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!