Friday, November 23, 2012

Parshat Vayetze - פרשת ויצא

"וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם, כִּי-בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, וַיִּקַּח מֵאַבְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם, וַיָּשֶׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו; וַיִּשְׁכַּב, בַּמָּקוֹם הַהוּא - And he lighted upon the place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep."
(בראשית כח:יא)

One of the focal events of this week's Parsha happens when Ya'akov lies down to go to sleep. He dreams a dream, in which he sees a ladder above him and also receives prophecy that the entire land of Israel would become an inheritance for Am Yisrael.

Many commentators on the Parsha choose to discuss the exact details and the precise meaning of these events, but a seemingly "minor" point is the focus of this D'var Torah. Rashi points on the verse above that the words, "וַיִּשְׁכַּב, בַּמָּקוֹם הַהוּא - And [Ya'akov] lay down in that place to sleep" are an expressed in a way that suggests a measure of limit. Rashi goes on to explain that whereas here Ya'akov lay down to sleep, for the duration of previous fourteen years, when he learned in the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever, he refrained from going to lie down to sleep.

The Yalkut Lekach Tov notes the words of Kovetz Sichot by Rav H. Shmulovitz, that after Ya'akov's fourteen years restless pursuit of Torah, he doesn't go to sleep on a plush king-size bed with soft cushions. No, he lies down on the ground. He does prop up his head, but with what - a rock?

Moreover, Ya'akov takes more rocks and sets them around his head in order to protect himself "from wild beasts." Here too, we have a problem as Rav Simcha Zissel of Kelm points out. Why would a few rocks stop an animal from getting to Ya'akov while he sleeps - surely the rocks could be knocked away with ease.

The answer to be found is a lesson taught by Ya'akov's behaviour. Ya'akov's actions are an example in how to conduct oneself; after massive sleep deprivation, Ya'akov realised that if one pushes himself to the limits, he can do tremendous things. As such, he was able to deal without sleeping properly for all this time. Indeed, Ya'akov has conquered his natural desires and instincts to the extent that after this episode, he felt no need to use anything more than a few rocks to lie on. Similarly, when he placed these stones around his head, ostensibly to protect himself from animals, he was fully aware that they didn't offer proper protection.

Seemingly happy with this relatively insecure barrier, Ya'akov goes on, in the opinion of at least one commentary, to enjoy his best ever night's sleep that night. It seems that he was completely satisfied in his act of השתדלות (acting in a way to demonstrate one's commitment to a cause while accepting that one's own role is always beneath that of God). Nevertheless, the assertion that he was entirely comfortable with this most minimal of safeguards remains troubling. To resolve this difficulty we have to understand that Ya'akov chose to employ this simple barrier in the knowledge that in reality, everything that one does is essentially a miracle. Man is incapable of doing anything himself - he is only permitted to by God. As such, Ya'akov knew that he had no need to place stones around his head. The reason he put them there was to reduce the miracle, as it were. His action was an attempt to limit the need for a miracle. We may tender that in this merit, Ya'akov deserved to experience the bigger miracle of waking up to see the multiple stones unite to become one.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Parshat Toldot - פרשת תולדות

This week's Parsha opens with the words, "וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק, בֶּן-אַבְרָהָם: אַבְרָהָם, הוֹלִיד אֶת-יִצְחָק - And these are the generations of Yitzchak, Avraham's son: Avraham begot Yitzchak."

There is a golden rule in the study of Torah that, as the Torah is perfect, there are no supefluous words anywhere. Each and every word has a meaning. Why, therefore, are we twice told that Yitzchak was Avraham's son?

Rav Machlis of Ma'alot Dafna in Jerusalem proposes an interesting insight as to why the seemingly needless repetition is warranted. The first mention, "יִצְחָק בֶּן-אַבְרָהָם," is meant to refer to Yitzchak. We may learn from these words that Yitzchak defined himself as "Yitzchak, the son of Avraham." Yitzchak's respect and love for his father extended to him determining himself by his father.

The next phrase, "אַבְרָהָם, הוֹלִיד אֶת-יִצְחָק - Avraham begot Yitzchak" can be understood as Avraham, the father, referring to himself by mentioning his son. While it is inspiring for the son to realise his position by defering to his father, I find it beautiful, and rather poetic, that Avraham Avinu found himself to be fulfilled through his son. Of course the positions of father and son should never be confused, and the son must always defer to the father, but I personally find this expression of mutual love and respect in Avraham and Yitzchak's relationship to be a true measure of the appreciation and depth of their love for one another.

Another interesting phenomenon I'd like to point out comes in response to an academic article I read last year during my studies. Written by feminist Susan Moller-Okin, the rhetorical question (more of an attack, really,) is asked why we read of "all those endless begats" such as the one found above, whereby a father (Avraham in our case) has a son (Yitzchak here), born to him without the mother being mentioned at all. When I first heard this, it really bothered me. Truth be told, it still does, but I'm sure that I'll find an answer if I do my searching. People told me that while it is clear that we wouldn't write things in such a way today, at the time that Avraham lived, women were very much marginalised by society. Whether the Torah is divine or not, (and I firmly believe that it is,) it was suggested to me that we can "excuse" this uncomfortable phrase as a sign of times past.

Nevertheless, reading through the parsha this last week, I realised something that does provide an answer of sorts to the allegation that Judaism is intrinsically sexist and discriminatory. Only a few verses after the one quoted above, we read that, " וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת-עֵשָׂו, כִּי-צַיִד בְּפִיו; וְרִבְקָה, אֹהֶבֶת אֶת-יַעֲקֹב - Yitzchak loved Esav, for trapping was in his mouth; and Rivkah loved Ya'acov."

It is intriguing to note that the two parents developed favourites at all, but I'd like to focus on the fact that while Yitzchak chose Esav, Rivkah favoured Ya'akov. Rivkah chose the 'right' son - the son from whom the Jewish people would emanate, the son who would turn out to be righteous. Responding to claims that Judaism is entirely discriminatory to women, it is important to note that no excuses are given for Yitzchak's "misjudgment" - women are regarded as typically being more insightful and in possession of the trait of בינה, proper understanding. I think that the right conclusion to draw is that there are no explanations given for this simple verse because none are really needed. Yitzchak, great as he was, could never have a woman's perception and understanding. During the Shmonah Esrei we speak of the three forefathers, but we don't mention the four foremothers. But this absolutely doesn't mean that they are of no value, that they had no contribution, and that we don't learn things from them. A glance further ahead in this week's parsha bears that out: Ya'akov, whom we learn represented absolute truth, was forced to bend somewhat after his mother compels him to disguise himself in order to "steal" a bracha from under his brother's nose. It is important not to underestimate the strength of Rivka's role here. She hoodwinked her own husband and forced her son to act against his will, but for a very good reason - she perceived that which the male characters couldn't. Without her guidance this whole episode could never have happened. Although it might seem as if women's roles are very low, if we closely analyse events and view them as a chain, rather than as isolated occurences, we may see just how vital women's contributions are. On a personal note, I may not have all the answers, but I feel that if I learn more about this, there are answers to be found.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Parshat Chayei Sarah - פרשת חיי שרה

"ואהברהם זקן בא בימים וה' ברך את אברהם בכל - And Avraham became old of age and Hashem blessed Avraham with everything."

This week's Parsha begins with Avraham Avinu setting out to bury his wife, Sarah. Rav Eliyahu Dessler writes in Michtav M'Eliyahu that out of all the challenging events in Avraham's life this episode was the most troubling. He had just passed the test of the Akeidah, whereby he intended and prepared himself to slaughter to his only son on God's word, and now he hears that his beloved wife had passed away.

Avraham set out to bury his wife in a spot in Hevron that we now call "Ma'arat Hamachpela," in a manner that was befitting of such a righteous woman. Unfortunately though, the people of Hevron, the Chitites, knew that Hashem had given Avraham the land of Israel and did their best to inflate the price. The leader, Efron, was a base man who at first told Avraham that he would give the land away for nothing but when Avraham told Efron that he wanted to pay for the burial plot, Efron raised the price well over the acceptable rate. The Yalkut Lekach Tov notes that Efron's name is composed of the root letters "עפר," - dust. Dust is common and representative of the physical; exactly Efron's nature - all he cared about was that which was physical. Efron's initial "polite" refusal to accept any money was soon revealed to be a front for his true nature. (Indeed, toward the end of this episode, the letter ו is dropped from עפרון's name so that it spells "עפרן," which we may note happens to be numerically equivalent to עין-רע; evil eye.)

In the face of this, and despite his intense pain at his wife's passing, Avraham remained calm, respectful and truly polite. He even bows twice to the Chitites. His behaviour is a real lesson for us to learn - even when in the most terribly depressing moment of his life, Avraham was staunchly pious. While it would be hard for us to emulate him, we can learn from his actions.

Later on in the Parsha, we read, "ואהברהם זקן בא בימים וה' ברך את אברהם בכל - And Avraham became old of age and Hashem blessed Avraham with everything." The word everything seems a bit vague. What is intended? The stock answer is that בכל has a gematria of 52. The word בן, son, also has a gematria of 52 and so we learn that Avraham's reward was his son, Yitzchak.

There's a problem with this though - Yitzchak was born years ago! Another way to read this word resolves our problem. בכל, "with everything," can instead be replaced with בן, but not in the sense of a son. Rather we can read it to mean "with the number 50." Without going too far into things I don't understand myself, I have learned that Kaballah (Jewish mysticism) teaches us that the number 50 has a special significance. There are 50 levels of Kedushah, spiritual levels in which we may ascend. For this reason, for example, we count 50 days until the festival of Shavuot, each day ascending a spiritual level, so that we may arrive at the pinnacle of holiness. Avraham's blessing here was not merely that he was given a son, but also that he attained this fiftieth level of holiness. In that sense, he was completed and we can say that Hashem truly blessed Avraham בכל - with everything.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, November 02, 2012

Parshat Vayera - פרשת וירא

"ויֹּאמַר: אֲדֹנָי, אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ--אַל-נָא תַעֲבֹר, מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ - And said: 'My lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant."
(בראשית יח:ג)

The words above form Avraham's request of God after his circumcision: please don't leave me now, even though I have to leave.

The days after a circumcision are supposed to be the most painful, with the pain at its most intense on the third day. Although the pain was great, Avraham was preoccupied with other things; he was desperate to welcome guests into his tent, and sat watching for weary travellers he could welcome in to his abode.

But if we think about this situation over, something seems amiss. Avraham was sitting in the presence of God, and yet he was searching for people he could bring into his house. What more could he need? Surely being with Hashem is better than being with mere mortals!

The Talmud in Gemara Shabbat (127) learns from this episode that: "מכאן שגדולה הכנסת אורחים יותר מקבלת פני השכינה - from here [we know] that hosting guests is more [important] than receiving the heavenly presence." This still leaves a question, though. How did Avraham know how he should act?

In the book Mayanei HaTorah (a compilation of various teachings) a few Rabbis point out the answer to this question. We have to recognise that Avraham Avinu was a tremendous person. He devoted his life Torah and becoming close to Hashem and he had an incredible level of control over his natural desires and instincts. Avraham was so accustomed to defeating his own will and attuned to Hashem's that his body gravitated towards doing mitzvot. When there was an opportunity for performing a mitzvah, he would find that his body "wanted" to take him there. Avraham was aware that his body wanted to take him there, and so he came to the realisation that the proper conduct was in fact to leave Hashem's presence and seek out people to take into his home.

Personally, I learn a great deal from this. If ever there was an example in the whole Torah of the lengths to which we have to go to make other people happy, this is it. To Avraham, nothing in the world mattered more than being with God. Yet he understood that to become closer with God, there are times when one has to do the simple things.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Parshat Lech Lecha - פרשת לך לך

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּHashem said to Avram: 'Go for yourself, from your land, from your birthplace and from your father's house to the land that I will show you.'(בראשית יב:א) There are two parts of this Pasuk that I would like to deal with. The part that immediately interests us is the list of places that Hashem commands Avram to leave - Avram's land, his birthplace and his father's house. After that, Avram we read of the oddly vague "place that I will show you." There is one obvious question to be asked on the first part of this pasuk. It is posed in the Kli Yakar's commentary: when one lists where one hails from, one normally starts with the most local place and then mentions increasingly bigger areas. For example, I was born in Hendon, which is in London, which in turn is in England. Here however, the list order is reversed. One possible reason for this could be that when moving away from a certain place, a person notices things that he used to take for granted. Personally I have noticed many cases of American and English expatriates assuming an exaggerated persona. I believe that the reason for this is as much to do with being homesick and attempting to compensate for the inability to actually be immersed in the old country's culture as it is to play the culture card on local people. By this I mean that I will often exaggerate my Londoner accent for Israeli and American friends as it is both a talking point, and also reminds people where I come from and what kind of behaviour and customs to expect from me. It also serves to confirm to myself that I am different from Israelis and that although I have moved abroad, I am not a native. To misquote Sting, "I'm an Englishman in Jerusalem!" Coming back to the point, the word ארץ in Hebrew means land, but it also has another connotation. The word may be read as "א-רץ," meaning "I will run." The concept of the ground in Hebrew is the place you are heading to to, what your goal is. By way of comparison, Egypt is called מצרים, which derives from the word צר, meaning thin. Eretz Yisrael, a very thin strip of land geographically, is called "Eretz tova U'rechava - A good and wide land." How can that be? The answer is simple enough; that Egypt was a spiritually stifling place for the Jews to live in, whereas in Eretz Yisrael, our potential is significantly "wider" and expanded. It is only natural that a man once removed from his natural surroundings will pine for them and attempt to re-enact them in his mind. For this reason, Hashem first told Avram to leave behind the land he came from. He wasn't telling him to literally leave the land first, that would be impossible! What was meant was for Avram to leave that mentality behind, to abandon it completely. Only after he had left behind this mentality could he truly leave his home and his father's house without feeling the need to come back.But where shall he go to? We have grasped the fact that Avram had to leave behind all that he used to know, but where was he to head to? The Pasuk simply says the place "אשר אראך - that I will show you." How can Avram go somewhere without knowing where it is that he is to be heading?To answer this, we may look at the beginning of the Pasuk. The first two words Hashem said, "לך לך," may be translated as "Go for yourself," but it can also be rendered "Go to yourself." Or, alternatively, "Go (to) 50." 50 is known as one of the many numbers of Kedusha. The concept here is not that Avram was being instructed to merely head for a different place on the map, rather that he was being commanded by Hashem to go to his limit, to reach the highest spiritual level he possibly could. Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Parshat Noach - פרשת נח

"אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ. נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו: אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, הִתְהַלֶּךְ-נֹחַ - These are the generations of Noach. Noach was in his generations a man righteous and whole-hearted; Noach walked with God."
(בראשית ו:ט)

In Zichron Meir, Rabbi Meir Robman writes that there is a problem with the way we perceive Noach. From the verse above, it would seem quite clear that Noach was a particularly holy man, but a number of the commentators on the Torah talk about Noach in a denigratory manner. Commenting on Masechet Sandhedrin in his notes on the Talmud, Rashi points out that "There are a number of our Rabbis who praise Noach... and there are those who denigrate him; "According to his generation he was deemed righteous, but had he lived during the time of Avraham, he wouldn't have been counted as anything."

This perception of Noach's relative merit is not normally challenged, but upon consider things, we may realise that this is a rather odd state of affairs. And it's even more puzzling given the Radak's view of Noach. The Radak explains that "Noach walked with Hashem, he was attached to Him, and all his deeds were in His name," before going on to highlight his great strength in "defeating his natural inclination, for he lived in a generation of wicked and evil people but didn't learn from their ways."

So we have two ways of regarding Noach - we can say that he was only deemed a righteous man because he lived amongst a very low, base people and only by comparison could he be deemed a good man. Or we can say that he was genuinely righteous because he managed to ignore them and stay on the "straight and narrow." These two perspectives are the polar opposite of one another. Either way, we need to resolve this issue - either Noach was righteous or he was not!

The answer to this problem is that the two opinions do not truly clash - both schools of thought agree that Noach was righteous man; what they argue about is the meaning of the word "בְּדֹרֹתָיו - his generations."

When saying that Noach didn't compare to the men of Avraham's generation, Reish Lakish's opinion in the gemara might seem derogatory of Noach, but he actually wasn't criticising Noach. His point was that it although it wasn't his fault, Noach lived amongst wicked people, and because Noach lived at that particular time, he was limited spiritually. Had he lived at another time though, Noach may well have been able to attain a significantly higher spiritual level. Either way, I think this insight is genuinely relevant to all of us - we can't choose the time we were born into; we all live in the present. Maybe we would have done better if we had been around in the times of the Bet Hamikdash of old, maybe we feel that we would have done better if we'd have been born in the future. Maybe we feel that we are surrounded by people who are low, base and evil. All this is out of our control. As it says in Pirkei Avot: במקום שאין" אנשים השתדל להיות איש - In a place where there are no men, try to be a man." We can't help the fact that the world is such a cruel, relentless place. It's too hard to change the entire world when the situation is as bad as it is. But if we all start by changing ourselves for the good, the world will be changed for the better. After all, at a time when the world warranted destruction, in Noach's merit alone did the human race continue.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Parshat B'reishit - פרשת בראשית

In Lecha Dodi there's a line that I find particularly relevant to this week's Parsha. The line is: "סוף מעשה במחשבה תחילה," roughly meaning that "the end product is found in the first thoughts." This Shabbat we read B'reishit, which is the first Parsha in the Torah. The concept outlined above, of finding the DNA, as it were, for all that comes afterwards, can be found in various levels in this week's Parsha. As it forms the beginning of the entire Bible, it is here that we read of the creation of the universe - the very first thing that happened, according to the opening verse of the Torah. Following the concept above, we learn that everything in the Torah can be found in the opening act of B'reishit. Incredibly, the Vilna Gaon claimed to have a way of reading into the first word of the Torah 613 ways; one for each of the Mitzvot. It is told that that he was once challenged by a student/a group of his students, who asked him how he could see the mitzvah of Pidyon Haben encrypted here in the the word B'reishit. A tough ask, it would seem. But the Vilna Gaon had no trouble responding and answered by explaining that the letters of the word "בראשית" form an acronym. Each of the letters stand for בן ראשון אחרי שלושים יום תפדה, which means "Firstborn son - after 30 days you shall release" and sums up the essence of the mitzvah in six words. Another thing worth pointing out about Parshat B'reishit, the first Parsha in the Torah, is that it opens with the second letter in the Alef-Bet, not the first letter, Aleph. The typical explanation for this is found in the Medrash, where it is posited that the word ארור - Arur (meaning cursed) begins with an Alef, but as Bet is the beginning of the word ברוך - Baruch (meaning blessed), it is preferred so that there can be no way in which one could imagine that the Torah begins with even a hint of a curse. It's a cute answer, but there's plenty of other reasons, as well. In the Sh'ma, there's a phrase "ושננתם לבניך ודברת בם," meaning "And you shall teach them your sons and you shall speak of them. The "בם" here is rather vague. It literally means "them," and we are not helped by the fact thay they are introduced earlier on as "הדברים" - another vague term, meaning "things." Thankfully the Magid Ta'alumah provides a beautiful explanation as to what is being referred to. He notes that the Talmud starts with the letter מ, mem, in the tractate of Brachot. There we read the words, "מאמתי קורין את השמע - from what time do we read the Sh'ma?". The Magid Ta'alumah claims that the two letters of the word "בם" which we have such difficulty with actually correspond to the written Torah and to the oral Torah. The written Torah begins with a ב, as in בראשית, while the oral law starts with a מ - which together form the word בם. Thus, when we read the relevant part of Sh'ma, "ודברת בם," we may now understand what is being commanded of us - to continually speak words of Torah; both the written and the oral Torah. And all of this is alluded to in just the first word of the Torah! Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Shabbat Sukkot

Although Shabbat Sukkot doesn't seem to have much that separates it from the rest of Sukkot, there is one thing at least upon which we may comment - Megillat Kohelet, one of the five special scrolls we read over the course of the year.Megillat Kohelet is always read during the festival of Sukkot, but it doesn't quite seem to fit - it's tone is decidedly downbeat and certainly appears to clash with the sentiment echoed in a a song commonly sung, "ושמחת בחגך - V'samachta b'chagecha - and you shall rejoice in your festivals" (Sourced from פרשת ראה: טז:יד).Two Psukim later in פסוק טז, we read, "שלוש פעמים בשנה... בחג המצות ובחג השבועות ובחג הסוכות - Three times a year... On Chag Hamatzot, V'Chag Hashavuot, and Chag HaSukkot..." We are clearly supposed to be happy on our Chagim, we must rejoice on Sukkot. So if we are meant to be happy, how can we read Kohelet, which talks about the "futility" of life?If we examine the text of the Mussaf Shmonah Esrei we say every day of Chag, we say "ומפני חטאנו גלינו מארצנו, ונתרחקנו מעל אדמתנו - But because of our sins we have been exiled from our land and sent far from our soil." This is certainly no happy statement, and if we pray the we are meant to, these words must surely evoke a certain emotion within us, an emotion rather dissonant with the theme of rejoicing. Again, it seems to clash. How do we resolve such a discrepancy?Rav Kook answers the question as follows. There are two types of negative feelings in life, one is sadness and one is pain. Pain is a necessary part of life, as it allows us to realise that something is wrong and to build on it. Sadness on the other hand, is restricting and inhibits us. When we are sad, we can become depressed and caught up in the act of "being sad." Humans tend to wallow in sadness. Sometimes people feel really bad about something, and then compound their feelings by playing a depressing song. That is an example of sadness; it's destructive and a waste of one's time and energy.Rav Kook argues that we are instructed to be full of happiness during our Chagim. We must not allow oursleves to experience sadness, or any type of negative feeling upon which we cannot build. Pain on the other hand, pain that we wrecked our Bet Hamikdash and consequently been cast into a 2,000 year long exile, is useful. That kind of pain allows us to temper our joy to a degree, and lets us realise that we are still homeless. So too, by reading Kohelet, we understand how all in life is transient. Even the greatest joy passes. Just like the Sukkah booths in which we live during the course of the festival, everything is temporary.Wallowing in melancholy is not a Jewish quality, it will get us nowhere. Being in touch with that twinge of pain however, is essential for us to build ourselves up.Shabbat Shalom and a Chag Sameach!Partially based on a D'var Torah I heard from a dorm-mate of mine (Etan) during my Yeshivat Hakotel days, and added to with thoughts of my own and others found from other sources.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Parshat Ha'azinu - פרשת האזינו

האזינו השמים ואדברה ותשמע הארץ אמרי פי - Listen, heavens, and I will speak; and the earth shall hear the words of my mouth.
 (דברים לב:א)

The words of the pasuk above are Moshe Rabbeinu's words as he stood before Bnei Yisrael not long before his passing. Moshe calls on the heavens and the earth to heed his words; not to testify but simply to take note. It seems a rather strange request - what was his intention?

If we look closely at the wording of the pasuk, we may notice that Moshe uses different commands to the heaven and the earth. With regards to the heavens, Moshe uses the word האזינו, (listen,) and when dealing with the earth, he uses the word ותשמע (and it shall be heard).

As well as instructing the heaven and earth to listen and hear, two different modes of receiving his words, Moshe also employs two differing types of communication; he says "ואדברה" (and I will speak), to the heavens but says that the earth should take note of אמרי פי (the words of my mouth).

We learn that there's a nuanced difference to be understood when the Torah elects to use one of the words "Hear" and "Listen" over the other. In this case, Moshe speaks to heaven and earth and tells the earth, the lower of the two, to hear him. The meaning of the "hearing" is that (because we are mortals, infallible and absolutely not all-knowing,) we who do not understand this world have to try and piece together the truth from what is happening around us. When one hears something, he takes in a word at a time until the full sentence is understood. So Moshe uses the word for hearing to tell the earth (and by way of reference, all that is on it) to stick to this particular task.

But what of the heavens? Why should Moshe tell the heavens "האזינו" - to listen? What is implied here? If we pay close attention to the text, we notice that this command is accompanied by the term "ואדברה", a harsher, more direct type of speech.

It is often noted that the word is דבר, "davar," means both "thing" as well as "word" in Hebrew. There is a vital connection here. This kind of speech can be compared to a thing, in that it is complete. Moshe mentions tells the heavens that they must listen to him and perceive the entirety of what he says. But to the earth the simple אמרי פי, "the words of my mouth," suffices. I think that the lesson to be learned here is that one must always speak to one's audience and have realistic expectations. It's not always possible to expect others to know what you know. Nobody on this world knows everything, and so it is important to speak in uncomplicated terms with other people and not to assume anything about them that could embarrass them.

Wishing you a peaceful Shabbat from Jerusalem.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Yom Kippur - יום כיפור

I heard a lovely D'var Torah this past Shabbat (thank you, Adam Block) that I'd like to share with you. In Judaism, there exists a concept of the Se'udat Hodaya - a festive meal one may hold as a way of personally thanking God for being delivered from physical harm. Those who have a personal experience of such a nature are permitted to read the Hallel prayer to thank God and are encouraged to include other people in their celebration by having a meal together with them.

One might think that if this is the case for one who has been saved from physical danger, then surely one who is saved from spiritual disaster would be similarly encouraged to celebrate his escape. But that is not the case. The Chatam Sofer explained in his notes on the Shulchan Aruch that in fact, the proper way to commemorate such occasions is to hold a 'personal Yom Kippur' on the day that one rectified their ways by fasting, confessing their sin and pledging to continue on one's new path. Why is this so? Surely a spiritual redemption is one a higher level than a "mere" physical one and deserves no less of a celebration?

The Chatam Sofer explains this seeming discrepancy by noting that the two situations are inherently dissimilar and therefore require different treatments. When one experiences physical danger, typically it is an external matter, a result of time and place. Once the circumstances change, the danger passes and may well not return. As such, we may celebrate God's role in removing this danger from us. But spiritual danger is entirely different. Spiritual danger occurs within us, depends on our own state of mind and as such, we can not ever be sure that we are truly past it. As Hillel teaches us in Pirkei Avot, "ואל תאמן בעצמך עד יום מותך," meaning "Do not believe in yourself until the day of your death."

Spiritual danger, the Chatam Sofer teaches us, is something that we must contend with endlessly. It is important to celebrate our victories - if we discipline ourselves into being more patient or honest, or if we force ourselves to stop making the same mistakes we used to make over and over - these are important achievements that we should be proud of. But it is also important for us to keep at the forefront of our minds that these character flaws are not easy to rectify and are liable to reappear. In order to truly better ourselves and ensure a proper T'shuva, we must not allow ourselves to feel too comfortable. Hopefully we will all merit to accomplish a genuine, complete T'shuva for our flaws, make ourselves better people and in turn, the world a better place.

From Jerusalem, have a meaningful and easy fast.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Parshat Vayelech - פרשת וילך

"And now write for you this song" (Vayelech 31:19). This pasuk contains the last commandment in the Torah - to write a Torah scroll. The Chafetz Chaim noted that this mitzvah comes right after the verse which states that Hashem will hide His presence from the people because of their aveirot. The reason this commandment follows the previous verse is to teach us that even in times of darkness and destruction when one engages in Torah study one will find much light and consolation. Alright, I have to run! Have a beautiful Shabbat!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rosh Hashanah - ראש השנה

עֲקַבְיָא בֶן מַהֲלַלְאֵל אוֹמֵר, הִסְתַּכֵּל בִּשְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים וְאֵין אַתָּה בָא לִידֵי עֲבֵרָה. דַּע מֵאַיִן בָּאתָ, וּלְאָן אַתָּה הֹולֵךְ, וְלִפְנֵי מִי אַתָּה עָתִיד לִתֵּן דִּין וְחֶשְׁבּוֹן... (פרקי אבות: ג,א)

Akavya ben Mahal'el says: "Reflect on three things and you will not come to sin. Know where you come from, where you are going, and before Whom you will give 'din' and 'cheshbon'..." (Pirkei Avot: 3,1)

The Vilna Gaon explains that the terms דין (Judgement) and חשבון (Account) are very similar to one another and could both in fact be translated approximately as "reckoning." The first term means that we are reckon a full account of all the misdeeds we have committed in the previous year, whereas the second term - חשבון - refers to the quantity of good deeds we reckon we could have instead performed in the time we wasted. As such, not only are our sins themselves punishable, but we are also judged for forgoing opportunities to do good with this time and for wasting the opportunity to fulfill our potential in general.

Rav Yitzchak Ze'ev Soloveitchik (also known as the Brisker Rav) was noted to have asked why we are only judged for the time committed to doing sins. Why are we not judged on our usage of time, all of the time? If we are expected to use all the time given to us to perform mitzvot and fulfill our potential, then surely we should be held accountable to every second of our lives. If someone doesn't sin but simply wastes time, he asked, surely that time too could have been better spent? Rav Soloveitchik's answer, to my mind, reflects Hashem's quality of mercy: Because we often have the intent to do good deeds, but for whatever reason, things get in our way, we are not judged for this time.

Over the course of our prayers, we pray to Hashem in two capacities:אבינו and מלכנו. We petition him first and foremost as our father, lobbying him to act with compassion and mercy instead of purely judging us. I think here we have one of the prime examples of how Hashem, despite applying judgement, chooses to exercise leniency in his decisions. Every day we are given 86,400 second to use as we wish, but in reality, how many of those do we utilise for keeping the Torah's laws? This time, instead of resolving my Dvar Torah with a tidy answer, maybe a question serves best: This year, how can we better use our time? Instead of being ashamed that we didn't do our best, that we could have done more, and instead of needing to rely on Hashem's compassion quite so much, how can we improve our position this time next year?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Parshat Nitzavim פרשת נצבים

ושב ה' אלוקיך את שבותך ורחמך ושב וקבצך מכל העמים אשר הפיצך ה' אלוקיך שמה. (Deuteronomy 30:6)

In addition to its simple meaning, this pasuk, so the Chafetz Chaim writes, speaks of the Geulah. Here the Torah assures us that the day of redemption will surely come, and we must expect it to arrive at any time. And even though this long-awaited day is perpetually delayed, continues the Chaftez Chaim, we are obliged to wait because it will come.

One of the biggest problems with faith is that all the time we wait in exile, it is very hard to keep on "doing the right thing" without any sign to encourage us. If anything, all we have is discouragement; the once mighty Jewish kingdom might not be destroyed, but it certainly seems to be at the will of its foes. Given our glorious history, it doesn't seem inaccurate to describe the Jewish people as distressed and even disgraced - in such a low, maybe all we can do is hope!

The Rambam, in his seminal work, "Mishnah Torah," calls on the pasuk above when outlining the obligation for each and every Jew to wait and expect Moshiach's arrival. He explains that anyone who doesn't believe in him, or in his imminent coming, is not only going against the words of the jewish prophets, but also against this very verse from the Torah. (Hilchot Malachim 11:1)

I don't want to make this a slur on other religions, (I clearly believe in Judaism and I have no need to knock other people's beliefs, even if I hugely disagree with them,) but I really do like how in Judaism we don't merely cry out "I believe!" in the manner of one who doesn't know quite what he believes in. One of the most famous songs we Jews sings is that of "Ani Ma'amin," and the last few words we sing demonstrate the point I want to make beautifully. We say, "I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Moshiach. And even though he may tarry, I will wait for at any day he will arrive." These last few words are a perfect example of some of the defining qualities needed of a Jew - persistence, tenacity and patience. We don't merely believe, but we await something that will happen; something that we must prepare ourselves for.

The opening words of Parshat Nitzavim, "ואתם נצבים היום," are ones that have been commented on a lot - there is a much to be learned from the idea of the nation of Israel standing together. And yet, at the same time, there are many divisions - Am Yisrael is split into various groups following these words.

It often taught that when the Torah mentions standing, we are to understand that those who are standing are evaluating; taking stock of themselves. I would like to suggest that it is no coincidence that as Parshat Nitzavim always falls in Elul, in close proximity to Rosh Hashanah, that it should be obvious to all of us that at this time of year we engage in a little "Cheshbon Hanefesh" and refine our characters before we stand before Hashem on the Yamim Neraim.

For this reason, מרן רי"ז הלוי points out, we read the words, "כי לישועתך קוינו כל היום" in the Shmonah Esrei. These words translate as "For we have hoped for your redemption all day," which doesn't seem to flow all too well. A more natural choice of words would be to say that "we have hoped for your redemption every day, but the point is made better by expressing how we are constantly waiting.

The Yalkut Lekach Tov mentions a comment by the Chafetz Chaim on another pasuk further along in Parshat Nitzavim. To summarise briefly, the Chafetz Chaim explains that if one were to be approached by an angel and told that his judgement would be a negative one, that person would do all he could to change his ways. So, the Chafetz Chaim continues, why doesn't this person stop of his own accord? This question is one that challenges each and every one of us, and as I mentioned above, is at the essence of what it is to be a Jew. For when a person stops and takes account of himself, he realises that the activities he engages in are all too often pointless and a waste of time. Coming back to the original pasuk, can we truly say that we believe in the Geulah? If we do then we wouldn't just believe - we would wait anxiously, checking ourselves again and again to ensure that we are ready.

From Jerusalem, wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, September 07, 2012

Parshat Ki Tavo - פרשת כי תבוא

וענית ואמרת לפני ה' אלקיך ארמי אבד אבי וירד מצרימה / And you shall respond and say before Hashem your God, 'An Aramean [tried to] destroy my [fore]father and he went down into Egypt..." (דברים כו:ה)

At the beginning of this week's Parsha, we read of the mitzva of Bikkurim. The Torah explains that one who settles the land of Israel and grows one of the "Shivat haMinim" is obligated to take a ribbon around the first fruit that grows from the land, mark it off as property of the Bet Hamikdash, and once the fruit has ripened fully, the person is to take this fruit to Jerusalem and hand it over to a Kohen.

Part of the process of giving Bikkurim over to the Kohen is a statement, which opens above. At first, the choice of the opening few lines seems rather surprising; what has the old story of Am Yisrael's descent into Egypt got to do with the bringing of fruit to the Bet Hamikdash?

To understand our situation better, we have to examine Jewish behaviour during the Egyptian exile. Famously, we learn that B'nei Yisrael were on the forty-ninth level of impurity and were only moments away from descending into the 50th level; a level from which there could be no return. There can be no doubt about it - Am Yisrael were in a very bad place.

Or can we doubt that? For Am Yisrael warranted to be saved by Hashem on the premise that they insulated themselves from Egyptian society, and Shmot Rabbah (א:א) says that "they were redeemed because they did not change their names, their language and their dress." So now it would seem that Am Yisrael were very careful to protect their religion and culture and did not integrate and assimilate into a foreign society. How can resolve this apparent contradiction?

The Netivot Shalom on Parshat Ki Teitze explains that these Jews were actually almost completely cut off from Hashem. These Jews constantly indulged themselves in pleasures and desires that were not expressly disallowed by Torah law. So needy of material pleasure, these people were indeed culturally assimilated and had started to believe in the Egyptian way of life. Because these Jews maintained their outer appearances but indulged themselves in whatever was technically permissible, their connection with Hashem was almost entirely lacking.

Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffman of Project Genesis suggests that maybe the reason why we read this passage when we bring Bikkurim is to do with the concept of "קדש עצמך במותר לך" (Sanctify yourself with that which is permissible to you). The generation that lived in the Egyptian exile didn't actually break any laws, but certainly weren't too eager too apply the concept of being holy in that which is permissible. Fast forward to the person standing before the Kohen with Bikkurim in his hand, and we may now understand why it is appropriate for him to make reference to his forebears in Egypt. Whereas they fulfilled their obligations to a minimal extent, the Jew who brings Bikurrim is eager to subjugate his pride and ego before God.

Later in the Parsha, a long list of punishments is attached to the statement, "תחת אשר לא עבדת את ה' אלוקיך בשמחה / Because you did not serve Hashem your God with joy." The Torah is very clear that the measurement of real observance of it's laws is when a Jew confirms his actions with desire. Whereas food is something that Jews are permitted to grow and eat, the Jew who brings Bikkurim is careful not to give in to his desires and controls his behaviour in the right way and before eating first makes sure to take the Reishit to Hashem.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, August 31, 2012

Parshat Ki Tetzei - פרשת כי תצא

"כִּי-יִהְיֶה לְאִישׁ, בֵּן סוֹרֵר וּמוֹרֶה-אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ, בְּקוֹל אָבִיו וּבְקוֹל אִמּוֹ; וְיִסְּרוּ אֹתוֹ, וְלֹא יִשְׁמַע אֲלֵיהֶם. If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, that will not hearken to the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and though they chasten him, will not hearken unto them" (Deuteronomy 21:18).

In this week's parsha, we read of the strange episode of the "Ben Sorer u'Moreh", the rebellious son. Although there never was a case in reality that fulfilled the exact conditions in order for a child to be classified as such, there are still many lessons which we may learn. I'd like to share a fascinating insight I read by the Ba'al Haturim.

Two P'sukim after the one above, we read of how the the parents go to the city elders to declare their son a Ben Sorer u'Moreh: "וְאָמְרוּ אֶל זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ בְּנֵנוּ זֶה סוֹרֵר וּמֹרֶה אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ בְּקֹלֵנוּ זוֹלֵל וְסֹבֵא / And they shall say to the elders of his city, 'This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he does not hearken to our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.'"

The Ba'al HaTurim notes two discrepancies in this Pasuk. Firstly, there is a yud missing in the word בְּנֵנוּ, and then the word וּמֹרֶה is missing a letter too; this time a vav.

Fortunately for us, we receive a good explanation as to why these words are spelled as they are. In the first case, the missing yud in the word בְּנֵנוּ, our son, is a deliberate reference to the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments. The Ba'al HaTurim briefly explains that that this son was wayward to the extent that he didn't care about the most basic tenets of Judaism, wayward to the extent that he even disregarded the ten commandments.

The next missing letter, the (missing) vav in the word מרה, stubborn, is explained as a reference to the bitter end of this situation. The word מרה in Hebrew means bitter. By dropping the vav, the Torah hints that this stubborn and gluttonous boy will only experience bitterness.

If we break up the verse and digest it in pieces, we see that the son doesn't listen to "the voice of his father". Then, separately, his mother's voice is mentioned: "and the voice of his mother." The pasuk uses discrete clauses for each of the parents, and only groups them together when the son hears them speaking in unison. And the one thing that the parents agree upon is negative, as it says "they turned him away."

It is very clear that the lesson to be grasped here is that parents must always act as a unit, and not just when it comes to condemning a child. A child who hears disparate voices from his parents hardly has a chance at growing up to become a decent person, something for which we cannot blame him or her. The real lesson of the episode, it would seem, is to show us just how much responsibility we have for one another, and for each others' actions.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!