DIVREI TORAH

SHOFTIM: BETTERMENT – IT’S REALLY ALL ABOUT HARD WORK

OHR TZVI THE PARSHA: SHOFTIM: BETTERMENT – IT’S REALLY ALL ABOUT HARD WORK

Rabbi Yehoshua Weber

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Yes, there really are no quick fixes. Betterment is really all about hard work.

That’s true professionally.

We must work hard acquiring knowledge, implementing that knowledge and establishing professional contacts.

All that work will hone us professionally.

That’s true physically.

We must work hard at exercising and at maintaining healthy lifestyles.

All that work will make us stronger and healthier.

That’s true spiritually.

We must work hard following mitzvos and at controlling our physical desires, our base impulses and our negative emotions.

All that work will refine us spiritually.

And that’s true interpersonally.

We must work hard according respect to others, watching what we say and bettering our temperaments.

All that work will enrich our relationships with those around us - and with ourselves.

Yes, we can better ourselves professionally, physically, spiritually and interpersonally.

That betterment, though, requires hard work.

Which leads you to wonder about Gemaros that prescribe “segula” practices that - seemingly - better us without hard work. One such segula is detailed in the Gemara that notes that “an omen is a valuable thing….because of that, on Rosh Hashana, one should eat[1] … pumpkin, fenugreek, leek, beets and dates … because omens are significant.”[2]

These ritualized omens aren’t “mitzvos” per se - halachic literature doesn’t mandate them. Nor do these omens involve hard, soul-searing acts of teshuva and self-betterment. Nor - for that matter - is there any empirical evidence of these omens’ effectiveness. These omens are just “segulos” – items whose symbolic meanings somehow better our new year.

Some of that meaning lies in those omens’ names. One omen’s name is “karsi” in Aramaic – which also means “cut down” – an allusion to the “cutting down” of enemies. Another omen has a very sweet taste – an allusion to the sweetening our year.

Those allusions, though, are more than just allusions. They must be more than allusions because we wouldn’t be employing them if that don’t involve something “real,” i.e., some type of hard work, mitzva or something empirically proven. Why not?

Because all “unreal,” i.e., unproven, non-rational, magical “quick-fixes” are considered superstitions that are included in the Torah ban: “do not divine and do not believe in lucky times.”[3] This ban’s rationale is spelled out by the following Rambam: “[superstitions and magic] are lies … we shouldn’t follow such nothingness…wise people know that all those …are nothingness.”[4]

This rationale is also borne out by the sad history of the Catholic Church’s “indulgences.” Those indulgences were special prayers or devotions that “reduced or erased one’s punishment in purgatory”[5] – easy quick-fixes - that medieval church officers sold to their parishioners.

Those indulgences – strange as it now sounds - were wildly popular among all members of medieval European society. Why wouldn’t those indulgences – whose sale to parishioners enriched church officials – be popular among church officials!

And why wouldn’t those indulgences - whose purchase offered people easy forgiveness for sin, thereby “allowing” clean-conscience, guilt-free sinning – be popular among parishioners.[6]

Our Torah, of course, disavows such “unreal” practices. That disavowal occurs in numerous places, one of them being the following prophetic excoriation “ ‘Why do I need your numerous offerings?’ says Hashem. ‘I have enough of your korbanos…’ ”[7]

Korbanos – and all practices, including segulos - only have value when they are suffused with the “real” work that cleanses hearts and invigorates souls.

Segulos, then, can’t be “unreal” “quick-fixes.” They must, rather, as per the following, be about the hard work of self-betterment. Which is why we read: “Many matters ….seem like superstition but aren’t superstition… these matters… are signs to motivate the hearts towards good actions… that is why we have those special foods on Rosh Hashana … these fruits are only about motivation … about repentance and good deeds.”[8]

The Rosh Hashana omens don’t do anything automatic. They just remind us of our challenges and of our need for sweetness - which, in turn, prompts better davening, teshuva and the hard work that self-betterment requires.

Segulos, then, aren’t easy quick fixes.

And that’s great news. Because that means that segulos really work.

Rabbi Weber is founder of Ohr Tzvi Montebello-Monsey. Please visit his website, ohrtzvi.org, to sign up for his weekly email message, for information on his live or zoom shiurim or to have him as scholar-in-residence in your community. Rabbi Weber will be scholar in residence at the Hudson Valley Hotel for the Yomim Noraim & Sukkos. For information, please email or call (845) 794-6000.

[1] Or “see” according to some renditions.

[2] Horiyos 12a, Kerisus 6a

[3] Vayikra 19:26

[4] Rambam, Avodas Kochavim, 11:16, see also Ibn Ezra Vayikra 19:31 & Radak, Shmuel 1 28:24. Although see Ramban Devarim 9:13 & Chinuch, Asai 62

[5] Indulgences: The Business of Selling Forgiveness, Esther K.H. Ng

[6] loc. cit.

[7] Yeshaya 1:11

[8] Meiri, Horiyos 12a

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