Moving From a Casual to an Intimate Relationship With Hashem

A significant portion of Parshat Bechukosai consists of the “tochacha” – Hashem’s warning of the trials and tribulations that will be visited upon the Jewish nation if they abandon Hashem and the Torah. In multiple verses, the Jewish nation’s betrayal is described as having “walked” with Hashem “b’keri.”

What is the nature of the transgression signified by “b’keri?” In Hilchot Ta’anit (1:3), Rambam states that “b’keri” refers to “mikreh,” or chance. That is, when suffering befalls the Jewish people they should realize that such suffering is not by chance, but rather a signal to repent (i.e., to do “teshuvah”). However, if they regard the suffering as mere chance and coincidence that has no connection with their behavior, then the sufferings will continue. In short, the sin of “b’keri” is denying that Hashem plays a guiding role in our lives, and that obstacles and failures are His veiled way of encouraging us to repent (see ArtScroll explanation of “Al chet s’chatanu b’kasyut oref”).

In a footnote in The Living Torah, Rav Aryeh Kaplan references additional interpretations of the phrase “b’keri, and ultimately settles on “indifference” in the English translation.

R’ Kaplan’s choice raises the question as to why “indifference” should trigger such harsh punishments. Synonyms for “indifference” include, “apathetic,” “unresponsive”, and “casual.” While hardly praiseworthy, these attitudes – which might find expression in such passive violations as failing to pray or forgetting to make berachos - still seem less problematic than aggressive, passionate sins such as murder and robbery.

Let’s see if we can develop a better understanding of why indifference triggers such severe consequences. In doing so, we may also find a connection with Rambam’s translation as “mikreh,” or chance.

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The Virtues of Moderation

Kedoshim t’hiyu – You shall be holy. How does achieve kedusha?” Rashi explains:

“Separate yourself from the “arayos” (i.e., prohibited sexual relationships) and from sin. Because wherever one finds the Torah establishing a restriction (“geder”) against sexual immorality, one also finds [reference to] holiness.”

The arayos to which Rashi appears to be referring are the prohibited relationships delineated in chapter 18 at the end of Parshat Acharei Mot (which immediately precedes Parshat Kedoshim). As proof for his interpretation that kedoshim t’hiyu refers to separation from arayos, Rashi cites two verses. First, Parshat Emor (21:14-15) where the Torah prohibits the Kohen Gadol from marrying any woman other than a virgin on pain of his children becoming “chalalim” (defiled) – “Ki ani Hashem mekadesho – For I am Hashem who sanctifies him.”  Second, Parshat Emor (21:7) where the Torah prohibits regular kohahim from marrying certain women (e.g., divorcees) – “Ki kadosh hu l’elokav – for each one [i.e., kohen] is holy to Hashem.

What is perplexing is why Rashi cites marriage restrictions applicable to kohanim, and the Kohen Gadol, as proof that the average Israelite achieves “kedusha” by avoiding prohibited sexual relationships.  Specifically, it would appear that the priestly marriage restrictions have nothing to do with immorality (indeed, there is nothing inherently wrong with marrying a divorcee or widow – such marriages are permitted to non-kohanim). Instead, the marriage restrictions applicable to kohanim appear to be unique prohibitions designed to highlight the special status of kohanim.

In contrast, the rationale repeatedly cited by the Torah for avoiding the prohibited sexual relationships specified in Parshat Acharei Mot is to raise the morality of the Jewish nation above the debased cultures of Mitzrayim and Canaan (see Achrei Mot 18:3, 24-30). Indeed, the Jewish nation is warned that engaging in such prohibited relationships will cause the Land of Israel to “vomit” them out as it did the prior inhabitants.

Does someone achieve kedusha simply by refraining from sexual immorality? Certainly not, and therefore achieving holiness clearly requires much more than simply avoiding Biblically prohibited relationships. Significantly, there is no reference to “kedusha” in any form in Chapter 18 of Acharei Mos.

It is perhaps for this reason that Ramban rejects Rashi’s interpretation, and explains “kedoshim t’hiyu” as a more general command to practice moderation and self-restraint even in areas that are permitted. That is, avoid becoming what Ramban famously calls a “naval b’reshut haTorah – a hedonist within the confines of the Torah.” As Ramban explains, while the Torah permits the relationship of husband and wife, specific types of meats and wine, and other forms of physical pleasure, there’s a risk that individuals might abuse what the Torah permits and pursue a hedonistic lifestyle. As such, to protect against excessive self-indulgence, the Torah instructs its adherents to practice moderation – limiting physical pleasures as needed, for example, to fulfill a mitzvah.

But does Ramban’s interpretation truly differ from that of Rashi? Perhaps it is possible to explain Rashi in a manner that makes his interpretation consistent with that of Ramban.

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Sa'ir La'Azazel: Chesed as an Antidote to Sinat Chinam

Parshat Acharei Mot discusses the Yom Kippur service performed by the Kohen Gadol.  One of the more enigmatic rituals was the “sa’ir la’Azazel” – the so-called “scapegoat” sent into the desert by the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur.

In fact, there were two male goats featured in the Yom Kippur service – ideally, they were similar in appearance, height and value, and purchased together in a single transaction (Mishnah Yoma 6:1). The first goat is sacrificed as a “chatas” – a national sin-offering. The Kohen Gadol then performs a “vidui” (confession) of all of the sins of the Jewish people on the second goat, which is then escorted out to the desert by a designated individual (the “ish iti”) who pushes it off a cliff to its death.

The entire ritual defies easy explanation, and many commentators explore its meaning and significance.

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Aiming for Divinity: Harnessing Physical Drives for Spiritual Purposes

The end of parshat Shemini addresses the “tumah” (spiritual contamination) conveyed by various dead creatures, while parshat Tazria begins by discussing the “tumah” of a woman who has given birth to a boy. Many commentators seek to explain the Torah's purpose in juxtaposing the “tumah”of creatures and the “tumah” of humans.

Citing the Chatam Sofer, Rav Beker in Parperot L’Torah makes the following observation. While creatures only contaminate after death, humans may contaminate while still alive. Additionally, while the carcass of a dead animal only contaminates through touch and carrying (maga u’masa), a human corpse contaminates through the medium of “ohel” (a roofed enclosure) (see also mishna in Masechet Yadayim (4:6), which observes that the bones of humans contaminate, unlike the bones of a dead animal). Indeed, a human corpse is considered “avi avot ha’tuma” – the highest possible level of impurity.

What is the message?

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Achieving Purity of Thought

At the beginning of parshat Tzav, the Torah relates Hashem’s command to the Kohanim concerning the laws of the korban “olah” (a sacrifice that was fully consumed on the altar): “Tzav et Aharon v’et banav laymor – zot torat ha’olah…relate the following instructions to Aaron and his descendants – this is the law of the burnt offering.” (Vayikra, 6:1-2).

Rashi picks up on the use of the word “tzav” rather than the more common “emor” or “daber,” and states that “tzav” connotes “zeruz,” or diligence. Why must the Kohanim be particularly diligent about the korban olah? Rashi explains that, according to the Tanna Rabbi Shimon, the korban olah represents a greater loss of income – “chisaron kis” – to kohanim than other korbanot since, with the korban olah, the kohanim only receive the hides, while with other korbanot, they receive both the hides and the meat (incidentally, the source for our modern day phrase “out-of-pocket” comes from the phrase “chisaron kis”).

As brought down in Parperei Torah, the Chiddushei Harim - Yitzchak Meir Alter, the first Rebbe of the Ger Hasidic dynasty – seeks to interpret the phrase “chisaron kis” metaphorically.

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Food - Path to Glory or Road to Perdition?

A significant portion of parshat Shemini is devoted to the laws of kashrut (i.e,. Jewish dietary laws). In considerable detail, the Torah elucidates how to identify what animals, birds and fish are kosher, and which are not.

Parshat Shemini concludes its identification of kosher species with the following verse: “Because I am Hashem who brought you out of Egypt to be your G-d. Therefore, since I am holy, you must also remain holy.” (Vayikra 11:45).

What is the practical connection between observing the laws of kashrut and holiness? Is it some mystical nexus that is beyond our comprehension? Perhaps, but if one equates holiness with striving for righteous behavior, I would submit there is also a very practical link between the Torah’s emphasis on watching what we eat and developing proper middot – i.e., good character traits.

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The Power of Dan L'Kaf Zechut - Judging Favorably

Parshat Metzora famously begins, “Zot Torat Hametzora – this is the law of the individual who contracts ‘tzara’at’” (the modern translation of “tzara’at” is leprosy, but Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, among others, convincingly demonstrates from the laws of “tzara’at” that the afflication of tzara'at is not synonymous with leprosy or any other disease for that matter; as such, we will avoid use of the word “leprosy”).

The gemara (Arachin 15b) explains that “torat hametzora” is a contraction of “torat hamotzi shem ra” – the laws governing someone who slanders others.  This “Notarikon” reinforces the common understanding that contracting “tzara’at” is a punishment for speaking “loshon hara” (which includes slander that is false, as well as character assassination that is true – in other words, under Jewish law, the fact that a negative statement about another person is true does not exempt the speaker).

In his sefer Chafetz Chaim, the Chafetz Chaim provides a lengthy list of negative and positive commandments violated when a person speaks lashon hara. Indeed, the sheer length of the list helps explain the meaning of the statement in the gemara (Arachin 15b) that one who speaks lashon hara has sins that “reach to the sky.”

One of the positive mitzvos in the Torah violated by those who speak loshon hara, according to the Chafetz Chaim (Be’er Mayim Chaim 3:11), is “b’tzedek tishpot et amitecha.” This verse is the source of the obligation to judge people favorably – i.e., to be “dan l’kaf zechut.” In this vein, the Chofetz Chaim claims that all the episodes in the Torah concerning “lashon hara” – such as the spies and Miriam – were caused by a failure to observe the mitzvah of dan l’kaf zechut.

As it turns out, the trait of dan l’kaf zechut is not merely about avoiding premature judgment of others.  It is much more than that. In a positive sense, the trait of dan l’kaf zechut holds the key to success in many spheres of life, including choosing the right shidduch (i.e., marriage partner), earning a parnassa (i.e., a living), and having bitachon (faith) in Hashem.

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The Power of Chesed

One of the prominent karbanot discussed in parshat Vayikra is the korban mincha, which consists of wheat and olive oil mixed together, and then cooked or fried in various ways.

The gemara in Menachot (104b) comments on the Vayikra pasuk 2:1 – “V’nefesh ki takriv korban mincha” – why does the word “nefesh” appear in this pasuk in connection with the korban mincha? The gemara answers that the korban mincha is usually brought by a poor person and so Hashem considers it as if the poor person has offered his very soul – his nefesh - up to Hashem because it is so difficult for a desitute person to afford the korban. Indeed, we see in connection with the korban "oleh v'yored" (5:1-13), where the type of korban brought depends upon the individual's financial status, that the poor man may bring a simple flour offering.

Thus, the mincha offering is associated with destitute individuals. Yet, interestingly, we see that the mincha offering also appears among the offerings that each of the Nesi’im of Bnei Yisroel – the princes of Israel – brought when the Mishkan was completed. As described in parshat Naso (7:12-83), we see that each Nasi brought wheat mixed with olive oil as a mincha offering – solet belulah b’shemen l'mincha.

What can we learn from the fact that the simple mincha typically brought by poor people was also part of the offerings brought by the most prominent, famous and richest princes of Israel?

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Standing the Test of Time: The Lessons of the Mishkan

Parshat Pekudei begins by naming the individuals involved in constructing the mishkan (38:21). On this pasuk, the commentator Seforno remarks that in constrast to the two batei mikdash, which were conquered and destroyed by our enemies, the mishkan was never conquered and destroyed. Seforno claims the reason is that the shechinah of Hashem rested more securely within the mishkan than within the first Beit Hamikdash, and did not rest at all within the second Beit Hamikdash (see Yoma 9b and 21b). What was so special about the construction of the mishkan that it merited to never be destroyed and what lessons can we learn?

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The Naming of Binyamin: Communication, Forgiveness and Shared Values in the Marital Relationship of Yaakov and Rachel

The most emotionally wrenching episode in parshat Vayishlach is the death of Rachel during the birth of Binyamin. Yaakov had left Shechem and moved to Beit El at Hashem’s direction. In Beit El, Yaakov built a matzeva (pillar), and then departed towards Efrat. On the way, Rachel went into childbirth, and the midwife indicated that it was a son. Rachel’s labor was extremely difficult, and ultimately proved fatal. Pasuk 35:18 records that in her last dying breath, Rachel named her son “Ben Oni,” but that “his father” (i.e., Yaakov) called him “Binyamin.”

The narrative is somewhat difficult. We know that Yaakov loved Rachel the most of any of his wives. It must have been terrible for him to watch her die. Yet, after Rachel selects a name for her son in her last dying moments, Yaakov changes the name to something else. What was Yaakov’s intent in changing the name? If we look back at the pesukim recording the naming of Yaakov’s eleven sons, we see that – with the sole exception of Levi - Rachel and Leah selected the names (and even with respect to Levi, it was Leah who supplied the explanation) (see: 29:32; 29:33; 29:34; 29:35; 30:6; 30:8; 30:11; 30:12; 30:18; 30:20; and 30:24).

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The Centrality of Shabbos to Spiritual Growth

Parshat Vayakhel primarily discusses the contribution of the materials used to construct the Mishkan, and the actual construction itself. However, before delving into these matters, the parsha starts off with the command to observe the Shabbos (verses 2 and 3). From the juxtaposition of the laws of Shabbos and the Mishkan, the rabbis learn that the labors required in the construction of the Mishkan are those labors which are prohibited on the Shabbos. Further, from the phrase "ay'leh hadevarim" (35:1), the gemara determines that there are 39 such labors.

What is the significance of the connection between the Mishkan and Shabbos?

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Worship of Hashem vs. Worship of Self: Why the Torah Considers Idolatry Such a Severe Sin

The seminal event in parshat Ki Tisa is, of course, the egel. It seems quite astounding that so soon after matan Torah at Har Sinai, Bnei Yisroel violated one of the fundamental prohibitions in the Torah - indeed, the second commandment - not to worship a graven image.

To be sure, the consensus of the commentators (Ramban, Ibn Ezra) is that Bnei Yisroel did not view the egel as a deity. Rather, concerned that Moshe had died, they sought an alternative intermediary to worship Hashem. Yet, Moshe repeatedly refers to the cheit ha'egel as "chata'ah gedola"  - a grave sin (Shemos 32:21, 32:30, 32:31). 

In other contexts, the Torah makes clear that the worship of graven images is a more severe sin than any other. In the sefer Parperaot LaTorah, Menachem Baker makes an interesting observation about the language in Ki Savo 27:15: "Arur ha'ish asher ya'aseh pesel u'masecha - Cursed is the man who will make an idol." He questions why the pasuk is phrased in the future tense (asher ya'aseh - who will make), instead of the present tense - "arur oseh pesel u'masecha - cursed is the man who makes an idol." The use of the future tense makes the pasuk inconsistent with the rest of the curses, which are all phrased in the present tense - e.g., "arur makleh aviv v'imo - cursed is one who strikes his father and mother," or "arur masig gevul ray'ayhu - cursed is one who invades the boundaries of his friend." Why the different tense for idol worship?

The answer is that with all other transgressions, Hashem punishes the actual sinful act, but not thoughts to commit the sinful act. As per Kiddushin 40a: "machashava ra'ah ein hakadosh baruch hu metzarfa la'ma'aseh - Hashem does not deem the sinful thought an action."

However, when it comes to avoda zara, the mere thought to commit such a sin is deemed equivalent to action, and warrants punishment. Hence the language in the pasuk - "asher ya'aseh" in the future tense, and not "asah" in present tense - i.e., once the thought to commit avoda zara is formed, it's equated with action and culpability attaches.

So to frame the question: why does the Torah consider avoda zara such a severe sin to the extent that sinful thought is equated with sinful deed? Answering this inquiry will, in turn, help us understand why the creation of the egel - a tangible intermediary to Hashem - was such a dangerous development.

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Personality Types as a Path to Self-Improvement

The majority of parshat Tetzaveh focuses on the garments of the Kohanim. The first pasuk of this section (28:1) starts with Hashem commanding Moshe: "V'atah hakreiv elecha et Aharon achicha - Bring close to you Aharon your brother." The peshat is that Hashem instructs Moshe to separate Aharon and his sons from Bnei Yisroel and bring them close to him to annoint them as the "kohanim."

Is there a deeper message here?

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The Keruvim: Instruments of Emuna and Bitachon

One of the more fascinating and enigmatic ornaments discussed in parshat Teruma is the keruvim (the winged angelic figures made of gold) that stood on top of covering for the aron (ark) containing the luchos (Shemos 25:18).

What is striking about the command to fashion the keruvim, as Abarbanel points out, is that the Torah forbids the creation of carved idols (Shemos 20:4). So how could Hashem direct the creation of such figures? Was this not a contradiction of the prohibition against fashioning idols? Abarbanel and other commentators respond that the keruvim was not intended to serve as an intermediary (as, for example, the “egel” – the Golden Calf – was intended), but rather was intended to inspire a stronger connection and closeness to Hashem. How did the keruvim accomplish this?

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Deepening Our Relationship With Hashem By Perfection of Mitzvot B'ein Adam L'Chavero

What is striking about Parshat Mishpatim is that it appears to interrupt the flow of the narrative of Bnei Yisroel’s development as a nation. Prior to Parshat Mishpatim, starting with parshat Shemot, we read about Bnei Yisroel’s extraordinary journey from downtrodden slaves to uplifted nation receiving the Torah from Hashem at Har Sinai (parshat Yitro). The parshiyot after Mishpatim delve into the intricacies of the mishkan and priestly garments (and of course, there’s the incident of the egel).

So what are we to make of parshat Mishpatim, a seemingly dry recitation of numerous civil laws that appears out of place in the Exodus narrative? Or is it really out of place? Let’s see….

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Find Solutions Not Problems

In connection with helping me address an issue that arose with respect to my son's attendance (b"eh) at Rambam Mesivta high school next year, the principals of the school, Rabbi Zev Friedman and Rabbi Yotav Eliach, quoted to me a saying used in the Israeli army - "l'kol ba'ayah, yesh pitaron." For every problem there is a solution."

It reminded me of another nugget of advice once shared with me by a close friend: "There are two kinds of people in this world. Those who find problems. And those who find solutions. Avoid the former and seek the latter."

Given that all wisdom can be found in the Torah, it is not surprising to find the above idea expressed in Parshat Yitro. How so? Read on.

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Incorporating the Message of Yetziat Mitzrayim Into Our Daily Lives

Parshat Bo tells the story of Bnei Yisroel’s departure from Egypt. This narrative forms the basis for the hagada that we read on Pesach.

At the conclusion of the story of yetziat mitzrayim, the hagada instructs:

b’khol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mi-mitzrayim

“in each generation, each individual must view himself as if he was personally liberated from Egypt.”

This command sounds like a tall order – yetziat mitzrayim is in the distant past. How can one truly relive the experience of yetziat mitzrayim so it feels like a personal liberation?

I would like to suggest that the command “lirot et atzmo” is not necessarily limited to personally reliving the exodus in the sense that we need to feel like slaves departing from our oppressors (though many of the Seder rituals do attempt to create this feeling). Rather, I submit that part of “lirot et atzmo” is developing an attitude that reflects the incorporation of the message of yetziat mitzraim into our daily lives.

Indeed, there is a reason why remembering yetziat mitzraim is not limited to the Seder, but instead is one of the 6 events we are instructed to remember daily, and is also referenced twice a day in the Shema – morning and night. Incorporating the message of yetziat mitzraim into our lives – “lirot et atzmo” - is clearly much more than simply retelling the Exodus at the Seder.

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The Land of Israel as the Beloved of the Jewish People

At the beginning of Parshat Va'ayra, when addressing Moshe, Hashem employs the famous five leshonos of geulah in promising that He will liberate Bnei Yisroel from Mitzraim. In pasuk 6:8, we have the final expression of geulah:

"V'hayvayti etchem el ha'aretz asher nasati et yadi latet otah l'Avraham, l'Yitzchak, u'l'Yaakov, v'natati otah lachem morasha, ani Hashem."

That is, Hashem promises that He will bring B'nei Yisroel to the land that he promised to the Avos, and He will give Eretz Yisroel to the Jewish people as a "morasha."

Traditionally, the word "morasha" is translated as an "inheritance." (note: in Devarim 33:4, the Torah is also referred to as a "morasha" of the Jewish people).

In several places, the Gemara says the word "morasha" should be read metaphorically as "me'urasa" - i.e., betrothed - from the concept of "erusin", which is the first step in a Jewish marriage. 

What is the significance of this metaphorical reference?

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On The Uniqueness of Each Individual Jew

The very first pasuk of parshat Shemot states:

And these are the names of the Children of Israel who came to Egypt with Yaakov; each man and his household came.

The Torah proceeds to list the names of eleven of the sons of Yaakov; then a reference to Yosef living in Mitzrayim concludes the segment (Rashi explains why Yosef was singled out).

The Torah previously listed Yaakov’s sons by name during their lifetime (see Bereshit 35:23-26, 46:8-27 (also identifying the grandchildren), and 49:1-28). Rashi picks up on this and notes that Hashem also counted Yaakov’s sons after their deaths to show how precious they were to Him. Rashi adds that the counting was done by name because Yaakov’s sons are compared to the stars, which Hashem also counts by number and by name.

In his sefer Ta’am V’Da’as, Rav Sternbuch seeks to understand the analogy between Yaakov’s sons and the stars. He explains that just as each star has a specific purpose in the cosmic scheme that differentiates it from all other stars, so too each Jew has his or her special purpose in life as expressed through his or her unique soul.

Let’s develop this concept of the uniqueness of the individual Jew.

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Learning From Yaakov's Hand Switch: Prayer During Times of Plenty

In Parshat Vayechi, Yosef brings his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, to be blessed by his aging father, Yaakov. Yosef positions Menashe, the eldest, on Yaakov’s right, and Ephraim, the younger son, on Yaakov’s left. The ostensible purpose is to have Yaakov bless Menashe with his right hand – the right hand being deemed a source of greater blessing than the left hand (see list of halachic practices and non-ritual where the right hand takes precedence, reasons why the right hand is favored, and exceptions to the rule, e.g., tefillin).

Famously, Yaakov crosses his hands so that his right hand is on Ephraim, and his left hand is on Menashe, and proceeds to bless his two grandsons. At the conclusion of Yaakov’s blessing, Yosef notices that Yaakov had crossed his hands, and tries to move Yaakov’s right hand back on to Menashe. Yosef protests: “This is not correct, father. He [Menashe] is the bechor – put your right hand on his head.” Yaakov refuses to change his hands back and tells Yosef he knows that Menashe is the eldest. Yaakov explains:

“Gam hu y’hiyeh l’am v’gam hu yigdal v’ulam achiv ha’katon yigdal mimenu v’zaro y’hiyeh melo ha’goyim.”

“He [Menashe] too will become a national [hero] and he too will rise. But his younger brother will be greater than he and his descendants will astonish the nations.”

Rashi explains that Yaakov foresaw that Gideon would descend from Menashe, and a miracle would be performed through him. However, Yehoshua ben Nun, Moshe’s successor, would descend from Ephraim, and would help Bnei Yisroel conquer Eretz Yisroel and teach them Torah. The implication is that Yehoshua was a greater leader. Yaakov’s response is intended to explain his actions, but it’s not clear how it does so.

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Moving From Our Personal Sphere to Public Involvement

When the Torah introduces the counting of the Omer it states in Parshas Emor 23:15: “U’sefartem lachem mimacharat ha’Shabbat.”

Contrary to the interpretation of the heretics who claimed that the word "Shabbat" in that pasuk actually means Shabbat, our rabbis explained that the word “Shabbat” in this pasuk refers to Pesach – that is, we should start counting the Omer from the second day of Pesach.

The question is why does the Torah refer to Pesach as Shabbat? Why not just be direct and state that we should start counting from the second day of Pesach? That would have provided the clarity, and avoided this particular controversy with the heretics.

Perhaps the Torah intended to teach us something about the process represented by the counting of the Omer. 

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Responding to Adversity With Chesed: What We Can Learn from the Weeping of Yosef and Binyamin

Parshas Vayigash, pasuk 45:14, states that, after disclosing his identity to his brothers, Yosef fell upon the neck of Binyamin and wept, while Binyamin wept upon the neck of Yosef.

Rashi comments that Yosef was weeping over the destruction of the two Batei Mikdash to be built in Binyamin's portion of Eretz Yisroel, while Binyamin was weeping over the destruction of the mishkan in Shiloh destined to be built in Yosef's portion.

The sefer Parperaot L'Torah cites the following question of the Chasidic master, R' Yechezkel MiKuzmir: Why did Yosef cry over the destruction of the Batei Mikdash in Binyamin's portion, and Binyamin cry over the destruction of the mishkan in Yosef's portion? More logically, one would think that Yosef would cry over the destruction in his own portion while Binyamin would cry over the destruction in his own portion. Why would each instead cry over the destruction in their brother's portion?

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What the Dreams of Yaakov and Pharoah Can Teach Us About Cultivating Spirituality

Continuing an approach we followed last week of identifying the repetitive use of an unusual phrase in two different parts of the Torah and seeking an underlying message, I came across an observation of Rabbi Aharon of Karlin I (b. 1736, d. 1772, a student of the Maggid of Mezritch and founder of the Karlin-Stolin Chassidic dynasty) brought down in the sefer Parperaot L'Torah.

R' Karlin notes that following Yaakov's dream with the angels in which Hashem assures him that his descendants will inherit Eretz Yisroel and of Yaakov's own well-being during his travels outside Eretz Yisroel, the Torah states, "V'yikatz Yaakov mishenato v'yomer achayn yesh Hashem bemakom hazeh - Yaakov awoke from his slumber and said "There is G-d in this place..." (28:16).

Contrast this with the first dream of Pharoah in which he saw seven thin cows devour the seven fat cows. Given that the Egyptians worshipped cows, you'd think this dream would have made a tremendous impression on Pharoah - his "g-d" was eaten! Yet, the Torah records, "V'yikatz Pharoah...v'yishan v'yachalom shenit - Pharoah woke up...then fell asleep and dreamed again... (41:4-5). Yes, after this momentous dream, Pharoah fell asleep - a sleep so deep he had another dream!

Of course, the careful reader will notice that the same word "Vayikatz" is used to describe both Yaakov's and Pharoah's awakening from their dreams. What's the message?

Continue reading "What the Dreams of Yaakov and Pharoah Can Teach Us About Cultivating Spirituality" »

On Being Torah Role Models for Our Children

We've previously blogged about how there's no coincidences when an unusual phrase or word appears in two different places in the Torah - undoubtedly there's some message to be extracted.

An application of this idea appears in parshat Vayeshev. After learning of Yosef's apparent death, Yaakov mourns. But the mourning does not stop (after 12 months according to the Torah Temima), and so his children seek to comfort him. The Torah records Yaakov's response: "Vayema'ain l'hitnachem" - he refused to be comforted (37:35).

Where do we next see the word "Vayema'ain?" In 39:8, Potifar's wife attempts to seduce Yosef, and Yosef's response is "Vayema'ain" - he refused. It's the identical word used to describe Yaakov's refusal to be comforted. What is the connection?

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Hafoch Ba D'Kula Ba: Portfolio Diversification in the Torah

In a mishnah in Pirkei Avos (5:6) (popularized by Shweky ; - ), Ben Bag Bag states "Hafoch ba hafoch ba, de'kula ba - Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it." In other words, all of the wisdom of the world can be found in the Torah, albeit often expressed cryptically and with brevity - leaving it to Torah scholars to tease out the details through diligent study.

Over the years, I've found Ben Bag Bag's statement to be very true, and have been zocheh to find all sorts of wisdom and insights embedded within the gemara and other Torah sources ranging from mathematical concepts to principles of psychology.

This week's parsha - Vayislach - offers validation of Ben Bag Bag's principle. For starters, it's well known that sages throughout Jewish history have studied Yaakov's preparations for his confrontation with Esav prior to their own negotiations with foreign governments (indeed, as per an idea floated in an earlier post, there seems to be elements of game theory operating in the story of the confrontation between Yaakov and Esav that could be highly instructive in terms of how each dealt with the dilemmas they faced given the imperfect information they each possessed about the other's intentions and merits).

What's less well known is the nugget of sophisticated financial advice that the gemara extracts from the parsha.

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The Struggle Between Yaakov and the Angel of Esav: A Metaphor for Jewish History Still Unfolding

One of the major episodes in parshat Yayishlach is the confrontation between Yaakov and the "man" (32:25-30), whom Rashi identifies as the "sar" (administering angel) of Esav.

Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch and others view the confrontation between Esav's angel and Yaakov as a metaphor for Jewish history. For example, in 32:25, it is said "And Jacob was left alone," portending how tragically, throughout their history in galus, the Jewish people will regularly find themselves in a helpless state, abandoned without the assistance of any allies, to face persecution at the hands of their enemies (chronicled, for example, with respect to the Holocaust, in David Wyman's The Abandonment of the Jews). It is also noted that the pasuk says "Va'ya'avek ish imo" - indicating that the "man" was the aggressor, while Yaakov acted in self-defense. Yet, much as Yaakov survived the confrontation and moved forward with his life while the angel disappeared, so too despite constant persecution, the Jewish people have survived, even if injured and weary, while their enemies have disappeared from the pages of history.

To quote R' Hirsch concerning the message for later generations from the struggle between Esav's angel and Yaakov: "As long as night reigns on is with the spirit of Esau, duly equipped with the orb of empire, the sceptre and the sword...that Jacob will have to contend, until the Night wanes from the earth."

R' Hirsch wrote these words in the late 1800's - one wonders how he would have interpreted the seminal events of Jewish history in the 20th century - the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel - in light of the parable. Let's develop this thought - first, by further exploring relevant details of the confrontation between Yaakov and Esav's angel, and then identifying parallels in recent Jewish history.

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Kefitzat Haderech: What's the Message of This Rare Form of Divine Intervention?

In parshat Vayetzei, we see an instance of kefitzat haderech, i.e., a miracle pursuant to which an individual is transported from one location to a geographically distant one with unnatural speed. Specifically, the first pasuk of the parsha (28:10) states: "Vayeitzei Yaakov miBe`eir Shava' vayeilekh Charana." On which the gemara in Chullin (91b) comments:

The Torah states, "And Yaakov left from Beer Sheva and went to Charan." And it states [next pasuk] "Vayifga BaMakom." When he [Yaakov] arrived in Charan he said [to himself], "Is it possible that I passed by the spot where my fathers have prayed and I did not pray?" When he gave his thought to return, the land contracted for him. Immediately, Vayifga BaMakom, he hit up against the place.

For a discussion of whether the kefitzat haderech occurred from Be'er Sheva to Charan, or from Charan to Beit El (where Yaakov slept) (as per the gemara in Chullin), see the parshablog.

The kefitzat haderech for Yaakov is one of four such miraculous kefitzot recorded in Tanach. A second occurred for Avraham when he was chasing the four kings who kidnapped Lot (see Rashi on 14:15).

Another occurred for Eliezer when he departed to Charan to find a wife for Yitzchak (see Rashi on 24:42).

Finally, we have an instance of kefitzat haderech in the time of Melech David when his generals waged war against the nation of Aram (see Midrash Tanchuma, Vayeitzei 3, which contends that the phrase in Tehillim 60:3 - "hirashta eretz patzamta - You made the land quake, you broke it" - refers to the divine assistance that Hashem rendered to David's generals when he caused an earthquake that shattered the land into pieces; these pieces were then brought closer together, thus substantially shortening the distance the generals had to travel to reach Aram).

What is the common denominator between these 4 instances of kefitzat haderech - and what is the message for us?

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The Secret to a Happy Marriage Embedded in a Gematria

In parshat Vayetzei (28:19), Yaakov names the location of his dream - "Beit El - the house of G-d," which happens to be the future site of the Beis Hamikdash. 

In Yeshaya (2:3), the navi prophesizes that in the end of days (acharit hayamim), the nations of the world shall say, "Let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the G-d of Yaakov."

On which the gemara in Pesachim (88a) asks, why only a reference to the "G-d of Yaakov," and not also the G-d of Avraham and Yitzchak?

Continue reading "The Secret to a Happy Marriage Embedded in a Gematria" »

A City Called Luz...

In pasuk 28:19, we learn that Yaakov gave the name "Beit El" to the location where he experienced his dream. Then, almost as an afterthought, the Torah mentions that originally this place was called "Luz." R' Hirsch notes that "Luz" means hazelnut.

What do we learn from this apparently insignificant aside?

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To Tell the Truth: Deciding Between Competing Torah Values

The Torah admonishes against falsehood in Shemot (23:7): "midevar sheker tirchak - distance yourself from a false word," and in Vayikra (19:11): "...v'lo teshakru, ish l'amito - a man shall not lie to his friend."

Of the three Avot, Yaakov is most closely associated with the midda of "truth." In parshat Toldot (25:27), Yaakov is described as an "ish tam" (which Rashi explains to mean an honest individual - "ela kelibo ken piv, mi she-eino charif leramot karui tam"). See also Micha 7:20 - "Tetayn emet le'Yaakov" - You have given truth to Yaakov."

Yet, in parshat Toldot, we see Yaakov acting with apparent deceit when he presents himself to Yitzchak as Esav. Perhaps most glaringly, Yitzchak asks, "Who are you, my son?," and Yaakov responds, "It is I, Esav, your firstborn." To be sure, Rashi interprets Yaakov's response as technically truthfully by splitting Yaacov's words into two separate statements, "It is I" and "Esav is your firstborn," so that there was no falsehood. But Rashi's interpretation seems forced, and other commentators disagree and explain that Yaacov deceived Yitzchak, albeit to achieve a just result (see commentary of Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch; Radak, Ibn Ezra).

How do we reconcile these apparently inconsistent sources? Clearly, it is a bad middah, if not an outright prohibition, to lie. Yet, it seems that "deceit" is sanctioned when more important, overriding values are at stake.

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The Lesson of Avraham and Sarah's Marriage: How Sharing and Pursuing Mutual Goals Builds Love

In parshat Chayei Sarah, Avraham approaches Efron to purchase a plot to bury his wife, Sarah. Avraham states: "Ach im ata lu shemayni, natati kesef hasadeh kach mimeni... - If you will but listen to me, I am giving you coins for the field, take them from me..." (23:13) - on which the gemara (Kiddushin 2a) comments: from here we learn that the word "kicha" refers to an acquisition using money as consideration ("ein kicha ela b'kesef").

Famously, this exegesis has practical significance in the realm of contracting marriages. Commenting on the pasuk "ki yikach ish isha" in parshat Ki Tetzei (24:1), the gemara (Kiddushin 4b) refers back to the aforementioned pasuk from Chayei Sarah (teaching that "ein kicha ela b'kesef"), and concludes that a marriage may be consummated using money (or an object of monetary value) ("isha nikneit b'kesef").

Unfortunately, the use of the term "acquisition" to describe the contracting of a marriage has been the source of much misunderstanding among those unfamiliar with the Torah's view of marriage. As we will see, the use of the phrase "kicha" to describe the consummation of a marriage alludes to the potential within marriage for the deepest levels of love and friendship.

Continue reading "The Lesson of Avraham and Sarah's Marriage: How Sharing and Pursuing Mutual Goals Builds Love" »

Increasing the Intensity of our Daily Tefilot

In the gemara in Brachos (26b) there's an argument concerning whether the obligation to pray three times a day - shacharit, mincha and ma'ariv - originates from the avot - Avraham, Yitzchak and Yakov ("tefilot k'neged avot tiknum") - or corresponds to the korbanos brought in the Beis Hamikdash ("tefilot k'neged korbanot tiknum").

The opinion that the tefilot originated with the avot cites a pasuk in parshat Va'yera to prove that tefilat shacharit was originated with Avraham when he arose in the morning to view the destruction that Hashem had visited upon Sodom; see 19:27: "Va'yaskem Avraham ba'boker el hamakom asher amad sham et penei Hashem - And Avraham got up early in the morning to the place where he had "stood" before Hashem." The gemara explains that the word "amad" ("stood") refers to "tefilah" as per another pasuk in Tehillim juxtaposing the word "va'yamod" and "v'yipalel" (standing and praying).

The gemara then explains that mincha originated with Yitzchak when he went out to the field prior to his initial meeting with Rivka; see Chayei Sara (24:63) - "Va'yetzei Yitzchak la'suach ba'sadeh = And Yitzchak went to meditate in the field - as the gemara explains, "sicha" refers to "tefilah". And ma'ariv originated with Yakov when he was fleeing from Esav; see Va'yaitzei (28:11) - "Va'yifga ba'makom" - as the gemara explains, "pegiah" refers to tefila.

I heard a nice dvar torah from Rabbi Elly Krimsky explaining that these three references to prayer by the avot correspond to three different motivations for prayer.

Continue reading "Increasing the Intensity of our Daily Tefilot" »

Bris Milah in Lech Lecha: Avraham's Transmission of a Spiritual Inheritance to Yitzchak

In Parshat Lech Lecha we learn that Avraham performed the mitzvah of bris mila at age ninety nine (99) following Hashem's command to do so (17:24). In Parperaot L'Torah, R' Menachem Baker asks why Avraham did not fulfill the mitzvah of mila earlier according to the opinion that Avraham voluntarily kept all of the mitzvot in the Torah (see Toldos 26:5; Yoma 28b; though not all commentators agree). R' Baker cites an explanation from R' Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik (Rav "Velvel" - son of R' Chaim) that Avraham kept all of the mitzvot according to the principle "zerizim makdimim l'mitzvot", but since mila is characterized as a "brit" - a covenant between man and Hashem - and a covenant (by definition) requires two parties - it was impossible for Avraham to observe this mitzvah prior to Hashem's explicit command.

That is, the essence of the mitzvah of "brit" mila, as the very name of the mitzvah conveys, is a "brit" - covenant - between a Jew and Hashem, and this essential "covenantal" aspect would be missing had Avraham independently performed mila without the participation of the other "party" to the covenant - i.e., Hashem (it has been noted that the word "bris" (covenant) appears 13 times in the verses in Bereishit that introduce this mitzvah).

I want to suggest another possible explanation for the delay in Avraham's performance of mitzvat bris milah.

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Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Torah as the Pathway to Perception of Hashem's Presence

One of the signature symbols in parshat Noach is the rainbow, which Hashem displays following the mabul (Flood) as evidence of his commitment that He will never again destroy the world with water (Noach 9:13). Initially, the rainbow thus appears to be a positive sign - a covenant evidencing Hashem's commitment to mankind.

However, Rashi states that the appearance of a rainbow actually has negative connotations. Observing that the word "dorot" (generations) in the pasuk (9:12) immediately preceding the introduction of the rainbow is missing letters (i.e., two "vavs"), Rashi explains that the word "generations" is "written 'chaser' [missing letters] since there are generations that do not need this sign [that Hashem won't destroy the world with water] since they are totally righteous like the generation of Chizkiyahu King of Judah and the generation of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai." In other words, when a rainbow appears in any generation, it is a sign that there is wickedness in the world, and the generation is deserving of destruction but for Hashem's commitment as evidenced by the rainbow. Indeed, Rabbeinu Yehudah bar Yakar (a teacher of the Ramban) writes in his Peirush HaTefillos Vehaberachos (2:58) that one ought to be inspired to do teshuva upon seeing a rainbow.

Other sources reflect similar ambivalence concerning a rainbow. On the one hand, one makes a bracha upon seeing a rainbow. But once the bracha is made, it is inappropriate to gaze at the rainbow for a prolonged period of time (Chagiga 16a). This is because the rainbow represents the "Shechina" (Divine Presence) (as per the navi Yechezkel, 1:28) (interestingly, there is a natural phenomenon similar to a rainbow called a "glory").

It is also inappropriate to run and tell someone else about a rainbow that one sees since it is like spreading a bad report (that is, the rainbow is a sign that bad deeds are being done, and Hashem is withholding punishment) (Chayei Adam, 63:4) (for full list of "rainbow" sources see here).

What can we learn from this ambivalence? What can we learn from rainbows?

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The Purpose of Creation: Sanctifying the Mundane (Living al Kiddush Hashem)

This past Shabbos a cousin of mine was bar mitzvah. Here's the dvar Torah I delivered at Sha'alos Seudos - one you can use at a future Bereshit bar mitzvah (or possibly even other parshiyot since the ideas are of general application).

The first pasuk of the Torah, parshat Bereshit, reads "Bereshit bara Elokim et hashamayim v'et ha'aretz." Rashi immediately exclaims that this pasuk cries out for interpretation. He then explains that the word "Bereshit" stems from "Reshit" - the "beginning," and alludes to the Torah and the people of Israel both of which are also referred to as "Reshit" elsewhere in the Tanach (Mishlei 8:22 and Yirmiyahu 2:3).

Rav Sternbuch, in his parsha sefer Ta'am V'Da'at, cites a midrash stating that the world was also created for the sake of 3 mitzvot which are also referred to as "Reshit" - (1) bikkurim ("reshit bikkurei admatecha," Shemot 23:19); (2) chalah ("reshit arisoteichem chalah tarimu," Bamidbar 15:20), and (3) terumah/ma'aser ("Reshit degancha tiroshcha v'yitzharecha," Devarim 18:4).

Rav Sternbuch asks why are these 3 mitzvot singled out as being the purpose for which the world was created - after all, there are 610 other mitzvot that are important.

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The Purpose and Psychology Behind Mitzvah Performance

A key symbol of the recently celebrated chag of Sukkos is the arba minim - lulav, hadasim, aravos and esrog. It is well known that, when purchasing arba minim, observant Jews carefully examine the details of the samples offered for sale in the hope of purchasing as beautiful a specimen as possible - i.e., a "mehudar" for each of the minim. In other words, we don't just want "kosher" arba minim; we want the best.

The source of purchasing "mehudar" arba minim is the pasuk "zeh keli v'anveyhu - This is my G-d and I will beautify him." (Shemot, BeShalach 15:2). As the gemara in Shabbos (133b) explains, how does one beautify Hashem? The first opininon (Tanna Kamma) states that one beautifies Hashem through the embellished performance of mitzvot - i.e., making a beautiful sukkah, purchasing beautiful arba minim, a beautiful shofar, etc. That is, instead of being content with performing mitzvos within the letter of the law, we seek to optimize our performance through "hidur mitzvah" - that is, by acquiring the most beautiful specimen we can find (as an aside, in the sefer Iyun B'Lomdus by Rav Yitzchak Adler, pages 20-23, there appear some interesting analyses revolving around the chakira of whether "hidur mitzvah" is deemed part and parcel of the core mitzva, or constitutes its own independent mitzvah separate and apart from the core mitzvah being beautified; various nafka minot are discussed).

What's interesting is that a second opinion is brought down in the gemara concerning the meaning of the pasuk, "Zeh keli v'anveyhu." Abba Shaul states that "V'anveyhu" teaches us to emulate Hashem: "Ma hu rachum v'chanun, af ata rachum v'chanun - Just as Hashem is merciful and compassionate, so too, you [i.e., man] should be merciful and compassionate." (Shabbos 133b). This is how we "beautify" Hashem - by emulating His attributes.

So we have two opinions: the Tanna Kamma say that "zeh keli v'anveyhu" teaches hiddur mitzvah, and Abba Shaul opines that "zeh keli v'anveyhu" teaches emulation of Hashem's attributes of mercy and compassion (i.e., moral excellence).

I wonder - are these two tanaim arguing? Are their opinions mutually exclusive? IMHO, the answer is "No," and instead, based on the teachings of Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, what we may actually have here is a progression; namely, that the stellar performance of mitzvos b'hiddur leads one to moral excellence (i.e., emulation of Hashem's attributes of mercy and compassion). If so, how does that work?

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Perception and Reality in the Appreciation of Torah

In Parshas Zos Ha'Beracha, pasuk 33:2 begins:

Va'yomar: Hashem mi'Sinai bah, v'zarach m'Seir lamo, hofiya mehar Paran...

[And Moshe] said: Hashem came from [Har] Sinai, He had already radiated for them from Seir, had dawned from Mount Paran....

The Sifri learns from this pasuk that Hashem originally offered the Torah to the other nations. He offered it to the descendants of Esav (alluded to by Seir), and they asked, "What is written in the Torah?" Hashem responded, "Do not kill." (commandment #6 in the luchos). At which point, Esav's descendants declined to accept the Torah.

Hashem also presented the Torah to the descendants of Yishmael (alluded to by Paran). They too asked what is written inside. When told the Torah says, "Do not steal," (commandment #8), they also demurred.

Menachem Baker in Parperaot L'Torah asks: when asked by the other nations what is written in the Torah, Hashem mentioned the later commandments (e.g., #6, #8, etc.). Whereas with bnei Yisroel, Hashem began with the first commandment, "Anochi Hashem Elokecha." Why didn't Hashem highlight the earlier commandments when responding to the query of the other nations? Maybe highlighting the positive might have elicited a different reaction?

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Hearing Hashem's Kol Throughout the Year (and What We Can Learn from the Story of Guma Aguiar)

The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva, 3:4) explains the message of the shofar as follows: "Awake, sleepers, from your sleep, amd slumberers from your slumber. Search your deeds, and repent, and remember your Maker...look to your souls and improve your ways and your faults..."

There is a custom to sound the shofar at the conclusion of the Neilah service on Yom Kippur. What is the meaning of this practice? Hasn't our judgment already been sealed at that point? What value, then, does an additional shofar blast add?

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Comparing Torah to Rain

Parshas Ha'azinu employs extensive allegory to describe the future relationship between Hashem and the Jewish people, both the good and the bad. Translating the imagery into practical insights is no small task. Allow me to share one sweet thought I read regarding the pasuk (32:2): "Ya'arof ke'matar likchi, tizal katal imrati - Let my instruction flow like rainfall; let my sayings drip like dew" - essentially comparing the Torah to rain and dew.

What's the meaning of this particular comparison?

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Understanding Man's Free Will: A Chess Analogy

In parshas Netzavim (30:15), the Torah states that Hashem set forth choices before the Jewish people, "et ha'chayim v'et ha'tov; v'et hamavet v'et hara - "life and good; and death and evil." Thereafter, in 30:19, the Jewish people are commanded, "u'bacharta ba'chayim - choose life." Rashi comments that Hashem is instructing what is good, and advising the Jewish people to choose it much as a father might tell his son to choose the finest portions of his estate and then points out which those fine parts are.

These verses reflect the concept of "free will" - that is, the Torah is a guide to what is good and what is wrong, but it is up to man to choose the good, and reject the evil.

There is an interesting discussion in gemara Sotah (2a), that elaborates on the concept of free will. The gemara states that a man is paired with a wife based on his deeds. Rashi explains that a righteous man is paired with a righteous woman; while a wicked man is paired with a wicked woman. The gemara then questions this statement as it is written elsewhere that forty days before the formation of a male embryo (see Tosafos), a heavenly voice proclaims, that the daughter of so-and-so shall be married to this male.

As Rashi explains the question: How can the gemara state that shidduchim are based on an individual's merits when another source states that a man's shidduch is determined even before it is known whether he will be good or evil (i.e., at conception). Rashi suggests that perhaps one can answer that Hashem knows the future, and therefore knows in advance that such-and-such person will be good or evil.  Thus, there is no contradiction. But Rashi then dismisses that argument with another dictum holding "hakol bi'yedei shamayim chutz mi'yirat shamayim - everything is in the Hands of Heaven, except fear of Heaven." In other words, notwithstanding that Hashem is All Knowing, it is man who chooses to be good or evil - i.e., man has free will.

As proof of Man's free will, Rashi cites a gemara in Niddah that the angel responsible for conception asks Hashem concerning each embryo whether the future child will be strong or weak; wise or dumb; rich or poor - that is, the angel asks Hashem to declare the circumstances of the man's life. But, as Rashi notes, the angel does NOT ask whether the man will be righteous or wicked - since that is Man's choice - to take the circumstances decreed for him and choose the path of good or the path of evil.

Thus, the gemara's question remains valid: how can one source state that shidduchim are based on merit while another source states shidduchim are determined before a man's merits are known (the gemara responds that one source refers to a first marriage, while the second source refers to a remarriage).

Rashi's statements thus raise a conundrum. On the one hand, if Hashem knows the future, then it seems man's actions are preordained. Yet, at the same time, Rashi states emphatically that man has free will to choose between good and evil, and only the circumstances of his life, not his moral actions, are preordained.

Is there a solution to this riddle?

Continue reading "Understanding Man's Free Will: A Chess Analogy" »

Atem-Emet: The Endurance of the Jewish People as Proof for G-d's Existence

Rashi on the very first pasuk in Nitzavim (29:9) writes that the intent of Moshe's statement "Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Hashem Elokeichem - You are standing here today, all of you, before Hashem, Your G-d" - was to reassure Bnei Yisroel. After hearing the curses of last week's parsha, Bnei Yisroel turned white and feared for their survival - "how is it possible for us to withstand such curses?" To which Moshe responded "Atem nitzavim" - you are still standing. That is, you committed sins that angered Hashem, and yet He did not destroy you. Therefore, your standing here before Hashem today should reassure you that you will withstand the curses, and survive.

In a dvar Torah I heard from Rabbi Yehuda Tucker (who heard it in a broadcast shiur given by Rabbi Yissochar Frand), it was brought down in the name of the Chatam Sofer that the word "Atem" (Alef Tof Mem) - the Hebrew plural "you" - appears as the first word in a pasuk only 4 times in the entire Tanach (grab a concordance to prove this to yourself). Interesting trivia? Hardly. As we shall see, the context of those 4 pasukim is extremely intriguing, and ultimately alludes to one of the fundamental proofs for G-d's existence.

Continue reading "Atem-Emet: The Endurance of the Jewish People as Proof for G-d's Existence" »

Torah Behavior Inside and Outside the House

In last week's parsha Ki Savo, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch comments on the pasuk (28:6): baruch ata b'voecha, u'baruch ata b'tzetecha - Blessed thou shalt be when you come, and blessed thou shalt be when you depart. Rav Hirsch explains: "you are blessed in your home life and in your public life."

IMHO, we can expand on Rav Hirsch's terse comment with an idea I heard in a shiur available on the YU Torah website given by Rabbi Shalom Rosner (formerly of the Island shul in Cedarhurst, and now of Beit Shemesh), and Rav Hirsch's own explanation of the meaning of the term "baruch" earlier in sefer Devarim.

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Appreciating Torah Scholarship

I always wonder whether people fully appreciate the extraordinary depth of Torah scholarship of leading rishonim and acharonim (up until our own time) in terms of having literally the entire breadth and scope of Torah literature - tanach, mishna, gemara, etc. - at their fingertips, with an ability to call upon this knowledge in addressing any sugya or shailah. IMHO, such realization is necessary to imbue the rest of us with a sense of humility whenever we learn Torah.

An insight into the mitzvah of bikkurim (first fruits) discussed in this week's parsha - Ki Savo - brought down in the sefer Parperaot Latora (by Menachem Baker) - provides a glimpse of the Torah brilliance of the Vilna Gaon.

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A Connection Between Yibum and Purim?

This post examines a pasuk from last week's parsha, Ki Taytzei, and welcomes input from readers since I haven't found any commentaries discussing the question raised.

The pasuk concerns the procedure of chalitza, which is implemented when the brother of a deceased man who had no children chooses not to marry the man's widow through yibum (levirite marriage). The pasuk (Devarim 25:9) states:

V'nigsha yevamto elav l'aynei hazekeinim v'chaltza na'alo may'al raglo v'yarka b'fanav; v'anta v'amra ka'cha ya'aseh l'ish asher lo ivneh et beit achiv.

And she proceeds towards her yavam [i.e., her brother-in-law] before the elders and removes his shoe from his foot and spits in his face; and declares, "This shall be done to the man that will not build his brother's house."

I would like to focus on the phrase "ka'cha ya'aseh l'ish" - "this is what shall be done to the man" - now where else do we see that phrase?

Answer: see Megilas Esther (6:5-11) where Achasverosh asks Haman what reward shall be given to a man whom the king wishes to honor. Arrogantly thinking Achasverosh must be referring to him, Haman suggests dressing such a man in royal garments and having him led through the streets on horseback declaring, "kacha ya'aseh l'ish asher hamelech chafetz bikaro." (6:9) Yes, the phrase "kacha ya'aseh l'ish appears in Megilas Esther (and appears again in 6:11 after Achasverosh reveals that Mordechai is the man he wishes to honor, and Haman actually implements for Mordechai all that he recommended - including calling out: "ka'ach ya'aseh l'ish" as he leads Mordechai through the streets).

For the same phrase ka'cha ya'aseh l'ish to appear in both Devarim in connection with the discussion of chalitza and the humiliation of the yavam, and in Megilas Esther in connection with the humiliation of Haman, is surely no coincidence. Instructive connections between seemingly unconnected portions of Tanach have been built on slimmer reeds than that. Yet, after looking at various sources that tend to delve into ta'ami hamitzvos (e.g., Rav Hirsch, Ramban, and Sefer Hachinuch), I could not find any discussion of the significance of the repetition of the phrase ka'acha ya'aseh l'ish in Devarim and Megilas Esther.

Maybe someone has seen a commentary discussing this? For now, let me share some possible thoughts.

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