Thursday, August 30, 2012

Ki Teitzei 5772

Among the 74 mitzvot (commandments) in this week’s parsha is the prohibition: “You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together.”  Torah is silent on the reason for this prohibition, as it is with many others. (A Divine decree that has no apparent rationale is called a chok.) 

Even though the prohibition against plowing with an ox and a donkey is a chok, what moral lesson can be derived from it?

The Daas Zekeinim explains: The ox chews its cud, while the donkey does not. If the two animals worked next to each other, the donkey would see the ox chewing its cud and, not understanding the ox’s slower digestive process, would mistakenly think that the ox had gotten a larger portion of food than the donkey had. The donkey would become upset and envious of the ox. Writes Rabbi Yissocher Frand on “The Daas Zekeinim’s message is that we need to make sure that we are compassionate even towards our animals. We do not want to put the donkey in a situation where he will feel jealousy towards the ox.”

Rabbi Yisroel Jungreis and Rabbi Osher Anshel Jungreis point to the different energy levels of the two animals. “Harnessing them together would pit one against the other, causing undue pain and stress.”

Writes the Sefer HaChinuch: “Let everyone wise of heart learn a lesson not to ever appoint two men in any matter whatever who are far apart in their nature and different in their conduct, such as a righteous person and a wicked one, or a despicable person and a distinguished one. For if the Torah minded about the pain that animals have through this, which are not possessed of intelligence, then all the more so with people, who have an intelligent, reasoning spirit.” 

As parents, we must recognize that our children have different temperaments, maturity and abilities. We should be aware that, because of their different dispositions, there may be situations in which it is inadvisable for certain siblings to play together, to work together on a project, or even to share a bedroom. However, we should never compare children, for each has his or her own unique gifts and talents, and each has his or her own contribution to make. Further, we should be careful not to praise one child in another child’s presence, for the other child might become envious. To prevent jealousy, we should teach children to be modest about their accomplishments and never to boast. Likewise, we should resist the urge to brag about our children.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Shoftim 5772

This week’s parsha begins with the mitzvah (commandment) to appoint shoftim (judges) and court officers. No sooner is the mitzvah given than it is interrupted by two prohibitions against idolatry that seem to be out of place and unrelated to the opening mitzvah. “You shall not plant for yourself an ashera, [or] any tree, near the altar of the L-rd, your G-d, which you shall make for yourself. And you shall not set up for yourself a matzeva (monument), which the L-rd your G-d hates.”

Why are the prohibitions against the ashera and the matzeva given at this point in Torah?

Rav Mordechai Sabato on explains why the laws of the court are juxtaposed with the laws of the altar: “The G-d before Whom you stand, in approaching the altar, is the same G-d before Whom the judges and litigants stand… Just as we are to maintain the purity of the altar, not involving it in elements aimed at embodying G-d and corrupting our faith, so are we to take care to maintain the purity of law, not to pervert it and turn it into injustice.”

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin cites the comments of Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Shapiro of Dinov: Whether a layperson or judge, one should not make a matzeva, a fixed decision for all cases, but rather one based on all of the unique circumstances of a situation. He notes that the Hebrew word for “situation” is matzav.

Writes Rabbi Pliskin: “What could be a mitzvah to do in one situation could be a transgression in another situation. At times a certain act could be a kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s name) and in other situations where some factors are a bit different, similar behavior would constitute a chilul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s name)…Only someone who has a grasp of the full panoramic view of Torah principles will have the necessary wisdom to judge what is the correct thing to do in every situation.The more Torah you learn, the greater will be your ability to make distinctions between different situations.”  

Rabbi Binny Freedman also derives meaning from the word matzeva, which he notes comes from the root yatzav, or standing/stable. He writes: “Too often it seems easiest to stand still, to take no risks, and to let life take charge...Too often, we prefer the simple path of the matzeva, the monument that signifies that we have arrived and would like to sit still where we are.  But to stand still in reality is to regress and lose any gains we might have achieved. And the issue is not just the realization that we are not meant to be standing still, but as much, the belief that we can change, and grow.”

It is no coincidence that this parsha always is the first one read in the month of Elul, leading up to Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year). Notes Rav Binny: [It is] the time of year most associated with our ability to change who we are, reassess our goals and what we hope to give to the world in the coming year.”

As parents, we must recognize that our children change and grow, and we must change and grow with them. A decision made for one child one day may not fit the same child, or another one of our children, the next day. We must distinguish ourselves from the rigid and inflexible matzeva, and make decisions that change, based on each child’s unique needs at the time.     

Rabbi Freedman’s article appears at  
Rav Sabato’s article appears at

Friday, August 17, 2012

Re'eh 5772

This week’s parsha contains the mitzvah (commandment) and obligation to give tzedaka, monetary support to those in need. The word tzedaka often is translated as “charity”. The correct translation is “righteousness”. It is not merely a charitable act to give to the poor; it is every person’s obligation.

If there will be among you a needy person…you shall not harden your heart, and you shall not close your hand…Rather, you shall surely open your hand to him, and you shall lend him sufficient for his needs, which he is lacking…You shall surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him.”

Why does Torah repeat the word “open” in the phrase patoach tiftach et yadcha (literally, open, you shall open your hand) as well as “give” in the phrase naton titen lo (literally, give, you shall give him)?

The parsha aims to teach not only that we are obligated to give tzedaka, but that there is a specific way to offer tzedaka. Rabbis Yisroel and Osher Anshel Jungreis note that it is unusual for Torah to specify how to fulfill a mitzvah. Torah’s usual emphasis is on the fulfillment of a mitzvah rather than the manner in which it is being performed.

Write the Rabbis Jungreis: “When it comes to tzedaka, we must be sensitive to the feelings of the needy, who are humiliated by the fact they have to beg. [The repeated word “open” teaches] that we are required to give again and again, and always with a gracious, full heart.” Rashi writes that we are obligated to help someone financially “even a hundred times” if the person remains in need.

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin refers to Ibn Ezra’s explanation of “you shall not harden your heart”: “that you should not refrain from speaking kind words to his heart.” Writes Rabbi Pliskin: “We have an obligation to open our hearts to [a needy person] and to talk to him in a compassionate and empathetic manner. We must go out of our way to give him words of encouragement.”

Rabbi Kalman Packouz on cites the teachings of the Vilna Gaon: When we shut our hand, our fingers appear to be all the same length. When we open our hand, however, we notice that each finger is a different length. This reminds us that every poor person has different needs, and our obligation to each one is in accordance with his unique situation. “Do not shut your hands” means do not give equally to every individual. “You shall surely open your hand” means take notice that everyone’s needs are different, and give accordingly.

As parents, we know that our children learn by observing what we do and how we do it. Therefore, when we give tzedaka, we should try to include our children in the experience as much as possible. Advises Sara Shapiro-Plevan on “Help your child understand that in the end, one of the best ways to help make our world a more just, fair place is to share the resources we have with others who don’t have them.”

Friday, August 10, 2012

Eikev 5772

In this week’s parsha, Moshe (Moses) continues his final address to the Children of Israel. “And you shall remember the entire way on which the L-rd your G-d led you these forty years in the desert, in order to afflict you, to test you, to know what is in your heart…You shall know in your heart that just as a man chastises his son, so does the L-rd your G-d chastise you.

When he references a man’s chastisement of his son, what does Moshe convey about our relationship with G-d during difficult times?

This parsha always is read during the sheva d’nechmosa, the seven weeks of consolation between Tisha B’Av (the fast day commemorating the destruction of both Holy Temples and our exile from Jerusalem) and Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year). Each week, we read a Haftorah from the prophet Isaiah, whose stirring vision of future redemption and return provides hope and consolation.

Writes Rabbi Naftali Reich on “The message of Isaiah is an enduring one, for each of us experiences moments of challenge and exile, grief and suffering, where we feel estranged from and rejected by our Creator...Isaiah’s message that suffering always has a meaningful end result is important to internalize as we grapple with life’s setbacks and disappointments.”

Rabbis Yisroel and Osher Anshul Jungreis explain: “Our parsha teaches that G-d never punishes, in the sense of meaning to inflict pain without a constructive purpose…So even in the midst of our pain, we have to know that G-d, our Father, is with us and has not abandoned us. And this knowledge cannot merely be cerebral, but must be ‘felt in our hearts,’ for only thus will we be able to stay the course.”

A father only has love for his children and his intention is never to punish, but to correct. King David reinforces this teaching in Psalm 23, ‘Your rod and Your staff shall comfort me’, meaning that even when G-d’s rod causes me pain, it comforts me, because I know His purpose is to help me improve me.”

Rabbi Reich continues: “Throughout the sheva d’nechmosa, we seek to internalize the message that only when the process of exile is complete and the redemption a reality, will we fully understand that even its most destructive phases were integral to the ‘harvesting’ of our nation’s ultimate goodness and beauty.”

“By extension, we must try to survey the landscape of our personal lives with a similar perspective. Simply assuring ourselves that all will work out well does not always suffice. If we absorb Isaiah’s message, however, that we are Hashem’s [G-d’s] children at all times, and even in the grip of pain and suffering, Hashem’s love is pulsating beneath the surface, we can then rest assured that all will truly end well.”

As parents, we must teach our children to accept and even to embrace life’s challenges and difficulties. Just as G-d loves and supports us in difficult times, we must provide our children with the love and support they need to discover new strength and to deepen their relationship with G-d.

Read Rabbi Reich’s commentary at

Friday, August 3, 2012

Va'etchanan 5772

This week’s parsha opens with Moshe (Moses) telling the people that he beseeched G-d to change His decree and allow Moshe to enter the Land of Israel. “I entreated (va’etchanan) the L-rd at that time saying…please let me cross over and see the good Land that is on the other side of the Jordan…” G-d answers but does not withdraw the decree. “Speak to me no more regarding this matter. Go to the top of the hill and lift your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward and see with your eyes, for you shall not cross the Jordan.

What can we learn from Moshe’s fervent prayers and from G-d’s answer?

Rashi notes that the Hebrew word va’etchanan is derived from the Hebrew word chein (to find favor) and from chinam (free). He writes: “Even though the righteous may base a request on the merit of their good deeds, they request only a free gift of the Omnipresent. Because G-d said to him [Moshe, in Shemot/Exodus 33:19], ‘I will favor when I wish to favor.’” Explain Rabbis Yisroel and Osher Anshel Jungreis, even if we are undeserving, we beseech G-d to find favor with us and grant our request as a free gift.

Rabbi Aryeh Leib Lopiansky remarks that the gematria (numerical value) of va’etchanan is 515 and that Moshe prayed to G-d 515 times (twice on 15 Av, then three times a day for 171 weekdays from 16 Av until his death on 7 Adar.) From this we learn the value of persisting in our prayers.

Does G-d always answer our prayers? Write the Rabbis Jungreis: “G-d does respond to all sincere prayer, but the manner in which He does so is His to choose, for only He knows what is to our benefit. So let us always approach G-d in prayer and trust Him to lead us on the right path.

“Ours is a generation that is short on patience but long on expectations. If we feel that our prayers have gone unanswered, we are quick to give up in frustration and self-righteous indignation. Yet prayer is the only solution. Let us not forget that when problems overwhelm us, it is only G-d who can help.”   

Ultimately, G-d does not allow Moshe to cross over to the Land of Israel, but in His chein, kindness and graciousness, He allows Moshe to see the entire Land. The Midrash says that G-d also shows Moshe all of the events in Jewish history that will occur after his death. Perhaps this helps Moshe to understand why G-d cannot allow Moshe to lead the Jewish people into Israel.

Writes Rosally Saltsman in Parenting by the Book (Targum Press, 2003): “Many times we cannot give our children what they want. But instead of saying an unequivocal no, we can sometimes give our children part of what they want, just as G-d let Moshe see the Land. We can find creative ways of giving our children at least some of their heart’s desire, not because we have to give our children everything they want, but to show that we empathize with them and that their needs are important to us.”