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Rabbi's Weekly Dvar Torahs

Parshas Teruma

 For two solid hours, the lady sitting next to a man on an airplane had told him about her grandchildren. She had even produced a plastic-foldout photo album of all nine of the children. She finally realized that she had dominated the entire conversation on her grandchildren. Oh, I’ve done all the talking, and I m so sorry. I know you certainly have something to say. Please, tell me… what do you think of my grandchildren?

The Torah portion of Terumah contains the commandment “And you shall make two cherubim of gold.” The cherubim were formed as part of the Holy Ark’s lid.

What did the cherubim look like? Our Sages offer several opinions. Rashi describes the cherubim as “having the face of a baby.” Nachmanides maintains they had the form of “the chariot [of G-d] that was seen [in a prophetic vision] by Ezekiel.”

Rashi based his explanation on a Talmudic passage that depicts the cherubim as looking like a boy and a girl facing each other, symbolic of G-d's love for the Jewish people. When G-d spoke to Moses, the Divine voice issued from between the two cherubim, as it states, “And I will speak with you from above the Ark cover, from between the two cherubim that are upon the Ark of the Testimony.” This was the place of the most intense revelation of the Divine Presence.

In general, Rashi's commentary explains the Torah's “literal” meaning, whereas Nachmanides' interpretations are more mystical and esoteric. Nachmanides thus describes the cherubim  according to their deeper, spiritual significance, i.e., as resembling the “chariot” seen by the Prophet Ezekiel, while Rashi gives us the simple facts, i.e., that the cherubim  had the face of a baby.

Although Rashi's interpretation is literal, it best expresses the depth of the mystical connection between the Jew and G-d. Our Sages say that the idea of creating the Jewish people occurred to G-d before He thought of creating the Torah, as it were. Mystically it means that G-d’s love for the Jews transcends and is “higher” than the Torah. G-d loves the Jewish people with the kind of love a parent feels for his child, which is independent of the child's conduct or actions.

This is reflected in the fact that physically, the cherubim were placed on top of the Ark of Testimony, which contained the Ten Commandments. For the inner bond between the Jewish people and G-d, which is derived from their essence, is above even the Torah itself.

This also helps explain why the innermost level of a Jew's bond with G-d remains unaffected even if he sins and transgresses the Torah's commandments, G-d forbid (as opposed to the more external aspects of their relationship, which sustain damage). It is from this soulful bond that atonement is achieved for the Jewish people, as alluded to in the word for the ark’s lid itself - kaporet – which is related to kapara - atonement.

Shabbos gives us an opportunity to experience that central core connection, which is true atonement, or rather at-one-ment. Good Shabbos.

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from Volume 26 of Likutei Sichot, lchaimweekly.org

Parshas Mishpatim

 Two friends are standing in line at a bank when armed robbers burst in. While a few of the robbers take the money from the tellers, the others line the customers up against a wall and proceed to take their wallets, jewelry, and any other valuables they may have.

While this is all taking place, one friend presses something into the other’s hand. Without looking down, the second friend whispers, “What is that?”

“It’s the $100 I owe you,” replies the first friend.

One of the commandments contained in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, is lending money to a poor person. It is considered a mitzvah and the highest form of Tzedakah as you are helping someone stand on their own two feet.

Our Sages understand that G-d performs all of the same mitzvot He commands the Jewish people to observe. After all, we are following “HIS statutes and HIS judgments”.  Thus, G-d too observes the mitzvah of “lending money to the poor,” as it were. We can understand its spiritual implications by first examining the practicality of what is involved in the transaction of a loan.

A loan consists of one person giving money to another, even though the lender is not obligated to do so. The money is a type of gift in that the borrower does not give anything in exchange. Nonetheless, the person on the receiving end of the transaction is obliged to eventually repay the giver.

G-d “loans” and endows us with strengths and abilities that allow us to succeed in our daily lives. These gifts are not measured, nor does G-d grant them only to the deserving, just as monetary loans are not made solely to those in dire need. And yet, they are still “loans” and must therefore be repaid. But how do we repay our debt? By utilizing our energy and competency to fulfill G-d’s desire that this material realm be hospitable to the Creator. As we observe His statutes and judgments, i.e. Torah and mitzvot, we are transforming the physical dimension into a vessel for pure G-dliness.

The second half of the above commandment reads “You shall not be a creditor to him, nor shall you lay upon him interest.” It is forbidden for a lender to pressure the borrower into repaying his loan or cause him distress. If the loan has not yet been repaid it is obvious that the borrower does not have the money to do so. In fact, the lender may not even silently show himself to the borrower that he not be made to feel any embarrassment or shame.

G-d also observes the prohibition against being a creditor. G-d could easily demand payment by punishing His children and inflicting pain and suffering, but He does not – for it is forbidden for a creditor to cause sorrow to those who are in his debt. Instead, G-d acts toward the Jewish people with kindness and mercy, granting them all manner of revealed and open goodness.

Sometimes it is challenging for us to see it, but bottom line, we all prefer doing business with the Bank of G-d – the customer service is outstanding! Have a good Shabbos.

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

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

Parshas Yisro

 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 were 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 Shemos

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

Our rabbi suddenly became ill and his twin brother, also a rabbi, agreed to fill in for him at a funeral scheduled for that day.  It was not until the brother was walking into the chapel that he realized that he had neglected to ask the gender of the deceased. This was information that he would need for his remarks during the service. As he approached the first pew where the deceased's relatives were seated he nodded toward the casket and whispered to one woman, "Brother or sister?" "Cousin," she replied.

In this week's Torah portion, Vayechi, Jacob, on his deathbed, makes a last request of his son Joseph. "Bury me not, I pray you, in Egypt!" he implores. "I will do as you have said," Joseph promises his father. But Joseph's promise is not enough. "Swear to me!" Jacob insists, and Joseph does.

Why was Joseph's promise insufficient? Was Jacob worried that his son would not fulfill his promise? What is the difference between a promise and an oath?

An oath differs from a promise in the sense of obligation and urgency it imposes. When a person makes a promise, he most certainly intends to carry out his word when the opportunity presents itself, but he does not spend all of his waking hours thinking about the promise and wondering how to implement it. But when a person utters an oath, it becomes the single most important motivating factor in his life. An oath is so serious, in fact, that the person dare not divert his mind from the matter for even a moment.

Jacob realized that what he asked of Joseph was so difficult and fraught with obstacles that the force of an oath was necessary.

This exchange between father and son also underscores an important difference between Jacob and Joseph. Jacob refused to be interred in Egypt, insisting that his body be brought back to the land of Israel for burial. Joseph, however, before his death, made the Jews swear they would take his bones back with them to Israel when the time for redemption came. His casket remained in Egypt for the duration of the exile.

Both of them were concerned was for the welfare of the entire Jewish people. Even Jacob who requested his interment be in Israel.

"The prisoner cannot free himself from prison," our Sages have declared. The Jewish people, subjugated and enslaved, needed an outside force to free them from exile in Egypt. This outside force was the merit of Jacob, whose rightful place was the holy land of Israel, from where the Jewish people drew strength and spiritual sustenance from a place outside of their immediate physical and spiritual surroundings.

Joseph, however, was exiled in Egypt with the rest of his brethren. His positive influence came from within and was therefore closer and more immediate. When he passed away, his remains stayed in Egypt, affording the Jews an additional and more immediate merit. Jacob wanted to forestall the possibility that Joseph would want his body to remain in Egypt for this reason, and insisted that he swear to his request.

We learn from this that although the Divine Presence has indeed accompanied us throughout our exile, a Jew must nevertheless cry out for the personal and collective exile to end and for all of us to be "carried out of Egypt." With faith and trust in G-d we will merit the coming of Moshiach and the Final Redemption, speedily in our day. Have a good Shabbos!


Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from Likutei Sichot vol. 25 of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Lchaimweekly.org

Parshas Vayigash

 A man walks into a bar. The bartender says to the guy, "What can I get you?"

"Make it a whiskey," says the man, who promptly throws it down in one gulp.

"That'll be three dollars," says the bartender. "What!" says the man. "You offered to get me something. I thought you were paying."

"Get out," says the bartender. "You're banned. I don't need the likes of you around here."

Two years later, the same man walks into the same bar with the same bartender. The bartender looks at him and says, "You're the guy  who tried to con a drink out of me, aren't you?"

"Excuse me, but I have no idea what you're talking about," says the customer. "I've never been to this bar before in my life!"

"Sorry. My mistake," says the bartender. "You must have a double."

"Hey thanks!" says the customer. "Make it whiskey."

This week's Torah portion, Vayigash, relates how Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers and asked them to bring his father Jacob down to Egypt.

An obvious question is raised by the entire story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph was 17 years old when sold into slavery. It is true that he was in Egypt for 13 years, but still 17 years are a long time. Why didn't the brothers recognize Joseph after having lived with him for so long? As Rashi comments, in Egypt he matured into manhood, and had grown a beard. Nevertheless, that should not be so great a factor to prevent his brothers from recognizing him.

To resolve this question, we have to understand the difference between the spiritual makeup of Joseph and that of his brothers. Joseph's brothers were shepherds - as were Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob before them. Why did they choose this profession? Because caring for sheep does not involve constant activity or tension-producing interpersonal relationship. One spends much time in the fields and there is the opportunity for contemplation. In such a setting, a person can stay in touch with the spiritual.

Now the brothers knew that Joseph was spiritually oriented, indeed, more so than they were. It was not for nothing that Jacob had singled him out for personal attention. When they saw a man busily involved with running Egypt's entire economy, they concluded that this could not be Joseph. Joseph, so involved in material things, buying and selling? Impossible!

How indeed could it be so? Did Joseph sacrifice his spiritual consciousness when he became viceroy of Egypt?

Chasidic thought says no. On the contrary, it was precisely because of his heightened spiritual consciousness that he acted as he did.

To explain: There are those who chose the spiritual over the physical. They look at the spiritual and the physical as opposites, and opt for the spiritual. There are, however, certain select individuals whose spiritual awareness is so great that it enables them to understand how G-dliness encompasses the physical as well, how there is no entity that is apart from Him.

This is the meaning of the words "G-d is one" in the Shema. Not only that there is only one G-d, but that everything is at one with Him.

This was the nature of Joseph's awareness. He did not see the need to retreat from material involvement to be involved with the spiritual. Because of his single-minded devotion to G-d, he was not separate from G-d although he was involved in material tasks. Although he embraced worldly activity, it did not take him away from his spiritual consciousness.

Have a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

From Keeping In Touch, adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Sichos In English, lchaimweeekly.org

Parshas Miketz

One night my father woke himself up with a loud "Hello!" to someone in his dream. As the next day came and went, Dad thought the nocturnal outburst was his alone to remember. But that night, as he and Mom were getting ready for bed, she said dryly, "If you see anyone you know tonight, just wave."

Last week's Torah portion dealt with the subject of dreams - those of Joseph and Pharaoh's officers. This week, in the Torah portion of Miketz, we continue to delve into dreams, but this time, those of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.

The common denominator shared by all these dreams is that they collectively portrayed the various stages and factors which caused Jacob and his sons to go to Egypt. As a direct result, the Jewish people were exiled there.

Every word in the Torah is necessary and precise. If the subject of dreams receives so much emphasis and we are told such a wealth of detail, there must be a fundamental connection between the concept of dreams and the concept of exile. Furthermore, by understanding the significance of dreams, we will be better able to overcome the difficulties we endure during our own prolonged exile.

Chasidic philosophy explains that a most outstanding characteristic of dreams is the ability for diametrically opposed opposites to coexist, something which cannot take place in reality. The Talmud gives as an example the image of "an elephant passing through the eye of a needle," which may appear not at all out of the ordinary in a dream.

This is also true of our own exile, an unnatural and abnormal situation, but one seemingly natural and normal to us. It is of such long duration; we can no longer feel the contradictions inherent in the exile itself.

The same contradiction also applies to our spiritual exile. It is understood that self-love and the pursuit of worldly pleasures are the opposite of cultivating a love of G-d and holiness. Yet, we often perform mitzvot under the illusion that we are doing so out of love of G-d and are in close proximity to Him, all the while caring only for our own egos and self-fulfillment. We simply don't perceive the contradiction in this.

Another example of our lack of logic is found in prayer. While praying, the Jew's innate love and emotional attachment to G-d can be aroused, but as soon as he finishes, it is as if he had never experienced this arousal as he returns to his preoccupation with day-to-day life. Although he stood on such a high spiritual level while actually communing with G-d, the feelings dissipate as the individual finds himself led after the cravings of the animal soul.

Thus our very lives are lived as if we are dreaming. The spiritual exile is full of contradictions, yet we must not be discouraged and think that we perform mitzvot and pray in vain, for every positive deed leaves its mark even if its influence is not always easily felt. A little bit of light dispels a tremendous amount of darkness, something we so clearly see during these days of Chanukah.

Have a good Shabbos and Happy Chanukah!

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

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

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

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