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!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Parshat Ki Tetzei - פרשת כי תצא

Having spent a number of hours looking at this week's parsha and not finding one specific topic that I feel I can make one long D'var Torah out of, I hope you don't mind my sharing a number of smaller bits and pieces that I found interesting.

The first thing I'd like to comment on is the opening passage of the Parsha; כי תצא למלחמה על איביך, when you will go out to war on your enemies. The Or Hachaim points out that surely there is no need to mention that the war is being waged on enemies; so why are they mentioned?

I was at a good friend's wedding last night and he mentioned in his dvar Torah that at the end of this Parsha, we read of how we are commanded never to forget Amalek. The only problem is, the Chatan pointed out, that today there is no nation of Amalek, nor any people immediately recognisable as their descendants.

To reconcile this problem, we have to refer back to the beginning of the parsha and understand that Amalek is not an enemy that one faces in a direct way. When one goes out to war, one has to constantly bear in mind who and what his enemy is. Amalek is a nation that caused Am Yisrael to doubt in Hashem, and we have to constantly be aware that this kind of doubt has the potential to lead us to sin. It's very easy to think to oneself that "it's not that bad" to give in and as such, when one fights this battle against the Yetzer Hara, it is imperative to keep in mind exactly what we are up against.

The next point I'd like to make is made by the Vilna Gaon. The second topic in the Parsha is that of the double portion inherited by a firstborn son. In Hebrew, words with the letter vav may often be spelled without the vav, and this happens to be the case here, with the word בכור (firstborn) , which is spelled without the vav. The Vilna Gaon notess that the remaining letters, the root letters, of this word all hint at the double portion accorded the first born. He explains that the numerical value for each letter is a "double" in its own right; ב is equivalent to 2, כ is equal to 20, and ר has the value of 200; a rather neat hint, I think you'll agree.

A little further along the Parsha, in the second Aliyah, we read of the case of the Ben Sorer u'Moreh - the rebellious and wayward son. (Or me, as my father loved to tell me when I was younger!)

Alhough the punishment in this case is extremely severe, (a Ben Sorer u'Moreh would be hanged,) Chazal basically expounded the chances of a person being deemed a Ben Sorer u'Moreh out of existence. There are so many limitations, cirrcumstances anc criteria that had to be met that it comes as no surprise that the Bet Din never found anyone guilty of this particular sin.

Be that as it may, there's a lot to be learned from this particular episode. In my D'var Torah last year, I mentioned how there is a crucial lesson in parenting in the Pasuk here, כא:יח, which I partially quote: "איננו שמע בקול אביו ובקול אמו ויסרו אתו, [who] doesn't listen to the voice of his father and the voice of his mother, and they turned him away."

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

It is very clear that the lesson to be grasped here is that parents must always act as a unit, and not just when it comes to condemning a child. A child who hears disparate voices from his parents hardly has a chance at growing up to become a decent person.

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

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

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

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

Wishing you a שבת שלום ומבורך from Yerushalayim Ir Hakodesh.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Parshat Shoftim - פרשת שופטים

...ואמר אלהם שמע ישראל אתם קרבים היום למלחמה על-איביכם

(דברים, כ: ג)

I only have a brief D'var Torah this week, as I am typing this on the 962 Yerushalayim-T'veryah bus!

One of the many things set out in Parshat Shoftim are the rules of war. Famously later we learn that a Jewish army is not permitted to destroy trees, although this is normal military behaviour, and we also learn that a man who desires a captive woman must adhere to a strict set of rules before he may take her as a partner.

Here, at the beginning of this particluar chapter, we learn that Am Yisrael are instructed to gather and listen to the words of the Kohen Gadol, who served to act as the Army's Chief of Staff and prepared the warrior for battle. In the Sefer "Ma'ayanah shel HaTorah" a small paragraph attributed to "Sefarim" points out that the word Sh'ma, (hear,) is crucial. As I have mentioned in my Divrei Torah a number of times, when the Hebrew word for hearing is used, it also means something that is accepted. Another aspect of hearing is that it is intriniscally linked to collecting. You might ask yourself at this point what do listening and collecting have to do with one another, so I'll try to pass over something I've learned about the faculty of hearing.

When a person sees something, he sees the entire entity at once, and there can be no doubt as to what it is that the person is perceiving. But when that person hears something, they only hear that thing in stages; a piece at a time. If we take music for an example, one never hears a song, but rather hears a note at a time. If you ask someone to pick their favourite song and then ask them whether they like an individual note, they'll look at you as if you're mad - a person likes the song as an entity - not for it's constituent parts! Similarly, when one listens to another person talking, one only hears one word at a time, and by the time one hears one word, the previous word is only a memory. Hearing, by its very definition, is a process of memory, collection, and most importantly, unification.

It is no coincidence that "Sh'ma" is the opening word used in the most famous sentence in Judaism, for when we talk of oneness, of achdut, we talk of listening and bring back together that which is seemingly separate. And here too, when the nation of Israel enters into a war, all the constituent parts must come together, else failure beckons (God forbid).

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Coming up against censorship

My internship at the Jerusalem Post now half-way through, I guess it's only normal that I should start coming up against some of the issues that real journalists have to contend with. And so it proved this week; when twice I came up censorship.

The first time I was prevented from working on a story was not such a bother to me - the story (that of a Chabad man who had gone missing and was suspected of having been abducted and murdered) was always going to go to a reporter more senior than myself, but the second instance of censorship was at once annoying and intensely gratifying.

About three weeks ago, I was sent an email by an ex-intern detailing a potential story about a solidarity and pressure campaign on Twitter being run by a New York-based organisation called the JIDF for Gilad Shalit. As it happens, I already knew about the story. I wasn't sure about running it though, as there have been so many rallies and solidarity drives for Shalit over the last three years. Another reason for my hesitation was that the person running the JIDF has a reputatation for sowing discord within the online Zionist community, sometimes even resorting to underhanded tactics to get his own way. Despite my reservations, upon seeing that somebody else thought this campaign was indeed newsworthy, I decided to do some research on it. I contacted the founder of the JIDF, investing quite a lot of his (and my) time in messaging him and interviewing him via email. I got some good quotes and I started typing up an article. As far as I was concerned, this thing was going to run, albeit as a smaller piece.

I should mention at this point that my news editor is a very busy man who never seems to have much time to be relaxed. It's not that he isn't a nice guy; he's dropped in to the lounge (the area of the Jerusalem Post offices where the interns would congregate) from time to time and had a laugh with us, but it's very rare that he hasn't got a lot on his plate.

At any rate, Wednesday afternoon was fairly quiet and he came in to the lounge area for a few minutes to speak to another intern. As he was leaving, I told him that I was working on this story. I expected him to approve it, as it was fairly topical given that Shalit's 23rd birthday is next Shabbat. To my surprise he turned around and firmly and almost sharply, said "No!" Censorship #2.

I was taken aback, but regained my poise sufficiently to ask why he didn't want to run such an article. The answer he gave, as I mentioned above, irked and delighted me in equal measure. My editor's logic was that "we want him [Shalit] back... do you think that if we continue running articles like this it will make it any easier? No, of course not!" The fact is that Hamas sees our media, and realises full well that we are desperate for his release, and makes the terms of any swap deal that much higher.

If we stop to ask ourselves who we are lobbying, the simple truth is no-one but our own government - and they want him back too, of course, so what's the point? If we are demonstrating to raise awareness in other countries, the question we have to ask ourselves is, "Do we really expect Hamas to listen to popular opinion, or external pressure?"

By campaigning endlessly for Shalit's release, all we do end up doing is perpetuating his suffering. The slogan used by Habonim Dror after the Second Lebanon War, "אל תתנו לאדישות להרוג אותם - Don't let indifference kill them," until Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev's bodies were eventually returned to Israel particularly irked me - I doubt that there's even one person in Israel who didn't care about Ehud and Eldad's fate. To imply that Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora don't care about their captured soldiers is wrong, and overlooks the real reason why the two were only returned to Israel two years after the war ended, and why Shalit has not yet been released.

The fact of the matter is that Hezbollah and Hamas understand that Israel is willing to enter into deals whereby one side gains far more than the other, and hence try and squeeze Israel as much as possible. If we didn't campaign as much as we did, the story would be out of the press, and the stakes wouldn't be anywhere near as high as they are now. Israelis and Jews care hugely for their soldiers, and would give almost anything for Shalit's safe return, but not quite everything. If the price is so high as to be intolerable, then we can't turn around and accuse the government of being unsympathetic bastards - quite the opposite is true.

And so my I came up against censorship once more. But this time, paradoxical though it may sound, I was relieved and glad to be told to throw away hours of work. I might want to get my name in the paper, but it was good that my editor had his thinking cap on, kept the ever-willing intern in check and ensured that Shalit stands a better chance of returning home.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Parshat Re'eh - פרשת ראה

"ראה אנכי נותן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה - See! I give you today a blessing and a curse."
(דברים, יא: כו)

Parshat Re'eh opens with Hashem dividing B'nei Yisrael into two camps set up on two opposing mountains, with one group representing those who will be cursed for not hearkening to God's word, and the other group representing those who will be blessed for having fulfilled His will.

The S'forno takes a very black and white view of this incident and points out that there is no middle ground here. The commentary warns us not to conduct ourselves in a "middle-of-the-road" manner as Hashem grants here only two things, a blessing and a curse - things that are opposite in the extreme. If one doesn't find himself in the path of those who will be blessed, then unfortunately he will be cursed.

This is a very drastic and stark way of looking at things, but it is important to stop and realize that as Jews, we are obliged to constantly be aware of our actions and understand that all our actions are taking us on a path one way or another, and that it is imperative for us to constantly check ourselves.

On the other hand, there's a well-known expression "שביעים פנים לתורה - There's 70 faces to the Torah," meaning that although we can read a certain verse in the Torah one way, there's always another way in which we can understand it.

With this in mind, we can move on to a more encouraging perspective. Rav Yitzchak Blazer notes in his sefer, "Kochavei Or," that the concept of a blessing and a curse doesn't seem so incredible to us - after all, a "carrot and stick" approach is something even a three year old can grasp, and is so common that it hardly seems worthy of comment.

Rav Blazer notes, however, that the concept of the blessing and the curse is actually very different to the simple concept of reward and punishment that we are all familiar with. Rav Blazer explains that in modern states, we understand that if one does something wrong, he will be punished for his actions. If a person steals something, he will be fined or sent to prison. But if one abstains from doing such a thing, he will not be rewarded. As he says, "It's accepted to punish murders, thieves and the like, but it isn't normal to give reward to those who don't kill or steal."

And if we're talking about reward, who gets rewarded in societies like ours? The only people who get rewarded are almost always those who do exceptionally well - those who invent things, own massive businesses or worse; sportsmen and women whose contribution to society is all too often next to nothing.

Maybe now we can understand what is alluded to in the verse above; the blessing isn't just for those who excel - it's for us mortals too. Life isn't black and white and we all struggle with something or other. The person who naturally has a character defect and constantly battles with his fault, reminding himself of the importance of not giving in is doing a wonderful act. This person is working hard to refine his character in a way that makes Hashem incredibly proud of him, but in a simplified reward and punishment system he hasn't done anything right, he's simply doing that which is expected of him. All this person's hard work is ignored by those who judge in terms of "right" and "wrong."

Recently I've been wondering about society today and I realised that all we ever see in the media is how people have done wrong. There's scandals and crimes aplenty but when was the last time we saw a newspaper with the front page given over to something positive? Unfortunately, society today expects all that is good, and comes down like a tonne of bricks on failure of any sort. It seems clear to me that a massive reform is necessary - we don't need to constantly congratulate ourselves, but it is vitally important to take a step back from time to time and let others know that their good work isn't going unappreciated. It would seem that we learn as much from this pasuk.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom

Friday, August 07, 2009

Parshat Ekev - פרשת עקב

"והיה עקב תשמעון את המשפטים האלה ושמרתם ועשיתם אתם, ושמר ה' אלקיך לך את הברית ואת החסד אשר נשבע לאבותיך."
(דברים ז', יב)

The Rashi on this Pasuk is one of the most well-known on the entire Torah, and most people have come to understand the verse above in light of the way in which Rashi explains the word 'Ekev.' Rashi explains the word עקב as "if you heed the 'light' commandments that a person tramples with their heel." Rashi's message is that the word 'Ekev' which can mean following; as a result of; or after, is formed from the root ע - ק - ב, which are the same root letters for the Hebrew word for heel. Rashi draws upon the Maharal who teaches that the purpose of the word Ekev in this context is to teach us that we should perform all the mitvot in the Torah, and to be careful with ones that 'get trampled upon.'

While this is a perfectly good explanation of the Pasuk, a D'var Torah I read this week by R' Ari Kahn makes an interesting point: "While the unusual word in the verse may be 'ekev,' the clause as a whole is centered around the word tishme'un - 'hear.'" The point is well made - what of the crucial word Tishme'un - what is meant by the word 'hear?'

The answer R' Kahn proposes is to be sourced in the Targum Onkelos. The Targum normally translates the words of the Torah, but in the case of 'Tishme'un,' there is more of a replacement than a translation as he renders it as 'Ditkablun'- acceptance.

Throughout the five sefarim of the Chumash, the Targum, a well-known and universally accepted Aramaic translation of the Torah, consistently translates terminology for 'hearing' as 'accepting'. If we refer to Parshat B'reishit, we see that the Torah records Adam HaRishon as having been punished for listening to the words of Chava. But the Targum Onkelos writes that Adam was punished for having accepted the words of Chava. Semantics, or is there something more to be found here?

All over the Torah and Jewish liturgy we find references to the human capacity to listen. The most famous instance of 'listening' is found the Shema, the cardinal prayer of Jewish faith, in which we are commanded to 'hear' that Hashem is One. Of course, the word 'hear' means not just to absorb sound via our ears, but also to listen and internalize. This fundamental principle of our faith is known as Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim.

As a child, I remember learning that there are two similar words in the English language, and that these words each have a distinct meaning. The words are 'hear' and 'listen.' I was taught that when one hears something, he physically takes in a noise, but doesn't necessarily process what he has heard. When one listens, on the other hand, he pays attention to that which is being said.

In the Torah however, there is only one expression used; that of 'Shmiah' - a word we traditionally translate as 'hearing,' but is actually more closely aligned to the meaning of listening as defined above.

The lesson to be learned is not merely a semantic one. As R' Kahn puts it: "When the Torah's commandments are to be accepted, what is needed is not merely passive hearing or even more active listening; we are to forge a powerful, reciprocal, eternal relationship - not a relationship of the order to which we have become accustomed in the interpersonal sphere, but by accepting God as King and accepting our own role as His servants. The type of listening called for here invites us to be sensitive to even the "minor" commandments, as servants of the King. This type of rapt attention transforms actions that we might well have performed otherwise, or actions that we might otherwise perform without conviction, zeal, or full attention,- into powerful religious experience. It is this type of listening that is our acknowledgment of our relationship with God, and it is this attentiveness that creates the meeting point for our rendezvous with God, Creator and Sustainer of the universe. This attentiveness infuses every act, no matter how small and routine, with supreme significance, for we are in the service of the King. Every commandment becomes a privilege, a sign of the trust the King has in each of his faithful servants, and an opportunity to repay that trust, deepen that trust, and become worthy of that relationship. That is why we are instructed to hear and listen specifically to the 'small,' 'mundane' mitzvot: When we hear in this way, allowing ourselves to concentrate on the significance of each mitzva with which we have been entrusted and reminding ourselves that these are opportunities to reach out to God who has spoken to us, no commandment will ever seem 'small.'"

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!