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Devrei Torah relating to the weekly Parsha.

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A Land that Grows Immorality
The Shmuz Pinchas 5776

“Yisrael settled in Shittim and the people began to act promiscuously with the daughters of Moav.” — Bemidbar 25:1

Balak, the king of Moav, saw the supernatural success the Jews experienced when they left Mitzrayim, and he feared that his people would be destroyed. He hired the gentile prophet, Bila’am, to curse the Jews. HASHEM thwarted Bila’am’s efforts, and against his will, he blessed the Jewish people. Recognizing that he couldn’t curse them, he gave Balak an alternate strategy: “Their God hates promiscuity. Entrap the men in sin, and God will destroy them.” Balak sent the message out to the Moabite women, and thus began one of the lowest descents in our history. In the end, 24,000 Jewish men were involved in sin and were killed by plague.

When setting the backdrop for these events, the Torah mentions that the Jewish people camped in Shittim. This fact seems to be irrelevant. What difference does it make where they stopped? Rabbenu Bachaye explains that the city of Shittim was pivotal in these events, and it was only because the Jewish people were encamped in that area that the entire debacle unfolded. He explains that in Shittim, there was a stream of water that caused people to act immorally. This stream fed Sodom, and that was why people there became so depraved. The Torah mentions Shittim to let us know that it was because of that particular location that the Jews fell to that low level. The area was infused with a negative force.

This concept is very difficult to understand. How can a stream of water cause immorality? How can one place be more depraved than another simply because of physical attributes like a stream?

The best way to understand this is to focus on almost an opposite phenomenon.

A legend in our times

In the annals of recent Jewish history, one of the shining stars was a man named R’ Meir Schuster. He became a one-man kiruv dynamo and is credited for tens of thousands of Jews returning to Torah. At his funeral, R’ Noach Weinberg, zt”l, himself an icon in the ba’al teshuvah movement, said, “I am jealous of R’ Meir’s olam ha-ba.”

But those who knew him as a young man in yeshivah said they never would have expected it of him. He was a humble, soft-spoken, and shy person. He was not particularly charismatic, nor was he a great speaker.

R’ Schuster’s ascent to the level of legend began in 1968 when he was a young kollel student who had just moved to Israel. He and his friend Chaim Kass went to daven at the Kosel, and they noticed many people there who had no connection to Judaism. Nevertheless, these people were visibly moved simply by being there. The thought struck them both: “Why can’t someone connect with all these Jews whose neshamos are lit up by the Kosel?” But sadly, there was nothing in place to help them explore what they were missing.

All of that changed when they noticed a young man wearing a backpack, leaning against the Kosel, and crying. Chaim walked over to him and asked if he would be interested in learning more about Judaism. The young man responded that he would. For the next two weeks, R’ Meir Schuster and R’ Chaim kept returning to the Kosel to try to interest more people in exploring Judaism. By nature, R’ Schuster is particularly quiet and reserved, an introvert not naturally given to conversation, and so R’ Chaim initially did the talking. Within a couple of weeks, however, R’ Schuster began to take the lead. And for the next forty years, R’ Meir Schuster was at the Kosel, inviting young men and women to experience a Shabbos and explore their heritage. He became known as the “Man of the Wall.” And, today, thousands and thousands of ba’alei teshuvah credit their return to him.

Capturing the moment

But what was his secret? How did a shy, unassuming man accomplish so much? Certainly his sincerity and burning love for every Jew propelled him. But it was the time and the place that made it happen. Standing in Yerushalayim, the holiest city in the world, and there at its epicenter, the place of the Beis HaMikdash, a Jewish heart is aglow. The aura is pervasive and powerful. Rabbi Schuster tapped into that experience and guided people to further explore its wonder. What he did was gargantuan, but it was the Kosel that moved them.

A stream that causes immorality

This seems to be the answer to Rabbenu Bachaye. “The land of Shittim caused immorality” is literal. There was a pull to depravity in that place. HASHEM created many forces in this world; some function on a physical plane, and some on a different plane. If you electrify a piece of iron, it exerts an electromagnetic pull — a force so powerful that it can lift a full-sized SUV. So, too, HASHEM created forces that affect the spiritual world. Yerushalayim is infused with holiness; there is a presence in the air. When a person walks the streets, his soul lights up, and the pull toward ruchniyus is palpable. But just as HASHEM created specific places that effuse kedushah, He also created places that give off the opposite effect. There are places on this planet that exert a potent force that pulls a person to vice. It strengthens the hold of the body over the neshamah, and a person is drawn to do that which is sinful — not for the pleasure alone, but for the immorality of the action.

San Francisco

This concept is applicable to us, as even today, there are cities that are notorious for depravity. While we may be tempted to explain it based on sociological factors and circumstances, there is often a deeper, underlying cause. As part of keeping everything in this world in balance, HASHEM chooses some areas to be receptacles of impurity.

By being aware of different spiritual forces, and by becoming more sensitive to these pulls, we can tap into the dynamics that will propel our spiritual growth. May HASHEM speedily redeem us, and may we all live again in the most holy of all lands, our birthright, Eretz Yisrael.

This is an excerpt from the Shmuz on the Parsha book. All three volumes are available at your local sefarim store, or at All of the Shmuzin are available FREE of charge, at the or on the Shmuz app, for Android and Iphone.

Posted 7/29/2016 3:56 PM | Tell a Friend | Parsha Pearls | Comments (0)

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The Extent of Hashem’s Mercy

HASHEM opened the mouth of the she-donkey and she said to Bila'am, "what have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?" - Bamidbar 22:28.  The Storyline: The story of Bila’am, the gentile prophet, is most peculiar. It begins when Balak, the king of Moav, recognizes that he is in danger. The Jewish nation had just destroyed Sichon, and Moav was next. Out of desperation, Balak sent messengers to Bila’am, saying, “Please, curse this nation so that we can remain in our land.” Bila’am was more than willing to curse the Jews — he hated them more than Balak did, explains Rashi. Balak only asked for help defending himself against the Jews; Bila’am wanted them dead. Therefore, Bila’am asked HASHEM for permission to curse the Chosen Nation. HASHEM said to Bila’am, “You may go, but do not say anything I don’t tell you to say.” Bila’am then set off with his donkey on a journey to curse the Jews. Along the way, the donkey was stopped by a malach, and Bila’am beat it. The donkey continued. Again a malach stopped it, and again Bila’am beat it. Finally, the donkey opened its mouth and spoke. An overt miracle. The Seforno explains that Hashem brought about this miracle so that Bila’am should realize his mistake and do teshuvah. Even though Hashem doesn’t normally create obvious miracles, He nevertheless did so here because He didn’t want a man as important as Bila’am to be lost. ³ PUTTING THIS INTO PERSPECTIVE This Seforno is difficult to understand. Can we imagine anyone more evil than Bila’am? He was gifted with the status of a navi, thereby granted a fantastic power: the ability to bless or curse. His words were potent. He was now going to use his power to annihilate a people. His intentions were to wipe out the Jews — every man, woman, and child. And he would have succeeded had HASHEM not stopped him. This is a man on the level of an Adolph Hitler. Why would Hashem allow such a man to do teshuvah? And even more, why would HASHEM change nature to save such a lowlife? To answer this question, we need a different perspective. ³ WHAT DID YOU DO TO BE WORTHY OF BEING CREATED? The Chovos HaLevavos says that a person should ask himself the following question: before I was created, what did I do that made me worthy of being created? I recognize that I didn’t exist and that HASHEM made me. It must be that HASHEM felt that it was worthy to bring me into being. What is it that I did that made me worthy of being created? The answer is nothing. Because before you were created, you weren’t. And that is the point. There is nothing you did to make it fit for HASHEM to create you. He created you only out of His loving kindness. HASHEM is the Benefactor. HASHEM wishes to give. Generous and magnanimous, HASHEM wishes to shower His good upon others. Not because they deserve it, and not because they merit it, but because that is the nature of HASHEM: to bestow as much blessing as He can. HASHEM created everything — the stars, the sun, the moon, the oceans, and the rivers — to give to man. Man, however, has to earn that good. To do so, he must perfect himself. HASHEM is the source of all perfection. HASHEM put man into this world charged with the mission of making himself as much like HASHEM as humanly possible. When man is finished his job here, he enjoys closeness to HASHEM in accordance to the amount that he perfected himself here. That, however, is the inherent obstacle. HASHEM is beyond time, beyond space, and beyond any limitation. By definition, HASHEM is beyond human understanding. HASHEM wants man to emulate Him — but that is impossible. To allow for this, HASHEM manifests Himself cloaked in character traits. Those traits guide HASHEM’s interaction with the world. Now, based on how HASHEM acts, man can see Him. ³ JUSTICE VERSUS MERCY HASHEM originally thought to create the word with din (justice) as the guiding attribute. However, din demands total accountability. Din demands absolute responsibility. And din demands immediate consequences. You are liable for what you did. No excuses. No mitigating circumstances. You brought this about, this is the result. If din were the operating attribute, no human could exist. Man will err; man will slip. Therefore, HASHEM created the world with rachamim (mercy) as the predominant force. Now, our actions are viewed through the lens of understanding. Mitigating circumstances are taken into consideration, and time is granted. Time to recognize our errors. Time to correct our ways. Therefore, HASHEM manifests Himself in the almost human character trait of mercy — the key word being almost. HASHEM is not human. And HASHEM is not restricted. When HASHEM wears an attribute, it is endless and boundless. When Hashem wears the attribute of mercy, it has no limit. ³ THE EXTENT OF HASHEM’S MERCY This seems to be the answer to Bila’am. Granted he was wicked, and granted he set out to use his gifts for evil, but HASHEM still wished for his good. HASHEM still loved him. Despite everything he was planning to do, HASHEM didn’t want him destroyed. And so, HASHEM tried guiding him to teshuvah even if that meant changing nature and making a donkey speak. There is a vital lesson for us in these words. Bila’am was a gentile — a gentile who turned to wicked ways. Yet HASHEM still waited for his teshuvah. How much more so for us, the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov? We are HASHEM’s nation. We are His beloved. HASHEM waits with open arms, saying, “Return, My children. Return.” 


Posted 7/21/2016 3:49 PM | Tell a Friend | Parsha Pearls | Comments (1)

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Saving money for your children? - A Moment with Rabbi Avigdor Miller Zt"l #337

Is it important to save money for retirement or your children?

It's permissible to do, however! To save for your children, it depends. If you save without sacrificing the purpose of your life, that's alright; but people who give away the time that they should devote for their own betterment, they give that to their children, then it's a hundred percent waste. Because your child, when he comes into the world, he brings along an allowance that he takes with him from heaven, everybody is born with an allowance. My parents didn't set me up in business, didn't leave me any money: Baruch Hashem I never had to borrow any money all my life.

If you won't save up for your children, you'll take off your evenings to study Torah, you'll do tzedoka, you'll give money to charity; don't try to leave wealth for your children. Of course, if you want to leave them Torah wealth and it costs money to send them to Yeshivas, it costs money to keep even your married children in Kollel, that's yours! Whatever you do for them is for you, that's an investment on your own. But even that, suppose you're capable of sitting in the Kollel but your son would like you to keep on slaving to keep him in the Kollel? So you tell him, if you wish you can do it for me, I'll let you slave and support me in the Kollel.

Why not? A father has the right to be in the Kollel, sometimes the father has a better head than the son has. The Gemara says, hu lilmod ubno lilmod hu kodem, it's a question who should learn he or his son, he's first. So you don't give away your soul for your children. But – if you can do it without any big sacrifices of your time, to leave a little bit for them, nothing wrong.

Good Shabbos To All
This is transcribed from questions that were posed to Harav Miller by the audience at the Thursday night lectures.
To listen to the audio of this Q & A please dial: 201-676-3210

Posted 7/21/2016 3:33 PM | Tell a Friend | Parsha Pearls | Comments (0)

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The Extent of Reward
Chukas 5776
The Extent of Reward

HASHEM said to Moshe, “Do not fear him, for into your hands have I given him, his entire people, and his land; you shall do to him as you did to Sichon, king of Amori, who dwells in Cheshbon.” — Bemidbar 21:34

The Jewish nation had just defeated the Emorim and were preparing to conquer Bashan. Og, the king of Bashan, led his army out to meet the Jews in battle. Og was a giant of a man and was feared amongst the nations and Moshe Rabbeinu was reluctant to attack. HASHEM reassured him, saying, “Do not fear him.”

Rashi explains that Moshe was not afraid of Og because of his physical stature, but because of his personal merit. Many years earlier, in the time of Avraham Avinu, a coalition of five kings ruled the world. Four competing kings joined forces and waged war against these five kings and were victorious. During one of the battles, they captured Sedom, where Avraham’s nephew Lot had been living. Og survived that battle and ran to Avraham to tell him that Lot was being held captive. Because Og did this favor for Avraham, Moshe was afraid that the merit of that act would allow Og to beat the Jews in battle.

This Rashi is very difficult to understand, as the Midrash also explains Og’s motivation. Sarah Imeinu was one of the four most beautiful women who ever lived. For many years, Og had his eye on Sarah. The problem was that she was a married woman. With the capture of Lot, Og saw his moment. His plan was simple. He would tell Avraham that his nephew had been captured. Avraham, the altruistic tzaddik, would go to save his nephew. The four kings, the most powerful force on earth, would never allow a captive to go free. Avraham would enter into battle with them and be killed. And along would come the gallant Og to save Sarah from her widowhood. With this plan in mind, Og arrived to tell Avraham the news.

Og wasn’t engaged in redeeming a captive; he was manipulating events to cause the death of an innocent man in hopes of taking his wife. Why would Moshe be afraid of the merit of such an act? That act wasn’t a mitzvah. If anything, it was a sin.

The answer to this can best be understood with a mashal.

What’s your GPA?

Imagine that a recent college graduate applies for a job, and the interviewer asks him about his academic record. “So tell me, how did you do in school?” “Well, my first semester, I got an A in Chemistry, a B in Accounting, and a B+ in Economics. The next semester, I got…” “Okay, okay,” the interviewer says. “You don’t need to give me every detail. Just tell me your overall grade point average”

The employer doesn’t want to know the minutiae. He’s just looking for an overview. He wants to know in general terms whether or not this fellow is intelligent and hard-working. To find out, he asks for the cumulative average.

One of the reasons we don’t fear being judged at the end of our lives is that we assume that the judgment will be like a GPA, an average of everything that we’ve done. “I’m not afraid because, on balance, I was a good guy. I’m not saying I was a tzaddik. I’m not saying I was perfect. But I did a lot of good things, accomplished plenty. Granted, I could have done more. Certainly there were some things I should not have done. But overall, I’m okay.”

The Mesillas Yesharim (Chapter 4) explains that in the World to Come, the judgment isn’t “on balance.” Every act is judged separately. For every act that was meritorious, I will be rewarded. For every act that I should not have committed, I will be punished. But one doesn’t cancel out the other. My mitzvos don’t wipe away my aveiros, and my sins don’t eliminate my mitzvos. Each one is weighed and measured, and rewarded or punished independently. Furthermore, just as each action is weighed separately, so to is each part of the action. If I volunteered to drive an elderly man to a doctor’s appointment, on one hand it is a great act. I took off an entire afternoon to help a fellow Jew. For that, I will be rewarded. But what if while driving, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of arrogance thinking, “Look at me. How many people are as good as I am? Come on, how many people selflessly, without any drive for honor, help an old man? Not many…”

So is this a mitzvah or an aveirah? The answer is both. The outer act was great. But the inner condition was flawed. For the act, I will be rewarded. The self-inflation, however, damaged me, and for that I need atonement. Each part weighs into the verdict.

This judgment is very different than the way we assess things in this world. When we judge others, we focus on their intention. Was he trying to help me or to harm me? Is he a friend or foe? HASHEM’s ruling, however, is infinitely more exacting. There are many dimensions to each act, and many factors to be considered. What were your motives? How pure were they? Where were you coming from? Was this easy for you or difficult? Each act is judged separately, and each part of the act is broken down as well.

Was the act a mitzvah or a sin?

This seems to be the answer to Og. Og was plotting an act of murder. But he was instrumental in saving Avraham’s nephew. While his intention was evil, the act had merit; it helped a tzaddik. The precision of judgment is so great that nothing is overlooked. In most situations, an act like this, which was so devoid of purity, would have little weight. But this was the great Avraham that he had assisted. A favor to such a man, albeit a favor extremely damaged, has considerable merit. Moshe was afraid because the Jewish nation was entering into war, and war is a time of danger. In a time of danger, the sins of the people might be revisited, and the fate of the nation might be re-examined to determine whether they deserved a miraculous victory. In such a calculation, Og’s merit might tip the scale.

This concept is very illustrating. By seeing the extent of judgment, we come to understand the greatness of man. We recognize how significant our actions are and how great an impact they have on us and on the world.

This is an excerpt from the Shmuz on the Parsha book. All three volumes are available at your local sefarim store, or at All of the Shmuzin are available FREE of charge, at the or on the Shmuz app, for Android and Iphone.

Posted 7/15/2016 3:01 PM | Tell a Friend | Parsha Pearls | Comments (0)

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The Darkness of Physicality
“And Korach, son of Yizhar, son of Kehas, son of Levi, and Dasan and Aviram, sons of Eliav, together with Ohn, son of Peles, sons of Reuvain.” – Bamidbar 16:1

Korach was not chosen for a position as head of his shevet. He felt entitled to it, and his jealousy drove him to rebel against Moshe and HASHEM. Recognizing that he couldn’t stand alone, he gathered two hundred and fifty leaders of the nation, and they swore their allegiance to Korach and his cause. The plan was to depose Moshe as leader of the Jewish people, and in his stead appoint Korach. In the end, their rebellion failed, and every man, woman, and child was swallowed by the ground.

Of this group, only one man survived: Ohn, son of Peles. The Medrash explains that it was his wife who saved him. She said to him, “What do you gain from all of this? If Moshe wins, you are but a lackey. And if Korach wins you are still but a lackey.”

Her logic penetrated his heart. “You are right,” he said, “but what can I do? I took an oath to remain loyal to the group. They will come tomorrow to get me, and I will be forced to join them.”

His wife said, “Listen to my advice. I will stand outside our tent and uncover my hair. These are all holy men. When they see a woman not properly attired, they will run away.”

She then gave him enough wine to drink till he fell asleep drunk, and she tied him to the bed. Early the next morning, she went outside, uncovered her hair, and waited. When the first members of Korach’s party came to bring Ohn to the demonstration, they saw a woman with her hair uncovered outside his tent. They immediately walked away. She remained there throughout the day. No man dared come to the tent. Then the time came for the standoff. When Korach’s men were standing together, they were swallowed up alive, but Ohn was not amongst them. This is a fulfillment of the verse, “A wise woman builds her house…” (Dos Zakainim)

How Could They Have Been So Foolish?

This Dos Zakainim is very difficult to understand. Korach’s group were men of great piety. The Torah calls them “leaders of the nation, men of reputation.” And here we see an example of how careful they were in regards to mitzvah observance. Even though Ohn played a pivotal role in their cause, the mere sight of a woman with her hair uncovered made them run away. So how could these great people do something so egregious as to rebel against HASHEM and His chosen representative?

The answer to this question can best be understood when we focus on the impossibility of free will.

When HASHEM took the neshama and put it into this world, it was to give man the opportunity to make himself into what he will be for eternity. The essence of our purpose here is to choose what is right and proper and to turn away from what is wrong and evil.

The problem, however, is that those options are set far apart and leave little choice. No thinking person would deliberately choose for himself a path of destruction. Every mitzvah helps us grow. Every sin damages us. HASHEM warned us to do this and not to do that because it is good for us and will benefit us for eternity. So how does man have free will? He will choose good and only good — because it’s so clearly in his best interest.

To allow for free will, HASHEM put the brilliant neshama into a body that clouds its vision and darkens its sight. The desires and inclinations of the body don’t remain separate from me. They are mixed into my very essence and play out in my conscious mind. When I open my eyes in the morning, it isn’t my body that wants to just lie there unmoving – I am lazy. At lunch, it isn’t my stomach that cries out for food – I am hungry. I am both the brilliant neshama and the base animal instinct. And so, I want to live a life of meaning, and I want to live completely for the moment. I want to be good, proper and noble, and I just don’t care. I want this and I want that. Which one is the real me? The answer is both. And I am constantly changing, constantly in flux. Because these desires come from within me, they also distort my vision. When I desire something, my vision can become so blinded that I can hotly pursue something damaging to me, and not only fail to see the danger involved, but even begin to see it as an ultimate good.

The Darkness of Physicality

The Mesillos Yesharim (Perek 4) explains this with a parable.

Imagine a man walking at night on an unlit country road. Because of the darkness, he is danger of tripping. There are, however, two types of hazards he faces. The first is that he won’t see the pit in front of him, and he will fall in without even realizing the peril. The second danger, however, is more severe. The darkness can fool him so that he sees an object, but mistakes it for something else. He may look at a pillar in the distance and see it as a man. Or he might see a man and mistake him for a pillar. This menace is more severe because even if he were to alert to the risk, he would ignore the warning signs because he sees with his own eyes that there is no danger.

Physicality is like the darkness of night. It blinds a person and doesn’t allow him to see the danger in front of him. There are two types of mistakes that it causes. The first is that it doesn’t allow him to see the hazard. He will continue on a path of life that is self-destructive, and he won’t even recognize where he is headed until he is too far down the road to change course. The second mistake, however, is far more dangerous. It is when man is so fooled by the darkness of physicality that he sees the good as if it were bad and the bad as if it were good. At this point, warning a man about the danger is useless. He sees it, but views it as something virtuous. And so, he will clutch to evil against all warnings and against all wisdom because in his blindness, it appears as good.

Korach and His Congregation

This seems to be the answer to Korach and his people. They were Torah scholars, and they were holy Jews. And yet, they were blind. Korach was blinded by jealousy. He then presented arguments and proofs to the two hundred and fifty men that Moshe was making up his own set of rules. He was dynamic and convincing. Once the group accepted Korach’s version of reality, they held fast to it. And then even the threat of a gruesome death didn’t faze them. It wasn’t that they didn’t see the danger. They did. But they saw it as scare tactic, a way of getting them to abandon that which they knew was right. So it didn’t matter how pious they were; they were now on a new holy mission to depose the power-hungry Moshe. And sometimes the truth is even worth dying for. The problem was that they had accepted falsehood as truth.

This concept is very applicable to us as we too are human, and we too must be ever aware of the danger of ideologies that justify that which is evil and self-destructive. The difficulty is that when we are caught up in them, we don’t recognize them for what they are.

A person’s convictions can drive him to greatness or bring him to the abyss — the only distinction being whether or not those convictions are correct. HASHEM wants us to succeed, and in every generation He provides Torah leaders to guide us. The only way that a person can know whether his ideologies are right is by consulting with the accepted Torah leaders of his time. When a person puts away his agenda and his bias and asks guidance on the Torah approach, HASHEM directs him to the truth.

Korach 5776 The Shmuz

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Posted 7/8/2016 3:08 PM | Tell a Friend | Parsha Pearls | Comments (0)

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Understanding Doson v'Aviram - A Moment with Rabbi Avigdor Miller Zt"l #335 (
Parshas Korach 5776


How can we understand Doson v'Aaviram, who were always so it seems at odds with Moshe Rabeinu?

You must understand that Doson v'Aviram stood at Har Sinai and they shouted na'aseh v'nishma with all their heart like everybody else did, and don't be deceived in that. Doson v'Avirom had they been here today they would have been not among the highest of our Rabbinical authorities, they would have been glorious Rosh Hayeshiva;, they were great men. They were put through a terrible test: You know a great man can live in his own Yeshiva and he can flourish, he can be very righteous, because he's not put to the test of being inferior to somebody else.

Imagine you built up a big Yeshiva and you're saying glorious shiurim, then a Jew moved into your neighborhood and he started davening in your Yeshiva and you discover that he can say better shiurim than you can. No Rov should be faced with such an ordeal. It would be wise to take him in a corner and say, you know you're so good that you should daven someplace else. But suppose you can't do it, Doson v'Aviram couldn't tell Moshe Rabeinu to go.

Moshe Rabeinu was away forty years in Midyan, during that time who was the father of the nation? Doson v'Aviram and others were leading the nation! They were the ziknei Yisroel! All of a sudden an upstart comes back from nowhere, from Midyan, he was lost for forty years, he was eighty years old, they were also old and he's telling them what to do.

Of course he's telling them b'shem Hashem, and they believed him, but it hurt them to no end. Had we been in their shoes I'm afraid what would have happened to us. I'm afraid we wouldn't have remained above ground. Therefore it was a terrible nisayon.

Good Shabbos To All

This is transcribed from questions that were posed to Harav Miller by the audience at the Thursday night lectures.
To listen to the audio of this Q & A please dial: 201-676-3210

Posted 7/8/2016 2:58 PM | Tell a Friend | Parsha Pearls | Comments (2)

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Two Kinds of Fear
By: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

One of the most powerful addresses I ever heard was given by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, on this week’s parsha: the story of the spies. For me, it was nothing less than life-changing.
He asked the obvious questions. How could ten of the spies have come back with a demoralising, defeatist report? How could they say, we cannot win, the people are stronger than us, their cities are well fortified, they are giants and we are grasshoppers?

They had seen with their own eyes how God had sent a series of plagues that brought Egypt, the strongest and longest-lived of all the empires of the ancient world, to its knees. They had seen the Egyptian army with its cutting-edge military technology, the horse-drawn chariot, drown in the Reed Sea while the Israelites passed through it on dry land. Egypt was far stronger than the Canaanites, Perrizites, Jebusites and other minor kingdoms that they would have to confront in conquering the land. Nor was this an ancient memory. It had happened not much more than a year before.
What is more, they already knew that, far from being giants confronting grasshoppers, the people of the land were terrified of the Israelites. They had said so themselves in the course of singing the Song at the Sea:

The peoples have heard; they tremble;
Pangs have seized the inhabitants of Philistia.
Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed;
Trembling seizes the leaders of Moab;
All the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away.
Terror and dread fall upon them;
Because of the greatness of your arm, they are still as a stone (Ex. 15:14-16)

The people of the land were afraid of the Israelites. Why then were the spies afraid of them?

What is more, continued the Rebbe, the spies were not people plucked at random from among the population. The Torah states that they were “all of them men who were heads of the people of Israel.” They were leaders. They were not people given lightly to fear.

The questions are straightforward, but the answer the Rebbe gave was utterly unexpected. The spies were not afraid of failure, he said. They were afraid of success.

What was their situation now? They were eating manna from heaven. They were drinking water from a miraculous well. They were surrounded by Clouds of Glory. They were camped around the Sanctuary. They were in continuous contact with the Shekhinah. Never had a people lived so close to God.

What would be their situation if they entered the land? They would have to fight battles, maintain an army, create an economy, farm the land, worry about whether there would be enough rain to produce a crop, and all the other thousand distractions that come from living in the world. What would happen to their closeness to God? They would be preoccupied with mundane and material pursuits. Here they could spend their entire lives learning Torah, lit by the radiance of the Divine. There they would be no more than one more nation in a world of nations, with the same kind of economic, social and political problems that every nation has to deal with.

The spies were not afraid of failure. They were afraid of success. Their mistake was the mistake of very holy men. They wanted to spend their lives in the closest possible proximity to God. What they did not understand was that God seeks, in the Hasidic phrase, “a dwelling in the lower worlds”. One of the great differences between Judaism and other religions is that while others seek to lift people to heaven, Judaism seeks to bring heaven down to earth.

Much of Torah is about things not conventionally seen as religious at all: labour relations, agriculture, welfare provisions, loans and debts, land ownership and so on. It is not difficult to have an intense religious experience in the desert, or in a monastic retreat, or in an ashram. Most religions have holy places and holy people who live far removed from the stresses and strains of everyday life. There was one such Jewish sect in Qumran, known to us through the Dead Sea Scrolls, and there were certainly others. About this there is nothing unusual at all.

But that is not the Jewish project, the Jewish mission. God wanted the Israelites to create a model society where human beings were not treated as slaves, where rulers were not worshipped as demigods, where human dignity was respected, where law was impartially administered to rich and poor alike, where no one was destitute, no one was abandoned to isolation, no one was above the law and no realm of life was a morality-free zone. That requires a society, and a society needs a land. It requires an economy, an army, fields and flocks, labour and enterprise. All these, in Judaism, become ways of bringing the Shekhinah into the shared spaces of our collective life.

The spies feared success, not failure. It was the mistake of deeply religious men. But it was a mistake.
That is the spiritual challenge of the greatest event in two thousand years of Jewish history: the return of Jews to the land and state of Israel. Perhaps never before and never since has there been a political movement accompanied by so many dreams as Zionism. For some it was the fulfillment of prophetic visions, for others the secular achievement of people who had decided to take history into their own hands. Some saw it as a Tolstoy-like reconnection with land and soil, others a Nietzschean assertion of will and power. Some saw it as a refuge from European antisemitism, others as the first flowering of messianic redemption. Every Zionist thinker had his or her version of utopia, and to a remarkable degree they all came to pass.

But Israel always was something simpler and more basic. Jews have known virtually every fate and circumstance between tragedy and triumph in the almost four thousand years of their history, and they have lived in almost every land on earth. But in all that time there only ever was one place where they could do what they were called on to do from the dawn of their history: to build their own society in accord with their highest ideals, a society that would be different from their neighbours and become a role model of how a society, an economy, an educational system and the administration of welfare could become vehicles for bringing the Divine presence down to earth.

It is not difficult to find God in the wilderness, if you do not eat from the labour of your hands and if you rely on God to fight your battles for you. Ten of the spies, according to the Rebbe, sought to live that way forever. But that, suggested the Rebbe, is not what God wants from us. He wants us to engage with the world. He wants us to heal the sick, feed the hungry, fight injustice with all the power of law, and combat ignorance with universal education. He wants us to show what it is to love the neighbour and the stranger, and say, with Rabbi Akiva, “Beloved is humanity because we are each created in God’s image.”

Jewish spirituality lives in the midst of life itself, the life of society and its institutions. To create it we have to battle with two kinds of fear: fear of failure, and fear of success. Fear of failure is common; fear of success is rarer but no less debilitating. Both come from the reluctance to take risks. Faith is the courage to take risks. It is not certainty; it is the ability to live with uncertainty. It is the ability to hear God saying to us as He said to Abraham, “Walk on ahead of Me” (Gen. 17:1).

The Rebbe lived what he taught. He sent emissaries out to virtually every place on earth where there were Jews. In so doing, he transformed Jewish life. He knew he was asking his followers to take risks, by going to places where the whole environment would be challenging in many ways, but he had faith in them and in God and in the Jewish mission whose place is in the public square where we share our faith with others and do so in deeply practical ways.

It is challenging to leave the desert and go out into the world with all its trials and temptations, but that is where God wants us to be, bringing His spirit to the way we run an economy, a welfare system, a judiciary, a health service and an army, healing some of the wounds of the world and bringing, to places often shrouded in darkness, fragments of Divine light.


Posted 7/1/2016 3:08 PM | Tell a Friend | Parsha Pearls | Comments (0)

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The wonders of the seed - A Moment with Rabbi Avigdor Miller Zt"l #333 (
Parshas Beha'aloscha 5776


Why are the seeds of a strawberry on the outside?

I'll ask you another question. Why are the seeds of the apple on the inside? On the outside at least it's an object lesson. Before you eat the strawberry, take a look at it; you see a marvel. You see that the purpose of the strawberry is to attract you to eat it, with the beautiful red color.

And so, in the good old days before they had canalization, bathrooms, when a man wanted to relieve himself he went back on the field and he returned to the field all the important minerals that he had ingested. Instead of sending it out today by canalization, to the ocean where it's worthless, and he also deposited the strawberry seeds in the field. That's why today you find strawberries growing alongside fences, because birds who eat strawberries, when they perch on the fence they drop a little fertilizer with some strawberries in it and that's why wild strawberries grow near fences.

And so the benefit of the gymnosperm is to demonstrate to people the beauty of the plan, that the species must be propagated. Now the seeds on the inside however are just as valuable, because when you eat the apple and you come close to the ovary, you are confronted with plastic shields that don't permit you to go any further. So what do you do? You take the entire core and you throw it away someplace, or you spit out the seeds, and then the plan begins to work.

Why is it made so, why shouldn't the seeds be soft and edible, and they should be unprotected by an ovary of plastic shields? The answer is, why is it that all the seeds are protected?

It's a marvel, wherever we look. If you eat a peach, the peach is delicious, it's attractive, it's soft, juicy and sweet, until you come to the stone inside. Don't try to bite it because it means a visit to the dentist, you can't open it up so you throw it away. Sometimes even a hammer won't help...You throw it away, it falls upon the dirt and lo and behold the stone opens up by itself. What you couldn't do with a hammer is accomplished by some bacteria in the soil, because there's a certain paste between the two parts of that cell that protect the seed inside. It's a marvel! An accident of evolution! Just the right paste was developed. Had it been a cement that we use, the pit would fall in the ground and would remain unopened forever, but Hakadosh Baruch Hu's paste responds to the action of the bacteria and it opens up by itself. That's the miracle of the pits.

Therefore when we study seeds, we come to the understanding that seeds are given to the world more than for the benefit of reproduction, the greatest benefit of a seed is to make people aware of plan and purpose.

Good Shabbos To All

This email is transcribed from questions that were posed to Harav Miller by the audience at the Thursday night lectures.
To listen to the audio of this Q & A please dial: 201-676-3210

Posted 6/24/2016 2:46 PM | Tell a Friend | Parsha Pearls | Comments (0)

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From Despair to Hope
By: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

There have been times when one passage in today’s parsha was for me little less than life-saving. No leadership position is easy. Leading Jews is harder still. And spiritual leadership can be hardest of them all. Leaders have a public face that is usually calm, upbeat, optimistic and relaxed. But behind the façade we can all experience storms of emotion as we realise how deep are the divisions between people, how intractable are the problems we face, and how thin the ice on which we stand. Perhaps we all experience such moments at some point in our lives, when we know where we are and where we want to be, but simply cannot see a route from here to there. That is the prelude to despair.

Whenever I felt that way I would turn to the searing moment in our parsha when Moses reached his lowest ebb. The precipitating cause was seemingly slight. The people were engaged in their favourite activity: complaining about the food. With self-deceptive nostalgia, they spoke about the fish they ate in Egypt, and the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. Gone is their memory of slavery. All they can recall is the cuisine. At this, understandably, God was very angry (Num. 11:10). But Moses was more than angry. He suffered a complete emotional breakdown. He said this to God:

“Why have You brought this evil on your servant? Why have I failed to find favour in Your eyes, that You have placed the burden of this whole people on me? Did I conceive this whole people? Did I give birth to it, that You should say to me, Carry it in your lap as a nurse carries a baby? … Where can I find meat to give to this whole people when they cry to me saying, Give us meat to eat? I cannot carry this whole people on my own. It is too heavy for me. If this is what You are doing to me, then, if I have found favour in Your eyes, kill me now, and let me not look upon this my evil.” (Num. 11:11-15)

This for me is the benchmark of despair. Whenever I felt unable to carry on, I would read this passage and think, “If I haven’t yet reached this point, I’m OK.” Somehow the knowledge that the greatest Jewish leader of all time had experienced this depth of darkness was empowering. It said that the feeling of failure does not necessarily mean that you have failed. All it means is that you have not yet succeeded. Still less does it mean that you are a failure. To the contrary, failure comes to those who take risks; and the willingness to take risks is absolutely necessary if you seek, in however small a way, to change the world for the better.

What is striking about Tanakh is the way it documents these dark nights of the soul in the lives of some of the greatest heroes of the spirit. Moses was not the only prophet to pray to die. Three others did so: Elijah (1 Kings 19:4), Jeremiah (Jer. 20:7-18) and Jonah (Jon. 4:3).2 The Psalms, especially those attributed to King David, are shot through with moments of despair: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:2). “From the depths I cry to You” (Ps. 130:1). “I am a helpless man abandoned among the dead … You have laid me in the lowest pit, in the dark, in the depths” (Ps. 88:5-7).

What Tanakh telling us in these stories is profoundly liberating. Judaism is not a recipe for blandness or bliss. It is not a guarantee that you will be spared heartache and pain. It is not what the Stoics sought, apatheia, a life undisturbed by passion. Nor is it a path to nirvana, stilling the fires of feeling by extinguishing the self. These things have a spiritual beauty of their own, and their counterparts can be found in the more mystical strands of Judaism. But they are not the world of the heroes and heroines of Tanakh.

Why so? Because Judaism is a faith for those who seek to change the world. That is unusual in the history of faith. Most religions are about accepting the world the way it is. Judaism is a protest against the world that is in the name of the world that ought to be. To be a Jew is to seek to make a difference, to change lives for the better, to heal some of the scars of our fractured world. But people don’t like change. That’s why Moses, David, Elijah and Jeremiah found life so hard.

We can say precisely what brought Moses to despair. He had faced a similar challenge before. Back in the book of Exodus the people had made the same complaint: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this desert to starve this whole assembly to death” (Ex. 16:3). Moses, on that occasion, experienced no crisis. The people were hungry and needed food. That was a legitimate request.
Since then, though, they had experienced the twin peaks of the revelation at Mount Sinai and the construction of the Tabernacle. They had come closer to God than any nation had ever done before. Nor were they starving. Their complaint was not that they had no food. They had the manna. Their complaint was that it was boring: “Now we have lost our appetite (literally, “our soul is dried up”); we never see anything but this manna!” (Ex. 11:6). They had reached the spiritual heights but they remained the same recalcitrant, ungrateful, small-minded people they had been before.2

That was what made Moses feel that his entire mission had failed and would continue to fail. His mission was to help the Israelites create a society that would be the opposite of Egypt, that would liberate instead of oppress, dignify, not enslave. But the people had not changed. Worse: they had taken refuge in the most absurd nostalgia for the Egypt they had left: memories of fish, cucumbers, garlic and the rest. Moses had discovered it was easier to take the Israelites out of Egypt than to take Egypt out of the Israelites. If the people had not changed by now, it was a reasonable assumption that they never would. Moses was staring at his own defeat. There was no point in carrying on.

God then comforted him. First He told him to gather seventy elders to share with him the burdens of leadership, then He told him not to worry about the food. The people would soon have meat in plenty. It came in the form of a huge avalanche of quails.

What is most striking about this story is that thereafter Moses appears to be a changed man. Told by Joshua that there might be a challenge to his leadership, he replies: “Are you jealous on my behalf? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his spirit on them” (Num. 11:29). In the next chapter, when his own brother and sister begin to criticise him, he reacts with total calm. When God punishes Miriam, Moses prays on her behalf. It is specifically at this point in the long biblical account of Moses’ life that the Torah says, “The man Moses was very humble, more so than any other man on earth” (Num. 12:3).

The Torah is giving us a remarkable account of the psychodynamics of emotional crisis. The first thing it is telling us is that it is important, in the midst of despair, not to be alone. God performs the role of comforter. It is He who lifts Moses from the pit of despair. He speaks directly to Moses’ concerns. He tells him he will not have to lead alone in the future. There will be others to help him. Then He tells him not to be anxious about the people’s complaint. They would soon have so much meat that it would make them ill, and they would not complain about the food again.

The essential principle here is what the sages meant when they said, “A prisoner cannot release himself from prison.” It needs someone else to lift you from depression. That is why Judaism is so insistent on not leaving people alone at times of maximum vulnerability. Hence the principles of visiting the sick, comforting mourners, including the lonely (“the stranger, the orphan and the widow”) in festive celebrations, and offering hospitality – an act said to be “greater than receiving the Shekhinah.” Precisely because depression isolates you from others, remaining alone intensifies the despair. What the seventy elders actually did to help Moses is unclear. But simply being there with him was part of the cure.
The other thing it is telling us is that surviving despair is a character-transforming experience. It is when your self-esteem is ground to dust that you suddenly realise that life is not about you. It is about others, and ideals, and a sense of mission or vocation. What matters is the cause, not the person. That is what true humility is about. As C. S. Lewis wisely said: humility is not about thinking less of yourself. It is about thinking of yourself less.

When you have arrived at this point, even if you have done so through the most bruising experiences, you become stronger than you ever believed possible. You have learned not to put your self-image on the line. You have learned not to think in terms of self-image at all. That is what Rabbi Yohanan meant when he said, “Greatness is humility.” Greatness is a life turned outward, so that other people’s suffering matters to you more than your own. The mark of greatness is the combination of strength and gentleness that is among the most healing forces in human life.

Moses believed he was a failure. That is worth remembering every time we think we are failures. His journey from despair to self-effacing strength is one of the great psychological narratives in the Torah, a timeless tutorial in hope.


Posted 6/24/2016 2:24 PM | Tell a Friend | Parsha Pearls | Comments (1)

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I Never Do Anything Wrong
The Shmuz on the Parsha
R’ Ben Tzion Shafier
I Never Do Anything Wrong
Parshas Nasoh
“Speak to the Bnai Yisrael and say to them: any man whose wife shall go astray and commit treachery against him. . . ” — Bamidbar 5:12
The Parsha of Sotah
The Torah describes the details of a sotah. If a woman acts in a manner that causes her husband to suspect her of infidelity, he should warn her not to go into seclusion with that other man. If she violates this warning, then the husband is to take her to the Kohain. The Kohain will give her the “bitter waters” to drink. If she was unfaithful, she will instantly die. If she was not unfaithful, she will be redeemed and blessed.

When the Torah lays out the details, it uses an unusual expression: כי תשטה “If a man will ‘tistheh’ his wife.” The word “tishteh” comes from the root “shoteh,” which means insanity. It’s as if to say, “If a man will accuse his wife of insanity.”

Rashi is troubled by the use of this expression. He explains, based on the Gemara, adulterers do not sin until a wave of insanity enters them. The Siftei Chachmim explains this to mean, “until their yetzer harah teaches them it is permitted.”

It seems clear from the Siftei Chachaim that the modus operandi of the yetzer harah is to convince the potential sinners that the act tempting them is permitted. Only when it succeeds, and they are convinced, will they then transgress.

This statement — people only sin when they are convinced that it is permitted — seems difficult to understand. If we are dealing with a pious, proper Jewish woman who got into a bad situation, she knows that the act that she wants to commit is forbidden. How can the yetzer harah teach her that it is permitted? On the other hand, the Torah may be speaking about the opposite extreme — a woman who has gone off the path and just doesn’t care. Why does she need the yetzer harah to tell her it is permitted? She doesn’t care.

So on both sides of the spectrum, the yetzer harah either should not be able to convince the person that it is permitted, or it shouldn’t need to convince them.
I never do anything wrong
The answer to this question is based on understanding one of the most consistent quirks of human nature: “I never do anything wrong.” Whether dealing with sophisticated adults or schoolchildren, whether Supreme Court justices or convicted felons, the human seems never to do anything wrong. Wardens will tell you that their jails are filled with self-proclaimed innocent men. Criminals aren’t wrong. Thieves aren’t wrong. Murderers aren’t wrong. You won’t find a gangster proclaiming, “Yes, it is evil to murder and pillage, but what can I do? I am weak and give into my desires.” Instead, you will hear an entire belief system explaining that his approach to life is actually better for society and the world.

The question is why? Why can’t man just admit: it is wrong to steal, but I want to do it anyway?

The inner workings of the human
The reason for this has to do with the inner working of the human. HASHEM created man out of two distinct parts. One is comprised all of the drives and passions found in the animal kingdom; it is simply base instincts and desires. The other part of man is pure intellect: holy, good and giving. That part of me wishes to be generous and noble and only aspires for that which is good.

Because this part of me is made up of pure intellect and wisdom, it would never allow me to sin. It sees the results too clearly. It understands that all of HASHEM’s commandments are for my good and that every sin damages me. Because of this crystal clear insight, the human would not have the free will to sin. In theory, he could be tempted to sin, but he would never actually come to the act. It would be akin to sticking his hand in a fire. In theory he could do it, but it would never happen. It’s a dumb thing to do. So if HASHEM created man with just these two parts, man would not have free will in a practical sense.

To allow man to be tempted so that he can choose his course and be rewarded for his proper choices, HASHEM put another component in man: imagination. Imagination is the creative ability to form a mental picture and feel it as vividly as if it were real. Armed with an imagination, man can create fanciful worlds at his will and actually believe them. If man wishes to turn to evil, he can create rationales to make these ways sound noble and proper — and fool himself at least. If he wishes, he can do what is right, or if he wishes, he can turn to wickedness. Even his brilliant intellect won’t prevent him. He is capable of creating entire worldviews that explain how the behavior he desires is righteous, correct, and appropriate. Now man has free will.

The answer to the Rashi is on two levels. First off, we see the power of rationalizing. Even a fully mature, pious woman who grew up in the best of homes can be convinced, on some level, that illicit relations are permitted. The yetzer harah will use her imagination and create clever and creative ways to explain that black is white, in is out, and arayos is permitted. As ridiculous as it sounds, that is the power given to the yetzer harah.

The second idea is that even the woman who seems to be off the derech and wouldn’t need an excuse really does. No human can ever do something that is wrong. Because of the greatness of her soul and the truth that she knows deep down inside, she understands that for a married woman to go to another man is forbidden. The only way that she can perpetrate this act is if she has a rational way of explaining how in fact it is permitted. The human is incapable of doing something wrong. The only way he can do something wrong is by making it right.


For more on this topic please listen to Shmuz #19 I Never Do Anything Wrong

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Posted 6/17/2016 6:39 PM | Tell a Friend | Parsha Pearls | Comments (0)

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The Blessing of Love
By: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

At 176 verses, Naso is the longest of the parshiyot. Yet one of its most moving passages, and the one that has had the greatest impact over the course of history, is very short indeed and is known by almost every Jew, namely the priestly blessings:

The Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘Thus shall you bless the Israelites. Say to them:

May Lord bless you and protect you;
May the Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you;
May the Lord turn His face toward you and give you peace.’

Let them set My name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.” (Num. 6:23-27)

This is among the oldest of all prayer texts. It was used by the priests in the Temple. It is said today by the cohanim in the reader’s repetition of the Amidah, in Israel every day, in most of the Diaspora only on festivals. It is used by parents as they bless their children on Friday night. It is often said to the bride and groom under the chuppah. It is the simplest and most beautiful of all blessings.

It also appears in the oldest of all biblical texts that have physically survived to today. In 1979 the archeologist Gabriel Barkay was examining ancient burial caves at Ketef Hinnom, outside the walls of Jerusalem in the area now occupied by the Menachem Begin Heritage Center. A thirteen-year-old boy who was assisting Barkay discovered that beneath the floor of one of the caves was a hidden chamber. There the group discovered almost one thousand ancient artefacts including two tiny silver scrolls no more than an inch long.

They were so fragile that it took three years to work out a way of unrolling them without causing them to disintegrate. Eventually the scrolls turned out to be kemayot, amulets, containing, among other texts, the priestly blessings. Scientifically dated to the sixth century BCE, the age of Jeremiah and the last days of the First Temple, they are four centuries older than the most ancient of biblical texts known hitherto, the Dead Sea Scrolls. Today the amulets can be seen in the Israel Museum, testimony to the ancient connection of Jews to the land and the continuity of Jewish faith itself.

What gives them their power is their simplicity and beauty. They have a strong rhythmic structure. The lines contain three, five, and seven words respectively. In each, the second word is “the Lord”. In all three verses the first part refers to an activity on the part of God – “bless”, “make His face shine”, and “turn His face toward”. The second part describes the effect of the blessing on us, giving us protection, grace and peace.

They also travel inward, as it were. The first verse “May Lord bless you and protect you,” refers, as the commentators note, to material blessings: sustenance, physical health and so on. The second, “May the Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you,” refers to moral blessing. Chen, grace, is what we show to other people and they to us. It is interpersonal. Here we are asking God to give some of His grace to us and others so that we can live together without the strife and envy that can so easily poison relationships.

The third is the most inward of all. There is a lovely story about a crowd of people who have gathered on a hill by the sea to watch a great ship pass by. A young child is waving vigorously. One of the men in the crowd asks him why. He says, “I am waving so the captain of the ship can see me and wave back.” “But,” said the man, “the ship is far away, and there is a crowd of us here. What makes you think that the captain can see you?” “Because,” said the boy, “the captain of the ship is my father. He will be looking for me among the crowd.”

That is roughly what we mean when we say, “May the Lord turn His face toward you.” There are seven billion people now living on this earth. What makes us any of us more than a face in the crowd, a wave in the ocean, a grain of sand on the sea shore? The fact that we are God’s children. He is our parent. He turns His face toward us. He cares.

The God of Abraham is not a mere force of nature or even all the forces of nature combined. A tsunami does not pause to ask who its victims will be. There is nothing personal about an earthquake or a tornado. The word Elokim means something like “the force of forces, cause of causes, the totality of all scientifically discoverable laws.” It refers to those aspects of God that are impersonal. It also refers to God in His attribute of justice, since justice is essentially impersonal.

But the name we call Hashem – the name used in the priestly blessings, and in almost all the priestly texts – is God as He relates to us as persons, individuals, each with our unique configuration of hopes and fears, gifts and possibilities. Hashem is the aspect of God that allows us to use the word “You”. He is the God who speaks to us and who listens when we speak to Him. How this happens, we do not know, but that it happens is central to Jewish faith.

That we call God Hashem is the transcendental confirmation of our significance in the scheme of things. We matter as individuals because God cares for us as a parent for a child. That, incidentally, is one reason why the priestly blessings are all in the singular, to emphasise that God blesses us not only collectively but also individually. One life, said the sages, is like a universe.

Hence the meaning of the last of the priestly blessings. The knowledge that God turns His face toward us – that we are not just an indiscernible face in a crowd, but that God relates to us in our uniqueness and singularity – is the most profound and ultimate source of peace. Competition, strife, lawlessness and violence come from the psychological need to prove that we matter. We do things to prove that I am more powerful, or richer, or more successful than you. I can make you fear. I can bend you to my will. I can turn you into my victim, my subject, my slave. All of these things testify not to faith but to a profound failure of faith.

Faith means that I believe that God cares about me. I am here because He wanted me to be. The soul He gave me is pure. Even though I am like the child on the hill watching the ship pass by, I know that God is looking for me, waving to me as I wave to Him. That is the most profound inner source of peace. We do not need to prove ourselves in order to receive a blessing from God. All we need to know is that His face is turned toward us. When we are at peace with ourselves, we can begin to make peace with the world.

So the blessings become longer and deeper: from the external blessing of material goods to the interpersonal blessing of grace between ourselves and others, to the most inward of them all, the peace of mind that comes when we feel that God sees us, hears us, holds us in His everlasting arms.

One further detail of the priestly blessings is unique, namely the blessing that the sages instituted to be said by the cohanim over the mitzvah: “Blessed are you … who has made us holy with the holiness of Aaron and has commanded us to bless His people Israel with love.”
It is the last word, be-ahavah, that is unusual. It appears in no other blessing over the performance of a command. It seems to make no sense. Ideally we should fulfill all the commands with love. But an absence of love does not invalidate any other command. In any case, the blessing over the performance of as command is a way of showing that we are acting intentionally. There was an argument between the sages as to whether mitzvoth in general require intention (kavanah) or not. But whether they do or not, making a blessing beforehand shows that we do have the intention to fulfill the command. But intention is one thing, emotion is another. Surely what matters is that the cohanim recite the blessing and God will do the rest. What difference does it make whether they do so in love or not?

The commentators wrestle with this question. Some say that the fact that the cohanim are facing the people when they bless means that they are like the cherubim in the Tabernacle, whose faces “were turned to one another” as a sign of love. Others change the word order. They say that the blessing really means, “who has made us holy with the holiness of Aaron and with love has commanded us to bless His people Israel.” “Love” here refers to God’s love for Israel, not that of the cohanim.

However, it seems to me that the explanation is this: the Torah explicitly says that though the cohanim say the words, it is God who sends the blessing. “Let them put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.” Normally when we fulfill a mitzvah, we are doing something.
But when the cohanim bless the people, they are not doing anything in and of themselves. Instead they are acting as channels through which God’s blessing flows into the world and into our lives. Only love does this. Love means that we are focused not on ourselves but on another. Love is selflessness. And only selflessness allows us to be a channel through which flows a force greater than ourselves, the love that as Dante said, “moves the sun and the other stars”, the love that brings new life into the world.

To bless, we must love, and to be blessed is to know that we are loved by the One vaster than the universe who nonetheless turns His face toward us as a parent to a beloved child. To know that is to find true spiritual peace.


Posted 6/17/2016 5:47 PM | Tell a Friend | Parsha Pearls | Comments (0)

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How do Torah leaders acquire secular knowledge - A Moment with Rabbi Avigdor Miller Zt"l #332(
Parshas Naaso 5776


How do Torah leaders who don't read secular books get their broad knowledge?

There is such a thing as sevoroh; you don't need anything outside of sevoroh. The Torah gives us enough information to know all that we have to know. Of course I'm not saying, if you know Chovas Halvavos or you know Tur, you're going to know how to repair a refrigerator; I'm not saying that. You have to learn each umnus (trade) by itself, but in general the chochmas hanefesh, the chochmas hachaim, how to behave properly, how to live successfully, all comes from the Torah.

Just this word one alone: Kol yomei godalti bein hachachomim, all my life I grew up among wise men, v'lo matzosi laguf tov m'shtika, I found nothing better for the health than keeping quiet. Hear that?

Here is something that is better than vitamins, than jogging, anything else: keep quiet. You'll live longer if you keep your mouth closed, try it out and you'll see. No question about it. That's chochmas hachaim.

Can I tell you how much trouble is caused by talking? Here's a man walking in the street on Ave J, and a gentile bum is loafing in the corner and he said something about this Jew, and the Jew turned around and said something. Oooh..he made a mistake! He made a mistake? He was sorry he said it. Keep on walking, the goy will get killed eventually, a car will kill him, don't worry about it, he'll get his. Don't answer back! If you don't answer back you'll live longer, it's always the rule, don't answer back.

You want to be happy with your wife? Don't answer back!! A fool answers back, a word for a word, a conflagration,, a fire arises, and then trouble comes. Don't answer back and that's all. If your boss insults you, keep quiet, that's your job, just keep quiet. Lo matzosi laguf tov m'shtika, and how many pieces of advice are there? There are thousands of pieces of advice like that.

When people look at your face, they like you right away; you open your mouth, then they stop liking you. You want people to like you? You're going to a wedding with your new mechutonim? Walk in and just smile, don't say a word. Don't say a word!! You keep on walking around talking to them, right away each one knows you're a nothing.

Good Shabbos To All

This is transcribed from questions that were posed to Harav Miller by the audience at the Thursday night lectures.
To listen to the audio of this Q & A please dial: 201-676-3210

Posted 6/16/2016 7:35 PM | Tell a Friend | Parsha Pearls | Comments (0)

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Parshas Bamidbar 5776 Erev Shavuos

What is meant by derech eretz kodmah l'Torah, that derech eretz is before the Torah?

Somebody told me that he couldn't find that statement; it's a Midrash Rabah in Vayikra. And it states, derech eretz, the way to live properly comes before the Torah. What does that mean? We're not going to wait until you learn how to live properly before you keep the Torah; it'll take too long. What it means is, in history it came first, because Bereishis came before Shmos. The Torah was given in Shmos but in Bereishis we learn derech eretz. You know what derech eretz is?

Derech Eretz is, "Sarah sho'maas", Sarah was listening, that's derech eretz. When Avrohom was talking, Sarah didn't stick her head out and say, "I know all about it!! You said it already to the guests that came yesterday." Sarah is listening, that's derech eretz.

When Avrohom saw wayfarers traveling on a hot day, he ran out in a terrible heat and he begged them to taste of his hospitality. That's derech eretz.

Derech Eretz is, when a strange man came with camels, an able bodied man came with camels, and said to Rivka, "Give me a drink," and she said "What do you think I am? Go yourself to the well." No. She said, "Yes my lord, shi'sei adoni, my master drink," that's derech eretz. And when she added, "Let me give water also to your camels," that's derech eretz.

When Yosef Hatzadik was a prisoner and he was down in the dumps because he was in prison for nothing, and he saw two of his fellow prisoners were glum, he didn't say, "What's it my business, I have my own worries." No, he said ma'duah pi'neichem roim, why do you look bad today? He interested himself in their welfare. That's derech eretz.

All these things and thousands like them are written in Bereishis to teach this is the way to prepare for Torah, good character.

When Yaakov Avinu said that he almost gave his life to take care of Lavan's flocks, by day and by night, in the heat and in the cold, he didn't forsake his charge, he was a loyal watchman...That's derech eretz.

When Yaakov Avinu went back to look for pachim ktanim, little things that were left over on the other side of the river, because he was a treasurer for Hakadosh Baruch Hu, he didn't waste. Don't waste! You can't waste things, it all belongs to Hashem, nothing is ours. That's derech eretz.

When Noach got drunk and he was lying on his bed naked, and his two older sons decided to cover him up. They took the blanket and they walked backwards not to see their father. That's derech eretz.

The whole Bereishis is derech eretz, and it's put there before kabolas ha'Torah to tell you, that's how to prepare for the Torah. That's whats meant by derech eretz kodmah l'Torah.

Good Shabbos and Gut Yom Tov To All
A Q&A from the archives
Question # 279

How can you make your work incidental (despite working eight hours a day) and your learning should be the main part of your life?

If a person really means business, he's going to utilize the spare time that's available, and it's remarkable how much time is available. Most people don't work on Sundays; but they don't work on Shabbos either. Now Shabbos is a glorious opportunity and it shouldn't be wasted. In winter time there's a long Friday night; in summer time there's a long Shabbos afternoon. Now people who climb into their pajamas Shabbos after the Seuda and they climb out just for Mincha, are people who are committing suicide; they're ruining their lives.

Motzoai Shabbos is an opportunity, don't just run around visiting relatives; forget about relatives. You have one relative you have to visit, that's yourself. It's not selfish, because life is only for the purpose of making something out of yourself. So you have Friday night, all day Shabbos; remember Shabbos morning before davening should be utilized. Shabbos afternoon, Motzoai Shabbos. If you don't work on Sundays, be a kollel man on Sundays. "Oh!" your wife will say, "at least one day a week you have to be home!" Answer is, say, "My dear, I am not in the Yeshiva now, Yeshiva people are going full speed ahead every day of the week, I have one day and that one day I should waste?" So Sunday morning say good bye to your family, take along lunch and you spend the day someplace else, don't go home until nighttime.

Now, when Hakadosh Baruch Hu sees, hamekabeil uhluv ol Torah, if a man takes upon himself the yoke of the Torah, he means business. You mean business? So Hakadosh Baruch Hu says, this man deserves more time, so they take off of him ol malchus v'ol derech eretz, and things start happening. You'll be amazed what will happen, some more opportunity will be presented to you to learn more and more.

But when a man looks for things to do on Sunday, Motzoai Shabbos he's busy? Sunday he's busy, he has no time? So Hakadosh Baruch Hu says, in your spare time you're making yourself busy? Shabbos after davening you run to this kiddush, this bar mitzvah, that bar mitzvah, this aufroof, whenever you have a chance you go and sit till two o'clock eating and stuffing yourself and wasting time? If that's the case, I'll see that you're kept busy all your life without any opportunity to achieve for yourself.

So the first step is, to make use of the time that you do have, you have plenty of time that's available. Shabbos and Yom Tov, if you use them right, Hakadosh Baruch Hu will reward you and give you some more time.

This is transcribed from questions that were posed to Harav Miller by the audience at the Thursday night lectures.
To listen to the audio of this Q & A please dial: 201-676-3210

Posted 6/10/2016 12:23 PM | Tell a Friend | Parsha Pearls | Comments (0)

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The Sound of Silence
By: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Bamidbar is usually read on the Shabbat before Shavuot. So the sages connected the two. Shavuot is the time of the giving of the Torah. Bamibar means, “In the desert.” What then is the connection between the desert and the Torah, the wilderness and God’s word?
The sages gave several interpretations. According to the Mekhilta the Torah was given publicly, openly and in a place no one owns because had it been given in the land of Israel, Jews would have said to the nations of the world, “You have no share in it.” Instead, whoever wants to come and accept it, let them come and accept it.

Another explanation: Had the Torah been given in Israel the nations of the world would have had an excuse for not accepting it. This follows the rabbinic tradition that before God gave the Torah to the Israelites he offered it to all the other nations and each found a reason to decline.
Yet another: Just as the wilderness is free – it costs nothing to enter – so the Torah is free. It is God’s gift to us.

But there is another, more spiritual reason. The desert is a place of silence. There is nothing visually to distract you, and there is no ambient noise to muffle sound. To be sure, when the Israelites received the Torah, there was thunder and lightening and the sound of a shofar. The earth felt as if it were shaking at its foundations. But in a later age, when the prophet Elijah stood at the same mountain after his confrontation with the prophets of Baal, he encountered God not in the whirlwind or the fire or the earthquake but in the kol demamah dakah, the still, small voice, literally “the sound of a slender silence.”4 I define this as the sound you can only hear if you are listening. In the silence of the midbar, the desert, you can hear the Medaber, the Speaker, and the medubar, that which is spoken. To hear the voice of God you need a listening silence in the soul.

Many years ago British television produced a documentary series, The Long Search, on the world’s great religions.5 When it came to Judaism, the presenter Ronald Eyre seemed surprised by its blooming, buzzing confusion, especially the loud, argumentative voices in the Bet Midrash, the house of study. Remarking on this to Elie Wiesel, he asked, “Is there such a thing as a silence in Judaism?" Wiesel replied: “Judaism is full of silences … but we don’t talk about them.”

Judaism is a very verbal culture, a religion of holy words. Through words, God created the universe: “And God said, Let there be … and there was.” According to the Targum, it is our ability to speak that makes us human. It translates the phrase, “and man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7) as “and man became a speaking soul.” Words create. Words communicate. Our relationships are shaped, for good or bad, by language. Much of Judaism is about the power of words to make or break worlds.

So silence in Tanakh often has a negative connotation. “Aaron was silent,” says the Torah, after the death of his two sons Nadav and Avihu (Lev. 10:3). “The dead do not praise you,” says Psalm 115, “nor do those who go down to the silence [of the grave].” When Job’s friends came to comfort him after the loss of his children and other afflictions, “Then they sat down with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, yet no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great.” (Job 2:13).

But not all silence is sad. Psalms tells us that “to You, silence is praise” (Ps. 65:2). If we are truly in awe at the greatness of God, the vastness of the universe and the almost infinite extent of time, our deepest emotions will indeed lie too deep for words. We will experience silent communion.

The sages valued silence. They called it “a fence to wisdom.”6 If words are worth a coin, silence is worth two.7 R. Shimon ben Gamliel said, “All my days I have grown up among the wise, and I have found nothing better than silence.”8

The service of the priests in the Temple was accompanied by silence. The Levites sang in the courtyard, but the priests – unlike their counterparts in other ancient religions -- neither sang nor spoke while offering the sacrifices. One scholar9 has accordingly spoken of “the silence of the sanctuary.” The Zohar (2a) speaks of silence as the medium in which both the Sanctuary above and the Sanctuary below are made.

There were Jews who cultivated silence as a spiritual discipline. Bratslav Hassidim meditate in the fields. There are Jews who practise taanit dibbur, a “fast of words.” Our most profound prayer, the private saying of the Amidah, is called tefillah be-lachash, the “silent prayer.” It is based on the precedent of Hannah, praying for a child. “She spoke in her heart. Her lips moved but her voice was not heard” (1 Sam. 1:13).
God hears our silent cry. In the agonising tale of how Sarah told Abraham to send Hagar and her son away, the Torah tells us that when their water ran out and the young Ishmael was at the point of dying, Hagar cried, yet God heard “the voice of the child” (Gen. 21:16-17). Earlier when the angels came to visit Abraham and told him that Sarah would have a child, Sarah laughed inwardly, that is, silently, yet she was heard by God (Gen. 18:12-13). God hears our thoughts even when they are not expressed in speech.

The silence that counts, in Judaism, is thus a listening silence – and listening is the supreme religious art. Listening means making space for others to speak and be heard. As I point out in my commentary to the Siddur, there is no English word that remotely equals the Hebrew verb sh-m-a in its wide range of senses: to listen, to hear, to pay attention, to understand, to internalise and to respond in deed.
This was one of the key elements in the Sinai covenant, when the Israelites, having already said twice, “All that God says, we will do,” then said, “All that God says, we will do and we will hear [ve-nishma]” (Ex. 24:7). It is the nishma – listening, hearing, heeding, responding – that is the key religious act..

Thus Judaism is not only a religion of doing-and-speaking; it is also a religion of listening. Faith is the ability to hear the music beneath the noise. There is the silent music of the spheres, about which Psalm 19 speaks:
The heavens declare the glory of God
The skies proclaim the work of His hands.
Day to day they pour forth speech,
Night to night they communicate knowledge.
There is no speech, there are no words,
Their voice is not heard.
Yet their music carries throughout the earth.

There is the voice of history that was heard by the prophets. And there is the commanding voice of Sinai, that continues to speak to us across the abyss of time. I sometimes think that people in the modern age have found the concept of “Torah from heaven” problematic, not because of some new archaeological discovery but because we have lost the habit of listening to the sound of transcendence, a voice beyond the merely human.

It is fascinating that despite his often fractured relationship with Judaism, Sigmund Freud created in psychoanalysis a deeply Jewish form of healing. He himself called it the “speaking cure”, but it is in fact a listening cure. Almost all effective forms of psychotherapy involve deep listening.

Is there enough listening in the Jewish world today? Do we, in marriage, really listen to our spouses? Do we as parents truly listen to our children? Do we, as leaders, hear the unspoken fears of those we seek to lead? Do we internalise the sense of hurt of the people who feel excluded from the community? Can we really claim to be listening to the voice of God if we fail to listen to the voices of our fellow humans?
In his poem, ‘In memory of W B Yeats,’ W H Auden wrote:
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start.

From time to time we need to step back from the noise and hubbub of the social world and create in our hearts the stillness of the desert where, within the silence, we can hear the kol demamah dakah, the still, small voice of God, telling us we are loved, we are heard, we are embraced by God’s everlasting arms, we are not alone.

Shabbat Shalom

Posted 6/10/2016 12:08 PM | Tell a Friend | Parsha Pearls | Comments (0)

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The Power of a Tzibbur - The Shmuz on the Parsha
R’ Ben Tzion Shafier
The Power of a Tzibbur
Parshas Bechokosai

“If you go in my ways and follow my statutes…Five of you will chase a hundred, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand, and they will fall from your sword.” Vayikra 26:8

The Torah is very explicit that if the Jewish nation follows the ways of HASHEM, we will enjoy peace, prosperity, and success in all of our endeavors. We will plant and harvest abundant crops, our borders will be secure, - life will be good. Included in this is a guarantee that in battle with our enemies we will be astonishingly successful; small numbers of our weakest soldiers will chase down and annihilate far larger groups of the enemy.

When describing this phenomenon, the Torah is very specific: five of you will chase a hundred, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand. Rashi is troubled by the proportions. If five will chase a hundred, then the ratio is 1:20. By that proportion, a hundred should chase 2,000. Yet the Torah tells us that 100 will chase 10,000, a ratio that is five times greater than what it should be. Why would the group of a hundred be five times more effective than the group of five?

Rashi explains: “There is no comparison between a few keeping the Torah to a multitude keeping the Torah.”
Why should larger numbers make a difference?
It is clear from this Rashi that the only distinction between the two groups is in numbers. Rashi isn’t saying that the group of a hundred had more kavanah when they did the mitzvah. Nor is he telling us that they were greater people, or that they were engaged in a holier act. The only difference is that there are more of them involved. The question is: why should a larger group be exponentially more effective simply because of its size?

If Rashi were telling us that from a psychological standpoint there is strength in numbers and the group gives chizuk to each other so that they will fight better — it would make sense. Or if because they were a large assembly of people, they were strengthening each other in the purity of their intentions and were more l’shmo, we could understand why they would be more successful. However, that isn’t the difference. It is simply the fact that there are more of them. Why should the same people, on the same madgregah, doing the same mitzvah, be so many more times successful simply because they are a larger group?

The answer to this question lies in understanding the systems that HASHEM created and gave over to man.
A change in the world order
On August 6, 1945, the Japanese city of Hiroshima was obliterated. Never before in the course of history had man unleashed so much power and destruction in one act. For many, it took a long time to comprehend. How was it possible to destroy an entire city? Man had been using explosives for thousands of years, but nothing of this magnitude. There were five hundred pound bombs that could destroy buildings, one thousand pound bombs that could level an apartment complex, but how did they wipe out a city? Miles and miles of rubble and destruction — everything leveled. “How large can the bomb possibly be? How many explosives can you possibly pack into one plane?”

The reason that it was so difficult to comprehend was because the force was derived from a completely different set of principles and didn’t work with the old rules. HASHEM had allowed man to harness the power of the atom — an energy source more than a million times more powerful than conventional weapons. It was a whole new reality, and the old frame of reference had little bearing.

So too, in the spiritual world, HASHEM has created certain forces that are powerful and magnify the efforts of man a thousand fold or more. When a sofer takes parchment and ink, writes the parshios with the right intentions, and inserts them into properly prepared batim, an object has been created. That object is far greater than any of its parts.

A pair of tefillin is one of the holiest objects in creation. The parshios themselves had a certain level of kedsuha; the batim themselves prepared l’shmo have some holiness to them. But when all of the parts are brought together, it creates a new entity that is exponentially more holy and potent than the sum of its parts. A kosher pair of tefillin has been created. The object itself is now kodesh, and when man wears them, he harnesses powerful forces that affect both this world and the upper worlds in ways that are difficult to imagine.

So too, when Jews gather together to perform a holy act, it is no longer ten or twenty individuals; it is a new entity – a tzibbur. That tzibbur is far more powerful than the sum of all of its members. It is now in a new category and taps an energy source that is infinitely more powerful than any of the individual members can muster. The impact and effect that it brings about is far greater and it can now accomplish far more than any of its members acting alone.
The power of a tzibbur
This seems to be the answer to this Rashi. Much like a kosher pair of tefillin or a complete sefer Torah, a hundred Jews acting in unison reach a new plateau of effectiveness, multiple times that of the individuals involved. They have tapped the force of the tzibbur. A hundred will chase ten thousand.

This concept has great relevance to us in helping us be more successful. The Gemarah (Tannis 8a) tells us that while all prayer works, for it to be heard, it must be said with an outpouring of emotion. Only when tefillah comes from a deep devotion and is expressed with sincere, powerful intention will it move mountains… unless it is said b’tzibbur. Then, with or without this deep level of Kavanah, it will accomplish its intended purpose.

It is clear from the Gemarah that the same prayer, the same intention, and the same person will find much greater results from his davening because has joined a minyan. He may not have changed, but his circumstances have. He is now in a assemblage that has joined together, and its efficacy far outweighs that of all the individuals combined. By sharing in the merit of that group, his prayer will have a far greater effect. He has put the power of a tzibbur to work.

Posted 6/3/2016 5:11 PM | Tell a Friend | Parsha Pearls | Comments (0)

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The Shmuz on the Parsha -Everybody is doing it
R’ Ben Tzion Shafier
Everybody is doing it
Parshas BeHar

“You shall sound a broken blast on the shofar, in the seventh month, on the tenth of the month; on the Day of Atonement you shall sound the Shofar throughout your land.” — VaYikrah 25:9
The mitzvah to blow the shofar on yovel
When we are on our own land, we are commanded to keep every seventh year as the shmittah year, and at the completion of seven shmittos, to add an additional shmittah year — the yovel. During this year, all land lays fallow. Homesteads return to their original owners, and all Jewish slaves are freed.

On Yom Kippur, at the start of the yovel year, we have a specific commandment to publicly blow the shofar.
Why we blow the shofar on yovel
The Sefer HaChinuch explains that the Torah commands us to blow the shofar on yovel because freeing a slave is a very difficult mitzvah, and the slave-owners need chizuk. A master who has had a slave for many years may well have become dependent upon him and find it hard to part with him. By sounding the shofar, we are publicly proclaiming that it is yovel, and all Jews will be freeing their slaves. The master will then recognize that throughout the Land of Israel, everyone is freeing his slaves, and so it will be easier for him to free his own slave.

Why is it easier because others are doing it?
This statement becomes difficult to understand. Why does it become easier for a slave owner to free his slave because others are doing the same? The slave owner is a businessman, not a teenager. We are dealing with a mature person, faced with a difficult test. What difference does it make to him whether this is a popular mitzvah or not? The mitzvah is difficult because he is being asked to give up something that he has become attached to and is dependent upon. Since that’s what makes the mitzvah difficult, what difference does it make to him whether there are many other people doing the same or if he is the only person on the planet doing it?

Understanding human nature
The answer to this question is based on understanding human nature. Psychologists from Freud to Skinner to Maslow have been debating the inner nature of the person for decades. With ever-changing views and understandings, that which one generation accepts as gospel, the next rejects as tomfoolery. Here we get insight into the nature of man from the One Who truly knows – from his Maker.

That understanding is that we humans are highly social. We are affected by our environment. Our perspective on the world is affected by what those around us do. Peer pressure isn’t something that only impacts the world of the teenager. It affects everyone. “My crowd,” “my chevra,” and “my society” affect the way I view things. Ultimately, they help shape my value system.

The Torah is teaching us that even a mature adult faced with a difficult trial will be greatly influenced by what others are doing. If something is done by everyone, it will be much easier for him. It won’t lessen his financial loss, and it won’t ease the burden of replacing a loyal servant, but it will help him gather the fortitude to make the proper decision since everyone is doing it.

Creating our own society
This concept has very real application in our lives. We live in times when society at large has lost its moral compass. Particularly in the United States, once a bastion of family values and morality, we now watch daily as new innovations in decadence and promiscuity pour forth. We can’t open a newspaper without being exposed to a new depth of moral decay. Ideas, concepts, and images that wouldn’t have been accepted in the most base of publications a generation ago are now commonplace in the most respected ones.

We may be tempted to assume that this doesn’t affect us. After all, we are different. We don’t buy into the culture of the times. And while we may feel self-assured and secure in our position, the reality is that we are human, so it can’t help but affect us. The question is: what can we do about it?
The whole world agrees
The Gemara often uses an expression: “kulei alma lo pligi” – “the whole world agrees.” To the Torah sages, their world was the whole world. If you had an opinion about an issue of Halacha, you were in the world. If not, you weren’t. This is illustrative of a perspective. While they were certainly aware of people outside of their sphere, they created their own world.

This may sound myopic and cloistered, but it is based on a fundamental understanding of the human. To remain pure in an impure world, we need to create our own world.

To some extent, we have done just that. We now have our own music, our own novels, and our own magazines. We have, to a degree, created our own culture. But this comes with a cost. There is no question that The New York Times has better writers than do the Yated and the Hamodia. The world of Jewish music is quite limited in its scope and development. There is much out there in the world at large that has great value, but it doesn’t come without baggage. In our times, the baggage far outweighs the advantages.

To some, this may sound like “Ghetto Judaism” – limiting, closed off, isolated from the world. And in truth, it is. But it’s not out of being small-minded. It stems from recognizing the extent of the problem and the nature of the human. The unfortunate reality is that we can’t just take the good and ignore the bad. If we wish to live as a holy nation in these times, we need create an oasis of purity. We need to create our own world.

Posted 5/27/2016 5:14 PM | Tell a Friend | Parsha Pearls | Comments (0)

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Family Feeling
By: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

I argued in Covenant and Conversation Kedoshim that Judaism is more than an ethnicity. It is a call to holiness. In one sense, however, there is an important ethnic dimension to Judaism.

It is best captured in the 1980s joke about an advertising campaign in New York. Throughout the city there were giant posters with the slogan, “You have a friend in the Chase Manhattan Bank.” Underneath one, an Israeli had scribbled the words, “But in Bank Leumi you have mishpochah.” Jews are, and are conscious of being, a single extended family.

This is particularly evident in this week’s parsha. Repeatedly we read of social legislation couched in the language of family:

When you buy or sell to your neighbour, let no one wrong his brother. (Lev. 25:14)
If your brother becomes impoverished and sells some of his property, his near redeemer is to come to you and redeem what his brother sold. (25:25)

If your brother is impoverished and indebted to you, you must support him; he must live with you like a foreign resident. Do not take interest or profit from him, but fear your God and let your brother live with you. (25:35-36)

If your brother becomes impoverished and is sold to you, do not work him like a slave. (25: 39)
“Your brother” in these verses is not meant literally. At times it means “your relative”, but mostly it means “your fellow Jew”. This is a distinctive way of thinking about society and our obligations to others. Jews are not just citizens of the same nation or adherents of the same faith. We are members of the same extended family. We are – biologically or electively – children of Abraham and Sarah. For the most part, we share the same history. On the festivals we relive the same memories. We were forged in the same crucible of suffering. We are more than friends. We are mishpochah, family.

The concept of family is absolutely fundamental to Judaism. Consider the book of Genesis, the Torah’s starting-point. It is not primarily about theology, doctrine, dogma. It is not a polemic against idolatry. It is about families: husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters.

At key moments in the Torah, God himself defines his relationship with the Israelites in terms of family. He tells Moses to say to Pharaoh in his name: “My child, my firstborn, Israel” (Ex. 4:22). When Moses wants to explain to the Israelites why they have a duty to be holy he says, “You are children of the Lord your God” (Deut. 14:1). If God is our parent, then we are all brothers and sisters. We are related by bonds that go to the very heart of who we are.

The prophets continued the metaphor. There is a lovely passage in Hosea in which the prophet describes God as a parent teaching a young child how to take its first faltering steps: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son … It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms … To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them.” (Hosea 11:1-4).

The same image is continued in rabbinic Judaism. In one of the most famous phrases of prayer, Rabbi Akiva used the words Avinu Malkenu, “Our Father, our King”. That is a precise and deliberate expression. God is indeed our sovereign, our lawgiver and our judge, but before He is any of these things He is our parent and we are His children. That is why we believe divine compassion will always override strict justice.

This concept of Jews as an extended family is powerfully expressed in Maimonides’ Laws of Charity:
The entire Jewish people and all those who attach themselves to them are like brothers, as [Deuteronomy 14:1] states: "You are children of the Lord your God." And if a brother will not show mercy to a brother, who will show mercy to them? To whom do the poor of Israel lift up their eyes? To the gentiles who hate them and pursue them? Their eyes are turned to their brethren alone.[1]
This sense of kinship, fraternity and the family bond, is at the heart of the idea of Kol Yisrael arevin zeh bazeh, “All Jews are responsible for one another.” Or as Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai put it, “When one Jew is injured, all Jews feel the pain.”[2]

Why is Judaism built on this model of the family? Partly to tell us that God did not choose an elite of the righteous or a sect of the likeminded. He chose a family – Abraham and Sarah’s descendants -- extended through time. The family is the most powerful vehicle of continuity, and the kinds of changes Jews were expected to make to the world could not be achieved in a single generation. Hence the importance of the family as a place of education (“You shall teach these things repeatedly to your children …”) and of handing the story on, especially on Pesach through the Seder service.
Another reason is that family feeling is the most primal and powerful moral bond. The scientist J. B. S. Haldane famously said, when asked whether he would jump into a river and risk his life to save his drowning brother, “No, but I would do so to save two brothers or eight cousins.” The point he was making was that we share 50 per cent of our genes with our siblings, and an eighth with our cousins. Taking a risk to save them is a way of ensuring that our genes are passed on to the next generation. This principle, known as “kin selection”, is the most basic form of human altruism. It is where the moral sense is born.

That is a key insight, not only of biology but also of political theory. Edmund Burke famously said that “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.”[3] Likewise Alexis de Tocqueville said, “As long as family feeling was kept alive, the opponent of oppression was never alone.”[4]

Strong families are essential to free societies. Where families are strong, a sense of altruism exists that can be extended outward, from family to friends to neighbours to community and from there to the nation as a whole.

It was the sense of family that kept Jews linked in a web of mutual obligation despite the fact that they were scattered across the world. Does it still exist? Sometimes the divisions in the Jewish world go so deep, and the insults hurled by one group against another are so brutal that one could almost be persuaded that it does not. In the 1950s Martin Buber expressed the belief that the Jewish people in the traditional sense no longer existed. Knesset Yisrael, the covenantal people as a single entity before God, was no more. The divisions between Jews, religious and secular, orthodox and non-orthodox, Zionist and non-Zionist, had, he thought, fragmented the people beyond hope of repair.

Yet that conclusion is premature for precisely the reason that makes family so elemental a bond. Argue with your friend and tomorrow he may no longer be your friend, but argue with your brother and tomorrow he is still your brother. The book of Genesis is full of sibling rivalries but they do not all end the same way. The story of Cain and Abel ends with Abel dead. The story of Isaac and Ishmael ends with their standing together at Abraham’s grave. The story of Esau and Jacob reaches a climax when, after a long separation, they meet, embrace and go their separate ways. The story of Joseph and his brothers begins with animosity but ends with forgiveness and reconciliation. Even the most dysfunctional families can eventually come together.

The Jewish people remains a family, often divided, always argumentative, but bound in a common bond of fate nonetheless. As our parsha reminds us, that person who has fallen is our brother or sister, and ours must be the hand that helps them rise again. SHABBAT SHALOM

Posted 5/27/2016 4:43 PM | Tell a Friend | Parsha Pearls | Comments (0)

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Thanking Hashem for a near miss - A Moment with Rabbi Avigdor Miller Zt"l #329 (
Parshas Behar 5776


I was walking in the street and I almost got hit by a car, (or almost drowned), what should I do to thank Hakadosh Baruch Hu properly?

Ish ki'matnas ya'do, each person according to his ability. One thing you're able to do, however, and that's for a very long time when you say modim anachnu Loch, don't just bow down for nothing, it's a pity, it's a waste of a glorious opportunity. Bowing down is a very important act, and not to utilize it is a rachomnus. It states when you come to bring the bikurim, vi'hish'tachaviso; bowing down is a purpose in itself, it's avodas Hashem to bow down. You have to think that you're doing it for a purpose, it's hakoras tov, modim...we're thanking You. And so, when a person barely escaped getting hit by a car, as long as he can, he should continue every time he bows down and he thinks about what could have happened, I thank You Hashem.

Now, that's not to be considered as lifnim mi'shuras hadin - it's for big tzadikim. After all, you can't play around with words, and the words modim anachnu Loch mean that. What are you thanking for?

And therefore, you should prepare yourself beforehand, hold your keys in your hand, hold a pencil in your hand, whatever it is, so that when you come to modim you should remember, modim anachnu Loch.

You went to the doctor and you were worried, and the doctor said, "I'm sorry to tell you there's nothing wrong with you." You walk out, don't forget that, Hashem says al tish'kocheini, don't forget Me, Hashem says, it's a pity. Therefore our reaction should be: we'll remember You Hashem.

Hashem Elokei li'olam o'deka, I'll remember You forever! Like Dovid said when he got well from his illness, l'maan yi'zarmecho kovod, I'll sing about Your glory - l'olam odeka.

Therefore, that's the first thing to do and the easiest thing to do. If you're able to do more than that, then certainly, ish k'matnas ya'do.

Good Shabbos To All

Thisl is transcribed from questions that were posed to Harav Miller by the audience at the Thursday night lectures.
To listen to the audio of this Q & A please dial: 201-676-3210

Posted 5/26/2016 1:52 PM | Tell a Friend | Parsha Pearls | Comments (0)

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Sefiras Ha’Omer- Why We Count, What We Count
The Shmuz on the Parsha
R’ Ben Tzion Shafier

Parshas Emor

“And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the rest day, from the day when you bring the Omer of the waving — seven weeks, they shall be complete.” — Vayikra 23:15

Sefer HaChinuch: The Torah commands us to count the Omer so we can relive the Exodus from Mitzrayim. Just as the Jews back then anxiously anticipated the great day when they were to receive the Torah, so too we count the days till Shavuos, the Yom Tov that commemorates the giving of the Torah. To the Jews then, accepting the Torah on Har Sinai was even greater than their redemption from slavery. So we count each day to bring ourselves to that sense of great enthusiasm, as if to say, “When will that day come?”

With these words the Sefer HaChinuch defines the mitzvah of Sefiras HaOmer. The difficulty with this is the statement that “to the Jews then, receiving of the Torah was even greater than being freed from slavery.” It seems hard to imagine that anything would be greater to a slave than being freed. This concept is even more perplexing when we envision what it was like to be a slave in Mitzrayim.
A life of suffering and bloodshed
The life of a Jew in Mitzrayim was one of misery and suffering. They had no rights. They had no life. They couldn’t own property, choose their own destiny, or protect their own children. They didn’t even have the right to their own time. A Mitzri could at any moment demand a Jew’s utter and complete compliance to do his bidding. If a Jew walked in the streets, it was every Mitzri’s right to whisk him away, without question and without recourse, and force him into slave labor for whatever he saw fit.

Waking in the early morning to the crack of the Mitzri’s whip, the Jews were pushed to the limit of human endurance till late at night when they fell asleep in the fields. Without rest, without breaks, the Jews lugged heavy loads and lifted huge rocks. Sweat, tears, and bloodshed were their lot. In the heat of the sweltering sun and in the cold of the desert night, at the risk of life and limb, the Jew was oppressed with a demon-like fury. A beast of burden is treated wisely to ensure its well-being, but not the Jew. He was pushed beyond all limits. Finally, when Pharaoh was asked to let the Jewish people go, he increased their load, taking it from the impossible to the unimaginable.

How could anything in the world be more desirable to the Jews than freedom? How could it be that anything, even something as great as receiving the Torah, could mean more to them than being redeemed from slavery?

What the Jews experienced by living through the makkos
The answer to this question lies in understanding the great level of clarity that the Jews reached by living through the makkos and the splitting of the sea.

For ten months, each Jew saw with ever-increasing clarity that HASHEM created, maintains, and orchestrates this world. With absolute certainty, they experienced HASHEM’s presence in their lives. This understanding brought to them to recognize certain core cognitions.

Every human has inborn understandings. Often times they are masked and subdued. Whether by environment or by desire, the human spends much of his life running from the truths that he deeply knows. When the Jews in Mitzrayim experienced HASHEM’s power and goodness, they understood the purpose of Creation. They knew that we are creations, put on this planet for a reason. We were given a great opportunity to grow, to accomplish, to mold ourselves into who we will be for eternity. We have a few short, precious years here, and then forever we will enjoy that which we have accomplished. Because they so clearly experienced HASHEM, their view of existence was changed. They “got it.”

Because of this, the currency with which they measured all good changed. They recognized that the greatest good ever bestowed upon man is the ability to change, to mold himself into something different so that he will merit to cling to HASHEM. They recognized that everything that we humans value as important pales in comparison to the opportunity to grow close to HASHEM. Because they understood this point so vividly, to them the greatest good possible was the receiving of the Torah — G-d’s word, the ultimate spiritual experience.

And so, while they anxiously anticipated the redemption from slavery as a great good that would free them from physical oppression, they valued the reason they were being freed even more. They were to receive the Torah.

Davening is me talking to HASHEM; learning is HASHEM talking to me
This concept has great relevance in our lives, as we have the ability to tap into this instinctive knowledge of the importance of learning. When a person gets caught up in the temporal nature of this world, the currency with which he rates things changes. The value system now becomes honor, power, career, or creature comforts. That is what he views as good, and that is what he desires. The more a person involves himself in these, the more important they become, and the less precious the Torah becomes. Our natural appreciation of Torah becomes clouded over by other desires and an ever-changing value system.

However, the more a person focuses on his purpose in the world, the more he values the Torah. He recognizes it as the formula for human perfection. He now sees the Torah as the ultimate gift given to man because it is both the guide and the fuel to propel his growth. With this changed perspective, the very value system with which he measures things changes, and now his appreciation, love, and desire to learn increase until finally he becomes aligned with that which HASHEM created him for — perfection and closeness to HASHEM .

Posted 5/20/2016 3:56 PM | Tell a Friend | Parsha Pearls | Comments (0)

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Holy Times
By: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

The parsha of Emor contains a chapter dedicated to the festivals of the Jewish year. There are five such passages in the Torah. Two, both in the book of Exodus (Ex. 23:14-17; 34:18, 22-23), are very brief. They refer only to the three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. They do not specify their dates, merely their rough position in the agricultural year. Nor do they mention the specific commands related to the festivals.

This leaves three other festival accounts, the one in our parsha, a second one in Numbers 28-29, and the third in Deuteronomy 16. What is striking is how different they are. This is not, as critics maintain, because the Torah is a composite document but rather because it comes at its subject-matter from multiple perspectives – a characteristic of the Torah mindset as a whole.

The long section on the festivals in Numbers is wholly dedicated to the special additional sacrifices [the musaf] brought on holy days including Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh. A memory of this is preserved in the Musaf prayers for these days. These are holy times from the perspective of the Tabernacle, the Temple, and later the synagogue.

The account in Deuteronomy is about society. Moses at the end of his life told the next generation where they had come from, where they were going to, and the kind of society they were to construct. It was to be the opposite of Egypt. It would strive for justice, freedom and human dignity.

One of Deuteronomy’s most important themes is its insistence that worship be centralised “in the place that God will choose,” which turned out to be Jerusalem. The unity of God was to be mirrored in the unity of the nation, something that could not be achieved if every tribe had its own temple, sanctuary or shrine. That is why, when it comes to the festivals, Deuteronomy speaks only of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, and not Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, because only on those three was there a duty of Aliyah le-regel, pilgrimage to the Temple.

Equally significant is Deuteronomy’s focus – not found elsewhere – on social inclusion: “you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites within your gates, and the stranger, the orphan and the widow living among you.” Deuteronomy is less about individual spirituality than about the kind of society that honours the presence of God by honouring our fellow humans, especially those at the margins of society. The idea that we can serve God while being indifferent to, or dismissive of, our fellow human beings is utterly alien to the vision of Deuteronomy.

Which leaves Emor, the account in this week’s parsha. It too is distinctive. Unlike the Exodus and Deuteronomy passages it includes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It also tells us about the specific mitzvoth of the festivals, most notably Sukkot: it is the only place where the Torah mentions the arba minim, the “four kinds,” and the command to live in a sukkah.

It has, though, various structural oddities. The most striking one is the fact that it includes Shabbat in the list of the festivals. This would not be strange in itself. After all, Shabbat is one of the holy days. What is strange is the way it speaks about Shabbat:

The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: The appointed times [moadei] of the Lord, which you are to proclaim [tikre’u] as sacred assemblies [mikra’ei kodesh]. These are my appointed festivals [mo’adai]. Six days shall you work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of sabbaths, a day of sacred assembly [mikra kodesh]. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a sabbath to the Lord.”

There is then a paragraph break, after which the whole passage seems to begin again:
These are the Lord’s appointed times [mo’adei] festivals, the sacred assemblies [mikra’ei kodesh] you are to proclaim [tikre’u] at their appointed times [be-mo’adam].

This structure, with its two beginnings, puzzled the commentators. Even more was the fact that the Torah here seems to be calling Shabbat a mo’ed, an appointed time, and a mikra kodesh, a sacred assembly, which it does nowhere else. As Rashi puts it: “What has Shabbat to do with the festivals?” The festivals are annual occurrences, Shabbat is a weekly one. The festivals depend on the calendar fixed by the Bet Din. That is the meaning of the phrase, “the sacred assemblies you are to proclaim at their appointed times.” Shabbat, however, does not depend on any act by the Bet Din and is independent of both the solar and lunar calendar. Its holiness comes directly from God and from the dawn of creation. Bringing the two together under a single heading seems to make no sense. Shabbat is one thing, moadim and mikra’ei kodesh are something else. So what connects the two?

Rashi tells us it is to emphasize the holiness of the festivals. “Whoever desecrates the festivals is as if he had desecrated the Sabbath, and whoever observes the festivals as if if he had observed the Sabbath.” The point Rashi is making is that we can imagine someone saying that he respects the Sabbath because it is God-given, but the festivals are of an altogether lesser sanctity, first because we are permitted certain kinds of work, such as cooking and carrying, and second because they depend on a human act of fixing the calendar. The inclusion of Shabbat among the festivals is to negate this kind of reasoning.
Ramban offers a very different explanation. Shabbat is stated before the festivals just as it is stated before Moses’ instructions to the people to begin work on the construction of the Sanctuary, to tell us that just as the command to build the Sanctuary does not override Shabbat, so the command to celebrate the festivals does not override Shabbat. So, although we may cook and carry on festivals we may not do so if a festival falls on Shabbat.

By far the most radical explanation was given by the Vilna Gaon. According to him, the words “‘Six days shall you work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of sabbaths,” do not apply to the days of the week but to the days of the year. There are seven holy days specified in our parsha: the first and seventh day of Pesach, one day of Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, the first day of Sukkot and Shmini Atseret. On six of them we are allowed to do some work, such as cooking and carrying, but on the seventh, Yom Kippur, we are not, because it is a “Sabbath of Sabbaths” (see verse 32). The Torah uses two different expressions for the prohibition of work on festivals in general and on the “seventh day.” On the festivals what is forbidden is melekhet avodah (“burdensome or servile work”), whereas on the seventh day what is forbidden is melakhah, “any work” even if not burdensome. So Yom Kippur is to the year what Shabbat is to the week.

The Vilna Gaon’s reading allows us to see something else: that holy time is patterned on what I have called (in the Introduction to the Siddur) fractals: the same pattern at different levels of magnitude. So the structure of the week – six days of work followed by a seventh that is holy – is mirrored in the structure of the year – six days of lesser holiness plus a seventh, Yom Kippur, of supreme holiness. As we will see in two chapters’ time (Lev. 25), the same pattern appears on an even larger scale: six ordinary years followed by the year of Shemittah, “release.”

Wherever the Torah wishes to emphasize the dimension of holiness (the word kodesh appears no less than twelve times in Lev. 23), it makes systematic use of the number and concept of seven. So there are not only seven holy days in the annual calendar. There are also seven paragraphs in the chapter. The word “seven” or “seventh” occurs repeatedly (eighteen times) as does the word for the seventh day, Shabbat in one or other of its forms (fifteen times). The word “harvest” appears seven times.

However, it seems to me that Leviticus 23 is telling another story as well – a deeply spiritual one. Recall our argument (made by Judah Halevi and Ibn Ezra) that almost the entire forty chapters between Exodus 24 and Leviticus 25 are a digression, brought about because Moses argued that the people needed God to be close. They wanted to encounter Him not only at the top of the mountain but also in the midst of the camp; not only as a terrifying power overturning empires and dividing the sea but also as a constant presence in their lives. That was why God gave the Israelites the Sanctuary (Exodus 25-40) and its service (i.e. the book of Leviticus as a whole).

That is why the list of the festivals in Leviticus emphasizes not the social dimension we find in Deuteronomy, or the sacrificial dimension we find in Numbers, but rather the spiritual dimension of encounter, closeness, the meeting of the human and the divine. This explains why we find in this chapter, more than in any other, two key words. One is mo’ed, the other is mikra kodesh, and both are deeper than they seem.

The word mo’ed does not just mean “appointed time.” We find the same word in the phrase ohel mo’ed meaning “tent of meeting.” If the ohel mo’ed was the place where man and God met, then the mo’adim in our chapter are the times when we and God meet. This idea is given beautiful expression in the last line of the mystical song we sing on Shabbat, Yedid nefesh, “Hurry, beloved, for the appointed time [mo’ed] has come.” Mo’ed here means a tryst – an appointment made between lovers to meet at a certain time and place.

As for the phrase mikra kodesh, it comes from the same root as the word that gives the entire book its name: Vayikra, meaning “to be summoned in love.” A mikra kodesh is not just a holy day. It is a meeting to which we have been called in affection by One who holds us close.

Much of the book of Vayikra is about the holiness of place, the Sanctuary. Some of it is about the holiness of people, the Cohanim, the priests, and Israel as a whole, as “a kingdom of priests.” In chapter 23, the Torah turns to the holiness of time and the times of holiness.

We are spiritual beings but we are also physical beings. We cannot be spiritual, close to God, all the time. That is why there is secular time as well as holy time. But one day in seven, we stop working and enter the presence of the God of creation. On certain days of the year, the festivals, we celebrate the God of history. The holiness of Shabbat is determined by God alone because He alone created the universe. The holiness of the festivals is partially determined by us (i.e. by the fixing of the calendar), because history is a partnership between us and God. But in two respects they are the same. They are both times of meeting (mo’ed), and they are both times when we feel ourselves called, summoned, invited as God’s guests (mikra kodesh).

We can’t always be spiritual. God has given us a material world with which to engage. But on the seventh day of the week, and (originally) seven days in the year, God gives us dedicated time in which we feel the closeness of the Shekhinah and are bathed in the radiance of God’s love.—Shabbat Shalom

Posted 5/20/2016 2:35 PM | Tell a Friend | Parsha Pearls | Comments (0)

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