LACK OF OPTION “C”
ראה אנכי נותן לפניכם היום הברכה והקללה… See that I put before you today the blessing and the curse. The blessing, when you listen to the Mitzvoth of Hashem, your G-d, which I command you; the curse, if you do not listen to the Mitzvoth…
Our rabbis teach us that G-d is giving us a decision to make every day – to choose to do His will or not. There is no half way. R’ Ben Tzion Mutsafi cites our rabbis’ warning: by choosing to live by G-d’s commandments, we are actually choosing not to suffer תרתי גיהנם , two forms of Gehinom – in this word and in the Next. People who seemingly do not make choice are actually making a choice: usually, one that they would certainly not want, were they to realize the outcome of their indecisiveness. This is the essence of the way Eliyahu Hanavi confronted the idol worshippers at Har HaCarmel. למה אתם פוסחים על שני הסעיפים … Why do you vacillate between the two options? If you want to serve the idols, go ahead. If you want to be on the side of G-d, stay with Him all the way, as a true G-d. Not the kind of deity that will allow you to decide on your own how you want to lead your life while staying “religious”.
People hate closing doors. They hate burning the bridges behind them. This is one of the greatest causes for our not making a decision between two options and then not totally supporting the one we choose with our very best efforts. We are always expecting that the other option will and should be available. If, at any time, we see that the option we chose is not working easily. This indecisiveness is one of the reasons behind the high divorce rate and lack of tranquility in the home. Marriage has become a “try it out thing”. A marriage partner may enter marriage with the feeling that “if my betrothed gives me too much of a headache, I could just leave this situation”. In order for any marriage to work, there has to be a conscious as well as a subconscious decision daily: “I am going to try to do whatever it takes to be happy with my spouse”. Once there is a decision, one does not look elsewhere to compare other situations. The neighbors are not better.
Moshe lays down the options for us, and there are only two on the table. Option A – Listening to Mitzvoth, serving G-d and reaping the fruits of our obedience in this World and in the Next. Option B – Disobeying the Shulchan Aruch, serving our desires and impulses, and reaping the short term gain in this World, while suffering long term in this world and in the Next . There is no option “C”. Most people go for the non-existent option C. They do not like A: too much obedience. They do not like B either, as not being religious at all, living like a gentile, is no fun. So, we go for option C. Moshe is telling us, Give it up; you are wasting your time. When you go for C, by default, you are picking B.
If we want to enjoy our religion, to lay the foundation for a long term religion, one that generations will follow, we have to make a choice. We need to decide that the temptations of the world have less value to us than the Word of G-d. We must remember the exact words of Moshe. ראה אנכי נותן לפניכם היום הברכה והקללה… See that I put before you today the blessing and the curse. Every day, we have a conscious, as much as a subconscious, decision to make. And this decision will determine exactly how religious our future will be.
A portrait of the ages – a Jew putting a coin into the pushke at the end of the outstretched arm of a fellow Jew. This is not only the good heart of the Jew. Upon being approached, by a poor man, once the hand is stretched, there is a Torah prohibition concerning not giving anything at all. We have to give at least a small amount. : לא תוכל להתעלם – (Debarim 22: 1-3)
During my early days in Israel, a roommate and I were approached by a poor man as we were strolling down Meah Shearim Street in Jerusalem. The poor man stuck out a cup, which contained a few coins, and said, “Shabbos Koidesh.” He meant that he was collecting funds to purchase Shabbat food for himself and his family. I handed the fellow a shekel as my friend searched his pockets. All he could come up with, though, was a ten-agurot coin which he promptly dropped into the cup. But before we could move on, the man said, “Wait a minute!” and placed 50 agurot in the hand of my friend. “It looks like you need the money more than me, he explained.” Without further ado, he turned and walked away, leaving us in a mild state of shock.
Such occurrences take out the “good will to help” from our hearts. They make us feel “used”, turning our hearts to be cold, even to those who we could and should help. It first starts with “habit”. The next time we see a poor man in shul, we might not take out the half a minute to stick our hands into our pocket or heart to pull out a few cents, but instead walk by as if we do not notice. This is getting very close to transgressing this mitzva in our Parasha. An insight in this week’s parashah may rectify this habit of ignoring when we are just “not in the mood”. The Torah tells us: Give to him, and let not your heart turn evil…– נתון תתן לו ולא ירע לבבך בתתך לו (Debarim 15). The Kli Hemdah points to the doubling of the verb “Give” in the verse נתן תתן and explains it to mean that if one got into this habit of not giving, he should give a little to the first one who asks, and another small amount to the next poor person… Eventually, he will be able to change his habit and give more generously. Indeed, this approach can help us become more generous and compassionate in other life areas as well.
There are other significant benefits hidden in the mitzvah of tzedakah. For one thing, the poor man gives the giver a change in perspective. The Torah tells us that there will always be poor people in the world. The Hovot Helevavot teaches us that the poor must suffer their entire life to facilitate a healthy economy for the rich. Indeed we find a similarly perplexing statement in the Talmud concerning poverty: Rabbi Akiva said that although G-d loves the poor, He allows them to suffer from poverty so that the rich should be saved from Hell when giving charity. (Bava Batra 10a) How can G-d allow the poor to live a life of suffering just to save the rich from suffering in the next world? Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler zt”l explains that this question is an outcome of the fact that we do not appreciate just how great the merit of benefiting another human being actually is – and the poor person receives this merit!
It is told that when a poor man would knock on the door of one of our great rabbis, he would jump up and run to get some money so that the poor man would not need to waste an unnecessary second. His students offered to do the mitzvah for their rabbi, or at least open the door and let the poor person in. The rabbi, however, explaining that he owes a tremendous debt to the poor. In light of the fact that the existence of poor people is a Heavenly decree, he commented: “If not for this person being poor, then I might have to take his place. He is doing me a favor by filling that position in my stead.” (See Devarim 15:11.)
Even when we do the mitzvot that appeal to our reason, we must fulfill these commandments for the sake of obeying G-d’s will, not because they appeal to us and make sense to us. If we do not approach the mitzvot this way, the greatest calamity can occur – as happened to King Solomon. The wisest of men erred when he based his conduct on the Torah’s explanation of the prohibition against a king marrying many wives. The Torah says that many wives could sway the king’s heart from doing the will of G-d. King Solomon mistakenly believed that he could rely on his great wisdom to prevent this from happening to him.
Even when the reason seems obvious to us, we must comply with G-d’s Commandments because “He commanded us.” This explains the seemingly bewildering fact that the only time the Torah tells us ”חזק” Be strong! with regard to obeying prohibitions, is in connection with the prohibition against consuming blood mentioned in this weeks Parasha. Even though consuming blood is repulsive, G-d found it appropriate to say : רק חזק לבלתי לאכול את הדם – Be strong and do not eat blood (Devarim 12:23). The point here is that the mitzvot of the Torah are not to be done out of our understanding alone, but rather out of a willingness to fulfill G-d’s decree. It turns out, then, that strengthening ourselves is necessary to enable us to refrain from eating blood for the sake of adhering to G-d’s commandments, and not because it is repulsive.
Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya teaches that a person should not say that he does not eat pork because he dislikes the taste, nor that he does not wear shaatnez because he dislikes the way it feels. Rather he should say: “I greatly desire eating pig,” or “I greatly desire the softness that only shaatnez can offer,” but I refrain because G-d said “No!”. (ילקוט שמעוני קדושים רמז תרכו)
REMEMBERING OUR MORTALITY
One of my rabbis recently flew to the United States to visit a student. While in town, the rabbi was asked to give a Torah class at the office of the student’s father – a very hard-working, rich man who spends untold hours behind a big desk in a fancy office. Towards the end of the class, this busy man took out a bucket from under his big mahogany desk and put it on the table. He asked the rabbi to take a look inside. The bucket was full of dirt! The man turned to the rabbi and explained that whenever he feels good about making a great business deal, he picks up this bucket and says to himself: One day I will be buried with this bucket of dirt covering my body. It can happen any day, and when it does, I will leave all the cash behind.
After relating this story, my rabbi looked at me and commented: “I was shocked! I would never imagine a man in his position doing such a thing. Most people are afraid of death, and try to avoid the subject. This man actually felt happy reminding himself that “one day it will all be over”, because a reminder of death can actually give one the right mindset for life. The Ben Ish Chai finds this same concept hinted at in our parashah: (ראה אנכי נותן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה (יא:כז – “See that I put before you today…” In other words, perceive and focus on the today that I am giving you. In order to deal with life from a proper perspective, we must stop and ask ourselves: “How would I conduct myself if today were to be my very last day.” This can give us the strength to deal with hardships and overcome them. This can also help us to not waste time on mundane things that are ultimately of very little importance.
The Ben Ish Chai’s insight is particularly relevant to those of us who are living a life of plenty. The yetzer ha’ra (Evil Inclination) tries to take advantage of this, and entices us to feel very proud of ourselves – to the point of haughtiness. The yetzer ha’ra knows that haughtiness can easily lead to the abandonment of G-d and His commandments. The best way to overcome this is by imagining that there is no more than “today” – that tomorrow is non-existent. By tomorrow, our soul might have left all our worldly possessions behind. As the Midrash puts it, when a baby arrives in this world, his fists are clenched. When he leaves the world, however, his palms are open (קהלת רבה ה,ב). What this means, symbolically, is that we all come into the world trying to grab whatever we can get our hands on; but when we die, we leave with nothing.
The same insight of the Ben Ish Chai can also help us in times of financial hardships. In fact, it dovetails with the teaching of our Sages in the Talmud: “Do not fret over tomorrow’s worries because you do not know what tomorrow will bring. Maybe you will not even have a tomorrow; and by fretting over it, you may be fretting over a world that is not yours” –אל תצר צרת מחר כי לא תדע מה ילד יום – שמא למחר איננו ונמצא מצטער על עולם שאינו שלו (סנהדרין ק:)
Why is it, by the way, that we are inclined to forget that death is inevitable, and that it can happen to any one of us at any moment?
The Chofetz Chaim explains that – at least emotionally – most people tend to feel that there is a society of people who die. It is made up of the elderly, the sick, and the unlucky. They belong to this select group who die, of which I am not a member. So while I may be aware of death, it doesn’t apply to me. This mistaken perspective on death spawns a mistaken perspective on life. To counter this, the businessman described above came up with a unique method to internalize death emotionally, on a daily basis, and put life’s worries and challenges in the right perspective.