On Rosh Hashanah, we ask Hashem for salvation, not for our own sake, but for the sake of His honor in the world
“Cursed is the one who does not uphold the words of this Torah, to fulfill them.” (Devarim 27:26)
he Ramban cites the Yerushalmi (Sotah 7:4): “Has the Torah fallen, that it needs to be upheld?” Rabi Tanchum explains that this curse refers to one who learns, teaches, and performs all the mitzvos in the Torah, yet refuses to strengthen others, despite his ability to do so. Conversely, Rabi Yirmiyah continues, “One who does not learn, teach, or perform the mitzvos, yet still manages to assist others, receives the title of ‘blessed.’”
Harav Mordechai Druk asks: How can one who seemingly keeps the entire Torah be classified as accursed? Even more puzzling, how can one whose observance of Torah is so lacking be considered blessed just for helping others? (Rabbi Moshe Kaufman, Parsha Encounters)
Some of my happiest summer memories are from my time in Camp Sternberg, starting in third grade and way on to the teenage division, Camp Heller, as staff. Activities, trips, late night DMCs… it all evokes warm, fuzzy feelings of nostalgia.
I remember a particular activity we participated in during the Nine Days, an all-day contest intended to highlight the ideal of focusing on others, not ourselves. Each camper and staff member got a safety pin with a small piece of ribbon attached. As we went through the day, we had to be conscious not to say the word “I” (one of the most used words in the world!). If you mentioned that word, you forfeited all your ribbons to whomever you were speaking with. By the end of the day whoever had the most ribbons (obviously the least self-centered person in camp) would win.
In order to understand the implications of the terms “arur, cursed” and “baruch, blessed,” let’s examine the motives of those people who first received these titles.
After the Mabul, Noach leaves the teivah, and his son Cham maims him, preventing him from having more children. Cham’s motivation was to avoid sharing the world with additional inheritors. It was purely selfish, and Noach curses him. On the other hand, his brother Shem was called “blessed,” because of his sensitivity toward his father’s dignity, a selfless act. Thus, the titles “cursed” and “blessed” are not descriptions of a person’s commitment to Torah; rather, descriptions of whether a person lives a self-centered existence or not.
Sue (Sima) Goldstein, the legendary director of Camp Heller, was a genius with these types of things. By the time supper came around, she had amassed so many ribbons, a decorated general couldn’t compete with her. No one was managing to trip her up, and everyone was trying.
It was almost night activity, and Sue was going to walk off with the grand prize — the rest of us didn’t even come close. Until one camper approached her and said…. I’d like to say I still recall the fateful sentence, but my memory tends to be selective these days. But I do remember Sue’s shocked face as she realized she’d messed up. All her ribbons, every single last one of them, went to Rikki (the camper’s name I do remember!), as she brought down the house with cheers and laughter.
A person who concentrates solely on himself, even on his own spirituality, and neglects others is cursed. In contrast, one who is selfless, does not focus on himself, and strives to help others, is blessed.
On Rosh Hashanah, we ask Hashem for salvation, not for our own sake, but for the sake of His honor in the world. We can achieve this aim through selfless deeds and efforts to help all Klal Yisrael.
The lesson made an impression on me, and one hot morning during the Nine Days, I decided to reenact this experiment with my own children. We’d create our own memories, I thought optimistically, and maybe even come away with the lesson of focusing on the “you” instead of the “I.”
I explained the rules, looking forward to a day of good-natured competition. But I’d neglected to take one thing into account: the language barrier. In Hebrew, the word “I” gets swallowed up in every verb, possessive pronoun, and more. If a kid says, “Shamati,” (I heard), does that count if they didn’t say ani shamati?
Within an hour, the fun had long dissipated into bickering and demands for just verdicts.
Sometimes our best childhood memories can’t be reenacted. Sigh. I tried. (Oops! I said that word!)
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 858)
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