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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Rosh Hashanah 5772 "See No Evil"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev[2] was known as the ‘defender of Israel’. No matter the situation, he always seemed to find merit in the actions of even the most blatant of sinners.

On one occasion he met a Jew who was smoking on Shabbos. The rebbe turned to him and asked, “Perhaps you forgot that it is Shabbos today.”

The man replied, "No Rebbe, I know that it is Shabbos.”

“Perhaps you did not realize that you are smoking.”

“And how could a person not know that he was smoking?”

“Perhaps you forgot, or perhaps you never learned, that it is forbidden to smoke on Shabbos.”

“Of course I know that it is forbidden to smoke on Shabbos.”

At that point, Reb Levi Yitzchak turned upwards and called out, "Master of the World, who is like Your people Israel? Even when I gave this Jew every opportunity to lie in order to mitigate his offense, he refused to do so. Where is such scrupulous honesty to be found?”

On another occasion he saw a man outside the Shul during Davening, donned in his tallis and tefillin, oiling the wheels of his buggy. The Berdichever looked heavenward and proclaimed: “Master of the World, look at your wonderful children, even while oiling the wheels of his buggy, this man wears his tallis and tefillin.”

Blia’am stood atop a hill gazing at the Jewish camp intending to curse them bitterly. G-d however, miraculously altered his words so that Bila’am instead lauded the nation with beautiful blessings.

Bila’am admiringly noted the depth of the love G-d has for His people. “He perceived no iniquity in Jacob, and saw no perversity in Israel. Hashem his G-d is with him, ותרועת מלך בו - and the friendship of the king is in him.”

Bila’am used the word ‘teruah’ to refer to the ‘friendship that G-d has with Klal Yisroel, as it were. Bila’am was enamored that because of the friendship and love G-d does not notice the sins of the Jews.

This verse is absolutely astounding. We have been in exile for almost two thousand years. During that time we have endured pogroms, holocausts, inquisitions, blood libels, and massacres. Does G-d really not see any of our sins? If that is really true why are we still languishing in exile and subject to the derision of the world?

Moshe was the consummate leader. His name is forever associated with the title ‘Rabbeinu – our master.’ It was under his leadership that we left Egypt, the transition of Torah came through him, and it was he who came to the defense of the nation repeatedly in the desert. Yet the great Moshe never merited entering the Promised Land.

The Torah states that Moshe was barred entry because of what occurred at the incident of Mei Merivah. The commentators offer numerous explanations in trying to acertain exactly what specifically did Moshe do wrong. One opinion is that Moshe was punished because, in the heat of the moment, he lost himself and derided a group of scoffers[3].

As the nation stood amassed around the rock thirsting for water in the parched desert, the scoffers began to mock Moshe that he was be unable to draw water from the rock. Moshe turned to them and replied[4], “Listen now O rebels, shall we bring forth water to you from this rock?” Moshe was held accountable because in a tense moment of incredible pressure he referred to Jews as rebels.

It is therefore almost shocking that Moshe Rabbeinu seems to have not learned his lesson. Twice in Chumash Devorim, which contains Moshe’s lengthy final discourse to the nation prior to his death, he seems to repeat the same mistake:

“Remember, do not forget, that you provoked Hashem, your G-d, in the wilderness; from the day you left Egypt until your arrival at this place, you have rebelled against Hashem.[5]

“For I know your rebelliousness and stiff neck; behold, while I am alive with you today you have been rebellious against Hashem, and surely after my death.”

Additionally, it doesn’t seem that Moshe was held accountable for the two times that he referred to the rebelliousness of the Jews in Chumash Devarim. Why was he punished so severely at the debacle with the rock, yet was not held accountable when he repeated it in Devorim?

Rabbi Shlomo Ostra zt’l[6] explains that there is an integral difference between what Moshe said at the incident with the rock and what he said to them in his last will and testament. The difference is that at the rock Moshe called them rebels, whereas later on he made reference to their rebellious nature.

The difference can be understood with the following analogy: A young child watches how whenever his parents want something, they go to the local store, take out some money from their wallet, and hand it to the cashier who happily allows them to take whatever they need. One day the child decides that he wants a chocolate bar. When his mother refuses to buy it for him, he sneaks into her room, takes a few bills out of her wallet, goes to the store and buys it for himself.

When the child’s parents realize what he did they have two options of how to respond: They can scream at him for being a thief, in which case the child will hear that he is a thief and thieves steal things from others. Or they can gently explain to him that being that he is such a good boy it is not befitting someone like him to take something that doesn’t belong to him. That would be stealing and good boys don’t steal.

In the first approach the parents have labeled their child as a stealer. In the second approach they have called his attention to the fact that he stole, but that he himself is better than that.

This is a vital principle in education: Define the problem, but don’t label the child! If we label a child he will live up to the label. If we delineate the problem however, we can help him work to eliminate it.

When Moshe addresses the nation shortly prior to his passing he warns them that their conduct has been rebellious and unbecoming. He implores them to improve by explaining to them that as the great Chosen People they must be wary of their imperfections. At that point Moshe does not label them. Rather, as a loving teacher, he points out to them how they can, and must, improve.

At the debacle with the rock however, Moshe responded with a subtle tinge of anger. There he referred to them - and labeled them - as rebels. In his frustration Moshe defined them as people who were intrinsically flawed. On his lofty level, Moshe was held accountable for that momentary subtle loss of control, and for that he was denied entry into Eretz Yisroel.

One of the passages that we recite in vidui (confession) during selichos and throughout the Yom Kippur prayers states, “סרנו ממצותיך ומשפטיך הטובים ולא שוה לנו - We have turned away from your commandments and from Your good judgments, and it was not worth it.” Simply understood, we are declaring that the benefit we had from sinning wasn’t worth it. It is a declaration of regret and apology.

Rabbi Elya Meir Bloch zt’l explained that there is another understanding of these words: We declare that we turned away from the commandments and judgments, “and it wasn’t equal to us[7]”. In other words, we now realize that it was unbecoming and unfitting for us to commit such sins.

Part of repentance entails a realization that although we committed many sins, we are not inherently sinners. Our sins do not define us. In the recesses of our souls we are still loyal and committed. It is only our Evil Inclination which overwhelms us and leads us astray.

This is not merely a nice thought but a vital understanding. If a person views himself as a lowly sinner, than of what use is his repentance? Why should he even bother to confess and undergo the process of repentance? If he’s a lowly creep by nature it is not in his purview to change who he is.

But if one understands that his sins – numerous as they might be – do not comprise his essence, than he will strive to nullify them from his conscience, and begin anew.

Bila’am did not declare that G-d does not see any sins that the Jewish Nation commits. [In fact one is not allowed to believe that G-d does not take note of everything that occurs[8].] Rather, Bila’am stated that G-d ‘perceived no iniquity in Yaakov’. In other words, G-d sees and notes every sin they commit. However, He views our sins as extrinsic because intrinsically, “My G-d, the soul You have placed within me is pure.”

As a People we have committed many sins which we need to rectify. However, G-d does not see them as being ‘in Yaakov’, as part of us. Rather, he view our evil deeds as extraneous and not comprising our essence.

It is for that reason that G-d judges us even more harshly for our sins. A fool who acts foolishly can hardly be held accountable for his folly. But a prince who acts like a fool is held to a higher standard, and therefore his punishment is with added severity.

Why does G-d view us in this manner? Because “ותרועת מלך בו - the friendship of the king is in him.” G-d loves us and sees us as a close friend views a comrade who has made serious mistakes. Although the friend is certainly aware of his friend’s culpability, he still remains dedicated to helping his friend because he knows the goodness that his friend possesses, and that he is better and above the mistakes he has committed.

Throughout our prayers we invoke the merits of our ancestors. In doing so we are declaring that, although we are sullied and mired in sin, we want G-d to recall our genealogy. Our greatness is in our very genes and therefore we pray that G-d grant us the opportunity to rectify what we have done. In so doing we will be able to reconnect with our true selves and the greatness which lays dormant within us.

The day of Rosh Hashanah is termed ‘Yom Teruah’[9]. This does not only refer to the blowing of the shofar, but as in the context of Bila’am’s words, a day of Divine closeness and friendship, as it were.

G-d sees us as transcending our sins. The question is if we have as much confidence in ourselves as our Creator[10]?

“We have turned away and it was not worth it”

“The friendship of the king is in him”

[1] Based on the speech given at Kehillat New Hempstead, first day of Rosh Hashanah 5771. The core idea is based on a beautiful lecture by Rabbi Zev Leff.

[2] 1740-1809

[3] Rambam, Shmonah Perakim (his introduction to Avos)

[4] Bamidbar 20:11

[5] Devorim 9:7

[6] Disciple of the Rashba

[7] The word שוה literally means equal or worth it

[8] Gemara Bava Kama 50a– “Whoever says that G-d is a ותרן (loosely translated as a ‘pushover’) let his life be pushed over”

[9] Bamidbar 29:1

[10] The question is also if we see the negative qualities of our fellow Jews as being extrinsic or intrinsic? That is a very poignant question!

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