• 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, 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 life camping adventure.

  • Dvar for Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)

    Parshat Pinchas relates the 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)

    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 statement 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. Conclusion: If we introduce the Torah in our own controlled-environment homes, it will not only help us and our communities, it will also lead to the many blessings that follow.

  • Dvar for Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

    Nature dictates that children look somewhat like their parents, fruits look like other similar fruits, and animals act in predictable ways. But if that were always true, then how do the laws of the Red cow, brought in Parshat Chukat, make sense? How could the impure be purified, while the pure become impure? How do these things make sense, if there is to be order in nature and creation?

    The Mofet Hador explains that we too were all given opposing forces. We were given the Torah, which tells us of these and other ‘contradictions’, and we were given the brain that wonders about all of it. The Parsha starts by helping us deal with these, and other issues. ‘This is the law of the Torah” …our laws make sense, even if we don’t understand them. We’re limited in our wisdom. In fact, King Solomon, who was given all the knowledge, couldn’t understand the laws of the Red Cow, and said, “It is far from me”. The logic is there, but none can discern it, and that too is part of nature. So when we come to a fork in our lives, and we’re deciding whether to do what we know we should or what we think we could, we should remember this lesson: Our minds might be limited in understanding, but the Torah’s wisdom is eternal.

  • Dvar for Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32)

    Parshat Korach relates the story of Korach, Datan, Aviram and 250 members of the shevet (tribe) of Reuven challenging Moshe’s choice for Kohen Gadol (high priest). The end result was that the 250 members were burned by a heavenly fire, and the three leaders were miraculously swallowed by the earth. From a motive perspective, Korach’s actions makes the most sense because he felt slighted for not having been chosen himself, and had something to potentially gain by complaining. But why would 250 people follow him to their certain death, with apparently little to gain?

    The answer can be found in Rashi, the great medieval commentator, who writes that just as Korach’s family camped on the southern side of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), so did the tribe of Reuven. Rashi quotes the words of Chapters of the Fathers, “woe to an evil person, and woe to their neighbor.” The 250 people met their demise simply because they were influenced by their neighbors. This points to the awesome influence that friends, neighbors and associates have on us. Who we surround ourselves with is a matter of life and death. Do we have positive friends and neighbors? And just as importantly, are WE positive friends and neighbors to others?

  • Dvar for Shelach (Numbers 13:1-15:41)

    Parshat Shelach contains the famous story of the spies that are sent in to check out Canaan, which would later become Israel. The decision to send the twelve spies, however, was made by the people, as G-­d previously assured the Jews that He would take care of everything. But they insisted on seeing for themselves, and were instructed to send the spies of their own accord (13:2). The tribe leaders went in to spy, and came back with an awful report, scaring the Jews into wanting to go back to Egypt. What happened to the faith in G­-d, and with all His open miracles? What happened to the spies that they didn’t realize that everything they saw in Canaan was actually a blessing (1 – They saw huge fortresses, but that really meant that people in them were scared of something, 2 – They saw people dying, but G-­d made it that someone died when the spies came, so that the inhabitants would be preoccupied with burying them and not notice the spies, etc.)?

    The answer lies in their very first mistake… They wanted to see the land through their own pessimistic eyes, and that’s what they got to see. Seeing things without the proper perspective can make even positive things look bad, even if you’re a tribe leader that people depend on and look up to, even if you’ve witnessed countless miracles in your life, and even if G­-d just told you that He’s on your side. What seemed like a harmless request turned out to be a disaster that cost the Jews 39 more years in the desert. They could have done it right had they done what Yehoshua (Joshua) did: put G-­d’s name first (Yud, the letter representing G-­d added to the beginning of his).

    We too can look at the world and at our lives, and see living without G-d and the Torah, and it may not seem so bad. Inevitably we’d end up wandering in circles, only to realize that it was our decision to be “free” that caused us to be slaves to nature and to our desires. Conversely, we can find our Torah goal, hang it where we can see it, and despite the challenges and through it all, we’re guaranteed to “see” it through.

  • 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 k’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 Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)

    Parshat Bamidbar begins with the third official count of the Jewish nation. The term used in the Torah is that we should “count the heads” (1:2) of all the households, but the Hebrew word “Se-u” could also mean “lift” the heads. Why would the Torah use such ambiguous language? Also, why were they to be counted according to their households, which had never been done in the past? Rashi informs us that prior to the census each Jew was required to produce a book of their lineage. The Midrash adds that producing this book was also required to be able to receive the Torah. Why is receiving the Torah dependent upon having this book of lineage?

    Rabbi Zweig explains that surpassing the expectations that have been defined by one’s social upbringing is what gives a person a sense of accomplishment. If a person is able to identify their lineage, they might learn that their ancestors were people who took responsibility for themselves and had honorable standards. For the rest of the world, the very act of taking responsibility is in itself an elevating sense of accomplishment. However, behaving responsibly is not considered an accomplishment for G-d’s chosen nation. Jews are expected to behave differently than animals, to act responsibly, for our forefathers have set a standard that makes anything less unacceptable. This explains why households were important enough to be counted. The Ramban (Nachmanides) enforces the lesson of our Parsha by explaining the use of the Torah’s language: The alternative meaning of “lifting” of the heads can also be a positive, but only if the body and its actions are lifted with it. Our heads and minds can lift us to greatness, so long as we have our actions to take us there.

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

    Parshat Bechukotai begins by Hashem (G-d) proclaiming, “if you will walk in My decrees and observe My commandments…,” (26:3) then 1) the rains will come in their season, 2) trees will bear fruit, 3) you will have bread, 4) there will be peace in the land, and 5) a sword will not pass through the land. Rashi (noted commentary) explains that “walking with My decrees” means that we should toil in understanding the rules of the Torah. Although Rashi addresses the seemingly incorrect syntax of “walking” in laws, Rashi doesn’t explain how walking/toiling in the Torah is accomplished, nor does it explain how the rewards correlate to the toiling or performance of the commandment (a common rule throughout the Torah).

    A possible explanation could be a metaphoric reference to walking, telling us that it’s not enough to sit back, read the Torah like a book, rather that we should pace and ponder every bit of the Torah, and never be satisfied with not knowing what, how, or why something is done. So why does the Torah list these specific rewards for making an effort to understand the Torah? Well, don’t just sit back and read this, ponder the question…

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

    Parshat Emor contains the commandment to count 49 days from the bringing of the omer barley offering on the day after Passover to the holiday of Shavuot. Although the Torah does not spell out the rationale for this mitzvah, the later Rabbinic literature identifies this 49 day period as a time for personal development; just as the Jews needed 49 days to rise from the level of impurity they reached in Egypt to the level of holiness required to receive the Torah on the first Shavuot, so too every individual should utilize the 49 days to ready themselves to commemorate the giving of the Torah on each Shavuot.

    There is a famous legal dispute as to whether counting the omer is one mitzvah (commandment) with 49 parts or 49 separate mitzvot. Practically, both opinions are respected: If one forgot to count on a given day, they continue to count on the next day, in accord with the second view, but they no longer recite a blessing because according to the first view they have spoiled their fulfillment of the commandment.

    Perhaps each of these positions is relevant not just to the counting itself, but to the spiritual development for which we strive during this period of time.  On the one hand, spiritual accomplishments must be approached one step at a time. Each of the 49 days stands on its own and each step we take has great value.  On the other hand, individual steps that are intermittent are not enough to reach the goal.  For true success, continuity is needed as well, maintaining the effort for 49 days without fail.  May we merit to use the remaining days of this year’s counting of the omer (and beyond) to reach new heights.

Back to top