Thursday, August 26, 2010

Parshat Ki Tavo - פרשת כי תבוא

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

At the beginning of this week's Parsha, we read of the mitzva of Bikkurim. The Torah explains that one who settles the land of Israel and grows one of the "Shivat haMinim" (seven selected species of fruit and grain) 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 Sh'mot 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 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 its 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 20, 2010

Parshat Ki Tetzei - פרשת כי תצא

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

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

Two P'sukim after the one above, we read of how the the parents go to the city elders to declare their son a Ben Sorer u'Moreh: "וְאָמְרוּ אֶל זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ בְּנֵנוּ זֶה סוֹרֵר וּמֹרֶה אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ בְּקֹלֵנוּ זוֹלֵל וְסֹבֵא / And they shall say to the elders of his city, 'This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he 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, we receive a good explanation as to why these words are spelled as they are. In the first case, the missing yud in the word בְּנֵנוּ, our son, is a deliberate reference to the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments. The Ba'al HaTurim briefly explains that that this son was wayward to the extent that he didn't care about the most basic tenets of Judaism, wayward to the extent that he even disregarded the ten commandments.

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

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

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

Wishing you a שבת שלום ומבורך from Yerushalayim Ir Hakodesh.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Parshat Shoftim - פרשת שופטים

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

דברים, כ: ג

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 "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!

Friday, August 06, 2010

Parshat Re'eh - פרשת ראה

The name of our Torah portion is Re'eh, which means, "See." After the Jewish People entered the Land of Israel, the first place that they stopped at was the City of Shechem. Moshe commands the twelve tribes to split up and stand on two adjacent mountains, הר גריזים and הר עיבל, Mount Grizim and Mount Eval (/Aival), where the "Kohanim" and "Levi'im" would express God's blessing to them if they would fulfill the Torah, and God's curse if they sin.

These mountains, adjacent to each other, are unique. Mount Grizim is alive with foliage and vegetation, while Mount Eval is bleak and desolate. (These mountains can be seen today outside the city of Shechem/Nablus.) Six tribes were commanded to ascend Mount Grizim, to the south of Shechem to receive the blessing, and the remaining six tribes were commanded to ascend Mount Eval, to the north of Shechem to receive the curse.

The blessing and curse are visually apparent on the mountains themselves. Mount Grizim, the mountain of blessing, is green and verdant. Mount Eval, on the other hand, is barren and accursed.

Rabbi Hirsch explains the symbolism of these mountains. Although both mountains have the same sunlight, rainfall, and fertility, one is verdant and the second is bare. In Kabbalah, we learn that these two mountains represent two eyes. Mount Grizim represents the right eye of wisdom, from which emanates pure blessing. Mount Eval represents the left eye of understanding, from which judgments, even severe judgments, may manifest.

This symbolizes the concept of free will that our Parsha begins with: "Behold, I have placed before you today the blessing and the curse." (Deut. 11:26) It is possible for two people to have the same exact potential, while one thrives and the other withers. We all must choose the path of blessing or curse, and what we sow is what we reap.

The fact that six tribes stood on Mount Eval means that there was a positive element to the curse. In Hebrew, the word for "curse" is klalah; kuf, lamed, lamed, hei. The root of the hebrew word for curse, קללה - klalah is kalal - קלל; kuf, lamed, lamed, which means "brilliant, shining light," as in the expression nechoshet kalal, "brilliant copper." At its source, a curse is a brilliant, shining light. This brilliance can be blinding, making it impossible for us to understand and incorporate it into our consciousness. Even though a curse is the result of transgression, it is not a punishment or an expression of Divine revenge, God forbid. Rather, the curse that comes from the Torah is from a very high source, whose purpose is to rectify the souls of those who have transgressed.

Wishing you a beautiful שבת שלום ומבורך