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Rabbi Doniel Staum on Parshios Netzovim-Vayelech 5769
What a Life
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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The horrific events involving the Mumbai massacre are still vivid and fresh in our minds. Along with the other kedoshim[1] who were killed in the Chabad house, the hosts, Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkie Holtzberg, were murdered by Islamic fascist terrorists, for no reason other than the fact that they were Jews.

Gavriel and Rivkie Holtzberg moved to Mumbai in 2003 as Chabad emissaries, to ensure that there was a warm and welcoming Torah home for all those passing through Mumbai. Some people stayed for a night, or a Shabbos, others for a month. But everyone who stayed in their home described the Holtzberg’s warmth and devotion to all their guests.

During the week of shiva mourning after the massacre, a woman entered the home of Mrs. Yehudis Rosenberg, Rivkie Holtzberg’s mother, and handed her a package. When Mrs. Rosenberg opened the package she was shocked to find that it contained one of Rivkie’s nicest Shabbos dresses, as well as her diamond ring.

The visitor explained that while she was vacationing in India some months before, she had been apprehended for illegal activities and was imprisoned. As soon as she was let out she hurried to the Chabad house in Mumbai where Rivkie welcomed her in. Rivkie urged her to escape the country as soon as possible. When the woman expressed her concern that if she was noticed by airport security she might be detained, Rivkie gave her one of her Shabbos dresses as well as her diamond ring, so the woman would look respectable and not appear like a fugitive.

The strategy worked and the woman was able to leave the country without further issue. Now she had come to return the borrowed items. Mrs. Rosenberg told the woman that a few months before she had asked Rivkie where her ring was. Rivkie curtly replied that the ring (like her) was on ‘shlichus[2]’!

The final parshios of the Torah contain Moshe’s last will and testament. (Devorim 30:15-19) “See – have placed before you today the life and the good, and the death and the evil… and you shall choose life, in order that you shall live, you and your children.”

It is obvious that the Torah is not referring to “life” in the classical sense, because any rational person would choose life over death. Even a young child does not need to be told to choose honey over ammonia. Moshe was obviously speaking about a higher mission of life; to choose a life of meaning and purpose.

The commentators offer many explanations, each with a poignant and integral message apropos for the days preceding the Days of Awe. The following is one such approach[3]:

During the Ten days of Penitence from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur we add a few insertions into our prayers. In the opening blessing of Shemoneh Esrei we pray, “Remember us for life, King who desires life, and record us in the Book of Life, for Your sake, the Living G-d!” In the second blessing we insert, “Who is like you Father of Compassion, Who remembers His Creations for life in His compassion!”

The Sages explain that Shemoneh Esrei was composed to reflect the manner in which a servant would approach a king to beseech his needs. He opens by praising the king, and speaking of the king’s greatness. Then he proceeds to mention his own personal requests and needs. After he concludes his own needs, he thanks the king and speaks about the king’s kindness and beneficence.

So too, the first three blessings of Shemoneh Esrei are devoted to praising G-d and proclaiming His inimitable greatness. The middle thirteen blessings detail our petitions and requests from G-d, and the concluding three blessings are dedicated to thanksgiving and gratitude.

If so, how/why do we breach that format by inserting a personal request during the Ten days of Penitence? Why do we have the right to request life in the opening blessings which are dedicated to praising G-d?

In addition, we must understand the meaning of the prayer, “For Your sake, the Living G-d”. What is the meaning behind our request that G-d grants us life for His sake because He is the Living Eternal G-d?

The Ibn Ezra[4] writes an incredible idea: “Ki Hachayim Haim Le’ahavah” – Because life is for love!” It is understood that true love connotes giving selflessly and altruistically. Thus, in other words, the Torah defines life as a means to perform acts of kindness, to assist others, and to promote unity and goodness.

When Moshe exhorted the nation to choose life, he was not referring to mundane life. Rather, on his final day, he was encouraging the nation to pursue a life of giving and altruism, for that would ensure the continuity of the nation and its ability to endure.

In a similar vein, when we request life in the opening blessing of Shemoneh Esrei during the Ten days of Penitence, we are begging G-d to grant us life as the Torah defines it, a life of higher purpose and Imitatio Dei.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lutzzato explains that G-d is titled the Living G-d because He is completely selfless and giving! G-d needs nothing and therefore cannot be a recipient. By the virtue of the fact that He is “All Giving”, He is a being of pristine and complete life!

We ask G-d to grant us life for His sake, because He is the Living G-d. In other words, we desire to live a life as G-d lives, devoted to giving and helping others. Asking for that type of life is wholly appropriate, even in the opening blessings of Shemoneh Esrei, because the desire to live such a life is of the greatest praise we can offer G-d.

A woman once approached noted lecturer, Rabbi Leib Kellerman, and emphatically stated that, she was imminently traveling to the United States to undergo a procedure that would ensure that she would never be able to bear children. She explained that she felt that anyone who would bring a child into our selfish and morally depraved world was themselves immoral and selfish. Before heading off, she wanted to know his opinion about the matter.

Rabbi Kellerman replied by relating to her the following parable:

An aspiring young woman decided that she wanted to become the Chief Surgeon in a prominent hospital. She worked diligently throughout High School, College, Premed, Med school, and through her internship, and residency. While her friends partied and lived it up, she was busy studying and applying herself relentlessly to her dream. She eventually began her work as a surgeon and was extremely successful. Her prestige continued to grow as did her success, and she rapidly climbed the ranks.

Finally the day arrived when she was promoted to the position she always dreamed of. After the ceremony, she was preparing to enter the Operating Room for the first time as Chief Surgeon when a young man burst out, white as a ghost. He looked at her with terror in his eyes and cried out, “Don’t go in there! It’s terrible! There’s blood and guts all over the place. The room is full of disease and the patient is so sick. For your own sanity, run the other way!”

The Chief Surgeon looked at him and calmly replied, “I know exactly what awaits me in that room. But this is what I always wanted to do. I lived my life so that I could help others in the most profound way possible. True, it is not a pretty sight. But to be able to give someone a second lease on life is the greatest gift possible.” With that, she proceeded through the double doors and disappeared.

Rabbi Kellerman explained, “If you’re purpose on this world is for pleasure, enjoyment, and self-gratification then this world is indeed a cruel and vicious place, and you indeed have no business bringing new life into such a selfish world. However, if you view life as an opportunity to give and to provide, and if you see life as a chance to love, cherish, and comfort, then this world is replete with opportunity. If you see life in this vein then what greater world is there in which to raise children and a new generation?!”

One who lives life for his own enjoyment is truly hard-pressed to ask for life during the opening blessings of Shemoneh Esrei. But one who understands that his temporal life is a place of opportunity where he must grab every chance to assist and love others, has the right to ask for life at the beginning of his prayers!

“And you shall choose life”

“Because life is for love!”

If you are interested in receiving Stam Torah via email each week, send your address to:

[1] “Holy ones”

[2] Shlichus is the term used in Chabad circles for being sent out with the mission of helping others come closer to G-d.

[3] The following thought was adapted from the lecture delivered by my friend and mentor, Rabbi Yehoshua Kohl shlita in Kehillat New Hempstead, on the first day of Rosh Hashana 5769.

[4] On the aforementioned verse 30:19. The students of Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe zt’l relate that Rabbi Wolbe would repeat these immortal words of the Ibn Ezra constantly.

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