Our parashah opens, "See, I put before you today a blessing and
a curse. That blessing: when you hearken to the commandments of
Hashem, your G-d, that I command you today. And the curse: if
you do not hearken to the commandments of Hashem, your G-d . . ."
We read similarly in Parashat Nitzavim (30:15), "See, I have
placed before you today the life and the good, and the death and
the evil." The midrash Yalkut Shimoni comments: "Lest a Jew say,
'Since Hashem has placed two paths before me, a way of life and a
way of death, I may choose whichever I wish,' therefore the Torah
says (30:19), 'You shall choose life'."
R' Yitzchak Eliyahu Landau z"l (1781-1876; Vilna) explains: In
man's mundane affairs, if one person (call him "Reuven")
instructs another person ("Shimon") to do something for Shimon's
own benefit, Reuven will not punish Shimon for failing to do that
thing. The only loss that Shimon will suffer because of his
failure is that he will not obtain the promised benefit. One
might think, therefore, that when Hashem gives us a choice
between good and bad and between life and death, He does not care
which we choose. If we perform the mitzvot we will be rewarded,
and if we don't perform the mitzvot, we will not be punished.
(So one might think.)
Says the Torah: "You shall choose life." The reason Hashem
created the world was to share His Goodness, and if we do not
choose life, we frustrate His very goal in creating us.
Therefore, we are commanded to choose life, and we will be held
accountable if we do not. (Patsheggen Ha'ketav: Divrei
"You are children to Hashem your G-d." (14:1)
The story is told of a "paritz"/gentile landowner who was ill.
Hearing that the Ba'al Shem Tov z"l (died 1760) could cure all
sorts of illnesses, he visited the Ba'al Shem Tov and begged the
Ba'al Shem Tov to cure him of his ills. The Ba'al Shem Tov told
him that the root of his troubles was his excessive pursuit of
physical gratification, so the "paritz" asked:
"What do you do to defeat the type of urges that are troubling
The Ba'al Shem Tov answered, "I am an old man and I do not
suffer from such urges."
Later, the Ba'al Shem Tov's grandson, R' Baruch of Medzibozh
z"l, asked the Ba'al Shem Tov why he did not answer that he does
not succumb to excessive urges because he is Jewish and the Torah
prohibits such behavior. The Ba'al Shem Tov answered, "It is
impossible to explain to a gentile what it means to be Jewish."
When retelling this story in later years, R' Baruch would add,
"My grandfather said that it is impossible to explain to a
gentile what it means to be Jewish. I say that it is also
impossible to put into words for a fellow Jew what it means to be
What does this mean?
R' Shalom Noach Brazovsky shlita (the "Slonimer Rebbe")
explains R' Baruch's statement in light of our verse. We are
called "children to Hashem." Rabbi Meir says in the gemara that
even when we sin, we are Hashem's children. This is a very lofty
level, one that we ourselves cannot really appreciate or
If a Jew had any inkling of his own holiness, he could never
sin. R' Avraham z"l, the first "Slonimer Rebbe", said about
this: Mishlei says (3:11), "The mussar / reproof of Hashem, My
son, 'al timas'/do not despise." This may be interpreted as
follows: "What is Hashem's mussar? It is the knowledge that 'You
are My son!' Therefore, do not make yourself despicable by acting
in a way that is not befitting a son of the king." The most
searing mussar that a thinking Jew can hear is that he is a child
of Hashem and must act in a way befitting his status.
(Netivot Shalom: Kuntreis "Bechochmah Yivneh Bayit," p. 7)
A related thought:
We read in Shir Hashirim (5:9-10): "With what does your beloved
excel . . . ? My beloved is pure and red." The midrash explains
that the gentile nations ask the Jews, "What is so special about
The Jews answer: "My G-d is pure. He is mine alone, and He
redeemed me from Egypt and from other exiles."
R' Avraham Yoffen z"l (Novardok Rosh Yeshiva; died 1970) asks:
Presumably every nation, even an idolatrous one, considers its
own god to be as special and unique as we consider Hashem to be.
If so, what is the import of the answer that we give the gentile
The emphasis in our answer, says R' Yoffen, is on the fact that
Hashem is "mine alone." We have a relationship with Him which
cannot be explained in words.
(Quoted in Haggadah Shel Pesach Arzei Halevanon II p. 393)
"You shall tithe the entire crop of your planting, the
produce of the field, year by year." (14:22)
Rashi writes: From here we learn that one may not tithe from
the new crop on the old crop.
R' Yitzchak Elchanan Waldshein z"l hy"d (Assistant Mashgiach in
Baranovitch; killed in the Holocaust) comments: One may tithe
from his goats for his sheep (or vice versa) and from his healthy
animals for his blemished animals, but not from two different
years' animals or crops together. Why?
R' Waldshein answers: We read in the Pesach Haggadah, "In every
generation and generation, one is obligated to see himself as if
he had left Egypt." The Haggadah doesn't say simply, "Everyone is
obligated to see himself as if he had left Egypt," because the
Haggadah is teaching us that every generation is different and
must use its own methods to impress the story of the Exodus upon
itself. This is the thought behind the halachah that one may not
tithe from one year's produce for a prior year.
(Quoted in Haggadah Shel Pesach Baranovitch p. 140)
[Editor's note: Perhaps R' Waldshein's explanation can be
better understood in light of the Sefer Ha'chinuch's rationale
for the mitzvah of ma'aser beheimah / tithing animals. The Sefer
Ha'chinuch (a 13th-century work of unknown authorship) states in
Mitzvah 359 that the purpose of this mitzvah is so that every
farmer and rancher will make annual visits to Yerushalayim, the
seat of the Sanhedrin, to learn Torah and to be inspired. Because
every generation is different -- indeed, every person changes
from year to year -- last year's lessons and inspiration are not
good enough for this year. And, in order to ensure that a person
comes to Yerushalayim every year, the Torah prohibited tithing
two different year's animals together.]
"Beware lest there be a lawless thought in your heart,
saying, 'The seventh year approaches, the sabbatical year,'
and you will look malevolently upon your destitute brother
and refuse to give him - then he may appeal against you to
Hashem, and it will be a sin upon you." (15:9)
This verse warns us not to refuse to make loans although the
shemittah / sabbatical year is approaching. (Because loans must
be forgiven in the shemittah year, people may refuse to lend
money close to the shemittah year.)
"Imagine to yourself! A man worked and toiled until he had
saved up a certain amount. The Torah has warned elsewhere
against trickery and deceit, on withholding wages from laborers
and so on. The Torah has commanded us to conduct business
faithfully, and to use honest measures and weights.
"The money which a person has saved notwithstanding all these
commandments is his money which he earned honestly and through
hard work, and now the Torah comes along and obligates him to
lend it, and without interest or benefit. The Jew does this
willingly and does not demand any return on his money; only one
thought beats in his heart, there is only one thing that he
wishes to guarantee - that he will get his money back. And that
single thought, the Torah refers to as 'lawlessness.' The Torah
demands that you make loans knowing that you may never be repaid.
"One who goes in the Torah's way and observes this commandment
will effect a revolution in his thinking about his membership in
a community. Through the quiet observance of this mitzvah, one
will solve many of the hardest social problems that have worried
man from time immemorial."
(Ma'amar "Ha'Shemittah Be'mahalach Ha'dorot")
R' Velvel Maggid z"l
R' Velvel Maggid, the maggid / preacher of Vilna, was born in
1789. His father, R' Yechezkel Feivel, was likewise a famous
maggid in Vilna and was the author of Toldot Ha'adam, on the life
and teachings of R' Zalman of Volozhin.
R' Velvel established a society in Vilna known as the "Chevrat
Asiri Kodesh" / "The Tenth Is Holy Society." Members of this
group would observe a Yom Kippur-like day every ten days -
fasting, introspecting, limiting their speech, and devoting extra
time to Torah study and prayer. Many "ordinary" Jews who were
not full-time Torah scholars joined this society. In general,
R' Velvel had a profound impact on the lay citizenry of Vilna,
and inspired many working class Jews to devote fixed times to
R' Velvel objected to the use of exaggerated honorifics. The
Chafetz Chaim used to repeat the following in R' Velvel's name.
A simple villager memorized the calendar and could tell
anyone who asked when the next molad / appearance of the
new moon would occur. Gradually, his fellow villagers
came to think of their neighbor as a great Torah sage,
and he, too, began to think of himself in this way.
One day, this villager came to Vilna and went to the
Vilna Gaon's study hall for minchah. After the prayers,
he went to take his "rightful" place at the table with
those who were discussing various Torah subjects, but, of
course, he understood nothing.
So, many people have become accustomed to being addressed
as "Rabbi," and they think that this title is deserved.
In the world of truth, however, they will come to sit
near the true sages, and they will understand nothing of
the conversation that is taking place.
R' Velvel used to say that just as an animal has two signs of
kashruth, so a Jew has the same two signs of kashruth A Jew is
"ma'aleh gerah," which in the context of animals means,
"regurgitating its fodder" ("chewing its cud"), but literally can
mean, "Lifting [out of one's pocket] a coin [for charity]."
Also, a Jew is "mafris parsah," which in the context of animals
means, "has split hooves," but literally can mean, "Slicing bread
[for guests]." (Source: Gedolei Ha'dorot p. 660)
Rikki and Nat Lewin
in memory of his father,
Harav Yitzchak ben Harav Aharon z"l