Judaism: Divrei Azriel: The Elixir of Life
The Elixir of Life
Last week, we read perhaps the most famous phrase in the Torah, maybe even in all of Judaism - Shma Yisrael. This week, continuing the trend of familiar passages, we recount the second parsha (part) of the Shma prayer, kriyas shma. Chazal instruct us to first recite the parsha of Shma Yisrael, so that we may accept upon ourselves ol malchus shamayim, subservience to Heaven, and subsequently to recite the passage of vehaya im shamoa, the second paragraph of the Shma, in which we are to accept the mitzvos upon ourselves.
Rav Eliyahu Shlessinger, the Chief Rabbi of Gilo, Jerusalem, wonders why it is necessary for us to first accept the yoke of Heaven before accepting the mitzvos. Certainly the acceptance of Hashem's mitzvos already presumes the acceptance of Him as the ultimate Ruler and Authority!
One could answer that it is necessary to verbalize the acceptance of the King before submitting to his commandments, and this is certainly the simplest answer. But Rav Shlessinger utilizes this question to convey a deeper message. The Gemara in Kiddushin says that the word "vesamtem" that appears in the aforementioned second passage of kriyas shma implies that the Torah can be one of two things - the sam hachayim or the sam hamaves, that is, the elixir of life, or that of death.
We are used to hearing that the Torah is the sam hachayim, but how could the Torah, described as the Etz Chaim, be called the sam hamaves? Rav Shlessinger notes that Eisav (Esau), while wicked in just about every way, excelled at respecting his parents, the mitzvah of kibbud av v'em. Just as one would do for a king, he would don his finest clothing just to greet his father! But Chazal tell us the truth about Eisav's fancy clothes - he stole them from Nimrod after killing him. For Eisav, Torah was the sam hamaves, something that he used to promulgate values of evil and selfishness. He committed heinous crimes and used the Torah as an excuse.
The purpose of kaballas ol malchus shamayim before accepting mitzvos is to ensure that for us, the Torah is the sam hachaim. We don't just accept the mitzvos and take for granted our connection to Hashem; rather, we first take the time to explicitly recognize and acknowledge the fact that we are subservient to the King of the universe. Only then, once we are acutely aware of our responsibilities as servants of the King, can we accept his commandments and fulfill them according to His wishes.
I would like to add another point as well. The aforementioned Gemara compares Torah to medicine, one can be used for life or for death. Why specifically is the Torah compared to medicine? We are all aware that medicines can heal the sick but are extremely dangerous for healthy people. I think that Chazal had this point in mind when drawing this comparison.
Healthy people generally view themselves as self sufficient, whereas sick individuals recognize that they are inherently lacking, and are in need of something to cure them. Be'ezrat Hashem we should all be physically, emotionally, and mentally healthy for our entire lives. But on a metaphysical level, if when we look at ourselves we identify as "healthy," in the sense of not feeling any lacking in our lives or any need for guidance or direction, the Torah could be destructive for us. People who view themselves as completely self-sufficient can easily develop an aversion to the mandated rituals and ethics of the Torah. But if we view ourselves as individuals who need ethical direction, desire spiritual fulfillment, and - recognizing our inherent vulnerabilities - crave a constant connection to Hashem, the Torah becomes the sam hachayim. For a person like this, Torah nurtures, heals, and nourishes his soul.
May we all be zoche, merit, be'ezras Hashem to view Torah, and more importantly, ourselves, in the proper way, so that we experience the sweetness of the sam hachayim.
Sparks of Hope in the Ruins
As the consolation period continues, following the three weeks of mourning, we can draw strength from a major theme found in this week's pasha, Ekev. In Ekev, Hashem promises us that He will ultimately reward and deliver us, while our wicked enemies finally receive the punishment they deserve. Our sages' reactions to the destruction of the Second Temple shed some light on this theme, and deliver a timely message.
In the aftermath of the horrific devastation, a number of sages were mourning the loss of the Temple, the Beis Hamikdah - our primary source of spiritual inspiration. They were struck by the injustice: the idolaters were enjoying tranquility while our holy Temple was burning! To their astonishment, Rabbi Akivah began to smile. He explained: for the same reason you are crying, I am smiling; if even the wicked merit serenity, temporarily, then we can surely be confident that reward lies in store for the righteous. How can we understand these cryptic words? True, we can picture our glorious future - but right now we are suffering!
Aruch L'ner explains Rabbi Akivah's lesson: destroying the Beis Hamikdash was more than punishment for our sins - it was a necessary part of our salvation. Even as Hashem was distancing Himself from us, He was actually expressing His love for us. First of all, this was the only way to spare the Jewish people. As parable, consider the repossession of a debtor's house: when his debts gets out of control, his only option is to give up his home and save his skin. In effect, Hashem was declaring: "My children, you are dearer to Me than anything else in the world - I will even give up our house for your sake." Accordingly, He was not giving up on His chosen people - He was challenging them to fill their unique role as His faithful servants!
But Rabbi Akivah had a deeper lesson, as well. Even in the ruins, he saw the sparks of the redemption. He explained that this process was stirah al manas livnos -not just demolition, but also reconstruction. In order to make way for the eternal Temple, Hashem had to destroy the current Beis Hamikdash, which we had already undermined by corrupting the values of love and unity that it stood for. Likewise, witnessing the fulfillment of the prophesies of destruction strengthens our faith in the interdependent prophesies foretelling our future salvation. Hashem had now cleared the way for the final redemption - but we had to earn it.
I hope that these ideas can comfort us, as we pick ourselves up from the floor, and move from the mourning of Tishah B'Av towards the yearning for closeness with Hashem, as the month of Elul draws near. In some ways, the spiritual health of the Jewish people may seem to have fallen to an all-time low. Not only that, but we are acutely aware of the anti-semitic feeling outside of Israel, and the physical dangers threatening the people of the Holy Land.But let us not despair. If we can view our suffering as part of a process leading to our future salvation, we can start to see Hashem's loving Hand, guiding it all. Furthermore, when we picturethe immense joy that we are longing for, the suffering itself may provide consolation.The lower we have fallen, the more dramatic our elevation will be when we are redeemed. If we can feel a little of that elation, perhaps even we can smile.
 Makkos 24a,b.
 As understood by Ein Yaakov.
 This, too, follows the explanation of Aruch L'ner.