• Dvar for Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)

    Among many other housekeeping items, Parshat Bamidbar lists the grouping and order in which the people camped and traveled in the desert. Rabbi Frand points out two very curious names, for the tribes of Asher and Naftali (2:27-29). Asher’s prince was Pagiel the son of Ochran, where “ocher” implies one who perverts.” Naftali’s prince was Achira the son of Enan, and “Achi-ra” literally means “bad brother.” Why would parents name their children “pervert” or “bad brother”?

    Rabbeinu Ephraim (one of the authors of Tosfot) offers an explanation: The tribe of Dan was known to have worshipped idols, and the tribes of Asher and Naftali were grouped with Dan in the desert. To counter the possible effects of complacency, acceptance and possible influence of a bad neighbor, those tribal leaders assumed new names not given to them by their parents. These new names would serve as constant reminders that although they/we sometimes face situations we cannot control, we should always strive to preserve our high standards. 

  • Dvar for Matot-Maasei (Numbers 30:2-36:13)

    After Moshe lost an entire generation of Jews because they resisted entering the land of Israel, in Parshat Matot they seem to be doing the exact same thing. As they prepare to enter the land, the shevatim (tribes) of Reuven and Gad approach Moshe with a similar request. This time they claim to want to “build for their flocks and cities for the small children” (32:16). After warning them not to make the same mistake as the previous generation, Moshe agrees to let them live outside of the Promised Land, but appears to bargain with them by getting them to agree to help the others fight for the land first. Why did Moshe agree to let them live outside of the promised land, and what did he bargain for?

    A closer inspection of the dialogue helps us answer these questions, and can help us understand the importance of setting priorities. When Moshe responds to them (32:24), he tells them to “build for yourselves cities for your small children and pens for your flocks”, exactly the opposite order in which they asked. What Moshe was really telling them was that if they’re really looking out for the well-being of their children, then look after them (i.e. their perspectives) before building yourselves cities and buildings. This can also be why he allowed them to settle outside the Land altogether: Moshe understood that it wasn’t that the tribes lacked faith in their destiny, because they were willing to fight for it with everyone else, but rather that from their perspective living right outside the Land would be better for them logistically. Being able to accept other perspectives, despite initial fears and uncertainties, is the true test of being a thoughtful Jew, a positive parent and an understanding person.

  • Dvar for Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)

    After Bila’am’s failed efforts to curse the Jewish people, he devised another ploy. He advised the nations of Midian and Moav to lure the Jews to sin through salacious activities. Midian complied wholeheartedly, offering its daughters as conspirators in the profanity. The scheme worked, and the wrath of Hashem was aroused. A plague ensued and thousands of Jews died. In this week’s Parsha, Pinchas, G-d commands his people to administer justice. “Make the Midianites your enemies and attack them!” The issue that may confront the modern thinker is simple. War? Over what? They were not fighting over land or oil. Why such vehemence to the point of physical attack over the incident at Peor?

    Rabbi Eliezer Sorotzkin related the following story: In November 1938, before the onset of World War II, some Jewish children had the opportunity to escape from Nazi Germany and resettle in England through what became known as kindertransport. Unfortunately, there were not enough religious families able to accept these children and other families who were willing to take them were not willing to raise the children with Jewish traditions. The Chief Rabbi of London, Rabbi Yechezkel Abramski, embarked on a frantic campaign to secure funding to ensure that every child would be placed in a proper Jewish environment. Rabbi Abramski called one wealthy Jewish industrialist and begged him for a donation sizable enough to ensure that the children would be raised in proper Jewish environment. “It is pikuach nefesh” cried Rabbi Abramski.

    At that point, the tycoon became incensed. “Rabbi,” he said, “Please do not use that term flippantly. I know what pikuach nefesh is. Pikuach nefesh means a matter of life and death! When I was young, my parents were very observant. When my baby sister was young, she was very sick. We had to call the doctor, but it was on Shabbos. My father was very conscientious of the sanctity of Shabbos, but our rabbi told us that since this is a matter of life and death, we were allowed to desecrate the Shabbos. Rabbi Abramski,” the man implored, “with all due respect. The children are already here in England. They are safe from the Nazis. The only issue is where to place them. How they are raised is not pikuach nefesh!” With that, the man politely bade farewell and hung up the phone.

    That Friday evening, the wealthy man was sitting at dinner, when the telephone rang incessantly. Finally, the man got up from his meal and answered the phone. As he listened to the voice on the other end of the line, his face went pallid. “This is Abramski. Please. I would not call on the Sabbath if I did not think this was pikuach nefesh. Again, I implore you. We need the funds to ensure that these children will be raised as Jews.” Needless to say, the man responded immediately to the appeal.

    We understand matters of life and death, justice and injustice, war and peace, in corporeal terms. It is difficult to view spirituality in those terms as well, but the Torah teaches us that our enemies are not merely those who threaten our physical existence, but those who threaten our spiritual existence as well. What our enemies were unable to do to the Jewish people with bullets and gas, they have succeeded in doing with assimilation and spiritual attrition. The Torah teaches us that the physical world and the spiritual world are inseparable. An attack on spirituality breaches the borders of our very essence, and our response must be in kind. It is essential to know that when we do some serious soul-searching there is really something out there waiting to be found.

  • Dvar for Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9)

    This week’s Parsha tells us a story about Balak, who commissioned Bilam to curse the Jews, since he was known to have abilities equal to those of Moshe. The twist in the story is that G-d tells Bilam that he shouldn’t travel to curse the Jews, and even if he decides to go, he mustn’t curse them, but must instead repeat whatever he’s told. On the way to curse the Jews (yes, he decided to proceed anyway), Bilam’s donkey was confronted by an angel who was sent to remind him that he shouldn’t be going, and that even once he arrived at his destination his words would be limited. Several times the donkey saw the angel and moved out of the way, only to be hit by Bilam for straying. Finally, the donkey miraculously spoke, rebuking Bilam for hitting him.

    In this story there are several glaring difficulties: 1) If Bilam wanted to curse the Jews, why was he asking G-d for permission? Further, once he was told that he shouldn’t and couldn’t curse, why did he go? 2) Why was it necessary for Bilam’s donkey to begin speaking? If G-d had a message to give Bilam, why couldn’t He just tell it to him, as He had done in the past?

    As the Birchat Peretz helps to explain, the answer lies in the way we interpret things, and our motives behind them. On one hand, Bilam really wanted the power and wealth that would have come with cursing the Jews, so that when G-d gave him permission to travel to the Jews, he was hoping it would grant him permission to curse them too. On the other hand, the donkey which didn’t have personal desires influencing him, was able to rebuke Bilam with honest, straightforward arguments, not tainted with personal agendas. Bilam justified what he wanted to do based on things he thought he heard or understood. It’s frightening to consider that one of the wisest people in that generation could let his heart dictate what he hears, and confuse what he knows is right.

    So the next time we find ourselves trying to justify our position when we know we’re probably stretching the truth, all we have to do is ask: Would an honest donkey agree with the way we’re thinking? And if we feel a tinge of doubt, consider ourselves rebuked, and think again.

  • Dvar for Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

    Nature dictates that children look somewhat like their parents, fruits look like other similar fruits, and animals act in predictable ways. But if that were always true, then how do the laws of the Red cow, brought in Parshat Chukat, make sense? How could the impure be purified, while the pure become impure? How do these things make sense, if there is to be order in nature and creation?

    The Mofet Hador explains that we too were all given opposing forces. We were given the Torah, which tells us of these and other ‘contradictions’, and we were given the brain that wonders about all of it. The Parsha starts by helping us deal with these, and other issues. ‘This is the law of the Torah” …our laws make sense, even if we don’t understand them. We’re limited in our wisdom. In fact, Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon), who was given all the knowledge, couldn’t understand the laws of the Red Cow, and said, “It is far from me”. The logic is there, but none can discern it, and that too is part of nature. So when we come to a fork in our lives, and we’re deciding whether to do what we know we should or what we think we could, we should remember this lesson: Our minds might be limited in understanding, but the Torah’s wisdom is eternal.

  • Dvar for Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32)

    After hearing the complaints of the rebellious Korach and his associates, Moshe cries out to G-d not to accept their offerings and insists that he had never wronged any of them in any way. As Moshe knew that his actions were legitimate, why was he so seemingly defensive about Korach’s criticism? After all, G-d knew that Moshe was in the right and had not wronged Korach or his allies – why did Moshe feel the need to make his case before Him?

    Daniel Lifshitz suggests that perhaps we can answer based on a comment of the Tiferet Yisrael to the Mishna in Avot, “Who is wise? He who learns from every person.” The Tiferet Yisrael notes that some of the most important people to learn from are those who dislike us. They are the ones who shine a spotlight on our every shortcoming. Their criticism may include much exaggeration or even outright falsehood, but often it also contains a grain of truth. Focusing on these grains of truth can help us learn what areas of our conduct or character could use improvement. Moshe understood this concept and when Korach hurled accusations at him, he took advantage of the opportunity for honest self-assessment. His conclusion was that the complaints were baseless and said as much to Hashem, but only after going through introspection and accounting before Hashem. This type of reaction goes against most people’s instincts, but it can help turn unpleasant situations into opportunities for personal growth.

  • Dvar for Shelach (Numbers 13:1-15:41)

    Among the questions about the land of Canaan that Moshe commanded the twelve spies to investigate was “does it have trees or not?” and then added “you should take from the fruit of the land.”  Rashi cites a midrash explaining that this question was not literally about trees, but rather whether there were upright people in the land whose merit might protect the inhabitants. The Satmar Rav (quoted in Talelei Orot) asks a question on the Midrash:  How were the spies to determine if there were upright individuals in the land?  We all know that there are plenty of phonies around and sometimes the person with the most pious exterior is disguising a rotten core.

    The Rav explains that “you should take from the fruit of the land” was Moshe’s advice on how to investigate the true character of the Canaanites.  Look at their “fruit,” their children and their students. A person can easily fool the casual observer, but children and students are acutely sensitive to hypocrisy.  If there were truly upright and righteous people among the Canaanites, the spies would find upright and righteous children and students; but if there was no proper “fruit” to be found, then the “trees” were absent as well.  May we merit to have the sincerity and integrity to be “trees” that produce the proper fruit.

  • Dvar for Beha’alotcha (Numbers 8:1-12:17)

    Chapter 11 of the book of Bemidbar marks a sharp turning point in the trajectory of the story.  The previous chapters emphasized the holiness of the Israelite camp and their closeness to G-d, but chapter 11 begins a series of sins that will lead to a distancing from G-d and 40 years of wandering in the desert.  This transition begins with the verse, “the people were ke’mitoninim (like mitoninim), evil in the ears of G-d.” The word mitoninim is very unusual, and the commentators grapple both with what it means as well as why the people are described as “like” mitoninim as opposed to actually being mitoninim.

    The Ramban explains that mitoninim comes from a root word that means suffering; the Jews began complaining as if they were suffering greatly, despite the fact that G-d was providing all their needs (literally, manna from heaven). The Abarbanel believes that the proper root word is one that means to find a pretext; the people were trying to find a pretext in order to speak against G-d.  Still, why does it say “like trying to find a pretext” as opposed to simply “trying to find a pretext”?

    He explains that the people’s challenges and statements against G-d were never stated in an outright fashion but instead were expressed through jokes and snide comments.  The “ke” (“like”) illustrates an important reality.  Offhanded comments can be as corrosive as outright attacks, and are arguably more dangerous because they are more acceptable to say.  If a child constantly hears negative comments about a person, institution or G-d himself, even if they are ostensibly jokes, it will almost certainly erode their respect for the subject of the jokes.  The jokes are likely to have a similar effect on the speaker as well. This teaches us how careful we must be to avoid even joking speech that will be damaging, and instead use words that will be rewarding.

  • Dvar for Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89)

    From Rabbi Avi Weiss…

    Perhaps the most famous blessing is found in this week’s Torah portion. The Birkat Cohanim, the priestly benediction is recited by the priest and by parents to their children every Friday night (Numbers 6:24-26.) The benediction is divided into three sentences each containing two important elements; G-d’s blessing, and a prayer to avoid possible pitfalls of the blessing.

    In the first part, the priest states: “May G-d bless you and keep you.” The Sifrei understands this to refer to monetary benefits. But money has the potential to corrupt. Therefore a blessing for money is not complete unless accompanied by an assurance of protection  from its dangers. Hence the last word of the sentence, “May the Lord guard you.”

    In the second section, the priest states: “May the Lord cause His light to shine upon you.” The light of G-d is often associated with Torah knowledge (Proverbs 6:23.) However, while one can know every word of Torah, one can still lack the ability to interact and engage others in an appropriate manner. Hence, this blessing concludes with the word, vi’chuneka, from the word chen, grace. This last statement is telling us to remain gracious to others because knowledge often makes one insular – even arrogant.

    In the final part, the priest states,” May G-d lift His face to be near you.” This blessing expresses the hope that one should always feel the presence of G-d, for too often we sense that G-d’s face is hidden from us (the Hebrew word yisah, to lift, is the opposite of G-d being lowered or hidden.) Although we hope to always be absorbed in G-d’s presence, sometimes even that experience can distort one’s perception of how to change the world. Too often, people have done dastardly things in the name of G-d. Therefore, the text concludes, with a blessing of a grounded belief in G-d, of shalom, coming from the word shalem, whole. This threefold blessing reminds us that there is no absolute good. Every step forward always contains the possibility of unforeseen problems. May we be blessed with this continual awareness.

  • Dvar for Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)

    Parshat Bamidbar, among many other things, subtly contrasts the effects of a good neighbor vs a bad one. In describing the camp arrangements, the Kehat family (Korach and his gang) camped “southward” (3:29), as did Reuven (2:10), to which Rash comments that “woe to an evil person, woe to his neighbors.” Similarly, Yehuda, YIssachar and Zevulun got to live next door to Moshe and Aaron (3:39) and benefited, to which Rashi points out that “happy is a righteous person, happy is his neighbor.” As Elisha Greenbaum points out (Chabad.org), however, there is a difference between the two…

    With Moses and Aaron living nearby, three entire tribes benefited and their positive influence lasted throughout history. Contrast this with the pernicious effect of living next to Korach; only a tiny fraction of the one tribe living closest was negatively influenced. Even when the negative influence is right next door, you have the ability to resist their blandishments by connecting to G‑d and his Torah. You’ll also notice that both of Rashi’s comments focus on the person, and our effect on our neighbors. We have the power to affect our neighbors positively or negatively, so long as we resist the negative influences around us, and choose to be propelled by the positive ones.

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