Monday, February 8, 2016

The Missing Listen - Rav Moshe Weinberger's Drasha on Parshas Yisro

Baruch Hashem, Rav Weinberger has approved this version of my write-up of last week's drasha, parshas YisroSee here for past shiurim at YUTorah.org's website by Rav Weinberger both as Mashpia at YU and from the past 20 years. You can also click on one of the following links to subscribe to the shiurim: emailrss feedpodcast, or iTunes. Please note that these drashos will only be available online for one month. If you notice any mistakes, please let me know so I can correct it. If you are interested in a particular drasha that is no longer online, you can email me (right sidebar) and I'll send it to you IY"H, BL"N.

[Update 2/9/2016: You can listen to a version of this drashah given at YU for the beginning of the winter zman HERE]

Rav Moshe Weinberger
Parshas Yisro 5777
The Missing Listen

It is agreed that the two primary disciples of Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohein Kook, zy”a, were Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlap, zt”l, and “the Nazir,” Rav Dovid Cohen, zt”l. The Nazir, in his monumental sefer called Kol HaNevuah – The Voice of Prophecy (p. 7), teaches us what he believes is the core characteristic necessary for a real and deep connection with G-d: “The sages of Israel open up the power of Binah – Understanding by unblocking their ears to hear the chain of tradition from all earlier generations, stretching back when our fathers heard G-d’s voice directly. ‘If they are not prophets, they are the students of prophets’ (Pesachim 66a).” The key is listening.

The second Lubavitcher Rebbe, zy”a, known as the Mitteler Rebbe, in his work Kuntrus HaHispa’alus, concentrated this idea into a few impactful words: “One must hear deeply until the heart is moved.” Let us understand the significance of the Mitteler Rebbe’s words.

We know that everything flows from the beginning (I Likutei Moharan 62:11). Our entire way of life begins with the giving of the Torah in this week’s parshah. And the first words of the parshah are, “And Yisro heard...” (Shmos 18:1). And Hashem prefaced His giving of the Torah with the words (ibid. 19:5), “And now, if you will surely listen to My voice and observe My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure among all the nations, for the entire earth is Mine.” We see based on the opening words of our parshah and Hashem’s introduction to the Aseres HaDibros, the Ten Commandments, that listening is the necessary precondition to our receipt of the Torah.

Our parshah is named after Yisro, who is first mentioned at this point in connection with his ability to listen. What did he hear that caused him to come contemporaneously with the giving of the Torah? He learned about the miracles in Egypt and by the sea. But everyone in the world heard about these things as well. What differentiated Yisro? He “heard deeply until his heart was moved.” He stopped and paid attention to the significance of what he was hearing. He internalized the new landscape in the world. He took note of the meaning of everything he heard and realized that “the times they were a’changing.” A new era was dawning with the birth of the Jewish people as a nation and their exodus from Egypt. But he was not satisfied with his new understanding alone. He took action. He traveled to join the Jewish people.

Unfortunately, the masses, both in Yisro’s time and today, do not know how to listen. As one singer put it, the problem is “people hearing without listening.” One fundamental part of listening deeply is paying attention with an ear to understand when things have changed and how they have changed. One must listen to the significance of what happens around him, acknowledge when there is a new reality, and then act with bravery like Yisro based on his new understanding.

Chazal (Shmos Rabah 27:6) teach that in the merit of “And Yisro heard [וישמע],” he merited “And Moshe heard [וישמע] the voice of his father-in-law [Yisro]...” (Shmos 18:24). When Chazal teach that two psukim which use the same word have a deeper connection, this is called a gezeirah shavah.  The Rama MiPano tells us that the word gezeirah in this phrase comes from the Hebrew root meaning “to cut away.” The idea is that when Chazal make a gezeirah shavah, they are cutting away all of the space between two psukim to show that they are really one idea – that they are intimately connected. Yisro and Moshe seem to be two different worlds, people on two incomparably different planes of existence. So Chazal cut away the gaping chasm between them to show that with all of their differences, they both share the ability to listen intensely, to internalize the significance of that which they hear in order to “hear deeply until the heart is moved.”

The halachah that teaches us the fundamental nature of one’s ability to hear is found in the following Gemara (Bava Kama 85b), “Rava says, ‘If one cuts off another’s hand, he gives him the value of his hand... If he breaks his leg, he gives him the value of his leg... If he blinds his eye, he gives him the value of his eye... If he makes him deaf, he gives him the value of his entire body.” The perpetrator does not merely pay the victim the value of his ear. He pays him the value of his entire body. This profound Gemara teaches us that one’s ability to hear defines his very humanity.

The ability to hear gives meaning and significance to whatever a person sees. That is why, as the Nazir says, learning Torah from a bearer of the oral tradition is a necessary prerequisite for any true understanding of Torah, Yiddishkeit, and Hashem’s will for us in the world. The written Torah, by itself, even with all of the seforim in the world to complement it, can never replace hearing the Torah from one’s rebbe.

The Gemara itself makes this point in the story of the non-Jew who denied the veracity of the oral Torah and came to both Shamai and Hillel to convert (Shabbos 31a). Shamai threw him out because of the absurdity of his request. One cannot convert to Judaism if he denies the oral Torah on which all of Yiddishkeit is built.

But Hillel agreed to teach this prospective convert the Hebrew alphabet, “Aleph, Beis, Gimel, Daled...” When the non-Jew came back to study with him the next day, he taught him the same letters, but in the reverse order, “Daled, Gimel, Beis, Aleph.” The man said to Hillel, “But yesterday, this is not how you taught it to me!” Hillel then answered him, “If you relied on me yesterday [as a reliable transmitter of the correct order of the Hebrew alphabet], you should also rely on me for [the accurate transmission of] the oral Torah!”

The letters that we read and all of written seforim in the world have no context or meaning for us at all without an oral tradition, passed from teacher to student, connecting us today to the oral Torah Moshe received at Sinai.

Our generation has largely lost the ability to hear the messages they receive from Heaven. They cannot focus on them or listen deeply to their significance because their eyes are constantly glued to those little devices in their hands. They never focus on anything very long before swiping on to the next one. So many people become more and more closed off within themselves. They become lost in the stories, pictures, and videos flashing before them and rarely listen to or think deeply about what is really happening in the world or even in the lives of their children, husbands, wives, or friends.

When we heard the news this week of the stabbing and murder of Dafna Meir in her own home in Otniel, everyone felt bad for a while. We learned that she was a child, she was taken in by foster parents and that she and her husband, along with their four children, took in and were raising two foster boys. We have read stories about this, but how many of us have thought deeply about the pain of those six children left to grow up, get married, have children, and live entire lives without a mother? How many of us thought about what we were hearing to the point that it began to touch our hearts? Hashem wants us to listen in this way. He wants us to fully contemplate the significance of the things we see and hear.

The Gemara (Brachos 40a) says, “If you listen to the old, you will hear the new.” A Jew who listens to those who came before him, those who made themselves receptacles for the oral Torah, develops within himself the ability to hear deeply. He becomes able to listen to the point that his heart is affected. By training himself to listen in this way, he makes himself a vessel for new ideas, new messages, and an awareness of each new reality as it appears. One who listens intently, and does not always demand to be heard, develops the intellectual and emotional depth to become worthy of being heard as well.

May Hashem grant us the will and strength to listen to the wisdom of previous generations in order to “hear deeply until the heart is moved.” May we listen to the old so that the new reality of redemption, Moshiach, and the Beis HaMikdash will penetrate our hearts and reveal themselves in the world

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Monday, February 1, 2016

A Sorry Substuitute - Rav Moshe Weinberger's Shabbos Parshas Beshalach Drasha

Baruch Hashem, Rav Weinberger has approved this version of my write-up of last week's drasha, parshas BeshalachSee here for past shiurim at YUTorah.org's website by Rav Weinberger both as Mashpia at YU and from the past 20 years. You can also click on one of the following links to subscribe to the shiurim: emailrss feedpodcast, or iTunes. Please note that these drashos will only be available online for one month. If you notice any mistakes, please let me know so I can correct it. If you are interested in a particular drasha that is no longer online, you can email me (right sidebar) and I'll send it to you IY"H, BL"N.

Rav Moshe Weinberger
Parshas Beshalach 5777
A Sorry Substitute

Let us consider one reason Tu Beshvat always occurs around the week of parshas Beshalach, which is also called Shabbos Shira because that is when we read the song the Jewish people sung at the sea after it was split. Dovid HaMelech says in Tehillim (106:7), “And [the Jewish people] rebelled [וימרו] by the sea [and] in the Red Sea.” This translation of “וימרו” as “rebelled” follows Rashi, the Malbim, and the Metzudas Tziyon. Each one explains some way the Jewish people rebelled both “by the sea” and “in the Red Sea.”

The problem is that the word “וימרו” usually does not mean “rebelled,” but instead means “exchanged” or “substituted.” We see this from that which the passuk (Vayikra 27:10) says about a korban, “You shall neither exchange it nor substitute [ימיר] it.” We also see this in the verse from Yigdal, “G-d will neither exchange nor substitute [ימיר] His law.” What did the Jewish people substitute by the sea and in the sea?

The Midrash (Shmos Rabah 24:1) explains each of the Jewish people’s exchanges: “‘By the sea,’ in that they did not want to descend [into the water.] ‘In the [Red] Sea,’ how did they exchange? When they descended into the sea, it was full of mud... Reuven would say to Shimon, ‘In Egypt there was mud and in the sea there is mud. In Egypt there were mortar and bricks, and by the sea, there is mortar and mighty waters...’’

The complaints recounted by the Midrash are unfathomable. The Jewish people were, at that moment, experiencing the greatest miracle ever to occur in the history of the world. They had, moments earlier, been saved from imminent death at the hands of the Egyptian hordes behind them and wild animals on either side. How could they possibly have said, “Meh. We walked in mud in Egypt and we’re walking in mud now. How is this any better?” as they walked with the sea standing miraculously like walls on either side of them!?

The Midrash is clearly highlighting for us a remarkable, but dark, aspect of human nature. A person can live through the greatest moment of his life but never lift his eyes off the floor. He can remain immersed in the lowest smallness, in the mud at his feet, even as he stands at the most uplifting time in his life.

The Steipler Gaon, zt”l, related a story that took place when he was a bachur studying in the Bialystoker branch of the Nevardok yeshivah. One time, in 1914, he was about to return to yeshivah. The father of another boy from his town asked the Steipler if he could deliver a letter to his son when he arrived in Bialystok. Of course he agreed. The letter appeared to be very important, as the father had sealed it on all four sides. So the young Steipler placed the letter carefully in his jacket pocket before leaving for Bialystok. Unfortunately, the outbreak of World War I prevented him from being able to travel, but he resolved to deliver the letter to his friend whenever he found him.

Approximately eight years after accepting the letter, the Steipler found his friend from yeshivah. At this point, the young man’s father had already passed away. The Steipler told him about the letter and the young man was visibly moved. He began crying as he accepted the letter. He could not believe that he had the opportunity to receive one last message from his father from beyond the grave. Emotionally, the son began to read what turned out to be his father’s last will and testament: “To my dear and precious son, when you return home from Bialystok, which has the best herring in the world, please do not forget to bring me some herring.” While obviously the father had no way of knowing that this would be his final message to his son. It is so sad when a person exchanges greatness with smallness. The Steipler commented that this father would go to face his judgment at the end of his life boasting that he had the privilege of being a man who spent his life in search of the perfect herring.

Some Jewish people, as they crossed through the sea, substituted the greatness of the moment with a focus on the mud at their feet. Yet there were others, like the maidservant at the sea (Mechilta, Beshalach 3), who went another way. Even though she otherwise spent her days cleaning floors, she recognized the power of the moment and opened herself up to a prophecy greater than that which was revealed to the Navi Yechezkel.

So many of us make these pathetic exchanges. I was once at a chassunah at which the two sets of in-laws began physically fighting with one another under the chuppah. And if I told you want they were fighting about, you would not know whether to laugh or cry. I was recently at a pidyon haben. How often does one attend a pidyon haben? Two or three times in his life? The zayde of the baby spent the whole time swiping endlessly on the screen of his phone. What more pathetic sight can there be than an old man trading the exalted moment of the pidyon haben for a news article or funny picture on the Internet.

There are some people who are blessed with children, a stroke of good fortune no one can take for granted. Yet instead of focusing on the greatness and potential of their children, they cannot take their eyes off of their shoes, off of the mud. They look at their children only as a means to gain status, prestige, or bragging rights.

When I go to some of the biggest moments in people’s lives, whether they weddings or funerals, I look across the people in attendance and their faces are lit up – not with joy or solemn emotion, but with the screens of their little smartphones. Those screens are the epitome of the world of substitution. As people swipe endlessly from one amusing or emotional posting to the next, they immerse themselves more and more deeply in the world of exchanges, where nothing is fixed and no one truly lives in the moment.

How does all of this connect with Tu Beshvat? Rabi Shimon bar Yochai teaches us regarding exchanges (Avos 3:9), “One who is walking on the path and studying and he interrupts his studies and says, ‘How beautiful is this tree, how beautiful is this field,’ the Torah considers it that he is worthy of being killed.” This is very difficult to understand. Appreciating Hashem’s creation is a good thing. We know in halachah (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 226:1) that when one sees a fruit tree blossoming in the Spring, in the month of Nissan, he says the blessing, “Blessed are You Hashem who did not leave anything lacking in His world, who created in it good creations and good trees in order for people enjoy them.” How could Rabi Shimon say that admiring a tree is not only not commendable, but is so bad that one who does so is deserving of being killed?!

We grew up hearing people explain that this Mishnah teaches that Torah learning is the most important thing in the world, and that person is only guilty because he interrupted his learning to admire Hashem’s creation. But the Baal Shem Tov explains this Mishnah in a much deeper way. It does not say, “One who is walking on the path and studying and says, ‘How beautiful...’” Rather, the emphasis is on the fact that the person viewed his admiration of Hashem’s creation as an interruption. He is guilty for believing that there are two mutually exclusive worlds,  one physical and the other spiritual. If such a person considers Hashem’s creation to be an interruption of his Torah learning, he forfeits his life by demonstrating that he does not recognize that Hashem is in the physical world just as much as He is in the Torah.  He has exchanged an eternal world for what he mistakenly believes is a temporal world.

The truth is that everything in Hashem’s world has its own song. Each thing’s existence is a manifestation of Hashem’s influence. That is why in Perek Shirah, the Chapter of Song, we read about the unique song expressed by each element of creation: “The Heavens say... The earth says... The rivers say... The trees say... The stars say...” One must understand that each part of Hashem’s creation, the trees and everything else, are not an obstacle, separating a person from the recognition of G-dliness. Rather, they are an extension of Hashem’s Presence throughout the world.

Those who are immersed in smallness, who have their eyes focused on the mud on their sandals, rather than on the greatness of Hashem’s Presence in their lives, cannot understand those who are fully engaged with the present. Some of the Baal Shem Tov’s opponents once criticized him for his chassidim’s exuberance in davening. They claimed that this was a break from tradition. The Baal Shem Tov responded to them with an analogy: “A fiddler once began playing by the side of the road. His music was so uplifting and so enrapturing that passersby could not help themselves and began to dance with joy right there in the street. A deaf man also walked by, but because he could not hear the music, assumed that the people dancing in the street were insane. That is how it is with my followers. They hear the song that emanates from every tree, from every object in Hashem’s creation, and cannot help themselves. They feel compelled to sing and dance as they daven. Those who are deaf to this song cannot understand the joy my chassidim express when they daven.”

Those who have exchanged the greatness inherent in each moment, in each experience in life, for the mud on their feet or the constant exchange of postings and text messages whizzing past on their phones, cannot hear the song in the beauty of Hashem’s creations, in every tree. May Hashem bless us to be among those who do not exchange temporality for eternity, greatness for smallness, or a lasting legacy for a little herring.

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Monday, January 25, 2016

Double Darkness - Rav Moshe Weinberger's Drashah from Parshas Bo

Baruch Hashem, Rav Weinberger has approved this version of my write-up of last week's drasha, parshas BoSee here for past shiurim at YUTorah.org's website by Rav Weinberger both as Mashpia at YU and from the past 20 years. You can also click on one of the following links to subscribe to the shiurim: emailrss feedpodcast, or iTunes. Please note that these drashos will only be available online for one month. If you notice any mistakes, please let me know so I can correct it. If you are interested in a particular drasha that is no longer online, you can email me (right sidebar) and I'll send it to you IY"H, BL"N.

Rav Moshe Weinberger
Parshas Bo 5777
Double Darkness

Rav Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the “Sfas Emes,” teaches (Parshas Bo 5639), quoting the Zohar, that the ten plagues corresponded to and rectified the corruption of Hashem’s Oneness caused by each of the ten utterances with which Hashem concealed His Presence in the process of creating the world. Each of the plagues also correspond to one of the Aseres HaDibros, the ten commandments. The first plague undid the corruption wrought by the most recent – the last – of the ten utterances. And each successive plague undid the corruption caused by the utterance before that, and then the next. Finally, the tenth plague, the killing of the firstborn, corrected the first utterance, “At the beginning of G-d’s creation of Heaven and Earth...”

I would like to focus on the plague of darkness and what we learn from it. Last night, as I was thinking about this plague, like many others in the community, my home experienced a power outage and the lights went out. At that moment, I was grateful that I hadn’t been thinking about lice or wild animals!

Based on the Sfas Emes, we see that the plague of darkness corresponds to the statement, “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Shmos 20:3) and the utterance, “And G-d said, ‘Let there be light’” (Bereishis 1:3). The darkness with which Hashem punished the Egyptians revealed the absolute nothingness of everything other than G-d. It revealed that there are no other gods, that “there is nothing other than G-d” (Devarim 4:35), and that “the entire earth is filled with His glory” (Yeshayahu 6:3).

What is the nature of the darkness with which Hashem smote Egypt? Rashi (on Shmos 10:21) quotes a Midrash which explains that the darkness was not simply an absence of light, similar to the darkness all of us experience at night. Rather, it was a tangible, created presence. The Maharal explains (Gevuros Hashem 57) that, with respect to the Egyptians, Hashem uprooted the creation of light that came into being with the passuk, “And G-d said, ‘Let there be light.’”

The Maharal also explains that when the passuk (Shmos 10:23), said “But for all the children of Israel there was light in their dwellings,” it does not simply mean that regular light was not taken away from them. Rather, it means that Hashem revealed to the Jewish people the light He had hidden away during the days of creation. When Hashem revealed His light to us in Egypt, it was just like during the Aseres HaDibros when, according to the Midrash (Shmos Rabah 29:9), He said, “I am Hashem your G-d” (ibid. 20:2) and the entire world became silent. All of the other apparent powers, noise, and confusion of the world disappears when G-d reveals His light.

I was thinking about the nature of this light and about the darkness within mankind that sometimes conceals G-d’s Presence and confuses people because of the other powers that seem to exist in the world. The Midrash (Shmos Rabah 14:2) recounts a dispute regarding the nature of the plague of darkness. Rabi Yehuda maintains that the darkness was a “darkness from above” and Rav Nechemia believes that it was a “darkness of Geihinom.” There is a darkness from above and a darkness from below.

What is the darkness of Geihinom? This means the darker impulses within a person that cause him to veer away from what he knows is right. These are the desires and instincts that stand between him and Hashem. The word for darkness (חושך) even means “withhold,” as in the passuk (Bereishis 22:12), “You did not withhold [חשכת] your only son from Me...” Such a person knows the truth. It is clear to him. But he feels that he lacks the strength to overcome his evil inclination and do what is right. He feels unable to choose a life of purpose over the momentary pleasures right in front of him.

The Gemara says about such darkness (Shabbos 31b), “The wicked know that their way of life leads to death, but they [are blocked to the truth].” This is the darkness from below. In the 1980’s, the AIDS epidemic spread like wildfire across the homosexual community. Yet despite the fact that it was clear that the activity in which they were engaging was very likely to lead to their deaths, scientific studies at the time showed that generally, they continued engaging in the same high-risk activities just as much as before, if not more so. We see that there is a type of darkness within a person that can cause him to do what he knows is wrong even if he knows it will kill him, literally or metaphorically.

But there is something even more dangerous – the darkness from above. When a person is immersed in this type of darkness, he does not even have a clear baseline for what is right and wrong. He does not even begin struggling with his evil inclination because he lacks any moral framework to begin with. Normally, when a person has a clear and healthy intellect, this faculty becomes a window through which he can see G-d. As the Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 2:12) says, quoting the passuk (Tehillim 36:10), “For with you is the source of life, through Your light we see light,” “Through the light of the intellect, a person can see the light of G-d.”

When a person is shrouded in the darkness from above, he cannot see the truth of Hashem’s light. And the vacuum created by that moral confusion will ultimately cause a person to create some perverted version of morality that brings far more darkness into the world than the mere lack of discipline inherent in the darkness of Geheinom. It is like Ronald Reagan said about his political opponents, “It’s not so much that they are ignorant. They just know so much that isn’t so.”

We see this regression from clarity personified by the story of how Chava came to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and bad. There was no question about what was right and wrong and the beginning. Hashem clearly said (Bereishis 2:17), “You shall not eat from it, for on the day that you eat from it, you will surely die.” But it did not take long for that clarity to become fuzzy. Chava told the snake that G-d said (ibid. 3:3), “You shall not eat from it... lest you die.” Not eating from the tree went from absolute death to possible death. At that point, it did not take long for the snake to convince Chava that even if she eats from the fruit, “you will not die” (ibid. 4). When one is lost without any knowledge of the truth, there is no longer anything to talk about. He cannot even begin to attempt to do the right thing if he doesn’t know what it is.

And Pharaoh personified both the darkness from above and the darkness from Geihinom. The Rambam says in his letter to his son Rabbi Avraham, known as the Iggeres HaMussar, that Pharaoh is the embodiment of the evil inclination, and concludes, “you will understand this through the word [Pharaoh] and its composition.” He does not, however, explain how the word Pharaoh demonstrates that he is the embodiment of the evil inclination.

Perhaps we can see how the word Pharaoh [פרעה] hints at both manifestations of the evil inclination, both types of darkness. One meaning of the word is used in the passuk regarding the Jewish people’s commission of the sin of the golden calf. It says (Shmos 32:25), “And Moshe saw that the people were in a state of disorder [פרע]...” This is the darkness of Gehinom, a state of disorder in which it seems so difficult to do what is right.

The Arizal says that the word Pharaoh contains the same letters as the word “הערף” – the back of the neck. When a person speaks face to face with someone, he can attempt to convince him of the error of his ways. But if the other person turns his back, then there is no more dialogue. The conversation is over. There is no one to talk to. That is the darkness from above.

Pharaoh embodied both of these forms of darkness. He said (Shmos 5:2), “Who is G-d that I should listen to his voice?,” demonstrating that he recognized G-d but did not want to listen to Him. That is the darkness from below. But in the end, Hashem hardened his heart such that the light of his intelligence no longer had any influence in his life. There was no longer anyone to talk to. He was then filled with the darkness from above.


If a person asks for Hashem’s help to do what he knows is right and davens that he not become confused about the truth, then he can access the light of creation in his life. He will not live in the sadness of a mind and way of being that is shrouded in darkness. May Hashem show us clarity and give us the strength to remove all blockages and grow closer to Him.

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Monday, January 11, 2016

Misplaced Mercy - Rav Moshe Weinberger's Drasha on Parshas Va'eira

Baruch Hashem, Rav Weinberger has approved this version of my write-up of this week's drasha from parshas Va'eiraSee here for past shiurim at YUTorah.org's website by Rav Weinberger both as Mashpia at YU and from the past 20 years. You can also click on one of the following links to subscribe to the shiurim: emailrss feedpodcast, or iTunes. Please note that these drashos will only be available online for one month. If you notice any mistakes, please let me know so I can correct it. If you are interested in a particular drasha that is no longer online, you can email me (right sidebar) and I'll send it to you IY"H, BL"N.

Rav Moshe Weinberger
Parshas Va’eira 5777
Misplaced Mercy

From the outset, our parshah seems to send mixed messages. On one hand, it begins (Shmos 6:2), “And G-d [אלוקים] spoke [וידבר] to Moshe,” using the word for speech implying a harsh tone and the Divine name implying strict justice – din. But the passuk then quickly switches gears and continues, “And He said [ויאמר] to him, ‘I am Hashem [יקוק],’” using the word for speech implying a soothing tone and the Divine name implying lovingkindness and mercy – rachamim.

The Zohar explains that immediately after Moshe challenged G-d regarding the Jewish people’s suffering (ibid. 5:22-23), “Why have You hurt this nation?... From the time I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has harmed this nation...,” Hashem meant to convey to Moshe that there were two very different but simultaneous processes going on. On one hand, Hashem used the words “And G-d [אלוקים] spoke,” to show that He was acting with din with the Egyptians – that they were about to suffer the consequences for their cruelty.

But Hashem was also telling Moshe that He was acting completely differently with the Jewish people. He said “I am Hashem [יקוק],” to show that all of the Jewish people’s suffering was about to come to an end, that within their suffering, He was preparing to treat them with great mercy. The Jewish people’s redemption was at hand. That is why He then used the four expressions of redemption (ibid. 6:6‑7), “I will take out... I will redeem... I will take...,” and “I will bring.”

But when Moshe relays this message to the Jewish people, the Torah says (ibid. 9), “They did not listen to Moshe because of their shortness of breath and the hard labor.” Based on this, Moshe makes an argument to G-d using an a fortiorikal vachomer deduction to argue that Pharaoh will also not listen to him (ibid. 12): “If the children of Israel did not listen to me, how will Pharaoh listen to me?...”  The commentaries have great difficulty with Moshe’s logical derivation. Let us understand one basis for this difficulty.

It would have been understandable if Moshe was commanded to deliver the same message in the same tone to both the Jewish people and Pharaoh. It would then make sense to ask, “If my own people will not listen to me, why would Pharaoh?” But Moshe was commanded to send a completely different message to each recipient. The Arizal explains that Hashem’s message of din was meant for Egypt and His words of encouragement and love were meant for the Jewish people. On one hand, He told Moshe and Aharon (ibid. 13) “concerning the children of Israel” with the message of strength, compassion, and redemption quoted above. But “concerning Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, [they were commanded to tell him] to take the Jewish people out from the land of Egypt.”

Hashem told Moshe to deliver messages appropriate for each recipient. The beleaguered Jewish people desperately needed encouragement, hope, and love – rachamim. We needed to hear the four expressions of redemption. We need to hear that we had a bright future in Yerushalayim and in Eretz Yisroel, a land flowing with milk and honey. Our Egyptian oppressors, however, needed words of rebuke, plagues, and punishment – din.

The ability to encourage and strengthen the Jewish people is so important that in the introduction to the Zohar, it says that a person may only enter the chamber of Moshiach if he knows how “to turn darkness into light and to make the bitter sweet.” One must know the way of rachamim. He must see the good in the Jewish people in order to encourage them. That is the way Hashem wants His leaders to act in order to strengthen us. But the wicked must be dealt with using strict justice, rebuke, and “a strong hand and an outstretched arm.”

Unfortunately the world has completely confused these two approaches. When it comes to the Jewish people, they speak with din, judging the Jewish people’s efforts to live and protect themselves in the harshest possible light. They condemn the only democracy in the Middle East, beset by animalistic terrorists on all sides, and from within, at every opportunity. The president of the United States calls every Arab civilian casualty in Israel’s war against the animals who hide among their own women and children an “outrage” and calls on “all sides to show restraint.” But when it comes to terrorists and backward Islamic extremists, they speak with a soft voice, with kid gloves, afraid to offend the delicate sensibilities of murderers.

The Jewish people are not immune to this upside-down way of thinking either. This week, the leader of Mogen David Adom maintained that according to their bylaws, they must treat the most injured person first, irrespective of whether that person is the victim of a terrorist attack or the terrorist who attempted to murder the less-injured victim. Meshi Zahavi, of Zaka, however, clarified that he directs his volunteers to treat injured victims first, even if the terrorist is more severely injured. It is embarrassing that we have become so concerned with the opinions of a world that cannot distinguish between basic right and wrong, between the life of a terrorist and the lives of his victims.

There are even a few deranged former IDF soldiers who participate in an Anti-Semitic organization called “Breaking the Silence,” devoted to slandering the Jewish people’s efforts to defend ourselves by spreading their drivel to any Jew-hating group who invites them to speak.

Now Germany is absorbing tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, most of whom are men (not women and children), potentially over a hundred of whom robbed and sexually assaulted women on New Year’s Eve. These paragons of mercy are now showing compassion for Muslims, though they certainly did not show our people any of that seventy years ago.

The reality our world does not understand today is that when one shows compassion to the wicked, this will not “turn darkness into light and make the bitter sweet.” Although much of the world makes itself blind, we have seen that this rachamim only strengthens evildoers by showing them that good people are weak and will do nothing to stand up for justice and righteousness. It was recently reported that ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria and not afraid of America or England. Our president has been careful to broadcast his inability to stand up for what is right at every turn. The only nation they fear is Israel and its soldiers.


The only way we can turn darkness into light is by seeing the goodness in other Jews, encouraging them, and treating them with rachamim. May we merit to treat each other right and may we see much more than ten plagues visited upon those who work to destroy us with the arrival of the complete redemption, may it come soon in our days!

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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Narcissistic Controller or Loving Grandparent? - Yaakov and Lavan - Parshas Vayechi

In recent years, I read Lavan's unhinged rant at Yaakov as the frustration of a narcissistic parent seething that he has been unable to manipulate Yaakov and his daughters into serving his own ends (Bereishis 31:43): "The daughters are my daughters, the sons are my sons, the flocks are my flocks, and everything that you have is mine!"

I felt that had Lavan been a healthy parent and grandparent, he would have recognized that his grandchildren "belonged" to Yaakov, Rachel, Leah, Bilha, and Zilpa - and not him. Such an attitude would have demonstrated respect for his daughters and son-in-law as his grandchildren's true parents. He would only have sought to see how he could be helpful, but would not have been controling - he would not have seen his grandchildren as if they were his own children. 

So I was surprised when, this year, I noticed that in parishas Vayechi, Yaakov himself says something that initially sounds similar to what Lavan said to him years earlier (Bereishis 48:5): "And now, the two sons born to you in Egypt... are mine, they shall be like Reuven and Shimon to me." While I am aware of the normal meaning ascribed to this passuk, it would be irresponsible not to notice the similarities (and differences) between Yaakov's words here and what Lavan said to him in parshas Vayeitze.

Reading the conversation between Yaakov and Yosef, however, the whole tone is one of love and an intent on Yaakov's part to give the same blessings to Yosef's sons that he gave to his own. Lavan, on the other hand, flew into a rage because of his inability to control Yaakov and his children. 

After noticing Yaakov's words' superficial similarity to Lavan's diatribe, I revised my earlier thinking to one that is less black-and-white. After all, Chazal say on his words (Pirkei D'Rabi Eliezer 35), "Grandchildren are like children." Lavan was not wrong because it is always self-centered to consider one's grandchildren his or her own. Rather, like virtually everything else, there's a right way and a wrong way to do something.

Yaakov wanted to give Efrayim and Menashe the same blessings he was giving to his own children. Lavan wanted to control Yaakov, his grandchildren, and his daughters. The key difference is between profound love and giving to the extent that one loves his grandchildren as much as his own, on one hand, and, on the other hand, selfishness, to the extent that one believes he can control his grandchildren to the same extent he thinks he should be able to control his children, both of whom he views as his property.

May HaShem help us adopt an attitude of giving in all of our relationships, not asking what others should be doing, but rather what we can do to be helpful and of service to others!

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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Believing in Your Potential - Being Engraved on the Leg of the Throne of Glory - Rabbi Yoni Levin's Shabbos Morning Drasha

Rabbi Yoni Levin, the assistant rabbi at Aish Kodesh, delivered the drasha this Shabbos while Rav Weinberger was at YU for Shabbos. He spoke in  honor of the bar mitzvah of Avi Goldstone. Mazel tov! Below is the drasha which he typed up and emailed to me. Thank you Rabbi Levin for allowing me to share it!

Believing in Your Potential - Being Engraved on the Leg of the Throne of Glory

It’s astounding how each year we read the same stories, we read the same פרשיות, and they never seem to grow old.  We are in the midst of a cliffhanger, a story of suspense. We are on the edge of our seats waiting to see what happens to יעקב אבינו as he runs into the dark of the night all alone, all by himself, scared, and lost.

I’m not sure about each of you, but I could never read the same book twice. 

But when it comes to the תורה for some reason, each year, the story becomes more exciting.  We are reliving the stories of the אבות.  Personally, I get most emotional when we read the end of the תורה, and each year משה רבינו dies again, and it almost brings me to tears, the loss of משה רבינו, our leader, the one who lead us out of מצרים, through the מדבר.

Our נשמות are so connected, they are so involved in each of these stories, in the lives of our ancestors, to the point that the פרשיות truly come to life.

Story of יעקב

So here we are in the middle of ספר בראשית and יעקב is running away since last שבת.  He’s running as fast as he could.  He has been sent off by his parents to escape his brother עשב.  His destination: the house of לבן, his uncle. 

And during this marathon, he keeps looking over his shoulder.  He keeps looking to his right.  He looks to his left.  He is tense and uneasy not knowing where he may confront עשו.   He’s scared from any חיות רעות, he has no support system, no one to protect him, no one to talk to.   He is fighting a battle all by himself.

And as יעקב wanders off on his own, scared, lost, in a cloud of darkness, confusion, he winds up falling asleep in the מקום המקדשה' יתברך puts יעקב אבינו to sleep particularly in the very place that will eventually become the בית מקדשיעקב is lying down in this place of קדושה, where he senses this powerful energy, this מקום full with the potential of greatness. 

While sleeping in this place of the Divine, יעקב is overwhelmed with power, energy and קדושה.  יעקב is overtaken by this dream.  He experiences this vivid, clear, and dominant dream of מלאכים ascending and descending the ladder והנה סלם מצב ארצה וראשו מגיע השמימה.
           
Message of the Dream

יעקב is at a very delicate moment of his life.  What message is Hashem giving יעקב אבינו at this very tender life-changing moment?

יעקב is transitioning to a life of independence.  יעקב is feeling lonely and lost, without parents and teachers to guide him.

What is הקב"ה teaching יעקב through this dream?  He is expected to be independent and responsible for himself.  He is being forced to grow up.  What חיזוק could הקב"ה possibly give יעקב אבינו at this very sensitive point in his life?

Each one of us has possibly felt this same feeling at some point in our life.  Some of us might be feeling them right now - this feeling of darkness and loneliness.  Perhaps we are struggling with פרנסה, stuck in an unsuccessful business, no place to turn, no place to look.  We might feel this when we get sucked into the darkness of תאוה, drawn into the world of עבירות – this sense of guilt, a sense of regret, depression, fear.  We might feel this in a relationship, this feeling of loneliness, abandonment.

On a global level, as a nation, as part of humanity, we might be feeling lost as we see waves of terror throughout ארץ ישראל.  This past week we lost more קדושים.  We are constantly running away in the darkness from a different brother of ours, ישמעאל.  We are constantly looking over our shoulder. ה' ינקום דמם.

France was hit with a big shock last Shabbos.  Unfortunately, they were hit with reality, a reality that Jews face every day in ארץ ישראל and many cities throughout Europe. 

What is an appropriate message that can help build us back up, strengthen us, put us back on track, both as individuals and as a nation?

And יעקב Wakes Up…

When יעקב אבינו wakes up, he makes an interesting comment. 

ויאמר אכן יש ה' במקום הזה ואנכי לא ידעתי

What does the word אכן mean?    The Artscroll defines the word to mean “surely”.  And יעקב said “surely Hashem exists in this very place, but I was unaware”.  יעקב sensed this magnitude of energy in this מקום המקדש. It was so certain to him, it was so clear, it was אכן, this place was undoubtedly filled with an overflow of קדושה.

However, there is another understanding of the word אכן.  Not in the פשט, but in the רמז, the hint behind this word, concealed within each letter of the word אכן.

The Acronym of אכ"ן

Many מפרשים explain that the word אכן is actually an acronym.  יעקב אבינו was sleeping in the מקום המקדש, the center of the world, the center of the universe, the center of שמים.  He was lying below the center of the עליונים, the upper spheres.  He was lying directly below the כסא הכבוד, Hashem’s Throne of Honor, beneath the very legs that upheld the כסא הכבוד.

This כסא הכבוד, this throne on which the שכינה resides, had 4 legs no different than any other throne that a king might be sitting on.

On each of the 4 legs was engraved a different image.  There was a lion, an אריה, which is hinted by the letter א'.  Another leg had a כרוב, one of the כרובים, an image of a baby, hinted by the letter כ'.  And a third leg was engraved with the image of an eagle, a נשר, hinted by the letter נ'.  This spells out the word אכן, אריה, כרוב, and נשר

And what was the 4th image on the 4th leg?  אכן יש ה' במקום הזה, יעקב says that he knew the three legs, the אכן but אנכי לא ידעתי.  The fourth I didn’t know, he says.  The word אנכי contains the three letters of אכן plus the letter י.  The 4th leg is represented by the letter י'.  What does the letter י' stand for?  חז"ל tells us that the image of יעקב was engraved on the 4th leg.  The letter י' represents יעקב himself.  Now when יעקב says אנכי לא ידעתי it means he didn’t know the letter י, he didn’t know himself, he didn’t know אנכי.  He didn’t realize that he himself was the 4th leg.

The Image of יעקב

יעקב was in a difficult stage of his life.  He was forced to grow up.  He was off on his own.  And during this very challenging stage הקב"ה shows him a dream.  ה' יתברך shows יעקב אבינו how much potential he has.  He shows him the tremendous heights that he can reach.  יעקב says אנכי לא ידעי, I didn’t know how far I can reach, I didn’t know that my image touches the כסא הכבוד.  I didn’t realize my actions have ripple effects in the World above.

This message of teaching יעקב אבינו how much he could accomplish is also the message behind the ladder.  The ladder is rooted in the ground והנה סלם מוצב ארצה but ראשו מגיע השמימה that we can reach tremendous heights.

Our Image in the 4th Leg
The truth is, if you look at the גמ' in חגיגה which records the 4 legs of the כסא הכבוד doesn’t say that יעקב is the 4th leg but the 4th leg is אדם – any person.  Each one of us has our image imprinted on that 4th leg.  Avi  - you have your image on the 4th leg of the כסא הכבוד.  You have the ability to reach tremendous heights and lofty goals. 

This 4th leg is a mirror.  And when each one of us look up at this mirror we see ourselves imprinted on the כסא הכבודThis is both a daunting realization, yet an empowering message.  We have the ability to shake the world above, make waves in שמים.

We have to internalize how powerful our actions are, how high they can reach, how we can turn over worlds, we can make changes in the עליונים.

There is a striking Gemara in גיטין that records a debate about the details that surround the story of פילגש בגבעה

תלמוד בבלי מסכת גיטין דף ו עמוד ב
ועוד, הא ר' אביתר הוא דאסכים מריה על ידיה, דכתיב: בותזנה עליו פילגשו, רבי אביתר אמר: זבוב מצא לה, ר' יונתן אמר: נימא מצא לה, ואשכחיה ר' אביתר לאליהו, א"ל: מאי קא עביד הקב"ה? א"ל: עסיק בפילגש בגבעה, ומאי קאמר? אמר ליה: אביתר בני כך הוא אומר, יונתן בני כך הוא אומר, א"ל: ח"ו, ומי איכא ספיקא קמי שמיא? א"ל: אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים הן זבוב מצא ולא הקפיד, נימא מצא והקפיד. אמר רב יהודה: זבוב בקערה, ונימא באותו מקום, זבוב - מאיסותא, ונימא - סכנתא. איכא דאמרי: אידי ואידי בקערה, זבוב - אונסא, ונימא – פשיעותא

What is most striking though is that when Hashem is learning this topic, he is quoting ר' אביתר and ר' יונתן.  And the same holds true, when we are learning and we are מחדש something, Hashem will quote us.  That is as if to say, we are placing the words in Hashem’s mouth.  We are dictating what is being said upstairs in שמים!

If we can just take this idea to heart and realize how far reaching our speech, our thoughts, our actions can go, it will drive us to do only good.

We need to be confident in ourselves, confident in our actions - how we act really does make a difference. 

A Little Bit About Avi

When you take a look at Avi, one thing immediately comes to mind; and that’s his precious smile - that smile that goes from cheek to cheek.  Avi is forever in the state of שמחה

שמחה is key to reaching one’s true potential, one’s true heights.  It indicates a healthy dose of confidence that will enable Avi to reach immeasurable heights.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף קל עמוד א
תניא, רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר: כל מצוה שקיבלו עליהם בשמחה כגון מילה, דכתיב שש אנכי על אמרתך כמוצא שלל רב - עדיין עושין אותה בשמחה,

Avi is starting off his life as a בר מצוה boy with an unthinkable amount of שמחה.

Now Avi, as you embark on this new journey supplied with the proper tools to succeed, you need to believe in yourself and your ability to succeed.  You already have shown us an enormous amount of success with your dedication to daven, perform מצוות and learn.  You need to remember והנה סולם מוצב ארצה, that the ladder is grounded, you need to stay firm and grounded with a strong base, a healthy one.  But you also need to look forward and find your mission in life and to realize that you can be מגיע השמימה.

We look forward to seeing you continuously grow and you should only bring Nachas to your family and continue to inspire all of us around you with your smile, your happiness, your dedication to Torah, Tefila and Mitzvos!

Mazel Tov and Good Shabbos!

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