Thursday, May 31, 2018

Manna, Bread From The Heavens

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The parshas of Behaalosecha and Beshalach, tell about the manna that fell in the desert, and sustained the Jewish people for forty years. 

The Talmud asks, "It is written, 'And when the dew came down upon the camp at night, the manna came down upon it.' (Indicating that the manna fell inside the camp.) And it is written, 'And they went out and collected.' (Indicating that the manna fell outside the camp.) And it is written, 'They walked and collected.' (Indicating that the manna was far from the camp.) How (are all three) possible?" 

The Talmud explains that the three verses are talking about three different groups of people. "For the righteous, it came down at the door of their homes (in the camp), average people 'went out (of the camp) and collected,' the wicked 'walked (far from the camp) and collected.'" 

The Talmud also explains the three different terms used by the Torah for the manna, "bread," "baked goods," and "ground (in a mill)," in the same manner. For the righteous, it was ready to eat, like bread, the average person had to bake it, and the wicked had to start by grinding it into flour. 

Manna is called, "bread from the heavens," or "grain of the heavens." And the blessing said before eating manna is, "hamotzi lechem min hashamayim," Who takes bread out of the heavens, or "hanosain lechem min hashamayim," Who gives bread from the heavens. 

The difference between bread from the earth and bread from the heavens, is that bread from the earth requires a tremendous amount of preparation. It starts with plowing, sowing, and all that is done in the field, then you have to wait for it to grow. Then it has to be cut, gathered, threshed, winnowed and ground in a mill, etc. etc. By the time you have a loaf of bread, much time and energy was expended. And after all that, it is not pure nourishment, part of it the body takes and the rest becomes waste. The bread from the heavens, on the other hand, depending on who you were, had little to no preparation and it was pure nourishment, there was no waste. 

This bread from the heavens nourished all the Jewish people, whether they were righteous, average or wicked. Even the wicked had the experience of pure nourishment without waste. That means that even when it became part of the body, the manna remained in its pure state. The manna, therefore, had an effect on the person who consumed it. As our sages say, "The Torah was not given to expound, but to those who ate the manna," because the manna affected us, and made us into the people right for the task. The manna affected every Jew, as each of us has a part in the Torah and a unique way of understanding it, righteous, average and wicked alike. 

The manna didn't have an immediate effect on the person, they didn't instantly do teshuva when they ate it, the wicked remained that way even after they ate it. That is why they still had to walk far from the camp to collect it, and they still had to grind it. That is also why, during the forty years that they ate the manna, some still did things that angered Hashem, as He said, "And they tested Me these ten times." Nevertheless, it certainly had some effect on them, and eventually, when they did do teshuva, it was certain that eating the manna had a part in their return to Hashem. 

This will help us clear up another oddity we find about the manna. It is said in the name of Rav Saadia Gaon, that if we find ourselves in a distant place and we don't know which parsha to read, we should read the parsha of the manna. And some say, that the reason for this, is that the parsha of the manna was said by Hashem on Shabbos. 

There are many parshas that were said on Shabbos, including the Ten Commandments, which represents the whole Torah. Why should we specifically read about the manna? 

As mentioned earlier, even though the manna reached the lowest levels, even the wicked ate it, it remained in its pure state. First it fell from heaven to earth, then it was consumed by all kinds of people, righteous, average and wicked, and throughout all the levels, it remained the same. 

Shabbos has the same quality, it is a very high and holy thing that comes down to the lowest levels, but it remains the same in all levels of existence. 

About Shabbos, the Torah says, "The heaven and the earth and all its components were completed (Vayechulu)." The word Vayechulu has an alternate translation, from the word kilyon, to go out of oneself from ecstasy, but in regards to Shabbos, it would mean to be raised up to a high spiritual level, because it didn't go out of itself, it remained the same. The verse would thus read, "The heaven and the earth and all its components were raised." And this happens every Shabbos, the whole world is raised in ecstacy, to a very high spiritual level, the level of Shabbos. 

That is why, on Shabbos, not only is it a mitzvah to eat and drink, but it a mitzvah to have pleasure from it. The actual pleasure it is a mitzvah. 

During the week, we have to eat so that we could survive and do the things we are required to do. There is no requirement to have pleasure, as worldly pleasures makes one coarse. But on Shabbos, not only does pleasure not make one coarse, on the contrary, the pleasure is a holy thing, it is a mitzvah. 

Since the light of Shabbos permeates all of existence, we have a rule, that even a completely wicked person doesn't lie on Shabbos. It doesn't mean that he does teshuva on Shabbos, rather he remains the same person, with all of his failings, however, the light of Shabbos has such a profound effect on him, that he doesn't lie. 

Now we can understand why we read the parsha of the manna. Because both Shabbos and the manna have the unique quality, that they affect all levels of existence, and yet, their holiness remains the same. So the parsha of the manna, brings to the fore, the essence of Shabbos. 

On the other hand, the other parshas, including the Ten Commandments, although they are very lofty, they don't bring out the essence of the day. 

Everything in the world, is reflected in Torah. The two types of bread, bread from the heavens and bread from the earth, are found in the study of Torah. Torah is called bread, it nourishes our essence. 

Bread from the earth, is the study of the revealed parts of Torah. It is with great toil and effort that we acquire the knowledge of the revealed Torah. And even when we understand a part of it well, it is fraught with arguments and opinions. 

Bread from the heavens, is the inner or hidden part of the Torah, "In which there is no question... and no argument." 

It is a mistake to think, that just because it is called "bread from the heavens," it is not for every Jew. On the contrary, just like the manna, the inner Torah is for every Jew, no matter where he is at spiritually. And if you teach a person who is not yet following the ways of Hashem, it will, with time, surely move him to get on the path. 

Thank G-d, as Moshiach comes closer, the opposition against teaching the inner Torah has ended. And now, there is hardly a Torah class, or a rabbi's sermon, without some inner Torah flavoring sprinkled within, specifically the teachings of the great chasidic masters. It is a blessing that we can embrace and study all levels of the Torah. 

But that is only in the Torah institutions and synagogues. What about the unaffiliated, or the unlettered? Should we teach them too? These teachings are pure, they permeate all levels, and effect the person being taught to become closer to Hashem. So why not?  

The evil inclination is clever. Now that there is no longer an opposition to chassidus, he has found a new argument. "They are not ready for it yet." However, like every argument of the evil inclination, this one is false as well. Because there is truly no reason to refrain from teaching these beautiful, meaningful and pure lessons to every single Jew. 

I have personally been teaching these teachings since I became a rabbi, and I have not found a Jew who is not ready for it, or who hasn't become closer to Hashem from learning it. 

Even more. The whole purpose of the evil inclination, is for us to strengthen ourselves against him, and do what Hashem wants. And when he sees that all his efforts to get you to do wrong, just made you stronger, he will realize that it wasn't worth it, and he will stop to bother you with his foolish arguments. 

May we bring every Jew closer to Hashem by teaching them both the revealed and inner Torah. This will surely bring Moshiach closer, especially the teachings of the inner Torah, chasidic teaching. As the soul of Moshiach said to the Baal Shem Tov, that he will come, "When your wellsprings (meaning chassidus) will spread out." May he come soon.

In honor of Rabbi Shlomo and Tovi Bistritsky and Rabbi Choni and Frumi Marozov, who married off their children this week. May you only have nachas from the new couple, and may you celebrate many more simchas. And in honor of the new couple Rabbi Mendy and Mirel Bistritsky, may your new marriage be a binyan aday ad. 

Friday, May 25, 2018

Making The Desert Into A Home

Parshas Nasso begins with the count of the children of Gershon and Merari from the tribe of Levi, who would be hauling the coverings, curtains, posts and panels of the Mishkan and its courtyard, when the Jewish people traveled in the desert. It comes after the count of the children of Kehos, who carried the vessels of the Mishkan, which is written about at the end of the previous parsha, Bamidbar.

Everything in Torah is eternal, but these counts seem to be only pertaining to the time that they were in the desert. Why does the Torah tell us about this, which seems to be irrelevant today? Being that the Torah writes this, it must also be eternal and it must be relevant to every one of us. What is the eternal message here for every single Jew?

Levi had three boys, Gershon, Kehos and Merari, in that order, but when they were counted, Kehos was counted first. Why?

To understand this, we first have to answer a more general question. Why did Hashem have the Jewish people stay in the desert for forty years? It is true that they were punished not to enter the Holy Land for forty years because of the fiasco with the spies who gave a bad report, turning the hearts of the people against the land. But that only explains why they didn't enter the land. Why not take them to another country for forty years? Why did they have to be "in the great and awesome desert with snakes, serpents and scorpions, and thirst, for there is no water?"

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains, "The reason for their travels in the desert with the Mishkan and its vessels, was to subdue the power the negative forces leach (off holiness) , because their ability to leech (off holiness) stems specifically from the desert." And even more, through subduing the ability of the negative forces to leach from holiness, "They drawed the revelation of G-dliness."

You see, there is a constant spiritual battle between the negative forces and the forces of good. But the negative forces don't get their nourishment directly from Hashem, rather, in a indirect way, they leach what they can from us. They find openings, due to our weaknesses and failings, and that becomes their nourishment. Our travels in the desert, greatly hampered their ability to leech off holiness, therefore, weakening them for all time. Being that we weakened them, we made more room for G-dliness. So the forty years we spent in the desert, laid the groundwork and gave us the spiritual upper hand in our mission as Jews. There is still a battle, but it is vastly easier than it would have been, without our accomplishments traveling in the desert.

Every spiritual accomplishment surfaces in the physical. That is why, wherever we traveled in the desert, the clouds of glory that protected us, killed the snakes, serpents and scorpions, the Mishkan was set up, and the well of Miriam gushed forth water, making the desert bloom with all kinds of greenery and trees. In other words, wherever we went ceased to be desert, ceased to be negative. So for the Jewish people, there was really no desert, because their travels made the desert civilized.

The ability to do all this came from the tribe of Levi, and specifically from those who dismantled, carried and erected the Mishkan and its vessels. What gave them the power to effect their surroundings so drastically? It was the count at the end of parshas Bamidbar and the beginning of parshas Nasso that raise them above and separated them, so that they weren't affected by the negative, rather, they affected the negative and turned it into positive, they made the desert habitable.

This idea of making the desert into a home is applicable to every person and in every generation.

When a person thinks about his life, he comes to the realization that he is flawed, because no one is perfect, everyone has failings of some sort. In other words, he and his surroundings is not habitable for Hashem, and even if it is, it is not a permanent home for Him. This can be disheartening and even depressing, and bring a person to run away from his purpose and mission that Hashem gave him.

This is where this lesson comes in, telling us that we are traveling in a desert and our job is to make our personal desert bloom. Just as in the desert, the Jewish people only traveled on Hashem's word, we too only travel on His word. In every situation that we find ourselves, it is Hashem Who specifically put us there and we have the ability to turn it in to an oasis for Hashem.

Everyone of us can be like a Levi, as the Rambam says, "Not just the tribe of Levi, but anyone... who will give of himself... to separate himself and stand before Hashem to serve Him... Hashem will be his portion and his inheritance... just as the Kohanim and the Leviim merited to have."

In other words, anyone who puts himself to the task of, "teaching His virtuous ways and His righteous laws to many," will be given the strength and prestige from above, he will be raised higher and higher, he will reach the level of the children of Gershon, and then the level of the children of Kehos, the highest level of the tribe of Levi. And through this, he will be able to effect his place in the world, and make it into a home for Hashem.

There is another lesson here. One might look back at his bleak past and think to himself, "The way I acted in the past was negative, I've been acting that way so long. How am I going to change now?" Thinking this way, he can give up hope of ever becoming a better person, or a follower of Hashem's ways.

To him the Torah says, that the children of Gershon, Kehos and Merari, first began their service at the age of thirty, notwithstanding their previous life, and they were able to reach the highest levels, they started to carry the Mishkan and turned the desert into an oasis. Same is true for us, we don't have to dwell on the past, it is never too late to begin, and if we make the effort, we can reach the highest levels, we will be given the strength to rid ourselves of any negativities or bad habits and addictions, and make ourselves and our surroundings into a beautiful home for Hashem.

How does one go about doing this? There are two parts to this effort, "refraining from doing bad," and "doing good." When you want to make a home fit for a king, first you have to clean out the junk and then you can bring in the furnishings and make it beautiful. The same is true when you want to make yourself and your surroundings into a home for Hashem, first you have to "refrain from bad," stop the negative actions, and then you have to start "doing good," doing what Hashem wants.

These two, "refraining from bad," and "doing good," are hinted in the names of the sons of Levi. Gershon is from the word gerush, which means to divorce, and Merari is from the word mar, which means bitter. Together they mean to separate from the bad or "refrain from bad." Kehos is from the word yikhas, which means to gather, which is doing something positive or "doing good."

Gershon was born before Kehos, because the order is first "refrain from bad," and then "do good." However, when it comes to counting them, which counting raises the status of the things being counted, Kehos was first, to show that "doing good" is more important. If you think about it, even though refraining from bad is very difficult and of course, nothing bad is being done, but it doesn't accomplish anything positive. Its whole purpose is to create a wholesome environment, so you can "do good."

This idea is also brought out in the work they did. Gershon and Merari carried the parts that made the house of the Mishkan, just as a home provides protection. It symbolizes "refraining from bad," protecting yourself from negative actions. Kehos carried the vessels of the Mishkan, the vessels are what all the services in the Mishkan were done with. The house is there to protect and create the perfect environment for the people living in it, so they can do positive action with the vessels, and that is what makes it a home.

May we merit to see our deserts become a everlasting home for Hashem, with the coming of Moshiach. May he come soon.

Dedicated in honor of my son Mendel, who celebrated his birthday this week, may Hashem give you an amazing year, Mommy and I are so proud of you. 

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Completion Of Our Mission That Began At Sinai

The Haftora for the second day of Shavuoth is from our prophet Habakkuk. He says a prayer, and tells of many great miracles that Hashem did for the Jewish people, starting with the giving of the Torah. He is pained by the suffering of the prolonged exile, and finally has a vision of the final redemption, and he is filled with joy. 

The simple reason for reading this Haftora is because it mentions the giving of the Torah, but there has to be more. 

This Haftora is only read outside of Israel, where we have a second day of Shavuoth. The reason for this extra day is not the same as the extra days added to Pesach and Sukkos, they were added because of a doubt when the holiday was. Because in the times that we would sanctify the new month according to the testimony of two witnesses that saw the new moon, the community outside of Israel wouldn't know until a while later. So the rabbis Instituted an extra day, just in case the new month began the next day. Shavuoth, on the other hand, is not because of a doubt, it always falls on the fiftieth day of the Omer. Rather, the extra day is because the rabbis wanted that all the holidays have the same laws. So while the other holidays have an extra day, because maybe, that is the actual holiday, on Shavuoth, the Jewish people add an additional day of their own will, and take a day that is undoubtedly mundane and make it holy. 

This is in fact the essence of the day and it captures the essence of Shavuoth as well. 

Shavuoth is the day we received the Torah, it is the day our mission began. It is the day that Hashem gave us the ability to do our mission. The Midrash says, that before the giving of the Torah, above and below, spiritual and physical, didn't mix. At the giving of the Torah all that changed, as it says, "And Hashem descended on Mount Sinai." Now there is the ability to mesh G-dliness with the physical, to make this world into a dwelling place for Hashem. We do this by learning Torah, doing mitzvahs and using the most mundane parts of our lives to serve Hashem. Our mission began at the giving of the Torah, and it ends with the coming of Moshiach. 

Habakkuk was given a vision of future of the Jewish people. He saw all of our suffering in exile, and he couldn't take it. He pleaded with Hashem, and he outright demanded on behalf of the Jewish people. But when he saw the time of Moshiach, he understood and was happy. That is why he said this prayer, to ask forgiveness for the harsh words he spoke. 

In his prayer, he begins telling of the giving of the Torah, then he goes through many of the good things Hashem did for the Jewish people, then he tells of the exile, he alludes to the difficult war of Gog and Magog, that will happen right before the coming of Moshiach, and finally, he rejoices with his coming.  

In other words, he is telling us that what Hashem does is good, and even if we don't see it that way, because of the harsh exile, he knows the truth, because he saw the future redemption, and it is all worth it. Just as he rejoiced, so will we. 

On the second day of Shavuoth, the day that we turn from mundane to holy, we received the Torah, with which we make the world into a dwelling for Hashem, mundane to holy, and we read the Haftora about the completion of our mission, the coming of Moshiach, when the world will be a home for Hashem, the whole world will go from mundane to holy. And that is the connection between the second day of Shavuoth and the Haftora. 

At the beginning of his prayer, Habakkuk says, "I heard your message and I was afraid." This verse is quoted by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the Zohar, and this passage of the Zohar is part of the Tikkun Leil Shavuoth, that we read as we stay awake on the first night of Shavuoth. "Rabbi Shimon rejoiced and said, '"I heard your message and I was afraid," at that time it was appropriate to have fear, but in our case it all depends on love.'" Being that we read this in the synagogue on the second day of Shavuoth, means that it applies to us. Why does Rabbi Shimon say, that "In our case it all depends on love?" 

Habakkuk said that he heard and he was afraid. Hearing is not like seeing, hearing implies distance and less understanding than seeing, therefore it is associated with fear. Seeing, on the other hand, implies closeness and deep understanding, hence it is associated with love. 

We see this differentiation when it comes to studying Torah. The written Torah is associated with fear, as it says in Maseches Sofrim, "A face of fear for reading (Torah)." Why fear? Because it is distant, there is a lack of understanding, as we see, that even if one is just reading the words of the written Torah, even if he doesn't understand what he is saying, he is obligated to recite the blessing for learning Torah. On the other hand, learning Talmud, the oral Torah, is associated with love, because it must be understood. 

Habakkuk heard and felt distant, therefore, he was filled with fear. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was close to Hashem, and his experience was of seeing, as he said, "I see now what no man has seen since the day that Moshe went up a second time on Mount Sinai." 

Each of us stood at Mount Sinai, saw the great event and the greatest levels of G-dliness. Therefore we are close and our experience is one of love as well.  

He continues his prayer and he talks about the power of the Aron, the Ark of the Covenant, which housed the tablets of the Ten Commandments and according to some, the Torah that Moshe wrote. The Ark symbolized the Torah. He concludes that part, "The ways of the world are His." 

The Talmud concludes with a teaching on these words of Habakkuk, and it is recited in our morning prayer. "It was taught in the school of Eliyahu, 'Whoever learns (Torah) laws every day, it is certain that he is (going to receive a portion in) the world to come, as it says, "The ways (halichos) of the world are his," don't say halichos (ways), but halachos (laws).'" Why specifically laws? Why not the study of Torah in general? 

The general study of Torah has many opinions. There are 70 ways of understanding the Torah, or 600,000 ways. But there is a point where there is no division, and total unity of Hashem's will in Torah. This place has only one opinion, Hashem's essential will. This is not expressed by the general study of Torah, which has many opinions. This essential oneness of Hashem, beyond any division, is expressed in halacha, where we have one bottom line that we follow. Since it is the study of laws that brings the essential will of Hashem into the world and into practice, it guarantees one a place in the world to come. 

Even more, through studying halachos, "the ways of the world" become "his." He becomes a master over worldly matters. 

Habakkuk then speaks of the exile, "For the fig tree will not blossom, and there won't be food growth on the vines..." 

Then he became happy with the realization that Hashem will help us. "Yet, I will rejoice in Hashem, I will be joyful in the G-d of my salvation." 

What is he so joyous about? He continues, "G-d Hashem will be my army, He will make my feet as a deers, and He will lead me on high places, to the Choirmaster with my songs."

"G-d Hashem will be my army," meaning, Hashem gives us the strength to be victorious over the exile and bring Moshiach. 

"He will make my feet as a deers." Why does he refer to feet? Because he is talking about the end of the exile, which is called, "ikvisa d'mishicha," the footsteps of Moshiach, when the way we serve Hashem is not so much like the head, with deep understanding, rather similar to the feet, that will go and do things that the head will never do. The feet symbolize serving Hashem through self sacrifice, which is the calling of the last generation before the coming of Moshiach, our generation. They will be like a deer's feet, which can go far with ease. Meaning, that Hashem will give us the strength to win this war and end the exile, with ease. 

"And He will lead me on high places," meaning, that we will be lifted to the highest levels, when Moshiach comes. 

"To the Choirmaster (lamnatzeach)." Lamnatzeach could also mean, "to the victor," which in this case will be Hashem and the Jewish people. "With my songs," is our song, as we will break out in song, as it says about the coming of Moshiach, "And there we will sing a new song." 

May we merit to rejoice, just as Habakkuk did, with the coming of Moshiach. May it happen soon. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

Active Involvement

In memory of 
Mendy Klein OBM
who passed away this week. He was an amazing person and a great Baal Tzedaka. Dina and I will miss you. May his family be consoled. 
Print      Behar       Bechukosai
In parshas Behar, the Torah says, that when giving a loan to a fellow Jew, one shouldn't charge interest, and it concludes, "I Am Hashem your G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt... to be for you as G-d."

The Sifra explains, "From here, (our sages) said, 'Whoever accepts the yoke of (not taking) interest, accepts the yoke of Heaven, and whoever removes the yoke (and takes) interest, removes the yoke of Heaven... for anyone who admits to the mitzvah of (not taking) interest, admits to the Exodus from Egypt, and anyone who denies (and takes) interest, denies the Exodus from Egypt.'"

What is it about the mitzvah of (not taking) interest, that it is specifically connected to accepting the yoke of Heaven, and the Exodus from Egypt?

Rashi explains the connection between taking interest and the Exodus from Egypt. That just as by the Exodus, Hashem differentiated between a firstborn and a non-firstborn, so too, He knows when someone lends his own money with interest, claiming that the money belongs to a non-Jew.

The difficulty we remain with, is that Rashi's explanation is only on a specific circumstance, that he claims that the money belongs to a non-Jew. However, from the Sifra it seems that taking interest, in any situation, is a denial of the Exodus. How is the general idea of charging interest a denial of the Exodus?

It is also strange to equate the taking of interest to throwing off one's yoke of Heaven, instead, it seems to be more of a lack of trust in Hashem. He is afraid that if he doesn't invest all of his money, he won't have enough. On the other hand, one who lends money to another Jew without any gain, displays a great trust in Hashem, because he is showing that he is certain that Hashem will take care of him, even without that money invested. Why does taking interest equate with throwing off one's yoke of Heaven?

Accepting the yoke of Heaven expresses itself mostly in the performance of mitzvahs. Why do you do a mitzvah? Because Hashem said so. That is the simple definition of accepting the yoke of Heaven. When you do a mitzvah this way, Hashem participates in your mitzvah. That is one of the reasons why we say in the blessing before a mitzvah, "He sanctified us with His commandments," and not "the commandments," they are His, because He does them. How does this work?

There are two ways. First, there is when Hashem does the mitzvah before us, as our sages say, "What He does, He tells Yisrael to do." Then there is when Hashem does a mitzvah as a result of a Jew doing a mitzvah, as our sages say, "Whoever reads the Torah, Hashem reads and responds opposite him." The same is true about every mitzvah.

The fact that we effect above, doesn't mean that we are in some way comparable to Hashem, of course we are not, as nothing is. So why do we effect above? It is only that Hashem wanted it to be that way, so it is. But we have to ask: Why does Hashem want our service to Him, to have an effect above?

To understand this, we first have to answer a more general question. Why does Hashem want us to serve Him at all? One of the reasons Hashem created the world, is "In order to do good to his creations," because it is "His nature to do good." If so, why doesn't He just fill our needs without our service to Him, from the top down, according to his nature?

Because of His nature to do good, He would want us to feel good about what we receive from Him, to feel like we earned it, no one feels satisfied with a hand out. When you get something that is not earned, it is called "bread of shame." Hashem has us serve Him, so that we earn what we receive from Him.

Now that we understand why Hashem has us serve Him, we will also understand why our service effects above. When we do work, we only feel good about it, when it is meaningful, when it actually accomplishes something. If someone were to give you meaningless busy work, a boondoggle, in order to give you a paycheck, it doesn't feel good either. It is still bread of shame, because you know that it is a hand out. Hashem made our service make a real difference above, so that it would be truly satisfying and meaningful.

Another reason that Hashem had our service make a real difference, is because work that accomplishes nothing is not satisfying.

There was a landowner that loved the motion of a sickle being swung in the field. So he hired a peasant to swing his sickle in his room for the same pay he would receive in the field. After a short while, the peasant quit, saying, "I don't see any accomplishment."

Therefore, Hashem set things up in a way, that our service effects above. This makes our service more enjoyable and gratifying. It also helps us overcome the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, knowing how much our service to Hashem accomplishes, we are strengthened and are able to win the battle.

Now that we know how we affect the world with each particular mitzvah that we do, there is also the general concept of how we effect above, symbolized by the mitzvah of (not taking) interest.

What is interest? It is making a profit off money that you once had, now it is in the borrowers possession, but you are still making money on it. You are not involved at all, but you are taking the profit. It is different than an investor who risks his capital, and gains and loses with the success of the venture. When one takes interest, he is not involved.

Hashem treats us, as we treat others. If we give loans with interest, meaning, that we are not involved, Hashem in turn, will not participate in our mitzvahs, which is what happens when we accept the yoke of Heaven. Now that one charged interest, he threw off the yoke of Heaven, and Hashem doesn't participate in his mitzvahs.

This will help us understand the connection between taking interest, and the Exodus from Egypt. The Exodus represents becoming free of all restraints. When we accept the yoke of Heaven, Hashem becomes our partner in our service. When you have Hashem as your partner, you are freed of all restraints, you are free from your Egypts.

This is a lesson for us. It is not enough what you have done in the past. Even if you established great ongoing things. You have to be an active participant in the world in your relationships, and in the good things you have established already. You shouldn't think, "I have already done my work, teaching others to run the Torah institutions and the chesed organizations, I will now be involved in my own growth and my own pursuits, and I will enjoy the residual income of my past involvement in spreading Torah and doing kindness." In a small way, this is akin to taking interest. Rather, one should continue to be involved, and the reward for this, is Hashem will be his partner, his life will be filled with blessing and he will be freed of all restraints.

In the merit of our involvement in spreading Torah and doing kindness, we will surely break free from the restraints of this exile, and hasten the coming of Moshiach. May he come soon.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Jewish Beauty

Photo by Inga Barsky
Dear friends, 

Dina and I are so grateful to Hashem that our daughter Fruma is engaged to Levi Karp. Here is what I wrote in honor of their engagement. The dvar Torah is in regular font, and the personal message to the new couple is in italics. 


Baruch Hashem, I am here to see my daughter Fruma get engaged, and to a wonderful bochur, from a wonderful family. 

Mazal Tov to the Karps and the Glicks, and to the Hurwitzes and Berkowitzes, Baruch Hashem, this is a match made in heaven. And now, if there was someone in Lubavitch that you weren't related to yet, you can be certain that you are now. 

You are getting engaged in the week of Behar-Bechukosai. 

You may ask, what does Behar-Bechukosai have to do with shidduchim?

The last Mishnah of maseches Taanis, talks about shidduchim. It tells about Tu B'Av, when the eligible girls of Yerushalayim would dress in white and dance in the Vineyards. They would say to the boys, "Bochur, lift up your eyes and see, what will you choose for yourself? Don't look at beauty, look at family. Charm is false and beauty is futile, a woman who is G-d-fearing is to be praised."

The Rebbe asks, "Was it possible, that every maiden in Yerushalayim came from a good family, that she would be able to say, look at my family?"

The question becomes stronger, when you see what the Talmud says next. It brings a beraisa that details what exactly the young ladies said. The pretty ones said, "look at beauty." The ones with yichus said, "look at family." The homely ones said, "take your pick for the sake of heaven."

The beraisa seems to be contradicting the Mishnah, the Mishnah seems to put everyone in one boat, "look at family," but the beraisa says that they said details. Also, it seems very vain and shallow of the pretty ones, to say, "look at beauty." Is that a Jewish value? And how does it fit with the wholesome message of the Mishnah, that "Charm is false and beauty is futile?"

There are two approaches when it comes to viewing the qualities of a person. You can take a general view of a person, or you can look at the details.

In the general view, you see a Jewish girl, a daughter of our matriarchs, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah, who inherited their beautiful qualities. Even though they might be hidden at the moment, you know that they are there, and that eventually they will surely surface. The Mishnah is talking about this general view, that is why it says, "Lift up your eyes and see," because he is taking a general view. And when it says, "Charm is false and beauty is futile," it is referring to shallow beauty and shallow Charm.

The beraisa is talking about a detailed view, after he already has seen the general view. The girls of Yerushalayim are talking about meaningful Jewish virtues. Why is she beautiful, because she took the beautiful inheritance that she got from Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah, and made them her own. Therefore, she is truly beautiful on the inside, and when you are beautiful on the inside, it comes out on the outside, that is Jewish beauty worth mentioning. That is not false and not futile.

In other words, if you accept the gifts that are your inheritance and make them your own, then the details have value. Real beauty and real family in the light of Torah, in the light of Yiddishkeit, and Chassidus. However, if you only have the details without making the inheritance your own, it is empty beauty, false and futile.

This brings us to Behar-Bechukosai. Behar is a mountain, tall, strong and beautiful, it is the details. Bechukosai is our essence, our inheritance, the Torah. If you make the Bechukosai, the Torah your own, then the Behar, the details are of value. But if you only have the Behar, the details, it is a pretty rock, with no Yiddishe taam and no Jewish value.

We are blessed to have Fruma and Levi, who have it all. They know where they come from, the Karps the Glicks the Hurwitzes and the Berkowitzes, who have amazing virtues, they are honest, kind, giving, talented, strong, learned, smart and chassidish, to name a few. And you both are internalizing them. It is wonderful to see such an amazing couple coming together, just keep it up. Make Hashem proud, and the Rebbe proud, and you will certainly make us and all klal Yisrael proud. 

And to my Fruma, you come from a long line of great, smart, kind, and strong women, who made a difference. I see that in you. Take a lesson from your mother and from Levi's mother, who are both truly beautiful because they internalized it. And since they are beautiful on the inside, they are beautiful on the outside as well. 

You have it in you to be like them and even better. 

Mazal Tov! Mazal Tov! 

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Sefiras HaOmer

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The mitzvah of Sefiras HaOmer (the counting of the Omer), is found in parshas Emor which is always read during Sefira. It is also read on the second day of Pesach, the day that we begin the counting of the Omer. 

Sefiras HaOmer is a unique mitzvah in certain ways, which will be the discussion of this article. 

What is the reason for the count? According to many, it is a preparation and readying ourselves for the holiday of Shavuoth. 

The Chinuch tells us, "We are commanded to count from the day after the first day of Pesach until the day of the giving of the Torah, to give guidance to our souls, to have great yearning for the honorable day in our hearts, 'like a servant who longs for shade,' constantly counting, when will come the time that he pines for, to go free, because the counting shows about the person, that his whole hope and yearning is to reach that day."

This will help us understand why we don't say Shehecheyanu at the start of the count. First, because it is a preparatory mitzvah, and we don't say Shehecheyanu on a mitzvah that is a preparation for something else. For example, when we search for chametz before Pesach, we don't say Shehecheyanu, because it is a preparation for Pesach. 

A second reason, is because the count represents a longing and anticipation for something you don't have now. Therefore it is associated with discomfort and we don't say Shehecheyanu on something that is painful. 

Today, according to some opinions, the mitzvah of Sefiras HaOmer is "zecher l'mikdash," meaning that it is not the same as in Temple times, when we brought the Omer offering. Now that we don't have the Temple, we do it in remembrance of Temple times, but we still say the blessings and it has the same spiritual effect on us, as we will mention later in this article. 

The Zohar says, that the seven weeks we count, are like the seven days that are counted before mikva. Through this we purify ourselves, so that we can enter the chupa on the day of the Giving of the Torah, Shavuoth. 

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, when putting together the siddur that Chabad uses, was very particular in every detail, the liturgy, the order, etc. That it should be able to be used by every Jew. It follows the nusach (system of prayer) of the Arizal, but leaves out the deep spiritual meditations that he added to his siddur, because it is beyond most people to understand and follow, and the siddur was meant to be for every Jew. When he made his siddur, he had sixty nusachs of the siddur, that he compared and reference, before coming up with his final product. 

One of the changes he made to the siddur, whereas the Ari's siddur ends with meditations, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi put Sefiras HaOmer last. Why did he make this change? 

The end of the siddur is not arbitrary, especially when we know how particular he was about every detail. The end of a book is the culmination of the work, and in it you can find the essence and the central purpose of the work. 

The Ari's siddur ends with meditations of the higher spiritual realms, because it is a siddur that was made for a particular few, who are at the high level, that their prayers affect the world and the higher spiritual realms, bringing everything in sync with Hashem's purpose. The essence and the central purpose of that siddur is not so much the person praying, rather, the effect it has on the world, therefore, it ends with meditations. 

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi's siddur is for every individual Jew. Its central theme is the effect on the individual, and it culminates with Sefiras HaOmer, because somehow Sefiras HaOmer encapsulates the central theme of the siddur. How does it do that? 

Mitzvahs generally fall into one of two categories. The first are mitzvahs that require action, like putting on Tefillin, lighting Shabbos candles, eating matzah, etc. Or even a minor action, like speaking, saying words, like reading the Megillah, retelling the story of the Exodus from Egypt, etc. 

The second type of mitzvah, is the kind that is in the heart, like love and fear of Hashem, etc. 

The mitzvah of prayer is unique in that while it requires action, it has to be said with the lips, it also is in the heart, as it has to be pleading and beseeching with meaning. As the Rambam says, "The obligation of this mitzvah is as follows, that a person should beseech and pray every day, by saying praises of Hashem, followed by asking for his needs through requesting and beseeching, and after that, to give praise and thanks to Hashem for the good He has given him." Requesting and beseeching require that you understand what you are saying, and it comes from the heart, if not, it isn't prayer. So prayer has both the qualities of action and heart. 

While other mitzvahs require proper intent, the intent itself isn't the actual mitzvah, but by prayer, the intent itself is the mitzvah. 

The same is true about Sefiras HaOmer. The law is, that you have to say the count, but if you don't understand the Hebrew, you could say it in any language you understand, because if you don't know what you are saying, you are not counting. So Sefiras HaOmer is like prayer, in that it has both qualities of action and heart. 

Another way prayer and Sefiras HaOmer are alike, is in its effect on the individual. 

When praying we are meant to stand before Hashem, "like a servant before his master." And as the Rambam says, "One should clear his heart of all thoughts and see himself as if he stands before the Shechina." When you pray in this way, it changes you and lifts you to a higher level than before, until you are a completely different person. 

The same is true about Sefiras HaOmer. The purpose of Sefiras HaOmer is to change ourselves spiritually, every day we work on a different aspect of our spiritual makeup. As we say in the "Ribono shel olam" prayer, that we say following Sefiras HaOmer, "You have commanded us... to count Sefiras HaOmer in order to purify us from our evil and impurities... so that the souls of Your people Israel may be cleansed from their defilement." Just like prayer, the counting of the Omer changes you. 

There is a third way that prayer and Sefiras HaOmer are alike, and different from most other mitzvahs. Most mitzvahs require action, and after you do them, they are done and complete. 

When it comes to prayer, the point is to beseech and pray for your needs, even though you don't know if and when your requests will be fulfilled, which would be the completion of what you are praying for. The act of prayer, asking for your needs, although it is not complete in its fruition, is the mitzvah. In a way, prayer is the preparation for the fruition of your requests, and it is this preparation that is the actual mitzvah. 

The same is with Sefiras HaOmer, it is only a preparation for receiving the Torah, for Shavuoth, and the preparation, the counting, longing and anticipation is the actual mitzvah. 

You might think, that individual prayer is not as powerful as the special few that pray with the Ari's siddur meditations. But Sefiras HaOmer teaches us otherwise. 

When you think about it, you will realize that this counting is very powerful, and we see its strength in the holiday it brings, Shavuoth. 

Shabbos is established by Hashem, no matter what, every seven days you have Shabbos, it is totally out of our control. Most holidays are set to a date on the calendar, we sanctify the months of the year, establishing when the new month begins, but it generally follows the cycle of the moon. In that we have some control. 

However, Shavuoth is not set to a date on the calendar, rather it is set to the count of the Omer. We count forty nine days and the fiftieth is Shavuoth, it is totally in our control. 

We see the power of Sefiras HaOmer in a few ways. First, outside of Israel, instead of every holiday being one day, we add an extra day. The reason for this, is because in the times that we would sanctify the new month according to the testimony of two witnesses that saw the new moon, the community outside of Israel wouldn't know exactly when the new month began until a while later. To deal with this doubt, it was established, that outside of Israel they would celebrate a second day, just in case the new month began a day later. So the extra day of every holiday, is because of doubt. 

The exception to this rule is Shavuoth. Since Shavuoth is after forty nine days of counting the Omer, there is never a doubt when Shavuoth is, it is always on the fiftieth day, irrespective of the date it falls on. If so, why do we have a second day of Shavuoth? Because the rabbis made all the holidays the same. Different than Sukkos and Pesach, the extra day of Shavuoth was never because of a doubt, therefore, it is stricter than the extra days of the other holidays. 

It is Sefiras HaOmer that establishes when we celebrate Shavuoth. 

The second way is how our individual counts effect Shavuoth. According to many, if someone crosses the International Dateline during Sefira, and his count is off by a day, he will have to celebrate Shavuoth according to his count, either a day earlier or later than everybody else. 

And finally, Sefiras HaOmer draws Hashem's blessing into the world, as the prayer after Sefiras HaOmer continues, "And through this, abundant bounty will be bestowed in all the worlds." And these blessings are drawn into the details, as the next words tell us, "And rectify our nefesh, ruach and neshamah from every baseness and defect, and purify and sanctify us with Your supernal holiness." 

Similarly the individual prayers of every single Jew, is very powerful, even though it is focused on his needs. Prayer is not just to draw down the blessings that are already in the world. In prayer we say, "It should be the will before You," because we, so to speak, draw from beyond existence a new will that didn't exist in the world before. And this new will is drawn into the details, to heal someone who wasn't meant to be healed, to grant children to someone who was meant to be barren, to rain on a place where there was supposed to be a drought, etc. When a new will is drawn into the world, it affects all of existence, raising it higher than it ever was before. So like Sefiras HaOmer, the prayers of an individual are extremely powerful, it changes the world. 

Now we can understand why Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi put Sefiras HaOmer last in his siddur, because it encapsulates the essence and the central theme of individual prayer, which is the point of his siddur. 

Through our counting Sefiras HaOmer, which is "zecher l'mikdash," and through studying its laws, we will merit the coming of Moshiach and the rebuilding of our Holy Temple, the Beis Hamikdash, in Jerusalem. And we will certainly be able to count the Omer in its proper way, as we say right after counting, every night of Sefiras HaOmer, "May the Merciful One restore unto us the service of the Beis Hamikdash to its place, speedily in our days; Amen, Selah." May it happen soon. 

Dedicated in memory of Chaya Spalter, whose yartziet was this week. It is amazing how one person can affect so many, as she had an amazing effect on everybody she met, including my family and myself. She was beautiful inside and out and a force of good in the world.