|This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H, my maternal grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H, my paternal grandfather Moshe Ben Yosef A”H, uncle Reuven Nachum Ben Moshe & my great aunt Rivkah Sorah Bas Zev Yehuda HaKohein.
It should also be in Zechus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmothers Channah Freidel Bas Sarah, and Shulamis Bas Etta
-HaRav Gedalia Dov Ben Perel
-Mordechai Shlomo Ben Sarah Tili
-Yechiel Baruch HaLevi Ben Liba Gittel
-Noam Shmuel Ben Simcha
-Chaya Rochel Ettel Bas Shulamis
-Nechama Hinda Bas Tzirel Leah
-Amitai Dovid Ben Rivka Shprintze
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamos of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L, Miriam Liba Bas Aharon—Rebbetzin Weiss A”H, as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
וַיֵּלֶךְ ● Vayeilech
● If Hashem had forewarned our failures, how could we hope to succeed? ●
Toward the end of the Torah, Hashem warns Moshe Rabbeinu that despite his many words of instruction and admonition, the B’nei Yisrael would still eventually forsake Him and His Torah after Moshe’s passing, and that there would be dire consequences the ensue as a result.1 With this information in mind, Moshe Rabbeinu turned around, looked the B’nei Yisrael in the faces, and told them plainly, “I know that you are going to sin when I’m gone.”
A Fate of Failure
Now, not only are these unpleasant words difficult to listen to, but they are actually difficult to understand. Does this divine warning of our national failure not act as a self-fulfilling prophecy? Meaning, if G-d warned that it would happen, then presumably, it is going to happen. And if G-d just revealed to Moshe, without any shadow of doubt, that the people would stray, then do the people really have any free choice in the matter? If they are destined to engage in the worship of Avodah Zarah and betray G-d as G-d Himself “predicted,” is it fair that they should be liable to any of the prescribed punishments? How is that fair? What really could G-d have expected from His people after “prophesying” their failure and doom?
On the contrary, Chazal teach us that even though Hashem forsees everything, man really can choose his path.2 If so, why would G-d and Moshe seemingly rob the B’nei Yisrael of their free choice with this tiding about their future failures?
Teshuvah – Whom are we kidding?
The question really is not just for the B’nei Yisrael back then, but for us today, especially during the Aseres Yimei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, where we, as a collective and as individuals, make all sorts of resolutions and set all sorts of goals for ourselves, how we are going to refrain from committing sin X and engage in the performance of Mitzvah Y. But, we don’t need G-d to take us behind the curtain to predict ourselves and realize what is going to happen when Yom Kippur is over and “the coast is clear.” How often do the resolutions fall by the wayside?
Indeed, we’re no better than the generation that saw the hand of G-d out in the open. They sinned nonetheless, and if we’re not kidding ourselves, we know that we’re going to sin too, and we will probably do so again and again. We know that we’re going to slack off. How, then, can we do genuine Teshuvah with this apparent “guarantee” in our Sidrah, that we are going to fail?
Free Choice vs. Nature’s Course
Regarding the larger issue concerning Hashem’s discouraging forewarning of a seemingly unavoidable spiritual downfall of His nation, as per our tradition—perforce, one must accept that everyone has free choice in life even if Hashem knows everything that man is going to do.2 That much, we have said. That means that even after G-d has “foretold” a fate that regards our actions, the free choice to change that fate still has to exist. If there would be no free choice, then of course the people shouldn’t be punished for messing up. Moreover, there would be no purpose for anyone to put any effort into life altogether.
The question remains then as to why G-d would send such a discouraging message of a seemingly assured failure of the nation. Is the message factual? If it comes down to choice, then could the people not change the fate? And even if G-d knows it as fact that the people would not change their fate, of what benefit is it to spell out that we are going to fail? If there is still free choice—whether or not we ultimately make the expected choice should remain in the future. But, at least give the people a fighting chance. Why did G-d not do that? Why did G-d describe the people’s eventual failure as a seemingly inevitable reality?
The answer to this question lies in Hashem’s subtle choice of words; “…Ki Yadati Es Yitzro Asheir Oseh HaYom…”-“…for I know its inclination, that which it is doing today…”3
What emerges from these particular words is that Hashem was warning the people as follows: “I know your natural inclination—it’s an Evil Inclination. I see what your tendencies are today! As long as nature takes its course, there is no reason to assume that you will succeed to live by the Torah and not serve idols when Moshe is not babysitting. It is a certainty, today, that in the future, you will fail.”
The Downward Escalator
In this vein, G-d was not sentencing the people to failure. He was really just describing a natural progression or series of events that were indeed bound to happen assuming that no mindful or effortful intervention would be made on the part of the people. Yes, the people would fail and G-d knew it would happen, but that is not G-d’s message to the people. His message was that in their current state, without any changes on their part, they would not have chance. Apparently, there was a presumed reality of failure that certainly would inevitably come to pass, assuming that the circumstances remain as they were. The people, and really all people, are very much predisposed to sinning and betraying G-d based on their natural inclinations.
However, the choice to fight that disposition is still there. But of course, it would be a fight—a fight against nature. They would have to defy gravity. They would need to exert themselves and rush up a downward escalator. They could not succeed without focusing and taking seriously responsibility and control over the course which their lives would take. And if they wouldn’t, they were already on their way down. This much, G-d guarantees; the people would for sure fail—without question—as long as they would not proactively decide otherwise.
Back to the Beginning: “You Can Overcome It”
Although, G-d does not sugarcoat or water down the painful reality, imbedded in His words is the key to our future success. Yes, according to a natural progression, we are presumed to fail. But that does not mean that we have to be eternally doomed to a future of failure. When there is sincere will, there is certainly a way, and although G-d speaks harshly about the people at this moment, He knows it’s true, that there is an alternative. We just have to choose and seize that alternative!
In this way, G-d was not discounting the people’s free choice; on the contrary, He was informing them of just how much free choice they would require to overcome nature’s course. But, indeed, they would always have the ability to overcome nature.
The proof of this ability lies in G-d’s own words, way earlier in the Torah. Indeed, although Hashem’s message in our Sidrah is discouraging, if one looks all the way back in Bereishis, when Hashem addressed Kayin, He communicated the exact opposite message. When Kayin was discouraged about not having his offering accepted, Hashem told him, “HaLo Im Teitiv S’eis V’Im Lo Seitiv LaPesach Chatas Roveitz V’Eilecha Teshukaso V’Atah Timshal Bo”-“Surely [lit., “is it no so that…’], if you do well, you’ll be uplifted—but if you do not do well, sin crouches at the door (entrance); and to you will be its [sin’s] desire [affinity], but you can overcome it.”4
Indeed, as G-d did in Vayeilech, He warned Kayin about the danger of sin’s clutches. In His message to Kayin, “sin” is portrayed like a hungry beast crouching behind the doorway, waiting to pounce and ambush man, sin’s natural prey. What chance should man have? Presumably, zero. Yet, G-d assured Kayin, “V’Atah Timshal Bo”-“You can overcome it.”
Ironically though, Kayin would fall prey to sin when he allowed his envy to get the best of him and rose up against his brother and killed him. Like the B’nei Yisrael of the future, Kayin failed. What, then, is the difference between Kayin and the B’nei Yisrael? Why did Kayin receive the encouraging and reassuring message while Israel, in our Sidrah, gets the “cold hard truth”? The only difference is perspective. Kayin was already discouraged by the reality of failure and needed to be informed that, of course, there’s way back onto the path of success. There are no pure shortcuts in life; the path to spiritual success wouldn’t be an easy, natural, or intuitive path, but with the right kind of measures taken, G-d promises that man can succeed and overcome his natural inclinations! That is only the other side of the argument that He was presenting to the B’nei Yisrael in our Sidrah.
The B’nei Yisrael were in the care of Moshe’s leadership and Hashem’s guidance. They have the Torah and everything seems great. However, G-d argues, “Don’t kid yourselves.” Indeed, serving G-d and overcoming the Evil Inclination might be relatively easy when Moshe was standing over them and when G-d’s miracles were still in plain view. But, in the real world, especially when they would be once again exposed to an idolatrous culture, they would realize quickly that remaining loyal to the Torah would not be the presumed norm, and that their only chance at succeeding will be to fight against nature’s current.
The Phenomenon of Teshuvah – A Supernatural Reality
Teshuvah, in this way, is a supernatural process. As we’ve pointed out in a previous discussion, Chazal have taught that Teshuvah is one of seven “items” that Hashem created before creating the world itself.5 That means that Teshuvah was created well before man could’ve ever sinned. But, why would Teshuvah have needed to precede the world? Apparently, because Teshuvah, which entails the rectification of the ways of man, is a force beyond nature. To break the bonds of one’s natural inclination, is a supernatural feat. If Teshuvah did not precede the world, by the natural system, man could never accomplish it. The supernatural reality of Teshuvah affords man the opportunity to choose to reverse the natural order, if only man would exact his free choice and come up with the right plans to do so.
All of the above would explain the basis for all of the customs of Yom Kippur day. On Yom Kippur, we engage in a service that is unnatural to say the least. We fast the entire day, knowing that man was naturally programmed to eat food and to drink. We refrain from worldly benefits and stand like angels in prayer—indeed, like angels and not typical humans.
The main service of the day is Viduy, confession of our sins, pointing out our flaws and insecurities. Surely, to simply mutter the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” to our peers is not too difficult, especially when those words can protect us from spelling out the act we have done to wrong the other person. Most people dance around it and avoid that natural personal discomfort. To put ourselves down, make ourselves vulnerable and create an imbalance between ourselves and another person, is not a natural measure for us because we don’t like to suck in our pride and put our tails between our legs. On Yom Kippur, that is exactly what we’re charged to do.
Why do we do all of these things? The whole day of Yom Kippur is meant to teach us that each day, we can, through less extreme measures, manipulate our nature and conquer the Evil Inclination. But that can only happen once we understand that we’re fighting the course of nature, that we’re naturally presumed to fail. That knowledge is our fighting chance. With that knowledge, then like the B’nei Yisrael in land without Hashem’s open Presence and without a Moshe Rabbeinu in its midst, when we’re eventually in a land outside the realm of Yom Kippur, our “Teshuvah” will be able to translate into something meaningful, here in the real world.
Against Nature’s Course
In the end, beneath the discouraging warning, Hashem and Moshe reveal the key to our success. We have to know that they want us to access that key and succeed. In a most down to earth way, they inform us what that feat will require, laying it out on the table for us, telling us exactly what we’re up against. If we will continue to merely act on the basis of our natural inclination, and we know our inclination which will naturally be no different tomorrow than it is today, then there is not even a competition. We will lose. But, we have the hidden alternative option available, the supernatural secret of putting up an effortful and intelligent fight. If we’re willing to come up with a strategy and put up that fight, as Hashem promised Kayin, our natural inclination will be beaten. We can overcome it.
May we all be Zocheh to develop the willpower and devise the right strategies to fight against the Yeitzer HaRa, have Hashem’s assistance in that fight so that we should do a complete Teshuvah, returning to Hashem and allowing His Presence to return to us once again with the coming of the Geulah in the days of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos Shuvah and a G’mar Chasimah Tovah!
-Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂
- Devarim 31:16-18
- Pirkei Avos 3:19
- Devarim 31:21
- Bereishis 4:7
- Pesachim 54A and Nedarim 39B