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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse. (11:26)

One of the basic tenets of Judaism is that man is equipped with the ability to discern between good and bad, right and wrong. He is also equipped with the capacity to choose right over wrong, good over evil. Contrary to popular opinion, man is not destined to do bad, to veer to the wrong side of the truth. If he does so, it is purely of his own volition, not due to a predetermined GPS within his psyche that always steers him to do evil. The Torah says, "Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse." Towards the end of Sefer Devarim (30:19), we are admonished to "Choose life!" All of this makes sense. Hashem wants us to make the correct and proper choices. There is, however, more to it. Our choices not only have an effect on us personally, but the choice of the individual Jew to do good affects the entire world.

We begin our day with a number of blessings, one of which is, Asher nossan la'sechvi vinah l'havchin bein yom u'bein loylah; "Who gave the heart (lit. rooster) the wisdom/understanding to discern between the day and night." The Sfas Emes cites his grandfather, the Chiddushei HaRim, who explains that the light of day is a reference to the spiritual and the opportunity to grow closer to Hashem; while the night, represented by darkness, alludes to the material dimension which can bring man to sin. In the blessing, we pay gratitude to the Almighty for granting us the power to distinguish between the two. The Sfas Emes adds that, while continued sin desensitizes a person, distorting his projected image of evil, Hashem constantly renews man's consciousness, thus enabling him to once again choose correctly. This is the meaning of the daily blessing, acknowledging one's renewed blessing - every day.

Having said this, why does man not intuitively choose a life of blessing? Why would one want a life of curse? Indeed, why do so many presumably intelligent people, who consider themselves by today's standards to be frum, observant people, often make the "wrong" choices for their lives? The Sfas Emes explains that choosing a life of blessing is possible only if one is a true ben-Torah, one who views life and living through the spectrum of Torah. Blessing and curse are defined by the Torah - not by contemporary society.

Sfas Emes cites the Midrash that supports this idea. "'Behold! I have set before you today a blessing and a curse.' What is written above? 'If you will keep (guard) all of this mitzvah' (Devarim 11:22). What is the meaning of this mitzvah? Rabbi Levi says it's Krias Shema. The Rabbanan say it's Shabbos." Another explanation: man's soul and the Torah are compared to a candle, as it is written, 'The candle of Hashem is man's soul' (Mishlei 6:23). Hashem says, 'My candle is in your hand; and your candle is in Mine. If you guard My candle I will guard yours, but, if you extinguish My candle, I will extinguish yours, as well.'" Three concepts in this Midrash must be explained: What is meant by, "Hashem's candle is in our hands"? Why are Shabbos and Shema, in particular, those mitzvos that engender blessing or curse?

Sfas Emes explains that Hashem renews Creation daily. The flow of renewal, however, is dependent on Klal Yisrael. This is intimated by the pasuk, "I set before you a blessing and a curse." Klal Yisrael receives the flow of blessing in accordance with their preparation. It then flows to the rest of the world through the Jewish People. If Klal Yisrael is lax in their preparation, if their attitude is left wanting, the spiritual flow of blessing will parallel the preparation, such that the entire world will suffer.

Chazal compare this spiritual flow to a candle. Every Jew carries Hashem's candle through the dark night represented by This World. His hands cup the flame, preventing it from becoming extinguished. His daily prayers and blessings are like the oil that enables the candle to glow.

The pasuk teaches that the blessing and curses were placed lifneichem, before Klal Yisrael as a collective group. There are certain mitzvos which unite our people. Sanctifying the Shabbos is one of them. In Nusach Sfard, we recite the Raza d'Shabbos as part of the K'gavna prayer: "Raza d'Shabbos, the secret of Shabbos… b'raza d'Echad, the secret of unity." The Shema prayer calls upon the entire Jewish nation to unify Hashem. These mitzvos have unique status in serving as catalysts for uniting Klal Yisrael, thereby bringing the spiritual flow of blessing to the world.

This idea is alluded to by Yirmiyahu HaNavi: Shimu v'haazinu al tigbahu, "Listen and pay attention, do not 'rise up'" (Yirmiyahu 13:15). Chazal question the phrase, "Do not rise up." They explain that it is an admonishment not to prevent the spiritual flow of blessing from entering the world.

Now, to put it all together: The Jewish People were created to attest to the fact that Hashem creates the world anew each day. This idea disputes those who contend that, while Hashem might have created the world, He abandoned it a long time ago. Hashem is prepared to renew the fire, lightning and thunder that personified the Revelation with one condition: We must be attuned to listen to it. David HaMelech says, Shimah ami va'adeabeira, "Listen My People, and I will speak" (Tehillim 50:7). Regrettably, no one is prepared to listen. Chazal teach that B'chol yom va'yom Bas Kol yotzais mei'Har Chorev; "Each day a Heavenly voice emanates from Mount Chorev, declaring, 'Oy la'hem labriyos mei'elbonah shel Torah, Woe to Creation for the disgrace of the Torah!'" (Pirkei Avos 6:2). This means that the Heavenly voice is waiting to be heard, but, regrettably, we "raise ourselves up" and prevent spiritual flow from entering the world.

Ki ner mitzvah v'Torah or, "For the mitzvos are a candle and the Torah is the light." By fulfilling mitzvos, we awaken the world's spiritual potential. Like candles, mitzvos illuminate each seemingly physical act and connect it to the Creator. The Midrash's allegory of Hashem allowing us to hold the candle is a metaphor which shows that each Jew is personally responsible to enlighten a certain aspect of spirituality. He must do it himself - no one else. Until he strengthens himself to do so, that point which is his personal responsibility remains incarcerated in a dark prison. The parshah commences with the word, Re'eh! "See!" By choosing life, we connect to that exclusive point and are actually able to see the blessings. In conclusion: The choice of a Jew to do good has ramifications for the entire world. When we work in harmony with the entire Klal Yisrael, such as, shemiras Shabbos, kabollas ol Malchus Shomayim, observing Shabbos and collectively accepting the yoke of Heaven on ourselves, we unify ourselves and unify Hashem. This is the secret of Shabbos and the Shema Yisrael: Yichud haBorei, the unity of the Creator. We have Hashem's "candle" - His Torah and mitzvos - in our hands; He has our neshamos, souls, in His hands. It is tit for tat. When we observe the mitzvos, the Torah illuminates our lives, granting us the ability to see. Thus, Hashem allows the flow of blessing to reach our neshamos. We "see"; we "choose"; we "live."

Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse. (11:26)

When one peruses Jewish history, it is apparent that the pendulum of Jewish fortune swings to extremes. We have been blessed with either incredible prosperity or drastic misfortune. Even concerning the individual, one is either highly successful, very observant, or, sadly, the extreme opposite. While it may not be obvious to the casual observer, if one were to cogently look at life, he would see that, for the Jew, life is either about ceaseless blessing or unbearable curse. Even with regard to sin, the Torah relates in the parsha of Krias Shema: Heshamru la'chem pen yifteh levavechem - v'sartem, va'avaditem elohim acheirim, "Beware for yourselves, lest your heart be seduced - and you will turn astray and serve gods of others" (Devarim 11:16). There is no in-between road. One is either totally subservient to Hashem or he is an idol-worshipper.

In the opening Rashi to Sefer Mishlei, the quintessential commentator, Rebbe of Klal Yisrael, writes that the title of the Sefer Mishlei, translated as Proverbs, refers to various literary devises used to render the subject matter more comprehensible. Hence, the Torah is allegorized as an ishah tovah, good woman, and avodas kochavim, idol-worship, as an ishah zonah, a harlot. While this is a wonderful commentary on the status of the Jewish woman, one wonders at the extreme: one is either an ishah tovah or an ishah zonah. The precipice that divides the two, I think, is, pen yifteh levavechem, "lest your heart be seduced." Once the heart has been swayed, then everything goes; the downward descent plummets one at a mind-boggling speed, to the point of v'sartem va'avaditem elohim acheirim, "You will turn astray and serve gods of others." Is there no middle road? Is one either "good" or "very bad"? If so, why?

The answer to this question is simple: We are different. In a famous comment to the first pasuk of our Parsha, "Behold! I set before you this day a blessing and a curse," Sforno writes: "Look and see that your affairs (as a nation) will never be, al ofan beinoni, of an average nature, as is the case with other nations. For today I set before you either blessing or curse: two extremes. Blessing implies success even beyond that which is sufficient, and curse implies such deficiency that attainment even of requirements is out of reach. Both of these are before you to attain, according to what you choose."

We are not like everyone else. Mediocrity is not intrinsic to our system. We are either on "top" - or on the "bottom." Does it have to be this way? Would it be so bad if our lives and fortunes would mirror that of the nations of the world? Is something wrong with living a stable, average existence?

This question was intimated by none other than Eisav ha'rasha, when he asked, "I am going to die, and so what is the birthright (worth) to me?" (Bereishis 25:32). Rashi explains: Eisav asked Yaakov Avinu, "What is the nature of the Temple service which is performed by a b'chor, firstborn?" Yaakov replied, "Many warnings and punishments and death penalties are associated with it!" Eisav responded, "So who needs it? I would die through it!" In other words, Eisav asked Yaakov, "Why would anyone in his right mind seek a position which can destroy him at the slightest hint of error?" It really is not a bad question - for someone like Eisav!

Horav Yeruchum Levovitz, zl, derives a fundamental principle from this dialogue between the two famous brothers. "This issue occurs on every level. Corresponding to the greatness of the spiritual level is the detriment of loss." The greater and more sublime the spiritual level, the more the lack is in its absence. The Kohen has unique responsibilities which demand a greater level of Divine service than that which is demanded of the average Jew. Thus, if he fails, he is subject to a much harsher punishment. It goes with the territory.

The question arises: Who needs it all? Rav Yeruchum asks, "Is exalted spirituality with its potential for tremendous reward better for man, or does the fear of terrible punishment and personal degradation, which are the result of failure, outweigh the benefits?" In other words: Would one not want to forego the opportunity for the reward due to the ominous gloom associated with failure?

The Jews went through this decision following the Revelation. In Sefer Devarim (5:21,24) Moshe Rabbeinu recounts how the people were so overawed by the mysterium tremendum of the Revelation that they requested that Moshe do the "talking," that he convey the mitzvos to them. Apparently, the clarity of truth experienced by the people upon hearing the mitzvos first-hand from the Almighty was too much for them. It engendered great responsibility, awesome obligation, something which they were not sure they could live up to. While their rejection of this unprecedented opportunity aggrieved Moshe, Hashem said, "They did well." He praised them for taking the easy way out. The question that now confronts us is: How did the nation act in a different manner than Eisav? They saw heavy punishment; he saw the same. He opted out; they did the same. Yet, Hashem agreed with them. Why?

Horav Mordechai Miller, zl, explains that essentially Chazal have previously engaged in the debate. Bais Shammai and Bais Hillel argued for two-and a half years concerning whether it was better to have been created or not to have been created. The conclusion was: Better it would have been had man not been created. However, ex post facto, let him scrutinize his deeds and act appropriately. Once again, was Eisav that far off the mark?

Rav Miller distinguishes between the forms of yiraah, fear: yiraas ha'onesh, fear of punishment; and yiraas ha'Romemus, fear of awe, the reverence stemming from a deep and abiding love founded in an acknowledgment of the truth. He cites the Avnei Nezer who explains that Yitzchak Avinu personified fear which originates from love. Man loves Hashem so much that he fears that some distance might come between them. The difference between these two forms of fear is what results. One who loves does not hate. One who fears retribution, who fears future punishment, however, is filled with an emotion that can degenerate into resentment.

One who serves Hashem merely out of fear of punishment is encouraged not to take on added responsibility, for, instead of sensing the privilege of his behavior, he will constantly obsess over the negative consequences if he were to err. This is the approach which Eisav took. He was being realistic. Too many obligations and extra tasks, would destroy him. The less the better - and get it over with.

When Klal Yisrael stood at Har Sinai, they were elevated to such a sublime level that they were totally divorced from physicality. As Horav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler writes: "They ascended to a place that is beyond the capacity of any human to attain through his own exertion." Yet, despite all of this, they wanted to hear from Moshe, rather than from Hashem. How could they fear death if they had just experienced a parting of the soul from the body? The answer is that their fear was not of death. They did not concern themselves with mortality, with the corporeal end. After having achieved such incredible closeness with Hashem, they feared lest they be unable to sustain this relationship. There was a fear stemming from a love that is beyond the level of appreciation. Their love was the result of total devotion and ultimate closeness.

This same fear generated by love was the impetus which catalyzed the dispute between Bais Shammai and Bais Hillel. After counting the number of prohibitive mitzvos (365) versus the number of positive commandments (248), they decided that the opportunities available to actually draw close to Hashem were outnumbered by the different dangers from which one might guard himself. Their conclusion was that since man is fearful that sin would isolate him from the desired closeness with Hashem that he would want to achieve, that negativity would benumb the warmth that he yearned for so passionately, it was better for man to have never been created. It would have been far better that man never have been placed in a situation in which he might sever the most significant relationship that could exist.

We return to the beginning of our Parsha in which Klal Yisrael is presented with two opposing extremes. They are being told that being mediocre serves quite well for the nations of the world, but is not an option for them. It is either/or - nothing in the middle. When we stood at the foot of Har Sinai and accepted the Torah, we entered a new league of humanity, a new epoch in our existence. We were elevated above the rest of humanity, and, consequently, we are unable to live on the same plane. Indeed, it is specifically our lofty plateau, with its newly-incurred obligations, that poses the greatest challenge for us. If we fail to succeed, it will be our downfall.

The question is: Do we need all this? Is it desirable for man to strive to lofty heights if he thereby risks plummeting to the depths? This is not a new question. Rav Yeruchum cites the Mesillas Yesharim, who refers to those individuals who refuse to elevate themselves due to their fear of falling - as fools. They would rather remain oblivious to a life of Torah, pulsating beauty and spiritual wealth. They would rather live a life of mediocrity, content with merely avoiding punishment. Only someone who appreciates the inestimable value of Torah will gladly commit himself to it, regardless of the difficulties and possible punishments for failure such a commitment engenders. This person's love transcends the challenges.

Those who foolishly repudiate this lifestyle - settling instead, first for mediocrity, then for total spiritual oblivion - use fear of negative consequences as a crutch, as an excuse. Veritably, it all stems from their attachment to a life of materialism.

To those whose heart invokes them to attach themselves to a life of spiritual blessing, but who, in the back of their minds, tremble with trepidation at the possibility of retribution, Rav Yeruchum offers the following advice, which I feel should be a Jew's mantra and source of pride - especially when he sees a world around him ensconced in materialistic pursuit and hedonism. To paraphrase the Mashgiach: "When a person sees a horse or any other animal, does man really envy the animal's freedom? Beasts do not shoulder the burden of a livelihood, their sustenance is available everywhere. Living a life of constant gratification and recreation, animals have no worries. However, no fool or simpleton would ever desire to be a horse! Ultimately with all of the difficulties and burdens it involves, man knows that the greatest satisfaction and pleasure is to be a man!"

You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations that you are driving away worshipped their gods… You shall not do so to Hashem, your G-d. (12:2,4)

Rashi quotes the Sifrei, which offers a homiletic rendering of this pasuk. "Does it enter one's mind that the Jews would shatter their Altars?" What, then, does the Torah mean when it writes, "You shall not do this to Hashem, your G-d?" We would never do to our holy places what we are being commanded to do to the shrines of the idol worshipers. "Rabbi Yishmael taught that Jews should be careful not to commit sins that will cause them to be exiled and their holy places destroyed." What are these sins? Why would anyone sin in the bais ha'medrash? This admonition is not directed to the lowest of the low, but to the "crème de crème," the individuals who attend the bais ha'medrash.

Horav Matis Blum, Shlita, cites the Sefer Chassidim which teaches us a frightening lesson. Rabbeinu Yehudah HaChassid writes, "If you see the house that once belonged to a tzaddik, righteous person, or a shul, which is now destroyed or inhabited by wicked people, you should know that (it is because) Jewish people had previously lived there in a disgraceful manner." In his commentary to Sefer Chassidim, the Mekor Chesed cites Chazal in the Talmud Megilla 28b, who state that, "A shul in which mundane calculations (business) is conducted, in the end, will one day serve as a morgue for a meis mitzvah, corpse who has no family to bury

him." "Likewise, a shul or bais ha'medrash in which kalus rosh, levity, is commonplace, in the end, will fall into the hands of gentiles." Indeed, the "uncircumcised ones" (gentiles) never practiced degradation and disgrace in the House of G-d, unless it had first been preceded by Jews who did the same. Last, the gentiles do nothing evil to the Jewish people unless the Jews have acted in such a manner among themselves."

We derive a powerful lesson from the Pietist's homily. Whatever befalls us is a direct consequence of our own doing. When we mistreat a fellow Jew; when our shuls become nothing more than an extension of Starbucks; when our davening is, at best, an endeavor which we must endure; when the shul politics are as underhanded and evil as in the secular political arena, then we are guilty of destroying Hashem's Altar. We set the stage for the gentile demolition crew to enter our Sanctuary to do what they want with it. After all, we have already denuded it of its sanctity. The goyim will just finish the job.

You shall surely tithe the entire crop of your planting… And you shall eat it before Hashem, your G-d. (14:22,23)

Rashi comments that the pasuk is referring to Maaser Sheini, the second tithe. It cannot be addressing Maaser Rishon, the first tithe, because that tithe was given to the Levi. Thus, when the Torah writes that the fruits of the present tithe may be eaten in any place, it obviously must be a different Maaser. In pasuk 27, the Torah writes, "And the Levi who is in your cities, do not forsake him, for he does not have a portion or inheritance with you." Rashi comments, "Do not forsake him by refraining from giving him the first tithe." This statement appears enigmatic and misplaced. Why, in the midst of teaching about Maaser Sheini, does the Torah interrupt with an admonition not to abandon the Levi?

Horav Moshe Tzvi Nahariyah, zl, explains that the Torah delves into the mind of people. By reminding us of our responsibility towards the Levi specifically while addressing the laws concerning Maaser Sheini, the Torah is alluding to a problem which might arise resulting from a person's faulty misconception. Chazal teach us that Maaser Sheini is a catalyst for a burgeoning of one's Torah learning. The escalation and intensification of one's attachment to Torah are the result of spending quality time in Yerushalayim waiting to consume his Maaser Sheini. Imagine a person coming up to Yerushalayim with his wagonload of fruit or its exchange in cash. He must eat the Maaser Sheini or its derivative in Yerushalayim while waiting. During the time spent in the Holy City, he will certainly come in contact with great men of spiritual stature, scholars whose erudition in every area of Torah is unparalleled. He will hear lectures from prominent speakers on just about any Torah topic of his choice. During his short sojourn in Yerushalayim, as he is experiencing unparalleled spiritual fulfillment, he makes the acquaintance of an outstanding Torah scholar, whose breadth of knowledge is encyclopedic, whose oratory is spellbinding, whose piety is awe-inspiring - and this man is a Levi! Suddenly, a "wonderful" idea creeps into his mind: Why not use this Levi as the recipient of his Maaser Rishon fund? True, the Levi back at home is a fine, upstanding person. He is even fairly knowledgeable in Torah, but in comparison this Yerushalmi Levi is simply out of his league. He is not on the same page. A "nice guy," but he does not compare to the Levi in Yerushalayim! From now on, I will lend all of my support to the Leviim of Yerushalayim. They are the real thing!

It does not take acute brilliance to sense the tremendous harm that will result from such an "admirable" attitude. Clearly, the man means well, but he is forgetting about the Levi who has spent his life in the trenches, in the small towns and outlying Jewish communities - not because this is what he necessarily wanted, but because this is what was available. Then there are those who chose to practice their profession specifically out-of-town, out of reach, so that they could be of assistance to those Jews who were themselves distant from the Torah centers that are replete with an abundance of scholars. In the end, the Levi will move on, leave the small out-of-town community to join one of the more flourishing Torah communities.

Thus, the Torah reminds us not to forget and abandon the Levi who is in our town. He needs our help, support and encouragement.

Va'ani Tefillah

Chemlah gedolah v'yiseirah chomalta aleinu, You have shown us great and overwhelming compassion.

In his Kedushas Levi, Horav Levi Yitzchak, zl, m'Berditchov, questions the word yiseirah, commonly translated as extra, overwhelming, more than necessary. We know that Hashem is perfect. Thus, everything that He does reflects the essence of perfection. Nothing that Hashem does is extra. Perfect is not ancillary. It needs no appending, as it is perfect from its original source. Whatever Hashem creates or causes to occur is specific and unique. How does the word yiseirah fit in? Givaat Shaul quotes Chazal in the Talmud Shabbos 151a, "Anyone who is compassionate with people, will merit that Heaven will be compassionate with him."

What we do for others, Hashem will do for us. His compassion is much greater than anything we show to another fellow. We, by our very nature, view every little act of mercy as something great and special. Hashem, however, is boundless; His compassion is unrestricted. It is yiseirah, more/greater, than anything we could ever do.

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