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Vayetzei/Vayishlach

WHY ARE WE CALLED YEHUDIM (JEWS)?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The Hebrew word for “Jew” is “Yehudi” and it stems from the Hebrew name Yehudah (Judah). The term Yehudi (Jew), as opposed to the term Yisrael (Israelite), is not a new term. In fact, the term is used repeatedly in The Book of Esther, which dates back to well over 2,300 years ago.  Yehudah (Judah) was only one of the twelve tribes of Israel and it is rather puzzling that the entire nation, comprised of these twelve tribes, should collectively be referred to as his descendants, Yehudim.

Perhaps the key lies in the origin of Yehudah’s name. Yehudah was Leah’s fourth child. Upon his birth, she pronounced: “This time I will give thanks to God.” Why does Leah only feel the need to give thanks to God upon the birth of her fourth child? Surely, she would have been grateful to God for giving her each of her first three children as well? Rashi explains that Leah gave thanks when she delivered her fourth son, because she felt that she had received more than her share. Jacob’s four wives knew by way of prophecy that Jacob would have twelve sons that would form the Jewish nation. By rights, each of Jacob’s wives should, therefore, give birth to three boys. Once Leah had four sons, she realized that she had received more than her allotted portion. Thus, she gave thanks to God.

We learn from this that gratitude and thanks stem from people feeling that they are receiving something that they are not entitled to. An attitude of entitlement is diametrically opposed to an attitude of gratitude. I would suggest that perhaps we are all called Yehudim, because the ultimate mission of all the tribes of Israel is to realize that, in truth, we deserve nothing, and, therefore, thank God for everything. When we genuinely understand our positions as finite, fallible human beings created through the tremendous benevolence of the infinite, kind, and omnipotent Creator of the entire universe, we consider everything we have, including our very lives, as a Divine gift.

On this Thanksgiving holiday, let us work on internalizing the realization that we are entitled to nothing at all and, therefore, manifest tremendous feelings of gratitude for all our blessings and gifts.

Chayei Sarah/Toldot

A TRIBUTE TO RABBI LORD JONATHAN SACKS, OF BLESSED MEMORY

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Parshat Chayei Sarah describes how Abraham sought a burial place for his wife, Sarah, after her passing. He approached the local inhabitants saying: "I am a stranger and an inhabitant with you. Give me burial property with you, so that I may bury my dead from before me."(Genesis 23:4) Abraham’s preamble of “I am a stranger and an inhabitant with you” requires further explanation. If Abraham is a stranger, then he is not an inhabitant and vice-versa. Rashi explains that the simple meaning is that Abraham was appealing to his neighbors to provide a burial plot for his wife. He explains to them that although he is a foreigner, he has become a fellow citizen, and is, therefore, deserving of burying his deceased wife in his new land.   

Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik explains Abraham’s preamble differently. Abraham feels it necessary to explain his need to have a separate, dedicated burial spot for his family member. Abraham does so by explaining his nuanced identity. On the one hand, he is now a citizen of the land, a contributing and caring member of the broader society. Indeed, he is an inhabitant, a citizen. On the other hand, he and his family have their own unique religious beliefs and practices, to which they are to be fully committed.  Proper Jewish burial must be done separately in accordance with various traditions and practices. In this sense, Abraham is a stranger.            

Abraham, often thought of as the first Jew, teaches us the complex identity of the Jew amongst the peoples of the world. The Jew is to be a model, caring and contributing citizen of the world. But the Jew is also to be committed to Judaism and its religious observances, which are unique and different from the practices of other nations of the world. In this sense, the Jew is a stranger. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, modeled this nuanced identity perhaps more perfectly than anyone else in our generation. He positively impacted all humanity in the most profound way. He was a citizen of the world, spreading positivity, hope, and blessing to all human beings. Yet, he was also a stranger, a man of deep faith committed to Jewish learning, practices, and traditions. He transitioned between these two identities with tremendous nobility and dignity, influencing all with his brilliant mind, unique erudite style, kind heart, and love of all of God’s creatures.

Let us attempt to model the ways of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, and may his soul be elevated in Gan Eden. 

Lech Lecha/Vayera

A TEST FOR ABRAHAM?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham, and He said to him, Abraham, and he said, Here I am. And He said, Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, yea, Isaac, and go away to the land of Moriah and bring him up there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains, of which I will tell you.’” (Genesis 22, 1-2)

The Torah describes how God tested Abraham by commanding him to offer up his beloved son Isaac. The narrative then describes how Isaac went with his father, lay down on the alter, and was willing to allow his father to take his life in the service of God. Isaac was thirty-seven years old at the time and was quite capable of refusing his fathers wishes. The Beit Halevi, therefore, wonders why the Torah emphasizes this episode as a test for Abraham. Surely, it was an even greater test for Isaac?

The Beit Halevi explains that, while Isaac was indeed tested, the test for Abraham was far greater. The Beit Halevi further explains that it is easier to give up your life sanctifying God’s name than it is to live your life sanctifying God’s name. Abraham would be performing a mammoth act, an act he would have to live with every single day for the rest of his life. The Beit Halevi explains that there are many people that would allow their lives to be taken rather than submitting to idolatry. However, these very same people would not be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to sanctify God’s name by earning a living in an honest and ethical fashion. It is more difficult to sanctify God’s name knowing you will have to live with the consequences in this world than to die in the sanctification of God’s name!

God’s command to Abraham, to bring his child as an offering to God, was a one-time event (see Rashi who says this was never commanded, but only Abraham’s interpretation). In general, human sacrifice is completely abhorrent in the Torah’s view. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler explains that the sacrifices that are most dear to God are the free-willed sacrifices we make as living human beings. Terminating human life, whether our own lives or the lives of others, is murder and robs us of the greatest service of God, the service of free-willed human beings who live with the consequences of their actions. Let us strengthen our resolve to use our free will to sanctify Gods name and, in so doing, merit life in this world and the next world.

Bereshit/Noach

THE TOWER OF BABEL, THEN AND NOW

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The Torah tells us of a time that all the inhabitants of the world spoke one language. They settled in a valley in Babylon (Shinar) and said to one another: "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth." God disapproves of their plan, mixes up their languages so that they cannot understand one another, and scatters them upon the face of the earth.

The strange thing about this narrative is that the text does not state what exactly God disapproves of. The people, seemingly, wanted to prevent their scattering and create a unified existence. Is that not a noble aim? Rashi quotes the Midrash that further clarifies their intentions. They said, “Once every 1656 years the heavens disintegrate just like they did at the time of the great flood, let us support the heavens.” This Midrash is also perplexing. Were they scientifically out of touch to such a degree that they considered supporting the heavens to prevent a flood?

The Telzer Rov, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Bloch, sheds light on this mystifying narrative. Feelings of insecurity and vulnerability have plagued mankind from time immemorial. Natural disasters, sickness, disease, viruses, and plagues are just some of the challenges to our sense of security and stability. At that time in history, humankind was feeling particularly vulnerable, with the flood that wiped out Earth’s inhabitants still fresh in their minds. Hence, they devised a rational plan to overcome natural threats. They realized that if they separated from one another, they would be more vulnerable. Whereas, if they ensured unity and pooled together all of their scientific knowledge and resources, then they could overcome any natural threat. This is what the Midrash is conveying to us. They wanted to seek a scientific understanding of weather patterns and natural phenomenon and, in doing so, prevent another catastrophic flood.

God disapproved of their endeavor, because they viewed earthly occurrences as completely natural and out of God’s control. They viewed the flood as a natural phenomenon, rather than a divine consequence of immoral human conduct. We all want security, and we are even commanded to use all the natural means at our disposal to protect ourselves from illness and natural disasters. Humans who have solved every natural dilemma and feel perfectly secure without divine assistance, will forget the Master Conductor behind nature. God will, therefore, never allow human beings to be completely secure. God’s will is that we respond to our vulnerability by turning to Him in prayer and, simultaneously, using all available natural means to protect ourselves.

Perhaps, as mankind made technological and scientific advancements, we had begun to feel perfectly secure and confident that we could overcome every natural threat. Perhaps we had begun to forget that there is a Master Conductor of the universe. Perhaps we had slipped into the very same trap as the generation of the Tower of Babel? If so, let COVID-19 be a wakeup call for us that God, in His great kindness, will never allow human beings to feel completely secure. Let us know that we are all vulnerable and let us turn to God alone for ultimate safety, security, and protection.  

Sukkot/Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah

HOW CAN WE BE HAPPY NOW?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The past six months have been tumultuous. We have watched the coronavirus wreak havoc throughout the world. As we feel things are getting better, an outbreak of the virus appears somewhere else. Eretz Yisrael (Israel), in particular, enters the Sukkot holiday in a severe lockdown due to the increased morbidity of coronavirus. May Hashem remove this plague speedily from his inheritance. In the meanwhile, we are all faced with uncertainty and insecurity. The enemy is invisible and not fully understood, and we find ourselves hoping and praying for a vaccine to stop the virus in its tracks. As we approach Sukkot (Z’man Simchateinu or The Time of Our Joy), we wonder how we can be happy at this timea time filled with so much insecurity and instability.

On Sukkot (Z’man Simchateinu), we leave our secure permanent homes and dwell in temporary dwellings exposed to the elements. Would we not be more joyous in the setting of the security of our permanent homes?

It seems that the message of Sukkot is that, while financial security and stability certainly contribute to one’s contentment, true happiness does not result from physical protection or financial stability. Indeed, it is possible to be happy and joyous while facing uncertainty and insecurity. How is this possible? How can one be happy while vulnerable to the elements?

When one breaks it down, one realizes that our vulnerability and insecurity stem from the fear that something adverse/bad will happen to us.  In our permanent homes, this fear largely dissipates and we feel safe and secure. However, even this safety and security is not absolute. Unfortunately, disease and illness pierces through the solid walls of homes as well. There are individuals who never left their homes during the lockdown who still contracted COVID-19. There is no absolute security and guarantee of anything in life. If security and certainty are pre-requisites for happiness, then true happiness is largely unattainable. There will always be a background fear of something adverse/ bad happening to us or our close ones.

The goal of the High Holy Days is to empower us with the knowledge that, ultimately, we are completely in God’s hands. Nothing adverse/bad can happen to us without God’s will. God is good and, therefore, all of our challenges, trials and tribulations do not randomly happen to us—they are divinely decreed by God (who has our best interests at heart). God is the cause of everything and the answer to everything. We turn to Him for assistance in alleviating difficult circumstances and for protection. We can always turn to the source of everything for strength and support. We are commanded by God to take natural steps to protect ourselves from harm. We must wear masks and social distance as advised by scientists, because it is a Divine command to do so. However, ultimately, true security is not attained through these natural measures. True security and happiness stem from completely accepting our vulnerable and insecure lives, armed with the knowledge that we are in the hands of an accessible Father and King. In our times, where our human insecurity and vulnerability have been brought to the fore, let this be our source of joy on this Sukkot holiday.  

Rosh Hashanah/Shabbat Shuva Ha'Azinu/Yom Kippur

THE ROLE OF THE SHOFAR IN OUR HIGH HOLIDAY PRAYERS

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Our Rabbis refer to the holiday we are about to celebrate as Rosh Hashanah – the New Year or, more accurately, “the head of the year”. In our liturgy, we also refer to this  holiday as Yom Hadin – the Day of Judgement.

The biblical name for Rosh Hashanah is Yom T’ruah, which is often translated as “the day of blowing the Shofar”. But what exactly is T’ruah? And why does the Torah choose               this name for the holiday?

The Talmud explains that the word T’ruah is translated into Aramaic as Yevava (to cry) and that we are obligated to blow the Shofar in what we call a T’ruah – a crying sound. There are different types of crying, which is why we blow the Shvarim, the T’ruah, and the Shvarim T’ruah. We blow a T’kiah sound before and after these blasts. On Rosh Hashanah, the Torah is commanding us to blow crying notes. Why are we instructed to do this on Rosh Hashanah?

Rav Hershel Schachter explains that everyone agrees that there is a Torah command to pray in troublesome times. He explains further that, because Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgement (a day when we are judged by God and our entire futures are in the balance), Rosh Hashanah is an Eit Tzarah – a troublesome time. Therefore, there is a biblical obligation to pray to God on Rosh Hashanah.

 

Rav Shachter explains that Rav Soloveitchik would quote the following Gemarah: “Rabbi Elazar says: Since the day the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer were locked, and prayer is not accepted as it once was, as it is stated in lament of the Temple’s destruction: ‘Though I plead and call out, He shuts out my prayer’ (Lamentations 3:8). Yet, despite the fact that the gates of prayer were locked with the destruction of the Temple, the gates of tears were not locked, and one who cries before God may rest assured that his prayers will be answered, as it is stated: ‘Hear my prayer, Lord, and give ear to my pleading, keep not silence at my tears’ (Psalms 39:13)
(Berachot 35b)”.

We see that prayers with tears and crying are so powerful that King David says confidently that God will not remain silent when he prays with tears. We have a special obligation to pray on Rosh Hashanah and have the Shofar’s cries to transform our prayers to the level of prayers with tears.

 

Friends, our goal on Rosh Hashanah is to realize that we stand in judgement before the Master of the Universe, to understand that our lives, the lives of our loved ones, the welfare of our nation and all humanity are in the balance – who will live and who will die – who will be sick and who will be well – who will be wealthy and who will be poor. Our response is to pray with sincerity and the crying notes of the Shofar before God.  In that merit, may we all be signed and sealed for a good, healthy, wealthy, and successful year.

Ki Tavo/Nitzavim-Vayeilech

TZIDUK HADIN - ACCEPTING GOD'S DECISION AS JUST

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

‘Kol Baei Olam Ovrim Lephena Kivnei Maron’ – Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Din, the Day of Judgment. How are we to respond when the King of Kings is passing judgment? What message gleaned from Rosh Hashanah are we to integrate into our daily lives?

In Pirkei Avot, the Mishna states that: “When the litigants are brought before you (the Judge), you should view them as wicked people but when they leave you, you should view them as righteous people – when they accept upon themselves the judgment.” People who happily accept and embrace the decision of the Judge, humbly suspend their personal opinions, are at peace with the Judge’s decision, and are considered righteous people.

Let us think about it for a moment from a psychological perspective. A person who does not accept and come to terms with the Judge’s decision may be angry, unsettled, resentful, and perhaps even vengeful. He/she has no choice but to follow the courts ruling, but does so with tremendous angst and resistance. On the other hand, a person who is able to accept the unchangeable reality, experiences serenity and is able to move on with a free spirit.

We learn from this that as litigants on Rosh Hashanah, our attitude should not be one of entitlement but, rather, one of complete acceptance of the judgment of the King of Kings. On Rosh Hashanah, acceptance not only renders us righteous people, but also leaves us with the psychological benefit of peace and serenity.  This may be applicable on Rosh Hashanah, but how does this impact our day-to-day lives?

The opinion of Rebbi Natan in the Talmud (Tractate Rosh Hashanah) is that we are judged by God every moment of our lives. Each moment, therefore, requires a new acceptance of the will of the King of Kings. What does this all really mean in the world of practical reality? Simply put, it means accepting the reality of each moment. It means not resisting and struggling against the realities of life right now. In my experience, much of our human suffering stems not from any external or internal stimulus but, rather, from our lack of acceptance of the reality of NOW, which can never be changed. If I were to fully accept and give up struggling against the present reality of my life, I would be much more peaceful and content. When one considers this deeply, one realizes how utterly  illogical it is to resist the current reality.

One may opt to create a more favorable reality in the future, but resisting the current reality without any concrete plan of change is simply illogical. The logical way to live is to first fully accept what is happening NOW and to then ask yourself: “Can I or am I prepared to embrace a plan of action right now that may lead to a different set of future circumstances?” If the answer is YES”, then just DO IT. If the answer is NO”, then the logical thing to do is to accept the situation fully. Why resist, worry, get angry, and/or depressed about something one cannot or will not change? Rabbi Simcha Wasserman was once asked how he maintains such joy. He answered: “In any situation, I ask myself what can be done. Whatever can be done, I do. What cannot be done, I do not worry about.”

This is not only the logical way to live, but also the Godly way to live. One fully embraces and accepts the current reality as being the will of the Judge of each moment, God himself. The Hebrew term for this is Tziduk Hadin, which means justifying the justice meted out by God. Friends, we all desire and pray to God for a year of peace, serenity, and joy. Let us simultaneously accept our lives and life situations as decreed by the Almighty and, in doing so, make peace, serenity, and joy our daily way of doing things, our modus operandi. 

Shoftim/Ki Teitzei

A TIME ONE MUST HELP AND A TIME ONE NEED NOT HELP

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

“You shall not see your brother's donkey or his ox fallen [under its load] on the road, and ignore them. [Rather,] you shall pick up [the load] with him.” - Deuteronomy 22,4

When one sees one’s fellow struggling and needing assistance, one is commanded to lend a helping hand. Our Sages point out that the extra Hebrew word ‘Imo’ (meaning ‘with him’) at the end of the above verse is seemingly redundant. When others are suffering, we need to be with them. We need to imagine in our mind’s eye what it would be like for us to be going through similar difficulties. As we would pray for ourselves, we should pray for others in distress.

Rashi quotes the teaching of the Mishna in tractate Baba Metziah (32a), which interprets the above verse very differently. “With the owner. However, if the owner walks away, sits down, and says, ‘Since the commandment is incumbent upon you, if you want to load, load!’ you are exempt.” Although you must help and be sensitive to the plight of others, there are circumstances when you are not obligated to do so. If a person will not work with you to alleviate his/her own difficult situation and sees it as your obligation to assist him/her, you are not obligated to assist in such circumstances. Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz makes this point as well and states that: if a person is truly doing all he/she can to better his/her situation, then one is obligated to assist him/her. However, if he/she is able to help him/herself but chooses not to, one is no longer obligated to assist him/her.

Friends, the Torah does not ask us to work for others, but the Torah does ask us to work with others and to share in their burden with empathy.

Eikev/Re'eh

RETIREMENT IS A GREAT TEST

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

“The Lord said to Moses, Behold! I am going to rain down for you bread from heaven, and the people shall go out and gather what is needed for the day, so that I can test them, whether or not they will follow My teaching.” (Exodus 16:4)

The Torah describes the heavenly bread (Manna) as a test for the nation. A test, by definition, implies a level of difficulty and challenge. Surely, if we were all privileged enough to have the luxury of not having to work for a living, that would be a blessing. Where is the test? Where is the challenge?

The Chizkuni (Rabbi Chizkiya ben Manoach, France, mid-thirteenth century) answers this question by stating: "I will test them to see whether they will preoccupy themselves with the study of the Torah. Since I provide them with ready food without [their investing] any toil or effort, they should therefore constantly deal with the study of Torah."

When one is occupied in the pursuit of one’s livelihood, one naturally has less time to involve oneself in spiritual matters. However, when one is free from the burden of earning a living, time becomes a readily available commodity. This is the time that tests us. How will we use our time? Will we spend all of our time chit-chatting about insignificant matters? Will we spend our free time viewing every Netflix series? Will we spend our time following every news story? Or will we spend a significant amount of time involved in character development, Torah study, and performing acts of kindness?

Retirement from having to earn a living is certainly not antithetical to Torah values, but retirement from spiritual growth, Torah study, and the performance of Mitzvot is inconsistent with Torah values.

While this test is blatantly obvious in the case of a retired person, it is equally applicable to everyone. Working people often have some free time and, in general, we make time for the things we feel are most important. Let us all commit ourselves to pass the retirement test by extricating ourselves from spiritual retirement and rejoining God’s army with renewed vigor!

Devarim/Vaetchanan

HOW IS THIS TISHA B'AV DIFFERENT?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Our world feels so different this Tisha B’Av. The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a grey cloud of fear, uncertainty, and insecurity upon the entire planet. Due to COVID-19, we will not congregate (as we would in our synagogues) to mourn the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. Instead, we shall do so privately in our homes. While we are all saddened by the current difficulties, the very challenge we face can be a catalyst for a more meaningful Tisha B’Av.

“How is it! She sits in solitude, the city of many people! She that was great among nations has become like a widow; The princess among states has become a thrall.” (Lamentations 1:1)

Jeremiah begins the Book of Lamentations (Eicha) describing his astonishment at the desolation of Jerusalem, a once densely populated and vibrant city. How is it? How could it be? Similarly, we find ourselves in a situation where we are left wondering: How could it be? How could it be that our vibrant communal gathering places (especially communal gathering places of learning and prayer) are now so desolate?

I would suggest that Jeremiah begins Eicha in this way to impress upon us the notion that people make places, places don’t make people. Similarly, in the Talmud, Rebbe Yossi states: It is not the place that gives honor to the person, rather the person gives honor to the place. Rebbe Yossi proves this point with the fact that Mt. Sinai was only holy while the Divine presence rested upon it. Following the Divine revelation, Mt. Sinai no longer retained its holy status.

Perhaps in our modern civilization, with world travel almost as accessible as a bus ride, we have become too focused on places and destinations and not focused enough on the people present in these places and destinations. We have journeyed to places in the hopes of those places giving us something, rather than approaching our destinations as places to build, contribute to, and serve.

The message this Tisha B’Av is to recalibrate our values, forget the places, and focus on appreciating the vibrant people within the places. When we mourn the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, we are not mourning the place, the stones, or the destruction of a building--we are mourning the fact that our Father and King no longer inhabits that home as He once did. He is exiled as we are. As God’s children, let us renew our appreciation of one another as well as work and pray in unison for our Father to return to the new sanctuaries we build in our hearts. Let us make these places speedily and, thereby, merit the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash, soon in our days. Amen!

Pinchas/Matot-Masei

THE MESSAGE OF THE DAILY OFFERING

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Our Sages debate which verse in the Torah is the most fundamental verse, encapsulating the entire Torah. The opinion of Rebbi Akiva, that "Love thy neighbor as oneself" is the most fundamental verse, is well known. There is, however, another opinion that the most important verse in the Torah is the following verse dealing with the daily sacrifice: “The one lamb you shall offer up in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer up in the afternoon.” (Numbers 28,4) This opinion is difficult to understand. Firstly, we have commandments like Shabbat, loving God, etc., that seem to be far more fundamental than the instruction of the daily sacrifice. Secondly, the daily sacrifice is only applicable in Temple times. Is it possible that the most fundamental precept does not apply today, because we do not have the Temple in which to perform the daily sacrifice?

The great 16th century scholar, the Maharal of Prague, explains this opinion as follows. The purpose of the entire Torah is to provide guidance on becoming a true servant of God. The Maharal explains that the true servant serves his/her master day in and day out. One who is willing to serve his/her master on some days but not on others, is a freelance worker and not a true servant. Consistent daily service defines the committed servant. This verse, dealing with the daily service, is the most important verse in the Torah because it defines the ideal of being a true servant – being committed to the service of God each and every day.

It is challenging to be consistent and to do something every day. We don’t always feel inspired and motivated, we get distracted, and the natural laziness of the physical body also makes consistency challenging. In our daily study of Path of The Just, we came across a very useful piece of advice in this regard. Rabbi Luzzatto explains that when you are not feeling internally motivated, get your physical body moving quickly towards yosur goal. You will then notice that your internal motivation will follow. To put it another way – energize the body and you will energize the mind. My personal experience has similarly shown me that the most difficult task is beginning spiritual service, whether that is learning Torah or praying. Once one begins, one becomes energized. The lesson is to follow the Nike slogan and ‘Just Do It’.

Korach/Chukat-Balak

WE MAY BE EQUAL BUT...

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

“They assembled against Moses and Aron, and said to them, ‘You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord's assembly?’”

This is the external complaint that Korach and his followers lodge against Moses and Aron. Their basic argument is that, since all people are equally holy before God, why should Moses and Aron be in such powerful leadership positions? Korach descended from the tribe of Levy, the tribe dedicated by God for service in the temple. Korach took issue with Moses and Aron taking leadership positions within this tribe. Korach’s followers, on the other hand, took exception to the entire concept of a tribe (Levites and the subset of Levites called Kohanim) being exclusively dedicated to the service of God in the temple. They saw this as blatant inequality.

Our sages teach us that Korach was a very wealthy man. Had he been a poor man, he could have made a similar argument with regards to wealth. The argument would go something like this: You have taken too much wealth, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord's assembly? There is clearly no end to this argument. Is the argument flawed?

“Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, and the might, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and on the earth [is Yours]; Yours is the kingdom and [You are He] Who is exalted over everything as the Leader. And wealth and honor are from before You, and You rule over all, and in Your hand is strength and might, and it is in Your hand to magnify and to strengthen all.” (Book of Chronicles 29:11-12) The Talmud (Bava Batra) interprets these verses to mean that God gives every person his/her position in life and even appoints the person in charge of irrigating the fields (a seemingly insignificant leadership position). Just as God appoints every person to his/her position in life, God decides who will be honored and how wealth will be distributed. It is God that has given every human being different strengths and talents.

It is God that has decided that not every person will be a CEO of a fortune 500 company. God has decided that every ship needs one captain and that too many cooks spoil the broth. This does not imply that the CEO is intrinsically more valuable and precious in God’s eyes than others, nor does this imply that the wealthy are closer to God than others. Hierarchy in society is simply intrinsic to the universe that God created (for reasons that are beyond our human comprehension). Rashi explains that Moses answers Korach by saying: “God has separated borders in His world. Can you change Day into Night? Can you annul this appointment? (Aron to his position of sanctity).”

While it is perfectly acceptable to try to achieve a particular position in life through honest and legitimate means, rebelling against all societal infrastructure in the name of equality is contrary to the natural universe that God creates and will never be successful.

Beha'alotcha/Sh'lach

WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU DISCOVERED?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The following discussion arose at a Shabbat dinner I attended twenty years ago. According to Jewish law, a person is defined as Jewish if he/she is born to a Jewish mother. A person 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 to observe the seven Noachide laws. Judaism does not believe that, in order to get salvation or be saved from hell, 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 cheeseburgers, 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 who 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 am quite sure that given the dilemma described above, these people would have demanded to be converted instantly.

There is no doubt that being Jewish (or a Jew) 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!

Shavuot/Parshat Nasso

TORAH'S HIERARCHY OF NEEDS

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim


"If there is no flour there is no Torah; if there is no Torah there is no flour." (Ethics of the Fathers 3:21)

The first part of this teaching is easy to understand. If one has no food and cannot sustain one's basic physical needs, one cannot study the spiritual wisdom of the Torah. Maharal explains further that Torah study requires peace of mind. If one is constantly worried about one's livelihood, one does not have the peace of mind required for deep Torah study. This is the reason the priestly blessings begin as follows: “Hashem should bless you and watch over you.” (Numbers 6:24) Rashi explains this blessing as a blessing for increased physical possessions which provide us with a livelihood. The priests are charged with blessing the nation with possessions and the ability to secure those possessions. Without this financial possession and security, there can be no Torah.

Once there is flour, Torah can be studied. Therefore, the second priestly blessing is: “May the Lord cause His countenance to shine upon you and favor you.” (Numbers 6:25) Rabbi Ovadia Sforno explains that this is a blessing for God to open our eyes and reveal amazing insights into Torah and God’s actions.

The real question is on the second part of the teaching from Pirkei Avot. There are many people with no knowledge or insight into Torah wisdom who, nonetheless, have been blessed with tremendous financial resources and security. Given this fact, what is the meaning of: “If there is no Torah there is no flour”? Maharal explains this as follows: financial security should not be the goal, but, rather, a catalyst to provide one with the peace of mind necessary for spiritual Torah study. Spiritual study and development, which lead to self-actualization, are the goals. Since the entire goal of life is to reach this higher level of meaning, if one does not have spiritual advancement, then financial resources are effectively rendered meaningless.

This is what is meant by: “If there is no Torah there is no flour.” If there is no Torah, then flour is rendered meaningless. This explains the celebration of Shavuot – we celebrate the fact that God gave us the ultimate guidebook for a life of purpose, growth, and meaning. May God bless us all with financial security to achieve our goal of spiritual advancement and of making a unique contribution to mankind.

Behar-Bechukotai/Bamidbar

LOVE IN A FLAG

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Parshat Bamidbar describes the formation in which the Jewish people were commanded to travel and dwell in their desert sojourns. The tabernacle was placed in the center and four camps were formed around the tabernacle. Each camp had its own flag and each tribe within a particular camp also had its own unique flag.

The Midrash (Midrash Rabba, Bamidbar 2) explains that when God revealed Himself at the time of the giving of the Torah, the Jewish people saw two hundred twenty thousand angels, each with its own unique flag. The Jewish people immediately longed for unique flags. The Midrash states that the Holy One, Blessed Be He, showed tremendous love for the people by giving them flags (like the angels) to make them distinctly recognizable. These teachings from the Midrash require much explanation. What did the people see in the angels’ flags that was so appealing to them? In what way did God express love for the Jewish people through commanding them to travel in specific formations and by giving them flags?

Every human being has a need for meaning and feels good when he/she is appreciated for his/her unique contribution. At the giving of the Torah, the Jewish people witnessed that each angel was unique and had a specific purpose (meaning) and role to play in the service of God. This is the meaning of the distinct flags which the Jewish people saw in each angel’s hand on Mt. Sinai. By giving each person, tribe, and tribe grouping a specific dwelling place around the tabernacle and distinct flags, each person understood that he/she was unique and had a specific role to play in the tapestry of the nation and service of God.

God filled the people with a feeling of uniqueness and meaning. This is, indeed, a tremendous expression of love. We love people and show our love to them by recognizing their uniqueness and honoring them for their unique life purpose and contribution. Let us be more aware and appreciative of the uniqueness of those who surround us and of their unique contribution to mankind.

Achrei Mot-Kedoshim/Emor

HUMAN RELATIONSHIP MITZVOT

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your fellow, but you shall not bear a sin on his account. (Leviticus 19:17)

Maimonides understands this verse to contain three separate commandments: 1) the command not to hate one’s brother in one’s heart, 2) the command to rebuke someone who is transgressing Torah law, and 3) the command not to embarrass a person. The natural connection between these three commandments is brought to light by Maimonides in his epic work Mishneh Torah.

“When one person wrongs another, the latter should not remain silent and despise him as Samuel 2:13,22 states concerning the wicked: And Avshalom did not speak to Amnon neither good, nor bad for Avshalom hated Amnon.

Rather, he is commanded to make the matter known and ask him: Why did you do this to me?, Why did you wrong me regarding that matter? as (Leviticus 19:17) states: You shall surely admonish your colleague.

If, afterwards, the person who committed the wrong asks his colleague to forgive him, he must do so. A person should not be cruel when forgiving as implied by (Genesis 20:17) And Abraham prayed to God...

Thus, the connection between not hating another and rebuking another is apparent. When one feels resentful about being wronged by another, holding on to that resentment without dealing with it is forbidden. One is obligated to approach the person and deal with the issue. In the best-case scenario, one of the parties will either realize that he/she has been mistaken in interpreting the other’s actions or admit his/her negative behavior and ask for forgiveness. Worst-case scenario, the perpetrator will not admit fault and remain unrepentant. Although this is a difficult scenario to deal with emotionally, one has at least met one’s Torah obligation to express one’s feelings in an attempt to remove resentment from one’s heart.

Having said this, when one approaches another with words of rebuke, one should do so in a way that does not unnecessarily embarrass the person and that encourages the person to see his/her mistakes (so that the relationship can be repaired). This is why the Torah states that “You shall surely rebuke your fellow, but you shall not bear a sin on his account.

May we all have the courage to deal with our relationship challenges, to own and admit our own mistakes, and to forgive others when they sincerely request that we do so.

Shmini/Tazria-Metzora

A TIMELY LESSON

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Our Sages teach us that a great tragedy occurred between Pesach and Shavuoth. During this time period, 24,000 of Rebbi Akiva’s students had perished from a plague. Therefore, we are accustomed to observing a semi-mourning period during this time.

The Midrash says that the students of Rebbi Akiva perished because they were 'narrow eyed' one to the other. It is important to understand the meaning of 'narrow eyed' so that we learn the lesson of this time period.

Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, in his work Sifsei Chaim, explains that when one student would see another student succeed, he/she would begrudge the success of the other student. To be 'open eyed' means to be generous of spirit and joyous at the success of others. To be 'closed eyes' means to secretly be pained by the success of others. I believe that the students of Rebbi Akiva were externally kind towards one another, however, they were unhappy when they witnessed their friends’ achievements.

Rebbi Akiva stated that the greatest principle in the Torah is the following verse: "You shall love your fellow as yourself". Nachmanides proves that the verse does not mean that our love for others should be as great as the love of ourselves. The Torah is commanding us to want for others what we wish for ourselves. We all want good health, blessing, and accomplishment, and this is exactly what the Torah is commanding us to want for others. Ironically, it was Rebbi Akiva's first group of students who did not internalize this message. Perhaps Rebbi Akiva taught this teaching in response to this very tragedy.

The critical question that remains is: How do we work on this character trait? How do we avoid jealousy of the success and advancement of others, who often seem to be succeeding far beyond our own successes? There are many techniques one can employ to work on one's joy at the success of others. Very often we don't celebrate the success of others because our egos feel threatened. Often the success of others shakes our images of ourselves, making us feel inadequate, and we, therefore, begrudge the success of others. One way of working on this is to minimize our ego-driven sense of self and realize that we have a far deeper self that cannot be threatened by anyone, a self that is magnanimous and rejoices at the success of others. A great tool for accomplishing this is mindfulness practice, a practice that enables us to fully fulfill the Mitzvah of loving our fellows like ourselves.

Tzav/Passover

  THE MESSAGE OF ISOLATION

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

At this time, when we are facing the coronavirus epidemic, I believe we should be doing two things: 1) meticulously follow all of the safety guidelines issued by our medical experts and all government ordinances, and 2) involve ourselves in some serious introspection and to use this plague as a catalyst to recalibrate our spiritual lives. While we may never know the reasons why the Almighty has brought this calamity upon us, we are obligated to apply our minds and hearts to all possible lessons that God may be communicating with us.

We have all been forced to isolate and remove ourselves from our societies. What is the message here? Where do we find this concept of isolation from society in the Torah? The Torah tells us that a person that has been afflicted with tzara’at (a biblical skin affliction) is obligated to remove him/herself from society and dwell separately while he/she undergoes a purification process. The Talmud (Arachin 16a) teaches us that tzara’at is contracted due to seven things: 1) lashon ha-ra, 2) murder, 3) false oaths, 4) sexual immorality, 5) arrogance, 6) theft, and 7) stinginess. All of these sins involve a person destroying, disregarding, and disrespecting members of society. The Torah commands a person who does not value and appreciate society and its members, to leave society and remain in isolation. A person struck with tzara’at would engage in a process of self-reflection, the goal of which would be to discover and appreciate the value of society and its members. This internal process would result in the person healing from tzara’at, and, thus, being allowed to return to society.

The message for us is clear. We need to be asking ourselves a number of questions: Do we speak badly of others? Do we see society as merely a means to benefit ourselves? Do we appreciate others and society as we should? Is there more we can do for others? Now that our societies are somewhat disbanded, and we see the consequences of societal isolation all around us, let us humbly realize our interdependence on one another as human beings, and renew our appreciation of others, our communities, and our societies.

As we approach the Passover holiday, we recall that our exodus from Egypt began with Joseph speaking badly of his brothers. We know that the second temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. In our isolation, G-d is reminding us that before the third Beit Hamikdash (Temple) is built and the ultimate unity of the Jewish people and all of mankind is restored, we need to inject more love, appreciation, and gratitude towards others into our world.

Vayakhel-Pekudei/Vayikra

  WHY THE CORONAVIRUS?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

We do not have the gift of prophecy today and, therefore, cannot be sure of the spiritual reasons why God has brought the coronavirus upon mankind at this time.  Nonetheless, it is clear from our sages that when great trials and tribulations affect us, we are commanded to introspect, search for possible spiritual causes and correct them.

The coronavirus epidemic has practically impacted the entire globe. As I write this, cities are enforcing curfews on their inhabitants, and we have all been encouraged to practice social distancing. What is it that is distancing us? A potentially lethal virus that is not visible to the naked eye. While considering the above, a specific Torah passage comes to mind.

In chapter 11 of Genesis, the Torah describes how the population of the entire earth spoke one language. They set out to build a city with a huge central tower in Babylon. The purpose of this central city was to prevent people from being scattered upon the face of Earth. The Torah describes how God was displeased with their plans. God divided them into different peoples with different languages and scattered them upon the face of the earth. The text does not explicitly state the cause of God’s displeasure or why God divided and scattered humanity.

Our sages explain (see Rashi, Midrashim) that humankind realized that it was vulnerable to natural disasters, such as the great flood that occurred in Noah’s generation. To alleviate this feeling of vulnerability, mankind decided to form a united and cohesive community that, together, would have the ability to fight off floods, diseases, and other natural disasters. As a united force, people were confident that they could conquer any natural obstacle and, therefore, would no longer feel vulnerable.

God was displeased with their plans. Their aspirations caused them to feel a sense of complete control and gave them an almost smug confidence that they could conquer any challenge. Humankind could solve every challenge and God would no longer be needed in their lives. They would have no deficiencies and, therefore, would have no need to turn to God as a source of redemption and salvation.

Our global society has made astounding progress in the areas of technology and medicine. Every day, scientists in our laboratories discover cures for illnesses that have plagued mankind for centuries. Perhaps we have put too much of our faith in our global human society and forgotten that we are truly dependent on God almighty. Perhaps after years of advancement of our global village, God is knocking on our door and reminding us that we are not as powerful as we had thought. We are being humbled and made to feel incredibly vulnerable again. The medical answer is to find antivirals and vaccines. The spiritual answer is to call out to God in prayer and deeply realize that our destinies are in His hands alone.

Let us consider what is occurring. We are forced to separate from one another and can only stand back and watch our entire civilization of activity and scientific advancement being brought to its knees by a tiny, invisible entity. Let us be humbled and, along with taking the essential physical protective measures, return our hearts to our Father in heaven.

Tetzaveh/Ki Tisa

DON'T COUNT PEOPLE

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: When you take the sum of the children of Israel according to their numbers, let each one give to the Lord an atonement for his soul when they are counted; then there will be no plague among them when they are counted. This they shall give, everyone who goes through the counting: half a shekel according to the holy shekel. Twenty gerahs equal one shekel; half of [such] a shekel shall be an offering to the Lord.” ( Exodus 30,11-13)

Rather than count the number of people directly, the Torah (in the above verses) instructs Moses to count the people by collecting a half a shekel from each person. Moses would then count the number of half shekels collected and, thereby, know the number of people. The purpose of counting this way was to avoid a plague, which could have resulted from counting the people individually. This is the source of the idea that we refrain from counting people individually.

This is very difficult to understand. What difference does it make if people are counted individually or via some other means (such as collecting money from each individual)? At the end of the day, the money is counted and the number of people is revealed.

The great Spanish Rabbi, Rabbi Bahya ben Asher ibn Halawa (1255-1340), explains that when people are separated, by physically counting them individually, they are simultaneously highlighted as separate individuals in the spiritual world. This results in each individual being judged and scrutinized for his/her actions on an individual basis. This judgment is often not favorable and can result in judgments (plagues) affecting many individuals. Our sages teach us that we should never separate from the community. When we are part of a community, we have much more spiritual merit and protection. This is the reason Rosh Hashanah is a day of tremendous awe and trepidation – on Rosh Hashanah, we are judged by God as individuals!

On Purim, we have a Mitzvah to give gifts to one another (Mishloach Manot). This is an expression of our realization that only when we bond lovingly with one another, forming a strong cohesive community, do we have the spiritual merit to overcome anti-Semites like Haman! May we merit the unity to bring the final redemption of mankind speedily in our days.

Mishpatim/Terumah

REINCARNATION IN JUDAISM?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Believing in the reincarnation of souls is certainly not a fundamental tenet of Jewish belief. In fact, some medieval scholars were of the opinion that reincarnation is not part of the Jewish tradition. Kabalistic tradition, on the other hand, considers reincarnation a given fact.

A case in point is the Zohar’s (Kabalistic work authored by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai) comment upon the first words of Parshat Mishpatim, “These are the laws…” The Zohar comments: “These are the orders of reincarnations.” The laws enumerated in Parshat Mishpatim are all civil laws. What does the Zohar mean when it states that: “These are the orders of reincarnations”?

 

Rabbi Ezriel Tauber once told of the following incident that took place in the city of Bnei Brak in Israel. Two boys found some money in the street. One of the boys wanted to keep the money based on the Talmudic teaching that if one finds money scattered in the street one can keep the money. The Talmud’s reasoning is as follows: the owner would have checked his/her pockets and realized that the money was missing. Knowing that there was no possible way to uniquely identify the money as belonging to him/her, the owner would certainly give up hope of retrieving the money. The boy’s friend had a different opinion. He reasoned that since there is a possibility that the owner had not checked his/her pockets, keeping the money would possibly be theft. Therefore, he suggested giving the funds to charity. The boys argued back and forth and eventually decided to ask the Chazon Ish (a great Rabbi of their day) to rule on the matter.

 

The Chazon Ish ruled that the boy who wanted to keep the money was correct. Chazon Ish explained that since keeping the money was the correct ruling according to Torah Law, based on the assumption that the owner would have given up hope of retrieving the object, it would be perfectly moral to keep the money. He then explained to the boys that even if the owner had not given up hope on retrieving the object, it is possible that this owner owed them money from a previous lifetime, and that this Torah law was ensuring that they get payed back. He explained that this is the meaning of the Zohar’s comment: “These are the orders of reincarnations.” The Zohar teaches us that when Torah law is followed correctly, justice is not only executed in one lifetime but across many lifetimes!

Beshalach/Yitro

IS IT A MITZVAH?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The first of the ten utterances states: "I am the Lord your God, who extricated you from the Land of Egypt, from the house of bondage." (Exodus 20,2)

Maimonides (Rambam) understands this utterance to be one of the 613 commandments of the Torah. He states: "The first mitzvah is that we are commanded to acquire knowledge of the nature of G-d's existence, i.e. to understand that He is the original cause and source of existence who brings all creations into being. The source of this commandment is G-d's statement (exalted be He), 'I am G-d your Lord.'" (Sefer Hamitzvot) It is clear from the above that to Maimonides there is a mitzvah to believe in a supreme being (God). 

Other great commentators (such as Baal Hilchot Gedolot) disagree with Maimonides. They explain that the concept of a commandment is premised on the clear understanding that there is a commander. Put in simpler terms, only once a king takes power can he make decrees. Similarly, the belief in God is the essential idea that forms the basis for a commandment (mitzvah). Therefore, a command to believe in God is illogical because without the concept of God, there cannot be commandment. This logical analysis seems iron clad and a very strong question on the opinion of Maimonides. 

Rabbi Chananya Kazis, the chief Rabbi of Florence, Italy in the 17th century, offers a solution to the above question on Maimonides. His answer has tremendous practical application to our lives. He explains that having experienced the great miracles involved in the Exodus from Egypt as well as the divine revelation at Mt. Sinai, the Jewish people's belief in God's existence was tremendous. At the Sinai revelation, God commands the nation to ensure that they maintain that high level of faith to future generations. It is not easy to maintain our faith in God at such a high level. Life's difficulties and challenges tend to diminish the belief in a supreme God from our minds. We are constantly commanded to strengthen our belief and connection to God. I would add to Rabbi Kazis' explanation that the belief in God is not a 'binary switch--belief in God is a spectrum. While involved in business and worldly matters, it is very easy for us to lose our composure. This, in and of itself, shows a diminished belief in a supreme God, a God constantly looking out for our best interests, and a God that is completely in control. We are commanded to constantly remind ourselves of God's existence and presence in our lives as well as to work on climbing the ladder towards greater belief and connection to our Father in heaven.

Vaera/Bo

EGYPT, EGYPT, AND MORE EGYPT

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

We are commanded to remember the Exodus from Egypt every morning and every evening. On Passover, we recall the Exodus from Egypt for an entire week. Our tefillin, mezuzot, and many other mitzvot are reminders of the Exodus from Egypt. We mention the Exodus from Egypt in grace after meals, in Kiddush on Shabbat, in the Ten Commandments, and throughout our prayer services. The first four Torah portions of the Book of Exodus deal almost entirely with the Hebrews' experiences in Egypt and their exodus from Egypt. Why does the Torah find it so important to etch the memory of the exodus into our minds and hearts?

 

At the end of Parshat Bo, Nachmanides (Ramban) addresses this question. He says that the miraculous nature of the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt proved three fundamental principles: 1) Human affairs are not arbitrary and random; There is divine intervention in human matters on both an individual and national level, 2) There is a creator of the world that created the world ex nihilo (out of nothing), and 3) God is omnipotent (almighty). In summary, the miracles performed during the Exodus from Egypt showed God to be involved in human affairs, the creator of the universe, and omnipotent.

 

The dilemma of modern man is that we live in a world that, very often, feels arbitrary, random, and unjust. For many reasons, the Divine wisdom has decided that er not be privy to open and revealed miraculous events, the likes of which our forefathers experienced in Egypt. How, then, are we to connect to the above principles? We do so by studying , understanding, and constantly remembering the details of the Exodus from Egypt that have been transmitted from generation to generation until today.

 

Nachmanides states: "From the grand public miracles a person recognizes the hidden miracles which are the foundation of the entire Torah. Indeed, a person has no portion in the Torah of Moses, our teacher, unless he/she believes that all our affairs are miraculous." The Ba'al Shem Tov would explain that the difference between a miracle and a natural occurrence lies only in the frequency of the occurrence. The sun rising and setting each day is no less miraculous (directed by God) than the splitting of the Red Sea or the plagues in Egypt. Our focus on the Exodus from Egypt does not propel us back to the past, rather, it teaches us to fulfill our purpose of recognizing that, although hidden from plain sight, God is omnipresent (present everywhere), omnipotent (almighty), and involved in every aspect of our daily existence.

Vayechi/Shemot

BEFORE WE ACT

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

“Reuven, you are my firstborn, my strength and the first of my might. Superior in rank and superior in power. The restlessness of water, you shall not have superiority, for you ascended upon your father's couch; then you profaned my bed.” (Genesis 49, 3-4)

After Rachel passed away, Yaakov moved his bed into Rachel’s maidservant's tent. This angered Reuven who felt that his mother, Leah, was insulted by Yaakov’s actions. Reuven then moved Yaakov’s bed into Leah’s tent. In the verses above, Yaakov explains to his son Reuven that although he was the natural choice to lead his brothers, he acted impetuously out of anger and, therefore, has lost his leadership (birthright) responsibilities and benefits.

Like water hurrying down a stream, Reuven hurried to act out of anger. Since leadership requires that a person have the ability to restrain him or herself from acting irrationally based on strong emotions, Reuven's actions disqualify him from leadership. A leader must have the wisdom, patience, and self-awareness to know when emotions are running high and must ensure that action is only taken with a calm and balanced mind. Had Reuven delayed his actions and calmed his mind down, he may have thought of other possibilities. Perhaps he would have realized that his father had spiritual calculations of which he was not aware. Perhaps he could have approached his father and explained his feelings and his father would have put his mind at ease.

The Torah makes us aware of the importance of ensuring that we refrain from taking any action or arriving at any conclusion when we are not of a calm and balanced mind. This requires the qualities of awareness and patience. Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz points out that when we lose our peace of mind and are overcome with emotion, we can drop many spiritual levels in an instant. The sin of the golden calf is a typical example of this. Moses did not descend from Mt. Sinai when the nation expected him to do so, which led the nation to panic and build the golden calf. Personal and mass hysteria are incredibly dangerous. Had the Jewish people had more patience and awareness, and delayed any action until their equanimity (mental calmness and composure) returned, the history of the Jewish people would have been very different.

Let us learn the self-awareness, patience, and control to act and react from a more calm and tranquil place. This will enhance our leadership abilities in our community, family, and personal lives.

Miketz/Vayigash

Life, Happiness, and Godliness

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Joseph's brothers return to the land of Canaan and inform their father, Jacob, that Joseph, Jacob's long-lost son, is still alive. Jacob, who has been separated from his son for 22 years, initially struggles to absorb the news. The brothers tell Jacob of their conversation with Joseph and show their father the wagons that Joseph sent to transport him, and Jacob finally absorbs the fact that Joseph is still alive. 

After realizing Joseph is still alive, the Biblical narrative continues "...and the spirit of their father Jacob lived. And Israel (Jacob) said, "A great amount (plenty). My son Joseph is still alive. I will go and see him before I die."" (Genesis 45, 27-28) Jacob's reaction requires further explanation. What does the verse mean when it states: "and the spirit of their father Jacob lived"? Joseph was the one who was thought to have died, not Jacob. Additionally, what does Jacob mean when he says, "A great amount (plenty)?” A great amount of what? Rashi explains that the divine presence that left Jacob had now returned to him and, therefore, his spirit was alive again. Jacob then declared that, now that his son Joseph is alive, he has plenty of happiness to look forward to in his life. 

Our sages explain that from the moment that Joseph disappeared, Jacob could not bring himself to feel true joy. Jacob had some level of depression and uneasiness that constantly accompanied him. The divine presence (related to the ability to prophesize) only dwells upon a person when he/she is in a state of happiness. When Jacob internalized the fact that Joseph was still alive, his melancholy feeling was lifted and he felt a sense of tremendous joy and happiness. He felt joyous and alive for the first time in many years and the divine presence immediately returned to him.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught that it is a mitzvah to be in a state of joy and happiness. In a state of happiness, spirituality and Godliness are more easily attained. It is, therefore, very important that we work on making ourselves joyous and happy. How do we become happy? There are numerous techniques – Rabbi Nachman suggests focusing on the good in ourselves and others as an important technique in bringing joy and happiness. I have personally also found mindfulness practice to be a powerful tool in manifesting a sense of joy, well-being, and vitality. Whatever works for you, do it! Because it is a mitzvah to be happy and it brings God into our lives.

Vayishlach/Vayeshev

UNDERSTANDING THE EVIL INCLINATION 

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim 

Towards the end of Jacob’s struggle with the angel, Jacob says, “Now tell me your name,” and he (the angel) said, “Why is it that you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. (Genesis 32:30) Both Jacob’s question and the angel’s response require more understanding. Why was Jacob interested in finding out the name of the angel? And, if indeed Jacob had a valid reason for requesting the angel’s name, why does the angel not tell Jacob his name? 

The Malbim (Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser), a great 19th century scholar, offers an insightful explanation. The angel with whom Jacob wrestled with was the angel associated with Esau who represents physicality and the evil inclination. Our sages teach us that a name is not a random, arbitrary assignment. A name is the reflection of the essence of the entity being described by that particular name. Jacob wanted to know the angel’s name in his quest to better understand the nature and essence of his opponent. This explains Jacob’s request for the angel’s name.

Rabbi Nachman, in the work Sichot Haran, gives the following analogy to explain the evil inclination. A man approaches people with a closed fist and tells them that he is holding on to something awesome. Each person imagines that what the man holds in his fist will fulfill his/her particular desire, whether it be for physical pleasure, wealth, honor, or power. The man eventually opens his hand and it is revealed that he is holding nothing. It was all just an illusion; he was holding nothing of substance. Evil operates by creating a deceptive smokescreen of illusion and desire which, ultimately, proves to be unsatisfying and empty.

We all live with many illusions created by the evil inclination. One of its favorite illusions relates to future happiness. We believe that when we have achieved a certain amount of wealth or a certain status or a certain level of achievement, we shall finally be at peace and happy. But once we achieve that level, we realize we are still largely empty-handed, and the goal then shifts to attaining a higher level of wealth, honor, or status achievement.

This explains the angel’s reply. The angel answers, “Why is it that you ask for my name?” meaning: “Why do you request to know my essence? My essence changes all the time and is built on emptiness and illusion.” When we truly realize and understand the illusory and transient nature of pleasures of the flesh, honor, and desire, we are able to escape the emptiness and illusion of the evil inclination. Our charge is to be like Jacob and constantly pierce the veil of illusions presented to us in this world of challenge. May we deeply internalize the ultimate emptiness in a life built on the pursuit of material wealth, honor, and desire.

Toldot/Vayetzei

THE CRITICAL BALANCE - LIFE'S CHALLENGE

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Many commentators and historians point out that the bible was written with an unparalleled level of objectivity.  The faults of the greatest biblical figures are written bluntly for all to see. The bible writes that Moses and Aron did not merit to enter the land of Israel because “you (Moses and Aron) did not believe in me…” (Numbers 20:12) Their lack of belief was probably on a subtle level, nonetheless the bible boldly records it. Other ancient man-made documents simply lack this objectivity. The leaders were perfect and never erred. The objectivity of the bible demonstrates the truth of the biblical narrative.

The sages of the Midrash similarly analyze and criticize the behavior of biblical figures. Abraham is partially blamed for Yishmael straying into the world of idolatry. Our sages say that Abraham showed too much kindness and understanding towards Yishmael, and gave him too much freedom. He should have set more boundaries, discipline and consequences for Yishmael.

Similarly, our sages partially blame Isaac for the fact that Esau went on the path of evil. The verse states “And the youth grew up together…” (Geneses 25:27) Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that Isaac gave both his children, Jacob and Esau, the same education. Both of them were brought up with strict discipline and were probably forced to sit down and study for hours on end. For Jacob this was a pleasure. Jacob was a studious and intellectual person who would have naturally spent his time in this way. Esau on the other hand was by nature a worldly person. He was full of energy and needed to spend more time in physical activity. Isaac’s strict disciplinary approach was a contributing factor in Esau’s rebellion and choice of a negative lifestyle.   

Abraham’s core attribute was kindness. Isaac’s core attribute was strength. While both kindness and strength are virtuous qualities, too much of these attributes can have disastrous effects. Abraham’s inappropriate kindness towards Yishmael and Isaac’s inappropriate strength towards Esau both had tragic consequences. Our sages are teaching us that the art of life is to combine kindness and strength in the right proportions depending on the specific situation. This is the critical balance of life and indeed a life-long challenge. We pray that God helps us to balance kindness and strength in our lives. The correct balance leads us to our goal which our sages call tiferet, a beautiful and balanced life!

Vayeira / Chayei Sarah

WHEN ALTERING THE TRUTH IS NOT A SIN

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The Talmud teaches us that God’s signature is Emet, meaning truth. One of the thirteen attributes of God we recite throughout the Selichot prayer services and on Yom Kippur is Emet, truth. God represents the ultimate truth and the ultimate in truthfulness and we are commanded to emulate God and be exceedingly truthful people.

 

When Sarah overheard the angel telling Abraham that when he returns Sarah will have a son, she laughed and said, “After I have become worn out, will I have smooth flesh? And also, my master (Abraham) is old.” God turns to Abraham and asks “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, 'Is it really true that I will give birth, although I am old?’ Is anything hidden from the Lord? At the appointed time, I will return to you, at this time next year and Sarah will have a son.” God reported Sarah’s statement differently. Sarah said that Abraham was too old to bear children, but God reported to Abraham that Sarah had said that she was too old to bear children. The Talmud (Bava Metziah 87a) learns from this: Peace is of such great importance that even the Holy One, Blessed be He, altered the truth for the sake of preserving peace. Even God who is the ultimate truth, altered the truth for the sake of peace. We learn from this that altering the truth is permitted to promote peace.

 

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz (1902–1979), the Mir Rosh Yeshiva asked a powerful question on this teaching from the Talmud. Abraham was almost 100 years old when he was told Sarah would have a son. He was clearly an elderly man. Surely, he knew that he was getting on in years. Sarah, thinking it unlikely for him to have children at his age, was perfectly reasonable. If God would have communicated to Abraham Sarah’s true thoughts that Abraham was too old to have children would that have created conflict between Abraham and Sarah? This does not seem to be an example of altering the truth for the sake of peace at all. How would their relationship be negatively influenced by Sarah stating an obvious fact?

 

Rabbi Shmuelevitz answers that we see from this is that our understanding of the concept of peace in relationships is not entirely correct. Peace is not simply the absence of conflict. That is just the beginning of peace. Peace also applies to the level of closeness and connection within a relationship. Abraham would not have been upset with Sarah stating the obvious fact that he was old. Nonetheless, Abraham’s conscious knowledge of his wife perceiving him as less vibrant and elderly changed their relationship in a certain very subtle way. This too falls under the category of making peace. Everything we can do to improve human relationships and closeness on a deeper lever falls under the broad category of making peace. May we merit to bring much needed peace to our world on every level.

Noach / Lech-Lecha

IT IS NOT JUST WHAT WE SAY...

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The Torah prohibits various categories of speech. Speaking negatively about a person is forbidden. When the content of the negative speech is true, the prohibition of lashon harah (evil tongue) is transgressed. When the content of the negative speech is false, then the prohibition of motzi shem rah (literally, bringing out a bad name) is transgressed. Transmitting information that can create strife and conflict among people is prohibited under the category of rechilut. Saying harmful words which hurt a person’s feelings is prohibited under the category of Ona’at devarim.

 

In Parshat Noach, the Torah teaches that both pure and impure animals (kosher and non-kosher) came with Noah into the ark before the flood. The Torah expresses this fact in the following way: “From the pure animals and from the animals that are not pure [asher einena tehora].” We know that every letter in the Torah is there for a specific reason and that the Torah does not use letters unnecessarily. The above verse could have been significantly shortened (by eight Hebrew letters) and simply have stated ‘From the pure animals and from the animals that are impure [temeiah].’ Why does the Torah use extra letters and a more cumbersome form “animals that are not pure” when it could have simply been stated “impure animals”?

 

The Gemarah (Pesachim 3a) addresses this question. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: A person should never express a crude matter, as the formulation of a verse was distorted by the addition of eight letters rather than have it express a crude matter. To refer to an animal as temeiah (defiled) is a crude, unrefined manner of speaking. The Torah is teaching us that even while engaging in speech that is permitted, one should be careful to express one’s speech in a refined manner.

 

It’s not just what we say that counts, but also the language we use to express ourselves. This is part of our mandate to conduct ourselves in a holy fashion. The Torah requires us to be a refined mensch.

Ha'Azinu / Bereishit

Sukkot Now?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The Talmud quotes two reasons for the Mitzvah of dwelling in a Sukkah. One opinion is that the Sukkah reminds us of the temporary huts built by the Jewish People in the desert. The other opinion is that during their travels in the desert, the Jewish people were surrounded with seven protective clouds of glory. These clouds protected the Jewish People from the difficult desert conditions. It seems therefore, that Sukkot is celebrated at the wrong time of year! The Jewish people left Egypt at the time of Pesach, in the Jewish month of Nissan. Surely, the temporary huts or clouds of glory which protected them immediately, should be commemorated in Nissan? Why do we wait six months to celebrate Sukkot in the month of Tishrei?

Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher (Tur) answers that Passover is celebrated in Nissan, which is spring time. Naturally, in the spring, people tend to leave the warmth of their homes and spend more time outdoors. If Sukkot would be celebrated in the spring, it would be less recognizable that people are leaving their homes for the Sukkah in order to fulfill the Mitzvah of dwelling in the Sukkah. Therefore, the Torah placed Sukkot in autumn so that it would be obvious to all, that people were leaving their permanent homes to dwell in the Sukkah for the sake of fulfilling the Mitzvah of Sukkah.

The Vilna Gaon has a beautiful, ingenious explanation: Our tradition teaches us that when the Jewish People sinned with the golden calf, God removed the protective clouds of glory. This symbolized the divine presence distancing itself from the Jewish People. This began a repentance process which culminated on Yom Kippur when God told Moses 'I have forgiven' and culminated in God giving Moses the second set of tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Yom Kippur is celebrated on the 10th day of Tishrei. The following day - the 11th day of Tishrei, Moses gathered the people and instructed them to bring materials for the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle - Portable Temple). They did this for two days as is indicated by the double language 'In the morning, in the morning (Exodus 36:3).' So they gathered materials on the 12th and 13th days of Tishrei. On the 14th of Tishrei, the raw materials were counted and divided up among the various artisans. Finally, on the 15th day of Tishrei, construction began and the clouds of glory returned. Amazingly, the 15th day of Tishrei is the day that the Torah commands us to observe Sukkot.

Sukkot does not celebrate the original protective clouds of glory, but rather, celebrates the return of the clouds of glory. On Sukkot, we celebrate not our initial relationship with God, but the reparation of our relationship with God. We are overjoyed that we can again feel close to God and enjoy His protection. We therefore refer to Sukkot as our time of joy. It therefore makes sense that Sukkot follows Yom Kippur. We celebrate confidently, knowing that we have repaired our relationship with the Divine.

Thu, December 3 2020 17 Kislev 5781