Rav Henoch Leibowitz zt”l on Parshas VoEschanan


by Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5tjt.com

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The Yalkut Shimoni (815) explains that Moshe Rabbeinu did not think that Hashem would accede to his request.  Rather, he tried to magnify his sense of pain and agony in not entering Eretz Yisroel. The Midrash cites a parable from a king that commanded one of his servants not to drink wine for a month.  The servant took it upon himself to abstain for an entire year. This seems strange, as the Gemorah (Brachos 54a) tells us that a person must bless on bad news just as we do so on the good.  The Midrash is teaching us the proper way to view yissurim – vicissitudes:  We must make every effort to truly feel both emotions – the happiness and the pain.  The pain felt must not just be on an intellectual level – it must be on an emotional level as well.


Chazal tell us (Rashi BaMidbar 25:5 citing the Yerushalmi) that 176,000 men sinned at Baal Pe’or.  The Seforono here explains that each of them individually reasoned that he can just perform the “sin” part without partaking in the actual idol-worship. How can this have been possible – that 176,000 people can stumble to such a degree? The answer is that a person does not realize the depth of depravity that he can stumble into.  If taavah, desire, has not yet entered his heart – he cannot even conceive of it.  If it happened to this great generation – it can happen to anyone. This is a warning to all of us.


The Seforno explains that this thought that there is none else besides Him – must be actively contemplated, and if not – they will still harbor doubts.  The implication is that this also refers to that great generation.  But how could this be?  They themselves viewed and experienced all of the miracles!  We see here the essential nature of carving into our hearts the fundamentals of Torah – specifically, “ain od milvado – there is no other power or force other than Hashem.”


The word “az – then” is used by the Ramban to connect the entire previous section to this act of separating the refuge cities.  We see from the Ramban that Moshe Rabbeinu’s purpose is to teach the nation of Israel not to let inspiring moments go to waste.  Moshe successfully inspired them as to the awesome nature of the Mitzvos – then he and the nation set apart the refuge cities at that point of inspiration and appreciation of the nature of Mitzvos.

Rashi explains “az” that Moshe inspired himself to perform this Mitzvah even though it may not have been applicable until later.  In Rabbi Elazar ben Moshe Azikri’s (1533-1600) introduction to his Sefer Chareidim, it is explained that Moshe Rabbeinu inspired himself by contemplating the consequences of negating a positive Mitzvah in the Torah.  The implication is that had he not taken this step, he would have fallen victim to rationalizing it away – since it did not apply “here and now” per se. Only after such contemplation did he arrive at the halchic truth that it should, in fact, be done now.  We must use this thought to make ourselves aware that, often, we may be highly likely to push off the performance of a Mitzvah due to various erroneous calculations.

The Seforno uses the word “az” to disconnect this section from the previous section of Teaching Torah and to show the nation, how lofty it is to perform Mitzvos – even a portion of a Mitzvah.  We can ask, however, why could he not have included the importance of performing a Mitzvah in his previous introduction?  The answer is that there is nothing like teaching by personal example.


[1] The Talmud (Makos 10a) explains that a student who went into exile to a refuge city – his Rebbe is exiled with him – because the verse states, “so he may live.”  The implication of this [and of the commentators] is that it is even discussing a student who has achieved great progress in his studies.  If so, then the amount of gain the student will make is nominal.  Why then do we also exile the Rebbe with him?  The answer is that even the loss of the most subtle gain in Torah study is considered a very substantial loss equivalent to death.


[1] The Gemorah in Kiddushin 31a relates that when these first two commandments were given, the nations of the word declared “He is merely concerned about His own honor!”  Later, when the command to honor parents was given, they recanted and admitted to the original commandments.  Rashi explains that they recanted on account of a fortiori argument – that certainly they must honor G-d Himself.  The Maharsha explains that honoring parents is a rational intellectual Mitzvah, they then accepted the rationality of the former two commandments.


The Maharsha, however, needs some explanation.  Why did they not at the very onset accept the first two commandments if they are also rational and intellectual? It must be concluded that there was some sort of bias or blind spot preventing their acceptance of them. Upon hearing the fourth commandment, where they did not have a blind spot, they were able to rationally view the first two commandments.  This provides us with instruction as to how to effectively convince someone of a truth when that person is blinded to it.  First discuss a similar idea wherein the person does not have that blind spot. It also demonstrates how we can grow ourselves spiritually.  If we strength ourselves in a fundamental principle of which we are already aware – it can enable further growth in other spiritual levels.


[1] The implication of the pasuk itself is that Hashem commanded us to observe Shabbos and to have a servant rest is so that through this we will remember that He took us out of Mitzrayim.  In the Ramban’s explanation, however, there is an element of “since Hashem took you out of Mitzrayim, you are morally obligation to allow your servant to rest.”  The moral obligation created here allows us to appreciate the act of Chessed that Hashem had done even more.  The parallel, according to the Ramban’s understanding, is not merely a simplistic or straightforward similarity. Rather it allows us to further appreciate and understand Hashem’s remarkable Chessed with us and implants within us the moral obligation to do so for others.


[1] The Ralbag (Shmos 20:12 to’eles 8) explains that when one honors parents, people in the state will also honor each other, and the state will endure.  However, when parents are not honored, people will act negatively toward each other and the state will not endure.  The Ralbag’s words require some explanation, because the Ralbag himself elaborated (to’eles 1) that the parameters of honoring parents were to honor them in speech and in one’s business affairs even after their passing.  How can a negation of this type of positive activity lead to the destruction of the state?


It must be said that the nature of a human being is that if one is lax in even one tiny aspect of a moral quality, it will affect his entire moral quality in that area.  Honoring parents and honoring others share the same root.  If he is lax in the former he will eventually fail miserably in the latter.


[1] The Midrash (Dvarim Rabbah 7:10) informs us that when the nation of Israel said the words, “Naaseh v’Nishma” – Hashem responded with these words, “If only their hearts would be like this all the days..”  The nation of Israel, however, was silent. Notwithstanding the lofty spiritual level they had achieved – there was a lack of appreciation toward Hashem.  The Baalei Tosfos in Avodah Zarah (5a) explains that they were called ingrates by Moshe Rabbeinu because they did not request of Hashem that he endow them Yiras Shamayim in their hearts.  The question on this Midrash is what difference does it make whether they requested the additional fear of Heaven or not?  Regardless, they still had an obligation of Hakaras haTov!  The answer must be that gratitude is such that it is insufficient to just have a general sense of gratitude if one had received tremendous amounts of good from another. The obligation is rather to express gratitude on each and every good turn that he received.  This can only come from a feeling of true Yiras Shamayim.

[1] Rashi explains that with all your soul means even if He takes your soul. The Talmud (Brachos 61b) relates the story of Rabbi Akiva’s tortuous death at the hands of the Romans. His students asked, Even now you recite the Shma? Rabbi Akiva  explained to his students, “All my life I said to myself, when will I ever be able to fulfil this command? And now that I am finally able to fulfil it, I should not?” He said the Shema, extending the final word Echad (“One”) until his soul left with that word. A heavenly voice called out, “Blessed are you, Rabbi Akiva, that your life expired with “Echad. The angels asked, “This is Torah and this is it’s reward?” Hashem answered, “The reward of all righteous people is in Olam Haba.”  In his first explanation, the Maharsha understands this Gemorah as stating that the righteous get no reward in this world only in the next world. The angels had initially thought that, although this is true, their righteousness might have minimized the agony in this world.  Hashem responded that all of the reward is in the next world. This answer of Hashem can possibly be contemplated by those righteous people experiencing pain to possibly reduce their pains.


[1] What is the love referred to in the previous pasuk? Rashi explains that it is the placing of these words on your heart. The Maharal (1526-1609) explains in his Gur Aryeh that Torah study brings one to a recognition of the Holy One and His ways, and what is good.  He will recognize His praises and come to love Him.  We see a remarkable insight that Torah study alone can achieve this bond and closeness with the Creator.


[1] Rashi explains that “your sons” refers to “your students.”  In Yishayahu 8:18, Yishayahu HaNavi emphasizes the special love he has for the young men that Hashem had given him.  Rashi there, as well, explains that this refers to his students.  The question arises as to why then, in particular, did Yishayahu emphasize that his students are as beloved to him as sons?  The answer is that had he not felt so close to them, he would not only have not fulfilled his obligation of looking out properly for his students, but the students would not have responded to the needs of the situation.  We see from here the need to not only love one’s students, but also to show that love.


[1] The Ramban explains that one should make His service the main focus and one’s own needs secondary – just like a trusty servant does.  Having this perspective will enable him to reach the level of performing everything l’shaim shamayim – for the sake of Heaven.  One may ask, doesn’t the author of the Mesilas Yesharim first begin with making sure that one is clear about one’s task and obligations in this world?  How then is the Ramban’s recommendation effective?  The answer is that it is not enough to know one’s task, but employing the perspective is also necessary in order to effect change and reach the higher level.


[1] We often tend to think that there is no Torah obligation to act properly with others and to speak to others in a respectful manner since this is not found explicitly in the Torah.  The Ramban, however, explains this pasuk in the exact opposite manner.  He writes that this pasuk is the general obligation, the specifics of which are far to numerous and are impossible to enumerate.


[1] The Ramban explains that Hashem chose Klal Yisroel because He saw them as worthy to be beloved before Him on account of their absolute dedication as Chazal have said (Baitzah 25b), “Three are bold: Israel among the nations, a dog among animals, and a chicken among fowl.  Klal Yisroel gives of themselves – even to be killed for the sake of Kiddush Hashem. Mankind’s love stems from the same love that Hashem has for others, as mankind was created in Hashem’s image.  When someone sees that another is dedicated to them and willing to endure suffering on their account – they will be beloved to them.

[1] The Ramban explains that Hashem purposefully led the nation of Israel through the desert in order to ensure that they would keep His Mitzvos forever.  The question is why would taking them through the desert ensure their future faith and Emunah? If future trials and tribulations will be harder than those in the desert – then what happened in the desert should not effect the future. And if the future trials would not be as difficult, then the trials they experienced in the desert would have been extraneous.


The answer must be that it is easier to feel and develop one’s bitachon, faith and trust in Hashem in the desert than to do so later in the future.  This is because they were privy to constantly witnessing miracle upon miracle.  We see from here the enormous potential for growth that is found in trials and tribulations.  They serve to form our character, determination, and trust in Hashem.  We must always remember the words of the Ramban in Bereishis (22:1): “All tests in the Torah benefit that which whom is tested.”


[1] The Midrash Rabbah (Dvarim 1:11) asks why Hashem did not reveal to Avrohom Avinu that He would, in the future, provide Avrohom’s descendants with Manna?  The Midrash explains that had Hashem done so, the Bnei Yisroel would have (not appreciated the Manna and) said, “We already had this in Mitzrayim” – like they said (Bamidbar 11:5), “We remember the fish we freely ate in Egypt.”  The truth was that they did not freely eat fish – they sat around watching while the Egyptians did so (See Shmos Rabbah 16:4).


We may ask why would they have reacted in this manner?  We must say that they would have negligently erred.  The nature of a human being is that when it is clear that he will benefit from something shortly, he already feels a benefit now that he knows he will obtain it.  After a few years, false memories can arise – and no one is immune to the idea of a fase memory– even the Dor Deah – the generation of knowledge. The take home lesson is that we cannot always rely on our memory.


[1] Rabbeinu Yonah (Shaarei Teshuvah 4:13) explains this verse to mean, “A person is obligated to reflect and know that the troubles that find him and the afflictions that come upon him are not according to the greatness of his iniquity and the multitude of his sins, but rather that Hashem in His love for him – afflicts him in the way of the rebuke of a father upon his son.”  The Yaaros Dvash (Vol. I #2) writes that no one sees his own faults and walks around assuming that he is righteous (see Shabbos 119a and Kesuvos 105b).  And yet, Rabbeinu Yonah’s words seem to imply that everyone is obligated to feel that Hashem is afflicting him out of love.  We also see this from the Midrash in Aicha Rabbah (3:40 see Yefei Anaf) – that even though a person has huge difficulties he should appreciate the fact that he is alive since his sins are enough for him to have forfeited his life.


From the fact that the Torah actually requires this perspective from us, we see that seeing things in this manner is not beyond our capabilities.  How lofty are the souls of Klal Yisroel then that each of them can feel Hashem’s love when He afflicts them with great difficulties!


[1] Rabbeinu Yonah writes in his Shaarei Teshuvah (3:27) on this verse: Among the negative commandments dependent upon the heart are: “Take care lest you forget the Lord, your God” (Dvarim 8:11). And our Rabbis said (Sotah 5a), “Wherever it says in a verse, ‘beware,’ ‘lest’ or ‘not,’ this is surely a negative commandment.” We are warned [then] with this to remember Hashem every instant. A person is obligated to make efforts to always acquire for himself behaviors that are mandated by remembrance – such as fear, modesty, refinement of one’s thoughts and strategies to acquire good traits – so that the holy seed will attain every fine behavior and be crowned through it from the remembrance of God, may He be blessed, just as it is stated (Isaiah 45:25), “It is through the Lord that all the offspring of Israel Have vindication and glory.”


It is clear from the Rabbeinu Yonah that this is a Torah requirement.  The Mesilas Yesharim states the same principle in chapter three. He writes, “A person must constantly, at all times, and at a set time contemplate the true path for Torah according to the laws of the Torah that man must follow.”


How can this be? People are often overcome and overwhelmed with the struggles of everyday life! How can this be a Torah obligation?


The answer is that we have the ability to use our thoughts and reason on a sub-conscious level.  A person who is working is always aware not to endanger himself. Rav Yitzchok Isaac Sher zt”l, the Rosh Yeshiva of Slabodka, explained that a mother hears her baby cry when she is asleep.  This is because the mind operates even on a subconscious level.  We have the ability to remember Hashem in our subconscious.  The wording of the Shaarei Teshuvah indicates that doing so can achieve extraordinary results on maintaining the sanctity of the nation.

[1] The Ramban explains that Moshe Rabbeinu is explaining that if the Klal Yisroel thinks that it is the strength and power of their own hand that brought them all of this wealth and gain, they should remember that in the wilderness where there was nothing, Hashem met all of your needs. Moshe brings a number of other proofs from the next section as well. That it will be Hashem who allows them to conquer a very strong nation, etc.


It seems from the words of this Ramban  that Moshe Rabbeinu was concerned that the nation would feel that their eventual success comes from the strength and power of their own efforts, and that it was thus necessary to prove to them that the success comes solely from Hashem.  How can it be that the “Dor Deah” the greatest generation that every lived – would be unaware of such obvious proofs?


We must conclude that it is obvious when one deeply contemplates it, but Moshe was concerned that they would not do so.  We see then that the “go to” thought process of a human being is that his success is due to his own efforts – even when there are obvious proofs otherwise.  We also see that a person thinks that Hashem helps and rewards him on account of his own righteousness and purity of soul – when this is not the case.


The Ibn Ezra agrees with the Ramban in part.  He agrees that this was Moshe Rabbeinu’s concern. He disagrees in that he assumes that it is easily dissipated by just remembering the One who gives you strength.


There is a remarkable dichotomy here. On the one hand, these erroneous thoughts are the “go to” thought processes of a human being. Yet, on the other hand, these thoughts are easily dissipated by mere contemplation.


[1] Rashi explains that the words, “and turn away” refers to removing oneself from Torah.Once someone is removed from Torah, he goes on to grab hold of Avodah Zara.  We find this in regard to Dovid HaMelech who said, “for they have driven me today, from cleaving to the Hashem’s heritage, saying, ‘Go, worship [other gods]’” (Shmuel Aleph 26:19). But who [actually] said this to him? He actually said, “Since I am driven from being occupied in the study of Torah, I am closer to worshipping strange gods.”

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