Parshat Vayelech 5779

Parshat Vayelech 5779

In Parshat Vayelech, Moses tells the Israelites that although he won’t be entering Israel with them, God will be with them and will triumph as long as they keep the covenant. Moses tells the people “I am no longer able to go out and come in…” (Deuteronomy 31:2). What this refers to is the fact that he will not lead them into the Promised Land and into war. The Or Hachayyim explains that Moses wanted to explain to the people why he was convinced that he would die on that day. It is not in the nature of the religious to let onto their peers that they have some superior perceptions; this would be arrogant. This is why Moses cited two different reasons: 1) I am unable to lead you in war, i.e. I no longer have God’s permission to do so. This permission has now been given to Joshua. 2) God has told me: “you will not cross this river Jordan.” From these two indicators it was clear to Moses that he had outlived his usefulness and was about to die. The sequence of the words “and the Lord had said to me, etc…” which follow so closely on Moses’ statement: “ I cannot go out, etc,” indicate his loyalty as a servant of the Creator. He suggested by this sequence that if, per chance, this same God would now give him instructions to cross the Jordan, he, Moses, would gird himself and be ready to lead the Israelites across though he did not feel capable of doing so at the moment. The only reason he did not insist on doing so was that God had told him not to.

 

 

Moses calls Joshua to command him to settle the people in the land. The Alshekh states that Joshua’s function is to be viewed NOT as THE CONQUEROR. The Torah emphasizes that you will come with the people, instead of you will bring the people, as stated later in verse 23. Had Moses said to Joshua publicly in v.7, what he said to him privately in v.23, Joshua’s function could have been misunderstood. Since the statement in v.23 however, was not made ‘le’eynei bnai israel’ – in the presence of the Jewish people, no misunderstanding was likely. Joshua’s courage was needed, since, de facto, he was to be the leader. As long as the people view Joshua as one of them, they will be satisfied that God is doing the fighting for them. It states “The Lord will not let you weaken” (Deuteronomy 31:8). Joshua need not fear or be faint-hearted, because God will walk ahead of the nation.

 

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

Parshat Nitzavim 5778

Parshat Nitzavim 5778

Surely this Instruction (i.e. mitzvah) that I command you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it too us, that we may observe it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it. No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Deuteronomy 30:1)

The rabbis debated what specifically this “instruction” or “mitzvah” is. Most commentators say that the mitzvah is t’shuvah, repentance, which explains why the Torah portion Nitzavim might come just before Rosh Hashanah. Each of us begins this High Holiday season in a state of chet (sin), which the great Rav Kook taught is a state of alienation and separation from our true tasks and true identity. Only through t’shuvah(repentance/return) is a corrective possible, and only through t’shuvah can we come back whole-heartedly to ourselves, families, friends and colleagues, community, Torah and God. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik taught that sin isn’t just limited to our lack of observance of some ritual and ethical law. It includes our obligation to ‘get right’ with our own souls, to focus more on the life of our higher intuitive purposes. Soloveitchik teaches that “Returning to the heart” is the first necessary step in that spiritual process.

There is a Yemenite midrash that says the following:  “They say to a person: ‘Go to a certain town and learn Torah there.’ But the person answers: ‘I’m afraid of the lions that I’ll encounter on the way.’ So they say: ‘You can go and learn in another town that’s closer.’ But the person replies: ‘I’m afraid of the thieves.’ So they suggest: ‘There’s a sage in your own city. Go and learn from him.’ But the person replies: ‘What if I find the door locked, and I have to return to where I am?’ So they say: ‘There’s a teacher sitting and teaching right here in the chair next to you.’ But the person replies: ‘You know what? What I really want to do is go back to sleep!’ This is what the Book of Proverbs (26:14, 16) refers to when it says, ‘The door is turning upon its hinges, and the sluggard (i.e. lazy one) is still upon his bed…the sluggard is wiser in his own eyes that seven that give wise counsel.’” (Yalkut Midreshei Teiman)

Rabbi J. Rosove of Hollywood, California, explains: “Change is always difficult, often threatening, sometimes destabilizing, and frequently disruptive. Changing the way we eat or neglect our health, how we control our passions and anger, refuse to leave relationships that are destructive or change from a job that’s killing us, or take charge of our addictions that enslave us, or control an expense account that’s bankrupting us – all change relative to these destructive parts of our lives require enormous acts of clear-thinking and will.. .It’s time, however, to make those changes. No one is stopping us except ourselves.”

 

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

Parshat Ki Tavo 5778

Parshat Ki Tavo 5778

The first eleven verses of this parshah deal with the laws surrounding the first fruits and the acknowledgement of Divine Providence. It reminds the Israelites that G-d saved them and fed them in the desert, and that they, in turn have to be thankful and donate the first fruits to G-d. With regard to what happened the Israelites at the hand of the Egyptians, the Torah states “And the Egyptians dealt ill with us and afflicted us…” (Deuteronomy 26:6). The Or Hachayyim says that what this verse describes is the utter inability of the victim (Israelites) to resist their attacker anymore (Egyptians). Figuratively speaking, he sees this as an attack of the evil inclination on people. He relates an interesting story involving this point in Kiddushin 81 involving Rabbi Amram who was well known as Rabbi Amram the pious. Some female prisoners from the rabbi’s town of Nephardea had been rescued from their captors by men of his town, and entrusted their care to Rabbi Amram. The rabbi provided accommodations for them in the second floor of his house and removed the staircase leading to the upper floor as a precaution to protect the chastity of these girls or women. It happened that when one of the girls passed the space near where the ladder used to stand,  Rabbi Amram experienced a sudden shaft of light which he considered as due to the physical beauty of that girl. This caused the evil spirit within him to be aroused to the point where he tried to put the ladder back in place. Although the ladder was far too heavy for one man to carry, his urge was so strong that he managed it. At the last moment before completing the climbing of the ladder, he was able to shout for help exclaiming that there was a fire in the house, which needed to be extinguished. Naturally, the townspeople, including the local scholars, came to help and when they became aware of the true state of affairs, they chided Rabbi Amram for embarrassing them in such a way. Rabbi Amram retorted that it was better both for them and himself to be embarrassed before their peers on earth rather than be embarrassed after his departure from earth in the celestial regions in front of all the righteous who would be keeping company with G-d. The Rabbi implored the evil urge to leave him, whereupon the latter departed in a column of fire. Thereupon Rabbi Amram said to the evil urge: “although you are a column of fire and I am only flesh and blood, I am superior to you.”

 

​At the conclusion of the parshah, we read what the tribulations of exile will be. It states: “And the Lord shall scatter thee among the peoples…thou shalt serve other gods which thou hast not known, thou nor they fathers, even wood and stone” (Deuteronomy 28:64). Abarbanel explains that this fate of the Jews is part of the retribution of the Jews for the sins – the tochechah. They would be forced to serve idols not out of conviction, but against their will – knowing it to be false and foolish. This, Nechama Leibowitz adds, is a terrible fate and punishment for having worshipped idols of their own free will in their ancestral homeland. Issac Arama, a contemporary of Abarbanel (who also lived during the time of the Spanish expulsion) finds an illusion in the Torah to his troublous times: We may possibly find an allusion in this verse to the time when thousands of Jews would change their religion as a result of suffering and persecution. Regarding this the Torah states “ and among these nations thou shalt have no repose.” For although they would assimilate among the nations, they would not find relief since the nations would still constantly revile and denounce them as relapsed converts. We have seen this in our day (i.e. Middle Ages) when a part have perished in the flames of the inquisition, a part has fled, and yet others continue to live in fear of their lives. Indeed as is foretold in Scriptures, we have no rest among the nations and our lives stand in doubt before us. We have not been so fortunate as the ten tribes who, when they were exiled, were not scattered, but were subject to a foreign yoke as one people in Assyria and Babylon. We, however, were dispersed in all parts of the world, persecuted on all sides, and we have no ease or rest in all our habitations until there is no city or state where we do not suffer repressive measures.

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

 

Parshat Ki Teitze 5778

Parshat Ki Teitze 5778

In this week’s parshah, we learn about war, and the circumstances surrounding it. The parshah begins by stating: When you go to war against your enemies…” (Deuteronomy 21:10). The Or Hachayyim asks why the Torah needed to write this whole introduction when it would have sufficed to write: “when you see an attractive woman among the prisoners, etc…” The whole of verse one seems extraneous to the subject matter under discussion. Furthermore, seeing the Torah did decide to write: “when you go out to war against your enemies, etc.,” why did we need the words “against your enemies?” Against whom does one go to war if not against one’s enemies? He answers that perhaps the reason is to be found in halakhic relaxations that apply to troops in wartime. A woman such as the attractive woman prisoner mentioned here would be totally out of bounds if not for the fact that she was captured in war; the same applies to other relaxations of the halakhah such as the prohibition of eating the hind parts of the pig. This gave rise to the Torah using a different style in this instance. Seeing that the soldier was aware of the halakhic relaxations which are applicable even to Torah law under conditions of war, the Torah was concerned lest some of the soldiers would actually look forward to the battle in order to avail themselves of these relaxations of Torah law. The Torah was keenly aware of this and reminded the soldier that when he goes to war, his only purpose should be to avenge himself on the enemies of the Jewish people, not in order to have an excuse to indulge in things which are normally forbidden. The words “ki tetzeh”, “when you go out”, are a reminder that although you depart from the normal rules of halakhic restrictions when your life is at stake, your mind must concentrate only on the war, on the battle, not on what you consider as the fringe benefits. The reason that the Torah adds the words “against your enemies,”, is to remind you that your enemies are God’s enemies, as we have been told by David in Psalms 139:21: “ O Lord, You know I hate those who hate You, and I loathe your adversaries.” Your entire reason for going to war must be for this sole purpose. If that will be the case, the the Torah’s assurance: “and the Lord your God will deliver them into your hand” will be fulfilled. From verse 1, you may therefore deduce that unless your motivation is the one the Torah expects of you, your success will not be assured.

 

The Torah tells us to put up preventive safeguards against damage caused by one’s property, as it states in Deuteronomy 22:8:  “ If you build a new house, you shall make a fence for your roof, so that you will not place blood in your house if a fallen one falls from it.” The Alshekh explains that the railing on your roof prevents you from becoming indirectly involved should someone fall from your roof. Even assuming that such a fall would not have occurred if the party falling were not in some way guilty, that person’s guilt might not have been sufficient to cause his death, had you not facilitated it by your negligence. Though both vineyard and fields are wholesome, and though you are to plan both, mixing species that do not belong together is something God knows more about than you do. Similarly, the degree of your contribution to someone falling off your roof due to the absence of a railing is beyond your ability to understand.

 

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

Parshat Shoftim 5778

Parshat Shoftim 5778

This week’s Torah portion and much of the book of Deuteronomy are the Constitution upon which our ancestors established the ancient Land of Israel. Standing on the bank of the Jordan River, Moses declares God’s law and the conditions upon which the people may possess the land. And, like our Constitution, the Torah places great emphasis on Justice. In the opening verses of this week’s portion we read the famous words: “tzedek, tzedek tirdof…”Rabbi Salomon Gruenwald comments that  most translations understand the repetition of the word tzedek here as emphasis: “Justice, Justice shall you pursue.” A better translation would treat the second appearance of the wordtzedek as a modifier to the first, as in the phrase just two verses before – “mishpat tzedek” (righteous judgment). Therefore, “Tzedek, tzedek…” means “just justice” or “righteous justice” – that is to say, justice that is attained through just means.   But we can’t stop there, the verse continues: “tzedek, tzedek tirdof l’ma’an tikhye vyarashta et ha-aretz asher HaShem Elokekha noten lach.” “Righteous justice shall you pursuein order that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” That is to say, that the ideal of justiceprecedes even the country itself. It means that our very claim to the land is predicated on establishing justice within our borders. Notice all the various ways in which we are beckoned to pursue justice – justice both in outcome and in means. So important is this mandate for justice that even the king of Israel is commanded to review the law continuously. You’ll note that in 17:18, the King of Israel is required to keep a copy of the Torah next to his throne and read it throughout his life. This means to tell us that in a country established upon the principle of Justice, no person is above the law. It means to tell us that before all else, we must put ourideals first.

 

It is also the month of Elul. The holy Baal Shem Tov taught that during the month of Elul, the KING IS IN THE FIELD. Every one of us can approach Hashem, directly, informally. We don’t need to pass through guarded gates and chambers of inquiry and examination, in order to get to the King. The King is in the field! When you approach “the King” in the field, you approach Hashem, as Hashem whom you, the real inner you, relates to.
Much of our relationships [all kinds] and behaviors have been determined and affected by formality and structure [which to be sure are also very important]. However during the month of Ellul, we are not approaching Hashem through the veils of formality, in which one can hide from one’s inner self. The palace, the guards, the entourage, the grandeur are not there to give definition to your belief in Hashem, and to your relationship with Hashem.
The King is completely approachable; you can discover what Hashem really means to you, in your insides, in your ‘kishkes’. Hashem is in the field to meet you, the real you, to relate to you in the deepest way. It is from this deep encounter that you receive the knowledge, the strength and guidance, and the love to do the fixing of the inner self.
Hashem comes out into the field and is so to speak letting us know “Rachmana leeba ba’ee”– the compassionate One desires the heart! Hashem is longing for a deep personal and intimate connection with us so we should not let Him down.

 

Parshat Re’eh 5778

Parshat Re’eh 5778

Re’eh features the foundational sources of several holidays. Every Jewish holiday is accompanied by basic fundamental questions. The classic example is Pesach, filled with questions such as: Why do we eat matzo? And why four cups of wine?  Sukkot’s basic question is why do we celebrate Sukkot when we do? Rabbi Yaakov Baal Haturim, a 14th century Spanish scholar, suggests that we intentionally construct the sukkah, a hut or booth, in the chillier fall season in order to attract attention. He comments that, “Even though He took us out of Egypt on the month of Nissan, He did not command us to make a sukkah at that time, because it is the summer time when people already make sukkot for shade, and therefore if we sat in sukkot then it would not be obvious that we are doing so because it is commanded by the Creator. Rather, we do so in Tishri, during the rainy season, a time when people are leaving their shade-huts and moving indoors, thereby distinguishing that we are building sukkot for the specific purpose of fulfilling the commandment.”

Rabbi Ori Melamed (of Rutger University’s Hillel) explains: ‘In other words, we celebrate Sukkot at the “wrong time.” Perhaps we should be sitting in the sukkah on the night of the Seder. After all, that is when we went out of Egypt. So why do we wait half a year? The answer of the Baal Haturim at first seems strange. To sit in the sukkah in the spring – that would be too easy. Let’s see you sit outside in the cold and rain! That’s serious! Or as my grandmother would say, “It’s no trick to make chocolate mousse from good chocolate cream and eggs. The trick is to make it from breadcrumbs and sugar!  Is there perhaps a deeper notion here than merely the idea of challenging ourselves? Sukkot follows the end of summer, filled with outdoor social activities. It also comes at the end of the High Holidays, a time of spiritual elevation and moral improvement. Before we move indoors for the winter, totally sheltering ourselves within our homes, Sukkot comes to teach us the meaning of true shelter inside a home. Looking up in the sukkah, we see heaven as a roof over our heads, and are reminded of a different kind of security in the world than the security of a home with four walls and a locked door. More so, in contrast to our notion of private property and private space, the doors to the sukkah are always open, signifying that our homes should always be open and welcoming to guests. In reality, Sukkot’s occurrence during the rainy and cold fall is not meant to simply make celebrating a more challenging experience. Instead, Sukkot was moved from the spring to the fall in order to give us a timely training seminar in kindness and hospitality. It helps us realize we must always welcome others into our homes and our lives, even when the task is not easily completed. Although Sukkot may still be a little bit away, we at Hillel can still draw valuable principles from the lessons of Sukkot. As we prepare for students returning to campus, we should take the time to reflect and consider how we can better create an atmosphere that truly welcome students into Jewish spaces and invites them to open our doors.’

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim