Thursday, August 17, 2017

Parshat Re'eh - The Power of Change

Parsha Paragraphs
Rabbi Naftali Kassorla

Parshat Re’eh
The Power of Change
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Among the many topics covered in this week's parsha is the law of עיר הנדחת (the wayward city) –  a city where the majority of its inhabitants have turned to idolatry. Their punishment is death by the sword; the city is destroyed and their property burned in the city square. And though חז״ל tell us about this type of city לא היה ולא עתידה להיות  (it never was nor will be), still we learn its laws and try to gain insights for ourselves, להגדיל תורה ולהאדירה (Sanhedrin 71a)
There is a fascinating disagreement between the Rambam and the Raavad regarding this wayward city.
The Rambam writes (Avodat Kochavim 4:6):
What is the judgment rendered against עיר הנדחת when all the criteria for that judgment have been met? The supreme Sanhedrin sends [emissaries] who investigate and probe until they have established clear proof that the entire city – or the majority of its inhabitants – have turned to the worship of false gods. Afterwards, they send two Torah sages to warn them and to motivate them to repentance. If they repent, it is good.
The commentaries on the Rambam understand from his words “If they repent, it is good” that if the inhabitants were to repent, even after they have been duly judged for their actions, it would remove their punishment – a notion which has no precedent anywhere else in Halacha (Makkot 13b). Why is this so?
The Raavad, in his gloss on the Rambam, points to this difficulty:
It is well that repentance would help them, but I have not found that repentance should be of value after a warning (התראה) and after the act was committed.
The Raavad asks: how can the repentance of the inhabitants absolve the city from their judgment? Repentance does not absolve oneself from the death penalty and once the Beit Din has come to a conclusion, they must carry it out.
To answer this difficulty the Ralbag (על התורה) gives an amazing insight to this seemingly bizarre ruling of the Rambam. In truth, the Rambam is communicating a deep and profound idea about the concept of repentance. The Ralbag explains that in the Rambam’s view, true repentance is an act that qualitatively changes the essence of the person, to the extent that one becomes a different person. תשובה is a transformative process – not just of cleansing one's sins, but of becoming new, different, and ultimately better.
According to this, says the Ralbag, the wayward city, whose inhabitants have taken upon themselves to repent, has undergone a complete change in identity. The Torah says: “You shall surely smite the inhabitants of that city” (13:16) i.e. That city that has not repented, but now that they have done teshuva, the גזר דין (decree of punishment) that was previously issued, was not said on this "new town." It is as if it was decreed upon a different city altogether! And while this novel idea applies exclusively in regards to the laws of עיר הנדחת, it is nonetheless a true principle about the concept of teshuva.*
This is the power of sincere תשובה; it's not just a path of repentance but of change. A change so vast that it transforms our עצם, our very selves. It redefines our goals, our motivations, and our core of self – to one which desires to lead a richer and more fulfilled life. Then we can come before G-d, declare our new identity, and rededicate ourselves to His will.
Along with the understanding of the immense power of change, should come the feeling of supreme confidence in our ability to change. We can never let the past define our future, for we have the power of the present. We possess the capability to effect our very essence, to break the bonds of our assumed stationary existence and begin again with more vigor.
Our Rabbis refer to תשובה as a gift from G-d. Logically, how can one erase past infractions? How can one effectively “bend time and space” to correct that which has already been done? To change that which was intended as a sin to be considered as if he did a mitzva – זדונות  נעשות כזכויות (Yoma 86b)? But this is the gift which G-d gave us: to mend what was broken and recreate that which was presumed dead. And it is a gift to be cherished.
This is fully in consonance with the Rambam's words elsewhere in the Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Teshuva 7:4-7):
‎ The Ba’al Teshuva must not imagine that, in consequence of the iniquities and sins which he had committed, he is far below the degree of the Righteous; this is not so; rather he is as beloved and as accepted to the Creator as if he had never sinned; indeed his reward will be greater still; for he has tasted sin, and yet has abandoned it, and subdued his evil inclination…‎The same man who, only the day before, was despised, condemned, and rejected by God, is now beloved, accepted, a kin and a favorite [to G-d]...‎How great is repentance! The same man who, the day before, was separated from the Lord, G-d of Israel…is today cleaving unto the Shechinah...
Yesterday hated, condemned and forgotten. But today? Today he is beloved, today he is cherished, and today he is greater than the wholly Righteous. This is the power of change!
As we approach the month of Elul, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur around the corner, we should inculcate this heartening message to give us new vigor, energy and belief in ourselves and our potential. Too often, opportunities for growth evaporate when they run up against our negative or jaded attitudes. We mustn't let those debilitating thoughts prevent us from actualizing our goals.
Shabbat Shalom
*See שו״ת נודע ביהודה קמא או״ח לה; however see the חיד״א in ספר עין זוכר ערך מלקות אות כ׳ who argues.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Parshat Eikev: The King and His Prince

Parsha Paragraphs
Rabbi Naftali Kassorla


Parshat Eikev
The King and His Prince
The Divrei Torah for this month have been generously sponsored anonymously.
It should be a זכות for the donor and his family.
If you are interested in sponsoring a future D’var Torah in honor or in memory of a loved one, or for any occasion, please email:

Featured in this week's parsha is one of the most famous sets of verses in the Torah: והיה אם שמוע, the second paragraph in the Shema prayer which is recited every morning and evening. Holding a significant place in our daily lives, it is written in our tefillin and affixed to the doorposts of every room in our homes.
In this section, Rashi (Devarim 11:17) explains the verse: ואבדתם מהרה מעל הארץ הטבה אשר ה׳ נתן לכם – “And [then] you will be swiftly banished from on the good Land which Hashem gives you” with a משל (parable) from the Sifri:
This is compared to a king who sent his son to a place where there was a party. Before he went, he sat and instructed the son. He warned him, “Don’t eat more than you need, so that you will come home clean!” The son paid no heed to his father's instruction; he ate and drank more than he should have. He then vomited, and soiled [the clothes of] all the others at the party. The partygoers then grabbed him by his hands and his feet and dumped him behind the palace.
This parable brings out tremendous depth hinted to in the nuances of the pesukim, and I would like to attempt to illustrate them based on several ideas from Rav Yechiel Yitzchok Perr שליט״א.
Firstly, the King sits down with his son, connoting the gravity of what he is about to relay. This is the meaning of G-d’s warning: השמרו לכם – “guard yourselves” (11:16). This verse is bound on our arms and heads, and posted at every door of our homes, to emphasize the seriousness with which this warning is given to us.
The son is sent to a party. A party is a pleasant place to be, with a myriad of good things to eat. Just as the King to his son, G-d tells the Jewish people that the Land of Israel is bountiful and enjoyable. It is a nice place, with plenty of good things to eat: “For Hashem your G-d is bringing you to a good Land, a Land with rivers of water, springs and fountains coming forth in the valleys and mountains. A Land of wheat and barley, vines and figs and pomegranates; a Land of olive oil and honey; a Land in which not in poverty will you eat bread; you will lack nothing in it. A Land whose stones are iron and from whose mountains you will mine copper”(8:7-10).
It seems from the parable that the King knows his son has a sensitive stomach. Surely he saw from experience that when the son overindulges, it does not end well. So too, G-d knows that we have sinned prior in the wilderness. The King warns his son that he should eat only to satisfaction, and not overeat. Similarly, this warning posted on the door posts and worn on muscle and mind, is not only a warning against being seduced into idolatry, as the simple reading of the verse implies. Rather it is a warning against being seduced into materialism, “eating and being satisfied” (Rashi 11:15). Seeking more than we need and becoming addicted to acquisitions will turn us away from G-d.
The משל draws to a close with the other partygoers becoming soiled and thus throwing the Prince out. The Land of Israel too, when soiled, spits out its inhabitants. As we had been warned: “So that the Land shall not vomit you out for making it unclean – just as it vomited out the nation [which was there] before you” (Vayikra 18:28). Our removal from the Land is a direct result of our negative actions, and we have no one to blame but ourselves.
However, with all this, the parable ends on a comforting note. The soiled and insulted guests do indeed throw the Prince out, but they fling him only behind the palace. Behind the palace – not too far from his father, the King. Not too far for the King to find us, when He, Our Father and King, comes looking for his beloved son.
The messages contained in these verses are clearly vital for us to recall all day, everyday. We are struck with reminders as we begin our day, enter and exit our homes, and go to bed at night. It behooves each and every one of us to understand and internalize what is being relayed here and to personally apply these messages to our daily lives.
Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Parshat Va'etchanan: A Humble Request

Parsha Paragraphs
Rabbi Naftali Kassorla

Parshat Va’etchanan
A Humble Request
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נחום בן פנחס הלוי ז״ל
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This week's parsha opens with Moshe beseeching G-d to allow him enter into the Land of Israel. ואתחנן אל ה׳ בעת ההיא לאמור - “I implored G-d at that time, saying…”(3:23) Moshe prays to G-d 515 times (the numerical value of ואתחנן) to annul His decree and let him join the Jewish people. Ultimately G-d denies his request saying: “It is too much for you! Do not speak to Me further about this matter.” (Ibid. 26)
Rashi (Ibid. 23), quoting the Midrash Tanchuma, describes the nature of the request that Moshe made, hinted to in the word ואתחנן (I implored):
Forms of the word חנון (imploring) in all places in which they appear in the Torah mean nothing but granting or requesting a gift for free (מתנת חינם); that although the righteous [Moshe] could make their request relying on their merits, they seek from G-d nothing but a gift without payment…
Moshe, instead of asking that his wish be granted on account of his past merits, asks G-d to give to him “for free.” The basic understanding of this Midrash implies that Moshe, in couching his request like this, was behaving righteously. The commentators explain that Moshe was acting humbly by praying in this way.
A closer look could bring us to a certain difficulty. Ultimately, what is Moshe requesting? For G-d to annul His decree – a decree that will affect the Jewish people for millennia. This is seemingly not a small request, thus we can ask the question: How is it a display of humility for Moshe to ask G-d to abrogate His will, without relying on some of his merit?
By way of example, if we were to observe someone marching into a store and asking to take one of the most expensive items – for free – it would first appear as though he’s a very haughty man making an absurd request. We may then deduce that this person has a very close relationship with the owner – perhaps as a good friend or an investor or partner in the business. But if there is no basis, to view it as a display of humility? Certainly not! To the contrary – to ask without some merit is not humble, but quite presumptuous!
Therefore, how can we understand why Moshe would make a request from G-d, not relying on any merit, but instead as a “freebie” – a מתנת חינם – and it would be labeled as humble?
There is a famous concept that we find applied to our forefathers, specifically Yaakov Avinu: שמא יגרום החטא – “Lest the sin cause...” (Brachot 4a, Sanhedrin 98b, Sotah 36a). Our forefathers did not rely on their merits alone, for they were concerned that their sins would remove the efficacy of that merit.
The commentators explain that this came out of a deep sense of humility, a doubt that their deeds are ever perfect, and a recognition that there is always room to improve. (Obviously, in comparing our actions to theirs, they are paragons of perfection.) Thus they felt: How can we present our merits as a currency to G-d, when there is always the possibility that we are lacking?
Perhaps this is also what Moshe’s request was based on. He was not approaching G-d out of a sense of “heimeshkeit” – an assumed familiarity with G-d. Rather it was rooted in the recognition of Man’s ultimate lack in relation to G-d. Meaning, that Moshe did not feel that his actions were up to par to request such a great thing, thus leaving him with only one option: to beseech G-d purely out of His abundant beneficence.
Of course Moshe had ample merits to draw from, but he was also channeling something much deeper in this humble request: that in the grand scheme, in relation to G-d and His glory, we can never feel that we have true merit. We can never feel that our deeds are enough. Moshe, known as the humblest of men, understood in his humility that there is always a need to grow.
I would like to suggest  that Moshe's request for a מתנת חינם came out of a deep sense of something I call, “Healthy Spiritual Self-Doubt” which is integral in spurring a person to higher levels of Avodat Hashem. This spiritual doubt can be summed up in a powerful line I once heard in the name of Rav Yisrael Salanter: “The moment you feel comfortable in your observance, is the moment you've never been farther from G-d.” The true process of creating a relationship with G-d, is in the act of reaching out to G-d. But this grasping for Him will not come out of a feeling of complacency; it comes out a feeling of lack.* When he realizes what he is lacking, he reaches out to G-d to find completion.
A person can never become stagnant with their spiritual muscles; and just like with physical muscles, if they remain dormant, they will succumb to atrophy. He must always be stretching his limits ever-so-much, so that he is striving and growing higher each day.
This is an important lesson for us to take with us as we go through the summer months, a time where it is important to relax and re-energize – but never to come to a full stop. For it is also a time filled with tremendous potential. We should take those opportunities and grow from them.
Shabbat Shalom

*It is important to note that this self-doubt is not meant to be confused with anxiety from a sense of existential unhappiness or feelings of unfulfillment. Rather, it is a general perspective on life of being דואג that if we don't stand guard, we will lose all our gains. This is coupled with remaining confident in ourselves and our capabilities. This proper perspective should spark a fire of desire in a person to become closer to G-d.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Parshat Devarim - Ripple Effects

Parsha Paragraphs
Rabbi Naftali Kassorla

Parshat Devarim
Ripple Effects
This D’var Torah has been dedicated in the memory of
ר׳ אלחנן יעקב ז״ל בן ר׳ שמואל פנחס

This week’s parsha marks the beginning of the Nation's preparation to settle in the Land of Israel. With the people about to enter, Moshe Rabbeinu stands before them, addressing them for the last time. Through veiled references, Moshe scolds the nation and prepares them for the journey ahead.

In his speech, Moshe alludes to the sin of the Meraglim. Within this allusion, he also mentions his fate from the episode of מי מריבה (the Waters of Strife) where Moshe, instead of speaking to the rock to bring forth water, hit the rock. G-d penalized Moshe for this, and so he was prohibited from entering the land.

Moshe says: ״גם בי התאנף ה׳ בגללכם לאמר גם אתה לא תבוא שם״ – “With me as well, Hashem became angry because of you, saying: You too shall not come there ” (1:37).

At first glance, we see something peculiar here. When Moshe references his own punishment, it sounds as though he is placing the onus upon the nation: “Hashem became angry because of you.”  This appears uncalled for – why would Moshe blame others for his own infraction? This kind of behavior does not seem congruous with what we would expect of a man of Moshe’s stature.

Surely, Moshe Rabbeinu did not rebuke the people this way with the intent of avoiding responsibility, or out of personal anger towards them. No – if he “blamed” them, it must have been because, as their leader, he had a message for them. What is the message he could convey by saying “...because of you”?

Furthermore, the commentators struggle to understand why Moshe puts the episode of the Mei Meriva within the context of the sin of the Spies. Seemingly they are two distinct and unrelated episodes – what is the connection between them?

The truth is that there is nothing in this world that is disconnected.  To understand this, we need to look no further than to the mathematical concept of “The Butterfly Effect.” This is the notion that small causes can have far-reaching effects. The Mathematician Edward Lorenz (the one who coined the phrase) explained it as follows: “The fluttering of a butterfly’s wing in Rio de Janeiro, amplified by atmospheric currents, could cause a tornado in Texas two weeks later.”

But this idea goes back even farther. The German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) wrote: “You could not remove a single grain of sand from its place without thereby…changing something throughout all parts of the immeasurable whole.” (The Vocation of Man - 1800)

All things are interconnected, and all things affect each other. If this is true in the physical realm, how much more so in the spiritual! All of our actions – our aveiros as well as our mitzvos – have an incredible impact on the world around us.

Rav Yisrael Salanter was said to have remarked that “if we strengthen our observance of Shabbat in Lithuania, it will prevent a fellow Jew from desecrating the Shabbat in Paris.”

Perhaps Moshe was trying to relay this message of spiritual connectivity to the nation. By mentioning his infraction in the context of the episode of the spies and saying that his mistake was due to them, Moshe was teaching that his actions and theirs are interlocked. The implication of this being that if one person (i.e. Moshe) sins, it stems from an “air” of sin in the world and among the nation.

It is important for the Jewish People to know that when they err, it is not limited to just them; rather it has an effect on the entire nation, even the greatest among them. It has an effect on the entire world. No action is in a vacuum, and when we realize how serious and important our actions are, we can take more responsibility for them.

But rather than focus on the negative, let us instead use this idea as source of strength for us this Tisha B'av. It should steer us away from the debilitating thought that our actions will accomplish very little, because we see from the parsha the exact opposite: our actions, no matter how big or how small, have a tremendous impact.

If each one of us takes upon ourselves to love another Jew just a little more, it will have extensive ripple-effects on the entire nation. If we each do just a little better in our daily routine, it can be the catalyst to overarching change in our world. A little bit goes a very long way.

If we personally cry out to Hashem to rebuild the Beit Hamikdash, with each person’s help, perhaps we will not have to see Tish’a B’av this year.

Shabbat Shalom

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