Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Heart of the Matter

The book of Bamidbar begins with a count of the Jewish people, followed by a separate count of the tribe of Levi.  The Torah then goes on to explain the groupings of the tribes and the specifics of their encampments as they travel together through the wilderness. After describing the location of each tribe in the   formation,     the   Torah    states: 

"ונסע אהל מועד...בתוך המחנות"

(The tent of meeting…shall travel in the middle of the camps).  

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein comments on the significance of the placement of the Tabernacle, which houses the Aron Kodesh containing the Luchot, in the center of the nation’s encampment.  Rabbi Feinstein explains that the Torah must be located at an equal distance to each tribe, no closer to one than another, and likens it to the human heart that is centrally located in the body.  

This statement provides two insights into each individual’s relationship to the Torah.  Firstly, like the heart that provides life-sustaining oxygen to all of the limbs and organs in the human body, so too does the Torah provide the spiritual sustenance that, as Jews, we cannot live without.

Secondly, the Aron Kodesh was placed in the center of the camp to symbolize that the Torah is available and accessible to everyone.  No one individual has more of a claim to the Torah and its eternal heritage than any other Jew.  It is our equal share in the strength of the Torah that unites us all as a nation.

In the days leading up to Shvauot, the anniversary of the revelation at Sinai, when the entire nation encamped as “one man with one heart,” this lesson is most poignant.  We each have an equal share in our precious heritage and we each need the Torah to live and grow as Jews.  It is our responsibility to utilize the Torah ourselves and to share it with the next generation. 

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Don Pacht

Friday, May 11, 2018


"אם בחקתי תלכו ואת מצותי תשמרו"

With this introductory phrase, the Torah teaches us the way to guarantee our prosperity, security, and closeness to Hashem.  This verse is often translated “If you will go in my statutes and observe my commandments.”  

Rashi notes that the first half of the verse cannot refer to performance of the Mitzvot, as that is expressly stated in the second part of the verse.  Rashi therefore explains “go in my statutes” as a reference to “toil in the study of Torah.” 

It is noteworthy to point out that Rashi did not simply state “the study of Torah”, but specifically to toil in its study.  

Rabbi Shmuel Rozovitzky explains what Rashi means, and how Rashi reached his understanding.  Torah study cannot be approached as an ordinary academic pursuit. Rather, the precepts of the Torah serve as the blueprint by which we lead our lives.  The indicator to this approach is the Torah’s use of the word תלכו (go [in my statutes]), if the Torah were just a book of laws and information, this would hardly be an appropriate term.  

It is not enough to study Torah, attain some knowledge, and allow our growth to stop.  We must continue to toil in Torah, and to reach ever higher all the days of our lives. This lesson is most poignant as we approach the Chag of Shavuot as we reaffirm our commitment to the Torah and its values.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Don Pacht

Friday, May 4, 2018

Who Needs This?

Following a list of Mitzvot that apply to the Kohanim as they perform the Temple service, the Torah delineates the guidelines that must be adhered to for individual sacrifices.  

The Torah tells us that when one brings a Korban, he should do so with the following in mind; לרצנחם תזבחו(for you shall you offer it).  The intent of this directive, as explained by Rashi, is that by following the proper procedure for a Kosher Korban, this sacrifice will find favor for its owner in the eyes of Hashem.  

The Talmud in Menachot however, offers another insight based on the literal meaning of the words.  “Do not think that the purpose of the offerings is so that Hashem will have many gifts.  Does the one whose utterances created the heavens and the earth really need your gift?  Rather, the Korbanot are a way for us to connect with, and bring ourselves closer to, Hashem.  They are for our own benefit, not for the benefit of Hashem.”

The same can be said for Tefilah (prayer) which, in the absence of a Temple, takes the place of the regular offerings.  Hashem does not need our blessings and prayers.  We pray daily to thank Hashem for the kindnesses he bestows upon us, and to create and maintain a close relationship with our Creator. 

We are incredibly fortunate to have such an avenue available to us and it is our responsibility to maintain it properly.  If we Daven by rote, with no consideration or feeling, then we are allowing that special closeness to atrophy.  As we read the words of the Tefillot, it behooves us to consider who really stands to gain.

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Don Pacht

Friday, April 27, 2018

Man In The Middle

While the first mention of the directive to honour one’s parents appears in the Aseret HaDibrot (Ten Commandments), its companion Mitzvah appears at the start of Parashat Kedoshim:
איש אמו ואביו תיראו
(Every man: your mother and father shall you revere)
In this articulation, the Torah uses the word ‘איש’ (man), translated here as ‘every man’.

Rabbi Binyomin Sofer, in his commentary, offers an insightful explanation for this choice of phrase.  Even if an individual is a grown ‘man’, having achieved self-sufficiency and success on many levels, he must still honour and revere his mother and father.

Our sages explain that the fundamental principle underlying the Mitzvah to honour one’s parents is that of הכרת הטוב  (appreciation for the favour shown you).   Our parents look after us during a stage of life when we are fully reliant on their assistance for every need, any success we achieve, is thanks to them.  Our current state of independence does not absolve us of our obligation to show our appreciation, it is actually one more thing to be appreciative for! 

Regardless of our station in life, no man is an island.  We all have those around us on whom we rely.  As children, our care and guidance are provided by parents and teachers. As adults, it may come from a spouse, a colleague, a friend or even a stranger.  To deny the debt of gratitude we owe those around us, is not an expression of independence and maturity.  In fact, just the opposite is true.  A ‘real man’ understands and appreciates the positive affect of others on his own life and responds in kind.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Don Pacht

Friday, April 20, 2018

Mightier than the Sword

The parshiot of Tazria and Metzora deal at length with the topic of Tzara’at, a spiritual affliction that comes as a punishment for speaking Loshon Horah.  The specifics of Tzara’at are quite technical; therefore, should a person see that a blemish has appeared on his skin, he is instructed to show it to a Kohen. The Kohanim were designated by the Torah to become familiar with the various forms and manifestations of the affliction, and to diagnose and determine if a blemish is in-fact Tzara’at.

Rashi points out a very peculiar law.  The status of a Tzara’at blemish is dependent upon the declaration of the Kohen. Although people may see blemishes, they are not deemed “impure” until they are declared so by the Kohen. Amazingly, the impurity is not viewed retroactively to seeing the blemish.  It is the words of the Kohen that create the new status.  Similarly, once the blemish is healed, one must still wait for the Kohen to deem him “pure” before the purification procedure may begin.

The Mikdash Mordechai explains the nature of this law.  Although it defies our understanding of contagion and diseases, these guidelines for Tzara’at are meant to open the eyes of the offender and persuade him to change his ways.

By highlighting the significance of the spoken word and by exhibiting how even one word of the Kohen has the ability to affect such a major change, we are teaching people how very important it is to be mindful of the words that they speak.  Even a few small words, spoken in jest, can create immeasurable pain to a person.

The lesson of the Kohen’s words is meant to drive home the weighty power of speech.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Don Pacht

Friday, April 13, 2018

Spiritual Snowbirds

Parshat Shmini tells of the beginning of the regular priestly service in the Mishkan, followed by the untimely deaths of two of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. The Torah then turns to a discussion of the laws of Kashrut, delineating for us the unique characteristics of permissible animals and fish, the very first “Kosher Symbols” as it were, then a list of forbidden birds, and finally a list of permissible and forbidden insects.
Among the birds that the Torah lists as “unclean”, or non-kosher, is the Chasida. The Ibn Ezra comments about the Chasida, that it is a bird that appears only during certain, identifiable times of the year.
While the Ibn Ezra certainly meant to impart a literal and practical piece of information about this bird, likely to aid in its identification, the Kotzker Rebbe offers a figurative interpretation that imparts a lesson as well.
As we know, the name “Chasida” comes from the word “Chasid”, meaning ‘pious’, (or one who acts piously). The Kotzker Rebbe explains, an individual who acts properly and piously only during specific times of the year, (during the High-Holidays, for example), but these behaviors are not truly representative of that person’s character, such an approach is “not kosher”.
We must all strive to model the proper Middot and behaviors that a Torah life requires. It is not appropriate to put on a false façade when we feel like it. But rather we must ingrain these ideals upon our minds and upon our hearts, so that they are always with us, and so that we model them always.
True piety and true service to Hashem is not a seasonal endeavor, but a continuous pursuit, and an ongoing investment of effort.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Don Pacht 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Why Is This Night Different?

For the night of the Pesach Seder our sages have enacted a long list of customs and laws that force us to focus and consider the order of the evening.  One of the most central themes of the Seder involves inspiring children to ask questions about the proceedings.

The Maharal offers a powerful insight into the Mitzvot that we perform on Pesach night.  He explains that while the Talmud debates whether or not specific Kavanah (intent) is required when performing Mitzvot, all opinions agree that for several Mitzvot the intent is the primary focus. 

It may be possible to shake a lulov without concentrating and internalizing the ideas that it represents.  But the Mitzvah to love Hashem is, of course, an emotional issue and therefore requires that we concentrate on the task.  Similarly, the Maharal continues, the Mitzvah of Zecher Yitziyat Mitzrayim (remembering the exodus from Egypt) is primarily an emotions-based Mitzvah. We are asked to ‘see ourselves as though we have been enslaved and then set free.’ 

We are therefore provided with numerous opportunities to remind ourselves of the special events of this night, to inspire our hearts to recognize and concentrate on Hashem’s immeasurable love for us and for the unique significance of this special night.  The four questions are not just for the children, but they are meant to give us pause, and to put our hearts and minds into focus.

It is our challenge to take the level of concentration, understanding and insight that we put into our Pesach Seder and apply it to all areas of our spiritual lives, and with that we can harness the power of our redemption from Egypt to bring closer the final redemption.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Don Pacht