Monday, May 30, 2022
Nasi HaYeshiva, Kerem B'Yavneh
"Moshe counted them according to the word of Hashem, as he had been commanded." (Bamidbar 3:16)
Moshe said to Hashem: "How will I enter their tents to know the number of infants." Hashem replied: "You do your part and I will do Mine." Moshe went and stood at the entrance of the tent. The Shechina would precede him, and a heavenly voice would emit from the tent and say: "There are so and so babies in this tent." This is why it says, "according to the word of Hashem." (Rashi)
This important teaching holds implications for all of a person's affairs. Hashem will help only after a person's initiative. It says in Masechet Nidah 70b:
What should a person do to become wise? He should study diligently and minimize business. They replied: Many have done this and it has not availed them. Instead, they should ask mercy from He who is the owner of wisdom, as it says: "For Hashem grants wisdom, from His mouth comes knowledge and understanding." (Mishlei 2:6) What does this teach us? (Why did he say to study often, since it depends upon mercy – Rashi.) That one without the other is not enough.
What should a person do to become rich? He should do business diligently and deal in good faith. They replied to him: Many have done so, and it has not availed them. Instead, he should ask mercy from He who owns all riches, as it says: "Mine is the silver and mine is the gold." (Chaggai 2:8) What does this teach us? That one without the other is not enough.
What should a person do to have male children? He should marry a woman who is worthy of him and he should sanctify himself when intimate with her. They replied to him: Many have done this and it has not availed them. Instead, he should ask mercy from He who provides sons as it says: "Behold! The heritage of Hashem is children; a reward is the fruit of the womb." (Tehillim 127:3) What does this teach us? That one without the other is not enough.
This is a basic tenet of Judaism, that one without the other is not enough. The obligation to pray is something obvious. However, if a person were to pray all day, but does not lift a finger and act to achieve his wants – his prayer will not avail him. Chazal hint to this in three areas that are the main points of a person's life: wisdom – representing spiritual matters, wealth – representing physical existence, and family life.
Some thus explain the pasuk: "One thing I asked of Hashem, that I shall seek; Would that I dwell in the House of Hashem all the days of my life.'" (Tehillim 27:4)
What is the difference between "I asked" and "I shall seek?" Based on what was previously said, it is clear that if a person were to pray all day to become a Torah scholar, but instead of sitting in the Beit Midrash and studying he occupies himself with other things – he will never obtain his request. The solution is to study as much as he can, and, at the same time, present his request to He who owns all wisdom to open the gates of wisdom before him.
"I asked" is the prayer that a person asks of Hashem; "I shall seek" is the effort made, as it says: "I will rise now and roam about the city, through the streets and through the squares; I will seek the One I love." (Shir Hashirim 3:2) Seeking is through the active searching through the streets. Similarly, "Seek peace and pursue it" (Tehillim 34:15), in deed and action.
This is what David said: "One thing I asked of Hashem, that I shall seek." Asking is from Hashem, seeking is through action and making an effort, by dwelling in the House of Hashem. Through dwelling he will be entitled to assistance from Hashem, for without actually sitting and studying there is no value to prayer.
This is also what Chazal said about Yaakov Avinu. On the verses, "Yaakov departed from Be'er Sheva and went toward Charan. He encountered the place" (Bereishit 28:10-11), Chazal teach: When he arrived at Charan he said: "Is it possible that I passed through the place where my forefathers prayed and I did not pray?! When he decided to return, the way was shortened for him. Immediately, "He encountered the place." Rashi adds: "If you shall say, when Yaakov passed by the Temple, why was he not delayed there? He himself did not pay attention to pray at the site where his forefathers prayed, and from Heaven he should be delayed?! When he arrived at Charan ... he decided to return, and the way was shortened for him.
This is how the Ramban (1:45) interprets the need for a census in our Parsha:
Moshe and the tribal leaders needed to know the number of those serving in the war army, and the number of each and every tribe, and what he would be commanding over at the Plains of Moav, because the Torah does rely on a miracle that one man should chase a thousand." (See also Parshat Shelach 13:2, introduction of Rabbeinu Bachya to Parshat Shelach, and Rashi Shabbat 23b.)
The Ran, as well, in his sermons, emphasizes this idea on the pasuk, "Then you shall remember Hashem, your G-d: that it was he who gave you strength to make wealth." (Devarim 8:18) It does not mean that we sit by idly and do nothing except pray, and He makes the wealth for us. Instead we make the wealth, only knowing that it is Hashem who gives us the strength to make the wealth. The same is true for military strength.
Rav Zvi Yehuda zt"l would frequently explain the pasuk: "Some with chariots, and some with horses; but we, in the Name of Hashem, our G-d, call out." (Tehillim 20:8) This does not mean that they fight with tanks and planes, and all we do is call out the Name of Hashem and pray. We also fight with tanks and planes, but we add to this the Name of Hashem, because one without the other is not enough, and we do not rely on a miracle.
Rosh HaYeshiva, Beit El
This shiur is dedicated to the memory of R. Avraham Ben-Tziyon ben Shabtai
Shavuot is the holiday of Matan Torah , the giving of the Torah. It is also a day of heshbon nefesh , soul-searching and introspection. Some people are greatly distressed these days by the decline in faith amongst a portion of the Jewish People. In their eyes, the situation seems beyond-hope, to the point where they have trouble understanding how things will ever improve. The rift separating the far-removed from the world-of-faith appears so great that it is hard to conceive of its ever being bridged. The sight of so large a portion of our people, so distanced from the Torah, weighs down on the 'man-of-faith' in particular, who wants to believe that the entire Jewish People, without exception, will eventually repent. The situation seems hopeless, clouds of despair blot out every ray of optimism. And we ask, is there a way to show these troubled individuals the light at the end of the so-dark tunnel? How can we console those who are so distressed on account of today's 'faith-crisis'?
Yet there is with what to comfort these weary individuals. The situation is not entirely hopeless. The Talmud informs us that the Almighty "concocted the remedy prior to the illness." The difficulties of our world were long ago anticipated by the Creator. Pirkei Avot , Chapters of the Fathers, teaches us that a number things were created even before the creation of the world, and that amongst them was teshuva, repentance. This, as a matter of fact, is the purpose of creation, and the true task of the Torah- to face difficulties and to overcome them, to accept fearlessly life's struggles, even the most difficult amongst them. To the contrary, the light of Torah is that much more discernable when it appears as a result of struggle with conflicting ideologies. In fact, the more that the darkness around it grows, the more the light of Torah breaks forth and rises with greater clearness and purity.
This concept is contained in the words of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi in the tractate of Shabbat where he relates that when Moses went up to heaven to receive the Torah, the ministering angels said to God: "Master of the Universe, what is this human doing here amongst us?" He replied: "He's come to receive the Torah." They said to Him, "A hidden treasure which has been stored away with You for some nine hundred and seventy four generations before the creation of the world, You now wish to hand over to a man of flesh and blood?" God's ministering angels didn't understand how it was possible to give the Torah to a mere mortal, how it was even thinkable to present a heavenly Torah to an 'only-human' world. The most fitting place for the Torah, they reasoned, is in heaven. Man lacks stability, he contradicts himself and changes his mind from one moment to the next. What's more, man is easily given over to all sorts of influences. What, they contended, does he have in common with God's Holy Torah?
God, though, chose not to respond to the angels. He said to Moses, "You give them an answer!" And how did Moses reply? He explained to the ministering angels that this is precisely the purpose of the Torah: to descend to the human world and to elevate it. To penetrate the complex and confusing material existence, in order to light up the darkness. The task of the Torah is to repair all. To plunge to the depths in order to elevate even the lowest of the low. To confront the most far-out ideologies with the intention of bringing-them-close. To leave no place empty of the light of God.
So, we see that man - with all of his shortcomings - is, in a sense, superior to the angels. Man unites within himself body and soul- a lowly, material body and a lofty soul - and, in this respect, unites the higher and the lower worlds. He is capable of ascending to the loftiest heights and elevating everything else with him. It is the free-choice of man which brings him into the innermost chamber, to a place which even the angels cannot enter. The ministering angels, for all of their greatness, are by nature static. True, they don't descend or fall, but, in the same respect, they don't ascend and are not capable of elevating the world. That is the task of the Jewish People and the Torah: to light up the darkness, and to face life's challenges, aware of the fact that the more the darkness grows, the more the light of Torah breaks forth and rises.
Rosh HaYeshiva, Mercaz HaRav
Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah, is a festival of Judaism's oral tradition. It belongs to the Torah scholars in each age. In every generation the Torah is given anew, and this day, the day upon which the Torah was originally given, is imbued with this unique power. Every year there is a repeat of that which has already been; just as Passover is a time of freedom from bondage, so too Shavuot has the unique capacity to allow a renewed acceptance of Torah in each generation. When we celebrate the Shavuot festival, we are not celebrating a one-time event that took place in the past. Rather, we rejoice in the essence of a day that renews itself every year.
The Jerusalem Talmud (Rosh HaShannah 4:8) says: "When each of the sacrifices is discussed [in the Torah], the word 'sin' is written, but regarding Shavuot 'sin' is not written. In this manner, God was saying to them: 'Because you accepted upon yourselves the yoke of the Torah, I consider you to be completely sinless.' "
The author of "Baal HaEidah" explains this passage as follows: "Regarding each of the sacrifices the Torah writes: 'You shall prepare one goat for a sin offering,' but regarding Shavuot the Torah does not write 'for a sin offering,' but only 'one goat.' " This is because "each year on Shavuot it is like the day on which [the Jewish People] stood before Mount Sinai, and they receive the Torah anew. In the words of R' Yosef, 'But for the influence of this day [how many Yosefs are there in the market place!].' Therefore there is no sin offering on this day." The existence of a reality which renews the receiving of Torah each year is what causes a person's sins to be atoned for anew each year.
There is a renewed acceptance of the Torah. Every time we read in the Torah the verse "Whatever God says we shall do and we shall listen" (Exodus 24:7), there is an additional, renewed acceptance. Each of us enjoys a personal acceptance of the Torah.
R' Yosef says, "But for the influence of this day how many Yosefs are there in the market place!" (Pesachim 68b). On the face of things it is not clear why he says this. After all, "but for the influence of this day" not only would there be no R' Yosef, but the entire world would not be! From here we learn that R' Yosef is not referring only to the giving of the Torah to the entire world on this day; he is also referring to his own acceptance of the Torah, for every person has his own personal acceptance of the Torah.
Of all the holidays of the Jewish calendar year, Shavuot is the shortest – celebrated only for one day. Many times, this holiday somehow leaves people feeling unfulfilled by what they had hoped to be a spiritual and joyful experience. The reasons for this are numerous – all night learning sessions which engender a day of sleep, lack of any specific commandment associated with the holiday in our time, and other sundry factors that all contribute to this certain feeling of unease and non-fulfillment. Nevertheless, this holiday is one of the three major holidays of the Jewish calendar, and commemorates the basis for Judaism and Jewish life, the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai to the generation of Jews that had just left Egypt.
But it is often difficult to commemorate an event without having a special commandment or ritual associated with the holiday. Anniversaries of great events are not necessarily meaningful in the absence of special ritual or public programs. And the holiday of Shavuot did not provide us with any such commemorative program. As such, we are left with a certain feeling of frustration, a lack of true appreciation of the greatness of the day, and the eternal message of the holiday.
Naturally, customs have arisen that are associated with the day of Shavuot, that blend tradition and ‘halacha.’ Nevertheless, in the minds and hearts of Jewish people, eating dairy foods does not equal the crackling taste of Matzo or sitting in a Sukkah.
Since the Torah does not allow for randomness or lapses of memory or vision, as is generally the case with human beings, we must conclude that the structuring of the holiday of Shavuot was done purposely and with holy intent. The Torah never intended the holiday to be purely an anniversary or commemorative date of revelation, such as on Independence Day. Rather, it left the commemoration of the granting of the Torah at Mount Sinai as an open-ended type of celebration.
In other words, the Jewish people could make of it what they wish it to be. This reflects generally on the Torah itself. The study in pursuit of Torah knowledge is purposely left open-ended. It has no limits, and is not bound by time and culture, but is eternal and universal. Every generation and every Jew can add additional insight and knowledge to the existing compendium of Torah knowledge and study that has come before.
Even though the Mishna and the Talmud have long been edited many centuries ago, they are still studied in the world of the yeshiva in a manner that encourages new insights and new explanations, possible different analyses, and the encouragement of the development of the mind and creativity of the individual student. Therefore, the study of Torah is compared to an ever-gushing fountain of water that always provides new water to quench the thirst of different generations and even of different cultures.
As such, every day of the year, every time a Jew is engaged in the study of Torah, that moment becomes a new anniversary of the day of the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. Most anniversaries and dates of commemoration are limited to one event and one date alone, with a regular routine the rest of the time. However, Shavuot is a never-ending holiday, even though it is celebrated only one day of the year on the Jewish calendar.
Though we do not deny the desire of Jews, if they wish, to eat Matzo or sit in a Sukkah during the entire year, it is obvious that we do not do so, and that, in fact, we are prevented from doing so, for we are taught that one is not allowed to add to the Torah, just as one is not allowed to detract from a Torah commandment. We are commanded to study Torah every day of our lives, and not only on the day of its anniversary.
The Torah apparently wanted us to feel unfulfilled when the holiday of Shavuot passed, because in that vague feeling of unfulfillment lies the drive to continue the study and pursue of the knowledge of God and the holiness of Creation. Torah is referred to in our prayers as being the length of our entire day. Just as in many matters in life, we remain somewhat unfulfilled, and continue to try to achieve what we feel to be still lacking. So, too, does Torah demand of us to stretch our days, to make them warm and certainly more meaningful
“Moshe led the people out of the camp toward God and they stood at the bottom of the mountain.” (Shemot 19:17)
The Midrash interprets the phrase “bottom of the mountain” quite literally: the people were standing, not at the foot of the mountain, but underneath it.
“The Holy One held the mountain over them like a bucket and warned them: If you accept the Torah — good. And if not — here you will be buried.” (Shabbat 88a)
Would it not have been preferable for the Jewish people to accept the Torah willingly? Why does the Midrash teach that they were forced to accept it?
Limits to Free Will
It is essential that we have the ability to choose between right and wrong. It is through our free will that we develop spiritually and refine our ethical faculties. There are, however, limitations to our free will.
Not everything is subject to freedom of choice. Free will itself is an integral part of life and is beyond our control. We are not free to decide whether to choose or not. We must make an ethical choice. We decide what to choose, where to go, which path to take. But the necessity to choose, like life itself, is forced upon us.
If the Torah was simply a manual how to make good ethical decisions, it would be appropriate for Israel to be free to accept or reject the Torah. The Torah would belong to the realm of free will, and the fundamental decision whether to accept and follow the Torah would need to be made freely, without coercion.
But the Torah is much more than a moral guidebook. The Torah expresses our inner essence. When we violate the Torah’s teachings, we become estranged from our own true selves. For this reason, the Torah needed to be given to Israel in a compulsory act, just as free will is an inherent aspect of our spiritual makeup and was imposed upon us without our consent.
Supporting the World
The corollary to this truth is that the Torah is not the private possession of the Jewish people. Within the inner realm of creation, all is interconnected and interrelated. The universe mandates the existence of the Torah and its acceptance by Israel.
Why did the Midrash use the image of an immense mountain dangling overhead as a metaphor for the inevitability of Matan Torah?
Har Sinai merited a unique role on that decisive day. The mountain represented all of creation; it became the universe’s center of gravity. Har Sinai absorbed the quality of universality and was permeated with the force of inevitable destiny. It represented the impossibility of life, or any aspect of existence, without Israel accepting the Torah.
The Jewish people made their stand under the mountain. Like Atlas, they supported the entire universe — a universe that was concentrated within the mountain held over their heads. “If you accept the Torah, good” — for then you will have been faithful to your true essence, the truth of your very existence. “And if not, here you will be buried.” The entire universe will rise up against you, just as you have rebelled against your true selves.
(Silver from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. IV on Shabbat 88a (9:67) by Rav Chanan Morrison)
Rosh HaYeshiva, Har Bracha
The intention in traditional conversion is not to break through the gates of Judaism, rather to address families of Jews who have taken root here, and are well acquainted with the tradition * The public in question contributes to the state and is sure of its status, and its removal by the rabbinical establishment only arouses resentment and distancing from it * From a halakhic point of view, a court of conversion is any three kosher Jews, and consequently, there is no reason for the Chief Rabbinate to be involved in the decision of the courts in any place
Recently I have written a number of articles to establish the possibility of be-di’avad (less than ideal) conversion of immigrants who intend to lead only a traditional lifestyle. Following this, I was asked various questions. I will answer a few of them.
Q: Even if be-di’avad the conversion of someone who does not keep the mitzvot remains in effect, how can one in the first place encourage the conversion of gerim (converts) who do not intend to keep all the mitzvot?! How can the religious courts, who guard and keep the mitzvot, be weakened?
A: This is a state of sha’at dachak (hour of distress) and spiritual pikuach nefesh (saving of lives) of individuals, and of the nation. There is no intention to search for non-Jews and convert them in this way, rather the proposal is to convert family members of Jews who have already taken root in Jewish society in the State of Israel, and are interested in preserving tradition. Without their conversion, there is no way to prevent marriage between Jews and non-Jews according to halakha, because they are all members of Jewish families, and they all study together in educational institutions and work together in all sectors of the economy, and all have the same Jewish-Israeli identity. Out of this same identity, they all enlist in the army, and contribute greatly to the prosperity of the Jewish state.
Moreover, this large public is connected to Jewish tradition. Their children receive Jewish and national values in the state education system as part of Bible study, holidays, Hebrew, and Jewish history. Shabbat and the holidays are present in their lives, because as a rule, in the State of Israel work is not permitted on Shabbat, and society as a whole celebrates the holidays. The pursuit of the values of justice and helping others, respect for parents and loyalty to the family stem largely from Jewish sources.
They have no other identity; in their own eyes, and in the eyes of their neighbors and friends, they are members of the Jewish people. If they do not convert, hundreds of thousands will not marry according to halakha, and will feel alienated and hate for the heritage of Judaism. Their Jewish spouses will also move away from tradition, and together with them, other relatives. Their descendants will grow up in an awareness of insult and discrimination, and the blame will be laid on the rabbis, and all of the observant. As a result, hatred may develop that will tear Jewish society to shreds, and such a situation would certainly be a matter of national and spiritual pikuach nefesh. I will detail further:
Spiritual Pikuach Nefesh of Individuals
Many families are torn between loyalty to the Torah, and sons and daughters who have chosen to marry good people, who according to halakha are not Jews. They want to marry according to ‘ke’dat Moshe ve’Yisrael (according to the Laws of Moses and Israel) and cannot, and when they find different ways to institutionalize their relationship, a dilemma arises – to rejoice with them at the wedding, or to mourn? To recognize their relationship and invite them to family parties and then the observant members will not come, or refrain from inviting them and create a rift in the family? To celebrate Seder night together, or concede a family member? To avoid insults, there are mixed couples who make sure to vacation abroad every Passover, thus preventing arguments and tensions. However, they and their children are being distanced from tradition – from Seder night and Yom Kippur, from kashrut, Shabbat and holidays, and in their path, more brothers and nephews are distanced.
Instead of this, the non-Jewish spouse could have converted, and the family would have remained united around the Jewish tradition.
We are dealing with a public of more than a million people who have built themselves here, and have no other place in the world. The majority of them are Jews, and some are not Jews according to halakha, but their only identity is Jewish-Israeli, and Hebrew is their language. They are partners in building the country; their contribution to society is enormous. Among them are the best scientists, entrepreneurs, doctors, economists, musicians, and athletes. They are catapulting the State of Israel into the forefront of other states. They feel they do not need favors, because they are here as Israeli Jews. They cannot be offered to live here as respected citizens with equal rights, without being part of the Jewish people, because they have no other identity, nor are they interested in a different identity. On the contrary, the majority of them are interested in fully integrating into all of Clal Yisrael, and incorporating into their lives the Jewish tradition as accepted in Israeli society, including belief in God, observing Shabbat and holidays, circumcision and Bar Mitzvah, wedding canopy and funeral, mitzvot between man and his neighbor and between man and his nation, and the inclusion of Bible and subjects of Judaism in schools. If they are shown favor, they will request more of it.
However, when they understand that even if they keep Jewish tradition as the majority of Jews do, and perhaps even more, the Rabbinate is unwilling to accept them as equals – they are offended. In order to get married, they are forced to undergo unpleasant tests regarding their lineage, and when they fail to prove their Jewishness, even when it is certain to them, they are required to undergo conversion. Many of them are willing to accept that halakha has requirements and therefore they must convert, but even if they agreed to convert and commit to observance like most Jews, they are still required to commit to a religious lifestyle – a terrible insult develops among them, which develops into deep resentment and distancing from Torah and mitzvot, and of all that is precious and holy to the people of Israel in all generations. Indeed, a not so small group is already claiming: If you do not want us as loyal Jews – you will receive us as the hardest enemies of Shabbat, kashrut, Passover, circumcision and everything in the Jewish tradition.
This is a determined public that recognizes the magnitude of its contribution to the State of Israel, and the more it feels harmed by the rabbinical establishment, the more it develops a resentment against the Hareidi public, claiming it is destroying the state, its sons do not serve in the army, do not study science, and do not contribute and pay taxes, but only burden the state budget. And not only the Hareidim, but also the religious and traditional ones do not escape the accusations, which stem from insult and resentment for their support of the rabbinical establishment that is hostile to them. They claim that religious Zionism is messianic and dangerous, and the traditional ones are ignorant and pull the country backwards.
Even today, one can feel the flames of hatred that begin to lick Jewish-Israeli society, and is liable to create a dangerous rift within it. This is a national pikuach nefesh, which compels us to act in the opinion of the great poskim (Jewish law arbitrators), who in such conditions, were very lenient in accepting gerim.
Q: Rabbi, how can you try to promote “traditional conversion” in your articles when various rabbis claim that according to halakha, it is impossible to convert without accepting mitzvot?
A: It is agreed that conversion should include accepting mitzvot, the question is what is the definition of accepting mitzvot: is it an obligation to keep all the mitzvot, or a general agreement that the mitzvot are binding on the people of Israel, and the convert also undertakes this, in such a way that he will be rewarded for their fulfillment, and punished for violating them? Thus, not all the citations that conversion involves accepting mitzvot contribute to the discussion, because only sources that will prove that it is a commitment to keep all the mitzvot, that can serve as proof.
As an opinion that it is possible to convert on the basis of a general acceptance of the mitzvot, approximately twenty poskim explicitly wrote, headed by Rabbi Uziel. And so it appears from the words of dozens of other poskim. And in practice, hundreds of rabbis in all the communities of Israel acted accordingly, accepting gerim even when it was clear that the vast majority of them would not lead a religious lifestyle. This is how the Chief Rabbinate behaved in previous generations, as well.
In the Past, Did All Gerim Keep Mitzvot
Q: True, in the past, rabbis converted people who did not undertake to practice all the mitzvot, but this is because the ger joined a religious community, and consequently, it was clear that in time he would keep all the mitzvot. Today, however, when the gerim remain in secular society, how can one convert those who have not studied the mitzvot well and have sincerely committed to their observance? For that reason, the religious courts must be machmir (rule stringently) in examining those who wish to convert.
A: “Don’t say, “How has it happened that former times were better than these?” For it is not wise of you to ask that question” (Kohelet 7:10). Even in the days of the Mishnah and the Talmud, many gerim did not keep the mitzvot, and consequently, our Sages said in four different places in the Shas: “Converts are as difficult for the Jewish people as a scab” (Yevamot 47b; 109b; Kiddushin 70b; Nidah 13b). The accepted meaning among the majority of Rishonim is that many gerim did not keep Torah and mitzvot, and some of them even practiced Avodah Zara (idolatry), causing many Jews to follow in their footsteps, and thus Rambam wrote (Isurei Bi’a 13:18). Rashi also interpreted: “Who are not careful in the mitzvot, and their friends and those drawn to them, and learn from their deeds” (Kiddushin 70b); “Who continue to follow their old ways, and other Jews learn from them, or rely on them in questions of isur ve’heter (dietary and medical laws) (Yevamot 47b) (Today, this fear also does not exist, as written in the responsa of Rav Eliyahu Gutmacher, Y.D. 85).
Despite this, the rabbis did not refrain from converting. Take for instance Yosef the Ger, who was an am ha’aretz (ignorant in Torah), and apparently did not take it upon himself to keep the mitzvot properly, to the point where he raised his son as an am ha’aretz, who hated Talmedei Chachamim so much, to the point where he testified about himself that he would say: “Who will give me a Torah scholar so that I will bite him like a donkey?” (Pesachim 49b), and in the end, thanks to Rachel, he repented and became the greatest Sage of the Oral Torah – Rebbe Akiva.
Q: Conversion is a Clal-Yisraeli matter, and how can every rabbi be given the authority to establish his own tribunal for conversion?
A: The act of conversion depends on a court of three (Yevamot 46b; 47a). However, unlike the other courts, it is not necessary for the three to be qualified judges, but rather three kosher Jews are sufficient, one of whom knows how to carry out the act of conversion properly (S.A., Y.D. 268:2). Kosher Jews, in other words, observant Jews who were not known to have maliciously committed one of the Torah transgressions. This is the general rule: Anyone who is disqualified from being a witness in one of the official testimonies of the Torah, such as marriage or divorce testimony, is disqualified from being a judge for conversion. Thus, there is no reason for the Chief Rabbinate to be involved in the decision of the tribunals in any place, and it is sufficient that it be machmir to require that the Dayanim (judges) be rabbis or educators, who bear the burden of Torah education.
Therefore, yes, this great socio-national challenge before us has a correct solution in halakha, and if we succeed in doing so, we will elevate the whole of society to a deeper identification with the Torah and the mitzvot.
This world is, well, not what it could be, and I am being polite. Years ago, I would have said it lost its moral compass. Now, it’s so out of kilter that it is hard to watch from day-to-day. Not from the inside, meaning as one of the people who is excited about the way the world is going, but from the outside, or more accurately, from above, from God’s perspective.
How can we possibly know God’s perspective, especially at a time in history when prophecy does not exist, at least in any public and obvious way? We can know it because we have the Torah, which is God’s perspective revealed along time ago through prophecy. And being God, and therefore, it is timeless, He wrote it in such a way that it could be relevant in every generation. People who think it isn’t relevant have an insufficient grasp of Torah or of human history, and usually both.
Learning Torah is going to school. School is ideally where you are supposed to learn what life is about, and therefore what is important in life. We only live one life (at a time), and every moment passed is a moment lost. The only way to hang on to a moment is by using it to build something meaningful in the present for the future. It can’t be an investment of time unless it is able to yield positive dividends, mostly in the next world, but ideally in this world as well.
God made man with a plan. But what is it? He gave us a world to use, but how? That’s what the Torah teaches us. If a person does not learn this from Torah, then they tend to “learn” it from life, but that has generally not worked out well for mankind.
It’s not that the meaning of life cannot be learned from life itself. It’s just that, though a picture can be worth a thousand words, there’s seldom enough clarity to know specifically what to do in specific situations. If there was, then schools could scrap all their textbooks and use pictures only to give people an education. People need truth described in precise language, if they are going to be able to apply it in life.
This is why human history has been less a directed one with periodic lapses of chaos, and more one of chaos with periodic moments of direction. People aren’t even trying to figure out life. They’re just trying to have the best time they can given the challenges that come their way and, the hurdles they have to jump over just to stay afloat.
To make matters a lot worse, some people have figured out how to capitalize on the naiveté of others and their vulnerability to the lure of physical pleasure. They have learned how to use marketing and advertising and social media to persuade people to buy what they are selling, regardless of actual need. And while it satisfies the whims of people who have little or no knowledge of what life is actually about, this has made its makers exceedingly rich and powerful…and over time, even corrupt.
You don’t have to choose to become corrupt. It is just the inevitable result of success without any fear of God. This may sound weird to someone who does believe in God and does fear Him. But to those who lack both, it is just the way of the world. There are those at the top, and those at the bottom, and for such people the trick in life is to use the latter to become one of the former.
ON ONE HAND, it is amazing how, after all this time, the same rules apply. I’m not talking about God’s rules, because they’re eternal. I’m talking about how money still rocks the world and drives society, and how many people are prepared to sacrifice the truth on the altar of wealth.
That’s the first sign that man is lost. Money is valuable to most people because it makes life comfortable. When we have to worry about what we spend, we’re uneasy. When money is no object, we feel so incredibly free…even if we are totally enslaved to the yetzer hara because of it. Even God-fearing people have to struggle with the issue from time-to-time.
Look at what it has done today. It has made billionaires out of some people, and heroes out of some of those billionaires. It has put them in positions of tremendous influence and given them the ability to make life-and-death decisions on behalf of billions of people, as they see fit. According to the watchdogs, they are not doing a very good job of it.
It can be a daunting job for people who believe in God and have a sense of divine accountability. At least they would be concerned about having to answer to God for any mistakes they made. But if they aren’t concerned, then whom do they fear enough to make them think twice about what they decide when what they decide impacts the lives of so many?
They are the ones to keep your eye on because history comes down to them. History is rarely about the masses who might be the nicest and hardest working people around. But these people also tend to be those who wish to “stay out of things,” as strongly opinionated as they might be. They’d rather trust their leadership, and rather blindly at that, to direct their society and tell them what to do. Whereas the yetzer hara of a leader might push them to control others, the yetzer hara of the man on the street is to let others control them, if it helps them have a more comfortable life.
This is true of every society. It’s the very nature of mankind. The only thing that really separates one society from another is the quality of their leadership, which is a function of what the leaders believe and, the system they live by to keep them honest. When the leadership is corrupt, the world they lead becomes corrupt.
Money has never been the root of evil. The root of evil is the yetzer hara inside every individual, and the Satan on the outside who works overtime to seduce the yetzer hara of a person to follow after him. But money is key to comforts of all kinds, and comfort is the yetzer hara’s greatest joy and goal in life. This gives the people with the most money the most attractive credentials, and the greatest power to manipulate unsuspecting masses.
Admittedly, I am saying all of this to do more than make comments on this week’s parsha and about the importance of Torah in advance of Shavuos. I am, to say the least, very concerned about the direction of world society in general, which has become more transparent in the last couple of years.
Many others see it too, including some from within those societies, and they are writing about it, reporting what they can about what is happening. They are disturbed by it, and they want to change it. They are very worried about where things will end up, and how it will limit the quality of life of the world in which they belong. They are fighters, and the true heroes of those societies.
I’m not sure how global their perspective is, or has to be. I don’t know if they believe in the Bible, or know how much it is the basis of world history, even today. They’re not necessarily concerned that God will bring another flood of some sort and destroy the world. They’re more concerned that society might self-destruct, and become the playground for those who ran it into the ground.
The main thing is that they seem to have a sense of right and wrong, a moral compass that they follow. They are prepared to risk a lot personally for the sake of so many people they will never meet. That alone gives them great credentials to do what they do. They should be the ones leading their societies. The fact that they are fighting against the current leadership and chain-of-command is a disturbing piece of evidence about where society is headed.
I THINK THIS is an important part of the message of this week’s parsha. In this world leadership is key to everything. The average person places their life and the lives of the ones they love in the hands of their leaders. Shouldn’t they be more careful about whom they chose to fill such positions? Can we afford to assume that our leaders have our best interests in mind as a matter-of-fact, especially in societies where God has been excluded?
How do I come to this conclusion about the parsha? Because the parsha starts off talking about counting the entire nation, which turns masses of people into numbers alone. But then it switches tracks and identifies each tribe’s leader by name. It makes them standout and seem more important than the rest of the population.
They were princes of the people, but they did not buy their way into their positions. Korach will try that much later on, and it will only result in corruption and destruction, as it always eventually does. And though lineage played a major part in their retaining of their positions, you can be sure that if they lacked fear of God and were abusive in any way, they would have been replaced by someone more spiritually worthy.
This is why Rashi will later explain in Parashas Shlach that the spies who were also leaders of their tribes, only became corrupt once they left the camp. Had they been spiritually corrupt while they stood before Moshe to receive their mission, they would have been rejected and replaced. And had they been evil from the start, the souls of the sons of Ya’akov, each leader’s forebear, would not have reincarnated into them to help them succeed on their journey.
Look what being a leader did for Rus. She descended from Moav, the son of Lot and his daughter. They are such a detestable people from the Torah’s point-of-view that, a male Moabite can never convert.
Even though Rus’s husband did not request it, she eventually converted to Judaism. And when her mother-in-law’s husband died, Rus took care of her. Even after her own husband died, Rus continued to be more concerned about Naomi her mother-in-law than herself.
When Naomi decided to return home to Eretz Yisroel, Rus went with her, leaving behind everything she had known. She accepted a life of poverty and humiliation just to be able to look after her mother-in-law.
For a while, the situation remained bleak, but Rus’s loyalty to her mother-in-law did not waver. It was for that reason that Boaz noticed her, eventually did yibum with her, and she gave birth to Oved, the great-grandfather of Dovid HaMelech and the line of Moshiach.
God loves His leaders. His leaders, and not the ones who are in it for their own personal gain and the adulation of others.
Melave Malkah: Ain Od Milvado
I HAVE MENTIONED many times that the redemption would have come in Yosef’s time if the brothers had only recognized him before Yosef revealed himself to them. Why should that have made or broken the final redemption?
And I have mentioned, also many times before, how Chazal compare Yosef’s revelation and his brother’s reaction, to us on Yom HaDin, our final day of judgment. Just as the words, “I am Yosef” shocked his brothers and rendered them speechless, on the Day of Judgment, God will only have to say, “I am God,” and we too will be shocked and rendered speechless.
What does this mean? It means that God will reveal to each person where He showed up in their lives and they failed to recognize Him. Just as Yosef appeared as a viceroy to his brothers, whom they assumed really suspected them of being spies, likewise we will see how many times God tested us by working through people and things that we took at face value. We will become aware then, how many times we were duped into believing that what confronted us had its own independent reality. In fact, it was just a disguise for the hand of God. Shocked, we will have nothing more to say and will instead just wait for our judgment.
If God says:
You have been shown, in order to know that God, He is God; there is none else besides Him. (Devarim 4:35)
it means that we are given enough information in life to see past the surface of things that impact us at the Divine Providence that drives them. We may have to think about it, but we can do it.
There is a story of the diary written by a young man who died in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It was apparently written in the ghetto’s final days and covers the short period before the Nazis broke through and destroyed the ghetto. Although the author didn’t believe in God when he started the diary, he seems to have shifted to believing in Him in the end.
What changed his mind? According to his story, it was the war against the Jews. The war didn’t make sense to him. What had the Jews done to warrant an entire nation expending so much manpower and resources just to eliminate them, and so cruelly as well? If anything, the Jews had been contributors to the betterment of society, including in Germany, and should have been considered valuable. Instead they were being treated as subhuman in an unprecedented manner.
The last entry in the diary is the Shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” The writer came to the conclusion that the only logical explanation for the bizarre plan of the Nazis was that God was directly behind it. He had sent the Germans to go after the Jews because at that time the Germans were the most suitable people for the task. What happened was not natural but rather SUPERnatural, a miracle if you will, albeit a black one.
Even though human beings are clearly the ones who executed the Holocaust, there was something very non-human about the way they did it. Fight a world war to conquer the world? Yes. Fight a world war to conquer a seemingly harmless people? No. Something else was push-ing them to go THAT far, and this ghetto fighter determined that something else to be God.
Ain od Milvado. It was what he realized before his death. The better and happier thing is to realize this before the world becomes a dangerous for a Jew.
- Many analysts argue that the nuclear deal — original and revised — is primarily about legitimizing Iran's nuclear program. The deal, they say, is designed to strengthen, not weaken, the Islamic Republic.
- Statements by Obama and his senior foreign policy advisors, the same people who are now advising President Biden, reflect a belief — a naïve one, many say — that if Iran were stronger, and traditional American allies — Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — were weaker, the Middle East could achieve a new balance of power that would result in more peaceful region.
- "The catch to Obama's newly inclusive 'balancing' framework was that upgrading relations with Iran would necessarily come at the expense of traditional partners targeted by Iran — like Saudi Arabia and, most importantly, Israel. Obama never said that part out loud, but the logic isn't hard to follow: Elevating your enemy to the same level as your ally means that your enemy is no longer your enemy, and your ally is no longer your ally." — Lee Smith, Middle East analyst, Tabletmagazine.
- "The Realignment rests on, to put it mildly, a hollow theory. It misstates the nature of the Islamic Republic and the scope of its ambitions. A regime that has led 'Death to America' chants for the last 40 years is an inveterately revisionist regime. The Islamic Republic sees itself as a global power, the leader of the Muslim world, and it covets hegemony over the Persian Gulf — indeed, the entire Middle East." — Tony Badran and Michael Doran, Middle East analysts, Tablet magazine.
- "After oil, the Islamic Republic's major export item is the IRGC-commanded terrorist militia — the only export that Iran consistently produces at a peerless level. Malley and Sullivan got it exactly wrong when they argued, in effect, that allies are suckering the United States into conflict with Iran. It is not the allies but the Islamic Republic that is blanketing the Arab world with terrorist militias, arming them with precision-guided weapons, and styling the alliance it leads as 'the Resistance Axis.' It does so for one simple reason: It is out to destroy the American order in the Middle East." — Tony Badran and Michael Doran.
U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley confirmed this week that the Biden administration is seeking a new nuclear deal with Iran that is "shorter" and "weaker" than the original deal. Malley also admitted that the Biden administration does not have a back-up plan to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Pictured: Malley, testifies at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations on May 25, 2022, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley has confirmed that diplomatic efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal originally signed by U.S. President Barack Obama are at an impasse. "We do not have a deal with Iran, and prospects for reaching one are, at best, tenuous," Malley told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing on May 25.
Malley also admitted that the Biden administration is seeking a new deal that is "shorter" and "weaker" than the original deal. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, during his confirmation hearing in January 2021, promised that the administration would pursue a new deal that is "longer" and "stronger."
When asked if he knew about efforts by Iran to hide its prior nuclear work from the International Atomic Energy Agency, Malley responded: "Senator, did Iran lie? Of course. Did Iran have a covert nuclear program? Absolutely. That's the reason why prior administrations imposed such crushing sanctions on Iran."
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Friday, May 27, 2022
Date and Place: 7 Tevet 5668 (1907), Yafo
Recipient: R. Binyamin Moshe Levine, a young protégé of Rav Kook. We have seen warm letters to him in the past.
Body: I haven’t had enough time to write a complete letter to you. Thank G-d, I can almost fulfill my obligation with the letter that my son (Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, 18 years old at the time) wrote, as he is basically the one person who is used to my way of thinking and is able to listen to the speech of my soul. He, thank G-d, has a pure and gentle spirit, and he carries the fragrance of many good and enlightening ideas, which will be a blessing for him and for the world.
You know the conceptual goal behind the yeshiva [I am planning], which is to save exceptional individuals who are being wasted due to the horrible neglect of the inner side of the Torah, which is the light of life, hidden in the Torah and in the root of the nation’s soul. We will do this by setting organized study, from the bottom up, for all the intellectual currents in the heart of Judaism in the broadest manner. Obviously, the spirit of Hashem must be revealed in this manner, by tapping on the strings of the heart.
Only Eretz Yisrael has the correct environment to accomplish this. It is our Desirable Land and the pride of our might. It provides an abundance of spiritual light and life for those who seek to imbibe the bounty it provides, through its soil, stones, air, and sky. It inspires with the recollection of its splendor from way back in history and with its bright hope for the future. It is critical to set a course of study to enable people to realize they should love the Land, which some special individuals are ready to receive, whether they live in Eretz Yisrael or the Diaspora.
The yeshiva’s second goal is to give a new spirit of the “dew of Torah” to the New Yishuv, and thereby to remove the darkness and the strangulating spiritual dryness from its root and replace it with the moistness of life, from which to draw for generations to come. Therefore, the yeshiva must produce students whose souls are full of the Torah’s sanctity and splendor and for whom the love of the nation’s development in its Holy Land is a light that leads their lives.
People think it is well-known that only those whose Jewish heartbeat has ceased to give life to their heart (i.e., they are not religious) are the ones who exert themselves in reviving the Land, and that those who act like proper Jews view building the Land as something that is forced upon us that we cannot necessarily overcome. Oh, what an embarrassment such an outlook is!
All the other side reasons for the yeshiva emanate from the above two. The yeshiva must be founded in a correct and beautiful manner, both internally and externally, whether in regard to the edifice, the students, the teachers, and the conduct of everything related to it. It must be fitting for an orderly nation living securely in its own Land, and not one that is wandering in exile.
So too, the central rabbinate of the New Yishuv must prepare [for its role] with elegance and breadth. It must be ready to influence the Yishuvby regularly traveling to all parts of the country, whether to Judea or the Galilee. It must regularly put out pamphlets and letters to galvanize and reinvigorate a united front. This will raise the stature of Judaism in a multitude of ways and enable the nation to find in the Holy Land two life-saving elements: its practical side and its spiritual side.
This can forge a real connection between the nation and Eretz Yisrael, with the spirit of Hashem which eternally dwells in it. These seem like small things, but one should not disregard such things, and great things can come from them. I have no interest in honor for me or my family, but am motivated by the honor of Israel and its salvation, which is what Hashem truly desires.
Thursday, May 26, 2022
SEASON 2022 EPISODE 21: Rabbi Yishai Fleisher is on the road, finding support for rebuilding Hebron. While in the US he discusses the mass shooting sprees in America, the filming of the Israel Biblical Highway special with former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Ambassador David Friedman, the global consciousness of Jerusalem on Jerusalem Day, the memory of the Biblical Isaac - and the surprising reason he was not called God's servant. Plus: Ben Bresky on Rabbi Shlomo Goren and the Six Day War.
A story is told of a Jewish man who was riding on the subway reading a newspaper of the Klu Klux Klan. A friend of his, who happened to be riding in the same subway car, noticed this strange phenomenon. Very upset, he approached the newspaper reader, “Moshe, have you lost your mind? Why are you reading a Klu Klux Klan newspaper?”
Moshe replied: “I used to read the Jewish newspaper, but what did I find? Jews being persecuted, Israel being attacked, Jews disappearing through assimilation and intermarriage, Jews living in poverty. So I switched to the Klu Klux Klan newspaper. Now what do I find? Jews own all the banks, Jews control the media, Jews are all rich and powerful, and Jews rule the world. The news is so much better!”
Sometimes, it seems life is all about perspective.
Some time ago, I received the following via e-mail:
A frail old man went to live with his son, daughter-in-law, and four-year old grandson. The old man’s hands trembled, his eyesight was blurred, and his step faltered.
The family ate together at the table. But the elderly grandfather’s shaky hands and failing sight made eating difficult. Peas rolled off his spoon onto the floor. When he grasped the glass, milk spilled on the tablecloth. The son and daughter-in-law became irritated with the mess.
“We must do something about grandfather,” said the son. I’ve had enough of his spilled milk, noisy eating, and food on the floor. So the husband and wife set a small table in the corner. There, Grandfather ate alone while the rest of the family enjoyed dinner. Since Grandfather had broken a dish or two, his food was served in a wooden bowl.
When the family glanced in grandfather’s direction, sometimes he had a tear in his eye as he sat alone. Still, the only words the couple had for him were sharp admonitions when he dropped a fork or spilled food. The four-year-old watched it all in silence.
One evening before supper, the father noticed his son playing with wood scraps on the floor. He asked the child sweetly, “What are you making?” Just as sweetly, the boy responded, “Oh, I am making a little bowl for you and Mama to eat your food in when I grow up.” The four-year-old smiled and went back to work.
The words so struck the parents that they were speechless, and tears started to stream down their cheeks. Though no word was spoken, both knew what had to be done. That evening the husband took Grandfather’s hand and gently led him back to the family table. For the remainder of his days, he ate every meal with the family. And for some reason, neither husband nor wife seemed to care any longer when a fork was dropped, milk spilled, or the tablecloth soiled.
Regardless of your relationship with your parents, you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life, and making a “living” is not the same thing as making a “life.”
This week’s portion, Bechukotai, contains one of the most difficult and painful sections in the entire Torah. Known as the Tochacha’, or rebuke, (admonition), in these thirty verses (VaYikra 26:14-43) the Torah describes the series of horrendous calamities that will befall the Jewish people should they fail to live up to their mission as a holy people and a light unto the nations.
The challenging implication of these verses is that all of the terrible events that the Jewish people have suffered through the ages are somehow the result or consequence of the mistakes we have made, and the transgressions we have violated.
The list of questions this raises is challenging to say the least. Are we to assume that so many innocent people, including over a million children who perished in the Holocaust suffered because somehow they did not live up to the will of G-d? Who indeed would want to believe in a G-d that could allow such events to transpire, much less want a relationship with such a G-d? Why in fact would G-d want such a relationship, where people obey or worship Him purely for fear of retribution?
It is interesting to note that while so many focus on the inevitable dilemmas these verses raise, we often miss the equally challenging questions raised by the first section of our portion, the blessings.
Before the Torah delineates what will go wrong when we do not heed the word of G-d, it first specifies all the blessings we will merit if we do live up to our responsibilities as a people.
“If you will follow in the path of my statutes, and safeguard my commandments, and fulfill them, then I will give your rains in their time, and the land will give forth its bounty, and the tree of the field will yield its fruit.” (26:3-4)
In other words, if we do right by G-d, then G-d will do right by us. This raises a number of equally challenging questions, which are well worth considering.
First of all, is this really true? If the Torah is indeed suggesting that when we adhere to a path of Torah and mitzvoth, that we will be rewarded and blessed with prosperity, this just does not seem to bear up to the scrutiny of the world around us. There is tragically no shortage of people who seem to live up to the way of life the Torah desires, and yet live lives far from prosperity and often with great suffering.
And, beyond the question of whether indeed G-d rewards those who adhere to the way of life these verses seem to demand, lies the theological challenge such a system poses, especially in light of traditional Jewish sources.
“Antig’nos, a man of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Tzaddik. He used to say: Do not be like the servant who serves the Master in order to receive reward, rather be like the servant who serves the Master not in order to receive reward, and may the fear of heaven be upon you.” (Avot, 1:3)
In other words, our relationship with G-d should not be out of a desire to be rewarded, nor out of fear of punishment, but rather simply because we desire a closer relationship with the Creator of the world. Which again leaves us wondering what the purpose of the entire recipe of blessings and curses in this week’s portion is all about?
It is interesting that Rashi, at the beginning of our portion seems to further complicate this question:
“If you will follow in the path of my statutes”: This obviously cannot be speaking about the fulfillment of the commandments, because this is the next part of the verse: “and safeguard my commandments, and fulfill them,” rather, this means (quoting the Midrash here) you shall toil in the study of Torah, and “safeguard my commandments” means that the reason you should struggle to study Torah, is because this will allow you to keep and fulfill the mitzvoth.” (Rashi 26:3)
In other words, the condition upon which the economic prosperity the Torah seems to promise is predicated is not the fulfillment of the commandments but rather the study of Torah necessary in order to fulfill the mitzvoth. This would seem to imply that someone who fulfills the mitzvoth without studying Torah does not merit the rewards spoken of here. Why? If a person fulfills the commandments and succeeds in being an ethical person, successfully inculcating all the religious practices of Jewish observance into his or her life, why should the reward described here be withheld, simply because he or she did not learn Torah as a part of the process?
In fact, a closer look at the language of the Midrash Rashi quotes (Torat Kohanim Bechukotai 1:2) is even more challenging. The Torah does not say these rewards are dependent upon the study of Torah, but in fact upon the toil in Torah (“She’Te’hiyu A’melim Ba’Torah”, which means that you shall toil or struggle in Torah). Apparently, even if you study Torah, you have to toil at it, to earn the rewards described here. And, consistently, Rashi points out (26:14) that the subsequent punishments or calamities will also be the result of not toiling in Torah. What is the essence of this need to toil or struggle in Torah, that seems to carry such weight in the course of our human endeavors?
It seems, the key to understanding all of these issues is to understand the meaning of Torah itself. What does it mean to study Torah? What, indeed, is Torah all about?
On a superficial level, the fundamental existential difference between a world created by G-d and a world without G-d, that exists merely as some sort of cosmic accident, is whether or not there is a purpose to our existence. If the world is an accident, then so are we, and while we can strive to give our accidental lives meaning, in the end, we are all random results of a random process.
But if Hashem (G-d) created the world, then creation implies purpose, and that means that everything and everyone in this world is created for a reason.
Holocaust survivor and creator of logo-therapy Victor Frankel, posits in his masterpiece Man’s Search For Meaning, that the essential ingredient that drives us in this world is our search for meaning. Fascinated by the way different people dealt with the hardships of concentration camp life in completely different ways, he noted one particular fellow who arrived in Auschwitz with one of his students and became determined to pass on to this youth a particular tractate of Talmud, which he knew largely by heart.
Whenever he would see this Rebbe (teacher), whether on work detail, or at night in the barracks, and often even at role call, when he thought no one was watching, he was always with his student whispering the sacred words of Talmud under his breath.
And even in Auschwitz, in the midst of all the death that surrounded them, this Rebbe always seemed so alive, and so full of purpose. It seemed as though no matter what happened around them, he always had a spring in his step, and others seemed to take strength from being around him.
Until one day he actually completed the tractate he was teaching the boy, for which he had been living. And then Frankel watched as the weight of his reality broke him down and he became what was known as a musselman, one of the living dead who had given up on life. These inmates were immediately discernible by the vacant stare in their eyes and were avoided by other prisoners; you never knew when they would just stop what they were doing and walk over to one of the fences or defy the guards, no longer caring whether they lived or died. And when the guards started shooting, they didn’t care where their bullets landed.
How could someone so full of life one day simply lose the desire to go on the next? Frankel concluded that what drives human beings above all else, is our search for meaning.
If indeed we are created by G-d, then that purpose we so crave is not simply a random delusion we have created for ourselves, which can never stand up to the light of true introspection, rather, it is the purpose for which Hashem placed us in this world to begin with.
And if indeed G-d created us all for a reason, it makes no sense for G-d not to at some point, communicate or reveal to us what that purpose is. After all, what would be the point of there being a purpose to our sojourn in this world, if we never learned what that purpose was?
This is why every religion that believes in a G-d, inevitably has a revelation, a point at which G-d reveals to the world their purpose.
For the Jewish people that point in time occurred three thousand years ago at Sinai, and the Torah is essentially the recipe of purpose for what we are meant to be doing, and who we are meant to become in this life.
Torah, then, is all about purpose. And the study of Torah is the opportunity essentially, to tap into the thought process of G-d. Torah is not meant to be merely an intellectual accruing of knowledge; it is meant to be an opportunity to experience G-d. Indeed, it is the fabric of our relationship with G-d in this world.
People often consider the Torah to be a book, or series of books, written down and given us at a specific point in time. And this can delude us into thinking that the Torah was created at a certain point in time, from which point on we began to glean its wisdom. But in truth, if the Torah is the revelation of our purpose, and the chance to tap into the thought process of G-d, then it must always have been so. G-d could not have thought of the Torah one day, because that would mean that the day before, G-d was less than He is now, because He had not yet thought of Torah, something that certainly does not fit with the Jewish perception of G-d.
Ultimately then, the study of Torah is the process of developing a relationship with G-d. It represents our ability to find meaning in all that we do, and everything we see.
This then, may be what this week’s portion is all about. Perhaps the ‘reward’ that comes as a result of this toiling in Torah is that life becomes its own reward. Indeed, everything is a blessing once it has a purpose. And even that which seems to have no purpose, or at least whose purpose we are simply not capable of ever understanding in this world, such as human suffering, does not change the way we look at the world, because much higher than finding purpose in every thing, and struggling to fathom that purpose every time we see something new, is the ability to embrace a reality of the source of all purpose, recognizing that if we live in a world of purpose, then everything has purpose, and life is its own reward.
It is not that we can ever answer the question of how and why the Jewish people have suffered so much over the millennium; it is that the question no longer challenges us in the same way.
As an example, every time we eat a meal with bread and say the Grace after meals (the Birkat Ha’Mazon), we conclude with a few very challenging verses:
“I was a lad, and I have grown old, and have not seen a Tzaddik (righteous person) who is abandoned, and his offspring begging bread. May Hashem give strength to his people, and may Hashem bless his people with (actually: in) peace.” (Tehilim 37, and 29)
And again, it seems that this just isn’t true; there are plenty of righteous people who are indeed abandoned, so it seems, and certainly whose children had to beg for bread. (A day in the Warsaw ghetto would have demonstrated this point.)
Unless we choose to read this verse from a completely different perspective: A true Tzaddik is never abandoned, and he is never alone.
The verse tells us: “Tzaddik Be’Emunato’ Yichyeh”, which we usually take to mean that the righteous live on faith alone. But Rav Kook (in his Midot HaRe’ayah’) points out that faith is the way we view the world. When we believe that everything has purpose, we are then seeing the world through completely different lenses. A Tzaddik lives in a very different world because he sees the world in a completely different way. Everything has meaning, and everything comes from G-d.
And this ability to see the world in a different way, and to live in a world that is really all about blessing, stems from our relationship with Torah, which is really about our relationship with G-d.
If a person has a deep relationship with G-d, then he will have a deep life. And everything in life, even the things most of us perceive to be a curse, are actually all part of the same world of blessing, because if it all comes from G-d, then it all has purpose.
Conversely, if we do not have a relationship with Torah, nay G-d, then it is much easier to live in a world that is cursed. Because there is no purpose, there is only what we feel good about. And as soon as we don’t feel good about anything (a very easy proposition when life is random), then our lives are, to whatever degree, cursed.
And this also explains why, in describing the calamities that will befall us, the Torah does not simply say ‘if you will not hearken to G-d and desist from fulfilling the mitzvoth’ (commandments) then all these terrible things will befall you.
The Torah rather adds: “If you will be disgusted by my mitzvoth…” (26:15) because the issue here is not about what you do, it is much more about why we are doing it.
It is really about the difference between being with someone and being in love with someone. Which is why this Torah demands struggle, because any relationship requires a lot of work.
And lastly, this is the meaning of the Mishnah from Avot we quoted above. After all, if we should not serve the Master to get a reward, then obviously we should serve the Master without any desire to receive a reward! Why the need to repeat the sentence, instead of just saying we should not serve Hashem for reward?
Perhaps the point is not to expect that you will receive a reward for your efforts, because it is the effort that is in fact the reward. We are meant to do what we do, “not in order to receive” precisely because if we view everything we do as its own reward, there is really no reward to receive; we already have all the reward we could ever need. We have an entire world and everything in it, which is the reward!
And this is why the Mishnah there concludes: “and may the fear of heaven be upon you.” Because the word morah’, mistranslated as fear, really means awe, from the root lir’ot, to see. Antig’nos of Sochowas suggesting that the challenge and the essence of life in this world is to see heaven on earth, every day, in everything we do.
May we all be blessed to see the world through entirely different glasses, which see only blessing, and may this become easier to do, soon.
Rosh HaYeshiva, Machon Meir
“The Israelites shall camp with each person near the banner having his paternal family’s insignia” (Bamidbar 2:2). The Israelites were arranged around the Mishkan, each by his banner. Each banner had its own color, and the color of one was unlike the color of another. The color of each was like the one on the breastplate stones (Rashi).
Each person recognized his own banner and each person recognized his own place and his own task in the general setup of all the tribes of Israel together. At the heart of all the tribes was the king’s legion. This refers to the kohanim and levi’im who served in the Tabernacle and in the Temple, may it be rebuilt speedily in our day.
To what can this be compared? To a person with limbs that are different from one another, but which complement one another. In the center of the body, the heart and mind are the most vital limbs, providing the whole body with life. Through them, the body’s purpose is revealed.
In the same way, each tribe of Israel stands at its banner and place. Each one has a role in the national tapestry. Together with this, we must remember constantly that the Jewish People as well possess a heart and mind, namely, Yerushalayim and the Beit HaMikdash. There, the Melech's legions serve, referring to the priests who see the Melech's countenance and bestow their spirit upon the whole nation and the whole world, through their holy service.
Today, we have finally come home. We are living at the height of a remarkable period of the ingathering of the exiles, and the nation’s renewed progress in Eretz Yisrael. This comes after thousands of years, during which we were like dry bones (Yechezkeil 37). The headline story of our generation is our return to Jerusalem, the eternal city, heart, and light of the world.
Yet the work is not done yet. We must strengthen ourselves and unite together as one man, to defend Yerushalayim and continue rebuilding it, just as during the times of Ezra and Nechemiah the enemies of Israel were unable to resign themselves to the rebuilding of Jerusalem. We thus had to defend it simultaneously with building it: “So we labored at the work. Half of them held the spears from dawn till nightfall.... so that at night they could be a guard to us, and labor by day” (Nechemiah 4:15,16).
May G-d, who “comforts Tzion and builds Yerushalayim,” come to our aid.
Rejoicing with Yerushalayim and looking forward to salvation,
Looking forward to salvation,
With Love of Israel,
Parashat Bamidbar 5782
By HaRav Nachman Kahana
מונה מספר לכוכבים לכלם שמות יקרא
(HaShem) counts the stars; He calls each star by name
In our galaxy the number of stars are estimated to be ten billion trillion (ten to the 21st power), and there are hundreds of billion galaxies in HaShem’s universe. Each star has a name and a number.
Math and Words
The Creator programmed humans to think in terms of words and numbers. Our minds combine letters into words and words into rational sentences, and even the most abstract thought has to be presented as words and numbers. These are our tools with which we think and communicate.
Despite the many Torah verses to the contrary, the Almighty does not “speak” in the manner of human beings by producing air waves. HaShem revealed the Torah to Moshe Rabbeinu and His messages to the prophets through words and numbers which HaShem made them think that they heard, just as an electrode can produce thoughts and pictures in the brain.
As Chazal revealed regarding the fourth commandment of Shabbat, where the two basic words of Shabbat; “shamor” and “zachor” were both “proclaimed” by HaShem simultaneously and were miraculously “heard” (grasped) by the nation simultaneously. This is totally impossible in our world that functions according to the laws of physics.
On the words in Tehillim 105,8:
דבר צוה לאלף דור
(HaShem waited) a thousand generations to command (His Torah)
The midrash in several sources states that HaShem brought the Torah into being 974 generations before the creation of Bereishiet. During that “time” the Torah was in its most profound abstract form, present only in the “mind” of the Creator. An additional 26 generations after Adam and Chava were formed (bringing it to 1000 generations), the abstract Torah emanated from the deepest recesses of the spiritual world taking the form of words and numbers and was presented to Am Yisrael at Mount Sinai.
In the preferential race between words and numbers, which is more essential? One would be prone to choose words. However, at the end of the day, it is numbers that will decide the fate of each individual, and mankind at large, as Rambam states in his Laws of Tshuva 3,1:
כל אחד ואחד מבני האדם יש לו זכיות ועונות, מי שזכיותיו יתירות על עונותיו צדיק, ומי שעונותיו יתירות על זכיותיו רשע, מחצה למחצה בינוני, וכן המדינה אם היו זכיות כל יושביה מרובות על עונותיהן הרי זו צדקת, ואם היו עונותיהם מרובין הרי זו רשעה, וכן כל העולם כולו.
Every person has merits and demerits, virtues, and failings. One whose merits outnumber his demerits is a tzaddik (righteous), he whose demerits outnumber his merits is evil. If they are in total balance the individual is classified as bai’nani… This principle applies to nations and indeed to all mankind.
Every mitzva has qualitative differences dependent on an individual’s kavana (intent) and the circumstances surrounding the observance. So, the calculation of one’s life can be accomplished only by the Creator. Each stage of a mitzva has a number to distinguish it from another stage. HaShem assumes the role of accountant, assessor, evaluator, mathematician, and digital computer.
At the end of the day, it is math that determines how we have functioned in this world.
It’s the Math that Counts
The above is actually an introduction to the mathematic message I want to send to my Kohanic brothers in galut.
When a Kohen blesses the community he is performing a Torah mitzva (Bamidbar 6:22-24):
וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. דַּבֵּר אֶל אַהֲרֹן וְאֶל בָּנָיו לֵאמֹר, כֹּה תְבָרֲכוּ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אָמוֹר לָהֶם. יְבָרֶכְךָ…
And HaShem spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying: You shall bless the children of Israel; yoy shall say unto them: HaShem bless…
Every year I recite the Kohanic blessing here in Eretz Yisrael over 400 times (365 days plus all the musaf prayers). In ten years it amounts to over 4000 Torah mitzvot, and since I arrived here it amounts to over 24,000 times. In the Ashkenaz communities in the US (apart from some of the Sephardic ones) the Kohanic blessing is said only during musaf on Yom Tov when it is not Shabbat. So, the maximum number — would be 15 times a year. In ten years 150, and after 60 years 900 times; leaving Kohanim in Eretz Yisrael ahead by 23,100 times more.
And who can assess what one single Torah mitzva is worth!
Many halachic authorities including Sefer Chareidim by Harav Elazar Azkari of Tzfat, state that the community that receives the Kohanic blessing also performs a Torah mitzva.
As impressive as they may be, these numbers pale in front of the Torah mitzvot that one achieves by just living in the holy land.
So, when you make out your IRS tax form this year, make an additional one for your acquired mitzva assets verses the potential assets which have been lost.
Remember: when it comes down to it – it’s the math that counts in each individual’s Book of Numbers.
Copyright © 5782/2022 Nachman Kahana
Tuesday, May 24, 2022
Evil is so hard to fathom. We know it exists, we see people do it, and we might be guilty of it on some level as well. But the extremes to which some evil people go…how do they do it?
We’re not talking about people whose brains aren’t all working. Serial killers are often missing the part of the brain that allows a person to feel shame, which keeps most people in check. They might fantasize doing something naughty, but their sense of shame stops them short…usually. Sociopaths, missing that, can do the most horrible things as a matter of fact.
True, some of the worst dictators were just sociopaths who made it into power. But the people in question here are those who, for all appearances sake, seem to be relatively normal, until you see what they are capable of doing.
I’ve pointed out in the past that one of the reasons why Jews never saw the Holocaust coming was, because they could never imagine being so cruel to others. We humans have this uncanny ability to think that people won’t be any worse to us that we can be to them—until they have been.
Part of the problem is that we see how guilty we feel when we do the wrong thing. People have committed crimes, gotten away with them, and then given themselves in to the authorities because they could not live with what they had done.
Other people carry out terrible crimes against humanity and sleep perfectly fine at night. Hitler, ysv”z, actually convinced himself he was doing humanity a favor by eliminating Europe’s Jewish population. He expected the world to thank him for being bold enough to do what he thought the rest of the world wanted to do as well.
Stalin just thought he was doing himself a favor by purging Mother Russia of what he considered to be undesirables. And while he did that, he ate, drank, and slept like normal, albeit heavily guarded. Somehow, he felt it was in his right to do that.
Over the years, I have read and heard many different reports about the wrongdoings of certain individuals in power. The people doing the reporting seem reputable, the reports seem official and thorough, but I still have a difficult time completely believing them. It’s just too hard to believe that people can reach such low levels. And if they are as guilty as they are said to be, why are they still in power and doing the same evil things?
That’s not really a question. It is corruption, and it is rampant everywhere. The people asking the question are those who could never act similarly. Those who don’t ask the question are usually cohorts.
IT’S A MENTALITY thing. People have different mentalities. The assumption is that they don’t, but the reality is that they do. Before I left Canada, I assumed everyone was Canadian. I didn’t consciously assume it, but I didn’t think otherwise. I had been to the States, but their culture is so similar to Canadian culture that, I did not notice much of a difference other than the value of their dollar against mine.
Then I went to Israel around age 13. I had such a difficult time relating to Israeli culture, which had not yet succeeded at duplicating American culture. I could not wait to leave and get back to the way of life with which I was most familiar and enjoyed.
Is there a common mentality? There’s supposed to be. Even though every soul is unique, they are all a spark of divine light. One soul can be from a higher spiritual level than another, but each yearns to be attached to God. People have different palates, but we all need to eat for the same reason, to survive. Likewise, we all have different drives and energies in life, but we all seek, on a soul level, to living a meaningfully moral life.
So what changes from person to person that one may choose to be moral and the other, immoral? Why does one person end up helping others and another ends up hurting them? How do we get such a vast divergence in mentalities that, we can consider others to be our enemies and they consider us to be theirs?
It’s like a person who has half a million dollars locked away in a trust fund that they cannot touch under any circumstances until a specific date. They are rich, but it does not help them pay the bills while they have no money. They can barely put food on the table, or buy decent clothing. They can only brag about how one day they will be able to, while in the meantime they go from door-to-door collecting charity.
There’s a soul inside every one of us keeping us alive, but it’s influence on the way a person thinks is limited by their access to it. Inside a criminal might be the soul of a tzaddik, but it is out of reach for the person who has it. A bad experience or a terrible education might have weakened the connection between the person’s body and their soul. This allows the body’s nature to dictate their behavior, and that’s when everything can so south, deep south.
It doesn’t take much to make the point. Bad news can hijack a person’s emotion and knock their soul out of the picture. One moment they can be the nicest most laid-back person and, after the bad news, they can become a monster. You know that plea they use in court, temporary insanity? It refers to one of those moments when a person’s damaged heart led their mind and caused them to do the most animalistically ungodly thing that sometimes ends up making the Six O’clock news.
That’s why life requires some kind of system of checks and balances. Even the smartest and wisest people in society have their moments of weakness and can err. They too need something outside themself that can reflect what they are doing so they can see it as right or wrong, and course-correct if necessary.
If that is so about the smartest and wisest people, how much more so is it true about the less smart and less wise people? And they make up the vast majority of the population. It’s amazing what the average person can rationalize and believe is okay when, objectively-speaking, it is quite wrong. People say that two wrongs don’t make a right, but they don’t necessarily practice what they preach.
THE TRUTH OF the matter is that this is the kind of world the Jewish people allow to exist by not getting Torah wisdom to the rest of mankind. It’s harsh, but it is true. We look at Torah as a Jewish religious thing, which it is. But it is also the objective truth of life that applies to Jew and gentile alike. A non-Jew has no obligation to convert and perform more mitzvos than the seven mitzvos given to Noach. But every human was made in the image of God, and that obligates every human being to be godly to the level acceptable by God.
What does this mean? How do we do that?
That’s like what Moshe Rabbeinu asked God when he was told to build the Mishkan by himself, a seemingly impossible task. God answered him:
You busy your hands with its construction, and it will appear as if you are building it, though it will happen by itself. (Rashi, Shemos 39:33).
It’s called leverage. That’s when you use something to increase your effect beyond your own capability. The greatest thing technology has given us is tremendous leverage, the ability to do superhuman acts while still remaining quite human. Unfortunately, it has done the same for evil as well.
That’s what the Torah gives us, spiritual leverage. It greatly increases our capacity to improve mankind in ways we can never do without it, as history has repeatedly shown us…as history is again showing us. It seems as if the smarter man gets, the smarter evil gets. The exception are those people who still believe in God and try to do what they think matters most to Him to the best of their ability.
This is what the Torah is warning us about in this week’s parsha. Yes, on a simple level it is about doing the will of God and not getting punished for straying from it. On a more accurate and sophisticated level, it is telling us how the evil will grow in the world without Torah from the Jewish people and, eventually have a very punishing effect.
So when we read about the evil plans of people and how they might affect the serenity of our lives, we can’t really ask, “How can God let such people live and get away with what they get away with?” The question to be asked is, “How much Torah had to be missing from the world and for how long, before it resulted in such a corrupt society?” And, we might want to also ask, “How much longer can this go on for before it comes back to haunt us?”
I’m reminded of this message every time I clean for Shabbos. It’s a once-a-week thing for me, and I am always amazed at how much dirt can accumulate in that time by simply not cleaning. It’s also amazing, but not in a good way, how all-of-a-sudden, mold appears one day where it wasn’t before. All the evil in the world, and there is more than we know, is what results by just leaving the world void of Torah.
The parsha tells us that if we learn Torah as we should, and perform mitzvos as they are meant to be performed, then even a sword won’t cross our land. It means we won’t even have to experience other nations at war, especially if they are not at war against us. Even friendly nations won’t need to involve us in their military enterprises.
Similarly, when we serve God as we’re supposed to, even if the world does go off track, it won’t affect us the same way. If we take care of our part, He’ll take care of the rest of the world and make it that their affairs won’t have to become ours.
That was easier to do before social media. Now world news is so intrusive, unless you cut yourself off completely, which very few do today. But those who do have an easier time of remembering the most important mantra of all: Ain od milvado—there is none other than God.
THIS HAS INSPIRED me to start something new that may interest others. I call it an Ain Od Milvado Group (just my wife and I for now), and you can start your own.
The words come from the following verse:
You have been shown, in order to know that God, He is God; there is none else besides Him. (Devarim 4:35)
As simple and as easy as this sounds, it is far from it. Any time we fear anything other than God, we are failing at it. Any time we feel the need to earn favor in someone else’s eyes to get ahead, we are failing at it. Any time we make more hishtadalus—effort—to make something happen or stop it from happening than bitachon—trust in God—instructs, we are failing at it. It means we believe that things other than God have power.
We don’t mean to. A believer would rather believe completely in God than partially. But belief is a multi-step process that requires information and integration of ideas. Talking about things reinforces them. Talking about them with others reinforces them more deeply. Examining them and explaining them and thinking about how to apply them, puts it in your heart. That is the goal of the above verse. God showed us what He did to move our belief in His oneness from the level of intellect alone to that of the heart. Hence the support group idea.
But there is another facet to this as well. Not only is the mitzvah to believe that God is the only power in Creation, but the mitzvah is to make Him that as well. We do that every time we act as if it is true, and even if focus on the idea and discuss it.
A profanation of God’s name is called a Chillul Hashem, from the word challal, which is a void. A Chillul Hashem is anything that causes the light of God to be withdrawn from Creation, leaving behind a spiritual void that evil can fill.
A Kiddush Hashem does the opposite. It is any act that draws the light of God into Creation, pushing the evil out from the world. It can be an act, a word, or even a thought. Ain od milvado also means, make it happen that He is the only power, by making that reality clear to yourself and others. Another important reason for an Ain Od Milvado group.
What an easy and practical way to fulfill one of the most important mitzvos we have. The best part of all, it will help us rise above the world in which evil is allowed to make it look like it is its own boss.