Monday, June 30, 2014


Events in Eretz Yisrael are heartbreaking.  What can anyone say or write?

The next time time a newspaper or politician calls for Israel to sit down for peace talks with our animal neighbors I suggest that the community innundate that media outlet or politician with pictures of these three poor teens killed by the savages. 

Even though the outcome was not what we hoped for, the many tefilos and good deeds undertaken during these past 2 1/2 weeks should not be thought of as for naught.  Now is the time to prove that it's not just tragedy that can bring us together as a community.  Now is the time to show that the achdus, the chessed, the tremendous outpouring of ruchniyus that these boys' lives brought out is something that will stay with us as a kiddush Hashem and a merit for their neshomos.

ameilus baTorah

Rashi writes that “Im bechukosai teileichu” must be referring to ameilus baTorah and not just shemiras hamitzvos, as the next phrase in the pasuk, “v’es mitzvosai tishmoru,” already speaks about mitzvos. 

Why does Rashi say the pasuk is referring specifically to ameilus?  Maybe the reward promised is for stam learning?

To understand what Rashi means we need to first understand what the chiddush is in the concept of ameilus baTorah.  Doesn’t every accomplishment require ameilus?  If you want to be a doctor, you have to work hard to get through medical school; if you want to be a lawyer, you have to work hard to get through law school.  If you want to be successful in learning, it takes work – peshita, mai kah mashma lan?

Yesh lachkor: is ameilus a means to the end of knowing Torah, or is Torah a vehicle that Hashem gave us to bring out a certain type of ameilus?  Or to put it another way, when a person is engaged in the shakla v’yerya give and take of learning, where every answer inspires a new, deeper question, and every question brings an answer that lends greater clarity, are the questions just a means to unravel the sugya and get to the answers, or are answers just the foundation upon which deeper, more probing questions can be built?

The answer is black on white in Chazal: “Adam l’ama yulad” – man was created for the sake of work, which the gemara (Sanhedrin 99b) darshens the pasuk as referring specifically to ameilus in Torah.  Ameilus in Torah is the tachlis, not just the means.

In all other disciplines, the work is just a way of attaining mastery of some skill or subject matter.  When it comes to Torah study, the the goal is to be immersed in questions; the struggle in learning itself is the goal, not arriving at conclusions.

Explains the Sefas Emes, when one is learning with ameilus, at every stage the knowledge that is yet to come, that one anticipates and is working toward, is a mystery relative to where one is holding at that moment.  There is always a “bechukosai,” something yet to be understood that sits just beyond the horizon.  “Im bechukosai teileichu” – if your learning is focused on looking forward to the next unknown, if you cherish the mystery of questions for their own sake and not just as a means to get to answers, then this is ameilus baTorah.
"Zos chukas haTorah" -- not chukas haparah or chukas hataharah.  Chok, the pursuit of the next unknown, is the engine that drives all learning.

Friday, June 27, 2014

opposite sides of the same coin

1) The Sefer Yetzira says that the month of Tamuz corresponds to the letter ‘cheis’ (whatever that means) which symbolizes cheit.  The name of the month, Tamuz, appears in Sefer Yechezkel (8:14 see Rashi there), “mevakos es hatamuz,” where it refers to something heated up, something being burnt.  Sin, burning – these are not pleasant images. 

Yet, explains the Shem m’Shmuel, latent within these same images is exactly the opposite meaning.  We have in our parsha “mei chatas” and “hu yischatah,” where “cheit” means taharah.  The fire of Tamuz need not be a destructive fire, but can be the flame of Torah that gives warmth.

The Midrash writes that in every parsha that Hashem taught Moshe he learned the thing and its opposite, e.g. heter and issur, tumah and taharah, etc.  When Moshe got to parhas Emor, Hashem taught him the concept of tumas meis, but no opposite.  Moshe thought there is no remedy for that tumah.  Finally, Hashem taught him our parsha of parah adumah.

R’ Simcha Bunim of Peshischa explains that to truly understand something means to understand its opposite as well, it’s negation.  The Maharal writes in many places that opposites are logically actually very closely related, as they are two sides of the same coin; one cannot exist without the other.  If you grasp one, you grasp the other.  Whatever Moshe learned, he understood fully and was able to fathom the opposite ideas as well.  The only exception was the parsha of tumas meis.  Parah adumah is a chok, it is unfathomable.  Hashem had to reveal the parsha to Moshe and only then did he understand it.

In other words (what I think he means), we can justify and rationalize a lot of things.  We can talk about cheit having opposite meanings, we can talk about fire meaning different things.  It’s harder when it comes to talking about death.  Only G-d himself at some point can reveal to us that mystery.

2) For forty years Bnei Yisrael were wandering in the midbar eating mon.  Why now at the end of the road do they suddenly start complaining again, “nafsheinu katzah ba’lechem hakelokeil?” (21:5)  Chasam Sofer answers that the generation who left Egypt and entered the midbar had all died out.  The generation our parsha speaks to is a new generation, one that had been raised in the desert from birth and had known nothing other than mon.  Now, they find themselves on the borders of Edom, Moav – they encounter civilization for the first time.  They see people eating foods they had never tasted; they see drinks and delicacies they have never seen before.  Who wants mon anymore when you can have “real” food? 
The punishment Hashem gave them was the poisonous snakes.  For forty years in the desert the ananei hakavod had smoothed the road out – no one knew what a snakebite was or that it could prove fatal.  You want to complain that you haven’t had a steak for 40 years – remember that you haven’t suffered harm for 40 years either.  You want to complain that the food everyone else is eating looks so good – you tikun is to look at the nechash nechoshes and direct your vision to higher things.

Monday, June 23, 2014

some quick thoughts

1) I remember when the Mir’s deficit of something like 10 million dollars was considered shocking, proof that the chareidi system doomed institutions to failure under an economically unsustainable model.  So what does YU’s economic problems prove about the economic sustainability of Torah u’Mada and modern orthodoxy? 

2) Yated Ne’eman last week claimed that the kidnapping of the teens in Israel is a punishment from G-d resulting from the attempt to draft yeshiva students.  Maybe Yated has a pipeline directly to G-d and that’s how they know these things, but if not -- if we are just shooting sevaras from the hip -- couldn’t one make exactly the opposite argument?  Hasn’t this episode helped rally support and appreciation for the army and effectively put an end to the protests? 

3) In a similar vein, some people read Korach as a lesson in what happens when you challenge da’as Torah.  R’ Asher Lopatin of YCT points to the Netziv’s interpretation that the 250 people who joined Korach were in fact great Torah leaders with the most sincere motives.  The lesson: “But our loyalty is to the Torah and to the Jewish people, and with love and with awe we must choose these values over the words of any individual, or group, no matter how great or religious they are.” 
Some people are bothered by the fact that the text lends itself to competing and opposite interpretations.  I think it would be boring if it were any other way.

4) Heard from a graduation speaker: it says “Zos chukas haTorah” and not “chukas hataharah” or “chukas haparah” because the entire Torah, not just this one parsha, is a chukah.  Speaker’s conclusion: “chukah” = from the root “ch-k-k, to engrave; years of education serve to engrave the Torah on the heart.  My conclusion: after years of education at some institutions the entire Torah remains as much an incomprehensible mystery as when you first started school.

Friday, June 20, 2014

im briya yivrah Hashem -- new creations

Chazal tell us that Korach bolstered his argument by rejecting the laws of tziztis.  He dressed his gang in clothes dyed completely in techeiles and asked Moshe whether those clothes still needed that one techeilis string of tzitzis.  What difference does one string make when the entire garment is techeiles?  What difference does one Moshe Rabeinu make when “ki kol ha’eidah kulam kedoshim?” 

Rashi quotes from Chazal that “eino hit’aso,” Korach’s eyes tricked him.  He saw that one of his descendants would be Shmuel haNavi and thought that if he were wrong, surely such illustrious children would not come from his lineage.  The word “tzitzis” comes from the root meaning to see, like the pasuk in Shir haShirim (2:9), “…meitzitz min hacharakim,” looking through the latticework.  Seeing techeiles is supposed to remind a person to look away from the wrong things, “lo tasuru… acharei eineichem, and learn to see through Torah eyes.  Korach’s rejection of the mitzvah of tzitzis goes hand-in-hand with his not being able to see and interpret events properly. 

But, as Rashi asks, Korach was a brilliant individual – how could he have failed to realize that his descendants’ greatness might be due to his children doing teshuvah and following their own path, not to his own merits or success? 

The gemara (Brachos 10) tells us that Chizkiyahu did not want to have children because he saw the wicked Menasheh would come from him.  Yishayahu haNavi told him that making calculations was not his job; Hashem just wanted him to do mitzvos, not worry about the eventual or ultimate outcome.  The gemara (Sanhedrin 103) in fact tells us that Menasheh ended up doing teshuvah.  Even though the midas hadin wanted to reject his repentance, even though the malachim did not want to carry his tefilos up to shamayim, Hashem created a tunnel for him right under his throne so that Menasheh’s repentance could be accepted.  How come Chizkiyahu did not see that part of the story?  The Imrei Emes explains that the midas hadin and the malachim logically were right – Menasheh did not deserve any more chances and there is no way his last minute return should have made a difference.  Chizkiyahu was looking at the world based on those same rules of reason that the malachim were using.  The chance of Menasheh’s teshuvah being accepted was the same as the chance of the sun has of not rising or my dropping a brick and it not falling – the world just doesn’t work that way.  Teshuvah, however, transcends logic, transcends reason, transcends law.  The world as it existed before Menasheh may not have worked that way, but Hashem can create a new tunnel that never existed before right up to his kisei hakavod and suddenly Menasheh is a new Menasheh as well.

Im briya yivrah Hashem…”  Moshe threatened Korach that Hashem was going to create a hole in the ground that had not existed since creation to swallow him up.  Moshe was telling Korach that all his predictions and sevaros and reasoning was predicated on the laws of the universe as-is, like a machine that runs like clockwork from creation onward.  But that’s not reality – G-d can change things in a moment and introduce a hole in creation that had never been there before.  Korach couldn’t see that.  He couldn’t see how his descendants’ could possibly do teshuvah and rise to greatness if he was really wrong and guilty of rebellion.  It made no sense.  And he was right – just as the malachim and midas hadin were right about Menasheh’s teshuvah as well.  But just as Hashem can make a new briya of a hole that never before existed in creation in order to take down wrongdoers, so too he can make tunnels into shamayim that never existed before to welcome back those who truly wish to do teshuvah, as impossible and incredible as it may seem.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

the power of a group

I feel remiss that I did not mention as I have in previous years the beautiful siyum made this past Sunday in my son’s yeshiva.  About 90 boys finished Gittin this year, and others made chazarah siyumim on masechtos done in previous years that they once again finished.  It’s not required by the yeshiva – the boys do it because they want to.  I am usually very critical of what passes for education these days, but every year when I go to the siyum I feel a sense of hakaras hatov to the yeshiva and am inspired by what the boys accomplish.

I usually write over what the guest speaker said, but in this case I just cannot do justice to the derasha given by R’ Yisrael Schorr of Ohr Samayach in Monsey, which was malei v’gadush with mareh mekomos from shas and midrash as he moved m’inyan l’inyan but still managed to tie everything together.  In a nutshell, R’ Schorr explained that gashmiyus is usually a contradiction to ruchniyus (He quoted the GR”A’s explanation that a shtar geirushin is called a “get” because the letters gimel and teis never come together in all Tanach – “get” therefore connotes separation.  But why don’t those letters come together?   Derech derush he suggested that gimel=gashmiyus, while teis = tov, and “ain tov elah Torah,” so the two elements cannot coexist).  However, when we make a siyum we celebrate with gashmiyus, with food and a seudah.  The process of learning begins with toil.  The churban habayis happened because “lo beirchu baTorah techila,” the people did not recite a bracha on the beginning of the learning process (Sefas Emes), when the learning is difficult and not enjoyable.  It’s easy to celebrate and say a bracha when you finish and can sit back and appreciate the fruits of your labor; it’s harder to thank Hashem as you struggle with the difficult sugyos along the way.  But that toil, that struggle, is what elevates a person.  Gan (Eden) = guf and neshoma.  The only way back into the gan is through ameilus in learning.  If a person succeeds, his reward is not only in ruchniyus, but in the ability to appreciate a seudah in gashniyus properly as well.  (Again, this is poor summary of just a taste of what he said.)  

Of course there was a bit of a bittersweet flavor to the event, as we took time from celebrating our teens finishing masechtos to say tehillim for the teens kidnapped in Israel.  Is there anyone not amazed by the  tremendous achdus shown by Klal Yisrael at this time of crisis?  Remember the protest marches, the inflammatory rhetoric, etc. of just a few weeks or even days ago?  Now you have chassidism, chareidim, mizrachiniks, chardal – everyone – davening for these boys.  I saw in an article that over 2000 non-religious Jews came together at a Chabad event on Shabbos in Tel Aviv to daven for these boys.  Of course there are many issues that still divide us.  Too bad it takes tragedy to teach us that despite those problems, we are all still brothers.

Why did Moshe have to change Yehoshua’s name to protect him from the meraglim?  Yehoshua was a brilliant talmid – surely he would have had his guard up and followed Moshe’s advice had Moshe warned him of the danger?  R’ Chatzkel Levenstein explains that the power of a group is a “koach ruchani,” a force that the intelligence and willpower cannot easily overcome, no matter if the person is as great as Yehoshua, no matter that he might have been warned in advance and have his guard up.  If such a force can be harnessed for bad, surely it works for good as well.  When dozens of young men dedicate themselves to finish masechtos, their positive influence has an effect on their peers, their yeshiva, their community. 

R’ Chatzkel explains further that as powerful as the sway of the group might be, we see from the parsha that there is an even great force: the power of tefillah.  Kaleiv escaped the influence of the meraglim by going to daven at the graves of the Avos.  It’s this koach of tefillah that we desperately need these days to see that all works out for the best.

Friday, June 13, 2014

nesachim and challah

Sorry, have not felt much like writing.

Right after the sin of the meraglim we have the parsha of nesachim and the mitzvah of challah.  The Midrash comments as follows:

פתח ר' חנינא (קהלת ט) לך אכול בשמחה לחמך ושתה בלב טוב יינך מהו כי כבר רצה האלהים את מעשיך אכול בשמחה לחמך זו פרשת חלה ושתה בלב טוב יינך זו פרשת נסכים מהו כי כבר רצה וגו' זו הכנסת ישראל לארץ שנא' כי תבאו אל הארץ 

In other words, nesachim and challah were a sign that “kvar ratzah Elokim es ma’asecha” (as the pasuk in Koheles ends), of G-d’s acceptance of the Jewish people despite their failings.   

The Ishbitzer points out that the pasuk in Koheles first refers to bread and then to wine, yet the order in the Torah is reversed – first we have the parsha of nesachim, which involves pouring wine on the mizbeyach, and then afterwards we have the parsha of challah, which is taken when baking bread.  Why does the Torah reverse the order from the order in Koheles?

Challah represents yiras shamayim, wanting to be extra careful and go the extra mile for G-d.  The farmer already took out terumah, took our ma’aser, took out ma’aser sheni or ma’aser ani – he’s shown that he remembers that his crops are dependent on G-d.  Now he comes to bake his bread and he’s still not satisfied – let’s take off one more portion and give it to the kohen just to be safe. 

Nesachim represent the depths of the heart.  The gemara in Sukkah tells us that the wine poured on the mizbeyach went down a hole straight into the deepest depths of the earth. 

In an ideal world challah comes before nesachim, we would build up our yiras shamayim until we felt it penetrate down into the depths of the soul. 

Post-cheit hameraglim is what happens when the the ideal has been shattered.  You can’t talk about building up yiras shamayim until it penetrates down into the heart if you think, “heimasu es levaveinu,” that the heart is completely corrupt and unredeemable.  The Torah therefore reverses the order.  First comes the parsha of nesachim – there is still something down there in the depths that can be reached.  The cheit of a Jew is only on the surface and never fully corrupts the soul.  Once Klal Yisrael absorbed that lesson and believed that they still had a connection, then the Torah gives the parsha of challah and talks about rebuilding yiras shamayim.

The gemara (Brachos 14) says that a person who reads kri’as shema without tefillin is like a person who offers a korban without the nesachim that go with it.  What’s the comparison?  When a person wraps tefillin around his head and his arm he shows that his mind and heart and the actions he takes with his hands are all connected – what he is saying is part of how he thinks, acts, and feels; it’s not just words coming out of his lips.  In light of the Ishbitzer perhaps the gemara means that just as the nesachim drip down to the deepest depths, it’s the donning of tefillin that shows that the message of shema is part of the essence of the person.  (See Shem m’Shmuel for a different interpretation.)

Monday, June 09, 2014

kabbalas haTorah requires self-awareness

When Moshe went up to get the Torah, the angels argued that mankind is undeserving of receiving it.  G-d told Moshe to answer their claim.  Moshe was afraid lest the angels harm him, so G-d told him to grab onto his throne and he would protect him.  Moshe then responded that the words of Torah cannot possibly apply to angels.  Lo tirtzach” – do angels have a temptation to murder?  Lo tignov” – are angels tempted to steal (kidnap)?  Each of the aseres hadibros addresses a frailty that only human beings have.  With this, Moshe won the debate.

Instead of asking Moshe to answer the angels and then having to shield him from harm, why didn’t G-d just answer the angels himself?  After all, it was G-d’s choice to give the Torah to mankind just as much as our choice to receive it!

Maharal in his Derush al haTorah explains that we see from the gemara that Torah was given to mankind because man has imperfections.  Torah is a roadmap to overcome faults and grow – something angels cannot do.  But that process is possible only if one has self-awareness.  Unless a person is cognizant of his own faults and shortcomings, he can never aspire to anything greater.  Therefore, G-d could not answer the angels – the answer had to come from Moshe himself.  Our own kabbalas haTorah as well needs to start with the self-awareness; with the knowledge that we are imperfect and need that roadmap to get somewhere better. 

Friday, June 06, 2014

rebuke demands a reaction

At the end of our parsha Miriam spoke critically of Moshe’s having separated from his wife Tziporah.  Miriam did not understand Moshe’s actions, as she and Aharon were also prophets and they did not separate from their spouses.  Hashem immediately intervened and faulted Miriam for not appreciating that Moshe’s level of prophecy was far greater than that of any other navi, including herself and Aharon.  The Torah then ends the rebuke by telling us (11:9), “Vayichar af Hashem bam va’yeilach,” Hashem was angry and Miriam and Aharon and his presence departed.  Had you asked me, that pasuk should have been the opening to Hashem’s rebuke.  You first get angry and then you let the other person have it – not the other way around.  Why does the Torah place it here, at the end of the section?

I found this Seforno:

 וַיִּחַר אַף ה' בָּם. שֶׁלּא נִכְנְעוּ תֵּיכֶף כְּמו שֶׁעָשָה דָּוִד בְּאָמְרו אֶל נָתָן "חָטָאתִי"

The anger of Hashem that the pasuk is referring to is not a result of what Miriam said – that was already addressed by G-d’s rebuke.  The anger of Hashem is a result of Miriam’s lack of reaction to that rebuke.  When Nasan came and told David that he had done something wrong, David immediately responded, “Chatasi,” with an admission of guilt.  The Torah does not record a similar reaction on the part of Miriam and Aharon.  It’s not what they said that kindled Hashem’s anger, but rather it was the lack of immediate contrition once they knew they had done wrong.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

nature vs nurture

V’kol ha’am ro’im es hakolos… va’yar ha’am va’yanu’u...” (Shmos 20:15)

 וְכָל הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת הַקּוֹלֹת וְאֶת הַלַּפִּידִם וְאֵת קוֹל הַשֹּׁפָר וְאֶת הָהָר עָשֵׁן וַיַּרְא הָעָם וַיָּנֻעוּ וַיַּעַמְדוּ מֵרָחֹק:

Why does the pasuk repeat two times that the people saw, “ro’im” and then “va’yar?” And why does the pasuk change the tense of the verb?  R’ Tzadok haKohen explains that “va’yar” refers to those who stood at Sinai and witnessed mattan Torah; “ro’im” in the present tense refers to us.  The experience of mattan Torah reverberates through history so that we can still hear and feel it in our time as well.

The gemara says that R’ Yosef remarked that if not for this day [of Shavuos], he would just be another Joe in the marketplace.  R’ Tzadok asks: were there no great people before mattan Torah?  Even before the Avo,s there was Chanoch, there was Mesushelach.  Why was Rav Yosef convinced that he would have been a nothing had there not been a mattan Torah?

There is a big debate whether intelligence or other traits are a product of nature or nurture.  Is a brilliant person born a genius because he has genius genes, or does he become a genius because of how he is raised or how he works to develop himself?  Pre-mattan Torah, great people became great by dint of their own effort.  At mattan Torah things changed.  The Jewish people were given Torah as a “morasha,” an inheritance.  You don’t need to do work to earn an inheritance – it’s bestowed upon you without your having to do anything.  It’s part of your nature, not something you need to nurture and develop. 

R’ Tzadok reminds us of the gemara at the end of Sotah where R’ Yosef held himself up as the exemplar of anavah, modesty.  R’ Yosef surely was aware of his greatness in Torah.  What the gemara means is that he did not attribute his success to his own talents and efforts – he attributed his greatness to the experience of mattan Torah that implanted Torah within him, as part of his nature.  I don’t know if there is a Jewish gene for smarts, or for other talents, but there is a Jewish gene for limud haTorah that each one of us possesses.

Monday, June 02, 2014

why the parsha of sotah followed by the parsha of nazir belong in Naso

While on the topic of the Ralbag, let me mention his beautiful explanation of why the parsha of sotah followed by the parsha of nazir belong here in Naso.  The parsha of Bamidbar and the beginning of Naso focus on the arrangement of the machaneh – who camps where, what everyone’s job is.  The Torah wants to establish order on the macro- level to ensure a peaceful society.  The parsha then turns to the micro- level, to the family, to establishing peace between husband and wife through the pasha of sotah.  Finally, the parsha zeroes in on the individual, the person torn between his role as a regular individual who must deal with mundane life, yet someone who desires spiritual growth and closeness to G-d akin to the kohen or levi.

brisker rav on the mitzvah of carrying the aron

The footnotes to the Mossad haRav Kook edition of the Ralbag are medayek that in his explanation of the parsha he discusses the Levi’im’s role in carrying all the klei hamikdash, but at the end of the parsha when he sums up the take away points he only mentions their job of carrying the aron.  Why did he omit carrying the klei hamikdash?

The Rambam in Sefer haMitzvos shoresh 3 writes that the din of “lo ya’avod od,” that a Levi who is past 50 years old can no longer do the job of carrying, is not counted as a mitzvah l’doros.  Ramban takes issue with this idea, as we see that even later in Tanach whenever the aron was moved it was carried on the shoulders of Levi’im.  The Brisker Rav (michtavim at the end of Ch haGRI”Z) writes that there are two dinim in carrying the aron: 1) there is the mitzvah of carrying the klei hamikdash, including the aron, which the Levi’im are charged with in our parsha; 2) there is a separate mitzvah of carrying the aron – “Ba’eis ha’hi hivdil Hashem es sheivet haLevi la’seis es aron bris Hashem…” (Devarim 10:8)  The Rambam rejects “lo ya’avod od” as a mitzvah l’doros as there is no din l’doros of moving klei hamikdash, especially once the Beis haMikdash was built; however, the Rambam in his count of mitzvos aseh lists carrying the aron by kohanim (not Levi'im) as a seperate mitzvah.  Ramban does not disagree as a matter of principle that carrying the aron is a seperate mitzvah.  However, he argues that when the Levi’im perform this task, all the requirements of avodah by levi’im mentioned in our parsha are in force.

It could be that the Ralbag deliberately does not mention the klei hamikdash as a takeaway l’doros, but mentions carrying the aron in keeping with this idea that only carrying the aron is a mitzvah l'doros.  The only little problem I have is that the takeaway l’doros belongs in parsha Eikev, not here.