Parshat Bechukotai: Blessings of the Torah

20 05 2011
Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hershel Reichman  

Parshat Bechukotai: Blessings of Torah

Parshat Bechukotai begins, “If you will walk in my statutes to keep my commandments and perform them.” We learn from this that there are three parts to Torah: l’amol, to work at it and study it; lishmor, to know it and protect it within ourselves through consistent review; and v’asitem, to practice it by actually living it. Many people suffer from a form of disconnect. They think that if they are already doing one of the three aspects of Torah then they do not need to do the rest. For instance, if they are practicing Torah, they do not need to study it, or if they are already studying, then review is unnecessary. The yetzer hara tries his best to throw us off.  We must not give in to these incorrect rationalizations. Instead, we must work to achieve a balance between all three aspects. Then we will merit the copious blessings enumerated further in the parsha.

The Shem Mishmuel explains that these three aspects of the Torah correspond to the three parts of the human soul: nefesh, ruach, neshama, the biological, emotional, and intellectual levels of our soul. Practicing Torah, v’asitem, rectifies our nefesh, our physical bodies. We put tefilin on our head and arm, we eat matzah, and we sit in the sukka. Our bodies are elevated through the mitzvot.

Aristotle viewed the physical side of man as sordid and the soul as noble. In contrast, the Rambam argued that man has the responsibility to turn this base side into something holy. Our physical selves are a receptacle for the Divine Image. We value life as holy. Doing good deeds with our bodies is the ultimate form of fulfilling Hashem’s will.

Ruach, emotion, is the second level. This corresponds to “Im bechukotai teleichu,” the work involved in keeping Torah. By devoting every extra moment of our time to the sacred obligation of learning Torah we emotionally invest in something precious to us. This is tikun ha’ ruach, rectifying our emotional soul. The highest level is yediat hatorah, knowledge of Torah. Our knowledge of Torah remedies the flaws of our neshama, the highest level of soul.

There are three categories of blessings in this parsha, physical bounty, emotional peace, and Hashem’s presence dwelling among us. These too correspond to the three components: nefesh, ruach, and neshama. If we perform mitzvot, we will merit children, life, and sustenance. If we invest our emotions in Torah, Hashem will bless us with emotional tranquility. Finally, if we know Torah, if we rectify our intellectual souls, Hashem will bless us with His presence. As we focus on the tikun of the three parts of the soul we achieve the purpose of our existence.

Similarly, the three parts of the soul correspond to Shabbat, Yom Tov, and Rosh Chodesh. Yom Tov is nefesh. Pesach is sustenance, Shavuot is the Torah which is called life, and Sukkot is the holiday of the family.

Rosh Chodesh is the power of ruach. The beginning of the moon’s renewal, it is the holiday of King David. King David suffered so much. He was driven away, forced to wander lost and alone, harassed and persecuted. Yet he merited to come back and to become the king of Israel. This is the power of the moon, its waxing and waning symbolizes the strength of ruach. Our faith and passion for Torah gives us the impetus to carry on through the travails and sufferings of exile.

Shabbat is neshama. It is a day of knowledge of Torah, when we come close to Hashem by studying His holy words. Our neshama senses the sanctity of the day as it unites with its source through the Torah.

Let us recommit ourselves to be ameilim b’Torah, to be passionate for Torah. Let us invest our time and effort to study His words and to practice what we’ve learned. In this way we will attain the ultimate blessing of neshama – that Hashem’s presence will dwell among us.

Parshat Tazria: Fresh Beginnings

1 04 2011

Based on Rabbi Hershel Reichman’s shiur  on Chassidut on

Parshat Tazriah: Fresh Beginnings

In his essay on Parshat Tazriah, the Shem MiShmuel cites a verse from Tehilim, “Achor v’kedem tzartani. You have created me back and front.” Rav Yochanan explains that this refers to two worlds, olam hazeh and olam habah. This world is kedem, the first world. The next world is achor, the final world. If a person lives his life in a way that gains him entrance from this world to the next, he has fulfilled his purpose. If he does not, he will need to answer for why he failed in his mission.

Olam hazeh is about overcoming challenges. It is the preparation for olam habah, the ultimate goal. Unfortunately many of us are under the influence of the non-Jewish world, which espouses the view that this world is the only world and that you should “enjoy life while you have it.” In reality, olam hazeh is finite. Its pleasures are nothing but a fleeting shadow. Our focus in this world should really be on acquiring eternity, the next world.

Life is comprised of struggles. It takes effort to make progress. The Shem Mishmuel notes  that beginnings are usually filled with excitement and enthusiasm. There is a special burst of energy at the start of a new school year, the early months of marriage, and the commencement of a new job. This is built into the human psyche. Our challenge is to maintain this spirit, not only at the outset, but throughout the process.

Hashem gave us two special days, Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh. The days of the week are olam hazeh, kedem, a preparation. Shabbat is olam habah, achor, the ultimate purpose.

Rosh Chodesh is chiddush, a new beginning. We do not concern ourselves with past failures and disappointments. We start afresh with renewed vigor and excitement. King David is the soul of Rosh Chodesh. The central point of his personality was teshuva, for with the power of repentance we can change and achieve greatness. On Rosh Chodesh, when the new moon appears, we re-experience the joy of renewal and teshuva.

Shabbat is the achor, the goal.  Shabbat envelops (makif) the entire week. It contains the energy of all the holidays. Rosh Chodesh is the kedem, the power of renewal and inspiration.

Zachor and shamor represent two aspects of Shabbat. Shamor is the kedem, the preparation for a higher level. Zachor is the achor, the energy of Shabbat. Shabbat contains the spark to begin anew, but it is also the ultimate goal and the resting place of the Jewish soul. The start of Shabbat is shamor, we depart from olam hazeh and ascend to a level of olam habah. Kiddush is zachor, when we soar to heights beyond where angels can reach. Shabbat is an intense otherworldly light.

Rosh Chodesh is this world. It tells us we can begin again. In Nissan, when the Jewish nation was reborn, Hashem commanded them, “Hachodesh hazeh lachem.” It was the first mitzva given to a comatose nation sunk in the forty nine levels of impurity. It was the impetus that transformed them into a fiery ball of spiritual energy willing to take the paschal lamb at the risk of death and following Hashem into a barren desert.

When we commemorate Rosh Chodesh Nissan we re-experience tremendous renewal. Adam was created on Rosh Chodesh Nissan. On the verse, “Vayehi adam l’nefesh chaya, He breathed into man a living spirit,” the Targum translates a living spirit as ruach m’malela, a talking soul. The essence of man is the ability to express himself. The Ari Hakadosh writes that the Exodus of Egypt redeemed our power of speech.

The seder night is an evening of song, praise, and thanks to Hashem. As free men we recount the story of our redemption and use our ability of expression to connect with Hashem.

In Tehilim, King David asks Hashem, “Create for me a pure heart and renew within me a proper spirit.” The first step is to purify our hearts from all the accumulated blockages and impurities. Only then can we merit a proper spirit. Parshat Parah purifies our unresponsive hearts. Parshat Hachodesh, which follows directly after, is the excitement of renewal.

On the Seder night we re-experience the exhilaration of yetziat Mitzrayim, the beginning of the journey of marriage between Klal Yisrael and Hashem. That was the time when we set out on the road to Sinai to accept the Torah.

May we hold on to the joy and energy of Pesach and may it carry us onward through the year as we work to accomplish the achor, the goal of creation.

Safeguarding Our Holiness

9 03 2011

Based on a shiur on Chassidut by Rabbi Hershel Reichman

Safeguarding our HolinessIn his discussion on Parshat Shekalim, the Shem MiShmuel asks two penetrating questions. The machazit hashekel was donated in Adar and was used to fund the new cycle of korbonot tzibbur (public sacrifices) which commenced in Nissan. Why was it necessary to dedicate the entire month of Adar to collecting the half shekel when it could have easily been accumulated in less time?  Additionally, why is Nissan the beginning of the new season of sacrifices? Why do we not count from Tishrei, when the Jewish year actually begins?


The Gemara in Rosh Hashana notes that the Divine machshava (thought) to create the world took place in Tishrei. The actual creation began in Nissan. Rashi adds that when Hashem first conceived the world, he intended to create it with middat hadin (strict justice). However, because man is such an unpredictable and fickle creature, he foresaw that din alone would not work. Although angels are programmed to do good, humans have free choice and are constantly changing. This is our greatness and also our weakness. Life is a road with many curves, ups and downs, and triumphs and failures. The ultimate victory of good over evil, the battle of the inner self, is the ultimate human struggle. Therefore Hashem decided to use an unpredictable system, midat hachesed. A world based on mercy is a world filled with surprises. Indeed chesed is at the heart and soul of the teshuva process. Man can rectify his deeds by changing his ways. Our instability can create something wondrous, a transformation of self. In Tishrei, we face Hashem’s din. Not too many of us can pass muster. Therefore Hashem gave us a different time frame, Nissan, the month of chesed, the month when the Jewish people sunk in the forty ninth level of impurity were redeemed through Hashem’s mercy.


Life’s purpose is to build a relationship with Hashem. This is achieved through movement from above and below which will always affect a response. In Chassidic terminology it is called “iserusa d’letata” (arousal from below) and “isresua d’leyla” (arousal from above).  This is the difference between Tishrei and Nissan. In Tishrei, the month of din, man must take the first step. It is our obligation to do what is right and Hashem responds in kind. Chesed, on the other hand, begins from Hashem. It comes from above.  We have no claim on it. However there is a factor that can trigger it. Hashem redeemed us from Egypt despite our unworthiness because he saw our potential for greatness. He invested in us. This is the chesed of Nissan. It is a month of awakening, a month when Hashem extends us a credit line and gives us blessings, not for what we are today, but for what we have the potential to become. This is a moving testimony of Hashem’s love for us. We  actualize His trust by tapping in to our will to grow and connecting to the inner point of our soul which can never be destroyed.


Modesty and chastity are the hallmarks of the Jewish nation. Discarding this can cause us to lose our very identity. Yosef was the epitome of modesty. He remained holy despites the many temptations he encountered in Egypt. Mechirat Yosef was the abandonment of that model. The twelve tribes sold Yosef for twenty geira and each of them received half a geira. With the machazit hashekel, we make a commitment to rectify Mechirat Yosef and to follow the example of our holy leaders. We can then be deserving of Hashem’s beneficence.


The month of Adar is dedicated to correcting the sin of immorality, to connecting to the Beit Hamikdash, to bringing the sacrifices necessary to lead a holy life, to becoming a tzaddik like Yosef, and to actualizing the potential Hashem implanted within each of us. In this way we will merit the  heavenly mercy, the isrusa d’leyla, which immediately follows in Nissan, the month of chesed and ultimate redemption.

Parshat Ki Tisa: Bound to Our Creator

18 02 2011

Based on a shiur on Chassidut by Rabbi Hershel Reichman

Parshat Ki Tisa

Parshat Ki Tisa tells the pivotal sin of cheit ha’eigel (the sin of the golden calf), the subsequent breaking of the luchot, and Moshe’s prayer for forgiveness. In his exchange with Hashem, Moshe asks, “Let me see Your glory.” Hashem responds, “You will see My back, but My face you shall not see.” What was the back of Hashem that Moshe was privileged to see? Rashi explains that it was the knot of Hashem’s tefilin.

The Shem Mishmuel explores this puzzling passage. He notes that tefilin refer to thinking. Hashem’s tefilin are an allegory for His thoughts. According to halacha, when a man wears tefilin he must focus entirely on holiness and on the messages contained within the tefilin. Moshe had an incredibly close relationship with Hashem, more than any other human. Therefore, he had a connection to tefilin, which means connection to Hashem in thought.

Our tefilin speak about ahavat Hashem, His oneness, the Torah, and yetziat mitzrayim. They are about Hashem’s greatness and how it impacts upon us. Hashem’s tefilin are a mirror image of our own. They focus on the uniqueness and loftiness of Klal Yisrael, and Hashem’s love and loyalty to us. He created an unbreakable bond between Himself and the Jewish people. This is the knot of tefilin that Hashem showed Moshe.

The knot of tefilin hints that we are bound and knotted to Hashem in an eternal relationship. Hashem is with us in every situation we find ourselves in. Hashem describes himself as “hashochen itam b’toch tumotam, who dwells among the Jews even though they are defiled.” Just as a parent will never abandon his child, Hashem will always remain loyal to us, no matter how far we have strayed. True love is a balance between chesed and din. Sometimes Hashem sends us retribution, as a father who must punish his son. Still he remains our loving father. This is the indestructible knot of Hashem’s tefilin. The Jewish people accepted the Torah unquestioningly, proclaiming the words “Naaseh V’neshma.”  We are absolutely committed to our Creator. In return, we know Hashem will remain eternally loyal to us.

Why was Moshe the first to understand this irrevocable connection? When he descended with the luchot and saw that the Jews had sinned with the egel, he broke the tablets. His reasoned that if the Jewish nation were destined to be decimated, he wanted to die with them. Because of his incredible loyalty and self-sacrifice for his people, Hashem revealed to him the secret of the kesher shel tefilin. This message of faith has kept us alive as a nation throughout our long exile. This ray of hope will bring us to the final redemption.

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 Mishpatim: The Seventh Point

28 01 2011

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hershel Reichman

Parshat Mishpatim-The Seventh Point

The eved ivri (Jewish slave) was a rare occurrence during the Temple era and is certainly not relevant today. Why then is it discussed first in this parsha?
Chassidut teaches that space consists of six sides, namely: up, down, left, right, front, and back. There is an epicenter within this three dimensional cube, which is the seventh point. This parallels the human experience. Most of our life encounters touch us externally. However there are certain experiences that are so profound that they affect our inner core. This, the Avnei Nezer explains, is why the eved ivri works six years and goes free in the seventh year. The eved ivri is a common criminal or at best a social outcast, sold into slavery to repay his debts. He is bound to serve his master six years, signifying the six external points of his life that have experienced a terrible breakdown. Yet his inner seventh point remains pure and indestructible. This is why he is set free in the seventh year.


What is the secret of this indomitable inner core? At Har Sinai, Hashem said, “Anochi Hashem Elokecha.” I am Hashem who redeemed you from Egypt. This seems strange. The redemption was certainly incredible, but the creation of the world was even more so. Why does Hashem specifically introduce himself as our redeemer rather than our Creator?


The Shem MiShmuel notes that in halacha something that is hekdesh (sanctified) is not subject to human claim. When the Jews became a nation, they reached the level of hekdesh, and therefore the Egyptians could no longer have a hold on them. Our special relationship with Hashem over and beyond the other nations is the kedushat yisrael, the seventh inner indestructible point which connects us as a people to Hashem.


At Matan Torah, when the Jews said naaseh v’nishma they became entirely sanctified. All seven levels were freed and no nation could dominate them. After cheit haegel, the six external sides were contaminated again, but the seventh inner core remained pure. This state has stayed with us until today. The vagaries of life cannot affect us because inwardly we are eternally free. Even the eved ivri retains his pure core. Externally, he may have been broken, but his inner seventh point remained untouched, and that is why he is eventually set free.


Similarly, the Rambam notes that the world will exist for six thousand years. In the seventh year, we will be redeemed. Mashiach will come and the world will finally recognize the unique bond between us and Hashem that has kept us strong and indestructible throughout our long exile.

Parshat Yitro: Torah & Shabbat

20 01 2011

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hershel Reichman

Parshat Yitro-Torah and Shabbat

The Gemara writes that the Torah was given to the Jews on Shabbat. This is hinted at by two verses that share the same expression of Zachor, namely, “Zachor et yom hashabbat, Remember the Shabbat day,” and “Zachor et yom asher amadata lifnei Hashem b’Chorev, Remember the day that you stood before Hashem at Chorev.” Why did Hashem choose to give the Torah specifically on this day?

In its account of Matan Torah, the Torah says, “Vayered Hashem al har Sinai. Hashem descended to Mt. Sinai.” Targum Unkelos translates “Vayered” as “Vayitgala,” meaning Hashem revealed himself. Indeed, according to Chassidut, the Almighty is everywhere, but there are barriers between our perception of Him and reality, which prevent us from seeing Him. At Har Sinai, Hashem removed this blindfold.

Chassidut further teaches that there is a relationship of itaruta d’latata, an arousal from below, which causes Hashem to respond with an itaruta d’lmaleh, movement from above. This is the power of repentance. Our first move is the crack the wall, which causes the edifice blocking our perception of Hashem to crumble.

In Mishlei, King Shlomo writes, “Deep waters are the thoughts of man’s heart.” Chovot Halevavot explains that just as there are subterranean pools of water waiting to be discovered, there are profound wells of spirituality hidden within our souls.  Latent within every Jewish soul is the ability to connect the Creator. This is itaruta d’latata, believing in our powers and opening ourselves up.

Shabbat is the optimum day to dip into these spiritual reservoirs. When we abandon our daily weekday focus and immerse ourselves completely in Torah, prayer, and avodat Hashem, we are one with Hashem. Shabbat supports itaruta d’latata” It is a day to find our true selves, a day of revelation, connection, and profound elevation. That is why Hashem particularly chose this day to give the Torah.

The Shem Mishmuel explores the paradoxical concepts of yesh and ayin, existence and non-existence. Does man have worth, or is he nothing compared to Hashem? On the one hand, man is the purpose of creation. On the other hand, he is but a speck amid the vast celestial bodies and galaxies spinning around the universe. The Shem Mishmuel answers that there are two ways to serve Hashem. One can serve Him through yesh, tapping into our spiritual powers and elevating them for higher purposes. On the other hand, one can serve him through bitul hayesh, losing oneself in the grandeur of Hashem’s spirituality. This is a very high level, one reached by Avraham, Moshe, Aharon, and David.

All of us straddle this dialectic balance. There are times when we need to use our energies in order to achieve great things. We cannot be passive and we must fight to eradicate evil. But there are times when we must be ayin. Trying too much is pride. At some point we must give ourselves over to Hashem and let Him take us where He will lead us.

The six days of the week and Shabbat parallel this concept. During the week, man is a yesh, he toils to accomplish his purpose. On Shabbat we become ayin, null and void in proximity to the Almighty. Spirituality envelops us and we are filled with infinite holiness. On this day, sin falls away, and the barriers separating us from our Maker disintegrate.

Torah also is both yesh and ayin. The Gemara writes that a talmid chacham is in the category of yesh. By interpreting the Oral Torah, he becomes an actual partner with Hashem. Yet our Sages note that in order to acquire Torah one must make oneself into a desert by nullifying one’s personal interest and ego. The balance of greatness in Torah is recognizing one’s abilities, yet personifying humility.

May we be zoche to the Torah of the six days of the week, and to the Torah of Shabbat, to knowing that we are nothing yet something, incomplete yet holy, and may this new level of awareness help us reach ever greater heights in avodat Hashem.

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.