Friday, December 25, 2009

Parshat Vayigash - פרשת ויגש

"וְלֹא-יָכֹל יוֹסֵף לְהִתְאַפֵּק, לְכֹל הַנִּצָּבִים עָלָיו, וַיִּקְרָא, הוֹצִיאוּ כָל-אִישׁ מֵעָלָי; וְלֹא-עָמַד אִישׁ אִתּוֹ, בְּהִתְוַדַּע יוֹסֵף אֶל-אֶחָיו - Then Yoseph could not endure (/refrain himself) before all them that stood by him; and he cried: 'Remove every man from before me.' And there stood no man with him, while Yoseph made himself known unto his brothers."
(בראשית מה:א)

This verse comes at the very height of the drama of Yosef's story. It is at this point, having heard how his now-elderly father was so deeply troubled by his disappearance, that Yosef decides that has had enough and opts to reveal himself to his brothers.

Rashi's commentary on this verse explains that "לא היה יכול לסבול שיהיו מצריים נצבים עליו ושומעין שאחיו מתבישין בהועדו להם - He could not bear that there should be Egyptians standing before him and hearing that his brothers are shamed, when he makes himself known to them." It is abundantly clear from these words that Yoseph was suddenly overcome with the realisation that the game was over; that his brothers truly regretted their actions, and that there was no need to torture himself, or them, any longer.

If we put ourselves in Yoseph's shoes, we can imagine how it would have felt like for the duration of his twenty-two years away from his siblings. Yoseph knew that his prophetic vision of his family being subordinate to him was not a false one, and understood that the day would eventually come when he would see them again. When they finally did come to him, he did not reveal himself straight away. We can only imagine how tortuous it must have been for Yoseph to wait to reveal his identity to the brothers he loved so much.

At the same time, as the Yalkut Lekach Tov points out, Rabbi Yehudah Loeb Chasman writes in his work, Or Yahel, that Yoseph's feelings weren't just of love - he must have been acutely aware that the last time he spoke with his siblings on a brother-to-brother basis, he was cast into a pit to die, before being "saved" and sold to Yishamaelite traders as a slave.

I know that if I had been cast out of my family for having a seemingly wacky dream, I would probably have gently poked fun: "See, you do all have to worship me now!" But this was the farthest thing from Yoseph's mind. Amidst these crushing emotions, Yoseph held his nerve. While most people in Yoseph's position would have outed themselves there and then, Yoseph remained aware to the needs of his brothers. Even though he was deperate to rejoin his family, and even though he had reason to fear for his life, Yoseph had the presence of mind to order all the courthands out of the room. Despite the fact that ordering all his subjects out of the courtoom meant that he was left alone with potential murderers, Yoseph did the best he could to prevent himself from embarassing his brothers publicly, even if it meant costing him his life.

I don't think that I need to write much more - I just hope that we may we all learn the lesson Yoseph teaches us here, and that even in the most trying times, we may remain aware of our friends' feelings.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Parshat Mikeitz - פרשת מקץ

I hope you'll forgive me, but I've been ill this week, so I haven't been able to prepare as I'd like to for my D'var Torah. As such, the following is adapted from a Dvar Torah by Rafi Jager on

"וְהִנֵּה שֶׁבַע-פָּרוֹת אֲחֵרוֹת, עֹלוֹת אַחֲרֵיהֶן, דַּלּוֹת וְרָעוֹת תֹּאַר מְאֹד, וְרַקּוֹת בָּשָׂר:  לֹא-רָאִיתִי כָהֵנָּה בְּכָל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לָרֹעַ - And, behold, seven other kine came up after them, poor and very ill-favoured and lean-fleshed, such as I never saw in all the land of Egypt for badness"

Parshat Miketz opens with the recounting of Pharoh's fascinating nightmares. In his dreams, Pharoh sees seven weak cows consuming an equal number of stronger cows, and then views seven thin sheaves of corn swallowing seven healthy sheaves.

Not content with one description of the episode, the Torah then relates the whole dream again as Pharoh describes his unnerving experience to Joseph, in an attempt to gain some understanding as to the meaning of his vision.

Interestingly, there are several differences in the description of the cows and the sheaves between the first time the story is told and the second time it is recounted. Specifically, why did Pharoh describe the weak cows as being Dalot (B'reishit 41:19), literally translated as "poor", upon repeating the story to Yoseph? The terms used in the Torah at the time of the dream were "רָעוֹת מַרְאֶה, וְדַקּוֹת בָּשָׂר - ill favoured and lean-fleshed;" why did Pharoh opt to describe the event in different words?

Wouldn't it have been logical for the Torah to have used the same adjectives each time the story is told? Indeed, when Joseph presents his interpretation, he returns to the original description of the weak cows and does not refer to them by the adjective Pharos used. How did he know to avoid this word? Rashi explains that when Pharoh asked his sorcerers and wise men for their interpretation, they responded that he would have seven daughters whom he would bury, an explanation with which Pharoh was not satisfied. Again, how did Yoseph know the correct interpretation while the sorcerers and wise men did not? The Bet Halevi suggests that Pharoh intentionally misdescribed the cows to Yoseph as being דלות/poor to determine whether or not Yoseph was really receiving divine inspiration.

Yoseph though, realised the trick, and omited the misleading adjective when he offers his explanation of the dreams. Yoseph's message was as if to say to Pharoh that the cows had not actually been "poor" in the dream. From this, Pharoh understood that the spirit of G-d rested on Yoseph. The Bet Halevi further explains that it was this change in language itself - Pharoh's attempt to mislead him - which provided Yoseph the key to the dream's interpretation. In Hebrew, the adjective Dalot is reserved specifically for the description of inferior grain. Faced with the mystery of what the parable of the cows represented, Yoseph inferred from Pharoh's usage of the strange adjective Dalot that the cows were representative of grain. From this, Yoseph constructed his interpretation of seven years of plenty (good grain) and seven years of famine (inferior grain).

Thus, Yoseph drew his understanding of the dream from Pharoh's trick itself. He understood that Hashem's guiding hand can be seen in all facets of life, even through another person's attempt at deception. In the long run, everything is for the best and Yoseph understood that even if Pharoh was trying to deceive him, there must have been a hidden divine plan.

From this story, we can learn that faith in G-d can find its way into all aspects of life. There may be a positive result even from what may seem to be an absolutely negative situation. This is an important idea to take into consideration when dealing with interpersonal relationships, when someone has done something which clearly seems to be to your detriment. Hopefully, we can all develop our eyes and our interpretive skills to see the hidden good in everything.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Parshat Vayeshev and Chanukah - פרשת וישב וחג חנוכה

"וַתָּסַר בִּגְדֵי אַלְמְנוּתָהּ מֵעָלֶיהָ, וַתְּכַס בַּצָּעִיף וַתִּתְעַלָּף, וַתֵּשֶׁב בְּפֶתַח עֵינַיִם, אֲשֶׁר עַל-דֶּרֶךְ תִּמְנָתָה: כִּי רָאֲתָה, כִּי-גָדַל שֵׁלָה, וְהִוא, לֹא-נִתְּנָה לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה - And she put off from her the garments of her widowhood, and covered herself with her veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in the entrance of Enaim, which is by the way to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she was not given unto him to wife."

Thus starts the intriguing and almost puzzling episode of Tamar, the widowed wife of Yehudah's son, Er. Prior to this Pasuk, Er had passed away and so, following the Jewish law of Yibum, whereby a childless widow is married off to her husband's brother, (ostensibly so that the family name may continue into future generations,) Tamar was then married to Onan. Because Onan failed to reproduce with her, Hashem had him killed.

At this point, Yehudah regarded Tamar as being accursed and was reluctant to hand her over to his remaining son, Shelah. Yehudah advises Tamar to behave like a widow until Shelah grows up, but when he does, Yehudah still refuses to allow Tamar and Shelah to marry.

The next part of the text seems highly controversial - after Yehudah's wife dies, Tamar acts in a rather peculiar manner; she "put off from her the garments of her widowhood, and covered herself with her veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in the entrance of Enaim, which is by the way to Timnah." As we read on, we understand that Tamar concealed herself as a prostitute and seduced Yehudah. To the causal reader, this appears to be bizarre behaviour. What on earth is going on?

To understand this passage, we need to know who Tamar was. Tamar was no ordinary woman - she was of fine stock; the daughter of Shem, and a Prophetess in her own right. As such, Tamar was an exceedingly great individual, and to imagine that her thoughts and actions were base would be a gross misjudgement.

Rather, Tamar knew that she was to be one of the ancestors of Mashiach. When she did not have children with her first husband, and then her second, she was deeply worried. When Shelah wasn't even married to her, Tamar knew that she had to take matters into her own hands. According to one opinion, this state of affairs occured as a result of the effors of the angels attempt to prevent the Mashiach from being born, (apparently, they were concerned by his tremendous holiness,) and so it had to be done in the lowest form possible, in a manner that would "slip under the radar."

Tamar knew that she had to was part of the chain that led to the birth of Moshiach, and as such, she strove to ensure that this happened. Even though her action constituted prostitution, the ideal and the manner in which she did the deed was on the very highest level. Another aspect to be understood is learned by tracing the geneology of our Mashiach. In contrast to other religions, our Messiah is not immaculate; he is the polar opposite of a pure-blooded Messiah; he comes from a rather dubious background indeed. His lineage is shadowed and shameful: his father descended from Moab, a product of incest between Lot and his daughter after Sodom's destruction, and this chain goes all way down to Ruth, of whom he is a direct descendant of Ruth. Again, Ruth is no "pure-blood" either; she is a convert to Judaism. The lesson we may learn from all of this is that although some of the components leading up to King David and Mashiach are rather "shady," we see that this does not prevent their seed reaching the highest heights. I find this lesson particularly apt, given that Parshat Vayeshev always occurs in close proximity to Chanukah - the shared lesson is that out of the deepest darkness comes the greatest light.

Rav Avigdor Nevenzahl, former rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem, raises an intriguing question about the Chanukah story. To perform the mitzvah of lighting the Menorah, two things were needed: שמן זית (pure oil) and the מנורת הזהב (The Golden Menorah). In the Chaunkah story, the magnificent Menorah of gold was stolen by the Greeks and although the Maccebees managed to take back the Bet Hamikdash, they were stuck without this glorious artefact.

As such, they were forced to make do with an impromptu, temporary solution; the Maccabees took their spears and cast them into a rudimentary menorah and a replacement forged of tin-coated-iron was made. Only years layer could the Jews replace this with an higher quality silver Menorah, and only decades afterward di they finally exchange this for a splendid Golden Menorah that was worthy of its place in the Bet Hamikdash

The question that Rav Nevenzahl poses is that if God decided to show the Jews where the last bottle of pure oil was hidden, why didn't He similarly produce another miracule whereby the Menorah would have been revealed to the Jews' eyes so that the oil would be utilised in the proper manner?

Rav Nevenzahl's answers by examining the qualities of the two components of the mitzvah of lighting the Menorah. One part is the pure olive oil, and the other is Menorah itself. The Golden Menorah was an emblem of physical beauty, and signified all that which is external. A menorah is only good for lighting as long as it has candles or oil in it. While it might be nice to look at, it serves no real purpose. The pure olive oil, on the other hand, represented a more refined type of beauty - it was the spiritual ingredient and was symbolic of that which is internal. So, says Rav Nevenzahl, the miracle of Chanukah was "limited" to the finding of the oil, and not to the finding of the Menorah. Through His actions, Hashem sent out a crucial message - that the inner, the more spiritual, is always more important than the outer, more basic and physical. Whereas the Greeks and the Helenists valued physical beauty, Hashem showed the Jews that real beauty will always out.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a Chag Urim Sameach!

Friday, December 04, 2009

Parshat Vayishlach - פרשת וישלח

" וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר - And Ya'akov was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day."

These words are the basis form the basis for the famous commentary by Rashi that the reason why Ya'akov was left alone at this time was because he returned to the other side of the Jordan river to retrieve some "פכים קטנים - small jugs" that had accidentally been left behind.

One of the traditional lessons we learn from this episode is that we must always appreciate what we have; even though Ya'akov had crossed a river with his family and almost all their possesions, he took the time to go back to collect some relatively inexpensive items because he refused to let things go to waste. Quoting Chazal, Rashi adds that this appreciation was borne of Ya'akov's honesty - one who is honest and works hard for what he has develops a sensitivity to looking after what he has, whereas someone less honest is less likely to care for his belongings.

While this is very much true, I would like to mention what the Yalkut Re'uveini and the Maharsha have to say on this episode. They claim that the jugs retrieved by Ya'akov went on to be used later on in the Tanach; apparently years later, when Shaul was appointed king by Shmuel, oil from one of these jugs.

Even more incredibly, the Midrash of the Yalkut Re'uveini and the Maharsha posits that Ya'akov's urge to collect his forgotten possessions had huge ramifications for the Chanukah story. Then, after the destruction of the Second Beit Hamikdash the Maccabees searched high and low for some oil to relight the Menorah with, and eventually found one solitary jug. This jug, so the Midrash says, is one of those that Ya'akov originally felt so compelled to go back for. (With Chanukah just around the corner, it's amazing to stop and consider that Parshat Vayishlach is always in close proximity to the festival of lights; and that each year we relate this incident close to the time we celebrate the eventual finding of this jug of oil.)

A friend of mine once taught me something by R' Nachman of Uman; all that we have in this world is given to us for a reason. As long as we have something, we have it so that we may use it for becoming closer to God. Whether Ya'akov Avinu knew precisely why he had to go back for the jugs is something I do not know, but we may learn from his behaviour the imperative to treat our possesions with care and consideration

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

For the refuah shelaimah u'mehirah of Rut Nechamah Bat Revital

Friday, November 27, 2009

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."
(B'reishit 28:11)

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.

Ya'akov chose to employ a very minimal safeguard in the knowledge that everything that one does is really 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 20, 2009

Parshat Toldot - פרשת תולדות

I've had an hectic week, so I only have a short D'var Torah this time - sorry!

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?

This week I head Rav Machlis of Ma'alot Dafna in Jerusalem propose an interesting insight as to why the seemingly needless repetition is warranted. The first mention, "יִצְחָק בֶּן-אַבְרָהָם," is meant to reer 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 to 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 Avraham and Yitzchak's relationship to be a true measure of the appreciation and depth of their love for one another.

Another thing I'd like to point out is the episode detailed at the beginning of the Parsha; that of Rivkah's pregnancy with Ya'akov and Esav. There we learn that Rivkah was deeply troubled by the distubances she felt inside of her. As Rashi explains, each time she passed by a place of Torah learning she would feel an almost violent movement in her belly. Perlexingly for her, the same experience would be repeated when she passed by a place of idol worship.

If we look closely at the wording, we can see that the Pasuk uses the unusual word "ויתרוצצו," which Rashi renders as meaning either running or as crushing. Notable by it's absence is the expected translation/explanation of the word; that the two brothers are fighting one another - for they are not!

I'd like to proposed the following: The two nations may be opposed to one another, but they are not essentially enemies. Rather, Esav's tafkid, (like that of every creation in the world,) is that to be an agent and aid the Jewish nation when we are not doing our job properly. Similarly, it is instructive to note that while we are commanded to destroy our arch-foes, Amalek, there is no imperative related to our having to hate them. We have no need to hate those who act against us.

From Yerushalayim, wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, November 13, 2009

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." Kabbalistically, we learn that the number 50 has a special significance - there are 50 levels of Kedushah, spiritual levels in which we may ascend. Avraham's blessing was not merely that he was given a son, but also that he attained this 50'th level of holiness.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, November 06, 2009

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 pre-occupied 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 30, 2009

Parshat Lech Lecha - פרשת לך לך

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ
Now the Lord said unto Avram: 'Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto the land that I will show thee.
(בראשית יב:א)

This week's Parsha is named for the famous command that Hashem gave to Avram (as he was known before his name was changed to Avraham): "Lech lecha; Go for yourself - from your country, from your birthright, from your father's house."

There's a tremendous amount in these words that Rabbis over the centuries have seen fit to comment on, but I'd like to pick up on something that I first heard from Rav Daniel Katz of Ramat Eshkol, Jerusalem, and that I heard again from Rav Mordechai Machlis of Ma'alot Dafna this week. The words "Lech l'cha," meaning "go for yourself" when translated literally, seem a bit extraneous - of course Avram was going for himself; when he left, he was fulfilling the word of God because he wanted to.

We may resolve this diffiuclty by translating the word "Lecha" in another way. We can say that it means "to yourself." The command meant that Avram had to go within himself and come to realise who he truly was -he had to be true to himself. This command, according to the Rambam, the first of Avram's ten tests from Hashem, was literally to leave his father's house and head abroad where he would gain a different perspective.

I would like to add something to this way of looking at things. Following the Rambam's view, (that this was indeed the first of Avram's tests,) we can say that it was the foundation upon which all the others were built. The other tests included extremely challenging situations such as the being thrown in a furnace, his wife being abducted, circumcising himself at the age of 90 and culminating in the horrific test of being asked to sacrifice his only son. These tests were highly demanding and required true devotion to Hashem, especially in the case of the last test. But above all the tests was the first test of Lech lecha - that Avram had to remain true to himself.

I'd like to suggest that at any given time, Avram was not just being tested on one front, for Hashem was also checking to see whether Avram was behaving in a manner that was true to himself. When he was asked to give himself a Brit Milah at a very advanced age for example, in order to pass the test he couldn't merely tick all the boxes; his actions could not be construed as contrived. He had to genuinely want to do that which was asked of him.

From the holy city of Netanya, wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, October 23, 2009

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 is 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. Or we can say that he was genuinely righteous because he managed to ignore them and stay on the "straight and narrow." It would seem that these two persepectives are the polar opposite of one another. 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 comapre to the men of Avraham's generation, Reish Lakish's opinion in the gemara might seem derogotary 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, abd 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.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom from Yerushalayim!

Friday, October 16, 2009

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 week we read B'reishit, which is the first Parsha in the Torah. The concept outlined above can be found in various levels in this week's Parsha. In B'reishit, we read of the creation of the universe - the very first thing that happened, according to the opening pasuk of the Torah. Following the concept above, we learn that everything in the Torah can be found in the opening act of B'reisihit.

In fact, 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. The story goes that he was challenged by a student/a group of his students. They asked him how he could see the mitzvah of Pidyon Haben (click here to find out more) in the the word B'reishit.

Incredibly, he answered them that בראשית is an acronym. Each of the first letters of the word stand for בן ראשון אחרי שלושים יום תפדה, which means "Firstborn son - after 30 days you shall release!"

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.

The Medrash explains that the word Arur (meaning cursed) begins with an Alef, but a Bet is at the beginning of the word Baruch (meaning blessed). While this answer is certainly nice, we can also note that the Talmud starts with the letter Mem. (In the tractate of Brachot, when we read the words, "מאמתי קורין את השמע - from what time do we read the Sh'ma")

In the Sh'ma itself, 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 intriduced earlier on as "הדברים" - another vague term, meaning "things."

A beautiful answer to this difficulty is provided by the Magid Ta'alumah, who says that the two letters of the word "בם" correspond to the written Torah and to the oral Torah. The written Torah begins with a ב, while the oral law starts with a מ - which together form the word בם. 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.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

One of the many reasons why I love living in Israel

Hat tip: Lahav Harkov.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Shmini Atzeret, Simchat Torah - שמיני עצרת ושמחת תורה

I covered an event for work yesterday and I heard an interesting D'var Torah there that I'd like to share here. The D'var Torah comes from Rabbi Metzger, who is the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, and was one of the guests of honour at the event.

R' Metzger pointed out that a number of the Jewish festivals are referred to by multiple monikers; for example Sukkot is also known as Chag Ha'Asif, Shmini Atzeret is known also as Simchat Torah and Pesach is known as Chag Hamatzot. We also call Rosh Hashana by the names Yom T'ruah, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Hadin, while Shavuot is known variously as Chag Habikkurim, Chag Hakatzir and Zman Matan Torateinu.

Each of these names have a different meaning and represent a different aspect of each festival. R' Metzger suggested though, that some of these names are linked. While he didn't go through all the names of all the chagim, he took a few examples.

The two names Pesach and Chag Hamatzot, R' Metzger suggested, are a pair; Pesach refers to Hashem's passing over the houses of the Jews; it is Bnei Yisrael's way of being grateful for Hashem's kindness in overlooking them while killing Egyptians worthy of death. Chag Hamatzot is Hashem's name for the festival - he looks favourably upon our swiftness to leave Egypt when the time came.

In the same way, two of Sukkot's names can be seen as a pair; Chag Ha'Asif, Festival of the Collecting (of the harvest,) is the one of the names that the Jewish people uses for it - we thank God that we He has given us sustenance. But Hashem has refers to it from a different perspective; His name for the festival is Sukkot, for He recognises the Jewish people's devotion to sitting outside in the Sukkah, often through rather unpleasant conditions.

And so too we have the names of Chag Shmini Ha'atzeret and Simchat Torah. Shmini means eight, and Atzeret means stopping. Rabbi Metzger explained that this name can be understood as belonging to Hashem - after seeing the Jews observing Sukkot for seven days, he says to us "today is the eight day - you may stop dwelling in your Sukkot now and dwell inside with me." But the name Simchat Torah represents a completely different aspect, showing the love of the Jewish nation for Hashem; when we celebrate Simchat Torah, we are thanking Hashem for the greatest gift given - that of the Torah.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a Chag Sameach!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

It's raining

It's raining in Jerusalem, and raining fairly hard, too. Bearing in mind the long hard droughts of the last three years, that there's already been a few rains in Israel by early October is a minor miracle.

UPDATE: The rain lasted less than ten minutes. While it didn't quite bucket down, there was a steady flow for a solid five minutes. Another good sign is that the clouds parted and the sun broke out immediately afterwards; something that is listed in Megilat Ta'anit as being as good for the soil as two rains :)

UPDATE #2: It's 1:40am now, and there's been another short but solid rainfall. With any luck, Israel might get a little bit of a soaking every so often over the next few days.

A question on campaigning

Last Friday, shortly before Israel entered into the Jewish festival of Sukkot, Israel (and her supporters around the globe) came together as one in joy, as we learned that Gilad Schalit is alive, and seemingly well.

If and when Gilad Schalit does finally return from Gaza, I hope that he publishes his story. I am sure he had many interesting experiences over his time as a prisoner of one of the most extreme terrorist organisations on the planet. But more than anything, I want to know if he was aware of the campaign for his return.

Recently I posted my reservations about the campaign on this blog, but I now feel that a revision of my thoughts is needed. Or more accurately, a question has been posed.

The question is simple, but exceedingly difficult to answer: would Gilad Schalit have been killed had the campaign not been as strong and as vocal as it was. In previous years, Israel has had soldiers captured, but not once has a soldier returned to Israel alive.

My gut feeling is that in previous cases, most times a soldier went missing in action in enemy territory, the soldier died either while falling, or before falling, into enemy hands. I have a suspicion, however, that maybe one or two Israeli soldiers have been captured alive previously. Schalit was alive when captured, but over the course of the last three years, I, and many others, have wondered whether he had been killed by his captors.

One of the slogans adopted by the campaign has been the hopeful and yet firm, "Gilad is still alive." Many people have responded strongly against this slogan, ranging from statements that it's best not to get our collective hopes up, to messages I've seen left on facebook stating that "people should stop being so silly; Hamas realised that Israel would do a deal with them regardless of whether he was alive or dead and have almost certainly killed him by now."

Mercifully, such pronouncements have been proven false. Moreover, given that for the first time ever, a captive Israeli soldier has been proven to be alive in enemy hands, I am lead to ask the important question of whether the campaign for Schalit's release actually ended up keeping him alive. Even though I remain extremely concerned on two counts that the campaign is counter-productive, (that a swap of hundreds of terrorists for one man is dangerous and sets a precedent, and that by campaigning so publicly, we are only reducing the chances of a deal being done; for more, read my previous blog entry,) the possibility that the campaign contributed to keeping Schalit alive one that intrigues me.

I have to reconcile these concerns with the possibility that by campaigning as publicly as we did, Schalit's life was spared. We don't know much, hence my interest in hearing Schalit's story, but we do know he is alive. We take this as a given, but maybe the continuous high-profile campaigning provided Schalit with a stay of execution (quite literally). Normally when we talk about perspective, we state that it is vital to look at things in the long-term, as the short-term is less important. But in this case, while I do take issue with the long-term effect of the campaign, if it is proven that it saved Schalit's life, then I believe that it has proved itself to be worth all these ramifications.

What do you think?

I'm not really one for this kind of thing...

...but this label is just great :)

Monday, October 05, 2009

Goldstone the fool?

I stumbled an interesting article on the Muqata blog last week that I want to share with you.

'JoeSettler,' the blogger who penned this entry, points out that “there seems to be a lot of confirmation that this story is true, and it doesn’t say much for Goldstone's credibility as an investigator of war crimes.”

In 1995, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) prosecutor’s office listed a certain Serb named Gruban as a serious war criminal. Very serious. They had a lot of details of his war crimes.

But it seems that the Prosecutor’s office had mistakenly identified the criminal involved. The person linked to this case of mistaken identy was none other than head prosecutor himself; Richard Goldstone.

From 1994 until 1996 Goldstone was the head Prosecutor at the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the UN, and here is a link to the text of his indictment against Gruban. The ICTY's PDF is extracted here:



Richard J. Goldstone, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, pursuant to his authority under Article 18 of the Statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia ("The Statute of the Tribunal"), charges...

But in 1998 the ICTY dropped all charges against the above-named Gruban:

The Hague, 8 May 1998

On 5 May and 8 May respectively, Judge Vohrah and Judge Riad granted the leave requested by the Office of the Prosecutor to withdraw the charges against 14 accused in the Omarska and Keraterm indictments:

The charges against the following 11 accused in the Omarska indictment are withdrawn: Zdravko GOVEDARICA, GRUBAN, Predrag KOSTIC, Nedeljko PASPALJ, Milan PAVLIC, Milutin POPOVIC, Drazenko PREDOJEVIC, Zeljko SAVIC, Mirko BABIC, Nikica JANJIC and Dragomir SAPONJA

(Note that this Gruban is not to be confused with Momcilo Gruban who was imprisoned in 2002 and is also mentioned in that first document and indictment. The charges are maintained against 5 accused who are still at large, namely:

Zeljko MEAKIC (alleged Omarska camp commander, charged with genocide), Dragoljub PRCAC (one of the two alleged deputy commanders), Milojica KOS, Momcilo GRUBAN (one the three alleged guards shift commanders) and Du{an KNEZEVIC (one of the five persons who allegedly visited the camp to commit atrocities).

There are two Grubans here and this Gruban is obviously a different Gruban entirely than the one who had the charges against him dropped. So who was this “Gruban” who turned out to be completely innocent?

Gruban Malić, given his full name, is a very well known character in Serbia. And a character he is; Gruban Malić is a fictional character in the book “Hero on a Donkey” written by Miodrag Bulatović'.

Not to comment at all on that war, but Goldstone fell for a joke someone pulled on him and his court. All the Serbs were laughing at how stupid he and his court was. It certainly destroyed any credibility they might have had for the court.

Sound familiar? Is this any different then what happened in Gaza?

The Gazans of Pallywood told Goldstone stories which he willingly and unquestioning swallowed up whole, and spit back at us. Like in Serbia, the Gazans are laughing at him while Goldstone uses their lies to attack Israel.

What is more interesting is that besides in Serbia, in the office of the ICTY this embarrassing mistake was apparently well known, and of course it wasn't publicized outward, instead they tried to basically cover up Goldstone's mistake by "dropping the charges".

That's a shame about the cover-up, because certainly everyone should remember to associate Richard Goldstone's name with the Serbian war criminal Gruban Malic' - and his donkey.

Now, is it any wonder why Goldstone was sent to Gaza to investigate Israel for war crimes?

(Source: M'kor Rishon online newspaper)

Latma's take on Goldstone

Funny, if politically incorrect stuff from

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Saw this in an email I recently received

I saw this quote in an email I recently received. I find it absolutely incredible.

"All the nations are one day going to come together and start talking peace amongst themselves. This talk of peace will have one underlying goal: to destroy Israel. And their rationale shall be: because they [the Jews] established for themselves their own government; and though the Jews will be in tremendous danger at that time, nevertheless they will not be destroyed; in fact, from that very situation they will be saved."

Written approximately 500 years ago, by Rabbi Moshe Cordevero ("The Ramak") on Zohar Bereishis, 199.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Sukkot - סוכות

It is by no coincidence that the festivals of Sukkot and that of Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah (which takes place over one day in Israel but it split over two days in the Diaspora,) are occur one after the other. It seems a tad strange to be commanded to live in a Sukkah for seven days, and then without a break, without even a day in which to dismantle the Sukkah, we jump into another festival.

The word Atzeret comes from the Hebrew root עצר, which means stopping. On this day, Jews around the world celebrate finishing the yearly cycle of reading the Torah. But there's a concept in Judaism that seems to directly contradict this term. The concept is that we never stop going; that there's always more work to be done in this world. I'd like to point out that although this idea seems simple, it's very much the opposite of the prevalent custom today. Most people nowadays live a lifestyle that demands hard work so that ultimately, one may take time off. The Jewish concept though, is that up until one's dying day, one remains obligated to perform Mitzot - there's no such thing as time off.

With this in mind, how can there be a Jewish festival that celebrates the completion of the Torah? The standard answer is cute; that we don't just stop - we start again and read from Parshat B'reishit on the same day. We refuse to wait the normal week to progress to the next Parsha, and instead signal our intent to keep going. This answer certainly proves that though this Torah reading has ended we don't stop, but I would like to propose an alternative answer.

A point repeatedly made by various Rabbis over the years is that the number seven in Judaism signifies that which lies in the natural. There are seven notes in the musical scale, seven continents and there are seven days in the week - something that remains remarkably indisputed, despite the fact that there are various calendar systems in use around the world, all agree that there is such a thing as a week and that it has seven days. We also say that there Hashem made seven heavens (hence the expression,) Tefillin are wrapped around the arm seven times and the Menorah in the Bet Hamikdash had seven branches. Additionally, it is said that the world was created with the number seven. The first verse in the Torah deals with the creation of the universe, and contains seven words and twenty-eight letters; a number which happens to divisible by seven!

As such, it is no surprise to say that the seven days of sukkot correspond to the natural world. For seven days we sit outside, exposed to the elements. The second Gerer Rebbe writes in his seminal work, the Sfat Emet, that during this time we need the extra defence of the Sukkah. But beyond seven, the number of the physical, of the natural, is the number eight - which is said to represent the spiritual. On the day after Sukkot, we go one level above the physical world and enter into the spiritual domain, so to speak. We call this day Shmini Atzeret, which means the eighth day. The question posed at the beginning of this D'var Torah, why Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret are placed next to one another, may now be answered. On Shmini Atzeret, we leave the Sukkot outside because we don't need the protection it affords. That protection is only needed by someone living a physical, natural lifestyle. We learn that Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret have to be placed next to one another to show that when one lives life fully and spiritually, one moves beyond the need for such external protection.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a pleasant Sukkah experience :)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


A few years ago, when I had just started learning at Yeshivat Hakotel, I discovered something about the Old City of Jerusalem. Although I was residing there and had a bedroom in the Old City that I could call my own, I soon realised that I didn't quite have the same rights as most people around the world have.

The yeshiva year starts with the Hebrew month of Elul and continues to Tisha'a B'Av, just over eleven months later. Coincidentally, the month of Elul is when Sefardim start observing the Jewish custom saying Slichot, in preparation for the impending Days of Judgment.

And so, when living in Yeshiva, I quickly had to re-adjust to a reality in which my bedroom, that sanctum of calm and relative solitude, was regularly pierced by the sound of dozens of Jews traipsing their way through the Old City's central square, strumming guitars and pounding drums, as they made their way to the Kotel. Yes, this was my bedroom and I hoped to sleep properly, but I quickly came to the realisation that my bedroom was located smack in the middle of one of the world's greatest heritage sites. The right to quiet during the night is a given for most people, but not for residents of the Old City - certainly not during the Slichot period.

Interestingly, I happened to visit the Old City the Shabbat before Yom Kippur, as I was invited out to eat there. While I was there, somebody told all present that at midnight that night, the last night before Yom Kippur, there would be a mass Slichot at the Kotel. He explained that the last night of Slichot before Yom Kippur is typically the "Sefardi Slichot;" and that Rav Ovadia Yosef (Israel's Sefardi Chief Rabbi) would be taking part, and claimed that literally thousands of people would be there. I knew that he wasn't kidding, but the claim didn't really excite me all that much, as I'd been at the Kotel in previous years during Slichot and witnessed thousands of people filling the plaza.

I ended up going back to my home in Nachlaot; I had to get up in the morning and I didn't really want to be up till 2am. I took my normal route home, passing through the centre of town on my way. There were lots of people around, which was fairly normal. What wasn't normal was that as I got closer to home and walked down the street that mine branches off, Rechov Agrippas, I noticed lots and lots of people walking in the opposite direction to me.

There were all different types of people, and I was trying to figure out whether there was some big event going on in town that I didn't know about... and then it hit me. These people were all Sefardim and were headed in the Kotel's direction. It was the biggest, best night of Slichot and to many of these people, there was no question that they would be taking part.

Some of the people were religious, some not. Some men wore kippot on their head, some were bare-headed. Others elected to use a hooded top as a makeshift head-covering, and still more walked while clutching a Kippa which they would later don. The ladies were not exactly homogeneous, either. While some dressed in the Haredi way, covering up flesh and obscuring curves, many were wearing clothes that would be deemed entirely inappropriate and incongruous with the Haredim who frequent the Kotel on a regular basis.

By their dress alone, I would never have guessed that these people feel a connection to their religion at all. I pictured these people standing at the Kotel, wanting to make a link to their religion, and striving to forge a connection with God. It makes me happy to know that this country, secular as it is, maintains such a strong link to religion. People talk of the increasing Haredi demographic in an almost bitter way, but it gives me hope to know that the average "secular" Sefardi Jew connects so strongly to his roots.

Monday, September 28, 2009

An interesting Yom Kippur experience

This year I went back to Yeshivat Hakotel for Yom Kippur, and fully expected to join the Yeshiva davening, but it would seem that God had different plans for me.

I was more or less on schedule on Sunday at just after 2:30, and knew that if I left then I would manage to join the Yeshiva for Mincha (the afternoon prayer) at 3:00. I didn't end up leaving for another twenty minutes, though as my Grandma called from England and once I was off the phone I realised that it was now too late to get there in time and instead resolved to arrive by 3:30 -in time for the pre-fast meal.

I arrived a few minutes early, and realised that as I had quite a few things to do before the fast (including picking up stuff from my brother's yeshiva, also in the Old City,) in order to rejoin the Yeshiva on time for Kol Nidrei at 5:15. I had to leave the meal as soon as it was over, go to my brother's place, come back to wherever I would be sleeping, change, make my bed, quickly rush down to the Kotel to catch a minyan for Mincha and then finally head back up to my yeshiva. It was a lot to do, but not too much.

I ate the meal, and met with friends who I hadn't seen in long time, which was nice. During the meal, I repeatedly tried calling my brother to let him know that I wanted to pick up my bedsheets, which I had left with him the previous night, but my calls were diverted to answerphone again and again. After finishing the meal, I walked to his yeshiva but when I got there my brother wasn't there. I took a peek at the bed and the area around it but couldn't see my stuff straight away. Just then, I got a call from my mother. It was certainly nice to speak, but her call came at a really bad time. After we finished talking, I tried calling my brother again - I really did want to speak to him before the fast, but once again my call went unanswered. Moments later, I received another call from home. This time my father was on the phone, and he warned me that my sister wanted to have a word, too. Again, it was nice to hear from them, just not then!

After being delayed for 10 minutes, I got off the phone, managed to clear my head and went to look for a second time for my stuff. This time I saw it immediately, and was quickly on my way. I headed back to my bedroom, dumped my stuff, changed and made a dash down to the Kotel.

Unfortunately instead of catching a minyan immediately, as is normally the case at the Kotel, I realised after 5 minutes that I would have to whip one together. After 5-10 minutes, I corralled enough people together to proceed. By this point I was very much behind schedule, having been delayed by missing my brother and the unexpected phone calls. As Mincha started it was getting close to 5:15 - the time that my yeshiva were due to be starting Kol Nidrei . I realised that I wouldn't be able to rejoin them without missing parts of the prayers and instead would have to stay at the Kotel. I wasn't too happy at my situation, but there was nothing to be done. In any case, I told myself, it's still an incredible experience to pray on Yom Kippur next to where the Bet Hamikdash stood.

And so after Mincha, I went to look for a minyan for Kol Nidrei and Maariv. I noticed that one had started not far away from where I had been standing up until then, but when I got closer, I realised that the majority of the group were young irelligious men, save one middle-aged man standing in the middle who was wearing a Tallit. The irreligious men turned out to be visiting Israel from South America, and the gentleman wearing the Tallit was an American immigrant living in Jerusalem. Although our American-Israeli friend was more religiously observant, I judged by his appearance that he was either conservative or on the more modern end of modern orthodox and guessed that he would be much relieved if I were to volunteer to take over from him. Wearing a loud checked shirt, sporting long hair and with sunglasses perched above his head, I got the distinct impression that he wasn't too comfortable leading a Yom Kippur service and while his reading of the Hebrew text was perfectly acceptable and fluent, it was quite clear that this man wasn't exactly a regular Shaliach Tzibbur, let alone one would had ever lead a Yom Kippur service before.

After reaching the end of the Kol Nidrei prayer, I asked him if he wanted to do all of Maariv, too. He looked at me and asked me if I knew how to. I answered by saying that while I had never done it before, I'd be happy to give it a shot. After exchanging banalities ("Oh, that's so nice of you; you really don't have to" and "Ah, that's quite alright - it should be fun,") the man quite happily stepped aside. I guess all the delays were part of God's plan for me to end up here and not in the Yeshiva. The rest of the evening is a bit of a blur, but I'm happy to report that it went rather well. One moment that does stand out was when I realised in the middle of my prayers that although I don't think of myself as being that well-studied or knowledgeable, we all have something to impart to others, and that I had indeed managed to provide a service for these young men.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Yom Kippur - יום כפור

On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, we stand before Hashem to confess our sins and attempt to mend our errant ways.

In each of the Amida prayers we say, we recite a major part of this confession in the form of "Al-Cheit" - a prayer which goes through many different types of sins. At its end, we read the haunting words, "אלוהי, עד שלא נוצרתי איני כדאי, ועכשיו שנוצרתי כאלו לא נוצרתי - My God, before I was formed I was unworthy, and now that I have been formed, it as if I had not been formed."

While the literal translation of these words seems perfectly understandable, Rav Kook saw a problem in the wording of this line. We say that before we were born we had no worth; well isn't that obvious? Something that doesn't exist quite clearly has no worth. Similarly, Rav Kook sees a problem in the words "as if I was not formed;" do I exist or not?

Rav Kook's understood this passage in rather unique manner. Although we can take the passage to mean that humans are practically worthless when compared to Hashem, and that our achievements are essentially zero, Rav Kook reads here a deep insight into the meaning of our existence.

Rav Kook explains the troubling words, "Before I was formed, I was of no worth" as meaning that each and every one of us was born at exactly the right moment. Before that moment, there was no need for us to have been born. Before our births, there was no need for our presence in this world. Nothing in this world required our existence, and had we been born we would have had no purpose - before we were born we were of no worth. This phrase, previously so hard to comprehend, now reveals to us a deep insight as to our existence. If we were deemed worthless before we were born, then it is implicit that now that we have been born, there is a reason for our existence. We have each been born for a reason, and each of us has a mission to complete in our lifetimes.

Now to the next part of the sentence, "And now that I have been formed, it is as if I had not been formed." Now that Hashem has seen fit to breathe live into our bodies, there must be some mission for me to accomplish. But because of our willfull abandon of Mitzvot and Hashem's rule as a whole, our whole reason for existence is called into question. As long as we are engaged with mitzvot and performing the task that gave rise to us being born, we are fulfilling our role in this world. The moment we forsake our burden, there remains no reason for our continued existence other than Hashem's mercy.

[Adapted from Olat Re'iyah vol. II, p. 356]

It is my hope that we all have a meaningful and constructive Yom Kippur, that we rectify our wrongs both towards one another and to Hashem and that we all realise and be strengthened in finding our roles in life. Fast well!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Parshat Ha'azinu - פרשת העזינו

I have two Divrei Torah this week; one is my own and one is adapted from R' Ari Kahn of Aish Hatorah.


העזינו השמים ואדרבה ותשמע הארץ אמרי פי - Listen, o' heavens, and I will speak; and the earth shall hear the words of my mouth.

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 העזינו, (listen,) and when dealing with the earth, he uses the word ותשמע(and hear).

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 "ואדרבה" (and I will speak), to the heavens but says that the earth should take note of אמרי פי (the words of my mouth).

I've mentioned a few times in my Divrei Torah 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. Hearing, as I've mentioned before, is relevant to us, as 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 "העזינו" - to listen? What is implied here? To answer this, we have to look at the word he uses to describe his own speech, "ואדרבה". The root of this word is דבר, "davar," which also means a "thing" 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 the simpleאמרי פי, "the words of my mouth," to the lower sphere. This kind of expression is incomplete, but when speaking to the celestial sphere, Moshe is able to employ more complete terminolgy, as we learn that the higher worlds are more "in sync" with Hashem.

At the beginning of this week's Parsha, Parshat Ha'azinu, Moshe breaks into song. R' Ari Kahn notes that this moment in Sefer D'varim seems an odd time for Moshe to start singing. Moshe's contemporaries, the generation that left Egypt, have mostly died in the desert and Moshe too is to soon pass away. Although Moshe has famously sung before in the Torah, (namely Az Yashir after safely crossing the Red Sea,) why should he sing now, unprompted?

R' Kahn explains Moshe's greatness by brining an example from the Gemara:

"Our rabbis taught: 'When the wicked Nebuchadnezzar threw Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah into the fiery furnace, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Ezekiel: 'Go and resurrect the dead in the plain of Dura.' This being done, the bones came and smote the wicked man upon his face. 'What kind of bones are these!' he exclaimed. They [his courtiers] answered him, 'Their companion is resurrecting the dead in the plain of Dura.' Thereupon he broke into utterance, 'How great are His signs, and how mighty are His wonders! His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and His dominion is from generation to generation!'" Rabbi Isaac said: "May molten gold be poured into the mouth of that wicked man [Nebuchadnezzar]! Had not an angel come and struck him upon his mouth he would have eclipsed all the songs and praises uttered by David in the Book of Psalms.' "
(Sanhedrin 92b)

At the moment that king Nebuchadnezzar wanted to praise Hashem, Rabbi Isaac stoppped him. Nebuchadnezzar was stunned by this incredible moment and wanted to praise God, but nevertheless Rabbi Isaac issued a stinging statement and barred him from doing so. Why was this?

The Kotzker Rebbe understood the reason for Rav Isaac's actions and summarised them thus:
"You wish to sing praise while the crown is on your head, I would like to hear how you sing after being slapped in the face. (Emet miKotzk Tizmach pg. 37)"

Many of us have experienced an incident in our lives where we are dazzled for a moment. We wish to sing and praise God, but although this is certainly laudable we should take the time to ask ourselves, would we be as ready to praise God after experiencing pain? This is Moshe's great strength - even when he is about to die, he realises that it is appropriate to give praise to his creator.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom u'mevorach from Jerusalem!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A cause for hope (Part II)

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, (yes, I do realise that I have posted since then, but I wanted to keep things in chronological order,) I was invited out to lunch at a friend's house about two minutes away from where I live. Unfortunately, for me, I had to walk about 30 minutes instead, as I was staying at my old yeshiva, Yeshivat Hakotel in the Old City for chag.

On the way back to the Old City, at around 5 'o clock, I walked through Ben Yehuda, which would normally be buzzing at any other time of year apart from Shabbat and the other chagim. There were a few people milling around who didn't seem to be observing the day in accordance to Jewish law, but really it was very quiet. As I approached the square at the bottom where Ben Yehuda and Yafo meet, I noticed a man blowing a Shofar. Not so unusual, I thought to myself - I'd been at the Kotel earlier in the day and heard and saw people come with their own Shofarim and blow them, almost for fun. I particularly remember seeing one twenty-something man, around my own age, who had brought his own Shofar with him, and who seemed intent on making quite a show of himself. So to see a few Haredi men standing in the square in town didn't seem to be much to take notice of.

But as I came closer, I realised that they weren't blowing "for fun," but were blowing for an elderly irreligious man. It made me smile to see the dedication these men have, to take time out on Rosh Hashana to hit the streets and do something for their follow Jews. All too often, we are bothered by the Haredis begging for money. In Jerusalem, there have been umpteen stories over the last few years of Haredis who have forced separation of the sexes on the street and on buses, and other stories of how Haredi men have rioted against Shabbat desecration. As a "dati leumi" (this term literally means national religious, but also encompasses a lot of Modern Orthodoxy) Jew, I despair when I hear how Haredi Jews use strict and dogmatic methods to make a point. And at the same time, when I see how important it is to them that every last Jew hears the Shofar, I find cause for hope.

These people knew that on Rosh Hashanah they wouldn't receive payment or a donation to their cause, but they went out anyway because they cared. Trying to scare other Jews into following the Torah will never persuade them to reconsider a change in their lifestyle, but doing things like this out of love, and without demands can.

I was reminded of how I was in a pub in downtown Jerusalem with a friend a couple of years ago on Chanukah. The pub had Christmas lights and decorations up, and there was no indication that any of the patrons of the pub cared that this was Chanukah and that to an observer, this could have been a pub in a Christian country. But in the middle of my visit, a Haredi man walked in and asked the pub staff if they wouldn't mind turning down the blaring music for a minute. They complied, and as the entire pub looked at the incongruous man in the strange clothes, he took out a menorah and candles, set them down on the side of the pub counter and started to recite the blessings aloud.

Immediately the atmosphere changed, and everyone started singing along with him. When he reached the end of each of the brachot, an almost-fierce "Amen" was heard from all around me. While most people in that pub would never have lit candles by themselves, they really, genuinely cared to see somebody come in and light for them. I only hope that the Haredi world adopts this approach more often and shares it's brand of Judaism with others rather than shunning them and criticising them for not complying.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A cause for hope

Although I blog fairly regularly, I don't think I've ever posted an entry of a personal nature here. Last week, I attended the Nefesh b'Nefesh International Jewish Bloggers Convention in Jerusalem (read my report for the Jerusalem Post here) and one of the speakers mentioned that while blogs often have specific topics, it's still nice to write those "slice of life" entries and share your experiences with others. The speaker went on to explain that for a person living in Efrat, for example, it might not seem all too interesting at first to describe one's daily commute, but to someone living on the other side of the world the idea of waking up and facing the Judaean hills, driving through biblical landscape on the way to work in the knowledge that the only traffic jam one might encounter would be from a wayward flock of sheep - well, that might be almost exotic to some. With this in mind, I've decided that it's high time that I share some of my experiences.

The first thing I want to relate is an event that occured last Monday. I had locked my bike outside the Shuk and after retrieving it, noticed that somebody had touched my gears, as they had been reset from 21st gear (3 and 7) to something like 8, as the numbers were lower around 2 and 4. I was a little bit annoyed, but I soon became genuinely irritated when I saw that the gear chain had been knocked off, too. For those readers who haven't had to put a bike's chain back on the gears, I should explain that you get your hands dirty and oily from touching the greasy chain. After realising that I had no option, I set about fixing the bike.

Just as I was about to get started, an elderly man stopped to ask me if I could help him by taking his heavy bags as he walked to the bus stop on the other side of the road. I told him that I needed to fix my bike, but that I would be with him in a second. The man was rather insistent, but I explained that I would need a little time first.

Putting a bicycle chain back in place (illustrative)

After fidgeting with the bike's chain for a few seconds to no avail, an Arab teenager, almost certainly one of the many Arab workers in the Shuk, strode towards my bike, took it from me gently and in a split-second had the chain back on. Hugely impressed and appreciative of his kindness, I thanked him and shook his hand. It was truly heartening to see that despite what the media makes out to be total disharmony between Jews and Arabs, there's still co-operation between the two groups and away from the media spotlight, there are still instances like this that give you hope. But the boy, unaware of my goofy smile, then turned round to the old man, took his bags and walked him across the road. If there's one thing I can take from this it is that while we can never work with extremists, there will definitely be people "on the other side" who are not extreme and who want peace too. It is up to us to find a way of working with them and alienating terrorists and those who incite hatred and violence against us.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Rosh Hashana - ראש השנה

The sound of the Shofar is one of the central themes of Rosh Hashanah. The intense blasts issued from this horn, so we learn, are meant to cause us to think of a cry out to the heavens; a cry for mercy, a cry for help.

The Shofar is used to produce four distinctive kinds of noises; the Tekiah, the Sh'varim, the Teruah, and finally the Tekiah Gedolah. It is instructive to note that the Shofar's noises are grouped together in sets of three, with the first and the last always Tekiah (apart from the two occasions when a Tekiah Gedolah replaces the standard Tekiah.)

The Tekiah (and the Tekiah Gedolah) is a single drawn out noise. The other sounds, the Shevarim and the Teruah, are sandwiched in between the Tekiah blasts. These two sounds are supposed to be of equal length to the Tekiah sounds on either side of them, but are broken up into three or nine pieces. Indeed, the word Shevarim means "broken," indicating that there is an intrinsic link between these broken noises and the whole, complete Tekiah. In actuality, the Tekiah sounds and whatever comes in between them are all equal. The Shevarim and the Teruah are broken up, but we must not forget that though they are broken, they will come whole again. Hence, the pattern of whole-broken-whole reveals the process that our Teshuvah will follow; if we make a concerted effort to return to Hashem, we will make ourselves complete again.

The Shofar has a deep connection to Rosh Hashanah in other ways, too. The two days of Rosh Hashanah, the days of judgment, are two of the holiest days of the year. The Netivot Shalom teaches that over the two days, we must try to elevate both our levels of Yirat Shamayim and Ahavat Shamayim.

The Kol Shofar, the sound of the Shofar, has two distinct qualities that we can say are appropiately match these dual aspects of Rosh Hashanah. While the sound emitted by a Shofar is often referred to as being like a cry, it is also often called a Shofar "blast".

Shofar blasts are not blown only on during the period of Rosh Hashanah; in times of war, we make a Teruah with chatzotzrot to ready the camp. In this situation, the sound of these noises are very much connected to the aspect of Yirah, fear. At other times, too, these blasts are made - we learn that the same chatzotzrot are used to make a Tekiah sound while offerings were joyfully brought to the Beit Hamikdash. In this situation, these noises are instrumental in causing Bnei Yisrael to feel their ahavah for Hashem.

The Shofar's noise is both a powerful "blast" and also a "cry" for mercy. It is call for battle, but also part of the pomp and ceremony when a new Jewish King is crowned. And here too we show our great love for Hashem, and simultaneously our tremendous awe of Hashem, when we blow the Shofar and crown Him as our King on Rosh Hashanah.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Hitler’s VW Beetle actually designed by a Jew?

Up until now, it has been an acknowledged truth that the ever-popular Volkswagen Beetle has a tainted history, having been originally designed and commissioned by Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. But could the history behind one of the most fashionable production cars in history be somewhat more complex? Paul Schilperoord, a Dutch journalist and historian, certainly seems to think so.

Schilperoord alleges in his new book Het Ware Verhaal van de Kever ("The True Story of the Beetle"), released later this month, that Ferdinand Porsche’s iconic Beetle, officially commissioned by Hitler, may well have been taken from a design by a Jewish engineer called Josef Ganz, who never received due credit.

In 2004, Schilperoord picked up an old edition of a magazine called Automobile Quarterly. In it, he discovered an article which claimed that contrary to popular belief, the Beetle’s original designer was not Hitler but rather a Jewish man; Josef Ganz. Intrigued by this assertion, Schilperoord embarked on what ended up as five years of extensive research which ultimately led to him publishing his forthcoming book.

Over the course of his investigations, Schilperoord unearthed the Beetle’s true history – one vastly different from the one that the Nazi regime had us believe. Whereas the Nazi version of the Beetle’s origins is that Hitler came up with the idea of a “People’s Car,” a car that would both cost less than 1,000 Reichsmark and simultaneously carry up to 5 people across the country at speeds of up to 100km per hour. But Schilperoord’s account differs sharply. He claims that Josef Ganz had outlined the Beetle concept a decade before Hitler claimed to have conjured up the idea of the then revolutionary automobile.

According to Schilperoord, “In 1929, Josef Ganz started contacting German motorcycle manufacturers for collaboration to build a Volkswagen prototype. This resulted in a first prototype built at Ardie in 1930 and a second one completed at Adler in May 1931, which was nicknamed the 'Maikäfer' ('May-Beetle').”

Ganz’s design was greatly innovative, and with features such as an independent suspension system for each wheel, which was “a revolutionary step for the 1920’s,” Schilperoord notes, along with a rear-mounted engine and a unique, streamlined chassis, his car was highly distinctive, too. Although Porsche and Hitler made no mention of Ganz’s contribution, Schilperoord claims that “Hitler’s” Beetle, which came into production 10 years later could only have derived from Ganz’s work.

Lacking the financial backing to put his project into action, Ganz was appointed editor-in-chief of a car magazine, Klein-Motor-Sport, and simultaneously took up positions as a technical consultant to both Daimler-Benz and BMW, where he “developed his first cars featuring independent suspension with them,” Schilperoord told The Jerusalem Post over the telephone last week.

In 1933, Schilperoord claims, came the decisive moment when Adolph Hitler happened to be in attendance at the IAMA (Internationale Automobil- und Motorradausstellung) Berlin motor show in which Ganz unveiled the Maikäfer’s successor, the “Standard Superior,” which was built by German company Standard Fahrzeugfabrik.

Hitler liked what he saw, and tasked Porsche with the job of creating a similar car, but in line with his anti-Semitic philosophy, “he obscured the fact that a Jew was behind the car’s design,” Schilperoord told The Post.

Schilperoord also claims that there are too many of Ganz’s hallmarks to be in any doubt that the Beetle that was eventually mass produced in the 1930’s was derived from his original design. “Even the name Volkswagen was originally Ganz’s,” noted Schilperoord, before adding that Ganz “was already working on the Volkswagen in the 1920’s in Germany... already using the name [Volkswagen] in the Twenties.”

Later on in May 1933, the Gestapo arrested Ganz on falsified charges, accusing him of blackmailing the German automotive industry . “Hitler had only been in power for a few months and was already setting about arresting people and creating the dictatorship he dreamed about” explained Schilperoord.

Even though Ganz had friends in high places and was released soon after being taken into custody, his career had been dealt a fatal blow. His contracts with BMW and Mercedes were terminated, he lost his job as editor-in-chief at the magazine. The Standard Fahrzeugfabrik, which had recently released a new model with place for a family with two children, was now forbidden to use the name Volkswagen in its advertising; Ganz’s livelihood had been destroyed.

If the Nazis were discouraged by the setback of Ganz’s discharge from prison, they didn’t show it. During The Night of the Long Knives in June 1934, when the regime carried out a series of political executions, with most of those killed being members of the Sturmabteilung (SA), the paramilitary Brownshirts, an assassination attempt was made on Ganz’s life. Fortunately for Ganz, his pet dog, an Alsatian, heard the would-be attacker enter the house and jumped on him, thus saving his master’s life.

Not long later, a second assassination attempt was made. Again Ganz had a lucky escape; he happened to be in Switzerland at the time on vacation. When friends warned him that it was not safe to return, Ganz decided to stay on in Switzerland till after the war.

While in Switzerland, Ganz fought to restore his name and claim ownership of the Volkswagen concept, but to no avail. Schilperoord claims that even once the War was over and Ganz was free to work on “a new small car for Automobiles Julien, he could no longer compete with the German Volkswagen - his own vision - which was now conquering the world in its hundreds of thousands and within a few years in its millions. A weary Ganz moved to Australia in 1951 and lived there till his death in 1967. Hopefully now, history will restore his name as the true designer of one of the most revolutionary cars in history.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Parshiot Nitzavim and Vayelech / פרשיות נצבים-וילך

Unfortunately, this week again has been rather hectic. (I actually was social over the last seven days, and went to two events arranged by Nefesh b'Nefesh on Wednesday and Thursday night, meaning that I got to sleep well past my bedtime.) Consequently, once again, I am rushing to get my D'var Torah in before Shabbat. Will I ever learn?!

ושב ה' אלוקיך את שבותך ורחמך ושב וקבצך מכל העמים אשר הפיצך ה' אלוקיך שמה.

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 innacurate 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 happpen; 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!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Parshat Ki Tavo - פרשת כי תבוא

This last week was a parcticular hectic one for me, what with my entire family being here in Israel and my cousin getting married! Unfortunately, because I was ill as well, I only just about managed to write the D'var Torah, but because I was forced to commuting from Tel Aviv to Netanya and back before heading to Nahariya, all in a 30 hour period before Shabbat, I was unable to get my D'var Torah online before Shabbat. Apologies, all.

"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 statment, 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 permissable, 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 permissable 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 permissable. 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!