Vayakhel: Holy Mirrors

One of the vessels in the tabernacle was the kiyor- the basin that the priests used to wash their hands and feet before doing their service.

You might be surprised to learn that it was made from the mirrors donated by the women. Understandably, Moshe was quite hesitant to accept gifts with such mundane origins for the house of G-D.

But G-D insisted that Moshe accept it. In fact, The Ibn Ezra says that he was not allowed to leave out a single mirror that was donated. All of them were used to create a giant sink.

Because those mirrors were special. Rashi tells us that the wives used them to adorn themselves so that their worn-out husbands would be attracted to them. And as such, the Jewish nation lived on.

Here’s one lesson that I took out of it.

We tend to paint things black and white. We teach our children that some things are good for us and some things are bad for us. But perhaps this isn’t always the case. Technology has its place. Money has its place. Music, art, literature, food…they all have two sides to the coin.

And it’s not just physical objects. Character traits go on the same principle. There are times when it’s not appropriate to be kind. Sometimes laziness can be utilised for good things.

It’s not so much about changing ‘bad’ character traits or getting rid of ‘bad’ devices. It’s simply about ensuring that we use what we have for the right purposes. of course, if unharnessed, these things can turn against you and bring you down. But if they’re seen and used primarily as a means to a spiritual end, they can bring you to places you never thought you could reach.

Parshas Ki Sisa: A sinful parent is still a parent!

This week the focus of the Parsha is the tragic sin of the Golden Calf. After Moshe Rabbeinu went up to Heaven to receive the Torah, the Jewish people miscalculated the date of Moshe’s return. They built the calf initially as a replacement for Moses. Ultimately, they started worshipping it as a god in its own right. When Moshe came down Mount Sinai and saw the Jews dancing around the calf, he smashed the tablets. Hashem announced to Moshe that He wished to destroy His people and start again from scratch. But after much pleading and praying from Moshe, G-D agreed to forgive the Jews.

There’s an interesting observation made by the Chiddushei HaRim:

Each Parshah in the Torah is split into 7 parts. On Shabbos, when the Torah is read in shul, the custom is to call up a different person to the Torah at each of the 7 intervals. That person makes a blessing, then stays with the Torah for the duration of his ‘aliyah’ while it is being read and finishes this honour with another blessing. The first two are allotted to a kohen and Levi respectively.

Usually, the aliyos are roughly even in length. Each one is around 13-15% of the portion’s total verses.

But this time it seems a bit uneven. The kohen receives 44 verses, while the Levi receives 46. They cover 90 verse between them. There are then 47 verses left to split between the remaining 5 aliyos.

In other words, Kohen and Levi take up a good 70% of the Torah reading.

But what really makes it interesting is that the first two sections are the ones that speak about the Jews’ downfall with the golden calf. The 2nd Aliyah finishes just before G-D forgives His people.

It’s as if, when Torah was split up, it was done in a way to make sure that the only people to read about this incident would be the descendants of the tribe of Levi, who didn’t participate in the sin.

The Chiddushei HaRim explains that this was indeed deliberate. The sages who did it did not want the evildoers’ descendants to read about the sins of their fathers. To do so would be disrespectful to them. It was more appropriate to ensure that the offspring of the innocent Levites be given this honour.

Such is the value we place on honouring one’s parents.

Today, it’s not en vogue respect one’s parents. Their ‘old fashioned’ views don’t make sense to younger people, as we live in a culture of entitlement.

This is just one reminder of how false that notion is. All parents, at the bare minimum, deserve our respect for simply bringing us into this world. And most parents go far, FAR beyond that.

And it goes beyond that too. Our Rabbis teach us that the love and respect that one is expected to have for his parents is the model for his relationship with G-D. Modern day studies indicate that children who learn to obey their parents fare much better socially and emotionally than those who don’t learn those skills. They learn to respect others in their lives and gain vital social skills.

Learning to love our parents is learning to respect others and ultimately love Hashem.

It’s a lesson not only to teach our kids but ourselves too.

(with thanks to Rabbi Meir Rappoport for this idea)

Parshas Tetsaveh/Purim: Need motivation? Create it!

 

It’s the month of Adar. Purim is less than a week away. And we are instructed to increase our joy in this month.

Actually, the Torah commands us to be happy all year round. In fact, in the book of Devarim, Moshe tells the Jewish people explicitly that much of the suffering they endure is a consequence of not serving G-D with happiness.

But doesn’t that seem unfair? Am I really responsible for my mood? I’ve got to work late after being stuck in traffic for half an hour. My boss screamed at me for 10 minutes. My day went downhill from there. Why do I deserve to get punished for shouting at my kids after such a disastrous day?

In Parshas Tetzaveh, the Torah continues discussing the Mishkon (tabernacle). It talks about the clothes for the kohanim (priests), for the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and the regular priests, the oil for the Menorah, and the Ketores (incense) offering brought on the altar.

And each of these is discussed in great detail. The clothes require exact measurements, from the hat to the trousers (‘pants’ for my US readers!). The oil needs to be as pure as possible. And the Ketores needs to be sweet smelling.

Why were all these details so important?

The Torah tells us that the kohen’s clothes were designed for ‘honour and dignity’. The Rambam and the Sefer Hamitzvos write that this was the reason for the oil and the Ketores as well.

But why are dignity and glory so essential?

Because it inspires us. It sets the mood.

But it required action. A team of kohanim had to sew the clothes, construct the vessels, prepare the oil, maintain and coordinate everything…

The Sefer Hachinuch teaches an idea that suggests that ’emotions are created by actions’. The actions of beautifying the tabernacle create an atmosphere that inspires others.

The principle comes into play when one does a mitzvah. As Chazal teach us, one mitzvah causes another. Doing good things motivates us to do more good.

So yes, one can change one’s state of mind.

By forcing ourselves to do things we might not want to do, we create the mood that motivates us to continue. However bad your day was, if you force a smile long enough you can change your emotional state for the better (another scientifically proven fact!). It’s a case of ‘faking it till you make it’.

Don’t wait for your mood to change. Change it yourself!

(As heard from Rabbi Nissan Lifschitz. Click here for the original lecture. Special Thanks to Rabbi Binyomin Denderovicz for his contribution)

 

Parshas Mishpotim: Who’s the Boss?

Lets remind ourselves of our priorities.

We have just been given the Torah at Har Sinai. Now it’s time to get down to the fine details…

Interestingly, the Torah begins by discussing, of all things, the laws of owning a Jewish slave.

Why did the Torah feel it important enough to begin discussing its laws with this?

The answer, as explained by Rabbi Leibel Eiger (a grandson of the famous Rabbi Akiva Eiger), is a guideline in priorities.

The first mitzvah in the Torah is to recognise that ‘I am Hashem, your G-D’. That recognition is a prerequisite to fulfilling the Torah. Similarly, the principals of the laws of an ‘Eved Ivri’ are based on the premise that Hashem considers us to be ‘slaves to me’ and not to others. By discussing the laws of Eved Ivri at this introductory stage, the point is brought home again: to be able to accept the Torah, one must first know with Whom his first commitments lie.

As Rabbi Eiger explains, while the laws of Eved Ivri do not apply to our generation, everything in the Torah is eternal. He writes that we are to free ourselves from all types of slavery. Moreover, just as an Eved Ivri goes free in the seventh year, a Jew who finds himself enslaved goes free on the 7th day, i.e. Shabbos.

Rabbi Eiger wrote this in 19th century Poland. Yet anyone could think that he was writing it in 21st Century America. We all know the distractions that distract us from our priorities. Technology, work, addictions. When we think of servitude to G-D, we think of the common mitzvos (commandments) that are done ‘Bein Adam LaMakom’- ‘Between man and G-D’. Commandments like Teffilin, prayer, Shabbos, keeping kosher. However, let’s not forget that servitude of Hashem also means loyalty and commitment to our nearest and dearest.

Hard work is important. Technology is wonderful. But our challenge is to keep things like these under our control, establishing them as our servants rather than our masters. We have other people to answer to. Especially our own Master.

(Based on the thoughts of Rabbi Elimelech Biderman)

 

Small request

Writing this blog gives me tremendous satisfaction. But often the research involved can be time consuming. Often, I only have time to begin thinking about it on Friday morning!

Therefor, I invite anyone who has a good Dvar Torah that Jews from all backgrounds can enjoy to send it to me at ariblum123@gmail.com. Please be clear and provide a reference if possible. If it’s from an online Shir, please give the link and the relevant timeframe point (e.g. 20:29).

Thanks so much.

Ari Blum

Parshas Yisro: Gratitude unwrapped

More than just a gift!

This week we meet a fascinating new individual. Yisro (Jethro), Moshe’s father in law, was attracted to the Chosen Nation. Rashi comments that the catalyst was two miraculous events in the short history of the nation: the splitting of the Red Sea, and the victory over the attacking Amalekites.

Clearly there was something about those episodes that Yisro found particularly inspiring.

The Ksav Sofer explains by answering another question.

The incident with Amalek clearly shows us that the Jews left Egypt well armed and trained for combat. Rashi himself suggests that the ‘silver and gold’ that they had claimed from the Egyptians, as mentioned in the Torah, refers to Egyptian weapons.

So why did they not just take out their swords at the Red Sea and fight the Egyptians themselves?

The Ksav Sofer’s answer can be summed up in one word:

Gratitude.

Two hundred years earlier, the twelve sons of Yaakov had been allowed to settle there and flourish. Yes, the country later enslaved them and oppressed them. But gratitude is something that is everlasting.

Yisro initially assumed that the people were unequipped to defend themselves against the Egyptians. Their victory over Amalek showed him that their unwillingness to fight the Egyptians stemmed from their innate trait of gratefulness. Having taken Moshe into his home In Midyan years ago, Yisro reasoned that the Jews would honour their debt of gratitude to him in a similar fashion. And so it was.

As the Maharal teaches, real gratitude is much more than simply ‘paying back’ favours with identical ones: it’s a feeling of indebtedness that should stay with a person forever.

A verbal ‘thank you’, or even a gift and/or a card, as important as it is, is just the beginning, the basic obligation of decency. Real gratitude continues forever.

(The author thanks Rabbi Binyomin Denderovicz for the idea)

 

 

Parshat Beshalach

Picture this:

You are living in the Biblical times. You’re escaping from a country that, to Jews, like yourself, is the ancient equivalent of Nazi Germany.  You get to the sea.

Now what?

Two minutes later, you hear a soft rumbling behind you. Turning your head, you can make out what looks like a horde of Egyptian chariots in the distance.

You’re trapped. Doomed.

What would you have done?

If you are reading this, the chances are you would know Who to turn to. Even if you were an atheist, I bet that you would plead with the G-D you ‘didn’t believe in’ to save you. As they say, there are no atheists in foxholes. It’s instinctive for Jews to pray when pushed into a corner.

Yet, when the Jews found themselves in that situation, they were told off by Hashem for doing just that.

“Why are they crying to me?” Hashem asked Moshe “Go forward!”

It’s as if Hashem was surprised and upset with them for doing what anyone with faith would have done!

Perhaps Hashem was telling them was that faith wasn’t just about praying.

Yes, there are times when it is appropriate to ask for Hashem’s intervention.

But sometimes, having faith means taking action. Believing that Hashem is behind you whatever you do.

That is why the Torah speaks about Nachshon Ben Aminodov with such respect. He was the first one to literally jump into the ocean. He took a step, knowing that Hashem ‘had his back’.

On the wall behind my desk hangs a quote: ‘You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take’. Next to it hangs a picture of Rabbi Nosson Zvi Finkel OBM, somebody whom I see as a role model. I wasn’t consciously thinking about the connection when I hung the two pictures next to each other. But today, I can’t help thinking about how he Rav Nosson Zvi embodied that quote. As the head of a Yeshivah with 5,000 students, he would constantly travel to collect funds, even whilst fighting a 20 year-long battle with Parkinson’s disease.

As I well remember from my stint at the Mir Yeshivah, his lectures weren’t a pretty sight. The man was in such pain it was difficult to watch him get a word out.

Not quite the image of a professional fundraiser.

He could have been content to pray for Yeshiva’s financial salvation (which was often precarious, to put it mildly) from the comfort of his bed.

He would have been forgiven for ‘accepting his limitations’ and doubting his own fundraising abilities.

But Rav Nosson Zvi didn’t consider any of this for a moment. He just acted.

So when you’re stuck, don’t just pray.

Act!

 

(Parshah thought originally heard from Rabbi Shlomo Farhi. Watch the original lecture here)