Friday, November 6, 2015
Thursday, October 22, 2015
Friday, September 12, 2014
Parshat Ki Tavo
In this weeks parsha we read about the mitzvah of Bikkurim. The Torah tells us to bring our first fruits of the season to the Beit Hamikdash, and offer it to the Kohanim. We are also told that the people would bring the fruits in baskets. The Sifri explains that there was a practice for the wealthy to bring their fruits in baskets overlaid with gold or silver, while the poor would use woven baskets. This would ostensibly show their love for the mitzvah.
However one could ask a question on this practice: We often find that the Rabbis would regulate standards in regards to mitzvah practices that could differentiate between the poor and wealthy. For example*, the Gemara in Moed Katan (27a-b) tells us that the original custom was for the wealthy to bury their dead in fancy and expensive caskets, however this caused the poor to be embarrassed, thus the Chazal enacted that everyone be buried in simple caskets. Seemingly, the minhag for the wealthy to use gold and silver laden baskets would also embarrass the poor. If so, why didn't the Chazal regulate this practice as well?
Perhaps the answer lies within the mitzvah of Bikkurim itself. The underlying message of Bikkurim is that everything we own, everything we create, is only through the benevolence and help of G-d. Bikkurim is the perfect expression of this message, as the mitzvah applies only to the first fruits.
The first fruits present a challenge to the farmer. The investment needed to create the proper environment for growth is a painstaking process. The farmer spends many days and months just preparing the land. Only after the land is properly fertilized can one plant. Then the farmer must keep guard to water the crops sufficiently; too much and they will be overwatered, too little and the crop will wither away. Specifically because of this personal investment, the mitzvah of Bikkurim forces us to confront the unavoidable truth that G-d is really the One controlling everything. The farmer is challenged to give over the produce in which he invested his very being; in doing so, he shows that although he put in the work, in reality it was G-d who enabled it to grow**. This serves for him as a testament to his beliefs.
Very often storeowners prominently display their "first dollar" on a plaque behind the counter, for to them that dollar represents all the effort, care, and worry put into that business. The dollar stops being a dollar; instead it is transformed into a symbol of that person's essence. So too, these Bikkurim are more than crops; they are his source of pride, a small part of himself. They are elevated from their physical limitations into a supernal sacrifice to G-d. For instead of keeping it for himself, he makes the ultimate personal sacrifice, showing that G-d is the true enabler.
With this approach, we can answer our question. At the moment of intense feelings of accomplishment, Bikkurim forces the farmer to confront the challenge of personal pride. In doing do, he realizes that not only does G-d enable him to create, but all that he has and receives is decreed by G-d as exactly what he needs, no more and no less. This perspective will help him reach the state of "Sameach B'chelko" – contentment with his lot. Thus, there is no need to regulate the standards of this mitzvah, as the poor man is not embarrassed of his lot, and the rich man is humbled by the blessing bestowed upon him. This is why Bikkurim is different than other mitzvot. Through the sacrifice that it demands, we come to recognize all the blessings in our lives, and to thank G-d for giving them to us.
This year, as we stand on the cusp of the Shmitta year in Israel, a mitzvah that the Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 84) tells us is meant to inculcate within us the knowledge that the land really belongs to G-d, this parsha's message should further our appreciation of His dominion of our daily lives for this year and many years to come.
*See the Gemara there for several examples of enactments based reasons of embarrassment
**According this we can understand a different question regarding the bracha we say on bread. We say "hamotzi lechem min haaretz," – "[Blessed is G-d] who brings forth bread from the land". Seemingly the bracha skips quite a few steps: there is harvesting, breaking the kernels, kneading the dough, then baking, and then finally bread. Perhaps the message of this bracha is that although man is involved in the many stages of the making of the bread, it is really HaShem who truly brings it forth to us. He alone truly makes it possible.
Friday, August 29, 2014
In this week's Parsha Moshe delineates further to Klal Yisrael the laws and the path they should follow for the future. Among that which he teaches the nation is the concept of prophecy.
Moshe relates, "A prophet from your midst... shall HaShem, your G-d, establish for you... According to all you asked of HaShem, your G-d, in Horeb (Har Sinai) on the day of the congregation, saying 'I can no longer hear the voice of HaShem, my G-d, and this great fire I can no longer see, so that I should not die.'" Moshe tells the nation that the reason they will receive prophets to guide them, is that they asked Moshe to tell them the laws when receiving the Torah, as opposed to HaShem telling them Himself, for they could not endure HaShem's greatness.
The simple reading of the verse seems to indicate that the giving of the prophets is a reward for us asking for a prophet at Sinai. Yet it also seems that when the nation asked for Moshe to speak instead of HaShem, it was phrased as a complaint: "that I should not die." Why are we being rewarded for what appears to be a complaint?
From here we can learn a tremendous lesson. Perhaps the nation was not complaining, rather it was making a statement of self-realization. Klal Yisrael came to the important understanding that all human beings have limitations, that they cannot fathom the overpowering greatness of HaShem, that in comparison to Him we are miniscule. This realization is directly opposed to the nature of human beings; we all tend to 'bite off more than we can chew" and assume that we are flawless. However, when we each individually come to a humble perspective, we see that it can open up for us possibilities we never had before. It is no coincidence that such a breakthrough came specifically at the time of our nation's greatest spiritual peak, and that it merited them a reward of a new level of connection with Hashem.
According to this explanation we can now fully understand Moshe's mentioning of the statement at Kabbalat Hatorah as the reason for the receiving of prophets. A prophet is a spiritual guide for the nation. He is someone who is able to discern the particular needs of the people and to tell them how to act accordingly. However, this guidance can only be given to those who realize that they don't have all the answers themselves. Therefore, in order for the people to fully receive that guidance, they must come to this realization of human limitations. Moshe, in his reference to this episode, imparts to us this important lesson.
This lesson is fitting for the month of Elul and the upcoming days Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. This month is m'sugal for Cheshbon Hanefesh and thoughts of repentance. When we become aware of our shortcomings, let us not feel discouraged, but rather motivated by the fact that this recognition is what will ultimately bring us closer to Hashem.
Friday, November 1, 2013
In this week's parsha we are told of the barrenness of Rivka and
Yitzchak, and their praying to HaShem to conceive.
The passuk says, "Yitzchak entreated HaShem opposite his wife." Rashi
explains that Yitzchak and Rivka would stand in opposite corners of
the room and pray. Yitzchak would pray on her behalf and she would
pray for herself as well. Directly after this, in the same passuk, the
Torah tells us, "And HaShem allowed Himself to be entreated by
Yitzchak, and his wife Rivka conceived." Their prayers were answered.
When reading the passuk, it seems that HaShem answered them very
swiftly; from the very fact the Torah puts both the prayer and its
answer in one passuk, we can see the direct and immediate correlation
between the two. We see clearly from here that prayer was the key to
The Gemara in Yevamot (64a) asks a very famous and hard-hitting
question: This was not the first time or the last time one of our
matriarchs was stricken with barrenness. Why did HaShem allow our
patriarchs and matriarchs to have children only after many years of
heartfelt teffilot? The Gemara gives its answer which has become
famous to many: "For HaShem desires the prayers of Tzaddikim."
This answer is deep and contains within it many concepts which many
have expounded upon. However when we look at the original source, the
Medrash Tanchuma, we are faced with a tremendous peculiarity. The
Medrash asks the same question as the Gemara but adds a new dimension
to the answer. Speaking from Hashem's perspective, it tells us that
HaShem made a reckoning saying, "They [the Avot and Imahot] have
money, they are beautiful, they are respected, if I give them children
they will never pray to me for anything" and the Medrash concludes,
"We see from here that HaShem desires the prayers of Tzaddikim."
This Medrash is startling, to say the least. We are talking about the
Avot whose lives were completely focused on the enhancement of G-d's
glory in this world, the very people who created the concept of daily
prayer. Can it be that they would not pray to HaShem? How can we
understand that HaShem could entertain the possibility that the Avot
would not pray to Him?
From here we can truly gain a deeper understanding of teffilah.
Teffilah is not only a compilation of praise to HaShem, it is a time
for us to connect and recognize The Power which runs our universe and
nourishes our souls. However, that recognition and connection can only
come from a place of total self-abnegation. Only when we realize that
we are so dependent upon His grace for everything we have in life can
we really connect to Him. But how can one truly feel this way if he
lacks absolutely nothing? When we lack something tremendously
important and we recognize that only HaShem can give it to us, we are
more able to pray with a realization of our reliance upon Him and to
forge a real bond with Him. This is the prayer which HaShem desires.
Of course the Avot would have prayed to HaShem even if they had
children, but perhaps their prayer would have been lacking this deeper
awareness – the awareness of the minuteness of man before G-d and his
dependence on HaShem for his every need. It would not have been a
teffilah which one casts all of his burdens, hopes, and dreams onto
HaShem, and allows His providence to control his life. Teffilah L'Ani
– the teffillah of a pauper, of one who is lacking, is not the same as
the teffilah as one who has everything. Because HaShem loves the Avot
so much, He desires that they pray this deeper teffillah, for He
desires the ultimate relationship that it will create.
The lack of something essential in our lives should not be a source of
distress and self-pity. Rather, our feelings of lack can be properly
channeled and utilized as an opportunity to REALLY pray and forge a
true connection with Hashem. Perhaps we can even gain comfort in that
our hardest challenges are a sign of Hashem's love for us and His
desire to provide us with a way of connection with Him. It is as
though He considers us to be tzaddikim, of whom He desires prayer.
May we merit to see and feel the Hand of G-d in our lives and to
constantly connect to Hashem in the deepest way.
Friday, October 4, 2013
In this week's parsha we read of the destruction of the world due to the wickedness of man, and its reconstruction through Noach and his offspring. The Torah tells us at the end of Breishit that society had stooped so low that "Every product of the thoughts of his heart was but evil always." The simple understanding of this is that everything which civilization at that time had accomplished, any advancement, was really done with evil intentions.
HaShem chose to destroy man rather than allow this type of behavior to continue. Yet at the very end of the parsha it says, "But Noach found grace in the eyes of HaShem." Obviously this grace was tremendous, so much so that it was the saving factor of the human race. We owe our entire existence to this merit. So the question begs itself: what was this merit that Noach had? And in answering this perhaps we can understand why Noach specifically was chosen to be the regenerator of the world's population.
First let us examine a profundity in the pesukim. The parsha begins in a interesting way: the Torah states, "These are the offspring of Noach." Seemingly, the logical continuation would be a list of Noach's children, yet instead, the Torah lists praises of Noach: "Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generation; Noach walked with G-d." Only afterwards does the Torah mention his children. To explain this, Rashi quotes the Medrash, and in his second interpretation he says this is coming "to teach you that the main offspring (i.e. creations) of the righteous are good deeds." The Torah is telling us that Noach's main contribution to the world was his good deeds. From this Medrash, we gain a window into the core of Noach's character.
The essence of Noach was altruism. His ideas and thoughts were directed towards positive creativity, and utilizing that creativity to help others. This is what set Noach apart from his entire generation. Noach viewed technological development as an opportunity to do good deeds and make the world a better place, rather than for personal advancement.
This trait which HaShem saw in Noach is the foundation of a truly progressive society, a society which strives to advance and accomplish not for profit and personal gain, but rather for the betterment of the world. The error of the generation of the flood was that it lived according to the lowest aspects of Man; the people succumbed to the natural inclination towards selfishness and greed. Instead of rising above their base nature, they indulged in their Id,* until it became their very essence. However, Noach and his family because of their altruism, could serve as the seeds for the recreation of human kind, and build a civilization that would strive to improve the world. Now mankind would begin on the proper footing to continue the development of society in a positive way.
May we merit to continue this trait of Noach and let it echo our every action.
*This illuminates for us why the generation had fallen so low that they involved in bestiality, for when man allows himself to fall into this trap of selfishness, and self-indulgence, there truly is no difference between Man and Animal. The line between man and animal was blurred and this was reflected in their actions.
Furthermore this indulgence in self worship explains why the generation was judged on the sin of stealing: their lust for self advancement caused them to steal from others.