A Test of Integrity

“And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine and he was the kohein (priest) of El (G-d) the Most High.” – Genesis 14:18

“Five possessions did the Holy Blessed One, set aside as his own in this world, and these are they: The Torah, one possession; Heaven and earth, another possession; Abraham, another possession; Israel, another possession; The Temple, another possession.” – Avos 6:9, sefaria.org

“G-d acquired these five possessions to serve as the instruments by means of which He can bestow His kindness and generosity on man, to let him rise to the lofty position of comprehending His greatness.” – Akeidat Yitzchak, sefaria.org

A tenth of all that Abraham retrieved from the five kings was given to Melchizedek; the remainder was considered properly tithed from the perspective of a later Torah injunction; yet, Abraham kept none of this, for his reward has to do with heaven and earth. Therefore, what has any man to offer Abraham? The King of Sodom’s riches would have been devoid of any spiritual blessing, since they would not have been bestowed upon Abraham by G-d; but, rather by man.

While it is true that blessings can be given to someone through men, according to G-d’s design, this would not have been the case, in regard to the loot that was recovered by Abraham, when rescued his nephew Lot, who was captured by the five kings. Why? Because Abraham was righteous, and “disdained profit gained through oppression” (Akeidas Yitzchak; sefaria.org). That is to say, that he forsook the wealth that was rightly his according to custom in order to maintain his integrity.

Every now and then, we may find ourselves in a similar position, not necessarily having to do with possessions; rather, as pertaining to a challenge designed to test the integrity of our convictions. Our belief and practice, as well as the strength of our convictions must be tested, so that we are able to permit these to take root in actuality. The tests designed for Abraham, throughout the narrative of his life, as recorded in Torah, may also be understood this way.

“The L-RD trieth the righteous.” – Psalms 11:5, JPS 1917 Tanach

Pivotal Points

parashas Lech Lecha 5782

“Ten generations from Noah to Abraham, in order to make known what long-suffering is His; for all those generations kept on provoking Him, until Abraham, came and received the reward of all of them.” – Pirkei Avos 5:2, sefaria.org

“Based upon the merit of Abraham, G-d did not destroy again the whole world. Abraham taught them that repentance was possible, and therefore G-d did not destroy the world.”

– English explanation of the Mishnah; sefaria.org

Inasmuch that Noah and his family was spared when “Noah found favor in the eyes of H’Shem,” so, too, according to the mishnah, the world was spared through the merit of Abraham. In light of this comparison, two points become evident. First, the necessity of G-d’s of Attribute of Mercy, as a means of relating to mankind, despite His strict attribute of justice. Second, that in each case, a righteous person was chosen to offer repentance to others, and ultimately to become the means through which a type of redemption would occur for all of mankind.

In the case of Noah, it is evident that G-d favored him for a specific reason. Immediately following “Noah found grace in the eyes of the L-RD,” the Torah  states that Noah was “a man righteous and wholehearted; Noah walked with G-d” (Genesis 6:8-9). As for Abraham, there is no such immediate recognition of his character, when he is called out from the land of Ur, to the land that he would be shown. He is told by H’Shem, that he would become a great nation, that his name would be great, and that the nations would be blessed through him. Before Abraham, Sarah, and his nephew Lot set out for Canaan, there were “persons that they had acquired in Haran.”

These souls are said to be converts to Abraham’s newfound monotheistic faith. It is this faith as demonstrated by his obedience to the L-RD’s calling, that Abraham is considered righteous: For, “he believed in the L-RD; and He counted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6, JPS). “O ye seed of Abraham His servant, ye children of Jacob, His chosen ones. He is the L-RD our G-d; His judgments are in all the earth” (Psalm 105:6-7, JPS 1917 Tanach).

Bikurim (First Fruits)

parashas Ki Savo 5781

drash for parashas Ki Savo 5781

Ki Tavo begins with the commandment of bikurim (first fruits). This commandment was to be performed after B’nei Yisrael entered Eretz Canaan, after taking possession of their inheritance, and living in the Land of Israel. This means that it was only incumbent upon them to observe the mitzvah of bikurim, after they were well established in the land. It was to serve as a reminder of their heritage. The declaration that is made at the time, encapsulates our history, beginning with Jacob, who went to Egypt with his entire family, during the famine, when Joseph provided for them. And, how we became slaves in Egypt; yet, H’Shem redeemed us, and we became His people, bound by covenant to the Torah.

This declaration, made after bringing a basket of the first fruits of one’s harvest to the Kohein, concerns our history, how we began as a small people, and became populous. And, after our redemption from slavery, were brought into “a land that flows with milk and honey” (Deuteronomy 26:9). Therefore, bikurim is an expression of gratitude to H’Shem, as well as a tribute to His powerful redemptive act of bringing us out of Egypt, and a reminder of our past bondage. Our humble origins as a people, had to do with the sobering recollection that we were once enslaved in a foreign land. And, the import of this declaration brings to light all of the provisions bestowed upon us since that time.

The bikurim (first fruits) were brought to Yerushalayim, between Shavuot and Sukkot, the harvest season. The seven species from which they were selected were wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates, olives, grapes, and dates. Today, these grains and fruits serve to remind us of our connection to the Land of Israel. We may enjoy these foods, especially at certain times, according to tradition, in the same spirit that B’nei Yisrael was called upon to rejoice in Yerushalayim, when they brought the bikurim.

motzei Shabbos: Chayei Olam

“Ye are the children of the L-RD your G-d: ye shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.” – Deuteronomy 14:1, JPS 1917 Tanach

B’nei Yisrael is cautioned against desecrating their bodies through mutilation, as a sign of mourning; although a practice of the heathen nations, cutting oneself out of grief, an expression of pain for the loss of a loved one, is forbidden. Moreover, the prohibition against marring the flesh in regard to mourning, implies that there is no need for the Children of G-d to despair, in regard to the passing away of a life, because H’Shem extends His promise of eternal life (Sforno). “I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life [eternal life]” (Deuteronomy 30:19, JPS; Sforno).

Why else is B’nei Yisrael forbidden from certain customs that would mar the body? (The sign of circumcision is an exception because it is not considered a marring of the body; rather, it is the removal of that which is superfluous). “G-d said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness'” (Genesis 1:26, JPS). Man is created in G-d’s image (tzelem); that image should not be desecrated in a physical manner; neither should that image be tainted in the sphere of morality.

“Then the L-RD G-d formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7, JPS). Our lives are not finite – there is an eternal nature of the soul. The Hebrew word for man, “adam,” is almost identical to the word for earth, “adamah.” The body of man, composed of the same elements of the earth, returns to the earth. Yet, the soul of man returns to G-d.

 “The dust returneth to the earth as it was, and the spirit returneth unto G-d who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7, JPS). At  the time of the Tehillas HaMeisim (the Resurrection of the Dead), the soul is restored to the body. “And many of them that sleep in the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence” (Daniel 12:2, JPS).

Va’etchanan 5781

parashas Va’etchanan 5781

“Ye that did cleave unto the L-RD your G-d are alive every one of you this day.”

 – Deuteronomy 4:4, JPS 1917 Tanach

During Moshe’s speech that lasted thirty-seven days, he prepared B’nei Yisrael to enter the Promised Land.  He cautioned them, admonished them, and reminded them in a tactful way of previous sins.  Rather than naming the sins, he would mention the place where the transgressions occurred.

One such instance that appears a little more direct is when he mentions the matter of Baal-peor, whereof H’Shem punished “all the men that followed the Baal of Peor [the deity of the Midianites]” (Deuteronomy 4:3).  He further mentions that those who cleaved to H’Shem, rather than follow the deity, “are alive every one of you this day” (Deuteronomy 4:4, JPS 1917 Tanach).

This juxtaposition makes it clear that those who did not transgress through idolatry and licentiousness were preserved by H’Shem because they “cleaved” to Him.  The Hebrew word used for “cleave,” in this instance, is “deveykut.”  The word connotes a clinging to H’Shem in the sense of one who is dependent on Him for his sense of well-being.

Deveykut is necessary for hitbodedut (Jewish meditation).  Within the practice of hitbodedut, one pours out his heart to H’Shem, hoping for an answer to all of his prayers.  Yet, in complete deveykut, one lives his life in constant acknowledgement of the L-RD.  Furthermore, he is able to speak to H’Shem from within in his heart in the quiet moments of the day. May we avoid the secular deities of modern society, so that we can cleave to the L-RD in our own lives.

Steady Course

“There are eleven days’ journey from Horeb by the way of mount Seir to Kadesh-Barnea.” – Deuteronomy 1:2

The book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) was previously known as Mishneh Torah, Repetition of the Torah, because the book is mostly an account of the journeys of B’nei Yisrael and reiteration of certain laws. The reason being that Moshe sought to rebuke, instruct, and inspire the new generation that would be entering Eretz Yisrael.

The account mentions that there is an eleven day journey from Horeb, the general area where Mount Sinai is located, to Kadesh-Barnea, passing around Mount Seir to get there. Kadesh-Barnea is where B’nei Yisrael gathered, before being commanded to enter the Promised Land (Numbers 32:8). “Behold, the L-RD your G-d has set the land before you; go up and possess it, as the L-RD G-d of your fathers has said to you; fear not, nor be discouraged” (Deuteronomy 1:21).

However, the next verse after the eleven day journey from Mount Sinai to the edge of Eretz Canaan, states, “And it came to pass in the fortieth year…that Moses spoke to the people of Israel” (Deuteronomy 3:3); and, thus begins Moshe’s thirty-six day discourse. By contrasting the eleven day journey to Kadesh-Barnea, with the fact that now it is the fortieth year after leaving Egypt, attention is drawn to the point that had it not been for the debacle of the spies, B’nei Yisrael would have entered the Land from Kadesh-Barnea, only eleven days after leaving Sinai.

Yet, thirty-nine years  transpired since that time; and, this is the new generation that is being prepared to enter the Promised Land after the many years of wandering in the desert. This teaches us that not all who wander are lost. For H’Shem remained faithful to the Children of Israel and brought them into the land despite the many delays, nisyanos (tests), and detours.

He will also bring us into the Promised Land, as long as we do not stray; rather, that we should always seek Him as our Guiding Light. Inasmuch that the pillar of fire provided light for B’nei Yisrael at night, the L-RD will provide us with light in the darkness of our lives; despite the challenges in our lives, G-d will lead us to the Promised Land.

Priorities

shiur for parashas Mattot-Masei 5781


“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, enabling 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. Their overemphasis on materialistic concerns 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

The Journey

dvar for parashas Mattos – Masei 5781

“These are the stages of the children of Israel, by which they went forth out of the land of Egypt.”

– Numbers 33:1 , JPS 1917 Tanach

The forty-two journeys of the Children of Israel, “their goings out according to their journeys by the commandment of H’Shem” (Numbers 33:2), were seen from the perspective of G-d, each one as a significant journey of progress, according to His plan. Each time they set out on a journey to the next encampment, there was no need for regret, if they accomplished, learned, and advanced in character development, according to G-d’s will. Lessons learned, although, often from past mistakes, should also compel us anew to be more circumspect in our lives.


Thus, here is the segway to the applied application of Torah, from the passage that lists the forty-two journeys of B’nei Yisrael through the desert: each journey was a necessary stage, paving the way for the next advancement on the overall path from Mitzraim (Egypt) to Eretz Yisrael, as the Children of Israel are transformed into a G-d fearing people in alignment with the will of H’Shem, as given through His commandments.


Our own life journeys, from place to place mirror the template: the 42 journeys of the Israelites through the wilderness. They were brought out of a place of tumah (impurity), namely Mitzraim (Egypt), crossed through the Sea of reeds that parted for them, symbolic of immersion in a mikveh, and continued for forty years in the wilderness until reaching a place of kedushah (holiness) in the Land of Israel.


This journey serves to remind us of one of the main purposes in life: to move away from a sense of spiritual impurity to greater kedushah (holiness) by repairing our character defects and turning away from sin. In a similar manner that the Children of Israel were encompassed on all sides by tumah (impurity) in their environment, we should also be aware of the negative influences in our environment.

Our individual paths are designed by H’Shem to guide us through the various challenges we face in life. Once we learn the lesson, we may move on to the next place or situation that has another inherent challenge for us. Each stage may serve as a tikkun hanefesh, a repairing of the soul. The ultimate destination of the Israelites was the Promised Land; so, too, in a way, for us, inasmuch that Israel, under the reign of Moshiach (Messiah) is our ultimate inheritance.

“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

motzei Shabbos: G-d’s Integrity

the 2nd set of Balaam’s blessings

“G-d is not man to be capricious, or mortal to change His mind.
Would He speak and not act, promise and not fulfill?”

– Numbers 23:21, JPS 1985 Tanach

Targum Jonathan renders the same verse, in the following manner, essentially providing a significant explanation of the import of Balaam’s declarations:


“The Word of the living G-d is not as the words of men for the L-rd, the Ruler of all worlds, is the unchangeable, (but) man speaketh and denieth. Neither are His works like the works of the children of flesh, who consult, and then repent them of what they had decreed. But when the L-rd of all worlds hath said, I will multiply this people as the stars of the heavens, and will give them to possess the land of the Kenaanites, is He not able to perform what He hath spoken? and what He hath said, can He not confirm it?” (Targum Jonathan on Numbers 23:19, sefaria.org).


The nature of this explanation denotes Balaam’s insistence on G-d’s track record, with regard to not breaking His word. For not only multiplied B’nei Yisrael, like”the stars of the Heavens,” He also gave the Torah to B’nei the Yisrael, as he had told Moshe, that He would do at Mount Sinai; and, surely He would bring B’nei Yisrael into the promised land of Eretz Canaan, after the incident with Balak and Balaam.


R’ Bachya states, that “the essential difference between G’d and man is that G’d keeps His promises whereas man often deceives, [and] disappoints the people who have been promised by him” (sefaria.org). Furthermore, “Whereas man may change his mind concerning matters he had planned, which did not involve undertakings to his fellow man, he nonetheless is apt to have remorse, to change his mind before executing his plan. Not so G-d. When G-d decides on a course of action, He will not change His mind, even if such a change of mind does not involve a third party” (sefaria.org). And, “when man deceives or reneges, this is considered a serious flaw in his character” (sefaria.org).

Therefore, it may be important to keep in mind, based upon this commentary the benefits, of focusing upon character development, integrity, and keeping one’s word. These are all positive qualities to work on obtaining in life. Moreover, that our own words, should not contradict each other, as if we had two selves, in conflict with each other. Rather, it is important to aspire towards being yashar (upright) in all of our ways. Shavua tov (Have a good week).

drash Korach 5781

parashas Korach 5781

“And he spoke unto Korah and unto all his company, saying: ‘In the morning the L-RD will show who are His, and who is holy, and will cause him to come near unto Him; even him whom He may choose will He cause to come near unto Him.”

  • Numbers 16:5, JPS 1917 Tanach

Korach separated himself from the assembly of H’Shem. He purported to champion the people, inasmuch that he claimed that everyone was holy, saying that Moses and Aaron should not lift themselves above the assembly of H’Shem (Numbers 16:3, JPS 1917 Tanach); yet, commentary explains that Korach wanted Aaron’s position of Kohein Gadol for himself. Therefore, his mass appeal was a ruse, made only to aggrandize himself, and his followers.


In response to the challenge of Korach and his followers, Moshe spoke of a test, whereby H’Shem will show who are His, and who is kadosh [holy] (see above). He said, take ye everyman his fire-pan, and put incense upon them, and bring ye before H’Shem every man his fire-pan, two hundred and fifty fire pans; thou also, and Aaron, each his fire-pan (Numbers 16:17).


H’Shem told Moshe, Speak unto the congregation, saying: Get you up from about the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Numbers 16:24). The earth opened up its mouth, and swallowed Korach, his family, and his followers; they went down alive into the pit; and the earth closed upon them, and they perished from among the assembly (24:33). Fire came forth from H’Shem, and devoured the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense (24:35).

The fire pans were gathered up, “and they beat them out for a covering of the altar,” as a reminder that only those who are “of the seed of Aaron, [may] draw near to burn incense before the L-RD” (Numbers 17:4-5, JPS). Yet, inasmuch that on a symbolic level, prayer is likened to the incense service, today we may always offer up our prayers to the L-RD, whether in a communal setting, or through hisbodedus (personal prayer). Our avodas (service) is the prayer of the heart.