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The Rambam, in Hilkhot Ta’aniyot (5:1), explains the purpose of Tisha B’Av and the other fasts which we observe to commemorate national calamities: “There are days when all Israel fast because of calamities that occurred on them, in order to awaken the hearts to open the paths of repentance…”
The phrase “darkei ha-teshuva” – “paths of repentance” – mentioned here by the Rambam may perhaps refer to his comments earlier in Mishneh Torah, in Hilkhot Teshuva (2:4):
It is among the paths of repentance for the penitent sinner to always cry out to God with weeping and supplications, give charity as much as he can, distance himself greatly from the matter regarding which he sinned, and change his name as if to say, “I am somebody else, and I am not that person who committed those acts.” And he should change all his behavior for the better and to the straight path…
The Rambam describes here a long-term process of repentance, over the course of which a person undergoes a transformation of self, turning into a different person such that no vestige remains of his sinful past. The “paths of repentance” are measures to be taken to ensure permanent, enduring change, and to distance oneself as far as possible from the mistakes which he had made so that he follows the “straight path” from this point onward.
Returning to Hilkhot Ta’aniyot, then, it would seem that the Rambam viewed the fast days as aimed at triggering a long-term process of change. As he writes, the purpose of these occasions is to “open the paths of repentance” – to lead us onto the path described in Hilkhot Teshuva, the path of substantive change and transformation. By fasting and reflecting upon the tragedies that befell our nation on account of our misdeeds, we will, hopefully, be “awakened” and moved to undertake the demanding “darkei ha-teshuva,” and follow the long, difficult road toward self-improvement and spiritual growth.
(Based on an article by Rav Mayer Twersky)
The Gemara in Masekhet Yoma (9b) discusses several differences between the fall of the First Commonwealth at the hands of the Babylonians in 568 BCE, and the fall of the Second Commonwealth after the failed Great Revolt against Rome in 70 CE. One of these differences, the Gemara observes, is that before the destruction of the first Temple, “nitgaleh kitzam” – the end of the exile was foreseen. The prophet Yirmiyahu informed the people before the destruction that the Babylonian exile would endure for only seventy years, after which time the Jews would be allowed to return to Eretz Yisrael and rebuild the Temple and the country. No such prophecy was given before the end of the Second Commonwealth, and to this day we do not know when or how the exile will end. The reason for this distinction, the Gemara explains, is because “Rishonim…nitgaleh avonam…acharonim…lo nitgaleh avonam” (“the first ones – their sin was revealed…the later ones – their sin was not revealed”). Rashi explains this to mean that the people at the time of the first Beit Ha-mikdash committed their sins openly, without trying to hide them, and so the end of their exile was likewise “open” and revealed. The Jews of the Second Temple period, by contrast, sinned clandestinely, thinking they could hide their actions from God, and thus the end of the current exile is similarly “hidden” and concealed.
Rav Moshe Amiel (Derashot El Ami, vol. 3) offers a different explanation. He suggests that during the period of the Second Temple, the Jews committed sins which they mistook for mitzvot. They acted with alleged idealism and zeal, with which they justified criminal and iniquitous behavior. Their sins were not “revealed”; they were concealed beneath a veneer of altruism and piety. This is in contrast to the First Temple period, when the people sinned without any pretense of idealism. They openly acknowledged their betrayal of God and embrace of foreign worship, without making any attempt to reconcile their behavior with Torah. Rav Amiel notes that while it is generally true that “aveira goreret aveira” – one sin leads to another – sins committed under the pretense of altruism are especially dangerous, as they result in the breaking of all barriers and limits. Once a person convinces himself that he pursues a lofty, altruistic goal, he is prepared to violate every rule without compunction, as the idealistic ends justify the criminal means. And thus, the end of the second exile was not revealed. The sins of the Second Temple period were able to snowball because of their “idealistic” flavor, and this is what continues to make these sins so difficult to eliminate.
Rav Amiel notes in this context the Gemara’s more famous comment there in Masekhet Yoma, that the Second Temple was destroyed because of the sin of sin’at chinam – baseless hatred among the people. This sin, Rav Amiel explains, was concealed behind a mask of altruism. The people convinced themselves that they were not only permitted, but obligated, to despise and fight against other factions of Jews who followed a different approach and ideology. The sin’at chinam of the Second Temple period was a sin which was viewed as a mitzva, a grievous malady that was regarded as a sacred mission. And thus it never truly subsided. The scourge of sin’at chinam continues to this day, when, as in the times of Mikdash, many of us consider it a mitzva to malign, insult, and hurt one another in the name of idealism. The first step towards reversing this trend and becoming worthy of redemption is recognizing this sin for what it is, and acknowledging that allegedly idealistic hatred is unjustified and only serves the continue to perpetuate the spiritual ills which sent us into our current exile.
In Parashat Vaetchanan (4:30), Moshe foresees the time when Benei Yisrael will be exiled from their land on account of their idolatrous worship, whereupon they will return to God: “In your distress, when all these things will come upon you, at a much later time, you will then return to the Lord your God and heed His voice.”
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 10:2) cites this verse in reference to the wicked king Menashe: “After Menashe worshipped all the pagan deities in the world, and they offered him no help in his time of distress, he said, ‘I remember when my father would read this verse to me in the synagogue: ‘In your distress…you will then return to the Lord your God’.” The Yerushalmi refers here to the story told in Sefer Divrei Hayamim II (33), when King Menashe was taken captive by the Assyrian army. After he had worshipped idols and even ordered that a statue be placed in the Beit Ha-mikdash, ignoring God’s warnings through His prophets, God punished him and his kingdom by allowing the Assyrian army to invade Jerusalem. The verses describe how Menashe, in his distress, turned to God in prayer, and he was answered. He was released from captivity, and upon his return to Jerusalem, he eliminated the idols, restored the Beit Ha-mikdash, and ordered the people to serve God. The Yerushalmi informs us that this process of repentance was inspired by the aforementioned verse in Parashat Vaetchanan, which Menashe’s father, Chizkiyahu, taught him in his youth. In his state of desperation, he recalled learning Moshe’s prediction – or, more accurately, Moshe’s instruction – “In your distress, when all these things will come upon you, at a much later time, you will then return to the Lord your God and heed His voice.” He remembered God’s promise that even after worshipping idols, and even as a last resort, after all else had failed, one can repent and return to God, and earn His compassion and favor. This distant memory inspired Menashe to dramatically shift his direction and return to the service of God, despite his having previously rejected God and embraced pagan worship.
One of the messages that emerge from the Yerushalmi’s account, as noted by Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg in his Yalkut Yehuda, is that words of guidance and inspiration can often take many years before producing the desired effect. Chizkiyahu’s instruction to his young son left an impression that was only manifest decades later, after Menashe had become king of Israel and found himself in captivity. After years of pagan worship, the words of Torah taught to him by his father decades earlier finally moved him to act. We must remember that we can inspire and influence people even if our words will not have any immediate or short-term effect. There might very well come a time down the road in the distant future when, like Menashe, they will be reminded of what they heard or learned and will be prepared to act upon it.
Later in the parasha, we find the first paragraph of the Shema, which includes the command that the words of Torah shall be “al levavekha” – literally, “upon your heart” (6:6). The Kotzker Rebbe famously remarked that the Torah specifically instructs us to place the words of the Torah “upon” our hearts, rather than “in” our hearts. While the ultimate goal must always be for the words to penetrate our hearts and influence our conduct, the Rebbe explained that our hearts are not always receptive to these words, or ready to be affected by them. Therefore, even as the long-term goal must always remain to absorb the words of Torah within our hearts, the short-term goal must be to place the words “upon” our hearts, to have them stored in our memory and consciousness from where they will, hopefully, emerge when we are ready for them.
This is a vital lesson for both our own personal spiritual growth, and our efforts to educate and guide our children and others. This is a lifelong process, and significant changes seldom occur overnight. Our immediate goals for both ourselves and our children must be to make the words of Torah available “al levavekha,” with the confident hope that they will eventually pierce the heart and guide our every step throughout our lives.
The Torah briefly mentions in Parashat Vaetchanan (4:41) that Moshe designated three cities east of the Jordan River as arei miklat – cities of refuge for inadvertent killers. Earlier, toward the end of Sefer Bamidbar (35), God had commanded that three cities be set aside for this purpose east of the Jordan, and here we read that Moshe fulfilled this command before his death.
The Midrash (Devarim Rabba 2) comments regarding Moshe’s involvement in this endeavor, “Oheiv mitzvot lo yisba mitzvot” – “One who loves mitzvot is never satisfied with mitzvot.” Chazal make this remark as a point of contrast to King Shelomo’s observation on Sefer Kohelet (5:9), “Oheiv kesef lo yisba kesef” – “One who loves money is never satisfied with money.” Just as most people can never get enough money to satisfy their materialistic cravings, Moshe could never fulfill enough mitzvot to satisfy his spiritual craving. The Midrash notes that Moshe could have absolved himself of this responsibility by virtue of the fact that the arei miklat would not take effect until after the designation of the three cities of refuge in Canaan, across the Jordan River. Moshe could have reasoned that since the cities east of the river would not function as arei miklat until well after his death (as he knew he would die before Benei Yisrael cross the river), there was no purpose for him to address this need. But Moshe never rested on his laurels and was always actively pursuing new mitzva opportunities, and so he committed himself even to this undertaking – arei miklat – despite the fact that he could have allowed himself an exemption.
Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his Yalkut Yehuda, offers an insight into the Midrash’s comparison between one who “loves money” and one who “loves mitzvot.” A person who does not particularly love money does not exert inordinate amounts of effort to obtain money. He will expend effort only for what he vitally needs, or if he happens to come upon an opportunity for a very large profit. Otherwise, he prefers to relax or engage in more enjoyable activities than work to acquire more money. The “oheiv kesef,” by contrast, is never satisfied and thus never able to relax. He feels compelled to pounce upon every money-making opportunity that presents itself, big or small, and will not reserve his energies exclusively for vital or especially profitable ventures.
The same is true when it comes to mitzvot. If somebody is not especially passionate about mitzvot, he will expend effort only for those mitzvot which he feels are especially important. He will show up for the “big” mitzva events, but will neglect the ordinary, day-to-day religious obligations which Halakha imposes. The “oheiv mitzvot,” however, pounces upon every opportunity. He does not reserve his passion and energy for the “big” mitzvot, for events such as the Yamim Noraim, or for an especially vital chesed opportunity. He seizes every mitzva that comes his way, following the Mishna’s timeless exhortation in Pirkei Avot (2:1), “Exercise care regarding a ‘light’ mitzva just as regarding a ‘serious’ mitzva – for you know not the reward for mitzvot.”
Chazal here urge us to approach mitzvot with the same level of vigor and energy with which most people approach money. Just as the “oheiv kesef” is prepared to work hard for every bit of additional profit, we, who recognize the inestimable value and importance of avodat Hashem, must be prepared to invest effort and hard work into each and every mitzva we can fulfill, and push ourselves to our limits for the sake of every bit of progress in our spiritual growth and service of God.
The Torah in Parashat Vaetchanan (4:2) introduces the prohibition of bal tosif, which forbids adding onto mitzvot, a command which appears again later in Sefer Devarim, in Parashat Re’ei (13:1). Chazal, as cited by Rashi in his commentary (both here and in Parashat Re’ei), interpreted this command as forbidding adding elements onto a mitzva, such as by adding an extra species to the obligation of arba minim on Sukkot, or an extra section to the tefillin. Likewise, the Gemara in Masekhet Rosh Hashanah (28b) comments that a kohen who adds a blessing onto the text of birkat kohanim is in violation of bal tosif, as is a kohen who sprinkles more sacrificial blood on the altar than is required. Similarly, the Gemara there establishes that one who sleeps in the sukka on the night after Sukkot transgresses bal tosif, as he expands the mitzva beyond that which the Torah requires.
The Rambam, in Hilkhot Mamrim (2:9), extends bal tosif to include a different kind of “addition,” namely, adding a new mitzva onto the Torah’s set of laws. He explains that although the Sanhedrin is authorized to legislate new edicts as they feel are necessary for the sake of safeguarding the Torah’s laws, it is forbidden for the Sanhedrin to establish a new law and lend it the status of a Torah law. They are allowed to introduce new edicts as long as they are clearly assigned the status of rabbinic safeguards, and not regarded as Torah commands.
The Vilna Gaon (Aderet Eliyahu) proposes that these two components of the bal tosif prohibition are introduced by the two different verses which mention this command. The command here in Parashat Vaetchanan, the Gaon observes, is formulated in the plural form – “lo tosifu” – and thus addresses the nation as a whole, represented by the Sanhedrin. As such, this verse introduces the prohibition against legislating a new Torah command. In Parashat Re’ei, by contrast, the command of bal tosif is formulated in the singular form – “lo toseif alav” – and the Gaon explains that it is addressed to each individual, forbidding us from adding onto the content of any given mitzva, such as adding a fifth species on Sukkot.
Rav Asher Weiss (Minchat Asher, Parashat Vaetchanan) notes that if we indeed wish to view these two verses as introducing the two different aspects of bal tosif, then it would seem more reasonable to take the opposite approach. The Rambam, in his discussion in Hilkhot Mamrim, cites the verse in Parashat Re’ei – “lo toseif alav” – clearly indicating that he interpreted that verse as introducing the prohibition against adding a new mitzva. Moreover, Rav Weiss notes, in another context, we find that Chazal understood the plural form as directed toward each individual member of the nation, and the singular form as directed specifically toward the Sanhedrin. The Torah in Sefer Vayikra (23:15) issues the command of sefirat ha-omer in the plural form – “u-sfartem lakhem” – and the Gemara (Menachot 65) understood this phrase to mean that each and every individual bears an obligation to count. Later in Sefer Devarim (16:9), the Torah introduces this mitzva in the singular form – “Shiv’a shavuot tispar lakh” – and the Sifrei comments that this establishes a special obligation requiring the Sanhedrin to count the omer. It thus stands to reason that the command in Parashat Vaetchanan – “lo tosifu” – establishes the prohibition against adding requirements onto a mitzva, which applies to each individual, whereas the command in Parashat Re’ei – “lo toseif alav” – speaks specifically to the Sanhedrin and introduces the prohibition against adding an entirely new mitzva.
In the first paragraph of the Shema, which appears in Parashat Vaetchanan, the Torah commands, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” (6:5). The Mishna in Masekhet Berakhot (9:5) famously interprets the command to love God “with all your heart” (“be-khol levavekha”) to mean that we must love God “bi-shnei yetzarekha” – with both our inclinations, that is, both our positive inclination, and our evil inclination. The requirement to love God with our evil inclination likely refers to the need for subordination, to submit to God’s authority even when requires suppressing our natural instincts and drives. We love God with our yetzer ha-ra by resisting our sinful tendencies and overcoming our temptation to violate His word. The question arises, however, as to why the Mishna instructs us to love God with our yetzer tov – our positive instincts. Is this not obvious? Do we need to be told to serve God with our naturally positive tendencies, our innate inclination toward goodness?
Rav Moshe Feinstein explained that oftentimes, we can be misled even by our yetzer ha-tov – our positive inclination. Our innate tendency to do good can occasionally misdirect us and cause us to make incorrect decisions. Not everything which appeals to our sense of goodness is truly good. Any inherently positive quality or tendency – such as compassion, intellectual curiosity, or a thirst for spirituality – can potentially misdirect us. Even when we act out of our innately noble qualities, we must ensure that we are doing the right thing, as determined by Torah law. Serving God with our yetzer ha-tov does not mean allowing our positive instincts to guide us without any thought or discretion. Just as we must subordinate our yetzer ha-ra to the divine will and not allow ourselves to blindly follow our negative instincts, we must likewise subordinate our yetzer ha-tov to the detailed requirements of Halakha, and not allow ourselves to blindly follow the direction which intuitively seems correct.
Parashat Vaetchanan begins with Moshe’s recalling to Benei Yisrael his fervent prayers begging for permission to enter Eretz Yisrael, and God’s denial of his request. Moshe emphasizes that he prayed “ba-eit hi” (“at that time”), referring to the events he had just recounted, namely, the conquest of the lands of Sichon and Og east of the Jordan River, and the allocation of that territory to Reuven, Gad and Menashe. It appears that Moshe’s prayer was prompted by those events. Rashi thus explains that after Moshe lived through what essentially amounted to the first stage of the conquest and settlement of the Land of Israel, he thought that perhaps God was considering reversing His decree forbidding Moshe from entering the land. Seeing what he perceived as a glimmer of hope, he prayed.
Another possibility, perhaps, is that the phrase “ba-eit ha-hi” should not be understood to exclude other times, that Moshe prayed specifically at this point. Moshe may very well have prayed regularly for permission to enter the land, but here he seeks to emphasize that he prayed despite the events he just recounted. Although Benei Yisrael had conquered and begun settling the territory of Sichon and Og, he stilled yearned to cross the Jordan River into Eretz Yisrael. He was not content remaining in the Transjordanian region which became part of the nation’s permanent area of settlement; he wanted to cross into the Land of Israel. Moshe’s intent throughout this first speech of Sefer Devarim is to prevent a repeat of cheit ha-meragelim, to ensure that the people would not be frightened of the wars they would have to wage and thus refuse to enter into the land as they ancestors had. He likely feared that the people might find it unnecessary to go through the trouble and trauma of battle when they could simply remain in Eiver Ha-Yardein along with the three tribes who had settled there. Therefore, Moshe described his pining for Eretz Yisrael, how he longed to enter the land even after the conquest and settlement of the territory of Sichon and Og, emphasizing to the people the privilege they had of settling the Promised Land.
Rav Naftali of Ropshitz (as cited and discussed by Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld) pointed to this verse as possible evidence regarding the controversy that raged among Chassidic communities in his time concerning prayer. Many Chassidic groups advocated delaying prayer past the halakhically prescribed time for the sake of mentally and emotionally preparing oneself for the experience. They felt that it was preferable to waive these restrictions and guidelines in the interest of praying with the proper mindset and feeling. Rav Naftali of Ropshitz disagreed, and argued that one must pray “ba-eit ha-hi” – at the time when prayer is required. The term “ba-eit ha-hi,” he suggested, indicates that prayer should not be delayed. We need to discharge our obligations rather than wait and hope that we might later be in a better frame of mind. If we wait for inspiration and feeling, it might never come, and then we would have forfeited the opportunity altogether.
“Ba-eit ha-hi” thus teaches us that we are to turn to God when we need to, even if we have yet to reach the ideal mental or emotional state for prayer. He wants to hear from us “ba-eit ha-hi,” when prayer is warranted, in whatever condition we are in. We should not delay our prayers, because God is interested in what we have to say “ba-eit ha-hi,” at the time prayer is warranted, even if we have yet to enter the ideal frame of mind.