Category: A Taste of Torah

A Taste Of Torah – Parshas Pinchos

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

The Three Weeks

Every year when the Hebrew months of Tamuz and Av return, they contain the period of the three weeks. This is a time where tragic events took place in our history which ultimately led to the destruction of both Temples on the ninth day of Av. During this time, we conduct ourselves with customs of mourning and refrain from making weddings, listening to music, etc.

The Torah portion of Pinchos is usually read during the three weeks. This Torah reading includes a section that deals with all of the Yomim Tovim (Festivals). Isn’t it ironic that during the weeks of mourning and sadness, we read in the Torah portion about festive times? Since there is no such thing as a coincidence in Judaism, there must be an explanation for this juxtaposition.

Reb Elimelech of Lizensk (18th c – Rebbe) explains the reason we read this portion during this time of sadness and mourning is so that we shouldn’t be swept away by the various mourning rituals practiced during this time frame. We are being reminded that this part of our history will pass, and we will once again rejoice during the festivals in the temple. A famous expression gam zeh yaavor (this too will pass) personifies this idea.

We all need to remind ourselves of this lesson. In looking at our own personal histories, everyone has experienced situations where one would think there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Yet, somehow we end up seeing the light, and we do move forward. This Torah portion is read to bring us that message of hope – to keep on looking ahead. May we all merit to see that light of redemption in the near future.

A Taste Of Torah – Parshas Chukas-Balak

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

Get Real

In this week’s parsha, we read about Bilaam’s attempt to destroy the Jewish nation by cursing them. If we step back and take in the panoramic view of this story, it is mind boggling. On one side, there is an aggressive upstart nation leaving Egypt with a very openly stated goal of conquering Canaan. On the opposing side there are neighboring nations who engage a sorcerer to curse and destroy this threat. If we consider this in modern terms, the neighboring nations’ actions seem childish and naive. Yet, the Torah gives us a full account of the incident and of Hashem’s involvement with Bilaam, eventually bequeathing us with ספר בלעם – The Book of Bilaam, which the Gemara considers a distinct section of the Torah.

There is a very important message in the way this story develops. The Torah is demonstrating to us that there are many levels of reality and that there are spiritual dimensions of existence that are as real and even more real than the physical world that we engage with our senses. Even the non-Jews of the time understood this world and engaged it. The modern world has relegated “all of that stuff” to backwardness and superstition, yet the Torah validates it and deals with it. This is not to suggest that we try to engage with the occult. The Torah forbids it and today’s practitioners are charlatans.

However, the Torah wants us to realize that there is much more to the world than meets the eye. As Torah Jews, we can and should engage the physical world with the mindset that our actions have major ramifications well beyond the physical confines of existence both in terms of time since our time frame is eternity and in terms of place since this world is merely a antechamber to a greater world.

In addition the Torah is teaching us the power of the spoken word. The Gemara (Shabbos 120b) equates speaking with action based on the fact that Hashem created his world by using speech, not actions. This immense power of speech is both positive and negative, and we need to recognize its potency and treat words with the respect it deserves.

A Taste Of Torah – Parshas Korach

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

In this week’s Torah portion, Korach leads a rebellion against Moshe and challenges his authority. Rashi quotes a Midrash that relates two questions which Korach and his followers brought before Moshe. One, if a house is filled with seforim, does one need a mezuzah? To this question Moshe answered yes. Second, if one wears an article of clothing that is made of techailes (a bluish dye), does one need to still have a string of techailes in their tzitzis? Again, Moshe’s answer was yes.

These questions were asked to mock Moshe. Really, does one need a mezuzah as a reminder of G-d and His mitzvos if one’s house is full of seforim? Does one need the little blue string of techailes if the entire garment has it? At first glance, Korach and his followers seem to be correct. What is the point of a reminder when you have so much more in front of you? The queries posed were questioning Moshe’s leadership role. If we, the Jewish people, are a holy people, why do we need a leader? Why does Moshe need to govern us?

However, their logic was flawed. True, they were all on a very high spiritual level. They had all lived lives in the desert seeing clearly the hand of G-d. Still, even with that experience, one can’t rely on just going with the flow and following the crowd. One needs a leader to guide one to the right path. One can’t rely on the popular vote because very often that vote is tainted with an agenda which is not in line with the values that one really needs to be living by. We as Jews rely heavily on Mesorah, tradition and a value system, which has been handed down from generation to generation from Rabbi to Rabbi, starting with Moshe. It is imperative that we recognize that leadership and humble ourselves to that eternal Mesorah. Life isn’t just about learning Torah; it is about living it. To understand that living, we need role models to guide us on that path. Left up to ourselves and the general masses, it is very likely that we can lose sight of our mission. This is an important message for life. As the Mishna in Pirkei Avos states, “Make for yourself a Rav.” This means – Find him, follow him, and ultimately take those lessons to heart in following the chain of Mesorah.

A Taste Of Torah – Parshas Sh’lach

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

Purity of Intent and Objectives

Many wonder why the mission of the meraglim (the spies) ended in failure. It seems quite legitimate for a conquering nation to reconnoiter the territory they seek to conquer. We even find that Yehoshua, Moshe Rabeinu’s successor and one of the original spies, sent spies to Yericho in the beginning of the conquest of Eretz Yisroel. It was a most successful mission and no criticism is made of this action.

Chazal give us several answers. The stated purpose of the mission was reconnaissance and to form a strategy for conquest. However, the real purpose of the meraglim was to “confirm” that the land was as good as it was promised to be and to evaluate whether conquest was feasible. Although the people asked –  “Are they strong? Do they live in fortified cities?” – there was a hidden and distrustful agenda to confirm that they were not being misled. This illustrated  too much self-reliance. After our experiences in the desert, they should have known better. Hashem’s response was, in Rashi’s words, “I told them it is a good land and that they will conquer it; if they question that, I will give them opportunity to fail.”

The second explanation for failure is in the process that created formulation of the plan. In Sefer Devarim, Moshe recounts the story of the meraglim and describes, “You all came forth to me and said let us send spies before us.” Rashi says it was a chaotic and strident group that approached Moshe. The predictor of failure lay in the fact that, “the young pushing aside the old” as Rashi points out. It was a poorly conceived idea put forth with little reflection and thought.

The third explanation is in the quality of the people who were assigned. Although they were respectable men and “heads of Bnei Yisroel,” there was a lack of inner faith and character. Their respectable veneer was not backed by substance, and it led to the great debacle when the hidden agenda came to the fore.

Like all stories of our early past, the purpose of the Torah’s recounting the incident of the meraglim is  מעשה אבות סימן לבנים – The deeds of the fathers are a template for their children. Therefore, whenever a community gets ready to do something big and ambitious, they must look for three things:

  • Is the real agenda transparent and clear? Are all the cards on the table?
  • Is this decision process deliberate and considered in a calm and organized way?
  • Who is leading the way? Is it people with integrity?

If there are satisfactory answers given for these three questions, one can hope for Divine assistance to get positive results.

A Taste Of Torah – Parshas Beha’aloscha

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

All in a Day’s Work

In this week’s Torah portion it discusses the service of Aharon, the Kohen Gadol. Every day he had the responsibility of lighting the Menorah. The Torah states, “Vayaas kayn Aharon… – Aharon did as the way he was commanded by G-d to do through Moshe. Rashi comments that this verse praises Aharon for not changing anything in the way he performed the service.

Two questions naturally follow. First, if Aharon did what he was told to do, why is that so worthy of a special mention of praise? Second, why would we think that Aharon would do something different than he was commanded to by G-d?

There is one basic ingredient in life for success in one’s spiritual growth. That ingredient is consistency. The Torah is stressing that Aharon was consistent in the way he performed the service every day. His enthusiasm, his passion, his concentration never became stale. He was not changing anything in the way he performed his mitzvah of lighting the Menorah. He did it with the same fervor and intensity as he did in day one. That is worthy of praise.

As we approach the summer months, one can easily fall into a more relaxed mode. However, we need to be aware of being consistent in our behavior. Our actions should be done with the same passion and fervor all year round. The season of the year should not matter.

A Taste Of Torah – Shavuos

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

Soon, the Yom Tov of Shavuos will begin. On Shavuos, we celebrate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai to our ancestors. The question arises why are we remembering the first Luchos (Tablets) that were given on Shavuos and not the second set of Luchos that were given on Yom Kippur?  The first set of Luchos didn’t last due to our ancestors’ sin in building the golden calf while the second set remains with us today. Shouldn’t we celebrate the one that lasted? What was so important in the giving of the first Luchos that we celebrate its time of giving?

The Ramchal (a prominent 18th c. Jewish philosopher) explains that the first encounter at Mount Sinai still has an effect on us today. That was the moment that we were commanded to follow Hashem’s mitzvos. We were given the charge to live a life with a higher set of values and morals than the rest of the world. G-d gave us the ability to make an impact on this world and that ability doesn’t leave us even when we fall short. It is always there for us to tap into. Therefore, we celebrate on Shavuos the potential we all have for greatness by accepting the mission that G-d gave us.  May we all be able to reach inside ourselves and fulfill our potential in our daily lives.

A Taste Of Torah – Parshas Bamidbar

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

This week’s parsha is devoted to the regimentation of the Jewish people during their years in the desert. The 12 שבטים (tribes) were counted and organized into camps with a very specific configuration, while they were moving camp and also when they encamped. Every tribe’s location was specific and collectively they encircled the heart of the camp, the אהל מועד (Tent of Meeting), containing the ark and the holy vessels. This nucleus of holiness was the focal point of communal service and dedication to Hashem. This proximity and visibility of the Mishkan created a sense of intimacy and closeness to the Divine presence.

In contrast to this, there were many boundaries and warnings to the Jewish people to maintain a respectful distance from Hashem’s presence. During travel, the holy vessels were covered to prevent anyone from gawking at them, and they were carried wrapped in their coverings. Throughout the description of the camping and travel arrangements , there were warnings to maintain careful boundaries and that the holy should not be trespassed upon.

Rav Shamshon R. Hirsch (prominent Jewish thinker and Chumash commentator1808-1888) notes the dichotomy in this arrangement. The Tabernacle and the Torah that sanctifies it are the unifying presence in the midst of the camp. This conveys a message of affinity to the Torah, and its constant presence in our lives. At the same time, it was to be regarded with extreme awe and be approached with respect and trepidation. This was to avoid the familiarity that breeds informality and disrespect.

Rav Hirsch explains that these formalities are an expression of the Jew’s relationship to the Torah. The Torah is not a set of values developed by the Jewish people to guide the spirit of the community. The Torah does not emanate from the human soul; it is a G-d given Torah, divinely inspired and written. Our job is to assimilate Hashem’s word into our souls and behaviors. Nothing else will work for us. This is why the Mishkan, the seat of Hashem’s presence, is in our midst; yet, it is separated from us by these boundaries to assure that we have the correct attitude when we relate to it.

We are preparing for the renewal of our acceptance of Hashem’s Torah on Shavuos, the day the heavens opened, and Hashem spoke to us directly. We approach the Yom Tov and the Torah with renewed commitment and love, and we do so knowing that the Torah is here to define us, not the other way around.

A Taste Of Torah – Parshas Behar

Walking with You

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

In the beginning of the second Torah portion of this week, we are commanded to walk in the ways of Hashem. Rashi explains this commandment does not refer to doing the mitzvos, but rather,  the effort that goes into the action of doing them. The reward for this effort as stated in the ensuing verses includes peace, prosperity, and that G-d will rest His presence with you and walk with you. How do we understand the meaning of this last blessing? How does G-d walk with you?

The Seforno (a 16th century commentator on the Chumash) explains that walking with you means that G-d is ready to interact with us wherever we may be. We should not limit our interactions with G-d to only designated places for Torah and tefillah. Yes, our synagogues and Batei Medrash are places where the presence of Hashem is felt. However, we have to understand that they do not have to be the only places.

If we do as the Torah commands us, to walk in the ways of Hashem, applying ourselves as much as we can in the effort of doing the mitzvos, we will have the ability to feel His presence wherever we are. It is not about how much we do, but rather about the effort we put forth in doing. This effort leads us and keeps us focused on strengthening our connection with G-d in our synagogues, in our homes, and wherever we may be. The more effort we put in, the more we are thinking about doing His will, which will subsequently lead to feeling His presence in all aspects of our lives.

This lesson is so true, especially in the times we are living in now. We don’t have the abilities yet to be in our synagogues. We have been davening and learning in our homes. This time period, as challenging as it has been, has provided us with insight concerning this idea. Walking in the ways of Hashem is wherever we may be at that time doing His will.

A Taste Of Torah – Parshas Emor

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

Our Sages refer to Sefer VaYikra as “Toras Kohanim – The Laws of the Kohanim.” This is because large sections of this part of the Chumash deal with topics that involve the Kohanim, the sacrifices, ritual impurity, mitzvos that pertain specifically to Kohanim,  and the laws of consecration of property that require the Kohain’s involvement. While this holds true for a large portion of the sefer, it isn’t true for many topics that are not specifically related to Kohanim. An example are the laws of kashrus which applies to all Jews equally.

In Parshas Emor  this is very striking. The first half of the parsha deals with Kohain specific halacha; the second half deals with the holidays of the year. Is there a reason that the Torah placed these halachos in proximity to the ones that are relevant only to Kohanim?

An important Torah principle is that all Jews are Kohanim. We are expected to lead exalted lives and to be beacons of spirituality and service of Hashem. The Kohanim are expected to inspire us and be a reservoir that the laity can draw from. Hashem gave the entire nation the designation of “Mamleches Kohanim V’Goi Kadosh –  a priestly kingdom and holy people.”

The general mitzvos that are distributed in these parshiyos such as kashrus, forbidden relationships, yomim tovim and others have the specific purpose of helping us maintain our level of holiness and priesthood. The restrictions on physical indulgence and the requirement to commune with Hashem with  our family life on the holidays are keys to success in this important role that we all hold.

During these sefira days, we prepare ourselves to renew our commitment to the Torah and the Torah way of life. We should think about the exceptional role we are expected to play and make sure that our lifestyle is worthy of the label of “Kohanim vgoy kadosh.”

A Taste Of Torah – Parshas Acharei Mos

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

Live By Them

In the end of this week’s parsha, Acharei Mos, we find the phrase Vochai Bohem, a commandment to keep the laws of Hashem and “LIVE BY THEM.” Rashi comments that to live by them is not referring to living by them in this world, but rather in the world to come.  His explanation, however, requires further exploration. What mitzvos are we doing in the world to come? We are taught by Chazal that we do mitzvos in this world to enable us to enjoy the next world. The world to come is the world where we reap the benefits from what we did here in this world; the world to come is not a place of doing.

Furthermore, the Talmud uses this very same verse to teach us that we need to LIVE BY THEM (the mitvos), meaning not to die by them. Therefore, we are not supposed to give up our lives in this world in fulfilling a mitzvah (except for the three exceptions of murder, idol worshipping, and immoral relationships). Hence, this verse is speaking about this world and not the world to come. So how do we reconcile these two different interpretations of the same phrase, Rashi’s explanation with the understanding of the Talmud?

The Slonimer Rebbe z”l (20th c) resolves this difference in opinion with a simple thought.  According to him, both interpretations are correct. The verse is referring to both worlds.  Rashi is telling us that the reward we earn in the world to come is based on how we kept the mitzvos in this world. If we are inspired and we are truly living the mitzvos with enthusiasm and passion, in the world to come we will feel a greater connection to Hashem. However, if we are just going through the motions while doing the mitvos, we may not feel as connected in the world to come. In other words, what we put in here (in this world), carries over to the next world (the world to come).

The following short story epitomizes this thought. A student once proudly stated to his Rabbi with excitement that he just went through a tractate of Talmud and completed it. The Rabbi commented, “That is nice that you went through it, but did the words you learn go through you; did they touch you?” We need to take the inspiration of how we do our mitzvos with us.

Recently, we concluded the holiday of Passover providing us with many opportunities to fulfill many mitzvos. These mitzvos are ones that we generally celebrate with much enthusiasm and inspiration. Let’s take that inspiration as a model to LIVE BY THEM throughout the year so in the world to come we will have that stronger connection with Hashem.