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Rabbi's Weekly Dvar Torahs

Rabbi's Weekly Dvar Torahs

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Parshas Yitro

 Nine year old Joey was asked by his mother what he had learned in Sunday school. “Well, Mom, our teacher told us how G-d sent Moses behind enemy lines on a rescue mission to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. When he got to the Red Sea, he had his engineers build a pontoon bridge and all the people walked across safely. Then he used his walkie-talkie to radio headquarters for reinforcements. They sent bombers to blow up the bridge and all the Israelites were saved.”

“Now, Joey is that really what your teacher taught you?” His mother asked.
“Well, no, Mom. But if I told it the way the teacher did, you’d never believe it!”
 
In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, we read: “And Yitro heard...everything that G-d had done for Moses and His people Israel...and Yitro came...to Moses into the wilderness.”
What did Yitro hear that caused him to leave his land and join the Jewish people? Rashi explains, he heard about the splitting of the sea and the war against Amalek.
 
At first glance, this is surprising. For sure Yitro was aware of all the miracles that took place as part of the Exodus from Egypt which were before the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. Why then was it not until the sea was split and the battle fought against Amalek that he decided to go to Moses? Those amazing 10 miracle plagues had a tremendous magnetism. 
 
Another question. According to the principle that “one must always ascend in matters of holiness,” one would expect the Jewish people to have reached a more elevated spiritual state by the time the Torah was given. The physical and spiritual vulnerability that the war against Amalek seems to represent, points to a spiritual decline from the splitting of the sea.
 
When the Sea split, G-d’s Divine light illuminated all planes of existence, effecting a bond between the higher spheres and the mundane physical world. All the nations heard of the great miracle and the G-dly revelation struck awe in their hearts. Nevertheless, even after the splitting of the sea, Amalek was not afraid to confront the Jews. Why? Because the revelation of holiness that occurred had still not penetrate the very lowest levels of the physical. Those dimensions require very deep penetration and integration to bring purification. These lowest levels became refined only after the hand to hand physical and spiritual battle with Amalek, when the Jews were victorious.
 
Thus the battle against Amalek was the final step and cleansing in the Jewish people’s preparation for receiving the Torah. For it was by means of this war that the entire world was transformed into an appropriate vessel to contain the Torah.
 
This also explains why these two events convinced Yitro to join the Jewish people. It was only after both stages (splitting the sea and the war with Amalek) had occurred that the world was completely ready to accept the Torah.
 
Each day we say: “Blessed are You... Who gives the Torah” - in the present tense. Every day we receive the Torah anew. Just as our ancestors prepared themselves to accept the Torah at Sinai, so too must we prepare ourselves and our world.
 
We do this by living with the adage “Know Him in all your ways.” A Jew’s connection to G-d must be constant, not just during prayer or Torah study. First comes the “splitting of the Sea” - our involvement in spiritual matters, only after which can we wage “war against Amalek” and see to imbue our mundane affairs with meaning and purpose.
 
Have a good Shabbos.
 
Rabbi Shraga Sherman
Adapted for Maayan Chai from Likutei Sichot, Vol. 11, lchaimweekly.org

Parshas Beshalach

Every great and commanding movement in the annals of the world is a triumph of enthusiasm.     --- Ralph Waldo Emerson 

For every sale you miss because you're too enthusiastic, you will miss a hundred because you're not enthusiastic enough.     --- Zig Ziglar

If you're not fired with enthusiasm you will be fired with enthusiasm.     --- Anonymous

This week's Torah portion, Beshalach, speaks about the perpetual battle the Jewish people are commanded to wage against our spiritual arch-enemy Amalek. Commentators explain that ultimately the war against Amalek will only end when Moshiach (Messiah) comes and ushers in the Messianic age.

Nowadays we do not know the physical identity of Amalek – although unfortunately, there are a list of enemies in every generation that seem to fit the bill. Only Moshiach will be able to correctly distinguish between who is, and who is not, one of his descendants. So at present we are unable to fulfill this mitzvah in the literal sense. Nonetheless, the commandment to "blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven" is still incumbent on us today, albeit in the spiritual sense.

"Amalek," in terms of our divine service of G-d, is symbolic of coldness and apathy for all that is holy. Of Amalek it is said, "He cooled you off" - i.e., the physical nation of Amalek dampened Israel's eagerness and enthusiasm for the Torah they were about to receive at Sinai following the exodus from Egypt. Similarly, the spiritual Amalek lurks in the recesses of our hearts.

G-dliness and holiness are warm and filled with life and vitality; apathy and indifference are cool and unresponsive.

"All right," the spiritual Amalek whispers in our ears, "you want to observe the Torah's commandments? Fine! Every Jew should do so. But why be all excited about it? It's not as if you're doing something new, something you've never done before. Every day you learn Torah, every day you recite your prayers. What's the big deal?" In this way (as well as in many other subtle ones) Amalek attempts to cool off the Jew's innate ardor and natural affinity for holiness. His aim is to blind us to the true reality: that a Jew's performance of a mitzvah is the single most significant act that can ever be accomplished in this world, one which affects his entire being and the entire cosmos forever and ever!

The crafty Amalek is ever vigilant and resourceful when it comes to tricking a Jew into adopting a ho-hum attitude towards sanctity and G-dliness.

How are we to fight this incursion of coldness? By responding with warmth and emotion, consciously resisting Amalek's attempt to cloud our eyes to the truth. Allow yourself to enjoy a mitzvah experience, be enthusiastic about your Judaism even if your peers are not, its not “corny”…its reality. Embrace it. Celebrate it. Cherish it.

We can continue our battle against spiritual apathy and lethargy this Friday night with a wonderful cup of wine, delicious Challahs, maybe some chicken soup – all enthusiastically shared with friends and family. Have a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from Likutei Sichot of the Rebbe, Vol. 2, lchaimweekly.org

Parshas Bo

 A young child asked someone what time it was, and they told him it was 4:45. The child, with a puzzled look on his face replied, “You know, it’s the weirdest thing, I have been asking that question all day, and each time I get a different answer.”

This week's Torah portion, Bo, contains the very first commandment that was given to the Jews as a people - the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh, the new moon or lit. “head of the month”. The beginning of a Hebrew month was determined by witnesses who testified to the appearance of the new moon, and then sanctified by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court.

The fact that this was the very first mitzvah the Jews were given demonstrates its primary importance in Judaism. In general, the main effect the Torah's mitzvot have on the physical world is to imbue it with G-dliness. When a mitzvah is performed with a physical object, it itself becomes holy, and the material plane of existence is sanctified.

The Mitzvah of the new moon is unique in that instead of physical objects, it relates to the dimension of time. Through this mitzvah, a “regular” day is transformed into Rosh Chodesh, a day with special sanctity. Time itself is elevated and made holy.

In this respect, the mitzvah of sanctifying the new moon has an advantage over all other mitzvot as their ability to bring sanctity into the world is limited. For example, an object directly used to perform a mitzvah becomes “a utensil of holiness” as the physical world is elevated when a Jew uses it for the “sake of heaven.” In this case, these “things” are only considered “tools,” as preparation for the performance of an actual mitzvah.

However, the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh is more far-reaching. When the Jewish court establishes a certain day as Rosh Chodesh, the effect is felt throughout the month, and indeed, throughout the entire year.

Another advantage to affecting the dimension of time is that time is generally thought of as something over which we have no control. Time cannot be made longer or shorter. It cannot be hurried up or slowed down. Nonetheless, G-d gives the Jew the ability to sanctify time and transform it into “Jewish time,” time that is thoroughly imbued with holiness.

“Conquering” time in this way hastens the time when the entire world and all of its infinite aspects will be suffused with holiness. When Moshiach comes and gathers in the exiles of Israel, the Sanhedrin will be reestablished in Jerusalem, and the laws of Rosh Chodesh will again be in effect.

In the meantime, it is our privilege to create more of the good old “Jewish” time. Let’s start with a Good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, Vol. 26, lchaimweekly.com

Parshas Va'eira

 There where two snakes talking. The 1st one said 'Sidney, are we the type of snakes who wrap ourselves around our prey and squeeze and crush until they're dead? Or are we the type of snake who ambush our prey and bite them and they are poisoned?'. Then the second Snake says “Why do you ask?” The 1st one replies: “I just bit my lip!”

 
This week's Torah portion, Va'eira, narrates the encounter between Moses and Aaron, and Pharaoh, King of Egypt. G-d stipulated that if Pharaoh were to ask him to demonstrate a “wonder,” Aaron was to throw down his staff, and it would be miraculously transformed into a serpent. And so it came to pass.
 
Yet, after Aaron performed this feat, Pharaoh’s wise men and magicians did the same, “but Aaron's staff swallowed their staffs.”
 
Why was this “extra” miracle necessary -- the swallowing up of all the other staffs -- and what is its special significance, considering that G-d didn't mention it to Moses beforehand?
 
All of the miracles and plagues were not merely to punish Egypt, but to break through their opposition to G-d. Fundamental to their belief system was that G-d has no practical influence and involvement in the world. After creating the physical universe, G-d “stepped back” and gave the job of managing it over to the forces of nature, the Egyptians maintained.
 
Each one of the ten plagues was designed to refute a particular aspect of this mistaken belief, including this miracle of Aaron's staff swallowing up the staffs of the magicians.
 
Aaron stood for the forces of sanctity. His staff of the G-dly power that is inherent in holiness. The serpent is symbolic of Egypt. Aaron thereby demonstrated to Pharaoh that the very existence of the serpent itself -- i.e., Egypt -- was dependent upon G-d.
 
What was Pharaoh's answer? He immediately called for his magicians to duplicate the feat, “proving” to Aaron that Egypt had powers of its own and had no need for the G-d of the Jews. Yet when Aaron's staff swallowed up the others, all saw that the might and power of Egypt was only an illusion, without independent existence.
 
With this miracle, G-d showed Pharaoh and his wise men that His sovereignty over creation extended even to them, forming the first chink in the Egyptian ideological armor. The ten plagues that followed corresponded to the ten levels of impurity – systematically invalidated one by one.
 
Furthermore, an important lesson in our service of G-d may be derived from this story, most notably the importance of emulating Aaron, who “loved peace and pursued peace, loved mankind and drew them closer to Torah.”
 
Even when necessity dictates that we deal in a strict manner with others, we must always make sure that we employ “the staff of Aaron” -- and are guided solely by the highest principles of love for our fellow Jew.
 
Have a good Shabbos.
 
Rabbi Shraga Sherman
Adapted from Likutei Sichot of the Rebbe, Vol. 26, lchaimweekly.org

Parshas Shemot

 

The CEO of a big company called an employee at home about a very urgent computer problem. He was greeted with a child’s whispered, “Hello?”
Feeling the inconvenience of having to talk to a youngster the boss asked,
“Is your Daddy home?”
“Yes”, whispered Little Johnny. May I talk with him?” the man asked.
To the surprise of the boss, Little Johnny whispered, “No.”
Wanting to talk with an adult, the boss asked, “Is your Mommy there?”
“Yes”, came the answer. “May I talk with her?”
Again Little Johnny whispered, “No.”
“Is there any one there besides you to leave a message?” the boss asked the child.
“Yes”, whispered Little Johnny, “A policeman.”
Wondering what a cop would be doing at his employee’s home, the boss asked, “May I speak with the policeman?”
“No, he’s busy”, whispered Little Johnny.
“Busy doing what?” asked the boss.
“Talking to Daddy and Mommy and the Fireman”, came the whispered answer.
Growing concerned and even worried as he heard what sounded like a helicopter through the ear piece on the phone the boss asked, “What is that noise?”
“A hello-copper”, answered the whispering Little Johnny. “The search team just landed the hello-copper!”
Alarmed, concerned and more than just a little frustrated the boss asked, “Why are they there?”
Still whispering, Little Johnny replied along with a muffled giggle, “They’re looking for me!”
 
In this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, G-d told Moses of his mission to redeem the Jewish people from Egypt. Moses replied, “Behold, I will come to the Children of Israel and say, “The G-d of your fathers has sent me to you.’ And they will say to me, ‘What is His Name?’ What shall I tell them?”
 
Why did Moses think that they would ask him this? Surely the Jews were familiar with the “G-d of Abraham”; certainly their forefathers had told them. And why wouldn’t Moses know what to answer?
 
Our Sages explain that G-d has many Names according to His actions. Each Name symbolizes a different way in which He interacts with creation, for ex. Elokim connotes G-d’s attribute of justice, the Yud-hey-vov-hey connotes His attribute of mercy.
 
Thus the question “What is His Name?” really asks “In which way will the redemption from Egypt come about?” Will it be through G-d’s attribute of justice or through His attribute of mercy?
 
But what difference would it make how the redemption happened? Isn’t the main thing that their suffering would end? Besides, isn’t it self-evident that the redemption would be derived from G-d’s attribute of mercy?
 
In truth, the question “What is His Name” is a very difficult one to answer. The Jewish people wanted to know how it was possible for G-d to have allowed them to suffer so terribly in Egypt. They wanted to know with which “Name” G-d had chosen to act, i.e., how it was possible for the redemption to come only after such a lengthy period of exile.
 
“What shall I tell them?” Moses asked. Even Moses was perplexed and did not know how to answer.
 
Replied G-d: “I Will Be What I Will Be.” Rashi explains that this means “I will be with them throughout their travail.” G-d was telling Moses that He accompanies the Jews in exile and suffers together with them, as it were. The Jews are not abandoned in Egypt, G-d forbid, nor would He ignore their pain. Not only would G-d be with them in Egypt, but He would share in their anguish and distress.
 
G-d said, “This is My Name forever - le’olam.” In this verse, le’olam is spelled without the letter vav, alluding to the word helem - concealment. In exile, G-d’s attribute of mercy is hidden. Surely G-d accompanies the Jewish people into exile, but His attribute of mercy is in a state of concealment, only to be revealed when the time for redemption has arrived.
 
But knowledge that He is right there next to me, gives us the hope and inspiration to overcome the concealment and live a life of redemption and revelation that the Torah lays out for us. Have a good Shabbos.
 
Rabbi Shraga Sherman
Adapted from Likutei Sichot, Volume 26, lchaimweekly.org

 

Parshas Vayechi

 

Tom had won a toy at a raffle. He called his 5 kids together to ask which one should have the present.
“Who is the most obedient?” he asked.
The children all stared back at him in silence.
Then he asked, “Who never talks back to mother?”
Again the kids appeared to be mystified by the question.
Then Tom asked, “Who does everything she says?”
With that question, the kids were finally able to come to a conclusion. The five small voices answered in unison, “Okay, dad, you get the toy.”
 
With this week's Torah reading, Vayechi, we conclude the Book of Genesis. Before our Patriarch Jacob passed away he called all his children over to his deathbed. The Torah portion relates the blessings Jacob gave to each of the Twelve Tribes.
 
The blessing Jacob bestowed upon his son Asher was as follows: “Out of Asher his bread shall be fat [full of oil].” Moses before his death also gave the tribe of Asher a similar blessing: “And he shall dip his foot in oil.” The literal meaning is that Asher would be blessed with so much oil that he would be able to immerse his foot in it.
 
Everything that exists in the physical world has a spiritual counterpart. In truth, an object's physical existence is derived from its spiritual reality, and not the other way around. So what does “And he shall dip his foot in oil” mean in the spiritual sense?
 
The Talmud explains that oil is an allusion to chochma (wisdom), the highest function of the human being. The foot, by contrast, is symbolic of man's lowest function of pure action, and alludes to kabalat ol, the acceptance of the yoke of heaven.
 
This contains a lesson for us to apply in our Divine service.
 
Oil, chochma, is symbolic of the study of Torah, which involves a person's intellect and understanding. The foot is symbolic of our service of G-d with kabalat ol, submission and acceptance – obeying the Torah's commandments simply because G-d wants us to. Moreover, the foot is the foundation and support of the entire structure.
 
Here we see an astounding insight. Serving G-d with acceptance of the yoke of heaven has a very distinct advantage over serving Him with our intellectual capacities, for the mind is by nature a limited creation. When a Jew serves G-d out of a sense of subservience he can attain far higher levels than when he serves Him utilizing his powers of comprehension, because he has gotten himself “out of the way”.
 
Furthermore, it is precisely the service of accepting the yoke of heaven that constitutes our preparation for the Final Redemption as acceptance draws out more soulful profundity than intellect. For when Moshiach comes, the advantage of this type of service will be revealed in its totality.
 
May it be G-d's will that by serving G-d with true kabalat ol we will merit the coming of our Righteous Moshiach, speedily in our day. Have a great Shabbos.
 
Rabbi Shraga Sherman
Based on Volume 1 of Likutei Sichot, lchaimweekly.org
 

Parshas Vayigash

 

The recent college grad began a job as an elementary school counselor and was eager to help. One day during recess she noticed a girl standing by herself on one side of a field while the rest of the kids enjoyed a game of soccer at the other.
The counselor approached and asked if she was all right.
The girl said she was.
A little while later, she noticed the girl was in the same spot, still by herself.
Approaching again, she offered, “Would you like me to be your friend?”
The girl hesitated, then said, “Okay,” looking at the woman suspiciously.
Feeling she was making progress, she then asked, “Why are you standing here all alone?”
“Because,” the little girl said with great exasperation, “I’m the goalie!”
 
This week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, begins with the words “Yehuda came near.” This was Yehuda approaching Yosef and asking that his younger brother, Binyamin, be released so that he could bring him to their father, Yaakov.
 
Our Sages tell us that Yehuda was prepared for all possibilities and contingencies when he approached Yosef, even the possibility of war. Yehuda was willing to do all that was necessary to free Binyamin and return him to his father.
 
Why did Yehuda adopt such a strong stance? The answer is that Yehuda was personally responsible for Binyamin’s welfare, as he explained, “For your servant became a security for the lad.” Yehuda had promised his father that he would take care of Binyamin and bring him home; thus he was willing to do anything, even wage battle, to fulfill his promise.
 
But how could Yehuda have even imagined that he could win a confrontation with Yosef? Yehuda and his brothers were few in number. Yosef, by contrast, was the second highest ruler in all of Egypt, with the entire populace of the country under his command.
 
In truth, Yehuda could never have been victorious in a war conducted against Yosef. Nonetheless, Yehuda was ready to take even this drastic step should it become necessary. He knew he was responsible for Binyamin, and accepted his role as guardian without question.
 
True, Yaakov had other remaining sons, all of whom were healthy and sound. But Yehuda realized that self-sacrifice is required when the life of even one Jewish child is at stake. To save Binyamin, Yehuda was willing to give up his own life.
 
This contains an important lesson for every Jewish father and mother. When G-d grants them the blessing of a child, it carries with it a great responsibility. Sometimes it is even necessary for parents to demonstrate self-sacrifice, to make sure that nothing untoward ever happens to even one of their offspring, G-d forbid.
 
One area in which the greatest efforts must be expended is that of education. Providing a Torah-true education for Jewish children is so important that parents must be willing to demonstrate even the highest levels of self-sacrifice in order to make it possible.
 
Have a good Shabbos.
 
Rabbi Shraga Sherman
Adapted for Maayan Chai from Likutei Sichot, vol. 1, lchaimweekly.org

 

Parshas Miketz

 After she woke up, a woman told her husband, “I just dreamed that you gave me a pearl necklace for our anniversary. What do you think it means?”

“You’ll know tonight,” he said.

That evening, the man came home with a small package and gave it to his wife.

Delighted, she opened it to find a book entitled “The Meaning of Dreams.”

The Torah portion of Mikeitz begins with a description of Pharaoh’s dreams. Last week’s portion described the dreams of Joseph, and of Pharaoh’s butler and baker. It was these dreams that ultimately led to the Jewish people’s descent and exile in Egypt.

Indeed, there is an intrinsic connection between dreaming and the concept of exile. A dream is the product of the imagination. Logical contradictions make perfect sense. An elephant can pass easily through the eye of a needle.

In the same sense, the entire period of exile is only “imaginary.” It may appear to a person that he really loves G-d, but what he really loves best is himself, i.e., his own physical comfort. He may be so deluded by his wants and desires that he actually transgresses the will of G-d.

Nonetheless, every Jew possesses a G-dly soul that is always whole and intact. The good deeds a Jew does are eternal. The Torah studied and the mitzvot performed last forever. By contrast, the negative things are only temporary. If a Jew gives into temptation and sins, the evil doesn’t last because in the end he will return to G-d.

There are some people who claim that religious observance must follow an orderly sequence, from the “lesser” mitzvot to the more “major” ones. They say that if a person hasn’t reached a state of spiritual perfection, he cannot ascend to the next level. This approach only applies when we are living in an “orderly” and logical world. But the Jewish people have been in exile for 2000 years, the entire period of which is likened to a dream. In a dream, two opposites can co-exist peacefully. Thus because we are only “dreaming,” we must grab every opportunity that comes our way to do a mitzvah, no matter how “illogical” or far removed it seems from our present level of spirituality.

In previous generations, very few people studied the inner, esoteric aspects of Torah. A person had to prepare himself for many years before he could even begin to approach it. In our generation, however, “it is a mitzvah to reveal this wisdom.” Ever since Chasidut was revealed by the Baal Shem Tov, the obligation to learn Chasidut falls on each and every Jew, in the same way that every Jew is obligated to study every other part of the Torah.

It is precisely now, at the very end of the exile, that we can “jump” to spiritual levels that in former times would have been beyond our reach. In exile, we are “dreaming,” and therefore anything is possible. Regardless of our individual achievements, it is precisely this approach to Torah and mitzvot that will bring an end to the exile and bring redemption to the world.

Sweet dreams…and have a good Shabbos and joyous Chanukah.

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from Vol. 1 of Likutei Sichot, lchaimweekly.org

Parshas Vayeishev

 

A young naval student was being put through the paces by an old sea captain.
“What would you do if a sudden storm sprang up on the starboard?”
“Throw out an anchor, sir,” the student replied.
“What would you do if another storm sprang up after?”
“Throw out another anchor, sir.”
“And if another terrific storm sprang up forward, what would you do then?” asked the captain.
“Throw out another anchor, sir.”
“Hold on,” said the captain. “Where are you getting all those anchors from?”
“From the same place you’re getting your storms, sir.”
 
The great Chassidic Master, the Maggid of Mezeritch, offered this explanation on the opening verse in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev, which reads: “And Yaakov dwelt in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Canaan”.
 
“And Yaakov 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.
“sojourning” - while in Charan our Patriarch Yaakov was involved in mundane matters, utilizing simple physical objects in his service of G-d. The Hebrew word for “sojourning”, megurei, is related to the word agar, to hoard or to store.
 
Yaakov’s work there consisted of collecting and refining the sparks of holiness that were concealed within the physical world and obscured by its gross materiality. Through his service Yaakov elevated these sparks and returned them to “his Father”, namely to G-d.
 
Divine service of this nature is derived from our acceptance of the yoke of heaven, without consideration for individual understanding. The refers to the Jewish people as Tzivos Hashem, “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.
 
In the Torah portion two weeks ago, Yaakov left Be’er Sheva for Charan to begin his work of elevating the sparks of holiness. Yaakov 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, uprooting himself from a life of Torah study and holiness. Rather, he accepted G-d’s command without protest, and acted with joy and enthusiasm.
 
For Yaakov, going to Charan represented a very great descent, for it required him to abandon the rarefied world of the holy and involve himself in mundane matters in order to elevate them. Yet we see that Yaakov’s spiritual stature was not damaged by this in the least. On the contrary, by serving G-d with true acceptance of His authority, Yaakov experienced a very great ascent, both in the spiritual sense and in the material wealth that he accrued.
 
From Yaakov we can derive a lesson for every Jew: When it comes to serving G-d, it is not necessary to look for bombastic or extravagant 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 out of a sense of acceptance of the yoke of heaven.
 
Just simply have a Good Shabbos!
 
Rabbi Shraga Sherman

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

Parshas Vayishlach

 The strong young man at the construction site was bragging that he could outdo anyone in a feat of strength. He made a special target of one of the older workmen. After several minutes, the older worker had enough. “Why don’t you put your money where your mouth is?” he said. “I will bet a week’s wages that I can haul something in a wheelbarrow over to that building that you won’t be able to wheel back.” “You’re on, old man,” the braggart replied. “Let’s see what you got.” The old man reached out and grabbed the wheelbarrow by the handles. Then, nodding to the young man, he said, “All right. Get in.”

 
This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, describes the encounter between Jacob and his brother Esau. Their meeting, which threatened to be confrontational, actually turned out amiable, “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”
 
Why this change of Esau’s intentions? Rashi explains that Esau’s mercy was aroused when he saw Jacob prostrating himself before him so many times. He continues by quoting the sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai that despite the halacha (rule) that Esau hates Jacob, Esau’s compassion was stirred at that time and he kissed him with his whole heart.
 
Rabbi Shimon used the word “halacha,” which means religious law, to emphasize something about the nature of Esau’s hatred toward Jacob. It is as immutable and timeless as are the practical laws of Torah. Rabbi Shimon wished to teach us not try to rationalize Esau’s hatred of Jacob by ascribing various reasons or motives to it. As uncomfortable as it is to say, this hatred is rooted in Esau’s very essence. If and when we find an instance of Esau’s positive behavior toward Jacob, we should realize that it is an exception to the rule, namely “his compassion was stirred at that time.”
 
This saying of Rabbi Shimon also found its expression in his own personal life. Rabbi Shimon lived under the yoke of Rome, and suffered under the harsh decrees issued against the Jewish nation. He, in particular, suffered greatly because of his own staunch opposition to the Romans, and was forced to hide in a cave for 13 years, together with his son. Yet it was precisely this same, hated, Rabbi Shimon who traveled to Rome to have the anti-Jewish decrees rescinded, and was successful!
 
The story of Rabbi Shimon illustrates both sides of the coin: the unchangeable nature of Esau’s hatred and persecution of the Jews, and the triumph of one who was particularly renowned for his opposition to Roman rule. What’s the lesson?
 
We learn from this a valuable lesson in how to relate to our oppressors during this long and bitter Exile. On the one hand, a Jew must be strong and not rely on the mercy of the nations, because we know that Esau’s hatred toward Jacob is a given fact. At the same time, it is within the power of every Jew to command respect from the non-Jewish world by maintaining his pride and adherence to the Jewish way of life.
 
When a Jew is unbending in his commitment to Torah and mitzvot, it positively influences the nations, so that “Esau’s compassion was stirred and he kissed him with his whole heart.” Not only does this command respect, but it brings about Esau’s cooperation and even assistance in helping the Jew to keep his Torah.
 
Whether we are battling the enemy from without or the enemy from within, the staunch, soulful commitment to our Jewishness can even stir an Esau. Good Shabbos.
 
Rabbi Shraga Sherman
Adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, lchaimweekly.org

Parshas Vayeitzei

 

A lady who was known as Churchill’s main rival in parliament was giving a speech. Churchill, with his usual enthusiasm for his rival, dozed off while the lady was speaking. She stopped her speech and awoke Sir Winston by yelling, “Mr. Churchill, must you sleep while I talk?” Churchill sleepily replied, “No, ma’am. I do so purely by choice.”
 
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, Jacob sets out from Israel and journeys toward Charan and spends the night at the place where the Holy Temple would one day stand in Jerusalem on Mt. Moriah – “And he reached a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun had set.”
 
Our Sages tell us that this was the first time in 14 years that Jacob had slept, having spent his nights as well as his days studying Torah with the prophets of the generation, Shem and Ever. This raises a very important question. If he could operate on so little sleep, why would he choose the holiest site in the world to finally allow himself to snooze?
 
In order to understand, we need to examine the phenomenon of sleep and its spiritual significance.
 
Man’s unique advantage over all other creatures is most openly expressed by his upright stature when awake. At such times, the head (intellect), is clearly superior to the heart (emotions). At the very bottom are feet, symbolic of man’s capability to perform concrete actions. However, when a person lies down to sleep, the head, heart and feet (intellect, emotions and actions) are all on the same level.
 
The upper body symbolizes man’s spirituality - the lower part, one’s physical nature. When awake, the superior, spiritual component is dominant (and thus physically on a higher level). Sleep, therefore, represents a great descent, for the spiritual and the physical are on the same level.
 
Paradoxically, the phenomenon of sleep also expresses a much higher concept, one which transcends the limitations of the physical world. For from G-d’s perspective, there is no difference at all between the spiritual and physical realms, both are identical when compared with the endless Creator.
 
Thus, when Jacob went to sleep on the holiest site on earth, the place where the light of the Infinite G-d illuminates most strongly, the limitations of the physical world (and indeed, the concept of “higher” and “lower” realms), were negated entirely. This is the inner meaning of Jacob’s decision to sleep when he reached the site of the Holy Temple. He gained a deep spiritual perspective that allowed him to transcend the corporeal and ascend into a more profound, Divine point of view.
 
This same theme is expressed in his dream of “a ladder set upon earth, and its head reached the heavens” - linking and uniting both the physical and spiritual planes of existence.
 
The power to effect this connection was given to Jacob precisely during his journey to Charan, where he would marry and establish the Jewish people. For in truth, this is the journey of each of us - establishing a dwelling place for G-d in this physical world. This is the essence of the mission of the Jewish people, a mission that will reach its ultimate fulfillment in the Messianic era when as the prophet tells us “all flesh shall see that the mouth of G-d has spoken” – a complete merger of the spiritual and material.
 
Every Shabbat we fuse spirituality into every one of our physical deeds, giving us a glimpse and taste of that ultimate stage in world history, may we experience it very soon! Have a good Shabbos.
 
Rabbi Shraga Sherman
 
Adapted from Sefer HaSichot of the Rebbe, 5752, Vol. I, lchaimweekly.org

Parshas Toldot

 Dad: Don't be selfish. Let your brother use the sled half the time.

Son: I do, Dad. I use it going down the hill and he gets to use it coming up!

The Torah portion, Toldot, discusses the very different relationships Isaac and Rebecca had with their children, Jacob and Esau. Isaac loved Esau despite knowing he was wicked, whereas Rebecca loved Jacob. The difference is epitomized by Isaac's desire before his death to bless Esau. However, Jacob, aided by his mother, received the blessings.
 
This relationship between Isaac and Esau carried over posthumously when years later at Jacob’s burial, Esau challenged that the gravesite belongs to him. The Midrash says that one of Jacob's grandchildren engaged Esau in battle and in a decisive blow, Esau's head fell onto Isaac gravesite – “right into his father’s lap” so to speak. The Midrash highlights a special connection between Esau's "head" and the holiness of his father Isaac.
 
Our first two Patriarchs each fathered a wicked son and a righteous one: Abraham -Ishmael, and Isaac - Esau. Ishmael eventually repented but Esau never did. Our Sages termed Esau an apostate Jew yet considered him an inheritor of Abraham's legacy. But Ishmael, though he repented, has the status of a non-Jew and did not inherit from his father.
 
This dichotomy underscores the basic difference between Esau and Ishmael. The innermost essence of Ishmael was not a part of Abraham, as his mother was Hagar. The essence of Esau, however, was that of a Jew, a descendant of Abraham, born of two righteous parents, Isaac and Rebecca. Even though he never repented, he remained Jewish. His basic nature and roots were still connected to Isaac, and all he represented.
 
Esau's head falling onto Isaac's grave illustrates this point. Esau was not totally corrupt and evil. His "head" – his roots in the spiritual realm were connected to Isaac and holiness. However, while his soul was in this world connected to his body, there was disharmony between his inner and material self, made wrong choices and never repented.
 
Fascinatingly, although Esau's behavior was undesirable, he himself possessed many sparks of holiness which surfaced only generations later in his descendants such as the great scholars Onkelos and Rabbi Meir. Isaac was able to discern Esau's holiness and potential through the layer of his physicality, and therefore loved him and wanted to bless him, wishing to help him uncover the true goodness within.
 
But Rebecca, Esau's mother, realized that this lofty goal was an impossibility. She understood that Esau came from a place of intense chaotic energy therefore his head/body (soul/material) connection would always be uncivilized and savage. The blessing first had to go through the “order” of Jacob and then Esau’s untamed energy could find proper expression.
 
Isaac teaches to always strive and look only at our fellow Jew's "head" – his positive traits and love him for his essence. Rebecca shows us you can’t rush to the end game, process and struggle with our raw energies is a must to spiritual development.
 
Have a good Shabbos.
 
Rabbi Shraga Sherman

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

Parshas Chayei Sara

It was their first date, and she'd shown the patience of a saint as he babbled on and on about his hobbies, his pet peeves, his driving techniques, and even the standards he used to choose his barber. Finally, he came up for air and said, “But enough about me. Let's talk about you.” She breathed a sigh of relief.... He went on, “What do you think about me?” 

 In this week's Torah portion, Chayei Sara, we read of the first shidduch (proposal for marriage) in the Torah.

 
When Avraham our Patriarch informed his servant Eliezer that he was sending him to find a wife for Avraham's son, Yitzchak, Eliezer was worried. What if the bride he found didn't want to come with him? Thus Avraham reassured him, “G-d...will send His angel before you, and you will take a wife for my son from there.”
 
With these words, Avraham promised Eliezer that his mission would be successful. An angel would precede him on the path. The angel, and not Eliezer, would ensure that the entire matter was affected properly. Eliezer therefore had nothing to worry about, for all the details of his mission would be arranged from Above and were thus out of his hands.
We find, however, that when Eliezer reached Aram Naharayim and asked Betuel's permission for the match, he stated, “And [Avraham] said to me, 'G-d...will send His angel with you, and prosper your way, that you may find a wife for my son.'“
 
Why did Eliezer alter Avraham's words? Avraham had promised that an angel would go “before him,” yet Eliezer told Betuel that Avraham had said that the angel would go “with him.” What is the difference between the two phrases?
 
By going “before him,” the angel, in effect, did all of the work. Avraham promised Eliezer that his steps would be directed from Above, and indeed, this is what happened.
Eliezer experienced a miraculous abridgment of his journey, arriving in Aram Naharayim the very day he set out. When he reached the well and began to pray, no sooner had he uttered the words than Rivkah appeared. Eliezer understood then that his mission had been accomplished, for he realized that the angel had arranged for all of the events and circumstances to fall into place by themselves.
 
If, however, Eliezer was merely an inactive bystander, a passive player in the entire affair, it would make no sense for him to tell this to Betuel when asking for his permission for the proposed match. If the match with Yitzchak was already arranged from Above, why would Betuel's permission even be necessary?
 
Thus Eliezer told Betuel that Avraham had promised that the angel would go “with him” -- merely to help him succeed in his mission. In such a case, Eliezer was playing an active role, and Betuel's agreement could then be requested.
 
Everyday of our lives is the same paradigm. G-d sends and angel “before us” as embark on our mission of spiritualizing the world. Even when it doesn’t appear that way, we are always in the “right place at the right time”. However, the realization of that is up to us. If we feel that the angel is also “with us”, then truly are playing an active role in bringing G-dliness and goodliness into the world.
 
We are all dispatched daily on a mission to find a match between our spiritual and material dimensions. If we are cognizant the at G-d sends is angel both “before us” and “with us”, we will see success in all of our endeavors! Good Shabbos.
 
Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Parshas Vayera

A man sobering up from the night before is sitting through the Shabbat sermon, finding it long and boring. Still feeling hung over and tired, he finally nods off. The rabbi has been watching him all along, noticing his apparent hangover and is disgusted. At the end of the sermon, the rabbi decides to make an example of him.

He says to his congregation, "All those wishing to have a place in the World to Come, please stand." The whole room stands up except, of course, the sleeping man.

Then the preacher says even more loudly, "And he who would like to find a place in purgatory, please STAND UP!" The weary man catching only the last part groggily stands up, only to find that he's the only one standing.

Confused and embarrassed he says, "I don't know what we're voting on here, Rabbi, but it sure seems like you and me are the only ones standing for it!"

In the beginning of this week's Torah portion, Vayeira, Abraham waits for guests to come to his tent in the middle of the desert. Abraham spread the belief in one G-d through the hospitality he showed to everyone with his inn for wayfarers, providing them with food, drink, and a place to rest from the harsh desert travel. After his guests had quenched their thirst and eaten their fill, Abraham would tell them of the one G-d Who ruled the world and created all things, asking them to thank the One above for His kindness as He had actually provided their food and drink, Abraham was only the agent.

Sometimes they refused, claiming thanks were due only to Abraham and not to G-d. In such a case, Abraham presented them with a huge bill, saying, "Where else would you find such fine meat, bread, and wine in the middle of an uninhabited desert?" When the guests saw that they would be left penniless, they had no choice but to thank G-d.

The questions arise: What good is such forced compliance? If a person does not wish to thank G-d, what does external pressure do? Has the individual really changed his mind? How is mumbling a few words of blessing considered a sanctification of G-d's name?

We find the answers by examining another example of such "religious coercion." The Spies, upon their return from scouting out the Land of Israel, instilled fear in the Jewish nation of entering the land, doubting G-d's ability to deliver the enemy into their hands. It was only after G-d expressed his “anger” and decreed that the generation who had left Egypt would not live to enter the Land of Israel, that a change in their thinking was noted. The Jewish people once again expressed their desire to follow G-d's command.

But why were the Jews suddenly convinced of G-d's power when He threatened to punish them? Only then they abruptly believed in His ability to help them conquer the Land?

When a person commits a transgression, and afterward finds all kinds of extenuating circumstances and excuses to explain away his or her failing, we should know that this is only an elaborate defense concocted by the evil inclination to justify the sin. If, however, the evil inclination is immediately subdued and “called out”, there is no reason to resort to sophisticated excuses and justifications. You simply own the error and immediately work towards correcting it. When G-d became “angry” with the Jews and issued His decree, their evil inclination was immediately humbled allowing the Jews sincerely desire to carry out G-d's wishes.

Similarly, when Abraham saw a guest that was ruled by his evil inclination to the point that he was unwilling to thank G-d, he would apply a little "religious coercion" by hitting him in the pocketbook to achieve his goal. Once the evil inclination was neutralized, the individual could accept Abraham's words and truly express his thanks to the One who deserved them.

May we allow our G-dly side to always “stand up” to express our true inner desire to follow in G-d’s ways. Have a good Shabbos.

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

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

Parshas Lech Lecha

 

A passenger piled his cases on the scale at an airline counter in New York and said to the ticket agent: “I'm flying to Los Angeles. I want the square case to go to Denver and the two round ones to go to Seattle.”

“I'm sorry, sir, but we can't do that,” said the ticket agent.

“Why not? You did it the last time!”

We all remember the stories about Abraham from Hebrew School – how he discovered G-d as a child, broke his father’s idols, was thrown into the furnace by Nimrod and saved by G-d.

None of these details, however, can be found in the Written Torah. The Torah mentions Abraham only briefly at the close of last week’s parsha, Noach. He was born, he married and accompanied his father on his journey towards Canaan. It is only in this week’s portion, Lech Lecha, with the command, “Go out of your land, your native country, and your father’s house,” that the Torah begins unfolding the history of the founder of our people.

Why this emphasis? Before receiving this command to leave his father’s house, Abraham had already attained a high level of Divine service, recognizing his Creator at three, continuing to grow in faith and willing to sacrifice his life for G-d.

All this, however, represented merely his own striving to approach G-d. The command Lech Lecha, “Go out of your land,” began a new and deeper relationship with his Maker. For as our Sages state: “A person who observes a mitzvah because he is commanded to do so is greater than one who observes it without having been so commanded.”

The word mitzvah and the word tzavsa, meaning “together,” share the same root. When a person fulfills a Divine command because he has been commanded to do so, the act connects him to G-d in all His infinity. But if the person performed the same deed without having been commanded to do so, the act, however worthy, would remain merely a good deed.

Lech means “proceed,” referring to the beginning of a journey. Real spiritual progress requires that one leave one’s current state behind. For as long as an individual’s growth depends entirely on his own power, his progress will be limited; nobody can exceed the bounds of his own understanding. When, by contrast, one’s progress is guided by G-d, there are no limits to the potential for growth. The Torah and its mitzvos can take a person far beyond his natural horizons. To accentuate this point, G-d tells Abraham to proceed “to the land which I will show you,” without specifying a destination.

The expression “I will show you,” arecka in Hebrew, can also be rendered “I will reveal you,” i.e., through the journey to Eretz Yisrael, Abraham’s true self was revealed to him. This is also indicated by the expression Lech Lecha, which literally means “go to yourself,” i.e., “to your essence.” As we proceed through life, each of us is given the chance to discover who he is, what G-d is, and that the two are one.

Happy trails and good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

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