A great deal of this Parsha is dedicated to laws applicable to the Kohannim. One of these laws is about the special portions that are to be eaten by the Kohein. The Torah teaches us that anyone from the Kohein’s household (wife, children, servants, etc) are permitted to eat from them, but only as long as they are considered to be part of his household. If his daughter marries a man who is not a Kohein, she forfeits her right to eat from the portions of her father (since she is considered to be part of her husband’s household and not her father’s household). Should it happen that she becomes a widow or is divorced and has no children of her own, she moves back into her father’s house; at that point, she is permitted to eat from her father’s portions again.
When the Torah teaches this halacha, it uses a very interesting phraseology: “ki seeyeh”, which literally means “when it shall be”. Why does the Torah use this language instead of using the word “Ihm” (if), as it does in Parshas Bechukosai (“Ihm Bechukosai Telechu”…IF you will follow My [G-d’s] statutes)?
I believe that the Torah is teaching us a very important lesson with this passuk. Using the word ‘if’ implies a choice or something that is within the control of Man. For example, I can choose whether or not to follow a rule-I could choose to go into stores without wearing a face mask, or I could choose to follow the Governor’s mandate and wear one…the choice is entirely mine. However, using the phrase ‘when it will be’ indicates something beyond our control; i.e., whether or not a woman becomes a widow is purely up to G-d.
All too often, people think that they are in control of their lives. They think that they are the masters of their own destiny and that everything they achieve is because of their own talents. They fail to recognize that everything they have and everything that they are able to accomplish is a blessing from G-d. On the other hand, whenever something bad happens, they blame G-d and claim He does not care about what happens to people. Therefore, what the Torah is trying to tell us with this passuk is to understand that G-d is running the world and that everything He does has a purpose- even if we do not see it right away. May it be G-d’s Will that we reach the level of being able to look at everything G-d does and truly believe “Gahm Zu LeTova”, this, too, is for the good!
“And the daughter of a Kohein [who married a non-Kohein], and when it will be that she becomes a widow or is divorced, and she has no children, and she returns to her father's house like when she was a child, from her father's bread she may eat; and no stranger may eat from it.” (Lev. 22:13)
This week’s Parsha presents the mitzvah of Shmittah. One of the laws regarding Shmittah deals with farming in the Land of Israel. Working the land is forbidden (however, it is permitted to gather in the crops that grow by themselves). After mentioning this law, G-d promises us that, even though we are not doing anything to grow food, there will not be a famine during the Shmittah year; the harvest of the 6th year will be sufficient for the sixth year, the seventh year, and the eighth year (since crops planted during the eighth year will take time to grow and become ready for harvesting). What is the aim of this commandment? I understand resting on the seventh day (since that is what G-d did and we are, as discussed previously, supposed to emulate Him; however, G-d did not rest in the seventh year, so why are we told to?
In order to understand the purposes of Shmittah, we must examine what the Shmittah really represents. At its core, Shmittah is really the ultimate statement of G-d’s existence and involvement in the world. If a human king were going to make laws for his country, those laws would reflect things that were in the king’s power to control. Any laws that reflected things outside the king’s control would cause anarchy or assassination. The fact that a blessed harvest is required to prevent hunger during the Shmittah (something that no human being could guarantee), it must be that whoever made that law has power to control how much (or how little) is produced during the harvests.
That being said, I would like to take this one step further. All too often, people believe in a Supreme Being that created the world but does not actually involve Himself in its ‘day-to-day’ functioning. They think that things happen because of their own involvement or because of some sort of luck. Keeping Shmittah requires the belief that G-d involves Himself in the running of the world constantly (otherwise, how could people be sure there would be enough food to sustain them for that year). When we keep the Shmittah and receive the blessing of exceedingly bountiful harvests, we are creating a visible testimony to the fact that the world was not only created by G-d; rather, we show that He created the world and is involved with its function on a day-to-day (and individual) basis. May it be G-d’s Will that, through the study of Torah and observance of its precepts, we reveal to the entire world that there is a G-d and that He is constantly involved with the world that He created.
“And when you shall say ‘What shall we eat in the seventh year; our we have not planted and have not gathered in our bounty’. And I will command my blessing to you in the sixth year and your bounty will be enough for three years.” (Lev. 25:20-25:21)
This week's Parsha discusses the blessings that will happen to the Jewish people if they follow the laws of the Torah and the curses that will happen if they do not. Before listing the curses, the Torah has an interesting verse that really caught my attention. G-d says that He took us out of Egypt so that we would not be slaves to the Egyptians. Normally, when we see the phrase "I am Hashem your G-d who took you out of the Land of Egypt", it is followed by "so that I may be a G-d for you" or something along those lines. Why does our verse use such cryptic language?
In order to understand this verse, we must first examine the relationship between master and slave according to the nations of the world (with the exception of the Jews). When a person became a slave, they actually became property of their master. The only way to gain freedom was either to escape slavery or be freed by your master. G-d took us out of Egypt so that we would not be slaves to the Egyptians; however, based on the accepted principles of slavery, that would not make us free-it just means we have a new master (just like if we were captured by an army that invaded and conquered Egypt). What G-d is really telling us in this verse is very simple: we are not slaves to the Egyptians, but we are still 'slaves', and He is our new 'master'. That means we are required to listen to the commandments that he has given us and, like any good master, He is going to reward us when we listen and punish us when we do not listen.
That being said, I would like to suggest a deeper message that I believe the Torah is trying to tell us. The different phraseologies that are used in conjunction with the phrase "I am Hashem your G-d who brought you out of the Land of Egypt" are really teaching us that there are many levels of Divine service. On a basic level, a person could serve G-d because He took us out of slavery in Egypt and became our new master...in other words, it is strictly a master-slave relationship. As such, we serve him because of 'obligation' or in order to obtain reward and/or avoid punishment. The next level of service is to serve G-d because we acknowledge he is our G-d. We still follow the commandments because we feel obligation or to obtain reward and/or avoid punishment, but we have elevated the status of G-d...he is no longer just a 'master' like any human master, he is G-d. The final (and highest) level of service, which is mentioned other places in the Torah, is to serve Hashem because we love him. We yearn to be close to him the way a person yearns to be close to their lover. We no longer view the commandments as an obligation or a means to curry Divine favor and/or avoid Divine punishment...rather, we serve G-d because we are head-over-heels in love and cannot bear the thought of being separate for even a nanosecond. May it be G-d's Will that by studying the Torah and observing its precepts we reach the level of Divine service for love and only love.
"I am Hashem your G-d who took you out of the Land of Egypt so that you should not be their bondsmen, and I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you go upright.” (Lev. 26:13).
BaMidbar begins with a command from Hashem to count the Jewish people, specifically, those people of military age (20-60). The Jews needed to begin establishing an army because they were supposed to be conquering Eretz Yisroel very shortly. As we will read in a few short weeks, the sentence of forty years in the desert was punishment for the events surrounding the Meraglim (Spies), an event that took place months after this commandment. Our Sages of Blessed Memory explain that the army was to be formed before marching towards Eretz Yisroel because Jews are supposed to march as a proud and organized nation, not like a bunch of ragtag escapees.
The Dvar Torah I would like to share with you came to me about ten years ago, on a Sunday morning. At the time, I was a member of the Lincoln Park Jewish Center and served as their Baal Korey on Shabbos and Yom Tov. That particular Sunday morning, I went to the weekly "Minyan and Breakfast" that we had every Sunday. I arrived early and, seeing that I had some time before davening, I decided to start preparing the Torah Reading for that upcoming Shabbos. As I practiced the 1st Aliyah, which contains the passuk I mentioned above, I got to thinking: Why is Hashem commanding Moshe and Aharon to count the number of soldiers that the Jewish people have? Does it really matter? Couldn't Hashem, who is really the one fighting our battles, win with any number of soldiers? Besides, wouldn't it be a bigger Kiddush Hashem if the world saw that the nations living in Eretz Yisroel were destroyed by a small group of soldiers (instead of the 603,550 men that were counted)? I thought about this for a while and still had not come up with a satisfying answer by the time we started Shacharis. However, as I was saying over the Akeidas Yitzchak (Binding of Isaac), it finally made sense to me (don't ask me the connection...I can't figure it out myself). The counting of the people is more than just numbering. Hashem knows how many people there were, are, and every will be. The counting is really doing two different things at once. Firstly, it is telling all of the Jewish people that everyone matters. Each one of us was put here for a specific purpose; there is something that each one of us will add to the world that nobody else can. When the time comes for each of us, we must stand up and be counted. Secondly, on a much deeper level, the counting and establishing of an army isthe true glory of Hashem. When a person feels that he is 'forced' or 'awed' into believing in the power of that belief never lasts. We see this with the story of Pharaoh. While he was being punished, he 'admitted' there was Hashem, but he turned away from that belief as soon as the plagues were removed. The only lasting belief is the one that people come to on their own. When the nations of the world would have seen 603,550 soldiers totally conquer Eretz Yisroel, they could have chosen to believe that the Jews won because of military might or chosen to believe in the power of Hashem (which would have a more lasting effect than an open miracle of a few dozen soldiers conquering the Land).
This message is hammered home to us every day. Everyone seems to 'believe' when the big miracles happen, but it seems like only a handful of people notice the 'ordinary' miracles. They chalk it up to 'chance' or 'Nature' and simply take Hashem out of the equation. I believe that the Torah is trying to tell us that even things that seem normal (like an army of over 600,000 winning wars), is really miracle from Hashem and part of the Divine Plan. May it be Hashem's Will that, as we continue to grow in our learning and faith, we reach the level where we recognize that even the 'ordinary' things really come from Hashem.
"From twenty years of age and above, all that go to war from among the Children of Israel, those you shall count according to their divisions; you and Aharon.”
On the First Day of Shavuot, we celebrate Revelation at Sinai. The Jews left Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, had trials and tribulations regarding food and water, and finally arrived at the Desert of Sinai (where they will receive the Torah). Generally, when the Torah discusses the Jews making camp, the word ‘VaYachanu (and theyencamped) is used; however, the Torah uses the word ’VaYichan’ (and he encamped) when it describes the encampment at Mount Sinai. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040–1105) explains that the singular form of the word is used because the Jewish people set up camp at Mount Sinai as one, without any grumbling or bickering. In all other places where the Jews made camp, the plural is used because there was no sense of national unity.
The importance of unity is readily evident today. Ever since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, we have needed one another. Each one of us needed to put our own personal wants on the side and do what would be best for everyone. We closed our Synagogues, stayed away from our workplaces, and remained at home as much as we could. We only went into the supermarket for the things we needed and did not hog all the toilet paper for ourselves. We checked on elderly friends, relatives, and neighbors to make sure that everyone had what was needed. It is our feelings of compassion, kindness, love, and unity which have enabled us to fight back against this pandemic.
All too often, we fight amongst ourselves. This is especially clear in Judaism- there are fights between Religious and the Non-Religious, the Ashkenazi and the Sepharadi, the born Jews and the Converts. We forget that, regardless of everything else, we are all Jews. We forget that in order to survive, we must unify as a people. May it be the Will of God that, as we study Torah together, we take to heart the messages of Shavuos and that we continue to grow from strength to strength.
"And the departed from Refidim and they came to the Desert of Sinai and they camped in the desert; and he, the Jews, camped next to the mountain.” (Ex. 19:2)
One of the mitzvot of Shavuos is to be happy. In fact, this is a mitzvah which applies to Shabbat and all the holidays. It is this mitzvah which I would like to discuss. When the Torah repeats the commandment to be happy on Shavuos (our verses mentioned above), there seems to be some extra wording. The Torah takes the time to mention everyone that should be happy (eg. sons, daughters, servants, Levites, etc). If G-d wanted to command everyone to be happy, He could have written the commandment in simple, direct language (ex. “you shall be happy on the festivals”). Why does G-d choose to list all of the people who are supposed to be happy?
I believe that the Torah is trying to teach us a critical aspect of Judaism. When it mentions who should be happy, it starts out with our immediate family (children). However, it is not enough to make our children happy; we need to make our entire household, even our servants, happy. Yet the Torah goes even further than that! We are also supposed to make the stranger, the widow, and the orphan happy. In other words, every Jew is like our family! If they are not enjoying Yom Tov, we cannot genuinely enjoy it either. If we are able to help them make a Yom Tov table, or better yet, invite them to our table, we are obligated to do so!
I believe that this message is especially important on Shavuos. There was a special unity amongst the Children of Israel when we received the Torah. It is this unity that gives us the secret strength to overcome any obstacle. Even though we are forced by COVID-19 to ‘social distance’, that does not mean we need to be ‘socially distant’- we can still bring gladness into each other’s lives. May it be G-d’s Will that, despite the current situation, we are able to gladden each other and have a happy, healthy holiday.
“And you shall rejoice before the L-rd, your G-d-you, your sons, your daughters, your slave, your maidservant, the Levite who is in your cities, the convert, the orphan and the widow who are among you- in the place where the L-rd your G-d shall choose to rest his name”.
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