Vezos Habracha – Refocused Trust in Hashem

Moshe Rabbeinu blesses all of Israel in his very last moments before his passing, in the Torah portion of Vezos Habracha which is read on Simchas Torah. In his blessing he says, “There is none like G-D, O Yeshurun; He rides across heaven to help you… That is the abode of G-D Immemorial, and below are the world’s mighty ones; He drove away the enemy from before you… Fortunate are you, O Israel: Who is like you! O people delivered by Hashem The Shield of your help…” (Devarim 33:26-29).

The Ralbag learns from these pesukim that it is fitting to trust that the goals of Hashem will be fulfilled, for he possesses all the might and authority to do whatever He wants, and the heavens won’t stop ensuring whatever He wants gets done because He created them and made them, and everything comes out of what is influenced by them. Since this is true, it is befitting the Jews to trust in what Hashem has in store for them concerning inheritance of The Land and the wiping out of the nations that were settled upon it. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Why does Moshe feel the need to reiterate to the Jewish people that they should be confident about Hashem fulfilling His promises of giving them the land and conquering the enemies upon it? Hadn’t Hashem clearly proven Himself faithful up until then by taking care of them with such miracles as the manna, the water coming out of the rock, and the security system of the Clouds of Glory protecting them throughout their 40 years in the desert? They had also gone into battle against various enemies like the giant, Og, and many other, whom they had miraculously defeated each time. If so, then why must trust in Hashem be reiterated?

It would seem that with all the trust and faith in Hashem that the Jewish people had at the time, there was still more strengthening of trust that could be had. And it required refocusing on it on a constant basis, especially when they were about to enter a whole new different situation, new rules, new settings, no more food from heaven, water coming out of rocks, and Clouds of Glory protecting them. They would now be on the offensive and then on the defensive, conquering the land Hashem had promised them. So although they were firm in their bitachon [trust in Hashem], another dose of restatement and inspiration could only make their trust stronger.

We live in a time of unknowns and confusion never experienced before. If the Jewish people upon entering the Land of Israel needed chizuk in their trust in Hashem, all the more so should we be constantly be reviewing and reiterating in ourselves that Hashem has a master plan and in the end we’ll look back and see how it plays out and how all is good coming from Him.

Shabbos Shuva – Hashem’s Currency: Speech

The Shabbos in between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is called Shabbos Shuva because of the opening line of the haftorah, which states (Hoshea 14:2,3):

2: Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled in your iniquity. ב:שׁוּבָה יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל עַ֖ד יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ כִּ֥י כָשַׁ֖לְתָּ בַּֽעֲו‍ֹנֶֽךָ:
3:Take words with yourselves and return to the Lord. Say, “You shall forgive all iniquity and teach us [the] good [way],and let us render [for] bulls [the offering of] our lips. ג:קְח֚וּ עִמָּכֶם֙ דְּבָרִ֔ים וְשׁ֖וּבוּ אֶל־יְהֹוָ֑ה אִמְר֣וּ אֵלָ֗יו כָּל־תִּשָּׂ֚א עָו‍ֹן֙ וְקַח־ט֔וֹב וּנְשַׁלְּמָ֥ה פָרִ֖ים שְׂפָתֵֽינוּ:

The Radak says these pesukim refer to repentance, teshuva. Hashem is telling the
Jews, through the Prophet Hoshea, that they should return to Hashem “because you have stumbled in your sin. For you have seen that you have stumbled in your sin therefore it is befitting of you to return to Hashem the Blessed One, for nothing will get you up from your stumbling besides your repentance…” Then in the next pasuk it says “Take words with yourselves” which the Radak says means that Hashem is not asking them to repent through giving silver, gold or burnt offerings, rather with good words, that they admit their wrong doings and return to Hashem with all their heart, and not just lip service. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

It would seem from the Radak that Hashem doesn’t care for tzedakah or sacrifices; He desires our vidui, our verbal confession of sins, as well as a heartfelt commitment to distance oneself from the sin and regret it, in order to try never to do it again, which are the 3 main components of teshuva.

Yet we say in the Yomim Noraim tefilos, High Holiday prayers, “But repentance, prayer, and charity remove the evil of the decree!” This seems to indicate that tzedakah, charity, is expected by Hashem to be given. Also, part of the atonement process in the times of the Beis HaMikdash was bringing sin- or guilt-offerings, etc. So what does it mean that Hashem is not asking for the silver, gold and burnt offerings of the Jewish people?

We must say that the main part of repentance is the verbal repentance and regret, plus commitment in our hearts to not commit the sin again. The tzedaka and sacrifices are mearly a means of atonement, which help us on a physical, worldly level to understand the severity of our sins.

Why is our speech and heartfelt commitment more valuable to Hashem then our sacrifice of wealth and property? It is because in truth it is more valuable. Human beings were created in “the image of Hashem,” and our “G-dly essence” is our soul. The Orchos Tzadikim in his last chapter mentions that “Animals, too, possess nefesh and ruach, for lust and anger are found in them as they are in men, but a human being possesses a neshama in addition, which speaks and which distinguishes between truth and falsity.” The Chofetz Chaim takes this concept a step further in his Shmiras HaLashon chapter 30, “And now we should speak about the power of speech, which Hashem naturally endowed within the soul of a person, which make him different than other living creatures. He gave us the power of speech so we can speak to the Holy One Blessed Be He and to delve into His Torah, which is the purpose of creation.”

We see from here that speech is a heavenly and spiritual gift from Hashem to mankind, which means it is infinitely valuable and priceless since it is divine. It is in fact more precious than all the physical silver, gold, and sacrifices that come from the physical world.

This should be a lesson to us in valuing what we say and how we say it. May we merit eloquent speech to come out of our mouths before Hashem this coming Yom Kippur.

Rosh Hashana – Venting: A Relief from Anger

The Orchos Tzadikim in the Gate of Anger unequivocally declare, “Anger is an evil trait. Just as scurvy (or in today’s age COVID-19) is a disease of the body, so anger is a disease of the soul… Anger blots out one’s concentration in prayer, and the Shechina (The Holy Presence) does not repose itself in the midst of anger. The angry person will not be very wise, for anger drives wisdom from one’s heart, so that he will not be able to answer correctly, and none of his words will be reasonable… Anger breeds arrogance in a person, and because of it he will not submit and will not acknowledge the truth… And one who is given to anger his life is no life (Pesachim 113b), and he is never happy. And since one is never happy, one does not accept what transpires with love and joy, one does not acknowledge the rightness of G-D’s justice with him and he cannot serve the Blessed One with joy. When a person is fasting or when he is beset by some affliction, he is more susceptible to anger. Therefore, he must be especially careful at such times nt to become angry.” 
Yet, the haftorah for the first day of Rosh Hashana which discusses the birth of Shmuel HaNavi is read because on Rosh Hashana, God remembered [for childbirth] Sarah, Rachel, and Chana. (Rosh Hashana 11a). Chaza”l say that Peninah, Chana’s cowife, tzara,, taunted her by saying such things as, “Have you bought something new for your baby?” She meant to provoke Chana to pray but was punished for doing so in a cruel manner. And the Pesukim relate, “And her rival would frequently anger her, in order to make her complain, for  Hashem had shut  her womb. And so he [Elkanah] would do year by year, as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, so she would anger her, and she wept and would not eat… And Chana arose after eating and after drinking, and Eli the priest was sitting on the chair beside the doorpost of the Temple of the Hashem. And she was bitter in spirit, and she prayed to the Hashem, and wept. And she vowed a vow, and said: to Lord of Hosts, if You will look upon the affliction of Your bondswoman, and You will remember me, and You will not forget Your bondswoman and You will give Your bondswoman a man-child, and I shall give him to the Hashem all the days of his life, and no razor shall come upon his head. And it was, as she prayed long before the Hashem, that Eli watched her mouth. But Chana, she was speaking in her heart, only her lips were moving, and her voice was not heard, and Eli thought her to be a drunken woman. And Eli said to her: Until when will you be drunk? Throw off your wine from upon yourself. And Chana answered and said: No, my lord, I am a woman of sorrowful spirit, and neither new wine nor old wine have I drunk, and I poured out my soul before the Lord. Deliver not your bondswoman before the unscrupulous woman, for out of the abundance of my complaint and my vexation have I spoken until now. And Eli answered and said: Go in peace, and the God of Israel will grant your request which you have asked of Him. And she said: May your bondswoman find favor in your eyes; and the woman went on her way and ate, and her face was not (sad) anymore” (Shmuel Alef 1:6-18).

The Ralbag relates that Chana was [seemingly understandably] angry because her  Peninah angered her for she glorified herself with the fact that she had so many children and would degrade Chana for not having  any children. It got to the point that Hannah was truly depressed and would not eat or drink and she poured out her prayers with heartfelt tears opposite the Holy of Holies. Eli the Kohen Gadol saw her moving her lips, but no voice was heard and so Eli thought that she was drunk. He even reprimanded her on being a drunkard and Chana responded, ‘No my master, the matter is not like what you think, rather I am very much mean spirited from so much fasting and anger over my bad mazel… I do not speak like this out of drunkenness but because of a need to pray to Hashem and because of the anger that my tzara has angered me so I speak in this way to cause my will to reach Hashem and to quiet the noise of my heart from the anger, for the anger has quieted down a tiny bit through speaking and relating about it,’ just as Chazal say, “Worry in one’s heart, one should talk about it to others” and in this fashion she calmed down from her rage and depression. Eli prophetically told her that her prayers would be answered, and she went on her way satisfied that her prayers would  be answered and in fact they were. The rest is history. Shmuel HaNavi, one of the greatest prophets in Jewish History was born to her and her husband Elkanah. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
This episode seems to be in contradiction with Orchos Tzadikim which says , anger blots out one’s concentration in prayer, and the Shechina (The Holy Presence) does not repose itself in the midst of anger,” however Chana seemed to have had so much focus and intensity  in her prayers, while pouring out her tears towards the Heavenly Gate of Tears that her prayers were in fact answered. Yet she admitted that she was still in the throes of her anger which is why she looked like a drunkard while praying to Hashem. How could it be that her prayers were so focused with all that anger to the point that she was answered with such a tremendous gift as the merit to give birth to Shmuel HaNavi?

However, the Ralbag was in fact bothered by this issue and carefully acknowledged the problem. The Ralbag observed that when she first began to pray to Hashem she made an oath that if she would have a son he would be dedicated holy to Hashem, as a Nazirite for his entire life. That was her way of venting, of speaking out her troubles, and in this way she was able to take control of her anger instead of her anger and depression controlling her, and she was even able to use that anger to direct all her kavana, authentic intent, into beseeching Hashem  to finally grant her a child; which He did.

There is an incredible lesson here in anger management, that it’s very healthy to vent and speak out to someone what is troubling you as apposed to holding in the anger and letting it take over your life. However on a much deeper level we also see the immense power we have over our emotions, for the emotion of anger, as we saw in the Orchos Tzadikim can completely control a person and utterly ruin his or her life but even with one small piece of speech one can change the tides and take control of his or her emotions to the point that they don’t just dissipate but they can be used for your own good.

Chaza”l say that the manner in which Chana prayed is the source of the silent devotion, the Amidah, that we say quietly to Hashem every day, multiple times a day, as well as many other Jewish laws that apply to prayer, (see Berachos 31a). We are coming upon the season of prayer with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are we prepared to focus all our energy into our prayers and take control of any anger and frustration (if any) built up over the year? Chana, even in her throes of anger made such an impact on history by just taking control of the situation; may she be an inspiration for our prayers this coming year.

May we all have a happy, healthy, and prosperous new year!

Netzavim/Vayelech – Eternal Unity

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The Beginning of this week’s double portion of Netzavim and Vayelech begins by stating, “You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel,” (Devarim 27:9).

At the end of the first paragraph of the Medrish Tanchuma on this Torah portion, the medrish gives another interpretation of the first few words of the portion, “You are standing this day.”  Just as the day sometimes is bright and sometimes dark, so too you, when it is dark for you, in the future you will have an eternal light, as it and the children of Judah together; etc.” (Yirmiyahu 50:4). When they are all says, “and Hashem will be for you an eternal light” (Yeshayahu 60:19). When will this be? When all of you will be a singular society, as it says, “are alive, all of you, this day” (Devarim 4:4). It is the way of the world that when a person picks up a bundle of reeds it is not possible for anyone to break them all at once. But if you would pick up one reed at a time, even a baby can break it. And so you will find that the Jews will not be redeemed until they are a singular society, as it says, “In those days and in that time, says the Lord, the children of Israel shall come, they grouped together then they will be able to accept Hashem’s Holy Presence. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

The Medrish is depicting a time when all the Jews will unify together, but it sounds like true unification cannot come about unless it is for an ultimately permanent cause, i.e. the redemption of the Jewish people from exile with the coming of Moshiach, may he come speedily in our days. This will result in the Shechinah, The Holy Presence of Hashem, being focused permanently amongst us in our midst.

What constitutes deserving of redemption according to this medrish is unification, but the parable given to visualize the level of unification required is a lot different then what one would think should be. One would think that a better parable describing unification would be melding together myriads of particles of sand into one piece of glass, where everything is fused together as one. That is true unification! But it is not so, on the contrary glass is very fragile and easily breakable, meaning a utopia where everyone is exactly the same, all molded together in one melting pot is very fragile and unsustainable.  The message of the bundle of reeds is that Hashem wants every individual to remain unique, but with one purpose, to serve Hashem to the highest degree, which is beneficial to all of mankind. But only when each individual comes together with their own unique strengths and character for this one purpose will they be strong and unstoppable. Each individual alone is too weak to create this ultimate purpose, and it would seem that many individuals together are not strong enough to be able to create this unbreakable society, which is deserving of the eternal state of perfection. Only when we are all in it together will we be ultimately deserving of the final redemption, to constantly bask in Hashem’s Holy Presence, may we see the fruits of our yearning and labor speedily in our days!

We can take this message to heart as we enter into Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur when we say in our Shemone Esray at this time, “Let them all become a single society (aguda achas) to do Your will wholeheartedly.” An aguda, literally a bundle, is composed of several items bound together, like a lulav with the hadasim and aravos tied to it. In a humanistic sense, an aguda or society is made up of various diverse personalities, each of whom contributes his and her own best efforts to the common cause. Thus, we do not suggest that all human beings will be of identical stature, but that all will follow the lead of the Jewish people’s finest products in doing Hashem’s will.

Ki Savo – A Positive Look at Negativity

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This week’s Torah portion of Ki Savo opens with the mitzvah of Bikkurim, the ceremony of bringing the first fruits of one’s crops up to Yerushalayim to the Kohen in the Beis Hamikdash. There is an elaborate ceremony and declaration which is made by the owner of the first fruit. Included in the pronouncement he states: “And you shall call out and say before the Lord, your God, ‘An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there with a small number of people, and there, he became a great, mighty, and numerous nation. And the Egyptians treated us cruelly and afflicted us, and they imposed hard labor upon us…” (Devarim 26:5, 6). We mention these verses in the haggada on Pesach, and there is a well-known question: why is the history of our servitude in Egypt and it’s redemption mentioned here, when the first fruits are brought to the Beis HaMikdash? What is the correlation?
Rabbeinu Bachye answers that the intent of the figure of speech for this particular portion is to charge a person to focus in his heart, at his time of loftiness and tranquility, about the time of his lowliness and the abjection he had. So too it says in Koheles, “On a day of good, be among the good, and on a day of adversity, ponder” (Koheles 7:14). Meaning, on a good day, ponder a bad day. This is to intensely focus on what you have now, and then give gratitude to Hashem, The Good, that gives good. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
There are many ways in which people deal with their ancestor’s plights in history. Some people used it as a means of survival… “Never forget!” Others used the cruelty and suffering unleashed on their ancestors as an excuse for entitlement. However Rabbeinu Bachye is teaching us a lesson from the declaration by the mitzvah of bikkurim, where we mention our plight in Egypt during which we were slaves and tortured at the hands of our taskmasters; this was before we were saved by Hashem and brought into the Promise Land, and that should be an inspiration for us to appreciate what we have right now and to intensify our gratitude for His giving us such fortune as a fine crop and a means to live.

What an incredible lesson!!! Not only should we not suppress the dark parts of our history, but neither should we take advantage of them; rather we should focus on them and use them as a means to thank Hashem for the bright parts of our lives which we come to appreciate. Specifically, by focusing on our previous plights and comparing them to the good fortunate one currently has will actually intensify the gratitude which one should feel and express to Hashem, for all the good He has done.

Ki Seitzei – Sensitive to Other’s Sensitivities

One of the many mitzvos in this week’s Torah portion of Ki Seitzei is, “You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together” (Devarim 22.10).

At first thought, one would think the harm of plowing with an ox and donkey under the same yoke might be a physical harm. They just are not compatible together to plow a field and  might come to hurt each other when put together. This is why the Torah made a prohibition to plow with an ox and donkey together.

However, the Rosh and Daas Zekeinim have a different reason. Their reasonings are very similar to each other, yet slightly different. The Rosh says the reason why one cannot plow with an ox and donkey together is because it is cruelty to animals since the ox chews its cud and looks like he is eating all the time and the donkey sees this and is disturbed. The Daas Zekeinim says it is because the ox chews his cud and the donkey is disturbed by listening to the ox eating. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

Neither reason is due to physical harm, both are due to some psychological response of animalistic feelings by the donkey due to the ox chewing his cud. The Rosh holds that the donkey will be in anguish because it will perceive the ox constantly eating since it chews its cud and will be distressed that he is not constantly eating even if it might not really need to eat all the time.  The reality also is that the ox in fact is not constantly eating, rather it is just doing part of his digestive process which is natural for an ox to do. The Daas Zekeinim holds that the sound the ox makes while chewing could be annoying to the donkey and that is why the donkey is suffering. Either way we see that even for something which seems to be miniscule and insignificant, just an annoying sound or a perception which is not really true, the Torah went out of its way to create a mitzvah so that there will not be undue suffering in the world to the donkey.

If that is the sensitivity one should have towards the feelings of animals then all the more so for one’s fellow human beings, who are the purpose of the world’s creation, we should try to relate to and be very sensitive to the feelings and sensitivities of others. Derech eretz kadma liTorah, “Manners come before Torah,” it’s obvious that this is the way one should relate to our fellow human being. Being aware and sensitive to our fellow people’s feelings and insecurities is basic manners and only to animals did Hashem have to create a mitzvah in order to apply sensitivity awareness to them too.

Shoftim – The Benefits of Judges and Police in Jewish Law

The beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Shoftim discusses the role of judges and police officers in Judaism. “You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your God is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment. (Devarim 16:18). Rashi there says, “שפטים ושטרים JUDGES AND POLICE OFFICERS — שופטים are the judges who pronounce sentence, and שוטרים are those who chastise the people at their (the judges’) order [beating and binding the recalcitrant] with a stick and a strap until he accepts the judge’s sentence (Sanhedrin 16b and Rashi thereon; cf. Sifrei Devarim 144:6).”

The use of judges and police is the 491st mitzvah of the Torah according to the Sefer HaChinuch. The Sefer HaChinuch elaborates more on their purpose: “To appoint judges and officers: To appoint (see Sefer HaMitzvot LaRambam, Positive Mitzvos 176) judges and officers that coerce [others] to do the commandments of the Torah, bring those that are veering from the path of the truth back to it against their will, order that which is fitting to do, prevent disgusting things and enforce the fences against the transgressor – so that the commandments and the preventions of the Torah not require the belief (acceptance) of each and every person… The root of the commandment is revealed – that with this thing, we will support our religion, in that the fear of our officials and our judges will be on the face of the masses. And from their being accustomed to the good and the straight because of fear, the people will teach their natures to do justice and righteousness out of love, in their recognizing the true path. And [it is] like the Sages say, that much habit is what is behind nature – meaning to say that [just] like nature constrains a man to what it wants, so [too] does a strong habit repeat itself, like a persistent nature that constrains him to always go in the way of the habit. And in the people going in the straight paths and in faith and choosing the good, the good will cling to them and God will rejoice in His creatures.” (Click here for the complete Hebrew text of this mitzvah in the Sefer Hachinuch)

Judges and police are not here simply to enforce the law. If you look closely there is a progression that the Sefer HaChinuch is emphasizing on how to come to proper service of Hashem. This process was made for even those who are not ready to choose to accept upon themselves the Yoke of Heaven; but when the process is done one has the ability to serve Hashem in the ideal manner.
Step 1 is the judges and police enforcing the law in order to instill fear of punishment so that people will adhere to the performing of mitzvos and being careful from transgressing prohibitions.
Step 2 follows with keeping Torah and mitzvos becoming second nature.
Step 3 is serving Hashem by Keeping His Torah and Mitzvos out of love after one recognizes the true path of Hashem.

The judges and police play the initial role of making sure people get themselves into the routine of living a life of Torah. This role includes creating safeguards and possibly even physically enforcing the law. This is needed in order to make sure Torah and mitzvos become part of a Jew’s nature. Just like a person naturally breathes, sleeps, and eats, so too by habitually performing the mitzvos and adhering to the prohibitions they will eventually become second nature. However, it seems that it is not as simple as it sounds because judges and police must still be in place in order to assist and ensure it becomes second nature. We must also assume that included in enforcing the action of adhering to the law, attaining the understanding of Torah through in-depth Torah study is also required in order for this process to ideally work. That is taken for granted. Once all this happens, and one recognizes the truth of why he should perform mitzvos and gets into the routine of actually performing them, then one can truly serve Hashem out of love.

Just like a person is born to breathe, doing it naturally, loving taking deep breathes of fresh air; they can appreciate breathing in and breathing out. Or a person has natural hunger pains which tells him he should eat, which he was also born with, and as a person matures he learns to appreciate what he eats and might take steps to make sure he enjoys what he is eating. He spends time and money to eat the way he loves to eat. It all starts with an inborn nature to eat and evolves into an enjoyment and love of eating. Similarly, people have to sleep. It is impossible for a person not to sleep. Granted some people need less sleep than other, but sleeping is natural, and some people love to sleep, most people get comfortable, cozy blankets and pillows to enjoy their sleep. We see that on one level there is the way one naturally lives their lives, but one can also take it a step further and love what they naturally do.

This should also be true when it comes to Torah observance. It should come naturally to them, and once that happens one should begin to enjoy and love what they are doing. However, Hashem did not program us to automatically feel the urge to perform Torah and mitzvos as he did for us to breathe, sleep, or eat. This was done on purpose so that we would choose to do good in order to be deserving of earning reward. Therefore, out of Hashem’s understanding and mercy He gave us a mitzva to appoint judges and police in order to start us on the way to habitually perform Torah and mitzvos properly, so that it will eventually become second nature. They at least help to fulfill the first part of serving Hashem properly; then it is solely our choice to recognize and appreciate the truth in order to serve Hashem out of love, to go out there and not just perform the mitzva but to spend time, money, energy and creativity in enhancing the mitzvah to the fullest, because we love and enjoy what we are doing.

So we see from here that judges and police are the lynchpin of our service to Hashem and without them it is very hard to get into the habit of performing mitzvos and adhering to Torah prohibitions in order for them to become second nature. 

Re’eh – Hashem Relates to Our Pain and Suffering

At the Beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Re’eh we see the introduction to the curses and blessings listed in the Torah portion 3 weeks later in Ki Savo. It states: “Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you will heed the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today; and the curse, if you will not heed the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the way I command you this day, to follow other gods, which you did not know” (Devarim 11:26-28).

The Medrish Rabba at the beginning of this week’s portion poses an interesting halachic question; a question in Jewish Law. Why must the curses in parshas Ki Savo be read in one aliyah? Why can’t they be broken up into many aliyahs?  Rebbe Yehushua of Sichnin said in the name of Rebbe Levi: “Hashem said I wrote upon my honor, ‘I am with him in his distress’ (Tehillim 91:15), it is inappropriate for my children to be cursed and me blessed.” How? If they have many aliyahs for The Rebuke, then each Aliyah has two blessing before and after; rather, one person should read the entire aliyah. The Rabbis say that Hashem said that He did not give them the blessings and curses for their bad, rather to inform them what is the good path to choose in order to receive reward. How do we know this? From the fact that the pasuk here says “Behold, I set before you etc.”

The Yidei Moshe asks a very compelling halachic question on this medrish. Just as we bless Hashem for the good, aren’t we also supposed to bless Hashem for the bad? His first answer is that the bad for the populace is different, for then “I am with him in his distress.” The second answer he gives is that there is a difference between something bad that happens on a particular day and something bad which is being used for a known, set circumstances. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The Yidei Moshe is asking: the more times we bless Hashem for the bad, the better it should be; so we should be able to split up The Rebuke into many aliyahs.

This question is based on the halacha in the Shulchan Aruch that says: “On bad news he makes the blessing: Blessed are you Hashem, Our G-d, Master of the Universe, the judge of truth. A person is obligated to bless on the bad with a full mind and wanting soul, in the way that he blesses happily on the good, because the bad, for servants of G-d, is their happiness and goodness. Since he/she has accepted out of love what G-d has decreed, he/she finds that by accepting this bad, he/she is serving G-d which bring Him happiness”  (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 222:2,3). The Be’ur Halacha explains that bad news doesn’t just include a death, but even if one’s barrel of wine turns to vinegar, property is burned by a fire, or one’s animal dies, or anything of the like where a person is aggrieved. It makes no difference whether it is something bad that happened to oneself, or one heard or saw it happening to another, this blessing should be made. The Mishna Berura (4) explained the reason behind the blessing: “Because the truth of the matter is, that all suffering, physically and monetarily, is an atonement on sins so that one does not have to suffer in the in the next world where the punishment is much greater…” (However the Chofetz Chaim adds in the conclusion of his Sefer Shem Olam that even if a person does not find any sin in him, there are many times that one will suffer as a test to see if one can stand up to it and accept it with love without letting down their service to Hashem, for this is the way of Hashem, to test his righteous people in order to strengthen their reward). (Click here for Hebrew text.)

In any event, these are all reasons to bless Hashem for the bad. Therefore the Yidei Moshe answers that you bless Hashem for personal tragedies or something that actually happened on a certain day, but communal tragedies or if it is known that suffering will happen as a means of Hashem to send a message to us in certain specific situations – that  does not warrant a blessing, because Hashem is with us in those times of suffering.

However, if the blessings and curses were given to us as a directional marker of which paths to take through life, as the Rabbis suggest (and there is no reason Rebbe Yehoshua of Sichnon in the name of Rebbe Levi would disagree with this premise), then why shouldn’t we split up The Rebuke to bless Hashem even more? Wouldn’t it enhance our appreciation of Hashem to want us to follow his ways even more, which is the whole purpose of the blessings and curses? Furthermore, what difference does it make whether it is a communal tragedy or a personal tragedy? Wouldn’t you think Hashem, our loving merciful Father, is with us in all our suffering; so why the distinction? Lastly, what difference does it make if the suffering is happening presently or if it is recalling the details of all the curses which we know came true throughout the ages and could  still haunt us in the future, either way, by blessing Hashem and accepting whatever he brings our way we have the opportunity to strengthen our belief and trust in Hashem so shouldn’t we always take that opportunity?

It is absolutely true that Hashem shares our pain through communal and personal tragedies, and by acknowledging Hashem during these tough times we strengthen our belief and trust in Hashem. However, there are designated times when we must specifically bless Hashem, whether it is a personal tragedy or because it happens in the moment. For at that point it is more likely to evoke an emotional response of ‘where is Hashem, is He really taking care of me,’ and by blessing Him, you reinforce the belief and trust that He is there for you, and that all is for the best. But for communal suffering or terrible situations which you know happened or could happen, then it is harder to relate that Hashem really cares and it is easier to bless Hashem that all will be ok. Therefore at these times it is better to focus on the fact that if we don’t behave and Hashem has to punish us then you are causing Him to suffer as well, because He feels your anguish and He does not want to put you through it. It pains Hashem and, consequently, it would be inappropriate to shower Him with blessings.

Eikev – Masking Germs

A proof that the Torah is the guidebook for life is in this week’s Torah portion of Ekev. The Torah states: “The entire commandment that I command you today you shall observe to perform, so that you may live and increase, and come and possess the Land that Hashem swore to your forefathers” (Devarim 8:1).

There is a cryptic but very fascinating Medrish Tanchuma on this pasuk, “’The entire commandment that I command you,’ this is analogous to the pasuk in Mishlei, ‘Keep My commandments and live’ (Mishei 7:2). Because Dovid said ‘Guard me as the apple of the eye’ (Tehillim 17:8). Rebbe Yehuda of Sichnin said in the name of Rebbe Eliezer, ‘There is no beis rova (28.7 yards squared) where there aren’t 9 kavim (12.42 liters) worth of mazikim (damagers or demons) within it. Rebbe Yehoshua ben Levi said that all of them have masks on their faces. How [is one protected]? A person walks around and an angel goes out before him and says ‘look to the sides when in the presence of the image of The Holy One Blessed Be He as it says, ‘Only with the image (tzelem (Elokim)] does man make his way’ (Tehillim 39:7),” (Medrish Tanchuma, parshas Ekev, paragraph 4).

The Etz Yosef, explaining this medrish elaborates and says that there is no place on earth which has the space for sowing ¼ of a kav (a space of .345 liters of seeds to plant) that does not have 9 kavs of mazikim (12.42 liters of demons within it). But each one is wearing a mask on their face so that they will not stare at a person and hurt him. Angels escort a person when a person has upon him the “image of Hashem” (tzelem Elokim), meaning when he is involved in Torah and performing mitzvos, and announces “behold the image of Hashem” and these demons leave the person alone. But when a person is not involved in Torah and performing mitzvos, the “image of Hashem” is removed and the demons can come in and do damage. That is what the pasuk means when it says, “guard the commandments and live.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

This medrish is expanded on in more detail in the last paragraph of the Medrish Tanchuma in the Torah Portion of Mishpatim. It says there that for every mitzva a person performs, he receives an angel, and these angels protect from mazikim. Rebbe Yehoshua ben Levi said, “What is referred to when it says, “A thousand may fall victim” (Tehillim 91:7)? Hashem gives to every single Jew tens of thousands of angels to protect him and to make him a path. One of them announces before him and says, “Give respect to the image of Hashem (tzelem Elokim)” because the whole world is filled with spirits and demons. Rebbe Yehuda bar Shalom said in the name of Rebbe Levi that there isn’t a beis rova of land in the world which does not have in it 9 kavs of demons. How should we deal with them? Rebbe Levi said that there is a mask on their (the mazikim’s) faces just like a donkey who pulls a mill, and when sin causes it to happen, the mazikim are unmasked and the person is stupefied. But when the angel makes his proclamations of ‘give respect to the image of Hashem,’ the person is in peace. When [the angel] is silent [the person] immediately is hurt… (Click here for Hebrew text.)

The mazikim, literally damagers or demons, are like germs ready to infect and cause damage to a person, but as long as they are masked they are harmless. We see clearly from here that a mask is used to protect others from harm, to keep the threat at bay. Similarly we find at the end of the Torah portion of Ki Sisa that Moshe Rabbeinu wore a mask most of the time to block the radiance from shining out from his face so that people would not be afraid to approach him.

However, there is an even more important lesson, about the greatness of man, gadlus ha’adam, that we can learn from this medrish. We must realize that we are royalty, dignified people who deserve bodyguards to escort us wherever we go. But our true value is only seen and appreciated if we toil in Torah learning and perform mitzvos. Only then do we earn the bodyguards and the honor to be able to use them. But as soon as we rebel against our Father, the King, we are immediately susceptible to the perils that surround us.

What is even more amazing is the defense we have against the threat; it’s not any weapon or shield; it is our very essence. All of us were created in the image of Hashem, as it says in the first perek of Breishis, “And G-D said, ‘Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness’” (Breishis 1:26). This is the weapon against the mazikim! The awe and trepidation of being confronted by a tzelem Elokim keeps the mazikim at bay, but they only see or realize this when a person is shomer Torah and mitzvos,  observing the Torah and doing its mitzvos. Only then does the angel announce to the world that it must show respect to the tzelem Elokim, this royal prince, made in the image of G-D. But when a person is not so careful in adhering to Hashem’s Torah then he loses his guard and is susceptible to trouble around him because he is not acting regally, so the awe and respect is marred.

Choosing to glorify oneself with using Hashem’s Blueprints of Creation, the Torah, which is our guide for life brings out the greatness of man, gadlus ha’adam!

Va’eschanan – Always Being Watchful

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There is a mischievous stereotype associated with curiosity; for example the character of Curious George or, as the saying goes: “Curiosity killed the cat.” However, as the Orchos Tzadikim emphasizes in each chapter, there is both a positive and negative aspect to every attribute.

When it comes to the attribute of curiosity the Torah says in this week’s Torah portion of Vaeschanan that Moshe beseeched Hashem: “Pray let me cross over and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon” (Devarim 3:25). Hashem did not let Moshe enter the land of Israel but He at least let him see it, as it says, “Go up to the top of the hill and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward and see with your eyes, for you shall not cross this Jordan” (Devarim 3:27).

The Ralbag learns a very interesting lesson from here. “It is befitting for people to put in all their efforts into seeing everything that you are allowed to look at in order to recognize within it the ingenious of its Creator, May His Name be Blessed, which created all these types of things. For this reason Moshe requested that if Hashem did not want him to crossover the Jordan, at least He should allow him to see the general landscape of the land in order to appreciate all the great qualities of it strengths, and its places of settlement. This was his will when he said, ‘Pray let me cross over and see the land,’ let me crossover or see. It is obvious that this was his intentions because Hashem told Moshe to ‘Go up to the top of the hill and lift up your eyes etc.’ We also find elsewhere that this trait was very strong inside Moshe Rabbeinu as he said, ‘Let me turn now and see this great spectacle why does the thorn bush not burn up’ (Shemos 3:3)?” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

We find that Moshe always had a sense of curiosity, to search out the unknown, to figure things out, to appreciate what is to be seen in the world. Be it the land of Israel, the burning bush, or even when we find in the Torah that after he convinces Hashem to forgive the Jewish people over the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe says: ”Show now Your glory” (Shemos 33:18). Hashem, in fact responded “…Then I shall remove My hand and you will see My back, but My face may not be seen.”

One might think that this trait, even if used for good, might indeed still be bad because we say two times a day in the third paragraph of Shema, “Don’t stray after your heart and your eyes.” Looking around and gazing at things in the world might lead us to focus on inappropriate things, so shouldn’t we  create safeguards and put on blinders to ensure we stay away from those evils? Also, curiosity for the world around us might lead to a lot of wasting time from Torah learning; so why is this a good quality!? Furthermore, Moshe was in fact warned that he cannot get too close to the burning bush, to stare at it or to see exactly what He wanted to see of Hashem’s glory.

Just as there is good and bad in every character trait, each character trait leans to the good or the bad but also could be used in the opposite manner, for example, hatred is a bad character trait but it can sometimes be used in a positive way, like when hating the bad deeds of constant sinners. Love is a positive trait that can be used in a bad way as well. We must therefore say, based on this Ralbag, that curiosity is in fact a good character trait and can be harnessed for very good things, like raising your level of belief in Hashem through looking into the wonders of his creation. However, there is always a balance in life, and one has to be careful not to overdo it, which might cause wasting time or worse looking at forbidden things. On the other hand, if a person focuses his gaze in the world and his curiosity at appropriate times to get a better understanding of Hashem’s awesomeness, strength, and wonder, then the more the merrier.