Weekly Manna – Parashat Emor

Parashat Emor–

As we have just passed the half way point in the 49 day process of Sefirat HaOmer, I will admit that this has been a very difficult couple of weeks for me personally, as well as for so many other around me.  We have found ourselves dealing with tragedy after tragedy.  And I will tell you also that it has left me feeling more connected to the process of Sefirat HaOmer, and has me contemplating more and more each day what my purpose is in this life, and how well I am living that life in sync with the Torah values I profess!

“Only Hashem knows the reason for all things and in an upside down world –  a world the Sages refer to as a “world of lies” – that which appears to be a punishment or a curse could be a blessing in disguise.  Indeed, the Jewish tradition insists that everything has a reason and all of G-d’s creations have an ultimate purpose.  Judaism insists that all of G-d’s actions are for the benefit of His creations.  Clearly we are not always able to fathom those reasons or the good that must derive from the grim situations we sometimes find ourselves in, but we have faith in G-d’s ultimate goodness.”  (R’ A.A. Trugman, Orchard of Delights on Emor)

Do we really stop to ponder the fact that everything that happens in our lives is the will of Hashem?  There are no accidents or coincidences!  Our every footstep is orchestrated by our Creator.  If we find ourselves bombarded by situations, which don’t on the surface appear too favorable, how do we react?  Do we get angry, or sad, or disappointed?  Do we have pity on ourselves asking things like “why me?”, feeling life just isn’t fair?

Each night through the Omer Period we recite the powerfully moving Kabbalistic poem/prayer, “Ana B’Koach”.  I remember the very first time I heard this prayer chanted in Hebrew, something inside of me was moved so deeply, even though I didn’t understand what was being said.  Yet, my soul reacted intensely, prompting me to find the meaning of the words and the history of the prayer.  It still moves me every time I say or hear it, but each night over the past few weeks, there is one line in particular that has stirred me to deep contemplation.  It is:

“Please, O Strong One – those who foster Your Oneness, guard them like the pupil of an eye.” (translation taken from Siddur Shaar HaShamayim, as translated by R’ Yehezquel Italqi D’Avino)

What does it mean to “foster His Oneness”? Or as another translation puts it “Mighty One, we beseech You, guard as the apple of the eye those who seek Your Oneness.”  How do we foster or seek His Oneness?

As I contemplate this in light of the (so-called) “difficult times” so many of us find ourselves going through, I can only come to one conclusion:  “Gam Zu L’Tovah!!!!” – This too is for the good!!!!  I see clearly that to foster or seek Hashem’s Oneness, means understanding and accepting His Divine Providence.  He does not give us “hardships and difficulties”, but opportunities to draw closer to Him, and to improve our middot (our character traits), and to achieve our tikkun.  Many of us are living testimonies that Hashem often gets our attention in the difficult, dark, scary situations we face.  When we are faced with health issues, financial issues, relationship issues, or the death of a loved one, do we take the time to thank Hashem in advance for the challenge, and beg Him to give us the strength to not only endure the test, but to overcome it and find ourselves better people for having gone through whatever it is?  Easier said than done?  Absolutely!  But if we truly foster His Oneness, then our first response to all situations, whether we view them as good or bad, must be “Ein Od Milvado” (There is no One beside Him).  And apparently whatever we are going through is what He knows as the “Knower of mysteries” to be for our best at this point in our life.

Fostering His Oneness is being able to go through this life without this life having a negative impact on us.  Our ego, our emotions, and our yetzer hara fight hard to keep us from focusing on the fact the there really is NO ONE besides Hashem.   In reality, there is Hashem, Torah, Mitzvot, and Am Israel, and that’s it!  Everything else is just distraction and illusion in this “world of lies”.  Unfortunately, all too often, we spend our time, resources and energy worrying about and fighting for or against so many things that have no real, eternal meaning, and are insignificant in the big picture.

Acknowledging “Ein Od Milvado” is a journey, and the purpose of our existence.  The more we think about it and focus on it, the more it becomes a part of our reality.  We are to strive to see the truth in all things, and in all things the truth is “Ein Od Milvado”!

Now, if you are asking, “what does this have to do with this week’s sidra?”, I will, b’ezrat Hashem, help us tie it all together by sharing a rather deep kabbalistic teaching on Vayiqra 21:1-6:

“Hashem said to Moshe: speak to the Kohanim, the sons of Aharon, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin, except for the relatives that are closest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother; also for a virgin sister, close to him because she has not married, for her he may defile himself.  But he shall not defile himself as a kinsman by marriage, and so profane himself.  They shall not shave smooth any part of their heads, or cut the side-growth of their beards, or make gashes in their flesh.  They shall be holy to their G-d and not profane the name of their G-d; for they offer Hashem’s offerings by fire, the food of their G-d, and so must be holy.”

In Pituchei Chotam (the insights on the weekly parashah by the Abir Yaakov – R’ Yaakov Abuchatzeira) this passage is understood to be teaching something amazing. Based on the Zohar and Kohelet 9:8, the Abir Yaakov teaches that it is through Torah study and good deeds that one acquires a ruach and neshamah.

“At all times may your garments be white, and may oil never be lacking from upon your head.”  (Kohelet 9:8)

He explains that the garments are the nefesh, ruach and neshamah, and that the oil is the Shekinah.  When one’s garments are white and not stained by sinful behavior, the Shekinah will remain above him and will illuminate him.

“A person who merits this must guard himself and his level of holiness, for the evil inclination becomes jealous and schemes how to persuade him to sin.  Therefore, this person must be extra careful to protect what Hashem gave him.  Otherwise, if he is persuaded by the yetzer hara, G-d forbid, the shekinah along with its companions, the neshamah and ruach, will immediately leave him.”

The Abir Yaakov explains that a Kohen is one who is of a greater stature than his brethren.  He states that: “Anyone who serves Hashem with holiness and purity is called a Kohen.”  He explains that these verses are referring to a person who, based on his Torah & good deeds, has risen to a higher spiritual level – a level of holiness and purity.  Because of his actions he merits the oil of anointing – the Shekinah – above him, and he wears the garments of nefesh, ruach and neshamah, therefore, he must guard himself even more.  He cannot do anything that would cause the Shekinah to depart from above him, as that would leave his head uncovered (the Hebrew word used in verse 5, translated as “shave smooth” or “make bald” can also mean “uncovered”).  Also, he is not to rend his garments, which means he must not do anything that would cause his garments – the nefesh, ruach and neshamah – to be torn from him.  The forces of impurity are referred to as “dead carcasses”, as they have no life or energy of their own.  They exist only by feeding off the forces of purity.

“A person who has sanctified himself and gained a nefesh, ruach and neshamah is on the same side as the forces of purity, which is life.  He is separated from the dead, the forces of impurity.  He must be careful not to do anything that will bring him closer to the side of death, the forces of impurity, otherwise he will cling to the forces of death and be separated from the forces of life.”

When it says that he may not come near a dead person, the Abir Yaakov explains that this refers to the forces of impurity.  By not coming near to them it is implied that he is not to sin, for sin is what brings a person close to the forces of impurity, while at the same time it distances him from the forces of holiness.  He continues by explaining that he shall not contaminate himself, but remain holy for his father (Hashem) or for his mother (the assembly of Israel).  And he shall not leave the sanctuary after entering a state of holiness, meaning one must never leave a state of holiness or he will desecrate the sanctuary of G-d, as the sanctuary is within and refers to the higher levels of holiness one can acquire.  This higher level of holiness is the crown – the oil of G-d’s anointing.

“When one has gained a neshamah and the Shekinah – which is a crown – and the oil of anointing – he must be extremely careful to guard his state of holiness.”

“Kohanim correspond to chesed (kindness), which can be revealed only through a guarded covenant.”  (R’ Nachman’s Torah on Emor)

Hashem gives more restrictions to those closest to Him, in order to safeguard them in this world of lies.  I’m sure we all agree that it is so very difficult to die to self and allow Hashem to do what He deems best, without letting our own will get in the way.  Yet, who are we to challenge, question or try to change what is Divinely decreed?  We really do not know what rectification our soul requires, or what our specific purpose is in this world.  We are unable to ascertain the ultimate reward for our trials and suffering, but we must have faith that if we rise to the occasion and turn our so-called difficulties into personal victories, we can glorify Hashem as we triumph over the troubles of this world of lies.  Our trying circumstances might be the greatest blessing Hashem could have given us.

This world is a world of tikkun, and rectification is our purpose.  We were not created for this world, it is merely a stop over on our way to our final destination.  We are not here to enjoy life, or to live a life free from troubles.  Actually, if you have no worries and no troubles you might need to take your pulse, and make sure you are still amongst the living!  We are all going to suffer during our short stay here, but we cannot even begin to understand what rectification our suffering might be bringing about.  It is our job to remain focused on seeking and fostering Hashem’s Oneness.  As the words to the beautiful song sung by Shlomi Shabat:

“Ein od milvado melo kol haaretz kevodo

Hakadosh Baruh Hu Meleh vaani yavdo”

“There is no one besides Him, His glory fills the whole earth

The Holy One blessed be He is King and I his servant”

(check out this beautiful song on youtube – Ein Od Milvado by Shlomi Shabat)

As we continue the journey away from our slavery to this world and toward the gift of the Torah on Shavuot, I pray that each of us will be able to thank Hashem even through the difficulties, or maybe better yet, especially through them.  Ein Od Milvado!  And we can be assured that Hashem causes everything to work together for the good of those who love Him and are called in accordance with His purpose. (see Romans 8)

Be blessed and be a blessing,


Weekly Manna – Tazria

Parsha Tazria –

Likely, most of you have already begun your preparations for Pesach.  Many of us go to extremes, cleaning anything that doesn’t move and some things that do.  I recently heard a humorous statement we might do well to ponder: “remember dust isn’t chametz and your family is not a Korban Pesach!”  So keep that in mind if you are prone to going a little “nuts” with the cleaning!  It is perfectly OK to show Hashem we care enough to give it our all, and yet this week’s Sidra also teaches us an important lesson:  We can clean until we drop, and yet one word of lashon hara (evil, forbidden speech) can do more damage than all this preparation does good.

Arachin 16a provides a long list of sins that caused the disease of tzara’at (usually translated as leprosy).  The list includes bloodshed, robbery, false oaths, sexual misconduct, pride, and selfishness.  But the two that are indicated as the primary cause of tzara’at are slander and gossip.

In Vayiqra Rabba 16:6 the Sages explain that the Hebrew word “metzora”, which is used to refer to a person who contracts tzara’at, can be interpreted as a contraction of the phrase: “motzi shem ra”, which means “a spreader of slander” or literally, “one who brings forth evil”.

We might wonder why we do not see mouthy people with leprosy today? I believe that we have fallen to such a low level, that if Hashem were to judge us as He did previous generations, not one of us would survive.  Our spiritual level is so low that there is no immediate punishment for most sins.  In our generation, I doubt there is anyone who has not sinned with their speech.  Our words are such powerful weapons, yet we misuse this power all too often!

Here’s a good example of the power of a word.  When someone was suspected of being a metzora, they were taken to the kohen.  The kohen would examine him or her and declare his decision.  The kohen had the ability to determine this person’s reality by simply saying one word: “tamei” (unclean).  That one word would be the beginning of this person’s troubles.  He wouldn’t be able to live with his family or go to work and make a living.  He would be isolated from everyone and everything he knew.  Talk about the power of a word!  With one word this potential metzora’s entire life could be turned upside down!!

“Hashem said to Moshe and Aharon, ‘if someone develops on his skin a swelling, scab or bright spot which could develop into the disease tzara’at, he is to be brought to Aharon the kohen or to one of his sons who are kohanim.” (Vayiqra 13:1)

If we believe in Divine Providence, then we have to believe that our “so-called” problems, such as being stricken with an illness, are nothing but an opportunity for personal growth.  What we perceive as “problems” are usually the catalyst that prompts us to make teshuvah.  That was the point of tzara’at.  The Stone Chumash points out that all of the sins listed in Arachin 16a have one thing in common:  an insensitivity to others that implies the presence of a huge ego.  In a midah keneged midah response, Hashem ensured that those afflicted with tzara’at would experience pain similar to the pain they had caused others.  This was supposed to cause them to reflect on their behavior and move them to make teshuvah.

One of the major sources of lashon hara is aiyn hara.  If we guard ourselves from jealousy, our sages tell us we will not speak badly about other people.  This means we should be satisfied with our lot in life.  If we are thankful for what we do have, and we spend our time connecting with Hashem, we shouldn’t have any time left to worry about what others are doing, or to talk about it!

“Where there are jealousy and selfish ambition, there will be disharmony and every foul practice.” (Ya’akov 3:16)

How do we learn to control our tongue?

First, and foremost, it is a bad habit to talk too much.  Period.  It is also a bad habit to talk before we listen.  When we talk too much, we tend not to really hear what other people are saying.  Nor will we hear Hashem!

“A fool takes no pleasure in trying to understand; he only wants to express his own opinion” (Mishlei 18:2)

Talking is our main means of expressing ourselves.  Through speech we express our opinions and exert our will.  A practical way to combat this bad habit is to make a conscious effort to listen before speaking, and to refrain from giving your opinion, unless someone has directly asked you for it.  A wise person is quick to listen and slow to speak.  It is a hard lesson to learn, but it is usually best to keep our thoughts to our self.  Silence truly is golden.

“Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues.” (Mishlei 17:28)

What we say and how we say it, defines who we are.  Angry, hurtful words come from  angry, hurtful people.  Likewise, kind and considerate speech will flow from the mouth of a kind, considerate person.  The Chofetz Chaim teaches us that our improper words can cause other people to sin, and they can prevent our prayers from being heard. “There exists an unfortunate phenomenon.  Thousands of tefillot (prayers) are hanging in the air; never having reached the Kisei Hakavod (Divine Throne).” The Chofetz Chaim explains that these prayers were uttered through unclean lips.  Prayers uttered by mouths that speak lashon hara just hang in limbo.  And yet, the Chofetz Chaim tells us not to despair:

“These tefillot don’t go eternally to waste.  Rather, they stand by waiting for the person to repent.  The moment he does teshuvah, all his tefillot come flooding back.”

Why are we so prone to verbally assaulting each other?  Knowing how much it hurts when others verbally attack us, we should be more sensitive and refrain from doing the same to others.  When I was a kid, we sang a little song to someone who insulted us or hurt our feelings with their words:

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me.”

Wow!  Was that ever a lie!  Words can, and do, cause damage.  And the damage is often much harder to fix than a broken bone!

Sometimes we don’t even realize our words are inappropriate.  Joking, for example, may seem harmless enough, but can be extremely harmful when the joke is targeted at another person.  The Rambam compares someone who speaks lashon hara in a joking manner to one who shoots poisonous arrows for fun and claims, “I’m only joking”.  Although it may be “just a joke”, the so-called comedian can be causing untold damage to the self-esteem of another.

“Look what a great aveira (sin) is lashon hara! Even if you love the person you are talking to and you mean it as a joke, it is nevertheless forbidden.”  (Chofetz Chaim)

Did you get that?  FORBIDDEN!  When we understand the power of our words, we should be convicted to use that power for noble purposes, not for jokes, nonsense, gossip or slander.  Our words may seem harmless enough, but in reality, they might be a powerful acid that is dissolving fragments of our victim’s self-image.  Chas v’shalom we should ever cause another person humiliation, hurt or sadness, simply so we appear funny!

Have you ever considered the fact that your very words might be awakening the accuser?  The Chofetz Chaim wrote:

“Woe to those who awaken this evil force through engaging in forbidden speech.”

What about those times when we feel we need to discipline, constructively criticize or teach others?  How do we best use our speech to awaken someone we care about to the error of their ways?  The very first step is to use the right tool!  Too often we tend to use a chain saw for a job requiring pruning shears!  If we sincerely hope to help someone and inspire them to improve, we must choose our words wisely.  We must find a way to say what we need to say in a way that will build the person’s sense of worth and dignity, not tear them down.  Remember, the goal should be to prune the part that is unproductive, not to destroy!  When we prune a plant or a vine, the goal is to channel all the energy into healthy, purposeful growth.  When we seek to help others, we must find a way to likewise help them see how they too can channel their energy into healthy, purposeful growth.  The Chofetz Chaim admonishes us to always leave someone we feel we must correct with the feeling that he or she is respected and valued.

“But the tongue no one can tame – it is an unstable and evil thing, full of death-dealing poison! With it we bless Hashem, the Father; and with it we curse people, who were made in the image of G-d. Out of the same mouth come blessing and cursing! Brothers, is isn’t right for things to be this way.  A spring doesn’t send both fresh and bitter water from the same opening, does it?  Can a fig tree yield olives, my brothers? or a grapevine, figs? Neither does salt water produce fresh.” (Ya’akov 3:8-12)

I think we would all agree that the tongue needs to be tamed.  And yet, although we desire mercy for ourselves, we tend to judge others harshly.  We struggle at times with allowing others to be uniquely who they are.  The Chofetz Chaim teaches that even without agreeing or seeing the value of another person’s way of thinking, we need to learn to accept it as valid.  We are all unique individuals.  That is how Hashem created us.  We are not robots or Stepford wives, but unique and diverse individuals.  Sometimes we need to learn to accept that other people have different thoughts about things than we do, and that’s OK.  It is not always our job (or our right) to convince the entire world of our superiority!  We might occasionally need to “agree to disagree”.  And you know what, you might both be right!  When we speak lashon hara we are actually showing the world we believe that everyone and everything should conform to our standard.  It shows that we are intolerant of someone else’s ways, just because they are different than ours.

“Brothers, stop speaking against each other!  Whoever speaks against a brother or judges a brother is speaking against Torah and judging Torah.  And if you judge Torah, you are not a doer of what Torah says, but a judge.  There is but one Giver of Torah; He is also the Judge, with the power to deliver and to destroy.  Who do you think you are, judging your fellow human being?” (Ya’akov 4:11-12)

Tzara’at is a spiritual disease.  In order to cure tzara’at, one need not exercise, take medication or change his or her diet.  Only teshuvah can bring about healing.  It is interesting to note that today, even western medicine is recognizing that emotional, psychological and spiritual factors cause stress and unhealthy lifestyles, which lead to physical diseases.  There is a mind-body, or better, a soul-body connection.  There is no shortage of studies that show how a patient’s attitude and his or her willingness to change negative behavioral patterns, play a key role in the success of any medical treatment.  Teshuvah is just that – a willingness to change negative behavior patterns.

Orchard of Delight (R’ Trugman) quotes Rabbi Y. Ginsburgh who explains that the Hebrew words “choleh”, meaning “sick”, and “machalah” meaning “sickness” come from the 2 letter root Chet and lamed.  This is the same 2 letter root as “Chalash” (weak), “challal” (corpse), and “chayil” (strength & valor).  He explains that this alludes to the fact that sickness can lead to either weakness and possibly even death (chas v’shalom) or if understood properly, it can ultimately strengthen and even save the sufferer.

“Salvation is predicated on the patient understanding the spiritual causes of the sickness, drawing the proper conclusions, and making the necessary lifestyle changes.”  (R’ Ginsburgh, Body, Mind, Soul, as quoted by R’ Tugman, Orchard of Delight)

In Jewish tradition, he goes on to explain, sickness and disease, like all suffering, are treated as an opportunity for repentance, atonement, and rectification.  Yet, this is only the effect, he warns, if the sufferer comprehends the true meaning of his or her suffering.  The Hebrew words for “pardon” (mechilah) and “beseeching G-d” (vayachel, which can also be translated as “to pray”) share the same 2 letter root, which alludes to the positive effect prayer has on the process of repentance and healing.

Rebbe Nachman teaches that sadness and depression are the root of virtually all physical and mental illnesses.  There is nothing more spiritually debilitating than chronic sadness and depression.  That is why the evil inclination is actually more interested in the depression that follows sin, than it is in the sin itself.

There is an old joke that having the right to remain silent, does not imply we have the ability.  My prayer is that we think long and hard before we speak.  It is truly a shame if our prayers go unheard, and blessings are unrealized, simply because we failed to have the ability to remain silent! If we learn anything from Tazria, I pray we realize the power of our words, so we will use them wisely.  I also pray we remember that life’s difficulties should not be catalysts for sadness and depression, but instead, they should draw us closer to Hashem and prompt us to make teshuvah!  If you find yourself dealing with health issues, I pray that you do not fall into sadness or depression.  May your pain and suffering not be in vain!  And may we never loose our ability to empathize with each other’s suffering.

Be blessed and be a blessing,


Weekly Manna – Shemini

Parsha Shemini

After a lengthy discussion about the details of the sanctuary, we find a list of animals, fish and birds that are permitted or forbidden to be consumed as food.  What is the connection of the dietary laws and the sanctuary?

Rabbi Elie Munk teaches that the sanctuary was a human counterpart of the cosmos.  He also reminds us that the first command given to the first human was a dietary law.

“And Hashem commanded the man, saying, ‘of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.” (Bereishis 2:16-17)

Rabbi Sacks explains that the Talmud compares G-d’s joy on seeing the sanctuary completed with His joy when He created the heaven and earth. The parallels are actually remarkable:

The universe is the home G-d made for man; the Sanctuary is the home man made for G-d.

“So then, so now, a new era in the spiritual history of humankind, preceded by an act of creation, is marked by laws about what one may and may not eat.” (R’ J. Sacks, Covenant & Conversations)

This confirms that there is indeed a major connection between the sanctuary and the dietary laws.  Let’s look a little closer at the warnings in this week’s sidra, pertaining to what one consumes:

“You shall not draw abomination upon yourselves through anything that swarms; you shall not make yourselves unclean therewith and thus become unclean.   For I Hashem am your G-d: you shall not make yourselves unclean through any swarming thing that moves upon the earth.  For I Hashem am He who brought you up  from the land of Egypt to be your G-d: you shall be holy, for I am holy.  These are the instructions concerning animals, birds, all living creatures that move in water, and all creatures that swarm on earth, for distinguishing between the unclean and the clean, between the living things that may be eaten and the living things that may not be eaten.” (Vayiqra 11:43-47)

Apparently, through the food we chose to consume, we are actually choosing whether or not we draw abomination upon ourselves.  We can make ourselves unclean through the act of eating.  And that which is unclean is not allowed to be anywhere near the Presence of Hashem!

R’ Sacks explains that eating and sex are the two most primal activities we humans share with the animals.  Without sex between a male and a female there is no continuation of a species.  And without food, even the individual cannot survive.  He goes on to explain that there are two ways most of the world views food and sex.  One part of humanity emphasizes the body alone, seeing food and sex as a means of pleasure.  What one desires and lusts after, one pursues.  Another segment of humanity emphasizes the soul alone, and views food and sex as something to be avoided or limited.  Some religions require their most “holy” members to abstain from sex, which, as recent history has revealed, is not only impossible for humans, but denying them this natural human desire, can cause them to act in very perverted and animalistic ways.  R’ Sacks defines Judaism’s view as one that sees the “human situation in terms of integration and balance”.  We are not just a body, nor are we just a soul.  We are a soul housed in a body.  Judaism’s view is that our job is to not emphasize one aspect of our being over the other, but to instead transform the mundane into the holy.  We are to sanctify the acts of eating and sex through the dietary laws and the laws of family purity (niddah and mikveh).  After a lengthy list of forbidden relationships in Sidra Kedoshim we are told:

“Do not defile yourselves in any of those ways, for it is by such that the nations that I am casting out before you defiled themselves.  Thus the land became defiled; and I called it to acount for its iniquity, and the land spewed out its inhabitants.  But you must keep My laws and My rules, and you must not do any of those abhorrent things, neither the citizen nor the stranger (Ger) who resides among you; for all those abhorrent things were done by the people who were in the land before you, and the land became defiled.  So let not the land spew you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you.  All who do any of those abhorrent things – such persons shall be cut off from their people. You shall keep My charge not to engage in any of the abhorrent practices that were carried on before you, and you shall not defile yourselves through them: I Hashem am your G-d.”  (Vayiqra 18:24-30)

Please note that the wording in Vayiqra 18 is similar to that of Vayiqra 11.  Through these two passages we are told that it is through the acts of eating and sexual conduct that we we can corrupt ourselves.  Maybe, bezrat Hashem, we can discuss further the connection between sexual conduct and holiness when we get to Acharei Mot.  For now, lets look a little deeper into the teaching in this week’s sidra which pertains to holiness and the consumption of food.  It is so important for us to know how to distinguish between what is permitted and what is forbidden; between what is pure and what is impure!  The dietary laws are not designed to promote physical health, but to maintain the health of our soul.  Consuming food which the Torah forbids impairs the purity of our soul.  What we eat can defile and contaminate us spiritually!!!!

“You shall be holy to Me, for I Hashem am holy, and I have set you apart from the other peoples to be mine.”  (Vayiqra 20:26)

The Chofetz Chaim teaches us that one of the effects of consuming non-kosher food, is that the “tzelem Elokim” (the Divine Image) leaves us, leaving us vulnerable to many misfortunes.In the book of Daniel we read about four young men: Daniel, Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah who refrained from defiling themselves with what they ate.  We are told that their countenance appeared good because they did not remove their Master’s image by consuming non-kosher food.  (see Daniel 1: 8-15).  Once we allow ourselves to be drawn after our lusts, and to violate the will of Hashem, we are immediately enveloped in impurity.  It is interesting to note that impurity can effect us by merely allowing ourselves to get too close.  Like a germ that can jump from one person to the next, sometimes without physical contact.  Yet, purity only has an impact when it is absorbed.  We do not become holy just by contact with what is holy, we must absorb the holiness and allow it to penetrate deep into our being.  The litmus test for this is the lifestyle one lives.  If there is no positive change in one’s lifestyle after coming into contact with holiness, than it is a sure-fire sign that it has not been absorbed.

This brings us to another important lesson we can learn from the dietary laws detailed in this sidra: that of making a false show of piety.  In Vayiqra 11:4-8 we read about four animals that are missing one of the two kosher signs.  Only the Creator of all would know that these four species have only one of the two signs.  This is actually an amazing proof of the Divinity of the Torah as well.  To this very day no other species except for the ten listed in D’varim 14: 4-6 (ox, sheep, goat, deer, gazelle, roebuck, wild goat, ibex, antelope, mountain sheep) have ever been discovered that meet the requirements of both a split hoof and rumination.  No one but the Creator Himself could have categorized them without missing a single one.  So this begs the question, why did He create these four animals which could easily be mistaken by we finite humans?  But not only that, He makes sure we know the truth so that we are not fooled.  This is a sure sign that He is teaching us to dig deeper.

“and the swine – although it has true hoofs, with the hoofs cleft though, it does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you.”  (Vayiqra 11:7)

The swine is the one of the four which is most likely to fool, because it has the outward sign of being kosher, but inwardly it is not.  Our Sages teach that this alludes to people who make a great display of piety outwardly, but they are filled with evil thoughts and wickedness.  These hypocrites are very disgusting in G-d’s eyes, more so than one who is wicked both inwardly and outwardly.

“Hypocrites are only pious on the outside, and they can easily fool the rest of the world into thinking they are good.” (Kli Yakar)

The pig has one of the signs of being kosher, and it shows it’s hoof to the world as if to say, “look, I’m kosher!”, and yet the pig is unclean on the inside.  This is symbolic of people who show off, pretending to be holy when they are not.  There are those people who are outwardly prideful, and who openly display their pride. But there is another type of people who are inwardly proud but outwardly behave as if they are pious, with the intent of fooling others.

“For the LORD of Hosts has ready a day against all that is proud and arrogant, against all that is lofty – so that it is brought low: against all the cedars of Lebanon, tall and stately, and all the oaks of Bashan; against all the high mountains and all the lofty hills; against every soaring tower and every might wall; against all the ships of Tarshish and all the gallant barks.  Then man’s haughtiness shall be humbled and the pride of man brought low.  None but Hashem shall be exalted in that day.”  (Yeshayahu 2: 12-17)

That’s a powerful warning!  If people show off, G-d will take vengeance on them!  Notice that there are two types of people being warned:  “the proud and arrogant”, and “the lifted up and lowly”.  R’ Yitzchok Magriso in Me’am Lo’ez explains the difference in these two forms of pride.  The first, the proud and arrogant, he defines as those who are prideful both inwardly and outwardly.  These people are proud and are not ashamed to show it.  The second, the lifted up and lowly, he defines as those who are inwardly proud but outwardly behave like dust of the earth, so as to fool others into thinking them to be humble and saintly.  They appear saintly and religious, but it is a trick and they are trying to swindle others with their fake piety.  The second type of person, says R’ Magriso, is more hated by G-d than one who is not a hypocrite, and is as evil outside as he is inwardly.  At least he gets credit for not fooling others.  R’ Magriso tells the following powerful story, which I will quote in its entirety:

“It was told that there was a saint who was very wealthy.  He wanted to go to the Holy Land.  He took all his wealth and began his journey.  Along the way he stopped off in a city and he saw a Jew whose name was Alexander.  This Jew spent most of his time in synagogue wearing his tallit and tefillin and praying.  The saint said to himself, ‘it is better that I leave all my wealth with this fine Jew until I can go to the Holy Land and make all my preparations.  Then I will come back for my money.  It is better that I do not take my wealth with me, because I am concerned about robbers and other evil people whom I might encounter on my way.’  He waited in the synagoge until Alexander finished his prayer.  When he finished his prayer, the saint approached him and said, ‘I am on my way to the Holy Land.  I am in a strange land and do not know anybody.  I have much money in my possession and I am concerned about carrying it with me lest I be robbed.  I would like  to give it to you to hold until I return and then I will take it.’   ‘An excellent idea,’ replied Alexander.  ‘It is best that you leave all your money with me.  I will place it next to my wealth and you will have nothing to worry about.  With G-d’s help, when you return I will give it back to you exactly as you gave it to me.’  The saint gave Alexander the money and went along his way in peace.  Time passed and the saint settled in the Holy Land and bought a house.  He then told his wife, ‘let me now go abroad to Alexander and get all my money.’  When the saint finally got to Alexander he said to him, ‘My good friend, I’ve come to get my money from you.’ ‘Who are you?” replied Alexander.  ‘I never saw you before in my life.’  When the saint heard these words, he began to tremble and shake.  He fell on the ground and began to weep and cry.  He begged Alexander not to do such a terrible thing to him.  This was his entire fortune.  Alexander began to humiliate him and complain that he was framing him.  He said, ‘I have never seen you before in my life.  I never took anything from you.’  When the saint saw his bad situation he went to the synagogue and he began to cry out to G-d, ‘Lord of the universe, You are Master of the whole world and You are my Trust.  I saw this Jew in tallit and tefillin all day long praying.  I gave him everything I owned.  Now I see that all his righteousness was just to trick others and steal from them.  Oh G-d, I am placing my judgment in Your Hands.  Let my righteous case come out to light.  If necessary, perform miracles for me.  Let me have revenge on this man so that all people will know Your great power.’  While tears were still pouring out of his eyes in the synagogue, Elijah the prophet appeared to him and said, ‘Do not be afraid.  Go to Alexander’s wife and say to her, ‘let this be a sign to you.  Last Passover both of you ate leaven.  Also on Yom Kippur morning you both had a meal together before you went to the synagogue. When you tell them these two signs they will return your money.’  The saint went and waited until Alexander left his house to go about his business.  He knocked on Alexander’s door and when his wife answered he told her the two things Elijah had revealed to him. She immediately gave him his money and he went on his way happy and rejoicing and thanking G-d.  When Alexander returned home he heard about the secrets that the saint had revealed to his wife.  He said, ‘Now my hypocrisy has become revealed to everyone.  I will no longer be able to live here.’  Both of them went out and became apostates. May their names be blotted out.” (Me’am Lo’ez, Vol. 11, page 234-235)

Our heart cannot contain egotism and the Shechina at the same time.  The two are directly opposed to each other.  As soon as anger or arrogance, both motivated by egotism, take possession of the heart, the Shechina departs.  Hashem desires for His people to do good deeds in private, not show offs.

“He has told you, O man, what is good, and what Hashem requires of you: only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your G-d.”  (Micha 6:8)

The main thing that G-d desires from us that we be modest in our good deeds.  Even good deeds which must be done publicly, should not be done in a show-off manner.  They should be done modestly so that people do not praise us for doing them.  When we give charity, it should always be done in secret so that the recipient should not be embarrassed.  Other good deeds should also be done secretly so that as few people as possible are aware of our actions.  In general, the rule is, the more a person can hide his good deeds, the better.  Those who receive their praise in this world will one day be very sad, when they realize the praise they would have received in the world to come would have been worth waiting for.  If we pursue praise in this world, we are forfeiting the reward we could have received in the world to come.  Be wary of any one who outwardly appears holy, but whose lifestyle when truly examined, does not reflect the same level of holiness.  As they adage goes: those who know don’t tell and those who tell don’t know, can hold true here as well.  Those who appear to be outwardly holy, we should probably suspect and watch carefully.  As the story above told us, just because someone spends all his time in the synagogue, wearing holy looking garb, that is not the true litmus test for holiness.  Those who don’t come off as being holy, are usually the one’s who are quietly living a truly holy life.

R’ Yitzchok Zilberstein teaches that a “living person” is one who has restrictions.  He quotes the Biala Rebbe who sees that the phrase, “that brings up the cud”, as suggesting that a person should “chew over” his every action in his mind.  Further he sees the phrase, “that has a split hoof”, as suggesting that he should proceed cautiously, with half steps, being exceedingly careful in how he behaves.  The dietary laws are about restraint and reverence. (Aleinu L’Shabei’ach)

R’ Munk explains that the Creator’s has a unique knowledge of the inner relationship between body and soul, which is expressed by the dietary laws. These laws tell us which foods are harmful and would disturb that harmony between body and soul.  The Midrash Tanchuma tells us that the laws were given to purify and ennoble our lives.  The Torah repeatedly connects spiritual purity and holiness with the adherence to the dietary laws.

“For you are a people consecrated to Hashem your G-d; Hashem your G-d chose you from among all the other peoples on earth to be His treasured people.  You shall not eat anything abhorrent.”  (D’varim 14: 2-3)

There is obviously a cause and effect between what we eat and holiness.  What we eat can purify our soul or stain it.  We can, by the food we consume, be causing a spiritual disease to manifest without us.  We don’t fully understand how this works, but the warnings make it clear that eating the flesh of prohibited animals has a harmful effect on us.  Holiness is, and always has been, the supreme goal of the Jewish people.  R’ Munk defines holiness as including “moral purity, detachment from all that is vulgar and scrupulous respect for the Divine mitzvot”, especially those, like the dietary laws, which go beyond our human comprehension.  Through self-discipline and self-denial, man has the ability to prevent himself from becoming a slave to his sensual appetites, elevating himself above the animals who have similar urges and appetites. The goal is to elevate our sensual pleasures to a level of holiness.

I pray that Hashem help us all to partake of this world solely for the sake of fulfilling His will.  May we strive to live holy lives, not just holy looking lives.  Hashem is not looking for people who look Jew-ish, He desires people who actually live holy lives.  Who live the life of a Jew.

May all Israel be allowed to sing His praises in the rebuilt holy Temple, speedily and in our days!

Be blessed and be a blessing,


Weekly Manna – Parsha Tzav

Parsha Tzav–

I would like to start with a confession:  For most of my life, when I have attempted to read through or study the book of Vayiqra, I have been so lost and discouraged that I have given up.  Have you ever felt that way about a section of scripture?  When I first heard that this is the first section of the Torah that is taught to Jewish children at age of 5 or 6, well, I was speechless!  How could a kindergartener understand something I can’t?   I now realize that the Jews have the benefit of Chazal and their understanding that was given through Ruach HaKodesh, and faithfully handed down throughout the ages.  Today, I am excited to report, I find this book so amazingly rich with timely and relevant lessons, lessons that we can use in our lives, that I am having difficulty narrowing down the topics to discuss.  So with that said, let’s look at the sidra “Tzav”.

Korbanot (sacrifices).  This is a very difficult subject for us to understand.  The whole subject seems archaic and foreign to our “modern sensitivities”.  And yet, Hashem had much to say on this subject so it is worth trying, to the best of our abilities, to understand.  The Chofetz Chaim explains that it is a special mitzvah to read the section of the Torah that deals with the korbanot.  This was even true during the period of time when the actual korbanot were brought to the Mishkan (tabernacle) or the Beit HaMikdash (temple).  The korbanot had the ability to atone for one’s unintentional sins, but the study of the Torah of the korbanot has the ability to rectify the root of the problem.  This is because the Torah is our antidote to all sin, and by studying the Torah, one’s heart is stirred to obedience and this strengthens the Neshamah, allowing it to take control of the Nefesh Behamah (Animal Soul) and to rein in the Yetzer Hara (evil inclination).  G-d arranged things so that the Torah is not only the source of the korbanot, but is, in fact, the root of everything.   This begs the question then:  why are we so lax in the study and understanding of these instructions?

“When a person studies the laws of sacrifices, it is as if he has offered all the sacrifices.”  (Menoachot 110a)

Studying the Torah of the korbanot can bring atonement and protection from our suffering.  During the time before the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed, if someone failed to carry out any positive commandment, he/she was obligated to bring a burnt offering as a gift, even after he/she had repented from the sin.  Nowadays, without the advantage of the actual korbanot, if we commit such a sin, we should study the section of the Torah that deals with burnt offerings.  And we are told repeatedly, throughout the Tanakh as well as the writings of Chazal, that Torah study is greater than bringing sacrifices (That is, of course, Torah study which leads to correct behavior…..i.e. proper Torah study.  The kind that is actually internalized!)  An example is found in last week’s Haftara, which was read for Shabbat Zachor (Sabbath of remembrance):

“Shmuel said to Shaul, ‘Stop! Let me tell you what Hashem said to me last night!’ ‘Speak,’ he replied.  And Shmuel said, ‘You may look small to yourself, but you are the head of the tribes of Yisrael. Hashem anointed you king over Yisrael, and Hashem sent you on a mission, saying, ‘go and proscribe the sinful Amalekites; make war on them until you have exterminated them.’  Why did you disobey Hashem and swoop down on the spoil in defiance of Hashem’s will?………Does Hashem delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to Hashem’s command?  Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice, compliance than the fat of rams.  For rebellion is like the sin of divination, defiance, like the iniquity of teraphim.  Because you rejected Hashem’s command, He has rejected you as king.’”  (Shmuel Aleph 15:16-19, 22-23)

The Midrash HaNe’elam explains that when the korbanot ended due to the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash, the study of the Torah did not stop.  We may not be able to bring sacrifices today, but we can still study the laws pertaining to them, and by doing so we will receive more help than the korbanot themselves provided.

“How beloved to G-d is the reading of the Torah sections dealing with korbanot!” (Chofetz Chaim)

I realize that many people simply find the whole concept of animal sacrifices difficult to comprehend.  What really was their purpose?  We are told they were an atonement, but how does that work?  Why was this particular means of atonement instituted by G-d?  He is not a human like us, so He definitely doesn’t derive any pleasure from them.  And He is not like the false gods of other religions requiring bribes or gifts to appease Him.   Rabbi Jonathan Sacks proposes an interesting explanation based on Bereshies 8:29-9:6. He states that because we humans are predisposed to violence, we were given permission to kill animals so we wouldn’t kill each other.  He goes on to explain that it isn’t that G-d liked or approved of killing animals, be it for food or for sacrifice, but He realized that to forbid it, given our predisposition to bloodshed would be tragic.  So this was the “least bad” solution.  Letting people kill animals rather than murder each other.

“The common denominator in sacrifices is internal violence – all the dissensions, rivalries, jealousies, and quarrels within the community that the sacrifices are designed to suppress.  The purpose of the sacrifice is to restore harmony to the community, to reinforce the social fabric.  Everything else derives from that.” (Ren’e Girard, Violence & the Sacred)

And the worst type of violence within and between societies is vengeance.  There is a story in the Mishnah about how Hillel once saw a skull floating on the water and he said to the skull:

“Hashem always brings justice in the end.  Because you drowned others, you were drowned, and those who drowned you will eventually be drowned as well, in retribution for drowning you.” (Pirkei Avot 2:7)

R’ Sacks explains that there is no natural end to the cycle of retaliation and revenge.  This is a cycle that has caused destruction throughout the history of mankind.  History is replete with “Hatfield and McCoy” stories.  According to Ren’e Girard (as retold by R’ Sacks in Essays on Ethics), it was the problem that religious ritual was developed to resolve.  The primary religious act, he says, is the sacrifice and the primary sacrifice is the scapegoat.

“If tribes A & B, who have been fighting, can sacrifice a member of tribe C, then both will have sated their desire for bloodshed without inviting revenge, especially if tribe C is in no position to retaliate. Sacrifices divert the destructive energy of violent reciprocity”

Therefore, R’ Sacks suggests that the sacrifices, like the eating of animal flesh, entered Judaism as a substitute for violence.  And the only effective antidote to violence is the rule of law.  We all know that G-d’s greatest desire is that the world be governed by justice.  And yet, we live in a world that is still very violent.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (Torah Lights), suggests that our challenge is to redirect our instinctive physical drives properly, viewing them as means and not ends.  The key he says is not to deny our physical drives, but rather to elevate them, using them in the service of Hashem.

“Because it is impossible to move suddenly from one extreme to the other…..divine wisdom….could not command that (the Israelites) leave all of those ways of worship, depart from them and nullify them.  For such (a demand) would have been something that no human mind could expect, given the nature of the human being who is always drawn to that to which he is accustomed.  Therefore, G-d retained the sacrificial acts, but transformed them into means rather than ends, declaring that they must become the implements for directing all such energies and activities into the worship of the one true G-d of the universe.”   (Rambam, Guide for the Preplexed, Part 3, Chapter 32).

Just as fire can destroy or purify, depending on how it is utilized, so too our passions and natural desires.  G-d is showing us through His Torah how we can redirect our natural instincts.   When showing Moshe the blueprint for the Miskan, Rabbi Yehezqel of CMY, teaches that G-d told Moshe not, “let me show you the pattern”, but “let me show you, you”.  The sanctuary, along with its vessels and services, were all means to help us understand how we are to draw closer to our Creator.  Drawing closer to Hashem is the ends.

It was not the Mishkan, or the ritual objects, or the korbanot that were sacred in and of themselves.  It was their intended purpose that made them holy.  And that purpose was to draw people closer to Hashem.  It is not about the object, but about what one does with it, and how one relates to it.  That’s what makes it holy.   Any object can be used to purity or to defile.  And any object or person has the capacity to bring blessing or, chazveshalom, curses and death!  It all depends on the purpose for which things are utilized.


Whatever “it” is, if it doesn’t cause you to walk in G-d’s ways, it is worthless.  This can and does, unfortunately, include Torah study, Shul attendance, and other so-called “holy” endeavors.  The purpose of any ritual is to bring us closer to G-d, which is evidenced by our actions and lifestyles.  Just as He is compassionate, we too must be compassionate, etc., etc..  (I am going to assume here that you are all familiar with the 13 attributes of Hashem we are to emulate).

What is the litmus test to determine if our rituals are just worthless rituals?  (See Galatians 5:22-23)  Are you unloving? Grumpy? Joyless? Have no peace? No patience? Are you unkind to others? Do you procrastinate or avoid the chance to do good for other people? Are you quick to complain when things don’t go your way? Do you speak or behave harshly towards others? Do you find it difficult to refrain from gossip? Slander? Do you find it difficult to see Hashem’s hand in every detail of your life?  Including your trials? Do you dress or behave in an immodest manner? Do you find it difficult to control your urges or cravings? Do you find it difficult to keep your eyes and ears from things which provoke ungodly thoughts, which ultimately lead to ungodly actions?

Look, no one is perfect.  At least no one I’ve ever met!  And yet, that shouldn’t stop us from trying.  To realize we have areas of weakness is actually half the battle.  The problem is when we realize we have weaknesses, and yet do nothing to try to improve ourselves.  Then our rituals are just empty rituals.

“You shall build me a sanctuary in order that I may dwell in your midst” (Sh’mot 25:8)

Having G-d in our midst can only happen when we act in accordance with His Divine characteristics.  The Mishkan, the Beit HaMikdash, the Synagogue, the sacrifices,  liturgy (prayer), Torah study, , the mo’edim, or whatever other rituals we are involved in are all just means to an ultimate end – WALKING WITH G-D AND ACTING IN ACCORDANCE WITH HIS WILL!  If whatever we do does not draw us closer to Hashem, we are wasting our time.  Unfortunately, too often the means are substituted for the end!  When we become blind to the reason for our rituals, and allow them to become central, they lose all meaning.  What are they inspiring?

“Even though you bring Me burnt offerings and offerings of grain, I will not accept them……but let justice roll down like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream.”  (Amos 5:23-24)

The value of a sacrifice is its proper use as a means to an end.

“Thus said Hashem: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom; let not the strong man glory in his strength; let not the rich man glory in his riches.  But only in this should one glory: In his earnest devotion to me.  For, I, Hashem act with kindness, justice, and equity in the world; for in these I delight declares Hashem.”  (Yirmeyahu 9:22-23)

“If you delve into the matter, you will see that the world was created for man’s use.  However, man is at the center of a great balance.  If he is drawn after worldly pursuits and alienates himself from his Creator, he corrupts himself and ruins the world around him.  But if he rules over himself and unites himself with his creator, thus availing himself of the world as an aid in the service of his Creator, he elevates himself, and the world is uplifted with him. For all creatures are greatly uplifted when they are used in the service of the perfected man who is sanctified through Hashem’s holiness.” (Ramchal, Mesillas Yesharim, Chpt. 1)

Properly utilizing this world, including, but not limited to our rituals, is a prerequisite to our holiness.  Only then can we hope to impart holiness to this world in which we live.

“Rav Kruspedai said: ‘when a person in a beit knesset or beit midrash mentions matters relating to the sacrifices and how they are offered, and concentrates on it, (he can rely on the) covenant which ensures that the angels standing ready to accuse him (on account of his sins) will be unable to bring harm upon him.  They will be capable of speaking only in his favor.” (Midrash Hane’elam, Parsha Vayeira).

By learning the laws of the offerings we silence accusing angels (which we have created by our improper thoughts, speech, and actions), we actually take away their ability to bring harm to us.  Indeed, they will have no choice but to speak in our favor.  If we would study the laws of the offering every day, we could save ourselves from all our troubles.

So ladies, as we study the Torah of the Korbanot, I would remind each of us that we are told to keep the fire burning continuously.  This means we have an obligation to continuously serve Hashem, and not to lose our fire and fervor as we do so.  First we need to provide a spark, and then the challenge we face is keeping the fire burning.  We are all different, so what sparks our fire might be different.  But use whatever creativity Hashem has given you to light that initial spark.  Listen to or make music, enjoy or create art, meditate, walk in nature, find reasons to throw a party, or if you are like me, keep reading and learning.  And once you have ignited that spark, remember it will need room to burn.  If you schedule every moment of your day with activities, or fill every silence with words, or clutter your life with too much “stuff”, they how in the world do you expect the fire to ever grow?  A fire without fuel will not keep burning, and definitely will not grow.  And just as the kohanim were required to remove the ashes each day, we need to make sure we too are removing the ashes of our past mistakes and circumstances.  With each new day, we must remain steadfast to our commitment to leave the past in the past, never letting it remain and accumulate, or it will eventually keep our fire from burning properly, and could actually extinguish it all together.  One of the miracles in the Beit HaMikdash (see Pirkei Avot 5:5) was that the rains did not extinguish the fire of the woodpile on the mizbeiach.  I pray we too remain constant, never allowing our fire to be extinguished by obsessing over our physical needs.  When the trappings of this world rain down upon us, I pray we too will see a miracle, in that our fire not be extinguished!

Be blessed and be a blessing,


Weekly Manna – Vayiqra

Parsha Vayiqra–

There are so many things we can discuss as we enter the book of Vayiqra.  I think we should start by talking about the word “vayiqra”, which comes from the root word “qara”, meaning “calling”.  This word denotes a high status and is a call of love.  We see another example of this word used in Yeshayahu 6:3 describing the Seraphim which stood in attendance before Hashem’s Throne of Glory:

“One would call to the other, “Holy, holy, holy! The L-rd of Hosts! His presence fills all the earth!”

This word differs from the word “vayiqar”, which is the word used in Bamidbar 23:4, when Hashem called to Balaam.  Unlike “vayiqra, the word “vayiqar” denotes something of low status that is unclean & disgusting.   Hashem told Moshe to use the word “vayiqra”, but Moshe didn’t think himself worthy of any special status.    If you look at a Torah scroll you will see that the aleph in the word “vayiqra” is quite small.  Moshe, of course, obeyed Hashem, but he made the “aleph” smaller than the other letters. This actually served only to prove Hashem’s point in using the word “vayiqra”.

“The man Moshe was very humble” (Bamidbar 12:3)

Moshe reached his greatness because of his smallness in his own eyes.  He deserved this special status because he fled from honor and did not seek to be elevated above the people he led.

“But Moshe said to Hashem, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?’” (Sh’mot 3:11)

Eruvin 13b tells us that whoever lowers himself will be raised up by Hashem, and whoever in his arrogance tries to elevate himself, Hashem will humble and lower that person.  This gemara also states that whoever searches for prominence, prominence flees from him, but whoever flees from prominence, prominence searches after him.

The Midrash Tanchuma (Vayiqra 3) tells us that if a person seeks honor, honor will flee from him, but if one flees from recognition, it shall ultimately find him.

Pirkei Avot 1:13 states that he who seeks renown will end up losing his reputation.

“A man’s pride will bring him low, but a lowly spirit will support [his] honor”  (Mishlei 29:23)

Humility is often thought of as self-effacement, but that is not a proper understanding of the concept.  You can study any number of books on “mussar”, and they will all give a similar definition of humility – its about knowing your proper place in the world and acting accordingly.

Humility means occupying the proper space, not too much or too little.

Unbridled self-interest and arrogance are a sign that someone thinks too highly of himself and believes the world revolves around him.  We’ve all met these people.  They behave as if the world would be a sad place if not for their presence.  Unfortunately, these people are usually too self-absorbed to recognize that most people flee from them.  But the same is true of one who has too little self-esteem, never standing up for themselves and forever viewing themselves as the perpetual victim.  Victim-mentality is actually a convenient way to avoid responsibility.  Our goal needs to be somewhere in the middle.

Look at it this way.  When someone sits on a bench, if she is arrogant, she might kick her feet up and take up more room than she really needs.   If she is stuck in self-doubt and victim-mentality, she will probably be hanging off the edge, trying not to take up too much room, not even what should normally be allowed.  In reality, we should take up just enough space, leaving space for others as well.

Moshe had a big job.  His humility did not mean that he was weak and timid.  Some people have bigger talents, and they are tasked with bigger jobs.  It’s not about the size of the talent or the job, it’s about being able to do what you were designed to do, without making it about yourself.

“Moshe was the most humble of men because he stepped up to his monumental responsibilities and acted from a place of service, not ego.”  (The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions, G. Marcus, PhD)

So, in just this one word, “vayiqra”,  we can learn a big lesson about staying small in our own eyes, yet realizing our value in G-d’s eyes.  Rebbe Nachman explains in Likutei Moharan 1:4.7, that being praised can be dangerous because it is liable to bring one to arrogance.  We need to remember that serving Hashem is a privilege, and the talents and aptitudes we have are gifts he has given us, so that we can serve him.

There is something else I want us to consider when we think about the word “vaiqra/calling”.

“The Nesivos Shalom of Slonim states that Hashem calls out to every person through the events that happen to him during his lifetime.  In every situation in which a person finds himself, he can “hear” Hashem speaking to him if he wishes, even though Hashem’s calling is not blatantly obvious.  At times, Hashem speaks to an individual through happy events, and the person can hear Hashem’s voice through joy and good spirits.  At other times, Hashem speaks to an individual through crisis and sorrow, and the person must hear Hashem’s voice through his pain.  A person’s entire life – including everything that happens to him – is one long calling.  Every person has a task to complete in this world, a specific assignment that only he can fulfill.  At times, unfortunately, people block their ears from hearing the voices that are clearly calling to them from Heaven.” (Aleinu L’Shabeiach on Vayiqra, R’ Yitzchok Zilberstein)

In chapter 3 of Mesillas Yasharim, the Ramchal compares this world to the darkness of night.  Darkness can obscure our vision so that we don’t see what is right in front of us.  Darkness can also cause us to see a pillar or a tree and think that it is a person, or visa-versa.  The physicality and materialism of this world blind a person’s intelligence in much the same way.  Materialism can keep us from seeing the obstacles the world puts before us.  Too many people go through life in a fool’s paradise, only to find it was all a lie in the end.  And sometimes like the one in the darkness that mistakes a pillar for a person, we can become confused, seeing evil as good and good as evil.  Such a person, whose perception deceives him, will persist in his evil deeds actually thinking that his path is a righteous one.

So, we all have a calling, and we need to realize we have the talents and abilities we do in order to help us to achieve our custom designed purpose.  Our calling isn’t our choice, and our talents and abilities can be taken from us as easily as they were given.  I pray we can overcome the falsehood of self-honor, and humbly do our job with joy and excitement for having the amazing privilege to serve our Creator.  And I pray we have the good sense not to become too enamored with the trappings of this world, which can blind us to our true purpose.

We cannot very well talk about Vayiqra without mentioning sacrifices.  I think it is important that we understand the difference between the Hebrew word “korban” and the English word “sacrifice”.  Korban comes from a root meaning “to draw near”.  Sacrifice means “to make sacred”.  The Torah teaches us that the primary function of the korban is to restore the spiritual equilibrium of the community.  The one who inadvertently sinned brought an offering, and after it was accepted, he still needed to right the wrong he had done, by reimbursing the victim, or paying a fine, or whatever legal penalty was applicable.  There is not any compensation for the korban. One doesn’t receive protection from punishment for his sin.  The korban is not given to appease Hashem or to pay Him homage.  The korbanot were designed to make a sinner’s heart contrite, so that he would be aroused to repent. The “Olah” or burnt offering was completely consumed by the fire.  No one derived any benefit from it.  We learn from this that we must serve Hashem with no ulterior motives, not seeking any glory or any benefit for ourselves.  With a genuine belief in Divine Providence, we will realize that Hashem is behind all our successes, and they are only true successes if done for the sake of Heaven.  When we cultivate our talents, and we succeed, we need not boast, as we realize Hashem’s blessing is what allowed both our talent and our success, not our own efforts.  Likewise, when we experience a setback, we need not despair, for we realize that when we have given it our all, and tried as hard as we possibly could, if the result is a (so-called) “failure” or setback, we can be assured that it was Hashem’s will, and that “gam zu l’tovah”, this too is for the good!

Each day we must bring ourselves to Hashem, and offer ourselves as living sacrifices.  That means dying to self, but realizing our potential.  Ladies, I pray we can refrain from making it about ourselves. May we humbly honor Hashem with our talents, and may our lives be a fragrant offering!

Be blessed and be a blessing,


Weekly Manna – Pekudei

Parsha Pekudei

Pedudei means “accounts” our “reckonings”.  The Chumash explains that “these are the reckonings” suggests homiletically that the only meaningful reckoning is the account one makes of resources that are devoted to building G-d’s sanctuaries and otherwise used for the sake of Heaven.  Only such investments are eternal, all others are transitory.  As the Sages remark in Bamidbar Rabbah 22:8:

“The word ‘mamon’ (money) is a contraction of ‘mah atah moneh?’ (what are you counting?) and ‘e’no kelum!’ (it is worthless).”

How many worthless things are counted in our world?  I have a degree in accounting, so this is a subject I know much about!  I have spent many years counting income, inventory, return on investment, operating profit, taxes and interest due or owed, etc, etc..  But of all the counting I did during my career, there is none that had lasting significance.

So why was it necessary for Moshe to give an accounting to the children of Israel in regards to their donations?  One lesson we can learn from this is that even a great leader must provide an accounting of how communal funds are dispersed.  No one is above accountability, and the communal treasury should never be treated lightly.  Accountability is a prerequisite for everything.

Now, in light of this, let’s talk about the accounting that has eternal, lasting significance.  Accountability is also required for each of us in how we use our given resources to fulfill our life’s mission.  The word “accountings” in this sidra is in the plural.  Rabbi Trugman in his commentary (Orchard of Delight) explains that this hints to a deeper message:  that each person is subject to multiple levels of accounting.  He quotes Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach who taught that there is the accounting we do for what we did right, but in an unenthusiastic or routine, mechanical manner, without the proper kavanah (intention).  R’ Carlebach also taught that we will be judged for both those things that we did and for the things we could or should have done but refrained from doing out of laziness, a lack of conviction, or callousness.  Each one of us enter this world with a certain task, mission or tikkun (rectification) to perform.  Even if we do everything right and can account for all our actions, the primary accounting that we will give on judgment day is whether or not we carried out our specified purpose.  Therefore, it is very important that each of us know what our purpose is, and what path will lead us to our desired goal.

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” (Alice in Wonderland)

In his commentary to this sidra, “Parsha Potpourri”, R’ Ozer Alport asks an important question: Which is more important?  The means to accomplish a goal? Or the goal itself? He answers:

“The ultimate purpose of life is to earn a portion in the World to Come, yet the mechanism for doing so is the performance of mitzvot in this world.  The focus of our lives is to elevate and perfect our souls, but the mechanism for doing so is the observance of the Torah with our bodies. The purpose of the mishkan was the Divine Service that took place inside through its vessels, while the mishkan itself merely represented the means to accomplish this goal.”

Before they sinned, Adam and Chava had a soul-dominated clarity of understanding.  We no longer have that.  Since that time when we received our body of flesh, the body has dominated the soul.

Ok, so we have a purpose, a goal to achieve, and we need to determine how best to accomplish it.  And ultimately, we will have to give accountings for how we spent the resources entrusted to us to accomplish it.  We need to make an accounting and explain our choices.

“Blessing is not bestowed upon things that are weighed, nor upon things that are measured, nor upon things that are counted.  Blessing is bestowed only upon things that are hidden from the eye.” (Ta’anit 8b)

We have all, I’m sure, felt like a number not a name.  That is not a positive feeling.  Yet, we have all also likely experienced those moments of inspiration when we exclaim, “count me in!”.  If we are counting things from a spiritual perspective, the counting is undeniably a positive action.  And accountability is a necessary step in the process.

“When it comes to privacy and accountability, people always demand the former for themselves and the later for everyone else.” (David Brin, The Transparent Society)

Let’s be honest, we don’t want someone to question our decisions or actions, but we too often demand accountability from others.  If only we could understand that the only accountability we really need to worry about is our own.  We will be held accountable for our decisions and our actions, not for that of others.

We have all been tasked with building a place for Hashem’s Shechinah to reside.  To the extent that we prepare ourselves to accept His Presence within us, that is how much He can reside in our “mishkan”.  The more we strengthen ourselves, and improve our character, the more we allow for His Presence. And as we build our holy place, we will begin to understand more and more our specific purpose.   We all have unique talents, gifts, and circumstances, custom designed by Hashem to help us reach our goal.  That is what we will be held accountable for.  How did we use them?

Here’s a really amazing detail.  Chazal discuss the physical dimensions of the Holy of Holies and the Ark of the Covenant that was inside (Megillah 10b, Yoma 21a and Bava Basra 99a).  Then they tell us, that after some good, old-fashioned number crunching, that the ark of the covenant miraculously took up no space.  None! The message is clear:  Holiness takes up no space.  In the place of holiness, there is always room for more holiness.  Do you understand the implication of this?  Ladies, we so often make excuses for why we don’t grow spiritually.  We don’t have enough time, or money, or whatever our personal excuse is.  But we are really just making a choice, consciously or not, to not grow!  If we truly have bitacon (trust) in Hashem, we will believe without fear, that He will make a way for our spiritual growth.

Rabbi Trugman tells us that our world is a reflection of a higher reality and that what we call “reality” in this world is actually a mirror image or reflection of what is occurring in the upper worlds.  The name Bezalel (the mishkan’s builder) literally means “in the shadow of G-d”.

“We are profoundly affected by forces far greater than ourselves, by energies beyond our immediate understanding, yet we have the ability, and even responsibility, to effect the higher spiritual worlds – through our thoughts, speech, and actions. By doing so, we shape our own present and future.” (R’ Trugman, Orchard of Delight)

So, we must ask ourselves, “is this the task I was born for?”.  If we are honest with ourselves, we know if we are using our lives wisely or not.  Is what you do on a daily basis making a positive, eternal difference?  Everything pertaining solely to this transitory world, is done in vain.  It has no eternal value.  There should be nothing more compelling or that gives us more joy than when we make a place for the Divine Presence to dwell among us, between us, and with us!

Our job is to create the space and invite the Presence in.  We are not, and never will be, however, in charge of anything.  The Spirit of Hashem moves in ways we cannot understand or control.

“Do not be vexed by evil men; do not be incensed by wrongdoers; for they soon wither like grass, like verdure (vegetation) fade away.  Trust in Hashem and do good, abide in the land and remain loyal.  Seek the favor of Hashem, and He will grant you the desires of your heart.  Leave all to Hashem; trust in Him; He will do it.  He will cause your vindication to shine forth like the light, the justice of your case, like the noonday sun.  Be patient and wait for Hashem, do not be vexed by the prospering man who carries out his schemes.  Give up anger, abandon fury, do not be vexed; it can only do harm.”  (Tehillim 37:1-8)

“The end of this sidra states “va’yichal Moshe es ha’melacha” –  “Moshe finished all of the work”.  The gematria of this phrase is 913.  In the world of gematria, this is a very famous number as it is the gematria of the first word in the Torah, which is ‘Bereishis’.  This teaches us that there is a connection between the creation of the universe and the building of the Mishkan.  In fact, the Mishkan was a microcosm of the universe, with all of its specific details regarding its construction and purpose.  But how does the building of a Mishkan relate to our lives?  The answer is in the term “Ha’melacha” – “the work”. This word (without the letter Hey) can also be found in the Ten Commandments, specifically, in the Mitzvah of Shabbos.  The Torah tells us that six days you shall work and on the seventh day you shall do no work.  The Torah uses the word “melacha”, whose gematria is 96.  Another word with the same gematria is “Tsav” – “command”.  Hence, we see a link between the construction of the Mishkan and the observance of Shabbos with the term Melacha.  The lesson is that all of our work (whether three thousand years ago or today) during the six days of the week should be directed towards the Sabbath and in following G-D’s commandments.” (E.A. David, Code of the Heart, page 277)

Ladies, we need to be about His business, and we need to keep careful accounts, so that we will be able to give a complete reckoning when the time comes.  Whatever we do during our six days of work, we need to make sure it is ultimately directed not only towards the Sabbath, but also done for the sake of Heaven, and has eternal value.  This life is our chance to fulfill our purpose and to complete our individual tikkun.  I pray we have the wisdom to use our time and resources wisely, so that when the day comes that we must make an accounting, we will hear, “well done, good and faithful servant!”

Be blessed and be a blessing,