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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. 


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. 



Thursday, 12th August 2010

DO NOT DESTROY ... (20:19)

It is a commandment in the Torah that we must not waste and we must not destroy things needlessly. What is wrong with destroying something that we own? It belongs to us, to do with as we wish!


The mistake we often make is that we think that what we have is ours to do with as we wish. In reality, this world - and everything in it - belongs to G-d, He has allowed us to make use of it and to enjoy it, but we have no right to waste or destroy without reason.


Included in “Do not destroy” is the precious commodity of “TIME”. One sometimes hears the phrase “killing time”. A strong word indeed, but nevertheless a very appropriate description.


Imagine that you were given the option to open a bank account which would be credited with £1,440 every morning, with a “subject to conditions” clause. This clause states: “This money is yours to spend. No balance is carried forward to the next day. Money must not be squandered.” There is hardly a doubt that we would probably make sure to use every single penny every day to make sure that we get the most out of it.


We all have this type of bank account, a very real one, and it is called “TIME”. 1,440 minutes are credited to us each morning for our personal use.




Thursday, 5th August 2010

The Torah discusses two scenarios where people intend to lead Jews astray. The first case is of the false prophet. Deuteronomy 13:2: "If there should stand a prophet or dreamer who will produce a sign or a wonder saying, 'let us follow gods of other folk,' do not hearken to him." The next section deals not with a false prophet but with a kinsman. Deuteronomy 13:7: "If your brother, son of your mother, or your son or daughter or your wife or a friend who is like your soul, secretly entices you saying let us worship other gods, those that you or your forefathers did not know."
The Torah does more than exhort us not to follow the would-be influencer. It reiterates the admonition regarding kin in no less then five different expressions. "You shall not accede to him; you shall not hearken to him; your eye shall not take pity on him; you shall not be compassionate toward him; you shall not conceal him."

When it refers to our own misdoing or those of a false prophet the Torah simply warns us, "do not listen" or "do not follow your heart." Yet when referring to kin the Torah offers a litany of variations on a theme of disregard.

Shouldn't our own feelings need more and stronger admonitions than ideas suggested by a friend or relative? Surely a prophet who conjures awesome miracles should warrant five or six expressions of caution. In that case, all the Torah says is, "do not listen to him for Hashem is testing you." There is no talk of mercy, compassion, or concealment, as there is when the Torah talks about kin. Why?

The Torah understands the intimate affinity our people have towards relatives.

It only needs one or two words of warning for us not to listen to the false prophet who comes with miraculous signs and mesmerizing oratory. It only tells us, "don't listen to him." Even when discussing our own desires and infatuations it simply warns us, "do not turn after your heart."

However, when referring to kin, brothers, sisters and relatives, the Torah has a difficult mission. We tend to excuse wrongdoing, cover up for misdeeds, and harmonize with our loved ones -- even though the results may be terribly destructive. There are countless stories of parents who did not have the heart to restrict their children's late-night activities. Too many tales are told of the man who was ensnared by his brother-in-law's misdoing because he had not the heart to refuse his overtures to evil.

The Torah expresses its warning in five different ways. You must love your kin to a point, but way before the point of no return.


Thursday, 29th July 2010

This week's portion is called Eikev. When simply translated, Eikev means,"if". The Torah (Bible) promises its bounty of blessing upon the Jewish nation. Hashem (G-D) will watch you, love you, bless your children and your flocks, etc. are among many of the listed blessings.

There is one caveat, however. These blessing are only bestowed with one condition -- "Eikev tishmaoon - if you shall listen to the word of Hashem and fulfill his commandments".

Rashi translates the word Eikev in an entirely different light. He explains that the word eikev translates as "heel". Thus, "If you will observe Mitzvos (commandments) that are ordinarily trampled on by the heel of your foot," then the blessings of Hashem shall follow.

Many commentaries pose the following question: Rashi's usual modus operandi is to first explain a verse in its pashut p'shat (simple explanation). That achieved, he then proceeds to expound the verse in a Midrashic light. In this case, Rashi uses only a Midrashic explanation. Why?

Perhaps Rashi is telling us the pashut p'shat (simple explanation), the secret of spiritual survival. He is relating the formula that may be the secret to the Jew's existence and continuity. It's the small things that merit the blessings. It's the Mitzvos we tend to forget, those that we trample with our heel.

There are certain Mitzvos that anyone who prides himself as a Jew would not forgo. Yom Kippur and Passover are high on the list. Mezuzah (scroll on the door post) and Kosher rank quite high, too. But there are too many others that get trampled. Rashi explains the verse by stating that if the little Mitzvos are ignored, it will not take long before the major Mitzvos join the little ones on their trek to oblivion. The Torah promises us the bounty of its blessing if we observe the mitzvos. But Rashi gives us a lesson in assuring continuity. Rashi is telling us the Poshut P'shat (the simple meaning)! Don't tread on the little Mitzvos. Watch the Mitzvos that everyone tends to forget. If those heel commandments will be considered important, then all the Mitzvos will ultimately be observed.


Thursday, 22nd July 2010

Honor your father and mother, as the L-rd your G-d has commanded you, so that you may live long. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 5:16)

The Torah gives us a reason in Shemos (Exodus 20:12) as to why we should honour our parents, "So that you may live long." In this Sedrah (Torah portion) of this week, however, the Torah gives an additional reason, "As the L-rd your G-d has commanded you." What is the significance of this additional phrase?

The Meshech Chachmah refers to the Talmud Yerushalmi that considers honouring parents an "easy commandment." Every person understands that debts have to be repaid.

By the same token, every person also understands that he has a moral obligation to repay his debt of gratitude to his parents. After all, the cost of raising a child must be in excess of £200,000. Not to mention the time, effort and energy parents invest in their children. Therefore, the least people can do is honour their parents. It is not a hard thing to make such a small payment on such a large debt.

The Torah tells us here that this is not the reason for honouring parents. It is not the obligation to make at least a minimal payment on a debt owed to the parents. It is an obligation incumbent on us solely because "the L-rd your G-d has commanded you" to do so.

Why did the Torah wait until now, Parashas Vaes'chanan, to make this point? The reason is that it becomes most clear after forty years in the desert, during which time raising children was easier than ever. Children did not need to be fed, there was manna from heaven. They did not need to be given to drink, there was water from Miriam's Well. Still, the Torah demanded that parents be honoured. Clearly, the obligation was to obey Hashem's (G-d’s) commandment rather than repay a debt of gratitude. By the time the Jewish people had lived through the era of the desert, they could relate to the mitzvah of honouring parents as an independent obligation.


Thursday, 15th July 2010

"Do not recognize faces in judgement, Hear the "small" as the "big", Do not be fearful of a man because the ultimate judgement is G-d's, The matters that are "difficult" for you bring to me and I will hear them." (Devarim 1:17) 

When Moshe (Moses) reviews the account of his father-in-law's (Yisro - Jethro) advice in the last of the five books, the language of that excellent council was slightly altered. Yisro spoke about matters "big" and "small" as determining whether they would be dealt with by a lower court or by Moshe himself.  Moshe speaks about "hard" and "easy" as the factors to be considered. What's the big difference? 

A Teacher was once faced with two boys fighting over a dollar. Each claimant seemed to have good reasoning to his claim and yet the Teacher was not clear to whom the dollar should go. The Teacher decided to teach his students a real lesson. He called the "Gadol HaDor" (the greatest mind of the generation) to help decide the case. 

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein received three visitors one afternoon, the two contending boys and their teacher. The boys presented their case before the greatest living legal authority of the generation. He heard each side with great care and questioned each one with precision. After a thorough review of the facts of the case, Rabbi Feinstein consulted his books for a conclusion. A clear but difficult decision was arrived at. Rabbi Feinstein decided in favour of one of the boys and awarded him the dollar. Everyone was thrilled for having had the opportunity to spend time with such a great man. They had a sense that ultimate justice had been served but, even still, the child who lost his legal grip on the dollar he had claimed still felt the sting of the final judgment. As they were leaving, in an act of superlative sensitivity and magnanimity, Rabbi Feinstein reached into his pocket and gave the one who had lost the case, a dollar from his own pocket. Both left with a dollar. 

When Yisro gave his famous and wise advice, he spoke about easing Moshe's burden by letting only the "big" cases through to Moshe. Only if a case involved large claims should Moshe be bothered, was Yisro's thinking. Multi-national conglomerates' claims, large mergers, major acquisitions, giant chapter eleven cases, anti-monopoly suits would all go to the "big" man of the generation. 

Later when Moshe reviews the subject, he makes a subtle and real adjustment. "Big" and "small" are non-entities when determining the role of the "great" man. It matters only if the situation is "hard". If the truth is discernable in a court case and the law is clear then let the lower court make its own decision. However, if the law is unclear, and a new precedent needs to be set or a creative application of law, then let the Gadol HaDor make that determination even if it's a case of "small claims". Only when the truth is hard to arrive at do we call in "the big gun". 

Don't think for a moment that Rabbi Feinstein deliberated lightly because of the age of the boys or the minuscule quantity of money at stake. The main focus of a judge should be the truth.



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