Sunday, Sep 26, 2021

Choices

Last week, I went away with my wife for a few days. We were in an elevator in a hotel on the West Coast and a well-dressed man stepped in.

“Hi,” I said. “How’s it going?”

He said it was going great.

When I noticed that he was wearing a carnation in his lapel, I said, “Going to a wedding?”

He smiled broadly and said, “Yes. In fact, my daughter is getting married soon on the beach.”

I offered my congratulations and asked him if he was from the area.

“In fact, no,” he responded. “I live right outside of Philadelphia. Where are you from?”

I told him that I am from New Jersey. Why go through the whole routine of saying, “I’m from Lakewood,” and then he’ll ask where Lakewood is, and I’ll tell him, and he’ll say to himself, “Oh, there are Jews there, too.” So I just said, “Jersey.”

But he had to know where. And he pressed the issue. So I replied nonchalantly, “Lakewood.”

“Oh, that’s nice,” he said. “My mom was born in Lakewood. Shalom.”

He got off the elevator and I said mazel tov. He thanked me and went on his way.

And I began thinking. Nebach, it’s so sad. He’s Jewish, his mother is from Lakewood, and it is impossible to tell that he is a Jew. Who knows if his wife is Jewish or if his daughter was marrying a Jewish boy?

We think of Lakewood and we think of Torah. The two are synonymous. And here was a guy who hails from Lakewood and knows nothing of Torah.

How did he end up where he did, and how did we end up where we did?

Moshe Rabbeinu said, “If you want to be blessed, follow me,” and we did, and our parents did, and our grandparents did. Therefore, we are blessed to live the Torah life. And this poor fellow, he was never given the choice, because the last person in his chain who was given the choice chose not to follow.

In Parshas Eikev, we studied the posuk (8:14) which states, “Verom levovcha veshochachta es Hashem Elokecha – You will become wealthy and pompous and then you will forget Hashem… V’omarta b’levovcha kochi v’otzem yodi asah li es hachayil hazeh – I amassed what I have on my own, through my own intelligence and strength.”

A person may think that he is a fine Yid. He learns, he davens, and he observes the mitzvos, but when he goes to work, he forgets about Hashem. He’s cutthroat, slashes the other guy and seeks to rub out anyone who gets in his way or underbids him. His motto is that all is fair when it comes to making a buck.

In the business world, he’s considered tough and smart, won’t stop at anything, and won’t let anyone stop him. But in the world of Torah, he is viewed differently. A person must deal with others the way the Torah describes – the way you want to be treated, always being honest, not nibbling on the edges, and not going back on your word.

A person who knows that all he has is from Hashem is considerate and honest as he goes about accumulating his wealth of clients, customers and properties.

The winner is the one who the Torah considers the winner. The others may have more money, but they are essentially losers. They were given the choice and they failed the test.

That is the underlying meaning of the opening of this week’s parsha (Devorim 11:26-28), when Moshe Rabbeinu tells the Jewish people, including us, “Re’eh, I am setting before you today two courses of action, two ways you can live your life, es habrocha, the blessed path, asher tishmeun, when you will observe the laws of the Torah, and the cursed path, es haklolah, if you choose not to follow the Torah.”

There is no middle way. We can either live our lives suffused with emunah and bitachon, knowing that what happens to us is from Hashem, or we can deviate r”l and think that we are masters of our destiny, accomplishing everything on our own. Either you believe or you don’t. Either you choose the path of brocha or you are on the wrong path, feeling some joy and feelings of success, but overall you will end up feeling empty and dejected.

Life is all about choices.

We lain Parshas Re’eh during the period known as the Shivah Denechemta, the seven weeks of consolation, which follow the three weeks of mourning. The seven weeks, culminating with the Yomim Noraim, are a time of contemplation, as we review the choices we made over the past year and plan for the future.

Although the word nechomah means consolation, the state of consolation is not simply achieved. To arrive there, the mourner contemplates the loss, reviews the past, and determines how to carry on in the future. That is accomplished by coming to terms with what transpired, appreciating what is not here, and realizing that a new perspective is needed to be able to continue leading a successful life.

As we bentch Rosh Chodesh Elul this Shabbos, we need to consider that while the Shivah Denechemta were designated by Chazal to console for the loss of the Botei Mikdosh, the seven weeks of nechomah are also part of the teshuvah process that we will now undergo.

The relaxed pace that we enjoy over the summer represents a good time for introspection, considering the state of our lives and the choices we have made, which will lead us to nechomah as we make choices for the future.

Let’s go back and examine the pesukim that we previously discussed. They state, “See, I am giving you today blessings and curses. You will be blessed if you listen to what I command you today. The curse will befall you if you do not follow the mitzvos of Hashem and you veer from the path that I am commanding you today.”

The Medrash Rabbah (ibid.) quotes Rabi Elozor, who says that after Hashem revealed the mitzvos asei and mitzvos lo saasei at Har Sinai, He no longer delivered reward and punishment on a one-by-one basis. Rather, a person who sins is automatically punished and one who acts properly is automatically blessed. The nature of the world changed. It is now built into the briah that a sinner faces evil, while the good person can expect good in his life.

Thus, we understand that Hashem is advising us and reminding us of how to gain a blessed life. If you are busy with things that provide you with immediate gratification, know that the enjoyment is only temporary and that you’ve caused yourself to be subjected to curses and unfortunate happenings in the future.

However, if you are thoughtful, honest and proper, and suppress the urge to engage in activities that bring you what is viewed as physical success and enjoyment, you may forgo immediate pleasure, but you will have gained for yourself much long-lasting good and blessing.

Someone asked the Steipler Gaon how it is that people can merit salvation and blessing without asking for it. For example, a person was driving his car on an icy road when it slid and was about to roll down an embankment. Catastrophe seemed imminent, but the car miraculously stopped at the cliff’s edge. The driver didn’t have the time or presence of mind to ask for rachamei Shomayim. The questioner wondered where the hashpa’ah of chesed that saved the driver’s life came from.

The Steipler explained that the person or the parent of someone who merits a miracle rose above a particular nisayon. Overcoming a nisayon is a means of meriting a miracle and placing it in reserve, so to speak, for when it will be needed.

A person rises above his/her nature by recognizing Hashem’s dominion over the world and acceding to His wishes. When the person does that, he creates a corresponding effect in Shomayim, and Hashem will block nature for that person to show that He is in control of the world.

The choice is ours. Mitzvos create a life of blessings. By accepting Hashem’s rule, people earn nissim, which sit in their account until Hashem decides it is the proper time for them to be redeemed.

Parshas Re’eh is read every year at the onset of Elul, the month of introspection, when we seek to achieve blessings and good lives for ourselves and our loved ones. The parsha reminds us that the way we think and act affects us. Just as we can expect to become ill if we were to ingest poison or eat foods that are unhealthy, so does engaging in acts that the Torah frowns upon.

It is interesting that each of the three pesukim quoted above add the word hayom, today. There is clearly a lesson here for us. Perhaps the pesukim are cryptically telling us that we should feel as if we are being taught this lesson each day anew. We should view each day as if it is the day Hashem commanded us what to do and what not to do. We should understand the lesson that the observance of mitzvos enhances our lives and their negation causes grief and pain for those who ignore them.

Hayom. It is new. It is fresh. Every day, we think about it. We do not grow apathetic or view the lessons as something from the past. We mustn’t allow the lesson to grow tarnished and rusty. Every day, we are rejuvenated and act with vigor and joy as we realize that we have been granted life and the ability to sustain and improve our lives.

Every day, we are confronted by choices, and although we may have made the wrong choice yesterday, today is a new day and we can recover from what we have done by making the correct choices.

Refreshed from the summer, with regained vitality, buoyant with energy, we can be excited about every new day. Hayom, today, is the day we are going to be back on track. Today is the day we are going to get it right. Today is the day lethargy ends and spirit returns. Today is the day we will begin piling up brachos. Today is the day we will concentrate on choosing life.

Before we do something, we should think about whether it will keep us on the blessed path, or if it will cause us to be thrown off it. Just as before we decide on a course of action, we consider whether it will bring profit or loss, grief and aggravation or success, so must we think about whether it is in keeping with Moshe’s admonition of “asher tishmeu,” following the halachos and spirit of the Torah, or if it is “asher lo sishmeu.”

The middah of maximizing life, living with cheshbon hanefesh, and maintaining a drive for spiritual accomplishment should define every Torah person.

Somewhere along the line, someone in the chain of our elevator friend made a series of wrong choices. They may have seemed prudent at the time, but they led the family off the blessed path and to the path that caused them to be lost to the Jewish people.

Rav Yitzchok Feigelstock was in his late teens in Uruguay when he made the choice to go learn in yeshiva in the United States. He arrived here not knowing much and never having learned Gemara. When he arrived in the Lakewood yeshiva of Rav Aharon Kotler, he was just beginning to swim in the sea of the Talmud, but he made a series of correct choices. He began the rise that continued until his passing, becoming a close talmid of the gadol hador and heading the highly respected Long Beach yeshiva, where he nurtured hundreds of talmidim. He became a revered leader and rosh yeshiva because he constantly chose to be on the path of brocha.

As Elul approaches and the fickleness of our existence and our journey comes into focus, we need to clear our minds, take a deep breath, and prepare for the intense days that await us. Nechomah.

Those who came before us discovered how temporal this world and its successes are. They devoted their lives to internalizing the Malchus Hashem, following His mitzvos and embodying His middos. They knew what was consequential and what was trivial. Their lives centered around creating blessings and miracles for themselves. We still live off of the accounts of the avos, the imahos, and our parents and grandparents throughout the ages.

Like them, we can also be great. If we regularly contemplate why our neshamos made the journey here from beneath the Kisei Hakavod, we can achieve nechomah. “Re’eh,” look, see, and think about what you are doing. Will it make you a better, more blessed person? If so, go ahead. If you think that Moshe Rabbeinu wouldn’t approve of what you are doing, then don’t do it.

May we all merit lives of brocha and be blessed with much nachas, achievement, success and good health.

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