(HaRav HaGaon Rav Yaakov Sasson Shlit”a)
(translated by our dear friend Rav Daniel Levy Shlit”a, Leeds UK)
We are Required to Utilise our Talents and Abilities and not Compare Ourselves to Other People’s Strengths
It states in the Parshah, “Today, you are all standing before Hashem your G-d - your leaders, your tribal chiefs, your elders, your law enforcers, every Israelite man, your children, your women, and the converts in your camp - even your woodchoppers and water drawers” (Devarim 29:9).
Our chachamim explain (Megilla 31b), Ezra established for Am Yisrael that they should read the curses in Mishneh Torah [another name for the book of Devarim] before Rosh Hashanah, so that “the year and its curses should end”. This means that Ezra instituted that Parashat Ki Tavo be read as it was last week, so that the year and its curses should end. The Tosafists asks if so then why don’t we read Ki Tavo literally prior to Rosh Hashanah, since Parashat Nitzavim is always inevitably the Parashah that is actually read prior to Rosh Hashanah? The Tosafists explain that this is because we want to read Nitzavim prior to Rosh Hashanah since it has no curses and we don’t want the actual curses to be juxtaposed to Rosh Hashanah.
Despite this [the Tosafists’ reason], we do find in the words of our chachamim, that there is a connection between Nitzavim and Rosh Hashanah and that Nitzavim is more than just a barrier between Ki Tavo and Rosh Hashanah. As they stated in the Midrash (Tanchumah), Chizkiyah the son of Rebbi Chiyya said, Why is Nitzavim placed next to the curses? Because when Am Yisrael heard the 98 curses which are stated in Parashat Ki Tavo, their faces turned green. They said to Moshe Rabbeinu, “Who may withstand all these?” Moshe Rabbeinu appeased them and said to them, “Today, you are all standing”, when are you standing? When you will be “all” like one bundle before Hashem Yitbarach, and as the passuk states, “are all alive today” (Devarim 4:4). Generally speaking, if a person takes a bundle of reeds, he cannot break them, but if he takes individual reeds, then even a young child can break it. So you find with Am Yisrael that they won’t be redeemed until they are one united bundle. This is because when Am Yisrael are bound together, they are able to receive the Shechinah [Hashem’s Divine Presence], and no adversary can break them.
This is what is also said in the ensuing pessukim, “your leaders, your tribal chiefs, your elders, your law enforcers, every Israelite man, your children, your women, and the converts in your camp - even your woodchoppers and water drawers”, meaning that when all of Am Yisrael are all found together united, then they may withstand the punishments that are enumerated in Parashat Ki Tavo. Then they may exit their judgement in a state of innocence, both in the Yamim Noraim and in the future.
Rav Yaakov Galinski z”l asks why does it state, “your woodchoppers and water drawers”, surely it would have been more fitting to state, “from your president to your water drawer”, or “from your king to your woodchopper”, so what is the meaning of conclusion of the passuk, “woodchopper” and “water drawer”, since both are at the lower end of standing and the financial ladder?
He explained that the Torah is indicating to us that each and every person has unique qualities and therefore we read this specific Parashah before Rosh Hashanah, because they are a fantastic preparation to the Days of Judgement. Let’s take for example, yeshivah students. Sometimes a yeshivah student may come and say, what am I and what am I achieving in my life? Since my friend has huge talents, he is naturally very diligent in his Torah-study and so he continually grows. But me, where can I go? And so it is with people toiling to make a living. Sometimes a person comes and says what am I and what am I achieving in my life? I have already lived through most of the month of Ellul and I don’t feel any excitement or inspiration, my heart is a heart of stone! And where can I go from here?
The Holy Torah responds to them, “Today, you are all standing”. But Hashem doesn’t demand the same from everyone, there is amongst you a person who draws water and there is amongst you a person who chops wood, but I desire you all! Because it is each one according to his ability, indeed each one according to his very own ability. There are demands from “your heads”, there are demands from “your tribal chiefs”, there are demands from “your elders”, and likewise in this way, from every member of Am Yisrael, there are demands from “your woodchoppers” and there are demands from “your water drawers”, each one according to his ability, each one according to his talents.
It is related that the Gaon Rav Naftali Amsterdam z”l (1832-1916) once turned to his rebbe the Gaon Rav Yisrael Salanter z”l (1809/10-1883) and said, “Rebbe! If I had the talents of the “Sha’agat Aryeh” [Rav Aryeh Leib Ginzburg 1695-1785], and if I had the heart of the “Yesod Veshoresh HaAvodah”,[Rav Alexander Ziskind of Grodno 1739-1794] and the virtues of the honourable rav, then…
But Rav Yisrael quietened him and said, “Naftali! With your head! With your heart! With your virtues!” Meaning, Hashem only desires maximising the capabilities of each person in their personal way. However, it is to be understood that unity is still required between all the disparate parts of our People.
During these days, a person stands and contemplates and in truth really wants to make a complete teshuvah. But he says, in the last year I tried to repent, and in the year prior to that I tried to repent, yet I am still on the same level! What will be of me? Therefore a person should be strong, to sit and think, what aspect can he truly change in his direction of life. If he is able to [which of course he is], he should accept it upon himself not to speak lashon hara, or accept it upon himself not to look at forbidden things, or accept upon himself to study a set amount time of Torah every day. And so in this way, he should resolve with a complete determination, then he will be able to maintain his resolutions. But, G-d-for-bid, that he should give up and perceive that evil has been decreed against him.
“Today, you are all standing”, “all of you”, Hashem desires to see everyone standing before Him. Hashem doesn’t come with unreasonable expectations from people, for He doesn’t wish that the wicked person die, rather that he repent from his path and lives [see Yechezkel 33:11]. Therefore strengthen yourselves and let us strengthen together, and may we merit a Shabbat Shalom, may “the year and its curses end”, and may “the year and its blessings commence”.