• 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? 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 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.

  • Dvar for Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20)

    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)

    Today. It’s a powerful word. It is used by doctors to define the exact moment their patients are to stop over-indulging, smoking, and drinking. It is used by account receivables to exact when they want their bills paid. Most importantly, it’s used by the Torah in describing what It wants from our attitudes. This week the Torah portion tells us: “Today Hashem commands you to perform these  decrees and statutes.” (26:16) There is obviously a deeper connotation. The commandments were not given on the day that Moshe read this week’s portion. They were given forty years prior. Also, at the end of the Parsha, Moshe calls the nation together and reminds them of the miraculous events that transpired during the exodus from Egypt. He discusses “the great wonders, signs, and miracles that your eyes beheld.” (29:1-3) Then he adds something shocking: “But Hashem did not give you a heart to understand or eyes to see until today.” What can the word “today” mean in this context?  Did the Jewish nation not have the heart to appreciate the value of splitting the Sea forty years back? Did they not revel in the miracle of Manna from its first earthly descent decades previously? How can Moshe say that they did not have eyes to understand until today?

    Rabbi M. Kamenetzky explains that perhaps Moshe is telling his nation the secret of eternal inspiration. One may experience miraculous events. They may even have the vision of a lifetime. However, they “will not have the heart to understand or the eyes to see” until that vision is today. Unless the inspiration lives with them daily, as it did upon the moment of impact. Whether tragedy or blessing, too often an impact becomes as dull as the movement of time itself. The promises, pledges, and commitments begin to travel slowly, hand-in-hand down a memory lane paved with long-forgotten inspiration. This week Moshe tells us that even after experiencing a most memorable wonder, we still may, “not have the heart to discern nor the eyes to see.” Until we add one major ingredient. Today.

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

    Parshat Ki Tetzei contains the commandment of Shiluach Hakan (22:6,7), sending away the mother bird before taking her children/eggs. According to the Rambam (Maimonides) the idea is that making the mother watch as you take her children is cruel, even for animals, and one should be sensitive. The Ramban (Nachmonides) sees it differently, arguing that while the Torah gave humans the right to consume animals, taking two generations at once is an over-consumption of that species, and wrong. However, as Rabbi David Fohrman asks, why is this Mitzvah phrased in reference to birds? The reasons above would seem to apply to any animal. Further, the words in the Passuk (verse) don’t seem to fit with either explanation: “Don’t take the mother with her children there” (22:6) sounds like we shouldn’t take the mother, but according to the Rambam we’d be taking the children, and according to the Ramban we’d be taking both. How do we resolve these issues?

    Rabbi Fohrman explains that the answers lies in the reward for this commandment: Long life. Aside from this commandment, there is only one other commandment with the same reward – honoring one’s parents. The connection is the honoring of motherhood. He goes on to explain that it’s very difficult to capture a bird, unless it’s a mother bird protecting its young. The Torah tells us not to take advantage of a mother’s love and sacrifice for her offspring for your own benefit. This lesson is true for all of us – our parents will always love us, but we should not desecrate that love by taking advantage of it. Parental love is meant to help us grow, not to be used as a trap against them. If we honor our parents, appreciating everything that we have because of them, may our reward be a long and healthy life.

  • Dvar for Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

    This week we read the Parsha of Shoftim, which charges us to “Appoint for you judges and officers at all of your gates” (16:18). Rav Moshe Feinstein points out that the word “lecha” (for you) seems superfluous. This commandment could have simply stated, “appoint judges and officers,” why did the Torah add the word “lecha”? The question is even stronger if you consider that the commandment is a society-based commandment, and the extra word is singular. It seems almost contradictory to address an individual while describing a community-based law.

    Rav Moshe explains that in addition to the need for society at large to have these judges and officers, individuals must be both a judge and officer over themselves. The Shlah extends this thought when he explains the continuation of the Passuk (verse), explaining that a person has seven “gates”: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and a mouth. The way that these gates are used will either build or destroy the person, which means that one must control the flow through these gates. However, the Torah also tells us that to accomplish our goal of controlling what comes out of our ‘gates’, we need both judges AND officers. Judges make the rules, and officers enforce them. Not only do we have to make an extra effort to know the rules by which to live, but we also need to build safeguards to help us adhere to those rules (i.e. if the rule is not to speak negatively about others, maybe we should try not to hang around people that do, etc.). If we study the Torah’s guidelines, we’ll realize their value and appreciate our need to protect them.

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

    This week’s Parsha starts off with the word “Re’eh”, which means “See”. What are we seeing, and why do we need to see it? Rabbi Yehoshua Wender explains that in our lives we are all on a quest for truth. We are looking to find the real meaning behind everything in this world. However, we need to see everything in its proper light. In every thing in this world there is truth, and there could be falseness, and it is our job to not be tricked by the lies.  So how do we know what’s true and what’s not?

    G-d has given us a Torah that contains the ultimate truth, and that same protection from falseness. Living in this world is like being in a room of fun house mirrors. As you walk in, there are curvy mirrors that distort your image.  Some make you look fat, others make you tall, and yet others make you skinny.  The only way to get a true image of yourself is to look in a flat, uncurved mirror.  The Torah is such a mirror: You can look in the Torah and find the truth, untainted, uncurved, undistorted. But it’s also possible to get a true image from looking at a curvy mirror, if you stand in just the right spot, at just the right angle, where you can see your self the way you really are.  The catch is that you won’t know that it’s your real true image unless you’ve looked at yourself in a straight mirror and have that image to compare with.  The world is the same way: It is possible to see the world truthfully using other sources, but unless we have studied the Torah and know what truth looks like, we’ll never know that we’ve really found it.

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

    Parshat Ekev begins by exclaiming that should we listen to the laws, and follow up by keeping and following those same laws, G-d will in turn protect us and keep His end of the deal He made with our ancestors (7:12). The word “Shema” (listen) appears 92 times in Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy), and it appears in the most iconic and important declaration of “Shema Yisrael” (6:4), which qualifies it as a key directive. Rabbi David Cohen also points out (in his book Kol Hanevuah) that the Gemara (Talmud) is full of terms referencing hearing: “Ta Shma, Shema Mina, Mashma, etc. What’s most curious is that the word itself is not translatable, according to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. It means many things: to hear, to listen, to pay attention, to understand, to internalize and to respond. How are we to understand such an obviously important mandate?

    Rabbi Sacks explains that Judaism is not about obeying laws, but about hearing them. G-d wants us not just to hear with our ears, but to listen with our minds. The bridge between ourselves and others is conversation: both speaking and listening, as Rabbi Sacks explains. Hence the double emphasis in the second paragraph in Shema of “Shamoa Tishma”, beseeching us to really listen, not just to His laws, but to others as well. Listening to G-d is easy, it’s listening to another human being that takes courage, a comfort in our self and defying our own vulnerabilities. Rabbi Sacks concludes that listening is the greatest gift we can give to another human being, but it’s also the greatest gift we can give ourselves.

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

    Perhaps the most famous sentence in the Torah is found in this week’s Torah portion – “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Interestingly, the last letter of the Hebrew word for “Hear” (Shema) is enlarged in the Torah scroll (Ayin), as is the last letter of the Hebrew word for “One” (the Daled in Echad). Among the many possible explanations, one understanding of the combination of these two letters (Ayin and Daled) may reveal why the text calls specific attention to them: The letters Ayin Daled can be read “ade” which means “to bear witness.” In reading the “Hear O Israel” one is in effect testifying that God exists.

    This Shabbat being the first of the seven weeks leading up to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, one more thought comes to mind: Maybe the letters are large to teach us that even the smallest of changes could pervert the meaning of the text. For example, if one would read the Shema as having an Aleph as its last letter instead of the Ayin (after all the Aleph and Ayin are both silent letters) the word Shema would mean “perhaps” (sheh-mah). This would change this firm declaration of belief into an _expression of doubt. And if the Daled would be mistaken for a Reish (after all, there is only a slight difference in the writing of a Daled and Reish) – the word echad (One) would be read acher (other). This would change the critical Jewish belief in One God into a belief in two gods. If baseball is a game of inches, the Torah is a guide of millimeters – sometimes the smallest thing makes all the difference. As we move towards Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, all of us ought be careful with every word, every gesture and every action, because you never know where the smallest changes may lead you.

  • 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.

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