SALT Parashat Vayelekh 2015/5775

  • Rav David Silverberg



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Motzaei Shabbat

            The Ben Ish Chai (end of Parashat Ki-Tavo) comments that although it is customary to sign a Prozbol declaration at the end of the shemita year to avoid the cancellation of debts, it is advisable to leave at least one debt in place in order to fulfill the mitzva of shemitat kesafim.  Rather than circumvent this mitzva altogether, one should preferably seek to fulfill this mitzva by having at least one, small debt cancelled with the close of the shemita year.

            Rav Asher Weiss disputed this position, arguing that there is no value in leaving a debt in place at the end of shemita.  Firstly, Rav Weiss contends that technically speaking, there is no mitzva to cancel one’s debt, as this occurs automatically with the close of shemita.  Rav Weiss notes that the Torah uses the verb sh.m.t. in describing this law (“shamot kol ba’al masheh yado” – Devarim 15:2), the same verb used in reference to the agricultural aspect of shemita,  the prohibition against tilling the land during the seventh year.  This word means “withdraw,” and thus the law of shemitat kesafim means that one has no rights over loans owed to him, just as he loses rights to till his land.  There is no obligation to waive the loan; the loan becomes automatically cancelled and rendered outside the legal rights of the lender, just as one’s agricultural lands are taken outside his control during shemita.  Thus, one does not actually fulfill any mitzva by entering into such a situation, where he has outstanding loans that are cancelled.  As Rav Weiss explains, shemitat kesafim is a law that applies only “be-di’avad” – if such a situation happens to arise; it does not mean that one should try to place himself in such a situation.

            Rav Weiss adds that there is certainly no value in specifically extending a loan to somebody for the purpose of having the debt cancelled with the conclusion of the shemita year.  After all, a loan given for this purpose is, by definition, a gift, and not a loan.  If the “borrower” did not ask for a loan, but the “lender” gave him money for the expressed purpose of having it annulled, then he has essentially given him a gift.  Rav Weiss contends that in such a case, if the “lender” changes his mind before the end of the shemita year and signs a Prozbol, the “borrower” nevertheless does not have to repay the debt.  Since he received the money only because the other person wanted the “debt” to be cancelled, this essentially constitutes a gift, and he does not have to return the money.  Hence, there is no value in initiating a loan for the purpose of attempting to fulfill the mitzva of shemitat kesafim.


            The Gemara in Masekhet Rosh Hashanah (30a) describes the shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah in Yavneh, at the time when the Sanhedrin was located in that city.  After the ba’al teki’a completed his blowing, the Gemara relates, individuals began blowing their own shofarot, to the point where “one could not hear the sound of his ear.”  The sound was deafening to the point where people could not hear anything else besides the sound of the shofarot

            Rabbenu Chananel and Tosafot explain that many of the people who congregated at the site of the Sanhedrin were unable to hear the sound of the shofar due to the sheer size of the crowd.  Therefore, they blew the shofar themselves afterward in order to fulfill the mitzva.  Tosafot note that those who heard the shofar blowing and thus fulfilled their obligation were forbidden to then blow the shofar afterward, because shofar blowing is permitted on Rosh Hashanah only for the purpose of fulfilling the mitzva.  By contrast, Rav Hai Gaon (Teshuvot Ha-geonim – Sha’arei Teshuva, 65; and cited by the Tur, O.C. 596) understood that these individuals indeed heard the blowing of the ba’al teki’a and fulfilled their obligation.  Nevertheless, he explains, it was customary in those times for some people to blow extra, optional shofar sounds for the purpose of “confounding the Satan,” extending the Sages’ enactment to blow extra shofar sounds beyond that which the Torah requires.

            Rav Yaakov Chaim Fleischman (in Etz Chadash) suggested a symbolic explanation of the Gemara’s description.  The Rambam in Hilkhot Teshuva (3:4) famously comments that the shofar blowing is intended as a symbolic “wakeup call” to arouse us from our spiritual “slumber.”  He writes:

Even though sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a Scriptural decree, it [also] contains an allusion, as if to say: Awaken, those who sleep, from your sleep, and arise, those who slumber, from your slumber; inspect your deeds and perform repentance, and remember your Creator, those who forget the truth amidst the vanities of the time, and waste the entire year in vanity and vacuity which can neither yield benefit or rescue.  Look into yourselves and improve your paths and deeds; let each of you return from his evil way and [from] his improper thoughts.

As we go through life, we are prone to “forgetting the truth amidst the vanities of the time,” wasting our days and nights pursuing vain pleasures, and ignoring our religious responsibilities.  The shofar sound symbolically “awakens” us from this “slumber,” reminding us of what our priorities ought to be and how we should be using our limited time here in this world.

            The shofar blowing in Yavneh, the Gemara tells us, inspired the people to such an extent that “one could not hear the sound of his ear” – meaning, they could not hear anything else.  It “awakened” them so effectively that they were moved to once and for all let go of the “vanities of the time” and “hear” only the shofar, the call to spirituality.  The Gemara’s description alludes to the ultimate goal of the shofar sound – to call our attention away from all the other “noise” in our lives, from all the distractions and lures which consume valuable time and energy which should be used for loftier goals.  The ideal effect of the shofar is that we hear only the call to spiritual growth and nothing else, as we reset our priorities and ensure to focus our attention on those pursuits which truly deserve it.


            Much of the shofarot section of the musaf prayer on Rosh Hashanah deals with the event of Matan Torah, specifically the role played by the shofar at this event.  The question naturally arises as to the specific relevance of Matan Torah to Rosh Hashanah and the mitzva of shofar.  Why do we emphasize on Rosh Hashanah the role of the shofar at Matan Torah?

            We might approach this question by first exploring the reason behind the loud, deafening shofar sound at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given.  The sounding of a horn is a means of calling people’s attention.  Horns are sounded when a king or important dignitary arrives in order to call the people to attention, to announce that everyone in the area should stop what they are doing and focus their minds solely on the king.  Occupying oneself with anything else in the king’s presence would be disrespectful and an affront to the king’s honor, and thus the horn is sounded to draw the people’s attention exclusively to the event.  At Mount Sinai, then, the shofar sound served to ensure that the people could do nothing else at that moment besides focusing on God, who had come to reveal Himself.  The shofar of Sinai was a call to attention and to temporarily suspend all other areas of engagement and focus exclusively on the Almighty.

            This is, in effect, the role of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, too, as the Rambam famously writes in Hilkhot Teshuva (3:4):

Even though sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a Scriptural decree, it [also] contains an allusion, as if to say: Awaken, those who sleep, from your sleep, and arise, those who slumber, from your slumber; inspect your deeds and perform repentance, and remember your Creator, those who forget the truth amidst the vanities of the time, and waste the entire year in vanity and vacuity which can neither yield benefit or rescue.  Look into yourselves and improve your paths and deeds; let each of you return from his evil way and [from] his improper thoughts.

Over the course of the year, we tend to get caught up in our mundane pursuits and engage in “the vanities of the time” which leave no room for God and spiritual growth.  The shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a loud, resounding call to attention.  The shofar is meant to pull us away from the “vanity and vacuity” with which we are occupied and to once and for all focus our attention exclusively on the King of kings.  The “allusion” of the shofar is that we must drop what we’re doing, and reflect upon the fact that we are servants and subjects of the Master of the world upon whom we depend for our very existence and to whom we are accountable.

            This might very well be the point of connection between the shofar of Sinai and the shofar of Rosh Hashanah.  The shofar rattles us out of our state of complacency by drawing our attention to God, reminding us that there is a loftier purpose to which we must strive – just as the shofar at Sinai was sounded to draw the people’s attention toward God’s presence on the mountain.  On the day when we celebrate God’s kingship, the shofar is sounded to draw our minds away from everything else we’re doing and to call on us to redirect our focus and energies towards more meaningful pursuits.


            The Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah is the story of akeidat Yitzchak, an event which is, indeed, among the prominent themes of this Yom Tov.  In our prayers, we seek to invoke the merit of Avraham’s unbridled allegiance to God which extended to the point of being prepared to sacrifice his own son, and we recall as well God’s promise to Avraham after telling him to lay down his sword.  Appropriately, we read this story as our congregational Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah.

            Interestingly, however, the reading does not end with the conclusion of this story.  Rather, it continues through the small section which appears after the akeida narrative which tells that Avraham heard about the birth of his brother’s children and grandchildren.  Avraham’s brother, Nachor, begot eight children from his wife, Milka, and another four from his concubine.  In addition, one of Nachor’s sons, Betuel, had a daughter (Rivka).  We might wonder whether there is any significance to Chazal’s decision to include this section in the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading.  Seemingly, the reading could have ended after the completion of the akeida narrative.  Why do we continue and read about the birth of Nachor’s offspring?

            Some have suggested that hearing about his brother’s good fortune was part of the “test” which Avraham had to overcome.  Avraham waited many years to have a child with Sara, and when he did, he was forced to banish his other son and then nearly had to sacrifice him on an altar.  Meanwhile, his brother, an idol-worshipper, had twelve children without any trouble or delay.  Despite Avraham’s rejection of his pagan past, his sincere acts of kindness, and his consistent devotion to God, his life was difficult and turbulent, while his idolatrous brother enjoyed comfort and success.

            This, perhaps, is the point of connection between this brief section and Rosh Hashanah.  On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate God’s kingship.  As we reaffirm our acceptance of God as king, we are both frightened and joyous – frightened by the notion that we are being judged by the omnipotent King, and joyous over the privilege we have to be His subjects.  In order to truly celebrate this event, we must remind ourselves that serving God is the greatest privilege and should be the greatest source of gratification, even if we do not immediately see the rewards.  Often, we, like Avraham, look around us and see the “Nachors” around us enjoying comfort and prosperity while we, despite – or because of – our religious devotion, struggle.  The Rosh Hashanah celebration reminds us to rejoice in our status as God’s servants, even if this status does not outwardly appear to provide us with tangible benefits.  Even if we endure hardships and difficulties as we strive to serve our Creator, we must nevertheless cherish this privilege and never envy those who do not serve God and enjoy good fortune.


            One of the verses recited in our Selichot prayers comes from the first chapter of Sefer Yeshayahu (verse 18): “Come, let us reach an understanding – said the Lord.  If your sins are like crimson, they can turn white like snow; if they are red like red dye, they can be like wool.”

            Yeshayahu here employs two different metaphors for the redness of sin, and two for the whiteness of purity.  The symbols of red are “shanim” and “tola.”  Metzudat Tziyon comments that “shanim” refers to wool that is dyed red, whereas “tola” is the dye itself.  The prophet tells us that sins resembling red-dyed wool can become white like snow, whereas those depicted as red dye have the ability to turn white like wool.

            Rav Natan Gestetner, in his Le-horot Natan, suggests an explanation for these two different descriptions.  He writes that “shanim,” wool that is dyed red, is intrinsically pure, but is externally red.  This symbol thus refers to those who have slipped and erred, but their misdeeds have not become integral to their inner beings.  Such sinners are capable of becoming “white as snow” – a pure, pristine white.  However, those who are red as tola, who have become intrinsically sinful as a result of their prolonged and intensive involvement in sin, even if they repent, will likely achieve no more than the whiteness of wool, which is commonly considered less pristine than the white of snow.  (Rav Gestetner draws our attention to the first Mishna in Negaim which indicates that Chazal viewed the color of snow as a purer white than that of wool.)  They are able and required to repent, but their repentance will, in all likelihood, achieve only the whiteness of wool, and not the pristine whiteness of snow.

Rav Gestetner adds that this may help explain the beginning of this verse – “Lekhu na ve-nivakhecha.”  The word “nivakhecha,” which comes from the root that generally means “argue,” may refer here to a kind of “negotiation” between us and God.  The prophet here perhaps addresses those who make no effort to repent and improve because they assume it is too late, that they have strayed too far or for too long, and that any progress they make would not amount to anything and would not be accepted by God.  In response, God – speaking through His prophet – invites the people to “negotiate” a “settlement,” assuring them that even if, as they fear, they cannot return to their state of perfection, there is still much they could do to earn His favor.  Even if they are like “tola,” and their very essence has been tainted by sin, they may not despair.  Even if they are unable to become pristinely pure like snow, there is still plenty they can do, and thus despair is unwarranted.

Rav Gestetner proceeds to cite the Chafetz Chaim as explaining this verse by way of an analogy to an aspiring entrepreneur who took a large loan to open a business, figuring he would easily repay the loan from the profits.  But the business never took off, and when the time came to repay the loan, the borrower did not have the funds.  He did whatever he could to avoid the lender, and although his efforts succeeded, the lender caught on to what he was doing.  Finally, the lender came to see him, and he had nowhere to go.  The borrower apologetically explained to the lender that he was avoiding him because he did have the money to return the loan.

“I realized,” the lender said sternly, “but this is not a reason to avoid me.  You should have approached me and openly explained your situation so we could work together to find a mutually beneficial arrangement.”

Even if we do not have the “funds” with which to “pay,” if we feel incapable of correcting all our faults and being the kind of people we want to be, this is no excuse to “avoid” God and the entire enterprise of teshuva.  God calls to us, “Lekhu na ve-nivakhecha.”  He invites us to “negotiate,” assuring us that He wants to work with us as long as are sincerely committed to “paying” what we can.

Most of us find it unrealistic to think that we can emerge from the Yamim Nora’im with all our faults corrected and all our vices eliminated.  And we might be right.  However, this does not excuse us from making an effort.  Even if we cannot become “white as snow,” we can and must still strive to become “white as wool” – or at least as “white” as we can be, even if this means being less “black” that we currently are.  Our process of teshuva must not be perceived as an “all or nothing” enterprise.  As long as we make a sincere effort and do our best, we have succeeded, advancing one step at a time and inching ever closer to our desired state of pristine “whiteness.”


            Yesterday, we discussed the imagery employed by Yeshayahu (1:18) in one of the verses cited in our Selichot prayers: “Come, let us reach an understanding – said the Lord.  If your sins are like crimson, they can turn white like snow; if they are red like red dye, they can be like wool.”  The prophet compares sin to both “shanim” (crimson) and “tola” (red dye), and a number of commentators explain that “shanim” refers to material colored with dye, while “tola” denotes the dye itself.  The prophet offers those who are red as “shanim” the opportunity to become white as snow – the symbol of pure, pristine white – whereas those resembling “tola” are not likely to become whiter than wool. 

            A slight variation of this approach to the verse is suggested by Rav Azriel Kushelevsky, in his Ein Tzofim commentary to the haftarot (Parashat Devarim).  This verse follows a section in which Yeshayahu addresses the nation’s leaders (“Hear the word of the Lord, O officers of Sedom…” – 1:10).  Accordingly, we might assume that in this verse, too, the prophet addresses the leaders, in which case the two images might correspond to the leaders and the masses.  Just as crimson dye colors material, similarly, influential people have the ability to “color” and taint the people under their sphere of influence.  Yeshayahu here warns that while the people will be able to overcome their sinful past and become “white as snow,” the leaders who are responsible for the people’s spiritual failings cannot expect to achieve this level of purity even after repentance.  Causing others to stumble and err is especially grievous, and therefore the corrupt leaders’ culpability is qualitatively greater than that of the masses.  As such, although even they have the opportunity to repent and earn atonement for their wrongdoing, they are not likely able to restore their state of pristine purity as other sinners are capable of doing.

            A sinner who repents has the capacity to erase the effects of the sin on his personality and character and thereby regain his original state of purity.  However, when one influences others to sin, it is all but impossible to reverse the effects of his wrongdoing.  The impact of his negative influence endures even after he has undergone repentance and change, and will continue to taint his record even as he continues to grow and improve.  Thus, although even this person is able to achieve atonement, he can reach the level of “wool,” but not “snow.”

            This interpretation of the verse should perhaps remind us of the long-lasting, and sometimes indelible, effects of influence.  The impact we have on the people around us can profoundly affect their character and behavior for many years to come.  Even if we are not formally leaders, we all, to one extent or another, exert influence on other people, and we must always to try to ensure that this influence is positive and helps inspire and motivate the people around us to act as they should.


            The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 532) tells that Benei Yisrael turned to God and asked, “If we repent, who will testify about us?”  God’s response, the Midrash continues, is that He Himself will testify to our repentance, as alluded to in the verse in Sefer Hoshea (14:2), “Shuva Yisrael ad Hashem Elokekha” – “Return, O Israel, unto the Lord your God.”  The word “ad” (“unto”) can be read as “eid” – “witness” – and thus points to God’s role of “testifying” to our teshuva.

            Why do we need God to “testify” about our repentance, and what did Chazal have in mind by transforming the word “ad” to “eid”?

            It appears that Chazal viewed the phrase “ad Hashem Elokekha” as emphasizing the deeply private and personal quality of genuine repentance.  Often, change and growth is subtle and outwardly indiscernible.  Not always do the people in our lives notice when we undergo a process of change.  This could easily cause us to question the value of our teshuva, given our natural tendency to assess ourselves based on how we think others perceive us.  If it appears that the people in our lives do not notice anything different about us, we might assume that we have not truly changed.  The Midrash reminds us that the goal of teshuva is for us to return “ad Hashem Elokekha” – to the way God wants us to be, not to the way other people want us to be.  This process is between us and God; it does not matter what other people see or think.  Even if nobody else can “testify” to our repentance, even if we’ve taken small steps to improve which nobody around us notices, this qualifies as teshuva because God “testifies” to our change.  The goal of repentance must be not to impress or please other people, but rather to work towards returning “unto the Lord your God,” strengthening and enhancing our relationship with the Almighty.  His “testimony” about our sincerity and our genuine efforts to grow and improve is sufficient to verify the immense value of these efforts, regardless of whether they impress or catch the attention of other people.