Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Parshat Vayikra 5778 - The Great Communicator

Parsha Paragraphs
Rabbi Naftali Kassorla

Parshat Vayikra 5778
The Great Communicator
The D’var Torah for this week is dedicated in memory of:
ר׳ אלחנן יעקב בן מו״ח ר׳ שמואל פנחס ז״ל
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

This week's parsha welcomes us to a new Sefer and the world of Korbanot. The parsha begins: וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֵלָ֔יו מֵאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר - “He called out to Moshe, and Hashem spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying” (Vayikra 1:1). Rashi explains that ויקרא, which appears superfluous, comes to teach us a rule – that every statement, saying, and command from G-d to Moshe is preceded with a קריאה (a “calling”) which is a language of endearment, the same language that the ministering angels use.

In communicating with this endearment, G-d does so only with Moshe. The rest of the nation could not hear. Meaning, that this was a prophecy to which only Moshe was privy. Rashi says: “The voice [of G-d] would go, and reach Moshe’s ears, and all of Israel could not hear it.” Rashi continues: “One might have thought that there was a ‘calling’ at breaks (i.e. the breaks in the text indicated by blank spaces).” One might have thought that a break indicates the beginning of a new and distinct prophecy which would be preceded with a new “calling”. The Torah teaches us that no, only when G-d actually speaks is it a new prophecy, but the breaks do not indicate a new prophecy. (Mizrachi, translated by Artscroll.)

If the breaks in the text did not serve the purpose of indicating a new and distinct prophecy, what purpose then did they serve? Rashi continues: “to give Moshe the time for contemplation of one parsha and the next, and between one topic to another. קל וחומר (all the more so) that time between subjects is necessary for a הדיוט (an ordinary person) who learns from another הדיוט.”

Rashi, quoting the Torat Kohanim (1:9), explains that G-d gave Moshe the time to contemplate and to understand the subject, and from the rule of kal vachomer we learn that ordinary people must also give and be given that time to contemplate.

However, what is the logic and reasoning behind this deduction? We can understand that while Moshe was the greatest prophet to have ever risen, and was master of all wisdoms, perhaps even he needed that time to contemplate when learning from G-d Himself. When learning the Torah from G-d, Whose wisdom cannot be fathomed, His essence cannot be grasped, and His grandiosity cannot be comprehended, of course Moshe would need the time to properly digest the concepts. But, who is to say that in the case of two “ordinary” people, where both are on the same level, that time must be given for the other to comprehend? What is the reasoning of the Torat Kohanim?

In truth we have to ask, what is the intention of the Torat Kohanim? Is it trying to tell us that due to the “lack” of the student we must give the רווח (space) to understand? Or perhaps it is telling us that when a teacher teaches, whether or not the student is lacking, he must be careful to teach in a way that the students have the ability to comprehend. If it is due to the lack on the part of the student, then our question stands. But if the Torat Kohanim is giving a lesson about the mark of a good teacher – that a teacher is lacking if he does not giving ample time for his students to comprehend – then we have our answer. From the fact that G-d gives Moshe – the most wise and humble of the prophets – the time to contemplate, we can learn that in our dealings, as “ordinary people” we must present our ideas in a way for them to be comprehended. It’s a lesson about the method of teaching, not the lack of the student.

This idea can be helpful in a myriad of aspects of teaching, including how loud one projects, how slowly one speaks, or a hundred other pedagogical methods which can aid the clarity of the message and comprehension of the student. But this is also a powerful lesson regarding the most basic underpinning of teaching: the teacher’s mindset and motivation for teaching.

A Rebbe is not there for himself; his objectives in teaching should be based solely on the comprehension of the students. And, barring other factors, if the student is not understanding, then he has failed his mission. For if they are not walking away with more clarity and understanding, what then is being accomplished?! That the Rebbe himself said a good shiur? That he felt honored? That he understood the subject?

I was once talking to someone who had a thirteen-year-old son in a “top tier” Yeshiva High School, and he was decrying the amount of sources and analytical approaches the teacher was “cramming” into the students. He felt his son was not understanding. This father, who himself is an accomplished scholar, told me that he was not the only one; other parents had also expressed concern that their children were not comprehending. When the parents finally mustered the strength to confront the Rebbe and express their concerns, he responded, “I teach the students on the level where I am holding. I was the top of my class, and I want them to witness true scholarship.”

When I heard this, I was blown away. How is it possible for someone, who has been entrusted with the holy task of חינוך (education) to think in such selfish terms? How could he get it so wrong? I believe the the truth is that this “Rebbe” is teaching for all the wrong reasons. He is not teaching with the aim of התבוננות and הבנה of his students, which would clearly warrant a tapering down of the level of the shiur. Rather he is involved in a nihilistic and self-serving pursuit under the guise of virtue, all while using the students as his footstool to raise up his own honor. I once heard from a very prominent Rabbi, that this type of teacher would be included in the prohibition of being המתכבד בקלון חברו - putting down others to raise up your own honor; for a teacher that neglects the progress of the students, while using them to honor himself, is the same as one who actively degrades them.

One of my most favorite quotes is in the name of Rabbi Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik זצ״ל who would often remark that his favorite title was not Rav, Rosh Yeshiva, or Posek (halachic expert); rather it was מלמד, just a simple teacher, for G-d Himself is called teacher: המלמד תורה לעמו ישראל. Rabbi Soloveitchik felt that the highest calling, that which emulates G-d himself, is that of מלמד. And we learn from Hashem, in giving that “space” to Moshe to contemplate and comprehend, a demonstration of the proper way to accomplish the holiest of tasks – teaching Torah, with the holiest goal: to better the student.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Parshat Ki Tisa 5778 - A Stiffnecked People

Parsha Paragraphs
Rabbi Naftali Kassorla

Parshat Ki Tisa 5778
A Stiffnecked People
The D’var Torah for this week is dedicated in memory of:
 ר׳ אלחנן יעקב בן מו״ח ר׳ שמואל פנחס ז״ל
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

This week's parsha features one of the most famous and dark episodes in Jewish history: The sin of the Golden Calf, leaving a deep and lasting mark on the future of our Nation. G-d initially desires to wipe out the nation, but relents, after the pleading of Moshe on their
behalf: וַיֹּ֡אמֶר אִם־נָא֩ מָצָ֨אתִי חֵ֤ן בְּעֵינֶ֙יךָ֙ אֲדֹנָ֔י יֵֽלֶךְ־נָ֥א אֲדֹנָ֖י בְּקִרְבֵּ֑נוּ כִּ֤י עַם־קְשֵׁה־עֹ֙רֶף֙ ה֔וּא וְסָלַחְתָּ֛ לַעֲוֹנֵ֥נוּ וּלְחַטָּאתֵ֖נוּ וּנְחַלְתָּֽנוּ – If I have gained Your favor, O Lord, pray, let the Lord go in our midst, even though this is a stiffnecked people. Pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Your own! (Shemot 34:9)

The Torah tells us that the Jewish people are an עם קשה עורף, commonly translated as “a stiff necked people.” However, while that may be the literal english translation, it falls short of the true meaning behind this deep description of our people.

The Malbim (ibid.) quotes the famous French Jewish Philosopher, Rav Levi Ben Gerson (commonly known as the Ralbag), who expounds upon this idea and offers a window into the the spiritual makeup of our People.

The Ralbag says that really, this attribute of the Jewish people is best understood as being skeptical and discerning. We are generally not willing to take anything at face value; rather we have an innate drive to question, investigate and understand things further.

However, says the Ralbag, once we have done a proper investigation and are “convinced,” our acceptance is iron-clad, and nothing will turn us away from the truth. Certainly no argument can convince us otherwise, but even more so – no threat of expulsion, no pogrom, no sword or gun barrel will ever take us away from the truth that we have ingrained in our collective bones. This is the “stiffneckedness” of the Jewish People. We stubbornly cling to what we have determined is the truth.

No other time was this was so clearly displayed as when Jews – faced with the stark reality of evil and depravity – were forced to march to the gas chambers. Knowing that they were walking to their deaths, they sang the traditional song of אני מאמין, declaring their unending faith and dedication to their G-d and their traditions. Such devotion can only come from the powerful knowledge that we intuit in the deepest recesses of our hearts. In the face of such evil, they showed that truth prevails.

While this middah can get us into trouble, and may cause us to be obstinate when we do wrong, nonetheless, Moshe argues on behalf of Klal Yisrael that Hashem should spare us in the very merit of this trait! This is an example of the complicated nature of personality traits; for sometimes the positive and negative can be bound together – forming the wondrous complexity of the human spirit.

I once heard someone speak derogatorily about a certain Torah Gadol of the past, a Gadol to whom we owe almost our entire Torah. He was critiquing this Rabbi for “being so stubborn to the extent that he thought everyone else was stubborn”! Aside from the obvious disrespect to the Gadol, this person totally missed the boat regarding the greatness of this particular Rosh Yeshiva. It was precisely because he was so stubborn that he was able to accomplish so much; This Rosh Yeshiva – facing a post-holocaust world that was apathetic to Torah scholarship – needed to be stubborn to stick to his principles to be able to imagine building and instilling the values that he received from his teachers to the next generation. The very critique was this Rabbi’s praise! (And while our own “stiffneckedness” and “stubbornness” can be utilized for the good, we certainly cannot let it disallow us from seeing the complexity and positive nature of another’s traits.)

May we be zoche to learn how to utilize the best of our talents and traits in the serving Hashem.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, February 23, 2018

Parshat Tetzaveh 5778 - G-d’s Ambassadors

Parsha Paragraphs
Rabbi Naftali Kassorla

Parshat Tetzaveh 5778
G-d’s Ambassadors
The D’var Torah for this week is dedicated in memory of my wife’s grandmother:
לאה משא בת הרב נפתלי ז״ל
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

This week’s parsha comes off the heels of last week’s recounting of the building of the Mishkan, and features the making of the Bigdei Kehuna – the Priestly Vestments. The Torah goes to great lengths to explain in detail the processing of each vestment, for they shall serve “for glory and for splendor” (Shemot 28:2). No changes in the garments are allowed. They are set aside specially for Aharon and his offspring.

For years I pondered the following question: we find many passages in the Torah where most, if not all the laws are only applicable to Kohanim. Some aspects are not only inapplicable to a זר (non-Kohen), but are even prohibited to them. In light of this, why did Hashem include these laws in the Torah for all of Klal Yisrael? Why didn’t He instead just give these laws separately to the Kohanim? Or perhaps G-d could have decreed a special mitzvah for only Kohanim to study these particular sections. Yet all Jews are required to delve into the intricacies of these laws. Why is it that those of us who are not Kohanim have no less of a commandment to study these parshiot than do the Kohanim?

The Gemara in Nedarim (35b) features an intriguing discussion based on the following difficulty: if one makes an oath that he will not derive any benefit from a specific Kohen, can that same Kohen offer a Korban on behalf of the oath-maker? In other words, is having the Kohen bring a sacrifice for him considered “benefitting” from this particular Kohen? To resolve the difficulty the Gemara asks a fascinating question. What are Kohanim? – i.e. on whose behalf do they act? Are they שלוחי דידן – the people’s emissaries, or שלוחי דשמיא – emissaries of Heaven. The answer to this provides a resolution to our previous question. If a Kohen is the people’s emissary, then it is considered as if he is bringing benefit to the one who made the oath. However, if the Kohen is Heaven's emissary, then the act of bringing the sacrifice is not considered as being done for the benefit of the owner of the animal. Rather, it is for Hashem, and therefore not a violation of the original oath. In conclusion, the Gemara states that a Kohen is an emissary of Heaven.

The question of the Gemara is fascinating, because it goes straight to the core definition of a Kohen. The Kohen is, in a sense, a physical representation of the concept of G-d’s holiness in this world. Just As G-d is holy and pure, so too a Kohen is commanded to remain holy and pure his entire life. He is charged with the obligation not to become defiled from impurity and to devote his life to service in the Beit Hamikdash. This is the purpose of the Kohen – to be an emissary of Hashem to the Jewish people.

Why are the rest of the people are expected to learn laws which only seem applicable to Kohanim? Although the Kohanim are a separate, distinct group within the nation, their main purpose is to be a physical representation of holiness to the people. We are meant to learn and observe their ways and to apply what we see to our own lives. Therefore, we have no less of an obligation to understand the principles that guide the Kohen towards a life of holiness.

Furthermore, the concept of being a shaliach of G-d is not exclusive to Kohanim; it can be actualized by the rest of the Nation as well. G-d has designated us as His עם הנבחר – the Chosen people – and we too are representatives and ambassadors for Him in this world. We are all charged with being aware of the obligation to retain our purity and holiness. We are a ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש – “kingdom of ministers and a holy nation” (ibid. 19:6) and we are tasked with being that holy nation which brings honor to His name. This is the underlying idea behind making a קידוש השם, where our very actions bring honor to His name, because they are a reflection of G-d Himself. It is a great responsibility, one which we should take seriously and merit to be able to do properly.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Parshat Terumah 5778 - To Dwell Among Us

Parsha Paragraphs
Rabbi Naftali Kassorla

Parshat Terumah 5778
To Dwell Among Us
The D’var Torah for this week is dedicated by R’ Reuven & Shera Gaisin: לעילוי נשמת Reuven's maternal aunt אביגיל בת לייב איתן ז״ל
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, God commands the nation: ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם - “Make for Me a Sanctuary – so that I may dwell among them” (Shemot 25:8). The people are inspired and contribute to the construction.

The Psikta recounts an amazing occurrence. When the decree came to Moshe for the Nation to build a sanctuary, Moshe literally shook and exclaimed, “How can man make a house for G-d?!” And God answered, “Not according to My capabilities do I ask, rather according to your own capabilities.” The Chofetz Chaim concludes from this Midrash that G-d does not unfairly critique man for his shortcomings; rather He asks only that we try, to the best of our abilities.

I would like to focus on this intriguing back-and-forth between Hakadosh Baruch Hu and Moshe. Firstly, why is Moshe “shaken”? What is so shocking about Hashem’s request to build a Mishkan? Perhaps Moshe’s great astonishment was that he found it difficult to fathom that G-d could manifest Himself in this world. If so, we can still ask: why is Moshe shocked only now? Didn't the Shechina previously come down at Har Sinai (Ibid. 19:20)? Furthermore, what did Hashem respond to Moshe which then resolved his question? And finally a third question: what can we glean practically for ourselves from G-d’s response?

I would like to suggest that Moshe's shock was rooted in a deep and fundamental difficulty pertaining to the essence of G-d. The Greek and Roman philosophers, l’havdil, wrestled with a question: How can G-d, Who is יושב במרום (dwells in the supernal realms), be “concerned” with the menial ways of man?1 Man is inherently physically limited, debased with desires and selfish needs.

Different philosophers arrived at two separate and distinct responses. 
Some said that G-d is in fact so holy that He is removed from this world entirely. Aristotle, the “father of western philosophy,” explained his concept of G-d – “The Unmoved Mover”– as that of an unfeeling, removed Power Who is involved in deep Self-contemplation (The Middle Platonism by John Dillon - Cornell University Press 1977). Meaning that G-d’s “interests” are above and beyond the base thoughts of man.

Alternatively, they explained that G-d (or gods by their perception) were made in the image of man, and were just as debased, selfish and petty as man could be; this is evidenced by the Greek mythologies of rampant licentiousness and jealousy on the part of their deities.

However, Judaism has a wholly different philosophy on the essence of G-d, and we can see this totally divergent idea from the Psikta quoted above. In responding to Moshe, G-d says: “Not according to My capabilities do I ask, rather according to man’s capabilities.” G-d was in essence telling Moshe that not only is He interested in our actions, but He desires to dwell among us too! This, I believe, is the depth and beauty of G-d’s call to man “Make me a sanctuary.” The Torah’s concept of G-d is the synthesis of these two, seemingly, divergent philosophies: the loftiness of G-d’s essence, coupled with His deep desire to connect with us.

This idea can perhaps elucidate for us another issue once raised by a student of mine. Human civilizations has for millennia been engaged in building centers of worship, altars, and great monuments to their idols. Some archeological digs have even unearthed ruins that have had a similar floor plan to the Mishkan. The student was bothered by this, wondering: what makes the endeavor of the Jewish people to build the Mishkan so unique? Perhaps the Jews in the desert were just like any other developing nomadic tribe that felt strengthening of tribal bonds through building a communal altar to worship, similar to Stonehenge in England, the Ziggurats in Mesopotamia and other similar feats of architecture. What made the Mishkan, and by proxy the Jewish people, any different?

To answer this question, I heard from the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yechiel Perr Shlit”a the following idea that I believe provides the proper approach: Human history is rife with man’s desire to reach out to G-d. However, the building of the Mishkan marked the first time in recorded human history that the building of a monument was preceded by G-d reaching out to man to “Make me a sanctuary.”

This made the Mishkan a different structure entirely – at its core. For while the building is built from man’s actions, it is initiated by G-d’s directive. The call to build G-d a sanctuary infuses its every vessel with sanctity. Now it has become elevated to a G-dly level. So while it may look the same as other “sanctuaries,” its essence was not anything of this world.2

This is an important lesson for us, as we should know and strengthen this idea that G-d is not only interested in our lives, but wishes to “dwell” within them. He infuses all of our “menial” actions with holiness and meaning, when we answer His call.

Thus, it is fitting to end with the famous quote attributed to the Alshich:

ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם: בכל אחד ואחד
G-d desires to dwell within every individual 

We would be wise to open the door to let Him in.

Shabbat Shalom

1 See Rashi in Bamidbar (24:3) regarding Bilaam. G-d made Bilaam blind because he found preposterous the idea that G-d would be interested in the “lowly ways of man”: ורבותינו אמרו (נדה לא.) לפי שאמר (במדבר כ״ג:י) ומספר את רובע ישראל שהקב"ה יושב ומונה רביעותיהן של ישראל מתי תבא טפה שנולד הצדיק ממנה. אמר בלבו מי שהוא קדוש ומשרתיו קדושים יסתכל בדברים הללו ועל דבר זה נסמית עינו של בלעם. Thanks to Rav Chaim Pollock Shlit”a for directing me to this source.

2 There is a very interesting Sicha from the The Lubavitcher Rebbe, where he explains the difference between the Kiyum Mitzvot prior to Matan Torah and after. Basing this on a Midrash, He explains that before Matan Torah, Mitzvot that were performed by a person did not bestow upon an object a kedusha, for how can man endow a cheftza with kedusha? This is something that only G-d can do! But after Matan Torah the cheftza has kedusha because of the direct commandment. This is in line with Rav Perr’s idea, but more globally – that physical objects are infused with a special level of holiness through G-d commanding it. Many thanks to Rav Ally Ehrman Shlit”a for showing me this sicha.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...