Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Ki Tavo – Reciting Selichos Can Grant Us Early Forgiveness

I find it fascinating that the U.S. president can fully override the judicial system by forgiving a person convicted and found guilty of a crime. Indeed, the Constitution of the United States gives the president plenary power “to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.”

All presidents have used this pardon power to grant clemency. President Trump granted 237 acts of clemency during his four years in the White House. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, granted 1,927 clemencies, the highest total of any president going back to Harry Truman.

Typically, presidents have used this pardon power in their last days in office. This concept can help us understand the selichos we will start reciting on Motzei Shabbos.

I always found it quite puzzling that we start saying selichos, asking Hashem for forgiveness, prior to the Aseres Yemei Teshuva”—the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which are designated for remedying wrongdoings. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to observe these solemn days of repentance prior to Rosh Hashanah, so we enter the day of judgment having worked on our attributes, then daven selichos to gain forgiveness?

Rabbi Shimshon Pincus explains that Hashem’s love and desire for our good is so incredible that He allows us to start asking for forgiveness even before we do teshuva. The time period prior to Rosh Hashanah is to focus on obtaining forgiveness from Hashem. Even while we are still in a state of guilt without having yet repaired our ways we ask for a pardon. Before teshuva, before repentance, we nevertheless come asking.

In the judicial system, one needs a good lawyer. However, there are some crimes where the person is guilty, and no lawyer can help his client win an acquittal. Only the “president” can grant a pardon or commute the sentence.

Rabbi Shimshon Pincus says every time we daven and mention the God of Avraham, we entreat Avraham Avinu to bring our prayers before Hashem. The same is true of imploring Yitzchak and Yaakov. This also applies to the different parts of tefillah that correlate to each of the Avos). In Shemoneh Esrei, there is the first bracha—which correlates to Avraham, the second to Yitzchak, and the third to Yaakov. The same correlation applies to the three tefillos of the day: Shacharis relates to Avraham, Mincha to Yitzchak and Maariv to Yaakov. It is incredible that we have the Avos as our personal advocates.

But Tosfos tell us the merit of the Avos could be depleted and they might not have enough ability to advocate on our behalf. What happens then? The Gemara tells us the merit of saying the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, which are the core of selichos, is that they never go unanswered. These Thirteen Attributes were taught to Moshe by Hashem after klal Yisrael sinned with the golden calf (comparing that egregious act to a bride committing adultery at her own wedding!). Hashem wrapped Himself in a tallis and told Moshe anytime the Jews sin they can say these Thirteen Attributes and He guarantees to respond to them favorably. The power of these Thirteen Attributes is that Hashem Himself will be praying on our behalf when we articulate this formula. Here it is Hashem Who is the chazan on our behalf! And it is Hashem Himself who forgives, based on these extra-special measures of compassion and tolerance that He provides!

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, we are all guilty of some misdeeds and are responsible for our actions. All people slip up and make mistakes, and only Hashem can forgive us.

We all need to request a pardon from Hashem, to avoid punishment for our wrongdoings. Hashem in His beneficence gives us the opportunity even before Rosh Hashanah to start asking for forgiveness and the granting of a pardon through the recitation of selichos.

Every word of selichos is a jewel. It’s an incredible opportunity. While we will get up early and may be exhausted from the effort, Hashem’s granting of forgiveness makes it all worthwhile!! This is our opportunity…let’s make sure we utilize it to its full extent.

Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen – Parsha Ki Tavo – The Curse Of Two-Facedness

The Torah lists eleven curses (Arurim) which were to be part of this recitation for which a person who transgressed them should be cursed. This ceremony was a national Kabbalas Shevuah (acceptance of a binding oath) not to be in violation of these eleven transgressions. The specific sins for which it was proclaimed “Accursed be he who…” include one who: Makes a graven image and places it in secret; degrades his father or mother; moves back the boundary of his fellow; causes a blind person to go astray on the road; perverts a judgment of a convert, orphan, or widow; lies with the wife of his father; lies with any animal; lies with his sister; lies with his mother-in-law; strikes his fellow in secret.

Rav Yissachar Frand shlit’a, asks the following, basic question on this list:

“Let me ask something: Are these eleven things the worst sins in the Torah? It does not say “Cursed be one who desecrates the Shabbos.” It does not say “Cursed be one who eats chametz on Pesach.” Some of the things mentioned do not involve the serious Kares penalty, nor even the less serious penalty of makkos (lashes). If we had to pick a list of “the worst eleven,” maybe we would have listed some of the eleven items, such as those involving Avodah Zarah or Arayos. But most of them do not seem to be “all that bad” that they should be worthy of this unique curse. So why were these eleven singled out?”

Rav Frand cites the answer of the Darash Mordechai.  He suggests a common denominator to all eleven items. These sins are all done behind closed doors in which a person can act hypocritically.  In Rav Frand’s words, “A person can act as the biggest Tzadik out in public, and behind closed doors he can treat his parents with utter disrespect.  Cursed be he who encroaches on the boundary of his fellow man.” A person can promote himself as one of the most honest businessmen there are, and yet in the stealth of night he will move the boundary demarcation a couple of inches, and no one will know the difference.”

Likewise, many of the other Issurim listed here involved sins which could be hidden behind a veneer of righteousness.  “Cursed is he who leads the blind man astray on the road,” according to the Rambam, refers to giving bad advice with one’s own personal interests in mind.  For example, if a person gives business advice to his friend, when in truth it is harmful advice.  Similarly, the curse about one who strikes his friend in private, refers to speaking lashon hara behind one’s back.  The commentaries say that this is particularly pernicious because the ‘victim’ of the lashon hara is helpless to defend himself because he doesn’t even know that he is being attacked.

Moreover, it seems that is not just the damage caused by being two-faced that is the subject of such a strong curse, rather it is the basic character trait that seems to be so repulsive to Chazal.

The idea is demonstrated by the the Minchas Chinuch in his discussing of the Issur of Geneivas Daas (literally translated as ‘stealing the mind’).  Geneivas daas takes place when a person lets his fellow think that he did a favor for him, when in truth he did not.  For example, if a person consciously gives the impression that he traveled a long distance to attend the Simcha of his friend, when in truth, he was at another Simcha next door and it was easy to pop in.  The Gemara asserts that unlike many Bein Adam LeChaveira Mitzvos, the Issur of Geneivas Daas even applies to non-Jews.  The Minchas Chinuch offers a suggestion as to why this is:  He explains, based on the idea that the term ‘Geneivas Daas’ indicates an element of thievery:  There are two aspects to the sin of geneiva, which implies stealing without anyone knowing, as opposed to gezeilah, which is stealing in front of other people.  One is the unlawful taking of someone else’s property, and the other is the fact that it is a bad midda to take from someone behind their back.  He goes so far to argue that even though some hold that Gezeilas goy is only Assur miderabanan, everyone will agree that Geneivas goy is Assur midoraisa because of the bad midda that it involves.  He thus explains why Geneivas daas is even Assur with non-Jews because of the negative character trait that it involves. My Rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits, shlit’a elaborates that the trait of being two-faced or ‘sneaky’ is viewed extremely negatively by Chazal.  It indicates dishonesty and fear of people as opposed to fear of HaShem. 

The Eleven Curses do not necessarily represent the worst sins in the Torah, but they all involve the despicable traits of sneakiness and two-facedness, which indicate fear of people and not HaShem. May we all merit to avoid these damaging traits.

Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen – Parsha Ki Teitzei – Avoiding Tests

Devarim, 21:10-11: “When you will go out to war against your enemies, and HaShem, your G-d will deliver him into your hand, and you will capture his captivity; and you will see among the captivity a woman who is beautiful in form, and you will desire her, you may take her to yourself for a wife.”

 Rashi, Devarim, 21:11; Dh: Velakachta: The Torah only spoke in response to the yetser hara, because if Hakadosh Baruch Hu would not permit her, he would marry her in a forbidden manner…”

Parshas Ki Seitsei begins with the unique Mitzva of the Yefas Toar, the woman of beautiful appearance.  The Torah addresses a possible scenario that could take place during war.  The Torah recognizes that if a Jewish soldier sees a non-Jewish woman in the midst of a battle, he may feel an uncontrollable desire for her.   Rather than risk him acting in a sinful manner with her, the Torah provides an avenue for the lustful soldier to satisfy his desire.[1]

This appears to be the only situation in which the Torah acknowledges that the yetser hara is so powerful that the Torah actually gives a permitted way to fulfil its desire.  The question arises as to why is this situation considered more difficult than the myriad other possible scenarios where a person can be put under immense pressure to sin by the yetser hara?

One Talmid Chacham answers that in almost every instance of where a person faces a nisayon (test) where he is at risk of succumbing to the yetser hara, the person must strive to avoid the nisayon as much as possible, and if he unavoidably finds himself subject to the nisayon, then he must escape as quickly as possible to protect himself from the danger of failing the test.  However, these are not feasible options in the case of the soldier doing holy battle – he must go to battle, and once he is there, it is forbidden for him to leave, because of the Issur to run away lest it adversely effect his fellow soldiers.  Since he has no option but the face the nisayon head-on, the Torah acknowledges that it may be too difficult for him to overcome it.  This does not apply in any other case, because there is no other similar situation where it is forbidden to run away.

There are many sources in Chazal about the importance of avoiding Nisayon.  One is if a person has to go somewhere, and has two possible paths to take, but there are immodest images on one path, then he must go the other way.  If he nonetheless takes the path where there are images, then he is called a Rasha – wicked person – even if he overcame the nisayon and did not look at the forbidden sights.  This is because he should not have unnecessarily placed himself into such a difficult nisayon.[2]  Likewise, we ask HaShem every day in the bracha of ‘Hamaavir sheina’ not to bring us into the hands of a nisayon, because we are fearful that we will fail.[3]

Our Gedolim, despite their great self-control, went to great lengths to avoid facing nisyonos.  Rav Shalom Shwadron, zt”l used to tell the following story about Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l.

“When Rav Aharon lived in Kletzk, his home was some distance from the yeshiva: using the main streets would entail shemiras einayim risks.  So, he went instead by way of the backyards, though he had to vault over fences and other such inconveniences.  It once happened that two bochrim were at his home discussing Torah until it was almost time to be back in yeshiva.  He offered to escort them along his usual, quick route behind the house.  They couldn’t refuse. However, when they reached an alleyway with big, fierce prowling dogs, they were simply too scared to proceed.  Rav Aharon instructed them to take hold of the hems of his coat and walk beside him.  Trembling, they obeyed, and lo and behold! Those dogs ignored the trio.”[4]

Rav Yosef Shlomo Goldschmidt notes that Rav Kotler would happily negotiate tall fences and dangerous animals rather than streets where he could see forbidden images.[5]  This was how important it was to him to avoid nisayon.  Needless to say, the extent to which Rabbi Kotler avoided tests is beyond us, but the lesson is relevant to many aspects of our lives.  One obvious application is with regard to technology.  Many people feel they need internet access and various modes of communication for various reasons[6], but it is well-known that there are numerous, inappropriate sites and modes of communication that can cause great spiritual (and other damage). It is well-know that many people have failed this test, and so it is essential to install effective filters and blocks that can reduce the temptation to enter such sites.

It is inevitable in life, that a person will face many difficult tests, yet it is incumbent upon a person to avoid deliberately putting himself in a position where he will face a tests.  By doing this, he will greatly reduce the power of the negative inclination tempt him into wrongdoing.

[1] There is a Machlokes Rishonim as to the exact nature of what this man is permitted to do.  According to most Rishonim, he is allowed to cohabit with this woman one time, even before she undergoes the process that precedes her potential conversion and marriage.  Rashi and Rambam hold that he may not cohabit with her even once, rather the heter is that he can take her even against her will, and go through the process whereby she will be permitted to him when they marry.

[2] Bava Basra, 58a, Brachos, 61a.

[3] Needless to say, we will face numerous nisyonos regardless of our efforts, and overcoming such tests enables us to grow.  However, these sources teach us that we should not choose to face nisyonos of our own volition.

[4] ‘Enlighten our Eyes’, pp.38-39, written by Rav Yosef Shlomo Goldschmidt.

[5] Ibid.

[6] It is advisable to consult with a competent Torah authority as to the appropriate use of technology.