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Noach/Lech Lecha

THE RAVEN'S LESSON

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The Torah describes how Noah opened the window above the ark and sent out a raven. The raven did not venture out and circled the ark continuously. Rashi quotes the Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) that states that the raven refused to venture out fearing that Noah wanted to unite with his mate, the female raven. Why would the Torah find it necessary to share with us this incident? What possible lesson can we learn from this irrational raven?

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) also teaches us that although all creatures were commanded not to engage in procreation in the ark, the raven was promiscuous and did not heed this warning. Maharal explains that although the raven acts instinctively and has no free will, we learn an important lesson regarding human nature from the raven. The raven irrationally projects its desires onto others. That is why the raven suspected Noah of desiring to cohabit with its mate.

We human beings do exactly the same thing. We often irrationally assume that our desires and worldview are shared by others. Making false assumptions based on our own desires and viewpoint is often a cause of stress in human relationships. The Torah is teaching us to become aware of this tendency and to use our human faculties to counter this tendency. One of the best ways to avoid this trap is to accustom oneself to ask others what they desire or for their viewpoint. This habit results in us being less focused on ourselves and more focused on others. This is the lesson of Noah’s raven.

THE RECIPE FOR A SIN-FREE LIFE

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

There was a little girl, whose father was a clergyman.

One day, she came to her father and said, "Daddy, can a person go their whole life without sinning?"

The father answered, "No, honey, I'm sorry, but that's just not possible."

"What about a year, daddy? Can a person go a whole year without sinning?" She continued.

"No, I don't think that's possible either."

"What about a day, can a person go a day without sinning once?"

"It's very unlikely. No, I don't think they can."

"What about one moment, daddy, can a person go one moment without sinning?"

"Yes, that is possible."

"Then daddy, I want to live my life, moment by moment." Author Unknown

This beautiful anecdote contains within it a number of really meaningful and deep life messages relevant to our Yom Kippur experience.

Firstly, the idea of taking life one moment at a time and making a conscience choice to live in that moment and choose good for that moment. Friends, God has given us the most precious gift: An opportunity in every moment of the next twenty-four hours to cleanse our souls of all the negativity and spiritual impurities we have unfortunately accumulated over the past year. Yom Kippur is the high efficiency washing machine of the year. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter explains that one moment of repentance – the high efficiency detergent of the day – can cleanse and prevent a person enduring much pain and hardship, God forbid. So, let us use each moment in the Mitzvah of cleansing and purifying ourselves before Hashem.

Secondly, this anecdote raises an important question: If it is indeed possible to go one moment without sinning, then why is it impossible to go one day without sinning? I think that the simple answer is that one of the greatest challenges we face in our lives is the challenge of consistency. It is easy to choose good in one moment, but to do the right thing and choose the right path consistently is the real challenge in life.

And, finally, this anecdote leaves us with a wonderful spiritual life message. If it is indeed possible not to sin for one moment, then it must by definition, also be possible not to sin for a day, a week, a month, a year, and a lifetime. This follows logically from the fact that a lifetime is merely the collection of many individual moments. You see, friends, the key for attaining consistent morality is the ability to live this very moment as if it were our last. When we live life with that attitude, it is indeed possible to live a life free of sin. However, if we live our lives focusing on the long, arduous task at hand and the incredible moral consistency required, it appears inconceivable and impossible to live a life without sin.

This pertinent point was noted by the great sage Rebbi (or Rabbi) Nachman of Breslov 200 years ago when he commented upon the verse we say in the first psalm of Kabbalat Shabbat every Friday night: “Today, if you listen to His voice…” The secret of service of God is to focus on today as if that is all that exists. This Yom Kippur let us not commit ourselves to a sin free year, which appears impossible; rather, let us commit ourselves to that which is indeed possible, to live each moment free of sin as if it were our last.          

 

Re'eh/Shoftim

"THE RIGHT TIME IS NOW"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Parshat Re’eh begins “See, I am place before you today, blessing and curse. The blessings (will be bestowed upon you) when you listen…’ The word today seems to be redundant. The Toshe Rebbe of blessed memory suggests that when it comes to repentance and performing good deeds, procrastination is one of the greatest obstacles. The tendency to rationalize the delay of repentance and good deeds is what often results in repentance and good deeds never getting done. Therefore the Torah instructs us that our blessings and curses (God forbid) are dependent on us acting today and seizing the moment.

After Adam and Eve sinned by eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, God explains why he banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden: “The Lord God said, "Behold, man has become like one of us, having the ability of knowing good and evil, and now, lest he stretch forth his hand and take also from the Tree of Life and eat and live forever."” (Genesis Chapter 3 vs 22)

Our sages (Midrash Raba) learn from the term ‘and now’ that God opened up an opening of repentance for Adam. Our sages learn this by associating this verse with another verse in Deuteronomy in which the term ‘and now’ appears - “And now Israel, what does the Lord your God seek from you, only to fear the Lord, to love Him…” (Deuteronomy Chapter 10 vs 12) Our sages therefore conclude that the expression ‘and now’ refers to repentance - returning to God.

It seems then that repentance is represented by the notion of today and the idea of now. Rabbi Chaim Friedlander (Menuchas Hanefesh) writes that one should consider this very moment as their only moment. Every moment of our lives has a unique purpose. This is included in what Hillel teaches us in "Ethics Of The Fathers" (Source) “If not now, when?”

Similarly, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (Likutei Moharan 272) teaches, “This is a great principle in the service of God, that a person should only cast his eyes on today….because a person only has in their world that day and that moment in which they are standing (now) because tomorrow is a completely different world altogether.” In this way he explains the verse in psalms “...today, if you listen to my voice (Psalm 95).”

Let us do it now because tomorrow may never come! The best and only time is now!  

Devarim - Va'etchanan

“AND YOU SHALL LOVE HASHEM YOUR GOD”

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

In the reading of Shema, which is recited twice daily, we are commanded to love God with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our possessions. Our commentators explain that although emotions cannot be commanded, the Torah is commanding us to take practical steps to elicit certain emotions. The question then becomes: Which steps bring about the emotion of love towards God?

Maimonides (Mishneh Torah Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah Chapter 2) states: “What is the path [to attain] love and fear of Him? When a person contemplates His wondrous and great deeds and creations and appreciates His infinite wisdom that surpasses all comparison, he will immediately love, praise, and glorify Him, yearning with tremendous desire to know God's great name, as David stated: ‘My soul thirsts for the Lord, for the living God’ Psalms 42:3.” Maimonides teaches us that contemplating the wondrous intelligence and brilliance contained within the created universe, elicits feeling of awe and love within us. We are being commanded to open our eyes and see the spectacular inner intelligence in the world around us. 

In his Sefer Hamitzvot Maimonides explains another technique to bring the emotion of love of God to the fore. “We are commanded to love G‑d, that is, to meditate upon and closely examine His commandments and His works, in order to understand Him; and through this understanding to achieve a feeling of ecstasy. Maimonides quotes the Sifri that proves that Torah study brings one to love God. Immediately following the command to love God in the Shema, the Torah commands us to place the words of the Torah on our hearts (study them deeply) and then to teach Torah to our children. We learn from this that deep Torah study brings one to a greater connection and love of God. 

The classic work Chovot Halevavot suggests a different technique for attaining feelings of love towards God. He suggests that one contemplate the tremendous blessings that are present in one’s life and the kindness that God has shown one in the past. One is filled with love for the creator of all things, who, despite His infinite greatness, has showered kindness upon us lowly beings. 

Contemplating the majesty and brilliance of the universe, connecting with God through delving into the infinite wisdom of the Torah, and feeling gratitude to God for all our blessings, not only lead us to the love of God, but also spells out a wonderful recipe for a meaningful and joyful life.“And You Shall Love Hashem Your God”

In the reading of Shema, which is recited twice daily, we are commanded to love God with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our possessions. Our commentators explain that although emotions cannot be commanded, the Torah is commanding us to take practical steps to elicit certain emotions. The question then becomes: Which steps bring about the emotion of love towards God?

Maimonides (Mishneh Torah Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah Chapter 2) states: “What is the path [to attain] love and fear of Him? When a person contemplates His wondrous and great deeds and creations and appreciates His infinite wisdom that surpasses all comparison, he will immediately love, praise, and glorify Him, yearning with tremendous desire to know God's great name, as David stated: ‘My soul thirsts for the Lord, for the living God’ Psalms 42:3.” Maimonides teaches us that contemplating the wondrous intelligence and brilliance contained within the created universe, elicits feeling of awe and love within us. We are being commanded to open our eyes and see the spectacular inner intelligence in the world around us. 

In his Sefer Hamitzvot Maimonides explains another technique to bring the emotion of love of God to the fore. “We are commanded to love G‑d, that is to meditate upon and closely examine His commandments and His works, in order to understand Him; and through this understanding, to achieve a feeling of ecstasy. Maimonides quotes the Sifri that proves that Torah study brings one to love God. Immediately following the command to love God in the Shema, the Torah commands us to place the words of the Torah on our hearts (study them deeply) and then to teach Torah to our children. We learn from this that deep Torah study brings one to a greater connection and love of God. 

The classic work Chovot Halevavot suggests a different technique for attaining feelings of love towards God. He suggests that one contemplate the tremendous blessings that are present in one’s life and the kindness that God has shown one in the past. One is filled with love for the creator of all things, who despite His infinite greatness has showered kindness upon us lowly beings. 

Contemplating the majesty and brilliance of the universe, connecting with God through delving into the infinite wisdom of the Torah, and feeling gratitude to God for all our blessings not only lead us to the love of God but also spell out a wonderful recipe for a meaningful and joyful life.

Matot-Masei

"THE REBBE'S VIEW OF HUMAN INTERACTION"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

I recently came upon a video in which Rabbi David Lapin describes his encounter with  Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, in 1976. At the time, Rabbi Lapin was involved in both business and had a role as a community Rabbi and outreach personality in the South African Jewish community. He was finding the demands of both these endeavors overwhelming and went to seek the Rebbe’s sage advice.

The Rebbe advised him to continue and even increase his communal involvement and simultaneously to continue with his business endeavors.  Rabbi Lapin expressed that this was unrealistic and that he was not even coping adequately with the current situation. The Rebbe then turned to him and said that he understood Rabbi Lapin’s problem. He explained to Rabbi Lapin that his difficulty was that he viewed human interaction incorrectly and explained as follows: 
You (Rabbi Lapin) view human interaction like a chemical reaction. Two elements interact and form a combined third element. Human interaction does not work this way. Human interaction is not a chemical reaction. Human interaction is a nuclear reaction! A nuclear reaction reverberates out from the core of the explosion in all directions. When you touch just one person’s heart that is a nuclear reaction. Thousands of people are impacted and influenced by that one person during their lifetime. 

The key to extending one’s circle of influence lies not in directly influencing masses of people. The key is to provide enough energy and attention to each individual interaction to create a nuclear reaction which will then in turn impact the lives of thousands of people. 

We are now in the period know as Bein Hametzarim between the seventeenth day of Tammuz and the ninth day of Av. Let us resolve to counter the baseless hatred that caused the destruction of our temple by focusing on giving those with whom we come into contact our fullest attention, support and kindness. May these interactions fuel the nuclear reaction needed for the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash and the restoration of  peace and harmony throughout the world.

Balak/Pinchas

"DEATH'S DIVINE MESSAGE"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

In Parshat Chukat, we are instructed how to purify a person who has come into contact with a dead body. It is a complex procedure requiring the ashes of the red heifer to be sprinkled upon the impure person at two specific times during a week long purification process.

On the other hand, one that comes into contact with an animal carcass has to undergo immersion in a Mikvah (Ritual body of water), a short and straightforward purification process. Rabbi Soloveitchik (The Rav Thinking Aloud on Sefer Bamidbar) points out that Jewish law considers the death of an animal and human so differently because of the great difference between human life/death and animal life/death. He points out that while death of a human being is considered tragic, the death of an animal is not generally experienced as a tragedy. This is because an animal is not really considered to have individualistic existence. An animal does not have a spiritual personality so to speak. Despite the death of this particular animal, the species will survive. Human beings on the other hand are different. Within every human being there is a spiritual personality, a unique individuality unlike any other. A human being exists not only as a representative of humankind but has his/her own independent existence and right to exist. Therefore the death of a human being is indeed tragic. The death of one human being is the death of an entire unique species. The recent death within our community has affected many of us greatly. One of the profound lessons for me has been a deeper understanding of the unique preciousness of every human being. Unfortunately we often only truly appreciate the value and preciousness of someone once they are no longer with us. The challenge for us is to notice, appreciate and do for others while they are still with us. While death is tragic, not noticing and appreciating others while we are all alive is also tragic. Let us work on having and showing appreciation, respect and honor to every human world around us.  

Korach/Chukat

"THE CHANGE CHALLENGE"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Reading through these Torah portions can really get one down on the Jewish people. They seem to be constantly rebelling, complaining and ungrateful. However, it is interesting to note that according to the Ramban all these disturbing events took place within the first year and a half of the exodus from Egypt. The only exception was when the people became agitated and ungratefully complained about the heavenly Manna food after Aharon’s death in the last year of their forty-year sojourn in the desert. This changes our perspective. For thirty-eight years they were perfectly righteous with no ungrateful complaining and no rebellion whatsoever. Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin inquires as to why it is that these rumblings specifically occurred at the beginning and end of their stay in the desert?

Rabbi Sorotzkin suggests that the answer is ‘change.’ When the Jewish people left Egypt, it was naturally a tremendous upheaval for them. They were unsettled and without absolute peace of mind. They subsequently became accustomed to their new surroundings and circumstances and were settled for the next thirty-eight years. As the time was approaching for their move into the land of Israel and change was imminent they became unsettled and lost their peace of mind. The psychological state of the Jewish people at the bookends of their travels explains why they specifically were more prone to sin during those time periods. When one loses one’s peace of mind, one is unable to think clearly, use proper judgment and make wise decisions. One becomes irrational, and negative character traits such as anger, hatred, jealousy and desire tend to emerge. 

Some change and upheaval in life is inevitable, nothing in our world remains constant forever. Change naturally has the tendency to disturb our peace of mind. The takeaway message is that we should be acutely aware of our state of mind. At times when we are unsettled and do not have complete peace of mind, we need to be aware of the dangers of that state of mind. Decisions should be avoided and no action should be taken until we are confident that our actions or speech are underpinned with a clear and peaceful state of mind. I therefore suggest that it is a Mitzvah to cultivate a state of inner calm and peacefulness to ensure we act with wisdom and pure intention. We are then able to serve God appropriately. Our mindfulness class on Shabbat afternoon is part of this holy endeavor to create a calm inner state of mind.

Beha'alotcha/Shelach

"WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU DISCOVERED"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The following discussion arose at a Shabbat table I attended twenty years ago: According to Jewish law, a person is defined as Jewish if their mother was Jewish. A person that was not born to a Jewish mother can become Jewish by undergoing a conversion process. The question posed at the Shabbat table was: What would you do if you somehow discovered that you were not Jewish?

Our Shabbat host, a Rabbi, stated that he would opt not to convert to Judaism. He explained that Judaism believes that all human beings are commanded in the seven basic Noachide laws. Judaism does not believe that in order to get salvation or be saved from hell that one needs to convert to Judaism. Anyone keeping the seven Noachide laws which God instructed in the Torah is considered a righteous person. He went on to explain that keeping all the laws of the Torah and being Jewish was a tremendous responsibility. Given the choice, he would opt for less responsibility and an easier lifestyle.

 Having posed the question to a number of people over the years, I have come across a number of different approaches. Some concur with my Rabbi host that they would not convert, others say they would ask their Rabbi’s advice, and others say they would immediately undergo a conversion. Another common approach is the Sabbatical approach: - take a year off to enjoy cheese burgers etc. and then convert to Judaism.

 In order to bring the Korban Pesach, the Pascal lamb offering, one is required to be free of impurity. There were a number of people that had come into contact with a dead body and were therefore not able to offer the Pascal lamb on Pesach. They approached Moses saying, “We are ritually unclean [because of contact] with a dead person; [but] why should we be excluded so as not to bring the offering of the Lord in its appointed time, with all the children of Israel?” Moses then requested clarification from God. God commanded them to bring the Pascal lamb offering one month later on the day we call Pesach Sheni (Second Pesach.)

 Although these Jews were technically exempt from fulfilling the mitzvah of the Pascal lamb they were disturbed by the fact that they could not fulfill the mitzvah. They viewed God’s commandment as a privilege and not simply as an obligation. I have no doubt that given the dilemma described above, these people would have demanded to be converted instantly.

 There is no doubt that being Jewish carries tremendous responsibilities. The question boils down to our attitude. Do we view being Jewish predominantly as an obligation or predominantly as a privilege? Pesach Sheni teaches us to aspire to the lofty attitude that each divine command is not simply an obligation but indeed an awesome privilege.

Bamidbar/Naso

"GRASS, TREES AND SHAVUOT?"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Rabbi Moshe Isserles of Krakow, in his 16th century note on the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), states that we are accustomed to place grasses in synagogues and homes on Shavuot as a reminder of the joy of the giving of Torah. The Chofetz Chayim (Mishna Berurah) explains that there were grasses around Mount Sinai. 

Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, in his 17th century commentary on Shulchan Aruch, states that there is a custom to bring trees into synagogues and homes on Shavuot as a reminder that on Shavuot we are judged regarding the fruit of the trees. We are thereby encouraged to pray for the fruit of the trees on Shavuot. This is based on the Mishnah in tractate Rosh Hashanah which states that on Shavuot a judgment is made concerning the quality and quantity of the fruits of trees.

While contemplating these beautiful customs the following questions arise: How do we reconcile the fact that the Torah was given in the barren desert with the idea of lush vegetation? Why is Shavuot specifically the time of judgment regarding the fruit of the trees? Perhaps the answers lie in the fact that our sages compare the human being to a tree. In fact, our sages say that the main progeny of a person is their good deeds and not their physical offspring. The Torah provides the necessary nourishment and guidance for us to produce beautiful good deeds, just as water and sunlight promote the health of a fruit-bearing tree. Our ability to absorb nourishment and inspiration from the Holy Torah and to produce good deeds and positively impact our world is noted by God on Shavuot  - the day of the giving of the Torah.  God judges us measure for measure. The degree to which we are able to nourish ourselves (human tree) and produce fruit (good deeds) will be directly proportional to the ability of our fruit trees to absorb nourishment and produce fruit. 

The Torah itself is a tree of life and when embraced has the power to transform the human being from a desert into a flourishing oasis.

Tazria-Metzora /Acharei-Kedoshim

"A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE OF OURSELVES AND OTHERS"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

There is an often quoted Midrashic teaching (Torat Cohanim) which states: “Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 21).” Rabbi Akiva says that this is the great principal of the Torah. Similarly, the Talmud records (Tractate Shabbat 31a) that Hillel was approached by a potential convert who asked him to explain the entire Torah upon one foot. Hillel responded “What is hateful to you do not do unto your friend, the rest is commentary, go and study.”

While these statements resonate strongly within us, they are difficult to understand. It is true that the Torah contains commandments regarding our conduct towards other people, but the Torah also contains many commandments relating to our service of God, such as prayer, reciting Shema, Mezuzah, Tefilin etc. How is it then that Rabbi Akiva and Hillel indicated that our relationship to others is the overriding principle of Torah? Surely our conduct towards others is only half of the story?

The Maharal (Netiv Ahavat Re’ah) explains that the true basis for loving another is the realization that the core essence of another is essentially the very same core essence of oneself. In this sense we truly are one. Just as I was created in the image of God, so, too, my fellow was created in the image of God. He explains further that the purpose of the entire Torah is to perfect and manifest this image of God in which we are created. This explains why the entire Torah can be summarized by the principle “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This represents the Torah ideal of realizing and manifesting one’s own spiritual essence and recognizing that this very Godly essence is present in others, thereby binding us in a bond of unity and love with both our fellow human beings and our creator, God.

On a practical level I would suggest the following practice. While engaging with someone in conversation try and realize that the essence of the person standing before you is not his/her physical body. The person is much deeper than that -- a unique manifestation of the image of God as are you. The person is therefore deserving of the same honor, respect and noble treatment as we hope others would bestow upon us.

 

Chol Hamoed/Shmini

"THE ONE THING ONE CAN NEVER DO ENOUGH OF"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar Chaim

The Talmud says that one is not allowed to praise God’s greatness, because all the adjectives we may use to describe God’s greatness and kindness, dwarf in comparison to His true greatness and kindness. Therefore rather than ‘insulting’ God by listing so few of his attributes in such a limited way, one should rather be silent.
 
On Seder night and throughout Passover the constant singing of God’s praises appears to contradict the above principal. The Maharal of Prague suggests the following answer: One could never find sufficient words to thank God for all the kindness he bestowed and bestows upon us. Nonetheless one is certainly duty bound to thank God and praise Him in gratitude for the many kindnesses he has bestowed upon us.Only praise that is intended simply to be praise is forbidden, but praise for the purpose of expressing thanks is certainly appropriate and demanded of us. 
 
Friends, Passover is the time to be truly thankful for being part of this unique nation and for all the kindness that God has bestowed upon us as individuals and communities. Although we cannot express our thankful praise sufficiently, we cannot and should not remain silent. Let us be grateful in our hearts and express our gratitude with our lips.

Vayikra/Tzav

"THE SANDWICH OF LIFE"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

After we fulfill the Mitzvoth of eating matzah and bitter herbs on Seder night we eat the Hillel sandwich, consisting of matzah and bitter herbs together, and proclaim:

Thus did Hillel during the time when the Temple was standing: He would combine [in a sandwich] the Passover offering, the matzah and the bitter herbs and eat them together to fulfill what was stated “Upon matzot and bitter herbs they shall eat it.” 

The great 16th century scholar, the Maharal of Prague, explains the spiritual meaning of binding the Passover offering, matzah and bitter herbs into one indivisible sandwich. The spiritual meaning of matzah and bitter herbs is quite clear. Matzah represents freedom because we were hurried out of Egypt and were forced to bake unleavened bread. Bitter herbs represent pain, slavery and persecution. Clearly, matzah and bitter herbs represent opposing concepts that are somehow connected through the Passover offering. 

Maharal explains that the laws of the Passover offering make its spiritual meaning apparent. The Passover offering was to be roasted and could not be cooked. The cooking process softens and separates whereas the roasting process solidifies. The offering could not be cut up and then roasted, it had to roasted whole. In fact there is a negative commandment to break a bone of the Passover offering. All these laws suggest that the Passover offering represents the concept of unity. In this first offering, the Jewish people testify to the fact that God is absolutely one. This unity means that there exists only one true God, he cannot be compartmentalized, and that everything in existence emanates from God. 

We experience both pleasure and pain, redemption and slavery, happiness and sadness throughout our lives. Some tend to turn to God and recognize his existence in bad times but tend to forget about him in good times. Others tend to turn to God in thanks and appreciation in good times but reject his involvement and hand when things are tough. Pagans simply could not grasp the concept of one God from whom freedom, slavery, pleasure, pain, happiness and sadness originate. They therefore had multiple gods -- the god of pleasure, the god of pain, the kind god and the god of wrath. 

The Hillel sandwich teaches us that everything stems from one united and compassionate God. We testify that the bitter times in life and the sweet times in life all emanate from this one united and compassionate God. Therefore, one united and compassionate God. We testify that the bitter times in life and the sweet times in life all emanate from this one united and compassionate God. Therefore, nce of living as a Jew. Let us aspire to this noble existence.

KI TASA/PARAH

"PURITY AND IMPURITY: A STATE OF MIND"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Two Shabbatot before the month of Nissan we take out an extra Torah Scroll and read about the law of the red heifer. In Jewish law, one who has come into contact with a dead body (or been exposed in various ways) is rendered ritually impure (Tamei) and is forbidden to partake of the Pascal lamb and other offerings. The person needs to undergo a process of purification which enables them to eat temple offerings such as the Pascal lamb. The ashes of the red heifer were used in this purification process.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch has a fascinating explanation as to why being exposed to a dead body causes this Tumah (ritual impurity). He explains that the basis of spiritual purity is the belief that a person has free will, the feeling that our spirits are empowered to be masters over our physical drives, the idea that we are free to choose and therefore change, grow and develop through being proactive. Death, on the other hand, delivers the message that the cyclical nature of the physical world is unstoppable. Death leaves one's psyche with a feeling of powerlessness and deeply undermines our internal belief that we can be proactive and change ourselves and the world around us. Rabbi Hirsch explains that this is one of the reasons for the spiritual impurity associated with being exposed to the dead.

Rabbi Hirsch's explanation is particularly appropos to the holiday of freedom, Passover. Just as physical enslavement contaminates one's free will, so too feeling powerless and like a victim of one's circumstances, is a contamination of the free-willed nature of human beings. Let us strive to create a positive, empowering and protective state of mind, the pure mind space from which we can truly serve God by making our world a better place for all.

TERUMAH/TETZAVEH

"A DIFFERENT MEASURE OF WEALTH"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

In Parshat Terumah the Jewish people are commanded to bring donations for the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle.) They are commanded to bring commodities such as gold, silver, wool and animal skins. There is no prescribed amount. They are commanded to simply bring according to the generosity of their hearts. Rashi points out that the Hebrew word ‘Terumah’ meaning ‘separated donation’ is used three times in the opening verses, hinting at two other donations that were given to the Mishkan (Tabernacle.)  The other two donations both had a prescribed amount of a half shekel of silver. One of the donations was used for the silver base sockets for the wooden beams of the Tabernacle structure, and the other was an annual collection for the communal sacrifices. 

The Maharal inquires as to why it was necessary for the Torah to connect these three separate donations by hinting at all of them in one place. His answer is that the purpose of the Tabernacle was to atone for the idolatrous sin of the golden calf. He explains further that a human being has three fundamental components: a spiritua l(intellectual) component, a physical component and an emotional component. The idolatrous sin of the golden calf involved the spiritual, physical and emotional aspects of the Jewish people. These three donations atoned for these three aspects. The half shekel silver base sockets donation atoned for the body, the half shekel donation towards the communal sacrifices atoned for the spirit, and the donation that was given according to the generosity of the heart atoned for the emotional aspect of the sin of the golden calf. 

The Maharal then asks why the Torah left the donation which atones for a person’s heart to the discretion of each individual. A wealthy individual may donate less than an individual with much more limited resources. It would seem more logical for the Torah to have commanded a flat tax of a particular percentage. In that way each person would donate according to their level of wealth. Maharal answers that the Torah commanded people to give according to their true level of wealth. One’s true wealth is not defined by one’s balance sheet but rather by one’s attitude to one’s balance sheet. 

There are wealthy individuals who feel lacking and do not feel wealthy. For these individuals giving a small amount to charity may be extremely challenging. There are individuals who are less wealthy but do not feel that they are lacking, consequently, they feel wealthy and give very generous charitable donations. In fact, by making the donation voluntary, the Torah is commanding us to donate according to our true wealth: the extent to which we feel we are lacking and the extent to which we feel blessed, complete and whole.

YITRO/MISHPATIM

"THE CONNECTION BETWEEN AMALEK AND YITRO"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Parshat Beshalach ends with the Jewish People being brutally attacked by the nation of Amalek while traveling peacefully in the wilderness following their exodus from Egypt. The very next section in the Torah begins with Yitro hearing of the miraculous exodus from the land of Egypt and traveling to embrace the Jewish people and Judaism. The Jewish people are given the command to destroy the Amalekite nation and are later commanded to specifically protect Yitro's nation (the Keini people). 

Rabbi Bachya, a great 13th century biblical commentator, explains that the Torah specifically juxtaposes these two Torah portions to highlight the very different reactions to the miraculous exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt. Yitro is deeply affected by what he hears, takes it seriously, takes it to heart and takes the bold step of joining and helping the children of Israel. This is in stark contrast to the Amalekites who posses a trait that our sages call Leytzanut ,or mockery. This is the character trait of taking something of great importance and minimizing it, treating it with cynicism, belittling it, mocking it, and, finally, brushing it off. Nothing is taken to heart and nothing impacts the core of the personality. Amalek were able to mock and brush off every report of the divine deliverance of the Jewish people to such a degree that they felt confident to brutally attack them. Some of the most misguided and evil people have turned their lives around when an important truth penetrated their hearts. However, the person who belittles every message of importance has no hope of transformation and change. This explains the prophecy of Bilam: "Amalek is the first of the nations and its end will be utter destruction." Every nation will ultimately “get the message” and return to God but Amalek will never “get it.” 

This message is an eternal one for every human being. We all have the tendency to be overly cynical and brush off matters we should take more seriously. We should take a lesson from Yitro to allow the Torah’s eternal messages, and the great lessons that God teaches us in the school of life, to penetrate our hearts, enabling us to connect more deeply to the Jewish people and to our God.
 

BO/BESHALACH

"THE FIRST BORN DONKEY'S MESSAGE"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Towards the end of Parshat Bo we are introduced to the mitzvah of redeeming the first born donkey. “And every firstborn donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, and if you do not redeem, you shall break its neck, and every firstborn of man among your sons, you shall redeem.” Of all the animals that are not kosher, why was the donkey singled out? If one chooses not to redeem the first born donkey, one is commanded to kill the young donkey by breaking the back of its neck with a butcher’s knife. This is disturbing and requires explanation.

In explaining this mitzvah the thirteenth century classic Sefer Hachinuch writes “So that the Jews will forever remember the miracle that was performed for them by God at the exodus from Egypt, where God killed the Egyptian first born, which are compared to donkeys in scripture.” The Sefer Hachinuch is referring to a verse in the prophet Yechezkiel “And she lusted for their concubinage, those whose flesh is the flesh of donkeys, and whose issue is the issue of horses.” (Yechezkiel 23,20) This verse refers to the Egyptian people at the time of the exodus and compares them to donkeys. 

Our sages explain that the Egyptian people were steeped in a culture built on sexual pleasure and sexual immorality. The animal that most strongly symbolizes gross physicality is the donkey. The Hebrew word for donkey is “Chamor” which has the same root letters as the Hebrew word “Chomer” meaning physical material matter. Therefore, the Egyptian nation that were steeped in “Chomriyut” (physical, material pleasure) are compared to donkeys in the prophet Yechezkiel. The killing of the first born donkey demonstrates the complete and utter rejection of a culture built on the foundation of gross physicality, physical pleasure and physical immorality. According to this line of reasoning it is in fact the possibility of redemption that needs more explanation. 

I would suggest the following: Pleasures of the flesh as an ultimate societal goal and ends unto themselves are what God objects to so strongly. However, physical involvement and physical pleasure focused towards the service of God, within the framework of Torah law, is not to be shunned. The first born donkey is redeemed with a lamb and given to a Kohen, a servant of God. Similarly one is able to “redeem” physical pleasure and involvement by dedicating them to the service of God. 

SHEMOS/VA'EIRA

"THE POWER OF THE NAME MOSHE"

By: Rabbi Barka Bar-Chaim

The Midrash relates that Moshe our teacher had numerous names reflecting his lofty character traits and great accomplishments. One of his names was “Yered,” which means to bring down, reflecting his accomplishment of bringing the Torah down on Mount Sinai. Another of his names was “Tuvia" derived from the Hebrew word ‘”tov” or goodness, reflecting his good, refined character. 

Nonetheless, as we know, the name that God chose to use in reference to Moshe is “Moshe.” According to the simple text of the Torah this name was not given to him by his parents or God, but rather by Pharaoh’s daughter. “She named him Moses, and she said, ‘For I drew him from the water’.” (Exodus 2:10) Why would God choose to refer to him using the name given by Pharaoh’s daughter? What is more perplexing is that this name refers to Pharaoh’s daughter’s actions and not to his own character or accomplishments.

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz of blessed memory explains that God chose the name given by Pharaoh’s daughter because she imbued Moshe with an attribute very dear to God. Pharaoh’s daughter performed an act of tremendous self-sacrifice in saving a Jewish baby. She defied the King’s decree and literally risked her life. Pharaoh’s daughter’s act of greatness brings to mind the many righteous individuals who risked their lives to save Jews in the Holocaust. This great act of Pharaoh’s daughter made a tremendous impression on Moses. He, too, absorbed the conviction to risk his own well-being to achieve justice and to assist others. 

This trait was the hallmark of the leadership of Moshe our teacher. When he left the palace and witnessed injustice, he sacrificed all royal privileges and risked his life for justice. Through his life he was absolutely selfless in defending the Jewish people to the point where he states “And if not (if you do not save them) erase me from your book (the Torah).” In using the name Moshe, given by Pharaoh’s daughter, God is teaching us the degree to which He values a person willing to out him/herself on the line for justice and for the sake of others. 

VAYIGASH/YAYECHI

"CHALLENGES"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

And Pharaoh said to Jacob, "How many are the days of the years of your life?"
And Jacob said to Pharaoh, "The days of the years of my sojournings are one hundred thirty years.  The days of the years of my life have been few and bad, and they have not reached the days of the years of the lives of my forefathers in the days of their sojournings." - Exodus Chapter 47, Verses 8-9

The above interaction between Pharaoh and Jacob is rather perplexing. Pharaoh asked Jacob a simple question 'How old are you?' to which Jacob first responds appropriately by giving his age of one hundred and thirty years old.  Why does Jacob find it necessary to tell Pharaoh about how awful his life has been?  The simple explanation given by many commentators is that Jacob looked exceptionally old and haggard, and Pharaoh was essentially asking Jacob 'Why do you look so old and haggard?'  Jacob responded by explaining to Pharaoh that despite his young age compared with that of his forefathers, he had suffered a terribly stress-filled and traumatic life. 

Our sages teach us (Midrash Hagadol) that Jacob was punished because of this response to Pharaoh.  In the Hebrew version of the verses quoted above there are exactly thirty-three words. Jacob lived thirty-three years less than his father Isaac as a result of uttering these words of complaint. 

This teaching is difficult to understand.  Jacob had an incredibly traumatic life.  His brother wanted to kill him, his father-in-law cheated him and attempted to kill him, the love of his life passed away in childbirth, his daughter was raped, he had to fight off antagonistic local inhabitants, his son Joseph was separated from him at the tender age of 17 and the list goes on.  Can he really be blamed for viewing his life as bad, miserable and traumatic?  In addition to this the thirty-three words that count against him include Pharaoh's question?  Surely he is only responsible for his response?

There is no question that Jacob had an incredibly challenging life.  Our sages are nonetheless teaching us that although he could not have changed these challenging events, much of his suffering was not caused by the events themselves but by his attitudinal reactions to these events.  Yes, there is no doubt that a certain measure of pain and suffering was unavoidable, but he suffered more than was necessary.  He could have chosen to focus more on the bigger picture.  He still had tremendous blessings in his life: his wives, eleven other sons, grandchildren and much more.  Perhaps his faith could have led him to the conclusion that all his tribulations were for a larger positive purpose. A significant part of his life was spent in unnecessary self-inflicted depression, pain and hardship.  He therefore looked old and haggard and is therefore also punished for the words of Pharaoh expressing surprise at his appearance. 

We learn from this the tremendous responsibility we have for our own state of mind and happiness.  The Torah obligates us to do all in our power to maintain our peace of mind and happiness despite our challenges.  Let us work at fulfilling this divine obligation to maintain a sense of peace of mind and a joyful countenance.
 

Vayeshev/Mikeitz

"THE IMPORTANCE OF EXTERNAL APPEARANCE"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

…Joseph was seventeen years old, was a Shepherd with his brothers by flock, and he was a Na’ar (young lad) with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah…” (Genesis Chapter 37 Verse 2)

Our sages find it strange that Joseph was referred to as a Na’ar (young lad) at the age of seventeen years old. The term Na’ar (young lad) usually refers to someone much younger. Rashi quotes the Midrash Rabba which states that his behavior was similar to that of a young lad. He acted immaturely and would dress his hair and adorn his eyes to look handsome. 

This depiction of Joseph as an immature young lad obsessing over his appearance is difficult to understand. Our sages teach us that all the spiritual teachings that Jacob received from Isaac, Abraham and other spiritual teachers of the day were passed on to Joseph. According to the commentary of Onkelos, Jacob loved him because he was the wisest of all his brothers. He was clearly a very spiritually advanced individual at a very young age. If this is the case, why is Joseph so concerned about his external appearance? Additionally, the verse indicates that he was more meticulous about his appearance in his interaction with the sons of Bilah and Zilpah. Why was he more meticulous around them?

Our sages explain that one of Joseph’s criticisms of his brothers was that he felt the sons of Leah did not treat the maidservants’ (Bilah and Zilpah) children in a respectful fashion. Joseph therefore befriended them and tried to uplift them spiritually. I believe this to be the reason that Joseph behaved ‘immaturely’ and paid so much attention to his external appearance. He understood that when it comes to impacting others (even towards spirituality) physical appearance makes a difference. A person is more likely to be influenced and affected by a person who presents themselves well rather than by a person with a sloppy appearance. 

As human beings seeing beautiful and pleasant things makes an impact upon us. In a similar vein, our sages teach that one should dwell in a beautiful home because the beauty expands a person’s consciousness enabling the service of God in a more profound way. However, it should be noted that beautiful external appearances are a means to an end and not an end in themselves. When externality becomes the goal, all real spiritual value is lost. Let us use and enhance the beauty of the physical world to advance the spiritual growth of ourselves and others.

Vayetze/Vayishlach

"SECURING JUDAISM'S SUCCESSFUL TRANSMISSION TO THE NEXT GENERATION"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

There are of course many ingredients involved in successfully transmitting Judaism to future generations. A good Jewish education and modeling observance of Judaism are no doubt fundamental ingredients. For parents and grandparents there is another crucial ingredient which Rabbi Moshe Feinstein learns from Parshat Vayetze. 

Yaakov tells his wives Rachel and Leah that God has instructed him to leave the home of Lavan, their father, and to return to the land of his fathers. He explains to them how he feels threatened by Lavan and how Lavan has cheated and deceived him on countless occasions. Rachel and Leah respond "Do we still have a share or an inheritance in our father's house? Are we not considered by him as strangers, for he sold us and also consumed our money? But all the wealth that God separated from our father is ours and our children's. So now, all that God said to you, do." 

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein inquires as to why they did not simply respond by saying that they will do whatever God instructed. Why the preamble saying that they have nothing to gain by staying in any event? He responds by saying that Rachel and Leah would have carried out God’s instruction even if they were set to lose their father's inheritance. However, they wanted to carry out God's command willingly and with a positive disposition in the knowledge and with the faith that ultimately one does not lose out financially by fulfilling God's commands. Rabbi Feinstein explains that there were Jewish emigrants to America who kept Shabbat under difficult circumstances and would tell their children how hard it is to keep Shabbat and to avoid working on Shabbat. He explains that this attitude sends the wrong educational message to the children and ultimately results in the children leaving the path of religious observance. The next generation absorbs the message that 'Es iz schwer tzu sein a yid.' - it is hard to be a Jew - the message that keeping Shabbat hinders one’s financial possibilities and is therefore a tough sacrifice. This message will not sustain a new generation of committed Jews.

Rachel and Leah teach us that our attitude should be that it is a privilege and pleasure to follow our tradition. They teach us that our faith should be that God ultimately provides us with a livelihood and that keeping our faith does not result in us losing anything. When we live with the attitude that it is indeed a great privilege to keep the Torah's commandments, the next generation will be enthused to do the same. 

Lech Lecha/Vayera

"THE ONE MITZVAH GOD WANTS US TO LOVE AND DESIRE"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Following Abraham's circumcision God brought an extremely hot day to deter travelers from visiting Abraham's vicinity. Once God saw Abraham's distress that no guests were coming, God brought Angelic guests in the guise of human beings. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein asks why Abraham was distressed. There were no guests in need of assistance and therefore no obligation to bestow kindness. This is akin to a person being in distress on a weekday about having no obligation of Shabbat observance, or a person being upset on Shabbat that they cannot fulfill the Mitzvah of Tefilin, for which we find no precedence.

He answers that when it comes to Chessed (lovingkindness) we are not only obligated to perform kindness, but to actually love and desire to perform acts of kindness. While God commands us to perform all the Mitzvot, we are not commanded to love performing them; however, when it comes to Chessed (loving kindness), God does not want us to perform acts of loving kindness out of a sense of obligation but rather to become people who desire to bestow kindness upon others.

Abraham was a prime example of this; he loved and desired to bestow kindness upon others to such a degree that he was actually distressed at not being able to do so. Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan (Chofetz Chaim) makes the very same point as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and provides evidence that God desires us to become people who not only perform lovingkindness but love loving kindness from the following verse: "He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord demands of you; but to do justice, to love loving-kindness, and to walk discreetly with your God." (Micha 6:8)

Let us work to become individuals who love loving kindness.

Bereshis/Noach

"BODY AND SOUL TALK"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Our sages composed a wonderful blessing which is recited every morning as well as after using the bathroom. In this blessing we thank God for the incredibly complex digestive system we were given, which enables us to absorb nutrients, expel waste through various apertures and thus remain alive. The blessing concludes, “Blessed are you who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.”

Rabbi Moses Isserles (Rama) explains that the final expression “and acts wondrously” (umafli la’asot in hebrew) refers to the wondrous, unique nature of man. Man has a physical, earthly body like all other animals and a Divine soul that God breathed into man. The fact that these two opposite entities form one united human being is truly wondrous.

The Hebrew root word, peleh, is used to describe this wonder. Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner points out that the same Hebrew root is used in the Torah and Rabbinic sources to describe the power of speech. True speech is only possible for human beings who are endowed with both earthly bodies and Divine souls. Speech is the unique power of the human being to integrate the physical tongue with the spirit and intellect. This is why King Solomon states “Life and death are in the hand of the tongue.” This is why our sages emphasize the importance of keeping our word, using clean refined language and using our speech to uplift others.

Perhaps this is another reason why the Yom Kippur service begins with Kol Nidrei, the annulment of vows and why there is a strong emphasis in our prayers asking forgiveness for using our speech inappropriately. We begin Yom Kippur reminding ourselves that the uniqueness of our humanity lies in the power of speech. Let us remind ourselves to use our human attribute of speech with caution and in ways that uplift others and truly reflect our lofty, divine souls.

Chol Hamoed

"TEMPORARY BUT SECURE"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The human need for security, stability and control is incredibly strong. The feeling of being vulnerable is a most unpleasant one. It is a feeling that propels one to seek security and safety. The epic work Duties of the Heart, written by Bahya ibn Paquda in the 11th century, notes that all human beings rely on something to relieve the uncomfortable feeling of insecurity and vulnerability. Some rely predominantly on friends, others on family, others on financial resources and most on a combination of the above.  

I write this as I sit in my home awaiting Matthew, a dreadfully powerful storm. I hope and pray for the safety of everyone at this time. I do not know whether our brick homes with hurricane proof glass and shutters would provide resistance to a direct hit from a category 5 hurricane. Despite incredible technological advances in our modern world we all remain vulnerable to natural disasters. We are all unfortunately vulnerable to illness and disease, heaven forbid. Somehow, even in our wonderful secure modern world, the feeling of vulnerability persists. 

"Even though it is a mitzvah to rejoice on all the festivals, there was an additional celebration in the Temple on the festival of Sukkot, as [Leviticus 23:40] commands: "And you shall rejoice before God, your Lord, for seven days." (Maimonides, Laws of Shofar, Sukkah Velulav 8,12)  
Sukkot is the holiday which we refer to as Zman Simchateinu, the time of our happiness. We are commanded to leave our secure permanent homes and enter flimsy, temporary structures, exposed to the natural elements of sun, wind and rain. Surely we would be more comfortable and joyous in our sturdy secure homes? 

The ten days of repentance from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur awakens us to the realization that we are completely and absolutely in the hands of Hashem. He is our protector and redeemer. This notion fills us with the joy and the confidence that it is not only our secure homes, financial resources and social support system on which we rely, but that our ultimate security can only be found by relying on our Father in Heaven. This is the tremendous joy of the Sukkot holiday.

Vayeilech/Hazinu

"A BREATH OF FRESH AIR"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Maimonides writes that although the reason for the Mitzvah of Shofar is one that is beyond our comprehension, the Mitzvah hints "Wake up sleepers from your slumber."

I would humbly suggest that perhaps the Mitzvah of Shofar has another hint, a hint that proves to be very useful for our daily lives. The Mitzvah of Shofar is fulfilled in a avery unique way. Essentially by the process of exhaling - after inhaling of course. The Mitzvah is to hear the sound of exhaling channeled through an animals' horn. So exhaled breath is what it is all about. The meaning of breath in Torah thought is the key to the undersatnding of this Mitzvah. 

It therefore seems logical that the meaning of the exhalation breathing Mitzvah of Shofar is an expression of dedication of our very essence and lives to God. This takes place on the very day we commemorate God infusing man with the soul-breath of life. It expresses the willingness to dedicate our lives beyond our own physical bodies for the greater good - the giving of our spirits. We are reminded that our lives only have true value if we are net exhalers, if we give generously of our spirits to God and our fellow man.

I had the opportunity to hear Tal Ben Shachar, a happiness expert, speak about happiness. He said something that really caught my attention. He said that scientifc research has found that taking just a few deep, conscious breaths a few times a day has a profound effect on feeling relaxed, peaceful and happy. Furthermore, he said that this is most effective when the out breath is longer than the in breath. The mechanism of this technique can be understood with the Torah's view of the spiritual meaning of breath. Breathing consciously, really sensing one's breath, reconnects us with our spiritual soul essence and therefore promotes a feeling of wellbeing and happiness. The out breath should be longer than the in breath signifying that one is to give more of oneself than one takes from others.

In a similar vein Confucius once said, "When you breathe, you inspire, and when you don't breathe you expire." So I encourage us all to have a year full of breath and full of giving. May we all merit a happy, healthy and successful year, filled with breath of life.

Ki Tavo/Nitzavim

"THE OBLIGATION OF JOY"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Often times, people associate spiritual people with extreme seriousness, depression and unhappiness. This is a great misconception, refuted by many teachings of the Torah. For example, our Sages teach us that a prophet could not make prophesies in a state of depression. The Divine Presence would only rest upon a person if the person was in a joyous state of consciousness. One of the examples in the Bible is that of King Saul who would call David to play the harp before him to lift his mood, enabling him to enter a prophetic state. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov emphasizes the importance of maintaining a constant state of happiness. He further explains that depression greatly distances a person from the Divine.

In Chapter 28 of the Book of Deuteronomy, the Torah speaks of the dire consequences that will befall the nation for neglecting their service to God. Verse 47 states “…because you did not serve the Lord, your God, with happiness and with gladness of heart, while you had an abundance of everything.” Maimonides writes (Mishneh Torah Hilchos Lulav Chapter 7, 15) “The happiness with which a perseon should rejoice in the fulfillment of the mitzvoth and the love of God who commanded them is a great service. Whoever holds himself back from this rejoicing is worthy of retribution, as the verse states: "...because you did not serve God, your Lord, with happiness and a glad heart." This statement of Maimonides is extremely illuminating. Maimonides understands the verse to be saying that we are obligated to work on building joy and happiness within ourselves. Maimonides considers this ‘a great service.’ When we succeed at this service and create for ourselves a joyous state of consciousness then we are able to serve God with this joy and happiness. Our Rabbi’s laud those that accomplish this and carry out God’s commandments with joy.

The Million Dollar Question of course is: How does one become joyous? There are many different techniques suggested by our great Rabbi’s. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov recommends that a person search for some good aspect within themselves, and then focus intensely on that aspect of good in order to lift their mood. The reason this technique works is obvious from a psychological standpoint. Changing one’s thoughts automatically shifts one’s emotions. Spiritually, this technique works for an additional reason. The good within oneself represents the Godly within a person and connecting with the Godly brings a person to joy.

As we approach the High Holy Days, we intensify our prayer and service to God. Let us be sure to do so with joy and fulfill the dictum of King David to "Serve God with joy."

Shoftim/Ki Teitzi

"THE CHOICE BEHIND THE CHOICE"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The Torah often highlights the fact that we are free to choose between blessing and curse, good and evil, life and death, and petitions us to choose life. The Torah then goes on to explain the positive consequences of choosing the path of good and the negative consequences of choosing the path of evil. The opening of Parshat Re’eh is a typical example of this.

The sages of the Talmud also emphasize the idea of free will and express it in the following way: ‘Everything is in the hands of heaven except for the awe of heaven’.

The Talmud explains that the fetus at conception is brought before God by an angel. The angel asks God, ‘Will this child be healthy or unhealthy, strong or weak, more intelligent or less intelligent, rich or poor?’ There is only one question the angel does not ask God, ‘Will the child be righteous or wicked?’ This choice is not in the hands of God, but rather in the hands of each individual.’ This choice is termed by the sages ‘The awe/fear of heaven.’ Why do the sages choose to express the issue of free will in these terms? Surely, it would be simpler to stay with the Torah’s terminology of good and evil, life and death etc.?

I would like to suggest that the sages use ‘awe of heaven’ to describe free will for the following reason: The mechanism behind our choice to choose good over evil is not simply choosing one over the other. The fact is that many times a decision to do the right thing is accompanied by emotional pain, a loss of money and other undesirable consequences. The morally incorrect decision is very often the easier path of least resistance. When faced with a moral dilemma of this nature, what is it that provides one with the impetus and courage to choose the often more difficult path of good? This is what our sages are expressing here – our choosing the path of good rests on the choice to allow the awareness of God to enter our minds. This is the real fundamental choice we have to make when faced with a moral dilemma. Will I allow God’s existence to enter my thought process? Will I allow a place in my thought process for contemplating the will of God in this situation? If we allow God’s existence to permeate our beings, we will have the strength to choose the correct path.

Rosh Chodesh Elul is upon us. The month of Elul is the time of preparation for the Judgment of Rosh Hashana. It is a time when we work on building our Yirat Shamayim (awe of heaven). Let us work on allowing awareness of God to filter into our conscious minds. In so doing we choose the path of blessing, prosperity and life, and merit to be written and sealed in the ‘book of life’.

Parshas Eikev/Re'eh

"EVERYTHING COUNTS"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

A number of years ago a congregant mentioned to me that he does not keep Shabbat at all because at all because he feels he has to travel on Shabbat to be with family members.  Similarly, I have heard people  arguing that those that  keep  a kosher  home  but  eat  out  at  non‐kosher restaurants are hypocrites. 

The  reasoning  of  this  logic  is  fundamentally flawed.  Imagine  a  person  calling  someone who exercises regularly  but  eats  junk food  a hypocrite,  or  someone  deciding  that  since they  eat  junk food  they  should  consider drinking  heavily  and  smoking.  Somehow, when  it  comes to spiritual matters,  we tend to lose our common sense. 

There  is  a  fascinating  verse  in  Ecclesiastes that states: "Be not overly wicked, and be not a fool; why should you die before your time?" (Kohelet  7,17)  The  commentators  are perplexed by the the implication of this verse. The verse implies that one should be wicked, just not overly wicked. How can King Solomon suggest that a person be moderately wicked? Rashi answers that, even if a person has been wicked  to  a  small  degree,  they  should  not continue to be wicked.  

In other words, King Solomon is instructing us that  everything  we  do  counts.  Doing  some good things and not others does not make us a hypocrite!  Even  if someone feels that they cannot  observe  all  of  Shabbat,  they  should observe  as  much  as  they  possibly  can.  The same is true when it comes to every aspect of spiritual  observance.  We  should  avoid  the lure of an all or nothing approach. Friends, everything counts!

Torah Parshas: Devarim/Va'Etchanan

"THE ULTIMATE DESTINATION"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

In our lifetimes we have witnessed the miraculous growth and development of the land of Israel. This tiny geographical location is rich in both ancient history and highly advanced first world technology. In the shadows of the holocaust the Jewish people have finally returned to their homeland after two thousand years in exile. For those of us living in the diaspora, a visit to Israel reconnects one with the Jewish people and our spiritual heritage. For us the attraction of Israel is abundantly apparent. However, our sages wonder why Moses had such a burning desire to enter the land of Israel?

The Talmud (Sota 14a) asks "Did Moses need to eat her (the land's) fruits?" and answers that Moses was so desperate to enter the land because he wanted to fulfill the mitzvot that one can only fulfill in the land of Israel. Moses had such love for the service of God that he longed for opportunities to fulfill mitzvot. However the sages of the Midrash (Devarim Rabba 11,10) state that Moses merely wanted to be in the airspace of the land and desired to be like a bird flying over the Jordan river. Why was being in the airspace of the land something Moses so desperately desired?

Rabbi Moses Feinstein explains that the physical land of Israel is intrinsically different to all other lands. It is fundamentally more holy than any other other land. Moses desired to be where the holiness of God's presence is more acutely present. Based on this Rabbi Feinstein explains that the Mitzvah of living in the land of Israel is because of its intrinsic holiness. Since Jerusalem is more sanctified than the rest of the land the greatest Mitzvah would be to live in Jerusalem. 

 We learn from Moses that the main attraction of the land of Israel should be its unique opportunity to serve God and to dwell in close proximity with the holiness of the divine presence. May we merit to see the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash (temple) and the return of all the exiles to the land of Israel soon in our days. Next year in Jerusalem!

Torah Parshas: Pinchas/Matot-Massei

"NO ABSOLUTES -  IT'S ALL ABOUT TIMING AND CONTEXT"

By Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The Torah describes how the Israelite men were enticed into acts of sexual immorality with the Midianite women. God brought a plague upon the people which ended as a result of the action taken by Pinchas, the son of Aharon. Pinchas killed the leader of the tribe of Shimon and the Midianite princess with whom he was cohabitating. God rewards Pinchas for his heroic act with a covenant of peace. 

The hebrew word for peace is shalom. There is a strange tradition to write the word shalom with a broken 'vav.' This tradition demands an explanation. Rabbi Naftali Tavi Yedudah Berlin explains that it would only be natural for Pinchas to lose sensitivity and peace of mind after committing such killings. God therefore restored his inner peace and tranquility by giving him this covenant of peace. However, this blessing turned out to be the downfall of Pinchas. The divine gift of tranquility and peace led him to be too laid back and passive. At a later time, when the Jewish people were involved in idolatry (the idol of Michah) he failed to protest their idolatrous activity. Therefore the 'vav' in the word shalom is broken, indicating that this divine blessing itself caused his downfall.

This explanation teaches us a fundamental lesson. What often defines whether an action or character trait is good and moral is not the action or trait itself, but rather the timing and context of its execution. In most contexts and times, taking the lives of other people is considered a violent evil act. However, there are select situations and contexts in which taking the lives of others is the good and righteous thing to do. The obliteration of terrorist organizations is a typical example of this. Similarly, inner tranquility, calmness and non-reactivity are appropriate and good in most contexts and times. However, when one has an opportunity to make a protest against what is wrong and incorrect, acting with a relaxed, peaceful and calm disposition is not considered good in the eyes of the Torah. May God grant us the wisdom and judgment to know whether a situation requires action or inaction and the strength and courage to respond accordingly.

Torah Parshas: Chukas/Balak

"WHEN MONOTHEISM IS NOT ENOUGH"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The great scholar Levi ben Gershon (1288–1344) has an interesting style in his bible commentary. At the end of many chapters he includes a section which he titles ‘Benefits’. The purpose of this section is to summarize the lessons one can glean from the preceding chapters.

Whilst preparing my message I have found myself involved in a similar line of thinking which is particularly relevant to a Torah portion that seems to contain no obvious message for us. The Torah relates how a King named Balak hired a prophet named Bilam to curse the Jewish people to bring about their downfall. Bilam makes numerous attempts to curse the Jewish people but God prevent him from doing so. What moral or philosophical lesson does this narrative teach us? The Torah has already discussed the attempts of the Egyptians, Amalekites, Sichon and other nations to harm the Jewish people. Why relay this attempt?

The Midrash Tanchuma addresses this question. The Midrash explains that the nations of the world at the end of days could lodge the following complaint with God himself: God, you did not give us equal spiritual opportunity. Had you given us great prophets like you gave the Jewish people we would have maintained our righteousness.

God responded by saying that he gave them great prophets and wise men like Bilam who chose to use their spiritual endowments to harm people. This was in great contradistinction to the prophets of Israel who mourned and lamented the destruction and misfortune of all humanity - Jew and non-Jew alike.  

In a similar vein to the above Midrash I would like to suggest the following. Prior to Bilam all previous enemies of the Jewish people were either atheists or idolaters. Esau, the Amalekites, the Egyptians, Sichon and Moav were either atheists or idolaters. Bilam on the other hand is a monotheist. He is spiritually connected, knows of the existence of one God, communicates with God via prophecy and admits he has no ability to act against God’s will. Yet he is still an evil person. Yes, one can be a spiritual monotheist and still be an evil person.  

The definition of evil in this context is the desire to inflict harm upon others. As the Midrash so beautifully points out, the difference between the good and evil spiritual monotheists lies in their desire to better/worsen the plight of mankind. The character trait of wanting to benefit others is defined by Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, (b. 1816 - d.1893) as the trait of ‘Yashrut’ - literally translated as ‘straightness’. It is ironic to note that Bilam requested ‘My soul should die the death of the straight ones (Yesharim - sharing the root word Yashar, straightness) and let my end be like theirs’. He longed for the destiny of those that had humanities best interests at heart, but couldn’t find it in his heart to share their praiseworthy traits. Friends, religiosity and monotheism can only be defined as good and pleasing to God when accompanied by the trait of ‘Yashrut’. This I believe is the beneficial message contained in Parshat Bilam.

Tue, October 24 2017 4 Cheshvan 5778