Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Parshas Vaeschanan

כי תוליד בנים ובני בנים ונושנתם בארץ והשחתם ... ועשיתם הרע בעיני ד' אלקיך להכעיסו

העידתי בכם היום את השמים ואת הארץ כי אבד תאבדון מהר (4:25-26)

רמז להם שיגלו ממנה לסוף ח' מאות ונ"ב שנה כמנין ונושנתם והוא הקדים והגלם לסוף שמונה מאות וחמשים והקדים ב' שנים לונושנתם כדי שלא יתקיים בהם כי אבד תאבדון (רש"י)

The Torah threatens that after the Jewish people will become accustomed to living in the land, if they begin to take it for granted and perform evil acts in Hashem’s eyes, He will have no choice but to promptly destroy them. Rashi writes that the numerical value of the word ונושנתם – and you grow old in the land – is 852, which alludes that they will be exiled after 852 years of living in the land of Israel. However, if Hashem allowed them to remain for the full period, He would be forced to carry out the threat of the next verse: to utterly annihilate them. In order to allow them to remain intact, Hashem mercifully exiled them after only 850 years, two years prior to the pre-arranged time.

While this compassionate act of Hashem’s is certainly appreciated, it remains difficult to understand why he was forced to send them into exile two years early. Wouldn’t it have sufficed to allow them to remain in the land for one more year, during which time they would have an opportunity to repent their wicked ways, and to expel them at the end of 851 years if they hadn’t corrected their ways?

The Leket Yosher, who was the Terumas HaDeshen’s closest student, writes in the introduction to his work that his Rebbe suggested that this difficulty is the source for the widespread belief that when comparing the gematrios (numerical values) of two words of phrases, they are permitted to differ by 1 and still be considered equivalent to each other. If Hashem would have permitted them to remain in the land of Israel for 851 years, he would no longer have been able to lighten their sentence by merely exiling them. As 851 is only one year less than the numerical value of ונושנתם (852), the passage of so much time would have been considered a fulfillment of the frightening threat of our verse, and Hashem would have been forced to fulfill the end of the verse and destroy the Jewish nation. In order to avoid that catastrophic scenario, He had no choice but to send them out two years early!


והיו הדברים האלה אשר אנכי מצוך היום על לבבך ושננתם לבניך

ודברת בם בשבתך בביתך ובלכתך בדרך ובשכבך ובקומך (6:6-7)

Rav Yisroel Salanter writes in Ohr Yisroel (27) that the mitzvah of learning Torah isn’t merely a requirement to spend one’s time engaged in the study of Torah, but rather it additionally contains a second component: the mitzvah of y’dias ha’Torah – knowing the entire Torah.

A group of yeshiva students once approached Rav Shach in the middle of the winter to “speak in learning” with him. They began discussing the sugyos (topics) which are dealt with near the beginning of the tractate their yeshiva was studying at that time. Rav Shach, who was known for his strong opposition to the slow pace of study which has become prevalent in most yeshivos, chided them, “It’s your fault that we are currently in the midst of a severe draught. When Hashem looks down at the earth and sees that the yeshiva students are only up to daf ד, He assumes that the winter z’man (semester) has only just begun, and the time for rain hasn’t yet arrived. If you would be learning at a faster pace and covering the ground you’re capable of, Hashem would realize how much of the z’man has elapsed and how desperately we need the rains to come!”


וקשרתם לאות על ידך והיו לטטפת בין עיניך (6:8)

In listing the people who are permitted to return home from the battle front, the Torah includes (20:8) one who is afraid and weak-hearted. Rashi explains that this refers to a person who is fearful that the sins which are in his hand will cause him to die in the battle. It is difficult to understand the use of this peculiar expression. In what way is it possible for sins to be in one’s hand more than they are in his heart or on his soul? Further, one of the examples given (Menachos 36a) of such is a sin is a person who speaks in between putting the tefillin on his head and placing the tefillin on his arm. As this isn’t from the more severe sins which require Yom Kippur to effect forgiveness, why doesn’t he merely confess and repent his sin, which will effect immediate forgiveness and allow him to remain and fight?

Rav Shalom Shwadron suggests that Chazal specifically used the expression that the sin is “in his hand” to hint to the fact that he has yet to relinquish his improper actions and is still figuratively holding on to them. The reason that he is unable to simply repent his actions is that he doesn’t want to! Nevertheless, although he is unwilling to correct his ways, he is still intellectually cognizant of their impropriety and therefore fears the consequences of placing himself in the danger of war.

Although he recognizes that his actions are inappropriate and could lead to his death, he is still unable to release them from his hand and properly correct his ways due to the tremendous force of habit. As we begin the difficult work of honestly evaluating ourselves and attempting to improve and grow throughout the month of Elul, the first step is to understand that one of the greatest weapons in the yetzer hara’s arsenal is the power of habit, a recognition which will allow us to loosen our grips and completely release the sins from our hands.


כי ישאלך בנך מחר לאמר מה העדת והחקים והמשפטים אשר צוה ד' אלקינו אתכם

ואמרת לבנך עבדים היינו לפרעה במצרים ויציאנו ד' ממצרים ביד חזקה (6:20-21)

In the Pesach Haggadah, we are told that the Torah discusses four types of children, and our verses contain the question attributed to the wise son. For each child, the Torah provides a different answer or explanation which is tailored to that child’s unique circumstances, so that the parents will be able to explain the miracles of the Exodus from Egypt to each child in a manner which is appropriate for his level. Why does the Torah discuss so many different types of children, and what is the author of the Haggadah trying to teach us by emphasizing this point?

Our Sages teach that every word in the Torah can be interpreted in 70 distinct ways. Rav Moshe Tukechinsky suggested that this number is no coincidence. As Dovid HaMelech writes (Tehillim 90:10) that the average life span of a person is 70 years, Hashem placed in the Torah a corresponding number of levels so that a person won’t be complacent with his previous understanding but will seek to discover a new layer of depth in each successive year.

However, Rav Tukechinsky added that it is unreasonable to expect a person to begin this project in the first few years of his life, when his intellect isn’t yet adequately developed for the task. Rather, this lifelong project begins at one’s Bar Mitzvah, when the Torah considers one’s mind sufficiently advanced as to be responsible for one’s actions. It should come as no surprise, then, that Rav Tukechinsky died at the age of 83!

In light of our new appreciation of the true depths contained within the Torah, we can now understand the answer to our original question. Rav Chaim Soloveitchik explains that the fact that the Torah specifically addresses each unique type of child helps us see the greatness of the Torah. Books which are written by humans are targeted toward one level, but the Divinely-authored Torah addresses and is relevant to every single person on his unique individual level.

Rav Moshe Wolfson noted that in secular studies such as mathematics, at the end of each school year the students must turn in their old books and receive new, more advanced books at the beginning of the next school year. On the other hand, Jews around the world study the very same Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud beginning in their youth and continuing throughout their lives, as the Divine wisdom contained therein may be accessed by each student on his personal level.

Many of us, this author included, grew up with a perfunctory introduction to the basic “stories” of the Bible – Adam and the forbidden fruit, Noach and the flood, Avrohom almost sacrificing Yitzchok, Moshe and the ten plagues, and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Although at that point we may have thought that we knew and understood the full depth of the Torah, we are now mature and intelligent enough to recognize the folly and arrogance of this belief. The Mishnah (Avos 5:26) teaches: Delve into it (the Torah), and continue to delve into it, for everything is contained within it, a lesson that each of us, no matter where we are on our personal path of Jewish growth, would do well to contemplate and internalize.


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

1) After Hashem decreed that Moshe and Aharon would die in the wilderness and wouldn’t merit leading the Jewish nation into the land of Israel, Moshe repeatedly petitioned Hashem to reconsider and rescind the decree (3:23-25). Why didn’t Aharon do the same, and why didn’t Moshe similarly pray on behalf of Aharon? (Panim Yafos Parshas Chukas, Megaleh Amukos, Bamidbar Rabbah 19:9, Nesivos Rabboseinu Parshas Chukas)

2) The Medrash relates (Devorim Rabbah 11:10) that upon hearing that he wouldn’t be permitted to enter the land of Israel, Moshe petitioned Hashem to allow him to became an animal or bird who could enter the land in that form and eat from its crops. Of what benefit would this be to Moshe, as the Gemora in Sotah (14a) explains that Moshe’s desire to enter the land of Israel stemmed not from a wish to eat from its fruits but rather to perform the unique mitzvos which may only be done there? (Darash Moshe, Mishmeres Ariel, Rav Elozar Shach quoted in Me’Rosh Amanah)

3) The Gemora in Berachos (32b) teaches that the commandment to guard one’s souls (4:15) includes a prohibition to act in ways which endanger one’s life or the lives of others. Why does the Torah express the requirement to act safely and responsibly in terms of guarding “your souls” and not “your bodies,” which would seem to be more accurate?

4) A woman needed a kidney transplant, and each of her sons argued that he should merit giving his kidney to his mother. The oldest son argued that as the bechor (first-born), he deserved the first opportunity to perform the mitzvah, while the younger son argued that the first-born status is irrelevant to this dispute and that he should be allowed to donate his kidney because he had been more dedicated to caring for his mother. Which son is right? (Tuv’cha Yabi’u)

5) The Shulchan Aruch rules (Orach Chaim 756:1) that a person is obligated to spend up to one-fifth of his money in order to perform a positive commandment. Why is the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents (5:16) treated differently, as the Gemora rules (Kiddushin 32a) that a person is only required to honor his parents using their money and that he needn’t spend any of his own? (Zahav Sh’va, M’rafsin Igri Parshas Yisro, Eebay’ei L’hu Parshas Yisro)

6) Many mitzvos may be performed by appointing an agent to do so on his behalf, such as betrothing a woman (Kiddushin 41a). Can the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents (5:16) be done via an agent? (Har Tzvi Parshas Yisro)

7) Which, if either, is a greater sin: murdering another person (5:17), or committing suicide?

8) The Gemora in Bava Metzia (58b) rules that publicly embarrassing another person is equivalent to murdering him (5:17). If the other person gives him permission to shame him, may he do so? (Kovetz Shiurim Bava Basra 49, Urim V’Tumim 28:12, Bishvilei HaParsha Parshas Vayeishev)

9) Rashi explains (6:5) that in commanding a person to love Hashem with his entire heart, the Torah writes לבבך with two “ב”s to teach that one is required to love Hashem with both his yetzer tov (good inclination) and yetzer ha’ra (evil inclination). Why does the Torah need to explicitly obligate a person to love Hashem with his yetzer tov, something which will naturally occur regardless of the requirement? (Darash Moshe Vol. 2, Mas’as HaMelech)

10) Upon checking his tefillin, somebody discovered that they were invalid due to a missing letter, which meant that he had neglected the fulfillment of the mitzvah to wear tefillin (6:8) his entire life. What should this person do to repent and atone for his error? (Tuv’cha Yabi’u)

11) Rashi writes (7:2) that the commandment forbidding showing favor to non-Jews includes a prohibition against giving them compliments. Is it therefore forbidden to praise the athletic prowess of non-Jews when watching sporting events?


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