Thursday, December 25, 2008

An Inner Fire

When fire was created on the first Motzaei Shabbos it represented a collaboration of man and G-d. Prior to sinning in Gan Eden, man would not have needed any external indicator of light - he himself would glow. But following his mistake - man was lost in the darkness - without some external light to direct him. Fire was Hashem's gift to man - because once given to him, man could recreate it at will.

There is also a subtle reminder of the metaphorical darkness that man was subject to ( following his sin and the introduction of confusion into the world ). Wherever a flame burns - it will always point upwards. In whatever state of uncertainty and lack of direction we may find ourselves - all we need do is light a candle, and it will point the way we need to turn, heavenward.

Perhaps this is why the flame, more than any other aspect of the restored temple service, was privileged to bear the miracle that would mark the holiday of Chanukah. Because in their own way, the Chashmonaim were already marching to it's light - doing what was right in the face of, and despite, all opposition. The flames of the menorah simply brought down to earth the fire that led those true to Hashem in the period of Hellenistic darkness.

May we merit to march to the light of an unwavering candle, and may the physical manifestation, the holy menorah, be relit again, speedily and in our days, amen.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Fight, Fight, Fight !

When the Torah tells us that Yaakov Avinu fought with an angel – we must ask ourselves, what was he fighting for, or against ?

The Medrash explains that this was the personal, guardian angel of Esav, whom Yaakov was due to meet in the morning. The Medrash, elaborates, however, that Esav had the distinct privilege of having as a 'guardian' angel – Samael or Satan. As to what they were fighting about – well – Samael, explains the Kli Yakar, is derived from the Aramaic word לסמא meaning to blind. Samael was attempting to blind Yaakov Avinu to the presence of G-d in this world.

How did Samael think that he could persuade a tzaddik of Yaakov's caliber that there is no G-d ? By rolling around in the dust – or the dust of Lashon Hara. When slander is used ( literal mudslinging as it were ) then we are inclined to let it's insidious influence penetrate, no matter how absurd.

So how does Yaakov emerge victorious from this encounter ? When the dawn of clarity and light comes up. And what is Samael's parting shot ? Yaakov's thigh – an allusion to his offspring. Yaakov Avinu won't fall for this ploy but of his children there will be those who do.

How can we overcome this challenge, the challenge to see the divine hand of goodness in everything despite the mudslinging of the Satan ? Like Yaakov – wait and see the dawning of a new day. Both literally and figuratively – when we experience the miracle that is renewal ( from the minutiae like a new day to the incredible like the birth of a child ) we are once again connected with the source of all renewal – The Source of All Good. Hashem.

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, December 05, 2008

Mine Mine Mine - It's All Mine !!

If there is one striking difference between the wicked Lavan and the humble Yaakov it would be this, taking credit.

After twenty years of hard labor and, arguably the first fertility clinic in the world ( for sheep ) Yaakov amasses great wealth. By his own admission, he was on call round the clock and always took responsibility for any loss. Nothing was chalked up to “normal wear and tear”. Even the proliferation of livestock, at which he worked quite diligently, he describes as having been given to him by Hashem [ see Bereishis 30:9-12]. Yaakov epitomizes the middah of realizing that all comes from Hashem.

Lavan is a stark contrast. He pays lip service to believing in Hashem ( when he clears the house of idolatry in order to host Eliezer ) and even pretends to value other peoples contributions [ see Bereishis 29:15 ]. But the real Lavan comes oozing to the surface when he chases Yaakov and Co. down after their hasty departure. He says, “Your wives - are mine, your children – mine, your wealth – mine … everything you have you got from me” [Bereishis 31:43]. What is the defining principle of Lavan’s wickedness ? Not the desire for pleasure, and not the desire for honor ( he has those in spades, though ) But the driving force behind his Lavan’ness – is him, just him. He is so self centered that the world revolves around him and all the good that happens must be because of him.

This is a powerful lesson for us as to the extent that self centeredness can reach. I can cheat my friend with impunity if all I care about is my end of the bargain. I can even worship idols – because after all the important thing is how they make me feel.

Let us take this shabbos of serious contrast between the selflessness of Yaakov and the selfishness of Lavan to look inside ourselves and chase away any semblance of egocentrism.

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Whose Bracha Is It Anyway ?

One of the most perplexing things about the episode of the brachos that Yitzchak gives Yaakov is the seeming bit of trickery that needs to be employed by Yaakov in order to receive them.

One of Eisav’s little dishonesties was pretending to be righteous. Specifically, says the medrash, that he would garner his father’s approval by asking him nonsensical questions in halacha and misleed Yitzchak into thinking that he was scholarly and pious. Interestingly, this action is referred to by the passuk as entrapping his father with his mouth [Bereishis 25:28]. So Eisav is basically encroaching on Yaakov’s koach and using it in a fundamentally Eisav-like fashion – to lie. This is what leads Yitzchak to believe that Eisav is worthy of the brachos.

Therefore, the True and Fair Judge decrees that Yaakov should reverse this process in order to merit his father’s brachos. Yaakov uses his hands to slaughter sheep and present food to his father. The torah even emphasizes this when Yitzchak proclaims, after feeling Yaakov’s dressed up hands, “see this is my son Eisav”. Yaakov must use two of Eisav’s traits, lying and the power of the hands, to undue the cosmic damage done by his brother – and thusly merit the brachos.

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Blessing In Disguise ?

When Lavan sees that nothing will dissuade his sister, Rivka, from following Eliezer back to Canaan – he gives her an interesting beracha.

“May you have thousands of descendants and may your children defeat their enemies”
[Bereishis 24:60]

This is the same Lavan who will later attempt to cheat Yaakov out of 20 years worth of salaries. The same one who was so completely selfish as to chase down Eliezer just to find his money – where does he get the altruism to offer a beracha ?

Answer is – he doesn’t. Lavan’s beracha is actually a parting shot – a spiteful, hateful interjection that is perfectly in line with Lavan’s character. When Rivka is offered a ‘way out’ of her father’s ( and brother’s ) household – Lavan feels jealous and threatened – his sister should be there to do his bidding, period – and if she is to marry – let the groom come here ! When Rivka shows her determination to leave immediately Lavan attempts to sow within her mind the seeds of his own malcontent. As Rashi [ad. Loc.] points out – his beracha for the descendents was that they come from Rivka and not another wife. His ‘beracha’ – if we can still call it that – reads more like this –

“Hope you don’t play second fiddle to some other wife and that your kids don’t all die out in wars !”

Clearly, we can see Lavan has nothing but his own selfish grudges in mind.

And us ? Well – presumably we aren’t as spiteful as Lavan ( Chas VeShalom ! ) but everyone could use another perspective on their comments – before we say something – think – will it come out as we mean it ? Or will it be a ‘beracha’ that is really jealousy or pettiness in disguise ?

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, November 07, 2008

Are We The Eyes and Ears Of Hashem ?

When Hashem commands Avram to enter with Him into a covenant He changes his name as well. Avram becomes Avraham.

Rashi, quoting the gemara in nedarim [32b], points out that before the bris Avraham was lacking (control or holiness of) five limbs - two eyes, two ears and the male organ. With the bris, Avraham increased these five limbs and had to correspond with an extra "ה" in his name.

What does having a bris milah have to do with the ears and eyes ?

A bris is not just circumcision - elective surgery performed for comfort or health. A bris is a sign - a declaration that we are allied to, and servants of, Hashem.

As servants we see things differently – not just in terms of how they will affect us – but rather, how will they affect all of our interests – which are really our master's interests. We even hear things differently. What might have been a benign comment becomes a malicious slight if the honor of my Master is involved.

The challenge for us is obvious – we have one aspect of the bris milah. But have we really fixed our other limbs ? Do we see things in terms of the chillul or kiddush Hashem that they will cause ? And our ears ? When we hear of an idea or goal that is antithetical to Torah does it sound wrong ? Or perhaps, do we have to make a conscious decision that it is wrong ?

IY"H we will all affirm our covenant with Hashem to the point that what we see and what we hear will reflect not only our choice to serve G-d but also our status as current servants of Hashem.

Hatzlacha !!.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Folly Of Man

One of the generations that are mentioned in the Torah bears the curious name of Enosh, or mankind. It was in his day, the Torah tells us, that man had begun to "call out in the name of G-d" [see Bereishis 4:26]

Why did man only now begin to pray to G-d ? Didn't Adam daven to Hashem for forgivness of his sin. Didn't Cain walk the land fasting and begging repentenence for his sin ? The passuk can certainly not be understood on a simplistic level.

Rashi says that the simple reading of the word "הוחל" as "begun" is incorrect and it should be understood rather as a term of desecration "חילול". The Targum Onkelos reads it as a beginning - a beginning of the mistaken saga of idolatry - of ascribing to helpless, worthless items power that belongs only to G-d.

Either way, it is supremely poignant to note that this occurs during the generation named for Enosh. This could be the Torah's way of telling us that this is to be a lifelong battle of the condition of mankind - the challenge to overcome typical human shortsightedness and see through to the original and supreme cause of al the occurs - Hashem.

Hatzlacha !!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Good Kvittel !

The seforim kedoshim speak about the process of judgment that occurs during the month of Tishrei. On Rosh Hashanna we are judged and on Yom Kippur the judgment is sealed. But there is still some aspect of judgment that is held over until Hoshaana Rabba. This is metaphorically referred to as a "pitka tava" or a 'good note'. The imagery being that the books of life are still out and even though your judgment has already been sealed – you can still add a postscript. Therefore, we daven for Hashem to add a favorable kvittel or note to our judgment.

According to the baalei mussar, however, the inscription in the book of life - or more correctly the book of righteous versus the book of the wicked – is not written by Hashem – but rather by ourselves. Our judgment is based on the choices we make for the future – we choose which book we want to be in – and the rest of the year is the follow up. With that in mind – how do we understand the 'kvittel' or postscript ?

Perhaps it can be understood as a page marker. When we lose our place in the book of the righteous – when we know what we want to do, overall, but have forgotten how to make that specifically happen – that is when we would need a page marker or a pointer to refocus our efforts.

On Hoshaana Raaba we take an extra bundle of five aravos and beat them against the floor. Instead of the bundle of all four species – which represent all types of Jews ( scholars, righteous and regular ) – we make a point of taking the simplest species that has no taste and bears no fruit. This statement is our 'page marker', our reminder that no matter how much we have accomplished – we should not lose focus and get carried away by images of grandeur – we should maintain proper humility which will enable us to remember our proper place and the service which we perform.

Good Kvittel !

Friday, October 17, 2008

From Whence The Kedusha Came

Why did the simchas beis hashoeva generate such a tremendous happiness ?

The water that was poured onto the mizbeach in the nisuch hamayim ceremony was poured into one of two crevices that, according to the gemara, go all the way down into the depths of the earth. Rav Pinkus, zatzal, opined that this was actually connecting the upper waters ( the rain water that turned into spring water that was drawn for the ceremony ) and the lower waters ( the depths of the earth that the libation went into ). Water is Hashem's way of granting us blessing - as the gemara in taanis says "greater is the day of rainfall than the day of the resurrection of the dead" - the upper waters and lower waters were split during creation and on Succos we reconnect them in an abundant display of Hashem' kindness - this is truly a cause for an unparalleled happiness.

Enjoy !!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Are We Now Locked Out ?

When we daven the final prayer of Yom Kippur we are cognizant of the awesome day's ending and the gates of heaven closing. That is why the tefilla is called "neilah".

The Zohar states that when we shout at the end, "Hashem Hu HaE-lokim" seven times - we are actually breaking through the seven levels of Shamayim and revealing Hashem's presence as exclusive in each one. Alternatively, the shechina, which was palpably present during Yom Kippur and all of the days of awe ( as the passuk states - "... call out to Him when He is near" - those are the aseres ymei teshuva ) is actually retreating into the higher spheres which are its usual domain.

I remember reading in one of the "seforim kedoshim" ( meaning some holy book, the identity of which has long escaped my memory ) that when Hashem locks the gates at the end of Neilah - he is not locking us out - on the contrary ! All that retreating into the heavens is actually just a 'hook' that pulls us with Him ! Hashem may be locking the doors but He is locking us in ! That is why our very next holiday is described as us sitting in the shade of He in Whom We Believe.

May we merit a clear understanding and feeling of being "locked in" with the holy presence and may our entire year reflect this closeness with G-d that we have now acheived.

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Dangers of Quick Fix Teshuva.

When someone repents there can be many motivations – why am I suddenly doing what's right as opposed to what's wrong ? Among the most classic motives for bettering yourself is suffering, travails – all sorts of negative experiences that 'provoke' us into cleaning up our act. If G-d was not displeased with me, we reason, He would not have made me suffer so. Therefore, since I have clear recognition – or at least clear intention to avoid this suffering in the future – I repent.

In describing such a cycle, the passuk tells us : "And my anger will flare up at them on that day, and I shall leave them and hide My face from them – and they will be consumed [by their troubles] and many evils will find them – and on that day he will say 'behold, it is because my G-d is not in my midst [because I have sinned and turned away from Him] that these calamities have befallen me" [Devarim 31:17]

So why does Hashem proclaim in the next passuk, after man has recognized his sin, that he will then "hide his face" from him and more tragedy will befall him ?

The commentaries offer several possible answers. I would like to offer the following : Just because man has come to recognize deficiencies in his relationship to his creator doesn't mean he's corrected them – on the contrary – he is likely to settle back and congratulate himself for not being blinded by worldliness and physicality. In fact, this 'recognition' is far from the solution to his spiritual demise – it is an exacerbation ! That's why Hashem heaps punishment further upon him – because he has deluded himself that he is already on the road to betterment when he is really firmly entrenched in stagnation.

How can we avoid this faux teshuva ? Pitfalls await at every turn – especially for such a lofty goal as repentance. Our recourses are two : Firstly, be wary of the 'quick fix' teshuva, don't be lulled into a sense that once you've decided to clean up your act you are on G-d's good list – you're not , not yet - at least not until you begin to follow through. Secondly, pray. Pray a lot. Ask Hashem for assistance, not only in returning to him but also in making that return something deep and meaningful and real – not just superficial and perfunctory.

With Hashem's help, may we all merit to see our errors and only then begin the real work of correcting them and ourselves and being the kind of Jews we can be.

Gmar Chasima Tova to all and …

Hatzlacha !!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Turnabout IS fair play !

So why do we blow 100 blasts ? To confuse the Satan. [see Gemara Rosh HaShanna 16b]

How exactly do we confuse the master of confusion himself ? After all, we don't intend to sin - usually. It's just that the satan manages to sufficiently befuddle our mind. He weaves promises of success, redemption or salvation that seem more real to us at the time of the sin than the real promises that Hashem has given us if we do his commandments - that's why we sinned in the first place ! So how do we turn the tables on him ?

By charging down the door of the courtroom.

When we have done wrong, the last thing we are anxious to do is get called on it. We are guilty - why suffer through the ignonimity of being reprimanded. It's not like a court case where I believe I can win - in those I'll be eager to get there - to see justice done ( my justice, of course ). But here, I am guilty - so, no hurry, I know what's coming - a reprimand that will usually leave me speechless. I have no defense.

It is specifically this head-hanging, shamefaced posture that the Satan ( who is also G-d's DA and chief prosecuter ) loves to exploit. He'll grandstand and proclaim your guilt, and what's worse, your attempts at evasion of justice. But if we charge down the courtroom door - if we summon the crowds and bang the gavel ourselves ( the blowing of the shofar resembles both ) the Satan is left without his great speech. And Hashem is able to listen to the angel for the defense and judge us favorably.

May we all merit a favorable judgment and have a year filled with only blessing and sweetness in our service of G-D, Amen.

Hatzlacha !!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

New and Improved Or The Same Great Taste You Remember ?

In life, we sometimes want it all. New, improved, exciting – not like all that old worn out stuff. Or maybe we are tired of gimmicks and promises. We want reliability, the same classic quality that you can depend on. Perhaps we really want them both ?

When Moshe tells the Jewish people that they are "Nitzavim" standing rigidly and unbendingly before G-d – what does he hint at ? How is this supposed to be a positive reassurance ? Isn't it a negative thing to be stagnant ? Why would I want to know that I am standing in the same place that I was before – shouldn't I always be moving onwards and upwards ?

The answer is no.

We really need both. To be mobile and fluid, and to be rock-solid. The reliability of staid and ancient – right alongside the flexibility and refreshed spirits of the new and original.
When we feel like things in this communications driven world may be spinning too fast and we have no anchor – realize that we are still Nitzavim, still standing in the same place we always are, in the presence of – and in covenant with – Hashem.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Big Picture

ספר דברים פרק כו : טו
השקיפה ממעון קדשך מן השמים וברך את עמך את ישראל ואת האדמה אשר נתתה לנו כאשר נשבעת לאבתינו ארץ זבת חלב ודבש:

רבינו בחיי על דברים פרק כו: טו
וכן דרשו רז"ל אמר ר' חנינא בר פפא בוא וראה כמה גדול כחן של מתנות עניים, שכל השקיפה שבתורה לרעה וכאן לברכה:

In the final capstone of the formula we say when we declare our Maaser obligations all paid up, we implore Hashem to gaze down from the heavens and send blessing to us and our land. Chazal point out that the term "hashkifa" or gaze is never found in the torah in a positive framework, other than now. The fact that we now ask Hashem to gaze down upon us shows us the positive power of tzedaka ( because we have just gotten finished declaring that we have given all of our maaser – to poor people who deserved it ).

Why does Hashem's 'gaze' indicate divine displeasure or punishment, and how exactly does tzedaka change that ?

When we refer to gazing down – we are talking about the 'big picture', the overview – a kind of analysis of how a society is doing, in a general sense. This is the term used by the Torah when it describes the condemnation of Sodom [see Bereshis 19:28]. This is also the term used to describe Hashem's gaze onto the Egyptian war camp before He kills them all in the Yam Suf [see Shemos 14:24]. In both these cases, any individual acts were overlooked in favor of the ‘big picture,’ the general state of affairs. The people of Sodom were killed because they collectively promoted a society of selfishness and cruelty – not because of the actions of each one (even though their individual actions were indeed cruel and selfish). The same holds true for the Egyptians – we even see that they the individuals had differing levels of culpability and that's why they died at different rates in the waters [see Shemos 15:5 and Rashi ad loc.] – but the common denominator was their participation in the oppressive society – and that was sufficient to condemn them all to death.

So how does tzedaka change this ? Well, in this pasuk we are referring to a very specific type of tzedaka – tzedaka on a societal scale. This isn't something I do when I feel like it – nor is it something that some do and others don't – this is a society-wide phenomenon, to make sure that those less fortunate are taken care of. Here it is specifically the wide view, the overall analysis which shows us how great this mitzva is. My apple tree may only have yielded three bushels – which translates into only a handful of apples for the needy – but if we 'gaze' down at the whole community and see that the needy can get a few apples from me and some wheat from my neighbor and some vegetables from the guy down the block …. Well, that really is powerful.

And how does that change our life ? Two ways.

One: don't discount your own small mitzvos. Don't believe that your little chassadim or your two moments of Torah ( like the amount of time you spent reading this dvar Torah ) are not very significant – au contraire ! They are actually the pinpricks of color that combine to form a beautiful canvas !

Two: learn to appreciate the small acts of kindness that others do – try to see them in a ‘mitzvah overview gaze’ and not a gaze of negativity.

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, September 12, 2008

For Whom The Gavel Pounds

The Torah enjoins us to make timely payment to any day laborer we may seek to employ [see Devarim 24:15]. If we do not, says Hashem, then the laborer in question will call out to Me and I will address the issue personally – and you will be in the wrong. We know that Hashem's courtroom does not need an initial complaint to be filed in order to mete out justice – why does the passuk stress the 'calling out' of laborer ?

Rashi, quoting the Sifri, tells us that whether or not there is a cry of helplessness, Hashem will punish the wrongdoer. If there is a cry, however, He will be quicker to punish.

This still leaves us in a quandary ! The laborer's cry is still a factor in deciding Hashem's justice – isn't He objective and fair ?

Perhaps we may say that there is an objective factor in all this. When you withhold money from it's rightful owner – you are in violation of a monetary law. If you cause your fellow man any pain, however, you are in violation of the principles of compassion – which we are obligated to keep with no less stringency than the principles of monetary ownership.

So if the laborer cries out – we have hurt him to a greater degree than if he does not. It is only just and fitting that Hashem should seek to redress this issue sooner – for it isn't just about money – rather it is also about the well being of one of His children – and that takes the highest priority.

In these days of personal improvement and introspection we are constantly on the lookout for an 'edge' – what will give us the ability to really do teshuva ? Perhaps we need to increase our awareness of our fellow man – not just a consideration for his possessions but also for how his feelings are affected by our actions.

Hatzlacha !!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Sons To The Heavenly Father

The prohibition against self mutilation ( a common mourning practice in ancient times ) comes with the following introduction : "You are children to Hashem, your G-d, do not cut yourselves ..." [Devarim 14:1]

Obviously, this special familial relationship is intended to give us some background depth into the prohibition.

Rashi, quoting chazal, tells us that princes and princesses should never be in a state of dishevelment - and that this is the equivalent for us.

The Ramban offers an explanation that runs dearer to my heart - often children don't understand the actions of their parents. What may seem as cruel ( taking away or limiting the candy intake ) is really for the child's best ( eating your weight in candy is unadvisable - which the child would probably do if left to their own devices ).

Now, with older children - they usually claim to have a monopoly on wisdom - frequently to the specific exclusion of their parents - but in our case there is no parallel - Hashem knows best, always.

And so the acts of mutilation - or any other extreme sign of utter despondency in mourning - is inappropriate because, deep down, we are just children and our Father In Heaven is doing what's best.

Oh, we may cry - because it hurts - that's ok - but to feel that life cannot go own because of this loss - that's inappropriate - because if G-d did it - He must have had a good reason. And the only consolation that we can have is that, we may not like it, but, the same hand that is taking away our loved one - is also holding us in a tight embrace - telling us - "shhhhhh - all will be well, eventually"

May we be zocheh to truly feel ourselves to be on the path to destiny, guided by the loving hand of G-d Himself - and may we always be able to put our pain in this perspective - that we don't/can't know why - just that there is a good reason.

Hatzlacha !

Friday, August 22, 2008

You Are What You Eat

"ויענך וירעיבך ויאכילך את המן ...למען הודיעך כי לא על הלחם לבדו יחיה האדם כי על כל מוצא פי ד' יחיה האדם"
[דברים ח:ג]

"And He tortured you and He starved you and He fed you the manna ... to instruct you that not by bread alone shall man live, rather, by all that comes from G-d's mouth shall man live" [Devarim 8:3]

How does the manna teach us that we must live by "…what comes out of Hashem's mouth …" ? What does the food we eat have to do with our listening skills ?

But the food we eat has a direct influence over who we are. Chazal discuss this with regard to the spiritual aspects of kashrus. Non kosher food causes a dulling of the heart ( טמטום הלב ). If the food we put into our mouths influences our actions – then it stands to reason that what comes out of our mouths is a direct result of that fuel. A "systems test", if you will. The Baal HaTurim actually states that this is the reason for the manna – Bnei Yisrael could never have received(, and subsequently learned, )the torah without it !

So the manna teaches us that what goes in influences what comes out – and it's what comes out which is the deciding factor. Why did G-d choose to give the Jews such strange 'bread' ? Maybe it's due to it's necessary, special mission of fueling the first encounter with torah learning.

Just like the manna produced no waste product – so too, are the words of torah complete – with nothing extra or irrelevant. And just like the manna could taste like many different foods – so too, does the torah have 70 'faces' ( multiple meanings, nuances and understandings can all be derived from a single word – or even letter ). And just like the falling of the manna proclaimed publicly the level of righteousness of it's recipient ( the manna could fall as close as the doorstep of the intended recipient or as far out as the fields surrounding the camp – additionally, it was either ready to eat or required cooking – all based on how much effort Hashem was willing to spare the recipient, due to his righteousness ) so too does our speech proclaim, rather publicly, our personal level of righteousness.

So the lesson of the manna is that what goes in may be important – but it's what comes out as a result that is the ultimate goal – and that while our speech is of paramount importance – it is the "speech" of Hashem ( the torah ) that gives us our very life.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Are You Carrying A Greater Burden Than You Realize ?

When Moshe Rabbeinu reviews with the people the last 38 years in the desert, he also recounts his own personal saga regarding his denied entrance into Eretz Yisrael. When describing Hashem's displeasure with his actions Moshe Rabbeinu uses a very particular appelation :

" ... ויתעבר ד' בי " [Devarim 3:26 ]

Literally, "And Hashem was impregnated (with anger) towards me ..."

When we are angry we actually create this alter ego of anger within us. We carry it around, and nurture it until it explodes into being with ferocity and spite. Anger can be a sudden lash out but it can also be this slow, growth process. This second type is more dangerous - since we aren't currently expressing our anger we may feel that we have conquered it, only to be rudely awakened when it is "born" in a future confrontation.

Yet another lesson in life that Moshe Rabbeinu includes in the "mussar shmooze of a lifetime".

Additionally, this parsha is always read directly after Tishaa Bav - perhaps this is a subtle reminder from Moshe Rabbeinu on how to fix the sinaas chinam that made Tishaa Bav into a tragic day. And once we conquer the anger within us and merit to serve Hashem with our whole hearts ( also in this week's parasha - see Shema ) we will merit to build for Him a temple in our hearts - and soon a physical temple in His Holy City - bimheira beyameinu, amen.

Hatzlacha !!

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Who Is Judging Who ?

In part of the epic mussar shmooze that is sefer Devarim, Moshe Rabbeinu discusses one seemingly incongruous point. Judges were appointed by Moshe and given certain guidelines about their task.

"... Judge righteously between man and his fellow ... for judgment belongs to G-d ..." [excerpted from Devarim 1:16-17]

Why do we need to know the directions that Moshe gave to the judges of the people ? And why is this part of the instructive legacy Moshe leaves for the entire nation ?

This principle ( that Judgment is, ultimately, G-d's ) is understood differently by Rashi and the Ramban.

Rashi, quoting the gemara in Sanhedrin [8a], explains that when we pervert justice we are causing Hashem to have 'extra work' because if we would have done our job right then the proper party would have gotten his reward/punishment - by messing with justice we are requiring G-d to 'clean up our mess' and set things straight in a roundabout fashion.

The Ramban explains this idea in the following way : Justice will get done one way or the other - we can either be part of the solution or part of the problem - the choice is up to us.

This is perhaps why Moshe Rabbeinu addresses this point to the entire nation ( and not just the judges ). To the judges he cautions, like Rashi, to not put 'extra' work upon Hashem - and be liable for it. While to the rest of the people, Moshe assures them - like the Ramban - that justice will be carried out no matter what - so they need not be suspicious or distrustful of their judges.

As to why this is part of Moshe's final message to the nation - perhaps this point is more fundamental that previously assumed. At the core of any mussar speech is the 'reason' to do what's right - and as we've seen when we carry out justice we are doing things the way Hashem would have them done. Could there be any greater 'reason' than allowing Hashem Himself to use our mundane actions as instruments of His Divine Will ?

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, August 01, 2008

An End To Exile

The "accidental murderer" is one whose actions are criminally negligent - but cannot be considered deliberate. So instead of being sentenced to death for his crime, he must sit in exile in one of the cities that are populated by the holy tribe of Levi until the death of the Kohen Gadol.

There are many interpertations of the message behind this unusual sentence. Most classic being that the Kohen Gadol somehow has the power to elevate the nation from a level of carelessness for the personal saftey of our fellows to a level of proper concern. And so the Kohen Gadol is tainted by this crime as well and must atone for it with his life, in the fullness of time.

But perhaps there is a different angle as well. It is known that we are never punished by G-d in a manner designed to harm us, rather, Hashem's justice is meant to be instructive and guiding us in a proper direction - much in the same way that a guard rail would hurt if we ran into it headlong - even though it is just there to prevent us from falling over the edge.

With this in mind let us examine the exile of the "accidental murderer". The tribe of Levi devoted themselves to serving Hashem - whether in learning His Torah or serving in His Temple. Any long term association with these tzaddikim would hopefully rub off on the receipient. And how much "rubbing off" will the murderer need to mend his ways ? Depends. It depends on his level of absorption of the righteous ways of the Leviim.

And what is the capstone ? The death of the Holiest Levi of them all, the Kohen Gadol. When the Kohen Gadol dies, all who are affected by the loss are moved to pledge themselves to fill the gap that he left. Since he is no longer around to perform this mitzva or another, we attempt to 'cover' and raise our standards of righteousness in his honor. And when the 'accidental murderer' has lived with the Leviim and identifies with their loss - he will also be moved to resolve to better his ways by this tragic loss. This will complete his teshuva - thusly earning hs freedom.

And what about us ? Are we not in exile ? Is Hashem not waiting for us to 'raise our game' and thus earn our deliverance ?

In this period of mourning for our losses - may we merit to increase our righteousness and become the jews we need to be to merit the geula sheleima, bimheira beyameinu, amen.

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Last Act Of Sacrifice

When Moshe Rabbeinu is commanded to fight the Midianites and then 'hang up his spurs', he doesn't hesitate one bit - but rather pushes ahead full steam with plans for the battle. Many reasons are given for this - and all of them indicate Moshe's praise. Some contend that Moshe would not delay a battle to avenge the honor of G-d, while others point out that Moshe would always perform every mitzva alacritiously - even if it was his last act alive.

I would like to add the following explanation - Moshe's love for Eretz Yisrael. Knowing that he would not bring the people into the land, Moshe actually hastened to perform his final mitzva so as not to delay their entrance into the land.

Parshas Mattos is usually read during the three weeks - a time of national tragedy. The anchor of this sad time is our abuse and disregard of Hashem's special 'daled amos', eretz yisrael. With his final act Moshe is trying to teach us how to be moser nefesh for this great zchus - even without entering it himself ! Sadly, at the end of the parasha we see that the shevatim of Gad and Reuven ( and half of Menashe ) didn't learn this lesson.

But we can !

Whether we have been privileged to live in Eretz Yisrael or just been here as a visitor - if we would internalize this, the last message of Moshe Rabbeinu, and see the land for it's immense and awesome importance - perhaps we will merit to reverse this period of time from sadness to gladness and from our current exile to redemption, bimheira beyameinu, amen.

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Are We Angels Or Are We Men ?

Regarding the most basic of all the korbanos - the korban Olah - the passuk makes an interesting association.

"Olas tamid ha'asuya behar sinai lereiach nichoach, ishei l'Hashem" [Bamidbar 28:6]
"An Olah sacrifice that is brought consistently, as is was brought on mount Sinai, a pleasing aroma, a burnt offering to Hashem" [Bamidbar 28:6]

Why the comparison to Har Sinai ? There were no sacrifices brought on Har Sinai ?

The Sefas Emes offers an explanation. There are two modes that man functions in. A journey to raise man's personal level of kedusha and to raise the levels of kedusha of the surrounding world, and a static mode - for when man has reached the source of kedusha.

Most of the time we are journeying, attaining higher levels of kedusha - but at times we are zocheh to tap into and be present at the root of all kedusha - Hashem Himself. At these times we are similar to the angels who are always before G-d. At those times our service of Him is categorized by standing, just like the angels stand.

This second, holier type of avodah is the highest form we practice - and is represented in every experience we had as a nation when we were in the presence of the Root of All Kedusha. At Har Sinai - we stood, like the angels. The avodah in the beis hamikdash is done standing - in deference to the shechina that rests there - and even in our private davening - the pinnacle is the section called the 'Amidah'.

And there is a connection between all these avodahs - that's why the korban Olah is reffered to as having been 'made' on Har Sinai - because the service of Hashem that we perform with the korban is similar to the experience we had at Har Sinai - tapping into the Root Of All Kedusha.

May we all be zocheh to realize that we stand before the Root Of All Kedusha three times a day - and in this realization may we be soon in the presence of the shechina in the Beis HaMikdash, bringing the korban Olah as it was 'brought' on Har Sinai, bimheira byameinu, amen.

Hatzlacha !!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Wouldn't You Like To Be A Donkey Too ?

Why did Hashem choose to put the power of speech in the hands of a donkey to rebuke Bilaam for his wicked intentions ?

A donkey is the symbol of irreverance and disregard for the higher stature of someone greater - as Chazal teach us "If the earlier generations may be compared to angels then we may be compared to men - but if they are men, then we are donkeys" [Shabbos 112b]. My Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Rhodes shlit"a, would explain that viewing earlier generations through our own myopic lens is tantamount to the attitude of a donkey - to him everything is on a level playing field - earlier generations, current generations, scholars, lay people, sinners - even animals !

It is therefor fitting for Bilaam, who is guilty of the very same irreverance ( he is so full of himself that he believes he can outwit G-d and curse the Jews ! ) to be rebuked by his donkey. And it is also fitting for an animal, who has no gift of speech, to point out to Bilaam his errors - seeing as how he planned his misdeeds with the very same gift of speech.

And us ? What can we take away from all this ?

Two things.

Firstly, appreciation for Hashem's justice that governs all aspects of life right down to how He deals with rouge gentile prophets.

Secondly, when we go down the path of irreverance and arrogance - we may deteriorate down the slippery slope until we attempt to challenge even Hashem himself ! And so we need to be extra careful to avoid this trait.

Hatzlacha !

Sunday, July 06, 2008

What is Pure ?

Once something is defiled - there is no such thing as re-purifying it. The entire concept of purity is something which has never been tainted.

So how does the Torah have all sorts of recipies for the repurification of man and kli ? The answer lies in the final ingredient. Time.

For light 'tumah' we are commanded to bathe ( either ourselves and our clothing or just ourselves ) and " tameh until nightfall". Even once we have fulfilled all the requirements of tahara - we still must wait for a new day to begin.

Why ?

Because we aren't removing the tumah - we are being recreated without it. And recreation occurs constantly - every day. When we are impure - we actually drag the tumah with us into our next day, into our next recreation. By toivelling and fulfilling all conditions for tahara - we are actually just leaving the tumah behind when Hashem recreates us.

And what about serious tumah ? We need an entire, seven day, repurification process. Seven days is the paradigm of creation - Hashem initially made the world in these seven days - and He recreates it every week. ( incidentally - that is one of the most special things about shabbos - but that's for another post )

So, now that we are unable to keep most of the laws of tumah and tahara - what does this mean for us ?

It means that every tomorrow is affected by today. Without effort and intervention - my mistakes of yesterday will roll over into my today. But, with a serious attempt at re-attaining my pristine status - Hashem, in his kindess, will grant me a recreation in the same pure state that He initially granted me life.

Hatzlacha !

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Good, The Bad & The Holy

If the 250 men who brought Ketores were in error ( as seen by their subsequent death ) why does Hashem not command that the shovels they used be destroyed ?

The Alshich tells us that the answers lies in a clear understanding of a complex subject : dedication to Hashem.

At the extremes, dedication is simple - either you are completely dedicated, submitting yourself entirely to the cause, or you are completely undedicated - uncaring and apathetic. The complexity lies somewhere in the middle - can you be dedicated to a cause but too hung up on your own prejudices to leave behind your own agenda ? Yes, you can be.

The incense shovels used represented exactly this type of dedication to Hashem. They were well intentioned - they sought only to serve Hashem and His glory - but they couldn't get past their own hang ups ( namely, that they should be doing the serving and not Aharon HaKohen ).

Yes, the intentions were noble - that is why we see that the shovels get preserved as part of the mizbeach itself! No, their action was not free of sin - that is why they are forever known as the shovels of those men who sinned ( see Bamidbar 17:3-5 ).

And what about us ?

This lesson is instructive to us in two ways :
1. We should always recognize the good and holy intentions in others - even if they come with baggage.
2. We should be ever vigilant of our own actions - we should never be satisfied with just performing a mitzva, we should scrutinize our motives until we can be sure that we are not bringing any impurity and personal gain into the equation.

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Taking Tree

Why was the parsha of the meraglim written next to the parsha of Miriam ? To emphasise the wickedness of the meraglim - they saw Miriam punished for slander and failed to take notice.
( Rashi Bamidbar 13:2 Quoting the medrash Rabba )

The Maayan Beis Hashoeva poses the following question : Why did we have to wait until someone was punished for slander to take notice ? Isn't it enough that it's an issur ? He answers by making a distinction - yes, it's an issur to speak lashon hara against a person - and for that we need no precedent for anyone to take notice of - but against a land ? That is not as straight forward and for that we would require a precedent to teach us the wrongness of the action.

But how does the example fit the case ? Miriam's slander was regarding a person ?!

Rav Schwab answers that Moshe was not affected by the lashon hara as a regular person might be. A normal person may be hurt or offended by negative comments made against them - it's only normal. Moshe Rabbeinu, however, was exceedingly humble - he wasn't offended by others' judgments of him - he was too busy trying to live up to his own intense self scrutiny ( this is the true meaning of humilty - not mistaken low self esteem ). Therefore Miriam - who spoke about Moshe, who was unaffected, may have seemed not to have been guilty - if not for the divine judgment upon her.

So Miriam's case was one where the recipient is not affected directly by the slander. This does serve as an adequate precedent for the case of the spies - since the land they spoke of also remained unaffected by their slander.

And if we ask what is wrong with slandering the unoffended ?

Well, we have two paths in life - we can be givers or takers. Those who heal or those who hurt. It almost doesn't matter what effect our actions have on others - but in order to solidify these actions within ourselves - we need to perform them. Should we be compassionate to someone who doesn't/can't feel it ? Well -if we are then we are a compassionate person - and that is as worthy goal as any.

Hatzlacha !!

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Mount Of Destruction

The mishna in Pirkei Avos ( sixth perek - which isn't really part of the tractate - but that's another discussion ... ) recounts that a heavenly voice emanates from Har Chorev and warns ... "Woe to people who take part in the degradation of the Torah".

The degradation that is being referred to is those who forsake the Torah for other, more mundane, pursuits and leave the Torah forlorn - so to speak.

This is why Har Sinai is described by one of it's other names - Har Chorev - or the mountain of Churban, destruction. You see, when the Torah was given to the world - it represented a great gift - Hashem's very wisdom encapsulated and distilled in a manner that is now accessible to mere mortal man. However with that gift came the potential for great destruction - if we ignore the Torah or fail to accord it proper respect - we are culpable for a great wrong.

So why accentuate the negative ? Why stress the potential destruction rather than the great possible gain ? The Maharal explains that the negative makes a stronger impression than the positive. Hatred is more felt than love. While at first glance this may seem disheartening - it is really a potentially great point of chizzuk.

We were entrusted with the ticking time bomb of monumental proportions. Not only is the potential gain, if we properly honor and study the Torah, great - but the very fact that Hashem put that specific ball in our court is perhaps the greatest testament to His divine faith in us.

Take heart ! We are Hashem 's chosen nation - chosen, not only to proclaim Hashem's name in this world , but also to guard this world from the destruction that would follow if we ignore our noble calling.

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, May 30, 2008

What Banner Do We March Under ?

In the desert, the Jewish people marched in a very specific formation. Their layout was actually a recreation of the places the tribes ( the sons of Yaakov Avinu themselves ) took around Yaakov Avinu's casket as they carried it to burial.

The pride and splendor of marching in their own, divinely ordained places was said to be so magnificent that the feeling of 'rightness' and belonging was forever assimilated into our national conciousness. So much so, that when the nations of the world offer us places of prominence we refuse them - because their pedestals can never compare with our own places [see Shir HaShirim 7:1 and Rashi ad loc.].

The Ramban, in his iggeres, cautions us to pursue humility - because the "hearts of men" - their admiration - is a currency that can't buy very much in terms of what is truly worthwhile.

With all this in mind we should always ask ourselves - are we pursuing our true goals ? Do we really value the camping of the shevatim over the praises of the world ?

And if we marched under our own banner - what would the insignia be ?

Hatzlacha !!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Study The Good Book - But Why ?

If you shall walk in my "chukim" … [Vayikra 26:3]

Rashi points out that the remainder of the passuk seems all inclusive of any condition that Hashem may place upon us – we must keep the mitzvos and actively fulfill them. What then, could Hashem's first condition of proper Jewish living be ? Toiling in torah study.

The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh asks a few questions on this position :
1. Isn't Torah Study one of the aforementioned mitzvos ?
2. And if you assume that Torah Study serves as a prerequisite to fulfillment of the mitzvos – why label it a chok (law that is unfathomable by logical reason) ? Isn't it, as a prerequisite, anything but unfathomable by logic ?

Yes, torah study as a prerequisite to mitzvah observance is logical – but that's not the kind of study the passuk is referring to. When Hashem instructs us to toil in understanding of His holy words – it is a missive that goes above and beyond mere comprehension. What we are really enjoined to do is to undertake a level of dedication that defies all logic – a dedication that is a matter of simple a-logical devotion, and when we do that we will be truly worthy of the blessings that Hashem promises to shower upon us.

May we all be zocheh to achieve at least a slice of this – amen !

Hatzlacha !

Friday, May 16, 2008

When In Rome ...

Why does our parasha, which discusses shmitta and yovel, end off with an admonition against idolatry ?
Rashi explains that the relevance is to the immediately previous topic, slavery. You may think that if you suffer the ignonimity to be sold into an idolatrous household, you would at least be permitted to act in accordance with that household and worship idols. Not so, says the Torah, you must maintain your own, higher standards wherever you are.

While this is a wonderful idea to keep in our back pocket - and from which we can draw inspiration regularly - there may be a deeper thought beneath the surface.

Rashi also explains [Vayikra 26:1] how this slave got into this situation to begin with. He began by allowing his desire to get the better of him regarding the issur of trafficking in shmitta produce. He will then spiral downwards, says Rashi, until he must sell himself into slavery to cover his debts - and if he will still not repent, he will even be further sold into the hands of non Jews.

So to summ up - he was greedy and is now under the jurisdiction of idolaters who have principles that counter his own.

To this person Hashem makes special mention of the prohibition of idolatry. But Hashem also makes special mention of our special position in the hierarchy of society. We are "personal slaves of the Almighty". I believe this is intended as a chizzuk inspiration to the downtrodden sinner. He may have been guilty of financial impropriety. He may have followed his desires instead of his conscience until he found himself in this sorry state. But the spark that can always pull a Jew out of the quagmire of his own failings is the knowledge that Hashem still considers him good enough to be His servant.

As the Ohr Hachaim HaKadosh points out - when Hashem declares bnei yisrael's bondage He refers to it as an inborn trait. We are born into it - and no matter how badly we stumble and muck around - we're still it. And Hashem just wanted to remind us of this - especially when we fall into hard times.

Hatzlacha !!

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Are We Men Or Are We Oxen ?

"If an ox or a sheep or a goat shall be born, it shall be for seven days with it's mother and from the eighth day on it would be pleasing as a korban to be burnt before Hashem" [Vayikra 22:27]

The Kli Yakar points out that immediately upon birth the animal is known by the appelation of it's species - ox, sheep etc'... This is because the animal is as developed as it's going to be. Animals are defined by their species - a newborn ox is still an ox. As it grows it will get bigger and fatter - not different.

Not so a man. When we are born we are known merely as a "zachar" or a "nekeiva" - male or female ( see Vayikra ch. 12 ). It is only when we reach majority and are deserving of the title are we refered to as man.

It is only when our actions speak for who we are that we may be known by that most noble ( or most despicable ) of appelations : Man.

Let us act with this in mind. That with every action we are further developing, not only our self identity, but our self definition as well.

Hatzlacha !

Friday, May 02, 2008

Facing The Music

When a man is to be punished by G-d for unpardonable acts, such as idolatry, the passuk describes the process as being subject to the "face of G-d" ( see Vayikra 20: 5-6)

While Rashi understands the meaning of this phrase to be that Hashem will 'avail' Himself of the opportunity to mete out justice - since the word for face "פני" is similar to the word for being available "פנאי" - we can also understand it on it's basic pshat level.

When we commit a sin we are causing a spiritual deformity in ourselves. We were created to be a kedusha generator and any malfunction on our part detracts from our intended functioning. Now, just like with any breakage - sometimes the thing will still work when put through the regular paces. But if we were to try to operate the machine at it's maximum - the breakage would be obvious and malfunction would occur.

This is what happens when we are brought "face to face" with Hashem. Our own actions cause us to be unable to stand in the august presence of Hashem - and it is presicely this exposure that brings about our punishment.

Let us endeavor to keep our own kedusha generators in ship shape - so that when we come face to face with the presence of kedusha - instead of a punishment it will materialize as a beracha - "ברכנו אבינו באור פניך". Amen.

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Eating Is Believing

The Sefas Emes points out that matza is referred to as "מיכלא דמהימנותא" the food of belief. After seven days of eating this food we come to the culmination of Pesach.

While in the miraculous events of the exodus ( the first night ) we find many miracles - we don't see the description of "emunah" applied to the Jews until the splitting of the sea. This is perhaps because, like the matza it is represented by, emunah may be quickly forged - but it needs to be digested slowly over a period of at least seven days.

Hatzlacha !

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Keys To Our Heart

At the end of the Shemonei Esrei we ask Hashem to "Open our hearts to Your torah and may our spirit chase Your mitzvos".

The Maggid of Dubno explained this request with an analogy. When there is a bird trapped in a cage - and you open the cage - you need not offer any additional encouragement to the bird to entice it to leave. It is in this fashion that we wish for Hashem to open our hearts to torah. Not just to make it accesible to us - but to remove any internal barriers we may have - so that we actually chase after it - like a bird fleeing it's confinement.

Another way of approaching this is an alternative reading of the actual phrase; "פתח ליבי בתורתך". While literally meaning "Open my heart to Your torah" we may read it "Open my heart with Your torah". There are many experiences and philosophies out there - each one claiming to have secured a monopoly on it's own little slice of the truth of the human condition. These theories may claim to have profound influence on us and may claim to be the source of experiential wisdom - yet they all strike us as just skin deep compared to the torah.

If we want to understand our hearts and the keys to our emotions - we must search for them in the Manufacturer's instruction manual. If we want to achieve a real self awareness that is prerequisite to serving Hashem - there is no need to look in pop psychology or the current musical hit - these bits of "wisdom" aren't the key to what our hearts truly feel. Only the torah can unlock our self understanding and enable us to wholeheartedly pursue our life.

Hatzlacha !

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Impulse Buy

In preparation for Pesach we observe Shabbos Hagadol. Either this week ( Metzora ) or next ( Acharei Mos ) depending on your understanding of it.

The Chassidic Masters discuss the relative significance of having two specific Shabboses, Hagadol and Shuva ( the shabbos between Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur ). The Nesivos Shalom suggests that these shabboses are each to complete the two-tiered approach we have towards serving Hashem - Yiraa and Ahava.

Shabbos Shuva - obviousely the time to work on fear and awe of Heaven.
Shabbos Hagadol - to open our hearts and be filled with "largesse" towards our service of Hashem.

An analogy struck me as being incredibly appropriate to our avodah in trying to motivate our love for G-d. When was the last time we had an impulse buy ? A purchase that wasn't pre-planned, it just happenned because you thought that what you were buying would make someone happy. ( Even yourself - you are suppossed to love yourself too !) This was a quintessential act of love. This is the emotion we want to tap into and direct towards G-d in this week of pre-pesach preperation. We can feel affection towards the Ribbono Shel Olam a hundred times a day ! Whenever we see His guiding hand in our succeses ( or even his hand as a safety net - preventing the failures from being worse ... ) we can deepen the love.

So whenever we have a moment - direct your thoughts heavenward and tell Hashem - "I love you ! - no reason - I just wanted you to know" and watch as your relationship with Hashem blossoms. This is why Shabbos Hagadol is big - because loving G-d is big. Real big. And when you do it - you'll be big too.

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, April 04, 2008

A Window or A Mirror ? Reflection or Insight ?

You know how, when you click a button on your screen, it seems to actually be pressed in for a moment. This is, of course, an illusion that is based on shading and light. By shifting the colors and immediate background around the "button" to a lighter shade, the button appears to be depressed.

This is perhaps what the Torah refers to as " ... it's appearance is deeper than the skin ... " [ Vayikra 13:3 ] regarding the brightness of the tzaraas wound.

Why does the Torah describe the tzaraas wound's depth, though (instead of just describing the brightness) ? To allude to it's purpose.

Tzaraas can be seen as a window or a reflection.

Seen as a mirror, tzaraas is a reflection of a person's activities. While a pleasant face and countenance may be presented to the outside world - one who is guilty of violations that would cause tzaraas is certainly conducting themselves in an ugly and blemished manner. In this way the tzaraas simply mirrors on the outside what the person is acting on the inside.

In a more meaningful fashion, however, tzaraas acts as a window into the person's own activities. While many forms of tzaraas-causing activities are perpetrated knowingly, the nature of these transgressions is a hidden one - one that can certainly be downplayed or even ignored by the person committing them. In this fashion the tzaraas acts as a window into the deeper aspects of man's activities. It's presence calls attention to an ill that lies beneath the surface. Only by bringing it to the felon's attention can it be rectified.

If you would see a storm brewing from your window - you might have a few hasty preparations that you would want to accomplish. Without the warning of a window, however, you might be hit blindsided by the winds and rain. Similarly, the metzora may never have taken a week to contemplate and introspect in total solitude. The window into his actions that tzaraas affords him - gives him just that opportunity.

Nowadays we don't have that privilege. We aren't given the divine window into our actions that tzaraas shows us. We can, however, make use of the same 'cure' the metzora is instructed with. A few minutes daily, in quiet meditation, can help put our interactions with others in proper perspective.

A little cheshbon hanefesh goes a long way.

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Creepy Crawlies

"It was taught in the Beis Medrash of Rabbi Yishmael, if the only action that stood in Bnei Yisrael's merit was the fact that they do not defile themselves by eating those beings that crawl, this would have been sufficient to merit the redemption from Mitzrayim" [Bava Metzia 61b as quoted in Rashi Vayikra 11:45]

What's so significant about avoiding a particular cuisine ?

The pesukim immediately preceding give us a clue.

"... And you shall sanctify yourselves and you shall be sanctified ..." [11:44]
" not defile yourselves through them and you will be defiled" [11:43]

All of our actions invariably affect our holiness. Who we are is defined to a large extent by what we do, or avoid doing. When we sanctify ourselves - we are sanctified. And when we defile ourselves, chas veshalom, we become defiled.

This attitude of "holiness responsibility" forms the foundation for our approach to spirituality. It is also patently evident why it presented sufficient cause for the Holy One to redeem us from Mitzrayim.

Just like this realization ( and the subsequent actions and inactions it engendered ) were the cornerstone of redemption in the past - may they serve us in the same capacity to hasten the final redemption, speedily and in our days, amen.

Hatzlacha !!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

On The Cusp Of Indecision

Whenever we see the longest trup in the Torah, the shalsheles, there is a message to be learnt.

The Torah was given on Har Sinai with the specific notes that we read it with. These aren't just for emphasis - they actually teach us proper punctuation and meaning of the words.

The longest note - the shalsheles - consists of complete scales, rising to a high note and then plunging back down, three times.

What is the message of the shalsheles ?

Whenever we see it it represents a great moment of indecision. The musical embodiment of the back and forth turmoil of the undecided mind. We see it with Lot when he must leave Sodom and we see it with Yosef when he is contemplating succumbing to the wiles of Potifar's wife.

What then, is it doing in the parasha of the inauguration of the kohanim [ see Vayikra 8:23 ] ? What indecision applies here ?

The slaughtering of the last of the inaugural sacrifices and the ritual that followed - the dipping of the right earlobe, thumb and toe of the kohanim - was the final confirmation of their status. When this was complete they would no longer be like other men. The kohanim would be allowed access to a greater holiness - but in exchange they would be commeasurably seperate from the rest of the world. A positive spiritual exile - afforded the view from the peak, with the lonliness that attends it. Their indecision is reflected in the shalsheles.

And what of us ? The Chofetz Chaim is quoted as having said that the reason that his "zayde" was a kohen was that his "zayde" answered Moshe Rabbeinu's call of "מי לד אלי""Who is for Hashem - to me !" - and that there would come a time that that call would once again echo.

We learn from the shalsheles that's it's ok to waver in indecision - and we also learn that the choice to be sanctified lies within us. Will we shy away from holiness and the 'pleasures' that a holy life denies us ? Or will we step up to the challenge - and answer "I am for Hashem !"

Hatzlacha !!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Quick Buck, Anyone ?

When Esther decides to invite Achashverosh and Haman to her little soiree she has several reasons running through her head [ see megilla 15b]. One of the reasons was to appear to her fellow Jews that she had defected to the dark side and taken up with Haman and his ilk. This was done to spur the Jews to daven for divine mercy with increased fervor because they could no longer count on their "inside (wo)man".

So we see that the Jewish nation was well aware of the Queen's secret nationality. Yet, Achashverosh spends much effort and money to (unsuccessfully) determine Esther's true identity. He even made whole banquets dedicated to this purpose [ see megilla 13a ].

Why then, did no enterprising Jew sell out the Queen ? Was there no one amongst the people who could have used a quick buck ? Achashverosh had already proved that he was willing to shell out the dough for the information.

We see here an incredible and perhaps unprecedented level of achdus amongst klal yisrael. They might have bitter disagreements amongst themselves ( blaming each other for their current predicament - megilla 12b-13a ) but when it comes to uniting for a common cause - they are truly the (re)incarnation of "איש אחד בלב אחד" - perhaps this is why, of all generations, this one was the one to reaffirm the kabbalas haTorah. [ see shabbos 88b ]

And what of our mission this Purim ? To turn up our ahavas yisrael a notch or three - and to the extent we manage this - we will be rewarded with a new level of kabbalas haTorah - "בימים ההם" but "בזמן הזה".

Hatzalcha !!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Korbanos - An Expression of Closeness

The Mishkan was perhaps the first time that korbanos were commanded unto Bnei Yisrael. It was not, by any stretch, the first time we see them, however.

When Noach left the ark he brought korbanos from the stock of kosher animals ( seven pairs as opposed to one pair of the non kosher ones ). Before him, Hevel had brought korbanos, and the Avos regularly made mizbachos themselves.

Are we, when we bring korbanos recreating the relationships that these august forbearers had with Hashem ? Is that the purpose - to come as close to Hashem as these holy predecessors of ours ?

The Torah teaches us that we are, in fact, recreating a holier relationship, the ideal relationship between man and G-d – the one that the world was created to contain - that of Adam Harishon.

"...אדם כי יקריב מכם קרבן לד..."

"... When a man brings a korban to Hashem ... "[Vayikra 1:2]

Just like Adam was charged with the proper utilization of his domain ( gan eden ) so too must we utilize all the assets that we have for the lofty and sincere purpose - service of the One Above.

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, March 07, 2008

The Power Hidden Within

The term Mishkan is generated from the word 'shachan' or dwell. This was because the Mishkan was the dwelling place for Hashem's presence.

Rashi, however, alludes to a different meaning. Mishkan as related to 'mashkon' or collateral. The Mishkan, he says, was thusly named because it stood collateral for the mortgage of Bnei Yisrael. Twice it was removed instead of an even greater debt.

Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, zatza"l, in the Emes Le'Yaakov, points out that when you suffer a financial fall from grace two things occur. Luxuries are sold off to cushion the fall and neccesities are mortgaged against a later recuperation. The fact that the mishkan was named a mortgage collateral teaches us that its function ( of having the divine presence dwelling amongst us ) is a neccesity, not a luxury.

And how do we accomplish this now, with the temple mount sitting barren of holiness ( and filled with quite a bit of the opposite ) ?

Enter the words of the Sefas Emes.

The Mishkan was also called the Mishkan HaEidus - Dwelling place of Testimony. Testimony to what ? To Hashem's presence.

A witness is only called in to testify to a questionable fact or bolster a shaky story - why would the Jewish people need such testimony that Hashem's presence was amongst them ? Because after the sin of the golden calf it wasn't such a sure thing.

But from this the Sefas Emes lears a powerful message - that before the sin Hashem's presence dwelled, not in the Mishkan, but within every Jew. And when the Mishkan has been mortgaged away for our sins, perhaps Hashem's presence is trying to find it's way back to it's original host - will we let it ?

Hatzlacha !

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Secrets and Rewards of Eternal Youth

There were three categories of Jews who did not fall prey to the instigation of the Eirev Rav in the affair of the Golden Calf.

One, the women. Brimming with common sense, the same nashim tzidkaniyos who were the bulwarks of faith in Mitzrayim, did not see any reason to panic if Moshe was late - surely Hashem would take care of them.

Two, The tribe of Levi. Having seen, up close, real avodas Hashem, the Levi'im saw through the pretense of the Golden Calf as an intermediary to serving Hashem for what it really was - out and out idolatry.

Three, Yehoshua. He wasn't even around in the camp when the Eirev Rav started stirring everything up. Where was he ? Camping at the foot of Har Sinai - waiting for his rebbe, Moshe Rabbeinu.

The passuk refers to Yehoshua as a "youth". The Ramban points out that Yehoshua was 56 years old at this point - hardly a young'un. Why does the Torah paint him with the designation "youth" ? Says the Ramban, because he was serving or squiring for Moshe Rabbeinu. Whenever there is a master and one who is attending the master - the attendant is referred to as a youth. This is probably because to attend a master and to learn from him - one has to remain, like a youth, a perpetual student.

The young are students of everything because they know they have not the experience nor the wisdom to forge out on their own. The day they stop learning, or more accurately, the day they cease placing themselves under their teacher's mastery, is they day they 'grow up'.

Yehoshua eventually grew up - he grew to lead the entire Jewish nation! But it wasn't until being a student, a 'youth', was no longer an option.

How can we handle the trials and nisyonos of life ? Well, if we have the good fortune of being a member of categories one or two we are already a step ahead. For those that are left - we must follow the example of Yehoshua. "עשה לך רב" as the mishna in Avos states - but more importantly - "עשה עצמך כתלמיד" .

Hatzlacha !

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Pomegranets and Bells

We find in the Gemara ( Zevachim 88b ) that the meil was suppossed to atone to Lashon Hara spoken in public. This is derived from the fact that the meil had bells and they would make noise - let the garment that makes noise come and atone for a sin that is trangressed with noise.

So why do we need the pomegranets ?

Lashon Hara is any statement that would make you think negatively of another Jew. We know that the positive sound of the bells would somehow cancel out the negative sound of the slander. The pomegranets were there to prevent it in the first place. The gemara teaches that even the most simple of Jews is filled with merits like a pomegranet [is filled with seeds]. If we were to internalize this - we would never say anything negative about our fellow Jews ! So even though the meil had the ability to cancel out the bad sounds with good ones - it was also there to remind us not to say them at all !

Friday, February 15, 2008

For (Hashem's) Honor and Splendor

"ועשית בגדי קדש לאהרן אחיך לכבוד ולתפארת"
[שמות כח:ב]
"And you shall make holy garments for Aharon, your brother, for honor and splendor" [Shemos 28:2]

The gemara in zevachim (88b) points out that the garments of the Kohein Gadol would actually atone for various transgressions that the Jewish people commited. How does Aharon's wearing of a garment atone for the sins of the people ? Particularly such glamorous garments - how do we know that Aharon was able to focus on this secondary motive of atonement - perhaps he was occupied with the Honor and Splendor bit ?
We see in the passuk Aharon's name is written in it's shortened form - to teach us that he saw himself in the diminutive. Regardless of the honor and splendor heaped upon him - he redirected it to where it belonged - to Hashem.

Friday, February 08, 2008

But Can I get There From Here ?

There were four principle vessels of divine service in the mishkan. The Aron Hakodesh, Shulchan, Mizbeach ( Hazahav ) and the Menorah.

There is a curious attribute that three of these shared.


Since the Jews were wandering through the desert, it would make sense that there would be a system of manuvering these precious articles from place to place. This system was having rings set into the sides of the vessels and having poles or staves threaded through the rings. In this way they served as handles. But there are two things to notice about these 'handles'. With regard to the Aron Hakodesh - we were commanded never to remove the poles. While the menorah had no poles at all.

What do these poles represent - what 'job' did they perform on the Aron which was so crucial it couldn't be neglected for a second - and so inconsequential so as not to serve on the Menorah at all ?

Poles or handles represent accesibility - if we can't reach something or grasp it in a particulary meaningful way - we look for a handle - a way for us to reach and grab hold of it.

Each one of these four vessels represented another facet of our service of G-d.
The Mizbeach represents our teffilah, the Shulchan, our physical prosperity. The Menorah represents wisdom. The Aron is actually the connection we have with Hashem. Three of these have handles because Hashem gives us the ability to use this 'crutch' to attain a measure of proficiency in these aspects.

The 'crutch' or handle for the mizbeach is suffering. When we suffer we are naturally drawn to G-d to pray for salvation. The handle for the shulchan is maaser. Hashem promises us that if we are properly disposed with our material possesions - He will give us all we need.

The Menorah has no handles. To attain torah wisdom there is no crutch and there are no shortcuts.

The Aron, however, not only has handles - but there is a prohibition against ever removing them. Hashem made sure that we have an everlasting connection with Him and is there to remind us about it through personal providence ( hashgacha pratis ) every day. This handle will never cease - representative of the fact that while we may not have wisdom or wealth - and we might not even know how to pray for it - our connection to Hashem as His people - is unwavering and strong.

Hatzlacha !

Friday, February 01, 2008

True Jewish Nobility

"ואל אצילי בני ישראל לא שלח ידו ויחזו את האלהים ויאכלו וישתו"
[שמות כד:יא]
"And regarding the nobility of Bnei Yisrael, Hashem did not send forth His hand, for they saw (a vision) of G-d and they ate and drank" [Shemos 24:11]

There is a machlokes amongst the commentators as to what was the impropriety committed by the "אצילים".

Rashi claims that they saw a vision of Hashem and subsequently treated the experience lightly by resuming their feasting. This is akin to Esav's belittling of the birthright - as it says - "...and he ate and he drank and he got up and he left, thus Esav spurned the birthright"[Bereshis 25:34]

The Kli Yakar opines that the fault lay in the אצילים's lack of understanding of their new, prophetic nature. After being graced with this vision - they should have realized that they were above ( however slightly ) the usual mode of human functioning, and that their need for physical sustenance was somewhat diminished. Similar to, but in a lower level than, Moshe Rabbeinu - who needed no physical nourishment for the forty days and nights he spent on Har Sinai.

Either way, these were Jews who were granted a measure of divine vision and did not rise to the occasion. What can we learn from their mistake ?

Whenever we have a spiritual awakening or an uplifting moment - we must realize that we are no longer the same people we were beforehand. However slightly, we have shifted the balance of prominence between our physical and spiritual sides.

We must be cognizant of our new status and do everything in our power to treat it with the dignity and gentle touch due to it.

Hatzlacha !

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

But Would You Say It To My Face ?

In the second of the Aseres HaDibros Hashem instructs us to " ... not have any foreign Gods before Him" [Shemos 20:3]

Simply put - you should not consider any foreign deity to be more worthy of worship than G-d.

While the simple meaning holds, the Ramban gleans from this particular phraseology an additional insight. We should never worship, or even consider another diety because - after all - we are in the constant presence of Hashem !

To make a mismatched comparison when all you have to compare is the memory of one item versus the other in the flesh ( pun intended ) - is excusable, maybe. But to botch up the choice between a living G-d and useless fake gods when the living one is right before you ?!?!


Hashem is not only prohibiting certain practices - He is also giving us the tools to see such false practices for what they are.

This is perhaps best expressed in the dictum "שיוויתי ד' לנגדי תמיד" "I have placed G-d before me always". When we realize that we are constantly in His presence - it's not an intimidating "big brother" thing. It's more of a constant reminder that we have the real thing.

Like a child who is toddeling will constantly look back at the parent - just to make sure that they are still watching.

Hatzlacha !

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Sweetness is in the Eye of The Beholder

Following an incredible divine revelation at the Yam Suf - the Jewish people journey for three days without water. They finally come upon an oasis, but - as its name "Marrah" suggests - the water is too bitter to be drunk. The people cry to Moshe who in turn cries out to Hashem. Upon His instructions a tree is tossed into the water, rendering it drinkable.

Huh ?!

Certainly there is more going on here. And there is.

Chazal teach us that the three days were not actually bereft of water, but of Torah - which is compared to water. The people were punished because they allowed their lofty spiritual status to fade - instead of nurturing it with Torah thoughts. This, however, doesn't explain the bitter waters. If the issue was that the people didn't engage in Torah study - then Hashem should have withheld water (the physical representation thereof ) from them entirely until they repented - why give them water but make it too bitter to be of any use ?

To answer this - let us ask another question ( that's so Jewish ! ). We have learnt that G-d deals with man in an infallibly fair fashion. How, then, do we explain the following measure of divine interaction :
"אם תעזבני יום - יומיים אעזבך"
"If you depart from me for a day, I will be distant from you for two."
The %100 inflation seems a little steep, doesn't it ?

The answer lies in the exact fairness of it. Hashem says that if man decides to walk a day's journey away from Him ( figuratively speaking ) - He will journey a day's worth in the opposite direction - exactly mirroring the action ! The result, however, is a two day distance gap that must be closed before man regains his place with G-d ( so as to speak ). We see, therefore, that when we choose other pursuits over our spiritual ones it isn't just a matter of deciding to come back - we must close the gap that we created.

This is why the water was bitter - the Torah that Bnei Yisrael ignored for three days was bitter. They had taken a three day break from it and couldn't just expect it to be laying there, ignored and disgraced until they had the good sense to pick it up.

This is also why they made amends with the tossing of the tree. The Kli Yakar explains that one opinion has it that it was actually a bitter tree, an olive tree. This tree has symbolized in the past ( the olive branch that the dove returns to Noach after its experimental flight from the ark ) that we would rather taste bitterness from the hand of G-d than sweetness from the hand of man. The major part of our penance to Hashem was demonstrating that we now recognize the importance of Torah and of the divine connection it affords us. This enabled us to "bridge the gap" and, once again, enjoy the sweetness of Torah.

May we all merit to 'Tap into Torah' on a regular basis - not just for the sweetness it provides us - but for the service of G-d which we perform by learning his wisdom. May our steadfastness never waiver, but if it does - may our subsequent "gap" be bridged speedily and quickly, amen.

Hatzlacha !

Friday, January 11, 2008

Is the cup half empty or what ?

The difference between the world view of Moshe and Pharaoh can be summed up in the following passuk:
"ראו כי רע נגד פניכם"
"... behold an evil star greets you" [Shemos 10:10]

Pharaoh feels that the Israelites would be foolish to leave, for there is an evil star that rises against them in the desert, a star that signifies bloodshed. Why isn't Moshe worried about the star ? Why does Pharaoh place so much trust in his astrology ?

Despite having his kingdom and country turned upside down by several plagues - some of them too supernatural to contemplate - Pharaoh still thinks that he has the right idea abut how the world runs. He's not all that far off - the evil star does foretell bloodshed. This is where Pharaoh gets caught. He is convinced that if there is an omen of bloodshed that it means that his enemies will suffer.

Moshe isn't worried about the star because he knows the larger truth. Yes - there is an omen for bloodshed - but that won't interfere with Hashem's plan ! Who do you think put the blood star up there in the first place ?! In fact, Hashem does neatly deviate the bloodshed from the Jews to the blood of bris milah.

Pharaoh says to Moshe - the laws of nature are immutable - even your G-d won't save you now ! Moshe calmly responds - even when it seems as if the laws of nature are ranged against us, and even if G-d won't alter the laws outright - Hashem is never bound by those laws.

Every day day the opportunity to choose between Moshe's philosophy and Pharaoh's presents itself. When something doesn't go our way - do we consider it just an unfortunate incident ? A star that just happened to rise against us ? Or can we achieve a slice of Moshe rabbeinu's emunah ? We might not know why it happened but it is certainly all for the grandest master plan there is.

Hatzlacha !

Friday, January 04, 2008

What's Your Destiny ?

Hashem tells Moshe that despite having several names ( Avigdor, Avi Socho ... ) He will only refer to him by the name that the daughter of Pharaoh gave him. The medrash comments on the resulting lesson of the awesome power of gemillus chasadim. Because of her mesirus nefesh, Bisya bas Pharaoh merited to name Moshe Rabbeinu.

But why does a name mean so much ? "A rose by any other name would still have thorns ..." or something, right ?

If Moshe's name is really "Drew" - because he was drawn from the water then, as the Kli Yakar points out, the proper grammar conjugation of Moshe should be 'Mashui'. But it isn't. Moshe's name actually reflects his destiny - which is why Hashem was so upset at him for refusing to accept his role as the harbinger of redemption - Moshe means the drawer or 'One who draws' because he was destined draw the people out of mitzrayim.

And all this was made possible by the courageous acts of Bas Pharaoh. She went down to the Nile to toivel, having been disgusted by the idolatry that was redolent in her father's house. She saw a Jewish child, and under sure pain of death, raised him as her own! For this act of chessed and bravery she is given a glimmer of ruach hakodesh that names Moshe Rabbeinu - who in turn now possesses a destiny to free the entire nation !

In this light we must reflect - what important decisions have come our way ? How did we fare ? Maybe, just maybe, we will have the opportunity to be in the right place - propelled by our desire to do the right thing - and set up an event cascade that will result in the final redemption, bimhayra beyameinu, amen.

Hatzlacha !