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Rabbi's Weekly Dvar Torahs

Parshas Shelach

There once was a rich man who was near death who wanted to take his hard earned money with him to heaven. So he began to pray. An angel heard his plea and appeared to him. “Sorry, but you can't take your wealth with you.”

The man begged the angel to speak to G-d to see if He might bend the rules. The angel reappeared and informed the man that He had decided to allow him to take one suitcase. Overjoyed, the man gathered his largest suitcase and filled it with pure gold bars and placed it beside his bed.

Soon afterward, he died and showed up “upstairs”. The chief angel, seeing the suitcase, said, “Hold on, you can't bring that in here!” The man explained that he had permission and asked him to verify his story with the “Authority”.

Sure enough, he came back and said, “You're right. You are allowed one carry-on bag, but I'm supposed to check its contents before letting it through.”

The angel opened the suitcase to inspect the worldly items that the man found too precious to leave behind and exclaimed, “You brought pavement?”

This week’s Torah portion, Shelach, contains the account of the twelve spies sent to scout out the land of Israel. Upon their return they announced, “We will not be able to go against the people, for they are stronger than we - mimenu.”

Our Sages explain that the Hebrew word “mimenu” may also be interpreted “than him”, i.e. than Him, than G-d! The spies insisted that the inhabitants of Canaan were even more powerful than G-d, Who had promised the land to the Jews.

How could they have made such a statement? All of the twelve spies were men of distinction and piety. Furthermore, the entire Jewish people had just witnessed the greatest open miracles: the exodus from Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea and the manna falling from the sky. Why wasn’t the spies’ report simply discounted, instead of being given such credence?

When the spies insisted that the Land was too well fortified to be conquered, Calev stood up and calmed the people. “Don’t worry,” he insisted. “The same G-d who performed all these miracles for us will continue to guard His people. Let us go up at once, without fear!” “But,” countered the spies, “there we saw the nefilim, the sons of Anak!”

Who were these nefilim, that their mention threw fear into the hearts of the Jews? The great commentator, Rashi, explains that the nefilim were people of gigantic stature, descendents of two angels who had descended to earth many years before during the generation of Enosh. Their very name, “nefilim”, attests to their descent, from the root word meaning “to fall.”

Yes, conceded the spies, G-d is certainly more powerful than mere mortals. But can G-d prevail against the nefilim and their higher level of spirituality? The nefilim had even survived the great flood which destroyed the rest of the world. These two angels, who came down into the world with the best and holiest of intentions, were unable to withstand the lure of the material world. They and their descendents ended up degraded and debased. If angels, the spies contended, have failed, how much more so will we if we even attempt to conquer the Land. Let us simply reject the material world and remain in the wilderness living a life of spirituality!

To this, two of the spies, Joshua and Calev, replied, “No, this is not G-d’s plan. G-d wants us to live in the physical world, performing physical mitzvot. ‘Do not fear...for G-d is with us’.” Angels may not be equipped to deal with this world, but we are even higher than the angels, for we possess a G-dly soul in a corporeal body. We have the power to fuse the physical with the spiritual, by performing concrete mitzvot which bring holiness into the world and make it a dwelling place for G-d. Thus, we can withstand any negative force, not only emerging triumphant, but transforming those very forces into instruments of good.

Have a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. 

Parshas Behaalotcha


 A nursery school teacher was delivering a station wagon full of kids home one day when a fire truck zoomed past. Sitting in the front seat of the fire truck was a Dalmatian dog. The children began discussing the dog’s duties.

“They use him to keep crowds back, “said one youngster.

“No,” said another, “he’s just for good luck.”

A third child brought the argument to a close. “They use the dogs,” she said firmly, “to find the fire hydrants.”

This week’s Torah portion, Behaalotcha, begins with G-d’s command to Aaron to light the menorah in the sanctuary. The Torah does not say “When you light the candles” but rather “When you raise the light.” The commentator Rashi explains this unusual choice of words to mean that the one lighting the lamp should hold the flame to the wick until a flame arises of its own accord.

Like our ancestor Aaron, we are also lamplighters. In our everyday lives, in many different spheres, we find ourselves in a position to affect, inspire and help those around us. When presented with such opportunities, it is not sufficient to help someone up just to have him fall down again, requiring further help. Like Aaron in this week’s portion, we are enjoined not just to light a lamp, but even more so to give it enough strength and enough power to remain lit by itself.

Later in the portion, G-d tells Moses, “I will cause some of the spirit that you possess to emanate, and I will grant it to [the 70 elders].” (Num. 11:17)

One might wonder if Moses’ prophesy was diminished by G-d apportioning some of Moses’ divine inspiration to others. This is similar to when one lights a flame from another flame. The original flame does not lose anything. So too with us - when we seek to help and inspire others, without making calculations based on power (a zero-sum game), we actually increase the amount of light rather than depleting it.

The soul is compared to a light. In this area too, we must strive to kindle the lamp “so that a flame arises of its own accord.” In dealing with another person, the objective should be to establish the person as an individual in his own right, independent of us. We should encourage others to hone their talents and abilities so that their lamps independently glow and, in turn, kindle the potential in others.

In the days before electric street lights, many locales had gas lamps. The people whose job it was to go out each evening lighting the street lamps were known as “lamplighters.” Some of the lamps were in places that were difficult to approach, others had been neglected and were covered over. A conscientious lamp lighter had to make sure to light every lamp in his area.

Similarly when helping out others, we need to find those who may be difficult to approach or hidden from view in order to assist them in any way possible. This is our collective task as this generation’s lamplighters! Good Shabbos.

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from Likutei Sichot Vol. 2,


Parshas Naso

 A husband and wife were involved in a petty argument, both of them unwilling to admit they might be in error.

“I'll admit I'm wrong,” the wife told her husband in a conciliatory attempt, “if you'll admit I'm right.”

He agreed and, like a gentleman, insisted she go first.

“I'm wrong,” she said.

With a twinkle in his eye, he responded, “You're right!”

The Torah reading, Naso, contains a discussion of indiscreet behavior that leads to a suspicion of infidelity. A deeper analysis of the concept reveals the symbolism of alluding to G-d as Husband, and the Jews as His wife.

The word the Torah uses for “going astray” is tisteh. Because of the etymological relationship to the Hebrew word for silliness, shtut, our Sages comment: “One does not commit a sin (go astray) unless the 'spirit of folly' has entered him.”

With this statement our Sages come to explain the seemingly incomprehensible phenomenon of a Jew who commits a sin. Sin is a contradictory state of affairs. If every Jew, by virtue of their G-dly soul, is connected to G-d on the very deepest level, from where does even the possibility to commit a transgression come from, as sin separates the Jew from the Source Above?

The answer is the “spirit of folly” – an outside, external force that temporarily gains control and obscures our faith and bond to the Divine.

It doesn’t allow us to clearly perceive the true consequence of our actions, i.e.: the disconnection from G-d sin actually causes. Were we properly aware of our constant intimate connection to G-d, disobeying a commandment would be out of the question under any circumstances.

What exactly is this “spirit of folly”?

It starts with the desire for physical gratification, which has a detrimental impact on spiritual perception and keenness. It dulls us to the point we imagine that nothing will happen if we commit the sin. We will remain just as connected to G-d as before. Desire for gratification can blind us to the fact that even the tiniest of infractions is detrimental to and weakens our bond with G-d.

The converse of this principle is that even when we do sin, G-d forbid, it does not mean that we are bad. Rather, we are inherently good and our innermost desire is to obey G-d's will. It is the “spirit of folly” that is to blame, an outside factor that is incongruent with our true inner G-dly nature.

In the symbolic sense, G-d is referred to as the “Husband” of the Jewish people and our inappropriate behavior is likened to a wife whose indiscreet conduct arouses the suspicion of her husband. No sin has been committed with certainty - merely behavior which raises doubts. However, once found to be innocent the Torah promises tremendous blessings of fertility and the like. So too G-d promises that every one of us will ultimately return to G-d and his cosmic plan as our inner essence always remains untouched by sin.

Let there be peace on our individual and cosmic relationships! Good Shabbos.

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

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

Parshas Bamidbar

An elderly man was sitting on his porch, when a young man walked up with a pad and pencil in his hand.

“What are you selling young man,” he asked.

“I’m not selling anything,” the young man said. I’m a census taker.”

“A what?” the elder man asked.

“A census taker. We are trying to find out how many people are in the United States.”

“Well,” the man answered. “You’re wasting your time with me, I have no idea.”

This week’s Torah portion of Bamidbar opens with the command to take a census of the Jewish people.

On this command, Rashi comments: “Because they [the Children of Israel] are dear to Him, He counts them all the time. When they left Egypt He counted them; when they fell because of [the sin of] the Golden Calf, He counted them; when He was about to make His Presence dwell among them (i.e., in the Tabernacle) He counted them.”

When things are counted, they stand in equality. The greatest and the least are each counted once, no more, no less. So the census was a token of G-d’s love towards that which is equal in every Jew. Not intellect, not moral standing, but the Jew’s quintessence – the Jewish soul. The point of the census was to bring the soul of each Jew into prominence, to the surface of awareness.

Rashi writes that G-d counts His people “all the time” and yet he lists three of those times in the first year after leaving Egypt. In they were counted only once more during their wanderings in the wilderness, and subsequently only at very infrequent intervals during our history. But, if the point of the counting was to reveal the essence of each Jewish soul, then this revelation has a depth which places it beyond the erosions of time. It is operative, literally, “all the time”.

These three censuses were evolutionary stages in a process of revelation. First the Jewish soul was awakened by the love of G-d, then it began to work its influence on the external life of the Israelites, and thirdly, the Jewish soul finally suffused all their actions.

The first census on the Israelites’ departure from Egypt aroused their spirit of self-sacrifice to the extent that they followed G-d into a barren wilderness. But it left their emotions untouched.

The second was prior to building the Tabernacle. The arousal reached their intellect and emotions as they were preparing to bring G-d’s Presence into their midst. But still the impetus came from outside: G-d’s command set them to their work, not inner compunction.

With the third census came the actual service of the Tabernacle, when the Israelites by their own actions brought G-d into their midst. Then all their actions were a testimony to the union of the Jewish soul with G-d. This is the census discussed in our Parsha.

This is also connected to the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, commemorating the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. There too was a merger of the Jewish soul with the A-lmighty. The Jews and G-d were united in such a way that G-d’s presence descended from above and the Children of Israel were elevated themselves from below. Again, two modes of revelation are brought together, just like the counting recorded in our weekly portion.

Let us actualize this blessing in our reality as well, where all of our acts reflect the Divine. Have a good Shabbos.

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe,

Parshas Bechukotai

A substitute Hebrew School teacher was struggling to open a combination lock on the supply cabinet. She had been told the combination, but couldn't quite remember. Finally, she went to the rabbi’s study and asked for help.

The rabbi came into the room and began to turn the dial. After the first two numbers he paused and stared blankly for a moment, and then he looked serenely heavenward while his lips moved silently.

Suddenly he looked back at the lock and quickly turned to the final number, opening the lock. The teacher was amazed. “I'm in awe at your faith,” she said.

“It's really nothing,” the rabbi answered. “The number is on a piece of tape on the ceiling.”

“If you will walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments...,” begins this week's Torah portion, Bechukotai.

Since the second half of this verse tells us to observe the commandments, “statutes” must mean something other than “laws”. Our Sages concluded that this verse is a distinct commandment to “toil in acquisition of Torah knowledge”.

This is puzzling because the term “statutes” (chukim) refer to those mitzvot that are above human understanding. So why would a word implying blanket acceptance of the yoke of heaven be utilized when commanding us to use our intellectual capacities?

Chassidic Thought observes that the word “chukim” is related to the word “chakika,” meaning engraving. There are many ways to write, but the most permanent method is when the letters are actually engraved on an object.

Engraving achieves the highest level of unity between the letters and the material upon which they are inscribed. Ink can be erased as it is a distinct entity from the parchment.

By contrast, letters that are inscribed in stone can never be erased. They become an integral part of the stone itself. From this we learn the proper approach to studying Torah.

Torah is inscribed upon the soul of every Jew and is an integral part of our essence. It is not two separate entities that can be split asunder.

But how can such a degree of unification be achieved? The Torah responds, “If you walk in My statutes.” The Jew must labor and toil to understand G-d's Divine knowledge with the simultaneous understanding that mitzvot are, nevertheless, chukim, beyond human logic and rationale.

Although we are commanded to study the Torah with our intellectual capacities and not rely on simple faith alone, the foundation of our learning must ultimately be based on the acceptance of G-d's will. We must start knowing that we are attempting to comprehend something that transcends comprehension.

The arduous intellectual process to connect to that which is beyond our mind’s limits brings a deeper unity and appreciation of G-dliness. We can now not only relate to that which we know, but we have forged a new relationship with that which we can not know as well.

The Torah says, “If you will walk.” A Jew must never be satisfied with their previous learning and spiritual attainments, but must always strive (walk) ever higher, ascending “from strength to strength.” For that which was accepted yesterday purely out of faith is today fully comprehended, bringing our faith in G-d to even higher levels.

 Have a good Shabbos.

 Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from Likutei Sichot of the Rebbe, Vol. 3, l’

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