Parshas Nitzavim-Vayelech – Asking For Life L’maancha

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פרשת נצבים-וילך

In this week’s parsha, Hashem warns the Nation of Israel about the terrible consequences of having been brought into the land of Eretz Yisroel, and then turning away from Hashem to follow in some of the enticing ways of the nations that had inhabited the land for so many years. פן יש בכם איש או אשה או משפחה או שבט אשר פונה לבבו היום מעם השם אלקינו ללכת לעבד את אלהי הגוים ההם – “Perhaps there is among you a man or woman, a family or a tribe, whose heart turns away today from being with Hashem our G-d, to go and serve the gods of those nations” (D’varim 29:17). And Hashem, knowing the subconscious thoughts of men, warns us that even when we will hear these words of warning, there will be some who will imagine in their hearts that all the good of the land will continue forever, and that the curses of Hashem will not reach them . והתברך בלבבו לאמר, שלום יהיה לי – “[The sinner] will think in his heart a blessing of peace to himself, saying, ‘These curses will not come upon me; rather I will continue to enjoy the good land in peace’ ” (ibid. 29:18, and Rashi there). But Hashem warns us that the opposite is true. He will not forgive the sinner, and He will bring destruction upon the land, כמהפכת סדום ועמורה אדמה וצבוים אשר הפך השם באפו ובחמתו – “Like the upheaval of Sodom and Amorrah, Admah and Tzivoyim, which Hashem overturned in His wrath and in His anger” (ibid. 22). Now, in order to understand the important lesson of these pesukim, we will have to study them a bit more.
The land of Eretz Yisroel is a land that is known for its beauty and abundance of material wealth. ארץ זבת חלב ודבש, a land flowing with milk and honey, was not only a literal description of the land, but a symbol for a land that was filled with all forms of good. Luscious and productive fields, beautiful orchards of various fruit, flowing streams of fresh water, and actual rivers of sweet date honey, mixed with fresh goat milk dotted the beautiful land. כי השם אלקיך מביאך אל ארץ טובה, ארץ נחלי מים עינות ותהומות יוצאים בבקעה ובהר. ארץ חטה ושעורה וגפן ותאנה ורימון ארץ זית שמן ודבש. ארץ אשר לא במסכנות תאכל בה לחם, לא תחסר כל בה, ארץ אשר אבניה ברזל ומהרריה תחצב נחושת – “For Hashem your G-d is bringing you to a good land: a land with streams of water, of springs and underground water coming forth in the valley and mountain. A land of wheat, barley, grape, fig and pomegranate; a land of oil-olives and honey. A land where you will eat bread without poverty, you will lack nothing there; a land whose stones are iron and from whose mountains you will mine copper” (ibid. 8: 7-9). And Chazal tell us (Sukkah 35a) that Eretz Yisroel “lacked nothing” in the most literal sense. Every sort of condiment and spice was available for the Nation of Israel in Eretz Yisroel.
And yet, paradoxically, in the midst of this most beautiful land on earth, was found one of the most desolate and seemingly G-d forsaken places on the earth. Only a few hundred years before the Nation of Israel was brought into the land, Hashem had wrought a terrible destruction upon Sodom in the center of the land – an unusual destruction of sulphur and fire raining down upon a land that had once thereto been כלה משקה… כגן השם – “entirely watered…like the garden of Hashem” (Berishis 13:10).
Now, many towns, cities and even countries have been destroyed by war, famine and “natural” disasters in the history of the world. And yet, the cities and countries are not left desolate forever. Time passes and new nations, new cultures, and new cities arise from the ashes of the destruction. Time and rebuilding heals the wounds of destruction, and life flourishes again.
However, the destruction of Sodom, Ammorah and their sister-cities are a seemingly queer exception to this rule. They were destroyed in such a manner as to preclude such a rebuilding. The sulphur and fire were meant to desolate the area in the center of Eretz Yisroel so that it should remain a permanent monument of destruction. גפרית ומלח שריפה כל ארצה לא תזרע ולא תצמיח ולא יעלה בה כל עשב – “Sulphur and salt, a conflagration of its entire land; it cannot be sown and it cannot sprout, and no grass shall rise up on it again” (D’varim 29:22). Why would Hashem bring forth a destruction of permanence, specifically in the land that “lacked nothing,” the land that was set aside for His beloved children?
Now, in order to understand the answer to this question, we will first have to understand the significance of Hashem giving us a land of luscious goodness, a land that literally flowed with milk and honey. Hashem promised the land of Eretz Yisroel to our Avos because of their perfection in their service to Him. Our Avos and Imahos lived lives of single-minded dedication to הקדוש ברוך הוא. The Rambam says (Moreh Nevuchim 3:51) that the sole intention of the Avos, the goal they lived for, was להעמיד אומה העובדת את השם, to raise up a nation that would be dedicated to the service of Hashem.
“The Avos came close to Hashem in such a manner, that because of them, the name of Hashem became known in the world… and their minds were exclusively filled with thoughts of Hashem” (ibid.). Our forefathers recognized their sole purpose in this world, and they therefore were devoted to using everything they had in this world as opportunities to live lives of complete dedication to Hashem.
And as reward for their virtuous living and their super-human efforts in establishing the foundation for the future עם ישראל, the great nation of עובדי השם and the greatest nation the world ever beheld, Hashem rewarded them with the greatest land that the world ever beheld. The most perfect land for the most perfect people. It was a land above all others, not only in a spiritual sense, but in a most physical and base sense as well. The nation of עובדי השם were rewarded with the great reward of a great land.
However, this answer is not so simple. The one nation in the world, the children of Hashem, who were created to live on a completely spiritual plane, should be far removed from the pleasures of flowing milk and honey, and a land that is described with the words לא תחסר כל בה, with nothing lacking at all. The nation that lives a life of virtuous dedication to Hashem and His Torah, the Nation that desires closeness to Hashem as its highest desire, wouldn’t be satisfied by a reward of a fruitful land and flowing rivers. Milk and honey, representative of the material pleasures of life, wouldn’t be a reward for the Avos. For the גויי הארצות ומשפחות האדמה, “nations of the land and families of the earth” who are connected to the base pleasures of the earth, the land of Eretz Yisroel would be the perfect reward. For the Russians it’s wonderful. What could be better for a Russian or Lithuanian goyim more than another bottle of vodka? If you would tell a Lithuanian goy that he will have an ארץ זבת חלב ודבש and luscious barley and wheat fields for producing vodka and beer, he would be a happy man forever. He’d be in Olam Habah in this world! He’s a man of the earth. Material pleasures are the perfect reward for the nations of the world. But for the Avos and their descendants, the only reward possible would be the closeness to Hashem in the Next World. What does a land of material pleasures have to do with the nation that desires to be close to Hashem?
And actually this is a question that is pertinent to more than just the reward of Eretz Yisroel given to the Avos. The Rambam in his Hilchos Teshuva (9:1) asks a question that many before him had inquired about. We the עם ישראל are of clear belief that all of our toil in the service of Hashem in this world, will be rewarded by Hashem in the only world where it will be possible for us to receive our true and befitting reward – the World to Come. It is only after our deaths, that we will receive our eternal reward. And yet, when the Torah promises us rewards for our proper service of Hashem, we are guaranteed physical rewards in this world. והיה אם שמוע תשמעו אל מצוותי… ונתתי מטר ארצכם. Plentiful food, and peace in the land. Good health and long happy lives. Riches and many children. No troubles from the gentile nations and control of our own land. All rewards in this world! But we know that שכר מצוה בהאי עלמא ליכא, even one solitary mitzvah is too big, too valuable, to be rewarded in this world. And yet, the Torah only mentions rewards in this world, with nary a mention of the true rewards which we know will come in the World to Come?!
And the Rambam answers as follows. There is no question that the reward of this world is nothing. Nothing at all. Our reward can only be the reward of עולם הבא. However, our place in עולם הבא depends solely on our ability to live in עולם הזה and do mitzvos. And if one can not dedicate himself fully to the service of Hashem because of famine, sickness, war, or any other distractions, then those troubles become the worst problem for him, because they impede his service of Hashem. The troubles that he is busy with, make the full-hearted dedication to Hashem difficult. And therefore, for the person who wants to serve Hashem with the very fiber of his being, these rewards that Hashem promises us in this world, are the most precious gifts.
And therefore, Hashem promises us that if we do the רצון השם, He will provide us with the reward of long healthy lives, peaceful circumstances, and abundance of parnasa. And the purpose of all these benefits is to provide us with the opportunity for greater service of Him. Chazal tell us that שכר מצוה מצוה – “The reward for a mitzvah is the opportunity to do another mitzvah” (Avos 4:2). That’s our greatest reward in this world – the opportunities that Hashem provides us to continue serving Him.
I’ll tell you a mashal that I’ve told you many times before, but it’s important so I’ll repeat it again. When your boss installs a water cooler in the office for all of his employees to use, do you think his intention is to reward your good work with cold water. True, he might be happy to have you enjoy the water, but that’s not his intention. What he wants, is better workers. He made a calculation that everyone would be more productive if they had refreshing water to drink during the day. A refreshed worker is a better worker. And instead of running out to the corner grocery to buy a bottle of water, in the middle of work, now the employees have more time to accomplish. And that’s what all of the good in this world is meant for. It’s the water cooler in the office, that Hashem is providing.
And now you understand why the land of milk and honey, the land of לא תחסר כל בה, the land that lacks nothing, is the reward that Hashem promised the Avos for their dedication to serving Him. Eretz Yisroel is a land of the greatest opportunity because if used properly, it is the key to attaining more and more עולם הבא. And that is the greatest gift possible in this world. Dovid Hamelech told us ויתן להם ארצות גוים ועמל לאמים יירשו – Hashem gave to the בני ישראל the lands of the nations, and they inherited the efforts that the nations had put in to building up Eretz Yisroel. And why? Why the gift of Eretz Yisroel? בעבור ישמרו חקיו ותורתיו ינצרו – In order that the בני ישראל should find a land of endless opportunities to keep His Torah and serve Him. And therefore, the gift of Eretz Yisroel was given to us, and only us, because we are the one nation on this earth that will use the gifts of this world to serve Hashem and prepare for the Next World. Eretz Yisroel is not merely a random reward. No; the sole purpose of the benefits of this world, is to help you come closer to Hashem, and thereby achieve your purpose in life. And therefore, our Avos whose sole desire was להעמיד אומה עובדת את השם, to establish a nation that would forever use the benefits of this word to serve Hashem, were promised a land of opportunities.
And now we come to Sodom. In the midst of this most beautiful land, a land more luscious than all others, lay a most desolate land. “Sulphur and salt, a conflagration in all the land. It shall not be sown, it shall not sprout, nor shall any grass grow.” This land of Sodom was made desolate and deserted, unable to produce vegetation or produce of any kind, by the raining down of sulphur and salt and probably other materials as well. Subjected to the heat of fire, as well as the abundant supply of minerals raining down, the land and all living material upon it, fossilized at a much greater rate than normal. The Hand of Hashem turned the גן השם, a land that was more beautiful than the most beautiful areas of Mitzraim, into a wasteland. And not only was it a wasteland, but it remained a place of desolation, in the midst of an otherwise beautiful land.
But why? Why would Hashem choose Eretz Yisroel, a land that was intended to provide us with all the physical amenities needed to serve Him, as the place to establish this wasteland? And the answer is the following: The excavations at Ebla have demonstrated that the cities of Sodom were the thriving commercial centers of the time that engaged in commerce and were wealthy because of the fertility of the land. Their affluence was well-known in the ancient world. And yet, it didn’t last too long. And that’s because the people of Sodom never learned this principle of the Rambam. They didn’t understand, or didn’t want to understand, the purpose of all of their success. The wealth they enjoyed, as among all the nations, brought them to selfishness, decadence, and eventually destruction. The Sodomites practiced various forms of wicked behavior and abominations, with the purpose of discouraging any help to wayfarers and those in need. They didn’t understand that the purpose of all their abundance was for the purpose of becoming better people. הנה זה היה עון סדום אחותך גאון שבעת לחם ושלות השקט היה לה ולבנותיה ויד עני ואביון לא החזיקה – “Behold, this was the inquity of your sister Sodom: pride, fullness of bread, and careless ease was there and in her daughter-towns, and she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and needy” (Yechezkel 16:49). A people that take the overwhelming blessing of material goods, meant for encouragement in the service of Hashem, and use it instead in the disservice of Hashem, are a people worthy of destruction.
And there would be no better place than Eretz Yisroel to “build” this eternal monument of the destruction of Sodom, as a lesson for us. Everyone knew the history of Sodom. The land of Sodom and its four sister cities, had been a land of beauty and bounty. And yet, it was overturned in an instant. And this once beautiful “garden of Hashem,” was now standing as an empty and desolate area of dry and arid land. And it would remain that way forever in the midst of the beautiful land of Eretz Yisroel, as a terrible warning for our nation. The empty desolation would forever be a constant warning for us against the misuse of the material benefits provided by Hashem. It must be understood that Sodom was the antithesis of Avraham Avinu. Avraham preached and lived the doctrine of hospitality to wayfarers, because he understood that all the material benefits given to him, were given for the express purpose of bringing himself and others closer to Hashem. But the people of Sodom, lost sight of the intended purpose of all their material benefits. And they therefore lived lives steeped in עולם הזה pleasures. Material goods were given to them, so that they could enjoy life, they believed. And they lived their lives accordingly. They persecuted wayfarers and outlawed any display of kindness to them. And because they negated all of these truths that Avraham taught, in the land that was given to Avraham and his children for the specific purpose of using its material benefits in the service of Hashem, they were therefore set aside for destruction. Hashem designated the desolate land of Sodom to be for us an object lesson and a warning forever.
And that brings us to an understanding of the p’sukim in our parsha, that we quoted in the beginning of our talk tonight. “Perhaps there is among you a man or a woman, a family or a tribe, whose heart turns away from being with Hashem” (D’varim 29:17). The material pleasures of the land, if not used as Hashem desires from you, will turn you away from Hashem and make you deserving of Hashem’s punishments. “But when [the sinner] hears the words of this curse, he will bless himself in his heart saying, ‘There will be peace for me’ ” (ibid. 18). The man who is living a life of materialism, enjoying all the gifts of Hashem, doesn’t believe that he’s doing anything wrong. He’s taking advantage of the kindness of Hashem. What’s so bad? And therefore he thinks that these curses won’t befall him. והתברך בלבבו לאמר, שלום יהיה לי – “[And the sinner] will think in his heart a blessing of peace upon himself, saying ‘These curses will not come upon me; rather I will continue to enjoy the good land in peace’ ” (ibid. Rashi there).
But Hashem says to this man, “No, no; this posuk is speaking to you! You are missing the whole point of everything that I’ve given you. You’re using the water-cooler for the wrong purpose.” And therefore, גפרית ומלח שריפה כל ארצה לא תזרע ולא תצמח ולא יעלה בה כל עשב כמהפכת סדום ועמרה אדמה וצבוים אשר הפך השם באפו ובחמתו – ” Sulphur and salt, a conflagration in all the land, nothing will be planted and nothing will grow, and not even grass will sprout; [you will suffer just like] the overturning of Sodom on the day that Hashem overturned the city in His wrath and His fury” (ibid. 22). Hashem is warning us here that all of the benefits He provides us with, are only beneficial if used to further our service to Hashem. And therefore, if not used correctly, He will take it all back, as He did to Sodom.
Just as the prophetic catastrophies of the previous parsha, catastrophies of the most fearsome nature, are addressed to us, the most virtuous nation; so too was this terrible example of Sodom given to us, the most righteous nation. In our land, our land of bountiful material gifts beyond imagination, we are chastised with a permanent and perpetual sight that shakes us to the core. A place of desolation and ruin, that came because of the misuse of Hashem’s gifts. Sodom, the place of permanent desolation is found only in Eretz Yisroel and nowhere else. Because we are the nation that strives always for perfection in closeness to Hashem, and we therefore are the ones deserving of Hashem’s warnings and lessons. את אשר יאהב יוכיח. Hashem chastises those whom He loves. Just because we are the best of mankind, we are therefore chastised with warnings more than all others, because we must maintain our excellence. The nations of the world however, lacking the superlative qualities that the children of Hashem possess, are left to deteriorate, and once sufficiently ruined, they are destroyed. But the עם ישראל is too precious in the eyes of Hashem to be left to deteriorate, and therefore the vision of the desolate Sodom stands forever before our eyes.
The story of Sodom is inscribed nowhere other than in our Torah. And thus the sole beneficiaries of the lesson of Sodom are the people of the Torah. In retrospect, we perceive that the most important purpose of the destruction was to provide a lesson for the people of Israel, be it in the Holy Land itself, or through our study of the Holy Torah. And that lesson is recognizing the vital importance of utilizing Hashem’s gifts of life and peace and parnasa and family and so many other endless gifts, for the sole purpose of serving the Benefactor.
Here’s a man, walking in the beautiful land of Eretz Yisroel. He walks past fresh spring water creeks meandering down the hills and through the valley. He sees high growing grain as far as he can see. And he thinks of his olive tree orchard and grapevines that are heavy with fruit. His heart is full of joy. He’s a successful landowner, with much cattle and sheep. A prosperous and satiated man, who has reaped the benefits of the gift of Eretz Yisroel, he is on top of the world. And then suddenly, as he approaches the apex of a hill, he looks down into the valley, and he beholds a most fearful sight. In this land of water springs and bountiful produce, he sees the Sea of Salt, and the ruined land around it. And it hits him between the eyes like a lightning bolt – the danger of using the physical world as an end in itself. He sees the empty and desolate land, and stands in awe of this terrible sight, in the midst of the most beautiful land. And he is reminded, in a most real and tangible way, of the danger of not understanding that all of his prosperity, all of his wealth, his home, his family, his cattle, his fields – all of his everything, were given to him for one purpose only: to encourage him further in his service of Hashem and to give him the tools to continue to serve Hashem in the many varied ways available to him. And if not – if his wealth and health, and all the other benefits showered upon him, will be used for any other purpose, then he is following the path of the Sodimites, who never understood our Rambam. And that path eventually leads to the same destruction and desolation that befell the people of Sodom. Just as the blessed land of milk and honey would always serve as encouragement to continue to use the gifts of Hashem exclusively for the service of Hashem, so too would the permanent desolation of Sodom, stationed in the midst of this land, supply the lesson of the consequences of sinfulness of misusing Hashem’s gifts.
In America today, we are overburdened with good. More than any country in the history of the world, America has led the way in providing its citizens, as well as the rest of the world, with opportunities for enjoying this world. Even the poor people in America are wealthy. I told you already once, that when I returned to America after my years in Slobodka, that was the first time that I saw poor people who were fat. Poor people who had everything they need. In Slobodka, if you were poor, you were actually poor. Here we have peace, we have parnasa, we have food. What don’t we have already?
However, we must always be aware of the danger that is lurking to entrap us. We live among the nations of the world, among people and cultures that are living lives of pure unadulterated materialism. We are surrounded by a decadent culture that values pleasure simply for the sake of pleasure. And it’s affecting us. It has seeped into our beautiful communities. And the danger of that is more than just that we are becoming too materialistic. What it means is that we are abusing the gifts that Hashem is giving us. Hashem provides us with everything that we need so that we can serve Him. And instead, we use what He give us to serve ourselves.
All of the luxuries that we have, must be used for the purpose of serving Hashem. If a person was wise to the reason Hashem is providing him with these benefits, he would be using all of these luxuries for the sake of serving Hashem. He would have the extra time and peace of mind to dedicate his כוחות to growing great in the service of Hashem. Everybody needs time alone to think about improving himself and coming close to Hashem. There’s so much to do, so many Torah principles to fill your mind. But instead, we’re taking the luxuries of this world, and using them to get more and more involved in this world. Exactly like the people of Sodom.
And therefore, in Parshas Vayeilech, the second parsha that we lain this week, Hashem warns us to beware of following in the materialistic ways of those around us: כי אביאנו אל האדמה אשר נשבעתי לאבתיו זבת חלב ודבש – “When I bring the nation to the land that I swore to their forefathers, [a land] flowing with milk and honey.” It’s a land that contains all of the material benefits that you will ever need to serve Me. But beware, be very careful, because ואכל ושבע ודשן ופנה אל אלהים אחרים ועבדום ונאצני והפר את בריתי – “You will eat, and be satiated and grow fat, and you will turn to the gods of others and serve them; and you will anger me and annul my covenant” (D’varim 31:20). Be careful, warns Hashem, not to misuse all that I give you, and follow in the ways of Sodom and all of the materialistic nations around you. Because My covenant with you demands that you use everything you have, in order to become a more and more perfect nation. America, not only America but everywhere today, is a land of milk and honey. And we must be on guard not to follow in the ways of the nations who eat to satiation, grow fat in all the pleasures of this world, and turn to the gods of materialism, self-indulgence and decadence.
You may be able to fool yourselves about how you used your opportunities in this world, but one day you will stand before your Maker, and Him you will not be able to fool. Here’s a man with a long white beard walking down the street with a newspaper under his arm. A newspaper! He’s an old man already. He won’t live forever. So what’s he wasting his time with newspapers?! He wants Hashem to grant him another year of life for what?! So that he should be able to finish the Sunday New York Times?!
Most of you are off on Sundays. So what are you busy with all Sunday?! You’re riding a bike. You’re working in the yard. You’re busy with the Yankees. You’re wasting your life! Pack up lunch in a bag and go to the Yeshiva all day. Be a Kollel man on Sundays. Make use of your time in this world, because that’s the only reason Hashem is giving you time.
We will all spend the coming days asking Hashem to decree upon us health, peace, and the comforts that we so desperately need and desire. But what do we desire it for? What are you going to use it for? We ask Hashem זכרנו לחיים… וכתבנו בספר החיים – “Hashem, please remember us for life, and write us in the Book of Life.” And for what purpose? למענך אלקים חיים – “Do it for Your sake Hashem.” Give us all that we need, not for our sake, but so that we will have all the opportunities needed to grow more perfect in our service of You.
Like a soldier who is inducted into the army, and on his first day he is given a new uniform, strong boots, a rifle and a hearty breakfast. And he thanks his commander for the wonderful gifts. But the commander tells him, “No, no. You’re misunderstanding what’s going on here. These aren’t gifts. These are simply tools for you to serve us. We’re giving you these tools so that you will have the best opportunity to be a loyal and successful soldier. And if you don’t use what we’re giving you to be a an accomplished soldier, then you’re misusing the gifts, and they don’t belong to you.”
And therefore, when you stand before Hashem during these ימים נוראים asking for life – and don’t think it’s so simple; many people who asked last year are now in the cemetery. When you beg Hashem for life, and for all of your needs – peace in the home, shidduchim, parnasa, health, good children – beg למענך השם. “I want everything that I need to serve You, Hashem.” You’re not merely asking for good times. And you’re not just asking for what you need to survive another year – just to pay the bills and have some peace and quiet for another year. Everything you ask for is because you want the tools to serve Hashem better. And if you’re asking Hashem for everything in order to serve Him better, if you mean it sincerely, then that’s how you’re being ממליך Hashem on Rosh Hashana. “Hashem, You are my King, and I want to dedicate everything that You give me for serving You.”
When we spend our lives using the benefits of this world to serve ourselves instead of to serve Hashem, what we are doing is taking these opportunities for gaining Olam Habah, and using them as our compensation for our good deeds. We are exchanging our deserved reward of the Next World for the cheap thrills and pleasures of this world. And there is nothing more sad and pathetic than exchanging your eternal reward in the Next World for a bowl of lentils in this world.
And therefore, when you ask Hashem for another year of prosperity and health for the purpose of serving Him and not yourself, then you have used the lesson of Sodom for the purpose that Hashem intended. Hashem intended that you should keep before your eyes always that vision of the smoldering cities of Sodom, the fire, sulphur and salt that rained down upon the people that didn’t learn the lesson of how to use the gifts of Hashem. And with that vision, and that understanding in your mind, you should call out to Hashem in truth, telling Him with sincerity that this coming year you want to use the gifts that He will provide only to grow greater and greater in His service.
Have a wonderful Shabbos and a כתיבה וחתימה טובה.