Friday, June 29, 2012

Chukat 5772

In this week’s parsha, Moshe’s brother, the Kohen Gadol Aharon (High Priest Aaron), dies. “The whole congregation saw that Aharon had expired, and the entire House of Israel (kol bet Yisroel) wept for Aharon for thirty days.”   The commentators contrast Aharon’s passing with that of Moshe, recounted at the end of Torah (Devarim/Deuteronomy 34:8): “And the sons of Israel (B’nai Yisroel) wept for Moshe in the plains of Moab for thirty days...”

Why is the mourning said to be greater for Aharon than for Moshe, though both mourning periods last thirty days?
Rashi explains: “[Both] the men and the women [mourned for Aharon], for Aharon would pursue peace and instill love between parties to a quarrel and between a man and his wife.” In his commentary on the death of Moshe, Rashi explains that although B’nai Yisroel ordinarily means Children of Israel, male and female, here it refers only to the men.
There is further clarification in the Midrash, Avot d’Rabbi Natan 12:3-4: “Why did Israel cry for Aharon for thirty days? Because…he never said to any man ‘you sinned’…[as opposed to] Moshe who rebuked them harshly.”  The Midrash tells that Aharon convinced sinners to change their ways simply by greeting them with a smile. They wouldn’t be able to sin knowing that the next time they saw Aharon they would have to return his greeting.
The Midrash also recounts that when two people argued, Aharon would talk to the parties separately and get them each to “dispel the ill feeling from his heart.” Thousands of couples named their sons Aharon to acknowledge that Aharon had made peace and reunited the husband and wife.
As parents, except in the most serious situations, we should avoid using harsh language to rebuke our children. Instead, we should follow the advice of Rabbi Hillel (Pirkei Avot 1:12) “Be among the disciples of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to Torah.”

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Korach 5772

In this week’s parsha, Korach challenges Moshe’s leadership. The parsha begins: “Korach…took [himself to one side] along with Dathan and Abiram…They confronted Moshe together with 250 men…

Pirkei Avot 5:20 (Ethics of Our Fathers) refers to Korach’s confrontation to make a point about arguments. “Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will ultimately endure, and any that is not for the sake of Heaven will not ultimately endure. What is a dispute for the sake of Heaven? The arguments between Hillel and Shammai. And those not for the sake of Heaven? The arguments of Korach and his followers.” (Rabbis Hillel and Shammai were early First Century scholars who frequently debated and had differing views on rituals, ethics and theology.)  

Why does Pirkei Avot name both Hillel and Shammai, but when referring to Korach’s dispute with Moshe, mention only one side of the dispute, Korach but not Moshe? 

Writes Rabbi Yissocher Frand based on the commentary of Rav Shimon Schwab: “In an argument for the sake of Heaven, both parties are interested in hearing the opinion of the other. Their goal is to arrive at the truth and in order to do so they have to hear both sides of the argument…But in an argument that is not for the sake of Heaven, such as that of Korach and his followers, there was no interest in discovering the truth.  There was only a grab for prestige and power…They turned a deaf ear to all the arguments against their position. Therefore their dispute did not really have two sides.”

Writes Rabbi Yisrael Bronstein, citing commentary of Rav Yonatan Eybeschutz: “The dispute was not between Korach and Moshe at all; rather, it was really between Korach and his assembly, as each of them was vying for leadership and power. Moshe Rabbeinu, however, did not take up their quarrel; on the contrary, he tried his utmost to appease them so as not to carry on a dispute that would eventually lead to disastrous results.” 

Often arguments begin about insignificant matters and then escalate until the parties reach an impasse. They may stop talking to one another and feel only hatred and resentment toward one another. Each one is convinced that he is right and that he must win the argument. The need for victory is so great that each side is blinded to the severe repercussions of continuing the argument. From such disagreements, friends and families may be torn apart irreparably.

Using three symbols of peace, Talmud (Berachos 56b) hints towards how to resolve disputes peacefully: be like a river, a bird, a kettle. Rabbis Yisroel and Osher Anshel Jungreis explain: a river controls its waters from overflowing, as we should control our tempers; a bird flies away from confrontation; a kettle appeases two opposing forces: where water alone would drench the food and fire would burn it, the kettle mediates and provides a productive result.

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.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Shelach 5772

This week’s parsha recounts the episode of the twelve spies sent to Canaan. Ten of the twelve return with a false, negative report, that the land cannot be conquered, despite what G-d has promised. After the story of the spies, the parsha relates several mitzvot, including hafrashat challah, separation of a portion of dough before baking.

 When you arrive in the Land to which I am bringing you, and you eat from the bread of the Land, you shall set aside a terumah (gift) for the L-rd. The first portion of your dough, you shall separate a loaf for a terumah…From the first portion of your dough you shall give a terumah to the L-rd in [all] your generations. The mitzvah today in English is called “taking challah” and is accomplished by taking an egg-sized piece of kneaded dough from the mixture, setting it aside before baking and making a blessing over it. (For instructions, see

How does the mitzvah of hafrashat challah relate to the episode of the spies?

Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer on notes that Torah refers to hafrashat challah as a form of terumah (gift offering to G-d). Just as one would dedicate the first portion of produce as terumah, so do we dedicate a section of each batch of dough. While terumah of produce is taken from raw, unprocessed produce, the challah offering is taken from dough, a substance that the baker has processed by combining flour with water.

The baker may mistakenly view this dough as his personal handiwork, just as the spies mistakenly believed that their success in conquering Canaan would depend on their own efforts and power. Writes Rabbi Gordimer: “[Through the mitzvah of hafrashat challah] the baker must treat his batch as raw produce and recognize that G-d is the Master of the Universe and is to be credited for all that is. 

Writes Chana Slavaticki on “On a broader scale, bread, also known as the ‘staff of life’, is a metaphor for all of physicality and materialism. In many cultures, the term ‘dough’ is slang for money (as in ‘got dough?’). This is because money enables us to buy our ‘dough’ – our sustenance as well as all our material needs. It is also why one who earns an income is called the ‘breadwinner’. Just as the farmer [or baker] can mistakenly conclude that it was his talent and effort that resulted in his dough, it is all too easy for a person to attribute his ‘dough’ (his material success) to his brilliance, beauty, creativity or charisma.”

As parents, it is tempting to take credit for our own successes and for those of our children. Our Sages tell us that this is avodah zarah, idolatry. All we accomplish, and all we possess, comes from G-d.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Beha'alotcha 5772

This week’s parsha backtracks in time to the first Pesach (Passover) which takes place in the Sinai Desert on the 14th day of Nisan, a year after the Exodus from Egypt. As they did the night before leaving Egypt, the Children of Israel offer a lamb or young goat to G-d as a Pesach sacrifice.

Some are not able to participate in this mitzvah (commandment) because they have become ritually impure from contact with a human corpse. They ask Moshe why they should be excluded, deprived of the opportunity to perform the mitzvah. Moshe asks G-d for instructions. “The L-rd spoke to Moshe, saying…any person who becomes unclean from [contact with] the dead, or is on a distant journey, whether among you or in future generations, he shall make a Pesach sacrifice for the L-rd. In the second month [Iyar], on the fourteenth day, in the afternoon, they shall make it.”

Why was Pesach Sheni (the second Pesach) not commanded directly by G-d in Torah from the very start, as were other holy days?

Rabbis Yisroel and Osher Anshel Jungreis give the following response: “The holiday of Pesach Sheni was not decreed as were all our other holidays because it is one holiday that G-d could not legislate until the people themselves desired it. A second chance must spring from the sincere yearning of those who wish for it.

It follows that if G-d is willing to give us a second chance, and even creates a holiday to celebrate this concept, we should extend the same courtesy to ourselves and to the people in our lives. “Pesach Sheni testifies that no matter how far we may have strayed…G-d will always accept us if we indicate our yearning to come home…We can reinvent ourselves, or we can remain mired in our failures.”

As parents, we sometimes make mistakes, and we sometimes see our children make mistakes. In most cases, if we or our children have a sincere desire for a second chance, and are truly willing to reflect on the misstep and to change direction, failures can be reversed.