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 & in Z’chus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmother Channah Freidel Bas Sarah
-My great aunt Rivkah Bas Etta
-Miriam Liba Bas Devora
-Aviva Malka Bas Leah
-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.
וַיֵּלֶךְ ~ Vayeilech
* שבת שובה ~ Shabbos Shuvah *
“Against Nature’s Course”
Towards the end of the Torah narrative, as Hashem prepares Moshe for his death, He tells him matter-of-factly that the B’nei Yisrael will stray from the Torah, forsake Him, serve idols, and be subject to His wrath and various distresses [Devarim 31:16-21]. Accordingly, Hashem charges Moshe to write up and teach the B’nei Yisrael a song—the passage of the subsequent Sidrah, Parshas Haazinu [Devarim 32]—which would serve as a testimony to the fact that they have been warned about the impending evil [See Rashi to 31:21]. So, Moshe hears G-d out, writes the song, and just as plainly tells the B’nei Yisrael, “I know you guys are going to sin when I’m gone. I’m just saying…” And with that, we turn over to the song in Parshas Haazinu. Meanwhile, the Torah records no response from the people. They seemingly just sit there and take what Moshe said, and that’s it.
Now, what could they say? Moshe heard their fate from G-d Himself. It hardly seems as if Moshe was looking to make waves or even stir up an argument. He just told them the way it was, or would be. And what would happen when they would eventually enter the land? The Navi tells us, from Sefer Shoftim through Sefer Melachim, that the B’nei Yisrael, indeed, would serve idols and be exiled as a result. G-d was not surprisingly correct. No arguments there. So, what does one make of all of this? Does it bother anyone?
The obvious problem is that if G-d Himself is guaranteeing that the B’nei Yisrael will fail, whether He is making a “prediction,” perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy, or anything of that nature, it doesn’t seem that the people even have a chance. Moreover, it leaves a rather harsh and discouraging taste in our mouths, and probably their mouths at that time, as the Torah is about to meet its close. The real question is: How can G-d or Moshe just tell the B’nei Yisrael outright that they are for sure going to sin? Even if it’s super likely that we will sin—and even if history and even the near future itself will confirm this reality, do we not have a choice in the matter? That seems to be implied by the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos [3:19], that we can choose our paths. With that in mind, it’s not fair for G-d, Who wants us to do good, to just “doom” us to failure before we can even choose to make a difference. Yes, we’re imperfect, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t even have that fighting chance. Why is Hashem being so hard and so negative? Why can’t G-d be a little bit more encouraging?
The question really is not just for the B’nei Yisrael back then, but for us today, especially during the Aseres Yimei Teshuvah (Ten Days of Repentance). During the Aseres Yimei Teshuvah, we make all sorts of resolutions and set all sorts of goals for ourselves, how we are going to refrain from sin X and make sure to be better when we perform Mitzvah Y. But, we don’t need G-d to state the facts so bluntly for us to realize what is going to happen when Yom Kippur is over and “the coast is clear.” We’re no better than the generation that had G-d openly in its midst. So, if we’re not kidding ourselves, we know that we’re going to sin again. We know we’re going to slack off. How, then, can we do Teshuvah with this apparent “guarantee” in our Sidrah, on Shabbos Shuvah of all days, that we are going to fail?
Why would G-d basically present it as a given that the people will sin? The answer to this question lies in His subtle choice of words [31:21], “…Ki Yad’ati Es Yitzro Asheir Oseh HaYom…”-“…for I know its inclination, that which it is doing today…” Says Hashem, basically as we’ve been saying, “Let’s not kid ourselves. 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.”
Indeed, G-d does not sugarcoat it or water the reality down for us, but 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.
The proof lies earlier in the Torah. Although Hashem’s message here seems to be discouraging at face value, if one looks all the way back in Bereishis, Hashem addresses Kayin with the exact opposite message. When Kayin was discouraged about not having his offering accepted, Hashem told him [Bereishis 4:7], “HaLo Im Teitiv S’eis V’Im Lo Seitiv LaPesach Chatas Roveitz V’Eilecha Teshukaso V’Atoh 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.” At the beginning of time, G-d warns Kayin about the danger of sin’s clutches. Sin is portrayed like a hungry beast waiting behind the doorway, waiting to pounce and ambush man, sin’s natural prey. What chance should man have? Zero. Yet, G-d assures Kayin, “You can overcome it.”
Ironically though, Kayin falls prey to sin when he rises up against his brother in envy and kills him. Like the B’nei Yisrael, Kayin would fail. What, then, is the difference between Kayin and the B’nei Yisrael? Why does Kayin get the encouraging and apparently falsely 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 shortcuts and it certainly won’t be an easy, natural or intuitive path, but with the right kind of measures taken, G-d says he can succeed and overcome his natural inclinations! The B’nei Yisrael, on the other hand, are doing pretty well. They have Moshe Rabbeinu leading them and G-d is in their midst taking care of them. They have the Torah and everything seems great. They appear to have real reason to be confident, but G-d argues, “Don’t kid yourselves.” Serving G-d and overcoming the Evil Inclination might be relatively easy when Moshe’s instruction is with them and when G-d’s miracles are still occurring for them. But in the real world, especially when they’re once again exposed to an idolatrous culture, they will realize quickly that remaining loyal to the Torah will not be the norm, and that their only chance at succeeding will be to fight against nature’s current.
Of course, G-d knows that we have Bechirah Chofshis, free choice in the matter. And we too know that by exacting mindful effort, we can make a difference. But we can only do that if we realize that we will not succeed without that intense exertion. We can only do that if we have the will to even put up that fight—if it truly bothers us when G-d and Moshe admits that we will, in all likelihood, we will fail. We have to assume that odds are, we are weak against our inclinations, and that our failure against the Evil Inclination is the status quo. That means that unless we come up with foolproof plans and manipulate our situation, we will not have a chance. It’s not even a matter of merely choosing in our minds to do otherwise and not sin. Our inclinations are a phenomenal force of nature which will fight us vigorously. And we have to realize that as long as our tireless efforts against nature are not there, as long as we do not interrupt the course of nature somehow, we are presumed to sin again. If we will just sit there like the B’nei Yisrael did and let the “odds” lead them where it wants, we will sin again.
Teshuvah, in this way, is supernatural process. In fact, the Gemara in Pesachim [54A] and Nedarim [39B] states that Teshuvah is one of seven things that was created before the world was, let alone, before man could’ve ever sinned. What does it mean that Teshuvah preceded the world? That Teshuvah is a force beyond nature, that man has a hidden ability to condition himself and break the bonds of his natural inclination, if only man would exact his free choice and come up with the right plans to do so.
All of the above could also 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 while 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. If one thinks about it, although we typically have no problem simply muttering “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” to our peers, we’re not very quick to spell 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 insecure, 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, but 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’s our fighting chance. 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.
In the end, as discouraging as they might sound, Hashem and Moshe Rabbeinu want us to succeed and are, in a down to earth way, informing us about what that feat will require. They are 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, there’s not even competition. We will lose. But, we have the hidden alternative option available, the “road less traveled by,” the less than natural option, to put 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, return to Hashem, and allow 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!
-Josh, Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂