Category: A Taste of Torah

A Taste Of Torah – Parshas Tazria-Metzora

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

The Midrash Rabbah quotes Rav Simlai who explains the sequence of the laws of ritual impurity as they are presented in this week’s parshiyos, Tazria and Metzora.  He explains that the laws of human birth follow the rules of impurity of lowly creatures such as animals and insects to convey that if man is unworthy, he is told that even a gnat has preceded him. He attaches this idea to the passuk in Tehillim 139:5: “You formed me prior and after.” Hashem contemplated the creation of the human being before everything else because he is the central purpose of the universe. However, in actuality, he was created physically at the tail end of the creation to indicate the possibility that he can sink beneath the level of animals.

This dichotomy of greatness and lowliness was understood by the thinkers of all times. Judaism sees this dilemma as a charge. Man must elevate himself and know that he can rise above all else, but that without work and vigilance, he will be drawn down to the basest level of existence. The charge is to be holy, to refine one’s personality and character, to overcome base temptations, but to continue rising much higher than that.

A Jew must understand that his charge is even greater than other humans. Hashem expects him to become a righteous person, both religiously and socially. It is not good enough to be honest, good and kind. He must be learned in Torah, scrupulous in his observance and refined in his thoughts, speech and interactions. This is a very tall order and it takes a lifetime to accomplish. A lifetime will suffice if one is engaged in the process. If man is distracted, then he will miss his mark and be a disappointment to his Maker.

Tazria and Metzora contain the main body of the laws of tzaraas, often translated as leprosy. This is because it is described as a discoloration and lesions of the skin and translators felt that it matched the known affliction of leprosy which was considered highly contagious and often led to lepers being segregated and quarantined. Some anti-Semites even used these laws to “prove” the old Greek canard that Jews were driven from Egypt by the Egyptians because they had contracted leprosy from swine and that is reflected in the ritual impurity which Jews attached to both pigs and leprosy.

In reality, tzaraas has nothing to do with leprosy or contagion of any sort; it is a supernatural phenomenon that existed in ancient times only and manifested itself as impurity only in the Jewish people. It served as a “spiritual report card” notifying a person when he fell short of his mission. This happened only in the period when Hashem’s presence was more apparent in the world. In our time when Hashem does not reveal His involvement in an apparent way, tzaraas is no longer found. The laws are in the Torah to remind us of a time when people received clearer Divine direction.

In our time, we must examine ourselves and see if we are falling short of Hashem’s expectations. The current crisis that we are experiencing has stripped away a lot of material things which we take for granted as absolutes. We can use the opportunity to examine our lives and our priorities and realign them with Hashem’s expectations. In this way, our actions will reveal that we have gotten the message.

A Taste Of Torah – Parshas Vayikra

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

This week we begin Sefer Vayikra also known as תורת כהנים, the laws of the priesthood, since it deals with the laws of sacrifices, ritual purity and the special requirements of the priestly caste. It comes after Shmos, the Book of Redemption, where the Jewish people develop from a family to a mighty nation, become a “kingdom of priests” receiving the Torah as a way of life, and building the Mishkan, an earthly “abode” for Hashem to “dwell” in their midst.

The continuum of Seferim Shmos and Vayikra seems to pose a very fundamental question. If we have a very basic belief that all men stand equal before Hashem and that free will is in the words of the Rambam “a basic tenant and a major pillar in Torah and mitzvah,” then why would Hashem create an hegemony of Kohanim who inherit their status and seem to be privileged from birth with their status?

Perhaps the answer is that there are two pathways which one must utilize to achieve closeness to Hashem and success as a Jew. It can be imposed from without by divine decree that a person must follow a prescribed path. His free will is expressed in his acceptance of these rules and restrictions, and when one views these responsibilities as an opportunity to grow, it will bring him closer to Hashem. On the other hand, one has to pursue a course of self-expression and individuality to become closer to Hashem. Autonomy is a pillar of Judaism together with humility and submission to Hashem’s will. Every Jew is a priest, some are given more responsibilities, but all Jews must create their personal connection with Hashem as well.

We are preparing for Pesach, a time where we relive the אהבת כלולותיך, the sweet love of our union with Hashem some three millennia ago. It is time to reflect on how we relate to Hashem in our special and individual way and also how we conform to his dictates expressed in the Torah.

A Taste Of Torah – Parshas Vayakhel-Pekudei

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

This week’s Torah portion discusses the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). As we take a closer look at the instructions to build the Mishkan, Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, points out something that needs clarification. Betzalel was the one appointed to build the Mishkan, yet we find in many places where the people are told that anyone who has a chacham lev (wise heart) is invited to come, donate, and build the Mishkan. One would think that clarity regarding the “building committee” is in order when taking on such a monumental project. Is Betzalel the one ultimately responsible, or is it up for anyone to step forward and take the lead?  

Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, answers that we learn an important lesson about communal responsibility from these directions. The Mishkan had to be built. It was the spiritual center that we needed to help us connect to G-d. There is no choice here; the job has to get done. Yes, it is true that Betzalel is appointed as the leader of this project. However, the Torah is telling us that if for whatever reason he is unable to perform this task, someone has to step up. The Mishkan has to be built. One should never think when it comes to spiritual needs that the few who are put in charge should lead the way and everyone else remain in the background. One has to be ready at any time to step up and complete the task.

The heart and soul of every Jewish community are its children and their Jewish education. This is the foundation that makes us who we are. It may seem like there are individuals appointed to the task of leading this effort – Rabbis, administrators, teachers, and lay leaders – but it is incumbent on all of us to realize that at any given time, we have to all be ready to step up and get involved to continue this effort. This is not a choice but a necessity.

In these challenging times this message is speaking to us more than ever. Our shuls and schools have closed their doors. Our children are learning at home. Parents have no choice but to step up in ways they never imagined. Let us utilize this time for meaningful moments of growth for ourselves and our families. Hashem has given us a new reality and challenge now. Please note that there is no challenge that is given without the ability to meet that challenge. We need to believe in ourselves and the neshomos (souls)that G-d has given us that we can find ways to grow spiritually in our homes with our families.

There are many resources available to assist us in learning with our children. Let us tap into as many as we can. One example occurred during the plague in the times of Dovid Hemelech. Chazal instituted saying brochos (blessings) in hopes of bringing an end to the epidemic which it did. Currently, we are unable to say Amen in shul but let us at least say brochos in our homes out loud for others to answer Amen. In addition, let us concentrate a few more moments when saying these brochos.

May we all daven that Hashem find favor in the way we are serving Him now to bring an end to this tzarah and the beginning of a new era with His presence in our midst. The ultimate redemption with  Moshiach Bmhayra Vyomeinu. Amen

A Taste Of Torah – Parshas Ki Sisa

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

This week’s parsha, Ki Sisa, starts off with the passuk,Ki Sisa Es Rosh Bnei Yisroel – When you lift up the heads of Klal Yisroel and count them.” Why is this terminology used? Why not just say count them? The meaning becomes clearer if we try to understand what Chazal tells us. The reason that Klal Yisroel is being counted and each one of them is giving the machatzis shekel is that it served as a kaparah for the  sin of the golden calf, an atonement for each one of them.  Thus, the next question arises – so how was this act an atonement?

To help explain this idea, I share this beautiful thought. What was the root of the sin of the golden calf? Bnei Yisroel thought Moshe wasn’t coming down from Har Sinai, got nervous, and didn’t think it was possible for them to continue without him. Hence, they made the golden calf as an intermediary to help them because they thought they could not connect to Hashem directly. However,  the truth is they made a big mistake because Hashem gives everyone, every individual, the power and the ability to believe in himself/herself to be able to connect with Him directly.

This idea is exactly what the passuk is revealing. “Ki Sisa es rosh Bnei Yisroel – When you lift up the heads of Klal Yisroel and count them.” Hashem gives everyone a precious neshama, a precious soul,  and the ability to recognize Him and to serve him properly which means to serve him directly without anything or anybody in between. This is the message we must share with our children. All of us can talk to Hashem, daven to Hashem, do His mitzvos. We can connect everyday with Hashem if we just lift up our heads and believe in ourselves and do not think that we are too little or insignificant to connect with Him.

A Taste Of Torah – Parshas Tetzaveh

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

When Haman broached the topic of annihilating the Jewish people with Achashveirosh, he introduced the Jewish people as being, “…one nation which is scattered and divided amongst all the other nations.” He meant to tell Achashveirosh that the Jews cannot get along among each other and certainly not with other nationalities, and, therefore, they constitute a threat to the country. What Haman didn’t realize is that in this description, he paid an unintentional compliment to the Jewish people. When he said they were one nation, he acknowledged Jews care for each other’s welfare and take responsibility for each and every Jew, no matter where they are and how they live.

Rabbi Yaakov Galinsky z’l, a famous maggid and Rosh Yeshiva of Chadera, tells a personal story in this vein. During WWII, he was exiled as a Polish citizen within Stalin’s Soviet Russia. Since he was an enemy alien and had no legal standing, he was considered an enemy of the state. Moreover, as a yeshiva man he was also considered to be a subversive and a counterrevolutionary. He spent a considerable time on the run, and one night, he found himself on a train station platform in Bucharia.

Train stations were carefully watched by the NKVD and Reb Yaakov could not get a train out. Without papers and a place to stay out of sight, it was simply a matter of time before he would be arrested and sent to Siberia. As he looked around hoping to find some way out of his dilemma, he saw a cobbler with Jewish features working in a small shop at the railway station. In desperation, he decided to approach this man and ask him for shelter until he could slip onto a train and get out of town. He hesitated since he knew that if he was mistaken and the man was not a fellow Jew, he would be handed over to the police immediately. He decided to approach the man and blurt out Shema Yisrael and see what the cobbler’s response would be. Sure enough, the man responded with, “Baruch Sheim Kvod…” In some way, Reb Yaakov communicated his predicament to the man, and this person took him home and sheltered him for 11 days at great risk to his family and himself.

Many years later Rav Galinsky reflected on this selfless kindness and sacrifice this Buchari Jew had shown him in spite of the fact that their lives, language and cultures were entirely different. This is one of Purim’s major themes. When Jews come together, miraculous things happen. If we focus on our common peoplehood, take responsibility for every Jew’s well-being and ignore how we differ from each other, then we will overcome any adversity. This is why we emphasize mishloach manos and maatanos l’evyonim as important mitzvos that display our care for each other. A joyous and inspiring Purim to all!

A Taste Of Torah – Parshas Terumah

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

The Torah gives us the following instruction for assembly of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) walls. “והבריח התיכון התוך הקרשים מבריח מן הקצה אל הקצה – The center rod passed through the inside of the planks (of the Mishkan walls) bolting them together from end to end.”

This passuk describes a wooden rod passing through three walls of the Mishkan, north, west and south. The Gemara (Shabbos 98A) tells us that they were able to miraculously push this rod through the walls and turn the corners as it was pushed in for a total of 50 cubits (approximately 80 feet). What does this rod symbolize and why the need for its continuity from end to end? Furthermore, Rashi tells us that Yaakov Avinu planted the trees that provided this wood. Why did he do that?

Reb Zalman Sortzkin (Lutzker Rov 1881-1966) explains in his Sefer, Oznayim LaTorah, that the Jewish people have many divisions and the different communities have different temperaments and character. It is exceedingly challenging to unify the Jewish people around a cause and the only unifying element is our Torah. We can travel through time and space and the only common theme we will find in our eternal nation’s history and dispersion is the Torah and its way of life.

When Yaakov Avinu was on his deathbed, he was concerned that his children would go separate ways after his death. They reassured him by saying Shemah Yisroel, affirming that their faith in Hashem would keep them together. Yaakov planned that the Mishkan would be the central focus and unifying factor for the period in the desert and beyond (Yehoshua Chapter 22).

The center rod holding the separate planks together symbolizes this value. The Tree of Life is our Torah and it is the only source of unity for us. Rabbi Saadya Gaon (882-942) writes, “Our nation is only a nation because of its Torah.” The miracle of bending the corners signifies that this unifying force defies the rules of logic and is the secret of our eternity.

A Taste Of Torah – Parshas Mishpatim

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

Eternal Commitment

AT the end of this week’s Torah portion, the famous phrase Naaseh V’nishma is quoted. Our ancestors stated, “We will do what is commanded and then we will listen.” They took the ultimate leap of faith and put their trust in G-d to follow the Torah and its commandments. The Talmud relates that at the actual giving of the Torah, G-d picked up a mountain and was holding it above their heads. G-d says to the people, “Either you accept the Torah or you will be buried there.” The commentators wonder about this sentence. It would seem the correct way of saying it would be – If you don’t accept the Torah, you will be buried here – since G-d is holding the mountain on top of them. What is the meaning of you will be buried there which seems to reference another place?

The Tzobiner Rav z”l (a 20th century revered Rav) answers that G-d was explaining to them the importance of this acceptance. Just like we need air to breathe physically, we need the Torah to breathe spiritually. When B’nei Yisroel accepted the Torah, it was not just for the moment, an acceptance of here and now. Rather, an acceptance for all generations in the future as well. G-d was illustrating that without the Torah and its values it is as if one is dead. There will be your burial place is a reference to later at any point in time if one chooses to live devoid of these values.

Today we have many challenges in our society that confront our values on a daily basis. We need to keep making the choices that will keep the eternal flame of the Jewish people alive. G-d is still talking to us. We just need to respond.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Yisro

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

When the Torah relates Yisro’s visit with Moshe Rabeinu and the Jewish people, the passuk reintroduces us to Moshe’s two sons and repeats the reasons that Gershom and Eliezer were so named. Gershom’s name reflects Moshe’s feeling of loneliness, “I was a stranger in a strange land.” Eliezer’s name commemorates Moshe’s escape from the executioner’s sword in Egypt after he killed the Egyptian beating a Jew.

There are two points to consider about these pesukim. Why is this information repeated here if the narrative is about Yisro’s visit? The Torah already explained this in Parshas Shmos when Gershom and Eliezer were born. Secondly, if Egypt was a hostile place for Moshe and he was a wanted man there, why did he consider Midyon, a far more hospitable place, to be a foreign land?

The Meshech Chochma (R. Meir Simcha HaCohen of Dvinsk 1843-1926) explains that Moshe Rabeinu wasn’t pining for Egypt as his birthplace but missing being amongst his brothers. In fact, when he returned to Egypt as Hashem’s emissary to Pharaoh, he told his father-in-law, “…must return to my brothers in Egypt and see if they are still alive” (Shmos 4:18). This is in spite of the fact that he was raised away from his people in Pharoh’s palace. This enormous feeling of kinship and concern for his Jewish brethren overshadowed his concern for his own life and safety. It explains why he named his first son to reflect his longing to be with his people and only his second son to commemorate his new lease on life.

The way Moshe conducted himself with his family is the insight the Torah gives us into his personality and his qualification as a leader. The man who would be the intermediary during Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah, needed to have a tremendous love for his people that overshadowed any feeling of self.  This is why the Torah reiterates this information here as the Jewish people were getting ready to receive the Torah.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Beshalach

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

Seeing the Future

In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion the verse states, “Vachamushim olu Bnei Yisroel maeretz Mitzrayim.Rashi quotes a Midrash in one interpretation that explains the word vachamushim to mean that only one-fifth of the Jewish people went out of Mitzrayim (Egypt), while the other four-fifths died in the plague of darkness. Rav Shimon Schwab (20th century Gadol) asks, “How do we understand this interpretation? The great celebration of our exodus from Egypt is marred by the death of the majority of the people?”

Rav Schwab suggests the following understanding. Perhaps Rashi is explaining to us the effects of individuals exponentially over time. Perhaps not all four-fifths died then, but a minority of people died at that time. Taking those individuals and looking at what could have potentially come from them over time, we get a much more significant number equal to the four-fifths of the Jews at that time.

The Midrash is teaching us to look at the future and realize what potential one individual may have. I heard a story from a great talmid chacham years ago that relays this message very well.

There was a snowstorm one day and only two other boys and he showed up for class. The Rebbe started teaching and was raising his voice and acting out the lesson as if there were a full class of boys in the room. After the lesson, this student asked his Rebbe, “Why did you have to strain yourself today and teach as if there was a full class since there were only three of us in the room?”

The Rebbe responded, “You are mistaken. Each one of you represents hundreds if not thousands of people. The lessons you learned today will be imparted to your families for generations as well as all with whom you come in contact. There were thousands of people in the room today. How could I teach with any less enthusiasm?”

The Midrash is teaching us an important lesson. Don’t underestimate the potential effect of one individual. Each person interacts on a daily basis with many people, family, friends, co-workers, etc. Let us make the most from all of our interactions in creating a Kiddush Hashem wherever we go.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Bo

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

Throughout the narrative of יציאת מצרים – the exodus out of Egypt, the Torah says that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened or heavy. This metaphor is understood to mean that he was being obstinate, and he was being foolishly brave in opposing Hashem’s demand that he free the Jewish people.

Rav Sholom Schwadron, the Jerusalem Maggid, asks why the Torah doesn’t describe Pharaoh as having no heart at all. After all, he wasn’t displaying any good judgment and seemed to be acting with no thought or emotion.

Reb Sholom quotes the Mesilas Yesharim – (Path of the Righteous, a mid-16th century ethical work by R. Moshe C. Luzzato) that explains that Pharaoh and his behavior are an allegory for the Yetzer Harah, the evil inclination, which drives us incessantly and wants us to be so immersed in our daily affairs that we don’t reflect on our spiritual state at all. This makes us vulnerable to all sorts of mistakes and bad choices.

Pharaoh also had moments where he acknowledged Hashem’s power over nature and that he could not challenge Hashem’s wisdom and power. Those occasions were few and short in duration. He immediately returned to his stubborn behavior and refused to follow through on those short bursts of clear thinking. This is described as having a hard heart. He was capable of thinking and seeing the truth; he wasn’t able to act on that truth. His desire for power and control dissipated any impression he had from those short moments of insight.

When we read about Pharaoh and his behavior, we are supposed to look at ourselves and think whether we don’t display similar behavior. Sometimes, we feel overwhelmed by life and we crave control. This may lead us to ignore Hashem and his Torah. These parshiyos help us refocus on what a hard heart can do to us and reminds us that we have the benefit of learning from Pharaoh’s lessons.