Vayetze 5778

November 23, 2017

He took from the stones of the place which he had set around his head, and lay down in that place. (28:11)

Rashi: The stones began arguing among themselves. One said, “The tzadik should rest his head on me,” and another said, “Upon me .” Immediately, HaShem turned them into one stone, as it is stated, “He took the stone that he had placed under his head.”

The Gur Aryeh asks the obvious question: Do stones argue? Many people object to this maamar Chazal because of this question. If they would stop and think about what it was that they disputed, they might also understand the deeper meaning of the Aggada of the Sages.

“They will sanctify the Holy One of Yaakov.” ( Isaiah 29:23)

This is one of many examples linking Yaakov with kedushah. Yaakov represents the embodiment of holiness. The Torah describes Yaakov’s years of involvement with earthly things. Despite all that effort, he remained aloof and above all of that, never miring himself in the world of things. He transcended all of the physical in which he toiled; by transcending it, by resisting its spell, by remaining independent of it and its restrictions he effectively became master of it, just as Hashem is Master of the upper worlds. Yaakov could use all of it, without become enslaved to it.

Our world is a place of many things and many distinctions. We do not observe any unity; that is all hidden. Everything we deal with seems to be composed of smaller elements; those too can be further subdivided. This is a world of the many – of the multiplication of things, and of their divisions. We detect oneness only in Hashem, in Whom all things are sourced and all things united. It is also only in Hashem that we detect real kedushah, real transcendence.

If Yaakov is linked to kedushah, then he shares these characteristics with Him. Yaakov is a limited refraction of the kedushah and unity of Hashem, as applied to our world of boundaries and limitations. It is for this reason that we are called Bnei Yisrael, rather than Bnei Avrohom or Bnei Yitzchok. As the paragon of kedushah, Yaakov can unite all his children in all generations, just as he united his twelve sons, turning them into a single, common cause. It is to Yaakov that the sons univocally recite the Shma, the proclamation of G-d’s Oneness, at the same time telling him, “Just as to you there is only One in your heart, so it is to us.”

As the third of the avos, Yaakov is well suited to the role. The number two signifies polarity and difference. With the number three comes the possibility of an intermediate point that pulls in and pulls together the extremes, creating unity where there was previously difference. To this day, the glue that binds us together as a people is the kedushah of Yaakov.

This, then, is the meaning of the dispute. No one stone could lay greater claim to Yaakov, because he attracted everything in his orbit. All things that related to him, gravitated towards him. There was no room for multiplicity in his personal universe. In the end, because the different stones were all attracted equally to him, they all had to come together and form a single stone. (In particular, it was Yaakov’s need to rest his head – the seat of the sechel – on a stone that caused the tension between the stones, and the subsequent resolution. The intellect is the active agent in creating unity. The stones were drawn specifically to it.)

We are not sure whether the stones fused permanently or not. Possibly, their change was fixed and was not reversed. It is also possible that the stones came together during Yaakov’s prophetic dream, when he was catapulted to an even higher spiritual level than usual. It is possible that they reverted to their former state when Yaakov reverted to his. It does not really matter how long the stones merged together.

We do not need to object to Chazal attributing understanding to inanimate stones. The stones did not, in fact, contend with each other, each one vying for closeness with the tzadik as a matter of choice. Choice takes understanding, and stones do not possess it. Chazal do not depict a debate between the stones so much as their performing according to their essence. There were many stones; in Yaakov’s presence, there was no room for the many, only for unity. Their condition of plurality gave way to oneness, as surely as non-intelligent plants manifest their behavior without having to think about what they are doing. They act according to their nature. Here, it was in the nature of things that the many gave way to the one.

You might object that the behavior of plants is built into the scheme of natural law, while stones never come together. This observation is true, but unnecessarily narrow. Under ordinary conditions, obeying what we call natural law, stones do not merge. Yaakov, however, transcended the ordinary laws of nature, especially during an episode of prophecy. Not limited by ordinary law, an alternate, higher form of law applied to him. And in that system, all plurality melted away before him. Stones became one.

All this was a consequence of Yaakov’s transcendent kedushah. Whatever joined up with him became organically part of him, not just externally related. And it became part of simplicity and unity, which reflected the Unity Above.


Toldot 5778

November 16, 2017

Two nations are in your womb, and two powers shall separate from your womb. (25:23)

Rashi: While we read “goyim”/nations, that is not what appears in the text. There, the word is “gayim”, suggesting two proud, important, self-confident people. This alludes to Antoninus and Rebbi, from whose tables neither radishes nor lettuce ceased, whether in summer or winter.

The Gur Aryeh explains that the maamar Chazal that Rashi quotes does not mean that Rivka was merely foretold about two larger-than-life figures who would descend from them in the future. Klal Yisrael never lacked its gedolim, and Esav produced many kings. There would be nothing remarkable in showing Rivka these two personages. The prophecy she received was not about Rebbi and Antoninus as important individuals, but as exemplars of their two peoples. Antoninus and Rebbi somehow shared a trait that was held in common by their two nations, despite the animosity and tension between them that characterized millennia of their interaction.

Because they lived at the same time and interacted with each other – like Yaakov and Esav – the sense of self-worth and importance that they shared was more pronounced and apparent than it was at other times. The close association between Rebbi and Antoninus was analogous to the relationship in utero between Yaakov and Esav. Rivka was shown that the two nations that would descend from her would share one important trait.

Rebbi and Antoninus insisted on the presence of certain menu items at their table, regardless of the season. Out-of-season lettuce and radishes were served not because the hosts were gluttonous, or because they wished to flaunt their power and stature. These food items of distinction bore testimony to a self-image of proud importance. For all their differences, the progeny of Yaakov and Esav alike would conduct their lives in a manner appropriate to people of stature.

Menu items might seem irrelevant to self-image, but this is not so. Compare competing cultures. Some see nothing more in eating than filling their stomachs. They make no attempt to distinguish their eating from that of animals. Yaakov and Esav, however, elevate eating to dining. They are fastidious about their food, preparing it in a way that reflects the elevation that they ascribe to themselves.

A famous passage in Avodah Zarah builds on these cultural differences. It depicts the scene that will take place at the end of time, as groups of people all lay claim to some Divine reward for their contribution to the unfolding of history. Edom (Esav) proclaims, “We built many markets! We provided bathhouses!”

The gemara strikes down their argument of entitlement. None of their accomplishments were meant to be shared by Hashem’s people; they acted to pamper their flesh.
Such self-centeredness may seem narrow and small, but it is better in a sense than one of the alternatives. Yishmael did not build organized marketplaces, roads, and bathhouses, because he did not care about them. His progeny would be happy to live in tents, rather than the palatial dwellings of Roman patricians. Yishmael would not bother with elaborate homes or clothes or food. Esav may have warped the concept in practice, but he did have a better sense of the specialness of the human race.

When Rebbi was about to leave this world, he proclaimed that he had not materially benefited from this world in all his days. The rishonim ask how this could be? Do we not here learn that his table was stocked with dainties? Our approach resolves the problem. Rebbi surrounded himself with fine things, including fine food. Yet, his intention in all of this was to publicly affirm the importance of his office as Nasi, the titular head of his people. When lavish meals were offered up on his dining room table, Rebbi did not participate to satisfy his desire for nourishment. He took part to proclaim the importance of Man.

He could indeed say that, for all the lavishness of his lifestyle, he never took any delight in any of it in the usual manner. He lived the way he did to underscore the specialness of human beings.

Shabbat shalom

Chayyei Sarah 5778

November 9, 2017

“The man took a golden nose ring weighing a beka, and two gold bracelets on her arms, ten gold shekels was their weight.” (24:22)

Rashi: Beka, because it alluded to the mitzvah of machtzis ha-shekel, which is described by the Torah as “beka lagulgoles.”

The Gur Aryeh explains that Rashi finds it necessary to explain the beka as a symbol, rather than something significant in its own right, because it is not aligned with what seems to be the plain intent of the verse.

The Torah appears to depict Eliezer’s gift as a large one. The bracelets, indeed, were formidable at ten shekels. A beka, however, is literally a small fraction of that, since it is identical to a half a shekel. Therefore its value must have been in its symbolic representation.

Eliezer made his point subliminally. He wished to say something about the people that would ensue from the union he planned to bring about between Rivka and Yitzchok. Their progeny would merit involvement with true avodah.

The machtzis ha-shekel will appear later in two forms that are connected to avodah: as the adanim, the support bases for the kerashim, and as the annual contribution of every Jew to finance the offerings in the mikdosh throughout the year.

We need not assume that Rivka understood the meaning of the allusion. Paraphrasing the gemara in a different context, “even though she did not understand, her representative angel understood. Thus, Eliezer’s message impacted her on some unconscious level.

Just what was the message? Chazal tell us that the world stands on three things: Torah, avodah, and chesed. Eliezer was witness to her outstanding accomplishment in chesed. He meant to inform her that her chesed made it appropriate for her to achieve the other two pillars, which are related to chesed and flow from it. Because of her chesed, she would be a suitable match for Yitzchok and his superlative avodah.

Between the two of them, they could produce a Yaakov, the one who would “dwell in tents” and study Torah. (The beka symbolized avodah, as we said before; the two bracelets represented the two tablets of the Aseres Hadibros.)

Moreover, avodah and Torah would follow along from chesed not only because of their organic connection. Klal Yisrael would, of necessity, need to possess all three. The avos serve as a foundation for all of the world. If the world rests on three pillars, then those pillars needed to have
been in the firm possession of the avos. In the course of time, the children would carry on the work of the avos; they too, would need to possess all three. Eliezer hinted to Rivka that by becoming one of the matriarchs, she would play a role in creating a people that would, of necessity, lay claim to Torah, avodah, and chesed.

The allusion to the half-shekel of the yearly korbanos conveys an additional message. Hashem authored a complex system of offerings to cover a gamut of Jewish misdeeds. Why? The apparent explanation is that He values the purity and elevation of each Jewish soul, and created an elaborate system of offerings to safeguard and preserve the integrity of each soul by providing ample opportunities for atonement. The beka, therefore, alludes to the perfection of the soul – just as the reference to Torah (by way of the two bracelets) alludes to the perfection of the intellect.

Shabbat shalom


November 2, 2017

“Behold. Three men were standing over him”. (18:2)

Rashi: One angel to inform Sarah of the birth of Isaac; one to overturn Sodom; one to cure Avrohom. Three were required, because one malach cannot perform two missions….Refael (who cured Avrohom) travelled from there to save Lot…

In Rashi’s list there are four assignments but only three angels which violates the well-known rule mentioned by Rashi that limits a malach to a single task.

The Maharal in his Gur Aryeh explains.

Some wish to argue that malachim cannot work on two missions at the same time. A malach who has concluded one mission, however, can be reassigned to a second in another location. The fourth assignment is therefore not a problem. Rashi is telling us that Refael who cured Avraham went on to save Lot.

It could be argued that it was part of the same assignment as if anything had happened to Lot, Avraham’s nephew, then Avraham would have had a relapse.

This answer, however, seems unsatisfactory. If it were true, we have one too many malachim arriving at Avrohom’s tent. Two malachim could have concluded their business there (by healing Avrohom and announcing Sarah’s pregnancy), and then gone on to Sodom to take on the remaining two jobs of overturning the city and saving Lot.

The Maharal explains that a malach can go on to perform another task in the same area. That is chesed or its opposite of din. Or can come to maintain the status quo.

We can now account for the four tasks.

One malach brought news of the future birth of Yitzchok. This was pure chesed, bringing into existence news that was not available before.

The city of Sodom was eradicated through the exercise of din. It was assigned to a second angel.

Healing Avraham – restoring him to a state of health – and saving Lot’s life – securing his safety – both served to maintain a preexisting state.

They both fall between chesed and din, and could be assigned to Refael.

It has been noted that Rashi’s listing of the three angels does not follow chronological order, as we would expect. Avrohom was healed prior to the overturning of Sodom.

Rashi’s list followsthe order of the midos, going from chesed to din to the point between them.

Rashi’s approach is based on Bereishis Rabbah (50:11) and not the Talmud (Bava Metzia 86b) however, which assigns the double load to Michael, rather than Refael.

Shabbat shalom

Lech Lecha 5778

October 26, 2017

Lech lecha

“Your name shall no longer be called Avram, but your name shall be called Avraham, for I will make you the father of a multitude of nations.” (17:5)

Rashi writes that Avram’s new name is an acronym for the “father of a multitude of nations” of this pasuk, except for the letter reish, which had meaning when he was only a father to Aram, which was his original location. Now that he became a father to the entire world, the reish was nonetheless not dropped, because the yud in Sorai also complained to the Shechinah, resulting in its being added to the beginning of Yehoshua’s name.

Let us look first at the midrash from which Rashi drew his comment. “Yud said to Hashem: Because I am the smallest of all the letters, You took me from the name of the tzadeikes!’ Hashem replied to her: Originally you appeared at the end of the name of a female. Now you will move to the front of the name of a male!’”

The midrash links to the pasuk in which Moshe changes Hoshea ben Nun’s name to Yehoshua, i.e. Yehoshua achieves his name through the conspicuous addition of a yud to the beginning of his birth name.

The Gur Aryeh explains:

Know that not only is the Torah itself immutable, but its elements and principles are also fixed and unchangeable. The Torah is not a work of this world, even if it addresses events, needs, and people who live in a limited, changeable existence. The Torah comes from a place that is above the deficiencies that result in the realities we are used to, in which things can and do morph from one state to another.

The true tzadik’s importance cannot be overestimated. He is a pillar of existence. He gains permanence through holding steady in the face of the tumult around. Deviation from a perfect formula allows for change brought on by extreme conditions. The tzadik, however, holds on perfectly to the perfect balance, which leaves him protected from the conditions that bring on change around him.

Even the letters that accompany his name are not fungible items. They themselves express important principles. The yud that originally joined the root letters of Sorai’s name cannot simply disappear, even for good cause.

Yud, as the smallest, simplest written letter of the alef-beis indicates smallness, and therefore specificity. (Its use grammatically as the possessive ending is related to this function. Utilizing a possessive limits an item’s belonging to a smaller class of objects than the one to which it would ordinarily belong. A book – without the possessive – has relevance to anyone and everyone. Once it becomes my book, i.e. once the possessive is used, the book is limited to a much smaller sphere of influence.) Smallness, simplicity, self-limitation are important elements in the development of the tzadik. The yud therefore complained. How could it be that the meaning that I previously conveyed could vanish from the Torah’s presentation of the tzadeikes Soro?
Hashem reassured her that her meaning indeed would not disappear, but resurface in an appropriate place. Soro was not only a tzadeikes, but one of the matriarchs. The patriarchs and matriarchs lived and labored to become the beginning of a nation that would blossom and grow. The mission of the Fathers was actualized only in the lives of the Children. “The stone despised by the Builders became the cornerstone.”

Soro’s smallness and limitation became despised and rejected in the course of her lifetime. The yud at the end of her name indicated limitation. She was, initially, a tzadeikes and a matriarch – but her power was limited to her own people. When her name changed, she became a ruler (i.e. the concept conveyed by the other two letters of her name) over a much greater expanse – in effect, the entire world. As Avraham became the point to which any male in the world could attach himself as a convert, Soro became that point for women. Her importance was no longer limited to her own people. She had outgrown her smallness.
That power of limitation – which is a good thing in other regards – could not summarily disappear. This was the complaint of the yud. This power, once an important part of Soro’s development, must continue to show itself. It is part of Torah, and the Torah’s realities do not change.
Hashem showed the yud where it would take up new residence. The power of limitation originally appeared at the “end” of Sorai – in the last position of the three letters of her name. This meant that it was destined to be fully utilized at her “end,” i.e. her goal and mission, in the lives of her children. It would surface in the life of Yehoshua. At the time of his appointment to the spies of the Land, he belonged to the collective, the group. Moshe had deep reservations about that group. He wanted Yehoshua to function in a smaller role – to limit himself so that he became the exclusive possession (again, the grammatical function of the yud) of a narrower class. In this case, it was a class of one – Yehoshua in his individual purity. Yehoshua was charged by Moshe to remain true to himself, unpolluted by the specious arguments of his fellow travelers. The addition of a yud to Hoshea meant attaching Soro’s power of limitation (a power she no longer needed in her expanded role) to Yehoshua.

This power of limitation moved from a female name to a male. It is unusual for the feminine to require limitation, because the role of a woman ordinarily contains it through her more inwardly focused tzniyus. The public role of the male, however, can greatly benefit from it. Thus, the midrash speaks of moving from female to male. The “ends” of the female Soro are her children. The crucial public figure of Yehoshua would need her limitation to abstract himself from the evil of the meraglim.

The importance of the yud becomes apparent when we look at our number system. The single numbers culminate in the number ten, which is their end point. “Ten” thus relates to the nine integers that precede it. (In fact, in Hebrew, the numbers that follow ten are not “new” numbers by name, but repeat the cycle of the integers. Yet, they refer back to and are built upon the first group, summed up by the word “asar” or “esrei.” Eleven is constructed as one-and-eser; twelve as two-and-eser, etc. Again, the yud calls up and relates to all the single numbers that precede it.)
Yet “ten” is also the first among the sets of ten, i.e. ten, twenty, thirty, etc. It is therefore the property of individuals and collectives, of avos and banim. To the avos, yud is appropriate because they are the singular individuals who set in motion the building of the Jewish people, and yud relates to the single integers. On the other hand, yud is part of the set of tens, the multiples of individuals, the generations of progeny of the avos.

According to Chazal, Moshe is likened to the sun, while Yehoshua is compared to the moon, which illuminates only with the reflected light of his master. In this regard as well, the connection between Soro and Yehoshua is particularly strong. Soro is the female-recipient. Yehoshua, one of her children, would become the master recipient of all times, faithfully passing along the Torah of his teacher.

Shabbat shalom

Noah 5778

October 19, 2017

“The whole world was of one language and of common purpose….Let us build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens…” (11:1)

Rashi comments [Common purpose means that] they arrived at a shared idea. They said, “It is not appropriate that He should chose the heavens for Himself. We will ascend and wage war with Him.

They did not plan to go anywhere, nor to displace God from His heavenly position. They did mean to figuratively unseat Him, as it were. They were intent on not accepting an absolute distinction between His realm and theirs. This distinction would have left them powerless to resist His dictates. At this they balked.

They prepared to wage war against absolute submission to His Will. They understood that earthly conditions and events were largely determined by metaphysical rules and events in the heavens. They reasoned that this did not bar them from taking back more of their lives than previously possible. Man could understand those metaphysical laws. He could influence them and manipulate them. In so doing, Man would get a handle on the forces of the upper world, and by so doing, lessen their influence on his fate. Man would ascend in the sense of becoming part of the upper worlds through his direct involvement with them.

This approach, however, leaves Rashi vulnerable to objection. In Sanhedrin 109a R. She’ila offers a slightly different opinion about the intention of the tower-builders. He says that they intended to reach the sky, strike it with axes, and thereby provide a way for the waters above to constantly flow to an earth that needed them. The gemara objects that if this were there purpose – if they needed the tower only as a way of climbing to the sky – it was foolish of them to build it in a valley. They should have taken advantage of the elevation of some hilltop.

Because of this question, the gemara moves on to alternative explanations, or alternative understandings of R. Sheila.

Should we not address the same question to Rashi? If this generation intended to join themselves with the Heavens – to gain a foothold there, and become part of its workings – they should have a construction site at the highest elevation, not the lowest. (Even though they had no intention of literally climbing to the heavens, Rashi does imply that the tower was meant to give them height, so that they could there perform some ritual that would give them some power to manipulate the upper words. If height was their goal, starting their project in a valley was a poor choice.) Why does our Rashi ignore this challenge to his pshat?

The Gur Aryeh defends Rashi.

We can explain, that Rashi did not mean that people used the tower to climb to a higher elevation, there to work their magic or whatever. Rather, the tower was designed to be an impressive monument. To the eye, it would look as if it touched the heavens, or as the pasuk says, “with its top in the heavens.” It was what we would call a “skyscraper.”

Moreover, the tower itself was a conceptual analogue to the heavens, which stand apart and aloof from the world of Man. The tower’s impressive height dwarfed Man, seemed to transcend the world of Man and occupy its own place. It did not matter where it was built. Its majesty spoke of a different, higher realm.

Despite this, the people of the generation of the dispersion planned to use their special knowledge to somehow insinuate themselves in the proceedings of the heavenly agencies. The very intrusion of Man where he does not belong is the battle against God that the story signifies to us.

Shabbat shalom


October 12, 2017

This year the vote went to the Gur Aryeh a supra-commentary of the famed Maharal MiPrague.

As my readers still in Exile will not be able to read this and I also have just finished taking down the sukkah at night, I will write a short bio and commence next week iyh with Noach.

The Maharal ( Morenu Harav Loewe) Judah Loewe ben Bezalel, was probably born in Poznań, Poland, to Rabbi Bezalel (Loew), whose family originated from the Rhenish town of Worms. His birth year is uncertain, with different sources listing 1512, 1520 and 1526.

His uncle Yaakov ben Chaim was Reichsrabbiner (“Rabbi of the Empire”) of the Holy Roman Empire, his brother Chaim of Friedberg a famous rabbinical scholar. There is no documented evidence of his having received formal religious education, leading scholars to conclude that he was an extremely gifted autodidact.

His family consisted of his wife, Pearl, six daughters, and a son, Bezalel, who became a Rabbi in Kolín, but died early in 1600. He was independently wealthy, probably as a result of his father’s successful business enterprises. He accepted a rabbinical position in 1553 as Landesrabbiner of Moravia at Mikulov (Nikolsburg), directing community affairs but also determining which tractate of the Talmud was to be studied in the communities in that province. He also revised the community statutes on the election and taxation process. Although he retired from Moravia in 1588 at age 60, the communities still considered him an authority long after that.

One of his activities in Moravia was the rallying against slanderous slurs on legitimacy (Nadler) that were spread in the community against certain families and could ruin the finding of a marriage partner for the children of those families. This phenomenon even affected his own family. He used one of the two yearly grand sermons (between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur 1583) to denounce the phenomenon.

He moved back to Prague in 1588, where he again accepted a rabbinical position, replacing the retired Isaac Hayoth. He immediately reiterated his views on Nadler. On 23 February 1592, he had an audience with Emperor Rudolf II, which he attended together with his brother Sinai and his son-in-law Isaac Cohen; Prince Bertier was present with the emperor. The conversation seems to have been related to Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism, ) a subject which held much fascination for the emperor.

In 1592, the Maharal moved to Poznań, where he had been elected as Chief Rabbi of Poland. In Poznań he composed Netivoth Olam and part of Derech Chaim.

According to Jewish tradition, the Maharal’s family descended patrilineally from the Babylonian Exilarchs (during the era of the geonim) and therefore also from the Davidic dynasty.

The story of the Golem was wrongly attributed to the Maharal many years after his passing! It was taken from Rabbi Elijah, the Baal Shem Tov of Chelm who was Rabbi Yaakov Emden’s great-grandfather. You can read the story in his Megilat Sefer, available in English translation through Amazon.

Both Rabbi Emden (Shu”t II:82) and his father the Chacham Tzvi were asked if a Golem can be counted into a minyan and both replied negatively. My Rebbe, Rabbi Leperer zatzal joked that if not then Anglo-Jewry was in serious trouble!

Towards the end of his life he moved back to Prague, where he died in 1609. He was buried in the Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague.

The tractate of Yoma ends with a very interesting mishna that is worth examining. It states the following:

Rabbi Akiva says: “Fortunate are you O Israel! Before whom do you purify yourself? Who purifies you? Your Father in Heaven, as it is said, ‘I shall sprinkle upon you pure water and you shall be purified.’ (Ezekiel 36:26) And it is also said, ‘The mikve of Israel is Hashem.’ (Jeremiah 17:13).
Just as a mikve purifies the impure, the Holy One, blessed be He, purifies Israel.” (Yoma 8:9; 85b)

According to the Meshech Chochma, on Yom Kippur when we fast, abstain from wearing leather shoes and take on other changes in behavior so as to show our intent to repent for our transgressions, our connection to God is restored to its “factory setting” so to speak.

Our factory setting is spiritual, and the image that is given here is water. As we turn from earth to water — from focusing on physicality to spirituality — we connect to the ultimate source of life (hence portrayed here as water as the basis for all life). The drop of water that represents our soul connects to the great purifying ocean that is God in the metaphor, and through this connection our “drop of water” is renewed, rejuvenated and purified.

For the Meshech Chochma, the first question of Rabbi Akiva as to who is doing the purification points to water uniting with its source. The soul reconnecting with its Creator.

The process of the purification should not be seen as total immersion here. This source repeatedly emphasizes that it is the coming into contact alone that facilitates and completes the process. The idea is based upon a concept in the laws of mikva’ot.

The idea can be understood as follows: For a mikve to be kosher it requires a natural water source, and tap water won’t do. Many mikva’ot have two parts: a cistern of rain water (a natural water source), and another pool filled with tap water. The halachic concept of “hashaka” teaches that as long as there is a connection between the cistern and the pool, the mikve will be kosher. It is enough for the two bodies of water to touch through a pipe for example to render the “impure” water “pure”. Yom Kippur is the “pipe” that allows us to connect our soul to God, and that fleeting moment of touching the “Divine mikve” purifies our souls.

Tzom kal u’moil

Nitzavim 5777

September 14, 2017

“You will return to Hashem your God and listen to His voice” (30:2)

The Ramban counts this verse as the mitzva of Teshuva, whereas the Rambam does not but explains that this verse is a prophecy or an assurance, if you like. Typically, the Meshech Chochmah takes the side of the Rambam.

Meshech Chochmah waxes lyrical and writes that this is a beautiful thought – upbeat and optimistic. But can it stand up to scrutiny? Returning to Hashem after some fling with transgression takes free-willed determination. Free-choice is what we are all about. How can Hashem guarantee a return, when we have the ability to make choices in quite a different direction?

Chazal speak of a number of different ways of looking at the sinner. When Wisdom is asked about the fate of the sinner, it replies that the sinner must die. So long as a person has not rejected his own sin, logic dictates that he loses both his standing as a beloved child in the eyes of God, as well as his lease on life. A person ought to be able to claim the latter only so long as he does not get in the way of Hashem’s plan for the universe. Every sin slows down that plan.

The Torah is next to be consulted. It suggests a more liberal view. Let the sinner bring a korban and find atonement. This implies that even the sinner preserves enough of his standing before Hashem that He continues to care for him. Not only does He care, but He provides a modality of return to his former greatness, through the avodah of korbanos. Such offerings are accepted even from a repeat offender of some mitzvah of the Torah.

Then HaShem Himself is asked. He responds that the sinner should do teshuvah. This is far broader a solution than the previous two. It applies even to transgressors of any of the three cardinal sins of Judaism – sins so severe that the offender is seen as the equivalent of rejecting Torah in its entirety. Nonetheless, this sinner is urged to repent, and restore himself despite the seriousness of his offense.

In our pasuk, we learn that this teshuvah is so close at hand, that the return of the many is a given – despite our freedom to choose. The key is the verse before, which speaks of “you will take it to your heart.” Vouchsafed to the heart of a Jew is a commodity that will lead straight to a return to Hashem. In the Jewish heart he will find a love for the Jewish people. That love guarantees an eventual return to Hashem.

When a Jew is in touch with the love of his people that became part of his nature at Sinai, he will connect with his spiritual roots. By returning to his people, a Jew will certainly return as well to the God of that people.

Shabbat shalom veShana Tova

Ki Tavo 5777

September 7, 2017

“Hashem did not give you a heart to know …until this day.” (29:3)

The Meshech Chochmah writes that in several places we can see that some among the Bnei Yisroel erred fundamentally regarding Moshe Rabbenu. They saw him as some sort of semi-independent being, distinct and separate from Hashem, yet capable of transmitting berachah to Man. This, of course, was not true. Moshe’s role was that of communicator, speaking to Hashem regarding the needs of His people.

When did the realization penetrate that Moshe was no independent guide, nor a conduit for transmitting Divine influence? On the day of his death, the Bnei Yisroel fully understood Moshe’s mortality. They understood that Moshe was made of the same humble material as they, and therefore had to die. In an instant they comprehended that there were no independent intermediaries – that Hashem was the sole guide, and that His providence alone determined the fortunes of all beings.

The preceding pesukim speak of the wondrous events of the previous forty years. Indeed, who would want to leave such an existence? Their needs were supplied miraculously by the manna and the Clouds of Glory. What could be better?

Better would be less artificial. The purpose of life is not to passively accept Divine largesse in the form of a string of miracles. The real purpose if for Man to elevate the material to the point that Man’s actions empower the Heavenly Court, which then transmits great richness – through channels of teva. This is what Hashem wants from us: doing so good a job that we contribute to the strength of the Upper Worlds so that teva is enhanced, rather than suspended (as it is when overt miracles prevail.)

The 40-year period of overt daily miracles was a means, not an end. It was meant to place some of the fundamental principles of faith firmly in their minds – so firmly that we still draw from that experience, and call upon it to this day to sustain our belief. But it was an artificial existence; it was not the way that Jewish life was meant to be.

This, then, is how we should understand the [preceding] pesukim: You have seen all that Hashem did before your eyes …the great signs, etc. And Hashem did not give you a heart to know until this day, i.e. up to and including this day. All the time that you were sustained miraculously, you did not need a “knowing heart and eyes to see.” The truth was open and manifest, and required no further understanding. “I led you for forty years. Your garment did not wear away…bread you did not eat…so that you would know – i.e. future generations would know! – that I am Hashem (the Name used in conjunction with miraculous control) your God (the Name signifying the sum total of all natural forces He employs in His providential guidance of individuals).

You have come to understand that in all His actions, no independently acting intermediaries play a role. This understanding would be crucial for the people to continue on a proper conceptual path in the many future years that they would be sustained not through miraculous means, but natural ones.

The transition of the people from reliance on miracles to working within a natural framework began in Moshe’s lifetime. Chazal link the inheritance of the Land to their undertaking its conquest. In other words, they merited the Land by agreeing to fight a war in which they could not expect Hashem to fight the battles for them. They would use conventional means – but they would prevail only if they could fight with complete bitachon in His quietly and invisibly aiding their efforts. This was a sea-change from the way they had lived previously.

It took great bitachon to make this move. Should fear overcome them, they would fail miserably on the battlefield. It would evidence a lack of full confidence in Hashem’s assistance. For this reason, Moshe himself led a campaign against Sichon and Og, demonstrating the vulnerabilities of the enemy, and thereby making it easier for them to continue on without any fears of the giants of the Land. They could not do it alone – but the battle could be won without overturning the laws of Nature.

That left one major obstacle in place. The people understood that Amalek was designated to be the strap with which the Bnei Yisrael would be punished when the need arose, c”v. They also had a tradition that the descendents of Esav (i.e. Amalek) would only be vanquished by the descendants of Rochel. Indeed, in their very first confrontation, it was Yehoshua, of Shevet Ephraim – a descendant of Rochel – who led the battle that defeated Amalek.

We can understand this, perhaps, through the idea of Chazal that those who showed ingratitude would fall to those who showed ingratitude. In other words, because the Bnei Yisroel showed ingratitude towards HaShem Who had done so much for them, they became suitable targets for Amalek, who were also ingrates.

Yosef, one of Rochel’s children, was the perfect foil to the ingratitude of the Jewish people. He reacted to the evil done to him by his brothers by showering them with kindness. He therefore positioned himself to be the one to defeat Amalek.

This created a bit of a problem. If Moshe were to lead them into the Land and into battle, the wars would be ascribed to him, as history always does to the leader of a nation. But Moshe was not one of Rochel’s descendants. The threat of a confrontation with Amalek would therefore hang over their heads at all times, and they would not be able to muster the complete, absolute confidence and trust in Hashem’s assistance. Without that bitachon, they would fail the challenge and fall in battle.

For this reason, Moshe could not enter the Land.
In the battle against the yetzer hora, we are similarly situated. We need to do the hard work on our own, and not wait for a wave of purity to pass over us. But at the same time, we cannot succeed without Hashem at our side, helping along the process. We often forget who it is that we have wronged. But when we do our job, Hashem is at our sides, providing those injured parties with a spirit of forgiveness that allows our teshuvah to proceed.

Shabbat shalom