Vayelech 5759 – Gilayon #49
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Shabbat Shuva – Yom Kippur 1998
Rabbi Levi said: Great is repentance which reaches the Throne of Glory, as it is written: "Return Israel to the Lord your God"
(Babylonian Talmud Tractate Yoma, 86 a)
The limits of Moshe's capacity: Various perspectives
"I can no longer come and go": could it be that he is exhausted? It comes to teach us that "his eyes had not dimmed and his natural powers had not left him", but what is the meaning of "I can no longer"? I am not entitled, permission was taken away from me and granted to Joshua.
"And God has told me": this is why I can no longer come and go, since God told me.
Another point: come and go in the words of the Torah, teach us that additional lessons and fountains of wisdom were concealed from him. (Rashi on Deuteronomy 31:2).
Come and go: in war, meaning that if I were not to die now, I would not have the capacity to fight, and you have no need for
anyone to help you, because Hashem destroys the nations, and Joshua does as well. And proof of this is what you saw with your very own eyes in the war with Sihon and Og
(Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 31).
"And you shall choose life"
"Return Israel to the Lord your God, because you have failed in your sins" (Hosea 14:2)
In the prophet's words, one may see an expression of God's astonishing forgiveness for Israel's sins. All things considered, they merely failed, their evil deeds were not carried out intentionally. This idea finds a much more direct and intense expression in the Kol Nidrei evening prayer, when we recite a verse from the book of Numbers (15:26) "Since all the people acted inadvertently, the entire Israelite community along with the proselytes who join them shall thus be forgiven." This verse is not only taken out of its original context, with its meaning changed intentionally, moreover, the meaning in its new context in the Yom Kippur Eve prayer appears most astounding. In essence, we are saying that all of us, the entire community of Israel, are requesting compassion and forgiveness from God, based on the argument that all that we have done during the past year, which was not alright, was carried out inadvertently!
This assumption is apparently based on Judaism's very optimistic approach to the human soul.
According to this approach, man is basically good, and therefore, deep within, each person essentially wants the good. However "the inclination of man's heart is evil from his youth" (Genesis 8:21), and early on in his youth, man learns to take short cuts, so to speak, which ultimately cause him to stray from good, and he sometimes does not succeed in finding it once again. (See Sifri on Deuteronomy 11:26).
This assumption enables us to have a profound understanding of the command that concludes the Torah portion Netzavim. This command is intended to be the actual aspiration of these Ten Days of Repentance "and you shall choose life, so that you and your descendants will live, to love the Lord your God, to obey Him and devote yourself to Him" (Deuteronomy 30:19, 20).
The questions are obvious. Why wouldn't we choose life? Why would we choose evil and death? And what is the meaning of choosing life to live? The answer to these questions lies in the above assumption. We live our lives on various levels, not only do we not always succeed in properly making a value decision, but we are also not always aware of the significance of the choices in our lives (see Sforno ad loc.). Due to our incapacity to understand accordingly, we choose to proceed on the path of death and evil which limit and reduce our being, instead of taking the path of life and good which develop our soul, towards a good and long future. It seems to me that this meaning lies in the words of Rabbi Yaakov (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kidushin 31a, and Hulin 142a), explaining that the promise of a good life in the Torah relates to the world to come. It does not involve the amount of life, says Rabbi Yaakov, but rather the quality of life, the spiritual quality of life, which comprises the eternal element within us. There is a person who procures his world in one hour (Babylonian Talmud 77b) and there is another who not even his 120 years of existence on this earth have contributed anything to society nor have developed his soul. And our Sages said: "Even in their death, the righteous are considered to be alive, and the evil, even in their lifetime, are considered dead". (Midrash Tanhuma, Vezot Habracha 7, and Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 18).
If so, the Torah commands us to choose life in order to live in the most sublime form, above and beyond immediate gratification, and to arrive at a quality choice, bearing eternal value. And in this light, one may understand the deeper meaning of the words of our Sages with regard to these days, during which it is said that God has the "Books of the living and the books of the dead" opened (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashana, 32a). It does not say the books of those who are destined to live or to die, because there are people who are functioning physically, but are not living from a spiritual point of view, in the true sense of the word – but rather – are dead even as they live.
And thus we may also understand the words of our Sages (Midrash Tanhuma, Vezot Habracha, 7), that "a person who sees the sun rising and does not bless the Creator of light, or sees the sun setting and does not bless the One who brings on the evening, is considered dead", because whoever lives in our world, and is unaware of the wonders and beauty of creation, is unconscious of the presence of the Creator in our world and within us, and therefore, is not living in the most sublime form of the word. Thus, during these days, what we are supposed to request and aspire towards is not the amount of life, but rather the quality of life, life of awareness, of good, the essence of eternity.
Respectively, this approach of course influences the way we relate to our material world. A wonderful example of the Sages' approach to the above may be found in Pirkei Avot, which we have just concluded reciting during the summer Shabbatot at Minha prayer time, in the famous words of Ben Zoma:
"Who is wise? One who learns from every person
Who is brave? One who conquers his desire
Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot
Who is respected? One who respects human beings"
If we were not familiar with this famous saying, we would not usually respond as Ben Zoma did. We would define a wise person as one who has acquired education, a brave person as one who has developed his body or who has a large stock of weapons, a rich person – as one who has acquired capital, and a respected person – as one who has received medals and degrees, etc. The big difference between the widespread perception in our society and that of Ben Zoma's is that we, to our disgrace, evaluate people according to what they have or what they have acquired; whereas Ben Zoma speaks of what they are themselves, from within, in their inner selves, in their souls.
Here lies the great difference between the concept of quality of life, in its prevalent meaning in society, and the quality of life as Judaism intends. Indeed, the Torah does not deny the value of material things; on the contrary, it recognizes the importance which human society accords them. However, acquiring these things is not an objective in of itself, but rather a means, and their value is determined according to the use man makes of them. And the way in which we use them reflects our inner selves and our aspirations.
Moreover, our Rabbis explain that idol worship is in essence the transformation of the means into a goal that sanctifies anything which serves it. When material things become goals themselves, they become pagan and destructive, and they distance us form the true recognition of the presence of the Creator in our world, within us, and within our fellow human being. Rabbi Meir Simha of Dvinsk, the commentator "Meshech Chochma", explains that this danger exists also with respect to means that hold a value of holiness, such as a nationalist, geographic and ritualistic framework, and the following are his words relating to the incident of Moshe's breaking the first tablets:
"The Torah and faith are the foundations of Israeli belief, and all the sacred objects – the Land of Israel, Jerusalem and the Temple – are nothing but objects and branches of the Torah that have been sanctified by the holiness of the Torah. Therefore, there is no distinction between matters of Torah, whether in place or in time and it remains the same within the Land of Israel
(Meshech Chochma on Exodus 32:19).
When these holy means become goals in of themselves, they damage the spiritual quality of life, and cause people to fail and to remove themselves from pure faith and moral conduct respectively. Hashem calls on those who fail in these matters to return and choose the path of a truly sublime and pure life "So that you and your descendants will live….for this is your means of survival and long life in the land that God swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give to them." (Deuteronomy 30:20).
Rabbi David Rozen, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, presiding General Manager of the Israeli office of the Anti- Defamation League.
Each person should decide in his heart on the Eve of Yom Kippur, to make up with anyone against whom he has transgressed, for Yom Kippur atones transgressions between man and God, however Yom Kippur does not atone for those between man and his fellow man until he appeases him. Even if they only provoked each other with words, the person must appease him and go to him and if he does not reconcile with him the first time, he must return a second and third time, and each time he should take three people with him to appease him, that he should forgive him, and if he does not reconcile after three times, he does not have to reconciliate again – and this relates to a fellow man, however to his Rabbi, he must take many friends until the Rabbi is appeased – and if he dies, he must bring ten people to his grave and say that he has sinned against the God of Israel and against this person he has transgressed against, and this is done so that the heart of all of Israel shall be reconciled, each person with his fellow man, so that there be no room for Satan to denounce them. (Tur Orach Hayim, Siman 606)