Re’eh anochi nosein lifneichem hayom brachah u’klalah (Devarim 11:26)
Harav Moshe Aharon Friedman of Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim explains that Sefer Devarim represents a process, beginning with Parashas Devarim, which 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 d’var Hashem — Hear the word of Hashem,” and “Chazon Yeshayahu — The vision of Yeshayahu.” These correspond to the senses of speech, hearing and sight, respectively.
After Tishah B’Av, we begin the process of being comforted, and therefore the first three Torah portions read during this period begin with the words “Va’eschanan — I beseeched,” “V’hayah eikev tishma’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.
In most years, we begin the public reading of Sefer Devarim in the month of Tammuz, the letters of which stand for “zman teshuvah memashmeish 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 8) points out that there are 21 days of mourning during the 3-week period from 17 Tammuz until Tishah B’Av, which parallel the 21 days of joy from Rosh Hashanah until Shemini Atzeres, 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 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 commentators point 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 somebody 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 which is missing even one lug becomes invalidated, so, too, if we allow even one hour of the precious period we are about to begin to go to waste, our Elul will be 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: Parashas Re’eh contains the laws governing which animals are kosher and which may not be consumed (14:3–21). If a person is required to consume non-kosher food for the sake of his health, does it still cause him spiritual impurity?
A: Harav Chaim Soloveitchik explains that it isn’t the foods which inherently cause spiritual damage, but the prohibition against eating them. As such, his son Harav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik maintains that somebody who must eat non-kosher food to save his life will not be negatively affected. The Chasam Sofer and Meshech Chochmah disagree and argue that even in such a case, the inherent negative spiritual qualities in the food will cause damage. Harav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, suggests that if there is any other means to save one’s life, even through transgressing another prohibition, one who consumes non-kosher food will be negatively affected, but if it is the only possible manner to save somebody, the merit of the mitzvah of protecting one’s life will protect him from spiritual harm.
Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer 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.