Lech Licha – Blind Faith: A History of the Arab World

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Towards the end of this week’s Torah Portion of Lech Licha Hashem gives a blessing to Yishmael because Avraham, his father, prayed to Hashem that he should receive a blessing; not because he was part of the covenant with Yitzchok, as the Rabbeinu Bachye (17:20) points out based on the pesukim in the Torah: “And regarding Ishmael, I have heard you; behold I have blessed him, and I will make him fruitful, and I will multiply him exceedingly; he will beget twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. But My covenant I will establish with Yitzchok, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year.” (Breishis 17:20, 21).

The Rabbeinu Bachye goes on to explain in more detail the blessing given to Yishmael, and how it came into fruition. “Yishmael had 12 sons who were enumerated by name at the end of the Torah portion of Chaye Sarah. It was written there: ‘The first born of Yshmael was Nevayot, [then came] Kedar, Adabel, Mivasem, Mashma, Domeh, Masa, Chadad, Teimah, Yitur, Nafish, and Kedmah, which equal out to 12.’ The fact that it says he begot 12 princes and not 12 nations is to show us their leadership and the profound greatness which was placed upon them because of the blessing, more so than on other nations, just as Hashem the Blessed One promised:  ‘Behold I will bless him and cause him to multiply very, very much.’ There is another implication to the word ‘princes,’ ‘נשיאים’ in that they disappear from the world after their profound greatness. For it comes from the pasuk, ‘נְשִׂיאִ֣ים וְ֖רוּחַ, Clouds and wind’(Mishlei 25:14), and it is coming to hint that they will be destroyed and lost from the world, like the language of ‘Just as a cloud is consumed and goes away’ (Iyov 7:9). This is also why the word for princes in this pasuk is spelled ‘נְשִׂיאִם֙’ without a yud towards the end of the word. The pasuk is coming to teach you about the kingdom of Yishmael that in the beginning they will be strong and in the end they will be weak. So to the angel said to Hagar ‘And he will be a pere adam’ (Breishis 16:12), meaning he will act amongst people like a barbarian who defeats everyone, and afterwards the hand of everyone will be upon him.”

Yishmael and his descendants were blessed by Hashem, due to Avraham’s merit and prayers, to be great and mighty rulers of enormous multitudes, for a long period of time; but only temporarily. Yet their time seemed not to have come too quickly, as Rabbeinu Bachye writes in the name of Rabbeinu Chananel: “We have seen that this promise was delayed for them by 2,333 years and this delay was not because of their sins, and they were yearning for its fulfillment all these years, and in the end it was fulfilled, and afterwards their empire was strengthened. As for us, whose kingdom was taken away because of our sins, and a time of 1,335 years was set, all the more so we should be yearning for His promise and never give up!”  (Click here for Hebrew text.)

We must put into perspective what Rabbeinu Chananel means, and the lesson he is trying to drive home. It so happens that his calculations are exact, for Avraham and Yishmael had a bris in the year 2047 (on the Jewish calendar) and Yishmael’s reign started in 4374 (622 C.E.) which is the year Mohamad fled Mecca, which started the Arab conquest, ten years before they spread throughout the world (4374-2047=2,337 years which is just 4 years off of Rabbeinu Chananel’s calculation of 2,333).

The 1,335 referenced for the Jewish people is referring to the second to last pasuk of Daniel, where it is discussing the Final Redemption and coming of Moshiach. It writes there: “Fortunate is he who waits and reaches days of one thousand, three hundred, and thirty-five” (Daniel 12:12). What this number means is completely obscured; it definitely does not mean, according to Rabbeinu Chananel, that Moshiach was supposed to come 1,335 years after the time of Daniel, for Daniel lived between 3304-3399 / 457-362 BCE which means, at latest, from Daniel’s death, 362 BCE. 1,335 years later would put it at the year 973 CE, and Rabbeinu Chananel lived from 965 CE until 1055 CE, which would have made him 8 years old at the time. It is evident that he wrote this many years later, and yet still said with confidence that ‘all the more so we Jews should have full trust in Hashem for our reckoning since there is some timetable even though that timetable is totally incomprehensible, and was purposefully written in that fashion.’ In fact, the Metzudas Dovid, many centuries later, said on that pasuk in Daniel: “It says happy is the one who waits for it and will then reach that moment and it then explains what we are hoping for which reaches a certain number but we don’t know what this is referring to (anything of its kind).”

Rabbeinu Chananel is trying to teach us a lesson from Yishmael’s descendants. Just as they knew without a doubt, and had blind faith that Hashem’s blessing and promise to them would one day come to fruition, as it did, all the more so we have to have unyielding trust in Hashem that He will bring the ultimate salvation to his Chosen People. Why should it be so obvious for us? Rabbeinu Chananel says our kingdom was only taken away from us because of our sins so it is up to us to repent and rectify the matter but it is also because we were given a number to look forward to, a sign, and though it is obscure and unknown, it is something to “hang our hats on,” as an impetus to strengthen our trust that His word will come true.

The History of the world is quite vast! It took 1,656 years before Hashem decided to send the flood. Yishmael and his descendants, the Arab world, were steadfast for 2,333 years in their blind faith and trust in Hashem, without any indications of when His promise to them would be fulfilled, and look where they are today!

We not only have that clarity of belief in Hashem, just as they do, but Hashem, out of his love and mercy for us, gave us some hint, albeit a very subtle one, in order to strengthen our yearning, drive for the End of Days and our Salvation.

Noach – The Animals Owe Us

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In this week’s Torah portion of Noach there is a hint to the Seven Noahide Laws, which are: (1)idolatry, (2) cursing the Divine Name, (3) murder, (4) illicit relation, (5) theft and civil law (6) court systems (7) eating a limb torn from a live animal.

It would seem that when Hashem created the world He only allowed man to eat vegetation until after the flood, when he permitted Noach to eat meat; but not from a live animal. Why is this so?

The Torah says: “Every moving thing that lives shall be yours to eat; like the green vegetation, I have given you everything” (Breishis 9:3). Rashi explain, “לכם יהיה לאכלה SHALL BE FOOD FOR YOU — For I did not permit Adam Harishon to eat meat, but green herbs alone; but to you — just as the green herbs that I gave the full use of to Adam Harishon — do I give everything (Sanhedrin 59b).”

The Sifsei Chachamim on Rashi explains why Adam Harishon was not permitted to eat meat and what changed in the times of Noach. He says: “The reason why meat was permitted to Noach and not to Adam, I humbly believe is because man and animal were equally the creations of Hashem, one was no better than the other, so why should one be allowed to kill the other? But at the time of the flood, when they all sinned, and all of them deserved to be destroyed, but they survived in the merit of Noach, for this reason man is now better than the animals.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

How is it possible to logically entertain the possibility that man and animal are equal? Animals are completely made up of physical, world-driven instincts. Man was created “in the image of G-D,” with a spiritual soul interconnected to his and her physical body, with the ability to speak on an intellectual level, make deep cognitive decisions, and think on a very profound and creative level. Man also has free choice to choose between good and bad, with the ability to reach great heights in connecting with Hashem. Whereas animals, any corruption that happened to them in the days of the flood or at any other time, is due to instinctive reactivity to their surroundings. So why does the Sifsei Chachamim say they were once equal?

It must have been talking  in terms of damaging or killing another life force; animals and men were equal because we are both creations of Hashem, and how can it be justified to ruin or destroy such a precious and valuable entity. Hashem only allowed vegetation to be taken apart and eaten for the purpose of man and animals’ sustenance, which is why they were created in this world; without food we cannot live. What then changed? Aren’t animals still the same creatures created by Hashem just as man is?

We see from here the power of indebtedness. Since it was only in Noach’s merit that the animal kingdom was saved, it is as if he and his progeny own the animals and it is within our right to make productive use of them. (Albeit within reason, which is why there are limitation, like the prohibition of eating a limb torn from a live animal).

For this reason we are allowed to eat meat and, even more so, there is now a natural fear that animals have of mankind, as we see in Rashi from the previous pasuk: “So long as a baby, even one day old, has life you do not have to guard it against the attacks of mice, whilst Og, king of Bashan, when dead needs to be guarded against the attacks of mice, as it is said, ‘And the fear of you and the terror of you shall be [upon the beasts of the field etc.].’ When will the fear of you be upon the beasts? So long as you are alive (חתכם) (Shabbat 151b)” (Rashi 9:2).

The sense and reality of gratitude can be absolutely transformative!

Breishis – The Law of the Land

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According to the Sifsei Chachamim the first Rashi (written by Rav Shlomo Yitzchaki) on Chumash is a question asked and answered by his father:  בראשית” IN THE BEGINNING — Rabbi Yitzchak said: The Torah which is the Law book of Israel should have commenced with the verse (Exodus 12:2) “This month shall be unto you the first of the months,” which is the first commandment given to Israel. What then is the reason that it commences with the account of the Creation?
Many commentaries explain the basis of this question. The Gur Aryeh points out: “Even though there is no story in the Torah which is not needed, (even the fact that the sister of Lotan was Timna), as pointed out in Sanhedrin perek Chelek, but since the name ‘Torah’ is only meant for the mitzvos of the Torah, because the word Torah comes from the word hora’ah, (which means teaching) to teach us the actions we should be doing. Therefore the Torah of Moshe is called Torah for in it only the mitzvos are written. You should know that the Book of Iyov was also written by Moshe as stated in Bava Basra 5b, and if one would write the Book of Iyov inside a Torah it would be forbidden to be read in a congregation. That is why he asked why there was no need to write [these stories in the Torah] etc.”

The Ramban, with a slightly different take on the question, ponders: “One can say that in fact there actually is a big need to start the Torah from the creation of the world, for it is the root of our beliefs. One who does not believe in this, and thinks that the world is ancient, denies everything and has no Torah at all! But the answer is that what happened by creation is really a very deep secret which cannot be understood from just the pesukim, and it is only understood in all its clarity according to the oral tradition that dates back to Moshe Rabbeinu who heard from the Mouth of The Almighty, and knowledge about it must be hidden in secret. This is why Rabbi Yitzchak said the Torah did not have to start from creation, and the story of what was created on the first day, and what was done on the second day, and all the other days, as well as all the detail of forming Adam and Chava, their sin and punishments, and the story of Gan Eden and Adam’s banishment from there; all this is not fully understood from what is written in the Torah. Definitely the story of the generations of the flood and the Tower of Babel, which there is not great need for them to be mentioned. The People of Torah could have done without these writings, and would have believed in them based on the hint mentioned in the Ten Commandments: ‘For in six days Hashem made the heaven and earth, the sea and all inside it, and He rested on the seventh’ (Shemos 20:11). The specifics could have been left for certain individuals to know through halacha liMoshe miSinai, oral transmission, through the Oral Tradition.”
Basically the question is: why does the Torah have to start with all these stories if it is really supposed to be a list of mitzvos? Why can’t you put the stories in a separate book like the Book of Iyov, which was written by Moshe Rabbeinu as well but was include in Writings (Kesuvim)? Or don’t put any of it into writing since it is so complex; it should just be known and understood by the individuals that can understand it, passed down from generation to generation through the Oral Torah dating back to what Moshe received with the Written Torah on Har Sinai?

To answer Rashi quotes his father to say : “Because of the thought expressed in the text (Psalms 111:6) ‘He declared to His people the strength of His works (i.e. He gave an account of the work of Creation), in order that He might give them the heritage of the nations.’ For should the peoples of the world say to Israel: ‘You are robbers, because you took by force the lands of the seven nations of Canaan’, Israel may reply to them: ‘All the earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whom He pleased. When He willed He gave it to them, and when He willed He took it from them and gave it to us’ (Yalkut Shimoni on Torah 187).”
There are many commentators who struggle to understand his answer, but we are going to focus on the Ramban. The Ramban says that the creation of the world, Adam and Chava’s banishment from Gan Eden after they sinned, the punishments of the generation of the flood (with one righteous person escaping with his children), and the Tower of Babel (with that generation being spread out and settling in different lands according to their families), are lessons to teach us that it is appropriate that when a nation continues to sin they lose their place and another is elevated to replace them in inheriting their land, for this is the law of G-d in the land forever. All the more so the Canaanites, who are cursed and shall forever be slaves (Brieshis 9:27), who didn’t deserve to inherit the chosen area, but rather it rightfully belongs to the beloved servants of Hashem, in order that they observe the statutes and laws of their Creator. Meaning, Hashem abolished those that rebelled against Him, and brought in His servants who knew that through serving Him they would deserve to inherit the land. And, if they would sin, the land would vomit them out, just as it vomited the nation that came before them.

The Gur Aryeh sums up the Ramban by saying: “And the Ramban also wrote that all the mitzvos in the Torah are the laws of G-D in the land, meaning all the mitzvos in the Torah are applicable specifically in The Land [of Israel]. It is also written in Sefer Melachim: ‘When the Jews were exiled and non-Jews settled in the land, and they did not know the Laws of G-D in the land, Hashem sent against them lions’ (Melachim Beis 17:26,) we see from here that the Torah is G-D’s law of the land.”

The Gur Aryeh goes on to say: “And you should delve into the words of the Ramban in parshas Toldos on the posuk, ‘and kept My charge,’ (Breishis 26:5), and therefore it needed to be written in the Torah that according to strict judgement the land came to the Jews, for He created it and He gave it. One can ask that it now makes sense why the Torah portion of Breishis is in the Torah; but why all the other stories, why were they written in the Torah? But this also is not really difficult to understand, for if the Torah portion of Breishis was the only story written down to say that The Holy one Blessed Be He created and gave to whom He felt was proper in His eyes. The nations will answer that ‘This is a lie, The Holy One Blessed Be He did not give the land to you, for He does not exercise judgement without first judging, for why would He take the land away from the nations and give it to the Jews?’ But now that the entire story of all the generations angering Hashem until Avraham comes around and received all their reward, the land was then taken away from the nations and given to his children as an inheritance, but not to all his children, for He said to Avraham, ‘You shall know that your offspring will be a stranger in a land not theirs and they will be enslaved etc.’ This was not fulfilled through the offspring of Yishmael and Esav, only through the offspring of Yaakov, for Hashem brought them into servitude and fulfilled ‘And also the nation that they have served, I will judge…’ until ‘And this month shall be for you,’ therefore the entire story had to be written down that the Jews were in servitude and were redeemed, and therefore the giving of the land was to Yisrael and not to Yishmael or Esav.”
The Land of Israel is only a speck on the map, not even as large as New Jersey. There are much vaster and larger, as well as more beautiful, pieces of land throughout the world, like the Alps, the Rockies, the Himalayas, etc. Strategically, it is not bordering any major oceans like e America, Africa, parts of Europe, China, etc. One can always go around Israel to Africa, or from Africa to the Middle East, the same route the Jews took when going out of Egypt. So why is everyone so resolute in working to discredit the Jewish claim on the Land of Israel?

The reason is because everyone knows there is something special about the location; but what they don’t realize is why it is special; what or who makes it special. They don’t realize the land is only holy, blessed, and enriched because there is the “Law of the Land” that, if followed, enable its beauty and magnificence to sprout to its fullest potential. But if the “Law of the Land” isn’t followed, it doesn’t want its inhabitants, and the inhabitants don’t deserve the benefits of the land.

To actualize the deep connection between observing the mitzvos and living wholeheartedly in the Promise Land, it was worthwhile to add in all the stories of the Torah, the law book of Hashem, the King Of All Kings, into the book written mainly as The Law of the Land. Though many mitzvos do apply outside of the Land of Israel as well, they apply doubly inside The Land.

Vezos Habracha – Good Leadership: The Hallmark of the Jewish People

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One might think that the way to conclude the guide book of mankind would be to reinforce how important it is to observe it, or how awe-inspiring and exalted is its author, Hashem, The Holy One Blessed Be He. Yet the last 3 pesukim of the Torah talk about Moshe Rabbeinu, Hashem’s loyal servant, according to Rashi (according to the Ramban on Chumash the pasuk is in fact praising Hashem.)

The Torah concludes: “And there was no other prophet that stood up amongst the Jews like Moshe who knew Hashem face to face. For all the signs and wonders that Hashem sent him to do in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh and his servants and his entire land. And all the strong hand and all the great awe that Moshe did in the eyes of all the Jews” (Devarim 34:10-12).

Rashi on the last pasuk of the Torah says that “and all the strong hand” refers to the fact that Moshe “received the Torah in the tablets with his hands.” “And all the great awe” refers to “the miracles and mighty deeds [performed by Moshe] in the immense, awesome wilderness. Finally, “in the eyes of all the Jews” refers to “when he took the liberty of shattering the tablets before their eyes, as it says: ‘I shattered them before your eyes.’ The Holy One Blessed Be He consented to his opinion, at it is said: ‘which you shattered,’ ‘more power to you for shattering them!’” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

According to Rashi, the very last statement of the Torah refers to the smashing of the tablets. Why does the Torah conclude with referencing this lowly moment in our history? What message is being taught and why does it have to be taught now, at the very end?

The last Sifsei Chachamim on Rashi explains why Rashi feels he needs to add that Hashem agreed with Moshe deciding to throw down and smash the tablets. “He is coming to answer that now it is coming to praise Moshe, but is it a praise of Moshe that he broke the tablets? That is why he explained that Hashem acquiesced to this etc. Question: How does the Medrish know that ‘which you shattered’ could be interpreted as ‘more power to you for shattering,’ maybe the word אשר should be translated the way it is normally translated every place else? The Ramban already answered in the first chapter of Bava Basra 14b that we darshan a smuchin (a juxtaposition of two words next to each other in the Torah which can teach us a lesson or halacha), for it wrote earlier 10:2 אשר that which you broke and you placed, which implies the broken shards of the tablets were beloved by G-D. If their breaking would have been difficult in front of Him, He would not have said to place them in the Ark, for a prosecutor does not become a defendant. But because of the smuchin we darshan אשר as being a language of אשרי, happy is you. And see in his (the Ramban’s) piece in tractate Shabbos 87a, when it says a prosecutor doesn’t become a defendant I humbly believe it means that The Blessed Hashem commanded that the Ark should be placed in the inner chambers in order to be reminded of the Jewish merit of accepting the Torah and if it was sinful to break the tablets then they would have been a prosecutor to remember the sin of the golden calf, that for that reason the tablets were smashed, rather it must be that Hashem definitely agreed to them being smashed.”

Something doesn’t make sense here. If it must be that Hashem acquiesced to the smashing of the tablets because he would not have placed them in the Ark in the Holy of Holies lest they act as a reason to prosecute the Jews and not a merit to defend them, but isn’t the very fact that they are smashed a reason to remember the sin of the golden calf and to prosecute them? That was the whole reason why Hashem agreed with Moshe to smash them! So why wouldn’t it be used against them?

We must therefore say that even though  Hashem agreed with Moshe to smash the tablets, which were the symbol of merit for accepting the Torah, they must still be a symbol of merit even though they were broken, and would not have been broken if the sin of the golden calf had not happened. But because the leader of the nation took proper actions to reprimand his people and did not capitulate to their ideas or look the other way when there was a serious problem already happening, it is meritorious and is a symbol of excellent leadership, which will trickle down as an example of how to sacrifice for the cause of good.

This lesson is definitely worth concluding the entire Torah with, because it is teaching us that it is not the book itself which is sacred, rather it’s what is inside that counts. If we have leaders that are focused on doing what’s right for Hashem’s sake, at whatever cost, it will have a trickle down effect on the entire nation and bring merit to everyone which makes it very apropos for Hashem who acquiesced to this matter to conclude the Torah with this lesson.

Haazinu – The Nickname That Stuck

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 Yehoshua (Joshua) Bin Nun, the successor of Moshe Rabbeinu, was given the name Hoshea at birth, and we in fact find a few times throughout the Torah his original name used. One instance is at the end of this week’s Torah portion of Haazinu, where it states: “And Moses came and spoke all the words of this song into the ears of the people he and Hoshea the son of Nun.”

The Chizkuni explains how he got the name Yehoshua: “In the beginning when he began being an attendant of Moshe Rabbeinu, Moshe called him Yehoshua, for this is normal practice of kings to change the names of their attendants, for example, Yosef, Daniel, Chananya, Mishael, and Azaryah. Now that he became the King he went back to his original name. Nevertheless in all of Tanach he is called Yehoshua because that is what he was used to being called.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

We know the nickname Yehoshua is not derogatory, because that was what Moshe used as a defense for Yehoshua against the bad influence of the spies. Also, the addition of the “yud” to the beginning of his name which starts with the letter “hay” combines to be one of Hashem’s names. However, it does seem to be a lack of respect and a detraction from the honor of the king to be called by the name he was called when he was just an attendant or servant of the previous king. Not only did he write and name the first book of Neviem by that name, Yehoshua, but he is also referred to as Yehoshua in other books of Na”Ch, which he did not write! Why just because of habit is it acceptable to call the king by the name he was called when he was just the attendant?

It would seem that the power of habit can change the rules of derech eretz, proper manners. This means that even though it would seem more appropriate to call him by Hoshea once he was king, since he already got used to being called Yehoshua, that turned into the acceptable name to refer to him as.

What we can take from this is that habit must be taken into account when deciding what is appropriate and not appropriate as long as it is not an insulting habit.

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.