Thursday, May 26, 2011

Bamidbar 5771

In this week's parsha, G-d speaks to Moshe Bamidbar Sinai (in the Sinai Desert) and commands him to "Take the sum of all the congregation of the B'nei Yisrael (Children of Israel.)" The Book of Bamidbar, the fourth book of the Torah, is called Numbers in English because of this census and the later one in Parashat Pinchas.

Surely G-d, in His ultimate wisdom, knows exactly how many Children of Israel there are. Why does He command Moshe to count them?

Rashi answers: "Because of G-d's great love for His people, He counts them all the time. He counted them when they left Egypt. He counted them after they fell in the wake of the sin of the Golden Calf, to know the number of the survivors. And He counted them when He came to manifest His presence within them: On the first of Nissan the Sanctuary was erected, and [one month later] on the first of Iyar He counted them."

From The Midrash Says: "A person invests time and effort to inspect and count objects that are precious to him. The more valuable the item, the more carefully will he scrutinize it. The Almighty frequently counts K'lal Yisrael, demonstrating that every individual Jew is important. Therefore, the Torah goes to great lengths to detail the numbers of the Jewish people."

According to Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt on, G-d counts us because He wants us to know that each one of us matters. "We are not a nation of millions; we are special individuals who together make a nation. No one is dispensable. If one of us disappears, G-d notices and cares."

As parents, each one of our children is precious. Each child is special in her own way. We love each one independently of the others, no matter how many children we have. In this way, we emulate G-d's love for us.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Bechukotai 5771

The name of this week's parsha, Bechukotai, means "in My statutes." The parsha begins with the conditional statement: "If you will go in My statutes, and you will observe My commandments and perform them..."

What does it mean to "go in" G-d's statutes?

Rashi notes that the phrase cannot refer to the observance of all of the Torah's mitzvot because that is the subject of the second phrase. By inference, Rashi concludes that "go in My statutes" means that we must diligently labor in Torah study.

Rabbi Yisroel Jungreis and Rabbi Osher Anshel Jungreis in Torah for Your Table write that "going" connotes constant movement. "We never graduate from Torah study; as long as we are alive, we must continue to delve into its deep secrets…for it is only when we study and teach with passion, with every fiber of our beings, that we will reap the full benefits of this toil."

The Admor of Slonim explains in his Netivot Shalom that the term "go in My statutes" means that we go along the path of life in a manner that is consistent with the Torah's statutes. This does not refer to the technical fulfillment of the mitzvot. Rather, Torah with all its mitzvot, teaches us how we must live and think. We can apply this "Torah attitude" to every aspect of our lives, even those not governed by specific laws.

As Jews, we follow the path of our ancestors; as parents, we must ensure that our children follow in our own footsteps. We must be especially conscious to "walk the walk" and not just "talk the talk." Rabbi Tzadok of Lublin explains that learning Torah has the power to guide people and protect us from sin. Those who do not seek the deeper meaning of Torah do not receive its spiritual guidance. They cannot be considered to be learning Torah, but only speaking the words of Torah. If we want our children to "go in" G-d's statutes, then we must "go in" them ourselves.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Behar 5771

This week's parsha begins with the mitzvah of shemittah (the Sabbatical year), which commands that every seventh year in Israel, the land must be left uncultivated. "When you come to the Land that I am giving you, the Land should rest a Sabbath to G-d. You may sow your field for six years, and for six years you may prune your vineyard and gather its produce, but in the seventh year, the Land should have a complete rest, a Sabbath to G-d."

The parsha gets its name, Behar, which means "on the mountain," from its opening. "G-d spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai." This is puzzling. We know that G-d gave all of the commandments at Mount Sinai. Why does the verse emphasize that the mitzvah of shemittah is given at Mount Sinai?

The laws of shemittah are an excellent way to prove that no human being could have written the Torah, or invented the laws of Judaism. Only G-d could have done this, from Mount Sinai. Shemittah sounds illogical and impractical. The seventh year, we cannot till the ground, plant for the following year or harvest what has already grown. Essentially, this means that what we harvest the sixth year must last for three years (the sixth, the seventh, and the eighth, since we do not work the land in the seventh.)

It seems that G-d anticipates our concern, our natural tendency to worry. "When you will say, 'what will we eat in the seventh year, if we will not sow, and we will not gather our produce from the crops which grow on their own?' I will direct My blessing to you in the sixth year and it will yield produce [sufficient] for three years." G-d tells us, "Do not worry. Trust Me. If you are patient and trust Me, I will sustain you."

It is a great test to maintain trust in G-d. We must trust that all obstacles will disappear in due time – if we believe in G-d and that He is in control. We must consciously decide to release ourselves from the pressures of our natural tendency to worry. The great Chassidic master, the Baal Shem Tov, says that fear creates walls around us that bar the light from shining through. We must consciously banish the fear and open ourselves to trust.

As parents, it is natural to worry about our children, no matter how old they are. Knowing this, Jewish law urges us to take precautions: for example, the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a) obligates us to teach our children to swim; Torah in Parashat Ki Tetze requires us to fence our rooftops. Modern law insists upon seatbelts and recommends helmets. But after all is said and done, and we have provided all we can for our children's welfare, we should not waste time and energy worrying about what may happen to our children. We only plant the seeds and nurture the plants; the rest is up to G-d.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Emor 5771

This week's parsha contains the mitzvot (commandments) concerning the Omer offering. In the times of the Holy Temple, on the second day of Pesach (16 Nisan), we are commanded to bring an Omer, an offering of barley, to the Temple. The Torah further instructs us to count 49 days from the offering until the day before the festival of Shavuot (6 Sivan). Today, without a Holy Temple, only the second mitzvah can be performed – the counting – which in Hebrew is known as Sefirat HaOmer. "From the day following the first rest day [of Pesach] – the day you bring the Omer as a wave offering – you should count for yourself seven weeks…You should count up until [but not including] fifty days, the day following the seventh week."
Sefer HaChinuch writes that the purpose of Sefirat HaOmer is to count towards the day of Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah, which the festival of Shavuot commemorates. We count to demonstrate our excitement about reaching this holy day, and to prepare ourselves spiritually. Rav Yosef Salant in his work Be'er Yosef points out that from the Sefer HaChinuch's explanation, it is difficult to see a connection between the Omer offering and Shavuot; it simply seems that there were 49 days between the two events and so we count from one towards the other. 

What is the connection between the seemingly separate occasions of the Omer offering and Shavuot?

Rav Salant answers by noting the other time the word Omer is used in Torah: in parashat Beshalach, G-d commands the people to gather from the manna "an omer per person." During their time in the desert the people do not have to exert any effort to attain their sustenance; the manna comes directly from heaven and people receive exactly the amount they need, even if they try to gather more. Free of the need to work for food, the people spend time engaged in spiritual activities.

Upon entering the Land of Israel, on 16 Nisan, the manna from heaven stops and the people must begin to work for their food. Torah recognizes that when this change occurs, people might begin to think that their own physical labor is responsible for the success of their crops; they may forget that they still must rely on G-d for successful results. To prevent this, Torah commands us to make the Omer offering, so that we may acknowledge G-d's hand in the success of our endeavors. Torah commands that we begin counting the Omer on the day that the manna stopped, reminding us that the sustenance represented by the Omer is a continuation of the sustenance epitomized by the manna. Rabbi Yohonasan Gefen writes on, Sefirat HaOmer stands as a constant reminder that there is no benefit in working beyond the boundaries of acceptable physical effort, because ultimately G-d is the sole provider of our livelihood. 

As parents, the need is great to balance the amount of time we spend working, with the amount of time we are involved with learning Torah and engaged in other spiritual pursuits. During this period of Sefirat HaOmer we should think about the balance of our involvement in spirituality and physicality. Do we make our days count? Do we work more than is really necessary? In our spare time, do we focus on family and learning Torah, or do we bring our work home with us? By asking these questions, we can internalize the lessons of the Omer.