Thursday, December 30, 2010

257 - Vaeira

"And I appeared to Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov with the Name "Kel Shakai" and My Name "Ado-nai" I did not make known to them" (Shemos 6, 3). Rashi notes that Hashem did not say that He "did not mention to them" the name Ado-nai. Rather, Hashem said that He "did not make Himself known" by the name Ado-nai. The Avos never saw the manifestation of the middah connoted by this Name of Hashem. Ado-nai represents the fulfillment of what Hashem has previously guaranteed. Hashem was telling Moshe that He made numerous promises and also made a covenant with Avrahom that He would give his children Eretz Yisroel, but the Avos never saw the fruition of this promise. Now He would reveal Himself with the Name Ado-nai, and fulfill to Moshe and his generation what He promised the Avos.

According to Rashi's explanation, the Torah is letting us know that Hashem has two distinct names: "Kel Shakai" which denotes a promise to be fulfilled in the future, and "Ado-nai" which denotes the fulfillment of a previous promise. Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) asks why a promise and its fulfillment need two separate Names; are they not in reality one extended process? He explains that a "havtacha" - promise for the future, is not merely a means of reaching its fulfillment; it is a middah by way of which Hashem runs the world. The generations of our Avos were promised great things in the future, and they had to live with total faith that Hashem would ultimately fulfill what He promised. Their avodah was to live their lives in a way that showed their belief and complete reliance on Hashem's word.

In truth, our avodah is very similar to that of the Avos in this respect. We must live our lives with complete faith that all of our actions will be duly rewarded in the next world. We cannot see the reward nor the punishment that awaits those who perform the mitzvos or neglect them. Nevertheless, we must place our belief in Hashem's havtacha that ultimately we will be paid in full for all that we have done. We live in this world with the name of Kel Shakai - the promise of future compensation, and in the next world will we be able to perceive the manifestation of His name "Ado-nai."

The two Names of Hashem describe two distinct ways that He manifests Himself in our world, and we must live our lives accordingly. The more we strengthen our belief in the ultimate reward, the easier it we will be to fulfill our obligations of Torah, avodah and gemilas chassadim.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

256 - Shemos

When Moshe was born his mother put him in a basket and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river, while his sister, Miriam, stood from a distance to see what would transpire. The Torah relates that Pharaoh's daughter went to bathe in the river and she discovered the Jewish child in the basket. Miriam then inquired if she should call a Jewish wet-nurse to feed the child. Rashi tells us that this inquiry came after Pharaoh's daughter had taken Moshe to a number of Egyptian women, but he refused to nurse from any of them since he would ultimately use his mouth to speak with Hashem.

How did Moshe, who was at that time merely three months old, know that there was something wrong with nursing from a non-Jewish woman? Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) explains that one imbued with kedusha can sense when something isn't appropriate. Moreover, even certain animals have the ability to sense when something is amiss. Chazal relate (Chullin 7a) that Rebbi Pinchas ben Yair's donkey refused to eat from food that had not been tithed! Rebbi Pinchas ben Yair was on such a high level of kedusha that even his animals were affected to the extent that they were able to sense that the food was forbidden to be eaten.

Rav Yeruchom Levovitz zt"l would say that everything that we find regarding kedusha has a parallel in the area of tum'ah. If we have trouble comprehending a concept of kedusha because of our distance from that spiritual level, we might, unfortunately, have an easier time comprehending the concept when it is portrayed regarding tum'ah. Sometimes while walking in the street a person might suddenly glance in a specific direction and just then behold an indecent sight. He had no idea that exactly then he would witness such a scene; however, his psyche sensed the tum'ah and drew him to turn his gaze in that direction.

Lest we think that developing a sense of kedusha is limited to those who lived in the times of Chazal, Rav Wolbe recounted the following story. Shortly before his Rebbi, Rav Yeruchom Levovitz, passed away, his doctor felt that due to the severity of his failing health, he must eat meat which was not salted to remove its blood. This would be halachically forbidden under normal circumstances. When they served Rav Yeruchom his meal, he put the meat in his mouth but immediately spit it out, declaring that it was "non-Jewish meat." His level of kedusha enabled him to sense that the meat was not kosher.

Kedusha and tum'ah aren't merely abstract concepts of Judaism; they are a reality. Rav Wolbe once commented to a group of former talmidim, that his main goal in all his discourses was to convey this very idea that ruchnius is a reality!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

255 - Vayechi

Rashi in the beginning of this week's parsha notes that the space that the sefer Torah normally leaves in between parshios is lacking between Parshas Vayigash and Parshas Vayechi. He cites Chazal who explain that once Yaakov Avinu passed away, the eyes and hearts of Bnei Yisroel became "closed" due to the burden of bondage, when the Egyptians started enslaving them. Therefore, the Torah symbolically closed parshas Vayechi in reference to the closed hearts of Bnei Yisroel.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) asks, we know that the bondage in Egypt did not begin after Yaakov died; it only began after the very last of the Shevatim passed away. If so, what did Chazal mean when they stated that after Yaakov died, the eyes and hearts of Bnei Yisroel became closed due to the burden of bondage - the bondage did not start until many years after Yaakov died? He explains that the bondage mentioned by Chazal is not a physical enslavement, rather a spiritual bondage. They began experiencing the influence that the Egyptian culture was having on their lives.

As long as Yaakov Avinu was alive, he succeeded in ensuring that Bnei Yisroel remain on the spiritual plateau upon which they had lived when they were in their homeland Canaan. However, when Yaakov passed away, Bnei Yisroel lost the one who protected them from the cultural winds that blew in those days, and the Egyptian influence began taking its toll on their lives.

Although those living outside of Eretz Yisroel might be more susceptible to being influenced by non Jewish culture than those living in Eretz Yisroel, we are all affected in one way or another by the way of life of the nations around us. However, if we connect to a gadol ba'Torah or talmid chachom, we will certainly be more successful in preventing ourselves from being influenced by trends and fashions that are antithetical to the Torah way of life.

Friday, December 10, 2010

254 - Vayigash

When Yaakov meets Yosef after many years of separation, the Torah describes the emotional encounter. "And Yosef fell on his (Yaakov's) neck and he cried on his neck again" (Bereishis 46, 29). Rashi notes that the Torah only recounts how Yosef reacted while neglecting to tell us how Yaakov reacted. He explains that Yaakov did not fall on Yosef's neck nor did he kiss Yosef since he was busy reciting shema.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) comments that such behavior demonstrates the amazing level of menuchas hanefesh that defined Yaakov's character. Despite the fact that he had not seen his son for more than twenty years and had been under the impression that he had died many years earlier, nevertheless, when they were finally reunited, he did not lose his composure.

Nowadays, people have all but lost this middah of menuchas hanefesh. People are constantly busy. Many are caught up in feelings of depression. Many people act differently when they are together with a group of friends; they seem to change hats with their surroundings. They lack the menucha needed to define who they are without worrying what others will say about them. Some people simply can't come to terms with their faults and are always worried that other people will find out about them. Such behavior negates the possibility of them being satisfied with their lot and the menuchas hanefesh that such contentment brings along with it.

However, we must appreciate that menuchas hanefesh is an important middah in avodas Hashem. The Yeshiva in Kelm, which produced countless gedolim and ba'alei mussar, centered their avodah around the middah of menuchas hanefesh. Incorporating this middah is imperative to achieving shleimus, since it allows one to act in accordance with the Torah regardless of the situation in which he finds himself.

Yaakov Avinu perfected this middah, and hence he succeeded in perfecting himself. Although we are far from such shleimus, the least we can do in our quest toward attaining menuchas hanefesh is to focus primarily on our qualities instead of our faults. This will bring us to an awareness that we aren't as bad as we thought we were, and to feelings of confidence that will help in improving our avodas Hashem.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

253 - Chanukah

Chazal tell us (Shabbos 23b), "One who regularly lights candles will have sons who are talmidei chachomim, he who is careful with mezuzah will merit a nice house, he who is careful with tzitzis will merit a beautiful garment and he who is careful to recite the Kiddush will merit to fill up barrels with wine."

Rav Wolbe notes that when one performs a mitzvah properly, the reward is allocated in the object with which the mitzvah was performed. If so, he asks, shouldn't the reward for being vigilant regarding the mitzvah of lighting candles be to merit a beautiful menorah? The answer is that the mitzvah of Chanukah is not merely the physical act of lighting the candles, but we are also obligated to recognize the awesome spiritual light of the Torah. Performance of this mitzvah brings in its wake a reward similar to the rest of the mitzvos mentioned above: one who perceives the greatness of the light of the Torah will merit children who will be endowed with this spiritual light.

In essence, it was against this perception that the Hellenists were fighting at the time of the Chanukah miracle. They wished to make us "forget the Torah and stray from the statutes of [Hashem's] will." They wanted to prove that Greek wisdom is no different, or even better, than the wisdom of the Torah. Hence the victory of the war waged against this Hellenistic approach was in essence a strengthening of our knowledge of the superiority of the wisdom of the Torah.

What is so unique about "chochmas haTorah?" Chazal tell us that chochmas haTorah resembles in a small manner Hashem's unfathomable wisdom. It takes the greatness of Hashem to be able to encapsulate such wisdom in the Torah which discusses seemingly mundane topics such as laws pertaining to neighbors and damages. One who toils in the study of Torah succeeds in cleaving to the Source of the wisdom - a Source which is not governed by nature. Thus, the lives of Torah Jews aren't subject to the laws of nature. Consequently, it is a common occurrence that even for those for whom the doctors have given up all hope, to, nevertheless, recover after heartfelt tefillos offered on their behalf. The Torah's wisdom declares, "Even when there is a sword upon a man's neck, he should not refrain from davening for Hashem's compassion."

This is a fundamental difference between the wisdom of the Torah and Greek wisdom. Aristotle and his disciples only believed in that which they were able to comprehend. As the Rambam writes, had Aristotle not known how a baby was born and someone described how the fetus lives for nine months inside its mother without breathing or eating, he would have written it off as ludicrous, for such living conditions are beyond his comprehension which was limited by the laws of nature. Torah on the other hand, defies all laws of nature, for its source is the Creator of nature itself.

Chanukah is a time to set our perceptions straight. Torah isn't just a topic of study like any other wisdom. Torah is the study of Hashem's wisdom, and toiling to understand what is written within it brings a person to spiritual levels unfathomable, and certainly unattainable, by those who study only other wisdoms.

A Freilichen Lichtege Chanukah!

252 - Vayeishev

Despite the continuous attempts made by Potiphar's wife to try to seduce Yosef, he maintained his righteousness and did not sin with her: "And she spoke to Yosef day after day, and he did not listen to her to lie next to her, to be with her" (Bereishis 39, 10). Rashi explains the seemingly redundant language of the pasuk, "to lie next to her, to be with her. "To lie next to her" was said in reference to this world, while "to be with her" refers to the World to Come. Had Yosef sinned with Potiphar's wife, he would have ultimately ended up together with her in the next world. What is the meaning of this ambiguous statement?

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) explains that every action performed in this world does not end with the completion of the action. Rather, it creates a spiritual reality that continues into the World to Come. This spiritual reality is the reward or punishment one receives in olam haba. In other words, each mitzvah performed in this world is made up of two parts: the physical action and the spirituality that the mitzvah produces. Likewise, each aveirah contains both of these aspects. When one reaches the next world and has the ability to perceive the spiritual side of his actions, he becomes cognizant of the magnitude of those actions. Recognizing the enormity of the positive spirituality produced by his mitzvah is in and of itself the reward for that mitzvah, while perceiving the magnitude of his aveirah is the very punishment itself. This is what Chazal meant when they said (Avos 4, 2) "The reward for a mitzvah is a mitzvah, the reward for an aveirah is an aveirah." Had Yosef sinned with Potiphar's wife, the aveirah would have accompanied him to the next world.

An aveirah isn't "over" at the end of the transgression. As Chazal tell us (Sotah 3b) an aveirah surrounds the transgressor and cleaves to him like a dog until the World to Come where it turns into the punishment for that very aveirah. If this is true with regard to aveiros, how much more so does it apply to mitzvos. It behooves us to bear in mind that the magnitude of our every action is astounding!

251 - Vayishlach

The parsha begins with Yaakov sending messengers to his brother Eisav. "So says your brother Yaakov, 'I have dwelled with Lavan and was detained until now.'" Rashi tells us that Yaakov specifically chose the word "garti" (I have dwelled) for it has the numerical value of six hundred and thirteen. He was trying to convey a message that although he lived with Lavan for twenty years, he nevertheless guarded all six hundred and thirteen mitzvos of the Torah and was not influenced by Lavan's wayward behavior.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) says that we can gain another important insight from Yaakov's phraseology. Only because he felt that "garti" - that he was a ger, a sojourner in Lavan's house, did he succeed in keeping all the mitzvos. Despite the fact that he spent twenty years in Lavan's presence, he never became acclimated to his surroundings. He never allowed himself to be drawn into the culture or after the ideology of those living in Charan, because he always perceived himself as a sojourner and not a citizen.

One must be aware that there is truth to the claim that assimilation is a natural process. If a person perceives himself as a one of the populace "just like the rest of them," then there is nothing preventing him from becoming part and parcel of their culture and ultimately throwing off all vestiges of Judaism. Rav Wolbe related that when he was in Sweden, on the longest day of the summer the Swedes would dance around a tree and sing children's songs. Even though there doesn't seem to be anything intrinsically wrong with what they were doing, in reality there is a great danger involved. These songs and dances are an expression of the Swedish culture, and therefore, one must be extremely cautious lest he begin to acclimate to their way of life.

The most recent statistics show that forty percent of all Jews living in the Diaspora and fifty five percent of those living in America marry non-Jews. Unfortunately, assimilation has become "a natural process." In light of this fact, our avodah is to ensure that we maintain the correct perception of who we are. We are thankful to our host countries for allowing us to live there peacefully, but we are in no way part and parcel of their culture!