Parshat Acharei Mot/Kedoshim: when the ‘mundane’ choice is the spiritual choice

Is it ever appropriate to forego spiritual opportunities?

Surprisingly, yes!

In this week’s Parashah, we learn about the service of the Kohen Godol on Yom Kippur. Part of it includes selecting two goats, one which is offered as a sacrifice while the other is thrown off a mountaintop in a desert (La’azazel) as an atonement.

The Mishnah in Yoma mentions that the person to deal with the goat designated for the ‘azazel’ is escorted by the ‘Yakirei Yerushalayim’- the ‘dear ones of Jerusalem’. The Bartenura explains that these people were stationed at the 10 posts between Jerusalem and the cliff so that there will always be someone to accompany the goat. He calls them the ‘chashuvei Yerushalayim’- the ‘important ones’ of Jerusalem.

Interestingly, as the Torah commentary book ‘Kemotzei Shalal Rav’ (literally meaning ‘as someone who finds a great fortune’) explains, there is no explanation as to who these people were. We only know that they were the ones to accompany the goat to the azazel site.

And yet we call them the ‘dear ones’ and the ‘important ones’.

You see, the public gallery in the temple was open to the masses on Yom Kippur. Naturally, everyone took advantage of it and came to be inspired by the services.

And it certainly was a very inspiring experience for everyone.

Yet a group of people chose to forgo the opportunity to accompany someone to throw a goat off a mountaintop.

And they are called ‘precious ones’, ‘important ones’

Presently, we’re in the ‘omer’ period, when it is customary to take on some restrictions, e.g. not shaving, not listening to music, etc. We are taught that 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died suddenly in this period. These were some of the greatest men of their generation. And yet, they were all punished for not considering the feelings of others (on the level of spirituality they were on).

Our job isn’t just to learn Torah, but to give to others. To be there for our fellow Jews, even at the expense of personal spiritual growth.

Because serving others is in itself a form of spiritual growth.

(As heard from Rabbi Daniel Staum. Click here for the original lecture.

Parshas Shemini: The power of responsibility

Our mistakes are OUR responsibility!

“The price of greatness is responsibility” is one of Winston Churchill’s many famous quotes.

And unsurprisingly, there is a precedent for this in the Torah.

The priests were on the last day of the 8-day inauguration of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. Now their service in the Mishkan begins in earnest. Hashem instructed Aharon to bring the first sacrifice; a sin offering made up of a calf, an Eigel. Rashi comments that this is to atone for the sin of the golden calf.

The question is that this has already been achieved. The Torah tells us in Parshat Tetzaveh how Hashem commanded the Jewish people to offer up ‘one bull and two rams, unblemished’ (Shemos/Exodus 29:1). Rashi over there tells us that that sacrifice was also an atonement for the incident with the golden calf. Why did Aharon have to atone a second time?

 Rabbi Yehoshuah Leib Diskin answers that it is a lesson in responsibility. Aharon certainly had good intentions when he instructed the people to take their wives’ jewellery and create the golden calf. He knew that resisting was futile, as they would have killed him and built the calf anyway. His idea was that this would stall the process, as the wives would surely resist their husbands. In that time, Moshe would be back and the Jews’ perceived need for a replacement would disappear. He certainly didn’t imagine that the people would be so riled up by the troublemakers that they would have the gold in a few hours!

Nevertheless, good intentions notwithstanding, Aharon had played a part in the people’s spiritual downfall. And he, as their second in command, was required to take full ownership of his role in the wrongdoing.

In my humble opinion, this is what separates men from boys.

I’ve yet to hear of a great person who got to where he or she was without making mistakes. Nor have I heard of any great people who achieved their greatness by blaming other people for their failures. If anyone knows of such people, please introduce me to them!

We all fall. It’s part of the process. But the idea is to learn from our mistakes. To take ownership of them.

 

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)

 

Parshat Bo: Let Him in!

When all the gates are locked, humility tunnels you under them…

Throughout the saga of the ten plagues, the narrative remains the same: G-D inflicts the chaos, Pharaoh begs Moshe to ask G-D to stop, G-D ends the nightmare, Moshe orders Pharaoh to release the Jews, Pharaoh’s heart hardens, Pharaoh refuses, G-D is angered, and the cycle repeats itself.
Pharaoh’s refusal makes him deserving of punishment. It makes sense, at least on the surface.

But, as the Torah tells us from the beginning, it was G-D who hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
Pharaoh had ZERO control over his free will. He couldn’t repent of his wickedness even if he wanted to.

And yet, G-D punished him over and over, in a series of escalatingly intense plagues, with the ‘grand finale’ at the Red Sea.

Doesn’t that seem unfair?

A Rabbi of a Synagogue noticed something rather odd that happened once a year. One of the shul’s members was a man who only came to services on Rosh Hashanah. He would walk in, pray for a few minutes quietly, and then leave. And for those few moments, his face showed that he was concentrating very intensely. One year, the Rabbi couldn’t control his curiosity. He called the man over and asked him what he was praying for.
“Every year” he replied “I have this request:
“G-D: I have a great marriage, a financially rewarding career, all the cars and luxuries I want, kids who are doing well in school. One thing I ask of You: Please, stay out of my life!”

This sad joke is indicative of the type of person Pharaoh was. We mentioned that Pharaoh was beyond the point of no return. But that wasn’t entirely true. He had a ‘backdoor’ option.

The Talmud tells us that there are sins for which the gates of repentance remain closed. But the commentaries stress that even in these situations there is an answer. If one calls out to G-D, He will dig a tunnel (so to speak) under the gates for you to go through.

That, says the Chofetz Chaim, was an option that Pharaoh had all along. With a sincere expression of submission before his Creator, he could have changed his life. But like the poor fellow in the story, he lacked the desire to have Hashem in his life. Pharaoh’s lack of humility prevented him from bridging the gap between him and G-D.

A man came to the Steipler and told him that he was concerned about his difficulty in maintaining faith in G-D. the Steipler’s ‘diagnosis’ was clear. “Haughtiness” declared the sage. “If you’re too concerned about yourself to think about others, you have no room in your heart for Hashem either!”

A humble person knows that he isn’t the master of his destiny; G-D is.

(Based on a lecture from Rabbi Fischel Schachter. Click here to watch the lecture video)

YOU can be like Moshe

This week aside from Moshe Rabbeinu ( Moses our teacher), we read about his brother Aharon. The first time the two of them were mentioned together, Aharon is discussed first. Rashi points out that the order in which they are mentioned in one verse keeps changing throughout the Torah. Most of the time Moshe comes first. Sometimes Aharon’s name precedes Moshe’s in verse. Rashi explains that each one was as great as the other.
But is that true? Wasn’t Moshe the greatest Prophet to ever live? How could Aharon be compared to his brother like that
The Rambam goes a stage further. He asserts that anyone can be like Moshe Rabbeinu!
How do we understand Rashi and the Rambam?
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein OBM (or ‘Rav Moshe’ as he was known) explains that Moshe Rabbeinu was born with a tremendous abundance of gifts. And he used those talents to the full. He lived up to his potential. In that sense, Aharon was able to match his brother. Aharon, too, used the gifts that Hashem had granted him to become the best person he could be.
And that, says Rav Moshe, is what the Rambam meant. We can all achieve greatness in the areas we were destined to grow in, using our Heaven-endowed gifts. Just like Moshe, we too can live up to our potential and achieve great things.

(As heard from Rabbi Nosson Scherman https://www.torahanytime.com/#/lectures?v=54678)

Parshas Vayeishev: dream and do!

This week, we follow the fortunes of Yosef (Joseph). Sold into slavery by his brothers (their justification for doing so is a subject for a different piece), he ends up in Egypt, serving General Potifar, one of Pharaoh’s chief officials. After refusing to have forbidden relations with Potifar’s wife, Yosef is thrown into Prison.
It is there that he becomes famous for an unusual talent, one that would bring him from being a lowly criminal to become the viceroy of Egypt.
Here’s how it happened.
One day, Yosef encountered the king’s former butler, in for letting a fly get into the king’s goblet, and he seemed a bit glum. When Yosef asked what was bothering him, the butler told him about a very perplexing dream the night before. In it, he saw a grapevine with three bare tendrils. Suddenly, the Tendrils quickly sprouted fat juicy grapes. Immediately, he plucked some of the grapes, pressed them into wine, pressed the wine into Pharaoh’s cup (which he happened to be holding), and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hands
Upon hearing this dream, Yosef interprets it seamlessly. The three tendrils represented the remaining three days the butler would have to spend in jail. After that, he would be pardoned by Pharaoh and reinstated to his former position, serving Pharaoh as if nothing had ever happened.
I would imagine that the butler and the other inmates were probably a bit sceptical. Some of them perhaps felt that the long years in prison had affected Yosef’s mental health. But lo and behold, to the amazement of all, Yosef’s prediction came true, and the butler was let off the hook.
Word of the young prodigy dream interpreter spread through the jail. The baker, who was serving time for dropping a pebble into the bread (even back then, world leaders were unpredictable- some things never change!) tried his luck and ran his dream by Yosef. In his case, the dream saw him balancing three baskets on his head. The top one held an assortment of baked goods, which were consumed hastily by some rather impudent birds. Perhaps he regretted asking. Yosef explained that the three baskets represented the three days he had left before he would be executed. Again, Yosef was right on target, and the poor met his Creator three days later.
The question that begs to be asked is: How did Yosef know who would live and who would die?
Of course, the simple explanation is that Joseph used Prophetic vision. But I recently heard an amazing insight in the name of Dayan* Chanoch Ehrentreau, head of the London Beth Din and one of North West London’s most senior Rabbinic authorities.
The dream of the butler involved ACTION on the butler’s behalf. It was the butler who pressed the grapes and made the wine. Yosef saw that he was a doer. The baker, by contrast, was completely passive. He simply stood there, without even waving his hands to shoo away the birds!
It’s a principle that so many great people have shown throughout history. We all have dreams. But only those of us who are proactive and do something about our dreams are helped by Hashem to make them reality.
Let’s keep dreaming big dreams. But let’s DO something with them when we wake up!

P.S.  if you ever dreamed of winning £1,000 each night for 8 nights straight for JUST £20 whilst supporting an important Torah institution, you can take action right now by clicking Here. Draws take place over Chanukah, starting Tuesday night, so hurry up! 🙂

*(A Dayan is a Rabbi who serves as a judge in a Jewish court of law)

Parshat Noach: It’s all in the plans

G-D has His plan for you. And it’s a good one!

Why do good people suffer while bad people prosper?

That’s a question that’s been asked over and over, throughout the history of the world.

It’s even possible that even Noach had voiced this question. The Torah tells us that he had to wait 500 years before having his first child, after watching everyone else in the world have children at the young age of 100.

This was the man who was the only righteous person in his time. The man remained completely cut off from the falsehood and corruption of the world around him. He surely didn’t deserve this!

One couldn’t blame him for asking the question.

But G-D, of course, had a plan.

Giving Noach children at a normal time in his life would have been disastrous at worst and very troublesome at best. Had they grown up to be wicked, they would have reached the age of a ‘bar onshin’, a person liable for Heavenly punishment, long before the flood. Thus, they would have drowned with the rest of that generation. If they would have turned out righteous, Noach would have had several generations of descendants to consider in his ark building plans. Considering how long it would take him to build one ark, he certainly wouldn’t have fancied the headache of building a fleet of them! In His infinite kindness, G-D timed the arrivals of Noach’s kids to take place within 100 years of the flood to prevent either of these outcomes.

If Noach had indeed asked the question, the flood was G-D’s answer to him.

During World War II, the British ‘treated’ some of their German Jewish refugees to a free trip to Australia, along with other ‘enemy aliens’ (many of them were Nazis). The boat was the cheapest they could find, manned by a crew of the lowest criminals in Brixton Jail. One day, the bored crew thought it would be fun to attack their passengers. The poor Jews, who had lost family members to Hitler, now had to watch their only possessions being carelessly tossed into the ocean.

Unbeknownst to them, a German U-Boat in the area had the ship in its sight. Just before the captain gave the order, he noticed what appeared to be suitcases floating in the water. The luggage was retrieved and opened. Lo and behold, out came piles of books in…German! Clearly the British were transporting a group of POWs somewhere.

And thus, the Jewish refugees arrived safely in Australia, escorted by a German U-Boat that had nearly torpedoed it.

Challenging life situations often make no sense to us human mortals. But in Hashem’s unlimited perception, it’s all part of the Grand Plan for us and the world.

 

(Idea heard from Rabbi Yissochor Frand. Based on Rashi, Bereishit/Genesis Ch.6, V.9. Story heard from Rabbi YY Rubinstien.)