Practical Kabbalah



tallit.jpgMany people associate practical Kabbalah with miracles and some kind of special effects, while in reality practical Kabbalah is being used on daily basis! The 613 mitzvos (commandments) are all Kabalistic in nature, and while on the surface they might seem as unusual physical actions, each of one them if performed properly triggers major spiritual changes in the upper worlds.This is why all Kabbalists where so careful to observe the mitzvos to the tiniest detail. As with any complex thing, minor deviation from the guidelines and the outcome won’t be the precise one that a person tries to achieve.  I vividly remember the story that I read about ARIZAL – Once, on Friday night while sitting in beis-medrash, he unintentionally scratched his beard, and while doing this, realized that it was Shabbos. Since a person isn’t allowed to destroy anything on Shabbos, pulling his hand from the beard might cause him to pull a hair from his beard. What do you think he did? He kept his hand in his beard and didn’t move it till the end of Shabbos!

While this is still hard to understand, I would like to bring a highly simplified Kabalistic explanation of a mitzvah that is relatively easy to perform: The Mitzvah of Tzizis.

A lot can be said about this commandment and therefore I’ll have to focus on bare minimum.

Background: ARIZAL writes that when the first man (Adam HaRishon) was created, his body was surrounded by Light (Ohr – spelled as Aleph, Vav Reish and means “Light” in Hebrew). The Kabalistic term for the levush (garment) that surrounded his body is also referred to in many books as “Hashmal” – interestingly enough this word is used in modern Hebrew for “electricity”. The scripture also points out that the Serpent was envy of this Divine garment as the garment didn’t allow Klipot (forces of Tuma [impurity]) to attach themselves to the Adam HaRishon. Once the Serpent found a way to convince Adam to sin, Adam fell miserably from his spiritual level and Creator changed Adam’s garment from Ohr (Aleph, Vav, Reish – Light) to Ohr spelled as Ain, Vav, Reish – also means “skin” in Hebrew. In “Shaar Noga”, ARIZAL writes that the new garment was made from Klipat Noga.

Now days: ARIZAL writes that when a person is born into this world, he is enveloped in Ohr Makif (surrounding light) that protects the person’s body which contains in it Ohr Pnimi (inner light). With each sin, the power of Ohr Makif wears out, which allows Klipot (forces of impurity) to attach themselves to us and thus push us out from Kedusha (holiness) into Tuma (impurity).

Solution: We therefore were given the mitzva of Tzizit, which protects us from Klipot. Ben Yish Chai (famous Sephardic Kabbalist) writes based on manuscripts of ARIZAL that when a person puts a Tzitzis, he envelopes his body (spiritual body of course!) with additional layer of Ohr Makif, which provides protection from the forces of impurity. In his famous guide to Halacha, Ben Yish Chai writes that when a person recites a blessing on tzitzis he brings up MAN (mei nukvin) to Mohin, and once the Tzitzis is on him, his body is enveloped in Ohr Makif. Ben Yish Chai also points out that the gematria of Tzitzis (600) is also equal to the word “nesharim” – eagles, as it is written:

“Hashem said to Moses: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them that they shall make for themselves tzitzit on kanfei bigdeihem – the corners of their garments” (Numbers 15:37-38). Rashi, the fundamental commentator on the Torah, explains that the Hebrew word “kanfei – corners” can also be translated as “wings”, corresponding to the description of the way that the Jewish people left Egypt “on kanfei nesharim – the wings of eagles” (Exodus 19:4). Rashi, commenting on that verse, elaborates that most birds carry their young beneath them in their feet so that they can protect them from the attack of birds swooping down from above. However, the eagle flies higher than all other birds, enabling it to carry its young on its back, since it does not have to fear an attack from above.

Ben Yish Chai writes that while we know that knots and strings of tzitis are the wings that essentially provide the Ohr Makif, the secret of the garments itself will be only known to us at the end of Correction (i.e. Gmar Tikun).

I tried to provide the most basic explanation of the mitzva to demonstrate how a “simple” physical action can have major spiritual impact. There are many Kabalistic books that describe the inner workings of each of the 613 commandments and with G-d help I’ll try to bring other examples. Yet it’s important to understand that these commandments even while performed without understanding of their inner meanings provide major spiritual benefit!

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63 Responses to Practical Kabbalah

  1. yehudith says:

    Don’t swallow wholesale what others say. Check it out. Ask questions. Does it make sense?

    48 Ways to Wisdom
    by Rav Noah Weinberg

    Way#48: Educate the Educators

    Salespeople gain savvy each time a customer poses a new question – challenging the salesperson to become smarter each time.

    Teachers are also in sales, trying to market an idea. Be an educated consumer: When you learn something new, get out the “red marker.” Does it make sense? Is it just a good theory, or can it be put into practice, too?

    Way #48 is ha’mach’kim et rabo – literally “make your teacher wise.” Way #10 talked of the need to pick the right teacher. But that is only the beginning. We need to sharpen our teacher to achieve the maximum learning experience.

    Don’t be afraid to challenge. If your teacher has the truth, he is happy when his students are critical.

    By questioning and challenging your teacher to articulate his position, you’re actually sharpening him. As one of the great Sages said: “I learned a lot from my teachers. I learned even more from my study partners. But I learned the most from my students.”



    The Talmudic Sages would occasionally make intentional mistakes, inserting an illogical twist to keep the students on their toes. The teacher wanted to see if the students were “thinking,” or just “swallowing.” A good teacher wants his students to be keenly critical. Who needs a roomful of zombies, parrots and tape recorders?

    Then the teacher would ask: “Do you understand? Does that make sense?” And woe to the student who actually said “Yes!”

    Of course, whenever you challenge a teacher or parent, do so with respect. Temper it with expressions like: “Pardon me, I don’t understand how you came to that conclusion, but it seems to me incorrect.”



    Another aspect of “make your teacher wise” is to regard him as a wise person. In order to learn from a teacher, you have to take his statements seriously. Otherwise it won’t work. Accept the fact that he has something to say. He has credentials. Give a fair hearing to his ideas.

    Never dismiss something your teacher says as “ridiculous.” Consider his point of view even if you get the feeling of “this is impossible, it’s a mistake, I know better.” Don’t dismiss it outright. Give him another chance to explain, and then think it through again.

    But, you say, maybe the teacher is really wrong! If that’s the conclusion you come to, then speak up. But only after you analyze. Don’t just protest. Figure out why you think he’s wrong. What’s your evidence?

    Example: Your teacher gives a definition of “love.” Is there something wrong with defining love? Perhaps you don’t like the idea of boiling it down to a definition? Or you don’t believe it’s possible to define an emotion?

    Go ahead and pose the question: “How can you define emotions?” (The answer is that we don’t define emotions, we define what elicits the emotion.)

    Regardless of whether or not you end up agreeing, the very act of working it through will result in tremendous growth.



    One of the biggest obstacles to obtaining wisdom is being emotionally invested in our own position.

    Be aware when¬ever you feel a desire to distance yourself from the words of others. It might be your own defensiveness (because you aren’t so sure yourself). Or it may be intellectual laziness, or a fear of the implications, or some ingrained prejudice.

    Analyze what’s bothering you. Track it down, and put it on the table. Identify where he is stepping on your prejudices, where he is going contrary to your opinion, against your inclination, against your desire.

    Wherever we come from, everyone holds something to be sacred. If you’re from China, communism is holy. If you’re from America, capitalism is holy. If you come from a kibbutz, socialism is holy.

    It’s actually most important to listen to another’s view point when you disagree! Often the very thing that we need is that which we push away. If you find yourself being flippant or dismissing an idea out of hand, that’s probably struck a defensive chord in you. That’s precisely where you have an opening to grow – and need to pay the most attention. That’s the power of schizophrenia within us. We’ll call something “ridiculous” – even as we have a sneaking suspicion that it has the power to transform us in a positive way.



    Think and rethink what your teacher says. Certainly this applies when you don’t fully understand him, or when you disagree. But even if you agree with the idea, don’t be so sure that you’ve gotten the full message.

    Even when something seems obvious to you, try viewing it in a different light. Many times, you’ll be surprised to see new aspects that you previously overlooked.

    Wisdom is very deep. We may think we immediately understand, but as time passes, we accumulate more life experiences, and begin to unravel the layers beneath the words. There are a thousand different aspects you haven’t thought of. So you’ve got to keep digging. And the deeper you dig, the more you’ll see how much there is to dig!

    We don’t completely understand an idea for a very long time. In fact, the Sages say it takes 40 years!



    Broaden your understanding of concepts by looking from the other person’s point of view. Get into his wavelength. Figure out where he is coming from. Even though you may be sure you’re right, become a lawyer for the other side. Don’t dismiss it outright.

    Play your own devil’s advocate. Force yourself to give 10 reasons for the other viewpoint. Even if he is wrong, there are still good reasons why he believes what he believes.

    Apply this technique whenever you get into an argument. It’s terrific for healing rifts, particularly when the combatants are tense and emotionally upset. You might say: “Look, I really want to understand what you’re saying. So here are a few reasons I’ve thought of that you’re right. Would you mind giving me a few reasons that I’m right?

    No argument can last under these conditions. Do you see that?

    What’s the worst thing that can result from all this? You may still disagree, but you’ll understand each other and build respect between you. Beyond this, you might actually discover truth and change your point of view!



    Apply this technique of “looking from the other side” to all serious issues of life. For example, before a person intermarries, they should come up with 10 reasons why to be loyal to Judaism. Don’t dismiss Judaism based on your experience as a 13-year-old. The Jewish people have given a moral foundation to the world, and have thrived against all odds. That’s a heritage worth checking out.

    Similarly, before you dismiss God from your life, give 10 reasons why it’s important to have a relationship with Him. The Almighty is our Creator, our teacher. Give Him credit.

    Are there things you don’t understand in life, such as suffering and injustice? Of course, ask the questions! But try to see it from God’s perspective. It doesn’t make sense to hold a grudge against Him. Is there evidence for His existence? Find out.


    •When one teaches, two learn.
    •To get the full meaning of any idea, you must ask questions.
    •Even if you don’t understand an idea, consider its merits carefully.
    •Give the teacher credit that he wouldn’t say something ridiculous.
    •Appreciate that you’re not perfect. Maybe in this case you’re making a mistake.
    •Uncomfortable ideas are our greatest opportunity to grow.
    •Wisdom is deep. It takes time and patience to acquire.
    •In Jewish consciousness, learning lasts a lifetime.
    •The smarter a teacher becomes, the smarter the student becomes.

  2. yehudith says:

    The human brain is a sophisticated filing cabinet. How will you access that information? Organize what you know!

    48 Ways to Wisdom
    by Rav Noah Weinberg

    Way#49: Organize Your Mind

    Upon completing the 48 Ways, there is an additional crucial step: Organization.

    Imagine an office where paper¬work flows each day. The only way everything will be accessible is with a good filing system. You search for an urgent document… Frustration builds as you grasp for information you know is there, but cannot find. It’s buried in a pile!

    So too, the human brain is an extremely sophisticated of¬fice into which new information is constantly flowing. You’ve learned so many important lessons about living – friendship, spirituality, business, coping with disappointments, patience, handling money, etc. It becomes a mass of unmanageable details. Where will you file it? How will you access that information in the future?

    That’s why the 48 Ways has an extra Way #49 – Ha’mech’aven et shmu’ato, which means “think over what you’ve heard.” Create a mental filing cabinet. When you hear a new piece of wisdom, automatically place it in the correct file, making it available for future use. Wisdom needs to be accessed and applied, and the more organized you are, the more power you’ll have for living.



    The key to organizing wisdom is to develop a framework that doesn’t turn your mind into a red-tape bureaucracy.

    Always look for the logical flow. For example, when you pick up a book, first read through the table of contents to develop an overall sense of structure. Then, take a few minutes to imagine what will be discussed in each chapter. As you begin reading, this will help you to see how each aspect differs from the next – and how all the material connects together.

    Rather than have an idea explained to you, it’s better to try to project the idea yourself, to seek out its implications on your own. This way, you are focusing, taking part in the process, and analyzing the information as you go. This imprints the idea in your mind much better than simply having it explained to you. And you’ll have a better basis to reach a conclusion about whether or not the material has credibility.

    In Jewish learning, we give each section of the Torah and Talmud a name that defines its essence, and then write summary statements for each section. For example, the 48 Ways are defined essences, a sort of table of contents for attaining wisdom.

    Pay attention, see the connection. It makes the information infinitely more manageable and helps you recall it and apply it down the road. Try this method in whatever you learn. It’s worth the half-hour investment now.



    Imagine someone who can’t balance a checkbook. His desk is piled high with withdrawal and deposit slips, account statements and credit card slips. It’s impossible to manage this chaos. So he might as well give up…

    So too, with wisdom for living. Every day you learn a lot about life, and unless you organize it, the isolated pieces of wisdom will discourage and depress you. It kills your optimism and desire to grow and change. You figure: “I’ve forgotten other ideas in the past, I’ll probably forget this, too.”

    You can’t afford to go on like this.

    In Judaism, a classic system of organization is to memorize all 613 mitzvot. Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, for example, organizes the 613 mitzvot into 83 sections, collated into 14 volumes.

    What’s the value of memorizing this list? This gives you 613 “file folders” in which to place any new piece of wisdom. For example, if you gain an insight into the harmony of nature, you can file it under the mitzvah “to know that God is one.” Or if you find a new way to help homeless people, you can file it under the mitzvah of tzedakah, charity.

    With this method, you’ll understand life altogether differently. You’ll see the genius of how one piece connects to another. And that tool will benefit you forever.

    There are other methods, too. Some people have thousands of flashcards organized alphabetically by topic. When coming across a new piece of information, they write it on a card. Using computer software, this system is easy to implement, and you can even set up a hyperlinked network of personal information.

    The main thing is to pick a system that works for you – and build your “wisdom database” around it.



    You are constantly picking up new information, spending time and money to acquire it. If it’s worth gathering, it’s worth keeping and using. If you paid $50 for something, you’d use it. And isn’t wisdom is more valuable than money?

    Before beginning any important project, open a new file folder to store information. Whether it’s money management or home repairs, be diligent in organizing your info. When you come across a good article, don’t just stuff it into a drawer somewhere.

    For example, if you’re starting a family, assemble a litany of handy tools for how to raise children. You want them to be healthy – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. But learning on the job may be too late!

    It’s not enough to have a bunch of facts and figures stored neatly away in your office. Equally important is to open a parallel “mental file.” Be able to apply the information even without immediate access to the printed material.

    One key method is to extract the principle behind any idea. This is a lot easier to memorize than a bunch of details. The Sages compare it to carrying around paper money versus a large sack of coins. Once you have the principle, you can apply it to a variety of situations.



    Simple “awareness” of an idea is not enough. To really “own” the idea, you have to know it by heart. Memorization is tremendously powerful. It puts the idea “in your pocket,” immediately accessible at your mental fingertips.

    There are two ways to memorize an idea:
    1.repeat it over and over, memorizing by rote, or
    2.unravel its logical flow

    Which is the better method? Number Two. Suppose you want to memorize all the bones in the human body. Using method #1, you’d memorize the name of every bone in alphabetical order. Using method #2, the logical way, you’d start from the head and move down to the toes. As you go through the body, each bone triggers a hint for the next.

    The mind likes mnemonic devices. Try to extract the essence of an idea, and record it in a catch-phrase that can be easily memorized. This way, rather than struggling to re¬call it from scratch, you’ll be able to rebuild the entire idea from your catch-phrase.

    Here are some effective memory techniques:
    •Assign a one- or two-word description to each idea.
    •Take the first letter of each concept, and make a fun acronym out of the letters.
    •Create an imaginary scene or story, in which the key concepts all appear together. (The more outrageous the scene, the easier it is to recall.)
    •Put the ideas into a song. The tune will enable you to remember the series of words.

    There is a big mental block to memorizing anything, but once you get going, it’s fun and easy. To get started, try learning the names of the 48 Ways by heart, and review them as you walk down the street. Write down these “code words” on a small piece of paper, and keep it with you at all times. This will give you a constant point of reference.



    If knowledge is power, then forgetting is the ultimate weakness.

    We have two little gadgets between our shoulders. One is the “remember” button and the other is “forget.” Did you ever get a telephone number and say, “Sure, I’ll remember it,” and one minute later it’s slipped out of your mind? It happens. You pressed “forget” instead of “remember.” But when the millionaire says, “This is my phone number,” and it has 25 digits – no problem! You pressed “remember” and you pressed it hard!

    When you hear a valuable piece of wisdom, decide: This is important, I want to remember it, I’m going to keep it. You have that power. Press the button.

    If you can’t process new info on the spot, then at the end of each day, review the main things you learned. For example, if you read a good article, verbalize the main points, and whatever you find valuable – file it!

    Furthermore, set aside time for review of what you learned. It’s easy to forget things when you’re not dealing with them on a daily basis. Reviewing not only helps you remember, but will reveal an interconnectness of ideas that you didn’t see when learning things the first time.

    To avoid “information overload,” periodically clean out your mental filing system. A lot of information is needlessly cluttering your mind. Develop a system of review and re-evaluate what you’ve been carrying around up there. See which issues are valid, and which ones no longer concern you. To discard what you don’t need, simply press “delete,” just as on a computer.

    This doesn’t just apply to information. If you find yourself involved in some negative activity – e.g. due to peer pressure – then make a decision to eliminate that activity. You’ve got to have a healthy life, a healthy head, and a healthy attitude toward living. Don’t let the rotten apples disturb your digestion.



    A crucial part of organizing your mind is to establish priorities. To demonstrate the need to organize your mind, ask questions and see how fast you get an¬swers. For example, ask yourself what lessons you’ve learned about the three main categories of life:
    1.Issues between me and myself. What is the purpose of life? What are my goals and dreams? How did I arrive at them? What are my talents? What are my virtues? What do I ultimately want out of life?
    Issues between me and others. What do I know about relationships with friends, parents, colleagues, and society? What causes me to struggle in relationships? What do others like most about me?

    Issues between me and God. What do I know about truth, kindness, and why this world was created? What are my God-given rights, and what are my obligations?

    Now, prioritize these ideas into a set of life plans. You should have a daily plan, weekly plan, monthly plan and yearly plan – with 5-year goals, 15-year goals, and lifetime goals.

    What do you want on your tombstone? Asking this question is very powerful. And very painful.

    Keep your priorities straight. Every human being is willing to die to do the right thing. Could you possibly kill 1,000 innocent children to save your life? You would sooner give up your life than do such a thing.

    If we are all willing to die for the right thing, then that tells us something deep about our priorities. When you wake up in the morning, remind yourself: “I want to do the right thing, I want to be a good person.” Of course, you may forget about it during the day. But at least you know this is important. And sooner or later you might even do something about it.

    Ask yourself: What is the right thing? Who is the good person? I really should take a little time to figure out what it is!

    In Judaism, we stay focused on priorities by reciting the Shema twice each day, and by putting a mezuzah on our doorposts. The Shema – “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” – reminds us of the greatest pleasure, the quintessential essence of life.

    Make sure to keep your priorities on the front burner.


    •Organizing wisdom is the most important step in gaining control of your life.
    •When something interesting comes your way, file it in your mind so you can access it when you need it.
    •If you understand what you learn, it will remain yours. If it’s superficial, it will disappear.
    •Unless you make a conscious decision to remember, you are likely to forget.
    •If a piece of information is worth gathering, it’s worth organizing.
    •What do you want to achieve in five years, 10 years, 50 years?
    •”Out of sight, out of mind.” Review your priorities and bring them to the fore.
    •As long as your head is mixed up, you’ll feel the pain of chaos up there.
    •Pressing the delete button gives you control over your life.
    •Know the right time to take out the right knowledge.
    •Master the art of “Wisdom Management:” Organize it, control it, direct it.
    •Unless we organize it properly, what good is it?

  3. yehudith says:

    Acknowledge your gifts and be grateful to the source. Because if you know from whom you’re receiving, you can always go back for more.

    48 Ways to Wisdom
    by Rav Noah Weinberg

    Way#50: Rewards of Gratitude

    After hearing a good story, joke, or idea, we’re anxious to repeat it to others. But in doing so, the tendency is to present it as our own original invention.

    Ha’omer davar bi’shaim omro literally means “say it in the name of the one who said it.” Whenever quoting something, you should always acknowledge the source. In other words, “don’t steal credit.”

    The Talmud, the classical book of wisdom, goes to great lengths to trace the intellectual lineage of an idea: “So-and-so said in the name of So-and-so, who said in the name of So-and-so.”

    So next time you’re ready to share a juicy one, don’t forget to mention: Where did you get it from?



    In order to properly appreciate anything, we need to assess its value. That’s why when someone gives us a material gift, we usually have no problem showing gratitude.

    The 48 Ways says: Acknowledge spiritual gifts, too. Wisdom is certainly more valuable than gold, and the secret of happiness is more precious than a diamond!

    As an exercise, make a list of the ideas you regularly espouse, along with the original sources you heard them from. Think of people who gave you wisdom for living. Did a friend set you straight on something? Your brother saved you from doing some stupid things? An employer gave you good career advice?

    Acknowledge that you received the gift. If someone took the blinders off your eyes, it’s fantastic, it’s a different life. Say to yourself: “I am now aware of something very important that I wasn’t paying attention to.” Say it out loud. That alone will make you feel genuine appreciation.

    Now, let the source know how much you appreciate it. Consider as if the “thank you” is payment for the good idea. Enjoy paying this debt, don’t loathe paying it. The pleasure that you’ll give the other person is small payback for such an enormous gift!

    A good place to start is with your parents. Make a list of all the gifts they’ve given you, both materially and ethically – your sense of honesty, discipline, desire for truth, kindness toward people. Appreciate how valuable each one of these is. Come on, what did you get from your parents? Find out.

    Next, write your parents a letter, thanking them for these gifts. It sounds a bit corny, but it is awesomely powerful. Do you understand what enormous pleasure you’ll give them? Plus what pleasure you’ll have in giving them that pleasure?!



    When you acknowledge the source, you don’t lose, you win. You will never be able to appreciate a piece of wisdom, an insight into living, unless you are willing to acknowledge the gift. Because by denying the gift, you downgrade its value. Therefore you won’t apply it seriously – because to you it doesn’t have value.

    Furthermore, if you are consciously aware of where your wisdom is coming from, then you’re much more likely to go get more.

    Direct others to the source as well. Let everybody know. When somebody else is happy, it doesn’t steal any happiness from you. Actually, the more people who are happy, the easier it is for you to be happy.

    When there’s more wisdom around, the greater life becomes for us all.



    Why do people have a hard time acknowledging someone else as the source of an idea?

    The reality is that people crave independence, and are grappling for status and one-upmanship. Debts to others seem to threaten that stature. We don’t like to imagine that we weren’t smart enough to “figure it out for ourselves.”

    In truth, independence means that you pay your debts.

    What does this tell us? Whenever you feel the need to take credit for someone else’s work, alarm bells should ring. It’s a warning sign of insecurity. Because even though it may “make us look good,” it’s actually a cheap substitute for legitimate self-improvement.

    If you want credit for a good idea, think of one yourself!

    Beyond this, if others find out about your “theft,” then you’ve lost credibility in their eyes. And even if no one else finds out, you’ve damaged your self-respect. These are hard commodities to get back.

    Give credit where credit is due. People will respect you for it, and you’ll feel good about yourself – even better than if you’d taken the credit!



    There is a more subtle dynamic at play here. Sometimes we pick up prevalent ideas in society, and walk around presenting them as our own conclusions.

    Make a list of your opinions on subjects like free will, absolute truth, evolution, abortion, etc. Track down the source of each. Are they your original ideas? If not, where did they come from? Did you read a magazine article, or a friend impressed you? How did you reach your conclusion?

    Don’t fool yourself. Recognize that once your ego is invested, you’re not looking at the evidence, pro and con. You’re just “defending your conclusion.” And the inherent danger is obvious: Deep down, we’re not sure whether or not we believe it.

    For example, you may believe “there is no absolute truth.” Instead, try rephrasing it: “People say there is no absolute truth.” This way, you’re free to investigate the idea objectively, without being locked into a position.

    Now shift the question a bit deeper: Why did you choose to identify with these particular ideas in the first place?

    Next time you hear a discussion of a controversial topic, resist the temptation to accept an idea just to feel that you’ve “settled the issues of living.” Defer a conclusion until you’ve heard all the evidence. Otherwise it’s pretending, play-acting, not really living.

    Can you ever be sure of a conclusion? Yes! The 48 Ways says: Learn the dynamics of clarity and study how the dimension of knowledge works. Then you’ll feel the surety when it comes.



    Make a list of society’s treasures – monotheism, justice for all, universal education, dignity of the individual, preciousness of life. These core values of the civilized world are all from the Torah.

    Before the Torah was given, people built their lives on a subjective concept of right and wrong. Then at Mount Sinai, human history underwent a dynamic shift. People understood that there is one God who has moral expectations. You can’t just live as you please; there is a higher authority you are accountable to.

    Despite the fact that Jews were never more than a tiny fraction of the world’s population, these ideas became the basis for the civilized world. For example, do you know the source of the idea “Love your neighbor as yourself”?

    It’s in the Five Books of Moses – Leviticus 19:18.

    The Jewish people are an eminent firm, 3,500 years old. We are no fly-by-night. The world uses our products under different brand names and takes it for granted. Consider what humanity owes to the Jewish people.

    If you are living with Jewish wisdom, know it, quote it, and give credit.



    More than all, give credit to the Almighty. He gave us a brain to understand and appreciate wisdom. Other teachers enlighten us, but the original teacher is God. He implanted within us the intuition to discover all there is to know about living.

    God is showering us with gifts all the time. Food, air, eyes, teeth. Life itself. He programmed us with an antenna for wisdom. Nothing is possible without God.

    The problem is that we don’t want to be indebted to Him, so we deny the gifts. We refuse to believe that He loves us.

    It’s like the son who doesn’t want to acknowledge the gift of a new Porsche. He’s going to say it’s the wrong color, it has a dent, it guzzles gas. He’ll find something wrong with it because he doesn’t want to acknowledge the debt.

    In order to connect with God, you have to learn to appreciate all the good He has done for you. That means giving up the illusion that you alone are responsible for your achievements. It’s all a gift from God. Just as every stroke of Picasso’s brush has his signature on it, everything in this world has God’s signature on it. We have to learn to appreciate it.

    If you make the effort to appreciate the gifts God has bestowed upon you, then you’ll have such a keen awareness of God’s presence that everything you do is accompanied by a sense of His love and guidance. You’ll be overwhelmed above and beyond any other pleasure possible.

    That’s why gratitude is the ultimate appreciation, the 50th Way to Wisdom. This is the step that unifies all the others. So start loving God. Acknowledge His great and many gifts.


    •Make a list of things that you quote. Know where you got them, and give credit.
    •If you downgrade the source of your wisdom, you downgrade the value of the wisdom.
    •Tools for living are more valuable than any car, stereo, or trip around the world. Acknowledge the debt.
    •When gratitude to others breaks down, then so does society as a whole.
    •Turn the tables: If it was your idea, wouldn’t you want credit?

  4. yehudith says:

    Ekev(Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

    Clinging to the Wise Man
    by Rav Yehonasan Gefen

    In this week’s Portion, the Torah commands the people to go in the ways of God and to “cling to Him.” (1) The Sifri,(2) quoted by Rashi, asks how it is possible to cling to God, given that He is described in another place in the Torah as an “all-consuming fire”? (3) The Sifri answers that the Torah is instructing us to cling to Talmidei Chachamim (wise men) (4) and their students; by doing that it is considered as if we cling to God himself.

    The commentaries(5) derive from here an obligatory mitzvah to learn from Talmidei Chachamim and try to develop a connection with them, in order to learn Torah with the correct understanding(6) A person might understand that it is a good mode of behavior to cling to Chachamim, however it is essential to recognize that it is a Torah obligation.

    Rav Moshe Chaim Luzatto in Path of the Just also discusses the importance of learning from Talmidei Chachamim, particularly with regards to personal growth. He writes that one of the main strategies of the yetzer hara (negative inclination) is to confuse people so that they do not recognize the difference between good and evil. Accordingly, they believe they are acting correctly, when in truth they are being tricked by their yetzer hara. How can a person avoid this trap?

    He answers with an analogy. A person finds himself in a very complicated maze, and there is only one path that leads to the exit. Most paths do not lead anywhere; in fact they take him away from his destination. The person has no way himself of finding the correct path because the possible paths look identical to each other. The only way to escape such a maze is to take advice from someone who has already been through it and arrived safely at the other side. He can advise the person stuck inside which is the correct path to take. So too, a person who has not yet mastered his yetzer hara will find it impossible to overcome it without the guidance of Talmidei Chachamim who have spent many years refining their characters.(7)

    We have seen how essential it is for one’s spiritual well-being to learn from wise men. However, a person may argue that this is an overly difficult mitzvah because a significant amount of effort and persistence is required to attach oneself to Chachamim due to their busy schedules and the fact that already many people flock to them. The answer to this point is found in the words of the greatest wise man, Moses. In Deuteronomy, he recounts the episode when Jethro suggested that Moses refrain from ruling on every matter of law, rather, other wise men should be appointed to guide the people in certain questions.(8) The practical reason for this was in order to lessen the burden for Moses and for the people who had to wait a long time for Moses to be available.(9) Moses agreed to the suggestion and instructed the people to appoint Chachamim. The people gladly agreed to this request.

    Rashi points out that in his recollection of this incident, Moshe rebuked the people for their enthusiasm for Jethro’s idea. Moshe was telling them, “you should have answered, our teacher, Moses, from who is it better to learn, from you or from your students, is it not [better to learn] from you, who suffered over it [the Torah]?!” (10) Moshe rebuked them for not wanting to learn from the greatest wise man, despite the fact that they would have to endure significant hardships in order to do so. We see from here how important it is to be willing to be willing to make that extra effort to learn from Chachamim.

    The Alter of Novardok zt”l expressed the importance of clinging to wise men, when extolling the greatness of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky; who was widely acknowledged as the leading Rabbi in the early decades of the twentieth century. “His wisdom and genius is so great and of so much depth and breadth, because when he was young he was always to be found in the presence of the Gedolei Hador (greatest Rabbis). He never said to them, ‘accept my opinion,’ rather he made himself into a ‘vessel’ who would listen and absorb all the opinions and explanations of all the Gedolim there. He absorbed into his very being all the wisdom that he heard and his wisdom became purified and elevated by the greatness of many generations that became embedded in his mind.” (11) When people discuss the greatness of Rav Grodzensky they generally focus on his incredible natural genius and ability to think of many things at the same time. We see from the words of the Alter that the key to his greatness was his willingness to learn from Talmidei Chachamim.

    The Sefer HaChinuch points out that this mitzvah is also incumbent upon women. He writes, “This mitzvah is in place in every place, at all times, for men, and it is also a mitzvah for women to hear the words of Chachamim so that they will learn how to know God.” (12) It is interesting to note that the Sefer HaChinuch also writes that women are not obligated in the mitzvah of Talmud Torah (learning Torah). (13) Nevertheless they are obligated to seek out Chachamim to guide them in their Divine Service.

    It is clear from the sources discussing this mitzvah that both men and women must strive to learn from Chachamim. This is a particularly relevant lesson to people who grew up in environments where the concept of the ‘wise and righteous man’ is not widespread. In some circles, the concept of ‘asking the wise man’ for guidance in life issues is almost unheard of – this is partly because intelligence and life wisdom have no necessary correlation. As a result of this, a person may find it unnatural to ask life questions to Rabbis. Rav Noach Weinberg, zt’l addressed this issue – he pointed out that many people spend years on studying in order to attain a certain qualification. However, with regard to basic life issues, such as marriage, child rearing, and life satisfaction, they may spend almost no time studying how to succeed. The results of this failing are clear to see, with the divorce rate skyrocketing, family relationships consistently failing, and general life dissatisfaction commonplace. The Torah teaches that in all such issues it is essential that we learn from Chachamim, people who understand the Torah approach to life challenges and live it in their own lives.

  5. yehudith says:

    Ekev(Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)
    Mishpatim and Chesed
    by Rav Zvi Belovski

    The Torah portion opens with the following exclamation:

    And it shall come to pass, if you listen to these mishpatim and you guard them and do them, that the Lord your God will guard the covenant for you and the kindness which He swore to your forefathers. (Devarim 7:12)

    The selection of mishpatim (social ordinances) by this verse is intriguing. The mishpatim are only one part of the Torah system. There are also sections of laws called eidos (testimonies) and chukkim (statutes). Why are these other sections not mentioned? Does the verse imply that it is only necessary to observe the mishpatim to ensure that God will guard the covenant? Surely klal Yisrael must diligently keep the whole Torah, not just parts of it. Secondly, three types of observance are mentioned here. Apparently, we must “listen,” “guard,” and “do” the mishpatim. What is the significance of this?

    We will not be surprised to discover that these three means of observance cover the entire gamut of human experience. We have mentioned before that the seichel (intellect), nefesh (emotional soul), and guf (body) represent the whole of our world. Everything that happens to us is either an intellectual, emotional, or physical experience, or a combination thereof. Listening corresponds to the intellect, for it is essentially a process of acceptance, an intellectual experience which takes place in the brain. Guarding corresponds to the emotional aspect of life, which is centered around the heart. The word for “guarding” which occurs here is shemirah, which means “to long for” or “desire.” We see this in the following:

    And his father guarded [shamar] the matter.(Bereishis 37:11)

    Guarded the matter – he waited and yearned for when it would come about… (Rashi loc. cit.)

    A feeling of yearning is of course an emotional experience. Indeed, even the word for the emotional soul, nefesh, can mean desire:

    He said to them, saying, “If it is your desire [nefesh] to bury my dead…” (Bereishis 23:8)

    Finally, it is clear that doing corresponds to the body, for action is the physical aspect of the mitzvos.

    This said, it is hard to see what relevance desire and yearning have to mishpatim. A mishpat happens when, for example, there is a dispute between two parties who want clarification as to what to do. Punishments meted out for certain crimes may also be referred to as mishpatim. We understand that the mishpat has intellectual and active content, which accounts for the need for listening and doing as recorded by the verse. However, in what way can one yearn (the guarding component) for mishpat? In fact, the opposite appears to be true – it would be preferable if there were never disputes or crimes which necessitated mishpatim.


    To understand this, we need to revise our picture of the extent to which mishpatim are relevant. As with all human activity on earth, mishpatim have a counterpart in the heavenly spheres. When klal Yisrael pronounce a judgment in a legal framework, this has ramifications in heaven, arousing Divine mishpat. If, for example, the terrestrial beis din deals with a monetary dispute, eventually allocating a sum of money to its rightful owner, this engenders a corresponding spiritual force on high. In practice, this means that any spiritually bad forces will not approach anything which does not belong to them. Although this is a deep mystical concept, the parallel at least is apparent.

    This explains why Yisrael may indeed yearn for mishpatim. Klal Yisrael are supposed to direct all of their energies into serving God and to pay little regard to their own issues and circumstances. As such, they should actively yearn for mishpatim in order to ensure a suitable rectification on high, in which the domains of the forces of good and evil are clarified.

    This helps us to understand why the verse chooses to emphasize mishpatim rather than eidos or chukkim. It is mishpatim particularly which accentuate the special character of Yisrael. A desire for eidos and chukkim does not show any particular level of self-abnegaton on behalf of Yisrael. Not so mishpatim, which, as we have seen, are not at all desirable at a normal human level. The fact that Yisrael nevertheless desire them, knowing the great spiritual rectification that they can effect, demonstrates a special quality present in the national character of the people.

    We now appreciate why the Torah chooses desire for mishpatim to be the litmus test of Yisrael’s commitment to God. With this, we can explain the end of the verse:

    …that the Lord your God will guard the covenant for you and the kindness which He swore to your forefathers. (Devarim 7:12)

    This is also difficult to comprehend, for it implies that the merit of the Avos will apply only when klal Yisrael perform the will of God. Our usual understanding of zechus Avos, the remaining merit of the Forefathers, is that it stands for Yisrael even when they are not at their zenith of mitzvah performance. Additionally, these words were addressed to the nation as they stood in the desert, at their peak of connection to God, at a moment when they probably did not need the merit of the Avos to maintain them.

    An interesting gemara will help to answer this. Our Sages note that even an apostate will inherit his father’s property upon his death. Despite the fact that he has cut himself off from the ways of his father, the Torah still allows him to inherit. This is deduced from Eisav, who was regarded as an apostate Jew but still warranted an inheritance:

    …for as an inheritance to Eisav I have given Mount Seir. (Devarim 2:5)

    This has substantial consequences, namely, that Eisav, despite his evil nature, has some claim to klal Yisrael’s inheritance, for he is genuinely related to them. When God offers Eretz Yisrael to them on the basis of zechus Avos, Eisav can step in and claim a portion of the inheritance. He is, after all, a direct descendant of the Avos. But when Yisrael guard the mishpatim of the Torah and desire them, as we have described above, then they show their ability to direct everything, even the most mundane aspects of the physical world, toward God and to imbue them with spirituality. In response, God rewards them with the greatest possible good – closeness to Him. From this closeness, every manifestation of good in the physical world will flow. Since the origin of this good is in the spiritual, Godly realm, Eisav, who is a thoroughly coarse and physically oriented being, has no attachment to it at all. Through this, then, God guarantees Yisrael’s permanent and unique relationship with Him. One may infer this from the wording of the verse. We are assured that God will “guard the covenant for you…” If klal Yisrael do everything as intended by this verse, then the covenant will, and can only be, between them and God, and with no other nation. As such, it will be “for you” and not for others.

    Excerpted from Shem MiShmuel by the Sochatchover Rebbe, rendered into English by Rav Zvi Belovski

  6. yehudith says:

    Ekev(Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

    Appreciating the Process
    by Rav Boruch Leff

    “First, I was dying to finish high school. Then, I was dying to finish college. After that, I was dying to get married. Then, I was dying to have children. Then, I was dying for the kids to get older so I could marry them off and relax. After that, I was dying to retire. Now, I’m just dying and I realize that I never really lived.”

    — 70 year old patient in Intensive Care Unit

    If there is one lesson we must learn in order to truly utilize our lives and our time in this world, it is this: We must appreciate the present moment and not always look forward to something in the future. The process is what counts. An understanding of certain commandments in Parshat Ekev leads us towards this path.

    “And now, Israel, what does God, your Lord, ask of you but to fear God, your Lord, to go in all His ways, and to love Him.” (Devarim 10:12)

    Loving God and fearing Him are two are the most difficult commandments to fulfill. We can fear the cop who might give us a speeding ticket. We can love our spouses or parents who love us and do so many things for us. They are tangible – I can see them. There’s an actual relationship that is in the physical realm. But how can I relate, much less love or fear, a Being that does not seem to talk or communicate to me in a way that I can clearly understand?

    Mesillat Yesharim (The Path of the Just, Chapter 19, Steps Toward Piety,) by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato puts the question this way: “There are things that a person must look into and ponder well in order to acquire fear of God. The first is that one is actually standing in the presence of the Creator, Blessed be His Name, and communicating with Him, although He cannot be seen. This is the hardest. Can a person create a true ‘picture’ in his heart when he is entirely unassisted by his physical senses?” Rabbi Luzzato continues to explain that with great effort and through meditation on certain thoughts that he describes, one can accomplish this.

    Even if we were to bypass this tremendous difficulty of trying to love and fear an invisible, intangible God, there is another problem we face in trying to fulfill these commandments. How can love or fear be commanded? How is it possible to command an emotion? Either I already love and fear God or I don’t. But commanding me to love God does not make me love Him. Usually when it comes to fulfilling a commandment, there is a concrete action that I can do. I either ate Matzah on Passover, or I didn’t. The action of eating is a clear directive. But what is the meaning of a commandment for an emotion, and how can I fulfill it?

    The Rambam in Yesodei HaTorah, 2:2 (Fundamentals of Torah) presents an approach to loving and fearing God that addresses all of our questions:

    “What is the path to love and fear Him? When a person thinks deeply of His wondrous and awesome creations and actions and sees from them His infinite wisdom, inevitably and necessarily, he will love, praise, glorify, and desire greatly to know the Great Name… And when he thinks of these things, he will inevitably and necessarily tremble and become afraid, knowing that he is a small, low, creature standing with feeble intelligence before the Perfect and Complete Knower of all things.”

    When the Rambam writes the laws of prayer, for example, he does not ask, “What is the path to pray to God?” It is obvious that you recite prayers in order to fulfill the commandment of prayer. There is no path that is needed to spell out. This holds true for all commandments that involve action. Only when it comes to commandments involving emotion, like loving and fearing God, does the Rambam feel compelled to present a path toward achieving it. This is because the Rambam acknowledges that it is not possible to command an emotion, unless there is a clear path to guarantee the attainment of the emotion.

    The Rambam is showing us that pondering God’s wondrous creations will unmistakably lead to the emotions of loving and fearing God. This is the path we must use if we wish to fulfill the commandments to love and fear God. And this is the approach we must take in relating to an invisible and intangible God. We must relate to and see Him through His creations.

    We cannot actively involve ourselves nor worry about attaining the ultimate goal of feeling the emotions of love and fear for God. The only thing we can do is to embrace the process and the path toward the emotions of love and fear by daily and continuously contemplating His works throughout our lives. Through consistency and dedication to the process, the final goals – of love and fear of Him – will come.

    The process is what needs focus, not the results. The results can only come if the process is accomplished well and the process will only be accomplished well if it is properly appreciated.

    You want to be a good father. You want your grown kids to look upon you with love and respect as a result of your fathering them properly. Then, you must, at least once a day, take a step back, to love what you are doing in the now, in being a good father and showing love to your children. Driving your child somewhere, talking to him, listening to him read, playing ball with him, cleaning a spill, even breaking up sibling fights, must be cherished now. If not, then you will always be looking ‘to get it over with’ and you will not become a person who your kids see as a loving father.

    You need to be reflective in order to appreciate the process, removing yourself from the microcosm of the present event and contemplating how this experience fits into the entire picture of what you are accomplishing. Focus on the process, not the ultimate goal.

    This is what is meant by Proverbs 17:24, “Wisdom lies before an understanding person , but a fool’s eyes are directed to the ends of the earth.” Rashi explains that a fool concentrates on the end, the goal, whereas a wise person thinks of the here and now, the process. He thinks of what lies right in front and before him only, and that is the wise path.

    Rashi cites the Midrash (paraphrased): ‘The fool says, how can I learn Torah? Each tractate contains 30 or so chapters! It’s too much for me to handle! But the wise man says, today I’ll learn two chapters, and tomorrow another two chapters and so on.’

    Let’s face it. We don’t live forever, and unless we treasure our individual days, one by one, we will end up growing old even faster than we think – with nothing left to ‘get over with’ and nothing left to look forward to.

    Let’s truly live the ‘process’ of life, not only the results. Living in this fashion helps us get more out of the years of our lives.

  7. yehudith says:

    Ekev(Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

    Loving the Convert
    by Rav Zev Leff

    “…[God] loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. You must also show love toward the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:18-19)

    The Torah informs us of God’s great love for the ger (convert). Since we are required to emulate God, it follows that we must also love the convert. Why, then, is it necessary to add, “for you were gerim in Egypt?”

    Maimonides (Responsa No. 369) points out that the Torah commands us to respect and honor our parents and obey a prophet, but it does not command us to love them. Yet we are commanded to love the convert just as we are commanded to love God. To understand this we must understand the Torah concept of love.

    The numerical value of “love” is the same as “one.” Love is the product of unity between individuals, a recognition of a commonality and affinity. In our relationship to God this commonality is intrinsic, since we are created in God’s image. Likewise, we share common responsibilities and goals with our fellow Jew. He is our peer in Torah and mitzvot. Parents and spouses, however, aside from the intrinsic commonality they share as Jews, may have nothing else in common.

    Of course we must work to develop and nurture an affinity and commonality in the latter relationships. Love of a parent is an enhancement of honor; love of a spouse is a rabbinical directive (Maimonides, Ishus 15:19). And most certainly it is an ideal to love and honor the righteous. However, the Torah did not command us to create an affinity where it does not exist intrinsically. Rather, where such an affinity exists naturally, the Torah commands us to develop it.


    Maimonides, in the aforementioned response, writes to a convert whose mentor insulted him and called him a fool for asking a legitimate question:

    …That which he called you a fool is very perplexing. One who left his father and mother, and his birthplace, and his nation, which is now in power, whose heart and mind led him to cling to a nation that is today detested by the nations of the world, ruled over by slaves, and to recognize and understand that their religion is the true and righteous one; one who understood the ways of Israel, and pursued God, and entered the path of holiness, and entered under the wings of the Divine presence, and sat at the dust of the feet of Moses, the master of all prophets; one who desires God’s mitzvot, whose heart inspires him to draw close to bask in the light of life, and to ascend to the level of angels, to rejoice and take pleasure in the rapture of the righteous; one who cast out this mundane world from his heart and did not follow vain and idle things – is a person who reached this lofty stature to be called a fool?

    God has not designated you a fool, but rather an intelligent and wise and understanding individual, who proceeds on proper paths, the student of Abraham, who likewise left his father and birthplace to follow God. May He Who blessed Abraham, and rewarded him in this world and the next world, bless and reward you properly in this world and the next. May He lengthen your days, so that you will be able to teach God’s laws to His congregation, and may you merit to see all the consolations in store for Israel in the future, and may the good that God will do for us also devolve upon you, for God has spoken good concerning Israel.


    The convert has discovered on his own what the Jew was born with. Yet, the Sages tell us (Yevamos 48b), a convert sometimes experiences hardships after the conversion due to the fact that he procrastinated in converting. The Chida explains that every convert has an innate spark of holiness that is suppressed and lies dormant until he becomes aware of it and converts. He procrastinated in not acting upon that spark.

    The famous convert and martyr, Avraham ben Avraham, posited that while each nation rejected the Torah when God offered it to them, there was a minority that was willing to accept the Torah. It is the descendants of that minority who eventually convert.

    Through a proper halachic conversion, the convert transforms himself into a new individual. That spark of holiness is transformed into a Jewish soul and replaces his previous identity as a non-Jew. He is a newborn person with no halachic connection to his past.

    God shows particular love and solicitude for the convert, feeding and clothing him. Food is man’s basic necessity. Out of recognition of the elevated essence of the convert, God provides his essential necessities. Clothing represents one’s honor. By providing clothing, God honors the convert.


    On the one hand, we share an intrinsic affinity with that which the convert chose and accepted upon himself. Nevertheless, it is difficult to relate to the convert with a sense of total affinity, since his embrace of Torah and mitzvot was voluntary and ours was by birth. Therefore the Torah could not merely exhort us to emulate God in loving the convert, since there is an impediment to actually fulfilling this command. Thus the Torah adds, “for you were gerim in Egypt.”

    We can appreciate and identify with the convert, for in our national experience we also were quasi-gerim, when we left Egypt and accepted the Torah. Although we were already potentially Jews from the time of Abraham, and all that had to be done was bring out the potential that already existed at Sinai (see Gur Aryeh to Genesis 46:10); we experienced at Sinai a conversion, an acceptance of Torah and mitzvot not binding upon us at birth. Because we share that experience with the convert, we can be commanded to recognize and enhance that commonality.

    The Sages comment (Yevamos 47a) that converts are as difficult for the Jewish people as spachas (an affliction of the skin). On the one hand, non-Jews who convert for ulterior motives, who basically masquerade as Jews, are a plague and sickness to the Jewish people.

    On the other hand, Jews who convert for the reasons Maimonides describes and who undergo a halachic conversion are a pleasant affliction for the Jewish people. Just as tzora’as (skin affliction) is a lesson to goad one to repent and improve, the devotion and meticulous observance of mitzvot of a true convert are an indictment of those born Jews who are not as devoted, meticulous or appreciative of their heritage.

  8. yehudith says:

    Ekev(Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

    For You Were Strangers
    by Avigdor Bonchek

    This week’s parsha continues Moses’ talk to the People, preparing them for entrance into the Land of Israel. It is full of encouragement to trust in God’s help and warning that they should be worthy of that help.

    A brief comment leads to insights in psychology and the Torah.

    Deuteronomy 10:19

    “And you shall love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”


    Because you were strangers – RASHI: A blemish that you possess, do not attribute to your friend.


    Rashi’s comment seems simple enough. It recalls similar Rashi-comments in Exodus 22:20 and Leviticus 19:34 which also refer to strangers (i.e. converts).

    Let us compare these comments and see a question that arises from such a comparison:

    (1) Our verse:

    “And you shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

    (2) Exodus 22:20:

    “A stranger don’t taunt or oppress, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

    (3) Leviticus 19:34:

    “And when a stranger dwells with you in your land, do not taunt him, and you should love him as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

    As you compare these verses and Rashi’s comment here, what would you ask?

    Your Question:


    A Question: While all three verses contain the same phrase, “…because you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” and on these verses Rashi also comments, “a blemish you possess, do not attribute to another,” yet these verses differ from ours. In the other two verses there is a prohibition to harm the stranger. In Exodus 22:20 it says, “Don’t taunt or oppress a stranger.” In Leviticus 19:34 it says, “Don’t taunt him.” Our verse, on the other hand, only says, “Love the stranger.” There is no prohibition against taunting him. To use Rashi’s phrasing, there is no mention of “blemishes” in our verse.

    The question is: Why does Rashi mention blemishes? Rashi’s warning is appropriate when there is a prohibition against taunting him, but our verse says nothing about acting disrespectfully towards the stranger. Our verse speaks of loving him. Why does Rashi repeat the aphorism, “a blemish you possess, do not attribute to another”?

    Can you see what prompted this comment?

    Your Answer:


    An Answer: Our verse enjoins us to love the stranger “because we were strangers in Egypt.” What sense does that make? It is understandable that we should love someone because he did us a favor. But to love someone just because we had similar experiences? Because both he and we were strangers? Why? It makes as much sense to say, “Love basketball players because you too were once a basketball player!”

    How does Rashi’s comment deal with this difficulty?

    Your Answer:


    An Answer: Rashi is telling us that since the Torah reinforces the command to “love the stranger” with the reminiscence of our Egyptian experience, the point of the verse must be: do not inflict on the stranger that which we went through when we were strangers in Egypt. In this light, “love” consists of not doing evil towards the stranger; of not taking advantage of the stranger because he is less powerful than we as we were less powerful than our Egyptian taskmasters.

    This is reminiscent of Hillel’s interpretation of “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which he gave to the gentile who professed interest in converting to Judaism. His words, “What is hateful to you, do not do to another” are a way of rendering the Torah’s positive command of “loving” as a negative prohibition not to harm another.

    In our verse as well, Rashi transposes the Torah’s positive command to love the stranger into a negative admonition “don’t ascribe to him your faults.”


    It is interesting to note in this regard, that psychologists have understood the dynamics underlying negative, racist, stereotypes, the prejudices people hold for certain minorities in their midst, to be, in reality, projected images of their own weaknesses. They project onto others those traits which are distasteful to them and which they cannot accept as part of themselves. This projection ascribes to the other their own “wickedness,” thereby accomplishing two psychological maneuvers at once – denial of one’s own imperfection as well as projecting the anger one has for oneself onto another. This is exactly the meaning of “A blemish you have do not attribute to another.” The Torah’s psychological astuteness predates Freudian defense mechanisms by a few years.


    As I pondered this verse and the Rashi-comment on it, I wondered why the Torah had to use the idea of “love” to begin with. If the verse means the avoidance of doing harm to the stranger, why say “you shall love the stranger”? That seems a bit much.

    Then I noticed the context of the verse and I saw something interesting.


    This section begins with verse 10:12, which says:

    “Now Israel, what does Hashem, your God, ask of you? Only to fear Hashem, your God, to go in all of His ways, to love Him” etc.

    After Moses tells us to “go in all of His ways,” the verse (Deut. 10:19) continues to tell us of His ways:

    “He does justice to the orphan and the widow and He loves the stranger to give him bread and clothes.”

    We see that this whole section is a lesson in Imitatio Dei, to imitate God’s ways. He loves the stranger, so you too shall love the stranger. That is probably why this language was used here.

    The idea of love – God’s love for Israel, Israel’s love for God and God and man’s love of others – is a central theme in this section. This is attested to by the fact that the word “love” appears seven times in this parsha – from verse 10:12 until the end of the parsha. (Count them: Verses 10:12,15,18,19; 11:1,13,22.) This is a telltale sign that the Torah wants to emphasize this idea of love.

  9. yehudith says:

    Ekev(Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

    Fear of Heaven
    by Avigdor Bonchek

    The following is one of the most basic verses in our Torah regarding man’s obligation in life.

    Tosafot questions a well-known saying of the Sages.

    Deuteronomy 10:12

    “And now Israel, what does Hashem, your God, demand of you but to fear Hashem your God, to go in all His ways, to love Him, and to serve Hashem your God with all your heart and all your soul.”


    But to fear – RASHI: Our Rabbis derived from this [verse] that all is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven.


    How do the Rabbis derive this lesson from our verse?

    Your Answer:


    An Answer: The verse says that God requests Israel “only to fear” Him. If God must make this request of the people, it is clear that He has no “control” over the matter. Secondly, the fact that it says “only” to fear Him implies that this is the only thing that God demands of us – because it is the only thing He has to demand, since everything else is up to Him. This would seem to be the basis of this drash.


    The Daas Zekainim finds another saying of the Sages, which seems to contradict our saying. They cite the Talmud (Kesubos 30a) which says:

    “All is in the hands of Heaven except for tzinim and pachim.”

    The meaning of the Hebrew words “tzinim and pachim” is based on the verse in Proverbs 22:5:

    “Thorns (tzinim) and snares (pachim) are in the path of the perverse; he who guards his soul will distance himself from them.”

    (This is Rashi’s interpretation in Proverbs.)

    The message of this proverb is that dangers exist in the world, particularly for those who are “perverse,” that is, for those who don’t try to avoid them – but the cautious person takes heed not to be harmed by them.

    The Sages’ statement can now be understood. These dangers are the individual’s responsibility, he must guard himself against them; he should not be nonchalant and think they are a Divine decree and that there is nothing he can do. If he is not careful, there is no assurance that God will intervene to save him.

    Now let us return to Tosafot’s question: The contradiction between these two sayings of the Sages. If only the fear of Heaven is not in God’s hand, then what of “thorns and snares”? And vice versa.

    Can you suggest an answer?

    Your Answer:


    They suggest that the two sayings represent two different areas of a person’s life.

    Regarding all matters of our material, worldly, existence – such as health, wealth, physical make-up etc. – only “thorns and snares” i.e. harmful accidents that can be avoided, are, so to speak, not in God’s hands. They are within the realm of human responsibility. (The reckless or tired driver, take note.)

    And of all matters related to the spirit, such as: high or low intelligence, an angry or a pleasant personality etc., only the fear of Heaven is “not in God’s hands.” This means that although we don’t all begin our existence with the same physical, mental or psychological circumstances, nevertheless, we all can exert ourselves equally in the realm of the fear of God.

    Thus, according to Tosafot, there is no contradiction. The two sayings relate to two different spheres of our life, the physical and the spiritual. In each of these realms there remains one arena of behavior for which man, and man alone, is responsible for his fate; areas where Heaven allows man full freedom.

    Tosafot adds that this idea is clearly expressed in the Tanach. The prophet Jeremiah said (9:22):

    “Let not a wise man glorify himself with his wisdom, and let not the strong man glorify himself with his strength, let not a rich man glorify himself with his wealth. For only with this may one glorify himself – contemplating and knowing Me, for I am Hashem Who does kindness, justice and righteousness in the land for this is My desire, says Hashem.”

    This means that since a man should only rightfully take credit (and “glory in”) accomplishments which he has achieved through his own efforts, therefore there is no reason to glory in the accumulation of wealth, wisdom and strength since these all are gifts from God. But only “knowing God,” which is the same as fearing God, is an achievement that man can justifiably be proud of, since whatever he achieves in this area, he has achieved through his own efforts.


    This question and answer are typical of the comparative/analytical approach of the Ba’alei Tosafot in their Talmudic commentary. Frequently they uncover other citations in the Talmud which appear to contradict the text to which they are relating. Their approach is to try to reconcile the divergent texts, just as they did in our case.

    There is certainly an easier way to reconcile the contradiction between these two statements as to what is only in the hands of Heaven. It is reasonable to assume that two different Sages made these different statements. They might differ in their opinion as to what is and what is not in the hands of Heaven. We constantly find differences between Sages in the Talmud. That is the whole excitement of the Talmudic discourse. Why doesn’t Tosafot simply say that these are two different and differing opinions? But this is not the approach taken by Tosafot. Characteristically, their style of commentary, in the Talmud especially, is to prefer to reconcile matters in a way that avoids an argument and at the same time gives us an insight into the differing concepts.

  10. yehudith says:

    Ekev(Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

    To Love Hashem
    by Avigdor Bonchek

    In this week’s parsha we have one of the most central (if not THE central) mitzva in the Torah: “loving and serving God.” Rashi gives us insight into this ultimate mitzva.

    Deut. 11:13

    “And it will be if you heed My commandments that I command you today, to love Hashem, your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul.”


    To love Hashem – Rashi: You should not say “Behold I will learn in order that I will be rich; in order that I will be called ‘Rabbi’; in order that I will get reward.” Rather, do all that you do out of love and in the end, the honor will come.


    The command to love God is problematic on several points. How can we be commanded to love; love is a spontaneous emotion, how can it be commanded? Can it be ordered on will? And, even if it were possible, how is one to love God, a spiritual Being, who cannot be seen or approached? Rashi’s comment is meant to show us how this “love of God” can be practically accomplished. His answer is that we do God’s mitzvot for the love of Hashem and for no other ulterior purpose. Such a request can indeed be expected of man, for it is an act for which one can willfully strive.

    That said, there are several questions that can be asked on Rashi’s comment. What would you ask?

    Your Question(s):


    A Question: Why does Rashi (the Midrash actually) choose learning as the example of a mitzva that a person should not do for ulterior motives? Why not any of the other 612 mitzvot?

    Another Question: Why does Rashi say “in order to be rich” but when it comes to being a Rabbi he says “in order to be called Rabbi”? Why doesn’t he use parallel wording “in order to be a Rabbi”?

    And A Last Question: Why does Rashi add at the end of this comment “and in the end, the honor will come”? Aren’t we talking about learning for the love of Hashem – “for its own sake”? Why the need to tack on the surprise ending of receiving the reward of “honor”?

    Do you have answers (or other questions!)?

    Your Answer(s):


    Some Answers:

    1.Rashi chose learning Torah as the mitzva because our verse begins with “And it will be if you hear diligently” – this seems to mean learning. On this basis Rashi speaks of studying the Torah, more so than any other mitzva.

    2.Rashi is pointing out life goals which are of questionable value. Being a Rabbi is a not a goal of questionable value; being a teacher in Israel is an admirable occupation. But if one does this mainly for the honor he is given as a Rabbi, being “called” a Rabbi, then he has missed the point and has exploited Torah for personal gain.

    3.Serving God for love would seem to be its own reward. But the Torah itself suggests rewards here. See the following verse (14) “And I will give the rains in their time” etc. So rewards are promised even though we are enjoined to serve God out of love. This is similar to the lesson from the Sayings of the Fathers (1:3)

    “Don’t be like servants who serve their master in order to receive reward; rather, be like servants who serve their master not in order to receive reward.”

    Note that it does not say “in order not to receive reward”; that would mean that we relinquish all consideration of reward. If we do a mitzva we are entitled to reward, but that should not be our primary motivation for doing it in the first place.

    “And in the end, honor will come.”

    We should note a nuance of Rashi’s phrasing. He says: “And in the end, honor will come.” He does not say: “And honor will come in the end.”

    These two versions say essentially the same thing. But there is a subtle difference. What is the difference between them?

    An Answer: “And honor will come in the end,” implies that honor (the first word in the phrase is the emphasized word) is uppermost in his mind. He is waiting patiently. When will it come? In other words, he still has the mindset of receiving something for his mitzva – he looks forward to the honor he will gain, albeit after a while.

    Whereas the phrase “And in the end, honor will come,” has a different emphasis. Honor is almost an afterthought. It comes after “the end,” after the mitzva has been completed and the person is ready to move on to something else. The implication is that the honor he receives at the end is anticlimactic; it is something he has neither expected nor striven for.

  11. yehudith says:

    A Garment of Illumination
    by Rav Daniel Travis

    The Zohar reveals that that there are two types of spiritual light that affect every creation. One level of light goes within. This is called ohr penimi, a penetrating inner light.

    At times, the light is so spiritually powerful that the object it affects is unable to contain its illumination. In such circumstances, the light actually envelops the entire entity. This is called ohr makif, a light that surrounds.

    The Arizal reveals that a tallis draws this second type of light. “When a person wears a tallis he has a Divine light surrounding him (ohr makif). For this reason the tallis is meant to cover the majority of one’s body” (cited in Kaf Hachaim 16, 2).

    Elsewhere, the Arizal reveals that this light gradually increases in intensity during prayer. At the start of Pesukei D’zimra, while saying Baruch She’amar, a man grasps the front two strings of his tzitzis, for only the light of the front two strings envelops him. By the time he gets to the blessings of Shema, the light of all four strings of the tzitzis has enveloped his body, and therefore the custom is to grasp all of the tzitzis (as cited in Piskei Teshuvos 51,3).

    While wearing a tallis, a person’s body is literally surrounded by the light of Hashem. This ohr makif aids his prayers to illuminate the highest reaches of the heavens and protects a person from harm. Although these profound concepts are far beyond our limited intellectual capacity, they can help us appreciate that there is no more potent preparation for a man’s prayer than putting on a tallis.

    Donning a tallis for prayer, Envelops one with the light of Hashem.

  12. yehudith says:

    On Holiness and the Boundaries of Holiness
    by Rav Adin Steinsaltz

    In essence, any deliberation on the subject of the boundaries of holiness is superfluous, or altogether impossible. One who knows and feels holiness does not need to discuss it; and the one who does not know cannot be made to know. One cannot describe to a blind person the nature of color and he who sees can comprehend it of his own accord. Still, it is possible to speak of boundaries, of defining boundaries, in a way that will be meaningful even to those who do know. And therefore, I shall say a few words about that which probably should not be spoken about.

    I will begin with a distinction that was made many generations ago, between “holiness” and “the holy.” One possible definition can be that holiness is the essence, the base of the matter. The holy is all that touches upon the holiness, all that imbibes from the holiness, or relates to the holiness. Because there is the essence that is holiness itself, and there is that which becomes holy because it is related somehow to the holiness.

    Many books have been written about holiness and about the sense of holiness and they all face one fundamental dilemma – how can one speak about the unspeakable? This is the quandary of mystics, sometimes of philosophers and even of artists. One definition that carries with it a large measure of truth is that holiness is that which is found beyond all boundaries, that which reaches absolute infinity and absolute transcendence. And actually, our perception of holiness can be expressed by the term (used but not coined by Freud) an “oceanic feeling,” that attempts to explain or touch upon the comprehension of holiness.

    A person facing the ocean for the first time, or at any other moment of heightened sensitivity, faces something grand and immeasurable, something infinite. The feeling of “me against infinity” is, I would imagine, the basic sensation of one who stands against the holiness. This definition is imperfect; the “oceanic feeling,” like the ocean itself, is finite. Although it is very big, it is still limited. Our perception of infinity is, in many ways, an attempt to grasp the unlimited, the unperceivable, that which cannot be understood, that which is, in essence, the unattainable, by its very definition.

    The attempt to enter the realm of holiness is paradoxical. Because I have entered it, then, by definition, it is not truly holy; and if it is truly holy, I shall always stand outside of it. The reply in the Torah to Moses’ prayer, his request to see the face of God, is: “You cannot see My face, for no man shall see Me and live? and you shall see My back parts, but My face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:20-23). This, indeed, is the point: it is impossible to see the Face; at most, we can reach an indirect, “lateral” recognition of these things, but never a direct-fundamental view.

    And, on a second level, from holiness come the holy things, those things that are touched by holiness or are inspired by it. Here it is possible to speak of levels, of degrees, of inner holiness and of external holiness, of the Holy of Holies and of other Holy entities. Here there are boundaries, levels and things we can connect and relate to; but the starting point must still be remembered: the holy is that which relates to the holiness.

    This reminder is especially important because the concept of holiness, like many other things, has undergone a process of reduction and diminution over the course of time. Now holiness is ascribed to everything in the world: holiness of labor and holiness of the right to strike, holiness of the Supreme Court, of the State, and of the Israel Defense Force, and more, a world full of holinesses.

    First of all, it must be said, that this sort of multiple use of the word “holiness” is not only secularization: simply, when I take the concept “holiness” and ascribe to it things that are not holy, that is actually a process of secularization. But another aspect of the process, which is possibly even worse, is that it is degradation, a cheapening of the concept. When “holiness” becomes everything of importance, significance or a matter worthy of attention, this is actually degradation. It does not really matter what it is that is being termed “holy” – be it “the holiness of human life” or any other trendy item, it is always a cheapening of the term. This debasement does not only break the term into small pieces, it damages its very essence, so that the imagined “holy” loses its association to the holiness.

    This calls for a pun, not mine, but a pun from the Hebrew language. The degraded kadosh (“holy”) becomes kadesh (cultish, a prostitute). And things to which the title of holiness are unduly attached become a pile of “kadesh”; and so many of them are cheapened only because of this cheap, degrading, uncontrolled use of Holiness – that which should have been untouchable.

    Examination of the boundaries of holiness raises a fundamental question, and I do not know if it has a complete solution. Holiness is infinite; and any glimpse at it means breaking through its boundaries, from outside the realm, outside the system. And the question is – is it possible to stand on the periphery of holiness ? and yet remain within its bounds? Is it possible to actually be on the threshold of holiness? Is it not a matter of either: I am inside ? and then I am in an entirely different reality ? or I am outside?

    It is also possible to raise this question in a different, more comprehensive and specific way. Doesn’t the very fact that I am touching upon holiness necessarily mean that all other values become nullified, that all other values become meaningless? For coming in contact with holiness can be likened to relating to infinity in mathematics – in relation to infinity, everything else is zero. And the question is: is holiness concerned with all other systems of life, with all other ways and entities? Is holiness concerned with things such as science, politics, society and beauty? Is holiness, by its very characterization, not self-defining, self-sufficient, a negation of all other entities? Because in actuality, that which is holy necessarily goes beyond all bounds and all definitions, turning everything else into zero.

    For those who have any contact with holiness, this is no trivial matter. This is not a problem for one who creates a Chanukah lamp, or one who draws pictures of Jewish genre; it is not his question. The problem begins on the other side: Can one who has touched upon holiness emerge without being totally burnt? Aaron’s sons, who entered holiness, came out ? as our Sages describe it ? with a “burnt soul and an intact body.” The entrance into holiness is, in actuality, a dead-end with a sort of warning attached ? “Everything burns!” Where “everything” means things like a homeland, a family, life; all of these must, almost by definition, be nullified against absolute infinity.

    Not all of those who enter holiness can come out in peace. Therefore, when speaking of holiness, of its boundaries and of its values, it is possible to speak about it, not from the vantage point of those who are inside, but from the vantage point of those who are outside, looking in from a distance: sometimes it is a distance of yearning, sometimes of dread and sometimes it is a distance of emotion that often prevails among the more sensitive in our midst: if I get too close, I shall never be able to come out, I shall never be able to remain what I am, maybe I shall not be able to survive at all.

    This is the reason why there are people, and among them good people, who have a phobia of holiness, just because they are so strongly attracted to it, one stands before holiness and keeps a distance from it, in sort of a struggle. There are people who escape holiness by constantly running in the opposite direction. They pursue the mundane in order to avoid the temptation of holiness, which perhaps is the greatest temptation of all, as well as the greatest threat. In order to escape the world of problems, one goes out, behaves wildly, exults, becomes drunk or philanders only to avoid any contact with the temptation or the threat of holiness.

    Yet there are still people who observe holiness with a great degree of longing; and their difficulty is with the points that maybe cannot be referred to as connecting points, but are, nevertheless, points of contact. Because in a certain way holiness is, in essence, similar to what is known in chemistry as “noble elements” ? those basic elements that never mix with others and never become part of compounds, but can still be touched from the outside. So, when a person touches holiness, even only superficially, the problem arises of those who wish to create a sanctuary of any kind. That problem is ? how can one confine holiness, represent it, or give it space, in a way that can still be perceived by human beings.

    One of the loftiest and universal prayers in the Bible is King Solomon’s blessing or speech that he delivered at the inauguration of the Temple (I Kings, chapter 8). He makes a statement that should be perceived from the outset as a clear verbalization of this dichotomy: “The Lord said that He would dwell in the thick darkness. I have surely built You a house to dwell in, a settled place for You to abide in for ever.” God decided to dwell within the thick darkness, and thus it should be: within the unknowable, the indescribable, the limitless, as it says in that same prayer: (Ibid. verse 27): “Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain You, how much less this house that I have built.” When I am facing the heaven and the heaven of heavens, I am standing on the side, distant and separate – yet the house that I am building should be the place of the holy, not a house for holiness.

    For holiness will never be inside a house or closed in by a fence ? not within the limits of our galaxy or beyond it, and not anywhere within our cosmos. It cannot be within anything at all; and yet, we can try to create a place for the holy, for those things that derive from holiness, those things that resonate with holiness. And those things that resonate with holiness are what we can term truly holy, those things that acquire something from the attribute of holiness because they are sensitive to it, they know it and recognize it. And it is in those things that are holy that we can speak about bonds, and about ways in which things are done through their connection with others.

    Every mathematician knows that there can be a correct mathematical formula that has something wrong with it because it is not elegant. In other words, in a subject that has no connection with the concept of beauty, there is a working definition of “inelegant formulas”; and a formula that is not elegant is flawed. This, then, is a slightly strange approach to truth and beauty, in a different sphere. It is not a sphere of visual aesthetics or of philosophy; and yet, things that contain values of reality or of truth do have some kind of relationship and connection to beauty.

    It turns out that, although truthfulness is not examined in terms of beauty, its boundaries, its definition and its correct presentation do bear a relationship to beauty. This is somewhat similar to the attitude towards the holy. (And note: towards the holy, not towards holiness.) For holiness there is no standard for measuring and no measuring stick, for with holiness, there is no way to build a network of values, borders or definitions. But for whatever lies between us and holiness, definitions can be created.

    And so the holy, that which stands at the point of contact between holiness and reality, must be in harmony with many other things. It must be in harmony with concepts such as truth, honesty, morality, reality, and even beauty. The holy, when it appears and reveals itself, must relate to this issue, and must be beautiful. The holy does not need beauty as an ornament; but, like mathematical elegance, it is part of the harmony of its being. This beauty is well defined; it is also complex because it stands at the meeting point between two values ? between holiness per se and beauty per se. And yet there is some point at which these two things can somehow interconnect.

    Let me finish with a verse that, however simple, is also quite enigmatic: Ze Eli ve’Anvehu, “this is my God and I will adorn Him” (Exodus 15:2). This verse has two classical interpretations. According to one, anvehu is interpreted as ani ve’hu ? me and Him, what is known in Latin as imitatio Dei ? imitating God, being like Him in attributes, in actions and in other ways. The second interpretation sees anvehu as derived from beauty – the commandment to adorn and to beautify, to make the holy beautiful.

    In a certain sense, these two interpretations are not alien to each other and are certainly not mutually exclusive. In fact, they speak about one and the same thing. When one comes in contact, closely or remotely, with the holy, the holy must somehow emanate upon him. This emanation must find expression in ways that are perfect in terms of other values as well: in terms of conduct, existence and beauty. When these things join together, I am still on the periphery, within the holy; but perhaps then it is possible to glance at holiness from a distance.

  13. Felix says:

    Ki Tetzei(Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19)

    The Spiral Staircase

    by Rav Noson Weisz

    By the time we read Ki Tetzei, we are well into the month of Elul. The scent of Rosh Hashana is in the air; the season of judgment and repentance is firmly upon us and our thoughts turn automatically to Teshuva, repentance. As all spiritual phenomena enter the physical world through the gateway of Shabbat, the Parsha we read invariably offers the information we require to meet the spiritual challenges of the season.

    * * *

    Our Parsha begins with going to war: “When you will go out to war against your enemies…” In the opinion of the commentators, [see Ohr HaChaim] this passage is also meant to be understood allegorically as a description of man’s life on earth. Earthly life is one long extended war with man’s enemy, the evil inclination – a war that begins at birth and is waged without respite until death. “When you will go out to war” is a different way of saying, “when you are born.” The Parsha offers several suggestions regarding strategies to employ in the conduct of this war. This essay will look at one of these suggestions in detail.

    The Midrash (Devarim Rabba 6,4) [see Rashi 21,10 as well] uncovers two spiritual spirals that lie concealed in the order in which the passages in the Parsha are presented. The first subject presented is the topic of the beautiful captive, which the Talmud (Kiddushin 21b) describes as a concession to the evil inclination. In the opinion of the Talmud, the Torah only allowed the taking of the beautiful captive because forbidding the action would have been ineffective; the evil inclination is rendered so powerful by the blood lust stimulated by a raging war that the average person does not have the spiritual fortitude to resist it. The evil inclination is the prime mover here; but it cannot be resisted.

    The second matter discussed is the contentious household with two wives and two sets of children. One wife and one set of children are ‘beloved’, whereas the other wife and the second set are ‘hated’. The Torah defends the rights of the ‘hated’ set. The third subject is the detailed description of how to deal with the problem of the wayward and rebellious son.

    * * *

    These three topics are arranged in this particular order because the matters they cover are all steps in a single developing situation according to the understanding of the Midrash. They exemplify the operation of a spiritual principle called “one sin drags another.” The taking of the beautiful captive introduces dissension into the household – the taker will ultimately prefer his Jewish born wife and her children. His original wife is not likely to take kindly to the introduction of the beautiful captive into her home and the poisoned atmosphere in the house will yield its bitter fruit: some of the children will turn out wayward and rebellious.

    The Da’at Zekenim Ba’alei Tosefot points to King David’s life as a perfect actualization of this negative chain. David took Ma’acho, the daughter of the king of Gshur as a beautiful captive,(Samuel II 3:3) and Absalom was one of the children he had with her. This same Absalom brought strife in David’s house [the saga of Amnon and Tamar, Samuel II 13]. He turned out to be rebellious as well – he led an unsuccessful rebellion against his father which was ultimately crushed only at the cost of many thousands of Jewish lives. Even a great and holy man such as King David could not break out of the chain described in the Parsha.

    And yet it is difficult to understand how all this can serve as an expression of the principle of “one sin leads to another.” No one sinned here at any stage. The person who took the beautiful captive did not commit a forbidden act; the Torah specifically allowed the action. The resulting dissension in the home did not arise out of any wrongdoing but was the natural outcome of an awkward situation. Finally, the wayward and rebellious son surely did not turn out as he did because of any evil intent on the part of his parents. His twisted character is a further unfortunate consequence of the awkward home situation. Where is the sin that triggered the chain of “sin dragging sin”?

    * * *

    But at least the connection between the events is clear even if the relationship to sin is not. The same Midrash finds an illustration of the opposite principle as well: “one Mitzvah leads to another.” In the merit of performing the Mitzvah of sending away the mother bird when appropriating the chicks (Devarim 22:6), a person acquires long life and gets to build himself a house and fulfill the Mitzvah of building a restraining wall upon the roof (Devarim 22:8). In the merit of that Mitzvah, he gets to plant a vineyard and fulfill the Mitzvah of not sowing in a mixture (Devarim 22:9). In the merit of fulfilling that Mitzvah, he gets to do the next one mentioned – he acquires a field so that he can fulfill the commandment of not plowing with a mixed team of an ox and an ass (Devarim 22:10). And finally, in the merit of fulfilling this Mitzvah, he gets to buy clothing and fulfill the commandment of not wearing shatnez [a material woven of a wool-linen mix] and the positive commandment of attaching tzitzit [ritual fringes] to corners of his new clothes (Devarim 22:11-12).

    In this passage the Mitzvot are clear; it is the connection of the events to each other that is a mystery. For example, if the reward for fulfilling the Mitzvah of ‘sending away the mother bird’ is the acquisition of a new house, this is not an example of “one Mitzvah dragging another”; the acquisition of the house is a reward for the Mitzvah done. There is no clear connection between these Mitzvot and the rewards they engender or in the relationship of these Mitzvot to each other. How can we explain this seemingly unrelated chain of events as an illustration of “one Mitzvah dragging another”?

    Let us begin with a consideration of “one sin drags another.”

    * * *

    A person should not think that repentance is only necessary for those sins that involve deeds such as lewdness, robbery or theft. Rather, just as a person is obligated to repent from these, similarly, he must search for the evil qualities that he has. He must repent from anger, hatred, envy, frivolity, the pursuit of money and honor, the pursuit of gluttony and the like.

    These sins are more difficult [to repent] than the ones that involve deeds. If a person is attached to these it is more difficult for him to separate himself… (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance, Ch.7,3)

    There are two types of sin. One sort is clearly defined, consisting of the performance of a Torah forbidden behavior such as lewdness or robbery. Whoever commits this sort of sin knows very well that he is doing wrong even as he is busy committing it. When a person can clearly recognize that what he is doing is wrong, repentance is relatively easy.

    But most behaviors in life are not so easy to define. What is considered eating moderately and at what stage does further indulgence turn into gluttony? When is expressing anger justified, and when does such expression constitute a demonstration of a negative character trait? At what point does healthy competition turn into negative envy? At what point does healthy ambition turn into pursuit of money and honor?

    Because the actions associated with these sins are not forbidden acts per se – indeed they are only wrongful deeds when they are expressive of negative character traits – the same actions may even constitute Mitzvah behaviors in other circumstances. For example, showing a child that you are angry when he did something wrong is appropriate behavior; expressing cruelty when punishing the wrongdoer is appropriate behavior.

    The moral ambiguity inherent in these types of actions make them difficult to abandon. It is all too easy for the person who is guilty of committing them to put himself into a state of denial. “I need to spend eighteen hours in my business to support my family! I am not pursuing money for its own sake! I am lowering myself by flattering all sorts of people I really don’t hold of in pursuit of a partnership in my firm not because I crave the honor. As a partner I will have more influence and be able to improve things for everyone!” There is no need to go on. We are all too familiar with these sorts of rationalizations in our own lives.

    * * *

    The taking of the beautiful captive is precisely such a sin of character. It may be impossible to resist the temptation in the heat of battle, but there is a thirty day mandatory cooling off period before the marriage to the beautiful captive becomes final. During this time, even the most besotted person should be able to devote some thought to the effect his indulgence in this ‘permissible’ behavior will have on his family. Does it not constitute a betrayal of his wife? Can she be expected to welcome the foreign woman into her home? Can his children accept this behavior and still maintain their respect for him?

    Any act that is fundamentally fueled by the evil impulse, even if it is permissible, is fraught with danger. It invariably expresses a negative character trait and therefore constitutes a forbidden act on the grounds of indulging in evil character traits. The person who surrenders to his negative character trait of self-centeredness and indulges himself in apparently permissible ways at the expense of members of his family destroys the harmony of his home forever. Dissension enters his home and envy and resentment the hearts of his children.

    It is no doubt true that everyone has free will and his wife and children could possibly have risen above the negative situation and preserved the harmony of the home. Nevertheless, the one who created the destructive situation is at least partially responsible for all the negative consequences to which it gives rise.

    The first teaching of our Parsha concerning the ‘war’ of life is the proper understanding of the principle of “sin dragging sin.” The Torah teaches us that this principle does not restrict itself to acts which are forbidden outright and are clearly sins, but is also triggered by activities which may not be sinful in themselves but are the expression of negative character traits, especially those actions that harm others.

    Let us now consider the example of “Mitzvot dragging Mitzvot.” There is something startling about the order of the passages.

    * * *

    Intelligent procedure dictates that a person find himself a trade that will provide him with a source of income and only afterwards buy himself a house and only then marry … the fools marry first, then try and buy a house and only look for a source of income later on in their lives… (Maimonides, Laws of Ethics, Ch.6,11)

    Yet if we study the order of the passages that teach us the concept of ‘Mitzvot dragging Mitzvot’ according to the Midrash, they clearly follow the backward, ‘foolish’ order. The person of our passage first merits a house, then a vineyard, whose purpose is to supply him with wine, a source of ease and pleasure but hardly a necessity of life, and only merits his field as a third step. Can this backward order be coincidental?

    The Maharal offers the following explanation. Nachmanides discusses the purpose of the Mitzvah of sending away the mother in great detail and one of his suggestions is that the Mitzvah is a demonstration of Divine concern for the preservation of the species. If you take both the mother and the nestlings you destroy two generations; if you only take the nestlings, the mother is free to bring forth another batch to replace the ones taken. The person who performs this Mitzvah is therefore occupied with ensuring the continuance of the world.

    In terms of the contribution they make to the continuance of the world the passages are presented in their correct order. The first one involves a house. A house is where the next generation of mankind is born and raised; the Mitzvah associated with the house concerns the protection of human life.

    In terms of ensuring the continuance of life, the provision of food is the next necessary step. This is expressed in terms of the vineyard that doesn’t need to be plowed with work animals. The Mitzvah associated with the vineyard involves the preservation of God’s demarcation between different species; avoiding tampering with the way He arranged life forms and species. Life must be nourished, but in the way that God dictates.

    The third step is the harnessing of other life forms to man’s service and improving his quality of life. Therefore it refers to fields because it is fields that must be plowed with the help of work animals to make their cultivation profitable; the Mitzvah associated with this stage is again symbolic of the requirement to preserve the separation of life forms as God intended.

    * * *

    In other words, the steps in the upward spiral are related through the human inputs required to keep civilization functioning. As we have explained many times in these essays, the ultimate source of all inputs is the Divine energy constantly supplied by God in the form of spiritual inputs into man’s soul. The person who applies effort to the preservation of God’s world by fulfilling even an easy Mitzvah, like sending away the mother bird when he takes the nestlings, is attaching himself to God. His attachment provides a human highway along which the spiritual emanation of continuance that issues from God and sustains the world can travel.

    This emanation flows outwards from the doer and gradually spreads out over the world like the ripples set off in a pond by the splashing of a stone. In terms of spiritual emanations the house comes before the farm, because it is more directly associated with the survival of civilization through the development of the next generation of humans.

    A process of ascent that begins in the physical world must follow the logical order of Maimonides. First you need the field, than the vineyard and only finally the house. But in terms of spiritual emanations that issue from God and descend to the physical world, the house initiates the ripple in the pond of life from which the waves of human energy emanate.

    There is a startling discovery to be made in this explanation of the upward spiral of “Mitzvot dragging Mitzvot.” It turns out that in terms of connecting to God, the size and importance of the Mitzvah through which one establishes his connection is of no importance. Any Mitzvah can serve as a means of connection. Any Mitzvah automatically associates the doer with the flow of Divine energy into the world that passes through that Mitzvah.

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    If we now contrast the downward spiral of “sin dragging sin” with the upward spiral of “‘Mitzvah dragging Mitzvah,” the following points emerge. The downward spiral of spiritual descent is initiated not by acts that the Torah defines as sinful. It begins with acts of gross self- indulgence, permissible in themselves, but which can only be executed at the cost of inflicting pain and mental anguish on other people, especially those who are closest. The outward signs of spiritual descent are strife, mental anguish and children who turn out wrong. The pain and suffering people inflict on each other destroys the loving environment that encourages the development of healthy, well-adjusted human beings. The infliction of such pain is the very antithesis of maintaining the world. It is the sin that kicks off the chain of spiritual decline summed up in the concept of “sin dragging sin.”

    In contrast to the downward spiral which is presented in terms of the accelerating negative psychological effects of sin on human beings, the upward spiral of “Mitzvah dragging Mitzvah” is presented in terms of physical possessions; houses, vineyards, fields and domestic animals. The physical world becomes an expression of spiritual emanations; possessions are there to provide the opportunity of doing Mitzvot. People who draw their sustenance from the spiritual emanation of Mitzvot find themselves in situations that are considered unlikely according to the rules of good husbandry.

    In the physical world the size and importance of causes are commensurate with their effects. But when this world becomes a reflection of spirituality and follows the rules of Mitzvot, size and importance recede into the background. A minor Mitzvah such as sending away the mother bird can cause an amazing transformation in the quality of life. As the Mishna teaches, “Be as scrupulous in performing a ‘minor’ Mitzvah as in a major one for you do not know the reward given for respective Mitzvot.”(Avoth 2:1)

    * * *

    These thoughts contain an important message regarding the teshuva that is expected to be our focus in the Jewish month of Elul. Levels of observance differ. If a person who was born observant, who knows the rules of the Torah and who believes in the truth of the Torah deviates from observance in the slightest particular, he is committing a sin and launching himself on the downward spiral of “sin dragging sin.” But for the person who is slowly approaching observance, the adoption of any Mitzvah, no matter how minor and unimportant it may seem, even if he or she is not yet ready to accept all the Mitzvot, constitutes an attachment to the spiritual emanation of God and will inevitably transform the quality of his or her life. Any attachment to God places a person on the upward spiral of “Mitzvah dragging Mitzvah.”

    On the other hand whether one is observant or not, the negative spiral of “sin dragging sin” must be avoided. We must make ourselves aware of the effects of our acts of self-indulgence on others, especially our spouses and our children. If these acts of indulgence cause dissension and mental anguish, if they introduce jealousy and resentment into our homes, they place us on the downward spiral of ‘sin dragging sin’ and cut us off from being able to connect to God and the world of spirituality. Regardless of the rung on the ladder of observance we have reached, we must teach ourselves to avoid such acts at all costs.

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