Below, please find this adaptation, by the inimitable Dov Elias, of Rav Weinberger's drasha from this parshas Tazria-Metzorah 5778. Rav Weinberger has reviewed this write-up and any corrections are incorporated herein. Enjoy!
Rav Moshe Weinberger
Parshas Tazria-Metzorah 5778
Adapted by Dov Elias
The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 16:2) relates the following story: A peddler (רכיל) would travel to various towns and proclaim, “Who wants to buy the elixer of life?” R’ Yannai heard him and said, “Sell it to me." The peddler took a Book of Tehillim and showed him the verse, "Who is the man who desires life... guard your tongue from evil, etc." (Tehillim 34:13-14). R’ Yannai replied, "All my days I read this verse and I did not know how to interpret it until this peddler came and made it understood.”
R’ Yannai’s statement is confounding. What was so novel about the peddler’s interpretation? He merely explained the passuk according to its plain meaning.
This coming week’s sefira is netzach. Netzach means “victorious,” but it also means “eternal.” Combining these concepts, netzach means “eternal victory.” This idea contains and instructs us in a fundamental aspect of our avodas Hashem. It is relatively simple to understand, but it is not easy to live.
Everyone wants to win. We may not always be sure what the competition is, but we want to win. For example, in a war, there may be a skirmish over a little village. The fact that the little village was conquered does not mean that the conquering army or country vanquished the enemy. It merely means that along the way, they won a battle. Victory in the war, a lasting victory, is what counts. When building a house, one does not celebrate when he lays the first brick. That is merely part of the process. Netzach is the completion of the house.
As children, it never rang true when the adults said “It’s not whether you win or lose – it’s how you play the game.” In reality, it was all about winning. We wanted only to crush, defeat, humiliate and destroy. “It’s not whether you win or lose – it’s how you play the game” was only something adults told us to pacify the losers.
Now let us consider the example of two chavrusas, Reuven and Shimon. Both young men are serious, sincere and focused on growth. They arrive on time to davening. They attend every seder and every shiur. They review. They take notes. They have been learning together for years. The only difference is that Reuven’s dream is to be a scholar. He wants to hold his own with other rabbis. He hopes one day to be a renowned rosh yeshivah. He imagines himself surrounded by students who heap accolades on him. This is not always at the forefront of his consciousness, but it is always in the back of his mind.
Shimon is just as proficient in learning, but he does not have these visions of grandeur. He may teach Torah one day. But, equally plausibly, he could go into business. When Shimon learns, it is not about the conquest, the siyum, or writing a sefer. What motivates Shimon is one thought: “There is a Creator of the Universe, Who I believe in with all of my heart and I was taught that there is no greater way to attach myself to the Master of All Worlds than by learning His Torah and entering into His ‘brain.’” He has complete emuna that every word of learning and davening provides Hashem with pleasure, nachas.
Which one is a winner and which one is a loser? For Reuven, victory will only come when he earns smicha, becomes a rosh yeshivah, impresses his rebbe with a sharp question, or writes a sefer. If those do not materialize – he is a loser. Even along the way, if he cannot understand a Tosfos – he is a loser. In the scheme of life, his chances of winning are very slim.
By contrast, Shimon would never forego the present moment of learning. He tastes the word of the Living G-d in every single word from the sefer. That is netzach. He attains a new victory at every moment. What is he defeating? He defeats the urge to remain in bed for another two hours. He defeats the urge to succumb to illicit desires which would pull him away from what he is trying to accomplish. He defeats the darker part of who he is and he tastes the unbelievably delicious flavor of victory. That taste of victory in the present moment has nothing to do with whether or not he will succeed the next day. It is a moment of netzach; a moment of overcoming the impulse that tries to seduce us into believing that G-d does not care if we daven or learn. And his victory in that moment lasts forever, even if he stumbles the next day, or even at the next moment.
There are examples in the material world as well. Let us imagine that Reuven and Shimon are both overweight and both want to lose weight. Reuven’s goal is to lose 50 pounds by Succos because he wants to feel good, be healthy, and fit into the suit that he used to wear. He plans to train and maintain a strict diet. Shimon is also on a diet. However, he is dieting because he realizes that, somewhere along the way, he became animalistic. He realized, after knocking over an 80-year-old woman at a smorgasbord to get some spare ribs, that he would no longer allow his baser urges rule over him any longer.
How do these two approaches differ? If Reuven meets his goal of losing 50 pounds – he wins. But if he succumbs in the last few days of his diet plan, he is a loser. By contrast, every time that Shimon declines a piece of cake – he is liberated of his urges. He is G-dly. He is a winner who defeats his urges. He is not merely a body without a soul; he has a soul. He can even enjoy food – within reason. He is an eternal winner; every moment he holds back is an eternal victory. Even if he eats cake the next day, that is a different war. Today, he won.
Lest one think that this assertion that every moment’s victory is eternal, even if followed by defeat at some other moment, let us learn what Rebbe Nosson zy’a, says about the matter. He writes (Likutey Halachos, Birchas Hariyah 5:2) that the main victory is an eternal victory. One who is victorious over himself and defeats his illicit desires and negative traits wins an everlasting victory. He can defeat any obstacle which attempts to prevent him from seeking truth or that tries to distance him from his Father in Heaven, G-d forbid. Since his intent is truly for Heaven, every moment in which he overcomes his darker impulses is a victory. Someone whose intentions are truly for the side of holiness, to do Hashem’s will – no matter what he does afterward, he always wins.
Only Hashem is forever. Therefore, all those who sincerely desire to do His will merit netzach. That is true victory. “Netzach of Israel will not lie” (Shmuel I 15:29). All other victories are false. They are relative and dependent. Only the Infinite One is eternal.
Rabbi Yaakov Bender, rosh yeshivah of Darchei Torah, sometimes walks my father, a survivor of Mathausen, home from shul after shacharis. He noticed that my father seemed to truly enjoy watching the children waiting for their school buses to go to yeshivah. Rabbi Bender, at a recent event, told how one time, he asked my father why he enjoyed watching the children waiting to go to yeshivah. He answered very simply, “Because when I look at them, I know – we won.”
The numerical values of “Nachman” and “netzach” are the same. When Rebbe Nachman of Breslov zy’a, died, at 38 years old, from Tuberculosis, he famously said, “I have been victorious and I will be victorious.”
When a person sees himself as a loser because he occasionally gives into an illicit desire, he lets go of himself. Based on the many people I have spoken to, I believe that a vast majority of the lethargy and lack of motivation for davening, getting out of bed, or learning is due to having succumbed to the desire to gaze at forbidden images. Shimon is not perfect. Shimon also has problems with his illicit desires. However, Shimon’s attitude is that even if he erred the night before and watched what he should not have watched, today will be better. He is already a winner. He is victorious.
This is why Dovid Hamelech was open about his struggles and begins so many of his Psalms with the word “Lamnatzeach – netzach.” He knew how to take all the low notes and high notes and compose a song. Some days are better, some days are worse. Dovid Hamelech always came out with a song. He also failed, on his level. Yet, when he looked back at his life – he was able to say, “I was victorious and I will be victorious.”
We began by asking what was so novel about the peddler’s interpretation to R’ Yannai. He merely interpreted the passuk according to its plain meaning. R’ Tzakok Hakohen (Pri Tzaddik, Rosh Chodesh Sivan 2) explains that the peddler was called a “Rochel,” which means a “traveling salesman,” but also implies that he had been a “הולך רכיל,” a talebearer (Mishlei 11:13). He had been a habitual speaker of rechilus and lashon harah. Later in life, he had done teshuva. Once he repented, he tasted the sweetness of the passuk, "Who is the man who desires life... guard your tongue from evil, etc." This Jew’s life – his history – added an entirely new depth to the passuk. R’ Yannai learned that only a Jew who has been victorious can understand the depths of the sweetness of that pasuk in Tehillim.
Hashem has put each of us on the winning team. All we have to do is get off the bench. May Hashem help each of us, in whatever war we may be fighting, succeed in being present at the celebration for the final and ultimate victory. May we will all be able to say, “We won. We defeated Amalek, Hitler, our illicit desires, and the evil inclination.” We are winners. May Hashem cause us to sing the song of the grandson of Dovid, the King Moshiach, on that day.
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