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Rabbi Doniel Staum on Parshas Ki Savo 5768 - Withstanding It All
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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One hot summer day in south Florida, a little boy decided to go for a swim in the old swimming hole behind his house. In a hurry to dive into the cool water, he ran out the back door, leaving behind shoes, socks, and shirt as he went. He flew into the water, not realizing that as he swam toward the middle of the lake, an alligator was swimming toward the shore.

His father, working in the yard, saw the two as they got closer and closer together. In utter fear, he ran toward the water, yelling to his son as loudly as he could.

Hearing his voice, the little boy became alarmed and quickly turned to swim toward his father. It was too late. Just as he reached his father, the alligator reached him.

From the dock, the father grabbed his little boy by the arms just as the alligator snatched his legs. A horrible tug-of-war ensued. The alligator was much stronger than the father, but the father was much too passionate to let go.

A farmer happened to drive by, heard the screams, raced from his truck, took aim and shot the alligator.

Remarkably, after weeks in the hospital, the little boy survived. His legs were extremely scarred by the vicious attack. And, on his arms, were deep scratches where his father’s fingernails dug into his flesh in his effort to hold on to his son.

The newspaper reporter, who interviewed the boy after the trauma, asked if he would show him his scars. The boy lifted his pant legs. Then, with obvious pride, he said to the reporter, “But look at my arms. I have great scars on my arms, too. These marks are because my Dad wouldn’t let go.”

Shortly prior to his death, Moshe related to Klal Yisroel the chilling and frightening prophecy of the horrors that would befall them if they would not hearken to the Torah and its commandments. It is known as “the Tochacha- Rebuke”. Before the Torah recounts the dire consequences that would result from the nation’s sins, it states the multitudes of blessings that they would be showered with if they observe the Torah properly. The blessings commence with the following opening:

“It shall be that if you hearken to the voice of Hashem, your G-d, to observe, to perform all of His commandments that I command you this day, then Hashem, your G-d, will make you supreme over all the nations of the earth. ובאו עליך כל הברכות האלו והשיגוך – All of these blessings will come upon you and they will overtake you.” (28:1-2)

What does the Torah mean that the blessings will overtake you?

Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pershischa zt’l explained that, at times, people are blessed with goodness that they cannot, or do not, appreciate. Either they do not realize the magnitude of the blessing or they don’t appreciate what they have been granted. The promise of “והשיגוך” that “the blessings will overtake you” is that G-d will ensure that one will have the ability to realize, appreciate, and enjoy the great blessings bestowed upon him.

Rabbi Avrohom Schorr shlita notes that the Torah utilizes the same terminology in reference to the curses and punishments of the tochacha. "והיה אם לא תשמעו בקול ה' אלקיך.. ובאו עליך כל הקללות האלה והשגוך". – But it will be that if you do not hearken to the voice of Hashem, your G-d… then all these curses will come upon you and overtake you (28:15). According to the explanation of Rabbi Simcha Bunim how are we to understand the concept of והשגוך in reference to the curses? How can a person be expected to appreciate curses that befall him?

The holy Skulener Rebbe, Rabbi Eliezer Zusia Portugal zt’l was a man of incredible compassion, concern, and love for his fellow Jew. When he was a young man he did everything in his power to convince young Jewish men not to enter the Romanian army, because of the deleterious effect such a post would inevitably have on one’s spiritual state. Instead, he convinced them to go to a yeshiva where they could learn Torah. When the Romanian authorities got wind of his “sedition” they incarcerated him in a dank prison cell.

It was well known that when the Rebbe would pray he would do so with incredible passion and concentration. With nothing else in the squalidness of his cell he began to pray by heart, focusing and pondering every word he said. When the Rebbe was reciting the “Baruch She’amar (Blessed is He who uttered)” prayer, recited as the opening prayer of pesukei d’zimrah (Verses of Praise), he reached a phrase that troubled him. “Blessed is He Who uttered and the world came into existence… ברוך גוזר ומקיים - blessed is He Who decrees and fulfills.” These words just don’t seem to fit in. The whole prayer is a song of praise to G-d for His blessings and goodness. Decrees on the other hand, are generally harsh and unpleasant. Why mention them here? Furthermore, why is it a great praise to say that G-d fulfills His decrees; doesn’t any honest person keep his word?

After pondering the question for some time the Rebbe had an epiphany. The word, “ומקיים (umikayem)” does not only mean “and He fulfills” but it also means “and He sustains”. In other words, G-d makes decrees that are often harsh and seemingly overbearing but He also infuses the recipient of the decree with the strength to endure and persevere despite the difficult conditions. “Blessed is He who decrees and sustains”, i.e. He sustains the subject of the decree.

A few days later the Rebbe was released from his imprisonment. Every year on the anniversary of his release he would recount this thought and remind his followers that, although we are often challenged with tests and difficulties in life, we must remember that the same G-d who put us in the predicament also grants us the strength and fortitude to bear it and persevere.

The curses of the tochacha are severe and frightening. Indeed, less than a century ago our people bore witness to their veracity. We do not have explanations for any of those events and, in this finite world, we never will. We cannot fathom why a million innocent holy children were brutally murdered in the most savage manner, nor can we imagine why even one pure child suffers and is r’l taken from this world. It is simply beyond us. However, we take solace in the knowledge that G-d who loves us in the most profound manner gives us the strength to endure it and suffers along with us. The pain may not be mitigated, the nightmares may persist, and the personal anguish may linger perpetually, but somehow one is able to go on. One need look no further than at how the Torah world has rebuilt a scant 65 years after the horrors of World War II. It is undoubtedly the greatest display of resilience in the history of the world. “Blessed is He who decrees and sustains.”

The Torah states that if Klal Yisroel does not hearken to the commandments of G-d, the curses will overtake them. As the Skulener Rebbe explained, G-d grants us the strength to withstand our trials and tribulations and somehow foster resilience to live on. That is the promise of the curses “overtaking you”. Blessings are only meaningful if one has the ability to appreciate them and reap their benefits. In a similar vein, tragedies and challenges become invaluable growth experiences when we are able to grow because of them.

The verse in Tehillim (22:2) foreshadows the desperate prayer that Queen Esther beseeched of G-d as she was unlawfully perparing to enter the chamber of King Achashveirosh in order to plead for the lives of her people, “קלי קלי למה עזבתני – My G-d! My G-d! Why have you forsaken me?”

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch zt’l comments that the word “למה (lamah)” should be read, “Limah – for what”. It should be read as a question, “My G-d! My G-d! For what (purpose) have you forsaken me?” In other words, in the face of tragedy and challenge one should ponder what G-d expects of him at that time. How can he grow from the experience and elevate himself because of it. What growth does G-d want to see from him through this event?

At a speech he gave at last year’s Torah Umesorah convention (June 2008), Rabbi Dr. Yitzchok Lob (Chicago) related the following story: Throughout his life the holy Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, better known as the Ba’al HaTanya, would be the ba’al koreh (the reader of the Torah) in his shul (synagogue).

The year after his death, a different member of the congregation became the ba’al koreh. When it came time to read the tochacha the ba’al koreh began to read it quickly and in a low tone, as is customary. Not long after he began, Rabbi Dov Ber, the son and successor of the Baal HaTanya, let out a sigh and promptly fainted. They quickly revived him, but as soon as the ba’al koreh resumed reading the tochacha the Rebbe fainted again. Needless to say it was a very painful experience. Afterwards, the Chassidim asked Rabbi Dov Ber why he had been so shaken by the tochacha. True they were frightening words but they were the same words that he had heard his father read for so many decades. The Rebbe shook his head and responded, “It’s not the way my father read it!”

Rabbi Lob offered the following explanation of the Rebbe’s cryptic response: When we read the horrific account of the tochacha one may think that, heaven forbid, G-d is punishing out of wrath, adopting punitive measures and seeking retribution for the iniquitous. However this is an egregious misunderstanding. Chazal explain that G-d suffers along with us, as it were. “When he calls on Me, I will answer him; I am with him in distress, I will deliver him and honor him.” (Tehillim 91) It is the concept of shechinta b’galusa – that the Divine Presence descended into exile with us and will remain with us until the final redemption. Furthermore, whenever one is suffering G-d’s presence rests alongside him/her and they weep together, as it were.

When the Ba’al haTanya read the tochacha, his son was able to hear the pain of G-d, as it were, behind the curses. He detected the heartache of a loving father forced to chastise and discipline his son in order to ensure his son’s maturation, in a manner which the child cannot comprehend. Painful and horrible as it was, the feeling of love behind the rebuke made it tolerable to hear. But when another person read the words, Rabbi Dov Ber did not hear the love behind the rebuke. He only heard the chilling and terrifying words and, therefore, he could not bear to listen to it.

No one wants to be tested and surely no one wants to suffer pain and anguish. But one must always remember that when, G-d forbid, one does suffer, his Eternal Celestial Father suffers and cries along with him. It is not a hyperbolic statement, but rather a truism. That knowledge alone is the greatest source of consolation and inspiration.

The gemara (Megilla 31b) states that the tochacha is read close to the conclusion of the year to symbolize our hope that the year conclude with its curses so that the new year can begin with its blessings, "תכלה שנה וקללותיה תחל שנה וברכותיה". We not only pray for a year of blessing but also for the insight and ability to appreciate all of the blessings that we have, especially the blessing of being a Jew, who possesses a special relationship with His Father in Heaven.

“My G-d! My G-d! For what have you forsaken me?”

“I am with him in distress; I will deliver him and honor him”

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