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

    Parshat Korach relates the story of Korach, Datan, Aviram and 250 members of the shevet (tribe) of Reuven challenging Moshe’s choice for Kohen Gadol (high priest). The end result was that the 250 members were burned by a heavenly fire, and the three leaders were miraculously swallowed by the earth. From a motive perspective, Korach’s actions makes the most sense because he felt slighted for not having been chosen himself, and had something to potentially gain by complaining. But why would 250 people follow him to their certain death, with apparently little to gain?

    The answer can be found in Rashi, the great medieval commentator, who writes that just as Korach’s family camped on the southern side of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), so did the tribe of Reuven. Rashi quotes the words of Chapters of the Fathers, “woe to an evil person, and woe to their neighbor.” The 250 people met their demise simply because they were influenced by their neighbors. This points to the awesome influence that friends, neighbors and associates have on us. Who we surround ourselves with is a matter of life and death. Do we have positive friends and neighbors? And just as importantly, are WE positive friends and neighbors to others?

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

    Parshat Shelach contains the famous story of the spies that are sent in to check out Canaan, which would later become Israel. The decision to send the twelve spies, however, was made by the people, as G-­d previously assured the Jews that He would take care of everything. But they insisted on seeing for themselves, and were instructed to send the spies of their own accord (13:2). The tribe leaders went in to spy, and came back with an awful report, scaring the Jews into wanting to go back to Egypt. What happened to the faith in G­-d, and with all His open miracles? What happened to the spies that they didn’t realize that everything they saw in Canaan was actually a blessing (1 – They saw huge fortresses, but that really meant that people in them were scared of something, 2 – They saw people dying, but G-­d made it that someone died when the spies came, so that the inhabitants would be preoccupied with burying them and not notice the spies, etc.)?

    The answer lies in their very first mistake… They wanted to see the land through their own pessimistic eyes, and that’s what they got to see. Seeing things without the proper perspective can make even positive things look bad, even if you’re a tribe leader that people depend on and look up to, even if you’ve witnessed countless miracles in your life, and even if G­-d just told you that He’s on your side. What seemed like a harmless request turned out to be a disaster that cost the Jews 39 more years in the desert. They could have done it right had they done what Yehoshua (Joshua) did: put G-­d’s name first (Yud, the letter representing G-­d added to the beginning of his).

    We too can look at the world and at our lives, and see living without G-d and the Torah, and it may not seem so bad. Inevitably we’d end up wandering in circles, only to realize that it was our decision to be “free” that caused us to be slaves to nature and to our desires. Conversely, we can find our Torah goal, hang it where we can see it, and despite the challenges and through it all, we’re guaranteed to “see” it through.

  • 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 k’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 Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)

    Parshat Bamidbar begins with the third official count of the Jewish nation. The term used in the Torah is that we should “count the heads” (1:2) of all the households, but the Hebrew word “Se-u” could also mean “lift” the heads. Why would the Torah use such ambiguous language? Also, why were they to be counted according to their households, which had never been done in the past? Rashi informs us that prior to the census each Jew was required to produce a book of their lineage. The Midrash adds that producing this book was also required to be able to receive the Torah. Why is receiving the Torah dependent upon having this book of lineage?

    Rabbi Zweig explains that surpassing the expectations that have been defined by one’s social upbringing is what gives a person a sense of accomplishment. If a person is able to identify their lineage, they might learn that their ancestors were people who took responsibility for themselves and had honorable standards. For the rest of the world, the very act of taking responsibility is in itself an elevating sense of accomplishment. However, behaving responsibly is not considered an accomplishment for G-d’s chosen nation. Jews are expected to behave differently than animals, to act responsibly, for our forefathers have set a standard that makes anything less unacceptable. This explains why households were important enough to be counted. The Ramban (Nachmanides) enforces the lesson of our Parsha by explaining the use of the Torah’s language: The alternative meaning of “lifting” of the heads can also be a positive, but only if the body and its actions are lifted with it. Our heads and minds can lift us to greatness, so long as we have our actions to take us there.

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

    One of this week’s Parshiot, Parshat Maasei, lists the many places where the Jews in the desert traveled through and camped. Since the Torah doesn’t waste any words or letters, it would seem strange to list places that the Jews visited, if it meant nothing for us today. As commentaries help explain, when you love someone, you want to remember everything you did together, and G-d’s love for us is no different. This love that G-d has for us is the reason why the Torah spends so many Pessukim (verses) listing the places the Jews visited. As Rabbi Twerski asks, though, at each point the Torah says (33:1-12) that they “traveled from A and camped at B. They traveled from B and camped at C”, when it could have saved words and simply said that they camped at A, B, and C?

    Commentaries help us understand this by explaining that the forty years that the Jews spent in the desert was filled with spiritual growth, and the “travels” represented that growth. The Torah attests to the fact that not only did the Jews travel to point A, but they camped/grew there. The lesson for us is simple and true: If you want to “travel” through Torah growth, make sure you not only travel along a solid path, but make sure you “camp” at every stage, and make sure you’re comfortable with it, before you move onto another level. For example, you can’t jump to Kaballah (mysticism) before you know Halacha (law) and Talmud. There’s a  process that requires “camping” at every step of the way. So before we venture off to see the wonderful sites the Torah has to offer, make sure you take a road map (Torah), a guide (Rabbi), and patience. Only then will you truly enjoy the ride.

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

    After a whole ordeal trying to curse the Jews, Bilam finally ends up blessing the Jews instead. So what does a person whose power lies in his word utter, after so much suspense? He says “How good are your tents, O Yaakov, your dwelling places, Israel” (24:5). Is it Yaakov or Israel? Is it the tents or the dwelling places (assuming they’re different) that are good? It’s a pretty ambiguous statement for someone presumably articulate.

    To understand this, we need to analyze the context of the three blessings he imparted in the following Pessukim (verses): 1) You should stay near water (reference to Torah), 2) G-d will help you crush your oppressors, and 3) Those that bless you will be blessed, and those that curse you will be cursed. It seems that there is a natural progression throughout these blessings: If we 1) stay close to the Torah, 2) G-d will help us defeat our enemies, and 3)we will be blessed upon blessings. That’s why the blessings start with the statement that it’s all because of our homes (tents), that leads to our communities (dwellings), from Yaakov as an individual to Israel as a nation. Conclusion: If we introduce the Torah in our own controlled-environment homes, it will not only help us and our communities, it will also lead to the many blessings that follow.

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

    The latter portion of Parshat Chukat discusses Jews’ victory over the Amorite king Sichon, whose capital city was Cheshbon. The Torah tells us that Cheshbon was originally a Moabite city, but that it had been captured by Sichon along with a large portion of other Moabite territory. There is a famous midrash on this passage based on the fact that the word “moshlim” can also mean “ruler” and the name “Cheshbon” also means “accounting.” The midrash says “Those who are rulers (moshlim) over their evil inclination would say ‘Come and take an accounting (Cheshbon)’ – take an accounting of your deeds; think about what you gain from good deeds and what you lose as a result of bad deeds.” Very often, a midrash is not merely a homiletic tangent, but has a close connection with some aspect of the text. What is the connection between Sichon’s conquest of Moab and the battle against the evil inclination?

    R’ Yonatan Eibeschutz (cited in Talelei Orot) provides a beautiful explanation. Cheshbon was a city on the border between the land of the Amorites and the land of the Moabites. It was not a particularly important city, and therefore the king of Moab did not focus resources on its defense. As a result, Sichon was able to conquer it. This was a fatal error by Moab, for once Sichon had established this beachhead, he was easily able to capture a much larger swath of Moabite territory. This is a metaphor for the battle against the evil inclination, which often tempts a person to violate a small mitzvah, since such an infraction is easier to rationalize than something more serious. Once a person gives in on something small, their defenses have been breached and each subsequent conquest becomes much easier for the evil inclination. By the same token, each victory over temptation, no matter how small, gives an individual a huge advantage in their future battles. Thus, the moshlim teach us “Come to Cheshbon” – do not repeat the mistake that the king of Moab made in his defense of Cheshbon; hold the front line against the evil inclination even in those skirmishes that seem insignificant, because the consequences of a defeat or victory will be dramatic.

  • 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?

    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 G-d, but only after going through introspection and accounting before G-d. This type of reaction goes against most people’s instincts, but it can help make 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 k’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.

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