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Parshas Ki Savo (5768)

Trial Prep for Rosh Hashanah

Imagine a fellow who has been charged with murder and is awaiting trial. How nervous and scared would he be! After all, if convicted he could face capital punishment!

So what does he do to prepare for the trial? He buys himself the fanciest Giorgio Armani suit (he has to make a favorable impression on the jury), orders the best brisket from the local butcher (he needs to be well-fed and energized the day of the trial), and invites all his close friends and family to the courtroom to be there with him (for moral support).

The much feared day finally arrives. The trial begins and the judge reads out the charges for all to hear. He then turns to the defendant and says, "Well, sir, do you have anything to say in your defense?" To his great shock and horror, the man realizes that with all his running around shopping and eating before the trial, he had forgotten to hire a lawyer and plan a defense for himself! What a terrible situation to be in!

If you think about it honestly, this is really the situation in which most of us find ourselves in by the time the Day of Judgment comes around each year. We know that our "trial" is fast approaching, and our very lives are hanging in the balance. As we all say in the High Holiday prayers, "On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed ... who will live and who will die ..."

So what do we do? We go out and buy ourselves and our kids fancy Yom Tov (holiday) outfits, we buy the first cut of brisket and maybe a pickled tongue and we invite friends and family to join us for the holiday. And all of a sudden we find ourselves standing in judgment before the Judge of Judges on Rosh Hashanah without having taken any time to plan our defense! What will we say for ourselves when all the "charges" are read out in the Heavenly Court?

We need to take the time now - when it's still not too late - to strategize and figure out the best defense so that we merit to win the big court case on Rosh Hashanah and be guaranteed another good year of health, happiness and meaningful living.

And I have just the strategy you need - and I will share it with you pro bono - after all, this defense is not my original idea but comes from a verse in this week's Torah portion.

The portion begins with various prayers and confessions that we are commanded to say upon the performance of certain mitzvos (commandments). One of these is called Viduy Ma'aser, the Confession of the Tithes. Simply put, every third year of the seven year Shemittah cycle, we are commanded to go up to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and "confess" in front of G-d that we have indeed delivered all our tithes to the Levites and dispensed all our charity to the poor. We then pray to G-d: "Hashkifah M'Meon Kodshecha - Gaze from your holy abode ... and bless Your people ..." (see Deuteronomy 26:12-15).

Rashi, in his commentary to the verse in Genesis 18:16 where the Heavenly Angels "gazed" towards the city of Sodom before destroying it, writes the following, quoting a Midrash: "Any 'gazing' that is mentioned in Scripture is for bad, i.e., indicates the detriment of that which is being gazed upon, except for, "Gaze from your holy abode" (Deuteronomy 26:15), for so great is the power of gifts to the poor, that it transforms the Divine attribute of anger into mercy."

There are a couple of difficulties with this Midrash that Rashi quotes. First, why is it that the Hebrew word for gazing - Hashkafah - has a negative connotation? After all, you can "gaze" at a beautiful sunset or the brilliant stars in the Milky Way. In fact, Ben Yehuda, when he developed the Modern Hebrew language spoken in Israel today, decided to call reading glasses mishkafayim! So what is it about the word hashkafah that, in Biblical Hebrew, is so negative and to the detriment of that which is being gazed upon?

Secondly, the Hebrew word that's generally used to describe the traditional Jewish philosophy and weltanschauung (world view) is Hashkafah. But if Hashkafah is such a negative term, why would it be chosen as the label of Jewish outlook on life? Is the Jewish world view inherently negative?

Finally, if indeed Hashkafah- type viewing is to the detriment of the person being looked upon, what is it about tithing and charity that, as the above Midrash indicates, is able to transform that anger and negativity into love and compassion?

Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, in his commentary HaKesav VeHakabbalah, explains as follows: There are various Hebrew words that the Torah uses to describe the act of viewing someone or something. The most obvious and most often mentioned word in the Torah is Re-iyah - but we also find the word Habatah and of course the word Hashkafah. The difference between these three Hebrew words is that they represent a progression from further away to closer.

Habatah means to "glance" in the general direction of something that is far away to the point that one can't make out any individual forms or people (as it says about Lot's wife "Vatabeit ishto mei-acharov - she glanced behind her [in the direction of Sodom] - see Genesis 19:26). Re-iyah is best translated as "seeing", and refers to viewing an object close enough that one can already see the individual person or thing clearly [see, for example, Genesis 37:18 where the brothers 'see' Joseph coming from a distance, and it says "Vayiru oso meirachok"].

Hashkafah means gazing at something intensely as if under a microscope - and this type of scrutiny must, by definition, have a negative connotation to itbecause, whereas with habatah or re-eyah the object or person being viewed might look good or even perfect, under the intense gaze of hashkafah one will always find flaws and imperfections. This is why, when the angels were about to destroy the city of Sodom as punishment for all its flaws and sins, it says, "Vayashkifu al pnei Sodom - they gazed down toward Sodom" (see Genesis 18:16).

This also explains beautifully why the word Hashkafah is used to denote the Jewish world view and philosophy. You see, the foundation and essence of Jewish philosophy and a distinctly Jewish outlook on life is derived by gazing intensely at a given issue and analyzing it in all its complex detail - much the same way a scientist will study an organism under a microscope in order to see all the elements of its very complex structure. Whereas a very unsophisticated person might only see things on the surface - using Habatah or Re-iyah glasses at best - and think that everything is clear-cut and simple and rosy, the Torah asks us to develop a Hashkafah, a Jewish philosophical outlook, which will help us see just how complex and detailed and multifaceted everything truly is, thus enhancing our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

And even though when wearing our Hashkafah glasses we will - almost by definition - see all types of flaws and imperfections in whatever we are viewing, so be it. For if we don't uncover the problems in society - and instead just gloss over them - we can never correct them and fix the world.

This idea of developing a proper Hashkafah view of life applies not only when studying philosophy and history and religion. It is also necessary and absolutely crucial for our own character development and perfection.

Let's take a lesson from the wonderful women in our lives. Did you ever notice that magnifying mirror in your mother's bathroom? You know, the one which is a standard mirror on one side, but then you flip it over and WOOOO!! - your face looks huge! Women use these mirrors because they actually want to magnify their faces to be able to see every little pimple and facial imperfection so that they can fix them! Can you believe that?

You see, if you go through life thinking "Hey, I am generally a good person", you will never really improve your character traits and become a better person. It is only if you can put on those Hashkafah glasses and "gaze" at yourself with that magnifying mirror then you will be able to see the areas that need to be fixed and improve them.

With this we can understand what the Midrash means when it says that giving charity and tithes to the under-privileged can "transform G-d's potential gazing at us in anger into a look of compassion and love". This is because there is a difference between how we view ourselves and how we look upon others around us. When it comes to our own character development, G-d asks us to gaze inside ourselves and "judge" ourselves in detail to make sure we are seeing that which we need to improve in ourselves. But with others, we should do just the opposite - we should put on those Habatah glasses and we should not gaze too intensely and judge other people's behavior. So that when the poor guy comes knocking on our door before Rosh Hashanah asking for a little money, we shouldn't start analyzing him and his character to see if he actually deserves a handout, but instead just give him the money without passing judgment. And if we deliver our tithes and charity without judging others, we pray that G-d, in turn, will not gaze too intensely at our actions, but will judge us favorably for another good year.

The truth is that the spiritual benefits we accrue by not gazing at and judging others too harshly goes way deeper then we think. The Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement in the late 1700's, revealed to us a frightening insight into how G-d's judgment works: When Nathan the Prophet came to offer rebuke to King David (see the Book of Samuel 2 12:1), he began with a parable of two citizens, one wealthy and one poor. The rich man owned much cattle, while the poor man had only one small sheep; but the rich man stole the single sheep from the poor man. When David heard this story, he was appalled. "Let the man who did this die," he declared passionately. Only then did Nathan explain that this was but a parallel to David's own situation, since he had taken Bas-Sheva away from her husband Uriah the Hittite after sending him off to fight on the front lines. "You are the man," Nathan said to King David. In this way David actually indicted himself.

So, taught the Baal Shem Tov, does man decide his own punishment for his transgressions. He is given the opportunity to view someone else doing exactly what he did, in a slightly camouflaged form, and in a fit of righteous indignation he passes sentence. Only then is the fašade lifted, and he realizes that it is he who will receive the punishment. The fashion in which man judges his friend is in reality the way in which he is judged from Heaven.

It is for this reason that we are taught not use Hashkafah glasses when viewing others but, instead, to try and judge everyone favorably. One should not be quick to interpret his friend's actions severely, for he may actually be passing judgment on himself. Scary thought, eh?

In summary, we can say that one of the best ways that we can guarantee for ourselves a good judgment this coming Rosh Hashanah is if we commit (at least for these last few days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and for the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) to not being too harsh in judging those around us, be they close family members, relatives, co-workers or friends. And if we don't gaze too much at other's imperfections, G-d will act to us in kind and acquit us on all charges.

As the High Holidays approach and we find ourselves at the mall or the butcher preparing for the Holiday and all the meals, let's not forget to plan our strategy for the "big court case" - this way we will all get a verdict for a Sweet New Year!

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