For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, it is not far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell it to us, so that we can fulfill it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell it to us, so that we can fulfill it?” Rather, this thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it (Devorim 30:11-14).
What is this “commandment” to which Moshe refers? Some of the commentaries explain that this is a reference to the Torah in its entirety. Moshe is telling the people, “although there are many mitzvos and expectations – do not get overwhelmed. Yes, you have many obligations and responsibilities, but you will be able to succeed.” Others, explains that the “mitzvah/commandment” refers to the mitzvah of Teshuva (repentance and return). Although we may stray far from God, the ability and opportunity to return and rekindle the relationship is always available to us.
Whatever the precise definition may be – the message is the same. Creating personal holiness, cultivating a spiritual identity, cementing a passionate relationship with God may seem difficult but all of our spiritual aspirations are within reach.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov advances an alternate insight. Moshe says to the Jewish people:
Lo Ba’Shamayim Hi, It is not in the heavens – God does not ask you to live in the heavens. God does not expect us to achieve angelic perfection, He does not ask us to stop being human and live in the celestial sphere.
What does God ask of us?
Ki Karov Eylecha HaDavar, this thing is very close to you – Just reach a bit beyond yourself. Hashem just wants us to grow. It doesn’t have to be in a dramatic fashion, just a little bit each and every day. When Yaakov fled from home to escape the wrath of Esav he was given a magnificent vision. He saw a ladder with its base on the earth, yet its top extended into the heavens. What was the meaning of this vision? Yaakov was to be the father of the 12 tribes, the father of Bnai Yisroel and God was communicating to him the Divine expectations of Yaakov’s offspring. Life is a ladder – all I ask is that you try to advance up the rungs. You need not climb two at a time; you need not ascend at a quick pace, just climb. Just take the opportunities that are within reach (karov, close) and find a way to move yourself and your life forward.
This was one of the last messages Moshe gave to our ancestors. Moshe who taught us so much, provided us with the Divine framework for successful living, concluded his tenure of leadership with a simple message. God doesn’t expect perfection, God doesn’t need us to be angels, He just wants us to grow. All Hashem desires is for us to climb the ladder of personal development and self-actualization.
As we enter into the Yomim Noraim we must feel confident and excited for the year ahead. There is much we must accomplish and much we must rectify. There are things which work well, things which need repair and things which must be fundamentally changed. But we must remember Rome wasn’t built in a day. People aren’t built in a day. To fully actualize our potential takes years and for some an entire life-time. Yet, all God asks of us is just a little growth every day. All our Father desires is for me to try to climb up another rung. And if I fall, all He asks is for me to find the courage to once again begin the ascent. Ki Karov Eylecha HaDavar, it is very close to us – happiness, fulfillment and self-actualization are all closer then we think. All we need to do is reach a bit beyond ourselves.
I want to take this opportunity to wish each of you kesiva v’chasima tova, may each us together with our families and our nation be inscribed for year of growth, holiness, health, happiness and most importantly – redemption.
In his final days with his beloved nation, Moshe tries to give proper instruction to his beloved people.
“Now if you give ear to the voice of the Lord your God, and keep with care all these orders which I have given you today, then the Lord your God will put you high over all the nations of the earth: And all these blessings will come on you and overtake you, if your ears are open to the voice of the Lord your God. A blessing will be on you in the town, and a blessing in the field. A blessing will be on the fruit of your body, and on the fruit of your land, on the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herd, and the young of your flock. A blessing will be on your basket and on your bread-basin.
You shall be blessed when you come and blessed when you depart (Devorim 28:2-6).”
What is the meaning of this last phrase, “Baruch ata b’voecha, u’baruch ata b’tzeysech – You shall be blessed when you come and blessed when you depart”? Rashi explains, “Your departure from the world should be like your arrival to the world. The same way that your arrival was without sin (cheyt), so your departure should be without sin (cheyt).” But how are we to understand this statement? There is no person who is without sin. Even the most righteous and devout of people possess shortcomings, faults and makes mistakes.
To fully appreciate this statement we need a new definition of the word cheyt. The Maharal (Rabbi Judah Lowe 1526-1609) explains that we often assume the word cheyt means sin, but in fact, it means empty or void. Sin has repercussions. I have done something wrong and now there is a resulting negative impact that manifests itself in punishment. We believe that every action has a reaction. We believe that just as every mitzvah has rewards, every sin has repercussions as well. But we also believe in the mercy and love of God. We know that Hashem loves us in ways that we cannot comprehend. We know that with sincere teshuva (repentance) we can negate the punishments and negative decrees. As such, the real collateral damage of sin is not punishment – it is distance. You see, every time I sin, I create a distance, a chasm between myself and Hashem. Every time I sin, I push myself away from my Father and find it difficult to connect and feel His presence in my life. This is the tragic reality of our negative reactions – distance from Him who we need most. Sin represents a violation of the sacred trust between me and God. In relationships a breach of trust creates a distance between the parties – this is true with people and it is true with God. This is the sad reality created by sin. We have the ability to bridge this distance through prayer, chessed (acts of kindness) and teshuva (repentance).
“Your departure from the world should be like your arrival to the world; the same way that your arrival was without cheyt, so your departure should be without cheyt” – perhaps, in this context cheyt doesn’t mean sin – it means emptiness or a void. Moshe was trying to teach the Jewish people a magnificent lesson. When a baby comes into this world, it doesn’t take much to make the infant happy. If the baby has a mother to hold him, a warm blanket and his mother’s milk, he is content. He doesn’t feel like he is deficient or lacking anything. Now it is possible that another baby has a warmer blanket, a fancier bassinet or designer onesies – but our first little baby is completely unaware, he simply basks in the happiness of what he has without feeling deficient because someone else may have more. Moshe Rabbeinu blesses his beloved flock and tells them, “The same way when you entered this world you didn’t feel deficient, you were happy with the blessings you had and content with the life you were given; I give you the beracha that you should leave this world in the same state; feeling content with your blessings and appreciating the beautiful gifts of life.”
As we prepare to enter the sacred days of Rosh Hashanah, we begin to think about all of the things we need. We will ask God for health, livelihood, success and happiness. We will pray for the safety and success of our children and our people. But it is equally important to stop and appreciate all we have been given. Too often we feel a void because we don’t have as much as the other. Too often we measure our blessings against the blessings of our neighbor. We must learn to find happiness in what we have, and we must learn to express gratitude for what we have been given. May we be privileged to feel the contentment of our youth throughout our entire life.
כִּֽי־תֵצֵ֥א לַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה עַל־אֹיְבֶ֑יךָ וּנְתָנ֞וֹ יְקֹוָ֧ק אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּיָדֶ֖ךָ וְשָׁבִ֥יתָ שִׁבְיֽוֹ
“If you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord, your God, will deliver him into your hands, and you take his captives (Devorim 21:10).”
War is an unfortunate reality. We must fight for our survival, we must fight for our land and we must fight for our ideals and beliefs. But wars are not always fought with swords and bows. The seforim explain that this verse alludes to the most acute battle we each must wage. This is a battle waged internally; a battle we must fight within ourselves. The battle, to which we refer, is the battle against the yetzer hara (evil inclination), the negative and harmful desires and proclivities we each possess.
Ki Teitzei La’milchama al Oyvecha, when you will go out to war against your enemies, refers not only to the external enemy but to the enemy within as well. We each have our inner battles to wage. For some it has been the same battle, trying to overcome the same weaknesses for many years, for others it may be different challenges in different stages of life. But one thing is clear – we all fight, we all struggle, we all wage the inner battle.
The Eish Kodesh, Rav Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (1889-1943), the rebbe of Piacezna explains this dynamic in a different way.
Ki Teitzei La’milchama – when you will go out to war – life is a battle. If you want to accomplish things you must go out and engage in the struggle. Your dreams and aspirations will not simply materialize without effort. If you want something in life you have be willing to fight and fight hard.
Al Oyvecha, against your enemies – you will encounter many “enemies” in the pursuit or your dreams and aspirations. There are enemies like apathy and complacency. There may be people who will try to tell you that you “can’t.” There may be people who are not supportive or kind to you. There are all kinds of “enemies” which try to prevent us from being successful in our life battles.
If despite the enemies which lurk in all corners, if despite the hurdles, I still choose to continue down the path of person accomplishment and actualization; U’nisano Hashem Elokecha B’Yadecha, God will deliver your enemies in your hands – God will give you the strength to overcome the adversity and accomplish your life objectives.
We must learn to accept the premise that life is not easy. There is an ongoing war, a battle which unfolds in front of each of us, each and every day. But if we commit ourselves to the “fight,” if we commit ourselves to engaging in the battle, God promises us that we will succeed.
In this month of Elul we contemplate how we have spent this past year and what we want to accomplish in the year ahead. Too often we don’t cross the finish lines we had hoped to, simply because we stopped fighting. The path to my dreams was fraught with challenge and difficulty and so I gave up. If we have made this mistake in the past, let’s promise ourselves to do things differently these last remaining days and in the year ahead.
May we find the courage to gird ourselves with the necessary strength to wage the battles of life. May we receive the blessing the providence of God and merit to see the actualization of our dreams.
These were the final conversations. The nation could see and feel the Land of Israel. It was finally within reach. But Moshe had to prepare them. Although he would not accompany them into the land, Moshe’s sacred mission was to prepare them for the challenges they would face. Chief amongst Moshe’s fears was that the people would fall prey to the idolatrous culture prevalent amongst the indigenous nations. Over and over again Moshe warns and exhorts the nation to uproot and destroy every last vestige of Canaanite polytheism.
Among the multiple prohibitions, Moshe commands: “And you shall not set up for yourself a monument (matzeyva), which the Lord your God despises (Devorim 16:22).” What is this matzeyva monument? Rashi explains that it was an altar made from one stone as opposed to the mizbeyach altar, which was made of multiple, individual stones. But why would God “despise” it? Throughout the book of Genesis (Bereishis) we find many examples of great, righteous people building matzeyvos to serve God. What changed to make the matzeyva so terribly distasteful in the eyes of God that the Torah must warn us so strongly against its use? Rashi explains that the matzeyva had become central to Canaanite idolatrous practice. Thus, although it was “beloved” by God when the Patriarchs used it, it was now abhorrent in the eyes of the Creator. Still, the Torah could have simply stated “don’t build a matzeyva” (much in the same way it says, “Don’t plant an asheyra tree” – a type of tree used for idolatrous worship). But to say that God despises something which was a staple in the religious service of the forefathers seems extreme. At the base of Mount Sinai, the very spot of incredible Divine revelation, the Torah tells us that Moshe built twelve matzeyva altars for the twelve tribes of Israel. On the future site of the Beis HaMikdash our forefather Yaakov built a matzeyva altar from the stone he had placed beneath his head. Avraham and Yitzchak built matzeyva altars wherever they travelled. How could it be that the very thing that was beloved and accepted by God in previous generations had suddenly become despised?
Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook zt’l, in his work titled Midbar Shur, explains that each of the Patriarchs represented and embodied a particular character trait (middah). Avraham represented chessed (kindness), Yitzchak embodied gevura (strength), and Yaakov stood for emes (truth). Each Patriarch used his middah in the service of God. If you were to approach Avraham and ask him for advice on how to create a meaningful relationship with God, he would instruct you to do good for others and you will merit this desired closeness. Chessed is the key for connection. We lose connection with God because we become overly focused on the self. Think about others; give to others, live for the other and you will find God. Yitzchak would advocate for gevurah – one must display personal strength and commitment to personal growth. One must find the strength to sacrifice for the Almighty. You must build and bolster yourself in order to influence the world around you. If one cultivates these strengths, then a meaningful and lasting relationship with the Almighty is within reach. Yaakov would advise that the path to God requires unequivocal commitment to emes; truth must serve as man’s compass in finding our Father above. It is easy to lose your way in life you must be firm in your commitment to our values and beliefs.
Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov created these solid pillars of chessed, gevurah, and emes. Their single-stone matzeyvos represented their singular and individualized approach to the service of God.
Moshe declared to the Jewish People that this was no longer an acceptable approach. After forty years of spiritual maturation in the desert, God expected us to spiritually diversify, becoming “proficient” in many areas of life by acquiring different character traits and abilities. One has to strive to become a chessed, gevurah and emes Jew. We have to become people who engage in meaningful prayer and help the poor. We must be people who are focused on growth and personal development and at the same time are attentive to the needs of the other. We must remain true to our values and beliefs while coexisting with others who may live and believe differently. The single-stone matzeyva was acceptable and even desirable for the forefathers but it is off limits to us. From us, God demands a mizbeyach avanim, a multi-stone, multi-faceted altar.
But Moshe does not stop there. Asher sanay – the one thing that God despises more than anything is when we sell ourselves short. The greatest affront to God is when we convince ourselves that we cannot be more. God endowed each of us with such beautiful and awesome abilities and talents – it is our Divine obligation to discover and utilize them. I have no right to tell God that I can only be proficient in one particular area or only accomplish certain things while other achievements are simply beyond my reach.
The single stone, the single approach matzeyva gives man a license to be “one thing.” Asher sanay – “I hate when you convince yourselves that you can’t be more.” Hashem hates the matzeyva because it has come to represent excellence and commitment in one area, whereas God asks us to be mitzuyanim, to excel in all we do.
Our life mission is to accumulate stones. These stones represent all of the different character traits, middos and abilities we must possess in order to be successful people. We must learn to spiritually diversify and strive for proficiency and piety in all areas of Judaic life. We begin this process one ‘stone’ at a time. I begin by taking inventory of the stones I have already accumulated. Are they polished and properly chiseled? Are they clean and properly cared for? Am I actualizing the strengths I already know I possess? Am I maximizing the potential I know I have? After the inventory I ask myself a simple question – what additional stones do I need? What qualities and traits do I lack and how can I acquire them?
We have outgrown the matzeyva and we are privileged to be a mizbeyach. May we find the strength to actualize this great gift.
Re’eh anochi noseyn lifneychem ha’yom beracha u’klalah – Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse (Devorim 11:26).
Moshe informed the people of the incredible event that will soon unfold. The entire people will stand by the mountains of Grizim and Eval and affirm their commitment to God and the Torah through the acceptance of a series of blessings and curses. It is this covenantal event that will pave their way for entry into the Land of Israel.
But why did Moshe use the word, ha’yom, today? Moshe could have simply said, “Behold, I set before you a blessing and a curse.” Furthermore, the blessings and curses are not stated in this week’s Parsha. What lesson was Moshe trying to convey with the inclusion of the word ha’yom?
This week, we will celebrate Rosh Chodesh Elul, the arrival of the Hebrew month of Elul; a month designated for introspection, self-evaluation and contemplation. It is during the month of Elul that we begin to prepare ourselves for the upcoming Yimei HaDin (Days of Judgment) of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is during this month that we are reminded of the promises and commitments we made to ourselves and to God almost a year ago. Some of these promises have been fulfilled and others still remain outstanding. We each have so much to do, so much to accomplish before the year ends. But is there something specific we should work on? What should we focus on during this special month of preparation?
To gain some insight into this question we must look back at last week’s Parsha. In Parshas Eiykev Moshe said,
“And now, O Israel, what does the Lord, your God, demand of you? Only to fear the Lord, your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, and to worship the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, to keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes, which I command you this day, for your good (Devorim 10:12-13).”
Essentially, Moshe says to the people – you have the deal of the century! Look at all that God does for you – and all He asks in return is that you love, obey, follow and walk in His ways. Moshe is describing the totality of our spiritual responsibilities and makes it sound like an easy task. The Talmud (Berachos 33b) explains, “V’chi yirah milsa zutrasa hi? In l’gabey Moshe milsa zutrasa hi – Is reverence of God a small matter? Yes, for Moshe it was a small matter.” How are we to understand this enigmatic statement? It is very nice that for Moshe love, reverence and obedience to God are “small matters” but for us they are not. Furthermore, Moshe is not talking to himself – he is talking to the people, the same people he has led for the last 40 years. Moshe knows and understands our struggles and difficulties; he knows that maintaining a relationship with God is an ongoing challenge for us – so why make it seem so simple, when it’s not?
To appreciate the words of Moshe, we must examine one additional verse. Moshe says to the Jewish people,
“V’atem ha’diveykim ba’Hashem Elokeychem chaim kulchem ha’yom – But you who cleave to the Lord your God are alive, all of you, this day (Devorim 4:4).”
The Chasam Sofer (Rav Moshe Sofer, 1762-1839) comments that at first glance the last word in the verse, ha’yom, today, appears extraneous. Moshe could have conveyed the same message without this word – why was it included?
Rav Sofer explains that we each live with expectations. There are things that God expects of us, there are expectations that others have of us and there are the expectations we have of ourselves. Often, we feel overwhelmed by all the expectations placed on our shoulders. How will I ever become the kind of person whom God and others will be proud of? How do I become the kind of person whom I will be happy to see in the mirror? Will I ever measure up?
To these questions, the Chasam Sofer gives a simple answer – live life one day at a time.
This was the message Moshe was conveying to the children of Israel. V’atem ha’diveykim ba’Hashem Elokeychem – you, the children of Israel, who are attempting to cling to God and live up to the expectations He has of you,how can you accomplish this? – Chaim kulchem – put the entirety of your life force, abilities and talents, ha’yom – into living today.
The way to lead a successful and meaningful life is by maximizing each and every day. Put your entire chaim, your abilities and strengths into maximizing ha’yom.
Now we can understand the enigmatic passage of the Talmud mentioned above. Moshe didn’t wake up one morning and decide that he was going to be the greatest prophet the Jewish people would ever have. He didn’t decide that he was going to be the transmitter of Torah and mouthpiece of God. Moshe lived with a simple directive – maximize the day. And when you maximize your days, they combine to form meaningful weeks, which combine to form holy months, which combine to form fulfilling years.
Moshe was telling his flock, “It is true, God asks a lot from us but He is not looking for long-term guarantees about what we will or won’t do – He is looking for the milsa zutrasa, the small thing, the one day, He is looking for chaim kulchem ha’yom, for each of us to put our energies into maximizing the day.”
And it is this very lesson that Moshe reinforces in the beginning of this week’s Parsha. Re’eh anochi noseyn lifneychem ha’yom – see I have given before you; God has placed before you the blessing of ha’yom, today. You have a choice to make – will it be beracha, blessing or klalah, curse? Will you use your ha’yom, to grow, to help others, to become a better person? Or will you use your day for negative purposes which will produce klalah for yourself and those around you. This is the decision we must make every single day.
This is one of the most important messages for the month of Elul. For many of us there were things we wanted to do and accomplish this past year but didn’t. There were goals and milestones we wanted to reach but for some reason or another we just never managed to make it happen. This is the month to maximize our days. This is the month to remind ourselves that if used correctly one day of life can be restorative, rejuvenating, cathartic and transformative. This is the month in which we prepare to ask God for another year of life and bolster that request by showing that we can make the most of every day. This is the month in which we commit ourselves to maximizing each and every day. By creating beracha from each day we will quickly realize that we have the ability to meet our goals, cross our finish lines and become the kind of people we know we can be.
This is the month in which we instill within ourselves the important message that true life-greatness lies not in how you live your years, but rather, in how you live your days.