• 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. But 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, he was actually HAPPY about a complaint because it showed how much they valued the Torah and their bond with G-d so much, that they even thought about the future of that bond.

    BUT, 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. 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 must always use our eyes to look at customs of the past, our ears to listen to the existing rules, 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)

    At the very end of Parshat Ki Tetzei we encounter one of the more famous commandments, instructing us to remember what Amalek did to us as we left Egypt. While the whole world saw the Jews as untouchables, Amalek decided to kill us by attacking the weak people lagging behind, thus proclaiming to the world that they weren’t afraid of G-d by attacking His nation. However, they WERE scared of the Jews themselves, which is why they attacked the weak ones. Strangely, though, the next few Pesukim (verses) tell us to wipe out the memory of Amalek from this world. So which is it? Should we remember what they did to us, or should we wipe out their memory and forget? To top it all, the Torah then tells us AGAIN to not forget!?

    To help us understand the issues involved here, Chazal (our Rabbis) have explained, using an analogy, that it’s as if Amalek jumped into scolding hot water, and although they were burned, they cooled the water, and everyone around them was a little bit more comfortable with the hot water. As the book “Majesty of Man” elaborates, human nature dictates that the more we see of something, the less sensitive we are to it. So what’s the solution? Well, the Torah tells us to remember, erase, and yet remember: Remember the elements in this world that would pick on the weak and defy G-d and authority, but only so that you could erase them, thereby erasing their influence. The final step is to never forget what happens when we surround ourselves with negative influences. As human nature dictates, and as the history books (following this battle) record, we are influenced by our society, neighborhood, and by our friends. Just as we must be careful not to let ourselves be affected by anything negative, we must also remember that we can have a positive or negative effect on those around us. May we have the strength to control ourselves and inspire others!

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

    The Parsha says “what man is there that is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house and not let him make the heart of his brethren faint as well as his heart.’” In addition to the three categories of men who were exempt from military service (someone recently built a house, grew a vineyard, or recently married), a fourth category is added — one who is fearful and fainthearted. Why would fear be a reason to be excused from fighting?

    Rabbi Yossi Hagili explains that this category refers to someone who fears that he is unworthy of being saved in battle because of his transgressions. Rabbi Yossi adds that this is the reason why the other three categories were told to go home — if someone were to leave the ranks because of his sins, he would feel embarrassed; however, since other groups were also sent home, others wouldn’t know why he was leaving. This is truly amazing — a large number of soldiers were sent home during war time in order to save a sinner from humiliation. We learn from this that we must do everything possible to protect people from shame.

    At a Pesach Seder, Rabbi Yitchak Hutner was splashed by wine inadvertently spilled by someone, staining his kittel (the white robe worn by many at the Seder). To save the other person from shame, Rabbi Hutner immediately said “a kittel from the Seder not stained with wine is like a Yom Kippur Machzor (prayer book) not wet with tears.”

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

    The 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. 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. You walk in, and there are all these 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, you can see your self the way you really are.  The catch is that you won’t know that that’s your real true image unless you’ve looked at yourself in a straight mirror.  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 if we’ve really found it!

  • 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 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 Vaetchanan (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 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 exam them? Also, 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 Batei Hamikdash (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 book 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 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 (as often discussed in the Daily Aliya blog), 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 Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)

    Parshat Pinchas relates a story (27:1-12) about the daughters of Tzlafchad, descendants of Yosef (Joseph). These daughters wanted and loved the Land of Israel so much that they wanted a piece of it. As Rav Moshe Feinstein asks, why do they have to have a claim in the land, just because they love it? Wouldn’t entering or living in the land be fulfilling enough?

    Rav Moshe thus concludes that if a person truly loves something, they’d want it to be theirs, and no one else’s. This is why the daughters wanted to actually own a piece of the land, rather than simply living in it. This logic applies to marriages, as well as the Torah’s preference that every Jew writes their own Torah (or a portion of it). In our terms, it’s not enough to borrow and read Jewish books. We need to love the Torah we read SO much that we feel the need to own it! As this week’s Parsha urges, we should not only seek, read and enjoy words of Torah, but we should OWN those books, and live those words!

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

    Bilaam hitting donkey
    Bilaam hitting donkey

    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 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. If we introduce the Torah in our own controlled-environment homes, it will not only help ourselves and our communities, and lead to the many blessings that follow!

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