Vayera – Philanthropy: Doing Because You Want to Not Just Because it is What’s Right

We find in this week’s Torah portion of Vayera the destruction of Sodom. Among the many reasons why it deserved annihilation was because of their refusal to be charitable; it in fact became illegal under Sodomite law to take care of strangers or guests from outside the city. This became known as the trait of Sodom and in fact the prophet Yechezkel warns the Jewish people, “Behold this was the iniquity of Sodom your sister: pride, abundance of bread, and careless ease were hers and her daughters’, and she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and needy” (Yechezkel 16:49).

There is a fascinating Mishna in Pirkey Avos that mentions this trait of Sodom:
5:10 There are four types of people: One who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine” is a boor (or ignoramus, עם הארץ). One who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours” — this is a median characteristic; others say that this is the character of a Sodomite. One who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours” is a chassid (pious person). And one who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine” is wicked.

“What is mine is mine and what is your is yours, this is the median trait, but some say this is the trait of Sodom.” Rabbeinu Yonah asks that if we take it literally that a person will not share with anyone though he is not a taker, why then is there an argument of what kind of person he is? The Gemara in Kesubos 68a clearly says that withholding tzedaka is the trait of Sodom and in many places the sages say this type of person is completely wicked. It does not make sense that there would be an opinion amongst the sages that this type of trait would be an average trait?!

Thus, Rabbeinu Yonah felt compelled to explain the Mishna as referring to a person who does give to the needy when obligated, out of fear of Hashem, but it doesn’t come natural to him because he is miserly. His attitude is “I’ll support the poor who come to my door  because the Torah tells me to since I am a G-D fearing Jew, but who  cares whether this feeling of giving comes natural to me or not” – this trait itself is an average trait. However, there are those who say that this trait itself is the trait of Sodom and its roots are very bad until one acquires the trait of giving away (ותרנות). One who does not support the hand of the poor and destitute at all, everyone would without a doubt agree is bad, and G-D forbid the sages of the Mishna would call them average, but one who gives tzedakah out of Fear of Heaven rather  than naturally is what the argument is about as to  whether this is an average trait or a trait of Sodom. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Rabbeinu Yonah is saying something quite shocking and is a tremendous eye opener! It is possible for a person to be giving lots of money, at least a tenth of his earning in maaser (tithes), besides money to those who come to him begging for charity and if he is really rich he might be giving millions of dollars, yet he is doing it only because he is meticulous in his observance of halacha, Jewish Law, since he is a G-D fearing Jew, but if it was up to him he wouldn’t give anyone a dime because he is too cheap. Since he is giving and not for some ulterior motive like to get a tax cut or for fame, for example too have his name on a building, how then can anyone say that this is the character of Sodom and has very evil roots; he is still doing the right thing and doing it out of fear of Hashem; what is wrong with that!!!

There is an incredible nuance learnt from Rabbeinu Yonah! It is not enough to be G-D Fearing, to do the right thing in terms of the trait of giving, because deep down inside he is still stingy and a miser. Rather one must feel naturally compelled to give to those who are in need and if one does not, then it is debatable whether at the very least he is just nothing special or at the very worst rooted in evil like the people of Sodom.

On the other hand Rabbeinu Yona explains that if one’s attitude is “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine, is an ignoramus” because granted he is a giver but he is also a taker and does not realize “that one who hates gifts is a formula for life” which is a good trait. Where as one who has the attitude of “What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours, is pious” which means he takes the opposite extremes of having a natural feeling of being a giver and hating gifts. He wants to give and not take from others which is a trait above the letter of the law, that is why he is considered pious. This takes a lot of strategy and brainpower to be able to support yourself without any help and still have the means to be able to give with open arms to those who are in need, with a natural fervor and passion.

Lech Licha –

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What Is Love
  Last week’s Torah portion of Noach ended with us being introduced to Avraham Avinu, this week’s portion of Lech Licha begins the story of our forefather and his trek to ultimate greatness. The Mishna in Pirkey Avos says, “Our forefather Avraham was tested with ten trials, and withstood them all; to show the degree of our forefather Avraham’s love [for Hashem]” (Avos 5:3).

There is an argument amongst the early commentators what exactly the ten trials were. Rabbeinu Yona says the ten trials were:

  1. Nimrod threw him into the fiery furnace in Ur Kasdim.
  2. The command to leave his land where he grew up, which he did.
  3. The famine in Eretz Canaan where he wound up. Even though he was promised blessing he did not question what Hashem was doing now.
  4. Sarah Immeinu being taken by Pharaoh in Egypt.
  5. The war of the four kings where he overpowered the enemy with only 318 men. Avraham trusted in Hashem and was provided with a miracle to save himself, Lot, and all the treasures of Sodom and Amorah. He accepted all that happened for his good and merit.
  6. At the age of 99 he had his bris milah, he put himself into danger at an old age and was saved.
  7. Avimelech, King of Plishtim, took Sarah Immeinu.
  8. Yishmael and his mother Hagar were banished from Avraham’s house at the command of Hashem. Even though it hurt him to see what was being done to his son, Avraham still fulfilled the command.
  9. Akeidas Yitzchak, the binding of Yitzchak his son. This was the greatest test and proved he was a big fearer of Hashem.
  10. The burial of Sarah Immeinu. After his wife died he had difficulty finding a burial plot until he bought one for a very expensive price and still he did not question Hashem, though he was promised the entire Land of Caaan to belong to him and future generations.

Rabbeinu Yona says that these ten trials were to show the degree of Avraham Avinu’s love for Hashem which means that these tests showed the world that he was G-d fearing and perfected all his character traits. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
What does fear of Hashem and perfecting his character traits have to do with Avraham Avinu’s love of Hashem? Chaza”l say fear might lead to love but what does it have to do with love itself? And perfecting his character had to do with his own personal development, what does that have to do with Avraham’s feeling of love for Hashem?

If I would prove how much Avraham Avinu loved Hashem I would have mentioned how Avrahaham built  the four alters to bring gifts of offerings up to Hashem. (This, the Sforno in his introduction to the Torah says that in that merit there were 4 alters that the Jewish people merited to build from the time they wandered in the desert until the first Beis HaMikdash was built.) Another expression of love was by teaching tens of thousands of people who Hashem is, by bringing them closer to Hashem and teaching them how to bless Hashem. Or even the very fact that Avraham found Hashem from the age of 3 and kept on developing the close bond with Hashem by performing all His Torah and mitzvos through just looking around the world and  realizing what Hashem wants  him to do, meaning caring for Hashem and His will is also a tremendous expression of love. So why does the Mishna say passing these tests, which the Rabbienu Yonah says shows that Avraham was a G-d fearing Jew and perfecting his character, are what defines his love for Hashem?

What we see from here is that one’s expression of love is really defined by the respect and dedication one has for the loved one. It is not the gifts or sharing the love with others by showing them why it is so worth it to love Hashem. It is not even caring, which is, the focus of one’s love (though all these things contribute and is a part of one’s expression of love). However, by Avraham Avinu showing his utmost fear of Hashem and perfecting his character traits by unwaveringly surmounting all the challenges all while building and cementing a solid belief and trust in Hashem, proves his utmost respect and dedication towards Hashem which really defines true love.

Noach – What is Righteousness

This Dvar Torah is dedicated in memory of Dr. Bill Ladner, who was the inspiration and reason of why I started Food for Thought. He passed away in his 90s last Thursday night. May this dvar Torah and all subsequent Food for thoughts be a merit to his Holy Neshama, Yehi Zichro Baruch.

This Dvar Torah is based on a shmuz I heard in Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim Yerushalayim by Rav Moshe Chait zt”l in 2001. 

There are different ideas what a tzadik, a righteous person, is.

 This week’s Torah portion of Noach begins by saying: “These are the generations of Noach, Noach was a righteous man he was perfect in his generations; Noach walked with God” (Brieshis 6:9). Rashi there observes, “בדורותיו IN HIS GENERATIONS — Some of our Rabbis explain it (this word) to his credit: he was righteous even in his generation; it follows that had he lived in a generation of righteous people he would have been even more righteous owing to the force of good example. Others, however, explain it to his discredit: in comparison with his own generation he was accounted righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Avraham he would have been accounted as of no importance (cf. Sanhedrin 108a).”

Rashi states the argument that “In his generation” means a praise that he was righteous in his generation and all the more so, he would have been an even greater tzadik if he was in a generation among other righteous people, since being righteous among a generation of wicked people takes a lot of inner strength. However “In his generation” could also be an insult; for it can mean that while he may have been a tzadik in his generation, if he had lived at the same time as Avraham Avinu then he wouldn’t be considered anything special. He was righteous compared to the wicked; but compared to others he was nothing important.

Either way he is still called a tzadik. He has some level of righteousness which sets him apart.

There is a medrish Yalkut Shimone in parshas Vezos Habracha that elaborates on a pasuk from Eishes Chayil, “Many women have acquired wealth, but you surpass them all” (Mishlei 31:29). Chazal say about this pasuk that there are many righteous people in this world, but you are better then all of them, which allegorically refers to Moshe Rabbeinu. Adam HaRishon said to Moshe, “I am greater than you because I was created in the Image of Hashem, b’tzelem Elokim. Moshe said back that your greatness did not last too long. You could not even stay in that lofty state overnight, but for me the glory that was given to me from Hashem lasted for the rest of my life as the pasuk says, “Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died. His eyes had not dimmed, nor had he lost his [natural] freshness” (Devarim 34:7). Moshe admitted that being a tzelem Elokim, having been created by Hashem Himself without physical parents, is a very high level, but what counts is lasting at a spiritually high level.

The medrish continues with Noach approaching Moshe and saying that he is greater than Moshe because he was the only one saved with his family. Since he was able to withstand all the wickedness and stay righteous, he was greater than Moshe. Moshe replied that Noach didn’t have the power to save his generation, but Moshe was able to change the evil decree cast on the Jews by Hashem, caused by the sin of the golden calf. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
There is a state of righteousness that doesn’t show greatness (like Noach). But changing the decision Hashem makes is greatness (like Moshe). It wasn’t enough that Moshe led them through the desert but Moshe rose to a level of righteousness that could even change Hashem’s decision!

Chazal say that Noach’s generation was so evil that Hashem said they don’t have a right to live and yet Noach didn’t let them influence himself and his family. However this wasn’t enough to fulfill his purpose in life, for Moshe was saying he could have gone farther in righteousness by affecting others for the good just as Moshe did.

It is not enough to become a Tzadik for yourself. Gadlus ha’adam, the greatness of man, is to recognize how much Hashem endowed man. One is not here for oneself; rather one is here, in this world, in order to make a change in the world around him or her.

At one-point Moshe said he’d rather be non-existent than harm a fellow Jew. This is selflessness.

The Rambam says that everyone is affected by external influences. It is just a question of what we do with these influences.
What is the essence of a leader, a gadol? He is concerned for others. It is very important for everyone to think about what I am doing for others, and how am I influential?

It is not enough to be a “righteous man in his generation;” Moshe was the person to emulate because he had an impact on others. We must be conscientious about what we do in and around the beis medrish, our workplace, our shul, in our home etc.

Breishis -The Benefits of a True Fatherly Figure

Gadlus Ha’adam, the greatness of mankind, is realized through our ability to choose between good and evil in a deep intellectual fashion, as well as being able to express it with our power of speech. The potential to be able to reach great heights in physical prowess as well as in the spiritual realm in an artistic and creative manner is what gives us the impetus to strive to do good and make this world a better place.

The foundation of man’s greatness is encapsulated in this week’s Torah portion of Breishis, when he was created:

And G-D created man in His image; in the image of G-D He created him; male and female He created them. כזוַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים | אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם:

It is a well-known premise in Slobodka Mussar that through Gadlus Ha’adam, realizing the great potential inside each and every human being, the fact that we are created in the image of G-D, b’tzelem Elokim, we are given a sense of responsibility to emulate Him, to do what is right in the world, and to strive for character perfection.

However, there is another reason, besides the sense of responsibility, why Hashem created us in His image, and it is another motivator for us to strive for greatness and perfection. This reason is provided by the Sforno in his introduction to his commentary on the Torah.

The Sforno says that the Torah first tells us that the Blessed One created man in His image, as His likeness in order to choose to emulate His Creator as much as possible. For in this way he will perfect himself and his actions will be complete and honorable more than any other, just like what’s befitting to Him Who Is Blessed, who is exulted above everything else. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
It would seem that the fact that we were created in G-D’s image doesn’t just give us a sense of responsibility according to the Sforno; it is more than that. Once we have been endowed with a part of His very being and essence, in a sense, it is now a part of our genetic makeup, available to tap into and develop. Being that The Image of G-D is in our system, or genetic makeup, not as a physical DNA but in our soul, we now have the inkling to emulate the One who gave it to us. Just as a child is born with certain traits from his physical parents which are passed on to him and he learns to live with them and develop them for good or for bad, and because he has these similar genes to his parents therefore many times he has this drive to learn from them and to emulate them. They are his fatherly and motherly figures which many times he looks up to in order to learn from, so to Hashem created us in His Image so that we will turn to Hashem as a fatherly figure and emulate Him as best as possible.

Unlike physical parents who might have flaws and shortcomings, Hashem, however, is all good, all knowledgeable, all powerful, and all perfect. There is nothing bad that can come out of striving to emulate Him and learning from His ways. This means that this is worthwhile to do  and so the means which help us to follow Hashem is His Torah which guides us in what is right and wrong.

We are unlike animals or plants and other physical but inanimate objects, who are programmed to do whatever Hashem decides for them to do. Neither are we like the angels who are pure spiritual beings, that have a natural awe of Hashem which causes them never to err. We are potentially better than both since we are endowed with the Tzelem Elokim, with a Divine soul. We just must realize and tap into this part of ourselves, emulate our Father In Heaven, for if and when we do then then our greatness shines, and that is true Gadlus Ha’adam!

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.