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Rabbis' Blog

When you’re supposed to be disobedient

 

We place a premium on etiquette and respect. If you ask someone for something numerous times and are repeatedly rejected, it’s rude to continue asking. But there is an exception to every rule and in this week’s parsha Moshe illustrates an instance where disregarding etiquette is the way to go.

After forty years in the desert the Jews faced grave danger when their water supply suddenly stopped. Moshe struck the rock with his staff instead of speaking to it as G-d had instructed and water gushed forth miraculously. As a result G-d decreed that Moshe would not merit to enter the land of Israel and would be buried in the desert together with the entire generation that had perished during their forty year sojourn.

Moshe prayed and pleaded to G-d to rescind the decree and allow him to enter the land of Israel. The opening words of this week’s parsha indicate that Moshe offered no less than 515 (!) unique supplications to this end and was repeatedly rejected, to the point that G-d warned him not to mention the request again.

There are several questions here. Firstly, why did Moshe continuously pray to enter the land of Israel if G-d had expressly told him it would not happen? Secondly, why did Moshe not accept G-d’s decree as Judaism teaches one must accept everything from G-d with joy? Most importantly, why is it relevant for us today to know that Moshe was rejected so many times?

The Talmud states that Moshe’s handiwork is eternal and could never be destroyed. Even the Tabernacle built by Moshe in the desert was buried and remains intact until today. If Moshe would have entered the land of Israel and built the Holy Temple it would never be destroyed and exile would never happen.

In other words, his entry to Israel would affect the ultimate redemption for all humanity. He wasn’t praying for his own sake, he was praying for the world.

Clearly G-d had other plans, but even after hearing directly from G-d that the time was not yet ripe for the ultimate redemption, Moshe stubbornly continued to pray and demand for it at great personal sacrifice, because when so much is at stake one should never accept reality as it is.

Moshe taught us that praying and demanding for redemption is not merely a reaction to national catastrophe or personal tragedy, but a moral obligation incumbent upon all of us to do everything we can to make our world a more perfect place.

Never tire from asking G-d to bring Moshiach, because it may very well be the next prayer you say or the next mitzvah you do that will tip the scales for the better and affect the perfection of the entire universe when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

(Adapted from Sichas Yud Alef Menachem Av 5751) 

 

 

 

Always looking out for us

 

Stuff happens. Kids misbehave, partners make careless mistakes and neighbors can be a nuisance. If you can keep the peace without making a commotion, that’s great but at one point the time will come for an honest conversation.

Devarim, the fifth book of the Torah, is an account of Moshe’s final conversation with the Jewish people. After leading them for forty years, he gathered them thirty seven days before his passing and communicated a divine monologue containing law, history and inspiration.

But first came the honest conversation. The opening words of Devarim are a brief yet intense recap of all the times the Jewish people rebelled against G-d. They complained when there was a lack of water and whined about the substance of the heavenly bread they received every morning. Standing at the Red Sea they railed against G-d for taking them out of Egypt to die and after miraculously crossing on dry land they got distracted with collecting the Egyptian treasures that had washed ashore instead of marching on to Sinai.

The Korach uprising was a disaster and the rebellion of the spies delayed their entrance to Israel by forty years. Many thousands succumbed to promiscuity with the Midianites and Moabites and the sin of the Golden Calf haunts us until today. 

You would never see this list just by reading the opening verses of Devarim because Moshe implied these events in code. The famed Torah interpreter Rashi decodes the words and clarifies that Moshe did so in order to preserve the dignity of our people. Furthermore, the chosen codes actually imply a defense for the Jews in each scenario.

They complained about water because they were stranded in a parched desert and under appreciated the heavenly bread because it was a transcendent type of nutrition. Trapped between a raging sea and the murderous Egyptians would scare anyone to death and they got so distracted with the Egyptian treasures because one week earlier G-d had told them they must sack Egypt clean of all its wealth.

Korach was a manipulative charlatan who sweet-talked them into rebellion and there was no way they could have known that their handpicked spies would seek to bar them from inheriting the Promised Land unless there was a very good reason for doing so. Moav was a nation with a legacy of promiscuity and living in close proximity to them certainly had an impact on them. And about the Golden Calf, G-d was the one who provided them with all that overabundance of gold and it is no wonder they did foolish things with it.

This is a valuable lesson in discipline and rebuke. Even when the proverbial rod is necessary, be clear that you understand the misbehavior is not chronic or malicious and that your love and devotion is still very strong.

This week Thursday we observe Tisha B’av, the anniversary of the destruction of both Holy Temples and the beginning of our long and terrible exile. Although all the pain and suffering resulted from our misbehavior, we know this is all temporary and very soon, through our increased mitzvot, we will merit to usher in the final redemption when there will be peace and tranquility for all.

(Adapted from Likkutei Sichos vol 14 pages 1-7.) 

 

It’s all set up for you

 

Free will is the foundation of human relationship with G-d. Noone is born knowing how to fulfill mitzvot and Tefillin, Matzos and Shofars don’t fall from heaven. We must make a conscious decision to invest the time and effort to do Mitzvos properly.

So while mitzvah observance may seem to be a one sided investment on our part, a usually overlooked detail in the story of this week’s parsha reveals how G-d is very much involved in the mitzvos we do all the time.

As the Jewish nation prepared to conquer and inherit the Land of Israel, many of the surrounding nations, blinded by their irrational anti-semitism, tried to stop the Jews from advancing. The Emorites battled them and lost, the Moabites hired Bilaam the prophet to curse them and failed, but the Midianites orchestrated an elaborate scheme to seduce the Jews to sin and successfully caused the death of 22,000 men.

G-d instructed the Jews to retaliate and after a brief and miraculous battle Midian was conquered. The amount of people and livestock that were captured as spoils of war was astounding and G-d instructed Moshe to divide the plunder equally between the soldiers that went out to battle and the rest of the nation.

A special tax was to be taken from the spoils and dedicated to G-d. From the soldiers Moshe was to take one five hundredth of the people, cattle, donkeys and sheep and give them to Elazar the High Priest. From the rest of the people Moshe was to take one fiftieth of the people, cattle, donkeys and sheep and give them to the Levites. Since the Priests and Levites served G-d in the Holy Temple, giving them the tax elevated and sanctified the rest of the spoils as well.

Instead of concluding this chapter of the story by simply recording that Moshe followed G-d’s instructions, the Torah, which serves as a guide for eternity, records in minute detail the exact amount of people, cattle, donkeys and sheep the Jews plundered from the Midianites and how much the respective taxes were. Why must we know all these details today?

Reading through the detailed counting of the spoils, something astounding emerges: the hundreds of thousands of individual units of plunder were counted up in even numbers of groups of five hundred and groups of fifty! There were absolutely no extras! Although this phenomenon is definitely not nature defying like Avraham miraculously coming out of a fiery furnace unscathed - it is so unusual  that it could be classified as close to impossible.

G-d set up the Midianite economy in such a way that when the Jews would ultimately defeat them they would have this specific number of people, cattle, donkeys and sheep so that the tax would represent every unit of plunder. Even one extra cow or sheep would render the entire mitzvah insufficient.

The Torah enumerates all this in over one hundred seemingly extra words in order to teach us today to never be daunted when facing challenges in observing Mitzvos. G-d has it all set up for us, and we just need to make the right choices.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos vol. 13 pages 110-113.

Get to know your heritage

 

Today I attended a Covid era Bris. You’d think that being limited to having just the parents, mohel and sandek in attendance would dampen the celebration. Not so. Dozens of friends and family participated via Zoom and the celebratory air and emotion in the room when the child was inducted into the covenant of Abraham was as powerful and intense as any Bris I attended

The secret to our ability to infuse even the most toned down celebration of this important milestone is rooted in the fact that our heritage transcends all limitations of time and space. From the beginning of our nationhood we were told that the Torah and all of its 613 mitzvos are the heritage of every Jew no matter where they may be or how much they know. And this tiny Bris was no different.

It reminded me of a story about Rambam, the famed 12th century Jewish sage known as Maimonides. As the personal physician of the Egyptian sultan he enjoyed much honor in the royal court and his anti-semitic colleagues sought ways to get rid of him and finally one of the king’s closest confidants spun a convincing liable accusing Rambam of treason and the king agreed that he needed to be executed.

However, due to his great love and admiration for his wise physician he sought to find a roundabout way to arrange Rambam’s death. The same confidant suggested that the attendant of the royal lime pit be told that the first person to approach him with the message “Have carried out the king’s orders” should be thrown into the lime pit immediately. The king will then send Rambam to deliver the message to the lime pit attendant and Rambam will meet his end without a public scandal.

The king agreed to the plan and sent the Rambam on the suicide mission the next day. As the Rambam made his way on foot towards the lime pit which was a fair distance from the palace he was approached by a Jew who desperately needed a Mohel to perform a bris on his eight-day old son. The sun would soon set and he was not able to reach the other Mohelim in town.

Rambam reasoned that although he was on a mission from the sultan, surely the commandment of G-d the King of all Kings was more important and he detoured to the Jew’s house where there was a small crowd assembled. After performing the Bris the host insisted he stay for the joyous feast and honored him with reciting the grace after meals on a large glass of wine. The wine had its effect and as he hurried to the limepit he was overcome with exhaustion and laid down to rest for a while.

Meanwhile the antisemitic minister was overjoyed at having signed Rambam’s death sentence he wanted to see the burning embers of his nemesis. Calculating that Rambam had sufficient time to reach the lime pit he himself went to the limepit and innocently asked the attendant if he had fulfilled the king’s orders. To his horror, the man lifted him up and thrust him to his death on the spot.

When Rambam finally reached the lime pit, he realized the great miracle that had occurred in the merit of performing the Bris.

Rambam's greatest contribution to Judaism was  to make every mitzvah in the Torah accessible to every Jew. He authored a digest of all the 613 mitzvot called Sefer Hamitzvot. In 1984, the Rebbe introduced a novel study cycle of Maimonides’ great work on Jewish law and incorporated an easy to follow system of learning all 613 mitzvot in under a year. Yesterday, millions of Jews around the world completed the 39th cycle and today begins the 40th cycle.

You can join the movement and take hold of your heritage by committing a few minutes each day to study and by next summer you will be familiar with all 613 mitzvot!

There are many resources available in numerous languages. Easy-to-read overviews, audio and video classes and a daily email straight to your inbox. There is even an app for it! Click here to find the best way for you to join.

We deserve miracles

 

People have limits. There is only so much a mortal is willing to put up with and when the beneficiary of your kindness fails to show appreciation, it’s inevitable that the kindness flow will dry up. G-d works on a different level.

In this week’s parsha we learn of the passing of Miriam, Moshe’s sister. The loss of such a legendary woman was compounded by the fact that the rock that had been miraculously providing water for the millions of Israelites in the desert for forty years suddenly dried up. It was finally revealed that the water miracle had been in her merit and the nation now faced an existential crisis.

After forty years of dedicated and proven leadership you’d think that the people would approach Moshe and Aharon respectfully and inquire how they will procure water. Astonishingly, a violent riot broke out to the point that Moshe and Aharon fled from the mob into the Mishkan and needed to be protected by a divine cloud.

G-d instructed Moshe and Aharon to restart the water flow by speaking to the rock. As millions of Jews gathered to witness the miracle, Moshe mistakenly spoke to the wrong rock which did not give forth water. Remembering that forty years previously G-d had instructed him to strike the rock and it gave forth water, he did the same now and, miraculously, water started flowing.

The nation breathed a joyous sigh of relief, astounded by the miracle of water once again flowing from the rock through Moshe’s strike, but G-d was displeased. The plan was for the rock to bring forth water as a result of Moshe speaking to it, not by hitting it. Consequently G-d decreed that Moshe and Aharon would pass away in the desert without meriting to enter the Promised Land.

There is so much depth to the story and myriads of interpretations and lessons we can learn from it. In 1982 as Israel faced unbearable security challenges in the heat of the First Lebanon War the Rebbe explained that this story illustrates that Jews are worthy of experiencing miracles regardless of their spiritual level.

Think about it: the Israelites in the desert were in such a spiritual rut that they attempted to lynch the saintly Moshe and Aharon who had faithfully taken care of their needs for forty years. Nevertheless G-d wanted these lowlives to experience the awesome miracle of a rock giving forth water as a result of being spoken to, and when Moshe and Aharon denied this experience from them unintentionally, they were severely punished.

This Shabbat marks 93 years since the Previous Rebbe was released from Soviet captivity. The Soviets had sentenced him to death for keeping Judaism alive behind the Iron Curtain, but through a string of fantastic miracles he was freed on the 12th of Tammuz, within a month of his arrest . (Read more about it here.)

As we celebrate our miraculous peoplehood through history may we merit very soon to experience the ultimate miracle - the redemption of the world through Moshiach when goodness and peace will reign for all.

 

 

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