• 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 Email, 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 (see www.six13.com) . 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 3 verses, none of which were actually needed for their corresponding sentences to be complete. What significance is the Torah placing on “this day”?

    As Rabbi Abraham Twerski points out, 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” is just right!

  • 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”, so 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 the Torah is teaching us a very fundamental concept. 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 continues 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. A person must control the flow through these gates. But 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 the rules. 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 stick 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.) If we study the Torah’s guidelines, we’ll realize their value and understand our need to protect them.

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

    Parshat Re’eh tells us that “no prophet may advocate idol worship no matter the circumstances. If he does he is considered a false prophet, even if he’s able to perform miracles.” (Deuteronomy 13:2-6) The obvious question is how can a false  prophet have the ability to perform miracles?

    Rabbi Akiva (in Talmud Sanhedrin 90a) contends that when the Torah speaks of this prophet performing miracles, the prophet was then a true one. Only later did he deflect to the wrong path. Once becoming a false prophet he is no longer able to perform miracles. As Rabbi Avi Weiss extracts, this answer underscores a critical concept in Judaism, especially as the month of Elul, the thirty days of introspection before the High Holidays begin: notwithstanding one’s achievement or spiritual level there is always the possibility of failing (i.e. false prophet), and an equal possibility of improvement (i.e. Teshuva (repentance) before Rosh Hashana)! While the Parsha depicts a prophet that has fallen from grace, rising to grace is  ust as viable. Just like the prophet, we are judged based on where we are now, and how much we’ve improved, not on where we once were.

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

    Parshat Ekev introduced us to the popular phrase “Man does not live by bread alone” (8:3). However, end of that verse is far less famous, although the second part contains the true message. It reads, “Rather, by everything that emanates from the mouth of G-d does man live.” If the point is that G-d’s emanations are the source of our lives, why use bread as the subject, when bread only becomes edible through the toils of man? Wouldn’t fruits be a better example of G-d’s influence on the world?

    I heard Rabbi Shmuel Greenberg and saw Rav Hirsch explain that bread is used as the subject because it exemplifies the toils of man, and that the message here is that even when you toil for the bread you eat, don’t forget that Hashem (G-d) has toiled for everything that we have, and His goal is not just to sustain us, but to help us live physically AND spiritually. Man should not only seek physical nourishment from the work of his hands, but should seek spiritual nourishment from the word of his G-d.

  • Dvar for Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)

    The most famous sentence in the Torah is found in this week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) The last letter (Ayin) of the Hebrew word for “Hear” (Shema) is written large, as is the last letter (Daled) of the Hebrew word for “One” (Echad). What’s the significance of these deviations?

    Rabbi Avi Weiss proposes a unique explanation: Maybe the letters are large to teach us that the smallest of deviations could pervert the meaning of a text. For example, if one would read the Shema as having an Aleph as its last letter (after all the Aleph and Ayin are both silent letters), the word Shema would mean “perhaps” (sheh-mah). This would change a 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 belief in One God into a belief in two gods.

    As we move towards Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, all of us ought be careful with every word, every gesture and every action. Because in life, the smallest differences makes all the difference in the world.

  • Dvar for Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10)

    We were all given human traits to help us deal with people, situations, and life in general. This week’s Parsha contains a crucial element to understanding those traits. Parshat Tetzaveh describes a golden plate (Tzitz) that Aaron wore, which bore the words “holy unto G-d” (28:37). Doesn’t that seem like a brazen thing to be placing on one’s forehead? The appearance of such an ornament would seem anything BUT holy. So what does it represent?

    As Living Each Week relates, the Baal Shem Tov taught that if a person has an undesirable trait, he/she should direct that trait toward constructive channels. Traits such as stubbornness, brazenness (Chutzpah), anger and even violence can be channeled correctly. How do we know this? Because the Tzitz was worn on the part of the face associated with brazenness (worn by the head Priest), yet served a holy purpose nonetheless. We must heed the same calling, recognize all those personal traits that need “channeling”, and convert all those seemingly negative qualities, into positive triumphs.

  • Dvar for Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19)

    The Aron (Tabernacle) contained the most precious gift the Jews got: the Tablets handed from G-d to Moshe. The receptacle had to be worthy of the insert, and therefore the Aron had to be intricately constructed with symbolism as meticulously configured as its beautiful  design. The Aron consisted of three contiguous boxes of gold, wood, and gold, each inserted into the other, and gold plated wooden staves with which to carry the Aron. The Torah goes on to state that “The staves shall remain in the ark; they shall not be removed” (Exodus 25:14). Rabbi Kamenetzky asked that if this is meant as a prohibition for anyone to remove the staves, why didn’t the Torah just command us not to remove them, instead of telling us that they won’t be removed?

    Rabbi Kamenetzky answers that perhaps the Torah is making a powerful prophecy in addition to a powerful regulation. The wooden staves represent the customs and the small nuances of the Torah (wood being the only element of the Tabernacle that was living and growing). They may not be as holy as the ark, but they will never leave its side. When the cherished handles of those staves are invoked into use, the entire Torah is raised with them. As the Torah is clearly demonstrating, the Torah is moved by the little actions that we do, the inconspicuous little  actions that impress no one, but mean the world to G-d!

  • Dvar for Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)

    Parshat Bo contains the very first commandment the Jews received as a nation; the Mitzvah to have a first Rosh Chodesh (new month), and to mark the beginning of every month thereafter (Exodus 12:2). What makes this commandment so important for it to be the very first commandment for the Jews? Also, when describing the first month that the Jews need to acknowledge, the Torah fails to name that month. If the Torah values the months, wouldn’t it be important for the Torah to name those months, just like the Torah names important places the Jews had traveled through?

    The Ramban explains that the Torah called the months as first, second and so on because the numbers refer to how many months the Jews were removed from the moment when we were established as a people. This helps focus our attention to the most important moment we had as a nation. But it also focuses us on something else; The months we now control (both in name and in timing) dictate when holidays occur, when customs are performed, and even when G-d judges us. The very first commandment is the one that empowers us. The first commandment as a nation makes us partners with G-d, because although we didn’t determine the holidays to celebrate, we do determine when they are celebrated. So every time we celebrate Rosh Chodesh, we should celebrate our partnership with G-d, and our being empowered to individually “name” the month as we, as a people, see fit!

  • Dvar for Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)

    Parshat Vayechi, the last in the first Sefer (book) of Bereishit, is where Yaakov (Jacob) gives all of his sons their blessings. Ironically, though, Yaakov starts with the blessings for Ephraim and Menashe, who were Yosef’s sons that were born to him in Egypt. It all started when Yosef found out that Yaakov was sick (48:1), Yosef “took his two sons with him.” (presumably to bring them to Yaakov, although it doesn’t say that anywhere). When Yosef and his sons got there, Yaakov “strengthened himself” (48:5) (which also seems strange), sat up on the bed, and told Yosef that his two sons would now be considered like Yaakov’s children, and will get a portion in the land just like the rest of the brothers. Yaakov then called over the 2 children, placed his hands on their heads, and started blessing YOSEF, giving him the famous “Hamalach” blessing (48:16), that the angel that protected Yaakov from evil should also protect Yosef’s sons, and that Yaakov’s name should be associated with them, along with Avraham and Yitzchak, and they should multiply in the land. All these events seem inconsistent, unless we understand what they all mean…

    When Yaakov got sick, the Torah doesn’t say that Yosef brought his sons to Yaakov, but that Yosef took his sons with him! What it could mean is not that Yosef brought his sons physically to Yaakov, but that Yosef kept them close to himself, so that they wouldn’t be spiritually influenced by their non-Jewish surroundings! Yaakov recognized this, which is why he felt strengthened when Yosef came to him with his sons. That’s also why when Yaakov claimed the sons as his own, he made sure to stress that it was those two sons that were born in EGYPT (48:5), because their greatness and Yosef’s greatness was that they were Jews DESPITE living in Egypt. And finally, although his hands were on the two sons, Yaakov’s blessing was that Yosef’s children, and anyone who has to live in a non-Jewish world, should be protected throughout history so that we can all be proudly called the children of Avraham and Yitzchak. But it won’t happen unless we learn to put our hands on their heads and guide the next generation! The adults have a duty to take along and guide the kids, and the children have an equal responsibility to let themselves be guided.

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