Thursday, July 26, 2012

Devarim 5772

This week begins the fifth and final book of Torah, Devarim (Deuteronomy). Near the end of his life and the conclusion of the 40-year journey in the desert, Moshe (Moses) addresses the Children of Israel. He reviews the events that occurred during the journey and the laws given. In going over the story of the spies who reported negatively about the Land of Israel, Moshe says: “You spoke slanderously in your tents and said, ‘Because the L-rd hates us, he took us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand[s] of the Amorites to exterminate us.’” (Because the spies gave their negative report on the ninth day of the Hebrew month Av, this parsha always is read before the fast day of Tisha B’Av, which is observed this year on Sunday, July 29.)

Moshe’s account differs from the original version in Torah (Bamidbar/Numbers 14:2): “All the Children of Israel complained against Moshe and Aharon (Aaron) and the entire congregation said, ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this desert.’”  Why in his retelling does Moshe introduce a new detail – the people saying that G-d hates them?

Rashi explains the psychology behind the people’s supposed hatred. He cites what he calls a “popular saying”: “That which is in your heart about your beloved is what [you imagine] is in his heart about you.”  In other words, the people are disappointed and angry at G-d. In order to mask their resentment towards Him, they project their hatred onto Him. G-d really loves the Israelites, but because they feel hatred towards Him, they mistakenly feel that He hates them.  

Writes Rochel Holzkenner on “[By referring to the people’s hatred] Moses is making a powerful point. G-d loves you even if you’re angry, resentful, or even hateful towards Him…When we’re able to realize that G-d loves us, despite the disappointments in our life, and despite our palpable bitterness towards Him, then the anger begins to melt away in the face of warmth and care. The circumstances may remain painful, but the anger begins to dissipate.”

As parents, we love our children as G-d loves us – unconditionally.  Unfortunately, when we discipline our children or make unpopular decisions, they might become disappointed or resentful towards us, failing to understand that our actions are out of love and our desire to protect them. We must patiently endure their hateful words and continue to love them unconditionally, knowing that deep in their hearts they really love us as we love them.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Matot-Masei 5772

This week’s parsha begins with the laws concerning vows and oaths. “Moshe spoke to the Roshei haMatot [heads of the tribes] of the Children of Israel, saying this is the thing the L-rd has commanded: If a man makes a vow to the L-rd or makes an oath to prohibit himself, he shall not violate his word; according to whatever came out of his mouth, he shall do.”

The commentators discuss the unusual manner of transmission of these laws. They note that most of the laws are taught directly to the Children of Israel or to the Kohanim (priests).  Why are the laws concerning vows and oaths transmitted directly to the heads of the tribes?

Rashi writes: “He honored the chieftains by teaching them first…It is to teach us that annulment of vows may be performed by a single expert, and if no single expert is available, it may be annulled by three laymen.”  In other words, the elders and leaders play a crucial role in the laws of vows. Only these “experts” have the power to annul vows – to determine if a vow is invalid or inconsequential, or made through fear or duress.

Writes Rabbi Yissocher Frand on “According to the Ramban, these laws are only given to the Roshei haMatot, the nation’s leaders, who could be trusted to deal with these concepts with the level of sophistication and reverence that they deserve.” The subject is so complex that an entire tractate of Talmud, Nedarim (vows), is devoted to the topic.

Writes Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetsky on “The Torah transmits the laws of oaths through the heads of each tribe because it wants to reiterate the importance of a leader’s adherence to commitment. The eyes of a nation are focused on their words, their promises and their commitments. It is no wonder that the Torah specifies the role of tribal leaders when discussing the importance of commitment. For when the leaders keep their word, the nation follows in step.”

As parents, we should be careful not to make promises, or to say anything that might be construed as a promise, unless we fully intend to follow through. Our children count on us to meet their needs and to fulfill their reasonable requests. Broken promises betray a child’s trust and do lasting damage to the parent-child bond.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Pinchas 5772

In this week’s parsha G-d tells Moshe to apportion the Land to each of the tribes as an inheritance. The five daughters of Tzlaphchad petition Moshe: “Our father died in the desert…and he had no sons…Give us a portion along with our father’s brothers.” The Midrash tells that the daughters’ request inspires Moshe to ask G-d to designate his two sons as his successor. (Later in the parsha, G-d appoints Yehoshua (Joshua) instead.)

It appears as if Tzlafchad’s daughters ask for material possessions while Moshe asks for spiritual continuity. What relationship is there between the two requests?

To answer, we must know who Tzlaphchad is. The parsha tells us he is the great-great-grandson of Menashe, who was Yosef’s (Joseph’s) son. Tzlaphchad dies in the desert in the second year after the Exodus from Egypt, 38 years before this week’s parsha takes place.

There is a conflicting opinion in Talmud about Tzlapchad’s identity and the reason he dies. Rabbi Akiva (Shabbat 96a) professes that Tzlaphchad purposely violates Shabbat and is killed to show the Israelites they need to observe the mitzvot (commandments) in the desert. Rabbi Judah ben Betaira maintains that Tzlaphchad tries to go with a group to Canaan after G-d decrees his generation’s death in the desert. The group perishes at the hands of the Canaanites and Amalekites.

Writes Rabbi Naftali Silberberg on “[Tzlaphchad and his group] died because of their love for the Holy Land. Their love was so intense that it blinded their senses causing them to disregard Moses’ stern admonition that their mission was not sanctioned by G-d and would not succeed.”

Rabbi Silberberg contends that Tzlaphchad’s daughters’ request for a portion carried on their father’s legacy, the extreme love of the Land of Israel. Therefore, writes Rabbi A.L. Scheinbaum citing Horav Mordechai Rogov, Tzlaphchad’s daughters’ request was not motivated by material needs; rather it was spiritual in nature and focused on Jewish continuity and survival.

The daughters fear that if they are forced to live elsewhere, their father’s memory and traditions will not be transmitted to his descendants. Although Tzlaphchad dies for acting on his principles and he doesn’t live to know his grown daughters, nearly four decades after his demise his ideals live on with them. 

As parents, if we want our children to share our values, we must translate our values into actions. If we wish our children to carry on our Jewish traditions, we must actively engage in the rituals and practices of our religion. If we desire our children to love the Land of Israel, then we must take them to Israel and become at home there.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Balak 5772

In this week’s parsha the gentile prophet Bilam tries to curse the Jewish people but G-d intervenes and turns his curses into blessings. Our Sages tell us that the prophetic powers of Bilam were equal to those of Moshe (Moses). Both Bilam and Moshe were able to communicate with G-d, but they had different experiences. Torah here says “And G-d chanced upon (vayikar) Bilaam…” whereas Torah says “And He called to (vayikra) Moshe…” (Vayikra/Leviticus 1:1).

The commentators note that the difference in spelling between the words vayikar and vayikra is the letter aleph at the end of Vayikra, where it purposely is written smaller than the other letters. How does the aleph point to the difference between the prophetic experiences of Moshe and Bilam?

Writes Rabbi Naftali Reich on “It is possible for two people to have the same experience and yet one will be deeply affected while the other remains indifferent. Everything depends on the mindset. Moses was the quintessential humble man. The tiny aleph symbolizes the insignificance of his ani [“I”], his ego, and this humility and submission to the Creator gave him the receptiveness and clarity of vision to attain true greatness.”

“Bilam, on the other hand, was a pompous, arrogant and selfish fool, and this overwhelming self-absorption clouded his vision and stunted his spiritual growth. For all his wondrous prophetic powers, he remained forever a fool.”  Rabbi Yissocher Frand notes that even when G-d endows a donkey with the power of speech, Bilam fails to recognize the event as miraculous and extraordinary and treats it as if it were an everyday occurrence.    

Writes Rabbi Frand on “This sense of being impressed (nispael) is necessary for our service of G-d. The Rambam speaks of a person becoming impressed and overwhelmed with the awe of creation and the wisdom and beauty of nature. This is a sense that we need to develop within ourselves – emotions of love and reverence towards the Creator.”

What costs a person his sense of being impressed? Rav Shimon Schwab suggests “gluttonous indulgence in every passion and lust in the world…enjoying, taking, eating, consuming. He is so consumed with just enjoying himself that nothing gets him excited anymore.”

Observes Rabbi Frand: “Movies have become more and more violent and explicit. Music has become more and more outrageous. The way people talk and the words we hear have become more and more astounding, because nothing makes an impression anymore. As a society, we have lost our sense of wonder. We have become coarsened.” Even our language reflects this change. The word “awesome” has crept into our vernacular to describe perfectly ordinary events.

As parents, we need to protect and maintain the sense of wonder that our young children naturally possess. We must shield them from exposure to words, images and experiences that make them grow up too fast.  As for us, we must find within ourselves the spiritual strength to rise above the distractions of our mundane existence and be receptive to moments of inspiration that have the power to uplift our souls.