Shabbat Shalom Weekly

Torah Portion:   Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31)

Appel’s Parsha Point
Jewish Education
by Yehuda Appel
Judaism has always understood that a people’s future is only as great as the values it manages to inculcate into its youth. In line with this, the Torah does not command individuals to study Torah. Rather it commands us “to teach Torah to our children.” A fascinating Midrash says that when the Messiah comes, everyone will go out to meet him — with the exception of school children who will stay in class to study Torah!
Perhaps this explains the absence of television sets in many religious homes today. It is felt that the potential gain from watching educational programs is more than canceled out by exposure to less savory programs. Why subject a child to impurity while trying to inculcate values of holiness?! Moreover, even in instances where the programs are beneficial, often those hours could be better spent reading.
This issue of education plays a role in this week’s Torah portion, Vayelech.
A central topic discussed in the Parsha is the Hakhel (literally “gathering”) observance. Once every seven years during the era of the Holy Temple, every Jewish man, woman, and child is commanded to go up to Jerusalem. There, the king reads sections of Deuteronomy focusing on the covenant between God and the Jewish nation. The purpose of this, explains the Torah, is for the people to hear “so they will learn and shall fear the Lord your God.”
Interestingly, the next verse specifically singles out babies, stating: “And the children who do not know — they shall hear and shall learn to fear the Lord your God.” What possible benefit can there be to schlepp along “children who do not know”? It is not simply because their parents have no alternative means of childcare! Rather, the Torah makes it clear that the children’s presence at the Hakhel ceremony will cause them “to learn to fear the Lord Your God.”
The Sfas Emes, a Chassidic master of the last century, gives several reasons for this command. First, he suggests that conscious cognition is not the only way that human beings learn things. Even though an infant may not consciously understand what is being said at the Hakhel ceremony, his soul can still be very much affected.
Furthermore, the Sfas Emes notes, when the child grows up he will have a greater appreciation of the importance of Torah study, knowing that his parents carried him for miles and miles just so he could hear the king read from the Torah! Experience bears this out: Many of the greatest Torah scholars came from poor homes, where the parents sacrificed basic of necessities in order that their children should receive the best Torah education.
In the final analysis, it is not what we give to our children, but the sacrifices that we make for them — particularly in the area of education — that really counts.

The Guiding Light
Going up to the Heavens
by Rabbi Yehonasan Geffen
After a lengthy admonition regarding the consequences of not following the Torah, Moses assures the people that despite the seeming difficulty in learning and keeping the Torah, it is actually easily attainable.
“For this commandment that I command you today, it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in the heavens, [for you] to say, ‘Who can ascend to the heavens for us and take it for us and let us hear it, so that we can perform it?’ Nor is it across the sea, [for you] to say, ‘Who can cross to the other side of the sea for us and take it for us, and let us hear it, so that we can perform it?’ Rather the matter is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to perform it.” (1)
Rashi explains that these verses are referring to the whole Torah as opposed to any specific mitzvah (commandment).(2) On the words, “it is not in the Heavens”, the Gemara observes, that if it was in the Heavens, then we would somehow have to go up there to learn it. And on the words, “nor is it across the sea”, the Gemara points out that if it were across the sea, we would have to cross the sea to learn it.(3)
The following story involving the great tzaddik (righteous man), Rav Zalman of Volozhin, demonstrates the lesson we should take from this Gemara. On one occasion, Rav Zalman was learning in a small village. On the other side of the river was the great town of Vilna. In the middle of the night, Rav Zalman felt a great desire to study a particular sefer (book) that was in the main Beit Hamidrash (study hall) in Vilna. He didn’t hesitate for one moment, rather he went out in the middle of the night in the freezing cold weather to Vilna until he found the book that he desired. The onlookers were shocked at how he could go to such extremes in such cold weather to get a book. He explained with the verses in Nitzavim that say that the Torah is not in the Heavens and is not across the sea. He then quoted the aforementioned Gemara stating that if the Torah was in the Heavens or across the sea, one would have to go there to study it. The short journey across the river to get to Vilna was nearer than the Heavens and even closer than across the sea. Accordingly, he felt that he had to make the required effort to attain the book that he needed for his Torah learning. We learn from Rav Zalman’s actions that whilst God does not make impossible demands on us with regard to learning Torah, He does expect us to make considerable effort to learn to the best of our abilities.
We further learn from a Gemara in Yoma that any obstacles blocking our ability to learn Torah are not insurmountable. The Gemara says that when a man comes to the next world he will be asked about his Torah learning. The Gemara anticipates a number of excuses that one may use to justify his failure to learn. He may claim that he was too poor, and because of his poverty he had to spend all his time trying to earn a livelihood. Alternatively, he may argue that he was too rich, and that he was too distracted by his business to learn. Moreover, he may maintain that since he supported Torah with his money, he was exempt from learning Torah himself. Thirdly, he may contend that he was too beautiful to be able to avoid the yetser hara (negative inclination) of immorality. The Gemara proceeds to provide examples of people who faced the most difficult tests in these areas, and despite this, succeeded in learning and observing the Torah. Hillel was an extremely poor man and he could not even afford to pay the entrance fee to the Beit Hamidrash, yet he went to extreme ends to try to learn. Rebbe Elazar was extremely rich and faced tremendous pressure to focus on his businesses, but he preferred to focus on his learning. Joseph was exceptionally beautiful and faced great tests in immorality, yet he withstood the temptation.(4) This Gemara teaches us that no-one can claim that it was impossible for him to learn or observe Torah because of his circumstances. Of course, there are challenges that must be overcome, but with the requisite effort, everyone can learn and observe the Torah.
What is the key factor that determines whether a person is able to overcome the many obstacles preventing him from Torah learning? It seems that this can be answered with Rav Yisroel Salanter’s response to a question he was asked by a businessman. The man told him that he was so busy that he only had a very short amount of time available to learn each day. He asked Rav Yisrael what he should learn in that short time. Rav Yisrael answered him that he should learn Mussar.(5) Once he does that, he would soon realize that he could find considerably more time to learn! Rav Yisrael was communicating to him that the reason that he could not find more time to learn was that learning did not have a high enough priority in his life. By learning Mussar he would develop his appreciation of the importance of learning Torah to his life and as a result he would find more time. We learn from here that if a person appreciates the true value of Torah learning, then he will place it far higher up in his list of priorities. As a result, he will find it far easier to overcome all the barriers and distractions that prevent him from learning.
A person may intellectually realize that Torah learning is very important to their lives, but it still remains very difficult to internalize this and apply it to one’s life. Rav Noach Weinberg gives a very insightful suggestion in this area. When a person is very tired, it is difficult for him to motivate himself to do anything that involves much effort or thought, including learning Torah. Similarly, if someone were very busy, he would find it very difficult to find any time to learn. However, if one were to offer him a large sum of money to learn Torah for half an hour extra, then he would suddenly find the time and energy!
This teaches us that if something is valuable enough then a person will conjure up the time and energy to do it, despite the difficulty. The Sages teach us that one moment of learning Torah is infinitely rewarded, more than any other mitzvah, needless to say it is of infinitely more value than all the money in the world. Accordingly, when a person is busy or tired, if he would think of the reward that he could accrue by taking a few minutes to learn Torah, then he could surely overcome the challenges and do so.
As the High Holy Days approach, it is essential to assess one’s life priorities and ask oneself if he truly devotes as much time to learning Torah as possible. The Sages’ assertion that he need not go up to the Heavens and across the sea to learn Torah, teach him he must certainly try to overcome the smaller challenges that he faces.
NOTES
1. Devarim, 30:11-14.
2. The Ramban argues with Rashi. He writes that these verses are referring specifically to the Mitzva of teshuva (repentance). See Kli Yakar who discusses both approaches.
3. Eruvin, 55a.
4. Yoma, 35b.
5. Mussar is Torah study that is aimed at self-growth and developing one’s relationship with God.

 

 

FAMILY PARSHA
New Changes
by Nesanel Yoel Safran
From this week’s Torah Portion
Sometimes life asks us to adjust to things and change from what we’re used to. In this week’s Torah portion, Moses, the only leader the people ever knew, tells them that he is about to step aside and that Joshua would be leading them from then on. It wasn’t easy for the people to get used to. Changes in life’s routines are not always easy for us, but they are part of life and adjusting to them is part of how we grow.
In our story, a girl finds herself in the face of an unexpected change.
“Ways and Means”
It had been a great school break for Sharon. She’d gone on an amazing trip with her family to the Grand Canyon and couldn’t wait to tell the class all about it, during the ‘welcome back’ show-and-tell session that her great teacher, Mrs. King, made for the class every time they got back from a break. She’d even brought pictures to show everyone.
She bounded into the classroom and did a double take. The classroom looked different. The desks were arranged in straight rows instead of the usual semi-circle. The big, funny cartoon posters had been replaced by charts full of what looked like grammar rules. But the biggest change of all was that at the teacher’s desk: instead of Mrs. King, sat someone else!
“Welcome students,” the lady at the desk said. “For those of you who haven’t heard, your teacher, Mrs. King, is now the mother of a healthy brand new baby boy. She’s taking the rest of the year off and I will be taking over. My name is Mrs. Ellis. So now, please take out your literature books and we will begin.”
“Um, teacher?” a kid raised her hand.
“Yes?”
“Since it’s the first day back, Mrs. King always lets us spend the class telling about our vacation and we only begin learning tomorrow.”
The woman nodded her head. “Well, I do things differently. I’m sure you’ll have plenty of time to tell each other all about it during recess, but this is a classroom and it is class we will begin.”
Sharon’s heart sunk as the lesson started. Not only because she wasn’t going to get to show around her great pictures and see everyone else’s, but because she was going to have to spend the rest of the year with this mean, new teacher instead of Mrs. King. Well at least in another 20 minutes they’d get to have a mid-lesson break.
She watched the hands of the big clock tick on the wall and at exactly 20 past, she, as well as a couple of the other kids, started pushing back on their chairs and standing up.
“Excuse me,” the teacher said. “Class isn’t nearly over.” She was looking right at Sharon.
“But this is our five-minute break time,” Sharon asserted. “Mrs. King always lets us get drinks and things now. She said break help us concentrate.”
“Well, maybe that was her way. However, I do things differently. I believe that breaks are disruptive. Please be seated.”
Sharon glumly slid back onto her chair. This is going to be a terrible class, she thought. This is going to be a terrible term! Why did their great teacher have to leave them for this mean replacement!?
After what seemed like forever, the dismissal bell rang. After getting the teacher’s nod of approval, the kids gathered their things and started to go.
“Excuse me, Mrs. Ellis,” Jackie, the class ‘brain’ piped up loudly. “We didn’t get our homework assignments yet. Mrs. King made sure to give us homework every day.”
Sharon groaned. Why did she remind her? All that homework was the one thing she didn’t like about Mrs. King. She could only imagine how much this strict, new teacher was going to give them.
The teacher nodded. “Well I do things differently. I believe that school time is school time and home time is home time. I make sure you work steadily in class so you can spend the rest of your day playing and relaxing. There will be no homework in this class,” she smiled. “Playing is very important for kids your age, you know,” she added, with a wink.
The class let out a cheer and burst out the door. Wow, no homework for a whole term! Sharon thought. This new teacher sure was different from Mrs. King, but maybe she would get used to her and even like her, too — just in a different way.
Discussion Questions
Ages 3-5
Q. How did Sharon feel at first about having a new teacher?
A. She was upset and wanted things to go back to how they were.
Q. How did she feel in the end?
A. She felt that even though things were different, they were okay.
Ages 6-9
Q. What life-lesson do you think Sharon learned?
A. She’d felt very attached to her old teacher and didn’t think she would adjust to the change, but she discovered that even in new situations a person can find ways to adjust and appreciate them.
Q. What if the new teacher had really been just mean? Do you think Sharon could have adjusted, then?
A. It would have been harder, but she could have found a way. Perhaps she would have realized that this was a good chance to learn how to cope with situations, which is a big lesson in life.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Do you think a person can get used to anything and everything?
A. Some situation are surely more challenging than others, but God created people to be amazingly flexible and given enough time there is virtually no situation one can’t find a way to adapt to.
Q. Are there times when we should refuse to adjust to a new situation?
A. Assuming we have an option, and if a situation truly feels unbearable and presents a serious risk to our health or our values, it is often in place not to accept a situation, but to give it our all to change it. However, most changes that come up in life can be successfully adjusted to, if we just get through the initial, normal discomfort of change.

 

QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“Yom Kippur is not about personal resolutions and private reflection. It is about standing up and talking to God. It is about apologizing, about reestablishing our connection with our Creator. We must tell God who we are, where we are holding in life, and what we know needs improvement”
– Rabbi Dovid Rosenfield

 

JOKE OF THE WEEK
David was trying to build himself a tree house together with his Zadie Willie who was a handy fellow.
“You hammer like lightning,” Zadie said.
“Really?” David replied, flattered. “Thank you.”
“You never strike the same place twice.

Shabbat Shalom!
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