As a university and Yeshivah graduate who enjoys writing, my aim is to write Divrei Torah that can enhance not only our Shabbos tables, but our day-to-day lives in general. For your piece of mind, the content is reviewed prior to posting by Rabbi Meir Rappoport of Beis Hamedrash Imrei Shefer of North West London.
Parshas Nasso discusses a difficult situation: a wife who is suspected of cheating her husband. She is put through the rather humiliating experience of having to strip naked and drink the ‘Sotah’ waters, special water containing the full name of G-D (which is a lesson in and of itself, as it goes to show just how much holiness there is in a good marriage). If she is guilty, she simply explodes. If she is found to be innocent, she is promised to have beautiful children.
Even if the woman is found to be innocent, she will find the experience to be rather humiliating. Couldn’t the Torah have found a more dignified way to judge her?
The answer is a lesson in Hashem’s belief in us.
Any woman could avoid that situation by ‘owning up’, even if she never sinned. She could have solved the problem more respectably by other means. The fact that she agreed to undergo such humiliation bears testimony to her willingness to be raw and truthful for the sake of her marriage. And G-D knows that he is able to expect that of his Jewish daughters.
It shows the confidence that Hashem has in His People. He knows that Jews have the strength to go through any difficult situation to serve Him.
G-D has rules. But those rules are meant not to punish us, but to strengthen us. He sets the bar high. But never high enough that we can’t jump over it, albeit with some difficulty.
I have in my inbox a ‘letter’ penned by none other than the Yetzer Hara (evil inclination) that expresses this point
(If anyone knows the identity of the real author, please let me know. I, for one, owe him a debt of gratitude!):
To my star pupil,
I am writing this letter to let you know what I think of you. Up here in Heaven, things are not like they are down on Earth. Over there, people only know what they can see. If they see a person is “successful”, they think that he is the greatest guy. When they see somebody struggling, they think he might be one of the weaker elements.
Let me tell you something. Hashem gives every person certain abilities that nobody knows about down where you live. Some people are capable of tremendous things, while others were put there for much smaller purposes. Only Hashem in His infinite wisdom is able to give every person exactly what he needs, to reach his potential.
I am very misunderstood. Most people hate me, and I don’t really blame them. Most people think that my job is to make sure that they fail in all aspects of Mitzvos, and that I rejoice every time they sin. This is the furthest thing from the truth. Did you ever watch a boxing coach train his student? It is really a funny sight. The coach will put on gloves, and fight against his student. At first, he won’t hit him so hard or throw his best punches. But, as the student gets better and better, the coach will start to fight him harder and harder. He does this so that the student will improve his skills and become the best boxer he can be.
This is where it gets strange. Every time the coach knocks down the student, the student gets yelled at!! But finally, when the coach threw everything he has at his student, and not only does he withstand the beating, but he knocks the coach down, there is nobody in the world happier than the coach himself! This is exactly how I feel. If you fail right away, and don’t even try to fight back, I see that there is not much talent to work with, and so I take it easy on you. But if you get back up swinging, I realise that I may have a real winner here, and so I start to intensify the beating. With every level that you go up, I increase the intensity of the fight. If you finally deal me a blow that knocks me out, I will get up and embrace you and rejoice in your success.
Sometimes my job is very disappointing I see a person with lots of potential, and I start right in on him. He fights back for a while, but when the fight gets too tough, he quits and just remains on whatever level he was on. (And he usually ends up going down!) I feel like yelling at him, “Get up you fool! Do you have any idea how much more you could be accomplishing?!” But I am not allowed to do so. I just leave him alone and go try to find another promising candidate. If I have chosen you to be the target of my more fierce battles, it was not for no reason! You have tremendous abilities! You were born into a very special family, you have Rabbeim (teachers) who really care about you, and parents who would help you grow in Torah and Mitzvos. You are a very respectful and kind person.
I am writing to you now because I have a very serious request to ask of you. Please don’t stop fighting! Don’t give up! I have been beating too many people lately, and I am losing patience, Believe in yourself, because I would not be involved with you as much as I am if I didn’t think you could beat me. Know what your strengths are! A great Rabbi once said: “Woe is to he who doesn’t know his weaknesses. But, ‘Oy Vavoy’ to him who doesn’t know his strengths – for he will not have anything with which to fight.”
Always remember one thing: you have a secret weapon at your disposal. I shouldn’t really be telling you – but I will anyway. Hashem himself is watching our “training” sessions very closely. I’m pleased to inform you that He’s rooting for you! If things should ever get tough, almost too tough to bear, just call out to Him with a prayer, and He will immediately come to your aid. I wish you the best of luck, and I hope that after 120 years when your time is up in that world of falsehood, you will come up here to the world of truth. There I will be waiting for you with open arms to congratulate you on your victory and personally escort you to your place next to the Kisey HaKavod (throne of glory).
Is it ever appropriate to forego spiritual opportunities?
In this week’s Parashah, we learn about the service of the Kohen Godol on Yom Kippur. Part of it includes selecting two goats, one which is offered as a sacrifice while the other is thrown off a mountaintop in a desert (La’azazel) as an atonement.
The Mishnah in Yoma mentions that the person to deal with the goat designated for the ‘azazel’ is escorted by the ‘Yakirei Yerushalayim’- the ‘dear ones of Jerusalem’. The Bartenura explains that these people were stationed at the 10 posts between Jerusalem and the cliff so that there will always be someone to accompany the goat. He calls them the ‘chashuvei Yerushalayim’- the ‘important ones’ of Jerusalem.
Interestingly, as the Torah commentary book ‘Kemotzei Shalal Rav’ (literally meaning ‘as someone who finds a great fortune’) explains, there is no explanation as to who these people were. We only know that they were the ones to accompany the goat to the azazel site.
And yet we call them the ‘dear ones’ and the ‘important ones’.
You see, the public gallery in the temple was open to the masses on Yom Kippur. Naturally, everyone took advantage of it and came to be inspired by the services.
And it certainly was a very inspiring experience for everyone.
Yet a group of people chose to forgo the opportunity to accompany someone to throw a goat off a mountaintop.
And they are called ‘precious ones’, ‘important ones’
Presently, we’re in the ‘omer’ period, when it is customary to take on some restrictions, e.g. not shaving, not listening to music, etc. We are taught that 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died suddenly in this period. These were some of the greatest men of their generation. And yet, they were all punished for not considering the feelings of others (on the level of spirituality they were on).
Our job isn’t just to learn Torah, but to give to others. To be there for our fellow Jews, even at the expense of personal spiritual growth.
Because serving others is in itself a form of spiritual growth.
(As heard from Rabbi Daniel Staum. Click here for the original lecture.
“The price of greatness is responsibility” is one of Winston Churchill’s many famous quotes.
And unsurprisingly, there is a precedent for this in the Torah.
The priests were on the last day of the 8-day inauguration of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. Now their service in the Mishkan begins in earnest. Hashem instructed Aharon to bring the first sacrifice; a sin offering made up of a calf, an Eigel. Rashi comments that this is to atone for the sin of the golden calf.
The question is that this has already been achieved. The Torah tells us in Parshat Tetzaveh how Hashem commanded the Jewish people to offer up ‘one bull and two rams, unblemished’ (Shemos/Exodus 29:1). Rashi over there tells us that that sacrifice was also an atonement for the incident with the golden calf. Why did Aharon have to atone a second time?
Rabbi Yehoshuah Leib Diskin answers that it is a lesson in responsibility. Aharon certainly had good intentions when he instructed the people to take their wives’ jewellery and create the golden calf. He knew that resisting was futile, as they would have killed him and built the calf anyway. His idea was that this would stall the process, as the wives would surely resist their husbands. In that time, Moshe would be back and the Jews’ perceived need for a replacement would disappear. He certainly didn’t imagine that the people would be so riled up by the troublemakers that they would have the gold in a few hours!
Nevertheless, good intentions notwithstanding, Aharon had played a part in the people’s spiritual downfall. And he, as their second in command, was required to take full ownership of his role in the wrongdoing.
In my humble opinion, this is what separates men from boys.
I’ve yet to hear of a great person who got to where he or she was without making mistakes. Nor have I heard of any great people who achieved their greatness by blaming other people for their failures. If anyone knows of such people, please introduce me to them!
We all fall. It’s part of the process. But the idea is to learn from our mistakes. To take ownership of them.
Ask anyone what the theme of tonight’s Passover seder is. You can bet that the answer will be one word: freedom. The Jews were oppressed by the Egyptians for two hundred years, G-D came along, destroyed Egypt with ten plagues, split the sea for us, washed out the entire Egyptian army. Then we were free from Egypt’s tyrannous stranglehold and could now do whatever we wanted.
Well all that was certainly true. Apart from the last part. We couldn’t just ‘do whatever we wanted’. “For you are slaves to Me” said Hashem. You are under my jurisdiction now. You still have to answer to Someone. And that Someone is infinitely more powerful than your previous master!
So is ‘freedom’ really the right word to describe the Jews’ status upon leaving Egypt? Sounds more like they just found a kinder more patient Boss!
I believe the answer is that Judaism defines freedom differently.
In general western thinking, we’ve come to believe that retirement is an ideal. No more stress, no heavy workloads or deadlines to reach. More time to just relax, play golf and take it easy.
Another example of our ‘progressive’ mindset is the way we all work to earn our first million, or ten million, thinking that the ability to earn enough to give our families the best that the world has to offer.
If you’re one of the (shrinking group of) people who still believe in those worldviews, you’d be shocked by these studies:
The Institute of Economic Affairs found that the chances of depression shoot up by 40% after retirement.
A survey in the BMC Medicine Journal showed depression rates in 18 countries. The lowest rating came from… China, one of the poorest countries on the list. First place was taken by France. And the goold ol’ US of A? They came second (If the UK were included, us Brits would have beaten ’em hands down!)
Physical pleasure is great. But it doesn’t last. Certainly not beyond the grave!
In Judaism, freedom is the ability to strive for the type of things that we take with us to the Next World. Those are the things that really stay with us forever.
Physical entities are important. Retirement and wealth can be wonderful tools. But that’s just it: they’re tools, means to achieving Spiritual accomplishments that remain with us for eternity. It’s when our physical means become ends in themselves that we begin to limit ourselves.
It’s a paradox. Laws like observing Shabbat and Kashrut, restricting ourselves physically, are in actual fact liberating. Because they are what takes us to a lifetime which is limitless in The Next World.
True freedom is a choice we make every day. We get to decide whether to expand our Horizons or limit ourselves.
If you’re astute enough, you’ll notice that each festival is usually hinted to in the parashah read the Shabbos before it.
Tzav discusses the laws of the various offerings brought by the Kohanim in the tabernacle (and later, the Holy Temple).
One of them is Korban Todah, a thanksgiving sacrifice. This offering is brought after safely travelling over an ocean, taking a dangerous land journey, recovering from an illness or being released from captivity (today this obligation is fulfilled by making the ‘hagomel’ blessing. Please consult your local orthodox rabbi for details of the laws regarding this blessing).
As a form of the Peace Offering, part of it is eaten afterwards by the one bringing it.
But here’s the strange part:
Unlike a peace offering, which is offered up and eaten over two days, a Todah must be offered up and consumed within 24 hours. And it must be eaten along with forty loaves of bread!
Why the short time span? And why so much bread?
The answer is that this was designed to maximise the opportunity to thank Hashem for saving him. The time constraints will force him to look for others to share the meal with. When the offerer asks his friends for help, he will have to explain to them why he is bringing the sacrifice. That way, he will be able to spread the word of his personal miracle and increase the praise of G-D.
If there is one theme that runs through the Passover Seder- which is next Friday night and next Sunday night (outside Israel)- it is the theme of gratitude to G-D. We are told to spend as much time as possible recounting the story of our Exodus. The Torah itself instructs us to run it with our children, in a way which encourages them to ask questions. The law is that one should read the traditional four questions to himself if he has no wife or children present.
Have you ever wondered why G-D even needs human beings to praise Him? He’s the Ultimate Being, for Heaven’s sake (excuse the pun)! He has no ego, no emotional need for any recognition!
The answer is that it’s not Hashem who needs this praise. He’s got plenty of Angels to do that!
It’s us who needs it.
We need to strengthen our sense of gratitude. We need to become people who automatically feel thankful for every small thing we have. That’s how we come to be deserving of blessing. The more we appreciate His kindness to us, the more Hashem showers on us.
And it’s not just G-D we need to thank. Even the bus driver or the Tesco delivery man, people who are getting paid to serve us, are opportunities to strengthen our gratitude muscles.
Jews are called ‘Yehudim’, people who give ‘hoda’ah’, gratitude. Let’s learn to live up to our name and become the people Hashem intended us to be.
(Special thanks to Rabbi Binyomin Denderovicz for the thought on the Parshah, and motivational speaker Charlie Harary for the additional inspiration!)
“The more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know.”
Those were the words of one of the brightest people of the 21st century, Albert Einstein.
And like all inspirational quotes from famous people, there’s a source in the Torah for it.
ויקרא אל משה- And G-D ‘called’ Moshe (Vayikrah Ch. 1 V.1)
To answer the question, you probably have; no, that small alef at the end of the first word (‘Vayikrah’ was no technical glitch. It is written in the Torah that way by request of Moshe himself.
The Kli Yakar explains: In his immense humility, Moshe initially requested that the alef be omitted, so that the word read ‘vayakar’- and G-D ‘happened upon’ Moshe. Almost as if G-D had encountered him by accident, as if He had met Moshe in the supermarket (so to speak). Such was his humility that he didn’t feel worthy of G-D coming out to meet him. G-D, however, insisted on including the alef. Moshe acquiesced, on the condition that the letter is shrunk.
Rav Shach notes that the Torah actually praises Moshe openly for his humility elsewhere, calling him ‘the humblest of all men’. In his understanding, Moshe wasn’t just acting in the way he was accustomed to, but he was actively increasing his humility. This was a new level of humbleness, even for the man who stood head over shoulders above the whole world in this area.
Think about it. Moshe was 80 when he lead the Jews out of Egypt. He was an old man by now. And to have reached the level of humility that he had attained had taken him 8 decades.
And yet, he still felt that he could do better.
When a person has got to a certain point, there’s often a danger of complacency. We’re happy where we are and don’t feel the need to carry on growing.
And that’s where we often fall down. Because if we’re not constantly pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zone, we’re not remaining stagnant, but probably falling.
Because when it comes to personal growth, the sky’s the limit.
One of the vessels in the tabernacle was the kiyor- the basin that the priests used to wash their hands and feet before doing their service.
You might be surprised to learn that it was made from the mirrors donated by the women. Understandably, Moshe was quite hesitant to accept gifts with such mundane origins for the house of G-D.
But G-D insisted that Moshe accept it. In fact, The Ibn Ezra says that he was not allowed to leave out a single mirror that was donated. All of them were used to create a giant sink.
Because those mirrors were special. Rashi tells us that the wives used them to adorn themselves so that their worn-out husbands would be attracted to them. And as such, the Jewish nation lived on.
Here’s one lesson that I took out of it.
We tend to paint things black and white. We teach our children that some things are good for us and some things are bad for us. But perhaps this isn’t always the case. Technology has its place. Money has its place. Music, art, literature, food…they all have two sides to the coin.
And it’s not just physical objects. Character traits go on the same principle. There are times when it’s not appropriate to be kind. Sometimes laziness can be utilised for good things.
It’s not so much about changing ‘bad’ character traits or getting rid of ‘bad’ devices. It’s simply about ensuring that we use what we have for the right purposes. of course, if unharnessed, these things can turn against you and bring you down. But if they’re seen and used primarily as a means to a spiritual end, they can bring you to places you never thought you could reach.
This week the focus of the Parsha is the tragic sin of the Golden Calf. After Moshe Rabbeinu went up to Heaven to receive the Torah, the Jewish people miscalculated the date of Moshe’s return. They built the calf initially as a replacement for Moses. Ultimately, they started worshipping it as a god in its own right. When Moshe came down Mount Sinai and saw the Jews dancing around the calf, he smashed the tablets. Hashem announced to Moshe that He wished to destroy His people and start again from scratch. But after much pleading and praying from Moshe, G-D agreed to forgive the Jews.
Each Parshah in the Torah is split into 7 parts. On Shabbos, when the Torah is read in shul, the custom is to call up a different person to the Torah at each of the 7 intervals. That person makes a blessing, then stays with the Torah for the duration of his ‘aliyah’ while it is being read and finishes this honour with another blessing. The first two are allotted to a kohen and Levi respectively.
Usually, the aliyos are roughly even in length. Each one is around 13-15% of the portion’s total verses.
But this time it seems a bit uneven. The kohen receives 44 verses, while the Levi receives 46. They cover 90 verse between them. There are then 47 verses left to split between the remaining 5 aliyos.
In other words, Kohen and Levi take up a good 70% of the Torah reading.
But what really makes it interesting is that the first two sections are the ones that speak about the Jews’ downfall with the golden calf. The 2nd Aliyah finishes just before G-D forgives His people.
It’s as if, when Torah was split up, it was done in a way to make sure that the only people to read about this incident would be the descendants of the tribe of Levi, who didn’t participate in the sin.
The Chiddushei HaRim explains that this was indeed deliberate. The sages who did it did not want the evildoers’ descendants to read about the sins of their fathers. To do so would be disrespectful to them. It was more appropriate to ensure that the offspring of the innocent Levites be given this honour.
Such is the value we place on honouring one’s parents.
Today, it’s not en vogue respect one’s parents. Their ‘old fashioned’ views don’t make sense to younger people, as we live in a culture of entitlement.
This is just one reminder of how false that notion is. All parents, at the bare minimum, deserve our respect for simply bringing us into this world. And most parents go far, FAR beyond that.
And it goes beyond that too. Our Rabbis teach us that the love and respect that one is expected to have for his parents is the model for his relationship with G-D. Modern day studies indicate that children who learn to obey their parents fare much better socially and emotionally than those who don’t learn those skills. They learn to respect others in their lives and gain vital social skills.
Learning to love our parents is learning to respect others and ultimately love Hashem.
It’s a lesson not only to teach our kids but ourselves too.
(with thanks to Rabbi Meir Rappoport for this idea)
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