Our Table – 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, email us at responses@ourtable.org.

 Yom Kippur #1/ Cutting Corners

“And you will repent and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves

God and one who doesn’t” (Malachi 3:18).

Regarding the day of judgment, the prophet Malachi seemingly refers to four types of people: the righteous, the wicked, one who serves God, and one who doesn’t. Yet isn’t “the righteous” synonymous with “one who serves,” and “the wicked” with “one who doesn’t”?

Avoidance Strategy

Rabbi Yitzchak Ze’ev Soloveitchik, known as the Griz, answers by citing the following Gemara:

Come and see how the early generations weren’t like the later ones. The early generations would bring in their produce via the gate in order to obligate themselves in tithing. The later generations bring in their produce via the roof and yard in order to exempt themselves from tithing” (Berachos 35b).

Tithing is required only when produce is brought into the house through the main entrance. The later generations intentionally brought produce home in “creative” ways – through back entrances, skylights, and the like – in order to avoid the obligation to tithe.

The Griz then quotes his father, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, who explained the implicit criticism of the later generations here. These Jews acknowledge the need to serve Hashem, but whenever a given mitzvah costs them, they find ways around performing it. Yet this perspective is all wrong. Any fulfillment of the Divine will in this world only enriches us, not only materially – Chazal say that tithing actually generates wealth – but spiritually, bringing us closer to Hashem.

Based on this understanding, the Griz explains that the “one who serves God” in our pasuk seeks out mitzvos, whereas the “one who doesn’t serve” maneuvers around them. One example of the latter type of Jew was Rabbi Katina, who exempted himself from tzitzis, the fringe that must be attached to any four-cornered garment, by rounding the corners of his clothing. The angel then demanded his punishment(Menachos 41a). For Hashem metes out his wrath even on those who could have fulfilled a positive commandment but wriggled out of it, not just on those who actually transgress.

Some seek to get their mitzvos out of the way so they can go on with their lives. Davening – done.

Bentching – done. They even avoid eating meat just so they won’t have to wait to have dairy. In fact, their whole approach to Torah can be described as “pareve.” They want to put its “burdens” behind them so they can do whatever they want, unencumbered by restrictions. These Jews aren’t “wicked.” But this “checklist Judaism” hardly constitutes service of Hashem.

Question for Discussion:

We should strive to be “one who serves God,” seeking out mitzvos rather than avoiding them. Yet we often take the easy way out, even in Torah matters. What is one mitzvah you tend to avoid, or at least not to do very eagerly or enthusiastically?

Yom Kippur #2/ “Opportunity Cost”

“Akavia son of Mahalalel says: Know where you came from, where you’re going, and before Whom you’re destined to give a judgment and accounting. Where you came from: a putrid drop. Where you’re going: to a place of dust, maggots, and worms. And before Whom you’re destined to give a judgment and accounting: before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He” (Pirkei Avos 3:1).

What exactly is meant by “a judgment and accounting”? Shouldn’t the judgment come after the accounting? And although each of us will have to account for our lives, isn’t Hashem the one who judges?

What Could Have Been

The phrase “judgment and accounting” appears in Avos 4:29 as well. In his commentary there, Rabbi Yitzchak Ze’ev Soloveitchik explains in the name of the Vilna Gaon that “judgment” refers to one’s sins and “accounting” to the mitzvos he could have done instead during the time he was sinning. “Accounting” generally includes a computation of expenses. In our context as well, the idea is that we’ll have to confront how we sinned at the expense of mitzvos.

We can further understand this concept by borrowing a phrase from economic theory: “opportunity cost.” This term refers to a potential benefit that one gave up in pursuit of another course of action. In other words, an opportunity cost represents the road not taken – and in our case, it’s the higher road. When someone sins, in addition to being “judged” on the offense itself, he’ll have to “account” for the opportunity he passed up to do mitzvos. Considering all of the time he wasted, he’ll be punished not just for what he did but for what he could have done.

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg recounts the following true story as a poignant example of how devastating this type of scrutiny can be.

Forty-nine-year-old Arthur Booth had been arrested for breaking into a home, stealing a car, causing two accidents before crashing it, and resisting arrest.

During Booth’s bond hearing, Judge Mindy Glazer suddenly turned to him and asked, “Did you attend the Nautilus middle school?” Booth looked up at her, recognized her, then covered his face in shame.

“I’m sorry to see you here,” the judge told him. “I always wondered what became of you.” Glazer proceeded to address the court. “This was the nicest kid in school,” she explained. “I played football with him. But

look what has happened.”

Booth’s cousin later commented on his emotional reaction: “He probably was thinking, ‘Wow, I had all those opportunities and abilities. That should have been me up there…’ He was overwhelmed by what could have been.”

Judging Ourselves

The Bnei Yissaschar (Elul 2) also wonders why the Mishnah says one must give a judgment as well as an accounting. Doesn’t the defendant provide only the accounting? This Chassidic commentator answers that when a Jew is judged for the World to Come, his case is presented to him as if it were theoretical: “If a person did such and such, what should his sentence be?” He then judges himself according to the Torah.

Similarly, Pirkei Moshe reads the Mishnah as “before whom you’re destined to give a judgment and accounting” – namely, before ourselves. We’ll judge our own lives, convicting or acquitting ourselves in front of Hashem Himself.

We now understand why the judgment precedes the accounting: As one relates his misdeeds, he’ll incriminate himself even before listing them all. No wonder the Mishnah tells us that contemplating this fate will protect us from sin.

Questions for Discussion:

It’s hard to make the most of every minute and every opportunity. Looking back, we’re bound to have regrets. When have you wasted time or missed an opportunity to do a mitzvah?