Chodesh Iyar: Love From a Distance

23 04 2012

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hershel Reichman 

According to the Zohar, each of the twelve months of the year corresponds to one of the twelve tribes of Yaakov. The month of Nisan corresponds to Reuven, the month of Iyar, to Shimon, and the month of Sivan to Levi.

The Shem Mishmuel explains the significance of these associations. Reuven signifies the concept of vision. Shimon connotes the concept of listening. Seeing creates a greater sense of awareness than just hearing. While listening is just hearsay evidence, visual observation is clear and precise.

In Nissan there is a close, firsthand awareness of Hashem and his connection to us. Iyar is a month of great distance. We mourn the tragic loss of the students of Rabbi Akiva and the loss of the beit hamikdash, which that terrible event represented.

Although it seems we are far from our beloved king, we shouldn’t in any way think that Iyar is really worse than Nissan. The period of Sefirat haOmer is a time of inner work and elevation. Hashem placed the soul in this world so that it would struggle to search and ultimately find its Creator. Overcoming difficulties unleashes untapped energies and causes a person to grow.

Sefer Micha states, “Ki eishev ba’choshech Hashem or li.” When I sit in darkness, Hashem is my light. In Nissan, the Shechina came down to us, turned night into day, and redeemed and uplifted us. In Iyar we must search for Him by rededicating ourselves to the yoke of Torah and mitzvot. Through our own efforts we can rise even higher.

Sivan is the month of Levi, who signifies connection. We rediscover our bond with Hashem, which is now stronger as a result of our struggle to come close to Him during Iyar. Once again, we re-accept the Torah, which binds every level of a Jew’s soul to Hashem.

There’s a symbolic representation of the three months in the mazalot, the astrological representations of the heavenly constellations. Nisan is a sheep, Iyar is an ox and Sivan is twins.

The sheep is a pampered animal, well cared for by its master. This represents our intimate relationship with Hashem in Nissan. In Nissan he redeemed us from Egypt, led us into the desert and provided for all our needs.

An ox is a hard working animal. Iyar is a time of struggle and difficult inner work. Although we may not see results immediately, we are enjoined to fulfill our duty. Accepting the yoke of Torah without necessarily feeling pleasure or satisfaction is such an important lesson. We must know that we have a commitment that is not based on good feelings. As difficult as it may seem, eventually we will reap the rewards.

Sivan is the month of twins. The verse in Shir Hashirim refers to klal Yisrael as “my perfect one.” The midrash rereads tamati, meaning my perfect, as te’omati, my twin. Hashem sings the praises of Israel. When we receive the Torah, we discover incredible spiritual wells of goodness and holiness within us. A personwho develops and perfects his tzelem Elokim according to the ways of the Torah becomes a twin image of his Creator.

The month of Iyar is a spiritually difficult month. It lacks the inspiration and glory of Nisan. We mourn the loss of falling from the heights of Nissan to the darkness of Iyar. But the commitment of the ox, the drive to achieve even in times of alienation, pushes us to stick with the Torah and do the mitzvot no matter how difficult. Hashem truly appreciates this hard work even more than the love and passion of Nissan. Then after all the hard work of Iyar, we enter Sivan, the month in which the Torah is given, when we connect as twins to our Father in heaven.

Parshat Vaykhel: The Secret of One

15 03 2012

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hershel Reichman 

Why is the mitzvah of Shabbat mentioned in this parsha with a specific emphasis on gathering together? In addition, why is there a special mention of the prohibition of not kindling a fire? Furthermore, in earlier parshiot the mitzvah of building the mishkan is discussed before the mitzvah of Shabbat, but in Parshat Vaykhel the order is reversed. Why?                                                                                                                                

The Shem Mishmuel explains. In Parshat Terumah the pasuk says, “Take for me a portion from every person whose heart willingly offers.” The Midrash interprets this to mean that before the sin of the golden calf every person was holy enough in his own right to warrant the building of the mishkan. In Parshat Vaykhel it says, “Those who are generous should contribute.” After the sin, there was a shift from the individual to the communal level. Now only as a nation could they build the mishkan.

Shabbat is the secret of one. During the week nature creates a veil behind which Hashem hides, but on Shabbat, the world, Israel and Hashem become united. Shabbat gives us the power of connection. This is why it’s mentioned first. In this parsha, Shabbat comes first to unite the individuals into a group worthy of the Mishkan.

How can we understand how a tzaddik of Aharon’s stature helped fashion the golden calf? When Moshe ascended to heaven to receive the Torah, Aharon saw that the people had lost their unifying figure. It was as if Moshe had spiritually left them. They no longer felt bound together with a single minded purpose and goal. Moshe was the soul of the Jewish nation. Similarly, Shabbat is the soul of the world, uniting all in purpose.

Where there is holiness, impurity seeks to get in. Therefore, when a person’s soul departs, his body becomes tamei, impure. When Moshe’s soul left the Jews, the void he left was filled by evil energies, which created havoc among the Jews. Aharon knew how much Moshe’s presence meant to the people. They needed something that would unify them. He therefore told them to contribute gold. Gold symbolizes giving up one’s personal aspirations for a higher national goal. Aharon threw the gold into the fire. Fire has the power to purge evil. Aharon thought the fire would refine their desires and lead them back to pure unity. He meant to fashion the golden calf as a harmless statue inspiring in some ways, but not at all idolatrous, but he failed. The Jewish people could not overcome the evil forces that had set in.

When Moshe came down from heaven, he threw the calf into the fire and purified the people. Vaykhel-He then gathered them together. He created a unified community. He reversed the order of commandments and gave the Jews Shabbat first. For Shabbat is raza d’echad-the secret of one. It is the key to our unity and our ultimate ability to build a dwelling place for Hashem in this world.

Parshat Ki Tisa- Reaching for Holiness

9 03 2012

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hershel Reichman 

At the time of the giving of the Torah, the Jewish people rose to the level of Adam before the sin. How did they fall so quickly after that with cheit haegel (the sin of the golden calf)? The commentators explain that their intentions were not evil. They thought Moshe had died and that they had been left alone in the desert. Perhaps they reasoned that it was a question of life and death and that they could suspend Torah law to create an intermediary that would connect them with Hashem.

Shem Mishmuel points out that often people will sin with good motives, and that good intentions are never lost. Hashem takes them, purifies them and adds them to the sinner’s credit. We see this with the story of the Korach rebellion. Hashem commanded Moshe to take the 250 fire pans that had been used for sin and fashion them into an iron plate to cover the altar. The 250 people desired to come closer to Hashem through the position of the kehuna gedola (high priest). They had a noble goal but their actions were wrong. They were punished, but the vessels they used were consecrated for the holy mishkan.

The Torah teaches that actions are more important than intentions. The ends do not justify the means. Whether one achieves one’s goal or not doesn’t matter so much, but the way we do it must be right. Nevertheless good intentions still count. Moshe burned the calf and mixed the ashes with water and had the Jews drink it. His intent was to destroy the Jews’ evil deeds and retain their initial pure thoughts which had been to serve Hashem. Their good intentions were captured in the water and it saved them when they drank the potion. Those who were true sinners died.

Other religions downplay actions and upgrade intentions. Judaism teaches the opposite. Evil actions bear consequences. Yet if one’s intentions are noble they are not lost.

Prayer as a Weapon

21 02 2012
Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hershel Reichman 

When Yaakov Avinu blessed his children, he said, “I took Shechem b’charbi u’vekashti,” with my sword and arrow. Targum Unkelos translates b’charbi u’vekashti as “b’tzeluti uvuati, meaning with my prayers and requests. Prayer is a powerful weapon

In Tehilim, King David, one of the greatest formulators of Jewish prayer, uses the term zemirot, from the root word zemer, a song. Zemer can also mean to cut with a sword or knife or to prune. A zemer is a song with a cutting edge. It can break through all obstructions that prevent us from achieving our goals. Whether it’s praying for redemption, health, or whatever other things we are lacking, there are tremendous barriers. Prayer is like a sword that can pierce right through. Nothing can withstand the power of prayer. Not only does it bring blessing, but it can cause miracles to happen. Nothing can stop prayer, which works above natural law.

Chazal say, “Afilu cherev chada munachat al tzavoro al tityaesh min harachamim.” Even if a sharp sword rests upon your neck, do not despair of Hashem‘s mercy. People at the brink of death have risen from their sickbed through the power of prayer. Prayer is a sword, a powerful weapon that Hashem gave to us.

In the Shemonei Esrei, we say three times daily, “Ki ata shomea tefilat amcha.” You listen to the prayers of your people. There’s no prayer that goes unanswered. Even if a person thinks he wasn’t helped, one day he will be. Moshe prayed 515 prayers to enter Eretz Yisrael. Although he himself did not merit to do so, his prayers weren’t in vain. Every Jew who entered the land after him, did so on the strength of his prayers.

Parshat Shemot: Fundamentals of Hashem’s Chesed

12 01 2012

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hershel Reichman 

The midrash says that at the time of the exodus, the Jewish people were at the 49th level of impurity. They didn’t deserve to be redeemed. Yet Hashem appeared to Moshe and said He would take them out of the land. Rabbe Yochanan maintains that the angel Michael was the angel who delivered G-d’s message because he represents chesed (kindness). Rabbe Chanina disagrees and says it was the angel Gavriel who signifies din (judgment).

The Shem Mishmuel explains that the Jewish people were in fact redeemed with both chesed and din. They didn’t deserve to be saved. Hashem acted beyond logic with beneficence, much like a father’s instinctual love for his son. Although the angels didn’t protest during theexodus, they did put up an argument at the Red Sea. At that time, chesed transformed into din. The angels objected, “Both the Jews and the Eyptians worship idols, why are you preferring the Jews?” The Jews needed to be worthy of the miracles, and indeed Hashem waited until they jumped into the sea before he split the waters. Once they deserved the miracles, the attribute of din was activated in their favor.

Even chesed has to have some reasonable basis. Otherwise it’s misplaced. The Jewish people were at the 49th level of impurity. Yet at their deepest core, they were still holy. Hashem understood that this inner spark would emerge after the redemption. In exile, they were spiritually and physically enslaved. All they could think about was surviving. Therefore, Hashem sent the angel Gavriel who symbolized strict justice to punish the Egyptians. When the Jews could finally breathe freely, their latent holiness rose to the surface.

Hashem created the world with a combination of din and chesed. At first there was din. Hashem put limits upon himself (tzimzum) to make space for the world to come into existence. Then he poured forth his chesed. Similarly, the exodus was a kind of creation ex-nihilo. A holy nation arose from a band of shattered slaves. Chesed, Hashem’s generosity, took us out of the 49th level and brought us to Sinai.

The Shem Mishumel notes that the exodus will be a model for the future redemption. It too will be a melding of chesed and din. Hashem waits for us to be worthy. When we repent, we will be redeemed immediately.

When Moshe asked Paro to release the Jews, he increased their suffering. Moshe complained to Hashem, “Why did you send me?” Hashem responded enigmatically, “Now you will see that Paro will send them out and I will redeem them.” Why did He send Moshe on a failed mission?

When Moshe first came, the Jews’ hopes were raised. They began to think that perhaps they would be redeemed. But when Paro rejected Moshe’s request, they reverted back to their old ways. There was a seeming accusation in heaven. Perhaps the Jews weren’t worthy to be redeemed. When Moshe said, “You are preventing the nation from serving Hashem,” Paro countered, “Who is Hashem that I should listen to him?” Then the mission changed from redeeming the Jews to defending the honor of Hashem’s name. This was the basis of Hashem’s chesed.

This will also be the foundation of the future redemption. It may very well be that the Jews won’t deserve to be redeemed, but Hashem will perform miracles for the sake of His name. At the end of Avinu Malkeinu, we say “Asei imanu tzedaka va’chesed.” Please perform for us justice and kindness.

Parshat Chayei Sarah: Chevron Connecting Us All

18 11 2011

Based on a shiur on Chassidut by Rabbi Hershel Reichman

Parshat Lech Lecha: The Mystery of Lot

The Zohar tells us that the Me’arat Hamachpeila is called the double cave because it connects this world to the next. It is a counterpart to the city of Yerushalayim. However, if we examine Jewish law, the strictures of sanctity pertain only to Yerushalayim and not to Chevron. Why is this so?

Rav Wolfson in his book Emunat Itecha explains a concept of itgalya, revelation and itkasya, concealment. Every physical thing in this world has its equivalent in the next world. We can easily perceive our biological and emotional soul, but the counterpart to this is in the hidden world, the upper levels of our soul, chaya and yechida. The Divine Presence also comes to us on two levels, b’itgalya, in a revealed way and b’itkasya, in a concealed manner. Yerushalayim is hitgalut, where we can sense Hashem’s revealed presence. When the Beit Hamikdash stood, people entered its holy environs and emerged prophets because they felt Hashem’s presence in such an intense way. Likewise, when we invest our hearts and minds into the study of Torah, we feel the Divine Presence close beside us. Rav Soloveitchik used to learn by himself but he often said, “I have a chavruta.” He sensed the Shechina studying Torah with him. Intense prayer in shul elicits the same feeling of spiritual closeness.

Chevron and the Mearat Hamachpeila is itkasya, concealed holiness. Although Hashem’s presence is there too, it is hidden, just as the Avot are buried deep within the ground.

Hashem created the world using three energies: place, time, and soul. Chassidut draws a parallel between them. There’s a miniature Mearat Hamachpela inside each of us. When we begin Shemone Esrei we invoke the names of the Avot. We ask Hashem to listen to us the way he listened to our forefathers because they and we are one. Our revealed prayers go through Yerushalayim, but our inner supplications pass through the hidden burial cave of the Avot in Chevron.

Yerushalayim was destroyed because its holiness was exposed. Chevron remains with us forever precisely because it is concealed. Similarly, the part of our soul that is connected to the Avot can never be defiled no matter how far we’ve fallen. On the revealed level, our soul may be tainted, but deep within we remain pure because we are bonded to the Avot. Chevron comes from the root word chibur, connection. It signifies hope and redemption. King David’s dynasty began in Chevron and in the future, Mashiach will redeem us with the power of this holy city.

Chevron is called Kiryat Arba, the city of four giants. They represent the four evils in the world: jealousy, desire, honor, and forbidden speech. These in turn correspond to the four exiles: Bavel, Persia, Greece, and Rome. Chevron appears evil on the outside, however, deep within one can find its hidden sanctity. The righteous Avot are the counterpart to the four evil giants. Their influence hovers over us in every corner of exile. No matter what evil we encounter, we remain connected to Hashem and the merit of the Avot.

Yerushalayim is revealed while Chevron is hidden. Every Jew has a beit hamikdash in his heart. When he’s inspired, he can feel Hashem’s presence b’itgalya, in an open way. But there are also times of itkasya, concealment, periods when it is hard to connect with Hashem. During those times we can hold on to the Machpela, where His presence remains forever no matter what level we’re at. The Beit Hamikdash in Yerushalayim was destroyed, but in a sense it continues to exist in Chevron, in Mearat Hamachpeila, and in the heart of every Jew.

Parshat Lech Lecha: The Mystery of Lot

3 11 2011
Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hershel Reichman 

Parshat Lech Lecha: The Mystery of Lot Upon Avraham and Sarah’s return from Egypt, a great change overtook Lot, who had accompanied them on their journey. He allowed his shepherds to pasture in strange fields which led to his break-up with Avraham. Lot moved to Sedom, a bastion of impurity and evil and was later captured in the battle of the four and five kings. Avraham then risked his life to save his errant nephew. What lesson does the Torah mean to convey with this story?

The Shem Mishmuel cites a midrash that relates that when Lot left Egypt he had sheep, cattle, and tents. Tents represent two women, Ruth the wife of Boaz, and Naama the Amonit, wife of King Shlomo. What is this midrash teaching us?

Chassidut teaches about a concept of multiple souls. Lot embodied the souls of Ruth and King David. However, he did not know this. The Kotzker Rebbe points out that the greater the future soul, the more deeply it is hidden within the person. When he left Egypt, something within Lot was aroused. This first redemption made the future redemption of Israel an irrevocable reality. There was an awakening of King David within Lot. He felt a future redemptive spirit blossoming. All of us sometimes get this feeling of spiritual inspiration. It is a moment of danger, because it makes a person less careful and can trap him in a net of egotism and haughtiness. This actually happened to Lot. At the peak of his euphoria, he began thinking that he was as great as Avraham. It was a tremendous test for him and he failed. He became so haughty that he assumed ownership of the land of Israel and allowed his sheep to graze freely. Lot’s spiritual greatness and gifts were a reflection of Avraham. When he cut himself off from him, evil forces rushed in, overtook him, and led him to Sedom, the pinnacle of impurity.

The four kings who battled with Avraham correspond to the four primary sins, idol-worship, immorality, murder, and forbidden speech. Each of the four exiles represents one of these sins. The kings really wanted to fight Avraham, who was the antithesis of their values, but he was too spiritually powerful for them. Therefore, they settled on Lot, who still maintained a tenuous connection with Avraham. Avraham risked his life to save Lot in order to save the souls of Ruth, David, and Mashiach. The soul of David encompassed all the middot (attributes) of the Avot. It needed to go into captivity in Sedom, a place that contained all four levels of evil, because David was destined to rectify the world’s evil. He would lead people back to their inherent purity and holiness. From him would emerge Mashiach,who must have the capability to correct every possible human failure.

We live in difficult times. Permissiveness and immorality pervade all around us. Yet we must remain strong and not give up. We are like the souls of David and Mashiach. Our mission is to rectify the errors of our generation and we must believe that we have the ability to bring tikun (rectification) for ourselves, our family, our people, and the world.

Chassidic Sparks: Parshat Noach-Seeking Refuge

26 10 2011
Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hershel Reichman 

Parshat Noach-Seeking Refuge The story of Noach and the tevah (ark) carries a universal message for all of us. When evil forces surround us and threaten to engulf us, we can flee to the safety of the tevah, an isolated, spiritual world.

The Netivot Shalom says that this tevah is the ark of Shabbat. On this special day, we abandon the rough and tumble of daily life for an oasis of calm waters. The Gemara says that if a Jew keeps Shabbat properly, he is forgiven for the worst possible sins, even idol worship. The Torah commands us “l’davka bo, to cleave to Him.” During the week it’s a tough challenge to nurture a relationship of such closeness. But on Shabbat, Hashem comes down to be with us.

Shabbat is an opportunity to connect to Him directly. Talk on Shabbat should center on spiritual matters. One should feel as if the Divine Presence is a guest at the table. Words of Torah and prayer should permeate our Shabbat meal, while business, sports, or politics should be banished from our minds.

The Shabbat binds us to Hashem. It is our ark that protects us from the insidious influences of the world of the six days of the week. May the sanctity we imbibe on this special day carry us through the week.

Love Beyond Reason

10 10 2011
Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hershel Reichman 

Love Beyond Reason #4 The Shem MiShmuel asks, why on Hoshana Rabba do the aravot (willow leaves) play the central role?


The Midrash explains that each of the species represent a different type of Jew. The etrog (citron fruit), which has a good flavor and scent, represents the tzaddik who has both Torah wisdom and good deeds. The lulav (palm branch), which has a good flavor, but no scent, signifies a person with wisdom but no good deeds. The hadassim (myrtle branches), which have a good fragrance but no flavor, symbolize a person with good deeds but no wisdom. The aravot (willow branhes), have neither flavor nor fragrance, which signifies a person who lacks both good deeds and Torah wisdom.


We find a similar idea hidden in the ketoret (incense offering). There were eleven spices, one of which was the chelbana, which exuded an unpleasant odor. However, when combined with the other ten spices it added a tasteful pungency to the mixture. On Sukkot, we take the four species and symbolically proclaim that every Jew, no matter what level he’s at, has something to contribute to klal Yisrael.


On Hashana Rabbah, only the aravot are taken. This teaches us the absolute love Hashem has for every Jew, even the most wicked. Hashem chose us, exercising a choice unbound by logic, and he will never abandon us. Our relationship is otherworldly, something that cannot be contained in words. And just as Hashem remains loyal to us, we must love every Jew regardless of his level.


While Yom Kippur is an island of sanctity, isolated from the rest of the year, Hoshana Rabbah contains elements of the weekday. A lot of the influence of Yom Kippur has worn off by the time we get to the end of Sukkot. On Hashana Rabbah, we tell Hashem, “We want to be good, but the complexities of life make it difficult. Give us a free gift and forgive our sins.”


During the times of the beit hamikdash, the Jews would circle the altar with the aravot. This signifies that even if we fall to the lowest depths like the aravot, Hashem will lift us to the level of the altar. Large aravot were placed on the altar. The aravot were offered as a sacrifice, just as we offer our own human weaknesses to Hashem. In a sense Hoshana Rabbah goes beyond Yom Kippur. On this day it is as if Hashem tells us, “My children, you are not lost, despite your failings.”


Our sages teach us that Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of Sukkot, is a holiday of its own. Seven signifies the cycle of nature, while eight represents something supernatural. It’s wrong for a person to think, “This is the way I am. I cannot improve.” On the contrary, we can transform ourselves because there is something extraordinary beyond nature inside each of us. Torah study, prayer, and kind deeds empower us to repent. While angels remain stagnant, people have the ability to reach unimaginable heights.


When the beit hamikdash stood, the Jews would form a human wall and encircle the altar with the four species. A wall is like an environment. There are terrible environments that must be shattered and good environments that must be built. Walking around with the lulav and etrog is akin to destroying negative barriers. Encircling the altar with the Torah is like erecting\a wall of sanctity. The Zohar writes that the female side of the satan is called yilila. This also means wailing because sadness is fundamental to evil. The opposite is also true. Therefore, the last day of the holiday is Simchat Torah. Torah signifies simcha (happiness). We rejoice with Hashem‘s love and with the privilege to build a wall of holiness and sanctity to last us through the coming year.

Requests From Hashem #8

13 09 2011

 Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hershel Reichman

Requests From Hashem #8  The second section of prayer in Shemone Esrei is bakasha, asking Hashem to fulfill our individual and communal needs. The thirteen requests contained in these blessing comprise all of our fundamental needs. Whether it’s parnassa (sustenance), health, tranquility, or friendship, we need Hashem’s involvement and intervention in our lives.

There are several premises in the bakashot in Shemone Esrei,. The first premise is that I am in need. The second says Hashem has power. The third premise tells us that Hashem desires to help us and that he is the essence of goodness and kindness. And the fourth premise says that through the power of prayer, we can arouse Hashem to help us.

When we pray in times of need, and we are always in need of at least one of the thirteen requests, we must pray with perfect faith that Hashem can and will aid us.

May all our requests be answered l’tova (for the good).