Friday, June 22, 2018

Most Valuable Player

Our Parsha opens with what is quite possibly the most enigmatic of Mitzvot, the Parah Adumah (Red Heffer). This unique animal allowed for the purification of those contaminated by a corpse, the highest level of spiritual impurity. The process involves a seven-day segregation period with ‘sprinkling’ of the special waters of the Parah (containing ashes of the burnt sacrifice), on days three and seven. 
This sprinkling was to be performed by a Kohen who is tahor (pure), as the verse states: 
והזה הטהר על הטמא“ 
“...and the pure shall sprinkle on the impure.” 
What is quite strange about this particular process is that the individuals who prepare the waters become tamei (impure) from their exposure, while the very same waters purify the tamei! 
The Jerusalem Talmud records an interesting statement that stems from this verse:
 Rabbi Yehoshua ben Kevusi said, “All my life I assumed that one pure person could sprinkle [the waters of the Parah Adumah] on only one impure person. Until I learned from the ‘Treasury of Yavneh’ that one pure Kohen can purify many individuals.” 
Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Shach offers an allegorical explanation of this T almudic passage that offers an important message for each and every one of us. Rav Shach explains, that it is the human condition to impose limits on what we believe we can accomplish and to limit, in our own minds, the scope of our influence. As it were-maybe I can purify ‘one other person’. In fact, we learn from the Treasury of Yavneh, that each one of us can reach and connect with a far greater audience. 
This reference to Yavneh, speaks of the request that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai made of the Roman General Vespasian, just prior to the destruction of the Holy Temple, to spare the sages of Yavneh. This request was granted as the Rabbi had found favour with the General. Although the vast majority of the Jewish people were either destroyed or marched in to exile, the transmission of Torah continued through the small group of sages in the Academy at Yavneh. 
This, explains Rav Shach, is the lesson that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Kevusi gleaned from the Treasury of Yavneh, that a small group of people – even just one individual – can have a profound impact on a much, much larger group. This small number of Rabbis maintained the Torah for millions of Jews, and ensured that generations to come would still hold it precious. 
In communities across the northern hemisphere, the school year is coming to a close.  This provides the opportunity to look back and reflect on our growth and change over the past 10 months. When we are involved in the minutiae of the regular school day, we may tend to overlook the tremendous impact of each individual. Even worse, we may not see our own valuable contribution to the whole. 
The Treasury of Yavneh, and the waters of the Parah Adumah remind us, that we each play a vital role in the collective and that we each have the capacity to impact all those around us for the better. 
In sports, there is a concept of the 'Most Valuable Player' (MVP), the one individual whose contribution made all the difference and without whom we may not have reached our goal. 
From the Torah's perspective, this is simply not the reality. Each of us is a valuable contributor to the overall success of the community. Each one if us is special and each one of us is irreplaceable! 
Wishing you a restful summer break.
Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Don Pacht 

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Measure of a Man

Our Parasha describes how Korach, a descendent of Levi, challenged the authority of Moshe Rabbeinu. Specifically, he questioned Moshe’s appointment of his brother Aharon as the Kohen Gadol. 
To counter the accusation, Moshe prays that Hashem send a clear message to the entire nation and that Korach not be allowed to succeed in his deception. Moshe suggests a process that will allow Hashem to display His will and confirm Moshe as His true emissary. Each will bring an offering and Moshe prays that Hashem accept only the offering of the one He favors for the position of High Priest. 
Datan and Aviram, the infamous rabble- rousers of the generation, further antagonize Moshe. Taunting him with claims that he took them from Egypt, a land flowing with milk and honey (specifically hijacking the glowing praise reserved for our homeland), to die in the wilderness. 
The Torah records Moshe’s reaction to these biting words: 
ויחר למשה מאד ויאמר אל ה׳ אל תפן אל מנחתם
(Moshe became angry and he said to Hashem, “do not turn to their gift-offering”).

What! That’s it! Moshe’s very authority and status as the servant of Hashem is being challenged. He is mocked and insulted by two evil-doers. And in his burning anger he says...”do not turn to their offering.” 
No shouting, no swearing, no veiled (or direct) threats. Not even a fist waved in the air!

Rabbi Moshe Alshich, the commentator and renowned 16th century Darshan (sermonizer), points out that Moshe’s measured reaction is the hallmark of a refined character. 
The Medrash tells us that a man is only truly known through three circumstances: his pocket (the way in which he offers charity), his goblet (his speech and behavior while intoxicated), and in his anger
Most people can maintain composure when life is moving along as it should and the sun is shining. The person of refined character maintains composure even under the greatest of stresses and the worst of days. Moshe understood that ‘losing his cool’ would not in any way help to resolve the situation. He spoke and reacted in such a way that would teach the greatest lesson to those around him. 
We each have the ability and the obligation to overcome the natural inclination to respond to the negative stresses that are all-to-often present. When we react with calm and composure, we not only show the true measure of our character, but we take a huge step forward in resolving the conflict. 
Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Don Pacht 

Friday, June 8, 2018

One Step at a Time

Our Parasha ends with a chapter relating the Mitzvah of Tzitzit, the commandment to tie special strings on the edges of all four cornered garments. These Tzitzit serve as a constant visual reminder of the Torah and all its Mitzvot.  

One component of the Mitzvah of Tzitzit is to place a פתיל תחלת, a thread of blue wool, at each corner.  This Techalet is made with a blue dye that comes from the chilazon fish.  A sea creature found only once in 70 years!

The Talmud explains the reason for incorporating this “difficult to obtain coloring” into the Tzitzit.  “The Techalet is similar [in color] to the sea, the sea is similar to the heavens, and the heavens are similar to the Throne of Glory”.  The idea then, is that when one gazes at the strand of blue wool his thoughts will be directed to Hashem’s Throne of Glory.  

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein asks why it is necessary for the Talmud to follow a three-step chain instead of simply stating that the Techalet is similar to the Throne of Glory, and leaving out the other comparisons.  Or, better yet, why not find a color that more closely resembles Hashem’s throne and use that for the mitzvah?

The answer, explains Rabbi Feinstein, is that the Talmud wishes to convey a message.  Just as one would not expect to be able to master a new skill without first going through the proper steps required to learn that skill, so too is it in the area of spirituality.  One should not expect to “Reach the Heavens” without first building to that level.  

Therefore, the Talmud relates a series of comparisons before finally mentioning the “end goal.”  Education works in much the same way.  Each school year represents another small step, the laying of another brick, on the foundation of skills that will eventually help us to reach our lofty goals. The upcoming summer break gives us the opportunity to reflect upon what we have learned and to hone our new skills. We will then return refreshed and ready to take the next step as we “Reach for the Heavens.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Don Pacht

Friday, June 1, 2018

Half Empty...Or Half Full

As we left off last week with the description of the special gifts that each of the Nesiim (leaders of each tribe), brought for the inauguration of the Mishkan, this week’s Parsha begins with Hashem’s instructions to Aharon regarding the lighting of the Menorah.

Rashi, in his commentary, explains the juxtaposition of these two sections as follows: As Aharon (who was the Nasi of the tribe of Levi), witnessed the gifts of colleagues, he was crestfallen that he and his tribe were not represented in this way.  Hashem’s response to Aharon’s sadness is to reassure him “your gift shall be greater than theirs, as you will light and attend to the Menorah [on a daily basis].  Thus, the section of the Menorah follows on the heels of the portion relating these gifts.

Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein, famed Mashgiach of the Ponovitch Yeshiva, asks what should be an obvious question: Aharon’s absence from the procession of gifts was due to his special role as Kohen Gadol (High Priest).  He was busy attending to the various aspects of the daily service of the Tabernacle.  His entire purpose would be dedicated, day-in-and-day-out, to the service of Hashem.  How could he possibly be saddened over missing out on this one-time gift? 

Rabbi Levenstein’s answer sheds light on a powerful concept.  Those who truly understand the value of even a single Mitzvah, are never satisfied with their spiritual achievements will always strive to perform more and more Mitzvot and reach even higher levels of closeness to Hashem.  It was because Aharon understood the value of the opportunity that he had been granted, that he also understood the value of the small Mitzvah upon which he missed out.  

Thus, we sometimes find, quite ironically, that those with very few spiritual achievements are far more satisfied with their accomplishments and unmotivated to continue to strive and grow.  It is the saintlier individual who is concerned that they have not achieved enough and are looking to continue to climb.

I am reminded of a parable that my father would share with me on the (very rare) occasion that he felt I was not spending my time wisely. He told me of a desert traveller who gathered a few stones from the desert sand under a dark night sky.  In the morning, he found that these ‘stones’ were, in fact, diamonds.    Imagine his disappointment that he had not gathered so many more when he had the chance. Now, they are lost to him forever and he must make do with the few that he has collected.  If only he had fully understood the opportunity made available to him the night before!

Aharon understood that every Mitzvah is a diamond! It did not matter that he had already accumulated so many.  He wanted more and more.

When we truly appreciate the value of each Mitzvah and the opportunity it represents, we will realize that no matter how ‘full’ our cup may be, there is always room for more.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Don Pacht

Friday, May 25, 2018

Music to His Ears

Music To His Ears

Our parsha begins by enumerating the Levite Families and describing their responsibilities in the Mishkan.  As the Torah summarizes the final count, the Leviim are described as those 

“who come to do the work of service”
"כל הבא לעבד עבדת עבדה"

The term “work of service” is certainly ambiguous and Rashi explains it as a reference to the vocal and instrumental musical accompaniment of the Leviim. These are the special songs that they would sing as the Kohanim performed the service.

In light of this explanation, some commentators question how music and song can be referred to by the Torah as work!  Rabbi Shaul Nathanson answers that any component of a Mitzvah, even if we see it as a minor detail, is still seen in the eyes of Hashem as a worthy service. The songs of joy that serenade the daily sacrificial service are as integral to the Mitzvah as the Altar itself.

Taking this idea one step further, Rabbi Nathanson concludes, we tend to classify the importance of a particular Mitzvah by how difficult it is to perform.  In fact, the level of difficulty is not nearly as important as a person’s motivation and enthusiasm to follow the will of Hashem.  When we view our relationship with Hashem not as a burden, but as a privilege, and when we perform Mitzvos with joy and zeal, it is truly music to Hashem’s ears.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Don Pacht

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