SALT Parashat Nitzavim 2015/5775

  • Rav David Silverberg

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Motzaei Shabbat

            Several different theories have been proposed to explain the Ashkenazic custom to begin the recitation of Selichot specifically on Motza’ei Shabbat.  This practice has challenged writers and darshanim to identify some conceptual connection between Shabbat and the process which we begin with the onset of Selichot.

            Rav Tzvi Hersh Yaar, in his Chamudei Tzvi, suggests an explanation by noting one of the unique qualities of Shabbat that set it apart from all other special occasions which we observe.  As the onset of new months is determined by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish People exercise a degree of control over the festivals; we participate, on some level, in the process of determining when these sacred occasions are observed.  Shabbat, however, is entirely out of human hands.  God consecrated Shabbat as a special and sacred occasion, and it always sets in every seven days, without any exception, and without any input on the part of Am Yisrael or anybody else other than the Almighty.

            Symbolically, Shabbat and Yom Tov have often been viewed as representative of two kinds of religious inspiration: that which is initiated from Above, and that which we trigger through our own initiative.  As a rule, we are expected to initiate the process of repentance and spiritual growth, as symbolized by Yom Tov, which we are involved in establishing.  However, Shabbat establishes the model of “itareruta de-le’eila” – inspiration initiated by God, who, in His infinite mercy and compassion, occasionally steps in on His own accord to awaken us and initiate a process of growth.

            In the days and weeks preceding Rosh Hashanah, we are – hopefully – moved and drawn to introspect and work to improve ourselves, but only because of the fear of our imminent trial.  Our Selichot prayers are heartfelt, but, by and large, are motivated by our concerns over what the next year will bring, which will be determined on Rosh Hashanah.  One might, then, question the value of such Selichot and repentance.  Is this really sufficient?  What right do we have to ask forgiveness only now that we are suddenly awoken by the rapidly-approaching Day of Judgment?  If we haven’t been trying to grow and improve until now, should we not be ashamed to wake up now and repent?

            We therefore link Selichot to Shabbat, to remind ourselves of the concept of “itareruta de-le’eila.”  God mercifully assists us and is even prepared to initiate our process of repentance.  Even if we had been indifferent and unconcerned until now, we are entitled and even encouraged to come forward now.  Shabbat reminds us that God lovingly accepts our repentance and efforts to improve even if they are motivated by external factors, and even when He must take the initiative to inspire such efforts.  While ideally we should not wait for “itareruta de-le’eila,” and should always be actively working to grow, we should not hesitate to pray, plead and repent even when we are compelled by circumstances.  We thus begin Selichot on Shabbat, so we remember that God is prepared to initiate our process of repentance for us, and we then need simply to respond and take full advantage of the opportunity.

Sunday

            The Rama (O.C. 581:1) cites the view of the Kolbo that the one who leads the Selichot service in the synagogue should lead all the prayer services throughout the day.  The Magen Avraham, commenting on this ruling, remarks that the person should serve as sheli’ach tzibur even for the evening arvit service.  He then adds that the reason for this practice is because of the principle, “ha-matchil be-mitzva omerim lo gemor” – one who begins a mitzva should follow it through to completion.

            The simple reading of the Magen Avraham’s remark is that he makes two separate statements.  First, he establishes that this practice of the Kolbo extends even to the evening arvit prayer, and, second, he offers the reason for this halakha, explaining that a person who begins the mitzva of leading the service should continue in this role throughout the day. 

            According to this reading, the Magen Avraham speaks of the arvit service recited the evening after the day on which one led the Selichot prayer.  Meaning, he instructs that one who led Selichot in the morning should then lead the services for all three of that day’s prayers – shacharit, mincha and arvit.

            However, as Rav Efrayim Zalman Margoliyot notes in his Yad Efrayim commentary, the Kolbo mentions that the sheli’ach tzibur appointed to lead the Selichot service should also lead the previous night’s arvit service.  As noted earlier, the Kolbo is the source of the custom cited by the Rama.  Accordingly, we might suspect that when the Magen Avraham informs us that the Rama refers even to arvit, he speaks of the arvit service mentioned by the Kolbo – namely, the previous night’s arvit service, and not the next night’s arvit service.  This reading, however, seems difficult to accept in light of the Magen Avraham’s second comment, referencing the concept of “ha-matchil be-mitzva omerim lo gemor.”  If this practice, of having the sheli’ach tzibur serve in this capacity throughout the day, is a function of the rule that one who begins a mitzva should complete it, then obviously it can apply only to subsequent prayer services, and not to previous prayer services.

            Rav Shemuel Ehrenfeld (the Chatan Sofer) is cited as offering a clever, alternative reading of the Magen Avraham’s comment.  According to his suggestion, the Kolbo’s custom was instituted to solve the inherent problem that one confronts when assuming the role of sheli’ach tzibur.  As we stand before the Almighty to beg forgiveness in advance of the judgment of Rosh Hashanah, only a presumptuous – and perhaps even delusional – person can feel qualified to represent the congregation in this lofty endeavor.  One who fully understands the role of sheli’ach tzibur in the Selichot prayer, and who is honest with himself and truly self-aware, could not possibly assume this responsibility without a great deal of shame and trepidation.  The Kolbo’s practice seeks to resolve this problem by mandating that the selected individual serve as sheli’ach tzibur already the previous night.  Once he has begun serving in the capacity of sheli’ach tzibur, the rule of “ha-matchil be-mitzva omerim lo gemor” does not just allow, but requires, him to continue serving in this role the next morning when the Selichot prayers are recited.

            This, Rav Ehrenfeld suggests, was the Magen Avraham’s intent in his terse comment.  The Magen Avraham clarifies that the chosen sheli’ach tzibur should begin serving in this role already the night before Selichot, because he will then be required to lead the Selichot prayer by force of the rule of “ha-matchil be-mitzva omerim lo gemor.”  His assuming this role would thus not constitute an expression of hubris or overconfidence, as he fills this role only because he had already begun leading the prayer services the previous night.

Monday

            We find in Parashat Nitzavim Moshe’s famous proclamation that the Torah is neither “in the heavens” nor “across the sea,” and is instead, “very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart…” (30:12-14).  The simple interpretation of these verses is that Torah observance is accessible to one and all, and does not require superhuman strengths and capabilities.

            The Gemara, however, in Masekhet Eiruvin (55a), offers a Midrashic interpretation, and understands the phrase “lo va-shamayim hi” (“it is not in the heavens”) to mean that Torah scholarship cannot be achieved by an arrogant person.  If somebody thinks that he is “in the heavens,” that he is greater and more important than other people, then he is incapable of acquiring and retaining Torah knowledge.  It is only the humble spirit which recognizes the need for hard work and sustained effort that can master the vast corpus of Torah scholarship.

            We might wonder whether perhaps there is some connection between the simple reading of “lo va-shamayim hi,” and the Gemara’s Aggadic reading.  What association might there be between Moshe’s insistence that Torah observance is within our reach, and the Gemara’s warning about the effects of arrogance?

            One possibility, perhaps, is that these two readings reflect two sides of the same coin.  Moshe warns about the stultifying effects of intimidation, that viewing the goal of spiritual excellence as beyond reach leads us to despair.  The Gemara, by contrast, warns of the opposite phenomenon, of complacency resulting from overconfidence and pride.  The simple reading of this phrase is that we must feel confident in our ability to meet the obligations God imposes upon us; according to the Aggadic reading, we are reminded that we must work and struggle to achieve excellence, and we must not delude ourselves into thinking we are already there.

            There may also be another connection.  Sometimes, people overestimate their talents and achievements precisely because they feel that the Torah is “in the heavens” and cannot be observed without exceptional skills.  If we mistakenly view Torah as “in the heavens,” as an undertaking reserved for the elite, then we will either despair, or delude ourselves into thinking we belong to the elite.  If we think that Torah observance is exceedingly difficult, then we might then view ourselves as the kind of person whom we mistakenly feel one needs to be to meet the Torah’s lofty demands.  Together, these two readings of “lo va-shamayim hi” teach us that the Torah’s obligations apply to each and every one of us, according to each person’s capabilities.  It is “very close to you” because we are each expected to invest maximum effort and achieve to the best of our potential.  Once we internalize this truth about Torah, we will feel more comfortable acknowledging who we are and who we aren’t.  We will then assess ourselves honestly to determine what exactly we are capable of, recognizing that this is, in truth, all that God expects.

Tuesday

            We cry in the introductory section of the Selichot prayers, “Ha-neshama lakh ve-ha’guf pa’alakh chusa al amalakh” – “The soul belongs to You, and the body is Your doing; have pity on Your handiwork.”  On the surface, the intent of this declaration is that even if we are unworthy of God’s grace, we appeal for His kindness on the basis of the fact that we are His.  Our entire beings – both body and soul – belong to Him, and for this reason alone God should have compassion for us, regardless of whether we deserve His blessings.

            Rav Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi, however, probed further into this passage to uncover a deeper layer of meaning, one which alerts us to one of our primary obligations during the Yamim Nora’im season.  The fact that “ha-neshama lakh ve-ha’guf pa’alakh” – that our beings are entirely the “property” of the Almighty – means that we have our bodies and our souls purely for the sake of fulfilling the purpose for which God created us.  We might suggest an analogy to a salaried employee, who can claim rights to his paycheck only if he meets his responsibilities to the company.  An employee cannot assume he deserves his salary and then decide on his own terms what he will do for his employer.  His claim to his wages depends entirely on his satisfactory completion of the work assigned to him.  Likewise, our very existence depends on our fulfilling our purpose in this world, and thus our failure to meet our responsibilities means we technically forfeit our right to be here.

            Rav Ezrachi cites in this context the astonishing story told in the Gemara (Ta’anit 21a) of Nachum Ish Gamzu, who attributed his suffering at the end of his life to one occasion where he delayed ever so slightly before assisting a famished pauper.  By the time Nachum presented the food the pauper requested, he died.  Nachum declared upon himself that his various body parts should become dysfunctional because of this mistake.  Rav Ezrachi explained that the message of this startling episode is that our body is given to us only so we can fulfill our purpose.  Nachum understood that a starving man was sent his way for him to feed and care for, and because of his momentarily delay, he failed to fulfill his mission.  He acknowledged that once he failed to use his body to fulfill his mission, he does not deserve a functioning body.

            Thus, “ha-neshama lakh ve-ha’guf pa’alakh” is as much a confession as it is a prayer.  We avow that we deserve our life and limb only because “chusa al amalakh” – by virtue of God’s grace and kindness.  We confess that we have failed, that we have not used our physical wellbeing, our material resources, our talents and strengths, or our circumstances in life the way we were supposed to.  As such, we deserve none of it.  We tearfully come before God to confess this failure, and to beg for a second chance.

            The Yamim Nora’im period is a time for us to ask the very uncomfortable question of whether we are indeed utilizing the blessings in our lives for their intended purpose.  We all have much more than a “neshama” and a “guf,” and we must remind ourselves that are here to serve God and to contribute to the world’s advancement, each person in his or her individual way, based on his or her unique talents and circumstances.  As we plead with God to forgive us for our failings and to continue showering us with blessings, we must also commit ourselves to utilize those blessings properly and channel them in the direction of the purpose for which they are given.

Wednesday

            In Parashat Nitzavim, Moshe assures Benei Yisrael that “this command which I issue to you today…is not in the heavens…and it is not across the sea…for the matter is very close to you…” (30:12-14).  The standard interpretation of theses verses is that Moshe speaks of the accessibility of Torah observance, how it does not demand “ascending to the heavens” or “crossing the sea.”  It is something that is readily accessible – “very close to you” – and while it entails considerable effort and sacrifice, we should not perceive it as something beyond our reach. 

            The Ramban, however, famously explains these verses as speaking of the particular command of teshuva, which Moshe discusses in the previous section.  As difficult as it may seem to change after having fallen into the abyss of sin and betrayed God, Moshe assures Benei Yisrael that it is possible and well within their reach. 

            The Lubavitcher Rebbe noted the point of connection between these two interpretations.  In the previous section, Moshe foresees the time when God would banish Benei Yisrael from their land on account of their wrongdoing, and the time when they would repent and return to the service of God, whereupon God would bring them back to their land.  According to the standard interpretation of our verses, the Rebbe noted, Moshe here impresses upon the people that even in exile, while enduring hardship and instability, the Torah is “not in the heavens.”  Moshe reassures Benei Yisrael that they are capable of remaining loyal to God and to Torah even under the harsh conditions of exile, and so they should not despair or try excusing themselves from their Torah obligations after being driven from their land and subject to hostile foreign rule. 

            Herein, the Rebbe suggested, lies the connection the teshuva.  Just as we are reassured of our ability to observe the Torah under the difficult practical conditions of exile, we are likewise reassured of our ability to observe the Torah under the difficult spiritual conditions of sin.  Even if we have failed and strayed far from the path we are expected to follow, “it is not in the heavens.”  The Torah is relevant, binding and accessible under all circumstances, including under conditions of exile – both geographic exile as well as spiritual exile.  We are guaranteed of our ability to live a Torah life regardless of our past, and no matter what kind of adverse conditions we currently face – even if we are responsible for creating those adverse conditions through our sinful conduct.  Under all circumstances, “the matter is very close to you,” and spiritual excellence is well within our reach.

Thursday

            The mitzva of shemitat kesafim mandates that loans which have not been paid by the end of the shemita year are voided, and the lender can no longer collect them.  This law applies only to loans which are already due by the conclusion of the shemita year, and have not yet been paid.  During the time of the Second Temple, Hillel instituted a mechanism to circumvent this requirement, namely, the Prozbol document, whereby a creditor transfers the loan to the authority of Beit Din, which then allows him to collect the debt after the conclusion of shemita.

            The halakhic authorities debate the question of whether a checking account in a Jewish-owned bank qualifies as a loan which requires writing a Prozbol before the end of shemita.  Many poskim ruled that indeed, a bank is considered a “borrower” as it uses the money entrusted to it by its customers.  As such, anyone with money deposited in a Jewish-owned bank would be required to sign a Prozbol document before the conclusion of the shemita year.

            Rav Asher Weiss, however, disagrees.  He argues that money in a checking account should be regarded as cash, and not as a loan.  Since a customer can withdraw money from his account whenever he wishes, the money is considered as though it already belongs to him, and not as a loan which he is waiting to be paid.  Although the money is not actually in his physical possession, nevertheless, funds in a checking account are commonly perceived as readily available and under a person’s ownership, not as a debt.  Rav Weiss proves his point by addressing the situation of a person who forges a bank customer’s signature and withdraws money from his account.  Undoubtedly, Halakha would regard this crime as outright theft.  If we view money in a checking account as a debt, then a fraudulent withdrawal would constitute gerama – indirectly causing a person a financial loss, which has no recourse in Beit Din.  Rav Weiss considers this inconceivable, as in today’s financial system, money in a checking account is considered to be in one’s possession.  With regard to shemitat kesafim, too, the money is already in the person’s possession, and not just owed to him, and thus no Prozbol is required.

            Rav Weiss adds that even if we do not go so far as to equate deposited funds with actual cash, the law of shemitat kesafim would still not apply.  Halakha establishes that if, before the conclusion of shemita, a creditor was issued by the Beit Din a formal ruling requiring the borrower to repay the debt, he may collect the debt even after the end of shemita.  Once he has the Beit Din’s formal ruling, the debt is as good as paid, and it is thus not subject to shemitat kesafim.  Likewise, if the borrower gave the lender collateral on the loan, which he may keep in the event the loan is not repaid, the loan is not cancelled at the conclusion of shemita.  Since he has something in his possession which he can later keep in lieu of payment, the loan is considered paid with respect to the law of shemitat kesafim.  Rav Weiss contends that money in a checking account is no different.  Since the funds are readily available for him whenever he wishes, the “debt” is considered as good as paid, and thus not subject to shemitat kesafim.

 

Friday

            Yesterday, we noted that the law of shemitat kesafim, which cancels debts with the conclusion of the shemita year, does not apply in the case of mashkon – if the lender received collateral from the borrower.  Since the collateral could be kept in lieu of the debt’s repayment if the borrower fails to repay the loan, the loan is considered to have already been repaid.  As such, it is not outstanding and thus does not fall under the law of shemitat kesafim.

            Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Minchat Shelomo, vol. 3, 132:19:4) considers applying this rule to the contemporary issue surrounding the status of a check which has yet to be deposited.  If the borrower gave the lender at the time of the loan a post-dated check, with the date being the time the loan was due, would this be halakhically equivalent to a loan given on collateral?  Rav Shlomo Zalman noted that the two cases indeed appear to be similar, as in the case of the post-dated check, too, the lender essentially has the payment in his possession.  As such, even if the check is not deposited before Rosh Hashanah following shemita, it may be deposited afterward, as the loan is unaffected by the end of the shemita year.

            Rav Asher Weiss, however, suggests a possible distinction between the two cases.  When a lender receives an item as collateral, the item is an object of value and thus the lender is viewed as having effectively received payment.  In the case of a check, however, the lender must deposit or cash the check before it can provide any value, and, there is the chance that the borrower will cancel the check or that the check will not clear.  A check in the lender’s hands might therefore not constitute payment the way collateral does.

            Rav Weiss also considers the possibility of equating a check with a pesak Beit Din.  As noted yesterday, if a lender receives an official document from the Beit Din establishing the borrower’s obligation to repay the debt, the debt is as good as paid and thus not subject to shemitat kesafim.  Perhaps such a document might serve as a model for a check, as in both cases one has a legal document affirming his right to the owed sum.  If so, then shemitat kesafim would not affect a loan if the lender had received a check from the borrower, even though it was not deposited before Rosh Hashanah after the shemita year.  However, Rav Weiss suggests that perhaps a formal document from Beit Din is given greater halakhic weight than a check, as Beit Din’s authority affects the status of the debt such that we can consider it paid for all intents and purposes.

            Rav Weiss ultimately concludes that he is inclined to accept Rav Shlomo Zalman’s line of reasoning and allow depositing the check after Rosh Hashanah in such a case, though in practice he recommends writing a Prozbol to circumvent shemitat kesafim altogether.