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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.

Ki Tavo / Naitzavim / Vayelech

Don't Get Old, Grow Old

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Colonel Sanders was well over sixty when he made it big with Kentucky Fried Chicken. Before that, he simply sold chicken and other food at a service station in Corbin, Kentucky. When the Interstate 75 was built, diverting traffic away from his restaurant, his business was close to failing. Yet Sanders believed that he could do it. Instead of despairing or muddling through somehow, he adapted. He walked the long miles, pitching his unique recipe and was knocked back 1009 times before someone decided to give him a chance to build what is now known today as the highly successful food chain KFC. Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imeinu – conceived Isaac, the forebearer of Israel, the Jewish Nation which brought monotheism, law, morality and ethics such as the ten commandments to all humanity - at the ages of one hundred and ninety respectively.

Colonel Sanders, and Avraham and Sarah, about whom we read on Rosh Hashanah, all teach us one fundamental life lesson. There is no direct correlation between age and productivity. While many people are most productive and successful as young or middle-aged adults, many are more successful in their more senior years. Which years will be most fruitful? One never knows and therefore one should never stop producing. “In the morning sow your seeds and in the evening do not rest your hands.” Of this verse from Ecclesiastes our sages explain that just as one learns and teaches Torah when one is young, one should learn and teach Torah when one is old. If one has children when one is young, one should have children when one is old. Who knows which will be more successful? Rabbi Akiva had 24000 students in his younger years and all 24000 died in a plague. He then taught five students in his later years and it was these students who formed the link in the chain of transmission of the Torah to the next generation.

 

Our Sages are teaching us that we need to be challenging ourselves, to be growing and to be producing constantly. We need to grow old, not get old. This is the message of Avraham and Sarah. In Torah thinking retirement from the corporate/working world is a voluntary privilege, but retirement from growing spiritually, developing one’s character, having dreams, goals, aspirations and being a contributing member of society is forbidden. Every day provides us with experiences that enable us to become wiser, a better spouse, a better parent and a greater member of the community. It is no wonder our Rabbi’s teach us that the Hebrew word for an elderly person, zakein, is an acronym for “zeh shekanah chochma” – the one who has acquired wisdom.

A year has passed since last Rosh Hashanah and we are all one year older. The question that Rosh Hashanah asks is not whether we are getting older, but rather whether we are growing older. This Rosh Hashanah we should commit ourselves to exit the mindset of retirement and commit ourselves to growing and thriving, irrespective of our ages or past accomplishments. In the merit of this commitment may God grant us another year of good health, wealth, happiness and productivity. Shana Tova!

Shoftim / Ki Teitzei

LIVING WITH GOD

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

 

“Be tamim (wholehearted) with the Lord, your God.” (Deuteronomy 18:13)

The Torah instructs us to be tamim (wholehearted) with God, but what exactly is this verse instructing us to do? There are explicit commands to love, fear, and serve God so being tamim (wholehearted) with God must indicate something different.


Rashi quoting the Sifri explains “Conduct yourself with Him with simplicity and depend on Him, and do not inquire of the future; rather, accept whatever happens to you with simplicity and then, you will be with Him and to His portion.” In line with this explanation the Code of Jewish Law states that it is forbidden to consult with astrologers, sorcerers and the like regarding the future. (Shulchan Aruch YD: 179:1)

There is a natural human need for security and control. The future is uncertain and somewhat out of our control leaving us with worry and fear. We would like to know the future in order to prepare ourselves for future events and gain some control. To alleviate our discomfort with an uncertain future we approach astrologers and fortunetellers.

The Torah forbids us to alleviate our anxiety regarding the future by consulting fortune tellers and astrologers. Rather we are to relieve our fear and worry by placing our trust completely in God with the firm knowledge that everything that will occur in the future emanates from Him and is for our ultimate good. Additionally, the Ramban explains that we are to know and believe that the future is not static. Our deeds and behavior affect the future and God can and does change things at will. We are not to be fatalistic but rather to live with God and pray for our futures and the future of others.

Furthermore, our sages teach us that when we put our reliance and faith in God almighty we are elevated above the fatalistic world of nature into the world of the miraculous where all is possible. Our charge is to rely on and trust in God and therefore literally have Him at our side and therefore be confident in the knowledge that all our life experiences and occurrences are ultimately engineered by God for our good!

Eikev / Re'eh

 

ROSH HASHANAH PREPARATION

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim


With just over a month to Rosh Hashanah we begin to focus on the Day of Judgment. In the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah we say that repentance, prayer and charity remove the harshness of the decree. We are being advised to involve ourselves in these three activities to mitigate harsh judgment. In our weekly Torah reading in Parshat Re’eh we find the commandments of giving charity, so our focus will be on this aspect of our preparation for Rosh Hashanah. Why does giving charity mitigate harsh judgments?

Rabbi Bahya ben Asher ibn Halawa explains that a poor person is experiencing a level of God’s attribute of judgment (often for reasons beyond our understanding) and therefore experiences a withholding of blessing. The wealthier person on the other hand has experienced God’s attribute of compassion (also often for reasons beyond our understanding) and has therefore received merciful blessing. Through giving to the poor, the giver essentially mitigates the harsh attribute of justice effective on the poor person by an act of compassion (using the merciful blessings they received from God.) In this way giving charity is in fact the attribute of compassion overcoming the attribute of judgment.

When God sees us giving from our resources with compassion and easing the burden of others experiencing judgment and constriction, God in turn showers compassion upon us and mitigates our judgments. This is why charity has the power to mitigate harsh judgments. Based on the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov we can understand the process differently. The mitzvah of charity requires that we overcome our own judgments and tendency to withhold our hard-earned resources and give to others. This internal work requires us to use our internal attribute of compassion to overcome our internal attribute of judgment. When we accomplish this God uses his attribute of compassion to overcome His judgments.

May we merit to give and emulate God’s ways and in so doing merit the great blessings God promises in Parshat Re’eh “You shall surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him; for because of this thing the Lord, your God, will bless you in all your work and in all your endeavors.” (Deuteronomy 15: 10)

 

Devarim / Va’etchanan

THE ROOT OF BASELESS HATRED

BY: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Our sages teach us that the second temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. Since baseless hatred was the cause of the destruction of the temple it behooves us to understand baseless hatred and avoid this catastrophic sin. Hatred is something very understandable and most of us have probably experienced an emotion which we would define as hatred at some point in our lives. The difficulty lies in understanding the notion of baseless hatred. When we feel threatened by another or if we are harmed or mistreated by another, we may feel hatred towards the perpetrator of the threat or the harm. Our hatred is ignited by a specific stimulus, a perceived threat or sustaining physical or emotional harm. Whether the reason is justified or unjustified there is a reason for hatred. What then is the meaning of baseless hatred?

 

We can better understand this with an enlightening, and in many ways frightening, statement of the Vilna Gaon, “Someone who’s heart is filled with the attribute of trust (in God), even though he transgresses severe transgressions, is better than one who is lacking trust (in God) because through this he comes to jealousy and hatred, even though he is involved in Torah and good deeds, because all this is just to boost his name.” It is true that when we believe that we have to get ahead of others in order to succeed in life, we will naturally feel jealousy and hatred toward those we perceive as our competitors. It is also true that when we are harmed by others, we feel hatred and resentment towards the perpetrator. Nonetheless this hatred is considered baseless. It is baseless because when we truly trust God we know that we get what is good for us. It is baseless because when we truly trust God, we will not feel threatened by any other human being. It is baseless because when we truly trust God, we realize that those harming us are merely the staff which God is using to teach us the life lessons we need to learn.

 

Our charge during this time period is to work on ways to increase our trust in God and free ourselves from baseless hatred. May we thus merit the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash soon in our days.

 

Pinchas / Matot-Massei

 

A MAN WHO HAS SPIRIT WITHIN HIM?

BY: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Moses spoke to the Lord, saying: Let the Lord, the God of spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who will go forth before them and come before them, who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd. The Lord said to Moses, “Take for yourself Joshua, the son of Nun, a man of spirit, and you shall lay your hand upon him.” (Bamidbar 27, 15-18)

Moses approaches God and asks him to appoint a new leader for the Jewish people to lead them into the promised land. His use of the rarely used expression “Lord, the God of spirits of all flesh” in this context requires further explanation. God responds that Joshua should become the new leader and that he is indeed a man of spirit. The term “a man of spirit” also requires further explanation.

Rashi explains that Moses was in fact asking God for a leader with a specific character trait. He was effectively saying to God: “God, you created all these different people and know how each of them is unique. Please appoint a leader who is able to deal with each person based on their individual personalities.” God responds by saying that Joshua should be chosen because he has the ability to relate to each individual person.

Rabbi Yisroel Miller points out that the ability to relate to different people requires empathy. One has to have the ability to put oneself in the other’s position and feel and view life from their vantage point. Moses felt for each individual and felt their pain. He was thus able to constantly look for mitigating factors in defense of the nation and plead to God on their behalf for forgiveness. Empathy is not a character trait that is either naturally present or naturally absent. It is a character trait which we can and should always and actively work to develop and improve. In so doing we will also become greater leaders in our personal, family and national lives.
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Chukat / Balak

Dealing With Setbacks On The Road

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

“They journeyed from Mount Hor by way of the Red Sea to circle the land of Edom, and the people became impatient because of the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this desert, for there is no bread and no water, and we are disgusted with this rotten bread." Bamidbar (21,4-5)

 

The Torah relates that after the passing of Aharon on Mount Hor, the Jewish people were commanded travel away from the Land of Israel in the direction of Egypt before their final journey to enter the Land of Israel. As a result of this travel ‘setback’ the people became impatient, frustrated and disheartened. The nation’s anger is projected towards Moses, and they accuse him of bringing them up from Egypt to die in the desert. God sends venomous snakes which attack and kill a great number of people. The nation recognize their rebellion against Moses and God and ask Moses help them stop the plague. The Torah described how God commands Moses to remove the plague from their midst.

 

The Torah records these events to teach us an important life lesson. We are all on a life journey to fulfill certain goals and aspirations. When everything is going according to plan and we seem to be moving in the ‘right’ direction we are naturally elated. However, as we all know, obstacles and challenges present themselves on our journey through life. We often have to take a few steps backwards before resuming our journey. We then have a choice. We can become angry, frustrated and disheartened and rebel against God for presenting us with these challenges or we could choose to embrace our challenges with faith, acceptance of what is, and resolve to overcome challenges and return to our life destinations.

 

For a person of faith, life’s challenges and setbacks are an opportunity to notice our tendency to become negative, complain and give up. The choice can then be made to strengthen our faith that somehow all life’s obstacles and challenges are divinely orchestrated for our ultimate good. Let us learn to embrace life’s road with all its twists, turns and setbacks. Perhaps that is life’s true goal and destination!

Shlach / Korach

 

ONLY THE FACTS ARE THE FACTS

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

In Parshat Shelach the spies were sent into Israel and returned with a report stating that although the land was flowing with milk and honey, the local inhabitants were powerful giants. They further advised that the Jewish people had no chance of conquering the land from the local inhabitants.

They expressed their sentiment by saying “There we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, descended from the giants. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes (Bamidbar 13:34.) The Midrash explains that God could forgive them for saying that they felt like grasshoppers but would not forgive them for saying “and so we were in their eyes.” I believe the Midrash is teaching us a value lesson. Their expressing inadequate feelings was factual. That was the way they truly felt. However, their implication that in the eyes of others they appeared to be “grasshoppers” was not factual. It was simply their impression of how they appeared to others.

Similarly, their opinion that the Jewish people would be defeated by the local inhabitants was not factual, it was simply an opinion. I imagine that the statisticians would have predicted the destruction of the State of Israel in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973. That would have simply been an opinion, not a fact. The fact is that thank God the Jewish people won all these wars in convincing fashion.

Similarly, I recently saw a response by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein where he states that from the fact that the Torah exempts women from certain Mitzvot one cannot imply anything regarding spiritual standing of women. He maintains that they are of equal spiritual standing and brings a number of proof texts. The fact is that men and women have different roles and obligations in the Torah. Implying anything more is simply opinion at best and very often false.

In relationships it is critical to distinguish between fact and implication/opinion. Someone says something and we often immediately assume and imply things that they never intended in the first instance. This is a common cause of arguments, strife and resentment among people.

Our charge is to distinguish very clearly between the actual facts and opinions/implications. Only the facts are factual!

Vayakel/Pikudei

WHY THE REPETITION?
By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The last two Torah portions of the book of Exodus (Vayakel and Pikudei) describe in detail the construction of the Tabernacle, the vessels of the tabernacle (ark, menorah, alter…), and the clothing the priests are to wear while serving in the Tabernacle. The difficulty is that the preceding Torah portions (Terumah, Tetzaveh, Ki Tisa) already contain detailed instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle, its vessels, and the clothing of the priests. In light of our tradition that every letter and word in the Torah is there for a reason the seemingly redundant repetition of the details of the construction of the Tabenacle is perplexing.

Ramban (Nachmanedes) suggests that the initial instructions which God taught Moses concerning the construction of the Tabernacle were taught to Moses on Mt. Sinai when Moses ascended to receive the first tablets (containing the ten commandments). Upon Moses’s descent he saw the Jewish people serving the golden calf and broke the firsts set of tablets. Around eighty days later God forgave the Jewish people for the sin of the golden calf and Moses again descended Mt. Sinai with the second set of tablets. Upon Moses’ descent he gathered the entire nation and informed them of God’s initial detailed instructions regarding building the Tabernacle.

Moses did this to impress upon the nation that God had forgiven them, that He desired to dwell amongst them and be present in their lives, and that their initial loving relationship had been restored. It seems to me that every detail had to be shared with the entire nation at this juncture to teach the following fundamental lessons: 1) No matter how far one has strayed from God, complete reparation is possible and desired by God. One should never feel or think that one cannot completely repair one’s relationship with God. 2) Closeness to God and the Tabernacle is not solely the domain of a select group of priests or artisans. God wants every person to feel that the Tabernacle represents them and understand that the Tabernacle’s purpose was to bring Godliness into the lives of every single individual.

Tetzaveh/Ki Tisa

WASHING HANDS – CLEANLINESS AND HOLINESS
By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The Code of Jewish Law instructs us to wash our hands each morning and recite the blessing “Blessed are you… upon washing of hands.” There are a number of reasons given for this law. The Code of Jewish Law explains that when we sleep at night an impure spirit rests on our hands and in order to remove it we wash each hand three times from a vessel alternating hands (first the right, then the left). Rosh (Rabbi Asher Ben Yechiel, 1250 -1327) suggests that since it is only appropriate to recite one’s morning prayers with clean hands, one should wash one’s hands which may have touched unclean body parts during the night.

Rashba (Shlomo ben Aderet, 1235–1310) offers a different interpretation based on a Mitzvah in Parshat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30,19). There is a positive commandment for a Cohen to wash his hands and feet from a large copper vessel in the morning before performing the temple service. The Cohen washing his hands and feet had nothing to do with physical cleanliness. The Cohen would sanctify and dedicate his physical activity for that day to God (symbolized by the hands and feet) by washing his hands each morning before serving in the temple.

The Rashba says that each morning we arise like new creatures obligating us to thank God for creating us to serve Him and bless His name. We therefore begin each day sanctifying ourselves as a Cohen by washing our hands with a vessel like a Cohen would from the copper washstand in the temple courtyard. Washing our hands in this way each morning is the Jewish way of thanking God for giving us another day of life in His service.

The Chofetz Chaim in his Mishna Berura explains that the Halacha follows the opinion of both the Rashba and the Rosh (There are practical differences between them beyond the scope of this D’var Torah.) Philosophically speaking this implies that both physical cleanliness and spiritual sanctification are essential preparations for the service of God. Let us start each day with these preparations in gratitude to God for yet another day in His service.

Mishpatim/Terumah

THE MOST IMPORTANT CROWN
By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

In Parshat Terumah the Torah describes the articles that were to be placed in the Mishkan(Tabernacle.) A special awning(crown) was to be placed surrounding these vessels on their upper edges. These vessels were: The ark containing the Torah and the Ten Commandments, the table upon which the showbread was arranged and upon the golden incense alter. Our sages relate these crowns to three areas of greatness. The crown upon the the ark represents the crown of Torah, the crown upon the table represents the crown of kingship, and the crown upon the incense alter represents the crown of priesthood (Kehunah.) The crowns of kingship and priesthood both have a hereditary limitations, to be a priest one must be a descendent of Aron and to be a king one must be a descendent of King David. The crown of Torah is open to every human being. Anyone dedicating themselves to character development and deep Torah study can merit this crown.

Maharal explains that priesthood is the crown of bodily sanctification, kingship is the crown of emotional sanctification, and Torah is the crown of spiritual and intellectual sanctification. This explains why our sages teach us that the greatest crown of all is the crown of Torah - spiritual sanctification is the highest level of sanctification. Torah is the greatest crow. Our Sages in ethics of the fathers introduce the idea of a forth crown, the crown of a good name, and state emphatically that the crown of a good name is the greatest of all the crowns. This teaching leaves us with a number of questions. What exactly is this crown of a good name? How does one attain this good name? Why is a good name the greatest croen

Rabbi Ovadia Bartenura explains that a good name is acquired through doing good deeds. Through performing acts of good deeds and conducting oneself in an ethical fashion one acquires a good name. Without a good name, Torah scholars, priests and kings are not worthy of respect and honor. Without a good name all other crowns are disgraced and lost. A good name is the greatest crown in the sense that all other crowns are dependent on the crown of a good name. Some commentators explain that the Menorah and its shining lights represent good deeds and therefore a good name as is stated in proverbs "Indeed a candle is a Mitzvah..." (Proverbs 6:23) Let us strengthen our commitment to performing great deeds and living according to the lofty ethical standards of our Torah.

Beshalach/Yitro

ALWAYS BE ARMED
By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

“God led the people around by way of the desert to the Red Sea, and the children of Israel were armed when they went up out of Egypt. Moses took Joseph's bones with him, for he [Joseph] had adjured the sons of Israel, saying, God will surely remember you, and you shall bring up my bones from here with you.” (Exodus 13:18-19)

The connection between the Israelites leaving Egypt armed and Moses removing the remains of Joseph from Egypt requires explanation. Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz (1550-1619) addresses this issue in his commentary Kli Yakar. He explains that just as the Jewish people would take the Holy Ark containing the tablets of the ten commandments with them to war symbolizing that the merit of the Torah protected them and assisted them in defeating their enemies, so too before the giving of Torah on Mt. Sinai spiritual protection was essential for their victory. Joseph, who was an incredibly righteous individual had the ten commandments spiritually etched on his bones. The Torah teaches us that Moses considered the spiritual merits of our nation to be essential weapons in our national security and success.

Moses collecting Joseph’s remains upon leaving Egypt teaches us a critical lesson. Although we are obligated to arm ourselves with physical weapons we are never to forget that the nation of Israel needs spiritual weapons for its protection as well. Without the spiritual weaponry of Torah and mitzvoth our national security would be significantly compromised, heaven forbid.

We are fortunate to live in a time when the Israel Defense Force is well armed and at the cutting edge of military technology. However, we dare not forget that there were times when Israel was militarily weaker than our neighboring nations who attempted to destroy us on numerous occasions. God saw the spiritual merit of our nation and miraculously protected Israel. Even today with our powerful army we need to understand that our ultimate protection comes only from God and that our spiritual armament is as essential as ever.

Vaeira/Bo

MOSES AND PHARAOH – THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES
By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The Torah relates how Aron and Moses approached Pharaoh over and over again demanding that he allow the Hebrews to leave Egypt.  Pharaoh refuses and is then warned that he and his people will be afflicted with a plague. Moses and Aron approach Pharaoh as they please, and after threatening him leave Pharaoh’s presence unharmed. Rabbi Yosef Yehudah Leib Bloch asks the following: Pharaoh was the leader of the mighty Egyptian empire. Why on earth does he allow Moses and Aron open access to him and why does he tolerate their constant threats?  Surely, he should have and could have simply commanded that Aron and Moses be eliminated.

Rabbi Bloch answers as follows: When one is involved in a war situation or a physical conflict with others, physically eliminating one’s opponent is a sign of strength. However, when one is involved in a philosophical conflict physically eliminating one’s opponent is a sign of weakness and defeat. Pharaoh and Moses were engaged in a deep and intense philosophical dispute. They were debating whether the universe had a creator, whether the creator was still involved in the universe and whether the creator guides the course of history. Each plague related to the subject matter that was being discussed in the corresponding debate. On each level, Pharaoh, the skeptical genius is defeated, and the argument shifts to the next level.

The reason we read these sections of the Torah annually is not simply to remember our history. We read these sections because within each and every one of us is a Moses and a Pharaoh competing for supremacy. The struggle is ongoing and we are always left with the choice of either accepting the miraculous hand of God at work or skeptically attributing life events to random or natural phenomena.  Our sages point out that even the splitting of the Red Sea could possibly be explained as a natural occurrence. The Torah itself states that a great easterly wind blew the entire night before the splitting of the sea. There is always room to deny God’s involvement in the world. This is essential for man’s struggle towards recognizing God’s hand in our “natural” universe.

We learn Torat Moshe (The Torah of Moses) to give us the tools, strength and faith necessary to defeat Pharaoh’s ideology. May we be successful in this endeavor.

Vayechi/Shemot

YOSEF, YEHUDAH AND CHANUKAH
By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

At the time of Chanukah the Greek empire attempted to assimilate the Jewish people into their naturalistic, Godless belief system. They made decrees against Torah study, circumcision and other such decrees, in an attempt to rid the Jewish people of their belief in the transcendent (holy) and spiritual. We celebrate that a number of young zealous priests (the Maccabees) fought for their religious freedom and thereby reversed the trend towards total assimilation.

Here in America we are fortunate to live in a land with religious freedom for all. We are, thank God, not subject to religious oppression of any kind. Despite tremendous religious freedoms, assimilation has unfortunately taken a toll on the Jewish people. While legally religious freedom has been granted to all, there are clearly other forces in modern society undermining religious belief and observance. Clearly religious freedom will not secure the future of Judaism. So what does secure the Jewish future?

“He had sent Yehudah ahead of him to Yosef, to point the way before him to Goshen. So when they came to the region of Goshen” (Genesis 46:28) Before Jacob returns to Egypt he sends Yehudah to Goshen to pave the way for their arrival. Our sages explain that Ya’akov instructed Yosef to set up a Yeshiva so that upon their arrival there would be a place for the Torah to be studied and taught. Ya’akov understood that the secret to our national spiritual survival was Torah study and education.

One of our commentators, Bnei Yisaschar, suggests that the letters on the Chanukah dreidel Nun, Gimel, Heh and Shin which stand for Nes Gadol Hayah Sham have their origin in the Hebrew word used in the above verse Goshnah meaning (to the city of Goshen.) The secret of the dreidel which represents survival of our nation from spiritual assimilation is the Yeshiva which is to be founded in Goshen.

When we bless our children on Friday night we say “May Hashem make you like Efraim and Menashe.” Efraim and Menashe were Yosef’s two sons. Why do we bless our children specifically to be like Yosef’s two sons? Our commentators point out that Efraim and Menashe unlike the other sons and grandsons of Ya’akov grew up in an Egyptian hedonist and paganist culture. Nonetheless Yosef was successful in bringing up these two sons to be true to the religious traditions of Ya’akov’s family. We bless our children to have the strength and fortitude to hold on to our religious beliefs and practices. May Hashem bless us all with the strength and fortitude to proudly kindle the lights of our awesome tradition!

Vayishlach/Vayeshev

WHEN TO CALL A SPADE A SPADE
By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

 And Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was a son of his old age; and he made him a fine woolen coat. And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, so they hated him, and they could not speak with him peacefully (Genesis 37,3-4.)

The Talmud in tractate Shabbat points out the important lesson that emerges from the above verses. A person should never treat one child differently from their other children. The small amount of fine wool that Jacob gave to Joseph and not to his other sons caused his other sons to hate Joseph and ultimately led to the bondage in Egypt. Another powerful takeaway message is that not everything that is felt should be expressed.

Joseph’s brothers hated him so much that they could not even greet him and speak to him in a nice way. On the surface of this one might assume that the Torah is expressing how bad the brothers were. Not only did they hate him in their hearts but they also expressed this hatred towards him. Rashi, however, quoting our sages, says that the Torah is in fact speaking positively about Joseph’s brothers. They were not false people – they were not one way in their hearts and a different way in their mouths. They called “a spade a spade” and were truthful, honest people.

It is clear from the above that we are to act with integrity and ensure there is a consistency between the way we feel about people and the way we treat them. However, not every feeling and emotion needs to or should be expressed, especially when withholding such expression will not compromise our integrity.  In such instances we must be careful not to express our feelings and emotions in ways that will hurt others and create unnecessary discord.

Toldot/Vayetze

THERE IS LOVE AND THERE IS LOVE
By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

 “And Isaac loved (Vaye’ehav) Esau because game was in his mouth, but Rebecca loves (Oheves) Jacob.” (Genesis 25:28) This verse describes the love of Isaac and Rebecca towards their children, Esau and Jacob. A closer look at the language of the verse reveals two subtle but very revealing distinctions.

When describing Isaac’s love for Esau the Torah uses the future conjugation of the Hebrew root Ahav meaning love and adds a conjunction letter so that the future form becomes past tense and therefore reads “And Isaac loved (Vaye’ehav) Esau…” However when describing the love of Rebecca for Jacob the Torah uses the present tense form “…but Rebecca loves (Oheves) Jacob.” Additionally, the Torah gives a reason for Isaac’s love of Esau but provides no reason for Esau’s love of Rebecca. What is the reason for these textual differences?

Isaac saw great future potential in Esau. He saw his potential to serve God while being involved in hunting (the material world.) He envisioned a world in which Esau would partner with Jacob, providing Jacob with the physical sustenance necessary to pursue greater spiritual heights. Isaac did not love Esau for what he was but rather loved him for what he anticipated he could accomplish in the future. Rebecca, on the other hand loved Jacob’s essence. She simply loved his essence without any external reason and without any future expectations or demands. In the end when Isaac realizes his mistaken future vision of Esau, his love for Esau becomes a thing of the past. Rebecca’s love for Jacob on the other hand endures.

I think there is a very important life lesson here. Love towards a person that is in any way dependent on the person changing their behavior in the future is doomed to failure. Only love that is based on what is present here and now will endure. It is common for people to remain in relationships with the delusion that in the future they will change their partner. Loving a person for how they are now and accepting their deficiencies (which we all have) completely are the ingredients necessary for true lasting love.

Vayeira/Chayei Sarah

A STRANGE NEGOTIATION
By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

God is about to destroy the wicked inhabitants of Sedom and its surrounding cities and informs Abraham of His intentions. Abraham beseeches God to save the cities. He first asks God if He would agree to save the cities if fifty righteous people could be found. God agrees and then Abraham asks God if He would agree to save the cities if only forty-five people could be found. God agrees and then Abraham asks God if He would agree to save the cities if only forty people could be found. This cycle continues until God agrees to save a city even if only ten righteous people could be found.

The Telze Rov, Rabbi Yosef Yehudah Leib Bloch, points out that Abraham’s interaction with God seems somewhat strange? If Abraham felt that perhaps God would agree to save a city with ten righteous individuals then why not begin with ten and then if God declines the request try and renegotiate at twenty and so on? And if Abraham felt that God would only save the cities if there were fifty righteous individuals then why does Abraham ask for more once God grants his initial request?

He answers that Abraham initially felt that God would not agree to save the cities if there were fewer than fifty righteous individuals. Therefore, he did not bother praying for fewer than fifty righteous individuals. However, once Abraham connected deeply to God in prayer Abraham’s perception of God changed. He realized God’s love and compassion on an even deeper level and then felt that perhaps God would save the cities if there were forty-five righteous people. Abraham again proceeded to connect with God in prayer and then gained even deeper insight in to God’s love and compassion and therefore was able to ask God to save cities for forty righteous people. In this way Abraham’s interaction with God continued.

The above explanation helps us to understand a common question: Why pray for a particular result? If a particular result is good for a person God will deliver that result with or without prayer, so why pray? When we sincerely pray to God we change and transform ourselves. We become different people and our perception of God matures. A particular result may not have been appropriate for person A (the individual before prayer) but may be appropriate for person B (the individual transformed through prayer.) God does not need our prayers. He commands us to pray to change ourselves and to help us grow and mature in our understanding and connection to Him.

Parshat Noach and Parshat Lech Lecha

Finding favor in the eyes of God
By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

“And the Lord said, "I will blot out man, whom I created, from upon the face of the earth, from man to cattle to creeping thing, to the fowl of the heavens, for I regret that I made them." And Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” (Genesis 6, 7-8)

Our sages in the Midrash understand from these verses that even Noah did not merit in his own right to be saved from the destruction of the world. The only reason he survived was because he somehow found favor in the eyes of God. It is interesting to note that this is reflected in Noah’s name. In hebrew Noah’s name is comprised of the hebrew letters chet and nun which also spell out the hebrew word chen meaning favor or grace.

The hebrew word for free/underserving is chinam which shares the first two letters of the word chen meaning grace. One of the thirteen attributes of mercy is that God is chanun meaning that we appeal to God to extend mercy upon us and to help us even though we do not truly deserve God’s kindness. Our forefathers understood the tremendous importance of being a recipient of God’s deep compassion and therefore Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all blessed their children to have the attributes necessary to draw on this deep level of undeserved kindness from God.

None of us can say we truly deserve anything and we could never repay God for the gift of even one moment of life. It is therefore important for us to discover ways to find favor (chen) in the eyes of God and to thereby merit God’s divine grace (chen.) How do we go about attaining grace and favor in God’s eyes and in the eyes of others?

Our sages learn from a verse in the book of Proverbs that studying Torah in a deep and profound way brings grace and favor to a person. Deep Torah study brings a person grace. I would like to suggest an additional technique to bring a person chen. Often in our interpersonal relationships we tend to feel the need for reciprocity. If we give more than someone else does we feel that that person is no longer deserving of our benevolence. If we were to suspend our balance sheets and simply focus on something good or special in another person and continue to bestow kindness despite the lack of reciprocity we would be emulating God’s attribute of chen. We know that God’s interaction with us is always exactly measure for measure. When we show this benevolence God too will suspend all balance sheets and focus on the good within us. We will thereby merit divine grace and favor.

Sukkot 2018

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.

Acharei-Kedoshim/Emor

A Question For After 120

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

“You shall not commit a perversion of justice with measures, weights, or liquid measures. You shall have true scales, true weights…. I am the Lord, your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19, 35-36.) This verse in Parshat Kedoshim speaks of the imperative of being honest and upfront in one’s business dealings.

The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) states that one of the first questions we will be asked when we leave this world after 120 years is: Did you conduct your business dealings with Emunah (faith or faithfulness.) The simple meaning is obvious. We will be asked whether we were honest and faithful in our business dealings.

A number of Rabbi’s explain a deeper understanding of this Talmudic text. The question is not simply whether we dealt faithfully in business but rather whether our business dealings were done with faith in God. Did we understand and believe that our successes and failures in our business endeavors are in the hands of God? Did we truly believe that our livelihood is dependent upon God? Did we believe that every person gets what he/she needs to accomplish their spiritual task on earth? These are the questions that will be asked of us after our 120 year sojourn on planet earth.

When one begins to consider the matter more deeply, one realizes that the simple understanding of the Talmud and the deeper understanding of the Talmud are in fact strongly correlated. When one truly believes that God is watching over us, that our livelihoods are dependent upon Him alone and that we will all be blessed according to what is indeed best for us, then honesty and integrity in business follows naturally. It is then obvious to us that dishonesty will not benefit us in anyway. We become acutely aware that only honest gains carry God’s divine blessing.

Friends, let us together work on infusing our business dealings with faith in God and thereby manifest faithfulness, honesty and integrity towards our fellow man/woman.

 

 

Shemini/Tazria-Metzora

It’s Not Chess Without the Rules

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

“And Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them. And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” (Leviticus 10:1-2)

On the day that the tabernacle was erected, and God’s presence had descended, Aaron’s two sons Nadav and Avihu were inspired to bring incense offerings before God. Aaron’s children were seemingly performing an act of service of God. It is difficult to understand their fatal error.

Our Rabbi’s point out many different misgivings performed by Nadav and Avihu. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that their most fundamental error is clearly recorded in the text: “which He had not commanded them.” When we serve o-d in the way that we choose to serve God, our service is not an act of obedience, but rather an act of spiritual self-gratification. The role of the priests in public temple services is to show obedience as the nation’s representatives to serve God. The good of the nation and fostering obedience towards God is of primary importance. Just like our physical desires need to be harnessed, so too our spiritual inspiration has to be harnessed. True service is when we are serving God and not our personal physical or spiritual aspirations.

When we express our individuality within the framework of the rules and guidelines set aside by God, the divine presence descends and all is well. I once heard a great analogy with the game of chess. If your opponent does not adhere to the rules of the game it is unpleasant and the game simply doesn’t work. When both players adhere to the rules, the game works and is challenging and stimulating. Although the game has very specific rules limiting the movement of various pieces in different ways, you very rarely see two games of chess played exactly the same way. Each player is able to express their individual expression within the rules of the game. The same is true with Judaism. The Torah rules structure the practice of Judaism, but within the framework of the rules there are infinite ways to express individuality. It’s not chess without the rules and it’s not Judaism without the Torah’s commandments..

Vayak'hel-Pekudei/Vayikra

Just Do It - Give

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

"Every man whose heart uplifted him came, and everyone whose spirit inspired him to generosity, brought the offering of the Lord for the work of the Tent of Meeting, for all its service, and for the holy garments." (Exodus 35:21)

This verse divides those who were inspired to donate to the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) into two distinct categories: those "whose heart uplifted him" and those "whose spirit inspired him." Many commentators endeavor to explain the difference between these two categories of people.

The Netziv explains that these categories refer to two different motivations for giving. The first category refers to people who are motivated to give to good causes with ulterior motives. They give to avoid being embarrassed by others or for fear of divine punishment for not giving. The second category is those that give because their intellect and good spirited nature inspires them to give.

Clearly the second motivation to give is a significantly higher level than the first motivation. Nonetheless, it is the view of our Sages that we should not discard or put down completely those who give with ulterior motives. There are a number of reasons for this. The first is that the very act of giving changes the person giving and in time motivates the person to give willingly with a generous spirit. Giving is also something that takes practice and repetition to perfect.

Additionally, the Netziv points out that although one’s initial motivation to give may not be the purest, once one has decided to give, one proceeds to give with a pure heart. This is why a few verses later the Torah tells us: "Every man and woman whose heart inspired them to generosity to bring for all the work that the Lord had commanded to make, through Moses, the children of Israel brought a gift for the Lord." (Exodus 35:21) Their initial intentions may have been impure but when they gave, they gave for the sake of the Lord.

In time we come to realize that we are not giving at all. We are receiving the greatest gift, the gift of giving.

Tetzaveh/Ki Tisa

Who should pray?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

There is a dispute amongs our early commentators as to whether daily prayer is a Biblical obligation. However, all commentators agree that praying when in crisis or going through troubling times is a biblical obligation. Both men and women are obligated to pour out their hearts to God in times of difficulty.

We pray directly to God and not through any intermediary. Every truthful, heartfelt prayer before God is meaningful and heard by God. I once heard that someone visiting Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, of blessed memory, mentioned that he was going to pray at the Western Wall. The Rabbi asked his visitor to pray for him as well. The Rabbi was teaching his visitor that the sincere prayer of an average person is also meaningful and powerful.

Having said this, we find an interesting teaching in the Talmud. “Someone who has a sick person within their household should go to a wise (righteous) man and ask compassion for him…” (Baba Batra 116a.)

Why go to the righteous man? If all sincere prayers are accepted then we should simply pray ourselves? I believe the answer to this question is that we need to recognize that there are some learned and extremely pious individuals that are more spiritually developed than we are. As a consequence of their closer relationship with God and their deep understanding of the workings of the spiritual world, they are able to pray with more intention, power and effectivity than the average person. This is why the Talmud instructs us to approach a righteous man to pray for our cause.

 In Parshat Ki Tisa, after the sin of the golden calf, God tells Moses that he will. God forbid, destroy the Jewish people in a moment and build a new nation through Moses. Moses pleads to God on behalf of the people who are in mortal danger and appeases God to give them another chance. This is the very same model of the righteous man accomplishing more through his prayers than others are able to do on their own. 

It is important to point out that this does not exempt or minimize our obligation to pray in troubled times. As Rabbi Sholmo Zalman Auerbach taught us, every prayer counts and we need to flood the heavens with prayers for compassion. May God answer all our prayers and help us in overcoming challenges.

Mishpatim/Terumah

The Essential Character of Torah

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

At the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the Torah describes how God appeared to Moses and the elders of Israel in the following perplexing verse:

“And they perceived the God of Israel, and beneath His feet was like the forming of a sapphire brick and like the appearance of the heavens for clarity (purity).” (Exodus 24:10)

The symbolism of the sapphire brick formation and the heavenly clarity described as being under the feet of God requires explanation. Rashi, based on the Midrash, explains that the sapphire brick formation represents the bricks formed by the Hebrew slaves in Egypt under conditions of back breaking labor. These bricks were before God at this difficult time for the Hebrews. The heavenly clarity, on the other hand, represents the joy and light of the redemption that was before God at the time of the redemption. 

According to this interpretation, the elders perceived God’s feet resting upon the Jewish people’s painful exile and joyous redemption. What is the meaning of this? Why is this the way that God chooses to be perceived particularly at the giving of the Torah which took place almost two months after the exodus from Egypt?

I would suggest the following explanation: God wanted the elders to perceive the essence of what motivated Him to give the Torah to the Jewish people as well as the essential nature of the Torah itself. The essential character of the Torah is not the commandments in and of themselves. The essential character of the Torah is about human beings have a close and intimate relationship with God. The commandments are the tools that create the optimal relationship and connection but are not the purpose in and of themselves.

Beshalah/Yitro

The ‘Wow Factor’ and God’s World Plan

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The Zohar on Parshat Yitro states that when one declares, as Yitro did, "And now we know that God is greater than all the other gods..." the name of God is honored and elevated. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov explains (Likutei Moharan Lesson 10) that the main revelation of God's greatness occurs when even idolaters come to realize that there is one God who governs and rules everything. When someone distant from God comes closer to the service of God, it creates a 'wow factor' that impresses us greatly. God's status is not only elevated in the eyes of the idolater but also in the eyes of the believer. The believer is both impressed, inspired and strengthened by the journey of the ex-idolater towards God.

I would suggest that one of the reasons the Torah teaches us about Yitro’s journey towards a recognition of the one, omnipresent, and omnipotent God is because ultimately this is God’s master plan for all humanity. We accept the yolk of heaven by reciting “Hear Israel, Hashem who is our God, Hashem is one.” Rashi interprets this verse as follows: Understand Israel that the one God whom you recognize will ultimately be recognized by all humanity. We conclude every prayer service with the messianic prophecy of Zechariah “And God will be king over all the world, on that day God will be one and His name will be one.” Our sages explain this to mean that while God is one, not all humanity recognize God. In the messianic age, all humanity will recognize God’s unity and return to Him.

We, the Jewish people are to be the catalyst in this process. Our role is to live exemplary, ethical lives in accordance with the dictates of the Torah and thereby be a light unto all the nations of the world. This role is both a great privilege and a tremendous responsibility. Let us assume this challenge and pray for a time when we are all elevated and inspired by the most distant people returning to the one and only God.

Va'eira/Bo

Looking Outwards, Looking Inwards

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

"So the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, and He commanded them concerning the children of Israel and concerning Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, to let the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt. (Exodus 6,13)

Many commentators address a glaring difficulty in the above verse. It is understandable that Pharaoh should be commanded to free the children of Israel, but why should the children of Israel be commanded to free themselves? The Jerusalem Talmud addresses this difficulty and explains that the children of Israel were commanded in the Mitzvah of freeing Hebrew slaves. Therefore both Pharaoh and the children of Israel were commanded to free the children of Israel. While this explanation answers the difficulty in the verse, the timing of the Mitzvah of freeing slaves seems strange. Why was this Mitzvah not communicated to the Jewish People at Mount Sinai, together with all the other Mitzvoth?

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, in his commentary Meshech Chochmah, explains that not all the tribes were enslaved equally in Egypt. Many of the tribes of Reuven, Shimon, and Levy were respected officials and noblemen and bought Hebrew slaves from their Egyptian oppressors. These tribes of the children of Israel were commanded to free their brethren before Pharaoh was commanded to free the children of Israel.

I believe this explanation carries within it an important take away lesson. We are very often guilty of the same behavior we accuse others of perpetuating. While the Egyptian oppressors were more cruel and brutal, the children of Israel themselves were guilty of enslaving one another, to a lesser degree. God was effectively telling the children of Israel that before he would deliver them from their oppressors, they should get their own house in order and stop oppressing one another. Let us use our judgment of others as a catalyst to seeing our own flaws and getting our own homes in order. God will then surely redeem us from our external oppressors.

Vayechi/Shemot

THE POWER OF A GOOD ENDING

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

“And Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years, and Jacob's days, the years of his life, were a hundred and forty-seven years.” (Genesis 47:28)

Parshat Vayechi begins with the above verse. In the prior Torah reading, Parshat Vayigash, Yaakov goes down to Egypt and tells Pharaoh that he is one hundred and thirty years old. If the Torah would have simply stated that Yaakov lived for a hundred and forty-seven years we could have easily calculated that he spent the last seventeen years of his life in Egypt. Why then was it necessary for the Torah to write that he lived in Egypt for seventeen years?

Yaakov had lived an incredibly difficult life up until that point. For twenty-two years before his reunification with Yosef in Egypt he could not feel complete joy and was somewhat depressed. He could not prophesy in that time period because prophecy requires a tranquil and joyous state of mind and heart. The Torah therefore explains to us that his final seventeen years were good, happy and fulfilling years. The last seventeen years of his life were the best years of his life.

Malbim explains that after the Torah tells us that his last years were years of life, the Torah tells us that this great ending transformed his entire life retroactively. Since his last seventeen years were years of life and success, his entire life is considered to be one of true happiness, life and success. Malbim explains that when things are good, the suffering of the past is forgotten. I would add that when something ends in a good way one realizes that somehow one’s prior pain and suffering was a necessary process in the accomplishment of peace, happiness and tranquility.

One should never give up hope and always remember that a good, happy and successful end can turn everything around.

Miketz/Vayigash

JOSEPH - IDEALIST AND REALIST

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Joseph’s behavior is very difficult to understand. As viceroy of Egypt, he has the means to contact his father but refrains from doing so. When his brothers come down to Egypt to buy food supplies, he puts them through an emotionally torturous ordeal. He imprisons his brother Shimon and will only release him, if the brothers return with their younger brother Binyamin, something he knows would be incredibly hard on his aging father. When Binyamin finally comes down to Egypt, he frees Shimon and sends them home. Yet, he tortures them once more by setting up Binyamin as a thief.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains Joseph’s calculation as follows: Joseph understood the importance of reuniting his family and deeply desired this unity.  However, he knew that for a real and meaningful unification he had to overcome his resentment towards his brothers and they had to realize and regret mistreating him in such a horrific way. Making contact with his family before mending the underlying resentments may have ended up destroying the family and hurting his father even more. His brothers lack of compassion as he cried out to them to save him was etched deep in his psyche. He knew that both he and they had work to do before a meaningful reunified family would be a remote possibility.

He does not put his brothers through difficulties for the purpose of torturing them, but rather, for the purpose of waking them up to see and regret their dreadful behavior towards him. Only upon observing their true regret and change was Joseph able to overcome his deep pain and resentment towards his brothers.

Joseph is struggling. On the one hand, he desperately desires a reunited loving family. On the other hand, he is honest with himself and realizes that, although he wants family harmony restored, it cannot happen until he is able to drop his deep seated resentment towards his brothers. He works towards this goal and is finally able to overcome his feelings of negativity towards his brothers and restore family peace and unity.

We learn from Joseph that our goal should always be harmony and peace. At the same time, we need to be real and honest with our feelings and work on ourselves to create true peace and harmony. This is our challenge!

Thu, December 5 2019 7 Kislev 5780