Friday, October 31, 2008

Parshat Noach - פרשת נח

"Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
And no religion too"

Imagine, by John Lennon.

In an age where John Lennon's legend grows, where the ideals of socialism endure despite its defeat as a political movement and system, it is pertinent to make note of two particular events in this week's Parsha - those of the דור הפלגה and the covenant after the דור המבול and the Rainbow.

Over this past summer I was fortunate enough to attend classes by the excellent R' Daniel Katz. R' Katz is a man with far more world experience than myself, who then chose to turn his back on his previous secular lifestyle in pursuit of a more Torah adhering one. When I say that he is not your average Charedi, I mean it. He is a man who knows, understands and truly appreciates cultures outside of Judaism. In one class of his, the conversation turned to nudist colonies. He made a remark along the lines of, "They're absolutely right! What would we wear clothes for? No other creature does it! Why should we hide, be embarrassed about our bodies, it's not natural!" The point is in accordance with the Torah - after all, God created Adam and Chava naked. As Jews, why should we deviate from that?

But of course we do clothe ourselves. As it says in Bereishit, Hashem actually made clothes for Adam and Chava. What happened? The answer given is simple.

We live in a fractured world, as R' Sacks puts it. We live in the post-sin world. We live after the original sin of Adam HaRishon, and although quite correct as the nudists are that being unclothed is our natural state, we now no longer live in that world. It is our task to return to that perfect world, but the way to get there is not so simple. We have to perfect ourselves, our midot, and only then will our bodies be ready "for show," as it were. We no longer can look at the world the same, and now we are charged with a different task.

Similarly, Lennon's observation that arbitrary country lines and languages are obstructions to peace. Yet, even in the age of a "European 'Union' " with one currency and no real borders, and a " 'United' States of America," there are still many tensions beneath the surface. Even in an age where the world is getting increasingly "smaller" due to telecommunications (chiefly the internet), and one where languages are becoming less and less of a boundary, peace remains elusive in our world. True, this is one of the most peaceful times the world has ever seen, yet peace is elusive.

So as said before, the lesson we may learn from this week's Parsha is especially pertinent. The Dor Haflaga were united in their ambition to make a name for themselves. As R' Shlomo Riskim says:

"The entire earth had one language and uniform words" ("Safah AHAT, dvarim AHADim", Genesis 11:1) resonating with our prophetic vision where "The Lord will be King over the entire earth, and on that day the Lord will be one His Name will be one"(Zecharya 14:9). The fear of this united humanity, gathered together in the valley of Shinar (Sumer, identified with ancient Babylon), was that they would be exiled into different places, scattered throughout the world. In order to prevent this, "they said,'Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower, whose tops shall reach the heavens.'" (Genesis 11:4). This is certainly reminiscent of our Jewish dream of the holy city Jerusalem with its tower -Sanctuary reaching up to the heavens in order to ensure Israel's eternity and express Israel's mission; it even brings to mind Jacob's dream at Bet-El (lit. House of G-d), where he saw a ladder rooted on earth but whose top reached heavenwards (Genesis 28:12).

"There is however one major flaw in Shinar which turns the entire Tower of Babel into a transgression of hubris: their purpose in construction is to "make for ourselves a name" (Genesis 11:4), rather than to build for the Name of G-d and for the sake of a just and compassionate humanity.

"Much to the contrary. The Almighty decides to "confuse their speech, so that one person will not understand (shma) the language of the other" (Genesis 11:7), because such a punishment will fit the crime; a totalitarian state united in order to establish a collective name has neither the energy nor the motivation to empathetically hear or sensitively internalize the individual needs of anyone else. And such an inhuman and godless society must be stopped in its tracks before it does even greater damage."

It is vital for this generation to understand that our sense of unity is a powerful tool that we can use for the good. Our sentiment is ultimately goof, but at the moment, the world is caught up in a dangerous trend of atheism. Unfortunately, it is fashionable at the moment to deny the existence of God.

The second theme I wanted to mention was that of the קשת, the rainbow. The form of a rainbow is interesting, it is something that appears to come from the ground, reach the heavens, and then return to the ground. If we look at the middle letter, we see a form very similar to that of a rainbow, the letter Shin. The Shin, representing Shalom, is facing the other way, coming from Heaven and meeting us in Earth. The Rainbow represents divin enlightenment, a refraction of God's light, as it penetrates into our physical world. (Hence the split into the seven colours.) We must understand that although after the Generation of the flood Hashem will never bring about such destruction upon us again, we must hearken to His will. If we truly strive for Shalom, we would do well to listen to Him. If we try to create peace for ourselves, circumbventing Hashem, we will never be successful.

After all, is Shalom not one of God's names?

Shabbat SHALOM!

Monday, October 27, 2008

A Free Man

Yesterday was my first day as a free man again. And no I wasn't released from prison!

On Sunday the 26th of October I was released from service in the Israeli army after serving 1 year and 9 months, 14 ½ months of which were in active service. I took the last opportunity to travel for free on the train, making my way from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv on the train, winding through the gorgeous Jerusalem hills and then speeding along the coastal plains past Lod and Rechovot until finally I reached Tel Aviv HaHaganah. As per usual, the station was packed full of soldiers in uniform, similarly taking advantage of the free travel.

When I got to Bakum, the army's main reception and sorting Base, I went to the "Mador Beinish," the Hesder boy's desk, and handed in my ID card. I expected to be told that as I had come on a Sunday and was supposed to report on Friday I was in trouble and would receive a court martial, but apparently the clerk didn't notice. I waited rather impatiently for about half an hour, and was then handed two pages and my original blue ID card and sent on to the Mador HaMishtachrerim, where I would return my original ID along with my uniform.

Unfortunately about three weeks before I finished my active service I was granted a week's holiday, and upon my return I discovered that my bed had been moved, and my standard issue army kitbag was missing along with my bedsheets. This wasn't just a mere irritation, seeing as a soldier is always responsible for his equipment. It meant that yesterday when I returned my dress uniform I should have received a minor court martial or fine for failing to return the bag. But when I mentioned it to the soldier overseeing item returns, he shrugged and said it wasn't important! It was almost a shame, I had been preparing for one last big shouting match with "The Authorities" but they just let it go. What a letdown!

And as I was waiting in line at the Mador Hamishtachrerim to hand in my regular blue ID card, I read the pieces of paper that the Mador Beinish had given me, and one was an official letter saying that my official release date had been changed, and that I had not known and that I was not to blame for coming late. The funny thing was, though, that I had known exactly which day to come, and I hadn't even requested this letter - they just presumed that I had been confused! So once again, my big fight with "The Authorities" was rendered redundant!

On top of all that, I was handed a coupon that granted me free public transport so I could get home without paying a penny!

And now I will have to wait in line with everybody else to enter the Tachanah Merkazit. Now that I'm not a soldier, I can't simply flash my ID and breeze past the security to enter the building. Now I've got to wait in the rain like a normal person, have to factor in an extra 5 minute delay into my plans. As a friend put it, "no choger [army ID], gotta wait for a whole 2 MINUTES in line! I have places to go... Oh yeah, nobody cares, I'm not a soldier."

Not anymore.

Britain: Backwards

Found the following blog entry I typed up a while ago, but never made it to "press," for whatever reason. It links back to an article that had just appeared on the BBC news website, but it's not really a current affairs thing. Without further ado:

I would like to say that I apologise profusely to American readers of this blog for following British culture, politics and news agencies more closely than American ones. But I don't. We have all heard of these surveys asking Americans to place other countries on the globe, and being utterly confounded. Americans are beyond hope, and the world knows it. Britain on the other hand, for reasons unknown to yours truly, has a good decent reputation around the world. I would like to counter that belief. Having lived in England, I know what a backwards society it truly is. I contend that Britain is a foul place to live, where the government treats it's citizens with little respect and thinks little of deceiving and intimidating them.

Now, one cannot make a claim just like that. One has to justify one's beliefs, no matter how correct one is. (Which I am.) What we need is good solid proof. The problem is that proof for such a matter is not easily found. So while I cannot exactly claim to have proved that Britain is absolutely retarded. (And don't even think about attacking me for using that word, I refer you to its French root, "retardez," which means slowed down. So in context, retarded is a perfectly legitimate adjective intimating a lack of progress.)

If you follow the English media fairly closely, it is reasonably easy to see that the authorities utterly distrust individuals to do anything for themselves. As such, the current administration have implemented a string of punitive measures over the last 10 years or so, monitoring and punishing all manner of criminal behaviour and typical civic responsibilities to the nth degree. It is reaching the point where the average citizen practically has no real responsibilities, more of a rulebook of fear. In Britain, the "Nanny state" is alive and kicking.

So, at about 3:00 last night, I was browsing the BBC website on my mobile phone and found the following article. The article details an Israeli campaign to tackle dog faeces through DNA registration used in conjunction with an award system and small fines. As I read the article, I felt myself grinning broadly, as I could not help noticing a stark contrast in attitudes betrayed by the Israeli approach and the English method. The piece opened with the following sentence, "Officials in an Israeli city have come up with an innovative way of tracking dog owners who allow their pets to foul the streets," and later on described how the British government has sought to tackle the problem, "In the UK, some councils have resorted to using CCTV and undercover patrols to identify offenders in particular trouble spots." I wasn't so surprised by the Israeli approach, it was merely a reflection of a forward-thinking and co-operative society, looking to rid society of its ills in a positive, rational, well thought out manner. How it should be.

After a little more research, I found this on the Sky Website:

"Owners who scoop up their dog's poo and put it in specially marked bins on Petah Tikva's streets will be eligible for rewards - like pet food coupons and dog toys."

"If the voluntary programme takes off, the city will consider making it mandatory for owners to provide DNA samples from their dogs.
Tika Bar-On, the city's chief veterinarian, came up with the plan and said so far, dog owners had reacted positively to the initiative.

"[Residents] are co-operating because they want their neighbourhood to be clean," she said.

"She added there was many other applications vets could use the DNA database for - such as research of genetic diseases, investigating canine pedigree and identifying stray animals."

So Britain, seemingly one of the world's most respectable countries, resorts to spying on it's own citizens and preying on the insecurities of the individual. The government, instead of taking an innovative and positive approach, treats its civilians like children and attempts to bully their consciences.

The authorities consider the general public to be absolutely stupid and act on their behalf, employing deceiving and cunning means to remedy this most trivial and inconsequential of crimes. It cannot be denied that dog litter is a nuisance, but when the measures taken totally outweigh the crime itself, the result is utter distrust of those who are meant to govern, a cancerous sensation of helplessness. Underhanded measures like these are taking Britain ever closer to fulfilling that famous dystopian vision of Big Brother being realised.

Despite terror attacks being directed at Israel's citizens on a regular basis, CCTV cameras are nowhere near as a common sight in Israel's cities as they are in England. By way of contrast, it is said that London is the world's CCTV capital. George Orwell would be proud.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Parshat B'reishit - פרשת בראשית

Rav Wieder, the new Rosh Yeshiva of my Yeshiva, (Yeshivat HaKotel,) spoke a while back in September at a Mishmar session one Thursday night on what he thought the problem with the world is. He mentioned a few examples of the world's troubles; people stabbing each other in the street and the ever-increasing divorce rates around the world, for instance. Or something he was been encountering a lot at the time, as it was the start of the new year in Yeshiva - requests from students that they be permitted to switch rooms due to disagreements with their current roommates. He explained that in all these cases, all that interests at least one of the parties involved is the here and now. The problem with people nowadays is that people do not have the patience to invest even a little time or hard work into something. I have been to many shiurim where Rabbis have referred to our generation as the "iPod generation," or the "mp3 generation," the generation of instant pleasure. Whatever happened to that age-old cliché, "Good things come to those who wait?"

The problem with seeking instant gratification is that it is attained without work. This world is a world of work and toil, there is no getting away from that. When Adam and Chava were unceremoniously ejected from the Gan Eden, they were told that they would have to "בעצבון תאכלנה כל ימי חייך", till the land so that it would bear the fruits that had been given to them until now. Previously, Adam and Eve were able to not just eat the fruit of a tree, but the tree itself, too. The concept to be grasped was that we were deserving of everything being accessible to us. And then we ate from what is unfortunately wrongly quoted as "The Tree of Knowledge." That title is merely a contraction of its full name, "The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad." What happened was that when we ate of the tree, we became aware of the existence of good and bad, but had a ingested a potent mixture of both, and as such, we are now in the terrible state of not truly knowing which one is which. Not for nothing do the M'kubalim, the mystics, refer to this world as the Alma D'sfaika, the world of doubt. Not for nothing is the Jewish people's biggest enemy called Amalek, which has the same gematria as the word Safek, which means "doubt."

This world is all about the work we have to do in separating the good from the bad. If we are to understand the concept of Ein Od Milvado correctly, then we will automatically understand that each one of us is part of God. With the understanding of such a concept, Sin'at Chinam, baseless hatred, would quite simply cease to exist. When we understand that despite our differences, we are essentially all the same (all together now... Awww!) and that we are all from Hashem, we will only have love for one another.

Rav Wieder rightly contends that if we are to try attaining things in this world without bothering to work at them, if we are to expect pleasure to be an immediate right, then we will never have more than a moment's gratification from that pleasure. True pleasure comes from the work itself. The chairman of a big company can rightly be proud at having worked to attain such a high office in a prestigious establishment. But the man who can started that company by investing his own money, who can now claim to have built this enterprise by himself can take so much more pride. There is simply no comparison. The satisfaction of building something is the biggest pleasure we can get in this world. By building a family, a relationship with another human being, or indeed a relationship with G-d, we can attain something that is very hard to lose. When one man stabs another on the street, it is because he cannot be bothered to invest the time into fixing an obstacle that stands between the two of them. We can choose to ignore a problem, but that problem still exists. When one Yeshiva student and another would rather avoid their problems than face them, they let their problems fester. Yes, the problem has been resolved to a degree, but instead of tackling it head on they have merely postponed their difficulties. We can be sure that will the quick fix is desirable, it is almost certain that the same problem will pop up later on. Learning how to coexist is a basic human skill, and people today seem more interested in being insular and getting what they want now. If however, we acknowledge that instead of seeking instant pleasures that will in turn instantly wither, we would better serve ourselves by seeking to build something.

I have wondered why old people go mad. I have come to the conclusion that it is not because old age is so boring and vacant, rather that their lives were often futile and empty. I read recently that some lady's worst nightmare was to die alone in a nursing home, complaining that the food she had received was not to her liking. I agree with her sentiment, it is indeed a pathetic scenario. To come to the end of one's days, and the last impression on this world is about to refer to one's material desires, well, that is pitiable.

I believe (and if I were a betting man, I would even risk putting a wager on statistics proving my theory,) that religious Jews are less susceptible to going mad in old age. I believe that as they have been learning all their lives, they have something that they have built. Compare that to the average irreligious Jew or heathen who believes that life is all about play, enjoys a hedonistic lifestyle, who lives for the here and now, and builds nothing that can last. For the Jew however, even with the frail body of an old man, study is still always possible. The hedonist, come old age, will be aggravated by his body's failure and be the realisation that he has done nothing of substance in his life will be forced on him, as will the consequent lack of self-worth. The man who has taken every opportunity to learn and to build can rest easy in the autumn of his life for he has bridged the transient, built something that will last. It is he who has expressed the true meaning of life.

Shabbat Shalom!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah

I would like to impart a quick thought about this particular Chag, and you can see part of it similarly quoted in any Artscroll Sukkot Machzor.

The concept of the number 8 in Judaism is that it is one step above the normal, the natural. In Hebrew, 8 is called Shmonah, and the same root is used for oil, Shemen. Water is the very essence of life, a basic essential, and oil rises above it. This is symbolic of the spiritual always being "Me'al Teva," above the natural.

Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, celebrated simultaneously in Israel, are intrinsicly related. The Matteh Moshe explains why we call the day Simchat Torah. He says that the Satan comes before Hashem, condeming the Jewish people saying, "They study the Torah, but they wilk not complete it." (The inference being that we will get overly involved with our Sukkot celebrations and neglect our responsibility to study the Torah.) When we do complete the Torah reading though, Hashem responds to the Satan, "But they have completed it!"

The Satan is not easily deterred, and responds, "They might have finished it the once, but they won't start it again!" The Satan charges Am Yisrael with learning the Torah out of theoretical interests, not because we truly revere it. If we were truly close to Hashem, we would appreciate the Torah far more, we would learn the Torah endlessly.

But Hashem trumps the Satan, "They have already started!"

Is this not the meaning of "L'Asok B'Torah?" When we say each morning that we immerse ourselves in Torah, this is what it refers to, a never-ending cycle of learning. Is this not the meaning of "Ki Hem Chayeinu v'Orech Yomeinu?" By continuing to learn Torah, we sustain ourselves, we make ourselves "Nitzchi," eternal.

The name Simchat Torah is not derived from our Simcha in completing the Torah. Not at all! It is because we are to start all over again. It is because we are eternal, it is because by learning Torah, we are above nature.

Chag Sameach!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Shabbat Sukkot

This D'var Torah is brought to you by my dorm-mate, Eitan. I was sitting eating lunch with him earlier, and he related this short drasha to me. Hopefully I can convey it to you as well as he did to me.

There is a song commonly sung, "ושמחת בחגך - V'samachta b'chagecha - and you shall rejoice in your festivals" whose words come from Kriat Hatorah of Simchat Torah. (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, Vhag Hashavuot, and Chag HaSukkot..." We are clearly supposed to be happy on our Chagim, we must rejoice on Sukkot. So far, so good.

But 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. 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 neccessary part of life, 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. Have you ever felt really bad about something, and then compounded your feelings by playing a depressing song? It's destructive and a waste of your time and energy.

Rav Kook argues that we are instructed to be full of שמחה on our Chagim, and must contain all sadness, 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, that is useful. That kind of pain allows us to temper our שמחה to a degree, and lets us realise that we are still homeless. Wallowing in melancholy is not a Jewish quality, it will get us nowhere. Being in touch with that twinge of pain however, is essential.

Shabbat Shalom and a Chag Sameach!

Monday, October 13, 2008


I had been wondering what the link between the regular theme of Tishrei, that of Tshuvah, and Sukkot was. Here I am on an Egged bus with a copy of the Sfat Emet in front of me, and I haven't seen anything on that particular topic so far.

I have however, seen a fantastic D'var Torah elsewhere on the web, so please take two minutes to click the following link and read the article. I hope you enjoy reading it! Here's the link.

In my summer classes with R' Daniel Katz I learned something very interesting, and it would seem that (at least one of) his source(s) is a drasha by the Sfat Emet I read just now. R' Katz explained in his classes how a cube is a very symbolic object in Judaism. A cube is a symbol of the spiritual world and physical world acting in harmony, a source of tremendous power. He explained that it was no coincidence that a Chupah is a cube, as are T'fillin, and so too are most Batei Knesset along with the bimah that stands in their middle. Intriguingly, so too is a Sukkah. The Holy of Holies was in the form of a cube, and the Holy Place was a double cube in length. He explained that a cube has six sides with one central, focal point. A cube has the spiritual number of seven imbued within it. It also has 12 axes, and again, if we count the central point, we arrive at 13. Another highly significant number.

The point that the Sfat Emet raises is that a Sukkah is like a Chupah.(Which is another cube shape.) A Chupah is where the act of marriage between a man and wife is finalised, and the Sfat Emet intimates that when we sit in our Sukkot, we are realising our marriage with Hashem. If Pesach was the flash, that magical spark of pure potential, and Shavuot was Hashem betrothing us at the Chupa of Har Sinai, Sukkot is the completion of that marriage, where we stand under the wedding canopy with Hashem and consummate our marriage.

The Sfat Emet in another teaching on Shavuot, explains what the significance of Tfillin are. Just like on Shavuot we take the Bikkurim, the year's first fruits, and mark them as being from Hashem with a red ribbon, the Sfat Emet reveals the parallel of T'fillin and the Jewish nation as a whole. When a Jew wraps T'fillin around his arm, he is marking himself off as being holy, special, and God's property. No coincidence that ion both cases a strong colour is used, T'fillin being black and the Bikkurim are wrapped with a red string. And relevant to this D'var Torah, the man recites, while wrapping his T'fillin, "V'erastich li," an expression of betrothal.

As the Sfat Emet says, “the Sukkah is like a Chupah, concluding the marriage of man and wife. ‘For I caused Israel to dwell in sukkot when I took them out of the Land of Egypt.’ (Vayikra 23:43) At the Exodus from Egypt, Israel were sanctified (wedded) to God, as it says: ‘I am the Lord who sanctified [or weds] you, who brought you forth from the Land of Egypt to be your G-d.”’ (Vayikra 22:32-33)

The Sukkah, in this beautiful interpretation, is the wedding canopy that we joyfully re-enter each year, reaffirming our commitment to God and our certainty of God’s love for us.

But the Sefat Emet continues, asking a most contemporary question: How could God have “chosen” Israel, only one of the many nations on earth, for special relationship? How could the Infinite choose a partner that is itself only a small part of the whole of creation? The angels seemingly had a serious problem with the concept of Hashem "marrying" himself to humans. Of all the creations, why man? (And of all the nations, why us? Is that not a question that troubles non-Jews to this very day?)

And the Rebbe’s response: “God is wholeness itself. Why then did God choose a fragment of something [i.e., choose Israel]? Scripture answers: ‘I dwell with the lowly and those of humble spirit.’ (Isaiah 57:15) The Zohar adds that a person with a broken heart is indeed whole. This in fact is to be said in God’s praise: Wherever God dwells there is wholeness….”

The Infinite, says the Sfat Emet, can enter into relationship with a finite creature because the One can make a part whole. The Holy One is wholeness itself. In connection to God, all that is fragmentary can be healed, all that is separated can be rejoined, all that is broken can be mended. Thus Sukkot is a time when all of us may find a measure of healing for whatever ails us.

At the end of the teaching comes the most remarkable surprise. “This is the real meaning of ‘who spreads a sukkah of peace’ [from the Hashkiveinu prayer, in Ma'ariv]. The inner point [the spark of holiness within] that is everywhere is wholeness; Israel represents this among God’s creatures. On Sukkot 70 bullocks are offered for the 70 nations. The water libation [of Sukkot] is also interpreted by the Talmud to mean that Israel should pray for God’s kingdom to spread over all Creation.”

In this stunning teaching, the Sfat Emet develops the rabbinic notion that the biblical sacrifices for Sukkot are offered on behalf of all the nations of the world, joined in service of the Holy. A far cry from the holy days that remind us of past enmity with other peoples, this holiday is a time of hope, of abundant possibility, of a vision of a world sheltered together under God’s sukkah of peace.

Blog update from my phone.

My laptop adaptor cable has been getting to the end of it's life recently, and yesterday on the 5:45 from Bet Shemesh to Jerusalem it died a sad death, leaving me with no computer usage and therefore no real internet access until I get a new cable to charge my laptop's battery.

Luckily I have limited internet access on my phone, so over the next two hours, while I am sitting on the bus to Kibbutz Lavi, I hope to post my regular D'var Torah. If however, this is the only post left before Chag begins, I'm sure that you'll understand my predicament!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Parshat Ha'azinu - פרשת העזינו

Normally I download a load of webpages and look at a few sefarim if I have the time, and from these resources I compile my weekly D'var Torah.

This week however has been a tad hectic. No prizes for guessing why, what with Yom Kipppur, Sukkot and Shabbat all coming so close together. I haven't had the time to sit down properly, so I here are two divrei Torah, one from, which as I really don't have the time has been copied verbatim here, the other one is provided in a link from the Aish website, as it's already perfectly worded, and rather lengthy.

This week's Torah reading starts with the statement "Listen, heavens, and I will speak; may the earth hear the words of my mouth."

Two different Hebrew words are used for what, at first glance, is the same idea. Regarding the heavens, the verse says ha'azinu, literally "give ear" - pay heed, listen up, take note, etc. Regarding the earth, the verse uses the word v'tishma, meaning "it shall hear." The commentators mention that this difference is based on the different "customers." When it comes to the heavens (from whom our expectations are naturally higher) a harsher tone is used; whereas regarding the more vulnerable earth the somewhat softer "it shall hear" is used.

There is a concept that "words which come from the heart, enter the heart." In other words, when we speak sincerely and target our words correctly, they will be well received. Conversely, if we find that our words are not being well received, it is a sign that something is wrong in our delivery and approach.

We find this lesson in this week's parshah. When Moses is addressing the heavens and the earth, he adopts an appropriate tone of voice, depending on who he is dealing with.

Pasted from


Click here to read the second D'var Torah.

Shabbat Shalom!

My Yom Kippur

So my Yom Kippur was both terrible and great.

I had a terrible fast and had to lie down after mincha because my legs had turned to jelly, my right knee was getting tiny spasms and my back was in agony after being hunched over for ages during Vidui. I lay down on my bed for what was supposed to be half an hour to 45 minutes, and fell into a really deep sleep. I have no idea how I managed to wake up after about an hour and a half, as opposed to three or four hours later, but all the same I missed mincha in Yeshiva, because they had started davening. The halacha is that it's preferable to start Tefillat Amidah with the minyan, and not join in unless there's no better option. So I do what I normally do in such situations... I went on down to the Kotel (yeah I know, living in the Old City rocks).

The Minyan there was good, but there were no chairs left and my back was still aching like crazy! I eventually resorted to sitting on a ledge so that my back could get some kind of relief, and then switched to another Minyan and finally found myself a chair before Ne'ilah.

And so on to the good. The Shaliach Tzibur gave a 10 minute speech before he started, so I managed to collect my thoughts, finish off all my private prayers and then stand up for the whole Ne'ilah. (which I was dreading, but it turned out not to be so bad.) While I was waiting to start, I kinda said to myself, now my body's really hurting me, I have a choice. Do I give in, or do I fight it off? Is it mind or matter? And then it really did feel a lot better. Like yeah, it still hurt, but when I said that I wasn't going to let the Satan beat me with my own body, I got a lot of strength.

I learned in the summer that the Gematria of Elohim is the same as Hateva. Hateva means "the nature." (Whole subject why it's in the definitive.) Another way of using the same root Teva is for drowning. The concept of Teva is that it is overwhelming. The concept of nature is that it is multi-faceted, and although within Hashem's control, can seem to be as though it is not. Notice how the name Elohim is in the plural. Hashem is one, but in Elohim he can also appear to multiple things at once. Notice how we often say Eloheinu as opposed to Adonainu. We continually refer to Eloheinu. The reason is that Elohim, the God of multiplicity, of multiple facets, is a Hashem's physical interface. We can relate to Hashem on that level because we cannot comprehend the infinite. Elohim is the name of God that humans can at least partly understand and connect to. Through Elohim, He has us created to appear as though we are separate from him. That is why we use the possesive נו.

So I said to myself, what do we say at the end of Ne'ilah? We say the following, seven times: "Adonai hu HaElohim." Hashem is the 'Elohim.' Until now I would simply say these two names, and not really understand at all what I was saying. Well, "Duh," I would think, "Hashem and Elokim are both names of G-d!" But this time I got it!

Elohim, the apparent discrepancy, is nothing but Hashem. It is all one and the same. And if my back and legs and knee are all aching me, then should I really complain, or should I respond to this test correctly? So I told my body to take a walk to where the sun don't shine, and all was well :)

I finally understood why this statement is said at the end of Yom Kippur: we have to realise that in order to accept Hashem as our God, we have to recognise everything around us as coming from him. All that is good, and all that seems bad. All that seems to fall outside of his dominion, and all that we can't comprehend.

According to Jewish thought, there are seven levels of physicality. The concept of the spiritual in numbers is always one above. So if seven is a physical number, then eight must be spiritual. The word for Eight in Ivrit (as opposed to most other numbers,) is spelt the same way in both its male and female forms - שמונה.(This can be read as Shmonah or Shmoneh.) Rearranged, the letters of this root can spell out the word נשמה, soul. Another way to order these root letters is to form the word שומן, oil. Oil always rises above water. Water symbolises this world. We are all dependent on water, it is the very substance of physicality. Oil however, always rises to the top, it is one above.

With that in mind, my theory on why we repeat this line seven times is that we have to pierce through the seven levels of physicality in order to achieve such an understanding. Given that, I asked myself if I was really going to allow my body to cause me problems, was I really close to giving in? Am I a physical being or a spiritual one?

Yes, that was only a small test, and it was on Yom Kippur, but still! And yes, I agree that the above does seem mad, but I guess I wanted to prove that mind over matter really does work!

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Yom Kippur - יום כפור

I have two Divrei Torah today, but neither of them is actually restricted to Yom Kippur itself. I hope you enjoy them.

The first D'var Torah is sourced from the שפת אמת. On the day preceding Yom Kippur we have a mitzvah found at no other time of the year: a mitzvah to eat. And not at any particular time, rather the mitzvah applies for the whole day! As he quotes from Masechet Yuma 81b,"האוכל ושותה בתשיעי כאלו התענה תשיעי ועשירי וכו. - One who eats and drinks on the ninth is considered as if he fasted (both) the ninth and tenth (of Tishrei.) etc."

We also have a Seudat Mitzvah today. I have learned that Yom Kippur is a Yom Tov, after all it is called Shabbat Shabaton - the Shabbat of all Shabbatot. The name is also indicative of a certain שמחה, the name Kippurim may be read as כ-פורים - like Purim. The joy of פורים is to be reflected on Yom Kippur. Additionally, we also we received the second set of Aseret Hadibrot on Yom Kippur. Given the day's proper status, we would normally have an obligation to eat a proper Yom Tov meal. After all, if we celebrate Shavuot in proper festive spirit, we should expect Yom Kippur to receive an equal status in this respect. Obviously though we cannot, given that the day is a fast, and eating is explicitly forbidden. Therefore we can only have this meal before the fast actually starts, and that explains why we eat the meal when we do. But this only answers part of our question; we are still left with the Mitzvah of eating the whole day. What possible reason could there be for this commandment?

The שפת אמת says that we learn from many different sources (there's too many too list, but all the sources are listed in his Sefer) that the reason for eating the whole day is that, "כי באכילת יום זה מתקנים אכילת כל ימות השנה - For through eating on this day, we rectify (any sins done through) eating during the year." It is customary for many Jews to read the Yesod HaTeshuva, written by R' Yonah of Geronah, on Erev Rosh Hashanah. There was one particular passage that struck a chord with me this year:

"וכן אמר הרב רבי אברהם בר דוד שהיה אחד מחסידי עולם: 'הגדר הגדול המעלה המפלא, מניעת המאכלות.' וכן פרש דבריו: 'אל יעזוב לגמרי מלאכול בשר ולשתות יין, כי דייך מה שאסרה תורה. אך בעת מאכלו ועודנו תאב לאכול, יניח ממנו לכבוד הבורא מתאוותיו ואל יאכל כפי תאוותו. ודרך זו תמנענו מחטוא ותזכירנו אהבת הבורא יותר מתענית אחד בשבוע, כי זה בכל יום תמיד, מדי אכלו ומדי שתתו, יניח מתאותו לכבוד הבורא.'" - And so said R' Abraham ben David who was one of the most devout people in the world, 'The greatest, finest and most wondrous barrier(to sin) is to refrain from foods.' This is how he explained his words, 'Let one not refrain completely from eating meat and drinking wine, for what the Torah prohibited is enough. Rather while one is eating and still desires to eat, let him - in honour of the Creator - set aside some of his desires, and not eat according to his appetite. This method will prevent him from sinning, and remind him more than a weekly fast to love the Creator, for this every day, continuously, whenever he eats and whenever he drinks to set aside part of his desire in honour of his Creator.' "

Judaism is often perceived as a religion of restriction, and to be fair, yes there are many restrictions. But as R' Yonah explains above in the name of R' Abraham ben David, eating can be provide a higher spiritual connection with Hashem when we conduct ourselves the right way. If we stuff food in our mouths in the manner of the proverbial pig, then we are totally missing the point. Hashem created this world for our benefit, for our pleasure. All He asks is that we credit Him for His work. (Phew, that was a lot of capital H's!) If we eat like an animal, not only are we repulsive, but we are also merely enjoying the food's taste. If we say a Bracha slowly and clearly before eating, we heighten our sense of enjoyment. If we learn to slow ourselves down, we can pause and thank Hashem for providing us with all our needs and savour the taste of our food. As they say, "Good things come to those who wait." Now compare that with gobbling an apple down. I don't think it's much of a contest, do you?

Admittedly, it's far from easy to fast for a day each week, but it's also relatively easy. To refrain from doing something altogether is much easier than continuing to benefit from this world, but in a different manner, in an Halachic manner. The real challenge in this life is to apply Torah to the physical world, the world we live in. If we can eat our breakfasts and realise the spiritual essence bound within food, we are well on our way to achieving the task Hashem has charged us with. As I heard from R' Daniel Katz of Aish HaTorah this past summer, "Halachah takes spirituality and frames it in action, in solid form. Halachah is practical Kabbalah, it is a manifestation of the divine."

That is the reason why today, on Erev Yom Kippur we have a special Mitzvah to eat as much food as we can. As the שפת אמת says, "כשבשעת התשובה זוכרין בסיבה המביאה אל החטא על ידי זה מתקנין גוף החטא. - For at the time of T'shuvah, we remember the reason that we came to sin, and through this we correct the sin itself." As I said before, Judaism is often perceived as a religion of restrictions. Yes, there are times when we fast. But it is infinitely preferable not to fast, and instead to correct our sins through the medium which we have done those same sins. On Erev Yom Kippur we have the opportunity to eat על שם קדוש השם, and thereby rectify our food-related sins from throughout the year.

The second D'var Torah is one I came up with by myself, so excuse me if it isn't quite on the same level as that of the Sfat Emet!

One of the main themes of the Aseret Y'mai HaT'shuvah is Malchuyot - Kingship. We alter our daily Shmona Esrei to make special mention of our acceptance of Hashem as our King. Once on Rosh Hashanah, and no less than three times on Yom Kippur, do we recite part of Aleinu (which behind the שמע is the cardinal prayer and testament of our אמונה in Hashem,) and prostrate ourselves before Hashem in absolute acceptance of his dominion. There is one other significant amendment to our prayers during the עשרת ימי התשובה, and that is the inclusion of אבינו מלכנו.

Imagine standing up in school as five year old kid, and being told to recite the months of the year. But not simply by saying them, but rather by saying, "The first month of the year is January. The second month of the year is February. The third month of the year is March. The fourth..." and so on. It soon becomes natural and automatic to recite the opening words, "The nth month of the year is..." It's human nature to become careless and thoughtless.

I don't know about you, but until fairly recently, I used to say the first six words of my Brachot without even thinking about them. It's easy to say the initial "ברוך אתה יהוה אלוהינו מלך הועלם...," without even thinking. I would only (if it all) really concentrate on the end of the Bracha, the more "interesting," more "applicable" part of the Bracha. But then I realised what I was doing. I have learned that in Torah not a single word is wasted, every last word has a meaning. The Rabbis who formulated our Brachot would be well aware of the importance of making each word count. It became apparent to me that these six words are important enough to warrant being mentioned for almost every Bracha we make.

As the second part of the name suggests, אבינו מלכנו clearly ties in with the theme of Kingship. But all too often this year I have had to catch myself from reciting these first two words before progressing on to "the more 'interesting,' more 'applicable' " part of the sentence. "אבינו מלכנו," I would rush, and then catch my breath and continue slowly, "חטאנו לפניך". No, no, no! I totally missed the point! There is a reason why every single last line of אבינו מלכנו begins with those words: because it's important enough to mention each time! And what is so important? Why do we use two names? My question is why de we call Hashem by these names specifically? And what is the link between them?

Well, there are two answers I can give you. The first is from Rav Taragin, where we emphasise the dual-nature of our relationship with Hashem. We have a relationship of Kindness and simultaneously, one of Justice. We have the loving father aspect, and at the same time, the relationship of a King and his subject. We have the possibility of being answered in a harsh, strict and totally fair manner, or being granted leniencies in the manner of a caring father.

The second answer is my own. In my Rosh Hashanah post, I discussed the Malchuyot theme and the meaning of our King-subject relationship with Hashem. So the word מלכנו fits in fairly obviously. But what of the first word,אבינו , how is this word relevant? I propose that there is an intrinsic link between the two words אבינו and מלכנו. A King can only really be a King when a people accept his will willingly, and proclaim him as their King. The difference between a King and a ruler is that the people willingly accept a King. They acknowledge him and consent to his reign. The concept of a father is similar. There is a specific Mitzvah for a child to call his father by the title of father. The reason given is that one can never doubt who the mother is, but even nowadays with DNA technology, we can never be sure of a baby's father's identity as much as we know the mother's. A mother cannot be denied, but a father certainly can. Therefore when a child calls a man his father, he is fulfilling a mitzvah by testifying to the truth as he knows it, and respecting his parents. Is that not similar to the concept of a King? In both scenarios, the figurehead is incomplete without somebody below to fulfill their role. There is no King without a nation. There is no father without a child. In both cases, the relationship is seemingly dependent on the less powerful role accepting the other.

That is why we call out at each line these two specific names; they complement one another perfectly.

I wish you all a G'mar Chatima Tova. May all your prayers be answered and may you fast easily. Let it be that through our tefillot we merit the coming of Mashiach. (V'nomar Amen!)

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Song Begins...

I went to a fantastic summer course at Aish Hatorah, taught by this man.

His name is Dan Katz, and to say that his classes are phenomenal is by no means an exaggeration! For about two months solid, I was hooked.

He has lauched a new website, Here's a short video clip.

Welcome Video from The Song Begins on Vimeo.

Scottish Scrabble Champion at last!

Saw this on the Beeb website, and I have a feeling that it may interest a few relatives of mine...

Scrabble fan wins elusive trophy

A Scot has realised a lifelong ambition by being crowned the UK Scrabble champion after more than 30 attempts. Allan Simmons, from Coldingham in the Borders, has come up short since the annual competition began in 1971.

But the 51-year-old finally broke the hoodoo when he beat Craig Beevers, from Stockton-on-Tees, by three games to one in the final showdown in London. The professional Scrabble consultant follows in the footsteps of Aberdonian Paul Allan, who won last year's title.

The board game makers Mattel, which organised the competition, said Mr Simmons's winning repertoire included the words eggy, yutz - meaning fool - and bogart - meaning to selfishly take or keep something.

'Keeping check'

The father-of-three said: "It was the only trophy missing from the cupboard and I am delighted.

"The game is like cards really, keeping check on what letters have been played and what letters are left.

"It can be quite tactical but obviously you need a good knowledge of words."

The former IT manager quit his job in the south of England and settled in the Borders to launch his new career as a Scrabble consultant.

As well as the trophy, he collected a cheque for £1,000.

This year is the 60th anniversary of Scrabble being invented.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Quick copy and paste Divrei Torah...

Ok, and before I really go, another two I found. These are a straight copies.

The Torah talks about what will occur after Am Yisrael enters the Promised Land. After some time the people will go astray and Hashem will have to visit upon the land all kinds of evil happenings. In such a time of evils and distress, the Torah gives a word of encouragement. This “song” meaning the Torah will speak up before Hashem and contend that the Jews have not completely abandoned the Torah. The truth is that in the entire history of the Jewish people there has never been a time when Torah has not been studied, by many or by few. This is what has helped our people survive centuries of Galut and unspeakable forms of persecution. We live today in a generation when we have seen the greatest abuse and destruction of the Jewish people. Our hope of survival lies in the study of Torah and thus perpetuation of the observance of Jewish principles. The fact is that today there is more Torah being studied by Jews throughout the world than in any other time in our history. This study of Judaic sources is taking place both in Israel and in the Diaspora. This fact alone will guarantee the perpetuation of our people. Regardless of what other nations and other cultures attempt to do to us, we will survive and flourish and be a guiding light for all of civilization.


Yom Kippur: Confession and Redemption
Beset by many evils and troubles, they will say, "It is because God is no longer with me that these evil things have befallen me." On that day I will utterly hide My face because of all the evil that they have done... (Deut. 31:17-18)

The Rambam says that this admission of guilt and regret is still not a full confession, and therefore God continues to hide His face. But the hiding is different: no longer is it a hiding of God's mercy, allowing evil to befall them, but rather a hiding of the ultimate redemption. That change in God's relationship contains a hint to their ultimate redemption when their repentance is complete.
To better understand this, we must first understand the function of verbal confession in the teshuva process. Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 364) offers two explanations of the benefit of verbal confession. First, verbalizing one's repentance creates the feeling of conversing with a second party, which, in turn, sensitizes a person to the reality of God's presence, God's awareness of his every deed, and the need to render an account before God. The greater a person's awareness that his sin was one in God's presence, with His full knowledge, the greater His shame and regret.

Secondly, verbal expression intensifies the process and leaves a more lasting effect.
In addition to regret over the past, teshuva also requires a commitment not to repeat the sin again. That commitment must be so decisive, resolute, and firm that God Himself can testify that at the moment of confession, the sinner does not contemplate ever committing that sin again. Just as a vow to do (or not to do) something in the future requires verbal expression, so, too, does the commitment not to repeat past sins.

Sefer Yere'im specifies another dimension to verbal confession - supplication for atonement. There must be a clear recognition of the seriousness of the damage caused by the sin, both in terms of the damage to one's soul and one's relationship to God, and in terms of the effect on the world by closing the conduits of blessing. For this, one must entreat God to forgive, heal and repair the damage. Just as prayer and supplication must be verbalized to establish a feeling of communication, so, too must one's entreaty for atonement.

There is yet another aspect of confession that relates to the nature of sin itself. Sin, says the Maharal, is only incidental to the soul of the Jew. It cannot blemish the soul itself. Rather it superimposes layers of impurity that separate one from his essence. Since the Jew's connection to God is through that untainted essence, when he becomes distant from his essence, he also becomes estranged from God.
Teshuva, then, is the return of the Jew to his essence and the breakdown of the barriers that separate him from God. God does not leave the Jew when he sins; rather the Jew loses contact with God, Who still resides within the essence of his soul. As the Sages say on the verse, "I am asleep, but my heart is awake" (Song of Songs 5:2), "my heart" refers to God. Though the Jew sleeps and loses consciousness of God, God still occupies his heart.

By articulating his sin in the "Vidui" confession, the Jew makes it something external to himself. Then he is able to detach those layers of sin that have accreted on his soul. Vidui itself becomes an act of purification. Thus, Targum Yonasan translates the word "purify" in the verse "Before God should you purify yourself" (Vayikra 16:30), as "confess." The confession is itself the act of purification.

It is this last aspect of full Vidui which is lacking in the confession, "Because God is not with me, all these misfortunes have befallen me." Although this statement expresses regret, recognition of the devastation resulting from sin, and even hints to a commitment to avoid this state in the future, it is still lacking. There is no recognition that it is not God Who has deserted us, but we who have become detached from ourselves and therefore from God.

When a Jew feels God has abandoned him, says Sforno, he gives up hope, since he thinks that it is God Who must first return. But in truth it is man who has strayed from his essence, and he can find God where he originally left Him. Teshuva is thus literally redemption: "Return to Me, for I have redeemed you" (Yishayahu 44:22). One redeems his untainted essence from the layers of sin and impurity that encrust it.
As long as we fail to comprehend this aspect of redemption, God continues to hide the face of redemption from us. When we appreciate all the aspects of Vidui, including that recognition that God remains where He always was, waiting for us to strip away the barriers, we can look forward to both personal and national redemption.

Alright, this time I mean it:
שבת שלום!

Parshat Vayelech - פרשת וילך

I have had a rather busy week, what with Rosh Hashanah and all that jazz, so I have taken the lazy option this week and copied a few divrei torah from the Aish website and with a little editing brought them together. Sorry, but I'm sure you'll understand...

"And Moshe went" (Vayelech, 31:1)
The question is obvious! Where did he go? The answer is given that Moshe's tent was outside the camp of Am Yisrael. When Moshe desired to gather the people, he would have the trumpets blown (see Bamidbar 10:7). On this day, his last day on earth, it would not be fitting to display the trappings of royalty, so Moshe walked into the camp to address the people.

Others explain that Moshe purposely displayed his physical stamina by energetically walking in front of the people. Showing that he was physically fit at the age of 120, his next words, "I am unable to go out and come in," refer to Torah. When the gates of Torah were closed, Moshe had no desire to live.

The great Rabbi Boruch Ber Lebowitz of Kaminetz (in Lithuania) heard someone proclaim, "Without Torah we cannot live!" The rabbi reportedly exclaimed, "And even if we could - who would want to?!"

"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!