Re’eh anochi nosein lifneichem hayom brachah uk’lalah (Devarim 11:26)
Harav Moshe Aharon Friedman of Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim explains that Sefer Devarim represents a process, starting with Parashas Devarim that is read on the Shabbos before Tishah B’Av as our mourning intensifies, and concluding with Parashas V’zos Habrachah, which is read during the height of our rejoicing on Simchas Torah. During the three-week mourning period preceding Tishah B’Av, we read three Haftaros that warn of impending doom, which respectively begin with the words Divrei Yirmiyahu (the words of Yirmiyahu), Shim’u dvar Hashem (hear the word of Hashem) and Chazon Yeshayahu (the vision of Yeshayahu).
After Tishah B’Av we start the process of being comforted, and therefore the first three Torah portions read during this time begin with the words Va’eschanan (I beseeched), V’haya eikev tishme’un (and if you listen) and Re’eh (see). These three portions represent the senses of speech, hearing and sight, respectively, and they come to rectify and comfort us for the suffering and punishments discussed in the three preceding Haftaros.
We commence the public reading of Sefer Devarim in the month of Tammuz, the letters of which stand for Z’man teshuvah me’mashmesh u’ba — the time to repent is drawing closer. We continue through the month of Av, the letters of which spell Elul ba — Elul is coming.
Parashas Re’eh is in the middle of Sefer Devarim and stands for Re’eh Elul higiya — see that Elul has arrived, as this Shabbos is Rosh Chodesh Elul. The Maharsha (Bechoros 8b) points out that there are 21 days of mourning from 17 Tammuz until Tishah B’Av, which parallel the 21 days of joy from Rosh Hashanah until Hoshana Rabbah, as each 21-day period represents an opportunity to draw close to Hashem, one through mourning and destruction, and the other through elevation and rejoicing.
Harav Nochum Partzovitz, zt”l, lamented the fact that once upon a time, people could palpably sense the arrival of Elul, whereas today Rosh Chodesh Elul is more comparable to the yahrtzeit of Elul in the sense that we have a vague recollection and familiarity with the theoretical significance of this time of the year, but we have no personal connection or relationship to it.
The Bnei Yissaschar points out that the period of repentance from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur consists of 40 days, which is 960 hours. Similarly, for a mikveh to be kosher it must contain 40 se’ah of rainwater. Each se’ah is comprised of 24 lugin (a Talmudic liquid measurement), in which case a kosher mikveh must contain a minimum of 960 lugin. Just as the 40 se’ah of rainwater in a kosher mikveh have the ability to purify someone who has become impure, so too the 40-day period that commences on Rosh Chodesh Elul possesses the unique ability to transform and uplift a person no matter how far he has fallen in the previous year.
At the same time, just as a mikveh that is missing only one lug is invalid, so too if we allow even one hour of the precious period we are about to begin go to waste, our Elul will be lacking. The Maharal writes that this explains why it is permissible to accept Shabbos and many other Yamim Tovim early and make Kiddush before nightfall, but we may not do so on Rosh Hashanah, for if we were to start Rosh Hashanah early, it would come at the expense of a few precious moments of Elul, which would leave our mikveh of repentance deficient.
As Parashas Re’eh heralds the arrival of Elul, it is not surprising to find this message about the importance of growth and change alluded to in the parashah itself. Parashas Re’eh begins by telling us that there are two paths placed before us: blessing and curse. The Vilna Gaon (Mishlei 15:24) points out that the third option, staying neutral, is curiously omitted. He explains that for a Jew, there are only two choices: going up, or going down. It is up to us to consciously and actively choose the path of growth, and if we fail to do so, it is impossible to remain standing in place, and we will by necessity fall downward.
As the Maharsha teaches us, we can repent and draw close to Hashem either through blessing or through curse. However, it is far preferable to come close to Hashem on our own initiative through the path of blessing than to compel Him to shake us and wake us up from our spiritual slumber through curse. Let us resolve to fully immerse ourselves in the mikveh of Elul and to use the holy days ahead of us properly, and in that merit, may we all be written and inscribed for a good and sweet year to come.
Q: The Torah prohibits (14:1) various forms of mourning the death of loved ones. Under what circumstances would there be a requirement to sit shivah to mourn the death of a person who was not a Torah scholar or national leader, and to whom one was not related?
A: The Shulchan Aruch rules that if a person dies without leaving any relatives to sit shivah and mourn his death, a quorum of 10 people must assemble and sit shivah in his house. However, the Rema there comments that he never saw anyone adopt this practice, although he adds that at the very least, a minyan of 10 men should gather in the house of the deceased for prayer services during the week of shivah.
Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.