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Parshat - Nitzavim-Vayelech

Growing up, I learned about the days of Rosh Hashana, the Ten days of Repentance, Yom Kippur and the month of Elul leading up to them. They are “days of awe,” we learned. What does that mean exactly? As a kid I thought this meant that these are days to be afraid of. I had some teachers who reinforced that, teaching us that Hashem is sitting in judgment on Rosh Hashana, the books of life and death are before Him, and He judges each person to determine what his next year will be like. If we have sinned, I learned, we must do Teshuva, repent, change our ways, cry out to Hashem for forgiveness and resolve to do better next year. There was a palpable fear of the Supreme Judge Who is going to “get you” for all the things you did wrong, and you’d better shape up, or else, Lots and lots of awe!

Then I started listening to the talks of Rabbi Schneerson, our Rebbe. I learned that yes, indeed, most of that is true, but I learned to look at it through a completely different lens. During the month of Elul, our Sages taught, Hashem “shows a smiling face” to each individual. Hashem is not hoping to catch us at something wrong. Hashem reminds us of His unbounding love for every one of His children. Rosh Hashana is coming, the time when the lease on the world is up, and we need to renew it.  Chassidus teaches that Hashem created the world in order for us humans to bring the Divine spirit into all of the material things, and the existence of the world depends on that. On day six of creation Adam, the first man, stood up and gathered all of Creation and announced that Hashem is the ruler of the world, thereby fulfilling the purpose of creation. Hashem then gave the Universe a one year “lease”, and this lease is renewable every Rosh Hashana, the anniversary of Adam’s creation. So every year on Rosh Hashana, Adam’s children do the same. We blow the Shofar and accept Hashem as our ruler. Imagine the privilege that we have, each of us being given the opportunity to express the purpose of creation and to bring Divine life to the world!  Hashem gave us this opportunity because of His love for us. He did not want us to feel like we were given everything without earning it. Human nature is such that we appreciate and enjoy what we earn much more than what is given with no work on our part. This is known as “bread of shame.” So Hashem made us partners in creation, and it is our work to improve the world and follow the lifestyle given in the Torah that keeps the world going.

If we are to be true partners to Hashem, it behooves us to make sure that we are worthy partners. When we think of Hashem’s love for each of us, this awakens a response of deep love in our hearts and minds, to want to live up to Hashem’s trust in us. This also creates a great sense of awe. If Hashem loves us so much and shows so much kindness toward us, should we not be careful not to harm that relationship and allow anything to get in the way? So the overwhelming emotion of Elul and the High Holidays is love, Hashem’s love for us and our love for Him, coupled with a powerful sense of awe, recognizing our awesome opportunity, which brings with it an awesome responsibility. So, as in a human relationship, when we know that someone truly loves us, we do all we can to strengthen the relationship and are fearful of doing anything that might cause distance, our relationship with Hashem in Elul becomes stronger. We look back over the last year and see what we have done to strengthen our love for Hashem, and what we may have done that distances us from Him. We strive to improve ourselves, to fix what needs to be fixed in our relationship, so that on Rosh Hashana we can honestly stand up and proclaim that Hashem is our ruler, our parent, and our beloved source of life. We ask Hashem to see our inner love for Him, and to bless us with another year to continue bringing His Divine light into the world. 

Instead of a depressing, fearful and in a way fatalistic time, this can and should be a greatly uplifting time, a time of spiritual renewal, a time of great hope and optimism. Hashem looks down upon us and smiles to us, encouraging this hope and optimism. And Hashem is happy, in the words of the Psalms, with his creations and blesses us with goodness and sweetness for the New Year.

I invite you to join us at Chabad for Rosh Hashana. Our services are open and friendly, everyone is invited, no tickets or reservations required. You will enjoy the new social hall at Chabad in Palo Alto, or the services at our other locations. No matter where each of us is on the ladder of observance, Hashem is smiling and inviting us to join Him in the re-creation of the world on Rosh Hashana. Come and hear the Shofar and be part of it. Yes, you.

Torah Studies - A Call for Unity

Parshat - Ki Tavo

One of the striking Mitzvot in the Torah is the Mitzvah of Bikkurim – First Fruits, that is taught in this week’s Parsha.  When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, every farmer would bring the first of his produce to the Temple.  As he watched his fruits develop, he would tie a string around the first ones to ripen, and after harvest he would place them in a basket and bring them to Jerusalem.  Our Sages describe the procedure in great detail.  The seven types of produce with which Israel is blessed in the Torah were used, and organized in a certain way, with grapes adorning the edges of the basket.  The people of Jerusalem would come out to greet the farmers, and they would sing songs and celebrate this event together.  There are many levels of significance to this Mitzvah.  Among other things, it is a major statement of faith and gratitude.  If you have ever grown tomatoes or other produce in your garden, think about the feeling you had when you ate that first ripe tomato or orange.  You worked really hard and patiently waited until you could enjoy the fruits of your labor.  You might share the produce with others, but that first one is your own, you worked for it and you earned it and you get to enjoy it.  Giving that first fruit to Hashem is a statement that you recognize that it is not all your work that made it happen, in fact your work was just the channel for Hashem’s blessings, which is the primary cause of the produce growing.  This Mitzvah reminds us that Hashem’s providence is what runs nature, and that whatever we have is a gift that was given to us in order to improve the world.

An interesting detail of this Mitzvah is the basket.  One would think that it goes without saying that the fruits would be put in a basket, how else would you carry it?  I don’t think they had cardboard boxes in those days.  Yet the Torah says “Vesamta Vatenne” – you shall place it in a basket.  Why does the Torah have to command us that?  The truth is that while the typical translation of the word “tenne” is a basket, it is not necessarily a basket in the way we use the word.  It really means a container.  It could be brought in a basket woven from willow twigs, usually done that way by the poor, or it could be a gold or silver container, usually brought by the wealthy.  It seems that the container is an integral part of the Mitzvah.  Another interesting fact about the container is what happened to it after the fruits were brought to the Temple.  The fancy containers were given back to the owners, but the simple woven baskets were an integral part of the gift and kept by the Kohanim.  The Talmud (Bava Kama 92a) says about this practice, perhaps a little tongue in cheek, that poverty follows the poor.  Why indeed is the container so important, and why is the simple basket part of the gift and not the fancier ones? 

As always, a deeper explanation to this Mitzvah is given in Chassidus to answer these questions.  The “First Fruit” alludes to the soul of a person, which is called Hashem’s “first produce.”  It comes into the body in order to improve it and the world, and to synthesize the physical and the spiritual, top bring the produce of the world to Hashem.  The soul is interested in spirituality and would rather spend its time studying Torah than busying itself with material pursuits.  The Torah tells us that the “First Fruit” must be put in a container.  The way to fulfill its mission is for the soul to engage the physical and to observe practical, physical Mitzvot.  This way the soul is contained within the world and making a difference here.  However, only the simple baskets made of simple twigs remain part of the offering.  This teaches us that it is specifically the “lowly” day-to-day seemingly mundane activities, such as dealing honestly in business, helping a friend or neighbor, giving Tzedakah, eating food that is kosher, or other seemingly simple acts that truly affect the world. 

I wish you a Ketiva Vachatima Tova, a good and a sweet NewYear.  This is the time to be thinking about your needs for the holidays.  If you have any questions, please feel free to email or call me.  If you would like to order “four species” set, you can now do it online at www.chabadgsb.com/etrog or by phone at the office.  If you are looking for a great place to be uplifted for the High Holiday services without having to buy a ticket, Chabad is here for you.  Please do not hesitate to call on us if there is any way we can be of service to you.

Torah Studies - The Divorce Dilemma

Parshat - Shofetim

 

This week’s Parsha, Shoftim, teaches how a monarch should behave. Although today the concept of monarchy seems archaic, and for good reason, and the Jewish monarchy will only be restored by Moshiach, there are nevertheless lessons to be learned from the Torah’s description of the ideal king. Kings throughout history were not particularly known for their humility. A typical king would do whatever he could to amass treasure, would have a harem with lots of wives, and of course the best horses. The Torah commands a king not to have a lot of horses, only as many as he needs for his use, not to amass treasure beyond the needs of the government, and not to have a lot of wives. All of this in order to ensure that he remain focused on his mission and not have his heart turned toward material pursuits. In addition, the king would write a special Torah scroll that he would keep with him at all times, and read it every day of his life. As the Torah says: In order that his heart not be lifted above his brethren, and that he not stray from the commandments right or left.” In the Holy Temple, when the name of Hashem was mentioned by the Kohen (priest), the people would prostrate themselves for a short while. The king, however, would prostrate himself and remain in that position for the entire service.

The role of the king in Judaism was to inspire the people to follow Hashem’s commandments and adhere to the Torah way of life. On one hand the king was to be greatly respected and was not permitted to tolerate any kind of insubordination. On the other hand, he had to humble himself before Hashem, even more than the rest of the people. The two go together; if he is truly humble and recognizes that he is simply a messenger from Hashem to help promote and protect the people’s connection to Hashem, then his authority is that given to him by Hashem. When he enforces his authority, it is not his personal position he is protecting, but the monarchy that Hashem has set up. If, however, he is purely promoting his own status and position, then he will lead the people astray and have the opposite effect. It is very easy for a leader to let the power go to his or her head and to forget that the primary focus of leadership is service. The heady feeling of control over others often leads a person to feel that it is all about him or her. The Torah reminds the ruler that he must be humble before Hashem and not allow his heart to rise above the people.

We all have some areas of leadership in our lives. This applies not only to a CEO or a government leader, but also a parent, a teacher, a person with a sphere of influence, or even just among friends and associates, we are sometimes called upon to provide leadership. In a certain sense we are also called upon to provide leadership to ourselves – to have our brain control our impulses and to ensure that our actions and behavior are consistent with our values. The key to effective leadership is to remember: It’s not about me. It’s not what I want or what I think is right. True leadership is about guiding people, and ourselves, in the path of fulfilling our mission on earth. When it is not about our feelings of power and control, but about helping those we are influencing reach their potential, then we have a shot at providing effective leadership.

Our Sages tell us that when Moshiach comes, he will personify this concept of the two seeming opposites. He will be the greatest Torah scholar, on the level of Moshe and the Forefathers, yet he will learn with the simplest, illiterate people. That is his greatness, may we merit to see it soon. I wish you a good and sweet New Year.

Parshat - Re'eh

 

There are two topics that seem to be dominating the news:  anti-Semitism and the eclipse.  I am mentioning anti-Semitism because it is at the forefront of people’s minds and is a very important issue that can’t be ignored, though I am not dealing with it in this writing.  I want to talk a little about the eclipse that will be seen throughout the country on Monday.  Perhaps we can connect it with this week’s Parsha – Re’eh – which means: See!  We need to protect our eyesight and see, so be careful not to look directly at the sun during the eclipse and G-d forbid harm your eyes.  Perhaps a deeper connection is to open our eyes and see how Hashem runs the world, something that an eclipse might lead some in the other direction.

 

There is a somewhat controversial Talmudic statement (Sukka 29a), that many over the generations have been used to accuse the Talmudic scholars of not being truthful or knowledgeable in the sciences.  The Talmud states that a solar eclipse is caused by certain sins, relating to forbidden relations, murder and lack of the proper respect to our elders.  Skeptics have pointed to this statement as “proof” that the Talmud is not accurate, since after all the eclipse is a natural phenomenon that happens at certain times that can be calculated in advance.  Rashi (Bereshit 1:14) quotes another statement from the Midrash that says that when the heavenly bodies are eclipsed it is a bad sign for the world, another head scratching statement.  He also quotes the verse in Jeremiah (10:2) “don’t fear the signs of the Heavens,” and explains than when we follow Hashem’s will we have nothing to fear.  It seems strange to seemingly ascribe human behavior as affecting the natural phenomena.  I often hear people saying that the Talmudic sages did not understand the world and “only got their information from Torah.”  The fact is that the tribe of Yissachar were the world’s experts in astronomy going back to the early beginnings of the Jewish people.  Rambam writes that they wrote great books on the subject that unfortunately were lost to us.  So it’s not possible to say that they were unaware of the natural occurrences of eclipses, and attempts to categorize it that way are usually an unwillingness to accept that maybe there is depth to the statement that we don’t understand without further examination, often accompanied by an excuse not to observe what is taught in the Talmud.

 

There have been several explanations given over the generations.  The one that speaks to me most is the one given by the Rebbe at a public address in 1975.  I was there at the time, and the following is based on that talk.  A fundamental belief of Judaism is that nature and its laws were created by Hashem, and that everything that happens in the physical realms is connected to and directed by the spiritual worlds.  The sun shines and provides light, warmth, photosynthesis, energy etc.  The moon affects the tides, and in general the world is affected by the movement of the planets and the galaxies.  There is also a more personal effect on individuals from the galaxies and the constellations, known as “Mazal”.  The Talmud says that people born at a certain time have natural tendencies toward certain behaviors.  For example, people born on Sunday tend to be somewhat extremist, because that is the day that light and dark were created.  Someone born on Monday will tend toward anger because that is when division came to the world.  But while these are natural tendencies, what we do and how we control them is up to us.  Extremism can, as we see today so often unfortunately, be used for destruction, but It can also be used for intense, uncompromising good.  The emotion of anger can be channeled into strong emotional adherence to Torah.  So the point is that there are certain times that are conducive to certain tendencies and behaviors, and we have the choice to use those opportunities for negative or positive.

 

This is the meaning of what the Talmud says, that the eclipse comes about because of certain sins.  There are times that are spiritually conducive to that kind of sinful behavior, and this is shown to us in the form of an eclipse.  How we actually behave, however, is entirely up to us.  If we allow the negative forces prevalent in the world at this time to drive us, then this is a bad sign, leading us off the moral path.  If, however, we choose to follow Hashem’s will and refrain from negative behavior, a choice that is entirely in our own hands, we have nothing to fear of the “signs of the Heavens.”

Parshat - Ekev

 

We are here today because of the tenacity and heroism of our people. Throughout the generations, our great leaders have taught us that the true secret to our survival is our adherence to the Torah and its values, to observance of Mitzvot, and our absolute refusal to give them up, regardless of the consequences. Our history is replete with stories of heroism, people who stood up against great regimes and armies to perpetuate Judaism and ensure that the Torah was taught to the young generation. Often, their heroism seemed to be an exercise in futility. They were exiled, murdered, imprisoned and tortured and often did not achieve any immediate results. But it is their heroism that made us who we are, and their inspiration that has kept the Jewish people alive against all odds.

 

One such hero was Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, Rabbi of the city of Yekatrinoslav (known today as Dnepropetrovsk), in Ukraine. In his position as Rabbi, he was pressured by the Soviet authorities, as were all Rabbis in the Soviet Union, to modify his stance on Halachic issues to suit the Soviets’ idea of what Judaism should look like. He refused, and instead continued to strengthen Judaism in his city and encouraged Jews not to waver from their observance in the face of threats of imprisonment and death. He was arrested and sent to exile, and died relatively young because of the illnesses he contracted relating to his exile.

Some may say that had he given in, he would have been able to continue to lead the community, and with a few compromises he could have kept his position and helped Jews at least keep some semblance of Judaism. He knew, however, that compromising the Torah does not lead to observance or to Jewish continuity. In fact, compromised Torah is not Torah at all. It is only because of the eternal nature of Torah as given by the eternal G-d that we have miraculously survived, and therefore nothing can stand in the way of our bond to that eternal life, even the end of a physical life.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s ultimate reward, besides Torah and Jewish life outliving the “great” Soviet system, is that his son, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson became the leader of Chabad, and acknowledged by many as the leader of our generation. He carried forward his father’s staunch and steadfast commitment to Torah, creating a major Jewish revival around the globe.

We mark the Yartzeit of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak this Shabbat, the 20th of the month of Menachem Av. You can read a lot more about Rabbi Levi Yitzchak here: May the merit and inspiration of this great, heroic Torah giant continue to inspire us and encourage us in our work, to illuminate the world regardless of any obstacles or challenges.

 

Parshat - Vaetchanan Shabbat Nahamu

 

This week is known as “Shabbat Nachamu,” the Shabbat of comfort, or literally “may you be comforted.” This is based on the Haftorah, the reading from the Prophets (Isaiah 40) that we read after the Torah reading, which begins with the prophesy that Hashem says: “Nachamu Nachamu Ami,” be comforted, be comforted my people. We have just marked Tisha B’av, the day that both Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed, and we are being comforted, that there is bigger and better to come. There are a few types of comfort. If someone has lost something irretrievable and the loss will never be replaced, the only way for that person to be comforted is to accept the loss and move on. If there will be an opportunity to fill the void and replace the loss, then the comfort comes when the loss is replaced.

Then there is the recognition that the loss itself will lead to bigger and better things. That is a greater comfort, but still, wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t have to suffer the loss? However, if the next phase could not have been achieved without the loss, then the loss itself becomes part of the comfort. An example may be if someone lives in an old house. They love the house and are attached to its rooms and furnishings, but the house is not in good repair. If they just fix things here and there, the house will eventually fall apart. So instead they tear the whole house down and build a whole new house. At the time there are pangs of loss, but they are happy in the knowledge that the destruction is actually part of the new construction, which could not happen unless the old house is torn down.

The first and second Temples were built by humans, in a world as yet unrefined and permeated with darkness, and therefore they could not be permanent. The third Temple, our Sages taught, is built by Hashem, and is therefore eternal. When the third Temple is built, the entire world will be illuminated with Divine light, and there will be no more strife or evil. The only way that could be achieved is by our work during the exile, when Jews scattered around the world follow the Torah and bring light to every corner of the world. As difficult as the exile has been, it is our faith in the redemption and our absolute knowledge that each step brings us closer to that great revelation that has kept us going.

I am well aware of some people’s reaction to what I am saying. I often get strange looks from people when I talk like this. Come on, Rabbi, they are thinking (or occasionally saying). What kind of fairy tales do you believe in? You seem to be a rational guy and what kind of nonsense is that. Well, if you have studied the history of the Six Day War fifty years ago, you know that the world completely changed overnight. From the predictions of the impending annihilation of the Jews of Israel, we saw one of the greatest victories in history. That was in recent history. Our history is full of great miracles that happened suddenly when all hope seemed lost. Think back to the Stock market crashes, when millionaires, confident that they would live in comfort for the rest of their lives, became paupers overnight.

We have no idea what will happen tomorrow morning or even tonight. One thing we do know. Hashem keeps His promises, and that salvation can and does indeed happen quite suddenly, and often in ways that we would never anticipate. The redemption of the world is a prophecy that is at the core of Jewish belief. When a person faces difficulty, the way to overcome is to look to a new future, and do what he or she can to create that future. Every good deed that we do brings that future closer. So we are comforted by the fact that exile and hatred is not inevitable, that there is a bright future ahead, and that every day and every moment we have the option to help create that future by doing a practical mitzvah. Let’s all try to do one more today. If you want some suggestions, see here .

Parshat - Korach Rosh Chodesh

 

This week we read about a tragic rebellion against Moshe and Aharon.  Korach, their cousin, challenged their leadership and their appointments, and ended up being swallowed up in the ground along with his family and those of his main followers.  When we read some of the background of the story in the Midrash, Talmud and Chassidus, we see that Korach was no dummy.  He is described as a wise man, a leader and prophet.  He was the wealthiest man in the nation, and was looked up to and respected by many up to this point.  There are many levels of explanation as to why he rebelled and what his complaints against Moshe were.  There are those who say that he felt he should have been the tribal leader, or that he wanted everyone to have the opportunity to be High Priests and offer the incense in the Temple, or that he did not believe there should be any leaders at all because "the entire community is holy and Hashem is within them."  

 

I want to look at the story from the perspective of leadership.  We see here two leaders.  Moshe, the most successful leader of all time, and Korach, a dismal failure.  Besides the obvious difference that Moshe was appointed by Hashem and Korach was fighting Hashem's choice, I am struck ny a major difference in the motivation and style of the two leaders.  Moshe is described as a shepherd.  He was reluctant to assume the leadership because he felt he was not worthy and someone else would do a better job.  Once he assumed leadership, he was motivated purely by the benefit of his people, all the people, even those who rebelled against him.  at the last moment before Datan and Aviram and their families disappeared underground, and after they had refused to come and speak to Moshe, Moshe himself went to their tents to try to get them to change their minds.  Moshe's entire purpose, every action that he took, was as a servant of Hashem and a shepherd of the people.  He was so humble and ego-less that when he did stand up and assert his power, it was not his own power but that of Hashem.  

 

Korach, on the other hand, felt that he deserved to lead the people.  Because of his lineage, his scholarship, his wealth, his respect in the community, he was entitled to leadership.  It was about him, not about what was right for the people.  Even the spiritual pursuits that our Sages ascribe to him were for his own spiritual growth, whereas Moshe was prepared to sacrifice his life and his legacy in the Torah to protect those who had sinned with the Golden Calf.  Aaron the Hugh Priest spent his time making peace between people and working with those who were far from observance, encouraging them with love to approach Torah.  He also was reluctant to take the position and did so only because it was Hashem's wish.  

 

True leadership is not about the leader but about the benefit he brings to his people.  As soon as it becomes about the leader's rights or needs, it is no longer true leadership.  When that caliber of leader needs to assert himself and enforce his authority, he is not thinking about preserving his position.  Rather he knows that in order to fulfill his mission to lead his people and help them stay on the right track, he cannot allow self-serving leaders to take over, and will fight to preserve the nation's integrity, despite the fact that it runs against his humble nature.

 

Our generation saw a true, selfless leader like this.  Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the "Lubavitcher Rebbe," was the greatest leader of our time, yet it was clear that every one of his actions, every word he said and every position he took was purely for the benefit of the Jewish people and the world at large.  People listened and followed him not because of the force of his personality, but because we knew that he was motivated only by his deep love of every person and his understanding of the mission that Hashem had given each person.  There is no way I can begin to do justice to describing his combination of greatness and humility, so I will leave it at that.  Please see here for a lot more on the Rebbe.  This coming Tuesday is the third of Tamuz, the Rebbe's Yartzeit.  I will be joining tens of thousands of Jews from all over the world who will be visiting his resting place in New York, to pray to Hashem  for a few moments at this sacred spot on this auspicious day, to try to connect to his holiness and legacy, as is the ancient Jewish tradition.  If you would like me to mention your name at the graveside, please reply to this email with your Jewish name and that of your mother.  May we merit the immediate revelation of Moshiach, when, the Torah teaches, the souls of the departed will be resurrected, and we will be reunited in the physical world with our great leader the Rebbe and all the great leaders of all the generations, along with the entire Jewish people.

Parshat - Shelach

 I am writing this on the flight back from New York where we celebrated the engagement of our daughter Menucha to Mendy Klyne.  We are deeply grateful to Hashem for bringing us to this milestone, helping Menucha move on to the next stage in her life, especially appropriate for this week's Parsha, "Shelach," which means "send."  Earlier in the week we celebrate another kind of "sending" to the next stage in life, at our daughter Esti's graduation from high school in Chicago.

At the graduation, Esti delivered the D'var Torah, and I would like to write a synopsis of what she said. This thought is important to all of us, but especially to those embarking on life's journey, taking on the responsibilities of making a living and running a household.

Toward the end of the Parsha we learn the Mitzvah of Challah. The literal translation of Challah is a loaf, and in this context the Mitzvah is that every time we bake bread, we should give the first part of it to the Kohanim. ("Kohanim" is loosely translated as priests, referring to the descendants of Aaron who performed the service in the Temple). This is a requirement that applies at all times and in all locations.  When the Holy Temple stood, every individual was required to give a loaf the size of 1/24th of the dough, and a commercial baker would give 1/48th. This loaf or loaves had a level of sanctity that required them to be kept "Tahor" - ritually pure, as well as other restrictions. Today we don't have the conditions required for the loaf to be eaten by the Kohanim, so we observe the Mitzvah as it is prescribed to be done in these conditions. We take a small piece of dough, while reciting a blessing for the Mitzvah, and burn it.  We may not eat any baked goods, assuming they meet the criteria for the Challah requirements, unless the piece of Challah has been separated. This Mitzvah applies to all, men and women, but it is one of the three Mitzvot for which Hashem gave priority to women, and it is their prerogative to do it. (The other two are lighting Shabbat candles and marital Mikvah.)

The Talmud says regarding the importance of the Mitzvah of Challah, that not observing it is tantamount to worshipping idols. This seems to be a pretty extreme statement. How can giving a piece of bread to a Kohen rise to this level of importance, to be compared to one of the three cardinal Mitzvot (idolatry, adultery or incest, and murder)?  The answer is that on some level, the non-observance of this Mitzvah shows a lack of acceptance of Divine Providence in every aspect of nature.

There are many things that people do to create that piece of dough. A farmer ploughs the field and sows seeds, with all the many labors that are involved in growing wheat.  The the wheat is ground and sifted, and then mixed with water and kneaded, until the dough is ready for baking. It is natural for a person to feel satisfaction that his or her work has lead to this point and has created the means with which to receive nourishment.  It is at this moment that we must stop and reflect that what appears to us to be the natural way of the world is actually the Hand of Hashem, making the seeds germinate and grow, bringing the rain, and giving us the strength and knowhow to do all the work.  This is the role of a human being on earth, to acknowledge and reveal that nature is, in fact, run by Divine Providence, and that what appears to us to be the natural order of things is really a constant miracle. We express this idea by sanctifying and giving the first part of our labor to the Kohen.  In absence of this Mitzvah, we may consider Nature to be its own force, and attribute the growth of the food to our own abilities and "the natural order of things," in a way worshipping the world as something separate and "other than" Hashem. This is why this Mitzvah, which affects our bread, the very foundation of our nutrition, rises to such importance in the Jewish worldview.

Parshat - Beha'alotecha

 

One of the many subjects in this week’s Parsha, Beha’alotcha, is the journeys of the Jewish people through the desert, specifically the order of the tribes, who went first and who went last.  The Torah tells us that Dan travelled in the back, and describes them as “Me’asef Lechol Hamachanot” – the collectors for all the camps.  As the ones who travelled last, they picked up anything that the others had dropped or left behind and returned them.  I guess you could say that the managed the “lost and found.”  This is very interesting, but does it really merit a prominent spot in the written Torah?  There are many historical stories and details of stories that are told in the Talmud and midrash that are not mentioned in the written Torah.  Everything in the written Torah is an eternal lesson in our daily lives.  The word “Torah” means lesson or teaching.  So there must be a lesson to us today from Dan’s role as returner of lost items.

 

What does it mean to be last?  The Torah teaches us that the Jewish nation is like a single body, and this concept is expressed in many ways.  For example, it emphasizes the love we should have for one another, just as we care about every limb in our body.  The head is the seat of the brain, the part of us that thinks and understands and leads the actions of the body.  The feet do not have any understanding, but they do our bidding and move without question (as long as they are healthy).  These are also two expressions of our devotion to Hashem.  There is the intellectual part of our service, study, philosophical and spiritual pursuits, and the attempt to understand the reasons behind the Mitzvot and to feel their inspiration.  This is important for us, since it helps us sustain our excitement in Torah and helps us feel closer to Hashem.  But then there are the times when we don’t feel particularly inspired, the Mitzvot that we don’t understand, or practices that we don’t feel bring us to spiritual heights.  When we observe those Mitzvot, we are doing it because we accept Hashem’s will.  In Hebrew that is called Kabbalat Ol -acceptance of the “yoke” of Heaven. 

 

The first type of observance is like the head, and the second is like the feet.  While the first is more inspired and brings us spiritual satisfaction, it can be all about us.  I am feeling great by doing these things that make sense to me and uplift me and bring me closer to Hashem.  The second type of practice can be devoid of feeling, but it is not about us, it is all about Hashem.  So while we feel distant, we are actually connecting more to Hashem, because we are fulfilling His will for His sake.  This is the role of Dan.  By traveling last, they were farther away from the Holy Ark and the Tablets than the rest of the people.  But they knew that Hashem wants us to help a fellow, so they were prepared to accept the distance in order to fulfill Hashem’s will.  Sometimes it is necessary for us to forgo our own personal spiritual growth in order to help another.  By doing so, rather than lowering ourselves, we bond with Hashem on a higher, more essential level.

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