R' Avraham Shimon Halevi Ish Horowitz z"l (1876-1943; Mashgiach
in Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin in Poland) used to urge his students
to study this week's parashah, Ha'azinu. After all, the Torah
commands (31:19): "Write this song for yourselves, and teach it
to Bnei Yisrael, place it in their mouth" - i.e., this song must
be fluent and regular on the lips of Israel.
He would say: If the Jewish people would remember the words of
this song, which has within it the entire course of events in
This World and the World-to-Come, there would be no room for the
filth of This World to enter the heart. "Please, my students,
learn this song with the explanations of the Sages and the
masters of the Divine inspiration," he would repeat. "Sing this
song with a pleasant tune, for every nation has a national
anthem, and we, the holy nation which Hashem has chosen, have
been given the anthem of Ha'azinu."
Through the words of this song, one can attain faith in, and
also understanding of, the way G-d directs the world towards the
ultimate tikkun / completion. The words of this song include
everything from the giving of the Torah to the resurrection of
the dead - everything that will happen to us over time. In the
words of the Sages in the midrash Sifrei: "This song is great,
for it includes the present, the past and the future; This World
and the World-to-Come." (Naharei Eish)
"Listen, heavens, and I will speak; and may the earth hear
the words of my mouth." (32:1)
"Hear, heavens, and listen, earth . . ." (Yishayahu 1:2)
The midrash notes that the word "listen" ("ha'azinu") implies
that the listener is standing nearby, while the word "hear"
("tishmah") implies a listener who is farther away. Thus, Moshe,
who was "closer" to the heavens than to earth, said "Listen,
heavens . . . and let the earth hear." The prophet Yishayahu,
who was closer to earth than to heaven, reversed the pairings of
the verbs and nouns.
R' Moshe Feinstein z"l explains: "Heavens" refers to the
nation's leaders, while "earth" refers to the common man. In
Moshe's time, the leaders were righteous, and Moshe could speak
to them and entrust them to carry his message to the people. In
this sense, Moshe was close to the "heavens."
However, Yishayahu lived in a generation when the leaders were
evil. (One example of this is Yishayahu's grandson, King
Menashe, who killed his grandfather rather than listen to his
rebuke.) Yishayahu could not take his message to the leaders; he
had to speak directly to the common-folk. Yishayahu was close to
the people -- the "earth" -- and he spoke to them, "Do not do all
that your so-called leaders do, for they do not follow the Torah,
and you should not follow their example."
At first glance, writes R' Shmuel Bornstein z"l, it is
difficult to see how the heavens and earth can be witnesses, when
they do not speak. Nevertheless, the heavens and earth can bear
witness, as we see in the following midrash:
"R' Meir said, 'In the beginning when the Jewish people were
meritorious, they testified for themselves. Later, when Bnei
Yisrael degraded themselves, the tribes of Yehuda and Binyamin
testified for everyone. Even later, the prophets had to testify
for everyone. After that, the heavens and earth had to
testify.'" The Midrash continues in this vein until it reaches
the small ant, which now "testifies" for everyone.
What does this mean? Kohelet (8:1) states, "A person's wisdom
lights up his countenance." When a person purifies himself, a
certain radiance appears on his face, not unlike the rays of
light which surrounded Moshe when he came down from Har Sinai.
This is the "testimony" that Bnei Yisrael provided for
themselves. However, when Bnei Yisrael sinned, only the worthier
tribes of Yehuda and Binyamin could still "testify" in this way.
Later, only the prophets merited this shining countenance. Even
later, when prophecy ceased, the heavens and earth took their
place, in that the continued existence of the heavens and earth
testifies to the fact that the Jews are keeping the Torah.
In light of the above idea, adds R' Bornstein, we can
understand why the source for the mitzvah of reciting "Birchot
Ha'Torah" / The Blessings for Torah Study is found for the first
time in this parashah, near the end of the Torah. The Avnei
Nezer [a major 19th-century posek and R' Bornstein's father] said
that the purpose of Birchot Ha'Torah is to introduce G-dliness
into Torah study by distinguishing that study from the pursuit of
ordinary wisdom. However, R' Shmuel notes, this only became
necessary as Moshe was about to die; as long as he was alive,
Hashem's "voice" emanated from Moshe's throat (Chazal say), and
the radiance of Moshe's countenance left no doubt as to the G-
dliness of the subject matter. It is only we who must recite the
berachot in order to sanctify our Torah study.
(Shem Mi'Shmuel 5672)
Eating on Erev Yom Kippur
"It is a day of complete rest for you and you shall afflict
yourselves; on the ninth day of the month in the evening -
from evening to evening - shall you rest on your rest day."
The gemara asks: "Do we afflict ourselves (i.e., fast) on
the ninth (of Tishrei)? We fast on the tenth! However, the
verse is telling you that if one eats and drinks on the
ninth, it is as if he fasted on the ninth and tenth."
Several explanations have been given for the mitzvah to eat on
Erev Yom Kippur:
Rashi writes: Prepare yourself on the ninth so that you will be
able to fast on the tenth. (Commentary to Yoma 81b)
Rabbenu Yonah z"l (12th-13th centuries; Spain) offers three
explanations (the third of which is the same as Rashi's):
(1) Eating on the ninth shows one's joy that the day of his
atonement has come, which proves that he has been worried
until now about the sins that he has committed.
(2) It is extremely meritorious to rejoice over the mitzvot,
and this is why we have festive meals on all of the
holidays. Since we cannot do so on Yom Kippur, we do so on
the preceding day. (Sha'arei Teshuvah IV, 8-10)
In Rambam's Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Shevitat Asor ("Laws of
Resting on the Tenth," where the laws of Yom Kippur are
codified), there is no mention of a mitzvah to eat on the ninth
of Tishrei. The only place where Rambam alludes to such an
obligation is in Hilchot Nedarim 3:9 ("Laws of Vows"), where the
question arises: If a person vowed to fast every Sunday, Tuesday
or certain other day of the week, and Erev Yom Kippur falls on
that day, should he fast or is his vow void? (According to
Rambam, he should fast.)
Why does Rambam omit this law from his discussion of the laws
of Yom Kippur? R' Joseph B. Soloveitchik z"l explains:
In the Laws of Shabbat, Rambam writes that the Sages prohibited
handling certain objects on Shabbat (i.e., items that are
muktzeh) so that even unemployed people can refrain from
"working" on Shabbat. Otherwise, there would be nothing to
distinguish these people's weekdays from their day of rest.
In the same way, explains R' Soloveitchik, if one does not eat
on the day before Yom Kippur, it cannot be said that he has
fasted on Yom Kippur. There is not, however, a separate mitzvah
to eat on the ninth of the month, and therefore Rambam does not
(Quoted in Harerei Kedem)
The following letter was written by R' Yisrael Salanter z"l
(died 1883) and is printed in Ohr Yisrael, No. 15. The
letter is dated on this day in 5637/1876.
The foundation of the days of repentance is to accept upon
oneself to abandon sin. This is the most difficult of all the
tasks that we have on Yom Kippur. The weightiest sin of all is
theft, as Chazal said, "Of a box full of sins, which one accuses
Man must seek [ways] to repent on Yom Kippur, especially from
the most serious sins. What is "serious" depends upon the
circumstances; the easier a particular sin is to avoid, the more
serious the sin is considered to be and the greater is the
punishment. This is what Chazal meant when they said, "The
punishment for not wearing the white strings of the tzitzit is
greater than the punishment for not wearing the techelet / blue
string." The severity of a sin also depends on the identity of
the victim; for example, stealing from a poor person is worse
than stealing from a wealthy person . . .
The same is true with regard to other sins, including bittul
Torah / neglecting Torah study. The easier it is for a person to
study -- for example, on Shabbat, when one is free -- the greater
is the sin of not doing so. Likewise, the sin of not studying
that which one needs to know in practice is greater than the sin
of not studying other Torah subjects . . .
One needs to search his ways and make a strong commitment -- in
almost every area of his life -- to guard at least from those
things that are easy to avoid. In this way, one's teshuvah will
cover the majority of his deeds. Rambam teaches that sins are
not weighed by their quantity, but rather by their quality; one
sin that was easy to avoid counts more than several sins that
were difficult to avoid. Also, within each sin, there are
aspects that are easier to avoid than others . . .
[Finally,] one should study mussar works that speak of the
severity of bittul Torah . . .