Thursday, October 23, 2008


Rabbi Yitzchak Twersky, based on the Abarbanel, says that the nachash/snake didn't talk, but that Chava heard her own voice inside her head. Although she should have known better, Chava worked under the assumption that people and animals were the same. She chose (accidentally on purpose) to think that G-d said not to eat from the tree because the tree was poisonous.

She could only accept it in that way and could not accept that G-d said no because people and G-d have a relationship that includes commandments and rewards and punishments based on free will and choices. When she saw the snake rubbing up against the tree she decided that the tree must not be dangerous. Thinking that you couldn't even touch the tree, lest you die, was a logical follow up to the thought that the tree was forbidden because it was lethal. In Chava’s mind, as she saw the snake touching the tree she said to herself, "isn't it true that G-d said that you can't eat from all of the trees of the garden?"

If you read that question over again, you'll realize that one could argue that the answer to the question is yes. Because once you can't eat from one tree then it is true to say that you can not eat from "all of the trees," as you can only eat in fact from some (albeit most) of the trees. That's one possibility of how she got from the one tree to all the trees in the garden, that it was based on her discomfort in having G-d control what trees she could eat from, even if it was only by saying that just one was off limits.

The idea that the snake was actually Chava's voice is applicable today. We weaken in resolve and in responsibility by talking about the yetzer hara as if it were a him, outside of ourselves. The snake/yetzer hara is a metaphor for a voice inside of us that we control. What this means is that the fruit had no power that changed Adam and Chava’s thinking. The powerful force that changed their way of thinking was the act of disobeying G-d and acting based on their own judgment.

This can be understood through the analogy of parents and their son or daughter. If there’s a party and the parents feel it’s best to not go to that party, the child may assume that he or she knows the parents’ reason and that it won’t be a problem to disobey the parents if that reason seems, in the child's mind, to not apply to the situation. If the kid attends the party, he or she will never be the same. It may be that nothing of import happened at the party, but what changes the child forever is the act of trusting his or her own instinct over the authority of parents.

The question that comes to mind after taking in this approach is - why was the snake punished if he didn’t speak to Chava? The answer is that the "punishment" of the snake was a necessary consequence to show Chavah, and to remind people forever, that animals and people are different. Animals were created to serve people so they are "punished" when it's necessary for the sake of people. This fits with what Rashi says about all the animals being "corrupt" and destroyed in the flood; they were only created to serve people and once people were corrupt, there was no use for animals. This also its with the idea that we sacrifice animals (and that the command to do so includes the word Adam!)

One strong indication that the snake never spoke is that when the snake is “punished,” we see no mention of his losing his power of speech. Another hole in the common conception that the snake spoke is that man is described upon his creation as a unique "nefesh chayah," which Unkelus defines as "ruach memalelah" – a speaking soul, clearly implying that man was the only creation endowed with the power of speech.

May we be blessed to remember that as human beings we are unique. May we be blessed to be strong and to honor our relationship with G-d through obedience. May we be blessed to learn from Adam and Chavah’s error, to make the greatest choice we could make, to pursue and hold onto our closeness to G-d.

Friday, October 10, 2008

On He'ezinu

1. G-d is described with the words "The Rock, His actions are perfect" followed by the statement "When I call the name of G-d, acknowledge greatness to our Master." The Da'at Zekeinim addresses the juxtaposition of these two lines and writes that "it is proper to give G-d honor for His greatness because of the fact that he is a Rock of consistency who acts in a pure way and does not show anger to those who act in a manner which is inciteful of anger. True greatness, the Daat Zekeinim teaches us, includes not getting angry even if it is well deserved. This is referred to as being maavir al midotav. Rabbi Neuberger reminds his congregants each year (my friend Martin tells me) that we must learn to be ma'avir on our midot in our relations with one another, and then G-d will do the same for us.

2. "VaYishman Yeshurun VaYiv’at.” The Torah tells us that by getting too satisfied (literally; fat) the Jewish People (Yeshurun) come to rebel (literally; kick) against G-d. The Shemen HaTov points out that Yeshurun is a name for the Jewish People that refers to us on our highest spiritual level. He explains that we are being reminded that one can come to rebel against G-d even through being on a high religious level. Sometimes we get a bit too proud of and full of ourselves as a People. Thank G-d in America today the Jewish People thrive in terms of both affluence and religion. Yet we have to be careful to always work on ourselves and not to rebel as a result of our good fortune.

Monday, September 29, 2008


I will then display anger against them and abandon them.
I will hide my face from them
and they will be their enemies' prey.
Beset by many evils and troubles,
they will say, 'It is because my God is no longer with me
that these evils have befallen us.'
- Devarim 31:17

The conventional take of G-d hiding his face, which can be traced to Moreh Nevukhim 1:23, 3:51 and to the Ralbag on this verse is that G-d will take away his protection/providence. The lesser known alternative to this is that of the Chizzkuni and Paaneach Razah and Baaley Tosafot (cited by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan); that G-d out of love must look away when we are being punished, as if He can't bear to see it.

The above idea fits with the concept of "Imo Anochi Betzarah," G-d's telling us "I am with you in your pain" - Tehillim 91:15. There was once a rabbi who used to have a system with his children that if they misbehaved at breakfast they wouldn't get jelly on their bread. Part of the deal was that on days when he didn't spread jelly on their bread - he didn't put jelly on his own bread either.

The Ramban points out in his rich comment on this pasuk that feeling bad in our hearts is significant, real. When bad things happen around us and we say maybe evil has befallen us because G-d is not in our lives - that is true reflection, sincere regret, and of great value. (This is in contradistinction to the Rambam who says that we have to verbally confess our sins for it to qualify as legitimate teshuva.)

On Rosh HaShana the Jewish People re-accept G-d and start a process. May we be blessed to hold on to what our hearts feel via Rosh HaShana and continue to participate in the process of true teshuva and hasten the process of real redemption.

Text of Ramban:

רמב"ן - (דברים פרק לא:יז - יח) וטעם ואמר ביום ההוא הלא על כי אין אלהי בקרבי - איננו וידוי גמור כענין והתודו את עונם, אבל הוא הרהור וחרטה, שיתחרטו על מעלם ויכירו כי אשמים הם. וטעם ואנכי הסתר אסתיר פני - פעם אחרת, כי בעבור שהרהרו ישראל בלבם כי חטאו לאלהים ועל כי אין אלהיהם בקרבם מצאום הרעות האלה, היה ראוי לרוב חסדי השם שיעזרם ויצילם שכבר כפרו בע"ז, וכענין שאמר (ירמיה ב לה) הנני נשפט אותך על אמרך לא חטאתי: ולכך אמר, כי על כל הרעה הגדולה שעשו לבטוח בע"ז יסתיר עוד פנים מהם, לא כמסתר פנים הראשון שהסתיר פני רחמיו ומצאום רעות רבות וצרות, רק שיהיו בהסתר פני הגאולה, ויעמדו בהבטחת פני רחמיו (ויקרא כו מד) ואף גם זאת בהיותם בארץ אויביהם לא מאסתים ולא געלתים וגו' עד שיוסיפו על החרטה הנזכרת וידוי גמור ותשובה שלימה, כמו שנזכר למעלה (ל ב) ושבת עד ה' אלהיך וגו

Thursday, September 25, 2008


The Shemen HaTov offers the following explanation of the pasuk:
Hanistarim LaHashem Elokeinu,
VeHaniglot Lanu Ulevaneinu Ad Olam” -
"Hidden things may pertain to God our Lord,
but that which has been revealed
applies to us and our children forever."
- Devarim 29:28
(The crux of what I’m presenting here is based on the Shemen HaTov.
I have embellished and expanded on the idea.)

Really, mitzvot should only be between G-d and us (for Hashem what we do should be nistarot). Our own needs dictate that we publicize what we do, for the sake of our children as well as others (though, for our sake actions should be niglot). Children especially need to know about the Tzedaka , Torah, and Chesed of their parents because they learn through that example.

The Yalkut Shimoni says that when Elkana set out on his holiday pilgrimage he would camp out at a different spot in order to educate new people regarding the mitzvah of Aliya LaRegel. Rav Aron Kotler said based on this that we should tell others about the mitzvot we do, in order to teach and inspire them. Rabbi Paysach Krohn cited these two sources and gave the example of his wife telling her high school students about her involvement in the local Chevra Kadisha because it’s something they might not learn about otherwise.

On the other hand, the Zohar that says that if you do a mitzvah and tell someone, you lose the mitzvah. The message is that a mitzvah’s value should be the mitzvah itself, the relationship between you and G-d. Telling someone about the good you’ve done shows a need for something other than the act itself to make you feel good about what you’ve done. According to this quote G-d says if that’s what you want then you get that instead of the mitzvah itself.

Jeff Korbman once came across the following explanation of the Sfas Emes regarding the Seder. The Matzah is the main mitzvah of the night, and the fact that it is covered or uncovered at various times reflects the idea we’ve been discussing. When there is some educational purpose, then the Matzah is uncovered in order for our children to see it and learn from it. When there is nothing taking place that is educational in nature then proper etiquette is to cover our matzah/mitzvah.

If a person's intent is to teach others, and that is a viable possibility, then one can/should make his mitzvah known. If someone makes his positive actions known in order to feel good about what he's done it is less than ideal. Things like telling a classmate about one's extra learning or having a donation amount announced could be important lessons for others or they could be things we do for our own honor.

Deep inside our hearts know the truth.

Have a great Shabbos,
Rabbi Neil Fleischmann

Friday, September 19, 2008

Ki Tavo

There were these big stones
They aren't much spoken of
But there's a story
And it's not written in stone
Study Parshat Ki Tavo

I. Introduction: How the Torah Is Divided

A Hebrew letter Paih or a Samech in the Chumash indicates the Torah's paragraphs. These letters are codes for either open (patuach) or closed (satum) paragraphs. In a Torah scroll the former follow a space and begin on a new line, while the latter continue on the same line as the previous paragraph, after a brief space.

The Living Torah by Aryeh Kaplan is the only published version of the Torah to number and name the text according to the paragraphs of the the Torah, the way it was broken up in its original form. The chapters and verses of today were added later. Yeshivat Aish HaTorah encourages its students to pay close attention to and even memorize the names of the Torah's individual paragraphs as titled in a list, which they provide for their talmidim.

Let's focus together on one paragraph which Rabbi Kaplan calls "The Written Stones."

II. Main Body

A. Devarim 27:1-8, The Written Stones

Moshe and the 70 Zekeinim tell the people to construct twelve large stones and to cover them with lime. According to Sotah 32a the lime coating was to prepare them to be written on or to laminate that which was written upon them. Chizkuni says that these stones were made into an altar and the lime was used to attach them to each other. Ibn Ezra maintains that the lime was used to keep the pillars standing.

The people were told that after they crossed the Jordan River and entered Israel they were to write "all the words of this Torah on them." Some commentators say it was a review of the Torah, or parts of Devarim (Abarbanel). Ibn Ezra says it refers to certain commandments that were listed.

After they entered the land these pillars were to be set up on Har Eival - according to Chizkuni, as a consolation for those tribes who were associated with this mountain. Abarbanel says that the point of putting these pillars on Har Eival was to remind us that the curse comes for violating the Torah.

There was a stone alter that would also be built on this mountain - possibly made of the stones with the writing on them. The altar had to be of whole stones, untouched by iron, and was used for various offerings, some of which were to be eaten there in joy.

The paragraph ends with the instruction to write "all the words of this Torah in a clear script", which the Gemorah in Sotah (32b) interprets to mean that the Torah was translated into seventy languages.

B. What's It All About?

Rav Hirsch writes that the point of this section is to remind us that -"It is only the Torah that you have to thank for the Land, you receive the land for the Torah, for its preservation and observation of its dictates." He also notes that these pesukim switch between plural and singular. [In the first line we're told "Shamor" (singular)- keep the Torah. Then we are told that it was commanded "etchem" (plural) - to you. The second line also contains both plural and singular. The third is all singular. The fourth is mostly singular, with one exception. The rest of the paragraph is phrased in singular.] This oscillation between plural and singular emphasizes that the observance of Torah which the land of Israel exists to facilitate is not something that relates exclusively to either the individual members of the nation or just to the nation as a unit. Rather, the land is for "the nation as a single unit made into such by the plurality of its members, so that the whole nation, in the united working together of all its individuals, were responsible for it."

III. Conclusion: Take Home Point

It is is Ellul and we are all concerned about what will be for ourselves, and for the Jewish People, for the Jewish Land. This portion of the Torah serves to remind us that Teshuva and the land of Israel are more closely linked than it is sometimes comfortable to admit. May we merit being part of the unit comprised of various individuals that these pesukim allude to. May we do Teshuva Sheleima and experience Geula Sheleima as soon as possible. G-d knows we need it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Neil Fleischmann

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ki Teitzei

Balance the balance
The balance of our life's work
Balanced by G-d's hand

“Remember what Amalek did to you on the way (BADERECH) when you were leaving Egypt,
and how he happened upon you/cooled you down on the way (BADERECH)” – Devarim 25:17. Why two references to DERECH in one line?

Rabbi Bernard Weinberger in his sefer Shemen HaTov asks and answers this question: Amalek lives inside us, it is the yetzer hara. It attacks us using two techniques, which are both alluded to in this pasuk by the double mention of the path on which we encountered Amalek. When we’re up high and feeling great the negative force inside us pushes us too far, toward haughtiness and beyond. And when we’re (rachmanah litzlan) in dire straits and feeling a bit down, the Amalek within pulls us into depression and inaction.

This ties in with an explanation that I heard from Rabbi Ephrayim Polyakkof. Why is it that immediately preceding the pasuk we just cited is the ruling that we must have even weights and measures? If we consider Amalek to be the Yetzer HaRa, the emphasis here on balance becomes more clear. The Amalek inside us thrives on extremes and waits to pounce on any trace of imbalance inside us. When we gravitate too far toward one side we run the risk of having our Amalek pull or push us down to the depths or up over the edge.

This is one explanation of our appeal to G-d (in Hashkiveinu) to remove the Satan from before us and behind us. Sometimes our Amalek pushes us too far up, and sometimes he pulls us too far down. Our only hope is to monitor our own balance and pray to G-d for help.

A Chassidic Rebbe was once imprisoned and his roommate was a circus performer - a tightrope walker. The Rebbe asked the fellow what the secret was behind his success. The man explained that the key was looking forward, not back, and not to the sides. As long as he moved evenly forward without being distracted by other directions, he did not fall. The Rebbe later said that it was to learn this life lesson that he had needed to be in that jail at that time.

Rabbi Weinberger ends his comments on this pasuk observing that we read these lines imploring the remembrance of Amalek twice annually - before Pesach and before Rosh HaShana (this parsha ). As Pesach approaches, the world is experiencing the joyous rebirth of spring, and we are celebrating our freedom and our nation’s birth. At this time we must be wary of Amalek, lest we carry our elation too far. And now fall with its looming darkness and deterioration approaches, along with our days of awe and the judgement of all. At this time we must work to not allow our Amalek to drag us into despair.

May we be blessed with a meaningful Shabbos and Ellul. Ketivah Vechatimah Tovah.

Ki Teitzei - On Returning An Aveidah

The other day on the bus a stranger wearing a baseball cap and sitting in the seat behind me tapped me of the shoulder and asked if I wanted to hear a vort. He told me in the name of The Novaminsker Rebbe the following. After it discusses returning a lost item it says you will go home and then you will return not look away from the lost item and will return it. But this is after you've already done the returning! His explanation was that it's saying that once you do this right thing in the future you won't be able to look away and will for sure return a last item when the issue arises.

It's nice when people on the bus tell me Torah.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Post Shoftim Post


For the third week in a row I am starting to post, post Shabbat in parsha-post. The attempt is to write in an organic way about Shabbat and parsha experiences and memories that relate to the just passed holy day. This post is being started at about 12:30 on Motazai Shabbos, and it might not be done so fast. But as the fisherman's wife said, we shall see.

I spent Shabbos hours from home - deep in Long Island - at a Chabad House. I was the entertainment for the opening Shabbos meal of the semester, which dovetailed with the end of my first week. I want to write about the experience, but I have so many things in my mind and I'm going to weave them in - sometimes randomly.

Very much on my mind all of Shabbos was something that learned of on Thursday. I was in a pharmacy and saw a tube of something that looked like toothpaste. You don't brush with this stuff, rather - you rub it on your tongue and it helps with dry mouth for up to six hours. And how do you get dry mouth? There are many ways, but one of them is by being a mouth breather. I think I may be a mouth breather. Sigh .

It's now post minyan on Sunday morning (who'd have thought that the word post would become a part of my vocabulary/repertoire). This week's lookjed mailing includes an article from The Times about Facebook, etc. It had this link to an article from Times from September 5, 2008
about these sites. The piece is called Brave New World of Digital Intimacy and it's by Clive Thompson. The author wonders why people share details about there days, why people read details about there days. I wonder how do people use facebook effectively and how did blogs grow old so fast?

I had wanted to write about my very Chabad Shabbos. So much to say. Meschiism was in the air, though never overtly mentioned by the Shaliach. He told me that the great thing about Chabad is that there is no boss. The reason why, he said, Chabbad grew to have 4000 centers in roughly the same amount of time that Aish HaTorah grew to have 40 is because it's every shaliach for himself. They get no organizational money, have to do all fundraising for themselves, and don't answer to anyone in terms of supervision or budget, etc. I asked if they have conventions and he said that they have kinusim and thet the topic always turns to fundraising.

There was a lot of Torah and a lot of interesting happenings. Please G-d, I'll write about them soon. Meanwhile time has flown. I need to get out of the library were I've been writing and conversing and and anding. I plan to continue ths is pieces.

3. Monday 7 PM - Aint it funny how Shabbos slips away? It's now Monday evening and even it was a long day. My friend Jeff Korbman once told me when I spoke of a long day - "Neil, it wasn't longer or shorter than any other day." But still.

There's a dvar Torah that I was thinking of saying at lunch on Shabbos. It turns out that it was the idea that the seven year old son read off of his pasha sheet. I heard it in the name of the Opter Rav - the sheet, and the son, and the gracious host didn't know who'd said it. The vort is that we have to guard our orifices and that that's also included in the command to protect the city gates: the imperative to protect the openings to our souls.

My shaliach host felt, when I told him that had been thinking of saying that idea, that I should build on it rather than say something else. And so I did. The review afterwards was that it was too heavy for the crowd.

I spoke about Rav Yitzchak Kirzner and how I heard him say that the way to deal with hard times is to prepare during the good times. If we train our senses to take in the world in a spiritual way regularly then we'll have a shot at continuing on that path if things get rough.

Later, a girl who was visiting a friend was talking with The Rabbi (I had to get used to not turning around every time a kid called out 'Rabbi') and she was not into his suggestion of going to the Chabad House back at her school (Brooklyn College). He told her - "You can still go out and party in the city after the Friday night meal. You can do for your soul and then for your body." She replied that she generally kept the two together. Later I told her that she raised a good point - there's often a split made between body and soul but reality indicates that they are more intertwined than convenient dichotomies allow for. She tied it back to Rabbi Kirzner's (Z"TZL) idea that the attitude of good times and bad have to be one - it's not like there's just a category of dealing with bad times. She wisely expressed her sense that we have to treat ourselves holistically, not address soul times or body times separately, but address our whole selves.

4. I wrote more and it disappeared. Gam Zu LeTovah. Looking ahead this Tuesday night.

Monday, September 1, 2008


The imperative of appointing judges (“You must establish judges and officers” / “Shoftim VeShotrim Titein Lecha…”) is concluded with the words “and they will adjudicate the nation with true justice” (“VeShaftu Et HaAm Mishpat Tzedek”). There is a disparity in that the first half of the sentence is a direct command to “you” (plural) while the latter words speak of a third person nation that will naturally become impartial arbiters of law (veshaftu) as opposed to obedient appointees (veyishpetu).

The Kli Yakar raises these questions and marshals this response: The text instructs one who has the power and means to select judges and officers to assign people who will be honest and not allow for bribery even by those who chose them. This is why it stresses to choose judges who will impartially try even you (titein lecha). It flows naturally that if you pick individuals that can handle even you, the influential communal leader then surely they will pass judgement with righteousness over the rest of the nation (VeShaftu - it will definitely happen, that they will judge, Et HaAm Mishpat Tzedek - the people fairly).

The Kli Yakar was Rav in the large metropolis of Prague. This is one of several places where he addresses a problem of his place and time in his commentary, a context that will ring familiar to us today. He says that the Torah is specifically stating that it is improper to do what politicians did in his time. People were appointed via nepotism, practically on condition of overlooking wrongdoings of those who appointed them. This led to inequity all around, as different people earned different verdicts for the same crime.
Hashiva Shofteinu

G-d, please return to us judges as once
and give us the advisers
of our early days as a nation.
Thus, remove from us sorrow and sighing,
and rule over us uniquely and alone
with kindness and mercy.
And treat us righteously in justice;
Blessed are You Hashem,
King who loves righteousness and justice.
Tamim Tihiyeh

"You should be wholehearted with your eternal G-d. " The Ramban counts this as a positive mitzvah; to only inquire about the future from G-d through the sources He provides such as nevi'im - prophets, and the Urim VeTumim - Breastplate of the Kohen Gadol. We should not inquire of astrologers or the like. Upon hearing astrological predictions we should respond by saying "everything is in the hands of Heaven."
This command follows warnings against using diviners to find out about the future. While others define it differently, the Ramban understands this mitzvah in light of what precedes it. He cites and agrees with Unkelus, who explains this command to mean that we must be whole-hearted in our fear of G-d.
It is not a new fashion to turn hopes toward places other than G-d. It wouldn't be a command to trust only in G-d if there wasn't the inclination not to. Particularly for those who have an open world view, it is important to remember the differences between ourselves and others.
I remember well the Shabbos years ago when my dear friend Shamai's father in law to be spoke at Shamai's aufruf. It was the week of Parshat Shoftim and his father in law said that he could think of no better expression to sum up Shamai than to say that he is tamim with Hashem. I agree. May we all be blessed to truly be whole in our attachment to G-d.
P.S. Here's my post on Shoftim from last year, which was submitted to AJWS. It's part of a larger post about what was at that time the big talk in the Jewish community. Remember?

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Post Re'eh - Looking Back On Shabbos

NCSY used to have a thing called Shabbos Ebbs Away. It ebbed. Why she had to go I don't know , she would not say. I am sitting at the dining room table of dear friends that I set up about 12 years ago. They are married with three beautiful children. They have been a bit apologetic about the hectic noise. That noise, I think, is worth a billion dollars with a high exponent next to the billion. The four and a half year old (boy and girl) twins and the eight year old big brother are energetic, and we get along really well. The twins cried when they heard I'll be leaving. My friend told me that sometimes he reads my post Shabbos posts where I write that Shabbos was relaxing and thinks; those were the days.

The Gemora addresses a pasuk (Yishayahu 29:22) that seems to state that Yaakov saved (was podeh) Avraham. The Gemorah asks when and how Yaakov redeemed his grandfather. The Gemora explains that Yaakov spared Avraham from tzaar gidul banim – the difficulty of raising children.

Rashi explains this to mean that by raising twelve children Yaakov saved Avraham and Yitzchak from that pain. Tosafot disagrees and says that the normal difficulties of raising children are not referred to as pain but as joy (ein zu tzaar elah simcha). Tosafot says that the tza'ar referred to here is the strife between Yosef and his brothers. According to Tosafot difficulties in raising a family are considered normal. Even sibling rivalry is an appropriate part of life. Avraham and Yitzchak were spared from the extremes of the Yosef incident (although they each had strife between their own children and were not strangers to pain within their family life).

Having and raising and loving and letting go of children is not easy but I imagine, from what I see and experience surreptitiously, that it is a great joy...

The rabbi of the shul I davened in this AM spoke about kashrut. He said a fact that may not be so well known; eating of meat on a regular basis is first allowed in parshat Re'eh. Until that point eating of meat was only allowed in conjunction with an offered sacrifice (which explains why the word zevach, which means sacrifice means a slaughtered animal). To make a long story short he spoke about Agriprocessing and said that there is nothing at present proven to criticize and that we must judge others favorably.

The rabbi of the shul I didn't daven in said that he looked in forty books and didn't find an answer to his question of why specifically Grizim and Eval were chosen for the blessing and the curse. His own answer was that - perhaps - it has to do with their close proximity to Eilonei Mamrei/Shechem. If the person that told this to me got it right, and I heard it right - the rabbi's theory was this: It was in this area that Avraham took in guests after having his Brit Milah and was visited with G-d and the seeds of the Jewish Nation were sowed. It was also in this vicinity that brothers sold a brother out, a mistake which would hurt the Jewish People in immeasurable ways for myriad years.

Perhaps, Rabbi Yaakov Luban suggested, these two mountains that represent the choice of blessing or curse remind us of the choices made by Avraham and The Brothers in the surrounding area. These were choices that may have seemed small at the start but that had enormous, long term consequences.

Over Shabbos also I recalled a vort that I became fond of some years back., Rav Hirsch talks, if I recall correctly, of the fact that these two mountains at the start looked the same. One flourished and one didn't. That's the way it is with blessings and curses. They can germinate from the same equal playing field, but the final results reveal the great difference between actions that in the end lead to holiness and blessing, or G-d Forbid, the opposite. Somewhere, from sometime long ago and still now, there's an email exchange/dance, around this holy thought.

At lunch I was asked to say a Dvar Torah at the end of the meal and after having overheard a request (or two) to bentch I went into my usual Shabbat meal dvar Torah intro. I invited everyone to check me on my promise that it would be done in less than three minutes. I cited Dovid HaMelech's advice to "taste and see that G-d is good - taamu u're'u ki tov hashem." Taste and see? How about - "look and see"? The thing is that you might not see G-d's goodness if you simply look (and surely not if you look simply). If you taste "it" then you will see G-d. You need to experience Jewish life and observance and through it you can gain something higher than and way beyond words. This is why in Hebrew the word for reason and the word for taste is one - ta'am - because you come to understanding through tasting/experiencing more than through reading or listening or any other cerebral maneuver.

This ties back to Parshat Re'eh, in which we're told to see the blessing that G-d puts before us "today" (ie. daily). How do you see a blessing? David HaMelech explains, you taste and then you see. Many note that the blessing isn't described. And many answer that the words "habracha, im tishme'u - the blessing; if you listen" means something slightly different than what you might first think. This line is telling us that the blessing is if you listen - that's the greatest blessing, the experience itself. Sure, there will be more rewards and blessings galore in this world and the next. But the keeping of Torah as a way of life is in and of itself the great blessing. And then I thanked my dear friends/hosts.

As I finished up in under three minutes I remembered the story Elsbeth Couch - my amazing teacher of Human Behavior and the Social Environment - told us. Someone big, I forgot who, once wrote - "forgive my writing such a long letter, but I didn't have time to write a short one."

Shavua Tov and G-d Bless

PS - Over Shabbos this artist and the story about him and his most famous painting at the end of this site came to mind.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Re'eh - Pre Shabbat Post

I am with friends for Shabbos. It's special because they have three wonderful children. And as far as I know - I set them up. Thank G-d for Shabbos, for family, for friends, for blessings that rain upon us, for listening and there it is, for being shining stars and aligned grains of sand.

Shabbat Shalom

1. Great plural blessing
rains on individuals
as each of us needs

Rabbi Dovid Feinstein addresses the question of why G-d says to see in singular (re'eh) that a blessing is put before you, in plural (lifneichem). His answer is that while blessings are sent to everyone, they reach every individual in the exact way that he or she needs.

2. What is the blessing?
the blessing is if you listen
that is the blessing

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch notes that the Torah states that you will see a blessing if you listen to G-d, but then the blessing is not stated. He explains that listening is the blessing itself, i.e. that besides any other rewards observing a Torah lifestyle is its own blessing.

3. Like sand and like stars
we are each a whole and part
to shine and align

Rabbi Josh Hoffman explains that the plural is used in addition to the singular to stress that each individual must balance their own needs with their responsibility as part of the greater whole. After individual needs are met a person must apply their own gifts on a national level. This fits with why Avraham was told that his descendants would be like the sand and the stars. Every star shines alone, but every grain of sand blends in with the others, thus representing the individual and communal aspects of Jewish life.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Post Eikev Post - 5768

The Lubavitcher Rebbe was fond of saying that every weeks parsha colors the week it falls in year after year. he's say that to truly live with the times you have to live with the parsha. or so I'm told. I've heard others say that we are blessed to have a portion to focus on each week. It gives us structure and context, not to mention a common topic to talk about. One of my greatest joys in life is sharing parsha thoughts with friends in a natural and real way.

I also enjoy helping people with preparing divrei Torah and giving divrei Torah on the parsha myself, but this feels a little less purely pleasurable than when it's simply lishmah. One of the ideas that I have for this year as the newly appointed head of Torah Guidance in my school is to learn parsha with students and help them write up divrei Torah for the the school's Torah weekly which has the beautiful name of be'er Shavu - The Week In Explanation. For years I've been giving out sheets and learning parsha with my classes and as the school year approaches this is something that my soul yearns for.

I recall years ago hearing my rebbe, Rav Nachman Kahane say that VeHayah Eikev Tishme'un means something other than the conventional wisdom regarding this verse. Rashi says that the unusual word Eikev used here to seemingly mean eventually alludes to the mitzvot that one treads on with one's heal - that we need to be careful with those mitzvoth to bring redemption. Rav Kahane said that it's often only when Jews are stepped on with heals, persecuted that they return and listen to G-d.

When I was 22, I returned to Israel, which felt like home, after a three year hiatus. The time away in college - despite many hours devoted to Torah learning and some secular learning that happened because I tend to fully and then some engage in what's before me even when it's not my top choice - felt like an expensive, Orthodox version of what generations of Hebrew School survivors call Jew Jail.

On one of my first days back in Israel I bumped into Rav Nachman Kahane. He was thrilled that I'd kept to my word and my dream. His wife, who is wary of tourists and temporary dwellers in the land, immediately invited me for a meal, thrilled to have me. At that time, they were my neighbors, as I started out where I had left off - in Aish HaTorah. I had spent the summer there three years earlier because it went through the bein hazmanim. During all my time in YU my heart was set on going back to the place that was not yet a household name of Aish.

I told the story before and feel badly that I named a name of a decent and good man who was the one who asked me to get my stuff out of "Aish" - rightly so, after I'd started studying somewhere else. The reason all this comes to mind because of an incident from that period.

I was riding on the bus from the Old City to the new Yeshiva I was studying in when I got engaged in conversation with a young Chasidic boy. I made a long story short and he assumed that I was learning in Aish HaTorah and that I was a Baal Teshuvah (which brings to mind the story of the guy who met the Gerer rebbe and The rebbe asked him where he was learning and the boy said, "Ohr Sameach, but I'm not a Baal Teshuvah," and the Rebbe asked, "Why not?").

I met him some time later on another bus ride and he asked how my learning was going (which reminds me of my Y.U. chavrusa named Charlie who was a tremendous masmid and used to always say while pushing on in learning, "It's rough. it's rough") and I told him that learning was hard but I was slowly making headway. And he cited a pasuk from Eikev which we say every day - "Im shamoa - tishme'u - if you listen then you will be inspired to listen more."

I hope that these ideas play out well for me in my life - the fact that doing right motivates one to move forward and that sometimes getting a potch from above also motivates.

I'm doing something new - doing a more conventional post here in parsha post. I was feeling that Shabbos and the parsha are part of my life. I started thinking about this soon after Shabbat last week and started writing about the drasha I heard about Tu B'Av. that parsha took a week to go up. This time I'm striking while Shabbos still burns within me.

While I'm here - some pieces of my Shabbat: A table mate introduced me to the Lequoc school of clowning the founder of the school Jacques Lequoc having once said, "For several years now, the clown has taken on great importance… as part of the search for what is laughable and ridiculous in man. We should put the emphasis on the rediscovery of our own individual clown, the one that has grown-up within us and which society does not allow us to express."

I found that quote amidst other good ones about laughter and related necessities - here. My friend actually had with him these clown principles from his teacher, Avner Eisenberg. My favorite is, "Be interested, not interesting." I think that last one is enormously important for life.

A woman at the table shared her favorite poem. It's called Your Laughter by Pablo Neruda. Here's a taste:

Laugh at the night,
at the day, at the moon,
laugh at the twisted
streets of the island,
laugh at this clumsy
boy who loves you,
but when I open
my eyes and close them,
when my steps go,
when my steps return,
deny me bread, air,
light, spring,
but never your laughter
for I would die.

I hope your Shabbat was sweet. Feel free to share something that you though of, heard, learned, remembered this Shabbat.

Friday, August 22, 2008


The experiences that most impact us involve words, as a single word can be a bullet or a cure. The word VeHaya appears prominently at the start and end of parshat Eikev. Chazal tell us that this word indicates happiness. The contexts of VeHaya in our parsha relate to mitzvot. The implication is that mitzvot should be done with joy. In the Tochacha we are told that punishment is the consequence of serving Hashem joylessly. Implicit in the word VeHaya is the idea that keeping mitzvot brings joy.

The first instance of VeHaya precedes "eikev tishmeun". Rashi's understanding of the rare word eikev is that it is a noun, the subject of the verb tishmeun, and his reading of this pasuk is: "And it will be when you listen to eikev." Rashi identifies eikev as a code word for neglected mitzvot. This approach fits nicely with VeHaya. In the end, keeping the unpopular details brings reward and happiness.

The lines that comprise the second paragraph of Shema also convey this idea. Here VeHaya continues with "im shamoa tishmeu". Happiness results when mitzvot receive continuous attention When we see violations of mitzvot around us, rather than merely condemning we should look at our own performance. As a teacher in a yeshiva I'm paid to pray. Sometimes I don't look at it that way. We think our job is to get students - a.) to doven and - b.) to do it with feeling. I think that if we get ourselves to that level then the bonus is that it affects others, and that's the only way.

Part of our frustration with the deficiency in others' performance of mitzvot is our own insecurity. It's like what a wise man once said - only someone who's not relaxed tells someone else to relax. Perhaps those who much protest the mitzvot of others are projecting. This idea is in the words im shamoa tishmeu, not only that if you listen now it will cause you to listen more in the future (as Chazal say) but also that shamoa/you listen and that leads to tishmeu/ others listening as well. And listening means with essence - heart and soul, not ears.

Two dear friends shared thoughts with me that fit with my thoughts. One told me about a woman that converted to Judaism and told him about it with such joy that he was jealous, wondering "shouldn't we all feel this joy?" The other said he tries to be the colloquial Good Jew. This doesn't come easy to my friend, he said, as it means "actively fulfilling mitzvot. Not in the robotic sense, but with enthusiasm and simcha."

May we be blessed to love mitzvot and may our joy spill over to the people we love.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

On Tu B'Av

The parsha is an important part of a Jew's life. This Shabbat, for far from the first time, I told and heard about the parsha. I was blessed to receive an aliyah from a gabbai who got it right, remembering my Hebrew name from yeshiva in Israel over twenty years ago when we were last in touch. I spoke publicly on the parsha. Before the talk (introduced by the friend from twenty years ago) I caught up with a friend from yeshiva in Israel 28 years ago.

Rabbi Zev Reichman of the Shul where I spent Shabbos was away and he emailed a dvar Torah that the gabai read: He cited Rabbi Mosh Wolfson, saying that if someone gives 6 reasons for something you get the feeling that they're not telling you the real reason - that there's a deeper reason, hidden.

Shabbat was Tu B'Av and the Gemorah says that it's a big day on the Jewish calender, up there right next to Yom Kippur. The Gemorah asks what's behind the joy of this day and offers many possibilities. One of the reasons behind Tu B' is that throughout their years in the desert the generation that left Egypt was dying out. The way it worked is that every year on Tisha B'Av they would make graves fro themselves and lay down in them. In the morning some people would walk out of their graves and others would be buried. On the fortieth year on Tisha B'Av everyone lived. They couldn't believe it and thought they were a day off. They tried again the next night and kept on trying. Each night no-one died. On the fifteenth of the month the full moon made it obvious that Tisha B'Av had passed and the decree of death was over. These people, at this tie achieved redemption, warranted G-d's mercy - though one can argue they weren't the most worthy.

The rabbis tell us that there will be a redemption that will make the exodus from Egypt secondary. When Mashiach comes it will be so great that Ytziat Mitzrayim will all but be forgotten. It makes sense that there will be a new 7 day holiday similar to, but grander than Pesach. If you count 7 days from Tisha B'Av it culminates with the holiday of Tu B'Av (just as Pesach culminates with the splitting of the sea). This is perhaps the true - deeper, secret, meaning of Tu B'Av.

Friday, August 15, 2008


From the sefer Mimaamakim, based on the thought of Rabbi Moshe Shapiro:

Why was Moshe so anxious to enter Eretz Yisrael? Why was G-d so adamant about locking Moshe from going into the land? The Sforno says that Moshe wanted to enter the land because he knew that if he was there the Jewish People would never be exiled and life would be good for them always.

At the time of the mis-step of the meraglim-spies the decree was set that the Jews of that generation would not enter the land. Moshe recounts to the people at the end of his life that, “G-d got angry at me as well on your account.” The decree included Moshe and Aharon.

Why could Yehoshua enter Israel and lead there, but not Moshe? Rabbi Shapiro (based on the Maharal) explains that Moshe was well suited to lead in the Midbar because Moshe was completely spiritual and the desert period was a time of supernatural existence in a supernatural place. Yehoshua’s essence was that of elevating life within the natural scheme. The whole idea of Israel is to be the base for Torah and Derch Eretz, spiritual existence within a material frame.

If Moshe had entered the land and paved the way then the spiritual level would have been exclusive and extreme and there never could have been an exile. Yehoshua’s leadership left room for exile, as the Jews tilted too much to the physical. Still, in the future Moshe’s prayer will be answered and he and his generation will all enter the land. Let it be soon, please G-d.

Friday, August 8, 2008



Mussar can be traced back to the Torah itself, perhaps no where more strikingly than in Sefer Devarim. This is Moshe Rabeinu's farewell speech, filled with words of encouragement, review, and reproach.

The first line seems to set the scene in more than one place. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says that the Torah is pinpointing exactly where Moshe was when he taught his last message to the Jewish people. This is in stark contrast to the cryptic location of his burial place.

Rav Hirsch suggests that the idea behind the exactness of the location is to remind us that Moshe is to be remembered as our teacher. His burial place is not mapped out because we are not to idolize him. this is similar to the idea of Moshe's name not appearing in the Hagada (although it actually does appear there one time.)

Rashi says that the places named are actually hints to sins of the Jewish People. Following in the footsteps of Yaakov (the first man to know his own death was impending) Moshe gives veiled words of reproach before his death.

The Or HaChayim says that each word listed here is a hint to a trait that we must work on. For example Dei Zahav means enough money, we must say enough to money. Mul Suf, means you should always keep death (sof) opposite your eyes,etc.

May we be inspired by Moshe's love of his people and by his message of mussar.


A chashuv young son of a prominent Rav - who inherited his father's love of Torah and gregarious energy - passed me on the street today. He said a warm hello and then - toch kdei dibur - said he wanted to share a question he was recently asked.

The Hebrew word for a bee is devorah, which is the same root as the Hebrew word which means word (davar, which is the root of the name of this week's parsha and the fifth book of the Torah).

G-d blessed me with an immediate thought, which I think has merit to it. Feel free to think about it before reading on (this fellow told me he had come up with the same answer as me).

Bees are known for two things - their sweet honey and their painful sting. Words are the same way, they have the potential to foster good will or to cause pain.

Another idea of the bee/word connection is to highlight that these two potentials go together; if you can sting (and if you sometimes need to do so) then you were also gifted with the capacity to provide sweetness (and need to do so).

Sharon Marson read this thread and added the following: Bees are the only creatures who make their own food for their own sustenance (as opposed to mammaals thay produce milk for the offspring only). Man is the only being that creates words (as Unkelus calls us - ruach memaleleh" - a spirit that speaks. Just as bees use what they produce in order to sustain themselves, so we should use our unique output of speech towards our own growth.

On a related note I have read (although it seems to be open to a bit of debate) that bees produce sweet honey by eating and then regurgitating (perhaps more than once). Similarly we need to speak and then rethink and restate what we've said (perhaps more than once)

May we be blessed to use our words to sweeten - even to sometimes help heal the sting we ourselves have stung.

Friday, August 1, 2008


Desert miracles
if only we remembered
in our present life

A guy brings his friend to the Master Joke Teller Convention.
A master comedian stands up and says “3” and everyone laughs.
Another known comedic genius belts out “9!” The crowd goes wild.
The newcomer, finding the scene outrageous,
gets up and and mutters “11.” No one laughs.
He asks his friend, "Why the weak reaction?"
The friend replies “You told it wrong!”

Rabeinu Bachai questions the wisdom behind the places listed in Mas’ei (with almost no narative thread) and suggests the following: The point of this itinerary is to remind the Jewish people of all the miracles that occurred in the places that G-d led them through. The key message is that they survived the dangerous desert via G-d’s protection rather than naturally. As they read through the list they recalled the specific miracles that transpired all along the way. Rabeinu Bachai points out that the words for nature and drowning are basically the same (Teva) to show that one can drown in the "natural" world. This list is meant as insurance against viewing our survival in the desert as a “natural”-G-d free experience.

Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch points out that one of the ideas behind the Sukka is to recall that G-d cared for every individual in the desert. We leave our homes and camp out on Sukkot to remind ourselves that it is G-d who cares for each of us (whatever our situation) today, just as in the days of the desert.

The lesson is that in our own lives we are cared for by G-d, just as our ancestors were in the desert. Reading through the list of places where G-d cared for the generation of the desert should serve to remind us of the trajectory of our own journeys, and how G-d cares for us all along the way. They read of each place and were reminded of the well, and the mon, and the clothes not wearing out. So too, we should reflect on our life passages and recognize the miracles all along the way.
It has been suggested (I recall hearing this from Rabbi Nathan Cardoza) that the difference between what we call nature and what we call miraculous is how often the phenomenon occurs. A seed put into the ground, followed by a plant sprouting is considered natural because it happens on a regular basis. If a person were to be buried in the ground and then rise up again that would be considered a miracle because it's something you don't see every day.
The story is told in the Talmud of a girl who mistakenly prepared vinegar instead of oil for Shabbos candles. She realized this right at deadline time and told her father. His reaction? He said, "He who said that oil should burn will say that vinegar should burn." The vinegar burned. These words at first sound like rabbinic verbosity; why did he say this longhand and not simply say that G-d would make the vinegar burn? The Sefat Emet explans that the rabbi wanted to stress this point: Oil only burns only because G-d says it should (as we say daily - G-d renews the works of creation every day).
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz suggests that the reason why The Rabbis considered depriving Megilat Esther of the holiness accorded other books of Tanach is the following: The Megila took place over a long period of years. If any of us would keep a diary over any extensive period of our years and later look back at it we would find it miraculous to see how we moved from point A to point Z. In labeling the Megila as holy the Rabbis feared that the point - that anyone could write a similar story about Divine Providence in their own life - might be lost.
Students ask me if Judaism believes in coincidences. There are those that make a case for this being a complicated question. I fear that this is an area that we can not afford to complicate. The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that this matter is an essential of Jewish Faith. Every thing that happens in this world happens by G-d’s decree.
Rabbi Yudi Shmuelevitz told me the following in the name of his uncle, Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz. Vayeitzei is the only parsha which has no spaces in it. Vayeitzei tells the story of Yaakov Avinu and the tribulations he experienced. If one were to pause along the way one would feel sorry for the terrible situations Yaakov endured. But the end of the parsha is that he was the father of the twelve Shevatim. You need to look at the whole picture in order to appreciate that all is for the best, as all is from G-d. This is the lesson of the fact that this story is told without a pause. So too with our lives, we need to look at the big picture rather than the little pieces for things to make more sense.
I, like all of us, need to work on really believing that G-d runs the world. As I look back on the most recent years of my life I see and thank G-d for the miracle that is the tapping of my fingers right now. It wasn't long ago that I feared computers even more than I do now. Today I blog regularly for interested individuals. This is miracle G-d's done for me, for which i am thankful. When I was younger I was shy and anxious to an extent that I'd never believe that I would one day be "out there" in the world in a productive and positive way big time. I have broadened emotionally and intellectually in a way that has enabled me to spill over from what I have have been blessed with and help others. I will never be able to thank G-d enough. I look forward to working with Him on new projects starting right now.
Shabbat Shalom and G-d Bless.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Matot II

Adapted From Based On What's Bothering Rashi:

Bamidbar 31:8 is where we’re told that Bilam is killed. Rashi says that Bilam tried to get Bnei Yisrael by using their weapon of the mouth – so he was “gotten” through the means usually employed by the Umot HaOlam – the sword. What pshat oriented purpose does this medrash serve that prompted Rashi to put it in his peirush?

The Nefesh HaGer points out that throughout all of Tanach there is an amazing Mesorah that lasted over a thousand years while tanach was written which employed the following code: Whenever non-Jewish nations attack The Jews (or other nations) the expression used is hargu bacherev. An example of this is Edom saying, "Lest with a sword (bacherev) I will approach you." – Bamidbar 20:18. When the Jews attack the nothern nations the expression used is hargu lefi cherev. (See Bamidbar 20:18 and Shmot 17:13).

The phrase Pi Cherev, on a superficial level, reflects that the sword is similar to a mouth. The mouth cuts (into foods like meat) and the sword cuts flesh/meat. A deeper meaning is that when Jews attack physically the component of prayer is always present. We see this first from Yaakov as he faces war with eisav. Rashi on Breishit 32:10 states that Yakov prepared 3 things before his confrontation with Eisav; gifts, prayer and battle. Yaakov, despite getting ready for a physical fight made sure to include the element of prayer. Similarly, Moshe raised his hands in prayer in the battle against Amalek.

When Jews fight it is with a double edged sword; the actual blade and the prayer which sharpens the blade.


Nechama Leibowitz tells us that children are taught (and hold on to the fact) that Bilam was the mastermind behind the plan to seduce the Jewish men into idolatry. Parshat Matot (31:16) - הֵן הֵנָּה הָיוּ לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בִּדְבַר בִּלְעָם, לִמְסָר-מַעַל בַּיהוָה, עַל-דְּבַר-פְּעוֹר; וַתְּהִי הַמַּגֵּפָה, בַּעֲדַת יְהוָה - Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to revolt so as to break faith with the L-rd in the matter of Peor, and so the plague was among the congregation of the L-rd (Machon Mamre traslation) is where the Torah reveales that it was Bilam's counsel that led to this tragedy. When the event is first describes, as it transpires, in Parshat Balak the people are blamed 25:1) וַיֵּשֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵל, בַּשִּׁטִּים; וַיָּחֶל הָעָם, לִזְנוֹת אֶל-בְּנוֹת מוֹאָב - "And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab." Shadal explains fills in the rest of the story, saying that on his way back to Aram Bilam passed through Midyan and heard the Israelites had sinned and worshipped idols through being involved with Bnot Moav. He then took this reality and ran with it upon realizing it was the only way to get at Bnei Yisrael. He advised the Midianites to send their women to lure Bnei Yisrael becuase this was the only way Bnei Yisrael would sin and forfeit God’s protection.

Nechama suggests that the reason for this spacing is to make clear that the people did what they did by choice. The Torah is blocking the option of passing responsibility off onto anyone else. As she puts it (in an English adaptation by Aryeh Newman), "The moral responsibility ultimately rested on the Israelites themselves. They were guilty."

This is a critical lesson. may we be blessed to integrate this kind of ethical responsibility into our lives.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


The following is largely an adaptation of the ideas of Rabbi Yitzchak Twersky:

Parshat Matot/Masei discusses the implementation of the revenge on Midyan which was introduced in the previous parsha. But this revenge is only addressed after a seemingly arbitrary insertion regarding the laws of nedarim and nedavot. This needs to be explored and explained. Also, Benot Tzlofchot are discussed here at the end of Bamidbar after a break from the start of their story. This also needs to be elucidated. There is another difficulty in this parsha which is the question of the status of Ever HaYarden. The answer to the pardox of Ever HaYarden will help to make sense of the entire parsha. Therefore we will delve into the question of Ever HaYarden.

There is a dichotomy in the Torah’s presentation of Ever HaYarden. On the one hand it appears to not be part of Israel. On the other hand it seems to be part of Israel. This is illustrated by the following examples on each side of the question of Ever HaYarden

2.5 Shvatim ask permission to live there
Moshe is allowed there (Sichon/Og)
Arei Miklat are singled out from Israel’s Arei Miklat
Mishna (R’ Yosi HaGlili) says no Bikurim there

Permission was granted to the 2.5 tribes to live there.
It is conquered first in the conquest of Israel
There are Arei Miklat there (they are only in Israel)
Most Mitzvot of Eretz Yisrael apply

Makkot 2:4 states there were 6 Arei Miklat, 3 in Ever HaYarden and 3 in Israel proper (as stated inBamidbar 35:14) The mishna states that the 3 in Ever HaYarden only took effect once the 3 in Israel were established. Bamidbar 35:9-14 clearly supports ruling of the mishnah of the mishna and the idea behind it - that the Arei Miklat of Ever HaYarden only become meaningful after the crossing of the Yarden, even though they are already called Arei Miklat before the rest were set. This shows that Ever HaYarden is an extension of Eretz Yisrael, but not Eretz Yisrael proper. This thesis explains a great deal.

The underlying concept of Arei Miklat is galut-exile. ( A side point: Arei Miklat are considered galut even though they ironically only exist in Israel - thus being in this Twilight Zone-esque category of being in Israel but being a state of Galut. One can't help but wonder if this concept applies to people as well. Can one be in Israel and yet in a spiritual state of Galut? A friend of mine once said that Galut is wanting to do the right thing but not knowing what it is. It seems to me that this Ir Miklat type mixture is quite relevant to each of us today in our pre-Mashiach era of Galut. There is a traditional concept of Galut hadaat, a state of mind which can possess a person even in Israel. Another way of phrasing this is to say that there are different types of Galut, one can be in galut from one's G-d, or in Galut from oneself). .

Galut in it’s literal sense means being removed from Eretz Yisrael. Arei Miklat are unique to Eretz Yisrael because they provide a kind of in-house galut. The solution to the Ever HaYarden question is that before kivush haaretz they were not part of Israel but they would eventually be a part of Israel. The explanation for this switch is that there can be no annex to a land until ownership of that land is established.

The fact that it was specifically Moshe who designates the Areki Miklat of Ever HaYarden is revealing. This alludes to a deep connection between Moshe and Ever HaYarden. Sefer Devarim highlights the relationship between Moshe’s designating this area and the theme of Devarim, which is the process of Mishna Torah (Moshe’s words of review and farewell).

In Devarim 4:41-44, the Torah connects Arei Miklat and the presentation of Mishna Torah. ( As Ibn Ezra points out in 4:41 on the words Az Yavdil Moshe “the explanation {for Arei Miklat being discussed here} is that the day that Moshe divided these cities is the same day that he spoke his words [Mishna Torah] of Brit. ”). The connection between Ever HaYarden and Moshe’s final words is a straightforward. Moshe needed to prepare this generation for their lives in Israel before they actually entered. A most appropriate place for such preparation is a place that, just like them, was not in Israel, but would one day be in Israel.

The opening pasukim of Deveraim 1:1-5 connect Moshe with Ever HaYarden (mentioning it twice, explicitly telling us this is where Moshe was to begin his Mishna Torah speech.) Within this link there lies a consolation for Moshe; even though Moshe was told that he would not be buried in Israel, his burial spot would one day be considered a part of Israel. There was a correlation between this place and this final speech both for those who would enter the land and for Moshe himself who would not enter Eretz Yisrael proper. For those who would enter Israel, Ever HaYaeden represented hope for the future, illustrated the idea that holiness can relace the mundane, that change can occur.

We can now understand the relevance of Nedarim and Nedavot at the start of the parsha. The underlying concept of a neder or a shevua is that man can create kedusha-holiness where the Torah has not explicitly established it. In other words nedarim and nedavot teach us that we may extend Torah categories of kedusha. (This fits with the idea of The Ramban that a major concept of Judaism is Kadeish Atznecha BeMutar Lach, to sanctify ourselves by extending holiness into our regular realm).

The above mentioned concept lies at the heart of the paradoxical kedusha of Ever HaYarden. Ever HaYarden has Kedushat HaAretz due to man’s divinely granted ability to make it holy. The kedusha of Ever HaYarden is based on the power we find in hafla'ah - oath making. It is this special status of Ever HaYarden that underscores this whole section of the Torah.

Ever HaYarden became holy through the actions of the 2 and ½ tribes. In Bamidbar 32:24 they are told to prepare cities for their children, fences for their sheep and then they are told “Vahytoze MiPichem Yaasu” . This echoes almost exactly the words used in regard to making a neder or a shevua. (Bamibar:36) where it states “kol hayotze mepiv yaaseh”. After the concept of extending kedusha is laid out in chapter 30 there is a foundation that leads directly to the discussion of Moshe’s death and transition to the next generation. In 31:2 the Torah stresses that the fight with Midian was a necessary precursor to Moshe’s death.

The fact that this is a time of transition is highlighted by the appearance of the chazotozrot hatruah, 31:6. The Truah indicates transition (see Bamidbar 10). The medrish tanchuma emphasizes the point that the truah represents transition.

The fact that this is a time of transition is highlighted by the appearance of the chazotozrot hatruah, 31:6. The Truah indicates transition (see Bamidbar 10). The Medrish Tanchuma quotes Bamidbar 31:1-2,6 in which vengeance is commanded together with the blowing of trumpets. Immediately following this quote the midrash lists the way the shofar was blown in the context of transition on many occasions.

1. Erev Shabbat (to signal people to stop work )
2. Rosh Chodesh
3. All holidays (2 and 3 are learned from Bamidbar 10:10 )
4. When they traveled (Bamidbar 10:6)
5. When the kahal was gathered. (Bamidbar 10:7)
6. When they went to war against oppressors (Bamidbar 10:9)
7. When they avenged themselves against Midyan.

The war against Midyan paved the way for the transition in leadership: The Torah in chapter 31, following this battle recaps the entire journey - which began with Yitziyat Mitzrayim and ends with Kivush HaAretz - which brought them at this moment to Arvot Moav. The Torah is pinpointing the moment of great transition. The first passuk of this perek mentions the leaving of Mitzrayim through the hands of Moshe and Aharon and then highlights the end of this generation. Later Ahron’s death is emphasized (33:38-40) and the encampment at Arvot Moav (33:48-49 ). The process of leaving is emphasized here. There is a refrain of “Motza’eiheim LeMas’eihem”. The leadership of Moshe and Ahron is intrinsically linked with Yiziyat Mizrayim. The entering of Eretz Yisrael is a second separate step. The mentioning here of Arvot Moav sets the stage for the next step, the conquest of Eretz Yisrael.

In chapter 34 the second step is explained in greater detail, with the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael being presented and a list of those in charge of the inheritance of the land. After the inheritance is mapped out the Torah (chapter 35) returns to Ever HaYarden, to the Areki Miklat. The end of the sefer serves as an appropriate segue way to Devarim.

The Bnot Tzlofchad issue is a piece of the theme of transition. The daughters of Tzlofchad come forward to point out that before Moshe passes all responsibility of Kivush HaAretz to the next generation he has one final unresolved act of leadership to perform. This is why in their wording they stress that Moshe was commanded to deal with this issue. They were stressing the need for him to deal with his command so that Jewish History can be taken to the next level.

May we be inspired by the ideas of holiness and transition that are featured prominently in this parsha.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


This is an adaptation of the ideas of Rabbi Yitzchak Twersky with some of my own ideas added. I am grateful to my anonymous chavruta and student who assited with this piece.

Why in the middle of the parsha, in the middle of the counting of the nation, is there a throwback list of past people who were punished with death. That question along with the connection between various themes that don’t seem to fit together in this parshah will be answered with the following approach:

There are four topics in Parshat Pinchas:

1) Postscript to the Pinchas’ actions

2) Genealogy of Jewish People, the resolution of Bnot Tzlophchad issue – both of which are Part of the division of e Israel according to inheritance

3) The appointment of Yehoshua

4) the regular Temidim and additional Mussaf Korbanot.

The connective theme is the concept of korban (which is normally translated as sacrifice, but really means an act that increases closeness to G-d). These topics are each based on the korban model.

1. In Bamidbar 25:6 the passuk goes out of it’s way to use the terminology of kaarbanot, saying that a man brought (vayikriv) a midianite women to the tent door (it could have said he took, invited, or she came). In 25:12 Pinchas’s action is described as having avenged for his God and bringing atonement (vayichaper) for Bne Yisrael, another term associated with karbanot (and his reward is to become a kohein, one who offers karbanot). Medrish Tanchuma at the opening of the parsha asks on the passuk "vechi korban hikriv shnamar bo kaparah!?" - “Did he offer a korban; is that why this word is used?” The Medrash's answer, that his killing a wicked man was considered like offering a sacrifice, along with the question itself, is clearly connoting the korban theme.

2. These same phrases are repeated in the story of Bnot Tzlofchod (27:1, 5).Their approach of Moshe is preceded by the word vatikravna. It also states that they stood, vatoamodnah, before Moshe. This allusion to amidah connotes tefillah, which is avoda, like korbanot. The setting korban themed - "towards the opening of the Ohel Moed." Additionally, it doesn't merely say Moshe brought the Judicial question before God, but it says vayikrav moshe et divreihen lifnei Hashem, sounding very much like a kohein offering a korban on their behalf.

3. When leadership is transferred from Moshe to Yehoshua the symbolic vehicle utilized is smicha, the resting of hands, an action most commonly associated with the avodah of korbanot.

4. The last part of the Parsha is actually about korbanot.

The deep theme that runs throughthis parsha is that of replacement, the foundation of the concept of korbanot:

1. By attacking Zimri and Kazbi, Pinchas replaced G-d’s kin’ah - jealousy with his own (25:11). Hashem was intent upon destroying Am Yisrael, He did not destroy them because the killing of Zimri and Kazbi replaced the killing of Bnei Yisrael (velo kiniti et Bnei Yisrael). These replacements are the undercurrent of the korban that the Medrash says that Zimri and Kazbi became.

2a. The section about the allotment of the land of Israel deals with the generation that replaced the one which left Mitzrayim. As described in Shemot 3:8, the Yotz’ai Mitzrayim were originally meant to inherit the land but the next generation inherited in their stead.

2b. Bnot Tzlofchod replaced the men (father, brothers) that were not there to inherit the land.

3. Yehoshua replaced Moshe.

4. Karbanot are based on the principal of the animal replacing us.

There are several seemingly out of place references in this parsha to people who were punished by G-d with death. These can be explained in light of the approach we’ve developed.

26:9-11 speaks of Korach and co. Their desire was to replace Moshe and Aharon. Their names are actually evoked by the daughters of Tzlofchod in contrast to their father (who they wish to rightfully fill in for). Korach had an insincere personal agenda motivating his demand for replacement.

26:19 refers to Eir and Onan. At the center of that story is Onan’s refusal to replace the lineage of his deceased brother. There is also reference to the death of Aharon’s sons. They brought an innappropriate korban that did not serve to replace them, thus their lives were taken. Aharon and others, on the other hand, who brought korbanot correctly were replaced by their korban.

The fact that this portion focuses on replacement is not surprising taken in light of the episode which precedes it. The previous portion focuses on abuses of the concept of korban. Bilam continuously uses korbanot towards accomplishing his evil designs. He tries to bribe G-d with korbanot (much as Balak tries to bribe Bilam with korbanot). Also, at the end of the parsha Bnei Yisrael are involved with activities that are refered to as zivchei meitim - dead, ineffective korbanot.

There is a striking similarity between Bilam’s story and the story of the Akeida. Chazal note the description of Bilam rising early and preparing his donkey for his journey, and imagine G-d telling him, “Wicked one, Avraham already preceded you in rising early.” These two personalities personify a contreast between self-centeredness on the one hand, and self-sacrifice on the other.

It is not arbitrarily that the Mishna in Avot chose to contrast the students of Avraham and the followers of Bilam. (Some commentaries explain that Chazal contrast the students, because sometimes the differences can be hard to detect in the masters). there are many contrasts between these two people. The Akeidah, is also very connected to the Bilam story, as well as to the continuation story of Pinchas.

Pinchas put himself in danger. Like Yitzchak in the akeidah story - the penultimate example of the concept of korban, he was willing to sacrifice his own life and was then replaced and saved. (Normally, one can not become a Kohein. Even as a gift from G-d we don’t see another example of this once it was set who the Kohanim were. Rav Nachman Kahane suggests that Pinchas actually became a new person, and the person he became was a Kohein. Within the terminology we’ve been using, you could say that the old Pinchas was replaced by a new one!)

The Jewish people at this time were involved in Giui Arayot and Ovadah Zarah. It makes sense that ovodah needs to be strengthened at this point (see a similar situation, Achrei Mot/Kedoshim where after the avodah of korbanot is corrupted it is reestablished).

The pattern of korbanot is that there are always 7 kvasim and one ayil and on Sukkot its doubled (the number of parim varies, but the 7 kvasyim and 1 ayil is constant). 7+1=8. 8 represents brit. The akiedah is the epitome of a brit. The akiedah is here and alluded to as the paradigm of true avodah. It is quite worthy of note that the 8th animal in each set is an ayil, as an olah, as was ultimately offered in the Akieda.

In conclusion, this parsha presents a restatement of the fundamental concept of replacement as it relates to true service of G-d.

Pinchas Postscript

The story of Pinchas takes place in Parshat Balak. Only the postscript of Pinchas' reward appears in the section that bears his name. Rabbi Moshe of Coucy explains that a thin line separates impulsive intolerance from righteous zeal. Time clarifies motivation. The pause between Pinchas' action and his repayment represent a period of observation. After evaluation proved Pinchas was mature and sincere, his behavior was rewarded.
Adolescence is a time of self discovery and a time of rebellion. Not always do convictions of youth last. Rabbi Abraham Twerski applies this to some anti-establishment rebels of the 1960s. He writes: "Twenty years later finds some of the most vehement protestors wearing business suits and conservative shoes, their hair neatly styled, and carrying briefcases as they emerge from their suburban homes, very much a part of the "establishment" which they had so violently condemned in their youth." He suggests that their actions were clearly informed by impetuousness endemic to their age.
Closer to home, there are many people who leave religion or "find" their Jewish religion in their late teens and early twenties. Who they really want to be becomes clear only in time as their behavior at 18 or 21 becomes a footnote to their lives.
May we be blessed to be the best of our youth for the rest of our lives.