Throughout Tanach, the single episode that stands out to me about Cheshbon, potential or failure thereof, is by Yosef Hatzadik. The famous Beit Halevi comments on Yosef’s rebuke to his brothers saying that when we come to the next world we will be faced with two realities, Din and Cheshbon. Din is rather finite, a process of weighing our sins and merits and arriving at a final judgment.
But what about Chesbon, a judgment on our potential. Perhaps it’s intermingled with Emunah. I’m reminded of the well known story of when a person is drowning at sea and a vessel comes along to save him and he says I have Bitachon that G-d will save me and he lets the vessel pass. Then a boat comes by and offers to throw a lifesaver and the drowning man refuses saying he has belief that G-d will save him. Finally, he drowns and comes to Heaven. He tells G-d that he doesn’t understand why G-d Himself didn’t save him. G-d answers that He sent a vessel to pick him up and then a boat that offered to throw him a lifesaver, and that’s how the story goes. This story touches upon Hishtadlus and Emunah but perhaps on potential as well.
It can be quite difficult in non-life threatening situations to know whether to pass on an opportunity or not. Within the realm of Torah and Mitzvos, it’s not such a quandary, for if one just does every Mitzvah possible he is choosing right.
But even within Torah and Mitzvos, the Talmud discusses a scenario where one man may come to the next world and see his friend a little above him, for his friend did perhaps one more Mitzvah than him, and he feels eternal pain for if perhaps he did one more Mitzvah he would be on an equal plane.
But coming back to life decisions and possible judgement on our potential for opportunities to pass, the answers are a little bit more hazy.
Rabbi Mizrachi says that where one stands at the moment is exactly where he is supposed to be. It’s a large concept to digest but a worthy one.
Perhaps if one makes an informed decision when large choices loom, a correct decision can result. Nonetheless, I must admit in the area of Cheshbon, I continue to learn and be challenged by the concept.
In Grade School, the famous line that teachers would deliver to the parents was that your child has so much potential. But later in life the stakes are higher. Let’s say that Rabbi didn’t change and thus didn’t become the Gadol Hador he was supposed to become or Lehavdil Picasso was turned off to painting as a child thus eliminating a future of brilliance to the world.
As Rosh Hashana approaches Din, the finite measure of our actions, must first be addressed. But, perhaps it’s worthy to consider what we could become based on our abilities and the consequences of not paying heed to these inklings. We can never know with surety if we let the right opportunity pass but we could contemplate the potential greatness that can emerge if we weigh opportunities with weight and seriousness.
In this week’s parsha, we come across the Mitzvah of Bikkurim. Chazal comment in Breishis Rabbah on the pasuk of “Breishis Bara Elokim”that the world was created solely for the Mitzvah of Bikkurim. The question is, why? What ‘s so special about the Mitzvah of bikkurim? And furthermore, nowadays we don’t have the Bikkurim of the Beis Hamikdash, so is this saying that we’re currently unable to fulfill the purpose of creation?
Furthermore, it says in Sifri that Klal Yisrael was zocheh to enter Eretz Yisrael because of the Mitzvah of Bikkurim. Again, why was this Mitzvah so special, and what’s the specific connection between this Mitzvah and entering into Eretz Yisrael?
The answer to these questions can be discovered if we investigate the foundation of the Mitzvah of Bikkurim. The Mitzvah wasn’t just to give fruit to the Ribbono Shel Olam, rather the Mitzvah was to give the first fruit. Why? Chazal tell us that a person would spend his whole year working on these fruit, putting so much time and effort into growing them and sustaining them. One morning he would walk past them and finally see the fruits of his labor. The desire to pluck off that fruit and take a bite would be so great. This fruit, its his baby! And yet it’s specifically this fruit which he’s commanded to bring as Bikkurim. We see that the yesod behind Bikkurim isn’t just giving something you own. Rather, it’s giving the thing you cherish most. When a person pours so much effort into something, it becomes a part of him. That desire to then reap the benefits of his labor is so strong and powerful. That desire is all funneled into that first fruit. And it’s specifically this fruit he brings for Hashem.
The Mishna in Pirkei Avos says that a goal of a person is to nullify his desires in favor of HaShem’s. We’re here to do HaShem’s will, to become closer to Him through serving Him. That may sometimes mean that we have to do things which we don’t want. But nevertheless, just as a servant would do anything a king would request, so too we do everything HaShem commands us, even if it runs contrary to our desires. This concept is the yesod of the Bikkurim. The Mitzvah was a representation that even though one may have his own desires, at the end of the day he gives up everything to serve HaShem.
Bikkurim aren’t physically around today. We can’t go and offer up our first fruits at the Beis Hamikdash. However, the underlying principle of nullifying our desire to serve Hashem will always exist. The ability to put all our efforts into something, to desire it so much, yet to give it away for Hashem, that does still exist.
That’s the yesod behind Bikkurim and that’s the explanation of Chazal. This world wasn’t just created for the actual giving of the Bikkurim at the Beis Hamikdash; rather it was created for us to funnel all of our desires into serving our Creator. This is also the pshat in the Sifri. Klal Yisrael only entered Eretz Yisrael because of this Mitzvah, for at that time they were about to experience the “eretz zavas chalav u’dvash” and acquire many things of Gashmius and Olam Hazeh. For this Hashem needed to give the mitzvah of Bikkurim, so we would recognize and realize that even amidst the pleasures of this world, we can never lose sight of what’s really important. As a result, we were given the Mitzvah to channel our desire into a gift for Hashem.
Rosh Hashana is nearly here. Chazal say that when klal Yisrael would bring Bikkurim, they would bow in front of HaShem and in that moment there was no separation between HaShem and Yisrael, as it is a time when one would give himself to HaShem in such a way, that he would connect to HaShem on the highest plateau imaginable. Elul and the climax of Rosh Hashana is all about connecting. We want to show HaShem that we deserve another year of life, health and wealth (in every category). But why do we deserve such a thing? Who says we should have these things?
We answer these questions with our actions. By showing HaShem that everything we have is for Him. From our most cherished possessions to what we barely care about, everything we use for a connection. If we really care, and we really work on showing HaShem that we try as hard as we can to grow closer to Him, we can hopefully merit a good judgement and have a successful year.
How lucky we are to have the gift of the Torah and to enjoy the results of our striving to get closer to Hashem.
When Hagaon Harav Shach zt”l was a young boy, his parents sent him to learn in Yeshiva, first in Ponevezh, then Slabodka and then Slutsk. He had almost nothing – little food and ragged clothes – yet he learned Torah day and night. When World War I broke out, he tried in vain to find his beloved parents, but he would never see them again. He was a shy person, reluctant to ask for help. He lived in the Beis Hamedrash, sleeping on a bench and surviving on some small scraps of food that a lady in town would bring him. Rav Shach later said, “If I wrote all the sorrows and worries of my life, the book would be thicker than my four-volume set – “Avi Ezri” – that I wrote. I had no worldly pleasures. Nevertheless, from the day I was mature until now, I have been the richest and happiest man in the world. I never had a moment in my life that I was not happy, because I was learning Torah!”
Parshas Ki Savo has one of the most perplexing verses in the Torah. Moshe Rabbeinu recounts the 98 curses of the Tochecha (admonitions) listed in the Parsha and warns that all this will happen to you, “Tachas asher lo avadata es Hashem Elokecha B’Simcha“- Because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d with rejoicing (Ki Savo 28:47) Yet, to serve Hashem with Simcha is not one of the 613 mitzvos. So how can it be that the punishment for not serving Hashem with Simcha is this whole list of 98 curses?
Hagaon Harav Avrohom Schorr explains that the Torah is not telling us the direct reason for these terrible punishments. Rather, it is indicating the underlying cause for the person going off and doing so many sins. We humans are pleasure seekers and if we do not find simcha in serving Hashem, we look for pleasures elsewhere. So the cause for all the curses is really the performance of all the sins which arise from the pursuit of physical pleasure and enjoyment, in order to fill the void caused by not having simcha from serving Hashem.
A discerning reader will no doubt ask: “Could it be that man is so base that his whole life centers around pleasure?” The answer is yes! As Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto says in the opening of Mesilas Yesharim: man was created for pleasure and the greatest pleasure is connection to Hashem. Indeed, our lives center around pleasure; however, we do have a choice. We can govern our lives based on strictly physical pleasures, or we can aim higher, seeking spiritual pleasure by connecting with Hashem.
Finding and developing our enjoyment in learning Torah and serving Hashem yields the ultimate pleasure- a platform for infinite growth and connection to Hashem. Rav Shach, in the story noted above, experienced this sweet enjoyment and we all have the capacity to experience (and in many cases already experience) this sweet enjoyment as well.
But truthfully: how do we generate this genuine happiness in serving Hashem if we just don’t feel it? The answer is simple: by recognizing all the good Hashem bestows upon us, every single day. Elul is the very best time to make our accounting for Rosh Hashanah and review this past year. We need to recognize the Hand of Hashem in everything we have: food, clothing, house, spouse, children. When we recognize every gift Hashem has given us, and keeps giving us, that will bring us true joy.
The week prior to Rosh Hashanah, we start waking early and reciting Selichos. Certainly, we need all those prayers for mercy, but why specifically do we wake early in the morning? Normally, we wake early because we have trouble sleeping, because we have a job or responsibility, or because we are excited about the coming day. In the case of waking up early for Selichos, being excited about the opportunity to say Selichos early to get closer to Hashem, is what we want to aim for.
The opportunity to connect with our Creator in a meaningful way and come closer to Him is the source of the greatest happiness. For this, we pray every day in the blessings of the Torah: “V’ha’arev Na Hashem Elokeinu es Divrei Torahsecha” Hashem, please cause us to taste the sweetness of your Torah.
May our taste of Torah be as sweet as the coming New Year.