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SOUL FOOD

by Mendel Starkman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Tom was ecstatic. After many years of loyal shopping, he had won the department store's annual shopping spree. He would be given a few minutes to run through the store, grab as much merchandise as he possibly could, and bring it to the checkout counter.

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Tom was ecstatic. After many years of loyal shopping, he had won the department store's annual shopping spree. He would be given a few minutes to run through the store, grab as much merchandise as he possibly could, and bring it to the checkout counter. When his time would be up, the values of his accumulated merchandise would be added up, and the store would write him a check for that amount. There was only one catch. The store managers realized that with a deal like this, the shopper would run to grab the most expensive products that he could in order to quickly increase the amount of his final check. To make it a little more challenging, the managers removed all the labels and price tags from the products. This way, the shopper had no way of determining the value of the products inside the boxes, and his final prize would be entirely up to luck. Therefore, the best strategy for Tom was to grab as many boxes as he possibly could in the time allotted, and hope to have grabbed valuable products. Tom waited at the starting line to begin his spree.

This week's Torah portion opens with a description of how "Moses went and spoke. . .to all of Israel" (Deuteronomy 31:1). What does the Torah mean to teach us when it says that "Moses went"? Where did he go and why? Rabbeinu Bachya, a classic 12th century commentator on the Torah, explains that Moses went to the Levite and Israelite camps in order to separately comfort them about his impending death. But why, asks Rabbeinu Bachya, did Moses have to do this? In last week's Torah portion, the entire nation was standing before him listening to what he had to say. Couldn't Moses have comforted them right there? Why did he have to wait to follow them after they had all gone back home?

In the book of Proverbs, King Solomon compares Torah to bread and wine (9:5). Rabbeinu Bachya explains that just as bread and wine are staple foods for the body, so too Torah and mitzvot are staple foods for the soul. The reason for this is that for every extra mitzvah that a person performs, the more his soul will be nourished by Hashem's presence in the World to Come. Therefore, continues Rabbeinu Bachya, if a person exerts himself for the sake of his body's sustenance in this world which is temporary, then he certainly should exert himself to prepare his soul's sustenance for the eternal World to Come. The only way to prepare for this sustenance and reward in the next world is through his involvement in mitzvot while he is here on earth.

This idea helps us understand why Moses waited to go from camp to camp instead of speaking to everyone while they were still in front of him. Either way, Moses was performing a mitzvah by comforting the nation. However, by comforting them when they were already there, he would only have received reward for the mitzvah itself. By walking from camp to camp, he also received reward for walking to do the mitzvah. Moses was adding quality to his mitzvah because through this additional aspect, he would receive more reward in the World to Come.

This attitude is reflected by King David in Psalms. He expressed that just "as a deer longs for a stream of water, so does my soul long for You, Hashem. . . .When will I come and appear before [You]?" (42:2-3). The Brisker Rav, a recent Torah personality, explains that to be nourished and benefit from Hashem's presence in the World to Come means to achieve a very close and deep understanding of Him. This is the highest level and greatest pleasure for the soul, but it can only be experienced in the World to Come. This is what is referred to by the verses in Psalms. Just as a deer yearns for a stream of water, so must we yearn our entire lives for this goal of meriting to bask in Hashem's presence. We must yearn for the time when we will "come and appear before Hashem," receiving indescribable spiritual pleasure from our proximity to His presence. We must set our sights to achieve this goal - through the quality and quantity of our mitzvot.

With this goal in mind, it would seem most logical only to perform the mitzvot that yield the greatest reward. This way, we would amass more reward in a shorter time. However, while the Torah lists specific punishments for transgressing the mitzvot, it generally doesn't list specific rewards. Rabbeinu Yonah, a classic 13th century commentator, writes in his fundamental treatise on repentance (Sha'arei Teshuvah 3:9-10) that this was done very intentionally. Hashem wants us to perform all of the mitzvot so that their merit will act to uplift us in the World to Come. Had their rewards been listed, we would flock to the more rewarding ones, and would never achieve this spiritual plateau. Because of this, the sages taught (Ethics of Our Fathers 2:1) that a person should be as careful to perform a seemingly lesser mitzvah as in performing a greater one - because we do not know the reward for either. It could be that the "lesser" one yields more reward than the "greater" one. As such, we should run to do all of the mitzvot, never viewing any one as less worthwhile than the next.

This is the same strategy that Tom needed to adopt when racing through the store on his shopping spree. Since he did not know the identity or value of each box's contents, he could only try to grab as many as he could and hope to come out with something worthwhile. In the same manner, we should strive to perform our mitzvot with the greatest quality and quantity that we can. We can be sure that by doing this we will receive tremendous reward in the World to Come.

This is what Moses was aiming for when he walked from camp to camp to console the people. For only through the quality and quantity of our mitzvot, can we achieve our ultimate goal of deriving pleasure from our proximity to Hashem's presence. This goal must constantly be in our sight and we must frequently ask ourselves, "When will I come and appear before Hashem?" Am I following the path that will earn me the reward of being close to Hashem in the World to Come? We must examine our performance of the mitzvot, honestly evaluating what more we could be doing.

As we stand now in the few days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, these questions should be at the forefront of our minds. During these days, our very lives are hanging in the balance. Our fates are not sealed until after Yom Kippur. We should try to show Hashem our concern and try to better ourselves. In doing so, we focus on what we have done wrong, and work to better ourselves in those areas. Each one of us has sins that need correcting and mitzvot that could be performed better.

During these days, we each make a personal evaluation and resolve ourselves to work on a specific area in the upcoming year. In this way, we will be enhancing the quality and quantity of our mitzvot at a rate we can handle, and be earning ourselves more spiritual food to nourish us in the future. May we merit to fulfill more mitzvot, and through this, merit tremendous reward appearing before Hashem in the World to Come. May we all be sealed in the Book of Life, for a year of health, happiness, and peace.

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Mendel Starkman, a native Atlantan, is studying at the Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in New York.

You are invited to read more Parshat Vayelech articles.

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