Thursday, June 30, 2011

Chukat 5771

In this week's parsha, Miriam dies and the miraculous travelling well of water (which G-d provides in her merit) disappears. The people complain to Moshe that there is no water to drink. G-d instructs Moshe: "Take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aharon, and speak to the rock in their presence so that it will give forth its water. You shall bring forth water for them from the rock and give the congregation and their livestock to drink.  Moshe took the staff from before the L-rd as He had commanded him. Moshe and Aharon assembled the congregation in front of the rock, and he said to them, 'Now listen, you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?' Moshe raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, when an abundance of water gushed forth, and the congregation and their livestock drank.  The L-rd said to Moshe and Aharon, 'Since you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the land which I have given them.'"

What is the nature of Moshe and Aharon's sin that they receive the severe punishment of not entering the Land of Israel?

The precise nature of Moshe and Aharon's sin, for which G-d charges them with not believing in Him, is enigmatic, and is addressed by nearly all commentators. According to Rashi, the sin is that Moshe strikes the stone instead of only speaking to it, as G-d had instructed; according to Maimonides, it is that Moshe gets angry, and says, "Hear now, you rebels."

Chassidic Master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Barditchev sees Maimonides' and Rashi's explanations as two sides of the same coin. If a leader's influence on the community is achieved through harsh words of rebuke, then his relationship with the environment is likewise: he will have to forcefully impose his will on it to get it to serve his people's needs and their mission in life. If, however, he influences his community by lovingly uplifting them to a higher place so that they, on their own, will desire to improve themselves, the world will likewise willingly yield its resources to the furtherance of his goals. (See

As a leader, Moshe should never have harshly admonished the people or used physical force to emphasize a point. He would have been more effective, and indeed been able to penetrate stubborn hearts of stone, had he employed calm, non-abusive verbal communication rather than anger and physical force.

As parents, we must carefully choose the words and actions we use to rebuke our non-compliant children. There should be no name-calling, no demeaning, and under no circumstances must we ever substitute or accompany these words with physical force.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Korach 5771

In this week's parsha, Korach stages a rebellion and tries to overthrow Moshe and Aharon. The parsha opens "And Korach took…" Korach "took" the people with lies and manipulation and persuaded 250 men to follow him. Moshe's reaction to this confrontation is revealing: "Moshe heard and fell on his face [in prayer.] He spoke to Korach and to all his company, saying, 'In the morning, the L-rd will make known who is His…'"

What can we learn from Moshe's response to confrontation? What is the deeper meaning of the wait for morning?

Instead of expressing anger and lashing out against his attackers, Moshe tries to reason with them. The Hebrew word for "morning" is boker. Rabbis Yisroel and Osher Anshel Jungreis note that boker is closely related to the Hebrew word bikoret, which means "to clarify" or "to investigate." They conclude that Moshe hopes his adversaries will "sleep on it" before they act – that they will examine their motivation and reconsider their evil plans. From this, we learn that we should not act rashly to counter our opponents. We should try to make peace by asking them to investigate, find clarity and hopefully they will abandon their opposition plans overnight.

As parents, we should take Moshe's approach to avoid strife and achieve reconciliation within our families. Instead of speaking in anger, instead of acting impetuously, instead of condemning, we should bite our tongues, swallow our false pride and fight our impulse to engage in altercation. The Talmud (Sanhedrin, 110A) proclaims: "Anyone who engages in divisiveness transgresses a Divine prohibition, as it is written [in this week's parsha]: 'And he shall not be as Korach and his company.'" Rather, we should emulate Moshe and do as the psalmist recommends: "Seek peace and pursue it."

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Shelach 5771

This week's parsha begins with G-d telling Moshe to send men who "will explore the Land of Canaan which I am giving to the Children of Israel." The parsha ends with the passage we recite every morning and evening in the Shema: "they shall make for themselves tzitzit (fringes) on the corners of their garments…This shall be tzitzit for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the L-rd to perform them, and you shall not explore after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray."

Why does the same word for "explore" (v'yaturu/lo taturo) occur in the opening and closing verses of the parsha?

Rashi comments on the latter verse: "The heart and the eyes are 'spies' for the body, and they act as the body's agents in sinning. The eye sees, the heart desires and the body carries out the sins." The fringes of the tzitzit surrounding us on all four sides are a visual reminder of G-d's presence everywhere.

In this week's parsha, twelve men are sent to explore the Land of Israel. Ten of the explorers (the commentators call them meraglim—spies) reject the report that that G-d promised to take them to a land "flowing with milk and honey." They cannot take it on trust. They want to check out the land with their own eyes and decide for themselves. They see exactly what they want to see: a land governed by natural laws, where people live and die (there are many funerals); a beautiful land, but one that goes against all the laws of nature (the produce and the people are unnaturally large.) They wrongly conclude that they will not be able to conquer the land. "We were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes."

The sin of the spies is a failure of faith. They allow themselves to be misled by the external appearance of the natural world into a colossal failure of nerve, despite all the promises given by G-d that He would bring them to the land. They then conduct an ingenious operation of public opinion manipulation, using skillfully chosen words to implant in the people's minds a vision of the impossibility of achieving their natural destiny. The people should have focused their vision on that which is beyond nature -- the miracles that had been performed for them. This should have given them the faith that G-d has the power to fulfill His promises.

Faith does not depend upon what the eyes see. We declare our faith wrapped in the tallit (prayer shawl), clutching the tzitzit by our hearts, closing our eyes to the visual world around us and covering them with our hand: "Shema Yisrael, HaShem is our G-d!"
The tzitzit are the remedy for faulty and sinful vision.

Being a parent demands this kind of faith. Each of our children represents a promise from G-d. Only we, as parents, can see each of our children's potential. We need to focus on the vision we have for our children and not be swayed by competing attempts to distract us and confuse our hearts. It is up to us as parents to recognize that with G-d's help, all is possible for our children.

Excerpted from an article by Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum. Read it in its entirety at

Friday, June 10, 2011

Beha’alotecha 5771

This week's parsha opens with G-d's instructions to Aharon regarding lighting the menorah: "When you raise up the lamps…"

What is the significance of "raising up" the lamps, rather than merely "kindling" them?

Rashi explains that the lamplighter is required to hold the flame to the wick until the flame rises by itself, on its own accord. The lights of the menorah are symbolic of the Jewish soul. The words "raise up" (beha'alotecha, the name of the parsha) are used rather than "kindle" or "light" because Aharon's task is to raise up every soul, to bring out the great potential within each individual.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe understands this to mean that the objective of teachers, parents and mentors should be "to establish [our charges] as self-sufficient luminaries. [We should] assist in developing their talents and abilities so that their lamps independently glow and, in turn, kindle the potential in others."

As parents, we must strive to "raise up" the potential in each of our children, revealing it from its state of dormancy. The key is not only to ignite a flame of belief, but to provide direction and confidence in our children's abilities that will take them to the point where they are no longer dependent on our inspiration, and are able to shine strongly without our constant aid.

Raising up can only be achieved by teaching and illuminating with uplifting and encouraging messages. It cannot be accomplished by berating children and putting them down when their actions disappoint us. Instead of trying to change our children, we should recognize their unique potential and help them to achieve it. Mrs. Chana Weisberg writes on "We 'light up' another not through scathing criticism aimed at crushing individuality, but through warmth, love and validation. By validating positive qualities, by discovering latent capabilities, by igniting his fire so that his own branch shines brightly, we have succeeded in enriching another life."

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Naso 5771

In this week's parsha, G-d imparts the Birkat Cohanim (Priestly Blessing) through Moshe to Aharon and his sons (the Cohanim.) "Thus shall you bless the Children of Israel, by saying: 'May G-d bless you and guard you; May G-d cause His face to shine upon you and favor you; May G-d raise His face towards you and give you peace.'" Cohanim, descendants of Aharon, still give this blessing today, daily in Sephardic synagogues and in Israel, and on holidays in Ashkenazic synagogues outside Israel.

Why does the Hebrew word "ko" (thus), an unusual expression, precede the blessing?

The use of the word "ko" alludes to our forefather Avraham, whom G-d blessed while pointing out the countless stars in the sky: "Thus shall your offspring be." (Bereishit 15:5) The three blessings in the Birkat Cohanim remind us of our three forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. The Birkat Cohanim is introduced with the word "ko" to indicate that the true blessing of the Jewish people is that each of us strives to become like our forefathers. We ask G-d to bless us in the merit of our forefathers.

There are many interpretations of each of the three blessings that comprise the Birkat Cohanim. Here is one explanation:

"May G-d bless you" refers to material possessions – food, homes and income. May we have what we need.

"And guard you" refers to the safekeeping of material possessions. G-d determines what becomes of our possessions: they should not be stolen, damaged or misused.

"May G-d shine His face upon you" is a spiritual blessing. It means may G-d hear our prayers, and may He give us understanding when we learn Torah.

"And favor you" means may G-d do this even when we don't merit it.

"May G-d raise His face towards you" means may G-d give us His full attention wherever we are, and watch over all our activities. This is known as hashgacha pratis (Divine Providence) or G-d's personal concern for each of us.

"And give you peace" refers to peace of mind (we should not be troubled by worries); peace of heart (we should not be overtaken by bad inclinations); peace in our relationships; and peace in the world.

As parents, we have a special opportunity each week to convey this ancient blessing upon our children. On Friday evening, in the glow of the Shabbat candlelight, we bless our children with the very words that are written in the Torah, connecting our children to our forefathers as well as to all of the generations preceding us.