Ki Savo – A Reason to Learn Sefer HaChinuch

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The bulk of this week’s Torah portion of Ki Savo discusses the blessings and curses. It lists a number of offenses for which one will receive a curse for transgressing them, and concludes the list by stating:
אָר֗וּר אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹא־יָקִ֛ים אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֥י הַתּוֹרָֽה־הַזֹּ֖את לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת אוֹתָ֑ם וְאָמַ֥ר כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אָמֵֽן׃ {פ}
“Cursed be whoever will not uphold the terms of this Torah and observe them. —And all the people shall say, Amen” (Devarim 27:26).

This pasuk cannot be referring to anyone who just transgresses the Torah, because virtually everyone would be cursed for doing so, since everyone sins on some level at some point in their lives. In fact, the Ramban specifically says that if one eats pig or a bug out of physical desire, or was too lazy to perform the mitzvah of lulav or sukkah, then he is not included in this curse, for the pasuk does not say “one who does not perform the terms of the Torah;” rather it says, “whoever will not uphold the terms of this Torah.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
 The Ramban, and in the same vein the Rabbeinu Bachye, which this dvar Torah will be focusing on, shines light onto what “uphold the terms of this Torah” means. Rabbeinu Bachye says that this curse “includes all the mitzvos in the Torah. And the explanation of the pasuk is ‘who will not uphold’ the mitzvos in his heart, meaning acknowledging them and believing that every single one of them are true. There is nothing lacking in any of them which would not be beneficial for the body and soul, and not one of the mitzvos are a waste. This is what it means, ‘who will not uphold,’ to do them, that they are established in one’s heart with strong faith, that they are befitting to be fulfilled, for all of them are logical to those that understand and fare to those that are intelligent.” (Click here for Hebrew text.
(Rabbeinu Bachye quotes another interpretation based on a Talmud Yerushalmi (5:7) that says that this pasuk refers to a chazzan not doing hagba, lifting up the Torah, after reading from the Torah, and Sfardim also do it before reading, in order for the congregation to see the words of the Torah. Parenthetically, according to the second interpretation of this curse, it is very limited in scope and it is designed to teach us the importance of the concept that seeing is believing. Just listening to the Torah being read at shul is not enough; seeing the words inside reinforces how real it is, and this must be done to ensure belief in its truth and reality).

The first interpretation of Rabbeinu Bachye is also limiting. One is only cursed if he does not authentically and totally believe that every single mitzvah of the Torah is Divinely true and has a useful purpose, physically and spiritually. Nothing is lacking or extra in any mitzva.

However, what if one is lacking this belief for some mitzvos, even for just one, or one is not 100% confident in his belief system? What should he do?

It is apparent from Rabbeinu Bachye that one has an obligation to learn in depth, b’iyun, in order to understand the logic and how straight and fair each mitzvah is. The more clarity and appreciation of the profundity of Torah one has, the better the understanding and the stronger the belief. Even learning Sefer HaChinuch, which gives reasons behind the 613 mitzvos, is a good way to strengthen one’s belief system. Anything proper that will authenticate Torah and Mitzvos!

Ki Savo – The Making of a Mentche

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The Medrish Tanchuma in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Ki Savo discusses a bunch of scenarios where it seems one is creating a situation out of nothing. The Torah states:

This day, Hashem, your God, is commanding you to fulfill these statutes and ordinances, and you will observe and fulfill them with all your heart and with all your soul. טזהַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֗ה יְהֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ מְצַוְּךָ֧ לַֽעֲשׂ֛וֹת אֶת־הַֽחֻקִּ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה וְאֶת־הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֑ים וְשָֽׁמַרְתָּ֤ וְעָשִׂ֨יתָ֙ אוֹתָ֔ם בְּכָל־לְבָֽבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ:

The Medrish Tanchuma (Ki Savo, paragraph 1) asks, “What does ‘This day, the Lord, your God, is commanding you to fulfill’ mean? Is it only until then that Hashem command the Jews, wasn’t this the fortieth year, as it says ‘And behold in the fortieth year in the eleventh month’ (Devarim 1:3), so what does ‘This day’ mean? Rather this is what Moshe told the Jews, ‘Everyday the Torah should be cherished and loved by you as if today you accepted it on Har Sinai.’” 
This is the first example of creating a perception which seems to go above and beyond time and space and transform the simple understanding of reality. In this circumstance one has the ability to have a fresh love of Torah, so much so that the excitement and feeling is palpable – as if he is now there, at Har Sinai, when the Jewish people first received the Torah. Even though, in reality, it could be many years later, even thousands of years later, and that feeling can potentially be felt every day!

Another example the medrish gives, from the next part of this pasuk: “’and you will observe and fulfill them’ Rebbe Yochanan said anyone who performs a mitzvah in verity, the pasuk treats him as if this mitzva that was just fulfilled was given on Har Sinai.”
This seems to be saying that if a person authentically fulfills a mitzva in its entirety and purity, then it’s as if that very mitzva came out of Har Sinai, with all it’s holiness and incredible value. Even if one is in some other country like America, performing the mitzva. It sounds very special!

The Medrish quotes Rebbe Yochanan again, “Rebbe Yochanan further said, whoever does the Torah in it’s verity, the Torah equates him as if he made himself, as it says,

And Hashem commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and ordinances, so that you should do them in the land to which you are crossing, to possess. ידוְאֹתִ֗י צִוָּ֤ה יְהֹוָה֙ בָּעֵ֣ת הַהִ֔וא לְלַמֵּ֣ד אֶתְכֶ֔ם חֻקִּ֖ים וּמִשְׁפָּטִ֑ים לַֽעֲשֽׂתְכֶ֣ם אֹתָ֔ם בָּאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַתֶּ֛ם עֹֽבְרִ֥ים שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ:

The pasuk does not say ‘la’asos osam,’ to make them rather ‘la’asoschem osam,’
to make you, (not osam with a vav, as the Etz Yosef points out in the name of the Minchas Shai, rather ‘osam’ without a vav, which can be read ‘isam’). From here we see that the Torah attributes it as if he created himself.”

The Etz Yosef quoting a Maharsha explains why it is as if we create ourselves if we learn Torah in its pure authentic truth, “because before one learns Torah in its authenticity, the difference between man (adam) and animal (biheima) is nothing. And when one knows the ways of the Torah his whole essence separates from all the other living creatures and he becomes a man (adam), which is the purpose of him being created.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
How is it possible to say that a person is no different than an animal until he learns Torah Li’amisa, Torah to its truest extent? We all know from the beginning of Breishis that man was created b’tzelem Elokim, in G-D’s image, with an intellectual and spiritual soul. We have the ability to think and make decisions on a level many times deeper than any animal. We can choose between good and bad; we don’t just run on instincts. The power of speech and communication that we have is far more advanced and complex than that of any animal. Doesn’t this obviously make any human different and distinct from any animal?! In fact Hashem acknowledges this difference in every single human being as it says in Pirkei Avos (3:14): “He would also say: Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of G‑d]; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to him that he was created in the image, as it says, ‘For in the image of G‑d, He made man’ (Breishisr 9:6)!” 

However, it would seem from the Maharsha that the Etz Yosef is using to explain the Medrish Tanchuma, that although it is true that mankind is set apart from the animals from the very beginning of creation, however all the qualities that make a human different than the animal is in fact only a potential difference. At best, it makes a human into an “animal plus.” And only when one uses these qualities to take that potential and actualizes it by using them for the ultimate purpose of creation, which is to learn Hashem’s Torah to its truest extent and apply it to one’s lives, only then does one transform him or herself from an “animal plus” to an adam, a person.

We can now understand the rest of this Mishna in Pirkei Avos quoted above, “Beloved are Israel, for they are called children of G‑d; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to them that they are called children of G‑d, as it is stated: ‘You are children of the Hashem your G‑d’ (Devarim 14:1). Beloved are Israel, for they were given a precious article; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to them that they were given a precious article, as it is stated: ‘I have given you a good purchase; My Torah, do not forsake it’ (Mishley 4:2).”

Hashem, out of His over bountiful love for His children, gave us the opportunity to go well beyond our physical state on earth, and transform ourselves into spiritual beings, by giving us His Torah. Giving our own selves the ability to convert our being, which is already part physical and part spiritual, but naturally leaning to our physical, animalistic tendencies from birth, and by choice allowing us to lean more towards the spiritual side of our essence by giving us the Torah to learn it’s depth and profundity in order to be closer to Hashem and His ways.

In this way Hashem gave us the ability to actually transform ourselves from mere creatures like any other animal into distinct people, (adam), mankind.

Ki Savo – A Positive Look at Negativity

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This week’s Torah portion of Ki Savo opens with the mitzvah of Bikkurim, the ceremony of bringing the first fruits of one’s crops up to Yerushalayim to the Kohen in the Beis Hamikdash. There is an elaborate ceremony and declaration which is made by the owner of the first fruit. Included in the pronouncement he states: “And you shall call out and say before the Lord, your God, ‘An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there with a small number of people, and there, he became a great, mighty, and numerous nation. And the Egyptians treated us cruelly and afflicted us, and they imposed hard labor upon us…” (Devarim 26:5, 6). We mention these verses in the haggada on Pesach, and there is a well-known question: why is the history of our servitude in Egypt and it’s redemption mentioned here, when the first fruits are brought to the Beis HaMikdash? What is the correlation?
Rabbeinu Bachye answers that the intent of the figure of speech for this particular portion is to charge a person to focus in his heart, at his time of loftiness and tranquility, about the time of his lowliness and the abjection he had. So too it says in Koheles, “On a day of good, be among the good, and on a day of adversity, ponder” (Koheles 7:14). Meaning, on a good day, ponder a bad day. This is to intensely focus on what you have now, and then give gratitude to Hashem, The Good, that gives good. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
There are many ways in which people deal with their ancestor’s plights in history. Some people used it as a means of survival… “Never forget!” Others used the cruelty and suffering unleashed on their ancestors as an excuse for entitlement. However Rabbeinu Bachye is teaching us a lesson from the declaration by the mitzvah of bikkurim, where we mention our plight in Egypt during which we were slaves and tortured at the hands of our taskmasters; this was before we were saved by Hashem and brought into the Promise Land, and that should be an inspiration for us to appreciate what we have right now and to intensify our gratitude for His giving us such fortune as a fine crop and a means to live.

What an incredible lesson!!! Not only should we not suppress the dark parts of our history, but neither should we take advantage of them; rather we should focus on them and use them as a means to thank Hashem for the bright parts of our lives which we come to appreciate. Specifically, by focusing on our previous plights and comparing them to the good fortunate one currently has will actually intensify the gratitude which one should feel and express to Hashem, for all the good He has done.

Ki Savo – Judgement Day: Cursed or Blessed

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In this week’s Torah portion of Ki Savo we read of the blessings for observing the Torah and curses if the Torah is not kept. Towards the end of the curses, the Torah writes: “And your life will hang in suspense before you. You will be in fear night and day, and you will not believe in your life” (Devarim 28:66).

The Maharam of Rottenberg observes that there are only two times in all of Tanach that the word teluim or תלואים (hanging in suspense) is used. They are in this pasuk, as well in a pasuk in Hoshea 11:7, וְעַמִּ֥י תְלוּאִ֖ים לִמְשֽׁוּבָתִ֑י “And My people waver whether to return to Me, and to the matter concerning which they call them, together they do not uphold [it].” In Hoshea the context being to waver in wanting to repent or not, instead of hanging in suspense.

The Maharam continues by saying that this concept of hanging is also mentioned in a gemara in Rosh Hashana 16b: “That the fully righteous are judged for life on Rosh Hashana and the completely wicked are judged for death but those in the middle are hanging in suspense by teshuva (repentance) until Yom Kippur. If they do repent they are deserving  life and if they do not repent they are deserving death.” This, the Maharam says, is what “your life will hang in suspense” means; that your life will hang on repentance, just like a hanging scale teetering from one side to the other. (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)
The Maharam connects the pasuk with the curses of this week’s Torah portion to Rosh Hashana; but it seems not to make sense that everyone who is in this middle state every year, which is probably most of us, are in an accursed state waiting in limbo, to see what will become of us.

Rather, it would seem that the Maharam is sending a different message. There are two types of people in this world. (Really 3, the third one being one who doesn’t really fully focus or doesn’t focus at all on the incoming Day of Judgement). The other 2 understand full well that there is an incoming judgement, but there are two possible ways one can handle it.

If you look closely at the gemara in Rosh Hashana, it says that the in-between person’s judgement holds in limbo not his own life or death, granted that is the result of his judgement, but this is a different perspective. Namely that  a person with calmness and equanimity who realizing his life is on the line for the coming year and will take orderly and decisive strides to work on himself to make sure he learns enough mussar and instills in himself the proper fear of Heaven to accurately repent and be signed into the Book of Life by the time Yom Kippur ends.

Then there are other people, which the Maharam says the pasuk in the curses is describing, who take the upcoming day of judgement as a time of immense anxiety, where their focus is on their lives which is literally hanging in the balance. Imagine the scale hanging on each side, going up and down; will I do accurate teshuva, will I not; the nausea and dizziness of swinging up and down in doubt; wouldn’t that cause such stress and anxiety! It might thrust a person into action and they will in the end take the correct steps to repent appropriately and deserve to be signed into the Book of Life. But the means of getting to that point will be psychologically much more horrifying. It’s an accursed state of being.

There are clear times in Jewish History when all the curses described in the Torah portion came true and people literally felt their life were on the line and were unsure if they were going to  live to see the next day. But there were other times in history where the blessings of Hashem were clearly seen and there was much calm and peace, while still being deeply rooted in our G-D fearing ways.

But it would seem that even on an individual level there are two possible ways one can approach Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgement, (1) in a blessed serene manner or (2) in an accursed anxious manner. What steps will be taken at this awe-inspiring time to do teshuva? Will they be anxious and accursed or calm and orderly?