Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Parshat Bereishit 5778 - In His Image

Parsha Paragraphs
Rabbi Naftali Kassorla
Parshat Bereishit 5778
In His Image
The D’var Torah for this week is dedicated in memory of: ר׳ אלחנן יעקב ז״ל בן מורי וחמי ר׳ שמואל פנחס
If you are interested in sponsoring a D’var Torah in honor or in memory of someone, or for any occasion, please email: ParshaParagraphs@gmail.com

In this week’s parsha the Torah describes G-d’s creation of the world and all within it. For six days G-d created and on the seventh day He rested. Each of these first days was dedicated to different creations, until finally coming to the pinnacle: the creation of Man.

The Torah writes, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” (Bereishit 1:26) The Abarbanel comments that this prefatory statement indicates to us that man’s creation was achieved with great deliberation and care.

The Abarbanel explains that the command to create Man was different than previous ones. With the other creations, G-d would proclaim a directive: “Let the earth bring forth…” (ibid. 11) or “Let there be light...”(ibid. 14). However, when creating Man, G-d diverges from this and instead couches the command in the form of “Let us make man.” This was meant to point out that man’s creation was different – on a wholly different plane than the rest of creation, and thus of more cosmic importance than the previous creations.

The commentators are puzzled with a fundamental issue in the verse. When telling us of G-d’s grand plan to make Man, the Torah uses the plural “Let us…,” which would seem to indicate there is more than one creator! This notion would obviously be completely antithetical to the monotheistic basis of Judaism. Yet nonetheless, the Torah uses these words. Why?

Furthermore, we find Moshe himself raised this very concern. The Midrash tells us that when Moshe wrote the Torah and came to our verse he asked G-d,“Why would You create a פתחון פה (pretext) for heretics to maintain their belief of Polytheism?”  Yet G-d replies, “Write it! For whoever wishes to err will err.” G-d commands Moshe to write it anyway, and whoever wishes to make this mistake i.e. to not investigate the issue, will nonetheless be held responsible.

In light of G-d’s response, one could wonder: why? What is to be gained by using this specific way of expression which could lead to mistaken beliefs? Why even risk the possibility of making an error?

To answer this very question we must look at Rashi on our verse. Rashi cites Chazal: “From here we learn of the great humility of Hashem, for He consulted the Angels before creating man; so too we should always consult others before embarking upon a new idea.” The plural form was used intentionally to teach us a valuable lesson: that just as G-d sought counsel from the angels before acting, so to we should be deliberate and cautious in our own ways and consult with others before making important decisions.

This Chazal is astounding; can the lesson to seek counsel be so important so as to justify a verse that risks heresy? How can we better understand this idea?
Clearly Hashem felt that the concept of humility – to act with the necessary guidance – is so important that despite the possible error which may come from this verse, it should be taught nonetheless. For nothing can be allowed to get in the way of acting with forethought and with clarity of mind when embarking upon a course of action – not even the possibility of the great error of heresy!

Another idea that can be brought out of this Chazal is that there is inherent value to seeking out advice and counsel from anyone, even when you may (think you) have all the answers. For G-d himself, the King of Kings “seeks” the counsel of the Angels. Surely the Angels have no deeper or wiser insight on creation than G-d himself! Yet G-d still “consults” them. Hashem is teaching us that the very process of seeking advice is worthwhile.

My Rosh Yeshiva’s brother Rav Dovid Soloveitchik שליט״א has a fantastic vort on the episode of Nadav and Avihu, who were punished for bringing a foreign fire into the Kodesh Hakodashim. Among a slew of other reasons explaining why they were punished, the Midrash says, “שלא נטלו עצה זה מזה” (they didn't ask each other for advice). Rav Dovid aks: how would that have helped? They were both equally involved and intending on bringing the foreign fire; what was to be gained by them asking each other? Wouldn’t they just reinforce each other’s bad intentions? Says Rav Dovid, it must be that just by them going through the process of asking each other, it would have had a deterring effect, bringing them to reexamine their intentions. This is the value of seeking advice and counsel from others – even from equals or our subordinates.

Too often we demure from seeking advice and constructive criticism from others “because they don’t get it.” While we may legitimately feel that others’ advice is not applicable, it is still important to go through the process of seeking that advice, if only to challenge your own preconceived notions.*

Perhaps this can also help us better understand why G-d was willing to “risk” this verse’s implied idea of Polytheism. For if one who reads it is also able to glean from it a lesson of humility and the reexamination of his own ideas, utilizing the counsel of others, then surely he will avoid such a terrible error in interpretation. Only one who is completely set on his own logic and is opposed to a humble analysis of his approach, may come to a heretical notion. And if he errs, he errs.

This should serve for us as a lesson in the immense benefit of humbly asking others for help and advice when needed, and spur us to take heed of those greater and more wiser among us.

Shabbat Shalom

*The popular Israeli social scientist and economist Dan Ariely conducted a fascinating experiment. Participants were asked to complete a very simple math exercise. When done, the first set of participants (control group) were asked to hand in their answers for independent grading. The second set were subsequently given the answers and asked to report their own scores. At no point do the latter hand in their answers; hence the temptation to cheat.
In this experiment, some students are asked [before the math exercise] to list the names of 10 books they read in high school while others are asked to write down as many of the Ten Commandments as they can recall prior to the math exercise. Ariely wanted to know whether this would have any effect on the honesty of those participants reporting their scores.
The results were amazing (though to us not surprising): The students who had been asked to recall the Ten Commandments had not cheated at all. In contrast, participants who were asked to list their 10 high school books and self-report their scores cheated: they claimed grades that were 33% higher than those who could not cheat (control group). The lesson that Ariely draws from this that just the very contemplation of a moral benchmark had a massive impact on the students’ honesty, even on those students who claimed no religious affiliation.

Clearly, going through the process of contemplating, expressing and clarifying moral concepts, puts one in a mindset which leads to moral behavior. So too, the process of seeking counsel in-and-of-itself helps one clarify issues and can aid him in avoiding mistaken judgements and behavior.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Sukkot - Shemini Atzeret: A Sukkah Full of Love

Parsha Paragraphs
Rabbi Naftali Kassorla

Sukkot - Shemini Atzeret 5778 תשע״ח
A Sukkah Full of Love
The D’var Torah for this week is dedicated in memory of:
האשה החשובה ברכה בת ר׳ דוד קליין ע״ה שיצאתה נשמתה בקדושה ובטהרה מוצאי יום הכיפורים
If you are interested in sponsoring a D’var Torah in honor or in memory of someone, or for any occasion, please email: ParshaParagraphs@gmail.com

The Chid”a in Birkei Yosef (תרכ״ה) asks: Of all the things that G-d did for us in the desert, why do we commemorate the ענני הכבוד? Shouldn’t we make a remembrance of the מן – the miraculous, angelic food? Or the myriad of other miracles performed for us in the desert: the באר מרים that accompanied the Jewish people as they travelled, the clothing that G-d kept fresh, clean and the proper size for each person etc. What is uniquely special about the Clouds of Glory which G-d placed around the Jewish people that warrants their commemoration, as opposed to the other needs for which G-d provided?

The Chid”a* (ראש דוד פרשת אמור) answers in the name of the Chacham R’ Chaim Kaufusi that the Sukkah is a symbol of something much deeper than G-d providing for our needs. The other miracles provided for necessities, things that the Jews could not live without. A person cannot survive without food, drink or clothing, and of course G-d would not bring them to the desert without giving them these basic things. But for G-d to also protect the Jews with shelter from the sun and the wind showed a strong love and care for the deeper needs of the people. That extra show of love is what we commemorate.

To illustrate this idea: Picture a wife who sends her husband out to the store for the groceries, handing him a list of everything she needs to make Shabbat. Were the husband to robotically go down the list checking off each item, and bring home exactly what she asked for (no simple feat!) no one would complain or claim he hasn’t fulfilled his errand; on the contrary – he is a dutiful husband. But let's say he was going down the list, and sees that his wife did not write dish soap – something she hadn’t noticed they were running low on. Were the husband to return with this extra item, it would most definitely elicit tremendous love from the spouse. For he didn't go about providing for her apparent, expressed needs; rather he was sensitive to something deeper. His goal was to make sure she would have everything she needed, not just to fulfill his obligation and avoid complaints.

This is what Hashem did by providing shelter for the Jewish people. For had He not given them the ענני הכבוד (although they would have benefited greatly from it) no one would have complained, as there was no expectation for such a thing. It wouldn’t be as though G-d was withholding a major necessity, something for which the Jewish people did in fact complain about (e.g. food and water).

By providing us with the ענני הכבוד, Hashem showed that He does not just want to fulfill a responsibility to us as our Provider. Rather He loves us, He cares deeply about us, and He wants to fill any need we may have. Just like the husband, who knows he can easily get away with simply checking everything off his wife’s list. Instead he goes above and beyond the list and buys something that was never even requested, which he knows will be of great benefit to the one he loves.

This idea can give us further insight to the concept of הידור מצוה during Sukkot. Mimicking G-d, and reciprocating what He did for us, we do the mitzvos in a way that goes beyond the letter of the law. We don’t just buy any etro; rather we look for the most beautiful one. We don’t just build a plain Sukkah, we go much further as we beautify it with pictures, decorations and more. Our approach to mitzvot isn’t to just check them off a list, dutifully doing exactly what was asked. Rather we perform them in a way that bespeaks of our attitude towards the mitzvah, one of חביבות, of love for the  מצוה and for Hashem.

The Pele Yoetz (81) echoes this message for us:
הדור מצוה מורה על האהבה, כי העובד מיראה אינו מבקש אלא לצאת ידי חובה, אבל העובד מאהבה לפי רב החבה מדקדק בה שלא תחסר כל בה. והמוסיף להתנאות זה לו למופת ולאות שהוא אוהב את ה' בכל לבבו ובכל מאדו ומרבה בכבודו
Hiddur Mitzvah bespeaks of the love [of G-d], for someone who serves [G-d] from fear only desires to fulfill his obligation. But one who serves with love, out of his tremendous affection, is careful that nothing is lacking [from his mitzvah]. And when he additionally beautifies [the mitzvah] it is his demonstration and sign that he loves G-d with all his heart and means, and this adds
to G-d’s honor.

Perhaps this is also connected to why we have the extra day of Shemini Atzeret. This is when Hashem “begs” of us to stay “with Him” for one more day. G-d tells us: קשה עלי פרידכתם, עכבו עוד יום אחד – “Your departure is difficult for me, stay one more day” (Bamidbar 29:36). Shmini Atzeret as well shows that our relationship with G-d is not matter-of-fact. It involves a deep love, making it difficult for us to part.

On this special Yom Tov of Sukkot, Hashem expresses that He wants a relationship with us which goes beyond the basics. So on Shemini Atzeres, as we sit in our Sukkah (or not, depending on your minhag), enjoying the breeze (hopefully a comfortably cool one), let us reflect on the deep love G-d has for us, and try to reciprocate in kind.

Chag Sameach!


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Sukkot 5778: Part of the Family

Parsha Paragraphs
Rabbi Naftali Kassorla

Sukkot 5778 תשע״ח
Part of the Family
The D’var Torah for this week is dedicated in memory of:
ר׳ אלחנן יעקב ז״ל בן מורי וחמי ר׳ שמואל פנחס
If you are interested in sponsoring a D’var Torah in honor or in memory of someone, or for any occasion, please email: ParshaParagraphs@gmail.com

“You shall dwell in Sukkot for a seven day period; כל אזרח בישראל (every citizen in Israel) shall sit in Sukkot” (Vayikra 23:42). The question is asked: seemingly the word בישראל is superfluous; what is it meant to include? Rashi noting this explains that it is written to teach us that converts are included, and thus obligated, in the mitzvah of Sukkah.

Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky זצ״ל asks: why is there a need for a special limmud (biblical exegesis) to tell us that a convert is included in the mitzvah of sitting in the Sukkah? Are converts not just like any other Jew? The need for a special limmud gives the impression that, if not for the drasha, a convert would not be obligated in the mitzvah of Sukkah! Why would this be so?

Rav Yaakov explains, the reason can be found in the very next verse: “So that your generations will know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in Sukkot when I took them from the land of Israel” (ibid. 43). The Sukkah stands as a reminder that G-d protected our ancestors in the Wilderness – a historical fact. If so, one might have thought that this applies only to those who were actually in the wilderness; but a convert, whose ancestors were not in the desert, may not be obligated. Thus, the need for a special drasha to tell us: even converts are included in the obligation, for they are equal to the rest of the nation.

In light of this, we can ask another question. We find in the Mishna in Bikkurim (1:4) that when the farmer brings the Bikkurim (the first fruits), he must recite the “פרשת הביכורים.” In this declaration, the farmer gives thanks to G-d for the fruit of the Land that “He [G-d] swore to our ancestors to give us.” The Mishna disqualifies a convert from this reading because in fact, the convert’s ancestors were not promised the land.*

Why is there no special drasha here to include a convert in the mitzvah of this recital of the פרשת הביכורים? Should this not be similar to the mitzvah of Sukkah, where despite the lack of converts’ ancestors’ presence in the desert, they are nonetheless included? Both mitzvot are seemingly stating a fact i.e. “my ancestors were present at the time of the mitzvah,” which is untrue of the convert. If so, what is distinct about the mitzvah of Sukkah, that the Torah goes out of its way to include converts, even when the statement seems inapplicable to them?

Perhaps the difference lies in what I believe to be a central message of Sukkot. The miracle of Sukkot in the desert was that G-d protected the Jewish people from all outside forces; as the prophet says, the Sukkot would serve “as a shade from heat in the daytime, as a protection and refuge from storm and from rain” (Yishayahu 4:6). The Jews, dwelling in utter isolation, were shielded by G-d Himself from the harsh weather and elements. But this protection was not a one-time occurrence. Rather, the care and love that He bestowed upon us exists for all times and generations. “למען ידעו דורותיכם” (So that your generations will know) – what Hashem did then, and what He will continue to do for us! By remembering the miracle He did then, we can know that we are able to rely on His protection always.

We see a difference in the statement made by Sukkot versus that of Bikkurim. With Bikkurim, the farmer is stating a historical fact - the focus is on what actually happened. It would be incorrect for a convert to make a statement such as this, which is false. Hashem did not promise the land to his ancestors. However, by the mitzvah of Sukkot, we see from the pasuk that the emphasis is not on what happened, but on the implications it has for our emunah in Hashem’s care for us. The message of G-d’s divine protection is something that is not only timeless, but universal as well; a love that crosses all genealogies and backgrounds. Of this love, a convert is surely part of the “family.”

Rabbeinu Chananel in the beginning of Masechet Sukkah (2b), in the context of explaining why the סכך of the sukkah needs to be visible (ie. Not above 20 Amot), says: “for the coming generations will see that we have built Sukkot and we have left our dwellings and we are sitting during the festival, and they ask ‘why are you doing this’ and you will recount to them the story of your forefathers in the land of Egypt.” My rebbe Rav Asher Arieli שליט״א referred to the give-and-take that Rabbeinu Chananel described, as the “Mah Nishtana of Sukkot.” This description highlights a perfect parallel between Sukkot and Pesach, in light of what we have said about the message of the holiday. For just as the recounting of the exodus from Egypt is meant to inculcate within us the story and message of the redemption, so too recounting sitting in the Sukkah is meant to pass on this message: G-d is our true shelter and salvation for all generations.

During the Neilah prayer in the piyut authored by Rav Yitzchak Ben Shmuel (also known as the Ri) we ask G-d: “יחביאנו צל ידו תחת כנפי השכינה” - “May He conceal us in the shelter of His hand beneath the wings of the Divine Presence.” Famously, the Vilna Gaon comments that the mitzvah of Sukkah is unique in that it involves a complete immersion of the whole body (as opposed to other mitzvot which only utilize a part of the body e.g. tefillin). Surely there is no fuller immersion in G-d’s divine presence than the mitzvah of Sukkah.

Trying to make sense of our world and the myriad of obligations and challenges it brings, there are many things which can “shake” our emunah and make us feel like we are not experiencing (or not worthy of) G-d’s care. It is at those times which we can find strength in connecting to the past – our own, and that of our collective history – to recall when we have seen G-d’s personal care for us. Every person in the nation, no matter his background, is included in the family of the Jewish people and needs to ingrain this message in himself so that he will never lose hope or faith.

Chag Sameach

*The Yerushalmi (ibid.) disagrees with this Mishna and cites the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda that any Ger can recite the Bikkurim text, as Avraham Avinu was “the father of all the nation (Bereishit 17:5), and hence as the father of all future Geirim. Thus, every Ger is included within that original oath to Avraham. The Rambam (Bikkurim 4:3) rules like the Yerushalmi.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Yom Kippur 5778 - Under Scrutiny

Parsha Paragraphs
Rabbi Naftali Kassorla

Yom Kippur 5778 - תשע״ח
Under Scrutiny
The D’var Torah for this week is dedicated in memory of
ר׳ אלחנן יעקב ז״ל בן מורי וחמי ר׳ שמואל פנחס
If you are interested in sponsoring a D’var Torah in honor or in memory of someone, or for any occasion, please email: ParshaParagraphs@gmail.com

There is a famous and powerful Gemara in Rosh Hashana (17a):
כל המעביר על מידותיו מעבירין לו על כל פשעיו
One who overlooks wrong done to them, G-d overlooks their transgressions

Rashi explains what it means to be מעביר על מידותיו:
שאינו מדקדק למדוד מדה למצערים אותו ומניח מדותיו והולך לו כמו אין מעבירין על המצות אין מעבירין על האוכלין מניחן והולך לו
[He] Who is not meticulous in scrutinizing those who cause pain to him.

The Gemara tells us that when we act with this non-critical eye towards those that are causing us pain, G-d too will pass over our sins.

However, we find in the Gemara (Bava Kama 50a):
אמר ר' חנינא כל האומר הקב"ה ותרן הוא יותרו חייו
Anyone who says that G-d is a וותרן on transgressions, his life should be relinquished
(ie. He should die)

When a person is מעביר על מידותיו and G-d acts in kind, isn’t this an aspect of וותרנות? And if so, how can we say that G-d is not a וותרן while at the same time, He is מעביר על מידותיו for one who acts in this way? How can we better understand these two statements of Chazal?

It’s interesting to note that the Gemara uses the word המעביר, from the lashon עובר (pass over). As Rashi points out (in connection to the concept of מעבירין על המצות above), this person is מניחים והולך לו – he “passes over” it, he “leaves” it. This language connotes that while something (i.e. the wrongdoing) is still present, it is being overlooked by the person.

With this understanding in mind, I believe that Chazal is communicating an important principle for us. The true strength of someone who is מעביר is not one who acts as if the עוולה (the offense) didn’t happen, or that he lets others step all over him without even taking notice. Rather it is someone who recognizes the wrong committed against him and yet chooses to look past it. The ability to look over the injustice takes a tremendous amount of fortitude – to notice and to feel, and yet to move on.

This is why it is abhorrent to say that G-d is מוותר, as וותרנות means that the wrongdoing ceases to exist without consequence. G-d is just, and though He acts with patience for the sinner, He surely notices the sin and will mete out the necessary judgment. Therefore one is not allowed to say that G-d completely disregards the offense. And yet, at the same time, He is מעבירין לו על כל פשעיו – G-d will overlook our bad behavior and act with us in a way of mercy and love despite the fact that we have sinned.

This is appropo for Yom Kippur, because on this day, we bow our heads in penitence and beseech His unending mercy. We entreat G-d to look upon us kindly even in light of our past infractions. And we ask that He will act with us מידה כנגד מידה – when we actively choose to look past  injustices done to us, we hope that G-d will do the same regarding the sins we have committed.

Western culture and modern psychology value assertiveness, constantly telling us that “nice guys finish last” and not to be “walked all over.” And while someone should not be too meek in a situation that calls for bold behavior, the Torah teaches a higher virtue – to maintain our dignity, to act like a mentch despite the wrong being done to us. Not by denying the reality, but rather by acting from a place of strength.

There is an idea within Novardok mussar called הטבה במקום הקפדה  (loosely translated as “kindness in place of sternness.”) That even though one has a valid, legitimate reason to act with sternness towards someone who wronged him, it was taught to instead – against one’s nature – do acts of kindness to that very person. All with the intention of uprooting the feelings of bitterness from the heart. The idea being, that although this person wronged us, we shouldn’t let that fact rob us of our agency ie. our own ability to make independent decisions and act, instead of react. To make the conscious choice to rise above our surroundings and not to feel forced or influenced towards a particular response.

Thus, when one chooses to be מעביר על מידותיו, he is showing G-d that he is taking a proactive role in his life; he is deciding not to be swept up by his יצר הרע or his base instincts. He demonstrates that he is willing to start anew, to make decisions from a place of strength and courage rather than from thoughtless reaction. When G-d sees this, it is no surprise that G-d acts with him in kind.

G-d is not controlled or limited by our behavior. He can and does make choices independent of anyone or anything else. While western culture may teach us that overlooking misdeeds is a point of weakness, it is truly of a powerful, G-dly status.

As we approach Yom Kippur, the day we are like angels before G-d, may we all be able to rise above our natural tendencies to a level that is heavenly and supreme.

Shabbat Shalom and G’mar V’Chatima Tova
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