Shoftim 5778

Elul: the month of refuge[1]

ואשר לא צדה והאלקים אנה לידו ושמתי לך מקום אשר ינוס שמה
If he didn’t plan to kill [his victim], but G-d caused it to happen, then I will provide for you a place for you [the killer] to find refuge[2]

We have now begun the period leading up to the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This period is the entire month of Elul. There are many allusions to Elul and its significance throughout Tanach. One famous example is the verse אני לדודי ודודי לי, I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me[3]. In Hebrew, the first letters spell the month of Elul. Another allusion is ומל יקוק אלקיך את לבבך ואת לבב זרעך, Hashem will remove the barrier in your heart and the heart of your offspring[4]. The first letters here as well spell Elul[5]. These allusions aren’t just cute discoveries. We can learn about different aspects of the month of Elul from the verses which allude to it. We see from the first allusion that during Elul there is a special relationship and closeness between us and Hashem. This comes from our desire to repent from our wrongdoings, and Hashem’s willingness to forgive us[6]. As well, during Elul any barriers between our innate desire to do good and our willingness to carry it out are weakened.

There’s an allusion to Elul from a topic that appears in this week’s parsha. The parsha discusses the dangers that face someone who accidentally killed another person[7]. The Torah is aware that the deceased’s relatives may take the law into their own hands, and murder the accidental killer. To protect this individual, the Torah mandates the establishment of six cities of refuge for them to flee. There, the deceased’s relatives can’t kill him. This mitzvah appears in different places throughout the Torah. In one instance[8], the Torah provides another allusion to the month of Elul. והאלקים אנה לידו ושמתי לך מקום אשר ינוס שמה. If G-d caused [the mishap] to happen, i.e. the killing was unintentional, then G-d provides a place for the killer to flee. The first letters of the words “caused it to happen”, and “I will provide for you”, spell Elul[9]. What can we learn about Elul from this seemingly random allusion?

The cities of refuge weren’t just average cities. It was where the Leviim lived. The entire city was full of scholars with outstanding character traits. One of the goals with sending the accidental killer to these cities was to also improve their behavior. Although the killing was an accident, there must be some reason this mishap happened to them[10]. Maybe this was a wakeup call to get them to become a better person. Perhaps they weren’t as careful as they could have been. There’s always room to improve. Being surrounded by these outstanding individuals was a guaranteed way to leave a lasting impression on them. However, this was only while the accidental killer remained in the city. If he left even momentarily, not only was he putting his life in danger, but he was weakening the influence others could have on them. This is why the Torah is stringent that they must stay in the city of refuge[11]. The exact same is with the month of Elul. It’s a month of refuge from all the things in our life which distract us from our purpose. It’s a chance to improve as individuals; to get a new lease on life. The lessons gained from Elul can be brought with us to the rest of the year. However, this is only accomplished by those who are fully in Elul. If someone is only haphazardly committed to improve, it’s like momentarily leaving the city of refuge. There won’t be lasting success.

However, this lesson is only learned from the second half of the allusion, which speaks about G-d giving us a city of refuge. The first half of the allusion describes that the killing was unintentional. It’s as if G-d caused it to happen. What does this teach us about Elul? One explanation is[12] that a person might think that this month is all a farce. Throughout the year a person naturally commits errors in judgement; they have slipups in their spirituality. Now, during this month of Elul, they’re going to be on their best behavior. Who are they fooling? This isn’t the real them…These are the thoughts that could go through someone’s mind. However, this allusion is teaching us that it’s the exact opposite: during this month, we are our real selves. The slipups throughout the year, weren’t really us. No Jew intrinsically wants to sin[13]. Looking back on our failures, we think: “How could I have done that? That wasn’t me”. This is just like the accidental killer of the Torah. His mishap is looked at as not his fault. It’s as if someone else caused it. We need to look at Elul as the opportunity to be our real selves. Hopefully then, we will have a better year than the previous.

Good Shabbos

 

[1] Based on a shiur given by Rabbi Reznick to parshas Shoftim in 5774

[2] Exodus 21:13, translation loosely based on The Living Torah ad. loc. For a different piece on this particular verse, see http://parshaponders.com/mishpatim-shekalim-5778

[3] Song of Songs 6:3. The last letters also have the numerical value of forty, corresponding to the forty days between the beginning of Elul and Yom Kippur

[4] Deuteronomy 30:6

[5] Mishnah Berurah 581:1. He presumably got this from the Abudraham Chapter 25 (Tefillas Rosh Hashanah), who quotes these allusions from the “Darshanim”. I only found earlier sources regarding the first allusion of אני לדודי ודודי לי, which are Rabbi Yehoshua ibn Shuaib at the end of parshas Shoftim, quoting a Midrash, and Derashos Maharach Ohr Zaruah § 32 (parshas Ha’azinu)

[6] Mishnah Berurah loc. cit. I saw this explanation in the Bach ad. loc. § 2, although it could come from an earlier source

[7] Deuteronomy 19:1-10

[8] Exodus loc. cit.

[9] Pri Etz Chaim Sha’ar Rosh Hashanah § 1, brought by the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 128:1. The latter also brings the previous two allusions, and provides a third one regarding sending gifts to friends (Esther 9:22).  He says the latter three allusions correspond to the three ways to annul a bad decree: (1) teshuvah / repentance (ומל יקוק), (2) tefillah / prayer (אני לדודי), and (3) tzedakah (gifts to friends). See the Unesaneh Sokef prayer in the Rosh Hashanah Machzor and Rosh Hashanah 16b

[10] See Rashi to Exodus loc. cit.

[11] Rabbi Reznick quoted this explanation of the cities of refuge from the Avnei Nezer

[12] Rabbi Reznick quoted this explanation from Rav Tzvi Mayer Zilberberg

[13] See Mishneh Torah Hilchos Gerushin 2:20

The Three Weeks 5778

The King’s chain[1]

ושב יקוק אלקיך את-שבותך ורחמך ושב וקבצך מכל-העמים אשר הפיצך יקוק אלקיך שמה
Hashem will return with your captives and will have mercy on you. He will return and gather you in from all the nations from which Hashem your G-d scattered you to[2]

The Rabbis teach us[3] that Hashem attached His name to our nation’s name of Yisroel[4]. The last two letters of ישראל are “El”, which means G-d. What was the purpose of this? It’s similar to a King, who has a key to a small palace[5]. The King realized that if the key remained as it was, it would surely become lost. He therefore attached a chain to it, such that if it got lost, it would easily be recovered[6]. So too Hashem, who said that if He left the Jews as they were, they would surely become lost among the nations. He therefore attached His name to theirs. This teaches that this world is really the palace of the King[7], and the Jews are the key to that palace. If there were no Jews, it would be as if the palace was sealed off[8]. If the palace was closed, it would no longer serve any purpose. It couldn’t even be referred to as a house, as it would have no entrance. So too if there were no Jews, the world would serve no purpose.

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Shavuos 5778 part two

Coerced acceptance, part two[1]

וישלח את-נערי בני ישראל ויעלו עלת ויזבחו זבחים שלמים ליקוק פרים
[Moshe] dispatched the lads of Israel, and they brought up offerings; they slaughtered bulls as peace offerings to Hashem[2]

Before[3] the giving of the Torah, the Jews had tremendous anticipation for the Divine Revelation at Mount Sinai. Moshe dispatched the important members[4] of Israel to bring offerings to Hashem, as a sign of thanks for this momentous occasion. The verse refers to them as נערים, implying they were young lads. Indeed, when the Jews were forced by King Ptolemy to translate the Torah to Greek[5], they were concerned about this implication. Knowing the verse really spoke about the important members of the Jews, they used the Greek translation of the word זאטוטי, which means dignitaries[6]. This avoided any misunderstandings of the correct meaning of the verse. However, if this is what the verse means, why is it written this way? Why doesn’t it just say what it means[7]?

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Shavuos 5778 part one

Coerced acceptance, part one[1]

ויוצא משה את-העם לקראת האלקים מן-המחנה ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר: ויקח ספר הברית ויקרא באזני העם ויאמרו כל אשר-דבר יקוק נעשה ונשמע
Moshe took the people out from the camp to greet Hashem, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. [Moshe] took the book of the Covenant and called out to the ears of the people. They all said: “All that Hashem says, we will fulfill and we will listen!”[2]

The holiday of Shavuos celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people[3]. It’s when the Ten Commandments were stated. Before the great revelation of the Divine, the Torah says that the Jews stood “at the foot” of the mountain. However, literally read, the verse says that they stood “under” the mountain. Chazal expound[4] that this teaches us that Hashem picked up the mountain, and held it over their heads. He said to them: “if you accept the Torah, good. But if not, then this[5] will be your burial place”. Thankfully, the Jews accepted the Torah. In fact, they later accepted it anew in the days of Achashverosh, out of love. However, this shows us that initially it was only through coercion. This seems to contradict a different verse, where the Jews proudly announced that they will do whatever Hashem commands them. This sounds like they were initially happy to accept the Torah. If so, why then did Hashem force them to accept it? How do we resolve this contradiction[6]?

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Pesach 5778 #2

Surrounded by walls of water[1]

הים ראה וינס הירדן יסב לאחור
The Reed Sea[2] saw and ran away, the Jordan River turned backwards[3]

On the seventh day of Pesach, we commemorate the day of the great miracle of the splitting of the sea[4]. On the Jew’s seventh day of their Exodus from Egypt, the sea’s splitting allowed them to escape the Egyptians once and for all. As an expression of their thanks to Hashem for saving them, they sang what is known as the Song of the Sea[5]. One of the chapters of Psalms[6] describes the miracles that occurred during this monumental event. The verse unusually describes the sea as running away. Why didn’t it use the more appropriate term: that the sea split[7]?

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Pesach 5778

The Four Children[1]

1) והיה כי-תבואו אל-הארץ וגו’ ושמרתם את העבודה-הזאת, והיה כי-יאמרו אליכם בניכם מה העבודה הזאת לכם 2) והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא לאמר בעבור זה עשה יקוק לי בצאתי ממצרים 3) והיה כי-ישאלך בנך מחר לאמר מה-זאת וגו’ 4) כי ישאלך בנך וגו’ מה העדות והחוקים וגו’‏
1) When you will come to the land…you shall observe this [Passover] service, and your sons will say to you: “What is this service to you?” 2) You shall tell your son on that day saying: “Hashem acted for me when I left Egypt because of this” 3) It shall be when your son will ask you tomorrow saying: “What’s this?” … 4) When your son will ask you… “What are the testimonies and statutes” …[2]

כנגד ארבעה בנים דברה תורה: אחד חכם, ואחד רשע, ואחד תם, ואחד שאינו יודע לשאול…רשע מה הוא אומר? מה העבודה הזאת לכם. לכם ולא לו. ולפי שהוציא את עצמו מן הכלל כפר בעיקר, ואף אתה הקהה את שניו ואמור לו, בעבור זה עשה יקוק לי בצאתי ממצרים. לי ולא לו. אלו היה שם לא היה נגאל

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Purim 5778

Undeserved merit[1]

חייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי
A person is obligated to get drunk on Purim to the point that they don’t know the difference between “Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai”[2]

The mitzvah to get drunk on Purim is quite surprising. It is well-known that getting drunk can easily lead to inappropriate behavior. Why was this instituted on Purim? As well, what relevance is the idea of “Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai”? Why is our getting drunk dependent on it? To begin to answer these questions, another halacha needs to be examined. There is an obligation on Purim to say the words “ארור המן ברוך מרדכי”, “Cursed is Haman; Blessed is Mordechai”[3]. Why is this formulation unique to Purim? There are other festivals where we were saved by our leaders from our enemies. Why don’t we say on Pesach: “Cursed is Pharaoh; Blessed is Moshe”? Or on Chanukah: “Cursed are the invaders; Blessed are the Hasmoneans”?

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Chanukah 5778

How the Greeks unintentionally increased Torah[1]

כשעמדה מלכות יון הרשעה על עמך ישראל להשכיחם תורתך
When the wicked kingdom of Greece stood against Your nation of Israel, to make them forget Your Torah[2]

What makes something unique reveals part of its inner dimension[3]. One of the things that is unique about Chanukah is it is chronologically the last holiday to have been established in Judaism. What this tells us is Chanukah filled a void that was missing in the Jewish calendar. It filled it with something that will take us until the end of days. What this is will be explained with some background into the history behind the holiday itself.

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Sukkos 5778

Finding joy in exile[1]

בסוכות תשבו שבעת ימים כל-האזרח בישראל ישבו בסוכות: למען ידעו דורותיכם כי בסוכות הושבתי את- בני ישראל בהוצאתי אותם מארץ מצרים וגו’
You shall dwell in sukkos for seven days; every citizen in Israel shall dwell in sukkos. [This is] in order for your generations to know that I placed the Children of Israel in sukkos when I took them out of the land of Egypt…[2]

During the festival of Sukkos, Jews are obligated to leave their permanent dwelling place and to live for seven days in sukkos[3]. The Torah tells us[4] that this is so we will remember that Hashem placed our ancestors in sukkos when He took us out of Egypt. There’s a tannaic dispute[5] as to the meaning behind the word sukkos in this verse. In general, the word sukkos refers to a temporary booth, usually made of wood[6], with a roof made from the waste from the harvest[7]. Rabbi Akiva holds that Hashem placed the Jews in literal booths when he took them out of Egypt[8]. However, Rabbi Eliezer holds that the verse refers to the Clouds of Glory which Hashem provided them in the wilderness, as a sort of protection from the elements. We are then commanded to make literal sukkos to represent the metaphorical sukkos of the past. The halacha, Jewish law, follows Rabbi Eliezer[9].

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Yom Kippur 5778

The power of tzedakah[1]

ותשובה ותפלה וצדקה מעבירין את רע הגזרה
Repentance, prayer, and tzedakah can remove the evil of the decree[2]

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur share the famous Unesaneh Tokef prayer. It is one of the most moving and powerful prayers in the High Holiday liturgy. What makes it so memorable is not only the chilling tune, but the intense words themselves. It reminds us that during these days we are like sheep being assessed by their shepherd[3]. On Rosh Hashanah, it is written who will live and who will perish, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. What gives the Unesaneh Tokef prayer the power it has undoubtedly comes from its origins. It was written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz about 1,000 years ago. The Church insisted that he convert to Christianity, and after refusing, they brutally amputated his body. Before he died, he requested to be carried to the Ark during the Rosh Hashanah prayers. He recited the words of Unesaneh Tokef, and died[4].

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