Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Why Does G-d Need Light ?


The very first documented part of creation was light (see Bereshis 1:3). Hashem does not need light to see, nor is he afraid of the dark. So why, then, did He create light first ?
Because light is the most important.
The light that was created wasn't the same as what we have now either. The Kli Yakar maintains that the sun, moon and stars are all just derivatives of that ephemeral light.
What was the nature of the source, the original illumination that was so important that Hashem wanted to create it first ? That first light is the ability to tell right from wrong.
Until Hashem created a world there was no need to have an external barometer of morality since there was nothing external to G-d. As soon as He introduces anything else – the first thing we're going to need is a moral compass; an ability to discern, to differentiate right from wrong. That ability is called light.
That's why light helps us see. Because the first step in determining what is correct and what isn't is properly sizing up that which in front of you.
But that first light was hidden away (see Bereshis 1:4 and Rashi ad loc.) The commentators all deal with the question of where the light was stashed. Some maintain that it was buried away, only to be revealed at the end of days. Others discuss the safeguarding of that light in the Torah, where it still resides today. In any case, there is one more place that the light may be.
In our actions.
Every thing we do has the ability to illuminate or darken, clarify or confuse. When we do the right thing, our world becomes a drop clearer. If we fail - the fog of confusion gets a mite thicker.
This Channukah let us celebrate the choice of those heroic Jews of long ago; the choice to do what's right no matter the consequence. Actions and dedications that inspire us with their light, even after all these years. Let us also ask ourselves : What confusion surrounds us today and how can we make the right choices and step into the light ?
Happy Channukah !

Friday, December 07, 2012

Climbing and Standing

"... והנה קמה אלומתי וגם ניצבה" [בראשית לז:ז]
Yosef Hatzaddik describes his prophetic dream to his brothers in attempt to convince them of his divinely appointed role. The dream consists of bundles of wheat (which represent his brothers) all paying subservience to Yosef's bundle. In demonstrating his bundles supremacy, Yosef says that his bundle has risen and is standing. Why the repetition ?
The Koznitzer Maggid (as quoted in the Shem MiShmuel) ascribes to Yosef the same accomplishments that are described by Dovid Hamelech in Tehillim. "Who will ascend the mountain of Hashem and who will rise in His holy abode" (Tehillim 24:3)
Here we see that there are two components of spiritual success. The first; 'Ascending the mountain' – or engaging in pursuits that elevate your personal level of holiness (i.e. Torah study, performance of mitzvos, etc.). The second – maintenance. As is implied in the passuk in Tehillim "מי יקום במקום קדשו" – the word for rise can also be read as a derivative of "קיים" or existent. Dovid Hamelech is praising both facets of loftiness; accomplishment and tenacity.
Why would Yosef see fit to mention these two factors in the dream ? To tell his brothers that this wasn't just a passing fancy, that he foresees his position of authority enduring for the long haul.
And what can we learn from this ? that this is the mark of one who is righteous. (Yosef is known as Hatzaddik – the righteous one) Anyone can grow – a truly righteous person holds on to the gains they have made and incorporates them to go the distance.

Hatzlacha !

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Rise of the House of Ladders


"ויחלם והנה סלם מצב ארצה וראשו מגיע השמימה והנה מלאכי א-לוקים עלים וירדים בו" [בראשית כח:יב]
"And he dreamt, and behold, a ladder is placed upon the ground and it reaches into the heavens and angels of G-d ascend and descend upon it" [Bereshis 28:12]

Chazal (Pesachim 88a) teach us that each one of the three Avos had a particular strength in relating to Hashem. This is alluded to by the name that each one of the Avos gave Har Hamoriah (where Yaakov's dream takes place).
Avraham called the place the mountain of Hashem. Yitzchak refered to it as a field (when he went there to pray mincha). Yaakov dubs this place the 'house' of Hashem. The gemara maintains that Yaakov's description is the most fitting. Why ? because both a mountain and a field – while being splendorous in their own way – are still natural phenomena. Climbing a mountain may be impressive, but the 'rights' belong to the creator of that mountain. A large plateau may offer a wide scope for contemplation of G-d's wonders, but the view alone does not equal possession. Only a house, a completely man made structure, can truly belong to its owner.
By labeling the Temple Mount as a 'house' Yaakov is transcending a naturalist form of divine worship that was past down to him and entering the final level of service of G-d (see Rav Hirsch's extensive comments regarding the matzeiva). It is not enough for us to ascribe divine authorship to the wonders around us – we must also devote our own actions and achievements to glorifying His name. We may think that no palace we build can compare with the majesty of a mountain or the vastness of a field – but therein lies our mistake. Hashem doesn't want us to re-create the world – He knows our limitations – He just wants out best efforts, that we build him a 'home sweet home' for the divine presence to dwell.
This is why Yaakov's ladder is "placed" upon the ground. Because the foundation of Yaakov's ascent to spiritual greatness is not by chance and it is not just because the natural force of gravity would secure the ladder to the earth. Rather, Yaakov intentionally places the ladder in its position and begins to climb (metaphorically, of course) knowing that his personal road to achievement winds through each man-made rung.
And us ? We must always remember – G-d doesn't want us to create mountains or birth great oceans, He only wants the accomplishments that He has given us the power to bring to fruition. And when we dedicate those to Him – He will respond and once again dwell in the house which we will build. May it be speedily, in our days, amen.

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Go West, Young Man ...


The first of Avraham Avinu's ten tests is the iconic "לך לך". He is instructed by G-d to leave all that is familiar and venture out into the unknown, with only Hashem's word for a guide and provider.
While we may consider this trial to be a culmination of Avraham's ( and G-d's ) utter and total rejection of the immoral society in which he lived, we may glimpse a deeper facet and gain immeasurably for doing so. There is a very important distinction made by Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch regarding Avraham's trial. Avraham is never told to leave, he is told to go.
There is a subtle difference between going ("הליכה") and leaving ("יציאה"). The operative function of 'leaving' is to escape, to run or to bail out. One who is leaving ("יוצא") is barely concerned with his destination – just that it is better that his current situation. 'Going', on the other hand, is primarily concerned with a goal. One who is going ("הולך") is travelling to a particular place because there is a value and reason to arrive in that location.
Avraham Avinu must leave his current surroundings to continue his upward trek towards the spiritual achievements that he will leave as a legacy. Nonetheless, his move is primarily one of 'going'.
Rav Hirsch also quotes the medrash (Bamidbar Rabba 18:21) that the phrase of "לך לך" is one of the harbingers of the final redemption. Because from the moment that Avraham, our forefather, accepted upon himself this mission, he set the stage for us to continue travelling down the path of the righteous, until we reach the final destination, the redemption.
And so, wherever we find ourselves, we should always notice – are we leaving or going ? And what is our destination ?
Hatzlacha !! 

Friday, October 19, 2012

A Window Into (or out of) Our Souls


The Passuk teaches us that Noach needed to make a window ("צהר") in the ark [see Bereishis 6:16 and Rashi]. Later on, the Torah discusses that during the period of judgment of the flood the heavenly spheres did not come out [see Bereishes  8:22 and Rashi].

What would Noach need a window for if the sun and moon did not come out at all ?

To look out. Sometimes we are so preoccupied with figuring out what someone or something can do for me – that we forget to think about what we can do for them. Noach may have been righteous enough to be saved from the flood, but he had many lessons in self betterment still to learn. One of the ways in which Hashem instructed him was that window.

In life, we should always make sure that we are not inured to the plight of others. In our own little protective arks – with which we navigate life's waters – we should always have a window that will enable us to look out and see what our fellow may need.

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, October 05, 2012

Lazy Days Of Succos


During the holiday of Succos, one of the highlights of the special service in the Beis HaMikdash was the water libation ("ניסוך המים"). This was actually a double libation since there was also a pitcher of wine poured as well. A Kohein would ascend the ramp leading up to the great altar and pour the two pitchers into two specially made apertures in the rim of the mizbeach.

The Shem MiShmuel comments that this dual service can be viewed through the lens of atonement and purification. We bring the wine, which has the ability to quicken our pulses and get us hot under the collar, to atone for sins that were performed with zealousness. We bring the water, symbolically the cooling agent, to atone for transgressions that resulted from an apathetic or an overly cool disposition.

Perhaps this is also why this twin service is the highlight of the succos festival. Succos is the only holiday when we can actually perform mitzvos passively. By doing "nothing" in our succah we are actually doing "something" - living in it ! This passive mitzvah performance is actually praised in the gemara with the following exceptional praise : "Rabbi Eliezer states, I praise the lazy folks during the festival [because they just stay at home in their succos and thusly accord the dwelling place greater attention and regard]." [gemara succah 27b]

And this "lazy", yet all encompassing, observance serves as an atonement for all our shortcomings in the area of apathy. Yet, it is precisely the drawing of the water for this service that was accompanied by such a fervent and enthusiastic festival that the gemara states that whoever has not seen the "simchas beis hashoeva" has not seen happiness being put into practice.

May it be the will of our creator that we excel in both the passive (lazy) and the active (wine-driven) service and that these serve as both an atonement for previous shortcomings on these areas and an inspiration for the winter ahead.

Haztlacha !!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Big Things, Little Things


"לא בשמים היא לאמור, מי יעלה לנו השמימה, ויקחה לנו וישמיענו אותה ונעשינה" [דברים ל:יב]
"It [this mitzvah / or torah] is not in the heavens, that you should say 'who will go up to the heavens and bring it to us, and teach it to us, that we may do it"
[Devarim 30:12]

The Torah tells us that it is all within reach. The Torah is not an esoteric wisdom that is totally inaccessible. Rather, Hashem has brought it down to earth (double meaning intended) for us to be able to perform it. As a further passuk proclaims "… it is within [the abilities of] your mouth and your heart to accomplish it…".

Rashi, when explaining this passuk, tells us that if the Torah were in the heavens, we would be obligated to go up and get it. This hints at a tremendous reality. We have the ability to ascend to the highest spheres and live a life of Torah – even if it were in the heavens ! If the Torah was "up there" we should be able ( and be obligated ! ) to live a heavenly life, divorced from the lower parts of the flesh and blood world.

But Hashem doesn't want that. He brought the Torah down into the little, daily details. Hashem wants us to wash our hands in the morning, He wants us to smile when we say thank you. He wants us to thank Him whenever we have a tasty bite of chocolate and He wants us to notice the table settings and their sparkle.

Why ? Why would Hashem, who gave us the highest, loftiest, wisdom and the deepest, holiest concepts, want us to busy ourselves with the mundanities and trivialities of daily existence ? because it is no trick for something huge and powerful to perform a huge and powerful action. It is no great feat for an enormously strong man to carry out an act of great strength, it is simply in his nature. But, when a powerful man gently takes a fragile flower in his hand – that is an incredible act.

It is insufficient for us, who are powerful and gifted enough to be able to reach the very heavens with our actions, to simply dedicate our "big acts" to Hashem. We should also realize, and accordingly, perform, our "little acts" for Hashem too. After all, it isn't in the heavens – it is close to our hearts and within reach of our mouth.

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, September 07, 2012

White It Out


When the Jewish people cross the Jordan and enter into the promised Land of Israel, they perform an interesting rite. They are instructed (by G-d) to take twelve obelisks (large stones) and plaster them white. Once they have plastered them, the Jews must write the words of the Torah in "…a very through explanation" [Devarim 27:8]. Rashi explains this thorough explanation to be a translation into all seventy languages.

Why would the Jews have to record the Torah into languages they are not conversant in and why does G-d make a point of telling them to white out the stones first ?

When the Jews receive the Torah it is not just something for that generation. It is for ALL generations. This is expressed in many ways. Firstly, at mount Sinai, the souls of all Jews – current and future – were present, to show that they all received the Torah straight from G-d. Secondly, since there would be a time when the children of Israel would wander through the globe, the Torah was "given" in all seventy languages.

This also helps us understand the whiteout. When the Torah is given at Sinai – it was done in the Torah's own language. Every concept presented was fresh since it hadn't been said before. In other languages, this may not always be the case. Whichever term or Torah concept you refer to, there may be an alternate idea that has already been said – that you must differentiate from the Torah idea if you are to understand it properly. ( The irony of writing this specific Dvar Torah in English is not lost on me …) That is why the stones of translation needed to be whited out, to provide for as smooth as possible a beginning for our journey into understanding the word of G-d.

Before we undertake the next journey – the one into our new year – let us "white out" any baggage we may be carrying. Forgiveness and sincerity can go a long way towards accomplishing that goal.

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, August 31, 2012

A Pocket Full Of Kryptonite


The Torah commands us to refrain from possession of the trappings and tools of the trickster's trade. We may not have in our pockets two different weights (Devarim 25:13) nor in our house, two different dry measures ( Ibid 25:14).
The Torah then emphasizes that we must own proper, just weights and containers for dry measure. And to cap it all off – if we abide by these guidelines (required, not suggested) we will merit long life (Ibid 25:15).
Huh ?!?!
There seems to be much more being discussed here.
Firstly, we are already under "standing orders" not to cheat in business or in any way swindle our fellow man. Secondly, even if we were to view this commandment as an expansion upon the concept of honesty (since previous laws focused on the practice of cheating and this one prohibits mere possession of cheating paraphernalia), we still must question the insistence of the Torah that we acquire proper weights and measures. Supposing I want to refrain from weighing and measuring altogether – shouldn't I be within my rights to forgo the entire experience – why must G-d insist that I possess accurate tools ?
Because these laws are alluding to a much bigger issue. Not everyone is involved in the buying and selling aspects of business. We do all make purchases from time to time – so the simple, literal meaning of this law certainly applies to everyone. But, this law can also be seen as referring to a different system of weights and measures.
We each make dozens of decisions daily. We weigh our options and measure our resources – in an attempt to "get the best deal" towards whichever goal we are working for.
The Torah is cautioning us – it is not sufficient to engage in honest self assessment when pursuing our life's goals. We must purge our value system of dishonest considerations completely ! It is not enough to avoid rationalizations and other mental manipulations when serving G-d – we must eliminate these things from our lexicon entirely!
In this month of tremendous divine assistance in our personal betterment – may we merit this, and all other, lofty steps in pursuit of our ultimate goal. As Dovid HaMelech said – "… To sit in the house of Hashem all the days of our life " [Tehillim 27:4]

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Fruits Of Man


"כי תצור אל עיר ימים רבים להלחם עליה לתפשה לא תשחית את עצה לנדח עליו גרזן כי ממנו תאכל ואתו לא תכרת כי האדם עץ השדה לבא מפניך במצור" [דברים כ:יט]
"If you will lay siege to a city for many days to do battle against it and capture it, you must not ruin its trees to destroy them by the axe, for from these trees you shall it and these (trees) you shall not chop down, are they a man – these trees of the field – that you consider them your enemies in this siege ?! " [Devarim 20:19]

The Torah emphatically states that while we may lay siege to an enemy city, and deal death and destruction to its inhabitants, upon capture, we may not destroy their orchards or vineyards. This is not merely military strategy. There is a deeper issue at stake here.
At first glance, the Torah is limiting and guiding us – even during periods of battle. "I know you are fighting a war", says the Torah, "and I know that you are laying waste to living things right and left." But, we must guard ourselves from willful destruction for destruction's own sake. After all, this is Hashem's world we are talking about and we may not cast our axe about with no regard for the Creator. Rather, we must be calculating in every action – destroying what needs to be (our enemies - who are called Hashem's enemies by extension) and preserving that which need not fall under our hatchet.

But the Torah makes an interesting analogy – are the trees of the field similar to the men that you fight against ? the passuk asks rhetorically.
On a pshat level – the answer is no. Our enemies are men, capable of free will and choice – and when they choose to persecute Hashem's people and defy His word – they righteously "earned" their fate. But trees have no control over who planted them and should not suffer for the sins of their caretakers.
The baalei mussar, however, read this passuk with the exact opposite message. (technically,  this too is pshat – a straightforward reading of the words. The inflection on the phrase "is this tree a man ?" is a questioning one – but one can also read it as a statement. i.e. "man is a tree of the field")

How exactly is man a "… tree of the field" ?
The answer can be found by analyzing the prohibition associated with the trees. It is only fruit trees which are spared the army's ire. Non fruit bearing trees are fair game for the besieging army to chop away at. Why ?
Because that is the level at which the fundamental comparison (between man and tree) lies. If man is comparable to a tree – it is only because, like the tree, he is designed to give fruit.
A tree is known by its fruit. It is that fruit that goes far and wide bringing praise, or heaping scorn, upon its parent tree. So it is with the fruits of man.
Man's fruits are not his children (they, too are fruits but not in this context). Man's fruits are his actions and accomplishments. It is by them that man is known and through them he will garner eternal rewards or reap the bitter sprouts of failure.
Why is a fruit tree spared the army's axe ? because it has a higher purpose. Even as a marauding army, we are enjoined not to undermine this tree's potential for accomplishment.
So too, man is a fruit tree. He has achievements. They are his potential – they are the 'calling card' he leaves behind him and the one he sends on ahead.

During this introspective month of Elul – we may ask ourselves – what 'fruits' am I producing ? And would they be sufficiently important to save me from the besieging army's blade ?

Hatzlacha !

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Labor Of Love

 The great Mussar sages tell us that when they announced the upcoming Rosh Chodesh Elul in shul, people would already begin to tremble. The image we have of Elul is one of repentance and intense personal growth. We hear the shofar and say extra pirkei tehillim, all in an effort to become better people. Elul is a time of seriousness.
But, if we get hung up on the almost somber aspects of this intense month – we miss one of its greatest themes, love.
Amongst the few acronyms that spell out the letters of Elul is a passuk in Shir Hashirim, "אני לדודי ודודי לי" – "I am (devoted) to my beloved and my beloved is (devoted) to me". Elul is a time of renewed pledges and demonstrations of that love. Elul is not just a time when we invest in ourselves – it is a time when we invest on our relationship with Hashem.
If we spend our entire Elul trembling with fear, we will have totally missed out on an even greater opportunity – to spend this month basking in His love.
There is a world of difference between a worker hurrying to prepare a lavish feast for his master and a love-struck youth preparing a meal for his (or her) beloved. They are both intensely focused and exert great care to have the meal be at its utmost. But one is overawed, and works with an eye towards the door in fearful anticipation, while the other is overcome, and eyes the door in sweet expectation.
This Elul, let us realize our potential and devote ourselves to the loving service of our Creator. And in the same measure that we show our love – we will merit to feel His boundless love for us – as the passuk stresses – "I am to my beloved, and my beloved is to me"

A Gut Chodesh !

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Just One Small Thing ...


"ועתה ישראל מה ד' א-לוקיך שואל מעמך כי אם ליראה את ד' א-לוקיך, וללכת בכל דרכיו, ולאהבה אותו, ולעבדו בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך" [דברים י:יב]
"And now, Israel, what does Hashem require of you ? Just that you stand in awe of Him, and follow in all of his ways, and love Him, and serve him with all your heart and soul." [Devarim 10:12]

In this famous passuk, Moshe Rabbeinu seems to encapsulate the heart of what it means to be a G-d fearing Jew. What comes off as inconsistent, however, is the reference that this is a simple task. Specifically, when Moshe uses the term "כי אם" – contextually translated as "Just that…" – he is saying that this is no big deal.

From the Gemara (Brachos 33b) on down, scholars throughout the ages have tried to come to terms with how Moshe Rabbeinu can refer to standing in awe of Hashem as 'no big deal'. The Gemara concludes that the lofty concept of Yiraas Hashem is indeed 'no big deal' to someone of Moshe Rabbeinu's caliber. There is another lesson to be learned here.

Awe is the natural reaction of a frail and mortal man when confronted with powers and occurrences that are well beyond him. The raging sea during a gale or the majestic, towering clouds of a thunderstorm; the endless array of stars on a clear night or the vast desolation of a desert wasteland – all these produce in us a feeling of awe. We don't need to learn mussar works to feel awed by the destructive power of a huge bomb, and we don't need to meditate upon awe when we come upon a deep and cavernous canyon.

Moshe Rabbeinu tells us that standing in awe of Hashem is not an extraordinary feat for one simple reason, it doesn't need to be faked.

If we had to pretend to fear a harmless flea or be overawed by a small child – that would be something to emphasize. That would take acting, meditation and years of study to perfect. But Hashem? The one and only ruler over all ?! The One whose very essence sustains and directs every molecule and atom in the universe and whose awesome power unleashes and tames every storm and quake ?!?!?! All that takes is recognition. Once we recognize, once we actually see the world and Hashem for what they are, inevitably, we will be awed.

Let us take a moment to look around and see the world for what it is – an incredibly complex, living and breathing testament to Hashem, and the extent of His power. And then let us stand in awe, after all, its 'no big deal'.

Hatzlacha !! 

Friday, August 03, 2012

Been There, Done That


"וידעת היום והשבות אל לבבך כי ד' הוא הא-לוקים בשמים ממעל ועל הארץ מתחת אין עוד" [דברים ד:לט]
"And you shall know today, and you shall internalize towards your heart, that Hashem is G-d in the heavens above and in the earth beneath there is no other" [Devarim 4:39]

This famous passuk which concludes the first half of the Aleinu that is said at the end of every teffila contains two very important lessons.

The first message is a lesson in internalizing. How do we take knowledge and assimilate it ? How do we apply that which we have learned – and make it into that which we are ?  The trick is in where we attempt to integrate the information into.

When the passuk speaks about our heart – it uses the multiple "ב" of "לבבך"(levavcha) instead of "לבך" (leebecha). The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh teaches us that this is an allusion to both "halves" of our hearts.

If we try to learn about good actions and things we should do and believe - all that stays in the realm of the theoretical. The key to bringing it into the actual is not in our yetzer tov (he wants to do all the mitzvos in the world !) but rather in our yetzer hora! 

Just learning about something is not enough to make a lasting change. We need to develop a game plan, a battle strategy for overcoming the obstacles the evil inclination will certainly place in our way.  Once we have a realistic approach of how the yetzer will attempt to dissuade us from doing this mitzvah or learning this torah – and have a plan for how to counter that evil advice – then we will have set the stage for transcending mere knowledge and reaching internalizing.

The second message is equally powerful.

The word the torah uses to describe this process is derived from the same word as teshuva, or return. This hints to us that any bit of divine wisdom – every positive action or mitzvah oriented mindset that we attempt to assimilate into who we are – is in fact just an act of returning to the pristine state we once occupied.

When a Jewish neshama is about to be born it learns all of the torah directly from an angel. The angel then promptly makes us forget it all. Why learn it if we are only going to forget it ? Because we are nonetheless comforted by the knowledge that no matter how hard it gets – we can definitely do it ! After all, we've already been there and done that.

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Deepest Well


"בעבר הירדן בארץ מואב, הואיל משה באר את התורה הזאת לאמור" [דברים א:ה]
"In the Trans-Jordan, in the land of Moav, Moshe undertook to explain this Torah saying …" [Devarim 1:5]

Why does the Torah stress where Moshe was when he went to explain the entire Torah ?
Additionally, Rashi (quoting the medrash Tanchuma) teaches us that this explanation was a translation into all existing 70 languages. Since the Jews did not speak these languages - why would the Torah need that sort of explanation ?
Finally, why would the Torah use the word "be'er - באר" which means to explain or elaborate if it really meant to translate ("letargem - לתרגם") ?

The Torah is more than just a book of laws, and it is certainly more than a recording of the Jewish people's earliest history. The Torah is a crystallization of the divine wisdom and the secrets of the universe. It is the physical manifestation of the eternal and all powerful G-d reaching out and making a concrete contact with us - His frail, mortal creations. Thusly, it is the moral and spiritual compass by which all actions must be judged and all ideas should be evaluated.

Moshe Rabbeinu knows that his time is almost up – he will soon pass and his people will be lead by the capable Yehoshua. But Yehoshua did not ascend Mt. Sinai. He did not speak with G-d "face to face" ( see – Bamidbar 12:8 meaning - in a direct mode of prophecy). He couldn't convey the depths of the Torah to the people with the same familiarity that Moshe could. So Moshe, our Rebbe, undertook to give one, last, encompassing, review class.

It is said that the key to a culture is its language. From simplistic examples – like how the Eskimo have 37 different words for snow – to more complex themes suggested by a rhythm that is present or not in a particular language. Moshe Rabbeinu knows that the Jews were heading into the "promised land" – but that they were also entering a different chapter in their national character. Until now they all sat in the tent of Torah. From now on – many of them will work. Commerce, agriculture, civics – these will take up much of their energy and focus. It is likely that in the course of these pursuits they will rub shoulders with the nations of the world. Lest they be misguided into thinking that another culture and another language "has the right ideas about life" Moshe Rabbeinu beats them to the punch. Every foreign language is first "neutralized" by rendering all of its words through the purity of Torah. The translation is not there for the Jews to learn from (they don't even speak the language!) it is there to take the foreign"ness" from it. In this way Moshe is performing the final preparations to sending his beloved students on their way.

That's also why the Torah uses the term "be'er". A "be'er" is a well. To paraphrase an old adage – if you give a man a drink he will not be thirsty today, but if you dig him a well – you will have vanquished his thirst permanently. Moshe is setting up the wellspring of wisdom that the Jewish people will need to draw from repeatedly. The analogy of a well is particularly fitting. The deeper you dig it – the clearer the water and the more reliable the well – no matter how bad the drought. By preempting the inter-culture mingling for all seventy nations – Moshe is digging a very deep well indeed.

And what can we take from this ? We can take heart – no matter where we find ourselves – no matter what our nisyonos are – the Torah has been there first – and it's there to help us. Also, no matter how tough the going gets – the well is deep enough for us to find water – we just gotta dig a little deeper.

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, July 13, 2012

To Lead Is Not To Follow


When Moshe Rabbeinu is discussing his own replacement with Hashem, he describes the job requirements.
[במדבר כז:יז]"אשר יצא לפניהם ואשר יבא לפניהם ואשר יוציאם ואשר יביאם"
"(A man) who will go out before them, and come in before them, who will lead them out and lead them in …"[Bamidbar 27:17]
The redundancy is striking. If he will lead the people, whether out to battle or into the promised land – isn't it a given that he, himself, will go out or in ? Why the emphasis ?

But the answer is exactly that, and it serves as a reminder for both us simple folks and our holy Jewish leaders themselves. There is nothing that a gadol b'yisrael would reqire of others that he is not willing / able to do himself. First, a Jewish leader should go out or come in – before the people – in full view of the people (and sadly, of their criticism, too). Only afterwards is he fit to lead them anywhere.

Going out and coming in are also two opposite actions. A true Jewish leader knows when to employ either activity – there is no "one hit wonder". And there is no such thing as a single minded approach. Sometimes, Hashem requires our leaders to know how to pull in both directions (simultaneously, even !!).

These two lessons are great to take to heart – not just to bolster our faith and appreciation for our holy and multifaceted chachamim, but primarily to keep in mind. At some point and in some fashion, we are all Jewish leaders. We must be willing to first put ourselves out and only afterwards lead others. We must also have a sense of balance and duality. To quote Willie Nelson : "Know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em"

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, July 06, 2012

Holy Tents, Holy People


Anyone can be holy inside a temple. Priests do it all the time. What impressed Bilaam more than anything about the holy Jewish people was that they were holy even in their homes.
"How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwellings (or tabernacles) Israel." [Bamidbar 24:5]
Let us endeavor to channel this holiness – the one we are so distinctly known for. How ? By dedicating a portion of all of our energies to service of Hashem. When we say "thank you" we do it to increase shalom, Hashem's presence. When we do an act of kindness, we do it in recognition of the divine image that we were created. And obviously, when we bring Torah and Teffilah into our homes and our daily lives – we are demonstrating that even after 3,500 years – if Bilaam were to see us now – he would utter the same blessings.
Hatzlacha !!

Friday, June 29, 2012

We Are All Rocks

Moshe Rabbeinu is commanded to speak to the rock and it will bring forth water. Instead, as we know, he hits the rock and the requisite water comes out [Bamidbar 20:7-11].
What message were bnei yisrael meant to take from the rock ? That even one who feels that he is barren like a rock can burst forth with a huge amount of torah. How does this happen ? Moshe was meant to illustrate to us that just hearing the word of Hashem and His firm command is sufficient. Instead, we understood that we must get hit and only then will we be cognizant of our potential to bring forth torah.
But Hashem's original message still stands. Let us crane our ears and seek out the dvar Hashem – when we hear it, truly hear it, then we, too, will be a wellspring of torah.
Hatzlacha !!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Holy Blossoming Staff, Aharon!


Following the episode with Korach, Hashem gives Moshe instructions on how to avoid another vote of 'no confidence' in Aharon as Kohein Gadol. Each tribal prince is to send in their staff and Moshe will place the staves, along with a staff for Aharon, in the oheil moed.
Aharon's staff is 'chosen' by Hashem – this fact is displayed prominently by having the staff blossom, flower and grow fruit (almonds).
Why would a flowering staff be the message that Hashem wishes to send to the princes ? Hashem could have had the words "Kohein Gadol" appear on the staff instead.
Rav Hirsch suggests that the almond's message is a clue to the nature of a true kohein. The almond is the first tree to flower and give fruit, so too, the kohein, is the first to stand up and declare allegiance to Hashem. Alacrity (zrizus – quickness) is the hallmark of the kohein, as is fitting when one considers the Master that he serves.
There can be another message hinted to in the flowering staff. The Princes may have harbored secret desires to serve in a kohanic capacity. Hashem is telling them that this notion is best left unfulfilled. The symbol of the authority of the princes is the staff. It was these staffs that the princes used to dig a channel of water from Miriam well towards their tribe's encampment. But, ultimately, a staff is an instrument of discipline. The harsh, unyielding staff represents the princes' responsibility to enforce the law. How effective would a flowering fruit tree be in broadcasting authority?
But broadcasting authority is not the job of a kohein. A kohein is meant to focus all of his energies on performing the service, b'ahava, with love. A kohein is not an authority figure to be feared, he is a spiritual icon to be emulated.
By using the staves and causing Aharon's staff to blossom, Hashem is emphasizing this message. He is telling the princes, Aharon does not outrank you, he merely has a different role to fill.
And what can we implement from this ?
We are all meant to be a "nation of priests and a holy people". Let us resolve to implement the koahnic alacrity in our service of Hashem.
Let us also internalize this idea of independent roles. Aharon brought the ketores incense every day. It had a mixture of several spices, one of which was foul smelling. The Shem MiShmuel teaches that the reason that Korach and his band were challenged to bring the ketores was to check if their claim was sincere. They claimed that the entire nation was holy – and shouldn't require an appointed priest. If they truly believed in the acceptability of all Jews their ketores would have been accepted, since it is made up of a variety of spices, just like the nation. They, however, harbored feelings of elitism, and didn’t really believe that "the entire nation was holy" – therefore, their ketores was unacceptable.
We should focus on this idea as well, especially while saying the parasha of the ketores in davening. There are many types of Yidden. As those who wish to see the ketores brought once again, we should remember to love them all.
Hatzlacha !!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Show Me The Dough

Following the incomprehensible national tragedy of the meraglim, the Jewish people receive two mitzvos. One of them is the requirement to separate a portion of every significant batch of dough that they prepare and give it to a kohein. This portion is called challah.
(It is for this reason that the braided loaves, traditionally used on shabbos, are called challah. During the week, regular bread from the local baker was procured. In honor of shabbos, Jewish women were eager to fulfill this special mitzvah and would make sure to bake at home to be able to separate challah from the dough. )
Why does the mitzvah of challah follow the sin of the spies ? Because performing the mitzvah of challah is actually a kappara for it. Hashem is not in the business of punitive punishments. If He punishes you – it is for corrective purposes !
With the sin of the meraglim, they, and all who believed them, displayed a tremendous hubris. They were particularly haughty and high and mighty when referring to the conquest of the land. Even though they did not think it could be done, that was only because they couldn't do it. Implying that under other circumstances – they could ! This was the underlying sin of the spies – not just discounting Hashem's promise, but assuming that we, alone, are solely responsible for our successes, without a thought to Hashem.
Part of our constant effort to recognize Hashem's role in our prosperity is the system of tithes. We bring the first of everything to the kohein. Bikurim, terumah, maaser beheima, even our first born sons – all go to the kohein (as a proxy of Hashem). This is to drill into us that all comes from Hashem, and we are simply the beneficiaries. What happens when this system in not enough?! What happens when, despite these safeguards, we are still possessed with the mistaken idea that we create and achieve?!
Hashem has to increase the dosage.
Until now, dough, which represents human achievements, didn't need to be tithed, as long as it was made with tithed ingredients. Presumably, if I know that I may only use foods upon which I have already declared G-d's ownership and mastery, I'll continue to acknowledge that mastery, even when the result of my efforts is qualitatively better than the raw ingredients themselves (like bread).
But, when the people are consumed by delusions of grandeur, when they imagine that they themselves are would-be conquerors – and only in this specific case are they thwarted, Hashem instructs them in the proper corrective procedure. From now on, says Hashem, you must acknowledge that even your own efforts (represented by the dough) only exist with a healthy dose of divine assistance. If you do that, you will hopefully phase out the hubris and delusions that brought about the sin in the first place.
Perhaps this is also why challah is associated with shabbos. By refraining from any constructive activity for an entire day, we are not only declaring our dependence on Hashem during this day, but rather, during all the days of the week.
May we all be zocheh to see the guiding, helping hand of Hashem in all of our endeavors, and may He see our humility and bring us the moshiach, speedily in our days, amen.
Hatzlacha !!

Friday, June 08, 2012

To Lead Or To Follow ?


When Eldad and Meidad receive the gift of nevuah they are still "in the camp" and have not made their way to the Oheil Moed [see Bamidbar 11:24-29]. Yehoshua is incensed by their prophetic pronouncement that he will lead the people after Moshe Rabbeinu's death.  Moshe's reaction, however, stands in stark contrast to all other breaches of conduct that are mentioned in this week's parasha (the people who desired meat, the complainers about family life, those who ran away from Har Sinai, etc'…) Moshe hears this news and isn't fazed at all. No condemnations, no chastisements. Why not ?

In truth, we must first determine why Yehoshua was so upset. He felt that even if the prophecy of Moshe's demise and his succession was correct, it shouldn't be publicized "in the camp". Moshe still has plenty of time to lead the people and telling the nation that he has 'one foot out the door' could only undermine him. This is also why Yehoshua only suggests a jail sentence, a punishment that is at beis din's prerogative. If they were indeed false prophets, Yehoshua would have called for their heads!

Moshe Rabbeinu, on the other hand, still has a lesson or two to impart to Yehoshua. Completely unperturbed by this seeming insubordinance, Moshe tells Yehoshua that there is a lesson in Jewish leadership he must never forget. It's not about the image you sell to the people and it's not about effective management of your human resources. A Jewish leader is still just a messenger. A messenger of Hashem. And if that is the message that Hashem chose to prophetically share with Eldad and Meidad, then it must be the right thing to say. Wouldn't it be great, waxes Moshe, if Hashem's spirit could rest on each one of the people in such a direct fashion ? Essentially, teaches Moshe, the grandest lessons would come straight from Hashem with no earthly emissary intervening at all.

Apparently this lesson made its mark. There is no further discussion regarding Eldad and Meidad's "infraction". And Yehoshua, who does succeed Moshe eventually, is actually referred to as being the 'moon' to Moshe's 'sun'. And there is no greater expression of a mere messenger of reflected light than that.

What lesson can we glean from this ? We are all leaders at one point or another, whether in our families or our peer group. We must never forget that it isn't our wishes or desires that govern our 'leadership' overtures, it is only one goal, our service as G-d's messengers to His people.

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, June 01, 2012

From Whom Do We Take ?


Tucked in between the details of the specific responsibilities held by the Leviim and the laws of the sotah and the nazir, is the cornerstone of any atonement or forgiveness, the mitzvah of viduy. The pesukim briefly describe an action of wrongdoing and state that, as part of the restitution process, the sinner confess his sins. The Sefas Emes posits the following question. Why is the universal mitzvah of viduy (confession) listed here? The answer (that he credits to the Chiddushei HaRim, his grandfather) is the nature of the sin with which viduy is linked.

The Torah (Bamidbar 5:6)refers to the sinner as one who "misappropriates" or "embezzles" something from Hashem. Only by reading the commentaries, do we understand that the underlying sin here is theft. Why should theft be the paradigm misdeed that the Torah uses to teach us how to do teshuva? Because there is something of theft in every sin we do.

The Chiddushei HaRim explained that all of our abilities, every sling and arrow in our arsenal of achievements, were given to us for one purpose – to serve Hashem. By misusing our G-d given abilities and straying from the proper path, we are, de facto, embezzling these powers from Hashem, since we aren't using them towards their intended consequence.

Additionally, we can consider another reason why the misdeed of theft is used as the paradigm to instruct us in the specifics of teshuva. Without proper cognition of our sin, we can never hope to attain forgiveness and repentance. We might erroneously consider simple restitution a fitting teshuva for the crime of theft. By performing viduy, we are acknowledging that the action, in and of itself, was wrong – not just its consequence. Since the action itself was a crime against G-d ( as well as a crime against the man from whom we stole ) we must ask His forgiveness as well. We begin this process by confession.

May we use all our many talents and strengths for the service of He who bestowed them upon us and may we constantly recognize that all our actions have a direct import to our Grand Maker up above.

Hatzlacha !! 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

One, Two, Three ...


In Parshas Bamidbar we see the plans for the layout of the Israelite camp, the circular pattern that echoed the positions of the sons of Yaakov as they carried his coffin to its eternal resting place. The torah goes through each tribe and lists how many there were and in which direction they should camp. But, wait ! Didn't the Torah just list a regular census in which every tribe was counted ? Why count the Jewish people twice in as many chapters ? ( Census 1 is written in perek alef while the camp layout, and it's population register, is recorded in perek beis)

To answer this seeming redundancy, we must ask ourselves as to the purpose of the census to begin with.  Rashi, commenting on the first accounting, tells us that the census was an expression of love. Hashem loves us and therefore counts us frequently as a demonstration of His affection. When something is precious we are constantly aware of how much of it we have. (This would also explain why an Omniscient G-d would need to perform a count to know how many yidden there are. He doesn't. The act of counting is a show of love.) That is why this census was taken in the tribes' birth order. Hashem loves us, not just for what we do, but for who we are – and we came into being in that order.

The second accounting, highlighted a different aspect of the Jewish nation, our differing roles. There are twelve tribes because there is a need for many distinct types of yidden. Not everyone was born to lead like Yehudah or guard the Mishkan like Levi. There are scholars like Yissachar and merchants like Zevulun. And they all have their unique place in the tapestry of Jewish communal life.

By listing the different locations of each tribe the Torah is emphasizing our distinct identities. But by counting the Jews for a second time, along with giving them their "marching orders", the Torah is stating unequivocally that Hashem's affection for us is unconditional to us fulfilling those roles. Yes, we each have a unique place in the camp that we must shore up and support. But, no, our place amongst G-d's beloved children isn't dependant on that. Hashem begins by counting us – just for who we are – and only afterwards counting us for what we should, and could, do.

Hatzlacha !! 

Friday, May 18, 2012

You Are What You Are


The final chapters of parshas Bechukosay are called parshas Erchin. There the Torah describes the relative value that an item has if it is pledged to the Beis HaMikdash. This even includes people. That means that if I say – "I will donate my daughter to the Beis HaMikdash" – there is a specific amount of money I have to give.

We might think this is a bad thing. We may be insulted or think that the Torah is belittling us to give us a dollar amount as our self worth.

The truth is exactly the opposite.

When a person thinks about themselves – they always think it terms of what they've done. "Oh, I am great because I did this and that", or "I'm not such hot stuff since I once did that…" What the Torah is teaching us in the parsha of Erchin is that Yidden have an intrinsic value. No matter how good or bad you have been recently and without any consideration as to your recent accomplishments (or, chas veshalom, failures).

This should be a shining light for a Jew. To know that we are worth an incredible amount – just for who we are. And to whom are we worth this much? To Hashem!

Perhaps this is why we read parshas Bechukosay right before receiving the Torah. We must first internalize the concept of an intrinsic value – only then can we begin to appreciate the tremendous gift that we are being given as befitting our value.

Hatzlacha ! 

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Brand New and Still Gleaming !

"...תספרו חמישים יום, והקרבתם מנחה חדשה לד'" [ויקרא כג:טז]
"… you shall count fifty days and bring a new offering to Hashem" [Vayikra 23:16]

The Shavuous flour offering is called a 'new' offering since it is the first flour offering to be brought from the new wheat harvest of the year. Prior flour offerings (such as the ones that accompanied the daily korbanos in the Beis Hamikdash) were made using last year's wheat.
The Kli Yakar, however, gives us an incredible angle from which to view the 'new-ness' of this offering.
Shavuous is unique amongst the Jewish holidays, the date of its occurrence is conspicuously omitted from the Torah. The best description we have is "…count fifty days". What could be the reason behind the omission ? Precisely this idea, that it could be anytime. If you know something will happen at a particular date – you might feel that it is only applicable then. For example, everyone appreciates mom on mother's day, but what about every other day of the year ?! By marking a specific day, we are, in fact, lessening the impact of any event upon all subsequent days.
For this reason, says the Kli Yakar, the fact that Shavuous is the day that the Torah was given was not mentioned at all, and its date is purposely obscured. So that we can assume that it happened any day !
This is also the reasoning behind the label of the 'new offering'. The Torah should be continually embraced, but not just as some old set of rules that we do by rote. The Torah should be clung to like it was a brand new possession, shiny and enticing. IT is therefore only fitting to bring a 'new' offering on the holiday that celebrates the continual and perpetual renewal of our covenant with the Torah.
So why post this now and not at Shavuous time ? That's exactly the point ! We got the Torah today, too !!
Hatzlacha !!

Friday, April 27, 2012


One of the most famous of the Torah's missives is the all encompassing "קדושים תהיו". Rashi tells us that with these words Hashem is commanding us to keep an extra distance from immorality. The Ramban understood this instruction as a call for moderation and restraint even in areas of permissible pleasures.
Perhaps most striking are the words of the Kli Yakar. To him, the words of Kedoshim Tihiyu are not just a commandment, but also a promise and statement of fact.
This shabbos, let us bask in the knowledge that we posses a divinely granted spark of holiness. And may our shabbos reflect this.
Hatzlacha !

Friday, April 20, 2012

Are We Our Successes Or Our Failures ?

The beginning of Parshas Metzora teaches us an important lesson in teshuva.

After the first two pesukim that refer to the formerly afflicted person as a metzora, he is never again called by this appellation. He is given a new title, האיש המיטהר – the man who is becoming pure.
Now, if he is only becoming pure – that means that he is not yet pure. Without being overly technical, if he is not yet pure – then he must still be impure! Why don't we simply refer to him as the tameh, or better yet, the metzorah, until such time as his purification is complete?
Because that would be inaccurate.
While there are still steps a former metzora must take to achieve divine forgiveness and prevent backsliding, these are all technicalities. Ultimately, he has turned a corner and is now on the mend, spiritually.
This is, in essence, true for any one of us who is struggling with any part of our avodas Hashem. Once we are free and clear of the core blemish, the initial misjudgment that caused us to stray – we can take the vaunted title of "ba'al teshuva". We may still struggle, we may even still fall, but never again should we refer to ourselves as a sinner. We are a "מיטהר"-one who is becoming pure, not there yet – but commited to staying the path.
And with this new, positive self image we are deserving of much siyaata dishmaaya. Even the kohein, who spends all of his days in the innermost camp, communing with the shechina, must go out to the מיטהר to see that he is indeed free of blemish.
May we all be zocheh to recognize our shortcomings and commit to a path to overcome them, thusly earning the polished crown of a מיטהר. And marching with these crowns, may we greet mashiach tzidkeynu, bimheyra beyameinu, amen
Hatzlacha !.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Are We All Wet ?


Why would Hashem punish the Egyptians by splitting the sea ? He has already shown them His mastery over water in the first makka when He turned their Nile god into blood. What greater demonstration of Hashem's power was to be seen ?

Water is that with which Hashem gives life. For that reason Torah is compared to water. Dry land, on the other hand, is, well … dry. We can thusly compare the sea as being the receptacle for Hashem's midda of chessed while on land his midda of din or strict justice prevails.

When Pharaoh catches up to the fleeing Jews at Pi HaChiroth, he is convinced that now he will destroy them. How could Pharaoh be convinced of this ? Has he forgotten the past year, when ten plagues decimated his country and shattered his defenses ? Pharaoh remembered these things all too well. He was just erroneously convinced that this was the manifestation of Hashem's will on land. With the attribute of justice, Hashem dealt harshly with the Egyptians and trounced them in a nightmarish year. But, on the sea, with the attribute of loving kindness playing center stage, Pharaoh was sure that he could beat Hashem and His Jews, too.

Pharaoh was a fool.

And to emphasize that Hashem's plan is unfathomable by the human mind, Hashem saves the Jews by bringing them into the heart of the sea, and saves them by opening it and having dry land in middle! It is thusly not kindness (water) which saves the Jews, but rather justice (land). And the Egyptians aren't punished by justice, as we would expect, but rather by a flooding of kindness!

How does this shape our focus for the end of Pesach ? By offering Hashem our praise. When the Jews sang the shira at the edge of the Sea of Reeds, they reached new and lofty levels of Emunah. Perhaps this was their new recognition. They had seen Hashem's mighty hand all throughout the year as the makkos unfolded. But only by seeing Hashem reverse His hands, so to speak, did they really begin to get a glimpse of Hashem's awesome power. When the Jews understood that there is no objective kindness-mode or justice-mode but rather a unified, all encompassing, dominion over all, that's when they offered the greatest praise to Hashem.

May we, at the conclusion of our Pesach, merit seeing this Divine dominion, unhampered and unconstrained by any regulations of the mundane. And let our praise of this incredible glory reflect this majestic fact.

Hatzlacha !

Friday, April 06, 2012

Skip, Skip, Skip To My Lou


One of the classic ploys of the Yetzer hora is impulsiveness, or the ability or inclination to perform an action quickly and without too much (or any) thought. It is both a tool to perform negative actions that we would usually avoid ("Oh, I can't believe I just said that …") and a deficiency in its own right.

Then why does it seem that Pesach is all about this same trait ?

Because it is.

What makes impulsivity bad is the absence of a rational thought process. While this is usually utilized for bad actions, there is no reason why we can't hijack this for good.

In the same way that an impulsively quick action can drop you (or your actions, or your speech, etc' …) to a pitifully low level in your avodas Hashem – the same kind of action can turn the tables!

Pesach is when Hashem did not examine our overall status in order to redeem us from bondage. It is a time when Hashem asked us to do the impossible (taking the sheep, god of the Egyptians in total and complete defiance) and without thinking too long about the possible ramifications … we did it ! We skipped the part of out decision making process that would have caused us to doubt fulfilling Hashem's command. G-d, in turn, skipped our houses and children when He swept through Egypt in the final retributionary rampage. To commemorate this we even skip the rising of the dough in the baking process.

This Pesach, skip something. At the seder, or in teffila, get into it! Skip the self consciousness, skip the doubts, and have an incredible, meaningful Pesach!

Hatzlacha !

Friday, March 30, 2012

A "Great" Shabbos


The shabbos before Pesach is known as shabbos hagadol, or the 'great' shabbos.

What is so "great" about this shabbos ?

It is said that shabbos is actually above time and that the world was created for the short duration of six days. On shabbos, all creation is recharged, getting it set for another week. Shabbos, however, is outside of this calculation and exists in a sublime, timeless nature. Thusly, shabbos has the unique double distinction of being both the culmination of the preceding week and the foundation of the following week.

Since shabbos serves as the flashpoint of recreation, it must follow that everything which is needed for that week will also be created on shabbos.

Now we understand what is so "great" about shabbos haGadol – on shabbos hagadol the act of recreation is greater than other times since it needs to also include the incredible holiday of Pesach.

The first night of Pesach is known as 'leil shimurim' a night that we are watched over. On that night the level of Hashgacha pratis or personal divine guidance and care is at its highest point of the year. On that night Hashem personally 'passed over' each one of our houses in dealing destruction upon the Egyptians – He even struck down any Egyptians who may have been hiding in our very own homes ! Divine involvement on such an intense, personal level, is sure to leave a mark in time – as it did on seder night.

So this shabbos, as we sing testimony to Hashem's (re)creation of the world and palpably feel the rejuvenation of all that surrounds us – know that this shabbos is truly greater than others, it is the shabbos where the divine presence descends into our world in greater force than any other time during the year. And since seder night is a full week away, we have this extra hasgacha for a full eight days. That's pretty great!

With Hashem's guiding hand ever closer, we must ask ourselves, what are we going to do with such an amazing opportunity ?

Hatzlacha !