Friday, July 31, 2009

Parshat V'etchanan - פרשת ואתחנן

"ואתם הדביקים ביהוה אלוהיכם חיים כלכם היום / And you who cling to Hashem your God, are living today"
(דברים, ד:ד)

Parshat V'etchanan is jam-packed full of events, ranging from Moshe's request to enter Eretz Yisrael to the recounting of the Ten Commandments through part of the text we recite daily in Kriyat Sh'ma. The focus of this D'var Torah though, is on the last Pasuk of the Levi's Aliyah in Rishon, quoted above. It is well known to any Jew who attends a Bet Knesset frequently - for it's recited by the entire congregation just before we read from the Torah.

The Degel Machane Efraim makes an interesting comment on these words. He points out that it is well-documented in Jewish texts that Kriyat Sh'ma is comprised of 248 words. These 248 words correspond to the 248 limbs of the human body, and we believe that each word gives strength to a specific limb. Thus we believe that reading the Sh'ma helps sustain a Jew in this world.

There's a problem though, namely that the 248th word, "Emet" (truth), isn't part of the text of Sh'ma as it's found in the Torah. It's really part of the next paragraph, and we join the two paragraphs together and repeat the two words preceding it so that we have our 248th word. But this solution doesn't seem too tidy at all. It all seems a bit arbitrary.

Fortunately, the Degel Machane Efraim resolves the matter with a neat suggestion as to why we do this. He explains taht the word אתם (you) in the text, "And *you* who cling to Hashem your God, are living today" can also be formed to make another Hebrew word - אמת. And when it says הדביקים (clinging/sticking), it really refers to an instruction for us to make stick the the word Emet to the paragraph that precedes it. In this way, we will merit the second part of the pasuk, where it blesses Am Yisrael with life, "חיים כלכם היום."

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Parshat D'varim - פרשת דברים

This week we start the last book of the Torah - Sefer D'varim. Sefer D'varim is also referred to by another name - Mishneh Torah, which can be loosely translated as "Torah digest," as it goes over many events and laws in the Torah. The Vilna Gaon explains that there are indications in the first five P'sukim as to what we learn in the entire Sefer. If you read the first five P'sukim yourself, you will see that there on three distinct occasions, the text tells us that Moshe related something to B'nei Yisrael. First it says, "אשר דבר משה" in the first Pasuk, then it says "דבר משה אל בני ישראל" in the third, and then "הואיל משה באר" in the fifth.

The Vilna Gaon explains that the first time Moshe speaks it is a reference to the rebukes that comprise the first part of Sefer D'varim, the second incidence refers to the Aseret Hadibrot with the listing of the Mitzvot that Hashem sets out for Am Yisrael, and the third quote is linked to the blessings and curses we are promised for following or disobeying Hashem.

The Maor v'Shemesh poses an intriguing question on this set-up: Why does Moshe rebuke B'nei Yisrael first? After all, if this is "Mishne Torah," a revision of the Torah, why should we hear a rebuke now? The answer he suggests is that in Judaism, one should not try to keep on taking on new things until one is settled and comfortable with all that he has already taken on. Moreover, one cannot go to learn Torah until he has dealt with issues of Teshuvah. If there are outstanding problems, one must deal with them first before advancing to other things. Here we see that Moshe rebukes Am Yisrael in a subtle way, hinting at their previous mistakes by mentioning the places where they sinned. Moshe understood that the only way a true "Mishne Torah" could begin with a rectification of all previous wrongdoing.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and an easy fast on Thursday.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Parshiot Matot and Masei - פרשיות מטות ומסעי

"וידבר משה אל ראשי המטות לבני ישראל לאמר זה הדבר אשר צוה יהוה. And Moshe spoke to the heads of the tribes, to the B'nei Yisrael saying, this is the word that Hashem commands." (Bamidbar 30:2)

Normally I'd write about that which Moshe goes on to say but instead I'd like to discuss the manner in which Moshe speaks here.

The Sfat Emet raises the issue, noting that Moshe uses the opening statement "זה הדבר," as opposed to the word "כה," which is frequently employed by lesser prophets. The former phrase suggests a level of accuracy that the latter lacks - it roughly means, "This is exactly that which was said."

With that in mind, the Sfat Emet asks a question - why are some of Moshe's prophecies introduced with the word "כה?" The answer is simple but spectacular - that there are things in this world which cannot truly be understood or grasped. We can talk our way around these issues with analogies, allusions and the like, but our understanding will only ever be imprecise at best. We learn that one of the Rambam's 13 principles of faith is to believe that Moshe was Hashem's greatest prophet, a prophet who was far more highly receptive of God's will than any other man. And yet even Moshe, who had the ability to relate his prophecies with absolute precision, could sometimes not address the people with the words, "זה הדבר."

So what is this realm that we cannot really understand? The Sfat Emet explains that it is the "Olam HaZeh." At first glance, this might seem a little odd; after all, don't we live in "Olam HaZeh," don't we live apart from "Olam Haba?"

On reading the words closely, we can understand the concept better. The word "Olam," of "Olam Hazeh," is linked to the word "Ne'elam," meaning hidden. The word "Hazeh" means something very specific - something that can be quantified and related to. So which world are we living in - a hidden world or a revealed world? Is everything clear to us, or is it all hidden away?

It would seem that the Sfat Emet is subtly teaching that this world has two parallel aspects. It isn't one or the other, and that though that there are times when everything seems clear, moments when we can say "Zeh HaDavar," even to the greatest Torah scholars there are moments that can only be referred to as a moment when we only partially understand what's happening - a moment that is best defined by "Koh."

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom.

Dedicated to someone I upset this week. I hope that they enjoy this and forgive me.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Parshat Pinchas - פרשת פנחס

"Therefore say - Behold, I shall give to him my covenant: peace - לכן אמר הנני נותן לו את-בריתי שלום"
(Bamidbar 25:12)

In this week's Parsha, we read of how Zimri ben Salu, a Nasi of the tribe of Shimon, slept with a Midianite woman, Cozbi bat Tzur. Pinchas, furious with their illicit relationship, slaughtered them together simultaneously with his spear. In this context, it is interesting to read of Hashem's instruction to Moshe - to bless Pinchas with a Brit Shalom (a peace covenant). After such a violent episode it certainly does seems fitting for Pinchas to be blessed with peace, but is there anything else going on beneath the surface, another dimension to this blessing that we may explore?

In Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch's chumash, the commentary on this part of the Parsha details how Hashem "places the responsibilty for the realisation of the supreme harmony of peace on precisely those who individuals whose actions a thoughtless world, anxious to mask its passivity and negligence as 'love of peace,' would brand and condemn as 'disturbances of the peace.'" Whereas the act of killing Zimri and Cozbi might seem horrifying, and understandbly so, we must understand that when an action is required, we must be ready to peform our duties without a moment's hesitation.

I believe that there's a pertinent message to be learned from this episode. Unfortunately, many times Israel has been forced to act in a strong way in order to defend itself. Consequently Israel comes under a hail of criticism for her actions, even if the actions were the right ones. All kinds of "logical" arguments are thrown at the Jewish nation, each with the aim of persuading us from ceasing to defend ourselves. The concept of pacifism is something entirely laudable, but when other nations tell the Jews to be pacifists in the face of terrorism the concept becomes laughable. Unfortunately, there are elements of Jewish and Israeli society who are convinced that if only Israel were to stop defending herself would there be peace and the Arabs would live in peace with us.

Pinchas' blessing of peace was entirely fitting as it was proof that he had acted in the right way. If he had taken a half measure, he would have compromised on his values and not acted out of total fear and love for God. The relevant psukim specifically mention Zimri's and Cozbi's familiy background - if Pinchas had any level of fear for anything other than God, he would have been too scared to act the way he did. We must understand that while we cannot go about killing people carte blanche (this was a special case and not the norm) we must always be ready to act on behalf of Hashem and for this to be true, we must be at peace with our relationship towards Hashem. The truth of the matter is that anyone who fights against that which is injust and immoral, no matter what the world thinks or what is deemed politically correct, is a champion of true peace. Conversely, anyone who cedes ground to an opposition that is in conflict with God is an enemy of peace. It makes no sense to make concessions to an enemy who is in direct conflict with God and for this reason, it is exactly because of Pinchas' dedication and commitment to Hashem that he deserved the blessing of peace.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, July 03, 2009

Parshat Balak - פרשת בלק

"כי מראש צורים אראנו ומגבעות אשורנו. הן עם לבדד ישכון ובגוים לא יתחשב.
For I see it from the top of the rocks, and I behold it from the hills; this is a people that dwell in solitude and not count itself among the nations."
(Bamidbar 23:9)

In the Pasuk above, we read the opening words of Bilam's blessing of Am Yisrael. Although the Pasuk following this one is more well known, this Pasuk too should be noted, even if it's message is slightly less obvious. After all, what's kind of blessing is solitude? For a nation that believes in the need to engage and perfom tikkunim (corrections of spiritual imperfections) in the world, why should solitude be held in such high regard?

The Sfat Emet examines this Pasuk and points out Rashi's comment that at times when Jews are happy, the nations of the world do not share in our happiness. While we boisterously celebrate a Chatuna, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah or a Brit, the people of the world are entirely unconcerned. The Sfat Emet continues by explaining the reasons for our isolation. He explains that the Jews are charged with the task of Bitul, (subordination of the self) in order to come closer to something bigger than ourselves. Such subordination is the essence of the existence of the Jewish people.

We understand that it is not through our own work that we attain anything in this world, but rather that we are given everything by God. By understanding this situation properly, we may reach a state of menucha, (peace/restfulness) where we are free from mundane worries and understand that we will receive all that we are deserving to receive, no matter how much we work. This does not mean that we have total disregard for good food, health and a livelihood, but it does mean that we realise that these things have no inherent value - they merely allow us to reach a closer state toward Hashem.

From this, it is possible to understand the concept of Shabbat in a different light. While it is possible to think of Shabbat as a time to switch off and relax, we can now see it in a different light. With what we have learned in mind, we can see how our observance of Shabbat throws the labours of the week into stark contrast with our desire to be at rest. We work toward something, not for the sake of that thing itself. We can now really grasp just how inherently worthless worldy activities are - and how much value there is in rest.

Wishing you a restful Shabbat from Yerushalayim Ir Hakodesh!