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Rabbi's Weekly Dvar Torahs

Rabbi's Weekly Dvar Torahs

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Parshas Vayeshev

 While crossing the US-Canadian border on his bicycle, the man was stopped by a guard who pointed to two sacks the man had on his shoulders. "What's in the bags?” asked the guard. "Sand," said the cyclist.

"Get them off - we'll take a look," said the guard.

The Cyclist did as he was told, emptied the bags, and proving they contained nothing but sand, reloaded the bags, put them on his shoulders and continued across the border.

Two weeks later, the same thing happened. Again the guard demanded to see the two bags, which again contained nothing but sand. This went on every week for six months, until one day the cyclist with the sand bags failed to appear.

A few days later, the guard happened to meet the cyclist downtown. "Say friend, you sure had us crazy", said the guard. "We knew you were smuggling something across the border. I won't say a word - but what is it you were smuggling?" "Bicycles!"

The great Chassidic Master, the Maggid of Mezeritch, offered a novel explanation on the verse "And Jacob dwelt in the land of his father's sojourning, in the land of Canaan" in this week's Torah portion, Vayeishev.

"And Jacob dwelt" implies the act of settling in, an active investment of one's energies. "In the land" alludes to the material realm, to the physical world and its affairs. When Jacob lived in Charan he involved himself in mundane matters, utilizing simple physical objects in his service of G-d. Kabalistically this is called collecting and refining the sparks of holiness that were concealed within the physical world and obscured by its gross materiality. Through his service Jacob elevated these sparks and reconnected this creative energy with G-d, the Creator.

A necessary dimension of this kind of Divine service is our acceptance of the yoke of heaven, without consideration for individual understanding. The Jewish people are called "the Army of G-d." A soldier obeys without question. He does not act at his own discretion, nor does his commander explain his reasoning when issuing an order. A soldier demonstrates pure obedience and acceptance of authority; so must every Jew in his G-dly service.

Jacob left Be'er Sheva for Charan to begin his work of elevating the sparks of holiness. Jacob understood that he and Esau could not live in close proximity, but he did not question why he was the one who would have to depart. He accepted G-d's command without protest  and acted with joy and enthusiasm.

For Jacob, going to Charan represented a very great descent, for it required him to abandon the rarefied world of the spirit and involve himself in mundane matters in order to elevate them. Yet we see that Jacob's spiritual stature was not damaged by this in the least. On the contrary, by serving G-d with true acceptance of His authority, Jacob experienced a very great ascent, both in the spiritual sense and in the material wealth that he accrued.

From Jacob we can derive a lesson for every Jew.  When it comes to serving G-d, it is not necessary to look for grand actions and methods. A Jew's task is to properly utilize even the most mundane of physical objects in his Divine service, elevating the hidden sparks of holiness they contain with the inner humility to accept the direction in life upon which G-d sends us.

Have a good Shabbos.

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted for Maayan Chai from Likutei Sichot, vol 1, lchaimweekly.org

 

Parshas Vayishlach

 The devout Yiddishe cowboy lost his favorite copy of the Torah while he was mending fences out on the range. Three weeks later, a donkey walked up to him carrying the holy book in its mouth. The cowboy couldn't believe his eyes. He took the precious book out of the donkey's mouth, raised his eyes heavenward and exclaimed, "It's a miracle!" "Not really," said the donkey. "Your name is written inside the cover."

In this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob recounts his years in Laban's household. Among other things he states, "I have ox(en) and donkey(s)." According to the Midrash, this is an allusion to the donkey of Moshiach, whom the Torah describes as "humble and riding upon a donkey."

Why did Jacob choose employ the allusion of a donkey in reference to the Final Redemption? It seems like an unlikely metaphor.

The use of a donkey enables a person to travel more easily, conveying his belongings to a higher or more distant location. In the spiritual sense, it symbolizes the conquest and transcendence over materiality. ("Chamor," the Hebrew word for donkey, is related to "chomer," physical substance). Through refinement of the physical world, the soul is able to attain higher spiritual levels than it could otherwise achieve.

The donkey Moshiach will ride is the same animal that Moses made use of, as it states, "And he mounted them [his family] upon a donkey." It is also the same donkey that was used by Abraham when he went to the binding of Isaac, as it states, "And he saddled his donkey."

Abraham and his servants walked by foot, employing the donkey only to carry their belongings: the pieces of wood and the knife. Neither did Moses ride upon the donkey himself, but only mounted his wife and son on the animal's back. Moshiach, by contrast, will actually ride the donkey.

In the times of Abraham, before the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai, the physical world was not yet sanctified. When the Patriarchs performed mitzvot with physical objects, the physical objects remained unchanged. Materiality did not yet have the power to spiritually elevate. Abraham thus utilized the donkey only for carrying, as the holiness in the objects was limited to the actual time he used them for sanctified purposes.

In Moses' time, the ability to transform materiality into spirituality (through the performance of mitzvot) was granted. Human existence could thus be elevated. This partial conquest of the physical world is symbolized by Moses' mounting his wife and son upon the donkey.

It is only in the era of Moshiach that the superiority of the body over the soul will be fully revealed. At that time, even the highest levels of the soul will be elevated through the refinement of physicality. For this reason, Moshiach will actually ride upon the donkey.

Jacob's declaration thus alludes to his successful refinement of the physical plane of reality during his sojourn with Laban. Indeed, it indicated his readiness for the next step up - the elevation of the soul that follows such refinement. Unfortunately, his brother Esav’s spiritual advancement did not even come close. Since that time, the world has been on a journey to conquer our donkeys, our material side, in order to experience the soul’s elevation. This will be complete with the coming of Moshiach, yet are granted a limited experience and taste of it every Shabbos. Enjoy!

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teachings, Likutei Sichot , vol. 1, lchaimweekly.org

Parshas Vayetzei

What do you get if you cross an insomniac, an agnostic and a dyslexic? Someone who stays up all night wondering if there really is a dog.

As we begin this week's Torah portion, Vayeitzei, we notice that the Torah focuses on Jacob's spiritual service which is done while in an undesirable environment. Jacob is forced to leave the land of Israel and go to Charan, a city whose very name is associated with the arousal of G-d's wrath. He is forced to work for the deceitful Laban, and marries and establishes his family, laying the foundation for the Jewish people of all future generations. Even after leaving Charan, Jacob's path is fraught with difficulty when he must confront his brother Esau. 

It is curious that the Torah concentrates on these aspects of his life instead of centering on Jacob's activities in the sphere of holiness. But the narrative of Jacob's difficulties is included in the Torah precisely because "the deeds of the Patriarchs are a sign for their descendants." There is much for us to learn and emulate from Jacob's trials and tribulations.

In our Torah portion it states: "He (Jacob) encountered the place. He slept there because the sun set, and he took from the stones of the place and put them around his head. And he lay down in that place." Analogously, the concealment of G-d in this material world causes the Jew to "lie down." When a person lies down, his head and his feet are on the same level. In contrast, when a person stands, and even when he sits, his head, meaning his intellectual faculties, are raised above the rest of the body. When a person lies down, all the parts of the body are on the same level. 

As applied to us, the concealment of G-dliness in the physical world, particularly in our generation, which immediately precedes the coming of Moshiach, causes the revelation of a person's conscious powers to be hindered to the extent that one's head and feet are on the same level.

Yet there is a positive aspect to lying down as well. When Jacob chose that site to lie down and sleep, it was the first time he had slept in a very long time, after many years of late night Torah study and tireless work for Laban. Also, that very place where he chose to sleep was none other than the future site where the Holy Temple in Jerusalem would be built in generations to come.

Lying down usually implies a descent, where the head and feet are equal – meaning a lowering of the level of one's higher, spiritual powers, to the same level as his lower. It can also be interpreted in a positive manner, for the revelation of G-d's essence is above all particular qualities and is simultaneously reflected in them. Relative to the Essence, higher and lower are equal. In relation to the greatness of G-d, head and feet are on the same plane.

 This level of connection to the infinite can continue even after a person arises and stands on his feet. Although his conscious powers assume control, he will still recognize the fundamental equality which stems from a connection to G-d's essence. Thus, the Jew confirms that not only can the material never obscure the spiritual, and in fact, is a vehicle for its expression, but he can reach a level above all limitations, establishing a unity between the material and the spiritual.

Shabbos is also I time when we are elevated to that level of spiritual consciousness. Let’s tap into it and have a very good Shabbos.

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from Sichot Kodesh, 5752, Parshat Vayeitzei, lchaimweekly.org

Parshas Toldot

An ER doc was on duty when a father brought in his son, who had a tire from a toy trucks up his nose. The man was embarrassed, but the doc assured him this was something kids often do and quickly removed the tire and they were on their way. A few minutes later, the father was back in the ER asking to talk to doc in private.

Mystified, he led him to an examining room. "While we were on our way home," he began, "I was looking at that little tire and wondering, how on earth my son got this thing stuck up his nose and…"

It took just a few seconds to get the tire out of Dad’s nose.

This week's Torah portion, Toldot, describes the life and times of our Patriarch Isaac. The Talmud tells us that in the Messianic Era, Isaac will be referred to as "our father," implying his special connection to the Messianic Era. As we now stand at the threshold of the coming of Moshiach and the ultimate Redemption of the Jewish people, it is important to understand what exactly Isaac's path and service mean for us.

Isaac was the only one of our Patriarchs who lived his entire life within the boundaries of the land of Israel. Abraham was born outside of Israel and also left Israel to go to Egypt when a famine threatened. Jacob, too, went to Charan, where he worked for Laban for many years. However, when there was another famine in the Land during Isaac's lifetime, G-d commanded him to stay where he was and not to seek food elsewhere. "Do not go down to Egypt, but dwell in this land...and I will bless you." This is because after having shown his willingness to be sacrificed on the altar by his father Abraham, Isaac was considered a "perfect offering," too holy to dwell anywhere but in the Holy Land.

Isaac, therefore, symbolizes the Jewish people as we are meant to be, and as we will exist in the Messianic Era, our rightful place being in our land and not in exile in the four corners of the earth. During our present exile, we are like "children who have been banished from their father's table." We therefore continue to yearn and demand that G-d send the redeemer now, so that we will be able to emulate Isaac, living a full life of Torah and mitzvot in our own land, as we were meant to.

Isaac's approach to the service of G-d is also especially applicable to us today. Even though Isaac continued in his father Abraham's path of spreading the belief in G-d throughout the world, he did so in a different manner from his father. Abraham wandered from place to place, including Egypt, spreading G-dliness wherever he went. Isaac, on the other hand, always remained in the same place, in Israel. Others flocked to him because they were attracted by his holiness. In this way Isaac was able to influence others.

For the most part, the Jewish people have followed Abraham's example during their long exile, wandering from country to country and causing G-d's name to be known and called on wherever they went. After Moshiach comes, however, we will follow in Isaac's footsteps, as G-d's holiness and light will emanate from the Third Holy Temple in Jerusalem. And at that time, as happened in the days of Isaac, all the nations of the world will likewise flock to Jerusalem, as it states, "And all nations shall flow unto it...for the Torah shall go forth out of Zion."

We must, in the meantime, combine aspects of both these approaches, refining our own personal spirituality, yet at the same time, not neglecting to spread holiness throughout the world at large. May it truly be “like father like son”. 

Have a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from a talk of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, lchaimweekly.org

 

Parshas Chayei Sarah

Married life is very frustrating. In the first year of marriage, the man speaks and the woman listens. In the second year, the woman speaks and the man listens. In the third year, they both speak and the neighbors listen. 

This week's Torah portion is called Chayei Sara, literally "the life of Sara." It begins, however, with the passing of our first matriarch: "And Sara died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron, in the Land of Canaan."

According to the primary Jewish mystical text, the Zohar, Sara symbolizes the body while Abraham is symbolic of the soul. In this context, the Zohar explains that the verse describes the death of the body. The fact that "Abraham came to lament Sara and to weep for her" indicates that the soul weeps even after the death of the body since it remains related to the body.

Earlier in the Torah, when Abraham questioned Sara's judgment in sending away his son Ishmael, G-d told Abraham, "All that Sara may say unto you, listen to her voice." According to the Zohar, then, it would seem that the soul must listen to the body, even though it would appear that soulful spirituality is loftier than bodily materialism!

What is the "working relationship" between the soul and the body? Mitzvot - commandments - are given to the soul, but only souls that have been brought down into bodies. The mitzvot themselves are performed through material objects. This applies not only to mitzvot involving a physical act, but also to those mitzvot which are essentially duties of the heart - e.g., love and fear of G-d, or duties of the mind - e.g., the belief in the unity of G-d. The latter, too, are meant to be fulfilled by the physical heart and brain.

It is conceivable to meditate on and contemplate all of the intentions of a mitzvah, and yet not fulfill the actual mitzvah. For example, one may go through all the devotions relating to tefilin, without actually donning the tefilin, or relating to Shabbat candles, without actually lighting them.

Obviously this would constitute not only a failure in fulfilling the mitzvah, but an actual transgression - by negating the mitzvah performance. On the other hand, if one fulfills a mitzvah without contemplating any of the devotions involved, though he should have had these thoughts in mind, he has at least practically fulfilled the mitzvah.

This primacy of practical mitzvah fulfillment speaks to the fact that in essence, our ultimate preoccupation is with the body, more than the soul. The impact of our “bodily” mitzvah engagement is now not totally apparent. However, in the Messianic era it’s presently concealed true G-dly core of physically will become revealed, thus nurturing the soul. That presently hidden G-dliness, is actually qualitative more intense that the revealed G-dliness we experience today.

So listen to your “wife”, appreciate the soon to be revealed value embedded in our physical fulfillment of G-d’s will. Have a good Shabbos.

 

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, lchaimweekly.org

Parshas Vayeira

Benjamin, a young Talmud student who had left Israel for England some years earlier, returns to visit his family.

"But Benjamin, where is your beard?" asks his mother upon seeing him.

"Mother," he replies, "In London, nobody wears a beard."

"But at least you keep the Sabbath?" his mother asks.

"Mother, business is business. In London, everybody works on the Sabbath."

"But kosher food you still eat?" asks his mother.

"Mother, in London, it is very difficult to keep kosher."

Then silence, whilst his elderly mother gives thought to what she has just heard. Then she leans over and whispers in his ear, "Benjamin, tell me, are you still circumcised?"

 

In the Torah portion of Vayeira we learn of Yitzchak's bris which took place when he was eight days old.

The Midrash relates that Yitzchak and Yishmael argued about who was more cherished. Yishmael said he was more cherished as he was circumcised at age 13. Yitzchak said: "I am more cherished for I was circumcised when I was but eight days old."

One can easily understand why Yishmael felt more cherished. He was 13 years old and was old enough to protest, yet he did not. That is surely reason enough to feel superior. But why did Yitzchak reason that he was the more cherished of the two?

The overall theme of circumcision is, as the verse says: "This shall be My covenant in your flesh, an eternal covenant." Circumcision effects an eternal bond between the individual and G-d. (The Talmud relates that for women, this deep relationship with G-d starts at birth and does not require a covenant in the flesh.)

Concerning a covenant formed between two dear friends there is no ironclad guarantee that the covenant will truly be everlasting, for mortals are subject to change. When, however, it is G-d who makes the covenant, in this case His covenant with the Jewish people through circumcision, then it is truly eternal.

The reason that circumcision is performed at the tender age of eight days, at a time when the infant has absolutely no say in the matter, may be understood accordingly.

Whatever a person does on his own initiative requires preparation, adequate time must be allowed.

However, the covenant that is set in motion through circumcision is effected entirely by G-d. In other words, circumcision is not an act through which a person binds himself to G-d. When a Jew boy is circumcised (or a Jewish girl born) G-d binds Himself to the person with an "eternal covenant."

Thus, there is no reason to wait until the infant will come of age and consciously affirm and participate in this act. After all, the entire covenant comes from G-d, and our job is to receive it in the fullest measure. If we allow our limited judgment to be the determinant, we limit the unlimited bond G-d makes with us. Therefore, he is circumcised at the earliest age possible.

Thus, the merit of Yitzchak's circumcision at eight days surpassed not only that of Yishmael, but also the circumcision of his father Abraham! Abraham was commanded to circumcise himself after he had attained the highest degree of perfection possible for a created being to achieve on his own. Thus,

Abraham's circumcision lacked the indisputable indication that the covenant, which came as a result of the circumcision, came entirely from G-d. His efforts and achievements were mixed in, as lofty as they were.

Only with the circumcision of Yitzchak, at the age of eight days, and so to for every Jewish boy, was it clear that his covenant had nothing whatsoever to do with his “created being”, but was entirely dependent on G-d. All of us share in the eternal bond with G-d and since He initiated it, that covenant will never be broken.

Have a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from the teaching of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, The Chasidic Dimension, lchaimweekly.org

Parshas Lech Lecha

The Fourth of July was coming up, and the nursery school teacher took the opportunity to tell her class about patriotism.
"We live in a great country," she said.
"One of the things we should be happy is that, in this country, we are all free"
One little boy came walking up to her from the back of the room.
He stood with his hands on his hips and said,"I'm not free. I'm four."

 

In the Torah portion of Lech Lecha we read about the Brit Bein Habetarim - the Covenant of the Pieces, that G-d made with Abraham. It was then that G-d promised to give Abraham the land of Israel as an inheritance for his descendants forever.

Among the many things G-d told Abraham was that his children would one day be exiled. However, G-d promised that their exile would end. Not only would they return from their exile but "afterwards they will go out with great wealth."

The intent of G-d's promise of "great wealth" was not simply as payment for their suffering. In truth, G-d's statement that "afterwards they will go out with great wealth" revealed the entire purpose behind their descent into Egypt.

At first glance this is difficult to understand. Had G-d asked the Jewish people to relinquish the "great wealth" they were promised in order to hasten the end of their suffering they would have surely agreed.

Nonetheless, we find that G-d did not offer them this choice, as the "great wealth" they were to obtain in Egypt was of particular significance.

What was this "great wealth" that required the Jewish people to endure a bitter exile for hundreds of years, and why was it so important?

The inner purpose of the Jews' descent into Egypt was that through their service of G-d, the mystical "sparks of holiness" embedded in the material realm would be refined and elevated. Indeed, the Jews' Divine service was successful, as it states, "And a mixed multitude (erev rav) also went up with them" for the numerical equivalent of "rav" is 202 - i.e., all 202 sparks of holiness that Egypt possessed were successfully purified.

This, then, is the "great wealth" that the Jews brought out of Egypt with them. Indeed, it was for the Jewish people's own benefit. Had it not occurred, Abraham would have had a valid complaint to level against G-d.

But what was the benefit that they derived?

Every soul has its own unique role in the mystical process of "elevating the sparks." By sifting through the physical world and directing it to Divine and holy purposes, we are purifying the specific "sparks" we encounter throughout life, bringing redemption to our souls, and to the world at large.

The lesson to be derived from all this is that the Jew's function is to be involved in the material world for the express purpose of elevating these hidden sparks of holiness. For with these sparks we will merit to greet Moshiach imminently.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shraga Sherman


Adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Likutei Sichot, Vol. 3, lchaimweekly.org

Parshas Noach

Two dog owners are arguing over whose dog is the cleverest.

‘My dog is so smart’, says the first owner, ‘that every morning he waits for the paper boy to come round. He tips the boy and then brings the newspaper to me, along with my morning cup of coffee.’

‘I know,’ says the second owner.

‘How do you know?’

‘My dog told me.’

 

The beginning of this week's Torah reading, Noach, relates how G-d tells Noah that because he was righteous, he and his family would be saved. Although all mankind would be punished for their wickedness and annihilated in a terrible flood, Noah and his descendants would not perish.

For that purpose, Noah built an ark according to G-d's specifications and when the rains came, he and his family entered. Together with Noah and his family were gathered into the ark one pair each of all the existing non-kosher animals and seven pairs of each of the kosher animals.

What did Noah do for the entire year he was in the ark? He brought food for the animals, cleaned their stalls, and took care of their needs. Nor were the animals particularly appreciative. Our Sages relate that once when Noah delayed bringing food to one of the lions, the beast took a swipe at him and wounded him. Is this a befitting reward for a person whom G-d told was righteous?

Herein lies a fundamental lesson. No person exists for himself. We were created for service. The Jewish ideal is not a world where "the righteous sit crowned with their knowledge." That is a description of the

World to Come, the afterlife, where the souls bask in Divine light. But until a person reaches that state, he must work.

We have all been given a mission - to prepare the world to be a dwelling for G-d. And to be complete, that dwelling must encompass every element of creation. Therefore every element of our environment is important and deserving of our concern and attention.

Simply put, a person cannot seclude himself in a synagogue or a house of study and claim that he is creating G-d's dwelling. For if all G-d wants is prayer and study, He would not have created a physical world. He would have made us spiritual beings with heightened intellectual potentials.

He did not do this. Instead, He made us mortals and placed us in a material environment. As such, our lives should be dedicated to the above mission, caring for every entity created within the world and revealing the G-dly spark it contains and the intent for which it was created. Man's task in life is to take that abstract ideal and make it actual.

The root of the Hebrew name "Noach" relates to the concepts of rest and satisfaction. Indeed, our Torah portion foreshadows the ultimate state of repose and satisfaction that will be reached in the era when, as Maimonides relates,"there will be neither famine nor war, neither envy nor competition, for good things will flow in abundance" May it be speedily in our days!

Good Shabbos.

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Keeping In Touch, by Rabbi E. Touger, published by Sichos in English.

Parshat Bereishit

At Hebrew School they were teaching how G-d created everything, including human beings. Little Chaim, a child in the kindergarten class, seemed especially intent when they told him how Eve was created out of one of Adam’s ribs.

Later in the week his mother noticed him lying down as though he were ill, and said, “Chaim, what is the matter?” Little Chaim responded, “I have a pain in my side. I think I’m going to have a wife.”

 

In this week’s Torah portion, Bereishit, G-d warns Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.

The Midrash relates that this command was given to Adam on Friday afternoon, and that it was to remain in effect only until Shabbat began. On Shabbat, the fruit would be permitted. The entire prohibition against eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was to have applied for a period of just three hours.

As we know, Adam was unable to restrain himself. He transgressed G-d’s command and ate from the Tree.

We may ask a valid question: How is it possible that Adam, whom G-d Himself had created only hours before - “the handiwork of the Holy One, Blessed Be He” - could not control himself for three hours?

The answer lies in the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. The sole purpose of the evil inclination is to challenge a person by attempting to prevent him from performing G-d’s commandments, thereby causing him to go against G-d’s will.

Significantly, the evil inclination’s efforts are in direct proportion to the importance of the mitzvah. The more important the commandment or the greater in spiritual stature the individual, the harder the evil inclination will work to lure him into its trap.

We see this for ourselves. It often happens that a person will encounter a mitzvah that is very easy to perform, yet the evil inclination will suddenly rear its ugly head to stop him from doing it. Why? Because that particular mitzvah is especially important to that person’s soul, and the evil inclination will expend great effort to prevent him from fulfilling it.

This, in essence, is what happened to Adam. The commandment to refrain from eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was a simple one, but because Adam’s compliance was so crucial (as the dire consequences of his sin attest), the evil inclination was determined to cause him to fall short.

From this we learn that a person must never make his own decisions as to which mitzvot are more significant than others. A Jew must never say, “This mitzvah is an important one so I will fulfill it to the best of my ability, whereas this mitzvah is a lesser one, and the bare minimum is good enough.” Quite often a mitzvah that appears to us as less significant is of enormous importance on a personal level, and failing to perform it will lead to a great spiritual deterioration.

A Jew must observe all of G-d’s commandments in the most beautiful and stringent manner he can, without making distinctions between them. Let’s insure our upper hand over the yetzer hara – evil inclination. Have a good Shabbos.

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, Vol. 3, lchaimweekly.org

Sukkot

 

The farmer’s son was returning from the market with the crate of chicken’s his father had entrusted to him, when all of a sudden the box fell and broke open. Chickens scurried off in different directions, but the determined boy walked all over the neighborhood scooping up the wayward birds and returning them to the repaired crate. Hoping he had found them all, the boy reluctantly returned home, expecting the worst.

“Pa, the chickens got loose,” the boy confessed sadly, “but I managed to find all twelve of them.”

“Well, you did real good, son,” the farmer beamed. “You left with seven.”

 

Of all the Jewish, our joy is greatest on Sukkot, the “festival of our rejoicing.” The commandment to rejoice on Sukkot appears three times in the Torah, while there is no specific command to rejoice on Passover, and the command to rejoice on Shavuot appears only once.

Why is our joy greater on Sukkot? The Midrash explains that the joy of a festival is directly related to the particular stage of the harvest when it occurs.

On Passover, it is spring time and the grain in the fields has just begun to grow. Since no one is yet sure of the eventual yield, our joy is limited. Accordingly, there is no commandment to rejoice in the Torah. By Shavuot, the grain has ripened and is ready to be harvested. So the commandment to rejoice appears only once because our joy is not complete. The grain is gathered together but it remains in the field and cannot yet be eaten.

On Sukkot, the grain is brought from the fields into our homes. Because the grain can now be utilized and fully enjoyed, our joy is greatest. The commandment to rejoice on Sukkot appears three times.

A deeper contemplation of this concept reveals that the events we celebrate on each holiday also correlate to the particular time of year in which it falls.

On Passover, the Jews left Egypt. Yet they were still at the beginning, like grain that has just begun to germinate. On Shavuot, the Jews received the Torah, but they had not yet begun to observe it. This is like a harvest which has ripened but has not yet been brought indoors. On Sukkot, the Jewish people observed the Torah’s commandments of their own volition. The “harvest,” as it were, was finally being utilized.

These three periods are also reflected in the spiritual service of every Jew:

The first stage, “spring,” is symbolic of a Jew’s pure faith in G-d, the foundation of Torah and mitzvot. But faith does not necessarily lead to practical observance. Just like on Passover one is still unsure whether the wheat will flourish. This is the “spiritual Passover” of the Jew.

Reaping the grain is next, but it is not the culmination of the process. In the spiritual sense, this is equal to a Jew’s resolve to keep the Torah before he has begun acting. The “harvest” is still in the field, hence a Jew’s “spiritual Shavuot.”

It is only when the grain is eaten, when the Jew’s resolutions for good find expression in actual deed, that perfection is achieved. This is the “spiritual Sukkot” of the Jew. Thus the highest level of joy is felt on Sukkot, and it is truly “the time of our rejoicing.”

Have a good and rejoice-ful Shabbos Sukkos!

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, Vol. 29, lchaimweekly.org

 

Yom Kippur

 Two Jewish women were speaking about their sons, each of whom was incarcerated in the state prison.

The first says: "Oy, my son has it so hard. He is locked away in maximum security, he never even speaks to anyone or sees the light of day. He has no exercise and he lives a horrible life."

The second says: "Well, my son is in minimum security. He exercises every day, he spends time in the prison library, takes some classes, and writes home each week."

 "Oy," says the first woman, "You must get such nachas from your son."

 

 

Is repentance necessary to receive atonement on Yom Kippur? Most of our Sages say that it is. Rebbi (Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi), however, contends that, though one certainly achieves a higher level of atonement with repentance; even without repentance the holiness of the day itself effects atonement.

In this debate in the Mishna, both Rebbi and the Sages agree that the G-dly revelation of Yom Kippur brings atonement. However Rebbi holds that it can occur automatically, whereas the Sages teach that repentance is needed first to reach the level where Yom Kippur can be effective.

Atonement means that a person's misdeeds have been forgiven. Yet, beyond forgiveness, its true meaning is that the person's soul has been cleansed. This cleansing requires the level of repentance where all traces of the sin's impression are erased and even deliberate misdeeds are considered as merits. This only strengthens the question: how can Yom Kippur itself erase this defilement -- without any effort by the sinner?

A Jew's attachment to G-d exists on many levels, the first of which is achieved through the performance of mitzvot. When a Jew declares his willingness to obey G-d's laws, he forges a connection with the One Above.

A deeper level of connection expresses itself in repentance. If a Jew transgresses G-d's command, he is disturbed by the resultant weakening of his relationship with G-d. Thus, the impetus for teshuva is his deep sense of attachment to G-d. By removing all taint of sin, he can restore this bond. And yet, even this level of connection is still limited.

The loftiest level is the intrinsic bond between the soul and G-d's essence. It is above all limitations, transcending even repentance. A bond of this nature cannot be created through man's actions, nor can it be improved through his Divine service. It exists solely by virtue of his Jewish soul.

Conversely, because it is so essential, this highest degree of connection with G-d cannot be weakened by anything at all, not even by sin. It is always intact, untouched by repentance or lack thereof. Thus, as regards the supreme level of our relationship with G-d, Yom Kippur itself is sufficient to achieve atonement.

On Yom Kippur, this essential connection with G-d is revealed within each and every Jew. Because it is so intense, all sins are atoned for as a matter of course. The stains that mar the soul are automatically cleansed.

To sum up: The lower levels of our connection with G-d require repentance. But on the highest level that

is completely untouched by sin, the atonement of Yom Kippur itself is sufficient. Throughout the year,

we strive for a harmony between our lower and higher registers of self. Have a good Yom Tov!

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Likutei Sichot, Vol. 4, lchaimweekly.org

Parshas Haazinu

Moishle was leaving Shul after Yom Kippur services when the Rabbi took him aside. "Moishle, my son." he said, "It's time you joined the Army of G-d. We need to see you in synagogue every Shabbos."

"I'm already in G-d’s Army," Moishle replied.
 
"Then why do we only see you on RH and YK?"
 
Moishle looked to the right and to the left, and then leaned over to whisper in the Rabbi's ear. "Shhh! I'm in the Secret Service."
 
 
This Shabbat is known by two names: Shabbat Shuva and Shabbat Teshuva – both carrying the central theme of repentance and return to G-d.
The name Shabbat Shuva is taken from the opening words of this week's haftorah – reading form the Prophets: “Shuva Yisrael - Return, O Israel.”
 
The second name, Shabbat Teshuva, is derived from the fact that this Shabbat falls out in the middle of the Ten Days of Repentance (Teshuva).
Jewish Mysticism teaches that the Hebrew name for something shows on its essences.
 
The same applies to the two names of this Shabbat and therefore reveal a timely lesson.
 
The phrase shuva – return - is grammatically a command. G-d commands us to return to Him in repentance. Teshuva, by contrast, is a noun denoting the action itself, the actual return to G-d.
 
The word shuva relates to the Commander, more than to the person being addressed – the commanded. The directive has been issued, but not yet carried out. The command itself imparts a certain measure of strength and potentiality, but does not ensure that it will necessarily be fulfilled in the future. Teshuva, on the other hand, implies that action has already been taken, i.e., that the teshuva - return - has already been done.
 
But if that were the case, why would we continue to refer to this Shabbat as Shabbat Teshuva, implying “I’ve already completed my return/repentance to G-d?” The answer is that the act of teshuva consists of both the command to return to G-d and its subsequent implementation.
 
Shuva teaches us that even after a Jew has done teshuva, he/she still needs to work on him/herself. No matter how much teshuva a person has already done, it is always possible to rise higher. As the Prophet exhorts us, “Return, O Israel unto the L-rd your G-d.”
 
There is always room for improvement, for an even deeper and more infinite level of teshuva, as G-d Himself is Infinite and without limitations. This is the lesson of Shabbat [Te]Shuva: A Jew must never be content with whatever spiritual accomplishments they have already attained. Never think that because I worked on my self-refinement a whole week, I am now entitled to “slack” because it is Shabbat.
 
No, today is Shabbat Shuva! Even after one has done teshuva, more work is required because the service of teshuva is continual and without end.

Good Shabbos and may we all have already been sealed for a good and sweet year!
 
Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from lchaim.org

Parshas Nitzavim-Vayelech

A Loan Officer was at the gates of heaven trying to get in after his 120 years. The heavenly court asked him, "What did you do when you were living?". The Loan Officer answered, "I was a mortgage loan officer." The court told him, "Go right into heaven – you’ve already been through the other place and back!"


The Torah portion of Nitzavim is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah.

It begins: "You are standing this day, all of you, before the L-rd your G-d, your heads, your tribes, your elders... all the men of Israel, your children and your wives ... that you should enter into the covenant of the L-rd your G-d."

With these words, Moses brought the Jewish people into a state of collective and mutual surety.

Indeed, our Sages declared, "All Jews are guarantors for one another." Let us examine the concept of surety more closely.

What exactly is a guarantor, and who is eligible to act as one? According to logic, only a person who is superior to another in a certain respect can provide a guarantee. Consider the example of the poor man who has requested a loan. If the lender cannot rely on the poor man’s ability to pay him back, he asks for a wealthy guarantor as collateral. This way, the lender is assured repayment.

Conversely, it would be illogical to expect a poor man to act as guarantor for a rich man’s loan.

This would not make sense, as the poor man has less money to begin with.

What, then, are we to make of the fact that "All Jews are guarantors for one another"? How is it possible that even the lowliest individual can act as guarantor for the greatest?

Commenting on the verse You are standing this day, all of you, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of Chabad Chasidut, explained that Jews comprise a single entity. Metaphorically speaking, the Jewish people form one body, with each individual Jew being an integral part of the whole.

A physical body is composed of many organs and limbs, each serves its own unique function.

That the head is superior to the foot is obvious, but without the foot, the body is incomplete. A defect in the foot affects the entire person. The head suffers if any of the body’s limbs are flawed. In order to exist as a healthy entity, the body requires all of its organs to be in prime condition and to work in consonance.

So too is it in regard to the Jewish people. There are many different types and categories of Jews. Some are on the level of “head,” while others may be said to be the "feet." Nonetheless, each and every Jew is of inestimable value, an essential part of the Jewish people without whom the "body" of Jews would be incomplete. For this reason, all Jews are “guarantors for one another," as each individual possesses unique qualities which are necessary for the health and integrity of the whole.

True unity is only possible when all Jews stand together as one. Not only does this require the participation of our "heads," "tribes" and "elders," but the “hewers of our wood" and "drawers of our water" are no less important. As we stand together this Rosh Hashanah, let’s truly stand together.

Good Shabbos and Shannah Tova!

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, Vol. 4, lchaimweekly.org

Parshas Ki Tavo

A teacher was grading a test from the day before, and she realized a girl had copied off her partner’s paper. So she called the girl over and said, “Sue, why did you copy off Helen’s paper?”

Sue answered, “Why do you say that?”

The teacher answered, “Well, on the first question Helen answered ‘no,’ and you did, too.”

Sue said, “So what? That doesn’t prove anything.”

“Well, on the second answer, Helen answered ‘yes,’ and you did, too.”

Sue shrugged and said, “So what?”

“Well, on the third answer, Helen answered ‘I don’t know,’” the teacher continued, “and you put "I don’t know, either.’”

 

According to Maimonides’ enumeration of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot, general commandments such as “You shall be holy” or “You shall keep My laws” are not, as a rule, considered mitzvot in their own right. Rather, these injunctions are classified as broad directives encompassing all of Judaism.

It is therefore surprising, at first glance, that the commandment in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, “You shall walk in His ways,” is classified as a positive mitzvah, requiring a Jew “to emulate the Holy One, Blessed Be He.” Maimonides writes, “Just as G-d is gracious, so shall you be gracious. Just as G-d is merciful, so shall you be merciful. Just as G-d is pious, so shall you be pious.” Indeed, the commandment implies that a Jew is required to emulate G-d to the best of his or her ability, at all times and in all circumstances.

But why is this commandment different from all other general statements in the Torah, to the point that it is characterized as a separate mitzvah? What does the verse “You shall walk in His ways” entail that other similar commandments do not?

To explain:

Maimonides classifies “You shall walk in His ways” as a distinct commandment, as it contains a unique aspect not found in any other general directive in the Torah. This innovation is alluded to in the specific use of the word “walk,” which implies an ongoing and perpetual sense of motion.

One of the differences between the soul of a Jew and an angel is that angels are stationary beings, fixed in their spiritual positions, whereas the Jewish soul constantly ascends from one spiritual level to the next. The Jew is constantly in motion, reaching higher and higher spiritual heights by virtue of his actions.

It sometimes happens that a Jew may observe mitzvot, yet he remains on the same spiritual rung as before. The performance of the mitzvah did not cause him to progress or ascend any further. The commandment “You shall walk in His ways” comes to teach us that a Jew must never be stagnant, and that his performance of the mitzvot must always lead to an improvement of his overall spiritual condition.

How are we to accomplish this? By observing the Torah’s mitzvot solely because they are “His ways” - because of our desire to emulate the Creator. For when we do, our spiritual ascent to higher and higher levels of G-dliness is assured. In more Chassidic terminology, don’t just be good, be G-dly!

Have a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, Vol 4, lchaimweekly.org

Parshas Ki Teizei


Passengers aboard a luxurious cruise ship were having a great time when a young woman fell overboard. Immediately there was an 80-year-old man in the water who rescued her.

The crew pulled them both out of the treacherous waters. The captain was grateful as well as astonished that the white-haired old man performed such an act of bravery. That night a banquet was given in honor of the ship's elderly hero. He was called forward to receive an award and was asked to say a few words.

He said, “First of all, I'd like to know who pushed me.”

 

This week's Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, closes with the following verses: “Remember what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt. When they encountered you on the way, and you were tired and exhausted, they cut off those lagging behind... Therefore, you must obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. You must not forget.”

The command is not only read in our Torah portion. It is recited every day, at the end of the morning prayers, as one of the “Six Remembrances.”

Who was Amalek and why are Jews - described by the Torah as “compassionate” - commanded to destroy the people of Amalek?

The destruction of Amalek is symbolic of the nullification of a specific negative trait which can manifest itself within each one of us.

When a person is inspired and wants to go out of “Egypt,” from boundaries and limitations of a corporeal nature, “Amalek” comes along and tries to prevent him from doing so.

How does Amalek accomplish this? The phrase “When they encountered you” in Hebrew is “karcha.” “Kar” means “cold.” Rashi explains that Amalek attempted to stop the Jewish people by making them cold.

Holiness thrives on warmth and excitement. Amalek cools down a person's inclination to G-dliness, and numbs the excitement about anything holy by planting seeds of doubt. In fact, the numerical value of the Hebrew letters in the word “Amalek” is the same as “safek” - doubt.

The antidote to Amalek is “remember.” We must always have Torah thoughts engraved in our mind and memory, to meditate on them at any time and in any place. Through this a person can nullify the evil of Amalek.

But how was Amalek able to hurt the Jews? Weren't they protected in the desert from enemy attacks by the Divine clouds that accompanied them throughout their sojourn there? Amalek attacked those who were “tired and exhausted.” Rashi explains that the protective cloud that encompassed them cast out some of the Jews due to their sins. They had “no strength” to overcome their desire to sin.

Amalek attacked only those Jews who had transgressed and whom the Cloud had thrown out of the camp. Yet, it was to save these very Jews from Amalek that the entire Jewish people left the protection of the Cloud to go to war.

When the need arises, we too, must go out of the comfort and safety of our own “clouds” in order to help another Jew, no matter who he is, where he is, or what he has done in the past. Good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from the works of the Rebbe, lchaimweekly.org

 

 

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