Toldot

December 1, 2016

He built an altar. (26:25)

Meshech Chochmah explains that people in the Tanach built such altars when they wished to publicize a miraculous occurrence or an episode of prophecy. Thus, we find “Hashem is my miracle,” and “Hashem made whole.” (Shoftim 6:24)

The Torah does not tell us about any altar built by Yitzchok upon the occasion of his earlier prophecy, in which he was promised that he and his descendants would inherit all the lands of the region. This was not something that Yitzchok wished to publicise. He did not want to incite a jealous backlash from the local inhabitants, who would certainly find such a claim arrogant, offensive and dangerously hostile.
Yitzchok understood that he was not a warrior. Additionally, even ignoring the physical danger to which such a claim might expose him, it was not the right thing to do. Yitzchok lived peaceably with his neighbors. It would be boorish to announce to them that one day his descendants would take over their lands.

Yitzchok’s later nevuah was different. It made no mention of inheriting land. It told him not to fear, and that he would be blessed. Here was something that he could trumpet to his neighbors, without fear. He therefore built an altar to draw attention of his prophetic experience at that place.
The sharing of information succeeded. His neighbors responded with, “We see that Hashem is with you!”
Building the altar amounted to announcing in advance that Hashem had promised him success. When that success materialized, the people were able to relate his astounding success to his earlier claim that Hashem had appeared to him, and assured him that his efforts would be hugely successful.

According to the Meshech Chochmah, it was Yaakov’s hurried departure that led to Yitzchok giving an additional berachah to Yaakov, beyond the one for material, earthly success over which he contended with Esav. Part of the blessing to Avraham had been the forecast of a long, dark galus. Yitzchok now saw Yaakov leaving his home, ready to live the life of an exile. He realized that this was the beginning of the fulfillment of that prophecy, and that it was specifically in Yaakov that the rest of that berachah would be realised. He reasoned that if it was Yaakov who was willing to pay off the “debt” in the contract offered to Avraham, that he would become the owner of the “document.”

Many years later, the generation of the wilderness would send a proposal to the King of Edom, asking for safe passage through his land, in order to enable them to reach Canaan. Surprisingly, their proposal to the king recounts much early history which seems irrelevant to their request. Why do Moshe’s emissaries relate that their forebears descended to Egypt, and there endured terrible hardship? And why do they refer to their people as “your brother Yisrael?” Why the politically-correct brotherhood? Rashi explains that as brothers because of their common descent from Avrohom, the burden of galus should have been shared. Rashi means what we proposed above: because the Bnei Yisrael assumed responsibility for the contract’s “debt,” they were entitled to the proceeds. By shouldering the burden of the Egyptian exile, they were entitled to collect the deed for the Land of Israel.

Chodesh tov veShabbat shalom

Chayyei Sarah

November 24, 2016

“Rather to my land and to the place of my birth you shall go, and take a wife for my son, for Yitzchok.”

The Meshech Chochmah asks when speaking to his servant Eliezer, Avraham calls it “My land” . after all, Avraham had turned his back on it decades ago, when Hashem told him to leave it all behind and move to Eretz Yisrael. In what way did Avraham relate to it as “his” land?

Avraham had in mind something much more important than nostalgia for a country he had once called home. He alluded to the future conquest of Syria by King David. At that time, Avraham would be able to truly call Aram Naharaim “my land.” Eliezer would tactfully not make reference to this allusion, not wishing to take any chance about antagonising Betuel and Lavan, who might resent such grandiose forecasts about the future. Eliezer wasn’t taking any chances about jeopardizing the shidduch. He therefore skipped that part of Avraham’s instructions, and spoke only about his father’s house and his family.

It is also possible that Eliezer used Tippex even more dramatically than we thought. He not only left out crucial details when necessary, he enhanced the story by manufacturing a few himself. It might very well be that Avraham told Eliezer nothing at all about turning to his closer family. He may have said nothing more than what is contained in our pasuk, namely to go to the region of his origin, and the people in his extended family in the place of his birth. Avraham never insisted that spousal candidates for Yitzchok come from his immediate family.

Given all that latitude, Eliezer chose a reasonable test to identify suitable candidates through demonstrating great chesed. There was no divination involved in this at all, saving us from the trouble of dealing with what has looked to others like a form of nichush, of prognostication that the Torah forbids. It was Eliezer who massaged the story when he presented himself to Besuel and Lavan, hoping to convince them not to stand in the way of the match. He therefore added to Avraham’s instructions words that had never been uttered: “my father’s house and my family.”
With those words he hoped to convince them that the marriage had been made and ordained in heaven, through Divine providence. (There was nothing deceptive about this. The providence indeed was at work, and the conclusion that the marriage was destined to occur was accurate.)

According to the way he told the story to Rivka’s father and brother, Eliezer’s plan to pick the appropriate woman for Yitzchok by posing the camel-watering-at-the-spring challenge was indeed a form of divination. Somehow, his selection of a “sign” from above was answered by God. This was certainly going to impress the audience.

Following that script, Eliezer had to make one other small change in relating the story to Besuel and his son. To them he reported (although it was not the way things really happened) that he, Eliezer, did not offer the jewelry to Rivka until after he had inquired of her name. (In fact, Eliezer had been so confident that Hashem would quickly attend to the needs of Eliezer’s great master, that he gave Rivka the bracelets, etc. before ascertaining her name.) After all, Avraham had insisted that the woman come from his own family!

In fact, however, there was no divination. Abraham had not specified that Yitzchok’s wife come from his own immediate family. Eliezer’s test – looking for a young woman with a superlative sense of kindness to others – was a logical, not a supernatural one.

Shabbat shalom

Vayeira

November 17, 2016

“Avraham returned to his young men”. (22:19)

The Meshech Chochmah asks: How did Avraham proceed with Yitzchak after the Akeidah? From the text alone, we have no clue, because Yitzchok disappears. The narrative continues with Avraham and his servants, but Yitzchok is nowhere to be found.

That is because, Chazal tell us that Avraham sent him to the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever.

They see the situation as analogous to a woman who became rich through her skill in spinning wool. Although wealthy, she argues to herself that her spinning-spindle was responsible for her success, and she becomes determined never to part company with it. Similarly, Avraham reasoned that he owed everything he had to Torah and mitzvos. He therefore wanted to ensure their continuity in his offspring.

.A Jewish parent can but dream that he might educate his child to achieve a fraction of the greatness of Avraham and Yitzchok. Those two made it to the pinnacle. Why would they need Torah, if Torah’s function is simply to get people to be what they already were?

That, apparently, is the point. Chazal are trying to get us to think more precisely about what Torah is, and what it does for people.

You must know that Torah is the way – indeed, the only way – in which a Jew can fulfill himself, improving every part of his body and every level of his soul. It counters and eliminates all kinds of shortcomings that are consequences of his physical self.

But it does much more than that. Certainly it is true that Torah provides us with practical advantage in overcoming all our deficiencies. It also, however, is inherently good in and of itself. We find Hashem and apprehend Him only through Torah, which is His place of residence.

This Divine influence – which exists on a different plane within Torah itself, will be important even during the messianic future, when the deficiency in Man will be sharply muted. Indeed, it remains important even after death, in the world of the spirit. Thus we find depictions by Chazal of the righteous sitting in the heavenly Mesivta, debating fine points of halachah. Those souls are certainly not in need of refinement, yet they still involve themselves in Torah study.

Similarly, we are told that a person should not desist from Torah study even at the time of his death. Now, if the function of Torah would be to release us from the clutches of the yetzer hora, what need would there be for Torah at the time of death?

Chazal prescribe a number of remedies for a person who is ensnared by the yetzer hora, with remembering his mortality being the ultimate weapon in weakening its grasp. If thinking of one’s day of death is effective, all the more so is going through the actual process. Rather, we must understand that Torah elevates a person even when it is not needed to offset deficiency or the yetzer hora.

Nonetheless, the effect of Torah practice upon one who is commanded in it is incomparably superior to the one who is not commanded, but practices of his own volition. In regard to the removal of deficiency effect the two are more or less comparable. Chazal phrase this beautifully when they say that a non-Jew who immerses himself in Torah is like the kohen gadol. The kohen performs the crucial avodah on Yom Kippur of purging the people of their sin – their deficiency. Similarly, the non-Jew who studies, even though not commanded, can expect to see his deficiency lessened.

When it comes to the aspect of achieving spiritual elevation and perfection, however, the commanded and non-commanded divide sharply. The connection with the Divine comes far more powerfully to those who are commanded, relative to the non-commanded who practices or studies for the express purpose of finding some Divine illumination.

We have now arrived at the choice of words in the passage with which we began. Avraham sent Yitzchok to study Torah, in the manner of the woman who succeeded in her wool-spinning endeavor. She no longer needed the money, but could not bring herself to let go of the process that so enriched her. Similarly, Avraham and Yitzchok in the aftermath of the Akeidah did not require any removal of deficiency. They were well beyond that. On the other hand, voluntarily observing the Torah would not elevate them in the same way that it would people who were commanded to observe.

Rather than accept this rational line of reasoning, Avraham grasped the Torah, which had given him everything that was important to him. He expected neither deficiency-purging nor Divine illumination. He could not, however, let go of the beloved Torah that had already offered him so much. His thoughts after the Akeidah turned to keeping that Torah in the family in the next generation.

Shabbat shalom

Lech Lecha

November 10, 2016

In this week’s Sedra we read how Hashem gave us the commandment of bris milah and how Avraham and Yishmael were both circumcised.

David HaMelech writes in Tehillim chapter 119 ” I rejoice over your words like someone who finds an abundance of spoils.”

The Gemara in tractate Shabbat page 130 explains that this verse refers to the mitzvah of milah, that it is done b’simcha.

Why are we so happy that we refer to it as ‘shalal’; as spoils of war? Why do we not compare our excitement to that of finding an expensive object? Why specifically shalal?

The Meshech Chochma offers a beautiful idea.

The Gemara in Sota (21a) says that when someone performs a mitzvah they are protected from harm but only while they are involved in it. Once they have finished and are no longer involved, it no longer protects. However, Torah on the other hand works differently. All the time that a person is living a life of and learning Torah, they are protected. Although you may not be learning at this precise moment you are still being guarded by Torah. The Torah was created as a tavlin to the yetzer hara; it is the medicine that diminishes his power that permits us to sin.

When a person walks down the street and finds an object of value, they are no doubt excited because it’s something new for them. But imagine walking down the street and finding your enemies weapon lying there. There will undoubtfully be an added element of excitement! Why? Because your taking away your enemy’s lifeline.

Says Rav Meir Simcha, this is what David HaMelech meant when he said ‘ I rejoice over Your words (of Torah) like someone who finds an abundance of weapons’. Now we understand why we refer to it as a shalal because through our Torah we are stripping the enemy of his weapon.

The same is true of brit milah. Why do we refer to it as a shalal?

The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim says that the reason for milah is to minimize mans desires. By cutting away some orlah we are taking away from mans desires and therefore we refer to milah as a shalal because there is a different element of simcha there too when you cut away some orlah.

Life is full of trials and tribulations and many of them are physical problems and earthly desires. But Hashem through His kindness already paved a way for us to overcome them. By strengthening our study of Torah and showing Him we appreciate all He has done for us we will be protected from harm.

Shabbat shalom

Noach

November 3, 2016

“And you, be fruitful and multiply” 9:7

Meshech Chochmah: This short section concludes the same way it begins, speaking about being fruitful ad multiplying.

According to the Gemara [ketubot 5a] the earlier reference was a berachah, a blessing that Man should be successful at repopulating the earth after the Flood. Our pasuk, on the other hand, establishes reproduction as a commandment.

The halachic requirement established by our pasuk to have children is limited to males. [Yevamot 65b]
Women are not commanded to have children.
Why would the law ignore the women who actually bring new life into existence?
Actually, this is not as paradoxical as it might seem.
On the contrary, the exemption of women from the legal demand to have children reflects a mega-principle of the Torah, “whose ways are ways of pleasantness.”
Namely, the Torah does not burden the Jew with demands that his body cannot bear.
The Torah applies this principle in a variety of areas. Wherever the Torah prohibits some item or activity, the ban is not absolute. It always leaves something similar that remains permissible. [Chullin 109b]

The Torah strains our endurance by demanding a day-long fast – but only once a year, and only after making eating the day before mandatory. Unlike other belief systems, the Torah does not frown upon marital intimacy, forbidding it only to one human being, i.e. Moshe, who had climbed to such spiritual heights that he had no real use for it. (Indeed, the Torah makes radical accommodation to the needs of commoners in this area. It understands that a great military victory leaves soldiers in a state of inflamed passion and intensified emotion. Hashem determined that it was not an appropriate time to rein in the spirit of soldiers whose desires had been kindled by the yefas to’ar/ female captive. As Chazal put it,[Kiddushin 21b] the Torah allowed the otherwise-forbidden yefas to’ar only to placate the evil inclination.

The thread running through all these examples is that the Torah does not make demands upon people that run contrary to the realities of Man’s nature with which G-d endowed him.

The Rabbis of the Talmud used it in determining that a widow who did not fall to yibum / levirate marriage upon the death of her husband would not be expected to turn her life around by subjecting her to the demands of yibum at a later date. Thus, if she had a child when her husband died, and the child later passed away, she would not become subject to yibum at that later time.

Returning to our pasuk, we should understand why the Torah would not make having children a legal obligation upon a woman. Childbirth is recognized as a dangerous activity; the gemara understands the number of women who die in labor as significant. It did not disallow women who experienced out-of-the-ordinary difficulty in their pregnancy and labor to medicinally prevent conception. (In order to assure the continuity of the human race, Hashem endowed Woman with an intense desire to bear children. She would long to have children, not because the law demanded it of her, but of her own choosing.)

Rav Yosef finds evidence for the exemption of women from the mitzvah of procreation in a verse [35:11] directed at Yaakov: “I am Kel Shakai – perei u-revei.” Significantly, the last two words are in the singular form, and Rav Yosef takes this as indicating that the mitzvah applys only to the male, rather than to the couple. This proof-text, however, ignores an earlier verse addressed to both Adam and Chavah, which in fact uses the plural form in telling them to procreate!

According to our approach, the pasuk about Adam could not be cited as counterproof. It dates back to the time before Adam’s first sin. The difficulty and danger of childbirth had not yet been decreed upon Man. At that time, there was no reason to differentiate between men and women in the mitzvah of procreation. Both Adam and Chavah were equally commanded. It was only after the first sin that making procreation obligatory would impose the undue hardship of exposure to mortal danger. Rav Yosef turned to the verse in which Hashem spoke to Yaakov, and noted that it was phrased specifically in the singular. This indicated, he argued, than women are exempt from the mitzvah.

Our pasuk is decidedly post-sin, as well as in the plural! Why does it not serve as a counterexample to the verse about Yaakov? Looking back at the earlier pasuk[9:1] that begins our section, we see why. It is addressed specifically to “Noach and his sons” – but not to the wife and daughters-in-law. The plural (peru u-revu) in this case thus cannot be taken to include both men and women. Women indeed are not part of the berachah and the mitzvah of procreation.

Thus, we can account for the nuances of expression in all the fruitful-and-multiply passages – was well as the Torah’s principle of making only reasonable demands.

Shabbat shalom

The Meshech Chochmah

October 27, 2016

After considering the result of my survey, I have decided that this year’s commentator will be the Meshech Chochmah.

It is not an easy commentary and there is no English translation, so I do hope that this year’s short extracts will open up and encourage you to consult the original.

Rabbi Meir Simcha Hakohen was born in 1843 in Butrimonys ‎, Lithuania, to Shimshon Kalonymus, a local wealthy merchant. According to family tradition, his later success in Torah study was attributed to two blessings his parents had received from local rabbis before his birth.

He received his education locally, and managed to evade the regular roundups of Jewish boys that were being held as a result of the Cantonist decrees that had been in effect since 1827.

After marrying in 1860, at age 17, he settled in Bialystok, Poland, where he was supported by his wife, who opened a business to support him, whilst , he continued his Talmudic studies. After 23 years there he finally, after turning down many offers, accepted the rabbinate of the mitnagdim (non-Hasidic Jews) in the Latvian town of Dvinsk, (Dannenberg in German) now known as Daugavpils. He served in that position for 39 years until his death.

In Dvinsk, his counterpart was the rabbi of the Hasidim, Rabbi Yosef Rosen, known as the Rogatchover Gaon or by his work Tzofnath Paneach. He saw this as a punishment for cheppering with the old Rav of Bialystock in his youth!
The two had a great respect for each other, despite Rosen’s legendary fiery temper, and on occasions referred questions in Jewish law to each other. They also shared a love for the works of Maimonides.

In Dvinsk, he received visitors from the whole region, and was frequently consulted on issues affecting the community at large, including Poland and Lithuania. He reputedly turned down offers for the rabbinate in various large cities, including Jerusalem, New York City and Kovno.

Many students from America and England would pass through the Port of Dvinsk on the way to Mir or Slabodka. Naturally, they would go in to see and receive a blessing from Reb Meir Simcha who was delighted to welcome them. He would dance with joy at the thought of Western boys leaving their comfortable homes to study Torah in the harsh conditions of Lithuania.

He gave Semicha very easily and always tried to be lenient in deciding Halacha.

Once even he couldn’t find a way to allow a dish that had become treife so he wrapped it in a kerchief and told the lady that he was sorry, but that she had three daughters and she should break the dish at the next engagement in good health and happiness. Thus assuaging the loss and blessing the lady.

He died in a hotel in Riga while seeking medical treatment. He had one daughter, who predeceased him before her marriage.

His prominent works are:

Ohr Somayach on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah.
Ohr Somayach on Talmudic tractates ‘Bava Kama’ and ‘Bava Metzia’.
Ohr Somayach novellae on the Talmud.
Ohr Somayach responsa addressing many practical issues of halacha.
Meshech Chochma on Chumash.
Various treatises on parts of the Jerusalem Talmud.
Comments and insights on the Sefer haChinuch.

His main contribution was to be published posthumously. His pupil Menachem Mendel Zaks published Meshech Chochma (“The Price of Wisdom”, Meshech is the acronym of Meir Simcha Kohen, and the words derive from Job 28:18), which contains novellae on the Torah, but very often branches off into questions of Jewish philosophy. He is often quoted as having predicted the Holocaust in a statement in this work: “They think that Berlin is Jerusalem…from there will come the storm winds that will uproot them”. (In his comment on the last chapter of Vayikra)

Several Yeshivot have been named Ohr Somayach after him.

In the late 1970s several baal teshuva yeshivas were founded and chose to honour the memory of Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk by calling themselves by his pen name for his work “Ohr Somayach”. The first was the yeshiva Ohr Somayach, Jerusalem in Israel, and another was Ohr Somayach, Monsey in the United States. Other branches were established in Toronto and Montreal in Canada, and in Detroit, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. Worldwide, branches, all bearing the name Ohr Somayach, are Ohr Somayach, South Africa, London in the United Kingdom, Kiev in the Ukraine, and Sydney in Australia.

The Meshech Chochma has become a firm favourite amongst rabbis all over the world.

Shabbat shalom

Sukkot 5777

October 16, 2016

In my last offering of the year, Abarbanel offers several insights into the holiday of Sukkot and the Sukkah itself.

First of all, the temporary nature of the sukka is a reminder of our temporary life on earth.

The seven days of the festival correspond to the seven decades of the average lifespan.

The number of bulls which were brought as sacrificial offerings decreases with each day of the festival.

This is to remind us that each passing decade brings us closer to the inevitable end, and encourages us to make the best use of our time to develop our spiritual potential. The first and last days of the festival represent the first and last decades of life. In the first decade — the years of our youth — we revel in the delights and pleasures of the physical world. This is to remind us that we are not prohibited from enjoying those delights.

However, in the last decade we are enjoined to make the physical world secondary to spiritual accomplishments.

The eighth day, the separate festival of Shemini Atzeret, reminds us that if we have merited living into an eighth decade we have attained a special level of holiness and spiritual purity.

Abarbanel offers a unique insight into the deeper meaning of the four plant species which we use on Succot.

The Torah prescribes that the citron, palm branch, willow and myrtle be held together on the first day of Succot. (According to Rabbinic law they are held together on the intermediate days of the festival as well.)
Each of these species, as they are named and described by the Torah, hints at the sweetness and pleasures of the physical world as previously indicated by the first decade of life.

The etrog (citron) is described as the “fruit of a beautiful tree” — which is pleasing to the eyes of all who gaze upon it.

The palm tree is also beautiful and pleasing to the eye.

The myrtle is described as the “branches of a braided tree”.

The Hebrew word “avot” is normally translated as “braided” since on each branch there is a series of three leaves that grow closely together like a braid.
Abarbanel, however, states that the word ‘avot’ is actually derived from the word ‘aveit’ which means fat or corpulent, and is a reference to the beautiful, dense arrangement of the leaves on each branch.

Finally, the Hebrew word for the willow, “arava” has the same root as the word “arav” which can mean pleasant and sweet.

After describing the four species the Torah states immediately that “You shall celebrate it as a festival for God.” This is a clear indication that the pleasures and delights of the physical world are to be enjoyed only according to the parameters of the Torah in order to serve God properly.

Chag Sameach

Any suggestions for next year’s commentator?

Haazinu

October 14, 2016

Abarbanel is of the opinion that the poem of Haazinu consists of six parts.

1. General introduction
2. The benefits that God has granted to the Jewish People
3. The transgressions of the Jewish People
4. The punishments that will follow these transgressions
5. God’s initial intention to annihilate the Jewish People
6. Consolation and God’s revenge against the enemies of the Jewish People

In reference to God’s benefits, Chapter 32 verse 6 alludes to four specific types of kindness: “Is He not your Father, your Master? Has he not created you and set you up as a firm foundation? The verses that follow proceed to explain this verse:

‘Your Father’ is a reference to the fact that God is the ultimate father. Just as He created the universe, He also created Mankind. This is what is meant in verse 7, “Remember the days of yore, and understand the years of generation after generation.” God tells us to trace back through human history all the way to its very beginning and to recognize Him as Mankind’s ultimate Creator.

‘Your Master’ is a reference to the Exodus from Egypt, when God ‘acquired’ us as His people. Even though succeeding generations did not experience the Exodus, verse 7 continues, “Ask your father and he will relate it to you, and your elders and they will tell you.”

‘Has he not created you’ is a reference to the Torah as a possession of the Jewish People. Verse 8 relates that G-d granted each of the nations of the world its particular portion. But the Jewish People received ‘God’s portion’. This refers to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, as it says in verse 10, “He discovered him in a desert land…He granted him discernment.” By giving us the Torah, God has ‘created’ the Jewish People, a new creation, unique and distinct from the other nations.

The final kindness is giving the Land of Israel to the Jewish People. This is the meaning of verse 13, “He will make him ride on the heights of the Land.” This refers to the conquest and settlement of the Land of Israel.

In Chapter 32, verse 13 G-d’s concern for the Jewish People is compared to an eagle’s concern for her young. A mother eagle shows concern for her young in four specific ways, as the verse says: “He was like an eagle arousing its nest, hovering over its young, spreading its wings and taking them; carrying them on its limbs.”

When the eagle approaches the nest, it signals with a distinctive whistling sound, so as not to startle the young.
The eagle does not descend suddenly on the young, lest she injure them with her talons. Rather, she hovers and descends slowly.

When she wants to move the young, she takes the entire nest at once in order to minimize the disturbance.
When she carries them, she doesn’t carry them on any protruding feathers. Rather, she carries them on her body to minimize the risk of falling.

This is exactly how God dealt with the Jewish People during the Exodus. As the verse states, “You have seen what I have done to the Egyptians and I carried you on the wings of eagles.”

When God decided to take us out of Egypt, He first sent Moshe and Aaron who functioned as an initial signal.
G-d did not immediately demonstrate His strength and power, as He did at Mount Sinai. Rather, like the eagle, He ‘hovered’ over Egypt. Just like the eagle, who takes the entire nest at once, God took out the entire nation, with all of its possessions, at one time.

God prevented the Egyptians from harming us by placing the Clouds of Glory between us and the Egyptian army.
Finally, verse 12 states: “God alone guided them, and no other power was with them.” Just as the eagle can carry its young on its back, since there is no other bird that flies higher and could threaten them from above, so too there were no other powers or intermediaries other than God Himself who could provide these benefits to the Jewish People.

Shabbat shalom

Yom Kippur

October 11, 2016

I’m something of a minimalist when it comes to Jewish observance and prayer. As my late mother of blessed memory used to say ” so long as its clean, kosher and paid for”.

I like to keep things simple. Less is more. No raising the voice, gesticulating or grand gestures.

The Rambam writes that the minimum viddui ( confession) is just three words: Aval Anachnu Chatanu ( My mother couldn’t read Hebrew so said them in English….but we have sinned).

But, the word Aval here cannot mean but. You can’t start a sentence like that. It means, indeed. Indeed we have sinned.

It reminds us of Yosef’s brothers who said: aval anachnu ashaimim al achinu. Indeed, we are guilty over our brother. One of the first confessions in the Torah.

What is it that causes us to sin?

It’s the word “aval” but…

It’s fifty shades of excuses. But I haven’t got time to study Torah. But I haven’t got enough money to give to charity.
But, I didn’t mean to do it. But, but, but…..

Yom Kippur wipes the slate clean of sins between man and God but we have to really decide to do better from now onwards. No more excuses. We need to grow spiritually or stagnate and die.

Wishing you a meaningful fast.

Rabbi Wise

Vayelech

October 6, 2016

In this weeks Sedra, God informs Moshe of the consequences that the Jewish nation will suffer if they forsake the Torah and stray after foreign gods: “My anger will flare against it on that day and I will forsake them; and I will conceal My face from them and they will become prey, and many evils and distress will encounter it.” (Devarim 31:17)

Abarbanel explains what “God hiding His face” means.

Instead of delineating specific punishments, which He does often throughout the Torah, God designates in this verse the worst consequence of all — withdrawing His Divine Providence from the nation.

By turning to other gods the nation will hope to share in the material success of their followers, but in reality the opposite will occur. As the prophet Jeremiah said, “Ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heavens, and pouring out libations, we have lacked everything…” (Jeremiah 44:18)

Rather than enjoying material success, their possessions will serve as prey for others. In regard to relations with their enemies, Moshe is telling them that they shouldn’t think that they will be merely subjected to natural, military and geopolitical forces like everyone else, where there is sometimes success and sometimes failure. Rather, they will encounter only “evils and distresses”.

There are two reasons why the removal of Divine Providence is even worse than abandoning the nation to natural forces. First of all, having become used to relying on God’s Divine Providence, the nation never learned or practiced the myriad of military, economic and political skills required to navigate a sea of conflicts and natural challenges. This was especially true in terms of military matters, where God’s direct intervention, rather than superior numbers, weapons or tactics, insured their success. This is not the case regarding the other nations of the world. Lacking God’s unique protection, they are forced to rely on their own intelligence to survive. They have had experience overcoming calamity using the tools of the natural world, human intelligence and experience. This is a dimension totally lacking in the history of the Jewish nation.

Secondly, on the more metaphysical level, the nations of the world are under the influence of the constellations and have “advocates” (sarim) in the spiritual realm. Israel, on the other hand, has no advocate other than the Omnipotent God. As a result, when God withdraws His unique Divine Providence, only evil, distress and suffering remain, as the advocates of the other nations have unfettered sway over the fortunes of Israel.

There is another way to understand the concept of God’s “concealing His face”. Withdrawing His protection and subjecting the Jewish nation to suffering at the hands of the nations of the world can actually be seen as a “negative” application of Divine Providence. Divine Providence is always operating with the Jewish nation. What God is saying here is that the Divine Providence which results in protection from our enemies and material success will be concealed and replaced with the Divine Providence which gives our enemies a “free hand”.

Just as Divine Providence can rescue us from seemingly unavoidable tragedy, such as facing the Egyptian army at the Red Sea, that same Divine Providence can bring about tragedy and suffering even when we feel that we are successful and naturally well-protected.

Shabbat shalom