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Wholehearted Devotion

Tis the season for…repentance. That doesn’t exactly make for a great Hallmark Greeting card, but this past week we finally entered the auspicious month of Elul. This is a time of serious reflection and spiritual stock-taking. During this month we prepare for Rosh Hashana, the day on which we crown G-d as our king anew each year. During the month of Elul, we analyze our deeds of the past year. We reflect back on the mitzvahs we have done, recall our misdeeds, and resolve to improve in areas in which we are lacking. It is not a time for anxiety or depression (G-d forbid!), but rather one of somber introspection.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Shoftim, G-d tells the Jewish people that they should appoint a Jewish king after they conquer the land of Israel, saying “You shall surely set over yourself a king whom the L-rd, your G-d, shall choose…”(Devarim/Deuteronomy 17:15). Yet later in Jewish history, when the Jewish people ask the prophet, Samuel, to appoint a Jewish king over them he is displeased with their request, (I Samuel 8:6). G-d too isn’t pleased, going as far as to say, “They have rejected me.”[1] This raises an obvious question. If appointing a Jewish king is not only a not a bad thing to do, but an actual mitzvah commanded in the Torah, why were G-d and his prophet, Samuel so bummed out about the Jewish people’s desire for a king?

Chassidus explains that ideally a Jew’s natural fear of G-d would be so strong that an earthly king would be unnecessary. If we were to operate at such a level, we would not need anyone but G-d alone to rule over us. There are two levels of fear or awe of G-d. The lowest level is a basic fear of being punished. The higher level is a desire to serve G-d that comes from a sense of His awe and majesty. However, the Jewish people requested a “king who will rule over us similar to all the other nations.” In other words, the Jewish people needed an enforcer of law and order to keep society from becoming lawless and immoral. They needed a government that would set up laws to deter people from going against G-d’s will. Rather than serving G-d out of a natural appreciation of His majesty, they needed the fear of an immediately apparent earthly punishment to whip them into shape and keep them in line. It was disappointment in the Jewish people for having only reached the lower level of fear and not the higher level that was behind G-d and Samuel’s unhappy responses.[2]

In Shoftim we also read the injunction, “You shall be whole[hearted] with the L-rd your G-d” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 18:13). Rashi explains that this is telling us to trust in G-d for what He has in store for our lives.[3] Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch approaches this verse from another angle. He writes that a person’s entire being should be devoted to G-d, including in all his or her relationships.[4] This wholeness, he explains, is the direct result of our awareness of G-d’s unity. It is the realization of our vocation as a nation belonging exclusively to G-d.[5]

During this Elul we should all merit to come to greater awareness of G-d’s unity. This awareness should permeate every sphere of our lives from the synagogue to the workplace to the home. The sages teach us that today our ‘kings’ are our rabbis and teachers who strengthen us in serving G-d. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that there are always individuals who possess a greater love and fear of G-d than we do. It is such people that we should make our teachers.[6]

 


[1] The Chassidic Dimension. Kehot Publication Society, 235

[2] Ibid., 235-236

[3] Rashi Sapirstein Edition, Artscroll Series Mesorah Publications, ltd, 199

[4] The Hirsch Chumash. Sefer Devarim, 417

[5] Ibid.

[6] The Chassidic Dimension. Kehot Publication Society, 237

A Real and Lasting Source of Jewish Pride

Recently Gather the Jews co-founder and president, Stephen Richer, declared that Jewish pride is not a sin. He is correct. Not only does Jewish pride lack sinfulness, but it is a seminal and necessary ingredient in bringing a Jewish person to involve him/herself in communal Jewish life. But, what is Jewish pride and how can we foster a real and lasting pride in being Jewish?

The answer can be summed up in one word: Torah. If we desire to see subsequent generations of Jews not only survive, but flourish, we need to make sure they are educated about Judaism. After all, it is Judaism, which unites us as a people and in which most of our cultural traditions, quirks, humor, and even success are rooted. The Torah is the foundation stone of Judaism, and its study and observance is what has sustained Jews as a cohesive group with a strong identity for thousands of years.  The Torah has kept us alive against the backdrop of both violent persecution and times of encouraged assimilation and apathy. It is what makes us a nation and unique entity. Its values have enabled us to make the world a better place.

The problem American Jewry faces right now is apathy and a disturbingly high rate of intermarriage. Studies have shown that children of interfaith families are far less likely to actively participate in Jewish life when they reach adulthood. Yes, Holocaust remembrance and support for the Jewish state of Israel are very important and noble activities, but more is needed to ensure that Jewish young people marry Jewish and raise committed Jewish children. A person who has incorporated such things as kosher and Shabbat – to whatever degree they choose – will naturally want a marital partner with whom to share such things. ‘After-the-fact’ discussions about how to get Jews to marry within the faith or stay connected are not nearly as effective as the vaccination of Jewish education and observance.

A lot of us in this age of high-speed internet and smart phones, so used to the instant gratification these things provide for us, would like a ‘quick-fix’ or an easy solution to the problem of Jewish assimilation and disintegration. Unfortunately there isn’t one. Jewish education is the key to ensuring a Jewish future. To learn or teach Judaism is a gratifying and pleasurable experience, but it is one that takes time, dedication, and most of all hard work. Flashy advertisements and t-shirts or other programs that seek to make Judaism seem ‘hip’ or cool, but are devoid of substance, will not make a lasting impression on young people as evidenced by the recent collapse of J-Dub and Jewcy. A Jewish communal life that is only focused on social justice or tikkun olam, as Joel Alperson pointed out, will also end in failure.

We live in a changing world, and the spirituality, healthy family structure, and intellectual stimulation that a Torah observant lifestyle provides is the only way to effectively combat all the sterile alternatives that the mainstream established Jewish community has thus far offered.  Our ancestors survived for thousands of years by studying and observing the Torah and transmitting that knowledge of Judaism to subsequent generations. Today there must be a renewed effort at enhancing and promoting Jewish education. Thank G-d, there are many organizations that provide children, teenagers and adults with Torah classes. Obviously more has to be done, but a positive trend is emerging. A substantial number of Jews are reclaiming their tradition and raising their children with a love and passion for Torah, mitzvot, and acts of kindness.  There is truly no better buffer against the rising tides of assimilation. Many young American Jews are tired of the fluffy and the superficial. Young people today need something real if they are going to continue to identify as Jews.

Social events such as Gather the Jews happy hours and Israel trips such as Birthright are excellent for bringing Jews together and fostering that basic Jewish pride, but it’s what we do with that pride that matters and will ultimately determine the Jewish future. It is one thing to be inspired to want to do something a little more Jewish, but temporary political causes and social events fade. Torah is eternal.

Some will undoubtedly not like this answer to the problem of Jewish continuity, but they should consider the following. The study of Torah has sharpened Jewish brains for millennia and this devotion to education has carried over into the secular realm with Jews earning a disproportionate amount of college degrees, wealth, and Nobel Peace prizes. We are foolish if our ‘pride’ is based on false beliefs that somehow Jewish people are naturally ‘better’ or ‘smarter’ than the rest of the population. Such assertions are foolhardy at best and down-right racist at worst.

We are successful, because our roots are in the Torah and its observance. When a plant is severed from its roots it will continue to live for a little while longer, but eventually it will begin to whither and decay. As American Jews we must ask ourselves why we should continue to be Jewish. We need to know what to tell our children who may one day ask us this question. We need to have a better reason than ‘because they tried to kill us’ or bagels and lox. Torah and G-d are eternal. By investing in G-d and His Torah we too will remain eternally.

We would do well to consider the following words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “At a collective level [Torah Judaism] is the ultimate path to the unity of the Jewish people. We are one because we are part of the Torah. The Torah is one because it is the word of G-d. That is the truth which our ancestors carried with them from generation to generation, enlarging not only themselves but the moral horizons of mankind.” We owe it not only to ourselves, but to all of humanity to stay connected to Jewish tradition.

Being a Signpost

The great Torah scholar, Maimonides writes that in the times of ancient Israel when the Temple stood, there were signposts all over the country proclaiming “Refuge! Refuge!” These signs were pointing to the six ‘cities of refuge’ discussed in this week’s parsha, Parshas Masei. These cities of refuge were meant to provide asylum to those who had accidentally taken a life (through negligence) and protect them from blood relatives of the deceased who may wish to avenge the ‘murder.’ Maimonides explains that it was the responsibility of every community in Israel to make sure that there were no impediments to finding and reaching a city of refuge. Bridges and roads had to be built and maintained over all natural barriers and directions to the cities of refuge had to be clearly demarcated with signs. Every community was obligated to make sure nothing delayed a person who was seeking a city of refuge. A deeper, more mystical analysis of this subject will reveal that this obligation has not disappeared.[1]

On a mystical level every transgression is a subtle form of murder. The Baal HaTanya, also known as Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, explains that every transgression, no matter how minor, obscures and further exiles the Divine Presence. Sins hinder the illumination of G-dly light into our world.[2] It is for this reason that our Sages have referred to the words of Torah as ‘cities of refuge’ for the destroyer of spiritual life.[3]

However, what use is a haven if it is not well-known? The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that today’s world is filled with ‘spiritual’ refugees. It is the duty of every Jew who knows even a little bit of Torah to stand at the crossroads and act as a living signpost calling out “Refuge Refuge” and pointing in the direction of Torah.[4]

I know what some of you are thinking. I can’t be ‘signpost.’ My knowledge about Judaism is insufficient even for myself – let alone to qualify me to teach others. Perhaps you may know enough to teach, but don’t feel capable to rise to the occasion – “I’m not a rabbi,” you might say, or “I’ve never been very good at public speaking.” In response to such concerns, it’s important to remember the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching that if one knows the Hebrew letter alef,  one should teach alef. In other words one should teach – or perhaps a better word is share – whatever one knows with another.

Hold on a second! Aren’t I hypocrite if I start teaching others about Jewish concepts or ideals to which I myself do not always able to live up by? A quick story addresses this concern. A man was once walking to the city of Lubavitch where he was planning to study in yeshiva. On the way he passed a signpost that read ‘Lubavitch’ with an arrow pointing toward his intended destination. Many years later he left Lubavitch and during his returning journey he passed by the same sign. He remarked: “I have learned and changed so much since I last walked by this sign, but it remains here the same as it was before.” Even if you don’t feel comfortable sharing Judaism you have the power and responsibility to direct others to those who do. You can host Torah lectures and classes in your home or publicize Torah classes and Jewish events via e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter etc. You could bring a friend to a Shabbat service or meal, or even slip an interesting thing you learned about the weekly parsha into a conversation with a friend or relative. The possibilities are endless! You, yes you, have the power in your hands to make the world a brighter, friendlier, and more G-dly place. May you be successful in your efforts!


[1] http://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/298381/jewish/Signpost.htm

[2] Tanya. Daily portion for the 27th of Tamuz, 5771 Igeret HaTashuva Chapter 7

[3] http://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/298381/jewish/Signpost.htm

[4] Ibid.

 

Shavout – What it Means to Receive the Torah

Will Gotkin is a regular contributor to Gather the Jews.

Shavuot celebrates matan Torah, the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. On this day the Ten Commandments were uttered before the entire congregation of the children of Israel. But the holiday not only commemorates the giving, but the receiving of the Torah as well. What does it mean to receive the Torah?

The Torah tells us that the Jewish people readily accepted it declaring “na’eseh v’nishma” (‘we will do and then we’ll hear’). Every Shavuot we receive the Torah all over again.

The Torah is G-d’s blueprint for the world and for humanity. Its 613 commandments are tools that we utilize to connect with the Creator of the universe. Every single mitzvah – no matter how insignificant it may seem to us – is an unbreakable connection with eternity.

Some people object to the idea of accepting the Torah, saying: “All that matters is that you are a good person. I am already a good person so what use do I have for all these laws and rituals prescribed by the Torah?”

While the question is understandable it reveals a lack of understanding. It is true that being a good person is primary. Someone who observes Shabbat, but cheats in their business dealings is seriously lacking in their service of G-d. However, the Jew who treats others with kindness, but doesn’t observe Shabbat is also missing out on the purpose of life.

All of the laws of the Torah can be broken down into two parts – those that we understand intuitively and those we do not. The ethical laws are usually more easily understood. Then there are laws like keeping kosher and not mixing wool and linen in the same garment. These have no rational basis discernable through finite human reason and intellect. “We will do and then we’ll hear” means that we try our best to fulfill G-d’s commandments – even the ones we don’t understand. We have good enough reason to trust that G-d knows what is best for us.

The Torah teaches us not only to be good, but to be holy as well. What does it mean to be holy? Holiness means being separate. By giving us the Torah, G-d made us a holy people. There are plenty of good Jews who are not observant, but without the observance of the laws many dismiss as “ritualistic,” a Jew cannot actualize his inborn potential for holiness. Popular radio show host, Dennis Prager points out that even in secular life we have a concept similar to that of holiness. For example, he says, a person who eats spaghetti by burying his face in the plate and eating it in a messy fashion will be told that he is eating like an animal. The person is not evil or immoral, but he is nonetheless behaving like an animal. To be holy means to go beyond our animal nature and to do things that separate us from simply obeying our animal urges and instincts. Rather than being restrictive the Torah frees us from being slaves to these often self-destructive urges. Our modern society of “anything goes” and “do what feels good” has not produced happier people. Some boundaries in life are necessary and healthy. Plus even the non-rational laws are imbued with ethical and moral teachings that can be seen by those who study them in depth.

Receiving the Torah is to accept that there is a right way and a wrong way to conduct one’s life. As Jews we have a special responsibility to not only be good, but to be holy. Not only that, but those who claim they are “good” without Torah may be surprised to find out that the Torah demands a higher standard of goodness than what they may feel is necessary. There is good, and there is great. The Torah teaches us to be great. How do we define goodness? One person’s definition of good may be different from another’s. Who is to say what is right? The Torah brought a universal moral standard into the world. Only G-d can decide what is moral and what is not. The Torah conditions us to get beyond ourselves and our personal egos so that we can get to the truth. In this way we can become kinder, gentler, and more compassionate.

The Jewish people received the Torah on Mount Sinai as a united people – “like one people with one heart.” Jewish unity is also an important precondition to receiving the Torah. This year let us all resolve to study Torah, do more mitzvot – both the interpersonal and the non-rational ones – and develop more love for our fellow Jews. In this way we will soon merit the long awaited redemption.

 

 

 

 

 

The Power of Words


Will Gotkin is a recent graduate of The George Washington University and a regular contributor to GTJ.

Everybody has heard the old expression: “words can hurt.” In Judaism speech is considered very important. Our Torah begins with an account of G-d creating the world through His speech. By G-d’s speech our world is also continually sustained. One implication of being created in G-d’s image is that we have been endowed with the ability to speak. Our gift of speech is something that distinguishes us from the animal kingdom. However, with great power comes great responsibility. Our words could be used to build, but can also be used to destroy.

Parshas Tazria deals mainly with the laws concerning tzaaras. Tzaaras, often incorrectly translated as leprosy, was actually a spiritual affliction that was a Divine punishment for speaking lashon hara (literally, ‘evil tongue’). Lashon hara mainly refers to gossip. A victim of tzaaras was identified by a white spot on their skin. If two white hairs were within that spot of missing pigment a Kohen (priest of the Tabernacle) would pronounce that the person had tzaaras and the person would be exiled from the community for at least one week.

The only cure for the malady was sincere repentance. If after a week the person was cured he or she was allowed to return to society. However, there is a question as to why a person with tzaaras had to endure the shame of being exiled from the community. After all, it was a spiritual condition rather than a physical one and therefore there was no cause for concern that the disease would spread.

The Maharal of Prague explains that a person who speaks lashon hara undermines the peace of society and of the people living in the society. Therefore it is a fitting punishment that as a result of such unacceptable behavior a person be separated from the community and be forced to live alone.[1]

The Torah only legislates punishments which fit their respective crimes measure for measure. Just as lashon hara breeds separation and disunity between people, a person who spreads gossip must be separated from society until they have changed their ways.

The Talmud tells us that the sin of lashon hara is one that everyone of us commits daily. Luckily for us, no one is afflicted with tzaaras anymore. Nevertheless, lashon hara is still considered a grave sin. The Chofetz Chaim writes that the sin of lashon hara taints all of one’s mitzvos and good deeds done previously. The Torah describes tzaaras in great detail in order to teach us to be exceedingly careful with our words. Whenever we say an unkind thing about another we develop an ugly blotch of tzaaras on our souls. The malady of tzaaras was meant to train the Jewish people to guard their tongues. We must not only be careful not say unkind things about others, but we must also sincerely repent when we transgress. In many cases a person must beseech the person they have wronged with their speech for forgiveness.

We have all been a victim of gossip and rumors at some point in our lives. As many of us already know, even when the person who wronged us offers us a sincere apology the damage may linger much longer. A person can never put words they have spoken back in their mouth. As a result of lashon hara a person’s reputation may be left permanently ruined. This is why Jewish sources liken the sin of lashon hara to murder.

We would all do well to try to be a little more careful with our words. A great thing we can do is try to speak more words of kindness. The Talmud tells us that the Temple was destroyed as a punishment for baseless hatred between Jews. The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that the Temple will be rebuilt on a foundation of baseless love. We can all do our part to foster unity and peace in the world by being careful with the words we speak. Through our efforts we will all merit the final redemption of the entire world.


[1] Studies in the Weekly Parsha Vayikra. Nachshone, Rabbi Y., 724

Torah Portion: A Time to Work and a Time to Rest

Will Gotkin is a recent graduate of The George Washington University and a regular contributor to GTJ.

Last week G-d instructed the Jewish people not to work on the Mishkan (Tabernacle) during Shabbat. G-d anticipated that the Jewish people in their anxiousness to repent for the sin of the Golden Calf might not wish to put aside their work on the Mishkan for Shabbat. Today everything that is considered prohibited ‘work’ on the Sabbath day stems from the 39 types of labor that went into constructing the Mishkan. This week, in Parshas Vayakheil, G-d again reminds the Jewish people to honor the Shabbat saying “You may do work during the six weekdays, but the seventh day must be kept holy to you as a Sabbath of Sabbaths to G-d” (Exodus 35:2).

The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that while doing our weekday work we must be careful not to invest all of our energies. Our weekday work is indeed very important. During the week we earn a living and simultaneously refine the world and make it a home for G-d through our daily, mundane activities. However, we must not allow our weekday work to overtake our minds and hearts. Furthermore, our work must not be allowed to encroach on our set times for communal prayer, Torah study, charitable pursuits, educating our children, and so forth.[1] During the week, we use our creativity to perfect the world through all of our activities. However, on Shabbat we take time out from the pressures and concerns of the week to honor this special day by focusing more exclusively on holiness, family, and enjoying G-d’s creation rather than utilizing it for our own ends.

G-d was right in anticipating that the Jewish people may be hesitant to desist from work and honor the Shabbat. The Rebbe teaches that if we devote all of our energies to work, our weekday thoughts and worries will haunt us on Shabbat. It will then be very difficult to divorce ourselves from work.[2] Many people find refraining from work especially difficult because they cannot conceive of taking a break from the things in which they are so engaged.  On Shabbat we recognize that G-d runs the world and continually sustains it. By honoring the Shabbat we also testify that we have intrinsic value even when we are not working.

On Shabbat we do not abandon the world completely. In fact, we enjoy it and derive pleasure from it rather than make it bend to our will as we do during the week. Shabbat is a time of joy in which Jewish people laugh, drink, eat, and sing more than they do during the week. However, Me’am Lo’ez reminds us that “and the seventh day shall be holy to you,” is meant to teach that one who is so immersed in their work that they do not study Torah during the week must at least study on Shabbat.[3]

Many of us have productive and hectic schedules. It is understandable that the stresses of everyday life sometimes overwhelm us, but we must always strive to maintain a balance. Shabbat can give us that balanced perspective and bring a wonderful sense of holiness, peace, and tranquility into our lives. Shabbat Shalom!


[1] Torah Chumash Shemot The Book of Exodus. With commentary based on the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Kehot Publication Society, 71

[2] Ibid.

[3] Yalkut Me’am Lo’ez, The Torah Anthology. Exodus-VII 10

Parsha Time: Part 3 — Will Gotkin on the qualities of a leader

Will Gotkin is a recent graduate of The George Washington University and a regular contributor to GTJ.

The Jew and G-d – An Unbreakable Connection

Every Jewish person has a neshama – Jewish soul – which Chassidut explains is part of G-d Himself. True, every human – Jews and non-Jews alike – is made in the image of G-d, but the Jewish people were given a special type of soul that would allow them to pursue the all-encompassing path of Torah and mitzvos. This bond is deep and even goes beyond the Torah.

This week’s parsha is titled ‘Tetzaveh,’ a word that literally means ‘command.’ However, ‘tetzaveh’ is also a derivative of the word ‘tzavsa’ which means ‘connection.’[1] In the first line of the Parsha, Moshe is told by G-d: “And you should command the children of Israel that they should bring to you pure olive oil…it ignite the lamp (until it burns) continually” (Exodus 27:20). The sentence could also be read as “And you should connect the Jewish people,” hinting that Moshe connects the Jewish people with G-d.[2]

This is the only parsha in the Torah (since his first appearance) in which Moshe’s name is not mentioned (The book of Devarim are his words to the people). Although G-d frequently addresses him in Parshas Tetzaveh, Moshe’s name is conspicuously missing.

One famous explanation for this is that G-d fulfilled Moshe’s request that if G-d punishes the Jewish people for the sin of the golden calf, Moshe be removed from the Torah (see next week’s parsha, which takes place before ParshasTetzaveh). G-d forgave the Jewish people, but still removed Moshe from this Torah portion. This is testament of how powerful our words can be and even more so the words of a righteous leader are in affecting the world.

However, Moshe is mentioned throughout the parsha even if not by name, being referred to as ‘You’ right in the beginning. Why did G-d refer to Moshe as ‘You’? The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that the objectives expressed in this parsha can only be achieved by Moshe’s essence, the aspect of him that cannot even be conveyed by his name.[3]

By asking to be erased from the book, Moshe wished to invoke an essential bond between himself and the Jewish people and thereby the essential bond between G-d and the Jewish people.[4] This bond is one that goes beyond Torah and mitzvos. It is a supernal connection between Hashem and the Jewish people that is so strong that it is not dependent on Torah and mitzvos. Obviously, Jews must study Torah and pursue mitzvos in order to connect in the way G-d desires, but by Moshe invoking this transcendent, unbreakable bond established by G-d’s covenant with Avraham (see the Book of Bereshis) it allowed for the atonement of the people’s sin and brought them back to the Torah.[5]

Moshe’s self-sacrifice epitomizes that of a true Jewish leader. In the beginning of the parsha he was told that the Jewish people should bring olive oil to him in order that it be used to ignite the menorah so that it burns continually. This is because a true leader can enable the people to reach a level of spiritual self-sufficiency, to the degree that they no longer have to depend on their leader in order to keep the fire of Torah and love and fear of G-d burning continually.[6] It’s up to us to keep that fire ablaze.


[1]The Gutnick Edition Chumash, The Book of Exodus, 203

[2] Ibid.

[3]The Torah – Chumash Shemot. Commentary based on works of the LubavitcherRebbe, 214

[4] Ibid., 215

[5] Ibid., 215

[6]The Gutnick Edition Chumash, The Book of Exodus, 203

Always Remember that the Best is Yet to Come

Will Gotkin is a recent graduate of The George Washington University and a regular contributor to GTJ.

Parshas Terumah details how the Mishkan (a sanctuary in which would G-d’s presence would be most felt on Earth) would be constructed and what materials were needed for its construction. The Torah tells us that shitim (cedar or acacia wood) would be needed for the beams of the Mishkan. Rashi tells us that the Jewish people had been already been carrying the wood with them in the desert when given this commandment. In other words, they brought the wood with them from Egypt. Rashi bases his interpretation on a Midrash that states that Yaakov brought trees from eretz Canaan (Israel) and planted them in Egypt after prophetically seeing that the Jewish people would one day use the wood of these trees in constructing the Mishkan. What was so special about these trees and why did Yaakov have to bring them from Israel? Moreover, why did the Jewish people have to use these specific trees and carry them into the desert?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that it is noteworthy that Rashi cites Midrash Tanchuma in his explanation. Rashi rarely cites his sources, expecting us to find them ourselves, but in this case he felt it necessary. The word, ‘tanchuma’ means comfort. Rashi therefore cites the title of this source in order to teach us that the trees were to serve as a reminder to the Jewish people living in the Egyptian golus (exile) that one day they would being going out from Egypt. Their unhappy situation was not going to last forever. The sight of the trees comforted them that one day they would be free and would use the trees for a holy purpose (building the Mishkan).

But why did the trees have to be from Israel? The answer is that Yaakov wanted trees that were totally uncorrupted by the golus. They had to be ‘rooted,’ so to speak, in the kedusha (holiness) of the land of Israel. Not only would the trees remind the Jewish people of better times to come, but they would remind them that the trees were implanted into the lowly golus from a higher place.

Finally, we see that Rashi refers to the shitimas ‘arazim’ (cedars). The Rebbe cites Keli Yakaras stating that tzaddikim (righteous people) are frequently likened to cedar trees because the trees stand tall and strong. Like the cedar trees, righteous people are uncorrupted by the golus. They have broken free from its snare and have risen above it. They are truly free.

In our own generation, the golus is overwhelming and it often seems like Moshiach (the final redemption in which G-d and his creation will be united in the most revealed way) is not coming anytime soon (G-d forbid!). The trees used in the Mishkan are not around to help us emotionally get through the spiritual trials and tribulations of our times. Instead, we must take comfort in our tzaddikim – the righteous Jewish leaders of the generation – by studying their Torah teachings and applying them to our lives. G-d mercifully plants tzaddikim into each generation. They tower above the golus and give us the strength to transcend it. Their encouragement will enable us to break free from our spiritually low situation, may it happen speedily and in our days!

Acting for the Right Reasons

Will Gotkin is a recent graduate of The George Washington University and a regular contributor to GTJ.

Last week we read Parshas Mishpatim. After the ‘thunder and lightning’ of Parshas Yisro (the Torah was given amidst a storm of thunder and lightning), Parshas Mispatim, which is more legalistic than it is narrative, can be viewed as somewhat of a let-down. But this parsha teaches us two especially profound truths that are worthy of elaboration.

The first lesson is that our devotion must remain even after inspiration has departed.  The fact that Mispatim begins with civil laws related to damages and the granting of loans immediately after the excitement of receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai is not accidental. One often experiences a ‘thunder and lightning’ storm of excitement when beginning one’s journey into Yiddishkeit, but as many married people already know – the infatuation stage eventually disappears.

In the beginning many of the ideas of Torah are fresh and new to us. Then sometimes a person starts learning about some of the drier everyday halachos (Jewish laws) or sits in front of an open volume of Talmud with a blank look on their face and the high vanishes. But if a person perseveres and commits himself to study even when he is not ‘inspired,’ not only will the person re-experience the excitement of his personal ‘Sinai stage’ (albeit in a more focused, internalized manner), but the rewards he will reap are endless and eternal. The study of Torah will then take on an entirely different dimension. Rather than being on a high that lacks substance or feeling bored, one will taste depth and richness. The student of Torah will experience the joy and contentment one can only get from experience, understanding, and broad perspective. That is why we must not study in order to get some kind of self-centered, intellectual buzz, but in order to serve the Creator and actualize our purpose for being born into this world.

Mitzvahs too can be very powerful experiences. But the high some may get when they first start observing mitzvos is only an emotion, and Judaism is not based on emotion. What happens when the inspiration wears off? Does the person now put the tefillin and Shabbos candles back in the closet never to take them out again or until the feeling of inspiration returns? Chas v’shalom (G-d forbid)! When mitzvahs are done not in order to gain a nirvana-like, out-of-body type of experience, but in order to serve Hashem, a Jew is truly attaching to something eternal, lasting, and real. The ideal is to do mitzvos only because it is the will of Hashem. This requires us to get past our own egos. This does not mean we lose our individuality or destroy our self-esteem. See Humility and Happiness for more on this topic. It is indeed a very lofty level, but one to which we should all aspire if we wish to lead inspired, Jewish lives.

Secondly, most of Parshas Mishpatim deals with the rational laws (mishpatim), or laws that make objective sense to us. The mishpatim possess obvious benefit for civilized societies e.g. laws against murder, theft, and kidnapping. Judaism holds that the value of such laws could have been discerned by mankind even if the Torah had never been given. But it is important to remember not to fall into the trap of obeying these laws simply because they ‘make sense.’ Rashi tells us in his commentary that “these [the rational laws] are also from Sinai” in order to remind us that we must carry out these laws and observe these mitzvos because Hashem wants us to and not just because we feel like it.[1] We must approach the laws that make sense to our limited, finite minds in the same way we approach the ones that are completely beyond our understanding because in essence they are all above our understanding. They all emanated from the same Divine intellect, which is infinite. We must perform the mitzvos only for the sake of the One who commanded them so that we will be able to sanctify our physical lives and world.


[1] The Gutnick Edition Chumash, The Book of Exodus, 145

Rochel’s Self-Sacrifice and the Woman’s Role in Judaism

Editor’s Note:  This article is the first in a series of commentaries that GTJ will publish on this week’s Torah portion.  Stay tuned for the others.  Will Gotkin is a recent graduate graduated of The George Washington University and now studies at a yeshiva in Jerusalem.  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Will.

If you travel to Israel and visit Machpela (the gravesite of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of Judaism) in Hebron, you would notice that Rochel’s grave is conspicuously missing.  Her gravesite is actually located in BeisLechem.  It might trouble you that she is not buried alongside Avraham, Sarah, Rivkah, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, but Rochel wanted it this way.

Early in Parshas Vayechi, Yaakov asks his son, Yosef to take his body back to the land of Canaan to be buried alongside his forefathers in Machpela.  But Rochel was buried where she was so that she could help her descendants who in later times would pass by her grave on their way into Babylonian imposed exile.  She would then emerge from her grave, pray, and shed tears for the Jewish nation.   The Jewish people would experience redemption in the merit of her actions.[1]

By choosing to be there for her troubled descendants over the spiritual contentment and blissful reward of being buried alongside the founders of Judaism, she demonstrated an extremely high level of self-sacrifice.  The Babylonian exile was Divine punishment to the Jewish nation for going away from the path of Torah and yet she still gave up her own reward to give them comfort in their time of need.[2] Rochel embodies the qualities the Torah ascribes to the ideal Jewish woman and her exemplary conduct enables her to serve as a role model for all Jewish women in their service of Hashem.

Men and women have different roles to play in how they each serve the Creator. Yaakov’s burial in Machpela is symbolic of the very external and public way by which men serve G-d.  Men are expected to daven three times a day, study Torah, and do many other mitzvahs from which women are exempt.  Women on the other hand serve Hashem by not only giving physical life to the Jewish nation and being in charge of the house (often in addition to having a career outside the home), but by being the spiritual bedrock of the home and instilling a faith in Hashem and Torah in children.  It is for this reason that the Jewish soul and Judaism passes through the mother, while tribal affiliation i.e. Levi, Yehuda etc. (a more publicly recognizable quality) passes through the man.  While her role may not seem on the outside to be as glamorous or worthwhile, the woman’s service is in many ways higher than that of the man, because her actions do not usually get the praise they deserve.  Rochel eschewed the kavod (honor) of being buried at Machpela so that she could be there for her children. In the same way, a good mother sacrifices much there for her children. Rochel’s ability to sacrifice some of her own spiritual reward is a lesson for all of us that we must take some time out from our own divine service in order to bring others closer to Hashem.


[1]Rashi on Bereishis 48:7

[2]LikkuteiSichos: Lamed