• 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?

    Daniel Lifshitz suggests that 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 Hashem, but only after going through introspection and accounting before Hashem. This type of reaction goes against most people’s instincts, but it can help turn 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 ke’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 Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89)

    From Rabbi Avi Weiss…

    Perhaps the most famous blessing is found in this week’s Torah portion. The Birkat Cohanim, the priestly benediction is recited by the priest and by parents to their children every Friday night (Numbers 6:24-26.) The benediction is divided into three sentences each containing two important elements; G-d’s blessing, and a prayer to avoid possible pitfalls of the blessing.

    In the first part, the priest states: “May G-d bless you and keep you.” The Sifrei understands this to refer to monetary benefits. But money has the potential to corrupt. Therefore a blessing for money is not complete unless accompanied by an assurance of protection  from its dangers. Hence the last word of the sentence, “May the Lord guard you.”

    In the second section, the priest states: “May the Lord cause His light to shine upon you.” The light of G-d is often associated with Torah knowledge (Proverbs 6:23.) However, while one can know every word of Torah, one can still lack the ability to interact and engage others in an appropriate manner. Hence, this blessing concludes with the word, vi’chuneka, from the word chen, grace. This last statement is telling us to remain gracious to others because knowledge often makes one insular – even arrogant.

    In the final part, the priest states,” May G-d lift His face to be near you.” This blessing expresses the hope that one should always feel the presence of G-d, for too often we sense that G-d’s face is hidden from us (the Hebrew word yisah, to lift, is the opposite of G-d being lowered or hidden.) Although we hope to always be absorbed in G-d’s presence, sometimes even that experience can distort one’s perception of how to change the world. Too often, people have done dastardly things in the name of G-d. Therefore, the text concludes, with a blessing of a grounded belief in G-d, of shalom, coming from the word shalem, whole. This threefold blessing reminds us that there is no absolute good. Every step forward always contains the possibility of unforeseen problems. May we be blessed with this continual awareness.

  • Dvar for Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)

    Parshat Bamidbar, among many other things, subtly contrasts the effects of a good neighbor vs a bad one. In describing the camp arrangements, the Kehat family (Korach and his gang) camped “southward” (3:29), as did Reuven (2:10), to which Rash comments that “woe to an evil person, woe to his neighbors.” Similarly, Yehuda, YIssachar and Zevulun got to live next door to Moshe and Aaron (3:39) and benefited, to which Rashi points out that “happy is a righteous person, happy is his neighbor.” As Elisha Greenbaum points out (Chabad.org), however, there is a difference between the two…

    With Moses and Aaron living nearby, three entire tribes benefited and their positive influence lasted throughout history. Contrast this with the pernicious effect of living next to Korach; only a tiny fraction of the one tribe living closest was negatively influenced. Even when the negative influence is right next door, you have the ability to resist their blandishments by connecting to G‑d and his Torah. You’ll also notice that both of Rashi’s comments focus on the person, and our effect on our neighbors. We have the power to affect our neighbors positively or negatively, so long as we resist the negative influences around us, and choose to be propelled by the positive ones.

  • Dvar for Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34)

    Parshat Behar includes the rare occasion of the Torah asking a question for us. When describing the laws of Shmita (leaving the land unattended every seventh year), the Torah says “and if you should say ‘What will we eat in the seventh year?'” (25:20). The answer given is that G-d will supply enough food in the sixth year to last three years, long enough for the land to start producing again. Why is the Torah asking the question for us, rather than just letting us know that food will be supplied?

    Rabbi Lazer Gurkow answers that if you read the Passuk carefully, it says “if you should SAY”, demonstrating that the question is less of a quarrel and more of a statement of submission. When asked with humility, G-d rewards our trust with plenty. The Torah is not only informing us of the Shmita plans, but also showing us that our attitude and disposition when asking tough questions is as important as the questions themselves.

  • Dvar for Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)

    Among many things, Parshat Emor lays down instructions for the Kohanim (Priests) to remain holy. Instructions include not coming in contact with dead bodies, and growing their beards and hair (21:1-5). Recanati (13th Century) points out an interesting difference between the instructions for the Kohamin to remain “holy”, and those of the Levites to be “pure”. What is the difference, and why?

    Recanati goes on to explain that being pure is simply a result of avoiding anything unclean, while being holy is an active quality of setting yourself apart. The Levites had to shave their hair, while the Kohanim grew it because ridding yourself of impurity requires shedding the past, while being holy requires working on yourself for the future. As a people, we need to be both pure AND holy, and learn to merge the past with our future.

  • Dvar for Acharei Mot/Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27)

    Parshat Kedoshim is one of several that tries to instill “Jewish Values”, one of which is the commandment not to steal. In an effort to drive home the point, the Torah uses several terms that seem redundant, when it says “Do not steal, do not deny falsely, and do not lie to one another” (19:11). Other than making sure we get the point, what is the significance of these specific forms of honesty being listed?

    The Gemara in Makot (24a) sheds some light by saying that the Torah is telling us to speak the truth in our hearts, like Rav Safra did. The Gemara goes on to tell the story of Rav Safra who was davening (praying) when someone came to buy something from him. When Rav Safra didn’t respond because he was praying, the buyer raised his price several times, until finally Rav Safra finished praying and responded. Rav Safra insisted on selling the object at his original price, even though the man offered more because in his heart Rav Safra agreed to the first price.

    The Torah is driving home that we should not steal in actions or words. That means not manipulating people to get what you desire, not distorting words to fit your opinion, and not frivolously demanding from others. If we live by these Torah values, we’ll hopefully fully value them.

  • Dvar for Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33)

    Both Parshat Tazria and Metzora discuss skin ailments on one’s flesh, who to see about it (the Priest), how to treat it (isolate it), what to do if it spreads (isolate yourself), and so on. While we get caught up in the details of the treatments, we might fail to realize how strange all of this is. This is the first time the Torah discusses personal physical hygiene. Why would the Torah spend almost  two entire Parshiot (multiple Parshas) on personal hygiene?

    Rabbi Munk in The Call of The Torah explains that by giving these afflictions so much attention, the Torah points to them as examples of the spiritual causes at the root of many illnesses (in our case, Tzaraas – the affliction discussed in the Parsha – is caused by one of seven sins: Slander, murder, perjury, debauchery, pride, theft and jealousy (Talmud Arachim 16a)). As the Rambam (Maimonides) asserts, the best medication is based on ethical values, helping to re-establish harmonies between spiritual and physical forces (Guide to the Perplexed 3:27). That way, even if our physical ailments aren’t ultimately cured, at least we’re in harmony within ourselves. This discussion is meant to remind us that illness is sometimes spiritual, and that it’s connected to our physical well-being. As such, we should feed our bodies, so long as we nurture our souls.

  • Dvar for Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

    As the Parsha relates the joyous time when the Jews finally started the long-awaited service in the Mishkan, Parshat Shemini abruptly interrupts that with the disturbing death of Aaron’s 2 oldest sons (Nadav and Avihu). Their sin was that they wanted to show their love for G-d so much that they took it upon themselves to take incense and burn it on their own. The Torah then relates that a fire “came out from before Hashem and consumed them.” It seems strange that the same fire that 2 Pessukim (verses) ago came down to burn the offerings was the same fire that came down to kill Aaron’s 2 sons. Why did they specifically die with fire, which is the very method they tried to use to serve G-d?

    The Rashbam helps us understand the sons’ mistake by explaining that they weren’t authorized to bring the offering, and that their bringing it minimized the miracle of the fire coming down from the sky. However, although they died, the verse says they died “before G-d,” which commentaries explain to mean that they at least tried to do a good thing, and were worthy of dying before G-d. Trying to preempt G-d’s commandments by burning things themselves minimized the very essence of those commandments. We too have to follow the guidelines of the Torah, not because they make sense to us and we’d do them anyway, but because G-d wants us to do things a certain way. The point of the fire was to show us that G-d would use fire for us, unless we make Him use that very fire against us by altering the “recipe.” The critical take-away from all of this is to observe the commandments correctly, so that we may strengthen the fire within us.

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