Shelach 5779

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The paths of two greats[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, were 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].

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Vaeschanan 5778

Prevented from performing a mitzvah[1]

ואתחנן אל-יקוק בעת ההיא…ויאמר יקוק אלי רב-לך אל-תוסף דבר אלי עוד בדבר הזה
I pleaded to Hashem at that time…Hashem said to me: “There’s a lot for you. Don’t continue to speak to Me about this matter any more”[2]

Moshe, shortly before his death, explained to the people why their leader would not take them into the land of Israel. Instead, his successor Yehoshua would take charge. Moshe was punished for his prior transgression[3] with dying before ever entering the land. He couldn’t take this quietly, and repeatedly prayed to Hashem to forgive him; to allow him to at least enter the land. Finally, Hashem responded with the phrase: “רב לך! There’s a lot for you! Don’t continue praying for this, as you will not enter.” Chazal pick up[4] on this unusual expression “רב לך”, and note that Moshe used this exact same phrase to Korach and his band of rebels. He said “רב לכם בני לוי, There’s a lot for you, Levites”[5]. In addition to noting this similarity, Chazal say ברב בישר ברב בישרוהו, because Moshe said רב לכם to Korach, Hashem said to him רב לך. This sounds like some sort of punishment. Chazal say[6] similarly about Yehudah, who said: “הכר נא, Identify this” to his father Yaakov, trying to trick him into thinking his son Yosef was killed. Yehudah subsequently had his daughter-in-law say to him: “הכא נא, Identify this”. In that context, it’s clear that Yehudah committed a sin by saying this to his father[7]. However, what was Moshe’s transgression? Korach and his band were trying to usurp Moshe’s Divinely given authority. Moshe had every right to rebuke them. Why was he subsequently punished with Hashem telling him: “רב לך, you will not enter the land of Israel”[8]?

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Shavuos 5777

When was the Torah actually given?[1]

ותתן לנו יקוק אלקנו באהבה מועדים לשמחה חגים וזמנים לששון, את יום חג השבעות הזה זמן מתן תורתנו
Hashem our G-d, with love give us festivals of happiness, holidays and times of joy, this holiday of Shavuos, the time of the giving of our Torah[2]

In our calendar[3] Shavuos always falls out on the sixth day of Sivan. Something not mentioned explicitly in the Torah is the event that Shavuos commemorates. As noted in our prayers, Shavuos commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. This is why we read the Ten Commandments Shavuos morning[4]. There’s actually a disagreement in the gemarra[5] what day the Torah was given. The Rabbis say that the Torah was given on the sixth of Sivan, whereas Rabbi Yossi says that it was given on the seventh of Sivan. What is the basis for their argument?

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Vayigash 5777

To approach or not to approach, that is the question[1]

ויגש אליו יהודה ויאמר בי אדני ידבר-נא עבדך דבר באזני אדני ואל-יחר אפך בעבדך כי כמוך כפרעה
And Yehudah approached [Yosef] and he said: “Please my Master, let your servant speak something in the ears of my Master, and don’t be mad with your servant, because you are like Pharaoh”[2]

The sons of Yaakov hadn’t yet caught on that their long-lost brother Yosef is the viceroy of Egypt. Binyomin was just caught “stealing” the cup of Yosef[3], and has been sentenced to life as a slave. The brothers felt hopeless; how can they return to their father without his most beloved son? Yehudah mustered up the courage to approach Yosef for a final confrontation. The Torah uses a unique phrase to describe this act: ויגש, to approach. This phrase appeared earlier in the Chumash with Avraham[4]: Hashem had just informed Avraham that He intended to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Amorah. Avraham couldn’t allow this to happen, and the Torah says ויגש אברהם ויאמר, and Avraham approached and spoke. He tried his best to convince Hashem to change His mind, but no to avail.

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Toldos 5777

The Answered Prayer[1]

ויעתר יצחק לה’ לנכח אשתו כי עקרה היא ויעתר לו יקוק ותהר רבקה אשתו
Yitzchak entreated to Hashem, opposite his wife, because she was barren. Hashem was appeased and Rivka his wife conceived[2]

We can learn many things about prayer from this verse. First, the Torah uses an unusual word for prayer, ויעתר. Usually it uses a word like ויתפלל, translated as prayed, or ויצעק, he cried out. What does the verb here mean? Rashi explains[3] it denotes increase; a large amount. Yitzchak and Rivka didn’t just pray; they prayed a lot. They desperately wanted children, and weren’t letting up. They weren’t taking no for an answer. Rashi also explains it denotes pleading, begging and convincing. It sounds like Hashem didn’t want to give them children, and they had to convince Him to change His mind. The question is, why should that be? More on that later. Rabbeinu Bachaye3 gives a few more explanations of the word ויעתר, based on the Midrash. One explanation it is based off the word עתר, to overturn. Through the power of prayer, Yitzchak was able to overturn his fate. That is what prayer generally is: it’s the power to change nature. Despite the fact that Rivka was barren, the prayer worked.

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