Torah Weekly - Parshat Nitzavim
On the last day of his life, Moshe gathers all the people, young and old, lowly and exalted, men and women, in a final initiation. The covenant includes not only those who are present, but even those generations yet unborn. Moshe admonishes the people again to be extremely vigilant against idol worship because, in spite of having witnessed the abominations of Egypt, there will always be the temptation to experiment with foreign philosophies as a pretext for immorality. Moshe describes the desolation of the Land of Israel which will result from failure to heed Hashem’s mitzvot. Descendants of that generation and foreigners alike will remark on the singular desolation of the Land and its apparent inability to be sown or to produce crops. The conclusion will be apparent to all - the Jewish People have forsaken the One who protects them in favor of powerless idols. Moshe promises, however, that the people will eventually repent after both the blessings and the curses have been fulfilled. However assimilated they will have become among the nations, eventually Hashem will bring them back to Eretz Yisrael. Moshe tells the people to remember that fulfilling the Torah is not an impossibility; rather it's within the grasp of every Jew. The parsha dramatically concludes with Moshe comparing the Jewish People's choice to follow the Torah to a choice between life and death. Moshe exhorts the people to choose life.
“And you saw their abominations and their detestable idols, of wood and of stone" (29:16)
Think of idol worship. Primitive tribes in Borneo with painted faces and wild eyes come to mind. Ancient Egyptians and not-so-ancient Mayans. When we think about idol worship, we think of anyone - but ourselves. In our own mind we are as far as can be from being card-carrying idol worshippers. Me? An idol worshipper?
And yet there is a very subtle kind of idol worship that we can very easily fall prey to.
Throughout the month of Elul, we have been sounding the shofar at the end of morning prayers. Ostensibly, this is part of our preparation for Rosh Hashana. One authority, however, when describing the shofar blowing of Elul, makes no reference to Rosh Hashana at all. Rather, the Pirkei d'Rabi Eliezer relates the blowing of the shofar to a specific event in the first Elul after the Jewish People left Egypt.
When Moshe went up to receive the first tablets, the Jewish People made a tragic miscalculation which led to the incident of the golden calf. Eventually, G-d forgave the Jewish People for this sin and He summoned Moshe on the first day of Elul to "ascend to Me to the mountain." (Shemot 24:12) Moshe went up to receive the second tablets. As he ascended, "the sound of the shofar was sounded in the encampment so that they would not once again err after idol worship."
So, the reason we blow the shofar during Elul is to protect ourselves from the same mistake the Jewish People made over 3000 years ago in the desert - idol worship.
Most people don't have graven images stashed away in their attic; they have no plans to convert their lofts into a local coven for witchcraft. Where do you see idol worship nowadays?
Nothing in Judaism is merely commemorative, if we still blow the shofar during Elul, it must be that the same potential for falling into idol worship still exists. What is this idol worship?
The Ramban in his discourse on Rosh Hashanah links the word shofar to the verse, "By His breath the Heavens are spread (shifra)." (Iyov 26:13)
This verse refers to the dispersing of the clouds to reveal the clear blue sky. That which was clouded over and concealed becomes revealed. The root of the word shifra also means to beautify, for true beauty is to see the essence of something, the purpose for which it was created. Shifra is also the root of the word shofar.
The shofar gives us a clarity to see beyond the clouds - to see to the blue sky beyond. It is this clarity that results in fear and trembling: "Can the shofar be sounded in the city and the people not tremble?" (Amos 3:6).
In 1948, when the sound of bomb blasts was all too common in Israel, the Slabodka Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Sher, took aside a ten-year-old boy and asked him what blessing should be made on the sound of a bomb blast. When the boy could not answer, Rabbi Sher told him, "Whose strength and power fills the world" - the blessing a Jew says when he hears thunder. Rabbi Sher was not giving the boy a practical halachic ruling; rather, he was telling him that bomb blasts are no different than unexpected thunder on a cloudless day. They are both a reminder of Hashem's power.
Thunder, the Talmud tells us, exists only to straighten the crookedness of our hearts, to strip away the layers of our self-deception. Thunder is an unexpected break from the everyday, and as such it snaps us to attention by reminding us of the One whose strength and power fill the world.
Every explosion in this city is like a clap of thunder, is like the blast of the shofar, reminding us of His power and awesome might.
The letters which make up the name of the month Elul can be rearranged to spell lulei which means were it not. Lulei always indicates a situation which very easily could have been the reverse were it not this, then this.
Either this or that. There is no other way. Either we trust in Hashems ultimate goodness or we fall into the hands of our enemies. Either this or that.
The shofar, thunder and the sound of a bomb exploding all come to remind us of the same thing that there is no power other than Him. There are no political maneuverings. There are no clever strategies. No great white hopes. There is only Him.
The shofar is a sound that reaches a place in our hearts that words cannot reach. It is a sound that takes us back to a place before words and all their duplicity. It takes us back to a sound before propaganda, be it the propaganda of the media or the propaganda of our own twisted thinking. It echoes like a thunder clap out of a clear blue sky to remind us that there is nothing apart from Him. He is the King who takes life away and gives life.
Nothing in this world has life, except if Hashem wills it; nothing in this world has any independent power. The sun shines only because Hashem gives it the power to shine. He created it, and He sustains it, re-creating it and its power every single split second. Every nuclear reaction in that fiery orb is no more than a further expression of His will. There is nothing apart from His will. Nothing.
The idol worship from which the shofar of Elul protects us is the mere thought that any event takes place without His willing it. This is idol worship just as surely as if we had kneeled before a marble statue.
In a couple of days, we will stand in front of the Supreme King of Kings. He will decide then Who will live and who will die. May it be His will to have mercy on His people Israel and write us in the Book of Eternal life!
In this last of the seven haftaras of consolation, the Prophet Yeshaya describes how, just as the land will seem to bloom and flourish in the time of the mashiach without any prior cultivation, Hashem will redeem his people and shower them with kindness without any prior action on their part and without them deserving it.
The Targum Yonaton translates For Zions sake, I will not be silent to mean that there will never be peace in the world while the Jewish People are scattered in exile.
In the final days, Hashem will come stained with blood from the battle with Esau-Edom-Rome and its spiritual heirs to liberate His people and reveal that He has been with them in every exile, frustrating the designs of those who wished to obliterate them.
Only Happiness Is A Two-Way Street
I will rejoice intensely with Hashem; my soul shall exult with my G-d. (61:10)
Our Sages teach us that a person is obligated to make a blessing on adversity just as he makes a blessing on good. (Berachot 54) However, this only applies when the misfortune happens to oneself, but if ones neighbor is beset by tragic events, it is forbidden to rejoice. Rather, a person is obligated to empathize with his neighbors plight.
This is the intention of the verse I will rejoice intensely with Hashem: When I perceive Hashem through the aspect of His mercy, when He blesses me with an abundance of revealed good, then I can both rejoice and give others cause to rejoice with me.
However, when I perceive G-d through the aspect of His judgment, my soul shall exult with my G-d. When affliction befalls me alone, I am allowed to exult, for a person is obligated to make a blessing on adversity just as he makes a blessing on good. But when misfortune befalls others, then not only am I forbidden to exult, I must seek out every way to empathize with them in their loss.
Written and Compiled by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair
General Editor: Rabbi Moshe Newman
Production Design: Binyamin Rosenstock
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