Category: A Taste of Torah

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.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Bechukosai

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

Walking with You

In the beginning of the 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.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Behar

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

This week we read the Torah’s main description of the mitzva of Shmita – the sabbatical year. This mitzva obligates us who are fortunate to be in Eretz Yisroel to leave the ground fallow, make the perennial fruits available to all and to treat the fruits with special sacredness. There are several rationales given for this great and difficult mitzva.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 39a) says that it is Hashem’s reminder to us that in spite of all of our work and our investment in it, the land is still His. This is demonstrated by the אפקעתא דמלכא  – the “seizure of the King” meaning that we lose ownership of the land for the Shmita year so that we always remember who the true owner is. This idea reappears later in the parsha when the Torah tells us that all land must revert to its original owners in the Jubilee year and that the land cannot be sold in perpetuity.

The Chinuch (a Spanish medieval sefer which expounds on the rationale of the 613 mitzvos) says that the mitzva is intended to reinforce our belief that the world was created ex nihilo. When we stop our work in the field once every seven years, it is just like when we stop our activities for Shabbos. We also make the fruits available to all to show that we understand that it is all the creators and not ours.

The Sfas Emes (Rabbi Yehuda A. Leib of Gur 1847-1905) explains that since our right to Eretz Yisroel (and the true response to those who challenge our right) is grounded in a divine grant which is recorded in the Torah, it is appropriate that the Torah dictate the parameters of its usage. This unusual and seemingly impractical mitzva is the Torah asserting its sovereignty over the land and, in turn, it justifies our presence in it.

Reb Meir Don Plotsky (prominent Rov and Rosh Yeshiva in Congress Poland 1866-1925) in his sefer, Kli Chemdah, explains that Hashem stops all agricultural work for a complete year to show us that He can provide us with food without our efforts to make it grow. This is done when Hashem blesses the previous year’s crop and it provides us with abundant food for three years, all from one crop. The Chinuch alludes to this idea by saying that it strengthens our faith when Hashem demonstrates His ability to provide for us without our own efforts and intervention.

The Rambam writes in his Guide to the Perplexed that the benefit of this mitzva is a social one by making the produce available to the poor. It is also beneficial from the agricultural standpoint since the land can rejuvenate when it is left fallow.

The Kuzari (R. Yehudah Halevi) writes that the Jewish farmer restores balance to his life by abandoning physical work and the pursuit of material wealth during this year and focuses on his spirit and his spiritual acquisitions since he is unable to work in the fields.

Rabbi Yitchak Abarbenel (Spanish Torah commentator 1437-1508) adds that a man needs to realize his mortality and recognize that the “the day is short, and the work is abundant.” When we pause from our intense agricultural work and take the year off, it helps us focus on the waning years of our lives when we need to withdraw from the “rat race.” The seventh year should remind us of the seventh decade of life which is typically close to the end of a person’s lifespan.

Rav S. R. Hirsch says that this mitzva is a national statement that we recognize that we are all guests of Hashem in the land, and we will show more concern and respect to the strangers and those who are disenfranchised from society.

While many of these explanations to this mitzva vary and some are quite similar, this discussion teaches us how nuanced the mitzvos are. While some relate to the Torah and mitzvos as a set of legal and technical parameters for all aspect of our lives (which it is), it also contains a whole layer of beliefs that are aroused and brought into our consciousness by the practice of these laws. Shmita frames our relationship to Eretz Yisroel which is not just a territory which is dear to us from a nationalist standpoint. Instead, it is a spiritual mandate granted to a Chosen People by the King of Kings. It changes the whole national enterprise on the Land to be a special and holy one.

Perhaps this is why the Torah introduces this specific mitzva as being given at Har Sinai. All the mitzvos were given at Sinai, why mention it here? Perhaps the message is that the Holy Land which was given to us by Hashem needs to be appreciated as a mitzva from Sinai and not a land granted to a conquering people which is subject to the waxing and waning of historic events. The Torah defines us and our homeland, and it is not that the land defines the nation.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Emor

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

Easy Does It

In this week’s Torah portion Emor, Moshe gives instructions to the Kohanim about their additional responsibilities. In giving the message, G-d tells MosheEmor El Hacohanim” (say to the Kohanim). The commentaries wonder why the word emor is used and not the common word used for commandments daber? Furthermore, our sages tell us that these two words have different connotations. Daber connotes a strong tone or command while emor suggests a softer tone. Therefore, one would think in preparing the Kohanim for their additional responsibilities, the word daber would be more appropriate.

Rav Moshe Feinstein, z”l, explains the use of the softer tone is to teach us an important lesson in role modeling. Moshe was to impart to the Kohanim, that as leaders, they were to receive additional mitzvos. When he speaks to the Kohanim using a soft tone, the tone itself as well as its words is delivering a message.  The soft tone illustrates that leaders need to take things in stride and make it look easy to accomplish whatever is needed to be done. This calm can-do attitude strengthens everyone around the leader and enables all participants to live up to their responsibilities as well. A more demanding approach is generally not so effective.

In life, we try to teach lessons and values to our children and students. When doing so, we need to remind ourselves of how we speak when role modeling. More often than not, better results come not from a stronger and demanding tone, but from the softer and more encouraging tone. As the saying goes, Easy Does It.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Achrei Mos

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.

Last week 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. 

A Taste of Torah – Pesach

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

In the Mishna in Pesachim, our sages tell us how to structure the retelling of the narrative of יציאת מצרים-the Exodus. We are told to be, “מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח- begin with the embarrassing information about our past and then to conclude with the ennobling information.” The Gemara quotes two amoraic opinions, Rav and Shmuel, who argue as to how to fulfill this directive. Shmuel holds that we should begin with our sad plight as slaves and to conclude with our freedom. Rav’s opinion is that we should begin with our ancestors’ idolatry and conclude with our closeness to Hashem.  The first explanation seems to focus on the physical journey from slavery to freedom and the second explanation focuses on the spiritual journey from alienation to closeness with Hashem. In either interpretation, we need to understand why Chazal structured the Hagaddah in this manner.

It appears that our sages wanted to enrich this night’s great and foundational mitzvah by adding several components to it:

  1. A full perspective of the history of Yetziyas Mitzrayim: The complete scope of any event cannot be understood without the background information. This process is called סיפור-recounting since we literally “count out” the events and conditions that led to the climax of the story. If we don’t explain our early history and even our less appealing past, we cannot appreciate to where we’ve arrived.
  2. Humility: When we celebrate our triumph and our vindication, we need to double down on humility and to remember that all of this is by the grace of Hashem. If He would not have chosen us for a special role in history, we would be relegated to the dustheap of history just as all the other nations of antiquity who perhaps shone brighter than ourselves in the ancient days.
  3. Need to be vigilant: The most important thing about history is to learn its lessons. Our history exposes some weaknesses in our past, and we need to be aware of them so that we can be careful and not slip back into the unproductive and incorrect behaviors and attitudes of the past. This awareness builds our resilience. If we focus only on our success, we won’t know where the landmines are.

Let’s take these ideas to heart as we gather with our families to relive the awesome experience of the Exodus and its impact on us, a people forever. This annual experience reestablishes our identity, our relation to Hashem and our priorities as a people.

Chag Kasher V’Sameach!

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Tazria

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

Nissan – The Month of Renewal

This week we read Parshas HaChodesh, the last of the four parshiyos, the special addenda to the weekly reading which frames the celebrations of Purim and Pesach. Our sages instituted these special readings to convey meaning and anticipation for these special times. Let’s focus on Parshas HaChodesh, which is read from Parshas Bo, when Hashem commanded Moshe Rabeinu to prepare for the Exodus. The previous year had passed with the Jewish people watching the dramatic retribution of the ten plagues being visited on their tormentors. Now it was time to get ready to leave all of that behind and face a bright future of nationhood, sovereignty, and most importantly, a new relationship with Hashem himself. Our focus would be to be his loyal people and His commitment to us would be to protect us and to teach us.

The first part of these instructions focuses on the creation of a uniquely Jewish calendar. It is based on 12 lunar months and the month of Nissan is the beginning of this year. This is because our history as a nation begins in this month when we left Mitzrayim. Our calendar is also adjusted through a cycle of leap years to make sure that the Yomim Tovim occur in the proper seasons. The holiday of Pesach, when we celebrate our birth as a nation, must take place in the spring when the world is renewing itself and all of nature is being reborn.

Our sages tell us that this month was also the beginning of the service in the Mishkan – the Tabernacle. This occurred in the year following the Exodus. We had already received the Torah at Har Sinai and because of the sin of the Golden Calf it became necessary to erect a Mishkan and to have Hashem’s presence expressed in this edifice. This became a focal point for our people for the next 1300 years. It is important to note that Hashem selected Nissan to be the time to dedicate the Mishkan as this would be another renewal of our relationship with Him. This is in spite of the fact that the Mishkan was ready for many months as it had been completed the previous Kislev.

When we enter the month of Nissan with the happy anticipation of the upcoming Yom Tov, we should also be focused on this time as an opportunity for renewal and refreshing ourselves. Our ability to reset and to renew ourselves individually and as a people is what endears us to Hashem. The Navi says, “For Yisroel is a lad (youthful) and I love him.” (Hoshea 11:1) Just as a lad is positive and full of life and always looking for new experiences, we are also constantly looking to conquer new horizons and reinvent ourselves. As we shake off the doldrums of the winter, let’s enter this new month with vigor and recommitment to the things that are really important in our lives.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Shmini

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

Is it Kosher?

In this week’s Torah portion, Shmini, the laws of kashrut (dietary laws) are discussed. The Parsha states that two signs are required for an animal to be kosher. One, the animal must have split hooves, and two it must chew its cud.

Rav Hirsch, a great Torah luminary in the 1800’s, questions the significance of these two signs. Overall, the laws of kashrut are a chok, laws which do not have a reason behind them.  However, even so, Rav Hirsch provides insight into what we can learn from why these two signs were chosen.

Through observation one can see that animals containing these two physical traits are not overly aggressive, but rather more on the tame side. Rav Hirsch points out that G-d, in His infinite wisdom, is sending us a message – you are what you eat, so to speak.  As Jews, we are obligated to adhere to a moral and ethical code in all parts of our lives. However, we are only human, and as such, we need constant reminders to identify with things that are less aggressive in nature. As we constantly work on refining our character, even the food we eat can help reinforce this character trait as well.

As parents, we are responsible to establish a framework for our children to help guide them to become Torah Jews with sound character, treating others in an appropriate manner. The Torah when it discusses the signs of a kosher animal is once again emphasizing the type of person we should be and adds one more item to the “instruction manual” to assist us in raising our children.

A Taste of Torah – Purim

Purim and Jewish Exceptionalism

Our holidays are laden with meaning and themes and Purim is certainly no exception.  Purim highlights our relationship with Hashem whose watching eye is upon us even when it isn’t apparent in the depths of galus (exile). He is receptive to our sincere prayer even when all seems lost. There is another theme that should be highlighted as well and that is that we need to understand and appreciate our exceptional status as Jews. Hashem expects us to do this and will force us to appreciate it even if we choose to ignore it.

Let us begin with our nemesis, Amalek, who attacked us a short time after the Exodus. The Midrash (Tanchuma Ki Taitzai) explains that although Amalek knew he wouldn’t prevail, he still wanted to blunt the tremendous impression and respect that had been created by the miracles of the Exodus and the splitting of the Red Sea. His point was that there is nothing special about the Jewish people and that their existence didn’t differ than that of any other nation. When Amalek’s descendent Haman slandered the Jews to Achashverosh, he began with the word “ישנו” which means “there is.” However, the Gemara (Megillah 13b) interprets this word as “they’re asleep.” The Gemara explains that Achashverosh, who was aware of the history of the Jews and their resiliency, feared that there would be serious repercussion from Hashem if he would allow the annihilation of the Jews. Haman reassured him by saying, ”Don’t worry; they’ve fallen asleep in their commitment to mitzvos,” and don’t deserve Hashem’s special protection and favor.

It seems that Haman had something going there. In fact, there really was a decree in heaven against the Jewish people which Haman had tapped into. The Gemara relates that Eliyahui HaNavi told  Mordechai that there was a decree of annihilation which was sealed with clay, not with blood. This signified the decree’s reversibility and this knowledge spurred Mordechai to muster the Jews to pray and fast to avert the decree. What misdeed did we do to deserve this decree? In Megillah (12a), the Gemara tells us that one of  the Jewish failures that brought on the decree was the fact that we enjoyed the feast that Achashverosh threw as described in the opening scene of the Megillah. Another cause for the decree is that we had bowed to Nebuchadnezzar’s statue during the Babylonian exile which preceded the story of Purim. It is interesting that the Gemara (Sanhedrin 93a) says that when the three Jewish heroes – חנניה, מישאל, ועזריה – who did defy Nebuchadnezzar and refused to bow to his image,  emerged from the furnace, the other nations said to the Jews, “You have such a mighty G-D and yet you bow to a statue?” The Jews were shown that they are different and that much more is expected of them. This inability to feel proud and strong as Jews was obvious both when they agreed to capitulate to Nebuchadnezzar and when they joined Achashverosh’s feast.

When we don’t believe in ourselves and understand our specialness, Hashem will confront us with this reality. We celebrate Purim as a reminder that we rejoice in Hashem’s closeness with all of its attendant responsibilities. We must raise our children with this proud tradition and sense of responsibility by showing them that we look at all of our interactions with the world around us through the Torah lens.

A Taste of Torah – Vayikra/Zachor

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

All for One and One for All

As we approach the holiday of Purim, we can sense in the air a feeling of camaraderie and friendship that this holiday teaches us. The acts of giving Shaloch Manos (giving gifts to people) and taking care of the poor are designed to create a feeling of Achdus (unity) among us. Yet, we find a puzzling Halacha (law) related to the observance of this holiday.

The Talmud (oral law) in tractate Megillah states that one reads the Megillah on different dates depending on one’s location. Most of us celebrate Purim on the 14th of Adar. However, individuals who live in a walled city celebrate Purim on the 15th and in some cases, the Talmud tells us at different times in history there were people who even read the Megillah on the 11th, 12th, or 13th of Adar. It makes one wonder why a holiday that represents Achdus does not have everyone celebrating the holiday at the same time.

Rabbi Zev Leff, (the Rav of Moshav Mattityahu and Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva Gedolah Mattityahu) a renowned lecturer and educator, explains the true understanding of being a unified people. Achdus does not mean that everyone does the same thing at the same time. Rather, Achdus means that I am happy for you with what you are doing, and you, in turn, are happy for me with what I am doing.  Achdus is respecting each other’s differences and appreciating people for whom they truly are. We are all created in the image of G-d and have something to contribute to society. Thank G-d, we are fortunate to live in a wonderful unified community. Let us all strengthen our respect and admiration for our fellow Jews. We must transmit this message to our children, and G-d willing, we will merit the ultimate reward of the final redemption and rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh (Temple) in our times.