The parashah begins with the laws regarding wars. We know that the Torah is eternal and applicable in every generation. So how should we read this verse in our generation, when we don’t wage wars against the gentile nations?
Books that follow the path of thesis say the first verse of the parashah, alludes to the war against the Evil Inclination. Rebbe Bunim of Peshischa zt’l teaches that in our generations, the primary way to read the verse is following this thesis, that the verse is discussing fighting a war against the Evil Inclination. For our generation, this explanation isn’t only thesis; it is its simple meaning, the simplest way of understanding the Torah. At the end of the parashah, the Torah discusses the mitzvah to destroy Amalek. Once again, this is a war that we can't carry out today. According to thesis, the war against Amalek signifies the war against heresy. It means to implant faith in our hearts. The Torah states (25:18) that Amalek taught that things happen by chance, by the rules of nature, or by “the strength of my hand,” etc. We must destroy this notion and acknowledge that everything is from Above. In our generation, when we can’t literally destroy Amalek, we accomplish the mitzvah by strengthening our awareness that everything is from Hashem. For our generation, that is the simple way to understand the meaning of the Torah. Even if we aren’t actually fighting a war against Amalek, we are obligated to eradicate the philosophy that Amalek propagated.
The Torah says (25:19), “Remove Amalek’s memory from under the heaven...” Amalek wants people should think everything happens “under the heavens.” They don’t want to believe matters were destined from Above. They explain everything rationally and worldly, claiming that phenomena from under the heaven caused matters to be as they are. We believe that everything is bashert, by Hashem’s plan. For example, people ask, “Why did my neighbor earn so much money while I didn’t?” Amalek’s explanation is because he worked harder, or because he made wise choices. We say that it is because this was Hashem’s decree. It didn’t happen from phenomena under the heaven, rather it was decreed and planned in heaven above (Tiferes Shmuel). In (Lamentations 3:66) it states, "Destroy them from under Hashem's heavens." The Imrei Emes zt'l explains, we must destroy the notion that things happen "under the heavens," and recognize that everything happens from Heaven above. It isn’t because he did something, or because of the rules of nature. The origin of everything is from Above.
This week's parashah discusses charging interest (23:21-22), the prohibition to lend or to borrow money with interest. The Kli Yakar explains that generally, when a person is involved in a business venture, there is a risk factor, which forces him to rely on Hashem. He realizes he won’t succeed without Hashem’s help, so he places his trust in Him. This boost in trust is a significant added benefit that one earns from almost every financial pursuit. Lending money with interest is an exception. People who earn their livelihood this way don’t develop their faith and trust, because this is a field that has almost no risks, the profits are foreseeable, and one doesn't feel the constant need to turn to Hashem. This is the reason the Torah forbids charging interest. It is a source of income that is not conducive for acquiring trust. The Kli Yakar writes, "The reason for this prohibition is because it causes people to cast away their trust in Hashem… By all other businesses, one raises his eyes to Hashem, because he isn't certain whether he'll earn money or whether he'll lose. However, when one lends money with interest, his income is set and certain. He's not worried that he may lose the money that he lent, since he took collateral. Therefore, lending money with interest prevents him from developing trust. The borrower also transgresses, because he causes the lender to lose his bitachon. As it is known, those who lend money with interest are usually stingy people who don’t give much charity. That’s because they lack trust [because their profession didn’t require them to learn trust]. Nevertheless, it is permitted to lend money to gentiles with interest.
A chassid told Reb Dovid Moshe of Tchortkov zt’l about a business deal that came his way. "Rebbe, I will soon be rich. There’s a priest who owns a large and very profitable forest, but he is too old to take care of it. He is selling it at a very low price. All my friends and financial advisors are telling me to grab it. They call it ‘a deal of a lifetime.’” Then he spoke with the Rebbe about some other matters. At the end of the conversation the Rebbe said, "And about the forest, I don’t recommend you buy it." The man left the Rebbe’s room totally confused. He didn’t know what he should do. Everyone was telling him the deal was a windfall, he could make millions. How could he throw away his fortunes with his own hands? He decided to go ahead with his plans. On the first day that he owned the property, he sent lumberjacks to cut down some trees. A few hours later they came running back to him, and they told him that all the trees they felled were very wormy. The entire forest was infested with termites. “The Rebbe was right after all” he grieved. “I lost all my money on a worthless plot of land.” He was embarrassed to face his Rebbe, and to admit that he foolishly didn’t listen to his spirit of prophecy. After two years had passed, he decided, “I lost my money, should I lose my Rebbe as well?” He came to Tchortkov and said, “Rebbe! I know I sinned. I shouldn’t have bought the forest. I should have listened to your spirit of prophecy.” The Rebbe replied, “It wasn’t spirit of prophecy. When you spoke to me about this business opportunity, I noticed that you didn’t once say ‘with G-d's help’. You were so certain you would make a lot of money; you didn’t think you need to pray or to have trust. But success is always solely with Hashem. It is impossible to succeed without Hashem. When I saw you took Hashem out of the equation, I advised you not to buy the forest. How could you earn money, if you aren’t relying on Hashem’s help?”
Going out to War
Reb Yitzchak Hutner zt'l writes the following in a letter: "We have a bad habit when we discuss the greatness of tzaddikim. We begin at the end; with the great levels they reached. We skip the many years they had great battles with their Evil Inclination and with their character traits. This lends the impression that they were born tzaddikim. “For example, everyone praises how careful the Chofetz Chaim was in speaking, but who speaks about all of his struggles, ups and downs he had until he reached this level. This is merely one example of thousands… The problem is that when a young student has strong desires to grow in the service of Hashem, and he is confronted with challenges, tests, and setbacks, he thinks he can never reach those levels of tzaddikim he wants to emulate. He thinks the definition of someone going in the right path is someone who has peace from the Evil Inclination… He thinks that if he has challenges, there is no hope for him. But that is ridiculous… Know, my friend… you will definitely fall again. There will be battles that you will lose. But I guarantee you that in the end you will leave the battle wearing the crown of success. The wisest of all men said, 'a tzaddik falls seven times and gets up.' … The wise understand that the tzaddik’s 'getting up' [and the levels he attained] are because he fell seven times. I beg you, don’t imagine the tzaddikim as people who are at peace with their Good Inclination… Realize that when the Evil Inclination burns inside you and you struggle to overcome him these are the moments you are most similar to the great rabbis; even more than the moments when you are at peace with the Evil Inclination….” Because the path of the service of Hashem is strewn with struggles and battles. It isn’t meant to be easy. And if we keep on trying, in the end we will succeed.
Someone complained to the Tiferes Shlomo zy’a that he has many ups and downs in his battle with the yetzer hara. “Why can’t I make a decision to be good, and stick to it?” The Tiferes Shlomo explained to him that this is what the battle against the Evil Inclination is all about. Sometimes you win, sometimes the Evil Inclination wins. The main thing is to pick yourself up again and to continue the fight. He taught this lesson from the verse, “when you go out to war…” It doesn’t state, "When you go out to win." The goal is to fight, and to not give up when you lose.
The Baal Shem Tov zy'a taught (Bamidbar 13:20) 'make yourself strong and courageous when you serve Hashem. Get encouragement from fruit. A fruit seed rots in the ground, and then a tree grows from it. Similarly, whenever one falls from his service of Hashem, he can pick himself up and potentially grow and become even better than before. In Shacharis we say, "They stooped and fell, while we got up and were encouraged" (Psalms 20). The verse doesn’t say that we don’t fall. It states that we fall, but we get up again. Because the goal is not that we should never fall. Rather that we should get up and try again.
The Chazon Ish zt'l taught, "The Holy One loves when one strengthens himself to do Hashem's will) even if it lasts only for a moment."
Rebbe Gedalyah Moshe of Zvhil zt'l asked someone why he wasn't going to listen to a certain mussar lecture. The man replied, "Even if the speech inspires me to do teshuvah, it won't last for long. Soon afterwards, I will be myself again." The Rebbe told him, "If someone’s drowning at sea, and someone swims up to him and says, 'I can save you for a half hour, but then you will fall into the sea again,' would he accept the offer? Of course he would. So why shouldn’t you also seek to do teshuvah? Even if it only lasts for a short while, it is also worthwhile." And there is always the possibility that this time he will maintain the teshuvah.
It states in this week's parashah, "Don’t plow with an ox and a donkey together" (22:10). The Daas Zekeinim MiBaalei HaTosfos explains: "The reason for this prohibition is because an ox chews its cud, and the donkey will have distress when he hears the ox chewing." The Chinuch (550) writes, "The reason for the prohibition is because it makes the animals suffer. Because it is known that animals are very distressed when they are together with animals of other species. It certainly bothers them to work together with another species… (As we see birds flock together with their species.) [Thus, it is causing suffering to animals to have an ox work with a donkey.] “The wise should learn mussar from this and shouldn’t appoint two people, with totally different natures to work together. Similarly, if two people are different in the way they act; such as a wicked person with a righteous one, or a respectable man together with a lowly person [they shouldn’t be asked to work together on a project]. If the Torah forbids working with animals of different species, certainly this will cause even greater distress to people, because they have intelligence."
In review, the Daas Zekeinim MiBaalei HaTosfos says that the donkey has distress when it hears the ox chewing its cud. The Chinuch says animals are distressed when they are forced to work with an animal of a different species. Both explanations teach us compassion, to be sensitive to the needs of animals, and all the more so, we should be considerate and compassionate to the needs of human beings.
The Torah says (23:4-5), "An Amoni and a Moabite may not join the Jewish nation. Also the tenth generation, don’t bring them into [marriage with] Hashem's nation, forever." The reason this prohibition is written explicitly in the verse: "For they didn’t welcome you with bread and water when you were traveling as you left Egypt, and because they hired Bilaam…to curse you." The Sefer HaChinuch (561) explains, "The Torah teaches that we should hate Amon and Moav in our hearts because they are so corrupt and cruel. They didn’t even offer bread and water to a large travel weary nation, when they were passing near their borders. Additionally, they hired Bilaam to curse them…. Amon and Moav chose to behave in an abysmal, corrupt manner, without concern that other nations will discover their bad nature and lowliness… It is impossible for them to repent, since their evil ways are so ingrained. Such people aren't fitting to join the holy Jewish nation." Once again, we learn the importance of having compassion.
Reb Alter Samilovitz zt'l once saw a young girl crying on the curb. "What's the matter? "My friend said my dress isn't pretty." "Let me see," Reb Samilovitz said, as he put on his glasses. "Go home and tell your mother that I say you have a pretty dress." The girl's face immediately brightened, and she ran home to tell her mother. Reb Samilovitz said to the person walking with him, "The Midrash says, 'Just as Hashem removes tears from all faces (see Isaiah 25:8) so shall you remove tears from all faces.' I followed in Hashem's ways, to remove the tears from a young girl's face.”
Reb Yaakov of Tolichan z'l was a Stoliner chassid who composed many tunes for the Stoliner chassidim. Once, Rebbe Asher Stoliner zy'a requested, "Sing me one of your latest compositions." Reb Yaakov sang a song that he had recently composed, but the Rebbe told him that he had a different song in mind. Reb Yaakov sang another recent song, but the Rebbe told him that this also wasn’t the one that he wanted to hear. Reb Yaakov Tolichaner said, "Apparently, the Rebbe has a particular song in mind. Tell me which one you want to hear and I will sing it." The Rebbe replied, "Last night, at 3:00 a.m., you came into the beis medresh and saw that it wasn't heated. So you went out in the freezing snow and cut wood for the furnace, so the Torah scholars could learn Torah in comfort. As you worked, you sang. That's the song I want to hear. It’s a beautiful song."
Shulchan Aruch (581) states, “Those [who follow the Sephardic minhagim] have the custom to awaken early to say Slichot, from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur.” Reb Shmuel Wosner zt’l explains this custom has two parts: (1) to awaken early (2) to say Slichot. The Rema writes, “This isn’t the Ashkenazic custom.” Reb Wosner zt’l explains we don't have the custom to say Slichot (the entire Elul) but it is our custom to awaken early. That part of the custom is for everyone. Elul is an ideal time for prayers. As the Tur (581) writes, “Whoever prays more [in Elul] it is his merit.” It will help him earn a better judgment on Rosh Hashanah, the day of judgment.
The Shaarei Teshuvah (581) writes, "I saw some rabbis who were always studying halachah, but during Elul they would stop a little bit from their studies to say prayers to Hashem.”
Rebbe Pinchas of Koritz zt’l (Imrei Pinchas 427) said, “During Elul, it is permitted to say Psalms even in the beginning of the night.” Because although we aren’t saying Slichot yet, we should turn to Hashem with Psalms and other forms of prayer. We should also seek to improve the standard prayers of Shacharis, Minchah, and Maariv. A counsel to improve those prayers is simply to come on time and to remain until the end. Reb Shlomo Zalman Auerbach wittily called Aleinu“Tefilas HaDerech” because people say it while walking out. Some leave even earlier. They say “A wind carried me away” and they are already outside the study hall. Similarly, some only enter the study hall when the congregation is saying Oz Yashir and they have to put on their talis and tefillin and rush through the prayer. They probably also skip some parts. It is therefore strongly recommended to come on time and to remain until the end. You won’t have to skip or rush, and you can pray with focus.
The Trumas HaDeshen would say Baruch She'amar for almost an hour, each day in Elul. The Gemara (Brachos 60.) states, “Until [a pregnancy] reaches its fortieth day, pray that the child be a boy.” After forty days, the gender was determined in the womb, and praying for a boy won’t change anything. The Shaar HaMelech (1:5) teaches that this Gemara hints to the forty days between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Yom Kippur. One should pray these days, and turn the female attribute of justice and make it to the masculine attribute of compassion.
The Meiri (Chibur HaTeshuvah) teaches, "One should attempt to pray a lot before Rosh Hashanah, so he will come to Rosh Hashanah with a pure heart."
Fishermen placed bait in a net. Fish took the bait, and were captured inside. One fish said to its friend, “We were such fools. We should have grabbed the food and quickly swim away.” The fish didn’t know that when it ate the bait, it was already caught in the net. We learn from here is that people rebuke themselves throughout the year for every foolish choice they make. They don’t realize that when they made their choice, it was already after the decree. On Rosh Hashanah it was decided and determined that they must make those mistakes and go through those hardships. The time to save yourself is before Rosh Hashanah, in the month of Elul. Later in the year, he is already within the trap.
We can explain the importance of prayer this month with the following parable: The teachers of yesteryear were very strict with their students. Fathers (then and now) are kind and compassionate with their children. If a teacher was too strict with a student, the compassionate father would ask the teacher to be kinder with his son. Once, there was a father who home-schooled his son. During the daytime, when the father played the role of teacher, he was very strict and demanding of his son. At night, he acted with his son with a lot of compassion and love, like a father. One night, the son said to his father, “Perhaps father, you can speak with my teacher, and ask him to be kinder to me?” What we learn from here is that during Elul, Hashem reveals Himself as a compassionate Father. Rosh Hashanah, the judgment is with the attribute of harsh justice. We pray in Elul that Hashem’s compassion should be expressed in Tishrei as well.
Elul is also a time for making a self introspection. One should think: What did I do this year that is worth keeping up, and what needs improvement? But people are very busy, and they don’t find time for prayers and for introspection. The shofar of Elul awakens us to remember the importance of teshuvah and prayer, and urges us to make use of this precious month. The Shevet Mussar (27) gives the following parable (with slight variations): Someone walking down the street came across a deep pit. He peered inside, and saw three hungry lions, pacing back and forth, hungry and angry. “Roar!” the man shouted down at them. They roared back. He took some dirt, and threw it at them and watched the lions become wild in their frenzy. He gave an even louder roar to tease the lions. Suddenly, he slipped. His life passed before his eyes as he fell down towards the lions below. At the last minute, he was able to grab on to a bunch of grass that grew on the pit’s wall. His life was saved —for the time being. The lions jumped to reach him, but he was high enough, and out of their reach. The man shouted, “Does anyone hear me? Is there anyone outside the pit? Come and save me!” Suddenly, two weasels appeared; a gray one and a black one. They were eating the clump of grass that he was holding onto. He shouted at the weasels: “Get away! Don’t you realize that my life is dependent on this clump of grass?” What we learn is that the new year is approaching and we don’t know what the new year will bring. Hashem gave us Elul. If we hold on to Elul firmly, we can be saved. But the distractions and obligations of life gnaw away at this life source. People have to work; they have other needs, and there isn’t time left for prayers and introspection. We risk losing this most desirable opportunity. We must shout at all our distractions, "Elul is my only hope! Don’t make me lose Elul!” The shofar in Elul proclaims, “I know you’re busy, you have a lot to do. But don’t miss the lifeline I’m handing you. Grab on to Elul. Say some Psalms, take the time to reflect on your life to see what you need to do to improve.”
The Dubna Magid zy'a told the following parable: A young lad worked as a courier for a lucrative business. Every day, before closing time, his boss would send him to the bank to deposit all the money earned that day. The lad didn’t know that every day a thief was following him, hoping to find a way to steal the package. The thief thought, “How I can get the money? I can’t just grab it away or threaten him with a gun because there are always many people around.” But a thief never gives up; he came up with a plan. On the way to the bank the lad always passed a tailor shop. So, the thief went to the tailor, and said, “I work for a very wealthy man. He asked me to order a suit for him.” “How can I make him a suit if he isn’t here to measure him?” “My boss is very busy. He doesn’t have time to come. He asked me to find someone who has a similar build, and to measure that person.” “What will he do if it isn’t exactly the right size?” “He will pay you anyway. He says that it is worthwhile for him to buy the suit in this manner.” As they were speaking, the lad passed by with his bundle of money. The thief said, “Do you see that boy? He is exactly the size of my boss.” He didn’t wait for the tailor to respond. He sprang forward to catch up with the lad. “Please help me. It will only take a moment.” And he explained to the lad that he wants him to go to the tailor, so his measurements could be taken. The lad checked his watch. There was plenty of time before the bank closed, so he agreed. The tailor fitted the lad with a half-finished suit and started to take measurements. The lad put his money-bag down. The thief quickly grabbed the money-bag and ran out the door. The lad shouted “Thief!” and tried to run out the door after him, but the robust tailor held him with two strong arms. “You can’t leave my store wearing my material.” If the lad knew that someone was out to steal his money-bag, he would never put the bag down. But he didn’t know. What we learn is that Elul is a treasure, because if we will take advantage of this month, to fill it with prayers and teshuvah, we can earn so much in the upcoming year. We must be reminded that a thief, the Evil Inclination, is trying to take Elul away from us. We blow the shofar to remind us that there’s a thief, and we shouldn’t let go of the treasure that’s in our hands.
A wealthy person was speaking with Reb Elia zt'l (student of the Chofetz Chaim zt’l) about his immense wealth, and he was saying he would never become poor. "Let's say my leather business doesn’t do well, I still have the lumberyard. And if my lumberyard doesn’t prosper, I can still earn money on my store…" He had so many sources for revenue; he felt it was impossible he would ever have financial trouble. "Don’t say that," Reb Elia said. "Parnassah is like a turning wheel. Today one is rich, but there is no guarantee for the future. The wheel of fortune can always change." Reb Elia met this wealthy man years later. By that time, he had indeed become a pauper. "You were so right," he told Reb Elia. "One of my sources of revenue was a bridge. The bridge was sturdy, but there was a limit to how much it could hold. Nicolai's army marched over it with cavalry and heavy equipment. The bridge couldn’t hold the weight. It collapsed, people died in the river below, and there was a great financial loss, too. I knew that I had to run away. I went home, filled a bag with money documents and clandestinely crossed the border. When I was settled, I looked at my bag of documents and realized I took the wrong papers. What I took was totally worthless. I've been poor ever since…"
The Beis Ahron zt'l writes, "One should rejoice immensely and consider every deed that he does for the service of Hashem is very precious. He should decide in his heart that he won’t sell it for all the money in the world. Even one word, thought, or deed, even if it was only for a moment, will never become lost, and will accomplish a lot for him, and perhaps for all Yisrael. What can be a greater joy than this; that he accomplished the purpose of his creation? He should do whatever he can, and seek to do more and more, both small deeds and great ones. As the saying goes, 'whatever one grabs at a market sale, is worthwhile.'"
Once, after using the mikvah on Friday afternoon, Rebbe Aharon of Belz zy'a asked his gabai to bring him cake and coffee. The gabai, Reb Shalom Fogel z'l, was surprised, because the Belzer Rebbe ate very little, and he never requested this before. When Reb Shalom brought it to the Rebbe, the Rebbe said, "Bring them to So-and-So who is now in the study hall. When I was in the mikvah, I overheard him say, 'After a hot mikvah like this one, all that's missing is a cup of hot coffee with a piece of cake,' and I want to grant him his wishes."
Many people are afraid of introspections, because they don’t want to discover their faults. Therefore, they seek to always be busy, and never to be alone with their thoughts. One of the modern trends in traffic control is the traffic circle. Instead of idling at a red light, traffic moves slowly around the traffic circle, each vehicle turning off where it wants to go. Someone explained that this is because people are afraid to just wait at a traffic light, without doing anything, lest they have a moment for self-reflection. They therefore keep moving, so they don’t have a moment to think.