Unless otherwise noted, "This week's Parsha" comprises articles taken from contributors to the Chabad.org website. We show the original author's name here, so that proper attribution is given. For the sake of brevity, footnotes cited in the original author's writings are omitted from this website. If you need to see the citations, please refer to the original articles on the Chabad.org website.
Hanging On by a Rope
The prime minister of Israel and the president of the United States are in a meeting in Washington, D.C. The prime minister notices an unusually fancy phone on a side table in the president’s private chambers.
“What is that phone for?” he asks.
“It’s my direct line to G‑d.”
The president insists that the prime minister try it out, and indeed he is connected to G‑d. The prime minister holds a lengthy discussion with Him.
After hanging up, the prime minister says, “Thank you very much. I want to pay for my phone charges.” The president, of course, refuses. The prime minister is steadfast, and finally the president gives in. He checks the counter on the phone and says: “All right, the charges are $100,000.” The prime minister gladly signs a check.
A few months later, the president is in Jerusalem on an official visit. In the prime minister’s chambers he sees a phone identical to his, and learns it also is a direct line to G‑d. The president remembers he has an urgent matter, and asks if he can use the phone. The prime minister gladly agrees, hands him the phone, and the president chats away.
After hanging up, the president offers to pay for the phone charges. The prime minister looks at the phone counter and says: “One shekel.” The president looks surprised: “Why so cheap?”
The prime minister smiles: “Local call.”
On Rosh Hashanah, I think of G‑d as within earshot’s distance of my whispering lips. These thoughts help elicit a more authentic prayer from me.
It is not by coincidence that the reading of Haazinu, the portion that is always read in proximity to the High Holy Days, explains our connection to G‑d as that of being bound by rope! Deutoronomy 32:9 reads: “Because G‑d’s portion is His people; Jacob is the rope of His inheritance.”
The analogy of a rope, whose upper end is bound above and the lower below, is compared to the soul, where the upper end is bound above and the lower end is enclothed in the body, explains Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in the Tanya.
There are many profound implications, and lessons, of the rope imagery described in Haazinu:
a) Just as a rope is comprised of many strands, our relationship with G‑d is multifaceted, multisensory, and its complexity is what gives it strength.
b) Each of the 613 mitzvot is a thread of a greater rope that keeps us intensely connected to G‑d. Unfortunately, neglecting a mitzvah causes some strands to disconnect and the entire rope to weaken.
c) A tug on the bottom of a rope will bring down the top of the rope, too. The implication is that everything I do affects G‑d Himself. He is the other end of my rope. When I fall, I drag Him down.
Now, that last note is a frightening thought. It makes G‑d seem vulnerable. But according to Kabbalah, G‑d apportioned some of His creative life force to holy creations, called kedushah; and some of those powers he “threw down over His back” to vitalize the currents that run antithetical to Him, the sitra achara. When I use my G‑d-given energy to behave inappropriately, I am actually re-appropriating G‑d’s life force by transferring the holy energy invested in me to the realm of sitra achara.
d) G‑d is with us even when we have fallen. The rope ensures that we are never in crisis alone. Just like a parent who sits compassionately with a filthy child, G‑d is pained by our struggles and eagerly awaits our return to Him.
Tightrope of Life
In the days of communism’s fierce grip on the Soviet Union, there lived a chassidic Jew named Reb Mendel Futerfas. Reb Mendel repeatedly put his life at risk with his efforts to promote Jewish education behind the Iron Curtain, and for some 14 years was incarcerated in prisons and labor camps for his “crime” of teaching Torah. While in the Siberian gulag, he spent most of his free time studying and praying, but he also interacted and conversed with other prisoners -- some Jewish, some not. Among these prisoners was a circus performer whose claim to fame was his incredible skill as a tightrope walker.
Reb Mendel would often engage this man in conversation. Having never been to a circus, Reb Mendel was totally baffled by the man’s profession. How could a person risk his life walking on a rope several stories above ground? (This was in the days before safety nets were standard practice.)
“To just go out there and walk on a rope?” Reb Mendel challenged incredulously.
The performer explained that due to his training and skill he did not need to be held up by any cables, and that for him it was no longer all that dangerous. Reb Mendel remained skeptical and intrigued.
After Stalin died, the prison authorities relaxed their rules somewhat, and the guards told the prisoners that they would be allowed to stage a makeshift circus on May Day. There was no doubt that the famous tightrope walker’s act would be the highlight of the show. The tightrope walker made sure that his friend, Reb Mendel, was in the audience.
Everyone watched with bated breath as the tightrope walker climbed the tall pole to the suspended rope. His first steps were timid and tentative (after all, it had been several years), but within a few seconds it all came back to him. With his hands twirling about, he virtually glided across the rope to the pole at the other end, and then, in a flash, made a fast turn, reversed his direction and proceeded back to the other side. Along the way, he performed several stunts. The crowd went wild.
When he was done, he slid down off the pole, took a bow and went running straight to Reb Mendel.
“So?” he said. “Did you see that I was not held up by any cables?”
A very impressed Reb Mendel replied, “Yes. You’re right. No cables.”
“Okay. You’re a smart man. Tell me, how did I do it? Was it my hands? Was it my feet?” the man asked.
Reb Mendel paused for a moment, closed his eyes and replayed the entire act back on his mind. Finally he said, “It’s all in your eyes. During the entire time, your eyes were completely focused and riveted on the opposite pole.”
“Exactly!” said the performer. “When you see your destination in front of you and you don’t take your eyes off of it, then your feet go where they need to go, and you don’t fall.”
The tightrope walker had one more question for Reb Mendel. “What would you say is the most difficult part of the act?”
Again Reb Mendel thought for a moment. “Most difficult was the turn, when you had to change direction.”
“Correct again!” said the acrobat. “During that split second, when you lose sight of that first pole, and the other pole has not yet come into view, there is some real danger there. But . . . if you don’t allow yourself to get confused and distracted during that transition, your eyes will find that pole, and your balance will be there.”
This week’s Torah reading, in which we learn about the events that transpired on the last day of Moses’ life on earth, is called “And Moses went” (Vayeilech Moshe). The commentaries point out that even on the last day of his life, Moses was on the move—walking forward, achieving, growing -- making the most of every precious moment of life.
Moses’ message to us is that so long as we have a breath of life, there ought to be vayeilech -- explorations of new horizons, journeys to new frontiers.
How do we walk this tightrope called “life” without stumbling? The answer is: by establishing clear and proper goals, and remaining focused on those goals like a laser beam. The Torah provides us with a roadmap to a meaningful and fulfilling way of life. It sets down goals, and defines purpose.
It is also noteworthy that this Torah reading is often read on the special Shabbat that serves as the bridge between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, referred to as “Shabbat Shuvah.” On that Shabbat we also read a haftorah in which we hear the words of the prophets exhorting us, pleading with us, beckoning us to improve the quality of our lives; to even change direction, if need be.
When you know what your purpose and destination is, and you do not take your eyes off that pole, then you know where to put your feet. Even when things turn, and we momentarily lose sight of the pole, we need not despair. Shabbat Shuvah teaches us that a change of direction ought not to send us plummeting. On the contrary, we can and should shift gracefully with changes of circumstances, catch our balance, and let the next pole come into view.
This week's Torah reading begins Atem nitzavim, "You are standing here today, all of you... from the heads of tribes... to the woodcutters and water-drawers."
The commentaries explain that nitzavim in Hebrew means "standing firm." This verse teaches us that our standing firm is conditional upon it being all of you standing together. Each of us, from the highest to the lowliest, has our part to play and our own potential to fulfill.