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Rabbi's Corner

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas Tzav 5780

One of the hidden prodigies of the previous century was Rabbi Yisrael Zev Gustman, Rosh Yeshiva of Netzach Yisroel in Yerushalayim. Already at the young age of twenty, he was handpicked to serve as a Dayan in the court of the illustrious Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski of Vilna. After tragically losing a child to the holocaust, he moved to America with the surviving members of his family, where he served a stint as Rosh Yeshivah in 770, before finally settling in Israel.

One time, students walking past his house were astonished to see Rabbi Gustman tending to the gardening. “May we water the plants instead?” they asked so as to spare him the trouble. Rabbi Gustman demurred. After this transpired several times, his students protested that Kovod Hatorah could not allow for their scholarly dean to squander his precious time on so demeaning a task.

Hearing this, Rabbi Gustman decided to share the motive behind his unexpected hobby. “I was once strolling alongside Rabbi Grodzinski through a forest. We were heavily engrossed in deep conversation and I barely noticed my surroundings. Suddenly, Rabbi Grodzinski interrupted the Talmudic discourse in favour of one on the topic of botany. ‘This plant is nutritious; that vegetation is poisonous.’ And so it went. He lectured about the berries and mushrooms, explaining which were edible and which were not. I was greatly taken aback by the seemingly random course our discussion had gone, but I listened with the greatest respect and etched everything he said into my mind.

“Years later, when the Second World War broke out, I managed to hide in a forest, but I had no food. The hunger was unbearable. I had already despaired, when Rabbi Grodzinski’s horticulture lessons suddenly came back to me. As I took in my surroundings, I no longer saw useless greenery, but sustenance. I survived the war thanks to those plants. And that is why I cultivate my garden every single day, to thank the greenery that saved my life.”

It is now that time of year when we are highly attuned to all things Chometz and Matzah. Accordingly, it is hard to ignore how the Korbon Todah, taught in this week’s Parsha, included both 10 loaves of Chometz and 30 loaves of Matzah. This was exceedingly novel, for Chometz was generally prohibited in the Beis Hamikdash. Why did the thanksgiving sacrifice contain Chometz, and why was it still outnumbered by the Matzah?

There are two reasons why people might not give thanks. The first owes itself to high expectations, and the inevitable disappointment when one’s hopes and dreams are dashed. The fixation on what could have been distracts one from seeing the real blessings in life. And even when one achieves what he wished, feelings of self-entitlement will erase all sentiment of thanks, or he will find it below his dignity to do so. The antidote to this is 30 loaves of Matzah – a large dose of Bittul.

However, too much Bittul can create the delusion that our thanks is meaningless and pointless. “If Mr Nobody says thank you, why should it matter to anyone or anything? What difference could it possibly make?” The antidote to this is 10 loaves of Chometz – a small dose of healthy self-esteem. The Todah teaches us that there is no Mr Nobody among our people, and the thanks we bestow upon Hashem and our peers certainly goes a long way.

COVID19 has disrupted our lives enormously. Some of the news we are hearing has been awfully tragic. At the same time, with a little thought and attention, we can surely see how COVID19 has highlighted many reasons to give thanks – both to Hashem, as well as our fellow man. Let us be neither too proud nor meek to do so. Just like our protagonist in the opening story, who was neither too proud to show his thanks, nor did he consider as too meaningless his particular mode of thanks.

 

Good Shabbos & a Kosher un Freilachen Pesach,

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas VAYIKRA 5780

The Gap in Our Lives

======================

 

Reb Monia Monnessohn, an extremely affluent diamond merchant, was one instructed by the Rebbe Maharash to review a certain Maamar 400 times. Being the busy person that he was, Reb Monia knew that he could never accomplish this task whilst managing his multifaceted affairs. So he took a leave of absence and booked into a hotel at an international destination. For a full month, Reb Monia put his life on hold and immersed himself in the Maamar. Ever since, Reb Monia truly lived that Maamar. Even when deeply involved in his business affairs, Reb Monia felt the Maamar accompanying him wherever he went and leaving its mark on whatever he did.

 

In explaining the gaps that appear in the Torah, Rashi tells us (right at the beginning of this week’s Parsha) that Hashem did not teach the Torah to Moshe in one continuous block. Rather, He constantly paused and waited, giving Moshe time to let the subject sink in. After all, when one learns without pausing to reflect and ponder, he often remains completely oblivious to the depth and scope of what he just learned, especially as the profoundest messages often lurk just below the surface of simple-sounding lessons. Furthermore, when one learns without turning the topic over in his mind many times, he does not assimilate it as well as he could, and the lesson does not last. By incorporating gaps into the Torah, Hashem is telling us that meaningful pauses are an integral part of the pursuit of Torah. We are required to take some time out to ponder and reflect, to absorb and internalise, and not simply rush off to the next thing.

 

This message is especially potent in the frenzied world of our modern era. We live in an age where there is always something to keep us busy at any moment of the day and night, and multiple diversions are always competing for our attention. Many have forgotten the art of “switching off” – or have confused it with the artlessness of “switching to something else”.

 

COVID19 has given us a gap like we never imagined. Some of us now have more time and headspace than before. Others will have it quite the opposite, but are still viewing the world from an entirely different perspective. Regardless, we all feel gaps in our community life – attending the Shule we so sorely miss, immersing ourselves in the Kol Tefillah that is only possible with a Minyan, basking in the camaraderie and dynamism of a physical group Shiur – and the list goes on. We don’t know why Hashem is doing this, and we are not looking to provide our own explanations. But there is certainly an opportunity here to harness this “gap” to rethink all the many things we have always taken for granted.

 

Good Shabbos,

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas KI SISA 5780

COVID-19. It was a meaningless jumble of letters and numbers to most of us just one month ago. By now, it has turned our lives topsy-turvy. It is starting to affect our routines in so many ways, and that seemingly includes our connection with Hashem – the way we daven, learn and fulfil Mitzvos. Or is it?

 

The famous story is told (here and here) of the two brothers, the famed Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk and Rabbi Zushe of Anipoli, who were thrown into a prison cell full of common criminals, for no especially good reason. Reb Elimelech began to cry when he realised he could not daven Mincha due to the toilet pail in the corner, which made the room unfit for prayer.

 

“Why are you crying?” asked Reb Zushe. “Is it because you are unable to daven? The same Creator who commanded us to daven also commanded us not to daven in such a room! By not davening right now, we are achieving a connection with Hashem. True, it may not be the bond we sought, but if we truly seek divine connection, we should be happy that Hashem has afforded us the opportunity to obey His law at this time, no matter in which way.”

 

“You are right!” exclaimed Rabbi Elimelech. Jumping up, Rabbi Elimelech took his brother’s arm and began to dance with the unbridled joy that can only derive from performing the mitzvah of not praying in an inappropriate place. When the guards realised that it was the pail in the corner that the two Jews were so excited about, they promptly ejected it from the cell. The holy brothers then prayed Minchah undisturbed …

 

The analogy is obvious. We may not be involving ourselves right now with the Halachos of davening in an inappropriate place, but rather, with the Halachos of doing our part in stemming the potentially serious ramifications of a worldwide pandemic. Either way, we are following the words of Hashem.

 

On Purim, we began the Megillah with two chapters describing the gross revelry and vulgar debauchery of Achashverosh and his henchmen. How is it even appropriate to read about such matters from the Shule Bimah? Indeed, some opinions in the Gemoro insist that these sections should be omitted from the Mitzvah entirely. Still, Halacha requires us to read it. Why? The Rebbe explains it is because these chapters contain an eternal message. Events which seem inconceivable and downright absurd when they happen are very much part of a greater Master Plan. It took the Jews of Shushan almost a decade to comprehend the ramifications; may we understand our situation must sooner.

 

I would like to conclude with a plea to the community to come together in a meaningful way, even if this can’t mean physical closeness. Let us increase in helping others, give more Tzedakah and say more Tehillim. If you have any concerns or constructive criticism about the current situation and our response, feel free to be directly in touch with me about it.

 

Good Shabbos,

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches
 

Parshas TETZAVEH 5780

Quick – When did the story of Purim happen? A secular historian is likely to answer that it occurred in the fifth century BCE, while Jewish sources point to the fourth century BCE. These conflicting responses trace back to a broader dating discrepancy between Jewish and secular sources. According to secular theory, the Persian Empire – as well as the second Beis Hamikdash – existed for about 150-200 years longer than accepted by Jewish sources. This conflict has major implications, as it calls into question the accuracy of the overall Jewish narrative of that era.

 

How are we to address contradictions when they arise between Torah and secular sources? The Rebbe explains that this dilemma was already addressed in a Talmudic discussion regarding the Bigdei Kehunah in this week’s Parsha. The Gemoro relates that after the Romans destroyed the Second Beis Hamikdash, much of its treasures and fixtures were brought to Rome. Rabbi Eliezer said, “I saw the Tzitz (headplate) in Rome, and the words ‘Holy to G‑d’ were inscribed on it on one line.” His evidence was at odds with the Halacha that requires the inscription to be written in two lines. The Gemoro tells us that the Chachomim remained entirely unperturbed. Although they accepted that Rabbi Eliezer had seen an artefact which undoubtedly clashed with their tradition, the Chachomim deemed the problem to be not with their tradition, but with the artefact – perhaps it wasn’t authentic, perhaps it was a mistake or perhaps it was an inaccurate decoy.

 

From here, the Rebbe derives the correct perspective a Jew must have whenever he or she encounters a supposed contradiction between the Torah and “the facts” – be they the dead sea scrolls or the Menorah’s shape. The Rebbe explains that the problem cannot lie with the Torah, for its tradition is the Divine Truth. Rather, the problem lies with “the facts”. When one probes them more extensively, one soon realises that “the facts” are nowhere near as conclusive as he or she was led to believe. Indeed, with regards to the above-mentioned Persian dating problem, archaeologists and historians alike concede all kinds of inconsistencies in the secular historical record.

 

Good Shabbos,

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas TERUMAH 5780

It was Simchas Torah night thirty-five years ago. A massive crowd was gathered at the Rebbe’s Farbrengen, and it was shortly after midnight when the Rebbe declared, “On Simchas Torah we change the norm. Usually empty cups are filled, and this is true figuratively as well – we fill ourselves with Torah, Mitzvos and acts of holiness. However, on Simchas Torah, we must do the exact opposite – all receptacles must be emptied. Everyone, say L’chaim!” With that, the Rebbe consumed all the remaining contents of his cup and turned it upside down, holding it aloft for all to see that it was empty. The Rebbe then signalled all the Chassidim to do the same. In a matter of moments, all the thousands of bottles and cups in 770 were emptied and held upside down, as the crowd sang “Al Haselah… Vayetzu Mayim”.

 

This week’s Parsha describes the design of the Menorah in great detail. Amongst other features, the Menorah was adorned with twenty-two goblets. The Possuk does not depict the precise design or exact shape of the goblets. However, the Gemoro states that the goblets were akin to “Alexandrian cups,” long and narrow at the base but wide at the mouth.

 

One would think that these goblets faced upwards. After all, that is how we usually use cups. This is indeed the opinion of many Rishonim, and also the way that the Menorah is depicted in many an artist’s impression. Surprisingly, the Rambam’s sketch of the Menorah depicts the goblets facing down, with the narrow base at the top and the wide mouth at the bottom.

 

The Rebbe explains that the purpose of the Menorah was to illuminate the world outside. For this reason, the windows in the Heichal were designed to let light emanate outward instead of inward. This is also why the goblets were positioned upside down. A goblet can serve two functions; to contain and to pour. Turning a goblet upside down indicates that the emphasis is on spreading influence towards others. The purpose of the Menorah in the Beis HaMikdash was not merely to receive and contain G‑dly energy, but more importantly, to spread that light throughout the entire world.

 

In the above-mentioned Simchas Torah Farbrengen, the Rebbe explained that this is the Shlichus of every Chossid. Like the Menorah, our role is to serve as lamplighters. And like the Menorah, we must invert our cups, focussing on giving than on receiving. No doubt, the month of Adar invigorates us in our mission of turning ourselves uʍop ǝpısdn.

 

Good Shabbos,

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas MISHPOTIM 5780

Slavery and ear-piercing is probably not the kind of stuff one turns to for inspiration and spiritual ecstasy. But its all there in this week’s Parsha. The slave who has concluded his term of six years but does not want to leave will have his ear pierced. Why? As retribution for ignoring what he heard with his very own ear – Hashem’s declaration that “the Israelites are slaves to Me” and not to any other master.

 

Well, if that’s the explanation, then why not pierce the ear of every slave for having sought out another master? After all, a Jewish person is sold into slavery only if he so chooses to bail himself out of poverty, or to repay items that he stole. Both outcomes derive from his own conscious and preventable choices, so he should also have his ear pierced for having acquired another master. For that matter, any sinner should have his ear pierced for not heeding the word of Hashem! What is so unique about the slave who does not want to go free?

 

When people make bad choices, we can often sympathise with the circumstances that led them there, even if we disagree with their moral decisions. Australia has a long history in that regard. None of us would condone stealing, but we still feel for the convicts penalised so harshly for having committed acts of petty theft in their struggle to survive against unemployment, social injustice, and harsh living conditions. And, of course, Victoria is the state where Ned Kelly somehow rose to national prominence as the greatest folk hero of all time. In similar fashion, when a Jew sells himself out due to his dire circumstances, either by becoming a literal slave or a slave to his evil impulses, we will not write him off as one who is deaf to the word of Hashem.

 

However, a slave who has moved beyond the difficulties of his past, who is on the threshold of freedom, who will be able to get back up on his own two feet with the significant gifts that his owner is about to bestow upon him in accordance with the Torah’s instructions – what is his excuse? Why is he still begging to be a slave? Where is his desire to escape the past, and its associated shame and stigma? Circumstances here do not really account for his bad choice, and the only plausible explanation is that this fellow truly does not hear the word of Hashem. For that, his ear is pierced!

 

If you ask the International Labour Organization about modern slavery, they will likely point to undernourished workers in poor African countries or Western migrant workers who earn salaries too meagre to put a slice of bread on the table. However, the Rebbe explains that there is another dangerous form of modern slavery – the person who doesn’t understand the boundary between work and life, the one who chooses the diversions of the world even when he has run out of excuses. True, most of us must toil hard to make ends meet, and we must be on call for so much of the week that there is little time left for the things that really matter. But when we do get those little pockets of time – the weekends, Shabbos in particular, or those times at night when our clients are not expecting instant responses – what then? Do we still insist on seeking out another master, or do we carve out some time to focus on our special relationship with the true Master? 

 

Good Shabbos,

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas Yisro 5780

To delegate or not. That is the question.

 

Well, not really. Usually there is no question. Especially if you’re leading a nation of three-million Jews. How could one person do it all? This was essentially Yisro’s challenge to Moshe, who in turn consulted with Hashem and received Divine Authorisation for a hierarchy of judges and mentors. Why did it take an outsider to think of such an obvious model?

 

The answer to this question, profound yet simple, is rooted in the power of Moshe’s presence. When the people stood before him, most of their quarrels immediately vanished; in the presence of such greatness, how could they not be but ashamed of their fights and conflicts? That is why Moshe thought to be the one judge of Israel, since most problems would automatically resolve without the time-consuming process of adjudicating them. Moshe understood that just one sentence of his, or even a mere gesture or penetrating glance, would have a far greater impact on the recipient than years of personal study. Moshe’s mere presence exalted the people around him; the sacred atmosphere he projected and the intensely emotive experiences of the divine would pervade those he interacted with, shaping them in a way that no judicial verdict possibly could.

 

So why did Hashem will it otherwise? Because the power of Moshe’s presence would linger for only as long as he was tangibly present. As soon as Moshe would pass away, all of his energy would no longer be palpable. Once that receded from the people’s hearts and minds, what would be next? That is why Hashem insisted on a hierarchy of delegates, charging them to hold aloft the flame of Moshe’s inspiration once it wasn’t as accessible. The ensuing system might not be as pure and glorious as its leader, nor have the majesty of his persona, but it would allow for the fulfilment of real self-actualisation and self-achievement.

 

Good Shabbos,

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas BESHALACH 5780

“The funeral of Mr Stein’s bones will take place today.”

“There will be a Kiddush this Shabbos afternoon to commemorate the Yahrtzeit of Mr Ploni’s bones.”

Have you ever heard an announcement like that? Probably not. After all, who speaks with such disrespect?

 

Which only magnifies the incongruency found at the beginning of

“The funeral of Mr Stein’s bones will take place today.”

“There will be a Kiddush this Shabbos afternoon to commemorate the Yahrtzeit of Mr Ploni’s bones.”

Have you ever heard an announcement like that? Probably not. After all, who speaks with such disrespect?

 

Which only magnifies the incongruency found at the beginning of our Parsha, where “Moshe took the bones of Yosef with him” as the Jews departed Egypt. Why didn’t the Torah frame that a bit more delicately? Such as, “Moshe took the casket of Yosef with him…” What happened to some basic respect and human dignity, especially for a Tzaddik of the stature of Yosef? In fact, there was surely a lot more remaining of Yosef than mere bones, for the body of a Tzaddik does not decompose, and furthermore, Yosef had been embalmed by the Egyptians.

 

The Rebbe explains that the Hebrew word for bones, Atzmos, can also mean the essence or the core. This is no coincidence; bones are what provides a person his backbone and strength. This is why the Torah used the words Atzmos, instead of a more sensitive word, so that it would also connote that the Jews took the essence of Yosef with them.

 

A lot could be said of Yosef. He was handsome, brilliant, industrious, successful, righteous, courageous, compassionate, regal and a born leader. But what was his essence? The answer can be found in his naming. When Rochel gave birth to Yosef after many years of childlessness, she named him Yosef declaring “Yosef Hashem Li Ben Acher – May Hashem add for me a son; another.” The Rebbe explains that Yosef had the power and dedication to inspire “another” – an outcast, a totally indifferent or even antagonistic person – to the point of literally transforming him into a dear and cherished “son” of Hashem. This was exactly the kind of fortitude that the Jews needed as they set out on a perilous journey fraught with spiritual danger through the “great and awesome desert filled with snakes, vipers and scorpions, and drought without water”.

 

The Rebbe clearly associates this message with Yud Shevat, the Yahrtzeit of the Frierdiker Rebbe, whose first name was Yosef. The mission of Yosef Hatzadik was also that of the Frierdiker Rebbe, and by extension, our mission as well. We also find ourselves in “deserts” devoid of Torah values, and we must strengthen ourselves with the “essence of Yosef” in order to influence everyone and everything around us, and not vice-versa.

 

Good Shabbos,

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas BO 5780

As the Jews were leaving Egypt, Hashem immediately gave them a series of Mitzvos directly connected with the Exodus, such as Korbon Pesach, the festival of Pesach, Matzah and destroying Chometz, and consecrating our firstborn. Sandwiched between all those Mitzvos is one which seems to stick out like a sore thumb – Tefillin! True, the Mitzvah of Tefillin includes a commemoration of Yetzias Mitzrayim in the first two Parshiyos. However, there are many other Mitzvos that include a commemoration of Yetzias Mitzrayim – for example, Shabbos, Sukkos and Tzitzis. If so, why did Hashem speak specifically of Tefillin on the very threshold of redemption?

In fact, if we think about it, the Mitzvah of Tefillin seems rushed and premature. It is well known that Tefillin contains four sections of the Torah. The first two are taken from this week’s Parsha, whereas the last two sections are from Parshas Vaeschanan and Ekev respectively, which was conveyed to Moshe only forty years later. This means that for the forty years the Jews sojourned in the desert, their Tefillin contained only two out of the four Parshiyos. Given that the Jews could in any case not fulfil the Mitzvah of Tefillin in entirety for the first forty years, why did Hashem rush the command to put it on?

We all know that Tefillin affords protection from the enemy. However, the Rebbe notes a dichotomy between the first two sections of Tefillin and the last two. The first two sections focus on the Exodus – a victory which the Jews did not need to fight for. The Jews were unarmed and overwhelmingly outnumbered, yet they marched out to freedom without resorting to an iota of violence against the mighty Egyptians. This demonstrates how Tefillin empowers us to win without a fight. However, the last two sections of Tefillin focus on Mesiras Nefesh – sacrificing one’s very life for Hashem. This implies that we cannot achieve victory without doing our part. We must be willing to enter the fray, to fight, and only then will Hashem guarantee success.

This explains why Hashem initially – and immediately – instructed the Jews to put on a Tefillin of two Parshiyos, in order that the Exodus culminate in an immediate and miraculous conquest of Eretz Yisroel, one for which the Jews would not need to fight. Hashem “rushed” – so to speak – a Tefillin of only two sections, as this would end exile forever. However, once the Jews sinned and no longer had the merit, they needed the extra two Parshiyos, to empower them with the Mesiras Nefesh they would need to stand up to the fight.

Does that mean we are worse off? Not at all. Chassidus explains that had the Jews conquered Eretz Yisroel without a battle, the enemy would not have been conquered – they would have simply vanished. Ultimately, the goal is not to eliminate worldlines, but to conquer and harness it in serving Hashem.

 

Good Shabbos,

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas VOERA 5780

Mere semantics. That’s how it seems at the end of this Parsha when Rashi provides two competing explanations for how the hail ended so abruptly. According to the first approach, the airborne hailstones simply stopped mid-flight, and there they remained, suspended mid-air. According to the second approach, the hailstones dissipated and simply disappeared. Now why does all this matter?

The Rebbe points out that something unique transpired as a result of the hail. For the very first time, Pharaoh expressed remorse over his wicked ways. “I have sinned this time. Hashem is the righteous One, and I and my people are the guilty ones. Entreat Hashem, and let it be enough of His thunder and hail, and I will let you go, and you shall not continue to stand.” Pharaoh’s confession exhibited the two main ingredients of Teshuvah – his first sentence articulated regret over the past and his second sentence conveyed resolve to improve the future.

In light of this, we can understand that the two approaches of Rashi speak volumes about the power of Teshuvah. According to the first approach, the negative consequences of sin – the hailstones – are stopped in their tracks by Teshuvah, but they still remain very much in existence. However, according to the second approach, Teshuvah causes the negative consequences of sin to vanish into the thin air, as if they never existed.

So which one is it? Does Teshuvah merely halt the negative outcomes of sin, or does it completely remove all traces of it? Rashi presents us two approaches, because the jury is out when it comes to the Teshuvah of a sinner such as Pharaoh. However, all agree that the Teshuvah of a Jew has the power to change not only the future, but the past as well. Ultimately, when sin serves as the catalyst for deep remorse and improvement, it emerges in retrospect that the sin paved the way for goodness.

Good Shabbos,

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas SHEMOS 5780

We all know the story. Moshe kills an Egyptian taskmaster for his heavy-handed treatment of a Jew. The next day, Moshe realises that two of his fellow Jews, Dasan and Aviram, cannot be trusted to keep this information secret. Moshe is afraid. And indeed, His fears are not for naught – Dasan and Aviram betray Moshe. They are so successful that Pharaoh himself gives the orders for Moshe to be seized and executed. Moshe is almost killed were it not for a completely miraculous escape.


The Rebbe asks an insightful question: The stories recounted in the Torah generally focus on what their protagonists said and did, but rarely does it describe their feelings, unless those feelings led to some sort of practical outcome. If so, why does the Torah tell us that Moshe was afraid, it those fears do not seem to have manifested in anything practical?

The Rebbe explains that Moshe’s ordeal transpired only because he was afraid. His capture by the Egyptians, his narrow escape from death, his flight from Egypt, his decades-long misery in the land of Midian – all his trials and tribulations transpired only and exclusively because he had been afraid. Had he not allowed himself to be frightened of Dasan and Aviram, instead of having complete trust in Hashem that things would turn out well, their attempts to betray him would have led nowhere. Thus, Moshe’s feelings most certainly led to a practical outcome. His feelings shaped the trajectory of his life for decades to come – a trajectory that could have been entirely avoided.

The Rebbe explains that this is the meaning of the adage: “Tracht gut vet zein gut” — Think good and it will be good. Tracht Gut is not merely good psychology for surviving turbulent times as they pass us by. Neither does it mean to pass the buck and sit back and stand idly by, waiting for Hashem to make things right. Rather, Tracht Gut means to take initiative and really work on oneself to the point where one literally feels absolute assurance and conviction that there will be a positive outcome. Such an attitude is itself the conduit to draw down Hashem’s blessings for the positive results to happen. Think good, because absolute faith in Hashem is the very thing needed to make it good.

Good Shabbos,

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas VAYECHI 5780

Despite being the firstborn, Reuven loses the monarchy in this week’s Parsha, as punishment for rearranging his father's bed. It is bestowed upon Yehudah instead, as a reward for saving Yosef's life, as well as for confessing his own indiscretion. Now, let's size up their actions:

 

1. Both Reuven and Yehudah shielded Yosef from certain death, albeit in their own way. Reuven had Yosef thrown into a snake-infested pit in order to buy time and figure out a way to save Yosef. Yehudah released Yosef from the deadly pit in order to make a quick buck. Yet, Reuven loses the blessing of royalty to Yehudah!

 

2. Both Reuven and Yehudah admitted their respective indiscretions, albeit in their own way. Reuven sincerely devoted himself to fasting and wearing sackcloth for over nine years in order to atone for his sin. Yehudah made a one-off admission of guilt, and only because the alternative meant Tamar's death. Yet, Reuven loses the blessing of royalty to Yehudah!

 

As it happens, Yehudah's deeds are indeed superior, because of what they meant for others. Reuven's actions were exceedingly lofty, but neither his fasts and sackcloth nor his transferring Yosef "out of the frying pan and into the fire" yielded tangible benefit for anyone else. On the other hand, Yehudah's actions saved both Yosef and Tamar from certain death and paved the way for a happy ending. His intentions may have been far from noble, yet the overall contribution to society was great. Prioritizing one's devotion towards the mundane affairs of others over one's lofty preoccupation with self – that is the trait of leadership 

 

Good Shabbos,

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas VAYIGASH 5780

What was the greater miracle, Chanukah or Didan Notzach? Answer: Didan Notzach. On Chanukah, they had enough oil for one day, yet it lasted eight days. On Didan Notzach, they had enough Mashke for a year, yet it lasted just one day!

 

I heard this witty aphorism from my grandfather, Reb Mendel Marozov a”h. However, what many people may not know is the reason for the plentiful Mashke. The Didan Notzach saga stretched for well over a year, and while most Chassidim occupied themselves with saying Tehillim, fasting and attending the courtroom, there was one particular Bochur who was preoccupied with something else. In his mind, it was not even a question of who would emerge victorious. As far as he was concerned, victory was guaranteed! His sole concern was whether there would be enough Mashke instantly available when the verdict would be announced. So, for many months, he focussed on building a great supply of Mashke, which indeed came to good use on Hey Teves.

 

Interestingly, this episode has a parallel in this week’s Parsha. After reuniting with his brothers, Yosef sent them off with a gift for his father – aged wine. What made Yosef think that his father would appreciate aged wine? The Rebbe points out that for all the years that Yaakov and Yosef were separated, neither of them drank wine. By sending his father wine, Yosef was telling him, “Although I had no use for wine during the 22 years that we were separated, I still invested myself in aging my own Kosher batch. I never gave up hope of reuniting and I never despaired. Our anticipated reunion felt so tangible and imminent to me, that I constantly maintained by own special vintage to celebrate the day when we would drink wine again.”

 

Of course, the main message here is not about drinking wine or Mashke. Rather, as the Rebbe teaches, we must cultivate a similar attitude to the coming of Moshiach. It is not enough to merely await his speedy arrival. Rather, his coming must feel so imminent and tangible that we constantly prepare in the best way possible.

 

Good Shabbos,

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas MIKETZ 5780

Chanukah celebrates two miracles: The victory of a greatly outnumbered and ill-equipped army of Jews over the mighty Greek army, and also, the eight-day kindling of the Menorah fuelled with a quantity of oil supposed to last for only one day.

 

The need for the first miracle is obvious. Without a victory, the Jews would have continued to be persecuted and eventually stamped out. The need for the second miracle is not as clear: Halacha states that impure oil is acceptable for the Menorah when no pure oil is available. If so, for what purpose did Hashem make the pure oil burn for eight days?

 

Chanukah comes from the word chinuch – "inauguration." When the Beis Hamikdash was inaugurating after it was defiled by the Greeks, Hashem suspended the laws of nature, because an inauguration must proceed without any loophole – even a legally acceptable one.

 

The same is true of all inaugurations, including the most significant of all – the education of our children. As we proceed through life, a loophole here or there may be in order, for the world we live in and the situations it presents us are far from ideal. However, what is tolerable for a mature tree may spell disaster for a little seed. When it comes to the inauguration of our little seedlings, our children, we must do all we can to avoid any and every loophole – even if it means suspending the laws of nature.

 

Good Shabbos and Freilichen Chanukah.

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas VAYEISHEV 5780

There is an innocuous Rashi in this week’s Parsha, seemingly so trivial that most of us probably zoom over it without much thought. Rashi wonders why our Parsha describes Yehudah’s journey to the city of Timnas as an ascent, whereas the mighty Shimshon’s journey to Timnas is portrayed as a descent. Rashi answers that Timnas was situated in the middle of a slope, and whether one goes up or down to reach it will depend on the side he approaches it from. But isn’t the answer to the question kind of obvious? Why does Rashi make a question of it in the first place? The Rebbe addresses this through a lesson about town-planning, at least of ancient cities:

 

Ancient cities were commonly situated in valleys and plains, to ensure ease of access for construction supplies, and for convenient trade and commerce. However, this benefit was also the city’s potential downfall – ease of access made the city more vulnerable to enemy invasion. Another alternative was to build a city on a mountain peak. The difficult terrain would make it hard to transport construction supplies, and once the city was built, trade and commerce would be strenuous and expensive. Even so, the difficulty of access was also its strength – the city was well protected from enemy invasion.

 

However, to build a city midway up the mountain? To do so would contain all the disadvantages and none of the advantages. The city would be hard to supply from below, but also difficult to defend from above. This is why it is unexpected for an ancient city to be situated on a slope, and when faced with the contradiction between Yehudah and Shimshon, one would seek other answers. That is why Rashi needed to clarify that, farfetched as it may sound, Timnas was indeed built on the slope.

 

What is the enduring lesson for us? The middle of the slope carries much risk and little benefit. So it is with a man’s service of Hashem, which is likened to ascending a mountain. A climber knows that he must ascend steadily upwards without pause; stopping mid-way would only increase the chance of losing his footing and falling. Similarly, in ascending the “mountain of Hashem”, constant upward movement is vital – not only for the purpose of going higher, but also to ensure that one does not fall lower. This is also the message of the Chanukah lights – “we ascend in matters of holiness and do not descend.” The two parts of this principle are interdependent. Only by going up does one ensure that he is not falling down. 

 

Good Shabbos,

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas VAYISHLACH 5780

Because Yaakov was left with an injured thigh, none of us eat the Gid Hanoshe to this very day. Which raises a lot of fascinating questions: 1) Why is the wrestling match such an important episode in Jewish history that it deserves an eternal commemoration? 2) Once we are commemorating it already, why through the Gid Hanoshe, which is seemingly just a trivial detail in the bigger story? 3) The Gid Hanoshe is not even palatable – it is a scrawny sinew after all, and most of us would not be very interested in eating it regardless. If so, why commemorate by abstaining from a trivial part of the animal that most of us would essentially overlook regardless?

 

The Rebbe explains this by elaborating on two types of caring. More often than not, we care about something only because it is useful to us. For such matters, the degree of our care is directly in line with its importance to us. For example, a person cares about his car because it gets him places. Accordingly, he will care about the engine more than its cosmetic appearance, and if the car were to require repairs, he would prioritise those aspects which are more important to the car’s function.

 

However, another type of caring is not attributable to how useful something is, but rather, by virtue of it literally being part of us. In such cases, we don’t pay much attention to importance and function, and we don’t inquire whether are fingers are more important to us than are toes. Our care and concern for each body part goes beyond its usefulness; we care about it because it is part of us.

 

The fight between Esav’s angel and Yaakov was not a mere wrestle, but a dispute about the degree that Hashem cares for us and that we care for Hashem. The gentiles tell the Jews, “You are not more unique than the rest of creation. Hashem created everything for a purpose, and each of these things is only as important as its purpose, no more! You are no different; you are a nation like all others. Why do you act like every little detail matters?” Yet, the truth is that we are indeed more unique than the rest of creation. Hashem’s care for us, and our care for Him, goes beyond “usefulness”. When we are inherently connected, every little thing matters in our relationship with Hashem.

 

This explanation addresses all the questions above: This wrestling match is indeed a crucial moment in Jewish history, deserving of eternal commemoration, for it defines the relationship between Hashem and us. Therefore, we purposely commemorate it with a trivial detail, and something which is essentially tasteless, because this captures the spirit of Yaakov’s response – even the most trivial and tasteless details of Torah and Mitzvos is of pivotal importance, because when something is part of us, we care about all of the details equally.

 

Let us reflect on our own lives! If we create “levels” in our observance of Yiddishkeit, where we prioritise what we feel is “important” but pay less attention to things that are “less important”, then we are basically relegating our relationship with Hashem to a transactional one. If we truly believe that we have an inherent connection with Hashem, then we will pay our fullest attention to every aspect of our connection, be it big or small.

 

Good Shabbos,

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas VAYETZEI 5780

Leah named her fourth child Yehudah, declaring, "This time, I will thank Hashem!” At that point, she stopped bearing children. A number of commentaries (Ibn Ezra, Tur) explain that this was a simple case of cause and effect: Leah thanked Hashem for what she had, but did not ask for more, and that is why Hashem closed her womb. As important as it is to thank Hashem for all one’s prior achievements, one must remain focussed on the future, and never be satisfied when there is still so much more to achieve.

 

This very idea helps explain Rochel’s bewildering response upon giving birth to Yosef, “Hashem has taken away my shame.” The Midrash explains her intent as follows: As long as a woman has no child, she has no one to blame for her faults. As soon as she has a child, she blames him. “Who broke this dish?” “The child!” “Who ate these figs?” “The child!”

 

At face value, this seems extremely perplexing – was this the extent of Rochel’s desire for a child? The Nezer Hakodesh explains that Rochel wanted to thank Hashem, but in a way that would make it abundantly clear that she sought more and more children. That is why she thanked Hashem for having children who break things, for the blame game works only with young children and not grownups. She was thereby saying, “Thank you Hashem for Yosef, but please ensure that I have another little child by the time he grows up!” In this sense, Rochel’s declaration was the exact opposite of Leah’s: At the very moment Rochel thanked Hashem, she found a way to emphasise that she wanted more and more.

 

The lesson we derive is that being “happy with our lot’ applies only to mundane matters. When it comes to spiritual pursuits, we must always remain fixated on achieving more and more. As important as it is for our achievements to be recognised, we must remain focussed on the tasks that still lie ahead of us.

 

Nevertheless, the Rebbe explains the deeper – and positive – significance of Leah’s ceasing to have children: During Golus, we constantly advance from one achievement to the next, but each triumph is attained only through the pain of “pregnancy” and “childbirth”. When Moshiach comes, we will no longer undergo the hardship associated with fluctuation, for we will have already reached the summit. At that point, we will “cease to have children”, and instead enjoy the fruits of our hard work, in peace and tranquillity. May it happen speedily in our times.

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Good Shabbos,


Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas TOLDOS 5780

The Midrash teaches that the opening phrase of this week’s Parsha, “Toldos Yitzchok” (descendants of Yitzchok), refers not to the pious Yaakov, but rather, to the wicked Esav. In other words, the Midrash maintains that Yitzchok’s legacy is manifest in Esav. This explains why Esav’s head ultimately came to be buried together with his father Yitzchok, even if in less than glorious circumstances. What are we supposed to make of this Midrash?

 

One of the main differences between Avraham and Yitzchok was the way in which they related to people. Avraham inspired all who came within his presence, lifting them to his level. However, the inspiration faded as soon as they left Avraham’s presence, because the people themselves had done nothing to deserve it. As a case in point, nothing is known of the fate of Avraham’s 75,000 followers; they literally faded away into oblivion.

 

In contrast, Yitzchok didn’t try to inspire people. Rather, as a well-digger, he drilled deep into the minds and souls of all whom he met, and then showed them what they could achieve on their own. He didn’t seek to raise anyone to his own lofty level, and instead preferred to see them develop and improve on their own. The people he interacted with may have not felt the same kind of spiritual majesty that Avrohom inspired. Nevertheless, their achievements lasted, because it was their own efforts that bore them.

 

Yitzchok saw every person for who he or she was. He didn’t write anyone off, and he encouraged them to achieve what they could on their own terms. Thus, Yitzchok’s legacy is indeed realised in Esav, and Esav’s “head” – the very best of his persona – remains eternally united with Yitzchok.

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Good Shabbos,


Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas Emor 2018

 Published 3rd May 2018

The Rebbe does something fascinating and wholly unique with the name of this week’s Parsha, “Emor” which means “Speak!” Most of us would just see it as a single word part of the broader sentence, where it has meaning in context – Hashem is instructing Moshe to “speak” to the Kohanim about their entitlements and obligations. But the Rebbe explains that since the word Emor is the title of the Parsha, it must have a self-contained meaning of its own. When viewed in this light, the word Emor conveys a general directive: “Speak!”

Yet, it is well worth noting that many statements of our sages are clearly not in favour of constant yacking and prattling. “Say little but do much” is a classic, and so is “The best thing for a person is silence”. Malicious speech and slander is certainly taboo, whereas speaking words of Torah and Tefillah is a must-do. If so, what is Emor innovating? To speak about what? When? Why? And, to whom?

The Rebbe explains that there is tremendous power in praising and speaking well of people. If you truly pay attention to your peer, you will see the abundant positive within, be it his gifts, talents or potential. When you do see it, be sure to express it. For, it is one thing to notice it. It is entirely another thing to disclose it. The favourable words you share will awaken a desire in your peer to live up to your kind belief in him. Your words will ultimately bring his positive potential to the fore. This is the type of speech that Emor connotes. Speak positively about another and watch your words have its desired impact

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Good Shabbos,


Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas Tazria Metzorah 2018

 Published 26th April 2018

Story time: The heavenly academy debated a certain type of questionable leprosy. Hakadosh Boruch Hu said it was pure, but all the other sages declared it impure. To decide the dispute, they sent the Angel of Death to summon Rabbah, due to his singular expertise in the laws of leprosy ("Yochid B'Negaim"). As Rabbah's soul departed, he pronounced, "It is pure; it is pure."

This story seems puzzling. If Hashem declared the leprosy to be pure, who were the sages to say otherwise? And, if they dared reject the opinion of Hashem, what made the words of Rabbah superior? Furthermore, how are we to explain the difference between Hashem and Rabbah – Hashem said "it is pure" (once); yet Rabbah said "it is pure, it is pure" (twice).


The Rebbe explains that when one confronts suspicious circumstances, his reaction will reflect where he himself stands:


1.    A very physical and materialistic being will immediately jump to conclusions and assume the worst; he will tell you that where there is smoke there is fire. For, from his perspective, the physical reality looms large, of which evil is unfortunately a very active part. Thus, the Sages of the heavenly academy, all souls who once lived this physical world and connected with it, declared the suspected leprosy to be impure. [This parallels Memale Kol Almin; the level of G-dliness which interacts with our world.]


2.    A more spiritual being will more easily give the benefit of the doubt. This is because he transcends the physicality of the world, and for him, evil is not such a reality. Thus, the level of Hakadosh Boruch Hu, synonymous with Sovev, gives the benefit of the doubt and assumes the suspected leprosy to be pure. Nevertheless, this is declared only once, without emphasis, because one can still fathom the other point of view, even if one does not agree with it. [This parallels Sovev Kol Almin; the level of G-dliness which transcends our world.]


3.    But then you have someone who is completely connected with Hashem's essence, and nothing exists outside of Hashem's goodness. When he encounters suspected leprosy, not only does he regard it as pure, but he cannot fathom any other possibility. Thus, Rabbah emphatically declares twice that it is pure, to indicate that it cannot be any other way. This is why Rabbah is called "Yochid B'Negaim", because for him, the level of "Yochid" (the Singularity of Hashem) was palpable even in an area as seemingly negative as Negaim (leprosy). [This parallels the level of Azmus; the very Essence of Hashem.]

This incisive explanation gives us a lot to think about. But one simple message is that the conclusions we draw about the people and situations around us merely reflect where we stand. Our judgement often says more about us than them. When it comes to the way we look at our fellow Jews, we should all strive to be like Rabbah.


Good Shabbos,


Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

 

 

Sun, 5 April 2020 11 Nisan 5780