Parsha Perspectives

by RABBI LEIBY BURNHAM

לא תספו על הדבר אשר אנכי מצוה אתכם ולא תגרעו ממנו לשמר את מצות ה’ אלקיכם אשר אנכי מצוה אתכם

“You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor shall you subtract from it, to observe the commandments of Ha-shem your G-d, that I command you” (Devarim 4:2).

In this week’s parsha, we find a mitzvah that is very important for keeping the integrity of the Torah, and the Jewish tradition through the ages. “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor shall you subtract from it, to observe the commandments of Ha-shem your G-d, that I command you” (Devarim 4:2). This verse instructs us to leave the mitzvot exactly as we received them, without adding anything or taking away from them. It is clear why G-d would tell us not to take away from the mitzvot. But why does G-d not allow anyone to add to the mitzvot? If they want to be more pious and do more, why would G-d prohibit it?

The Dubno Maggid explains this concept with the following parable. Sam asked his neighbor Frank if he could borrow a silver spoon. The neighbor gave it to him and was surprised to see him return the next day with two spoons, one bigger than the other. “What is this for?” asked Frank. “Well, after you gave me the spoon, it got pregnant and gave birth!” Not missing a beat, Frank called out a hearty Mazal Tov, and wished Sam well.

A few days later Sam came to borrow a big copper pot. Frank gave it to him, and much to his joy, Sam came back a few days later with the copper pot, and a little “baby” pot. Once again Sam explained that the pot had been pregnant and gave birth to the small pot.

When Sam came by the following week and asked Frank to borrow his large silver menorah, Frank was only too quick to hand it over, in anticipation of a baby menorah. Two months went by, and there was no sign of Sam or his menorah. When he finally spotted Sam at the train station, he rushed over and asked why he hadn’t yet returned the menorah. “Oh” replied Sam, “the menorah, yes, a terrible thing happened! A few minutes after I arrived home, the menorah suddenly fell ill. It wasted away for a few hours, and then it simply died! I am so sorry about your loss!”

Sam was enraged. “What do you mean my menorah died?? Whoever heard of a menorah dying?!” To which Sam replied, “Well, whoever heard of a pot or a silver spoon giving birth? But that didn’t seem to trouble you so much, so I don’t know why this is troubling you?”

When G-d gave us the Torah, he gave us a precise prescription for a perfect, peaceful, and pleasant life. Once we think we can take control of the wheel and start turning it, even in the direction of more mitzvot, there is a fundamental perspective shift. No longer is it G-d’s Torah, but rather our personal Torah, to do with it as we please! If one could add to the Torah, one could just as easily detract from it; we would give “birth” to new mitzvot we want to see on the list, and we would have the ones that are a bit too difficult simply “die.” For that reason G-d commands us “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor shall you subtract from it.”

We find a similar idea in the technology arena. Most companies offer warranties on their products, but if you tamper with the product, even by adding enhanced functionality or components, the warranty is no longer valid. It is no longer the manufacturer’s product, and they won’t stand behind it.

A person may feel like they should add roses to their Four Species, because it will make him much more beautiful and fragrant, or he may think he should add organic foods to the kashrut requirement, because it will be healthier. While these additions may speak to his sensibilities, he would no longer be doing a mitzvah, but would rather be following a personal conviction.

Only when the Torah is kept in the way it was received, does G-d stand behind His product, and offer His eternal warranty!

Jewish Settlement Dependent on Certain Conditions

by RABBI DOVID BASLAW

…אז יבדיל משה שלש ערים בעבר הירדן מזרחה

“Then Moses set aside three cities on the side of the Jordan, on the east.” (Devarim 4:41)

One of the many remarkable qualities we learn about Moses from this week’s Torah portion is his commitment to every commandment, even those commandments for which he knew he would not be alive to witness their implementation.

Moses was told that six cities of refuge would have to be designated throughout the areas in which the Jewish people were going to live in order to grant asylum to the unintentional murderer. Three such cities would have to be set aside in the then-occupied Transjordan and another three in the land of Israel itself.  In his commentary, Rashi writes that Moses was also told that all six cities chosen for refuge would become officially opened for use only after Jewish settlement in the land of Israel (which meant they would operate only after Moses’ death).  Nevertheless, Moses immediately designated three cities of refuge in Transjordan, putting his full heart into carrying out the orders he could execute while he was still alive.

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (the Chofetz Chaim) writes that the above observation sheds light on the words of the great Torah scholar Rabbi Yochanan, who was known to say that a person should stay with a project even when its end is not in sight. These words are especially relevant, the Chofetz Chaim explains, when we remember that we are commanded to guard our tongues from speaking derogatory speech (lashon hara). When considering the intricate guidelines involved, we might rationalize that committing to these laws for the rest of our lives is a lost cause and conclude that there is no value in trying. Rabbi Yochanan therefore urges us to stay the course.

The following parable illustrates this point. A man is walking along a beach and suddenly notices that a wave just washed up a large number of precious stones and pearls. Does the man question why he should bother to reach down and pick up the precious gems when he couldn’t possibly collect them all before the next wave washes them away? On the contrary, he makes the most of the small window of time to gather whatever he can. Getting started and making the effort to be careful about the words which come out of our mouths is certainly the preferred approach, even if we don’t believe we’ll be able to maintain the highest standard on all occasions.

A similar approach can be taken with every virtuous project. Whether it’s an effort to control anger, to become more generous, to build on our Torah knowledge, or to concentrate more intently during prayer, we can resolve to make the very best of the opportunity that the present has to offer.

by RABBI LABEL LAM

מי יתן והיה לבבם זה להם ליראה אתי ולשמר את כל מצותי כל הימים למען ייטב להם ולבניהם לעלם לך אמר להם שובו לכם לאהליכם

“Who can assure that this heart should remain theirs, to fear Me and observe all My commandments, all the days, so that it should be good for them and their children forever? Go say to them, ‘Return to your tents.’” (Devarim 5:26-27)

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses reviewed the episode of the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai and repeated the Ten Commandments before the entire nation. In recalling the events of Mt. Sinai, Moses drew attention to G-d’s seemingly unusual instruction that the people should return to their tents as a means of ensuring their continuing loyalty to His commandments.  Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern (1757-1859, known as the Kotzker Rebbe, Poland) asks why it was necessary for Moses to include this as part of his review of the overall experience of receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

Furthermore, what connection is there between G-d’s concern that the Jewish people “fear and observe” all the commandments and returning to their tents? Indeed, the commandments inspire great admiration for the Jewish people in the eyes of the nations (Devarim 4:6). Surely they are not to be kept hidden in their tents!

Rabbi Morgensztern answers that G-d is stressing the importance of how the Jewish people should conduct themselves in their homes. When the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai, it was ablaze with fire, and the heart of the entire nation was directed toward one goal. Now, G-d was instructing Moses to tell the nation that they must bring their burning enthusiasm with them back to their tents, to their homes. Only then would this experience find lasting permanence.

In a similar vein, a Mishnah in Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot 1:4) states that one’s home should be a meeting place for sages; the very next Mishnah (Pirkei Avot 1:5) states that one’s “house should be open wide,” and the poor should be treated as “members of your household.”

On the surface, these two teachings seem to contradict each other. On the one hand, having a home that is a meeting place of sages means maintaining a level of decorum and dignity which would be appropriate for such leaders. On the other hand, treating the poor as members of our household might give an entirely different flavor to the home, with down-and-out people coming and going at all hours.

A deeper look, however, shows that there really is no contradiction. When a home truly embraces Jewish values with vigor and enthusiasm, then all who enter, from the wisest of sages to the simplest of people, will be comfortable there.

The following story illustrates this point:

Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Herman (1880 – 1967) was a pioneering figure in the observant Jewish world in New York in the early part of the 20th century. He encouraged many young people to embrace their Jewish heritage at a time when millions of Jews were abandoning the “ways of the old country.” He and his wife insisted that their home be open to all. The greatest Rabbis and the poorest of immigrants were all welcome at – and indeed sought out – his table. After many years of Shabbat and Holiday meals and guests, however, this table definitely showed the effects of all the wear and tear.

One day, a relative offered to give them a dining room set to replace the old one at no cost. Rabbi Herman refused.

This table has seen the greatest scholars of our generation, he explained. To outward appearances, the table was old and scratched. However, to Rabbi Herman and his family, the table was a treasured vessel used for holy purposes.

Another time, while Rabbi Herman’s daughter was playing outside, an expensive, chauffeur-driven car drove up to their apartment. An elegant woman appeared from the car and asked to be taken to the Herman residence.

The guest was a wealthy Jewish woman from the West Side of Manhattan. She was known for her contributions to Jewish causes, and she had heard about the many guests that the Herman’s invited into their home.

In a humble voice, this woman asked Mrs. Herman if she could help in the preparations for Shabbat.

“How do you want to help me?” Mrs. Herman asked.

“Well,” she answered, “I could even wash your floors.”

A woman from the upper classes of New York society had traveled to the Herman home and asked to wash the floors – all to have a small portion in their tremendous generosity of spirit. (From All for the Boss by Ruchoma Shain)

As we move past Tisha B’Av and toward the High Holidays, the time is ripe to focus on ways to build love and harmony with our fellow Jews. Rather than extravagant displays of “righteousness,” it is the enthusiasm we have for our heritage that helps us create a home of wisdom, values and openness to share our blessings with others. Indeed, it is the warmth and sincerity found in a Jewish home that has the deepest effect on the people around us and that creates a place where the blazing fires of Sinai find expression in our lives.

by RABBI OZER ALPORT

כי ישאלך בנך מחר לאמר מה העדת והחקים והמשפטים אשר צוה ה’ אלקינו אתכם:  ואמרת לבנך עבדים היינו לפרעה במצרים ויציאנו ה’ ממצרים ביד חזקה

“If your child asks you tomorrow, saying, ‘What are the testimonies and the decrees and the ordinances that Hashem our G-d commanded you?’ You shall say to your child, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and G-d took us out of Egypt with a strong hand.’” (Devarim 6:20-21)

In the Passover Haggadah, we are told that the Torah discusses four types of children, and our verses contain the question attributed to the wise son. For each child, the Torah provides a different answer or explanation which is tailored to that child’s unique circumstances, so that the parents will be able to explain the miracles of the Exodus from Egypt to each child in a manner which is appropriate for his level. Though much has been written on the topic of the four sons, we will add one more insight.

Our Sages teach that every word in the Torah can be interpreted in 70 distinct ways. Rabbi Moshe Tukechinsky, who served as the Mashgiach (spiritual leader) of the Slabodka yeshiva in Bnei Brak, Israel, suggested that this number is no coincidence. As King David writes (Psalms 90:10) that the average life span of a person is 70 years, G-d placed in the Torah a corresponding number of levels so that a person won’t be complacent with his previous understanding but will seek to discover a new layer of depth in each successive year.

However, Rabbi Tukechinsky added that it is unreasonable to expect a person to begin this project in the first few years of his life, when his intellect isn’t yet adequately developed for the task. Rather, this lifelong project begins at the age of Bar Mitzvah, when the Torah considers a person’s mind mature enough to hold him responsible for his actions. It should come as no surprise, then, that Rabbi Tukechinsky died at the age of 83!

In light of this insight, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik (1853-1918) explains that the fact that the Torah specifically addresses each type of child helps us see the breadth and depth of the Torah. Books which are written by humans are targeted toward one level, but the Torah addresses every single person on his unique and individual level.

Rabbi Moshe Wolfson, the Mashgiach of Yeshiva Torah VoDaas in Brooklyn, noted that in secular studies such as mathematics, at the end of each school year the students must turn in their old books and receive new, more advanced books at the beginning of the next school year. On the other hand, Jews around the world study the very same Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud beginning in their youth and continuing throughout their lives, as the Divine wisdom contained therein may be accessed by each student as he grows and matures.

Many of us, this author included, grew up with a perfunctory introduction to the basic “stories” of the Bible – Adam and the forbidden fruit, Noah and the flood, Abraham almost sacrificing Isaac, Moses and the ten plagues, and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Although at that point we may have thought that we knew and understood the full depth of the Torah, we are now mature and intelligent enough to recognize the folly and innocence of this belief.   The Mishnah in Ethics of our Fathers (5:26) teaches: “Delve into it (the Torah), and continue to delve into it, for everything is contained within it.” This is surely a lesson that each of us, no matter where we are on our personal path of Jewish growth, would do well to contemplate and internalize.

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Table Talk

For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table

“Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad”—”Hear oh Israel the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One.” If there is one line in the Torah that can be called the “mission statement” of the Jewish people, this is probably it. It’s what we recite in the morning and the evening each day. It is scrolled onto the doorposts (mezuzahs/mezuzot) throughout our homes. It has also been the final and ultimate expression of unshakable devotion, spontaneously uttered by so many being ushered to death’s door. That declaration is followed immediately by the commandment, “And you should love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” A very tall order indeed!

  1. In the first of these verses, the Torah proclaims that the L-rd our G-d is One. In the second verse, we are commanded to love G-d.  It would seem that the acceptance of G-d’s “oneness” triggers an intense feeling of love for G-d. What is the connection between these two concepts and verses?
  2. We are required to love G-d.  Love is an emotion, and we might contend that we either feel this love or we don’t.  How can the Torah possibly legislate love?

 

Q: The first paragraph of Shema begins (Devarim 6:5) with a commandment to love G-d with our entire heart. How can G-d command and require a person to love Him, as one’s emotions must be genuine and sincere, and mandated love is hardly an ideal level to strive for?

A: Rabbi Akiva Eiger suggests that our feelings of love toward G-d should indeed come naturally, as it is human nature to instinctively love a person who we feel loves us. King Solomon writes in Proverbs (27:19) that just as water reflects back the face of the person looking into it, so too does the human heart mirror the emotions it receives from others.  We need merely focus on contemplating and accepting the unconditional love that G-d feels for every Jew, and reciprocal feelings of love will automatically well up in our hearts. It is for this reason that we conclude the blessing which immediately precedes the morning recitation of Shema with the words, “Who chooses His people Israel with love” and the evening recitation with the words, “Who loves His people Israel.”  As we think about these words and internalize their message, reminding us of the tremendous love that G-d feels for us, we can’t help but experience reciprocal feelings of love, which will allow us to recite Shema with the proper emotions and concentration. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)

 

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Moses recounted the intense, extended prayers he expressed in order to be allowed to enter the Land of Israel, and G-d’s refusal to grant those prayers. (Devarim 3:23-28)

  1. According to Rashi, Moses could have asked G-d to answer his request based on his own good deeds.  Nevertheless, Moses requested that G-d answer his prayers as an “undeserved gift,” as is the way of righteous individuals. (Rashi on Devarim 3:23). The implication of Rashi’s comment is that Moses may have been able to rescind the decree barring his entry to the land of Israel if he had based his request on his own merits. Considering that going to Israel was one of Moses’s primary aspirations, why was limiting his request to undeserved mercy more important to him than realizing his life dream?
  2. Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel (1809-1879, known as the Malbim) notes that had Moses led the people into the Land, he would have ushered in the Final Redemption, the pinnacle of human history. All mankind would have been impacted by the enlightenment of the Messianic Age that would have ensued. (See Torah Ohr, Bamidbar 14)                                                                     If G-d wanted this period of redemption to begin, He could surely have overlooked or otherwise dealt with any indiscretion on the part of Moses. Clearly, it was G-d’s intention that this period be delayed. Given all the suffering the Jews – and indeed the whole world – have endured through the ages, what possible benefit could there have been in delaying our redemption?

 

Q: The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni Devarim 940) tells us that Moses petitioned G-d 515 times in an attempt to convince him to rescind his decree and permit Moses to enter the land of Israel. Where is this seemingly arbitrary number alluded to?

A: The Midrash states that this is hinted to in the Torah itself, as the numerical value of the name of our parsha ואתחנן – and I beseeched – is 515.  Rabbi Yaakov Yehoshua Falk, better-known as the P’nei Yehoshua (Berachot 32a), suggests that this figure may also be mathematically derived.  Rashi writes (Devarim 3:23) that Moses began to entreat G-d after conquering the lands of Sichon and Og. Because he was permitted to enter their lands, which would later possess some of the holiness of the land of Israel, he thought that perhaps G-d had revoked His oath prohibiting Moses from entering the land of Israel.  The Talmud (Bava Basra 121a) teaches that G-d told Moses on 15 Av that they would be victorious in this battle.

From 15 Av until the day of Moses’ death, 7 Adar, there are 200 days. If Moses implored G-d during each of the 3 daily prayers, he would have petitioned a total of 600 times. However, one is forbidden to pray for his personal needs on Shabbat.  Subtracting the three prayers which he wasn’t able to say on each Shabbat, of which there were 28 during this period, leaves a total of 516 prayers. However, prophecy didn’t return to Moses on 15 Av until the morning. From the morning of 15 Av until his death on 7 Adar at the time of the afternoon prayers, it comes out that Moses indeed prayed precisely 515 prayers! (Rabbi Ozer Alport)

 

The Torah states (Devarim 4:6) that the non-Jews will praise our wisdom upon hearing about our performance of chukim (those mitzvot whose logic is beyond our grasp). How can this be reconciled with an early comment of Rashi (Bamidbar 19:2), in which he writes that the non-Jews challenge and deride us for our performance of chukim – mitzvot such as parah adumah (the red heifer) which have no readily apparent rationale or purpose? (Peninim MiShulchan Gevoha Parshat Chukat, Nefesh Yehonason by Rabbi Yonason Eibeshutz)

 

The Talmud in Berachot (32b) teaches that the commandment to guard one’s soul (Devarim 4:15) includes a prohibition to act in ways which endanger one’s life or the lives of others.  Why does the Torah express the requirement to act safely and responsibly in terms of guarding “your souls” and not “your bodies,” which would seem to be more accurate?

 

The Torah commands (Devarim 4:39) a person to know that G-d is G-d in the Heavens and the earth, and there is no other power besides from Him. If the mitzvah is to ‘Know” Him, why is this mitzvah known as emunah – belief – instead of yediah – knowledge? (Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik quoted in Toras Chaim)

 

Rashi explains (Devarim 6:5) that the Torah requires a person to love G-d with his entire heart, soul, and resources because there are some people to whom their possessions are more valuable than their lives (souls).  How could this be possible? (Mayan Beis HaShoeiva by Rabbi Shimon Schwab)

 

Q: In listing the people who are permitted to return home from the battle front, the Torah includes (Devarim 20:8) one who is afraid and weak-hearted.  Rashi explains that this refers to a person who is fearful that the sins which are in his hand will cause him to die in the battle. It is difficult to understand the use of this peculiar expression. In what way is it possible for sins to be in one’s hand more than they are in his heart or on his soul? Further, one of the examples given (Menachot 36a) of such a sin is a person who speaks in between putting the tefillin on his arm and placing the tefillin on his head, a mitzvah which is mentioned in Parshat Va’etchanan.  As atonement for the sin appears to be readily achievable – he need only confess and change his ways – why would he be afraid of dying?

A: Rabbi Shalom Schwadron suggests that our Sages chose the expression that the sin is “in his hand” to hint to the fact that he knows that his behavior is wrong yet, figuratively, still “holds” on to it. Though he is intellectually cognizant of his impropriety and chooses not to change his ways, he fears that he will be punished as a result.  As we approach the upcoming month of Elul, the time when we prepare ourselves for Rosh Hashanah, we must realize that force of habit can be our worst enemy. Genuine introspection and personal evaluation can help loosen the grip we have on the “sins in our hands.” (Rabbi Ozer Alport)

 

Q: Rashi notes the beautiful demonstration of achdut (unity) which the Jews demonstrated upon their arrival at Har Sinai, writing (Shemot 19:2) that they camped by the mountain like one person with one heart.  What makes this unity so unique when Rashi also writes (Shemot 14:10) that the Egyptians pursued the Jews to the Reed Sea with a similar display of harmony, with one heart like one person?

A: Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner and Rabbi Avrohom Bornstein, better known as the Avnei Nezer, explain that there is a fundamental difference between the achdut of the Jews and that of other nations which is subtly hinted to by Rashi. The Jewish people are intrinsically connected as part of one large entity, whereas the members of other nations are fundamentally disassociated and are out for their own personal interests. Only when their desires coincide do they team up in pursuit of a common goal, but not because of any deep bond. As soon as their goals inevitably diverge they will go their separate ways.  A close reading will reveal that while Rashi used the same expression for the Jews at Mount Sinai and for the Egyptians at the Reed Sea, he carefully reversed the order to make this point. The Egyptians didn’t have any true unity, but for a brief moment they were united with one heart (בלב אחד) in a common desire to recapture their fleeing slaves, and they therefore pursued them as one (כאיש אחד). The Jewish people, on the other hand, are intrinsically bonded together as one person (כאיש אחד), and one person automatically has only one heart (בלב אחד). (Rabbi Ozer Alport)

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Parsha Tidbits

Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study

by RABBI ELAZAR MEISELS

THE GOOD OF THE LAND

“Allow me now to cross over and see the good Land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon.” Devarim 3:25

This good mountain – Jerusalem, And the Lebanon – The Holy Temple – Rashi

The Holy Temple was called Lebanon, which derives from the word, lavan [white], for through its remarkable powers of atonement, all our sins are whitened. – Sifri

Allow me now to cross over – Moses was not thinking about his own welfare when making this request. Rather, he feared that whoever would lead them into the Land would not complete the task and leave them at risk of being exiled eventually. Thus he requested, “Allow me to lead the people into the Land, for I will not rest until every last of its current inhabitants are driven out, lest they later entice the Jews to sin and cause them to be exiled from the Land.” His request was denied and his prediction proved prescient. – Sforno

If he requested to “cross over,” wouldn’t that automatically imply that he would “see the good Land”? Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk explained that many people merit to spend time in Israel, but few of them see only the good of the Land. Instead, they allow themselves to be sidetracked by the hardships and struggle that so often accompany one’s existence in the Land. Moses promised G-d that if he were allowed to enter the Land, he would only see “the good of the Land,” and not focus on its less savory aspects.

IT’S NEVER TOO LATE

 “And we settled in Gai, opposite the House of Pe’or. And now, Israel, hearken to the statutes and to the ordinances that I teach you today to perform so that you shall live, and come, and inherit the Land that Hashem, the G-d of your forefathers gives you.” Devarim 3:29- 4:1

And we settled in Gai – And there you engaged in idolatry. Nevertheless, if you will heed the words of the next verse and hearken to the statutes and ordinances, then you will be forgiven, unlike I, who was not forgiven for my sin and will therefore not enter the Land of Israel. – Rashi

And now, Israel – “Moses said to the Jewish people, ‘Which sin did I commit already and how many prayers did I recite in penance, yet I still wasn’t forgiven? You, on the other hand, have committed so many terrible sins, yet the Almighty offers you to repent and promises that if you do, He will accept it?’ Rabbi Yehoshua ben Abba said, ‘In three instances the Jewish people committed a grave sin and were invited by the Almighty to repent and be forgiven.” – Yalkut Shimoni

Sifsei Kohen adds that the words, “And now,” are mentioned to teach us an important lesson that even when one is old and near death, he can still repent and be forgiven his sins. “And now,” i.e. even at the end of the forty years and after all the provocations, you may still hearken to the commandments and be forgiven. Proof of the effectiveness of delayed repentance is the law that states that we must violate Shabbat to extend a person’s life even if by doing so, he’ll only survive an extra few minutes. Why? What value is there to a few extra moments of life that render it worthwhile to violate Shabbat? The answer is that the additional few moments of life offer another opportunity for the person to repent his sins. Such is the astonishing power of repentance that even a last-minute effort is worth violating Shabbat in anticipation of it.

NO CALCULATIONS ALLOWED

“You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor shall you subtract from it, to observe the commandments of your G-d…Your eyes have seen what G-d did with Baal Peor, for every man who followed Baal Peor, your G-d destroyed him…But you who cleave to your G-d, you are all alive today.” Devarim 4:2-4

You shall not add…nor shall you subtract – Unlike food, which each individual must customize to his personal taste, the Torah is designed to satisfy each palate as it is, and nothing needs be added or subtracted. It is perfect and needs no modification whatsoever. Tinkering with it not only changes its flavor somewhat, but renders it into an entirely different dish.

You are all alive today – This verse refers to those who returned from battle with the Midianites, the worshipers of Baal Peor, who were so thoroughly decimated in battle. The Jews, on the other hand, suffered nary a single casualty in this fierce battle. This is the greatest proof of the fact that those who cleave to G-d quite literally cleave to life itself. – Ohr HaChaim (Rabbi Chaim ben Attar)

Rabbi Simchah Bunim of Peshischah notes the juxtaposition of the verse admonishing us not to add or subtract from the mitzvot, to the verse adjuring us to cleave to G-d. He explains that oftentimes, people who are rather bereft of Torah and mitzvot, instead of engaging in it as expected, seek to engage instead in stringencies that are entirely not mandated by halachah, or decide to forget about it entirely and simply pretend that certain mitzvot don’t exist. Neither approach is sanctioned by the Torah. Rather, “You who cleave to your G-d…are alive,” i.e. all that G-d asks of us is to cleave to Him by studying Torah and performing mitzvot.  Once that is the basis of one’s life, he need not worry about adding stringencies to his daily routine, nor will he fall prey to the temptation to omit mitzvot from Judaism.

ALIYAH FOR ALL

“Ascend to the top of the cliff and raise your eyes westward, northward, southward, and eastward, and see with your eyes, for you shall not cross this Jordan.” Devarim 3:27

And See With Your Eyes – Because you requested, “And I shall see this good land,” therefore I am showing you the entire land, as it is written [34:1], “And G-d showed him the entire land.” – Rashi

And See With Your Eyes – This teaches us that G-d showed Moses the distant places as clearly as the nearby places, the clearly visible places as well as the barely visible places, and every single place that would later be referred to as “Eretz Yisroel” (the Land of Israel)… – Yalkut Shimoni

Moses was not merely granted an opportunity to “see” the Land of Israel from a distance. Rather, the Midrash and Rashi make it clear that he was endowed with a special capacity to view every single aspect of the land, even those not generally visible from a mountaintop.  This begs the question why he needed to bother to ascend the mountaintop in the first place? Couldn’t the same miracle be accomplished while he stood on flat earth? The mystics explain that in order to perceive the complete spiritual essence of Land of Israel, one must be prepared to climb a metaphorical “tall mountain” beforehand. The beauty of Land of Israel is available only to those who make real “Aliyah,” a difficult process of spiritual ascent.

WANDERING NO LONGER

“And G-d will disperse you among the people, and you will remain small in number among the nations that G-d will lead you there.” Devarim 4:27

Among the people [Ba’Amim] – The word “Ba’Amim” has a numerical equivalent of 162, which is the same as “Bein HaBavliim” [among the Babylonians]

The Nations [BaGoyim] – The word “BaGoyim” totals 61, which is equivalent to “U’V’Madai” [and the Persians]

Will Lead [Yinaheg] – The word “Yinaheg” totals 68, which is equivalent to “B’yavan” [in Greece]

There [Shamah] – The word “Shamah” totals 345, which is equivalent to “M’Romiim” [The Romans]

The four exiles that the Jewish people will undergo are all alluded to in this verse – Baal HaTurim, Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher (1270-1340)

It is important to recognize that although the name “Wandering Jews,” implies aimless drifting; our continual travels were anything but purposeless roving.  Rather, each of the four exiles was designed to challenge us to grow in a specific area of our relationship with G-d, and together, they form a complete educational experience whose graduates will have mastered and formed an indestructible bond with G-d.

FIND AND SEEK

“And you will seek out from there, Hashem, your G-d, and you will find [Him] for you have sought with all your heart and your soul. When you are in distress and all these things happen to you, at the end of time, you will return unto Hashem, your G-d, and you will hearken to His voice.” Devarim 4:29,30

These verses refer to two different types of repentance:
1. And you will seek out Hashem…with all your heart – This verse refers to one who repents on his own, purely out of a desire to realign himself with the Almighty. His repentance is “with all his heart,” and he is therefore guaranteed success, as the verse continues, “And you will find Him.”
2. When you are in distress – This verse refers to one who repents only because G-d has visited him with trials and tribulations. It is not “with all his heart.” Nevertheless, the fact that he underwent hardship will compensate for his lack of wholehearted devotion and ensure that he merits complete forgiveness. – Ohr HaChaim (Rabbi Chaim ben Attar)

Alternatively, Ohr HaChaim explains the first verse to refer not to one who seeks repentance, but rather, to one who seeks a form of Divine Assistance that will be necessary during our time in exile among the nations of the world. This is why the verse explains that the seeking out of G-d will occur “from there.” He will be asking the Almighty to take care of him and grant him his necessities, without which he cannot survive, and for which he has no other place to turn. The verse promises that when we request this of him, “you will find,” i.e. the request will be granted. However, the verse is written in the singular [“U’Matzata”], to suggest that only select individuals will merit a favorable response to this plea because they have sought “with all their heart and soul.”  Those who submit requests in exile without the proper measure of devotion and fervor are not granted their requests by the Almighty.

TO SEE IS TO KNOW

“You have been shown so that you should know that Hashem, He is the G-d; there is none [i.e. no power] other than He.” Devarim 4:35

You have been shown – When G-d gave the Torah, He opened for them the seven heavens. And just as He exposed the upper spheres, so too, did He open the nether regions below, so that it would be clear to every single Jew that there is only one G-d. – Rashi

You have been shown – While the Jewish people were living in Egypt, they forgot much of what they had been taught by their ancestors and began to worship all sorts of powers and foreign entities. When Moses arrived on the scene, he introduced them to the existence of G-d, the single source of power in the universe. That message was buttressed by the numerous miracles that were performed in Egypt, the Red Sea, and in the Desert with the Manna, Clouds of Glory etc. Throughout the forty years they spent in the desert, they continued to learn about Him and His ways until they were poised to leave the desert and enter the Land of Israel. This is what Moses meant when he said, “You have been shown…” – Zohar, Parshat Terumah

Noam Megadim adds that the words, “you have been shown to know,” are intended to highlight the idea that they not only knew about the existence of G-d because they heard about it, but also because they actually witnessed it with their very own eyes. This firsthand experience created a level of awareness of His existence that cannot be paralleled and serves as the basis for our faith since that point in time.

NO STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

“Not with our forefathers did G-d seal this covenant, but with us – we who are here, all of us alive today. Face to face did G-d speak with you on the mountain from amid the fire” Devarim 5:3, 4

Not with our forefathers – Not only with our forefathers did G-d forge a covenant. – Rashi

These verses contain many important arguments in favor of Judaism. To counter the deficient claims of legitimacy asserted by other religions, Moses points out that ours is the only religion whose basis for faith and conviction are not based on a prophetic vision of an individual, but rather, on a personal exchange with G-d at Mount Sinai, experienced by an entire nation. Furthermore, in an effort to refute those who claim that due to our sins, G-d abandoned us and “chose” another people, Moses stresses that the original covenant was binding for all generations and could not be contravened.  A religion founded on the principle that G-d abandoned us and chose another people, contradicts this verse, thereby forfeiting any possibility of legitimacy.

KNOW ONE

“Hear oh Israel the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One.” Devarim 6:4

The L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One – Hashem, who currently is only our G-d, because the nations of the world insist on worshiping idols instead, will one day be “One,” i.e. the G-d of the entire universe. This is because in the end of days, He will be accepted as the L-rd by all the nations of the world, who will come to recognize the truth of monotheism. – Rashi

The L-rd is One – The Garden of Eden was created for those who concentrate on internalizing the idea that G-d is the sole power in the universe, for one who does so, inherently denies the power of idols.  Conversely, one who worships a multitude of deities denies the oneness of the Almighty, and it was for these people that Gehinom (spiritual purgatory) was created. This is the reason that in the story of Creation and the Tree of Knowledge, the word “Gan” [garden – referring to Eden] appears 13 times. Conversely, in this parsha, the word, “Aish” – fire [referring to the flames of Gehinom] appears 13 times. This is to indicate that one who concentrates intently on the meaning of the word, “Echad” – One, in the Shema, whose numerical equivalent is 13, will be spared the fires of Gehinom and merit the delights of the Garden of Eden. – Rabbeinu Bachya

A closer look at the first and last words, “Shema” and “Echad,” reveals that the last letters of each word, “Ayin” and “Daled” are enlarged. There are numerous lessons to be derived from this, but prominent among them is the idea that these two letters combined spell the words, “Dah” and “Eid.” Dah means “to know,” and instructs us to not merely repeat this sentence by rote without thinking too deeply into its meaning, but to reflect upon, seek proof of, and tangibly know that G-d is the one and only power that controls the entire universe.  Eid means “to testify,” for one must not only know this fact, but he must also actively publicize it to the inhabitants of the world. His actions and lifestyle should constantly testify to the truth of monotheism.

HEARTFELT SUCCESS

“And these words which I am commanding you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children…” Devarim 6:6-7

Commanding you today – Weren’t these words of Torah commanded at a much earlier date? Consider them always as if they had only been taught that day. This way, they will remain fresh and vibrant in your eyes, and you will not relate to them as stale and outdated. – Rashi

Some people are content to observe Judaism exactly as their parents did, reasoning that if it was fine for their folks, it is fine for them as well. Assuming their parents observed Torah meticulously, this attitude isn’t terribly harmful. If, however, their parents were lacking in their mitzvah performance, it behooves the children of such parents to open their minds and consider the Torah from a different perspective. Relate to the Torah from a fresh perspective, “as if it had only been given today!”  This way, the possibility of returning to Torah in full is far more realistic. – Ahavas Yonasan

Upon your heart – Shouldn’t it have said, “in your heart,” instead of “upon your heart?” Oftentimes, when one hears an inspiring word, he would love to assimilate it into his subconscious and retain the inspiration, but he just isn’t ready to make that sort of change. Rather than discard the inspiration, advises the Torah, allow it to sit upon your heart until such time as you are further inspired and your heart is opened. Then, all that is upon it will enter it and transform you and your behavior.

Who will be successful at “teaching Torah to his children”? One about whom it can be said, “And these words… shall be upon your heart.”  Only someone who loves mitzvot and observes them scrupulously will be successful at teaching his child to do the same.  One, however, who insists that his child behave in accordance with Torah, but he himself falls far short of this mark, will find that his words fall on deaf ears.  Parents are most successful at reaching their children when they communicate through action, not stern admonitions.

THE DAYS OF OUR LIVES

“G-d commanded us to perform all these statutes, to fear Hashem, our G-d; for our own good, all the days, to give us life, as this very day.” Devarim 6:24

All the days – The good that is promised in this verse refers not only to the reward enjoyed on this earth, but also to the true reward that we will reap in Olam Habbah [The World to Come].

For our own good – Since mitzvot emanate from the Almighty, they are completely good and no undesirable consequences can result from their performance.  Even where they appear incomprehensible to human intelligence, they’re still intended for our good. – Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Nachmanides)

Our sages tell us that there is no reward for the fulfillment of mitzvot in this world.  This is because the reward for a mitzvah is so great that the material world simply cannot offer adequate compensation for it.  Instead, we must wait until the World to Come, where the soul can properly be satisfied as well. Any benefit that mitzvah observance offers us during our lifetime is only a fringe benefit designed to make it easier for us to observe even more mitzvot, but they do not diminish in any way from the true remuneration that awaits us in the World to Come.

UNTYING THE NOT

“You shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughter to his son, nor shall you take his daughter for your son. For he will turn your son away from Me, and they will worship the gods of others; then G-d’s anger will flare up against you, and He will destroy you speedily.” Devarim 7:3,4

You shall not intermarry with them – In truth, the reference to marriage is not literal since a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew is not halachically valid. What the verse means to preclude is a marriage-like arrangement between the two. – Rambam, Hilchot Issurei Biah 12:1r

For he will turn your son away from me – If the son of the gentile will marry your daughter, he will turn away your son (i.e. your grandson) whom your daughter will bear for him, from following after Me.  From this we derive that your daughter’s son, who is born of a gentile father, is considered your son [i.e. a Jew]; but your son’s son, born of a non-Jewish woman, is not considered your son, but rather her son. Proof of this is that the Torah does not write: “Do not take his daughter for your son,” because she will turn your grandson away from Me. It only says that he, the non-Jew, will turn your son away from Me.

Notably, the Torah does not merely prohibit intermarriage, but it also provides us a rationale for the prohibition. It is not because non-Jews are inferior, look different, or unrefined. Rather, the Torah emphasizes that it is based upon the fact that a Jew is expected to live a life dedicated to fulfilling the will of G-d to the maximum of our ability. Marrying a person who does not share our commitment to Judaism is a surefire means of ensuring that this lofty expectation will not be met. The Torah adds that where the non-Jewish spouse is the woman, there is an added problem that the children will not even be Jewish.

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Hey, I Never Knew That

by RABBI MORDECHAI BECHER

“And the seventh day is a Sabbath… You shall do no manner of מלאכהmelachah…” (Devarim 5:14). Melachah is translated as “work” or “tasks,” and in Jewish legal terms it is understood as one of the 39 activities listed in the Mishnah (Shabbat ch. 7) defined by Rabbi Hirsch as “acts that shows human mastery over the world by a constructive exercise of intelligence.”  According to this, the root of melachah may be מלךmelech—king, because of the display of human mastery or rule. Others relate the word to לאך meaning the fulfillment of a plan, goal, or task, related to מלאך—“angel” or “messenger” (Rabbi David Kimchi, Sefer Hashorashim).

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Word of the Week

by RABBI MORDECHAI BECHER

איכה

Moses bemoaned the burden of leadership of the Jewish people and said, “איכהEichah can I bear alone your contentiousness, your burdens and your quarrels?” (Devarim 1:12)  Eichah is usually translated as “how” and is cognate with the word איךeich, although with a greater emphasis on the wonder and shock of “how can this be?!” as opposed to merely an inquiry (Rabbi David Kimchi, Sefer Hashorashim).  Rabbi Hirsch understands it as a composite of איהayeh—where and כהkoh—thus, producing a query of how, or a question on the condition of something (Etymological Dictionary).  The Targum Onkelos translates it as איכדיןichdin, meaning “how then?” (Jastrow Dictionary).

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Dear Rabbi

“Houses full of all good…” (Devarim 6:11.)  The Talmud (Chullin 17a) permits front line troops who conquered Israel to eat non-kosher items found in the war zone.  Does this apply to soldiers in the IDF today?  A contemporary work on halachah (Jewish law) for soldiers cites the view of Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (Ha’emek Davar) who writes that “Any limitations on food during war can bring to danger of life, and eating is permitted not only to sustain life, but even to satisfy hunger without having to hesitate or calculate, because during the war there is no time to think about these things, lest he be in danger.  In addition, sufficient nutrition increases the strength of the soldier and gives him the additional energy needed for battle.” According to this view, it is argued that the leniency should apply to contemporary Israeli soldiers under battlefield conditions (Kishrei Milchamah, Eyal Moshe Krim, p. 143).  Rabbi Eliezer Yehudah Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer 18:70) also discusses this but does not clearly permit this for contemporary soldiers, as it may be dependent on an argument of Nachmanides and Maimonides.

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Parsha at a Glance

As mentioned last week, the Book of Devarim is the last will and testament of Moses to the Jewish people. It is a series of discourses that took place over the last five weeks of Moses’s life, and reviews key lessons, warnings and exhortations that the Jewish people will need to draw on as they move forward through history.

This week’s parsha,  Va’etchanan, begins where last week’s parsha left off. Moses had successfully concluded a military campaign against Sichon, king of Heshbon and Og, King of Bashan. The tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of the tribe of Manasseh had been allowed to occupy those lands as their inheritance, and the Jewish nation stood poised to continue the conquest of the Land of Canaan.

In light of these positive developments, Moses prayed one last time – actually 515 last times! – to G-d to be allowed to enter the Land.  However, these prayers were refused, and Moses had to accept the decree that Joshua would lead the Jewish people into the Land promised to their forefathers.

Moses continued his exhortation of the Jewish people, moving away from the topic of past sins and focusing on the need to maintain vigilance in the future. He stressed that the Jewish people may not add to, or subtract from, the commandments of the Torah.  The Torah is what gives the Jewish people their grandeur in the eyes of the nations of the world.  As such, the Jewish people must never forget the experience at Sinai, and they must never worship idols of any kind.

Nevertheless, Moses cautioned that as time goes by, the Jewish people would “grow old in the land” and they would succumb to idol worship.  This would draw G-d’s wrath against them, exile them from their land and scatter them among the nations of the world.  That very exile, however, would cause the Jewish people to repent and return to G-d, Who would eventually bring them back to their land.

Moses next established three Cities of Refuge on the other side of the Jordan, which would serve as sanctuary cities where the unintentional murderer could flee for protection.

The parsha continues with a re-stating of the Ten Commandments, which are: (1) To know there is a G-d, Who took us out of the land of Egypt and the house of slavery; (2) Not to have any other gods; (3) Not to take G-d’s name in vain; (4) To keep the Sabbath; (5) To honor one’s father and mother; (6) Not to kill; (7) Not to commit adultery; (8) Not to steal; (9) Not to bear false witness; (10) Not to covet.

The parsha also includes the first chapter of Shema (Hear O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One), which exhorts the Jewish people to love G-d with all their heart, with all their soul, with all their might.  It is the “pledge of allegiance” of the Jewish people, something we teach our children from the youngest age, and the last words we aspire to have on our lips before we die.

The parsha concludes with Moses issuing a stern warning that the conquest of the Land of Canaan had to be complete – there could be no room for inappropriate mercy in the face of an utterly corrupt, idol-worshiping culture. The Jewish people had to destroy the nations and their idols.  There could be no covenants and no intermarriage with them.

Lastly, Moses stressed that the covenant between G-d and the Jewish people is a legacy given to them through the merit of our forefathers.  G-d will safeguard this covenant and repay the kindness of those who love Him for a thousand generations, and repay His enemies for their betrayal yet in their lifetimes.

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