book of Life. On the other hand we are not resho’im gemurim. We’re somewhere in the middle. Are there any short cuts to meriting a good outcome this Rosh Hashono? Is there a hint or a clue as to what finds particular favour in Hashem’s eyes that will earn us a place in the ‘right’ Book even though we’re not tzaddikim gemurim?
In Parshas Re’eh (15:7-10) we read, “If there be a destitute person among you, of one of your brothers in any of your cities, in your land that Hashem your G-d gives you, you shall not harden your heart nor shall you close your hand against your destitute brother. Rather you shall open your hand to him and give to him whatever he needs. Beware lest a wicked thought comes into your heart saying that the seventh year is approaching and therefore you do not want to give to him. He will call out to Hashem and you will be deemed to have sinned. You shall give to him and not feel bad when you give to him because on account of this, Hashem will bless you in all your deeds and in all your undertakings.”
The background to this warning not to be reluctant to lend to the poor when the seventh year is approaching is because the Jewish calendar is divided into cycles of seven years. Every seventh year is the shmitta year. During this year not only is it forbidden to cultivate the Land of Israel but any loans which are outstanding at the end of the year are cancelled. Therefore if a person lends money just before the shmitta and the borrower is unable to repay on time the lender is liable to lose his money. Hence a possible reluctance to lend at this time and it is against this ‘evil’ thought that the Torah warns us.
The question is asked why this would be such an evil thought. A person may have enough money to lend but not to give outright. It can happen that a borrower is late in repaying. So why is it so wrong to be reluctant to lend at this time. Isn’t a wise man ro’eh es hanolad (anticipates the future)?
In the Sefer Hachinuch ‘s explanation of this prohibition of the Torah, he mentions a detail which makes the question less strong. He says that the Torah is talking about a lender who is reluctant because he is afraid that some unforeseen event might prevent a timely repayment. The Torah is not talking about about someone who admits that he has no way of returning the loan. He is hoping that a miracle will occur and he will acquire the means to repay. It may well be that a person is not even allowed to borrow under such circumstances even for Shabbos needs (Shaar Hatziun 242:12) and certainly a person is not obliged to lend to him. The Torah is warning about being reluctant to lend to a person who in the normal course of events will have the means to repay but the lender is worrying that the borrower will suddenly, for some unforeseen reason, lose his ability to repay on time. This is even before the shmitta year has started, leaving over a year for the loan to be repaid and the lender has the money available and has no need of it. Further there is no prohibition of repaying a loan after the shmitta year (unlike the laws of interest). An honourable borrower will presumably repay even after the shmitta year. Therefore it is clearly a very uncharitable act to refuse this borrower a loan which he needs, possibly, very urgently.
But the Sefer Hachinuch then continues with a very powerful statement. “Anyone who has any knowledge of the Torah will know that Hashem judges a person according to his deeds and blesses a person according to how near he is to Him. An uncharitable person builds a mechitza shel barzel (an iron separation) between himself and Hashem’s blessings. A generous person is very close to Hashem and is very close to receiving Hashem’s blessings.”
This is, therefore, one direction we can be looking in as we approach Rosh Hashono; to train ourselves to be as generous as possible. Generosity, however, is not limited to the giving of Tzedoko or even lending money to a person in need. We can acquire generosity of spirit which includes thinking well of others, hoping for their success, rejoicing at their simchas, giving freely of our time to help others, looking for ways to bring pleasure to other people and more. In loshon hakodesh this is called nedivas lev , which also falls into the category of people who are close to Hashem and his blessings as described by the Sefer Hachinuch.
One form of nedivas lev is the ability and desire to see beyond another person’s actions and words to understand what the person is really ‘saying.’ Sometimes his words may seem harsh but really they reflect an inner hurt. He doesn’t mean to be confrontational but because he is upset, the words come out the way they do. Many an argument could be avoided if we would recognize this human characteristic. Someone with a generous spirit will have the patience and self-control not to react to another’s words but will dig deeper. “Why did he say that?” “Why did she say this?” At the very least we don’t react with similar confrontational words from which an argument can often escalate. The blessings of this form of nedivas lev do not have to wait until Rosh Hashono but will be immediately felt in enhanced sholom bayis in the home and more friendship with others outside.
Chazal say (Gittin 36b) “Those who are insulted but do not insult back are like ‘the sun as it rises with great strength.’ (Sefer Shoftim 5:31).” What does this comparison mean and what strength does the sun show when it rises? The answer could be based on another statement of Chazal (Nedorim 39b) that the sun does not want to rise in the morning because it knows that the sun-worshippers will immediately begin their avoda zoro. The sun does not want to initiate avoda zoro. However it does so because of the many Jews who rise early to daven vasikin. The sun looks at the positive and rejects the negative. Similarly, when we are insulted, our immediate reaction is to answer back in kind. If, with great inner strength, we can look at the positive by thinking that the person is in pain for some reason or simply by recalling that despite this fault he has many good points, we can be compared to the sun which overcomes its initial feelings and rises every morning.
Generosity of spirit is within reach for all of us. If we can take a step back during Ellul and consider the wonderful blessings we can acquire with it, as the Sefer Hachinuch says, we can be more confident that come Rosh Hashono we will indeed be written in the ‘right’ Book, the Book of Life.
LOOK DOWN…..AND BLESS YOUR PEOPLE”
In the parsha of Ki Sovo, we read about the vidui maaser, the declaration that one had observed the halachic requirements of mitzvos connected with tithing one’s produce.
“I have removed all the consecrated food from the house, I have given to the Levi, the stranger, the orphan and the widow….I have not transgressed Your commandments nor forgotten to praise You….I have done all You commanded me.” The next pasuk continues with a request. “Look down from Your Holy abode and bless Your People Israel and the Land which You gave us as You swore to our Fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Devarim 26:13-15). Rashi comments on this last pasuk, “We have fulfilled our obligations, now You fulfill Your obligations as it says, “If you keep my statutes, I will provide rain in the right time.”
These pesukim and this Rashi are very difficult to understand. Who can stand before Hashem and declare “I have done all You commanded me?” And if this is not enough chutzpa, as Rashi said, we then come with demands on Hashem. “We’ve done our bit, now You do Yours.”
The Mesilas Yesharim in his chapter on humility, (Chapter 22), seems to warn us strongly against just such an attitude. No matter how much we achieve we should not forget that we have certainly not fulfilled all our obligations. Even what we have achieved has been only through the kindness of Hashem who gave us the means to do what have done. Pirkei Avos (2:8) says “If you have learnt much Torah, do not praise yourself for it because this is what you were created for.” There is never an excuse for arrogance. The Mesilas Yesharim brings the case of Nechemyiah ben Chachalya who was very successful in fighting intermarriage, Shabbos desecration and social injustice. Yet the Gemara Sanhedrin (93b) finds fault with Nechemyiah for the words which he said (Nechemyiah 5:19), “Remember in my favour, O my G-d, all that I have done for this People.”
We can perhaps lighten our question slightly with a comment by the late Rav Yosef Dunner zt”l the revered former Rav of the Addass Kehilla of London in his sefer Mikdash Levi. He points out that in the text of the Pasuk (26:14) “I have done what You commanded me” the wording is “osisi kechol asher tzivisani.” (not chol but kechol). Indeed, writes Rav Dunner, a person cannot say that he has done everything (chol) that he has been commanded but approximately everything (kechol). We are still astounded, however, by the brazenous and arrogance of making demands on Hashem based on our apparently faultless observance as brought in Rashi: “We have done what we are supposed to do, now You do what you are supposed to do.”A friend of mine from Ramat Beit Shemesh, Reb Yaakov Schoeman (n.y.) suggested the following possible answer.
There is a difference between the way we must look at ourselves and the way we should look at others. The Mesilas Yesharim is talking about the way we should look at ourselves, with humility. We should never think that our deeds are perfect. Surely we made mistakes, perhaps we could have done more. If we learnt Torah this is because Hashem has given us the possibility to do so in the form of our mental abilities, memory, a supportive enviroment etc. If we have given Tzedaka this is because Hashem gave us the means to do so and we have merely fulfilled our responsibilities. Good characteristics are probably inherited, we perform mitzvos because of the good education we received or good influences which we have been in proximity to, etc. We do not have to negate our achievements but we should put them in context.
However we should not look at other people’s achievements in this way. If they have learnt Torah we should try to be inspired by them, learn from their diligence. If they have good characteristics we should try to emulate them. Whatever others have achieved should be played up not down. Even if there are imperfections with others we should assume they are done by mistake. If we are not sure, we should give the benefit of the doubt, etc.
The Jew who asks Hashem for a blessing in the pasuk, is not talking about himself. Rashi uses the words “We have done what we should have done” Concerning himself he would have spoken with more humility. But he is looking at the achievements of the People as a whole. Concerning others, he sees only perfection. He sees Jews faithfully tithing their produce and bringing the first fruits to Yerusholayim. He sees Jews making sure that orphans and widows are looked after. He sees Jews rising early go to a shiur and learning again in the evening after a hard day’s work. He sees acts of kindness, bikur cholim, hatzala, chaveirim, misaskim. He sees Jews in the midst of serious challenges living with emuna and bitachon. He sees a Jewish People loyally keeping details of halacha despite a galus of two thousand years. He sees holiness. And that is enough reason to beseech Hashem, “We have done so much, we have continued to believe in You and to keep Your mitzvos despite persecutions, pogroms and a Holocaust. Now, please, keep the promises You wrote in the Torah and in the Prophets and bless the Land You gave us that it should flow with milk and honey. May all the wickedness disappear like smoke, may the Tzadikim see and rejoice, may You give honour to Your People
and may the time finally come to witness utzemichas keren l’Dovid Avdecho, bimhairo beyomeinu, omein.
POMEGRANATES AND BANANAS
Parsha of Nitzavim begins with Moshe Rabeinu talking to Bnei Yisroel. “You are all standing today before Hashem Elokeichem: the heads of your tribes, your elders and your officers, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, the convert, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water.” (Devarim 29:9-10) Nitzavim very often falls on the Shabbos before Rosh Hashono when all of us too stand before Hashem to be judged.
Rashi on posuk twelve brings an extraordinary medrash. “Why does the parsha of Nitzavim follow the ninety-eight curses mentioned in Parshas Ki Sovo? Because the people had heard these ninety-eight curses plus the forty-nine of parsha Bechukosai and their faces turned green. They said, “Who can possibly survive these?” Moshe Rabeinu attempted to calm them. “You have caused Hashem to be angry with you many times and still you all standing here today.” Reb Mattisyahu שליט”א once quoted Reb Elya Lapian זצ”ל who was amazed by this medrash. Was Moshe Rabeinu destroying the whole purpose of the warnings of the Torah? Surely the curses were to warn the people of the severe consequences of transgressing the Torah and the people were right to be terrified. Yet Moshe Rabeinu seems to be saying that their fear is unnecessary. They are standing here today despite their sins and they will apparently always survive, no matter what, so the people could heave a sigh of relief. Why should Moshe Rabeinu, Hashem’s most trusted servant, seem to negate the Torah’s warnings?
Reb Elya’s explanation is highly relevant for us. He says that Moshe Rabeinu saw that the people were terrified of Hashem’s judgment. The consequences of sin are a frightening threat. He reassured them, “You are standing here today with a fear of punishment. That is good. If you always have this fear of sin and punishment, you will always survive.”
We are optimistic on Rosh Hashono. We dip our challoh into honey hoping for a sweet year. The simonim express our hopes that all our enemies will disappear. Some French Jews eat bananas hoping for a bonne année. But nothing is guaranteed. We need to earn Hashem’s blessings. If we fear the consequences of our wrongdoings, we will live as we should and do teshuva for our aveiros. But if Rosh Hashono means no more than tasting the sweetest honey, luscious dates, the reddest apples, maybe bananas, and of course, pomegranates, but our lives continue as before, who knows what next year will bring?
One of the most shocking examples of Hashem’s punishment for sinful behaviour is found in Melochim Alef Chapter 21. “There was a vineyard belonging to Novos the Yizre’elite, next to the palace of Achov, King of Shomron. Achov spoke to Navos and said that he wanted to buy the land this vineyard occupied, for a vegetable garden.
However Navos refused. He said to Achov, “Far be it from me before Hashem that I should give you my ancestors’ heritage.” Achov’s wife Izevel then committed a heinous sin. She arranged for false witnesses to testify that Novos had “blessed” Hashem and Novos was duly stoned to death. Achov went down to the vineyard of his former neighbor and inherited it. “Problem solved,” he might have thought. Wrong. “Hashem sent Eliyohu Hanovi to tell Achov, You have murdered and now you inherit? Thus said Hashem, “In the place that the dogs licked up the blood of Novos, the dogs will lick up your blood as well.” Hashem spoke concerning Izevel. The dogs shall eat Izevel in the valley of Yizre’el. Anyone of the house of Achov who dies in the city, the dogs will eat. Anyone who dies in the field, the birds of the heavens will eat.” The posuk (22:37) tells us later this is what happened “…the dogs licked up Achov’s blood and immoral women bathed in it.” Achov the king who is described in Megila 11a as being one of three men, (the others were Nevuchadnetzar and Achashveirosh) who at one point ruled the whole world, came to an ignominious end. The day he walked into Novos’ vineyard, he might have been congratulating himself on the removal of someone who didn’t grovel before him. However Hashem made clear to him and us that sins have consequences. Incidentally, the Gemara in Shabbos 149b says that Novos the innocent victim, merited, in the World to Come, to be in the inner mechitza of Hashem. Everyone gets what is due to them.
There is a mitzvah never to forget Amolek. There is another mitzvah to destroy utterly all memory of Amolek. These two mitzvos seem mutually exclusive? However the Sefer Hachinuch explains that the mitzvah is not to remember Amolek himself but to remember that “anyone who does harm to the Jewish People is hated by Hashem. And according to the evil of his act so shall be his fall, as we see with Amolek who, because he did a great evil to Israel, Hashem commanded that he should be utterly destroyed.” Again, sins have consequences.
The Gemoro in Kesuvos 30a says that although there is no Sanhedrin to carry out capital punishment today, those who need to be punished, will be punished. Someone who would have been stoned to death will fall from a roof and die or an animal will crush him to death. Somebody who would have been burned to death will die in a fire or from a snake-bite. Someone who would have been beheaded, will be beheaded by a criminal or by the government. One who would have been strangled to death will die by drowning. This does NOT mean that somebody who has tragically died in one of these ways was guilty of any sin. There are many other reasons why such a tragedy might have occurred. But we have to know that just because there is no Sanhedrin or Beis Din to exact the punishments certain people deserve, it does not mean leis din veleis dayan – there is no judgment and no Judge.
Before Rosh Hashono, before Yom Kippur and throughout the year we should be afraid. Fear of sin and fear of Divine punishment will prod us to reflect on what we might have done wrong and encourage us to improve. If we have wronged someone we have to ask their forgiveness. Only if we do this can we be confident of what will be. Only if we are “nitzavim kulchem hayom” all standing here today with a fear of possible punishment can we optimistically look forward to a sweet year and a bonne année. Only then can we truly enjoy our pomegranates and bananas.
TOWARDS A SUCCESSFUL ROSH HASHONO
The best-known section of Ki Sovo is the Tochacha – warning us what will happen if we do not keep the mitzvos of the Torah. The low voice of the Baal Koreh hints to our trepidation of the fulfilment of the prophecies, many of which we have already witnessed. It would appear to be a timely preparation for Rosh Hashono, when we will again accept on ourselves ol malchus shomayim. The severe consequences of failing to keep Hashem’s commandments is surely the best incentive we could have to accept all our obligations. However, is this really the case?
Megila (31b) asks why Ezra arranged that we read Parshas Ki Savo before Rosh Hashana. Abaya answers, “Tichleh shana vekloloseho – that the year with its curses should end.” We want to look forward to a new year of blessings. Why didn’t Abaya answer that Ezra wanted us all to feel fearful of transgressing Hashem’s Torah and therefore be ready to accept Hashem’s kingship on Rosh Hashono?
The answer can be found on small cardboard boxes which we sometimes see. “SMOKING KILLS” is written in bold letters on every packet of cigarettes yet we see people, who presumably don’t want to die, calmly smoking cigarettes. Why do people still smoke? Why do so many of our teenagers begin smoking? The answer is because people say, “It won’t happen to me.” Hundreds of thousands of people die from lung cancer but “it won’t happen to me.” We can read the pesukim, hear the baal koreh reading the Tochacho, in hushed tones, we can know that such things have happened to others in our lifetime, but none of this impinges on our preparation for Rosh Hashono. Why? Because we say, “it won’t happen to me.”
What will make a difference? Perhaps a more positive approach – Tichle shana vekloloseho – May next year be full of blessings and not curses… Blessings encourage us. We like blessings
Perhaps concentrating on the section before the tochacha would be more effective. “If you will keep My mitzvos, you will be the foremost nation. You will be blessed in the city. You will be blessed in the field. I will bless your children, your cattle and your produce.” “Now this would be useful,” we think. “Our children certainly need a brocho. An increase in salary together with growth in our investments would help pay a few bills. And if everybody treated us with great respect when they see that we are members of the Jewish People, that would be the icing on the cake.” And if it costs me the effort to resist listening to some juicy loshon hora, it’s well worth it.
The concept of reward is a constant theme in Sefer Devorim. Parshas Ekev (7:12-16) speaks at length about the reward for even minor mitzvos and, again, later in the section which we read as part of our krias shema (11:13-15). In Parshas Re’eh (12:25) the pasuk says that we and our children will be greatly rewarded for not drinking blood. Rashi says that if we merit a great reward when we desist from drinking blood which we consider disgusting, how much more so if we desist from sins which we have a desire for. In Parshas Ki Teitzei (22:7) the pasuk says that if we send away the mother bird before taking the eggs, we will be blessed with long life. Rashi again expounds: If we receive a great reward for a mitzvah that costs us nothing, how much more so for more significant mitzvos. And in this week’s parsha of Ki Sovo, the section about reward precedes the section about punishment.
The reward of observing Hashem’s mitzvos is given to us both in this world and the next. The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva 9:1) explains that the real reward is in the World to Come but, if we keep the mitzvos, Hashem will grant us an interim reward of peace, good health and financial security to enable us to keep more and more mitzvos. Thus we will earn more and more reward in the World to Come. And one hour of reward there is more pleasurable than all the pleasures of this world. (Pirkei Avos 4:17). Michtav M’Eliyahu (1:4) explains that this means that one moment of pleasure in the World to Come is greater than all the pleasures of this world compressed into a single moment.
Just think. For saying brochos with more care, for a friendly hello to a lonely stranger, for counting to ten and calming down rather than getting angry, the rewards are literally out of this world. It’s a no-brainer. Let’s go for it!
The currency of the interim reward may not be pounds, shillings and pence. It may come in the form of physical and mental health, a reasonable income and protection from people who would be happy to harm us, given half a chance. But these are just what we need to enable us to do more mitzvos. According to some mefarshim, the rewards mentioned in the Torah are physical forms of spiritual pleasures which we will enjoy in the World to Come. All in all, keeping mitzvos is the best investment we could possibly make.
Someone might argue that this acceptance of mitzvos is lo lishma – not for pure motives. Our response would be that firstly, we shouldn’t think we are wiser than Moshe Rabeinu who did encourage the Bnei Yisroel with promises of reward, as we have seen. And secondly, Chazal say, “Mitoch lo lishma ba lishma.” From doing mitzvos for insincere reasons one will come to do them for sincere reasons. So let’s put at least put one foot forward – towards a successful Rosh Hashono.
BUILDING THE KING’S PALACE
Nissan is commonly known as the month of redemption, but the Gemoro in Rosh Hashono (11a) brings another opinion that Tishrei is the month of redemption. This seems to be confirmed by the tefila on Rosh Hashono in which we plead with Hashem, “Ten pachdecho Hashem Elokeinu al kol maasecho” – Put fear of You on all the nations. We long for the final redemption, when Hashem will give due honour to His People, praise to those who fear him … speedily and in our days.
Rav Mattisyohu Salamon shlita asks in Matnas Chaim. Why should we focus on the subject of the Geula on Rosh Hashana? We can do this every day and we do. On Rosh Hashono there are other priorities. Our future is being decided on Rosh Hashono. Mi yichye, mi yomus – Who will live; who will die, who at his appointed time; who not at his appointed time. Beitza 15a says that our income for the year is fixed on Rosh Hashono. Surely, asks the Matnas Chaim, the main focus of our tefilos should be pleading for Hashem’s mercy for ourselves. Yet instead, we concentrate on accepting that Hashem is the King and on our hopes that soon everybody else will also accept Hashem as King. Our personal tefilos, zochreinu l’chaim etc are squeezed in at the beginning and end of the tefilos. Would not the reverse emphasis be more appropriate?
The Matnas Chaim answers with a parable. A king once employed a builder to build a magnificent palace for himself and his household. He wanted it to be ready as soon as possible and sent the contractor to the builders’ merchant for the bricks, timber, screws and all the supplies for the new palace. Knowing that there would be a queue, he wrote a note to the manager to give priority to this particular builder because he was working for the king. The other builders protested when he jumped the queue but the manager explained that they needed materials for their own needs but this builder is working for the king. He must be served first.
We all have our own needs, explains the Matnas Chaim. We all want to live and to enjoy good health and a comfortable income. If we want these things for our own benefit and enjoyment we will not receive preferential treatment. However, if we want health and strength in order to learn Torah, to do mitzvos, to sanctify Hashem’s name in the way we live our lives, we can hope for a better reception. If we argue that it is a chillul Hashem when resho’im who don’t even believe in Hashem seem to rule the world, our tefilos are even more likely to be accepted. And if we express our desire for a world where every person is G-d-fearing, so that Hashem’s name is magnified and sanctified, that we want the world to be a huge palace appropriate for the King of Kings, then like the royal contractor builder in the parable, we will move to the head of the queue. We all need life, health and material goods. But if we need them to build Hashem’s palace we will be granted priority in obtaining all the materials we need to do our job.
And if we realise that the day when Hashem’s glory is revealed and the whole world accepts Him as the Creator and King of the Universe is very close indeed, we will daven even harder. The Chofetz Chaim in Tzipiso LiYeshua says that we have already arrived at the stage of world history when the final redemption is imminent. He says that all the signs of the time of redemption mentioned in the last Mishna in Sotah have been fulfilled. “Chutzpa will be in abundance, truth will be lacking, those who fear sin will be despised, Jews will leave the way of the Torah.” The Chofetz Chaim asks, however, that the Mishna seems to contradict the pesukim in Parshas Nitzavim (30:1-3). There we read, “When all these things happen to you, the blessing and the curse … and you return to Hashem Elokecho with all your heart and with all your soul … Hashem will gather you from among all the peoples where He has scattered you.”(30:1-3) These pesukim indicate that the redemption will occur only after we do teshuva! The Chofetz Chaim answers that there will be two groups of Jews. One group will be as described in the Mishna in Sotah – lacking any fear of sin, ridiculing loyal Jews. The second group will be those Jews who despite everything still cling to the Torah. Even if they could enjoy an easier life elsewhere, they live in those places where they can best educate their children to Torah. It is precisely their determination despite all the challenges and mockery from anti-religious Jews and non-Jews, that Hashem will notice and consider this to be the best possible fulfillment of “Returning to Hashem, you and your children with all your heart and with all your soul.” The Chofetz Chaim says that the conditions for redemption, both in the pesukim and the Chumash are not contradictory but complementary. They have now all been fulfilled and the time of the redemption is imminent.
This is what we must remember as we daven on Rosh Hashono. Our deepest desire is to devote our lives to building “Hashem’s palace.” This is why we need all the materials necessary such as life, good health etc. And this new epoch in world history may already be within a hairsbreadth of happening. Our sincere and heartfelt davening might just make the difference so that it will be during this New Year of 5779 that the “Tzaddikim will see and rejoice, the Yeshorim will exult and the Chassidim will sing in joy” and Hashem’s will rejoice with all of us as He rejoiced with our fathers as written in our parsha. (ibid :9).
CHILDREN OR SERVANTS
In every shul in the Jewish world, at one of the most sublime moments of the Rosh Hashono service after the blowing of the shofar during Musaf, we all sing the following paragraph with great intensity each shul according to its custom.
Hayom haras olom, hayom yaamid bamishpot…..
“ Today is the birthday of the World. Today all creatures of the World stand in judgment whether as Your children or Your servants. If we stand before You as Your children, may You have mercy upon us like a father has mercy on his children. If as Your servants, our eyes look toward You until You will be gracious to us and judge us favourably, O Awesome and Holy One.”
It seems that there are two possibilities: to be judged like children or servants. But there is a huge difference between the two possibilities. The chances of a favorable verdict are clearly much higher if we’re judged like children. We can look forward to love and mercy. Kerachem av al bonim- like a father has mercy for his children. But if we’re judged like servants, we will be judged with midas hadin – strict judgment. Is there any way we can opt for one option rather than the other? Is there a way that we can ensure that we will be judged like children to increase the chance of a favourable outcome?
Our desire to be judged like children takes on even more urgency if we look at Gemoro Taanis (23a). The Gemoro is discussing the famous Choni Hame’agel who, in a time of famine, made a circle round himself and swore that he wouldn’t move from the circle until Hashem sent rain. When a few drops came down he argued that it wasn’t enough. When torrential rain began, he complained that it was too much until Hashem sent gishmei bracha. Reb Shimon ben Shetach was not pleased with Choni.
“ If you weren’t Choni, I would have put you in nidui but what can I do, since you are like a ben bayis of Hashem. He has mercy on you like a father for a son. If a son says to his father, “Wash me in hot water, wash me in cold water, give me nuts, almonds, peaches, pomegranates, the father gives him…
If this is how we would be treated if we are judged like children, it’s imperative to be judged this way. Our year and our whole future may depend on it.
We’ll be delighted to discover that indeed we ourselves can choose how Hashem will be judging us this Rosh Hashono. It’s up to us. But what do we have to do?
Let us consider the following. What is the difference between how a child responds to a request from his parents and how a servant responds to his master? If parents ask their child for a drink the child jumps up, only too happy to help. They ask “ Do you want a cold drink, a hot drink, with sugar, milk?” They serve it with a smile and enthusiasm, full of love for their father and mother. When a master asks his servant for a drink, he’s likely to respond grudgingly, knowing that he has no choice. In fact he was hoping that the master would have asked another servant. He really can’t be bothered. But he wants to escape without a wipping and he brings the drink.
When we have a mitzva to do, maybe getting up early for selichos, learning, Shabbos, kashrus, do we comply because we have to, because we’re afraid of eternal punishment etc or is it with simcha? “Baruch Hashem, I have the opportunity to do another mitzva” The first response is to be expected from somebody who is serving Hashem like a servant serves his master whose only interest is to receive reward and avoid punishment. The second response is to be expected from someone who is serving Hashem out of love.
Of course we are warned by the Tana in Pirkei Avos not to serve Hashem like a servant who serves his master for the purpose of receiving a reward.
The Gemoro in Brochos (29b) says that our prayers should not be like a burden and Rashi explains that this means that a person should not think as he davens that he is just fulfilling his obligation. The Mesilas Yeshorim (Chapter 7) extends this to all mitzvos. “When we are fulfilling any mitzva, we should not try to finish it as soon as possible as if we were carrying a heavy burden”. Rather our attitude should be like Dovid Hamelech said in Tehilim (42) K’ayol taarog al afikei moyim, kein nafshi saarog eilecho, Elokim.Tzomo nafshi lelokim, lekail choi, mosai v’eroeh pnai Elokim. Like a hart yearns for streams of water, so my soul yearns for you, Hashem. My soul thirsts for you, Hashem, the living G-d. When will I merit to see the face of Hashem.”
If our attitude to mitzvos is that we do them because we have to and we try to finish them as quickly as possible as if they are a heavy burden, our relationship to Hashem is like a servant to a Master and we’ll be judged accordingly – with midas hadin. We can can only hope, in the words of the machzor, that Hashem will be gracious to us and judge us favourably.
But if we are really happy to do our avodas Hashem, and we try to do it in the best possible way, like a hart yearns for streams of water, so our soul yearns for Hashem, our relationship with Hashem is like a child to a parent and we’ll be judged with love and mercy, kerachem av al bonim,like a father has mercy on his children. We can even ask for nuts, almonds, peaches and pomegranates and b’ezras Hashem, He’ll give them to us.
“REJOICE IN FEAR”
We can’t say we weren’t warned. The shofar has been reminding us loud and clear that Rosh Hashana is coming. It is another of Hashem’s great chassodim that we know about the Day of Judgment. At least we can prepare. We can be ready to re-accept Hashem as the King of the Universe, hopefully on a higher level than last year. And we can prepare our request list for the next year; what we are hoping to achieve and how to approach Hashem with our requests. We all know the value of preparing for a job interview — what to say and how to say it. The results of our ‘interview’ with Hashem are not just going to affect one detail of our life like whether we get a particular job but every aspect of life; in fact life itself. Are we going to be alive this time next year? We are optimistic that we will be blessed, but it still depends on how this Rosh Hashana goes. As the famous response to being asked how Rosh Hashana was, goes, “I’ll tell you next year.”
Do we really have confidence that our judgment will be favorable or is it just bravado? Let’s follow the Jewish custom of answering a question with another question. “Is there a mitzva of simcha on the Yom Tov of Rosh Hashana?” The Shulchan Aruch (597:1) says there is: “On Rosh Hashana we eat and drink and rejoice.” But isn’t this inappropriate on days when we are being judged? Mishna Berura (581:25) on the statement in the Shulchan Aruch that we prepare clean clothes and have a haircut on erev Rosh Hashana comments: “We are confident that Hashem in His kindness will find us to be righteous in our judgment.” “Nevertheless,” adds the Mishna Berura, “we shouldn’t wear our most elegant clothes on Rosh Hashana because we should be in fear of judgement.” Isn’t this a contradiction? We are confident about our judgment and yet we should be in fear of our judgment. How do these two statements fit together?
A posuk in Tehilim ( 2:11 ) is equally perplexing. “Gilu b’raada – Rejoice in fear.” Rejoicing and fear would appear to be incompatible. Yet this is precisely how we are supposed to daven according to Brachos 30b . What does the posuk mean?
A look at the mizmor we say during Elul, L’Dovid Hashem Ori, also reveals yet another apparent contradiction, this time between the first half and the second. Dovid Hamelech apparently starts with total confidence. “Hashem is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? Hashem is the strength of my life, whom shall I dread? When evildoers approach me to devour my flesh, my tormentors and my foes against me – it is they who will stumble and fall. Though an army would besiege me, my heart would not fear, though war would arise against me, in this I trust.” However later, a different tone emerges. “Hashem, hear my voice when I call. Be gracious to me and answer me. Do not hide Your presence from me, do not turn Your servant away in anger…do not abandon me, do not forsake me.” How can we account for this change in Dovid Hamelech’s attitude, from confidence to apparent fear?
The Chumash tells us, “Eretz Yisroel is a land that the eyes of Hashem are continually fixed on from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.” (Devarim 11:12) Rosh Hashana (16a) points out that the word for the beginning of the year, “reishis” is spelt, in the Torah, without the letter aleph at the beginning which hints to the word rash —a poor man. This indicates, says the Gemara, that every year that we begin like a poor person we will be like a rich man by the end. Rashi explains that the Gemara is not referring to lack of money. One should approach Hashem like a poor man approaching a potential benefactor as we learn in Mishlei 18. “Tachanunim yedaber rash.” A poor man speaks to a potential benefactor with great humility. He cannot demand; he just appeals with great self-effacement. “Similarly,” says Rashi, “the Jewish people daven on Rosh Hashana standing humbly in front of Hashem, making no demands, just appealing that Hashem should look kindly at our requests. We have not done enough good deeds to feel that Hashem is somehow obliged to answer our tefilos as we would like. Even if last year Hashem blessed us, this does not mean that He needs to do so this year. An oni knocks on the door of the oshir hoping that he will have some success but realizing that the baal habayis could just as easily totally reject him. He might hope to make eye contact in the hope that the oshir will have rachmonus on him. Similarly we have to stand in front of Hashem on Rosh Hashana hoping that Hashem who is– “rachamov al kol maasav” will have mercy on us. With this attitude at the beginning of the year, of being like a rash – poor man, Chazal tell us, we will be blessed at the end by being like a rich man at the end, with our requests having been accepted.
This way of davening, of making humble supplications rather than demands, is a requirement not just on Rosh Hashana but every day. The Shulchan Aruch (98:3) says explicitly: “A person should speak to Hashem as a poor man speaks at the door of a potential benefactor, hoping to be shown mercy.” The Shaarei Teshuva brings from the Ari that a person should think of this when he says the words “ozer dalim” just before the beginning of the Shemone Esre. Perhaps we can have that same intention when we say the words of Anim Zemiros, “Tikar shirash rosh be’einecho k’shir yushar al korbonecho – May the song of the poor man be as precious to You as a song sung over Your korban.”
There is no contradiction between the two halves of L’Dovid Hashem Ori. In the first section Dovid Hamelech is expressing his complete trust in Hashem. Dovid Hamelech was not afraid of his enemies. “They trust their cavalry and their horses but we put our trust in Hashem.” (Tehilim 20:8 ) The whole of the Egyptian army is like one horse to Hashem. (Shemos 14:23, Rashi). In a moment Hashem can destroy an army as He did at the time of krias Yam Suf, with the army of Sancheriv and on many other occasions. Even though success is not always guaranteed, “Habote’ach b’Hashem, chessed yesovevenu, – one who puts his trust in Hashem, will be enveloped by Hashem’s kindness.” (Tehilim 32:10)
But in the second half, Dovid Hamelech is davening to Hashem, “Hashem, hear my voice, do not hide Your face from me … like a poor person at the door of his potential benefactor with humility, begging for mercy. This is how everyone should daven, rich and poor.
On Rosh Hashana we have to show eimas hadin –fear of judgment. We have to be subdued. It is not appropriate to appear in our most festive clothes. We are appealing for Hashem’s mercy. But we are quietly optimistic. If we approach Hashem with humility, conscious of our imperfections, with true acceptance of Him as our Ruler and the Ruler of the whole universe, we have confidence that He will indeed look favourably upon us, extend His great kindness and send His blessings to us for a successful year ahead. And we can even be b’simcha as the posuk tells us – Gilu b’raada – Rejoice in fear.
TO BE INSCRIBED IN THE BOOK OF LIFE
One of the most dramatic and soul-stirring moments of Rosh Hashana is when the Baal Shacharis calls out with great emotion, “Hamelech,” and continues in the traditional tune “yoshev al kisei rom venisa – who sits on His most high and exalted throne.” We have prepared for at least a month for this moment, blowing the shofar throughout Ellul in anticipation of crowning Hashem as our King on Rosh Hashana. Our eyes water with emotion, our neshomos expand at this most moving acceptance of Hashem’s Kingship. Questions that troubled us during the previous year, when life did not proceed as smoothly as we had anticipated are all forgotten as we announce that Hashem is the King who knows what is right for each one of us. And at the same instant we relive the blessings received during the previous year, bestowed generously and mercifully by our Almighty King, Ruler of Heaven and Earth and the source of everything. But at this pivotal moment, perhaps another thought enters our minds. What could it be?
Every morning and evening when we say the Shema, we accept upon ourselves ol malchus shomayim – the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven. That is why, according to the Mishna in Brachos ( ), we say the first paragraph of the Shema and then the second. First we accept Hashem’s kingdom and His mitzvos, then we read of the reward for keeping the mitzvos and the punishment for transgressing them. But one difficulty is the very first mitzva mentioned, “You shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength.” Why this mitzva? Surely we should be first told about more down to earth mitzvos like learning Torah, wearing Tefilin and fixing a mezuza. Why put what is arguablythe most difficult mitzva first?
In Parshas Vayishlach we read of one the most upsetting episodes of the Chumash—the violation and abduction of Dina the daughterof Yaakov. We read how Shechem the son of Chamor was infatuated with Dina. The pasuk says that his soul clung to Dina, he loved her and wanted desperately to marry her. Thereafter negotiations began between Shechem and his family and Yaakov Ovinu and his sons whether such a marriage could be agreed by both sides. Why bring in this gruesome and distressing episode into our Rosh Hashana preparations?
Henry Smith is a politically aware citizen and he supports a particular candidate for president of his country. This candidate seems to be more capable than the rest and so, on election day he gets up and casts his vote for this candidate who is duly elected. Henry then concentrates on his own affairs and doesn’t involve himself in politics for the next four years. Another person is slightly more involved and wanting to make some kind of contribution, becomes a member of the party and pays his annual dues of $50. Another person is quite enamored by the president and becomes a donor to the party but still devotes most of his time to his own projects unconnected to politics. Another person is even more supportive; he speaks to his friends about how good the president is and why they should consider joining the party. Another person even arranges occasional evenings to bring in new supporters for the president. Another person is so supportive that he applies for a full time job in the party so that he can devote much more time to enlarging the president’s voter base. He is busy from 9.00 am to 5.00 pm working for the good of the president. Of course after 5.00 pm he is involved in other matters, sport and entertainment. Another person has largely given up other pursuits and even after 5.00 pm he spends his evenings speaking in front of large audiences in praise of the president hoping that his enthusiastic support will rub off on others. But another person still is as supportive as anyone could possibly be. He loves this president and spends all his time, all his thoughts, trying to think of ways that will increase people’s honor for the president so that other people will also begin to love and honor him. Both he and Henry Smith, come election day, support the president and cast their vote for him but there is a huge difference between the two.
When we say the Shema and accept the kingship of Hashem we can do it in a very minimal way. Yes, I agree that He is the King and I will serve Him. But we can also accept His kingship with great enthusiasm and love. We can spend our whole day keeping all the mitzvos in the best possible way. We can act in a way that others will be influenced to serve Hashem as well. Our thoughts can be so full of love for Hashem that nothing else is important to us. This is why the mitzva of loving Hashem is mentioned first, even though it is arguably the most difficult, because we are being reminded that kabolas ol Malchus Shomayim is not a static concept. We can grow in the level of our acceptance of Hashem as our King from the very minimum, to the level of loving Hashem with our heart, soul and strength and with every fibre of our being. It may not be achievable in one day but is rather a level to strive for throughout our lives.
The Mesilas Yesharim says that our aim should be that our devotion to Hashem should be at least at the level of Shechem’s love for Dina. Let us imagine that just as Shechem was busy negotiating with Yaakov for his permission to marry Dina, his friend came in and started telling him about some political news in their community. Shechem would dismiss him in a moment. “Not now,” he would shout. “I’m busy with Dina.” Another friend came in with news of a cheap offer on Egyptian horses. “Not now,” he would shout even louder, “I’m busy with Dina. Nothing else interests me.” “Is our love and devotion to Hashem as great as Shechem’s devotion to Dina at that moment?” asks the Mesilas Yesharim.
This could be our third thought as the Baal Shacharis calls out, “Hamelech.” Has our level of crowning Hashem improved since last year? Are we just card-carrying subjects of Hashem or are we loyal, active supporters? Do we turn up to crown Hashem just on Rosh Hashana or is He constantly in our thoughts? At this moment, a decision to try to love Him and honor Him even more than before, might just be the reason that Hashem will inscribe us immediately in the Book of Life.