It is said that one who lives with the parshas ha-shavuah (the weekly
Torah reading) lives with the times. Within each weekly section there
are hints and allusions which, if we attune ourselves to them, teach
us how to serve Hashem specifically during the period of the year in
which the parsha is read. If this is true with regard to other parshios,
it is certainly applicable to this week's parsha - Nitzavim Va-yelech -
which begins with the words, "Atem nitzavim ha-yom - You are
standing today, all of you, before Hashem your G-d... " 'Today,' says
the holy Zohar (2:32b), refers to Rosh Hashana. What message is
there in the words of the opening verse of the parsha that will
(hopefully) put us in the right frame of mind as we approach the New
Year and the Days of Judgement and Awe?
It is said that a disciple of the holy Gaon of Vilna, R' Eliyahu zt"l, once
asked him what the "best mussar sefer" to learn was (a mussar sefer
is a book that teaches and encourages character refinement and self-
scrutiny). The Gaon responded by naming a number of the eminent
sefarim that deal with such issues. "But Rebbe," insisted the disciple,
"which sefer is the very best?"
"I do not wish to pick favourites," responded the Gaon, "they are all
worthwhile. One should set aside time every day to learn mussar and
work on one's character. What I can tell you, however, is this: For
me, the best 'mussar sefer' of all is right over there upon that wall."
The disciple glanced at the shelving which held some of the Gaon's
numerous sefarim, yet among them he could not locate even one
sefer which would be termed a mussar sefer. They were all Talmudic
"Rebbe," he said, "I'm not sure to which sefer you refer."
"My son, you misunderstood. When I said that my favourite mussar
sefer was over there on the wall, I refer to the clock over there above
the door. Every second of the day that clock ticks away, reminding
me that time never stands still. When we're young, we think we'll
never grow old. We think that time is a cheap commodity; not
something to be valued. As one ages, and the years of his life pass
by, he learns little by little how precious those fleeting moments are.
While each tick of the clock on its own seems so small, the ticks add
up. Tick by tick, moment by moment our lives are lived. We must
grasp hold of time as best we can, before time grasps hold of us. No
one knows when for him the last tick of the clock will sound, and his
fleeting window of opportunity upon this world will come to a sudden
end. So you see, my son, that for me is the biggest 'mussar sefer' of
The concept of the "ticking mussar sefer," says the sefer Divrei
Binah, is alluded to in the first pasuk of parshas Nitzavim. "You
stand today... shivteichem, zikneichem - your tribes and your elders."
The word tribes, "shivteichem," can also mean a stick or rod, which,
in the spirit of the "shevet mussar/rod of chastisement" (Mishlei/
Proverbs 22:15), is used to beat someone (or oneself) into
submission. Thus: Shivteichem zikneichem - your (own) age should
be for you the greatest "rod," for the time will come when you will
wish you could have a few of those moments back, yet the clock on
the wall just keeps on ticking...
On Rosh Hashana, a hefty part the Yom Tov is spent immersed in
prayer. Everyone hopes that his prayers on Rosh Hashana should be
full of meaning and depth. Sometimes, however, try as we might, our
prayers "just don't go" - we simply don't feel the inspiration and the
attachment we had hoped to. And when our prayers feel this way -
empty and lacking - forcing the issue doesn't usually help. We can
screw up our eyes and tense our forheads in mock concentration and
intensity, yet in our hearts we know our prayers are empty. It can be
a very frustrating experience. What is one to do?
Sefarim write that when one feels this way, it's often a sign that his
prayers are focused within. Were he to pray not only for his own
welfare and that of his family, but to think about Jews all over the
world, and their needs and problems, then his heart would open up,
and the feeling he was lacking would surely emerge. The Gemara
says that while the Almighty doesn't always accept the prayers of an
individual, the prayers of a community are always accepted (Berachos
8a). By the same token, the prayers of an individual, when he focuses
not on himself but on his community, are guaranteed to be full of
meaning and significance.
This concept, says R' Mordechai of Nadvorna zt"l (Ma'amar
Mordechai), is also alluded to in the first pasuk of Nitzavim: You
stand today - Rosh Hashana, in prayer. If you wish to ensure that your
prayers will be meaningful and fulfilling, then the Torah advises: All
of you before Hashem your G-d - make sure you keep others in
mind, not just yourself.
One might be inclinded to think that by diverting his thoughts from
himself and his family, and concentrating on the "greater good," he
might in some way be detracting from his own needs. "If I'm not for
myself," he asks, "who will be for me?" The Gemara confirms that in
fact, the very opposite is true. "Anyone who prays for others, even
though he too needs the same thing, he will be answered first. (Bava
Focusing our prayers on others, especially on such an impactful day
as Rosh Hashana, might not be something that comes easy or feels
natural. Man is by nature a self-centered creature, and when the
stakes are high, it's tough to focus on others and not on oneself. The
benefits, however, both with regard to the inspiration of one's prayers
and in their efficacy, are unmatchable. We're all in this together; let's
keep each other in mind.
Have a good Shabbos.
****** This week's publication has been sponsored by Mr.
Pinchas Goldstein, in loving memory of his father, R'
Yisrael David ben R' Yaakov. ******