This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H, my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H, & my great aunt Rivkah Sorah Bas Zev Yehuda HaKohein in Z’chus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmothers Channah Freidel Bas Sarah, and Shulamis Bas Etta
-Miriam Liba Bas Devora
-Aharon Ben Fruma
-Mordechai Shlomo Ben Sarah Tili
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamah of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L 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.
נִצָּבִים-וַיֵּלֶךְ ~ Nitzavim-Vayeilech
* ימים נוראים ~ Yomim Nora’im *
|[29:9, 17-18, 31:16] “You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem your G-d…Perhaps there is among you a man or a woman…whose heart turns away today from with Hashem our G-d… And it will be, when he hears the words of this curse, that he will bless himself in his heart saying, ‘There will be peace for me…’
‘Behold [Moshe], you will lay with your fathers and this nation will rise up and stray after foreign gods of the land where it coming to, in its midst, and it will abandon Me, and nullify My covenant that I forged with it.’”
|…אלקיכם ה׳ אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י
…פֶּן־יֵ֣שׁ בָּ֠כֶ֠ם אִ֣ישׁ אֽוֹ־אִשָּׁ֞ה
אלקינו ה׳ אֲשֶׁר֩ לְבָב֨וֹ פֹנֶ֤ה הַיּוֹם֙ מֵעִם֙
After describing the parameters of the new covenant that Hashem was making with the B’nei Yisrael in the land of Mo’av, Moshe Rabbeinu would begin to officially enter the B’nei Yisrael into this covenant. It is with this intention, Rashi explains, that Moshe declares before Israel [Devarim 29:9], “Atem Nitzavim HaYom Kulchem Lifnei Hashem Elokeichem…”-“You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem your G-d…” that indeed, Moshe has called them to “stand” before Hashem so that he can enter them into the covenant. That is one understanding of that verse as presented by Rashi.
However, later [to 29:12], Rashi suggests an alternative reading. Much like that first reading of our verse does, Rashi’s second reading connects Moshe’s declaration of “Atem Nitzavim” to the new covenant, however this time, in a slightly different way. Based on the Midrash [Tanchuma 1], Rashi explains that after hearing the words of the covenant which included the dreaded curses of the Tochachah (Admonition), the B’nei Yisrael’s faces fell pale in their fear. And in response, explains the Midrash, Moshe encouraged them, “Atem Nitzavim,” as if to say, “You are still standing! Don’t worry.” In Rashi’s exact words, Moshe basically told them, “Harbeih Hich’astem Es HaMakom V’Harei Atem Kayamim Lifanav”-“You have angered the Omnipresent many times, and yet, you are still standing.”
So, the question should be obvious. M’Mah Nafshach (whichever
way you prefer it), something doesn’t make sense, because if the Tochachah was meant to be taken seriously, how could Moshe reassure the B’nei Yisrael and seemingly belittle the curses of the Tochachah? Aren’t they supposed to be afraid of Divine retribution? Wasn’t that the point of the curses? And yet, on the other hand, if the Tochachah really was not meant to be taken so seriously—which already sounds heretical in its own right—then why would Moshe even bother telling them the Tochachah in the first place? If it wasn’t meant to scare the B’nei Yisrael out of their wits and make them seriously think about the real life consequences of their actions, then wasn’t it essentially pointless? So, which one is it?
The truth is that we may have encountered this question before in another form, perhaps when approaching the Yimei HaDin (Days of Judgment), Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur. These days are also known collectively as the “Yomim Nora’im,” Days of Awe, as the impending reckoning of our deeds from the previous year is supposed to frighten us into introspection and doing Teshuvah (repentance). Presumably, we’re supposed to fear Divine retribution.
In this vein, many people take the Yomim Nora’im very seriously, as they should, due to this fear. But perhaps, some of us have also displayed another emotional response, perhaps similar to the one that Moshe describes in this Sidrah; the response of “Atem Nitzavim”—we are still standing, after all. Year in and year out, most of us are still standing. Are we not? Now, why should that be? It’s not like every single one of us had a spiritually flawless year last year. Maybe, every single one of us just did a perfect Teshuvah during Yomim Nora’im last year, or at least a good enough Teshuvah to “pass.” Perhaps. But, perhaps we didn’t. Who knows for sure? Is it not true though, that most of know some not nice people who lived through this year, perhaps people who did not necessarily do minimal Teshuvah? The truth is, most of the people that we know didn’t die this year. So, how exactly the judgment during the Yomim Nora’im goes is unclear, despite our simple understanding of the “Book of Life” and the “Book of Death” as described by the Gemara in Rosh HaShannah [16B].
From this more skeptical standpoint, the Yomim Nora’im appear much less threatening. Because even if we will admit that Hashem does scope out our year to come during the Yimei HaDin and ultimately determine our fate, Divine retribution might not be as simply intense as we think it is. It is not like a lightning bolt will suddenly strike every sinner. It seems to never actually happen that way. The status quo seems to be “Atem Nitzavim,” that we are still standing.
Considering the above, we have the same question that we’ve posed concerning the Tochachah, and that is: What is the goal of Yomim Nora’im? If we’re supposed to take them seriously and be afraid for our fate, how could we if basically every year, “Atem Nitzavim”—most of us are still standing, despite having angered the Omnipresent numerous times? And if we’re really not supposed to take them that seriously—which no one would agree with—then what would be their purpose altogether? So, again, which one is it?
The answer to each of these questions is obviously that we need to strike some kind of balance. Certainly, we’re supposed to take everything seriously, and Moshe never meant to minimize the gravity of the Tochachah, and in the same vein, we should not minimize the gravity of the Yimei HaDin. As mild as the Divine response to our actions might seem to us, from our simplistic perspective of the world, Hashem is carefully weighing out our actions and deciding our fate based on them. So, then, why would Moshe reassure the people, “Atem Nitzavim”? Don’t these words just suck the air out of everything? The answer is: No, not necessarily. Perhaps it varies from person to person, situation from situation.
To illustrate the point a little bit better, let’s look further in Moshe’s speech. Later on in this Sidrah, Moshe proceeds to describe a person whose emotional response to the Tochachah is much more casual than that of the nation at large as was presented by the Midrash. “Pen Yeish Bachem Ish O Ishah…Asher Levavo Foneh HaYom Mei’Im Hashem Elokeinu… V’Hayah B’Sham’o Es Divrei HaAlah HaZos V’Hisbareich Bilvavo Leimor Shalom Yihiyeh Li…”-“Perhaps there is among you a man or a woman…whose heart turns away today from with Hashem our G-d… And it will be, when he hears the words of this curse, that he will bless himself in his heart saying, ‘There will be peace for me…’” [29:17-18]. Moshe goes on to explain in harsh terms that when this person violates Hashem’s Will, he will not be forgiven, and in fact, despite what he thinks about how this world works, he will suffer the plight of the Tochachah. Whenever and in what form it will is not our concern, but it will come back to haunt him. Divine retribution does exist.
After having seen the Midrash and having been introduced to this troublemaker, we’re now familiar with at least two potential responses to the dreadful curses. The first one is utter terror; in the words of the Midrash, “Horiku Fineihem,” literally translated, “their faces emptied” from complexion and affect. They were paralyzed with fear. The second potential response is denial, complacency, and self-reassurance, “Shalom Yihiyeh Li”-“There will be peace for me.”
If we were to compare these two responses, we would undoubtedly suggest that the first response is more appropriate. The second individual completely brushes off the Tochachah and convinces himself that there will be no consequences for his actions. He will take advantage of what he thinks is the “natural order” in the world, where people could just sin without concern for any Divine retribution. In the first response, at least the listeners take the Tochachah seriously. They were shaken by it, just as they were intended to be.
However, while the B’nei Yisrael were, indeed, intended to be shaken by the Tochachah, perhaps the Midrash is trying to tell us that there is, in fact, a limit to the fear we are supposed to have when it comes to signals of Divine retribution such as the Tochachah or the Yimei HaDin. And perhaps, the paralysis exhibited by the B’nei Yisrael was actually too much. Yes, they were supposed to be moved, awe-inspired by the Tochachah, however, when their fear has overwhelmed them to the point of utter despair, they will freeze up. They will have lost all of their confidence. They might drop everything. They might actually begin to rationalize and end up on the opposite extreme like the skeptical, complacent, troublemaker Moshe described. In all likelihood, such an individual might not have become a skeptic overnight, but he moved in stages, starting from one of frozen terror, until ultimately, he decided to
reassure himself that “Shalom Yihiyeh Li.”
When that happens, ironically, the fear factor of Divine retribution will have backfired, accomplishing the exact opposite of what it was intended to. Thus, for this reason, Moshe must remind the B’nei Yisrael, “Atem Nitzavim”—“Realize that you’re still standing, despite having sinned,” but not because Divine retribution does not exist, but because Hashem is patient and merciful to those who are willing to take Divine retribution seriously. We know that Hashem expects us to sin at times, because He explicitly predicts that we will in Parshas Vayeilech, saying that that the B’nei Yisrael will stray after idols and ultimately violate their covenant with Hashem [31:16]! Hashem understands that we have a tendency to sin. The problem though is when we mistake His patience and mercy as mere absence of Divine retribution. The problem is when we complacently “bless ourselves” amidst our sins so that we never consider Teshuvah. It is at that point that the fact that “we are still standing” ultimately becomes the source of our condemnation.
If “we’re still standing,” it means that for whatever reason, Hashem sees some potential and that, despite what we might deserve, He is willing to give us a chance, an opening. To those humble individuals who are genuinely moved by awe for Hashem, Moshe urges, “Do not freeze up. Yes, you should be concerned for Divine retribution, but not to the point of utter despair. That would be counterproductive.”
What emerges is that while not having enough fear is dangerous, too much fear is also detrimental. The fear with which we must receive Divine retribution must be as such that it motivates us to serve Hashem better, and not the opposite.
This healthy degree of fear which we’re actually meant to develop through the Yimei HaDin is described plainly in the Tefillos of Yomim Nora’im. One needs to look no further than the first lines of the Shmoneh Esrei which are exclusive to Yomim Nora’im, the paragraph of “U’V’Chein Tein Pachdecha…”
There, we pray, “U’V’Chein Tein Pachdecha, Hashem Elokeinu, Al Kal Ma’asecha V’Eimasecha Al Kal Mah SheBarasa. V’Yiraucha Kal HaMa’asim V’Yishtachaveh Lifanecha Kal HaBeruim”-“And so, may You place Your dread, Hashem our G-d, on all of Your works, and Your trepidation on all that You have created. And all of Your Works should revere (have awe for) You, and all of Your creations will prostrate themselves before You.”
In the simplest reading of this Tefillah, we’re asking for “fear” multiple times, in multiple forms. We mention “Pachad,” “Eimah,” and “Yirah.” So, what do all of these terms mean and why is it that we really want all of these things?
So, from the structure, “Pachad” and “Eimah” seem to be parallel to one another. Both of them seem to indicate some kind of trembling fear or dread. But, while they’re seem almost synonymous, Rashi [to Shemos 15:16] explains that “Pachad” refers to a fear that strikes a person nearby, while “Eimah” is a fear to those at a distant. Either way, whether for the one who is close by or the one who is far away, we are asking Hashem to make us tremble and shake. What’s the goal of this trepidation?
Apparently, Pachad and Eimah are mere stepping stones toward a higher goal. Apparently, received correctly, Pachad and Eimah are temporary steps that are meant to result in instilling another kind of fear called “Yirah,” as the Tefillah continues, “And all of Your Works should revere (have awe for) You, and all of Your creations will prostrate themselves before You.”
As far as Yirah is concerned, there may be different forms and levels. Until now, we’ve been discussing fear of Divine retribution, Yiras Onesh. However, there are more subtle and higher levels of Yirah, such as Yiras Cheit, literally Awe of Sin, where one intrinsically fears the concept of sin, rather than merely being punished for it. And of course, there is Yiras Shamayim, Awe of Heaven, which the Ramban explains, is a reverence that comes from the understanding of not just the punishment, but the spiritual consequences of one’s actions, what impact his actions has on his relationship with Hashem.
It is this kind of Yirah that represents the perfect, healthy balance that we are trying to strike. It is that kind of Yirah that we seek to strengthen and incorporate in ourselves for life during Yomim Nora’im. This Yirah will instill in us intellectual honesty and morality that will govern our every deed without discouraging us. This Yirah will motivate us to be better people and draw ourselves closer to Hashem.
May we all be Zocheh to use the awe-inspiration of Pachad and Eimah to develop a healthy, balanced sense of productive Yiras Shamayim, take Hashem seriously, and Hashem will take our genuine attempts seriously, be patient and merciful with us, and only write us up for the ultimate good this year in the form of the final Geulah with the coming of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! L’Shannah Tovah Tichaseiv V’Seichaseim (For a good year should you be written up and sealed)! Have a Great Shabbos and uplifting Yomim Nora’im!
-Josh, Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂