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 Shoftim 5780

parashas Shoftim 5780 (recorded on Sunday)

“Justice justice [tzedek tzedek] shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the L-RD, Our G-d giveth thee.”

  • Deuteronomy 16:2

Moshe proclaims the imperative to establish judges to judge the people, emphasizing the pursuit of justice. However, the Hebrew word, tzedek, may also be translated as righteousness. Therefore, the verse (pasuk) may be rendered, Righteousness, righteousness, shall you pursue, providing a more accessible understanding for the benefit of the everyday reader. Within this framework, the pasuk (verse) may be taken an ethical imperative, that places a strong emphasis on individual righteousness. Besides, if we are not walking in righteousness, what right do we have to judge others?

Additionally, inasmuch that the word tzedek (righteousness) is repeated twice, we may infer that the repetition refers to two types of righteousness. This might be alluded to in several passages within the book of Deuteronomy. The first, is a call for Bnei Yisrael to circumcise their hearts, making an effort on their own to improve their ways, moving towards righteousness (Deuteronomy 10).

The second, HShem states that He Himself will circumcise our hearts (Deuteronomy 30), whereas the righteousness that will ensue is a gift from Above. Viewed together, these two ways may imply that when we make an effort to draw close to HShem through teshuvah, He will meet us halfway (Shabbos 104a). I.e., When we attempt to improve ourselves, HShem will respond in like manner to our efforts.

Furthermore, to be righteous in HShems eyes, a casting away of aveiros (transgressions) is first necessary. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean (Ezekiel 36:25, JPS). I will put My spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes (Ezekiel 36:27, JPS 1917 Tanach). H’Shem’s gift from Above will be bestowed upon us through the Ruach (Spirit), so that our lives may be sanctified.

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

parashas Eikev 5780

B”H


parashas Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25) 5780

“Beware lest thou forget the L-RD thy G-d, in not keeping His commandments, and His ordinances, and His statutes, which I command thee this day.”

  • Deuteronomy 8:11, JPS 1917 Tanach

This admonition exemplifies the connection between having an awareness of H’Shem’s presence, and the performance of mitzvoth (commandments). The message implies that if we do not observe the commandments, we will forget H’Shem. In other words, negligence in observance may lead to forgetfulness.

Hence, having a belief in H’Shem’s existence is only the starting point, as inferred by the first commandment, “I am the L-rd your G-d,” understood as an pronouncement to believe in G-d. Yet, we must constantly remind ourselves of His presence, by keeping Him in mind through tangible means. Whether through prayer, study, or observance, our whole self may have the opportunity to be attached to Him:

“After the L-RD your G-d shall ye walk, and Him shall ye fear, and His commandments shall ye keep, and unto His voice shall ye hearken, and Him shall ye serve, and unto Him shall ye cleave.”

  • Deuteronomy 13:5 , JPS 1917 Tanach

By attaching ourselves to H’Shem, above all else, we will not lose sight of Him, and fall into forgetfullness. Within the greater context of the passage, the admonition not to forget H’Shem, given to B’nei Yisrael, continues, to warn against a potential snare of material prosperity, wherein the acquisition of goods could lead to forgetfulness of H’Shem, “lest thou say in thy heart: ‘My power and the might of my hand hath gotten me this wealth’” (Deuteronomy 8:17). Specifically, if credit is not given to H’Shem for all that He provides, we remain entrenched in the notion that He is aloof, as if he had no hand in the circumstances, breakthroughs and rewards in our lives. Yet, we should not leave G-d out of the equation.

Furthermore, If the children of Israel become too caught up in their own achievements, once they enter Eretz Yisrael, then a constant remembrance of H’Shem could be replaced by the busyness of their lives. How much more of an admonition can this passage be viewed as relevant for us today in the postmodern world, where the noise, and constant activity of the world has the potential to drown out the silence of our inward person. This makes reflection, as well as a continual awareness of H’Shem, even more challenging for us. Yet, we may persevere, if we keep in mind “to love the L-RD your G-d, to walk in all His ways, and to cleave unto Him” (Deuteronomy 11:22).

Priorities

B”H


Shiur for Mattot-Masei 5780

“Let this land be given unto thy servants for a possession.”

– Numbers 32:5, JPS 1917 Tanach

The tribes of Reuben and Gad requested of Moshe, thus, also of H’Shem, that their inheritance be given to them on the East side of the Jordan River. Yet, they were rebuked by Moshe, for implying that they would not set forth into Eretz Canaan, with the rest of the twelve tribes of Jacob, to partake in the battles that would enable them to defeat the local inhabitants, subsequently, permitting them to settle in the land. In response to Moshe’s concerns, they responded that not only would they fight with their brethren, rather, also they would be the vanguard, and would remain in the Eretz Canaan, until the lands were allotted to the other tribes, before going back to the East side of the Jordan.

What compelled them, to place themselves outside of Eretz Yisrael proper, set apart from their brethren, was the quality of the land, east of the Jordan, wherein they would be able to graze their flocks; apparently, they had more livestock than any other tribe. Also, their immediate concerns with their livelihood may be part of an overall faulty outlook, further revealed when examining Moshe’s correction of their values. Two points are noted, based upon Moshe’s critique of their response: 1). misplaced allegiance, and 2). neglect of primary responsibilities.

First of all, Moshe points out that rather than making a commitment as the vanguard of the Children of Israel, when going into battle, for the sake of their inheritance in Eretz Canaan, they should see themselves as marching “before H’Shem,” first and foremost, according to His will. This should be their primary allegiance, then all else will follow. Even any commitment they felt towards their brethren should not be stronger than their devotion to H’Shem. As Arbavanel points out, the compassion towards their fellow tribes that compelled them to assist them in battle, does not match their obligation towards H’Shem. Our best intentions towards our fellow human being, even family and friends may fall short of the mark from time to time. However, when we fulfill our commitments to others, because we know that we should do so by divine decree, we are less likely to shirk our responsibilities.

Secondly, Moshe reminded the tribes of Gad and Reuben of their family responsibilites. They had initially said that they would “build sheepfolds here for our cattle, and cities for our little ones” (Numbers 32:16). However, Moshe responded, “Build you cities for your little ones, and folds for your sheep” (32:34), reversing the order of their words to show that their children were certainly more important than their livestock.” A lesson for modern times, whereof misplaced values may lead to being sidetracked by an over-emphasis on work, material goods, and the temporal realm. Lest we forget, a more balanced perspective on life, inclusive of relationships, spiritual blessings, and the realm of the sublime.

“Search me, O G-d, and know my heart, try me, and know my thoughts; and see if there be any way in me that is grievous, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

– Psalm 139:23-24, JPS 1917 Tanach

parashas Mattos-Masei 5780

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.