Parshat Nitzavim/Vayelech

In the final run up to Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the 10 day period that determines our fate for the coming year, Jews around the world are taking stock of their spiritual growth over the last year. And the truth is, we all have our weak areas, habits we’d like to kick, practices we’d like to adopt. We want to change. We want to take that big leap.

What’s stopping us?

There are a few possible reasons. This Parshah addresses one of the biggest factors: the fear of failure. The worry that we might mess up again at some point.

Moshe Rabbeinu has now begun his final speech to the Jewish people. ” לא אוכל עוד לצאת ולבא – I am unable to come and go” he says (דברים ל״א: ב׳/Deuteronomy 31:2)

The Grand Rabbi of Izhbitz OBM gives a very deep explanation. Moshe was telling us: I am now stuck in one place. I cannot go up. But neither can I go down. As long as Moshe was still growing, he could have fallen at any moment. And he did.  Once that risk had gone for good, he knew that he had reached his goal in life.  Falling is a part of the process. It means that we are on the right path.

Rabbi Chatzkel Levenstien OBM compares spiritual growth to building a tower. The builder is always at risk of falling off. But even if that happens, the building he has built thus far is still standing. He just needs to climb back up and complete it!

May we all merit a year of joy, health and growth.

(Parshah idea heard from Rabbi Shimon Semp Click here to see his original short video)

(Special thanks to my friend Chaim Sonnenfeld for telling me Rav Chatzkel’s parable)

Parshat Ki Tavo: look at yourself!

We always knew that happiness enhances your quality of life. But did you know that not being happy is a sin?

The Torah gives us a list of curses and ends off by telling us what sins cause them.

(תחת אשר לא עבדת את ה’ אלוק’ך בשמחה ובטוב לבב מרב כל (דברים כ”ח: מ”ז

‘Because you did not serve Hashem, your God, amid gladness and goodness of heart, when everything was abundant’ (Deuteronomy chapter 26, verse 47)

According to this literal translation, the simple understanding is that G-D brought hard times upon you when He saw that we took His blessings for granted during the good times.

The Ohr Somayach has his own interpretation of the verse:

‘Because you did not serve Hashem, your God, amid gladness and goodness of heart, from seeing another person for whom everything was abundant

The problems in life come when one looks over one’s shoulder at other’s successes.

A man once came to his rabbi with a tale of woe. His business had thrived for several years. A year ago, a new competitor had opened shop nearby. Since then, the man’s sales had dropped drastically, while the new shop stole it’s success.

The rabbi looked at him and smiled. “I’m not surprised you’re doing so badly. You have your head in two businesses at once!”

Happiness is a state of mind that we can all get to, a choice we can all make. How? By focusing on our own blessings.

(As heard from Rabbi Chaim Rosenfeld. Hear the original lecture here)

Parshat Ki Teitzei: The enemy is NOT invincible!

Having trouble with your Evil Inclination? Read on…

It’s the month of Elul. Time for serious reflection and change. time to check that we are on the right spiritual path.

The trouble is, Hashem has given us a Yetzer Harah, an evil inclination, to try and throw us off track. And clearly the Yetzer Harah is an absolute master of his craft. Battling him can be demoralising!

Luckily,  Rabbi Yechezkel Abramsky OBM has an amazing observation from the parshah that will hopefully give us the power boost we need to deal with this threat.

The verse (Deuteronomy 21: 11) tells us that a soldier is PERMITTED to have relations with an attractive female prisoner of war. The Talmud (Kiddushin 21b) explains that the permit applies even if the woman is married.

This is an action that would normally be considered one of the three cardinal sins, which one must avoid doing even at risk of getting killed!

As an analogy, the Talmud states that even though it is considered repulsive to eat the meat of a dangerously ill animal, if he has to do so he should at least slaughter it in a manner permissible by Jewish Law. Similarly, a soldier could find the temptation of a female captive to be too strong for him. Therefore the Torah allowed him to follow his desires in this case (with certain restrictions), so that he shouldn’t come to disregard the Torah by caving in to sin.

Rabbi Abramsky expounds: If there is any proof of Hashem’s kindness and desire to see us succeed, this is it. Clearly, every obstacle that G-D puts in our path can be scaled.

The following email arrived in my inbox some time ago from, of all people, the Yetzer Harah himself (well, it could have been from him!)!

To my star pupil, I am writing this letter to let you know what I think of you. Up here in heaven things are not like they are down on Earth. Over there, people only know what they can see. If they see a person is “successful”, they think that he is the greatest guy. When they see somebody struggling, they think he might be one of the weaker elements.  

Let me tell you something. Hashem gives every person certain abilities that nobody knows about down where you live. Some people are capable of tremendous things, while others were put there for much smaller purposes. Only Hashem in His infinite wisdom is able to give every person exactly what he needs, to reach his potential.   

I am very misunderstood. Most people hate me, and I don’t really blame them. Most people think that my job is to make sure that they fail in all aspects of Mitzvos (good deeds), and that I rejoice every time they sin. This is the furthest thing from the truth. Did you ever watch a boxing coach train his student? It is really a funny sight. The coach will put on gloves, and fight against his student. At first, he won’t hit him so hard, or throw his best punches. But, as the student gets better and better, the coach will start to fight him harder and harder. He does this so that the student will improve his skills, and become the best boxer he can be. 

This is where it gets strange. Every time the coach knocks down the student, the student gets yelled at!! But finally, when the coach threw everything he has at his student, and not only does he withstand the beating, but he knocks the coach down, there is nobody in the world happier than the coach himself! This is exactly how I feel. If you fail right away, and don’t even try to fight back, I see that there is not much talent to work with, and so I take it easy on you. But if you get back up swinging, I realize that I may have a real winner here, and so I start to intensify the beating. With every level that you go up, I increase the intensity of the fight. If you finally deal me a blow that knocks me out, I will get up and embrace you and rejoice with your success.

Sometimes my job is very disappointing I see a person with a lot of potential and I start right in on him. He fights back for a while, but when the fight gets too tough, he quits and just remains on whatever level he was on. (And he usually ends up going down!) I feel like yelling at him, “Get up you fool! Do you have any idea how much more you could be accomplishing?!” But I am not allowed to do so. I just leave him alone, and go try to find another promising candidate.   If I have chosen you to be the target of my more fierce battles, it was not for no reason! You have tremendous ability! You were born into a very special family, you have Rabbeim (mentors) who really care about you, and parents who would help you grow in Torah and Mitzvos. You are a very respectful and kind person.   

I am writing to you now, because I have a very serious request to ask of you. Please don’t step fighting! Don’t give up! I have been beating too many people lately, and I am losing patience, Believe in yourself, because I would not be involved with you as much as I am if I didn’t think you could beat me. Know what your strengths are! A great Rabbi once said: “Woe is to he who doesn’t know his weaknesses. But, ‘Oy Vavoy’ (double woe) to him who doesn’t know his strengths – for he will not have anything with which to fight.”  

Always remember one thing: you have a secret weapon at your disposal. I shouldn’t really be telling you – but I will anyway. Hashem himself is watching our “training” sessions very closely. I’m pleased to inform you that He’s rooting for you! If things should ever get tough, almost too tough to bear, just call out to Him with a prayer, and He will immediately come to your aid. I wish you the best of luck, and I hope that after 120 years when your time is up in that world of falsehood, you will come up here to the world of truth, where I will be waiting for you with open arms, to congratulate you on your victory, and personally escort you to your place next to the Throne of Glory..

Sincerely, and with great admiration I remain,

Your Yetzer Hara

(Adapted from Sefer Lekach Tov.)


Parshas Shoftim: self-check time

8This week, Moshe Rabbeinu speaks about the recruitment process for the Jewish army. People at certain pivotal life stages- people who just got married less than a year ago, planted a new vineyard without tithing it, built a new house without consecrating it- were exempt.
The Torah has a reason: that the person might be replaced. That his wife will remarry. That another man will take over his house or vineyard. That, says Rashi, causes great anxiety to a Jewish soldier.
But why was that explanation necessary? surely the fact that he might arrive home in a coffin is reason enough!
Rabbi Shimon Schwab OBM answers that these soldiers were truly righteous men. They knew that their chances of survival were small. But they had made investments for the sake of Torah. They wanted their vineyards to be tithed, their houses to be consecrated, their children to be raised as committed Jews. Those dreams could be ruined if the wrong man takes over. That is what a Jewish soldier concerns himself with.
We all have dreams and aspirations for our homes and our possessions. But sometimes life gets in the way and distract us. ‘Another man’-in the form of personal daily struggles and temptations- can easily replace the real ‘us’. Now that we have entered the month of Elul, the last month of the year, we have a golden opportunity to go back to being the people we want to be. To return to Hashem.

(as heard from Rabbi Daniel Staum. View the original lecture here)

Parshas Re’eh: Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder

It’s all about perspective…


(ראה אנוכי נותן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה) ( דברים פרק י”א פסוק כ”ו)

‘See, I have placed before you a blessing and a curse’ (Deuteronomy Chapter 11 verse 26)

According to the simple understanding of the verse, Moshe Rabbeinu is laying out the consequences of the path they take. Keep the Torah and you’ll enjoy a wonderful existence. Neglect it and you’ll suffer.

The Dubno Maggid has his own interpretation. As usual, he brings a parable:

Scenario A:

A man was walking down the road, when he realised that he had dropped a valuable gold coin. On his way back, the man made a conscious effort to look out for it. Instead of finding one coin, he found two. The man started dancing. He couldn’t believe his good fortune.  “Thank you Hashem” he cried, “If I hadn’t lost my coin I wouldn’t have gotten this windfall!”

Scenario B :

A man was walking down the road, when he realised that he had dropped a valuable gold coin. On his way back, the man made a conscious effort to look out for it. Instead of finding one coin, he found two. The man’s face fell. He couldn’t believe his bad luck. “Oh no” he cried, “If I hadn’t lost my coin, I would have had three coins now!”

Two people. Same circumstances. Different reactions.

Moshe was teaching us that Hashem arranges events in our lives, big and small. But their status is up to us to determine. Is a late bus a nuisance or an opportunity to read more or learn more Torah? Is a bad internet connection a lost hour of work or a great opportunity to clean up your cluttered desk, or take of any other small things or your ‘to do’ list?

Disaster or success? Loss or opportunity?

Our perspective is our choice. Let’s choose wisely.

(As heard from Rabbi Shimon Semp)

Parshas Eikev: The ‘key’ to success

Take yourself out of the picture!

(כי תאמר בלבבך רבים הגוים האלה ממני איכה אוכל להורישם. לא תירא מהם (ז, י”ז-י”ח)

Perhaps you will say in your heart ‘these nations are more numerous than me, how will I be able to drive them out?’.  Do not fear them. (Deuteronomy

The Talmud in Gittin (90a) tells us that the word ‘ki’ at the beginning of the verse has four possible meanings – ‘rather’, ‘because’, ‘if/when’ and ‘perhaps’. My translation follows the opinion of Rashi, who explains that the verse is reassuring those who are scared of the enemy’s military superiority that Hashem will help the Jews to be victorious. Rashi actually states that none of the other four translations would fit into the context.

The Shelah has different take. In his view, ‘ki’ could mean ‘if’ in this context. He explains that the Torah is giving us the recipe for victory. If you will have the honesty and humility to admit that you are incapable, that these nations are more numerous than us’, then ‘do not be afraid of them’. Our downfall only starts when we start to believe in ourselves too much, forgetting about God’s involvement.

In our busy world, we tend to fall into the trap of believing that all we achieve in our lifetime is due solely to our efforts and talents. And while we are expected to pull our weight in here in the physical world, that in and of itself is useless. The main ‘key’ (excuse the pun) is our total recognition that our ultimate success comes from Above and has nothing to do with us.

(adapted from Sefer Talelei Oros)


Parshas Va’eschanan: When NOT to be pious

Don’t let your growth hurt those around you!

Moshe Rabbeinu was desperate to get into the Land of Israel. So much so, that we are taught that Moshe uttered 515 prayers, begging Hashem to allow him entry, despite being banned from entering the land after hitting the rock for water instead of speaking to it. Yet the Torah quotes Moshe as saying “I implored Hashem”. Rashi says that imploration is a form of prayer one uses to request something he doesn’t deserve. He goes on to say that Righteous people, Tzaddikim, never feel that they are entitled to anything Hashem grants them.
But, asks the Maharal, when Moshe later reminded the people of the shameful incident of the spies, he said that he “prayed to Hashem” to have Him forgive them. Here he did used his own merits to make an argument! Why the change in approach?
The Maharal’s answer gives us incredible insight into the thought process of a Tzaddik. Moshe Rabbeinu wasn’t blowing his own trumpet in his interest, but was doing so on behalf of the people. Humility was Moshe’s trademark. To paraphrase a certain man of power (who, sadly, seems to lack this trait), no one ‘did’ humility better than Moshe. He did not feel worthy of Hashem’s kindness, despite having a lifetime of merits under his belt. But when it came to others, Moshe used every merit he had to advocate before G-D. All humility went out the window.
In Judaism, there is a concept of not being a ‘pious fool’. One has to know when to put his own growth out of the picture. One rabbi (I forget who) was known to rile against people who would hear others cry about their financial problems and tell them to have faith because “Hashem will help”. Those rich people are expected, at that moment, to keep their self-righteous faith talk to reach into their pockets and help their friend. Not lecture them!
Because true growth never comes at the expense of others!