Nitzavim-Vayeilech 5777

The choice of a lifetime[1]

ועתה כתבו לכם את השירה הזאת ולמדה את-בני-ישראל שימה בפיהם למען תהיה-לי השירה הזאת לעד בבני ישראל
And now, write for yourselves this song; teach it to the Children of Israel; place it in their mouths. [This is] in order that this song will be testimony for Me regarding the Children of Israel[2]

Towards the end of Moshe’s life, Hashem commanded him to write down a prophetic song that he was to reveal to the Jewish people[3]. Many learn[4] from this verse that it wasn’t simply a mitzvah for Moshe for that specific time, but it was also a mitzvah for every Jew[5] to write their own sefer Torah[6]. The verse also commands that what is written should be taught to others. The gemarra learns[7] from here an additional obligation: that a teacher is obligated to teach their student until they’ve successfully learned the material. The gemarra follows this ruling with an interesting story that demonstrates how far a teacher must go to fulfill their duty.

Rabbi Preidah once had a student that he would have to teach four hundred times[8] before he could understand the material. One day Rabbi Preidah[9] was asked to help regarding a mitzvah matter. He decided he would first teach his student the usual four hundred times and only afterwards attend to this mitzvah matter. However, after the usual four hundred times, the student still didn’t understand the material. He asked his student what was different this time? The student responded that from the moment his teacher was asked to help with the mitzvah matter, he couldn’t concentrate. Every moment he was being taught he feared his teacher would have get up to leave. Rabbi Preidah told his student to concentrate this time, and taught him another four hundred times.

A Heavenly voice was heard and asked Rabbi Preidah[10] if, as reward for his actions, he’d prefer to live an extra four hundred years, or if he and his entire generation should merit the World to Come[11]. Rabbi Preidah responded that he’d rather he and his entire generation merit the World to Come. The Heavenly voice responded that due to his choice, he would in fact merit both. The fact that Rabbi Preidah was rewarded with both options implies his decision was commendable. It would seem from this that most people would be expected to choose the more selfish option: to have four hundred extra years of life. Had Rabbi Preidah chosen that, that is all that he would have received. However, since he chose the more selfless option, he was rewarded both.

This, however, seems counterintuitive. The World to Come is an eternal existence, free from pain, where a single moment there is better than all worldly pleasures[12]. Why would anyone not choose it? Why was it considered a meritorious act to choose this reward, to the point that he gets two for the price of one? It would seem to be the easier of the two options. Life is fleeting, and an extra four hundred years, while it sounds substantial, is nothing compared to eternity.

We see a similar exchange regarding choice of rewards in Tanach. King Shlomo, soon after beginning his reign, wanted to show his gratitude to Hashem[13]. He went to the Mishkan[14] and brought one thousand offerings on the Altar. Hashem appeared to him in a dream and asked what he desired as a reward for his service. Shlomo humbly asked for the wisdom to be able to judge his people properly. Hashem was pleased with this request, and said that because he did not ask for riches or glory or long life, he would receive those as well as the wisdom he sought. What’s astounding is Shlomo was still just a child at that time[15]. It must have been a huge trial for him not to seek fame and fortune. A long life would have also been tempting. Hashem was literally offering him anything he wanted. Yet he chose the less selfless option, and in the end merited much more. Again, this strengthens the question regarding Rabbi Preidah. What was the challenge with choosing the seemingly better reward?

In truth, it could have really been a huge trial for Rabbi Preidah. He was one of the Holy Sages, a very righteous individual who did everything with the proper intentions[16]. Every single moment of his life was tremendously precious to him. Every second was a chance for growth, an opportunity to help others and get closer to Hashem. Chazal even tell us[17] that a single moment of Torah and mitzvos in this world is greater than the entire World to Come. It would have made sense that he had tremendous ambitions, and the more time in this world the more he could have accomplished. Instead, he did a tremendous chesed for his generation, a very charitable act. Once he heard that his generation would be assured a portion in the World to Come, he gave up all those years of potential accomplishment and growth. For choosing the more selfless option, he was rewarded both.

We can learn many lessons from this story. One that is very relevant is the incredible value Rabbi Preidah gave every moment of his life. He considered everything an opportunity for growth; there was no room in life for remaining stagnant. Life is full of chances to help others. There are always new lessons to learn. If everyone took life as seriously has he did, they would surely accomplish amazing things. It just takes the ambition, and the realization of the tremendous gift we have been given known as life. Hashem simply wants us to take advantage of it. Good Shabbos.

[1] Based on Be’er Yosef to Deuteronomy 31:19

[2] Deuteronomy loc. cit.

[3] ibid Chapter 32, parshas Ha’azinu

[4] For example: Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos Aseh 18; Sefer HaChinuch § 613

[5] Sefer HaMitzvos at the end of Mitzvos Aseh and Sefer HaChinuch loc. cit. exclude women from this mitzvah

[6] Many Rishonim learn this through a kal vachomer, an a fortiori argument, that if we’re commanded to write down parshas Ha’azinu, for sure the entire Torah is included. Rambam loc. cit. however gives a different explanation: since it is forbidden to write only part of a Torah scroll, once we’re commanded to write down parshas Ha’azinu, we must also be commanded to write the entire Torah (see Kli Chemdah to Deuteronomy loc. cit. for an explanation of this dispute)

[7] Eruvin 54b

[8] See Maharsha, Benayahu, and Ben Yehoyada ad. loc. for the significance of the number four hundred in this context

[9] Rashi ad. loc.

[10] Rashi ad. loc.

[11] It’s one thing to be rewarded a portion in the World to Come, but why was his entire generation also assured such a reward? Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz in Sichos Mussar § 104 says it was due to Rabbi Preidah becoming a master over his middos, his character traits. A regular person would have gotten frustrated at such a student, and given up very quickly from teaching him. Rabbi Preidah showed tremendous patience. Mastering one’s middos is such a tremendous accomplishment that it can even give merit to one’s entire generation. He points out a similar idea is found in Sukkah 45b regarding King Yusam ben Uziyahu who was tremendously humble

[12] Avos 4:17

[13] I Kings Chapter 3

[14] This was before the Temple was built

[15] ibid verse 3 says that he was a young lad, and Rashi ad. loc. and Radak quoting Chazal explain that he was twelve years old at the time

[16] The Be’er Yosef echoes Avos 1:3 that Rabbi Preidah served Hashem out of love and not to receive reward

[17] Avos 4:17