Printed from

Rabbi Levin's Blog

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 .

Looking for older posts? See the sidebar for the Archive.