Wednesday, June 8, 2016

530 - Shavuos

Each morning in the bircas haTorah we ask Hashem, "Please make the words of Torah sweet in our mouths." One would think that it would be more accurate to petition Hashem to give us the ability to understand the Torah or to gain greater clarity into the profoundness of the Torah. Why is it that the emphasis is placed on the pleasure that we wish to experience when learning Torah?

Rav Wolbe (Da'as Shlomo Geulah p. 207) explains that the word "v'haarev (make sweet)" shares the same root as the word l'areiv which means "to mix." When a person partakes of something pleasurable, it blends into his very essence thereby becoming part of his physical or spiritual makeup. We daven to Hashem that we should find the study of Torah sweet and pleasurable so that all Torah learned should mix into the very fiber of our bodies and souls.

One who experiences the pleasure of Torah will undoubtedly achieve the levels mentioned at the end of this bracha, "May we... know Your Name and study Torah for its sake." Since he feels the pleasure involved with learning Torah he will seek to study its words without any ulterior motives, simply for the sake of learning Torah and getting to know He Who gave us the Torah. Additionally, the enjoyment will in turn endow us with a large dose of love for Hashem Who gave us this most pleasurable present.

It has been said that human beings are pleasure seekers from day one. Even the movements of a little baby can be attributed to the desire to feel pleasure. Not only that, but the actions of adults, even those which are performed with a heavy heart and amid much difficulty, can also be traced back to some sort of pleasure that they seek to attain. The question is only where a person looks for pleasure: Does he search for it in our materialistic world, or does he turn to spirituality to fulfill this desire?

We are all looking for happiness, and feelings of contentment and satisfaction. Physical and material pleasures might make us feel good, but they generally do not bring lasting happiness and satisfaction. If we are looking to live a truly pleasurable life, then we should set our focus on the Torah. One's daily daf yomi or learning session should not merely be a way of assuaging his conscience which tells him to learn something each day. If given proper priority it can be the most enjoyable part of the day and a way of literally fusing your body with the Torah.

Shavuos is the day that we receive the Torah anew each year. It is worthwhile to put in a heartfelt prayer that the Torah we learn should be sweet and pleasurable. This is an endeavor which has the ability to change us and every single day of our lives for the better!

Good Yom Tov!

529 - Bamidbar

This week's parsha delineates the various responsibilities of the Levi'im. "And the assignment of Elazar ben Aharon HaKohein is the oil of illumination, the spices of the incense, the daily flour offering and the anointment oil" (Bamidbar 4, 16). Rashi cites the Gemara Yerushalmi which explains that Elazar was not merely charged with overseeing that the above items were transferred from place to place; he actually carried all of them himself!

The Ramban (ibid.) calculates the enormous load that Elazar carried. The illumination oil for an entire year amounted to one hundred eighty-three lug (a lug is approximately ½ liter), and the spices for the incense weighed 365 maneh (a maneh is approximately ½ kilo). Rav Wolbe figured that altogether he probably carried more than 1000 kilo! He was charged with this physical assignment in addition to the other jobs that were delegated to him. These jobs included coordinating and supervising the transportation of the vessels of themishkan carried by the bnei Kehos, which entailed assigning each and every Levi their individual task. The amount of responsibilities Heavenly assigned to a person is in direct proportion to his greatness. The greater the person is the greater the load he is given.

How was Elazar able to accomplish all of this? The answer, says Rav Wolbe, can be found in the above Ramban. He concludes, "And those whose hope is in Hashem will have renewed strength" (Yeshaya 40, 31). It might be heavy and difficult, but he must bear the burden of responsibility with the knowledge that Hashem delegated it specifically to him. This will give him the strength to endure and succeed.

Rav Wolbe continues that this is something that we must constantly bear in mind. One who is a Rav, a Rebbi, a Gabbai or a teacher might sometimes get overwhelmed with the amount of responsibility he has been given. We might add that in truth every single Yid has numerous responsibilities toward Klal Yisrael. These might include raising a Torah true family, helping out in the shul, donating his time, money or other resources to benefit the Klal or learning with those less knowledgeable than us. Recognizing that Hashem specifically chose us for these tasks, not only prevents us from "throwing in the towel," it infuses us with vigor and an intense desire to succeed!

528 - Bechukosai

At the end of the tochacha, Hashem guarantees us, "I will remember My covenant with Yaakov and also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also my covenant with Avrahom will I remember" (Vayikra 26:42). Rashi points out that regarding the covenants of Avrahom and Yaakov Hashem states that He will remember them, while the word "remember" is not mentioned in conjunction with the covenant of Yitzchak.

Rashi cites Chazal who explain that one only needs to use their memory to remember something which he does not presently see in front of him. Accordingly, Hashem does not need to recall and remember the covenant He created with Yitzchak, since He sees Yitzchak's ashes [from the Akeidah] piled up on themizbeiach in front of Him.

What does this mean, asks Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash Parshas Vayeira 22:14)? We all know that Yitzchak was not actually sacrificed and burnt on themizbeiach, and obviously no ashes were created. He answers that the Navi states, "And a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear Hashem and who give thought to His Name" (Malachi3:16). Chazal ask (Kiddushin 40a) to whom is the pasuk referring when it mentions those who give thought to Hashem's Name? They answer that it refers to those who had a true desire to perform a mitzvah but circumstances that were out of their control prevented them from actually fulfilling their intention. Hashem considers their desire as if the mitzvah was performed, and thus the mitzvah is written down in the book of remembrance before Him.

Indeed, Yitzchak was not actually burnt on the altar. Nevertheless, the intense and true desire that he had to perform the mitzvah was accredited to his account, exactly as if it had come to fruition. The most essential aspect of the mitzvah is the desire and therefore even if one is prevented from doing the mitzvah Hashem considers it as if the mitzvah took place. Rav Wolbe adds that understandably one who has a thought to do a mitzvah and does not perform it despite the lack of outside interference, does not fall into the above category. Had he truly had the desire to perform Hashem's will, he would have followed through and would have done it.

This idea is an eye opener regarding the proper way to approach a mitzvah. It seems quite possible that a person who did not actually perform a mitzvah will receive more reward than his counterpart who actually performed that mitzvah but without a true desire! Our desire makes all the difference. Accordingly, one who truly wishes to spend more time learning, davening or performing chessed, but is precluded from doing so because of business or familial obligations, will merit books full of mitzvos to be accredited to his name in the World to Come!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

527 - Behar

The second half of this week's parsha deals with numerous laws that pertain to a fellow Jew who becomes impoverished. If you lend him money, "Do not take from him interest." If he sells himself to you as a slave, "You shall not work him with slave labor." If the situation is such that he sells himself as a slave to a Non-Jew, we must make an effort to extract him from his undesirable environment. As the Torah instructs us, "He shall have redemption; one of his brothers shall redeem him" (Vayikra 25:36, 39, 48).

The final two pesukim in the parsha seem to be totally out of place. There the Torah commands us not to make idols or erect statues and it exhorts us to observe Shabbos. What do these mitzvos have anything to do with what was mentioned beforehand?

Rashi explains (ibid. 26:1) that these commandments are specifically directed to the Jew who sells himself to the gentile. When this slave observes his master's behavior, he should not look to imitate him. He should notsay, "Since my master engages in forbidden relationships, so will I. Since my master worships idols, so will I. Since my master desecrates the Shabbos, so will I." The Torah wrote a condensed book of the most basic prohibitions tailored specially for the Jew that finds himself in spiritually challenged circumstances.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) comments that the Torah does not give up on anybody. A Jew can never reach a situation of total spiritual despair. His situation could be so bleak that he even sold himself to chop wood and draw water for a house of idol worship (see Rashi 25:47). Nevertheless, the Torah reaches out to him with a "Kitzur Shulchan Aruch" exhorting him to keep at least the basic tenets of Judaism.

The early twentieth century brought many Jews from Europe to America. At the time, America was a spiritual wasteland and many Jews lost any vestiges of Judaism. At that time the Chofetz Chaim wrote a condensed book of laws to aid his brethren in their newfound surroundings. Likewise, he wrote a special sefer geared specifically for those who had been drafted into the army for years on end and had limited access to anything religious.

It doesn't make any difference where the Jew finds himself for the Torah is always holding his hand and guiding him. Thus, there is no room or reason for despair since Hashem cares about every Jew even in the most depressing and bleak situations. So pick your chin up and smile, since the Creator of the world sees you, knows what you're going through, and is relating to you in your very situation!

526 - Emor

Toward the end of the parsha the Torah relates the incident of the "mekalel." A man, born to an Egyptian father and Jewish mother, got involved in a confrontation regarding the place he chose to pitch his tent. Being that his mother descended from the tribe of Dan, he set up his tent in the area designated for that tribe. His neighbors confronted him and asserted that since his father did not descend from Dan he could not remain among that tribe. The Torah clearly states, "Bnei Yisrael should encamp each man by his banner according to the insignias of theirfathers' household" (Bamidbar 2:2). The dispute was brought before Moshe's beis din. They ruled in favor of the tribe of Dan and the man went out and cursed Hashem.

The Torah continues, "They placed him under guard to clarify for themselves through Hashem" (Vayikra 24:12). Chazal tell us that this incident occurred at the same time as the incident of the mikosheish (the man who gathered sticks on Shabbos in a prohibited manner). Rashi infers from the pasuk that despite the fact that they were both placed in jail at the same time, nevertheless, they were not put in the same cell.

While the Torah does not use jail as a means of punishment, it is used to confine an offender when there is uncertainty as to the punishment deserved. Themikosheish was put into jail because although it was known that he deserved the capital punishment, the method of his execution was not known. In contrast, the man who cursed Hashem was jailed because it was not known if he deserved to be executed. Consequently, he was placed in a separate cell.
What would have been so terrible, asks Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) if they would have placed both transgressors in the same cell? He explains that although it is quite commonplace in our day and age for someone who was arrested at a protest rally to be placed in the same cell as a murderer, the Torah operates differently. Divine judgment is so exact to the extent that a transgressor who was stoned cannot be buried in the same cemetery as a transgressor who was beheaded. While they were both killed because of their aveiros, they cannot be equated. Likewise, a person who deserves to be executed cannot even be imprisoned alongside someone who might not deserve capital punishment.

There is a timely lesson to be learned from this incident. Rav Itzele Peterburger would say that if two people commit the very same transgression but one gives a groan as he performs the aveirah, the groan is recorded in heaven. Indeed, they both did commit the same aveirah, but they cannot be classified together because the difference between them is like night and day.

Conversely, when one performs a mitzvah, he is rewarded in heaven in proportion to the effort invested. Five minutes of Torah learning when one's body is aching for bed, is worth a whole lot more than when he is well rested and alert. In the same vein we cannot compare ourselves to our neighbors. While we all perform the exact same mitzvos, each mitzvah is so very different from another.

525 - Kedoshim

Please Note: We will be following the order of the Parshios as they are read in Eretz Yisrael - Those in Chutz La'Aretz please keep this dvar Torah handy to enjoy next week! 

This week's parsha begins with a bit of an ambiguous commandment: "Kedoshim te'hiyu" - You shall be holy. Kadosh (the root of the word kedusha) means to be separated, so while it is clear that the Torah wants us to distance ourselves from something, the commentators differ as to exactly what the Torah intended with this mitzvah. Rashi maintains that the Torah is instructing us to distance ourselves from forbidden marital relationships. Separating oneself specifically with regard to this matter has the ability to bring a person to holiness.

The Ramban contends that the Torah is not referring to a specific topic. Rather, it is a general commandment to separate oneself. He cites Chazal who often refer to talmidei chachomim as "perushim" i.e. those who separate themselves by way of their behavior from mainstream society. In a similar vein the Torah calls upon us to be perushim.

The mitzvos of the Torah do not deal with every possible scenario. After laying down the basic precepts, the Torah gives us an all encompassing directive "You shall be holy." The Torah doesn't tell us how much one is allowed to eat nor does it limit how many women a man can marry. Thus, a person can completely indulge himself in his food and marital life and talk using inappropriate language. As the Ramban writes, "one can act in a depraved manner with the 'permission' of the Torah." Therefore, the Torah instructs us to separate ourselves and not go overboard even when the issue at hand is not one that is specifically forbidden by the Torah.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash, Vayikra 19:1) comments that according to the Ramban's explanation, the Torah is, in effect, instructing every Jew to act like a talmid chachom! Practically it means that each person, proportionate to his spiritual level, should limit the amount he indulges despite the fact that such indulgence was not specifically prohibited by the Torah.

As a mashal, Rav Wolbe related that shortly after the founding of the State of Israel there was a big disagreement regarding the drafting of girls into the Israeli Army. While many felt that they should share the duties of protecting the country, the Gedolim, headed by the Chazon Ish, vehemently opposed the proposal. The Chazon Ish was asked in which of the four sections of Shulchan Aruch does it say that it is prohibited for women to be drafted into the army. He responded that the prohibition is written in the fifth section of Shulchan Aruch which only talmidei chachomim have the ability to decipher.

Rav Wolbe explains that the Chazon Ish was informing the questioners that after learning the entire Torah, a talmid chachom is able to deduce how the Torah desires that we act in any given situation. Indeed, it isn't written black on white, but it is implied, and those who comprehend the Torah's viewpoint are able to interpret its message clearly. In a similar vein, Hashem gave us limited parameters and then succinctly summed up His position with a directive to "be holy." Understand how you are intended to behave and act accordingly.

Yiddishkeit is not just a checklist of do's and don'ts. Nevertheless, unfortunately that is how many relate to Judaism. What they have done is they have separated the Jewish religion from Yiddishkeit. Yiddishkeit gives expression to the spirit of the religion and it signifies a spiritually aristocratic way of life. We are to become an island of noblemen in the middle of the ocean of a degraded society. We are instructed to separate ourselves from the gentile way of life because we are different. A prince conducts himself with nobility.

524 - Pesach

Yetzias Mitzrayim was the event that took the numerous individuals who were all offspring of Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov and forged them into a single nation. This process of redemption not only turned us into a nation, but also demonstrated our uniqueness. While the water in the Egyptian's cup turned into blood, the Jew could drink from the very same cup and enjoy crystal clear water. The Egyptians endured extreme darkness and at the very same time the Jew enjoyed the radiance of daytime. The redemption demonstrated that the Jew was part of a Divine nation, and thus he merited a unique level of Divine Providence.

Chazal tell us (Medrash Tehillim 114) that the creation of the Jewish Nation was not a simple process. The Torah describes this event as, "taking out one nation from inside another nation." Accordingly, the Medrash compares the process to a cow experiencing difficulty giving birth to its calf. The shepherd must insert his hand into the womb of the cow, grab hold of the calf and pull it out of the mother. In a similar vein, Bnei Yisrael were so entrenched in the Egyptian society that they had to be yanked "from inside" the womb of the nation which enveloped them.

Rav Wolbe comments that this might very well be the reason why, as stated in the Hagaddah, the redemption was performed, not by an angel or any other intermediary, but by Hashem Himself. Had the purpose of the midnight revelation merely been to kill the firstborn, an angel certainly could have sufficed. However, there was another aspect that had to be accomplished: Bnei Yisrael had to be completely severed from their previous surroundings and only the Omnipotent One had the ability to accomplish this feat.

The exodus from Mitzrayim was not meant to be a onetime occurrence. Chazal tell us (Pesachim 116b), "In each and every generation a person is obligated to perceive himself as if he went out of Mitzrayim." Whenever and wherever the Jew finds himself, he must make an effort to free himself from the non-Jewish culture which has permeated every nook and cranny of our planet. This idea is hinted to in the Haggadah, for we declare, "Originally our forefathers were idol worshippers and now Hashem has brought us close to His service." What do we mean by "now" Hashem brought us into His service? Didn't Yetzias Mitzrayim occur more than three thousand years ago? Indeed, we left back then, but each and every year we must once again disengage ourselves from the nations around us.

The Seder Night affords us an opportunity to turn off the internet i.e. disconnect from the outside world, and spend a good few hours focusing on inculcating ourselves and our children with the beauty of being part of the Jewish Nation. We are supposed to experience our uniqueness, appreciate that we are very different from the nations around us and realize that Hashem intended it to be that way. While we live amongst the other nations we must ensure that we don't live "inside" of them. May we merit ridding ourselves of all non-Jewish trappings, thereby experiencing Yetzias Mitzrayim in its truest form!

Chag Kasher V'Sameiach!