By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
This week’s parsha is replete with many blessings for those who follow the Torah. However, it also contains many klalos. Those who stray from the path will end up regretting their actions, as the enormity of the Tochacha will befall them. Regrettably, as we review the pesukim, we recognize much of the history of the Jews in golus.
This week’s election in Eretz Yisroel struck fear in the hearts of many, as several parties campaigned openly against the religious community and appealed for voters by promising that they would get the religious people out of the way. With Iran looming in the background, border states Syria and Lebanon teeming with terrorists aiming to destroy Israel, Gaza inflamed and ready to boil over any day, and the general issues of economic policy and the West Bank that usually come up in any election, you would think that the political parties would have much to debate and discuss. But you would be wrong, because the only thing being discussed was how Jewish the Jewish country should be.
A spokesman for the right-wing Yamina party summed it up, saying, “They are on a hate campaign against anything that has a Jewish aroma to it.”
Now is not the time to debate what led to this hatred for everything Jewish, but it is something that we must recognize and repair. All the kiruv organizations and all the religious and right-wing parties and Binyomin Netanyahu spent the past few weeks spinning their wheels, trying to convince regular Israelis that the religious community is not as terrible as it has been portrayed, and that they should vote for the parties and man who will maintain a strong Israel and respect religion and Israel’s basic foundations as a Jewish state.
Perhaps because the religious and secular communities do not live together, our people can be forgiven for thinking that there is more cohesion and interest in Judaism than there actually is, but many of the tag lines thrown out by the likes of Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Avigdor Lieberman strike fear in our hearts as we study parshiyos such as this week’s.
After all that our people have been through, personally and as a country over the past seven decades, we would imagine that there would be more of a connection to Torah, to mesorah, to tradition and to Jewish feeling. At times, our public behavior has been lacking, and that definitely should be rectified, but the hatred expressed during this campaign goes deeper than that and is indicative of an infectious rot, indicating a need for broader education and outreach. We dare not sit idly by as a war rages against the concepts of Shabbos and Yahadus that have defined our people throughout the millennia.
Let us daven that when the dust settles, cooler heads will prevail and bridges will be built and traversed, enabling our people to live in the Promised Land without the steady fear that currently envelops them. Let us daven that never again will Torah be under attack as it is now.
That is on a communal level, but on a personal level, as we study the parsha, we come across the posuk (Devorim 28:47) which states that a cause of punishment is “tachas asher lo ovadeta es Hashem Elokecha besimcha uvetuv leivov meirov kol – because you didn’t serve Hashem, your G-d, with happiness and goodness of heart when everything was plentiful.”
It would appear that the Tochacha is brought about because people don’t perform the mitzvos joyfully. In fact, it is deeper than that. As we go through the day, we must think of Hakadosh Boruch Hu and what He wants us to be doing at that time. Our obligation is not only to be happy when performing a mitzvah as we appreciate the gift of following the Torah and obeying Hashem’s word. There is no joy as great as being blessed to be able to live the meaningful, fulfilling and productive life of a shomer Torah umitzvos.
When a person lacks joy, it indicates a latent sadness brought on by an absence of satisfaction with what that person is doing. Someone who is unhappy while performing mitzvos and as he goes about his everyday avodas Hashem doesn’t grasp the greatness of what he is doing and is unaware of what he accomplishes when he performs a mitzvah. For that, he is punished.
At the beginning of the parsha, after discussing the concept of bikkurim and the offering of first fruits, the posuk (Devorim 26:11) says, “And you should be happy with all the good Hashem has given you and your family…” When a person appreciates the goodness that has been bestowed upon him, it is natural that he will be happy.
Those who are blessed “bechol hatov” and don’t appreciate the source of the blessing are unhappy souls, as the posuk of “tachas asher lo avodeta” indicates. They have everything they need and more, yet they are morose, for they don’t appreciate that the source of their blessing is Hashem. If they would believe that what they have is from the source of all good, the Creator of heaven and earth, they would find satisfaction in knowing that He who provides for every living creature in the world decided to bless them with the possessions they have. They would appreciate what they have and be thankful for it.
People who think that they have earned everything they possess by dint of their brilliance and hard work will never have enough. They will always want more. They are never satisfied. Since the reason they have what they do is because of what they have done, when they see that others have more than they do, it indicates a problem with their actions and their intelligence and what they did. They feel incomplete and weak, and are upset with themselves that they haven’t achieved more.
These people are upset when they look at others who have more money, a larger house, and a fancier car. They are overcome by jealousy that they were not able to achieve what the other person did, because they think it is in their control.
If you realize that everything that you have is from Hashem and the amount of money you earn is decided on Rosh Hashanah, then you are satisfied with whatever Hashem gives you.
A believing person does not look at what others have, nor does he become jealous if they have more than him. A person who recognizes that he should be thankful for what he has is content and is oveid Hashem b’simcha.
Happiness is a central part of a productive life and a sign of a person who has perfected his middos of emunah and bitachon. Those who know that nothing that happens in their lives is happenstance do not become depressed when confronted by tragedy and sad occurrences.
Rav Mordechai Pogromansky represented the greatness of Lithuanian bnei Torah. Even when locked in the Kovno Ghetto, surrounded by death, destruction and deprivation, he never lost his calmness brought about by emunah and bitachon. He remained devoted to Torah and was a source of chizuk to those around him. With the Jews walled into a small, constantly patrolled area, he would tell those who would gather around him that he didn’t see the ever-present German beasts. “I don’t see Germans all around us. I see pesukim of the Torah [from the Tochacha] surrounding the ghetto.”
This Torah giant saw what was transpiring as the realization of the pesukim in this week’s parsha that we read quickly and quietly. He saw those words coming to life. He was able to remain calm, because he knew that all that was happening was, in essence, the realization of the verses. He didn’t see Germans. He didn’t fear Germans. He saw and feared Hashem. He knew that whatever was going to happen was preordained by the Ribono Shel Olam.
Bombs were falling, and devastation and hunger were his daily companions, yet, with depth, sensitivity and brilliance, he sensed the stark clarity of the pesukim of the Tochacha and the reality as expressed by the Torah. Everything around him was merely a reflection of that reality, a cause-and-effect built into creation by the Creator.
At every moment, he pondered what Hashem wanted of him at that time, how He wanted him to act and to conduct himself. At all times, he accepted Hashem’s will, for that is how a believer conducts himself.
A Jew is meant to be joyful. The Arizal told his close talmid that all the unprecedented Divine revelations that he received were a reward for performing mitzvos with tremendous joy.
Simcha is attained when there is shleimus, when something is complete. When doing a mitzvah excites a person and brings him to a state of ecstasy, that indicates that he has performed the mitzvah perfectly. Hence the joy.
A sense of calm and satisfaction permeated the Kelmer Yeshiva all year round. Rav Moshe Rosenstein, later of the Lomza Yeshiva, once described what he experienced when he arrived in Kelm for the first time as a yeshiva bochur.
“As soon as I entered, a bochur came over to me. He greeted me with a smile and a handshake. He asked me how I was and when I had arrived. He asked me if I had a place to eat and sleep and about my general welfare.
“He was so friendly to me and I was trying to place him. He had to be an old friend I didn’t recognize. A minute after our conversation concluded, another young man came over to me. He was another long lost friend I didn’t recognize. He smiled at me and was so happy to see me. He asked how I was doing, when I came, and if I had what I need. I assured him that all was well and moved along, embarrassed that I didn’t remember him.
“Then another boy came over, and then another one. By the time I was done, it seemed to me as if the whole yeshiva had welcomed me graciously, with smiles on their faces, as if they knew me. It took a while, but then I came to understand.”
Kelm meant treating every person with kindness, whether the talmidim knew him or not. Everyone created b’tzelem Elokim is worthy of respect and a smile.
In fact, there was a consensus in Kelm to greet people the same way even during the month of Elul and the period of the Yomim Noraim. The talmidim of the renowned mussar yeshiva were overwhelmed with preparing themselves for the Yom Hadin and did not engage in idle chatter during this somber time. Yet, even then, everyone was greeted joyously and with love, with a beaming face and a smile.
The chinuch we provide our children should also involve the joy of doing mitzvos. Too often, mitzvos come across to children as burdens and things they resent because of the harshness with which they are presented. If children are made to feel that the Torah and its commandments are grueling and stress-inducing, they will view them as a burden, and it will be difficult for them to accept them. When they mature, they may be tempted, chalilah, to rid themselves of the shackles placed upon them in their youth.
But if Yiddishkeit is invigorating and joyous, learning is exhilarating, and there is nothing as euphoric as Shabbos, then our youth will appreciate what they have and grow with it as they mature.
Shul should be a pleasant experience, with a meaningful davening among satisfied people happy to thank Hashem for His beneficence and ask for more. School should be cheerful and inviting. People don’t generally thrive or do well under punishing circumstances, with constant pressure and fatigue, or in places where the restrictions are overwhelming.
Perhaps there was a time when negativity and harshness were effective with children and adults, but those days have passed, as is evident by the many dropouts and at-risk youth. We have to bring back the everyday pride everyone felt about being a frum Jew and the merriment with which people were infused.
We all face challenges. The tendency to become saddened and overweighed by life’s burdens is understandable. But why lead a life of sorrow when, no matter how bad a person’s condition is, there is reason to smile and hope? There is always something to be happy about. Hashem created you and watches over you. It is He who has given you challenges, and it is He who will help you overcome them and succeed.
The courage to understand is the theme of Elul.
We read further in the parsha (28:1) that if we adhere to all the mitzvos we were commanded by Hashem and follow His word, we will merit to be ascendant over all the other nations.
It is interesting to note that this posuk is preceded by the one which states, “Arur asher lo yokim es divrei haTorah hazos – Cursed shall be the one who does not uphold [raise] the Torah.”
The Ramban cites the Yerushalmi in Sotah (7:4) that states that this curse is referring to people who are in a position to influence others to come closer to and support Torah but fail to do so. People who shirk that responsibility are included in this arur. Even if a person is a complete tzaddik, if he could draw people closer to the holiness and truth of Torah and doesn’t, he is included in the arur.
The Chofetz Chaim would repeat this Ramban and strengthen its message by quoting the Gemara in Shabbos (54), which says that one who has the ability to protest against wrongful actions of the people of his town and fails do so is punished as well. One who reproaches his fellows and causes them to return to proper behavior, thereby enhancing kevod Shomayim, is showered with the brachos in this week’s parsha that were delivered on Har Gerizim.
The Chofetz Chaim would conclude that to receive those brachos, each person should use his abilities for the causes of Torah. If Hashem blessed someone with money, he should use it to build yeshivos for the study of Torah. If he is blessed with oratory skills, he should use them to raise money for yeshivos and other Torah causes. He should speak out against practices that cause a weakening of our religion.
As the Yom Hadin approaches, we all seek zechuyos so that we will merit being inscribed in the book of tzaddikim.
As the world spins out of control and rogue nations gird themselves with weapons capable of causing colossal damage, we realize that there is no one we can depend on to protect us other than Hashem. We seek to be included with those the posuk refers to as “boruch, the blessed ones.”
Hashem created every person uniquely because it takes the varied capabilities possessed by different people to accomplish things and strengthen a nation. Let us all use the talents we have been blessed with to improve our situation and that of Klal Yisroel.
Let us always be kind and thoughtful, always considering other people, and treating everyone as a tzelem Elokim.
Let us act like mentchen wherever we are. For example, how about starting with improving our driving habits, so that powering a car in a frum area doesn’t become a stress test? Let’s obey common courtesies, such as letting people merge and make left turns and exit from parking lots and parking spaces.
Let us be ever vigilant in our behavior, remaining loyal to the Shulchan Aruch, our mesorah, and what we know is true and proper. Let us maintain the strength of character and purpose necessary to remain upstanding in a tipsy world.
Let us seek to bring the beauty and joy of Torah to our brethren who don’t yet feel welcome in the tent of Yahadus. Let us spread the wealth of Shabbos and mitzvos to the less fortunate who reside in a grayscale world. Let us show that with love, joy and a smile, we can expand the tent of the blessed ones.
May we earn the brachos for a year of success, good health, parnossah, happiness and shleimus.