Parshat Nitzavim-Vayeilech: Repentance and Redemption

“And Hashem your G-d will bring back your remnant. And He will have mercy on you. And He will again gather you from the nations among whom He dispersed you.” (Devarim 30:3)

Moshe tells Bnai Yisrael that their repentance will be rewarded. The Almighty will respond to the prayers and cries of His nation. He will redeem Bnai Yisrael from exile. He will return the nation to the land of Israel.

The passage implies that redemption will be immediate. The Almighty is eager to respond to the prayers of the nation. If Bnai Yisrael repents, the process of redemption will immediately be set in motion.

Our Sages explain that this immediate response is not limited to Bnai Yisrael. Any tzibur – congregation – can expect Hashem to react immediately to its sincere cries. Maimonides discusses this concept in his Mishne Torah. He explains that it is always appropriate for a person to repent and pray to Hashem. However, during the ten days from Rosh HaShanna through Yom Kippur epentance and prayer are more effective. One’s entreaties are more readily accepted during this period. Maimonides then qualifies these comments. He explains that this distinction only applies to the prayers of the individual. The congregation receives different treatment. The Almighty is always prepared to react to the sincere repentance and prayers of the tzibur.[1] In short, the individual cannot be assured of an immediate response to his or her prayers. The congregation is assured that its entreaties will always be immediately considered by the Almighty.

The Talmud discusses an exception to this principle. The Talmud explains that seafarers do not enjoy the preferential treatment provided to a congregation. A group of seafarers encounters rough seas. They fear they will perish under the pounding of the waves. The mariners turn in fervent prayer to Hashem. They cannot assume they will be treated like a congregation. The Talmud explains that these are not really a congregation. They are regarded as individuals. Therefore, their prayers, regardless of their sincerity, are treated like the entreaties of individuals.

Why are the mariners not regarded as a group? Why do their prayers not receive the same preferential treatments afforded to other groups joined together in devotion to the Almighty?

The Rav of Sochotchuv offers an answer. He explains that there are two types of groups. Sometimes a group is joined together due to accidental occurrences. The members of the group are not interested in each other’s welfare. Each individual is concerned exclusively with his or her own interests. This is a group of unrelated individuals thrown together through a set of circumstances. This does not constitute a tzibur. This is because there is no fundamental relationship between the members.

There is a second type of group. This group is joined by some fundamental common bond. The members care for each other. This group is not drawn together through accidental circumstances. These people choose to join as a unit. This group is a tzibur.

The seafarers are an example of a group that is not a tzibur. They have been thrown together by necessity. They may pray simultaneously and even in a single location. But each prays alone. The petitioner presents the Almighty with his or her own needs. The other individuals in the group are irrelevant. The prayers of these individuals will not receive special treatment.

In a true tzibur there is unity of purpose. Each member includes the others in his or her prayers. The petitioners stand together. They are not merely together through physical proximity. They are joined together through mutual relationships. Their prayers merge and create the petition of a tzibur. This group can expect special treatment.[2]

“And now write for yourselves this song and teach it to Bnai Yisrael. Make them memorize it so that the song will be a witness for Bnai Yisrael.” (Devarim 31:19)

Moshe tells Bnai Yisrael to write the song he will teach them. They are to learn and memorize the song. This song is testimony to fundamental concepts of the Torah.

What is the “song” to which Moshe refers? According to the simple interpretation of the passage, Moshe refers to the song of HaAzinu found in the coming parasha. However, our Sages offer another interpretation of the pasuk. According to this interpretation, the “song” is the entire Torah. In other words, Moshe commanded Bnai Yisrael to place the Torah in written form. This interpretation is the basis for one of the 613 mitzvot. Every male is required to write a Sefer Torah – a Torah scroll.[3]

The Torah scroll is created by recording the contents of the Torah upon specially prepared parchment. The letters of the Torah must be carefully and exactly drawn. Each must be completely surrounded by parchment. This is the principle of hekef gevil – surrounding with parchment. Because of this rule, no two letters can be attached. The point of attachment will render both letters unfit. This is because the surrounding area of parchment is broken at the point of attachment. The letters are not completely surrounded by parchment.

The rule of hekef gevil has another ramification. Many letters in the Hebrew alphabet are closed or nearly closed figures. Below are some examples:

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These letters give rise to an interesting problem. Assume that the parchment on which one of these letters is written is perforated in the area adjacent to the inside of the letter. Because of this perforation, the inside of the letter is not adjacent to parchment. In other words the inside dimensions of the letter is not surrounded by parchment. Is this letter acceptable?

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This issue is the subject of a dispute among the authorities. Most authorities maintain that the letter is acceptable. According to these authorities the requirement of hekef gevil only applies to the outside of the letter. In our case the outside boundary of the letter is entirely surrounded by parchment. Therefore, the letter is acceptable. The Talmud Yerushalmi disagrees. According to the Yerushalmi, the letter is not acceptable. The perforation adjacent to the inside boundary of the letter is a break in the parchment. The letter is not considered to be surrounded by parchment. In other words, the requirement of hekef gevil applies to the inside of the letter as well as to the outside.[4]

This dispute provides a fundamental insight into halacha’s definition of these letters. According to most authorities the perforation adjacent to the inside of the letter is irrelevant. It does not disqualify the letter. This implies that the hollow portion of the letter is actually part of the entity of the letter. The letter is composed of two portions the outer colored portion and the hollow inside. The entity of the letter does not have an inside boundary. The hollow portion is merely a component of the letter. The only boundaries of the letter are the outside dimensions. Therefore, a perforation on the adjacent to inside of the letter is of no consequence. The boundaries of the letter are created by the outside of the colored portion. The letter is completely surrounded by parchment. The requirement of hekef gevil is met. (See diagram below)

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According to the Yerushalmi, the hollow inside the letter is not part of the entity. The letter is bounded on the inside and the outside. It follows that the letter must be bounded by parchment on the inside as well as the outside. The requirement of hekef gevil applies to the inside boundaries of the letter. Therefore, a perforation of the parchment adjacent to the inside boundary of the letter renders the letter invalid. (See diagram below)

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[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 2:6.

[2] Rav Yitzchak Mirsky, Higyonai Halacha (Jerusalem 1997), volume 3, pp. 18-19.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat 18.

[4] RavYosef Karo, Bait Yosef Commentary on Tur, Orach Chayim 32:16.