130831 – Parshi’ot NeTzavim & VaYeLech

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VORTIFY YOURSELF

Torah WritingReb Yosil Rosenzweig

rebyosil@gmail.com

PARSHI’OT NETZAVIM/VAYELECH

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 29:9-31:30

Haftarah – Isaiah 61:10-63:9

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In the second Parsha of the two Parshi’ot read this week, Moshe Rabbeinu passes the mantle of leadership to his faithful disciple Yehoshu’a and Moshe steps aside and allows Yehoshu’a to guide Am Yisra’el. HaShem asks Moshe to summon Yehoshu’a to the entrance of the Ohel Mo’ed so that they might receive instruction together.

HaShem tells them that after Moshe passes away, Am Yisra’el will forsake the Torah and HaShem will conceal His Face from them, and great suffering will ensue.

The Torah therefore commands that Am Yisra’el should: “Kitvu Lachem Et Hashirah HaZot, V’Limdu Et B’nei Yisra’el, Simah B’Fihem, Liman Ti’hiyu Li Hashirah HaZot, L’Ayd BiB’nei Yisra’el – Write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the B’nei Yisra’el, place it in their mouths, so that this song shall be for Me a witness, against the B’nei Yisra’el” (Devarim 31:19).

HaShem requires every Jew to write a Sefer Torah (Kitvu Lachem Et Hashirah HaZot) in order to recall the covenant and the responsibility of that covenant with HaShem.

HaShem refers to the Torah as Shirah, literally ‘the song’. Song is perhaps a bad translation. In Hebrew, Shirah can mean song or poem. I believe that poem would be more accurate. This gives us great insight into what the Torah is and how we are to relate to it.

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, commonly known as the NeTZIV (1817-1893) presents a beautiful explanation of this thought. He writes that scripture is commonly viewed as prose and therefore taken literally. However, if we relate to the Torah as poetry, then the purpose of the Torah Sh’Ba’al Peh (the oral Torah), becomes clear – to illuminate and clarify the meaning

behind text.

For instance, when we read in the Torah that our matriarch Sara lived for “one hundred years and twenty years and seven years,” its unusual phrasing alludes to a deeper meaning. The Torah is sending us a message that at the age of one hundred, she was as sinless as a twenty year old. At twenty, she had the innocent beauty of a seven year old.

When we look at the Torah as prose, we often get bogged down in the validity and conflicting interpretations of Torah Sh’Ba’al Peh. But when we see it as poetry, Torah Sh’Ba’al Peh adds dimension and a wide spectrum of meaning to each and every word.

The verse that teaches us this is in itself a classic example of the opportunity to see deeper than just the words. The MaLBIM (acronym for Meir Leibush ben Yechi’el Michel, 1809-1879) asks why the Torah says “Liman Ti’hiyu Li L’Ayd BiB’nei Yisra’el (so that this song shall be for Me a witness, against the B’nei Yisra’el”). On first reading, one might understand from these words that when the B’nei Yisra’el stray from the Torah, the Torah itself will testify against them. As prose, this seems to be the meaning behind the words. But does HaShem need a witness to govern the universe?

The MaLBIM explains with a parable. A king frees one of his subjects who was imprisoned for theft and appoints him to guard his treasury. Since the king knew that by nature this man was prone to thievery, and it was safe to assume that he might steal again; the king chronicled the appointment in full detail.

The other citizens believed that the king did so to warn the former thief, that if he ever stole in the future, he would be put to death for stealing from the king is an act of treason. But actually, the king’s reason for writing it all down was to remind himself, that if this man was ever caught stealing, the king should be lenient with him, for he should have known better than to appoint him keeper of the treasury.

So, too, does HaShem record here: “So that this song shall be for Me a witness, against the B’nei Yisra’el“. The King of kings asks that this poetry be recorded, with all its nuances and all its meanings so that the King will always be aware of our shortcomings and act in a Merciful manner towards us.

Those who study the Torah as prose, view HaShem as a Vengeful G-d. Those who study the Torah as poetry; view HaShem as a Merciful G-d. At the approach of the Yamim Nora’im (the Days of Awe), when we beseech HaShem to be merciful with us, may we have the insight to see the poetry of His Torah.

Shabbat Shalom and may you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.

Reb Yosil

130803 – Parshat Re’ay

Beggar********************

VORTIFY YOURSELF

Reb Yosil Rosenzweig

rebyosil@gmail.com

PARSHAT RE’AY

Devarim (Deut.) 11:26-16:17

Haftarah – Isaiah 61:10-63:9

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Because we suffered continuous religious persecutions since the destruction of our second Temple (in 70 C.E.), the Jews have become tolerant of other religions. However, this was not always the case. In ancient times, the world was very tolerant of others’ religions; people thought that gods were territorial, when one left the boundaries of ones’ own gods’ influence; he entered the confines of new gods. Being tolerant of other religions was a necessary survival technique. One never knew when the gods of another territory would come in handy. What was always important was not to upset the local gods.

Along came the Jewish people who antagonized the world by preaching that not only was their

G-d invisible and all-powerful, but their G-d was the only legitimate G-d. The ancient Jews were not very popular among the nations because they rejected any and all tolerance for the worship of wood, stone and natural phenomenon.

This obsession with the pursuit of religious truth finds its source in this week’s Parsha: “You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations that you are driving away worshiped their gods; on the high mountains and on the hills, and under every leafy tree. You shall break apart their altars; you shall smash their pillars; you shall burn their sacred trees in fire; you shall cut down their carved images; and you shall obliterate their sacred names from that place” (Devarim 12 2-3).

In ancient times, when one nation conquered another nation, it would try not to destroy the vanquished nation’s religious sites and objects. The conquering nation often used these edifices (which were usually beautifully constructed and very ornate), for their own purposes. The fact that the nation of Israel had to destroy the Temples, the idols and the religious symbols of the former inhabitants, was a revolutionary concept.

Our Parsha explains that HaShem declared that the seven nations occupying Eretz Yisra’el (the Land of Israel) had no right to worship as they pleased. Eretz Yisra’el had to be emancipated from any religious pollutants. Whether conquered or driven out, the non-Jewish resident aliens or wayfarers had no right to worship their gods or practice their religious beliefs while on this holy ground. To make sure that these religious places and symbols did not infiltrate the conquering society, they had to be – “destroyed,” “broken apart,” “smashed,” “burnt,” “cut down,” and “obliterated.” Any and all traces of these artifacts had to be eradicated lest they influence the Jewish population.

But all this destruction had a price. The very next verse reads: “You shall not do this to HaShem, your G-d” (12:4).

RaShI (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, France, 1040 – 1105) teaches us three different lessons:

  1. Offerings to HaShem can only be presented from the Mishkan (Tabernacle), or later, from the place that HaShem designates (the Temple on Mt. Mori’ah in Jerusalem).
  2. It is forbidden to obliterate the name of HaShem. For this reason we do not write His name (G-d) unrestrictedly so that (if the page is thrown away, discarded or desecrated) His name will not be erased.
    • RaShI brings a Sifri (a Halachic [legal] Midrash [interpretation] of the Books of BaMidbar [Numbers] and Devarim) that warns: “Rabbi Ishmael said: Would one even think that the Israelites would destroy their own religious places and artifacts? Rather, do not do anything that would CAUSE your religious places TO BE DESTROYED.”

Rabbi Ishmael asks if one could imagine Israel doing such a terrible thing. But in the history of our nation and in the very days of Rabbi Ishmael, such things did happen. Our Temple was desecrated by Hellenist Jews bringing in Greek idols and offering non-kosher animals as sacrifices (during the Chanukah period of our history). Rabbi Ishmael knew very well that terrible acts of desecration were committed by the Sadducees during the Roman period. Even recently, in modern Israel, acts of desecration are perpetrated by Jews against Jews and their religious institutions. Rabbi Ishmael, who was martyred by the Romans and whose miserable death was cheered on by Jews who were Roman sympathizers, knew full well what Jews were capable of. How could he say, “Would one even think that the Israelites would destroy their own religious places and artifacts?”

I found an interesting answer to this question from Rabbi Ya’acov Haber formerly of Melbourne, Australia, who mentions that the first Halacha in the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law) is: “…if the performance of a Mitzvah will embarrass you (for example, praying Mincha [afternoon prayers] on a public highway, or saying grace at a board meeting, perhaps sporting a Kipa [skull-cap] at your place of work), you should still do it.

However, the Mishnah Berurah [an updated version of the code – written by the Chafetz Chaim – Rabbi Yisra’el Meir HaKohen Kagen, 1838-1933] quotes the Beit Yosef [Rabbi Yosef Caro, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, 1488-1575] as saying that, ‘…one should not go out of their way to antagonize people even in the performance of a Mitzvah (for example, deliberately praying Mincha on a public highway when it is unnecessary), since that will give one’s personality the characteristic of Chutzpa (insolence) [in the words of the Beit Yosef] YiK’neh B’Nafsho Midat HaAzut (one’s soul will acquire the characteristic of insolence), which will then be used for less than noble purposes’ ” Reachings – Talks on Torah, page 172).

What Rabbi Haber means is if one performs Mitzvot either in an antagonizing manner or specifically to antagonize, then that behavior will continue in non-Mitzvot situations which will be destructive.

When I lived in Israel, I served in the Israeli Army reserves. During my short basic training (I was 35 years old, married with 3 children and established in business) I served with other immigrants from similar backgrounds and ages. Clearly one-third of our group was religious and many were from the “ultra-orthodox” camp.

I began noticing that the more physically challenging and strenuous our training got, the more our sophisticated and personally disciplined group began to act in a boorish manner. Our characters began to change, we began using rough and profane language, and sometimes we behaved in a manner that would have been unacceptable in polite society. I realized that in civilian life, we suppress certain feelings, desires and forces, but in the army those very forces are encouraged and relied upon. The increase in physical activity and extreme conditions had a powerfully negative effect on us. As civilized human beings and religious Jews, we were forced to keep ourselves in check, otherwise we were capable of Chutzpa (unbecoming behavior).

This is what Moshe was saying to us. Am Yisra’el (the nation of Israel) will spend considerable time conquering the land and making it suitable for Jewish existence. In the process, we might become crass and boorish, which would make us insensitive to one another.

In the post Holocaust era, Am Yisra’el also had to lift itself up out of the ashes. A state had to be founded, and wars unfortunately had to be fought. The battles for independence were conducted in the Sinai desert, the Galilee and on the West Bank. But there were other battles that Am Yisra’el also fought spiritual battles in America and in the Soviet Union, on campuses in Berkeley and Jerusalem, in the suburbs of our great cities and in the outposts of Siberia and in the disengagement of Gaza. Our leadership spoke about tolerance and acted with intolerance, decried injustice and meted out inequity. We expounded community and acted as segregationists. And today Eretz Yisra’el has become our battleground for self-righteous and self-centeredness.

It is one thing to understand a problem and another to rectify it. That is the real Tikkun Olam (world rectification) that very few of us are attempting. We must demand dialogue among our Rabbis and lay leaders. When we use these hidden and subdued forces within us they take a toll on how we think and how we behave. Our very souls have become inundated with self-righteous insolence and we aren’t even aware of it.

Moshe is warning us to be very careful with the use of necessary force. While it was imperative to destroy the idols and the holy places of the Canaanite nations, he cautioned us that those forces could also be used against each other and against HaShem. Even today, as we battle for our homeland and for the very souls of our brethren, we must use extreme caution. Otherwise, the results can be tragic.

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

130727 – Parshat Ekev

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VORTIFY YOURSELF

SiddurReb Yosil Rosenzweig

rebyosil@gmail.com

PARSHAT EKEV

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 7:12-11:25

Haftarah – Isaiah 49:14-51:3

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We have been selected against our will to be players in the game of life. Right from the very beginning, the “conspiracy” began. The first humans, created in the idyllic Garden of Eden, were expelled because they exercised their powers of free choice improperly. Life after the Garden entailed making choices for right or for wrong.

In the ten generations from Adam to No’ach (Noah), mankind generally chose improperly and a new world was formed. After that time, all of mankind was required to live by a set of seven laws, the “Seven No’achide Mitzvot [Commandments]” that became and still is the basis for all human behaviour: 1. Belief in G-d, 2. Do not murder, 3. Do not steal, 4. Do not commit adultery, 5. Do not blaspheme, 6. Setup a court system, 7. You must kill mammals before eating them.

In the ten generations from No’ach to Avraham (Abraham) again, the world chose improperly. The former single world-wide nation became splintered into seventy different nations and languages and dispersed around the planet. Avraham and his future offspring were “chosen” to be the examples of how to choose correctly.

After receiving the Ten Utterances (Commandments), the Torah (with its 613 Mitzvot) and after spending 40 years in the desert absorbing the Torah and its many regulations and lessons, the Children of Israel thought themselves ready. But prior to Moshe’s death, just as Am Yisra’el (the Nation of Israel) was about to enter Eretz Yisra’el (the Land of Israel), he gave four discourses of admonition to his flock, so that they might learn from mankind’s history and from their own, how to LIVE successfully in Eretz Yisra’el. And it is here, in his second discourse that Moshe makes known the essence of the Torah.

In chapter 10 verses 12 – 13, Moshe rephrases the nature of the Torah into just a few words: “And now Israel, what does HaShem your G-d demand of you? Only this: to revere HaShem your G-d, to go in His ways, and to love Him and to serve HaShem your G-d with all your heart and soul. To guard the commandments of HaShem and His statutes, which I enjoin upon you today, for your own good.”

Two very important teachings are learnt from these verses. RaShI (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, France, 1040 – 1105) cites the famous ChaZaL (Rabbinical teaching) from the Talmud (Berachot 33) based on these verses: “All is in the hands of Heaven – except the reverence of Heaven.”

Mankind can only serve HaShem properly if it has reverence for Him. No matter what situation one faces one must first have a sense of reverence for HaShem in order to be able to choose correctly. Without it, one may be swayed either by the temptation of the action or by the fear of punishment (which isn’t really free choice). Only a highly developed sense of reverence allows one to exercise true free will.

The second lesson, reciting 100 blessings per day, was incorporated into the Seven Mitzvot of the Rabbis (while the Rabbi’s enacted thousands of ordinances within the framework of Jewish Halachah [law], only seven had the same standing as G-d given commandments. They are:

  1. Lighting candles prior to Shabbat and holidays,
  2. Lighting candles each night of Chanukah,
  3. Reading the Scroll of Esther on Purim,
  4. Giving gifts of food and charity on Purim,
  5. The use of an ERUV [to carry on Shabbat, or to cook on a festival in preparation for Shabbat],
  6. Reciting Hallel on Holidays and New Moons,
  7. Reciting 100 blessings per day.

The Talmud (Tractate Menachot 43) records: “…every person (Jew) is obligated to recite 100 blessings per day, because it says [in the Torah] ‘And now Israel, what does HaShem your G-d demand of you?’ “RaShI comments: “when the Torah wrote “Mah” (what – does HaShem…) read instead Me’ah (100).”

In other words, instead of reading: “And now Israel, what does HaShem your G-d demand of you?”  

One should read, “And now Israel, 100 does HaShem your G-d demand of you?”

The Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter, 1847-1905, the second Gerer Rebbe and leader of Polish Jewry) commented on this Rabbinical Commandment: “Since everything that happens to mankind, stems from a blessing from HaShem, the more one is reverent [of HaShem] and fortified [by the performance of His Mitzvot], the more one can connect to His blessings” (The Crowns of the Torah, by A.I. Greenberg, page 72).

By making at least 100 blessings per day, we become aware of the many blessings that HaShem showers upon us. The more we are aware of how many blessings we receive, the more appreciative we become of all the good that comes our way.

A decade ago, my parents, Jacob and Helen Rosenzweig celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary. Gathered around the Shabbat table we ate, we sang, and we related stories of the many blessings that HaShem has provided us. My father (who also just turned 93 years of age) told the story of how he approached a wealthy man in our community and asked him to sponsor an upcoming Kiddush (a post prayer light reception during which we bless HaShem and sanctify the Shabbat or Holiday). The man pointed at others eating herring and asked my father why he didn’t ask any of those people to sponsor the Kiddush.

My father told him that HaShem created two types of Jews. To one group He gave check books, so they could write as many checks as they desired and none would ever bounce. To the other group, He provided as much herring as they desired. My father told this wealthy man that if he was unhappy with the check book, he could trade it in for some herring. Put in this light, the man happily agreed to provide for as many Kiddushim as were needed.

Also a decade back my wife Kathy (A”H) had a very difficult time before and after receiving Chemotherapy during this post Shabbat Nachamu week. In a car ride home, she said to me that she was so happy that it was she who was ill and not me or any of our children. It reminded us of the story of the grandfather of the present Belzer Rebbe, who was born with a “clubbed foot”. The child’s parents made an arrangement with the parents of a young girl that their children would be wed after the girl reached Bat Mitzvah. Never having met each other, they accepted their Mazal (fate) with the assurance that their parents were looking out for their best interests.

On the day of the wedding, as guests were beginning to arrive, the bride looked out her window and was shown her groom walking down the road. When she saw that he had a deformity, she refused to marry the young man. Her parents and the parents of the groom pleaded with her to no avail. The synagogue was filling quickly and still she refused to marry this cripple. When all seemed lost, the young man asked to speak to his BASHERT (fated one). He entered the room, and a few minutes later he left informing everyone that the musicians should begin playing the processional. The future Rebbe and his Rebbetzin lived for sixty years together.

At the Shiva (seven days of mourning) after her funeral, the Rebbe was asked by one of his Chassidim (disciples) what was said in the room sixty years before. Never having spoken of the incident, the Rebbe surprised everyone when he began to explain that he had told his bride that before either of them were born, a heavenly decree proclaimed that they would be married. It also proclaimed that SHE would be born with a clubbed foot. He made an arrangement in heaven that he would suffer the clubbed foot instead of her. He told her that she didn’t have to marry him, but, she would have to take her foot. When confronted with his sacrifice, she realized that what seemed like a curse was actually a blessing.

All of these stories illustrate how reverence for HaShem allows one to appreciate the many blessings that HaShem bestows. The wealthy man who felt perturbed by the fact that he was always being asked to provide for others, did so with joy when confronted with the reality of his blessings. Similarly, my wife surprised me with her statement of her joy in accepting her illness rather than HER illness afflicting one of her loved ones.

In order to see HaShem’s many blessings we must bless Him so that we can literally, “count our Blessings.” Every time we pray, or make a blessing before or after we eat food, or see a rainbow, or witness a beautiful landscape, we become conscious of the great gifts that He bestows upon us.

HaShem doesn’t need our blessings, we do. Those, whose attitude toward life is negative, are unaware of the many blessings that surround them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

130720 – Parshat V’Etchanan

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VORTIFY YOURSELF

imagesReb Yosil Rosenzweig

rebyosil@gmail.com

PARSHAT V’ETCHANAN

Devarim 3:23 – 7:11

SHABBAT NACHAMU

Haftarah – Isaiah 40:1-26

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This Saturday night and Sunday, the 14th of Av is the second Yahrtzeit of my dear mother Helen Rosenzweig – Chayah bat R’ Shmu’el HaKohen. If my parents would still be alive, this Shabbat would have been their 67th wedding anniversary. This week’s “Vort” is dedicated to their memory. Tehi Nishmateihem Tzerura B’Tzror HaChaim– May their souls be bound up in the Bond of Life.

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The Book of Devarim was originally called Mishna Torah – the second Torah (hence Deuteronomy – in Greek). It was Moshe Rabbeinu’s review of the laws that the Bnei Yisrael would need to keep close to their hearts in order to successfully live in Eretz Yisra’el.

If you think about it, that is a phenomenal statement. It is not logical that the behavior of a people should affect their ability to live on a particular parcel of land. What has moral or spiritual behavior to do with the ability of a nation and a land to coexist? Yet Moshe Rabbeinu writes an entire fifth book of the Torah just to get this point across.

Historically, whenever we have forsaken our Torah lifestyle for a more modern approach to life, our political and social assurance faltered and eventually led to exile. This happened prior to the conquests of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans, in whose exile we find ourselves today.

Our Parsha this week brings home this point. The relationship between Eretz Yisrael, Am Yisrael and Hashem supersedes logic and rationale. Moshe tells Am Yisra’el in every generation: “When you shall have children and grandchildren and will have lived long upon the land, you will become corrupt, worship graven images and do evil in the eyes of HaShem and provoke Him.

Today I will call to witness against you the heavens and the earth (signs of eternity) that you will quickly perish from off the land… which you possess, and your days will not be prolonged but will be destroyed. And HaShem will scatter you among the nations and you will become few in number” (Devarim 4:25-27).

Moshe’s admonition continues: “…since the day that Hashem created man on Earth, and from one end of the heavens to the other, has anything as great been done or heard of? Did ever a nation hear the voice of HaShem as you have speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived? Or has any god taken a nation from the midst of another nation, by way of trials, signs and wonders, with a Mighty Hand and an Outstretched Arm and with awesome greatness, as HaShem your G-d did for you in Egypt? For unto you it was shown, so that you may know that HaShem, He is G-d, there is none other, but Him alone” (Ibid 4:32-35).

To me, the challenge made in the above verses is remarkable. The concept of a nation witnessing together, the direct intervention of Hashem’s obvious power, is unique to Judaism. In the Far East, major philosophies and religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism have come to light since Matan Torah. In the west, Christianity and Islam have both attempted to invalidate Judaism and have taken the world by storm. And what do they all have in common? They are all based on a single individual’s (or small group of individuals) account of some miraculous event.

Our tradition is not based on Moshe’s testimony. Our ancestors actually witnessed the mighty Hand of G-d. For those of you who are familiar with the Pesach Haggadah, you might consider that the reason that Moshe’s name is never mentioned in the entire recounting of the Exodus is because he was just one of millions of witnesses to the power and glory of HaShem. We commemorate Tisha B’Av, because we experienced the exile and our fall from glory. When we celebrate Pesach we keep our own collective memories alive.

Every day on the calendar conjures up national memories that we experienced, whether it is the Shabbat, Pesach, Shavu’ot or Sukkot. Whether Purim or Chanukah, the five fast days or even Tu B’Av, we are reminded that our faith is based on national experiences and not upon individual accounts.

Our Parsha connects the Aseret HaDibrot – the Ten Utterances (commonly mistranslated as the Ten Commandments) with Shema Yisra’el – Israel’s twice daily declaration of faith. These two recollections will never allow our nation to forget all that Hashem has done for us. We are the remnant of witnesses who have refused to give up our memories for the fantasies of other religions.

Moshe, before he dies, attempts to remind us that yes, we are a Chosen People and yes, our task is to bear the flame that must inspire humanity. Our Parsha confronts us with the enigmas of Torah and faith. Not everything is logical, not everything makes scientific sense. But if the truth be told, our brightness is dependent on Eretz Yisra’el. And when we do not shine, the land rejects us. This doesn’t make sense, it’s not true for other nations, yet, the heavens and earth have born witness to this phenomenon.

Am Yisra’el is likened to the stars of the heavens and we are also likened to the grains of sand upon the earth. We, the Jewish people, are the witnesses to history. We have seen it all. And we retain the collective memories of the millions of Jews who came before us. Each one of us is a star that contains so much power but appears to be just a flicker of light.

Our Haftarah concludes with the words of Isaiah: “Lift up your eyes on high, and see, Who created these? He that brings forth their numbers and calls each by name. Through His might and His strength, not even one shall fall.

Shine on Am Yisrael, shine on.

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

Parshat VaYelech/Shabbat Shuvah

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VORTIFY YOURSELF

Reb Yosil Rosenzweig

rebyosil@gmail.com

PARSHAT VAYELECH

SHABBAT SHUVAH

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 31:1-30

Haftarah – Hosea 14:2-10; Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-27

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The Shabbat before Yom Kippur is called “Shabbat Shuvah – the Sabbath of Return” because the opening words of the Haftarah begin, “Shuvah Yisra’el Ahd HaShem Elokecha, – Return O Israel to HaShem your God” (Hosea 14:2). By transgressing HaShem’s commandments, we distance ourselves from Him. At this special time between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we should take advantage of this auspicious time to return to our higher calling and renew our covenant with HaShem by aligning ourselves to His commandments.

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In our Parsha this week Moshe Rabbeinu passes the mantle of leadership to his faithful disciple Yehoshu’a (Joshua), and Moshe steps aside and allows Yehoshu’a to guide Am Yisra’el – the nation of Israel. HaShem asks Moshe to summon Yehoshu’a to the entrance of the Ohel Mo’ed (Tabernacle) so that they might receive instruction together. HaShem tells them that after Moshe passes away, Am Yisra’el will forsake the Torah and HaShem will conceal His Face from them and great suffering will ensue.

HaShem therefore commands Am Yisra’el to: “Kitvu Lachem Et HaShirah HaZot, V’Limdu Et B’nei Yisra’el, Simah B’Fihem, Liman Ti’hiyu Li HaShirah HaZot, L’Eid BiB’nei Yisra’el – Write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the B’nei Yisra’el, place it in their mouths, so that this song shall be for Me a witness, against the B’nei Yisra’el” (Devarim 31:19). HaShem requires of every Jew to write a Sefer Torah (Kitvu Lachem Et HaShirah HaZot) in order to recall the covenant and the responsibility of that covenant between them and HaShem.

HaShem refers to the Torah as Shirah, commonly translated as ‘the song’ however, song is perhaps a bad translation. In Hebrew, Shirah can mean song or poem. A song has two parts, the music and the lyrics. Music would be referred to as Zimra; while the lyrics would be referred to a Shirah; therefore I believe that poem would be more accurate. This gives us great insight into what the Torah is and how we are to relate to it.

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, commonly known as the NeTZIV (1817-1893) presents a beautiful explanation of this thought. He writes that scripture is commonly viewed as prose and therefore taken literally. However, if we relate to the Torah as poetry, then the purpose of the Torah Sh’Ba’al Peh (the oral Torah – a much needed organic understanding of the Torah), becomes clear, it illuminates and clarifies the meaning behind text by nuances: a change in spelling; awkward words or phrases; different sizes of letters; even meanings not visible in translations. Prose is literal, poetry is expansive.

For instance, when we read in the Torah that our matriarch Sarah lived for “one hundred years and twenty years and seven years” (Bereishit – Genesis 23:1), the unusual phrasing (100 + 20 + 7 years) is unusual and therefore alludes to a deeper meaning. The Torah is sending us a message that at the age of one hundred, Sarah had the beauty of a twenty year old and at twenty she had the innocence of a seven year old. When we look at the Torah as prose, we often gloss over the text. But when we view it as poetry, our oral tradition adds dimension and a wide spectrums of meaning to each and every word.

The verse that teaches us this is in itself a classic example of the opportunity to see deeper than just the words. The MaLBIM (acronym for Meir Leibush ben Yechi’el Michel, 1809-1879) asks why the Torah says “so that this song shall be for Me a witness, against the Children of Israel.” On first reading, one might understand from these words that when the Israel strays from the Torah, the Torah itself will testify against them. As prose, this seems to be HaShem’s intent. But does HaShem need a witness to govern the universe?

The MaLBIM explains with a parable. A king frees one of his subjects who was imprisoned for theft and appoints him to guard his treasury. Since the king knew that by nature this man was prone to thievery, and it was safe to assume that he might steal again, the king chronicled the appointment in full detail. The citizens believed that the king did so to warn the former thief, that if he ever stole in the future he would be put to death, for stealing from the king is an act of treason. But actually, the king’s reason for writing it all down was to remind himself, that if this man was ever caught stealing; the king should be lenient with him, for he should have known better than to appoint a thief as keeper of the treasury. So, too, HaShem records here: “So that this poem shall be for Me a witness, against the Children of Israel.” The King of kings proclaims that this poetry be recorded, with all its nuances and all its meanings so that God will always be aware of our shortcomings and act towards us in a merciful manner.

Those who study the Old Testament as prose, view HaShem as a Vengeful God. However, those who study the Torah as poetry, view HaShem as a Merciful God. On this Shabbat Shuvah – the Sabbath of return when we read the words of Micah 14:2, 3 and 6: “Return, O Israel, unto the Lord your God, for you have fallen because of your sins. Take words with you and return to the Lord…I will heal their affliction, and I will take them back generously in love; for My anger has turned away from them.” At the approach of Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement, when we beseech HaShem to be merciful with us, may we have the insight to see the poetry of His Torah.

Shabbat Shalom.

Reb Yosil

120908 – Parshat Ki Tavo

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VORTIFY YOURSELF

Reb Yosil Rosenzweig

rebyosil@gmail.com

PARSHAT KI TAVO

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 26:1-29:8

Haftarah – Isaiah 60:1-22

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A hefty portion of this week’s Parsha (Torah Portion) deals with the terrifying Tochacha (the admonition by the priests to the Nation of Israel). Joshua is instructed that upon entering the promised land, he is to bring the 12 tribes to the city of Shechem and there split them into two groups of six tribes; Shimon, Levi, Yehuda, Yissachar, Yosef and Binyamin should stand on Mt. Gerizim, and the tribes of Re’uven, Gad, Asher, Zevulon, Dan and Naphtali should stand on the neighboring mountain, Mt. Eival (Devarim 11:29-30).

Between them, in the valley, the Kohanim (the priests) and the elders of the Levites would proclaim a series of blessings and curses, to each of which the assembled tribes on both mountains would respond with “Amen.”

The Book of Devarim primarily reviews the requirements for the nation of Israel to live successfully in the Land of Israel. A healthy relationship between the nation and the land will depend on Am Yisra’el living by the standards that Moshe established based on the revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. The blessings: if Am Yisra’el lives by the Torah, the rains will fall in its proper time; the people will grow prosperous; social justice will prevail in the land; the poor and the helpless will live in dignity; Israel will be socially, politically and militarily strong; therefore, Israel’s enemies will fear her and peace will reign upon the land and the people. However, there are also the curses: if Am Yisra’el does not live by the Torah, the rains will not fall and crops will fail and the land will become desolate; the nation will live with economic strife; social justice will be absent from the people; the poor and the helpless will live in misery; Israel will be become weak; Israel’s enemies will believe that God has forsaken them and find her attractive; war will ensue throughout the land and the people will be taken into exile and experience terrible treatment.

Though this seems preposterous, our history has proven these words to be true. Regardless of how much we don’t believe that there is a relationship between our behavior and the ability for the land to prosper, our history has shown us that we have actually lived during times of blessings and times of curses; we have flourished in spectacular golden ages throughout the planet and have been decimated by incomprehensible calamities bat the hands of our enemies. Therefore it is imperative to know that as bright or as dark as reality can get, HaShem is always present and has been the lifeline of Jews throughout our history.

Rabbi Ovadiya Yosef (former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel), maintains in his commentary on the Passover Haggadah that the verse “…then will come the LOST from the land of Ashur (Assyria) and the BROKEN from the land of Mitzra’im (Egypt); they [all] shall prostrate themselves to HaShem on the holy mountain in Jerusalem” (Isaiah 27:13) refers to how Jews fare during times of peace and prosperity and during turmoil and strife.

The root words of the two countries described in the above quotation are symbolic of our Jewish reality. Ashur (Assyria) has the same root as the word Ashir – which means wealth. A reoccurring phenomenon in Jewish history is that when we live in peace, prosperity and religious freedom we tend to “lose” our Jewish identity to the over self-confidence that freedom and opportunity generate and we become “LOST” to our heritage. The root of Mitzra’im (the country of Egypt) on the other hand represents Tzar – which means suffering. When we live in countries that try to “break” us and deny our religious freedoms, we again become decimated and lose our spiritual identities, this time because our backs are “BROKEN” by the yoke of oppression and the lack of religious freedom.

Actually, both the realities of Ashur and Mitzra’im are two sides of the same coin. It is not only the oppression of the former Soviet Union that almost wiped out an entire generation of Jews, our willful escape from Jewish life and culture in freedom loving countries also almost annihilated an entire generation. Ironically, the freedoms afforded Jews living in the western world should have assured our existence. On the contrary, the Jewish communities of the western world have come close to a total demise of our culture while at the same time experiencing the unlimited freedom to openly explore our Jewishness. So the prophet tells us that both groups – the affluent and the oppressed – wait for the messianic moment when they will prostrate themselves to HaShem on His holy mountain.

What is the formula for success? How do we withstand the blessings and endure the curses? I once heard a story from Rabbi Yechi’el Spero, a cousin of my late wife, that may help shed light on this wonder.

A certain man survived the holocaust, came to America and started his life over again. He married, raised a family of five young men and lived to see them all marry and establish decent Jewish homes. Prior to the wedding of his fifth son, one of his other son’s came to him and said, “father I know that you suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazi’s and that you lost your entire family, but every day you go about your business groaning “AYY AYY.” Not only that, but when all of us got married and you were asked to say a few words at the weddings, again you started with the words “AYY AYY.” Father, count your blessings, be grateful that you are prosperous and have a family. Get over your sorrow and don’t agonize at the marriage of your youngest son about what once was.”

The father took in the words of his son and replied. “It is true that I suffered greatly during the holocaust. When the Nazi’s took over our village, we were forced to dig a huge pit. Then we were stripped and forced to stand in this mass-grave and the Nazi’s with great merriment began shooting their sub-machine guns at us. My father and mother, all my sisters and brothers were killed, but I was not even grazed. After dark when the Germans finally left, I snuck out of the mass grave and hid in the forest.

“Eventually I was captured and brought to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. There I met a few friends from Yeshiva (religious school) and we decided that we would not allow these murderers to break us. A small group of us pledged to each other that come what may, whenever we would meet, we would say over a ‘Vort’ (a word of Torah). One day an SS officer overheard us speaking and beat to the edge of death and we were forbidden to speak Torah again.

“We then began just relaying to each other just the sources to the Torah commentaries to remind each other of Torah that we had previously been taught. Again we were caught and beaten severely. So we devised another plan. This time we would relay to each other the six most important concepts of Judaism in an abbreviated form. The six concepts are:

1. A – Ahavat HaShem – the love of God.

2. Y – Yirat HaShem – the fear (awe) of God.

3. Y – Yichud HaShem – the Unity of God.

4. A – Ahavat Yisra’el – the love of Israel.

5. Y – YiKadesh Shemo B’Rabim – sanctifying His Name publicly.

6. Y – Yeish Elokai Mima’al – there is a God above.

“These six ideas are what kept us alive during those terrible years. Every time we saw each other we said, “AYY AYY” and calmly declared our faith to HaShem in the terror of Bergen-Belsen. And the truth is that these six ideas are what have always kept the Jewish people alive in war and in peace. So even though I was liberated and began my life anew, I never forgot “AYY AYY.” I say it every day, not as a groan of sorrow but as a focus for living.”

Some of us only focus on “the LOST…and the BROKEN,” but those who somehow find the strength and courage to survive both the blessings and the curses of wealth and oppression, focus on He who oversees our destiny.

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil Rosenzweig

120818 – Parshat Re’eh – Shabbat Rosh Chodesh

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VORTIFY YOURSELF

Reb Yosil Rosenzweig

rebyosil@gmail.com

PARSHAT  RE’EH

SHABBAT ROSH CHODESH

Devarim (Deut.) 11:26-16:17

Haftarah – Isaiah 66:1 – 66:24

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As a result of the Jewish people suffering continuous religious persecution since the destruction of our second Temple (in 70 C.E.), Jews have become tolerant of other faiths and religions. However, this was not always the case. In ancient times, most of the world was very tolerant of other religions. People believed that gods were territorial, therefore when one left the boundaries of ones’ own gods’ influence; one therefore entered into the province of new and unfamiliar gods. Being tolerant of other religions was a necessary survival technique. One never knew when the gods of another territory would become demanding or, benevolent. Tolerance was necessary to not upset the local gods.

Along came the Hebrews who antagonized the world by not only preaching that their G-d was an invisible and all-powerful G-d, but equally important was that their G-d was the only legitimate G-d. The Hebrews were not very popular among the nations because they rejected any and all tolerance for the worship of wood and stone gods and other natural deities.

This obsession with the pursuit of religious truth finds its source in this week’s Parsha. “You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations that you are driving away worshiped their gods; on the high mountains and on the hills, and under every leafy tree. You shall break apart their altars; you shall smash their pillars; you shall burn their sacred trees with fire; you shall cut down their carved images; and you shall obliterate their sacred names from that place” (Devarim 12 2-3).

In ancient times, when one nation conquered another nation, it would try not to destroy the vanquished nation’s religious sites and objects. Just the opposite, the conquering nation often used these edifices which were usually beautifully constructed and very ornate, for their own purposes. The fact that the nation of Israel had to destroy the Temples, the idols and the religious symbols of the former inhabitants, was a revolutionary concept.

Our Parsha explains that HaShem declared that the seven nations occupying Eretz Yisra’el (the Land of Israel) had no right to worship as they pleased. Eretz Yisra’el had to be emancipated from any religious pollutants. Whether conquered or driven out, the non-Jewish resident aliens or wayfarers had no right to worship their gods or practice their own religious beliefs while on this holy ground. To make sure that these religious places and symbols did not infiltrate the conquering Hebrews, they had to be – “destroyed,” “broken apart,” “smashed,” “burnt,” “cut down,” and “obliterated.”  Any and all traces of these artifacts had to be eradicated lest they influence the Jewish population.

But all this destruction had a price. The very next verse reads: “You shall not do this to HaShem, your G-d” (12:4). RaShI (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, France, 1040 – 1105) teaches us three different lessons:

  1. Offerings to HaShem can only be presented from the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and later from the place that HaShem designates (the Temple on Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem).
  2. It is forbidden to obliterate the name of HaShem. For this reason we do not write His name (G-d) unrestrictedly so that if the page is thrown away, discarded or desecrated His name will not be erased.
  3. RaShI brings a Sifri (circa 400 C.E., a Halachic [legal] Midrash [interpretation] of the Books of BaMidbar [Numbers] and Devarim) that warns:
    • “Rabbi Ishmael said: Could one even think that the Israelites would destroy their own religious places and artifacts? To be more precise, do not do anything that would CAUSE your religious places TO BE DESTROYED.”

Rabbi Ishmael asks if one could imagine Israel doing such a terrible thing. But in the history of our nation and in the very days of Rabbi Ishmael, such desecrations did happen. Our Temple was desecrated by Hellenist Jews (during the Chanukah period of our history) by bringing in Greek idols and offering non-kosher animals as sacrifices. Rabbi Ishmael knew very well that terrible acts of desecration were committed by the Sadducees during the Roman period. Even recently, in modern Israel, acts of desecration are perpetrated by Jews against differing Jews and their religious institutions. Rabbi Ishmael, who was martyred by the Romans and whose wretched death was cheered on by Jews who were Roman sympathizers, knew full well what Jews were capable of. How could he say, “Could one even think that the Israelites would destroy their own religious places and artifacts?”

I found an interesting answer to this question from Rabbi Ya’acov Haber formerly of Melbourne, Australia, who mentions that the first Halacha in the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law) is: “…if the performance of a Mitzvah will embarrass you (for example, praying Mincha [afternoon prayers] on a public highway, or saying grace at a board meeting, perhaps even sporting a Kippa [skull-cap] at your work place), you should still do it.

“However, the Mishnah Berurah [an updated version of the code – written by the Chafetz Chaim – Rabbi Yisra’el Meir HaKohen Kagen, 1838-1933] quotes the Beit Yosef [Rabbi Yosef Caro, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, 1488-1575] as saying that, ‘…one should not go out of their way to antagonize people even in the performance of a Mitzvah (for example, deliberately praying Mincha on a public highway when it is unnecessary), since that will give one’s personality the characteristic of Chutzpa (insolence) [in the words of the Beit Yosef] YiK’neh B’Nafsho Midat HaAzut (one’s soul will acquire the characteristic of insolence), which will then be used for less than noble purposes’ ” (Reachings – Talks on Torah, page 172).

What Rabbi Haber means is if one performs Mitzvot either in an antagonizing manner or worse doing so specifically to antagonize, then that behavior will continue in non-Mitzvah situations which will become physiologically and spiritually destructive.

When I lived in Israel, I served in the Israeli Army reserves. During my short basic training (I was 35 years old, married with 3 children and established in business) I served with other immigrants from similar backgrounds and ages. Clearly one-third of our group was religious and many were from the “ultra-orthodox” camp.

During that time I began noticing that the more physically challenging and strenuous our training got, the more our sophisticated and personally disciplined group began to act in a boorish manner. Our character began to change, we began using rough and profane language, and sometimes we behaved in a manner that would have been unacceptable in “religious” society. I realized that in civilian life, we suppress certain feelings, desires and forces, but in the army those very forces are encouraged and relied upon. The increase in physical activity and extreme conditions had a powerfully negative effect on us. As civilized human beings and religious Jews, we were forced to keep ourselves in check otherwise we were capable of Chutzpa (unbecoming behavior).

This is what Moshe was saying to us. Am Yisra’el (the nation of Israel) will spend considerable time conquering the land and making it suitable for a Torah based population. In the process, we might become crass and boorish, which would make us insensitive to one another.

In the post-Holocaust era, Am Yisra’el also had to lift itself up out of the ashes. A state had to be formed and wars unfortunately had to be fought. These battles for independence were fought in the Sinai desert, the Galilee and on the West Bank, but there were other battles that Am Yisra’el also fought: spiritual battles in America and in the Soviet Union; on campuses in Berkeley and Jerusalem; in the suburbs of our great cities; in the outposts of Siberia; and in the disengagement of Gaza. Our leadership spoke about tolerance and acted with intolerance, decried injustice and meted out inequity. We expounded community and acted as segregationists. And today Eretz Yisra’el has become our modern battleground for self-righteousness and self-centeredness.

It is one thing to understand a problem and another to rectify it. That is the real Tikkun Olam (world rectification) that very few of us are attempting. We must demand dialogue among our Rabbis and lay leaders. When we use these hidden and subdued forces within us they take a toll on how we think and how we behave. Our very souls have become inundated with self-righteous insolence that we aren’t even aware of it.

Moshe is warning us to be very careful with the use of necessary force. While it was imperative to destroy the idols and the holy places of the Canaanite nations, he cautioned us that those very same energies could also be used against each other and against HaShem. Even today, as we battle for our homeland and for the very souls of our brethren, we must use extreme caution. Otherwise, the results can be tragic.

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

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