Parshas Ki Seitzei – Perfecting the Deeds of Long Ago

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פרשת כי תצא

In this week’s Parsha, Hashem tells us that when we are harvesting our field, we are forbidden from returning to collect a forgotten bundle or to cut some growing stalks that we had accidently accidentally skipped over. כי תקצור קצירך בשדך ושכחת עומר בשדה לא תשוב לקחתו לגר ליתום ולאלמנה יהיה למען יברכך השם אלוקיך בכל מעשה ידך – “When you reap your harvest in your field, and you forget a bundle in the field, you shall not go back to take it; it shall be for the convert, the orphan and the widow, so that Hashem will bless you in all your handiwork” (D’varim 24:19).
This is one of the many agricultural laws that the Torah teaches our newly formed nation, as we begin developing our agrarian society in Eretz Yisroel. Unlike the nations of antiquity, who were at best selfish, and were almost always barbaric, the עם ישראל were being trained by Hashem to be a nation suffused with kindness, a nation whose daily activities, be it in the home or the field, would be founded on acts of kindness and brotherly love.
Now, while all of that is true, there is a hidden lesson in this פסוק, that if understood well, and applied to your daily life, will transform some of the most plain and inconspicuous moments of your life into moments of greatness. And that lesson, unknown to many, is the lesson of בחירה למפרע, the retroactive choosing of good deeds. A person can be standing after the fact, long after the מעשה, and continue to become greater and greater because of that deed from long ago.
A person always has the opportunity to revisit his past, the empty and even worthless deeds of his past, and transform those deeds into deeds of greatness. So let us investigate this “new” עבודה a bit, so that we can learn to apply it to our own lives.
Here we have a man, sweating through a hard work day in the field, who accidentally leaves over a bundle in his field. He would have been more than happy to have collected that bundle as well. He has children to feed, bills to pay, and workers demanding their wages. But what could he do already? Accidents happen, and the Torah forbids him from returning to collect that forgotten bundle. He’s an Orthodox man and he follows the Torah, so he can’t return to take it. Instead, he must leave it in his field for the needy to find and bring home to their own families.
In this פסוק, Hashem is teaching us a very big chiddush, a novel concept that can transform your life. It is a bigger chiddush than you’ll find in some of the best seforim. But like many chiddushim, it will take some explanation, so pay attention well.
The Sifra (12:13) tells us of a merchant who lost a precious coin in the busy marketplace. Now, he wasn’t the least bit excited about his loss. He’ll have to go home now, and face his wife without the goods that she had asked him to purchase in the market. And I’m sure he won’t have an easy time explaining his carelessness to his wife.
Let’s see the exact language of Chazal in the Sifra, and begin to understand this novel idea. The Sifra quotes our פסוק about שכחה, which tells of the blessings that Hashem will bestow on the farmer whose forgotten bundle in the field has been found by the poor man: ושכחת עומר בשדה… לגר ליתום ולאלמנה יהיה למען יברכך השם אלוקיך – “And you forget a bundle in the field…it shall be for the the convert, for the orphan and for the widow, in order that Hashem your G-d shall bless you” (ibid.) And the Sifra makes the following deduction: “You must now say, that if a man has a coin wrapped in his money pouch, and it falls from him, and a poor man finds it and uses it for his sustenance, the Torah here establishes for us, that the one who lost his coin will receive blessings from Hashem.”
Clearly, the man in our story will not benefit from going back to retrace his steps and retrieve his coin. It’s too late. It was surely already picked up by somebody passing through the busy market and he and his family might already be enjoying the supper bought with that coin. And the Sifra teaches us here a new way to understand this פסוק, and a new understanding of the cause of the ברכת השם upon this man. Not only does the Torah shower blessings upon him when he chooses to fulfill the Torah command of לא תשוב לקחתו – “do not return to take [the forgotten bundle],” but even the farmer who knows that there is no use in going back to retrieve it, because it was already taken, can receive those same blessings.
But the question begs to be asked: Why should this man receive any blessing, any reward at all, for what has happened? He didn’t intentionally leave the bundle or the coin for the poor man. And he would have been happy to retrieve them. But he couldn’t. There was no point to going back in any case. It was taken already. So in what sense does this man deserve any reward?! How can a person receive a reward for an action and resulting benefit that seemingly has no connection to him?
And here we come to our topic for tonight. The answer is that your greatness in the eyes of Hashem – and whose eyes do we care about besides those of Hashem – is dependent on your thoughts. It is primarily what is in your mind, that Hashem looks upon, and it is your thoughts that will create your station in the Next World.
Your thoughts of willing consent, of satisfaction and happiness, that your money or grain is benefitting the poor man’s family, is what makes you great. The fact that the עני and his family are now benefiting from your grain has no connection to you at all. His gain was due to no choice of yours. But from the Sifra we are learning that למען יברכך, the blessings you receive from Hashem, are due to your thoughts. It is not the actions of a person that Hashem is primarily concerned about, but his thoughts.
The Sifra is teaching us that the primary test and opportunity for greatness that the farmer faces is not whether or not to leave the grain for the poor man. The choice that Hashem wants from you is solely in your mind.
The forgetting of the bundle in the field, and the accidental dropping of the coin in the market, are completely empty and worthless deeds. But those empty deeds can be transformed with בחירה למפרע.
The bundles that you carelessly and unwillingly left in the field, are transformed into bundles that were intentionally and willingly given to the destitute man and his family. And that can be accomplished only in your thoughts. If the man doesn’t grumble about his forgotten bundle, if he doesn’t complain about the “loafers” and “lazy people” who are now eating his bundle, but instead, he willingly and happily parts with his grain, then he has achieved greatness.
With his mind, he can transform his originally unintentional act of forgetting the bundle into an eternal one. If he would think thoughts of happiness, happily consenting that he was able to give some of his hard-earned parnasa, to those less fortunate than himself, then he has used בחירה למפרע, to achieve greatness.
His retroactive consent to this good deed, has transformative qualities. It transforms the hollow deed into a deed that will gain him eternal reward in the Next World. And it will also transform that person, the one who overcomes the natural laziness of the mind and thinks these thoughts, into someone worthy of the grace of Hashem.
We all understand that we live in this world to be tested. We are being tested all the time, and it is through our בחירה, our choosing that we become successful. But here Hashem is teaching us about a new form of בחירה that we were hereto unfamiliar with. And that is בחירה למפרע, retroactive choosing. When you consent willingly to a good deed, a good deed that took place without your consent, that “choosing” in your mind, is reckoned to your eternal benefit in the Next World.
At first glance, this appears to be a moiredigeh chiddush, an almost unbelievable idea! מאי דהוה הוה! It happened already. It’s in the past. You can’t go back in time. It’s done. But here Hashem is teaching us that we can go back into the past, and become great in the eyes of Hashem, by simply using our minds to transform those long gone deeds.
But the truth is that it is only a chiddush, a novel idea, to us, because we don’t fully understand the concept of בחירה. We think that we will be rewarded and punished for the results of our actions, for what we accomplished or didn’t accomplish. But that is not true. A person will be judged primarily based on the thoughts that play out in his mind.
The intensity and purity of a person’s will, are what will make him a success. Whether or not his intent will come to fruition is completely in the hands of Hashem.
Sometimes Hashem permits a good intention to come to fruition as a reward for the good intent. And sometimes Hashem will thwart the person’s intent, because the intender is being chastised for some reason. And of course there are many more חשבונות, an infinite number of details, that Hashem takes into account, before he allows your intent to be translated into action.
Could one even think for a moment that Ploni can harm Almoni, if Hashem has not so decreed? And if we see that he does do harm to Almoni, then it is surely Hashem’s will. And if he was for some reason not able to fulfill his intention and harm him, then that also was surely the will of Hashem.
And if so, where does the בחירה of a person play any sort of role?! And the answer is, that a person is not punished or rewarded for the outcome resulting from his act, but for the choice that he made. The choice in his mind is what determines his reward in the Next World.
Your thoughts – your active intellect, your subconscious thoughts, and all the other hidden thoughts and pictures in your mind, are like clay in your hands for you to mold into something great. And it is those thoughts and pictures that will accompany you into the Next World.
We learn this important principle in this week’s Parsha as well. כי תבנה בית חדש ועשית מעקה לגגך כי יפול הנופל ממנו ולא תשים דמים בביתך – “When you build a new home, you must make a fence for your roof. And you shall not place [the spilling of innocent] blood in your home, because the faller will fall from the roof” (ibid. 22:8).
These last few words seem somewhat strange. “The faller will fall.” Why the words “the faller will fall” instead of the more simple “he will fall”? And the Sifri tells us that these words of Hashem are hinting at the above mentioned principle of our בחירה being only in our thoughts, but not in the ensuing results of our actions.
Because even your actions do not actually have consequences, rather it is the will of Hashem that will determine the result in any case. “He is destined to fall, but an evil thing is brought about by means of an evil man” (Sifri, ibid.). He is “the faller” because he was destined to be “the faller” whether or not this homeowner had built the protective fence. And if “he is destined to fall” in any case, then a person cannot be punished for the results of his thoughts, plans and actions, because the actual results are decreed by Hashem only. The Torah teaches us here, that our בחירה, the free-will we have, that gives us the potential for greatness, is not, as superficially perceived, to be seen in the results that play out. Men are never given the power to do anything not decreed by Hashem. Men can merely choose between right and wrong, and they are rewarded for their free-will choice.
What we are learning now, is that the all-important principle of Free-will, for which the entire material world was made, functions only in the realm of the mind. Even the slightest thought of Man is more important than the greatest upheavals of Nature. Your mind is where your greatness is taking place, or חס ושלום, where your shortcomings and failings are occurring.
Once we understand that the greatness of Man in Hashem’s eyes is in his thoughts, then it is understandable why one can achieve greatness with בחירה למפרע as well.
Since your service of Hashem is actually taking place primarily in your thoughts, then you should certainly be able to understand the chiddush of the Sifra, which teaches us that you have the capacity to go back to the past events of your life, and by use of your thoughts, transform these events and thereby transform your future in עולם הבא.
Actions, and the results of our actions, which we had always perceived as the עיקר, as the primary function of our lives have now been relegated to the back burner. And it is the מחשבות, the thoughts, that are nourished and developed in your mind that are your primary function in this world. And therefore, even thoughts pertaining to an action that has already occurred, become a valuable part of your service of Hashem.
And there are other places spread out among the words of Chazal, that should make clear to us, the wide-ranging power of your thoughts, as well as the power of your thoughts to recreate your past. Let us see one of them: The Gemara in Kiddushin (40b) tells us the following: רבי שמעון בן יוחי אומר, אפילו צדיק גמור כל ימיו, ומרד באחרונה, איבד את הראשונות – “R’ Shimon bar Yochai says: Even if one was an absolutely righteous man all his life, but then he rebelled against G-d in the last moments of his life, he has lost all of his earlier good deeds [and he is judged as a completely wicked person].” And the Gemara asks: Could it be that an act of rebellion at the end of one’s life, has the ability to wipe away a hundred and twenty years of Torah, mitzvos, and acts of kindness?! And Chazal answer: בתוהא על הראשונות- We are discussing a person who in his final moments regrets all of his previous meritorious deeds that he performed during his life. And these thoughts of regret in the final moments of his life, erase a whole lifetime of service of Hashem. All gone, because of his thoughts at the end. He enters into the Next World empty-handed.
A most shocking answer! Here’s a man. A man who spent all his life in the service of Hashem. Working, doing, learning, and serving Hashem with all that he has. And then in one moment of weakness of the mind, it is all gone. איבד את הראשונות! Everything that he has done throughout his entire life has disappeared into thin air! And because of what?! בתוהא על הראשונות. In his mind, he regretted his previous good deeds.
His thoughts are so powerful, that they can uproot a lifetime of dedicated service of Hashem. With a wrong thought you can uproot a long life of hard work. And that’s because it is only your mind that will be presented before Hashem on the day that you leave this world. And if your mind is תוהא על הראשונות before you leave this world, then you will stand before Hashem with a mind that has been separated from all of your good deeds. It is your thoughts that create who you are.
And we have said here more than once, that מדה טובה מרובה ממדת פורעניות. Hashem’s trait of goodness is much stronger than His trait of punishment (Sotah 11a). And therefore, if a person can erase his good deeds with thoughts of regret, then he surely can recreate his empty deeds by infusing them with thoughts of willing consent.
And this new principle of בחירה למפרע, the ability to use your mind, your thoughts, to go back in time and create greatness, opens up for us endless opportunities in our day to day life. The same way you can be תוהא על הראשונות and erase your good deeds, you can also be תוהא על הראשונות and recreate your empty deeds of the past.
It is not only the farmer and the merchant who have this opportunity for greatness. It is you as well. Our lives, our days, are filled with opportunities for בחירה למפרע. If you put your mind to it, you will discover endless opportunities for revisiting your past and making your past great. Instead, most of you struggle through life, wondering how you can become great in Hashem’s eyes, when your opportunity is right up here, in your own mind. You don’t have to write ספרים to become great.
And some of us are so busy with life, and we sometimes find ourselves in situations where we are not capable of creating new deeds in the service of Hashem. But the truth is that your past deeds can be a source of continuous greatness, if you learn to use this עבודה of בחירה למפרע.
Every בן ישראל who was circumcised as a little baby, protested bitterly and struggled mightly to resist. Only that he was a mere few days old, and he couldn’t fight his way out of the sandek’s arms. His tiny feet weren’t strong enough to kick at the hands of the מוהל, the one performing the circumcision. If he had been a young man of thirteen, it would have been much more difficult for them to perform the circumcision. A thirteen year old boy can give a strong kick. And in all probability, all the family and friends would show up for the ceremony; and the intended רך הנימול? He’s nowhere to be found. He’s not interested at all. And truthfully, it’s hard to blame him.
Yet later in life, this man can look back at that great day when he entered into the בריתו של אברהם אבינו, and thank Hashem for the privilege of being circumcised. You can stop anytime during the day, and make the בחירה למפרע, the choice to revisit that day, and consent willingly to that great moment in your own personal history.
Don’t be lazy. Say it with your mouth. “I’m so happy that I had the opportunity to join the Jewish Nation on that day. I thank you Hashem for that privilege.” And for this greatness, you won’t have to work too hard to be reminded. You are urged to do so every day in benching.
In the second blessing we say: נודה לך השם אלוקינו… ועל בריתך שחתמת בבשרנו – “We thank you Hashem for the covenant that you have stamped into our flesh. ” This is a glorious opportunity. And if you make use of the opportunity, trust me, you’ll be a head taller than everyone around you.
Why waste such a glorious opportunity?! You’re saying the words anyways. You ate some bread, so you have no choice. So why would you pass over the words with minimal thought – at best?! You should be thinking, “I thank you Hashem that I was זוכה so many years ago to the gift of a ברית מילה. I fully accept, now, as a mature adult, to be בוחר in the mitzvah of מילה.”
When that exciting day of your wedding finally arrived, it was such a בלבול. Such a busy day: the preparations, the hall, the guests, the כיבודים, the placecards, the photographer. It was non-stop. At the end, ברוך השם, everything worked out, and now you’re married. But that great day didn’t work out. You were so busy getting married, you forgot that you were getting married for the sole purpose of serving Hashem. And some of you still haven’t realized that. Before you even knew it, you were walking down to the chuppah. You didn’t realize what you were getting into. And you didn’t take the time to appreciate that you were getting married as another important step in serving Hashem.Yes, the purpose of marriage is so that you’d be able to make something out of yourself.
I know that you might have davened under the chuppah, and maybe even before and after as well, but you didn’t spend the day preparing for the great job of serving Hashem through marriage. And you lost that opportunity to get married לשם שמים, in order to serve Hashem. A once in a lifetime opportunity, I hope, and now it’s too late.
But it’s not too late! Anytime you wish, you can revisit your wedding day, and make it great. When you see your wife or your husband coming down the street towards you, you should remind yourself of the chuppah, and thank Hashem for finding you a shidduch. Think back to the day of the חתונה, and choose retroactively to get married לשם שמים. Say it out loud, “Hashem, I got married to my wife in order to serve you, to become an עבד השם. I married my wife, not because of romance. Not because of her looks. No, I married her because I wanted to build a home and raise a family of עובדי השם.”
Now, don’t let your wife hear you. Let her think that you married her because you were in love with her and her beauty. And of course, you should love her and always be loyal to her. And don’t let your husband hear you say these words. Let him go to his grave thinking that you chose him because he was so charming.
But you can go back in time with your thoughts, and get married to your spouse again, this time לשם שמים. Now you have a family, little children running around with tzitzis and payos. Your girls are preparing to build their own homes of עבודת השם. But you never prepared for this greatness on your wedding day. So go back in time today, and use your thoughts, to make your wedding day, a day of greatness.
A mother spends many long hours in the kitchen over the stove preparing food for her husband and her children. Many hours cleaning the house and doing laundry. And it’s often hard work. But, in her haste and in her laziness of the mind, she doesn’t think about why she’s doing all this work. Just to feed the children, the same way the Irish woman down the block does for her children?!
So make the time to use your mind to revisit those endless hours in the kitchen, and choose retroactively to have been cooking because you want your children to be happy and healthy, so that they can serve Hashem. Your son might already have a long beard and a brood of his own, but it’s not too late for you to go back in time and add thoughts of Hashem to all of those hours.
Think about those hours you spent in the hot kitchen and decide that you were cooking to give your husband the strength to provide for the family and to grow in service of Hashem. And to give your children the strength to spend long hours in the yeshiva. Think these thoughts; “I’m so happy that I spent those hours doing chesed for my family, the children of Hashem, and creating a family of servants of Hashem.” You have this opportunity to recreate your empty and hollow deeds, and gain eternal זכותים.
Here’s a man who suffers a setback in life. It happens to all of us. He lost his job. A shidduch fell through. His car was stolen. The boiler broke down. Whatever it is, we all know the words of the Mishnah, חייב אדם לברך על הרעה כשם שמברך על הטובה – A person is obligated to bless Hashem for the bad, in the same manner as he blesses Hashem for the good”. And the Gemara asks, what does it mean כשם, “in the same manner”?
And the answer we are given is short and sweet, but so difficult to be מקיים, to fulfill: לקבלינהו בשמחה – “To accept it with happiness” (Brachos 60b). It’s not enough to merely bless Hashem for these “setbacks,” but Hashem requires from us that we thank Him with a לבב שלם, with a full heart; meaning with a mind that is completely at ease and accepting of the will of Hashem. No doubts, no questions. (Rashi ibid.)
Now this is very hard for us simple people. Especially בשעת מעשה, in the heat of the moment. When you just lost your job, or you just arrived at the place where you had parked your car, and now you find the spot empty. Or when the plumber tells you that you’ll need a new boiler. Some tzadikim are able to overcome the נסיון, this test, and accept it with a לבב שלם, but it is difficult for many of us.
But all hope is not lost. The principle of בחירה למפרע is a life-saver for us. It will save you in the life that matters most, the Afterlife. Now, it’s a few hours later. A week later. It could be months or years later. Now, your mind is more settled. Time heals all wounds. Maybe you’ve even realized by now that it wasn’t as bad as you first imagined. And sometimes, it might have even been to your benefit.
Either way, you now have the great opportunity to go back in time to that נסיון by usingבחירה למפרע to become great. “Hashem, I love you. I love you for firing me from my job.” “I love you Hashem for sending that sheigitz to steal my car. I accept with a לב שלם what you were גוזר on me!” “Hashem, I love you for making my boiler take its last breath.” Long after the fact, it’s a bit easier to say. And it is still a greatness.
If you faced any setback throughout your life, and you didn’t fulfill the words of the Mishna, חייב אדם לברך על הרעה כשם שמברך על הטובה, then you can still fulfill it today. That is the great opportunity of בחירה למפרע. You can achieve greatness by revisiting your old deeds, your old situations and tests, and make those moments another step towards perfection.
When you were a young child in yeshiva, it wasn’t always easy to spend those long and sometimes monotonous days in the classroom. Outside the windows you could see the public school bums playing basketball. You also wanted to be out there. But you stayed inside because you had to. You didn’t choose of your own volition to be there. You had no choice. Your mother and father never offered you the choice between your boring Rebbi and the bums in the park. So you stayed. And you listened – sometimes.
And now you look back. You’re a frummeh. You’re raising a family that’s loyal to Hashem. All those years in cheder and yeshiva paid off. But often it was בל כרחך, it was against your will. Hours, maybe years, of learning that you had no desire for. But all hope is not lost. You can be בוחר בטוב, you can choose good, even now, many years later.
You can say, “Ribono Shel Olam, I am taking the time right now, many years later, with my own free will, to be happy with all of those hours of sitting in front of my Rebbi.” Where are all those bums now?! Most of them are in jail, and the others are in the cemetery. I’m telling you the truth. That’s where so many of them can be found today!
“And I, ברוך השם, developed into what I am today. I made it!” Don’t be embarrassed. You should say it with your mouth. You can choose to make those long-forgotten moments great, by making use of this wonderful principle of בחירה למפרע.
And when your father hit you so many times. He was trying his best to keep you on the right path. He wasn’t perfect but he was trying. And you despised getting that potch. You weren’t בוחר in that at all. Not at all! But it worked. You’re still around. You learned not to run into the street without looking. ברוך השם you’re still alive. You stopped hanging around with that bum, who would have ruined you, and you were saved. You started listening a little more in Yeshiva and you began to taste the sweetness of Torah. The potches worked. It wasn’t easy then; you weren’t happy. But like the farmer and merchant, you can think back in happiness and thereby gain reward for those deeds that you never wanted.
So go back in time and give your willing consent, and thereby gain the merit of willingly accepting the reprimands of your father. Use your thoughts to go back in time, and remember that day when your mother had to wash out your mouth with soap. You weren’t happy at all. But now, you can choose greatness, by thinking back to that day, and willingly consent to the reprimands of your mother. You’re a grown man now. And, because of your mother you are a decent fellow. You speak with a לשון נקיה, a clean and respectful language. Not like the filthy mouths of the bums in the street. That wicked-tasting soap helped you. So be בוחר, choose to be happy with your mother’s reprimands of many years ago that kept you on the דרך הישר, the straight path.
There are so many mitzvos that you’ve done, that were done with almost no thought at all. Do you even think about how many times you put on your Tefillin and your Tallis by rote, without thinking, and they were worthless, almost worthless acts.
You put on your sheitel every day; you make sure that you’re dressed like a בת ישראל must dress. But you’re too busy to think. Giving the children breakfast, wrapping up their snacks, getting them on the bus. You’re so busy, and you forget to think about what you’re doing. And a mitzvah without thought is almost worthless.
But you can still go back in time, and make all those moments great. But it will take a little bit of work. You have to use your thoughts to retrace your steps. “Hashem, when I put on tefillin this morning, I was doing it because I wanted to express my complete subjugation to You as an עבד השם. I want to serve You all the time. למען תהיה תורת השם בפיך.”
“Hashem, I was in such a rush this morning, when I put on my sheitel. I forgot to think about You. Hashem, I covered my hair because I am Your child, and I have to dress as befits a בת מלך, a daughter of a king. I make sure to be properly dressed because I know that You are always watching me.” Those thoughts, and many others like that, are your ticket to גן עדן.
And so, this single פסוק in our Parsha, that teaches us about the mitzvah of שכחה, opens for us a whole new panorama of service of Hashem. It opens our minds to endless opportunities. Being a true servant of Hashem, and becoming great in His eyes is something that is open to everyone. Even you. It is not specially reserved for those sitting in Yeshiva all day. All of you have the opportunity to grow great in service of Hashem. But it takes some effort, some willingness to remove the shackles of laziness from your minds. And this פסוק is another important lesson of how to do that.
The few examples given above were just that – examples. The opportunities are as endless as the days of your life gone past. It’s so important to realize that Hashem is watching your thoughts. And He is judging you primarily on your thoughts.
So don’t waste all of those “free” moments in your day. Waiting on line in the grocery. Sitting at a red light. Waiting at the bus stop. Walking up a flight of stairs. Use your thoughts whenever you have a moment to think.
You can revisit so many incidents, so many mitzvos, so many setbacks and interactions, and use your בחירה למפרע, your ability to post-facto choose greatness, just as the farmer in the field had his opportunity to do so. And every time you consciously make that retroactive choice, Hashem recognizes that choice of yours, and you are thereby taking another step forward towards perfection in the eyes of Hashem.
Have a wonderful Shabbos