Jul 03 2015

Open Your Eyes

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donkeyIn this week’s reading, we learn the incredible story of Bila’am, who traveled to curse the Jews, only to be confronted by an angel – and his own donkey.

His donkey saw the angel first, with a drawn sword, and prudently steered to avoid the angel by walking off the path. Bila’am responded by hitting the donkey, especially when it trapped Bila’am’s leg against the wall as it desperately tried to avoid their death.

The donkey was doing the right thing; Bila’am refused to see. Even when G-d miraculously gave the donkey the power of speech, Bila’am responded by threatening to kill it. Finally the donkey started to get through: it asked Bila’am, (paraphrasing Num. 22:30) “in all the years you have ridden me as your donkey, have I ever acted like this towards you?” And Bila’am admitted that it had not.

And then, finally, G-d opened Bila’am’s eyes. Or, at least, this is what the translations say. The Hebrew word, “VayeGal,” comes from the root “Galui,” something which is revealed, the opposite of hidden. Of course Bila’am could see, his eyes were wide open the whole time. But he could not see the truth — that there was an angel standing in front of him.

He should have known the truth. Clearly the donkey was acting wildly out of character — he should have known there was some good reason without needing to see the angel himself. Only once he began to understand, and admitted that the donkey had never acted this way, only then did G-d let him see the truth.

Friends of us once recounted the story of taking a walk on a Shabbos afternoon, when a well-known Rabbi and his daughter suddenly emerged from their house and jumped into a waiting taxi. After Shabbos, the daughter called them to let them know that her father had a medical emergency, which required “breaking” the Sabbath in order to save his life in accordance with Jewish Law. The wife, telling this story, recalled thinking to herself “no, really? We thought that after 80 years, the Rabbi had said ‘I’ve had enough of this Jewish observance, let’s go for a ride!'”

Sadly, though, it’s not always so simple. It’s not always so obvious that the person acting so out of character might have a very good reason (even emotionally) to act contrary to his or her normal behavior. And it’s our obligation to try to see beyond the limitations of our eyes, to imagine .

This world is all about concealment. We only know part of the story, we don’t know all the facts, we don’t understand. If Bila’am should have understood that there must be a really good reason for his faithful donkey to suddenly act this way, we should certainly try to recognize that good people don’t suddenly go bad — and interpret their actions for the best.

Jun 26 2015

An Unbroken Chain

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We read this week about the passing of Aharon, the first Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. At the time of his passing, G-d tells Moshe to ascend the mountain with both Aharon and Elazar, his son — and to remove the vestments of the High Priest from Aharon, and place them upon Elazar before his father’s passing.

IMG_1802_1__61147.1423773883.1280.1280The Sifsei Chachamim points out that this is a unique moment. It was forbidden to leave the Temple Mount wearing those unique garments — so why was Aharon told to ascend the mountain in them, and Elazar to return wearing them?

Aharon was special to the Jewish nation in two ways, which we could perhaps describe as “personal” and “professional.” He, Aharon, was a pursuer of peace, the one who helped people to reconcile their differences. But he also held a critical office in the leadership of the Jewish people, as the High Priest.

Every time a great leader or teacher passes away, it is natural to worry that no one can fill his place, that he was irreplaceable. By having Elazar descend back to the Jewish nation in the Priestly Vestments, HaShem was sending us a message — that as much as every individual truly is unique, the nation will not be leaderless.

Hashem had to order them to ascend the mountain. None of the three, of course, wanted to see Aharon pass away. But Moshe was also ordered to dress Elazar. The impression given is that Elazar would not, otherwise, have wanted to put them on. He would have hesitated, but HaShem showed him that he should wear them. He would never be Aharon, his father — but he would be Kohen Gadol.

Just last year, following the passing of Rav Ovadiah Yosef, who had been the leader of Sephardic Jewry around the world, Rav Shalom Cohen, Dean of Yeshivat Porat Yosef in Jerusalem, was appointed to succeed him as the head of the Moetzet Chachmei HaTorah, the council of scholars that guides Sha”s, the Sephardic party in Israel. While Rav Cohen was a member of that Moetzet since its formation over thirty years ago, many pointed out that he always invested his time in scholarship and in teaching his students, rather than political matters.

It has been this way throughout our history, that the true leaders have not sought leadership, but only to dedicate themselves to God and the Jewish people. They find leadership thrust upon them, often by their own predecessors if not by that predecessors’ other students. HaShem promised us that just as the Jewish people will always survive, we will never find ourselves like a ship without a rudder. The two go together — we will always find ourselves with leaders, to guide us forward through history.

Jun 12 2015

The Land of Israel

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EinGediThis week, we read the portion of the spies, send by the Children of Israel to go spy out the land that they would enter. This wasn’t, as Rashi tells us from the Medrash, a Commandment — but rather “if that’s what you want to do, send them.” G-d knew, of course, that this was going to be counterproductive, but He allowed them to make their own decision. As we know, they returned with an evil, destructive report.

The Ba’al HaTurim comments that there is a hint to future exile in the very word “send” — the numerical value of “Sh’lach” is 338, and the First Temple was destroyed in 3338.

It seems that speaking ill of the Land of Israel doesn’t go out of style. I was there recently, and a daughter just completed a year of study. A close relative, one much less familiar with today’s reality in the Holy Land, described this as having sent my daughter to a war zone. [We live in Baltimore; need I say more?]

It is sad to contemplate how many Jews now believe that not only is Israel a war zone, but that Israel is warlike, responsible for the ongoing conflict. On campuses across America, Jews unfamiliar with the history of anti-Semitism now lend credence to its modern iteration — the delegitimization of Jews living in our ancestral homeland.

Instead we are told that native “Palestinians” are Arab, and Jews — who never left that land except by force — are “immigrants.” That Jews anxious to simply live in peace are the problem, while those who celebrate murders are simply “resisting occupation.” That terror attacks against Jews should be ignored, while efforts to neutralize those terrorists are Israel “attacking” Gaza.

Reverse the error of the spies — go to the Holy Land and see for yourself. You will see how safe it is, generally speaking. Learn how Israel defends Jewish lives in a more humane fashion than any other army in the world, including those of the US and its allies. And above all, appreciate what it means to be able to stand on holy ground.

Jun 05 2015

Ignite a Soul

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match-lightIn this week’s reading, Aharon is Commanded to light the Menorah in the Temple.

What happens when you light a flame? Lighting a second candle takes nothing from the first one. Doing so merely spreads the light, adding to it.

If you’ve ever seen a building constructed with old stone walls, you may have noticed that the windows are wider on the inside, to allow the sunlight from the outside to spread inside the building. The Temple, though, was constructed the opposite way. The windows were narrower on the inside, so that light from within the Temple should spread to the outside.

We read in Proverbs (20:27) that “The light of HaShem is the soul of man.” We are to not only to light candles… we are supposed to give light to souls, as well. Rav Asher Z. Rubenstein zt”l pointed out that G-d doesn’t need our help, in this as in anything. But He wants us to take part in spreading the light.

The Commandment is to light “until the flame burns by itself.” It is not enough to simply see a little spark of light; the job isn’t completed until the light is able to burn brightly by itself — and able to “pay it forward” and ignite other flames as well.

We should all do our part, every day, to light the lights not only within ourselves, but others.

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