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Thursday, 17th August 2017

In this weeks Torah portion we are told that G-d gives us reward for every good deed and curses for bad deeds – “see I am placing before you blessing and curse”

A closer look at the first verse in this week's portion forces us to ask a fundamental question. The Torah seems to be talking to the individual.  It uses the word “See” in the singular tense, and then continues a few words later in the plural tense with the word “before you" - plural.  Why does the Torah change tense, surely it should have finished the sentence in the singular tense as it started?
The Chassam Sofer directs us to the Talmud (Kiddushin) where it states that one should live his or her life as if their life is in a complete balance between good and evil. If they were to perform even one more Mitzvah - Good deed, their personal scales would be tipped and they would be guaranteed life. However, the opposite effect holds true as well. By using this mind set, an individual will learn the power of even one of his or her actions on their own life.

Rabbi Akiva later in the same tractate of the Talmud takes this idea a bit further. He says that not only should one have the mindset that their life is  their own personal scale, but one should view the entire world as being in complete balance.  Rabbi Akiva is trying to explain that every person should view themselves as being able to individually affect the entire world.
We can now understand why the Torah starts by referring to the individual, “See” in the singular, and then moves on to the plural “before you”.  We should "see" as individuals the power that we have on the world around us.  When we do Mitzvos - good deeds, we need to know that G-d promises to place “before you” (plural) "Lifneichem" blessings.  Those blessings will affect the entire world and will affect history.


Wednesday, 9th August 2017

Have you ever met someone who knew right from wrong but was still a bad person?
Sure you have. We all have. And it's hard to understand sometimes. If they knew what is right, why did they do the wrong thing? It seems illogical! It just doesn't add up. 
But the truth is, we are all exactly like this person, even if only to a smaller degree. We often know that we should be acting differently than we actually are, whether in the way we treat our friends and family, or in our financial affairs, or in our relationship with Hashem and Torah observance. We all know that there are things we should be working on and improving on.... but often, it just doesn't happen. And somehow, just like our friend we spoke about earlier, we land up living a life that is different than the way we know it should be . 

In this week's parsha (Torah portion), Parshas Eikev, Hashem (G-d) actually describes the Jewish people this way. He calls us a "stiff-knecked nation". The Sforno, one of our most famous commentators on the Torah, says that to be "stiff necked" means that someone could logically prove to you that you are wrong and it wouldn't make a difference. You still wouldn't listen. That's the way Hashem described the Jewish people.... So clearly the problem didn't start yesterday. It's been going on for thousands of years! 

Why does this happen? If it is so illogical, then why do people so often live in ways that are different than what they believe to be true?! 

There was a whole movement in Europe a few hundred years ago called the Mussar (Ethics), which wrote a lot about this phenomenon. One of the main rabbis who thought and wrote about it was named Rabbi Yisroel Salanter. He worked out why people do this and he summed it up in a sentence: 

"The greatest distance in the world is between a person's mind and their heart." 

Someone can believe in one thing intellectually, but unless they find a way to return that to their heart, to internalise it, to know it with every fibre of their being, it won't affect their actions. This is what the verse in last week's parsha meant when it said: 
"You should know today and return it to your hearts that Hashem is God, there is none other besides Him." 

We see here that Hashem knew all along: It's not enough to know what's right and wrong. It's not enough to believe in something. We then have to return it to our hearts. We have to work out how to internalise those facts. That's what the sages of the Mussar Movement discussed.... techniques on just how to do that. Once we internalise what we know is true, then they can affect our actions and we can begin to start perfecting ourselves and living lives that are steeped with great and noble ideals. Then we can achieve greatness. 



Tuesday, 1st August 2017

The posuk (verse) (6:5) commands that you shall love HaShem (G-d) with "all" your heart (be’chol levavcha), which Rashi reveals refers to loving HaShem with both your inclinations; the yezter hatov (good inclination) and the yetzer hara (evil inclination). How can one possibly use the yetzer hara - that force which attempts to hijack one’s spirituality and pull one away from HaShem - for good? 
In Alei Shur (page 35), Rabbi Wolbe quotes Rabbi Tzaddok HaKohen who writes that the area with which the yetzer hara tests/entices a person is that same area where we have the greatest potential for growth in serving HaShem. 

For example, one might have a big yetzer hara test to say brochos (blessings over food) really quickly and get on to eating the food - here Rabbi Tzaddok is telling us that since the yetzer hara is attacking your area of brochos, it must be that you have great potential to say brochos properly and with the correct intentions and mindset. 

It is much like war; the enemy will focus their attention on attacking the area most potent and useful to the other side. So too will the yetzer hara attack each person’s individual strength and area of growth - and this area will be different for each individual for each person has their own unique strengths. 

Rabbi Wolbe comments on this that we learn from here that one is not to merely ignore one’s yetzer hara, but to confront it and realise one’s area of greatest potential. Thus, this is one way we can use our yetzer haras for the positive - by noticing which area they attack and thus using it to identify our strongest area of growth.  

Alternatively, one can use the yetzer hara to fuel one’s performance of mitzvos (positive commandments). For example, if you are competitive by nature then use this to become better at learning Torah than the next person. Or, if you are stingy then use this to motivate you to commit to give a certain sum of money to charity. 

Each bad middah (character trait) can be turned round to spur on and promote the development of a positive middah or mitzvos.


Thursday, 27th July 2017

Moshe (Moses) had battled Sichon and won. Now he faced a war against the mighty Og. The Commentaries says that the Giants Og and Sichon were more formidable adversaries than Pharaoh and his army.

Before this war, Moshe seems to be worried. Hashem (G-d) had to reassure him (3:2) – do not fear him, for I (Hashem) will place him and his people in your hand.

What was bothering Moshe? Surely a man of the spiritual status of Moshe should not fear Og?
Og was not a normal adversary. He was a Giant with a formidable history. Og was called "Hapalit" - the escapee. He escaped from the Mabul - great flood, from the war of the four kings against the five kings, and from the war waged by the Ammonites against his people. To understand the fear of Moshe we must understand the secret of Og's longevity?

Rashi cites the commentaries, that Moshe was concerned because Og had a special merit for doing a kindness to Abraham hundreds of years earlier. At that time, Abraham's nephew Lot was taken captive. Og ran to Abraham to relate to him the news. Og had intended that Abraham should go to battle against the Four mightiest Kings, where he would be killed, opening the way for Og to take Sarah (Abraham's wife) for himself. Whilst Og had the worst of intentions, nevertheless this relating of news caused Abraham to save Lot’s life and sanctify Hashem's name in the world.

For this Hashem rewarded Og with an additional 500 years of life, hence escaping numerous dangers!
Now Moshe faced this formidable foe, and was worried, perhaps this merit was still standing in Og’s favour.

Let us focus a moment on what is happening here.  Og the despicable giant, has a bad intention, yet nevertheless is rewarded for his good actions?  Has he not been rewarded enough?  How much reward does a man like this really deserve for a seemingly small and unintentional good deed?  And surely Moshe the greatest prophet that ever lived, the True Servant of Hashem should not fear such a giant?  Before we answer let us turn for a moment to our current exile.

Chazal tell us that we find ourselves in the "exile of Eisav". This exile has lasted for two thousand years. It is the longest exile of our people. But when will this exile end? The prophet Zechariya tells us (2:12) Achar Kavod Shelachani. Rashi explains that the time will come only once the merit of Eisav has been removed. Which merit are we talking about? Eisav was well known to honour his father Yitzchak (Isaac). The Zohar (1:146b) states that it is that honour showed to his father, that gave him the merit to rule over us for thousands of years! Hence Zecharia states only after that merit has ended will Hashem defeat the wicked. We see that the ramifications of a good deed are long lasting.
Have you ever heard of Nebuchadnezzar?  He was the mightiest Leader Babylon ever saw. The Talmud relates that in his early days Nebuchadnezzar served as a secretary and scribe for a previous Babylonian monarch. Once, when Nebuchadnezzar was absent from work, other royal secretaries of the king drafted a letter to be sent to the Jewish king of Judah, Chizkiah. The letter began: "Greetings to King Chizkiah! Greetings to the city of Jerusalem! Greetings to the great G-d!"

When Nebuchadnezzar returned to work and discovered how the letter was written, he was furious. "You call Him 'the Great G-d,' Nebuchadnezzar protested, "and you mention Him last?!" 

In an isolated moment of moral conduct, Nebuchadnezzar insisted that the letter be redone, and written as follows: "Greetings to the Great G-d! Greetings to the city of Jerusalem! Greetings to king Chizkiah!"

The problem was that the messenger had already been dispatched to Jerusalem with the first version of the letter in his hand. So Nebuchadnezzar ran out to call the messenger back and redo the letter. How far did he need to run? Merely three steps before he caught the messenger to give him a second version of the letter. Our sages see this episode as the ultimate cause for Nebuchadnezzar's royal success. In the merit of his taking three steps to honour G-d, Nebuchadnezzar received the crown of royalty for three generations!

Moshe understood that there is a reward for acts of good; he was worried that Og’s merit still warranted him being alive. Therefore Hashem had to tell him, do not worry, his time has come, he has enjoyed enough reward for his actions.

The reward granted to these wicked people for their good actions in this world seems massive.  Og the giant gets long life, lives as a mighty ruler; Nebuchadnezzar receives the monarchy for generations. Wow all that for such a small action? Yes! Even small actions count. Yet we must note that the real reward for our deeds is in the next world. We must realise that Hashem guards each and every mitzvah we do, every Amen we say, every Shabbat we keep, every act of kindness, it is all there in front of Hashem. 

From the reward these wicked people received for their seemingly small acts of good, we can fathom the reward that we will receive for every Mitzvah – Ah how lucky we are!


Wednesday, 19th July 2017

At the beginning of Chapter 32, the Torah tells us that the Tribes of Reuven and Gad desired to settle not in Eretz Yisrael (Israel), but on the side of the River Jordan that they stood on. These two Shevatim (Tribes) had an abundance of cattle and believed that this was good grazing land. 

They went to Moshe (Moses) and asked his permission to settle there, promising that they would join the other Shevatim in conquering Eretz Yisrael before they settled down. 

The Chumash tells us that they asked permission to build holdings for their cattle and cities for their families. When Moshe responds to them he reverses the order and tells them to build cities for their families and holdings for their cattle . 

Why did Moshe reverse the order of their words? Moshe was teaching the Shevatim and us a life lesson. He told them that their families must come before their businesses. First, set up cities for your families and then set up boundaries for your businesses. 


Thursday, 13th July 2017

"And the Almighty said unto Moshe (Moses), 'Take Yehoshua (Joshua), the son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit and place your hand upon him (to designate him as the leader)." (Bamidbar 27:18).

Rashi, writes regarding this verse: "Appoint a man to announce the laws loudly for Yehoshua so that he shall expound the Law during your lifetime; so that people shall not say concerning him, "he was not able to lift his head during the days of Moshe." 

What do we learn from this? We must do all that we can to strengthen the power of Torah leadership. The Almighty - and Moshe - wanted to ensure that the Jewish People had a leader to succeed Moshe who they would follow. Thus Moshe wanted his successor appointed before he died. He also wanted Joshua to publicly teach Torah in his presence to demonstrate that Moshe sanctioned and approved of Joshua's position. This was a great kindness to both Joshua and the Jewish people! 
The renowned Rabbi Akiva Eiger once visited Nicholsburg. Rabbi Mordechai Benet, the Rabbi of the city, honored Rabbi Eiger by asking him to deliver a lecture in Jewish law to his congregants on Shabbos.  

In the middle of the lecture, Rabbi Benet interrupted with a question which seemed to upset Rabbi Eiger's entire argument. After a short pause, Rabbi Eiger descended from the pulpit, vanquished. 
 After the service, Rabbi Benet begged Rabbi Eiger for his forgiveness. With a smile, Rabbi Eiger disclosed that he really knew the answer to the question. 

"But, why didn't you tell me in the synagogue that I was in error?" asked Rabbi Benet. 

"I did not want to belittle you in the eyes of your congregation," replied Rabbi Eiger. "After all, you are their leader; they look up to you. I am only a passerby; my reputation is inconsequential." 

If a great rabbi can forgo his own honour to strengthen the honour of another, then how much more so shouldn’t we be able to also forgo our own honour for the honour of others?


Thursday, 6th July 2017

The basic outline of the main part of our sedra (Torah portion) this week is that Balak hires a prophet/professional ‘curser’ called Bilam, to curse the Jewish nation.  However, after several failed attempts at cursing, the Jews are in fact blessed by Bilam, and the danger is averted.  Indeed, there was a real danger involved had Bilam been successful; the Gemorro (Talmud) reveals that Bilam knew the exact tiny fraction of a second in the day when HaShem (G-d) ‘is angry’ and accepts curses, and to prevent Bilam being successful, HaShem closed this window of opportunity.

If one thinks about the events objectively, there should be no natural way for the Jewish people to have known of Bilam’s attempted curses.  How would they know? There were two people on faraway mountains gazing at the Israelites and trying to utter curses. In fact, the Chassam Sofer writes that until the Jewish people received the complete Torah at Moshe’s (Moses's) death, the Jewish nation did not know anything about what Bilam and Balak had conspired to bring about.

This is all part of HaShem’s kindness to us; not only does He save us from precarious or dangerous situations, but He often does so without our knowledge; only later do we find out.  Thus, not only are we saved from the danger itself, but we are saved the anguish at having to worry about the danger (for we did not even know about the danger in the first place). 
The Brisker Rav (the Rabbi of Brisk) used to convey this message via Tehillim (the Psalms). We say in Tehillim (Psalm) 117 (and hallel) ‘all the nations will praise HaShem for the kindness He has done to us (the Jews).’  Asks the Brisker Rav; why is it that specifically the non-Jews are praising HaShem for the kindness He shows to us? He answers that often the non-Jews had plotted against the Jews, and HaShem prevented these plans from coming to fruition.  Thus, the non-Jews were in the best position to recognise HaShem's kindness to us, but we - who didn’t even know there was a plot, let alone that it was foiled - would not realise what was done to be able to thank HaShem for it.


Monday, 26th June 2017

We read about the story of Moshe (Moses) hitting the rock in this week's sedra (Torah reading) and subsequently being punished.  Surely though, the punishment of forfeiting his life and the merit of entering Eretz Yisroel (Israel) is a little harsh on Moshe - all he did was change a minor instruction from G-d.  He was instructed to talk to the rock, and he merely hit the rock instead ?

Amongst the many answers to this question is an outstanding one from Rabbi Kamenetsky.  He explains that there may have been people in the future who would challenge the veracity of the transmission of Torah from G-d to Moshe, and would suggest that maybe Moshe changed part of the Torah - a bit here or a bit there. 

However, this week's sedra teaches us that as soon as Moshe deviated marginally from G-d's instruction, that was it - curtains for Moshe!  G-d had to punish Moshe so severely to communicate to us that this was the only time Moshe ever changed G-d's words or instructions - and look at the punishment he received!  

In other words G-d's punishment was designed to protect the future of the truthfulness of Moshe's transmission of Torah to the Jewish people.


Wednesday, 21st June 2017

This week's Torah portion tells the story of Korach's dispute with Moshe. The Mishna in Pirke Avos 5:20 states :
"Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will be of lasting worth and a dispute not for the sake of Heaven will not be of lasting worth. 
Which dispute was for the sake of Heaven? That of Hillel and Shamai. Which was not for the sake of Heaven? That of Korach and his company."

The Mishna should have said that the dispute not for the sake of Heaven was that of Korach and Moshe, not between Korach and his fellow conspirators! Why then does the Mishna mention that a dispute not for the sake of Heaven is the one between "Korach and his company"? 

We might think that Korach and his company were united in their argument with Moshe. The Mishna is telling us that each of the 250 were challenging Moshe for his own gain (each one brought incense to see if he himself would be chosen as the Kohen Godol - High Priest.) In truth, Korach and his congregation were in dispute amongst themselves as to who should be the High Priest. 
Korach and his company weren't in one dispute against Moshe which may have been a heavenly dispute, they were in a dipute of their own for pride and honour. When we go through our lives with daily disputes we may face, what is the real reason for these disputes, is it personal honour, pride or for any other personal gain or is the dispute a heavenly dispute?

Shelach Lecha

Thursday, 15th June 2017

"But My servant Caleb, because a different spirit was with him and he followed Me wholeheartedly, I shall bring him into the land to which he came, and his offspring shall possess it" (Numbers 14:24).

This part of the Parsha (Torah portion) delegates the reward that Calev (Caleb) received for his opposition to the spies defamatory report about Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel).  He will inherit the city of Chevron (Hebron), the location of the Meoras HaMachpelah where the Ovos (Patriarchs) and Imahos (Matriarchs) are buried.  During the spies' tour of the land of Israel, Calev had visited Chevron in order to pray to Hashem (G-d) at the graves of his righteous ancestors for help in overcoming the evil plan of the spies.

Upon considering this information, two questions come to mind.

1. Why does the above verse mention a specific reward only for Calev, while not making any mention of a special reward for the other righteous spy, Yehoshua (Joshua), who fulfilled the exact same mitzvah?

2. What is the "different spirit" that was with Calev?

The Ohr HaChaim, explains that a person possesses within him two opposing tendencies - an inclination towards good and an inclination towards evil.  This evil inclination caused the spies to stumble and speak slander against Eretz Yisrael.  Calev possessed this evil inclination within him, and that was the "different spirit" to which the verse refers, yet he still overcame that desire and did not fall prey to its entrapments.  He followed Hashem wholeheartedly and therefore earned his reward.

By contrast, Yehoshua was not tested by this "different spirit" to join the spies in their evil report.  As Rashi, quoting the Talmud, informs us, immediately before the Spies' departure, Moshe (Moses) blessed Yehoshua that he should be saved from the spies conspiracy, appending the Hebrew letter "yud" to the beginning of his name and thereby changing it to Yehoshua, meaning "G-d will save". This blessing removed his evil inclination toward slander against Israel.  The lack of this evil inclination is the reason Yehoshua didn't receive a specific reward for his actions.