Vayechi 5778

Thursday, December 28, 2017

As Yaakov blesses each of his sons, he makes Yehuda's descendants the rulers of all of Israel. "The scepter shall not depart from Judah" (49:10). The Ramban understands this as saying the kingship will never switch from the Tribe of Yehuda to another tribe (as opposed to never falling, which it did numerous times due to exile). Because of this, the Hasmoneans were punished for what they did after the Chanukah story. Yes, if it wasn't for them, the Torah would have been lost forever. However, they fell to their enemies later on because they established the Hasmonean dynasty instead of restoring the kingship to Yehuda. The Gemara in Baba Basra (3a) notes that Herod was only able to come to power because of their punishment.
The Ramban mentions a second possible reason as to why they were punished. Since they were priests, their sole obligation was to serve Hashem in the Beis Hamikdash, as is stated in Bamidbar 18:7. He then brings a Yerushalmi in Horayos (3:2) that speaks of the prohibition to anoint priests as kings.

Chanukah 5778

Thursday, December 14, 2017

When one analyzes Chanukah along with its halachos and ideas, there are many comparisons from it to Succos. To name a few:

-The dispute between Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai in the Talmud (Shabbos 21b). Beis Hillel says we start with one candle and continue adding on each day of Chanukah while Beis Shammai says to start with eight and subtract a candle each day. Beis Hillel's reasoning is that we go up in sanctity and not down; Beis Shammai's reasoning is that it corresponds to the sacrifices given on Succos, which decreased in number each day.
-The Shulchan Aruch in Orach Chaim 671:6 notes that a Chanukiah must be placed lower than 20 amos (cubits); otherwise you don't fulfill the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles. The Mishna Berurah says this is because people won't notice it above that height. Similarly, The Shulchan Aruch in 633:1 rules that a Succah which is 20 amos tall is deemed invalid for use. The Gemara in Succah (2a) mentions three different reasons this is so.
-There is a strong emphasis on the concept of "hiddur", or beautifying a mitzvah with both holidays. On Chanukah, we follow the custom of doing the extra beautification of lighting candles, which reverts back to the dispute between Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai. On Succos, we look to use the most beautiful four species to fulfill our mitzvah of shaking them.

What's the connection between these two holidays? Why is there an overlap of similar ideas between these seemingly unrelated festivals?
The Aruch Hashulchan in Orach Chaim 670:5 gives a few reasons as to why Chanukah is eight days. His final reason is based on the verses from the Book of Maccabees, a scroll written from the time of the Second Temple and is part of the Apocrypha. He mentions that the Syrian Greeks had prohibited the Jews from bringing sacrifices during Succos and Shmini Atzeres. Once they defeated the Syrian Greeks, they restored the Temple and had decided to celebrate both Succos and Shmini Atzeres starting on the 25th of Kislev. They even brought lulavim. From then on, they decreed to keep those eight days as a holiday for generations (II Maccabees 10:5-8). So in essence, Chanukah is a make-up day for Succos.
My 12th grade rebbe, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, noted an additional tidbit. In Al Hanissim, we mention how the Maccabees restored the Temple, purified everything, and "lit lamps in the courtyard." What was being lit? It couldn't have been the Menorah because that was in the inner chamber known as the "heichal"!
The Mishna in Succah (5:2-3) describes what would be done to prepare the Beis Hamikdash for the Simchas Beis Hashoevah, the water libation celebration. Once Yom Tov was over, they would place four golden candelabras in the courtyard and light them using old pieces of priests' clothing. These would illuminate all of Jerusalem. This must be what we are referring to in Al Hanissim. The Maccabees made sure to fully reenact the Succos festival they had missed. The Simchas Beis Hashoevah was the grandest celebration one could ever witness; how fitting it was to have one after defeating the Syrian Greeks and saving Judaism.

Chayei Sarah 5778

Thursday, November 9, 2017

At the beginning of the parsha, we read about Avraham buying the Cave of Machpela from Efron and the Hittites. At first, they offer him free passage to the cave without any kind of fee; but Avraham insists to pay for the cave and its field. This isn't the first time Avraham turns down gifts from others. In Lech Lecha, he turns down the offer of the king of Sodom that he would take the captives while Avraham takes their property. Avraham refuses so that no one would say that the king made him rich. This can be based on the verse from Proverbs (15:27): "The greedy ruin their house, but the one who hates gifts shall live." Avraham lived by these words and made sure not to be accustomed to getting things for free; he did not want to create a mindset of entitlement.
There is another understanding of these two stories, and Avraham shows us the midpoint between two extremes. In regards to the story with the king of Sodom, Avraham turns down the offer to show that everything in this world is from Hashem. You might receive gifts and items from people, but in essence you received it all from Hashem. Avraham wanted to get that point across to the masses as well as show that he was happy with what he had. When Avraham buys the cave, he shows that he's willing to put in effort to attain things. He's not expecting miracles to happen and everything he needs will just fall right out of the sky.
The two extremes are how one views his/her effort and G-d's part in it. One extreme is saying everything is from G-d and therefore one can sit back and wait for things to happen. The other extreme is putting in effort into everything, but forgetting G-d in the process (a sense of pride that *you* did everything yourself with no divine help). Avraham finds the balance between the two. He knows everything is from G-d, yet he continues to put effort into everything he does.
A good example is bread. For months, a person plows his field, grows wheat, harvests it, grinds it into flour, kneads it into a dough, and bakes it. When he finally sits down to eat it, he says a blessing: Blessed are You, G-d, Who has taken bread out of the ground." But he just did everything himself! Why is he attributing it all to G-d? Because that's exactly it; he is thanking G-d for giving him the ability to make the bread and for the natural processes for taking place.

Vayeira 5778

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Why were the cities of Sodom and Amorrah severely punished to the point of total annihilation? The Ramban answers because they were situated within the borders of Eretz Yisroel, and the land could not tolerate their wickedness. It is written in Parshas Kedoshim and Acharei Mos that the land spits out those who don't maintain the sanctity of area. Because they were the most evil of people who despised others as well as G-d, they were completely uprooted and destroyed to the point that the land could never sustain another city there again. G-d then used these cities as examples for Bnei Yisroel in Parshas Nitzavim (29:22), saying this will be their fate for not keeping the Torah.

Lech Lecha 5778

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Ramban points out in two places where both Avraham and Sarah both erred in their actions. At the beginning of the parsha, Avraham leaves Israel in order to find food in Egypt during the famine. The Ramban mentions that he did two things wrong. One was that he put his wife in a dangerous situation; by saying Sarah is his sister, that would only entice others to take her even more. The other was leaving in the first place; Avraham had shown a lack of faith in G-d and His being able to provide food for him. Because of this, his descendants would also leave Israel for Egypt only to be enslaved for hundreds of years.
Sarah also erred in her treatment of Hagar. As tension grew in the household, Sarah began mistreating Hagar to the point of Hagar running away. The Ramban says she did a grievous sin doing so. Because of this, Hagar's descendants would be destined to mistreat and be harsh with Sarah's descendants to this very day.
The Torah points out the mistakes of the patriarchs and matriarchs to teach us proper conduct. It also shows us that they were human despite their holy status. This allows us to strive to reach their level without thinking of it as an impossible feat.

Noach 5778

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Kli Yakar suggests that the people who built the Tower of Babel had the right idea to do so. They were worried that if they separated into different communities, they would wage wars with each other. However, they erred in saying that they wanted to make a name for themselves as well. Everyone had their own way of doing so; some wanted to become rich while some wanted to have all the food in world. G-d knew that bringing wicked people together would only split them apart, as they would attempt to rule over each other and engage in a civil war. They would be more united if there was a bit of separation between them.
This is based on the Talmud in Sanhedrin (71b) that says a gathering of wicked people is bad for them and for the world while a gathering of righteous people is good for them and good for the world. Righteous people have only one mission and can therefore join together in the service of G-d. However, there are many ways to be wicked. G-d's punishment of dispersing them was really a blessing in disguise.

Yom Kippur 5778

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Mishnah in Yoma (8:9) notes that Yom Kippur only atones for transgressions between Man and G-d, but does not atone for transgressions between and Man and his friend until he appeases his friend. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah brings a verse from the Yom Kippur service to show this: "You shall be purified from yours sins before G-d" (Leviticus 16:30). Before G-d, but not friends.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik asks on the need to bring a verse for this lesson of appeasement. The Mishnah in Baba Kamma (8:7) teaches that when one injures his fellow Jew, the former must pay numerous fees such as for damages, embarrassment, and doctor bills. Even when payment is complete, the person is not forgiven until he seeks mechila (pardoning) from his friend. We learn this from Abraham and Avimelech. G-d told Avimelech to ask Abraham for forgiveness after taking Sarah away from him; this would lead to G-d healing Avimelech. Based on this Mishnah, we know that there is a principle to ask for forgiveness from your friend when you do something wrong. Why does Rabbi Elazar need to bring a second verse?
The Rav answers that Rabbi Elazar recognizes that there is a general rule of asking forgiveness which applies throughout the year. Here, however, he is only addressing the atonement of Yom Kippur. With Yom Kippur, it's not just about asking for forgiveness. It's about actually appeasing your friend and reverting back to the friendship that existed before any wrongdoing. You are truly making up with your friend and your relationship with him.
This is crucial to accomplish because the atonement of Yom Kippur is communal. We want to include everyone within the community without any trace of separation or division among us.
The Rav goes onto add that some rabbis from the mussar movement say that Yom Kippur won't atone for transgressions between Man and G-d if one doesn't appease his friend to resolve his transgressions between him and his friend first. Why is this?
The same Mishnah above ends with Rabbi Akiva calling G-d the mikveh of Israel. G-d is Who purifies us. However, a mikveh only works in totality. You can't purify just one part of your body; it must be your whole body. So too here, where you must be completely free of transgressions from every aspect and not just in one category.

Ki Teitzei 5777

Friday, September 1, 2017

In 25:13-16 the Torah tells us not to cheat in business. We shouldn't own different weights and measures to increase our own wealth as it is a form of thievery. The Gemara in Baba Basra (88b) discusses the severity of cheating in business to the point that it is harsher than the forbidden relationships mentioned in Leviticus 18. In both instances, the Torah calls "these actions" (in Hebrew "eleh") abominations. However, in Leviticus 18:27 "eleh" is spelled with one less letter; in our parsha, it is spelled out fully. The Gemara notes that a fuller spelling indicates a stronger language and therefore cheating business is harsher.
Why is this so? The Gemara concludes that one can do teshuvah if one sinned with forbidden relationships, but cannot when cheating in business. Rashi notes that when a person steals from the community, it is impossible. When one steals, one is required to return the actual object to its rightful owner. However, it is very difficult to return the exact money to its rightful owner. While it possible for the thief to use those funds towards communal needs, it is not deemed a full teshuvah.

Shoftim 5777

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Parsha discusses the rules of a Jewish king in the land of Israel. The Torah lists three specific prohibitions in regards to a king. These include not owning a lot of money, not owning many horses, and not marrying many women. But why are these three singled out for a king? 
The Kli Yakar explains that these three would distract the king from his service to G-d. Excess amounts of wealth would have him forget G-d, as the verse says earlier in the Devarim (8:13-14). Owning many horses would remove his trust in G-d; instead he would rely on his horses and chariots to save him from harm (the daily prayer of "Lamnatzei'ach speaks of the other nations relying on their military while Jews rely on G-d). Having many wives would lead to him sinning and leaning towards their requests rather than G-d's; that was precisely what happened to King Solomon.
If the king follows these three prohibitions, his kingdom will thrive. The Kli Yakar notes that this is hinted to in the Hebrew word for chair - "Kisei". Kuf stands for Kesef (money); Samech stands for sus (horse); and Alef stands for isha (woman).

Re'eh 5777

Thursday, August 17, 2017

As Moshe continues to lecture to the nation, he mentions not to add or subtract from the commandments (13:1). Rashi quotes a Sifri that says we are not to add a fifth section in our tefillin, a fifth type of plant with the lulav bundle, or a fourth blessing in Birkat Kohanim. Both the Maharal and Maskil Le'David ask the following questions: Moshe had already warned the nation of adding or subtracting back in Parshat Va'etchanan (4:2), why is he repeating himself? Secondly, Rashi over there quotes the same teaching of the Sifri with one change where he says not to add a fifth tzitzis; why does he change it to Birkat Kohanim?
Both commentaries give a single answer that addresses these questions. With tefillin, lulav, and tzitzis, the person is intending to add on to the essential fulfillment of the commandment; they want to add an extra part to the action. That, says the Torah in Va'etchanan, is the primary prohibition of adding or subtracting. But what about adding onto the commandment once one has fulfilled the obligation? This is why Moshe repeats the prohibition again and Rashi adds Birkat Kohanim. When the Kohen recites the third blessing, he has fulfilled his obligation of blessing the people. However, he is not allowed to add a fourth blessing on his own accord even if he has done the full action already.
The Torah is teaching us that it is important to never overdo things. There are set limits and regulations in order to maintain order in the world. Once we begin to be flexible with rules we begin to alter fundamental beliefs and values we have.
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