Category Archives: PARSHA

Turning Pain to Gain

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni) at the start of parshas Nitzavim sees in the parsha’s opening words, “You are standing today” the message that, despite the sins and travails of Klal Yisrael up to that point, and the klalos enumerated in parshas Ki Savo, the nation is still standing. Indeed, the Midrash continues, “the curses stand you up [ma’amidos eschem].” In other words, they strengthen you.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that physical systems naturally degenerate into more and more disordered states. 

Living systems, though, seem to act otherwise. A domeim, a non-living item like a rock or mineral, is indeed entirely subject to entropy. A tzomei’ach, though, a plant, which grows, less so. And an animal, a chai, even less so, as it can also move around to promote its wellbeing.

And a human is even more able to defend against entropy, manipulating his environment, using intelligence, tools and creativity to protect himself.

The highest rung on the hierarchy, according to sefarim, is Yisrael. Perhaps we are entropy-resistant, too, in a special way — in the ability to turn challenges that would naturally wear away other people, leaving them feeling dejected and hopeless, into not just perseverance but renewed strength. Haklalos ma’amidos eschem.

The Churbanos of the Batei Mikdash, for example, were followed with determined and successful Jewish renewal, as was the most recent churban, that of Jewish Europe. Parts of Klal Yisrael have returned to Eretz Yisrael, and Torah study and practice thrive throughout the world.

And in our personal lives, too, as Rav Dessler writes, our failings and fallings can, through our pain and teshuvah, become fuel for our determination to reach even greater heights. 

A timely thought during these waning days of Elul.

More Than Mere Gratitude

The very first Rashi in the Torah, quoting a Midrash, indicates the importance of Bikkurim, the first fruits offering that opens parshas Ki Savo.  Bikkurim is one of the “raishis” concepts that the word Beraishis (understood as “for the sake of something called raishis) refers to.

And Bikkurim, as evident from the words that are spoken when they are brought, is an expression of “hakaras hatov,” a truly fundamental Torah concept that is usually, though, not entirely accurately, thought of as “gratitude.”

In truth, it is something more subtle and sublime, indicated in a direct translation of the phrase: “recognition of the good.” That is why an example of the concept, as per the Gemara (Bava Kamma, 92b) is the commandment that “You shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land,” in last week’s parsha. And why the maxim expressing it is “Don’t throw a clod of dirt into a well from which you drank” (ibid).

So even someone who intended you nothing good, even an inanimate object, deserves hakaras hatov. How does that work?

My understanding is that the recognition, while expressed to a person, people or object, is ultimately to Hashem, for causing the good – in the case of the Egyptian slavery, the “purification” (kur habarzel) needed to prepare Klal Yisrael to receive the Torah; in the case of the well, its appearance when one was thirsty.  The action of hakaras hatov is through the Egyptians and through the well but its ultimate expression is to Hashem.

I remember having negative feelings when on rare occasions I would see a certain person who in effect once forced me to leave a job and community I loved.  But then, pondering how what resulted in the end was in fact a tremendous brachah for me and my family, I realized that I needed to feel hakaras hatov toward him.  Well, toward him, which I indeed came to feel, but as a means to truly recognizing the good that Hashem had bestowed.

Hard to Hear

When recounting in this week’s parsha, Ki Seitzei (23:6) how Balak hired Bilaam to curse Klal Yisrael, the Torah states how Hashem “refused to hear” what Bilaam wanted to say” — a seemingly superfluous phrase, considering the following one: “and He turned the curse into a blessing.”

Addressing that oddity, Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, zt”l, in his sefer Mei Marom, asks a different question, Wouldn’t it have been a better demonstration of Hashem’s power had he allowed Bilaam to utter his curses, and then simply negate their planned effect, leaving them to be a mere “barking of a dog”?  Why did Hashem choose to put blessings into the curser’s mouth instead?

Rav Charlop answers that a person who truly loves his friend will not even want to hear any negative words about him, even though they will not in any way affect his relationship with his friend.  And so, in the Divine realm, Hashem wanted to demonstrate that He didn’t want Bilaam’s words of cursing to even pollute the world’s air, even if they would, through Hashem’s will, have no effect whatsoever.

Which, the Mei Marom concludes, explains the seemingly superfluous mention of how Hashem “refused to hear” Bilaam’s curses.  He didn’t want them to even be uttered.

And that approach brings poignant meaning to the next phrase of the pasuk: “Because Hashem your G-d loved you.”

The Riddle of the Egla

This is the first of a series of short thoughts I hope, with Hashem’s help, to offer pretty much weekly about the parshas hashavua or yamim tovim, in the hope that they might be deemed worthy of discussion at Shabbos or Yomtov tables

On a superficial level, there is something disturbing about the ritual of egla arufah, which will be read from the Torah this Shabbos, parshas Shoftim.

The ritual, is commanded in a case where the body of a murder victim, presumably a wayfarer, is found between cities. The procedure, which involves the elders of the nearest city dispatching a calf, is called a kapparah, an atonement, yet there seems to be no sin for which the elders need atone. That’s because part of the ritual is their sincere declaration that they did everything they could to ensure the safety of the visitor during his visit, including supplying him with his needs before he left. 

And it certainly isn’t atonement for the killer; if he is ever discovered, he faces a murder charge and its penalty.

So whom is the atonement for?

It seems clear to me that it is for Klal Yisrael.

Rav Dessler, in Michtav Me’Eliyohu, teaches that the concept of arvus, the “interdependence of all Jews” implies that when a Jew does something good, it reflects the entire Jewish people’s goodness. And the converse, too. 

Thus, when Achan, one man, misappropriated spoils after the first battle of Yehoshua’s conquest of Canaan, the siege of Yericho, it is described as the sin of the entire people (Yehoshua, 7:1). Explains Rav Dessler: Had the people as a whole been sufficiently sensitive to Hashem’s commandment to shun the city’s spoils, Achan would never have been able to commit his sin.

So it may be that in the case of the murdered wayfarer, too, even if no particular person was directly responsible for the murder, what could have enabled so terrible an act to happen might have been a “critical mass” of lesser offenses, perhaps things that Chazal likened to murder, such as causing another Jew great embarrassment or indirectly causing a person’s life to be shortened.

In which case, the atonement would be for Klal Yisrael as a whole, interconnected as all its members are.

The idea, in truth, inheres in the very words to be recited by the elders.  After they declare their lack of any personal involvement in the murder, they plead with Hashem to “atone for your people Yisrael…”  

And the Baal HaTurim’s comment on that phrase makes the idea explicit: “From here we see,” he writes, “that all members of Klal Yisrael are interdependent.”