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Welcome to our Shabbos Table!

We hope you enjoy this selection of short divrei Torah, presented to family and guests at our Shabbos table as a springboard for discussion. Each one is followed by a question. The responses shared at our table are enlightening, entertaining, and always thought-provoking.

Please share them at your own Shabbos table, and send us your most interesting responses. A selection of the best will be posted on the website, and eventually, included in a book. To respond, click on "Click here to respond" or email us at
responses@ourtable.org.

Parshas Nitzavim # 1

Turning Point

“You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem your G-d, the heads of your Tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of [the people of] Israel” (Devarim 29:9).

On the last day of Moshe Rabbeinu’s life, he initiated the entire Jewish people – men and women, old and young, leaders and “ordinary” Jews, including the souls of future generations as yet unborn – into a renewed covenant with Hashem. This covenant, the fulfillment of Hashem’s promise to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, would be for all time.

Rashi writes that with the words atem nitzavim (“you are standing”), the Torah takes note of an important turning point in the life of the Jewish people. For forty years they had been led by Moshe Rabbeinu, and now Yehoshua would be taking his place. Before this major change, Moshe encouraged the nation to stand and take stock. Generations later, the prophet Shmuel would do the same before handing over leadership of the nation to King Shaul. He said, “Stand up (“hisyatzvu”),and I will go to judgment with you” (I Shmuel 12:7).

Rav Gedaliah Schorr (1910-1979), rosh yeshivah of Torah Vodaas, elaborates. Before his passing and the transfer of leadership to Yehoshua, Moshe made a reckoning with the Jewish people of all that had happened to date, and apprised them of the changes in the new era ahead. Rav Schorr cites an insight from the Chiddushei HaRim about transition and change. The beginning of every new year is a transition, and a time for cheshbon hanefesh (personal accounting). The word shanah (“year”) is related to shinuy, change. The transition from Moshe to Yehoshua marked a change in the hanhagah (leadership) of the nation. Every new year is also a turning point, with its own new hanhagah – the way Hashem will lead us and cause events to unfold over the course of that year.

The parashah of Nitzavim is always read towards the end of Elul, shortly before the beginning of the new year,reminding us as well to stand and make a cheshbon hanefesh of the year now coming to an end. We should regret past mistakes and determine to do better in the year ahead (Ohr Gedalyahu, Moadim, Inyanei Chodesh Elul 8).

A Plan

Moshe Rabbeinu used the last days of his life to make a cheshbon hanefesh with the Jews in the desert. In our times, we need to be alert to the person, the event, or even just the few words that can inspire a cheshbon hanefesh resulting in real change.

In the summer of 2012, words addressed to tens of thousands of people struck a chord and caused a turnaround in the life of at least one individual – and likely, many more.

A rabbi who met “Dave” described him as being “spiritually on fire,” like a young student just back from a second year of yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael and in love with Torah. Not only was he in shul every day for shacharis, minchah, and maariv, he was a regular at the 5:30 a.m. daf yomi shiur, listened to shiurim on his way to and from work, and had organized a shiur on emunah in his neighborhood. It had not always been that way; far from it. While Dave had grown up observant and attended Jewish schools, by the time he reached middle age, he was a hardworking breadwinner so far from spiritual pursuits or ambitions that he was no longer even davening, let alone going to shul for daily minyan.

It was the daf yomi – or rather, the Daf Yomi Siyum HaShas in 2012 – that made him stop and think, and changed his life. Dave attended the siyum, along with over 90,000 other people. He personally did not learn daf yomi, but he was proud of his grandfathers who had been through the cycle several times, and came mostly because of them.

One of the many speakers that night was Rabbi Yissocher Frand of Ner Israel in Baltimore. He talked about the Bas Kol – the Heavenly Voice that still comes forth from Har Sinai every day, calling upon all Jews to increase their dedication to Torah. Everyone, said Rabbi Frand, should leave the siyum that night with a plan – whether to begin learning a daf a day, or if that was too much, an amud a day, or a page of Mishnah Berurah a day, or even just one Mishnah a day – “but SOMETHING a day!”

For Dave, the words hit home and he was deeply moved. Surely he was capable of doing something a day. He started daf yomi on his own the next morning. It did not take long for him to start missing days, and he realized that on his own, it would not work. Determined to carry through on Rabbi Frand’s inspiration at the siyum, he joined a daf yomi shiur given in shul at 5:30 every morning. It soon clicked that as long as he was in shul for the shiur anyway, it made sense to stay for davening too…

A few months later, it seemed silly to Dave to be davening with a minyan and learning daf yomi in the morning, and then not daven minchah in the afternoon. He added minchah, and while he was at it, maariv, to his schedule. After davening alone for a few months, he started returning to shul in the evening to daven minchah and maariv with a minyan. In short, Dave was on his way. It began with a plan – a commitment to do “something” every day, which grew into a new love for Torah and rekindled emunah (Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, Make Resolutions, Not Wishes, Rosh Hashanah 2015).

Question for Discussion:

Rosh Hashanah is only days away. In your personal cheshbon hanefesh for the upcoming year, what is one thing you have learned about yourself, and how do you plan to address it during the coming year?

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Parshas Nitzavim #2

Making Choices

“See, I place before you today life and good, and death and bad” (Devarim 30:15).

Before his death, Moshe Rabbeinu reminded the Jewish people of a fundamental principle of Judaism: bechirah chofshis, man’s Free Will. Throughout our lives we will encounter both good and bad, and we have the ability to choose between them. This is a realm where we are entirely on our own, and it is up to us to make the right choices (Ramban). Rabbeinu Bechayye writes that without Free Will, there would be no place for the mitzvos of the Torah, or for reward and punishment.

We earn eternal reward in olam haba by overcoming temptation and living a life of Torah and mitzvos. Triumph over temptation – doing the mitzvah, or refraining from sin – means reward, and neglecting the mitzvah or committing the sin means punishment. If we were to fulfill mitzvos only because there were no other options and no element of choice, those mitzvos would not be worthy of any special reward; what else could we have done? It is the constant challenge of choosing between “life and good” vs. “death and bad” that makes our efforts to do good precious and important.

Living the Good Life

The Kli Yakarasks an interesting question. Why didn’t the Torah put “good” before “life”? This would seem to be the more logical sequence: if we do good, we will merit life.

He explains that by putting “life” before “good,” the Torah warns us against doing what is right in Hashem’s Eyes only because we want to live. We need to reverse the equation. We should live in order to do good – not the other way around! Even when we ask Hashem to give us parnassah, good health, and more, our motivation should also be to use these blessings to do good, and not just to live the good life.

Before his death, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, redactor of the Mishnah and one of the wealthiest men of his time, held up his ten fingers and said, ‘It is revealed and known before You that I labored in Torah with my ten fingers, and I did not derive pleasure from this world even with my little finger’” (Kesubos 104a). Many generations later, the great posek Rav Moshe Feinstein lived by the same philosophy. On one occasion, Rav Moshe was offered a cigarette. He refused it, saying, “From the day I was mature enough to understand, I never put something into my mouth purely for the sake of pleasure” (Reb Moshe, by Rabbi Shimon Finkelman, p. 163).

How many of us even think of aspiring to this level?

Question for Discussion:

Life is full of choices and decisions, and it is up to us to choose well: “And you will choose life, so that you and your children will live” (Devarim 30:19). When did you have to make a difficult decision, choosing between “life and good” and “death and bad?”

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Responses:

Shainy from Chicago, in seminary in Eretz Yisrael: One night I was so exhausted that I just wanted to get to sleep, but I hadn’t said Kerias Shema al HaMitah. Even on an ordinary night, saying this lengthy tefillah – with kavanah – can be daunting... let alone that night. I was tempted to skip a little and say only the more important parts of the tefillah. Then I realized that I was about to make a choice not only for that one tired night, but for the future. If I gave in and skipped now, it would not take long for skipping to become the norm. I made a special effort, and said the entire Kerias Shema. Thanks to that one difficult decision, I have been saying it properly every night since, tired or not.

Anne, originally from New York, now in Jerusalem: I had been waiting for a date for my driving test for quite a while. My driving instructor called with the good news that we finally had a date for the coming Tuesday at 10:00 a.m. Ordinarily, I would have been available at that time and gladly booked the test, but I was faced with a dilemma. I had planned to attend a shiur by Shira Smiles, a well-known and very inspiring speaker, that same Tuesday morning. With Rosh Hashanah only days away, the topic of the shiur was Elul and teshuvah. On the one hand, I knew that if I gave up this test date, I might have to wait weeks, or even months, for another opening – but I also knew that there was no replacement for this particular shiur, a critical part of my preparations for the holiday. I told my instructor that I could not make it that morning, and would wait for the next opening.

Chana, originally from England and Los Angeles, now in Jerusalem, was a celebrated Academy Award winning artist, at the height of a prestigious career in Hollywood. When Chana began keeping Shabbos, she was faced with a choice that would permanently impact her personal and professional life. Chana said, “The conflict between my career and taking off for Shabbos was not reconcilable; there was no way to continue in my career and observe Shabbos. One would think that I had a very difficult decision to make, but truthfully it was a fairly simple decision – I wanted to keep Shabbos.” Chana gave notice, left her job, and began a successful related career compatible with shemiras Shabbos.