All of you stand here today before God, your God, with leaders of
your tribes, your elders, your law enforcers, all the men of Israel, your
children, your wives, and the proselyte that is part of your camp, from the
hewer of wood to the drawer of water, about to enter into the covenant with
God, your God, and into His curse, which God, your God makes with you today.
In spite of the fact that we had an extra month this year, we still get a
double parshah. And, though they are short in verses, they are long on
material. Even the tone of these two parshios, and the ones that follow are
different, as if the Torah is wrapping up, not just the Torah, but history
as well. And, they are the last two parshios of 5771.
However, if any two parshios belong together, it is these two. Not just
because they are both so short, but because they really say the same thing.
Even the names themselves, ironically, allude to this, since nitzavim means
standing and vayaliech means went, two words to do with movement, or the
Nitzavim refers to the Jewish people standing before Moshe Rabbeinu, who is
in the midst of giving his farewell speech, being his last day of life.
Vayailech is talking about Moshe Rabbeinu, as he went to go speak to the
Jewish people. However, both parshios speak about the potential direction
the Jewish people can move in the future, and the one that they are likely
God told Moshe, “After you lie with your fathers, this people will
act immorally and pursue the gods of the strangers of the land they are
going to. They will abandon Me ...” (Devarim 30:16)
When it comes to spiritual growth, there is no neutral ground. As Kabbalah
explains, in this world, everything is in movement. Things are either
growing or decaying, but they never stay still. With deep freeze, we can
slow the process down to almost a standstill, but never to an actual
standstill. That is, according to the Kabbalah, the way life is meant to be.
What makes life even more confusing is that sometimes you have to go down to
go up, and sometimes people go up only to end up going down. The important
thing, especially going into Rosh Hashanah, is to make sure that your net
reality is up. For, Heaven can put up with a down here and a down there if
it knows that the main goal of the person is to spiritual ascend. However,
even the greatest up becomes unimpressive if the person, in the end, is only
going to descend.
What determines to which category a person belongs? Rebi Elazar ben Durdia,
after a life of sinning, died doing teshuvah and was accepted in Heaven.
Rebi Yochanan, the Kohen Gadol in his time, served faithfully for 80 years
before becoming a heretic for the rest of his life. Life is full of such
surprises in both directions.
Seemingly, it has to do with the core of a person. When Elisha ben Abuya
became a heretic, even though he had been a colleague of Rebi Akiva and Rebi
Meir—that’s a long way to fall—Tosfos brings an explanation for his
spiritual downfall that went back to his Bris Milah. It may have taken years
to manifest itself, but apparently he could not have gone off the path had
there not been some profound internal flaw.
One of the reasons I really enjoy going to the Kosel once a week is because
it really centers me. It is a very distracting world today, even when
working out of your house as I do, and writing Torah most of the day. There
are financial concerns, and family concerns, and community concerns. Not
everyone is on the same spiritual level, and what may be off limits to one
person may be perfectly acceptable to another.
And, once the emotions get involved, it is not hard to get involved in moral
issues as well. The intellect, for the most part, is only interested in
truth. However, the emotions are interested in being happy and avoiding
pain, sometimes at any cost, and at a cost that can have moral implications.
The next thing you know is that your being pulled in all kinds of directions
you would have, on a normal and balanced day, avoided.
Sometimes, you just can’t help it. The outside influence is just too great,
and you find yourself speaking loshon hara. Sometimes the situation is just
too overpowering, and you find yourself getting involved in meaningless
activities, or at least meaningless at that moment. Everyone needs a break
from time-to-time; the sin is in taking one at the wrong time.
For some people, it doesn’t really matter. C’est la vie! They are not
self-critical because right for them is a subjective matter, one that is
often decided more by circumstance and what feels good than what their core
says. They just bounce from event to event, from experience to experience,
and as long as no one seems any worse for the wear, there is nothing to regret.
Other people feel pain. When they compromise on their spiritual values, it
hurts. They may not be able to overcome their desire to comprise, but as
they do, and after they have finished, they walk away with an uneasy
feeling. They might even promise themselves that next time they won’t fall
prey to such situations.
When such people find themselves in good spiritual environments that draw
out of them good spiritual decisions, it is cause for celebration. They feel
more themselves, and even apologetic for less-than-spectacular behavior;
they feel a tremendous sense of calm.
One person commented to me that he feels relief to be in shul on Rosh
Hashanah. “The rest of the year, praying seems to be rushed, even on Shabbos
sometimes. On Rosh Hashanah, there is so much at stake, and everyone knows
that praying is the order of the day. This relaxes me, and part of me says,
‘Well, we’re here for a while to pray, so might as well make the best of
it.’ So I do, and it feels so ... therapeutic.”
What is a person’s core?
Though our physical make-up is pretty much decided for our entire lives
before we even make it to the outside world, our spiritual picture only
begins to be painted once we enter the world. Some brush strokes are thicker
than others, such as the influence parents and the rest of the family has on
a child’s growth process. Soon after that friends may enter the picture, and
eventually have a tremendous impact on what a person thinks about himself
Then comes school and teachers, and around the same time, the media.
Sometimes the former will have greater influence, but these days, usually
the media has the greatest influence of all. But all of them will contribute
information and feedback that will go into the person’s psyche and determine
how he or she looks at him - or herself, and life in general. This will
result, early in life, in a person’s core beliefs and understanding, which
will shape the way a person looks at reality and personal responsibility the
rest of his or her life:
Long thought to be a clean slate to which information could be added
at any time, the brain is now seen as a super-sponge that is most absorbent
from birth to about age 12 … Stimulation directs cells’ organization,
scientists have found, and the basic framework is complete by about age 12 …
Information flows easily into the brain through ‘windows’ that are open for
only a short duration. Then the windows close, and the fundamental
architecture of the brain is completed. ‘A kind of irreversibility sets in’,
said Felton Earls, a child psychiatrist at Harvard University.” (Chicago
What he calls the fundamental architecture of the brain I am calling the
core. It is the set of values that we develop in the early years that will
color the way we perceive reality the rest of our lives, no matter how
educated we become and how smart we are. If the education in the early years
was good and accurate, then we will be equipped to deal with life well and
If not, then we will either breakdown from confusion and frustration, or do
what most people do in such situations: twist and distort truth until it
fits into our personal paradigm. And, once that starts happening, as it does
even for some of the greatest geniuses today, movement is downward, not upward.
For, God measures movement differently than many of His human creations. For
many on earth, it is a question of IQ, of financial success, or of fame; if
you’re doing well with any of these things, then you are moving up in life.
For everyone on Heaven, it is a question of essential self; everyone makes
mistakes, but who acknowledges them, works on improvement for the future,
and seeks a close relationship with God? That’s called moving up in life.
I believe this is what the Talmud truly refers to with the term Ben Olam
HaBah, literally, “Son of the World-to-Come.” Technically, it means that a
person is destined to go to the World-to-Come after they have already died.
You can do things in this world to become one, but to actually be one, a
person has to die, for as the Leshem explains, since it is the last moment
of a person’s life that determines the fact, because people waver all
through their lives between Heaven and its counterpart.
However, I think what the Talmud means is that a person can already be a Ben
Olam HaBah even while still alive, if his core is essentially good. He’s
going to make mistakes all through his life; he’s human. But, at the end of
the day, he’ll always right himself and find his spiritual equilibrium,
because that is who he is, in essence, at the core.
This fits in nicely with the Leshem’s understanding of the judgement on Rosh
Hashanah, based upon Tosfos on Rosh Hashanah 17a. According to the Leshem,
the whole judgment on Rosh Hashanah is for the sake of establishing whether
or not a person is a Ben Olam HaBah. In other words, Heaven asks, “If this
person were to die now, would he go to the World-to-Come, or would he need
Gihenom?” The answer to that question then determines what kind of year he
will have henceforth.
We can add to that a core judgment. Heaven looks at the person on the
inside, at his core. If his core his good, he is destined to go to the
World-to-Come, because he will want to avoid sin, and when he doesn’t, he
will do teshuvah. If it is not good, then he will be destined to go to
Gihenom, because he will neither avoid sin nor concern himself if he commits
It hardly seems fair, since we have little to say about what we become
before the age of 12. The good news is that at the core, everyone at least
possesses the potential to recognize the need to have a good core. It’s
built into all of us. This way, even if we don’t get off to a good start, we
can do some re-programming later on in life. It won’t be easy, but it will
be possible. And, as the midrash says, when it comes to teshuvah:
Open for Me an entrance as tiny as a needlepoint and I, in turn,
shall open for you an entrance as the entrance of a hall. (Shir HaShirim
With just a few days until Rosh Hashanah, b”H, it is important to keep this