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Thursday, 15th February 2018

When one looks through the various descriptions of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and its vessels, one word springs to mind: glamour. No expense was spared. The menorah (candelabra) was made out of one solid lump of gold, and the rest of the Mishkan used other expensive and valuable materials too. There was no skimping when it came to the Mishkan. All this glory and expense forces us to ask a vital question. As the Ramban points out, the central positive character trait is anavah (modesty/humility). Therefore, we can ask regarding the ‘fancy’ Mishkan in general and the clothes of the Kohannim (Priests) in particular - what on earth happened to anavah? Indeed, when the Torah (28:40) does describe the point of the Kohannim’s clothes, it says that they are to be ‘for honour and glory’ - is this not the antithesis of anavah? 

Let us look at the real definition of anava.

Humility does not mean hiding one’s talents and pretending that they do not exist. HaShem (G-d) does not want you to hide your talents; on the contrary, He created you with certain talents and expects you to utilise them. What anavah means is admitting that you have these talents, and using them in the right ways. 

Rabbi Twerski cites several authorities who stressed this point: 

Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian remarked “the essence of the concept of humility is not that one should be unaware of one’s capacities. On the contrary, a person should recognise his strengths. However, he should know that his skills and talents are a gift from G-D and that they are not his doing.” 

The Chazon Ish added that these talents should not make one feel superior to others; for after all, they are a gift from HaShem - and someone else could equally have achieved the same as you had HaShem given them these talents. 

Similarly, Rabbi Leib Chasman commented that “it is obvious that a humble person is not one who is unaware of his capacities and strengths. This person is a fool and not humble.” 

The idea is that true anavah is realising that your talents are from HaShem. Rav Elchonon Wasserman commented that the title ‘servant of HaShem’ attributed to Moshe Rabeinu (Moses) at the end of the Torah meant that Moshe put every talent he had into the service of HaShem. And it is no coincidence that Moshe is described in the Torah as the most humble man that ever lived (Bamidbar 12:3) - it was this trait of anavah which meant that Moshe used his talents to serve HaShem. If you deny your talents, you are assuming that these talents are yours to deny - this is not so; HaShem gave you your talents with a responsibility to put them to good use - denying them is anything but anavah.

So now we have realised that the biggest show of anavah is the using of all of one’s talents and resources to serve HaShem. This is precisely what the Mishkan was. Everyone donated the funds; no expense was spared. The women weaved certain materials and embroidery, and everyone gave of themselves and their resources to help the Mishkan effort. This was anavah in its purest form. 

This is also why the intention of the clothing of the Kohannim being ‘for honour and glory’ do not contradict anavah. For the honour and glory here are not for the Kohannim themselves, they are for HaShem’s honour and glory. These precious articles of clothing are that which enables the special serving of HaShem in the Mishkan and the sanctification of His Name; the entire thing is for His honour and glory. And if we are talking about HaShem’s honour, there can be no holding back; no skimping.

The same thing goes for a shul (Synagogue) and any other mitzvah; why not make it as nice as possible - it is the honour of HaShem that we are dealing with.



Thursday, 8th February 2018

This weeks Sedra (Torah portion), Mishpotim, deals with so many laws.
Why does the Torah have to be so complicated and contain so many rules?

The Sedra comprises of 52 mitzvos including the specific detailed laws of slaves and sacrifices.

We must understand that we are G-d’s representatives on earth, we have to be immaculate, we have to strive to be perfect, because we have to be sanctifying Hashem’s (G-d’s) name in the world.

Perfection is achieved only through perfect detail. Judaism needs the details. E.g. difference between a kosher and a non-kosher or between a £15 and a £400 Esrog can be just one mark on the Esrog. But that makes such a huge difference.

2 parallels: 

i) Buckingham Palace guards absolutely perfectly dressed.  Buttons done up exactly, clothes ironed perfectly, exactly rightly fitted helmet, everything about them immaculate. Why?  Because they are guarding the queen.  They are representing her. 

ii) Airplanes are amazing flying machines. Only possible because every screw is fastened correctly, because every part e.g. on each wing is shaped at the perfect angle, every wire is wired completely correctly etc. It takes one thing, any one thing to be slightly wrong, and the whole plane would crash and cause a serious accident. 

Details can make such a huge physical difference. How much more so we have to be careful that we have everything right to the millimetre when we are dealing with spiritual pursuits.


Wednesday, 31st January 2018

In this weeks sedra (Torah portion), we are told by Moshe (Moses) what Hashem (G-d) wanted him to relate to the Bnei Yisroel (Children of Israel) as a preview to Matan Torah (receiving the Torah). During this discourse that Moshe is giving, he is told to tell Bnei Yisroel: “You have seen that which I have done to Egypt and I carried you on the wings of the eagle and I brought you to me.” This was on the night of the Korban Pesach (the pascal offering), when Hashem brought the Bnei Yisroel on the wings of an eagle from Raamses where they were in Egypt to the place where the Temple was to be built, Har HaMoriah (Mt Moriah). There they ate the Korban Pesach and were transported back to Egypt where they came from.

The question that begs to be answered is, what was the significance of transporting them on the wings of an eagle? Surely there must be some message here for us?

The sages say that the message is clear. The eagle is different from all other birds. It is the highest flier in the species and also differs from other birds in the way it carries its young. All birds have a fear of the eagle and therefore carry their young beneath them, whereas the eagle being the highest flier carries its young above its body, as its only fear is arrows or other projectiles shot by the humans.

Hashem did the same to the Bnei Yisroel, protected them like the eagle, from the dangers below.

There is however a further important message and that is that the eagle can carry its young but cannot pick them up. The young need to jump on its back in the first instance. Hashem is saying to us, I will take you and help you sore to the heights but you have to make the first leap. That leap of faith and the first jump can carry us to great heights. 



Thursday, 25th January 2018

As Bnei Yisrael (the children of Israel) seem to be trapped between the Egyptians and the sea - with no way out – HaShem (G-d) commands Moshe (Moses) (14:16) ‘lift up (harem) your stick and stretch your hand over the sea and split it…’ Indeed, the sea split, the Jews safely crossed (the Egyptians did not) - and the rest is history. But why was Moshe told to lift his stick over the sea - HaShem did not need a stick in order to perform the miracle, so why was this necessary and where was this related to the miracle?

The Kli Yakar answers that the word “harem” does not mean ‘lift up’ in this context, but rather ‘take away/remove.’ He goes on to explain that the Egyptians were clinging on to their false belief (hope) that without Moshe’s stick HaShem could not perform any miracles. Thus, in order to make it clear for the Egyptians that the miracles had nothing to do with the stick, Moshe was told to put the stick away for this one. It was precisely because the splitting of the sea was the greatest miracle, that the stick had to be put away here.

One lesson to take out of this, is what desperation can do to someone’s mind; the Egyptians still wanted to believe the ludicrous idea that the stick was performing the miracles - not HaShem - because that would be easier than changing themselves, their beliefs, and their value systems.


Thursday, 18th January 2018

The 10 Plagues

There's a classic question regarding the 10 plagues. HaShem (G-d) promised Avrohom (Abraham) that a nation - Egypt - would enslave the children of Israel. This seems to imply that the Egyptains had no freewill or choice as to whether to enslave us, they HAD to enslave us.  So how could HaShem punish them with the 10 plagues if they had no choice to begin with? 

Rambam (Maimonidies) answers that though the nation as a whole were bound by HaShem's promise to Avrohom, each individual Egyptian had the choice whether to be a part of the enslaving or not.

The Raavid gives two alternative answers: 

1) the Egyptians deserved the punishments for the other acts they had committed anyway. 

2) HaShem only promised that the Egyptians would enslave us; they went further though and gave us back-breaking tortuous slavery which was over and above what they could have got away with.



Wednesday, 10th January 2018

Pharoh's magicians also made frogs emerge upon the land, but it never mentions in the Torah that they made them disappear. Pharoh called for Moshe (Moses) and Aaron and said, "Pray to G-d, and let Him remove the frogs from me and from my people, and I will send the people to sacrifice to Hashem (G-d)." Moshe asked him, "When should I pray for you?" Pharoh answered, "Pray today that it be destroyed by tomorrow."

The posuk (verse) says that Moshe and Aaron left, and [Moshe] cried out. Rashi writes, "[Moshe] cried out immediately. This one word 'miyad' (immediately) is interesting. Why did it have to write "immediately"? 

An answer can be that Moshe loved having a connection with Hashem. He saw an opportunity to speak to Him, and took it.

Often we procrastinate until the last minute. We see that Moshe enjoyed praying to Hashem, taking any opportunity to communicate with Him. We also see the inner drive Pharoh had, when waking up extra early in the morning because he didn't want the Egyptians to find out he too, relieves himself like any other human. It's not easy waking up early in the morning, but when you have that spark, you are willing to sacrifice some sleep for it. Unfortunately Pharoh was applying his enthusiasm (of keeping his title as G-d) in going against Hashem, as opposed to Moshe, who was using his enthusiasm to connect and get closer to Him. 

When we have an opportunity to do a mitzvah, or to build a connection with Hashem (by praying to Him), we shouldn't push it off. We should grab the opportunity immediately, just like Moshe did.


Monday, 1st January 2018

In this week’s Sedra (Torah portion), Moshe (Moses) is found in a basket by Basya. Miriam who is standing nearby asks Basya if she should go and get a Jewish wet nurse for the baby.

Rashi mentions the Medrash, that first Basya attempted to feed Moshe from Egyptian wet nurses, but Moshe refused their milk. Moshe’s refusal was due to the fact that he was destined to speak with Hashem (G-d), and it was more befitting that the mouth that was going to speak “mouth to mouth” with Hashem should be nursed from a Jew. 

The Shulchan Aruch brings down the Halachah (ruling) that even though it is not forbidden for a Jewish baby to be nursed by a non-Jew it is better to refrain from doing so. The Vilna Goan links the source of this Halachah with the aforementioned Rashi in this week’s Sedra.

Asks Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, how can this be the source of the Halachah? Surely the reason that applied to Moshe does not apply to every one of us; we aren’t going to be speaking to Hashem as directly as Moshe did? 

Rabbi Yaakov answers, that herein lies a fundamental lesson in chinuch (education). Every parent has to know that his child has HUGE potential for greatness; he has the potential to be a Moshe! Therefore every Jewish child should not feed from a non Jew because he has the same potential that Moshe had. We have to educate every child with the knowledge that he can become something great.

Even if he might not end up speaking to Hashem direct, but if he fulfils his potential then he has achieved greatness akin to that of Moshe. It’s not how you measure up against everyone around you; it’s what you do in relation to YOUR unique potential.

Rabbi Chaim Kaufman used to say if you have great aspirations, you won’t fall that much short. When one shoots an arrow towards a target, you have to aim slightly above the bulls’ eye in order to hit it! Similarly Rabbi Sholom Schwadron would say, “if you have big goals then you will score more!”


Thursday, 28th December 2017

Verse 48:20 contains the famous blessing Yaakov gave to Yosef’s sons - a blessing that many people have the custom to give to their children on Friday night; ‘yesimcha Elokim k’Efrayim u’chiMenashe (May G-d make you like Efraim and Menashe).

'Why do we give these blessings to our children - why do we not bless our children that they should be like the Avos (Patriarchs) or like any of the other tribes?'

One idea is that Efraim and Menashe were unique in that they had shalom (peace) between them. Every one of the Avos had to live through some form of sibling rivalry and ‘family issues’ - Avraham with his idolatrous father, Terach, and then with Lot his nephew. Similarly, Yitzchak (Isaac)had to deal with Yishma’el (Ishmael), and Yaakov (Jacob) had to worry about Eisav (Esob) and then Lavan. Moreover, Yaakov’s sons sold Yosef (Joseph) into slavery. Therefore, Efraim and Menashe were the first generation to have serenity and peace at home. This is what we bless our children with - that they should live with constant shalom and without any family feuds or bickering.
Another idea here is that Efrayim and Menashe grew from being ‘mere sons of Yosef’ to being tribes in their own right. Thus, we bless our children that they should grow into being more than is expected of them - that they should (spiritually) grow out of proportion!


Wednesday, 20th December 2017

In this weeks Sedra (Torah portion), Yaakov (Jacob) meets Pharaoh, the king of Egypt and the most powerful man in the world. What would they have likely discussed? The meaning of life? The famine? No. 

Instead, the Torah records that meeting as having to do with something quite mundane. Age. Yet that discussion had severe ramifications for Yaakov.

The Torah relates how Yoseph (Joseph) presents his father to Pharaoh. "Pharaoh asked Yaakov, 'How old are you?' Yaakov answered, 'the years of my sojourns are one hundred thirty; few and bad ones; they have not reached the days of my forefathers in their sojourns.' "

There is a Midrash (interpretation of and commentary on the written scriptures) that notes the bitterness of Yaakov's response and makes the following amazing calculation. Yaakov lived to the age of 147 years, yet his father lived 'till 180. There is a difference of 33 years. Yaakov lost 33 years of his life due to the 33 words that were used as he cursed his life's struggles.

The Midrash needs explanation. Yaakov did not use 33 words to curse his fate? That number is only arrived at if the original question of  "How old are you," and the words "and Pharaoh asked Yaakov," are also counted. We can understand that Yaakov was punished for the words that he spoke, but why should he be punished for a question posed to him, even if the response was improper? Why count the words that Pharaoh used, and even more difficult, why count the words, "Pharaoh asked Yaakov," which are obviously the Torah's addition?  At most, Yaakov should only be punished for the 25 words that he actually used.

In order to understand the Midrash,  Ramban (Nachmanides) notes: World leaders do not normally greet each other with mundane questions such as, "how old are you?" Yet those are the only recorded words of the conversation that ensued between Yaakov and Pharaoh. "Obviously," explains the Ramban, "Yaakov looked so terrible and so aged that Pharaoh could not comprehend. He therefore dispensed with diplomatic etiquette and asked the discourteous query. Yaakov's response explained why his appearance overbore his numeric age.

Rabbi Shmuelevitz, explains why the Midrash is upset with Yaakov. Had Yaakov worn his suffering with more cheer, at least on the outside, he would not have looked as old as he did. Pharaoh would not have been astonished and would never have asked the undiplomatic question, "how old are you?" Yaakov was punished for prompting a query that resulted in open discontent of the fate he endured. That was the reason why an entire portion of the Torah was added - 33 words - Yaakov therefore lost 33 years of his life.

The Torah teaches us a great lesson.  No matter what life serves you, do not let the experience dwindle your spirit.


Wednesday, 13th December 2017

Rashi seems to hold that the main miracle of Chanukah was the miracle of the oil; the miracle of victory in battle is not the main thing we are celebrating on Chanukah, according to Rashi. 

The question is why is this so - after all, the battle was a huge, world-changing and lifesaving miracle which essentially ensured our survival. Whilst the oil miracle, on the other hand, was seemingly unnecessary - we could have survived without pure oil; the worst that would have happened was that we’d have had to wait another week or so for pure oil to be produced. Why is the miracle of the oil something to celebrate at all, and why does it take centre stage? 

Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz explains that it is precisely the unnecessary nature of the oil miracle that sees it thrust into the foreground. The very fact that HaShem (G-d) went out of His way, so to speak, to provide us with pure oil showed us that He loves us and cares for us. For a father who really loves his son makes sure to tend to every little detail - even seemingly the smallest and most unnecessary - of his son’s needs and wants. Thus, the miracle of the oil showed us a fuller extent of HaShem’s love for us.


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