Friday, August 26, 2011

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, where the Kohanim and Levi'im would express God's blessing to the Jewish people for fulfilling the Torah, and God's curse if they would not and instead 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 term nechoshet kalal, "brilliant copper."

Thus, explains Rav Hirsch, while it may seem an expression of complete darkness, a curse is actually brilliant, shining light at its source. This brilliance can be blinding, making it impossible for us to understand and incorporate it into our consciousness. We all know the feeling when we get punished for something that we would have preferred to get away with. While we recognise the truth, that we ought to have followed the rules, we don't easily accept the logic of the punishment. In Torah law, though, there is a slight difference - the punishment is designed by Hashem to affect our lives for the better.

In fact, even though a curse is the result of transgression, it is not really a punishment or an expression of Divine revenge, God forbid. Rather, the curse that we talk about comes from a very high source. Rather than being an instrument of retribution, its purpose is to rectify the faults of those who have transgressed and allow us all to lead better lives.

Wishing you a beautiful שבת שלום

Friday, August 19, 2011

A letter I wrote to the British media...


As a Londoner who has made his home in Jerusalem, I write to you with a tear in my eye. Yesterday's dreadful attack on Israeli citizens was not the first, nor will likely be the last, in a long chain.

September draws closer and the possibility of a Palestinian state becomes imminent, it is pertinent for us to ask ourselves whether the Palestinian leadership truly desire to live in peace with their Israeli neighbours. For all the talk of the evil of the occupation, Israelis have no assurances that the Palestinians seek to root out terrorism. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas might sound moderate, but scratch the surface and we see that terrorism is still glorified in the Territories. Just last year, Abbas dedicated a town square in the memory of Dalal Al-Mughrabi, a terrorist who hijacked a bus and murdered 37 Israelis in cold blood in 1978. Two summer camps also have the dubious honour of being named after this woman. It is evident that the Palestinian leadership is not interested in peaceful relations with Israel. Peace will only come when the Palestinians demonstrate their commitment to bring to justice and cease raising their children in an atmosphere of hate. Why is the Palestinian government not being pressured more to stop this wicked incitement? And why is Israel expected to allow a state characterised by such evil to arise?

Yours sincerely,

Elan Miller

Parshat Ekev - פרשת עקב

" הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ, פֶּן תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לְבִלְתִּי שְׁמֹר מִצְו‍ֹתָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם. - Beware lest you forget Hashem your God, in not keeping His commandments, and His ordinances, and His statutes, that I command you this day."

(דברים ח:יא)

Parshat Ekev is a parsha that is full of mitzvot. One particular one interests us in this Dvar Torah. The verses preceding the quote above detail the commandment to remember the 40 years the Jews sent wandering in the desert. In that time, we were sent the Mon (Manna when rendered in English for some odd reason) - a heaven sent food substitute that was pure spiritual nourishment. The verses there explain that it was food " אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַעְתָּ, וְלֹא יָדְעוּן אֲבֹתֶיךָ - that you did not know, and your forefathers did not know" (i.e. it was totally foreign and bizarre to us) so that we would learn to rely on Hashem and so that we would appreciate our place and role in this world better. Indeed, the narrative goes on to explain "לְמַעַן הוֹדִיעֲךָ, כִּי לֹא עַל הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם, כִּי עַל כָּל-מוֹצָא פִי יְהוָה, יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם - In order to let you know; that man does not live by bread alone, but by every thing that issues from Hashem's mouth man lives."

Rav Shimshon Rephael Hirsch writes in his commentary here that there was a reason why bread specifically is mentioned. At first, we might find it odd that that bread is mentioned - bread is a kind of food that requires man's input for it to be completed. One doesn't eat wheat by itself, as it is found in nature. For bread to be eaten, man must work on the wheat. With this in mind, we may understand the reason that bread is mentioned. Almost all people appreciate the wonders of the natural world. Anyone who picks an apple from a tree and eats it will agree with you that it is amazing that something so tasty can be found growing naturally. But a person who works hard on bread might be forgiven for thinking that he is at least an equal partner in the process of creating the food.

For this reason, close to this passage we find the verse quoted above - warning us not to forget Hashem and our responsibilities. There are plenty of commandments in this week's Parsha, but this specific passage merits the warning above. Why is that? Well, Rav Hirsch explains that if we look at the verse closely, we can see three categories מצוות (commandments), משפטים (laws) and חוקים (statutes). Now, traditionally we regard the latter two as more severe categories of obligations toward Hashem. That being the case, there must be a good reason as to why מצותיו (His commandments) is listed first. Rav Hirsch posits the explanation that this category deals with the things that we derive enjoyment from in this world. Bread, and food as a general, is something that Hashem gave us to enjoy. It is a strong Jewish belief that everything in this world is created for man to make use of or benefit from.

The problem is, we are only human and susceptible to momentary lapses of appreciation of this fine gift. As such, Hashem makes a point of stressing that while we are to derive benefit from all "that issues from Hashem's mouth", we must be careful to never become lax and take for granted what we have in this world.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom :)

Friday, August 12, 2011

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)

Continuing from last week's high octane start to the book of Devarim, the parsha this week, 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, however, is on the last Pasuk of the Levi's Aliyah in Rishon, quoted above. The pasuk is one well-known; each time we read from the Torah, it is recited by the entire congregation as a confirmation of how much the Torah means to us.

The passage is straightforward and can be easily understood without extra explanation, but the Degel Machane Efraim makes an interesting comment on these words that helps reveal something that we would not notice otherwise. He points out that it is well-documented in Jewish texts that three paragraphs of the Shm'a cumulatively comprise 248 words. We learn that these 248 words correspond to the 248 limbs of the human body, and we believe that each word gives strength and vitality 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, אמת (Emet - truth), isn't part of the text of Sh'ma as it's found in the Torah. This word is actually part of the next paragraph. By joining the two paragraphs together and repeating the two words preceding it, we gain this 248th word. But this solution doesn't seem to be very tidy. Why should we connect the two paragraphs together?

Fortunately, the Degel Machane Efraim resolves the matter with a neat suggestion. The text here reads: "And you who cling to Hashem your God, are living today" but if we look closely, we may see that the word אתם (Atem - you) shares the same letters as another Hebrew word - אמת. These two words are connected.

Furthermore, when the text says הדביקים (which means clinging/adhering), we may read it literally as an instruction for us to 'stick' something to something else. The insinuation as for us to attach the word אמת (Emet) to the paragraph that precedes it. And what will happen if we are to do this? Simple - the verse continues to bless Israel with life, "חיים כלכם היום - and you are living today" It is my wish that with our prayers, we may realise both our own inner capabilities and be able to make use of all the faculties of our bodies to realise them. Similarly, may we all be blesssed to really live life and grasp the truth of this world.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Parshat Devarim - פרשת דברים

רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לִפְנֵיכֶם, אֶת-הָאָרֶץ; בֹּאוּ, וּרְשׁוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְהוָה לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶם לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב לָתֵת לָהֶם, וּלְזַרְעָם אַחֲרֵיהֶם. – Behold, I have set the land before you: go in and inherit the land which Hashem swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give unto them and to their seed after them.'

(דברים א:ח)

One of the principal beliefs in Judaism is that there is nothing in this world that can stop a person who really wants something; "אין דבר העומד בפני הרצון - There's nothing that can stand before one's will."

As Jews, we believe in a all-powerful God, One who is Master of the entire universe and who can turn anything to His will. We believe that if we can tune ourself in to this spiritual energy, we may access huge amounts of power. Given this belief, we may in turn better understand some of the events to occur in Jewish history; how it is that we have seen off multiple great nations and empires including the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Assyrians, the Babylonians. We have witnessed them all come, leave their impression and then go. But the Jews still live on.

More recently, in 1967, Israel won the Six-Day war when the odds were stacked against us. It is said that the American military has a computer that processes all the recorded wars in history in an attempt to determine why the winning side was victorious and to gain insight as to what strategies and tactics can be used in the future. Apparently, this computer can "understand" all the wars put in its system, but for one. The 1967 Six-Day war is said to be incomprehensible; there was simply no way that the Jews should have won. There were thousands more troops fighting against Israel than for it. And yet we won.

The main idea to be understood is that part of being Jewish is to not be limited by nature. All the things described above are highly unlikely events in their own right. At the height of the Greek empire, who would have bet that the meek Jews would outlast the Greeks? And when the Roman empire was at its pomp, who would have cared to wager that the downtrodden Jews would be around long after they had disappeared? One lucky escape can be attribbuted to luck. But for this phenomenon to occur over and over again indicates something deeper at play; that the Jewish nation is not bound by nature's laws. If something has to happen; it will. Our main concern is not in outlasting or fighting against our enemies: as Jews, our challenges are spiritual ones and lie elsewhere.

In the quote above from this week's Parsha, D'varim, Hashem shows B'nei Yisrael the land of Israel, telling them to behold it. Rashi explains here that if the Jews had gone in at that very moment, there would have been no need to fight to claim the land. But since they insisted on spying out the land, they were forced to take up arms and wage battle against the hostile people who were then residing in the promised land.

One of the things we learn is that if God wants something to happen, it makes no difference what the situation is - it will happen. If God wanted these hostile peoples residing in the land of Israel to quietly accept the arrival of the Jewish people, then that's precisely what would have happened.

Touching on the forthcoming fast of Tish'a B'Av, we know that the reason for the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash is because of Sin'at Chinam, baseless hatred, most clearly expressed in the Kamtza/Bar-Kamtza incident. This is the reason that is universally given for the resulting destruction, but Rav Ya'akov Chaim Sofer explains that if we look in the Talmud, we see that another reason is recorded in Masechet Gitin.

The account of one Yosef ben Matityahu, who lived through the time of this destruction, is recorded there. His account is completely different to the standard one, and he claims that the Roman army was large and strong, with healthy and well-armed soldiers. Standing against them, on the other hand, was the weak Jewish military. The Jews lacked food and arms. It was a total mismatch. Our would-be historian doesn't mention the Kamtza/Bar-Kamtza episode once. How can this be?

The answer is simple enough. As Jews, we don't care how it is that we lost in physical terms. We are more interested as to the spiritual causes of such events. As described above, there have been enough events over the course of history for us to know that our military disadvantage is wholly irellevant to the outcome of such a situation. If we could outlast all these other foes, there is no reason why we should suddenly capitulate in this battle. If you want to know how we lost the battle against the Romans and how the Bet Hamikdash was destroyed, refer to the words of Yosef ben Matityahu. But we don't want to know how, we need to knowwhy.

The message remains clear and relevant to this day. We need not worry about external threats. When it comes down to it, we need not fear at all. What we need to worry about is ourselves and how we relate to one another. If we really want to bring peace upon ourselves, we can do it.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and an easy fast next week.