Category: A Taste of Torah

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Devarim

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

From Exile to Redemption

This coming week on Tisha B’Av (the fast day remembering the destruction of the Temples) we read from the Kinnos. The Kinnos are a compilation of writings that reflect on the many tragic times in our history during our long exile. There is one kinnah that compares and contrasts the stark difference between when we left Mitzrayim (Egypt) and when we left Yerushalayim (Jerusalem). When leaving Mitzrayim, we were surrounded by a clear hand of G-d. However, when leaving Yerushalayim, we felt all alone. Throughout this kinnah many differences are pointed out between the two events, and at the end of each corresponding contrast the same line is repeated, “This is what happened when we left Mitzrayim; this is what happened when we left Yerushalayim.” A natural question arises: Why the constant comparison between these two experiences? It is clear that we understand the key difference – one was freedom and redemption while the other was exile.

The commentators tell us that the root of the word Mitzrayim is maytzar which means narrow, confined or restricted. On the other hand, the word Yerushalayim is composed of two parts yeru shalem which means to see the completeness in everything. These words deliver a simple message we tend to overlook in our daily lives. Often we are caught up in our narrow and restricted worlds. We get lost in our personal lives and daily challenges and lose sight of the complete picture, forgetting about the people around us, the rest of Klal Yisroel, our brothers and sisters wherever they are in the world. We must realize that we are one family. To transition from exile to redemption we need to leave Mitzrayim, the narrow place, and change our mindset to Yerushalayim, the completeness of all of us as a people.

During these challenging times in the world with anti-Semitism on the rise, we have rallied together in so many ways as a nation and a people. This message is spreading. We need to keep it going constantly. Whenever we are faced with a situation when a fellow Jew is in pain, we have to look beyond ourselves and reach out to help in whatever way we can. With that mindset and change of attitude, we will merit the rebuilding of the Temple. May it be speedily in our days.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Matos – Masei

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

These Are the Stations of the Jewish People

This week’s second parsha, Massei, begins with a listing of the 42 places that the Jewish people camped in during their journey from Egypt to Eretz Yisroel. It begins with Raamses in Egypt and ends with the encampment on the plains of Moav overlooking Jericho. What is the purpose of this listing? Rashi gives the explanation that it is a retrospective reflection on all of the travails that our people endured during their stay in the desert, and that in spite of those difficulties, Hashem stayed with us and pulled us through.

As a people, we have endured much travail and barely survived many of them. Our survival is a testimony to G-d’s covenant with His chosen people and the tenacity of the Jewish spirit. The challenges to our existence and our eventual triumph over these challenges are not the entire purpose of these difficulties. When Hashem places His people in any setting, it has many positive outcomes for us as a people. Every station that we have been placed in has provided us with opportunities to learn about ourselves and to integrate new abilities into our national character. An example of this is the Spanish period where we developed the field of Jewish philosophy, poetry and Hebrew grammar. Sure, there were grave threats to our spiritual and physical safety, and it didn’t end well for us, but we did gain these important competencies because of our 500 year stay there. This is true for individuals as well. Every community we live in, every relationship we have polishes us and adds to our competencies.

Parshas Massei is read during the three weeks of mourning for the Churban, the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash. We are sad for the loss of our national pride, the dispersion of our people, our alienation from Hashem and the manifestations of his closeness to us. At the same time, we should reflect on how far we have come, the areas we have developed, and the strengths we have gathered during our long exile. This will give us comfort and a feeling of purpose for what  we have endured as a people.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Pinchas

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

Coming Together

Our sages tell us that any generation where the Temple was not rebuilt in their time, it is as if it was destroyed in their time. The simple understanding of this statement is that if we haven’t experienced the ultimate redemption yet, it is because the baseless hatred that existed then (which the Talmud tells us led to the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdosh), still exists now.

This statement is hard to comprehend. There were so many generations before us that contained very worthy and righteous people. If the Temple wasn’t rebuilt in their generation, what chance do we have?  The Chofetz Chaim, z”l (Rabbi Israel Mayer Kagan, leader of the Jewish people pre-World War II) who was responsible for a major initiative in learning the laws of Loshon Hora (evil speech ) and was known for his meticulous attention to loving his fellow Jew is a perfect example of such a person, and if he wasn’t successful in experiencing the ultimate redemption, what can we do?

The Sfas Emes (19th century Chasidic Rabbi) explains the statement of our sages in the following manner. Our charge is to be builders. G-d demands of us effort, not perfection and completion. The sages are telling us if the Temple wasn’t built in “your” time that means there was no effort made to be a more sensitive people to eradicate the baseless hatred, and, therefore, we are no different than those living at the time the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed. However, if we are putting forth effort to love our fellow Jew, then we are a generation that can be worthy of that redemption. 

I once read the following in one of Rabbi Mattisyahu Solomon’s, (the Mashgiach of Lakewood Yeshiva), seferim. It seems in tragic times, we rally and come together. Why do we have to wait for that to happen? It is time to start coming together whether it be for simcha, such as a shalom zachor, or simply calling someone you know to show that you care. Be a part of the community. Let us not wait for the tragedies; let us be pro-active in creating an atmosphere of unity among all Jews. May we merit to be a generation of builders to see the future redemption in our times.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Balak

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

When Bilaam was commissioned to destroy the Jews with his curses, Hashem forced him to acknowledge the exceptionalism of the Jewish people and the fact that we are deserving of blessings and not curses. Bilaam chafed at this task, but Hashem forced him to do it any way. In his first soliloquy, Bilaam said, “Hashem has seen no iniquity in Jacob and no injustice in Yisroel; therefore, Hashem is always with them and trumpeting of the King is always present.” The Sforno (medieval Italian Chumash commentator) explains that this refers to the fact that whenever we camped and traveled in the desert, we always signaled these transitions by trumpeting.  (Please note that the translation of the Sforno in this rendering differs from Rashi.)

This needs further explanation. Why is this point so significant? That the Jewish people had a system and routine for traveling throughout their years in the desert is a practical matter. Why would it arouse jealousy and admiration in Bilaam’s prophecy?

Rabbi Mordechai Rogow (Rabbi in Lipnishok, Lithuania and Rosh Yeshiva in Bais Medrash L’Torah in Chicago, 1900-1968) explains in his sefer, Ateres Mordechai, that what impressed Bilaam is the fact that the Jewish people maintained their equilibrium in times of challenge and change. While they traveled through the desert, by definition, a temporary situation, they still had a highly organized community and clear expectations. This allowed the individuals to thrive and families to grow because stability and predictability are the foundation of reaching our potential. This characteristic would serve us well as we marched through history suffering unimaginable challenges. We always were able to regroup and maintain our communities even in the ghettos, the DP camps and in the face of relentless persecution.

We are blessed with a great deal of freedom as we live in a democratized world. Individualism is key and highly valued. From the Torah perspective, it is an opportunity for self-expression and pursuing our individual agendas as long as it is in consonance with the Torah. We must remember that a Jew must be part of a Jewish society to realize his full potential. We don’t “go it alone,” we need the structure and the expectation of our fellow community members to live a full Jewish life.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Chukas

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

What Do We Do with Perfection?

In this week’s Torah portion Chukas we learn the laws of the Parah Adumah (the red heifer). One essential part of the details is finding a perfectly red cow. This cow is then totally burned, and its ashes are used to purify those that became impure by being in contact with a dead body. It’s interesting to note that those involved in the purification process of those who are impure become impure as well. This is one of the chukim (law without reason) in the Torah that we can’t fully comprehend.

Rabbi Michel Twerski shared an insight about this mitzvah that contains a deep and profound lesson in how we live our lives. There must be some significance in taking a perfectly red cow and burning it? What could it be? He suggested the following. In life many of us get caught up with the pursuit of perfection. Everything has to be just right. Sometimes that dream of perfection sets us back as we become so focused on the perfect outcome we lose so much in the process itself. Much anxiety and suffering occur because of that elusive pursuit. Sometimes, it actually cripples us to the point where we can’t do anything at all because we think the end result will not be perfect.

The Torah, through the laws of the Parah Adumah, sends us a strong message about how we need to live life. BURN PERFECTION. Obsessing on perfection is not the way on how to live. No human being is supposed to be perfect. That is for angels, not for people.

We all want the best for ourselves and our children. We need to make sure we don’t set up the future generations for failure. False expectations and pursuit of perfection are not healthy options. We need to teach our children a strong work ethic and how to set goals, along with the understanding that failures will come along the way as well. That is how we succeed and grow in life – as human beings who are just fine working hard and building character every day.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Korach

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

The first part of this week’s parsha deals with the infamous insurrection of Korach and his congregation. Our sages in Pikei Avos describe this conflict with Moshe Rabeinu as the ultimate example of מחלוקת שלא לשם שמים – conflict which is caused by people who do not have pure motives. The contrast is the arguments of Bais Shammai and Bais Hillel which were for pure motives.

It is often difficult to discern what an adversary’s motive is. Often the first rebuttal to a challenge is to accuse one’s adversary of self-serving motives. However, there are some clues which help analyze from where the challenge is really coming. The gemara describes the tremendous respect which Bais Shammai and Bais Hillel displayed to each other even when the halachic debate got quite pitched and tense. There wasn’t any demonizing, disingenuous accusations, or unnecessary escalations. This is because both sides were seeking truth for the right reasons and that is what guided their behavior even during very contentious debates.

Conversely, Korach’s complaint about his own status as a “common” Levite began with an accusation that Moshe and Aron had cornered all the prestige and leadership for themselves and their close family. If Korach had really been looking to right a perceived wrong, he would have argued that he was also deserving of a leadership role. He was, however, motivated by jealousy and his view was that it was a zero-sum game, if he was elevated, Moshe and Aron must lose. This is how we know where his “crusade for his rights” really came from.

Unfortunately, we face challenges and contention in our personal and professional lives. We cannot always change others’ behaviors toward us, but we can monitor our own behavior. Are we being fair and not being accusatory? Are we able to concede that our opponent has merits either in the current argument or otherwise? Have we demonized them to the point that we cannot hear them anymore? These are questions we must ask ourselves to keep ourselves straight during such unsettling situations.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Sh’lach

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

Opening One’s Eyes

In this week’s Torah portion Shelach, we encounter the episode of the spies, 12 leaders of our people who were sent on a mission to explore and examine the land of Israel. Ten of the 12 spies returned with a negative report. These spies rallied the people to accept their report, and, consequently, the Jewish people were punished and could not enter the land of Israel for 40 years.

Last week’s Torah portion concludes with the story of Miriam speaking disparagingly about her brother Moshe, and as a result of her uncomplimentary words, was stricken with tzoraas (a skin ailment). She had to be quarantined for seven days creating a delay in the Jewish people’s traveling schedule.

Rashi comments that these two episodes appear in this order for a reason. He states that our 12 leaders should have learned from Miriam’s experience. However, a natural question arises with this statement. How are these episodes alike since Miriam spoke about a person while the spies spoke about the land.  At first glance, one could say that these two situations are different, but upon further investigation one can see a common thread. Both parties’ descriptions were negative.

From these two incidents, the Torah teaches us a lifelong lesson. Negative speech is unacceptable. If you are speaking harmfully about someone or something that is loshon hora (evil speech). It does not make a difference who or what the recipient is. Our character needs to be more principled. Loshon hora is not only about how it affects the person who is being spoken about but more so on how it affects the speaker. We need to always have a positive outlook on everything in life. Speaking positively in all situations about people, places and things is an important goal to achieve.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Beha’aloscha

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

“The meat was yet between their teeth not yet chewed and Hashem’s wrath was kindled against the nation and He smote the nation with an exceedingly large plague.” These frightening words describe Hashem’s response to the demand for meat by some of the אספסוף, the “riffraff” amongst the Jewish people. G-D gave them their wish to demonstrate that he could deliver vast quantities of meat as they demanded, but he also extracted a very harsh punishment for the demand.

As with all other unhappy episodes in the Torah, this story is meant to teach us how to behave and to learn the lessons from this incident. So that begs the question, “What was the cause of Hashem’s anger in this incident?” Was it the demand for animal pleasure? Was it the lack of appreciation for the miracle of the manna? Was it the fact that there was rabblerousing going on when the אספסוף involved other people in their complaint for meat? These are all plausible explanations and the pesukim support these interpretations.

The Kehilas Yitzchok (A Torah anthology published in Vilna in 1900) offers the following insight based on the Midrash. The Midrash  tells us that the manna was delivered to each person according to his spiritual status. If a man was righteous, the manna fell at his doorstep. If not, he had to leave the camp and scour the area to collect his daily sustenance. If he was worthy the manna arrived well prepared. If not, he needed to grind, pound, cook, bake, etc. In effect, every person got a daily update of his standing in G-d’s eyes. This was unnerving for some of the less spiritual people. They didn’t like this level of accountability. They wanted to live their lives without all of the feedback. This is why they wanted food that they could access without the high visibility of Hashem’s opinion of them. This is why they pined for the days in Egypt that they could, “eat without any cost” which Rashi explains to mean, “free of all mitzvos” even though they certainly had to work physically to get their food in Egypt.

Hashem’s response to this attitude was very harsh. Accountability is the foundation for growth. It gives us the ability to repair our mistakes and to avoid them in the future. It encourages us to go on to greater things. To reject that feedback is not only rebellion, it shuts the door to any form of development and this was the terrible mistake of the אספסוף.

This idea is very important for all of us. It is repeated in Tanach and in the writings of our sages. The wise person appreciates constructive criticism and seeks feedback and guidance to grow more and more. Growth is the essence of and the real definition of life in this world! As parents, we need to speak to our children and to guide them. We should praise their good efforts and good choice making and correct them when they have fallen short so that they grow into well-developed people.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Nasso

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

All On the Same Page

In this week’s parsha, Nasso, we read about the leaders of each shevet (tribe) bringing an offering at the dedication of the mishkan. If we pay close attention, we notice that each offering was exactly the same. This begs a question. Since the very concept of  creating the 12 shevatim is that every shevet has its own unique role to play, if they are all doing the same thing, where is the individuality that is supposed to emerge from each shevet?

There is a powerful lesson to be learned here. It is true each shevet had its own individual role to play.  For example,  Shevet Levi was composed of the kohanim who served in the Bais Hamikdosh, Shevet Yehuda  produced the kings while Shevet Yissachar produced Torah scholars. In addition, throughout the year, each shevet had plenty of other opportunities for individual growth and expression.

However, at this moment there was one goal in mind. The Jewish people were about to dedicate the mishkan to serve Hashem. They all had one focus, and therefore, brought the same exact offering. As they were starting, so to speak, the first synagogue of Klal Yisroel, the first business of order was to be on the same page, having the same goal, building the mishkan as a unified people in serving Hashem.

The same is true as we gather in our shuls whether it be daily, Shabbos, or Yom Tov. We all have different roles to play when we are interacting with the world around us. Some of us are rabbis, teachers, lay leaders, etc. However, when we come to shul, we all do the same thing; we say the same words and tefillos. We recognize that these moments of davening unite us in serving Hashem. Perhaps, that unity in shul is what gives us the ability to go out and serve Hashem in our individual roles as well. I believe that is what the nesiim  (leaders of each shevet) recognized. When we come together, we all need to start on the same page. After doing so, we can branch out and fulfill our individual roles in this world, completing many pages in the book of the Jewish people.

A Taste of Torah – Shavuos

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

We are about to celebrate Shavuos, the Yom Tov which we refer to as the “Time of the Giving of our Torah.” The timing of this holiday is not coincidental. We celebrate Shavuos in the middle of the spring, the heady time of year when the weather is warming up, the trees are blossoming and all of nature seems to be singing. This time of year necessitates a “mission realignment” since the world around us is beckoning to us in a most alluring way.

The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 2b) tells us that Hashem offered the Torah to the other nations to give them an equal opportunity in gaining the strong antidote to the Yetzer HaRah- evil inclination which the Torah provides. The nations responded by identifying challenges in the Torah to their national vices. One nation said we cannot abide by the commandment not to murder. Another said we cannot refrain from adultery, etc. Although the Jewish people are considered the fiercest of nations (see Beitza 25b), yet they responded with נעשה ונשמע- we are ready to commit. The Jewish nation had the trust that the gift of Torah will not only help them overcome the challenges posed by their moral weaknesses, it will give them the ability to elevate the, mundane and make it holy.

We need to focus on this important aspect of Torah life when we prepare for the wonderful opportunities and pleasures that this part of the year promises to afford us. If we choose to access the Torah’s wisdom, it will make this wonderful time a time of growth and appreciation of Hashem’s wonderful world and help Hashem’s physical world fulfill its purpose the right way.