Thursday, September 20, 2018

Parshat Haazinu 5779 - Living in the Past

Parsha Paragraphs
Rabbi Naftali Kassorla

Parshat Haazinu 5779
Living in the Past
The following D’var Torah for this week is dedicated in memory of
ר׳ אלחנן יעקב זצ״ל בן מורי וחמי ר׳ שמואל פנחס
If you are interested in sponsoring a D’var Torah in honor or in memory of a loved one, or for any occasion, please email: ParshaParagraphs@gmail.com

The pasuk in this week's parsha tells us: זכור ימות עולם בינו שנות דור ודור - “Remember the days of old, reflect on the years of ages past” (Devarim 32:7).  

Rashi, in his second explanation expounds upon what the Torah is suggesting: “If you have not set your attention to the past i.e. You have failed to remember the days of old, then at least consider the years of generations so that you become conscious of what might happen in the future.” Meaning, that we are encouraged to first reflect on the past, but if we do not, we should at least consider the future.

This Rashi needs an explanation. If a person person cannot reflect on the ימות  עולם (days of old), why then is he capable of becoming conscious of the שנות דור ודור (of what will happen in the future)? We generally assume that someone who is able to correctly predict the future is a tremendous חכם, as we find in the Gemara Bava Batra (12a) חכם עדיף מנביא (a Sage is greater than a Prophet). A sage is greater, for he is so wise that he is able to personally intuit the future without direct word from G-d, as a prophet is given. To anticipate future events requires tremendous wisdom, intuition and attention to detail. And yet it seems from our parsha, that on the scale of things, that only once we are incapable of reflecting upon the past, should we resort to something else - to at least (see Siftei Chachamim 5) think about the future. Doesn’t this imply that reflection on the past is a more difficult achievement, and that seeing the future is for those on a lower level, as almost a mere afterthought?

If, as we assumed previously, studying the future is truly of a higher wisdom, then why is the Torah instructing us to first study the past and only once that fails, to study the future? What is so unique about studying the past?

We are familiar with the famous adage that is attributed to Edmund Burke (mistakenly, it was the Spanish philosopher George Santayana): “those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.” From this one may conclude that it surely makes sense for one to first and foremost, carefully study the past in order to improve his future. However this does not fully resolve our issue. The Torah is telling us that if you did not learn from the past, at least you should study the future. But how will this be of any help? Seemingly, just as he was incapable of learning from the past he will be incapable of learning from the future - a more difficult feat!

Instead I would like to suggest a different approach. While it is a great thing to display foresight, this unto itself really bespeaks nothing of the character of the person. Some people are able to intuitively piece together information and “predict” the future. But in the end that is just a talent, a G-d given skill. It does not necessarily mean that he is most righteous.

However, one who is able to accurately reflect upon and learn from the past is truly exemplary and righteous in his character. For when recounting past events, there is a natural temptation to twist the facts to fit our desired narratives – that instead we “meant this,” or it was actually the other person's fault, or really our failure wasn’t actually a failure “given the context” – but it was the only logical option...

The יצר הרע of seeing the world through the back mirror is a pernicious one, and eventually leads people to their ends. For one who cannot accurately recall events, cannot push away the clouds of willful obfuscations of the facts – he will not learn from past mistakes and is truly doomed to repeat them.

It is said jokingly that the only ones capable of changing history are G-d and the historians. Only someone who is principled and not agenda-driven is able to recount the past with clarity. History is fraught with examples of kings and warlords who erected immense statues and monuments proclaiming the complete annihilation of their enemies; yet we have verifiable archeological evidence which completely disproves them.* Why is this so? These Kings wanted to shape and create their own narrative, their own version of reality. Perhaps in their minds, in their fanciful recollection of history according to their whims, this was the truth.

Judaism teaches the concept of חשבון הנפש: taking spiritual stock of one's affairs and coming face to face with reality. Here, the Torah is emphasizing for us the importance of this exemplary trait – the ability to fearlessly and courageously view the past – not the way we want to see it, but the way it actually was – and use that as our main impetus to improve.

At this time of the year, we come before G-d, our books of deeds before him (Rosh Hashana 32b). He knows our intentions and He knows the Truth. Before Him, there is no obfuscation; there is no ability to twist the facts. Only the bare boned truth stands before Him, and we cannot escape. We can only plead to him to grant us clarity in our lives and the ability to truly learn from our actions.

May we be blessed with clarity this year and may it lead us to a greater sense of fulfillment and connection to Hashem, amen.

Shabbat Shalom


* For example, see: The Merneptah Stele, where Egyptian King Merneptah claims that “Israel is laid to waste and his seed is not.”  The Tel Dan stele left by King Hazael of Aram, who claimed that he left the “House of David” desolate. The famous Sancheriv Annals prism that claims he shut King Chizkiyahu “like a caged bird” – yet conveniently leaves out the fact that he not only didn’t succeed in breaching the walls of Jerusalem, but was also forced to retreat back to Assyria. All of these archeological remnants can only be laughable to the Jew of today, as we stand on the perch on history, our very existence serving as the punchline.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Rosh Hashana 5779 - Good Intentions


Parsha Paragraphs
Rabbi Naftali Kassorla
Rosh Hashana 5779 - Good Intentions

This Dvar Torah is dedicated in the Memory of my grandmother Shirley Kassorla z”l who passed away this past Shabbos, may her memory be a blessing for our family



Rosh Hashana is upon us, and as we scurry around in preparation - both spiritual preparations as well as endless amounts of food - we approach these ימי הסליחות asking for forgiveness from G-d and those we have hurt. Trying our best, we accept upon ourselves new practices with the hope of improving.

There is an interesting Rambam in Hilchos Teshuva (2-1) which, when analyzed, can perhaps help us approach Rosh Hashana in a unique way. The Rambam writes:

זה שבא לידו דבר שעבר בו ואפשר בידו לעשותו ופרש ולא עשה מפני התשובה. לא מיראה ולא מכשלון כח. כיצד. הרי שבא על אשה בעברה ולאחר זמן נתיחד עמה והוא עומד באהבתו בה ובכח גופו ובמדינה שעבר בה ופרש ולא עבר זהו בעל תשובה גמורה.

What is complete repentance? It is when one had the ability to transgress an aveirah that he already committed, but instead was able to stop himself from doing it out of a desire for repentance, not because he feared the consequences or was lacking strength or the will. How? For example, one who was intimate with a woman in sin, and after some time, he finds himself secluded with the same woman, with the same passion and will to sin, yet hold himself back and does not commit the sin, this is a full and complete repentance.

In defining the ideal Baal Teshuva, the Rambam tells us that the person must be in the exact same setting as the previous sin to prove that he is a בעל תשובה גמורה - a complete repenter.

The simple explanation of this Rambam could be that the best way to ascertain if a person has actually changed is if the person, given the exact same scenario, can restrain himself. From this ability to hold back, we can then discern that the person's true nature has undergone a permanent transformation.

This is seemingly a high bar to reach to become a בעל תשובה גמורה, and it suggests that there are few who can really attain complete Teshuva, as it is near impossible to recreate the original circumstances of the first sin. 

(It is important to note that the Rambam is talking about the ideal of teshuva, but obviously if a person succeeds in stopping himself from the aveirah, he is still to be praised. Nevertheless, the person has not attained the status of a בעל תשובה גמורה.)

However, the Rambam does not stop there; instead he adds that not only must the situation be the same, but that the reason why he stopped himself must come from a sincere desire to repent - not out of fear or lack of strength.

This requirement does not appear to be mentioned anywhere explicitly in Shas. Furthemore, the source of the overall Halacha that the Rambam is basing himself on (Yoma 86b) for the definition of a Baal Teshuva only highlights the ability to hold back in the same exact scenario, as that serves as the best way to ascertain if a person has actually changed. But again, the Gemara says nothing about the reason for why he did it. Where did the Rambam see this caveat to full repentance and why is it so integral?

I think the answer lies in something unique about our religion. Judaism is a dualistic religion in that it features both deed and thought. We value not just the actions and deeds, but also the motivations and reasons for why we do them. Halacha has a unique aspect in Mitzvos known as כוונה - the intent. It plays an integral part in the Mitzvah of Krias Shema, when saying Brachos, and Davening. And sometimes the lack of it (or the opposite intention) may even invalidate the act.

This is why the Rambam says that the intention matters. For today this person stopped himself because he is tired, or is scared of getting caught. And while praiseworthy, it is not indicative of change, for perhaps tomorrow he won't be tired or scared. The intentions of a person matter, and it is integral to the deeds he performs.

This teaches us that the Torah values our thoughts and motivations, and cares about the quality of them. Despite the false ideology of “orthopraxy” that is pushed in some circles, it is clear that the beliefs and reasons of Man are just as essential to the performance of the Mitzvos as the actions they require. Intentions matter! And the mindset that a person has is just as powerful as, if not more powerful than the deeds themselves. 

There is a very powerful Gemara in Kiddushin (49b) which proves this point further. The Gemara discusses a person who requests to marry a woman on the condition that he is a צדיק - a righteous person (the implication being that if the condition is not met, the marriage is not valid):

הרי את מקודשת לי על מנת שאני צדיק אפילו רשע גמור מקודשת שמא הרהר תשובה בדעתו 

If one says to a woman: Be betrothed to me on the condition that I am a righteous man, then even if he was a completely wicked man she is betrothed, as perhaps in the meantime he had thoughts of repentance in his mind and is now righteous

The Gemara says, that even if this person, as he stands there with his offer is completely wicked, the marriage is valid! Why? Because perhaps this person had thoughts of repentance, and is now considered, as he stands before her, a righteous person.

This Gemara (which the Rambam actually codifies) is simply amazing! What has this person done yet to prove his change? What has he shown to anyone? How long does it take to give over the ring when he marries her? A few seconds! Yet, in those few seconds he flipped from being a רשע גמור to a צדיק? How is this possible?

Based on the above discussion, I think the answer is quite simple. This duality of thoughts and deeds stand equal in Judaism. True, this person has not yet proven himself in action, but he has made up his mind to repent, thus setting himself on a course of change. Therefore, he is already a צדיק!

Yes, the bar is high to “prove” ourselves worthy of full repentance, but we are not as far away as we think. We too are able to decide for ourselves, to actively and aggressively make the decision to change.

And this brings us to Rosh Hashana. Rosh Hashana is the time to clarify our desires and motivations; to finally decide to become owners over the directions of our lives. This is the time to coronate Hashem as our King, and to rededicate ourselves to bringing His will into this world. Not out of an archaic obsession over monarchical hierarchies, but rather with the goal of reminding ourselves of what we truly want. To connect ourselves to the Creator of the World, and by proxy becoming princes over ourselves.

This is why Rosh Hashana is not the time for mentioning our sins, nor do we attempt to cry over them. Rather, the focus is for us to recognize the truth of Hashem’s dominion over us, and what that entails for the future - not the past.

Let’s set ourselves straight this year. Let us finally break from the past, and let us show G-d who we truly want, and intend to be.

Don't let your past define your future, for you have the power of the present. 

Ksiva VeChasima Tova

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Parshat Netzavim 5778 - Appreciating the Climb

Parsha Paragraphs
Rabbi Naftali Kassorla

Parshat Netzavim
Appreciating the Climb
The D’var Torah for this week is dedicated for the Refuah Shleimah of:
אשתי ורעייתי החשובה מינדל אסתר בת זיסל רבקה
If you are interested in sponsoring a D’var Torah in honor or in memory of a loved one, or for any occasion, please email: ParshaParagraphs@gmail.com

This week’s parsha comes on the heels of the previous portion where the Nation heard all the stern curses that will befall them if they fail to heed G-d’s word.

Moshe says: “You are standing today, before Hashem your G-d: the heads of your tribes, your elders and your officers – all the men of Israel.” (Devarim 29:9)

Rashi (ibid. 12), quoting the Midrash Tanchuma, says that after the people heard the curses they “turned green” ie. they became queasy from fear. They exclaimed “Who can withstand these curses!?” Moshe, noticing their consternation, tries to pacify them saying: “Look you are standing today – אתם נצבים היום!”

Rav Yecheskel Weinfeld שליט״א of Jerusalem asks: why is Moshe effectively discrediting the curses? For by saying אתם נצבים היום, isn’t he is telling them not to take the warnings so seriously? Surely the curses are a serious matter, and seemingly the nation is to be praised for responding so intensely.

Rav Weinfeld explains that by the nation becoming sick at the thought of the curses, Moshe saw that now that the Jewish people had clearly reached a high spiritual level – one on which the mere thought of the curses brought them to fear. Once Moshe recognized this, he knew that now was just the right moment to allay their fear. The very fact that they were scared was the reason to let-up. Now was the time to remind them that they were indeed worthy.

This idea can reveal for us a very deep lesson. Sometimes we can find ourselves feeling down about our spiritual level, our failings, our deeply ingrained deficiencies. These thoughts often cause paralyzing effect on our ability to function. Yet, amazingly because we are enwrapped in our failings, we don't take a minute to realize that the very fact that we feel so down about our spirituality is in itself a reason to rejoice; to take pride in the fact that spirituality is so central to our lives that it even gets us down!

I heard a good line once that typifies this point: “Bad people dont stop to wonder if they’re being good”. We don’t realize that there are billions of people on earth, going about their lives – working, eating, sleeping and eventually die –  all without giving a second thought to G-d and spiritual matters, let alone allow those thoughts to affect their temperament. The fact that these lofty matters even bother us is a testament to our core value system. It shows that we actively care about the רצון ה׳ (the will of G-d) in this world, and that we want to see it carried out. Why would we discount ourselves for that? Surely G-d Himself does not! I often tell my students “Do you really think G-d is so small that He discounts an entire person without seeing the big picture?”

I once had an eye-opening experience when I was tutoring at the Yeshiva Aish Hatorah. I was reading a Gemara together with one of the students, when in the middle he blurted out, “It's so frustrating, I'm never going to learn to read a Gemara as well as you! I'll never be as fluid as you.” When I heard this, I laughed out loud. This student arrived to the yeshiva just less than a year-and-a-half ago, barely knowing the Alef-Bet. And now he was sitting in the yeshiva program studying some of the hardest talmudical texts in the Jewish corpus. If anything, I was jealous of him! To grow such leaps and bounds in such a short time is a feat to be lauded. Moreover, he was frustrated with himself that he wasn't reading as well as he would like to, without giving it a moment’s thought that in order to even read non-fluidly, one must know how to read (let alone understand it)! When I pointed this out, it was like an epiphany for him, as if he never thought about it this way, and he gained a deeper recognition of his hard-won skills as well as an appreciation for himself.

This taught me a valuable lesson: sometimes we just need to slow down and take an “outsider perspective” of ourselves, to truly value our accomplishments. We are so quickly jumping to the next rung on the ladder that we do not allow ourselves to savor how much we have achieved. And furthermore, we don't appreciate that feeling “down” about our placement actually means we are moving up. Our values are clearly in the right place and we can certainly grow from there.

There is a famous letter of Rav Yitzchak Hutner זצ״ל responding to a student struggling with his spirituality. Rav Hutner offers support and attempts to remind the student that he really has grown, despite the students attitude, and that he shouldn't give up. The Rosh Yeshiva quoting the verse in Mishlei (24:16) ״כי שבע יפול צדיק וקם״ expounds:

"Seven times the righteous man falls and gets up.” The fools think that they explain this is in a grand manner: that even though righteous fall seven times, he rises. But the wise know well that the true meaning is that the essence of the tzaddik's rising up is in his "seven falls".

Rav Hutner is telling us a guiding principle, that the falls, the failings, and the defeats are part and parcel of the ultimate victory. Not in spite of the fall, but because of it. In order for one to have fallen, he must have been upright to begin with!

This is was what Moshe saw. He beheld a nation with a value system so in tune with the will of G-d, and after seeing their fear of the curses, he knew now was the time to remind them of their newly gained status. The mission had been accomplished. Now, when they felt low, was the time to lift the nation's spirit, and remind them that they are beloved to Hashem, specifically for the fact that they felt so low!

The Alter of Novardok once said “in a time of battle, even the lowest ranked Footsoldier can rise to become a General” meaning in a time of war, rank, class and even basic skill are meaningless. What matters is if we are willing to fight, do we have the dedication and desire to see Hashem be present in this world. We live in a time inundated with attacks to the foundations of society and ethics, a literal time of war where G-d and basic traditional concepts are becoming denied and on the wane. Hashem is not looking for perfect and skilled fighters. Rather He is looking for those who care, and are willing to stand out for something larger than themselves.

Let us, this year, show that we care.

Shabbat Shalom and Ktiva V’Chatima Tova

Friday, August 31, 2018

Parshat Ki Tavo - A Priceless Gift


In this week's parsha we read about the mitzvah of ביכורים. The Torah instructs us to bring our first fruits of the season to the Beit Hamikdash, and offer them to the Kohanim. We also learn that the people would bring the fruits in baskets.

The Sifri (300) tells us that there was a practice for the wealthy to bring their first-fruits in baskets overlaid with gold or silver, while the poor would use woven baskets. This would ostensibly show their love for the mitzvah.

The Malbim asks a question regarding this practice: We often find that the Rabbis – out of concern for the honor of every Jew – would assert their authority to regulate mitzvah standards in cases which would highlight the distinction between wealthy and poor. Such a distinction could cause embarrassment to the poor.

For example, the Gemara in Moed Katan* (27a-b) tells us that the original custom of the wealthy when burying their dead was to bury them in fancy and expensive caskets, however this caused the poor to be embarrassed. In deference to the poor, Chazal enacted that everyone must be buried in simple shrouds and caskets. 

Seemingly, the practice of the rich bringing gold and silver laden baskets would also embarrass the poor. If so, why didn't Chazal regulate this custom in the same way?

Perhaps the answer lies in understanding the mitzvah of Bikkurim. The Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 606) writes regarding the declaration recited when the farmer bring the fruits:

It is appropriate to stir his heart with speech and ponder that everything he has received is from the Master of the Universe…

The underlying message of Bikkurim is that everything we own, everything we create, is only through the benevolence and help of G-d.

The mitzvah of Bikkurim is the perfect expression of this message, as the mitzvah only applies to the first fruits of the harvest. Offering these particularly special fruits presents a challenge to the farmer. The investment needed to create the proper environment for growth is a painstaking process. The farmer must spend many days and months just preparing the land. Only after the land is properly fertilized can one even begin to 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.

Specifically because of the immense personal investment, the mitzvah of Bikkurim forces the farmer to confront the unavoidable truth: that G-d is really the One controlling everything. The farmer is challenged to hand 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.

It is quite common for store owners to display their “first dollar earned” in a framed plaque behind the counter. For to the store owner, that dollar represents all the effort, care, and worry put into that business – and the success he achieved. The dollar, in a sense, ceases to be a mere dollar with a measurable worth; instead it is transformed into a representation of that person’s essence, and the many long hours spent toiling for success. A priceless symbol.

So too, these Bikkurim are more than crops to the farmer; they are his source of pride, an extension of himself. And in giving them over, they become a manifestation of his value system. They are elevated from their physical limitations into a supernal sacrifice to G-d. For instead of keeping it for himself, the farmer makes the ultimate personal submission, showing that G-d is the true enabler.

With this approach, we can answer our question. At the very moment the farmer feels this intense feeling of accomplishment, Bikkurim forces him to confront the challenge of personal pride. In doing so, he realizes that not only does G-d enable him to create, but all that he has and receives is decreed by G-d; therefore, whatever he has is exactly what he needs, no more and no less. This perspective helps one reach the state of שמח בחלקו – complete satisfaction with his portion. 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. In this way, Bikkurim is different than other mitzvot. It does not need to be regulated because 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.

Herein also lies a deeper understanding of striving to become שמח בחלקו. For not only is it a contentment with one’s financial status; it is also an overall acceptance of one’s role in life. It carries with it the implicit understanding that we all have a special task in life, and we are given specific tools to fulfill that job. The poor man has been given those tools no less than the rich man, to fulfill his unique mission. The sooner we accept this reality, the sooner happiness can follow.

This is a fitting message for Rosh Hashana, the time where we turn to the Master of the Universe הכל יכול, for all of our needs and requests, in hopes that we will be judged favorably. While we wish and pray for our specific desires, we understand that whatever we are given is in line with the unique mission. He has in mind for us, and we submit ourselves to Him to accomplish that mission.
Shabbat Shalom


*See the Gemara there for several examples of enactments Chazal based on reasons of possible embarrassment to the poor.

*According this we can answer a different question regarding the blessing we say on bread: המוציא לחם מן הארץ – “[Blessed is G-d] who brings forth bread from the land.” Seemingly the description of the blessing skips quite a few steps: Bread does not “come forth from the land” ready-made. First is the harvesting of the grain, breaking of the kernels, kneading of the dough, baking it in the oven, and then finally bread. Perhaps the message of this blessing is that although man is involved in the many stages, it is really Hashem who actually brings it forth to us. Specifically because there is so much human involvement in each stage, there is more of a need to remind ourselves who really made it.

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