Come and make a Cheshbon

June 17 2010

"Regarding this, the poets ('hamoshlim') would say, come to Cheshbon" (Bamidbar 21:27). Chazal comment: "'hamoshlim' refers to those who rule over their evil inclinations, 'come to Cheshbon' means let us consider the account of the world; the loss incurred by the fulfillment of a Mitzvah against the reward secured by its observance, and the gain gotten by a transgression against the loss it involves (note: the literal meaning of the word 'cheshbon' is an account)" (Baba Batra 78b).  What Chazal have not explained are the opening words of the pasuk: "al ken" "regarding this".  Such an expression generally denotes a continuation of the previous sentence.  What can be the nature of the relationship between this pasuk and the previous one: "For Chesbon - it was the city of Sichon, king of the Amorite; and he had warred against the first king of Moav and took all his land from his control until Arnon" (Bamidbar 21:26)?  At first glance we see very little connection between these two subjects.  The opening words "al ken", however tell us that there must be some sort of connection.

Let us for a moment elaborate on the contents of the previous pasuk in today's terms.  Sichon has just defeated Moav.  The media is filled with stories surrounding this great triumph over the mighty king of Moav - "Sichon today, through great military prowess defeated his arch-enemy.  This defeat is bound to alter the face of the Middle East".  What was truly behind this victory?  Hashem caused Sichon to prevail over Moav in order that the Jewish nation be able to capture this same piece of land from Sichon.  This roundabout manner was necessary, for we are commanded: "you shall not distress Moav and you shall not provoke war with them" (Devarim 2:9). The only way to capture the land, therefore was for another nation to defeat Moav and the Jewish people would then overcome that nation ("Amon and Moav were purified by Sichon" (Chullin

Clearly, Hashem had an account to settle with each and every non-Jewish Moabite or Emorite who was killed in the battle.  In addition, however, there was the overall plan to provide victory and to capture the land for the Jewish people.  This is in fact how Chazal interpret the pasuk: "regarding this the 'moshlim' would say, 'come to Cheshbon'" - "regarding this - regarding that war which Sichon waged against Moav" (Rashi) - "let us consider the account of the world; the loss incurred by the fulfillment of a Mitzvah against the reward secured by its observance, and the gain gotten by a transgression against the loss it involves".  It is from observing and studying this war that we conclude that although we may see "the wicked bloom like grass" (Tehillim 92:8) it is ultimately "to destroy them till eternity" (ibid.).  The victory of the wicked is but temporary.  How many of the great military campaigns carried out by those kings does anyone remember?  The only war anyone remembers is that which is recorded in the Torah of the Jewish nation - Sichon defeated the king of Moav and the Jewish people ultimately defeated Sichon - only this remains for generations.  The rest are "over and gone" (Shir HaShirim 2:11) - leaving no trace whatsoever.

"Bo-u Cheshbon" - come calculate - is it worth our while to align ourselves with the wicked who flourish only temporarily, or would we rather be among those "planted in the house of Hashem" (Tehillim 92:14), who "in the courtyards of our G-d they will flourish" (ibid.) - for eternity.  If we view things from a short term perspective it would appear that the kingdom of Sichon is blossoming, but in the long run it became clear that the only purpose of this victory was to provide the Jewish nation with this land.  "Al ken" - therefore - do not view anything in the short term, for you will be filled with questions: "why does the way of the wicked prosper" (Yirmiyahu 12:1).  When viewing the greater picture, however, you may at times find answers to your questions - answers you could not have seen unless events are viewed in the context of history. Man does not live long enough to see things from this overall perspective, but when viewed in context of the history of the world the answers become clear.

If one were to ask me two hundred years ago what England did to merit ruling over such a large portion of the world (the atlases used to be full of British colonies in Africa, Asia, America, and Australia), I would not have been able to provide a clear answer.  I would have responded that they probably did some Mitzvah and Hashem was rewarding them in this world.  Only later, following World War I did it become clear what Hashem's intent was.  The British Empire needed to be powerful in order to drive the Turks out of Eretz Yisrael, sign the Balfour Declaration, and bring the Jewish people back to the Land of Israel.  They came short of carrying out this task to completion, but they did accomplish something.  World War II showed us another purpose served by their empire.  Had it not been for the British, Eretz Yisrael would have fallen to the hands of those wicked Germans, may their name be obliterated. At that time, the assistance of British colonies in places hardly heard of before or since such as Malta and Gibraltar, were required to save Eretz Yisrael from falling into the clutches of those evil oppressors. In general, England played a large role in the defeat of the enemy. The truth is, however, once World War II ended hardly any remnant remained from the British Empire, only a few places remained under their rule, the rest had gained independence.

Even if with "short-sightedness" we do not understand the ways of Hashem, while at times the broader picture provides us with some answers, we cannot be aware of world history in its entirety, only of Hashem does it say "from the beginning I foretell the outcome" (Yeshayahu 46:10), and only He knows what should take place and what should not.  What we understand - we understand, what we do not understand in this world will perhaps become clear during the period of the Moshiach.

The Torah tells us: "When Hashem will have judged His people, He shall relent regarding His servants, when He sees that enemy power progresses, and none is saved or assisted ... for I shall raise My hand to heaven and say 'as I live forever, if I sharpen My flashing sword and My hand grasps judgment, I shall return vengeance upon My enemies and upon those that hate Me shall I bring retribution" (Devarim 32: 36,40-41). If you wonder why the enemies are prevailing, the answer is: "I shall return vengeance upon My enemies and upon those that hate Me shall I bring retribution, I shall intoxicate My arrows with blood and My sword shall devour flesh, because of the blood of corpse and captive, because of the earliest depredations of the enemy" [15] (ibid. 41-42).  When Hashem will square up His account with the nations of the world, it will begin from "the earliest depredations of the enemy" - "from the beginning of the enemy's breaches, for when the Holy One, Blessed is He, takes His due from the nations, He takes into account against them, their sin and the sins of their ancestors from the beginning of the breach which they broke through against Israel" (Rashi).  There will not be a single detail that is unaccounted for.  The result will be "O nations - 'harninu' - sing the praises of His people, for He will avenge the blood of His servants, He will bring retribution upon His foes" (ibid. 43).  Onkelos tells us that "harninu", they will praise - the other nations will be so impressed with the exactness of the judgement meted out against them - that they will sing Hashem's praises. Today there's a bomb, tomorrow some other terrorist act, unfortunately we hardly see any retribution for the atrocities wrought upon us. In the future, however, we will realize that judgment was always very exact.  The Jewish people have, unfortunately received what they deserve, but the other nations will get what they deserve as well. Everything will be taken into account - a person who only shouted "Jude" will not be judged the same way as a person who also spat.  Justice for the one who spat will not be the same as for the one who did other terrible things.  Not a single act will escape notice - the preciseness of the justice will be clear to all.  What is still beyond our comprehension even in the days of the Moshiach will perhaps become clear in the Next World.  The Messilat Yesharim (perek 1), after all tells us that man was not created for this world but for his standing in the Next World.  If so, a few questions, a few difficulties in understanding the goings on in this world is not that significant - it will become clear in the Next World!  Some things may become clear in this world - during the period of the Moshiach.

We do not always understand why a small innocent child is killed in a terrorist incident, or why a young person dies, G-d forbid.  There are many possible explanations. The man who died young, for example, may have descended from the house of Eli of whom it was decreed: "but there will be no old people in your family for all time ... and all those raised in your house will die as young men" (Shmuel I 2:32-33). One would have to trace his lineage back to many previous generations to know this.  A person may die young because he was sent to this world as a "gilgul" - reincarnation of someone who had fulfilled most of his task in this world during his previous lifetime. Some simply accomplish in a short time what it takes others many more years to complete. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Brachot 2:8) tells of R' Bon who died at the young age of 28.  R' Zeira eulogized him saying "R' Bon toiled in Torah for twenty eight years and accomplished that which an experienced Talmid Chacham could not accomplish in one hundred years". This does not imply that his Torah knowledge paralleled that of Rebbe or R' Yochanan ben Zakkai, but he accomplished what was expected of someone on his level and there was no longer reason for him to remain in this world, Hashem therefore immediately rewarded him with life in the Next World.  The opposite may also be the case - Hashem may give a person extra years because he has not yet fulfilled the tikkun he was sent for!

Moshe Rabenu, after all, wrote an entire book - Iyov which deals with the idea of the suffering of the righteous while the wicked prosper - "righteous people for whom things are bad, wicked people for whom things are good" (Brachot 7a) - see Baba Batra 14b).  One who studies the book of Iyov, however, does not emerge with a clear answer to this question. In the final analysis, Hashem's answer regarding his suffering is "do you know the time when the mountain goats give birth or anticipate the labor pains of the gazelle" (Iyov 39:1) you cannot hope to understand, just as you cannot know precisely when the goat is supposed to give birth!  This is but one of many of the ways of Hashem that you will never understand!

The verse in Tehillim states: "a boor cannot know, nor can a fool understand this" (Tehillim 92:7).  We can grasp this using the following analogy. A person with less than a rudimentary understanding of astronomy, physics, and other sciences arrives at Cape Kennedy and is shown the launching pad from which the rockets are sent to the moon and other places.  He points and says "I do not understand the function of this screw".  How do we answer such a person?  You fool!  You do not understand what function this screw has? Do you understand anything else that is going on here?  Do you realize what went into designing and building this in order that the rocket fire precisely towards its destination. "A boor cannot know, nor can a fool understand this" - there is NOTHING we understand of Hashem's ways, yet a fool will claim that he does not understand THIS - (one particular issue) - "why do the wicked bloom like grass". Hashem responds to Iyov - "you wish to understand why a tzaddik like you is suffering?  Does this imply that you understand everything else? Obviously you do not, just add this to your list of question. What we have just said appears to be the final answer Hashem gives Iyov. The Ramban, however, tells us that a tzaddik like Iyov suffered because he was a "gilgul".  He may not have sinned in this world, but he was placed here to correct the wrongs of his previous lifetime (see Ramban's commentary to Iyov 33:30).

The AR"I HaKadosh writes that Iyov was a "gilgul" of Terach (see Shaar HaGilgulim Introduction 36).  Although Chazal tell us that Terach repented (see Rashi Bereishit 15:15), it would appear that he nevertheless had to suffer for handing his son over to Nimrod to be thrown into the furnace, and for causing his other son Haran to literally burn (see Rashi Bereishit 11:28).  We are but guests in this world here for only a short stay - we may not be aware of our actions as a previous "gilgul", but Hashem certainly knows.  Hashem sees until the end of generations and is well aware of what our actions were.  Iyov's question of why "tzaddik vera lo" is no longer difficult - we cannot know for "our days upon the earth are but a shadow" (Iyov 8:9).  The passing shadow appears in the west in the morning, in the east towards evening, and is almost non-existent in the middle of the day.  At any given time we only observe its present location, we do not see the entire picture. If an artist was to paint a black stripe in the middle of a large picture, and someone were to question how this stripe adds to the beauty of the picture, he would respond: "wait until I complete the picture, only then will you understand what its purpose is".  When focusing on one point only, we see no beauty. If we view it, however, as part of a greater painting with a street scene or a landscape, then we can understand its purpose.  When we view only part of the picture we have many questions, when looking at the overall painting, all the questions cease to exist.

HaRav David Auerbach zt"l, brother of the Rav, lost a son in a terrorist act that took place in Bayit Vegan (in 5738).  I went to make a condolence call during the Shiva and rather than my comforting him, I felt that it was I who was being comforted.  He told the following story:  The Ramban had a dearly beloved student who took ill. The Ramban gave him a special amulet telling him "know - when you leave this world, this amulet will gain you entry into all the gates of the heavens until the last one - the Heavenly tribunal in which the Shchina Himself presides.  When you enter that final gate I want you to ask a number of major questions I have regarding the Jewish nation". The Ramban gave him the list of questions and asked that the student appear to him in a dream with the answers.  The student died from his illness and a short while later he appeared to the Ramban in a dream. He told his Rebbe that indeed the amulet had gained him entrance to all the gates of heaven and he was able to rise all the way to the top, yet when it came time to ask his Rebbe's questions he immediately realized that in the "Olam HaEmet" the questions were suddenly gone. In the Next World there is only truth and justice (see Yalkut Me-Am Loez to Sefer Shoftim page 81).  Only in this world are there things that are difficult to understand, in the World to Come there are no questions and thus there was nothing left to ask. 

The Chafetz Chaim had a beautiful analogy of his own.  A traveler was once required to spend Shabbat in a strange place.  Shabbat morning he arrived at the Synagogue and noticed that the Gabbai was apportioning the aliyot in a seemingly random order - Shlishi to the man in one row, Revii to the man on the other end, etc.  He could not contain his bewilderment and approached the Gabbai asking him would it not be simpler to make some sort of order - for instance to give all the aliyot to those sitting in the first row this Shabbat, the next row on next Shabbat, etc.  The Gabbai explained to his visitor that he had a basic misunderstanding of how the Minyan operated.  Had he attended this Synagogue regularly he would have known that the man who was given Shlishi, for example, has yahrzeit, while someone else had a Bar Mitzvah - all the aliyot were given for a particular reason.  We do not readily understand Hashem's ways in this world for we are only passing through - we do not know what took place in previous generations nor what the future has in store.  Hashem exists for eternity - "after all has ceased to be, He the awesome one will reign alone", and He knows all that happened in the past.  Only in this context can the goings on of the world be fully understood.

Chazal tell us "this world from which we must eventually depart is like a wedding celebration" (Eruvin 54a).  A wedding begins and ends within a short period of time - "grab and eat, grab and drink" (ibid.), for "our days upon the earth are but a shadow". Life is very short and we have little time to eat, for soon the wedding feast will come to an end and the waiters will begin clearing the table. Chazal, of course, do not mean for us to seize all the ice cream we can in this world!  Chazal are telling us that now is the time to grab as many Mitzvot and good deeds as possible, for "whoever does not toil on the eve of
Shabbat (i.e. in this world) from where will he eat on Shabbat (i.e. in the next world) (Avoda Zara 3a). Moshiach may come at any day and we will no longer have the opportunity to fulfill Mitzvot - the time to avail ourselves of this is now! Chazal describe the period of the Moshiach as "years of which you will say 'I have no desire for them'" (Kohelet 12:1 - see Shabbat 151b).  Do we have no desire for the arrival of the Moshiach? Do we not pray daily for his arrival?  What Chazal mean is that during that time man will not have much free choice and thus the reward for Mitzvah observance will not be as great.  Now is the time to "grab and eat", when there is free choice and thus a greater reward.

The story is told that shortly before his passing, the Vilna Gaon grabbed hold of his tzitzit and began to cry.  His students asked: Rebbe why are you crying, in only a short time you will be able to sit among all the great tzaddikim in Gan Eden, is this not cause for joy? Explained the Gr"a: I am crying for I am about to depart from this world where for a mere few kopecks I can fulfill the Mitzvah of tzitzit, whereas in the world I am about to enter, even all the gold and silver will not enable me to observe a single Mitzvah! (see Aliyot Eliyahu footnote 117).  The Gr"a spent his entire life seeking out the opportunity to observe more Mitzvot, to serve Hashem.  He was devastated over the fact that he was about to leave the only world in which he can truly serve Hashem.  Although his destination was a world in which Hashem will reward him, he can no longer serve the A-lmighty there.  In the World to Come we only receive Hashem's good, while in this world we give as well.  There may be many tzaddikim in the Next World working and praying on our behalf, but the essence of the Next World is to receive.  The Gr"a cried over the prospect of leaving a world in which he has the opportunity to give, to serve Hashem by wearing tzitzit or fulfilling any one of a host of Mitzvot, for a world in which serving Hashem is impossible.

There is another aspect to this world.  In addition to learning Torah and observing Mitzvot, we are here to work on our character - to perfect our middot.  The Rambam writes: "Do not say that tshuva only applies to sins of actions, such as illicit relations, theft, and robbery. Rather, just as one must repent for these sins, one must search his thoughts, and repent from such negative character traits as: anger, animosity, jealousy, and mockery, from pursuit of money and honor, and being obsessed with food.  One must repent for everything. Returning from these sins is more difficult than from actions as it also says: 'Let the wicked one forsake his way and the iniquitous man his thoughts, let him return to Hashem' (Yeshayahu 55:7) (Rambam Hilchot Tshuva 7:3).  Not only must we work on our actions but on our character traits as well.  If one were to meticulously observe the laws of Shabbat, Kashrut, Tefillin, and tzdaka, yet not be of good character, then he has to work on remedying this.

Where are we commanded regarding our middot?  A small number of negative character traits are mentioned in the Torah, but the vast majority of them merit no specific mention.  R' Chaim Vital (Shaarei Kedusha volume 1, shaar 2) explains that the Torah has no explicit commandment regarding one's middot, because good character is "the basic preparation for the 613 Mitzvot".  Before even approaching Torah learning, one must have good middot.  The Torah did not command us to have good middot because the Torah refers only to people of good character. It is true that the Torah serves to purify and improve our character, yet the basic foundation must exist before one sits down to learn. One of man's tasks in this world is to work on his middot, for only with good character can one's soul serve as a receptacle for the G-dly light of the Next World.  A soul with a defect is of no use, for of what use is all the good the Next World has to offer if the only vessel you have with which to receive it contains holes - whatever is placed in it will flow right out through the holes.  If a person with a less than sterling character was placed in Gan Eden, there would be nothing there for him to enjoy, for his defective soul would be unable to contain the G-dly light.  It is in this world that we must prepare ourselves to receive all the good of the Next World by working on our middot.

The Rishonim wonder why it is that if the Next World is one of the foundations of our belief, there is no mention of it in the Torah.  There is only an allusion - "'so that it will be good with you' (Devarim 22:7) - so that it will be good with you to the world that is entirely good, 'so that your days will be lengthened' (Devarim 5:16) - so that it will be long to the world that is entirely long" (Kiddushin 39b).  There are two explanations offered by the Rishonim. At first glance these answers would appear contradictory, yet a further analysis will show that in fact they complement each other.  One answer is that the whole concept of life in the Next World is something very deep that is beyond our comprehension.  Just as we would find it difficult to describe the beauty of a painting to one who was blind from birth, there are no tools with which the Torah can explain to us what life in the Next World is about.  Another answer is that had the Torah described to us the true meaning and implication of life in the Next World, we would have such desire for it that we would not perform any Mitzvot "lishma" but only for the sake of being rewarded.

At first glance it would appear that these are contradictory explanations, for if we do not have the tools to perceive it, how can we covet it? Yet in truth the ideas complement each other. The state of our souls at the present is such that we cannot begin to fathom what life in the Next World is about.  Even, however, had Hashem created man differently, in such a way that understanding of the Next World is within our grasp, we would have such a desire for it that we would not be able to speak of observing Mitzvot "lishma".  In spite of this, we must understand that the Next World is a lofty ideal that is beyond our complete understanding.  We must also know that each Mitzvah we observe brings us closer to Olam Haba, while every sin distances us further from it.

What, after all is the purpose of the Next World?  To bring us to a clear recognition that "Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is the One and Only" (Devarim 6:4).  We, of course, believe it even in this world - we pronounce twice daily "Shma Yisrael Hashem Elokenu Hashem Echad". In spite of this - "on that day Hashem will be One and His Name will be One" (Zecharia 14:9) - today we can only believe in it. In the Next World we will see it clearly.  This recognition will grow stronger and stronger and penetrate us deeper and deeper. This is the delight of the Next World we must strive for.

Although Chazal tell us "Be not like servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward" (Avot 1:3), we pray daily "may we merit that we live and see and inherit goodness and blessing in the years of Messianic times and for the life of the World to Come". If we are told not to serve Hashem for the sake of a reward, why do we pray for life in the Next World?  One possible explanation is that the prayer for life in the Next World is not on our behalf but on behalf of our fellow Jew.  I am not serving Hashem for the sake of a reward, but I pray that my fellow Jews inherit the blessings of the time of the Moshiach and the World to Come.  If I also happen to merit these wonderful rewards that would be fantastic, yet this is not what I am praying for.  Kavana such as this does not stem from a desire for reward but is based on my love for my fellow Jews - just as I daven that Hashem provide others with physical well being, I pray for their spiritual life as well.

What we have just stated does not appear to be the simple meaning of this daily tefilla.  The words appear to be referring to ourselves as well as others.  Tosafot offer another explanation (see Avoda Zara 19a "al menat"): the prohibition against serving Hashem for the sake of reward is only if he makes it a "tnai kaful" - a two sided condition.  In our case this would mean stating "if I am rewarded that would be great, if I am not rewarded then I regret any good deeds I may have done until now". Asking to be rewarded with life in the Next World is a one-sided condition, and although it may be serving Hashem for the sake of a reward, it is not a violation of "Be not like servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward".  (This view of Tosafot is consistent with the view of the Rambam that the term "al menat" "for the sake of" always implies a "tnai kaful" - see Rambam Hilchot Ishut 6:17). We can now explain that when we pray "may we merit that we live and see and inherit goodness and blessing in the years of Messianic times and for the life of the World to
Come", we are not including the other side of the condition - that should we not be rewarded, G-d forbid, we regret all that we have done.  We are simply praying that we would like to be rewarded for all the good we have done.

In my humble opinion we can offer another answer to this question. There are two possible reasons for accepting the gifts of another - 1) I value the gift and want it for myself, and 2) by being the recipient of this gift I am respecting the giver who wishes to honor me with his gift - it would be insulting to him should I refuse to accept what he wishes to give me.  In the first case I am "taking" the gift, while in the second case by receiving I am in fact "giving", for I am giving pleasure to the one giving me the gift.  The Gemara relates how certain amoraim would refuse an invitation to dine at the house of the Reish Galuta, claiming "one who hates gifts will live" (Mishle 15:27).  Other Amoraim, however, would accept the invitation claiming that they were honoring him with their presence that he requested (see Megilla 28a).

Hashem wishes to shower us with good.  The entire purpose of the creation, after all is only to provide for us and the best thing He can give us is life in the Next World.  We see much of the A-lmighty's good in this world as well, yet the main goal of the creation is for man to be able to delight in the radiance of the Divine Presence (see Messilat Yesharim chapter 1).  The only true place this can be accomplished is in the Next World.  If so, when we pray that we merit the times of Moshiach and life in the Next World, we are praying that the will of Hashem be fulfilled. Hashem, after all, wishes to provide us with good.  One who has in mind that Hashem's will be fulfilled by providing us with life is not simply asking for reward but is serving Hashem, just as at times we accept gifts from others as a means of honoring them.

We bless Hashem one hundred times daily - "baruch ata Hashem". What can we possibly bless Hashem with?  We can bless a human being with wisdom, wealth, health, and longevity.  Can we say the same of Hashem. Can we bless Him with longevity?  His years are endless! Can we bless Him with wealth?  Not only does He have no need for it, all the gold and silver in the world is already His.  If it does not suffice, He can create more.  Can we bless Him with wisdom? Any wisdom we may have comes from Him!  There does not appear much that we have to offer that would be of any use to Him.  There is one thing, however, that we can bless Hashem with - that His will be fulfilled in this world.  Hashem wishes to provide good for all of His creatures, although this includes the entire world, He mainly wishes to provide for the Jewish nation.

The blessing we can give Hashem is that the world be run in accordance with His will - that He have the ability to shower His creations with good as He wishes and that the world be one filled with chesed - "May only goodness and kindness pursue me all the days of my life" (Tehillim 23:6).  This would mean the revelation of His honor - that which Hashem truly wants and the one blessing we can provide for Him.

Venue: Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh


References: Bava Batra: 78b  

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