Weekly Cycle

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Words in the Desert: Brides and the Torah Portion of Nasso

This week's Torah portion continues the counting of the Jewish people (specifically the Levites), and contains the laws of the Sotah (wayward wife) and the Nazir (the holy nazirite, who abstained from wine and from cutting his hair). It also describes the completion of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the offering of the princes of each one of the Twelve Tribes.

In the middle of the Torah portion, Rashi makes a fascinating comment on the following verse:

1. And it was that on the day that Moses finished erecting the Mishkan, he anointed it, sanctified it, and all its vessels, and the altar and all its vessels, and he anointed them and sanctified them.

א. וַיְהִי בְּיוֹם כַּלּוֹת משֶׁה לְהָקִים אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן וַיִּמְשַׁח אֹתוֹ וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ וְאֶת כָּל כֵּלָיו וְאֶת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְאֶת כָּל כֵּלָיו וַיִּמְשָׁחֵם וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתָם:

RASHI: And it was that on the day that Moses finished: Heb. כַּלּוֹת. On the day the Mishkan was erected, the Israelites were like a bride (כַּלָּה) entering the nuptial canopy.

The comparison of Israel as G-d's bride, entering the nuptial canopy, sounds familiar. The giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai is often compared to our wedding with G-d. Here, however, the Torah discusses a much later event, after the giving of the Torah, the sin of the golden calf, and the forgiveness we received on the following Yom Kippur.

In life, we have more than one opportunity to be like a bride entering the nuptial canopy. As Rebbe Nachman of Breslev teaches, every moment is an opportunity to start again, from the beginning, in a brand new relationship with G-d and with the world.

Perhaps that is why the Torah specifically used the word כַּלּוֹת in the plural instead of כַּלָּה in the singular. To be a Kalah does not need to be a one time thing. Each of us can be Kalot, starting anew again and again, just as we will receive the Torah again, just like the first time, on Shavuot.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Words in the Desert: Being Dear to G-d and the Torah Portion of Bamidbar


1. The Lord spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert, in the Tent of Meeting on the first day of the second month, in the second year after the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying.  

RASHI: The Lord spoke... in the Sinai Desert... on the first of the month :Because they were dear to Him, He counted them often. When they left Egypt, He counted them (Exod. 12:37); when [many] fell because [of the sin] of the golden calf, He counted them to know the number of the survivors (Exod. 32:28); when He came to cause His Divine Presence to rest among them, He counted them. On the first of Nissan, the Mishkan was erected, and on the first of Iyar, He counted them.

One of the most essential lessions from the opening verse for the Book of Bamidbar (Numbers) is that no matter what, in our ups and in our downs, Hashem we are always dear to Him.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

In Service: Pursuit and Self-Persecution; the Torah Portion of Bechukotai

This week's Torah portion describes the rewards and blessings bestowed upon us when we as a people are observing the Torah (specifically dedicating ourselves to its study), as well as the punishments and curses that come when we fail to do so. The descriptions bring to mind the events that took place during the Holocaust as well as those immediately after, at the time of the establishment of the State of Israel. By no means is one to infer that those events were in effect the reward and punishment of that particular generation - anyone with any experience or knowledge of those events should know that this could not possibly be the case.

One powerful contrast between the section of the blessings and the one of the curses has to do with the pursuit of the enemy. While regarding the curses, the verses repeatedly mention the fact that we would run away when no one was pursuing us, regarding the blessings, the Torah states:

8. Five of you will pursue a hundred, and a hundred of you will pursue ten thousand, and your enemies will fall by the sword before you.

RASHI: of you will pursue: [It will require only five] of your weakest [to pursue a hundred enemies], and not of your strongest [i.e., מִכֶּם means “the weakest (מָ) of you.”]- [Sifthei Chachamim; Torath Kohanim 26:10]

RASHI: Five… will pursue a hundred, and a hundred of you will pursue ten thousand: But is this calculation correct? [Since five will pursue a hundred, this means that each Jew will pursue twenty enemies;] therefore, should Scripture not have written here: “and a hundred of you will pursue two thousand”? But, [the Torah teaches us that] there is no comparison between a few who fulfill the Torah and many who fulfill the Torah [and thus, here, the larger the group of pursuers, the higher proportionately is the number pursued]. — [Torath Kohanim 26:10]

Rashi's mathematical calculation is certainly very interesting, and makes us appreciate the exponential value of the combined Torah observance and righteousness. What is perhaps equally as interesting is that Rashi does not even comment (even though his words make clear) on the fact that when it comes to our enemy (both external and internal - the evil inclination), there is no combined exponential growth at all. It is almost as if evil did not matter - that it was there almost only to play a "supporting role" to the good.

That is in fact the case. Evil has no real substance - it all depends on us. These are the famous words of the Fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, before his last Ma'amar (Chassidic Discourse). Communist soldiers were searching house by house for "illegal" religious activity. They barged in to the home of the Rebbe and were planning on searching the entire house and making arrests. The Rebbe and his Chassidim were in a Farbrengen (speaking words of Torah, singing and drinking) and the Rebbe continued as if the soldiers weren't even there. He told all of his Chassidim to pay no attention to them."

"With great ecstasy he exclaimed: 'I will say another Maamar, so they will become completely [batul - nullified].' He then said the Maamar, ‘Reishis Goyim Amalek’, which explains that the forces that oppose G-dliness do not exist in the true sense." http://www.myshliach.com/media/pdf/626/jIHk6261844.pdf

This is the ultimate truth. However, when we are not steeped enough in Torah learning, or otherwise disconnected from the Source, then we feel constantly pursued, when in fact there is no one pursuing us at all - but ourselves.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

In Service: Working the Land, Working the Soul; the Torah Portion of Behar

This week's Torah portion is first and foremost about the Land. Like last week's Parashah, the opening words are somewhat different from the norm. The Torah specifically spells out that these particular words were said to Moshe "on Mount Sinai." As one would expect, Rashi immediately comments on this intriguing variation:

1And the Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying,

First, Rashi asks:

What [special relevance] does the subject of Shemittah [the “release” of fields in the seventh year] have with Mount Sinai? Were not all the commandments stated from Sinai? 

He answers by saying:

Rather, just as with Shemittah, its general principles and its finer details were all stated from Sinai, likewise, all of them were stated-their general principles [together with] their finer details-from Sinai. This is what is taught in Torath Kohanim (25:1). 

Rashi then further explains the above answer: 

It appears to me that its explanation is as follows: since we do not find the laws of Shemittah of land reiterated on the plains of Moab in Deuteronomy, we learn that its general principles, finer details, and explanatons were all stated at Sinai. Scripture states this [phrase] here to teach us that [just as in the case of Shemittah,] every statement [i.e., every commandment] that was conveyed to Moses came from Sinai, [including] their general principles and finer details, was repeated and reviewed on the plains of Moab.     

Rashi suggests that the choice to specifically mention the laws of Shmittah here provides for two separate conclusions to be drawn: 1) All laws were given at Mt. Sinai in full detail, even if the Torah does not specifically mention this regarding each law. 2) All laws were repeated and reviewed on the plains of Moab (in Deuteronomy), even those not specifically mentioned there.

Another explanation given by our sages as to why the laws of Shmittah were mentioned here is that the applicability of these laws was for some time in the very distant future, at the time the Land would not only be conquered, but also settled. If even these laws were given at Mt. Sinai in full detail, certainly all the other one were as well.

Perhaps a related, more spritually-oriented answer can be given: Shemittah is about physical land, actual earth, the ultimate in materiality. If even land was discussed in the highest detail, then certainly more "spiritual" laws were discussed in full as well.

Rashi's further clarification of his initial comment comes to teach us also the opposite lesson: even when the Jews were not as spiritually oriented, 40 years after Mt. Sinai, and about to conquer the Land, here also every law was repeated and reviewed in full, from the most material to the most spiritual.

In truth, what is "more spiritual" or "more material" is a somewhat subjective definition, based on our limited human perspective. We are told in Pirkei Avot that we are not supposed to weigh the importance of the Mitzvot. Both are extremely important, in every phase of our lives, both the more spiritual times as well as the more material ones.

Also, if one looks at the actual laws of Shemittah and Yovel (Jubilee) discussed in the beginning of this week's portion, one cannot help but see a clear connection with the Mitzvah of Counting the Omer, the 49 days (seven weeks) from Passover to Shavuoth. The Omer count is very spiritual in nature - it's a time of the year when we all become Kabbalists, focusing on the Sefirah combination for that day (Chesed shebeChesed, Gevurah shebeChesed, Hod shebeHod, and so forth). 

Ultimately, whether we are working on our souls and conquering our evil inclination, or conquering and working the Land, the objective is the same: getting closer and closer to G-d, by doing his will.

All of this is very connected to the month we're in Iyar, related to the Tribe of Issachar, and the coming month, Sivan, related to the Tribe of Zebulun. The men of Issachar spent their days fully immersed in Torah study, while the men of Zebulun were heavily involved in commerce and supported their sibling tribe.

It is also quite appropriate then that the Counting of the Omer takes place at this time of the year, as well as the holidays celebrating the recent conquest of the Land: Yom Ha'Atzma'ut and Yom Yerushalayim. It is also the time of extremely spiritual days: Lag Ba'omer and, very soon, Shavuot.

Monday, May 2, 2011

In Service:Speak Softly and Carry a Big Kohen (Kohen Gadol); the Torah Portion of Emor

This week's Torah portion focuses on laws regarding the priestly class, the Kohanim. As an introduction, the parashah starts with the following somewhat repetitive words:

1. And the Lord said to Moses: Speak to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: Let none [of you] defile himself for a dead person among his people.

א. וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל משֶׁה אֱמֹר אֶל הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם לְנֶפֶשׁ לֹא יִטַּמָּא בְּעַמָּיו:

Rashi picks up on the repetition of th word "speak" and comments as follows:

Rashi: Speak to the kohanim: Heb. אֱמֹר וְאָמַרְתָּ “Speak [to the Kohanim …] and say [to them],” lit. “Say…and you shall say.” [This double expression comes] to admonish the adult Kohanim regarding the young ones.

Rashi is telling us that, first and foremost, the Torah portion is about education. The laws of the Kohanim are not just for one generation of children of Aharon, but for all future generations as well.

In what manner is this education to take place? In the way of Emor, a softer embracing type of speech, as explained in Rashi's comment to the the verse in Shemot (Exodus 19:3):

3. Moses ascended to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, "So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel,

ג. וּמשֶׁה עָלָה אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו יְהוָֹה מִן הָהָר לֵאמֹר כֹּה תֹאמַר לְבֵית יַעֲקֹב וְתַגֵּיד לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

Rashi: to the house of Jacob: These are the women. Say it to them [Tomar, from the verb Le'emor] in a gentle language. — [from Mechilta]

Parents and teachers sometimes have the illusion that if they scream enough, their point and/or their authority will come across and their children will learn how to behave. This is rarely effective in the short-term and even less effective longterm. Gentle language (along with consistent rules and discipline) leads to much better results.

Interestingly, if you look closely, the verb Le'emor  ("to say") is not used twice, but actually three times in the verse: 1) from Hashem to Moshe; 2) from Moshe to the Kohanim regarding the Kohanim themselves; 3) from Moshe to the Kohanim regarding their children.

In great part, the world runs in a way of cause-and-effect and reciprocity. In education, the way you educate your children more like than not will be the way your own kids will educate theirs, and so on and so forth. So important was the principle of educating in a gentle manner that even Hashem Himself speaks to Moshe in a way of Le'emor as opposed to Ledaber or Lehagid (other less gentle words for speaking). Moshe in turn speaks in the same manner to the Kohanim; the Kohanim to their children; the children to their children, etc. No wonder the Kohen Gadol is called Ish Chassidecha (a man of Your kindness).

Furthermore, the way you speak to your kids (and the rest of the world for that manner) is the way they end up speaking to you. The world is a mirror. Even the way you treat Hashem and His commandments is the way you end up being treated by Him as well. This is known as Middah Keneged Middah.

We probably all agree that we could each use a little more kindness and gentleness in our lives. There is a very easy way to achieve that: starting with ourselves. The ripple effects will be felt beyond your wildest dreams.

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