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Parshat -Vayigash/Hei Tevet

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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