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

Advertisements

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

Ki Tayze 5777

August 30, 2017

“When (your) camp goes out against your enemy, you shall guard against any evil thing.” (23:10)

Meshech Chochmah: We are so mystified by the elliptical “evil thing” in our pasuk, that we fail to realize what the simple, basic intent is. It could very well be that the Torah here warns against inadvertently giving away strategic information to the enemy in times of war.

The Torah cautions us to limit even the possibility of any leaks. It alludes to a preference to keep the camp in a state of lock-down. No one should leave, lest that person wind up in enemy hands and convey information about the position and strength of the camp. This is why the next phrases deal with people who have no choice but to leave: those who suffered a nocturnal emission or had to respond to the call of Nature.

The Torah allows this limited number of people to leave, under controlled conditions.

On the level of plain peshat, then, the evil “thing” / davar is in fact speech. This is sourced not in the similarity between davar and dibbur/ speech, but in the simple sense of the verse. Now, the Yerushalmi takes our pasuk to refer to what we call lashon hora, or derogatory speech about another person. This is much less of a departure from the simple peshat than you might think. To the contrary – it flows directly. The Torah asks us to safeguard the fighting integrity of the Jewish army. Lashon hora breeds dissension and hostility between people. The Jewish fighting force aims to achieve unity of purpose and mutual devotion of its soldiers. Troops divided against themselves will be less effective, will sustain heavier casualties. The intent of our pasuk is to minimize those casualties.

Now, a usual and accepted source of the lashon hora prohibition is a different verse: “You shall not go as a gossip-mongerer among your people.” The Yerushalmi must recognize two different forms of lashon hora: one inside the camp, and one outside. The former deals with speech that passes between two Jews, like the wares of the gossip-mongerer; the latter – that of our pasuk – spreads its toxins outside, away from the gaze of the community.

We find as well several methods of atonement for lashon hora, which address these two forms. The gemara (Zevachim 88b) posits that the me’il worn by the kohen atones for lashon hora. The clanging of the bells on the hem of the me’il addresses the sound of evil speech.
Another kind of lashon hora is addressed by the daily ketores. Its avodah was silent. Burning the incense did not produce the cacophony of sounds of other parts of the avodah. It was also private by nature. No one was permitted to be with the kohen inside the Heichal when he offered it. This was linked to the subtle, silent lashon hora that we call avak lashon hora – the “dust” of lashon hora, that works by innuendo, by what is not said, rather than what is enunciated.

Both of these, however, take place within the Jewish community. There is yet another form of lashon hora – that which takes place externally. No one inside finds out. This is evil speech conveyed to our enemies, away from the camp and community. Only Hashem knows about it. It is addressed by the ketores that is offered in the Holy of Holies, i.e. once a year on Yom Kippur, before Hashem, in the place that is so isolated that even the angels do not go.

We have come across it in the original encounter between the young Moshe and the two disputants, Doson and Aviram, and their implied threat to alert the Egyptians to Moshe’s killing of the Egyptian taskmaster. We have seen it again in the gemara’s narrative about Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza, and the deliberate provoking of the Roman power against the Jewish community.

Sharing community secrets with outsiders often results in a chilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s Name. This is an aveirah so serious, that it is one of the few for which Hashem punishes even the thought and plan, even if unaccompanied by a deed. Idolatry is treated this way; all the more so chilul Hashem.

We now understand that the Kodesh Ha-Kodoshim is the private place where even the most private, unknown aveiros can find atonement. This explains to us why the Kohen Gadol could not serve in his gold garments when entering it. One opinion attributes this to gaavah, to the pride that the kohen bedecked in such finery might feel. But gaavah is a feeling, a thought, not an active aveirah. Must the kohen worry about this more than any other time?
The point is that in the Kodesh Ha-Kodoshim indeed he must. There, in the intimate presence of the Shechinah, even matters of private thought stand scrutinized by Hashem, and put him in danger.

Shabbat shalom

Shoftim 5777

August 24, 2017

“Do not plant an Asherah – any tree – near Hashem’s altar.”
(16:21)

In a brilliant comment on this week’s sedra the Meshech Chochmah explains the link between appointing righteous judges and not planting a tree near the Altar. The Rabbis already made the link based on the juxtaposition of the verses but the Meshech Chochmah gives two very deep explanations which you will not find anywhere else. Enjoy!

: Korbanos occupy an outsize position in the Torah. They are easily misunderstood. Despite numerous references to offerings as God’s “bread for His fire,” we categorically reject any suggestion that korbanos give Hashem anything. How could they? A perfect God cannot be made more perfect. We cannot “feed” or “sustain” Him, because there is nothing He lacks. “If you were righteous, what have you given Him?” (Job 35:7) He cannot be improved, expanded, enhanced.

There is unanimity about this. Korbanos work upon us, not upon Him. They are designed to work wondrously upon the soul of the one who brings them to the beis hamikdosh, adding deveikus and spiritual advancement to the him as he contemplates that what is happening to the animal he brings ought to be happening to him.

The approach of the Zohar and the kabbalists adds an entirely different dimension to the function of korbanos: uniting the various spiritual worlds, directing all of them to an intended goal.

None of this, of course, has any relevance to Hashem, who cannot be changed or improved. The Torah’s Man-centered treatment of korbanos contrasts entirely with the ancient pagans. They recognized separate, distinct forces, whose worship increased their power. In gratitude for their enhancement, these forces, they thought, would heap blessing and success upon the worshipper.

This understanding lies behind Ben-Azai’s observation:[Menachot 110a] “Come and see! In the Torah section of korbanos, the Divine names Elokim and Kel are not used – only the name Hashem. This denies the heretics an opportunity to validate their claims.” The name Elokim refers to the combination of all upper forces; Kel speaks of the strength and power of a Godly activity. If either of these names were used in conjunction with korbanos, it would create the impression that God was somehow strengthened or enhanced through the offering. Instead, the Torah uses the name Hashem exclusively.

This name drills down on His special Existence, which is what allows the existence of all other things and phenomena. Such a God is above all need and all receipt. This drives home the lesson that no korban can do anything for God, i.e. it His existence is the cause of everything including the korban, then nothing about that korban is going to improve His lot.

Plants and animals are organic. They can change, grow, flourish. Earth, on the other hand, is unchanging. It knows nothing about development. The Torah therefore insists on the latter in building an altar, instructing us to build it out of stones rather than wood. The altar, symbolic of Hashem accepting our offerings, remains as unchanging as stone. It is unlike wood, which when still connected to the ground can be nurtured and encouraged to expand and change. The construction of the mizbeach embodies this all-important idea that we don’t present Hashem with anything He needs when we offer a korban.

In the Asherah we find the very opposite. Chazal (Torat Kohanim 11) teach that its very name bespeaks the support and assistance that the object of veneration receives from those who serve it.

The altar is not the only fixture of Jewish life that must eschew receiving. Justice can never be served unless judges remain entirely neutral. They, too, must distance themselves from any gain related to the cases they try. They should run, not walk, from anything that enhances their position, be it tangible goods, favors, or prestige. They need to keep in mind that justice evades mortal human beings. “Justice belongs to God” – and to Him alone. When we try our hand at it, we do so as His human surrogates, feebly trying to do the best we can.

“Any judge who judges a true judgment according to its truth becomes a partner with Hashem in Creation.”
We could explain that “according to its truth” means the same thing. God had no ulterior motive in creating the world. He receives nothing from it. When a judge exercises his authority in the same way, pursuing justice for its own sake without the admixture of any gain whatsoever, he becomes a partner with Hashem. He acts with the same purity of intent as God did when he brought the world into existence.

There is more. The judge and the altar are also partners. They share a common function: bringing the hearts of His people close to the Heavenly Father. The judge does this by relieving the strife between people that interferes with His relationship with His nation. Korbanos undo the damage that the sinner has done through his transgression, and reverse the distance it has created between Man and God.

This is what Chazal had in mind when they taught that the Torah section on civil law is juxtaposed to one about the altar in order to teach that the Sanhedrin should convene near the mizbeach. They belong together. Between the two of them, the nation rids itself of its blemishes, and is restored to its closeness with HaShem.

We can close the circle. “Whoever appoints an improper judge” – i.e. one who derives some gain from his office – “is as if he planted an Asherah near the altar.” The altar is a potent symbol of a perfect God not receiving from human beings. When judges – acting as they do in His stead – corrupt their office with personal gain, they substitute the needy, receiving Asherah for the stones of the altar.

Shabbat shalom

Re’eh 5777

August 14, 2017

Re’eh

…your God, Who takes you out of the land of Egypt, and Who redeems you from the house of slavery. (13:6)

The phrase ” out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” occurs many times in the Torah. This week, based on a comment of the Gaon of Vilna, the Meshech Chochmah draws out the difference for us.

Meshech Chochmah: Leaving Egypt, leaving slavery – isn’t it all the same? Of course not. If they were, the Torah would not have used two phrases where one would have sufficed. To understand the difference between the two, we turn to the Gra in Aderes Eliyahu.

There were indeed two stages to leaving Egypt, reflecting very different stances taken by Hashem towards the Egyptians. The earlier stage occurred at night. Paroh effectively received and reacted favorably to an ultimatum: set the Bnei Yisrael free, and you can spare yourself further punishment. This stage is called “redemption.” One redeems an object for consideration. Something is offered in place of the other – some sort of a quid pro quo. It resembles a negotiated settlement, or a contract. Indeed, the night of the first Pesach was a “redemption,” requiring that the first-born of the Bnei Yisrael be “given” as a kind of payment for Hashem neutralizing the first-born Egyptians.

A sea-change dominated the next stage, the actual physical removal of the Jews from Egyptian territory. Here, Hashem “took” them out forcibly, taking no heed of any Egyptian objections. This was no negotiation, but a display of His strong Hand.

The Gra links this difference to an enigmatic passage in Yeshaya (50:2):
“Why is it that I have come, and there is no man; that I have called, and there is no one who answers? Is My hand too limited to grant redemption? Is there no strength in Me to rescue?”
Here, too, the pasuk speaks of different types of intervention on behalf of an oppressed party. It speaks of “redemption” and of “saving.” Here, though, the two kinds of intervention follow from two disappointments, as it were, to Hashem’s expectation. The preceding phrases speaks of His “coming” to an empty location, and His “calling” that is met with no human response.

Those phrases, explains the Gra, refer to prayer and Torah, respectively. Hashem’s coming to an empty place, says the gemara, refers to a shul that does not get a minyan. Hashem comes to the shul, but finds it effectively without people. It is unable to deliver up the needed tefillah that could enlist Divine support for its needs. He “calls,” but no one answers. This calling is Torah. God makes it available, but no one answers the call with an enthusiastic offer to engage the Torah He makes available. He does not need to “come” any where in particular, because Torah does not require a minyan or a special place.

What does this mean? Why are these two mitzvos treated separately and differently in the text? A possible explanation may be rooted in an important halachic distinction between two kinds of consecration. Some things are consecrated with intrinsic kedushah; others are consecrated for their monetary value. In the latter case (generally applying to things that cannot be offered on the altar), the consecration is weaker, more changeable. In the right circumstances, the kedushah can dissipate without any formal process of deconsecration. Objects that are consecrated with intrinsic kedushah, however, enjoy a more robust sanctity. Their kedushah is part of the substance of the object, not limited to its monetary value.
Thus, the law of meilah applies to the forbidden fat of nosar even though it has no monetary worth. It doesn’t have to. The very substance is holy, even if it has no marketable value. On the other hand, meilah does not apply to a food item that has been consecrated for its monetary value and then becomes chametz on Pesach. Since the consecration is limited to its worth, the prohibition of chametz that strips it of its worth robs it, so to speak, of its holiness at the same time.

A corollary of this concerns prior lienholders against property. If an owner assigns intrinsic kedushah to an object (e.g., consecrates an animal as an offering in the beis hamikdosh), the consecration can dislodge the lien against that property. Should the owner assign only monetary-value kedushah to some property, the prior lien of a third party against that property is maintained. The weaker kind of consecration is not significant enough to overcome the interest of the lienholder.

The gemara sees prayer as involved with “temporal needs” / chayei sha’ah. It seeks, for the most part, to protect and improve the interests that a person can understand – the needs of this world. As such, it is comparable to monetary-value consecration, i.e. a holiness that is not completely intrinsic to the person, much as life in the here and now is not life that is related to the true essence of a person. It is therefore subject to “redemption;” it can be bought off or traded for its value. By itself, it cannot dislodge the rights of another Party should the person become obligated through the debt of sin to a Divine Lienholder. Tefillah, therefore, is often inadequate for the job. It must be accompanied by other forms of compensation, like teshuvah and tzedakah.

Torah, however, strikes at the very essence of a person. It deals with the eternity of a person, not just his temporal needs. Its holiness is like intrinsic consecration. It can and does dislodge the claims of the “lienholder,” and therefore requires no other forms of “payment.”

Prayer, therefore, is linked in our pasuk to redemption, where “payment” is offered as consideration. Torah, on the other hand, is linked to pure rescue, where no other form of compensation is part of the package.

Shabbat Shalom

Eikev 5777

August 14, 2017

In Eikev the Meshech Chochmah explains the only biblical blessing. Here he explains Birchat Hamazon ( Grace after meals)

“You will eat and be filled, and you will bless Hashem…” (8:10)

The Meshech Chochmah writes that as is so often the case, the gemara in several places attempts to extract a maximum of halachic conclusions based on our pasuk. If we are obligated to bless Hashem when we are sated, all the more so should we bless Him before eating, while we are still hungry. And if we are to bless and thank Hashem for what sustains us in this world, certainly we ought to bless Him for the gift of Torah, which nurtures us for the eternal world.

The gemara concludes, however, that the only berachah that we can firmly consider obligatory by Torah (i.e. not rabbinic) law is the bentching after a meal of food. The gemara’s attempted extrapolation to berachos before eating, as well as berachos before and after Torah study, fails. Why should this be?

The case for building upon birkas ha-mazon and obligating other berachos is undoubtedly sound – but predicated on the assumption that the Torah wishes us to express our thanks to Hashem commensurate with the benefit we receive. We feel more enhanced by food when we are hungry than when we are sated; we can appreciate that olam habo is of greater importance than this world.
Apparently, the gemara rejects this reason as inadequate to understand the obligation of birkas ha-mazon. Gratitude may be part of it, but there is more. Bentching is intended to be a corrective for Man’s tendency to move further away from God after he has satisfied himself, rather than move closer. Man becomes self-assured, confident in his own powers, even haughty, once his needs are filled. As the Torah says a bit further on, “Lest you eat and be sated…and forget Hashem your God.”

Bentching brings us back to reality. It reminds us that it is “He who gave you strength to make wealth.” This reasoning applies only when a person is physically sated – not when he is hungry and in need. The argument that the Torah must obligate us in berachos before eating therefore fails.

The very opposite holds true for Torah study. Before immersing oneself in it, a person can easily approach it for selfish reasons, such as to gain honor and recognition. It is too easy for a person to forget that Torah is our lifeblood; that Hashem graced us with Divine wisdom through it. He can abuse its holiness by using Torah as a tool for self-aggrandizement. Worse yet, when Torah is studied for the wrong reasons, it becomes a death-potion, rather than a life-giving elixir.

The Torah therefore commands, “I will call the Name of Hashem. Praise the greatness of our God.” We remind ourselves of the supernal greatness of Torah, and its identity with Hashem’s wisdom. We avoid the mistake of the generation that saw the destruction of the Second Temple because they did not make a berachah before Torah study. Correctly understood, they did not sufficiently connect in their minds the great gift of Torah with its Source.

We only need a reminder to be anchored to Torah’s Author before we set out to learn. No such need attends to leaving a session of Torah study. Torah is uplifting and edifying; within the study session, a person is protected from retribution and from succumbing to the yetzer hora. The Torah can be seen as a string of Names of Hashem; by clinging to Torah, a person attaches himself to the Name of Hashem. The neshamah of every Jew is sourced in the Torah. When Jews connect to it, they become as one entity through it.

In other words, the aftermath of a session of Torah is the polar opposite of a full meal. A person naturally moves closer to Hashem through it, rather than subconsciously moving away.

The gemara entertains the possibility that kohanim do not have to bentsch – at least after a meal of offerings in the beis hamikdosh. Why would we ever think that kohanim are spared the requirement of the law? If birkas ha-mazon were just a matter of expressing gratitude for calming our hunger, this would make no sense. If our thesis is correct, however, it is quite reasonable to think that eating kodashim is a special case. Unlike a typical meal, a mitzvah meal should not, we would think, inflate Man’s ego as surely as it fills his belly. There would be no need for a reminder to put Man in his place. (The gemara’s conclusion, however, is that even in an elevated mitzvah meal, the physical sensations of eating play a role, and create an opportunity for Man to stumble. Thus, even the kohen must bentsch.)

Having come so far in understanding the Torah’s reason for mandating birkas ha-mazon, let us try to comprehend the rabbinic addition to the mitzvah: the fourth berachah of hatov ve-ha-meitiv/ the One who is good, and who does good. The academy of Yavneh established this berachah for the victims of the slaughter at Beitar. It seems strange that a single incident in our history should be significant enough to warrant a permanent addition to the birkas ha-mazon. Moreover, the addition just happens to be thematically similar to the one recited for a plentitude of wine at a meal. And why, for that matter, should a berachah for luxurious bounty be limited to wine?

A single thread unites the first three berachos – the ones that are d’orayso. They add up to the slow, stepwise creation of a Jewish nation. Hashem took us out of Egypt and stood us at Sinai. He sustained and nurtured us with mohn for forty years. He led us into the Land, and to the city of Yerushalayim, where we achieved our full stature as a people of the Torah.

The fourth berachah celebrates the extraordinary survival in exile of that same nation, determined to go its own separate way. In the wake of the destruction of Yerushalayim it seemed that the survival of the people was an impossibility. At best, they were destined to live semi-civilized lives as eternal wanderers. The failure at Beitar of the Bar Kochba rebellion – supported by some of the greatest Torah luminaries – was the nadir of long process of destruction of Yerushalayim and the Jewish state.
Inexplicably, however, a ruler allowed the victims of the slaughter to be buried. The Jews correctly saw in this Divine Providence sending a message about the Jewish future. As bleak as things looked after the loss of the war, Hashem would guarantee their survival, even in the worst of times. He would fill the hearts of individuals with a gracious spirit towards the Jews that would save them when waves of destruction would be poised to inundate them. Jews would survive, even as the single sheep among seventy wolves.

This guarantee of Divine assistance through the exile also vindicated the message of all the prophets and leaders who had guided the nation to Yerushalayim. The Beitar reprieve was not about Beitar, but a statement about the rest of the long exile, until the arrival of Moshiach. So is the fourth berachah.

The hatov ve-ha-meitiv berachah on wine has a similar rationale. Chazal chose a prohibition against non-Jewish wine to create a barrier against intermarriage. The practical implications of this ban are remarkable. Burdened as it was with many disadvantages and disabilities in navigating galus, Jews would show their rejection of their neighbors and hosts by treating their wine as something repugnant. Wine would therefore seem to place an impossible burden upon Jewish survival, rather than assure our continuity.

Survive, however, we do. We recite hatov ve-ha-meitiv specifically over wine. It, too, serves as a powerful symbol of Hashem’s behind-the-scenes leveraging of history to shepherd His children to the verdant pastures at the end of history.

Va-etchanan 5777

August 14, 2017

The Rabbanit and I are away and have very limited access to the Internet so I apologise that these divrei Torah are late. I include them just for the sake of completion.

“Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and Hashem took you out…Therefore Hashem your G-d commanded you to observe the Shabbos day.” (Devarim 5:15)

Meshech Chochmah writes that in reality the most important basis of Shabbos is God’s creation of the world in six days.

Without seeing Hashem as the deliberate Creator of all everything in the universe, we lack the logical underpinnings for important principles like Divine providence, and reward and punishment. We are not surprised that Chazal considered transgression of the Shabbos laws to be the equivalent of the rejection of the entire Torah.

So fundamental is Shabbos to our relationship with God, that we would inescapably conclude that all human beings ought to observe it. Are not all people expected to know Hashem and submit to His authority? Yet not only is Shabbos not mandatory for non-Jews, we consider such observance for a non-Jew to be a major offence. Why have we snatched away Shabbos from the public domain and made it a Jewish exclusive.

The answer is simple. Understanding that God is the Creator is a fundamental part of any person’s belief in Him. But who can testify to its veracity? Is there any group, other than the Jewish people, who are positioned to do so? Who else, in large numbers, witnessed God toying with the laws of Nature, as He did in Egypt – and as only the Creator of those laws could do? Who miraculously passed through a parted Reed Sea? Who was led, night and day, by pillars of fire and cloud, manifestations of His presence? Who was nourished for decades in a wildnerness that could not sustain life on a large scale? Could any other people replace us in the words of the prophet, “You are my witnesses, and I am God?”[Isaiah 43:12]

Our pasuk is thoroughly understandable. “Therefore Hashem…commanded you to observe the Shabbos. You – to the exclusion of others. You – because you attest to its truth, even though thematically, that truth applies to all inhabitants of the planet. Because Shabbos could, in principle, have been shared by all, Chazal call Shabbos a “wonderful gift.” It is seen as a gift to Klal Yisrael, because others could have received it as well.

The case for Jewish monopoly on the biblical holidays is more straightforward. Each one deals with an exclusively Jewish event. The reason for Shabbos as a day affirming God as Creator would apply had there never been a Jewish people who left Egypt, stood at Sinai to receive the Torah, dwelt in the protection of the Clouds of Glory, sinned and achieved atonement. The holidays are there only because of the Jewish experience. They are sanctified not innately, as is Shabbos, but by the Jewish people. Hashem sanctifies them; they in turn sanctify the holiday. Because the holiday’s sanctity is derivative from theirs, it follows that they are a greater source of kedushah than the holiday. Food-related activities are therefore permissible on Yom Tov – unlike Shabbos. Yom Tov’s holiness is less than that of the people, whose needs therefore trump it.
The difference between Jewish and non-Jewish appreciation of Shabbos and Yom Tov finds its way into halachah. Tosafos wonder why it is forbidden to ask non-Jews to bury a deceased Jew on Shabbos, given that we are allowed to ask non-Jews to perform melachah for us for a mitzvah purpose. They answer that it is odious and disgraceful to the deceased to be buried thusly on Shabbos. Tosafos do not mention that there is no parallel odium involved in burying on Yom Tov through non-Jews.
Why should a Yom Tov burial be any less disgraceful?
According to our observation above, the difference is clear. Non-Jews have no role whatsoever in the holidays – but they can and do relate to the message of Shabbos. Because they can understand Shabbos’ message, they will be contemptuous of our apparent ignoring of its holiness by arranging a Shabbos burial. The holiday violation simply doesn’t register with them.

A passage in Chazal strikes us as incomprehensible. It speaks of a king who had but one daughter. He loved her very much, and called her “my daughter.” In time, his love grew and he called her “my sister;” as his love continued to grow, he called her “my mother.”

We can understand it well if we first explore the difference between several familial relationships. The maternal relationship with a newborn is largely one-sided. The mother brings the child to life, and continues nurturing it. The baby is incapable of directly reciprocating. Siblings, on the other hand, can operate on a level playing field, each giving to the other in equal measures.

The passage deals with the three regalim. The king is Hashem. At Pesach, He did all the giving, like a mother to a daughter. The Jews at the time were not, according to the angels, very different from the Egyptians. Both worshipped idols. Even the few mitzvos they were able to perform were engineered for them for the purpose of providing them with essential merit. Left to themselves, they had little to offer in the relationship.
That changed with the passage of time, and the giving of the Torah. Here, the relationship was more level. Hashem gave the Torah, to be sure. But they provided value by being the only ones willing to accept the Torah. The relationship was reciprocal.

By Sukkos, it was the Bnei Yisrael who poured material into the relationship, while Hashem was relatively passive. They spent a summer repenting for the sin of the Golden Calf. They reacted with alacrity to the mitzvah of building a mishkan, and threw themselves into its construction. It was as if, kivayachol, the Bnei Yisrael took on the role of “mother” to the King, becoming the givers in a one-sided relationship.

The midrash adds a few words each time it talks about the changed names that the king assigned to his daughter. “He did not move” until he called her sister, mother. Even though Klal Yisrael matured, and was able to bring something of its own to the table, so to speak, the essential relationship did not change. Even when the King could label the daughter a sister or mother, “He did not move” from the original relationship, which is the most essential. We cannot really give Him anything.

Devarim 5777

July 26, 2017

The Meshech Chochmah was a Master both of the whole Bible and the entire corpus of Rabbinic Literature.

For ten weeks we read special haftorot, 3 of rebuke in the run up to Tisha B’Av and 7 of consolation afterwards.
I have decided for a change to look at a comment of Meshech Chochmah to this weeks haftorah (Isaiah 1:13) which he links both to the Torah and to the time of the year.

” And You shall not continue to bring a worthless minchah. Incense is an abomination to Me….I can’t abide falsehood and assembly of your Rosh Chodesh and Yom Tov.” (1:13)

Meshech Chochmah writes that ironically, sometimes a bit of bad is a good thing. Chazal emphasise that a public fast day that does not attract the participation of sinners is not a proper fast day. They derive this from the composition of the ketores (incense mixture), which included by design chelvanah. While foul-smelling on its own, it took on a different characteristic when mixed with the aromatic spices that went into the ketores. There, the majority ingredients not only masked the bad odor, but were themselves improved by the minority ingredient that brought out some of the more subtle qualities of their aroma.

So it is with people and their faults. When three people are scrutinized as individuals, the shortcomings of each one stand out. One is found to be stingy, a second evil-tongued, a third quick to anger. When the three form a group, the majority bring out better qualities in the minority, and the minority can even at times enhance the quality of their positive traits The stingy one learns generosity from the others; the foul-tongued learns to keep silent; the quick-tempered discovers forbearance..

However, the opposite can also occur. The majority can decide to emulate the base characteristics of the minority, thereby strengthening them. For this reason, Chazal maintain that it is better when evildoers are scattered, rather than joined together.

This fundamental idea allows us to understand the workings of the mikdosh, which served to unite the hearts of all of Klal Yisrael, bringing them together to a single place. Miracles were a common occurrence there. While any one individual did not usually merit miraculous intervention, the community created by those individuals did merit such miracles. The deficiencies of each individual were erased in the group, as the majority brought out the latent good in the previously offensive minority. The collective possesses qualities that the individual rarely can lay claim to himself. One person contributes yir’as Shomayim, another ahavas Yisrael. One excels in his generosity, another in his Torah.

Individuals can bring a minchah; it cannot be brought by partners sharing it. Nonetheless, the community does bring a minchah, as in the omer offering on the second day of Pesach and the two loaves that are brought on Shavuos. A communal offering is treated not as a partnership of all the individuals in the group, but as a single corporate entity. This treatment, however, is reasonable only so long as the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, i.e., where individuals engage each other positively, and the group bringing out latent goodness which was not expressed while they acted as distinct individuals. When this dynamic fails – when individuals no longer are drawn by the positive characteristics of their neighbors – their group korban becomes a shared partnership, rather than a single corporate entity. Since the minchah may not be brought in partnership, Yeshaya decries the minchah of his countrymen, who did not improve in each other’s company, but each person attempted to devour the other. Such a minchah he terms a “worthless” one. It flies in the face of the halachic requirement that the minchah come from a single, unifying entity.

Similarly, ketores in such a society becomes an “abomination.” The putrid component of the incense remains putrid when it does not collaborate with all the other elements that cooperatively produce a new, better fragrance. Its abiding stench makes the ketores “abominable.”

We can generally tease out passive and active ways in which people are able to rebuke their friends for their misdeeds. In the passive mode, no words need be exchanged. A sinner takes notice of one of his peers – one, perhaps, who faces even greater hardships than he does – acting in an exemplary manner. If the observer is open to change, he will take his example to heart. “If even he can act in such and such a way, all the more so should I be able to do that!”

Not peers, but leaders and greats use the active mode. Here, it is the very difference in station that is effective. When the sinner respects the speaker for his knowledge or piety, his words find room in the sinner’s heart.

The gemara states that Yerushalayim was destroyed because people did not rebuke each other. Developing the thought further, it cites the pasuk [Eichah 1:6]
“Her leaders were like sheep,” and explains that sheep walk with the head of one right up against the tail of another. The gemara refers to the passive mode of rebuke and influence, and why it did not function in the generation of the destruction. Rather than look to the “heads” of the other sheep, i.e. to emulate their exemplary qualities, people buried their heads in the deficiencies of their friends. There, they would find support for their own deficiencies, and excuses to maintain their own mediocrity rather than work on themselves to improve their character.

The active mode of rebuke did not fare any better. The same passage in the gemara tells us why. “Yerushalayim was destroyed only because they disparaged talmidei chachamim.” This kind of rebuke presupposes that the listener regards the speaker as a great, accomplished person. The gemara cites a pasuk,[Chronicles 2 36:16] “They insulted God’s malachim and scorned His words.” Malachim can be understood as “messengers,” but also in the narrower sense of the Divine messengers we call “angels.” The generation of the churban could not deny the greatness of their talmidei chachamim, so they flipped the argument. “Who are these people to reprimand us? What did they know of the affairs and challenges of ordinary people? They live like angels, aloof from the issues that everyone else must deal with. If they would have to live like us, they would act far worse than we do.”

Having destroyed both pathways to rebuke and improvement , their fate was sealed.

Shabbat shalom

Mattot-Massei 5777

July 20, 2017

Your servants have taken a count of the soldiers in our charge. Not one of them is missing. (31:49)

The Meshech Chochmah writes that the gemara in Yevamot (61a) understands nifkad/missing, as lacking in a spiritual sense. Not a single soldier was lost in the battle with his yetzer hora. In the trying conditions of the front lines, the excited passions of warfare, and the emotional release in surviving, soldiers sometimes fall prey to their desires and to opportunities to exercise power. The officers reported that their soldiers had, without exception, conducted themselves in an exemplary manner.

They emphasized that these soldiers were be-yadeinu/ “in our charge,” meaning that they were all accounted for physically as well. None went Awol. The officers knew where each of their men were at all times. None had been missing, then, in a physical sense as well. By keeping tight control of their men, they kept them away from morally challenging situations.

The officers could certainly take pride in the record of those under their command. But it led to a euphoric moment. They realized that they, the officers, had successfully countered the more primitive drives of a large number of people. Immediately, they connected the dots to another episode – and were overcome with guilt. “If we were able to prevent the many from sinning by exercising deliberate and focused control, why hadn’t we done more at the time of the incident with Pe’or and its worship? Why had we not stood up to the sinners, as we were able to do with our soldiers.”

We can therefore see what the officers later say in a new light. “We have brought Hashem’s offering: each person who found gold vessels, chains, bracelets…to atone for our souls before Hashem.” They sought atonement for their silence in the Ba’al Pe’or episode, in which they now realized they were complicit through inaction.

The military campaign against Midian turned out to be a win-win action. Both Hashem and the Bnei Yisroel were honoured by the outcome. The latter in not losing a single soldier to moral turpitude; the former because His providence ensured that the Jewish army did not suffer a single fatality on the military field of battle. This accounts for the seemingly long-winded description of the donation of the offering of the army officers: “They brought it to the Ohel Moed as a remembrance for the Bnei Yisroel before Hashem.”

The victory over Midian created a remembrance for the Bnei Yisrael of the greatness of Hashem, while also taking a place before Hashem, i.e. testifying before Him of the greatness of the Jewish army, whose soldiers – without exception – gave opportunistic aveiros the cold-shoulder.

We could suggest an entirely different approach to the “in our charge” phrase. Chazal emphasize that several of Man’s senses are not amenable to his complete control. Walking through the street, a person has no consistent way to evade the next scene that may enter his visual field. He may find himself looking at something that he really does not want to see. He may hear words in which he has no business hearing, and might detect the aroma of succulent meat offered to some pagan deity on an idolatrous altar. Try as he may to shield himself from undesired sensory intrusion, he cannot fully succeed.

The officers alluded to this. Their men, they announced, had resolutely held themselves apart from aveirah. They exercised control over their actions. They put limits on where their legs would carry them, their hands would touch, and their mouths would speak. These were all part of what is in “our charge.” They could not control, however, everything that flowed into their internal lives from the outside. They did find vicarious pleasure in what they saw, which wasn’t always so holy.

As the gemara says, the soldiers “sated their eyes with aveirah.” Despite having a perfect record in regard to what they could control, they came up short on what they could not. For this they needed atonement, and responded with their offering of part of the booty.

They called it “Hashem’s korban,” rather than “a korban for Hashem.” Those who went out to battle returned not only gratified at the outcome, but stunned by the conduct of the war. They had not lost a single soldier. They saw in this an enormous contribution of Divine hashgachah. Any offering to Hashem is ordinarily accompanied by a feeling of giving something to Him that belongs to us. The offering after the battle with Midian was so lopsided, that the participants could not develop a sense of possession and ownership towards the spoils of war. Everything they took had been handed to them by HaShem. When they took their offering to the Ohel Moed, they saw themselves bringing not a korban for Hashem, but Hashem’s korban. The korban belonged to Him before it was ever designated as holy.

King David expressed this elegantly: “From Your hand we have given You.” (Chron 29:14)

Shabbat shalom

Pinchas 5777

July 13, 2017

On the first day of the seventh month there shall be a holy convocation for you. You shall do no laborious work. It shall be a day of shofar-sounding for you. (29:1)

Meshech Chochmah: In Vayirka 23:24 the calls the day Rosh Hashanah a time of remembrance of the shofar. Halachically, this alludes to our practice of suspending the sounding of the shofar when Rosh Hashanah falls out on Shabbos. In such years, we have to suffice with a remembrance of the shofar of previous years.

Moving to a more conceptual approach, we can explain the “remembrance” of the shofar quite differently. We can discern two kinds of self-examination that can be part of the teshuvah process: “seeing” and “remembering.” The most obvious form of repentance begins with a person taking a good look at himself. He inventories himself, and finds himself in possession of things – whether objects or behaviors – of which he must quickly purge himself. So he rids his possessions of what he is not fully entitled to keep, and distances himself from aveiros that he routinely commits.

There is another dimension to teshuvah that is more subtle. “Looking” at himself and his observable behaviour, he will not find anything in himself that is so troubling, at least after doing a good job with the first form of repentance. We know, however, that sin leaves its mark. It impacts upon the inner person, even when the external one remains visibly unmoved. The change requires a much deeper kind of self-examination. The sinner must “remember” every aspect of his former self, and see how sin has subtly changed his leanings, preferences and character. When he does, he realises his vulnerability – how the person ravished and changed by sin stands ready to fail when confronted with challenges that have still not arrived.

These two forms of the teshuvah process find a parallel in the way Hashem acts towards us in an exculpatory manner. Sometimes He “sees,” meaning that He reacts towards some unfavorable decree against us, towards some untoward consequence poised to strike, by removing the threat. He “sees” our change in behavior, or some evidence of contrition. At other times, however, His reaction is more subtle and discerning. He doesn’t “see” the observable, but “remembers” some special merit, or some argument that puts a person in a better light. His protective reaction then is more comprehensive. He places the person out of harm’s way, including that of fully natural factors and catastrophic events that might arise in the course of time.

The citizens of Ninveh repented – but only “from the robbery in their hands.” Because their repentance was relatively superficial – Chazal go so far as to call it deceptive – the pasuk says that “Hashem saw…and regretted the evil that He had said He would do.” Noting an observable change in their behavior sufficed only to call back an immediate threat to them.

Chazal reject the presence of gold on a shofar, likening its sounding to avodah in the inner precincts of the beis hamikdosh, where the kohen gadol had to leave behind his golden garments in favor of plain white ones. They don’t mean that shofar is unusually important, just as the inner avodah on Yom Kippur is dear and exalted because it is so rare. Rather, they mean to point to the inward focus of the sound of the shofar.

Some aveiros remain functionally invisible to their owners. Practices that are extremely common do not strike people as sinful, even if objectively they are. People take refuge in the argument that there is no need to be more pious than everyone else. Sometimes people act on the authority of an erring beis din. Those who relied on the decision of a legitimate beis din certainly see themselves as blameless. Indeed, they are not obligated to bring a korban chatas for such a transgression.

The conventional chatas is an outer korban, whose avodah is restricted to the courtyard area. As we move to the inner parts of the mikdosh, however, we suddenly find that atonement is offered for aveiros that people dismiss as irrelevant because they see themselves as beyond reproach. When a faulty halachic decision affects the entire nation, there is a korban – and it involves the inner altar and the paroches! In other words, in the external part of the mikdosh there is no recognition of guilt for this kind of sin, but the inner parts are sensitive to the impact of what seems like a blameless act. As we move to the innermost part of the mikdosh, the sensitivity increases even more. In the Holy of Holies a korban is offered for those who entered the mikdosh without knowing that they had become tamei. Such a person is conscious only of his attempt to do a mitzvah through coming to the mikdosh; he has no idea at all of his tumah.

Conceivably, he acted with all the mitigating factors that could apply: i.e., with the permission of a court ruling, and in the company of a great many other people. Nonetheless, in the holiest, innermost part of the mikdosh, even such a chet registers – and must be dealt with. In the space that is “closest” to the Shechinah, the effects of the smallest, seemingly invisible, chet are more critical.

Chazal mean something similar when they say that the sounding of the shofar is like an avodah of the interior parts of the mikdosh. Here, too, they mean that the avodah of the shofar reaches inward to the unseen and unobservable, not to the external and superficial. Thus, on Rosh Hashanah, a person’s teshuvah must be one of “remembering,” not just “seeing” the obvious flaws. He must inventory all his activities, bar none. Even activities that are perfectly permissible and even those that are objectively mitzvos. All need to be scrutinized to detect even the slightest unwanted admixture of something that can leave a lasting negative impression, even if it not experienced as an overt chet.

Several times in the course of the day of Rosh Hashanah, we reach to a pasuk in Tehillim: “Sound the shofar at the moon’s renewal, at the keseh for our festive day.” Keseh is usually translated as “the appointed time.” It also conjures up something covered up and hidden. It is a day to remove all that intervenes between ourselves and HaShem . Even the small sub-threshold sins should be uncovered and addressed.

Shabbat shalom