Forward Or Backwards (Edited Transcript)
This week’s parsha, Ki Teitze, begins Ki Teitze l’milchama al oyvecha, “when you go out to battle against your enemies.” The Kli Yakar, one of our classic commentators from a few hundred years ago, explains that this is not only referring to the external enemy on the battlefield but also to the internal enemy, the part of us that is tempted to do the wrong thing. Part of life is recognising that we are constantly at war as we try to become better people; to be closer to Hashem and keep all the mitzvot between us and Him, like Shabbat and Kashrut; to be closer to our fellow human beings; to act ethically, in accordance with the principles of the Torah in all spheres of our business relationships and personal relationships, particularly during this month of Elul as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah.
This analogy of battle is important because it also helps us understand what we are up against and how to deal with it. One of the interesting things about this parsha is that it contains so many mitzvos. A very high proportion of the 613 commandments occur in our parsha, Ki Teitze. It is probably one of the most densely packed portions in the Torah in terms of mitzvot in the text. The Torah is comprised of two parts: the laws that we have to follow, namely, the mitzvot; and general teachings, ideas, philosophy, and history, whose purpose is to give us the Torah worldview in addition to the laws. For example, most of the book of Genesis is comprised of the narrative component of Torah giving us the philosophy and understanding of Jewish destiny, what our role is in the world and what it means to be a human being – all broader philosophical principles, though consisting of very few “laws”. Other parts of the Five Books are a mixture of the narrative together with the law. Ki Teitze is solely about laws – instructions for how to conduct ourselves, in practical terms.
One mitzvah leads to another
One of the issues the commentators discuss is how to link together the mitzvot in the parsha. The parsha lists one mitzvah after another after another, seemingly without structure though the commentators do indeed make linkages between them. Rashi deals with this issue, quoting from the Midrash Tanchuma at the beginning of our parsha where he establishes the principle of mitzvah goreret mitzvah, one mitzvah pulls along – leads – to another. Equally, aveira goreret aveira – one sin pulls along another. If you have a look at the way Rashi explains the commandments in our parsha, you will see he shows how the one mitzvah leads to the other, which leads to another, which leads to another.
This principle of mitzvah goreret mitzvah gives us a very important secret to transform our lives. To sum it up in one word, we can call it “momentum.” When you are in a positive space, you gain momentum as one good thing leads to another; when you are a negative space, one bad thing leads to another. This momentum is about creating a trend. Whenever we analyse something, whether it’s a person’s health condition, a business, a country’s status or whatever it may be, the question is not so much where is the person or business or country now, but rather what is the trend; is it a trend of positivity and improvement or is it a trend of deterioration? Mitzvah goreret mitzvah is a positive trend where one good thing leads to the next. Aveira goreret aveira, on the other hand, is a negative trend, where one sin leads to another. What is interesting is that there is no in-between. The way that G-d has created the world and us is that we are constantly in motion, either going up or going down; there is no neutral.
The coexisting forces of growth and disintegration
The Alter of Kelm, Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv says that if you look at the physical world as well you will see that there are two forces which are in constant competition with one another: the force of life and the force of death, of growth and of disintegration. These two forces coexist and are in constant competition with one another. For example, as human beings we live and grow, but together with that life force is a force of deterioration; a human being cannot live forever. Please G-d we should all live to 120 but thereafter the body cannot live anymore and life comes to an end. Another example: the sun. It rises in the morning, but as it rises on the eastern horizon for us, in another part of the world it has just set. In fact, as the sun rises and continues on its path through the sky (from our perspective, obviously), it is making the day brighter and warmer but it is also getting closer to the night. The cycle of day and night is inextricably linked. As summer progresses it gets closer to winter and as winter progresses it gets closer to summer. We constantly have two opposing forces – summer and winter, day and night, life and death – which are operating at the same time.
The Alter of Kelm says we learn from this that we are always moving, either moving forward or deteriorating, and this applies in our spiritual life as well. There is a constant struggle between the force of growth and development, of becoming a better person, fulfilling more mitzvos, doing better by our fellow human beings and becoming closer to G-d – and moving to the opposite direction. We have to constantly put in the effort.
This is what Elul is about, the preparation for Rosh Hashanah, which is why G-d created Rosh Hashanah in the first place. Rav Eliyahu Dessler, one of our great thinkers of the 20th century, says that G-d giving us Rosh Hashanah was a chesed, an act of kindness. It is a tremendous opportunity to reflect upon our lives, think about where we are going and what we should be doing. Without it, we would have no milestone, no opportunity to step back and assess who we are and where we are headed. We would just drift and deteriorate because human beings deteriorate when they are not improving.
Thus the key to life is to understand that we are constantly moving and must be proactive, learning more Torah and putting more effort into everything we do. Being proactive ensures that we create a path of growth, development, positivity and improvement and ensures that we avoid a path of deterioration and regression because it’s either/ or; there is no neutral space.
Who we are speaks louder than what we say or do
There is another principle which we learn from our parsha which differs somewhat from being in motion and being proactive. One of the mitzvos in the parsha is the mitzvah to look after the poor. We have a mitzvah called shichecha – if a farmer forgets a bundle of wheat during the harvest, the halacha is that he is not allowed to go back for that bundle; he has to leave it there for the poor. The parsha says that Hashem rewards us with great blessing for fulfilling this mitzvah. Rashi and the Siftei Chachamim commentary on Rashi explain that the reward received for this mitzvah is applicable even though at the moment the poor person picked up the bundle the famer was not even aware he left it behind. At the moment the poor person took it, the field owner did not even know that it had been taken, yet he still gets rewarded for the mitzvah. The Sifri comments that we learn an important principle from this, that even if you did not intend to do a mitzvah, if somebody benefits from it, you get rewarded for it. For example, if you are walking and accidentally drop a coin and a poor person picks it up, you actually get rewarded for that, even though you didn’t intend to do the mitzvah.
The Alter of Kelm gleans a fascinating principle from this. He says that if the reward applies in the case of unknowingly giving physical benefit to another person through dropping the coin, how much more so it should apply to spiritual benefit, if you help a person get closer to Hashem. Sometimes the most profound impact we can have on a person is not by conscious action, what we say and do, but by example – when they see who we are. Children see who parents are. It is not so much what the parent tells the child but what the child sees in the parent. It’s not so much what the teacher tells the student, but what the student sees in the teacher, or the congregants in their rabbi. It’s the personal example we set which is most influential. The Alter of Kelm brings the Gemara in Yoma page 86a, which discusses how we can fulfil the mitzvah of loving Hashem. It says you must love the Lord your G-d – we say it in the Shema twice a day. How do we love G-d? By making other people love G-d. The Gemara then asks, how do we make other people love G-d? We cannot make anybody do anything, so how can we inspire other people to love G-d? Not by what we say or what we consciously do, but by the example that we set. The Gemara says that someone who has learned Torah and is living a life of mitzvos, someone who is a person of integrity and honesty, who talks nicely to people and acts with gentleness and kindness, people say, “look at that person of integrity and decency. If that is what Torah does to a person, I want a part of it.” If we want to get people to really love Hashem, we have to be a shining example of what it means to be a decent human being and then people will love Hashem. The Gemara also says the opposite – that someone who professes to be connected to Torah and mitzvos and then does not deal with integrity and is not nice to people, then people say they don’t want any part of it.
The Alter of Kelm says this Gemara is like the example of dropping the coin, where the person didn’t do anything explicit, didn’t go out of his way. The same thing applies with someone who is just a nice person, a person of integrity; it’s not something he does, it’s just who he is. He is serving as an example, passively, and when people see how Torah principles saturate his personality and are inspired by him, it’s like the Shichecha, the forgotten bundle that gets picked up, for which a person gets rewarded without even trying. Any time you inspire others by who you are – not by the explicit things you say and the proactive conscious things you do, but by the subconscious things you do naturally because this is who you are and what the Torah has ingrained in you – you get rewarded for this.
In summary, we have learned two principles from this parsha: the one is about the power of positive momentum, of proactively creating positive trends, doing one good deed after another. The other is a different principle, which is that we can change the world just by being a mentsch, by being a decent human being and living in accordance with the principles of the Torah. When people see that and are inspired by it, we get the credit. Through being proactive and through serving as a shining example we can positively influence those around us.