Monday, February 17, 2014

415 - Ki Sisa

Most people are worried by one type of fear or another. Little children get scared when their mothers leave them. When they get a little older they frightened by the dark. When they grow up a little more they become afraid of dogs and cats. Many adults are worried about robbers. A store owner might double check that all the windows and doors are locked, and then go through the store once more just to be sure. Where do all these fears come from? Psychologists have been grappling with this question for many years.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) says that the answer can be found in a Rashi in this week's parsha! When Moshe descended from Har Sinai after receiving the second set of luchos, his face was shining: "Aharon and the entire Bnei Yisrael saw Moshe and the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to approach him" (Shemos 34, 30). When they stood at Har Sinai they were able to gaze at the Shechina even though it was, "like a fiery furnace on top of the mountain" and they were not frightened. What happened that they suddenly became frightened from Moshe's shining countenance? 

Rashi enlightens us with the answer. The fear came as a result of an aveirah! Har Sinai occurred before they sinned with the golden calf. They were on a higher spiritual level, and therefore, even the fire accompanying the Shechina did not scare them. In contrast, after they sinned, they quaked and they trembled from the mere radiance of Moshe's countenance. A low spiritual level, e.g. after committing a transgression, brings fear in its wake. 

What can be done about this situation? How can we rid ourselves of these fears? Torah has the ability to raise a person into a spiritual world devoid of fear. However, this will only occur as long as we do not drag the Torah itself into our fears! For some, the mitzvos are a source of anxiety. When they wash their hands, they worry maybe they didn't use a revi'is, maybe his fingernails were dirty, maybe the water didn't cover their whole hand, maybe their hands weren't dry previously and a plethora of other fears. These concerns have nothing to do with meticulousness in the performance of mitzvos. The Chafeitz Chaim only heard one series of a hundred shofar blasts. He didn't run to hear another set of blasts because "maybe he didn't fulfill his obligation." 

The more we involve ourselves in Torah and mitzvos, the more elevated we will become. As we climb the spiritual ladder, the fears and anxieties of the physical world will slowly and surely disappear, for the Torah is the ultimate panacea!

414 - Tetzaveh

Parshas Tetzaveh commences with the commandment to light the menorah in the Beis Hamikdosh each evening. What is the purpose of this mitzvah; does Hashem need us to illuminate the darkness for Him? The Medrash (Shemos Raba 36, 2) answers this question with a mashal.

"A blind man was walking with a friend. The friend turned to the blind man and said, 'Hold on to me and I will lead you.' Once they entered their house, the friend asked the blind man to light a torch to illuminate the area for them, 'So that you will not feel indebted to me for leading you.' The man gifted with sight symbolizes Hashem. The blind man refers to Bnei Yisrael who "groped in darkness" when they committed the sin of the golden calf. Despite their transgression, Hashem continued to lead them through the desert with the pillar of fire. Once Bnei Yisrael began building the Mishkan, Hashem commanded Moshe to light the Menorah. This way, Bnei Yisrael would, so to speak, illuminate the Mishkan for Hashem just as He illuminated the way in the desert for them." 

Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol. II pg. 281) quotes Rav Yeruchom Levovitz zt"l, who said that we can glean from this Medrash how to perform a perfect act of chesed. After helping out another person, the benefactor should ask the beneficiary for a small favor, since no one likes to feel indebted. Asking for a small favor will prevent the beneficiary from feeling indebted to the one who performed the chesed. 

Often we assist others and decline any remuneration. For example, we might give them a ride and refuse to accept any payment. Whether or not we accept the payment, we have performed a mitzvah De'Oraisa of gemillus chasadim. Yet, while sometimes a complete chesed entails not accepting money, at other times a complete chesed necessitates accepting the payment.By accepting their money you are allowing them to express their hakaras hatov, thereby preventing them from feeling indebted to you in the future. Mi k'amcha Yisrael! Who else looks to do chesed without expecting a pat on the back?

413 - Terumah

This week's parsha begins with the mitzvah of donating toward the building of the Mishkan. "Speak to Bnei Yisrael and they should take for Me a donation, from every man whose heart motivates him you shall take my donation" (Shemos 25, 2). The question is obvious. Why did the Torah say that Bnei Yisrael should "take" a donation for Hashem; wouldn't it be more correct to say that they should "give" a donation to Hashem?

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) cites a Gemara in Kiddushin (7a) to answer this question. Halachah mandates that in order to be mekadeish a woman, the man must give her something of value (Nowadays a ring is used to fulfill this requirement). Yet, there is one instance where the kiddushin can be accomplished by way of the woman giving the man something of value. When the man accepting the present is someone held in high regard, then the fact that he accepted her present gives her pleasure. This pleasure has the value of money and thereby fulfills the halachic requirement to be mekadeish a woman with something of value. Similarly, the Torah is implying that when one gives a donation and it is accepted by Hashem, in effect the donor is really the recipient. He has indeed "taken" a donation!

When we daven, learn or perform a mitzvah, we tend to think that we have done Hashem a favor. However, such an outlook is totally incorrect. Hashem does not need our Torah and mitzvos. He gives us the opportunity to learn and daven for our benefit. Dovid HaMelech declared, "And I, in Your abundant kindness, will enter Your Sanctuary." It is due to Hashem's great kindness that He allows us to serve Him. The gain is solely ours. If we bear this in mind, it will give us a fresh outlook on our avodas Hashem!

412 - Mishpatim

One of the numerous mitzvos bein adom l'chaveiro mentioned in this week's parsha is the prohibition of believing lashon hara:The Torah commands us, "Do not accept a futile report" (Shemos 23, 1). Rashi cites the translation of the Targum, "Do not believe a false report," and explains that this mitzvah includes two separate warnings. Firstly, it is forbidden to accept lashon hara. Additionally, a judge is warned not to listen to one party when the other party is not present.

Interestingly enough, the commandment not to accept a false report is not referring to believing lies. Rather, it refers to believing lashon hara which is for the most part a true account. (If it would not be true it would fall under the category of "motzie sheim rah"). What is false about lashon hara? Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) explains that truth is not measured by the words spoken; it is measured by the intent behind them. Even a perfectly true statement, when said with the intention of causing another harm, is considered false. It is this intention to harm another person which is inherently false. 

This idea is found in Maseches Sukka (32b) where the Gemara attempts to identify the hadassim referred to by the Torah. The Gemara eliminates a certain poisonous plant because it does not conform to the Torah's principle, "Love truth and peace" (Zecharya 8, 19). Though a poisonous plant certainly does not fit under the title of "peace," why does the Gemara also consider it a lack of truth? The answer is that an object which harms is considered "false."

The converse is also true. A blatantly false statement is considered true when the intention is good, and the situation warrants such words. We know that Hashem is the G-d of truth, and nevertheless, when repeating to Avraham what Sarah had said about him, He changed the wording so that Avraham would not be offended. The intention was pure and thus the statement was true.

This is the rationale for the second prohibition included in the above pasuk. The attempt to tell one's version of the story first, does not mean that his account is false. Yet, since his intention is to cause the judge to have a bias toward his version of the story, thereby harming his opponent, his words are labeled as false. 

Sheker is the only middah that the Torah warns us to stay far away from (ibid. 23, 7). Rav Wolbe notes that regarding forbidden relations the Torah states, "Do not come close" (Vayikra 18, 6), while regarding sheker we are told, "Distance yourself from a false word." We must bear in mind that it is not merely false words from which we must run, but also true words said with a negative or harmful intention. "But it is true" is not an excuse for a harmful word, because in reality there is no greater falsehood than that!

411 - Yisro

This week's parsha begins, "Yisro, the priest of Midyan, the father-in-law of Moshe, heard everything that Hashem had done for Moshe and Bnei Yisrael; how He redeemed them from Mitzrayim" (Shemos 18, 1). Rashi gives us a list of the numerous miracles that prompted Yisro to leave his prestigious position in Midyan and travel out to the desert to meet the Jewish People: Krias Yam Suf, the war with Amaleik, the daily mann that fell from Heaven and the rock that spewed drinking water.

However, from a conversation that took place after he met with Moshe, it seems that there was yet another impetus for his conversion to Judaism. Yisro exclaimed, "Now I know that Hashem is greater than all other gods, for their scheming turned against them" (ibid. 18, 11). Rashi, citing the Targum, explains thatYisrowas awed by the fact that theEgyptians schemed to destroy the Jewish People by drowning their sons in water, and they themselves ended up drowning in water. It seems that it was this phenomenon that clinched Yisro's decision to convert. What was so unique about this incident that succeeded in convincing Yisro in a way that the numerous miracles did not?

The answer, says Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) is that this was the first time that Yisro encountered the attribute of middah kineged middah (measure for measure). For him, this was an altogether new level of Hashgacha Pratis. The drowning of the Egyptians symbolized exact judgment down to the type of punishment meted out. This affected him in a way that the other miracles had not.

Middah kineged middah is a feature that has been manifested throughout the generations. The last Mishna in the first perek of Sotah enumerates a number of punishments and rewards mentioned in Tanach, and shows how each one was meted out measure for measure. Additionally, the Gemara (Brachos 5a) tells us that one who is experiencing suffering should analyze his actions to try to ascertain the cause of his suffering. In other words, he should be able to deduce from the type of punishment exactly where he was derelict in his avodas Hashem. If his foot hurts he quite possibly went somewhere that he should have not.

In 1844 there was an assembly of Reform Jews in Germany, and they abolished many of the mitzvos and in effect created for themselves a "new Torah." The Malbim (in his introduction to Sefer Vayikra) writes that this gathering was the impetus for his writing a commentary on Tanach. When Reb Yisrael Salanter heard about this gathering he declared, "They made a new 'Shulchan Aruch' and permitted marriage to a non-Jew; there will come a time where the gentiles will make a new 'Shulchan Aruch' and make marriage to a Jew a transgression punishable by death." Ninety years later, right there in Germany, they instituted the Nuremberg Laws whereby a Jew found guilty of living with a gentile would be put to death. Middah kineged middah is built into the workings of the world, and thereby a great person has the ability to foresee what will happen even before it actually occurs.

Hashem is always sending messages, and we must bear in mind that they are not random, but rather specifically tailored to those receiving the message. We might not always be able to figure out what exactly Hashem wants from us. However, if we could come up with something related that needs to be rectified, then even if we did not properly decipher Hashem's intention, nevertheless, we have successfully taken His message to heart!

410 - Beshalach

If we had to find a theme for this week's parsha, it would be the importance and significance of tefillah. The parsha begins with Bnei Yisrael's exodus from Mitzrayim. When the Egyptians realized that Bnei Yisrael had no intentions of returning, they set out in hot pursuit of their former slaves. The Jewish People were terrified, "and Bnei Yisrael cried out to Hashem" (Shemos 14, 10). After all Bnei Yisrael went through, why did Hashem put them in such a terrifying situation?

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) cites the Medrash (Shemos Rabba 21, 5) that answers this exact question: "Hashem desired to hear their tefillos. Said Rebbi Yehoshua ben Levi, this can be compared to a king who was travelling and heard a princess call out to him, 'Please save me from these bandits.' The king saved her, and some time later he asked for her hand in marriage. He desired to hear her voice, but she wouldn't comply. What did the king do? He had bandits attack her once again so she would cry out. When the bandits attacked her she began to cry out to the king. The king responded, 'This is exactly what I wanted: to hear your voice!' Similarly, When Bnei Yisrael were subjugated in Mitzrayim, they began lifting their eyes and calling out to Hashem. Hashem saved them with a strong hand and He desired to hear their voice once again, but Bnei Yisrael didn't comply. What did Hashem do? He had Paroh chase after them and they immediately called out to Him. To which Hashem said, 'This is exactly what I wished to hear!" Despite the fact that Hashem has no needs, He "desires" to hear our voice. If we comply, He won't have to resort to extreme tactics to get us to call out to Him.

Rashi on the above pasuk states that when Bnei Yisrael were put through this terrifying ordeal, "they seized the profession of their forefathers" and they began davening. Rav Wolbe explains that Chazal chose to describe tefillah as their "profession," because a person's job is his second nature. A doctor can be awakened in the middle of the night to perform a surgery, and he'll get up and do it without any preparation. So too, when Bnei Yisrael were threatened by Paroh's army chasing them, they immediately began davening. They didn't need any preparation, and they didn't look for other ways out of their predicament; they simply began performing what came to them naturally.

Rav Wolbe related that a student of his told him that during one of the wars he was on a boat with several other Israeli soldiers, most of them secular. They were hit by a torpedo and their boat started sinking, and everyone began calling out, "Hashem help us". What did these secular Israelis know about Hashem? Not much. But all Jews have an innate attachment to tefillah.

At the end of the parsha, Bnei Yisrael were attacked by Amaleik. Moshe ascended the mountain and extended his hands in prayer. "When Moshe raised his hand Bnei Yisrael were stronger and when he lowered his hand Amaleik was stronger" (ibid. 17, 11). Rashi cites the Mishna in Rosh Hashana (29a) which asks how Moshe's hands were the deciding factor in the war. The Mishna explains that when his hands were raised, Bnei Yisrael would look heavenward and subjugated their hearts to Hashem, and He would assist them. Their tefillos were heard and their effectiveness was immediately reflected in the battlefield.

Hashem desires our tefillos, davening is our second nature, and the response is often (although not always) immediate. When Moshe asked Hashem for a Name (i.e. sign) of Hashem to convey to Bnei Yisrael, Hashem responded (see Ramban to Shemos 3, 13) that they need no other sign than the reality that people call out in prayer and Hashem answers them! Do we need any other incentive to turn to Hashem in whatever situation we find ourselves?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

409 - Bo

While every transgression carries some sort of repercussion, some are more severe than others. Regarding one who eats chametz on Pesach, the Torah tells us, "Seven days sourdough should not be found in your houses, for anyone who eats leavened bread will be cut off from the Jewish nation" (Shemos 12, 19).One who is guilty of this transgression has severed his spiritual connection to Bnei Yisrael.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) elaborates on this concept. Physical existence is dependent on a specific set of conditions. One cannot survive if he deprives himself of food, drink or sleep. Similarly, spiritual existence is only possible when certain conditions are present. These conditions are the mitzvos. One, who fails to put on tefillin or sit in a sukkah, has not merely passed up an invaluable opportunity; he has caused himself to be lacking an integral part of his spiritual makeup. Every mitzvah can be compared to a limb in the spiritual body. The lack of a limb is a handicap which inhibits proper spiritual existence. 

Refraining from eating chametz on Pesach is so vital, that one who fails to do so has, so to speak, caused a system failure. He has not properly provided for his spiritual body, and in its present state it can no longer survive. In the words of the Torah, he has been cut off from Bnei Yisrael.

While certain mitzvos are critical, all mitzvos are necessary. Many people have predispositions to specific mitzvos. Some love learning while others enjoy performing chesed. For some Shabbos is in their blood while others connect with mitzvos performed during the Yomim Tovim. However, all mitzvos are imperative and they must all be performed to ensure a healthy spiritual existence. And the same applies with regard to refraining from transgressions. Some aveiros are easier to abstain from and others are harder to abstain from, but the effort must be made to refrain from them all. Performance of all the mitzvos of the Torah is the key to spiritual well being!