Thursday, July 31, 2014

Devarim 5774

May G-d, the L-rd of your fathers, add a thousandfold more like you and bless you, as He spoke to you.” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:11)

In this week’s Torah portion, Moshe (Moses) blesses the Children of Israel. Rashi explains that the people were unhappy with the blessing because G-d promised them in Bereishit/Genesis 13:16 that they would be “like the dust of the earth that is too numerous to count.”

What additional benefit would the Jewish people derive from Moshe’s blessing if they had already received G-d’s blessing of near infinite increase?

Rabbi Yissocher Frand cites on the explanation of the Chasam Sofer: Moshe was testing the people. He wanted to know why they wanted to have children. Was it in order to ease the household work burden and provide companionship and security to the parents in old age? Or did the people understand that children are a priceless gift containing a spark of the Divine and a piece of the World to Come? If the people had wanted children for the first reason, then they would have been happy with Moshe’s blessing for a thousandfold.  But the people wanted countless children.

The differing attitudes toward children are apparent in Bereishit 33:5 when Yaakov (Jacob) reunites with his estranged brother Eisav (Esau). Before Yaakov left, he reached an agreement with Eisav that Eisav would take this world and Yaakov would take the World to Come. When Eisav saw all of Yaakov’s many children, he thought Yaakov had gone back on his bargain. Eisav thought that children are for this world, not for the World to Come.

Rabbi Frand elaborates: “The opportunity to raise a child, to develop a Divine soul to the point where it can enter the World to Come is a privilege of the highest spiritual worth. Yaakov wants children for their own sake, but Eisav views them as an asset to this world.”

“The purpose of children is not for enjoying this world or for making our lives easier. Each child represents a spiritual mission, a spark of the Divine entrusted to our care and guidance, an opportunity to fulfill Hashem’s desire to have this soul brought to the World to Come.”

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Masei 5774

The congregation shall return him [the murderer] to the city of refuge…and he shall remain there until the Kohen Gadol (High Priest)…dies.” (Bamidbar/Numbers 35:25) 

In this week’s Torah portion the six cities of refuge are established. These are intended as places of asylum for those who have accidentally killed someone. The murderer had to remain in the city of refuge until the death of the Kohen Gadol.

The Mishna (Makkot 11a) notes that the mother of the Kohen Gadol would bring food and clothing to the accidental murderers/refugees. Why would she do this?

The Mishna explains that she would do this so that the refugees would not pray for the death of her son. But what would keep the refugees from enjoying the care packages and then praying for the Kohen Gadol’s death?

Rabbi Ozer Alport on cites the explanation of Rabbi Shlomo Eisenblatt: “Her [the mother’s] focus was not to guarantee that nobody would pray for the death of her son, which would have been unrealistic, but rather to ensure that even if they did pray, their petitions would be denied…The power of a pure and truly heartfelt prayer is so great that even if it is uttered by somebody whose carelessness resulted in the death of another Jew, and even if his request is for something as audacious as the death of the Kohen Gadol, if he cries out to G-d with all his heart, he may well be answered.”

“Although the feelings of gratitude that the accidental murderers felt toward the mother of the Kohen Gadol may not have been sufficient to stop them from praying altogether, they were enough to ensure that they would be unable to pray with their entire hearts, and the smallest reduction in the purity and intensity of their petitions was enough to prevent them from being answered.”

Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky on provides further explanation. ”The mission of the Kohen Gadol’s mother was not just to distribute food. It was to develop a bond with those people whose carelessness spurred a death. They saw the love a parent had for her son as she subconsciously pled with the inmates to spare her child. They saw how a total stranger, despite her great esteem, would make sure that their needs in the city of refuge were cared for…After developing an awareness of life, they would never be able to pray for the death of anyone, even if it meant their own freedom.”

As parents, we must constantly demonstrate to our children our care and concern for others. We should make kiddushei hashem (sanctifications of G-d’s name) by reaching out non-judgmentally to people society often neglects. In caring for others, we may change people’s lives and positively influence their impression of Jewish people.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Matot 5774

Shall your brothers go to war while you stay here?” (Bamidbar/Numbers 32:6)

In this week’s Torah portion, Reuven (Reuben) and Gad ask Moshe (Moses) for permission to settle on the other side of the Jordan, rather than in the land of Canaan with the other tribes. The two tribes have accumulated much livestock and the leaders observe that the land east of the Jordan will be a good place to raise cattle. Moshe questions their priorities because it appears that they are opting out of fighting alongside the other tribes in Canaan. (It will take another 14 years until the tribes can peacefully settle in Canaan.) Reuven and Gad agree to leave their families and livestock behind and join the other tribes in battle.

What can we learn from Moshe’s challenge?

Rabbis Yisroel and Osher Anshel Jungreis write in Torah for Your Table:  “We the Jewish people are one family. If any one of us is hurting, we are all hurting. The heart of each and every Jew must beat with the heart of his people…The question of Moses speaks to us…in our everyday family life as well. Can it be that you are buying jewelry while your sister can’t pay her rent?...Can it be that you are celebrating at your holiday table while your brother sits alone in his dark apartment?  Can it be?...Moses’ challenge demands that we take a good look at our lives and examine to what extent we feel empathy for our families, for our people.”

As parents, we must teach our children to look out for the welfare of their siblings and for their extended family. We also must make them aware that they are part of the larger family of the Jewish people. When rockets fire over Israel, our sisters and brothers in Israel are in danger. We shed tears, pray, recite Tehillim (psalms), and do mitzvot (commandments) such as learning Torah, lighting Shabbat candles, donning tefillin (phylacteries) and giving tzedekah (charity). We find ways to support Israeli soldiers and the people of Israel in their time of need. We do not stand by idly as our brethren suffer.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Pinchas 5774

The perpetual burnt offering, which was made at Mount Sinai for a pleasant aroma, a fire offering to the L-rd.” (Bamidbar/Numbers 28:6)

This week’s Torah portion includes a list of sacrifices brought on various occasions to the Holy Temple. The first sacrifice mentioned is korban tamid (literally, perpetual sacrifice, or daily sacrifice). It is brought to the Temple every day, in the morning and in the evening, even on Shabbat and Yom Kippur. 

Why is Mount Sinai mentioned when Torah gives the mitzvah (commandment) of korban tamid?

Rabbi Yissocher Frand provides an explanation on

The very first korban tamid was offered at Mount Sinai. As with all first-time events, it was done with enthusiasm and excitement. G-d then commanded in Torah that this sacrifice should be made every day, twice a day. How much enthusiasm and excitement could such a sacrifice generate, when it no longer is a novelty but an everyday event? By recalling the Sinai experience, Torah reminds us that we should never perform mitzvot (commandments) by rote, no matter how often we perform them. Torah urges us to find inspiration, even when the novelty has worn off.  

In Tehillim (Psalms) 27:4, Dovid haMelech (King David) says, “I asked one thing from G-d…to dwell in the House of G-d all the days of my life, and to visit His Palace.” The requests seem mutually exclusive. How can Dovid have it both ways, be a resident as well as a visitor? He wants a permanent residence in G-d’s House, but he also wants to feel like he is only temporarily visiting so that the experience will feel special and retain its novelty. This should be our approach when we perform mitzvot we have done so many times before, such as donning tefillin or taking challah. We should be “at home” with the familiar mitzvah, but “visit” it so it feels fresh and inspiring.

As parents, we are enthusiastic and excited when the oldest of our children has a first. We eagerly document all the milestones -- first tooth, first word, first step, first day of school. With the second child we are slightly less enthusiastic and our excitement tends to decrease, though we try not to let it show. With subsequent children, it becomes harder and harder to muster up enthusiasm for these firsts. However, no matter how many times we have witnessed our other children’s firsts, we must approach our younger children’s milestones with the same enthusiasm we conveyed when our older children experienced the same firsts.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Balak 5774

G-d refuses to let me go with you.” (Bamidbar/Numbers 22:13)

In this week’s Torah portion, the Moavite King Balak asks a prophet named Bilaam to go with him and curse the Jewish people. Bilaam asks G-d for permission and G-d tells him not to bother because the Jews are blessed. Instead of admitting his inability to curse the Jews, Bilaam just tells Balak that G-d refused to let him go.

What can we learn from the way Bilaam refused Balak’s request?

G-d gives all of us strengths, talents and skills that come easily to us. He also gives us weaknesses and areas in which we are not skilled and would have to work very hard to improve. G-d gave Bilaam the ability to prophesize and to give blessings and curses. Bilaam did not want to admit that he lacked this skill when it came to the Jews. Perhaps he had low self-esteem and felt that acknowledging a lack of ability would reflect poorly on him. Perhaps he was too proud to admit that he could not do what the king requested.

Writes Adam Lieberman on “Those who can readily and easily admit that they aren’t good at something aren’t showing weakness or incompetence. Rather, it [the admission] demonstrates honesty, strength and self-confidence. Others will look at this person and see someone who is comfortable with the strengths and talents that they do have and need not proclaim to all they meet that they’re good at everything.”

As parents, we are often called upon to do things that we are not that skilled at or even not capable of doing. If we are able to admit that we are not the right person for the job, our esteem will actually rise in the eyes of those seeking our help. It will show that we are confident enough to admit our weaknesses. People will know that when we do agree to take on a task, we will carry it out successfully and to our fullest ability.