Vayelech – Realizing Greatness Comes with Responsibility

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The opening pasuk of this week’s Torah portion of Vayelech states: “Moshe went and told these words to Bnei Yisrael” (31:1). “These words” are referring to the concluding lectures on Hashem’s Torah and the final message Moshe gave to his followers before he passed away.

The Medrish Tanchuma (paragraph 3) on this pasuk relates a riveting message about the greatness of Torah, the greatness of one human being, and the responsibilities that comes with such an exalted position. “It writes, ‘Hashem founded the earth with wisdom,’ (Mishlei 3:19). ‘Wisdom’ always refers to Torah. What is its name? Amon (אמון) , as it says, ‘And I was by Him Amon ’ (Mishlei 8:30). It was not called Torah until it was given at Har Sinai, and because of what it adds up to in gematria, is it called Torah. This is because there are 613 mitzvos in the Torah. Torah in gematria is 611 and the other two were given by the mouth of Hashem Himself. This is what the pasuk meant when it said, ‘God spoke one thing, I heard two’ (Tehillim 62:12). This is also what it means, ‘Torah that Moshe commanded us” (Devarim 33:4), like the gematria value of Torah that Moshe commanded us, and the others that Hashem commanded, as I explained in Parshas Yisro, is an inheritance to the Children of Yaakov, and not to the other nations of the world, as it says ‘He relates His word to Yaakov, His statutes and judgments to Israel. He did not do so for any other nation’ (End of Tehillim 148). It also write about it ‘day day’ as it says I was Amon beside Him, and I was [His] delight day in and day out’ (Tehillim 8:30). A day [for Hashem] is no less than a 1000 years as it says, ‘For a thousand years are in Your eyes like yesterday’ (Tehillim 90:4). When was this written about? Before it was given. But [the Torah] could not have been written on silver or gold, for silver and gold were not created yet before the world was created, rather it was written ‘on the arm’ of The Holy One Blessed Be He. Therefore every person must understand and intellectualize in one’s knowledge and mind that he should toil in Torah day and night, as it says, ‘you shall toil therein day and night,’ (Yehoshua 1:8), as well as in good deeds. This is because the whole entire world is judged every day and because of one person the entire world can merit to be innocent or be guilty. If it is guilty on his part, about him the pasuk writes, ‘And one sin causes him to lose a lot’ (Koheles 9). Also, similarly to what our sages of blessed memory have taught, ‘The world is half guilty half innocent. If one comes and transgresses a sin, then he tips the scale of sins higher than mitzvos, which means the entire world is guilty because of him. But if the sins and mitzvos were equal and one comes and performs one mitzvah, then the merits tip the scale higher than the sins, so happy is him who brings merit upon the world. If he isn’t a full time learner he should do his work honestly.” (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)

This medrish is fascinating. The Torah was created 2000 years before creation but was not called the Torah; rather it was called Amon, stemming from the same root as emuna, meaning faith or honesty. And for whatever it means, during that time, since it was so valuable, it is assumed to have been written down on the most valuable substance; but of course silver and gold did not exist before the world was created, so it was written, figuratively, on “Hashem’s arm.” Only after Hashem gave the Torah to the Jewish people at Har Sinai, the first two mitzvos directly from Him into the ears of Bnei Yisrael and the other 611 mitzvos through Moshe Rabbeinu, was it then called Torah which has the numeric value of 611. Why is this mentioned, and what is the connection to the next part of the medrish which is actually based on a Braisa in Kiddushin 40b that describes how Hashem judges each person and the entire world every day?  And we must view the world as half guilty and half innocent, as well as ourselves as in the middle, half innocent with mitzvos and half guilty with sin. Our next move will make it or break it, not only for ourselves but for the entire world! This is hopefully an impetus for us to make the right move, either to learn harder or to do the right thing, like running our business honestly. But why should we view ourselves in this fashion? Why is this an important attitude in our service of Hashem to motivate us to toil in Torah and perform good deeds?

This medrish is showing us what type of an approach we should have in performing Hashem’s will. We have to realize what we are dealing with and who we are. We are dealing with such high standards of living, priceless ideals, which stem from the most divine, holiest, ancient and pristine settings. This means we have to take care of what we have with gentleness, awe, and reverence. We have to stay focused on our task at all times, and not let it slip away from beneath our fingers.

But we also have to recognize who we are. The greatness of the individual and the great responsibility Hashem entrusts to us. Each and every one of us are in fact held to such a high level that we can decide the fate of all humanity, with any decision we choose to make, for good or for bad. Hashem entrusts this task into our hands.

We should take this to heart and meditate on how special and great we in fact are. Not only should we look the part, walk the walk, talk the talk, and dress the dress, but also realize the awesome responsibility we have, and take appropriate action to live up to this lofty responsibility.

With this attitude and insight the world will be elevated to a whole new terrain and quality of life!

Netzavim-Unity People

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There is a famous axiom in Jewish Law, that all Jews are responsible for each other, כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה. This is based on a gemara in Shavuos 39a. The question is how far does this concept extend?

The Gemara in Kiddushin 40b states: “Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon, says: Since the world is judged by its majority,and an individual isjudged by his majority,ifhe performs one mitzva he is praiseworthy, as he tiltsthe balance ofhimself and the entire world to the scale of merit.Ifhe transgresses one prohibition, woe to him, as he tiltsthe balancefor himself and the entire world to the scale of liability, as it is stated: “But one sindestroys much good,” i.e.,due to one sin that thisindividualcommits, he squanders much goodness from himself and from the entire world.” Interesting enough the Gilyonay HaShas says, based on a medrish, Jews and non-Jews are judged at two different times. Non-Jews by night and Jews during the day therefore when the gemara says “the world is judged” it is referring to the Jewish world which is all judged together and one person can make “a world of a difference!”  

In fact Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto in his Derech Hashem tells us: “Those who cause others to partake in the World to Come will definitely be the foremost in that Community. They will be the leaders, while those who enter by virtue of their association with them will be beholden and dependent on them. In order for this to be possible, all people were originally bound to each other as our sages teach us ‘All Israel are responsible for one another’ (Shavuos 39a). As a result of this, each individual is bound to everyone else, and no person is counted separately. G-D’s attribute of good is the stronger, however, and if the guilt for sin is shared by others, this must certainly be true of the merit associated with good deeds” (Derech Hashem, Individual Providence 2:3:9)

There is a Medrish Tanchuma on the opening pesukim of this week’s Torah portion of Netzavim which elaborates on this point. The pesukim say: “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, your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp both your woodcutters and your water drawers” (Devarim 29:9, 10).

The Medrish Tanchuma says: “Everyone is responsible for each other, even one righteous person amongst you, all of you are alive in his merit. Not only you, but even if one righteous person is amongst you, the whole entire world, in his merit keeps on existing, as it says, ‘And a righteous person who is the foundation of the world’ (Mishlei 10:25). And when one of you sins, the entire generation can be smitten, and so you find by Achan, ‘Behold Achan son of Zerach profaned the bounty etc.’ (Yehoshua, perek 7). The Attribute of punishment is less, and still the generation was grabbed by it, all the more so the attribute of good which is much greater. For this reason it writes ‘Every man of Israel,’ not only the great people amongst you but even your children and your wives, and your convert (The Etz Yosef points out that this terminology is emphasized to teach us that every Jew is responsible or are grabbed in the sin of even one person. But as we will see this is also true about mitzvos and reward.) This is why it says ‘every man of Israel’ since human beings tend to be more merciful on males more so than females, however Hashem isn’t like that, He is merciful on His entire creation, on the females and males, on the righteous and the wicked, as it says, ‘both your woodcutters and your water drawers’.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

The Biur HaAmarim on the Medrish Tanchuma points out that in Parshas Re’eh the medrish (paragraph 3) says that since the acceptance of the Torah on Har Sinai a generation will not be punished for one person’s sin. Therefore it must be that it is talking about if no one knew about it; but if people knew about it and were quiet, then everyone is responsible because that was part of the covenant. The extent of ‘all Jews responsible for one another’ is to the point that we are rewarded or punished in a global way for even one mitzvah, or G-D forbid, one sin, a person does. The consequences hit everyone, young or old, male or female, righteous, or wicked, and indeed Jews from all backgrounds; we are all connected as one and affect each other in everything we do.

The medrish points out that the Torah goes out of its way to mention that Hashem also includes women in the reward for a good deed of the righteous, because people think differently based on an attitude throughout history that women aren’t equal. In fact the Biur HaAmarim says “there are those who are more merciful on males but there is also the opposite.” But why should that be? Every human was created in the image of Hashem, with free will and the ability, for the most part, of everyone to be able to speak on an intellectual level; why then should there be gender inequality?

It must be that because people are different then it causes others to look at them as unequal. But Hashem purposefully created men and women to be different in order that the ultimate purpose of the world will be fulfilled in the most optimum way, with each half focusing on their own specialties. That is why men and women have different responsibilities in serving Hashem, though many of the responsibilities still overlap.

Therefore, Hashem, who doesn’t see differences as inequalities, of course will treat everyone equally. But in order for humans, with our frailties, to comprehend that, Hashem had to go out of his way to point that out in these pesukim.

Natural human instinct seems to equate difference with inequality. It takes Divine precision to realize we are all deserving to be responsible of each other and share to a lesser extent in our punishment, and more of an extent in our reward.

Ki Savo – Judgement Day: Cursed or Blessed

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In this week’s Torah portion of Ki Savo we read of the blessings for observing the Torah and curses if the Torah is not kept. Towards the end of the curses, the Torah writes: “And your life will hang in suspense before you. You will be in fear night and day, and you will not believe in your life” (Devarim 28:66).

The Maharam of Rottenberg observes that there are only two times in all of Tanach that the word teluim or תלואים (hanging in suspense) is used. They are in this pasuk, as well in a pasuk in Hoshea 11:7, וְעַמִּ֥י תְלוּאִ֖ים לִמְשֽׁוּבָתִ֑י “And My people waver whether to return to Me, and to the matter concerning which they call them, together they do not uphold [it].” In Hoshea the context being to waver in wanting to repent or not, instead of hanging in suspense.

The Maharam continues by saying that this concept of hanging is also mentioned in a gemara in Rosh Hashana 16b: “That the fully righteous are judged for life on Rosh Hashana and the completely wicked are judged for death but those in the middle are hanging in suspense by teshuva (repentance) until Yom Kippur. If they do repent they are deserving  life and if they do not repent they are deserving death.” This, the Maharam says, is what “your life will hang in suspense” means; that your life will hang on repentance, just like a hanging scale teetering from one side to the other. (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)
The Maharam connects the pasuk with the curses of this week’s Torah portion to Rosh Hashana; but it seems not to make sense that everyone who is in this middle state every year, which is probably most of us, are in an accursed state waiting in limbo, to see what will become of us.

Rather, it would seem that the Maharam is sending a different message. There are two types of people in this world. (Really 3, the third one being one who doesn’t really fully focus or doesn’t focus at all on the incoming Day of Judgement). The other 2 understand full well that there is an incoming judgement, but there are two possible ways one can handle it.

If you look closely at the gemara in Rosh Hashana, it says that the in-between person’s judgement holds in limbo not his own life or death, granted that is the result of his judgement, but this is a different perspective. Namely that  a person with calmness and equanimity who realizing his life is on the line for the coming year and will take orderly and decisive strides to work on himself to make sure he learns enough mussar and instills in himself the proper fear of Heaven to accurately repent and be signed into the Book of Life by the time Yom Kippur ends.

Then there are other people, which the Maharam says the pasuk in the curses is describing, who take the upcoming day of judgement as a time of immense anxiety, where their focus is on their lives which is literally hanging in the balance. Imagine the scale hanging on each side, going up and down; will I do accurate teshuva, will I not; the nausea and dizziness of swinging up and down in doubt; wouldn’t that cause such stress and anxiety! It might thrust a person into action and they will in the end take the correct steps to repent appropriately and deserve to be signed into the Book of Life. But the means of getting to that point will be psychologically much more horrifying. It’s an accursed state of being.

There are clear times in Jewish History when all the curses described in the Torah portion came true and people literally felt their life were on the line and were unsure if they were going to  live to see the next day. But there were other times in history where the blessings of Hashem were clearly seen and there was much calm and peace, while still being deeply rooted in our G-D fearing ways.

But it would seem that even on an individual level there are two possible ways one can approach Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgement, (1) in a blessed serene manner or (2) in an accursed anxious manner. What steps will be taken at this awe-inspiring time to do teshuva? Will they be anxious and accursed or calm and orderly?

Ki Seitzei – Mitzvah Escort

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There are a whole slew of  mitzvos in this week’s Torah portion of Ki Seitzei. The Sefer Hachinuch enumerates 74 to be exact, from mitzvah 532 to mitzvah 605. The Medrish Rabbah gives a fascinating insight into the dynamics of a mitzvah which should give us a whole new appreciation of our performances of mitzvos.

The Medrish begins by quoting a pasuk in Mishlei: “For they are a wreath of grace for your head,” (כִּ֤י לִוְיַ֤ת חֵ֓ן הֵ֬ם לְרֹאשֶׁ֑ךָ, Mishlei 1:9). In the second interpretation of this pasuk the medrish says the word לִוְיַ֤ת could also mean surrounding (just like a wreath). “Rebbe Pinchas bar Chama says that mitzvos surround you everywhere you go. ‘When you build a house… and you shall make a fence for your roof’ (Devarim 22:8).  If you make a door, mitzvos surround you as it says ‘a(A)nd you shall write them on the door post of your house’ (Devarim 6:9). If you wear new clothes, mitzvos surround you as it says ‘You shall not wear shaatnez,’ (a mixture of wool and linen in the same garment.) If you go to get a haircut, mitzvos surround you as it says ‘You shall not cut off the corners of your head.’ And if you have a field to plow, mitzvos surround you as it says ‘You shall not plow with an ox and a horse together’ (Devarim 22:10). And if you plant, mitzvos surround you, as it says, ‘You shall not plant a mixture of seeds in your vineyard’ (Devarim 22:9). And if you harvest, mitzvos surround you, as it says ‘When you harvest your harvest in your field and you forgot a sheaf in the field’ (Devarim 24:19). The Holy One Blessed Be He said even if you are not doing anything, just taking a stroll, mitzvos surround you, how do you know, for it says, ‘when you happen upon a birds nest in front of you’ (Devarim 22:6)” (Medrish Rabba Devarim 6:3).

The Rada”l observes that the medrish is of the opinion like the Zohar that one has an obligation to shoo away a mother bird even if he happens upon a nest with a mother and chicks inside and originally had no intention of taking the chicks or eggs. The Rada”l also asked why the mitzvah of forgotten bundles of grain which must be left for the poor is mentioned in the medrish instead of the mitzvah of peah (leaving over the corner of one’s field for the poor) or leket (stalks that fell during the harvest which also should be left for the poor)? The Rada”l answers that the medrish is teaching us that even without the knowledge or will of a person, Hashem brings him mitzvos to bless him with, as the Torah concludes in that mitzvah: “In order that Hashem your G-D will bless you in all your actions” (Devarim 24:19). (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)

This medrish sounds poetic! But there is a very practical and inspiring lesson that one should meditate on and take to heart. It is very easy to recognize how one is surrounded physically by mitzvos, when wearing tzitzis or being in a sukkah on Sukkos. Chazal even say that by wearing a tallis and draping it over his head it should have the effect of focusing oneself in fear of Hashem. Also by surrounding oneself with tzitzis, which represents the 613 mitzvos, it reminds a person to fulfill the mitzvos. So too Chazal talk about the uniqueness of the mitzvah of sukkah, where one literally has the chance to be surrounded by a mitzvah, physically, in his totality. But this medrish takes it a step further. A person is able to be surrounded by mitzvos all the time, every single second of the day! Not only by doing mitzvos like praying, putting on tallis and tefillin, learning Torah, saying blessings when appropriate, and doing acts of kindness. But even the very fact you are living in a house with mezuzos and, with a roof, if you are able to go up on it, which has a fence around it, you are constantly surrounded by these mitzvos. The ramifications being, you are surrounded by the blessing and reward that goes into the mitzvos that are being fulfilled constantly, for example, by just living in your house with the mezuzah you put up many years ago when you first moved in.

It doesn’t stop there; the medrish points out another incredible aspect of the nature of a mitzvah. Every single negative mitzvah you don’t do when you have the opportunity also surrounds you at every moment with all its blessings and rewards. For example, by just wearing clothes that do not have shaatnez in them you are constantly surrounded by that mitzvah since you have that opportunity of wearing clothes made out of wool and linen but don’t. A farmer could have been plowing with an ox and horse leading the plow but doesn’t, he is then surrounded by that mitzvah with all its blessing and reward. Another example is in a situation where he or she could have spoken lashon hara, slander, but doesn’t he or she is surrounded by that mitzvah, etc. etc.!

Hashem’s benevolence doesn’t stop there! Hashem even creates situations where you are handed a mitzvah without even intending to do it, like by the mitzvah of shichacha, the forgotten bundle of wheat which must be left for the poor. The Torah goes out of its way to mention that one even gets a blessing for fulfilling that mitzvah, all the more so for intentionally doing calculated mitzvos. Hashem even brings you to mitzvos, according to this medrish, like by the mitzvah of shiluach hakan, shooing away the mother bird, if one is just taking a stroll and happens upon the ability of doing this mitzvah.

What lesson do we learn from this medrish? Besides psychologically, having the peace of mind that wherever you go you are surrounded by blessing and reward for the mitzvos you do, by fulfilling the positive mitzvos and not transgressing the negative mitzvos, there is also a very practical aspect towards this medrish. That is, if one truly appreciates this gift we are pretty much constantly surrounded by then there will be a whole new level of kavana, intent, when performing the mitzvah or not transgressing the sin so now the quality of one’s mitzvos will be keener, which means more blessing and more reward.

With this outlook towards mitzvos our service of Hashem could be taken to a whole new level and a bigger kiddush Hashem!

Shoftim – Lower Taxes!

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This dvar Torah is sponsored in memory of Seymour Rosenberg, Shlomo Shmuel ben Aharon, upon his yahretzeit, the 6th of Elul. May it be an aliyas neshama.

In this week’s Torah portion of Shoftim it discusses the appointment of a king. Rabbeinu Bachye observes that a Jewish king should be unlike the kings in the rest of the world. Whereas other monarchs have many horses and great wealth, meaning that they pride themselves with much power and money, the Torah commands of a Jewish king to not have a lot of horses, wives, or silver and gold. Rather, his main focus should be the Torah and the fear of Heaven, to the point that he must have a sefer Torah besides him at all times, and frequently read from it. Indeed, the Torah guarantees that a Jewish king who does not show haughtiness towards his subjects will rule for many years (see Rabeinu Bachye Devarim 17:16).
Rabbeinu Bachye goes on to explain that a Jewish king should only have enough horses for himself and his army, and a maximum of 18 wives, as King David had. He could also have enough wealth to take care of himself, his family, and yearly wages for his soldiers who accompany him wherever he goes.  But he is not allowed to build up a fortune, in order that he won’t become haughty (see Rabbeinu Bachye continued in pasuk 16 and 17).

Rabbeinu Bachye also quotes the Chacham Rebbe Avraham zt”l who gives another reason of why a king should not compile a large amount of gold and silver; in order not to burden Jews with high taxes.  For we see that King Shlomo weighed on the Jewish people the yoke of high taxes in order to collect much silver and gold for himself, and wealth is compared to fire, in that the more wood to fuel the fire, the higher the flame. We even find that the entire Jewish people complained about Shlomo to his son Rachavam [after Shlomo passed and Rechavam took over] as it writes: “Your father has made our yoke heavy,” (Melachim Alef 12:10). It got so bad that they killed Adoniram, who was the head tax collector, by stoning him in his house. We find that King Shlomo, who was the greatest person in the world at the time, still succumbed to these 3 things: Many horses, as it says: “And Solomon had forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots” (Melachim Alef 5:6). Many wives, as it says: “And he had seven hundred royal wives and three hundred concubines” (Melachim Alef 11:3). So to silver, as it says: “And the king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones (Melachim Alef 10:27), it also says in pasuk 21: “none was of silver, [since] it was reckoned with as nothing in the days of Solomon.” He said about all these 3 things: “I will acquire a lot of it but it will not be forbidden.” He relied on his wisdom to go against the Torah, and faltered in them. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
We must put into context what this means about King Shlomo. He was the leading Torah scholar of the generation. He was granted the gift of wisdom by Hashem to be smarter than anyone else in the history of mankind. He was on the lofty level of a prophet and compiled 3 books of Tanach with Divine inspiration: Shir Hashirim, Mishlei, and Koheles. He merited the first Beis Hamikdash to be built under his auspices and peace to reign throughout the world. In fact, the gemaras in Gitten 68b and Sanhedrin 20b says that because of his mistakes he lost control of the Demon World which he once ruled over, but always maintained kingship over the world during his lifetime, not just the Jewish people. There is even an argument as to whether he got back rule over the Demon World towards the end of his life. Someone of such loftiness, on such a high spiritual level, could not have sinned so severly. Rather, it must have been a miniscule sin that, due to his level, Tana”ch and Chaza”l amplify, because of the lofty expectations which he himself had earned. In fact the Metzudas Dovid clearly says that Shlomo was not led astray to worship idols by his wives; he just turned a blind eye to what they were doing. He never returned to settle in Egypt, he just bought his horses from there, and he didn’t collect money simply to keep in storehouses for his own pride, rather the pesukim indicate that he laden Yerushalayim with silver on the streets, in order to beautify the city, the place that housed Hashem’s Holy Temple. So his wisdom did, at least based on the reasoning of the law, safeguard him from straying from Hashem’s Torah, and allowed him to reach great heights of clinging to Hashem and doing His service. However, the strict letter of the law didn’t permit it, and it took a toll on the people. Though they did not complain outright to King Shlomo in his lifetime, they did complain to his son and even murdered, in cold blood, his chief tax collector.

A very important lesson we can learn from here is that high taxes, even for the most sincere reasons, as King Shlomo must have had as we see with the glorification of Hashem’s capital city, still can get out of hand like adding wood to an existing flame and is a great burden to society.

Re’eh – Optimizing Kindness and Gratitude Through Giving

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The seventh Aliyah of this week’s Torah Portion of Re’eh is read outside of Israel on the last day of yom tov for Pesach, Shavuos and on Shemini Atzeres. Most of it discusses the shalosh regalim, these 3 holidays, but it starts off with the mitzvah of donating the firstborn domesticated animal to the Mikdash, the Holy Temple. What is the connection?
The Sforno answers that after the Torah enumerates different acts of kindness concerning grains with tithes for the poor, money with the mitzvah of annulling debts during shmita and tzedaka, and regarding other possessions through compensating Jewish slaves. Following this, the Torah discusses mitzvos that have to do with gratitude towards The Exalted and All Powerful Hashem, which include donating the firstborn, specifically for those who own cattle, in order to acknowledge that from His hand the cattle was given to us. The Holiday of Matzos (Pesach) is in order to acknowledge freedom through the sacrificial lamb and the matza, and the spring by waving the omer. The Holiday of Shavuos acknowledges “the appointed weeks of the harvest” (Yirmiyahu 5:24) which were guarded for us. Finally, the Holiday of Ingathering (Sukkos) is to acknowledge the ingathering of produce. For each one a gift is brought to The Master, as it says: “And they shall not appear before Hashem empty” (Devarim 16:16). For this reason it does not mention [here] which month and which day of the month but rather it mentions “the spring,” “the weeks,” and “the ingathering”. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The connection between the donation of the firstborn and the yom tovim is that they show acts of gratitude towards Hashem. But why does showing gratitude require a gift; especially giving to Hashem who doesn’t need it? Everything is His, there is nothing you are doing for Hashem by giving him an animal, grain, or fruit. So why isn’t verbal recognition, with proper, authentic, whole-heartfelt gratitude enough to express our thanks to Hashem for what he has given and done for us; especially since Hashem, The All Knowing can look into our hearts and tell whether we are genuine or not? Why does Hashem require of us to sacrifice so much money for the holidays, giving away our hard-earned firstborn animals, and first fruits at certain times, in addition to expecting us to kindly give away money to the poor, forgo debts every 7 years, and give some sort of compensation when a Jewish slave goes free, as well as any other acts of kindness Hashem expects of us?

We must say then that the mitzvah of giving for the sake of gratitude is for the sake of the giver; for themselves to actualize their gratitude. Literally, thanksgiving! By giving something as a means of showing thanks, it shows you really mean it. The action of self-sacrifice for the sake of acknowledging what Hashem has done for you means you actually have, and feel you have, to do something to express the gratitude one should be feeling and verbally expressing.

This actualizing of gratitude towards Hashem is what we should be feeling when we spend money for our matzos, sedarim, milchigs, floral decorations , lulav and esrog, and sukkahs, during the festivals in this day and age.. Without the performance of these mitzvos, it is as if we would be coming before Hashem empty handed.

This concept can logically be taken one step further, in that it should also be true when expressing gratitude towards other people. By giving something, the giving is more of an acknowledgement of thanks than a heartfelt verbal thank you (of course everything must be done within one’s means).

The act of giving is not only needed to show kindness but it is the preferred method of appreciation as well.

Eikev – Israel’s Defense Force and Offensive

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At the end of this week’s Torah portion of Eikev, the Torah states: “For if you keep all these commandments which I command you to do them, to love the Lord, your God, to walk in all His ways, and to cleave to Him, then the Lord will drive out all these nations from before you, and you will possess nations greater and stronger than you” (Devarim 11:22-23).

Rabbeinu Bachye remarks on these pesukim: “If you follow the mitzvos of the Torah then Hashem will kick out the enemies from amongst you, for on this condition you are entering the land. In the Medrish it cites (Medrish Tanchuma Breishis 1): ‘For if you keep’ (אם שמור תשמרון) If you keep the mitzvos of the Torah you will be protected, meaning you will be protected from any enemy and from any destructive force. So to the previous paragraph starts ‘And it will be if you will listen’ (והיה אם שמוע תשמעו, which is the beginning of the second paragraph of Shema) it also mean if you listen to the words of the Torah, you will be listened to [in your prayers]. The opposite is also true [if you don’t listen and keep the mitzvos then Hashem won’t be quick to listen to your cries and protect you.] Similarly it says in Mishley 21:13: ‘He who stops up his ear from the cry of a poor man-he, too, will cry out and not be answered.’ [Implying if he does help the poor his own prayers will be accepted too.]” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

In the first part of pasuk 23 it says:“Then the Lord will drive out all these nations from before you,” Rabbeinu Bachye says it refers to “those who are closer to you [inside Israel] and then afterwards, ‘Every place upon which the soles of your feet will tread,’ (pasuk 24), which is the farther places. For this reason Chazal say (Sifri Ekev 51) about King David that he did something out of order and against the commands of the Torah, for he first captured the farther places which were Aram Tzova and Aram Naharayim which are farther from the Land of Israel and then afterward he captured the closer ones. For this reason they say in Gitten 47a that the conquering of the individual isn’t considered conquering. It is called ‘the conquering of the individual’ because there weren’t 600,000 people with him and it was not considered a conquering for the sake of the Holiness of the land regarding maaser (tithes) and shmita (sabbatical year) on a Torah level but rather only on a rabbinic level. Aram Tzova is Syria as we learn in the Sifri quoted before.”

We can infer from this Rabbeinu Bachye that if King David would have conquered everything in the proper order, with the backing of the entire nation, by first finishing to conquer the territories in Israel proper, as was started in the times of Yehoshua, and then continuing on to Syria and Aram Naharayim, then those latter places would also have been imbued with the same Torah level of Holiness and obligation in mitzvos, such as maaser and shmita. However, as a consequence for not strictly following the Torah, and doing things out of order, the farther lands that King David conquered were only sanctified on a rabbinic level.

There is a very interesting observation that could be pulled out of these two pesukim for why Rabbeinu Bachye specifically mentioned the incident with King David at this juncture, besides the fact that he transgressed these very pesukim of pasuk 23 and 24. Pasuk 22 points out that if we follow the Torah to the strictest letter of the law in Israel, then Hashem guarantees that we will be unharmed by any enemy, and in fact all our enemies will be outside the land of Israel. Now people might say: ‘come on, give us a break, look at how many people are Torah observant or are changing over and are finding their Torah roots in Israel and still our enemy is amongst us. And not only threatening us but actually harming us. How could it be with so much good in The Promise Land?!’

The obvious answer is that we aren’t perfect, and that not everyone is following Hashem’s word. But what we also see is that reward and punishment aren’t all or nothing. We are still in the land and there have been many miracles that have allowed us to stay in Eretz Yisrael. Wwe see this from King David, who was known to be on such a high level of relationship with Hashem, as testified in his Sefer Tehillim (Psalms) that was written with Divine Inspiration. He was a prophet, who led the Jewish People faithfully for forty years, and was deserving of having the Beis HaMikdash to be built in his day, if not for the fact that he was involved in bloodshed, albeit for the sake of defending his people and conquering the Holy Land. Yet we see here that whatever miscalculation it was for King David to choose to conquer Syria and its adjoining land first before finishing the conquest of Israel, there were consequences. He did it totally for the sake of Heaven, and proof is in the consequence, that the land he conquered was just not as holy as it could have been; yet any level of mishap deserves a consequence. It cannot simply be ignored.

But what we also see is that even what seems to be a very subtle consequence is a consequence which makes for a difference and has major ramifications. Who knows what would have happened if the land would have been conquered correctly? Would it have been at the Torah level of holiness and obligations to fulfill the mitzvos concerning land just like the rest of Israel has?

We have to realize that even the small differences in our service of Hashem makes for a difference. In this way we can be more observant of how we act and the choices we make. But also the consequences of our actions must be thought out clearly and realized; for, imagine the fact that something is rabbinic and not on a Torah level is a punishment for the actions of King David!

If we are more careful and thoughtful in what we do and are mindful to try to kindly help others do the right thing then peace and serenity will be granted for all of us in the Holy Land, and all our prayers will be answered with all of us in the Promised Land, speedily in our days.

Vaeschanan – More Than Just a Yissacher and Zevulun Partnership

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As the gabbai calls up the first Aliyah to be read from the Torah, the Artscroll Siddur notes: “Addressing the congregation, the gabbai calls upon them to show honor to G-D by giving honor to His Word – The Torah – which is about to be read. The congregation responds with a blessing to all who are called to the Torah and who are loyal to it” (see The Complete Artscoll Siddur page 439, 440). The “blessing” is actually a pasuk found in this week’s Torah portion of Vaeschanan, which states: “You who cling to Hashem, your G-D, you are alive today” (Devarim 4:4).

There is a fascinating explanation of this pasuk in the gemara, Kesubos 111b. The gemara says: “§ Rabbi Elazar said: The common, uneducated people will not come alive in the future, as it is stated: “The dead live not” (Isaiah 26:14). In other words, those who were already considered dead in their lifetimes will not come back to life afterward either. This idea is also taught in a baraita“The dead live not”; one might have thought that this is referring to everyone, i.e., none of the dead will live again. Therefore, the verse states: “The shades [refa’im] rise not” (Isaiah 26:14). This teaches that the verse is speaking of one who weakens [merapeh] himself from matters of Torah. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to Rabbi Elazar: Their master, i.e. God, is not pleased that you say this of ordinary Jews. Rather, that verse is written about one who weakens himself and succumbs to idol worship. Those who commit this great sin do not merit to be resurrected in the future. Rabbi Elazar said to him: I teach it from a different verse, as it is written: “For Your dew is as the dew of light, and the earth shall bring to life the shades” (Isaiah 26:19). Rabbi Elazar explains: Anyone who uses the light of Torah, which is called the dew of light, the light of Torah will revive him; and anyone who does not use the light of Torah, the light of Torah will not revive him. Since Rabbi Elazar saw that Rabbi Yoḥanan was grieved over the distress of common, uneducated people, he said to him: My teacher, I have found for them a remedy from the Torah so that they will merit life in the World-to-Come, as it states: “But You who cleave to the Lord your God, are alive every one of you this day” (Deuteronomy 4:4). But is it possible to cleave to the Divine Presence? Isn’t it written: For the Lord your God is a devouring fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24)? Rather, this verse teaches that anyone who marries his daughter to a Torah scholar, and one who conducts business [perakmatya] on behalf of Torah scholars, by investing their money, and one who utilizes his wealth to benefit Torah scholars with his property in some other way, the verse ascribes him credit as though he is cleaving to the Divine Presence.”

The Gemara is telling us that every Jew should strive to cling to Hashem, and in this way one will merit to be a part of the future resurrection. In fact the gemara in Sanhedrin 90b brings this pasuk as a proof towards the resurrection of the dead, as it says: “And there are those who say that it is from this following verse that he said to them his ultimate proof: “But you who cleave to the Lord your God every one of you is alive this day” (Deuteronomy 4:4). Wasn’t it obvious with regard to the children of Israel whom God was addressing, that “every one of you is alive this day?” Rather, the meaning of the verse is: Even on the day when everyone is dead you will live; just as today every one of you is alive, so too, in the World-to-Come every one of you will be alive.”

The Gemara in Kesubos clearly states that the ticket to being resurrected is a deep involvement in Torah learning. Rebbe Yochanan was terribly grieved by the thought of the myriad of people who are not entrenched in Torah study who will not be resurrected. However, Rebbe Elazar brought in this pasuk to teach that if one cleaves to Torah scholars he or she will also receive the ticket to be resurrected.  

The Maharsha on this gemara observes that there were 3 types of cleaving mentioned: (1) With one’s body by marrying off his daughter to a Torah scholar. (2) Letting a Torah scholar benefit from one’s possessions, which is clinging through money. (3) Doing business for the scholar, which is not considered clinging through money, because in this instance one is not giving away any of his own money, but rather it is an intellectual clinging, to give him pleasure in whatever way possible.

on the point of the gemara discussing doing business for the Torah scholar, says it means one should be engrossed with the money of Torah scholars, in order to bring them investments, so that they can be free to be engrossed in Torah study through these means. Indeed, it writes: “You are all alive today,” for through clinging to Torah scholars they will merit to live [i.e. resurrection]. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

If there are people who are putting all their efforts and brainpower into figuring out what are the best investments for the Torah scholars, in order to earn enough money to live without going out to work and taking away time from learning, then why can’t they use all that energy and brainpower for their own Torah learning, a direct ticket to eternal life, instead of piggybacking on the Torah scholar?

There is a very important lesson to be learned from this, which might sound obvious, but is part of the fundamentals of Jewish life. Every single person has his or her own unique purpose in life. Granted, everyone has to set aside some time to learn Torah each day, but there are only a few individuals who are able to and should, dedicate their lives towards learning and spreading Torah to the populace. This is necessary for the world to exist, for we need scholars to be fluent and experts in the Guide Book to Life, the Blueprints of Creation, i.e. The Written and Oral Torah. Therefore they have to be able to dedicate their entire life to gaining those essentials,  teaching them and applying them throughout the world.

However there is an equally necessary need for people to take care of these Torah scholars and their families, in order that they can dedicate their life to these means. Therefore G-D created people in such a manner that some of them have the capacity to learn Torah fulltime, while others have a penchant for business, or for making investments, and yet others are handymen, doctors, lawyers, etc.

But all of us were created for one purpose; to serve Hashem and to do His Will. So the business people, doctors, handymen, etc. – if they marry off their daughters to Torah scholars and help support them, or actively make their lives and the lives of their family easier and more comfortable, they are not only doing a great kindness, but are fulfilling their purpose in creation, by enabling the world to continue to exist. That is how one can earn his or her ticket for the World to Come and eternal life.

Devarim – What Are We Mourning Over (Tisha B’Av)

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This Shabbos is Tisha B’av, although we don’t observe the fast and mourning until the tenth of Av, the next day. We find a hint to the destruction of the second Beis HaMikdash in one of the verses in this week’s Torah portion of Devarim. The beginning of the second perek of Devarim begins: “Then we turned and journeyed into the desert by way of the Red Sea, as the Lord had spoken to me, and we circled Mount Seir for many days. And the Lord spoke to me, saying, ‘You have circled this mountain long enough; turn northward. And command the people saying, You are about to pass through the boundary of your kinsmen, the children of Esav, who dwell in Seir, and they will be afraid of you. Be very careful’” (Devarim 2:1-4).

Tucked within the 3rd pasuk, Rabbeinu Bachye quotes an obscure Medrish Rabba found in the Lieberman edition, that another understanding of the words “turn northward,” or in Hebrew פנו לכם צפונה, is that the word ‘tzafon’ can be read ‘tzafun,’ like ‘Ohr Hatzafun,’ the hidden light. The Medrish relates that Hashem was addressing His children, saying: “’I have one hidden treasure amongst you, which is the Beis HaMikdash which I hid within you and it will be destroyed in the future,’ as it says, ‘And I shall turn My face away from them, and they will profane My secret place’ (Yechezkel 7:22).” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

The Beis HaMikdash was not an edifice built by the Jews simply in order for Hashem’s Shechinah to rest, perform miracles for His children, and to more closely interact with them. Rather, it was Hashem’s palace in this world, created by Him, through His loyal servants, His beloved children, the prince and princesses of Hashem, the Jewish people. They were also the guardsmen of the palace. The palace was lovingly tucked away within the land promised to His children, a hidden treasure, which no person had the right to simply visit and take a stroll within.

But alas, the loyal servants and guardsmen became corrupt. They didn’t act as true servants of Hashem, the Holy King Of All Kings. To the degree that the Sefer Menoras HaMeor relates from a gemara in Yoma 9a, that during the time of the first Beis HaMikdash (which lasted 410 years) there were a maximum of 18 kohen gadols who served within. The Second Beis HaMikdash, which lasted 420 years, had more than 300 kohen gadols serve inside it. Of those 300, Shimon HaTzadik served for 40 years, Yochanan Kohen Gadol for 80 years, Yochanan ben Narvai Kohen Gadol for 10 years and Elazar ben Charsum served for 11 years. Excluding this total of 141 years, for the remainder of the 420 years, not one kohen gadol lasted a year (they didn’t survive the Yom Kippur service). Why? Because they bribed their way into the position. Slowly but surely the Beis HaMikdash became a spiritually dilapidated building until the Romans came to physically violate it and burn it to ashes (Menoras HaMeor, ner 4, klal 3, chelek 1, perek 3).

The Medrish Rabba on the first part of pasuk 3 above, states: “You have circled this mountain long enough”  this pasuk is linked to a pasuk in Tehillim (37:7): “Wait silently for Hashem and wait longingly for Him.” In another explanation of these two pesukim quoted in the Medrish, “Rebbe Yehoshua ben Levi said: ‘When the [Roman] enemies came to destroy Yerushalayim there were 600,000 destructive angels standing at the entrance of the Sanctuary ready to harm them. However when the destructive angels saw the Divine Presence observing silently [without objecting] – and from where do we know this to be so? For it is written: ‘He drew back His right hand in the presence of the enemy’ (Eichah 2:3) – they too made way for the enemy to enter” (Medrish Rabba, Devarim 1:17).

The Etz Yosef, in the name of the Eshed HaNechalim, quoting Kabbalists, explains that there are two types of “destructive angels” – good and bad. The bad ones are of the desert, and the good ones are of the house. The good ones are a positive force that only desires good. They did not let the enemy enter the Beis HaMikdash until they saw the Shechinah, the Holy Presence, observing silently, and then they ran away.
Hashem was so “dumbfounded” at the sight of His Holy Palace spiritually dilapidated, that it came to a point where He “just stood there” observing silently [without objecting], allowing the Romans to come and destroy His precious palace. The hundreds of thousands of angels who came to protect the palace had no choice but to retreat and let the destruction take its course.

The spiritual dilapidation was caused by the servants’ of Hashem, who were once Hashem’s trusted children. But they had lost that trust and were deserving to be punished and exiled.

Today, still in exile, is not a result of what once was but a result of where we are holding at this very moment. Are we ready to be the rebuilders of the Third Beis HaMikdash, the guardians and trusted servants of the Holy King Of All Kings. When we prove our loyalty then Hashem will peacefully return His Holy Presence to His Temple Mount and rebuild His palace, may it come speedily in our days.

May our tears of mourning turn into tears of joy,

Mattos/Massei – Accepting Responsibility for Negligence

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The second perek of Maseches Makkos is dedicated to the accidental murderer who has the right to run away to a city of refuge in order that he will not be killed by the goel hadam, the avenger of blood, a relative of the deceased. There is an argument between Rebbe Yossi HaGlili and Rebbe Akiva in the 7th Mishna of the perek as to whether the family member of the deceased gets a mitzvah for killing the accidental murderer and whether anyone else is allowed to commit the same murder – or if only a family member is allowed to kill the accidental murderer. It is implicit from the first Mishna and in the gemara with Rashi there that this accidental murderer, while he certainly had no intention of killing an innocent party, the act was not completely out of his control. Indeed,  he would not need to run away to a city of refuge but rather there must have been some level of negligence on his part, as he could have been more careful with what he was handling or more aware of his surroundings, and because of that he must run away and live his life in a city of refuge in order for himself not to be killed. Mishna 6 explains how this accidental murderer can eventually leave a city of refuge and go back home, namely upon the death of a kohen gadol; whether he was serving as kohen gadol at the time of his death, stepped down at the time as kohen gadol, or was the kohen appointed to lead the army into war; if any of them die he goes free. For this matter the Mishna says that the mothers of these kohanim would give food, drink and clothing to these accidental killers in order that they wouldn’t daven for the demise of their son.  The gemara in Makkos daf 11a asks why we would think the prayers of these accidental killers would be listened to since they are asking for such an accursed thing as the kohen gadol dying just so that they could go home? The gemara answers that in fact the Kohen gadol deserves this because they should have davened harder that nothing like this would happen in their lifetime.

This seems to make a decent amount of sense, on the simple understanding of this part in the Torah. However, the Daas Zekeinim says he has a different basic understanding of these pesukim which are found in the second parsha of this week’s double Torah portion of Mattos and Maasei, the source of this concept.  The Torah says: “But if the murderer goes beyond the border of the city of refuge to which he had fled, and the blood avenger finds him outside the limits of his city of refuge, and the blood avenger slays the murderer, he has no blood. For he shall remain in his city of refuge until the Kohen Gadol dies, and only after the Kohen Gadol has died, may the murderer return to the land which is his possession” (Bamidbar 35:26-29).

The Daas Zekeinim exclaims on pasuk 28 that the simple understanding of why the accidental murderer must stay in the city of refuge until the kohen gadol dies is in order that the world won’t speak badly about the kohen gadol when they see the murderer outside of the city of refuge. They would say: “See this guy who killed someone, and the kohen gadol refuses to take revenge upon him, it is his responsibility, as it says: ‘And you shall come to the kohen who will be [serving] in those days’ (Devarim 35:28).” But when the kohen gadol dies they would not suspect the kohen that is appointed after him, for what evil speech can they say about him, since the murder did not happen while he was kohen gadol. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The mishnayos and gemara in Makkos seems to be saying that the accidental murderer must stay in the city of refuge in order to save his life ad he can only leave without worrying that he will be killed once the kohen gadol who was in charge at the time of the murder passes on. Also, it is granted that to a large extent he deserves to live in this city of refuge because he could have been more careful with what he was doing but he wasn’t and someone was killed based on his negligence. But the kohen gadol seems also to be held to account for not davening hard enough for this to not have happened.

Yet the Daas Zekeinim has a totally different interpretation, and claims that this is the simple understanding of the text: the accidental murderer must stay inside the city of refuge in order that people won’t slander, i.e. speak lashon hara, about the kohen gadol, for not taking revenge on this accidental murderer. What should the kohen gadol have done? The Daas Zekeinim quotes a pasuk which talks about the bikurim, first fruits, that were brought to the kohen gadol which the Torah says must be done with true joy for performing the mitzvah, and the Daas Zekeinim there says the crops are blessed at that time. So these scoffers seemed to have not wanted the kohen gadol to accept the accidental murderer’s bikurim, as revenge for the accidental murder.
First off, we have to understand how the Daas Zekeinim can be arguing on the second perek of Makkos, especially since it seems to be the simple understanding of the pesukim in the Torah. However, it is possible to say this even if family members don’t want to kill him. Perhaps he is a friend, they couldn’t come to do such a thing, or he is known for being an upstanding citizen in general. He knows and is confident that he would not be killed if he lives outside of the city of refuge; still in all the Daas Zekeinim says he still must live inside the city of refuge until the Kohen gadol dies in order that people won’t slander the kohen gadol.

But why should he be punished in such a manner? Being away from where he normally lives, from doing what he is used to doing, and from being a part of normal society? Did he really do something terribly wrong; it was an accident? He might have fallen down a ladder while going down it and fallen on someone, killing them, or the like. Should that warrant being locked up in a city of refuge simply because people might commit the grievous sin of speaking lashon hara about the kohen gadol if they see the killer on the street? The kohen gadol wouldn’t even do anything wrong according to their slander. If the murderer would be free to roam the streets and want to fulfill the honorable mitzvah of giving the first fruits of his crop to Hashem on Shavuos then the kohen would accept the mitzvah and these outlandish scoffers would not want the mitzvah accepted. Why should we even worry about what such people say, especially to deprive this person of an opportunity of performing a mitzvah if he wants?

We learn from this Daas Zekeinim to what extent we are held accountable for the negligible actions we do. Once we do something which has negative repercussions even if we claim it was an accident,  now we are responsible for even the most farfetched, and despicable ramifications like other people’s potential slander which caused the Beis HaMikdash to be destroyed and still not rebuilt to this day which is why the accidental killer is stuck in the city of refuge until the kohen gadol dies.