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Rabbi's Weekly Dvar Torahs

Rabbi's Weekly Dvar Torahs

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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

Parshas Bo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

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

Parshas Va'eira

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

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

Parshas Shemot

 

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

 

Parshas Vayechi

 

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

Parshas Vayigash

 

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

 

Parshas Miketz

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

“You’ll know tonight,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

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

Parshas Vayeishev

 

A young naval student was being put through the paces by an old sea captain.
“What would you do if a sudden storm sprang up on the starboard?”
“Throw out an anchor, sir,” the student replied.
“What would you do if another storm sprang up after?”
“Throw out another anchor, sir.”
“And if another terrific storm sprang up forward, what would you do then?” asked the captain.
“Throw out another anchor, sir.”
“Hold on,” said the captain. “Where are you getting all those anchors from?”
“From the same place you’re getting your storms, sir.”
 
The great Chassidic Master, the Maggid of Mezeritch, offered this explanation on the opening verse in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev, which reads: “And Yaakov dwelt in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Canaan”.
 
“And Yaakov dwelt” implies the act of settling in, an active investment of one’s energies;
“In the land” alludes to the material realm, to the physical world and its affairs.
“sojourning” - while in Charan our Patriarch Yaakov was involved in mundane matters, utilizing simple physical objects in his service of G-d. The Hebrew word for “sojourning”, megurei, is related to the word agar, to hoard or to store.
 
Yaakov’s work there consisted of collecting and refining the sparks of holiness that were concealed within the physical world and obscured by its gross materiality. Through his service Yaakov elevated these sparks and returned them to “his Father”, namely to G-d.
 
Divine service of this nature is derived from our acceptance of the yoke of heaven, without consideration for individual understanding. The refers to the Jewish people as Tzivos Hashem, “the Army of G-d.” A soldier obeys without question. He does not act at his own discretion, nor does his commander explain his reasoning when issuing an order. A soldier demonstrates pure obedience and acceptance of authority; so must every Jew in his G-dly service.
 
In the Torah portion two weeks ago, Yaakov left Be’er Sheva for Charan to begin his work of elevating the sparks of holiness. Yaakov understood that he and Esau could not live in close proximity, but he did not question why he was the one who would have to depart, uprooting himself from a life of Torah study and holiness. Rather, he accepted G-d’s command without protest, and acted with joy and enthusiasm.
 
For Yaakov, going to Charan represented a very great descent, for it required him to abandon the rarefied world of the holy and involve himself in mundane matters in order to elevate them. Yet we see that Yaakov’s spiritual stature was not damaged by this in the least. On the contrary, by serving G-d with true acceptance of His authority, Yaakov experienced a very great ascent, both in the spiritual sense and in the material wealth that he accrued.
 
From Yaakov we can derive a lesson for every Jew: When it comes to serving G-d, it is not necessary to look for bombastic or extravagant actions and methods. A Jew’s task is to properly utilize even the most mundane of physical objects in his Divine service, elevating the hidden sparks of holiness they contain out of a sense of acceptance of the yoke of heaven.
 
Just simply have a Good Shabbos!
 
Rabbi Shraga Sherman

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