Friday, November 23, 2012

Parshat Vayetze - פרשת ויצא

"וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם, כִּי-בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, וַיִּקַּח מֵאַבְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם, וַיָּשֶׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו; וַיִּשְׁכַּב, בַּמָּקוֹם הַהוּא - And he lighted upon the place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep."
(בראשית כח:יא)

One of the focal events of this week's Parsha happens when Ya'akov lies down to go to sleep. He dreams a dream, in which he sees a ladder above him and also receives prophecy that the entire land of Israel would become an inheritance for Am Yisrael.

Many commentators on the Parsha choose to discuss the exact details and the precise meaning of these events, but a seemingly "minor" point is the focus of this D'var Torah. Rashi points on the verse above that the words, "וַיִּשְׁכַּב, בַּמָּקוֹם הַהוּא - And [Ya'akov] lay down in that place to sleep" are an expressed in a way that suggests a measure of limit. Rashi goes on to explain that whereas here Ya'akov lay down to sleep, for the duration of previous fourteen years, when he learned in the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever, he refrained from going to lie down to sleep.

The Yalkut Lekach Tov notes the words of Kovetz Sichot by Rav H. Shmulovitz, that after Ya'akov's fourteen years restless pursuit of Torah, he doesn't go to sleep on a plush king-size bed with soft cushions. No, he lies down on the ground. He does prop up his head, but with what - a rock?

Moreover, Ya'akov takes more rocks and sets them around his head in order to protect himself "from wild beasts." Here too, we have a problem as Rav Simcha Zissel of Kelm points out. Why would a few rocks stop an animal from getting to Ya'akov while he sleeps - surely the rocks could be knocked away with ease.

The answer to be found is a lesson taught by Ya'akov's behaviour. Ya'akov's actions are an example in how to conduct oneself; after massive sleep deprivation, Ya'akov realised that if one pushes himself to the limits, he can do tremendous things. As such, he was able to deal without sleeping properly for all this time. Indeed, Ya'akov has conquered his natural desires and instincts to the extent that after this episode, he felt no need to use anything more than a few rocks to lie on. Similarly, when he placed these stones around his head, ostensibly to protect himself from animals, he was fully aware that they didn't offer proper protection.

Seemingly happy with this relatively insecure barrier, Ya'akov goes on, in the opinion of at least one commentary, to enjoy his best ever night's sleep that night. It seems that he was completely satisfied in his act of השתדלות (acting in a way to demonstrate one's commitment to a cause while accepting that one's own role is always beneath that of God). Nevertheless, the assertion that he was entirely comfortable with this most minimal of safeguards remains troubling. To resolve this difficulty we have to understand that Ya'akov chose to employ this simple barrier in the knowledge that in reality, everything that one does is essentially a miracle. Man is incapable of doing anything himself - he is only permitted to by God. As such, Ya'akov knew that he had no need to place stones around his head. The reason he put them there was to reduce the miracle, as it were. His action was an attempt to limit the need for a miracle. We may tender that in this merit, Ya'akov deserved to experience the bigger miracle of waking up to see the multiple stones unite to become one.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Parshat Toldot - פרשת תולדות

This week's Parsha opens with the words, "וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק, בֶּן-אַבְרָהָם: אַבְרָהָם, הוֹלִיד אֶת-יִצְחָק - And these are the generations of Yitzchak, Avraham's son: Avraham begot Yitzchak."

There is a golden rule in the study of Torah that, as the Torah is perfect, there are no supefluous words anywhere. Each and every word has a meaning. Why, therefore, are we twice told that Yitzchak was Avraham's son?

Rav Machlis of Ma'alot Dafna in Jerusalem proposes an interesting insight as to why the seemingly needless repetition is warranted. The first mention, "יִצְחָק בֶּן-אַבְרָהָם," is meant to refer to Yitzchak. We may learn from these words that Yitzchak defined himself as "Yitzchak, the son of Avraham." Yitzchak's respect and love for his father extended to him determining himself by his father.

The next phrase, "אַבְרָהָם, הוֹלִיד אֶת-יִצְחָק - Avraham begot Yitzchak" can be understood as Avraham, the father, referring to himself by mentioning his son. While it is inspiring for the son to realise his position by defering to his father, I find it beautiful, and rather poetic, that Avraham Avinu found himself to be fulfilled through his son. Of course the positions of father and son should never be confused, and the son must always defer to the father, but I personally find this expression of mutual love and respect in Avraham and Yitzchak's relationship to be a true measure of the appreciation and depth of their love for one another.

Another interesting phenomenon I'd like to point out comes in response to an academic article I read last year during my studies. Written by feminist Susan Moller-Okin, the rhetorical question (more of an attack, really,) is asked why we read of "all those endless begats" such as the one found above, whereby a father (Avraham in our case) has a son (Yitzchak here), born to him without the mother being mentioned at all. When I first heard this, it really bothered me. Truth be told, it still does, but I'm sure that I'll find an answer if I do my searching. People told me that while it is clear that we wouldn't write things in such a way today, at the time that Avraham lived, women were very much marginalised by society. Whether the Torah is divine or not, (and I firmly believe that it is,) it was suggested to me that we can "excuse" this uncomfortable phrase as a sign of times past.

Nevertheless, reading through the parsha this last week, I realised something that does provide an answer of sorts to the allegation that Judaism is intrinsically sexist and discriminatory. Only a few verses after the one quoted above, we read that, " וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת-עֵשָׂו, כִּי-צַיִד בְּפִיו; וְרִבְקָה, אֹהֶבֶת אֶת-יַעֲקֹב - Yitzchak loved Esav, for trapping was in his mouth; and Rivkah loved Ya'acov."

It is intriguing to note that the two parents developed favourites at all, but I'd like to focus on the fact that while Yitzchak chose Esav, Rivkah favoured Ya'akov. Rivkah chose the 'right' son - the son from whom the Jewish people would emanate, the son who would turn out to be righteous. Responding to claims that Judaism is entirely discriminatory to women, it is important to note that no excuses are given for Yitzchak's "misjudgment" - women are regarded as typically being more insightful and in possession of the trait of בינה, proper understanding. I think that the right conclusion to draw is that there are no explanations given for this simple verse because none are really needed. Yitzchak, great as he was, could never have a woman's perception and understanding. During the Shmonah Esrei we speak of the three forefathers, but we don't mention the four foremothers. But this absolutely doesn't mean that they are of no value, that they had no contribution, and that we don't learn things from them. A glance further ahead in this week's parsha bears that out: Ya'akov, whom we learn represented absolute truth, was forced to bend somewhat after his mother compels him to disguise himself in order to "steal" a bracha from under his brother's nose. It is important not to underestimate the strength of Rivka's role here. She hoodwinked her own husband and forced her son to act against his will, but for a very good reason - she perceived that which the male characters couldn't. Without her guidance this whole episode could never have happened. Although it might seem as if women's roles are very low, if we closely analyse events and view them as a chain, rather than as isolated occurences, we may see just how vital women's contributions are. On a personal note, I may not have all the answers, but I feel that if I learn more about this, there are answers to be found.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Parshat Chayei Sarah - פרשת חיי שרה

"ואהברהם זקן בא בימים וה' ברך את אברהם בכל - And Avraham became old of age and Hashem blessed Avraham with everything."

This week's Parsha begins with Avraham Avinu setting out to bury his wife, Sarah. Rav Eliyahu Dessler writes in Michtav M'Eliyahu that out of all the challenging events in Avraham's life this episode was the most troubling. He had just passed the test of the Akeidah, whereby he intended and prepared himself to slaughter to his only son on God's word, and now he hears that his beloved wife had passed away.

Avraham set out to bury his wife in a spot in Hevron that we now call "Ma'arat Hamachpela," in a manner that was befitting of such a righteous woman. Unfortunately though, the people of Hevron, the Chitites, knew that Hashem had given Avraham the land of Israel and did their best to inflate the price. The leader, Efron, was a base man who at first told Avraham that he would give the land away for nothing but when Avraham told Efron that he wanted to pay for the burial plot, Efron raised the price well over the acceptable rate. The Yalkut Lekach Tov notes that Efron's name is composed of the root letters "עפר," - dust. Dust is common and representative of the physical; exactly Efron's nature - all he cared about was that which was physical. Efron's initial "polite" refusal to accept any money was soon revealed to be a front for his true nature. (Indeed, toward the end of this episode, the letter ו is dropped from עפרון's name so that it spells "עפרן," which we may note happens to be numerically equivalent to עין-רע; evil eye.)

In the face of this, and despite his intense pain at his wife's passing, Avraham remained calm, respectful and truly polite. He even bows twice to the Chitites. His behaviour is a real lesson for us to learn - even when in the most terribly depressing moment of his life, Avraham was staunchly pious. While it would be hard for us to emulate him, we can learn from his actions.

Later on in the Parsha, we read, "ואהברהם זקן בא בימים וה' ברך את אברהם בכל - And Avraham became old of age and Hashem blessed Avraham with everything." The word everything seems a bit vague. What is intended? The stock answer is that בכל has a gematria of 52. The word בן, son, also has a gematria of 52 and so we learn that Avraham's reward was his son, Yitzchak.

There's a problem with this though - Yitzchak was born years ago! Another way to read this word resolves our problem. בכל, "with everything," can instead be replaced with בן, but not in the sense of a son. Rather we can read it to mean "with the number 50." Without going too far into things I don't understand myself, I have learned that Kaballah (Jewish mysticism) teaches us that the number 50 has a special significance. There are 50 levels of Kedushah, spiritual levels in which we may ascend. For this reason, for example, we count 50 days until the festival of Shavuot, each day ascending a spiritual level, so that we may arrive at the pinnacle of holiness. Avraham's blessing here was not merely that he was given a son, but also that he attained this fiftieth level of holiness. In that sense, he was completed and we can say that Hashem truly blessed Avraham בכל - with everything.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, November 02, 2012

Parshat Vayera - פרשת וירא

"ויֹּאמַר: אֲדֹנָי, אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ--אַל-נָא תַעֲבֹר, מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ - And said: 'My lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant."
(בראשית יח:ג)

The words above form Avraham's request of God after his circumcision: please don't leave me now, even though I have to leave.

The days after a circumcision are supposed to be the most painful, with the pain at its most intense on the third day. Although the pain was great, Avraham was preoccupied with other things; he was desperate to welcome guests into his tent, and sat watching for weary travellers he could welcome in to his abode.

But if we think about this situation over, something seems amiss. Avraham was sitting in the presence of God, and yet he was searching for people he could bring into his house. What more could he need? Surely being with Hashem is better than being with mere mortals!

The Talmud in Gemara Shabbat (127) learns from this episode that: "מכאן שגדולה הכנסת אורחים יותר מקבלת פני השכינה - from here [we know] that hosting guests is more [important] than receiving the heavenly presence." This still leaves a question, though. How did Avraham know how he should act?

In the book Mayanei HaTorah (a compilation of various teachings) a few Rabbis point out the answer to this question. We have to recognise that Avraham Avinu was a tremendous person. He devoted his life Torah and becoming close to Hashem and he had an incredible level of control over his natural desires and instincts. Avraham was so accustomed to defeating his own will and attuned to Hashem's that his body gravitated towards doing mitzvot. When there was an opportunity for performing a mitzvah, he would find that his body "wanted" to take him there. Avraham was aware that his body wanted to take him there, and so he came to the realisation that the proper conduct was in fact to leave Hashem's presence and seek out people to take into his home.

Personally, I learn a great deal from this. If ever there was an example in the whole Torah of the lengths to which we have to go to make other people happy, this is it. To Avraham, nothing in the world mattered more than being with God. Yet he understood that to become closer with God, there are times when one has to do the simple things.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Parshat Lech Lecha - פרשת לך לך

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּHashem said to Avram: 'Go for yourself, from your land, from your birthplace and from your father's house to the land that I will show you.'(בראשית יב:א) There are two parts of this Pasuk that I would like to deal with. The part that immediately interests us is the list of places that Hashem commands Avram to leave - Avram's land, his birthplace and his father's house. After that, Avram we read of the oddly vague "place that I will show you." There is one obvious question to be asked on the first part of this pasuk. It is posed in the Kli Yakar's commentary: when one lists where one hails from, one normally starts with the most local place and then mentions increasingly bigger areas. For example, I was born in Hendon, which is in London, which in turn is in England. Here however, the list order is reversed. One possible reason for this could be that when moving away from a certain place, a person notices things that he used to take for granted. Personally I have noticed many cases of American and English expatriates assuming an exaggerated persona. I believe that the reason for this is as much to do with being homesick and attempting to compensate for the inability to actually be immersed in the old country's culture as it is to play the culture card on local people. By this I mean that I will often exaggerate my Londoner accent for Israeli and American friends as it is both a talking point, and also reminds people where I come from and what kind of behaviour and customs to expect from me. It also serves to confirm to myself that I am different from Israelis and that although I have moved abroad, I am not a native. To misquote Sting, "I'm an Englishman in Jerusalem!" Coming back to the point, the word ארץ in Hebrew means land, but it also has another connotation. The word may be read as "א-רץ," meaning "I will run." The concept of the ground in Hebrew is the place you are heading to to, what your goal is. By way of comparison, Egypt is called מצרים, which derives from the word צר, meaning thin. Eretz Yisrael, a very thin strip of land geographically, is called "Eretz tova U'rechava - A good and wide land." How can that be? The answer is simple enough; that Egypt was a spiritually stifling place for the Jews to live in, whereas in Eretz Yisrael, our potential is significantly "wider" and expanded. It is only natural that a man once removed from his natural surroundings will pine for them and attempt to re-enact them in his mind. For this reason, Hashem first told Avram to leave behind the land he came from. He wasn't telling him to literally leave the land first, that would be impossible! What was meant was for Avram to leave that mentality behind, to abandon it completely. Only after he had left behind this mentality could he truly leave his home and his father's house without feeling the need to come back.But where shall he go to? We have grasped the fact that Avram had to leave behind all that he used to know, but where was he to head to? The Pasuk simply says the place "אשר אראך - that I will show you." How can Avram go somewhere without knowing where it is that he is to be heading?To answer this, we may look at the beginning of the Pasuk. The first two words Hashem said, "לך לך," may be translated as "Go for yourself," but it can also be rendered "Go to yourself." Or, alternatively, "Go (to) 50." 50 is known as one of the many numbers of Kedusha. The concept here is not that Avram was being instructed to merely head for a different place on the map, rather that he was being commanded by Hashem to go to his limit, to reach the highest spiritual level he possibly could. Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Parshat Noach - פרשת נח

"אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ. נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו: אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, הִתְהַלֶּךְ-נֹחַ - These are the generations of Noach. Noach was in his generations a man righteous and whole-hearted; Noach walked with God."
(בראשית ו:ט)

In Zichron Meir, Rabbi Meir Robman writes that there is a problem with the way we perceive Noach. From the verse above, it would seem quite clear that Noach was a particularly holy man, but a number of the commentators on the Torah talk about Noach in a denigratory manner. Commenting on Masechet Sandhedrin in his notes on the Talmud, Rashi points out that "There are a number of our Rabbis who praise Noach... and there are those who denigrate him; "According to his generation he was deemed righteous, but had he lived during the time of Avraham, he wouldn't have been counted as anything."

This perception of Noach's relative merit is not normally challenged, but upon consider things, we may realise that this is a rather odd state of affairs. And it's even more puzzling given the Radak's view of Noach. The Radak explains that "Noach walked with Hashem, he was attached to Him, and all his deeds were in His name," before going on to highlight his great strength in "defeating his natural inclination, for he lived in a generation of wicked and evil people but didn't learn from their ways."

So we have two ways of regarding Noach - we can say that he was only deemed a righteous man because he lived amongst a very low, base people and only by comparison could he be deemed a good man. Or we can say that he was genuinely righteous because he managed to ignore them and stay on the "straight and narrow." These two perspectives are the polar opposite of one another. Either way, we need to resolve this issue - either Noach was righteous or he was not!

The answer to this problem is that the two opinions do not truly clash - both schools of thought agree that Noach was righteous man; what they argue about is the meaning of the word "בְּדֹרֹתָיו - his generations."

When saying that Noach didn't compare to the men of Avraham's generation, Reish Lakish's opinion in the gemara might seem derogatory of Noach, but he actually wasn't criticising Noach. His point was that it although it wasn't his fault, Noach lived amongst wicked people, and because Noach lived at that particular time, he was limited spiritually. Had he lived at another time though, Noach may well have been able to attain a significantly higher spiritual level. Either way, I think this insight is genuinely relevant to all of us - we can't choose the time we were born into; we all live in the present. Maybe we would have done better if we had been around in the times of the Bet Hamikdash of old, maybe we feel that we would have done better if we'd have been born in the future. Maybe we feel that we are surrounded by people who are low, base and evil. All this is out of our control. As it says in Pirkei Avot: במקום שאין" אנשים השתדל להיות איש - In a place where there are no men, try to be a man." We can't help the fact that the world is such a cruel, relentless place. It's too hard to change the entire world when the situation is as bad as it is. But if we all start by changing ourselves for the good, the world will be changed for the better. After all, at a time when the world warranted destruction, in Noach's merit alone did the human race continue.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Parshat B'reishit - פרשת בראשית

In Lecha Dodi there's a line that I find particularly relevant to this week's Parsha. The line is: "סוף מעשה במחשבה תחילה," roughly meaning that "the end product is found in the first thoughts." This Shabbat we read B'reishit, which is the first Parsha in the Torah. The concept outlined above, of finding the DNA, as it were, for all that comes afterwards, can be found in various levels in this week's Parsha. As it forms the beginning of the entire Bible, it is here that we read of the creation of the universe - the very first thing that happened, according to the opening verse of the Torah. Following the concept above, we learn that everything in the Torah can be found in the opening act of B'reishit. Incredibly, the Vilna Gaon claimed to have a way of reading into the first word of the Torah 613 ways; one for each of the Mitzvot. It is told that that he was once challenged by a student/a group of his students, who asked him how he could see the mitzvah of Pidyon Haben encrypted here in the the word B'reishit. A tough ask, it would seem. But the Vilna Gaon had no trouble responding and answered by explaining that the letters of the word "בראשית" form an acronym. Each of the letters stand for בן ראשון אחרי שלושים יום תפדה, which means "Firstborn son - after 30 days you shall release" and sums up the essence of the mitzvah in six words. Another thing worth pointing out about Parshat B'reishit, the first Parsha in the Torah, is that it opens with the second letter in the Alef-Bet, not the first letter, Aleph. The typical explanation for this is found in the Medrash, where it is posited that the word ארור - Arur (meaning cursed) begins with an Alef, but as Bet is the beginning of the word ברוך - Baruch (meaning blessed), it is preferred so that there can be no way in which one could imagine that the Torah begins with even a hint of a curse. It's a cute answer, but there's plenty of other reasons, as well. In the Sh'ma, there's a phrase "ושננתם לבניך ודברת בם," meaning "And you shall teach them your sons and you shall speak of them. The "בם" here is rather vague. It literally means "them," and we are not helped by the fact thay they are introduced earlier on as "הדברים" - another vague term, meaning "things." Thankfully the Magid Ta'alumah provides a beautiful explanation as to what is being referred to. He notes that the Talmud starts with the letter מ, mem, in the tractate of Brachot. There we read the words, "מאמתי קורין את השמע - from what time do we read the Sh'ma?". The Magid Ta'alumah claims that the two letters of the word "בם" which we have such difficulty with actually correspond to the written Torah and to the oral Torah. The written Torah begins with a ב, as in בראשית, while the oral law starts with a מ - which together form the word בם. Thus, when we read the relevant part of Sh'ma, "ודברת בם," we may now understand what is being commanded of us - to continually speak words of Torah; both the written and the oral Torah. And all of this is alluded to in just the first word of the Torah! Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Shabbat Sukkot

Although Shabbat Sukkot doesn't seem to have much that separates it from the rest of Sukkot, there is one thing at least upon which we may comment - Megillat Kohelet, one of the five special scrolls we read over the course of the year.Megillat Kohelet is always read during the festival of Sukkot, but it doesn't quite seem to fit - it's tone is decidedly downbeat and certainly appears to clash with the sentiment echoed in a a song commonly sung, "ושמחת בחגך - V'samachta b'chagecha - and you shall rejoice in your festivals" (Sourced from פרשת ראה: טז:יד).Two Psukim later in פסוק טז, we read, "שלוש פעמים בשנה... בחג המצות ובחג השבועות ובחג הסוכות - Three times a year... On Chag Hamatzot, V'Chag Hashavuot, and Chag HaSukkot..." We are clearly supposed to be happy on our Chagim, we must rejoice on Sukkot. So if we are meant to be happy, how can we read Kohelet, which talks about the "futility" of life?If we examine the text of the Mussaf Shmonah Esrei we say every day of Chag, we say "ומפני חטאנו גלינו מארצנו, ונתרחקנו מעל אדמתנו - But because of our sins we have been exiled from our land and sent far from our soil." This is certainly no happy statement, and if we pray the we are meant to, these words must surely evoke a certain emotion within us, an emotion rather dissonant with the theme of rejoicing. Again, it seems to clash. How do we resolve such a discrepancy?Rav Kook answers the question as follows. There are two types of negative feelings in life, one is sadness and one is pain. Pain is a necessary part of life, as it allows us to realise that something is wrong and to build on it. Sadness on the other hand, is restricting and inhibits us. When we are sad, we can become depressed and caught up in the act of "being sad." Humans tend to wallow in sadness. Sometimes people feel really bad about something, and then compound their feelings by playing a depressing song. That is an example of sadness; it's destructive and a waste of one's time and energy.Rav Kook argues that we are instructed to be full of happiness during our Chagim. We must not allow oursleves to experience sadness, or any type of negative feeling upon which we cannot build. Pain on the other hand, pain that we wrecked our Bet Hamikdash and consequently been cast into a 2,000 year long exile, is useful. That kind of pain allows us to temper our joy to a degree, and lets us realise that we are still homeless. So too, by reading Kohelet, we understand how all in life is transient. Even the greatest joy passes. Just like the Sukkah booths in which we live during the course of the festival, everything is temporary.Wallowing in melancholy is not a Jewish quality, it will get us nowhere. Being in touch with that twinge of pain however, is essential for us to build ourselves up.Shabbat Shalom and a Chag Sameach!Partially based on a D'var Torah I heard from a dorm-mate of mine (Etan) during my Yeshivat Hakotel days, and added to with thoughts of my own and others found from other sources.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Parshat Ha'azinu - פרשת האזינו

האזינו השמים ואדברה ותשמע הארץ אמרי פי - Listen, heavens, and I will speak; and the earth shall hear the words of my mouth.
 (דברים לב:א)

The words of the pasuk above are Moshe Rabbeinu's words as he stood before Bnei Yisrael not long before his passing. Moshe calls on the heavens and the earth to heed his words; not to testify but simply to take note. It seems a rather strange request - what was his intention?

If we look closely at the wording of the pasuk, we may notice that Moshe uses different commands to the heaven and the earth. With regards to the heavens, Moshe uses the word האזינו, (listen,) and when dealing with the earth, he uses the word ותשמע (and it shall be heard).

As well as instructing the heaven and earth to listen and hear, two different modes of receiving his words, Moshe also employs two differing types of communication; he says "ואדברה" (and I will speak), to the heavens but says that the earth should take note of אמרי פי (the words of my mouth).

We learn that there's a nuanced difference to be understood when the Torah elects to use one of the words "Hear" and "Listen" over the other. In this case, Moshe speaks to heaven and earth and tells the earth, the lower of the two, to hear him. The meaning of the "hearing" is that (because we are mortals, infallible and absolutely not all-knowing,) we who do not understand this world have to try and piece together the truth from what is happening around us. When one hears something, he takes in a word at a time until the full sentence is understood. So Moshe uses the word for hearing to tell the earth (and by way of reference, all that is on it) to stick to this particular task.

But what of the heavens? Why should Moshe tell the heavens "האזינו" - to listen? What is implied here? If we pay close attention to the text, we notice that this command is accompanied by the term "ואדברה", a harsher, more direct type of speech.

It is often noted that the word is דבר, "davar," means both "thing" as well as "word" in Hebrew. There is a vital connection here. This kind of speech can be compared to a thing, in that it is complete. Moshe mentions tells the heavens that they must listen to him and perceive the entirety of what he says. But to the earth the simple אמרי פי, "the words of my mouth," suffices. I think that the lesson to be learned here is that one must always speak to one's audience and have realistic expectations. It's not always possible to expect others to know what you know. Nobody on this world knows everything, and so it is important to speak in uncomplicated terms with other people and not to assume anything about them that could embarrass them.

Wishing you a peaceful Shabbat from Jerusalem.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Yom Kippur - יום כיפור

I heard a lovely D'var Torah this past Shabbat (thank you, Adam Block) that I'd like to share with you. In Judaism, there exists a concept of the Se'udat Hodaya - a festive meal one may hold as a way of personally thanking God for being delivered from physical harm. Those who have a personal experience of such a nature are permitted to read the Hallel prayer to thank God and are encouraged to include other people in their celebration by having a meal together with them.

One might think that if this is the case for one who has been saved from physical danger, then surely one who is saved from spiritual disaster would be similarly encouraged to celebrate his escape. But that is not the case. The Chatam Sofer explained in his notes on the Shulchan Aruch that in fact, the proper way to commemorate such occasions is to hold a 'personal Yom Kippur' on the day that one rectified their ways by fasting, confessing their sin and pledging to continue on one's new path. Why is this so? Surely a spiritual redemption is one a higher level than a "mere" physical one and deserves no less of a celebration?

The Chatam Sofer explains this seeming discrepancy by noting that the two situations are inherently dissimilar and therefore require different treatments. When one experiences physical danger, typically it is an external matter, a result of time and place. Once the circumstances change, the danger passes and may well not return. As such, we may celebrate God's role in removing this danger from us. But spiritual danger is entirely different. Spiritual danger occurs within us, depends on our own state of mind and as such, we can not ever be sure that we are truly past it. As Hillel teaches us in Pirkei Avot, "ואל תאמן בעצמך עד יום מותך," meaning "Do not believe in yourself until the day of your death."

Spiritual danger, the Chatam Sofer teaches us, is something that we must contend with endlessly. It is important to celebrate our victories - if we discipline ourselves into being more patient or honest, or if we force ourselves to stop making the same mistakes we used to make over and over - these are important achievements that we should be proud of. But it is also important for us to keep at the forefront of our minds that these character flaws are not easy to rectify and are liable to reappear. In order to truly better ourselves and ensure a proper T'shuva, we must not allow ourselves to feel too comfortable. Hopefully we will all merit to accomplish a genuine, complete T'shuva for our flaws, make ourselves better people and in turn, the world a better place.

From Jerusalem, have a meaningful and easy fast.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Parshat Vayelech - פרשת וילך

"And now write for you this song" (Vayelech 31:19). This pasuk contains the last commandment in the Torah - to write a Torah scroll. The Chafetz Chaim noted that this mitzvah comes right after the verse which states that Hashem will hide His presence from the people because of their aveirot. The reason this commandment follows the previous verse is to teach us that even in times of darkness and destruction when one engages in Torah study one will find much light and consolation. Alright, I have to run! Have a beautiful Shabbat!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rosh Hashanah - ראש השנה

עֲקַבְיָא בֶן מַהֲלַלְאֵל אוֹמֵר, הִסְתַּכֵּל בִּשְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים וְאֵין אַתָּה בָא לִידֵי עֲבֵרָה. דַּע מֵאַיִן בָּאתָ, וּלְאָן אַתָּה הֹולֵךְ, וְלִפְנֵי מִי אַתָּה עָתִיד לִתֵּן דִּין וְחֶשְׁבּוֹן... (פרקי אבות: ג,א)

Akavya ben Mahal'el says: "Reflect on three things and you will not come to sin. Know where you come from, where you are going, and before Whom you will give 'din' and 'cheshbon'..." (Pirkei Avot: 3,1)

The Vilna Gaon explains that the terms דין (Judgement) and חשבון (Account) are very similar to one another and could both in fact be translated approximately as "reckoning." The first term means that we are reckon a full account of all the misdeeds we have committed in the previous year, whereas the second term - חשבון - refers to the quantity of good deeds we reckon we could have instead performed in the time we wasted. As such, not only are our sins themselves punishable, but we are also judged for forgoing opportunities to do good with this time and for wasting the opportunity to fulfill our potential in general.

Rav Yitzchak Ze'ev Soloveitchik (also known as the Brisker Rav) was noted to have asked why we are only judged for the time committed to doing sins. Why are we not judged on our usage of time, all of the time? If we are expected to use all the time given to us to perform mitzvot and fulfill our potential, then surely we should be held accountable to every second of our lives. If someone doesn't sin but simply wastes time, he asked, surely that time too could have been better spent? Rav Soloveitchik's answer, to my mind, reflects Hashem's quality of mercy: Because we often have the intent to do good deeds, but for whatever reason, things get in our way, we are not judged for this time.

Over the course of our prayers, we pray to Hashem in two capacities:אבינו and מלכנו. We petition him first and foremost as our father, lobbying him to act with compassion and mercy instead of purely judging us. I think here we have one of the prime examples of how Hashem, despite applying judgement, chooses to exercise leniency in his decisions. Every day we are given 86,400 second to use as we wish, but in reality, how many of those do we utilise for keeping the Torah's laws? This time, instead of resolving my Dvar Torah with a tidy answer, maybe a question serves best: This year, how can we better use our time? Instead of being ashamed that we didn't do our best, that we could have done more, and instead of needing to rely on Hashem's compassion quite so much, how can we improve our position this time next year?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Parshat Nitzavim פרשת נצבים

ושב ה' אלוקיך את שבותך ורחמך ושב וקבצך מכל העמים אשר הפיצך ה' אלוקיך שמה. (Deuteronomy 30:6)

In addition to its simple meaning, this pasuk, so the Chafetz Chaim writes, speaks of the Geulah. Here the Torah assures us that the day of redemption will surely come, and we must expect it to arrive at any time. And even though this long-awaited day is perpetually delayed, continues the Chaftez Chaim, we are obliged to wait because it will come.

One of the biggest problems with faith is that all the time we wait in exile, it is very hard to keep on "doing the right thing" without any sign to encourage us. If anything, all we have is discouragement; the once mighty Jewish kingdom might not be destroyed, but it certainly seems to be at the will of its foes. Given our glorious history, it doesn't seem inaccurate to describe the Jewish people as distressed and even disgraced - in such a low, maybe all we can do is hope!

The Rambam, in his seminal work, "Mishnah Torah," calls on the pasuk above when outlining the obligation for each and every Jew to wait and expect Moshiach's arrival. He explains that anyone who doesn't believe in him, or in his imminent coming, is not only going against the words of the jewish prophets, but also against this very verse from the Torah. (Hilchot Malachim 11:1)

I don't want to make this a slur on other religions, (I clearly believe in Judaism and I have no need to knock other people's beliefs, even if I hugely disagree with them,) but I really do like how in Judaism we don't merely cry out "I believe!" in the manner of one who doesn't know quite what he believes in. One of the most famous songs we Jews sings is that of "Ani Ma'amin," and the last few words we sing demonstrate the point I want to make beautifully. We say, "I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Moshiach. And even though he may tarry, I will wait for at any day he will arrive." These last few words are a perfect example of some of the defining qualities needed of a Jew - persistence, tenacity and patience. We don't merely believe, but we await something that will happen; something that we must prepare ourselves for.

The opening words of Parshat Nitzavim, "ואתם נצבים היום," are ones that have been commented on a lot - there is a much to be learned from the idea of the nation of Israel standing together. And yet, at the same time, there are many divisions - Am Yisrael is split into various groups following these words.

It often taught that when the Torah mentions standing, we are to understand that those who are standing are evaluating; taking stock of themselves. I would like to suggest that it is no coincidence that as Parshat Nitzavim always falls in Elul, in close proximity to Rosh Hashanah, that it should be obvious to all of us that at this time of year we engage in a little "Cheshbon Hanefesh" and refine our characters before we stand before Hashem on the Yamim Neraim.

For this reason, מרן רי"ז הלוי points out, we read the words, "כי לישועתך קוינו כל היום" in the Shmonah Esrei. These words translate as "For we have hoped for your redemption all day," which doesn't seem to flow all too well. A more natural choice of words would be to say that "we have hoped for your redemption every day, but the point is made better by expressing how we are constantly waiting.

The Yalkut Lekach Tov mentions a comment by the Chafetz Chaim on another pasuk further along in Parshat Nitzavim. To summarise briefly, the Chafetz Chaim explains that if one were to be approached by an angel and told that his judgement would be a negative one, that person would do all he could to change his ways. So, the Chafetz Chaim continues, why doesn't this person stop of his own accord? This question is one that challenges each and every one of us, and as I mentioned above, is at the essence of what it is to be a Jew. For when a person stops and takes account of himself, he realises that the activities he engages in are all too often pointless and a waste of time. Coming back to the original pasuk, can we truly say that we believe in the Geulah? If we do then we wouldn't just believe - we would wait anxiously, checking ourselves again and again to ensure that we are ready.

From Jerusalem, wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, September 07, 2012

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" 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 statement, 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 permissible, 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 permissible 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 permissible. 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 31, 2012

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", the rebellious son. 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 does 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, something for which we cannot 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 Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, August 24, 2012

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 particular 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 intrinsically 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!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Facebook - connecting people?

A friend just posted the following status update to her Facebook:

"فلسطين الحرة" = ""פלסטין החופשית" רוצה להיות חבר שלי בפייסבוק חחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחחח איזו בדיחה טובה...
(Loose translation: "Free Palestine" wants to be my friend on Facebook. Lollllllllllllllllllll! What a good joke!)

Much has been written about the incredible ability of Facebook to connect people. But as time has gone by, people have come to the realisation that the rules of the game are still much the same as they were. For example, one of the many ways I reasons I use Facebook is to better understand other people. As somebody who is somewhat right-wing, religious and very much a Zionist, I have both sought to spread my beliefs and share them with other people, and also to ask left-wingers, secular people and non/anti-Zionists about their opinions.

Very quickly, however, I realised that it wouldn't be possible for me to convince other people to think like me. Most people have reasons for thinking as they do. Similarly, these people wouldn't simply convert me to voting for a left-wing party, renouncing religion and abandoning Israel in favour of life in the Palestinian territories.

That's all well and done. What most concerns me, though, is the amount of hatred I have received from complete strangers. Below is a collection of interesting messages I have received. Some are innocent requests (identity protected in one case), some are pure hate mail, and some are likely the spew of some teenage without adult supervision.

What about you? Have you received messages from strangers on Facebook? What came of it?

This one is just bizarre. A request from an Iranian for information on how to join the World Zionist Organisation!

And lastly, an inquiry as to how one may convert to Judaism!

Coolness is a number with lots of zeroes in it

20,000. That's a nice number. Thanks for reading my blog, people!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Parshat Re'eh - פרשת ראה

The name of this week's 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 commanded the twelve tribes to split up and stand on two adjacent mountains, 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 instead rebel and sin.

We learn that these mountains, although standing near to each other, have contrasting qualities. 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.

In way, it can be said that the blessing and curse are visually apparent on the mountains themselves, as Mount Grizim, the mountain of blessing, is green and verdant, but Mount Eval, on the other hand, is barren and accursed. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains the symbolism of these mountains. Although both mountains are located in close proximity to one another, have the same sunlight, rainfall, climate and fertility, they are very dofferent. 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. But what does all this really mean? Together, we the two mountain ssymbolise 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 10, 2012

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 03, 2012

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 Kriat 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 blessed to really live life and grasp the truth of this world.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, July 27, 2012

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 ourselves 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 attributed 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 irrelevant 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 know why. 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.

Friday, July 20, 2012

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." ~Numbers 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 precisely this 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 this 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." (The World we live in, as opposed to the afterlife.) At first glance, this might seem a little odd; after all, don't we live in "Olam HaZeh," wouldn't the affairs of this world be things that we grasp? Wouldn't goings-on of the spiritual realm of the world to come, the "Olam Haba"; wouldn't they be more likely to be inaccessible to us? 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 second word of the phrase, "Hazeh," serves to indicate something very specific - something that can be quantified and related to. When we say "Zeh" in Hebrew, or "this" in English, we typically refer to something that is a known quantity. If we put this two words together, we arrive at a contradiction; which world are we living in? Is it 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, but rather a composite of these two elements. There are times when everything seems clear, moments when we can say "Zeh HaDavar." But equally, even to the greatest and wisest minds, 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." In Kabbalah thought, man is referred to as an "Olam Katan," a little world. I think we may see a parallel here, too. Every person has moments where they think that they know themselves inside out. But then we learn something new about ourselves. Nobody knows us like we do ourselves, but even we can be surprised by ourselves if we look and listen carefully enough. I think we may take this experience and apply it to the world at large. Many times I personally have caught myself thinking that I know a lot, only for me to be humbled and find out that my knowledge is actually relatively insignificant and sadly incomplete. It is up to us to learn how to deal with moments such as this; do we act arrogantly and defy what we are learning, or do we take a step back and admit to ourselves that we have much to learn? It's a terrible thing to be stuck in the same mindset and never to budge, even after hearing of a valid disproof to your ideas. I only hope that we can all grow and adapt to whatever new knowledge we may learn in life. Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom :)

Friday, July 13, 2012

Parshat Pinchas - פרשת פינחס

"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 understandably so, we must understand that when an action is required, we must be ready to perform 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 p'sukim specifically mention Zimri's and Cozbi's family 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 unjust 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 06, 2012

Parshat Balak - פרשת בלק

"וַיִּפְתַּח יְהוָה, אֶת-פִּי הָאָתוֹן; וַתֹּאמֶר לְבִלְעָם, מֶה-עָשִׂיתִי לְךָ, כִּי הִכִּיתַנִי, זֶה שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים. - And Hashem opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam: 'What have I done to you, that thou have hit me these three times?' "
~Numbers 22:28

The last words of the passage above, "שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים," are understood to mean three times. Literally, however, the combination of words means "three feet". This phrase is known in Judaism to refer to the three "foot" festivals: Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. (They were known as foot festivals because the entire people would descend on Jerusalem, proceeding there by foot, in order to mark the holidays.) The normal way of saying three times in Hebrew would be "שלוש פעמים", so why the unusual terminology here?

Rashi explains that the words were meant as "a hint to him [Bilaam]. 'You seek to uproot a nation that observes the three festivals each year'", was the message. The problem is, while this does explain the reference somewhat, it doesn't satifactorily identify why this specific aspect of the Jewish nation is referred to. After all, Jews have many unique characteristics; why not refer to our observance of Shabbat, Brit Milah, heck, even our big noses! What's so special about the Three Foot Festivals that they are specifically referred to here? And why should Bilaam care?!

Moreover, the Gur Aryeh notes that while the regular פעם and its plural form of פעמים appear over 100 times over the course of the Torah, this word "רגלים" appears just four times in the Torah: three times here and once more in Exodus when referring to the festivals themselves. Clearly, there is a connection, but what is it exactly?

The Sfat Emet asks exactly this question, and posits an answer that I find particularly brilliant and illuminating. His explanation is that these three festivals were a form of testimony that the land of Israel was part of the Jewish heritage, and that it was the place where the Bet Hamikdash would stand. (He sources this from a verse in D'varim: "שָׁלוֹשׁ פְּעָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה יֵרָאֶה כָל-זְכוּרְךָ אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחָר--בְּחַג הַמַּצּוֹת וּבְחַג הַשָּׁבֻעוֹת, וּבְחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת; וְלֹא יֵרָאֶה אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה, רֵיקָם. - Three times in a year shall all your males appear before Hashem your God in the place that He shall choose; on the festival of Matzot, and on the festival of Shavuot, and on the festival of Sukkot; and they shall not appear before Hashem empty." [Deuteronomy 16:16])

The curse that Balak was trying to place on the Bnei Yisrael, through his messenger Bilaam, was to remove them from their deserved inheritance of the land of Israel. This actually makes a lot of sense with the text; earlier, Balak complains about that the Jews have "covered the eye of the land" (Numbers 22:5). Clearly, someone doesn't want the Jews to settle down in this particular spot.

Now that we understand what this fear was, and why this particular mitzvah of observing the three foot festivals was referenced, the Sfat Emet goes on to reveal an aspect of the blessing that Bilaam is forced into bestowing upon the Jews. This is the part of the Dvar Torah I most like. Famously, Bilaam pronounces, " כִּי-מֵרֹאשׁ צֻרִים אֶרְאֶנּוּ, וּמִגְּבָעוֹת אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ: הֶן-עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן, וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב. מִי מָנָה עֲפַר יַעֲקֹב, וּמִסְפָּר אֶת-רֹבַע יִשְׂרָאֵל; תָּמֹת נַפְשִׁי מוֹת יְשָׁרִים, וּתְהִי אַחֲרִיתִי כָּמֹהוּ - For from the top of the rocks I see it, and from the hills I view it: Behold! it is a people that will dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned amongst the nations. Who has counted the dust of Jacob, or numbered a quarter of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and may my end be like his!" (Numbers 23: 9-10)

This blessing is amongst the most notable in the Torah, and so I never really paused to consider the way it is phrased. The Sfat Emet, though, remarks upon the words "Who has counted the dust of Jacob." Upon consideration, I think we may agree that the word 'dust' seems rather unusual. TheSfat Emet posits an explanation: this is another link, (Midah k'neged Midah, we could say) to the land of Israel. Bilaam went out to deprive the Bnei Yisrael of their right to the land of Israel, but he instead he ends up doing the reverse and underscores it. As the Sfat Emet explains, the word dust here refers to the land itself and all the Mitzvot that the Bnei Yisrael were given that could only be observed fully upon the land of Israel.

I think this passage is highly relevant to our times. In an age when there is an ongoing campaign to deprive the Jewish nation of their right to their homeland, it is important that we remember where we got this right from. Not from the League of Nations vote in November 1947, neither from our winning the War of Independence. No, the real reason why the Jewish people deserve to live in the land of Israel is because it is ours; an eternal heritage and our home. We would do well to remember this and that the source of our claim is biblical, no less. There are other - valid - reasons why we Jews should have a land of our own, but surely it is most important to remember our heritage and our history here. By maintaining the centuries old connection with the land of our forefathers, we preserve our right to live here. As long as our enemies seek to belittle the link between us and this land, it is our task to oppose their falsehoods by standing strong and committed.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Parshat Chukat - פרשת חוקת

"אָז יָשִׁיר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת: עֲלִי בְאֵר, עֱנוּ-לָהּ - Then Israel sang this song: Spring up, O well; sing to it"
(במדבר כא:יז)

In the passage above, we read how Am Yisrael sing of the "Be'er Miriam," the well that accompanied them during their travails in the desert and from which water miraculously flowed. While it seems reasonable enough to mention and praise this incredible phenomenon, a question begs to be asked; why is it only now that Am Yisrael recognise the blessing of this well? After all, they had been in the desert for many years - shouldn't they have made their gratefulness known earlier?

To understand this difficulty, we have to look at the situation in it's proper context. The generation who suddenly found themselves (quite literally) singing the well's praises had never fully appreciated what a blessing this Be'er was. This particular generation had been born in the desert. As such, to them, a rock that rolled around of its own volition and produced drinking water (in huge quantities) was of no great consequence. To them, it was no more miraculous than a rainfall or a sunrise.

When Hashem punished Am Yisrael for speaking against him a few verses earlier in the Parsha, the B'nei Yisrael finally understood what a miracle this well was. Until this time, they had never appreciated Hashem's benevolence and it was only when this blessing (which they had always had) was taken away that they grasped it's goodness and their dependence on Hashem.

Part of their punishment was that "הנחשים השרפים," "the poisonous snakes" that lived in the desert, were sent after B'nei Yisrael, and consequently bit and killed many Jews. In classic fashion, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch notes with precision the phrasing of the verse, and highlights the letter ה - which means "the". Rav Hirsch teaches that the presence of the definite article here indicates that these snakes were not any old snakes. Rather, these snakes were already in the desert; they had always been there, even though Am Yisrael had not encountered them in their desert travels thus far.

Rav Hirsch teaches that we should understand that these snakes were kept away from the B'nei Yisrael in an act of kindness by Hashem. However, because they had shown themselves to be unappreciative of the kindness of the Be'er, Hashem punished them with the snakes so that they would appreciate all that Hashem had done to prevent them from experiencing hardship.

There is a vital lesson that we must learn from this incident. We cannot only be thankful for that which we are blessed with, rather we must appreciate all that we are not burdened with. Here we learn that the snakes had always been in the desert and only by Hashem's grace were the B'nei Yisrael spared being bitten by them. The B'nei Yisrael grew accustomed to the miracles that Hashem had done for them. The moment Hashem stopped sustaining these miracles, it became abundantly clear just how much we are dependent on his love and good will for us.

I'd like to credit a friend, Ezra Javasky, for teaching me this D'var Torah when we were in Yeshiva together. It's a lovely insight and I thank him for sharing it with me.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Parshat Korach - פרשת קרח

"וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ עַל-מֹשֶׁה וְעַל-אַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם רַב-לָכֶם כִּי כָל-הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים, וּבְתוֹכָם יְהוָה; וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ, עַל-קְהַל יְהוָה - And they assembled themselves together against Moshe and against Aharon, and said to them: 'You take too much upon you, for all the congregation, all are holy, and Hashem is amongst it, why wherefore should you lift up yourselves above the assembly of Hashem?'"
(במדבר ט"ז:ג)

The verse above is taken from the opening scene of this week's Parsha, in which Korach instigates a (doomed) rebellion against Moshe. Korach acted as if his intentions were pure, but really his desires and motivations were far from selfless; a close reading of the text with the commentaries reveals that he really wanted fame, recognition and honour.

One of the main issues Korach raises in order to provoke Moshe is that of Moshe's role as leader of Am Yisrael. For example, one of the questions that Korach asks is "If an article of clothing is made entirely of t'chelet, (a certain blue/purple colouring that is used for dying the eighth string of the tzitzit,) would there then be any need to have an additional string attached to this garment, one that would be dyed in the same colour? Surely if the entire garment is holy, argues Korach, there should be no need for an extra string to render the garment as holy; surely it's holy enough already.

The question seems fair enough, but the question wasn't really what Korach was asking. By asking this question of Moshe, he was making a point about the relevancy of Moshe's leadership. In the verse above, the same thing happens, and if anything, Korach's criticism is even more explicit. Here, Korach notes that the people are all holy, and that he sees no need for Moshe to raise himself above a nation of holy people. Just like his question regarding tzitzit, Korach asks sharp questions of Moshe's right to lead.

As it turned out, Korach was proved wrong. (And on more than one level.) The problem with his approach can be seen already from the beginning of his criticism. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch has an insight into Korach's words which reveal the extent of the flaw in his thinking. In the verse above, Korach deliberately switches the subject of his sentence from at first speaking about the nation as a whole, to then speaking about the people individually before reverting back to the nation as a single entity. "For all the congregation, all are holy, and Hashem is amongst it," he says. Why the switch to the people as individuals?

I would like to tender an answer of my own. We already know that Korach placed too much value on his own pride, his own honour. He clearly valued his own individuality. Here, Korach wanted to make a point to Moshe that if all the nation were holy people (which, for the sake of this argument, I will assume to be true), then a leader above them would be redundant. What he didn't understand was that in his attacking questions lay the flaw in his thinking. He asked Moshe a question about tzitzit. But what is the answer to his question? Actually, it is that such a garment, one comprised entirely of t'chelet, still needs the special t'chelet string! The reason is that despite the undoubted holiness of each of the composite parts, there is still a need for a binding force between them. Returning to the question of the relevance of a leader over a nation made up of holy people, we must answer that a leader is still required. When the Jewish nation stand as one and act as one, our unity is so strong that we can achieve incredible things. But when we are taken as individual parts, the flaws in each of us begin to show. It is not that those flaws weren't there before, but when people come together they help mask one another's failings.

Korach was undoubtedly right that the each person within the entire nation was holy in their own right. What he didn't understand was that despite this, if they were not part of a collective, their imbalances and imperfections would be allowed to get out of control. When people work together though, and under common guidance from a recognised authority, people are able to correct their mistakes and learn from one another. If we can't do that, we too will be doomed to failure. Let us learn the lesson from Korach and only live together in unity and Shalom.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Parshat Shelach Lecha - פרשת שלח לך

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לָמָּה זֶּה אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת פִּי ה', וְהִוא לֹא תִצְלָח - And Moshe said: 'Why is it that you transgress the commandment of Hashem? It shall not succeed!

(במדבר י"ד:מ"א)

The verse above comes at the end of the story of the Meraglim, the "spies" who were sent to scout out the land of Israel prior to what was supposed to be Israel's entry. Unfortunately, the spies' report was highly critical and negative. Because the spies spoke badly about the land of Israel (or according to some explanations, because they saw bad in Israel,) the people of that generation were reprimanded and punished by being told that they wouldn't be given the merit to enter the land of Israel.

In an attempt to correct their earlier error, some of the Jews then declared that they would push forward into the land of Israel regardless. It is at this point that Moshe warns them, above. Immediately afterwards, we read of how this plan was doomed to fail with shocking consequences; those who went to enter the land were met by forces from the Amalek and Canaan armies, and were thoroughly annihilated.

I'd like to take a close look at the wording of the verse above. If we pay attention to Moshe's warning, he words his statement in an odd way; he doesn't say "you will not succeed," rather he phrases it as "it will not succeed." What is the it that he is referring to? The answer is actually fairly obvious, and the Ibn Ezra makes no time in explaining that "it" was the action of making aliyah, of going into Israel. "It" was the plan to do this, and this "it" would not succeed.

But we've only gone halfway to answering the question; now we know what the "it" was referring to, but we still don't know why Moshe referred to the plan as liable to fail rather than telling the people that they would fail. By changing the subject of his sentence, it seems unncessarily clunky. I'd like to tender an answer of my own: Moshe refused to criticise the people. He saw that they had good intentions and wanted to correct their earlier error. He realised that there was no point in telling them off for their hearts were true, even if their actions were off. I am not yet a parent and am not really in a place to direct people how to raise their own children, but I've heard it said that one must never say "stupid boy" or "bad girl", but rather must explain to the child in question that their actions were bad or lacked being thought through properly. The child is almost always good, even if the action isn't. In a similar manner, Moshe make sure to tell the nation that their actions would not succeed.

I'd like to relate this to current affairs. In recent weeks, a Scottish city council has voted to ban buying Israeli books for its library. I think we would to well to note the hypocrisy here. There are many people around the world who condemn Israel and declare it's actions illegal and immoral, decrying it to be an apartheid state. But how would they react when faced with terrorists and supporters of terrorists?

The problem here is one of unfair, destructive criticism, as opposed to fair and constructive criticism. I believe it is vital for a healthy democracy to be subject to criticism. If Israel's soldiers conduct themsleves in a manner not befitting of their role, they ought to be taken to court and sentenced. If Israel's politicians are too careless in their policies towards Palestinians, then they need to be reined in and critcised for their decisions. But the wholesale smearing of a state and all its citizens has no place in aiding the progress of democratic values.

As such, while Israel should not be criticised the way it is, it remains up to us to see to it that the problems in our society are sorted out. It is instructive to note that Israel is barely 60 years old. When America was 60 years old, slaves were still commonplace. Equality, theoretically at least, was only achieved in the last century. And real equality still hasn't been achieved in America. Hopefully Israel can become a platform on which the values of the Jewish people, the values of justice and equality amongst them, will be demonstrated with pride.

While Israel is surrounded by shocking hypocrisy, it remains up to us to ignore such inane criticism. We need to learn the lesson Moshe teaches here: we need not pay attention to those who try to attack us at every opportunity. But at the same time, we need to try to improve our conduct ourselves so that we arrive at the highest moral standard possible.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, June 08, 2012

Parshat Beha'alotcha - פרשת בהעלותך

"וידבר ה' אל משה לאמר. דבר אל אהרון ואמרת אליו: 'בהעלותך את הנרות אל-מול פני המנורה יאירו שבעת הנרות. ' - Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to Aharon, and say to him: 'When you light the lights towards the face of the Menorah, the seven lamps shall cast light.'"

(במדבר ח:א-ב)

In Rashi's commentary on the Torah, a well-known explanation of the word 'בהעלותך', which we may loosely translate as 'When you light', is given. The normal term for lighting candles is להדליק; it could just as easily have been written בהדלקתך above. Rashi notes that the word used, 'בהעלותך', is "לשון עלייה, שצריך להדליק עד שתהא השלהבת עולה מאליה," which may be loosely translated as meaning that "the terms is one associated with 'going up', and that one needs to kindle [a light] until the flame rise by itself." Rashi's point is that there was a special manner in which Aharon had to light the flames of the Menorah, and therefore the unusual term בהעלותך is employed.

Rav Avigdor Neventzahl, the former Chief Rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem, explains however, that this isn't actually any different from the way we light any candle. Anyone who's tried taking a flame way from a candle before it's risen by itself knows that the candle will not light; of course you wait for the candle to catch the first flame and rise by itself; that's just the normal procedure.

When I was pondering the matter myself, an old Oxfam advert came to my mind. The voiceover explains that if you "give a child some corn" she won't be hungry for a short while. But if you "give her family the chance to grow their own corn," they will be independent of handouts, and will be able to provide food for themselves, earn money and send their children to school. I see a parallel between the advert and Rashi's point on the meaning of the word בהעלותך; the word teaches us how to give to people. Rather than simply giving people to stop-gap solutions, we must aim to find the root cause of the problem, fix that, and enable people to provide for themselves.

In a similar fashion, Rav Neventzahl points out that the phrase refers to the optimal way in which to teach and learn Torah. If a teacher feeds his students Torah so that they are not excited by what is being said, but listen nevertheless, then the moment he departs from their presence, their Torah learning will cease. Instead the teacher is charged with the task of igniting their students' souls. One of the greatest satisfactions in this world is creativity. Humans are markedly different from other creations in that they are able to change the conditions around them as well as express thoughts and feelings. If we give to someone, we are depriving them of their ability to be human. Rather we must allow them to rise up (as Rashi says, לשון עלייה) with their own creative energy so that they may give themselves.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, June 01, 2012

Parshat Naso - פרשת נשא

With 176 verses, Parshat Naso is noted for being the longest in the Torah. The reading this week is very long mainly due to the full account of the gifts that the Nesi'im (the heads of the tribes) brought to the temple. It would seem to us that there is an endless repetition here of the gifts brought. We might be excused for thinking that it would have been enough for the Torah to give a brief summary, but clearly Hashem saw fit to write this episode in full, without skipping even the smallest of details.

There are a number of reasons for the Torah's meticulous recording of the gift offerings being brought here. I wrote about one reason earlier this year in Parshat Vayakhel: there, the Nesi'im resolved to wait until the rest of the nation had brought whatever they could for the temple, and when the rest of the people had brought all that they could, the Nesi'im planned to provide all that which had not yet been supplied. Unfortunately for them, they did not anticipate that the people would be so generous, and only managed to make a donation at the last minute when they saw that everything was going to be provided without their help. There, the Torah writes their name והנשיאים, "(And the) Nesi'im" without the letter י, so that it appears as והנשאם. This removal of a letter associated with God's name was a form of rebuke for the princes' seeming lack of eagerness.

Fast forward to this week's parsha, and we read of the princes' willing and abundant procession of gifts. Having first rebuked their behaviour, the Torah ensures that when the princes make good on their earlier error, they are afforded a full account of their deeds. The message is clear: when someone corrects his ways, it is only proper to give that person recognition for having made the effort.

An alternative reason as to why this event is written in full is given by Rabbi Paysach Krohn. Rabbi Krohn tells a story about Rav Yitzchak Elchonon Spektor, the Kovno Rav, who lived in Russia. Back in those days, the Jewish population lived in fear that their young men would get drafted into the Russian Army; something that was very hard to get out of. One who did enter the Russian military had a tough time in store; quite apart from the usual problems of serving in an army, the Russian army made it especially hard for people to remain religiously observant. The only hope was to acquire a military exemption.

In this story, Yaakov, one of his students had applied for an exemption and was waiting for Moscow to respond to his request. Knowing that obtaining such an exemption was a tricky matter, Yaakov and his friends nervously anticipated the authorities' reply. One day, while Yaakov's Rabbi, Rav Yitzchak Elchonon, was engaged with other Rabbis in resolving a complex and thorny affair through Jewish law, a young man interrupted proceedings to tell his Rabbi that he had just received the wonderful news that the case had been resolved satisfactorily, with Yaakov given an exemption from military service. The Rabbi smiled, thanked him, and blessed him for bringing the news.

The boy left happy and the Rabbis resumed their deliberations. But not long afterwards, another student burst into the room. Again, he told the Rabbi that he had very important news to convey; that Yaakov, one of the Rabbi's most beloved students, had managed to get out of serving in the army. Again, the Rabbi was thankful and proceeded to bless him for having brought such good news. A little while later, yet another boy entered the room. Yet again, the Rabbi was careful to smile and thank the "intruder", making sure to bless him for having been considerate and letting the Rabbi know of this development. As the afternoon unfolded, this chain of events went on to repeat itself a number of times over, and each time the Rabbi was careful to treat each visitor in the exact same manner.

The lesson here is one that goes a long way teaching us how to treat others. Despite the news being old, the Rabbi made sure to receive each and every guest in the same manner as the first person who came to tell him. Unaware that their Rabbi had already heard the news, they were eager to share it with him and were each clearly anticipating seeing him take pleasure and relief. Although he could have explained gently that he already knew, the Rabbi understood that it was more important to allow each of them to express their feelings and therefore acted as he did.

Coming back to this week's unusually lengthy parsha, we may now understand why its seemingly inordinate length is necessitated. While each and every gift brought by the princes may have been no more than a repetition of that which was brought previously, Hashem wanted to show them that their intentions and desires were very much appreciated.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!