If you do not obey God, your God . . . that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you. (Devarim 28:15)
Less than two weeks until Rosh Hashanah, Are you ready? “Ready for what?” you may ask. “All that time in shul? All that cooking? All those guests?” Well, not exactly. I’m asking more about being ready for what is supposed to happen on those days, Above and below. In essence, I’m really asking if you are yet real with the holiday itself.
Real with the holiday? What’s that supposed to mean?
What does it mean to be real with anything? It means that you understand the opportunity a situation offers you at any given moment in time, to the point of not missing it. A person has limited time and resources, and a huge part of life is about wasting neither. You have to know when and where to use both of them.
The Talmud says:
The righteous, even in death are called “living” . . . Evil people, even while alive are called “dead.” (Brochot 18a)
“Living” in this sense is obviously about more than properly functioning body organs. The “living” here are those people who correctly use the opportunity of life, and the “dead” are those who waste it. They squander their time on earth and misuse their resources until they are part of the “living dead.”
Why, though, are the righteous called “living” if they are actually dead? When a person uses the opportunity of life correctly, it still serves him after he has passed from this world, as if he is still alive. He leaves a positive legacy based upon his past good deeds, deeds that still impact the world after he has died.
This is what we are judged for on Rosh Hashanah, how real we were, are, with life. The Talmud says:
Three books are opened on Rosh HaShanah, one for completely wicked people, one for completely righteous people, and one for those in the middle. The completely righteous people are immediately inscribed and sealed for life. The completely wicked people are immediately inscribed and sealed for death. Those in the middle have their judgment suspended until Yom Kippur. If they merit it, they are written for life, and if not, they are written for death. (Rosh Hashanah 16b)
This statement can be seen as a line that stretches between two points. To the extreme left of the line, the “home” of the completely evil, is the category, “Not Real,” as in not real with life. At the other end, where the completely righteous “live” is “Real.” The rest of mankind can be found at billions of different points along this line, depending upon how real each person is with life.
It is a struggle. It is the struggle of life. It is actually the battle between the yetzer tov, man’s good inclination, and the yetzer hara, his evil inclination. The yetzer hara is the partier, the one who wants life to be a blast. Fun catches his attention and energizes him to act. Just watch how many people, even as adults, literally run to have fun.
The yetzer tov is real with life. It not only knows about the concept of death, physical and spiritual, it takes them seriously. It is not one to throw caution to the wind, to sacrifice long term gain for short term pleasure. It knows that the temporal is only meant to be a means to the eternal.
The yetzer hara was the author of, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Though it was literal during the French Revolution, it is certainly symbolic at all other times. This is why we are born completely selfish, since we do not receive a yetzer tov until later. Maturity is mostly a function of selflessness. A large part of growing up is learning how to wait for pleasures in life, how to curb the need for instant gratification in pursuit of nobler goals.
Enter this week’s parshah. Blessings and curses. Ninety-eight threats. Some more gruesome than others. The parshah is so scary that some congregations used to omit it out of fear. Once upon a time, Jews took its threats seriously, probably because they witnessed their actualization firsthand.
Make no mistake about it: God does not enjoy punishing His people. He makes this clear by beginning with a whole list of blessings and promises of good. He starts with this because He wants us to know that this is the way it ought to be, the way He wants it to be.
However, the Torah says, the good is not free, nor should it be. It is the result of living a Torah lifestyle. It is the product of working on living up to your spiritual potential to the best of your personal ability. It is the spoils of war when we defeat the yetzer hara and its drive for temporal pleasures. None of it is to be taken for granted.
To drive the point home, the Torah then launches into the many curses for doing exactly this. The Torah is not saying that God is vindictive. The Torah is saying, “Understand what it means to stray from Torah, to your spiritual health and to the health of the world.
It’s like a doctor who tells his patient, “If you watch what you eat and take care of yourself, you can live a long, healthy life. If you don’t, your health will not take care of itself. On the contrary, it will deteriorate rapidly. You will get weaker faster, sicker more often. You might even get cancer, God forbid. Let me take you and show you patients who did exactly that, and how sick they became. It is truly tragic.”
Physical health is one of those things for which there is no automatic status quo. It has to be maintained, or it worsens. Creation is the same way. It was founded on chaos, and if man does not actively work on keeping chaos at bay, it keeps coming back and wreaking havoc.
All the countless wars throughout history? Chaos. All the plagues that have killed countless people? Chaos. All the insanity that has intellectually infected society? Chaos again, the result of man not making enough of an effort to control it.
We were give free will to do exactly this. It is our most important distinguishing ability. It is what earns us reward in the World-to-Come. Yet, how many people actually pay attention to it? How many people keep track of just how many REAL free will choices they make on a daily basis?
What IS a real free will choice? It is not choosing between vanilla or chocolate ice cream. It is desiring to do something the Torah forbids, and choosing not to do it instead. Or, it is not feeling like doing that which the Torah commands, and choosing to do it anyhow. It is choosing not to “eat” that spiritually unhealthy thing when almost every molecule in your body is pushing you to “consume” it.
Once there used to be only two categories with respect to the illness of Diabetes: “Diabetes” and “No Diabetes.” Since people did not recognize in time when they were transitioning from the latter to the former, the Medical Profession created a new category called “Pre-Diabetes,” to act as a warning buffer for people moving in the wrong direction.
Does it work? Does it help people stop eating too much sugar in time to avoid becoming diabetic? It all depends upon the person. If he is real with how close he is to becoming diabetic, and more importantly, the consequences of becoming so, then it works. If not, then the person eats sugary foods thinking that he is safe when he really is not.
One of the greatest obstacles to becoming real with life today is hester panim, God’s “hidden face.” Evil exists and is even rampant. People get away with so much. They break the Torah with impunity, or so it seems. Although the Holocaust was less than 100 years earlier, Torah consequences have no teeth today.
Even the Holocaust is not necessarily viewed as Divine retribution for straying from Torah. Religious and secular alike suffered equally, even righteous people as well. The Holocaust is a complicated topic, and many prefer to not discuss it in terms of religious implications.
Thus, becoming real with life and free will is really up to the individual. Each person has to take the time to understand that God is not only here today, He’s as actively involved in our lives as ever before. The rules of Creation still apply, even if we can’t see them in action.
The 10 days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are a tremendous gift that no other nation has. It’s like attending a 10-day seminar on the reality of existence and how to work with it to maximize the opportunity of life. It only works, though, if you “attend” it. The more seriously you take the Ten Days of Repentance, the more life becomes real to you.
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
“…you shall only be above and not below…” (28:13)
Someone who lives his life pampered by a brace of Bentley Continentals, a super-yacht, and an executive jet with its own Jacuzzi, is not going to be overly excited when he takes delivery of his third Bentley. But give him a paradise island in the South Pacific with golden beaches, thousands of gently swaying palms, and year-round gorgeous climate, and he’ll sense he really went up in the world. On the other hand, someone who usually takes the bus to work will feel he really made it when takes delivery of his new Honda Accord. It all depends on your expectations. “…you shall only be above and not below” The enormous spiritual and physical bounty that the Torah promises the Jewish People if we faithfully observe all its teachings will not be a merely gradual improvement, but it will be great enough to satisfy even the man who has it all.
Sources: Based on the Bikurei Aviv in Mayana shel Torah
A Story Of Debt Collecting In Elul
Hagaon Rav Moshe Chadash once told over an incident when he was a bochur in Yerushalayim, and he ate a meal by a family during Elul. While he was in the house, he overheard a conversation between the husband and wife, who were the parents of many children. The wife was complaining to her husband that they had finished all the food in the house, and there was no money to purchase additional food. She reminded her husband that there were several people who owed them money, and since the situation in the house was becoming dire, she asked him to approach these people and request their money.
The husband answered, “I’m sure you remember that it is now Chodesh Elul, and we will soon stand by the Yom Hadin. We will request from Hakadosh Boruch Hu that He will grant us a good and blessed year. And with what merit will we dare to request a good year from Hakadosh Boruch Hu? In Shamayim, they will present all our debts from the past year! And if the debts of the past year are not enough, they will also remind us of old debts from past years. And what will we answer?”
The husband continued, “The only advice I have is that we also will not demand from our debtors that they return the money to us, and we will struggle to continue to live with what we have. Maybe doing this will serve as a defender for us, and will act for us as midah keneged midah. We won’t demand what we are owed, despite the great difficulty it will cause us, and maybe there will be hope that in Shamayim they will also have mercy on us and agree to grant us a good year, and not mention our debts.”
Rav Moshe Chadash said, “These were the husband’s words, and I was awed by the fact that his wife listened to his words and agreed with them! Despite the fact that she had many small children in the house and had no food left to feed them, she was convinced by her husband’s words. These were the type of Jews of yesteryear, with their simple emunah!” (Aleinu Leshabeach)
1st/2nd aliya: The Parsha begins with the Mitzvot of the first fruits and the completion of the Tithing cycles. Both are accompanied by special declarations of Hashem’s mastery over the land, and man’s responsibility to keep the commandments of Hashem.
3rd/4th/5th Aliyot: Moshe presents a statement of loyalty between Hashem and His People. We are to keep the Torah and Hashem guarantees us praise, fame and glory as the “highest of all the nations”. (26:19) Upon crossing the Yarden, the Nation will publicly declare its acceptance of Hashem’s covenant by: inscribing the Torah upon twelve stones; erecting them as a monument; and the ceremony of blessings and curses that is to take place between the opposing mountains, Grizim and Ayval.
6th Aliya: Commonly known as the Tochacha the warnings and punishments. It describes the consequences that will befall the Jewish people if they ignore Hashem’s Torah and his providence. The custom is for the Reader to read this Aliya more quickly and quietly than the rest of the Parsha.
7th Aliya: The Parsha concludes with the beginning of Moshe’s final discourse. He starts by recounting the miraculous nature of the past 40 years and its clear indication of Hashem’s ever present protection, past and future.
Mr. Bailey saw his son’s shiner and demanded, “Scott, who gave you that black eye?”
“No one gave it to me dad,” replied the spunky lad. “I had to fight for it.”
After school one day, Moishie Rothman, a rambunctious first-grade boy was sitting at the kitchen table, eating his afternoon snack, when he blurted out, “Mom, my teacher was asking me today if I have any brothers or sisters who will be coming to school.”
Moishie’s mother replied, “That’s nice of her to take such an interest. What did she say when you told her that you don’t have any brothers or sisters yet?”
She just said, “Baruch Hashem!”