Parshas Shoftim - Extra Innings

By Rabbi Zvi Teichman

Posted on 08/20/20

Parshas HaShavua Divrei Torah sponsored by
Dr. Shapsy Tajerstein, DPM - Podiatry Care.
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We are entering the final month of a most unusual year. Little did we know a year ago how much we would have to endure — the challenges of illness, deaths, disruption of school and work, and any notion of normalcy in our lives. 

There was a clever remez — mystical allusion, to our fate specifically this Jewish year, that was making the rounds on a verse in Psalms that describes Yosef’s challenge of learning a new language when he suddenly found himself in a foreign land, being taught the language by the angel Gavriel.  

שפת — a language, לא ידעתי — unknown to me,  אשמע — I heard. (תהלים פא) 

The letters in the word שפת, correspond to the year 5780 תש"פ, the year Covid-19 struck. 

During that year, regarding all previous premises in life — things we thought we knew how to control and arrange — we found ourselves responding when asked as to when our kids will go back to school? — “I do not know!”. When and how will we work? — “I do not know!”. When, how, and where will we celebrate our Bar/Bas Mitzva, Wedding, Bris — “I do not know!” 

It was the year that the language of ‘I do not know’ was constantly heard! 

It was a year, whereas with Yosef in Egypt, there were Malachim — virtual Angels, who helped us all navigate this dangerous and unknown terrain.  

Whether the brave healthcare professionals, rabbinic leadership, educational staffs, community activists, lay leaders, and the many silent heroes who in their numerous acts of Chesed devoted body and spirit so that we may all survive intact, we are indebted to them for teaching us all a new ‘language’ of functionality in this novel realm.  

But, as Yogi Berra famously (and brilliantly!) stated, “It ain’t over till it's over!” 

There are many who have become lax in maintaining vigilance with masks, social distancing, and strict adherence to hand cleansing and face touching avoidance. Claims of ‘it’s simply too difficult’, ‘we have to live normally’, and of course the old adage, ‘every bullet has its address’ — if it was fated for us to die on the last Rosh Hashana, then what difference does it make anyway. 

This week’s portion teaches us otherwise. 

The Torah lists among those who are exempt from joining the army are: one who built a house and has not inaugurated it yet; one who planted a vineyard and has not redeemed it yet; one who betrothed a woman and has not yet married her, lest they die in battle and other men will —  inaugurate; redeem; marry — her.  

Clearly, in its simple reading, the possibility of someone dying prematurely exists and can be avoided if he stays away from the battlefield. 

The great fifteenth century rabbinic leader, Rav Shlomo ben Shimon Duran, chief rabbi of Algiers, popularly known as the RaSHbaSH, derives from this verse that indeed, ‘one can dodge a bullet’! 

In a masterful responsa (195) he outlines the general principles of what takes place every Rosh Hashana. 

Each person is dispensed from inception, a specific amount of days one is destined to fulfill one’s mission here on earth. One expires when that time is up. Those whose ‘expiration date’ has not yet arrived, are neither written in the Book of the Living or the Book of the Dead, on Rosh Hashana. Those, however, who have committed in the course of the year a sin deserving of death, or on the other end of the spectrum, those who have accrued a great merit that deserves a prolonging of life, beyond their programmed days, for them the record books are brought out in order to adjust it accordingly. 

There is a third group — those who have not upset the apple cart either way but are careless in exposing themselves to danger. Although they were otherwise destined to live, they jeopardize their destiny by callously not protecting themselves. 

It was exactly regarding an epidemic that was transpiring in his community that this question was posed that the RaSHbaSH to which he was responding to.  

He classifies the situation of one who still possesses allotted time as being vulnerable to, חק האפשר — ‘the realm/law of possibility’.

He writes unequivocally: ‘In times of plague, one must be extremely vigilant in protecting oneself...’ 

The Rashbash adds: Although on Rosh Hashana the collective is inscribed for the falling to the sword or to a plague... it is possible that some individuals were not inscribed for the sword and plague, since they did not commit a transgression deserving of it. Therefore, fleeing and protecting oneself from war is effective, because these individuals were not inscribed on Rosh Hashana, and remain within the realm of possibility.  

It is quite evident, according to the sage, that we are taking our lives in our own hands by not remaining vigilant in avoiding exposure to this dangerous and still prevalent virus. 

I would add in light of the theorem of the great Rav Shlomo Duran, that in addition to the obligation to protect ourselves, we should commit to being careful so as not to jeopardize the health of others, being careful for their sake.  

Even if our time is up we can still extend life through the merit of a mitzva, as the Rav avers, that can amend our fate from the Book of the Dead and be deservedly inscribed in the Book of the Living on this Rosh Hashana.  

For those who add credits, the game can go into many extra innings! 

May I boldly suggest that this coming year תשפ"א, is alluded to in a magnificent passage we recite each day of Rosh Chodesh. 

We describe the Almighty as the one Who ‘raises from the dust the needy’, מֵאַֹשְפֹּת, from the trash heaps (the doldrums), ירים אביון, He lifts the destitute

May He lift us out of the ‘dumps’, bringing a cure and prosperity back once again. 

May we merit by virtue of our sensitivity to others, and concern to prolong their lives, that G-d look kindly upon us — in His attribute of allotting reward measure for measure — that we too merit going into extra innings. 

I conclude with the sage’s own closing words:  

והשם יתברך יחמול עלינו ועל כל עמו ישראל ברחמים. אמן!  

May G-d compassionately display mercy upon us and His entire nation Israel. Amen! 


חודש טוב, 

צבי יהודה טייכמאן