Friday, July 28, 2023

Parshas Vaeschanan 5783



Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Vaeschanan – Shabbos Nachamu

10 Menachem Av 5783/July 28, 2023


For the last few years, I have been working on producing and publishing a new Siddur. It’s been a long, arduous and fulfilling process. The Siddur is being thoroughly edited and will hopefully be available in the coming months.

The Siddur was written with the contemporary teenager in mind, with the hope that it can be appreciated by adults as well. In one word, the goal of the siddur is to inspire.

The gemara (Berachos 6b) states that prayer “stands at the height of the world but people disparage it”. Most people fail to recognize the incredible poignancy and greatness of prayer. Part of the challenge of prayer is that the words are unfamiliar.

The Siddur I am working on has a new translation written in a more familiar vernacular. Whenever I had the choice between using a literal translation or being more general so as to emphasize the point being expressed, I chose the latter.

The Siddur also includes a commentary with insights, anecdotes and contemporary perspectives to help its reader connect with the prayers.

One of the phrases that I had a hard time translating were the words recited in the second Hallelukah, “azamrah lElokai b’odi”. The Artscroll Siddur translates those words as, “I will sing to Hashem while I am still alive”, while the Metsudah Siddur translates it as, “I will sing to Hashem while I exist”.

I felt that there was a nuance lacking in both of those translations. However, I couldn’t think of how to better express what I felt was lacking. (In general, it is virtually impossible to truly capture a full translation of any verses or prayers written in lashon hakodesh. There are so many hidden nuances and meanings that cannot be captured in any translation.)

Recently, I thought of the following idea:

It’s well known that during his final days, the Vilna Gaon was crying. When asked what was particularly troubling him, the Gaon explained that he was sad to leave a world where for a small amount of money one can purchase a pair of tzitzis. The merit of wearing tzitzis is akin to performing all the other mitzvos in the Torah (see Nedarim 25a). In this world, with a relatively small investment one can purchase eternity. In the world of truth, however, one doesn’t have such an opportunity. The Gaon was crying that he was imminently leaving a world of so much opportunity.

At the beginning of Ashrei we state, “עוד יהללוך סלה - we will continue to praise you forever.” The word עוד means more.

Great people live their lives always seeking personal growth. They view every day as providing added opportunities to accrue merits by doing mitzvos, studying Torah and performing acts of chesed for others.

Perhaps that is what Dovid Hamelech was referring to when he said “azamrah lElokai b’odi”. I will sing to Hashem as long as I am blessed with עוד, the opportunity do and accomplish more.

This is a particularly poignant message after Tisha b’Av.

In his incredible memoir, Out of The Depths, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau recounts:

“At the beginning of the 1980s, Ed Koch, mayor of New York City, invited me to his office. He is a warm Jew, sensitive and emotional, a great lover of Israel and the Jewish people.

“At our first meeting, he introduced himself to me and declared that he was also a Holocaust survivor. Out of politeness, I refrained from asking him what exactly he survived and where he had been during the Second World War. I wanted to give him a chance to tell his story himself. He said that he had been born in the Bronx and had lived his whole life in New York, but insisted that he was a real survivor. Smiling, I dared to ask how that could be- and Ed Koch began to explain.

“Years earlier, he had traveled to Germany for an educational trip. At one of the stops, the guide showed the group the globe that had sat on Hitler’s desk. “It reminded me of Charlie Chaplain’s movie about the great dictator. But unlike the one in Chaplain’s movie,” Koch recounted, “that big globe had lots of numbers written on it in black marker. When the guide spun the globe, Europe blackened with numbers. Other continents had far fewer black marks. The guide explained that when World War II broke out, Hitler recorded the Jewish population of each country. After all, they represented his life’s goal. Albania, for example, bore the number “1” for the single Jew living there. Our enemy decided that he would not rest as long as that one Jew from Albania, a total stranger to him, remained alive. The territory of the United States bore the number six million. [The population statistics are slightly inaccurate]

“That includes me,” said Ed Koch with undisguised anger. “So I am also a Holocaust survivor-if the Allies hadn’t stopped the Nazi beast, no doubt I would have been destroyed.”

“I shook his hand warmly and said, “Today I have learned an important lesson from you, and I will carry it home with me to Israel. I’ve heard that not all Jewish communities feel a connection to Holocaust Day. From now on, I’ll tell them about the Jew born in New York who lived all his life in an American city, but who feels like a Holocaust survivor…””

My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, expresses a similar sentiment. He notes that he was of age during the Holocaust and Hitler wanted to kill him too. Just because he was in Chicago and not in Europe didn’t make him any less of a target for Hitler. But if he wasn’t one of the six-million victims then he was preserved by G-d for a reason. That is why, Rabbi Wein adds, he feels an ongoing sense of mission and responsibility to the Jewish People.

On Tisha B’Av we read and recount the endless travails and anguish that have beset our people throughout the exile. Yet, despite it all we are still here. In that sense every Jew is a survivor, preserved by G-d with a mission to spread G-dliness.

We all have reason to live our lives with an attitude of בעודי, always seeking to accomplish more. When one views his life with that perspective, he sees every day as a gift with unique opportunities for growth. Despite all the staggering losses of the past, we take comfort in knowing that every day we are בעודי and can accomplish great things and become greater people.

That is undoubtedly a source of comfort and strength.

Nachamu Nachamu Ami!


Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

        R’ Dani and Chani Staum