Connecting to Heritage

by Tzvi Fievel Schnee

B”H

Shiur for Ki Savo 5780

“That thou shalt take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which thou shalt bring in from thy land that the L-RD thy G-d giveth thee; and thou shalt put it in a basket and shalt go unto the place which the L-RD thy G-d shall choose to cause His name to dwell there.”

– Deuteronomy 26:2, JPS 1917 Tanach

The first fruits (bikurim) from each person’s harvest, were to be brought to “the place that H’Shem your G-d will choose” after B’nei Yisrael entered the Land. Upon giving the bikurim to a Kohein, one of G-d’s representatives, a proclamation was made, by the giver, declaring a brief historical background, encapsulating the identity of the Children of Israel from humble origins:

“And thou shalt speak and say before the L-RD thy G-d: ‘A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous.”

– Deuteronomy 26:5 , JPS 1917 Tanach

“My father, i.e. Yaakov, who was for a while a wandering lost person without a home of his own, was not at the time able to establish a nation deserving or fit to inherit this land.” – Sforno

Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, began his endeavors to establish a family, and vocation, as a wandering Aramean, having left home to find a wife. Yet, he went out into the world without anything of value, nor even any gifts for his wife-to-be. After twenty years of working for Laban, he set out to his home country. From there, he and the seventy members of his family were called to go down to Egypt. The Children of Israel were enslaved, eventually freed, and received the Torah at Mount Sinai. Entering the Promised Land would be the culmination of the Exodus.

Upon entering the land, the show of gratitude, a deep appreciation of H’Shem, and the origins of a national identity were acknowleged. Today, we need to reconnect with our origins as children of H’Shem. Once we are able to acknowledge our heritage, so that we may identify with our past as a people, we may also become aware of the Inheritance that awaits us. “Men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen” (Isaiah 64:3). Regarding this verse, Rashi explains that while the sages note that the prophets only spoke in regard to the Messianic era, they were not able to speak of Olam Haba (Berachos 34a). What awaits us in Olam Haba is beyond description, imagination, or our greatest expectations.

A Singular Effort

B”H

Shiur for parashas Ki Seitzei 5780

“Thou shalt not wear a mingled stuff, wool and linen together.”

  • Deuteronomy 22:11, JPS 1917 Tanach

“Seeing that the first two human beings who were born on earth were of different species, (Kayin and Hevel), one being the result of the evil genes of the serpent, the other that of Adam’s divinely inspired spirit, and we are commanded to keep our distance from the spirit of impurity, mixing the species has been forbidden for us as we have learned the fatal consequences which this could have.”

  • R. Bachya, commentary on Leviticus 19:19, sefaria.org

The fundamental differences between Kayin (Cain) and Hevel (Abel) are reflected in the nature of the offerings that each brought to H’Shem. “Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the L-RD. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the L-RD had respect unto Abel and to his offering; but unto Cain and to his offering He had not respect” (Genesis 4:3-5 JPS). A qualitative difference between Abel and Cain’s offerieng is inferred. Cain’s offering was linseed (Midrash Tanchuma, Bereishis 9), whereas Abel brought the choicest of his flock.

If Abel brought from his sheep, then this could correspond to the wool, mentioned in the previous commandment, while Cain’s offering would be represented by linen. The commandment forbids “wool and linen together.” This rendering would reinforce the underlying differences between Cain and Abel. If we are to be more like Abel, giving the best of ourselves as an offering to H’Shem through our good deeds, then, we should not compromise our standing with H’Shem by following the poor example of Cain at all. Rather, we should maintain excellency in all of our endeavors, both towards G-d and man.

parashas Re’eh 5780

B”H

parashas Re’eh: Blessings & Curses

Shiur for parashas Re’eh 5780

“Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse.”

  • Deuteronomy 11:26, JPS 1917 Tanach

“See, I set before you this day,” in other words, perceive that I present before you this very day, the significance of blessings and curses in your lives. According to Rabbeinu Bahya, the so-called, “mental eye” of the spiritually sensitive is able to see the effects of the blessings and curses, on an individual basis, in their own lives. The blessings originate with the Attribute of Mercy, whereas the curses are derived from the Attribute of Justice.

R. Bahya makes reference to the pasuk (verse), “I have seen great wisdom and knowledge” (Ecclesiastes 1:16). As a direct result of our being aware of the blessings and curses in life, we may obtain great knowledge, concerning the causal relationship between our thoughts, speech, and actions, and their consequences. This may lead towards wisdom, having to do with how H’Shem Elokim guides us – each and every person, according to hasgachah peratis (divine guidance), weaving a tapestry of events and consequences in our lives, dependent upon the nature of our conduct.

Additionally, I would mention that King David wrote, “Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4, JPS); he was assured through H’Shem’s guidance and correction, that he would remain on the derech (path). H’Shem’s guidance, as represented by a staff (a sheperds crook) and His correction, as symbolized by a rod. This is akin to the undestanding that blessings can be understood as signs that we are on the right path; and curses are a form of chastisement meant to correct us, whenever we go astray.

“Open Thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of Thy law.”

  • Psalm 119:18, JPS, 1917 Tanach

reflections: Redemption

B”H

17 Tammuz 5780

“And Moses said unto the people: ‘Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the L-RD, which He will work for you to-day.” – Exodus 14:13, JPS 1917 Tanach

Is the time drawing near for the sea to part? Is the Geulah (Redemption) at hand? The sages, in all of their sharp acuity, draw a parallel between the First Redemption, and the Final Redemption: akin to plagues that devastated Egypt, before the exodus of the Children of Israel, so will many plagues, even more than those inflicted upon ancient Egypt, precede the final redemption. This is gleaned from the following verse: “As in the days of thy coming forth out of the land of Egypt, will I show unto him marvellous things” (Micah 7:15, JPS). Could the modern day plague of the coronavirus be a foreshadowing of the Messianic Age?

The current exile (galus) of the Jewish people began almost two thousand years ago, when the second Temple was destroyed by the Romans. We were dispersed amongst the nations, as we still are today to some degree. Even though the state of Israel was renewed in 1948, without the Third Temple, we are technically still in exile. This is one reason why we proclaim every year, at the end of our Passover seder, “Next Year in Yerushalayim.” In essence, this does not refer to having the opportunity to fly to Israel via El Al Airlines, in order to make aliyah to our Biblical homeland. Rather, this alludes to the Geulah (Redemption), when Moshiach will reign from Jerusalem.

At that time, “peace on earth,” in all of its splendor will prevail over the unruly forces, that have no interest in recognising G-d’s sovereignty. Needless to say, we are only witnessing the beginning of these forces to potentially impact society in an unprecedented way; the road has been paved ever since the Age of Enlightenment, when the Deity of Reason was worshipped, to the diminishment of a focus on G-d, and religious values. This set the background for the French Revolution.

Behind the facade of a higher cause, these forces hold sway over any godless movement, whose roots are deeper than its claims to higher ideals, human rights, or “power to the people.” It is interesting to note, that as a result of the Bubonic plague of the 14th Century in Europe, “some historians believe that society subsequently became more violent as the mass mortality rate cheapened life and thus increased warfare, crime, popular revolt, waves of flagellants, and persecution” (Wikipedia). As far as I know, excepting self-flagellation, this seems to ring true today, in the face of COVID-19. “If we do not learn from the past, history will repeat itself.”

Am I overconcerned with the state of affairs in the world, and, more specifically, in America today? Others are apparently even more concerned. “In a normal month [Nefesh B’Nefesh] receives several hundred to a few thousand calls,” yet, this past June the Jewish organisation that promotes aliyah from the U.S. to Israel received 25,000 calls (VosIzNeias). For myself, I would only take that step, if and when I would hear the call from H’Shem, as has been mentioned by several fellow Jews in the not so recent past, concerning intuition from Above. Yet, the call to teshuvah, in and of itself, is primary; and, may be viewed the in light Hillel’s adage, “It’s not where you are, but how you are.” And, “if not now, when.”

“And thou shalt bethink thyself among the nations, whither the L-RD thy G-d hath driven thee, and shalt return unto the L-RD thy G-d.”

– Deuteronomy 30:1-2, JPS 1917 Tanach

parashas: Avadon

B”H

Shiur for parashas Korach 5780

“So they, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit [Sheol]; and the earth closed upon them, and they perished from among the assembly.” – Numbers 16:33, JPS 1917 Tanach

Korach gathered the adus (congregation) against Moses and Aaron, in an attempt to overthrow their authority by means of an outright rebellion (Numbers 16:1-3). It was an opportune time for rebellion, inasmuch that the people were already disgruntled, because of the decree proclaimed by H’Shem that the men, over twenty years of age would all pass away in the wilderness, during the course of the next thirty-nine years, as a consequence of their lack of trust in H’Shem, when they neglected to enter the land at the designated time.

Korach, Dathan and Aviram were the ringleaders of the uprising. As a result of their insurgency, Korach perished (AVD), along with his family, and Dathan and Aviram, with their families, when they were swallowed up by the earth. Incidentally, the Hebrew word yov’du, translated as “perished,” derives from the shoresh (root word), aleph-beis-dalet. The word, avadon, is also derived from the same shoresh. Avadon refers to a place of destruction similar to Sheol, possibly Gehinnom. Additionally, the two hundred fifty men of renown, who followed him were consumed by fire from H’Shem, when they attempted to offer up incense, individually, every man his fire pan.

Both punishments were clearly by way of divine intervention; yet, the people ignored this. They still had a complaint against Moshe: they claimed that Moshe was responsible for the deaths of Korach’s two hundred fifty followers. The people themselves had been rallied by Korach against Moshe and Aaron; now, their enthusiasm was piqued by the loss of these men, who supported the rebellion. In response, to subdue another uprising, H’Shem sent a plague amongst the people, wherein 14,500 perished, before Aaron intervened at the urgent insistence of Moses.

“And Moses said unto Aaron: ‘Take thy fire-pan, and put fire therein from off the altar, and lay incense thereon, and carry it quickly unto the congregation, and make atonement for them; for there is wrath gone out from the L-RD: the plague is begun’” (Numbers 17:11, JPS 1917 Tanach). The response was immediate: “And he stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stayed” (17:13). Symbolically, the burning of incense represents steadfast prayer; perhaps, prayer may serve today as an effectual means to combat the current pandemic.

reflections: The Path of Life

B”H

the path of life

“In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct thy paths.”

– Proverbs 3:6 , JPS 1917 Tanach

If the path of life seems broad to the individual, who deems that he is freely given the reins of his life, to think, feel, and choose as he would like, a second thought is required. In fact, are not most of us more likely to think that we are free, because there is such a vast array of choices to choose from in life? Yet, if we reflect on our choices, we may find that we are not free at all. Rather, we are subject to the influence of others in ways that we may not even recognise. It is often our peers, who influence us during our childhood years, perhaps, even more so than our family, depending on the circumstances. Even so, if we look closely at our own character, we will invariably have to admit the similarities to our parents.

In families where the reins were kept loose from an early age, the world may appear to be an amusement park; yet, there may be no rational basis in our early years, in regard to the formation of a worldview; hence, we are shaped by our peers, as well as our own rebellion from whatever family values, we feel may have been imposed upon us. If our teenage spirit is not reined in by a balanced perspective of life, regarding some amount of self discipline and self control, then we are subject to follow the unbridled dispositions of our heart.

Not that I mean to make a sweeping generalisation; yet, this seems be the norm, unless brought up in a more traditional home, wherein, religious, ethical, or academic standards were clearly demonstrated and inculcated. These are my thoughts, encapsulating my limited perspective, on the issue of personal identity, having to find my own, after partaking of the smorgasbord of life, without carefully considering the ramifications of my appetite.

My standard is now grounded in the wisdom of G-d, rather than the shifting sands of my emotions, inclinations, and worldly perspective. Rather than a leaf, being blown in the wind, I have grown roots into the rich heritage of my belief and practice. Reishis chochma yiras H’Shem – the beginning of wisdom is fear of the L-RD (Psalm 111:10). In what will continue to be a lifelong attempt to walk a fine line down the road of life, I try to foster a balanced perspective, based on the little that I understand, from gleaning the guidelines set before me, within the pages of the original blueprint of the world.

This blueprint is found within the pages of what may amount to the most popular self-improvement book, that surprisingly enough, can never be found on the shelf where all of the other self-help books are located. That is because, the book that I am referring to can not actually be categorized as a self-help book at all; rather, it is a book wherein one may improve his or her life with the help of G-d. With the inspiration of the words from this book, along with the authoritative words of those who have studied this book more than me, my roots continue to bring spiritual nourishment to my soul, strengthening my resolve to follow the derech (path) set before me.

“The path of the righteous is as the light of dawn, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.”

– Proverbs 4:18, JPS 1917 Tanach

afterthought: Challah

B”H

https://unsplash.com/@evgenit

shiur for motzei Shabbos parashas Shelach 5780

“Of the first of your dough ye shall give unto the L-RD a portion for a gift throughout your generations” (Numbers 15:21, JPS 1917 Tanach). The commandment, regarding the requirement to first take from the dough being used to make bread for personal consumption, and give a portion to the kohein is given. This is to be a commandment “throughout your generations.” Specifically, as mentioned elsewhere, “the first of your dough, to cause a blessing to rest on thy house” (Ezekiel 44:30). This portion is referred to as “challah.”

It is interesting to note that symbolically, the first portion of dough represents K’nesset Yisrael, “the world’s tithe” to H’Shem (commentary on Numbers 15:20, R. Bachya, sefaria.org). The descendants of Abraham are meant to be a blessing to the world. “In thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12:3, JPS). At current, much of the world fails to see, or appreciate the Jewish people as a blessing. Yet, the tides will turn for the good, in fulfillment of prophecy. “And it shall come to pass in the end of days, That the mountain of the L-RD’S house Shall be established as the top of the mountains, And shall be exalted above the hills; And all nations shall flow unto it” (Isaiah 2:2, JPS).

Incidentally, today, the entire loaf of bread made from the dough in the kitchen before Shabbos is referred to as challah. Pious Jewish women will separate a small portion, symbolically as terumah, a gift or offering; although, without the opportunity to bestow this gift upon a kohein, as in the times of the Beis HaMikdash (Temple), this small amount of dough is left in the oven to bake separately. Yet, the entire loaf retains the name of the original offering; it is as if to say, symbolically, like the challah, that we ourselves should make every aspect of our lives an offering to H’Shem, for the sake of good deeds, remaining wholehearted, rather than only offering up a small part of our lives to H’Shem.

parashas: Perception

B”H

Shiur for parashas Shelach 5780

In parashas Shelach, ten out of twelve men of great reknown, leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel, fall prey to a negative perception of themselves, in contrast to the local inhabitants, who were like giants. The ten spies perceived themselves to be like grasshoppers, “in their own eyes;” hence, they thought that they must also look like grasshoppers in the eyes of the giants. Deeming themselves, nor the people of Israel as no match for the inhabitants of Cannan, they returned, and spoke ill of the mission to enter the long awaited promised land of Eretz Yisrael.

It is interesting to note that the preceding passage to the incident of the spies concerns lashon hara, whereof Moshe’s sister Miriam spoke ill of him. She was chastised with leprosy, until Moshe prayed on her behalf for H’Shem to heal her. If these two events are in chronological order, then the spies did not learn the lesson. Instead, their own lashon hara demoralized the entire people, and elicited consequences that would last for forty years; that entire generation, except for Joshua and Caleb passed away in the wilderness, excepting the women and children.

Lashon hara is a transgression that the Torah indicates is committed by the best of us; yet, this does not make it excusable in anyway; rather the prolific contagion, as demonstrated by the people’s acceptance of the spies’ ill report of the land shows how easy it us to succumb to this transgression. Today, lashon hara, and its counterpart, retzilus (gossip) are so widely accepted, so as to be said to be institutionalized within the greater part of society; also the widespread use of the Internet intensifies the bane.

Yet, how can the proliferation of what is considered the norm be interrupted? By the realisation of consequences that stem from what goes unchallenged. If only we could see the consequences of our own actions ahead of time; by thinking, before we act, we can visualize the potential ramifications of our decisions in life. Instead of speaking impulsively, we should reflect more on our words, before voicing our own thoughts.

parashas Shelach 5780

Kindle the Lights

B”H

“You will kindle and prepare the lamps.” – Tanchuma Behalotecha 3

When Aaron grew concerned, that the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel brought offerings to inaugarate the Mishkan, yet, he was not called to contribute in like manner, H’Shem told him that he would have a greater responsibility. He was placed in charge of lighting the menorah that rested in the Mishkan. This would be a detailed procedure that culminated in the light of the menorah being kept lit during the night, and foreshadow the role of his descendants, who rededicated the Temple, after its near destruction by the Hellenists; hence, the celebration of Chanukah every year, even unto this day and age.

According to the Talmud, ‘He is required to light the lamp until the flame rises by itself” (Shabbat 21a). Thus, he had to make sure that each wick was lit well enough, that the flame would continue to grow, until it remained steady on its own. A lesson is mentioned in commentary, concerning this commandment, that the same is true for ourselves, when we help others. We must make sure to properly guide others, in order for them to continue to grow spiritually on their own.

Aaron would also clean out the menorah, preparing it to be lit again each and every day. Another lesson, for ourselves, to keep in mind, is that everyday, we must clean out the “soot and ash,” figuratively speaking, in our own lives. This was one of the tasks of Aaron, necessary, before placing the new wicks in each lamp, and lighting the Menorah. To keep the light glowing in our lives, we must also prepare ourselves everyday to receive that light from H’Shem. We are each a light sent by G-d into this world, that we may also light up the lives of others.

Seek the Light

B”H

“Towards the face of the menorah shall the seven lamps cast light.”

  • Numbers 8:2, JPS 1917 Tanach

The “seven lamps” shall cast their light towards the face of the menorah. Seven lamps, towards the face (p’nei). Commentary explains that the six lamps, three on either side of the center lamp, had their wicks tilted towards the center lamp. Yet, this begs the question, if the verse mentions that all seven lamps shall cast their light towards the p’nei (face) of the menorah, then the Hebrew word, p’nei must represent something other than the center lamp, since it is only one of the seven. Therefore, what does the Hebrew word p’nei represent in this verse?

An answer may be given by focusing on another verse from Kitvei Kodesh (Holy Scripture), wherein a clue may be found. “In Thy behalf my heart hath said: ‘Seek ye My face’; Thy face, L-RD, will I seek” (Psalms 27:8, JPS 1917 Tanach). Consequently, the verse about the menorah could be rendered as having the light of the seven lamps glowing towards the “face of G-d.” And, what may be learned by this understanding? The light of the lamps can be seen as symbolic of our avodas (service) towards H’Shem, seven days a week. All our efforts in avodas are to culminate in seeking the face of G-d.

parashas Beha’alosecha 5780