Friday, September 29, 2006

Parshas Ha'azinu - Shabbos Shuva

אמרתי אפאיהם אשביתה מאנוש זכרם (32:26)

The Seder HaDoros (4954) records a fascinating historical incident. The great Ramban had a student by the name of Avner who left the path of Torah observance and eventually rose to become a prestigious minister to the Spanish king. One year, in the middle of Yom Kippur, he sent a messenger and had the Ramban brought before him in the king’s palace. On the holiest day of the year, in front of his former teacher, he proceeded to commit the dastardly deed of killing a pig, cooking it, and consuming it.

Although he had sunken to the lowest abyss imaginable, he still retained the knowledge which the Ramban had imparted to him, and after doing so he asked the Ramban how many kerisos (spiritual excisions) he was liable for his actions. The Ramban responded that he would suffer 4 kerisos for what he had done, but Avner attempted to interrupt and argue that he was actually liable 5 kerisos. The Ramban gave him a stern look of disapproval and Avner, stricken with the reverence he once used to feel for his teacher, was speechless and unable to continue.

The Ramban asked Avner what it was that had caused him to leave the Torah path and made him the lowly, unscrupulous person that he had become. Avner replied that the Ramban had once claimed that Parshas Ha’azinu, the final lessons taught by Moshe prior to blessing the people just before his death, contains within it allusions to the entire Torah and to everything which will ever occur throughout history. He found such an assertion to be ridiculously impossible and viewed it as an insult to his rational faculties, and this was the beginning of his cynical questioning of everything which he had ever been taught and held as sacred.

The Ramban held his ground and responded that his original contention was indeed valid. Avner challenged the Ramban to locate a reference to him somewhere in the parsha. The Ramban silently prayed for Divine assistance, and our verse was revealed to him. The 3rd letter in each word, beginning with the 2nd word in the verse, spells the name Avner. Upon realizing the implications of the verse in which his name is contained, as it means “I will scatter them, and I will cause their memory to cease from mankind,” Avner was overtaken by an intense fear and asked his teacher if there was any hope for him. The Ramban replied, “You heard what the verse says (and its implications).” At that point, Avner set sail in a boat with no destination, allowing it to take him in whichever direction the winds and waves would send him, and he was never heard from again – in precise fulfillment of the words of the verse in Parshas Ha’azinu which refers to him!


ראו עתה כי אני אני הוא ואין אלהים עמדי (32:39)

In the middle of discussing Jewish national history – the cause and source of its suffering at the hands of its enemies as well as Hashem’s words of comfort – Moshe digresses to proclaim, “See now that I (Hashem) am He, and there is no other god with Me.” Why does Moshe interrupt his discourse to make this declaration specifically at this point? Further, a number of commentators question why Moshe emphasizes that you should see now that I am Hashem and there are no other powers besides Me, as if to imply that something occurred which clarified this point.

The Vilna Gaon offers a brilliant and remarkable explanation of our verse. The mystical work Megaleh Amukos writes that there are 955 ascending levels in the Heavens. Although the majority of them contain various types of celestial angels, the upper 55 levels are empty of anything but Hashem’s Divine Glory. This is hinted to by the verse (Devorim 10:14) הן לד' אלקיך – they (the heavens and the earth) belong to Hashem your G-d. The numerical value of the word הן is 55, alluding to the fact that although the entire Creation belongs to Hashem, the upper 55 levels of the Heavens are uniquely His.

With every successive verse of the book of Devorim which Moshe taught, his soul ascended to the next level of the Heavens, concluding with the 955th verse through which Moshe merited to reach the highest heights possible and from which there was nowhere further to ascend. As Moshe spoke each verse and ascended through the levels, he encountered higher and loftier celestial beings, yet there was nary a level which was completely devoid of them.

Our verse is the 901st verse in the book of Devorim. As Moshe prepared to say it, he looked around at the celestial level which he had just reached and noticed that for the first time in his spiritual journey, he had reached a place completely devoid of any being other than Hashem’s Divine Presence. He couldn’t help but exclaim and note that although it hadn’t been visibly apparent in the lower levels, now – from his new spiritual vantage point – it is quite clear to see that Hashem is One and there are indeed no other powers with Him!


קחו עמכם דברים ושובו אל ד' (הפטורה – הושע 14:3)

The Navi Yeshaya advises us to “take with you words and return to Hashem.” Although teshuva is the main theme of this time of the year, it is also one of the most difficult projects for us to succeed in. Some have even cynically suggested that instead of getting excited and making a new list of proposed changes, a person should simply take out last year’s list and change the date at the top, as the lists will surely coincide. How can a person follow the suggestion to take words with him and do proper teshuva?

The Chofetz Chaim explains both the root of our difficulty in doing teshuva as well as the solution by way of a parable. A successful merchant was once purchasing new inventory from his supplier’s warehouse. Just as he paid his bill and prepared to leave with the new merchandise, he saw another salesman come in and present the clerk with his list of needed items. Just as the clerk was about to begin compiling the order, he remembered that the last few times this customer came in, he didn’t have the money to pay his outstanding bill and promised that he would do so the next time he returned.

When the clerk demanded payment of the debts, the embarrassed man explained that he still didn’t have the money but begged for one last chance to earn it. The clerk was considering the man’s request when the owner of the warehouse overheard the commotion and declared that he wasn’t willing to extend the man’s line of credit any farther than he had already done so. As the two began to argue, the merchant who was observing the proceedings interrupted to announce that he understood the root of the problem and would like to propose a solution.

The warehouse served as a wholesaler, selling large quantities to merchants at cheap prices. This arrangement was ideal for someone such as himself whose business was based in a large town, as his sales volume was sufficient to allow him to turn a profit. The other salesman, however, came from a small village where has unable to sell enough of the large quantity he was forced to buy at the warehouse to recoup even a fraction of his costs. The merchant suggested that the warehouse owner make an exception and permit the salesman to buy only the small quantity that he would be able to sell, and over time he would turn a profit and slowly be able to pay off his debts. This insightful proposal was accepted by all and indeed worked successfully, just as the merchant had projected.

When the Yomim Noraim draw near, a person naturally wants to improve his ways and sincerely examines all aspects of his life to determine which areas could use improvement. He then comes to Hashem and pleads for another year in which to make all of the changes he has accepted upon himself, yet year after year he finds himself asking for additional time to make many of the same changes as he mentioned the year before. Eventually, there comes a time when the accusing angel will argue that Hashem (the warehouse owner) has repeatedly given more merchandise (time in this world) to this person (the salesman) in exchange for a promise of payment (repentance) in the year to come, but without any payment on the horizon, it is unreasonable to continue extending the petitioner’s life of credit.

The wise merchant overhears the commotion and explains that a person is simply unable to accept upon himself so many changes in so many spheres of his life. Rather than unrealistically promising to completely change oneself and become a totally different person, it would be more practical and effective to choose a small number of areas on which he will focus his energy and gradually improve, until he is able to “pay his debts” in those areas and move on to other improvements one-by-one. A person who heeds the sage and practical advice of the merchant (the Chofetz Chaim) will merit to fulfill the exhortation of Yeshaya to take his Yom Kippur promises with him and to truly return to Hashem!


Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1) The Gemora in Berachos (21a) derives from 32:3 that one is Biblically obligated to recite a blessing prior to the study of Torah. In the case of a person who is unsure whether he recited the blessing that day, the Mishnah Berurah (47:1) rules that because this blessing is a Torah commandment, he must recite it again out of doubt. The Mishnah Berurah (47:28) also rules that because there is a dispute whether a person who stayed awake the entire night is obligated to make a new blessing in the morning, one should not do so because of the rule of ספק ברכות להקל – when a person is in doubt whether he must make a blessing, he should refrain from doing so. Why isn’t the rule quoted in the former ruling, that one must be strict when in doubt regarding a Biblical obligation, applicable in the latter case? (M’rafsin Igri)

2) The Torah states (32:39) that Hashem puts to death and brings to life. The Ibn Ezra writes that many derive from here a source for the concept of the World to Come, as the verse hints that Hashem will revive the dead. Why are the World to Come and the resuscitation of the dead, which are such fundamental concepts in Jewish belief, not discussed explicitly anywhere in the Torah? (Ibn Ezra, Rav Hai Gaon quoted by Ibn Ezra)

3) Prior to sending the spies, Moshe changed Hoshea’s name to Yehoshua (Bamidbar 13:16). From that point on, he is always referred to by his new name, except in 32:44, where he is once again called “Hoshea.” Why the change? (Chanukas HaTorah, HaEmek Davar, Peninei Kedem)

4) Why is no blessing recited when performing the Biblical commandment to eat on the day before Yom Kippur (Orach Chaim 604:1)? (S’dei Chemed Maareches Berachos 1:16 and Maareches Yom Kippur 1, Shu”t Mishneh Halachos 3:176 and 4:76, Moadim U’zmanim 1:53)

5) Are women obligated in the commandment to eat on the day before Yom Kippur (Orach Chaim 604:1) because its purpose is to provide one with strength to fast on Yom Kippur, in which they are obligated, or are they exempt because it is a positive time-bound commandment? (Shu”t Rav Akiva Eiger 16, Chochmas Shlomo 604, Shu”t K’sav Sofer 112, Rashash Sukkah 28b, Minchas Chinuch 313:16, S’dei Chemed Maareches Yom Kippur 1:5, Mikraei Kodesh Yomim Noraim 37)

6) The Shulchan Aruch rules (Orach Chaim 605:1) that a pregnant woman should use two chickens when performing the kaparos ritual. The Mishnah Berurah (605:3) explains that in the event that the fetus is a boy, one will be for her and one for the child, and if her child is a girl, one chicken may suffice for both of them. If a pregnant woman knows via ultrasound that the fetus is a female, may she rely on this to use only one chicken? (Shu”t K’nei Bosem 2:20)

7) The Shulchan Aruch rules (606:1) that Yom Kippur will not atone for sins in which one has hurt or insulted another Jew until he has been appeased. Is one required to pacify somebody who is upset at him without a legitimate cause? (S’fas Emes Yoma 87b d.h. ikpid)

8) The Shulchan Aruch rules (606:1) that Yom Kippur will not atone for sins in which one has hurt another Jew until he has been appeased. If one knows that the person he insulted has completely forgiven him, is he still required to humble himself by approaching him to ask for forgiveness? (Rav Yitzchok Blazer quoted in Moadim U’Zmanim 1:54 and Shaarim M’tzuyanom B’Halacha 131:8, Shu”t D’var Yehoshua 5:20, Shu”t Az Nidb’ru 7:65, Mateh Moshe 848, Pele Yoeitz)

9) The Gemora in Yoma (86b) states that repentance is so great that it extends the life of a person. How can this be reconciled with the Gemora in Avodah Zara (17a) which states that the paragon of true penitence, Rav Elozar ben Durdaya, died immediately upon repenting his sinful ways? (Sifsei Asher 151 quoted in K’motzei Shalal Rav on Yomim Noraim pg. 49)

10) Was the Kohen Gadol required to recite Birkas HaGomel (the thanksgiving blessing) after successfully completing the Yom Kippur service and emerging alive from the Holy of Holies, a place which was fraught with danger and from which many a Kohen Gadol had to be dragged out with a rope after he died there? (Machazik Brocha by the Chida, Torah L’Daas Vol. 10)


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