Rabbi Rael Blumenthal

Growing up, I remember teachers telling us to “pay attention.” It's a strange phrase. How does one “pay” attention? Enter 2022 where attention is a multi-billion industry. In many ways, paying with our attention is the cost of living in the modern world.

Quite literally, every moment, someone is making money off of mine and your attention. This is no secret to any of us who have been repeatedly badgered to “like and subscribe”. We know that the accounts and profiles we follow are gaining from our engagement. “Good for them,” we think. “If an advertiser wants to pay them for my clicks and views, that's no sweat off of my back. I have the choice to disable notifications, mute my devices and unsubscribe whenever I want.” But while there is no harm in subscribing and engaging, there is most certainly a cost.

More often than not, we are completely unaware of the price we pay when we give our attention away. That's the brilliance of this industry: When we give our focus away, we are giving away the very ability to notice what else we are giving up.

Please note: I am not here to rant about phones, social media and the internet. While these tools have certainly made distractibility easier, the problem is as old as humanity itself. Indeed, the question of focus and attention is central to our Parsha. To understand it, we'll need a quick recap:

Bilaam has been recruited to curse the Jewish people, and despite knowing that Hashem might not let him get away with it, the money is too good to pass up. He leaves home accompanied by the nobleman of Moav, but along the way, his donkey is acting up, veering from one side of road to the other.

Unbeknownst to Bilaam, there is an angel of Hashem blocking their path. In his rage, Bilaam begins to beat the animal until, miraculously, Hashem opens the mouth of the donkey who protests: “Why are you beating me?!”

Bilaam, yells back “Why am I beating you?! You're making making a mockery out of me in front of all of these people! If I was holding a sword, I would've killed you by now!”

The donkey, replies “Seriously?! In all the years that you've ridden me, have I ever done anything like this?”

“No”, Bilaam acknowledges, but before the conversation continues, Hashem opens Bilaam's eyes and he sees the angel in his path. The angel admonishes Bilaam, who quickly defends himself before resuming his journey and mission.

By all standards, this is a strange story and there are many questions that the narrative demands. But a number of years ago, one of my students remarked, half-joking, there is no point where Bilaam exclaims: “OMG! A Talking Donkey?!”

He shows no pause, takes no break, shows no recognition that he has witnessed a singularly miraculous event.

It's a good question, one that the Anvei Nezer addresses (שם משמואל תרע״ו).

He explains: It is entirely possible for a person to encounter the most incredible wonders of reality, and walk away from them completely unfazed and unchanged.

The human capacity to concurrently focus our own agendas and ignore all else, gives us ample room to feel cynical, disenchanted and uninspired regardless of the opportunities and events around us.

The Kotzker explains this tragic truth in the Pasuk describing Matan Torah (Shemos 20:14):

וְכָל הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת הַקּוֹלֹת... וַיַּרְא הָעָם וַיָּנֻעוּ וַיַּעַמְדוּ מֵרָחֹק And all the people saw the thundering, and the lightning, and the voice of the Shofar, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled, and stood a far away.

Apparently, it is possible for a person to see sounds, hear lightning, experience the call of shofar and see the mountain ablaze before us. It is even possible to tremble in awe and fear, and yet, to still stand far away.

It is possible to have a full conversation with a talking donkey and fail to notice the sheer miraculousness of the event. When our attention is zoomed in on our own narrow thoughts and screens, we are effectively giving up the possibility of noticing anything else.

What else is there to notice? Everything.

So much of our Halachik experience is designed to draw our attention to things that we might otherwise ignore. We make brachos on thunder, lightening, new fruit and dozens of other irregular experiences. But we also take note of the miracle of opening our eyes in the morning (ברוך פוקח עורים) and express our gratitude in putting on shoes (ברוך שעשה לי כל צרכי).

It is essential to note, however, that we are not trying to focus on everything and certainly not everything at the same time. That would be impossible and naive to attempt.

Instead, the goal of the Torah is curate our attention, to train us on which aspects of existence to focus on so that we can lead elevated and enjoyable lives.

The narrative of my life and yours is told to us, by us. But by focussing on details in one direction or another, the stories we tell ourselves can diverge wildly.

In one version the stranger's kid having a melt down in aisle seven is “badly behaved”. Naturally, there are things we could focus on to explain that conclusion. But in another version of the same story, that great kid is having a really rough day, and there is evidence for this conclusion as well. Which version is true? I have no idea, it all really depends on which details we choose to focus on. But I know what I'd like you to think if it were my kid; so I should try to do the same for you.

That's our Avoda. To try to see the details that explain how the world is good, how everyone is doing their best, and perhaps how we could lend a hand.

This is the essential message of our Parsha. Everything that Bilaam saw as negative, Hashem forced him to see as positive, to see from the perspective of a loving friend:

לֹא הִבִּיט אָוֶן בְּיַעֲקֹב... ה׳ אֱלֹקיו עִמּוֹ וּתְרוּעַת מֶלֶךְ בּוֹ Hashem has not seen sin in Yaakov, or perverseness in Yisrael. Hashem his God is with him and the Teruah of the King is within him.

Rashi comments here: וּתְרוּעַת מֶלֶךְ בּוֹ – לשון חיבה וריעות. The word תרועה is an expression for love and fellowship. If you love someone, you choose to see the good in them. That's the part to focus on.

If time is a limited resource, then focus and attention are even more so. The charge of the Torah is to choose how we use this single most powerful resource.

Hashem should help us in this fight to reclaim our attention, to focus only the goodness of the Torah, each other and ourselves.

Summer is a peculiar time for Avodas Hashem. For kids, teens and young adults, the summer offers a change of pace and place from regular scheduled schooling. This often enables opportunities for meteoric growth, and indeed, I've seen many talmidim come back from a great summer reinvigorated and reenergized.

But for adults, for whom the responsibilities of life are sometimes slowed, but not paused, the change of pace of family life can contribute to feelings of lethargy and disinterest. Effectively, for many adults, the summer is a Ruchniyos Recession.

I vividly remember my first major Ruchniyos Recession in Yeshiva. It happened the day after Rosh HaShana in my second year in Kerem B'Yavneh. I was flying high the whole of Elul; pushing later and later hours in the Beis Medrash. My chavrusa and I were covering more ground than ever before, we were even doing Chazara!

In retrospect, I should've known that my relentless sleep deprivation was unhealthy and unsustainable. But Rosh HaShana was a few days away, and after all, that's when Hashem is judging us. I wanted to make a good impression. My davening that Yom Tov was soulful, uplifting and exhausting.

... And it all came crashing down the morning of Tzom Gedalya. I simply couldn't get out of bed. I was tired in a way that sleep doesn't fix. I wasn't feeling sick, I was burned out. I didn't want to open a Siddur. I certainly didn't want to open a Gemara.

More than anything, the guilt was overwhelming. I has soared my way up to Rosh Hashana only to flake out during the Aseres Yemei Teshuva?! What a fake, what a fraud! I imagined Hashem's disapproval; His judgement and disappointment. I was upset with myself for not foreseeing this crash, for failing so hard. I questioned everything I had ever achieved, all of my hopes and dreams for my time in Yeshiva.

Needless to say, most of those feelings were unnecessary and unduly exaggerated.

Later that week, I approached Rav Blachman to ask for advice. He listened carefully to my predicament, and then gave a hearty chuckle and explained casually: “You're young. You'll learn. You can't expect to fly upwards forever. It takes time; and each time you'll get a little better. There will be many more Eluls and Rosh HaShanas to work up to.”

In the past week, speaking to chaverim, members and colleagues, many have expressed deep fears about the market, the economy and the future of this country. I'm not an economist, and talks of an impending (or current?) recession are disconcerting. But on the other hand those who are much smarter and more experienced than me know that fluctuation is normal, and that we should learn to expect the ups and downs.

I can certainly understand that as a market grows, it experiences natural ups and downs. In the short term, however, the highs are extraordinary and the lows are devastating.

I would like to suggest that the same long game perspective is true in our Ruchniyus as well. We all experience periods of heightened growth, excitement and inspiration. And we all experience setbacks, frustrations and failure. Perhaps, the greatest commonality between economics and Ruchniyos is the need to understand that there are forces outside of our control, and choices that are within our control. Differentiating between them requires humility, empathy, maturity and perspective.

So what do we do in a Ruchniyus Recession? What is our Avoda when we don't feel connected or inspired? What do we do when we feel like we've already failed?

In many ways, I think that that this was the final challenge of the Dor HaMidbar. Those great Jews who survived slavery, followed Moshe into the desert, walked through the sea on dry land, and stood at the foot of Mount Sinai. After everything that they achieved, ultimately, they failed. They would not see their dream to completion, they would never enter Eretz Yisrael.

Consider how Moshe Rabbeinu might have felt, knowing that he was facing 38 years of funerals. Imagine the pain of learning that he too would not be allowed to step foot in the Land of Israel, that he too would die in the desert.

For an entire generation, there was no “We want Moshiach now!” campaign. There was no geulah; they wouldn't ever see the Land that Hashem had promised. How did they survive that spiritual recession, and what can we learn from them?

Chazal (תענית ט א) tell us that there were three great leaders in the Midbar: Moshe, Aharon and Miriam. In their merit Hashem gave us three miracles: Manna from Heaven, Annanei HaKavod to protect us from the elements, and water from a rock.

But this Shabbos, Aharon and Miriam die. What happened to those great miracles? How would we ever survive? No problem, the Talmud teaches, חָזְרוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם בִּזְכוּת מֹשֶׁה – the Clouds and the Water returned in Moshe's merit.

The Ksav Sofer asks: If all three miracles could happen in Moshe's merit, why did we need Miriam and Aharon at all?!

He explains: At the beginning of the forty year exile, those miracles could only have been in the merit of Miriam and Aharon. But forty years later, Moshe Rabbeinu had also grown. Now, as a greater version of himself, Moshe could achieve more on behalf of his people.

We don't often think of Moshe's personal growth. Much like a kindergartener doesn't think that their teacher could ever been seen at a the mall. But Chazal are telling us that Moshe also continued to grow; and all of this during a national Ruchniyus Recession.

Rabbi Nachman (ליקוטי מהר״ן ו׳) writes:

וּכְשֶׁרוֹצֶה אָדָם לֵילֵךְ בְּדַרְכֵי הַתְּשׁוּבָה, צָרִיךְ לִהְיוֹת בָּקִי בַּהֲלָכָה, וְצָרִיךְ לִהְיוֹת לוֹ שְׁנֵי בְּקִיאוּת, הַיְנוּ בָּקִי בְּרָצוֹא, בָּקִי בְּשׁוֹב Now, when a person wants to walk the pathways of repentance, he must be baki (expert) in Halakhah. This demands that he have two types of expertise: baki b’ratzo (expert at “running”) and baki b’shov (expert at “returning or retreating”).

There are times in our lives when we are “Running”, growing by leaps and bounds. These times contain their own challenges; obligating us to make the most of our opportunities, and not to succumb to complacency.

In the times of “retreat”, however, we are challenged by maintaining slow consolidation of our achievements. Building personalities of stable Avodas Hashem, and diligent Emunah. The world of בקי בשוב is the deep work of understanding that setbacks and failures are part of the process, on the micro and macro scales of our lives and Jewish history.

Our Avoda is to respond to our the economics of our Ruchniyus with careful planning and consideration. To set goals, weigh up options, and to ensure that the next steps we take are moving forwards. We need to ask ourselves: “Ok, I don't have the time, money or energy for 'X', but what can I do? In what way can I become closer to Hashem? What can I change today?”

Hashem should help us to weather every storm – in Gashmiyus and Ruchniyus – and to ensure that we emerge as greater people, with loftier middos, stronger connections, and deeper understanding of Hashem, His Torah and ourselves.

Once again the USA is embroiled in a Machlokes. This week it's about abortions. Naturally, everyone believes that their argument is L'Shem Shamayim – “for the sake of Heaven”. And of course, everyone is strongly of the opinion that the “other side” is not L'shem Shamayim.

Tragically, it seems that there has never been a year that Parshas Korach is not relevant. But before we point fingers at who the “Korach” is, we need to ask if we are arguing L'Shem Shamayim.

Chazal (אבות ה:י״ז) teach us:

כל מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים. סופה להתקיים. ושאינה לשם שמים. אין סופה להתקיים. איזו היא מחלוקת שהוא לשם שמים זו מחלוקת הלל ושמאי. ושאינה לשם שמים. זו מחלוקת קרח וכל עדתו: Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korach and all his congregation.

I've always been bothered by this Mishna, I am fairly certain that if we would have asked Korach “Are you fighting for the sake of Heaven”, he would have answering a resounding “Yes! I want to be able to serve Hashem better!”

In the history of disagreements, we'd be hard pressed to find a single individual who truly believes that their fight is unjustified. Of course, I hope that we are all OK with apologizing for losing our cool during small fights, and lapses of judgement. With a moment of clarity and hindsight, we can appreciate that we all make getting it wrong sometimes. We all make mistakes in the world of daily frustrations.

But the major moral, ethical, philosophical questions of our time? That's where we are convinced that we need to stand our ground. After all, we're not arguing for our own sake, so we must be fighting L'shem Shamayim!

This orientation makes it impossible to determine if any Machlokes we are involved in is indeed truly L'Shem Shamayim. How do we know if our fight is for the sake of Heaven if everyone is convinced that their fight is?!

At this point, it's worth asking what difference it makes at all. Perhaps we're not arguing L'Shem Shamayim? What's wrong with that? Can't we simply have a good old fight?

It's not so simple. The Medrash (במדבר רבה י״ח) notes that מחלוקת is an acronym:

מַחֲלֹקֶת: מ' מַכָּה, ח' חָרוֹן, ל לִקּוּי, ק' קְלָלָה, ת' תּוֹעֵבָה. וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים, תַּכְלִית, כְּלָיָה מֵבִיא לָעוֹלָם.

Violence (מ), anger (ח), punishment (ל), curse (ק), and abomination (ת). Some some that the ת׳ is for תכלית – end, since Machlokes destroys the world.

Machlokes is the single most destructive force in humanity, and the only Heter to getting involved in a Machlokes at all is when we are arguing L'shem Shamayim. Resolving whether or not our disputes are in this category is now crucial. Quite literally, everything is at stake.

Here's the litmus test. The Zohar HaKadosh (חלק א׳ י״ז ב׳) explains:

At the core of every Machlokes there is a driving emotion: Either love or anger. An argument for the sake of Heaven is one that is driven exclusively by love. An argument fueled by anger is, by definition, not L'Shem Shamayim.

When Chazal tell us that a מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים סופה להתקיים – A Machlokes for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure – this is the criteria, in and of itself. In order to know if our disagreement is for the sake of Heaven, we need to ask: Do I want this to endure? Do I love the person, or people on the other side? Is this argument making me love them more? Is it making me love the truth more? If yes, then it is for the sake of Heaven. If not... perhaps it's time to get off the pedestal. Even if you are 100% sure that you are right.

Case in point: Hillel and Shamai wanted their disagreements to continue. Korach wanted Moshe to drop dead.

It's important to note here that Beis Hillel and Beis Shamai weren't simply debating the best toppings for pizza. They argued about the personal status of individuals in their communities, the legitimacy of marriages and the children born from them. These are amongst the highest stakes in Halacha and yet, the Mishna (יבמות י״ג ב׳) tells us:

אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁאֵלּוּ אוֹסְרִים וְאֵלּוּ מַתִּירִין, אֵלּוּ פּוֹסְלִין וְאֵלּוּ מַכְשִׁירִין — לֹא נִמְנְעוּ בֵּית שַׁמַּאי מִלִּישָּׂא נָשִׁים מִבֵּית הִלֵּל, וְלָא בֵּית הִלֵּל מִבֵּית שַׁמַּאי. Although Beis Hillel prohibit and Beis Shammai permit, and although these disqualify these women and those deem them fit, Beis Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying women from Beis Shammai.

The Talmud debates how Beis Shamai and Beis Hillel navigated their disagreements. Perhaps one side was outvoted and then followed the others opinion, or perhaps they were careful to only suggest shidduchim to each other that worked for both.

Regardless of how they resolved these massive issues, their approach is codified in the Mishna:

לְלַמֶּדְךָ שֶׁחִיבָּה וְרֵיעוּת נוֹהֲגִים זֶה בָּזֶה, לְקַיֵּים מַה שֶּׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״הָאֱמֶת וְהַשָּׁלוֹם אֱהָבוּ״ This serves to teach you that they practiced affection and camaraderie between them, to fulfill that which is stated: “Love truth and peace”

The Meiri, in his commentary to Mishlei (ט׳:ח׳) writes:

שהאהבה קירוב הדעת ושיווי הרצון, והחולקים בחכמה הוא מצד חקירת האמת, ומתוך המשא ומתן יבררו האמת ויסכימו לדעת אחת, ויאהבו זה את זה. Love is drawing thoughts together, and aligning desires. Those who argue in wisdom do so for the sake of investigating the Truth. Through the give-and-take of intellectual debate, they will arrive at a mutual conclusion, and will love each other.

I am an optimist. I believe that most people on both sides engaged in this Machlokes are well intentioned, good people. But that bar is too low for an Eved Hashem. Having good intentions is not the same as arguing and living L'Shem Shamayim. For that, we need to be absolutely, completely clear that there is no malice, anger, resentment, frustration or negativity that we carry into the fight. It's an Avoda of checking our egos at the door and asking “What does the Ribono Shel Olam want of me?”

Of course, there is much to be said about the abortion in Halacha. (In the Shuir this Shabbos afternoon we'll be learning some of this material.) As usual, the Torah is far more nuanced, sensitive, broad and subtle than could ever be contained in a slogan or on a bumper sticker. Torah Jews are not bumper sticker people, we care too deeply about Ratzon Hashem to dumb it down.

However, while Halacha is complex, our emotions, our relationships and our care for others should not be. In all of those areas, the Torah is clear: Love, Truth and Peace. Only then can we being to plumb the depths of Ratzon Hashem.

Hashem should help us all to inspire ourselves and each other, to upgrade the national conversation from anger to Ahava, to live L'shem Shamayim.

Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner was amongst the most prolific and creative geniuses of the 19th century. Aside from being the Radziner Rebbe, he was also autodidactic in biology, chemistry and Italian. All of these studies were in pursuit of rediscovering and reintroducing Techeiles – the royal blue dye that once colored the tzitis of our ancestors.

Once he had made his discovery, however, he faced steep opposition from all of the Gedolim in Europe, which necessitated his publishing of seforim and articles on the topic. But knowing that nothing is more powerful than face-to-face conversations, the Rebbe took to the road, traveling from community to community to garner support for his techeiles. Each Rabbi and Rebbe engaged him in lengthy debate and discussion. Some of whom he successfully convinced, others remained skeptical.

Among those he approached was The Belzer Rebbe, Rabbi Yehoshua Rokeach, who, upon simply seeing the dyed wool, turned him down and denied his approval.

The Radziner was taken aback, and attempted to engage in learned debate, but the Belzer Rebbe refused.

“Let me explain my refusal,” Rav Yehoshua said. “If you wish to argue with me using your Talmudic skills and erudition, you will surely defeat me because we both know that your intellectual prowess in Torah is certainly superior to mine! However, I will tell you a story why I simply cannot agree with you.”

“Once, when I was a child, my father, the Tzaddik, the Great Sar Sholom of Belz, woke me early at dawn and asked me to come outside with him. In the haze of that early morning, he pointed upward to the heavens and said, “Do you see the color of the sky right now?””

“Yes”, I replied. “Good” my father said. “This,” he pointed, “is the color of techeiles.”

The Belzer Rebbe turned to the Radzier: “Reb Henoch, I have no doubt that you have extensive proofs to your Techeiles, but unfortunately, the color you show me here does not match the color my father showed me. Which means, of course, that this is not Techeiles, and I cannot approve of it.”

***

How do we raise children with a sense of clarity and resilience? How can we teach our children as the Sar Shalom did “This is Torah”?

Recently, I've heard from a number of deflated and dismayed parents, arguing that in the craziness of our generation, it's not even possible to raise committed kids. I firmly disagree, and moreover, I think it is simple enough that we could all achieve it, and this summer is a perfect time to start.

Our curriculum begins with the Siddur:

Every morning, before a Jew says Shema Yisrael, before we acknowledge and proclaim the unity of Hashem, we make two brachos. The first is יוצר אור ובורא חושך – Hashem who forms light and creates darkness. The second is אהבה רבה אהבתנו – Hashem, You love us with the greatest Love. Why do we need two brachos before saying Shema?

The Baal Shem Tov explains: When we reflect on the beauty, brilliance and majesty of the natural word, we are using our intellect to appreciate Hashem. This is immensely valuable, but ultimately refutable. All it takes someone smarter or more knowledgeable, and an entire lifetime of understanding Hashem can be lost in a semester with a charismatic atheist professor (רמחנא לצלן).

In these moment, the second bracha – Hashem who loves us becomes paramount. No intellectual rebuttal can convince me out of an emotional relationship.

If so, then why do we need the first bracha at all? Why not focus exclusively on the emotional component? The Baal Shem Tov continues: There will come a time in everyone's life that we don't feel Hashem's love. In these tougher times, we need to appreciate that He still runs the world.

Education both of these understandings is essential to our religious mindset and well-being.

But it's not all about discussion and texts. These ideas; intellectual appreciation and emotional connection must filter into actions.

There is a big lie that we all tell about education: We like to pretend that every class, every shiur, every drop of information is essential to our learning and growth. The truth is, we all know that it's not. Because if we're honest, as adults, very few of us can recall specific lessons from our years and years of schooling. Indeed, it is never the “lessons” that make an impact at all – it's the experiences. Intellectual exposure alone has little chance of permeating our being. Information doesn't naturally soak into our bones.

The part of school that makes the greatest impact on our growth is the total experience. The thoughts, feelings, words and actions that together coalesce into an experience.

I've been thinking about this a lot with regards to my students and with regards to my own children. Nothing would give me more nachas than for my students and children to master vast amounts of disciplines and texts. I would love for them to be proficient in all areas of Torah, the sciences and the arts. But mastery cannot be taught, it must be pursued; and the only reason that anyone would willingly pursue mastery is if they believe it to be valuable.

Effectively, this understanding distills all of chinuch to one singular enterprise: A multi-year, multi-faceted demonstration of the values we cannot live without. Sure, there are important skills to acquire, important facts to memorize, but in its truest sense, Yiddishkeit, Talmud Torah and learning in general, are all experiential.

This is the opportunity that presents itself to us this summer: Look for simple, practical ways to make Torah relevant in your kids lives. These need not be contrived, they need not take much planning, and they certainly don't need to cost a lot of money.

For those looking for ideas; think about the most crucial values to our Yiddishkeit. Take your children along to do Bikkur Cholim in a local hospital, or call up a nursing home and ask when you could come bring a smile to lonely face. If you're traveling, choose a Sefer or a limmud, and challenge your kids and family members to see how many different places you could learn Torah over the summer. Or as Mori V'Rabbi Rav Blachman recommends: Buy a telescope and marvel at the Hashem's creations together.

All it takes a moment of thought, a proactive minute, to give our kids that experience of “I know the color of Techeiles; my parents showed it to me.” Those are the moments and memories that define our childhood, that inspire our families and futures.

Hashem should help us to raise ourselves and our families to deeper relationships, greater clarity and more passionate Avodas Hashem in everything that we do.

Someone once wrote a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe in a state of profound sadness. The letter read as follows:

“I would like the Rebbe's help. I wake up each day sad and anxious. I can't concentrate. I find it hard to pray. I feel that life has lost its joy and is pointless. I need help.”

The Rebbe wrote a wonderful reply without using a single word. He circled the first word of every sentence in red, and sent the letter back.

***

It is no coincidence that the rise of individualism in the Western World correlates with the rise in depression. This is not simply anecdotal. Multiple studies have discovered that the more one identifies as “I”, the more susceptible one becomes to depression, loneliness and self-destruction.

But this is not a new problem, we've been dealing with it since the inception of our nation. The Torah begins this week to describe the decent and failure of Klal Yisrael in the Midbar. For the past two weeks (Bamidbar and Naso) the Torah explained how our nation coalesced under a series of banners, surrounded the Mishkan, rallied together and built an army. In that moment they were prepared to leave Sinai and march directly into Eretz Yisrael.

Moshe Rabbeinu famously declares:

קוּמָה ה׳ וְיָפֻצוּ אֹיְבֶיךָ וְיָנֻסוּ מְשַׂנְאֶיךָ מִפָּנֶיךָ. “Rise up, Hashem, and let your enemies be scattered! Let those who hate you flee before you!”

Everyone is standing, ready and prepared to fulfill the destiny of the Jewish people... Except that they are not; at least, not everyone.

So the Torah continues it's cautionary tale:

וַיְהִי הָעָם כְּמִתְאֹנְנִים רַע בְּאזְנֵי ה׳ וַיִּשְׁמַע ה׳ וַיִּחַר אַפּוֹ... The people were complaining in the ears of Hashem. When Hashem heard it, his anger was kindled...

Wait a minute! We can't go into Eretz Yisrael yet, and all of Jewish destiny is put on hold.

What were they complaining about? What was the big problem? The Torah doesn't tell us. But they were certainly unhappy. One wonders what they might've been so upset about.

Moshe Rabbeinu, however, diagnoses the problem a short while later:

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה שֵׁשׁ מֵאוֹת אֶלֶף רַגְלִי הָעָם אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי בְּקִרְבּוֹ Moshe said, “There are six hundred thousand people that אנכי – I, am amongst.”

Meaning: There's six hundred thousand אנכי's. That's a lot of “I”'s. There's not a lot of “we”, and certainly not nearly enough of “You, Hashem”. Because if it's about me, then it's not about You.

Why does the Torah not tell us what the people were upset about? Because there wasn't a singular reason. Everyone had their own little issues, that together combined into a general feeling of discontent.

Rav Hirsch explains:

כל זה היה חסר ערך בעיניהם ולא נראה להם כתמורה ראויה. הם לא הרגישו שזכו בדרך חיים נעלה ומאושרת יותר The entire enterprise of being Jewish, of conquering Eretz Yisrael, of building Klal Yisrael, didn't seem like a fair trade for the life they were giving up in exchange.

Each person felt like they were getting a raw deal. In the moment that they realized that the vision of Yetzias Mitzrayim was, against all odds, actually coming to fruition, they got nervous. They began to question: Do I really want this life? What does it mean to be a committed, connected Eved Hashem?

They got upset, they complained, and the future of our nation was stalled for generations.

Of course, the Torah does not tell us this story for us to be upset with our ancestors, but instead for us to fix those middos within ourselves.

So we ought to take a moment and consider: What exactly a life of “We” and “You” mean. What is it that the Torah asks of us? What is the life that Hashem wants us to live? Torah? Mitzvos? Tefillah? Chessed? What's the goal of this Jewish enterprise?

Ultimately, the goal of everything that we do is כבוד שמים – to bring a little bit of Hashem into the world. But there is no way to bring Hashem into the world without making space for Him. To be a Jew requires that we give up a little bit of “I” for the bigger picture – “You” – be realized.

This sacrifice manifests in a myriad of ways: Finding a minyan on vacation. Ensuring that the food we eat is up to standard even when we're with non Jewish colleagues. It means not listening to the story that someone is telling you, no matter how juicy. It means not getting angry on a WhatsApp or on the highway – even if it's warranted. Even when they're wrong. Even when they deserve it.

These are all the same challenge: Making my agenda less important that Yours, Hashem.

Naturally, the greatest Yetzer Hara in the world of “I” manifests in Avodas Hashem. No one gets more angry than Jews fighting about minhag and nussach and shul leadership.

To this the Kotzker would say:

Everything must be done Lesheim Shamayim (for the sake of Heaven), even the actions done Lesheim Shamayim.

The moment that we realize our frustrations are simply a misalignment of priorities, we can begin to fix them.

Rabbi Nachman (שיחות הר״ן מב) explains the root of our discontent:

עַצְבוּת הוּא: כְּמוֹ מִי שֶׁהוּא בְּכַעַס וּבְרֹגֶז, כְּמוֹ שֶׁמִּתְרַעֵם וּמִתְלוֹנֵן עָלָיו יִתְבָּרַךְ ח”ו, עַל שֶׁאֵינוֹ עוֹשֶׂה לוֹ רְצוֹנוֹ. Sadness is like anger and rage. It is like a complaint against God for not fulfilling one’s wishes.

A few years ago, Walt Bettinger, the CEO of Charles Schwab Corporation, shared his unique style of job interview.

Before every new hire, Bettinger takes candidates out for a breakfast. But what the potential employees don't know is that every time, Bettinger shows up early and asks the restaurant to purposefully mess up the order in exchange for a handsome tip.

For an employer like Bettinger, character is everything. He told the Times that his “wrong order” test is meant to gauge how prospective hires deal with adversity.

“Are they upset, are they frustrated, or are they understanding? Life is like that, and business is like that,” he said.

“It's just another way to look inside their heart rather than their head.”

Hashem should help us to stop complaining, to finally fix the malady of our history. To see ourselves as part of the great dream and purpose of Klal Yisrael, and march to Geulah together.

It was my last night in Eretz Yisroel, three years ago. The flight was leaving from Ben Gurion at midnight, and I wanted to catch Maariv at the Kosel before heading to the airport.

I pulled up a chair, a Sefer Tehillim, and began to Daven while waiting for a Maariv minyan to start. Moments late, a young man, a holy Yerushalmi Jew sat next to me, opened his own tehillim and began to daven with amazing intensity. I looked up from my own tefillah to take in the sights and sounds.

Just then, I remembered that Chazal (ב״ק צ״ב א׳) tell us that whoever davens for someone else, and they need that thing, they are answered first.

I had no idea what this Yid was davening for, but my chutzpah got the better of me and I wanted to join in with his tefillah. So I turned to him and asked: “What are you davening for? I want to daven with you.”

He turned to me and explained that he has been in Yeshivos for a number of years. He told that he had finished Shas Bavli and Yerushalmi multiple times. He's holding in Tur, Shulchan Aruch, Medrash and Zohar. But Hashem hasn't yet giving him a Shidduch, and it's getting hard to for him to stay hopeful.

I told him that I had no answers for him, no solutions, even as I wish I could take the pain away. But I could be there with him. I told him that it would be my honor to daven with him and so for the next fifteen minutes we davened together.

The first Maariv minyan was about to begin. I told him it was soon time for me to leave and catch my flight.

Just before I left, he turned to me and asked me a question that has haunted me since: “Thank you for davening with me, it means so much. I was feeling so down on myself, so upset, and you lifted me up. I want to return the favor. Tell me, what's one thing that you want from Hashem? Just one thing, and I'll daven for that for the rest of my life.”

I was taken aback. That's a great offer. A Talmid Chacham in Yerushalayim davening for me for the rest of his life? What should I ask for? What's the one thing that I will always need? Dozens of ideas floated through my head in second. Should I ask for Parnasah? Refuah? Success in Torah and Mitzvos? Truthfully, all of these are too limited. Who says I will outlive this holy Jew? What do I want him to daven for, forever?

In that moment I realized that ultimately what I was being asked was to think of the ideas, ideals, values, dreams and tefillos that transcend me and my own life. Which of my tefillos are bigger than me? Which of my tefillos are more important than me? It was an eye opening and humbling experience.

What would you have asked for?

Nowadays, I try to come back to these questions regularly. All too often, our perspectives are little more than tunnel vision. So we daven for small things. Of course, even the smallest of things warrants a Tefillah, but how high are we truly aiming? Are we dreaming of comfort and success or perhaps something greater.

Dovid HaMelech says in Tehillim (קט:יד):

תַּחַת־אַהֲבָתִי יִשְׂטְנוּנִי וַאֲנִי תְפִלָּה In return for my love they are my adversaries; But I am all prayer.

Rav Moshe Dovid Vali (the Talmid of the Ramchal) explains that what Dovid HaMelech was saying וַאֲנִי תְפִלָּה is that even when Jews hate me, I'm davening for them. Because the world that I want to build and develop is bigger than me. וַאֲנִי תְפִלָּה means that my life is defined in service of something greater than myself.

The Gra teaches (אבן שלמה ט:ח) that the primary focus of all Tefilla is for Klal Yisrael. And Reb Chaim Volozhiner (נפש החיים שער ב פי״א) explains that even when davening for our own parnassa and refuah and hatzlacha we should ultimately be davening “Hashem, please help me to fill your world with Kedusha and Tahara. This is what I'll need to achieve it...”

The Baal Shem Tov (בעל שם טוב בראשית פרשת נח קכו) explains similarly that at its core, tefillah is not for the individual at all, but for the absence of Hashem in this world to be cured.

These two kinds of Tefillah – myopic vs universal – are two ways to live our lives. The Torah (ד:מז) tells us in our Parsha of that these two ideas are reflected in kinds of work that the Levi'im were appointed to do in the Mishkan:

...כׇּל־הַבָּ֗א לַעֲבֹ֨ד עֲבֹדַ֧ת עֲבֹדָ֛ה וַעֲבֹדַ֥ת מַשָּׂ֖א בְּאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד׃ Everyone who entered in to do the work of service, and the work of bearing burdens in the Tent of Meeting.

Rav Aharon of Karlin (בית אהרן פ׳ נשאofKarlin%2CNumbers%2CNasso.2?vhe=BeitAharon,Brody,_1875.&lang=bi)) notes:

There is work called עֲבֹדַת עֲבֹדָה. Work for the sake of work. This is work that needs to be done. Earning a living so that we can support our families, eating so that we have the energy to serve Hashem. Learning Torah so that we can fulfill the mitzvos.

But there is another kind of work, עֲבֹדַת מַשָּׂא – the work of lifting up, of raising up. This work is externally indistinguishable from עֲבֹדַת עֲבֹדָה. It's the same going to work, eating dinner, taking out the trash, paying taxes and packing the kids' bags for camp. But this raises us, it elevates us, gives meaning and substance and purpose to the experience.

It's possible for a person to be fulfilling every detail of the Shulchan Aruch and still live a life of עֲבֹדַת עֲבֹדָה. And it's a possible for a person that doesn't know the difference between kiddish and kaddish to be being living a life of עֲבֹדַת מַשָּׂא – raising themselves up.

It is this theme that begins the count of the Jewish people throughout Sefer BaMidbar, שאו את ראש – raise up the heads of the Jewish people. And our Parsha begins with:

נָשֹא אֶת־רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי גֵרְשׁוֹן גַּם־הֵם... “Take a census of the sons of Gershon also, by their fathers’ houses, by their families;

The Abir Yaakov writes, that this pasuk invites all those that are the “Sons of Gershon” those who are “מגורשין – distant”, from Hashem to be raised up. To experience the aspirations of בני עליה, to become people who are growing. Quite literally, נָשֹא אֶת־רֹאשׁ is a directive to us to start looking upwards once again.

This raising up is not confined to the world of looking. The Torah this week teaches us about ברכת כהנים – which, in Halacha, is formally referred to as נשיאת כפים- the raising of the hands.

Rabbeinu Bachya explains that the Kohen lifting his hands to bless the nation harkens back to the war between Klal Yisrael and Amalek where Moshe sat atop the mountain and raised his hands to inspire the nation to place their trust in Hashem as they raised their own hands in battle. The job of the Kohen, thus, is to inspire us to lift out own hands, to climb to the next rung of the ladder to Shamayim.

Hashem should help us this week, this summer, to look up again. To discover Him in everything that we do, to find the tefillah that's greater than ourselves, and to daven that He raises us all up to become Bnei Aliyah.

There's a story about a sweet young couple, who met in high school. He’s a year older, so he graduates a year before her. He makes his way to Yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael, where she joins him a year later.

They're incredibly cute; trying hard not to be too close, knowing they're too young to get married. But both sets of parents already know that they're meant for each other, and begin working towards making a life for them together.

They go off to college, and in short order the announce their engagement.

She’s an amazing girl. Smart, articulate, a ba'alas middos, from a great family, with a promising career ahead. He’s everyone’s favorite guy. Serious about his learning, good looking, mature, funny, and real mench.

Now, coming from well-to-do families, as they both did, their wedding was the most magical event that anyone could imagine. The kind of wedding that people would talk about for years. Classy, elegant, beautiful. Everyone from everywhere was there; and the dancing continued long into the night.

And as they got into their limo, leaving the wedding hall, their families smiled with the knowledge that their children's lives will simply be as perfect as possible.

But there's a reason that Disney sequels are never so successful. Fairy-tale life never the reality after credits the roll...

A year after finishing college, he is offered a significant and lucrative opportunity. But it comes with costs and trade offs. He stands to make some serious money, and jump start a great career, but the time investment is immense, and for the next two years, he'll be traveling weekly, spending little time at home.

The young couple go back and forth, debating the merits of this offer, finally agreeing to accept it “just to get us started for a few years.”

It is hard to predict what lies beyond the horizon.

As he spends time away from his wife, they begin to drift apart. It was difficult to notice the changes from day to day, but for the first time in years, they don’t always know each other’s schedules, their interests don’t always align. He meets new people, different people, in different places. She finds a group of friends to spend time with when he's not around. Slowly, the closeness that they once had begins to unravel.

We won't belabor the point, but months later, the unthinkable happens. The ultimate betrayal. Their magical, fairy tale life had finally fizzled and died.

A Get is arranged in short order.

They retreat to the quiet dark corner of their lives; people know not to ask too many questions. But the sadness, the failure is always present.

It had been two years since that fateful moment, and they still have not spoken to each other, or really, to anyone else. Both of them running on auto-pilot, unsure how to continue.

Deep down, each of them they missed the other. They missed the lives that they used to have, the love that they used to share. But how does one come back from such darkness?

But Hashem has plans.

Unexpectedly, with traffic, weather and delays all timed to Godly perfection, they find themselves seated next to each other on a six hour flight from New York to Los Angeles.

It's awkward and uncomfortable. What do you say? What can you say? Slowly, the silence is breached. They talk in hushed voices. Neither can forgive or forget, but it feels oddly comforting to be together again.

When the flight lands, they agree to maybe meet up for coffee.

They take it slow. Cautiously rebuilding their relationship, until a few months later, they decide to try again.

Gone is the magic, the sound and light show, the expensive dresses, wines and music. The second Wedding is a quiet, backyard event, with close family and friends.

And as they set up their home once again, they’re faced with the question, which benchers to put on the table, which photos to put up on the wall? The memories from the first wedding, or the second?

What would you do? Perhaps we might suggest to pack away the memories of that first wedding. The one that failed, as a reminder of how easy it is to fail. Perhaps we should as they proudly display the pictures and memories of the second wedding. The one that’ll last forever.

This question is not hypothetical. It is the paradigmatic question of Shavuos: Essentially, we are all celebrating the first wedding between God and the Jewish People. The wedding that failed. The kesuba that was shattered when Moshe came down the mountain and saw the Egel HaZahav.

Just forty days after Shavuos, at the foot of Mount Sinai, we had an affair, with another god.

Which begs the question: Today is not the day the Torah was given. It is not זמן מתן תורתנו. (See מגן אברהם ס׳ תצ״ד). That Torah was taken away, destroyed, shattered. What remained was a broken relationship, one that was only repaired months later on Yom Kippur when we received the Torah again.

So what are we celebrating?

The Bnei Yissaschar (חודש סיון מאמר ד׳) explains: We are not celebrating the Torah as we know it. That Torah was indeed taken away, shattered and hidden in the Aron. On Shavuos we are celebrating the covenantal relationship that enabled the Hashem to give us His Torah. Shavuos is the moment before the wedding. The relationship before the details. It’s the deepest part of our connection to Hashem God.

This is what Rabbi Chaim Vital refered to as Nishmas HaTorah – the inner most soul of the Torah (עץ חיים הקדמת מוהרח”ו על שער ההקדמות (ד”ה והנה דבריהם)).

But how do we achieve this relationship practically?

By constantly asking and seeking the answer to a singular profound question: What is the purpose of my life as a Jew?

How should I create a life of purpose, meaning and transcendence? What should my life achieve? With this in mind, Torah is far more than a collection of rules. It's much greater than the “do's” and “don'ts”. Those are manifestations of a greater truth.

Yes, it's true, that at Sinai, we committed to that great philosophy, and then promptly went off to desecrate one of the most basic rules. But the philosophy, the relationship, remained. It was damaged, but not irreparably.

That's our celebration this Yom Tov. We remember that we and Hashem share a vision, a goal, a covenant and a purpose. One that exists beyond all failure, all setbacks. Hashem should help us to feel Him in the Nishmas HaTorah, and to find our own Neshamas there as well.

I was nineteen years old when I was held at gun point.

It was a few days into my Yeshiva vacation in Kerem B'Yavneh, and I has just arrived home to South Africa. My brother and I were attending an evening event, and I had convinced him to let me drive his car home, while he would get a ride home with friends later.

I was nervous; it was my first time driving in many months. Naturally, I feigned confidence that of course I remembered how to drive. Of course I knew the way home. Of course, I would be cautious for any suspicious activity. This was Joberg after all.

I don't think my brother was fully convinced.

Carefully and slowly I made my way back home, arriving around 11pm. As I pulled up to the drive way, I pressed the button that opened the gate – providing a safe passage between the electric fencing and barbed wire.

The gate began closing behind me. I turned off the ignition and sighed in relief that I had made it home without damaging my brother's car, getting into an accident, getting a ticket or getting car-jacked.

But my relief was ill timed and short lived.

A second before the gate had fully closed, two men darted in, and jammed it – stopping it from closing. I had not yet noticed. But as I got out of the car, they were there. Right next to me.

One of them reached behind him to discharge his gun. They told me to give them the car keys. I did.

They told me to give them my wallet and phone. I handed both items over. Then, the one without the weapon quickly pillaged the car, taking CD's and anything else that looked to be of value.

It seemed like an eternity, but it couldn't have been more than a minute later that they told me to lie down on the ground.

They were ready to escape, and did not want anyone to follow them.

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At this point in the school year my students have figured me out. They're not the only ones who are trying to get me off topic. I also want to go off topic.

Naturally, I work hard to bring everything back to the text we're learning. But say, for example, a Talmid wants to discuss the war in Ukraine, well then, there is nothing I would like more than to spend class discussing the notion of Milchama. What does the Torah think of war? Is it an ideal? Should we daven for an end to war or should we be davening for victory?

“Rebbe...”, another Talmid asks, “Why did Moshe have to take off his shoes at the burning bush? Why can't a mourner wear shoes? What do these ideas have to do with each other?” Great question. There's a whole world of understanding shoes in Halacha and Hashkafa. (The Shelah HaKadosh explains at length how shoes are our connection point to the earth, and there are times where we are obligated to feel that connection in a visceral way.) These are detours from the curriculum that I'm glad to make.

(I've written about some of these detours before, see here and here.)

There is, however, one type of question that I no longer enjoy discussing:

“Rebbe, how can we prove that there is a God? How do we know that the Torah is real? How do we know that this isn't all just made up?”

For years, I used to revel in these conversations. I have a litany of sources, well honed arguments, and some great texts to explore.

So what's the problem with these questions?

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Last month, the World Health Organization published a report noting that the pandemic triggered a 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide.

I cannot speak for the world, but I think that many of us have noticed an uptick in hopelessness and frustration. Problems that might have been solvable three years ago, have exasperated beyond repair. Issues below the surface have now bubbled up, and feelings of despair govern so many interactions.

Anecdotally, I hear these comments often:

”...Rabbi, don't waste your time speaking to them, it's a lost cause.”

“Give up on that idea, it's a lost cause.”

“I'm done with this job. There's no ways that this will work... it's a lost cause...”

“That marriage”, “that kid”, “this idea”, “that job”... All lost causes.

There are countless blogs, books and videos dedicated to explaining the futility of investing time in these lost causes. Perhaps, sometimes, that advice is correct. But this week I was asked a different question, from a father of a former student, asking from a place of deep pain: “Rabbi, We have an old tradition of a prayer for lost objects, but is there a Tefillah for lost causes?”

The answer, I believe, is unequivocally, yes. Indeed, it seems that the Tefillah for lost causes and lost objects is the same: אלקא דמאיר ענני – (Elo-ha D'Meir Anneni). More than any other day, the time to daven for these lost causes, is this Motzei Shabbos, which is Pesach Sheni.

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