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Vayera

Wednesday, 20th October 2010

 

The parsha (Torah portion) this week begins with G-d appearing to a ninety-nine year old Avrohom (Abraham) sitting in front of his tent suffering from his recent circumcision. Chazal (the Rabbis) teach us that he was waiting for guests to pass by, so he could invite them in, and he was upset that there were no guests.

Suddenly, Avrohom looks up and notices three men approaching. He ran over to meet them, saying: "Please don't pass on from your servant. Let a little water be brought...and you'll rest under the tree. I'll bring a morsel of bread and you'll satisfy your appetite. Then you'll continue on your way." (Genesis 18:14-15)

Avrohom excitedly ran to his wife Soroh (Sarah). "Quickly knead bread and make cakes!" Then again he ran to his herd to choose a good tender calf for his guests to eat, and hurries the lad to prepare it.
Avrohom went to such great effort to satisfy his guests, yet he only offered "a little water"? Why of all things was the water limited when he offered an abundance of everything else?

Rabbi Yisroel Salanter (1810–1883) was once travelling with a close friend of his when it was time for afternoon prayers. The two entered a small synagogue to pray. As is customary, they both washed their hands before praying. First, the Rabbi's friend washed with a liberal amount of water from a basin which was filled for this purpose, then Rabbi Yisroel followed suit, using only a minimal amount of water. "Aren't you accustomed to wash with a liberal amount Reb Yisroel?" "Yes, in fact, I am. But this is a small synagogue with a small group who comes here on a daily basis. I'm concerned that the Shamash (sexton) only fills the basin with enough water for those who usually come here to pray. If I wash liberally I may leave a noticeable deficiency in the basin. Imagine if the President sees the lack of water and feels that the Shamash is not carrying out his responsibilities correctly, it can cost him his livelihood."

When it comes to the work of having guests which Avrohom and Soroh committed themselves to, and which they personally undertook, they can offer their guests as much as they like. However, in the case of the water, which someone else was bringing, Avrohom did not offer that in abundance at the expense of those who were going to have to carry it, hence "a little water".
 

Lech Lecha

Wednesday, 13th October 2010

 

The word of HASHEM came to him saying, “That one shall not inherit you. Only him that comes from within you shall inherit you.” And He took him outside and said, “Gaze now, toward the Heaven, and count the stars if you are able to count them!” And He said to him, “So will be your offspring!” (Breishis 15:4-5)
According to the simple meaning he took him outside to see the stars… (Rashi)
Why would we need to know that Avraham was inside, that he had to be taken outside to see the stars? The Torah is not a French novel filled with frivolous details or choreography. Whilst it may be of interest to some, the Torah only uses words to teach us points that have eternal relevance. Hence Rashi continues to tell us: “According to the Midrash He said to him, “Go out from your astrology, which you have seen by the signs of the Zodiac to the effect that you are not destined to have children… Alternately, He took him out of the cavity of the world, and this is what the expression “habata” –gazing means which denotes looking down from above.” (Rashi)
We see that the prime Patriarch and Matriarch of the Jewish People according to normal means were not able or destined to have children together. It is only by stepping outside of the natural realm of the universe does the building of the Nation of Israel begin. By definition the Jewish People, are therefore, an unnatural people. We do not exist is a normal and natural way ultimately. Perhaps this is the meaning of, “There is no Mazel in Israel!” (Tractate Shabbos 156A) It doesn’t mean we have no-good mazel but rather we are not locked-in and limited to the normal format of national existence and hence the verse says ” And He took him outside....." meaning outside of the "box".
As a post script, should we need one:
Arnold Toynbee in his monumental work, The Study of History, explores the rise and fall of not less than 21 civilizations. He found the Jewish People to be an historical anomaly. Leo Tolstoy wrote, “The Jew is the emblem of eternity. He whom neither slaughter or torture of thousands of years could destroy, he who neither fire nor sword nor inquisition was able to wipe off the face of the earth, he who was able to produce the oracles of G-d, he who has been for so long the guardian of prophecy, and transmitted it to the rest of the world such a nation cannot be destroyed. The Jew is as everlasting as eternity itself.” It was Mark Twain too who observed and wondered aloud, “All things are mortal but the Jew; All other forces pass but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”
Rabbi Yakov Emden wrote in the early 1700’s “Many have tried to injure us but they were not able to destroy or wipe us out. While all the great civilizations have disappeared and been forgotten, the Nation of Israel who clings to G-d is alive today! What will the wise historian answer when he examines this phenomenon without prejudice? Was all this purely by chance? By my soul, when I contemplated the these great wonders of our continued existence, they took on greater significance than all the miracles and wonders that HASHEM, Blessed be He, performed for our fathers in Egypt, in the desert and when they entered the Land of Israel. And the longer this exile extends, the miracle of Jewish existence becomes more obvious to make known G-d’s mastery and supervision over Nature and History!”
The Story is told of Louis XIV asking the philosopher Pascal for some proof of a supernatural force in the world to which Pascal is reputed to have replied, “Why, the Jews, your majesty, the Jews.”
We have lived for millennium as a sheep amongst seventy wolves, and we continue down the gauntlet of history like those who walked through the split sea. It can easily be observed that according to natural means those surging walls of water should have drowned us and those hungry wolves have had their fill a long time ago but for the grandest mystical reason we are originally founded and continue to find ourselves living miraculously.
 

Noach

Wednesday, 6th October 2010

 

We are told of how Noach (Noah) emerged from the Ark and brought sacrifices to G-d. Then Noach set out to plant a vineyard. From its grapes he made wine, drank and became drunk. He was found by his son Chom (Ham) in his tent, undressed, and in an embarassing state. Instead of taking action, Cham left Noach in his drunken state and reported the incident to his brothers, Shem, and Yefes. Shem and Yefes immediately set out to cover their father and minimize his embarrassment. They took a blanket, and walking backwards they draped the blanket over their father without staring at him in his low state. When Noach awoke, and found out what happened, he blessed Shem and Yefes, and cursed the descendants of Chom. (See Genesis 9:18-29)

The lesson and and focus of this story is what Shem and Yefes did. Unlike Chom who publicized the shame of his father, Shem and Yefes sought to hide it. Shem and Yefes showed their father consideration, and attempted to restore his dignity.

In the book "Reaching the Stars" by Ruchoma Shain, the following story is told:

Mrs. Shain was a general studies teacher in a Jewish school, teaching 1st grade. There was a child named Ruthie in her class whose parents were immigrants from Hungary. Ruthie's father, a bricklayer, had fallen off of a scaffold and injured his spine. He was confined to a wheelchair. Her mother with the burden of caring for the family singlehandedly, suffered a breakdown and was hospitalized. The children were shunted between relatives and friend, their lives falling apart in front of them. This young child, suffering and confused, came to school every day, but never spoke a word. Every attempt to coax the child out of her shell met with failure. Toward the spring Ruthie still had not uttered a word in class. During a game, the children were sitting on the floor near the radiator. Mrs. Shain noticed a puddle growing under Ruthie, and she knew what would happen to Ruthie if the other girls became aware that she had had an accident. The embarrassment would be a death blow to the child. The children were absorbed in their game and had not yet discovered what had occured. Mrs. Shain rapped on her desk with her ruler, and got everyone back to their seats. "The radiator is leaking badly and causing a puddle on the floor, and so you should get ready for dismissal." Mrs Shain never lied to her students, but in this case she made an exception. Another few minutes and the children were gone. The door opened and there stood Ruthie. "Uh... Uh... Mrs. Shain," she whispered. Those were her only words. Then Ruthie took Mrs Shain's hand, kissed it, and fled from the room.

The student of Torah takes an important lesson from the events of this week's parsha (portion). We must always try to understand others; not to seek their faults, and to try to bring out the good which is in everyone. When the opportunity presents itself, we should even try to prevent others from becoming aware of other's mistakes, shortcomings, and personality flaws.
 

Sukkos

Tuesday, 28th September 2010

 

When considering the rapid transition from the "Days of Awe" (Rosh Hashono and Yom Kippur) to the "Time of our Happiness", on Sukkos, one might be left with the feeling, what's the deal here?! Is the relationship one of overwhelming fear or abundant love, or both somehow?

Abraham manifested the epitome of human dedication when he stood willing to sacrifice his principles, his reputation, his future, his beloved son, with one swipe of the knife. We know how the story ends. The Almighty was testing to see if he was willing to give it all up and he lived up to the test. Today we continue to draw from that account gained by his noble intentions. In the last instant he was interrupted and an announcement was made "Now I know you fear G-d, because you did not withhold your son, your only son, from Me!"

That must have been the height of heights, but then something even greater happened which seems to have eclipsed the prior achievement. We are told that Abraham noticed a ram in caught in the thicket, which he subsequently sacrificed in place of his son, and a second Divine announcement was then made, "I swear, so says Hashem (G-d), because you did this (the sacrifice of the ram) and you did not withhold your son your only son, I will bless those who bless you. I will increase your seed like the stars of the heavens and like the sand of the sea shore and your seed will inherit the gates of its enemies. All the nations of the world will be blessed through your descendants because you have listened to My voice!"

What's the big deal with the ram? Why after having demonstrated his willingness to give up his son he is titled as one who fears Hashem, which is no small matter, but when he brings some stray creature in his stead, the act of bringing his son is again evoked and mountains of blessing begin to flow in his general direction?

Imagine it's mid-winter and on Shabbos eight feet of snow falls. After Shabbos your boss calls and commands that you come immediately and dig him out so he can catch a plane. Immediately you get into your winter gear, and spend the next two hours just getting your self out from under the snow. Now you hurry to the boss's house to perform the same task on his extra long driveway.

When you arrive you notice the driveway is clear already. The plow must have just come. Your boss is already strolling to the waiting car with his luggage. On his way by he thanks you for your effort for coming and titles you a dutiful worker. Suddenly he notices you running to your car. You take out your broom and sweep the remaining bits of snow from here and there. Then as you go back to your car, he runs after you, in tears, offering you a raise for your devotion for having swept around a little.

When you came, initially, your motive was fear, thinking, "What would be the result of not coming? How can I not go when the boss calls?" By merely arriving you had demonstrated your loyalty. However, when you took out the broom and swept up, even though the act is significantly smaller, you showed that your original motive was not fear alone but an abiding love, a sincere desire to come close and of wanting to help. Therefore the treasure house of blessing is opened. Raises and bonuses are in order.

The same applies to Abraham and the wayward ram and to us in this season of seeming mixed emotions. Simply sitting in a Sukkah reveals retroactively that the devotions demonstrated during the "Days of Awe" were not done due to dread alone but were driven by a deeper love. That tiny extra touch excites a cover of love above and is the source of our blessings!
 

Teshuva of Sukkos

Monday, 20th September 2010
 
 
Even if we did not commit as we should have on Yom Kippur, Teshuva (repentance) via actions of Sukkos-Shmini Atzeres can see us ‘released.’ This is seen by the following parable:
 
A king sent his messengers to fetch a certain person who had been convicted for the crime of disobeying the king. When the messengers arrive, they see a man who is happily fulfilling the king’s decrees and return to the king saying that this must have been a mistake, This cannot be the convicted person, and the king agrees. 
 
So too, even if we are convicted in the judgment of Yom Kippur, the fact that we have acted as we should have throughout Sukkos and Shmini Atzeres makes us new people and we escape conviction. It is a Teshuva via action.
 

 

Yom Kippur

Wednesday, 15th September 2010

Are we Angels or not?


Rabbi Schwadron said over the following idea in the name of his father-in-law, Rav Chaim Leib Auerbach (father of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach).  
 
Why it is that at Ma’ariv (the evening prayer) at the start of Yom Kippur, when we are most full of food and least into the purity of the day, we say the Boruch Shem Kevod Malchuso…(Blessed is the Name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity) of the Shema out loud in resemblance of the angels, whilst at the Ma’ariv immediately after Yom Kippur, when we have been through 5 long  arduous tefillos (prayers) and have thoroughly woven the purity of the day into our characters and made solid commitments to better ourselves, we stop being like angels and thus say Boruch Shem… quietly? Shouldn’t it be the other way round? 
 
He answered that at the start of Yom Kippur our thoughts, aims, and attentions are directed towards the awe of the day and to sincere Teshuva (repentance), whilst at Ma’ariv at the end of Yom Kippur, we are looking towards the food we shall be breaking our fasts on. 
 
Thus, even though at the start of Yom Kippur we have not yet become part of the day’s kedusha (holiness), since this kedusha is our mental focal point and destination, we are like angels. Whilst, since at the end of Yom Kippur our direction is towards food and material thoughts, we lose that angelic level and thus return to whispering the Boruch Shem… 
 
The message here is that one is defined by where they are heading and where their goals and perspective lies as opposed to where one is in the physical sense. 
 

Haazinu

Tuesday, 7th September 2010

Rain & Dew       

In the second pasuk (verse) of our sedra (Torah Portion) (32:2) we are told that ‘My lessons (I.e. the Torah) should drop like rain, and My words should flow like dew.’ 

Why the two expressions dew and rain? 

The idea has been said that rain and dew represent the two types of ‘religious inspiration’ one can have. Rain falls from the sky, and thus represents the times when religious inspiration comes from Above - for example the day of Shabbos(Sabbath) - which is fixed by HaShem (G-d), or general times when HaShem lights a Divine spark within you. Dew, on the other hand, comes from the ground, and thus represents times of religious inspiration which come from us - for example Yom Tov (Festivals) which we fix - or general times in the year when we produce our own inspiration by working on ourselves. 

Therefore, our pasuk is telling us that Torah should encompass both types of inspiration - it is Divine Wisdom and thus comes from Above, but it also must be developed and internalised by ourselves, from below.

 

 

Nitzovim - Vayeilech

Thursday, 2nd September 2010

In his parting days with his beloved Klal Yisrael (children of Israel), Hashem (G-d) reiterates a message to Moshe (Moses) who in turn imparts those warnings to his people. Hashem said to Moses, "Behold, you will lie with your forefathers, but this people will rise up and stray after the gods of the foreigners of the Land, in whose midst it is coming, and it will forsake Me and annul My covenant that I have sealed with it. My anger will flare against it on that day and I will forsake them; and I will conceal My face from them and they will become prey, and many evils and distresses will encounter it. It will say on that day, 'Is it not because my G-d is not in my midst that these evils have come upon me?'

What is strange is the next verse. Hashem speaks: "I will surely conceal My face on that day because of all the evil that it did, for it had turned to gods of others" (Deuteronomy 31:16-18).

Didn't the person admit that G-d is not with him? Didn't he explain that was the reason for his calamities? Why does G-d say that He "will surely conceal My face on that day"?

On Saturday night, October 7, 1994, Corporal Nachshon Wachsman left with a friend to an exclusive course being held in northern Israel. He told his family he would be back home the following night. Nachshon did not come home on Sunday night. Knowing the responsible nature of her son, his mother Esther Wachsman immediately contacted military authorities who were not in the least bit concerned, responding that they would check out the hotels in Eilat to see if he had just taken off.

On Tuesday, they were contacted by Israeli television, who told them that they had received a video tape from a Reuters photographer showing their son being held hostage by Hamas terrorists. On that tape, Nachshon was seen, bound hand and foot, with a terrorist whose face was covered with a kaffiya, holding up Nachshon's identity card. He had been kidnapped by the Hamas, who were demanding the release of their spiritual leader, Achmed Yassin, from an Israeli prison, as well as the release of 200 other imprisoned Hamas terrorists. If these demands were not met, he would be executed on Friday at 8:00 PM.

For the next four days, 24 hours a day, the family mobilized to do everything in their power to save their son. They spoke to Prime Minister Rabin, who informed them that he would not negotiate with terrorists. President Clinton intervened. Both Warren Christopher, who was in the area, and the U.S. consul in Jerusalem, Ed Abington, tried to obtain his release through Yasser Arafat. They appealed to Jewish people throughout the world -- and asked them to pray for their son. The Chief Rabbi of Israel delegated three chapters of Psalms to be said every day, and people everywhere, including schoolchildren who had never prayed before, did so for the sake of one precious Jewish soul. On Thursday night, 24 hours before the ultimatum, a prayer vigil was held at the Western Wall, and at the same hour, prayer vigils were held throughout the world in synagogues, schools, community centers and street squares. At the Western Wall 100,000 people arrived, with almost no notice -- Chassidim in black frock coats and long side curls swayed and prayed and cried, side by side with young boys in torn jeans and ponytails and earrings. There was total unity and solidarity of purpose among us -- religious and secular, left wing and right wing, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, old and young, rich and poor -- an occurrence unprecedented in our sadly fragmented society.

At 8:00 PM on Friday night, General Yoram Yair, not Nachshon, walked through the Wachsman's door and brought them the terrible news. A military rescue attempt had failed -- Nachshon had been killed and so had the commander of the rescue team, Captain Nir Poraz.

The funeral was held on Saturday night. Nachshon's father, Yehdah Wachsman asked Nachshon's Rosh Yeshiva (Dean), Rabbi Mordechai Elon, who gave the eulogy, to answer a question that was being asked world-over. "Did Hashem listen to all the prayers?"

"Please tell all our people that G-d did listen to our prayers and that He collected all our tears. He just said, "No."

The Torah (Bible) wants us to understand that there is no such thing as, "my G-d is not in my midst."

Hashem is always in our midst. What we must understand during times of difficult tragedies is that despite the fact that He is here with us, sometimes He just says, "No."

Perhaps our mission is to understand that despite the all too often "no" we must keep sending letters. Hashem is there. And if we continue to implore, he will soon respond with a "yes."

Thanks go to Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis for permission to use this material.

Ki Savo

Thursday, 26th August 2010

After the litany of blessing and curses, Moshe (Moses) tells the nation, "you have seen everything that Hashem (G-d) did before your eyes in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh and all his servants and to all the land. Your eyes beheld the great signs and wonders, but Hashem did not give you a heart to comprehend, eyes to see, or ears to hear until this day" (Deuteronomy 29:2-3). Moshe was obviously referring to the day that the Jews received a Torah comprehension of events.

What does one need to understand about wonders? Water turning to blood, supernatural invasions of wild animals, locusts, and fire-filled hail need no rocket scientist to fathom G-d's power. Surely the splitting of the sea is as amazing an event that will marvel one's eyes and stir the senses of any people. 

What then does Moshe mean when he tells the nation that Hashem "did not give you a heart to comprehend, eyes to see, or ears to hear until this day"? 

Rabbi Noach Weinberg, dean of Aish HaTorah Institutions, tells the story of the young man who came to him in search of spiritual meaning. 

The young man entered the portals of Yeshiva (Academy) Aish HaTorah for a few days and then decided to leave the yeshiva in his quest for spiritual meaning across the Land of Israel. The student stopped at synagogues in Meah Shearim, visited the holy sites in Tiberias and Tzefat, and after two weeks of spiritual-hunting returned to Jerusalem and headed straight back to the Yeshiva. 

"Rabbi Weinberg," he exclaimed. "I spent two weeks in travelling the length and breadth of Israel in search of spirituality, and I want you to know that I found absolutely nothing!" 

Rabbi Weinberg just nodded. "You say you traveled the entire country and did not find any spirituality?" 

"Yes sir," came the resounding reply. "None whatsoever!" 

"Let me ask you," continued the Rabbi, "how did you find the Bafoofsticks?" 

"Bafoofsticks?" countered the student. What's a Bafoofstick?" 

"That's not the point," responded the rabbi, "I just want to know how you feel about them." 

"About what? 

"The Bafoofsticks" 

The young man looked at the rabbi as if he had lost his mind. He tried to be as respectful as he could under the circumstances. "Rabbi!" he exclaimed in frustration, "I'd love to tell you how the Bafoofsticks were. I'd even spend the whole day discussing Bafoofsticks with you, but frankly I have no idea what in the world is a Bafoofstick!" Rabbi Weinberg smiled. He had accomplished his objective. "Tell me," he said softly. "And you know what spirituality is?" 

Moshe explains to the nation that it is possible to be mired in miracles and still not comprehend the greatness that surrounds you. One can experience miraculous revelations but unless he focuses his heart and mind he will continue to lead his life uninspired as before. 

It is not enough to see miracles or receive the best of fortune. We must bring them into our lives and into our souls. Then we will be truly blessed.

 

Ki Seitzei

Thursday, 19th August 2010

Jewish women are commanded not to marry men from the nations of Ammon and Moav until ten generations after they convert because the Ammonites and Moavites did not offer the Nation of Israel bread and water when Israel passed the lands of Ammon and Moav at the end of the forty year trek in the desert.
Pirkei Avos (The Ethics of the Fathers) (1:2) conveys the precept that the world stands on three pillars: Torah, the service of G-d (prayer) and expressions of kindness.

On the face of it, "kindness" would mandate allowing marriage to these converts, thus ensuring their feelings of comfort and acceptance in the Jewish nation whom they have chosen to join. There are multiple references in the Torah to our obligation to treat converts with the same kindness due any other member of the Jewish nation, specifically to ensure they feel accepted. So why are Ammon and Moav the exceptions to the rule?

Ammon and Moav are nations that descend from Lot. Lot lived and traveled with his uncle, Abraham, for decades and witnessed the unparalleled acts of kindness Abraham performed. Lot was impacted by the generosity shown him by Abraham, who gave Lot free reign to choose the area of Cana'an he wished to settle (Genesis 13:8-11) and the ultimate kindness of Abraham, who saved Lot's life (Genesis 14:13-16). The Torah does not tolerate ingratitude. G-d is displaying kindness to the children of Israel, preventing the ingrained selfishness and mean-spirited traits of Ammon and Moav from infecting the Jewish people.

But why are these nations held accountable for not offering help to the Jews in the desert? For forty years in the barren wilderness the Jewish people survived without their help. G-d provided Manna from the sky and sustained the children of Israel. If Israel did not need food from them why should they have offered it? 

The Torah is teaching a fundamental lesson about kindness. As vital and valuable as it is to assist those who lack, there is a separate responsibility to assist everyone. If an affluent individual visits a city, his hosts must still offer him hospitality, even though he could certainly afford nicer accommodations then they can themselves provide. Perhaps he prefers the warmth and personality of a private home to an impersonal hotel room. In Genesis (18:4-8), shortly following his circumcision, Abraham met three strangers. These strangers were actually Malachim (angels) sent by G-d. Abraham troubled himself greatly to provide these strangers with an extravagant feast. In actuality, angels or celestial beings do not need food and gained nothing from his efforts. Nevertheless, his act of kindness merited Abraham's descendants being provided with the Manna and a traveling well of water for forty years in the desert. We see G-d's focus on the effort of the provider rather than the results provided. Obviously, we must genuinely attempt to achieve tangible results; nevertheless, we must appreciate the inherent value of the effort, no matter the result. 

We have the obligation to be kind to all people at all times. Through the study of the Torah's examples we develop the ability to appreciate this obligation and apply it in our own circumstances. Let us learn from Abraham, and not the Ammonites and Moavites, to indiscriminately help others, and to make the world a profoundly better place. 

 

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