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Wednesday, July 01, 1987

Parshas Shelach1987

While the Israelites were in the desert, they found a man “mekoshesh” (“gathering”, or possibly “cutting” or “piling”) sticks on the Sabbath day.

And they ... brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole congregation. And they put him in ward, because it had not been explained what should be done to him. And the L-rd said to Moses: The man should surely die, the whole congregation should stone him outside the camp.” And that is what happened. (Num. 15:32-36).

According to the commentators, Moses actually organized patrols to search for violators of the Sabbath. In this case, according to Rashi, the men who found the mekoshesh first warned him that he was committing a capital offence, and if he did not stop he would be arrested and sentenced to death. They only arrested him after he ignored their warning, and (according to the Orech Chaim) so brazen was he that he came before Moses and Aaron with the sticks over his shoulder.

The very next passage of the parsha deals with the mitzva of wearing tzitzis (fringes) on the corners of one’s garments, with, on each corner, a fringe of “tcheles” (a blue-green dye from a sea creature). “And you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the L-rd, and do them, and not follow the desiresof your heart and your eyes, which lead you astray, that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy to your G-d” (Num. 15:39-40).

The Ramban links this commandment with the previous passage on the “mekoshesh”, by explaining that G-d, seeing how the mekoshesh had strayed into an aveira (transgression), gave the people the device of tzitzis so as to help them in keeping the mitzvos. Presumably, if the mekoshesh had been wearing tzitzis, he would not have committed this aveira.

The Talmud Yerushalmi (Berachos 1:2) explains how this would work: the thread of tcheles would remind one, by its color, of the sea, which would remind one of grass, which would remind one in turn of the sky, which would remind one in turn of G-d’s Throne. So it would seem that a long mental chain of association would be necessary for the fringes to do their work!

Two problems arise, in connection with this idea.

First, must we suppose that the mekoshesh, who was not dissuaded from his action by threats of death, would be made to cease by looking at his tzitzis, which would make him think in turn of the sea, the grass, the sky and G-d’s throne?

Secondly, why not short-circuit this action of the tzitzis, by requiring instead that anyone who was about to commit an aveira should quickly look up at the sky?

The answer to both these questions is this: the tzitzis are not designed to be useful when one already has the idea of committing an aveira. If the mekoshesh had looked at his tzitzis after having started his gathering, they would probably have been ineffective. Similarly, someone who tries to derive inspiration from the sky after having thought about an aveira will probably not get much help this way.

The whole point of wearing tzitzis is not to work some magical effect on someone who is on his way to commit a sin. It is to prevent the situation, and the temptation, from arising altogether!

Some people pride themselves on setting up situations where they are subject to temptation, so that they can (hopefully!) resist this temptation.

But this is nonsense. It is wrong, according to the Torah, to subject oneself to temptation at all. The idea of tzitzis is to encourage the wearer to set up a Torah environment for himself, in which his lifestyle, activities and choice of friends are such that these opportunities for sinning do not even arise.

It is my prayer that all of you may, by such a process, live good, clean lives free of the opportunity or the temptation for evil.

Posted on 07/01 at 08:08 PM • Permalink
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Tuesday, May 26, 1987

Be Like a Desert - Be Flexible

This week’s parsha begins: “And the L-rd spoke to Moses in the desert of Sinai, in the tent of meeting ...” (Num. 1:1). We may ask: why does it say “in the desert”? We know that the tent of meeting was in the desert! An answer is given in a midrash, which says that only when we are like a desert, which is “hefker” (that is, free for the taking), will we be able to absorb Torah. Now I learned this midrash as a child, but recently realized that I did not understand properly what this meant. How are we supposed to become like a desert? Become hot and grow cacti? I thought some more about it, and think I have the answer now, which I am pleased to see is supported by some commentators.

The point about a desert being “hefker” is that you can do what you like in a desert: dig a ditch, build a wall or a motel, or whatever. If you try to do the same thing in my backyard, even if it you think it is an improvement, I can stop you.

Something which prevents people from being receptive to Torah values is the trait of being a “kapdan” (which means, roughly, fussy, rigid, unaccommodating). People with this trait cannot study, for instance, unless they are seated at their own desk, their room is air-conditioned, they had a good breakfast, and happen to be in the right mood. But in order to absorb the Torah it is necessary to be the opposite: adaptable and accommodating, like the desert.

In Pirke Avos (6:4) it is written: “This is the way of the Torah: eat bread and salt, drink measured amounts water, sleep on the bare ground, and live a life of hardship, while you toil in Torah study. If you do this ... you will be happy in this world, and it will be well with you in the world to come.”

There seem to be two problems with this advice: first, it does not seem a recipe for happiness, at least in this world, and secondly, most Torah scholars we know do not sleep on the bare ground (for example).

To help solve these problems, let me tell you a true story about Rav Gifter, the great Rosh Yeshiva of the Telzer Yeshiva in Cleveland. A student of his was having a running battle with his wife about who should take out the garbage. The student asserted that according to halacha, it was beneath his dignity (he being a Torah scholar) to take out the garbage. This did not satisfy the wife (understandably), and so they decided to take their problem to Rav Gifter. After listening to them, he said: “Look, I cannot decide this, go home and sort it out yourselves.” This was on Wednesday afternoon. The following Friday morning, the couple, with their conflict still unresolved, were preparing for Shabbos. Suddenly there was a knock at the door. It was Rav Gifter, who announced to the startled couple: “I’ve come to take out your garbage!”

I was recently reading the great book of letters by the Steipler Rav, “Kiryana D’Igrasa”. In one of these, he was responding to a correspondent who had listed some of his problems. It should be emphasized that the Steipler was not one to make light of other people’s problems, but at the end of his three-page response, in which he considered each problem in detail, he wrote: “But do you want to know what your real problem is? In your letter, you use the word `I’ six times.” The Steipler was pointing out that the real hindrance to this correspondent’s happiness was his “anochius” (egotism).

The mishna quoted in Pirke Avos is not saying that we should sleep on the floor (etc.). It is saying that we should not be wedded inflexibly to our creature comforts. If we have them, fine, we can enjoy them—there’s nothing wrong with that. But if we should have to give these things up, we should be sufficiently flexible, sufficiently accommodating, to do so with equanimity, like a desert. In this way, we can adapt our lives to Torah values, and find happiness in this world.

Posted on 05/26 at 02:59 PM • Permalink
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Tuesday, May 05, 1987

The Right Way to Accept the Torah

The Torah, in describing the Giving of the Law, says: “And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet G-d, and they stood at the bottom of the mountain” (Exod. 19:17). The actual Hebrew for the last phrase is: “Visyatzvu BESACHTIS hahar”, which could be translated more literally as: “they stood UNDER the mountain”.

There is a well-known Gemara (Shabbos 88a) that this is in fact the meaning! G-d lifted the mountain like a “gigis” (which Rashi translates as “barrel”) and held it over the people, saying: “If you accept my Torah, good; if not, this will be your grave!” The people thereupon accepted the Torah.

This is a strange story, which we might find hard to believe. Furthermore, we have the following problem: the Jews had just witnessed a series of dramatic incidents around Mount Sinai: thunder and lightning, and the sound of a shofar. Surely they would be prepared to accept the Torah, after such a manifestation! Why should they be forced?

An answer is given by Rabbenu Tam, in his commentary on this Gemara. He says that this description should not be taken literally. The people were FORCED to accept the Torah, not in the sense that someone was holding a gun (or a mountain) to their heads, but in the sense that it was completely obvious to them that that was the right thing to do. The attendant miracles had made this absolutely clear.

Interestingly, the Gemara goes on to say that this was not a satisfactory level of acceptance! That only came later, at the time of Mordecai and Esther, when the Jews re-accepted the Torah. Here there were no dramatic miracles, the Divine intervention remained behind the scenes (“Esther” is related to the word “nistar”, meaning “hidden”), and so the acceptance of Torah here really was a result of free choice.

What lesson is there for us here? Many people want a sign from G-d before they will accept the Torah. But the best way, in fact the only way, to accept the Torah is by a process of free will, not as a result of some miracle, but from an intellectual and emotional search for the truth.

Posted on 05/05 at 01:50 PM • Permalink
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Tuesday, September 16, 1986

Sukkos and Elie Weisel

In the Gemora (Avoda Zara 3) there is an agada about an event which has not yet happened. One day, in the future, when it becomes clear how beneficial the mitzvos are for our welfare in this world and the next, the nations of the world will go and complain to G-d: “You never gave us the same chance you gave the Jews! You never gave us all the mitzvos!” “All right,” G-d will say, “I’ll give you an easy mitzva: to dwell in a sukka during Sukkos.” For this is not an expensive, or difficult, mitzva, compared to Shabbos observance, for example.

So the people of the world will enthusiastically build sukkos on top of their roofs, and move into them at Sukkos. Then G-d will cause the sun to burn down strongly, until it becomes unbearably hot in the sukkos, whereupon everyone will leave his sukka with disgust, kicking the wall in temper as he leaves. G-d will laugh at this, the Gemora says. Rabbi Yitzchak said: “There is no laughter in Heaven except on that day.”

Many questions leap to mind. What did the people do wrong? You are allowed to leave a sukka if staying in it causes serious discomfort. The answer is given in the Gemara: What they did wrong was not in leaving their sukka, but in kicking it as they left. Many questions still remain. We may be puzzled over the Divine sense of humor. And we may ask: why did G-d give the people an apparently easy mitzva, and then make it difficult for them?

Let me try and give an answer to some of these questions. The sukka symbolizes “golus”, our exile. A kosher sukka is, by its nature, a temporary dwelling. It is exposed to the cold. While we are having our meals, bees buzz around the honey and the wine, and a spider may come down from the roof into our soup. At night we have to bring the chairs into the house because of the rain.

This temporariness of the sukka symbolizes our temporary status in our society, our feeling of not belonging. We lack a place we can really call home.

Many have complimented the Jewish people for being multi-lingual, indeed there hardly exists a Jew who speaks but one language. This may not be so positive; it probably represents the wandering Jew, who was never afforded the luxury of getting through life with just one language. The reaction of many of us to this is to assimilate. By adopting the customs and mannerisms of my neighbors, they think, we will finally become one with them and be able to settle down.

But besides for the fact that historically this has not worked, I would like to suggest, that this feeling of strangeness, of not belonging, is a positive thing, which we should accept, as being part of our purpose. Why are we dispersed all over the world? If it were simply a question of golus, of exile from the Land of Israel, we could all be living together in Afghanistan, let us say, or Buffalo. A reason for our dispersion is given in a Gemora in Pesachim 87: “Le-harbos gerim be-Yisroel”, which can be interpreted as meaning that our dispersion will bring about, not necessarily many converts to Judaism, but at least some awareness among Gentiles of Jewish values (or of the Noachide laws). In this way we fulfill our mission to be a “light to the nations”. (MAHARAL)

But we cannot do this if we assimilate! We can only fulfill this mission if we remain distinctive in dress and behavior. Of course, we must not go to extremes, to the extent of causing ill feeling with our neighbors. But we must maintain our distinctiveness. And they will respect us for it!

In the Bible it is recorded that when Abraham was negotiating with the children of Heth to buy the cave of Machpelah in which to bury his wife Sarah, he said to them: “I am a stranger and a sojourner with you,” and they answered: “You are a mighty prince among us!” (Gen. 23: 4,6) He humbly admitted his status as an outsider, and his neighbors showed that they nevertheless respected him.

Recently the Nobel Peace Prize was won by a Jew, Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Holocaust. I do not know very much about Mr. Wiesel, except that he goes to synagogue and his sons go to yeshiva. The point here is that he has gained his fame, and his honor, by emphasizing his distinctiveness as a Jew. On a previous occasion, when he was honored by the President at the White House, he used the occasion to give the President mussar (a talking-to) (concerning the Bitburg Cemetery incident). Most of us would be overawed by a minor official, let alone the President! It seems to me that the Nobel Prize is usually won by an activist of some sort. Wiesel speaks and writes, he is a conscience to the world. In this respect he has fulfilled the purpose of the Jew.

I read in a newspaper recently of an occasion when Mr. Moshe Reichman, the billionaire philanthropist and observant Jew who lives in Toronto, flew to New York to open Battery Park . The Governor rode in his limousine to the airport to pick him up. A reporter asked the Governor why he should do this, since he hardly ever meets visitors at the airport. His answer has stayed in my memory: “If Mr. Reichman can allow himself considerable financial inconvenience by closing down all his operations every Sabbath (3:00 every Friday) surely I can inconvenience myself slightly to the extent of meeting him once at the airport!”

Our sukka symbolize our status as “strangers and sojourners”. It is a public demonstrations of this. With all that they imply, they are anything but quick, easy, mitzvos to perform. This is something that the nations of the world don’t realize, and that is perhaps why G-d will be laughing at them.

This drasha was given on Sukkot, 5747 (1986), and transcribed from memory by Jeffery Zucker

Posted on 09/16 at 09:27 PM • Permalink
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Tuesday, July 01, 1986

Parshas Behar 1986

In this week’s parsha, we learn about the mitzvah (commandment) of the “shmita” year. “When ye come into the land which I give unto you, then shall ye keep a sabbath unto the L-rd. Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the produce thereof. But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath unto the L-rd; thou shalt neither sow thy field nor prune thy vineyard. That which groweth of itself of thy harvest thou shalt not reap, and the grapes of thy undressed vine thou shalt not gather; it shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. And the sabbath-produce of the land shall be for food for you…” (Lev. 25: 1-6, J.P.S. trans., Soncino.)

A few verses later, the Torah anticipates an obvious objection that a farmer may have: “And if ye shall say: `What shall we eat in the seventh year? Behold, we may not sow, nor gather in our increase’; then I will command My blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth produce for the three years.” (Lev. 25: 20-21.)

An interesting point is this: although we could raise similar objections, or questions, with many mitzvos, this is the only time in the Torah (as far as I know) that such an objection is explicitly stated, and answered. We could then ask: why here, with this mitzvah? In fact, one might suppose that after (at most) the first shmita, when a miracle would be performed for all to see, in the form of increased crops to tide us over that shmita year, no-one would have to ask this question any more! Yet it is a fact that this question is asked, year after year, continually, right up to the present time in Israel. Moshavim that keep the shmita, such as Komemiut, are seen to survive, miraculously, and even prosper, and this is reported regularly in the Israeli press, including the secular press, but people continue to raise “practical” objections to observing the shmita.

In fact there is a commentary by Rashi in next week’s parsha (Bechukkothai), to the effect that even during the period of the First Temple, lasting 430 years, the shmita and jubilee years were never completely observed, and this is the reason for the 70 years of exile between the First and Second Temples, since that is the total number of shmita and jubilee years violated during the First Temple period. Yet the farmers during this period must have had ample opportunity to observe the continuing miracle of shmita!

We might suppose that if a miracle were to work in front of our eyes, we would all keep the mitzvos ever after. But nothing like that happens! The only way that we become, or continue to be, observant, is by internalizing the experience of a miracle, that is, by having faith. Otherwise, we can experience a miracle repeatedly, without its affecting our attitude or behavior!

Another example of this phenomenon occurred when the Egyptians pursued the Israelites into the Red Sea. One might have supposed that, confronted with the miracle of the splitting of the sea, the Egyptians would have inferred the existence and power of G-d, and the special favor the Israelites enjoyed with Him, and paused in their tracks. But they simply took advantage of this miracle, without appreciating its significance, and so rushed to their doom.

I once confessed to my Rebbe, Rabbi Scheinberg (shlita), that I was tempted to close down the Torah Center (an adult educational center in Buffalo), because I was so short of funds. “How often have you had this problem with funds?” he asked me. “Every month,” I answered. “Every month you have this problem,” he replied, “and you get out of it each month, and yet you don’t recognize a continuing miracle when you see it!”

Posted on 07/01 at 08:41 PM • Permalink
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In this week’s parsha we learn about a remarkable mitzvah, namely Pesach Sheni. Some men were unable to keep the mitzvah of the korban pesach (sacrifice of the paschal lamb) because they were unclean from the body of a dead person. (In fact, says Sforno, they became unclean in the performance of the important mitzvah of burying the dead.) They approached Moses and Aaron, appealing not to be thereby denied the opportunity of performing the mitzvah of Pesach. Moses said, “Wait, let me see what G-d says about this.” He got the response that (then, and in the future) anyone who was unable to keep the mitzvah of the korban pesach, because he was either unclean from the body of a dead person or on a distant journey, would have another chance exactly one month later.

Why do I say this mitzvah is remarkable? Because there is no other occasion in the Torah, that I can think of, in which you have a second opportunity to perform a mitzvah. If, for instance, you did not sit in your sukkah during Sukkos, for reasons good or bad, you don’t get another chance one month later! If you did not light your Chanukah candles at the proper time, you don’t get another chance the following month; and so on. If you had a good reason for not observing Sukkos or Chanukah in the proper way at the proper time, then fine, you have not committed any sin; if you did not have a good reason, the you’re in trouble; but in either case, you don’t get a second chance.

Why is it different with Pesach? The answer is: because some men, wanting a second chance to observe the mitzvah, asked for it! Now think of what they were up against: if anything is fixed and unchanging in this world, it is the Torah and its mitzvos! You can perform the mitzvos, ignore them, like them, complain about them, but you can’t change them, add to them, or remove any of them. And yet, this mitzvah of Pesach Sheni was instituted (apparently) just because of the determination of a few men. (In the Yeshiva at Slobodka, whenever one asked, “But how could that be?” the answer was: “From here we see that it can be!” There is a similar situation with the story of the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 36.) This shows that any obstacle, even halachic, can be overcome because of a person’s determination. I saw confirmation of this idea in a book I was reading this morning: “Tiferes Shmuel” by the Rebbe of Alexander.

This reminds me of the story in the Gemara (Baba Metzia 84a) of Reish Lokish, the leader of the bandits, and Rabbi Yochanan, the President of the Sanhedrin and the compiler of the Jerusalem Talmud. One day R. Yochanan, swimming in the Jordan River, saw Reish Lokish diving in. Admiring the physical strength of Reish Lokish, he said to him: “Your strength would be better suited for study of the Torah.” Reish Lokish replied: “Your beauty would be better suited for women.” R. Yochanan then said: “If you do tshuva (repent) and devote yourself to Torah, I’ll let you marry my sister, who is even more beautiful than I.” Reish Lokish agreed to this on the spot. When, later, Reish Lokish wanted to put on his clothes, he could barely drag himself out of the river! Rashi explains this by quoting a gemara that study of Torah weakens one. Although Reish Lokish had not yet begun to study Torah, just his commitment at that moment was apparently enough to weaken him. He became one of the Torah giants of his generation, and a study partner of R. Yochanan. In fact, when he died, R. Yochanan lost his mind, because he missed Reish Lokish’s ability to raise good objections to his arguments, but that’s another story.

What do these two stories have in common? It is this: if you are determined to achieve something, no matter what the obstacles or how unlikely it may seem, you may succeed. In the one case, a few men managed to get a mitzvah instituted, and in the other, the leader of the bandits, as a result of a split-second commitment while bathing, became a Torah giant. I have often seen this phenomenon in the Torah world: thinking back to my time in Yeshiva, I realize that in many cases it was not those who were expected to become Rosh Yeshivas who eventually did so, but often, in fact, those who were least expected to! Presumably they were people who felt a strong commitment to achieve this. And I am sure the same is true in the secular world. The important thing for success in any field is not innate talent (although that helps!) but a sufficiently strong determination to overcome obstacles, and to succeed.

Posted on 07/01 at 08:11 PM • Permalink
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Parshas Korach

In this week’s parsha we read about the rebellion of Korach and his followers, 250 prominent men, against Moses.

They were protesting against the privileges of the kohanim. Moses told them to take fire-pans with incense to the altar, along with his brother Aaron, so that it would be seen whose offering would be accepted. He also tried to negotiate with Korach’s allies Dathan and Aviram, but they refused to meet him. This so angered him that he prayed to G-d not to accept their offerings (Num. 16:15).

We may ask the following question. Moses was certainly sure that he was right, and the rebels wrong. After all, he had direct communication with G-d! Why should he then pray that the rebels’ offering not be accepted? The rebels were not kohanim, they had no business at the altar, their offerings were absolutely illegitimate. How could their prayers possibly be accepted?

Later, after the rebels’ offering had indeed been rejected, and they had been swallowed up by the earth, the L-rd instructed Moses to tell Elazar, the son of Aaron, to collect their fire-pans, since they were holy, to be beaten into a copper covering for the altar (Num. 17:2-3).

We may ask a similar question again: What could be holy about these fire pans, since they had been used for such a bad purpose?An answer is given by the Ramban: the fact that the rebels had brought their fire-pans at the suggestion of Moses means that they were obeying their Rabbi, and this gave the fire-pans some merit—a tiny bit of merit, in the midst of such a monstrous abuse, but enough to make them holy.

The same explanation can be given for the first question. This tiny bit of holiness was enough to make it conceivable that G-d would accept the rebels’ offering!

The moral of all this is that if there is a situation which ismostly evil, but has one redeeming feature—even a small one—that tiny redeeming feature may be enough to make the whole si-tuation somewhat acceptable to G-d.

The reverse state of affairs is also possible, as is illustrated by the following story told by the Jerusalem Magid (taken fromthe ArtScroll book on this great man).

In a village near the city of Barditchev lived a very poor man, Reb Zvi. So poor was he that one year, as Yom Kippur approached, he was not able to buy food for the meal before the fast, and had to go hungry to the synagogue on Kol Nidre evening.

As the congregation was busy with the Tefila Zaka (an important prayer before Kol Nidre in which the person forgives everyone who has wronged him in the past year) Reb Zvi noticed Reb Boruch, a rich man, sitting near the front of the shul, and he thought: “Even though I don’t have food, at least I can get a shmeck taback (whiff of snuff) from him.“So he went over to Reb Boruch, tapped him timidly on the shoulder and said: “Reb Boruch, a shmeck taback, please!”

Reb Boruch looked out from under his tallis at Reb Zvi and answered: “Reb Zvi, please! I’m in the middle of Tefila Zaka!” Reb Zvi returned, embarrassed, to his seat.

During the following months, a strange thing happened: Reb Zvi’s fortune changed for the better. He managed to borrow money, invested it wisely, and started succeeding in business. At the same time, Reb Boruch’s fortune took a turn for the worse. He continued to lose money, and eventually he decided to consult the famed Barditchever Rebbe, Reb Levi Yitzchak.

After Reb Boruch had explained the situation to the Rebbe, the latter said to him: “Let’s see what may be causing your loss infortune. Let’s go over your daily and weekly activities.” They did so, and Reb Levi Yitzchak said: “I’m puzzled! You observe the mitzvos, learn, and give to tzedaka. I don’t see what youare doing wrong.” Then Reb Boruch said: “And do you know, it’s a strange thing, but as much as I am losing money, so much is Reb Zvi gaining money.”

“Aha,” exclaimed the Rebbe, “have you had any dealings with Reb Zvi?” “Not that I can recall,” replied Reb Boruch. “Think carefully!” said the Rebbe. “Oh yes, I remember now,” Reb Boruch replied after a few moments’ thought. “Once,while I was busy davening Tefila Zaka before Yom Kippur, Reb Zvi came over and asked me for a shmeck taback! Of course, I told him to go away.”

“That’s it!” the Rebbe exclaimed. “That’s whatis causing your problems!” “But what can I do about it?” asked Reb Boruch. “The only thing I can think of,” replied the Rebbe,“is that you should do something similar to him—ask him for a shmeck taback when it’s inconvenient for him. Then, if he refuses, you might pray that the heavenly decree be annulled.”

Well, as the years went by, Reb Zvi became quite wealthy, and eventually a marriage was arranged between his daughter and the son of the Rav of Barditchev. The Rav himself would be the"mesader kidushin”. The wedding day came, and at the moment that Reb Zvi, under the chupa, was about to hand over the kesuva to the Rav, a shabbily dressed man rushed over to the chupa, to the consternation of the guests, stood between the bride and groom, and said to Reb Zvi: “Reb Zvi, a shmeck taback, please!” It was, of course, Reb Boruch.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Reb Zvi took out his snuffbox and replied: “Of course, take some.” Reb Boruch was so overcome that he fainted.

Later, he explained the whole affair to Reb Zvi. They decided to go together to consult with Reb Levi Yitzchak. The Rebbe proposed that, since Reb Zvi’s wealth had actually come, as it were, from Reb Boruch, and since Reb Boruch had done teshuva for his past bad behavior, Reb Zvi should give half of his wealth to Reb Boruch, which he did. So the story ended happily for both men.

What happened here is that although Reb Boruch’s behavior was on the whole very good, in fact almost exemplary, one inconsiderate act ruined his whole account in Heaven.

Both these stories show the importance of details, and how a detail can fundamentally affect a situation, for good or for ill.

My Rebbe once observed that there are two great instruments in the world, the telescope and the microscope. They have both contributed greatly to the accomplishments of mankind. However it is clear that although with the telescope man can see light-years away, the accomplishments of the microscope have been far greater. Many diseases were cured and lives saved with this tool, which does nothing but show you the tiny things which are right under your nose.

Posted on 07/01 at 07:56 PM • Permalink
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Monday, October 14, 1985

The Fall and Rise of Yosef HaTzadik

The pattern of Joseph’s life presents an interesting phenomenon. From the beginning Joseph’s life seemed to have gone from bad to worse. It started off with difficult to explain sibling rivalry, continued with being thrown into a fateful ditch, was sold into the hands of the Yishmaelim, declining yet further to the hands of the Egyptians. In Egypt he became a slave in the house of Potifar and finally bottomed out in an Egyptian jail. From this jail his life seemed to take a drastic new turn where he was released from the jail, stood as a dignitary before Pharaoh, became the viceroy of Egypt, reunited and reconciliated with his family, until the ultimate height of his life in being able to give peace and sustenance to the entire Kneses Yisroel.

Our sages reveal to us that Joseph in his early years, notwithstanding his holiness, was a mesalsel bsaaro. He was concerned with his appearance. He possessed an element of vanity. From Joseph’s dreams to his grooming, Chazal introduce Joseph as having a focus on himself. This focus was the reason for his downfall. Let us try to pinpoint the moment of turn around in Joseph’s life. It was a moment in his prison cell where the holy and distinguished Joseph HaTzadik woke up in the morning and looked over at his Egyptian cell-mate who was a true convict and noticed that he wasn’t himself. “What is the matter?” asked Joseph “Why do you look so upset today?” Everyone knows the story from there but it was that question, that concern, that turned the tide in Joseph’s life. From that altruistic moment everything seemed to happen very fast. Suddenly Joseph was on top of the world. This was a moment of change for Joseph where he took on a whole new focus. There was no personal reason that Joseph should be concerned with the mood of his cell-mate, but his focus moved outward and success set in. Joseph began his life interpreting his own dreams; he ended it interpreting other people’s dreams.

Later, in this weeks Parsha, we learn of the moving reunion of Joseph and Benjamin. The Torah tells us that they both wept as they embraced each other. Our Sages analyze the weeping of these two brothers and give meaning to their tears. Joseph was crying over the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem that were both in Benjamin’s portion of Israel. Benjamin was crying over the destruction of Shilo that was in the portion of Joseph. What is most significant about these tears is not that they were crying for the future calamity of their descendants but that they were each crying over their brother’s calamity. Joseph was crying for Benjamin and Benjamin for Joseph. They were atoning in advance for the self-centeredness and sinas chinom that would ultimately destroy the holiest places in Jerusalem by crying over their brother’s calamity instead of his own.

Whether it be for us personally or for the entire Jewish people, if we are focused on ourselves we will fall; if we focus on our brother we succeed.

In political American vocabulary today ‘rights’ must be the most common word. The US Bill of Rights is one of the most referred to documents in this country. We have lobbyists for equal rights, animal rights, workers’ rights, women’s rights, men’s rights and many more. Right, right yet not so right. If in society the total focus is on rights and never on obligations we will have chaos. The Torah teaches that every person has to ask themselves, “what is my obligation in this world?” the antithesis of “what are my rights?”

In our own communities we have to focus outward. Just as we are experiencing a renaissance of Torah we are also experiencing a mind-boggling indifference of Jews to anything Jewish. My father always reviews with me the history of the Titanic. The ship was mostly millionaires who bought a ticket on an unsinkable ship. They were sipping their cocktails in the main hall when the crew announced that the ship was sinking and everyone should take to the lifeboats. But things seemed calm in their own cabin and as far as they knew the ship was unsinkable. Chaos took over the ship but the millionaires would not let go of their cocktails. It’s so easy to feel smug in the wonderful oasis’s of Torah that we have but we must also look outward to get the real picture..

And so it is in our personal lives. Relationships, all of them, marriage parent/child, friendships are crumbling because the benchmark of a successful marriage is “what am I getting out of it?”

The Torah teaches that importance should always be given to the right side. We put on our right shoe before our left shoe, we wrap our Tefilin with our right hand and we give charity with our right hand. Why than is the most important part of the body, our heart, on the left side? Rav Nachman of Breslav gives the truest answer. If we stand face to face with another individual our heart is on their right. Our heart is for them not for ourselves.

Posted on 10/14 at 04:06 PM • Permalink
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