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Rabbi's Weekly Dvar Torahs

Rabbi's Weekly Dvar Torahs

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Parshas Behar-Bechukosai

My young by-the-recipe baker still has been unsuccessful with her chocolate chip cookies. One day, after the cookies had been in the oven a while, I smelled a familiar odor. “They’re burning,” I shouted.

“I know,” she said nonchalantly.

“Aren’t you going to take them out?”

“No. They still have six minutes.”

 

The second of this week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, begins with the words “If you will walk in My statutes.” This is like a standing request G-d makes of the Jewish people, G-d is constantly pleading with His children to keep His holy Torah.

His request simultaneously imbues us with the power and the strength to fulfill it. So “Bechukotai” thus also represents G-d’s promise to us that we will do so. We will walk in the Torah’s statutes. We will observe the Torah. Not one Jew will be cut off from the Jewish people!

There are three categories of mitzvot in the Torah: mishpatim (judgments), eidot (testimonies), and chukim (statutes).

Judgments are commandments compelled by human logic, rational laws that society would keep even if the Torah had not commanded us to observe them. Human understanding alone would have led us to realize their necessity.

Testimonies are mitzvot that we would never have arrived at without the Torah. Nonetheless, once G-d commanded us to obey them, we are able to understand their rationale. They are acceptable to the human mind and are comprehended by the intellect.

Statutes, however, are entirely above and beyond our understanding, supra-rational. Mitzvot falling into this category include the red heifer, kashrut and issues of ritual purity.

Although the Torah states, “If you will walk in my statutes,” the intention is that we keep all three types of commandments: judgments, testimonies and statutes. So why then does the Torah specifically only mention “statutes”?

The Torah’s use of the word “bechukotai” contains an important lesson. A Jew does not observe the Torah’s mitzvot because our intellect demands such behavior; rather it is for the sole reason that G-d has commanded us to do so. Yes, our emotions and intellect play a role in our relationship with G-d. However, we demonstrate oneness with the Creator when our observance grows out of kabalat ol (acceptance of the yoke of heaven), not because we understand a mitzvah rationally or not.

In essence, ALL MITZVOT are included in the word “bechukotai” – statutes as the soul that truly drives their performance, our “walking in My statutes.”, is the viscerally deep connection we all have with G-d.  Thus “If you will walk…” is not only G-d’s plea to us His children, and not only instructing us the proper manner of observance, but at the same time, “bechukotai” is G-d’s promise that we will succeed!

Have a good Shabbos.

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted Likutei Sichot, Vol.1, lchaimweekly.org

Parshas Emor

 A farmer purchased an old, run-down, abandoned farm with plans to turn it into a thriving enterprise. The fields were grown over with weeds, the farmhouse was falling apart, and the fences were broken down.  During his first day of work, the Rabbi stops by to bless the man’s work, saying, “May you and G-d work together to make this the farm of your dreams!”   A few months later, the Rabbi stops by again to call on the farmer.  Lo and behold, it’s a completely different place.  The farm house is completely rebuilt and in excellent condition, there is plenty of cattle and other livestock happily munching on feed in well-fenced pens, and the fields are filled with crops planted in neat rows.  “Amazing!” the Rabbi says. “Look what G-d and you have accomplished together!”  “Yes, Rabbi,” says the farmer, “but remember what the farm was like when G-d was working it alone!”

This week’s Torah portion, Emor, refers to two types of mincha (flour) offerings that were brought in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem: the omer offering, which was brought on Passover, and the “two breads” of Shavuot.

The omer offering officially allowed the new harvest to be eaten. Before the omer was brought, it was forbidden to eat from the new crop of grain. Even afterwards it was forbidden to bring offerings of new grain until after the “two breads” was offered on Shavuot.

There was, however, a difference between the two prohibitions. If an offering of new grain was brought before the omer, it was invalid. Yet if it was brought after the omer but before the “two breads,” it was considered kosher “after the fact,” even though it was originally prohibited.

There are many legal reasons for this distinction, but it can also be explained in terms of the inner spiritual dynamics of these two offerings. The omer offering consisted of barley, which the Talmudic Sages deemed “foodstuff for animals.” The “two breads” consisted of wheat, “the foodstuff of man.”

The various material offerings in the Holy Temple are symbolic of our in soul offering up to G-d. In general Chassidic Thought does NOT characterize our inner struggle in terms of good vs. evil, but rather animal soul (human/natural) vs. G-dly soul. The omer symbolizes the offering/ refining of the “animalistic” part of us, the “animal soul”, that which animates us and makes us human. The “two breads” is symbolic of the elevation of the component that makes us “man,” namely the “G-dly soul.”

This helps explain why it was forbidden to eat from the new grain before the omer was brought. Before a person has worked on and refined his animal soul, he cannot even think about refining the world around him. Not only will he not have a positive effect, but he is liable to deteriorate even further. The first step is to subjugate oneself to G-d before turning outward.

After the animal soul has been refined a person can then proceed to the second step, i.e., the elevation of his G-dly soul. The offering of new grain was technically prohibited until Shavuot.

This also helps explain why one prohibition was absolute whereas the other was not. Subjugating the animal soul is a basic requirement in the service of G-d. Only once a person has refined his lowest inclinations, can he attempt to achieve higher spiritual levels. So even if a person “jumped the gun” and brought an offering of new grain before Shavuot, it was still valid “after the fact,” as he already possessed the minimum level of sanctity.

We all are capable of making that first step, that first offering our inner barley, our animal soul by refocusing from our self-centered vantage point to a more responsive one that includes others, and primarily G-d. Have a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, Vol. 32, lchiamweekly.org

Acharei-Kedoshim

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

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

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

As we read in the second of this week’s two Torah portions, Kedoshim, the fruit of a tree’s first three years may not be eaten. During the tree’s fourth year its fruit is permissible when brought to Jerusalem and eaten in a state of ritual purity – applicable when the Holy Temple stood. Only in the fifth year can you partake of the tree’s fruits eating them anywhere you wish.

As a reward for observing these mitzvot, G-d promises that the fifth year’s yield will be quantitatively greater, receiving G-d’s blessing of bounty, as the Torah states: “And in the fifth year shall you eat of its fruit, that it may increase to you its produce.”

Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the first Chabad Rebbe, explains that spiritually the fifth year’s fruits are superior to the first four years’, not only quantitatively but qualitatively. He points out the fifth year fruits are the “best” thus far, yet it is those that can be consumed anywhere – not Jerusalem – and in any state of ritual purity – even if impure.

Chassidic Thought expounds upon the purpose of transforming our material world into a suitable dwelling place for G-d in these lower realms.

A “dwelling place” is a permanent residence. “The lower realms” includes even the lowest and most mundane elements of existence. G-d wants us to be aware of Him at all times, not just when we pray and study Torah. Even our most seemingly insignificant ordinary actions must be permeated with this consciousness. Everything depends on G-d’s beneficence so we express our thanks for every aspect of our physical existence.

For this reason it is precisely the fifth year’s fruits, the very finest, that are eaten in any place and in any spiritual condition. For the sanctity of G-d’s presence is meant to be brought to every single person and to every place on earth – bar none!

Years ago whenever the Baal Shem Tov traveled and met a Jew, he would ask about his health, livelihood and other humdrum aspects of life. Inevitably, the Jew would respond: “Thank G-d!” “Everything will be fine with G-d’s help.” These responses demonstrated that a Jew never forgets about G-d, even when the subject is business, health or other commonplace routine matters.

The Baal Shem Tov deliberately asked about these concerns rather than spiritual matters to accustom people to the idea that everything depends on G-d’s blessing, not just things that are obviously “religious.”

When a Jew maintains an awareness of G-d, everywhere and in all circumstances, and connects G-dliness to that experience, s/he transforms the world into a suitable “dwelling place” for G-d. So “thank G-d”, let’s go prepare for Shabbos!

Have a good Shabbos.

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, Vol. 7, lchaimweekly.org

Parshas Tazria Metzorah

A person very preoccupied with their “beautiful skin” reads that bathing in milk makes your skin beautiful. The next morning they leave a note for the milkman – “Leave me 115 quarts of milk”. The milkman reads this and thinks he better double check the amount. He rings the bell and here is this person with a great complexion. He asks about the milk order and is told “Yes, it is good to bathe in milk.” The milkman asks, “Does it need to be pasteurized?” The person answers, “Oh no, just past my neck would be fine.”

 

Both of this week's two Torah portions, Tazria and Metzora, detail the special laws which governed the skin plague of leprosy, an affliction whose root cause was spiritual and bears no resemblance to the modern disease of the same name.

It is therefore, surprising that the Talmud refers to Moshiach as Chivra - Aramaic for Leper - implying his suffrage of this spiritually caused affliction. How can Moshiach, a king who stands head and shoulders above all other Jews by virtue of his spiritual perfection, be referred to as a leper?

We must therefore, conclude that the term “leper” contains a deeper significance, one which will shed light on its inner meaning.

Leprosy is an external disease that affects only the outermost skin of the sufferer. The internal organs remain healthy and unaffected, as does the flesh itself. Symbolically this represents the last, superficial, outermost aspects of the world that need rectification for Moshiach to usher in the era of Redemption.

Exile is characterized by G-d's seeming withdrawal from the affairs of the world. Redemption is the era in which G-dliness is open and apparent. Despite our thousands of years of exile, we maintained our connections to Torah and mitzvot, progressively illuminating the darkness of exile by strengthening the forces of good over evil.

Throughout the centuries of Jews living in every corner of the globe and imbuing the four corners of the earth with holiness and G-dliness, the Jewish people have succeeded in healing the world of its internal sickness, the seeming absence of G-d from the physical world. By the Talmud calling Moshiach a “leper”, it means we stand at the very end of the exile, on the threshold of the Messianic Era. All that prevents his imminent arrival is a tiny and external blemish, an affliction of “leprosy on the skin of the flesh.”

The final touches on the world's preparation for Moshiach have been entrusted to our generation, the generation which will be worthy of witnessing this revelation.

Up until that time, however, Moshiach is said to be “leprous.” For Moshiach himself suffers the pain of the end of exile -- “the affliction of leprosy” -- as he waits with longing and impatience for the moment the world will be fully prepared with its final touch which in turn leads to the redemption of the Jewish people and the entire world.

Let’s make [spiritual] skin care a top priority! Good Shabbos.

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Parshas Shmini

A kindergarten teacher was observing her classroom of children while they drew. She would occasionally walk around to see each child's artwork. As she got to one little girl who was working diligently, she asked what the drawing was. The girl replied, “I'm drawing G-d.”

The teacher paused and said, “But no one knows what G-d looks like.”

Without missing a beat, or looking up from her drawing, the little girl replied, “They will in a minute.”

In the beginning of this week's Torah portion, Shemini, we read about the dedication of the Sanctuary with G-d’s glory shining for all. The biblical book of Chronicles provides a similar description of the dedication of the Holy Temple built by King Solomon: “And when all the people of Israel saw how the fire came down, and the glory of the L-rd upon the house, they bowed with their faces to the ground upon the pavement, and prostrated themselves and praised the L-rd, saying: For He is good; for His loving kindness endures forever.”

When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem the Jewish people bowed down to G-d in the literal sense, “with their faces to the ground upon the pavement.” But the concept of spiritual prostration or nullification before G-d exists even now in the Divine service of each and every Jew.

In fact, there are three levels of prostration:

The highest level is when a person sees the “fire” and the “glory of the L-rd,” and as a natural consequence, willingly bows down and nullifies himself. The person is so attuned to holiness that he can actually “see” it. His awareness of G-d is so overpowering that it arouses the strong desire to worship Him.

But what happens if a person's soul is not particularly illuminated by G-dly revelation? What if he doesn't see or feel the “glory of the L-rd,” and the underlying G-dliness of creation is hidden by the coarseness of the material world? In this instance, the person must force himself to bow down and be submissive. In other words, he serves G-d out of a sense of coercion, against his natural inclination.

In general, this is the difference between the times of the Holy Temple and the exile. When the Holy Temple was in existence, the Divine Presence was openly revealed. The pilgrimage to Jerusalem was performed not only “to be seen” but “to see” the G-dly light that illuminated visibly.

By contrast, during the exile G-dliness is concealed. We cannot see the open miracles that were commonplace when the Temple stood. Accordingly, it is impossible to reach the level of prostration that comes from “seeing,” and a certain measure of coercion is necessary.

There is, however, a third example of prostration, which starts with coercion but leads to a heightened perception of G-dliness. When a Jew forces himself to serve G-d, he gradually gains the ability to feel holiness, even if he couldn't in the very beginning. This will ultimately result in a Divine service that is enthusiastic. For whenever a Jew takes the first step and makes the effort, he will discover that deep inside, he wanted to serve G-d all along. So let’s take that first step, this Shabbos! Have a good Shabbos.

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Vol. 27, lchaimweekly.org 

Seventh Day of Pesach

A shul had a man in the choir who couldn’t sing.

Several people hinted to him that he could serve in other places, but he continued to come to the choir.

The choir director became desperate and went to the rabbi.

“You’ve got to get that man out of the choir,” he said. “If you don’t, I’m going to resign. The choir members are going to quit too. Please do something.”

So the rabbi went to the man and suggested, “Perhaps you should leave the choir.”

“Why should I get out of the choir?” he asked.

“Well, five or six people have told me you can’t sing.”

That’s nothing,” the man snorted. “Fifty people have told me that you can’t preach!”

The most well known of the ten songs of redemption is Shirat HaYam, the “Song at the Sea” praising G-d for His miraculous redemption of Israel when He split the Red Sea for them and drowned the pursuing Egyptians in it. The song expresses Israel’s desire that G-d lead them to their homeland and rest His presence amongst them in the Holy Temple, concluding with a reference to the ultimate redemption. This Friday, the seventh day of Passover, is the anniversary of these events.

Actually, there are two a male version and a female version of the song. After Moses and the children of Israel sang their song, “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the tambourine in her hand; and all the women followed her with tambourines and dances. And Miriam called to them: ‘Sing to G-d, for He is most exalted; horse and rider He cast in the sea...’”

The men sang, and then the women sang, danced, and tambourined. The men sang their joy over their deliverance and yearning for a more perfect redemption, but something was lacking. Something that only a woman’s song could complete.

Miriam, the elder sister of Moses and Aaron, presided over the female encore to the Song at the Sea. Her name means “bitterness” because at the time of her birth the people of Israel entered the harshest phase of the Egyptian exile. When the infant Moses was placed in a basket at the banks of the Nile, she “stood watch from afar, to see what would become of him”.

It was Miriam’s deep well of feminine feeling, who truly experienced the bitterness of galut (exile and persecution). And it was Miriam, with her woman’s capacity for endurance, perseverance, and hope, who stood a lonely watch over the tender life in a basket at the edge of the Nile River. Her trust in his mission to bring redemption to her people never faltered. It is she, more than the male patriarchs or leaders of Israel, who feels the depth of our pain.

Miriam and her chorus brought to the Song at the Sea the intensity of feeling and depth of faith unique to womankind. Their experience of the bitterness of galut had been far more intense than that of their men folk, yet their faith had been stronger and more enduring. So their yearning for redemption had been that much more poignant, as was their joy over its realization and their striving towards its greater fulfillment.

Today, as we stand at the threshold of the ultimate redemption, it is once again the woman whose song is the most poignant, whose tambourine is the most hopeful, whose dance is the most joyous. Today, as then, the redemption will be realized in the merit of righteous women. Today, as then, the woman’s yearning for Moshiach – a yearning which runs deeper than that of the man, and inspires and uplifts it – forms the dominant strain in the melody of redemption.

May our collective feminine voice beseech the Heavens for that redemption to come speedily in our days! Have a good Yom Tov and good Shabbos.

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, www.Chabad.org

 

Parshas Tzav

The rabbi, arriving in a small town to be guest speaker at a local shul, wanted to mail a letter to his family back home. He stopped a young boy on a bike and asked where the post office was. The boy gave him directions. The rabbi thanked him.

“If you come to shul this evening,” the rabbi said, “I’ll tell you how to get to heaven.”

“I don’t think I’ll be there,” the boy said. “You don’t even know your way to the post office.”

The Torah uses three different words to describe the commandments G-d entrusted Moses with transmitting to the Jewish people: dibrot (speak), amirot (say) and tzivuyim (command).

All three categories of mitzvot are G-d’s commandments, but the concept of mitzvah is more strongly emphasized in those that are expressed as tzivuyim, given their obvious etymological connection. The Hebrew word mitzvah has two meanings:

1) commandment, from the root word tzav, meaning a command or order; and

2) tzavta, meaning together.

 

In truth, the Torah’s mitzvot are both G-d’s commands to the Jewish people, and the means by which Jews effect a bond with Him.

In principle, whenever a word in the Torah has two definitions, both meanings are always interrelated. The word mitzvah is no exception to the rule.

The potential for a finite person to connect themselves to an infinite G-d exists only by virtue of His having commanded us to conduct our lives in certain manner. When Jews accept the yoke of heaven and observe G-d’s mitzvot, they form a connection with the Holy One, Blessed Be He, and are united with Him.

The first Chabad Rebbe, known as the Alter Rebbe, said that a Jew must “live with the times,” meaning, to live with the Torah portion that is read each week. It isn’t enough to study it. One must internalize its message and apply it to his daily life.

Every Torah portion contains a specific lesson for our daily conduct. From week to week our lives change in accordance with the corresponding Torah reading.

This week we are studying the Torah portion of Tzav. The name of the portion teaches that throughout our lives we are obligated to observe G-d’s commandments. For by doing mitzvot we not only fulfill G-d’s command but merit to be close with Him, effecting a deep and eternal bond that lasts forever.

A mitzvah is a concrete moment in time that allows one to connect with that which transcends time. Have a good Shabbos.

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Based on the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, lchaimweekly.org

Parshas Vayikra

A very “shallow” person had just totaled their car in a horrific accident. Miraculously, they managed to pry themselves from the wreckage without a scratch and was combing their disheveled hair when the state trooper arrived.

“My G-d!” the trooper gasped. “Your car looks like an accordion that was stomped on by an elephant. Are you OK?”

“Yes, officer, I’m just fine” the person chirped.

“Well, how in the world did this happen?” the officer asked as he surveyed the wrecked car.

“Officer, it was the strangest thing! I was driving along this road when from out of nowhere this TREE pops up in front of me. So I swerved to the right, and there was another tree! I swerved to the left and there was ANOTHER tree! I served to the right and there was another tree! I swerved to the left and there was ....”

The officer said, cutting the person off, “There isn’t a tree on this road for 30 miles. That was your air freshener swinging back and forth!”

We learn in the Torah portion of Vayikra, a korban chatat (sin offering) must be brought for a sin which is committed unintentionally. A korban asham taluy (trespass offering for doubtful guilt) is brought if the person is not sure that he has committed a sin.

For example: A person was presented with two portions of meat that look alike. After eating one of them he learns that only one portion was kosher, the other was treife, and he is not sure which one he ate. In this instance he is required to bring an asham taluy (a doubtful guilt offering) for there is no way to determine if a sin was committed.

Interestingly, the doubtful guilt offering is a more expensive offering than a standard sin offering. To explain why:

The purpose of an offering is to arouse a Jew to return to G-d in repentance. If a person is sure that he has sinned, he feels a genuine regret and repents completely. If, however, there is doubt in his mind (as the possibility exists that no sin was really committed), it is much more difficult for him to experience regret and return to G-d with a whole heart. Accordingly, the offering he must bring is more costly than the one he would be required to offer if his sin were a known fact.

At first glance it may not make sense that a person should not be held accountable for an involuntary, unintentional action. Nonetheless, we see that there is an obligated to bring an offering, as his soul needs to undergo refinement.

The very fact that a person has come to sin - even unintentionally, without forethought - is proof that his spiritual standing is not what it should be. Those things a person does “accidentally,” without plan and without intention, are indicative of his essential nature. The actions we perform automatically, without thinking, reflect our true leanings and tendencies. They indicate those areas toward which we are most inclined.

A tzadik (righteous person) naturally performs actions that are good and holy. If, G-d forbid, a person commits a sin, even by “chance”, it shows that the negative side still wields some degree of influence and control. Thus a person is required to bring an offering for any sin he commits, even those that are committed without his volition.

The deeper we dig, the more we uncover. Our negative character is not something to ignore. G-d gives each of us the strength, ability and opportunity for correction, redirection and transformation. It can be a costly offering, but the cost of ignoring it much greater. Have a good Shabbos.

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Likutei Sichot, Vol. 3, lchaimweekly.org

Parshas Vayakhel - Pekudai

“Frank Smith,” announced the judge, “for breaking into a house in the middle of the night, I sentence you to two years in prison.”
“But your honor,” pleaded Smith, “last time I was in court you sentenced me to a year in jail for breaking into a house in the day! If not in the middle of the night, and not in the middle of the day, just when am I supposed to earn my living?”
 

For the past few weeks we have been reading those Torah portions dealing with the commandments and preparations necessary for the building of the Tabernacle. This week, Vayakhel, we read about its actual erection.

Before the Tabernacle was built, Moses called together all of the Children of Israel and commanded them to keep the Sabbath. "Six days shall work be done, and on the seventh you shall have a holy day. A Sabbath of rest to G-d."

The Talmud explains that the juxtaposition of Shabbat and the building of the Tabernacle teach us which types of work we must avoid in order to keep the Sabbath. The 39 categories of labor prohibited on Shabbat (and all the other activities) are derived from the 39 types of labor connected with the Tabernacle.

There is a deeper dimension between Shabbat and the building of the Tabernacle. Every one of the 39 categories of labor is the prototype of the “labors” we perform during the six days of the week. Following the principle that everything in the physical world reflects its spiritual source, all our physical labors are tantamount to the building of a Tabernacle. Namely, all the work which we perform in the material dimension has the potential to be elevated and turned into holiness, a mini-Sanctuary of sorts.

The Tabernacle is not only the source for the work in our lives, it also represents the raison d’etre  as our lives as Jews. Every task we perform during our daily routine can be utilized to bring holiness into the world, the same function which the original Tabernacle served.

The Torah states: "Six days shall you work." Our Sages explain that this is a positive commandment, not merely the granting of permission. We are compelled to toil to earn our daily bread. In fact the weekday prayers and Torah readings are shorter than those read on Shabbat and holidays, to enable us to go out into the world to perform our daily tasks. It is through one's physical labor that we mold and shape the world into a "sanctuary" for G-d.

How do we elevate our daily, mundane tasks? "In all your ways shall you know Him," explains Proverbs. All of our activities, no matter how seemingly trivial, must be performed with the proper thoughts in mind, connecting it all to a goodly and G-dly purpose. When we eat, drink, sleep and go about our business according to Torah law, we are cognizant of our Creator and transform our lives into sanctuaries to G-d.

The basic difference between the Tabernacle and our own physical world is that the Tabernacle was an actual manifestation of G-dliness, whereas the physical world is still in a state of potential. Man's task is to transform that potential into actual realization, by living according to the dictum, "In all your ways shall you know Him." Have a good Shabbos.

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

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

Parshas Ki Tisa

 Teacher: Yankel and Chaim! Why are you late for school, today?!

Yankel: I lost a gold dollar coin and was searching for it.

Teacher: Chaim, what’s your story?!

Chaim: I was not able to move because I was hiding that coin under my foot.

This week's Torah portion, Ki Tisa, contains the commandment to give the half-shekel: "This shall they give ...a half-shekel ...an offering to G-d." On this verse the Jerusalem Talmud comments: "The Holy One, Blessed Be He, removed a coin of fire from under the Throne of Glory and showed it to Moses, saying, 'This shall they give.' "

Moses had no difficulty understanding what was meant by a half-shekel; what he did not understand was how this offering could atone for the souls of the Jewish people. When G-d showed him the coin of fire, the concept was explained.

What lesson does the "coin of fire" contain for us in our own service of G-d?

A coin has the same fixed value for everyone. By contrast, different objects are worth more or less to different individuals. To one person the value of a particular object will be great, and he will be willing to pay a large sum of money to possess it. Another person, who does not desire it as much, will consider it to be of lesser value. But a coin is not open to disagreement. Its value is always the same.

A coin, matbei'a in Hebrew, comes from the root meaning nature, teva. It is symbolic of kabalat ol (the acceptance of the yoke of heaven), which is the same for everyone, independent of emotions or intellectual capacities. True, people differ greatly from one another, but the basic acceptance of the concept that G-d's will must be fulfilled is the same for all, just like a coin whose value is fixed and never changes.

Fire is characterized by a perpetual upward movement. The nature of flame is to rise up; it yearns to ascend ever higher. Not only does fire never move downward, it never stays still.

Fire is symbolic of movement and activity, of yearning and progression. A Jew's G-dly service is likened to fire, for he is always striving to ascend higher and draw closer to G-d. However, each person's spiritual service is dependent on his individual ability. The level of his service is determined by his particular powers of comprehension and emotional capacities. In this respect, all people are different. Each "fire" is different, unlike the coin whose value is always the same.

The half-shekel, the "coin of fire," represents a unification of these two concepts.

Human nature is such that when a person acts according to the dictates of his own emotions he is filled with vitality and enthusiasm - fire. When he acts out of a sense of obligation, this excitement is absent. His actions are deliberate and calculated, but they are not enthusiastic.

The Jew's service is to combine the "coin" with the "fire," to accept the yoke of heaven with fervor and enthusiasm. Such service has the power to atone for sin. This is within each of ours reach! Have a good Shabbos.

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, Volume 1, lchaimweekly.org

Parshas Tetzaveh

 While at sail a Captain of a steamship hears a distress call. “Captain, Captain. You must alter your course by 10 degrees; you are in danger of collision.” To which the Captain replies, “I am a mighty steamship sound and sturdy. I say to you, if my path endangers you, you should alter your course, I will not!” The voice once again cries out, “Captain, Captain. You must take heed and change your course by twenty degrees; you are in danger of collision.” The crusty old captain replies, “I am at sail and will not change. I am a might and fierce steam ship.” The voice replies, “Yes you are a steamship, but I am a lighthouse.”

In this week's portion, Tetzave, the Torah states: “Aaron shall burn incense each morning when he cleans the [Menorah’s] lamps. And he shall burn incense in the evening when he kindles the lamps.” What purpose did the burning of incense serve and what can apply in our daily lives?

It is important to note that the command to build the incense altar and bring its offering, are the final elements in the construction of the Sanctuary mentioned in the Torah. In fact, the Divine Presence did not rest in the Sanctuary until the incense offering was brought. It seems everything was a lead-up to this offering.

What is the reason for this uniqueness? Our Sages explain that the sacrifices offered on the outer altar in the courtyard of the Sanctuary relate to a Jew's body, while the incense offering brought on the inner altar relates to a Jew's soul.

This concept is reflected in the Hebrew names used to describe these different offerings. The Hebrew word for “sacrifice” is korban, which has it root in the word “karov,” meaning “close.” In contrast, the Hebrew for “incense” offering, ketoret, relates to the root ketar, Aramaic for “bond.” By bringing a sacrifice, a Jew draws close to G-d. Yet through the incense offering a higher level is attained – the Jew and G-d become fused in total unity.

It is only after the Torah describes the preparations and vessels necessary for the Sanctuary that it mentions the incense offering. The former’s purpose creates a space for the Divine Presence to dwell amongst and within the Jewish people. Then we can come to the next stage, the incense offering, which allows for a bond of oneness to be established. First the G-d and Jewish people draw close, then they progress to become one.

This theme of oneness is also reflected in the dimensions of the incense altar, which measured one cubit by one cubit. Likewise, when the incense offering was brought, the priest making the offering was alone with G-d. No one else was allowed to assist.

These concepts must be paralleled in our daily service of G-d. Every day, a person arises as “a new creation”, allowing us to constantly renew our inner bond with G-d. The effects of this bond, however, should not remain only on the inside. As stated above, the incense offering was brought in connection with the cleaning and the kindling of the Menorah – which is all about emanating light to the outside. This teaches us that our bond of oneness with G-d must be extended even into our “outside” worldly affairs, causing them to be carried out not only in the spirit of “for the sake of Heaven”, but in order to “Know Him in all your ways.”

We see a curious pattern: outer alter, inner alter, menorah. So to in life: we closen our outer egocentric selves to G-d, an inner soulful bond of oneness develops, it then goes out to enlighten and illuminate our outsides, infusing meaning to our mundane. Wow, “sweet ride”! Have a good Shabbos.

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

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

Parshas Terumah

 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 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

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