Friday, May 27, 2011

Parshat Bamidbar - פרשת במדבר

This Shabbat we commence reading the fourth book of the Torah - Sefer Bamidbar. In fact, there are actually two names for this Parsha and Sefer - it is also known by the name Sefer Pekudim, the "Book of Numbers" as the book opens with the census of Bnei Yisrael. The other name, Bamidbar, might be perceived as somewhat irrelevant, though - how can we relate to Am Yisrael's trek across the desert to reach Israel? We can say plenty about the need for census and how we may learn a lesson in equality from it (each man would be counted equally; each bringing exactly half a shekel no matter what his social standing was,) but how much can we derive from the fact that the Jews traversed the wilderness?

There is a concept in Torah thought that nothing in the world is completely by chance. Everything is by design, right down to the smallest details. Hashem created the world with precision, so that everything would serve a higher purpose. We believe that even the way the earth has been shaped reflects a higher purpose. Therefore, if Hashem wanted mainland Egypt to be next to Israel, he would have arranged the world to be that way. The fact that He designed the world with a desert between Egypt and Israel clearly is significant and not without meaning and intention. When the Jews left Egypyt in the great Exodus, there was no way for them to get to Israel other than passing through the desert. (They happened to take a long way round, but the desert still presented an unavoidable obstacle.)

So, if Hashem wanted the Jewish people to travel through the desert in order to enter the land of Israel, there has to be something we may learn. The Sfas Emet teaches something which will hopefully prove relevant in understanding this problem better. He focuses on the meaning of the Hebrew word for desert, מדבר, and suggests that we may learn how to improve our character traits by understanding the nature of the desert. The Sfat Emet explains that the root of the word for speech (dibbur) is דבר. Clearly there is a connection between the concept of speech and the concept of a desert - a place devoid of all extraneous details.

Some roots have multiple meanings and the root דבר also has another meaning - "to lead". The Sfat Emet then explains that the word Midbar could be interpreted as having a passive meaning, "to be led." The link between these two meanings seems unclear, though.

The Sfat Emet may be suggesting a number of things. I would like to suggest that once the Jews had left Egypt, they were in a state, both physically and mentally, where they were unfit to enter the land of Israel. First they needed the solitary environment of the desert in which they were rid of all distractions and in which they would have the chance to first accept the Torah, and then start to build their lives around it. The metaphor of a child going to school serves as a good example for this; children are sent to school at a young age. Most schools are run according to a very tightly controlled syllabus and timetable. Everything is ordered in such a way so that the students do not need to worry about anything other than their studies. Only after completing their studies do children enter the world of work and adulthood. But that does not mean to say that school was irrelevant and was merely a part of their past. On the contrary, it was an essential building block to progressing further in life.

So too with the desert; the Jewish people had to be taken through a preparatory stage before it was possible for them to enter the land of Israel. Returning to another one of the meanings for those root letters, דבר, "speech", I'd like to repeat something taught by Rav Yitzcak Ginsurgh of Kfar Chabad. He teaches that if we think picture the desert in our mind's eye, we see a vast expanse of land and absolute silence. How paradoxical it is that the Hebrew root for desert is connected with the root for speech!

There is a famous story told in Sefer Malachim of Eliyahu Hanavi encountering Hashem in a cave in the desert. Several natural phenomena accompanied Hashem's presence: first an earth-shattering wind passed him by, but the verse states that Hashem was "not in the wind." Then a tremendous earthquake shook him, but again, the verse states that Hashem was not in this phenomena, either. Following the earthquake, Eliyahu saw a great fire, but once again, Hashem was not in the fire. But the next verse reads, "And after the fire — a still silent voice."

Many things can be learned from this cryptic passage, but most relevant to us is the concept of a voice. Eliyahu heard a quiet voice and through that voice recognised Hashem. Moreover, Eliyahu experienced the still, silent voice of God in the desert. The word used to describe this still voice is Chashmal, a word that means electricity in modern Hebrew, is a compound of two other words; חש - silence, and מל - speaking. We can understand the concept of the "chashmal," having read this passage, as a kind of electrifying charge that can be experienced only in the atmosphere of neutrality and calm.

The lesson seems abundantly clear; before we can ever achieve whatever it is that we need to do in life, it is essential to withdraw to a degree and ready oneself for the forthcoming challenge. We must dispense with all the distractions and be prepared to listen to that quiet voice inside ourselves that serves as our moral compass. It is only when we take the time to listen to ourselves and what we really want, that we can ever hope to achieve our goals.

Speech can be used in many ways. One of its applications is that people may use it as a weapon. It is common, but nonetheless an unfortunate trait, for people to talk too much, in a manner full of bluster and arrogance. Once we take time for ourselves, we find ourselves imbued with a powerful energy borne of our sense of responsibility and a belonging to a higher cause. In turn, we learn how to speak properly; not to talk ourselves up and brag. Hopefully we can learn from the lessons of the midbar and will work towards the spiritual level that Eliyahu attained in the verse above and attain our own connection with God.

Wishing you all a שבת שלום ומבורך.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Parshat Bechukotai – פרשת בחוקתי

"אם בחוקתי תלכו ואת מצותי תשמרו ועשיתם אתם: ונתתי גשמיכם בעתם ונתנה הארץ יבולה ועץ השדה יתן פריו: והשיג לכם דיש את בציר ובציר ישיג את זרע ואכלתם לחמכם לשבע וישבתם לבטח בארצכם: ונתתי שלום בארץ ושכבתם ואין מחריד והשבתי חיה רעה מן הארץ וחרב לא תעבר בארצכם: ורדפתם את איביכם ונפלו לחרב: ורדפו מכם חמשה מאה ומאה מכם רבבה ירדפו ונפלו איביכם לפניכם לחרב:ף ופניתי אליכם והפריתי אתכם והרביתי אתכם והקימתי את בריתי אתכם: ואכלתם ישן נושן וישן מפני חדש תוציאו: ונתתי משכני בתוככם ולא תגעל נפשי אתכם: והתהלכתי בתוככם והייתי לכם לאלהים ואתם תהיו לי לעם: אני ד'אלהיכם אשר הוצאתי אתכם מארץ מצרים מהיות להם עבדים ואשבר מוטות עלכם ואולך אתכם קוממיות"

If you will follow My decrees and observe My commandments and perform them; then I will provide your rains in their time, and the land will give its produce and the tree of the field will give its fruit. Your threshing will last until the vintage, and the vintage will last until the sowing; you will eat your bread to satiety and you will dwell securely in the land. I will provide peace in the land, and a sword will not cross your land. You will pursue your enemies; and they will fall by the sword. Five of you will pursue a hundred and hundred of you will pursue ten thousand; and your enemies will fall before you by the sword. I will turn my attention to you, I will make you fruitful and increase you; and I will establish my covenant with you. You will eat very old grain and remove the old to make way for the new. I will place My sanctuary among you; and My spirit will not reject you. I will walk among you, I will be God unto you and you will be a people unto Me. I am Hashem, your God, Who took you out of Egypt from being their slaves; I broke the stave of your yoke and I led you erect.

(ויקרא, פרק כו', ג'- יג)

The beginning of this week's Parsha is replete with things to comment on, so I have a number of small divrei torah and will use them together. Although they are rather disjointed by themselves, there is an overall theme - that of the brachot we are promised by Hashem.

Bechukotai begins with Hashem describing what will happen if we follow his laws. The first thing that the Bnei Yisrael are promised is rain. Not just any rain, but "גשמיכם - your rains." It seems a bit odd to single out rain in this way; this phraseology needs some explanation. Rav Moshe Feinstein teaches in his sefer Drash Moshe that the possessive "you" is earned here because the rains will only come as a result of man's good deeds. The concept to be grasped, teaches Rav Moshe, is that the universe functions due to man's actions. When we perform good deed for one another, we help stake a claim to Hashem for the continued existence of the universe - it is as if we are saying, "we are doing do our bit!" As a result, Hashem graciously allows the universe to continue to exist and blesses us with the rain in it's season - rain we truly have earned!

(On a side note, it is interesting that while in English the word "rain" has negative connotations, such as a "rainy day" or why does it always rain on me?" the Hebrew word for rain actually has positive connotations. When we talk about realising one's dreams we use the words להגשים חלומות, which literally means "to cause dreams to rain," or more figuratively, "to see dreams realised.")

A few P'sukim later, we come across another point of interest in the text - Bnei Yisrael are promised that "ואכלתם לחמכם לשבע - you will eat your bread to satiety." This seems fair enough - that if we follow Hashem's laws we will be well sustained and satisfied. The only problem I have with this is that this seems to be rather a small reward for following God. After all, what could stop the Master of the Universe from providing his followers with a bountiful crop and masses of fruit and drink? Why are we only promised to receive enough bread (the simplest of all foods) to our satisfaction?

The answer lies in that hint subtly dropped - bread is among the simplest of foods. Rav Dessler writes in Michtav M'Eliyahu that, as a rule, if one wants to become closer to God, it is better to curtail one's eating and eat only to a minimal level of satisfaction than to fast many times. The point being made is that it is easy to deprive oneself for the sake of God, that it is easy to go to an extreme, but that real value lies in being able to engage with the physical world and yet not allow oneself to forget the source of this world's goodness. Rav Moshe Feinstein points out that the lesson is that one must strive to minimise even those worldly pleasures that are permissible, and only take as much as we need. Now we can understand why the word לחמכם, your bread is used - Hashem will bless us with all that we need, and we should feel the need to worry about any more than what is truly ours.

Lastly, early in the Parsha, we read of another blessing: "ורדפו מכם חמשה מאה ומאה מכם רבבה ירדפו ונפלו איביכם לפניכם לחרב - Five of you will pursue a hundred and hundred of you will pursue ten thousand; and your enemies will fall before you by the sword." Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis of Kinloss (my shul) said something particularly interesting a month or so ago on this. He pointed out that the ratios mentioned are not the same! 5 men conquering 100 is a 1:20 ratio, and 100 slaying 10,000 is a 1:100 ratio - why the disparity?

The Rashi on this pasuk reads as follows: "וכי כך הוא החשבון, והלא לא היה צריך לומר אלא מאה מכם שני אלפים ירדופו, אלא אינו דומה מועטין העושין את התורה למרובין העושין את התורה - And such is the account; and it was supposed to say that one hundred of you will chase two thousand, but [we learn that] few who observe the Torah are incomparable [to the strength of] many who observe the Torah".

Rabbi Mirvis explained that the lesson being taught here is of the strength of אחדות - true unity. When we follow Hashem's commands then five men will have the blessing of being able to defeat 20 times their number. But these are only five men acting in unison. When 100 men act as one, however, Hashem grants us an extra blessing as a reward for our unity and we find our strength hugely increased. I think that this is a significant lesson for us. We can all find like-minded people who we agree with. We can always work in unison with few other people. But to get a large scale of people to work together to achieve somethings is the real challenge. If we can find a way to unite larger groups of people, that is real unity. With that unity, we can go on to reach great things.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom

Friday, May 06, 2011

Parshat Emor – פרשת אמור

"כי כל איש אשר בו מום, לֹא יקרב: איש עור או פסח, או חרם או שרוע - For any man in whom there is a blemish shall not approach; a man who is blind, lame, one whose nose has no bridge, or one who has one limb longer than the other."
(ויקרא כא:יח)

Concerning the blemishes that animals might have, the Torah uses the word עורת, which Rashi renders as "a noun which is the name of a blemish: blindness." In essence, Rashi is offering a nominal definition and translates the word as "blind." This seems a perfectly normal way of referring to an animal that cannot see - we call it blind. What then is the point of phrasing things in a different way in our pasuk?

The answer is given that an animal has only one faculty of vision - that of normal sight. When an animal cannot see, it truly is blind. Humans, though, are very different. While a nominal definition of sight of obviously exists, the human experience is such that we use a number of our senses to guide us and allow us to perceive more than just what is in front of us. Operationally speaking, our sight depends on more than the simple faculty of merely viewing things.

As such, we can say that man has two kinds of vision; a basic and physical vision and a spiritual vision. The essence of this inner vision is something which cannot be taken away, and it is something that can discern things that normal vision cannot.

Chazal, the Jewish sages, ask a question, "Who is wise?" Their answer is, "He who foresees the [events from their] infancy." The essence of foresight, and of wisdom in turn, is a deep and true understanding of an issue. Anyone with real vision understands that this world is just a trap, and that it is important not to get too involved with all that goes on - all that is required of a Jew is that he learns Torah and acts in accordance with Torah. The Chafetz Chaim famously had only a very few posessions, but when people mentioned this to him, he would explain that this world is nothing but a corridor leading to the world to come. The Chafetz Chaim understood the lack of real value in worldy possesions, demonstrating his clear perception of the value of this life.

With this in mind, we can understand why our pasuk above is phrased the way it is. Whereas most of us judge things by how good they look and place a tremendous amount of importance on "looking good," a true man will understand the superficiality of this kind of vision. True, a man who has lost the faculty of vision is blemished and as such is unfit to serve in the Bet Hamikdash, but the Torah does not refer to him as "blind," but as a "man who is blind", for he does not cease to be a man. A man who has lost his sight may feel very aware of his disabilty, but he does not allow this to overcome him, for he may still perceive things within his mind's eye - and this perceptiveness may even prove more useful than the vision offered by our eyes.

Adapted from the teachings of Rav Zalman Sorotzkin.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!