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Parashat Nitzavim

Dedicated in Honor of my wife Frieda by Isaac Yedid

Parashat Nitzavim

The Parasha begins with the Pasuk: "Atem nitzavim hayom kull'achem lifnei Hashem Elokechem." "You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem your God." Moshe is telling B'nei Yisrael: You made it! You came through the desert for 40 years and you reached your destination, Israel the Promised Land is just beyond the Jordan River! Rashi presents a Midrash that explains why Moshe spoke these words right after last weeks parasha Ki Tavo that listed all the K'lalot (curses) which will befall B'nei Yisrael if they deviate from the words of the Torah. The reason is that when B'nei Yisrael heard the 98 curses, they turned pale, asking, "Who can possibly endure these curses?" This verse is the reply with which Moses appeased them: he assured them that they are still standing and ready to accept their role as G-d's chosen people. Rabbi Frand comments that it’s the same for us today, think for a moment what Moshe Rabbeinu is doing here. This appeasement appears to be self-defeating. The whole purpose of the curses was to put the ‘Fear of G-d’ in the people. The curses were very effective, the people were scared stiff. He accomplished what every leader wants to accomplish — he shook them up, but now he seems to be undoing the whole thing. “Don’t worry, you’ve gotten away with a lot in the past, etc…” Doesn’t this destroy the whole impact of the Rebuke?

Many commentaries direct us to a very simple truth. There is a vast difference between ‘The Fear of G-d’ and hopelessness. It is one thing to be afraid and frightened and nervous about the future. It is a totally different thing to feel that the situation is hopeless. That is what had happened, when Jews gave up hope and throw in the towel. The worst thing that any Jew can do is to give up hope. This is a lesson we should all bear in mind as we approach the Day of Judgment. The Yom HaDin is nothing to take lightly. It is serious business. If we really understood, honestly understood what it was about, we would be scared and frightened.

But this is not the same as looking at the situation as hopeless. Hopelessness is not a Jewish characteristic. Never give up hope. Our Rabbi’s tell us that after the destruction of the Temple, “all the Gates (which prayers travel through) were closed, except for the Gates of Tears”[Bava Metzia 59a]. It is much more difficult for our prayers topenetrate the Heavenly Court after the destruction of the Temple. But there is one Gate that remains open — the Gates of our Tears.

It is said that the Kotzker Rebbe asked: if the Gates of Tears never close, then what is the purpose of the Gates? A gate implies that some get in and some do not. He answered that tears of desperation don’t get through. When a person cries because he feels he needs the help of G-d, when the tears represent the innermost and purest of a person’s thoughts (‘the sweat of the soul’) those tears have terrific power. But not if they are tears of helplessness and hopelessness — those tears don’t get in and that is why the gates are necessary.

We are now within one week of Rosh HaShanah and we are also still standing! We're approaching the last days of the month of Elul and we're preparing for Rosh Hashanah, when Hashem will judge us all for this past year and He will determine whether to grant us a healthy and prosperous new year. There's a Gemara in Masechet Rosh Hashanah (18a), that discusses two people who are suffering with the same exact life-threatening illness and two others who are dealing with the same exact financial crisis. The ones who have the disease pray to Hashem for a Refuah and the two who have the financial problem pray for financial help. One person in each situation is answered and the other one is not. So the question is asked: "Why was one answered and the other one not answered?" Rashi answers this question, explaining that one prayed with Kavanah (concentration) and the other one didn't. Rabbi Lopian comments that it’s impossible that a person who is sick with a life-threatening disease or someone with a financial crisis will not pray with great Kavanah from his heart! So Rabbi Lopian answers, that what Rashi is saying is that one person didn't really believe that Hashem would be able to help him and the other did. If you believe that Hashem will help, those prayers are answered. We have to pray with Kavanah, and that means a strong belief that Hashem will actually come to our rescue!

As Jews we must believe that Hashem is there for us and will help us like a father, because He is our father in heaven, but we must truly believe that He has the power to help us. That's why when we pray on Rosh Hashanah we recite the words: "Avinu Malkenu" which means, "Our father, Our king". We pray to Hashem as our father first because our own father wants to give us everything but he may not be able to. But then we pray to Hashem as "Our King" because as a king, He has the ability to give us anything we want, including a Refuah or good Parnasah or anything else that we may feel is beyond the reach of our father.

Rabbi Diamond elaborates on this concept to explain how Hashem's mercy is with us through the following parable; "A father has a son who gets addicted to drugs and no matter what the father does, he can't get the son to straighten out and get off his drug habit. Eventually the son runs away. Then one day, many years later, the son calls the father and he just says these six words to his father: "DAD, I WANT TO COME HOME!" So the father says to his son, "Ok son, I'll come and get you. Where are you?" And the son says, "But Dad, I'm addicted to drugs!" The father says, "Don't worry, son. I'll send you to rehab and you'll get off the drugs!" The son answers, "But Dad, I'm sick!" And the father says, "Don't worry, son, I'll get you the best doctors to take care of you and make you better!"

That parable is about us; all our lives we may have committed certain sins and now years later, all we have to do is tell Hashem, our father in heaven one thing: "I want to come home" and Hashem will take us back with open arms and forgive us, but we just have to take that first step! On Rosh Hashanah we must recognize Hashem as our King of Kings in Heaven, "Melech HaMelachim," and even though we keep on repeating the same sin over and over again, even if it’s been a thousand times, still Hashem as our boss in heaven doesn't fire us. He has unlimited patience and gives us a chance to make Teshuvah every year, if we choose to take advantage of this gift of Teshuvah that Hashem gives us!

Rabbi Diamond also taught us two very important rules to remember...

1) Teshuvah is Easy; all we have to do is grab on to it and not let go!

2) Don't look back; don't get stuck in the mud; forget the sin and move forward!

The following story is told by Rabbi Moshe Zeldman about his father Baruch Zeldman who was born in the town of Simferopol, Russia in 1934. He was nine years old when Russia entered World War Two to fight against the Nazi threat. His childhood mostly consisted of him, his 15-year-old sister, their mother and grandmother fleeing eastward as the Nazis pushed further into Russia. They lived in bombed out buildings, basement shelters, overflowing refugee centers and sometimes open fields where, after days of traveling by foot, they’d just dropped from exhaustion. Nourishment often consisted of furtively digging potatoes out of the frozen ground of local farmers in the middle of the night.

The Russian government, trying to protect their citizens, sent hundreds of them, including my father and his family, on a large barge that traveled east down the river. They would stop at neighboring villages and ask locals to take in families. The response in most places was, “We’ll take anybody but Jews.” As the days wore on and rations were running low, my father, at this point seven or eight years old, was getting quite sick and weak. At every stop, they were desperately hoping for a salvation. Finally, a young, non-Jewish Russian woman came to the port and said, “I want to take in a Jewish family.” Her name was Mavra and my father and his family lived with her for many months. She saved their lives. Throughout the long, cold Russian winter she fed them, gave them shelter and taught them how to milk the cows, harvest the crops and fix machinery.

But as the Nazis grew ever closer, my father and his family had to pick up and leave. He vividly remembers a conversation that took place as they were saying goodbye to Mavra. “You saved our lives and there’s no way we can repay you. You’re not Jewish. Why did you specifically ask to take in a Jewish family?” Mavra replied, “Years ago when I was young, my parents were imprisoned by the Russians for anti-communist activity. I was alone, and the government sent me to Siberia for two years. After a train ride that lasted days, I arrived late one night at the station in Siberia. I didn’t know a soul, I had no money, and it was absolutely freezing outside. I had no idea how I was going to survive the night, never mind two years! “And then, out of nowhere, a man appeared and offered to take me into his home. They didn’t have much but they made me a part of their family. They clothed me, fed me and saved my life. But there were a few things that were strange about them. They were always deeply immersed in these big books written in a funny language that reads right to left. The wife always had her hair covered. They had a special ceremonial meal every Friday night and strange holidays and customs. When my exile to Siberia was over and I was getting ready to depart, the father of this family took me aside and said, ‘Mavra, you don’t owe us a thing. We did this purely from our hearts. There’s only one thing I ask. If one day you ever come across Jews that are in trouble or need help, pass on this favor to them.”

My father and his sister ultimately made it through the war and in 1945 he came to Canada by boat as a 13-year-old boy. He never had a bar mitzvah, I don’t think he even knew what it was. Although he tried, he was never able to track down Mavra after the war. He married my mother and sent his three children to Jewish day school, and witnessed over time how one after the other, we all became observant, got married, and had our own kids.

At age 68, my father announced that it was time to make himself a bar mitzvah! He contacted our local Rabbi, cracked his teeth over the Hebrew, the Torah reading and blessings. For his 69th birthday, he invited the extended family, all his old friends that helped him settle in Canada, and singlehandedly cooked the food for 80-person Shabbat lunch. During his bar mitzvah speech, he said in not so many words, “My wife and I have three kids that have become observant, and all of our grandchildren are observant. My parents made their home kosher, began observing Shabbat and going to shul regularly. He lived for 13 years after his Bar Mitzvah.

Just think about the impact that one act of kindness can make. It began with the kindness from an unknown Jewish family in Siberia that led to another act of kindness by a young non-Jewish woman to a Jewish family, that led to giving life to my father, his children, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, not to mention the impact each of us is making in our own lives. One act triggered never-ending reverberations that are still being felt today.

This story exemplifies exactly what Hashem does each and everyone of us as his children, as he takes us in when no one else will and He always hears our prayers when we cry out to him. Throughout the past centuries the Jewish people have been exiled from one country after the other. Yet Hashem in His great mercy is not punishing us, but rather he's showing us His love and telling us that when we begin to assimilate with a foreign culture, and then are rejected and pushed away by that culture, Hashem is simply saying to us that He wants us to come back to Him and become closer to Him. Hashem wants our hearts and He truly wants us to come back home to Him!

We should all merit to be put into Hashem’s book for another year of life and we should all merit Hashem's mercy! We should also be able to recognize the sins that we have done, and cry out to Hashem our father that "We Want to Come Home" and make a commitment to learn more and accomplish more, so that we can go into this Rosh Hashanah with the confidence that our Teshuvah will be accepted with open arms like a father to his long lost son! Amen!

May we all come to realize that Hashem is our King in heaven but he's also our Father who loves us and only wants to do good for us no matter how difficult our lives may be. Hashem is always with us and he's giving us exactly what we need to succeed. All we have to do is our part by following the Torah and doing the Mitzvot which will bring us to a level where we will be able to recognize and believe that Hashem is here for us always, like a father who has unconditional love for us, his children! Amen!

Wishing Everyone a Happy, Healthy and Fulfilling Year of Accomplishments, Mitzvot and Maasim Tovim! Amen!

Shabbat Shalom and Tizku Leshanim Rabot!

Rabbi Amram Sananes as written by Jack Rahmey

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