Thursday, September 14, 2017

the parsha of teshuvah


"V'shavta ad Hashem Elokecha... b'chol levavcha u'bchol nafshecha." (30:2)  A few pesukim later we have, "V'atah tashuv... v'asisa es kol mitzvosav." (30:8)  Chasam Sofer explains that the first pasuk is addressing us in galus.  We don't have a beis hamikdash; many of us are not even living in Eretz Yisrael.  Return to authentic Jewish life, meaning living as Jewish nation in our own Jewish homeland where Torah and mitzvos are our national culture, is something we dream of, "b'chol levavcha u'bchol nafshecha," in our hearts,but is something far from our reality.  R' Tzadoh haKohen interprets "lo b'shamayim hi," assuming that the pasuk is speaking about teshuva (as Ramban learns, not like Rashi), as meaning that one should not think that the fact that Beis haMikdash is up in heaven now and inaccessible is an obstacle to teshuvah; "lo mei'eiver l'yam hi," the fact that Eretz Yisrael is across the ocean is not an obstacle either.  We can dream, we can hope, we can have the desire to get there.  Continues the parsha, one day, "v'hevi'acha Hashem Elokecha el ha'aretz..." (30:5) we will return to the land.  When that day comes, "V'atah tashuv... v'asisa," (30:8) we will have the opportunity to do, to take action and live as we are supposed to, not just to dream about it.  But it all starts with the "hishtokekus," the desire to get there.  That much we can all do now. 


Ramban asks why it is that when describing the mitzvah of teshuva the Torah uses "lashon beinoni" -- a description, not a command, e.g. "V'hasheivosa... V'shavta..." but it does not say "tashuv."  Minchas Chinuch raises the possibility that according to the Rambam there is a mitzvah of viduy, but no actual mitzvah of teshuvah.  When you want to do teshuvah, you have to do viduy, but there is no command to do teshuvah.  According to this approach, Ramban's question seems to be moot.  Ramban, however, assumes there is a mitzvah of teshuvah and explains that the Torah here is giving us more than a command -- it is a promise.  We all have dreams, some of which might come true, many of which will not.  The hope and dream of the Jewish people returning to Eretz Yisrael and doing teshuvah is something that is built into our destiny.  The Torah is describing what must come to fruition, not just giving a command that we have a choice whether or not to fulfill.

I would like to flip this model of the Chasam Sofer, of moving from "hishtokekus," from desire, from the heart and soul, to the world of action, on its head.  Shem m'Shmuel is bothered by the order of words in the pasuk, "...b'ficha u'b'levavcha l'asoso"  Ramban writes that the Torah here is describing the mitzvah of teshuvah.  Shouldn't the order be reversed?  Doesn't a person first come to teshuvah with his heart, and only afterwards, articulate through viduy what he/she did wrong, and express and formulate and new, positive direction?  The heart precedes the mouth, not the other way around? 

Of course you should see the Shem m'Shmuel for a great answer, but I would like to suggest that the pasuk makes perfect sense and is telling us how to do teshuvah.  There are lots of people who know that it is the teshuvah season and they therefore run to this shiur or that lecture seeking to be inspired.  They wait to do teshuvah -- they are waiting to hear just the right lecture that will lift them up, they waiting to hear just the right shiur from the right Rabbi that will capture their heart.  In the meantime, while they are waiting for that elusive moment of inspiration, the clock is ticking toward Rosh haShana.  The Torah here is telling us, "Don't wait!"  Say the words of viduy, say an extra perek of tehilim, learn an extra blatt of gemara.  You may not feel inspired -- you may feel like you are just going through the motions -- but those words will sink in.  Start with the words (and deeds) and the heart will follow.  Inspiration will stem from action, not the other way around.

We baruch Hashem get a second helping of parshas hashavu'a this week with Vayeilech.  The Midrash Tanchuma writes that "Vayeilech Moshe" is a tochacha.  Here Moshe steps out of his holy space and comes to each sheivet, maybe each member of Klal Yisrael, to speak to them -- where is the rebuke?  What could be more positive than that?

Shem m'Shmuel writes that the Torah is not telling us that Moshe took a physical walk to get from place to place -- who cares about that?  It is telling us that Moshe had to make a spiritual journey.  He had to leave where he was spiritually holding in and travel down a notch to come speak to us. 

I don't remember what the person did to earn it, but the Tchebiner Rav promised a certain person that he would make sure to get him into Gan Eden.  Later in life the Tchebiner asked that person for one favor: "Don't make it so hard for me."

Why should Moshe Rabeinu need to take a walk down the spiritual ladder in order to speak to us?  Why do we have to make it so hard for him?  Can't we make it a little easier and come a little closer to his level?  That's the tochacha.


Thursday, September 07, 2017

for the sake of bikurim

"B-reishis" = the world was created for the sake of reishis, the "reishis pri ha'adamah," the first fruits of bikurim which the farmer brings to the Mikdash, as described in the opening to our parsha.  

I don't mean to minimize the importance of bikurim, but let's be real -- if you asked 100 people to pick one mitzvah for which the world was created, most would answer things like learning Torah, saying shema, emunah.  Not bikurim.  What do Chazal see as so crucial in the mitzvah if bikurim?

When the farmer brings bikurim to the Mikdash in essence what he is saying is, "It's not me."  He may have plowed the field, he may have planted the seeds, he may have weeded, watered, tended the crops, and finally harvested, but the crops are not the product of his work alone.  By bringing bikurim the farmer is saying that it's not "kochi v'otzem yadi," but rather his success comes from Hashem.  

"V'lakach ha'kohen ha'teneh mi'yadecha" -- bikurim takes the fruit out of being "mi'yadecha," the work of your hands (alone), and acknowledges that it is a gift from Hashem.

"Lo achalti b'oni mi'menu" -- R' Shimon Sofer explains that the word "oni" can be interpreted as strength.  Ya'akov describes Reuvain as "kochi v'reishis oni," my first strength.  Again, the farmer is declaring that the fruit does not come from the strength of his labor, but rather is a gift from G-d.

What Chazal are telling us is that G-d created this thing we call "earth" with laws of nature that serve to obscure his presence and where humans can delude themselves into thinking they are in total control in order so that we might have the opportunity to make the biggest kiddush Hashem possible -- to pierce that veil and declare that Hashem is behind it all. Even if there was no physical world there could be angels who learn Torah, who say shema, who have emunah.  You don't need a world for that.  All that can take place in Heaven.  What you need a world for is so that we can declare, through our bikurim, that G-d is present even where he doesn't seem to be.

The Torah uses the term "higadti" when describing the farmer's speech to the kohen. Normally the term hagadah, as opposed to amirah or dibur, connotes harsh words.  The farmer is relating how G-d helped bring us to Eretz Yisrael and his asking for Hashem's bracha -- what's so harsh about what he is saying?

Here we have the kohen, says the Ishbitzer, who lives a holy life, who can cloister himself in the Mikdash, who is involved in Torah (Rambam end of Hil Shemitah) when he is not doing avodah.  Along comes a simple farmer with his basket of fruit and barges into that domain of kedusha.  You can picture him with his overalls, maybe with the mud from the field still on his workboots, marching up to the kohen and handing over that basket. The farmer then declares to the kohen, "Don't think you have an exclusive on G-d.  I may be out on the field working, I may be a simple farmer, but my basket of fruit is as valuable as what you are doing."  That's hagadah = kashe k'gidim, harsh words.  "Higadti l'Hashem Elokecha..." -- your G-d, reb kohen, is my G-d too.  My avodah is at least as valuable as yours.  Real holiness is not just when you live a life in the Mikdash, in the beis medrash, the life of the kohen.  Real holiness is when you live in the darkness of olam=he'elem, where G-d's presence is hidden, out in the field, out dealing with the struggles of the world, and you come with bikurim and declare that that "real" world is just a fake and what is real is G-d. 

Maybe this is what the Midrash Tanchuma means when it teaches that Moshe was troubled as to how we would get by without bikurim when we no longer had a Mikdash.   Moshe was not worried about the loss of korbanos or avodah -- holiness.  Moshe was worried more about the loss of a place where one could elevate the mundane and make even it holy. That's what bikurim is all about.

Hashem's answer to Moshe was that we will have 3 tefilos a day that will make up for the loss.  Tefilah reminds us (especially when you stop right in the middle of a work day for minchah!) that it's not the hard work we do that makes things happen, but it's G-d who is behind it all.  

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Al dvar asher lo tza'akah -- sometimes you have to scream

The one factor, at least based on a superficial reading of the parsha, that distinguishes a case of ones from a case of znus is whether the woman screamed out or not.  "Al dvar asher lo tza'akah ba'ir" (22:24) -- the assumption is that if whatever happened took place in the city, the woman must be guilty as well or someone would have heard her screaming.

Ramban is bothered: why are we so hung up on the screaming?  Maybe this woman lives in NY and knows no one is going to respond to her screams anyway, like the Kitty Genovese story, so she doesn't scream -- she obviously is not still guilty.  The key question should be whether she was coerced or not, whether she engaged in an illicit act willfully, not whether she specifically screamed.    

Ramban answers that you have to say that screaming is lav davka and the Torah is just describing a typical case.

Sefas Emes, however, says screaming makes all the difference in the world.  Screaming is not just a siman, a way to raise an alarm, but screaming is the means to effect yeshu'a.  "Al dvar asher lo tza'akah ba'ir" -- because had she screamed, she surely would have been heard and saved.  Not seizing that opportunity is itself a crime.

(Without the Sefas Emes I think you have a bit of a pshat difficulty.  The Torah tells us exactly what the man did wrong -- "al asher inah..."  When it comes to the woman, if you read the pasuk like Ramban, it does not tell us anything.  It just gives us a siman, "asher lo tza'akah," and leaves us to infer that she therefore consented and committed an immoral act.  According to Sefas Emes, the failure to scream, the failure to avail oneself of the opportunity of rescue, is itself the crime.  It's not just an inference but the Torah is telling us exactly what was done wrong by the man and by the woman.) 

The Sefas Emes is not just a comment on this specific parsha, but is a comment on life.  There is a lot of stuff that does not befit us that we come in contact with due to our having to work in and live in a secular society.  What can you do -- ones!  We can't so easily change when and where we live.  The Sefas Emes is telling us that if it's really ones, then you should be screaming.  If you passively sit back and do nothing, or worse, accommodate yourself to the situation or enjoy he situation, then all bets are off.  If you want to be saved, you have to scream.  And if you do scream, you will be saved.   

(I had a very hard time trying to formulate this Sefas Emes.  For some reason earlier in the week I became fixated on writing this point up and then I couldn't let it go.  It became a mental block to my writing anything else.  After mulling it over for 2 days I don't like the results.  See S.E. in the Likutim, in 5634, and 5640 and see what you make of it.)

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Even ha'Azel: special din of bitul Torah that applies only to a melech

(If you don't want any derush skip 1-4 but don't skip #5, the Even ha'Azel's beautiful chiddush based on a diyuk in Rambam.)

1. In Gertrude Himmelfarb's The Demoralization of Society (p 39) she quotes Hipployte Taine as saying, "The aim of every society must be a state of affiars in which every man is his own constable, until at least none other is required."  In other words, "Shoftim v'shotrim titen LECHA," you have to make yourself into the shofet and shoteir.  You have to develop a moral compass and police yourself. 

2. Ksav Sofer notes that the parsha that speaks of the appointment of a king the Torah uses the singular voice: "Asima alay melech.... Som tasim alecha melech..."   There is a din (O.C. 53:19) that when a congregation appoints a new chazzan, any single individual may object to the appointment (provided they can offer a legitimate reason for doing so).  There has to be no dissension with respect to the final choice.  So too, suggests the Ksav Sofer, when it comes to the appointment of a king, the people have to speak with unanimity, with one voice.  There can be no objections to the selection. 

I wonder if this reflects the reality.  David haMelech was chased across the countryside by Shaul -- it doesn't seem that even he had the unanimous consent of the people, at least at the time of his appointment. 

3. Speaking of Shaul haMelech (that last paragraph was an excuse to make a transition : )...   The parsha tells us that we cannot use sorcery or fortune telling like the other nations do.  Hashem instead gives us nevi'im to reveal to us what we need to know of the future.  The Netziv says a chiddush: if there is no navi to consult, if there is no other recourse, and we absolutely need information, then those other means are at our disposal as well.  If it's pikuach nefesh and the only way out is through sorcery, then you have to use it.  Why then, asks the Netziv, was Shaul punished for consulting the witch of Endor?  He was not getting an answer from the u'rim v'tumim or any other way and had no other choice? 

Netziv answers that Shaul was punished because he created the situation in which he found himself.  He killed the kohanim of Nov, he caused G-d not to be responsive to him, and so he was responsible for the outcome.  You can't put yourself in hot water and then cry ones and expect to be excused.  (There is a similar idea the Brisker Rav has on parshas Braishis -- see this post from 11 years ago.)

4. Not every king has access to a navi, and we for sure don't have access to a navi, but Chasam Sofer says the parsha has a solution for us without our having to go to fortune tellers.  "V'haya k'shivta al kisei mamlachto," when the king is sitting on his throne, the Torah tells us that he has to write a sefer Torah.  Chasam Sofer explains that when Klal Yisrael is on the level we are supposed to be on, our king is not sitting just on his throne -- he is sitting on Hashem's throne, as Hashem is the true king.  The melech is just his top representative down here.  So the parsha is not speaking about that ideal time.  The parsha is speaking about the b'dieved state, when the king is just on HIS throne.  There is no navi, there is no ruach hakodesh when we are in that state.  So where are we supposed to get answers from?  This Torah says when "k'shivto al kisei MAMLACHTO," (as opposed to malchus Hashem,) then write a sefer Torah, "V'kara bo kol y'mei chayav," and read about life in it.  You want answers -- learn Torah.  

A solution that applies to us as much as a king.

5. The Rambam (Melachim 3:5) writes that a king is not permitted to drink like a drunkard, but rather he is supposed to learn Torah and deal with the needs of Klal Yisrael day and night.  The Rambam quotes as proof this pasuk of "v'kara bo kol y'mei chayav." 

Don't all of us have to (ideally) learn Torah day and night, to the extent possible?  The Rambam in hil talmud Torah ch 1 paskens this way with respect to any Jew.  So why do we need a special din by a melech that he has to learn day and night? 

R' Isser Zalman Meltzer in the Even ha'Azel answers that there is a difference.  If you or I want to relax, we are free to sit down and have a beer, read a book, take a jog.  If that leads to some bitul Torah, we are excused.  Enjoying life is not assur.  Bitul Torah means deliberately not learning when one has nothing else to do and no other interest at the moment.  The melech, however, is different.  The melech is not allowed to sit back and relax with a beer or go for a jog.  He has an affirmative obligation to be engrossed in Torah and the needs of Klal Yisrael every moment, irrespective of his personal interests. 

When I saw this Even ha'Azel I understood in a completely different light the statement of "man malchai? -- Rabbanan."  The true kings are the Rabbis, talmidei chachamim, because only they, like kings, are engaged every moment in the dvar Hashem to the exclusion of their own interests and pleasures.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

don't give tzedaka because it's a mitzvah

Last week's post generated some comments in response to my having written that someone who observes mishpatim simply because it's the right think to do still can call on  zechus avos because he/she is doing the right thing.  Since I opened that can of worms, let me continue on the same theme.  R' Simcha Zisel of Kelm makes a striking claim with respect to the mitzvah of tzedaka mentioned in this week's parsha.  It's davka not the person who gives to charity because it's a mitzvah who fulfills tzedaka to its fullest.  Rather, it's the person who empathizes with the poor and gives because he is moved by their needs who fulfills tzedaka to its fullest. 

R' Simcha Zisel sees tzedaka as an extension of v'ahavta l'rei'acha kamocha.  Most of us don't eat because it's a mitzvah -- we eat because we feel hungry.  Says R' Simcha Zisel, treat your fellow Jew in need the same way.  Don't feed your friend because it's a mitzvah.  Feed your friend because you empathize with his pain to such a degree that if he is hungry, you are hungry, and when you are hungry, you eat. 

R' Ya'akov Naiman in his Darkei Musar uses this yesod of R' Simcha Zisel to answer a question posed by the Maharasha.  The gemara in Kesubos (67) relates that Nakdimon ben Gurion was punished for not fulfilling the mitzvah of tzedaka properly.  Asks the gemara: Nakdimon ben Gurion was rich and give a fortune to tzedaka; how is it possible to say he did not fulfill the mitzvah properly?  The gemara gives two answers: 1) as much as he gave, he could have done more; 2) he gave for the kavod of giving.  Maharasha on the spot questions this second answer.  We know that someone who gives charity "al menas she'yichyeh b'ni," with ulterior motives, because he wants the zechus of tzedaka to bring a refuah to his child, is called a tzadik gamur.  So who cares of Nakdimon ben Gurion did it for the kavod!?  He should still go down on the books as a tzadik gamur!

Yes, says R' Naiman, someone who gives with ulterior motives is a tzadik and fulfills a mitzvah -- but that mitzvah is not the mitzvah of tzedaka.  When you giving is motivated by any reason other than empathy, other than truly identifying with the needs of another, that's not true tzedaka. 

The point of the mitzvah of tzedaka is not the ma'aseh nesina -- the act of giving -- but rather it's the chalos in the gavra of becoming a person who is sensitive to the needs of others.

Rashi quotes a derush that the Torah juxtaposes "aser te'aser" with "lo tevaseh g'di b'chaleiv imo" because G-d is telling us that if we don't give ma'aser he will be forced to be "mevashel gedi'im shel tevuah" = cause the grain to rot in its husk before it is fully ripe and ready to harvest.  OK, it's talking about ma'aser, ma'ser sheni, and not tzedaka, but Chazal learn ma'aser kesafim from this pasuk, so derech derush you can give me some leeway and in turn I will give you a tremendous Ishbitzer (from Ne'os Desheh, the Mei HaShiloach's son).  Someone who does not give properly is like that grain rotting in it's husk -- on the outside, everything looks OK, but when you peel back the shell, the husk, there is nothing there on the inside.  A person who lacks empathy, who is not moved by others needs to want to help them, is just an empty shell of a person.   

Thursday, August 10, 2017

earning our own reward

V'haya eikev tishme'un es hamishpatim ha'eileh v'shamar Hashem Elokecha lecha es ha'bris v'es ha'chessed asher nishba l'avosecha.

Our parsha opens by telling us that if we observe the commandments, specifically mishpatim, then Hashem will fulfill his promise made to the avos and give us the brachos that follow.

If we are doing what we are supposed to, then shouldn't we deserve reward based on our own merits and actions, not because of the promise made to the avos?  (The Sefas Emes explains that the word v'haya, which always connotes simcha, appears here because Hashem has tremendous simcha when a person earns his own reward and doesn't receive gifts based on someone else's merit.)  Zechus avos is invoked when we have no other merits of our own to call on, not when we are doing everything right?

Maybe you can answer that question by way of another question.  Last week's parsha ends with the pasuk, "V'shamarta es ha'mitzvah v'es ha'chukim v'es ha'mishpatim..."  Meforshim are bothered by the fact that that pasuk lists off multiple categories of mitzvos -- mitzvah, chukim, mishpatim -- while the pasuk that opens our parsha refers only to the one category of mishpatim.  Why the difference?

Perhaps the point of our parsha is that even if we are not exactly doing what we are supposed to -- we are only fulfilling the logical laws of mishpatim that make sense to us, but are not on target with all the mitzvos and chukim -- nonetheless, Hashem will reward us because in addition to our own actions, we have zechus avos as well.

es Hashem Elokecha tira - l'rabos talmidei chachamim = community building

The gemara tells us that Shimon ha'Amsuni was able to darshen every single "es" in the Torah, but when he got to the pasuk, "Es Hashem Elokecha tira," "pireish," he could not go further.  R' Akiva, on the other hand, darshened even that "es."   It explained it as coming "l'rabos talmidei chachamim," to include havin awe of talmidei chachamim  (Pesachim 22)

When Shimon ha'Amsuni encountered the mitzvah of yirah, he thought the way to fulfill it was "pireish," through prishus=separating from the world, from the community, and digging inward to achieve self perfection.

R' Akiva, on the other hand, thought just the opposite.  One can achieve yirah by "l'rabos talmidei chachamim," by building the community, increasing the number of people involved in Torah and learning Torah.

Why was it R' Akiva in particular who was able to arrive at this insight?  R' Meir Shapira of daf yomi fame explained that R' Akiva early in life before he came to learning had an intense hatred for talmidei chachamim.  The Rambam writes that the way to correct a midah is to go to the opposite extreme.  Therefore, R' Akiva more than anyone else came to an intense love and appreciation for talmidei chachamim and their influence.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

T"u b'Av -- a feminist holiday

The gemara at the end of Ta'anis tells us that the two biggest yamim tovim for Klal Yisrael were 15 Av and Yom Kippur.  On those days the girls would go out into the fields and dance and the boys would come and find their shidduch (simple solution to the shidduch crisis).  The girls who had money would say, "Marry us for our money," the girls who had yichus would say, "Marry for yichus!" and the girls who had nothing would say, "Marry l'shem shamayim and then afterwards give us gold jewelry."

We all know why Yom Kippur is a special day, and the gemara gives a hosts of reasons why 15 Av was a special day, among them that on that day the dor ha'midbar stopped dying for the sin of cheit ha'meraglim.  But why were these days in particular the days set aside to make shidduchim?  What does finding a girl to marry have to do with the nature of these days?

Secondly, what does the gemara mean when it tells us that the girls who said to get married added, "And buy us gold jewelry!"  It seems incongruous with the call to act "l'shem shamayim."  Were the girls who said that being disingenuous and just needed a way to snatch a boy when they had nothing else going for them?  Do we really have to be that cynical?   It's strange that the gemara even bothers add this line about gold when it has nothing to do with the shidduch itself.   Maharasha writes that it's just a "milsa b'alma," but maybe there is more to it.

There were two major sins that Klal Yisrael committed en route to Eretz Yisrael: 1) the sin of the cheit ha'eigel = abandoning G-d; 2) the sin of the meraglim = abandoning Eretz Yisrael.  There was one group of people, however, who did not involve themselves in either sin -- the women of Klal Yisrael.  By the cheit ha'eigel the women did not willingly turn over their gold jewelry to their husbands to make the golden calf.  When it came time to apportion Eretz Yisrael, it was the Bnos Tzelafchad who demonstrated their love of the land and demanded a portion. 

Yom Kippur is the tikun of the cheit ha'eigel.  On that day Hashem gave us the second luchos, a second chance after the first were broken by Moshe in response to the eigel. 

T"u b'Av is the day the dying of the generation of the midbar stopped.  It brought closure to the cheit ha'meraglim.

For the women who needed no tikun, these days are "feminist" holidays -- days when they could boast of their superiority.  Not holidays of modern feminism, where women want to be men, but Torah feminism, when women can be proud of their own stellar achievements.  On these days the women reach out to their male counterparts and call, "bachur, sa na einecha," lift up your eyes and look at the madreiga we reached!   These are days of shidduchim because on these days the bachurim reach out to find partners to help bring up their level of ruchniyus. 

The conclusion, "Adorn us in gold jewelry," is not just an aside, but is part of the whole message, explains the Sefas Emes in Likutim.  The women could boast that they deserved to be adorned with the gold that they did not turn over to the eigel, the gold that we men so eagerly surrendered for avodah zarah.

When we lost Eretz Yisrael and the Mikdash and went into galus, we lost T"u b'Av.  We lost the tikun for the cheit ha'meraglim.  All that is left is Yom Kippur, the tikun for the cheit of avodah zarah.

Maybe a reinvigoration of T"u b'Av is something to look forward to as we get closer to geulah.