Sunday, December 19, 2010

Vayechi - "My People?"

The following is transcribed from a piece on Vayechi by Rav Moshe Feinstein. It's in Darash Moshe, published by Artscroll/Mesorah. I promise.

"I shall be gathered to my people." - Breishit 49:29
It is unclear to whom Jacob was referring with the word "people." He could not have meant the
Jewish people, since he himself was the first of them to die, and had he meant Abraham and Isaac he would have said, "I am about to be gathered to my fathers."
To understand what Jacob meant, I wish to suggest that even though a particular group may not be considered a distinct people in our world, in the world of truth a "people" is defined by the strength of its belief in Hashem and by the quantity and quality of merits accumulated through efforts in this world. Surely the tzadikim who had made themselves known in the world until that time, including Adam, Seth, Methuselah, Shem, Eber, and, of course, Abraham and Isaac, would constitute such a group.
This is what Jacob meant:"I shall be gathered to my people" - to the righteous ones who have a place together in the world of truth because they believed in Hashem, and therefore i wish to be buried with my fathers, Abraham and Isaac.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Toldot 5771 By Me- Rabbi Neil Fleischmann


Toldot reads like a Divine essay on family systems as it chronicles wide-ranging aspects of building a household. Theparsha covers infertility, family coalitions, favoritism, and sibling rivalry. It provides a study of early child rearing, which includes the challenges of recognizing personality types and the need to build on strengths.

Of particular interest to me is the fact that
Parshat Toldot includes insights on how being a son or daughter impacts a person's life. The word toldot is pregnant with implications. Rashi translates it as offspring, while Sforno says toldotmeans story. These are related, as one way or another a person's story is his offspring.

Curiously, the
parsha's opening statement, "And these are the toldot of Yitzchak", is followed by neither a list ofYitzchak's children, nor by a story about Yitzchak. The second half of the sentence, "Avraham gave birth to (holeed et) Yitzchak", doesn't even sound like it's about Yitzchak.The first sentence of Toldot teaches us that a person's story, a person’s children, can be understood through discovering who birthed him.

Upon reaching the age of responsibility an individual becomes obligated to keep Torah and
Mitzvot. This is known as abar or bat mitzvah. Upstanding young Jewish men and women are called bnei and bnot Torah. I find this placement of the image of being a son or daughter into the context of observance of mitzvot to be striking.

On the other hand, one who commits an
aveira is called a baal or baalat aveira; one who has a sin (similar to the wayYosef was described, as baal chalamot - the one who had dreamt, baal chov - one who has a debt, and of course the generic baal - one who has a wife ( perhaps because that is the most cricial link for a man to have anything in this life). The message seems to be that in the realm of mitzvot we must remember that we are someone's son or daughter. However, when we miss the mark of what is right we must own our behavior and not blame our parents for what is ours.

While some may feel inclined to blame mothers or fathers for all that is difficult in life while crediting themselves with success and growth, the opposite approach seems more appropriate. Intertwined throughout
Parshat Toldot and foreshadowed in the opening pasuk is the idea that parents and children are deeply connected. Goodness of children is a positive reflection on parents, and by logical extension on grandparents. The negative actions of offspring, however, are their own responsibility.

Yaakov and Eisav were the children of Yitzchak and the grandchildren of Avraham in terms of potential and actual goodness. When they reached the responsible hour of their Bar Mitzvah they chose who they wanted to be. One son went to hunt and be out in the field, the other chose to sit in tents and reflect and they were held accountable for the consequences of those decisions.

We are all
someone's son or daughter and our actions reflect on our lineage. It serves us well when we remember that what our parents did was, as Leo Buscaglia put it, the best they could. It is up to us to own and work to correct our imperfections.

May we be blessed with continued growth as we tweak the good work our parents began.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Chayei Sarah? - Guest Post By Miles Bronstein

Parshat Chayei Sarah begins with the passing away of Sarah, followed by the arrangements for her burial and the burial itself. The first pasuk starts with “And Sarah lived” and then immediately goes on to state in the second pasuk “And Sarah died.” Isn’t it strange that the parsha is named “Chayei Sara - The Life of Sarah” - and yet the parsha opens with her death? One would think that the parsha would, like a eulogy, start from the beginning of her life and end with her death. Furthermore, why is the parsha called “Chayei Sarah” – “The Life of Sarah” and not “The Death of Sarah”? (The idea that the first word of a parsha is necessarily the most significant word and therefore becomes the title is wrong. In fact, Noach begins with “ אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ” and yet it is not named with those words. And there are many such examples.)

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that the name of a parsha is not chosen by chance, rather it is a one word description of the primary concepts and themes discussed in the parsha. Hence, “Chayei Sarah” is focused on one goal, which is that Yitzchak reach spiritual greatness. This was Sarah’s main dream, so it is only appropriate that the parsha named “Chayei Sarah” discuss the life of Yitchak, who was the “realization of Sarah’s spiritual vision.” By raising Yitchak in the manner Sarah did and by teaching him her principals Sarah lived on vicariously through Yitzchak, the apotheosis of Sarah’s life. When Sarah died she only died in a physical sense, for she remained extant through her son Yitzchak, making this parsha in truth, the life of Sarah.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

VeZot HaBrachah - I've Been to the Mountain Top - Guest Post

By Rabbi Joshua Hoffman

Before Moshe dies, God tells him that although he will not be allowed to enter the Holy Land, he will be able to see the entire expanse of the land from the top of Mount Nebo. Moshe ascends the mountain and is shown the land from one end to the other. (Devarim: 34, 1-4). As Rabbi Zalman Soritzkin points out in his Aznayim LeTorah, it is not possible for a regular human being to see the entire expanse of the Holy Land with his unaided vision, and, therefore, there was undoubtedly a miracle involved here. Perhaps we can suggest that Moshe was able to see the entire land through the 'or haganuz,' the hidden light that remained from the six days of creation. Rashi, in his commentary to Bereishis (4:1) mentions the midrash that the God stored away the original light from the first day of creation because the wicked people of this world were not worthy of benefiting from it. This light functioned until day four of creation, when it was replaced by the sun, the moon and the other luminaries. God stored the original light away for the future, when the tzaddikim - the righteous people - will enjoy it. However, as Rav Kook points out, over the course of the the generations, there are certain tzaddikim who are able to see this hidden light in this world. Perhaps, then, God enabled Moshe to see the entire land from the mountain top through this hidden light. In this way, we can connect the end of the Torah, in parshas VeZos HaBeracha, with the beginning of the Torah, in parshas Bereishis.

Rashi, citing a midrash, says that Moshe was also shown the future history of the nation in the land, viewing the land in its tranquility, as well as the oppressors who would arise against it. Rabbi Jacob Rabinowitz, former dean of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University, in his work Yemin Yaakov, asks, why did God show Moshe the bad parts of his nation's history at this point in time, just before his death, when it would certainly cause him anguish? Did God just want to make Moshe suffer at this point of his life?! Rabbi Rabinowitz offers three answers.First, he says that since God's trademark, or seal, is truth He could not give Moshe a false impression of the nation's history and make him think that everything would go smoothly. Secondly, when Moshe would see the more uncomfortable aspects of the nation's future, he would pray on their behalf. Finally, Rav Yisroel Salanter teaches that when God judges people, He takes into account the suffering that those around them experience due to the punishment of their loved ones, He mitigates the suffering of the one being judged because his acquaintances do not deserve to suffer so much. Thus, by showing Moshe the darker parts of the nation's future, the judgment of the nation would be lightened. I would like to suggest yet another explanation for God's showing Moshe the entire future of his nation, based on the Ramban's explanation of why God showed Moshe the land in the first place.

The Ramban says that the reason God showed Moshe the entire land is that Moshe loved the Jewish people, and wanted to see the reward that God had in store for them when they would settle the land of their forefathers. From this perspective, we can understand why God also showed Moshe the enter history of the nation, including both its good times and its bad times. When someone loves another, he wants to know everything about the person, both the good and the bad. Although the bad aspects may cause the one who loves some anguish, in a deeper sense they only serve to strengthen the love held for the other, and the bad times may serve to strengthen that love even more than the good times do. God, therefore, showed Moshe, the true lover of the Jewish people, all that would befall them in the future just as he was about to die, to endear them to him even more, so that he could take that love with him as God removed him from their midst.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Rabbi Shalom Rosner on Re'eh 5770, Adapted By Rabbi Neil Fleischmann: We Are All Individuals

"Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse" (Devarim11:26) In the Hebrew there is a contradiction withing this verse. The Hebrew word for "behold" - the name of this portion - re'eh (literally, see) is directed to the individual, while the the Hebrew for "before you" - lifneichem is in plural, before the entire Jewish communal entity. The idea here - as teased out by the Kotzker Rebbe is that while the choices of blessings and curses are put before everyone, each unique individual perceives these realities in divergent ways. Nevertheless, everyone has the chance to make truly healthy choices.

Rabbi Bernard Weinberger in his sefer Shemen Hatov on 14:1 first addresses what he considers to be the simple meaning of the flow of these words: "You are the children of the L-rd your Go-d, you shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead." Because you are children to G-d therefore you should not react by cutting yourselves when a dear one dies. A prince is exiled into the army and a time comes when he leaves the forces and goes on to be king, A soul is sent to learn things in this world and eventually returns to G-d. The soldiers, the relatives, need to not despair because the beloved is returning to where he belongs.

Yevamot 13b teaches that lo titgodedu, besides its literal meaning of not mutilating oneself also means "lo taasu gedudim"- don't break away from the community into clusters. The Shemen HaTov addresses how this ruling is derived from the verse although the literal context and the homiletical explanation seem unrelated. He suggests that nothing brings out individuality like the loss of a loved one. Everyone mourns in their own fashion, accentuating a different element of the loss of this life. The fact that everyone reacts differently to a loved one's death can lead to families breaking apart in the wake of that loss. It is specifically in light of death which can exacerbate divisiveness that we are implored to stick together.

This relates to Yirmiyahu's cry, "Habitu u're'u im yeish mach'ovkemach'ovi" (Eichah 1:12) - "Look and see if there is a pain like the pain I am experiencing." The Maggid of Dubno keys in on the wordmach'ovi.. He tells the tale of a palace built and burned to ashes. Some cry over the loss of the home they lived in, others over specific furniture or decorations. The owner is the only one who knows that he had hidden treasures in that house, so he cries harder and in a different way than anyone else. Yirmiyahu knew the deep meaning of the BeitHaMikdash, a meaning lost on the masses. He tells them that they can't get the tragedy in the way he does, their mourning and his mourning are quite different.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Matot-Masei 5770

Here are links to parsha essays from past years:
2 - On Matot And A Time Of Transition
3 - 2 Short User Friendly Vorts
5 - A Haiku, A Thought, And Let Us Say Amen

Monday, June 21, 2010

Rabbi Yaakov Lehrfield On Chukat

Rabbi Yaakov Lehrfield of YISI said the following ideas in his shiur before Shacharis on Shabbos:

The way that we know that the dying stopped in the midbar is because when Miriam dies it says she died and was buried. Up till that point the protocol was being buried first and then dying (or not).

When the water was provided via the rock it says that it was water for the people and for the animals. We learn from here that a person should drink first and then give his animals to drink. We learn from the pasuk in Vehaya Im Shamoa that we should feed our animals before we ourselves eat. Rabbi Lehrfield suggested that since people usually eat on a more than regular basis they should feed their hungry animals first. But people often dehydrate and don't drink as much as they should and should therefore drink before giving their animals to drink.

Chazal say that we learn from the episode of the hitting of the rock that one who assists in doing an aveira is held responsible like the perpetrator of the aveira itself. The idea is that we learn this from Aharon. But how was Aharon to know that Moshe was going to hit the rock that he could have been expected to stop him? This may be why the Torah goes out of the way to say that Moshe hit the rock twice. The first time Aharon was taken by surprise, but perhaps the second time he could have/should have known it was coming.

The Baal HaTurim seems to say that the punishment fit the crime, regarding the hitting of the rock. Moshe did not sanctify G-d's name and therefore was not allowed in Israel, the land in which all existence is in essence a sanctification of G-d's name.

Tradition has it that when it mentions the Canaani in this portion they are located in the wrong place. Tradition has it that this was actually Amalek posing as the Cananites. They learned the language and pretended to be them. They had a choice - to dress like them or take their language. The question is, why not change both? The answer suggested is that if you change both your language and dress you change and become someone else. This is when people get serious about religion they change (or people influencing them have them change) two things, attire and way of speaking. This is why a major part of Shabbos is the altering of these two realms.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Juxtaposition is key in the Torah. This rule applies quite clearly to the start of this week's portion, Chukat. The opening law of this parsha is that of the red heifer. It provides a mystery that even the wisest man ever - King Solomon- could not solve. It is famous paradox, contaminating the pure and purifying the contaminated. It is supra-rational and represents what Rabbi Abraham Twerski dubs ""the suspension of logic in deference to the Divine Will." It is no coincidence that this portion follows the story of Korach.

In a piece often quoted by his students, Rabbi Soloveichik says that Korach's mistake was thinking that his own logic could override the logic of G-d. The essence of a Torah life is the opposite principle, that G-d's judgment must override our own. This is why this portion follows the downfall of Korach, highlighting his mistake of thinking that he could challenge G-d's decisions. The opening line of the parsha is "This is the law of the Torah." It does not say, as we'd expect, "This is the law of the red heifer." The idea is that suspending our own judgment is the basic rule for observance of the entire Torah.

Rabbi Yitzchak Twerski points out that the first mistake of man, is the most commonly repeated mistake of mankind. Adam and Chava thought that they could override G-d's judgment with their own thinking. They suffered the consequence for their mistake. Hevel began to repair their error, submitting himself to G-d. However Kayin regressed and brought death and exile to the world, as his parents did, by challenging G-d's judgment. Many years later the story of Korach echoes that old tale of misplaced hubris. There are only two places in the Torah that the earth is described as opening up it's mouth and swallowing; this language is employed in regard to Kayin and in regard to Korach.

Adam and Chava thought that people had no more accountability than animals. This is why Chava reasoned that if the snake could have contact with the tree then so could she. This is why snakes and people had to be made more markedly different than one another. According to Rabbi Nissan Alpert the mistake (cheit really means mistake, not sin) of the golden calf was that people were saying that this cow was a symbol of the essence of man, that man is like an animal - eating to live and living to eat. The Rabbis teach that that the red heifer atones for the sin of the golden calf. The meaning of this may be that the red heifer comes to atone for the lowest level of impurity, a dead/soulless human being. Acceptance of this law is an admittance of the fact that humans are quite different than animals, given that animals have physical, utilitarian, value even in death.

Tradition has it that Moses was the only one granted the understanding of the ritual of the red heifer. RabbiLeibish Harif expalains that this is because Moshe was not involved in the cheit of the golden calf. Idolatry represents the opposite of what a Torah life is meant to be, rather than accepting our being created in G-d's image the idolater creates god in his image. A man can make a "god " out of wood and then remodel that same wood into furniture or charcoal. Idolatry is self will taking over subordination to the will of G-d. As Rav Chaim Schmuelewitz put it, "There is no such thing as doubts, there are only desires."

This portion, following on the heels of the Korach rebellion reminds us that his questioning of G-d was a form of idolatry. This is literally the oldest story in the book, going back to the first episode in human history.

An anecdote comes to mind: Two men made a deal that whoever died first would visit the other. One dies and appears to his friend in a dream The friend asks him what his day is like now. He replies, “I eat whenever I want, I sleep whenever I want, I fulfill every physical desire whenever I want.” The living man says, “I can’t believe it, you died and went to Heaven!” The other guy explains, “No, I was reincarnated; I’m a cow in Kansas.” We think sometimes that our greatest pleasure is fulfilling our physical urges. Our calling is much higher than that.

It would serve us well to keep our desires in check and to remember the unique essence of human beings. Our special stature comes along with responsibility that other living creatures do not have. It would serve us well to remember our uniqueness and to accept our covenant with G-d. May we be so blessed to rise up to being human in the highest sense of the word.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

On Korach: For The Sake of Heaven - Special To The Jewish Week

The Rabbis of the Mishnah say, “An argument which is for the sake of Heaven will have a positive outcome, and an argument which is not for the sake of Heaven will not have a positive outcome.” The paradigm presented of a sincere argument “is the dispute between Hillel and Shamai. And what was not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and his men” [Avot 5:20].

The Rabbis fail to mention Moshe, Korach’s antagonist, as they had mentioned Hillel’s opponent, Shamai. Why do they write asymmetrically, as if Korach was disagreeing with his own group?

The most common answer is that a major indication of Korach’s insincerity was the infighting amongst his followers. Korach and his men each had their own motives and fought not only against Moshe but among themselves, as well. Another popular explanation is that since Hillel and Shamai were both genuine, it makes sense to list them each as members of a sincere dispute. However, in the case of Korach against Moshe, it was only Korach who was insincere. Moshe was not engaged in an artificial fight and therefore his name is not mentioned here.

Perhaps the reason why Moshe is not listed as the other side of Korach’s fight is because from Korach’s point of view Moshe’s perspective did not exist. When someone is engaged in a fight that they just want to win rather than wanting the truth, they close out the other side.

This applies in every phase and arena of life. Most people want their political party, sports team, religion, sub-group within religion, and sub-group within sub-group of religion to emerge victorious, period. As a teacher, my experience is that many of my students just want a higher grade, while a select others truly wish to understand why I saw fit to take off points. The truly spiritual and sincere person who wishes to fulfill God’s will, fights honestly for the truth. Within that fight for truth he acknowledges the possibility of his own error and grants truth even when it rests on the other side of the party line.

When I was 17 and studying in Israel, I was primed to meet with the rabbi of the shul in which I grew up. He had been sent by my parents to convince me to go back to America. I was ready to explain why I was planning to stay in Israel, even against my parents’ will. On my way to the rabbi, I told a friend, “I’m off to an argument and I hope I win.” My friend said that he was sure I would not win. I was incredulous. Yet, he made a strong point, saying, “If you have a discussion you can get somewhere, if you have an argument you never win.” This Mishnah explains that an argument can be won if it is a sincere discussion with ears attuned to the other side.

When Moshe responds to Korach, he makes curious use of the same words that Korach said to him [Numbers 16:3-7]: “Rav lachem — it is enough for you.” Moshe tried to show Korach, by repeating Korach’s own phrase, that there was another side to the story. Korach could not, would not, allow himself to hear his own words echoed back to him from a different vantage point. This is often the case if someone is not open; they are unwilling to allow the other side the same right that they have to an opinion.

The sincerity of Hillel and Shamai trickled down to their students. The Mishnah in Yevamot [13a] says that although their two schools disagreed about major elements of Jewish law, the communities of Hillel and of Shamai were friends with each other and did not hesitate to marry one another. The Gemorah says that the reason why we follow the view of Beit Hillel is because they would study the opinions of Beit Shamai even before they delved into their own viewpoints [Eruvin 13a].

In a related note, the Talmud is sometimes puzzled by a statement made by a rabbi that didn’t seem to fit with his just stated standpoint. The Talmud’s resolution of this apparent inconsistency is that sometimes, in his earnest search for truth, a rabbi would enter the thinking of his opponent and speak l’divreihem — from the point of view of the other side.

The lesson of Parshat Korach is that when we conflict with others we must do it solely for the sake of Heaven. This applies to ethical, political, and religious issues of global import. It would serve us well to wisely take note even when we differ with others over seemingly mundane matters. What is the litmus test by which we can gauge if we are voicing our opinion for the sake of Heaven? Whenever we disagree with others we should truthfully answer one simple question, “Do I hear the other side?”

Rabbi Neil Fleischmann is director of Torah guidance at The Frisch School as well as a writer and poet whose work can be found here.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Kedoshim: Love

Perhaps of all of the sayings in Kedoshim none is as well known as - "VeAhavta LeReacha Kamocha." The Ramban raises a contradiction - how can it be that you should love your friend equally to yourself? There is a rule in the Gemora: "Chayecha Kodmin." The concept of one's own life taking precedence is illustrated with the scenario of one of two parties in the desert finding a canteen with enough water in it to keep one person alive. The one who has it uses it, and is not supposed to give it to his friend. (Bava Metziah 62a) How then can it be, the Ramban wonders, that we're instructed here to love a friend equally to our love for our self, when we know that the Torah supports a person's survival instinct and says that ultimately your own life comes first?

What is the real meaning of VeAhavta LeReacha KaMocha?"KaMocha" need not be defined as "in equal measure," but can mean "in a similar way." The Ramban takes this phrase as an overstatement for emphasis. The Ramban explains that what we're commanded here is to love our friends also, as we love ourselves. That desire that we have regarding ourselves, to live and be well, should carry over to others.

This idea is supported by the Rambam (Mada 6:3) who writes that we should speak in praise of our neighbors, be careful with the honor and the property of others - as we are with our own. While it is true that our lives come first, that need not inspire us to wish badly for anyone else. On the contrary, what is expected of us by G-d, as conveyed in this command, is to wish only good for others.

The one thing we aren't expected to do is to wish for someone else to have something instead of us. The Ramban notes that it doesn't say "et reacha", rather "lereacha." "LeReacha means towards your friend, but not exactly the same. We know that we are not expected to love the person of our neighbor as much as we love our own self. However, we are expected to love our fellow in all areas, as we love all good for ourselves. Sometimes we want good for our friend in certain areas, but not in others. Ideally, we are told in this pasuk, we should root for our friend in all matters: wealth, honor, wisdom, etc. This is very difficult; jealousy causes us to feel competitive and sometimes to not wish to see others advance. Yonatan, who we are told loved Dovid "as he loved his own soul", personifies this ideal.

Rabbi Akiva is the one who states in Bava Metziah that a person's own life takes precedence over the life of a friend. However, and this serves as a strong support for the Ramban, Rabbi Akiva is the one who famously declared that "VeAhavta LeReacha Kamocha" is a "klal gadol" of the Torah. It seems that Rabbi Akivah was aware of the need for balance - looking out for yourself while not forgetting the rest of the world.We are told to love our friends as we love ourselves.

What is implied is the need to love ourselves. The fact that we want only the best for ourselves is assumed. But is it so? There seems to be an implicit command here to work on self love.May we be blessed to love ourselves and for that love to overflow to others.

Friday, April 16, 2010

First Things Last: Tazria - Published in Be'er Shavua

As high school runs its final laps for seniors they relish being the most experienced students in school. These young men and women have grown profoundly through four intense years of a dual curriculum and represent the end product of a yeshiva high school career. Still, it seems like seconds ago they were ninth graders and that position was not without it’s charm and innocence. In September, as college freshmen our seniors will again have the chance to see things from an original perspective, one that will grow and then again be gone in four years. It has ben my privilege to be part of the educational experience of this year's seniors. The following thoughts are dedicated to the Frisch graduating class of 2010.

According to Rashi the juxtaposition of the end of Shmini and the start of Tazria conveys the idea that just as in creation animals preceded people, so too in regard to laws of purity and impurity animals come first followed by people. There is a similar Rashi regarding Yaakov meeting Eisav and organizing his family (Vayishlach 33:2). This is the concept of acharon acharon chaviv. Antechambers precede grand ballrooms, this world precedes the next one (Avot 4:21) and Shabbos follows the week. (it’s not just a day of rest, but the best day of the week, created following all the other days). The best comes last.

On the other hand, first is best. First born gets honor and privilege. The first of the month (which we just celebrated) and the first of the year are days of prestige. The first aliyah of Torah reading is presented with honor to a Kohein .

Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin addresses the issue of first versus last. He explains that when one thing precedes another and the first is a means and the second the end, then the last is clearly more important. Shabbat is more important than the days that precede it because the rest of the week is preparation for Shabbat. And this serves as a metaphor. In the words of Chazal: “He who works diligently before Shabbat will eat on Shabbat.” In a similar vein Rav Zevin cites the medrash on Breishit that tells us that when we live up to our potential mankind is told by G-d that everything was created for us and that's why we were created last.

On the other hand G-d reminds us when we stray, "even the gnat was created before you". While it may be true that last is best, as Rashi alludes to at the start of Shmini, this is only the case if what comes last elevates and transcends what came before it. But when last misses its spiritual calling, then it's first come first served, and whoever was physically created first is more esteemed, and last is last on the totem pole.

What really matters is how you use your position. Being first gives you a chance to thrive in a new place and in a fresh way. Being last allows you to build on what has come before. In our life we all are neither exclusively first nor last. In our lives we all have a first grade and a last, a first job and a last, a first love and a last. Each comes with its own advantage. On the one hand Chazal say that the education of a young person is comparable to writing on clean paper, which is better than writing on erased paper (Avot 4:25). Conversely, we are told that there is no one who is wiser than an experienced person (Mili De’Avot 10b).

May our high school seniors and all of us be blessed with the best elements of both being first and being last.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Neil Fleischmann

Friday, March 26, 2010

Tzav 5770

We're told that the asham - guilt offering, and the chatat - sin offering, are presented in the same area as the olah - heavenly ascendant offering. Why is this the way that the place is described? G-d has neither cowardly nor deceptive motives (unlike us humans) and is much more than capable of saying things straight. So why doesn't the line in the Torah simply read - "Slaughter the chatat and the asham, on the northern corner of the mizbeach," rather than describing their locations in relation to the olah?

The Kli Yakar says these korbanot are all offered in the same spot in order to circumvent embarrassment. Someone who brought a korban for a mistake he made (asham, chatat) would probably be experiencing discomfort, even turmoil. The last thing a person needs at this difficult time is to have others seeing him in the sin section and gossiping about him ("look who's bringing a chatat…you'll never believe… I thought he was frum…")

By putting the olah - which is an optional offering that isn't necessarily brought due to sin - and the chatat, and asham together in the same space, the Torah is decreasing the obviousness of why someone is there, thus allowing an individual to remain clean in the eyes of peers. The phrasing of the text makes it clear that these karbanot are placed where they are in order to be sensitive to the needs of the one who brings a korban and to protect him from the insensitivity of others. Phil Chernofsky points out in connection with this idea that one reason for why we daven Shmoneh Esrei quietly is so that no-one hears the confessions and private wounds of his friend. How sensitive to people's feelings G-d is and wishes for us to be.

Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin observes that while the conception developed above focuses on the perception of others, there is another viewpoint, developed by the Rebbe of Sokotchov which is more concerned with the makriv - one offering the sacrifice himself: The Chachamim say (Vayikra Rabbah 7:3) that the olah comes to atone for inappropriate thoughts. (That the olah comes as a rectification of thought related sins is also made clear from Iyov 1:5, in which Iyov brings olot corresponding to the number of his children, as he wonders if his sons have erred by cursing G-d in their hearts.) The word "tzafon" - Hebrew for north - comes from the shoresh - root "tzfafun," meaning hidden, because this direction is hidden from the sun. The olah, which addresses internal, thought oriented sins, is appropriately brought in the area most associated with the hidden.

Friday, March 5, 2010

KI TISA - Understanding the Cheit HaEigel

"They exchanged their honor for that of a cow eating grass". This is how Dovid HaMelech sums up Cheit HaEigel (Tehilim 106:20). Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that they exchanged His honor, rather than "their honor"? The Ralbag writes that G-d's honor is being referred to, but it is respectfully referenced euphemistically. Rav Nissan Alpert suggests a different approach which explains this reference to their exchanged honor. His approach also answers the question of why Chazal state that Parah Adumah is Kaparah for the Cheit Ha'Eigel. This in turn clarifies why it is appropriate to read Parshat Parah together with Parshat Ki Tissa, andthe story of the cheit ha’eigel.

The Jewish People at the time of the Cheit HaEigel were the Dor Deah - uniquely intelligent and sophisticated people. Thus, constructing the eigel must have been the subject of intense and profound debate . Rabbi Alpert suggests that the argument was as follows: The people who favored making the eigel wanted it to serve as a metaphor of the true nature of man, representing the fact that man is essentially an animal. They said that Moshe had lifted them up from their physical nature, but in his absence it was time to return to being what they really were - no different than a cow, eating to live and living to eat (this is implied by Shmot32:1 in which they refer to Moshe not simply as the one who took them out of Egypt, but as the man who raised them from Egypt - "Moshe, Ha'Ish Asher HE'ELITANU Mei'Eretz Mitzrayim.") Those who opposed the construction of the eigel felt strongly that man is primarily spiritual in nature and that it was therefore wrong to suggest the cow as a symbol of the essence of man. This explains why Dovid described the Cheit HaEigel as the time when Jews exchanged their honor for that of a cow eating grass.

There are various levels of tum'ah . The lowest level of ritual impurity, the avi avot hatumah, is a dead human being. The reason why the human corpse ranks lower than anything, including the carcass of an animal, is that a man's only real value rests in his soul. A dead cow can be utilized in many ways, but a dead man serves no real physical value. The Para Aduma comes to purify the lowest form of impurity - acquired through contact with a dead human being, and acceptance of these laws is reflective of an understanding that man's essence is his soul. This is why Chazal tell us that the Para Aduma is kapara for the Cheit HaEigel, the biggest mistake the Jewish People ever made. This is why we read Parshat Parah along with Parshat Ki Tissa.

May G-d help us all to remember - in the most painless way possible - that our essence is our souls.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Freilechin Purim

7:05 AM - Minyan (the one I've chosen) is at 8:15. I just received a message from an old friend from ninth grade. I switched schools for tenth and the next time I saw him was in YU. It was about five years but in adolescent years that's about a million. We spotted each other and we marvelled over the passing of time. He was in the Morg. elevator I was on the outside and as the door closed, through the crack He said, as I recall, "See you in the old age home!"
Friday night I had two students over. I am more comfortable with the term students than former students, even though when I say students it confuses people. I was so happy that one of them who's not often around here for Shabbos emailed me and asked if he could come. I made chicken soup, they brought mandel bread, but my favorite part of the meal was the conversation.
Each of these students amaze me. One was my student for Gemorah in two different grades and was a stand out. He remembers things I taught, extra credit questions and asides that I forgot! The other was valedictorian and his graduation speech was about his hero, the Sridei Eish...
10:50 AM Recently returned from minyan.There was an announcement mad that money was being collected to be be given todayto poor people in NYC. It stood in contrst to the usual, which is Yerushalayim.
Last night and today I used the Artscroll Esther, which holds the distinction of being the first Artscroll book to come out. I didn't know about it when it first appeared but was made aware of the Ruth commentary when it was published a few months later. I recall Shep Rosen excitedly showing it around like a treasured jewel on Shavuos night at the all night learning.
3:39 PM Soon seudah. In the vein of my mentor Mr. Rogers' sincere sentiment that if it's mentionable it's manageable I share with you that action is hard for me. There are four kabbalistic spheres, and the "lowest" is asiyah - action. To quote my student, "Sometimes when it says the lowest it means the highest." Yes. The world of action is the one we live in. When I was an adolecent and on a crusade to find out why Gemorah is the focus of learning I collected many answers. One Rebbe told me that Gemorah is very in this world, you get your hands dirty when you learn it, it reminds us of the world we're meant to connect with.Purim is an action focused holiday. You have to plan a seudah, prepare mischloach manot, read a megillah twice. It's very community oriented, very much about putting your money where your mouth is and truly doing not simply saying. For me, Purim is hard.


I should be on my way to a communal seudah. Slowly, slowly, said the sloth. Soup made? Check. Matzah balls? Check. Cutlery and paper goods? Check. Wine and soda? Check. Sorbet? Uh oh. Another action to do. Two students that want me to stop by their seudah on the way to mine? Don't think it's gonna happen. Tisch in Brooklyn after seudah, via ride that needs arranging? Maybe. Prep for school tomorrow? Not now. Clean up from Shabbos? Not


4:01 PM - People ask how I write so much. The thing is I hold back. If I could I would write much more, now and always.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Tetzaveh, Purim, Death, Life

9:00 PM - It's Purim night and here I am at the keyboard. I have my pride, so I'm writing here and not my (slightly) more public blog. This aveilus thing is confusing. the books don't talk about it, this whole keeping away from celebrations even on Shabbos. I was told that a seudah is fine, any amount of anything. But what about tonight? I live right by Y.U, one of the biggest and best chagigas around, and yet...
I'm going to keep returning to parsha and Purim, so it's not totally random that I'm posting here. But it will be broader than just the parsha ma'am. It'll be kind of like some of my posts from the end of the summer of '08 and the surrounding times.
I feel like a kill joy when I say kaddish. No one wants to hear it. I pick my minyans in part based on acoustics. The new YU Beis Medrash has not worked well for me in terms of acoustics and big crowds in the past as far as kaddish goes. So I went to a smaller minyan in the Rubin Shul. There I was, getting in the last word while every one wanted to eat, drink, and be merry and be done with davening.
Before megillah reading the gabbai announced that if you don't hear a word from the reader you should say it aloud yourself. He said you are halachically permitted to read up to half of the megillah yourself from a book. You shouldn't read it all along with the ba'al korei, Gabbai said, because then you're reading it all not from a klaf and not yotzei and also annoying people around you. He also warned that sometimes you can't make out all the names of Haman's sons and should read them yourself if that's the case (the ba'al korei took umbrage to to this).
The obligation about hearing the megillah always left me wondering, now more-so. What does it mean to hear something. We use the word "hear" as synonymous with understand - as in, "Do you hear what I'm sayin' man?" But they are not necessarily always synonymous. You can hear something with your ears and not understand what's being said, just as you can sometimes not get the words coming out of someone's mouth and yet understand what they are trying to convey.
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The nurse at mom's bedside told that hearing is the last thing to go but that understanding is gone way earlier. They were sure that mom could hear but not understand, and I took their word on that even as I doubted it. In those kind of intense death threatening at your door moments there's an acute need to trust people - sometimes despite your own inclination. I wonder. This is what came to mind this year as I thought my usual thoughts about the reading.
I was also tuned in to timing. How long did the story take? It seems to me that it takes at least ten years. I folded over the pages that stated dates, also pages with lines that resonated.
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11:27 PM I stopped by the YU chagigah. I got there around 9:30 and things were just starting up. It's unclear to me what I can do. My main rebbe/mentor says that anything goes on Purim and that on Shabbos also for the most part. The rabbis I know in the halachik YU community have this thing from Rav Soloveichik about simchas merei'us. Based on that I was told tonight that I could stay on watch but dancing was the one thing it would be better not to do. The rabbi that answered was very kind and other oriented. He gave me a hug and wished me happy times (not in exactly those words). I tried to ask an elder rebbe first but couldn't get to it as he was going on about he's never been before been at the chagigah before it started and it's not like people had to eat after fasting so it's hard to understand how an it be that things aren't underway yet and...
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I can't find my Jewish Week right now. It might be under the couch. As I was dozing last night I read this week's dvar Torah, something I've been doing with added interest since I've published my divrei Torah in that paper. I feel a camaraderie with the other writers, also a curiosity - who else is writing what. This week's writer raised the issue of the paradox of being commanded to destroy the memory of Amalek and also in the same breath being commanded to never forget them. Also raised was the fact that Haman's descendants learned Torah in Bnei Brak.
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I forgot to include in my Tetzaveh piece the idea that a message of the parsha seems to be that even, or perhaps especially, clothing is a major part of avodat Hashem. Also, Rabbi Twerski turns his Tetzaveh thoughts to azut - arrogance, and so does Rabbi Baruch Simon, each coming at it from a different angle....
12:01 AM Wow!!! I am moved. The young rabbi that I spoke to earlier at the chagigah just called me to see how I'm doing! He said that I should keep in mind that the restrictions of the 12 months are a fulfilment of kibbud eim - honoring my mother. He said it was good to see me and that I'm a very special person. It was real, not perfunctory feeling. He was in no rush to go. Gestures like that restore my sometimes wobbly faith in humanity.
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It reminds me of a story I heard from Rabbi Ben Tzion Twersky. His son was in a serious car accident and was in the hospital. He was surrounded by student friends. One of them was a sensitive and talented violin player who played for him, while other offered conversation and company. When the room became filled with students the boy's mother stepped out and sat in the hall outside the room. A few minutes later her cell phone rang. It was the mother of the violin player. He was worried that she felt lonely and could use some company herself and so he asked his mother to give her a call.
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I feel like I could write forever. We all pass time in different ways. I think thoughtful, introspective writing, shared with thoughtful introspective people is a better way to invest time than ways of passing time that I can think of. I thank G-d for this writing. I thank G-d for everything.
Good night and G-d bless
he wrote, thinking about Mom
On Motzai Shabbos
When it was also Purim
And she was completely dead

Tetzaveh - Guest Post - Where's Moshe?

By Kovi Fleischmann

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When looking through Parshat Tetzaveh, one will notice the astonishing fact that it is the only parsha since the time of Moshe's birth that Moshe’s name is not mentioned even once. Among the reasons suggested is that of the Baal Haturim who says that when Moshe was praying on behalf of the Jewish people after the Cheit Ha’egel he said “And now if You would but forgive their sin! – but if not, erase me now from your book that you have written” (Shemot 32:32). Although Hashem did forgive the Jews for their sin, the words of a Tzadik, at least in some fashion, will always come true. Thus, in this one parsha Moshe’s name is erased. Why, however, was this the Parsha chosen as the one in which Moshe’s name was to be omitted?

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The Vilna Gaon explains that since Moshe was to die on the 7th day of Adar, which almost always falls out during the week of Parshat Tetzaveh, Hashem left out his name here as an allusion to this fact. Why did the Chachomim who set up the parshiot wish to for the parsha in which Moshe’s name is omitted to coincide with the time that he died?

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Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, in his Oznayim LaTorah, explains that it was done to emphasize the fundamental principle in Judaism that we do not treat the leaders of our nation as central factors in our belief and service of Hashem. Our holidays do not revolve around the birth or death of our great leaders, as is often found in other religions. We do not idolize Moshe nor do we atone for our sins through him. Although we know that Moshe was the faithful appointee of Hashem and the greatest navi who ever lived, our emunah is only in Hashem and our service is to Him alone as our master and creator. The Torah leaves out Moshe’s name specifically in this parsha to remind us of this fact.

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Perhaps there is another reason why this, the parsha about the bigdei kehunah, is the one that Moshe is, seemingly, unconnected to. The kohanim, and more specifically the Kohein Gadol, are the spokesmen for the Jewish People. As we know, Aharon was the one who spoke on behalf of his brother Moshe throughout their time in Mitzrayim. The job of the kohein is to reveal the glory - the tif'eret - of Hakadosh Baruch Hu. It says that the qualifications for the Kohein Gadol are that he must be wise, rich, and handsome. It seems quite strange that he must he be handsome; why is this the case? The answer is that he is the ambassador of the malchut of Hashem, and he must be like a magnet to all the people around him to cling to. Moshe Rabeinu was the opposite of the Kohein Gadol. Nowhere does it say that he was handsome, in fact it is implied from the Tiferet Yisrael (who quotes an unknown medrash), that Moshe had the appearance of an ugly man. Nowhere do we find chitzoniut - externals focussed upon in regard to Moshe, but we do an emphasis on this in regard to the kohanim and their clothes - the bigdei kehunah - in particular.

Moshe, who was the ultimate expression of revealing the shechinah - divine aura of Hashem constantly, had no need for these externals. When this idea is taken even further, one can find its connection to why the parsha chosen to be absent of Moshe’s name is the parshah read before Purim. In older editions of the Rambam’s introduction to his magnum opus the Mishneh Torah, Mordechai ias a balshan – a linguist, an expert in languages. Proof to this is the fact that he was able to understand the language of Bigtan and Teresh in their plot to kill King Achashverosh. A parallel medrash calls Mordichai by the name Petachya, one who can find hidden meaning in things.

The message of Purim, expressed through the amazing story of Megilat Esther, is about seeing Hashem where he seems the least apparent. It is about realizing that Hashem is the Master Puppeteer pulling all the strings behind the scenes and that He always, although we may not see it, has the solution set in place even before the problem arises. The essence of who Mordechai was, was the ability to reveal Hashem even when it seemed like Hashem was hiding his face from us. Moshe was on such an unbelievably high level that he was not relevant to this aspect of Mordechai and Purim. Moshe was a walking, talking revelation of Hashem, and even spoke to him face to face. He was the leader of the nation in the time in history that had many open miracles; nothing about his relationship with Hashem was hidden. Since Moshe was the epitome
of openness with Hashem, perhaps it is appropriate for Tetzaveh, the one before Purim, to be the only parsha from Moshe's birth till the end of the Torah, , in which Moshe’s name is hidden.