כי קרוב אליך הדבר מאד בפיך ובלבבך לעשתו (30:14)
The Ponovezher Rav once traveled toSouth Africato strengthen and encourage the Lithuanian Jews who had relocated there in their religious observance. Prior to his journey, he asked his teacher, the illustrious Chofetz Chaim, what message he should relate to the Jews there in the name of the leader of the generation.
The Chofetz Chaim replied that he should tell them that it is actually quite easy to do the mitzvah of teshuvah – repentance. The minimum requirements to fulfill this obligation are few and are within the reach of every Jew: ceasing to sin, confessing one’s past actions and expressing regret over them, and accepting upon oneself not to transgress again. Unfortunately, the evil inclination attempts to convince a person that proper repentance is so difficult and involves so many complex components that he will never succeed in correctly doing so, thereby causing him to give up the effort without even trying.
In this vein, Rav Nosson Wachtfogel notes that in our verse, Moshe describes one of the commandments as not being hidden or distant from a person. It isn’t in the heavens or across the sea as one might have thought, but rather it is very close – in one’s mouth and heart. What is this commandment which a person might mistakenly conclude is so far beyond him that its observance requires him to travel thousands or millions of miles, yet in reality the keys to its performance lie inside of him? Not surprisingly, the Ramban writes that the mitzvah to which Moshe is referring is the mitzvah of teshuvah.
The Gemora in Kiddushin (49b) discusses a case in which a wicked man betroths a woman on the condition that he is completely righteous. Surprisingly, the Gemora rules that she may be legally engaged, explaining that perhaps he had thoughts of repentance in the moment prior to his proposal. We may derive from here that a person can literally transform himself from one extreme to the other in a mere moment of sincere reflection and regret, a lesson which should inspire and motivate us during the approaching Yamim Noraim.
ותדר נדר ותאמר ד’ צבקות אם ראה תראה בעני אמתך וזכרתני ולא תשכח את אמתך ונתתה לאמתך זרע אנשים ונתתיו לד’ כל ימי חייו (הפטרה יום א’ – שמואל א 1:11)
An American Rabbi once visited Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach shortly before Rosh Hashana. Rav Shlomo Zalman asked him whether he had any congregants in difficult financial situations, to which the Rabbi sadly replied in the affirmative. Rav Shlomo Zalman then asked whether there were any wealthy members of the synagogue, to which the Rabbi again responded in the affirmative. Rav Shlomo Zalman continued, asking whether any of the down-on-their-luck congregants were as poor as the poorest beggars inJerusalemor whether any of the rich congregants was a billionaire. The Rabbi, becoming confused, answered in the negative on both counts.
Rav Shlomo Zalman smiled and asked what would a member of the Forbes 500 think if he were seated on Rosh Hashana next to the poorest of the vagabonds and overheard him praying to become so wealthy in the coming year that that on the following Rosh Hashana, the billionaire would be working for him? The Rabbi, taking the bait, responded that a person making such ridiculous requests would be viewed as crazy.
Rav Shlomo Zalman disagreed strongly. On any other day of the year, such a far-fetched request would indeed be considered grossly inappropriate. On Rosh Hashana, however, the entire universe is being recreated for the upcoming year, and with nothing set in stone, the sky is the limit for our prayers.
As proof, Rav Shlomo Zalman noted that the Medrash teaches that Chana was barren for 19 years prior to the birth of her son Shmuel. Although she surely beseeched Hashem daily to grant her a child, the Haftorah which we read on the first day of Rosh Hashana teaches that on Rosh Hashana she prayed for a special child: זרע אנשים. Although this literally refers to a male child, the Gemora (Berachos 31b) understands it as a plea for a child who would be considered equal to Moshe and Aharon combined.
This would be quite a tall order even for a woman with a large family who had no difficulty conceiving, but for a woman who had suffered the anguish of being childless for almost 20 years, such a request seems absurd. Any other woman who had been barren for so long would be ecstatic just to conceive a healthy child. Why did Chana make such an unrealistic request?
Rav Shlomo Zalman explained that Chana understood that on Rosh Hashana, the only barriers to what we may ask for are self-imposed ones. She asked for a son who would lead the generation and after two decades of suffering, she merited to give birth to the great prophet Shmuel.
Rav Shlomo Zalman’s message is relevant to each and every one of us. When we go to the synagogue on Rosh Hashana, we are surely cognizant of the tremendous import of the day, and we pray appropriately on behalf of ourselves and our loved ones. We pray for years of health and happiness, of spiritual and material blessing, and of joy and success for our family and friends. However, the scope of our requests has always been limited to what we considered reasonable and appropriate for our circumstances. This year, let us remember the lesson of Chana regarding the phenomenal power of the day and that for one who appreciates it and prays accordingly, the sky is literally the limit.
Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):
1) Moshe told the people (30:12) that the Torah is not in Heaven. The Gemora in Bava Metzia (59b) understands this to mean that after the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, it is up to the Sages to decide legal matters, which are no longer within the jurisdiction of Hashem. When the Gemora is left with a difficult question which it is unable to answer, it concludes תיקו, which is traditionally interpreted as an abbreviation indicating that Eliyahu will come and resolve the difficulty. Of what value will it be to hear the opinion of a prophet if legal questions may not be decided by Divine intervention? (Tosefos Yom HaKippurim Yoma 75a, Mishneh L’Melech Hilchos Ishus 9:6 and Gilyon Rav Akiva Eiger, Shu”t Chasam Sofer 6:98, Birkei Yosef Orach Chaim 32:4)
2) Was Yitzchok required to recite Birkas HaGomel (the thanksgiving blessing) after being saved from sure death at the Akeidah? (Machazik Brocha Orach Chaim 219)
Answers to Points to Ponder:
1) The Mishneh L’Melech maintains that we will rely upon the opinion of Eliyahu only when he comes to clarify a doubt regarding the facts in a case (e.g. to whom does a lost object belong), but not if he comes to resolve legal disputes, as this would violate the principle against the Torah not being in Heaven. However, Rav Akiva Eiger cites numerous examples from the Gemora which indicate that we will rely upon him even to decide legal issues. The Chasam Sofer resolves this by explaining that while Eliyahu’s soul ascended to Heaven, his body remained here. When his soul appears in this world, it is considered the equivalent of an angel and its prophetic opinion may not be used to determine the law, but when his soul is reunited with his body to herald the coming of Moshiach, he will be considered just like any Torah scholar, and legal decisions he renders which are bolstered not by prophetic but by logical arguments may indeed be relied upon. This is also the opinion of the Birkei Yosef, who adds that even when Eliyahu appears in his spiritual guise, he is still believed to prophetically clarify the facts in a case. The Tosefos Yom HaKippurim disagrees with all of these opinions and argues that the Torah requires two witnesses to establish a fact, and a prophet is not believed even to clarify doubts about the facts in a situation.
2) The Chida quotes his father, who maintains that Birkas HaGomel is said only by one who was placed in a perilous situation against his will, but not by somebody – such as Yitzchok – who was commanded to endanger himself to perform a mitzvah. Additionally, the Medrash (Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer 30) teaches that when the knife reached Yitzchok’s neck, his soul left him until it heard the angel’s command to Avrohom not to kill Yitzchok, at which point the soul returned. Since Yitzchok technically died and was resurrected only through a miracle, he wasn’t able to say this blessing.