Moshe Rabbeinu spends his final days reviewing and reinforcing the ideas and perspectives necessary to allow the nation of Israel to become a successful, powerful, and strong people. He reminds them to avoid the temptations of idolatry and immorality and to remain true to the tenets of our Torah and relationship with God. Moshe also dispensed a healthy dose of chizuk (positive reinforcement).
“For you are a holy people to the Lord, your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a treasured people for Him, out of all the nations that are upon the earth.” (Devorim 14:2)
God loves us. Not only when we behave or follow His dictates, He loves us all the time. Moshe tells us that failure is inevitable, but he also reminds us that God’s love and commitment to us is constant. God does punish, and there are repercussions for our negative or sinful behaviors, but the Divine love is always present (even if at times it cannot be felt). It is this message which gives us the strength to rebuild in the aftermath of communal and national failure. God forgives, and God loves. Why? Because we are the chosen treasure of our Father Above.
Rashi (Rav Shlomo Yitzchaki 1040-1105) advances a simple yet profound insight:
For you are a holy people: Your holiness stems from your forefathers, and, moreover, “the Lord has chosen you.” – [Sifrei]
Moshe is not simply telling us we are holy; he is explaining that our holiness is innate. Our personal holiness doesn’t only stem from what we do or the choices we make; it is the result of who we are. We are the children of Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka, Yaakov, Rachel, and Leah. We are the descendants of Moshe Rabbeinu and Dovid HaMelech. Holiness is contained in our very life-blood and embedded in our DNA. Moshe Rabbeinu was teaching us that no matter how profoundly we fail or how far we fall, we are still holy. No matter how many times we sin or how many bad choices we make, we are still holy. But how can this be? Haven’t we divested ourselves of our personal holiness? “For you are a holy people, your holiness stems from your forefathers.” There is earned, personal holiness and conferred, national holiness. Earned holiness is the result of our good deeds and positive accomplishments. It is attained through positive actions, but it can be lost through negative or sinful behavior. Conferred holiness is the result of who we are as the Jewish Nation. We are part of a people that is endowed with an irrevocable holiness. Conferred holiness cannot be lost or even compromised. No matter what we do, no matter how badly we mess up, we are still holy. This was the ultimate chizuk and message of hope Moshe was giving to his beloved flock. My dear children, you are holy and will always be holy. Even when you fail, you are holy. Even when you fall, you are holy. It is this holiness that God sees in you, and it is this holiness with which create the unbreakable bond of love between your Creator and you.”
This Shabbos is Shabbos Mevarchim Elul. This last month of the year provides us the opportunity for reflection and introspection. It is during these upcoming days that we ponder our accomplishments and failures of the past year and think about what we want to accomplish and who we want to be in the year to come. All too often, we feel overwhelmingly saddened by our failures and shortcomings. At times, we feel frustrated as the things we resolved to fix this past year are still in a state of disrepair. It is during this sacred, last month of the year that we must remember we are holy. No matter how many failures we encounter or how far we may have fallen, we are still holy. We can squander our personal holiness, but we are always blanketed by our conferred national holiness. Where there is holiness, there is hope, and where there is hope, there are untold possibilities. (Reprinted from 5778)
And it will be, because you will heed these ordinances and keep and perform them, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers.” (Devorim 7:12)
At first glance, it represents a simple, straightforward theme; if we follow the word of God, He will take care of us. The Torah is replete with verses emphasizing the reciprocal nature of our relationship with God. If we are willing to commit our allegiance to the Torah and Mitzvos, God will see that our needs are met. This idea is at the core of our relationship contract with God: You will get out what you are willing to put in. Yet, the famed commentator, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki 1040-1105) highlights an additional dimension of meaning:
“And it will be, because you will heed: Heb. עֵקֶב, lit. heel. If you will heed the minor commandments which one [usually] tramples with his heels [i.e., which a person treats as being of minor importance].”
The Torah uses the word eikev which contextually means “if” but can also mean “heel.” As such, Rashi understands an additional nuanced message, “If we are vigilant with the details which people normally trample upon, there will be abundant Divine blessing.” Rashi is teaching us two profound lessons.
Lesson #1: We all trample on something. In our spiritual lives, we consciously or subconsciously create a religious hierarchy. There are some obligations which we feel are important and other obligations which are not. There are details which apply to each individual and details which do not. There are mitzvos we each can relate to and others which seem anachronistic or at odds with our personal life outlook or philosophy. And so, we trample. We adhere, obey, and admire the aspects with which we agree and intentionally or unintentionally set aside the aspects with which we don’t. Here is the beautiful reality: God doesn’t ask us to be perfect. He doesn’t expect us to perform all of His commandments, and He doesn’t expect proficiency in every area of Judaic practice. All God desires is effort. We create these “mitzvah rankings” as a way of justifying non-performance. But we don’t have to do that. We don’t perform all the mitzvos because we are limited human beings who try hard but can’t always get it right. We recognize that every law and detail in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) is binding and obligatory but are not always able to live up to this standard. The good news is, it’s ok. God understands. Just don’t trample and make things unimportant to justify our human finitude. In fact, if you look at the wording of the verse, it says, “And it will be if you listen (tishmaun) …” – just listen! Yes, the ultimate goal we aspire to is performance (va’asisem), but start just by listening and acknowledging that these are the expectations.
Lesson #2: Spiritual success doesn’t require spiritual heroism. Little things make all the difference. This is true in many life relationships. In marriage, it is not the birthday or anniversary gifts which shape the fabric of the relationship, it is the phone calls during the day to say, “I love you,” or the small acts of consideration, companionship, and love (though the presents certainly help). When our children bring home a project for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, our hearts are filled with joy even though these creations are objectively junk (please don’t share with my children). Why? Because it is a genuine expression of love. The same is true in our relationship with God. The little things make all the difference. The way we talk to others, the manner in which we conduct our business dealings, our concentration during prayer, our commitment to daily Torah learning, our willingness to give charity. These are the little things which have such a dramatic impact. The Torah and our history are filled with stories of great people making enormous sacrifices for God. But day to day life is filled with the opportunities to do small things for God. These are the “eikev” moments. The little things that at first glance seem so insignificant that you can just step on them with your heel, yet, these are the very things which determine our spiritual identity and relationship with God. If you are grumpy in the morning and push yourself to greet people with a smile, the sea will not split before you, but you have done something amazing. If you see someone in need and manage to step out of yourself and help them, God will not call out your name from the heavens, but you have furthered your relationship with Him. If you are exhausted after a long day of work but manage to carve out some time to learn Torah, you won’t see the lightning and hear the thunder of Sinaitic revelation, but you have shown your Father how truly committed you are.
We must find the strength to stop trampling and start building with the small bricks of “eikev” accomplishment. God promises that He is waiting for us and ready to reciprocate our efforts. May we find the courage to take the first small step and feel the blessing of His love in the journey ahead. (Reprinted from 5778)
Each and every Shabbos is a special, meaningful, and holy experience. Yet, some Shabbasos seem to distinguish themselves from the rest. Shabbos Bereishis fills us with excitement and hope for a bright future. Shabbos HaGadol (the Shabbos before Pesach) reminds us that redemption is in the air. And, it is with this excitement that we approach this coming Shabbos, Shabbos Nachamu, the Shabbos of Consolation. The name of this Shabbos comes
from the opening words of the Haftorah where the prophet Yeshayahu says, “Nachamu Nachamu Ami, (Be consoled, be consoled my people)” (Isaiah 40:1). We began to feel this consolation after the fast of Tisha B’Av. When the fast ends, we feel euphoric, excited and optimistic. But why? What has changed? The Temple has not yet been rebuilt, anti-Semitism still exists, and there is still in-fighting within our people. Why is this Shabbos a Shabbos of Consolation when nothing has seemingly changed?
Rav Ephraim Oshry (1914-2003) provides an amazing insight. Rav Oshry was the Rav of the Kovno Ghetto and answered many questions of halacha (Jewish law) throughout the war. He compiled these heartbreaking, yet inspiring responsa in a work titled Responsa from the Depths. In his introduction to the third volume, he raises an interesting question. The Torah states:
“You shall remember what Amalek did to you on the way, when you went out of Egypt, How he happened upon you on the way and cut off all the stragglers at your rear, when you were faint and weary … Therefore, it will be, when the Lord your God grants you respite from all your enemies around [you] in the land which the Lord, your God, gives to you as an inheritance to possess, that you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the heavens. You shall not forget! (Devorim 25:17-19).”
“Why must the Torah tell us to “remember” and “don’t forget”? Is this not redundant? Rav Oshry explaines: “God knew we would remember what Amalek (a reference to the Nazis) did to us. How can we not remember? The fire still burns; the pain is still acute. How can we not remember Auschwitz, the Ninth Fort, and Bergen Belsen …? But the Torah explains, ‘when the Lord your God, grants you respite from all your enemies … In the land which the Lord your God, gives you as an inheritance to possess;” God knows that we will rebuild. We will rebuild our families, we will rebuild our wealth, we will rebuild our people, and we will rebuild ourselves. And we will begin to think, why should we hold on to the pain of the past? Let the past be the past. What good does it do to hold on the pain when all it does is hold me back and anchor me in my heartbroken circumstances? God knew that when life became good, we would want to try to forget our pain. Therefore, God commands, ‘You shall not forget.’
Even when life is beautiful – never forget your pain.”
But why not? After all, doesn’t there come a point in time when we have to let go of the past in order to build a future? Doesn’t there come a point when we should unshackle ourselves from heartbreak to feel joy? The Torah is teaching us an important lesson. The Jew never forgets or buries his pain. He owns his pain. We look at our pain and ask ourselves, “What can I learn about myself, my life and, my world from this difficult situation?” We own our pain and use it as a catalyst for growth. We own our pain and use its lessons as the fuel for our engine of life productivity and meaning. “You Shall Remember,” is the natural reaction to pain. When the wound is open, the pain is clearly felt. But lest we think that at some point we need to forget to move on. God reminds us “You shall not forget.” Don’t try to bury, conceal, or hide your pain – learn and grow from it.
Perhaps, this is the consolation, the nechama, of Shabbos Nachamu. On Tisha B’Av we allow ourselves to experience the crushing burden of 2,000 years of collective and individual pain. At times throughout the day, we feel as if our soul will burst from the sadness and despair. But then something amazing happens. We begin the process of owning our pain. From our tears and tragedies, we have learned the need for compassion, empathy, and unconditional love. From our heartbreak, we have learned tolerance and respect. From our adversity, we have learned that there is no greater force in nature than the Jewish soul. And so, we take these lessons, and we inculcate within ourselves these powerful traits. We own our pain, and we recognize that nothing and no one can stop us from accomplishing our spiritual goals and aspirations. The moment we learn from our pain and realize that pain is the ultimate catalyst for growth is the moment we begin to feel a wave of comfort. Those who own their pain are comforted by their pain.
I wish each of you a Shabbos of introspective consolation. May we merit the ultimate consolation with the arrival of the Moshiach, speedily in our days, amen. (Reprinted from 5777)
The Torah is filled with many beautiful and meaningful mitzvos (commandments). These mitzvos teach us to how to create and sustain a relationship with God and with one another. Imagine for a moment if you were asked, which is the most important of all of God’s commandments? Which mitzvah do you think outweighs the rest? Perhaps, it is Shabbos or Bris Milah (circumcision) both of which are referred to as an “Os” (sign) between God and His nation. Perhaps, it is not any one mitzvah but a unit of mitzvos like the Aseres HaDibros (Ten Commandments), which are the spiritual centerpiece of our Torah. In fact, the great sage, Rav Saadiah Gaon explains that all 613 mitzvos are derivatives of the Ten Commandments. Long before you and I pondered this question, the great rabbinic sages of yesteryear were conducting this very discussion.
You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself (Leviticus 19:18); Rabbi Akiva said, “This is an important principle of the Torah.” Ben Azai said, “This is the narrative of the generations of man on the day that God created man, in the likeness of God He created him” (Genesis 5:1), is even more important (Sifra, Kedoshim).
Rabbi Akiva and his disciple Ben Azai were trying to figure out what is the most important, core principle we have in our Torah. Rabbi Akiva explains that everything comes from loving the other. This is reminiscent of the story of the gentile who approached the great sage Hillel and said, “I want to convert on the condition that you (Hillel) teach me the entire Torah standing on one foot.” To which Hillel responded, “That which is despicable to you, do not visit upon the other.” Rabbi Akiva continues this tradition and explains that the mitzvah of “V’Ahavta L’Reyacha Kamocha, love your fellow as you love yourself” is the most important tenet of our belief. If you can’t love another, how can you love God? If you can’t love someone who you can see, touch, and experience, how can you love that which is amorphous and beyond the scope of human comprehension? If you work to love your fellow Jew, you will come to love God.
Yet, Ben Azai, Rabbi Akiba’s trusted disciple disagreed with his rebbe (teacher). However, at first glance we don’t understand Ben Azai’s statement. There is no mitzvah contained in the verse he quoted. This verse from the fifth chapter of Bereishis (Genesis) begins a listing of the lifespan of the generations beginning with Adam. What is the nature of Ben Azai’s disagreement with Rabbi Akiva? Rav Asher Weiss advances a beautiful insight. Ben Azai says, “My great teacher, Rabbi Akiva if only we could be as pure as you. It would be wonderful to think that we could love each other as we love ourselves, but this aspiration is fraught with so many problems. There are people who have wronged me, and it is difficult for me to forgive, let alone love them. There are people who do bad things, and who is to say they deserve my love. They’re simply not “loveable” because of their temperament and disposition. And therefore, I would like to suggest something else. There is something more basic and important than love – respect. We can’t love every other Jew, but we can learn to respect them. “This is the narrative of the generations of man on the day that God created man, in the likeness of God He created him (Genesis 5:1).” Every Jew (it is true for all humanity, but let’s first focus on the Jewish people), is made in the image of God, and for that alone, (s)he deserves my respect. To require us to love one another is a tall order, but to respect each other; this is attainable.”
Such a powerful lesson. Perhaps, it isn’t possible to love everyone – but I must work on my ability to respect the other. There is a societal trend to vilify anyone who does not share “my” views. This is true on an individual and national level. Even the most open minded of people often lack tolerance for opinions and views that may differ from their own. We are each entitled to our personal religious, socia,l and political views, but we must learn to respect even those who don’t share them. We can disagree and argue our positions vociferously and passionately, but always with respect and dignity for the other.
This Motzai Shabbos and Sunday, we will observe the 9th of Av. It is on this day thousands of years ago that our beloved Beis HaMikdash (Temple) was set ablaze. So much of the hardship, so many of the heartbreaking difficulties were the result of infighting, factionalism, and indifference to the other. We don’t have to agree – we just must respect. We can do better; we can be better.
What is the most important mitzvah of the Torah? I’m not sure – much greater men have pondered this question, and the answer still seems far from reach. But here is what I do know. The path forward must be lined with love for our fellow Jew, but before we can love, we must learn to respect. We need not compromise our beliefs and values we hold dear to make someone else feel happy, accepted, or validated. But we must respect the other no matter how deep the divide or disagreement. Why? “…for in the likeness of God, He created him;” we are each a beautiful Tzelem Elokim (image of God). May we be privileged to see this Divine identity within ourselves, and may we be courageous enough to see it within one another. (Reprinted from 5778)
Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of a new Hebrew month, brings with it promise, potential and joy. There is nothing more beautiful than a new beginning, an opportunity to start again, to rejuvenate and regenerate. But today, the beginning of this new month, the month of Av is different. As the Talmud states:
“Mi’shenichnas Av, Mi’maatin B’Simcha, (When the month of Av enters we diminish our joy).” (Mishna, Tractate Taanis 26a)
This Rosh Chodesh ushers in 9 days of mourning and sadness. We refrain from various activities including the consumption of meat and wine (except on Shabbos). Our hearts are filled with the pain of thousands of years of collective sorrow. The Mishna recounts the various events that make this month one of sadness and pain. The mergalim (spies) returned from the Land of Israel on the 9th of Av and delivered their disastrous report; the city of Beitar, the city of the Bar Kochba rebellion, was crushed by the Romans and its inhabitants slaughtered; and many other unfortunate and tragic events unfolded during this auspicious month. However, the central event on which we focus is the destruction of the Temple (Bais HaMikdash). Each and every year we face the same challenge. How do we mourn for something we have never known? We have existed without a Bais HaMikdash for over 2,000 years, and although deep in our souls we know that something is missing, it is difficult for us to feel a true and real void. It is difficult to shed a tear for something for which we have no frame of reference. It is challenging for us to relate to that which we do not know. So how can we connect? How do we appreciate the loss of the Temple and make it relevant?
I want to share with you an idea which I have discussed many times in the past but has timely relevance during these important days. In Pirkei Avos (Ethics of our Fathers, Chapter 5 Mishnah 5), we are told about ten miracles that occurred in the Temple. The 8th miracle listed is, “Omdim tzefufim, u’mishtachavim revachim”, (the people stood crowded together, yet prostrated themselves in ample space). When our ancestors came to the Temple on the Regalim (Pesach, Shavuos, and Succos) and Yom Kippur, the Bais HaMikdash was packed from corner to corner. In fact, Jerusalem was teeming with people from the cities of Israel and beyond. The courtyard of the Temple was so crowded that people literally stood shoulder to shoulder. However, when they bowed in prayer, there was room for everyone to have personal space. An amazing miracle, clearly in defiance of natural law. But why the need for such a miracle? What was the message?
Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, 1040-1105) explains that when the people would bow in prayer, each person would ask for his/her personal needs. If individuals were in earshot of one another, the supplicant would feel self-conscious about articulating his needs. Furthermore, on Yom Kippur when people would bow in order to confess their sins, if the penitent felt he could be overheard by his neighbor, he may have been hesitant to confess. Therefore, to allow each person to have a personal dialogue with the Divine, God performed this miracle.
Rav Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859) offers an additional insight. The Rebbe explains that this Mishna is not simply relaying a miraculous event but is also conveying an important life lesson. Omdim (standing) – if a person always stands his ground and is never willing to yield to another, the result is, Tzefufim (crowded) – the world is very crowded and constricted, there is no room for the other. However, if a person is Mishtachavim (prostrating) and willing to yield to another, then Revachim (ample space), there is room for everyone. The secret to successful life relationships is knowing when to stand your ground and when to yield. There are things in life that we must fight for, and there are many more things for which conflict is not the answer. There are times when we must be an Omed on certain issues and accept the negative repercussions, and there are times when we must be a Mishtachaveh and learn the art of yielding to the other for the sake of peace and harmony. We must learn the delicate balance of knowing when to use each of these powerful traits.
The Bais HaMikdash was the address for the entire Jewish community. There were not different temples for different hashkafos (religious philosophies), there were not different temples for different levels of observance. There was one Bais HaMikdash for the Jewish nation. There was one address where we had to learn how to come together in brotherly harmony and serve our God with one heart and one soul. There was one place where we were required to come and learn the art of bowing to one another, yielding to one another, respecting one another.
In the Bais HaMikdash, Jews of all stripes and colors would gather to worship together. We mourn the absence of this unifying place. We don’t mourn the loss of a building, as buildings can always be rebuilt. We mourn the loss of an ideal. When the Bais HaMikdash stood, it was clear that the will of God was for us to unite. The Bais HaMikdash, through its mere existence reminded us that to remain a nation we can’t argue over every single issue. There are issues that are so delicate and important that we must vociferously disagree and yes, draw our line in the sand. But I would venture to say that for many other issues, we must find the strength to yield. We mourn the unifying absence of our beloved Bais HaMikdash.
It is difficult to cry and mourn for that which we do not know. But if we can’t cry – we must at least yearn. We must yearn for a time in which we can embrace our differences and coexist as a cohesive nation.
Truth be told, we must do more than yearn – we must do. We must learn to bow, learn to yield, learn to make the hard sacrifices in order to achieve true shalom with one another. Before getting into an argument with another, before saying something that may be hurtful, before doing something that may be “correct” but may not be “right”, we should ask ourselves: Is it really worth it? There are times in life when we may be truly in the right, but this doesn’t mean a battle should be waged. It is difficult to strike the balance between being a principled and peaceful person. The Bais HaMikdash helped us to achieve this equilibrium; now we must do it on our own.
Today is Rosh Chodesh, but it is unlike all other monthly new beginnings. We feel a sadness, we feel a heaviness as we continue to mourn over what has been lost. But as we observe our mourning practices and reflect on our national and personal tragedies and set-backs, let us resolve to do our part in bringing shalom into our personal, communal, and national lives. There are times to be rigid, but there are many more opportunities for understanding, compassion and flexibility. In the merit of bowing before one another, may we be privileged to bow together before God in a rebuilt Jerusalem – bimheyra b’yameynu, amen.
(Reprinted from 5778)