Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayetzei November 27, 2014

Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

“And God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her, and opened her womb. And she became pregnant and she bore a son, and she said God has gathered in my disgrace. And she called his name Jospeh, saying, ‘May God grant me another son.’ ”

After many years of barrenness, the matriarch Rachel finally realizes the answer to her prayers. She gives birth to a son. Almost immediately, she asks the Lord for another child. Does that sound surprising?

Actually Rachel’s desire for more children was not selfish. For Rachel, having children meant playing a key role in the building of the children of Israel. Her request to have more children was a reflection of her own desire to play a greater role in building the legacy of her beloved, Jacob; of contributing sons who would be leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel to come; of adding to those who were called to fulfill God’s purpose as His chosen nation. This was not a sign of ingratitude, but the expression of a woman who yearned to participate in God’s purposes.

Life on this earth has many components and a plethora of opportunities. Our individual time on this earth is a journey of choices. We can focus on the accomplishments that this world values: career, possessions, bank accounts, prestige, achievements, success. We can build strong families and provide college educations for our children. In and of themselves, all of these have a certain merit.

But it’s not enough. The central issue is WHY. Why do we work long hours, build an enviable career, achieve a certain social status, strain for success? Why do we have children, raise them and educate them?

A life that is lived without eternity in focus is an incomplete and limited journey. There is a proverb in Ethics of the Fathers that describes this world as the “lobby of the World to Come” and urges us to so live each day mindful that eternity awaits us. Conscious of that, we will be diligent to protect our spiritual life lest it be crippled or damaged by the pressures and cares of life on earth.

It is highly possible to stumble through life on a kind of ‘automatic pilot’- going through the motions of life but without any great desire to seek God and to achieve spiritual greatness. The matriarch, Rachel, along with all the other Matriarchs and Patriarchs urge us by their example to keep our priorities in order: Seek God, learn His ways, apply them in daily life, teach them to your children and
in all you do, be mindful that this life is the ‘lobby of the World to Come’. Let every day be preparation for the Grand Entrance into His glorious Presence!

Shabbat Shalom – and to all my American readers, a blessed and healthy Thanksgiving!

Weekly Torah Commentary – Nitzavim-Vayelech Sept. 18, 2014

Nitzavim/Vayelech Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30

See I have placed before you life and good, and death and evil … I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse; and you shall choose life so that you and your offspring will live.

This key verse in the Torah reading for the last Shabbat before Rosh Hashana emphasizes God’s gift to us of free choice; the ability to choose between life and good or death and evil. Free choice is the fundamental human trait that enables us to serve God effectively.

The choice between good and evil is familiar to us all. Though morality has suffered decline in many contemporary societies, nevertheless, good and evil are fairly well recognized and our choice to do good and avoid evil is evident.

However,in the verse cited above, we are also given the ability to choose between life and death. At first glance that seems a bit strange. Other than those embroiled in terrorist philosophies, who would choose death? Why did God feel it necessary to command us to “choose life…”

When the Torah speaks of ‘death’ we need to understand that it is not referring solely to the state of no longer being alive on this earth. God is warning us against what death represents. Perhaps the easiest way to grasp this concept is to take a closer look at ‘life’.

Life in the Torah is much more than breathing; life is a journey, a process of growing into a spiritually mature person, developing moral character and becoming a viable ‘ambassador’ of God’s presence in the world. He created us in His image and His likeness; life is about growing into that very image and likeness so that people would learn what God is like by knowing you.

Being spiritually alive is about taking responsibility; facing challenges and problems and through them becoming better rather than bitter. That being the case, we can deduce that ‘choosing death’ is related to irresponsibility, laziness in dealing with issues, rejecting discipline and hard work and failing to mature. To live ‘spiritually dead’ is to choose comfort over effort, an easy life over a life full of challenge and growth.

We must also realize that choosing ‘death’ also impacts the way we serve God. Obeying His commandments and statutes mechanically or routinely without seeking an ever more intimate relationship with Him quickly degenerates into ‘dead’ religion. The greatest commandment is this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your resources.” Every action, every good deed, every choice to obey God’s Word becomes powerless if not flowing from a heart of devoted love for the God of heaven.

This message is particularly appropriate as we approach Rosh Hashanah in the coming week. On these Holy days we are not only judged on our words, deeds and choices during the past year, we also face an evaluation on who we are as individuals.

It is possible to live an essentially lazy, comfortable life in a ‘religious’ way; following rules, traditions and customs on the outside without a flow of love pouring out of the heart. As we approach Rosh Hashana, the call to our souls is for an authentic spiritual connection that teaches us how to live from a position of overflowing grateful love towards God day by day.

In Tune with Torah this week = on this last Shabbat before Rosh Hashana, it behooves us all to seriously examine ourselves, not with endless questions and lists but with one simple thought: am I closer to God now than I was last year at this time? Am I following Him more nearly than I was last year?

Shabbat Shalom to all of you.

If you’re looking for a Rosh Hashana gift for a friend or family member, allow me to recommend the volume entitled IN TUNE WITH TORAH, a collection of past year’s commentaries on the Torah.

Click here:

Weekly Torah Commentary — Matot July 17, 2014

MATTOT – Bamidbar/Numbers 30:2 – 32:42

In this week’s Torah reading, the tribes of Gad and Reuben approached Moses, asking that he allow them to remain on the other side of the Jordan where there was sufficient land for them to farm their animals. They had vast numbers of cattle and the area they desired was perfect pasture land.

Moses became angry at their request and replied with a strong rebuke pointing out to them that by not entering the land of Israel they would be abandoning their fellow Israelites in the upcoming conquest.
He solemnly reminds them of the incident of the spies and its terrible consequences. In reply to Moshe’s criticisms, they assured Moses, with his permission, they would build houses for their wives and children and corrals for the animals and then they would gladly join the rest of the nation in conquering the land.

Some have asked, “Isn’t it possible that they intended to do just that all along? And if so, why didn’t they defend themselves at the first sound of Moses’ stinging rebuke?

There is a verse in the book of Proverbs: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, But deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.” (Proverbs 27:6) The commentaries explain that the ‘wounds’ delivered by one’s friend here refer to words of rebuke, of discipline or correction. The rebuke of someone who genuinely cares about his friend is of great benefit because it is aimed at helping him improve himself and one’s friend is inclined to deliver even a very firm correction with love. Our friend actually does us a great service because, if we will receive the correction with humility of heart, he or she is actually helping us to grow spiritually. This is one of the greatest gifts we give each other. When the tribes of Gad and Reuben heard Moses rebuke them, they knew that he was doing so from the purest of motives and only had their best interests in mind. Thus, even though they perhaps could have defended themselves, it was more worthwhile to listen to his words and try to profit from them.

Lest anyone misunderstand, however, we must realize that every rebuke or correction we receive is of great value, now just those who come from a loving friend. It is part of life that at times we all experience a harsh rebuke. The truly spiritual person will hear the words, evaluate them and be willing to examine himself, no matter who delivered the rebuke. Rather than focus on the inept or unkind way in which the accuser spoke to us, the more important issue is to focus on the words that were spoken for, truth be told, even in the most unwelcomed rebuke or correction, there is usually some kernel of truth.
If we are truly committed to growing in spiritual maturity, it behooves us to be humble enough to acknowledge that and respond accordingly.

Another verse in Proverbs admonishes us: “Listen to counsel and accept discipline, that you may be wise for the rest of your days.”Prov. 19:20

Did you notice that we are told here to ‘listen’ to counsel (advice) but to ‘accept’ discipline. Listening implies an element of contemplation and thought – when a person is given advice he should think about it before he acts upon it. In contrast when one is rebuked he should accept it without self-defense and then reflect on it as a means towards spiritual growth. Does this require a healthy dose of Humility? Absolutely! But then, isn’t humility considered one of the greatest of virtues?

It is understandable that most people do not enjoy being rebuked – it is unpleasant to be told that you have a character flaw or that your behavior was unacceptable. However, if we can determine to leave our ego out of the situation, push ourselves past the feelings of embarrassment, we will learn from every experience in life and over time appreciate rebukes and criticisms as powerful tools for our spiritual growth.

In Tune with Torah this week = ask yourself: how do I respond to correction? to criticism? Do I seek to learn from it to become a better person? Or do I get angry or indignant? “He has told you, O man, what the Lord requires of you: to do justice, to love righteousness and to walk humbly before your God.”

Shabbat Shalom

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Weekly Torah Commentary — NASO May 30, 2014

Numbers/Bamidbar 4:21 – 7:89

One of the highlights of Parshat Naso is the Priestly Blessing. The text of this blessing, which the Kohanim (priests) bestow upon the Jewish people, concludes, “May God turn His face to you and give you peace” (Numbers 6:26).

In Psalms 29:11 we read, “God will bless His nation with peace.”

The Jewish people — “His nation” — are composed of three categories of people: Priests (Kohanim), Levites (Leviim), and Israelites (Yisraelim). The Hebrew acronym of the words “Kohanim,” “Leviim,” and “Yisraelim” spells the word kli, which means “vessel.” Therefore, we derive the insight that the Jewish people as a nation are called to be a vessel of God, a living, corporate sanctuary of His presence. And the fulness of God’s blessing is enjoyed only when there is peace among the brethren.

The same idea is communicated in Psalm 133: Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell in unity….for there the Lord commanded the blessing – life forever!

Our Sages offer four primary pieces of advice on how to achieve peace with others:

1) Make honoring God the purpose of all we do. If our daily activity is for the honor of God, and not for the sake of boosting our own ego, we can see one another as part of the same team, each one contributing his part to the goal of demonstrating God’s goodness in the midst of a needy world.

2) Train ourselves to look for the good in others. We are all flawed people but rather than being threatened or intolerant of differences, let’s focus instead on the positive qualities in others, just as we hope they will do towards us. It takes no effort to be a fault-finder; it takes maturity to consistently see the good in others.

3) Focus on the reward for making peace, as an incentive to pursue it. For example, suppose a friend of yours urges you to make peace with someone you really can’t stand. Your initial reaction is to immediately turn down the offer. Then the person asks, “What if I give you $1000? Or $100,000? Do you think you could try?” The reality is, my friends, that if we understand how much it means to God that we strive to live in peace with each other, and how much blessing He will release in response, the reward for making peace far outweighs any financial motivation. And that reward follows us into the World to Come.

4) Making peace sometimes requires us to humble ourselves for the greater good. The urge to be “right” is an emotional tyrant at times. It feeds the divisions and conflicts between people. My late husband of blessed memory said often, “It is better to be kind than right.” When all is said and done, more people are remembered — and loved — for their kindness than those who insisted on being “right” all the time.

In Tune with Torah this week = do you need to make peace with someone? Have you been avoiding it? putting it off? This shabbat is the perfect time to stop procrastinating and take at least a first step towards restoring a sense of unity between you. May we all have the courage and the grace to be peacemakers in this world.

Shabbat shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Bamidbar May 23, 2014

BAMIDBAR/NUMBERS 1:1 – 4:20

This week we begin reading the fourth book of the Torah. Numbers” is the name by which the fourth of the Five Books of Moses is commonly called in English Bibles, but in the Hebrew original it is known as Bamidbar, or “In the Wilderness.” Of particular interest is the fact that this is the Torah portion always precedes the Festival of Shavuot, the celebration of the giving of the Torah. Why is that?

We know that Israel is called to be a ‘light to the nations’; we are called to ‘be holy as I am holy, says the Lord’, Consequently, Shavuot is not just a celebration of an historical event, not just a remembrance of that awesome day when God Himself descended on Mt. Sinai and gave us His Torah. As great as that is, Shavuot is more than that.

God could have chosen to give the Torah to Avraham. He didn’t. He could have given it to Jacob and his twelve sons. He didn’t. He could have given it in the holy city of Jerusalem. He didn’t. He chose the wilderness, the desert, as the suitable place for this awesome event.

THe desert is a no-man’s land. It is ownerless and barren. Just as a desert is empty and desolate, so does each of us need to know that we are but an “empty vessel.” Humility is an essential character if we are to successfully absorb the divine wisdom in the words of Torah – and those of the prophets as well.

As long as we are full of ourselves and our preconceived notions, we will not be able to integrate the essence and spirit of the Torah into our hearts and lives. Even when we think we know a good deal about the sacred writings, the truth is, as the old proverb describes, “the older I get, the less I know” or as one of the Sages wrote, “as much as you know, you are still an undeveloped wilderness.”

Another reason we can consider to answer the question, Why did God give the Torah in the desert?, is that an ownerless wilderness is open to anyone. No person or group of people has a monopoly on Torah. It belongs to each and every single Jew, not just the rabbis or the yeshivah students, or the religiously observant. “The Torah that Moses commanded us is the heritage of the entire Congregation of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4). Add to that, the multitudes of descendants of Jewish ancestry that in our day are making their way home; those described in the prophet Ezekiel, as the ‘house of Israel’ are being reunited with the ‘house of Judah’ though they have lived as Gentiles because of past generations’ assimilation under persecution. It is an astonishing and inspiring phenomenon as we today witness, for example, literally thousands of descendants of the generation of the Inquisition in Spain, Portugal and France, re-connecting to that holy spark of their ancestors and returning to the Torah, for the Torah is also theirs.

While we acknowledge that there is much hard work ahead of us if we are to acquire the Torah and make it ours, we also know that with diligence and effort we can succeed. Some of Judaism’s finest Torah scholars throughout the generations have emerged from the simple, ordinary folks; shepherds, tailors, cobblers and the like.

Now, while this holy Torah, given in the wilderness, is available to all, it is those who embrace it with love, who let go of preconceived notions and attitudes, and the inclination to ‘pick and choose’ among the commandments, who progressively discover a living relationship with the God of Israel, the joy of which is un-equalled by any other relationship or experience. Rightly did David cry out, “In Your presence is fulness of joy; at Your right hand, are pleasures for evermore.” Psalm 16:11

For this, in fact, is the heart of Shavuot: that the the God of Israel ‘married’ the people of Israel and the Ketubah (marriage contract) is the Torah. The Torah was NOT given to establish a religious system, contrary to what some may think. The Torah was given to establish a living, breathing, pulsing, joyful and intimate relationship between God and His people.

This statement does not in any way demean Judaism as a religion; rather, it is intended to highlight the GOAL of Judaism – to provide a framework where His chosen people, learning and living according to the Torah, would become a community, a nation, that would demonstrate the incomparable beauty of a living relationship with the Almighty. To observe the mitzvot and the traditions of Judaism without the inner, personal relationship with God misses the mark entirely.

As Maimonides has commented on this verse: Behold, I have take the Levites from amongst the children of Israel… and the Levites shall be Mine (3:12)

“Not only the tribe of Levi, but any man of all the inhabitants of the earth whose spirit has moved him and whose mind has given him to understand to set himself aside to stand before G-d to serve Him, to worship Him, to know G-d and walk justly as G-d has created him, and he casts from his neck the yoke of the many calculations that men seek–this man has become sanctified, a holy of holies, and G-d shall be his portion and his lot forever, and shall merit him his needs in this world, as He has merited the Kohanim and the Levites.”

In Tune with Torah this week = may the very title of this week’s reading, “Bamidabar/the Wilderness”, and the significance of it which we have briefly discussed, give us ample food for thought as we prepare ourselves for the upcoming Festival of Shavuot, which will be observed from sundown, June 3 through sundown, June 4th. May we embrace the Torah anew with joy and earnestness, so that this important festival will be both memorable and meaningful.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Emor May 2, 2014

Vayikra/Emor 21 – 24

NOTE: Because of the interruption of the Torah readings two weeks ago during Pesach, we mistakenly posted a commentary on EMOR last week. Since it is actually read this week, we are offering an additional commentary on this reading.

This week’s Torah Portion ends with the distressing story of the son of an Egyptian man and Jewish woman who committed the grave sin of blasphemy and as a result was severely punished. The episode begins with the words, “the son of an Israelite woman went out – and he was the son of an Egyptian man – among the Children of Israel…”

The Rabbinical sources and the commentaries point out that the significance of the words, “he went out” is unclear – where did he go out from? Rashi’s explanation is that the man went “out of his world.” In other words, that through blasphemy, he abandoned his place in the World To Come, Olam Haba. Another commentary agrees with this understanding by making note that the wording deliberately says he left “his world” as opposed to “the world”.

This explanation provides us with an important understanding of the Torah outlook with regard to reward and punishment in the world to come. One may think that a person in this world has no intrinsic connection to the next but rather when he dies and goes up, he will receive ‘prizes’ for his good deeds and lose status there because of his sins. The ‘reward’ in the afterlife is viewed as being his prize, similar to the way in which a person collects his reward after winning a raffle.

According to Torah understanding, this is not at all the case. Rather, from birth, we have a soul connection to the next world, to eternal life. Every good deed is noted by God and nourishes our soul towards holiness, thereby directly preparing our place in Olam Haba. In the case of the young man in question here, the sin of blasphemy was so great that he forfeited his place in the world to come. The Here is the key – mark it well: Reward and punishment in the next world is not arbitrary; rather each person creates his own Olam Haba or lack thereof by how we live our life here on this earth.

There is an interesting statement in the Mishnah: “Every Jew has a Portion in the World to Come…”

The commentaries ask is it really true that every Jews is received in the world to come? Actually in a later portion, the Mishnah actually describes those Jews who receive no reward, no place in Olam Haba!

What’s going on here?

The answer is that every person (Jew and Gentile alike) has a place reserved for him BUT each one ‘decides’ by how he lives his life whether or not to maintain that place or not. An analogy of owning land can be used to help further understand this concept. The portion described here is like a plot of land; each person inherits a bare plot of land. It is up to him to tender the plot and plant it so that healthy crops grow in it. If, at the end of one’s tenure of the crop, he has developed it well, then he can reap the rewards of his hard work by enjoying a bountiful harvest. If, however, he neglects the crop, then it will remain undeveloped, and if he mistreats it, by throwing dangerous chemicals into it, for example, then he will damage it. At the end of his tenure he will be left with a useless piece of land.

So too, everyone is born with a lofty soul that is our connection to God and to the next world. If a person busies himself with seeking to know God and doing good works, improving his own moral character with right choices, then we will elevate our soul so that after our deaths our souls will be fitting vessels to enjoy the spiritual wonders of Olam Haba. If, however, he neglects and damages his soul, giving no thought or concern for spiritual matters, that person will be unprepared for the inevitable meeting with his Maker at the end of life.

The way we conduct ourselves in this world determines the state of our portion in the Next World.

There are natural spiritual consequences to one’s actions. Thus, just like in the physical world, it is understood that certain actions, such as walking off the roof of a building, will cause great damage, the same is true in the spiritual world. It is true that no one is perfect and everyone fails. However, God has provided a way for us to turn back to Him – repentance. When we repent of our failings and sins, He forgives us and puts us back on the path of righteousness.

In Tune with Torah this week = Is the reality of a ‘world to come’ a part of your life? Does it impact your decisions and behavior? If not, it needs to, beginning right now. Let us live, not just for today, but knowing that one day all of us will face our Maker. May we be prepared to enter into Eternal Life in peace and joy at that time.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Mishpatim January 24, 2014

MISHPATIM Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

In this week’s portion we have instructions/teachings regarding civil relationships. They define personal liabilities and obligations regarding such matters as theft, personal injury, financial and marital obligations, labor employee relationships.

Instructions and guidelines for a civil society occupy a prominent place in Torah laws. To emphasize their importance, many of them are listed in this week’s parsha, which immediately follows the acceptance of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. This position reflects God’s attitude regarding the importance of their observance; the spiritual level of Israel in God’s eyes is directly correlated with the peoples’ dedication to their observance.

The Sage, Nachmonides, explains that Mishpatim are important as they spell out in detail the requirements of the proper observance of the Tenth commandment, You shall not covet your fellow’s house. You shall not covet your fellow’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your fellow. (20:14) Proper awareness of this commandment requires a clear recognition of what belongs to a fellow Jew in all these areas; it is his house, his wife etc.

Rabbi Chaim Vital then concludes that to the degree that a Jew faithfully obeys the tenth commandment, one can deduce his level of acceptance of the first commandment. I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before Me.

An aspect of true belief in an all knowing, all-powerful God has as its natural outcome the understanding that the blessings present in each life are divinely ordained. Therefore, those things that belong to his friend were designated by God to be his friend’s possessions, not his. To actively covet someone else’s possessions, then, is tantamount to questioning God’s judgment and His will, and demonstrates a lack of acceptance of the first commandment “I am the Lord your God…”.

God sends each of us to this world to work on our characters. Every individual’s particular life situation is designed by God to compel him/her to improve his inner being, to purify his soul, to mature into a godly person. To resist the demands of Torah instruction reveals the very area in which we need to grow. Far better to yield in obedience for what we resist, persists.

Torah instruction was never meant to be observed solely out of a sense of obligation, grudgingly and joyless. Rather, Torah guidelines are the “path of life”, David wrote, and the outline for a life of joy in relationship with the Holy One of Israel.

In fact, it is in the molding and shaping of the human character, that we discover the significance of Mishpatim. It is only the existence of Mishpatim that makes the sculpting of the human character a free will exercise. If a particular Torah commandment grates on one’s sensibilities, the choice to observe it out of love for God, even when it’s difficult, strengthens moral character and takes us one step closer to being what we created to be: creatures who reflect the image and likeness of God.

If, on the other hand, one chooses to follow his feelings and disregard Torah, that person’s character is damaged negatively. Repentance is the only means of turning that situation around.

In Tune with Torah this week = think about any of the commandments that you may find difficult to observe: are you prone to speak negatively about others? do you envy what others have or feel jealous? are you critical of other people? do you get angry easily? do you “tease” in such a way that others are humiliated? Each of these relates specifically to a Torah commandment. This Shabbat let us examine ourselves honestly and repent of those areas where we really do know better but have been reluctant to change.

Shabbat Shalom