Monday, August 31, 2015

492 - Ki Seitzei

The mitzvah regarding the ben sorer u'moreh is extremely unique and a bit difficult to understand. At face value it seems that a thirteen year old boy who is merely found eating and drinking gluttonously is to be put to death. What has he done to deserve such a severe punishment? Chazal fill in numerous details which are not mentioned explicitly in the Torah. Among other details, the boy must be between the ages of thirteen and thirteen and three months. He must eat a specific amount of meat and drink a specific amount of wine in an extremely ravenous manner. Additionally, the food and drink must be bought with money stolen from his parents in order for him to conform to the requirements of a ben sorer u'moreh.

We still have some basic questions. Exactly which commandment did this boy transgress that warrants his receiving a death penalty? Moreover, if what he did was so terrible, why is the time frame for this transgression restricted to three months out of a person's entire life? The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 248) enlightens us to some of the rationale behind this mitzvah. He writes that the ben sorer u'moreh is guilty of transgressing the sin of "lo sochlu al hadam - lit. Do not eat over the blood" (Vayikra 19:26). Based on the Gemara in Sanhedrin (63a), the Chinuch explains that the Torah is exhorting us not to eat a meal that can bring one to spill blood i.e. cause himself to receive the death penalty. (See Ramban to Devarim 21:18 who differs).

He elaborates on the emphasis the Torah places on the boy's gluttonous ingestion of meat and wine. He asserts that excessive eating and drinking leads to the commission of a multitude of aveiros, as the Torah tells us, "Yeshurun became fat and rebelled" (Devarim 32:15). Food nourishes the body and cultivates materialism while reflecting upon mitzvos and yiras shamayim nourishes the soul and cultivates spirituality. Excessive intake of food weakens the "spiritual immune system" of the body which in turn leads to sin. Therefore, the Torah cautions us regarding excessive eating and attaches a death penalty to show the danger and severity of such behavior. However, the Torah specifically directs its message toward the thirteen year old boy who has just reached physical and spiritual maturity. The age when the intensity of adolescence is combined with a new sense of responsibility for one's actions, is the perfect time to hammer home the gravity of such wayward behavior: Don't overindulge. The lesson is taught once to this young boy and it is meant to last a lifetime.

Rav Wolbe (Da'as Shlomo) comments that while we might have thought that refraining from unnecessary eating is an area of avodas Hashem limited to the pious and righteous, the Chinuch lets us know that this is not the case. This is an idea which must be inculcated into children from a young age: Eating is not an end in and of itself. We are to eat so that we can be healthy and properly serve Hashem. The holiness of mealtime is apparent from the procedure required by Chazal when partaking of food. We must purify ourselves by washing our hands and then we make a bracha before eating. After we conclude our meal, once again we must wash our hands (mayim achronim) to wash away any negative materialistic consequences and once again bless Hashem and thank Him for the food.

Yet, continues Rav Wolbe, there is an even broader lesson to be learned from the Sefer Chinuch. The mitzvah of ben sorer u'moreh gives us an outlook on life in general. We most certainly can partake from the pleasures available to us, but these pleasures should be "pleasures with a purpose." When the pleasure is beneficial to our avodas Hashem, then such pleasure is imperative. However, one who engages in a lifestyle where pleasure becomes the objective, has fallen prey to the "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die" dogma of the other nations.

Our eye must always be on our ultimate goal i.e. the next world. Elul is the time to reevaluate our mindsets and lifestyles and properly align them, should there be a need. While the Torah's message was aimed at a thirteen year old, the significance of the message must accompany us throughout our lifetime!

491 - Shoftim - Elul

Rav Wolbe (Daas Shlomo) cites a mind boggling Medrash (Bereishis Rabba 2:7). Reb Avahu said, "From the beginning of time Hashem gazed at both the actions of the righteous and the actions of the wicked. Yet, it is not clear whose actions He desired. Once the Torah writes, 'And Hashem saw the light that it was good' it is clear that He desires the actions of the righteous and not the actions of the wicked." What is this supposed to mean? Could there be a possibility that Hashem prefers the actions of the wicked over the actions of the righteous?

Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm, offers a beautiful explanation. Indeed, even the wicked perform good deeds. However, they limit their good deeds to grandiose actions whose effects can be heard around the world. They will found organizations, create moral ideologies and give their lives for the sake of their country. In contrast, the righteous focus on the small, even minuscule, actions. Chazal were asking who's good deeds are superior - those performed by the righteous or those performed by the wicked? The answer was provided by the Torah: Hashem prefers the small actions of the righteous over the high-flying deeds of the wicked. A similar idea is mentioned by the Rambam. He asserts that for one who wishes to give tzeddaka, it is better that he give many small donations than one big donation. Many small mitzvos are preferential to a single big action.

Rav Yisrael Salanter writes that the focus of teshuva also must be on the small actions. Many are overcome with despair when faced with the prospect of teshuva. "There is no possible way for me to stop speaking lashon hara" or "I simply can't overcome this middah" they lament. However, there is no room for despair when the topic is teshuva. They are absolutely right; at the present time they cannot entirely overcome their inclinations. Nevertheless, they can greatly reduce the severity of their actions if they would merely desist at the times when it is easy for them to refrain from transgressing. If they would take small steps and resist for five minutes here and there, they will already have progressed tremendously down the road of teshuva.

With this in mind, our understanding of Chazal's well known statement becomes even more profound. "Hashem says to Klal Yisrael, 'Open for me a hole like the eye of a needle and I will open for you gateways that wagons and carriages will be able to pass through!'" Hashem specifically is interested in the small holes. Teshuva must begin with a focus on the small actions.

"Just five minutes" is a mantra that can change your life. I will refrain from lashon hara just for five minutes. I will learn just for five minutes. I will spend just five minutes on helping another Yid. The truth is that sometimes one doesn't even need five minutes. A wave of the hand to motion that one can't talk now can save a person from pages of bittul Torah or loads of lashon hara. Moreover, Hashem guarantees that He will reciprocate our small gesture with a huge dose of Heavenly assistance, as He waves us through big gateways of teshuva!

490 - Re'ei

Parshas Re'ei discusses an ir ha'nidachas - a situation where an entire city of people is found guilty of worshipping avodah zara. The punishment is as extreme as the transgression: The city is to be wiped out, all its contents must be burnt, and the city may never be rebuilt. The Torah concludes with an assurance, "And nothing from the banned property shall remain in your hands so that Hashem with turn back from His wrath, and He will give you mercy and He will be merciful to you" (Devarim 13:18).

The Gemara (Shabbos 151b) expounds on this pasuk. "Rebbi Gamliel the son of Rebbe says, 'And He will give you mercy and He will be merciful to you: Whoever shows mercy to people, Heaven will act with mercy toward him, and whoever is not merciful toward others, will not be shown mercy by Heaven.'" Rav Wolbe (Daas Shlomo) comments that while the first half of Chazal's declaration is logical, the second half is more difficult to understand. We can understand why one who does not have many merits can succeed in garnering heavenly mercy, since he acts with mercy toward other people and thus Hashem will deal with him mercifully. However, how are we to understand that one who learns Torah, acts honestly and possesses an abundance of other good middos, will nevertheless not be a recipient of heavenly mercy simply because he is not merciful to others?

Chazal are teaching us that if one does not act mercifully to other people it is impossible for him to receive heavenly mercy. A person's middos are vessels through which he is able to acquire heavenly bounty. Exactly proportional to the utensil prepared can one obtain heavenly bounty, and therefore, one who has not created a "receptacle" to store mercy cannot be a beneficiary of heavenly mercy.

In a similar vein, the Gemara (Rosh Hahasana 17a) tells us. "Said Rava, 'Anyone who is forgiving to another will be forgiven for all his sins as the pasuk says, 'He bears iniquity and forgives sins.' To whom does He bear iniquity? To one who forgives sins.'" One who is not forgiving simply lacks the tools needed to open the conduits of forgiveness. This concept is illustrated by a story related in the Gemara (Taanis 25b). One year there was a famine and Rebbi Eliezer, acting as chazzan, recited the twenty four brachos instituted when praying for rain but his prayers were not answered. Then Rebbi Akiva stood before the amud, recited two petitions and his prayers were answered immediately. Understandably, this caused people to question the greatness of Rebbi Eliezer. A bas kol was heard from Heaven: "It is not because one is greater than the other, rather one acts forgivingly while the other does not."

Rebbi Eliezer was a disciple of Bais Shammai and was of the opinion that one cannot just forgive and forget when it comes to an infraction to a talmid chochom because it undermines kavod Hatorah. He was not wrong in his opinion, but the reality was that he did not have the tools needed to access rain when Heaven had declared that the generation was undeserving. Only someone who practiced overlooking iniquity was able to influence Hashem to overlook the generation's shortcomings and provide rain.

This concept applies to all of a person's middos. Truth be told, most middos find expression between man and his fellow man. The manner in which we act toward others is the way Hashem acts with us. It's both frightening and exhilarating. How can a miser or an irritable person approach Rosh Hashana? On the other hand, there is nothing more invigorating than knowing that acting kindly, being merciful and forgiving others can rid oneself of mounds of aveiros! Elul is the time to take this knowledge and put it into practice!

489 - Eikev

In Parshas Eikev there is a single pasuk which encapsulates all of what is expected from us in this world."Now Yisrael, what does Hashem ask of you? Only that you fear Hashem your G-d, to go in all His ways and to love Him..." (Devarim 10:12). While the pasuk seems to be quite straightforward, Chazal explain it homiletically. "Do not read the word "mah" (what) rather "mei'ah" (one hundred). Hashem asks of you one hundred blessings a day. It would seem that fulfilling this dictate of Chazal, answers all of what Hashem asks of a person.

In explaining the significance of every bracha, Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol. I p. 112) cites the Radak in Yeshaya who explains words of praise penned by Chizkiyahu Hamelech. Chizkiyahu was deathly ill and after his miraculous recovery he wrote a letter in which he stated "I said with my days cut short I will go to the gates of the grave deprived of the rest of my years. I had said I will not see Hashem" (Yeshayah 38:10, 11). The Radak quotes Rav Saadyah Gaon, who explains that "seeing Hashem" is a reference to giving thanks. The Radak concurs, explaining that "perceiving Hashem means thanking and praising Him and contemplating His ways."

How can one "see" Hashem? We can see Him through recognizing His kindness and thanking Him for it. We are supposed to review over and over again - a hundred times each day - the truth that Hashem is the King of the world and it is He Who has given us every pleasure of which we partake. It is He Who gave us our body and our soul, and it is He Who gave us the Torah and the mitzvos. Everything we have is a result of His infinite kindness and we must thank Him for His beneficence. The extent that we will see Hashem on a daily basis is proportionate to the amount of attention we pay to what we are saying.

There is an added dimension to the daily requirement to make one hundred brachos. We don't thank Hashem once and for all for giving us water or giving us clothes. Every day calls for an additional thanks. Every drink calls for a new bracha. Chazal wanted us to appreciate that the world is not to be perceived as an ancient phenomenon. Rather, each and every day, and numerous times throughout the day, Hashem renews His kindness and recreates the world in its entirety. Thus, Chazal instituted daily brachos to thank Him for His constant kindness and never-ending bounty.

A well known gadol was wont to say that the length of a bracha depends on the height of a person. Thebracha begins when the food is taken into his hand and the bracha ends just before the food enters his mouth. Hence, the taller the person the longer the time he has to make a bracha! It's quite humorous, it's often true, and it's very unfortunate. We literally have in our hands the recipe for seeing Hashem, and we let it fly off into the breeze when we mumble the bracha under our breath or have our minds on a conversation with a friend. Choose a singlebracha that is going to be "yours," give it the proper frame of mind and this will open your eyes to see Hashem in a way that you never previously experienced!

488 - Va'eschanan

Chazal tell us that a person must say, "When will my actions rival the actions of my forefathers, Avraham, YItzchok and Yaakov." The source for this obligation, writes Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol. II p. 159), can be found in this week's parsha. In the first paragraph of Shema Hashem commands us, "You shall love Hashem with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your resources"(Devarim 6:5). The Medrash (Yalkut Shemoni 837) cites Rebbi Meir's explanation: "You shall love Hashem with all your heart like Avraham, with all your soul like Yitzchok and with all your resources like Yaakov."

Focusing on the greatness of our forefathers and striving to emulate their love for Hashem, forces every Jew to acknowledge the innate greatness that can be found in each and every individual who is part of our exalted Nation. This idea is extremely important for anyone engaged in bettering himself. Before one begins working on rectifying his negative character traits, it is imperativethat he be cognizant of and familiar with his positive character traits. Otherwise, as he learns through a mussarsefer, he will end up concentrating solely on the negative aspects of his own personality. Such behavior is a sure-fire way to bring about depression or to cause him to give up the possibility of curing his spiritual maladies.

Before starting Mesillas Yesharim, one should open to the table of contents and peruse the various different chapters. He must become aware of the fact that, not only do the virtues of zehirus, zerizus, nikius and taharah etc. exist,they are very much within a person's reach. Moreover, it is advisable that the first time he learns through the sefer, he should not stop after each chapter to size up where he stands in relation to what the Mesillas Yesharim writes. Rather, he should simply appreciate themiddah being discussed and yearn to achieve it himself.

The Ramchal writes in Derech Eitz Chaim, that merely thinking about the awesome spiritual levels attainable, aids a person in his journey toward perfection."A person should spend some time free of all distractions and think about what we have mentioned. He should ask himself, 'What did our forefathers do that caused Hashem to cherish them? What did Moshe Rabbeinu do? What did Dovid, the anointed of Hashem, and all the great people who preceded us do? Then He should think how worthy it is for a person to act in a similar fashion so that it will be good for him! He should then contemplate where he stands in relationship to the path followed by the great men of prior generations...The bottom line is that for one who does not think about this, it is exceedingly difficult to reach perfection, while the person who does think about this is very close to perfection." Even just thinking about the greatness attained by our predecessors helps us achieve the goal for which we strive.

The first step to self improvement is being cognizant of one's ma'alos, because if we would appreciate our innate greatness we wouldn't bother ourselves with the pettiness that brings about most lapses in avodas Hashem. The summer is a time which affords many people some extra time for relaxation. It might be very worthwhile to relax with a book about one of the greats of the past century. Their spiritual stature is something to strive toward, and if they could do it so could we! The purpose of reading these books is not to imitate those portrayed, rather to appreciate what we too can achieve if we would utilize our virtues to the best of our ability!

487 - Devarim

Devarim opens with Moshe addressing Bnei Yisrael. The Torah describes the location of this speech with eight or nine different names of places. Rashi explains that the locations mentioned refer not to actual places; rather, they are allusions to the various transgressions Bnei Yisrael committed over the course of their travels through the desert. Moshe was admonishing Bnei YIsrael and, not wanting to embarrass them, he made veiled references to their sins.

When alluding to the golden calf, Moshe refers to this sin with the name "Di Zahav" translated as "more than enough gold." Rashi explains that Moshe was stating that it was the abundance of gold bestowed upon them at the time of the exodus from Mitzrayim that caused them to make the golden calf. Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) notes that the pasuk seems to imply that had they not had the gold they would not have sinned. This idea seems quite clear from Rashi in Shemos (32:31) where he writes that Moshe told Hashem that by blessing Bnei Yisrael with so much wealth He had in effect caused the sin of the golden calf! Bnei Yisrael's situation was analogous to a king who gives his son food and drink, beautifies him, hangs a pouch of money around his neck and places him at the harlot's door; what can you expect from the son? This being the case how could they be blamed for making the golden calf if they were basically forced into making it?

Although Bnei Yisrael were placed into a difficult situation, they certainly had the ability to overcome the test given to them. When Chazal tell us that their position caused them to sin, Chazal are conveying an important message to us. The Torah is teaching us the attitude that one should assume prior to placing himself into a situation of nisayon is that he will almost certainly fail the test. One cannot place himself into a situation and rely on his will power and past performance to enable him to prevail over the temptation to sin. Rather, it is always necessary to act with foresight. Before entering any possible problematic situation one must identify the potential issues and refrain from engaging in any questionable behavior.

This is a lesson we must heed for life. We cannot go away on vacation in the summer to a place that compromises our religious standards and wave away all concern with an assertion that "I won't be affected." When making your plans, take all possibilities into consideration. The same applies when choosing a job, a community, a school for your children and when choosing friends. Before entering into a questionable relationship, clarify your ideals and standards and act accordingly.

Additionally, Klal Yisrael has endured a great amount of suffering due to sinas chinam. The destruction of the second Bais Hamikdosh was caused by baseless hatred and thus the ensuing tragedies of the next nearly two thousand years can be attributed to this terrible trait. Moreover, how many marriages and other relationships have ended because of petty arguments? A little foresight - taking into account the possible ramifications before saying lashon hara or quarreling - will save a lot of physical and spiritual heartache. Moreover, it will also aid in the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh for which we so desperately yearn.

ובעזהי"ת צום החמישי יהפוך לנו לששון ולשמחה

486 - Matos-Masei

In Parshas Masei, when recounting the Bnei Yisrael's travels through the desert, the Torah enumerates each of the forty-two locations where Bnei Yisrael encamped on their journey toward Eretz Yisrael. Why did the Torah feel it pertinent to inform us of the specific spots in the desert where Bnei Yisrael stopped over?

The Ramban (Bamidbar 33:1) quotes the Rambam who explains why Hashem felt it imperative that all future generations know the route they followed through the desert. The Jewish people were miraculously sustained in the desert for forty years. They ate heavenly bread, they drank water which flowed from a rock, and their clothing grew along with them. Yet, after that generations would pass on, and the extraordinary survival in the desert would remain a mere oral legacy, people would begin doubting the awesomeness of what occurred: "After all, there are many people nowadays that reside in the desert." People might contend that the Jews probably never strayed too far from civilization which allowed them to procure the vital provisions needed to get them through their forty year trek in the desert.

Thus, the Torah tells all future generations: Here are all the places of encampment; go check the map. See for yourselves that they were nowhere near any populated towns, and for the most part there was nary an oasis where they pitched their tents. When one has a precise picture of where Bnei Yisrael slept at night, they can begin to imagine what miraculous events transpired and thereby appreciate the awesomeness of Hashem's miracles and the extent of His kindness.

Rav Wolbe adds that this ability to conjure up occurrences of the past, and to depict for one's self images that he has never observed, is the key to emunah. The Rambam describes emunah as "the belief in what is outside the realm of the intellect, as the mind depicts it." As people are wont to say seeing is believing. The first step toward believing is to use one's mind to make an artist's rendering of the events. The strength of one's belief is directly proportionate to the clarity and reality of the picture he conjures up.

Having emunah per se is not a problem. Everybody believes in something. Some believe in communism, some in capitalism and some in socialism and some believe in the numerous other isms floating around. The founders of these ideologies created such a vivid picture of a utopian life for anyone who buys into their doctrine that it inspires the masses to believe in their philosophies because the people "see" the results and feel the anticipated pleasure before anything has actually happened. Our belief in Yetzias Mitzrayim, the splitting of the sea and Matan Torah, hinges on the extent our minds depict these occurrences.

On Pesach we are supposed to feel as if we ourselves went out of Mitzrayim. During the three weeks we should feel as if we were evicted from Yerushalayim. If we depict the Bais Hamikdosh in its glory, its destruction and the ensuing exile, we can begin to mourn what we lost. Looking at pictures of the evacuations of the ghettos and the resulting horrors endured during the Holocaust causes one to feel the pain even if he was not born at the time of these events. The mind is powerful. We can relive events that we never even lived through in the first place! Take a virtual tour of the Bais Hamikdosh with your mind's eye and appreciate the remarkable effect that it had on the entire world. This exercise will not only enable you to mourn what was lost, it will give you the emunah needed to truly believe in and anticipate the final redemption. May we all merit seeing it speedily in our days!

485 - Pinchos

Bnei Yisrael's improper behavior in Shittim triggered a plague which claimed the lives of twenty- four thousand people. Immediately thereafter, Hashem requested that Moshe count Bnei Yisrael to determine how many people survived. Starting with the shevatim, the Torah goes on to list the various families. When enumerating the families of sheivet Reuvein, the Torah tells us that Dasan and Aviram were amongst Reuvein's progeny but they were not counted since they were swallowed alive along with Korach. Yet regarding Korach's children, the following pasuk informs us, "And the sons of Korach did not die" (Bamidbar 26:11). 

So what happened to Korach's sons? Rashi explains that although they were the ones who advised Korach to take his stance, nevertheless, they were spared from the terrible punishment which was meted out to their father, because when the quarrel began "thoughts of teshuva passed through their minds." It's amazing to think, says Rav Wolbe, that while Korach was swallowed alive and ended up in the depths of Gehinom, his sons were saved from such a death and they were given a special compartment in the heights of Gehinom. A single thought of teshuva had the ability to change their status for all of eternity. Moreover, Chazal (Megillah 14a, Sanhedrin 110a) tell us that they are sitting in "the highest heights" and singing songs [of Hashem's praise]. 

Indeed, the sons of Korach could have fared better. They could have done a proper teshuva and possibly been spared entirely. Yet, we have to appreciate what they did accomplish. Where do they stand and where does their father stand? They merited all this because of a simple solitary thought of teshuva: "We were wrong. We should have never argued with Moshe." Spirituality is a reality, and the effects of a good deed change the way the world is run. They should have perished alongside their father but their thoughts saved them. It is a lesson for us all. Even if things look bleak, a single thought of teshuva has the ability to change things forever. 

In the beginning of the parsha the Torah relates another scenario where a single positive action in a fleeting moment of a person's life had an enduring effect. Pinchos and his offspring were granted a covenant of eternal priesthood in reward for Pinchos's act of heroism. He saw what was transpiring and he took action. The Medrash tells us that he was not the only one who saw the sinful behavior that was taking place; everyone saw. However, he was the only one who took action. It was a single action and he received eternal reward. Moreover, his offspring for all generations benefited from this good deed. 

Every person has their moment. It might be a once in a lifetime opportunity and it might be an opportunity that presents itself frequently. We must seize that moment. When we hear something inspiring, it should arouse us to at least a thought of teshuva. The problem is that we are too busy to think and too busy to do. "I have other things on my mind" and "Someone else will take care of the spiritual deficiency in our community." It's true. We do have other things on our mind and someone else will take care of the issue. However, if you put your brains or brawn toward avodas Hashem, then even if the outcome is only a single thought or deed, it can tip the scale favorably for all of eternity!

484 - Balak

There is a fascinating Medrash regarding the brachos which Bilaam blessed Bnei Yisrael: "Greater was the blessing that Bilaam blessed Yisrael than the blessings given by Yaakov to the shevatim and the blessings given by Moshe to the shevatim. When Yaakov blessed the shevatim he chastised Reuven, Shimon and Levi, while the blessings of Bilaam contain no chastisement nor blemish." How could it possibly be that Bilaam's brachos outshone the brachos of our greatest leaders?

Rav Wolbe (Daas Shlomo) explains that brachos of Yaakov and Moshe focused on a specific facet of Klal Yisrael, while Bilaam's brachos focused on an altogether different aspect of the nation. Yaakov and Moshe were leaders of the nation and their perception of Bnei Yisrael was viewed from a vantage point of avodas Hashem, and thus their blessings reflected this outlook. When one focuses on Bnei Yisrael's service of the Creator, there is often room for improvement and consequently place for chastisement.

In contrast, Bilaam's analysis of Klal Yisrael focused on Hashem's connection to them. As he declared, "Hashem perceived no iniquity in Yaakov and saw no perversity in Yisrael. Hashem their G-d is with them and the friendship of the King is within them" (Bamidbar 23:21). Rashi explains that when Bnei Yisrael transgress Hahem's word, He is not meticulous to examine their iniquities, and when they anger Him and rebel against Him, He never abandons them. When the focus is on the Shechina, there is no place for chastisement and there are no blemishes. No matter the spiritual state of Bnei Yisrael, Hashem continues to "dwell with them among their contamination" (see Vayikra 16:16). With this, Bilaam summed up the true essence of Bnei YIsrael: the connection that their G-d has with them.

We refer to these two different facets of Klal Yisrael daily in the birchos ha'shachar. First we recite, "ozeir Yisrael b'gevura - He girds Yisrael with strength" - which corresponds to Bnei Yisrael's avodas Hashem where they employ their strength in service of their Creator. Immediately thereafter we recite, "otair Yisrael b'sifara - He crowns Yisrael with splendor." This bracha corresponds to Hashem's relationship to us, for we are forever crowned with His splendor despite our faults and shortcomings.

We sometimes get caught up in what we perceive as our low spiritual state. We could be doing more chessed, davening with more kavana and performing mitzvos more meticulously. While there is always room for improvement, we should take a minute to appreciate who we are and what we have. Despite any sins and regardless of any deficiencies, Hashem does not move away even an iota and He continues to rest His Shechina amongst us. He loves us, He cares about us and He is forever intimately connected with us. This awareness is not only reassuring, it is also invigorating for it has the ability to motivate us to cultivate this relationship which in turn will catapult us to spiritual levels we never imagined that we could reach!

482 - Korach

Chazal (Pesachim 119a) tell us that Korach's fabulous wealth ultimately led to his demise. The Medrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 22:7) elaborates on this idea: "Three gifts were created in this world: wisdom, strength and wealth. One who merits any one of these has the ability to merit everything. However, this is only true when the gifts are Heavenly bestowed... When these gifts do not come from Hashem they will eventually cease. Our Rabbis taught: There were two extremely wise men in the world - Achitofel a Jew and Bilam a gentile - and both perished. There were two strong men in the world - Shimshon a Jew and Golias a gentile - and both perished. There were two wealthy men in the world - Korach a Jew and Haman a gentile - and both perished. Why? Because their gifts were not from Hakadosh Baruch Hu, rather, they grabbed the gifts for themselves."

What does it mean that these gifts were not given to them from Hashem? Theoretically we could have explained it to mean that although Hashem did not intend for them to have these gifts, nevertheless their intense desire for them caused Hashem to acquiesce to their wishes as Chazal assert, "A man is taken along the path he wishes to take." However, this cannot be the case because Hashem gave Shimshon his strength initially in order to fulfill the prophecy that was told to his parents before he was born that he would deliver Bnei Yisrael from their oppressors. Also, it seems from Chazal that Hashem intentionally endowed Bilam with prophecy and wisdom so that the nations of the world would not be able to claim that had they been granted a spiritual guide they too would have refrained from transgressions. 

The Chovos Halevovos writes (Yichud Ha'maaseh chap. 5) regarding wisdom, that when it is used properly it is the panacea for all ailments, and when it is misused it develops into a full blown disease which has no cure or treatment. With this in mind, says Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol. II p. 606), we can understand the statement of Chazal. All three of the gifts mentioned are given to a person to be utilized in the manner intended by Hashem. As Yirmiyahu declared (9:22,23) "The wise man should not glorify himself with his wisdom, the strong man should not glorify himself with his strength and the rich man should not glorify himself with his wealth. For only with this may one glorify himself - contemplating and knowing Me." The gifts are given as a means of getting to know Hashem. If they are used to this end one will continue to benefit from them, but if they are misused he has in effect "grabbed" them from Hashem and they will not endure.

Hashem grants every person countless gifts and numerous talents. We were endowed with these gifts to aid us in our avodas Hashem. It behooves us to take inventory of our gifts and talents to determine if we are using them properly or if we are using them at all. What a waste if would be if we had the talents which would enable us to help others and we simply weren't cognizant of them. And how pathetic it would be if we held the keys to our own success in our back pocket and we simply were not aware of them. Hashem gave us talents to use in furthering avodas Hashem on a personal level, a communal level and quite possibly they could even be employed to benefit the entire Klal Yisrael!

481 - Shelach

While many people succeed in suppressing feelings of anger in most scenarios, occasionally a situation may arise where they simply blow up. The instigation for the great anger is generally someone committing a severe offense which demands a stern response. The problem is that because the infraction caught our fuming friend off guard, instead of weighing his options and choosing a rational response, he erupted into a shouting frenzy which most likely did not achieve the desired results. How is one meant to overcome his anger and act sensibly when faced with such circumstances?

Rav Wolbe writes (Alei Shur vol. II pp. 219,220) that the answer can be found in Chazal and even traced back to this week's parsha. The Gemara (Brachos 7a) tells us that Hashem davens. "What does He daven? Said Rav Zutra bar Tuvi in the name of Rav, 'May it be My will that My compassion should suppress My anger. My compassion should overcome My other middos and I should deal with them (Bnei Yisrael) leniently.'" Hashem's anger is the attribute which demands perfection from His creations. Yet, His compassion has the ability to so to speak steamroll over all other attributes and change His reaction to one where He will act indulgently to His creatures. 

Any middah through which Hashem expresses Himself can also be found in ourselves. While we certainly know that a person has the ability to zealously arouse his anger at a wrongdoer, it is also true that he has the ability to override his anger. His compassion can be aroused to such a degree where it will act as a torrential waterfall which surges down the side of the mountain, eliminating all rocks and branches standing in its way. Because one's emotions of love and compassion are usually internally deeper and stronger than his emotion of anger they have the ability to overcome it.

It was with this idea in mind that Moshe davened to Hashem after the disaster created by the meraglim: "Now may the strength of Hashem be magnified" (Bamidbar 14:17), i.e. may Your great compassion supersede the anger aroused by this terrible misdeed. In a similar vein, a human being has the ability to magnify the strength of his compassion in a time of need and overcome anger kindled by even terrible infractions. Generally it is a parent who becomes livid with a child, a teacher with a student, or a spiritual leader with a constituent. All these mentors are people who inherently love their charges. The love and compassion for their charges is what must be aroused and magnified when they are inclined to become angry.

Practically how does one accomplish such a feat? It is very difficult to respond properly when caught off guard. Therefore, one must find ways of arousing his love at frequent intervals so that when a challenge does arrive he will be properly equipped to deal with it. One of the best ways of focusing on the love one feels for his charges is by davening for them. A day should not go by without offering a prayer for a child or a spouse. Likewise, a teacher should always have his students in mind. Not only does the tefillah itself effect tremendous results, it also increases our love for the recipient of the prayer and aids us in suppressing our anger - something we all strive to accomplish!

480 - Beha'aloscha

Beha'aloscha is the first parsha on the list of parshios that give an account of the "transgressions" committed by Bnei Yisrael in the desert. We read how Bnei Yisrael left Har Sinai like a child running away from school, and how they complained about the mann. The parsha ends with Miriam speaking derogatorily about Moshe Rabbeinu. Parshas Shelach recounts the sin of the meraglim and parshas Korach tells about the fiasco of Korach and his cohorts. Parshas Chukas contains an account of Moshe hitting the rock and parshas Balak concludes with Bnei Yisrael straying after the idols and daughters of Midyan. A superficial reading and understanding of these parshios could lead one to think that this remarkable generation wasn't so lofty after all.

Rav Wolbe writes (Daas Shlomo) that one who wishes to get a true picture of just how great these people were, must bear in mind three points. Firstly, the Kuzari (3:54-63) presents a most important principle. He asserts that the Torah only recounts well known events. The Torah does not tell of the great Torah knowledge of Yehoshua, Shmuel, Shimshon, and Gidoen. Rather it recounts the miracles of the splitting of the Yarden, the sun standing still, and the great strength of Shimshon. Sefer Shmuel recounts the wars fought by Dovid but it tells us nothing about his great piety, his awesome Torah erudition and his exceptional holiness. Except for a single story regarding the two women who argued over a baby, the Torah does not tell us about the great wisdom of Shlomo. Rather it mentions his fabulous wealth and his lavish meals. The Torah relates the famous stories while the rest of the details are meant to be filled in by Chazal. Learning The Written Torah without the aid of the Oral Torah is like trying to get a picture of someone's life by looking at a few postcards instead of watching an extended video documenting his life. 

Secondly, all twenty four books of Tanach are the word of Hashem, just recorded by humans by means of prophecy or ruach hakodesh. Thus, the gauge to measure those mentioned therein cannot be a human yardstick, for these people are being described by Hashem's exacting standards. The greater the person, the more demanding Hashem is in His dealings with them. Minute infractions indiscernible to the human eye are sometimes recorded as severe transgressions.

Lastly, we are literally spiritual light years away from the people discussed in Tanach. The Gemara (Eruvin 53a) in describing the difference between the Tanna'im and Amora'im writes that the hearts of the earlier generations were open like the entranceway to the Ulam (twenty cubits wide) while the hearts of the later generations are open like the eye of a needle! Moreover, Chazal declared "If the earlier generations were like angels then we are like humans; if they were like humans then we are like donkeys!" In other words, the difference between a few generations is compared to the difference between two entirely different species! Similar statements were made by Abaye and Rava who merited visits by Eliyahu Hanavi on a weekly and yearly basis respectively! We must multiply these differences a thousand fold to include the transformation that occurred from the times recorded in Tanach until the Tanna'im, and the many generations from the times of the Amora'im until the present day. We simply do not have the intellectual capability to comprehend the awesome stature of those mentioned in the Torah.

Let us not jump to conclusions regarding the misdeeds mentioned in the Torah. One Chassidic Rebbe pithily summed up this idea when he commented, "I wish my mitzvos were on the level of their aveiros!" Bearing this in mind will give us a fresh approach to the next few weeks of parshios. Instead of condemning their actions, we will be inspired by the immeasurable greatness attainable by man and hopefully be motivated to push ourselves to attain as much of that greatness as we possibly can!

479 - Naso

Among the mitzvos unique to the nazir, the Torah commands him to refrain from defiling himself by coming into contact with the deceased even when they are his closest relatives. The Seforno (Bamidbar 6:6) comments that this commandment parallels the mitzvah given to the Kohein Gadol. Due to the Kohein Gadol's holy vocation he must refrain from defiling himself by coming into contact with a dead person.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash Bamidbar 6:6) comments that, in effect, the Torah is giving every Jew the opportunity to achieve the holiness of the Kohein Gadol, albeit for a limited amount of time. The commandment to refrain from becoming tamai is not a mere prohibition; it is a manifestation of a bodily sanctification which the Torah grants a person when he accepts upon himself the mitzvah of nezirus. Levels of purity generally reserved solely for the Kohein Gadol become the hallmark of any Jew who is inspired to accept the title of a nazir. 

The Seforno continues, "In a similar vein Chazal said, 'Is it because there are not enough pallbearers in Tiveria that I sent you away from Netziven?'" The Seforno is making a reference to a story related in the Yerushalmi (Pesachim 3:7): Reb Avohu sent his son, Reb Chanina, from his home town Netziven to learn Torah as a disciple of Rebbi Yochanon in Tiveria. Sometime later, Reb Avohu was informed that his son was busying himself with burying the dead at the expense of his learning. Reb Avohu sent him a message, "Is it because there are not enough pallbearers in Tiveria that I sent you away from Netziven?"

The Seforno seems to equate one dedicated to learning Torah to a nazir. A Jew entirely devoted to Torah study is involved in a most lofty endeavor and he must not defile himself by tending to the dead. [Although halacha mandates that one is to interrupt his learning in order to escort a dead person, Reb Avohu was telling his son he should not busy himself with this lofty mitzvah because learning Torah is an even holier pursuit.]

The Seforno's message is clear. When one dedicates himself to a holy endeavor, he must take care not to desecrate his holiness by busying himself with tasks that lead to his "defilement." If the Kohein Gadol, Nazir and Yeshiva Bachur are cautioned not to defile themselves even when it involves a mitzvah, how much more so must they take care not to interrupt from their holy endeavors for frivolities. We should act no differently. When we dedicate a portion of our time to avodas Hashem, whether it be for Torah or tefillah, we must ensure that we are not distracted into defiling the holy opportunity. Take the initiative of the nazir and turn off your cell phone, so you can dedicate and thereby consecrate, your special time with Hashem.