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Shoftim

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.

Re'eh

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.

Eikev

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.

 

Vaeschanon

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.

Devarim

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".

Mattos-Massei

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.

Pinchas

Thursday, 5th July 2018

Rashi explains that while the face of Moshe (Moses) was comparable to the sun, the face of Yehoshua (Joshua) wasn’t quite as great and was similar only to the moon. On this, the Gemora (Talmud) in Bava Basra (75a) adds that upon recognizing this, the elders of the generation remarked “woe to us for this humiliation”. It is difficult to understand why they only felt shamed upon noting this distinction, and why specifically Yehoshua made them feel this way and not the even greater Moshe. 

Rabbi Itzele Volozhiner and the Chofetz Chaim compare this to a case of a rich businessman who arrives one day in a small rural village, asking if anybody would be interested in becoming his partner in a new project. The businessman offered to put up all of the necessary funds and expertise, but merely desired a hard worker to assist him with managing and running the business. Most of the residents were content with their simple lifestyles and were sceptical about the man’s promises of fame and fortune, so they passed on the offer. One simple, illiterate villager decided that he had nothing to lose, and agreed to become the man’s partner. A few years later, the pair returned to visit the village, arriving in an impressive carriage and dressed in a manner which clearly revealed the success of their project. At this sight, the villagers were mortified and ran to hide . 

They explained that they weren’t embarrassed by the wealthy entrepreneur, as they felt that his education and resources gave him advantages that they could only dream of. They were, however, quite shamed at the sight of the success and riches which had met their former neighbour, as they remembered all too well that they had been offered the same opportunity as he, but only he was wise enough to take advantage of it. The recognition of what they had had the ability to become and their failure to do so generated powerful feelings of humiliation. 

Similarly, the Jews in the wilderness never measured themselves against the levels reached by Moshe, as they viewed the pious family into which he was born and the elevated soul with which he was blessed (as he lit up the house with light upon his birth) as bestowing upon him opportunities for greatness that they could never fathom. On the other hand, Rabbi Yehuda Zev Segal, the Manchester Rosh Yeshiva (College Dean), notes that Yehoshua was neither the wisest nor the greatest of the generation. The Ramban (13:4) writes that the spies are listed in descending order of greatness, which means that Yehoshua was only 5th out of the 12 spies. The Baal HaTurim (13:3) writes that each of the spies was only a leader of 50 Jews, meaning that there were many greater Jews who led groups of 100 or even 1000. 

Rather, Rashi explains (27:16) that Yehoshua was chosen on the basis of his devoted service of Moshe throughout the 40 years in the desert. Upon recognizing this, the Jews became aware of the levels which could be reached when a person who had been just like them used his talents to their fullest. The Vilna Gaon writes that the most excruciatingly painful experience a person goes through after his death is when he is shown a picture of what he was capable of and destined to become had he maximized his potential, which will stand in stark contrast to what he actually accomplished, and it was this humiliation that the Jews experienced upon the inauguration of Yehoshua as Moshe’s successor.

Balak

Friday, 29th June 2018

A sword-bearing angel came to obstruct Bilam from going to curse the Jewish people. What was the identity of this angel?  Rashi (22;22) cites a commentary which says he was the angel of mercy and was coming to prevent Bilam from sinning. 
 
Says Rabbi Pam: If one were to imagine an ‘angel of mercy,’ one would probably picture an ethereal, white, florescent being with a halo hovering over them, whilst we would picture an ‘angel of death’ as dark, etc. with a sword.  Here, however, the angel of mercy appears with a sword. 
 
The message is that what might appear to be an angel of destruction may actually be the angel of mercy.  In other words, what one might ordinarily and initially brand as a disappointment, collapse, or failure, might really be HaShem (G-d) dealing with mercy in disguise.  This goes for a failed business venture, a shidduch (match) which broke off, or other disappointments in life too.  Perhaps the business would have failed later anyway and lost more money, or perhaps this couple was just not meant to be anyway and save more serious pain which would have occurred later on - the failings here were really HaShem protecting the person, we were the ones who failed to see it that way. They were undercover angels of mercy .

As a true story in illustrates, there is a small shul in the centre of New York City with a regular minyan (quorum) for shacharis (morning prayers). Now one morning a few years ago a highly unusual thing happened. There were only nine men there. So they waited a bit for a tenth man even though they had to get to work. 
 
After several minutes, an old Jew showed up. He insisted to lead the davening (prayers), the others agreed. However, he was taking such a long time the other nine were starting to show frustration; 'Who does he think he is? Does he not realise we have to be at work already?’ 
 
Suddenly they heard a massive explosion and an overwhelming crashing sound. They went towards the door to see what had happened. It was September 11, and the nearby World Trade Center Towers had been attacked. Some of the people at this minyan would have been inside the Twin Towers if shacharis had been on time and finished with normal speed. 
 
They felt the relief as they had realised their lives had been saved by this 'new chazzan - leader.'  As they turned around to thank him, they realised he had gone, and he has not been seen since. The point is that these people felt rather frustrated at the speed [or lack of it] of the chazzan, but they did not realise that it was HaShem’s means of ultimately saving their lives.

The truth is that it seems that everybody has their own individual story of Divine Providence in their own lives, and how something that they thought was destructive turned out to be constructive in the long term. It depends on one’s attitude and bitachon (trust).
 
Two Chassidishe (Chassidic) Rabbis were put in prison in Russia in the early part of the last century for false accusations. In this prison there was no toilet, just a bowl in the middle of the cell which all the inmates were to use to relieve themselves.

The time came for shacharis, and the Rabbis were extremely upset.  One may not daven (pray) in the proximity of excretion. One of the Rabbis turned to the other and made the following point: ‘when was the last time we were ever able to fulfil the halacha (Jewish law) of not davening when there is excretion around,’ he continued ‘we should not be sad, it is a merit that we can fulfil this halacha!’

The two Chassidishe Rabbis in a prison cell were found by the guard dancing joyfully and fervently around a bowl of excretion - a dance in celebration of fulfilling a halacha.  In fact, the prison guard was so perturbed and irate that there should be such joy and noise in the prison cell, that he went in and forcibly removed the bowl.  The Rabbis stopped dancing and davened shacharis - ‘now we can fulfil the mitzvah and halachos of shacharis too!’ was the excited call.

Rav Ya’akov Kamenetzky would tell this with his personal story; he was vying for a position in the Rabbinate in a town in eastern Europe during the 1930s, and the other candidate was chosen above him, and so a disappointed and despondent Rav Ya’akov made his way to America; to ultimately become a hugely successful leader of the immediate and wider /national community there. Unfortunately, the fate of the other ‘chosen’ Rabbi was that he was killed in the Holocaust together with his entire town. Rav Ya’akov would essentially point out that what he initially thought was a disappointment, turned out to be the malach shel rachamim.

What we initially think is a disappointment, can often turn out to be the malach shel rachamim (the Angel of Mercy).  This is not a deep, complex, or complicated message, but a very practical and effective one to try and internalise.

 

Chukas

Wednesday, 20th June 2018

This week’s Sedra (Torah portion), Chukas, contains the sin of the Mei Merivah (Waters of Strife). What exactly was Moshe's (Moses's) sin. This sin cost Moshe the privilege of entering Eretz Yisroel (Israel). According to many commentaries, the sin was that Moshe hit the rock rather than speaking to it.

There does not seem to be much difference between bringing forth water from a rock by hitting it, or by speaking to it. Why was it so important to speak to the rock? There must have been some specific lesson that the people were supposed to learn when Moshe spoke to the rock. What was that lesson?

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein suggests that the lesson is that sometimes we have to speak to people who seem unreceptive to what we have to say, and we feel that we are speaking, if not to a rock, then at least to a wall. Rabbis have been doing this from time immemorial. This goes back to the days of the prophets.

They speak, they speak, they speak and it is as if they are talking to a wall. Sometimes talking to children can also feel like talking to a wall. The intended message was that it is necessary to speak to others, even if it seems like you are speaking to a rock, not to hit them.

Korach

Thursday, 14th June 2018

Korach had 3 sons Assir, Elkana, and Aviassaf. These sons, however, were saved from the calamity. It is interesting to note that these sons are referred to as "the sons of Korach", namely in the Psalms. (Refer to Psalm 45, ect) 

A very curious question can be asked, we find in the Talmud Baba Mezia59b the following statement: " If there is a case of hanging in one's family record, say not to him, "hang this fish up for me". This might cause a person to be shamed because of its hurtful reference. So why do we refer to the sons of Korach as the "sons of Korach", isn't this derogatory and shameful to associate these righteous men with reference to their father's shameful rebellion?

In the Yalkut Shimoni 752, it states the following about the sons of Korach: " When Moshe came to visit Korach in order to somehow persuade him not to rebel, the sons of Korach found themselves in a dilemma , " If we stand up for Moshe in order to honour him, we will offend our father. If we remain seated, on the other hand, we transgress the Mitzvah of giving honour to a Torah Scholar. They decided to fulfil the Torah commandment , and arose in honour of Moshe even if their father would be angry."(end of quote)

This took great courage on their part. Its often not easy to go against the flow, yet the sons of Korach were unique in that they were seekers of truth. This is what saved them - an honest conviction to do what's right.

It is precisely for this reason they are known as the sons of Korach. They were surely influenced greatly by their father, and the very movement he started against Moshe and Aaron. Even so, they sought to do what was right in the face of tremendous adversity. By calling them the "sons of Korach", we are in actuality praising them for their courage . There were no other men who were so under the influence of their father than these 3 men, yet they found a way to do what was right. By calling them the 'sons of Korach", we emphasize this very fact.

Every person is being pulled by the "fads" of his time and location. yet somehow we need to still be able to retain a sense of free will to do what is right in the face of adversity. The sons of Korach should be examples to us all.

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