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Yom Kippur

Thursday, 13th September 2018

Yom Kippur seems to have two contradictory natures to it. On the one hand there are five afflictions prescribed on Yom Kippur, but on the other hand the gemarra (Talmud) calls it one of the two happiest days in the year, and some learn that there is a mitzvah (commandment) of simchas ha’chag (festive joy) even on Yom Kippur. How can one balance simcha (joy) and affliction? 

The idea seems to be that both the simcha and the affliction stem from the same point here. As the gemarra says, the simcha of Yom Kippur is due to the fact that it is the day when we cleanse ourselves of sin, as well as the fact that this is the day we received the second set of luchos (tablets). Likewise, the five afflictions are aimed at removing ourselves from the contaminating distractions of the physical world (distractions which take us away from our real selves) and allow us to focus on the spiritual nature of the day - thus facilitating our Teshuva (repentance). So, the simcha and the affliction are not contradictory at all - on the contrary, they stem from the same point; atonement and purity.

Nitzavim/ Rosh Hashona

Thursday, 6th September 2018

In this week's portion, we read the following verses:

"For this commandment that I command you today, it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in the heavens, where one could say 'Who can possibly go up to the heavens for us and take it for us, then we'll hear and perform it!?' Nor is it across the sea, where one could say "Who can cross to the other side of the sea for us and take it for us, and then we'll hear it, and perform it!?" Rather, the Torah is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to perform it." (Devarim 30:11-1)

These verses have great meaning to us, especially at this time of year, leading up to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Hashem (G-d) tells us that teshuva (repentance) is not impossible. It might seem impossible, and just simply too difficult for us to do, but it's not! The Torah is always within arms reach. It's very close by.

A comforting message. But is it true? Teshuva is very, very hard. Imagine a person who doesn't keep any mitzvos at all. Is it an easy thing for them to change their lives around and live a Torah observant life? Of course not! It's the hardest thing in the world! So what do these verses mean?

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter writes that people make a classic mistake around this time of year. We go to shul (synagogue) Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and we get inspired. That's not a mistake! It's good to be inspired. The problem is we become so inspired and regretful of our previous mistakes that we decide to change.... Completely! We want to really impress Hashem and be blessed with a good year, so we guarantee Him big changes this year. BIG changes.

And here lies the mistake. Because big changes take an incredible amount of strength to stick to, and more often than not, a few weeks after Yom Kippur, maybe even less, those big changes have disappeared out the window of all the temptations the outside world sticks in front of us, and we are back to our pre-Yom Kippur selves. Unchanged.

When this happens year after year we never get anywhere! So Rabbi Yisrael Salanter tells us that we should be doing teshuva differently. We have to focus on the small things. Things that are within our reach. Things that we know we will be able to stick to. And now we can understand how Hashem tells us in the weeks Torah portion not to worry, because teshuva is not so hard, and the Torah is never out of reach. Because Hashem Himself doesn't want us to bite off more than we can chew. The Torah itself speaks to each of us where we are and tells us to take that one step forward. That's not too hard. That's not out of reach. It's not way up in the heavens and it's not across the sea. It's right at your doorstep.

Ki Savo

Thursday, 30th August 2018

Firstly, what is all this about? Does G-d really want our fruits?

The farmer has toiled all year on the field by the sweat of his brow to produce this fruit. The culmination of hours of time and effort, he has finally reached the time when he can enjoy the fruits (pun intended) of his labour, the moment he has been waiting for all year and of course he has a tremendous desire to pick it and eat it there and then. What is the first thing he does? He immediatly designates it to G-d. Even though this fruit does not have any intrinsic worth to G-d, He wants us to give it to him. This is the ultimate in self sacrifice and service to G-d, it was noy the farmers' fruits that he wanted.
Secondly, the verse states "VeSamto Bateneh" - "You shall place the Bikkurim - first fruits - in a basket". What is the significance of the baskets? Isn't it the giving away of the first and best fruits that is the proof of the farmers' self sacrifice and the important factor?
The answer is so as not to embarrass the poor.

Our Sages tell us that the wealthy people would bring their Bikkurim in golden baskets, the Kohanim - Priests - would remove the fruits and return the baskets to them, as opposed to the poor who would bring it in wicker baskets which the Kohanim kept along with the fruit. Why did the Kohanim return the baskets to the wealthy who did not need their baskets, and keep the poor man's basket?

The Commentaries explain, this was in order not to shame the poor. The wealthy gave expensive, beautiful fruit. Even when not in the golden basket the fruit looked impressive. Therefore the Kohanim returned the baskets to them. On the other hand, the poor gave lower quality fruit. If the fruit would have been removed from the basket, the poor man would be embarrassed. Therefore the Kohanim kept their fruit and the baskets. Hence the reason for bringing the fruit in the baskets



Ki Seitzei

Thursday, 23rd August 2018


 Parshas Ki Seitzei introduces us to the heart-warming but puzzling mitzvah of sending away the mother bird: “When a bird’s nest happens to be before you on the road…You shall surely send away the mother and take the young for yourself, so that it will be good for you and will prolong your days.” (22:6-7).


By sending away the mother bird before removing the baby birds, the Torah is teaching us to be compassionate. The reward for this, the pasuk (verse) tells us, is long life. Interestingly, the Torah tells us that this is also the reward for honouring your parents. What is the connection between these two mitzvos (commandments) that the pasuk specifically mentions that a person receives the same reward for each of them?

Rashi here gives an answer: “If for an easy mitzvah which is not expensive, the Torah said ‘It will be good for you and will prolong your days’, all the more so is the reward for a hard mitzvah”.


The Kli Yakar wants to connect the two mitzvos intrinsically. The pasuk says that doing the mitzvah of Honouring Your Parents will be good for you. What exactly is the good that you get besides for the reward of long life? He explains, how do children learn to respect their parents? From seeing their parents respecting their own parents. So we see that the good that will come from you honouring your parents is that in turn your kids will honour you. The pasuk here by sending away the mother bird, gives parents another opportunity to teach their kids to respect them. When the kids see how their parents respect and are sensitive to the needs of animal parents, they will learn to be respectful of their own parents, causing good to come to you as a result of this mitzvah!


Thursday, 16th August 2018

The Posuk (verse) in this weeks Torah portion states: "Righteousness, righteousness you shall pursue so that you will live and take possession of the land that Hashem (G-d), your G-d, gives you." Why does it need to say righteousness twice? We see often in the Torah that words are used to emphasise a point G-d is trying to get across! Being Righteous isn't enough in Hashem's eyes, one must be righteous and pursue righteousness!
A man has a favourite TV program, he prepares to sit down and watch. He prepares the perfect cup of tea or cold beer, he gets the TV to the perfect volume, he adjusts his chair to the perfect reclining position and he is ready to watch.
A few minutes into the program, it is interrupted with a commercial showing a thin black child in Africa, "This child like many others is starving day in day out and needs your help" reads the caption. "£2 per month is all we need!" 
The man feels sick with guilt but decides to do nothing about it. Day after day he gets the same guilt feeling when he sees the adverts and posters so decides to so something about it and gives the £2 per month! This is being righteous; he is fulfilling a mitzvah of giving charity after all.
However another story may help you understand the difference between being righteousness and pursuing righteousness.

A very wealthy man decides one day that he is bored of making his millions he wants to really change the world, he decides to take a year out to the African desert to help feed and educate hundreds of kids in a tiny village in Ethiopia, he invests hundreds and thousands of pounds to build schools and teach kids and to buy irrigation systems that will help grow crops that will feed the families in the village for years to come. Not only did he invest the money, he personally went there and invested time and effort to helping the cause of others. This is the difference between being righteous - ie doing the right thing - and pursuing righteousness.


Thursday, 9th August 2018

The opening three psukim (verses) of the sedra (Torah portion) tell us that should we listen to HaShem (G-d) we will get bracha (blessing), and should we ignore HaShem’s word then we will get klala (curse). But the Torah does not then go on to tell us what these blessings and curses are. Why not?

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein answers beautifully that the answer is embedded within the simple reading of the psukim (verses) themselves. The pasuk (verse) says ‘the bracha that you listen to HaShem’s mitzvos…and the curse if you do not listen to HaShem’s mitzvos…’ The bracha is the mitzvos themselves, and the curse is failing to keep the mitzvos.

As the Ohr Hachaim (and Messilas Yesharim) spells out, if one keeps the mitzvos and their spirit properly then there is no greater feeling of happiness, achievement, and fulfilment from doing those mitzvos. And the converse is true too; there’s nothing more conducive to a life of drabness, emptiness, and lack of fulfilment than a life bereft of mitzvos.

Similarly, as Rashi writes (Bamidbar 18:7), the greatest gift is the ability and privilege to serve HaShem - that is the only thing which uplifts us as people.


Friday, 3rd August 2018

In this week's Torah portion we find the mitzvah (commandment) of Mezzuza ( a piece of parchment - often contained in a decorative case - inscribed with specified Hebrew verses from the Torah and affixed to the door post). The Talmud relates that Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi once sent a mezzuza as a gift to Artaban, the king of Persia, explaining that the small scroll would protect him from harm.

At first glance, Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi's gesture seems odd. The commandment to affix a mezzuza upon one's doorposts was given only to the Jewish nation. A non-Jewish king, therefore, would not be fulfilling a religious precept by possessing a mezzuza. As such, he would also be ineligible for any reward resulting from the performance of a mitzvah. Why then did Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi promise the gentile king that the mezzuza would guard and protect him? 

A similar question may also be asked about the common practice, dating back to the time of the Mishnah, of inserting a mezzuza scroll into one's walking stick, also done for the sake of the protection it afforded. A walking stick is certainly not included in the commandment of mezzuza. If there is no commandment, there is certainly no reward. How, then, did the mezzuza afford protection?

A distinction must be made between the reward a person receives for performing a mitzvah and the intrinsic attribute of the mitzvah itself. When a person obeys G-d's command by fulfilling a mitzvah, the reward he earns is a separate and distinct entity, additional to the essential nature of the mitzvah. For example, the Torah states that the reward for the mitzvah of mezzuza is long life: "That your days be increased and the days of your children." 

Yet besides the reward promised by the Torah, each mitzvah has its own special attributes and characteristics that have nothing to do with reward, but are integral parts of the mitzvah itself. The mezzuza's attribute is protection. Our Sages explained that when a kosher mezzuza is affixed to the door post, G-d Himself watches over the occupants of the house, even when they are not at home. A mezzuza is written solely for the purpose of protection, and, by its nature, it protects.

With this in mind, it becomes clear that even when no fulfilment of a religious precept is involved, a mezzuza still possesses this attribute of protection, at least to some degree. It was for this reason that Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi sent the mezzuza as a gift to the Persian king and that Jews took mezzuzos with them wherever they went inside their walking sticks.  

From this we learn the crucial importance of having kosher mezzuzos. The Jewish people, likened to "one sheep among seventy wolves," are always in need of special defence. Every additional mezzuza affixed to a Jewish home extends G-d's Divine protection to the entire Jewish nation, for all Jews are ultimately responsible for one another.



Thursday, 26th July 2018

Moshe (Moses) is pleading with Hashem (G-d) to allow him to cross over the Jordan River and be able to go into The Land of Israel.  However, a question can be asked concerning Moshe's request from the verse.  Why does Moshe have to say the "good" land, it seems to be superfulous?  What is Moshe actually praying for, as hinted to, from the word "good"?

One should never underestimate the tremendous power that evil gossip can have on another person.  When the spies returned with an evil report concerning the Land of Israel, the impact was very damaging.  Moshe was essentially praying to rid himself of the evil influence of the spies.  He, therefore, prayed to be able to see the "good" in the land of Israel.  Moshe understood too well the power of evil gossip that he himself needed to pray for help in this regard.

We can learn a tremendous lesson from Moshe.  Not only should a person pray for material matters, but should also pray for spiritual as well.  Moshe fervently wished to see only the "good" in the Land, and purify himself from the deep down influences of the spies.  Moshe sought Devine assistance in this regard.

Moshe feared that the spies had influenced him more then he liked, and took an active step towards improving himself by seeking Hashem's help.  Perhaps we should take note of it and pray for our own spiritual health.


Thursday, 19th July 2018

It is said that at the time of the “Churban/destruction of the Temple”, as the Beis Hamikdosh (Temple) burned, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and many other fellow Kohanim (priests) stood on the roof and threw the keys of the Beis Hamikdosh up to Heaven in an act of contrition and profound despair, expressing the idea that "we have not fulfilled our duty as custodians".  (It is further said that a hand came out of Heaven and took the keys back). 

What may be the significance of these Keys?

In Mishnah Tamid 1.1 (which deals with the daily procedures in the Beis Hamikdosh) we learn that, each night, the Elders of the Kohanim went to sleep holding the keys of the Beis Hamikdosh.

Perhaps we could suggest the following:  When we unlock a door to a building, we usually have a clear focus and sense of purpose.  We unlock our house to go in when we return from work, we want to go in and have a purposeful relaxing evening. We unlock a car to begin our journey.  A Shul is opened each morning so that our daily "Avodas Hashem" (service to G-d) - our focused, pre-arranged encounter with G-d can begin.

"The Keys" represent this idea.  Perhaps at the time of The Churban, the act of throwing the keys back was the despair of the Kohanim actualised, we have failed in our mission, the Service of the Beis Hamikdosh was not focused, it grew to be no more than a ritual, with the real purpose of closeness to G-d being diluted to insignificance.  Let us reflect on this and use the nine days as an opportunity to refocus and realign our own "Avodas Hashem".


Thursday, 12th July 2018

Every letter and word of the Torah is precious and is written there for a reason, however, so much of this week’s portion, Masei, seems superfluous and for no benefit at all!

When the Torah summarises the journeys the Jewish people undertook through the desert, it says (as an example 33:18)  “They journeyed from Chatzeiros and camped in Rismah.  They journeyed from Rismah and camped in Rimon Peretz.”

Why does it repeat the place they started off in (in this case Rismah) - we know that if they journeyed to Rismah then the next journey obviously started from Rishmah?

It is like this for every journey that is recorded in this week’s Torah portion, why repeat the name of the destination for one journey and the point of origin of the next journey?

An answer given is that this is a message in life.  The journey of the Jewish people through the desert represents our spiritual journey in life.  Whenever we make a spiritual journey to achieve growth, as with a physical journey, we must know where we are coming from and where we are heading to in order to complete the journey successfully.

This is why the Torah repeats the origin even though it is obvious as that was the previous destination, to teach us that whenever we are making our personal journey then we must be conscious and sure of the point of origin as well as the goal to ensure we are headed in the right direction.


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