As the Neilah service on Yom Kippur reaches its crescendo, the congregation cries out in unison: “Hashem Hu HaElokim” (Hashem is G-d) seven times. We can probably still hear this cry echoing in our minds. At that precious moment, we have reached the peak of the spiritual heights we have been climbing since the beginning of Elul.
“Hashem Hu HaElokim” finds its source in the tanakh, Melachim I 18:39. At that point in history, it had already been three long years since Eliyahu had imposed a drought in order to: 1. prove to King Achav that Hashem grants great power to his Prophets; and 2. inspire the Jewish Nation to teshuvah. King Achav and Ovadiah HaNavi then separate in order to search for fertile land. While traveling, Ovadiah “happens upon” Eliyahu HaNavi who convinces Ovadiah to arrange for a meeting between Eliyahu and King Achav. At this meeting, Eliyahu proposes a contest between himself and the 450 prophets of Ba’al to be held on Mt. Carmel. A “Battle of the Prophets”, if you will. King Achav accepts the challenge and sends for the prophets of Ba’al.
After the nation congregates on Mt. Carmel, Eliyahu reproves them, asking “How long will you stand on both sides of the threshold? If Hashem is G-d, follow Him! And if Ba’al is god, follow him.” The People could not answer. Sometimes the truth hits that hard.
Eliyahu then set down the contest rules: Both he and the prophets of Ba’al would be given a bull to sacrifice. Each was to slaughter the bull, cut it into pieces and place them on top of firewood on their respective altar. But they were not to kindle the firewood! The prophets of Ba’al were to call upon their god to send down fire, and Eliyahu was to call upon Hashem to send down fire. The One who would send down fire would be recognized as the true G-d, and the other as a falsehood. Both the People and the prophets of Ba’al agreed to this trial.
Eliyahu encouraged the prophets of Ba’al to go first and they took one of the bulls, slaughtered it and prepared it for sacrifice on their altar. They then called upon Ba’al all morning, hopping and dancing and cutting themselves till they bled, as was their manner of worship. But there was neither a sound nor any other response from heaven! As time went on, Eliyahu began mocking the priests of Ba’al, saying “Call louder, maybe your god is with his advisors, or maybe he is at war with an enemy; maybe he is asleep”. (Rashi states that Eliyahu even said “maybe your god is relieving himself”.) The prophets of Ba’al increased their efforts and continued to call upon Ba’al until the time of Minchah. Still, not a murmur, not a sound, not a sign from the heavens.
Then Eliyahu HaNavi cried out to the People, “Come near to me,” and they came near. He took twelve stones and he made a trench around the altar. He put the wood in place and cut the bull into pieces and placed them on the altar. Eliyahu commanded the People “Fill four jars with water, and pour it on the offering and on the wood.” Then he said, “Do it a second time.” Then he said “Do it a third time.” Eliyahu himself then filled the trench surrounding the altar with water as well.
Eliyahu drew close to the altar and prayed, “O L-rd, G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yisrael, make it known today that You are the G-d of Israel, and that I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your command. Answer my prayer, O L-rd, answer my prayer that this People may know that You, O L-rd, are G-d and that just as You allowed them to slip backwards from You – if they repent, You will also bring them closer to You.” At that moment, the fire of Hashem fell from Heaven and consumed the offering, and the wood, and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that Eliyahu had poured in the trench. Amazing!! The people had no means of response other than to spontaneously proclaim “Hashem Hu HaElokim, Hashem Hu HaElokim, Hashem is G-d! Hashem is G-d!” There was no question. Afterwards, Eliyahu had all of the prophets of Ba’al killed.
When word got back to Queen Izabel, the wife of King Achav and a fervent idol worshipper herself, she sent a message to Eliyahu HaNavi: “At this Time tomorrow, I will make your soul like their souls.” In other words, just as you killed the prophets of Ba’al, I will kill you. Queen Izabel was incensed, she was roused to the level of cold blooded murder. Why then did she say “At this time tomorrow”? Why not now? Does the schoolyard bully say “You’re in trouble now, meet me at the flagpole next month”? Why did Izabel, in all of her red-blooded passion, in the throes of vengeance, say “I’ll get you tomorrow”. The simple answer is that all of the People had witnessed the miraculous workings of Hashem and Eliyahu earlier that day. Queen Izabel would be unable to muster even a single mercenary at the highest of prices, to carry out her murderous intent. But tomorrow, ah tomorrow, after going back to their workaday lives, they’ll all begin to forget already. Then, Queen Izabel will be able to find men to oppose Eliyahu.
Unbelievable? Not really. In the inimitable words of Nasan HaNavi to David HaMelekh, “You are that Man”. You and me both. We walk out of Yom Kippur motivated, with resolve, “I’m going to change.” “I’m going to be better.” “I’m going to be great.” “I’m going to be a Tzadik!” “This is gonna be the year I turn it all around.” “Hashem Hu HaElokim” resounds through the canyons of our minds. But the next day, the very next day, when we return to our everyday lives, we begin forgetting. When we go back to our jobs, to the traffic, to the lack of sleep, to the financial worries and day-to-day troubles. Our resolve weakens, we are already on our way back to where we were.
How do we avoid falling into this repetitive cycle? Sure, we’ve changed but how do we keep the change. The torah in Parshas Va’eira says “And G-d spoke to Moshe and Aharon and commanded them regarding the Children of Israel and regarding Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to take the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt” The Talmud Yerushalmi in tractate Rosh Hashana infers from this pasuk that while still in Egypt, G-d commanded Moshe to inform the Jewish people of the Mitzvah of Freeing Slaves. When the pasuk tells us that Moshe and Aharon were to command the Children of Israel, it means that they would be delivering a command for the future: when they live in the land of Israel, and they have Jewish slaves, they should send them out to freedom after 6 years.
Why did Hashem deem this to be an appropriate time to tell the bnei yisrael about ‘shiluach avadim’- freeing slaves when they wouldn’t even be in a position to fulfill the commandment for more than fifty years. Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, zt”l, answers that, in actuality, there was no more appropriate time to tell them about ‘shiluach avadim’ than that very moment. When they are slaves, they know the burden of servitude; they know what its like to have a master. Presumably, it’s not an easy thing to send away a slave. After one has had an unpaid worker who has toiled exclusively for him for six years, it is not easy to let him go. If G-d would have given Bnei Yisrael this mitzvah later on, when the Jewish people already had their own slaves, they would have heard it in an entirely different way. Now is the time to tell them about sending away poor slaves. Now it will make an impression. Now it will be meaningful.
Rav Shmulevitz points out that a person needs to hear something at the precise time when he will be most receptive to it. One has to “seize that moment” of opportunity before it eviscerates.
The Gemara in Sanhedrin praises Palti Ben Layish as exceeding even Yosef HaTzaddik in Yosef’s ability to stave off the advances of Potiphar’s wife. What did Palti ben Layish do to deserve such praise? The Talmud relates that Shaul HaMelekh had a daughter who was married to David, but Shaul argued, erroneously, that based on a technicality she was not married to David and, legally, had no husband. Shaul took this daughter and gave her as a wife to Palti ben Layish.
Palti ben Layish was faced with a dilemma of epic proportions: He could not refuse the King; he had to take his daughter as a wife. Yet, he knew very well that this was a married woman. There he was in the bedroom, on his wedding night, with a married woman. What did he do in order to ensure that he would succeed in withstanding temptation? He took a sword and stuck it in the ground and said “Anyone who ‘occupies himself with this matter’ will be stabbed by this sword.” The Gemara goes on to say that because of this tremendous act, Palti Ben Layish merited the assistance of Heaven and was able to live with the King’s daughter for many years and never so much as touch her.
What was so incredible about the act of sticking the sword into the ground? Why did he merit this unbelievable “siyata d’ishmaya”. The answer is that on that first night, Palti ben Layish clearly knew what was right and what was wrong. On that first night, he had his priorities straight. On that first night, it was crystal clear. He knew that she was a married woman and that it was forbidden to touch her. But, he also knew himself and he knew the human condition. He knew that when “Izabel’s tomorrow” came and as the days and the months and the years passed, his feelings would dissipate, his clarity would become murky. He would come up with an excuse, he would become weak, and he would rationalize. Therefore, he said to himself, “I need a reminder; I have to seize this moment of absolute clarity and take a concrete step that will remind me of the time when I knew what is right and wrong in this situation.” There are moments when one does not rationalize, when one can clearly see the truth. Those are the moments to seize as our permanent reminders.
This, says the Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva, is something that we all can and must do. There are many occasions when we will be put into situations where in the beginning we will know what’s right and what’s wrong. We know “Hashem, Hu HaElokim”. We know we can be better. We know we can change. We know we can be great. But, later on, there will be reasons– financial reasons, professional reasons, practical reasons and a whole library of rationalizations. How will we know what is right and what is wrong? We have to seize the moment. We have to stick that sword in the ground and say to ourselves “I know what’s right and what’s wrong, and I’m not going to let that change and become unclear!”
That is the lesson of Palti ben Layish. We have to grab the opportunity so that when the time comes, when we have temptations and questions, we will always be able to look back and say “We knew it was right then — and we know it is right now!”
Succos comes quickly on the heels of Yom Kippur. Hashem himself provides us with a reminder. Look around you, Hashem Hu HaElokim! For those of us who have not already “Seized the Moment”, it is beginning to wane. “Izabel’s tomorrow” is creeping in. Pretty soon we’ll all be back at work. It is time to plant our swords. Peg an area of growth to some part of the day that will serve as a reminder. I won’t eat dinner before I learn one page of mussar. I won’t go to bed before I say one kapitel tehillim for sick people. I won’t eat lunch before I call my parents. I won’t take off my tefillin before I learn one mishnah. Plant your sword today so that tomorrow you will still remember, with perfect clarity “Hashem Hu Ha Elokim.”
Originally Published 10/10/2008