Parshat Tetzaveh: Losing The Self

10 02 2011

Based on a shiur on Chassidut by Rabbi Hershel Reichman

Parshat Tetzavah: Losing the Self

In Parshat Tetzaveh, Hashem tells Moshe to command the Jewish people, “Ve’yikchu eilecha shemen zayit zach, They shall bring for you pure olive oil.” This is in contrast to Hashem’s previous command in Parshat Teruma, where He says, “Ve’yikchu li teruma.” They shall bring an offering for me.” Why is there a distinction between the general command for donations to the Mishkan, for me, and the specific request for oil, which was brought for you?

The Shem Mishmuel explains based on a mishna in Avot. The mishna says there are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship. The fourth crown, a good name, overweighs them all. Why does the mishna note that there are three crowns when there are really four? Furthermore, if a good name means good deeds as the Bartenura explains, shouldn’t it be included in the crown of Torah? The midrash says that the crown of kingship corresponds to the Shulchan, which represents wealth, stability, and power. The Aron, which contained the luchot, signifies the crown of Torah. The Mizbeiach Hazahav corresponds to the crown of priesthood, and the Menora corresponds to the crown of good deeds. If the Menora was above all, why did it not have a crown-like ridge as part of its construction, as the other vessels did?

A crown symbolizes rulership and power. The Torah doesn’t encourage exercising control over others. Most people are slaves to their own passions. The Torah ideal is to be a king over your own spirit and desires. The crown of Torah, its laws and wisdom, give us the ability to rule over ourselves. The crown of priesthood, sublimates the kohen’s personal ambitions to serve Hashem.  The crown of kingship is given to the one who subdues his own personal interests for the good of his people. Indeed, the Jewish king is called the heart of the nation because his heart is not his own. It belongs instead to his nation.

The Shem MiShmuel discusses the idea of yesh and ayin. The three crowns of self-control use the yesh, the self, to attain goodness. The shem tov is ayin, losing oneself in Hashem’s vastness. Valued above the good performed for a person’s own goodness, the good performed solely for Hashem’s sake. This is the good beyond good.

Our sages say that olives are a bitter fruit and make one forget Torah. However, after they are pressed to a pulp and lose their identity, they transform into olive oil, highly prized for its outstanding qualities. This represents bitul hayesh, self nullification with the goal of producing something transcendental beyond the self.

We can now understand why Hashem first says “ve’yikchu li.” Hashem is saying, I will approve your actions in the yesh state. Hashem tells the Jews to use their powers of self to build the Mishkan. However, He then says, “Ve’yikchu eleicha.”  Eilecha refers to Moshe, who was the paragon of self- nullification. This is the shem tov, the shemen zayit, which is above the three crowns.

At some point, we must ascend to a higher level of bitul hayesh, of coming to the realization that we exist only as an extension of Hashem’s infinite all-encompassing being.

Parshat Beshalach: Emancipation of the Mind and Heart

14 01 2011

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hershel Reichman

Parshat Beshalach: Emancipation of the Mind and Heart

The Midrash writes, Hashem tells Israel, “Remember the day of Shabbat as you should remember the Exodus of Egypt.” Just as the seven days of creation culminate with Shabbat, so too the first and last of the seven days of Pesach are compared to Shabbat. How do we understand this? Additionally, we see that the redemption was accomplished by both Moshe and Aharon.  However, once the Jews left Egypt, only Moshe remained as the sole leader. What happened to Aharon? Thirdly, why is Moshe praised as a  “chacham lev,” for performing the mitzvah of taking Yosef’s bones out of Egypt, while the Jews who were also involved with the mitzvah of taking gold and silver from their Egyptian neighbors, are not called so.


To answer this, the Avnei Nezer notes that when the Jews took the gold and silver, they received a certain level of holiness for performing the deed.  In contrast, Moshe’s mitzvah did not generate any additional kedusha and therefore it was considered a greater act of divine service. This teaches us that doing a simple mitzvah with alacrity and enthusiasm is more beloved to Hashem than a mitzvah that comes with an automatic spiritual high.


The Shem Mishmuel explains that the souls of the Jews in Egypt were a reincarnation of the souls of the dor hamabul (generation of the Flood) and the dor haflaga (tower of Bavel.)  Dor hamabul faltered with sins of the heart-immorality and theft.  Dor haflaga sinned with the mind-they rebelled against Hashem. In Egypt, the Jews rectified the sins of the heart. They exemplified themselves in areas of morality.  Moshe represented the power of the mind while Aharon symbolized the heart.  The Exodus was in a sense taking the Egyptian mentality out of the Jews. For that, both Moshe and Aharon were needed to liberate both the corruption of lev and moach. However, the redemption came too early. The Jews had not managed to rectify their idolatrous mindset. Once they were already freed, Aharon’s role in the Egyptian exile was completed as the hearts of the Jews were already pure.    At the splitting of the sea, when the Jews saw the downfall of Pharaoh and his henchmen, their idolatrous mentality collapsed. “And they believed in Hashem and in Moshe his servant.”  In a sense, Moshe engineered this and the Jewish people only participated in Moshe’s mindset and knowledge of Hashem. The Shem MiShmuel explains that sometimes a person needs the elevated connection of a tzaddik to inspire him to greater heights. However in order for the tzaddik’s inspiration to have lasting power, the person himself must toil and sweat to acquire these levels. And indeed we see that although the Jewish people reached enormous heights at the Yam Suf, it was not a tikkun gamor (a complete fixing) and they sinned with the Golden Calf shortly after.

What is the double Shabbat referred to on Pesach? The first day is a celebration of the heart which was rectified in Egypt. The second Shabbat signifies the mind of Moshe, absolute belief in Hashem, which was  temporarily achieved at the Yam Suf.  The third Shabbat will be when Mashiach will come and we will celebrate the final rectification.  Jewish faith and belief in Hashem will then be rooted deeply in the heart of every Jew, acquired through thousands of years of their own toil, effort, and suffering. It is then that the Jewish nation will reach the level of chaya and yechida-the ultimate point where both mind and heart, now completely rectified, will merge in an overwhelming  symphony and ode to Hashem.

Parshat Vayigash: Two Forms of Leadership

9 12 2010

Based on a shiur on Chassidut by Rabbi Hershel Reichman

Parshat Vayigash: Two Forms of Leadership

It is written, “Within a person’s heart there are very deep waters, and a wise person knows how to draw upon these waters.” Both the Zohar and the Midrash connect this verse to the confrontation between Yosef and Yehuda. The Midrash notes that the “wise person” refers to Yehuda, who knew how to draw the deep waters out of Yosef. The Zohar disagrees and writes that it was Yosef who drew the waters out of Yehuda. Both Yosef and Yehuda emphasized a different aspect of gadlut, which led to a resolution of the conflict between the brothers.


The Midrash quotes a verse in Navi, “Days will come when the plow will meet the harvest.” The plow refers to Yehuda, the heart of Israel, while the harvester signifies Yosef, the mind of Israel. Plowing the ground involves softening it for planting. This represents the tender, caring heart, which not only feels the pain of others, but can accept the light of Hashem. Yehuda symbolized emotion. He was the progenitor of King David, the epitome of the kind, feeling heart. Tehilim, his gift to us, is full of expressions of extraordinary closeness to Hashem.


In contrast, Yosef represents the reaper. Harvesting creates separation. For human intellect to be perfect it needs to be detached from emotion. When studying Torah, we must follow its logic where it takes us without letting emotions blind us. Yosef was the paragon realist. His iron logic kept him loyal to his brothers all through the long years as he waited for their moment of teshuva.


The Shem Mishmuel asks why Yehuda waited to make his impassioned plea until after Yosef expressed a desire to take Binyamin away.  Yehuda knew the prophecy that the Jews would be slaves in Egypt for 400 years. When the brothers were caught, Yehuda thought they would now be punished in the worst possible way to atone for the sale of Yosef. However, when Yosef singled out Binyamin, he realized this must be the diabolical plan of an evil king, because Binyamin had not been involved in the sale. It was then that Yehuda offered himself as a slave.  When Yosef saw Yehuda’s display of emotion he had to reconcile.


Both mind and heart are fundamental expressions of serving Hashem, namely the intellectual endeavor of studying Torah and the emotional service of tefila and performing mitzvot.  Chazal tells us that the Jewish people are merciful, modest, and kind. Yet we are stiff necked people, tenacious in upholding the truth, and stubborn in our beliefs. How does one meld the seemingly contradictory qualities of softness of heart and azut d’kedusha, iron-tough Jewish commitment? We are all a combination of Yosef and Yehuda. The greatness of Torah living is knowing when to employ our kindness to help others, and when to activate our strength to preserve our identity.  May we travel the straight path of Torah with hearts full of faith.

Parshat Vayeitzei: A Holy Nation

11 11 2010

Based on a shiur on Chassidut by Rabbi Hershel Reichman

Parshat Vayeitzei: A Holy Nation

If we examine the lives of Avraham and Yitzchak we find that they overcame many challenges and then Hashem blessed them. However, with Yaakov, it seems like things happened in reverse. Yitzchak blessed him and then Yaakov embarked on a long journey filled with difficulties and struggles. What was the difference between Yaakov and the other avot?


In Tehillim it says, “Ashrei shomrei mishpat oseh tzedaka b’chol eit. Praised is the person who protects justice and does charity at all times.” The Zohar links this verse to Yaakov who combined chesed and gevura.  Mishpat is internal justice between one Jew and another. Tzedaka is spreading knowledge of Hashem to all four corners of the earth. The Shem MiShmuel explains that during the first stage of the development of Eretz Yisrael, the Jews were led by the shoftim. The shoftim merely enforced justice within the land but did not lead the people to war to expand their boundaries. However, during the second stage of transition, when the kings ruled, they transformed Israel from a nation completely focused on itself to a nation that expanded outwards to influence other foreign countries. This teaches that first we must be a goy kadosh, a holy nation. We must strengthen ourselves spiritually. Then we can become a mamlechet kohanim, a model nation whose mission it is to spread the word of Hashem to the world.


Similarly, this was the story of Yaakov’s life. In the beginning he was an “Ish tam yoshev ohalim,” a shofet Jew sitting in the tents of Torah, fortifying himself to face the challenges ahead. Then Hashem led him to Charan as it says, “Vayelech Charona.” Charon means anger and strife. The world outside Israel was mired in sin and wickedness. Yaakov went to live with Lavan who was the essence of evil. Lavan wanted to uproot the faith of Yaakov. Yaakov, with his own power and that of the Avot, succeeded in overcoming him by building a Jewish family and bringing Torah and mitzvot into Charan itself. He achieved the mission of a king.  Subsequently, Hashem commanded him to return. At that point, by facing Lavan and overcoming his challenges, Yaakov had advanced spiritually to the point that he could defeat Esav, something he could not have done before.


When Yaakov overcame the angel of Esav, the angel called him Yisrael. Yaakov implies a narrow focus while Yisrael connotes openness.  A Jew must maintain a dual focus. Sometimes it is microscopic, such as focusing detailed attention to halacha. Sometimes it is telescopic, assuming the responsibility of spreading Hashem’s word to the world. In Parshat Yitro, when Hashem commands Moshe to speak to the women, He said, “Thus you should speak l’bait Yaakov, to the house of Yaakov” because women are meant to focus on the internal part of Torah.  The rest of the Jewish people are Yisrael. As much as Torah is for us, we need to influence others externally through our example and teachings.


Let us take strength from Yaakov’s victory over the angel of Esav and over the Lavan ideology. As we face the myriad challenges of life, may He grant us the power to be a Mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh, to become the spiritual giants and moral leaders of the world.

Parshat Vayeira: Two Paths of Serving Hashem

21 10 2010

Based on a shiur on Chassidut by Rabbi Hershel Reichman

Hashem tells Avraham in Parshat Lech Lecha, after the mitzvah of milah, that he will have a child. The Shem MiShmuel asks, why does Hashem deem it necessary to send an angel in this week’s parsha, Parshat Vayeira, to relay the news again? In addition, what is the connection between these two seemingly unrelated revelations – milah and the birth of Yitzchak?

The world rests on two fundamental pillars: chesed (kindness) and din (judgement). Sometimes there is chesed and other times din. The forces of nature that support life are all expressions of Hashem’s chesed. Avraham was the embodiment of chesed. Although the people of S’dom were wicked, he passionately prayed for them. Hashem loved Avraham, Ish Ha’chesed.

However, He gave him the mitzvah of milah. On the surface this commandment looks cruel and painful. Avraham was told to do an act of din. He needed to learn that although the world is grounded on chesed, it also needs din to survive. S’dom had to be destroyed because the world cannot tolerate absolute evil forever. Avraham needed to learn that unbridled love can be devastating. Therefore his prayers failed. On his personal being, he had to undergo milah, a painful mitzvah. This was because Avraham, the epitome of chesed, needed to pick up an element of din in order to become tamim – perfect. Therefore, Hashem told him about the birth of Yitzchak immediately
after milah.

Yitzchak represents din. He is defined by the akeidah – strict judgment and complete adherence to Hashem’s will. He was willing to forfeit his life in a seemingly senseless sacrifice to fulfill Hashem’s command. That is why when Avraham accepted the mitzvah of milah – an element of din, Hashem informed him about the birth of Yitzchak who is also din.

With Yitzchak we see a reversal of din to chesed. Yitzchak’s name comes from the root word, “tzechok” – laughter. Making people happy is an expression of kindness. Hashem wanted Yitzchak to acquire an element of chesed.

We need to maintain a balance of both of these attributes in our lives. Din without chesed can turn into cruelty. Chesed without din can be distorted. Chassidut teaches that this is the connection between right and left, water and fire. Water is chesed, fire is din. Water gives life, fire destroys. Yet the world needs both to exist. Right is chesed, left is din. The right side is stronger than the left. We need more chesed than din.

Avraham was chesed. Sarah was din. The combination of both of their attributes made them into the great couple that they were. Avraham could not reject anyone. Sarah therefore had to tell him to send away Yishmael. However since Sarah was din, she also needed some chesed. Therefore Hashem sent another message about the birth of Yitzchak with the angel in the context of chesed and hachnasas orchim. Avraham prepared the red meat, which signifies din. Sarah prepared the white bread and milk, which symbolizes chesed.

Let us try to imbue our lives with a balance of din and chesed, and with this may we merit to reach the level of Avraham, “V’hit’halech lifanei v’heyei tamim” – to walk before Hashem and reach perfection.

Parshat Nitzavim: Chassidut on the Parsha

1 09 2010

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hershel Reichman

Parshat Nitzavim begins with, “Atem nitzavim hayom, You, the Jewish people are standing before Hashem.” Rashi writes that the Jewish nation renewed their commitment to the Torah by making a special covenant with Hashem. Why was this covenant needed now? To answer this, Rashi asks another question. What is the connection between the parshiyot of Ki Tavo and Nitzavim? He explains that after the Jews heard the 98 curses they recoiled in fear. Therefore, Moshe immediately comforted them by reminding them, “You have sinned in the past and yet, “Atem nitzavim,” you are still standing.

The Shem MiShmuel explains this idea further. In Parshat Vayeilech, we read how the Jewish people will sin and suffering will come upon them. They will say, “Ein Elokai b’kirbi. Hashem has left us.” Hashem will then say, “V’anochi haster astir panei, I will hide my face.” The Shem Mishmuel emphasizes that the most fundamental reason that leads a person to sin is “Ein Elokai,” he forgets that Hashem is constantly before him. In a sense, he experiences temporary spiritual amnesia. If the Jewish people have recognized this and have begun the process of teshuva, why does Hashem then say he will hide His face?

Rav Bunim MiPeshischa answers that stating that one’s misdeeds drove Hashem away is a terrible sin. Hashem never leaves the Jewish people. Our sins may create a certain distance but He is still there with us. Hashem says, “Anochi haster, I will hide.” But even in the worst concealment, my great hidden light, “panai,” remains with you.

After the Jewish people heard the 98 curses, they were worried that their faith would not remain intact after these awful punishments would be meted out. Therefore, Moshe deemed it necessary to make a new covenant, assuring the Jewish people that Hashem would never leave them come what may and that they too would remain bound to Hashem. This is the power of “Nitzavim,” the steadfast faith that every Jew carries in his heart, through myriad tragedy and suffering.

Nitzavim comes from the root word, matzeiva, meaning solid rock. Our foundation is as strong as rock and this is the legacy we bequeath to our children. The Midrash in Shemot Rabbah writes, “The Jewish people are compared to angels, of angels it is written, they stand on high and of the Jews it is written, behold you are standing.” We read in the book of Zecharya, “V’natati lecha makom ben ha’omdim haelah, you will walk through these standing angels.” Angels do not have free choice. Therefore they are referred to as “standing” – they will neither fall nor rise. In contrast, the prophet Zecharya is told, “You will move between these angels.” Man has the power to ascend to a level higher than the angels. On the one hand, we are meant to be similar to angels, nitzavim – firm in our faith, never descending to the depths of sin. Yet on the other hand, we are meant to be greater than them, always striving to reach further levels in avodat Hashem.

The Midrash says that Yaakov gave us the evening Maariv prayer because his life was filled with darkness and baffling challenges. Through it all he never wavered and remained strong and steadfast in his faith. Sometimes, life may hand us the “raw deal.” It is specifically at those times that we must bolster our trust in Hashem and tap into the hidden reservoirs of strength contained in Nitzavim.

Parshat Eikev: Mind and Heart United

28 07 2010

Based on a class by Rabbi Hershel Reichman

In Parshat Eikev, we read, “Vayaha eikav tishmaun..”- If you will listen to my laws, then I, Hashem will keep the promise I gave to the Avot to bring you blessing. The word “eikev” seems extraneous. The Shem Mishmuel brings a Midrash- one who assembles a light fixture on Shabbat is obligated to bring a Chatas sacrifice. Keeping Shabbat earns a Jew reward in this world. In contrast, the reward for other mitzvoth will be “eikev”-at the end of time. The Shem Mishmuel follows with another Midrash about a King who gave his Queen two beautiful stones and then straightaway two more.

What does the jeweled crown represent? Hashem gifted us with a heart and mind so that we could perfect our intellect and emotions to serve Hashem. Both are equally essential in developing an intellectual and emotional relationship with Hashem and the Torah. Avraham taught the Jewish people, tzedakah u’mishpat-mind and heart. Tzedakah means giving from the heart without judgement. Mishpat employs the mind and the strict letter of the law. In return, Hashem gave us, chesed v’rachamim. Chesed is kindness beyond what the recipient deserves. Rachamim is a fusion of chesed and din, kindness beyond what is necessary, but in a certain sense deserved. When we sinned and perverted tzedakah u’mishpat, Hashem responded by taking away chesed v’rachmim. However, l’assid lovo-in the future, the Jewsh people will repent and will restore tzedakah u’mishpat out of their own efforts. Hashem will then bring back chesed v’rachmim. Our spiritual struggles are continuous and our staunchest ally is Hashem who never leaves us even when we sin. So too, Hashem credits our repentance for His return to us. These are the four jewels that create the final crown of Israel.

The Shem MiShmuel explains, “Ki ner mitzvah v’Torah Ohr, the the lamp in the Midrash corresponds to Mitzvoth and the Torah is light. A lamp contains light and both are purposeless without the other. This symbolizes the indivisibility of Torah and Mitzvoth and the mind and heart. During the week, a Jew struggles to unite mind and heart to serve Hashem. On Shabbat, the lamp comes together on its own, we don’t build it. This signifies the sense of completion and cessation of struggle that is the gift of Shabbat. Varying people have different size lamps on Shabbat. Their size is determined by how much effort we invested during the week in the mind/heart struggle. We can experience pleasure and true eternal reward for keeping Shabbat because Shabbat is on a kind of Olam Habah plane. The reward for other mitzvoth can only be “eikev”-at the end of time because our weekday world is too defiled to be able to feel that otherworldly connection to Hashem. Therefore it says, “Vahaya eikev tishmaun..” There is one mitzvah that is olam habah and olam hazeh combined. Our struggle finds completion on Shabbat. Let us merit to attain complete unification of mind and heart so that we can merit to truly experience Shabbat, a foretaste of Yom Shekulo Shabbat-the great Shabbat of Olam Habah.