Chayei Sarah 5780

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Inevitable choice[1]

ויאמר אברהם אל-עבדו זקן ביתו המשל בכל-אשר-לו וגו’‏
Avraham said to his servant, the elder of his household, the one in charge of all his belongings…[2]

A major part of this week’s parsha is Avraham sending his servant on a mission. He was to go to Avraham’s homeland to find a wife for his son Yitzchak. The Torah tells us few facts about Avraham’s servant, Eliezer[3]. He was the “elder” of Avraham’s household. He oversaw all of his belongings. He ensured everyone in Avraham’s camp had the food they needed[4]. We see his dedication to Avraham’s will from his alacrity to fulfill the mission. He didn’t take credit for anything and attributed his success in the mission to Hashem, solely in Avraham’s merit. Besides that, we don’t really know his background. How did he become the servant of Avraham?

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Yom Kippur 5779

Knocking on the wrong door[1]

הפותח שער לדופקי בתשובה
He opens a gate for those who knock in repentance[2]

The Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur season is all about self-improvement. Realigning ourselves in our service of Hashem, fixing our priorities, and righting past wrongs. The goal is to do teshuva, normally translated as repentance. More accurately, it means to return. This time of year is reserved for returning to our Creator[3], and planning to do better this year. One of the prayers that are said is: “[Hashem] opens a gate for those who knock in repentance”. The implication is that the gates in Heaven are closed, until we knock. We simply have to turn to Hashem, ask for forgiveness, and he’ll accept it. He’ll open the gates of repentance in Heaven for us. The problem is, this contradicts an idea that is taught by our Sages[4]. Prayer is compared to a mikveh, whereas repentance is compared to a river. A mikveh is sometimes open, sometimes closed. So too the gates of prayer are sometimes open, sometimes close. Not every time is an equal opportunity for prayer. However, unlike a mikveh, a river is never closed. So too the gates of repentance are never closed. Teshuva is always accepted. Why then is this prayer indicating that the gates of repentance need to be opened?

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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

Mattos Masei 5778

Concern for the other’s honor[1]

וידבר יקוק אל-משה לאמר: נקם נקמת בני ישראל מאת המדנים וגו’ וידבר משה אל-העם לאמר וגו’ לתת נקמת-יקוק במדין
Hashem said to Moshe, saying: “Avenge the vengeance of the Children of Israel from the Midianites…” Moshe said to the people, saying: “…to give[2] the vengeance of Hashem upon Midian”[3]

Two parshiyos ago[4], the Midianites enacted a wicked plot against the Jews. In order to undermine their relationship with Hashem and their mitzvah observance, the Midianite women seduced the Jewish men to commit immoral relations. Just as the men’s urges got the better of them, the Midianite women introduced one condition: they must first perform idol worship[5]. This way they would be guilty of two cardinal sins. As a result of this successful scheme, a plague broke out amongst the Jews. By the time the mayhem ended, 24,000 people had died. This week’s parsha picks up after the conclusion of that story, with Hashem ordering Moshe to take revenge on the Midianites. Hashem specifically says to avenge the slight against the Children of Israel. However, when Moshe relayed this command to the people, he stressed that the Midianites committed a slight against Hashem[6]. Which one was it?

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Shelach 5778

The wrong kind of humility[1]

אלה שמות האנשים אשר-שלח משה לתור את-הארץ ויקרא משה להושע בן-נון יהושע
These are the names of the men who were sent by Moshe to scout out the land. Moshe called Hoshea the son of Nun: Yehoshua[2]

When the Jews had almost arrived at the land of Israel, they had the idea to send spies to scout out the land[3]. They wanted to know not only about the landscape, but about the inhabitants[4]. Were they a conquerable force, or not? Twelve men, one for each tribe, was selected for the task. One of them was Moshe’s faithful student[5], Yehoshua. He was originally called Hoshea, but Moshe as a form of prayer added the letter yud to his name, making it Yehoshua. Moshe was concerned that the spies had evil intentions, and would falsely give a negative report. He therefore added a letter from G-d’s name to Yehoshua’s, pleading that Hashem should save Yehoshua from the council of the spies[6]. What prompted Moshe to give this name change to Yehoshua? One explanation[7] is that Moshe saw Yehoshua’s great humility, and thus felt he needed this prayer[8]. What does one have to do with the other?

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Ki Sisa 5778

The foremost spice[1]

ואתה קח-לך בשמים ראש מר-דרור וגו’‏
You should take for yourself prominent spices: mor-dror[2]

There were many ingredients used in the making of the anointing oil and the incense offering, both used in the Temple. One of the spices is known as מר-דרור, mor-dror. What is this spice? The Rambam[3], among others[4], say it is “musk”, the congealed blood found in the throat of a well-known animal in India. It’s similar to a deer, one of its characteristics being that it’s free-roaming[5]. However, the Raavad argues and says[6] that it is “myrrh”, a type of gum resin produced by trees and shrubs[7]. He says that it is unreasonable to suggest that the blood of any animal, let alone of a non-kosher species, would be used in the Temple. How would the Rambam respond to such a claim?

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Chayei Sarah 5778

Disobeying your host[1]

ויישם לפניו לאכל ויאמר לא אכל עד אם-דברתי דברי ויאמר דבר: ויאמר עבד אברהם אנכי
They placed before [Eliezer] food to eat and he said: “I will not eat until I have spoken my mind”. They said to him: “Speak”. He said: “I am a servant of Avraham”[2]

The time had come for Yitzchak to get married. Avraham asked his trusted servant Eliezer[3] to go to his birthplace to find a suitable mate. After determining that Rivka was the proper wife for Yitzchak, Eliezer requested a meeting with her family. They offered him food to eat, but he adamantly refused. He didn’t want to eat until he had fulfilled his mission[4]. He then proceeded to tell them the entire story of how he came to their land and why he felt Rivka was the one to marry Yitzchak. For some reason he started his speech with the phrase: “I am the servant of Avraham”. Why did he need to give this introduction? They knew who he was; Rivka had already told them[5]. What was Eliezer emphasizing?

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Lech Lecha 5778

Avoiding gifts[1]

ויאמר אברם אל-מלך סדם הרמתי ידי אל-יקוק קל עליון קנה שמים וארץ: אם-מחוט ועד שרוך-נעל ואם-אקח מכל-אשר-לך ולא תאמר אני העשרתי את-אברם
Avram said to the King of Sedom: “I raise up my hand to Hashem, the Divine G-d, owner of Heaven and Earth [and swear][2], [such and such should happen to me] if I [take even] a string or a shoe-strap or I take anything of yours, [so that] you will not say that I made Avram wealthy”[3]

Some time after settling in the Land of Israel, Avraham encountered an intense war between various Kings[4]. His nephew Lot was taken hostage, and Avraham felt responsible for his rescue. A side-effect of defeating the Kings and rescuing his nephew is that Avraham had saved the King of Sedom. The King wanted to give all the spoils from the war to his rescuer, but Avraham strongly refused. He went so far as to make an oath not to even take a shoe strap from the King of Sedom. Why didn’t Avraham want to take the gifts from the King of Sedom? What was the problem? One explanation is based on a concept known as שונא מתנות יחיה, someone who hates gifts will live[5]. The idea is that a person who wants to live a life only relying on Hashem, never taking from others, will only gain. It’s considered a lofty way to live[6], and Avraham followed it. As a result, he didn’t want to take gifts from the King of Sedom[7].

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Mattos-Masei 5777

Settling for less[1]

ויאמרו אם-מצאנו חן בעיניך יתן את-הארץ הזאת לעבדיך לאחזה אל-תעברנו את-הירדן
They said [to Moshe]: “If we have found favor in your eyes, this land will be given to your servants as an inheritance; [therefore] we will not cross the Jordan River”[2]

As the Jews were about to enter the land of Israel, the tribes of Reuven and Gad, as well as half the tribe of Menashe, made a request to Moshe. They had just conquered the land known as “Arvos Moav”, which was on the other side of the Jordan River. Officially it was now Jewish land. However, it wasn’t part of the land of Israel proper. These tribes noticed that this area was great for grazing, and they had a lot of flock to feed. They asked if they could settle there, and not cross the Jordan River with their brothers. After some debate back and forth, Moshe agreed to their request. In the end, was this request proper?

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Shelach 5777

All with the proper perspective[1]

וימתו האנשים מוצאי דבת-הארץ רעה במגפה לפני יקוק
The men who gave a bad report about the land [of Israel] died in a plague before Hashem[2]

As the Jews were just about to enter the land of Israel, they got an idea to send spies ahead to scout out the terrain. Twelve leaders, one from each tribe, were sent. They spent forty days touring the land, afterwards returning to the rest of the people. The Torah says that ten of them gave a bad report about the land, and the people wept and cried. They said that it was hopeless to try to conquer the land, for the inhabitants were mightier than they. Many wanted to return to Egypt, rather than die by the hands of the land’s inhabitants. As a result of what transpired, Hashem punishes the spies with a horrible death, and the rest of the people were sentenced to forty years of traveling aimlessly in the wilderness. Only those who survived would then get to enter the land.

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