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.