Friday, August 26, 2011

Re’eh 5771

This week's parsha begins "See, I give you today a blessing and a curse." The word re'eh (see) is in the singular, while the word lifanechem (before you) is in the plural.

If Moshe is addressing all of Klal Yisrael, why doesn't he use the plural?

What is a blessing? Each person will have a different answer depending on personal experience, values and individual outlook. To some, the answer is health; to others, wealth. To many, the most significant blessing is having children and grandchildren. Interestingly, some may find a blessing in illness. A heart attack, for example, might inspire someone to eat better and to exercise.

By using the singular form of re'eh, Moshe acknowledges that we each see blessings through our own eyes. Therefore, each of us will receive whatever we consider a blessing. However, Moshe juxtaposes blessing with curse to remind us that what we consider a blessing might actually be a curse. Winning the lottery, for example, can change people and their priorities. Getting a promotion at work can mean longer hours at the office and a changed relationship with co-workers.

Likewise, what we perceive to be bad for us may actually turn out to be good -- a blessing in disguise. Being delayed, for example, may cause someone to miss being in an accident. Losing a job may mean finding an even better one. We may not be able to see it right away, but if we are patient and trust in G-d, we will ultimately see the blessing.

As parents, we face many challenges. While we are in the midst of dealing with them, they may appear to be curses. We must train our eyes to see these troubles as merely temporary setbacks that ultimately will be revealed as blessings.

Published in the merit of a refua shlema (complete healing) for Chana bas Rochel.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Eikev 5771

In this week’s parsha, Moshe continues his discourse to Bnei Yisrael (the Children of Israel), telling them what to expect and how to behave when they enter the Land of Israel. He reminds them: “It is not by bread alone that man makes a life for himself; by everything that comes out from the mouth of G-d, man lives.”
Most of us are familiar with the beginning of this well known statement (man cannot live by bread alone), but its ending is not as well known.  What does it mean?
With these words, Moshe points out the importance of acknowledging the Source of our sustenance.  Rabbi A.L. Scheinbaum notes that the Hebrew word for bread is lechem, but lechem also has another meaning, “to wage war.”  Horav S.R. Hirsch, z.l., explains that man, using intelligence and creativity, wages war with nature and competes with his fellow man in order to harness nature and wrest nourishment from it.
Rabbi Scheinbaum writes: “The tragedy of man begins when he thinks that his ability and creative power are the sole ingredients of his material success.  The prime factor in man’s sustenance is G-d’s Providence.  Every morsel of bread in which we are fortunate to partake is due solely to G-d’s beneficence.  To forget or disregard this fact is to fall prey to man’s greatest delusion.”
To stave off this inclination, we begin each meal that includes bread with a blessing that acknowledges the One Who “brings forth bread from the earth.”  The Hebrew for “brings forth” is motzi, which is a form of the word motza used in the above passage to mean “comes out.”
It is no coincidence that several verses later in this parsha, we find the commandment to say a blessing after we eat. “You will eat and be satisfied. You must [then] bless G-d...” Moshe composed the blessing while Bnei Yisrael were in the desert and G-d provided manna, heavenly bread.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe writes: “Moshe’s words are applicable now as well [as during the time in the desert] because it is not the physical efforts of working the land alone that causes the land to yield produce.  Rather, man’s efforts merely create a ‘vehicle’ into which G-d places His blessings, and it is the Divine blessing which provides us with sustenance.  Therefore, even the food which grows from the ground is in fact ‘food from heaven’ so it is indeed appropriate – even nowadays -- to thank G-d for one’s nourishment with a text which was composed in praise of ‘bread from heaven.’”
As parents, we must nourish our children’s souls as well as their bodies. We should cultivate in them the habit of verbalizing gratitude to G-d for the food placed before them, as well as thankfulness to Him after they have eaten their fill.  Here is a link to the full English and transliterated Hebrew text of the Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals, known in Yiddish as bentching):

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Vaetchanan 5771

This week's parsha contains the mitzvah (commandment) of talmud Torah, to transmit the Torah's teachings. "You shall teach them diligently to your children. Speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the way."

How does Torah instruct us to transmit Torah to our children?

Sefer haChinuch says: "From what time is a father to start teaching his son Torah? From the time he begins to speak, he is to teach him 'Moshe commanded us the Torah, it is a heritage of the congregation of Yaakov' [from Devarim/Deuteronomy 33:4, the final parsha in Torah] and the first verse of Shema [found in this week's parsha, Devarim/Deuteronomy 6:1] 'Hear O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is one.' Sefer HaChinuch continues, "If someone was not taught by his fathers [father and/or grandfather], he is obligated to teach himself when he is grown and becomes aware of the matter."

What about mothers and daughters? The Lubavitcher Rebbe writes in Sichos Kodesh: "While in times gone by, women and girls were not taught Torah at all, nowadays it is not only permissible to teach women even the deepest parts of the Torah, but it is an absolute necessity to do so. For in the modern world, women are no longer confined to home and they are highly exposed to the marketplace of secular ideas. Thus, if the policy of not teaching women Torah at an advanced level will be upheld, the result will be that a girl's sophisticated worldly knowledge – which is likely to harbor many ideas that are antithetical to Torah – will be insubstantially compensated for by her rudimentary Torah knowledge."

This week's parsha teaches that we parents are our children's primary Torah teachers. We cannot shift the burden to our synagogues or to our schools. Torah must be taught "when you sit in your house" and the lessons and examples must continue outside the home "when you walk on the way." We don't become different people with different values when we leave our homes to go outside. The principles we uphold inside our homes strengthen us when we navigate the many highways of life outside the home.

It is no coincidence that this week's parsha also contains the commandment to affix a mezuzah "on the doorposts of your house and upon your gates." The mezuzah contains a parchment on which the Shema and two additional Torah passages are written. Upon entering and leaving the house, we see the mezuzah and remember that we are bound to study and teach Torah, and fulfill G-d's commandments, both inside the house and outside of it.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Devarim 5771

With this week's parsha, we begin the fifth book of Torah, Devarim (Deuteronomy.) The book also is known as Mishnah Torah, a review of the Torah. Knowing that he soon will die, Moshe reviews the Torah with his people, beginning with subtle words of rebuke alluding to their past sins. He reminds them that when the spies returned with a falsely negative account of the Land of Israel (Bamidbar/Numbers 14:1, Parashat Shelach) "you returned and wept."

What were the tragic results of the people's weeping? What did Moshe hope to achieve by reminding them of their tearful reaction?

This parsha always is read the Shabbat before Tisha B'Av (the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av) because that is the day the spies returned with their report. Today, Tisha B'Av is one of the most solemn fast days on the Jewish calendar. It coincides with many historic tragedies affecting the Jewish people, including the destruction of both of our Holy Temples.

The Talmud refers to the tears shed when the spies returned as "without cause." G-d declared, "They indulged in weeping without a cause; I will establish [this night] for them as a time of weeping throughout the generations."

Moshe, and G-d before him, reminds the people that tears serve a purpose and should not be wasted. Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt writes on "In Jewish thinking, crying is usually considered an important expression of emotion. If you cry to express pain, be it physical or emotional, that's healthy. If you cry in frustration at being unable to achieve what you want, that's also healthy. But crying in self-pity, at your hopeless situation in life, can only be destructive. It undermines your resolve to face the challenges of this world. And so, if you must cry, better that you have good reason to do so. This is what G-d said to the generation of the spies: If you are going to cry anyway, I will give you a reason to do so - so that your crying can at least be productive."

As parents, all too often, when we are confronted with transitory problems, we become emotional. We are grief-stricken when our children are not doing well academically or socially; we are overcome when too many demands are made on our time or our money. We cry for such foolishness, for such trivial reasons.

The Shabbat preceding Tisha B'Av is known as Shabbat Chazon (Shabbat of Vision), and takes its name from the first word of the Haftorah read that Shabbat. On Shabbat Chazon, teaches Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, each soul is granted a vision of the third and final Temple, and a time when we will no longer have reasons to weep (unless it is for joy.) Let us wipe our eyes free of useless tears that cloud our vision, and let us eliminate any thoughts of self-pity. Instead, let us reach out to help those who have reason to cry. In the words of the prophet Isaiah: "Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and her returnees with tzedekah (righteousness.)"