Friday, May 25, 2012

Parshat Bamidbar & Shavuot - פרשת במדבר וחג שבועות

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

There is a concept in Torah thought that nothing in the world is completely by chance. Hashem created the world with precision, so that everything would serve a higher purpose. We believe that even the way the earth has been shaped reflects a higher purpose. Therefore, if Hashem wanted mainland Egypt to be next to Israel, he would have arranged the world to be that way. The fact that He designed the world with a desert between Egypt and Israel clearly is significant and not without meaning and intention. When the Jews left Egypyt in the great Exodus, there was no way for them to get to Israel other than passing through the desert. (They happened to take a long way round, but the desert still presented an unavoidable obstacle.) As such, if Hashem wanted the Jewish people to travel through the desert in order to enter the land of Israel, there has to be something we may learn. The Sfas Emet teaches something which will hopefully prove relevant in understanding this problem better. He focuses on the meaning of the Hebrew word for desert, מדבר, and suggests that we may learn how to improve our character traits by understanding the nature of the desert. The Sfat Emet explains that the root of the word for speech (dibbur) is דבר. Clearly there is a connection between the concept of speech and the concept of a desert - a place devoid of all extraneous details.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wishing you all a שבת שלום ומבורך.


Following Shabbat we celebrate Shavuot, the festival which marks the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. In Parshat Yitro, we read of how the events unfolded that momentous day.

When writing about Parshat Yitro previously, I have noted the fascinating phrase, "וכל העם רואים את הקולות - And the people saw the thunder". Noting that the faculty of vision is one which can be extremely misleading, I wrote:

"We can’t presume to know anything about anything by looking at it. The only way to know for sure is by listening to something, by slowly and closely analysing it. But at Har Sinai, when we were in such close proximity to Hashem, we experienced a return to the state of Adam HaRishon whereby our senses all told us the same thing, whereby they all told us the absolute truth. In this context we can understand the concept of Am Yisrael seeing the Kolot [thunder], because their hearing and their seeing were no different from one another. We can now understand that which normally has to be heard, (as in Sh’ma Yisrael – the knowledge of Hashem,) was so obvious and clear that Am Yisrael could clearly perceive through even the most deceiving of the senses." (Source)

That is one explanation. In this D'var Torah, I would like to mention another so that we can regard this occurence from a different perspective.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein has an intiguing D'var Torah that sheds light on this phenomenon. There is a Midrash (I can't find the original, but it is cited in Yalkut Shimoni and certainly appears in the Mechilta) that reads thus: "בשם רבי: "להודיע שבחן של ישראל שכשעמדו כולן לפני הר סיני לקבל את התורה היו שומעים את הדיבור ומפרשים אותו". We read here that Rebbi taught that at Har Sinai, when the Jewish people heard Hashem speaking to them, they didn't just hear the words but also interpreted them on their own. The source for this is found in Deuteronomy 32:10, where it says "יסובבנהו יבוננהו", which means "He encircled him, He made him comprehending".

We take the passage above to mean that Hashem made man an intellecual, reasoning and interpretive creature. As such, when we were given the Torah at Har Sinai, we didn't merely enjoy the uniquely magnificent sound and light show in a passive manner. When we read of the incredible spectacle that occured at Har Sinai that day, total silence shattered by blasts of the shofar, iluminated by crashes of thunder and roaring lightning, it would be easy to imagine the onlooking Jewish people as regarding things in a manner somewhat resembling a theatre audience.

It would be easy to simply take in what was happening, such was the awesome scale of this "show". Instead, the people took more than a simple passive role and instead took on a crucial role, participating in receiving the Torah. This is powerful lesson to us all - we never simply receive something in this world. The Torah is not a static entity with no relevance to us. We all have a deep connection to it and it remains up to us to engage with the Torah.

From Jerusalem, wishing you a stimulating and challenging Shavuot.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Parshat Bechukotai – פרשת בחוקתי

"אם בחוקתי תלכו ואת מצותי תשמרו ועשיתם אתם: ונתתי גשמיכם בעתם ונתנה הארץ יבולה ועץ השדה יתן פריו - If you will follow My decrees and observe My commandments and perform them; then I will provide your rains in their time, and the land will give its produce and the tree of the field will give its fruit. (ויקרא, פרק כו', ג'- יג)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Parshat Behar – פרשת בהר

"וְכִי-יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ, וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ, גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב וָחַי עִמָּךְ. אַל תִּקַּח מֵאִתּוֹ נֶשֶׁךְ וְתַרְבִּית, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹהֶיךָ; וְחֵי אָחִיךָ, עִמָּךְ. אֶת-כַּסְפְּךָ לֹא-תִתֵּן לוֹ, בְּנֶשֶׁךְ; וּבְמַרְבִּית, לֹא תִתֵּן אָכְלֶךָ. אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם, מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם לָתֵת לָכֶם אֶת אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן, לִהְיוֹת לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים. – And if your brother becomes impoverished, and his means fail in your proximity; then you shall hold on to him: as a stranger and a settler shall he live with you. Do not take from him interest and increase; and you shall have fear of your God; and let your brother live with you. Do not give him your money for interest, nor you food shall you give him for increase. I am Hashem your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be a God to you." (ויקרא כה:לה-לח.) In the verses above, the Torah delineates the imperative not to charge interest of one's fellow. At the end of this particular passage, Hashem points out that He is the same God who took the Jewish nation out of Egypt. At first glance, there doesn't seem to be much of a link between the two issues. Rashi, in his classic commentary on the Torah, presents a brilliant insight as to why this commandment is related to the exodus. Rashi's understanding is that during the exodus, God caused ten plagues to be wreaked upon the Egyptians. One of these was the death of the first-born sons of the Egyptian households. Rashi explains that God "distinguished between he who was a firstborn and he who was not a firstborn," before going on to point out therefore that he is very capable of "knowing and exacting punishment from one who lends money to a Jew with interest, while saying that [the money] belongs to a non-Jew." Rashi's point is that the Jews should understand that the God who is telling them not to levy interest on their loans to one another is the same God as the One who took them out of Egypt, and that they would be foolish to try and hide things from a God who has already previously demonstrated His ability to decisively distinguish between things that may not seem immediately clear to us mortals. While this understanding of the verse is perfectly valid, it is entirely possible that it was meant to serve as a severe warning to the Jews to be entirely truthful in their dealings, there is another way of interpreting this verse's function. In Ma'ayanei HaTorah, the following thoughts, attributed to HaDrash v'HaIyun, are mentioned. Loosely translated: The early generations of commentators found it hard to understand why it was that the Egyptians were punished for that which they did to the Jews. After all, didn't God's decree that the Jews should be "enslaved and oppressed"? The Ravad, Rav Avraham Ben David, explains, however, that their guilt lay not in the fact that they fulfilled this decree, but in their overly-zealous attitude, one that resulted in them going above and beyond "merely" oppressing the Jews; the Egyptians fairly tortured the Jews. Even though there was indeed a directive for the Jews to be oppressed to some level, there was no need to have them tortured, certainly not to the extent that they were. It turns out that the Egyptians not only collected exorbitant taxes from the Jews, they also added on interest and taxes needlessly, thus going beyond that which had been decreed by God. As such, anyone who charges interest of his fellow is deemed a heretic, for he thereby legitimates the actions of the Egyptians towards his forebears. It would seem that one of the reasons for the incongruous mentioning of the exodus from Egypt is that we are to prove ourselves worthy of this exodus; that if we are commanded not to levy interest on one another, we need only take a look back at those who had previously taken interest from Jews. The Ravad explains that one who charges interest is deemed as having heretical views about the exodus; our understanding must be that one who charges interest of his fellow Jew is to be considered as no better than the pepetrators of the torturous conditions to which Jews were subjected. It is my fervent wish that we may all turn away from the path of making life hard for one's fellow, and that we may all become better and more considerate people. Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Parshat Emor – פרשת אמור

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adapted from the teachings of Rav Zalman Sorotzkin.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!