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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


At the end of seven years, at the time of the Shemittah year, in the festival of Succos…Assemble the nation; men, women, and children…that they may hear and that they may learn and come to fear Hashem, your G-d, and that they will observe to do all the words of this Torah. (31:10,12)

The entire nation convened for a learning experience, which was to imbue the people with a fear of G-d and engender greater commitment to mitzvah observance. The mitzvah of Hakhel was set for the beginning of the eighth year, immediately following the Shemittah, Sabbatical year, during the festival of Succos. The timing of this event seems to be by specific design. What is the significance of scheduling Hakhel immediately following Shemittah on Succos? It is doubtful that the people were expected to make another trip to Yerushalayim. Since they were already there for Succos, they might as well celebrate Hakhel. The commentators sense a strong intended connection between Shemittah and the impact that the Hakhel experience was to have on the Nation.

In his Akeidas Yitzchak, Horav Yitzchak Aramah, zl suggests that Hakhel was to catalyze a greater awareness of the power of Hashem. This increased yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, would encourage the people to greater observance of and reverence for the Torah. What better time than after the purification process that began on Rosh Hashanah and continued through Yom Kippur and Succos? Following a year of allowing the land to rest, in which the anxiety concerning how they would be sustained was finally over, they could look back at how -- through their faith and commitment -- they were now able to merit the blessings that accompany Shemittah. They were primed and ready to listen and accept with love all that the Torah demands of them. They could see retroactively how a life of Torah is a life of blessing for them.

Then there are our children. If we want our children to follow along the path of observance, then they must see and learn from our level of commitment. In order for our children to adopt our values, they must witness our sense of mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice, for these values. Most of all, they must observe sincerity and integrity in mitzvah performance. How often do we destroy an education for which we have spent thousands of dollars, by doing something foolish in the presence of our children - just to save a few dollars? Sending our children to the finest schools, paying for the best rebbeim, is a lesson in futility every time they are aware that we are really not genuinely committed, and are willing to lie or cheat to get a discount or a better price. While we might find an excuse for our misbehavior, our children have already lost out. They must see mesiras nefesh, not hypocrisy.

Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twersky relates the story of a first generation eastern European couple who came to this country with their spiritual values intact. There was integrity in their spiritual commitment, mesiras nefesh in their mitzvah observance and emunah peshutah, simple, pure faith, in their belief in the Almighty. They might not have been erudite, but they were deeply devout. Once, the mikveh in the community broke down, and the community leaders took excessive time correcting the problem. What did this simple couple do? The husband moved out of the house and did not return until the mikveh was repaired. While regrettably many of their descendants did not maintain their adherence to Torah and mitzvos, their commitment to this one mitzvah of mikveh has been unwavering. Because they witnessed mesiras nefesh and they heard about this mesiras nefesh, it remained imbedded in their hearts and souls.

Horav Moshe Reis, Shlita, supplements this idea. He notes that the phrase, "At the end of seven years," is mentioned earlier in 15:1 concerning Shemittas kesafim, remission of all loans, during the Shemittah year. This is a remarkable mitzvah which leaves a compelling impression on the individual. To cancel all loans, to see one's hard-earned money in another person's hands and not to do a thing about it, is incredible. Furthermore, one may not refrain from lending another Jew money, knowing full well that Shemittah cancels the loan. Is there a mitzvah that empowers middos tovos, refined character traits, more than this one? Hence, at the Hakhel ceremony, all Jews stood together, their middos already refined and tempered. Their bitachon, trust, in the Almighty had certainly been galvanized. Thus, we have achdus, unity, among Jews and bitachon, trust, in Hashem: two ingredients that render this Hakhel experience unprecedented and unparalleled.

We add to this the festival of Succos, which , among its numerous lessons, underscores the frailty and impermanance of our material resources. As we move out of the stability of our homes and settle into a flimsy hut, we realize that the only permanence in our lives, is the stability and security that accompany our trust in Hashem. Shemittah and Succos are two moments in time that convey the timeless messages of Yiraas Shomayim and bitachon in Hashem.

Hashem spoke to Moshe, "Behold your days are drawing near to die." (31:14)

The Midrash Tanchuma comments, "Do then days die?" ("Behold your days are drawing near to die.") This is a reference to the righteous, for when they pass from this world, essentially, it is their "days" that are eliminated from this world, but they themselves live on. Tzaddikim, the righteous, are considered alive, even after they die; on the other hand, reshaim, the wicked, are considered dead, even when they are alive. This is because when the rasha sees the sun rise, he does not make a blessing, and when he sees it set, he also does not make a blessing. He eats and drinks, but does not bless Hashem Who provides him with sustenance. The righteous man, however, blesses Hashem at every juncture. When he eats, drinks, sees, hears, he always thinks of Hashem and proclaims His praise. This continues even after he has left this corporeal world, as David HaMelech says in Sefer Tehillim 149:5, "Let the devout exalt in glory, let them sing joyously upon their beds."

A fascinating Midrash with a profound message follows. Horav Meir Rubman, Shlita, gleans a powerful lesson from Chazal. Previously, we have been led to think that the definition of one who is alive is one who eats, drinks, sees and hears. One who does not possess these abilities is basically not among the living. Not so, says the Midrash. According to Chazal, only a person who recites a brachah, blessing, prior to eating and drinking -- who, when he hears or sees something, conveys his profound appreciation by blessing the One Who gave him the ability to hear and see - is alive! One who is alive senses Hashem's Presence and responds with a blessing. One who does not bless Hashem is not alive!

Consequently, we can deduce from here that the quality of one's life is defined by how he blesses: how much enthusiasm, fervor and conviction he puts into the brachah. One who blesses passionately -lives. One who blesses complacently - exists. His life lacks vibrance. He needs to be resuscitated, to be spiritually revived before it is too late.

Shlomo HaMelech says in Koheles 9:4, "A live dog is better than a dead lion." Simply this means that hope exists for one who is connected to life. He can grow spiritually. Regardless of his lowly nature and circumstance, as long as he is alive, he can climb up out of the muck that envelops him. When we follow the text and read the next pasuk, however, we develop a deeper understanding of the meaning of life. "For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing at all." The living dog has another advantage over the dead lion: He is aware that life precedes death. A person who lives life with the spectre of death looming over him has a completely different life experience than one for whom life is an end in itself. He who aspires to eternal life knows that following his sojourn in this world, there is a glorious reward of eternal life in store for him - if he has lived properly. Such a life has meaning, value and hope. He who lives as if there is no tomorrow, and no life after death, does not really live. He has already traded away his life.

There is no shortage of stories of people who have "lived" each mitzvah to the fullest. I recently read a captivating story by Rabbi Yechiel Spero in "Touched By A Story " that demonstrates how a person can live in the shadow of death, not knowing what tomorrow will bring, yet be forever hopeful that if there is a tomorrow, he would serve Hashem with his entire being.

It was almost Chanukah, 1944, when the Satmar Rebbe, zl, was transferred to freedom from his internship in Bergen Belsen as part of the famous "Kastner Transport." Together with a small group of Jews, he was taken to the city of Caux in Switzerland to be checked for disease. Excitement reigned as members of the group prepared for their first festival in five years to be celebrated out of captivity. After a group of influential Jews intervened on their behalf, the Rebbe and his entourage were permitted to go to Montreaux to the home of a respected lay leader to light the first Chanukah candle.

When the Rebbe arrived, he was immediately offered food and drink, which he refused. He was interested in only one thing - lighting the menorah. He immediately went over to the menorah that had been meticulously prepared for him, and,with trembling hands, he carefully reached into his pocket and removed his makeshift wick. He replaced the menorah's wick with his own, explaining, "Several weeks ago, when I was interned in the concentration camp, I had no idea where I would be for Chanukah, or if I would even have the opportunity to light a candle. So, I began saving threads for wicks, in the outside chance that an opportunity would arise for me to celebrate the festival of Chanukah. I have been carrying this wick with me, saving it for this purpose."

Those assembled watched silently as the Rebbe began to sway, his body here, but his mind elsewhere. Tears began to slowly flow down his face, as he recited the first two brachos in an emotional and heartbroken voice. As he began the third brachah, the blessing of Shehechiyanu, "that He has kept us alive," the tears began to flow even more, for the Rebbe could no longer contain his emotions. His tears of gratitude for having lived, mingled together with the tears of pain a torrent of heartbroken sobs for those who did not survive. Finally, the Rebbe concluded the brachah. Emotionally drained, but with heartfelt inner joy, he looked at the bright flame of the shining Chanukah light, a symbol of hope and strength and pride in the Jewish nation.

It shall be when many evils and distresses come upon it. (31:21)

In the End of the Days, in the period preceding the advent of Moshiach Tzidkeinu, Klal Yisrael will be besieged by a volley of distresses. Why is this? The Maggid, zl, m'Dubno gives an insightful analogy to explain this phenomenon. At the end of the day, the fruit peddler is in a rush to close his stand and go home. He takes whatever fruits remain, and he puts them all into one basket to sell at half price, because he wants to get rid of them. Likewise, when Klal Yisrael sees a potpourri of distresses befalling them, evils and afflictions of all kinds, it is a sign that Moshiach Tzidkeinu is near. The End of the Days are upon us and we finally are to prepare to go home.

Behold! While I am still alive with you today, you have been rebels against G-d, and surely after my death. (31:27)

The Bais HaLevi explains that when one sins, he creates a sort of second nature, a gravitational pull to that sin. Once he has fallen into the clutches of the yetzer hora, evil inclination, he is more likely to fall again, since his desire for that sin has become more innate. Likewise, his actions create a blemish in the cosmos in which this sin now has greater power. In other words, an individual sin has a negative effect not only on the sinner, but it also directly influences those who view the act and indirectly creates a negative cosmic imprint on the world.

Alternatively, when one performs a mitzvah, he not only increases his personal proclivity to do good, but he also creates a positive cosmic impression, by which it will now be easier for others to triumph over their yetzer hora and gravitate toward activities of a positive nature. Thus, the tzaddik, by his numerous mitzvos, creates a positive surge in the spiritual sphere, which is reflected in increased activity in the area of mitzvos and good deeds.

Moshe Rabbeinu voiced his concerns with regard to the future. He lamented the fact that even during his lifetime, when there should have been a greater tendency towards a positive spiritual experience, the people, nonetheless, rebelled. How much more so should he be disturbed that, with his passing, the situation would deteriorate.

For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly, and you will stray from the path that I have commanded you. (31:29)

Moshe Rabbeinu predicted that following his passing from this world, the nation would veer from its commitment to Hashem and act corruptly. While this did not occur immediately after Moshe's death, it did come to pass following the death of his student and successor, Yehoshua. We wonder why Moshe found it necessary to rebuke Klal Yisrael about their actions following his death? His concern should be for the here and the now - not for the future. Otzros HaTorah gives an insightful explanation for this. He cites the following story:

There was a custom in the city of Vilna that the wealthy Jews would arrange to marry off their children in a beautiful hall near the outskirts of the city. The architecture was impressive, the ambiance was exquisite, and the food was lavish as befits the wedding of a wealthy person. It happened once that a shoemaker who had struck it rich decided that now he, too, could marry off his daughter at this fancy wedding hall. After all, now that he had the means, why should he be any different than any of the other wealthy men in the city? His attitude drew the ire of the wealthy members of the community. They could not tolerate this man's sudden rise from rags to riches. For him to have the audacity to marry off his daughter in the hall reserved for the indigenous wealthy was too much for them to bear. As the wedding party was returning from the chupah, filled with joy and good cheer, one of the wealthy men went over to the father of the kallah, took off his "torn" shoe, and, in front of everyone asked him how much it would cost to have it repaired.

The public humiliation of this person spread around the city. When Horav Yisrael Salanter,zl, founder of the mussar, ethical development, movement heard about the incident, he exclaimed, "I am certain that the distinguished Torah leaders of the previous generation who are presently reposing in Gan Eden are now being called to task for not fulfilling their responsibility to the community. Had they carried out their obligation to teach the people and to raise their awareness of sensitivity to others, this tragedy would never have occurred."

We can now understand Moshe's concern with the nation's behavior after his death. A leader does not lead only for the present. He must inspire his charges, so that they remain infused with the lessons and behavior that he has taught them, even long after he is gone.

Va'ani Tefillah

Chataos Ha'tzibur - Communal Sin-offerings

The Communal Sin-offerings which are to accompany the Mussaf Korbanos on Rosh Chodesh and Yom Tov, together with the individual Sin-offerings brought by a person who has sinned inadvertently, comprise the Chataos chitzonios. This means that the matanos hadam, sprinkling of blood, must be executed in the Azarah at the Mizbayach HaOlah. The reason for this is that when one atones for a transgression, he solemnly resolves to remain on an elevated spiritual plateau. Thus, the Matanos are to be applied to the Keranos, upper corners of the Mizbayach, implying that the one seeking atonement should direct his entire essence such that he maintains it on a lofty level. All four corners of the Mizbayach are used, signifying that these efforts are to encompass every aspect of the personality of both the nation and the individual.

Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, explains the significance of the four corners as follows: First, blood is applied to the southeastern corner, which symbolizes the Jewish human and national virtues which are to be acquired and refined by means of our spiritual endeavor. Next, we go to the northeastern corner, signifying that the material and physical aspects of life are also to be based upon and guided by the spirit. The third application is made on the northwestern corner, indicating the law-abiding life that we should lead with the aid of our material and physical gifts. Last, the blood is applied to the southwestern corner, which represents the enrichment of the spirit of the law that is the result of a lifestyle devoted and committed to observing the dictates of the Torah obediently.

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