By Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland
Give ear, O’ heavens, and I will speak; and may the earth hear the words of my mouth. (32:1)
The community of Baranovitch, Poland, was blessed with the presence of a distinguished Rosh Yeshivah. Horav Elchanan Wasserman, zl, stood at the helm of the yeshivah until the Nazis destroyed it during World War II. One year, the townspeople, who had rarely had the opportunity to hear from the Rosh Yeshivah, asked if he would speak to them in the town’s shul. Rav Elchanan agreed to their request. When he ascended to the lectern, he turned toward the assemblage and began, “Haazinu ha’Shomayim va’adabeira, v’sishma haaretz imrei fi, give ear, O’ heavens, and I will speak; may the earth hear the words of my mouth.” It seems audacious for a human being to call upon heaven and earth in order to enlist their services as witnesses. When we look a few pesukim further, however, the matter is clarified. Ki shem Hashem ekra, havu godel l’Elokeinu, “When I call out the Name of Hashem, Ascribe greatness to our G-d (Ibid 32:3).” Moshe is intimating, I do not seek glory for myself. I am calling upon heaven and earth to testify, to honor Hashem. To give honor to the Almighty, one may make demands of the entire creation!
A similar idea applies to each and every one of us as we stand once again at this time of year, entreating Hashem for yet another year of life, of health, happiness and prosperity. We have to ask ourselves: “Why are we asking? In what merit are we asking? What right do we have to ask? Are we that deserving? If we ask for kavod Shomayim, to glorify Heaven, to give honor to Hashem, however, that is a different story. If we ask to live so that we can provide our children with a Torah-true chinuch; we are asking for health, so that we can serve Him better; we ask for prosperity so that we have the ability to help others; we ask for the ability to study more Torah, in order to perform mitzvos with greater enthusiasm – then, we have a right to ask. Indeed, under such circumstances, we are empowered to ask.
Rav Elchanan spoke briefly, but his short words had an impact for a long time.
May my teaching drop like the rain, may my utterance flow like the dew. (32:2)
Horav Avraham HaKohen, zl, author of Avraham Yagel, who was a distinguished Torah leader in Tunisia two centuries ago, explains this pasuk in a novel manner. Likchi, “my teaching,” is a reference to Torah, which one either teaches to others or learns from a rebbe. Imrasi, “my utterance,” is a reference to the Torah novellae which is the product of original thinking. There is a difference between these two forms of erudition. Yaarof kamatar likchi, “May my teaching drop like rain.” That which we learn from others pours forth with force and abundance. It has one drawback: it is not constant. It rains when the climatic changes create an environment conducive to rain. One does not always learn from his rebbe. Certain times and situations are not conducive to it. Tizal katal imrasi, “may my utterance flow like the dew.” That which I am mechadesh, the original thoughts which are the products of my application and knowledge of Torah, may not be much, but they are constant and always available. Just like the dew.
Perhaps the most important message of this commentary is that there are various ways to study Torah, different aspects to its mastery, which are dependent upon the individual. The ideal is for the individual to study Torah with enthusiasm and diligence. His mastery – whether it will be like rain or like dew – will be determined as time goes on, and his knowledge of Torah increases.
The Kaf Ha’Chaim offers an alternative approach to differentiation between rain and dew and their individual reference to Torah. Rain is not a constant. In certain seasons rain is abundant, and at other times, people look up to the sky and pray for it to open up and pour forth. Dew, however, is a constant occurrence. As the sun rises every day, the dew is on the ground, without fail. Likewise, there are those for whom Torah study is a constant. It is their kvius, permanent endeavor, without a day passing in which Torah study does not occupy most of their time. Torah is their umnus, profession, their life blood. There are also those who, albeit apportioning part of their day to worldly pursuit of a livelihood, set aside time for Torah study. They must do this without fail. Their Torah study is likened to rain, which is not a constant, although it does arrive at regular intervals.
We may add that, while each of these approaches has its benefits, they also have their limitations. Dew is a daily occurrence. Hence, it is taken for granted and not appreciated enthusiastically. One should never “get used” to studying Torah. It should be exciting and fulfilling, something that he yearns for and craves to be a part of. Similarly, the individual who sets aside time for Torah study, should do so regularly and not let the Torah study be secondary to everything else. This can create a serious “drought,” which will negatively impact his spiritual “crops.”
The Rock! – perfect in His work, for all His paths are justice; a G-d of faith without iniquity, righteous and fair is He. (32:4)
Horav Yaakov Neiman, zl, posits that to believe that Hashem is the Creator of Heaven and Earth does not necessarily indicate one’s level of acuity. One does not have to be a groiser chacham, great wise man, to understand that a creation of such intricacy and wonder did not just happen. It took a Creator with power far beyond our ability to comprehend. The highest levels of conviction, however, are attained when one sees or experiences occurrences which are k’neged ha’seichal, in direct contrast to common sense and understanding, when things just do not make sense. When there is no rational explanation for what takes place, yet the individual maintains his firm, unshakable belief in Hashem: this is emunah, faith, at its zenith.
To believe that ein avel, “there is no iniquity,” even though in human perception there appears what seems to be nothing but iniquity – such as we saw less than seven decades ago during the European Holocaust, when millions of Jews of all stripes were brutally murdered Al Kiddush Hashem – that is faith. This is the meaning of ein avel, despite what “appears” and what “seems,” one still believes. The Chazon Ish, zl, was wont to say if one were to see a master tailor tearing up a beautiful piece of fabric, he would deduce that this is so that he can fashion a magnificent suit. Hashem’s ways are above and beyond our level of comprehension. We will just have to trust.
This is why Avraham Avinu’s last and final test was the Akeidah. To be asked to slaughter one’s son undoubtedly goes against every level of justification. Nonetheless, Avraham asked nothing, accepting Hashem’s command with full conviction. He believed, despite the paradox of the command. This is Keil emunah v’ein avel.
Hashem alone guided them, and no other power was with them. (32:12)
In his commentary to the parsha, the Netziv, zl, writes that Hashem led the nascent Jewish nation through the wilderness, a solitary, desolate place, which would allow no contact with other nations. In addition, they would see with clarity of vision that the only power that sustained them was Hashem. There was nothing else – no business, no livelihood, – just Hashem. The lessons of the wilderness would be ingrained in the Jewish psyche, so that Klal Yisrael would know what was to be expected of them once they had arrived in Eretz Yisrael, particularly the non-public, insular lifestyle they would be required to adopt. The distinctiveness, the individuality of Klal Yisrael, is what separates them from the rest of the world – as it should.
The Netziv cites the Talmud Sanhedrin 104b in reference to the above pasuk, Hashem badad yanchenu. The Talmud relates “Hashem said, ‘I said, v’yishkon Yisrael lavetach badad ein Yaakov.'” “Thus, Yisrael shall dwell secure, solitary, in the likeness of Yaakov” (Devarim 33:28). Instead, now it is as the Navi Yirmiyahu declared, Eichah yashvah badad, “Alas, – she sits in solitude” (Eichah 1:1). Hashem’s will was that His nation be distinct among all of the other nations in the world, not to intermingle, and to live in honor, in peace and tranquility. Regrettably, the people could not ascribe to such a lifestyle. They lacked the pride of distinctiveness. They were lacking the self-esteem that is intrinsic to individuality. They had to chase after the pagan world, to be like them, to define themselves as they did. Because of that, the nations separated from them, and the Jewish People were left badad, alone, forsaken and reviled.
As the Netziv explains in his commentary to Bereishis 15:14, “It is engraved within the framework of Creation that any step toward establishing close relationships between Jew and gentile will be challenged with anti-Semitism.” This attitude towards the Jewish people results when we get too close, and it is used to protect us. It is like fire and water, since fire illuminates and water creates darkness. Fire prepares water, while water does nothing for fire. Nonetheless, given all of water’s distinctive qualities, if it were to come in contact with fire without the protection of a pot to separate one from another, the result would be obvious: the water would extinguish the fire. Likewise, Klal Yisrael, which is compared to fire, as it says in Ovadiah 1:18, “And the house of Yaakov will be fire,” spirituality refining and elevating the gentile nations, who are compared to water, as it says, in Yeshaya 17:12, “And to the uproar of the nations, who roar like the uproar of powerful waters.” Yet, when Klal Yisrael seeks to intermingle with the gentiles, the effect is similar to the interaction between fire and water: the gentiles douse the Jews with their innate hatred. This is by design from Hashem.”
During the accursed Nuremburg Laws of 1935, all this became evident. These laws which were the precursor to the Kristallnacht Pogrom of 1938 and the ensuing Holocaust, were the first organized, official indication of the virulent anti-Semitism that scourged through Germany and, indeed, throughout all of Europe. These laws were designed “for the protection of German blood and German honor.” Marriages between Jews and gentiles became strictly forbidden in order to “protect” the German bloodlines. These laws so devastated the assimilated German Jew. In one of his derashos, homiletic lectures, Horav Shmuel David Unger, zl, Rav of Neitre, lamented, “Woe is to us! How low have we sunk? It is the Germans who have to teach us that it is forbidden for a Jew to intermarry.” How ironic is it that it is the gentile that wants nothing to do with us.
Three years later, following the Kristallnacht Pogrom, Horav Mordechai Yaakov Breish, zl, Rav of Zurich, was emphatic in underscoring the secular Jew’s desire to distance himself from Judaism as the catalyst for all of their problems. When an entire nation sees that it is the recipient of constant trouble, it should introspect, and ask itself, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ How did we repay Hashem for the emancipation of Germany and Western Europe? The opportunity to become citizens, to acquire respect, was the result of Hashem’s beneficence. How did we show our gratitude for this newly-found freedom? We assimilated with our Christian neighbors. We worked hard, studied and excelled, took prestigious positions in government, commerce and academia, and we slowly divested ourselves of our traditions, our heritage, our G-d. Oh, how we wanted so much to be accepted – and we actually thought that we had succeeded. Until Hitler came along and woke us up. We thought we could be like the goyim. Hashem ‘allowed’ the goyim to teach us how far from the truth this was. We will never be accepted by them.
Jewish history is not theoretical. Every epoch, every milestone, every story, is another chapter in a living Mussar sefer, volume of ethical teachings. The chapters of Jewish history demonstrated the reality and validity, the clear realization of the prophecies of the Torah and Neviim. It has all materialized just as they predicted it would.
And die on the mountain where you will ascend, and be brought into your people, as Aharon your brother died on Har Hahar. (32:50)
Rashi describes the death of Aharon Hakohen, a death which Moshe Rabbeinu desired so much for himself. Moshe first stripped Aharon of his outer garment and put it on Elazar, Aharon’s son and successor. He then did the same with his second and third garment, until Aharon saw his son in his glory dressed as the Kohen Gadol, High Priest. Moshe then instructed Aharon to ascend unto the bed, and he complied. He told him to “stretch out your hands,” to which Aharon immediately conformed. “Stretch out your legs,” and he stretched them out. “Shut your eyes,” and Aharon shut them. Moshe then instructed Aharon to “close your mouth,” and he did. Aharon’s neshamah, soul, then departed from its earthly container, and Aharon died. When Moshe saw this he commented, “Fortunate is he who dies by this death.”
In many ways, Aharon’s death is paradigmatic of the passing of the righteous – something which we will explain shortly. For now, however, we address the meaning of desiring a death similar to that of Aharon. What does it mean? It might very well express Moshe’s desire to see his son succeed him, to have the nachas, pleasure, of seeing his son in the glory which he had as Klal Yisrael’s leader. Regrettably, this was not to be. Moshe did, however, feel the same satisfaction that his brother, Aharon, experienced when he saw his beloved talmid muvhak, primary disciple, Yehoshua, succeed him as leader of Klal Yisrael. Not every leader has the privilege of seeing his son succeed him, but he has the knowledge that during his lifetime he has established students who have followed in his example. If it was “good enough” for Moshe, it would suffice for them.
Ibn Ezra renders the command “die” as meaning, “prepare yourself to die.” In addition to Moshe’s own spiritual preparations, he had to prepare his own grave. Once again, Moshe led the way for many of our unfortunate brethren who died martyrs’ deaths in the pogroms that were so much a part of our history. In the Holocaust of World War II, the Nazi beasts often forced the martyrs to prepare their own graves. Not only were they Kedoshim u’tehorim, holy and pure, but they also prepared their own graves as Moshe, Klal Yisrael’s quintessential leader, did.
Sforno interprets “die” as “accept your death.” Realize that it will atone for your sins on this world. The martyrs who died in the Holocaust went to their deaths with resolution and fortitude, sanctifying Hashem’s Name in the last moments of their lives. They accepted their deaths as Moshe accepted his. They understood that they were finally coming home to reality, to real life, and that their passing would purge them of whatever spiritual taint they might have.
Horav Chaim Yaakov Goldvicht, zl, offers an intriguing explanation of Moshe’s desire to die like Aharon. Throughout his life, a person has the opportunity to serve Hashem on an almost constant basis. Through these many opportunities, he is also able to achieve an elevated plateau in the spiritual dimension. All of this comes to an end when a person dies. Death is final. We do not find anyone who served Hashem in dying. No one – except for Aharon HaKohen. He served Hashem in death as he followed the instructions that were given to him, instructions that detailed how he was to die. He served Hashem until his last breath. His death was a service to the Almighty. This is what Moshe craved: the ability to serve Hashem in death. Indeed, Shai LaTorah suggests that this might be what Ibn Ezra means when he says “Prepare yourself to die.” Even in death, you will have the opportunity to serve Hashem.
Perhaps this idea can be further explained in practical terms. Death does not usually come suddenly. A person falls ill, victim to disease, and he succumbs to the disease that ravages his body, but this often occurs through organ failure, as different parts of his body shut down. Someone who is sick and aware of the extent of his illness, knows that different organs are shutting down, as he lays at death’s door waiting for the final organ to cease functioning. Is this any different than what happened to Aharon? Hashem instructed him to lay down, stretch out his hands, then his legs, close his eyes and, finally, close his mouth. Each step was another step closer to death. His acceptance of the step by step ritual was his acceptance of death and, in effect, his service to Hashem in death. Aharon did not just die; he participated in his departure from this world. This is what Moshe yearned for: the opportunity to be an active participant, to accept death slowly with fortitude and courage, as a service to Hashem.
Horav Tzvi Yehudah Alshbang, zl, cites the last sentence in Bircas Hampil which we recite prior to retiring. V’haer einai pen ishan ha’maves, “And illuminate my eyes so that I do not die in my sleep.” He would interpret this entreaty as nit farshlafen dem toit, “Not to sleep through death.” The individual is asking: to confront the end awake and with a clear mind, his faculties intact, to see death with his eyes open, to stare it down, and to engage the yetzer hora, evil-inclination, in the last moments of his life, to accept upon himself the yoke of Heaven, and to recite Shema Yisrael with his last breath and last ounce of strength. That is precisely the death that Moshe craved.
Serving Hashem until the very last moment might be an idyllic way to take leave of this world, but it is not something that is accessible to the average Jew. Death is simply terrifying. It is the unknown, and, thus, something which a human being fears. When gedolei Yisrael and even simple Jews under great stress know there is no other way out, they suddenly become calm, accepting the inevitable leaving this world with faith and conviction. This occurred often during the Holocaust when courageous Jews of all stripes sanctified Hashem’s Name in the manner in which they died – and how they lived up unto the last moment.
I recently had the opportunity to read about the legendary Mashgiach Horav Meir Chadash, zl, in a biography written by his daughter, Rebbetzin Shulamit Ezrachi. It is a poignant and inspiring testament to a remarkable person, a Mashgiach of the old genre, a tzaddik, righteous person, of the caliber of the European greats. I focus on the last day of his life. While his entire life was a lesson in humility and Mussar, ethics, his confrontation with life’s ultimate challenge underscored his unequivocal faith in Hashem.
It was the last day of his life. A sage who had achieved longevity, he was obviously in pain. He was sitting in a chair and had been doing so for the past thirty hours – without having been able to eat or sleep. He was in pain, but his mood did not indicate anything out of the ordinary. He displayed unusual warmth in greeting members of his family and his closest students. When asked how he felt, he responded with a resounding, “Baruch Hashem! Living!” He then added, “Life! Ein kleinikeit, it is no trivial matter, life!”
A doctor was called, and, after a thorough examination, he signaled to the family that all was not good. “What hurts you?” he asked Rav Meir. “Hurts? Nothing hurts.” His daughter “interpreted” the doctor’s question, “Is there any specific place where you feel uncomfortable?” “Here in my chest. I feel pressure.” he replied. The doctor knew that the Mashgiach must have been in extreme pain, but Rav Meir asserted that he was merely “uncomfortable.”
He could not sleep as a result of the pain. He could not even lie down. His rebbetzin asked him to recite Krias Shema. Perhaps it would introduce an atmosphere of sleep for him. He deferred to her, and slowly recited Krias Shema out loud, word for word. It would be the last Krias Shema of his life. Finally, he said, “I cannot sit any longer.” He lay down, but it was too much. He returned to his chair. Suddenly, the family noticed that his face had begun to yellow. They summoned an ambulance. The EMTs dropped him off at the hospital. Just as they were about to leave, he called them back, thanked them and added a blessing: “May it be Hashem’s will that you always be an aid and a blessing to others.” This precipitated the following comment from one of them, “So sick, so mortally ill; yet, what troubled him was the worry that perhaps he had not sufficiently thanked us.”
In the hospital, there was a flurry of activity, as doctors and nurses worked on him. The nurse who had initially taken care of him was about to leave the room, when the Mashgiach signaled her to come over. “I have not yet thanked you,” he said. “Thank you and may you be a blessing.”
Those were his last words, as he was swept off to intensive care where he lost consciousness, and moments later his pure neshamah left this world. His final moments were occupied with one objective: Did he properly thank those who had been kind to him? This is the meaning of serving Hashem in death. At a time when most people are preoccupied with themselves, he cared about others. He was serving Hashem.
Ha’mechaseh Shomayim b’avim; ha’meichin l’aretz matar.
He who covers the Heavens with clouds; He who prepares rain for the earth.
Two things are mentioned here: cloud cover and rain. While the benefits of rain are indisputable, does it have to be derived from clouds? It is not as if we need the clouds to block out the sun to make a gloomy day, to shield us from the wonderful sunlight. What does the Psalmist mean when he praises the effect of cloud cover? Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, explains that cloud cover is not only a heavenly wonder, it is one of Hashem’s greatest kindness. Without clouds, the vast energy of the sun would evaporate large quantities of water from the seas. Furthermore, Hashem disperses the clouds over various inland areas to provide rain where necessary. Last, without clouds, people would have no protection from the rays of the sun, preventing those who work and travel in the open from functioning fully.
Horav Avraham Weinfeld, Shlita, explains that, while to the simple person clouds may have a negative connotation due to the darkness and ominous weather they herald, we must look beyond what appears to the limited human mind, to see the benefits that are derived from rain and other life-sustaining forces of clouds. So it is with many aspects of life, whereby we think that we are plagued with negativity from Heaven. If we are patient and think just a little deeper, not simply one-dimensionally, we will experience positive results from what we had perceived as negativity.