In this week’s parasha, we learn about the mitzvah of Shema, which we are commanded to read every night and every day: "ודברת בם...בשכבך ובקומך"
What lessons do we learn from the Shema? It teaches us three basic ideas: that faith is a mitzvah, the importance of faith in our lives, and ways that we can reinforce that faith throughout our lives. Let’s analyze these points in the Shema:
"These things that I command you this day shall be upon your heart." What does this mean? The Sifre (Chapter 33) explains, “This verse enjoins upon us to love God; but how shall I love the Omnipresent? The section therefore continues, 'These things that I command you this day shall be upon your heart’ to suggest that by learning Torah and fulfilling its commands, one comes to recognize the One Who by His word brought the Universe into being.”
The Shema’s injunctions to teach Torah, to learn Torah, to don tefillin and put up mezuzot provides a short list of man's most material concerns and most time-consuming pursuits. We spend countless hours with our children, with our thoughts, with caring for ourselves and for our homes. Constantly infuse those things with an awareness of God--unceasingly impress them with a sensitivity to His presence, and never let the life experiences that they encompass be devoid of His teaching--and then the Ineffable will no longer seem so unapproachable, and the Absolute will suddenly be near.
May we all have the pleasure of feeling that God is in everything we do!
Lian Shalom, Judaic Studies faculty,
Atlanta Jewish Academy Lower School
Parashat Devarim opens Sefer Devarim, which is also called "Mishne Torah" because it describes the significant events from the previous books. One of the primary and most important incidents opening Sefer Devarim is Chet HaMeraglim, the story of the sin of the spies. There is a lot of commentary about this case, but in my opinion, one of the most essential lessons to be learned from this story is the importance of feeling gratitude for what Hashem does for us.
After all the miracles that Am Yisrael, the Nation of Israel, experiences through the desert, during Yetziat Mitzrayim, and after Matan Torah, here come the spies to say that we will not be able to enter Israel because it's scary and we have enemies there. What a lack of gratitude towards Hashem! And we can see that the punishment for this is a very severe one; all of that generation did not enter Israel.
It is said that Am Yisrael cried all night after that punishment was decreed, to which Hashem replied: You cried for nothing, so I declare that you will be weeping for generations. Therefore, it has been said in the Talmud: On Tisha B'Av, it was decreed that our ancestors would not enter Israel, and both Temples were destroyed. It is because of this that we fast on Tisha B'Av.
What we learn from this--the lesson the Torah comes to teach us--is that one of the most important and fundamental building blocks of the relationship between Am Yisrael, Hashem, and Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, is gratitude. The same is true of any relationship. We need to show gratitude to our friends, parents, teachers, etc.
Be'ezrat Hashem, with Hashem's help, we are beginning a new, interesting, and challenging period of building, and all its success depends on the cooperation between us. We will be able to achieve that desired relationship with gratitude, so we would like to start with that and say thank you for the opportunity that has been given to us to come to this school and the Atlanta community.
I'm certain that together, we will be sure to succeed!
Michal Hoch, Judaic Studies faculty,
Atlanta Jewish Academy Lower School
Parashat Pinchas tells us a special and extraordinary story. The parasha opens with an accounting of the people of each shevet (tribe) in the desert. The next chapter, however, brings us the story of b'not Tzelophchad, the daughters of Tzelophchad of Shevet Menashe.
In the parasha, the orphan daughters of Tzelophchad ask to keep the land that was to be allotted to their father. The five daughters do not demand the inheritance; instead, they come to Moshe with a request. Their father died in the desert, so is it right that his portion should be lost?
Why does the Torah bring us such a specific, detailed digression in this parasha? What is the connection between counting all the Jewish people in the desert and this narrow, particular request?
The answer is that the request of these five sisters wasn't narrow or particular at all; it is relevant to all girls and women, in more than one way.
The first lesson to be learned from this is the importance of girls, and support for their desire to settle and do mitzvot in Israel, in the natural way. This desire of the women to live in Israel contrasts with the attitude of many of the Hebrew men, who asked more than once during their travels to go back to Egypt, or stated their preference to just stay in the desert and live on the daily miracles they experienced there. The Hebrew women, on the other hand, wanted to enter the Promised Land and settle there.
A second important lesson to learn from this short story is that the daughters had the courage to stand up for their rights. They argued their case and convinced others that their way was correct. The reward for their courage was the privilege of entering the Land of Israel.
Another issue that comes up in the story are the halachot, the rules of inheritance. The fact that the daughters were legitimate heirs able to inherit property from their father was innovative for that time.
Adding it all up, we can see that the short story of b'not Tzelophchad was a powerful influence on the future of all of the Children of Israel. We should keep this story in mind as an example of the courage and the power found in the women of our nation.
Tamar Lerer, Judaic Studies faculty
Atlanta Jewish Academy Lower School
I was always puzzled by the fact that the Torah goes to such lengths to tell us the names of all the places that the Israelites went through. We get it; they needed a route to travel in order to kill some forty years in the desert, yes? Why are the details so important?
I believe the following very sweet story can shed some light on this question.
I really love this story, because it is actually not new to Judaism at all; it is found as a subplot in one of the famous stories of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav (I'll save the full version for some other time, perhaps).
A merchant sent his son to learn the Secret of Happiness from the wisest of men. The young man wandered through the desert for forty days until he reached a beautiful castle at the top of a mountain.
There lived the sage that the young man was looking for.
However, instead of finding a holy man, our hero entered a room and saw a great deal of activity; merchants coming and going, people chatting in the corners, a small orchestra playing sweet melodies, and there was a table laden with the most delectable dishes of that part of the world.
The wise man talked to everybody, and the young man had to wait for two hours until it was time for his audience.
With considerable patience, he listened attentively to the reason for the boy's visit, but told him that at that moment he did not have the time to explain to him the Secret of Happiness.
He suggested that the young man take a stroll around his palace and come back in two hours' time.
"However, I want to ask you a favor," he added, handing the boy a teaspoon, in which he poured two drops of oil. "While you walk, carry this spoon and don't let the oil spill."
The young man began to climb up and down the palace staircases, always keeping his eyes fixed on the spoon. At the end of two hours he returned to the presence of the wise man.
"So," asked the sage, "did you see the Persian tapestries hanging in my dining room? Did you see the garden that the Master of Gardeners took ten years to create? Did you notice the beautiful parchments in my library?"
Embarrassed, the young man confessed that he had seen nothing. His only concern was not to spill the drops of oil that the wise man had entrusted to him.
"So, go back and see the wonders of my world," said the wise man. "You can't trust a man if you don't know his house."
Now more at ease, the young man took the spoon and strolled again through the palace, this time paying attention to all the works of art that hung from the ceiling and walls. He saw the gardens, the mountains all around the palace, the delicacy of the flowers, the taste with which each work of art was placed in its niche.
Returning to the sage, he reported in detail all that he had seen.
"But where are the two drops of oil that I entrusted to you?" asked the sage.
Looking down at the spoon, the young man realized that he had spilled the oil.
"Well, that is the only advice I have to give you," said the sage of sages. "The Secret of Happiness lies in looking at all the wonders of the world and never forgetting the two drops of oil in the spoon."
The Israelites, B'nei Israel, are traveling through all kinds of places, but these places get their names from the actions and impact of B'nei Israel. What they are doing is teaching is that the beauty and uniqueness of every place (in Hashem's palace) is pointed out when we give it that uniqueness. A place may be called "Sukkot," (Booths), and forever teach mankind about the true perspective on things; or it can be called "Kivrot Hata'ava," (the Graves of Desire), and forever teach the same lesson in a different tune.
B'nei Israel are learning--throughout their time in the desert and on their unique travels--to observe and behold all the beauty of this world, without losing their two drops, their Jewish soul, their neshama.
Rabbi Elad Asulin, Judaic Studies faculty,
Atlanta Jewish Academy
Story translated from Portuguese by James Mulholland, originally by Paulo Coelho.
I think if Bil'am was alive today, he would probably be a famous rock star, or at least an American Idol winner. This guy is totally living in the moment and living it up!
Why do I feel this way?
First, let's try to understand who Bil'am is. Balak, the king, compliments Bil'am by repeating the known fact that any blessing that comes out of Bil'am's mouth is destined to be fulfilled. Not only that, the Torah confirms that it was not inevitable that he would fail in his attempt to curse Am Yisrael, the people of Israel; after all, Hashem speaks to him directly! As far as we knew, this was a privilege limited to spiritual personalities like Avraham Avinu or Moshe Rabeinu. Also, Bil'am is so independent that he can refuse a king's order to join him. So it looks like we have a very powerful guy here!
Eventually, Bil'am goes with Balak's advisors and sets up a whole extravaganza for his cursing of Am Yisrael, makes three attempts to do so, and then can't go through with it. Instead, he blesses Am Yisrael!
At the end, we learn that Bil'am really wanted to curse them, but couldn't. One might ask, "Okay, fine; so you can't see anything bad in Am Israel. But can't you just lie for once and get it done?!?" The answer is no!
Even though Bil'am was one of the "bad guys," that doesn't mean he didn't know the value of truth and inspiration. He might have cursed others in the past (a "bad guy" behavior), but he only did it when it was based on truth. Bil'am understands that in order to force hidden potential for good or bad into the open, you have to have two things: truth and inspiration. That is why Balak tried to change the location for Bil'am, but Bil'am could only act as he was inspired to from Above.
Last week I attended a concert by a famous singer in Israel, Ehud Banai; and he performed a song called "Blues Kena'ani," written in memory of another Israeli singer, Meir Ariel. Before singing the song, he told the following story: he visited another famous Israeli singer and told him that he is jealous of American blues artists, because they have such a vast land in which to travel, find inspiration, and write songs. But in Israel, we have only enough land to drive maybe drive 4 hours in each direction. So the other singer told him that he has something far more inspirational here in Israel. True, America is huge, but it's only about two hundred and forty years old. In Israel, we have a land that is small, but saturated with the history of the Jewish people, going back over three thousand years. Now that's inspirational!
Inspiration is the closest thing to prophecy (nevu'ah) that we have today. When parents name their kids, they receive a spark of prophecy that inspires them to choose the right name for each child.
We are inspired every day, by so many things that we see, hear, and do. During the summer, we have more "free" time, which gives us more control over what we want to be inspired by. The trick is to choose truthfully and wisely; so go out there and get inspired!
Have a great summer!
Yifat Asulin, Judaic Studies faculty
Atlanta Jewish Academy Lower School