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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Netzovim-Vayelech 5774
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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“I want to speak about Shabbos because it’s such a foundation of Judaism. We must speak about the dimensions of Shabbos and what Shabbos used to be for Jews. It puts it into our consciousness and can help us penetrate more into what Shabbos is all about; it has become so commercialized today.

“My Rebbe used to say that when two drunks have no money for schnapps, they talk about schnapps.

“Let’s talk about what Shabbos is:

“The gemara[1] says that on Shabbos your speech must be different…The Yerushalmi sheds light on this: On Shabbos the world was complete, and there were no more utterances from G-d, no more of G-d’s commands. Just like the Creator of the World observes Shabbos, so must we. This entails curbing one’s speech on Shabbos.

“This is puzzling; the crown of man lies in his koach hadibbur, his ability to speak and communicate. How can it be that on the holiest day of the week he shouldn’t use that ability which is so central to his essence, to the fullest extent?

“I asked the son of the malach[2] who lives in Albany, ‘Did your father sleep on Shabbos?’ He told me, ‘Not Friday night, not Motzei Shabbos, nor Yom Tov.’ The malach understood that Shabbos was too precious to be wasted.

“By not talking on Shabbos you’re connecting with the Divine Presence…”

(Harav Shlomo Freifeld zt’l, lecture given at a Kiddush on a Shabbos morning[3])

On the final day of his life, Moshe gathered together every member of the Jewish people - from prestigious to simple, old and young, men and women - to urge them to be faithful to the covenant. “אתם נצבים היום - You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem, your G-d; the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers….for you to pass into the covenant of Hashem, your G-d, and into His imprecation that Hashem, your G-d, seals with you today. In order to establish you today as a people to Him…”

Rashi explains that Moshe gathered the nation en masse because he was about to pass the mantle of leadership to his successor Yehoshua. Moshe arranged the ‘standing ceremony’ in order to exhort the nation one final time to not lose sight of their mission. Rashi adds that a similar standing ceremony transpired shortly before the mantle of leadership transferred from Yehoshua at the end of his life, and then again shortly before the leadership transferred from Shmuel to King Shaul.

What was the purpose of having a ‘standing ceremony’? Why couldn’t they sit and listen to Moshe’s exhortation? What message was Moshe trying to convey by emphasizing the fact that they were standing at that time?

Harav Elya Meir Bloch zt’l explained that the word ‘stand’ in our context does not refer to the physical act of standing on one’s feet, but rather to the concept of standing immobile, (i.e. standing still).

Rabbi Yissacher Frand quotes Rabbi Bloch’s answer: “Life is very hectic. If we were left to our own devices, we would rarely take the time to stop and think. Like gerbils running around on a spinning wheel, we would just keep running and running without thinking where we came, where we are trying to go, and how we are going to get there. We would go from home to shul, from shul to work, work to home, and then go to sleep, only to wake up and start the same race all over again the next morning.

“If we want to succeed in life, we need to have direction. We must know what we are trying to achieve in life and come up with a plan to reach those goals. We are unlikely to take stock of what we have achieved and what we still have to accomplish on a daily basis (although we should probably do so), so it is absolutely vital that we take stock when we reach a transition point in life.

“This is what Moshe, Yehoshua, and Shmuel had in mind in bringing Klal Yisroel to a standstill when it came time for each one to hand the reins to his perspective heir, says Rabbi Bloch. They used the momentous occasion of a ‘changing of the guard’ to point out that the nation-at-large was at a major crossroads, and that such a crucial moment calls for serious introspection.

“We undergo many defining moments in our lives: the beginning of high school, yeshivah gedolah, or seminary; getting married; having a first child; and marrying off a child are all occasions when we should stop and think: What was I supposed to achieve up to now? What am I supposed to achieve in the next stage of life? How can I accomplish all that I want to accomplish?

“It is easy to fall into a humdrum routine and go through life without making much of ourselves. If we just go from one stage in life to the next without coming to a standstill and thinking about our past and future, we are guaranteed not to achieve much in life. Moshe brought the nation to a standstill and caused them to take note of the defining moment they had reached so they would not squander the opportunity to take stock of their spiritual standing.”

The recitation of selichos always begins on Motzei Shabbos[4]. The pizmon[5] of the first night’s selichos begins with the words, “במוצאי מנוחה קדמנוך תחלה – At the departure of (the day of) rest, we have come before You (G-d) for the first time[6].” The prayer does not merely state that after the departure of the Shabbos we began reciting selichos, but specifically after the departure of the day of rest. It could have just as simply and poetically stated, “at the departure of the holy (day)” or “at the departure of the coveted (day)”. Why is the aspect of resting on Shabbos singled out as the prelude for reciting selichos?

In order to answer that question we must understand what it means that Shabbos is a “day of rest”. It does not simply refer to a cessation and rest from physical laborious activities. In the afternoon shemone esrei of Shabbos we refer to the aspect of rest on Shabbos in glowingly lofty terms: “A day of rest and holiness You granted to Your nation… A rest of love and donation; a rest of truth and faith; a rest of peace and tranquility, of quiet and security; a complete rest that You desire in it…”

Although relaxation and enjoyment are surely integral components of Shabbos, they fall under the umbrella of oneg Shabbos, enjoyment on Shabbos.[7] But it is different than the concept of menucha on Shabbos.

Rabbi Shimshon Pinkus zt’l explains that built into creation is the concept that exertion breeds fatigue. After working for a certain amount of time one becomes tired which necessitates that he rest/sleep before being able to resume working.

Life in this world is a constant struggle between body (physical) and soul (spiritual). Those two diverse forces are always at odds with each other. In order to survive in this world one must involve himself in physical pursuits. Too much involvement in the physicality of the world however, will inevitably detract from one’s spiritual pursuits and focus.

Rabbi Pinkus explains that when one involves himself in physical labor his overwhelming focus is on his physical self. For that time, he somewhat neglects his spiritual self. It is for that reason that G-d created the concept of tiredness and exhaustion. We become tired, not really because our strength has ebbed, but because we have become too far removed from our spiritual selves which serves as our connection to G-d, the source of life.

When one feels tired it is G-d’s reminder to him that he must reevaluate his spiritual level. He must not allow himself to become so distracted by the mundane that his spiritual connectedness becomes severed and withered. If a person was able to work without tiring, we can only imagine how involved people would become in their work and pursuits at the expense of his spiritual responsibilities and obligations.

In other words, every time one yawns and feels fatigued he should view its message as a reminder that he must not allow himself to become too distracted from his spiritual obligations.

After creating the world in six days and involving Himself in its formation, G-d rested on the seventh day, as it were. In so doing G-d demonstrated that one who is involved in this world for too long will grow tired and must withdraw from it in order to regain his depleted energy.

That is the definition of the menucha - rest of Shabbos. It is a rest from physical pursuits providing the opportunity for one to refocus. It is a detachment from our involvement with the physical world so that we do not stray from our true selves and purpose. Shabbos is a day of realignment with the Source of life, and our responsibilities to our Creator.[8] On Shabbos we rest from the business of the week where we lose sight of what is truly important.

With this in mind, we can understand why we begin reciting selichos specifically after Shabbos, the Day of Rest. It is only after spending a day contemplating and taking stock of our spiritual level and reminding ourselves of our priorities and ultimate goals that we are truly ready to commence the arduous process of penitence. The High Holy Days are by definition “days of rest” in the sense that they are a time when we seek to break the monotony of the daily drone by infusing our lives with inspiration and desire for spiritual ascension and renewal. The aspect of spiritual rest granted on Shabbbos serves as the perfect segue for the commencement of the recitation of selichos and the final stretch leading up to the awesome Days of Judgment.

Parshas Netzovim is invariably read shortly prior to Rosh Hashanah. The parsha opens with the nation standing, gathered together in silent contemplation of their current standing along with their future hopes and goals. There could hardly be any more appropriate prelude for Rosh Hashanah.

“You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem, your G-d”

“A rest of love and donation… a complete rest that You desire…”

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[1] Shabbos 113b

[2] Rabbi Chaim Avrohom Dov Ber Levine HaCohen

[3] From the book, “Reb Shlomo” about Rav Shlomo Freifeld zt’l

[4] For Askanazim. Sefardim begin reciting Selichos at the beginning of Elul.

[5] hymn recited responsively

[6] i.e. we have now begun reciting the selichos – the prayers for forgiveness

[7] When one demonstrates his love for the holy and sanctified day it is equally a testament to one’s desire to be close with G-d, as it were. But that is the obligation of oneg Shabbos.

[8] Rabbi Pinkus adds that, in truth, according to this idea the physical world should cease to function throughout Shabbos; rain should not fall, plants should not grow. The reason that does not occur is because through our reconnection with our spiritual selves on Shabbos we are able to recognize the entire physical world as a medium for holiness. The reason why we would need to completely remove ourselves from the physical world on Shabbos is because that world serves as a detraction from our spirituality. However, if we are able to view the physical world as a means to achieve spirituality (as we do on Shabbos when delicious food, added sleep, and general enjoyment are part and parcel of proper Shabbos observance) then we need not remove ourselves from those enjoyments and benefits.

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