Volume XIII, No. 40
23 Elul 5759
September 4, 1999
As an epilogue to the terrifying prophecy in last week's
parashah, our parashah begins: "You are standing today, all of
you, before Hashem." This is intended to console us: "Whatever
terrible events may befall you, you still stand before Hashem."
Furthermore, says R' Avraham Shaag z"l (Hungary, Eretz Yisrael;
died 1873) all of our suffering is for the purpose specified in
the continuation of the parashah: "For you to pass into the
covenant of Hashem . . . in order to establish you as a people to
The Midrash Rabbah (Shmot 21:4) says that when Bnei Yisrael
stood in fear on the banks of the Yam Suf, Hashem told Moshe that
his prayer was not wanted (see Shmot 14:15). "Why do you pray to
Me? My children have already prayed and I have heard them." R'
Shaag explains this as follows:
There are two kinds of prayer. There is a prayer which follows
the proper formula - first, praise of Hashem, then, a request,
and finally, an expression of thanks. Then there is the prayer
of a person who is suffering. He is not capable of following a
formula; rather, he cries out in his pain and begs for salvation.
The former is referred to in the midrash as "Tefilah
l'Moshe"/"Moshe's prayer," while the latter is called, "Tefilah
le'ani"/"A poor man's prayer."
When one understands that his suffering is for the best, it
becomes impossible to beseech Hashem to end that suffering.
Moshe had such an understanding, and he, therefore, did not pray
the way a poor man prays. Hashem's greatness is that He heard
and accepted the disorganized cry of the Jewish people, their
tefilah le'ani, even before Moshe had a chance to finish his
Do not think that the poor man's prayer reflects a lack of
belief in Hashem, says R' Shaag. No, He understands that it is
man's pain which causes him to call out so and not to reflect on
the reason for, and the benefits of, his suffering.
Nevertheless, at this time of year, as we prepare to lay our
prayers before Hashem on Rosh Hashanah, the opening verses of
Parashat Nitzavim invite us to reflect on the fact that suffering
is merely a cleansing before entering into Hashem's convenant.
(Derashot Ha'Rosh No. 46)
"See, I have placed before you today the life and the good,
and the death and the evil." (30:15)
R' Moshe Feinstein z"l comments on the use of the word "today"
in this verse. The significance of this word, he explains, is
that each and every day, a person must choose between the two
paths that lay in front of him: the way of good (learning Torah
and doing mitzvot) and the way of evil (forsaking the Torah and
mitzvot). If he has not been going in the ways of Torah and
mitzvot until now, he must start from now on to choose the
Moreover, even a person who has been going in the ways of
Hashem until now should not rest, thinking that he will
automatically and effortlessly continue in the way that he has
been going. One should not trust in himself to continue as he
has been. Therefore, "today" - every single day - a person must
choose between the good and the bad that are before him.
"The hidden are for Hashem, our God, but the revealed are
for us and our children forever, to carry out all the words
of this Torah." (29:28)
R' Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer z"l (died 1872) explains this
verse as follows: The Torah contains mitzvot duties that man owes
to Hashem and duties that man owes to his fellow man. Generally,
the mitzvot between man and his fellow man are the mitzvot that
seem to "make sense"; even if the Torah had not told us to do
them, we would have done so. These include, for example, the
prohibitions on murder and adultery. On the other hand, the
mitzvot between man and Hashem are mitzvot for which we can not
seem to find a logical reason.
Because we understand the importance of the inter-personal
mitzvot, there is little risk that we will attribute to them a
time or a place. The need for them is obvious and they will be
observed forever. On the other hand, the mitzvot between man and
Hashem, because they cannot be understood, tempt man to try to
limit their application. (Man thinks he understands their
reasons, and therefore, their limits.) Thus the Torah warns:
"The hidden are for Hashem, our God" - referring to the mitzvot
between man and the Creator - "but the revealed are for us and
our children" - referring to the mitzvot between man and his
fellow man. Both sets of mitzvot are: "forever, to carry out all
the words of this Torah."
(Ketav Sofer Al HaTorah)
Beginning from Rosh Chodesh Elul, it is customary to arise in
the early morning hours to recite selichot/penitential. (The
custom of Ashkenazim is not to begin from Rosh Chodesh but
from the Motza'ei Shabbat/Saturday night before Rosh
(Shulchan Aruch: O.C. 521, para. 1,
with parenthetical comments by R' Moshe Isserless z"l)
Rabbenu Nissim z"l (Spain; 1290-1375) explains the origin of
this custom. He asks first: Why is man judged on Rosh Hashanah?
The midrash explains that the world was created on the 25th of
Elul, which was the first day of the week. Adam was created five
days later, on the sixth day of that week, and on that day he
sinned and was judged. G-d said, "Just as you were judged on
this day and you left the court with your head held high [because
you were forgiven], so, too, your descendants will be judged on
this day and will leave the court with their heads held high."
This is why man is judged five days after the 25th of Elul.
Rabbenu Nissim adds: This is why it is customary in Barcelona
to arise early on the 25th day of Elul to recite
selichot/penitential prayers. Of course, this makes sense only
according to the Tanna/sage of the Mishnah Rabbi Eliezer, who
says that the world was created in Tishrei [actually on the 25th
of Tishrei]. However, according to the Tanna Rabbi Yehoshua, who
says that the world was created in Nissan [actually on the 25th
of Adar], there is no reason to begin selichot on the 25th of
Elul. Indeed, according to Rabbi Yehoshua, an explanation is
required as to why Rosh Hashanah should be a day of judgment
(since according to R' Yehoshua, Adam was judged in Nissan, not
The answer is that Yom Kippur has been a day of forgiveness
since the time that Bnei Yisrael were forgiven for the sin of the
golden calf. It was on Yom Kippur that Moshe brought down the
second Luchot/Tablets, thus confirming that G-d had forgiven
them. And, since Moshe had ascended to Har Sinai forty days
before Yom Kippur, that entire 40 day period has been designated
as a time of repentance and forgiveness. As for the significance
of Rosh Hashanah within this 40 day period, it is possible,
Rabbenu Nissim speculates, that Hashem chose to judge man ten
days before Yom Kippur in order to allow him time (i.e., ten
days) for a second chance. Alternatively, it is possible that
Rosh Hashanah was the day on which Hashem began to give in to
Since Rabbi Yehoshua's view attributes no significance to the
25th of Elul, some communities do not arise for selichot on that
day. There are, however, some communities that arise for
selichot beginning on Rosh Chodesh Elul.
(Commentary to Rosh Hashanah 16a)
The Vilna Gaon explains further: We begin reciting selichot on
Motza'ei Shabbat rather than on the 25th of Elul because the 25th
of Elul can fall on different days of the week and people can
easily forget the date. In contrast, it is easier to remember to
begin on Motza'ei Shabbat.
As for the difference between the communities that start on
Rosh Chodesh and those that start on Motza'ei Shabbat, it appears
that the former adopt the view of Rabbi Yehoshua and the latter
adopt the view of Rabbi Eliezer.
(Be'ur Ha'Gra: O.C. 521)
Letters from our Sages
R' Moshe Rosenstein z"l (1880-1941) was mashgiach ruchani
(dean and guidance counselor) of the Lomza Yeshiva in Poland
in the 1920s and '30s. In this week's letter, written to a
student 66 years ago this week, we see a snapshot of
R' Rosenstein's life.
Greetings with a love that is not forgotten. I received your
dear letter this week and we rejoiced at the good news that a son
was born to you with mazal tov. May his parents merit to raise
and educate him to Torah, marriage and good deeds, and may he be
a loyal son to our nation and our holy Torah, and may he find
that his heart is loyal to Hashem, as was said about our
Patriarch Avraham. May your honor and your honorable wife merit
to raise him in the Holy Land, as you wish, and may I also merit
to see your honor's countenance in the Holy Land.
I began writing this letter on Erev Shabbat and was delayed
until Monday. We were occupied until today by the bad news that
came to us on Erev Shabbat that the crown of our glory, the
spirit of our lives and the joy of our hearts, our master, the
Chafetz Chaim z"l, was taken from us. This news made a
terrifying impression upon us; our hearts were broken, and our
spirits were crushed, and the spirit could not arise again within
us as we reflected upon the fact that the apple of our eye, the
Chafetz Chaim is no longer in this world . . .
The wedding [apparently, of one of R' Rosenstein's children] is
scheduled to be, with mazal tov and in a good and propitious
time, on Friday of Parashat Lech Lecha, on the seventh of the
month of Marcheshvan. [Ed. note: It was customary to hold the
wedding ceremony on Friday afternoon and the wedding meal on
Friday night, perhaps to save the cost of an extra meat meal.]
Although things are very difficult for me right now and I
presently have no means of paying for a wedding, nevertheless, I
cannot postpone it any longer. I will hope that the G-d of my
salvation will not leave me.
Regarding my book, I do not know whether it should be published
or not. In truth, I am embarrassed to put upon myself the mantle
of an author, and I also do not know whether my book is worthy of
being printed. Therefore, your distinguished honor should do as
you see fit. I hope that whatever leaves your hands will be
properly done, and may merit come to those who are meritorious .
I have no further news. Let us hope that Hashem will have
mercy upon His nation and raise the glory of His nation, and may
our Rosh Hashanah prayers be fulfilled through us: "So, too,
Hashem, grant honor to Your people, praise to those who revere
You, good hope to those who seek You, and eloquent speech to
those who hope to You." May we merit to hear good tidings and
consolation, and may I merit to hear from your honor and his
family, may they live, only good news.
From me, who loves you and hopes to see good for you, Moshe
Rosenstein, who blesses you for a ktivah va'chatimah tovah, a
year that is good and sweet, a year of life and peace.