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!

Parshas Devarim/Shabbos Chazon: Want Redemption? Dust yourself down!

What’s the one sin that everyone is guilty of?

 

Not stealing

Not lying

Not lashon harah (gossiping)

 

Give up? The answer is (drumroll please!)…..Avak lashon harah- the ‘dust’ of lashon harah’*, speech which aren’t derogatory in and of themselves, but are given in a derogatory fashion**. For example, if a wife were to say that her husband was “always out helping other people”, putting the stress on the “other” and rolling her eyes, the unspoken words are obviously: but too busy for me, his wife.

“He has his door open 24/7” could either mean that your neighbour opens his home to those in need, or that he parties’ day and night, has friends over who block your driveway, and he keeps the whole street awake at night with his parties. Again, it all depends on how it is given over.

And even those who are careful not to belittle others can let slip from time to time.

 

The first word of the book of Devarim is אלה, which is usually translated as ‘these’. We understand the beginning of the verse to say ‘And these were the words that Moshe spoke to all of the children of Israel’

 

The Megaleh Amukot understands that the word אלה in this context is an abbreviation of the words אבק לשון הרע- Avak Lashon Harah. His reading is ‘And (the topic of) Avak Lashon Harah were the words that Moshe spoke to all of the children of Israel. This understanding explains why the Torah had to point out that Moshe was speaking to all of the Jews. Moshe was telling us that no one is immune to this terrible sin.

 

Keep in mind that this was the very beginning of Moshe’s final series of lessons, in which he would review the entire Torah with the Jews. Remarkably, he begins by talking about a concept that pertains not to matters between man and Hashem, but to interpersonal relationships. As if to say that the entire Torah is underpinned by our relationships with each other!

 

One of the great sages to champion this view was Hillel the Elder. The Talmud relates that on one occasion, when approached by a gentile and asked to teach him the whole Torah on one foot, Hillel famously replied “What you wouldn’t want done to yourself, don’t do to others. The rest is commentary”.

 

Parshas Devarim is read during the days leading up to the 9th Av, the anniversary of the destruction of both the first and second Temples. All the persecution, pain and suffering that we have endured over the last 2,000 years of exile began on that fateful day. We are taught that our current exile was brought on by our own baseless hatred for each other. And as much as we may be sick of hearing the same thing year after year, there really is no other way to show Hashem that we are ready to go home.

 

Once and for all, let’s put our different dress modes and outlooks firmly aside and show Hashem that we have finally learnt to respect each other. And who knows, this year the 9th Av may well become a celebrated day the likes of which the world has never seen before!

 

*= See Bava Basra 165a

**= As explained in Sefer Shemiras Haloshon

Parshas Maasei- Yes We Can!

Our Father believes in us. Do we?

 

The Jewish people had finished their travels. They were on the cusp of a new life in the Land of Israel. And so, at the beginning of Maasei, Moshe began to prepare the nation by listing to them the places they had stopped at over the last 40 years.

Rashi gives the analogy of a father who took his ill son on a journey, a quest to find a cure. When the son recovered, his father took him back the way they had come, stopping at significant points to remind his son of something that had happened to them there on their outward journey. The Bartenura explains that the Jews had been spiritually sick in Egypt. The giving of the Torah was the start of a healing process. Each stop in their 40-year trek presented a challenge which further strengthened them, until they reached the state of completion required to enter the land of Israel.

Rabbi Henoch Lebowitz OBM asks: isn’t reminding someone of his past misdeeds prohibited as hurtful words? Why did Moshe have to remind them of their previous failings?

Rabbi Lebowitz explains that Moshe wasn’t knocking the Jewish people. on the contrary, his words were given over in a way that empowered them. He wanted to show them just how much they had accomplished in the last 40 years, how far they had come since their days in Egypt, and how G-D Himself believed in them.

We read this Parsha during the three week period of mourning that commemorates the destructions of the first and second temples. As with any tragedy, the process of recovery can only start once we discover the root cause, when we understand where we went wrong. In this case, we are well-aware of what we need to fix. Our Rabbis have been shouting from the rooftops for 2000 years that baseless hatred brought about the exile and sustains it. Perhaps our problem is that we lack confidence in ourselves as a people. We forget how much we have achieved even in exile. The fact that in 2017, after 2000+ years of holocausts, inquisitions, pogroms and blood libels, there are still vibrant communities of Torah observant Jews around the world, especially in the Holy Land, is a testament to our resilience and steadfastness. And we can- we must! – do more. Much, much more!

Hashem believes in us. And so should we!

 

(As heard from Rabbi Doniel Staum. Access the original lecture here)

Parshas Pinchas: Leaders are not shepherds!

What a REAL leader looks like…

We live in very bizarre times, where supposed leaders of World Powers are often people we would not want our children to view as role models, given some of the crass comments they have made, or scandalous behaviour they have engaged in. And sometimes, in the circus that is 21st century world politics, we wonder what a leader should look like.

Rabbi Yechezkel of Shinova, or the Shinover Rav as he was known, focuses on a rather odd-looking verse in this week’s parshah. Moshe was concerned about the welfare of his people after his death. He tells Hashem that he does not want the Jewish people to be כצאן אשר אין להם רועה    ‘like a flock (of sheep), that does not have a shepherd’ (Bamidbar 27:17).

No doubt you, the eagle-eyed reader, have just raised your eyebrows when you saw the comma in that sentence. Well, they’re about to go up higher. You see, that was not a typo! If the Torah were to be talking about a single flock that lacked a shepherd, it surely would have said כצאן שאין להם רואה!

Strangely, The Torah appears to be suggesting that farmers tend to raise their sheep without the help of a shepherd. But that was certainly not the case, at least not then!

The Shinover Rav’s answer sums up the Torah’s definition of a leader. True, each responsible farmer needs a good shepherd to ensure that the sheep are well fed and cared for. But the shepherd’s job is not to care about the sheep. Come the end of the season, the sheep will be fleeced for its wool or killed for its meat. Moshe did not want a corrupt politician to lead the Jewish people. His criteria for a leader was simple: He had to be someone who cared for the people and the people only.

In the Jewish world, leaders do not require multi-million dollar campaigns to impress people. in fact, our Gedolei Hador (Great men of the generation) have zero interest in becoming public figures. Given a choice, they would rather be left alone to study Torah all day uninterrupted. But figures like Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, the latter of whom has a 3 digit age, avail themselves to the public daily, often pushing the limits of their health to do so.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef OBM was once in the midst of a desperate search for a Halachic permit that would allow a woman whose husband had permanently disappeared to remarry, when he suffered a major heart attack and collapsed. When the Rabbi regained consciousness in the ambulance, he insisted that he be returned back home. Only when he had been able to find the answer that the poor woman needed did he allow his family and the paramedics to take him to the hospital.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe OBM was once given a gift: an automatic letter opener to assist him with the countless letters that came through his letter box. But he never used it. “If a Jew writes a letter to me in tears” said the Rebbe, “How can I callously rip it open?”

Looking for a shepherd? Look for someone with authority. Looking for a leader? Look for someone with authority who puts his people first!

Bolok: Listen to your donkey!

Go through life with your eyes open

This week, the Torah takes us out of the Jewish camp to nearby Moab. King Bolok, who wasn’t too happy with his new neighbours, sent out Bil’am who had prophetic abilities on par with those of Moshe Rabeinu.
The Chofetz Chaim makes an interesting observation.
Each story in the Torah is sectioned into paragraphs, each ending with singular letter pey ((ף or samek (ס). The story of Bolok and Bil’am reads like one long paragraph, with no lone peys or Samekhs in sight!
The Chofetz Chaim goes on to explain that the Torah was written by Moshe, as dictated word for word by G-D. The single Peys and Samekhs were points at which Moshe, in his great humility, would stop and contemplate what he had just written. BIl’am wasn’t in the habit of contemplating. Stubborn as the mule he used, His default modus operandi was to jump into something without considering the ramifications of what he was doing. Act first, think later- if he had to think at all.
When his donkey sat down in the middle of the road and became the only donkey ever to talk, Bilom was completely unmoved. It didn’t make the slightest dent on his conscience. When he felt he was right, nothing could convince him otherwise. The Midrash tells us that Bilaam had previously been advisor to Pharaoh. Before the plague of hail, the people were warned to take their cattle indoors. Bilom was one of the handful of people who ignored that advice, and had his cattle wiped out by blocks of fire and ice from Heaven.
We all have our ‘talking donkey’ moments. Things happen to us, often unexpected. Miraculous things, challenging things. These things should shake us up and remind us to refocus, to show us when we are perhaps veering off the right path. But too often our eyes are closed, and we miss what’s right in front of us. When we keep our eyes open, we will identify the opportunities in our path without having to be prodded by Hashem.
Our donkeys are talking to us. Are we listening?

Chofetz Chaim