"Draw Out Your Soul to the Hungry"

  • Harav Yehuda Amital
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Dedicated in loving memory of
Shmuel Nachamu ben Shlomo Moshe HaKohen (whose yahrtzeit falls on 10 Tevet),

Chaya bat Yitzchak Dovid (whose yahrtzeit falls on 15 Tevet),

and Shimon ben Moshe (whose yahrtzeit falls on 16 Tevet).







"Draw Out Your Soul to the Hungry"

Adapted by Shaul Barth

Translated by Kaeren Fish



In chapter 58 of Yishayahu, which we read on Yom Kippur, the prophet declares:


Cry aloud, do not spare; lift your voice as a shofar and tell My people their sins, and the house of Yaakov their iniquities. Yet they seek Me daily, wanting to know My ways… (Verses 1-2)


Who is the prophet talking about? Who are the people who sin, yet nevertheless "seek Me daily, wanting to know My ways?" The Gemara (Bava Metzia 33b) asserts that "My people" here refers to Torah scholars, with whom God is strict: their mistaken sins are accounted as intentional sins. Even if we do not have the merits of Torah scholars, we do have the responsibilities. This prophecy is talking to us.


What criticism is being leveled here? The people ask God, "Why have we fasted, but You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, but You have not paid attention?" (verse 3). Why are we beset with problems? God answers via the prophet: "Even on your fast day you pursue your business" (ibid.) – even on the very day of the fast you are busy with your affairs; "Is such the fast that I choose - a day when a person is afflicts his soul? Is it to bow his head like a bulrush and to spread sackcloth and ashes – shall you call this a fast, a day of acceptance to God?" (verse 5). What is the meaning of a fast? What is the significance of reciting "Avinu Malkenu"? Is this the sole expression of the fast? Even if we "bow our heads like bulrushes," even if we stoop low – this is not the fast that God desires.


The prophet goes on to explain that God demands moral behavior, not only fasting. Twice the prophet makes mention of giving to the hungry: "Is not this the fast that I have chosen? … Is it not to share your bread with the hungry?" (verses 6-7); "If you draw out your soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul, then shall your light rise in darkness" (verse 10). The Gemara (Bava Batra 9a) tries to define precisely, on the basis of these verses, how many and what gifts should be given to the poor, and Tosafot raise a difficulty with the calculation there. I have a simple explanation for the repetition, and if this is all that is remembered from the sicha, I will be content: some people are hungry for bread, while others are hungry for attention.


There are always people around us – both within the beit midrash and outside - who are hungry for attention; they seek warmth and someone who shows an interest in them. We must pay attention to them and understand that their need is real; they feel "hungry" and neglected. The prophet calls on us to "draw out our souls to the hungry." If some of our fellow students do not grow in their learning, we must understand why each of us is guilty. We are all guilty, because if we were to give him sufficient attention, if we were to invest more in him and in his progress, he would achieve more.


I admit to my own faults in this regard. There have been students who did not stand out and excel in the beit midrash, but when they went off into the world of academia, they attained great fame. What happened? The talent and ability were there; we did not pay enough attention to enable them to realize their potential. We still do not know how to distinguish someone with special potential from someone who lacks it. These people were hungry for attention, and had we provided it, they would have flourished and attained spectacular achievements in Torah and fear of heaven.


The chassidic masters, beginning with the Ba'al Shem Tov, taught that without joy it is impossible to attain anything. Joy is necessary also for Torah study and for progress in fear of heaven. Joy starts with the sense that one is not alone, that someone is interested in you. We find ourselves in a world that is alienated; people spend fortunes on psychologists – and what do they do? They listen!


Unlike us, God is always listening. "May my speech be sweet to Him; I shall rejoice in God" (Tehillim 104:34). King David declares that God loves our prayers just as a mother loves to listen to the babbling of her infant. A person says that he has no patience to listen to all kinds of prattling – but God loves to listen to us and wants us to talk to Him.


The prophets established the fast of the Tenth of Tevet in order to arouse memories, as Rambam explains:


There are days which are observed by all Israel as fasts because of the tragic events that occurred on them, the object being to stir hearts and open the way to repentance, and to remind us of our own evil deeds … for as we remember these things, we ought to repent and do good. (Hilkhot Ta'aniyot 5:1)


Let us recall a point mentioned several times in Tanakh. At the time of the destruction of the Temple, Israel had reached a low point morally and culturally; the prophets describe at length all the abominations of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, a moment of truth arrives at the time of Tzidkiyahu, and he asks the prophet what is going to happen. The prophet tells him to surrender to the Babylonians and be saved. We ask ourselves: if the situation was so bad, how could it help to surrender? But in several places we are told that Tzidkiyahu had sworn an oath of allegiance to the king of Babylonia in exchange for his own coronation as king, and that, moreover, this oath was taken in the name of God (e.g. Yechezkel 17:19 and II Divrei Ha-yamim 36:13). Tzidkiyahu did not abide by this agreement. He violated his oath by allying himself with Egypt and rebelling against Nevukhadnetzar, king of Babylonia, thereby causing a great desecration of God's Name.


Even at the very last moment, Tzidkiyahu could have saved the situation by keeping his oath, and everything would have changed.


Then said Yirmiyahu unto Tzidkiyahu: "Thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the God of Israel: If you will go forth unto the king of Babylon's princes, then your soul shall live, and this city shall not be burned with fire; and you shall live, you, and your house; but if you will not go forth to the king of Babylon's princes, then shall this city be given into the hand of the Chaldeans, and they shall burn it with fire, and you shall not escape out of their hand." (Yirmiyahu 38:17-18)


Yet the king maintained that he could not heed the prophet's advice, for if he were to surrender, people inside Jerusalem would kill him. Tzidkiyahu was no longer afraid of the king of Babylonia; he was afraid of the men of Jerusalem. At the last moment it becomes clear that the problem that brought about the destruction was a desecration of God's Name; this could have been repaired up to the last moment.


Yesterday I bade farewell to our students returning to South Africa. One of them asked me how it is possible to fulfill the mitzva of tokhecha (literally, "rebuke" – directing people towards behavior in keeping with the commandments and values of the Torah) outside of Israel. I told him that there is only one language that is understood everywhere: sanctification of God's Name. We have no way of speaking to secular Jews, to the vast body of Jews who have drifted far from Torah, except through personal example and by sanctifying the Name of God. This is the only language that is left to us. We cannot scold and castigate; we must rather be models of integrity, sanctity, and concern for others.


We face many problems and difficulties. Let this fast not go by without our internalizing the fact that there are people who are hungry for bread, and there are others who are hungry for attention – and may God help us to help both types.


(This sicha was delivered on Asara Be-Tevet 5765 [2004].)


For more sichot on Asara Be-Tevet, see: