Posts Tagged Weekly Torah Portion

With all your Heart

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

Parshas Yisro

It is said that the great sage Rabbi Yisroel Salanter once found himself profoundly depressed over the spiritual shortcomings of his students and his community.  As the High Holidays approached, Rabbi Yisroel left to search out the company of Jews more passionate about their own relationship with the Divine.

imgresTraveling from village to village, Rabbi Yisroel prayed with one congregation and then another until finally, in a small synagogue in an unremarkable town, he found himself surrounded by individuals who seemed to take their prayers as seriously as he did. Rabbi Yisroel positioned himself directly behind one parishioner who seemed to pray with extraordinary devotion.  Here, he thought, he would surely find his inspiration.

The High Holidays service began exactly as Rabbi Yisroel had hoped. The Jew in front of him swayed slowly as he prayed, the whispered words of the liturgy falling from his lips with a quiet intensity that made Rabbi Yisroel feel as if he were being drawn steadily upward on his neighbor’s coattails. When the man intoned, “I am mere dust and ashes before You,” Rabbi Yisroel experienced a profound sense of his own humility before G-d.

The time arrived for the reading of the Torah, and the gabbai of the congregation began distributing honors among the notables of the community. First he called up a Kohein, and then a Levi.  Had the gabbai known that the great Rabbi Yisroel Salanter graced his shul, he would certainly have accorded him the prestigious third aliyah.  But Rabbi Yisroel had chosen to remain anonymous and thought nothing of it when no honor was bestowed upon him. He assumed that the recipient called up for the third Torah reading must be one of the synagogue’s most prominent members.

For the fourth honor, the gabbai called the name of Rabbi Yisroel’s neighbor, from whom the sage had drawn such inspiration.  Upon being called to the Torah, however, the man suddenly flew into a rage. “You called him third,” he cried, pointing to the previous honoree, “and you only called me fourth? Who is he that I should be second to him?”

Astonished and appalled, Rabbi Yisroel rushed forward. “My friend, I can’t believe my ears. Only a moment ago you were saying before the Almighty that you are only dust and ashes.”

The man turned to Rabbi Yisroel, still furious, and declared, “Before G-d I am dust and ashes; not before him!”

Even the great Rabbi Yisroel Salanter had to learn an unpleasant lesson that year about jumping to superficial conclusions.  He returned to his community and reapplied himself to the business of spiritual growth.

TWO PATHS THAT ARE ONE

Rabbi Chanina used to say: If one is found pleasing by his fellows, then he is pleasing to the Almighty; but if one is not pleasing to his fellows, then he is not pleasing to the Almighty.

imgresIn this teaching (Pirkei Avos 3:13), Rabbi Chanina alludes to a basic principle of Torah observance:  The commandments articulated in the Torah comprise two types of obligations — those between man and G-d, and those between man and man.

Many people neglect the first category, believing that as long as one is “a good person,” his relationship with the Almighty can be more casual and subjectively defined. In practice, however, with no absolute authority to define what is good, each person will inevitably judge himself “good” in his own eyes.

Others neglect the second category, believing that if they are ardent in their relationship with G-d, then it is of no consequence how they relate to their fellows. It is this second type of fallacy that Rabbi Chanina comes to refute.

The tablets received by Moses at Sinai are often depicted as heart-shaped, suggesting a deeply symbolic lesson:  Just as our blood has to flow efficiently through both the right and the left chambers of the heart to maintain a healthy body, so too does a healthy soul depend upon an interdependence between the two categories of mitzvos.

THE SECRET OF THE TABLETS

Each of the two tablets contains five of the Ten Commandments. The first five are precepts between man and G-d; the second five are precepts between man and his fellow. And each pairing reflects the integral nature of the two categories:

I am the L-rd, your G-d — Do not commit murder
Have no other gods before Me — Do not commit adultery
Do not take G-d’s name in vain — Do not steal
Honor the Sabbath — Do not testify falsely
Honor your father and mother — Do not covet what belongs to your neighbor

The first commandment is I am the L-rd, your G-d; the sixth (which is the first on the second tablet’s group of five) is the prohibition against Murder. Only by acknowledging that there is a Creator who fashioned every human being in His image can one rationally explain why eating steak and swatting flies is any different from shedding human blood. Without such a distinction, we should all be either Vegans or serial killers.

The second commandment is the prohibition against Idolatry; the seventh is the prohibition against Adultery. The former is faithlessness in one’s relationship with the Almighty; the latter faithlessness in the sacred vow of marriage.

The third commandment is the prohibition against Taking G-d’s Name in Vain; the eighth is the prohibition against Stealing. The Almighty placed everything in this world for our use, conditional only upon recognizing that everything comes from Him. To misuse His name is to fail in that recognition, rendering all benefit from the material world the equivalent of theft.

The fourth pair of commandments includes the requirement to honor and keep the Sabbath, and the prohibition against Bearing False Witness. Since the Sabbath testifies to the creation of the world, one who violates it is in effect testifying falsely against the Creator.

imagesThe final pair includes Honoring Parents and the prohibition against Coveting, or seeking to acquire what belongs to one’s fellow through manipulation. Although the former appears to belong in the category between man and man, it teaches us to appreciate that our parents are the connection between us and our Creator. Just as parents withhold from their child that which they believe is not good for the child, similarly will G-d withhold from each of His children that which may not serve their spiritual best interests. One who internalizes this will never feel envy toward his neighbor.

The Torah commands us to serve the Almighty “with all your heart,” suggesting that our service of G-d is imperfect as long as our relationship with others is incomplete. Rabbi Chanina does not mean that we should curry favor with our neighbors through flattery or bribery. Rather, he comes to teach us that through genuine concern for our fellows we will transform ourselves into G-dly human beings.


Adapted from an article originally published at Aish.com

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The Closeness of Redemption

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

Parshas Beshallach
WHY G-D IS CLOSEST WHEN HE FEELS FARTHEST AWAY

Then Moshe and the Children of Israel will sing …

imagesAs if with one voice, the commentaries wonder at the future tense employed here by the Torah.  The meaning of the verse is clear:  then, after the splitting of the sea and the destruction of Pharaoh’s chariots, the Jews sang their praises of the Master of the World who had provided their miraculous salvation.

If so, why the future tense?

All the commentaries begin with Rashi:  Then, when [the nation] saw the miracle, it felt inspired to sing.  But what has Rashi added?  Is it not obvious that their song of praise was inspired by the events through which they had been saved?

Perhaps we can find a clue in the structure of our daily prayers.  The weekday Amidah, the standing prayer, is divided into three distinct sections.  The first three blessings are expressions of praise, through which we acknowledge that we are standing before the One who hears supplications and has the power to answer them.  The final three blessings are expressions of gratitude, wherein we thank Hashem for listening to and considering our entreaties.

imagesThe body of the Amidah, the thirteen central blessings, are expressions of request, wherein we ask Hashem to bestow upon us the basic necessities of life so that we can serve Him by studying His Torah and upholding His commandments.  By recognizing that G-d is the source of all blessing — of intelligence, health, sustenance, justice, and all things physical and spiritual — we remind ourselves of our own responsibility to direct our lives toward fulfilling the higher purpose for which we were created, and we turn our attention inward to assess whether or not we are living up to our individual potentials.

Of this central group of petitions, the final blessing poses something of a curiosity.  Shema koleinu – Listen to our voices, we cry out, and accept our prayers with favor and mercy.  But is the value of asking Hashem to listen to our prayers?  If He is already listening, then this request is superfluous; if He is not listening, then it is pointless.  Moreover, why is it positioned at the end of our list of requests?  Presumably we should ask G-d to listen before we begin to ask, not after we have finished asking?

I heard a variation of the following from Rav Dovid Gottleib:  If I ask my friend to lend me ten dollars, and he lends me ten dollars, naturally I respond by saying, “Thank you.”  However, if my friend tells me he doesn’t have the money, but he will get it for me, I also respond by saying, “Thank you.”

In the first case, I’m expressing appreciation for having gotten what I want.  But in the second case, even though I still don’t have the ten dollars, I express my appreciation nonetheless.  And in this second case, my expression of thanks describes a higher level of gratitude, not merely for having gotten what I want but for my friend’s interest, concern, and effort, which ultimately mean more to me than mere money.

Similarly, in the blessing of Shema koleinu, we are not asking the Almighty for what we have already requested; rather, we are asking Him to allow us to recognize His involvement in our lives.  More than the things we have requested, we want to feel that Hashem cares about us, that He is responsive to our needs and our desires — and we want the accompanying confidence that when Hashem withholds what we want it is because the fulfillment of these requests is not in our own spiritual best interest.

At no time are we closer to G-d than when He is in the process of granting our petitions, for it is then that He is most actively involved in our lives.  The moment our requests are answered, we once again feel a sense of independence, which is a manifestation of the illusion that we can survive and prosper without the grace of G-d.

imgresIf we apply this principle to the splitting of the sea, we can understand that the Jews had two different ways they could have praised Hashem for their salvation.  They might have expressed their gratitude after they had been saved, seeing then that they were truly secure from the threat of the Egyptian army.  However, a higher expression of gratitude would have been to sing the praises of Hashem as they were passing through the sea, for it would  have been at that moment, with the walls of water towering above them and Pharaoh’s chariots bearing down upon them, that Hashem was closer to them than ever before.  In that instant, their trust in the inevitability of their salvation inspired a song like no other, describing their gratitude for the greatest gift any human soul could desire — true spiritual intimacy with the Divine.

Nevertheless, for the Jews to stop and sing in the midst of their flight to safety would have shown needless dependence upon Hashem’s miraculous intervention.  Per force, they waited until their survival was assured.  But the Torah testifies to the feelings that motivated their song.  Then, when they were still fleeing from the Egyptians between the walls of water, the Children of Israel would sing.  Even if their mouths did not form the words until later, their hearts were already inspired to sing in the greatest possible expression of gratitude and closeness to their Creator.

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The Crossroads of Repentance

Parshas Bo

WHY IS THIS PLAGUE DIFFERENT FROM ALL OTHER PLAGUES?

imagesAt the outset of the Second Temple era some twenty-five hundred years ago, Ezra the Scribe oversaw the division of the Torah into parshios – portions, and set in place the practice of reading successive parshios publicly as part of the Sabbath morning prayer service.  In this way, the Jewish people would collectively review of the entire Torah from year to year.  The divisions of these parshios followed either historical, philosophical, or narrative patterns, so that each was, to some extent, self-contained with a particular thematic focus.

It is curious, therefore, that Ezra saw fit to place the first seven of the of the Egyptian Plagues into last week’s Torah portion, while leaving the final three for this week.

But that is not the only question.  The commentaries explain that the plagues can be arranged into three sets of three, with the final Plague upon the Firstborn in a class by itself.  Consequently, if it were necessary to divide the plagues at all, presumably it would be better to place the point of division after the sixth plague – which completes the second set of three – rather than after the seventh.

Nevertheless, a careful reading of the narrative reveals that the seventh plague does mark a watershed moment, not by virtue of the nature of the plague itself, but because of Pharaoh’s unprecedented reaction.

imgresAfter each of the previous plagues, Pharaoh had either stubbornly refused to yield or else promised to send the Jews out, only to revoke his permission once the plague was over.  But after the seventh plague of fiery hail, Pharaoh makes an astonishing admission:  This time I have sinned; G-d is righteous, and I and my people are wicked.

*****

In a discussion concerning the laws of marriage, the Talmud proposes an unlikely scenario, in which a man said to a woman, “You are betrothed to me on condition that I am atzaddik – a righteous man.”  The Talmud concludes that the betrothal is binding and the woman is married, even if the man is a person of dubious reputation.  Why?  Because it is possible, the sages explain, that at the moment he spoke he may indeed have repented the sins of a lifetime and became a truly righteous man (Kiddushin 49b).

If so, perhaps Pharaoh’s sincere confession when confronted by the irrefutable suspension of nature — as the incompatible forces of fire and ice were forced into partnership for the express purpose of punishing the Egyptians — opened a window of opportunity for him and his nation.

From the very beginning, the Almighty had made clear His plan that Pharaoh would not let the Jews go free, providing just cause “to multiply My miracles upon the land of Egypt.”  After each of the first five plagues, Pharaoh cooperated by hardening his own heart and refusing to let the people go.  In contrast, after each of the last plagues before Pharaoh’s capitulation, it was G-d who hardened Pharaoh’s heart:  once Pharaoh had discarded every opportunity to submit to the Divine Will, he forfeited the freedom to turn from the course he had chosen for himself through his earlier decisions.

After the seventh plague, however, we find both expressions:  first Pharaoh hardened his own heart; subsequently, G-d informs Moses that He has hardened Pharaoh’s heart.  How can both be true at the same time?

*****

imgresThe power of teshuva – repentance – is unimaginable.  In an instant, any individual can rewrite his past, erase a lifetime of misdeeds, and transform himself into the most righteous of men, if he sincerely desires to change and puts into effect a plan to embrace virtue.  Even Pharaoh, the paradigm of wanton evil, possessed the human potential to return to the path of justice and truth.  Having endowed every human being with the capacity for human renewal and redemption, G-d Himself cannot stand in the way of the truly repentant.

We might suggest, therefore, that when Pharaoh acknowledged both his own wickedness the justice of the Almighty, G-d had no power to further harden Pharaoh’s heart.  In that instant, Pharaoh had positioned himself at the threshold of true righteousness, and no force in the universe could stand in his way if he chose to take the final step forward.

No force, that is, except himself.  Pharaoh saw that the rain, the hail, and the thunder had ceased, and he continued to sin; and he made his heart stubborn…

The moment for change was lost and, having forfeited his chance, Pharaoh’s fate was assured.  Instead of seizing his opportunity and stepping forward into a new future, he stepped backward and toppled into the oblivion of his past.

And so last week’s parsha ends:  by flirting with repentance, Pharaoh held in his hand the opportunity to end the siege of plagues and halt the systematic destruction of his country.  But he failed to follow through, and so the plagues resume as this week’s parsha continues on.

How often do we find ourselves looking through a window of opportunity, offered the divine gift of sudden clarity into the condition of our souls and direction of our travels upon this earth?  How often are our eyes granted the vision to look upon our lives with true objectivity, to recognize in sharp relief the contrast between what we could achieve and how far we have fallen short of our potential?

And what do we do with these opportunities?  Do we rise to the challenge and resolutely chart a new course into the future, or do we take notice only for an instant and then, like Pharaoh, reflexively follow the promptings of pride and stubbornness by returning to the habits of the past?  Every such moment is ours for the taking or ours to discard.  The way we choose will determine our future, in this world and in the World to Come.

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Fathers and Sons

Parshas Vo’eira

imagesStudents of Torah literature know that serious scholarship begins (and often ends) with the commentaries of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, familiar to the Jewish world as Rashi. His synthesis of Talmudic law, allegory, and mysticism, together with the multifaceted brilliance of his insights and his economy of language, places Rashi in a class by himself. With deceptive simplicity, he draws our attention to the most profound nuances and gently forces us to consider scriptural anomalies, weaving the breadth and depth of Torah wisdom into his pithy explication of Biblical and Talmudic passages.

Consequently, few things make scholars more nervous than Rashi appearing to point out the obvious. And nowhere does Rashi offer a comment more seemingly pointless than at the outset of this week’s Torah portion.

Read the whole article here.

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The Staff of Leadership

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
Published in Jewish World Review

Parshas Shemos

And Moses responded, saying, “But [the people] will not believe me and they will not heed my voice, for they will say, ‘G-d did not appear to you.’”  And G-d said to him, “What is that in your hand?”  And he said, “A staff.”  (Exodus 4:1-2)

imgresIt’s easy to understand why Moses was anything but eager to accept the onus of leadership.  After 210 years of Egyptian bondage, what possible reason would the Jewish people have to believe Moses when he claimed that the Almighty had sent him to redeem them?  How would he convince a broken nation that he had either the authority or the ability to lead them out of slavery?

G-d’s answer, however, is even more difficult to comprehend.  Seemingly, G-d wanted Moses to cast his staff upon the ground to show him its miraculous transformation into a snake – the sign by which Moses would prove himself to the people.  If so, why did G-d not simply say, “Cast your staff upon the ground.”  Why did the Almighty first ask Moses to identify the object he was holding?

In his classic commentary, Rabbi Meir Libush Malbim explains that Moses could have answered in one of three possible ways.  As a shepherd, he could have identified his staff as a makeil, a shepherd’s crook.  As an eighty year old man, he could have referred to it as a mashenes, a cane or walking stick.  Finally, he could have called it as he did — a matteh, which means staff, but which also can mean scepter, a symbol of sovereignty and leadership.

Moses had directed his objection not solely at the people’s unwillingness to follow, but at his own lack of distinction as a leader.  Who am I, he questioned, that the people should put their trust in me?  And so, G-d presented Moses with a test.

Click here to read the whole article.

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Why we are unhappy

I have long told my students that people don’t complain because they are unhappy; rather, they are unhappy because they complain.
Rabbi Moshe Grylak, publisher of Mishpacha Magazine, found the same message in last week’s Torah reading (Book of Numbers, Chapter 11).  Here are is an excerpted version (with emphasis added):

The Israelites have been showered with benefits — and now the complaints begin.

The Jewish people are in possession of a perfect and comprehensive system of laws which is destined to have a tremendous positive influence on their spiritual, intellectual, and cultural development. Livelihood is no problem; all their physical needs are provided, and their food descends miraculously from the heavens daily. And then  “it came to pass that the people were like complainers, evil in the ears of G-d.”

The verse doesn’t specify what their complaint was; in fact it implies that they didn’t say anything specific. They were “like complainers,” murmuring discontentedly under their breath, showing vague feelings of dissatisfaction. They felt what they had was no good anymore; they wanted more, although they themselves had no clear idea of what “more” exactly they wanted. Whatever the case, this state of mind indicated a lack of gratitude, giving rise to a sense of deprivation. To put it bluntly, they were whining.

What caused them to whine? The Sages’s answer is incisive:

“They weren’t complaining; rather they were resentful. They were looking for an excuse to break away from G-d” (Yalkut ShimoniBamidbar 732).

Several verses later, we see another outbreak of grumbling:

“And the riffraff among them started having strong cravings.”

Again, we aren’t told what they craved. They were experiencing discomfort; they felt something was lacking, but didn’t know what. One thing was clear: they were not satisfied.

Only after this mood of discontent spread, encompassing a larger portion of the people, did their demands take on a definite form:

“And the Israelites, too, sat down and wept, and they said, ‘Who will give us meat to eat?’”

At that moment, the craving for meat became the central goal, the be-all and end-all for the people of Israel, those same people whom G-d lifted out of Egypt in order to bestow a unique, eternal legacy. But they talked themselves into a craving, and to fulfill that craving, they needed to agitate with all their might. This became their raison d’être, revealing their weak nature.

The craving for meat distorted their mental function; it clouded their memories, causing them to make claims that a person would be ashamed to voice under normal conditions. What were they saying?

“We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.”

What sort of mechanism was at work here? Is there a logical explanation for their behavior?

The secret of all this is found in the world chinam — “free.” It was a Freudian slip, pointing to what was really bothering them on a deeper level, the real complaint they were ashamed to talk about. The truth was that they were complaining about the yoke of Torah and mitzvos that had been placed on their shoulders, a yoke meant to restrain their wild human impulses, which had run riot in Egypt, even as they were being enslaved and oppressed. The transition from external subjugation to a state of freedom that required character training and self-restraint was too much for them. It made them feel rebellious and conjured up fanciful memories of the delights of Egypt and the fish they ate there for free.

Yes, it was absurd of them to be demanding meat when they had manna from the heavens, offering them the taste of every food in the world. But when the source of their rebellion, the subconscious rationale underlying it, is revealed, then their behavior becomes comprehensible — and considering where they came from, even understandable.

Perhaps we can see something of ourselves here, something of the permissive society that never stops demanding meat, and destroys all that is good in our world.

Read Rabbi Grylak’s full article here.

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A song of hope

An elaboration of remarks made this week at the l’chaim for my son Yaakov and his kallah, Amanda:

It’s especially fitting to celebrate an engagement this week, when we will observe Shabbos Shira.  It’s difficult for us to imagine what it was like for the Jews of Egypt when, after watching the systematic and miraculous obliteration of the empire that had oppressed them for generations, after witnessing the death of four-fifths of their brethren who refused to trust in the hand of heaven, after setting forth into the forbidding desert with great wealth and fanfare, after finding themselves trapped between Pharaoh’s advancing chariots and the unyielding sea – after all that, to launch themselves forward between towering walls of water may have been the only option available to them but was by no means a simple act of self-preservation.

Panic, desperation, terror, relief, and disbelief – all these emotions caromed back and forth through their collective consciousness as they raced forward into uncertainty.  And, as they came out soundly on the other side, the cacophony of thoughts and feelings coalesced into a divinely inspired harmony we call the Shir Shel Yam – the Song of the Sea.

For all that, the commentaries all question the syntax of the opening phrase, Oz yoshir Moshe u’vnei Yisroel – contextually translated as, “Then, Moshe and the Children of Israel sang,” but curiously rendered in the future tense rather than the past.  Explains the Sfas Emes:  although the people were inspired to sing as they passed through the sea, their preoccupation with the practical business of fleeing for their lives demanded that their lyrical expression of elation would have to wait until their salvation was completed.

And so we learn that Hashem is closest to us not during those times when we have already connected with Him, but rather when we are seeking Him with the sense that revelation is nearly within reach.  Naturally, we express our deepest gratitude after we have been saved.  But our most intimate connection with the Almighty comes during those moments when salvation is imminent but not yet complete.  Only then can we experience the spiritual intensity of absolute dependence upon divine intervention even as we see our redemption unfolding before our eyes.

Indeed, the Zohar tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu felt humbled when he beheld prophetically the generation before the coming of Moshiach.  For Moshe, who lived in an era of open miracles and divine revelation, it seemed a simple matter to trust in Hashem and His providence.  But to live in a generation of such spiritual darkness that even the faintest glimmer of divine light seemed to have vanished, and to retain nevertheless even the smallest shred of faithfulness to Hashem and His Torah – that was something the Moshe himself could not fathom; that was the source of his profound humility.

We find ourselves in such a generation, so much so that it’s easy for us to reckon ourselves like King Louis XV of France who said, “Things may last my time, but after me – le deluge.”

It’s terrifying to contemplate the world in which our grandchildren will grow up and the storms our children will have to navigate.  But on the occasion of this l’chaim, I’m filled with hope.

After two decades of trying, by constant teaching and imperfect modeling, to instill in my children the primacy of middos tovos, after laboring to impress upon them by any means that qualities such as honesty, integrity, loyalty, modesty, and respect are the foundations of Torah life and Torah society, I thank the Ribono Shel Olam that my son has chosen a young woman whose impeccably fine character testifies to the quality of her parents and her upbringing.  I look with nachas at my own son, whose maturation into a ben Torah and a ba’al middos testifies to the inscrutable power of tefillah.

And looking at them, I feel as the Jews must have felt when they were passing through the Yam Suf  – I want to sing shira.  For as frightened as I am for them and all the challenges they will have to face, they give me hope for the future and inspire me with confidence that very soon we will all merit the final redemption and the coming of  Moshiach.

Originally posted at Beyondbt.com.

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