“And it will be if you obey the Lord, your God, to observe and fulfill all His commandments which I command you this day, the Lord, your God, will place you supreme above all the nations of the earth…You shall be blessed when you come, and you shall be blessed when you depart.” (Devorim 28:1,6)
Moshe conveys a seemingly simple idea: do what God asks and in turn, God will take care of you. Heed the commandments, follow the rules, and God will bless you with financial prosperity and regional security. But what is the meaning of the last verse? What was Moshe referring to when he said that we will be blessed “when you come” and “when you depart?”
It is here that I would like to share with you three different approaches, which coalesce into a meaningful and important three-pronged lesson:
Rabbi Moshe Alshich (1508-1593) explains:
“You came into this world with nothing – yet, you felt blessed and happy. Your departure from this world should be the same.”
We often attribute our lack of happiness to something material which is missing. If I only I had this or that – I would be so much happier. Possessions are certainly wonderful and can make life more enjoyable, but they can’t create happiness. True happiness comes from within. True happiness is the state of being which occurs when you know you are living a meaningful life, making a difference and accomplishing what God put you on this world to do. We come into this world with nothing, yet, we manage to find happiness. The things we own don’t generate happiness, it is the intangibles within which create true simcha (joy).
Yonosson ben Uziel explains this phrase in a different way:
“You shall be blessed when you enter the Beis Midrash (study hall) and blessed when you go out to conduct business.”
We must take our spiritual ideals with us wherever we go. Whether you are in the Beis Midrash or in the Board Room, the same set of values must inform the way we live and the decisions we make. Torah and mitzvos don’t only provide guidance in the framework of our religious lives during moments of religious study and worship. God’s word affords us clarity and direction when going out into the world as well.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) adds an additional dimension of understanding:
“May you be blessed in your home life and may you find blessing in your communal life.”
We must take the personal blessings that God gives us and use them to enrich the lives of those around us. We can’t just live for ourselves. We must avoid the trap of egocentricity and self-centeredness. We must avoid the temptation to keep and use our blessings for ourselves and no one else. Whatever you have been given in life, find a way to share and give to those around you. Don’t wait to be asked to help – be proactive. If you see there is someone in need or something that needs to get done, roll up your sleeves and do it.
Our great prophet and teacher Moshe taught many life lessons, but it is in this week’s Parsha he shares with us perhaps, three of the most important ideas for successful living:
Lesson #1: Happiness doesn’t come from anything you can acquire – it only comes from a feeling of personal accomplishment and fulfillment.
Lesson #2: Take your spiritual values with you wherever you go in life and allow them to shape and inform your personal behavior wherever you may be.
Lesson #3: Use your blessings for the benefit or your community and your people. Don’t live in a bubble, be ever cognizant and aware of how you can help the other.
These are the lessons our ancestors learned so many years ago and they are the lessons we must internalize today.
“When you have finished tithing all the tithes of your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give [them] to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, so that they can eat to satiety in your cities. Then you shall say before the Lord, your God, ’I have removed the holy [portion] from the house, and I have also given it to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, according to all Your commandment that You commanded me; I have not transgressed Your commandments, nor have I forgotten [them].’” (Devorim 26:12-13)
The Torah commands us to distribute various tithes to the Kohanim, Leviim and the poor. Different tithes apply throughout the 7-year agricultural cycle. In year three of this cycle, there is a process known as vidui maaser (confession of the tithes), during which the farmer “confesses” that he has properly distributed his tithes to the needy and tribe of Levi.There appears to be an extraneous phrase in this confession, “Nor have I forgotten.” What is the meaning of this statement? Is it not obvious the farmer has not forgotten? He just stated, “I have removed the holy portion from the house, I have given it to the Levite, the stranger…” What is the purpose of explicitly stating that he has not forgotten?
Rashi explains, “nor have I forgotten: to bless You [to recite the beracha (blessing) on the performance of the mitzvah] of separating tithes.” The great Kabbalist, Rav Yaakov Shaltiel, in his work titled Emes L’Yaakov, provides an incredible insight on this statement of Rashi. There are times when we are proficient in the automatous details of Torah and mitzvos yet fail to feel. We know what to do and how to do it, but lack excitement and passion. Our Judaic obligations offer us an opportunity to connect to the Divine and establish a meaningful relationship with God. But that relationship only occurs if we serve and perform with meaning and devotion. This dynamic is encapsulated in a beracha. The Talmud explains that in most situations, “berachos eynan mi’akvos,” failure to recite a blessing doesn’t compromise the validity or effectiveness of the mitzvah. If you blow the shofar and fail to make a beracha beforehand, you have still fulfilled the mitzvah. If you light your menorah and neglect to make a beracha beforehand, you have still fulfilled your obligation. If so, then what is the role of a beracha? It is a preparatory act to create a sense of excitement for what is about to occur. We make a beracha and say, Baruch Ata Hashem, God, you are the source of all blessing; Elokeinu Melech HaOlam, My God, the King of the Universe… With these words we are acknowledging that through this act we have the privilege of connection. With this act, we can establish a relationship with Hashem and connect to the infinite holiness of our Creator. This realization creates an intense passion and longing, and fundamentally transforms the act of the mitzvah from a mechanistic behavior to a service of devotion and excitement.
This is the deeper meaning of Rashi. The farmer says, “God, I have done all you have asked me, I separated and dispersed the tithes, I took care of Your children as You asked me to. I have adhered to all the details as You have commanded. But I have not forgotten. In the flurry of details and obligations, I haven’t forgotten what this mitzvah and all other mitzvos are really about – connection. I made my berachos, I have served You with excitement and passion. I have continuously recognized the privilege I have to forge a relationship with You through the performance of Your mitzvos. I have adhered to the details but have never forgotten to simultaneously stoke the spiritual fire of excitement.”
These are exciting and overwhelming days. As one year comes to a close and another is poised to begin we must introspect and examine our relationship with God. Too often we only look at this relationship though the lens of sin and salvation. This is important but is not the totality of our relationship. Many of us go through life and miss out on the awesome opportunity to have a truly meaningful and deep relationship with God. Our Judaism must be more than just doing good deeds and avoiding sin (again, very important), it must be about creating relationship, it must be about making berachos and infusing passion wherever we can. The first step in the process is a beracha. A beracha forces us to pause before we act and allows us the time to contemplate what we are about to do. If it is a beracha before the performance of a mitzvah, we can think about how this mitzvah affords us the opportunity to connect with God. If it is a beracha before eating, we can think about our relationships to the material world and if we are using our material wealth to bring us closer to God and our fellow man. The beracha provides us with the few moments of contemplation which then creates the opportunity for excitement and passion.
May we be privileged to make the farmer’s statement, “I have done all You have asked me”, and may we be privileged to always say, “nor have I forgotten.”
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.