By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
The nation grieved this week for the losses of 9/11. Everyone was solemn, tuned in to remembrances that took place at the three terror-pocked sites where, all together, almost 3,000 people lost their lives to the cause of Islamic radicalism on that fateful day ten years ago.
It was a sunny day on September 11 ten years ago when airplanes were turned into missiles and innocent people were killed. It was said then that the world had been changed forever. Americans, we were told, were altered for eternity, having been confronted with the reality of evil and what it can cause.
Until that day, people here were naïve and thought that it couldn’t happen to them, but happen it did. We found out that we were and are not in control. We discovered what happens when you ignore evil and rationalize its underpinnings and ramifications. Americans believed that tragedy of such magnitude only transpires in the Middle East. They thought that it was an Israeli thing, and perhaps Israelis deserve it because their country dominates the poor Palestinians. They didn’t realize the barbarism of Israel’s – and now America’s – enemies.
9/11 was a colossal wake-up call. It was an alarm ringing to awaken us to realize the power of ra, evil, in the briyah. It showed us the importance of identifying the ra and seeking to overcome it with tov, as well as with conventional measures.
For us, the implosion of the towers on the 23rd day of Elul was also a reminder of our need to do teshuvah before the impending Yom Hadin one week later. It reminded us of how fragile life is, and that chayim and movess, life and death, are in the Hands of Hashem, Who determines our collective and individual fates on Rosh Hashanah. It showed us the importance of living each day as if it were our last, as Chazal teach, endeavoring to make every day our best.
That last week of Elul was like none other in recent memory, and on Rosh Hashanah, we all davened like we never did before. The wound was so raw, the seriousness of that day so poignant. But since then, it has worn off. Life returned to normal – keminhago noheig – and we returned to our regular selves, perhaps becoming apathetic and lackadaisical in our avodah.
The commemoration this week should have taken us back to that period and shaken us once again to the realities of life. For those not old enough to remember the horror and mussar awakening of that time, the country’s reminiscence should have served as an indicator of the resolute somberness of the period of the calendar in which we currently find ourselves. It should be uncomfortable, yes, but we dare not close our eyes to it and ignore it because the horror is too much for us to swallow and bear. We must face up to it, recognizing the power of the Soton and his shluchim, and deriving lessons from it to improve our character, our actions, and the world.
How do we accomplish that?
As the days of reciting Selichos are upon us, we are cognizant of the fact that the primary and most potent portion of the ancient prayers for forgiveness of the Yomim Noraim is the recitation of the Yud Gimmel Middos, which we cry out between the chapters.
This is based upon the Gemara in Maseches Rosh Hashanah (17b), which quotes Rav Yehuda that there is a bris kerusah, a covenant and assurance from Hashem, declaring that the recital of the Yud Gimmel Middos Shel Rachamim will never be in vain. The recitation of the Thirteen Divine Attributes of Mercy, in effect, evokes their use by Hashem in His relationship with us.
Thus, the Yud Gimmel Middos become a constant refrain, a major portion of the daily avodah during the Yomim Noraim and the days leading up to them.
But, as with most things in life, it is not that simple. The famed Yerushalmi dayan, Rav Yisroel Yaakov Fisher, taught that it is entirely possible for the effectiveness of the Yud Gimmel Middos to be blocked. He says that there can be an obstruction to the salvation they are able to effect, and that impediment is within us.
Dayan Fisher explained that when the Gemara extols the power of the Yud Gimmel Middos, it is not referring to chanting them as a mere mantra. The words achieve their power when they cause us to emulate the Divine attributes and relate to the people we come in contact with the same way Hashem relates to us.
In the Yud Gimmel Middos, we refer to “Nosei avon, ve’oveir al pesha,” Hakadosh Boruch Hu’s middah of “forgiving inequity and removing willful sin.” The Gemara understands these words to mean, “Lemi nosei avon? Le’oveir al pesha. What sort of person does Hashem forgive? One who forgives the slights of others.”
The Thirteen Middos are a path we need to follow. We arouse the Divine middos through our actions, when we emulate what they represent and act accordingly.
Dayan Fisher concludes by analyzing the language of Chazal in the Gemara. A careful reading of the Gemara shows that Rav Yochanon says that Hakadosh Boruch Hu told Moshe that when Klal Yisroel sins and seeks to repent, “Kol zeman sheyisroel chotin ya’asu lefonai keseder hazeh va’ani mochel lahem,” they should perform the Thirteen Middos to attain forgiveness. The Gemara uses the term “asiyah,” action, rather than “amirah,“ recitation, because the Thirteen Middos of Rachamim need to be adopted and lived by the supplicants, not merely recited.
I heard it related that a chavrusah of the Lakewood mashgiach, Rav Nosson Wachtfogel, recalls learning with him the classic sefer Tomer Devorah, written by Rav Moshe Cordovero. While most of his seforim are Kabbalistic in nature, Tomer Devorah was written for study by laymen. The sefer is based on the Thirteen Middos and instructs one regarding the implementation of each middah in one’s life in order to effectuate their power. When Rav Wachtfogel would complete each middah, he would close his eyes and remain quiet for a while, seemingly dozing.
The chavrusah initially thought that the mashgiach, quite elderly at the time, was giving in to his exhaustion. However, eventually, he realized that upon completing the study of each middah, the mashgiach was contemplating his own relationship with the middah, examining whether he had successfully mastered that particular trait. Only when Rav Wachtfogel was satisfied that he embodied the middah of rachamim was he able to proceed with the study of the next middah in the sefer.
Ya’asu lefonai keseder hazeh.
The connection between conducting a life of rachmanus and meriting rachmanus can be understood with a lesson retold by the renowned maggid Rav Sholom Schwadron, who quoted a lesson that the Chazon Ish told his brother-in-law, Rav Dovid Auerbach.
“People make the mistake,” said the Chazon Ish, “of believing that there are two chalakim in the Torah, two parallel sets of mitzvos, those which are defined as being bein adam lachaveiro, between man and his fellow man, and those which are termed as bein adam laMakom, commandments that affect the relationship between man and his Creator. In truth,” said the Chazon Ish, “there is only one Torah, and all the mitzvos are ways to become closer to the Ribbono Shel Olam.
“If someone offends or hurts his fellow man, and he creates a barrier between them, he has, in effect, created a barrier between himself and Hakadosh Boruch Hu.”
The Chazon Ish explained: “The posuk says that man is created ‘betzelem Elokim,‘ in the image of Hashem. By offending his fellow man, a person is essentially separating himself from the Divine image inherent in every single human being.”
Rav Schwadron used this lesson to understand the drasha of Rabi Elazar ben Azarya in Maseches Yoma (85b) that Yom Kippur doesn’t absolve one from aveiros that are bein adam lachaveiro, as the posuk says, “Lifnei Hashem tit’haru.” Rav Schwadron explained that by hurting another person, one has sinned “lifnei Hashem,” upsetting the spark of the Divine that rests in man, and he must remove that aveirah to achieve true kapparah.
The Ramban, in last week’s parsha of Ki Seitzei, in a discussion of the pesukim dealing with the mitzvah of shiluach hakein, studies the halachic minutiae of the mitzvah of shechitah, including the specifications of where on the neck an animal should be cut. He writes that these commandments have a goal: “lehadricheinu benesivos harachamim gam ba’eis hashechitah.” They are to guide us to be merciful even when engaged in the act of killing an animal, which is the purpose for which it was created.
In last week’s parsha as well, we read that Hakadosh Boruch Hu forbids plowing with an ox and a donkey together. Like every word in the Torah, there are many layers of meaning to this mitzvah. The Daas Zekeinim makes a fascinating observation, stating that oxen chew their cud, while donkeys do not. If they are yoked together and the donkey observes the ox chewing, the donkey will be jealous, thinking that the ox was fed and it wasn’t, even though the ox is merely re-chewing the same food. Thus, the Torah forbids placing these two beasts together as they trudge through a field, lest the donkey feel slighted.
This Shabbos, we read the curses that befall people who don’t follow the word of Hashem, as recounted in the Torah. Chazal (Megillah 31b) teach that “Ezra instituted that…the klalos in Mishnah Torah should be read before Rosh Hashanah.”
The Gemara explains that this is “kedei shetichleh shanah vekeleloseha,” so that the previous year with its curses should be completed and done with before the Yom Hadin.
The Rishonim point out that although the idea is to be done with the year and its curses, the klalos are read two weeks before the Yom Hadin, rather than on the final Shabbos of the year, immediately prior to Rosh Hashanah. Thus, this week, we read the klalos in Parshas Ki Savo, and then have a week’s break before Rosh Hashanah.
The question begs to be asked: If Ezra instituted the reading of the klalos of Parshas Ki Savo at the end of the year right before Rosh Hashanah, why are they not read on the Shabbos prior to Rosh Hashanah? Why are they read two weeks before?
Looking at our parsha, we see another preface to the season that lies just ahead: the mitzvah of “Vehalachta bidrachav,” to walk in the path of Hashem. This is a mandate to emulate Hashem’s ways. Just as He clothes the unclothed, comforts the grieving and visits the sick, we need to incorporate His kindness and mercy into our lives. Mah Hu rachum, Mah Hu chanun, and so on, af atah tehei, so must you seek to emulate His ways.
As we discussed, this is a prerequisite for experiencing the power of the Thirteen Middos, the “yaasu lefonai,” the implementing of each one so that we may merit His rachamim.
So why the break?
I have a young friend, Nochum Levitan, who recounted to me a conversation he had, which not only displays wisdom and depth uncommon among boys ten years old, but also sheds light on our quandary. He told me that he was visiting Beis Medrash Govoah in Lakewood, NJ, with his father. His father was talking to someone, and Nochum spotted Rav Yeruchom Olshin, so he wandered off and asked the rosh yeshiva for a bracha.
Reb Yeruchom gave him the standard bracha one gives a young boy and blessed him that he should grow up to be a talmid chochom and tzaddik.
Nochum thanked Rav Olshin for the bracha, but he wasn’t done. With childhood innocence, but with a serious drive to grow and excel, the boy then said to the rosh yeshiva, “That’s in a long time, but what about for now? That’s a bracha for down the road, when I get older, but I need a bracha for now.” The rosh yeshiva smiled at the precocious young boy, perhaps sensing in him a mark of greatness.
Unknowingly, Nochum was echoing the traditional adage of chassidim who traveled on the icy roads of Poland and Ukraine to their rebbes: Biz tzu der kretchmeh darf men oich ah trink. What will keep us warm until we reach the inn?
Perhaps the answer to young Nochum’s question is hinted at in the question of the Rishonim, who ask why there is a break between the laining of the klalos and the Yom Hadin.
The break may be provided to give us the opportunity to implement the positive preface in this parsha, the “Vehalachta bidrachav,” before Rosh Hashanah. The break symbolizes the fact that we are internalizing the lesson and making it part of our lives before we face the Judge. We hear the klalos and we are determined to earn brachos and merit rachamim. We work on ourselves and perfect our actions so that they parallel those of Hakadosh Boruch Hu.
The time between reading the klalos and “Vehalachta bidrachav“ and the tefillos of Rosh Hashanah is a gift, a period of “yaasu lefonai.”
The answer to Nochum’s question is the same. Becoming a talmid chochom and a tzaddik is a process. It’s a way of life, a path that one starts walking on as a child. It’s not as simple as pressing a button or receiving a bracha and presto, a well-versed talmid chochom and tzaddik emerges. The rosh yeshiva was giving the boy a bracha to begin a journey, with “becoming a talmid chochom” as the end goal. Indeed, it was a most immediate bracha.
The Selichos period isn’t just about setting the alarm clock to ring a little earlier and shouting out the Yud Gimmel Middos. It’s about living with each one of them and making a conscious decision to relate to people as the Aibishter relates to them – with rachamim, patience and tolerance.
There was a time in the not-too-distant past when the sight of every single individual Yid was a reason to rejoice. A few decades back, so many had been lost that each live Jew was viewed as a triumph over evil. Boruch Hashem, our numbers are growing, shuls are crowded, and schools have no more space. With our exponential growth, perhaps we have lost our appreciation of each individual Jew. We seem to take our fellow Jews for granted, barely giving them a glance. As our numbers have increased, our compassion and our awareness of the special nature of every human being around us seem to have diminished. At times it appears that we view others as if they are extra.
In today’s generation, we are blessed with a plethora of kiruv organizations sensitizing us to the mandate of a frum Yid to behave with dignity in public and teaching us to speak with graciousness to our irreligious brethren. Perhaps it’s time to begin a slightly different awareness campaign to sensitize frum people in dealing with other frum people. We need to study and adopt the idea of treating other frum people the way we want to be treated – with kindness, graciousness, love and acceptance – if for no other reason than to benefit from those middos ourselves on the Yom Hadin.
As we study the parshiyos that we lain during these weeks of Ki Seitzei and Ki Savo, and while we prepare for the Yom Hadin and relive the horrors of 9/11, the mitzvos of the Torah connect us with the Ultimate Source of rachamim, an all-encompassing mercy and sensitivity that can remake us in time to recite the Yud Gimmel Middos. As we study the parshiyos of the week, we need to understand that we have to begin the process of fashioning ourselves into better people.
It’s a process. And it’s never too late to start.