Thursday, July 28, 2011

285 - Masei

Sefer Bamidbar ends with the laws regarding one who kills a person by accident. He must flee to a city of refuge and remain there until the death of the Kohein Gadol. In Parshas Va'eschanan we read how Moshe Rabbeinu designated three cities in Eretz Yisroel as (cities of refuge)"" (Devarim 4, 41). Chazal (Makkos 10a) explain " " (lit. toward the rising sun) homiletically. Some explain that Hashem was telling Moshe, "Cause the sun to shine for the murderers." Others explain that Hashem was commending Moshe on a job well done: "You have caused the sun to shine for the murderers."

Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol. I pg. 190) points out that this was the very last mitzvah Moshe performed before he passed away. The greatest prophet felt it imperative to dedicate his last hours on earth to causing the sun to shine for dejected people. The truth is that his entire life was dedicated to this cause. When he was growing up in Pharoh's palace the first story the Torah tells us about him is, " " (Shemos 2, 11). From the beginning until the end, Moshe's life was a continuous saga of caring for the downtrodden, thereby causing the sun to shine for them.

This concept characterizes our regarding . The importance of causing the sun to shine for others can be seen from a statement of Chazal (Kesubos 111a). "Uplifting another person emotionally is more important than providing for their physical needs." (Avos 4, 20). Responding to a greeting is an act of , while initiating a greeting is much more than that. It is an act which literally lights up another's life. Everyone craves and appreciates the interest that another person shows in them. Even a baby responds warmly to a smile: He gurgles and his face lights up in response. Conversely, if he receives a stern look, he immediately starts crying.

A smile doesn't cost anything and it gives so much. Why not confer them more freely? There is no better time to increase than the three weeks between Shivah Asar B'Tammuz and Tisha B'Av. Smile at someone whom you would normally pass by without showing any sign of recognition. You lose nothing yet you accomplish so much!

284 - Matos (Bein Hameitzarim)

We cannot truly comprehend Hashem. "His throne is in Heavens above and His powerful presence is in the loftiest heights" (Aleinu). Yet, Bnei Yisroel through their avodah and tefillos, have the ability to bring Hashem down to this physical world.

Chazal tell us (Devarim Raba 2, 6) that idols are close by, but, at the same time, they are really far away. A gentile makes an idol and places it in his house - close by. However, when he prays for help he receives no answer, as if the idol is quite distant. In contrast, Hashem's abode is in the heavens which is a five hundred year journey away. Yet, even a prayer in a person's heart is heard by Hashem, for in reality He is very close by.

Regarding the Torah, the Medrash (ibid. 8, 7) says that Bnei Ysroel asked Moshe, "You say the Torah is not in the Heavens nor is it across the ocean; if so where is it?" To which he responded, "It is in your hearts and mouths - it isn't distant, it is very close." Rav Wolbe adds (Alei Shur vol. II pg. 405) that the very purpose of the Torah is to engender closeness, by bringing Hashem down into our lives. One who begins learning Gemara and studies the laws of a bull goring a cow, might wonder how such a topic is supposed to bring one closer to Hashem. After a while he will begin to realize that there is no aspect of our lives that is not directed by Hashem's will. Every topic in Gemara is a lamp that illuminates and guides us in some aspect of life. Although other nations also believe in The Creator, in their eyes He is entirely metaphysical and abstract, and they don't have the wherewithal to connect with Him.

Even the final redemption is tentatively close at hand. When Bnei Yisroel asked Bilam when the final redemption will take place, he answered "I see it but it is not near" (Bamidbar 24, 17). To which Hashem responded, Bilam does not wish to see My redemption for then he will be severely punished and therefore, he says that the redemption is not near. However, you shall yearn for the redemption since it is close at hand: "Observe justice and perform righteousness for My salvation is soon to come" (Yeshaya 56, 1).

The Torah delineates a number of aveiros that were committed by Bnei Yisroel. However, there were two aveiros that undeniably had the most far reaching ramifications. The first was the sin of the golden calf, whereby Bnei Yisroel lost most of the uniqueness given to them. They lost their great stature (the crowns), the freedom from the death, and the ability to study Torah without forgetting. Additionally, Chazal tell us that any suffering that befalls the Jewish nation includes some of the punishment that was intended for the Jewish people when they worshipped the golden calf. The second aveirah was the sin of the spies. Their derogatory report about Eretz Yisroel caused the nation to cry, and thereafter that day was designated as a day of crying for all generations.

In the Jewish calendar, the days on which these two aveiros were committed, fall out within a mere three weeks of each other. These three weeks are the time designated to contemplate just how far we are from Hashem. In reality, Hashem, the Torah and the final redemption are all within arm's reach; it is our aveiros that cause the distance. This is the time to mourn that distance which was caused by our own actions. This mourning itself has the capacity to minimize this distance.

283 - Pinchas

In this week's parsha Bnei Yisroel are counted once again. "These are the ones counted by Moshe and Elazar Hakohein. . . And from these there was no man of those counted by Moshe and Aharon in the Sinai Desert" (Bamidbar 26, 64-65). Rashi comments that the Torah emphasizes, "there was no man", because the women were still alive at the time of the second counting. They were not included in the punishment incurred as a result of the spies' derogatory report and the nation's subsequent objection to entering the Land of Israel. In contrast to the men who expressed their grievances against Eretz Yisroel, the women cherished the Land. This was demonstrated by the daughters of Tzlafchad who came to Moshe requesting that they be allocated a portion of land in Eretz Yisroel.

It is interesting to note, says Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash), that women were always at the forefront of the great events mentioned in the Torah. Chazal tell us that in the merit of the righteous women our forefathers were redeemed from the bondage in Mitzrayim. Additionally, when Bnei Yisroel stood ready to accept the Torah at Har Sinai, the women were placed first in Hashem's command to Moshe: "So shall you say to the daughters of Yaakov and relate to the sons of Yisroel" (Shemos 19, 3). Finally, it was the women who cherished and thereby merited entering Eretz Yisroel, while their male counterparts perished in the wilderness. In contrast to those who perceive women as maintaining an inferior spiritual status, the Torah clarifies for us their true level of greatness.

In a similar vein, Rashi (Bamidbar 27, 7) tells us that the eyes of the daughters of Tzlafchad "saw" what was not "seen" by the eyes of Moshe. Their request precipitated Hashem's commandment to Moshe as to regarding what should be done with the estate of a man who dies and leaves only daughters. It was in the merit of these wise women that Bnei Yisroel were taught the laws pertaining to inheritance. Once again we see the greatness the Torah ascribes to women.

Rav Wolbe points out that there is another lesson to be gleaned from the daughters of Tzlafchad. They are yet another example of the emphasis the Torah places on the importance of each individual. Their simple request, which demonstrated an intense spiritual desire, brought them honor in the eyes of their generation and all future generations since Hashem recorded their dialogue in the Torah. We all have the potential to leave our mark!

282 - Balak

There was no prophet who described Bnei Yisroel's essence better than Bilam, says Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash). The Ramban writes (Bamidbar 22, 20), Hashem specifically desired that a non-Jewish prophet bless Bnei Yisroel. This is an idea that is already mentioned in the Gemara. Chazal tell us (Avodah Zara 3a) that in the future when Hashem will reward Bnei Yisroel, all the nations of the world will protest that Bnei Yisroel are undeserving since they failed to perform the mitzvos of the Torah. Hashem will respond that gentiles themselves will testify to Bnei Yisroel's vigilance in guarding the Torah's precepts. Lavan will testify that as an employee of twenty years Yaakov didn't take a single item that wasn't his. Nevuchadnetzer will testify that Chananya, Misha'el and Azarya refused to prostrate themselves before the idol, and so on and so forth. Here too, Hashem finds it imperative to bring our arch enemies in testimony to our righteousness.

Rav Wolbe explains this phenomenon as follows. Dovid Hamelech said (Tehillim 92, 12), "When those who would harm me rise up against me, my ears listen." Rav Yisroel Slanter says that when an enemy talks we must listen. If our enemy says that we are righteous, we can be certain that we are truly righteous. However, if he has anything negative to say, then we know we still have what to work on, as the pasuk says, "When Hashem favors a man's ways, even his enemies will make peace with him" (Mishlei 16, 7). Therefore, Hashem is interested in the praises sung by our enemies, for there is not truer praise.

How does Bilam describe Bnei Yisroel? "From the tops of rocks I perceive [them] and from hills do I see it, a nation that will dwell in solitude" (Bamidbar 23, 9). Rashi explains, Bilam was saying that he looked into Bnei Yisroel's origins - the patriarchs and matriarchs - and found that their foundation is rock solid. Every action of our forefathers was committed with the direct intent of creating and building a spiritual nation. Bnei Yisroel were spiritually built into "a nation that will dwell in solitude" andthis is their very essence. We are to be so totally removed from the other nations that the Torah even forbids us to praise them or their possessions.

Bilam perceived that the spiritual construction performed by the Avos was all with the intention of building a nation that will dwell in solitude. Even when living among the other nations, we must bear in mind that Bilam's description is our very essence, and it behooves us to live our lives in accordance with this mentality.

281 - Chukas

In an attempt to shorten Bnei Yisroel's final journey to Eretz Yisroel, Moshe sends messengers to the King of Edom requesting permission to pass through Edom on the way to the Promised Land. The King of Edom refuses to grant permission and Bnei Yisroel are forced to take a more circuitous path. Thereafter, the Torah writes, "And Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon on Har Ha'har near the border of Edom, saying, 'Aharon shall be gathered to his people'" (Bamidbar 20, 23). Rashi explains that there is a reason the Torah emphasizes that this conversation took place near the border of Edom. Since they allied themselves with the wicked Eisav (Edom) they lost this righteous man (Aharon).

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) notes, that all they wanted to do was simply pass through the Land of Edom undisturbed. If so, he asks, why did Hashem refer to this endeavor as an act of alliance with Edom and an interest in befriending Eisav? This question derives from the fact that we don't truly understand the danger of living among other nations. We are so used to living in galus, that we don't even realize to what an extent those around us influence our lives. We mimic their actions, copy their way of thinking and absorb their culture. Even merely speaking the language of the populace brings along with it certain negative influences. The most profound characteristics and ideologies of a nation are expressed through their language.

Bnei Yisroel merely requested permission to pass through the land of a foreign nation, and the Torah labels this attempt as an alliance with evil. The danger of such an action was so great that as a result they lost one of their greatest leaders.

We live in galus and there is nothing to do about it until Moshiach comes. However, what we could and should do is minimize the negative effect of the people among whom we live. Take a look around the house and see if there are things that are not proper for a Jewish home. If there are, why not dispose of them? Moreover, take a look around yourself and see if there are any hashkafos that have no place in a Jewish body!

280 - Korach

The parsha begins with Korach leveling a criticism against Moshe and Aharon: "The entire nation is holy and Hashem is among them, and why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of Hashem?" (Bamidbar 16, 3). Moshe responds, "In the morning Hashem will make known the one who is His own and the holy one." Rashi cites the Medrash which explains the intent behind Moshe's choice of words. He was telling Korach that Hashem set definitive boundaries in the world. Just as he does not have the ability to change morning into night, so too, he does not have the ability to change Hashem's appointment of Aharon as the Kohein Gadol.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) explains that the Medrash is informing us that the appointment of Aharon as the Kohein Gadol was a "creation" no different than the creation of day and night. When Hashem places a person in a specific position, He literally molds the person to fit the position. There is no possibility to change this mold.

This is a concept that applies to each and every one of us. Hashem created each person with a unique character and there is no way to alter this initial character. Chazal tell us that one who is born during the rule of the mazal of Ma'adim, will invariably spill blood. There is no way for him to change this innate characteristic. Nevertheless, continues the Gemara, he has the ability to channel the characteristic to a specific occupation that suits him. He can be a Shochet, a Mohel, a blood letter or a murderer. These are options that span the entire spectrum of occupations. A Mohel spills blood for a vital mitzvah, a murderer spills blood in sin, and the Shochet is somewhere in between. A Shochet also performs a mitzvah, however, it is not an obligatory mitzvah to slaughter animals being that one does not have to eat meat.

Likewise, Chazal tell us that when Shmuel Hanavi came to anoint David as king, he was concerned because David had a red complexion (similar to Eisav) which indicated a natural tendency to spill blood. Shmuel was relieved when he noticed David's fine-looking eyes, since they signified that he would spill blood only with the consent of the Sanhedrin - the "eyes" of the nation.

Every person has certain innate tendencies that cannot be uprooted. The possibilities for channeling these characteristics are numerous. The choice is ours. Why use it in a destructive manner when you have the ability to use it in a constructive fashion?

279 - Shelach

When the spies returned with a derogatory report after scouting Eretz Yisroel, Hashem threatened to wipe out Bnei Yisroel and create a new Jewish nation with Moshe Rabbeinu as its patriarch. Moshe petitioned Hashem, and through a winning argument succeeded in averting the fulfillment of this threat: "The nations that heard Your fame will say, 'Because Hashem lacked the ability to bring this nation into the land that He promised them, He slaughtered them in the desert'" (Bamidbar 14, 16). In other words, wiping out Bnei Yisroel will result in a terrible chillul Hashem. To which Hashem responded, "I have forgiven [them] for the reason you have said."

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) cites the Rashbam in Parshas Eikev (9, 25). Before his death, Moshe castigates Bnei Yisroel regarding their transgressions committed while in the desert and the numerous prayers that he offered on their behalf. The Rashbam explains that Moshe was letting them know that they won't always be able to rely on such prayers. Moshe's prayers succeeded because Bnei Yisroel had not yet entered Eretz Yisroel. Therefore, there was always the possibility that the other nations would claim that Hashem lacked the ability to conquer the thirty one kings of the Land, which constituted a chillul Hashem. However, once Hashem would bring them into the Promised Land and systematically destroy the inhabiting nations one after another, no longer would anyone be able to claim that Hashem's ability is lacking. Hence, the current method of praying would be ineffective!

All prayer has to somehow be connected to kiddush Hashem or preventing chillul Hashem. Even when one prays for the speedy recovery of someone who is ill, the intention should be that in this person's present situation he cannot properly serve Hashem, and his recuperation will lead to a greater degree of kiddush Hashem.

We aren't on the spiritual level to ensure that all our prayers are offered with the perfect intentions. Thus, we must pray in every given situation, regardless of the purity of intention. Nevertheless, we should bear in mind that the ultimate purpose behind health, wealth, and tranquility, is to have the ability to serve Hashem without any distractions, thereby glorifying His Name in this world. Often, if we dig deep enough, we will realize that this is the underlying impetus for our prayers. Bringing these thoughts to the forefront while praying, may succeed in making our prayers all the more effective.

278 - Shavuos

Rav Chaim Vital (Sha'arei Kedusha perek 1) writes: "After Adom Harishon ate from the eitz hada'as, his body and soul each became a blend of good and evil. This is the idea [referred to by Chazal] of the snake injecting 'contamination' into Chava and Adom. Through this contamination he caused sickness and ailments to their bodies and souls. This is the meaning of the pasuk, 'For on the day that you eat from it you will surely die' - death of the soul and death of the body."

Nevertheless, Chazal (Shabbos 146a) tell us that when Bnei Yisroel stood at Har Sinai this contamination ceased and they once again attained the level of Adom Harishon prior to his sin. If so, writes Rav Wolbe (Da'as Shlomo Shavuos pg. 284), we are to understand that the Torah must have penetrated all the areas of contamination i.e. the various facets of their bodies and souls. With this in mind it is clear, that without Torah, even the greatest human cannot divest himself of the evil fused in both his body and soul.

With this introduction we can understand a cryptic passage from the Chovos Ha'levavos (Sha'ar Avodas Elokim). "The Torah combines varied concepts - those mitzvos that cannot be comprehended with logic (chukim), together with the basics of those mitzvos that have a logical interpretation. This was done because the generation that received the Torah was at that time under the dominion of their desires, and their mind was too weak to comprehend even the logical mitzvos. Therefore, the Torah combined both types of mitzvos, so that one who can comprehend them will perform them as compelled by his own comprehension (a higher level than one who performs it because it is written in the Torah), while one who cannot comprehend the mitzvah on his own will at least perform it no differently than the chukim that he performs despite the lack of any logical explanation."

A superficial reading of this passage might lead one to think that the generation that accepted the Torah was on a low level and ruled by the passions and desires. He might even entertain the thought that the Torah was given specifically to such a generation and in modern times it is not needed due to our greater morals and intellectual abilities. In truth, the Chovos Ha'levavos is expressing a profound idea. The generation that accepted the Torah was the greatest generation to walk this earth. Yet, before they accepted the Torah they still contained the contamination injected by the snake and there was evil intermingled in their very being. Hence, even though they were on a high spiritual level and would have never acted on a negative trait, the very possibility that a bad trait might be aroused was enough to obscure an objective perception of the proper performance of even the logical mitzvos. Therefore, they accepted these mitzvos and performed them no differently than they performed the chukim.

Let us take for example the mitzvah of "loving one's fellow like himself." It sounds pretty simple, it's pretty logical and everyone talks about it - but how many people actually act accordingly? The Ramban comments that it is quite difficult to fulfill this mitzvah. A person wishes upon his friend everything good - as long as he himself is at least slightly better off! At Har Sinai there were those who accepted upon themselves to properly perform this mitzvah like a chok.

The Torah combined the logical mitzvos with the chukim so that we should be meticulous in their performance as we are meticulous with the performance of the chukim. On Shavuos we are obligated to accept the Torah. This includes accepting upon ourselves to perform the logical mitzvos (e.g., not stealing, damaging, or taking revenge etc.) with the same meticulousness as we perform the mitzvah that prohibits eating chazir or wearing shatnez!

Good Yom Tov!

277 - Bamidbar

The Jewish People are not the sole believers in Hashem. Nevertheless, says Rav Wolbe (Da'as Shlomo Shavuos pg. 496), there is a marked difference between the belief of the other nations and our emunah in Hashem. In Tehillim (113, 4) we read, "Exalted above all the nations is Hashem, in the Heavens is His glory." The nations all know that there is a G-d, but they perceive that due to His exalted stature He has made His abode in the Heavens, with little or no involvement in the day to day activities down here on earth.

In contrast, Bnei Yisroel believe that Hashem is much closer to home. The Torah tells us, "He discovered them in the desert; in desolation - in a shrieking wilderness. He encircled them; He granted them discernment; He protected them like the pupil of His eye" (Devarim 32, 10). Bnei Yisroel are encircled by Hashem. As the Rambam writes, "Our Sages said anyone who has tefillin on his head and arm, tzitzis on his garment and a mezuzah on his doorpost is guaranteed not to sin, for he has many reminders - i.e. the angels that protect him from sinning as it says, 'An angel of Hashem encamps around him and saves him.'" Moreover, Bnei Yisroel are not only encircled with angels, they are encircled by Hashem Himself - "Hashem surrounds His nation" (Tehillim 125, 2). Just as we are surrounded by air, we are surrounded by Hashem's glory.

As Rashi explains, Hashem's encirclement of Bnei Yisroel manifested itself in numerous forms. He enclosed them in the clouds of glory, He encircled them with flags on all four sides, and He surrounded them with Mt. Sinai when He held it over their heads like a barrel (forcing them to accept the Torah). Let us take a closer look at each of the occurrences mentioned by Rashi, two of which are described in Medrashim on this week's parsha.

The Tanchuma (Bamidbar) tells us that there were seven clouds of glory. Six clouds surrounded them, one on top, one underneath and four more: one on each side. The seventh cloud traveled in front of them; killing snakes and scorpions and leveling mountains and valleys. Bnei Yisroel were encircled as if in a cocoon; all their needs were cared for to the point that clouds ensured that even their clothes did not wear out.

The Medrash (Raba Bamidbar) tells us that when Hashem revealed Himself by Matan Torah, He was accompanied by 220 thousand angels, all carrying flags. When Bnei Yisroel observed this phenomenon, they too desired such flags, and Hashem acquiesced as we read in this week's parsha. The flags displayed the uniqueness of each facet of Bnei Yisroel in the eyes of Hashem. These flags were so precious to Bnei Yisroel, that when the nations tempted them with positions of great honor, they retorted, that anything that they can offer pales in comparison to the flags that they received from Hashem.

The third occurrence mentioned by Rashi is Matan Torah. Chazal tell us (Brachos 17a) that the world to come contains no food or drink. Rather the righteous sit with crowns on their heads and bask in the radiance of the Shechina, as it says (by Matan Torah), "They perceived Hashem and they ate and drank" they were satiated (from the Shechina) as if they ate and drank. If an example of the world to come can been seen from Matan Torah, we can deduce that by Matan Torah, Hashem gave Bnei Yisroel a taste of Olam Habah. This taste of the world to come can be felt every time we learn Torah, about which we say, "And eternal life he planted within us."

Bnei Yisroel don't merely believe in a G-d Who "sits up in Heaven." We believe that Hashem is very involved in every aspect of our lives. We are literally encircled with His glory. He protects us, He cares about each individual, and He gives us the ability to live an other-worldly life right here in this world!

276 - Bechukosai

In this week's parsha we read in the tochacha, "And if you behave with Me "keri" and you refuse to heed Me, I will add another blow upon you" (Bamidbar 26, 21). Rashi tells us that the word "keri" comes from the same root as the word "mikreh" which means casually. The tochacha comes as a result of behaving casually regarding avodas Hashem: sometimes performing the mitzvos while at other times neglecting them.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) cites the Rambam who offers a different explanation for the word "keri." In the beginning of the halachos pertaining to ta'anios, the Rambam writes as follows: "There is a positive commandment to cry out and blow the trumpets at the advent of any trouble that befalls the populace. . . However, if they do not cry out nor blow the trumpets, rather, they say that what has occurred is due to natural circumstances and this calamity has come merely by chance. . . the calamity will lead to other calamities. In regard to this it is written in the Torah, 'And if you behave with Me "keri" and you refuse to heed Me, I will add another blow upon you'." The Rambam understands "keri" to mean coincidentally - by chance. If one perceives all of Divine Providence as coincidence, he is guilty of behaving toward Hashem in a manner of "keri" and the terrible punishment for such behavior is delineated in the subsequent pesukimof the tochacha.

Additionally, we find that tumah - spiritual impurity - is described as "keri." According to Rashi's explanation, the manifestation of spiritual impurity is the casual performance of avodas Hashem. The Rambam adds another dimension to spiritual impurity: failing to notice the hand of Hashem and instead attributing all occurrences to natural causes.

Both explanations are true. Nothing is by chance. Each and every current event has not occurred by chance; they are carefully orchestrated by the Creator Himself. Additionally, our avodas Hashem should not be performed casually - "by chance." We are His servants at all times and our performance of His mitzvos should reflect that - day and night, rain or shine.

275 - Behar

Why can't we charge interest? After all, the very same money could have been invested or put into a bank account, and due to the loan one is losing that added income. Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) explains that when one's brother is in need of assistance, a person doesn't take into account losses that might result from aiding his brother. Hence, when a fellow Jew needs a loan, one should have the same outlook. We must help him, and this act of chesed should be complete without any thought of remuneration. In contrast, the Torah tells us regarding one who is not our brother; "To a gentile you may charge interest" (Devarim 23, 21 see Ramban).

In this week's parsha we read the prohibition of lending money with interest. "Do not take from him interest, and you shall fear your G-d; and let your brother live with you" (Vayikra 25, 36). Rashi explains that specifically here the Torah adds an exhortation, "and you shall fear your G-d" due to the uniqueness of this prohibition. Not only is there an inclination to charge interest and, therefore, it is difficult to refrain from such practice, one also excuses his actions with, "My money is lying idle by my friend when it could be reaping dividends." Hence, the Torah warns, "And you shall fear your G-d."

Every Jew is a brother or sister. The above pasuk provides two valuable lessons. We must relate to our fellow Jews no differently than how we would relate to our closest relatives, both in material and spiritual matters. What wouldn't one do for a sibling? Some food for thought before the next time we are asked to do a Chesed.

Additionally, Rav Wolbe cites the Ramban on the above mentioned pasuk of this week's parsha. The pasuk concludes, "and let your brother live with you." The Ramban explains this to mean that if indeed you did charge interest, you must return the interest to the borrower, "so that he will be able to live with adequate needs." The Mashgiach concludes, if I am commanded to ensure that my fellow Jew has an adequate material life, how much more so must I ensure that he has the ability to live an adequate spiritual life. If a fellow Jew is having difficulty with any aspect of Yiddishkeit - from its basic precepts to understanding a commentary on the Gemara - we are obligated to offer our assistance.