September 9, 2016
6 Elul 5776
In this week’s parasha, Shoftim, Bnei Yisrael are given many laws related to courts and judges. The judges who are chosen are told to be fair. We are instructed to pursue justice. This parasha is about doing the right thing.
Towards the end of the parasha, we read the following pasuk:
כִּֽי־תָצ֣וּר אֶל־עִיר֩ יָמִ֨ים רַבִּ֜ים לְהִלָּחֵ֧ם עָלֶ֣יהָ לְתָפְשָׂ֗הּ לֹֽא־תַשְׁחִ֤ית אֶת־עֵצָהּ֙ לִנְדֹּ֤חַ עָלָיו֙ גַּרְזֶ֔ן כִּ֚י מִמֶּ֣נּוּ תֹאכֵ֔ל וְאֹת֖וֹ לֹ֣א תִכְרֹ֑ת כִּ֤י הָֽאָדָם֙ עֵ֣ץ הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה לָבֹ֥א מִפָּנֶ֖יךָ בַּמָּצֽוֹר:
When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Is the tree of the field a man, to go into the siege before you? (Devarim 20:19)
This pasuk talks about how if you go to war, you shouldn’t cut down any of your enemy’s fruit trees. The war is not with the trees. The fruit can be helpful. If you cut down the fruit trees, there would be less food. If you waste all of the trees and the fruit, you won’t have any for a long time. Trees take a long time to grow and to grow fruit. Cutting down the fruit trees would be wasteful. Cutting down the fruit trees, even during a war, would not be the right thing to do.
This relates to life today because we should not waste anything that could be useful.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, (1808–1888, Germany) explains in very strong language that “lo tashchit,” “do not destroy,” is a warning to human beings not to misuse the world that G-d has given us.
This pasuk teaches us not to waste anything. Even things that you don’t need now, but might need in the future. Taking care of the Earth is doing the right thing.
September 2, 2016
29 Av 5776
One of the most famous mitzvot is that of eating Kosher. Most people, Everyone knows that there are foods that Jews are supposed to stay away from. Pork and Shellfish, among other things, are out. Gefilte Fish and Matzah Balls are in.
The laws of Kosher originate from the Torah and more specifically from my Parsha, which is read this Shabbat at Synagogues around the world.
Here is some of what G-d tells us in the Parsha about which animals we are allowed to eat:
וְכָל בְּהֵמָה מַפְרֶסֶת פַּרְסָה וְשֹׁסַעַת שֶׁסַע שְׁתֵּי פְרָסוֹת מַעֲלַת גֵּרָה בַּבְּהֵמָה אֹתָהּ תֹּאכֵלוּ
And every animal that has a split hoof and has a hoof cloven into two hoof sections, [and] chews the cud among the animals that you may eat.
The Torah tells us that for an animal to be Kosher it needs to have two signs:
1) It must have split hoofs (split feet)
2) After it eats something it must bring its food back up and chew it again a few more times before swallowing it.
Only animals that have both of these signs (like a cow, sheep and goat) are allowed to be eaten.
Why would G-d care if an animal has those two signs? What does having split feet or rechewing food have anything to do with making an animal okay to be eaten? And what lesson can I learn from this?
Food is the most important staple of life. It provides us with nourishment and sustenance, and without it we can’t live. That is why food is always on our mind. We constantly think about our next meal and we get excited when going to a restaurant or party. Just like in physical health, what we eat has an effect on us, so too our spiritual life is affected by what we eat.
G-d gave us the Kosher laws so that every time we eat, which is often, we should remember Him and the lessons He wants to teach us from the foods we are eating.
The first sign of a Kosher animal is the split feet. What is the lesson from this metaphor?
There are many times in life when we need to make choices about which direction to head in. Sometimes we feel like we reach a fork in the road and cannot decide which way to go. The first lesson is that just like in the split hoof, symbolizing the split road, there can be more than one way which is correct. A kosher animal has a split foot with each side facing another direction, so too in life, a Kosher and proper life sometimes have more than one path which is the correct path.
At the same time, another lesson we can learn is that when it comes to making choices we need to always have a clear understanding of each option and its consequences. Just like in the split hoof each side is clearly defined.
The idea of knowing how to make choices and decisions is something which is important to remember every day because it isn’t always easy. Even though I am still young, I know how hard this can be. There were times when I needed to choose which school to go to, or make other important decisions and I realized how hard it can be at times to make big decisions. The Kosher laws gives us a daily reminder of how to make tough choices. Look at every option and understand that 1) there could be more than one way 2) know the consequences of your choices 3) sometimes you can’t remain in the middle and must take a stand.
Now let's talk about the other Kosher sign, the fact that the animal needs to chew over its food. What can we possibly learn from that?
There is a saying that people use sometimes when they are unsure of what to do, they say “Let me chew it over”.
What does that mean to 'chew’ something over? It means to think about it a few more times before deciding how to answer or how to proceed. And I think this is the lesson that G-d wanted us to learn by giving us this sign.
Just like for an animal to be a Kosher one it needs to chew over its food, so too in life, in order to know if our decisions and actions are the Kosher ones (proper ones), we need to first chew things over. We need to think things over a few times before we speak or act.
Imagine how much better our life would be if we thought things over a few times before we acted? We would say nicer things, and act in better and smarter ways.
Once I realized the important messages and lessons that we can learn from what, at first, seemed to be strange Kosher laws - I was excited because it made the metaphor come to life in a way that was so real and practical.
But then the Rabbi asked me; if G-d had these important life lessons for us, why didn’t he just tell us the lessons outright? Why did He teach it to us only through a metaphor?
And then I realized another brilliant Torah idea. If we would be just taught the lesson directly we might forget it after a while. But when it is told to us in a metaphor and then we have to figure out the metaphor, we remember the lesson a lot longer.
August 18, 2016
14 Av 5776
In Parshat Va’etchanan, Rashi explains that Moshe asked Hashem for just one simple thing: to see the land of Israel. We know that Moshe really wanted to enter the land of Israel, but why? It seems that the answer is that B’nei Yisrael were commanded to perform many mitzvot, some of which only apply in the land of Israel. Moshe longed to enter the land because he wanted to be able to fulfill all the mitzvot. However, if that is the case, what benefit could Moshe have gotten by just looking at the land?
Tractate Brachot teaches us that tefillah (prayer) may be considered greater than good deeds. The Gemara came to this conclusion by analyzing this request of Moshe. How so? The Gemara explains that Moshe was the greatest ever in ma’asim tovim (good deeds), but still, the reason Hashem accepted his request was in the merit of his prayer, not his good deeds. As it is said explicitly,
עלה ראש הפסגה אל תוסף דבר אלי
“Climb to the mountaintop and speak to me no more.”
How did we learn that Moshe’s request was granted in the merit of his prayer? After all, he never did get to enter the land. The answer to that lies in the prior pasuk,
ויאמר ה' אל משה רב לך
“And Hashem said, 'It’s enough for you.’”
The phrase רב לך, which is not commonly used in the Torah, is key to understanding Hashem’s response. These two simple words actually guarantee that Moshe Rabeinu received the same s’char, reward for his actions, as if he had fulfilled all 613 mitzvot in full. In addition, the Gemara (Tractate Shabbat) explains that if one had pure intentions to fulfill a mitzvah, but was not able to do so due to reasons beyond his control, it is considered as if he or she had performed the mitzvah in full.
How is it possible for someone to receive a complete reward for only intending to do something? Would we pay a contractor in full for intending to build our house, but failing to complete it due to a family wedding? Moreover, we know that when one performs a mitzvah with no intention of actually doing it, the reward is still granted, as in the case of an unexpected guest dining in your sukkah!
It appears that the real meaning of “fulfilling a mitzvah in full” is to have both the pure intention of doing the mitzvah all along, as well as the physical performance. Moshe Rabeinu’s greatness is that he wanted to fulfill the mitzvot in full, and not only in intent, even though the reward was the same. This is why Hashem tells him to go to the mountaintop and view the land. Hashem gave him the special ability, at that moment, to actually see the entire land of Israel full of mitzvot, as if he was the one performing them in full. His ultimate reward was to fulfill all the mitzvot in full, even though he never physically entered the land.
As we reflect on the end of the annual mourning period for the destruction of our Temple, we pray to soon see the Mikdash rebuilt in the land of Israel--a Mikdash built with ahavat chinam (love of Israel)--and the time that we may fulfill the mitzvot in full.
August 25, 2016
21 Av 5776
What is better abundance and wealth or poverty and destitution? On one hand, if we have everything, we don't need help from anyone not even Hashem. Heaven forbid we forget Him and forget where we everything we have came from. On the other hand, when we have nothing we rely only on Hashem to help us.
Until Bnai Yisrael entered Eretz Yisrael they were not an independent people. In Egypt they were enslaved to Pharaoh and reliant on his kindness. The exodus from Egypt changed the Jewish people from a nation of slaves to a free people. Micah: Hashem caused this change by punishing the Egyptians with the ten plagues, taking us out of slavery and into freedom.
But even with the newfound freedom, the Bnai Yisrael was not an independent nation, the difficulties and challenges in the desert caused them to become reliant on G-d for their basic needs. They were led through miracles, He provided water in a barren desert, he fed them with manna from heaven, and he led them on their journey with a pillar of cloud by day, and a journey of fire by night.
In such a situation of complete dependence, there was no worry of forgetting about Hashem. However, when the Jewish nation was entering Eretz Yisrael, the leadership changed from a miraculous one to a more natural leadership style, where they were reliant on their own work. They would have to work the field for food, dig wells for water and fight in battle to protect themselves. They were in danger of believing that they were in complete control and no longer needed to rely on G-d for help, support and protection. Therefore, the Torah warns us:
פֶּן-תִּשְׁכַּח ...וְאָמַרְתָּ, בִּלְבָבֶךָ: כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי, עָשָׂה לִי אֶת-הַחַיִל הַזֶּה.
“Beware that you do not forget …. and you will say to yourself, "My strength and the might of my hand that has accumulated this wealth for me." (Devarim 8:17)
Today as well, after two thousand years, we have returned to our land and with Hashem’s help have built a thriving country with a strong army. We must not think and believe that it is only due to our strength but rather it is through Hashem’s help, strength and kindness that we have achieved these successes.
In our personal lives as well, as parents, teachers, and children and as a Jewish people we must remember that our success is led by Hashem’s help. Micah: It is like a person who is successful because something comes easy to him vs. someone who has a difficult time. The person who seeks the help from another understands that his achievements come because he was willing to ask for help, and because someone else supported and helped him. That person is just like us. We need to recognize and give thanks to Hashem for supporting and strengthening us each day.
Every year, we start reading Sefer Devarim during the week of Tisha B’Av. What connection is there between the beginning of the fifth book of the Torah and the mourning of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem?
In Parshat Devarim, we see the phrase אֵיכָה אֶשָּׂא when Moshe asks, “How can I carry the burden [alone]?” (1:12). The word אֵיכָה gives us an immediate tie between Devarim and Tisha B’Av as we read Megillat Eicha, Lamentations, on Tisha B’Av. But it is not the word itself that provides the connection; it is the meaning behind it.
In the parasha, Moshe speaks to the Israelites and says to them, אֵיכָה אֶשָּׂא, לְבַדִּי, טָרְחֲכֶם וּמַשַּׂאֲכֶם, וְרִיבְכֶם, “How can I bear your trouble, your burden, and your strife all by myself?” The nation has grown, Moshe decides. I cannot judge on my own, there is too much.
Sefer Shemot, Parshat Shoftim is where we learn that the justice system for B’nei Yisrael was established. The goal of this system of justice was not administrative. The goal was just judgments, with a judge favoring neither side. Right there in front of B’nei Yisrael, Moshe listed the necessary qualities of truth and honesty that acting as such a judge requires.
And that is the connection between Parshat Devarim and Tisha B’Av. What was missing in the time of חורבן הבית, the destruction of the Temple? By the last days of the second Temple, בית המקדש השני, there were no more truthful, honorable judges. There was only a nation divided, incapable of seeing each other as אחים, brothers, unable to understand that underneath their disagreements, they still shared something greater. By the end of בית המקדש השני, it is said, there was שנאת חינם.
What does that mean? It is usually translated as “baseless hatred,” but literally, the word חינם means “free.” The שנאה, the hatred, is clear; but why add the word “free”?
One suggestion is that there was a better and harder path the Jewish people could have chosen, but it was easier (free) to hate each other and not try to resolve their arguments. Another is that the justice system was free of truth and honesty, which again leads to hatred.
How can we repair the damage of שנאת חינם? Only with the tikun of אהבת חינם, baseless love. We must encourage justice to flourish; we must listen to one another as individuals and as a society. We must all hope that the ahavat achim, the brotherly love we try to spread, will catch on and expand, so we may see our tikun contributing to the building of the Third Temple, בית המקדש השלישי.
This beautiful idea originated with R. A. Gliksberg, Yerushalaim.
Tamar Lerer, Judaic Studies
Atlanta Jewish Academy