Sunday, July 5, 2015

Balak: Love and Curses

By Rabbi Neil Fleischmann
Published in the New Jersey/Rockland Jewish Standard: July 3, 2015

“Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotechah Yisrael!” —
“How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwellings, Israel.”

These beautiful words of blessing stir up warm memories of growing up Jewish. They were among the first holy verses that I sang and chanted with peers in school and in camp. And yet, I wonder how these words of blessing — uttered by Bilam, who came to curse — got into our Torah in the first place.
When Bilam is hired to curse the Jewish People, God blocks his curse and turns it into a blessing. At the heart of this story is the question of why God, who runs the world, was concerned with Bilam’s curse. Bilam himself concedes that “there is no divination in Jacob and no sorcery in Israel” (Bamidbar 23:23). Why did this story unfold as it did? What lesson does it contain that makes it worthy of being in the Torah?
Nechama Leibowitz quotes the commentary of Rav Yosef Ibn Kaspi. He asserts a truth regarding relationships to explain why God turned Bilam’s curse into a blessing. As Kaspi puts it, “A true friend will save his colleague any pain, even if he knows that no danger will ensue. Similarly, the Almighty, out of the abundance of his love for Israel, prevented Bilam from cursing them.” When you really love someone, you care about that which matters to them, even if you know it to be insignificant. God knew that the Israelites were afraid of Bilam’s curse, so He not only prevented Bilam from saying his negative words but He flipped them into blessings, all because of His love for His people.
Ibn Kaspi’s take on Parshat Balak exposes the subconscious layer of the literal text, revealing God’s love of the Jewish People as the theme of this episode. God is modeling a loving relationship for us, and thus we must try to be like God, fulfilling the mandate of Imitatio Dei. We need to remember that what matters to others aren’t necessarily the things that we think are important. To truly care for another person means to be sensitive to what they care about. When those around us are concerned about something, even if we don’t understand why they care about it, true friendship and love dictates that we be supportive of their feelings.
When God took the Jews out of Egypt He took us the long way in order to avoid war. He could have told the Jews to buckle up and that He was with them and they didn’t have to be afraid. Instead, He respected and accommodated to people’s fears rather than challenging their feelings, which He knew were objectively unwarranted.
The Rabbis teach in Pirkei Avot that every human being is beloved by God. This love is made clear by the awareness we are granted of the fact that we were created in the image of God. Additionally, that love is evidenced by the giving of the Torah and by our being deemed children of God. Similarly, before we fulfill our obligation of reciting Shema in the day and the night, we reference God’s “abundant love” for us, highlighting this aspect of the relationship.
God turned Bilam’s curse into a blessing at a time of transition, right after the decree that Moshe would not enter the Land of Israel. The generation that left Egypt had died out; the new generation was feeling insecure as they prepared to finally enter the Promised Land and they needed and were given a reassurance of God’s love.
May this illustration of God’s great love for His people in the desert cause us to recall and be inspired by the immeasurable love that God has for each of us today. May we approach our spiritual lives with a sense of God’s love and reciprocate that love through joyous involvement in Torah life, rather than regarding our observance of mitzvot as a mandated burden. And may we all strive and succeed to follow His ways and to be there for each other in vulnerable times when we are needed most.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Behar Poem

Behar Poem: A Unique Take On Shmittah

There's an age old question- who are you?
Unfortunately many people don't have a clue

We think we're our clothes or our house or our car
But many of us don't really know who we are

And most people have a funny quirk
They define themselves by their work

While being a doctor or a lawyer may be what you do
It does not answer the question- who are you?

Being a farmer used to be the job everyone had
It wasn't their definition, didn't make them good or bad

It what never true that what a person was
could be summed up by what he or she does

Shmittah was a year when everyone took a rest
And this provided a profound test

People had to define who they were inside
We have our own potential, from this we can't hide

Every seven years they took a break
It was time to be real, not fake

May we be inspired by Shmittah to know who we are
And in our unique service of G-d to travel far.

Friday, February 6, 2015


Yitro finds Moshe judging and counseling the people all day, non-stop.  He asks about it and Moshe says that the people come to him in order to get close to G-d.  They come with questions about their interactions and Moshe makes G-d's laws and His Torah clear to them...


Friday, November 8, 2013


Guest Post

The Eyes Have It

  • By Rabbi Joshua Hoffman

    The Torah’s description of Ya’akov’s two marriages, first to Leah and then to Rachel, is, at first glance, somewhat difficult to understand. We are told that Lavan had two daughters, the older one Leah, and the younger one Rachel. Leah, the Torah continues, had eyes that were “rakos,” which is commonly translated as soft, weak, or tender, and Rachel was of beautiful form, or complexion, and beautiful appearance (Bereishis 29:16-17). Ya’akov, the Torah tells us, loved Rachel, and proposed to Lavan to work for him for seven years, and then marry her. Lavan agrees, following which he worked for Lavan for seven years, which, in his love for her, seemed like several days, but, on the morning after the wedding, discovered that Lavan had given him Leah instead of Rachel. Ya’akov complained to Lavan about his trickery, and, eventually, married Rachel, as well. Many questions arise regarding this account, but a puzzling one is how Ya’akov did not realize, until the morning, that the bride he had been given was Leah, given the difference in appearance between the two sisters, as described in the Torah.

    My friend, Rabbi Yitzchok Twersky, author of Amitah Shel Torah, has pointed out (although not in his book) that the medieval collection of midrashim, Lekach Tov, says that Leah and Rachel were identical twins, and, the reason that the Torah mentions the difference in their physical appearance is because, in truth, that difference was very slight, so that the appearance of Leah’s eyes was the only way in which the two sisters looked differently from each other. This comment of the midrash answers another question, which is, given the common translation of the word “rakos,” why does the Torah, uncharacteristically, speak in a disparaging manner about one of the matriarchs. Actually, however, the Targum, translates the word “rakos” as “yafin,” which according to Rav Noson Adler in his Nesinah LeGer to Onkeles, means “beautiful.” The Rashbam, as well, says that the Torah means to say that Leah’s eyes were beautiful, in that they were light, or blush, rather than dark. He adds that according to the Rabbis, the eyes are the salient feature of a person’s face, and if a woman has pretty eyes, her entire appearance is attractive. The description of Rachel, on the other hand, is of her overall appearance, not that focused on any particular feature. This approach, while it answers a number of otherwise particularly puzzling questions, still leaves us with the question of why the Torah placed so much emphasis on the physical appearance of Lavan’s daughters. Rav Aharon Kotler was strongly opposed to a simple understanding of the account, saying that it reflects badly on the personality of our forebears, and that there is a deeper meaning in the background. I believe that we can, with the support of certain commentators, explain what happened differently from the common understanding.

    Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzato, popularly known as Shadal, explains the term “rakos” as meaning weak, associating it with the expression, found later in the Torah, of “rach ha-leiv” (Devarim 20:8), or “weak hearted.” The term, then he says, refers to an ethical character trait, and the Torah mentions it in regard to Leah so that we should not think that Ya’akov felt that Leah did not have good middos, or character. Perhaps we may further suggest that “einayim rakos” means a good eye, thus conforming with Rabbi Eliezer in Pirkei Avos, who says that this is the most important character trait that a person should develop. Rabbi Yochanan, his teacher, agreed, saying that the the good traits mentioned there are included in the trait of having a good eye (Avos 2:14). Rabbi Reuven Bulka, in his commentary to Avos, explains that this trait entails seeing the good in everyone. We may add that this includes one’s own self as well. Leah, then, saw the positive elements in both Rachel and herself, and realized that Ya’akov, in order to become the patriarch required for the Jewish people at that stage of its founding, needed to incorporate within himself the personalities of both the sisters. As Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explained, Leah represented gevurah, or perseverance, in her quest to become Ya’akov’s wife, and Rachel represented chesed, or kindness, in her acquiescence to Lavan’s plan of tricking Ya’akov, to save her sister from shame. The two character traits, combined, resulted in the trait of tiferes, or splendor, which Ya’akov represented in the process of the creation of the Jewish people. Leah, with her good heart, understood this and acted accordingly.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Lech Lecha Poem By Rabbi Neil Fleischmann

There's a story we all know
about Avraham being asked to go
Hashem said to Avraham, "Lech lechah"
We should hear the story and we say, "Aha!"

If you think about it for a while
you can see it with a new style
Look at it in a different way
change your life, starting today

Avraham was told from himself to go
that's a game-changer of the whole show
He was told that he really had to change
to take his life and rearrange

"Lech lecha" means go to you
G-d said, "You know what to do"
"Lech lecha"- return to your self
Whether you're a giant or an elf

"Lech lecha"'s a call to everyone
It's sometimes hard, sometimes fun
"Lech lecha" means become the real you
We could start now, we know what to do

Avraham was told to become who he was
That's all any of us have, all anyone does
All of our lives we go to who we are
May we be blessed to be close, not far


If a friend woke me in the middle of the night and asked me to share a Dvar Torah on Parshat Noach, I’d probably come out with the one about whether or not Noach would have been an even greater tzadik, or not such a tzadik at all if he'd lived in Avraham’s generation. This is also an easy and popular route for a pulpit rabbi to take: Step One – Read pasukaloud, Step Two – Read Rashi aloud, Step Three – Pause meaningfully, Step Four - Connect with current events.

The pivot of this famous Rashi on Noach is the word “bedorotav.” Noach was referred to as a tzadik in his generation. In addressing this curious description, the rabbis go in two directions. One approach says that he was a tzadik in his generation, because he was the most righteous man in unrighteous times, but if he’d have lived at the same time as a righteous man such as Avraham, he’d have paled in comparison. The medrashpresents an analogy of a small coin that is valuable compared to lesser coins, but put next to a currency of greater worth it becomes inconsequential. The other take is that if Noach acted nobly in a lowly generation how much more so would he have shined as a hero had he lived in the same time as an Avraham. The medrash compares this to a girl that was born into brothels and rises above the immorality that surrounds her.

The problem with the discussion about what Noach would have been like in Avraham’s generation is that the two men were alive at the same time.If you do the math that’s given in the Torah itself it becomes clear that Avraham and Noach overlapped for 58 years (easy to remember because it’s the gematriah of Noach).
Why does the Medrash cited by Rashi say that Noach and Avraham were not in the same generation? This is, in fact, based on the text of the Torah. Right after the flood the Torah states that Noach dies. He lived for three and a half more centuries! The text is teaching us that Noach was not involved in society, and thus even though he was technically alive, he was not considered as living in the same generation as Avraham. Though he was technically alive, Noach was all but buried.

The positive and negative views of Noach each base themselves on the same word bedorotav. This reflects the idea that Noach’s greatest positive and negative qualities stemmed from the same source. This fits with the commentary of the Ran (Breishit 6:9-12) who takes the common conception of Noach as a “Tzadik in Peltz” – someone who kept solely to himself and turns it on its head. The Ran says that Noach’s generation was so far-gone that he did the right thing. He explains that the secret of Noach’s righteousness is revealed to us in the words “et haElokim hithalech Noach – Noach walked with G-d.” The word “et” connotes a direct connection to G-d, while implying a total separation from the people of his time. The fact that this behavior is described immediately following the statement that Noach was righteous and pure teaches us that the method through which he achieved righteousness and purity during his life before the mabul.

After the flood Noach continued using the same modus operandi that he employed beforehand. A new approach was called for at this time. Because he separated himself from society in the era following the flood Noach was unable to help others during this time of his life. Furthermore, this time around his approach sadly led Noach to his own decline in status. After the flood there was a chance for a new beginning but this new start called for outreach. Instead of relating with others Noach cocooned, just as he had done before the flood. What was strength became weakness.

It is often the case that people use one approach to survive at one stage of their lives. But later in life they need to move on from this approach and have trouble doing so. What leads to success at one time can lead to failure in another context. A therapist friend tells me that therapy is often about getting someone to halt a behavior that once saved his or her life, but is now restricting them from moving forward in life. For example if someone – G-d forbid – was abused when they were young they may learn to protect themselves by being very private. However when they enter the broader world of relationships, community, and work they need to learn to trust people and not be so secretive.
May we all be blessed to cultivate our strengths at the various stages of our lives.

May we all be blessed to cultivate our appropriate strengths and not allow them to morph into fatal flaws.
(The essence of this piece is based on the thought of Rabbi Yitzchak Twersky)

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Breishit - Big Thoughts On The Moon

I thought of something during the leining of Breishit.  It says that there were two big luminaries. Then it says there was a big one and a small one. Rashi famously says that the moon couldn't handle sharing the crown with the sun, saying, two kings can't share a crown.  So G-d made the moon smaller. It dawned on me that there's a straightforward explanation that avoids the question of why it says two were big and then one was big and one was small. Maybe they were both big but one was bigger than the other.  Rashi is, perhaps, hinting to a certain kind of psychology.  The moon felt smaller than the sun because in size it looked smaller.  But in terms of importance they were each great.  The result of feeling small was to be small. If we could learn to realize that whatever size we appear to be we are all big in terms of our significance, we will never have to feel small.

Vayeitzei In September

I was reminded today of the  Masei - destinations/travels vort and my dear friend Pinny Bulman's son's bris where I was introduced to the idea. My friend Yitz Pinkus spoke today (i guess because it was a retreat and he felt strongly about this idea and we won't all be together for Parshat VaYeitzei he said it now) about Leah's names for her first three sons were all all about how her husband didn't love her and she wished he would. Her fourth son was named for gratitude; rather than just looking to the future she stopped this time to appreciate where she was and what she'd just received. We're not told about her situation or mindset after that. My friend, the speaker, said that he likes to believe that as Leah came to appreciate what she had, Yaakov did come to love her in a way that made her feel content in that area as well.  My friend spoke about personal/universal things- how our lives are real and happening and we shouldn't mistakenly think that we are  ever  just waiting for our lives to begin and in doing so miss the life we are living. It was a beautiful talk from someone who learned to speak in an articulate and organized manner not from a course of any kind but from simply opening his heart (a lesson for me as a public speaking teacher of many years).

it reminds me a bit (somewhat of a stretch but i feel like sharing this) of what a non religious (formerly frum) exterminator told me on hoshana rabbah as he attacked my roach problem (I love that he told me that it's not me or my apartment, that it's all pretty nice and pretty well kept), I told him that my person who cleans for me would be coming on Thursday and then i told him I'd be away for Yom Tov. He questioned how she was coming and i said she has the key, comes, I trust her - maybe i trust people too much. He then told me (did i mention that he happily and joyfully took up my offer to bentch my lulav and esrog?) that based on Rav Nachman MiBreslov he thinks that what we believe becomes reality.  Rav Nachman says it's about faith and happiness. He applied it to my trust- that because i trust people fully those people become trustworthy.

Saturday, May 18, 2013


I often wonder what to write, what to share, and where.  For now, here, I want to say that I am grateful that G-d is there.  Also, I am grateful for friends, family, students, teachers, guides, connections.  There is so little that I am ready to say here now.  And yet.  I am grateful to anyone who visits here and connects with my words.

A thought: The Talmud says that this world is compared to darkness.  The Mishnah says that this world is like a banquet hall. Which is true? Both. This world is gorgeous, every spec and every second of it.  But the beauty has to be revealed.  Through leading spiritual lives we continuously uncover the grandeur of this world.

Nassa - The Word Is Love - The Jewish Week Edition

Like many people, one of the fondest memories of my childhood is being held in my father’s embrace while I stood under his tallis in shul as the kohanim blessed us. It is befitting that this blessing evokes such warmth as the essence of the blessing is love.

In the rabbinic blessing that the kohanim recite to God before blessing us (it is the only blessing on which a blessing is recited) they state that God commanded them to bless the people with love. Where did God command that? Rabbi Yehudah Nachshoni suggests that love is a euphemism for God’s name, as it represents His essence, which is evoked in blessing the people.

Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook explains that a blessing is only successful if it is offered with love. This is borne out by the roots of this blessing: On the inaugural day of the Mishkan’s use, Aaron was filled with love and joy when he saw that the sacrifices he offered were accepted. His feelings overflowed and he blessed people. God said, in the merit of this initial and spontaneous blessing, Aaron’s descendants earned the merit of blessing the people throughout the generations. It is not a coincidence that Aaron and those who followed him and his ways are described as “loving peace, and chasing after peace, loving mankind and bringing them close to Torah.” The foundation of this blessing is love.

Rabbi Moshe Isserlis ruled that the presiding kohanim must be good hearted. The Magen Avraham cites the Zohar saying that if there is not love from the kohen to the people, and from the people to the kohen, then he should not bless them.

According to Maimonides, the kohanim say a prayer before the blessing, that their blessing be whole and free of sin. A possible pitfall could be if they think that it is they who are actually blessing the people, rather than God. The other flaw that can strike at their blessing is if the kohanim do not feel a complete love for the people they are blessing. A connection that is not deeply bound is not a full connection and cannot endure. The kohanim must truly feel as one with the people that they are blessing or the blessing will not flow forth.

The Jewish people are blessed in the singular, as if one person. In order for the blessing to be received, the people must be connected with one another and not just the kohanim who are procuring a blessing from God for them. This is another meaning of the pre-blessing imperative to bless the people with love. Besides having to bless lovingly, the kohanim pray for the community to be filled with a love that leads them to love each other as one so that the blessing can take hold. It is of interest that the numerical value of the Hebrew word for love — ahavah — and the Hebrew word for one — echad — are the same.

Aside from the blessing prior to the blessing, Maimonides also states that the priests ought to say a prayer following their blessing of the people: “We have done what You have decreed for us to do, now do with us as You have promised; look down from your holy dwelling and bless Your people Israel.”

The two key themes at the base of this command seem to be love and connection on the one hand, and on the other hand the recognition that this blessing comes from God and not from the kohanim. The connection between these two ideas may be that true love is rooted in having a small ego and recognizing the greatness of God and the spirit of God that rests in all people, all created in His image. Another link between these ideas is that the blessing will only come from God when He sees a true connection between His people.

May we merit feeling love for one another always, and particularly at the holy and beautiful time when we hold our children near and receive God’s blessing with love. 

Rabbi Neil Fleischmann is director of Torah guidance and teacher at The Frisch School. He lectures on humor and other Jewish topics, performs stand-up, and is the author of “In The Field,” a collection of haiku. His writing can be found at