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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 God 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!

Vayishlach/Vayeishev

PRAY EVERYWHERE

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The Torah describes Joseph’s ascendancy in the house of his master, Potiphar: “And his master saw that the Lord was with him, and whatever he (Joseph) did the Lord made prosper in his hand.” – Genesis 39, 3. Our tradition teaches us that Potiphar was not a righteous individual. How then did Potiphar see that God was with Joseph?

The Malbim explains that the answer is contained in the words “…and whatever he (Joseph) did the Lord made prosper in his hand.” Potiphar saw that Joseph was successful in endeavors with a very low probability of success and therefore concluded that this supernatural success resulted from God being with Joseph and blessing all his activities.

The Midrash Tanchuma offers a different explanation. Joseph would enter to serve Potiphar and whisper to himself “Master of the universe, my trust is in You, You are my solution. Let me find grace, kindness and compassion in Your eyes, in the eyes of all who see me and in Potiphar’s eyes.” Potiphar would inquire as to Joseph’s whispering and Joseph would explain that he was praying to God to find favor in Potiphar’s eyes. Throughout Joseph’s work activities the name of God would be upon his lips in prayer. According to this beautiful interpretation, Potiphar saw that Joseph was constantly connected to God in prayer.

Joseph teaches us that prayer is not only reserved to the domain of specific timeslots in the setting of a holy place. Prayer is a way of life, a deep realization of our complete dependence upon the almighty God, and therefore manifests in our daily work and activities. Talking to God is the domain of the bus, car and airplane. Praying for grace, kindness and compassion is the domain of a stroll on the beach, the doctor’s office, the workplace, the kitchen and all our daily activities. Let us learn from Joseph and turn our trust towards God to such a degree that it becomes apparent that God is indeed with us. 

Toldot/Vayeitzei

Just When I Thought It Was Over!

 By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

 

Rivka left her home environment to marry Yitzchak. She did so voluntarily. Nonetheless, this was surely not an easy move for her. She is then faced with another challenge. She struggles to conceive a child whom she no doubt desperately wants. Yitzchak prays to God and Rivka conceives. The stage is set for a happy ending. However, this was not to be. Rivka has such a troubling and painful pregnancy that she gets to the point where she wonders why she wanted to fall pregnant in the first place.

She gives birth to twins. Rivka sees the righteousness of her son Yaakov and the negative nature of her son Esau. Her challenge is that her husband Yitzchak sees things very differently - he loves Esau and wants him to be his primary heir. She devises a plan to deceive her blind husband into making Yaakov his primary heir. Esau is enraged and awaits his father’s death to kill his brother Yaakov. Rivka is forced to send her son away to her father’s house for safety and to marry there. The separation could not have been easy for Rivka and based on the calculation of our sages, it seems that Rivka never saw Yaakov again. This is a brief summary of Parshat Toldot.

Ya’akov’s life follows a similar pattern. He is forced to leave home, is deceived by his uncle Lavan constantly. Lavan attempts to kill Yaakov when he leaves Lavan’s home. He has to then face Esau upon his return. Esau initially plans to harm Yaakov and his family, but in the end, softens his stance towards Yaakov. Yaakov’s daughter is raped and his beloved son Yosef, the apple of his eye, is abducted and separated from him for twenty two years. Thank God for the happy ending of Yaakov reuniting with Joseph.

There is an important lesson here. Our national patriarchs’ and matriarchs’ lives were filled with challenges. Our sages teach us that what occurred to our ancestors is a mapping of what shall occur to their offspring. Have you ever noticed that just as one overcomes one particular challenge or difficult situation that another one presents itself and you say to yourself ‘When will it end? One difficult situation after the next!’ Rather than simply dealing with challenges as they arise and trying to avoid those challenges that are in our control to avoid, our disbelief and disappointment that another challenge creates extra challenge and suffering. It is important for us to change our expectations and accept that this world is the world of growth and challenge. God designed it this way. This ironic thing is that this attitude of acceptance itself gives us the strength and peace of mind to negotiate life’s challenges more effectively. How does one know if one’s life work and challenge is over? If one is alive it

Vayeira/Chayei Sarah

Natural or Mechanical Kindness

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

It is interesting to note that there is nothing specific commanding us to perform acts of loving kindness. The Torah does not state “Thou shall do acts of loving kindness.” The Torah does not explicitly command us on many of the specific acts of loving kindness that we all take for granted such as visiting the sick or comforting mourners. So how do we know that we are in fact commanded to do so?

The sages of the Talmud explain that we learn that we are commanded to perform acts of loving kindness from the verse “Thou shall walk in God’s ways.” (Deuteronomy 28,9)  Just as God is kind, we are commanded to be kind. Just as God is gracious, we are commanded to be gracious. Just as God visits the sick, we are commanded to visit the sick. Just as God visits Abraham when he is sick after his circumcision, we are commanded to emulate God’s ways and do the same. Our obligation to perform acts of loving kindness stems from the obligation to emulate God’s ways. But why does the Torah command us to perform loving kindness in such a vague way? Why not simply command loving kindness and specific acts of loving kindness such as visiting the sick?

This can be explained by a verse in the prophet Micha (6,8) ‘He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord demands of you; but to do justice, to love loving-kindness, and to walk discreetly with your God.’ The Chofetz Chaim points out that the prophet understood that God not only wants us to perform acts of loving kindness because we are commanded to do so, but also to love performing acts of loving kindness. We are commanded to become people who perform acts of loving kindness because that has become our nature and not people performing mechanical actions of kindness that we are commanded to perform.

Therefore, the Torah does not command us to perform loving kindness directly but commands us rather, to emulate God’s acts of loving kindness. God performs act of loving kindness without any command or coercion simply because His essence is kindness. God is similarly commanding us to transform our essence in such a way that kindness flows from us naturally. To become such people is our challenge and divine calling.

Noach/Lech Lecha

THE RAVEN'S LESSON

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

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

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

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

THE RECIPE FOR A SIN-FREE LIFE

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes, that is possible."

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Re'eh/Shoftim

"THE RIGHT TIME IS NOW"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devarim - Va'etchanan

“AND YOU SHALL LOVE HASHEM YOUR GOD”

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matot-Masei

"THE REBBE'S VIEW OF HUMAN INTERACTION"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

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

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

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

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

Balak/Pinchas

"DEATH'S DIVINE MESSAGE"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

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

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

Korach/Chukat

"THE CHANGE CHALLENGE"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

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

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

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

Beha'alotcha/Shelach

"WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU DISCOVERED"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bamidbar/Naso

"GRASS, TREES AND SHAVUOT?"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

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

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

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

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

Tazria-Metzora /Acharei-Kedoshim

"A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE OF OURSELVES AND OTHERS"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

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

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

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

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

 

Chol Hamoed/Shmini

"THE ONE THING ONE CAN NEVER DO ENOUGH OF"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar Chaim

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

Vayikra/Tzav

"THE SANDWICH OF LIFE"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

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

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

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

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

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

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

KI TASA/PARAH

"PURITY AND IMPURITY: A STATE OF MIND"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

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

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

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

TERUMAH/TETZAVEH

"A DIFFERENT MEASURE OF WEALTH"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

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

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

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

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

YITRO/MISHPATIM

"THE CONNECTION BETWEEN AMALEK AND YITRO"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

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

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

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

BO/BESHALACH

"THE FIRST BORN DONKEY'S MESSAGE"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

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

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

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

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

SHEMOS/VA'EIRA

"THE POWER OF THE NAME MOSHE"

By: Rabbi Barka Bar-Chaim

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

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

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

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

VAYIGASH/YAYECHI

"CHALLENGES"

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tue, August 21 2018 10 Elul 5778