• Dvar for Devarim (1:1-3:22)

    The best part about books is that you can always look back at parts that are either unclear, or parts that you’ve missed or liked, and the Torah is no exception. With that in mind, though, why do we need a whole Sefer (Devarim, the book of Deuteronomy) dedicated to review the first 4 books, when all we’d have to do is look back and examine them? Separately, why would you start a book of review with words of rebuke, as our Parsha does?

    As Rabbi Twerski points out, the answer lies in a quote by Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon), who said: “A conceited fool has no desire for understanding, but only wants to express his own views (18:2).” What’s the point of a past if we don’t learn from it? And what’s the point of learning from our mistakes if we don’t keep what we’ve learned and integrate it into our future? As we get closer to Tisha B’av, when both Beit Hamikdashim (Temples) were destroyed on the same day, the question applies even more.. Didn’t the Jews learn from the destruction of the first Temple merely a few hundred years prior? Do we learn from the destruction of both Temples so many years later? There’s a whole Sefer in front of us pointing its finger at itself and the four volumes before it, begging us to read it, and read it again, until we find the meaning intended for us, and use it to enforce what we WILL do. It’s the thirst of knowledge of our past that will lead to the accomplishments of our future.

  • Dvar for Haazinu (Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52)

    Parshat Haazinu is Moshe’s last speech, delivered as a song because songs reach deeper into our souls. In the beginning of the song (32:4), it says “The Rock! – Perfect is his work, for all his paths are justice; a G-d of faith without iniquity, righteous and fair is He”. This statement is loaded, saying that Hashem is perfect, just, fair, righteous, and without iniquity. What’s strange is that it begins with comparing G-d to a rock, and then saying that G-d’s work is perfect. What’s the Torah trying to tell us by mentioning a rock, and by using all those terms? Luckily, the Chafetz Chaim answers one question with a story about having faith: A man had an only son that was sick, and spared no expense finding him a cure. One doctor finally cured the boy, and told the father that the son got sick because of certain meat that he ate. The father vowed to keep that meat away from his son. Years passed, the father had to go away on a business trip, and he had his family watch the boy. After he left, the boy was tempted by the smell of the meat, ate some, and became deathly ill again. When the father returned, he called the doctor and begged him to do all he could. Once again the doctor was successful in healing the boy, and the father decided to never leave his son again. A while later the father had a party (with meat), and when the son walked in, the father quickly rushed him out. The guests all watched in wonderment, but they didn’t understand that it was for the son’s sake.

    We are the guests, wondering why things are happening in our lives, but we now know that G-d’s work is just, fair, and perfect as a ROCK in every way. But a rock is not perfect, you say? Well, it may not be perfect in shape or color, but it’s solid, consistent, and always grounded, which are the qualities G-d shows us, and the very qualities we should emulate this coming year. By this time next year, may we all be ROCK Jews, in every sense of BOTH words.

  • Dvar for Nitzavim-Vayelech (Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30)

    Parshat Nitzavim starts by proclaiming that “you are all standing here today” (29:9), and then proceeds to use the words “this day” two more times in the next three verses, none of which were actually needed for their corresponding sentences to be complete. What significance is the Torah placing on “this day”?

    Rabbi Abraham Twerski points out that there are two natural roadblocks placed before us as we endeavor to become better people and better Jews, and both of these roadblocks can be overcome by focusing on “this day”: The first natural roadblock is our inclination to look ahead at temptations and hurdles we will encounter, and our feelings of frustration and helplessness in overcoming those collective obstacles. The Torah therapeutically empowers us to focus on one day at a time, and leave tomorrow’s worries for another day. The second natural roadblock we face is the guilt of our past, which can sometimes make us feel depressed and unworthy.  We have today to repent for those things we shouldn’t have done.

    With the past behind us, and a whole new year ahead of us, it’s nice to know that we don’t have to wait to become better people… the time is right now, and “this day” just became our present.

  • Dvar for Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)

    Of the many sub-topics in Parshat Ki Tavo, one especially noteworthy expression is when the Torah says, “G-d has not given you a heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear until this day” (Deuteronomy 29:3). Tradition (and Rashi) has it that Moshe gave Shevet Levi (the tribe of Levi) a Torah scroll, and the rest of the nation justifiably complained that they didn’t get one. Their complaint wasn’t that they didn’t get a scroll, but that future generations might have a problem with it. Upon hearing this complaint Moshe rejoiced. As Rabbi Liebowitz explains, Moshe was actually happy about a complaint because it showed how much the Jews valued the Torah and their bond with G-d so much, that they even thought about the future of that bond.

    If we look closer at the Passuk (verse) we’ll see it even clearer: G-d gave us eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to feel. Why does the Torah say that our hearts will KNOW? The answer is that if we feel something strongly enough, in our hearts we know it to be true. The Jews knew in their hearts that they had to protect the future of the Torah by safeguarding against potential diversions, perversions and distractions. The Torah is telling us that we must look into our hearts and do whatever it takes to preserve, maintain and grow as Jews, until our hearts know what’s right. And if we don’t know exactly what we need to do, we can use our eyes to look at customs of the past, our ears to listen to the existing rules and leaders, and our minds to develop our own Jewish niche, until our heart knows we’ve found it.

  • Dvar for Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19)

    There is a Passuk (verse) in Parshat Ki Tetzei that reads “And if you desist from vowing, no sin (fault) will be found with you.” This implies (and confirmed in a Gemara in Nedarim) that one that does vow will be found at fault, even if he/she fulfills the vow. Why is this true? What if someone vows to do a good deed, what could possibly be wrong with doing that?

    Jonny Gewirtz in his weekly publication Migdal Ohr offers an insightful answer: Since one could have fulfilled the mitzvah without the vow, the vow merely serves as a potential obstacle because if they do not fulfill the act they have committed a sin by transgressing their vow. On a deeper level, though, one who desists from making vows will not be found sinning because they are aware of the power of the tongue. They know that speech, once uttered, cannot be retracted, and thus is careful about what they say. This awareness applies not only to vows but lashon harah, hurtful words, falsehood, etc. which encompass so many other sins they will be able to avoid.

    At the culmination of Elul on Erev Rosh HaShana, and again at Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur, we annul any vows we have taken and declare our intention not to vow again. This is the hope of the new year, that it will be one in which we will be cognizant of the power we have in our tongues and in our actions, and speak/act appropriately. This undertaking to be careful with vows is not the ultimate goal, it is just the beginning.

  • Dvar for Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17)

    In this week’s Parsha, Re’eh, we start off with the immortal choice:, “Behold I place before you today the blessing and the curse,” i.e., good vs. evil, life vs. death. Why create evil? Wouldn’t we be happier and better off without it?

    Elisha Greenbaum (Torah.org) suggests that removing evil, temptations and the possibility of failure is like removing goal posts from soccer fields and putting everyone on the same team. With no winners or losers, the exercise becomes pointless. G-d could have easily created angels who perform commandments perfectly every time, but instead He made us: We strive, we try. We win, we lose. When we get it right, we move up, closer to G-d, and when we fail, we climb back up. Rewards and growth wouldn’t happen without pitfalls and failures. Ultimately, we hope to grow through what we go through.

  • Dvar for Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

    Parshat Ekev is where we learn of the benefits and rewards, punishments and consequences, of following and not following the Mitzvot (commandments) set forth for us in the Torah. Among those commandments is a famous one (8:10), which says that “you will eat and you will be satisfied, and bless Hashem, your G-d, for the good land that He gave you.”  If you just ate food, why are you thanking G-d for land? You should be thanking Him for the food itself. Why be indirect? The answer lies in understanding the true difference between animals and people…What separates us from animals is our ability to choose, and our exercising of that choice. Our nature tells us what we need to do, while our mind (and religion) tells us what we should do. Therefore, the more things we do simply because of habit and without thinking, the less free will we’re exercising, which makes us more like animals. Conversely, the more restraint we exercise, the more freedom we’re expressing, because we weren’t slaves to our nature. What makes being a Jew so special is that we have so many ‘choices’ of commandments we can perform, and each of those positive choices make us less like animals and more like G-d.

    With this in mind, even if we already ‘perform’ Mitzvot now, if we do it out of habit and without thinking and actively deciding to do it, we’re just as guilty of doing it ‘naturally’. For Jews, deciding to do something is just as important as doing it, because then we think about why we do it, and the source, reason, and meaning of it all become part of the action. Now we can understand why we thank G-d for the land, when we merely eat its bread: We not only thank G-d for the bread we eat, but we also think of the land that it came from, because we’ve thought it through to its source, instead of taking bread at face value. The lesson of the Parsha is for us to think about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and realize how much control we have. Perhaps we should think of at least one habit we have (positive or negative), and use this lesson to push us to overcome our natural tendency to blindly surrender to that habit.

  • Dvar for Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)

    Parshat Vaetchanan begins with Moshe pleading to be able to enter Israel. The Gemara (tractate) brings a question posed by Rav Simlai, who wonders why Moshe needed to go into Israel so much that he had to beg for it. He answers that there are many Mitzvot (commandments) that can only be performed in Israel, and Moshe needed to perform them. The Chassam Sofer, however, questions the wording of Rav Simlai. Who said Moshe needed to go into Israel? Couldn’t it be that he simply wanted to?

    The Chassam Sofer answers that Moshe saw an opportunity to do more Mitzvot, and although they weren’t in front of him (he had to go into Israel to perform them), he still felt the need to perform them, and did what he could to be able to complete them. In contrast, when was the last time we begged anyone to be able to do a Mitzvah? In fact, do we perform all the Mitzvot that we can? We should strive to be like Moshe, and work to appreciate, take advantage of, and especially learn about all the opportunities we are given, to do something good both for G-d, for each other, and ultimately for ourselves.

  • Dvar for Devarim (1:1-3:22)

    In Parshat Devarim Moshe recounts placing “ministers over thousands, over hundreds, ministers over fifties, and ministers over tens..”(1:15). If there were leaders governing thousands and hundreds, isn’t it obvious that they would govern fifties and tens? What does the Torah add by including those specifications?

    The Sforno says that there is an implied rebuke in the appointment of judges over Israel, because they could not stop bickering and arguing to the point that every group of ten needed its own personal judge. While the Sforno implies that each person was overly concerned with his own property, in order for an argument to reach the courts, there also needs to be a lack of communication and an inability to reconcile differences.

    If needless hatred begins with a lack of communication, then increased communication can remove the hatred and divisions that remain between us. With proper communication, we can not only properly mourn the Temple’s destruction, but we can also make our own best efforts to ensure that it is rebuilt.

  • Dvar for Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31:1-31:30)

    Parshat Vayelech includes the commandment for every Jew to write a song for themselves (31:19), which Rashi says is referring the following Parsha, Haazinu. The sages derive from this rule the final of the 613 commandments that each Jew has to take part in the writing of a Torah scroll. Why would we be required to write our own song, and then be given the song to sing? Also, how is the requirement to write our own song the same as the requirement to take part in scribing our own Torah?

    If we apply the concept of this weekly Dvar Torah, we can easily understand the Torah’s final commandment: If we take any commandment in the Torah and personalize it, although its source is the Torah, its ownership is very personal. Songs, too, sound different when sung by different people. In fact, music becomes even more personal because it’s a more emotional medium. That’s exactly why the Torah chose music as the metaphor to teach us about personalizing the Torah to make it special for ourselves. The Torah wants us to internalize it so much that we sing about it. If we accomplish this, we’ve fulfilled the final commandment of writing our own Torah – with all the harmonies that accompany it.

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