The Torah Podcast Transcript
069 The Torah Podcast – Are the Jews Blessed or Cursed? – Pressure and Free Will
Torah Portion of the Week – Reeh
The first verse of this week’s Pasha says like this. “See, I present before you a blessing and a curse.” Rashi says here, the blessing and curses that were given on Har Gerizim and Har Evel.” The verse continues, “The blessing that you listen to the commandments of Hashem your God, that I command you today. And the curse, if you do not listen to the commandments of Hashem your God and you stray from the path that I command you today to follow Gods of others that you did not know.” Rav Noam Elimelech explains in the verse like this. He brings a moshul, an analogy. He says, “If a person God-forbid was very sick for a certain point in his life, he is going to be constantly sensitive to that sickness. He’ll check himself out to make sure that he’s not sick. So too, every man must constantly examine himself every moment to verify that his properly fulfilling the duties and obligations that carry out Hashem’s commandments, to make sure there are no defects awakening in him. And this is the blessing. When you listen to yourself and examine your deeds. And the curse is, if you do not listen.” What does it mean, you do not listen? You don’t pay attention and examine yourself. Then you deserve a curse. The blessing comes when a person introspects. He checks himself out. He does cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of his soul, to make sure he’s going in the right direction.
But the Seforno goes one step further. He says that the possuk starts it with Reeh, see or behold. What does that mean? Look. See that you’re different. Perceive that your affairs as a people have no intermediate nature. It’s going to be extreme, not like the other nations. I set before you a blessing and a curse. It’s either one or the other, and it’s going to be extreme. If you have the blessing, you’ll be on the highest level like in the time of Shlomo haMelech, we had the Temple. And if you have the curse you’re going to be on the lowest level like the Holocaust. So, the situation is extreme and it’s totally up to your free will. And we see this as being true in the history of the Jewish people. They’ve always been in extreme situations, and that’s the way Hashem set us up. There was no middle path by us. Either we’re going to be blessed or we’re going to be cursed.
Rav Henoch Leibowitz, he brings the Midrash Rabba and he’s going to explain why are we in a situation where we’re either blessed or cursed? Why can’t we be like everybody else? The Midrash says that the blessing and the curse promised to Bnai Yisroel if they keep or God-forbid neglect the Torah, were to show us what is right and what is wrong. Rav Leibowitz asks the question, “What do you mean it’s going to show us what’s right or wrong? Tell us what’s right or wrong. Why do we need blessing and curses? Tell us the facts. This is right, and this is wrong. How do the blessings and the curses themselves show us what’s right and wrong?” He answered, “If it wasn’t for these blessing and these curses, we wouldn’t be able to define our obligations in a clear way. We would constantly rationalize to do different things to free ourselves.” He says that even clear cut halachas, laws that are clear, all of a sudden start to disappear with time because people want to be free. They don’t want the obligations of the Torah. They don’t want the Torah telling them what to do. Even if it says clearly what to do, if it wasn’t for the blessings and the curses we would lose our way. We’d rationalize. We’d start to permit things that are forbidden, and we see this happening today. Since we’re on such a level where there’s no yirat shemayim, there’s no fear of God, nobody’s afraid of punishment, nobody believes in reward. All kinds of weird things are happening.
I just heard on the news, they had a whole problem with Walmarts that they’re removing in the children’s section the boys’ section and the girls’ section, putting everything together. All the toys together, and next it’s going to be the clothes. Why? Because of gender neutrality. They find it offensive that a kid is either a boy or a girl. What, they have to be both? It’s absurd. But you see, without yirat shemayim, without fear of God, without reward or without punishment, people go into weird places, start thinking strange things. They’re mixing the genders as if we’re a mix. We’re both. No, we’re either a boy or we’re a girl. But they want to take it to the point where they take out of the shelves the boys’ toys and the girls’ toys all mixed together, and their clothes are also mixed together. It’s absurd, it’s insane. On the news, they were saying that people should complain to them. But just that a person could even come to such an idea is insane. But that comes from not having any fear of God, not realizing that there’s a Creator. God created boys and God created girls. And there are rules. Not everything goes, not everything is you say what you think, what you feel, whatever you want. God created the world, not you.
And another problem that occurs is when people start to lose this idea of reward and punishment, because they start to actually think there’s no such thing as free will which is totally against the Torah. No free will. No free will means no responsibility. And it’s connected with this idea of reward and punishment, because if there’s no reward and punishment, so what’s the big deal, I could do whatever I want. Maybe there is no free will, or maybe there is. As soon as there is reward and punishment, it becomes very clear that there’s free will because how can I possibly be punished for something that I’m not responsible for? This is what the Sefas Emes explains on the verse. It says, “Reeh anochi notein,” “See I present before you the blessing and the curse.” He says there, perush, explanation, “bechira beyad ha’adam,” free will is in the hands of man to choose good or bad. It brings the Kedushei haRim who asks the question, “Why is it that every Jew makes a blessing every morning on the ability for roosters to distinguish between day and night?” That’s the blessing we say every morning. It seems a little bit bizarre. Why do we make a blessing that the rooster can tell the difference between day and night? The Chiddushei haRim wants to explain, “kol she ken,” if a rooster can know the difference between day and night, surely we can know the difference between good and bad. And we have free will. It’s to remind us that we have free will, that not everything is predetermined. A person is put into this world with total responsibility. It’s his choices that make a difference in his life.
Rabbeinu Bachye further explains on this. He says about this verse, “Here it makes plain that the right to choose has been given to man. If he wants to conduct in a manner acceptable to God’s free will, he is there to do so. If he chooses to go against God’s commandments, he can also do that. And he’s not going to be cursed by Hashem, by God.” He says, “God bothers again and again to command us what to do and what not to do. If there was no free will, what would be the point? It doesn’t make any sense.” He brings a raya, a proof from Adam haRishon. Hashem had to take Adam out of the Garden of Eden so that he wouldn’t touch the Tree of Life. Why did He have to take him out? Just make it that he can’t touch it. No, the answer is man has free will to do whatever he wants. If he was in the Garden he would have the ability to touch the Tree, so Hashem had to take him out of the Garden so he wouldn’t use his free will to touch the Tree, to eat from the Tree. He explains, “There is no other creature in the universe that has free will, only man.” It’s unbelievable. The world was created for man, for man to do to the right thing. And the blessings and the curses are going to come through man, if he does the right thing. The question is, now that we have free will, what do we do with it? And to which standard do we have to live with it?
The Ohr haChayim says that the answer to that question is also in the same possuk. The verse said, “See I present before you.” Who’s I? Moshe. He’s saying, “anochi,” me. I’m presenting before you the blessing and the curse. So, the Ohr haChayim explains, in order for a spiritual leader to get people to follow him he needs two things. First of all, he must have a deep understanding of what’s going on in heaven. You have to feel this person knows more than you. Second of all, he has to be a person who’s successful also in this world.” He says, “That’s why Moshe said me, follow me. If the person’s not successful in this world, why will you follow him? Maybe you’ll say he’s saying, ‘Listen, be spiritual.’ Why be spiritual? Because anyway, who can be successful in this world. And I’m not successful in this world, so I decided to be spiritual, so you should also be spiritual.” He’s consoling you with some kind of thing in the future because he can’t be successful now. But no, the verse says, ‘I present you.’ Moshe’s saying, ‘I present before you this day a blessing and a curse.’” What did he mean by that? He said, “I’m the one who became King of Israel. I’m the one who has all the honor and all the glory that you could possibly want in this world.” And he was rich, and he was tall. “And not only that, I’ve been to heaven.” He was up there three times for 40 days. He had both of these qualities, as a leader. He’s telling them, the Ohr haChayim says, “When I say choose right and wrong, don’t use the example of your neighbors. Your standards have to be higher than that. You have to use your free will to reach the heights of a great person, of a person who was successful in this world and the next world, and the spiritual world. And don’t settle for less.”
He brings the Rambam who says this exactly. It says, “Every person has the potential to become like Moshe Rabbeinu. “Take a good look at me, everything that I have accomplished you are able to accomplish for yourselves.” Whenever a person aspires to serve the Lord he should not look at people who have been under achievers compared to him. And use such a comparison in order to pat himself on the back, of his relative accomplishment. No, he has to train his sights on those who achieved more than him. He has to take the challenge of life, and use his free will to go up. Because if a person every day uses his free will to reach a certain goal he will reach that goal.” The problem is, we don’t use our free will. This day goes by, and that day goes by. But every day if you would do two, three, four things to reach your goal, if you would do it day after day after day, eventually you’ll get there. The problem is that it’s so easy to do it that we don’t do it. It’s not so hard to do four or five things in the direction of your goal, every day. It’s not so hard to put a couple of hours in to reach your goal, every day. But since it’s not so hard that’s the reason why we don’t do it. We say, “What’s the big deal?” We don’t see the effect. In the world it’s called the compound effect. What’s better, a million dollars or a penny a day every day doubled for 30 days? Most people think it’s the million dollars. No, but a penny a day every day doubled for 30 days comes close to 10 million dollars. So, we have to use our free will to reach the heights day after day. And Hashem put the blessing and the curse in order to keep us on track. He gave us an extreme situation like the Seforno said. It’s not just, “I would like to, I want to.” No. If you don’t do the right thing, if we don’t do the right thing we’re going to be cursed, God-forbid. And if we do the right thing we’ll be blessed.”
Rav Moshe Feinstein wants to explain, “What does this mean?” He says, “It’s not just in the next world, it’s also in this world. Why does the possuk say when it comes to the blessing it doesn’t say the word, ‘if.’ It just says, ‘The blessing that you listened to the commandments of Hashem, and the curses – if you do not listen.’” He says, “Because the listening itself to Hashem is part of the blessing. The desire to listen, the desire to go in the right way, and that’s what produces a true bliss of spiritual calmness and emotional satisfaction, which is not true if you’re not going in the direction. The direction that you’re taking itself is the blessing. A person who wants to do the rotzon Hashem, will of Hashem is blessed. Why? Because if a person is running after this world and he’s trying to take for himself and do his own thing, so a person has 100 wants 200. He gets 200, he wants 400. There’s no end.
Like Shlomo haMelech said, “You will groan and your life’s end, because you’ll realize you can never fulfill yourself of what you’re trying to fulfill yourself with.” But that’s not true of a person who goes into spirituality. This state of a blessing and a curse stands alone, unrelated to the punishment and reward which will not even take place in one’s lifetime. The blessing and the curse are in this world.” He wants to explain, “That’s why it starts with the see, reeh. See, look at people’s lives. Look at people who are happy, who are satisfied, who are calm and relaxed and feel satiated. A person who’s going after spirituality, he knows that what he’s doing has real value. He’s not competing with anybody else. He knows that each thing that he does has value, and it makes him calm and relaxed. If a person is running after olam hazeh, this world, there’s a lot of competition. He wants more and more, he wants a bigger house and a better house. He’s always competing and looking at what the neighbors are doing, what everybody else is doing, what everybody else has. Mi ashir? Who is rich? Someach behelko, a person who is happy with his lot. That only comes through spirituality. And that comes from doing the right thing. And Hashem gave us free will in this world to do the right thing, and the blessing comes by doing it. Hashem specifically gave us the blessing and the curse that we don’t rationalize what our lives are about. They keep us on the right path to go in the ways of Hashem.
A Powerful Parable
The Maggid mi Dubno brings the same verse. The verse said, “Look, I placed before you today a blessing and a curse.” So, he wants to bring a moshul, parable like this. If there was a poor person who’s very hungry and somebody hurries to give him a loaf of bread and a walking stick, the man is very surprised. “I understand why you gave me the bread, but why did you give me the stick?” But if the two are tied together, the man’s not surprised. “He gave me the bread because he saw that I was hungry. So even though it was still tied to the stick, he gave it to me like that.” So too, I give you the blessing and the curse. The blessing and the curse are tied together. The blessing is for those who keep the mitzvos, and the curses are for those who don’t. They are not two separate things, but they are essentially tied one to the other.
Great Stories – Rav Rabinowitz
Verse 15:8 in this week’s Parsha says, “His requirement whatever is lacking to him.” It’s talking about giving tzedaka to a person, you have to give them exactly what they need. One time in a synagogue in Vilna, Rav Meir Michal Rabinowitz was the Rav. There was a rich man there, the gabbaim used to give him shishi, the sixth Aliya which was the most kavod, honor. After he received that Aliya, he would give tzedaka. He would help the synagogue and help the community. What happened, as time went on the man started to slowly lose all of his money. The gabbaim said, “Listen, we have to give this to somebody else. We need money for the synagogue. What are we going to do?” But the Rav said, “No. You have to continue to give him shishi.” He brought the Gemara from Kesubos 67b that says, ‘If there was a man who was wealthy who lost all his wealth, the verse says, whatever is lacking to him.’ “It teaches us that you even have to give him a horse to ride on, and a servant to run before him. One time it says that Hillel couldn’t find a servant to run in front of a guy who needed it, and he himself ran.” The Rav asked, “What is this? I understand that the man needs a horse. But why does he need a servant to run in front of him? The answer is, the servant is kavod, that a servant runs in front of him, that’s kavod, that’s honor. So too, this man. He still needs his honor,” and he continued to give him shishi in the Shul.
Peace in Your Home
Rav Simcha Cohen explains how to give and how to take. When you ask for something from your spouse, you need to ask gently and politely. Rav Dessler says, “Do not try to make the other do. Try to make him to want to do, and be happy while doing it. That’s the mitzvah.” If you need something from your spouse, you have to make them happy to give. He brings a raya, even though Yaakov was about to leave the verse says, “God said to Yaakov, ‘Return to your father’s country, to your home land, and I will be with you.’ But when he went to explain to his wives that they were about to leave because that’s the commandment of God, he said to them, ‘I see that your father doesn’t look upon me the previous days. I know how hard I’ll work, he’ll free your father with all my money. And your father made a mockery out of me. He shifted my wages 10 times. Only God did not let him harm me. The angel of God said to me in a dream, ‘I have seen everything that Lavan has done to you,’ all these verses.” He explains that to them, so then his wives agreed immediately. Of course his wives would have agreed. We’re talking about Rachel and Leah. They would have agreed. All he had to do was say, “This is the commandment of God.” But no, it was a mitzvah to explain to his wives why they had to do what they needed to do.
What do we learn from this? You shouldn’t force the other person to give you. Not only that, you can’t just give him a token reason why you have to do it. You have to really explain to them and ask them. You have to produce that out of their self-motivation that they want to do what you want them to do. This is even true by mitzvos. Even though it’s a commandment from the Torah, you still have to convince your wife why to do it. Or the wife has to convince the husband. He brings a raya from Avraham. Avraham asks Sarah to pose as his sister. Before he did that he said, “Please, I know you’re a woman of beautiful form.” He explained to her with politeness. Then he said, “It’s in order to keep you alive.” What did he mean by keep you alive? They’ll kill me, you’re still going to be alive. He knew that she would rather be dead if he was dead. He explained that it’s for you to do the mitzvah. These are all tzaddikim, righteous people. And still he needed to do it in a polite way, in the right way, to appease the other person. You can’t demand. You have to say, “Please.” You have to use a soft voice. You have to use a pleasant tone.
And don’t use hints. You have to say it straight out. You can’t say, “Oh, what a pity I don’t have a shirt like that. Wow, I’m really thirsty. I don’t have anything to wipe my hands on.” Hints do not motivate. Ada raba, they become an obstacle to giving because the other person wants to feel that they need them. They want to feel, “Yes, you’re stronger than me right now. I need you, please help me.” That’s what’s creating the relationship. That motivates the other person to give. Most people use hints because they are trying to be considerate. They don’t want to demand. But that doesn’t work, because it makes the other person think they don’t appreciate them. If you don’t ask them and you just make a hint, they’re going to feel that when they give you, you’re not going to really appreciate it. If you admit that you need something so then, “Ah, I’m happy to give it to you. I want to give to you.” It’s interesting, you have these opposite forces. The man wants to give and he wants to hear from his wife that she’s happy with him, she’s content with him and she’s pleased with him. And the woman wants to give, but she wants to feel cared about and loved. So, what happens? The man gives to the woman and then all of a sudden, the woman starts complaining. She needs help and she starts to tell him all of her problems. Why? She thinks it’s an eis ratzon, now is a great time. He’s helping. But that’s not what he wants to hear. He wants to hear that she’s happy with him, not more complaining. He starts to feel, “Listen, she’s never going to be happy. Nothing I’m going to do is going to be able to help.” The woman should try to find a better time. When he helps her she should say to him, “Ah, what a great husband you are.” Ze oh, that’s it, finished. She should say, “I like what you do for me. I feel fine. I’m glad I’m married to you.” But if she does the opposite, “Oh, I had such a hard day today. Things were so difficult,” so then the man feels that he’s incapable of making the woman happy. He doesn’t want to help her because it’s like opening a can of worms. Every time he helps her she complains.
On the other hand, the husband since the woman wants to feel loved and cared for, when he gives to her he can’t make her feel like a piece of dirt. I gave to you. No, that’s not the point. The point is to give with love and care. A lot of the fighting comes about because one feels they give more than the other. They’re all fighting about who gave more. The problem if you look at it on a scale, it’s very hard to figure out because it includes all the emotions that the person goes through in giving. Sometimes it’s harder for a person to give. You don’t know what they went through. They have to give up this and that. The cheshbon is not clear to either spouse, how much the other one gave. The trick is to take on the other one’s mindset into account. When you think about what they gave you, also think about what they went through emotionally in order to give you. Then you have the proper picture. The question is now, what do you gain from giving? It’s a famous question in the Gemara, that says like this. “Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva, ‘If your God loves the poor, why does He not grant them a livelihood? Why does God make poor people? Just give them the money. Why do you have to give them the money?’ He answered them, ‘In order that we may be saved on their account from the judgement of Gehinnom.’” There’s two types of giving going on. Whenever somebody gives, both sides are giving. The giver is giving the actual thing. In this case for example, the man gave money to the poor, so he gave money. But the poor man gave something spiritual to the guy giving. So, whatever you give you gain in spirituality. You’re working on your character. You’re developing your inner virtue, and you’re doing a commandment of the Creator.
The Gemara in Kiddushin says, “One person serves his father roast fowls, and this contact drives him out of the world. Another person to work at the mill, and this leads him to eternal life. Why? Because even if you feed your father meals but if you it grudgingly, it takes you out of the world. And if you give your father a job and you do it with simcha and you give him kavod and you tell him, ‘Wow, you’re bringing parnassa to the house, you’re helping everybody,’ so you get the next world.” The Torah teaches us that every finger that we lift to help our spouse gives us a chelek, portion in the next world, but only if it’s done with kindness in the right way.
Okay, that’s it for this week’s Torah podcast. I hope you enjoyed it, and please share it with your friends.
Rabbi Eliyahu Mitterhoff