When Jacob was on his way to Charan, fleeing the wrath of his brother Esau, the Torah in this week’s Parsha relates how “Vayifga Bamakom-he confronted the place.” Commentators grapple with this unusual expression and provide diverse explanations as to what “confronting the place” means. If it were to simply mean that he arrived in a specific location, it could have written simply, “And he arrived at the place,” or “he came to the place.” What message does the Torah wish to convey when it says that he “confronted” or “bumped in” to the place?
Some commentators explain that it means that he came to this place unexpectedly. Rashi adds that the place — the ultimate site of the Holy Temple — actually “jumped” to come towards him.
We must realize that G-d does not perform miracles unnecessarily. The fact that he chanced on this piece of land suggests that his relationship with the location was not a casual and predictable one, but, G-d had to serve as a Shadchan (matchmaker) of sorts to bring them together.
We must try to understand what is the message for us in the realization that Jacob was brought together with the land.
Furthermore, the Torah relates in this verse that Jacob “stayed overnight there, for the sun had set.” Rashi explains that G-d had caused the sun to set early so as to compel Jacob to sleep in this holy place.” Once again, it becomes clear that G-d was “overriding” His own natural order to bring Jacob to this place. What was G-d’s objective and how does it relate to us?
To understand the significance of Jacob’s “bumping in” to this holy site, we should refer to Rashi’s other rendition of the Hebrew word Vayifga to mean that he prayed. Rashi further states that Jacob then instituted the evening service. Here too we are entitled to ask, what connection does the word “confronting” have with prayer and what is Rashi trying to teach us when he states that Jacob then instituted the evening service?
The answer to all of the above lies in a better understanding of the primary obstacle that prevents us from reaching “the place” and thereby realizing our spiritual goals. It can be summed up in one word. Intimidation. Intimidation is the primary reason for so many people’s reluctance to frequent the synagogues and Houses of Study or to otherwise connect with “the place,” the special place G-d had in mind for us to be at, but from which we might be quite distant.
While there are some who have no interest in climbing the spiritual ladder — the ladder was part of Jacob’s dream that is recounted in this week’s Parsha — most keep away from the spiritual locations because of fear.
For some it is the fear of the unknown. For others it is the fear that they will have to change their lifestyles that they have become so accustomed to, to enter into a new world. And for a third group, the fear is that they are unworthy and would be rejected. In their minds, they do not have what it takes to meet the challenge.
Whatever the cause of the fear, it is what prevents us from realizing our souls’ dreams. It is the single most significant factor that prevents us from coming closer to G-d.
Jacob, the Patriarch of the Jewish People, had to make the breakthrough for all future generations. It was Jacob — whose name is etymologically related to the idea of “breaking through” — who G-d made sure would “bump in” to the holiest place on earth, the future site of the Holy Temple at the most unexpected time. This means that Jacob demonstrated that even when you least likely consider or expect to be at this special location, G-d will make it happen. Jacob’s unexpected confrontation with “the place” paved the way for us to realize unexpected goals.
And what did Jacob do there? He prayed the evening service. This symbolizes that even when it is dark, a time that is associated with fear and uncertainty, we can still connect to G-d; we can still erect the ladder that connects earth to heaven.
The lesson for our generation in particular is a poignant one.
We have been reminded by our spiritual leaders that we are living in momentous times; at the tail end of exile, approaching the beginning of the Messianic age of Redemption. Recent world events have only served to reinforce this belief. Yet, we are also overcome with feelings of fear and trepidation. It may be fear of the unknown: What will life be like in the Messianic Age? Or perhaps it is the fear that our lives will change forever? Will we still retain our jobs, ambitions etc.? And occasionally it is fear that we are unworthy.
Yet everything around us compels us to realize that we have “bumped into the place,” that we are living in unprecedented times and are poised to enter into a very special era of closeness to G-d. We can see how we have been “thrust” into this new “location” and time.
What should our response be?
We should follow Jacob’s example. While Jacob was also fearful, as the Torah itself testifies, nevertheless, he regained his composure and instituted the evening service. By doing this, he essentially declared for posterity that “even, nay especially, when it is dark, we must and can enter into a state of connection with G-d and bring about the fulfillment of the ultimate “dream” — the imminent coming of Moshiach.
The first Bar Mitzvah in the Torah can be found in this week’s Parsha. The Torah describes how the twin boys of the Patriarch Isaac and Matriarch Rebecca went in different directions when they “grew up”:
“And the boys grew; and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents.”
Rashi, the principle Bible commentator, comments that as long as Jacob and Esau were children, one could not determine by their actions who they really were. Once they reached the age of thirteen, however, Jacob went to the Beit Hamidrash - House of Study, while Esau gravitated towards houses of idol worship.
The question has been asked. Didn't Jacob attend the House of Study before his Bar Mitzvah? Does not our Oral tradition inform us that even before he was born, Jacob was naturally attracted to Houses of Study? Whenever his mother past a House of Study, Jacob wanted to leave his mother's womb to go there. Certainly, after he was born, Jacob would have desired to study Torah, not just on the day of his Bar Mitzvah?
One answer to this question lies in the fact that before his birth Jacob had the “urge” to go to a House of Study only when his mother past one. That suggests that when Jacob was in an environment of Torah, when he passed a House of Study, that was when he was drawn by its influence. Esau ,on the other hand, had the opposite inclination. According to our Sages, whenever his mother passed a house of Avodah Zarah-idolatry he had an urge to go there. In spite of Jacob and Esau’s proclivities before they reached the age of maturity, it was still not clear what each of them would choose if they would be in a neutral environment; if there was nothing to attract them to either place.
When they reached the age of Bar Mitzvah, however; when they became independent of their mother and her influence, this is when it became clear what was their real inclination in life. At this point, everyone knew that Esau really wanted no part of his parent’s legacy, not just because he might have been influenced by his environment, which, at that time was idolatrous and corrupt. Esau had assimilated his cultures mores and values into his own.
Similarly, Jacob chose to go to the Houses of Study not simply because he followed the example of his parents and was in a positive environment, but because it became his choice.
This is likely what Rashi meant when he writes "When they became thirteen years old, this one "separated" to the Houses of Study and the other “separated” to the Houses of Idolatry." What does Rashi mean when he says, this one "separated?" What did they separate from? Rashi should have simply said, "This one went etc." What does the word "separated" imply?
Rashi seems to be saying that as long as they were still "attached" to their environment, one did not know if their behavior was due to their own efforts and inclinations, or it was due to the influence from others. However, when they "separated," when they were no longer attached to their respective environments and sources of influence, nevertheless, “this one ‘separated’ to the Houses of Study and this one ‘separated’ to the House of Idolatry” — it was clear who they really were.
A Bar Mitzvah is not only when a child is considered mature enough to assume the obligations of an adult. After all, many children before the age of Bar Mitzvah fulfill many of the Mitzvot and carry out their obligations admirably. Why do they have to wait for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah to be considered an adult?
The answer is that a Bar Mitzvah is when all of his actions begin to count as his actions; when Mitzvot acquire their full force of holiness, because they are the Bar Mitzvah boy’s or the Bat Mitzvah girl’s own personal observances. Just as a Mitzvah without intent and feeling is not a complete Mitzvah, because it is missing its soul, so too, a Mitzvah performed by someone under Bar Mitzvah, where part of the motivation and intention comes from one's parents and environment, is not a complete Mitzvah.
Whatever is true about every individual is true about the Jewish people as a whole. Our sages say that Mitzvot we perform now are mere preparations for the Mitzvot we will do in the Messianic Age. Contrary to the myth that a Messianic Age will bring about a reduction of responsibility and will serve essentially as a universal “senior citizen” retirement experience as a reward for all of our good work, Judaism believes that Moshiach will bring more integrity to all of our observances. In our present state of exile, our Mitzvot are, by definition, incomplete.
Whatever we do now can thus be compared to the actions of a pre-Bar-Bat Mitzvah child, whose actions are deemed incomplete because they are not the independent expressions of that individual child, but are attributable to his parents, teachers, peers and the general environment. When Moshiach will take us out of exile, we will all celebrate our collective Bar and Bat Mitzvah, when our Judaism will blossom and our Mitzvot will be performed in the most complete and ideal way.
Every Bar or Bat Mitzvah can thus be said to be a sample of the future Redemption. At a Bar Mitzvah, it is customary for the father to recite the blessing, “Blessed is the One who relieved me of this liability,” referring to the child’s transition from dependence on his parents to spiritual independence. May we see, imminently, how our Father-in-Heaven recites the blessing that will relieve Him and all of us from the liability of exile.
When Eliezer, the Patriarch Abraham’s servant, was sent to Aram Naharayim to find a suitable match for Isaac, Eliezer’s test for the suitable girl (who turned out to be the Matriarch Rebecca) was rather unusual.
“Behold, I stand by the fountain of water; and the daughters of the men of the city come out to draw water. So let it come to pass, that the maiden to whom I shall say: Let down your pitcher, I pray thee, that I may drink; and she shall say: ‘Drink, and I will give your camels drink also.’ Let her be the one that You have appointed for Your servant, for Isaac, and thereby shall I know that You have shown kindness unto my master.”
If Eliezer would have said, “the first maiden that would ask ‘where are you from?’ will be the girl that G-d had intended for Isaac,” or some other similar statement, it would have been an arbitrary and capricious way of determining who should marry Isaac.
Now, however, that Eliezer was making his determination as to who should be Isaac’s match on the basis of an act of kindness, it was not arbitrary at all. After all, kindness is a trait that was the hallmark of Abraham’s family.
But a question can still be asked. Wouldn’t it have sufficed if the girl would have kindly acceded to his request for some water? Why did he have to add on the provision that she would also offer to provide water for his camels? Isn’t the act of helping a stranger proof enough of her kindness?
Furthermore, if Eliezer really wanted to see the true extent of her kindness, he should have said, “which ever maiden will offer to give me something to drink.” Isn’t unsolicited kindness a more meaningful form of kindness?
To answer this question we must discern between two opposite motivations of kindness. On the surface they may appear identical, but when we probe beneath the surface, we will realize that they are truly two distinct forms of kindness.
The first and lower form of kindness and compassion is motivated by seeing the needs of others. When we see another person’s suffering we cannot bear it and we respond by doing something to help remove the other’s pain. This form of compassion, however worthy it may be, is not real compassion. If one were never to have seen the other’s suffering and degradation, it would never have occurred to him to look and find these people who are in need and help them. Only when their pain comes to our attention, do we then react. This form of reactive kindness is actually not an expression of compassion for others, but really a way of allaying one’s own pain and discomfort.
Pro-active compassion is where one cannot bear to keep the resources they possess for themselves. To use a Talmudic metaphor: “A cow wants to nurse its offspring more than the offspring wants to be nursed.” A truly kind and compassionate person’s need to give, prompts him to become a pro-active giver who seeks out others who are in need. It is not his own pain that he is trying to assuage, but he is in pain when he cannot give of himself to others
This was the hallmark of Abraham. When he was recovering from circumcision, he was sitting outside his tent hoping to be able to invite some hapless wayfarer into his tent. His pain at not being able to help another human being was greater than the physical pain that followed his surgery.
If “the girl” that was to become the wife of Isaac, Abraham’s son, was to prove that she was a pro-active giver, it would not have sufficed for her to have volunteered giving Eliezer something to drink. Her generosity might have been aroused by her seeing the famished condition of Eliezer and not by a pure desire to help others.
Eliezer therefore stipulated that the girl who would offer to go beyond compassion for the weary traveler, but would also want to do even more acts of kindness, she is the one who is endowed with the Abraham trait of pure and unadulterated kindness.
G-d also displays two modes of kindness. Creation of the world, we are told, is a product of G-d’s kindness. But that kindness existed even before there was a need for it; it was pro-active. On the other hand, the kindness that we are in need of now that we are in exile is motivated by the pain that G-d “experiences” when He sees His children suffering.
When Moshiach will usher in a new age of Divine revelation and there will be no more poverty and suffering, G-d’s benevolence will once more not merely be of the reactive mode, but as in the beginning of creation, it will be pro-active — pure and unadulterated kindness. G-d will give not because we need, but because He desires to give.
Our pure and pro-active acts of goodness kindness are the catalysts that will usher in the Messianic Age of pure and unrestricted G-dly goodness and kindness.
One of the most corrupt societies in history, and arguably, the most corrupt, was the city of Sodom. Sodomite people were known for their loose morals and their maniacally cruel disposition towards others, particularly strangers. For this reason, G-d had decided to destroy Sodom and its neighboring towns.
Sodom has thus been used by the Torah and our Sages as the symbol of man’s inhumanity and insensitivity to his fellow man.
One the most familiar references to the attitudes of Sodom can be found in the Talmudic classic Pirkei Avot, often referred to as “Ethics of the Fathers.” In chapter five our Sages cites a view that one who says, “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours” has exhibited a “characteristic of Sodom.”
We should ponder the meaning of this statement. Why is one who respects the integrity of another’s property lumped together with the most depraved people of Sodom?
One simple interpretation is that those who say “what is mine is mine” suggest that they would not part with their own property to help another. A person who thinks that his money and property are all his own will never reach out to help another with his resources.
If this is true then we might wonder why such a uncharitable person, whose behavior is reminiscent of the wicked Sodomites, would even be mentioned in Ethics of the Fathers, a treatise that was written for the person who aspires to be a chasid, defined as one who follows the law and wishes to go beyond the letter of the law.
The answer to this question can be found in the introduction to this statement. “One who says What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours..” It does not say, “One who acts” but “one who says.” This refers to a person who may have made this statement, but certainly does not act in accordance with it.
Occasionally we find people who act charitably, but may harbor less than ideal traits. One may actually contribute to Tzedakah and reach out with his resources to others, but nevertheless may be harboring Sodomite sentiments.
By saying “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours,” the person is in effect declaring: “I will give the poor person, and I want him to realize that I have just given him from that which is exclusively my own.” This “charitable” individual is actually attempting to extol the virtue of his brand of giving. “I am such a charitable person,” he is saying in effect, “I will even give my own possessions to another.”
Ethics of the Fathers teaches us how to not even entertain Sodomite ideas, even if one acts contrarily. Though one’s charitable actions are noble, one’s mindset may be closer to the Sodomite mindset.
The true ideal of giving is to combine the act with the thought that, in truth, nobody gives their own resources to another when they give Tzedakah. Rather, G-d has entrusted the giver of Tzedakah with money that rightfully should have been given directly to the needy person. G-d, however, decided to “entrust” this money with the giver in order to provide him with an opportunity to be His agent in sustaining the world.
Thus, our attitude — not only our actions — should reflect the belief that even “mine is yours.” Even what G-d has given me, is truly the possession of the recipient of my kindness. It originally belonged to G-d and will ultimately belong to the recipient. We are only the “middle men through whom the transfer is effected. To think otherwise is to think in the mode of the Sodomite people who could not countenance giving because they believed that G-d wanted them to keep it for themselves.
Our Sages describe the whereabouts of Moshiach as being in the wicked city of Sodom. Their intent was to describe Moshiach’s role as one who will remove the Sodomite attitudes that might have tainted some of our good deeds.
While “the deed is the essential thing,” Moshiach demands more of us; that we see things through the prism of Abraham and not the prism of Sodom; to see things from the perspective of the recipients of our charity and not from our own self-centered vantage point.
One of the rituals associated with the end of our meals is to wash our fingertips before reciting the Birkat Hamazon, the Grace after Meals. Originally, this was instituted to wash off any trace of the potent Sodomite salt that might cause blindness if we touched our eyes with the residual salt on our fingertips. On a symbolic level we might add, that as we come to the end of our “meal,” the repast of exile, we must remove even the slightest trace of Sodom. It does not suffice to act Jewishly but think in Sodomite fashion. We must also think Jewishly. Let us not allow the residual Sodomite ideas blind us, by preventing us to see the needs of others because we are so full of ourselves.
By removing the last trace of Sodom, we will be ready to recite the ultimate Birkat Hamzon, a prayer of thanksgiving to G-d for the ultimate salvation of the world with the imminent coming of Moshiach.
When G-d informed Abraham that his wife Sarah will bear him a son, He immediately tells him that he will be should name him Yitzchak-Isaac: "Your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you shall call him Yitzchak."
Rashi informs us that the name Yitzchak is because of the laughter. The selection of this name was clearly G-d’s way of saying that Isaac’s miraculous birth—when Abraham was ninety and Sarah a hundred—would certainly evoke laughter and unparalleled joy.
However, the name Yitzchak does not mean laughter or joy. It is written in the future tense and should be translated literally as: “he will laugh.”
Two questions arise upon reflection.
First, why did G-d have to tell him a year before the child was born what he should name him?
Second, why is the future tense used for his name? He could have been called “tzchok,” which means simply, laughter.
Third, it is not clear who will laugh? Was it Isaac that would laugh? Or perhaps it refers to everyone who will hear about this miraculous event, as Sarah exclaimed, upon giving birth to Isaac: “whoever shall hear will laugh.
A simple way of answering the these questions is that Isaac would laugh at those cynics who declared the Abrahamic cause dead. With no heir to Abraham’s legacy of spreading monotheism, justice and righteousness, all of Abraham’s contributions will disappear. Thus Abraham’s very life’s work, for which he was willing to sacrifice his life, was called into question.
G-d thus says to Abraham, when your wife Sarah will bear you a child, he will be the next link in the chain of your tradition, and keep it alive and well.
Thus, Isaac will laugh at those critics and cynics because he will demonstrate the fallacy of their thinking.
We too are confronted with cynical remarks from our detractors, and frequently we may harbor these sentiments ourselves. Of what avail are our efforts today, when the changing world of tomorrow will no longer accept our Jewish values.
The birth of Isaac and his naming was intended not just for that generation but for all times. Whenever we have a foreboding sense of doom, whenever we become pessimistic about our Jewish future, G-d says to us in effect: “Yitzchak!” You will yet have the last laugh. You, the Jewish people and your teachings and values that we inherited from our ancestors going all the way back to Abraham, will endure.
There is yet a deeper dimension to all this. Some pessimists might concede that the Jewish people will survive and some version of the original Torah will be preserved. But, whatever will be salvaged will in no way come close to the glory of the past. What we will have is a adulterated and compromised Jewish existence.
To these “moderate” pessimists G-d declares: Yitzchak! He will laugh. The Jewish people and the Jewish way of life will not degenerate G-d forbid, it will not be diminished in any way. On the contrary, the greatest joy and excitement is yet to come. As the Psalmist says: “Then our mouths will be filled with laughter.” Referring to the future Messianic Age, the Divinely inspired Psalmist assures us that our future will not only guaranteed, but it will be guaranteed to be one of joy and exhilaration.
However, G-d informed Abraham about the birth of his son in conjunction with the commandment to circumcise himself and his children. The connection between the birth of Yitzchak and Abraham’s circumcision was intended to eliminate any notion of complacency. By linking the glorious future of the Jewish people—Yitzchak, he will laugh—to Abraham’s circumcision it underscores that Judaism is not a sit-back-and-wait-for-all-the-fun-to-unfold religion.
Judaism demands of us to be active participants in the process of making the future joyous and glorious by removing all the impediments to our true Jewish souls.
Furthermore, the fact that circumcision is performed on the procreative organ symbolizes that our involvement is crucial for the future. It also conveys the message that we must impart to our children and their children the same unadulterated Jewish beliefs, feelings and practices, absent all the obstructions that come from the outside. As soon as we water down the Judaism of the past generation, the child is deprived of some of the joy, the Yitzchak of being Jewish.
This Shabbat in which we read the double Parsha Netzavim-Vayeilech is the last one of the year. According to the Shaloh, despite the fact that the Torah reading schedule was made independently of the cycle of Jewish holidays, every Torah reading reflects the themes of the Holiday that occurs within that week.
One of the obvious themes that both this Parsha and Rosh Hashanah share is the theme of Teshuvah (repentance-return) Rosh Hashanah is the first of the Ten Days of Teshuvah. Upon deeper reflection, one might argue that the theme of Teshuvah is more forcefully associated with the days following Rosh Hashanah. Besides the fact that we almost never make mention of our sins and repentance for them on Rosh Hashanah itself, Rosh Hashanah is known primarily as the Day of Judgment rather than the Day of Teshuvah. We must, therefore, find a connection between this week's Parsha and the theme of judgment that occurs on Rosh Hashanah.
Upon deeper reflection, we shall see hat the connection to Rosh Hashanah appears at the very beginning of the Parsha which states: “You are standing firmly today..”
On the surface, these were part of Moses' farewell address to the Jewish people. But, according to R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi (known as the Alter Rebbe, the author of the Tanya, the primary text of Chassidic literature), the word “today” refers to the day of Rosh Hashanah. And the Torah in this week's Parsha informs us that we all stand firmly on this day of judgment. This means that we will be victorious in our judgment.
One can ask the following question. If Rosh Hashanah is the day of judgment, G-d obviously, scrutinizes our every deed, How ten can we be so confident that we will prevail in our judgment?
The answer has actually been furnished by the Torah itself, The verse in its entirety reads: “You are all standing firmly today, all of you before the L-rd your G-d; your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers, all the men of Israel, your little ones your wives, and your stranger that is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood unto the drawer of your water.” The key to being victorious is thus for all of us to stand together.
But, even this prescription begs for an explanation. Why would G-d overlook our flaws just because we stand together?
One of the answers lies in the identification of the diverse categories enumerated in the Parsha. The two last categories were the hewers of wood and the water carriers. These people, our Sages tell us, were members of a Canaanite tribe who deceived Moses (just as a similar tribe tricked Joshua) into converting them and accepting them into the Jewish community. Because of their deviousness, they were relegated to the position of wood-choppers and water carriers. Despite their lowly status, Moses exhorted the Jewish people, you must always remain united with them. Similarly, on Rosh Hashanah, we must express our unity with all Jews, including those who might possess serious flaws.
By accepting every Jew, regardless of their lowly status, we demonstrate that our love for our fellow is not just predicated on the logical premise that we should accept and love those who are good role models. Even those, who do not possess any overt qualities, we still accept and love, simply because they are part of our Jewish community.
By behaving in this “irrational” manner and overlooking people's shortcomings, we cause G-d to act in a similar manner. Just as we accepted others notwithstanding their less than exemplary behavior and character, the A-mighty will accept us in judgment, despite the flaws we possess. The reading of this parsha thus is a most fitting prelude to the day of Rosh Hashanah.
And just as Jewish unity is crucial as we enter the New Year, so is it imperative for our entering into the new era, the Age of Redemption that we have awaited for so long.
May we all be inscribed and sealed for a good and sweet year!
This week’s Parsha is known for the many blessings that it contains. These blessings are offered for our compliance with G-d’s will. The very last blessing — which presumably indicates that it is the ultimate one — the Torah promises is: “G-d shall appoint you as a head and not as a tail; you shall always be above and you shall not be below.”
At first glance the Torah means that our fortunes shall rise. But, if this is all that it means, why then does the Torah repeat itself by saying first “G-d shall appoint you as a head..” and then repeat the same idea, “you shall always be above?”
We also must understand why this dual blessing was placed at the end of all the blessings, somehow suggesting that this blessing is the pinnacle?
Based on Panim Yafot, one of the early Chassidic masters, the following explanation may be offered:
The term “head” applies to the soul because it is a part of G-d Who is our head. Relative to the soul, the body, which resides in our lowly physical world, is called a “tail.” The blessing that we should be appointed as a head means that we should always be led by the dictates of the soul and not by the dictates of the body. When the “tail” follows the head i.e., when a person’s body follows the desires and needs of the soul, it is a blessing and it leads to all other blessings.
On a deeper level, the blessing that we should follow the head and not the tail implies not only that the soul should not be subordinated and subjugated to the desires of the body, but moreover, even when the soul’s desire reigns supreme, it is still important that we don’t allow the body’s interests to compromise the integrity of the soul.
For example, one who performs a Mitzvah, which involves the soul (the “head”), but does it for the for the purpose of showing off before others, the head has thus become subordinated to the body (“tail”). And while we should never desist from performing a Mitzvah even if we do it for ulterior motives, nevertheless, the greatest blessing is when we grow to the point that our head is independent and unaffected by the weaknesses of the body. This is seen as one of the ultimate blessings, because there is no greater blessing than freedom. And there is no greater form of freedom than when our soul (“head”) is free and unencumbered by any other inferior influences, external or internal.
However, even that is not the pinnacle of blessing. The Torah continues that the truly ultimate blessing is when we are always “above” and not “below.” This could mean that even when our head is independent and free, it can revel and become complacent in its own level of spiritual attainment. To always be “above” implies that the person, no matter how they much they have achieved in the spiritual realm, must always look to reach above; to always climb to greater heights of spirituality.
Now, many people can argue that everything is relative. And relative to others one might be on a higher level and that could suffice. To dispel this notion the Torah underscores that not only is it important to always strive to be above, but is is also important to never look below us and conclude that we have already achieved enough since relative to others who are below, we are above.
While we are still in exile, it is difficult if not impossible to break out of the “relativistic” notion that we can be content if we have achieved more than others. By placing this blessing at the end of the entire series of blessings, the Torah is essentially conveying to us that at the end, when Moshiach will usher in the period of redemption, we will see the full realization of the blessing that we shall always be a “head” and that we shall always be above in the pure non-relativistic sense
What will be true in the full sense of the word in the Messianic Era can be “sampled” even now, especially as we approach the end of the year and embark on a journey into a new year and a new and heightened level of spirituality.
May we therefore all realize these greatest blessings on the threshold of the new year, and may we all be inscribed and sealed for a good and sweet year.
Honest weights and measures are mandated by the Torah in this week’s Parsha. So strong is the Torah’s insistence on giving one’s customers an accurate weight and measure, that Jewish law requires that we give a bit more than the precise weight and measure.
At first glance, this requirement appears problematic. If one knows for sure that his measures are just, why should he have to lose some of his merchandise? True, there are cases where one might be tempted to give a little less than the required amount, so to compensate for that we are told to give a little more. However, the question still remains. Why does the Torah not make a similar requirement for other Mitzvot?
For example: The Torah requires that we tithe our produce, which means that, in the Land of Israel, one must give ten percent of one’s agricultural yield to the Levite. There is no requirement that dictates that we should give a little bit more, so as to ensure that we don’t give less. Why is the commandment concerning honest weights and measures different?
Perhaps, the answer to this question can be found in human psychology. The Talmud says that when one gives a gift, they give it with a “good eye.” This means that if a question arises, upon receipt of a gift, as to whether all the accessories were included, one can assume, unless there is definite evidence to the contrary, that the donor of the gift meant to make the gift a complete one. By contrast, if an object was sold and the consumer demands the accessories, we make the opposite assumption, that the seller only intended to sell the minimum he is compelled to sell, and without concrete evidence the buyer loses.
What is the reason for this distinction?
When a person is in the mode of giving, it means that they have risen above the natural tendency of a finite creature to be exclusively self-centered. It is natural for an animal — and a person whose personality is governed by his “animal soul” — to try to keep all that rightfully belongs to oneself.
The very act of giving a gift to another, is a recognition that one is capable of transcending one’s selfhood to think of others. Once one has risen to that level and expressed a part of his personality that is not driven by self-interest, it is safe to assume that when there is a doubt about the giver’s intentions, we should err on the side of his generosity, not his self-interest.
Conversely, when one is in the selling mode, despite the fact that he too is giving away his personal belongings, it is entirely motivated by self-interest. As the Talmud puts it: “One who buys and then sells for the same price, is he really a businessman?” Business, by definition, demands a profit. When there is a doubt as to the seller’s intention, we should assume that it was to come out making more profit than less.
We can now appreciate why the Torah was so strict in its insistence on honest weights and measures and the additional requirement that one must give more than the required measure.
When a person is in the sales mode — as opposed to the gift mode — it is the self-interest aspect of one’s personality that is the driving force. One must then do something to shift gears and allow for the selfless aspect of one’s personality to temper the selfish dimension. By giving a bit more than one is required, even when there is no fear of cheating, one elevates the entire selling experience from a purely selfish and mundane one into one that is also selfless and G-dly.
To be sure, one can accomplish this goal when they give some of their earnings to tzedakah. However, the giving of tzedakah occurs after the transaction was completed. At best, it can have a retroactive effect on the business dealing. The advantage of giving more than the just measure is that while one is engaged in a selfish act, it is immediately transformed into a selfless and G-dly act.
The lesson from this is that whenever we extend ourselves beyond that which is required we allow a higher layer of our personality to come to the fore.
The relationship between the state of exile in which we are situated and the state of Redemption that we eagerly anticipate, is that exile is stifling and redemption is liberating. To assist in our collective redemption, we must learn how to redeem ourselves by breaking out of the limiting aspects of our personalities. This we accomplish by always doing a little bit more than required in every desirable sphere of life. Whatever has become our norm is exile. Whatever we do to increase in the direction of goodness is redemptive.
Every word in the Torah is pregnant with meaning. As the teaching of G-d, no word or even letter can be superfluous. With this introduction, commentators are puzzled by the repetitive expression employed by the Torah in this week’s Parsha, Shoftim: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof-Righteousness, righteousness, you shall pursue.” Why is the word tzedek-righteousness repeated?
One answer to this question is that the repetition of the word “righteousness” was intended to dispel the argument that the end justifies the means. For many people, it is sufficient to pursue righteous goals, even if the method by which they achieve their goals is less than righteous. Thus the Torah exhorts us, even righteousness must be pursued with righteousness.
The premise of this answer, while true in many if not most situations, is not necessarily a hard and fast rule. There are cases where the less than righteous methodology used to achieve a desired goal may be acceptable even according to the high moral standards of the Torah. For example, one may use deception to help promote peace. One may break the Sabbath to save a life. One may discipline one’s child or student to help in their education, even though it would be wrong under different circumstances.
In all of these instances, the Torah does indeed permit the temporary “breaking of the rules” of morality and righteousness that it itself set up, in order to lead to a greater good. There are then times when the end does justify the means. How do we know how to decide these matters?
The obvious answer is that only the Torah can say when a particular moral course of action may or must be suspended in order to achieve a greater good. All of the above examples, compromising honesty for the sake of peace, breaking the Sabbath to save a life, etc., are clearly indicated by the Torah as being proper courses of action. Indeed, when the Torah says it is proper to violate the Shabbat to save a life, then it is not a violation of the Shabbat. The end does not really justify the means, for then, the means itself is kosher.
However, whenever the Torah does not give us that license, we are enjoined against rationalizing our errant behavior by referring to the end result that would be positive. For example, one may not steal in order to give charity. One may not perform illegal experiments on a person in order to obtain vital medical information that might save millions of lives in the future.
Another distinction between permissible uses of the “end justifies the means” argument and those that should be rejected lies in the context that the Torah uses this lesson here in this Parsha. The context of the words “righteousness, righteousness, you shall pursue” is judgment. The Torah exhorts us to set up a judicial system that will fairly and justly judge the people. In that context, there is never a basis to pervert justice in order to achieve a righteous outcome.
What is the reason for this distinction?
The distinction lies in the very definition of judgment. Judgment in the Torah’s system (as opposed to the adversarial system used by contemporary courts), requires that the judges expose the truth. There is no room for compassion or any other consideration that would cloud the pursuit of truth and justice. For this reason, Jewish courts did not have lawyers whose task it usually is to obscure the truth in the interests of one’s client. Thus, in the context of judgment, the Torah states unequivocally, “Righteousness, righteousness, you shall pursue.” The judge has no right to in any way compromise the pursuit of justice and truth, because a compromise of truth and justice is by definition the absence of it. The courtroom, our Sages tell us, is where G-d’s presence is palpable. Where G-d. the epitome of truth, is present, there is no room for compromise.
In our daily prayers we ask G-d to bring us Moshiach to restore the judiciary to its original position. Many of the prophetic writings speak of the glorious future where justice will be restored. Why is this such an important ands cherished hope for the future? In light of the above it is clear that true justice means that the trait of G-dly truth is so dominant as to preclude any injustice. When we ask for the restoration of the judiciary as in the days of old, we are essentially asking G-d for a world in which G-dly truth is always present, precluding any and all injustice.
Elul, the Hebrew name of the upcoming month, forms an acronym for the four Biblical words, “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li, I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” This month that precedes the New Year, is the month when the love between G-d and the Jewish people is said to be at its peak. It is therefore a month that we can get closer to G-d in preparation for the New Year.
Because of this month’s spiritually romantic and blessed character, many marriages will be scheduled during Elul.
It is thus fitting that this week’s Parsha opens with: “Behold I place before you today a beracha-blessing and a kelalah-curse.” When one embarks on a new life, they should realize that G-d presents them with the greatest of blessings.
But what about the curses?
Targum Yonasan, a Talmudic era Aramaic translation and commentary, does not translate the word “kelalah” here as he does in other places to mean curse, but rather “chilufa” which means “the exchange.” This is because the Torah stresses that the beracha and kelalah come directly from G-d. “Behold I give you today…” And since no evil can truly come from G-d, the curse in its original form is actually G-d’s blessing. But we, through our misguided behavior, have the capacity to divert the blessing, exchanging the blessing for its opposite.
There is no area or occasion where G-d directly bestows His blessings upon us than on the occasion of a wedding. This is underscored by the “Sheva Berachot,” the seven special blessings that describe how G-d blesses the newlyweds, recited during the wedding ceremony and during the next seven days.
The message of this Parsha according to Targum Yonatan for the newlywed — and for every husband and wife — is clear: If you want to preserve G-d’s personal and most powerful blessings, one must behave in a manner that prevents the incredible blessings from being diverted into a curse.
And precisely because the blessings that are bestowed upon the newlywed are so potent, the potential for the negative is therefore also greater. As our Talmudic rabbis observe that the Hebrew word for both man and woman contains the two letters of Aleph and Shin, which spells the Hebrew word Aish, fire. The word for man also contains the Hebrew letter Yud while the word for woman contains the Hebrew letter hei. These two letters form G-d’s name. The message, is clear:
When a marriage allows for the presence of G-d, moreover, when a marriage is expressive of G-d’s relationship and love affair with us, then man and woman will live together in peace, harmony and bliss. If, G-d forbid, the element of G-d is missing, then we are left with the word aish -fire. Husband and wife then become two potent destructive forces that threaten each other as well as everyone around them.
To the extent that we allow the G-dly element of our lives dominate our marriage, then we become the recipients of the greatest G-dly blessings.
The question, however, arises. How does one avoid strife and discord which can divert the blessing of marriage into a curse? After all, we are in possession of an animal instinct that is selfish and can undermine the unity and devotion that a marriage requires.
The answer is also provided for in this week’s parsha in the laws of Kashrus, pertaining to the kashrus of an animal. The animal must possess two characteristics to be kosher. And while, the Torah must be understood literally, that keeping kosher is a vital part of our lives, there can also be a metaphoric message that can help us deal with the animal nature within us.
If we want our animal soul to be edible, i.e., an asset that will contribute to our spiritual health and the enhancement of our marriage, we must see to it that the animal chews its cud. This means that we are never to jump to conclusions concerning the motives and actions of our spouse. We must always think and rethink what really happened, what were the real motives, before we can make a fair judgment about the other.
But that is still not enough. One must also have “split hooves.” This means, metaphorically, that we must not allow our contact with the material world to be absolute. There must be a crack in that connection between our feet and the earthiness of the world, which allows a ray of G-dly light to shine through the “hooves,” that which connects us to the material world. When we are not obsessed with materialism, we are less selfish and possessive, so that we do not rush to hasty conclusions about the other and are more receptive to the G-dly dimension of our lives and our marriage
Marriage — and all of the manifold blessings that go along with it — is also an apt metaphor for the Messianic Age. When we follow the prescription of “chewing our cud” being less judgmental of others and “split hooves” when we allow the light of Torah to enter into and temper our materialistic nature, we will be more receptive to the coming of Moshiach and the ultimate Redemption, when true peace, harmony and love will prevail throughout the world.