This week’s parsha of Ki Savo begins with the mitzvah of bikkurim, bringing the first fruits to the Bais Hamikdosh and reciting pesukim expressing appreciation for the gifts with which Hashem has blessed us. As the parsha continues, Moshe Rabbeinu tells the Jewish people that their first obligation upon entering the Promised Land is to inscribe the words of the Torah on giant stones and offer korbanos of tribute to Hashem.
They were then to gather at Har Grizim and Har Eivol to hear the brachos and klalos from the Kohanim and Leviim. With six shevotim on one mountain and six on the other, the members of shevet Levi stood in the middle. They turned their faces towards Har Grizim and proclaimed that those who follow the mitzvos are blessed, mentioning one commandment after the next. They then turned their faces to Har Eivol and repeated the same commandments, stating that one who fails to observe them will be cursed.
They then gave a general brochah, delineating the blessings that accrue to those who follow the word of Hashem and behave properly. This was followed by what is known as the “Tochachah,” foretelling the awful tragedies that would befall our people if we wouldn’t follow the Torah.
The brachos and the klalos, the blessings and the curses, were virtually the same words, spoken by the same people. The words of Hashem sustain the world and bring blessings to those who follow it. But those very same words also have the power to bring about destruction and churban.
This concept is discussed by Rava in Maseches Shabbos (88b): “Amar Rava: lemaiminim ba sama dechayei, lemasmailim ba sama demosa – For those who expend all their energy to study and understand the Torah, it is a drug that sustains life, but for those who fail to do so, it becomes a drug of death.”
The same idea is discussed in Maseches Yoma (72b), where the Gemara quotes Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi as deriving from the posuk of “Vezos haTorah asher som Moshe” that for those who merit, the Torah is a life-giving potion, but for those who disobey its commandments and do not merit its life-giving qualities, the Torah is like poison.
The Gemara supports this message by quoting Rava’s statement, albeit with a slight change. The Gemara says, “Amar Rava, de’uman la sama dechayei, delo uman la sama demosa – for the one who uses the Torah skillfully, it is a drug of life, and for the one who uses it unskillfully, it is a drug of death.”
I saw a vivid demonstration of this last week in Los Angeles, where I joined many others at the Goldstein-Rechnitz wedding. The kallah’s father, Shlomo Yehudah Rechnitz, has been blessed with wealth and has achieved international renown for his amazing, seemingly countless and boundless acts of chesed. His contributions to Torah are legendary. In addition to his many famous acts, there are hundreds of benevolent deeds he has done in private that most people are not aware of. Few know about the many yesomim he helps in myriad ways. Only the recipients are aware of his magnanimous acts of thoughtful caring in a fashion reminiscent of hidden tzaddikim of old.
The wedding was a testament to his munificence, with so many Torah giants, leaders, askonim and regular gutteh Yidden in attendance. . Many exerted themselves to be there that night, to show their heartfelt hakoras hatov, matching the way Shlomo Yehudah exerts himself for Klal Yisroel on a regular basis.
Money is a gift. Lemaiminim ba sama dechayei. To those who use it properly, it is a life-giving blessing, for themselves and for those who merit to benefit from them.
I stayed with friends in Los Angeles for Shabbos. I had made up to meet someone at a prominent local hotel prior to leaving to the airport on Motzoei Shabbos. As I stood at the hotel entrance, I saw a procession of Rolls Royces and exotic cars pulling up. I had never seen so many exotic cars gathered in one place and found it hard to believe that so many people driving such cars should all be heading to the same place.
The man I met there explained that those people were arriving to attend the bas mitzvah of his cousin’s daughter. The festivities began on Shabbos and the food wasn’t kosher. This man was too pained to go inside the ballroom, but made up to meet his mother there as she arrived. He stood next to his van, wishing a gut voch to his mother and bemoaning the fate of his relatives.
The people who were hosting the party and those attending have obviously been blessed with tremendous amounts of wealth, but it is doubtful how many mitzvos that girl will observe. Those people immigrated to this country to escape persecution and were blessed by Hashem with enormous financial success. Yet what is their future? And what will be of their children? Does the community at large benefit at all from all the money they have made? Or is it squandered on mansions, fleeting glamour; cars and other items manufactured for the mega-wealthy? We have no ill-wishes for anyone and eagerly await their return to the blessed path, but the contradiction could not have been more extreme.
The year following the passing of the Baal Hatanya, as the baal kriah was reading the pesukim of the Tochachah, the rebbe’s son and successor, Rav Dov Ber, wept as each of the terrible curses was recited.
Chassidim wondered why the rebbe appeared to be hearing the awful klalos for the first time. He had never cried like that when the curses were read in previous years.
He explained that his father had served as the baal kriah. “Bei di Tatte, hub ich gehert nohr brachos.” he told them. “When my father lained, I heard only brachos.”
Certainly, Rav Dov Ber understood the meaning of the pesukim when his father read them, but his father had added the dimension of blessing to the klalos, and he was mourning the loss of that now-missing element.
Success is a tool for blessing if used accordingly and properly. When a person is given the means to succeed and he abuses what he has been given, he creates the opposite of blessing. Delo uman la sama demosa.
We look around and see talented, capable, gifted people who use their skills and blessings to do damage, rather than to accomplish. They take the brachos and turn them into klalos.
Rav Avigdor Miller zt”l was known to be very scrupulous about time management. He was exceedingly careful not to waste time. At a grandchild’s wedding, the person seated next to him noticed that Rav Miller appeared anxious. Rav Miller explained that he was bothered by the fact that he was missing a scheduled shiur due to the simchah.
“But isn’t the marriage of a grandchild a cause for rejoicing and gratitude?” the surprised gentleman asked.
Several years later, the same fellow met Rav Miller, who thanked him profusely. “I owe you so much for that comment you made a few years ago, and I have thought about it many times. You are right. A grandchild’s wedding is a reason to feel appreciative and happy – nothing else – and you helped me see it for what it is. Thank you.”
We thus understand the transposition of parshas bikkurim in this parsha of brochah. While it may seem obvious that meriting parnossah is a blessing, a negative person might say, “I work so hard and I have no time to daven or learn, no time for my family, and no time for the community. My business swallows up my energy and time.” A person who is consumed with his work complains how difficult it all is. He whines that he has no time for anything because he is too busy reaping material benefits.
He is complaining about what is, essentially, a brochah. A person like that is unappreciative of his blessing and unlikely to use his brochah to help others, to support Torah and engage in chesed.
However, a positive, G-d-fearing person says, “Boruch Hashem, I have parnossah and I am able to provide for my family. I understand that this obligates me to do more, to give back, and to share my blessings.”
The vidui recited when the first fruits are delivered to the Kohein is reflective of this attitude. The one reciting it appreciates his blessings, thanks Hashem, and recognizes that the brochah obligates him to use it for positive acts and to benefit others.
Therefore, the parsha of bikkurim is followed by those of brochah and klolah, for they can be the same. What to one person is blessing, can be for another a curse. It all depends on one’s attitude, emunah and bitachon. Hashem gives us the ability to do good things and succeed, but He leaves it up to us to determine how we use those abilities.
Rav Akiva Eiger was traveling with his son-in-law, the Chasam Sofer, and as they approached their destination, their wagon was surrounded by throngs of people dancing, expressing adulation and pride. The two giants were uncomfortable with the open display of kavod. As the Chasam Sofer looked down in distress, Rav Akiva Eiger climbed down from the wagon and joined the dancing masses.
He later explained to the Chasam Sofer, “Once I saw that kavod was present, I realized that I could ignore it and try to negate it, as you did, or I could try to elevate it and turn it into a positive force. I focused not on whom they were honoring, but on the fact that the Jews revere the Torah so much that they dance in honor of those who teach it. I became deeply moved and joined the beautiful dance in honor of the Torah.”
Instead of disregarding the unwelcome attention, Rav Akiva Eiger transformed it into an opportunity for good. No matter what confronts us in life, we should seek to use it as an occasion for benefit that can result from it.
This lesson is also relevant at the beginning of the school year, when dedicated mechanchim and mechanchos welcome fresh faces into their classrooms. Every child is a mixture of middos, of positive traits and more challenging ones, but every trait can be used as a force for growth.
As parents, mechanchim and as growing people, we need to understand that when we use the blessings we were given unwisely and twist the words of Hashem, the very things that can propel us into the stratosphere can pull us down. Habrochah asher tishmeu, if you listen, perceive the inherent goodness in your situation and use it to serve Hashem, then what you have is a brochah. Im lo sishmeu, if you misconstrue it, it will be cause for destruction.
It can be frustrating, sometimes, when we see the gifts that abound being misused. So much money that can be used for so many lofty purposes is burnt on foolish altars. So much Yiddishe talent and drive is misdirected. As mamleches kohanim, we are endowed with the abilities and strengths to light up the world and to impact all of creation, if we would only appreciate what we have and what we can do. There is no worse klolah than being blind to one’s own capabilities and brachos.
Rav Avohom Eliyohu Kaplan, who lived over a hundred years ago, was one of Lita’s classic greats. A student of Kelm, Slabodka and Telz, he embodied the greatness of Litvishe Yidden. He led a tragic life. He was named for his father, whose death preceded his birth, and he himself passed way at the young age of 34. A rosh yeshiva and author of two seforim, his son published “Be’ikvos Hayirah,” a collection of his deep, lyrical, emotional and at times gut-wrenching poetry and prose.
He writes there of a shmuess he heard from the Alter of Slabodka about the greatness of man. The Alter based the talk on the Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 10:6-7) which states that every blade of grass has a malach milemaalah that hits it and tells it, “Gidal! Grow!”
Imagine, said the Alter, if after that, man walks on grass without a second thought, pressing down upon it without realizing that under his feet is the product of the work of a malach Hashem that only exists to grow the very blade of grass he is stepping on.
Moreover, the blade of grass was only created for the benefit of man. From this we can perceive the greatness of man. How much benefit does man have from a blade of grass? Yet, for that minute amount of pleasure, a malach is created strictly to ensure the growth of that single blade.
When we walk outside and glance at a stretch of landscaping, breathe in the beautiful air, and gaze at the azure sky above, we must appreciate our greatness and the fact that all this was created for us. How can we think silly thoughts when we perceive the glamour of the tapestry Hashem has laid out for us! How can we tread carelessly on such a beautiful setting created for our benefit! How can we not be careful about our manner of dress and the cleanliness of our clothing, bodies, minds and souls!
Our lives are so full of blessings. We have to appreciate them and use them to better ourselves and the world.
Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz is a person with a huge heart, who expresses his soul through music as well as philanthropy. At the wedding, he distributed a CD of some of his compositions. He gave me a copy and said, “They are all great, but listen especially to the last song.”
The song is based on a poem written by Rav Avrohom Eliyohu Kaplan that appears in the sefer his son published (page 171). As Shlomo Yehuda sings it, the haunting, transformative message of the poem comes alive.
These are the words of his classic “Shakah Chamah, Shakah Nafshi” translated into English along with the lines added by Shlomo Yehuda. The emotion and beauty of the Hebrew original is lost in translation, but the message is extant. May we all merit utilizing the gifts Hashem has bestowed upon us and seeing our prayers fulfilled. [LISTEN TO THE SONG HERE or HERE.]
The sun has set, my soul has sunk,
With sorrow as deep as the sea,
Because my soul is poised,
To fail and fall,
With my flesh and blood
Lo, the sun rises again and shines,
My soul as well rises and shines,
Roaring, thanking my great Maker,
As an awakening lion,
For my soul to me He has mercifully returned.
My days pass, my days do end,
Neither taking nor giving.
If this is called life,
Tell me, Hashem, what is death.
Days do come, days do go,
I fear not evil because You are here,
Those who find You, life they have,
You are the Master who gifts me all.
Pity me, Hashem, because I don’t know,
How I can continue like this.
Is it better to forget everything and to be happy,
Or should I remember all and cry?
This is how I seek to live,
Taking shelter in your shade,
To never forget, yet to always be joyful,
As I remember all the gifts you have given me.
Hashem, please keep me alive until tomorrow,
So that I may interpret the dream.
The sun is setting, the clouds are coming,
Night is rising from the depths.
Your Blessings please, I beg, bestow,
For in Torah I toil.
The sun rises, with it my soul,
Until Moshiach comes, let me live and fulfill my role.