These divrei Torah were adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissocher Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Series on the weekly portion: #1261 – Did I Say Hamelech Hakadosh? / Nuts on Rosh Hashana
Moshe Rabbeinu tells Klal Yisrael at the beginning of our parsha: “You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem your G-d:” (Atem Nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Hashem Elokeichem) [Devorim 29:9] There is a very famous Medrash Aggadah quoted by Rashi here [Pasuk 12]: “Why was this passage juxtaposed with the curses (at the end of Parshas Ki Savo)? Since they had just heard ninety-eight frightening curses besides the forty-nine curses at the end of Sefer VaYikra, their faces turned pallid. They asked – ‘Who can withstand all of this?’ Moshe therefore came to mollify them and calm them down. You are still standing here today. You have angered the Almighty very often and He has not destroyed you.” As if to say – “You have been bad before, you will be bad again. You will get through it all! Don’t worry.” This is the context of “Atem Nitzavim haYom…”
A famous question is asked on this Rashi. Moshe appears to be defeating the whole purpose of his mussar schmooze. He gets them really shaken up. They are trembling in their boots – “What is going to be with us?” And he tells them “Chill. Don’t worry about it.” This is equivalent to a Mashgiach Ruchani getting up in the Yeshiva and reading the riot act to the bochurim. The bochurim are trembling that because of their behavior they are all going to burn in Gehinnom. And then the Mashgiach gives them all a wink and tells them “Don’t worry!”
So “what did the Sages accomplish with their enactment?” The point of the Tochacha was to read them the riot act and to put the fear of G-d in them!
I saw in the sefer Avir Yosef a very interesting observation from Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva of South Fallsburg. The Tosefta in Maseches Shabbos notes that of all the city dwellers in the world, the people of Sodom are the calmest. They have the most menuchas haNefesh. The Tosefta says that, in fact, that is what brought Lot to Sodom. He checked out all the cities around and he saw that the people of Sodom were the most serene.
What does this Tosefta mean? Why were the people so serene in Sodom? Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel explains: Lot lived with Avraham Avinu. With Avraham Avinu he saw great serenity. He saw a man that was at peace with himself. He was calm and content with life. Lot said to himself “I want that kind of life. I want the same serenity that my uncle Avraham has.”
Why was Avraham Avinu able to achieve such serenity? The rest of us experience this ongoing tension between our guf (body) and our neshama (soul). Our flesh wants one thing and our neshama wants something else. It is a battle from Day One. As soon as the neshama enters a person, the neshama is not happy. “I don’t want to be in this world. I don’t want to deal with the physicality and material nature of Olam HaZeh.” On the other hand, the body wants the physical pleasures of life.
That is the ongoing battle and tension that exists in every human being. For this reason, we are not all calm, serene, and content. One day we are like this and one day we are like that. Or, one minute we are like this and one minute we are like that. We may be one type of person when we are in shul, and another type of person when we are at work.
Avraham Avinu solved the problem. He was 100% spiritual (kulo ruchniyus). He devoted his life to improving his neshama. Therefore, there was no tension. There was this enviable calm and serenity in his lifestyle.
I once had the opportunity to spend ten minutes with Reb Aharon Leib Shteinman (zt”l). If you ever were in his little house, he sat there on a roll-away sofa bed. They put up a chair that served as a backing. The man was so at peace. It would seem like he didn’t have a worry in the world. He had patience for everyone. Besides the tzidkus (piety) that emanated from him, there was also this serenity. That is because—to a very large extent—he also solved this human dilemma by choosing a very ascetic life.
Lot envied this. Except, Lot said to himself, “But I can’t live that type of life.” Lot knew that he could not live such a spiritually-infused lifestyle. He still lusted for the pleasures of the flesh. Therefore, his only option was the other way of achieving serenity – at the other end of the spectrum. The people of Sodom also did not have a conflict. They also felt no tension between the desires of their guf and the desires of their neshama. They threw out the ruchniyus and lived by the motto of “Eat, drink, and be merry – for tomorrow you may die!”
They opted to completely forget about satisfying the neshama and just concentrated on satisfying their bodily needs and desires. This is a path to you-know-where, but it is serene. There is no tension. That is why Lot chose Sodom—it was the most serene and contented spot on the globe.
Moshe Rabbeinu addressed the Jewish people and told them: You are all standing here before Hashem today. Don’t worry!
We asked that Moshe destroyed his whole mussar schmooze! The answer is that Moshe Rabbienu was telling them in the Tochacha, “What happened to Sodom will happen to you.” [Devarim 29:22]. But it will only happen to you like it happened to Sodom if you, like them, forsake ruchniyus totally. As long as you feel this tension, as long as you are still fighting the battle, and the struggle with your neshama still bothers you, then what happened to Sodom will not happen to you.
Moshe Rabbeinu tells them the ninety-eight curses and their faces paled, but he tells them – the fact that your faces paled—that is a good sign. It shows that you are still battling; you are still in the fight. As long as you are still waging the battle and are still trying to choose ruchniyus, even though you have already sinned to the Almighty many times, nevertheless you still want what is right, and it still bothers you when it is not right. Therefore, do not worry – the Ribono shel Olam will not wipe you out like He did to Sodom. Sodom’s fate is only for those who have totally forsaken the world of spirituality.
These are very encouraging words as we approach Rosh HaShannah. We all have our issues that we need to deal with. We are now approaching the Great Day of Judgement. It is scary, because we look back on our past year and we know that we have fallen down like we have sometimes fallen down in the past. But we are still in the battle, and we are still fighting. It still bothers us. A person only needs to worry when it DOES NOT bother him anymore. Only when a person has achieved the serenity of Sodom is it necessary to really be concerned. The mere fact that our faces are pale and that we feel the need and desire to improve is the biggest testament that we are still fighting the battle. Please G-d, with that merit of our seeking ruchniyus, the Ribono shel Olam shall bless us with the rest of Klal Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael for a year of life and health, financial well-being, and peace upon Yisroel.
Transcribed by David Twersky; Jerusalem [email protected]
Technical Assistance by Dovid Hoffman; Baltimore, MD [email protected]
This week’s write-up is adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissochar Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Series on the weekly Torah portion. A listing of the halachic portions for Parshas Nitzavim/Vayeilech is provided below:
- # 022 – Reading Haftorah: Scrolls vs. Book
- # 112 – Shoteh: Mental Incompetence in Halacha
- # 158 – Schar Shabbos: How Do We Pay Rabbonim and Chazzanim?
- # 205 – Kiddush Before T’kiyas Shofar
- # 252 – Buying Seforim
- # 295 – Burying the Dead on Yom Tov Sheni
- # 341 – The Brachos on the T’kios
- # 342 – Is Building a Succah a Mitzvah?
- # 385 – Fasting on Rosh Hashana
- # 386 – Succah Gezulah
- # 429 – Treatment of an Invalid Sefer Torah
- # 473 – Seudas Siyum Mesechta
- # 517 – What Exactly Is Mitzva of Shofar
- # 561 – Lo Bashomayin He
- # 605 – Selling A Sefer Torah
- # 649 – Minhagim of the Yomim Noraim
- # 693 – My Father’s Chumros
- # 737 – Borrowing and Lending Seforim
- # 781 – I’m the Baal Tokeah and Not You!
- # 825 – The Shuls of Gaza – A Halachic Perspective
- # 826 – Yom Kippur: Women and the Shehecheyanu; Women and Kor’im
- # 869 – The Mitzvah of Chinuch-Whose Responsibility? Mother or Father?
- # 870 – Yom Kippur – The Yom Kippur That They Did Not Fast
- # 913 – The Tefilah of Oleinu
- # 957 – Coming Late for Tekias Shofar and Other Rosh Hashana Issues
- # 1000 – Ta’amei Hamikra – The Tropp – How Important Is It?
- # 1044 – Must You Stand for Chazoras HaShatz on Rosh Hashana?
- # 1088 – Learning During T’kias Shofer?
- # 1131 – Asking For Personal Needs On Rosh Hashana?
- # 1173 – Oops! I Forgot Ya’Aleh Ve’Yavo in Bentching on Rosh Hashana
- # 1217 – Fascinating Halachos Pertaining to a Choleh on Yom Kippur
- # 1261 – Did I Say Hamelech Hakadosh? / Nuts on Rosh Hashana
- # 1305 – The Case of the Esrog That Was Not As Advertised
- # 1349 – The Baal Tokeah Who Was Doubtful If He Could Blow
- # 1437 – Dip the Apple in the Honey Make A Bracha: Which Bracha?
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